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Reynold de Burgh stood on the castle battlements and looked out over his family's lands as the first faint light of dawn rose on the horizon. He had been planning to leave his home for some time, but now that the moment had arrived, the parting was more painful than he'd imagined. He loved Campion and its people, and he felt a traitorous urge to remain even though he had made his decision.
He could linger, but he knew that today would be no different. He had only to wait until his father, the Earl of Campion, led his new wife down to the hall to be reminded of the changes taking place at the castle. Although Reynold loved and revered his sire and had come to like Joy, their happiness was a bitter reminder of his own lack.
In the past few years five of his six brothers had wed, too, and Reynold was painfully aware that he was next in line. Although he felt no anger or regrets over the marriages that had led his siblings to wives and families of their own, he knew that the future did not hold the same for him.
Yet soon everyone at Campion would look to Reynold or his younger brother Nicholas, wondering and murmuring over who would be the last de Burgh to fall. Reynold had decided it was easier to go, to escape the questions and the pitying glances that would follow, as well as the happiness of others. By the time Campion began welcoming new sons, he hoped to be long gone.
The thought made him rue the precious moments he had wasted in this last goodbye, and he hurried back through the castle to the bailey where his destrier was waiting. He had spoken to no one of his plans, but he had left a message, telling his father that he was going on a pilgrimage.
Although he had noreal destination in mind, that explanation would prevent his family from coming after him. A pilgrimage, whether to a local shrine or one further away, was a personal decision that should keep his father and brothers at bay. Reynold did not want them leaving their wives and children to comb the countryside for himespecially when he did not want to be found.
Mindful of the servants and freemen who were stirring with the dawn, Reynold was about to mount his destrier when he heard the jingle of bells coming from the shadows near the castle doors. The sound might have been anything, and yet, he had a sinking feeling that perhaps he had waited too long to make his escape. His suspicion was soon confirmed by the sight of a small plump woman hurrying towards him.
Ah, there, you are!' she trilled, waving an arm that sent the tiny bells on her sleeve to tinkling.
Reynold stifled a groan. Ever since his brother Stephen had married Bridgid l'Estrange, her aunts had felt welcome to come and go at Campion at their will. They were gentlewomen and provided good company for Joy in a household composed mostly of males, but there was something about the two that made their sudden appearance here at this hour unsurprising.
Reynold's eyes narrowed. 'I beg your pardon, Mistress Cafell, but I have no time to tarry.'
'Oh, we know you are leaving,' she said, waving a plump hand airily as her sister Armes emerged from the shadows to join her.
Reynold vowed they would not sway him with their wiles. In fact, he would tell them he was off to check the dam or the fields or any one of a number of tasks that he helped his father and the bailiff oversee, so that he would be rid of them. However, when he opened his mouth, he blurted out that which was uppermost in his mind instead.
'Don't try to stop me.'
'We wouldn't dream of it, my dear,' Cafell said, reaching out a hand to pat his sleeve.
'Of course, you must go,' Armes said. Taller than her sister, she lifted her chin to fix him with a serious gaze. 'It is your destiny to complete your quest.'
Her words were not only unexpected, but made no sense to Reynold. 'What quest?'
'Why, the usual one, I suppose,' Cafell said, with a smile. 'You must slay a dragon, rescue a damsel in distress, and recover her heritage.'
For a long moment, Reynold simply stared, dumbfounded by her speech. Then he snorted, a loud sound of disdain in the stillness of the early morning. 'You're confusing me with St George.'
'Oh, I think not,' Armes said, haughtily.
'Really, Lord Reynold, some might believe the de Burghs are saints, but after coming to know them personally, I must agree with Armes,' Cafell said. 'Though you all have many fine qualities.'
Reynold shook his head. He had no time for these women and their curious babbling, to which only a fool would give credence. He knew full well his brothers would have scoffed at the very notion of a quest right out of romantic legend. Indeed, the thought made him wonder if one of his siblings, probably Robin, had enlisted the old women to hoax him.
But Robin was gone, living at Baddersly, where he was holding the demesne for his eldest brother Dunstan's wife. None but Reynold's younger brother Nicholas could be blamed, and yet would he play such a jest? And how had Nickor anyonediscovered that Reynold was leaving? He had kept his own council, and the only sign of his plans had been the packing he did this very morning.
'There is no time to waste in idle chatter, sister,' Armes said. Then she turned her attention back to Reynold. 'You must go, but do not go alone.' And with a lift of her hand, she summoned a young boy, leading a mount laden with its own pack. 'This is Peregrine, who will serve as your squire on the journey.'
Reynold frowned at the youth, who appeared unf azed by his grimace. Indeed, the lad flashed him a grin before nimbly swinging up into the saddle as though eager for a day's outing.
Reynold shook his head. If he wanted a companion, he would be better served by his own squire, who had done well for him these past two years. But he would not take Will away from his home, Campion, into danger, perhaps never to return. So why would this boy?
'We had better hurry, my lord,' Peregrine said, with a calm certainty. Those words, more than anything, made Reynold turn to mount his destrier. Now was not the time to argue; he would send the boy back later. As if as eager to be gone as he, Reynold's horse stamped restlessly, but Cafell moved toward him once more.
'Take this, too, my lord, for your protection,' she said, handing him a small cloth pouch.
At first Reynold refused. 'I am going on a pilgrimage, not a quest,' he said through gritted teeth. But a sound from somewhere in the bailey made him hesitate to linger, so he looped the gift around his belt. Then he looked down at the two eccentric females who were the only family to mark his departure and felt a sudden thickness in his throat. He eyed them for a long moment, knowing he had a final opportunity to leave a message for his sire, but in the end, he said only what was uppermost in his mind.
'Don't let them come after me.'
Tugging on the reins, he headed toward the gates of Campion without a backward glance.
'Reynold is gone?' Lady Joy de Burgh spoke without her usual composure as she stood at the head of the high table, holding the parchment that her husband had wordlessly passed to her. She read the words, but was unable to believe what was written there. Without waiting for a reply, she sank down into the intricately carved chair nearby.
'This is my doing,' she whispered, hardly daring to voice aloud the concerns that had plagued her after she impetuously married the Earl of Campion. 'He's left because of me,' she said, lifting her gaze to her husband, but afraid to see a confirmation in his own.
'No,' Campion said as he took his seat. 'This has been long in coming.'
Joy might have questioned her husband further, but for the appearance of his son Nicholas, who missed nothing of what was happening around him.
'Reynold's gone?' he asked. 'Where did he go?'
Campion picked up the parchment that had fallen from Joy's fingers and handed it to the youngest of the strapping de Burghs.
Nicholas read the missive quickly, then gave his father a questioning glance. 'But why didn't he tell me? Why wouldn't he take me along? I'm eager for an adventure.' That was obvious to anyone who took one look at the tall, dark-haired young man who was growing upand growing restless.
'I don't think you're the pilgrimage type,' Campion said drily.
'But why would he go alone?' Nicholas said.
That worried Joy as well. Pilgrims, even knightly ones, travelling singly were prey to all manner of villains, from common thieves to murderous innkeepers. The de Burghs all thought themselves invincible, but one man could not best a host of attackers or foil kidnapping, piracy, injury, illness
'He didn't go alone. Peregrine went with him.'
Joy looked up in surprise to see one of the l'Estrange sisters standing before them and glanced toward her husband. Peregrine? Was that the youngster the sisters had brought with them on this visit to Campion Castle? He seemed little more than a boy.
'He did, did he?' Campion asked, his expression thoughtful.
'I don't see what help a child will be,' Nicholas said, scoffing.
'You never know,' Cafell said with one of her mysterious smiles. She looked as though she would say more, but her sister Armes tugged at her arm, pulling her away from the high table, the tinkling of bells signalling their passage from the hall.
'Do we even know this Peregrine?' Nicholas demanded.
'Better a squire than no one,' Campion said, obviously unwilling to debate the merits of the youth. And what was the point? No matter who Reynold had taken with him, they were only two people travelling alone on often treacherous roads.
'What pilgrimage will he make?' Joy asked. Durham, Glastonbury, Walsingham and Canterbury were far away, Santiago de Compostela and Rome even further. 'Surely he isn't going to the Holy Land?' The thought of that longest and most dangerous of journeys stole her breath, for she remembered when King Edward, then a prince, had marched in a crusade on those foreign lands.
Silence reigned between the three de Burghs as Campion shook his head, unable to provide an answer.
Joy studied her husband, but he gave no outward signs of distress, only wore that thoughtful expression she knew so well.
'You can send someone after him,' she suggested.
'I'll go,' Nicholas said, eagerly.
But Campion shook his head.
'He must do what he must do.'
Joy knew that her husband wasn't infallible, but the certainty in his voice comforted her and she reached for his hand. Although Reynold was not as grim and bitter as she had once thought him, he was the unhappiest of Campion's seven sons, an anomaly in a household so prosperous and loving. Perhaps his father hoped that this journey, though perilous, might bring Reynold what had eluded him so far in life.
Joy silently wished it so.
Seeing the fork in the road ahead, Reynold slowed his mount, uncertain which route to follow. Where was he going?
'Where are we going?'
The sound of someone voicing his own silent question startled Reynold, and he turned his head to see the dark-haired youth the l'Estranges had pressed on him. Lost in his own thoughts, he had passed the hours since his departure in silence and had nearly forgotten about the boy. Peregrine, was it? Accustomed to the chatter of a train when travelling, Reynold wondered if his companion was mute, but then he remembered the words that had spurred him to leave.
With a frown, Reynold assessed the boy, who, though dressed simply, was clean and neat. Reynold had no idea why the l'Estranges had decided this Peregrine was fit to be his squire, but he was accustomed to choosing his own.
A proper squire would be of a good family well known to him, courageous and honourable. Many squires began as pages, serving at table before being allowed to clean a knight's equipment. He must know about weapons, hunting and tournaments in addition to all that would be taken for granted, such as proper manners, music and dancing. And any squire to a de Burgh would have to be able to read, with wide-ranging interests and a thirst for knowledge.
Had Peregrine learned these things in the household of a pair of eccentric old women? Reynold doubted it. And even if the youth were well prepared, Reynold had no business leading him into the unknown, travelling to where he knew not.
'My destination does not concern you, for I am travelling on alone. You may ride back to Campion,' Reynold said.
'I can't, my lord.'
Was the fellow incapable of finding his way already? 'Just turn around and follow the road behind us,' Reynold said. ''Twill lead you back home.'
The boy shook his head. 'No, my lord, for the Mistresses l'Estrange told me not to return without you.'
Reynold grunted. Did the silly women think that young Peregrine was equipped to watch over a hardened knight? More likely, it would be the other way around, the lad becoming a nuisance the further they travelled.
'Then I release you from service. Find the nearest village and present yourself to the manor's lord,' Reynold said.
Again, the boy shook his head. He appeared neither alarmed nor angry, just calmly insistent. 'I am bound to the l'Estranges.'
'Then make your way back to their manor and other duties there,' Reynold suggested. Although he had never been to the l'Estrange holding, he knew Bridgid's aunts lived on the edge of Campion lands, a journey that should not be too long or dangerous for the youth.
'I could not. I am bound by my vow, my lord.'
Annoyed as he was by the boy's refusals, Reynold had to respect such loyalty, especially coming from an untutored lad. He could insist, of course, but there was always the possibility that Peregrine would try to follow him, falling into some sort of mischief on his own. At least the youth wasn't the sort of companion who would chatter constantly along the road, Reynold mused, which brought him back to the original question.
Where were they going?
Although unwilling to admit as much to the boy, Reynold had no idea. When he had decided to leave Campion, he'd had a vague notion of joining Edward's army. But somehow fighting against the Welsh didn't seem right when his brother's wife had inherited a manor house there. And it was whispered that Bridgid possessed the kind of powers that you didn't want turned against you. The l'Estranges were all strange, and Reynold frowned as he remembered their actions this morning.
'How did your mistresses know that I was leaving?' he asked.