Benedict was outraged when he learned of the stratagem. "What do you mean, you are not going to pay the ransom? For the love of God, my lord, you cannot leave my sister at the mercy of Eduard of Lockton. You heard his message. He will murder her."
Dunstan clamped a hand on his shoulder. "Ease your mind, Benedict. Sir Hugh has dealt with men of Eduard's nature many times before this. He knows what he is doing."
Benedict banged his staff on the floor. "But he says he will not give that crystal to Sir Eduard."
Benedict turned on Hugh. "You've said yourself, the green stone has little value. 'Tis only a symbol. Part of an old legend, you said. Surely my sister's life is worth more than that devilish stone."
Hugh did not look up from Calvert's plan of the caves. "Calm yourself, Benedict."
"I thought you had some tender feelings for Alice. You said you would care for her. You said you would protect her."
Tender feelings, Hugh thought. Those words did not begin to touch the emotion that he was struggling to control at this moment. He raised his eyes slowly to Benedict's taut, anxious face.
"The stone is worthless, as I told you," he said quietly. "That is not the point."
"Sir, you must pay the ransom," Benedict pleaded. "He will kill her if you do not."
Hugh studied Benedict in silence, wondering how much to tell him. He glanced at Dunstan, who shrugged. Nothing would be gained by lying to the youth, Dunstan's expression said.
"You do not comprehend the situation," Hugh said quietly. How did one explain to a woman's brother that his sister's life hung by the merest thread? For that matter, how did a man deal with the fact that his wife was at the mercy of a murderer?
Hugh forced himself to set aside his own fears. He would not be able to do anything for Alice if he indulged himself in horrible imaginings and bleak visions of a future without her.
"That's not true," Benedict raged. "I understand exactly what is happening. My sister has been kidnapped by Eduard of Lockton, who has demanded a ransom for her return. Knights demand ransoms of one another all the time. Pay it, my lord. You must pay it."
" 'Twill do no good," Hugh said. "If I leave the green stone at the old village ditch, as instructed, 'tis certain Eduard will murder Alice."
Dunstan nodded soberly. "Sir Hugh is right, Benedict."
Benedict stared, bewildered, first at Dunstan and then at Hugh. "But… but he has asked for a ransom. He says he will free her if it is paid."
"This is no joust or friendly tournament where ransoms are part of the sport." Hugh went back to his study of the cave map. "Do not make the mistake of believing that Eduard of Lockton will play this game by the rules of honor."
"But he is a knight," Benedict protested. "He took part in the jousts at Ipstoke. I saw him."
"With this act Eduard has proven that he is no true knight," Dunstan muttered.
"Until now he has played the part of a cunning fox who hides in the brush until he spies an opportunity to seize what he wants." Hugh traced a passageway with the blunt tip of his finger. "On the jousting field he is tame enough. There are too many people watching him there. Too many true knights who would be outraged if he were to cheat or act dishonorably. But this is a different matter."
"What are you saying?" Benedict demanded.
"He has gone too far." Hugh propped an elbow on the table and rested his jaw on his fist. "Seizing Rivenhall was one thing. He knew that I did not care what happened to that manor. If circumstances had been different—" He let the sentence hang, unfinished, in the air.
Benedict's expression was one of grim comprehension. "You mean if Alice had not ridden to Rivenhall's defense you would not have done so yourself?"
"Aye. If she had not taken it upon herself to save that manor Eduard could have had it with my best wishes. He knew that. But this… this is quite another matter."
Some new element was at work in this business. Hugh grappled with the possibilities. What did Eduard know about the green stone that made him willing to risk the wrath of a man whom he had, until now, treated with wary caution?
What did Eduard know about the crystal that made him willing to risk death to obtain it?
For the instant Eduard had seized Alice, he had signed his own death warrant. He must surely be aware of that fact.
"This most certainly is quite another matter." Benedict slammed a fist down onto the table. "What makes you so certain that Eduard will kill Alice if the ransom is paid?"
"In kidnapping Alice, he has challenged me directly." Hugh frowned as he studied another passageway. "That means that for some reason he no longer fears me enough to be governed by caution. If that is the case, then he is no longer a fox but a boar. And no creature is so dangerous and unpredictable as a boar."
Benedict froze. Everyone knew that a boar was the most savage of beasts. Only the most skilled of hunters pursued such quarry. Endowed with a massive, heavily muscled body, great tusks, and mindless ferocity, it was capable of killing both a horse and the man unlucky enough to be in the saddle. The most valiant hounds could not bring it down without the aid of an entire pack of strong dogs and the arrows of the hunters.
"What are you going to do?" Benedict finally asked in a voice subdued by shock.
Hugh rolled up the small sheet of vellum on which Calvert had drawn the map. "I shall do the only thing one can do with a wild boar. I shall hunt him down and kill him."
Katherine's somber eyes met Alice's. "After Sir Matthew's death, my cousin spent most of my inheritance and was unable to contract another suitable marriage for me. He allowed me to enter Scarcliffe Convent. I saw little of him over the years and I was very glad of that fact."
"You were happy in the convent?"
"As happy as a woman of my temperament may be."
In spite of her predicament, Alice felt a measure of sympathy. "Prioress Joan told me that you suffer from bouts of melancholia."
"Aye. The work in the gardens is good for those afflicted with such humors, however. And I take satisfaction in mixing my herbs. For the most part I have been content."
Alice shifted uncomfortably on the hard stone floor of the cavern. She had been sitting in the corner of the vast cave with Katherine for what seemed an age. Quiet conversation with the healer was the only thing that was keeping her from succumbing to the fear that threatened to envelop her.
She was vastly more anxious tonight than she had been the day she braved Eduard in Rivenhall Keep.
The difference lay in something other than the obvious fact that on the previous occasion she'd had Dunstan and a contingent of Hugh's men-at-arms at her back. It had to do with a change in Eduard himself. A terrifying change.
There was a frenzied quality about Eduard tonight, an air of violent desperation. Alice sensed that he was far more dangerous this time than he had been when he had attempted to take Rivenhall. Then, he had been wary of Hugh. Tonight his eagerness to obtain the green stone seemed to have driven out all sense of caution.
To Alice's relief, Eduard had left the cavern a short while earlier. He had taken a torch and moved off down a dark passage with the confidence of a man who knew his way about the maze of tunnels.
This was the third time that Eduard had left the caves to spy on the old village ditch.
It seemed to Alice that the walls of the cavern were pressing closer. A torch propped against one wall burned low. Soot from the flames darkened the stone above it. The flickering shadows grew steadily darker and more dense.
A series of clicks on the stone floor caused Alice to glance across the chamber. Fulton and the other man, whose name, she had learned, was Royce, sat cross-legged, playing at dice. Their weapons were close at hand.
"My game," Fulton growled, not for the first time. He had enjoyed a series of wins.
"Bah. Give me the dice." Royce grabbed the small bone cubes and tossed them onto the stone. He glowered at the results. "By the entrails of the Saints. How do you come by all the luck?"
"Let me show you how to play this game." Fulton reached for the dice.
"Sir Eduard should have returned by now. I wonder what keeps him?"
"Who can tell?" Fulton rolled the dice. "He is in a strange mood tonight."
"Aye. He cannot think of anything except that damned green stone. 'Tis unnatural, if you ask me. Everyone knows the crystal has no great value."
"Sir Eduard believes that it does."
Alice hugged herself as she looked at Katherine. "It grows late."
Here in the bowels of the caves it was impossible to determine the position of the sun, but the passage of the day was apparent in other ways.
"Aye." Katherine clasped her hands together. " 'Twill no doubt be finished soon. We shall both be dead and Eduard will have the green crystal."
"My husband will rescue us," Alice promised softly.
She recalled that she had once made the same vow to Emma. Poor Hugh, she thought with a wry and extremely fleeting amusement. He was always having to make good on her promises.
Katherine shook her head sadly. "No one can rescue us, Lady Alice. The roots of the herb that poisoned the past have borne evil flowers."
"No offense, Katherine, but occasionally you do have a way of depressing one's spirits."
Katherine's expression grew more morose. "I prefer to deal in truth and fact. If you wish to comfort yourself with false hope, that is your affair."
"My mother was a great believer in the power of hope. She considered it as important as medicine. And I have every hope that my lord will deal quite satisfactorily with Eduard. You will see."
"You certainly seem to have great faith in the power of your husband," Katherine muttered.
"You must admit, he has not failed me yet." Alice straightened her shoulders. "And if you think that Eduard is any match for Sir Hugh, you are wrong."
"I myself have never had any reason to put my trust in men." Katherine was clearly resigned to a sad end.
Alice concluded she would have no luck attempting to change Katherine's bleak attitude, so she decided to change the topic instead. "Do you know who stole the green crystal from the convent a few weeks ago?"
Katherine twisted her hands together in her lap. "I did."
Katherine sighed. "When Eduard learned that the crystal was the key to discovering the Stones of Scarcliffe, he sent word that I must take it from its vault. He… made certain threats."
"What sort of threats?"
"He promised to poison someone from the village or one of the other nuns if I did not obey him."
"Dear heaven," Alice whispered.
"I dared not take the risk. I did as he instructed. Late one night I took the stone and gave it to a man whom Eduard sent to the convent gate to collect it."
"Why did Eduard wait all these years before he tried to steal the stone?"
Katherine lifted one shoulder in a small, dismissive gesture. "He only learned of its true value a few months ago."
"When he discovered that Calvert of Oxwick had concluded that the Stones of Scarcliffe actually existed?"
Alice frowned. "That incident occurred at about the same time that Sir Hugh received the fief of Scarcliffe."
"Eduard was pleased to know that the loss of the green stone would cause Hugh much trouble, but that was not the reason he bid me steal it. The simple truth was that after learning that the Stones were more than a mere legend, he quickly become obsessed with discovering the treasure."
"What happened after you gave the green stone to Eduard's man?"
"The fool betrayed Eduard." Katherine's lips thinned. "He made off with it, determined to discover its value for himself. But when he could not learn its secret, he sold it to a peddler. From thence it came into your hands and finally it was restored to its rightful owner."
"In the meantime, Calvert was here, using his guise as a monk to search these caves at his leisure."
"Aye. Eduard realized that the monk had learned much about the caves and would prove useful. He struck a bargain with Calvert. He made the monk his partner. Eduard promised to find the green stone while Calvert searched the caves."
"But Eduard murdered Calvert."
Katherine nodded. "Aye. I'm certain that he intended to do so from the start, once he had what he wanted. But when Sir Hugh recovered the green stone and locked it away in Scarcliffe Keep, Eduard and Calvert quarreled."
"Why did they quarrel?"
"Calvert accused Eduard of failing to fulfill his part of the bargain. Eduard went into a rage and concluded that the monk was no longer of any use. After Calvert was dead, Eduard realized that he would have to try a different stratagem."
"So he kidnapped me," Alice whispered.
"He is a fool."
"Nay, he is a vicious, dangerous man," Katherine whispered. "Indeed, he has always been evil. But tonight I see something else in him. Something that terrifies me."
"A hint of madness?" Alice cast an uneasy glance at Fulton and Royce.
"Aye." Katherine looked down at her hands. "I hate him, you know."
Katherine gazed unseeingly at the wall of the cave. "He took me to live with him after my parents died. He wished to control my inheritance."
Alice grimaced. "Not an unusual state of affairs. Few men can resist the opportunity to control an heiress's fortune and the law encourages them to do so."
"True enough, but my cousin's treatment of me was most unusual and… and unnatural." Katherine looked down at her tightly clasped hands. "He… he forced himself upon me."
Alice stared at her in shock. "Oh, Katherine." She touched the healer's arm with grave gentleness. "I am so very sorry."
"And then he tried to marry me off to Sir Matthew in order to obtain lands of his own." Katherine's face was rigid with pain. "God forgive me, but I hate Eduard with a degree of passion that other women reserve for love."
The scrape of a boot on stone made Alice stiffen. She turned her head to peer into the shadowed passageway. Torch light flared in the opening. A moment later Eduard loomed into view. His face was a mask of fury.
Fulton scrambled to his feet. His eyes went to Eduard's empty hand. "Sir Hugh has not yet paid the ransom?"
"The bastard taunts me." Eduard slammed the torch into Fulton's hand. " 'Tis now dawn and he has not left the green stone at the north end of the stinking ditch. The damned fog grows worse by the minute."
"Mayhap he does not believe the lady is worth the price." Fulton cast an aggrieved look at Alice. " 'Tis not hard to comprehend that he might prefer to be rid of her." He rubbed the palm of the hand that Alice had bitten. "The wench is tiresome."
Eduard rounded on him furiously. "You fool. You know nothing of this matter."
"Mayhap," Fulton muttered. "But I know that I do not like it much."
"Sir Hugh values his wife right enough." Eduard combed his beard with restless fingers. "He indulges her to the point of idiocy. You saw how he was that night in Rivenhall Keep. Because he had given his word to her on a whim, he allowed the lady to deprive him of his long-sought vengeance."
"Only a man besotted would allow a woman to manipulate him in such a manner. Aye, the fool places great value upon her. He will bring me the stone, thinking to exchange it for her life."
Royce scowled. "I agree with Fulton. I do not like this business. Surely the stone is not worth the risk of being cornered like trapped rats by Hugh the Relentless."
"Cease your whining." Eduard began to pace the floor of the chamber. "We are safe enough in these caves. Now that Calvert is dead, no one else except me knows these passageways. Not even Sir Hugh would dare enter this maze."
"Aye. So you said." Royce dropped the dice into his belt pouch. "But that changes nothing. This cavern may be a clever place to hide for the moment, but it could just as easily become a snare."
Eduard stopped pacing and turned, eyes slit with menace. "Do you think to defy me, Royce?"
Royce did not cower. Instead he regarded his master with a considering expression for a moment. Then he appeared to come to a decision. "I believe I have had enough of this futile endeavor."
"What? You are my man," Eduard roared. His hand went to his sword hilt. "I'll kill you where you stand if you think to desert me now."
"You are welcome to try." Royce reached for his own sword.
Fulton stepped back out of the way. "Blood of the demon, this is truly madness."
"Traitor." Eduard jerked his blade from its scabbard and leaped forward.
"Stay back," Royce warned. He raised his heavy blade.
"Stop this nonsense," Fulton shouted. "Or all is lost."
Alice reached for Katherine's hand. "Come," she whispered. "This may be our only chance."
Katherine sat frozen on the stone. Her eyes were lit with horror. "We cannot flee into the caves. We will be lost."
Alice tugged impatiently on Katherine's wrist. "Nay, we shall follow Eduard's trail."
"He has been through these passages often enough to mark them well with the soot from his torch." Alice prayed that would prove true. One thing was certain, the quarrel that had broken out between Eduard and Royce was an opportunity she and Katherine could not ignore.
"Do you really think we can escape?" Katherine looked confused. She had obviously set her mind on death. Hope was a difficult concept for her to grasp at the best of times. At this moment it clearly left her bewildered and befuddled.
Alice kept a wary eye on Eduard and Royce, who were shouting and circling each other. Fulton paid no attention to the women. He was laboring in vain to calm the other two men.
Alice kept her grasp on Katherine's wrist as she edged cautiously toward the nearest torch. The hair stirred on the back of her neck just as she reached out to grab the torch. A shiver of awareness went through her.
There was no sound to herald Hugh's arrival, but Alice knew he was close by. She whirled to gaze at the passageway that Eduard had used a moment earlier.
A cold, ghostly wind wafted from the dark corridor. It carried before it the promise of doom. The torches in the large cavern flickered and sputtered wildly.
"Hugh," Alice whispered.
A faint amber glow appeared in the black tunnel. A few seconds later it revealed the shadowed outline of a man.
The quarreling men behind Alice did not hear the sound of their enemy's name on her lips, but there was no mistaking his voice. It cut through the tense atmosphere with the impact of lightning slicing through a night sky.
"Enough." The single word thundered off the cavern walls. "Lay down your arms or die where you stand."
Everyone in the vast chamber went still for an instant. They all stared at Hugh, who stood framed in the opening of the stone corridor.
Alice was as stunned as the others, even though she had been expecting him to appear. She knew without being told that tonight Hugh was a thousandfold more dangerous than she had ever seen him.
Katherine made the sign of the cross. "The Bringer of Storms."
Hugh was vengeance incarnate, a dark wind that would sweep all before it. His eyes were cold and utterly without mercy. His black cloak enveloped him from his shoulders to the tops of his black leather boots. He wore no helm but light glinted on the steel of his drawn sword.
Dunstan and Aleyn, one of the household guards, quickly emerged behind Hugh. They flanked him with gleaming blades. Benedict came up behind them. He held a torch aloft. His eyes anxiously searched the cavern until they settled on Alice. When he saw her, his face glowed with relief.
Eduard was the first to recover from the paralysis that had gripped everyone in the stone chamber.
"Bastard," he cried. "You have ruined everything. From the very day of your birth, you have tried to deny me what was rightfully mine. You shall pay."
He lunged, but not toward Hugh. He turned and bore down on Alice. She realized with horrified amazement that he intended to kill her. For an instant she was literally frozen with fear.
"Alice, move." Hugh surged forward, but he was several paces away from Eduard.
Hugh's command broke the spell of terror that had trapped Alice. She sprang to the side just as the heavy weight of Eduard's sword crashed downward. It struck the floor where she had been standing a second earlier. The dreadful clash of metal on stone rang out across the cavern.
Alice's stomach churned. She felt a cold, clammy sensation on her skin. If she had not gotten out of the way, she would have been cut in half by the force of Eduard's blow.
Even now he was spinning toward her once more. He raised his sword with both hands.
Alice stumbled backward. Her foot tangled in the hem of her skirts. "Blood of the Martyrs." She struggled desperately with the folds of her new black and amber gown.
"Devil's own whore. This is all your fault." Eduard's small eyes were those of a savage beast as he crowded Alice back against the cavern wall.
Fury swamped Alice's fear. "Get away from me. Do not come near me."
Out of the corner of her eye Alice saw that Hugh was halfway across the cavern but still too far off to cut Eduard down.
She gathered herself and prepared to try to duck the next blow.
But reason finally intervened to temper Eduard's rage. "Stay back or I'll kill her," he warned Hugh.
Hugh reached into the swirling folds of his cloak and removed an object. The green stone gleamed in his hand. "This is what you wanted, is it not, Eduard?"
"The stone." Eduard wet his lips. "Give it to me and I'll let your wife live."
"Take it, if you can." Hugh hurled the stone at a point on the cavern wall just to the right of where Eduard stood.
Eduard's eyes widened. He screamed, "Nay." He lurched toward the stone but could not catch it.
The green crystal smashed against the wall. It shattered instantly. A glowing rainbow of gems cascaded onto the floor. Rubies, golden beryl, pearls, emeralds, sapphires, and diamonds shimmered and sparkled amid the shards of the dull green casket that had once concealed them.
"The Stones of Scarcliffe," Alice whispered.
She suddenly realized that the green crystal had been fashioned of heavy glass. She told herself that she should have suspected as much all along. Instead she had assumed that it was a natural object, just as everyone else had done. Now she understood that it had been created by a superbly skilled craftsman who had found a way to simulate the look and feel of a great chunk of crystal.
Eduard shrieked, "The Stones." He stared for a second, fascinated, at the glittering heap. Too late he recalled Hugh's presence.
He whirled about to confront the cold and deadly storm of Hugh's blade. But his obsession with the stones had cost him dearly.
Steel clanged dissonantly on steel.
Eduard was driven to his knees by the force of Hugh's blows. Hugh raised his blade again and again, beating against Eduard's steel.
When Hugh raised his sword for the death stroke, his eyes burned the same color as the flames that flared in the torches.
Alice turned away quickly, unable to witness what she knew must occur next. She saw Katherine staring past her, transfixed by the dreadful scene. On the other side of the cavern Dunstan and Aleyn held Eduard's two men at swords' points. Benedict watched it all from the shadowed passageway.
Alice held her breath but there was no death scream behind her.
Seconds ticked past, two, three, four, five. She looked up and saw that everyone was still staring at the spot where Hugh had driven Eduard to his knees.
Slowly she turned back to see what had happened.
Eduard lay on his back, still very much alive. He stared mutely up along the length of the blade that rested on his throat.
"Why do you hesitate?" Dunstan asked. "Have done with it. This night has been long enough for all of us."
"There are some questions I want answered," Hugh said. "Bind him and take him back to the keep, Aleyn. Put him in the dungeon. I shall speak with him on the morrow."
"Aye, m'lord." Aleyn hurried forward to take charge of the prisoner.
Hugh finally turned his attention to Alice. His eyes still burned but otherwise he appeared as calm as though he had just risen from his bath. "Well, madam, you do have a way of livening up my evenings."
"And you, my lord, have a way with legends." Alice looked at the brilliant gems that lay scattered on the stone floor. "You are certainly never at a loss when it comes to adding to your own."
"Oh, Hugh." She felt tears of joyous relief clog her throat. "I knew you would save me. Indeed, you always do, my lord."
She ran to him. He crushed her close against his chest. The folds of his great black cloak swirled around her.
A long time later, Alice sat with Hugh in front of the hall fire and tried to get warm. She could not seem to ward off the cold. Whenever she thought of the hours spent in the cavern, a chill went through her. Mayhap she should take a dose of the medicine she had sent to Erasmus of Thornewood, she thought.
She pestered Hugh with yet another question. It was one of a multitude she had asked since their return to the keep two hours earlier.
"When did you discover that the Stones of Scarcliffe were inside the green crystal?" she asked.
"When it shattered against the wall of the cave." Hugh stretched out his legs and contemplated the flames with a brooding gaze.
Startled, Alice glanced at his hard profile. "You mean you did not suspect before that the crystal was merely a casket designed to hold the gems?"
"Nay. I have never particularly cared about the Stones of Scarcliffe, so I never took a close look at the green crystal. So long as I had it in my possession, I was content."
"I see." Alice fell silent again for a moment. "I think there is something wrong with me, Hugh."
He looked at her in sharp concern. "What's this? Are you ill?"
"Nay, at least not with a fever. But I cannot seem to calm myself. My nerves are unsettled."
"Ah. I see. 'Tis the natural aftermath of a violent event, my sweet. The feeling will fade with time." He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.
"You do not appear to be affected by it," she muttered as she snuggled into his warmth.
"Rest assured, my nerves were badly unsettled when I learned that you had been kidnapped. 'Twas all I could do not to take to my bed in a swoon."
"Hah. I do not believe that you ever suffer from unsettled nerves, sir."
"Every man suffers from unsettled nerves at one time or another, Alice," he said with startling seriousness.
She was not certain what to say to that, so she changed the subject. "Thank you for not killing Eduard in front of Katherine tonight. She does not care for him, but he is her cousin, after all."
" 'Tis not seemly to execute a man in front of women, especially healers, if it can be avoided. In any event, there are some questions I want answered."
"Katherine answered one for me while we whiled away the hours waiting for you to make your grand appearance."
"Which question was that?"
"I wondered who had actually placed the poison in your cup. Katherine said Eduard told her how it was done.
He sent one of his men into the bailey disguised as a farmer the day all the villagers showed up to assist with repairs to the keep."
Hugh studied the flames. "That was the same day that Vincent of Rivenhall came to dine. There was much confusion in the household that afternoon. It would have been a simple matter for someone to sneak into the kitchens."
"And equally simple to identify your cup after the midday meal. 'Tis the most grand of all the drinking vessels in this household."
"What questions do you intend to ask Eduard?"
Hugh stared into the flames. "I'm not yet certain. I'll think of some."
But Alice understood. Hugh wanted to know exactly what had happened that night some thirty years ago when Eduard had poisoned another cup of wine.
Hugh wanted to hear Eduard tell him with his own lips that Sir Matthew had intended to wed Margaret and claim his infant son.