"The healer was the poisoner?" Hugh looked up from the short letter Katherine had left on her bed. He was stunned by what Alice had told him. But he could not deny the evidence she had brought back from the convent.
"Judging by that ring and the words of the note, I suspect she was the woman who was betrothed to your father." Alice sank down onto a stool. "I would hazard a guess that when Sir Matthew returned from France he sent word to her that he intended to break the betrothal."
"So that he could marry my mother, do you think?" Hugh forced himself to keep his voice utterly calm and detached. But an unfamiliar surge of emotion flooded his veins. Mayhap his father had intended to claim him.
"Aye." Alice's eyes were warm and gentle. "I believe that is very likely the case, my lord."
Hugh looked at her and knew that she understood everything. He did not have to try to explain what her news meant to him. As usual, Alice comprehended his meaning without his having to find the words.
"And Katherine retaliated by poisoning my parents." Hugh released the edges of the parchment and watched as it slowly rerolled itself. "She murdered them."
"So it would seem."
"It is as though the history of my life was just rewritten," he whispered.
" 'Tis a great sin that the truth was hidden all these years."
"When I think of how I was taught from the cradle to hate all things Rivenhall—" Hugh broke off, unable to finish the sentence.
I will not forget, Grandfather.
Hugh felt as though the mighty stone pillars upon which his entire existence was founded had suddenly shifted beneath him.
His father had returned from France with the intention of wedding the mother of his babe. He had not seduced and then abandoned young Margaret of Scarcliffe.
"Just as Sir Vincent was taught to hate you," Alice said quietly, breaking into Hugh's reverie.
"Aye. It would seem that both families and these lands have paid a heavy price because of her crime." Hugh met Alice's eyes and forced himself to contemplate the present situation with some degree of logic. "But why did Katherine wait until today to try to poison me? Why did she not use her foul brew when I first arrived to claim Scarcliffe?"
Alice's brows came together in a frown of concentration. "I am not entirely certain. There are many questions that remain unanswered in this matter."
" 'Twould have been much easier to murder me weeks ago." Hugh tapped the rolled-up parchment against the desktop. "The household was very disorganized. There would have been numerous opportunities for a poisoner and no one about who possessed the skill to save me. Why wait?"
Alice pursed her lips. "Mayhap she took some satisfaction in the feud itself. As long as it persisted she could sip from the cup of discord and strife that she had created."
"Katherine may have been angered by the visit of Sir Vincent and his family yesterday. Everyone saw you and Vincent ride together through the village."
"Of course." Hugh wondered why that had not occurred to him immediately. He did not seem to be thinking clearly at all at the moment. The news of his past was having an unsettling effect on his powers of reason. "She would likely have viewed it as the first step toward ending the hostility between Scarcliffe and Rivenhall."
"Aye." Alice drummed her fingers on her knee.
"What troubles you?"
"I still cannot comprehend why she fed poison to the monk. It makes no sense."
"We shall likely never know unless we find her." Hugh got to his feet with sudden decision. "And I intend to do just that." He started around the edge of his desk.
"Where are you going, my lord?"
"To speak with Dunstan. I want Scarcliffe searched from border to border. The poisoner cannot have gotten far on foot. If we move quickly she will be found before the storm breaks."
A crack of thunder and a flash of lightning put an end to that plan even before Hugh had finished speaking.
"Too late, my lord."
"Damn it to the pit." Hugh went to the window.
The wind and rain struck with great force, whipping the black walls of Scarcliffe Keep and the cliffs behind it with blinding intensity. The torches would be useless in such a gale. Hugh seethed with a savage frustration as he closed the shutters.
"Never fear," Alice said. "You will find her in the morning."
"Aye," Hugh vowed. "I will find her."
He turned to see Alice watching him closely. Her gaze was shadowed with grave concern. Concern for him. This was the way she looked when she was anxious about someone who was important to her, he thought. Someone whom she loved.
He was briefly enthralled by the simple fact that she was sitting right here in his study. Her skirts pooled gracefully around her feet. The glow of the brazier heightened the dark flames in her hair. Hair the color of a sunset just before it is enveloped by the night.
Today she had saved his life and provided him with the truth about his own past.
She had given him so much.
Another rush of emotion cascaded through Hugh. The force of it was more powerful than the wild winds that scoured Scarcliffe this night.
He could not name the feeling that welled up inside him but it filled him with a deep longing. He suddenly wished with all his soul that he had a new list of fine compliments handy. He needed Julian's elegant words. He wanted to say something memorable, something a poet would say. Something as beautiful as Alice herself.
"Thank you," he said.
Hours later in the warmth of his great bed, Hugh leaned over Alice and drove himself into her softness one last time. He felt the delicate shivers first. Her soft, clinging warmth tightened around him. Then he heard her breathless cry of release.
For an instant he knew a dazed feeling of awe and gratitude. He was not alone in the storm. Alice was with him. He could touch her, feel her, hold on to her. She was a part of him.
The shatteringly intense awareness passed as quickly as it had come upon him. Once again he was lost in the sweet, radiant glow of Alice's passion. It swept him up and carried him aloft. He surrendered to the wild winds with a hoarse, muffled shout of satisfaction and wonder.
Here in the darkness with Alice he did not have to control the storm. Instead, he rode it with the freedom of a great hawk to a place where the past no longer cast shadows.
When it was over he lay quietly for a long time, luxuriating in the pleasure of having Alice next to him.
"You are not asleep."
He smiled into the darkness. "Neither are you, it would seem."
"What deep thoughts keep you awake at this late hour?"
"I was not thinking. I was listening."
"To the night."
Alice was silent for a few seconds. "I hear nothing."
"I know. The winds have quieted and the rain has stopped. The storm is finished."
" 'Tis a strange day." Joan halted at the convent gatehouse. She folded her hands into the sleeves of her habit and gazed pensively into the thick shroud of fog that clung to Scarcliffe. "I shall be glad when it is done."
"You are not the only one who will welcome the end of this matter." Alice tucked her mother's handbook under her arm and adjusted the hood of her mantle. "I confess some small part of me prays that Lord Hugh will not find the healer."
Hugh had left at dawn to hunt for Katherine. He had taken Benedict and virtually every able-bodied man in the keep with him. There had been no word from him since he had departed.
Restless, anxious, and filled with a deep unease, Alice had prowled the halls of Scarcliffe Keep until she could no longer abide her own company. With a view toward occupying herself in a useful endeavor, she had taken her mother's herb handbook and walked into the village.
There had been work enough in the convent infirmary. When she had finished dispensing cough remedies and tonics to ease joint pains, Alice had joined the nuns for midday prayers and a meal.
"I understand," Joan murmured. " 'Twould be easier if Katherine simply vanished but that is not likely."
"True enough. My lord will search for her to the very gates of hell if necessary." Alice eyed the mist. "I can only hope that when he finds her, he will also find peace."
Joan gave her a gentle, knowing look. "None of us can find true peace in the past, Alice. We must all search for it in the present."
Alice tightened her grasp on her mother's handbook. "You are very wise, madam."
Joan smiled wistfully. " 'Tis a lesson I had to learn the hard way, just as everyone must do."
For the first time Alice wondered what had led Joan to enter the religious life. Someday she would inquire, she told herself. Not today, of course. It was too soon for such intimacies. But there would be ample opportunity for such conversations in the future. Something told her that her growing friendship with the prioress would be important to both of them. In spite of the bleak day, Alice felt a genuine warmth flower inside her. Her future was here at Scarcliffe. It would be a good life.
"Good day, madam." Alice started toward the gate.
"Good day, my lady."
Alice lifted a hand in farewell and walked through the stone gates.
The fog had grown so thick that she could barely make out the wagon ruts in the street. She knew the mist must have seriously frustrated Hugh's search. She also knew that he would not readily abandon his quest. He would comb Scarcliffe and the surrounding lands with the relentless determination that was so much a part of him.
She could not blame him, Alice thought. He was, after all, hunting for the person who had, in all likelihood, murdered his parents. Alice knew that so far as Hugh was concerned, the fact that Katherine had apparently tried to poison him also paled into insignificance compared to her crimes of thirty years earlier.
Katherine had taken both mother and father from him. She had deprived him of the lands that should have been his rightful inheritance. She had consigned him to the care of an embittered old man who had viewed him as little more than an instrument of vengeance.
Alice shuddered to think what would have happened to Hugh had fate not led him to the household of Erasmus of Thornewood. Someday, she told herself, she would very much like to thank that shadowy figure who had single-handedly kept Hugh from being consumed by the fierce storms that forged so much of his nature.
Alice could not blame Hugh for his determination to find his quarry, but now that she was alone again, her sense of unease returned. There was something that did not feel right about the situation. Too many things remained unexplained. Too many questions were still unanswered.
Why murder the monk?
She pondered the question for the hundredth time that day as she went past the last of the village cottages. The fog had silenced everything. The men were not at work in the fields. The women were not in their gardens. The children were warming themselves by the hearth fires. Alice had the road to Scarcliffe Keep to herself.
The monk. Somehow there had to be a link between Calvert and the poisoning of Hugh's parents.
A dark, hooded figure materialized out of the fog directly in Alice's path. She froze. Fear washed over her in a thundering wave.
"About time you showed up." The man reached out to seize her. "We was beginning to wonder if you intended to dawdle in the convent until Vespers."
Alice opened her mouth to scream but it was too late. A rough hand was instantly clamped over her mouth.
She dropped her mother's book and kicked out frantically. Her legs tangled in the folds of her gown but she managed to strike her attacker's shin with the toe of her soft boot.
"Damn you," the man muttered. "I knew this wouldn't be so easy. Not a word out o' ye." He jerked the hood of her cloak lower over her face, effectively blinding her.
Alice struggled fiercely in his grasp. She flailed blindly, seeking a target, any target, as her assailant hoisted her off her feet. Then she heard muffled footfalls on the road and knew that the man who held her prisoner was not alone.
"Don't let her yell, Fulton, whatever ye do," the other man snarled. "We're not far from the village. Someone will surely hear her if she gets to screeching."
Alice redoubled her efforts to yell for help. She managed to sink her teeth into Fulton's palm.
"Damnation." Fulton gasped. "The vixen bit me."
"Stop her mouth with some cloth."
Alice fought back in wild panic as a length of foul cloth was drawn taut across her mouth and tied behind her head.
"Be quick about it, Fulton. We must get off this road. If Sir Hugh and his men blunder into us in this fog, we'll be dead before we know what happened."
"Sir Hugh would not dare touch us so long as we hold his wife prisoner," Fulton protested. But there was an anxious ring of uncertainty in his voice.
"I would not count on surviving such a meeting, if I were you," the other man muttered.
"But Sir Eduard says that Hugh the Relentless is uncommonly fond of his new bride."
Sir Eduard. Alice was so startled that she went still for a moment. Were these men speaking of Eduard of Lockton? Impossible. Eduard would not risk Hugh's wrath in this fashion. Hugh himself had been arrogantly certain of his own dominance over the unpleasant Eduard.
"Sir Hugh may be fond of the wench," the other man said, "but Erasmus of Thornewood did not cause the words Bringer of Storms to be inscribed on the dark knight's sword for naught. Hurry. We must move quickly or all is lost."
Alice knew that she had walked straight into a trap.
Alice blinked several times when the hood was finally pulled back from her face. She saw at once that she was inside one of the caves of Scarcliffe. Torch light cast unnerving shadows on the damp stone walls. Water dripped somewhere in the distance.
Fulton untied the cloth that had stopped her mouth. Alice grimaced and wiped her lips with the sleeve of her cloak.
Katherine walked slowly out of the darkness to stand in front of her. The healer's face was lined with a timeless melancholy. Her eyes were somber shrouds on her soul.
"You will not believe this, but I regret all that has happened, Lady Alice. 'Twas inevitable, I suppose. I warned you once that the sins of the past produced bitter herbs."
" 'Tis not the past that produced the poison, Katherine. It was you. Your latest effort failed, you know. You will not get another opportunity. Even now Sir Hugh is searching these lands. Sooner or later he will find you."
Eduard of Lockton loomed in the passageway. In the light of the torch, his features were akin to those of an evil troll. His small, cunning eyes gleamed with malevolence. "He has already searched the outer cavern. Little good it did him. But, then, he did not know where to look, did he, Katherine?"
Katherine did not turn her head toward him. Her gaze remained fixed on Alice as if she willed her to understand. "Eduard is my cousin, Lady Alice."
"Your cousin?" Alice stared at Eduard, "I do not comprehend this."
"That much is obvious." Eduard's yellow teeth flashed in his beard. "But you will, madam. Rest assured, you soon will comprehend all. And so will that bastard husband of yours just before I cut him down with my blade."
Alice was sickened by the sour anger that seemed to radiate from Eduard. "Why do you hate my husband so?"
"Because his birth ruined everything. Everything." Eduard motioned irritably to Fulton and the other man. They both stepped back into the shadows of a dark passageway. Eduard moved closer to Alice. "Katherine was supposed to marry Matthew of Rivenhall, you see. I myself negotiated the betrothal."
"My parents died when I was but thirteen years," Katherine whispered. "Eduard was my only male relative. My fate was in his hands."
"She had a large dowry bequeathed to her from her mother's people and I had plans for her," Eduard growled. "Matthew of Rivenhall was heir to several manors. His family wanted Katherine's dowry. They were willing to trade one of their manors for her. It was a fine match."
"You hoped to profit from your cousin's marriage," Alice accused.
"Of course." Eduard lifted one burly shoulder in a mocking shrug. "Marriage is a business. Women are good for only two purposes, bedding and wedding. Any tavern wench can be used to satisfy the first purpose. Only an heiress can satisfy the second."
"So you set out to get your hands on lands of your own," Alice said angrily.
Katherine's mouth curved with great bitterness. "He wanted much more than a manor of his own."
Eduard scowled. "My plan was to get rid of Sir Matthew after the wedding. As his widow, Katherine would have been an even more valuable prize. I could have demanded even more land and a fine fortune in exchange for her hand."
"What did you intend to do?" Alice demanded. "Did you think to go on poisoning her future husbands so that you could continue to sell her in marriage over and over again?"
"I swear to you that I did not know what he intended," Katherine said forlornly. "I was only an innocent girl. I knew nothing of the plots of men."
"Bah." Eduard regarded her with vicious scorn. "It all came to naught. Matthew returned from France determined to wed that whore, Margaret. He knew his family would object so he thought to do the deed in secret. But I learned of his plans on the eve of the wedding."
"So you murdered both Matthew and Margaret?"
"Sir Matthew was not supposed to die," Eduard raged. "He was to marry Katherine, as I had planned. But the fool drank from the same cup as Margaret. He probably thought to offer up a lover's toast. And it killed him."
Alice stared at him. "Where did you learn so much of poison?"
Eduard's face contorted briefly into an expression of fierce satisfaction. "I learned to make the brew years ago when I lived for a time in Toledo. I have used it more than once over the years. 'Tis an excellent weapon because even if it is discovered, everyone assumes that the murderess is a woman."
"Just as they did thirty years ago," Alice said.
Eduard's smile was horrible to behold. "Aye. They all assumed that Margaret had poisoned her lover and then taken her own life. No one thought to look for the true murderer."
"Men are always so certain that poison is a woman's weapon," Katherine muttered.
Alice clutched her cloak more tightly about her to ward off the dreadful chill that permeated the cavern. "Why have you kidnapped me? What do you intend?"
" 'Tis simple, madam," Eduard said softly. "I intend to hold you for ransom."
Alice frowned. "What do you expect Sir Hugh to do? Hand over a chest of spices in exchange for me?"
"Nay, madam. I want something far more satisfying than a chest of ginger or saffron."
Alice gazed at him in dread. "What, then?"
"Revenge," Eduard whispered.
"Hugh the Relentless got what was to have been mine even though he was born a bastard." Eduard's voice was choked with fury. "He got lands of his own. Lands where a rare treasure is hidden."
"But no one knows where the Stones of Scarcliffe are hidden," Alice said desperately. "Indeed, Lord Hugh considers them merely a legend."
"They are far more than a legend," Eduard assured her. "Calvert of Oxwick knew that. He learned the secret from an aged knight who took holy vows after he grew too old to wield a sword. The knight had once served a lord of Scarcliffe. That lord had discovered an old letter that contained part of the truth."
Alice took a step back. "What is this great truth?"
"That the green crystal is the key." Eduard's eyes glinted. "Why do you think I have killed twice for it already, madam?"
"The peddler and the poor monk?"
"Aye. 'Twas very nearly necessary to kill that fool of a troubadour, Gilbert, also. But then you helped Sir Hugh recover the stone and everything changed. I vow, this entire affair has been like a game of dice."
"Murdering is a pleasant enough sport," Eduard conceded. "And this time 'twill be a particular pleasure. Hugh the Relentless cost me everything by his birth."
"It was not his fault that his father chose to break his vow of betrothal to Katherine."
"Ah, but it was, you see." Eduard's mouth tightened. "I'm certain that the reason Sir Matthew was so determined to wed his Lady Margaret was because the wench had borne him a son. He wanted to claim a lusty heir. I cannot conceive of any other reason why he would have wanted to marry a woman he had already bedded."
"Mayhap he truly loved her," Alice snapped.
"Bah. Love is for poets and ladies, not knights of Sir Matthew's reputation." Eduard's hand closed into a meaty fist. "I lost much thirty years ago but I shall have my due now. I shall finally gain great wealth and have my revenge while I am about it."
Alice drew a deep breath to steady herself. "What are you going to do?"
" 'Tis simple enough. I shall send a message to Sir Hugh instructing him that if he wants you safely returned to him, he must give me the green stone."
Alice tried to keep her voice even. " 'Tis well known that Lord Hugh trusts very few, Sir Eduard. But he is rather fond of me."
"I am well aware of that, madam. Indeed, that is the basis of my scheme."
"If you would convince him to pay the ransom, you must first make him believe that I am still alive. If he thinks me dead, he will pay nothing. He is too much the man of business to get himself fleeced in such a fashion."
Eduard glowered at her. "Why would he doubt my message? Soon he will know that you have disappeared."
Alice shrugged. "He may believe that I have merely lost my way in the fog and that some outlaw, having learned of my disappearance, has taken advantage of the fact to pretend that I am being held captive."
Eduard contemplated that closely for a time. Then his expression turned crafty. "I shall send him something of yours to prove that I hold you."
"An excellent notion, Sir Eduard."
"When this is finished, Elbert," Hugh vowed, "you will be banished from this hall forever."
"Aye, m'lord." Elbert hung his head. "I can only say once more that I am most desperately sorry. But in truth Lady Alice walks into the village every day. I saw no reason to send a guard with her today."
"Damn." Elbert was right and Hugh knew it. He stopped pacing and came to a halt in front of the hearth in the great hall. Berating the steward was pointless. No one knew better than Hugh that what had happened was not the young man's fault. If anyone was to blame, Hugh thought, it was himself. He had failed to protect his wife.
"Blood of the devil." Hugh stared down at the volume in his hand. It was the book of herbal lore that Alice had dropped on the road. He had found it on the way home from his fruitless search for Katherine.
"Mayhap she is merely lost in the fog," Benedict suggested in a worried tone.
Hugh tightened his jaw. "Unlikely. The fog is thick, but 'tis not so dense as to conceal familiar landmarks to one who knows the road. Nay, she has been taken by force."
Benedict's eyes widened. "You believe that she was kidnapped?"
"Aye." He had known the truth in that first terrible instant when he had seen the book lying on the road.
Hugh shut his eyes briefly. He willed himself to stay calm. He had to think clearly and logically. He had to master the storm of rage and fear that threatened to sweep aside his control or all was lost.
"But who would kidnap Lady Alice?" Elbert looked utterly bewildered. "Everyone loves her."
Alarm filled Benedict's eyes. "We must ride out again at once. We must search for her."
"Nay," Hugh said. "We could not even find the poisoner in this fog. We have no chance of discovering Alice until the kidnapper sends a message."
"But what if he does not do so?" Benedict asked angrily. "What will you do if there is no word?"
"There will be a message." Hugh moved his hand to the hilt of his sword. He wrapped his fingers around the worn black leather grip. "The only point of a kidnapping is ransom."
The message was brought to the gate just as the cloak of night settled on the mist-shrouded lands of Scarcliffe. A worried looking guard carried the demands directly to Hugh.
"A man came to the gate, m'lord. He said to tell you that if you would have Lady Alice returned, you must bring the green crystal to the north end of the old village ditch. You must leave it there and come back to this keep to wait. In the morning the stone will be gone and Lady Alice will be sent home."
"The green stone?" Hugh, seated in his massive ebony chair, leaned forward. He rested one elbow on his thigh and contemplated the guard. "That is the ransom?"
"Aye, m'lord." The guard swallowed uneasily. "I pray you will remember that I merely convey the message, sir."
"Who sent this message?"
"The man says that his master is Eduard of Lockton."
"Eduard." Hugh gazed into the flames on the central hearth. "So he would challenge me, after all. Did the messenger say anything else? Anything at all? Think, Garan."
Garan nodded quickly. "He said that his master bid him give you a special message from Lady Alice to prove to you that he truly held her captive."
"What is it?"
Garan took a step back although Hugh had not risen from the chair. He held out his hand and opened his fingers to reveal a familiar ring set with a stone of black onyx. "Lady Alice sends you her betrothal ring and begs that you will remember well the words you spoke the day you gave it to her."
Hugh gazed at the ring. He was no poet. He had not spoken words of love to Alice that day.
He forced himself to recall every word that he had said to her.
You are not to go into these caves alone.
"Of course," Hugh whispered.
Benedict moved into the light. "What is it, sir?"
"Eduard holds Alice somewhere in the caves of Scarcliffe."