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Chapter 9

Hugh had not realized how dreary the village of Scarcliffe was until he rode into it three days later with Alice at his side. This was the place where he had been born. It was where he now intended to carve out a future for himself and his descendants. It had not appeared nearly so drab to him when he had set out from it in search of the green crystal a short while ago.

The image of Scarcliffe that had burned in his imagination for weeks now was of how it would appear in the future.

He had plans for this manor. Great plans.

In a year or two Scarcliffe would begin to sparkle as brightly as a fine jewel. The fields would burst with an abundance of crops. The wool on the sheep would be thick and soft. The cottages would be clean and in good repair. The villagers would be content, prosperous, and well-fed.

But today he was forced to view it through Alice's eyes. He had to admit that one could say the village bore more resemblance to a lump of coal than a polished gem.

Hugh, who normally paid little attention to such minor inconveniences as the weather, was irritated to see that it had recently rained. The ominous, leaden sky did not add to the questionable charms of Scarcliffe. The stone keep itself, which loomed beyond the village, was hidden in a shroud of gray fog.

Hugh cast an uneasy glance at Alice to gauge her reaction to his new lands. She did not notice his wary scrutiny.

She was slender and graceful in the saddle. Her red hair blazed, a bright, cheerful flame set to ward off the encroaching gray mist. She appeared intent on her surroundings, her intelligent features serious and studious as she examined the village.

Her curiosity, as always, was aroused, Hugh realized, but he could not tell what she thought about that which she viewed. He wondered if she was dismayed, disgusted, or disdainful.

Given the bleak picture of Scarcliffe, it was very possible that she was experiencing all three emotions. She was, after all, a lady who was too fastidious to eat in a man's great hall. She ordered her food specially cooked and her clothes seemed to be always fresh and sweet-scented.

She no doubt found the barren fields and dismal little village distasteful.

Hugh was forced to admit that the untidy collection of thatched cottages, most of which were in need of repair, together with their accompanying goat pens and pigsties, did not present an inspiring sight. The afternoon air was heavy. It bore the unmistakably rank odor of the village ditch where the refuse of years lay moldering.

The tumbledown stone wall that surrounded the small convent and the church spoke of long neglect. The recent rain had done nothing to cleanse Scarcliffe. It had merely deepened the mud in the single rutted street.

Hugh clenched his teeth. If Alice was not particularly impressed with this view of the village and nearby fields, she was going to be appalled by the sight of Scarcliffe Keep.

He told himself he would worry about that problem later. In the meantime he had an announcement to make, one he intended should carry across his lands and into the halls of his neighbors. All would know that Hugh the Relentless had returned with proof that he was the rightful lord of Scarcliffe.

He had pushed his company hard, determined to arrive in Scarcliffe on market day. As he had anticipated, virtually everyone who belonged on the manor and its surrounding farms was gathered in the narrow street to witness the triumphant return of their new lord.

This should have been a moment of enormous satisfaction, Hugh thought. He had it all now. He had retrieved the green crystal and he had betrothed himself to a suitable lady. He was ready to settle down as lord of Scarcliffe.

But things were not going as smoothly as he had planned and that made him uneasy. He was said to have a talent for stratagems. Some claimed he had a mage's skill at such. But something had gone badly awry the other night when he had tried to convince Alice to make their betrothal genuine.

He was still stinging from the blow she had unwittingly landed. She acted as though she preferred the convent to sharing a marriage bed with him.

That news did not set well, especially now that he suspected that he would very likely walk through hell if it meant an opportunity to finish what he had begun between her soft thighs.

His body grew taut and hard whenever he recalled the way she had shivered in his arms. As he had spent much of the journey with just such thoughts plaguing him, he had passed the time in an uncomfortable condition.

Leaving Alice alone in the tent the other night and the two nights since had taken more heroic effort than a dozen forays on the jousting field. What annoyed Hugh the most was the realization that in her innocence, she had no appreciation of how much self-mastery he had been forced to wield. In truth, the stunningly volatile nature of his own need made him deeply wary but it did nothing to lessen his desire.

Acknowledging his own ravenous appetite for Alice's sweet, warm body had been one of the most difficult things Hugh had ever done.

He had spent the past three nights staring at the stars while he concocted excuses for his fierce urge to claim her. There were logical reasons for his thundering blood and deep hunger and he had enumerated all of them as though he were doing sums on his abacus.

He had been too long without a woman.

He had always been attracted to the unusual and Alice was nothing if not unique.

The promise of passion in her green eyes was enough to compel any man with the wit to perceive it.

And touching her had been akin to touching the heart of a storm.

Aye, there were reasons enough to explain why he had just finished a hard ride in a state of near arousal.

But unlike his abacus, which always gave him a satisfactory answer, none of the explanations had done much to lighten Hugh's grim mood. If anything, they darkened it.

No matter how he examined the situation he was forced to come to the same conclusion. He wanted Alice with a degree of desire that was dangerous. He would have to exert more care in the future.

He would also have to find a way to convince her to make the betrothal real.

"A lady. He brings a fine lady with him."

"Mayhap a wife."

"I did not think to see him again. Thought he'd get himself killed as the others have all done."

The excited murmur of the gathering crowd interrupted Hugh's reverie. Several people turned to one another to exclaim in amazement, as though they witnessed a great wonder rather than merely the return of their lord.

Prioress Joan and a handful of nuns came to stand at the convent gatehouse. Their eyes went straight to Alice. One of the women leaned forward to whisper in the ear of the tall nun who stood next to Prioress Joan. The tall woman nodded in response. She alone did not appear pleased by the sight of the returning company.

Hugh glanced at her fleetingly and recognized the healer, a woman named Katherine. She was a lady of somber, melancholy mien who appeared to be in her late forties. He had met her the night that Prioress Joan had sent for him to inform him of the loss of the green stone.

Hugh prayed that he would never need her professional services. The notion of being treated by a healer whose expression indicated she expected a poor outcome was not particularly appealing.

He raised a hand to bring his men to a halt. When the clatter of hooves and wagon wheels had stilled, he urged his horse slowly toward the prioress.

Joan waited with a smile that was composed of equal parts of relief and welcome.

Hugh was only a few paces from the convent gate when a scrawny, hulking figure in a brown monk's cowl surged out of the crowd. The hood of the man's robes concealed his face, but Hugh swallowed a silent oath when he recognized Calvert of Oxwick.

Hugh had hoped that the wandering monk would have wandered on to another village by the time he and his company returned.

"My lord, I bid you welcome to Scarcliffe," Calvert intoned in a rasping voice that grated on the ears. "I give thanks to God that you have returned alive."

"I had no intention of returning in any other fashion, monk." Hugh drew his horse to a halt and waited until he had everyone's attention. "Bring forth the stone, Sir Dunstan, so that all may see that it is safely returned to Scarcliffe."

"The stone," someone muttered. "He has found the stone."

An expectant hush fell over the crowd.

"Aye, m'lord." Dunstan rode forward. There was a small wooden chest balanced on the pommel of his saddle.

A gasp of anticipation rippled through the throng of onlookers. All eyes were fastened on the chest. With a suitably grand flourish, Dunstan unlocked the chest, raised the lid, and revealed the contents.

The ugly green crystal gleamed dully in the gray light.

The sharp silence was broken by a great cheer. Caps soared into the air.

"I knew this was our rightful lord." The blacksmith swung his anvil against the forge. The crash of sound mingled with the clang of a church bell.

" 'Tis the crystal, right enough." John the miller grinned at his wife. "Lord Hugh has brought it back, just as the legend says."

His youngest son, a child of four called Young John, bounced up and down and clapped his small hands. "He found it. Lord Hugh found it."

"Lord Hugh has recovered the stone," another boy called gleefully to a friend. "All will be well now, just as my father said."

Amid the uproar, Prioress Joan stepped out from the shadow of the gate. She was a woman of middle years with strong, well-defined features and warm, cheerful blue eyes.

"My lord, I am delighted to see that you have been successful in your quest to recover the stone."

"Hear me, good people of Scarcliffe," Hugh called out in a voice that was loud enough to carry to the brewer's cottage at the end of the street. "The legend has been fulfilled. I have recovered the green crystal and I vow to keep it safe in my hands. Just as I shall keep Scarcliffe and its people safe."

Another shout went up.

" 'Tis not only the stone I have brought back with me," Hugh continued, "but also my betrothed, Lady Alice. I ask you to welcome her. My future and yours is now bound up with hers."

Alice flinched and then shot Hugh a sharp glance but she said nothing. Any words she might have spoken would have been lost beneath the villagers' roar of approval.

Calvert's hot eyes glittered in the shadow of his cowl. Hugh ignored the monk. He was more concerned with Alice's reaction to this clamoring welcome.

She recovered quickly and swept the crowd with a genuinely gracious smile.

"I thank you for your kindness," she said with grand composure.

Calvert threw back his hood, exposing his cadaverously thin face and feverish dark eyes. He raised his staff to command attention.

"Hear me, daughter of Eve." He fixed Alice with a burning gaze. "I shall pray that you will be a meek and proper wife to Lord Hugh. As there is no priest in this village, I, myself, will undertake to instruct and guide you in your duties as a bride."

"That will not be necessary," Alice said coolly.

Calvert paid her no heed. He aimed a skeletal finger at her. "Under my direction you shall become the most estimable of wives, one who is neither quarrelsome nor difficult. One who is modest in her dress and restrained in her speech. One who embraces her position at her husband's feet. One who will find glory in humbling herself before her lord and master."

Hugh was about to silence the irritating monk when another, far more interesting stratagem occurred to him. He would allow Alice to deal with Calvert.

A woman of Alice's temperament needed to be able to exercise her many skills and talents else she would be discontented and unhappy. Furthermore, as with all those who took a professional approach to their business, she required respect and appreciation for those skills and talents.

Hugh strongly suspected that one of the reasons Alice had caused her uncle so much trouble at Lingwood was that Ralf had never comprehended the true extent of her intelligence and capabilities, nor had he given her the opportunity to wield them. Instead of respecting her abilities, he had attempted to treat her as though she were a servant.

Hugh had no intention of making the same mistake. He made it a rule to employ the most adept individuals and then he gave those individuals the authority to carry out their duties. The stratagem had always worked well for him in the past. He saw no reason not to apply it to a wife.

Hugh readied himself for Alice's response with a sense of relish.

"I thank you for your generous offer, monk," Alice said in an icy, polite voice, "but I fear I am too old and too set in my ways to learn such things. Lord Hugh must take me as I am."

"Red-haired, green-eyed women always have sharp tongues," Calvert snapped. "They must be taught to control them."

"Only a coward fears a woman's tongue," Alice said, far too sweetly. "I assure you, monk, that Lord Hugh is no coward. Do you dare to say otherwise?"

An audible gasp greeted the soft taunt. The onlookers edged closer.

Calvert blanched. He cast a hurried glance at Hugh and then quickly returned to his tirade. "Do not twist my words, my lady. 'Tis a fact that flame-haired women are known to possess shrewish tempers."

"I have heard it said that although Hugh's temper is difficult to arouse, 'tis akin to the darkest of storms once it is raised," Alice murmured. "Surely a man who possesses such a temper of his own need not flee a lady's ill humors."

Calvert sputtered furiously. He seemed to be having great difficulty finding words.

Hugh decided the combat had continued long enough. The monk stood no chance against Alice.

"You have the right of it, madam," Hugh said easily. "Furthermore, I would have you know that there are other parts of me that can be aroused and raised up with far less effort than it takes to coax forth my temper. I trust that you will discover those parts to be far more entertaining."

Laughter flowed through the crowd.

Alice scowled with confusion. Clearly she did not immediately comprehend his meaning. Then she turned a pretty shade of pink.

"Really, my lord," she muttered repressively.

Calvert, meanwhile, turned an interesting shade of purple. For a moment Hugh wondered if the man's bulging eyes would literally pop out of his head.

The monk glowered at Alice in outrage and then whirled toward Hugh. "Beware a woman who will not submit herself to the guidance of men, my lord. Such a woman will cause naught but trouble in your household."

Hugh grinned. "Do not concern yourself, monk. I do not fear my betrothed's tongue. Indeed, I find her speech… interesting.'"

More chuckles sounded from the villagers.

Calvert was not amused. He shook his staff at Hugh. "My lord, attend me. I speak as your religious counselor. If you would marry this woman, you must first learn to govern her. I tell you, your life will become a hellish existence if this lady is not taught to conduct herself in a proper and fit manner."

Alice rolled her eyes toward heaven.

Hugh looked at her and raised his voice so that all could hear him. "Be assured that I am willing to take my betrothed lady exactly as she is. Indeed, I look forward to doing so at the earliest opportunity."

There was another round of laughter, mostly male this time. Hugh thought he saw Prioress Joan suppress a grin. Most of the nuns gathered behind her were smiling broadly. The exception was Katherine. Hugh doubted if anything could alter Katherine's eternally solemn countenance.

It was Joan who moved to divert everyone's attention. She raised a palm. Silence descended on the villagers.

"Welcome, my lady," she said to Alice in a clear, calm voice. "I am the prioress of this convent. The well-being of this religious house is linked to the well-being of this manor. I am pleased to know that the new lord of Scarcliffe has taken steps to ensure the future of these lands."

Alice slid off her palfrey without any warning. She was on the ground, walking toward Joan, before Hugh realized her intention. He dismounted slowly, wondering what she was going to do next. Alice would never be predictable, he thought.

She went straight past Calvert as though the monk were invisible. Then to Hugh's and everyone else's surprise, Alice knelt gracefully in the mud in front of Joan.

"Thank you for your gracious welcome, my lady," Alice said. "I ask your blessing on Sir Hugh and myself and on all the inhabitants of these lands."

Hugh heard the murmur of appreciation from those around him.

Joan made the sign of the cross. "You have my blessing and my promise to assist you in your new duties to this manor, Lady Alice."

"Thank you, madam." Alice rose with complete disregard for the mud that now stained her traveling cloak.

As he went forward to take Alice's arm, Hugh saw Calvert's face contort into a mask of fury. The monk had been unmistakably rebuffed in front of one and all by the new lady of the manor.

Alice's triumph was complete. She had made it clear that so far as she was concerned the person who held true religious authority here on Scarcliffe was Prioress Joan. That fact would not be lost on anyone present.

Joan looked at Hugh with a measure of concern in her gentle eyes. "Will you return the green stone to its vault in the convent, my lord?"

"Nay," Hugh said. "The task of protecting the stone is mine. I shall take it to Scarcliffe Keep, where I can make certain that it is secure."

"An excellent notion, my lord." Joan did not trouble to hide her relief. "I am delighted to see the green crystal given into the care of its rightful guardian."

Hugh took a firm grip on Alice's arm. "It has been a long journey. I must take my lady to her new home."

"Aye, my lord." Joan moved back to the shelter of the gatehouse.

Hugh handed Alice back up into the saddle and then he remounted his own horse. He raised his hand to signal the company to set off toward the keep.

"That was very nicely handled," Hugh said for Alice's ears alone. "The prioress is the one person on these lands in whom the villagers place some degree of confidence. She and her women have seen to many of the basic necessities around here while the previous lords have come and gone."

"I believe that I shall like her very much," Alice said. "But I cannot say the same for the monk. He may be a man of God, but I find him extremely annoying."

"You are not alone. I don't believe Prioress Joan cares much for him either, although in her position she must tolerate him. Calvert does possess a certain zeal for lecturing women on their duties and frailties, does he not?"

"Bah. I have met his kind before. He is not concerned for the salvation of women's souls. He is merely frightened of females and seeks to weaken them by suppressing their spirits with remonstrations and sour speeches."

Hugh smiled. "Aye, no doubt."

Alice frowned in thought. "You seem to have satisfied your people with the manner in which you carried out the terms of the legend, sir."

"Aye, a nuisance, but 'tis finished." Hugh was cheered by that fact. "Now I can get on with more important matters."

"A nuisance, my lord?" Alice's brows rose. "I am crushed to learn that. I would remind you that had you not been obliged to search for the green stone, you would not have encountered me. I was under the impression that you were quite pleased to find yourself such an efficient and convenient betrothed."

Hugh winced. "I did not mean that the way it sounded. I was referring to the business with that damned crystal, not you."

"Then I am convenient and efficient, after all?" Mischief flashed in her eyes. "I am vastly relieved to know that. I would not want to think that I had failed to uphold my end of our bargain."

"Alice, I do believe you are trying to bait me the way a small hound teases a bear. I warn you, 'tis a dangerous game."

She cleared her throat discreetly. "Aye, well, be that as it may, there is a question concerning the local legend that I have been meaning to ask you."

"What is that?"

"You said that in addition to protecting the green stone, the true lord of Scarcliffe must discover the rest of the treasure."

"Aye, what of it?"

"You obviously satisfied your people that you were able to guard the green stone. But how will you go about locating the missing Stones of Scarcliffe? Do you have any notion of where they are?"

"I doubt that they even exist."

Alice stared at him. "Then how will you find them?"

"I am not concerned with that part of the legend," Hugh said carelessly. " 'Twas the recovery of the green stone that was most important. Now that I have brought it back to Scarcliffe, the villagers will assume that eventually I shall fulfill the rest of the prophecy. There is no great rush to do so."

"Eventually someone will notice that you have not succeeded in finding the stones, my lord."

"Once this manor is plump and prosperous, no one will care about those damned stones. If I am ever required to produce a small chest of costly baubles, I shall do so."

"But how?"

Hugh raised his brows at her naivete. "I shall simply purchase them, of course. I can afford to do so if necessary. 'Twould be no more costly than a few chests of spices."

"Aye, mayhap, but they will not be the true Stones of Scarcliffe."

"Think upon it, Alice," he said patiently. "No one living today has ever seen any of the so-called Stones of Scarcliffe except the green crystal. Who will know the difference between a bunch of gems purchased from a London merchant and the stones of the legend?"

Alice regarded him with an odd expression, a mix of awe and admiration. Hugh discovered to his surprise that he rather liked it. He basked in the warmth of it for a moment.

"My lord, only a man who is himself a legend could be so casually arrogant about fulfilling the terms of one."

Hugh grinned. "You think me arrogant? Only a woman who is unafraid of the power of legends herself would dare to strike a bargain with a man believed to be one."

"I told you that I do not have much faith in legends, sir. I am, however, much impressed by a man who is clever enough to invent whatever he needs to fill in the missing bits and pieces of his own."

"Thank you. Always pleasant to be admired for one's wits."

"There is nothing I admire more than keen wits, my lord." Alice broke off abruptly to stare straight ahead into the mists. Her eyes widened. "By the wounds of the Saints, is that Scarcliffe Keep?"

Hugh steeled himself. He gazed at the great stone edifice that was emerging from the gloom. "Aye. 'Tis Scarcliffe." He paused to give weight to his words. "Your new home, madam."

"For a while," she said absently.

"One becomes accustomed to it," he assured her.

"Indeed?" She studied the keep with curious eyes.

Hugh tried to view it objectively. He had been born in Scarcliffe Keep but he had no memories of the place.

After his beloved daughter had swallowed poison, Hugh's grandfather had taken his infant grandson to live with a widowed aunt in the north. The old man had lost all heart for the task of managing Scarcliffe. His thoughts had been focused only on revenge. Upon his death, Scarcliffe had fallen into other hands. A great many of them.

Scarcliffe had continued to decline under the succession of greedy, negligent lords.

The keep itself was a dark stone fortress that projected outward from the cliffs that loomed over and around it. It was said that the original owner had intended the structure to last until the crack of doom and it showed every possibility of doing just that.

The walled keep had been fashioned of an unusual black stone. No one whom Hugh had questioned had known where the ashlar had been quarried. Some said the great blocks of onyx-colored stone had been hewn from deep inside the maze of caverns that were etched in the cliffs. Some said it had been brought from a distant land.

"Who built this keep?" Alice asked in a voice that was soft with wonder.

"I am told he was called Rondale."

"An ancestor of yours?"

"Aye. My mother's grandfather. It was he who is said to have lost the Stones of Scarcliffe. The legend claims that he hid them in the caves and then was unable to find them."

"What happened to him?"

"According to the tale he went into the caverns many times in search of the treasure." Hugh shrugged. "On the last such occasion, he never came back out."

" 'Tis a most unusual keep," Alice said politely.

Hugh gazed at it proudly. "A fine, stout fortress that can withstand any siege."

"It reminds me of the magical castles one hears about in the troubadours' poems. The sort of place that the knights of the great Round Table were always happening upon in the middle of enchanted forests. It certainly has the aspect of a keep that has been under a sorcerer's spell."

She hates it, Hugh thought. The knowledge weighed heavily on him.

Chapter 8 | Mystique | Chapter 10