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Chapter 14

Alice stood in the hall and concentrated intensely. There was a fire on the hearth but the chamber was cold. "There is something missing from this hall, Julian."

"Stolen, do you mean?" Julian put down the harp he had been plucking in a negligent manner. "Not likely. No one would dare steal anything from Hugh the Relentless. The devil knows that there would be no peace for the poor thief."

"Not stolen. Just missing." Alice waved a hand to indicate the barren walls and rush-covered floor. "This is where Lord Hugh dines every day with his men. It is where he sits to judge matters of law on Scarcliffe. 'Tis where he will entertain his guests. And it lacks a certain aspect. It needs something."

"Ah, now I comprehend you, my lady." Julian grinned. "The word you are groping for is elegance."


"Aye. This hall lacks elegance, grace, charm, and fashion."

"All of that?" Alice bit her lip as she studied the chamber.

"All of that and more. Lord Hugh is skilled at many things, my lady, but he has no interest in matters of fashion and elegance and, no offense, it shows."

"I do believe you are correct."

"The problem, as I see it," Julian continued, "is that Lord Hugh orders everything from his boots and tunics to his messenger's travel cloak made up in only one color. Black."

"Hmm. He does seem to have a strong preference for it. I do not believe that he would care to return and discover that everything had been done over in sky blue or pumpkin orange, however."

"I would not dream of suggesting that you get rid of the black." Julian began to stroll around the hall, examining it in some detail. "Black suits Lord Hugh in some way. But what if we were to enliven it with another color?"

"What color do you suggest?"

"Green or red, mayhap. The contrast would be most effective, I believe. White would be interesting, too."

Inspiration struck Alice. "Amber."

"My lady?"

Alice smiled with satisfaction. "Amber is the color of Lord Hugh's eyes. 'Tis a lovely hue. Almost gold. We shall use amber in contrast to the black."

Julian nodded thoughtfully. "A rich amber would suit this room rather well."

"I shall order a canopy made of those colors to go over the head table." Alice's enthusiasm grew swiftly as images formed in her mind. "And I shall have a new tunic made up for him in amber and black."

" 'Tis almost time for Sir Hugh to order new garments for his men," Julian said smoothly. "He does so every year. 'Twould be an excellent occasion to change the colors of their robes also."

"Of course." She was not particularly skilled at this sort of thing but it was clear that Julian had a talent for it. "See to it, will you, Julian?"

Julian swept her a deep bow. "With great pleasure, my lady. Shall I order a new gown for you also?"

Alice had a vision of herself greeting Hugh in a gown sewn in his new colors. "Aye. That would be most appropriate."

In London Hugh steeled himself against the gloom and despair that seemed to emanate from the very walls of Erasmus's private chamber.

"Ah, Hugh." Erasmus looked up from his chair near the fire. His smile of welcome was weak but it conveyed his pleasure. " 'Tis good to see you. Who is this with you?"

"This is Benedict, my lord." Hugh motioned for Benedict to step forward. "He is the brother of my betrothed."

"Welcome, young Benedict."

"Thank you, my lord." Benedict made a proper bow.

"Come here so that I may become acquainted with you," Erasmus said. "Tell me what you and Hugh did down at the docks this morning."

Hugh exchanged a glance with Erasmus's wife as Benedict obediently went toward the hearth. Eleanor was a fine-looking woman who was not much older than Hugh. She gave him a brave little smile as Erasmus spoke quietly with Benedict, but nothing could hide the shadows in her eyes. Hugh knew that Eleanor was very fond of her lord. The couple had two children, a boy and a girl.

"There has been no improvement?" Hugh asked her quietly.

"The attacks grow worse. I dismissed the doctors."

"Always a sound notion," Hugh muttered.

"Aye. I am convinced that they were doing him more harm than good with their vile instruments. I vow, they were going to bleed him dry. And those terrible purges." Eleanor shook her head in disgust. "They did no good at all. He has reached the point where all he wishes to do is die in peace."

Hugh looked at Erasmus. His liege lord had aged ten years in the last few months, he thought. The strong, compelling figure who had been the center of Hugh's life during his youth and the man to whom he had given his loyalty and sword as an adult was now pale and thin beyond belief.

"I cannot believe we are losing him," Hugh said softly. "He is only in his forty-second year and he has always enjoyed good health."

"He barely sleeps at all at night," Eleanor whispered. "And when he does manage to fall asleep he awakes with a terrible start. He rises, shaking, and paces until dawn. His greatest fear is not that he will die, but that he may be going mad."

"My betrothed sent these herbs and this letter of instructions." Hugh reached into his black leather pouch and took out the contents. "I do not know if they will be effective but it cannot hurt to try. She has a certain skill with medicines."

Eleanor frowned slightly. "I do not wish him to suffer any more from harsh remedies."

"My liege lord is a warrior at heart," Hugh said. "Whatever this sickness is, it will not have altered that fact. Let him fight one last battle before you abandon all hope."

"Aye, you are correct, Sir Hugh." Eleanor closed her hand very tightly around the herbs and the letter.

Erasmus raised a hand. "Hugh, come here. I would speak with you for a few minutes."

Hugh walked toward the fireside, his heart heavy with impending grief.

Alice surveyed the warm, bustling kitchen with a critical eye. Two massive iron caldrons, each packed with various stews, stuffed chickens, and savory puddings, simmered over the large cook fire. Sweat beaded the brows of the scullions who turned the handles of the roasting spits. Meat pies browned on a hot plate set at the edge of the flames.

"See that the caldrons are completely emptied, cleaned, and scoured every sennight, Elbert," Alice said briskly. "I do not favor the common practice of using them continuously for months on end without scrubbing them well."

"Aye, m'lady." Elbert's face was set in an earnest, intent frown.

In the five days that Hugh had been gone, Scarcliffe Keep had been cleaned from top to bottom. Every linen chest and wardrobe had been emptied, dusted, and fitted out with fresh herbal scent bags. Each chamber, from the one where Hugh slept to the smallest storeroom, had been opened and assessed. Elbert had been at her side during the entire process. He had made careful notes on his wax tablet as she rattled off an endless list of instructions.

Alice had saved the kitchens for last.

"Make certain that the scullions are given other tasks on a regular basis. I do not want any of them to spend too long near the fire. 'Tis hot, uncomfortable work."

"Other tasks." Elbert made another note with his stylus. "Aye, m'lady."

The sweat-streaked scullions grinned.

Alice walked through the busy kitchen, pausing at various points to observe certain things more closely. She smiled at the cooks, who were clearly awed and excited by her presence. Alice knew that they were also quite anxious. It was the first visit she had paid them. Their only other contact with her had been via Elbert, who had brought them the precise instructions and menus she had made up for her personal meals.

Alice studied a worktable where a cook was chopping onions. "I want the special green pottage that you make for me served once a day to Lord Hugh and everyone else in the keep."

"Special green pottage," Elbert repeated. "Served to everyone. Aye, m'lady."

" 'Tis very healthful," Alice explained. "Also, I want at least three vegetable dishes served at the midday meal."

"Three vegetable dishes. Aye, m'lady."

"Do not allow the cabbages to be boiled for too long."

Elbert made another note. "Aye, m'lady."

Alice peered down at the wheat and milk concoction cooking in an earthenware bowl. "Have the frumenty sweetened with honey. 'Tis rather plain without it."

"Honey in the frumenty." Elbert's stylus skimmed across the tablet.

"I shall provide you with a list of ingredients for a sauce made with cloves and cardamom and another made with ginger and saffron. Quite tasty. They should be used on dishes of boiled fish or on the roast meats."

"Aye, m'lady." Elbert glanced at her with sudden anxiety. "As to the spices, m'lady, how should we go about obtaining them?"

Alice looked at him in surprise. "What do you mean? Sir Hugh has a vast quantity of excellent spices stored in chests here in the keep."

Elbert cleared his throat cautiously. "His lordship keeps the keys to the storerooms. He has given strict instructions that I am to come to him whenever spices are needed in the kitchens. But on the two occasions that I went to him to request the spices the cooks wanted, he was most annoyed."


"He, uh, complained of the quantity that was requested," Elbert said unhappily. "He said that I had no notion of economy and that I was encouraging the cooks to be wasteful."

"I see." Alice chuckled. "Lord Hugh enjoys dining well, but he has never been obliged to actually prepare his own meals, let alone plan dishes for a household this size. These cooks must feed forty people daily. More on special occasions."

"Aye," Elbert said glumly.

"Sir Hugh may be very good at figuring his accounts, but he has no notion of proper quantities of ingredients for dishes."

"Nay, m'lady, he does not," Elbert agreed fervently.

"Do not concern yourself, Elbert. Sir Hugh gave me the keys to the storerooms before he departed. I shall keep them permanently in my possession after he returns. From now on, see to it that a list of the spices needed each day is given to me in the mornings. I will measure them out for the cooks."

Hope lit Elbert's eyes. "I will not have to go to Lord Hugh for the spices?"

"Nay. I will deal with it."

Elbert relaxed visibly. "My thanks, m'lady."

"Now, then, as to the menus. I shall prepare several. You may alternate among them as you choose." Alice smiled at two women who were stirring a pudding. "Be certain to bring me any suggestions that the cooks make. I'll no doubt find them useful for adding variety to the list of dishes."

The two women glowed.

Alice moved on toward a table laden with eggs. "Egg dishes are quite strengthening. I want at least one served at every midday meal."

"Aye, m'lady." Elbert studied the vast pile of eggs. "How do you wish them to be prepared?"

"They are most healthful when cooked with"

"My lady," a servant called from the doorway. "Pray, pardon me, madam."

Alice turned from the eggs. "What is it, Egan?"

"I am sorry to disturb you but there's a lad here," Egan said. "He says he must speak with you at once. He claims 'tis a matter of life and death."

"A boy?" One of the cooks scowled. "Tell 'im to be off. Lady Alice is occupied with more important matters."

Alice looked at the small figure who hovered behind Egan. She saw a lad with dark hair and yellow-brown eyes standing in the kitchen doorway.

He appeared to be about eight years of age. She did not recognize him as one of the village children. His clothing was smudged with dirt and grime but it was of excellent quality.

"I must speak with the lady." The boy sounded as though he were out of breath. " 'Tis most important. I will not leave until I've talked with her."

"That's what ye think." One of the kitchen workers hoisted a bread paddle in a mildly threatening manner. "Begone, boy. Ye smell like a garderobe."

The breeze through the open doorway proved the servant correct. There was no denying that the distinctive odor of a privy clung to the lad.

"Put that paddle down," Alice said firmly. She smiled at the newcomer. "I am Lady Alice. Who are you?"

The boy straightened his shoulders and elevated his chin. The simple gesture conveyed a pride so innate that it easily transcended his grubby attire and unpleasant odor. "I am Reginald, my lady. My father is Sir Vincent of Rivenhall."

Elbert sucked in his breath. "Rivenhall."

The kitchen suddenly became very quiet. Reginald's small jaw tightened but he stood his ground. His gaze did not waver from Alice's face.

"You're from Rivenhall Manor?" Alice asked carefully as she walked toward Reginald. "Sir Vincent's son?"

"Aye." Reginald gave her a crisply executed bow and then raised eyes that held equal measures of desperation and determination. "I have come to plead with you to help me save my father's manor and my mother's honor."

"By the Saints. What in heaven's name are you talking about?"

"My mother said that it was no use appealing to Scarcliffe, but there is no place else I can go. You are the only ones close enough to help. I have heard my father say that he and Hugh the Relentless are cousins. So I came here today."

"Calm yourself, Reginald," Alice said soothingly.

"They tell me Sir Hugh is away in London but you are here and many of his men-at-arms are here, too. You can help us. Please, madam"

"You must tell me this tale from the beginning," Alice said firmly.

But something seemed to have snapped inside Reginald. It was as though he had held himself together by sheer willpower for too long. Now it was all coming undone. Tears shimmered in his eyes.

"We are lost if you do not come to our aid." The words poured out of him in a torrent. "My father is far away in the south attending a joust. He says we need the money. Most of the household knights and men-at-arms are with him."


"Sir Eduard arrived yesterday and forced his way into our hall. My mother is terrified. I do not know how to get a message to my father in time to save her."

"Hush. I will deal with this." Alice put a hand on his shoulder and guided him to a pail of water that sat by the hearth. "First, we must get rid of that dreadful odor." She glanced at the steward. "Elbert, send someone for a change of clothing."

"Aye, m'lady." Elbert signaled to one of the kitchen scullions.

It took only a few minutes to get Reginald washed and changed into fresh clothing. When he was clean once more Alice sat him down at one of the kitchen tables.

"Will someone please bring our guest a mug of my special green pottage?" she said.

One of the cooks ladled the thin vegetable broth into a mug and brought it to the table. The comforting aroma of the parsley root with which the pottage had been flavored wafted gently upward.

"Take a sip," Alice instructed as she sat down across from him. "It will have a strengthening effect."

Reginald gulped the pottage as though he had been starving. He stopped abruptly after the first swallow, however, and grimaced when he put down the mug. "Thank you, my lady," he said with a politeness that sounded forced. "I was very hungry." He started to wipe his mouth on the back of his sleeve and then stopped, obviously embarrassed by the display of ill manners. He flushed and took a deep breath.

"Now tell me who Sir Eduard is and how he forced his way into your father's hall."

"Eduard of Lockton is a landless knight," Reginald said. "He is a mercenary who sells his sword where he can. My mother says he is no better than an outlaw."

"Why did Eduard come to Rivenhall?"

"My mother said it was because he knew that my father was far away and that he had taken most of his men with him. She says Sir Eduard believes that Hugh the Relentless will not come to the aid of Rivenhall because of the bad blood between the two manors."

"Eduard of Lockton just strode into your father's hall and took command?"

"Aye. When he arrived yesterday he claimed he came in friendship. He demanded lodging for the night for himself and his men. Mother did not dare refuse. There was no way we could mount a defense with the few men my father left behind."

"So she let him into the hall hoping he would leave in the morning?"

"Aye. But he stayed." Reginald looked miserable. "He has put his own men on the walls. He acts as though he were lord of Rivenhall. He has taken our keep without even laying siege to it."

"Surely your father's liege lord, Erasmus of Thornewood, will take action against Sir Eduard when he learns of this."

"My mother says that Sir Erasmus is dying. He will likely be dead before we can get word to him."

"A fait accompli," Alice murmured.

"That is what Mother called it."

Alice recalled how her uncle had installed his son in her father's hall. It was all well and good for clerics to argue the fine points of royal law, canon law, and the law of custom, but the truth was that possession was everything. A man or a woman who could not defend what he or she held soon lost it to someone more powerful. It was the way of the world.

"I know how you feel, Reginald."

Reginald looked at her with worried eyes. "Last night, after the meal, Sir Eduard tried to force my mother to go to his chamber with him. She was terrified. I believe that he intended to hurt her."

A cold chill went through Alice. "Dear God. Is your mother ? Is she all right? What happened?"

"She broke free of him, grabbed my hand, and told me that we must flee to the tower room. We managed to get inside and lock the door."

"Thank the Saints," Alice breathed.

"Eduard was furious. He pounded on the door and made all sorts of threats. Eventually he left but not before he vowed to starve us out of the tower room. Mother is still there. She has had nothing to eat or drink since last night." He looked down at his empty mug. "This is all I've had since yesterday."

Alice glanced at a cook. "Bring our guest a meat pie, please."

"Aye, m'lady." The fascinated cook plucked a pie from a hot plate and set it down in front of Reginald.

Alice studied the boy. "How did you free yourself?"

"There is an old garderobe in the tower room." Reginald fell on the pie with a good deal more enthusiasm than he had displayed for the nourishing pottage. "The shaft is somewhat wider than most."

"Just wide enough for a boy your size?"

Reginald nodded. "It was difficult in places. And the smell was terrible."

"I can imagine. How did you descend?"

"Mother and I fashioned a rope out of an old bed curtain. I used it to lower myself down the shaft."

That explained the unpleasant stench that hung about Reginald's clothing, Alice thought wryly. The poor boy had exited the keep through a privy drain. Odor aside, it must have been a frightening experience.

"You are very brave, Reginald."

He ignored that. "Will you help us, Lady Alice? If we do not do something, I fear that Sir Eduard will hurt Mother."

Dunstan stormed into the kitchens at that moment. His whiskers twitched with outrage. He glowered at everyone and then his gaze settled on Alice.

"What the devil is going on here?" he demanded. "What's this about a boy from Rivenhall?"

"This is Reginald, Sir Vincent's son." Alice got to her feet. "Rivenhall Keep has been taken by a mercenary knight named Eduard of Lockton. We must save the keep and Reginald's mother, who is being held captive there."

Dunstan's jaw dropped in astonishment. "Save Rivenhall? Are you mad, m'lady? If that keep has truly fallen into the hands of another, Sir Hugh will order a great feast to celebrate the occasion."

"Don't be ridiculous, Dunstan. 'Tis one thing to carry on a feud within the family. 'Tis quite another to allow an outsider to take control of a cousin's holdings."

"But m'lady"

"Please command the men to arm themselves and mount their horses. Have a palfrey saddled for me. We leave for Rivenhall within the hour."

Dunstan's eyes blazed. "I cannot allow it. Sir Hugh will likely hang me as a traitor if we go to the aid of Rivenhall."

"If you fear him so much, you may remain behind here at Scarcliffe. We shall go without you," Alice said calmly.

"God's teeth, madam, if Hugh hangs me, I shall be the more fortunate of the two of us. There is no telling what he will do to you. You are his betrothed. He will never forgive you for betraying him in this manner."

"I do not intend to betray him." Alice steeled herself against the cold unease that unfurled in her stomach. "I am going to the aid of his blood kin."

"He despises his blood kin."

"Surely he does not despise young Reginald or Reginald's mother."

"You speak of Vincent's heir and his wife." Dunstan looked at her in disbelief. "Sir Hugh cannot feel any more charity toward them than he does toward Vincent."

"Sir Hugh left me in command of this manor, did he not?"

"Aye, but"

"I must do what I feel is right. You have your instructions, Sir Dunstan."

Dunstan's features twisted into a mask of frustrated rage. He picked up an earthenware pot and hurled it against the kitchen wall. It shattered into a dozen shards.

"I told him you would be trouble. Nothing but trouble." He swung around on his heel and stalked out of the kitchen.

Two hours later Alice, garbed in a vivid green gown, her hair bound in a silken net anchored with a silver circlet, rode through the gates of Rivenhall Keep. Young Reginald, mounted on a small gray palfrey, was at her side. No one tried to stop them from entering the bailey. Alice realized that Eduard did not dare challenge Hugh the Relentless.

Tension flowed through her. She could feel the wary eyes of the men who stood guard on the wall. They were no doubt assessing the force she had brought with her.

She took comfort in the knowledge that her company made an impressive, thoroughly intimidating sight. Sir Dunstan and the contingent of household knights and men-at-arms Hugh had left at Scarcliffe rode at her back. Even Julian had ridden with them. He had explained to Alice that any man who was employed by Sir Hugh was obliged to learn how to handle a sword or a bow, regardless of whether or not it complemented his attire.

The gray light of the misty day glinted on polished helms and touched the points and blades of bristling weapons. Black banners snapped in the breeze.

"Greetings, my lady." A huge, burly man with wild, unkempt brown hair, a bushy beard, and glittering eyes hailed her from the front steps of the keep. "I am pleased to make the acquaintance of any who ride under the banner of Hugh the Relentless."

"That is Sir Eduard," Reginald hissed to Alice. "Look at him. He acts as though he were lord here."

Alice studied Eduard's features as she reined her palfrey to a halt. The mercenary reminded her of a boar. He had a thick neck, wide jaws, and small, flat eyes. He no doubt possessed a brain to match.

She looked down the length of her nose at him as Dunstan and his men arrayed themselves behind her. "Please inform the lady of this manor that her new neighbor has come to call."

Eduard grinned, displaying several gaps in his dirty yellow teeth. "And who might you be?"

"I am Alice, betrothed wife to Hugh the Relentless."

"Betrothed wife, eh?" Eduard surveyed the armed men behind her. "The one who caused him to miss the joust against Sir Vincent at Ipstoke fair, I'll wager. He was not well pleased with you that day."

"I assure you that Sir Hugh is quite content with his choice of a bride," Alice said. "So content, in fact, that he does not hesitate to leave me in command of his lands and his men."

"So it would seem. And where is Sir Hugh?"

"On his way back to Scarcliffe from London," Alice said coolly. "He will return soon. I intend to visit with Lady Emma until he arrives."

Eduard gave her a crafty look. "Does Sir Hugh know you're here?"

"Rest assured he will discover that fact soon enough," Alice said. "If I were you, I would be gone from Rivenhall by then."

"Do ye threaten me, lady?"

"Consider it a warning."

"You are the one who should take heed, madam," Eduard drawled in an unpleasant voice. "You obviously do not comprehend how it is between Rivenhall and Scarcliffe. Mayhap your future lord did not see fit to explain his personal affairs to you."

"Lord Hugh has explained everything to me, sir. I enjoy his full trust and confidence."

Eduard's face tightened with anger. "That will soon change. Sir Hugh will thank me for occupying this keep. 'Tis true that his liege lord has forbidden him to take vengeance against Rivenhall. But I promise you that he will not interfere when he learns that another has achieved his goal for him."

"It is you who do not comprehend the situation," Alice said softly. "You have interfered in family affairs. Sir Hugh will not thank you for it."

"We shall see about that," Eduard retorted.

"So we shall." Alice smiled coldly. "In the meantime I would pass the time with Lady Emma. Is she still in the tower chamber?"

Eduard narrowed his tiny eyes. "So the boy told you about that, did he? Aye. She's locked herself inside and will not come out."

Alice turned to Reginald. "Go and fetch your mother from the tower. Tell her that I look forward to making her acquaintance. Tell her that Sir Hugh's men-at-arms are here to guarantee her safety and yours."

"Aye, my lady." Reginald slid down off the gray palfrey. He shot Eduard an angry glance as he dashed up the steps and disappeared into the hall.

Eduard planted hamlike fists on his hips and confronted Alice. "You're risking more than you know by dabbling in this business, Lady Alice. Aye, far more."

"That is my concern, not yours."

"When Sir Hugh returns he will be furious with you for this betrayal. 'Tis no secret that loyalty is all to him. The very least he'll do is end the betrothal. And then where will you be, you foolish woman?"

" 'Tis you who are the fool, Eduard." Alice looked at Dunstan. "Will you assist me in dismounting, sir?"

"Aye, m'lady," Dunstan growled. He kept his eye on Eduard as he got down off his horse. He walked to where Alice's palfrey stood and reached up to help her from the saddle.

She saw the tightness about his mouth and smiled reassuringly. "All will be well, Sir Dunstan. Trust me."

"Sir Hugh will likely have my head for this day's work," he muttered for her ears alone. "But before he does, I will tell him that his betrothed has enough courage to match his own."

"Why, thank you, sir." Alice was startled and warmed by the grudging praise. "Try not to be too anxious. I will not allow Lord Hugh to blame you for any of this."

"Sir Hugh will assign the blame as he chooses." Dunstan's expression was one of grim fatalism.

"Lady Alice, Lady Alice," Reginald called from the doorway. "I would like you to make the acquaintance of my lady mother, Emma."

Alice turned to see a lovely, fair-haired woman with soft eyes and a gentle mien standing beside Reginald. She appeared exhausted by worry and what had no doubt been a sleepless night but there was an unbending pride in her stance and a hint of hope in her gaze.

"Greetings, Lady Alice." Emma darted a quick, disgusted glance at Eduard. "I regret the poor welcome you have received. As you see, we are obliged to endure the nuisance of an unwanted guest."

" 'Tis only a temporary problem." Secure in the knowledge that she was protected by Scarcliffe men-at-arms, Alice went up the steps. "Rest assured my betrothed husband will soon rid you of this vermin."

Hugh wondered if Elbert had gone mad. He'd had his doubts about the young man from the start. "Lady Alice did what?"

Elbert trembled but he did not step back. "She took Sir Dunstan and all the men-at-arms and went to rescue Rivenhall Keep from the clutches of someone called Eduard of Lockton. That's all I know, my lord."

"I do not believe this."

Behind Hugh the tired horses stamped their feet and blew noisily, eager to get to the stables. Benedict and the two men-at-arms were equally weary. They had already dismounted and were waiting to see what was wrong.

Hugh had pushed his small party hard today in order to reach Scarcliffe a day sooner than would otherwise have been the case. He'd entertained a pleasant vision of arriving home to find Alice waiting for him on the front steps.

He should have known that something would be amiss. His stratagems rarely went according to plan when he was dealing with Alice. Nevertheless, he could not bring himself to believe that she had gone to Rivenhall.

" 'Tis true, sir," Elbert said. "Ask anyone. Young Reginald arrived here this morning and begged her to help him and his lady mother."


"Sir Vincent's son and heir, my lord. He was quite desperate to protect his mother as well as his father's keep. Lady Alice told him that she knew you would want her to ride to Rivenhall's aid."

"She would not dare go to Rivenhall," Hugh said softly. "Not even Alice would dream of challenging me in such a fashion."

Elbert swallowed. "She felt it was necessary, my lord."

"By the fires of hell." Hugh glanced at the groom who had come to take his horse. "Bring me a fresh mount."

"Aye, m'lord." The groom rushed off toward the stables.

"Sir?" Benedict handed the reins of his own horse to another groom. "What's wrong? Has something happened to Alice?"

"Not yet," Hugh said. "But it will quite soon. I shall see to it personally."

Alice could feel the tension in the great hall of Rivenhall Keep but she pretended not to notice. She sat with Emma near the fire and talked quietly. Reginald was perched on a stool near the hearth.

From time to time Alice saw Emma's angry gaze go to Eduard, who lounged insolently in Sir Vincent's chair. The intruder munched gingered currants from a bowl as though he had every right to them. Three of his scruffy-looking men-at-arms occupied a nearby bench. Their eyes were fixed on Dunstan and the two knights he had stationed in the hall next to Alice. The rest of the Scarcliffe men-at-arms had replaced Eduard's men on the bailey wall.

"I mean no offense, Alice," Emma murmured, "but it is as if this keep has been taken twice in the past two days. Once by Eduard's men and now by Sir Hugh's."

"You shall have your keep back as soon as Hugh returns from London." Alice plucked a handful of nuts from a dish. "My lord will deal with Eduard."

"I pray you are correct." Emma sighed. "But from what my husband has told me of the history of this family, I am not certain it will be as simple as all that. What if Sir Hugh decides to acquiesce to Eduard's occupation of this keep?"

"He won't."

"And I am concerned for you, Alice. What will Sir Hugh say when he learns of what you have done here today? He is very likely to regard it as a betrayal."

"Nay, he will understand once I have explained it all to him." Alice popped three of the nuts into her mouth and munched. "Sir Hugh is a man of great intelligence. He will listen."

Reginald bit his lip anxiously. "What if Sir Hugh is too angry to heed your explanations, madam?"

"My lord's intelligence is exceeded only by his powers of self-mastery," Alice said proudly. "He will not take action until he has first assessed the situation."

A muffled shout echoed from the courtyard. Steel-shod hooves rang on the stones. Dunstan stirred, straightened, and glanced at his men.

"Ah, about time." Eduard heaved himself to his feet. He shot Alice a triumphant look. "It sounds as though Sir Hugh has at long last arrived. We shall soon see what he has to say about his betrothed wife's presence here in his enemy's keep."

Alice ignored him.

Outside, thunder crashed, announcing the arrival of the storm that had been threatening all afternoon. A moment later the hall door was thrown open.

Dunstan met Alice's eyes. "They say that 'tis easier to raise the devil than to banish him, m'lady. You certainly have a talent for the former. Let us all pray that you have some skill with the latter task as well."

Chapter 13 | Mystique | Chapter 15