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by Margaret Moore
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Both wore much mended tunics and breeches of brown wool. On their feet were leather boots that were far from new. Despite the genial summer breeze, they sported dark cloaks and hoods, as if expecting rain to fall from the white puffs of clouds drifting overhead.
Ahead, the great stone fortress seemed to rise out of the very precipice upon which it stood, making the houses of the villagers look like supplicants huddled around it. To the east of the castle, small boats clustered about the pier and along the willow-shrouded bank of a wide river, which led to the sea some miles away. To the west, farms lay scattered along a narrow road leading further back into the wood. Even at this early hour, smoke curled up from the thatched cottages, and people went about the business of feeding their pigs and milking their cows. Chickens scratched in the dirt, geese squawked in their pens, a dog barked, and somewhere, a baby cried.
The tall man paid little heed to these sights and sounds. His envious eyes stayed trained on Bellevoire, the fortress that should have been his. The thick wall seemed impregnable, and its many merlons would hide a hundred archers. A series of round towers formed part of the outer wall, high places for keeping watch on the surrounding land and river. Other, smaller towers bespoke an inner wall and hinted at the size of the courtyard contained therein.
“You are sure about this?” his Gascon companion whispered. “In the broad light of day you wish to do this thing?”
He spoke as if he feared the very beeches, oaks and chestnuts spied upon them, or the little stream to their right, tumbling over rocks on its way down the hill, babbled a report of their presence to some unseen foe.
His lean, hawklike face taut with resolve, Alexander DeFrouchette glanced at his friend. “Calm yourself, Denis. The market crowd will make excellent cover for what we are here to do.”
“It is easy for you, who has the blood of a frozen fish, to be calm,” Denis replied, lightly leaping over a fallen tree branch as he hurried to keep up with Alexander’s long-legged progress. “Me, I am no warrior -- and I have never abducted a woman in my life.”
“I have never abducted a woman, either,” Alexander noted as he sidestepped a large rock, “but this is necessary, so it will be done.”
His movement startled a pheasant nesting in the nearby underbrush. The bird flew upward in a flutter of wings into Alexander’s face. With a soldier’s curse, he reared back.
Arms akimbo, Denis grinned. “Perhaps you have not the blood of frozen fish after all.”
Alexander made a noise that was a cross between a dismissive sniff and a disgusted grunt and continued down the hill toward the road that led to the village of Bellevoire, named for the castle towering over it. “You are sure Lady Allis will come to the marketplace today?”
Trotting after him, Denis nodded. “Unless she is ill, Lady Allis always comes to the village on market day with her husband. The tavern keeper was most certain. They like to spend time in the village and meet with the people, he says.”
Alexander scowled. “To be admired and fawned over, no doubt.”
“Sir Connor and his wife are very popular,” Denis murmured, delicately clearing his throat before adding, “unlike your father.”
“I do not care what these Saxon peasants thought of him.”
“The tavern keeper also says that Lady Allis is a great beauty.”
“It doesn’t matter to me what she looks like. It is enough to know that she betrayed my father and married the man who killed him, and now she can provide a way to retrieve some of what her husband owes me,” Alexander replied.
The last part of his statement was true; as for the first, he did harbor some slight curiosity about the woman who had so fascinated his father, but there was no need to tell Denis that.
“Of course I realize that her features are not important to you,” Denis replied as if Alexander had accused him of being stupid. “Still, by her beauty we shall know her.”
“We shall know her because she will be with him.”
“It was years ago that you saw Connor of Llanstephan, now Connor of Bellevoire. Are you certain you will recognize him?”
Alexander’s gaze again strayed to the castle of Bellevoire, the home of the usurper. “I will.”
Indeed, he would never forget his first sight of the tall, dark-haired man who’d ridden among the Crusaders passing through his village in France. The finely attired and well-equipped knight had been singing in a deep, rich baritone, as cheerful as if he’d had not a care in the world.
It had been said they were on their way to join Richard the Lionhearted in Marseilles. Whoever they were, Alexander had thought, every one of that merry band had seemed part of a chosen company of God’s favorites, bound upon a glorious adventure.
How he had longed to ride with them! Away from the women who either sneered at his mother or ignored her completely. Away from the men who came creeping into their cottage at night and made him leave. Away from the boys who called him terrible names and never let him share in their games. Away from the only life he had ever known to one that had to be better.
He hadn’t guessed then that he was looking at the man who would one day kill his father and be rewarded with all of Rennick DeFrouchette’s possessions.
Denis slid a wary glance at Alexander ...