Isabelle de Piaget leaned against the wall of her father’s great hall, out of the torchlight, and wondered if it were possible for a woman to hide her almost unbearable urge to panic so her family wouldn’t notice.
It wasn’t something she considered very often. In fact, she supposed she had never once in her score and three years of life considered such a thing. Her life, she would be the first to admit, was so near to perfection as to be indistinguishable from it. Her parents were kind and loving, her siblings very tolerable, and her surroundings magnificent. She had never once been beaten, never not had enough to eat or warm things to wear, never had anything terrible happen to her. Her life had been substantially less pleasant when she’d been sent to market for fathers of potential husbands to look over, but that hadn’t been her family’s fault. In truth, she could have expected nothing less.
What she hadn’t expected, however, was what a messenger had handed her but a handful of hours earlier, a missive she had the very unpleasant feeling would completely change the course of her life—
“You’re thinking very hard.”
She closed her eyes briefly when she realized her twin brother, Miles, was standing next to her. She wondered if she’d said anything aloud in her distress, then decided the best thing to do was attack before Miles thought too much about what she might or might not have said.
“’Tis good for the faculties to engage in robust thought now and again,” she said briskly. “You might give it a try.”
He only leaned back against the wall casually. “I would, but don’t want to hurt myself. You, however, seem to have little fear of the same. Would you care to divulge what strengthens your robust faculties at the moment?”
As if she would trust him with her current thoughts! Miles was a vault when it came to the hearing of secrets guaranteed to produce a swoon in those with a less sturdy stomach, true, but to reveal the contents of the missive she had just received would be too much for his ironclad belly.
She glanced at him to find that he was still studying her with undue scrutiny.
“I wasn’t thinking about anything,” she protested.
He shot her a skeptical look.
“Very well,” she said, desperate to get him to go away. “I was thinking about how much I love my family. Why don’t you go sit with them over by the fire and allow me to think kind thoughts about you as well?”
He shrugged slightly. “You looked as though you might need aid in your latest plot. How could I not offer my services?”
“Plot,” she repeated, wishing she’d been able to add to that what might sound more like a careless laugh than a sick sort of quack better suited to a duck preparing to have a final waddle before winding up on a spit. “I’m not plotting.”
Miles only lifted an eyebrow briefly, then smiled and leaned his head back against the wall. Isabelle attempted to imitate his pose, but the best she could do was wrap her arms around herself and try not to shiver as she looked out at the group of souls clustered there in front of her. She could bring innumerable evenings to mind where the family had either gathered where they were currently in the great hall or in a more intimate setting in their sire’s solar. If anything happened to them . . .
She pulled herself away from that thought before it got away from her and blossomed into a panic she truly couldn’t control. She took a deep breath, then considered her family in a measured, detached fashion.
Robin was there with his wife, Anne, and their two spawn. Amanda was there as well with her husband, Jackson the Fourth, along with their daughter and newborn son, Jackson the Fifth. She herself was there with Miles, of course, which was perhaps rarer than she would have cared for. Miles tended to have itchy feet, which kept him always looking for the next adventure.
Her younger brothers, John and Montgomery, were also there, freshly knighted and looking particularly happy to be sitting sprawled in chairs before the fire. Well, Montgomery looked happy. John looked as if he might be plotting something. Then again, of late John always looked as if he were considering things he shouldn’t have been. Dangerous things.
She understood that, as it happened.
The only ones missing were Nicholas and Jennifer, who were currently at Nicholas’s keep in France, Beauvois, awaiting the birth of their second son. Her mother planned to travel to France soon to be of use to her daughter-in-law. Robin would stay at Artane with his family, no doubt, to see to their father’s affairs, but it was very likely that the rest of the family would find itself in France to celebrate Nicky and Jennifer’s new child. All in close proximity.
An interesting coincidence, that, to be sure.
“I spent too much time in the stables today,” Isabelle answered without hesitation. “It’s entirely possible I sniffed too much hay.”
It was also possible that the thought of her family being together in France in the near future was enough to leave her unable to breathe. How much easier life had been when she and her siblings had been young and innocent and heedless of any potential danger. She sighed.
“Why must things change?”
She wished she could take the words back the moment she said them, but it was too late. She looked reluctantly at Miles to find him studying her too closely for her comfort. Indeed, he had turned to face her, leaning his shoulder against the stone.
“Time is a river you cannot stop,” he said. “All you can do is navigate it as best you can.”
“I might have an opinion on where my boat is going.”
He didn’t look at all surprised, which made her wonder if perhaps she should be more discreet about allowing her thoughts to show on her face.
“And are you considering manning the tiller?”
“Of course not,” she said, trying to put just the right amount of firmness in her tone. “I’m just babbling. Besides, where would I go?”
“Perhaps a better question is, where would you go if you could filch a horse and be on your way without having to ask permission?”
“My only destination is the fire across the hall where I might sit with my family and enjoy the evening.”
He didn’t seem inclined to lead the way. “You know I won’t say anything to anyone,” he remarked mildly. “If you cared to unburden yourself.”
Which, she had to concede, was the absolute truth. If there were anyone alive she could trust with her most appalling secrets, it would be Miles. She suppressed the urge to look around her to see if she were being eavesdropped on, paused, then gave in to the impulse. She glanced about her whilst trying not to look as if she were glancing about herself. Then she looked at her brother, just to see if he looked at all queasy.
He didn’t, damn him anyway.
She, however, felt profoundly ill. It wasn’t that she wasn’t used to a fair amount of scheming. She was a de Piaget lass, after all, and her mother and older sister were famous for their plots and schemes, things that were discussed regularly and with great enthusiasm. By the ladies of the hall, at least. Her father tended to close his eyes briefly, breathe carefully a time or two, then find something requiring his immediate attention elsewhere when faced with a retelling of those tales. Her brothers simply shook their heads, as if they were unequal to expressing their admiration for deeds accomplished.
She paused. Well, perhaps that wasn’t entirely accurate. Her eldest brother, Robin, tended to roll his eyes and summarily dismiss any of the truly noteworthy pieces of mischief his female relatives had combined. Her next oldest brother, Nicholas, was wont to simply walk away without comment. Miles generally smiled indulgently, whilst her next youngest brother, John, would never stand still long enough to hear the successful resolution of the adventure. Her youngest brother, Montgomery, was the one who shivered violently at any retelling, though she had the feeling that it was less out of admiration than it was sheer terror. Then again, he had been in the thick of more of their plots than he likely cared to think on.
That was definitely something to remember, should the need for a willing participant in a plot arise.
She took a deep breath. “I’m thinking about an adventure.”
There, that sounded reasonable. It sounded a far sight more reasonable than telling him that she’d received a missive addressed to her specifically that instructed her to find a way to present herself immediately at a particular abbey in France or her grandparents’ lives would be the forfeit. She’d been so stunned first by the fact that anyone would know her name that she’d hardly had the presence of mind to ask who had engaged the messenger. The man had said he’d simply been handed the missive by someone in York who had paid him very handsomely for his services—
“Does this adventure involve a boat?”
She looked at her brother to find him smiling faintly at her, as if he thought to tease her for her plans. She took a deep breath.
“It might, actually.”
His smile faded abruptly. “You cannot be serious.”
“I thought you were merely listening, not commenting.”
He shut his mouth that had fallen open. “So I was. Go ahead.”
Isabelle suppressed the urge to shift. Miles would notice that and know that she was being slightly less than frank.
“I was thinking I might make a little journey,” she said. “To see a relative or two.” She paused. “Not in England.”
“I see,” he said, and no doubt he did. “Whilst I’m always eager to make a journey, I wonder why—if you’re seeking an adventure not in England—you don’t wait and be about your business with Mother and her enormous guard?” He looked at her pointedly. “She’ll be going to France in a month, as I’m sure you already know.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Isabelle said, waving her hand about in what she hoped was an airy, careless fashion. “I thought it might be interesting to make a journey alone.”
“To France,” he said carefully.
“It has been done before.”
He looked almost . . . unsettled, which for Miles was rather unsettling indeed. “Isabelle,” he said, using her entire name, which for him was also rather unusual, “you cannot simply traipse about the wilds of England and France by yourself.”
“Why not?” she asked. “You do.”
“I am not the stunning youngest daughter of Rhys de Piaget.”
“You aren’t ugly, Miles,” she said. “Not entirely.”
He smiled and even she, who had more than ample memories of just how awful he’d been as a lad of ten, had to admit he was quite possibly the most handsome of her parents’ sons, damn him anyway.
“I have a sword,” he noted.
“I could find a sword.”
“I know how to use mine.”
“And you think I couldn’t manage the same?” she said archly.
He turned, leaned his back against the wall, and rubbed his hands over his face. “Iz, I don’t doubt there are many things you could do if you set your mind to it,” he said with a sigh, “but hefting a sword isn’t one of them.”
“I’ve watched you lads in the lists often enough. And Amanda can use a sword. Why can’t I?”
He shot her a look. “Because you haven’t the temperament of your older sister who would just as soon stab me as to look at me if I vexed her.”
“I won’t need a sword,” she said confidently. “I thought I would go in disguise.”
“Of course you did.”
“As a lad.”
“I don’t think anyone will notice me.”
Miles looked at her, then laughed. “Believe that if you want.”
“A little dirt here, a smudge there, and voilà,” she said firmly. “A lad too uninteresting to bother with.”
He shook his head. “I imagine it would take a bit more than dirt to hide who you are to any but the most witless of men, but we’ll argue that point later. I still don’t understand why you can’t simply wait for Mother and go in her company.”
“I need an adventure.”
“Then cast caution to the wind and ride to the shore when it threatens rain.”
She would have glared at him, but the missive she’d shoved down the front of her gown was burning her like a handful of live coals. If she didn’t do what she’d been instructed to do, her entire family would die. Wasn’t that what had been said? She was to present herself in France, at the abbey at Caours, and not tell anyone why she was doing so. Her family would perish, or so the missive said, if any but she arrived. Details about her parents and siblings had been provided, details that could have only come from someone who had either observed her family closely or knew someone who had.
She looked down her nose at her brother. “I require a journey of slightly more substance than a trip to the shore. And I have it very well thought out, thank you very much.”
His mouth worked for a moment or two, then he resorted to blinking at her as if he’d never seen her before. “But why?”
Well, that was something at least that she absolutely couldn’t tell him. She cast about for something plausible to say, which wasn’t all that difficult. The truth was, she had been longing to have a change of locale for some time, for very particular reasons. She turned to face him.
“Because I’m tired of being merely the one who’s left.”
He frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s what they call me,” she said. “The fathers who come here looking for a wife for their sons. They come for Amanda, apparently unable to reconcile themselves to the fact that she’s been wed for four years. Once they can no longer deny that Amanda is not for sale, they look around in consternation. After that—without fail—they announce that they’ll settle for the one who’s left.” She lifted her chin. “They don’t even know my name.”
He winced. “Oh, Iz—”
“And that, Miles, is why I want to make a journey on my own. So someone at some point in the future will know my name, even if it’s merely to associate it with an ill-advised adventure.”
He reached out, slung his arm around her shoulders, and pulled her into a quick embrace. Then he pulled away, put both hands on her shoulders, and looked at her seriously.
“The ones who matter know who you are.”
“Unfortunately, they are not the ones presenting themselves at the gates and offering to take my dowry.”
“Father isn’t forcing you to wed, is he?” Miles asked.
“You know he isn’t, but that hardly matters. I’m a score and three. Too old to be home and a burden to my parents.”
He shot her a look of disbelief. “You can’t believe they feel that way.”
“I feel that way.” She shrugged his hands off her shoulders and wrapped her arms around herself. “I know I’ll have to wed eventually, and I suppose I must needs wed someone who doesn’t know my name, but perhaps I could have at least a few days to myself.” She looked at him. “Before I give up my freedom.”
He shook his head. “I’m enormously glad I’m not a woman.”
“So am I. I wouldn’t be able to filch your clothes otherwise.”
He scowled at her briefly, then laughed apparently in spite of himself. “My clothes are far too big for you. I think even Montgomery’s wouldn’t fit you.”
“Which is why I set things of his aside several years ago.”
“You, Isabelle de Piaget, are a remarkable woman.”
“Desperate, rather.” She looked at him. “You won’t give me away, will you?”
He sighed deeply. “Fool that I am, nay. But,” he added, suddenly serious, “I will insist on coming with you.”
“I must away to Wyckham for a day or two to see to business for Nick, but I will return as quickly as possible. I insist that you wait for me, then I will take you south myself. Without a guard—well, not much of one at any rate—and we’ll both go as a pair of lads. I guarantee you’ll have adventure enough.”
It was an offer she never would have expected and knew she shouldn’t spurn.
“Very well,” she said, wondering how much time she would need to spend in the chapel, repenting of her lies, by the end of her quest. “I’ll wait for you.”
“Vow it,” he insisted, “or I march across the floor and tell Father all right now.” He held out his hand. “Vow it.”
She sighed, rolled her eyes, then linked thumbs with him as they’d been doing since they were small. Foolish, perhaps, but it had been their sealing of secret bargains from the time they’d first hit upon the idea whilst about the goodly work of repaying Robin for some indignity perpetrated on their very young selves.
“Satisfied?” she muttered.
“I suppose I have no reason not to be,” he said, looking at her closely, “though I daresay your heart wasn’t in that last bit.”
“Good,” he said. “Stay tired until I return. I’ll leave before dawn tomorrow, then return as quickly as I may.” He kissed her forehead, then put his hands on her shoulders. “Don’t do anything foolish, Iz. I’m in earnest.”
“Me?” she said, finding that she couldn’t put a decent amount of scoffing in her tone. “Why would I do anything foolish?”
He pursed his lips, then released her and walked away. She resumed her place against the wall and watched him go. Men. Impossible creatures who were, she had to admit, quite often baffled by things they couldn’t possibly understand, such as the necessity of leaving on a quest to save one’s family.
She could only hope Miles wouldn’t kill her when he found her after realizing she had sailed for France without him.
• • •
Four days later, she stood in an inn, fully prepared to take a ship to France at dusk, and hoped that she hadn’t killed a different brother.
Montgomery lay at her feet, senseless and drooling.
It was her doing, of course. After Miles and John had left for Wyckham, she had convinced him to come south with her by telling her father she wished to see her mother’s mother, Joanna of Segrave, before she spent the summer in France aiding Jennifer with her new babe. She and Montgomery had been sent with a large guard, which she hadn’t considered an impediment to her plans. Surely no one would notice a lad slipping out the window and trotting off to the docks by way of the garden, would one?
She had presented her true plan to Montgomery and been utterly unsurprised by his unwillingness to participate in it. She had walked over to the window to rethink her strategy only to have Fate step in and offer aid where she’d least expected it.
Montgomery, always susceptible to even the possibility of feminine tears, had sighed deeply, then approached to see how she fared, no doubt thinking that she was on the verge of a decent bout of the former. He had apparently seen something on the floor he’d assumed was hers and bent to retrieve it.
She had turned, then spotted something herself, which was the trajectory Montgomery’s head would take when he straightened, and how easing the shutters open just a bit more might lead to an abrupt encounter for her very chivalrous if not stubborn brother. Her father had, as it happened, insisted she learn to cipher and do the odd calculation right along with her siblings. Who could have predicted it might serve her at just the moment when her straits were most dire?
She had swung the shutter open, shrieked for her brother to look out the window, then watched as he had caught the top of his head against the wood. He had gasped out a particularly unknightlike curse, fallen to his knees, then continued on his way down. She supposed it could be debated later, but she’d been fairly sure that hitting his head on the edge of a trunk on his way to the floor had contributed substantially to his state of senselessness.
Moving him had been impossible, so she’d draped her gown over his inert, manly form, then arranged her hair she’d cut off and fashioned into a makeshift wig over his head.
All of which had left her where she was, standing near the window and preparing to make her escape.
Montgomery groaned, then opened his eyes and looked at her blearily.
She leaned over and patted his head. “Sleep, brother. You’re very tired.”
He frowned, but he apparently couldn’t fight the relentless closing of his eyelids. He began to snore.
She supposed he would survive.
She stood, had a final look at Montgomery to make sure he was still alive, then took her courage in hand and slipped out the window.
She carefully tiptoed along the roof of the floor below. It was more difficult than she’d suspected it would be, but she pressed on. She had spent her fair share of time listening breathlessly to her brothers’ most exciting tales, most of which had seemed to include daring escapes, so she’d known what to expect. A pity she hadn’t spent just as much time actually sliding down slippery wooden roofs and thereafter hanging from the edge of them as she had listening to tales recounting that sort of thing.
She wasn’t altogether certain she hadn’t made an unwholesome noise of some sort, but that couldn’t be helped. She looked below her, saw that only a well-rotting compost pile lay there, and let go of wood that seemed quite content to see the last of her. She landed ungracefully—flat on her back, actually—but quickly scrambled up to her feet. She brushed her cloak off, rather wished she hadn’t cut her hair with her dagger upstairs so it could have prevented a few things she didn’t care to identify winding up down her back, then put her shoulders back and continued on her way.
The streets were rather more populous than she would have expected, but ’twas a port town after all and there were seamen coming and going about what she assumed was their usual business. She walked down the way quickly, as if she were truly in a great hurry to be off and doing. She supposed the manly swagger could be saved for another time, when she had more experience with feigning an identity and a sex not her own.
The ship she’d selected for her journey was where she’d seen it earlier in the day, but it was obviously preparing to make sail. Isabelle felt a thrill of something go through her. It wasn’t fear, surely. It was excitement mixed with purpose. She would have preferred that excitement come with less of a desire to heave what little supper she’d managed earlier onto the nearest empty spot, but she supposed she would learn to manage that in time as well.
She looked about her for the only part of her plan she supposed Miles would have approved of: Arthur of Harwych, her chosen companion on the voyage south. She supposed she might pay a price eventually for ruthlessly using the affection of a would-be suitor for her own purposes, but she would pay that price later. She hadn’t been foolish enough to think she should cross the seas without someone to guard her back. Perhaps it was sheer good fortune that Arthur had appeared at her father’s gates—and only at the gates given that he was never allowed inside—the morning Miles had left for Wyckham. A quick conversation with him out of earshot of her father’s guards had resulted in his promise to meet her in her current locale and accompany her to France. He would likely spend more of the journey puking over the railing than being of any use to her, but that couldn’t be helped.
She supposed at some point she would need to tell him what she was about, but her plan was to simply insist that he return on the same boat to England and tell her family that she was safe. She had no doubt he would do whatever she asked of him, poor lad.
Unfortunately, at the moment it looked as if he wouldn’t be doing anything at all for her given that he was nowhere to be found. She muttered a curse under her breath. If the man arrived on time to his own burying, she would be thoroughly surprised. Obviously, she would have to see to her business on her own. She had no other choice.
She saw the captain standing on the dock, looking over his craft with a critical eye. He bellowed an order or two, then folded his beefy arms over his chest and frowned fiercely as he watched those orders be carried out without hesitation. A man not to be trifled with, obviously.
But he was no doubt a businessman and would be just as glad as the next man for a bit of gold in his purse. She walked up to him as if she had every right to, then stopped and waited for him to acknowledge her. She cleared her throat for good measure, then folded her arms over her chest as she’d watched her brother Robin do countless times when preparing to intimidate those less intimidating than himself.
The captain turned his head and looked at her with one eyebrow raised. “Aye, lad?”
“I seek passage,” Isabelle said in her manliest tones. “I’ve the coin to pay for it.”
“Let me see.”
She had a handful of gold sovereigns in a small sack she’d kept separate from the bulk of her funds, lest she reveal all she had at once and find herself without it. She held the sack up where the captain could see it.
“I’ll open it on deck,” she said firmly.
He scowled at her. “You’d best be sure those aren’t rocks or you’ll be swimming back to shore.”
The captain nodded briskly toward his ship. “Keep your sword loose in its sheath and stay out of the way,” he advised. “Oy, there, damn ye, Ralf! I said lash that bloody barrel to the larboard side, ye fool!”
Isabelle hurried up the gangplank whilst the offer still stood, handed the captain her gold once she was on board, then watched him count it. He nodded shortly, pocketed the coins, then turned to do a bit more shouting.
She had to admit that there was a moment or two as the ropes were being hauled back onto the ship when she wondered if she’d made a terrible mistake.
Those moments passed quickly enough. She stayed out of the way and concentrated on keeping her hood up around her face. Not a lock of her hair reached past her chin, her face was liberally covered in soot, and she had no bloody choice but to present herself at her grandmother’s abbey in France and satisfy whoever it was who had summoned her.
And hope he didn’t kill her for her trouble.
She contemplated that for quite some time, until she could no longer see even the torchlight from the shore and suspected they were fairly far out to sea. The moon was useful enough, she supposed, though even it looked as if it might soon be obscured by clouds.
She jumped a little when she realized the captain was standing next to her. She smiled, then realized she was a lad and likely should have been scowling, so she attempted that. The captain merely pursed his lips.
“Heard we’ve a bit of a blow coming our way,” he said mildly.
“Indeed?” Isabelle asked, then she coughed and attempted a response that sounded less like a squeak. “I suspected as much.”
“You’re welcome to shelter in my poor quarters if you like, my lady.”
She looked at him quickly, but he was only watching her with an assessing gaze. She supposed she could have protested a bit more, but there was little point.
“Was the gold not enough?” she asked grimly.
“Oh, ’twas more than generous,” the captain said, though he looked as if he wished it hadn’t been. “I’m as willing as the next lad to take gold and keep my mouth shut. I just have to wonder if your sire knows what you’re about.”
She felt her mouth go dry. “My father?”
“If I had the sense of a turnip, I’d turn the ship around,” the man said frankly, “for I’ve no desire to tangle with Lord Rhys.”
Isabelle felt her mouth fall open. “How did you know who I was?”
“Didn’t,” he said easily, “until we were well on our way and by then I couldn’t turn back. A few of my lads are more observant than I. Since your sister is wed, that makes you the youngest, doesn’t it?”
She supposed it did, but there was obviously no point in saying as much.
The captain shrugged. “There’s a storm bearing down from the north and I’ve no mind to fight it. We’ll make for France and I’ll see you safely to wherever you’re going.”
Isabelle sighed. “Thank you.”
He studied her briefly. “I can’t help but think you’ve a good reason to be where you are.”
“Several of them, actually.”
He shook his head slowly. “Your father won’t be pleased, but I imagine you’ve already considered that. Now, do you care for one of my lads to keep you safe, or is your dagger deterrent enough? I’m assuming since you’re carrying one that you’re a fair hand with a blade.”
“Well,” she admitted, “my brothers wouldn’t actually cross blades with me, but I’ve made notes of all their most lethal movements should I find myself in a tight place and need inspiration.”
The captain’s mouth had fallen open.
“I have held a blade,” she said crossly. “I’m not completely without skill.” Never mind that she’d only fought imaginary opponents in the privacy of her own bedchamber. Her siblings had done the same thing in their youth.
“As you say,” the captain managed. He eyed the horizon behind her. “You might want to review your skills in a safe spot until the storm blows over.”
“I love a good storm.”
And that was the last thing she said for quite a while. She finally resorted to finding herself a place where she could wedge herself between a pair of barrels lashed to the railing. It seemed as good a place as any to contemplate her straits and wonder if a few prayers might not be called for.
• • •
Miles de Piaget strode into the inn, wishing he’d been able to savor the smell of the sea air outside. He supposed with as much of his life as he’d spent on the edge of the sea he should have been weary of it, but he wasn’t. Unfortunately, at the moment he was far too preoccupied with trying to find his sister to notice anything but his own panic.
He’d spent two days at Wyckham, then returned to Artane to find that Isabelle had already gone south with Montgomery, supposedly to visit their grandmother Joanna. He’d cursed her thoroughly—out of earshot of his unsuspecting parents—then run up the stairs at the back of the hall to waste no time in rifling through the contents of her bedchamber. He hadn’t been surprised to find her diary with all manner of notes made about doings in the lists.
He had, however, been very surprised to find a bit of stone that had obviously been chipped away and refitted over a place to secret the saints only knew what. He’d anticipated finding a collection of her most romantic thoughts. What he hadn’t expected was to find a missive from someone threatening to kill her family if she didn’t present herself as quickly as possible at a particular French abbey they were all rather familiar with.
He had stood in the middle of her chamber and tried to decide if he felt worse for her that she had shouldered such a burden herself or worse for the lad who had written the missive, for when Miles found him, his death would not be a quick and easy one.
He had gone back downstairs, kissed his mother, embraced his father, then poached his father’s fastest horse and immediately headed south, under absolutely no illusions about what his sister intended to do.
And he was at least four days behind her.
It took only a brief word at present with the innkeeper to learn where his youngest brother was lingering. He took the stairs three at a time and strode down the passageway. He threw open the last door available, quickly determined that just Montgomery was inside, then shut the door behind him.
“Where is she?” he said without preamble.
Montgomery didn’t look well. That, Miles supposed, could have been the result of several things. Having lost their sister was one. The way his brother was holding a damp cloth to the top of his head might have been another. Miles strode across the room and pulled Montgomery’s hand away. The cut was fairly large as was the bump underneath it, but at least the cut was healing. Montgomery would be sporting that bump for another fortnight at least.
“What befell you?”
“What befell me?” Montgomery echoed incredulously. “She hit me over the head, that’s what befell me!”
Miles shot him a look of disbelief.
“Well, she did,” Montgomery said stubbornly. “I was leaning over to rescue some ridiculous bit of feminine frippery, then the next thing I know she’s clunked me over the head with a heavy stone.” He paused. “Or a brick.” He considered a bit more. “Or perhaps she simply heaved the trunk up and dropped it on me.”
Miles looked about the chamber for a likely tool and saw the shutters. He walked over to them, pulled them open, then ran a finger along their lower edges. There was blood there, though it was thoroughly dried. He sighed, then leaned out the window to see what was below. Nothing but garden, but a garden that could easily be used as a path to the docks.
“I’ve been looking for her,” Montgomery said, sounding for the first time very young and very frightened. “I vow I have.”
Miles looked at his brother and smiled. “I don’t doubt it, Montgomery. Izzy’s headstrong.”
“Father will kill me—”
“Nay, he won’t,” Miles said, praying that would be the case. He should likely say a prayer for himself that he would escape a similar fate. “Did she say anything to you about what she intended to do?”
“She said she was meeting Arthur of Harwych and sailing to France on business of her own,” Montgomery said, sitting down on the end of the bed and putting his face in his hands. “Of course I forbade her.”
“And of course she ignored you. Have you seen Arthur?”
Montgomery shook his head gingerly. “I’m guessing he took the ship with her.” He looked at Miles. “Tell me she isn’t going to wed with him there.”
“Not unless she’s had a terrible blow to the head and lost all her wits,” Miles said. “My guess is she intends that he guard her back whilst she’s about her quest.”
Montgomery’s mouth fell open. “Quest?”
Miles decided that if Isabelle hadn’t been willing to tell their youngest brother what she was about in truth, he had no right to pass on those details himself. Well, that and he had no reason to disbelieve the author of the missive who had threatened to kill the entire de Piaget family if Isabelle spoke of her errand.
“But why France?” Montgomery said in disbelief.
Miles shrugged. “Who knows what goes on in the mind of a wench?”
Montgomery looked at him earnestly. “I tried to frighten her off the idea, Miles, truly I did. I spoke of the perils of the food, the feistiness of the peasants, the endless forests full of ghosts and bogles.” He shivered. “Terrible things, all.”
“Could you dredge up nothing more menacing?”
Montgomery threw up his hands, then put his hand to his head when apparently the motion was more than he should have indulged in. “I resorted to something I thought would convince her to put her hair back atop her head and that was tales of the lord of Monsaert—”
“Gervase de Seger?” Miles asked with a laugh. “That was the best you could do?”
“Miles, he’s a demon,” Montgomery said with feeling. “You know what happened to him in the fall.”
Miles would have attempted to enlighten his brother about the particulars, but Montgomery had warmed to his topic and was obviously beyond hearing him.
“He was attacked by something foul and turned into something fouler. His people haven’t seen him since that time unless he gathers darkness around him and steps outside his gates to terrify his peasants.”
“It isn’t,” Montgomery insisted. “How do you know he won’t find Isabelle traipsing about the countryside, abduct her, and toss her into his dungeon where he might torment her at his leisure?”
“Because, unlike you, I don’t believe in faeries,” Miles said, “which leaves me with powers of reasoning you don’t have.” He pushed away from the wall he’d been leaning against, then walked to the door. “I’ll do some investigating, then return. Don’t go anywhere.”
Montgomery only groaned in answer, which Miles supposed was answer enough.
He left the inn and made his way to the docks, hoping without any confidence at all that he might find his sister loitering there. She wasn’t, of course, nor was that useless youngest son of Henry of Harwych. Miles milled about, trying to see who was preparing to go and who was arriving. He found several lads, finally, who had obviously just arrived and were off for a meal and something decent to drink. He stopped one and put on his most pleasant smile.
The lad shivered. “Fortunately for us.”
“Where did you sail from?”
“Calais, and we’re bloody lucky to be here,” the lad said. “A handful of days earlier and we would have gone down like Captain Allard’s crew.”
Miles felt something slither down his spine. “How many days ago?”
The lad considered, then shrugged. “Two, my lord, perhaps three. Begging your pardon?”
Miles let him go catch up to his mates, then looked out over the sea. It looked fairly calm, but he had grown to manhood on its edge and he knew very well how quickly things could change.
It wasn’t possible that Isabelle could have been on that doomed ship, was it?
He considered. He had always had a bond with Isabelle, a strange sort of something that brought her to mind at times when he wouldn’t have suspected it. He’d had the occasional curse thrown at him because he’d been her twin brother which apparently made him some sort of demon. He wasn’t sure why that had seemingly never applied to his sister, but he had to admit that at the time he’d happily accepted any sort of unsavoury reputation he’d been able to acquire. Along the way, he had quite often had flashes of what he supposed might have been termed intuition. If she’d been in danger. If she’d been about to do something foolish. If she’d needed him. He stood there, unmoving, for so long that his back began to plague him.
He felt nothing.
He didn’t stop to consider what to do. He found a ship, booked himself passage, then returned to the inn to tell Montgomery what to do and which horse to see to.
He would sail for France.
He could only hope he would find his sister there, alive.
Gervase de Seger rode like a demon from Hell.
Or he would have, had he been equal to it. It galled him to the very depths of his soul that all he could manage was a very anemic shuffle on a nag that was better suited to carrying a statuesque and unskilled ladies’ maid. But simply getting atop his ancient, faithful steed had taken the better part of a quarter hour, so he supposed he should simply be grateful for what he was able to accomplish and leave the blistering speed to those better suited to it.
By the saints, he felt old.
He wasn’t, of course, but that didn’t change the fact that he would rather have been in bed than out in the bloody driving rain. It had been raining for the better part of three days, something that likely should have given him pause as he’d made a decision to leave his hall. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a storm so fierce. At least he’d been at home in front of a hot fire for most of it. He pitied any lad with the unfortunate necessity of traveling by either land or sea. Why he’d chosen to join the ranks of those poor fools, he surely didn’t know.
He sighed. The truth was, he’d left his comfortable roost because if he’d had to spend another day haunting the inside of a hall so bleak it bothered even him, he would have done damage to someone. To spare any innocents that fate, he had instead reached for his cloak and decided to seek out a bit of air. He’d driven himself out the front door, down the steps, and across the courtyard to the stables where he’d frowned so fiercely that not a word had been spoken by anyone as the oldest horse in his stables had been saddled for him. At least most of the lads had had the good sense to turn away while he’d struggled to get himself up into the saddle. The one lad who’d been fool enough to watch had earned the full force of Gervase’s glare and gone scampering off to no doubt tell more tales about darkness and terror and things that the lord of the hall was apparently responsible for.
He supposed he should have been happy for the addition of unsavoury items to his reputation. His father, after all, had been known as the Griffin of Seger, though perhaps he hadn’t merited a title so fierce. Gervase knew that the cheekier lads in his own employ—as well as a few of the more vocal lads down in the village—had taken to referring to him as the Crow of Monsaert, damn them all to Hell. If he could have repaid them for the slight, he would have. Unfortunately, the best he could do was keep to his castle, let the gloom ooze out the windows and front door to infect the lands surrounding his estate, and hope that it would be enough to keep enemies at bay until he was more himself. If he ever again became what he had once been—
He dragged his hand through his hair and lifted his face to the sky, pushing aside thoughts that didn’t serve him. The rain was freezing, but he relished it. He needed clarity and ’twas a certainty he wouldn’t find it at home. The chaos there was unrelenting and worsening by the day. His brothers were in desperate need of things he hadn’t a clue how to give them, his coffers were emptying at an alarming rate, and he wasn’t healing as quickly as he should have been.
That made it a bit difficult to protect himself against whomever was trying to kill him.
At least he’d managed to get himself to the stables today. He’d shuffled out his front gates a se’nnight ago in an ill-advised attempt to be about his business and the effort had left him practically crawling back to bed for the rest of the day. Today not only had he managed to get himself to the stables, he’d managed to get atop a horse and ride out the front gates. A feat worthy of song, to be sure.
He would have laughed at the absurdity of it all, but he couldn’t. He was a score and eight, but he might as well have been four score and eight for all the strength he had. He should have been at the height of his vigor and prowess. He’d been there a year ago, undefeated in over a decade of jousting, heir to a vast estate, betrothed to the most beautiful woman in all of France. He had occasionally looked at the state of his life and been a little envious of how marvelous it all was. Of course, his father had been dead, which had grieved him, and his mother—or his stepmother, rather—had been without any redeeming qualities at all, which had vexed him, but those were simply things given to him to remind him that life was never perfect. No matter how the rest of his life had spoken to the contrary.
It had all changed in the blink of an eye—
His horse stumbled and caught itself heavily on one leg, almost sending him pitching over the poor beast’s head. He managed to stay in the saddle only because he’d spent every day there since he’d been able to sit up on his own.
Well, save the past four months, but that was time better left rotting in the past where it belonged.
He had to shield his eyes against not only the driving rain but the wind that seemed determined to blind him. He saw finally what would have been not even a ripple in his life before but was now a situation he could honestly say he wanted no part of.
A young lad was being tossed about by a trio of men who it seemed hadn’t been content to merely rob him. One held one of his boots aloft, one held a bag of what Gervase could only assume was coins, and a third satisfied himself with giving the lad a little lesson in the harsh realities of the world. Just the sight of that was enough to leave Gervase wishing he’d stayed at home.
But he was first and foremost a knight, and he could not fail to render aid when called upon.
His steed seemed to feel the same obligation, for he picked himself up into a respectable trot that almost bounced Gervase from the saddle. Perhaps together they made a more terrifying sight than Gervase had supposed, what with him swathed in a black cloak and his horse an enormous black warhorse who had struck fear into enemies a score of years earlier. The ruffians fell back in terror, then ran off with a speed Gervase was forced to admire. They did however, in true ruffian fashion, taunt their victim with the loss of his purse, his dagger, and apparently his only remaining boot as they went. Gervase didn’t bother to give chase. The dagger couldn’t have been worth anything and the purse was likely of no value, either. The lad now kneeling in the mud wore clothing that was serviceable but not overly fine, but no cloak. He was soaked to the skin with his shorn hair plastered to his head. He was also gasping for breath, as if he’d never once taken a decent blow to the gut.
Gervase shook his head. The current crop of lads France produced was disappointing, to say the least.
He was tempted to leave the boy there on the side of the road, but something stopped him. He couldn’t credit it to any altruistic motive, so he decided that he would blame a vile meal and a sour stomach for the fact that he couldn’t bring himself to turn his horse away and head for home. Any desire he’d had to ride over his land had disappeared abruptly at the sight of three lads he could have bested with a steely glance a year ago. He couldn’t bring himself to admit that without the advantage of a horse, he would have been at their mercy. Better to credit the weather for his change of heart.
He scowled down at the boy. “Up on your feet like a man, you woman, or have you no pride?”
In answer, the boy threw up. Well, at least he’d had the manners to turn away and vomit into the weeds. Perhaps the manners of peasants had improved whilst he’d been riding all over France, ridding those peasants’ masters of their horses, armor, and whatever other gear could be used as ransom at tourney. There, that was a pleasant thought. Gervase concentrated on that while he waited for the peasant before him to finish with his business.
The boy wiped his mouth finally with a trembling hand, then looked up.
Gervase almost fell off his horse.
That was, he admitted freely, the most beautiful boy he had ever seen, the poor little bugger. He’d obviously had a rough go of it. Blood from a cut over his eye had coursed down his face and somehow dried in spite of the wet, matching perfectly the new blood dripping down his chin from where he’d obviously just been struck in the mouth. Blackened eyes or dirt? Difficult to tell, but the dazed look in those eyes made Gervase suspect foul play. He might have pitied the boy, if he’d had any pity left.
“Where’s your home?” he asked briskly.
The lad shook his head, then clutched that head quickly in his hands.
Gervase frowned. Perhaps the lad had run away. “Your master’s name, then,” he demanded.
“I . . . I don’t remember.”
Gervase would have pressed him a bit harder, but he didn’t suppose he was going to have any decent answer whilst the lad was again puking up what was left of his guts. He put his hand over his own belly protectively, then decided his hand was of better use over his mouth. He would have stuck his fingers in his ears, but that would have shown an appalling lack of control.
The lad looked up at him with a truly lovely pair of aqua eyes, gurgled, then those eyes rolled back in his head and he pitched forward into the mud, quite obviously senseless.
Damn it anyway.
Gervase cursed viciously. He started to ride on only to realize he was still sitting in the same bloody place, still cursing in a way that would have singed the ears of any of the nuns up the way at the abbey at Caours. He was tempted to ride there and send them out for a rescue, but that would mean leaving the lad facedown in a puddle. By the time the sisters arrived, the boy would have drowned.
Gervase tried to shrug. One less peasant to feed. France would have been better off that way.
He cursed a bit more.
He went so far as to insist his horse walk on, which it did, in a grand, sweeping circle that led him right back to where he’d started from. He looked down at the boy now on his left and cursed a bit more. To say he didn’t want to become involved in another’s misery was understating it badly. The very thought of it sent unpleasant sensations down his spine to curl up quite unhappily in the pit of his stomach. He was quite content to go on with his own miserable life and leave the rescuing to those more inclined.
But if not you, then who?
“Any number of fools,” he ground out.
Unfortunately, Fate seemed not to be listening. And he knew it was Fate nudging him. Fate or another of her vile sisters, Responsibility, Honor, or perhaps even Charity. He had more than a nodding acquaintance with all four of them, even going so far at one point to be quite proud of that fact.
He now only stuck his fingers in his ears to drown out their incessant yapping.
Even singing quite loudly the raunchiest of pub doggerels didn’t drown out that insistent and quite annoying prodding. It just left him looking no doubt as mad as everyone thought him to be. Mad and evil and ruined in both body and mind. He looked up at the sky that was now dark gray in spite of the fact that it was near noon and supposed the weather wasn’t going to improve any. He was already soaked to the skin. His mount’s mane was plastered to his neck and his forelock dripping down the length of his nose. They weren’t going to get any wetter by doing a good deed.
He swung down out of the saddle.
Well, in truth, he fell out of the saddle, twisted on his way down, and landed full upon his victim—er, his peasant in need of a decent rescue, rather. He had one good arm left, but that was of little use when his right leg was so damaged. He did manage to get himself up to his knees, but he had to remain there for far longer than he wanted to think about simply trying to ride out the waves of shattering agony that washed over him. He finally sat back on his heels with a gasp, then shook the boy, hoping he hadn’t wasted a good deed by killing the poor lad.
The boy finally lifted his head.
Unsurprisingly, he began to weep.
Gervase would have clapped his hand to his head, but thought it might be best that at least one of the two players in the current drama not be covered in mud. He would execute the rescue, because he was already in the mud, then he would do the lad a further good turn and instill a bit of manliness in him before he turned him loose. By the saints, the sound issuing forth from the whelp in front of him couldn’t even have been called a decent howl. It was more of a whimper, as if the boy simply couldn’t take any more that day.
Gervase had a particular distaste for whimpers, though he chose not to examine why.
“Can you rise?” he growled.
The noise, blessedly, ceased and the lad nodded.
“What’s your name?”
“I . . . don’t . . . know.”
The boy looked about him from eyes that were definitely blackened and seemed to be actually a little baffled in general.
“I . . .”
“Whence do you hail?” Gervase asked impatiently.
“Um . . .”
Perfect. No name, no village, and obviously no ability to defend himself. Gervase supposed he could kneel there all day in the rain and the lad still wouldn’t have a decent answer for anything. He suppressed the urge to roll his eyes and instead studied the lad for a moment or two. Perhaps he should at least give the lad a name before they attempted any more noteworthy acts.
“I shall call you Parsival,” Gervase announced. Parsival had been his favorite horse in the days when he’d had a horse worthy of that sort of name.
Parsival the lad didn’t seem as grateful as he should have to be wearing such a grand alias, but Gervase supposed he might grow to appreciate it. He thought perhaps enlightening the lad about the numerous and marvelous qualities of his favorite jousting horse while about the happy work of getting the lad onto the back of his current horse, who was not so marvelous, would keep him from dwelling on how difficult it was to even get himself to his feet, much less himself and someone else to that place. Especially since that someone else was as weak as a gel.
Pitiful. No wonder the boy had fled his home. The looks of disappointment from his sire had likely become too numerous to bear.
Gervase had to pause and simply struggle for breath for a moment or two once he’d managed to stand. That and fight such enormous waves of dizziness that he greatly feared he might have to use Pars’s weeds as a place to deposit his own vile morning meal. He waited until he thought he could remain standing with some success, then reached down and pulled his shivering peasant to his feet.
He then exhausted his descriptions of Parsival the horse, which left him too exhausted himself to do anything but stand there and watch numbly as the boy struggled to get into the saddle. At least the lad had that much skill. Unfortunately, even the effort of watching left him unable to do anything but stand there with his arm over his horse’s withers and lean his head against the patient beast’s neck.
The saints preserve them from anyone who might have been bent on mischief. ’Twas a damned certainty it wouldn’t be him doing the saving.
Walking, after he was able to manage it, was an agony he would have happily foregone, but there was nothing to be done about it. He had made his bed—or his road, rather—and he could only lie in it.
He wasn’t sure how long it was before he saw the stump of a felled tree just off the rutted path he was taking. He hobbled over to it, then stood there for several minutes simply breathing. Once the pain was manageable, he availed himself of the steadiness of his ancient steed and used the poor beast as a means of heaving himself up onto that stump. Without allowing himself to consider the price he would pay, he put his foot in the stirrup and swung himself up behind his barely conscious passenger. The lad had had the good sense to wrap his hands in fistfuls of mane, so perhaps he wasn’t as useless as Gervase had initially feared. The manliness, though, was definitely a problem.
And one he had no intention of solving, to be sure. He took the reins and encouraged his mount forward with a few feeble clicks. He had other things to be seeing to besides a stray he’d found on the side of the road. Important things. Things that required his personal attention.
He made a list, but it wasn’t a very long one. He had long since driven off any friends he might once have possessed and the reputed blackness of his temper had seen to acquaintances and neighbors. In truth, all that was left for him to do was shout at his steward a time or two each se’nnight to make certain the man stayed fixed upon his tasks, then retreat to his bedchamber and cast spells, or torment small animals, or whatever it was the local populace suspected he was doing. They might have boasted that his wings were clipped, but he knew better. If he’d actually presented himself down at the village inn in all his gloomy glory, the whole of the tavern would have soiled themselves and prayed for mercy.
Which was why he remained at home. Altruistic, truly, but that was one of his nobler virtues.
The rain continued to drench him until he was within half a league of his hall. It relented then, only enough for the clouds to huddle about the towers of his castle as if they had secrets to tell the guards there, secrets they didn’t want him to hear. He would have protested, but he supposed the weather was a bit beyond his purview. He settled for scowling just as a matter of principle lest anyone think he was overcome by the sight of his hall in its current state of neglect, and continued on, muttering the odd curse under his breath to keep himself company.
The portcullis was up, which would have infuriated him a year ago. Now, he was merely grateful he didn’t have to waste breath to call to his guardsmen to raise it. He rode through his gates and stopped in front of the stables. A stable boy appeared immediately at his side, trembling so badly he would have spooked Gervase’s horse if the poor tired steed had had any verve left in him. As it was, the beast simply reached out and nosed the boy’s tunic, no doubt looking for some sort of afternoon delicacy. Gervase tossed his reins at the boy, then considered his situation. He could shove his new acquisition off the saddle first, of course, then get down himself in the confusion, but that didn’t seem particularly sporting.
He sighed, then gritted his teeth as he wiggled his boots free of his stirrups. He was more careful that time when he slid to the ground, but still it was breathtakingly painful. He clutched his saddle for several moments, struggling to breathe without gasping, then looked at the prize he’d brought home.
He looked around him for aid and found it in the person of the captain of his guard. Sir Aubert was simply standing there with his arms across his chest, watching silently. Actually, Aubert did everything silently, everything from killing foes to expressing opinions on Gervase’s recovery from the attack that had left him half dead. If Gervase hadn’t known the man for the better part of his life, he might have suspected him of foul deeds. He was quiet yet all the more terrifying because of it. The saints be praised he was trustworthy.
He had obviously been out for a ride himself, which told Gervase that he perhaps hadn’t had as much privacy as he’d thought. Unsurprising, but somewhat comforting, truth be told.
Aubert uncrossed his arms, then walked over to Gervase and made him a slight bow. He looked at the lad draped over the horse’s withers and merely raised an eyebrow.
“A lad in need of a rescue,” Gervase said shortly, “as you likely already know. Dump him in the kitchens.”
Aubert lifted Parsival’s head up by his hair, then froze. Gervase understood. A burden for the poor wretch to be so fair of face. He watched Aubert consider, glance his way briefly, then shrug. The man lifted the lad out of the saddle with surprising gentleness. Gervase would have asked his captain why he didn’t just heave the lad over his shoulder and trot off with him, but perhaps the blood on the lad’s face and the bump on his head that even Gervase could now see gave him pause.
“The wounds were acquired at two different times,” Aubert offered mildly.
“Think you?” Gervase asked.
“One’s crusted over, the others are still bleeding.”
How that man had managed to observe that in such a short time, Gervase couldn’t have said. Then again, he’d won more than one tournament thanks to those unwholesome powers of observation. If Aubert said it was so, he was happy to believe it.
“Take him to the infirmary, then.”
“Until he’s healed?”
“When else? But then dump him in the kitchens. I’ve no need for yet another lad to coddle.”
Aubert nodded, then walked away with his burden. Gervase watched him go for a moment or two, more to give himself a chance to catch his breath than because he was curious as to why his captain, who had absolutely no patience for lads who showed the slightest sign of weakness, would be so carefully carrying a boy who still should have been huddled behind his mother’s skirts.
It was odd, though, wasn’t it?
He shook his head, leaving things he couldn’t fathom to the realm in which they belonged, then turned his attentions to the next monumental task of the day, which was to get himself back inside his great hall where he could collapse in front of the fire and hopefully be fed something decent. He held on to his horse for another moment or two, then nodded to the master of his stables, who had stopped a lad from removing Gervase’s buttress too soon. His faithful steed was led off to his oats and his napping. Gervase wished he could have enjoyed the same attentions.
Help arrived, happily, in the person of a half brother he could tolerate for more than a quarter hour. Heaven knew he had a robust selection to choose from. Joscelin was the second of six lads Gaspard of Monsaert had sired on a woman he’d wed not a month after Gervase’s own dam had perished. Why the pair of them hadn’t managed a girl or two to leaven the loaf, Gervase couldn’t have said. All he knew was that for the past year he’d been mother and father both to that collection of spawn and he hadn’t been equal to the task.
Joscelin said nothing. He simply offered his shoulder as a handy place for Gervase to rest his hand as they started back toward the hall. If he had done less resting and more clutching, Joscelin didn’t seem to notice. Then again, Joscelin tended to listen more than he spoke, a trait Gervase appreciated given the endless babbling of the rest of his siblings.
“Wet out,” was his only comment.
“Very,” Gervase agreed.
Joscelin said nothing more. He merely walked alongside Gervase, as slowly as if he were some species of nobleman who was making a procession through his village and feared someone might miss a particular bit of fine embroidery on his surcoat if he walked too quickly. If he paused now and again to apparently study a bit of stone out of place in the pavement, or dig about something else with his toe, Gervase made no comment. He was too busy being grateful for the chance to pause and catch his breath.
It was truly a miracle he wasn’t dead.
At times, he wondered if he might have been better—
“Who’s the lad?” Joscelin asked.
“Don’t know,” Gervase wheezed, grateful for the distraction. “I came upon him as he was being robbed. It seemed only sporting to at least trot over and see what could be done.”
Joscelin smiled faintly. “Damnable chivalry.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” Gervase said grimly. “Always cropping up when you least expect it.”
Joscelin laughed a little. “I daresay. What are you going to do with him?”
“I have absolutely no idea. Want him?”
“Me? And what would I do with a lad?”
“Make him your squire?”
“Thank you, but nay. I had one, sent especially to me to curry favor with you, who I sent back because he wasn’t yet weaned. I don’t need another useless lad to train.”
Gervase stopped and looked at his younger half brother. “I’m sorry,” he said simply.
“Don’t be daft,” Joscelin said. “You’ll regain your strength and be what you were before. I suspect you’ve spent all this time abed not healing but rather lazing about with an endless succession of handsome wenches.”
That wasn’t even worth a response, so Gervase merely pursed his lips and continued on his way. He heartily wished he had never left the hall that morning, but what else had he been able to do? He had spent three months abed with one leg so broken and the other wrenched about so badly that he’d wished it had been broken. His right arm had been broken as well and his hand crushed under a weight so immense he was surprised he managed to grasp anything at all. The memory of how he’d come by his wounds was sketchy at best and something he didn’t like to dwell on if he could help it.
In truth, he couldn’t quite remember anything past seeing one fire near his stables and more smoke coming from his great hall. He’d set lads to attend to his horseflesh while he’d run back inside the hall to make certain the whole bloody place didn’t go up in flames. He’d hardly been able to see for the smoke, but he’d heard a horrendous crack echo in what had been a very elegant chamber full of fine carving and delicate stonework. He’d thought the roof was caving in only to realize that snapping sound had been his thigh bone. He’d realized that only because his leg had collapsed beneath him and he’d seen the bolt sticking out of his flesh along with what surely couldn’t have been bone. If it hadn’t been for his brothers and his captain finding him to carry him outside—
He took a deep breath and walked back into his hall. He patted Joscelin’s shoulder, then forced himself to make his way across the floor without aid. He heard his younger brothers come tumbling inside from the direction of the kitchens, but he couldn’t bring himself to even attempt to greet them, much less name them. All he knew was that there were six of them and they deserved better than he was able to give them. He cast himself down into a chair in front of the fire and closed his eyes. Joscelin did him the favor of removing the offenders with a promise of training in the lists if the lads fetched their gear quickly. Cries of joy ensued.