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Chapter 5

Ipstoke was a crowded, colorful scene. Even Benedict's sullen mood lightened at the sight of the bright banners and striped tents that dotted the grounds outside the old keep walls. Peddlers and pie-sellers of all descriptions mingled with acrobats, jongleurs, knights, men-at-arms, and farmers. Children ran hither and yon, shouting with glee.

Massive war-horses towered over long-eared asses and sturdy dray ponies. Baggage wagons laden with armor lumbered along next to carts filled with vegetables and wool. Troubadours and minstrels wandered through the crowds.

"I vow, I have never seen so many people in one place in my whole life." Benedict gazed about in wonder. "One could well imagine that everyone in the whole of England is here today."

"Not quite," Alice said. She stood with Benedict on the gentle rise of ground where Hugh had decreed that his somber black tent be pitched. Black banners flapped in the air above her head. Hugh's choice of color formed a stark contrast to the vivid reds, yellows, and greens of the neighboring tents and banners. "I expect that when you travel to Paris and Bologna you will encounter far more wonderful sights than this."

Some of the excitement dimmed in Benedict's eyes. "Alice, I wish you would not talk about my going off to Paris and Bologna as though it were a certainty."

"Nonsense." Alice smiled. " 'Tis very much a certainty now. Sir Hugh will see to it. 'Tis part of our bargain and everyone assures me that he always honors his bargains."

"I do not care for this bargain you have made with him. I was not overfond of our uncle but 'tis better to deal with the devil you know than one with a reputation such as that of Hugh the Relentless."

Alice scowled. "His name is Hugh of Scarcliffe now. Do not refer to him as Relentless."

"Why not? 'Tis what his own men call him. I have been talking with Sir Dunstan. He tells me that Hugh is well named. They say he never abandons a quest."

"They also say that his oath is as strong as a chain fashioned of Spanish steel, and that is all that is important to me." Alice brushed the matter aside with a wave of her hand. "Enough of this chatter. I must see to my end of the bargain."

Benedict glanced at her in astonishment. "What do you mean? You have brought Sir Hugh here to Ipstoke and you gave him the name of the troubadour who stole the green crystal. You need do nothing more."

" 'Twill not be quite so simple as all that. You are forgetting that you and I are the only ones who can identify Gilbert the troubadour. No one else in Hugh's company of men-at-arms has ever seen him."

Benedict shrugged. "Sir Hugh will make inquiries. Gilbert will soon be found."

"What if Gilbert is using another name?"

"Why would he do that?" Benedict demanded. "He has no way of knowing that Sir Hugh has come here in search of him."

"We cannot be certain of that." Alice considered the matter for a moment. "Nay, the quickest way to find Gilbert is for me to wander into the crowd and seek him out. He is bound to be here somewhere. I can only hope that he has not yet sold my green stone. That might complicate matters."

Benedict stared at her. "You're going to search for Gilbert by yourself?"

"You can accompany me, if you like."

"That's not the point. Have you discussed this scheme with Sir Hugh?"

"Nay, but I do not see that it matters overmuch." Alice broke off as Dunstan walked across a patch of grass to join them.

She could not help but notice that Dunstan appeared far more cheerful at that moment than she had yet seen him. His normally dour countenance was enlivened with an expression of enthusiasm and anticipation. His stride was jaunty. He was wearing his hauberk and carried a recently polished helm under one arm.

"My lady." Dunstan greeted Alice with brusque formality. It was rapidly becoming clear that he did not like her very much.

"Sir Dunstan," she murmured. "You look as though you are going off to war."

"Nothing so tame. A jousting match."

Alice was surprised. "You are going to participate in a joust? But we are here on a matter of business."

"Plans have changed."

"Changed!" Alice stared at him in amazement. "Does Sir Hugh know of this change?"

"Who do you think changed the plans?" Dunstan asked dryly. He turned to Benedict. "We could use some assistance with the armor and horses. Sir Hugh suggested that you give us a hand."

"Me?" Benedict was startled.

Alice frowned. "My brother has not been trained to handle armor and weapons and war-horses."

Dunstan clapped Benedict on the shoulder. "Sir Hugh says 'tis time he is trained in such manly matters."

Benedict staggered and caught his balance with the aid of his staff. "I am not particularly interested in learning about those things."

Dunstan grinned. "I have news for you, young Benedict. You are Sir Hugh's man now and your new lord believes that 'tis not efficient to have men in his household who are not properly trained and who cannot be counted upon in a siege."

"A siege." Alice was horrified. "Now hold a moment here. I will not have my brother exposed to harm."

Benedict glared at her. "I do not need a nurse, Alice."

"Of course you don't, lad." Dunstan grinned at Alice. His expression said he knew that he had won this small contest. "Your brother will be a man soon. 'Tis past time he learned the ways of men."

"But he is to study law," Alice yelped, outraged.

"So? Seems to me that any man who would study the law has a special need to be able to take care of himself. He'll have any number of enemies."

"Now see here," Alice began furiously. "I'll not have"

Dunstan ignored her. "Let's be off, Benedict. I'll take you to the refuge tents and introduce you to the squires."

Benedict was reluctantly intrigued. "Very well."

"Benedict, you stay right here, do you hear me?" Alice snapped.

Dunstan chuckled evilly. "Who knows, Benedict? Sir Hugh plans to take the field himself shortly. Mayhap he will allow you to help him with his own personal armor."

"Do you really think so?" Benedict asked.

"By the Saints." Alice could not believe her ears. "Do not tell me that Sir Hugh intends to waste time on a silly joust."

Dunstan gave her a sunny smile. "You have as much to learn as your brother, Lady Alice. Of course Sir Hugh will take the field today. Vincent of Rivenhall is here."

"Who is Vincent of Rivenhall?" Alice demanded. "What has he got to do with this?"

Dunstan's bushy brows rose. "I've no doubt your betrothed lord will soon explain that to you, my lady. 'Tis certainly not my place to do so. Now, pray excuse me. Benedict and I have work to do."

"Hold." Alice was seething now. "I am not at all satisfied with this turn of events."

"You must take up your dissatisfactions and complaints with Sir Hugh," Dunstan murmured. "Come along, Benedict."

"Wait," Alice ordered. "I need Benedict's assistance."

"But, Alice" Benedict said unhappily.

"You will not need Benedict for anything this afternoon," Dunstan assured Alice.

She glowered at him. "And, pray, just how do you know that, Sir Dunstan?"

"Why, 'tis obvious." Dunstan gave her an absurdly innocent smile. "You will be occupied with very important matters yourself."

"What important matters?" she asked icily.

" 'Tis plain enough. As is the case with any newly betrothed lady, you will surely want to watch your future lord demonstrate his skills on the jousting field."

"I have absolutely no intention of doing any such thing."

"Nonsense," Dunstan said. "The ladies all love to watch the sport."

Before Alice could summon up further wrath, Dunstan quickly dragged Benedict off in the direction of one of the refuge tents. The shelters had been erected at opposite ends of the large field. The knights, squires, and men-at-arms gathered beneath them to prepare for the day's jousting.

Alice was outraged. She could not believe that Hugh had altered his plans to find the green stone merely because of a jousting match. It made no sense.

When Dunstan and Benedict had disappeared into the crowd she whirled about and started toward the black tent. She would search out Hugh and let him know precisely what she thought of this situation. It was ludicrous for him to enter a joust when they had vastly more important matters to see to.

She came to an abrupt halt when she found her path blocked by a massive black war-horse. She recognized the beast at once. There was no mistaking the huge hooves, broad head, muscular shoulders, and sturdy construction of Hugh's prized stallion. The smell of well-oiled steel and leather assailed her nostrils.

Alice blinked at the sight of Hugh's booted foot in the stirrup. It looked very large. Her gaze rose slowly upward. This was the first time she had seen him in his hauberk. The finely linked mail of his battle armor gleamed in the warm afternoon sun. He had his helm tucked beneath one arm.

Hugh was sufficiently intimidating at the best of times, but when he was clad for war, Hugh the Relentless was a truly unnerving sight. She shaded her eyes with her hand as she looked up at him.

"I hear that 'tis a new custom among ladies of fashion to give their favored knights a token to wear into the jousts," Hugh said quietly.

Alice caught her breath and then hastily regrouped her energies. She was, she reminded herself, thoroughly incensed. "Surely you do not intend to participate in the jousts, my lord?"

" 'Twould be remarked upon if I did not. I do not wish to arouse suspicion concerning my true reason for being here at Ipstoke. The stratagem was to mingle with the fair crowds, if you will recall."

"I see no necessity for you to waste a great deal of time playing silly games atop your horse this afternoon when you could be tracking down Gilbert the troubadour."

"Silly games?"

"That is all they are in my opinion."

"I see. There are many ladies who enjoy watching such contests." Hugh paused deliberately. "Especially when their lords are participants."

"Aye, well, I have never had much interest in such sports."

"Will you give me a token?"

Alice eyed him suspiciously. "What sort of token?"

"A scarf or a bit of ribbon or lacing will do."

"There is certainly no accounting for fashionable customs, is there, my lord?" Alice shook her head, amazed. "Imagine giving a man a perfectly good length of clean cloth or a fine silk ribbon to wear while he dashes about in the mud. The token, as you call it, would likely be ruined."

"Mayhap." Hugh gazed down at her with unreadable eyes. "Nevertheless, I think it would be wise if you gave me such a token, Alice."

Alice gazed at him blankly. "Whatever for, sir?"

"It will be expected," Hugh said very evenly. "We are, after all, betrothed."

"You wish to carry my favor into the joust in order to convince everyone that we truly are betrothed?"

"Aye."

"But what about my green stone?"

"All in good time," Hugh said softly.

"I thought the stone was extremely important to you."

"It is and I will have it by the end of the day. But something else has come up. Something that is just as important."

"What is that, pray tell?" Alice demanded.

"Vincent of Rivenhall is here and intends to participate in the joust." Hugh's voice was curiously empty of emotion. The very flatness of his tone was frightening.

"What of it?" Alice asked uneasily. "By the Saints, sir, I should think you would be able to forgo a bit of sport for the sake of the stone."

"I assure you, the opportunity to take the field against Vincent of Rivenhall is almost as important as recovering the stone."

"I would not have thought that you would find it necessary to prove yourself against another knight, my lord," Alice said, disgruntled. "I rather assumed that you were above such things."

"It would be wise for you to refrain from making too many assumptions about me, Alice."

Alice's mouth went dry. She contented herself with a glare. "Very well, my lord. Henceforth, I shall assume nothing."

"Be assured that I will explain the matter of Sir Vincent to you at some other time." Hugh stretched out his hand. "At the moment, I am in a hurry. Your favor, if you please."

"This is really too much." Alice glanced down at her clothing. "I suppose you may take the ribbon that trims my sleeve, if you feel that it is absolutely necessary."

"It is."

"Do try not to soil it, will you? Good ribbon costs money."

"If it is ruined, I shall buy you another. I can afford it."

Alice felt herself grow warm beneath his mocking gaze. They both knew that a new ribbon would be as nothing to him.

"Very well." Alice undid the ribbon from her sleeve.

"Thank you." Hugh reached down to take the strip of green cloth. "You may watch the jousts from beneath the yellow and white tent on the far side of the field. That is where the other ladies will sit."

"I do not intend to watch the jousts, sir," Alice said heatedly. "I, for one, have better things to do."

"Better things?"

"Aye, my lord. I am going to search for Gilbert. There is no point in both of us wasting the afternoon."

Hugh's mailed fist closed very tightly around the green ribbon. "Do not trouble yourself about the troubadour, Alice. He will be found soon enough. In the meantime, you will watch the jousts in the company of the other spectators."

Without waiting for a response, Hugh gave the big war-horse an invisible signal. The beast swung about with astonishing agility and set off eagerly in the direction of the jousting field. His great hooves sent a tremor through the ground.

"But, Sir Hugh, I just told you that I do not wish to watch the jousts" Alice broke off in disgust when she realized she was speaking to the war-stallion's retreating hindquarters.

For the first time she experienced some qualms about the bargain she had made with Hugh. It was obvious that her new business associate did not fully comprehend the true meaning of what it meant to be equal partners.


Chapter 4 | Mystique | Chapter 6