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Chapter 11

"As you will see, Lady Alice, there is much to be done here." Joan lifted a hand to indicate not only the convent garden in which she and Alice stood, but the whole of the village. "I have accomplished what I could during the three years I have been prioress of this house, but it has been difficult without a proper lord to govern these lands."

"I understand, madam." Alice surveyed the neat gardens. Several nuns were working industriously to weed and water the plants and prepare the ground for winter.

The walk into the village had been a curious one. Alice had been greeted by a wide variety of people. Farmers had paused in their work to nod respectfully. Small children at play had smiled shyly at her as she went past. The brewer had come to the door of her cottage to offer a mug of new ale. The blacksmith had beamed from the other side of his glowing forge. The miller's wife had given her a loaf of bread, which her son, Young John, had proudly handed to her.

Alice was aware that an air of expectancy hovered over Scarcliffe today. Its people believed that the legend had come true, or at least that it was well on its way to being fulfilled. Their rightful lord was among them. The curse had been lifted and all would be well.

A pang of regret went through Alice at the realization that even the earnest and good-hearted Joan was speaking to her as though she really would be the next lady of the manor.

The prioress was right. There was much to be done here, Alice thought. And Hugh would see to it that things would be accomplished. He would take care of these lands because his own future was tied to them.

But she was not at all certain that she could take the risk of binding her own future to Hugh's and to Scarcliffe. I did not believe that I was a coward, she thought. Ah, but never before has my own heart been at stake.

Life would be simpler and calmer in a large, cloistered convent. Far more conducive to the study of natural philosophy.

"That ridiculous legend did not help matters." Joan led the way along one of the garden paths. " 'Twas a great nuisance to have it hanging over our heads all these years. I would like to have a few words with the idiot who invented it."

Alice glanced at her in surprise. "Surely you do not believe in the legend yourself?"

"Nay, but the people of Scarcliffe certainly do. I must admit that the longer these lands went without a strong lord, the more evidence seemed to indicate that the curse was real."

"Legends seem to take on a life of their own."

"Aye." Joan grimaced as she halted near the herb garden where a tall nun labored alone. "Lately, we have even begun to suffer from the predations of outlaws and robbers because there was no lord with a household of strong knights to protect us."

"Outlaws will no longer be a problem now that Lord Hugh is master of Scarcliffe," Alice assured her with great confidence.

The tall nun paused in her work. She leaned on her hoe. Beneath her wimple, her eyes were dark and somber. "There are other calamities every bit as bad as a plague of robbers. The curse is real, Lady Alice. Lord Hugh will learn that soon enough."

Joan rolled her eyes indulgently. "Pay no heed to Sister Katherine, my lady. She is a skilled healer but she often sees only the most dismal possibilities."

Alice smiled at Katherine. "If you believe in the curse, then surely you are satisfied that all is well here once more. The legend has been fulfilled."

"Bah. I care nothing for the legend of the green crystal and the Stones of Scarcliffe," Katherine muttered. " 'Tis but a tale for children."

"Then what concerns you?" Alice asked.

"The true curse on this land is the bad blood between Rivenhall and Scarcliffe. Betrayal and murder fester in the manner of an infection that cannot be cured."

"You refer to the old enmity between the two manors, I presume," Alice said.

Katherine hesitated in obvious surprise. "You know of it?"

"Aye, Lord Hugh told me the sad tale. But if you fear that there will be war between Rivenhall and Scarcliffe because of it, you may set your mind at ease. There will be no violence between the two manors."

Katherine shook her head with a doleful air. "The seeds of revenge were planted in the past. They have sent forth a dark herb that poisons this land."

"Nay." Alice was beginning to grow angry with the healer's grim view of the situation. "Calm yourself, Sister. Lord Hugh explained to me that there will be no violence. He said that both he and Sir Vincent have sworn oaths to the same liege lord, Erasmus of Thornewood. Sir Erasmus has expressly forbidden them from engaging in anything more bloodthirsty than the occasional joust."

" 'Tis said that Erasmus of Thornewood is dying." Katherine's hand tightened around the hoe. "When he is gone, who will control Sir Vincent and Sir Hugh? Scarcliffe and Rivenhall are a long way from the centers of power. The lords of these lands will be free as unleashed hounds. They will go straight for each other's throats."

"Sister Katherine has a point." Joan frowned. "I have always considered our remote location to be one of the few good things about these lands. It is safer to live far from men who command armies and worry about who is on the throne. But it does mean that we are dependent upon Lord Hugh to maintain peace."

"He will do so," Alice insisted.

She was not quite certain why she felt so compelled to defend Hugh's good intentions. Mayhap it was because she knew him far better than these women did and she wanted them to have confidence in him.

"There will never be peace for Scarcliffe and Rivenhall," Katherine whispered.

Alice decided it was time to change the subject. "Is this your herb garden, Sister?"

"Aye."

"Sister Katherine joined this house many years ago," Joan said. "She is expert with herbs. At one time or another we have all been grateful for her tonics and potions."

"My mother was a healer," Alice offered. "She was a great student of herbal lore. She had many unusual plants in her gardens."

Katherine ignored the comment. She gazed steadily at Alice. "How long have you been betrothed to Hugh the Relentless?"

"Not long. And his name is not Hugh the Relentless anymore. He is Hugh of Scarcliffe now."

"When will you be wed?"

"Sometime in the spring," Alice said vaguely.

"Why do you choose to wait so long?"

Joan gave her a reproving look. "Lady Alice's wedding plans are no concern of yours, Sister."

Katherine's thin mouth tightened. "A betrothal may be broken easily enough."

"Nonsense." Joan was clearly annoyed. "A betrothal is a solemn and most binding commitment."

"But it is not a vow of marriage," Katherine said.

"That is enough, Sister," Joan said sternly.

Katherine fell silent but she continued to stare at Alice.

Alice flushed beneath the scrutiny. "Lord Hugh wished to wait until spring to wed because he has so many other important matters that must be seen to immediately."

"Quite understandable," Joan said crisply. "Pray, return to your labors, Sister. Lady Alice and I will continue our tour of the convent grounds." She started off down another path, drawing Alice in her wake. "Come, let me show you our wine-making workrooms. Then, mayhap you would care to see the library?"

Alice brightened. "Oh, yes, I should very much like to see it."

"I hope you will make use of it." Joan waited until they were out of earshot of Katherine before adding softly, "You must forgive the healer. She is very good at her work but she suffers greatly from melancholia."

"I understand. 'Tis a pity she cannot heal herself."

"She takes a tonic made from poppies when her spirits are especially low, but other than that, she says there is little that can be done for her condition."

Alice frowned. "Potions made from poppies must be used sparingly."

"Aye." Joan slanted her an interested look. "You sound knowledgeable on the subject. Did you follow in your mother's footsteps, my lady?"

"I have studied herbal lore and I have kept my mother's handbook on the subject, but after she died I turned to other interests."

"I see."

"I consider myself a student of natural philosophy." Alice came to a halt and looked toward the forbidding cliffs that rose behind the village. "As it happens, I had planned to further my investigations in such matters later this morning."

Joan followed her gaze. "You intend to explore the cliffs?"

"Aye. I have never seen a cave. It should prove most interesting."

"Forgive me, my lady, but I'm not certain that is a sound notion. Does Lord Hugh know of your intention?"

"Nay." Alice smiled brightly. "He was occupied with weighty affairs of business this morning. I chose not to intrude."

"I see." Joan hesitated as though she felt she ought to say more on the subject but she changed her mind. "You told Sister Katherine that you did not think there would be war between the manors of Rivenhall and Scarcliffe."

"Aye. What of it?"

"Are you certain? This land has suffered much, my lady. I do not know if it could survive such a disaster."

Alice chuckled. "Have no fear, Lord Hugh will protect Scarcliffe."

"I trust you are right." Joan broke off abruptly as she glanced at a spot directly behind Alice.

A jolt of awareness went through Alice at that instant. She knew without turning around that Hugh was in the garden.

"I am well pleased to learn that you have such great faith in my abilities, lady," he said in his emotionless voice. "I would wish that I could have a similar degree of faith in your good sense. What is this I hear about your plans to explore the caverns of Scarcliffe?"

Alice whirled about to find him looming as large and solid as Scarcliffe Keep itself on the path behind her. His black hair was windblown. His amber eyes gleamed with a dangerous intelligence. She had seen very little of Hugh during the past three days but on each occasion she'd had a similar reaction.

Whenever she happened upon him, even for a fleeting moment, the impact on her senses was startling. Her pulse quickened and something curled deep in her stomach. Memories of the night in Ipstoke when he had touched her so intimately warmed every part of her body.

She had not been able to sleep well for thinking of that passionate interlude. Last night she had prepared a hot drink of chamomile tea to settle her senses. She had got herself to sleep but she had dreamed. How she had dreamed.

"You startled me, my lord." She fought her unsettled reaction to him by glowering ferociously. "I did not hear you come into the garden. I thought you were occupied with your accounts this morning."

"I was very busy with them until I learned that you planned a venture into the caverns." Hugh inclined his head slightly toward Joan. "Good day to you, madam."

"Good day, my lord." Joan glanced from Hugh's grim face to Alice's scowling features and back again. She cleared her throat discreetly. "Mayhap 'tis just as well you have come, my lord. I was a trifle concerned myself about Lady Alice's plans. She is new to this land and does not yet know all its dangers."

"Aye," Hugh said. "And at the moment the most serious danger she faces is me." He braced his fists on his hips. "What in the name of the devil do you think you are about, lady?"

She refused to be intimidated. "I merely wish to search for some interesting stones."

"You are not to go into the caverns alone. Ever. Is that understood?"

Alice patted his sleeve in a soothing manner. "Calm yourself, my lord. I am quite skilled in the science of natural philosophy. I have been collecting interesting specimens for years. I will come to no harm."

Hugh hooked his thumbs into his leather belt. "Heed me well, Alice. You are not to go beyond the bounds of this village alone. I forbid it."

"Would you care to come with me? I could use a stout man to help me carry whatever interesting objects I may discover."

For a second or two, Hugh looked completely taken aback by the invitation. He recovered immediately and cast a disparaging glance at the leaden sky. "There will be rain soon."

"Unlikely, I think." Alice looked up. " 'Tis just somewhat overcast."

A speculative gleam appeared in Hugh's eyes. "Very well, madam, as you are the expert on matters of natural philosophy around here, I shall bow to your judgment. I'll escort you on your expedition."

"As you wish." Elation welled up inside Alice. She tried to appear unconcerned, as though Hugh's decision was of no great moment.

Joan looked relieved. "Take care not to stumble upon our wandering monk while you're traipsing about in the vicinity of the cliffs. I am told that he is encamped in one of the caves."

Hugh frowned as he took Alice's arm. "Why is Calvert of Oxwick sleeping in the caves?"

Joan's features remained serenely composed but her eyes sparkled with humor. "No doubt because I refused to give him a cell here in the convent. There really is nowhere else for him to spread a pallet except Scarcliffe Keep itself. Apparently he did not dare to impose on your hospitality, my lord."

"Just as well," Alice grumbled. "I would not have Scarcliffe Keep supply any accommodations to that obnoxious man."

Hugh raised his brows but made no comment. Belatedly it occurred to Alice that decisions regarding the extension of the keep's hospitality were rightfully his. She was not even his true betrothed. And she had made herself a promise that she would not get overly involved in household matters.

"Well, then," she said briskly. "We had best be off, my lord. The day is getting along, is it not?"



The first drops of rain struck as they started up the rocky hillside beneath the caverns.

"By the Saints." Alice fumbled with the hood of her mantle. "We will get soaked to the skin if we do not get into the shelter of the caves."

"I told you it was going to rain." Hugh grabbed her hand and pulled her swiftly toward the first of the dark openings etched in the cliffs.

"Do you make it a habit to point out your infallibility on each of those occasions when you happen to be correct in your estimation of a situation?" Alice broke into a run to keep up with him.

"Nay." Laughter warmed Hugh's eyes as he pulled her beneath the overhang of a large cavern. "As I am almost always correct, 'twould be too much of a bother to mention that fact every time it is proven."

She glowered at him for a moment and then her attention was captured by his rain-dampened hair. For some reason the sight of it, tousled and plastered against his well-shaped head, made him look somehow different. Gentler, even a trifle vulnerable.

She caught her breath on a wild rush of hope. If Hugh really did have some gentleness in him, some degree of softness and vulnerability, mayhap he could learn to love her.

The rain began to fall in earnest. Thunder rolled in the distance.

As though he meant to squash any false illusion of underlying softness, Hugh ran careless fingers through his wet mane. He brushed it ruthlessly behind his ears, exposing his high forehead and the severe, predatory lines of his cheekbones. In the blink of an eye he was transformed back into a man who could easily shoulder the weight of a legend.

Alice smiled wistfully. "You are impossible, my lord."

A hint of amusement edged his mouth. He glanced curiously around at their surroundings. "Behold your cave, madam."

Alice followed his gaze and shivered a little. " 'Tis somewhat dark, is it not?"

"Caves tend to be gloomy places," he said dryly.

The cavern was large. Its depths were lost in the shadows that shrouded the far end. The gray light of the rain-drenched day did not reach more than a short distance into the interior. There was an air of perpetual dampness about the place. Somewhere water dripped on stone.

"Next time I must remember to bring a torch," Alice said.

"Aye. Without one we cannot see much, can we?"

"Nay." She refused to admit that she was glad that they had a good excuse not to go deeper into the cavern. " 'Tis unfortunate that we must limit our investigations today, but it cannot be helped."

Hugh rested one hand against the rocky wall and looked out over the village and fields of Scarcliffe. "There is a fine prospect from up here, even when rain is falling."

Alice saw the pride of possession in his golden eyes. "On a clear day one would be able to see a great distance."

"All the way to Rivenhall."

The dangerous softness of his tone made Alice uneasy. She recalled the healer's words. The seeds of revenge were planted in the past. They have sent forth a dark herb that poisons this land.

Alice told herself that she did not believe in legends. She gazed out into the rain and wondered why the healer's words had held the ring of truth.

"Well, Alice?" Hugh said after a moment. He did not turn to look at her. His attention was still on the landscape spread out before him.

"Well what, my lord?" Alice leaned down to examine a chunk of dark stone.

"It seems to me that you have had ample time for contemplation. What is your decision?"

She froze over the dark stone as his meaning became plain. She stifled a groan of dismay and sought refuge in a pretense of misunderstanding. " 'Tis an interesting bit of rock but I do not believe that it is all that unusual. I would like to find a sample of the stone that was used to build the keep. Now that is a most interesting sort. I have never seen its like."

"I was not talking about that damned stone and well you know it." His gaze flickered briefly with cold impatience. "Have you made up your mind to wed me?"

"Bones of the Saints, my lord, it has been a mere three days since you requested my decision. I would point out that both of us have been extremely busy during that time."

"Busy? You have done little except choose a clumsy oaf of a steward."

"Elbert will make you an excellent steward," she countered. "And how dare you accuse me of idleness? I have hardly had a chance to think, let alone to weigh the merits of such an important matter as marriage."

Hugh said nothing for a moment. Then he lowered himself onto a rocky outcropping and rested his elbows on his knees. His gaze remained fixed on the distant lands of Rivenhall, which were shrouded in a rainy mist.

"Do you hate this land, Alice?"

She was startled by the question. "Scarcliffe? Nay, my lord. I do not hate it."

"You find it ugly."

"Nay, that is not true. I'll grant you that it is not a gentle landscape, but 'tis an interesting and varied place."

"Scarcliffe will soon flourish. I will see to it."

"I do not doubt that, my lord."

"What of the keep?" he persisted. "Do you dislike it?"

"Nay. As you noted, it appears strong. Easily defended." She paused, wondering where this line of inquiry was going. "And, in truth, 'tis more comfortable inside than it first appeared."

"So you do not object to making your home in it?"

"Uh, well, as I just said, there is nothing in particular to object to in the keep."

"I am pleased to learn this." Hugh picked up a small pebble and tossed it carelessly down the sloping hillside. It was a surprisingly playful gesture, a gesture at odds with his decidedly stern nature. "If in future you do discover that there is a problem with the keep you will tell me about it and I will see that it is remedied at once."

"Aye, my lord. Thank you." Alice watched him skip another pebble down the wet hillside. She wondered what sort of childhood Hugh had experienced. A short one, no doubt, just as her own had been. A bastard would have been forced to assume the mantle of manhood early in his life.

"So, you do not find the manor to be unpleasant and you are content with the keep," Hugh concluded.

"Aye, my lord," Alice said warily. "I am content."

"Then there is no reason to put off the marriage, is there?"

Alice threw up her hands in exasperation. "My lord, I begin to perceive why it is that they call you Hugh the Relentless."

"I do not care to waste unnecessary time."

"I assure you, we are not wasting time. I need every bit of it that I can get." She sat down on a large rock near the mouth of the cave and opened the sack the miller's son had given her. "Would you care for a bit of fresh-baked bread?"

Hugh frowned at the loaf as she withdrew it from the sack. "You are attempting to change the subject."

"Very observant of you."

"Alice, I am not a man who is much given to hesitation or delay."

"I am learning that truth all too well, my lord." Alice tore off a chunk of the bread and handed it to him. "But in this matter, I fear you must learn patience."

Hugh pinned her with his hunter's eyes as he reached out for the bread. "How long will it take you to make up your mind?"

"I have no notion." She nibbled determinedly at her portion of the loaf.

Hugh tore a large chunk out of his bread and chewed grimly.

Silence fell. So did the rain, heavily and steadily.

After a moment Alice cautiously relaxed. Hugh was apparently willing to let the subject of marriage drop, at least for the moment.

She took another bite of the crusty bread and indulged herself in the fleeting pleasure of Hugh's company. It was good to sit here alone with him, to pretend that they were friends and partners and that they would share the future together. Surely such a fantasy did no harm.

"Elbert is creating havoc in the keep," Hugh said after a long interval. "Do you think you should choose another to carry out his duties?"

Alice pulled herself out of her warm reverie. "Elbert will learn quickly. I spoke to several possible candidates for the position and he was by far the most intelligent and eager. Give him time, my lord."

"That is easy for you to say. As you choose to dine alone in your chambers, you have not yet experienced the adventure of taking a meal in the great hall with the rest of us. I assure you, Elbert's supervision makes it an unforgettable event."

Alice glanced at him. "If you find it unpleasant to dine in the great hall, why do you not do as I do? Have your meal sent to your private chambers." She hesitated and then added, very daringly, "Or you could join me, my lord."

"That is not possible."

Alice felt her face grow hot at the unequivocal rejection of her offer. "Forgive me for suggesting it. I did not mean to overstep my bounds."

He shot her an irritated look. "Do you not realize that a lord must take his main meals in the company of his men?"

Alice shuddered delicately. "I cannot imagine why. The rude conversation and the crude jests are enough to ruin any meal. I have no interest in the obnoxious chatter about weapons and jousts, nor in all that talk of the glories of past battles or the hunt."

"You do not comprehend. One of the ways in which a lord secures the bonds between himself and those who serve him is by dining with them." Hugh munched bread. "A strong lord is as tied to those who depend upon him as they are to him. He must let them see that he respects them and appreciates their loyalty."

"And he does that by dining with them?"

"Aye. 'Tis one of the ways he accomplishes it."

"Ah, that explains it." Alice smiled in sudden comprehension. "I wondered why a man as intelligent as you was willing to tolerate the coarse manners that are so common in great halls."

"One grows accustomed to it."

"I do not think that I could ever grow accustomed to having every meal ruined by such conversation and activities. It must be very difficult for you to face the future knowing that you will have to make such a great sacrifice every day of your life."

Annoyance flashed briefly in Hugh's eyes. "I do not consider it such a great sacrifice. We do not all share your fine sensibilities. The talk of arms and armor is not dull to a knight, madam. 'Tis business."

"And the rude jests and the laughter and the lamentable manners of your companions? Do you enjoy those, too?"

"They are normal enough when men gather over food and drink."

"True." Alice bit off another bite of bread.

"As I said, dining in one's great hall is a matter of respect and loyalty." Hugh paused. "In most households, the lord's lady joins him at table."

"So I have been told, but I cannot imagine any lady wanting to do so."

"She does so for reasons similar to those that oblige her lord to dine with his people." Hugh sounded as though he were speaking through clenched teeth.

Alice ceased chewing. "For reasons of respect and loyalty?"

"Aye. She sits beside him in the presence of their people so that all will see that she respects her lord and is loyal to him."

Alice sucked in her breath and tried to swallow her bread at the same instant. She promptly sputtered, gasped for air, and began to cough.

Hugh frowned in concern. He reached out and slapped her forcefully between her shoulders. "Are you all right?"

"Aye," she managed. She caught her breath and swallowed several times to get rid of the wayward bite. "I'm fine."

"I'm pleased to hear that."

Silence fell again. This time Alice was not relieved. She felt oddly discomfited.

Mayhap Hugh believed that her refusal to eat in the great hall was a sign of her lack of respect for him. She wondered if his men and the others in Scarcliffe Keep thought her unloyal.

"Alice, I would have you tell me precisely why you cannot make up your mind to marry me," Hugh said. " 'Tis the reasonable, practical, logical thing to do."

Alice shut her eyes. "I thought we had finished with that topic for today."

"If you tell me why you hesitate, I will be able to do something to correct the matter."

It was too much. Alice lost her patience. "Very well, my lord, I shall be blunt. If I am to wed, I would prefer that it be for reasons of true affection, not efficiency and convenience."

Hugh went very still. His eyes locked with hers. "Affection?"

"Aye. Affection. My mother married a man who wanted nothing more from her than an heir and someone to manage his household. She was doomed to great loneliness with only her studies to comfort her."

"She had you and your brother."

"We were not enough," Alice said bitterly. "They say my mother died from poison, but in truth, I think she died of a broken heart. I will not make the same mistake that she made."

"Alice—"

"I prefer the peace and tranquillity of the convent to a marriage that is barren of affection. Now do you understand my hesitation, my lord?"

He watched her warily. "You wish to be wooed? Very well, madam, I shall attempt a proper wooing, but I must warn you that I have no great skill in such matters."

Alice leaped to her feet, her temper in full blaze. "My lord, you are missing the point here. I do not want a false wooing. You may save your flowers and poems. I speak of love. That is what I require. Love."

Comprehension lit his eyes. He got to his feet and reached for her. "So 'tis passion you want, after all. Rest assured that you shall have all you wish of that commodity."

He covered her mouth with his own before Alice could even begin to lecture him on his grave misunderstanding.

For a few seconds she raged in silence and then it struck her that passion might well be all that Hugh could give her at this time.

It might also be the one emotion that could lead him to love.

She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him back with all the love that had flowered in her heart since the first night she saw him.


Chapter 10 | Mystique | Chapter 12