THE SCOTTISH BORDER, 1357
"Be sure he drinks the wine before he gets your clothes off."
The instruction was merely the last in a litany of warnings that Reyna had heard as she sightlessly felt her way along the cavernous tunnel.
She squeezed the thick hand of the motherly woman who accompanied her. "I will be sure to do it as planned, Alice. They appear a coarse lot and this siege must be boring. He should be glad for the diversion."
"There's only one diversion most men are interested in, child. That is the danger, isn't it?"
"Do not worry so."
The total darkness in the tunnel terrified Reyna, so she moved quickly, one hand securely in Alice's and the other on wall.
Sounds resonated through the stone beneath her palm. Sappers dug their own tunnel not far from this one. Over the months she had come to this hidden exit, torch in hand, and listened, judging their progress. She hadn't worried at first because surely help must come before they completed their work. It wasn't a large army that surrounded the tower house, and a small force from either Harclow or Clivedale could easily lift the siege. But no relief had arrived, and now the sappers were within days of reaching the surrounding wall. Even more worrisome had been the second excavation progressing on the southern side of the fortress.
They reached a sharp jog to the right. A sliver of light flooded through the narrow entrance carved behind an obscuring rock formation. Thick brush further hid it from view, and only someone carefully examining the entire terrain had any chance of finding it. This army had not done so thus far, and Reyna smiled at the irony of all of that digging when the postern entrance stood just feet away.
"You will know by morning if I have succeeded, Alice. Watch from the tower and alert Sir Geoffrey and Reginald." Reyna took the basket that Alice carried, and tried to sound brave and calm. "I will go to my mother first, and then to Edinburgh. I will let you know when I am safe there, and you can join me."
Alice hugged her. "It is a brave but rash plan that you have, child. Sir Robert would not have approved if he were alive."
"If Robert were alive, I would not have to do it."
The older woman nodded in resignation. "God go with you, then."
Reyna pushed through the entrance and stood within the obscuring brush. Fifty yards away lay the camps that ringed the tower house. It was not a big army, but large enough to ensure that no one left and no provisions arrived. There had been no assaults, no wall scaling, no war machines hurling fire and stones. Nor had there been any negotiations. Just two months of relentless siege.
Men moved around the camp, their motions lazy in the summer heat. They didn't wear many clothes and their bodies had browned in the sun. A few had adopted the cooler kilts of the Scots. But these men were not Scot.
English, she thought with disgust, and the notion gave her renewed resolve. The English had been the monsters of her childhood and the enemies of her youth. Their Scottish king may have accepted defeat by King Edward of England ten years ago, but no Scot, especially those on the borders of Cumbria and Northumberland, readily submitted to the authority that the English claimed.
She knew all about English soldiers, and what would happen if their sappers succeeded in breaching the walls. Descriptions of English atrocities had been repeated for generations. She forced herself to picture people she knew being butchered and tortured, and she sought strength in those horrible images. It was not in her nature to do what she planned now, but she saw no alternative. Hopefully God would aid her, and then forgive her.
She darted out of the brush and walked at an angle until she would appear to have arrived off one of the northern paths.
The men examined her, assessing the meaning of her unbound hair and silk gown. She marched on, circling around to the western camp and the large tent in its center. When it came in sight, she slowed. Once she entered there would be no turning back.
A lewd whistle caught her attention. Two knights grinned at each other and began walking toward her, making obscene sounds with their mouths, taunting her. Her skin prickled, and she ran the last few yards to the large tent with green and white pennants.
A squire sat by the entrance cleaning weapons. He looked up startled as she bore down on him, swept past, and plunged through the flap. She prayed that the man she sought was within and that these others would not follow. Then again, for all she knew, he might simply shrug and let them carry her away.
The white canvas created a diffused, soft light, and it took her a moment to adjust her eyes. She looked around at the simple cot and table and chest that it contained. Polished armor glowed on the ground a few steps from her. Not a sound filled the space.
And then a shadow moved. A man rose from the stool where he had been sitting with his back propped against the tent's central supporting pole.
"What are you doing here?" he asked sharply.
She just stared.
She had watched this man from the top reaches of the tower house. He was taller than most, but when everyone is just a speck that doesn't count for much. However, she was shorter than most, and the marked difference in their sizes suddenly made her acutely aware of her vulnerability.
What she hadn't seen from the tower was just how handsome he was. Thick lashes softened and framed dark, brooding eyes that looked like liquid smudges in this light. Sharp bones defined his cheeks and jaw. A wide, straight, slightly full mouth compelled her attention. Dark hair hung to his shoulders, bound by a sweat cloth twisted and tied around his forehead.
He wore only a pair of loose peasant chausses cut off above the knees. Those legs were well formed, all slender muscles and tight lines. The same athletic leanness shaped his broad shoulders and sculpted chest. With his primitive garment, he reminded her of the ancient warriors she had read about in Robert's books. He was the enemy, but her breath caught all the same.
Too bad she had to kill him.
He walked toward her. He gave her gown and hair and tinted cheeks a cool appraisal while he pulled the sweat band from his forehead and ran a strong hand through his hair. She hoped that he couldn't see her blush because the woman she was today would never be disconcerted by a man's examination, no matter how handsome he might be.
His expression lightened and he raised one speculative eyebrow. He had figured out the only part he needed to know.
Dear lord, what a smile. Close lipped, straight, the edges barely lifting at the corners. Utterly charming, subtly suggestive, vaguely sardonic. It formed alluring little creases on either side of his mouth. It transformed the handsome face and fathomless eyes from distant and brooding to sensual and friendly.
But she saw something else as he looked down at her. She saw it in the casual stance of his body and the glint in his eyes and even in the smile itself. Conceit. Arrogance. Pride. Insufferable self-confidence. She read his awareness of the effect his face and body had on her. On all women.
She had met such men before. Her father's household had been full of them. Perhaps she wouldn't mind killing him so much after all.
"What are you doing here?" he repeated.
She gathered her wits. "I was called by the town of Bewton. The town sent to Glasgow to hire me. The townspeople wanted to be sure that their gift would please you, Lord Morvan."
"Gift? Are you saying that the town bought a whore--"
"I am Melissa, a courtesan," she said peevishly. "I assure you I am no whore. That is why I am here. The town did not trust their bawds with such a duty."
"And what is the purpose of this gift?"
"They hope that if you are well pleased, that you will spare the town and restrain your army."
"And you have come to persuade me of this?" He stepped around her, examining her like an animal for purchase. She half expected him to yawn and announce that she wouldn't do at all. "The knight who gives such an order to his men would have to be very pleased indeed. What is the good of conquering if there are no spoils?"
"The town will pay tribute. There will be spoils enough. It is the barbaric looting and rape that they wish to avoid."
He reached out and stroked her hair, lifting a section, letting his gaze and fingers run along its considerable length. "What did you say your name is?"
"Melissa. You may not have heard of me, but I was trained by the famous Dionysia."
"You don't look like a courtesan to me, Melissa. I had always assumed that they were voluptuous women. You appear too puny and scrawny for it. Lovely hair, though. An unusual color. Very pale, like spun moonlight." He still held the end of the long strand of hair, and it hung between them like a strip of silk.
"What you call puny and scrawny, great lords consider diminutive and delicate, Sir Morvan. Besides, a courtesan's skills make such details insignificant. However, it is clear that you are base in your preferences. I will return and tell the town elders that they miscalculated."
"Nay. It was a brilliant strategy. There is just one problem with it, and it is not your size." He still fingered her hair. "I am not Sir Morvan."
"But this is the largest tent, in the center of the camp. I was told that this army belongs to Morvan Fitzwaryn."
"It does at that, but I command here. Morvan is occupied elsewhere. The main army is at Harclow."
No wonder help had not come. Everyone in the tower had assumed that Morvan Fitzwaryn first besieged this outlying fief in order to have a foothold before he tried to take the more formidable Harclow, but the man had attacked both strongholds at once. And Clivedale too? How big was this army?
She rapidly recalculated. If this man commanded here, the plan should work as well with him as with his lord.
"If you are not Morvan Fitzwaryn, who are you?"
"Ian of Guilford. One of his lieutenants."
"And you truly command here?"
"Aye. The fate of this tower and the nearby town are in my hands. If the town sent you to negotiate, you have the wrong name, but the right man. Their gift was intended for me."
He regarded her in a frank way that thoroughly unsettled her. His gaze contained the consequences of failure that she had carefully avoided thinking about.
Her courage disappeared in a blink. "It is unfortunate, then, that you do not find me to your taste. I will leave now."
"I insist that you stay. You will lose your pay otherwise, and you travelled a long distance. It was churlish of me to criticize such a gift. Besides, if you were trained by the famous Dionysia, I doubt that there will be disappointment."
He stepped yet closer and his dominating size and masculinity assaulted her. She groped for excuses to leave. "These men appear to be mercenaries. Will they obey you on this? No doubt they are to be paid with spoils."
"They are mercenaries, but they are my mercenaries, and will obey me. Morvan Fitzwaryn pays with silver, not the promise of looting. They probably hoped for some, but it was not part of their bargain."
"What if something happens to you?"
"I did not realize that the townspeople had sent a lawyer as well as a courtesan. Do your favors first require a contract with all eventualities covered?"
His words and look reminded her of who she was supposed to be, and why she was here. She thought of the danger to the innocents in the tower house if the fortress fell, and of the horrible death awaiting her if it did not. Her plan was the only way to solve both those problems.
"Let us get undressed, Melissa, so that you can show me this great art of yours." He coolly regarded the cot. "Hardly fitting for a courtesan. Would you prefer some furs on the ground? More room then." He strode to the other side of the tent and scattered several large furs. "That will be better."
He began unlacing the tie on his chausses. "On your hands and knees the first time, I think."
She watched with horror this too rapid development of events. "Sir Ian, you do not understand. As I told you, I am not a whore. I am a courtesan. We do things differently."
"Really? And here I had made it a point to try it every way there was. I look forward to learning something new."
Aye, killing him was not going to be hard at all. "That is not what I meant. Courtesans don't just couple like beasts. We create a whole mood and experience. There is much preparation and relaxation first."
His hands left his garment. "You will have to instruct me, madam. I am just a simple knight. I am accustomed to whores who do a man's bidding. I see that with courtesans it is the other way around."
"You will get all that you desire and more. But I have been trained in many arts besides those. Music, conversation--Surely after living in these tents little better than an animal, a courtly evening must appeal to you. Here, let me show you." She marched to the furs, retrieved some nearby bags, and used them to create a bolster at one end. "Now, rest yourself. There. Isn't that better?"
He stretched out on the furs, his head and shoulders propped against the bags. She knelt beside him and lifted the cloth from the basket. She laid out the meat pies and wine cup, and then poured the wine from Bordeaux. She offered him the cup.
He sipped and looked over at her. "You will not have any?"
"Nay. It makes me less skilled. We wouldn't want that, would we?"
He nibbled at a meat pie and raised his eyebrows appreciatively. "Whether you surpass the camp whores remains to be seen, but your food definitely surpasses the camp cooking."
She beamed foolishly, and almost launched into an explanation of the herbs she had used before she caught herself. "Shall I play the flute for you while you eat?"
"Absolutely. This is a rare experience for a poor knight like myself. I don't want to miss a single part." He rested on an elbow. She tried not to watch the cup moving toward his lips. More. A deep swallow.
She started a slow melody on the instrument. While she played she thought about the next few minutes and what she would have to do. She prayed that she would find the courage to complete her mission. Success would lift this siege for a few days at least, until Morvan Fitzwaryn discovered what had happened and sent more men here. In that time the others could go north to Clivedale.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ian set down the wine cup. It was empty. She sighed in relief and missed a note. She missed another one when two fingers touched her arm and drifted lazily up its length to her shoulder.
Movement behind her. Hands pushing her hair over one shoulder. A face nuzzling her neck and hot breath on her skin. A kiss on her shoulder and teeth grazing her ear.
She stared at the white canvas, appalled that this stranger's attentions were unsettling her and making her breathless. The melody dissolved into a disaster of fits and starts.
She lowered the flute and glanced at him skeptically. His face was inches from hers, all smoldering eyes and sensual mouth. She looked frantically at the empty wine cup. Go to sleep. Unfortunately, Sir Ian didn't look drowsy at all.
"That was lovely," he said softly, kissing her neck again. "The little pauses gave the melody a poignant touch." He turned so that his torso faced hers. "You are lovely," he murmured, easing her head toward his.
He kissed her almost languidly. It was more a lover's kiss than a ravishment, and it deepened slowly, summoning something inside her that she didn't control, something made expectant from long abstinence. A delicious anticipation awoke and stretched and scampered through her limbs in a scandalous way. Reyna should push him away, but the courtesan Melissa certainly wouldn't, and so she suffered it, painfully aware that she wasn't suffering nearly as much as she should be. She tried to block out her shocking response, and her befuddled mind silently chanted a command for him to sleep, damn it, sleep.
He separated from her. His expression was indescribable. Warmth. Desire. The promise of untold pleasure. He rested on one arm and his naked torso hovered, almost touching her shoulder. That forbidden something inside her thrilled in response against her will. She couldn't take her eyes off his incredible face. She couldn't move.
"Do not be embarrassed," he said softly. "Surely enjoying yourself on occasion is permitted." He looked down and ran his fingers along the edge of her gown where it plunged to the top of her breasts. He leaned forward and kissed the skin exposed by the low cut garment. The strangest thrill crawled through her whole body. She watched, mesmerized, as that hand eased the fabric off her shoulder.
Be sure he drinks the wine before he gets your clothes off.
She found her senses. She leaned away and forced a little laugh. She tried to look like the practiced courtesan determined to play out the game a certain way. "You have finished your wine," she said, reaching for the flask and cup. "Let me pour you some more." Lots more.
He gave her a look that said he would do it her way for a while, but not much longer. He moved back to the bolster and stretched out. She turned in time to see the cup at his lips.
She forced control on the unsettled blood in her veins. "Now we talk," she said firmly. "Finish your wine and tell me how you came here."
"I do the talking? You are the one trained in the art of conversation."
"I am trained to listen. Men enjoy talking about themselves and we listen."
"I do not enjoy talking about myself. You talk."
"Me? About what?"
"You can talk about me. You can tell me how handsome I am and admire my face and body. Women always do that."
"Do they indeed?" How convenient of him to remind her of his conceit just when she needed help in disliking him. If this preening stallion expected her to sigh over his beauty, he had another thought. . .she did sigh, but at the pointlessness of her rancor. The wine should take affect very soon now. Saints knew he had drunk enough.
She turned toward him. His eyes looked closed.
He took her hand and laid it on his chest. It pulled her forward a little, and she noticed that his lids were open a slit and that he watched her. Nay, she might not mind killing him one bit after this humiliation.
She pasted a smile on her face and began tracing the lines of his shoulders and the muscles of his chest. Her mind scrambled for appropriate phrases. "You are certainly a very handsome man. Very beautiful eyes and a charming smile. And your body is strong and lean." Courtesans and whores definitely earned every penny. Go to sleep, you conceited idiot. "Not bulky and hairy like some fighting men."
"What do you like best?" his voice sounded drowsy and slow.
"Uh. . .well, these hollows along your collar line are very alluring. . ."
His hand rose languidly and wrapped in the lengths of her hair. He pulled gently, guiding her head down. "Then kiss them, madam. And then the rest of me. Isn't a courtesan's greatest talent in her mouth?"
She found her face inches from his and those smoldering eyes regarding her from beneath their lowered lids. Her breasts hovered over him, grazing him a little, and her ridiculous, traitorous body tingled. Gritting her teeth, she bent her neck and pressed her lips to the hollow above his collar bone.
Skin. Warmth. That intoxicating male scent. A gentle but controlling hand on her head guided her lower, to his chest.
Sleep, damn you. She kissed his chest and tried to ignore the stunning, frightening intimacy the action evoked. He was the enemy, a stranger, and she hated him, but something inside her ignored that.
He guided her lower, to his torso and stomach. . .
Suddenly, the hand at her head went slack. She held her breath, and waited for the utter stillness that said he slept.
Cautiously, she slipped away from his body. His arm fell limply to his side.
She pulled the basket over and dumped out the rest of the pies. She pulled aside the loosely stitched cloth that made a fake bottom, and stared at the steel dagger hiding below it.
For Alice and the other women. Aye, even for Margery. For Reginald, and, even for Geoffrey for that matter.
She lifted the dagger. She looked regretfully at the beautiful man laid out like a drugged sacrificial victim. He appeared so helpless all of a sudden, sleeping like a child, and she suddenly imagined him as such, innocent and fresh. Her heart twisted in rebellion at this course she had set for herself.
She raised the dagger, clasping it with both hands, its lethal point aimed at his heart. Her arms shook, her body shook, the knife itself wavered in the air.
She tried again to summon courage from her fear for her friends. When that didn't work, she turned to her fear for herself. The suspicious looks and accusations. The bishop's letter. The books and herbs and potions.
She had ceased to see the dagger, but suddenly it loomed in front of her, very real, very sharply. She looked to her clenched knuckles around the hilt and then to the point and then to the hard chest. Finally, she glanced at the handsome face.
He looked back. Dark eyes glared dangerously from beneath feathering lashes.
Panic gripped her. Knowing that now it was kill or be killed, she rose up on her knees and brought the dagger down.
Strong arms flashed up and iron fingers gripped her wrists. He thrust her to her side and she fell. In the scuffle that followed, the blade connected and a line of red oozed out across his upper arm.
She found herself pinned on her back. Fury hardened the face above her.
"Did you really think I would play Holofernes to your Judith?" he snarled. "That was the plan, wasn't it? Like the Bible story. You kill the general and the leaderless army dissolves in confusion."
"Apocrypha," she corrected absurdly, her voice sounding very far away. "It isn't from the standard Bible. It is Apocryphal."
"I don't give a damn if God gave the story to Moses himself, you bitch." He grabbed her hair and stood, dragging her to her knees. He pulled her over to the central pole, and tied her to it with her arms stretched above her.
He went to the furs. She was sure he would fetch the dagger and slit her throat. Her heart pounded like a lead pulse in her chest.
He returned with the flask and held it to her lips.
"Drink," he ordered.
Click here for EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER TWO