Authors: June Francis
Tags: #Romance, #General, #Historical, #Fiction
Rosamund looked up at the hill in the moonlight. ‘I did not see them myself, but I remember William being told to follow a stream and that there was a shelf of rock a little way up that hill.’
‘We’ll walk and give the horse a rest,’ said Alex, dismounting and holding up a hand. ‘Come, let’s not delay.’
Rosamund placed her small hand in his and slid down from the horse and almost into his arms. Their bodies collided and she withdrew her hand hastily and stepped away from him. At least a walk would warm her up.
‘Stay close,’ murmured Alex, considering not for the first time the smallness of that hand. He seized his horse’s bridle and suggested Master Wood hold on to his cloak so they would not lose each other. Following the
sound of running water, he ended up finding the stream by walking into it. He swore in his own tongue and added in English, ‘Step back if you do not want to get your feet wet.’
‘Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut about caves,’ muttered Rosamund, certain he would be in a bad mood after getting his boot wet.
‘Too late now,’ growled Alex, shaking his foot. ‘Let us not give up. At least there is some moonlight to help us see the way ahead, although perhaps it is best you stay here with the horse whilst I see what I can discover.’
Rosamund did not want to be left behind, but decided as he seemed to be trusting her with his horse, that she would do as he said.
It was not long before he called down to her. ‘I have found a shelf of rock. Let us hope that it is the one you mentioned. Bring my horse and help me search for the caves.’
Rosamund did not need telling twice and was soon standing next to him. They began to search, dislodging small rocks and punctuating the air with the sound of snapping twigs as they looked for an opening. She realised that she was finding a peculiar enjoyment in sharing in the search with him. She wondered what country he came from and whether he had a family waiting for him at home, worrying about him. She recalled his mention of a woman called Ingrid and deduced that, from the way he had spoken about her, that he had once been in love with her, but something had gone wrong, so it was unlikely that he had married her. Perhaps he had married someone else. If so, what was he doing in England, far away from his own country?
It took some searching, but at last Alex found an opening and called her over. He soon discovered that he had to bend himself almost in half to get inside. The cave was pitch-black, but at least it was out of the wind; as his hands searched the rock face, he realised that the wall was gaining in height and soon he was able to stand upright. When he turned and looked towards the opening, he could see a faint light.
‘Shall I come inside?’ called Rosamund.
‘No, wait there. I will need to come out.’ His voice seemed to bounce off the walls, causing an echo.
He felt his way to the outside and stretched. ‘We need a fire,’ he said.
‘You have flint and steel?’
‘Aye. And tinder. But we will need more kindling and twigs,’ he said.
‘There are plenty of them around,’ said Rosamund. ‘I will gather some up.’
‘Good man,’ he said, squeezing her shoulder and thinking how slender were the bones. ‘This cave will do us for the night.’
She was warmed by his praise—she’d had little of that in her life—and set about gathering twigs. In the meantime he unfastened his saddlebags before removing his saddle and throwing a blanket over his horse. He carried both saddle and saddlebags into the cave and dumped them there before going back outside and helping gather firewood.
When they had collected great armfuls, he told her to take her bundle inside. She obeyed him and was glad to be out of the wind despite the intense velvet blackness inside
the cave. She looked towards the faint strip of light and waited for him to follow her. Feeling close to exhaustion, she sank to the ground.
Rosamund did not have long to wait before she heard the sound of flint against steel. She saw sparks and then a flicker of light in the cave close to the entrance. Tiny flames began to curl about the tinder and she could smell burning. Then the flames grew and eventually there came the crackling of wood. Not long after, it was light enough in the cave for her to see the rosy colour of the sandstone.
‘You’ve done it,’ she said, relieved.
He darted her a glance. ‘Come closer to the fire. I have a pot here and a flagon of ale that I can heat up.’
‘I don’t suppose you have any nutmeg and honey?’ she asked wistfully, pushing back her hood, the better to keep an eye on him. Now she could see more clearly his expression and the attractive planes and angles of his face by the light of the fire.
‘Then you suppose wrong,’ he said. ‘I once worked for a spice merchant and he paid me in cinnamon and nutmeg. You can have no idea how that pleased my grandmother.’ He took several items from one of the saddlebags.
So he had a grandmother. ‘You say you once worked for a spice merchant—what do you do now to earn a living?’ she asked.
‘You could say that I am a jack of all trades. I enjoy travelling and turn my hand to any task to support myself,’ said Alex smoothly. ‘Are you hungry?’
‘Extremely so. But I had resigned myself to go hungry and thirsty this night.’
‘I have a little salted pork, a couple of apples and a hunk
of wheaten bread and cheese.’ He smiled good humouredly. ‘A meal fit for a king if one is hungry.’
His smile took her by surprise and she found herself returning his with one of her own and agreeing with him. He seemed less frightening, more approachable than he had done earlier. ‘If I had some money, I would buy some food from you,’ she said. ‘As it is, I left home in some haste, as I told you.’
‘I deem you have well earned a meal, so let us not talk of payment. We would still be out in that freezing wind if you had not remembered about this cave.’
Rosamund flushed with pleasure at this second dose of praise. ‘We have both contributed to the comfortable place we now find ourselves in,’ she said shyly.
The hand holding an apple in mid-air hovered there. ‘You consider this comfortable?’ He could not conceal his surprise.
‘We are warm and dry, are we not?’ Her tone was a little on the defensive now. ‘You have built the fire so that hopefully most of the smoke will find its way outside.’
Alex said drily, ‘You are easily pleased, but I doubt we will be able to keep the fire burning all night.’
‘But the cave will hold some heat and we have our cloaks,’ said Rosamund, flinging back her own now the heat from the fire was beginning to penetrate the woollen fabric. She wanted it to get to that part of her that still felt chilled.
Alex’s growing conviction that this youth was a woman in disguise intensified due to the delightful music in the voice that echoed around the cave. He took the knife strapped to his leg and cut an apple and offered half to his companion.
Rosamund thanked him and bit into the fruit. Her imagination took wing and she thought about Adam and Eve in
the Garden of Eden. She grimaced. What nonsense was this? She and this foreigner were not the only man and woman in the world. And probably even if he knew that she was a woman, he would not be tempted to lie with her. Her stepmother and stepbrothers had told her often enough that she was ugly and no man would want her without an enormous dowry—and that was not forthcoming because her father believed she was mad. Tears itched the back of her eyes and she blinked them away.
‘What is it?’ asked Alex.
She started. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Is some smoke getting in your eyes?’
She was amazed that he had noticed that tiny movement and realised that there was little that this man missed. ‘Aye, it is,’ she said gruffly.
‘Obviously it is also affecting your throat.’ His penetrating gaze met hers through the flames.
Rosamund lowered her eyes and was silent.
Having finished his half of the apple and aware that he had unnerved his companion, Alex set about preparing the spiced ale. After grating nutmeg into the liquid and adding half a stick of cinnamon, he stirred it with his knife. Then he poured the ale into a small iron pot before placing it on the fire. He then divided the bread and meat and gave some to her.
She thanked him and bit into the food as if half-starved. She was not only grateful for his provision, but surprised by his generosity and capacity for caring for his own needs. It was difficult to imagine her stepbrothers doing what he had done. They had never shared what was theirs with her, but had always expected to be waited on hand and foot. Edward, in particular, had found a perverse pleasure in
forcing her to her knees and insisting she remove his boots. She had done so with loathing in her heart, dwelling on the thought that one day she would see him grovel at her feet. Thank God, she had managed to escape from being humiliated in such a way again.
No sooner had she finished eating than Alex offered her a leather cup of steaming ale. ‘I have but the one cup, so we will have to share,’ he said.
‘My thanks,’ she said, adding awkwardly, ‘I did not think that when we met you would willingly share what was yours with me.’
She felt a need to talk to someone of her suspicions, but although this foreigner might now be showing kindness to her, somehow the words stuck in her throat. She drew her cloak tightly about her and rested her back against a wall before closing her eyes.
Alex drained the cup and drew his own cloak about him and stretched out on the ground with his head against his saddle. Who was his companion? Possibly Sir James had bedded a serving wench who worked at the manor. Yet the attractive musical voice was not that of a servant, so it was possible that Sir James had been as fond of her mother as Alex’s natural father claimed to have been of his mother and seen to it that he was treated like a son or daughter of the house. Unless—his companion was a legal offspring of Sir James! A daughter who resented her stepmother and had raised the lady’s wrath by saying her father had been murdered. When threatened, the slightly crazed Mistress Appleby had fled and headed for Lathom House, only to encounter Alex on the way.
It was now that Alex’s imagination stalled. His young
companion had not behaved as if crazed, although if she were seeking help to prove that her father had been murdered, it would have made more sense to speak to the Lord of Lathom House, the Earl of Derby, and not Lady Elizabeth, but that was women for you. Illogical. They were too often ruled by their emotions. He thought of Ingrid and how she had played him and Harry off against each other as the mood took her. No! He would not torture himself with painful memories.
He decided he would leave his musings there for the moment and catch up on some sleep. From beneath drooping eyelids, he watched his companion, aware of every movement as she sought the most comfortable position on the sandy floor of the cave. Eventually, she fell asleep. For one in fear of her life, who did not trust him, he reckoned she showed a foolish faith in her disguise. Alex made up his mind that, for now, he would play her game, but sooner or later he was going to have to inform her about what was needful to impersonate a man.
Rosamund woke the following morning to a cold and crisp sunny day. She ached all over, but had slept surprisingly well, considering the discomfort of sleeping on the ground. She glanced across to where Master No Name, as she was beginning to think of him, sat in the shaft of sunlight that flooded through the low opening. Their eyes met and an awareness of his maleness almost overwhelmed her. She wanted to shrink into a corner away from his muscular strength and that penetrating gaze. It made her feel small and vulnerable and intensely feminine. No doubt if he were to discover the truth about her, he would turn
away in disgust and abandon her to her fate. Her safety lay in his never knowing what or who she was, so she must keep that constantly in her mind and strut like a youth.
‘You have slept well, Master Wood,’ said Alex, casting aside the folds of his cloak and getting to his feet. ‘But the sun is up and it is time we were on our way.’
She remembered to deepen her voice when she opened her mouth to ask him a question. ‘Do you think there is any chance of us catching up with Lady Elizabeth this day?’
He gave her an odd look and shrugged before lifting his saddle and asking her to carry out his saddlebags. She nodded, but did not immediately follow him, instead relieving herself in a distant corner of the cave. She determined that she would not be lured into telling him anything about herself. She still did not know in what circumstances he had met her father and what information he had wanted from him.
osamund washed her face in the stream outside and then resumed her position on the horse with a determined tilt to her chin.
Alex soon realised that any hope he had of gaining information about Sir James and his stepson in London was firmly quashed. There was little he could do about it without bringing force to bear on his companion and he was reluctant to rekindle the fear in the blue-violet eyes. So he held his peace and prayed that his patience would eventually pay off. His conviction concerning his companion’s femininity made it almost impossible for him to give his full attention to the passing landmarks. He had planned on committing them to memory, so that if he needed to travel to the north-west of England again, he would find his way without too much difficulty. The scent of the slender figure and the feel of that small hand against his back triggered his imagination.
He tried not to dwell on there being feminine curves beneath the male garb by forcing himself to concentrate on
what part Lady Elizabeth would expect him to play in her troupe of performers. It would not be the first time he had donned the disguise of a player and part of him looked forward to doing so. Hopefully the disguise would serve its purpose in having him accepted by those attending the proxy wedding of Princess Margaret to James of Scotland at Richmond Palace and would not suspect his real aim in being there. He had committed to memory the names of those whom his father regarded as not only his personal enemies, but those of the proposed peace pact between England and Scotland. Peace between the two countries was essential if the piracy in the northern seas was to be brought to an end. Ships from his own country had discovered to their cost that the buccaneering Scots and English did not always differentiate between ally and enemy. But his task lay more than a sennight ahead and, right now, he would be glad when they came to a town. He was hungry and no doubt his travelling companion was, too.
They had travelled twelve leagues or more that day, stopping only once in Congleton to eat and drink and stretch their legs. As dusk fell they came to a village with but one inn. Alex dismounted and went inside, calling to Rosamund that he would see what were the sleeping arrangements.
Hastily, she slid from the horse and followed him inside and was just in time to hear the innkeeper say that there was only one sleeping chamber available. As they were his only guests, they would have it to themselves and sleeping pallets were included in the charge for the night. Alex had no choice but to accept what was on offer. On hearing the sounds of men roistering in the tap room and being told
there was no private parlour available, he said they would eat their supper upstairs.
Rosamund assured herself that sharing a chamber with Master No Name was no different from sleeping in the cave, but she soon realised that she was deceiving herself. Conscious of several pairs of eyes upon them, she squirmed with embarrassment at having to be dependent on this man to see that she had a roof over her head and food in her stomach.
The innkeeper lit a lantern from a burning candle and handed it to Alex and gave him directions to the stables. He thanked him and went over to Rosamund. He gazed down into her sullen face, noticing the dark rings of weariness beneath the violet eyes. ‘You’re weary. Why don’t you go upstairs and take your ease? I’ll tend to the horse.’
Rosamund shook her head. ‘I am no weakling. I will help you.’ She did not want to be left alone in the inn. She went out into the freezing night and took hold of the horse’s bridle and led it towards a huddle of outbuildings that showed up against the darkening sky.
Alex gazed after her, looking for those signs common to her sex. Was he right in believing her to be Sir James’s daughter? He noted the swing of her hips and the way she held her head. He considered the possibility of training her as one of his accomplices if he could prove her trustworthy. She certainly seemed to possess some of the traits needed to be a spy by being prepared to set aside the mores of the day by disguising herself as a member of the opposite sex. Something Ingrid would never do; she much preferred donning a nun’s outfit or the silken skirts of a lady. Mistress Appleby was obviously desperate and in need of money—and if she really turned out to be a little
crazy after all, perhaps that was necessary when playing such dangerous games as spying. But he was running ahead of himself; she had not yet proved herself trustworthy and he must never forget that he had mistakenly trusted Ingrid to his cost.
Alex set the lantern down on a bench and glanced about the stable. His companion was struggling to unsaddle his horse, but it was obvious she was not accustomed to tending such a large animal, and was finding it difficult. Without a by your leave, he seized her by the elbows and lifted her out of the way. ‘Leave this to me, Master Wood. You fetch some water,’ he ordered.
Rosamund bit back a retort and looked about her for a bucket. She picked one up and went outside to where she had noticed a water trough. She scooped up as much water as she could, only to stagger beneath its weight when she lifted it up. She entered the stable, carrying the bucket with both hands.
Alex moved swiftly to relieve her of her burden. ‘Allow me,’ he said in a voice that brooked no argument.
Rosamund had no choice but to hand it over to him, though could not resist saying, ‘I know you are the stronger man, but I could have managed it, you know.’
Alex realised his mistake in rushing to her aid and instantly tried to rectify it. ‘Why must you be on the defensive, young Master Wood? We have both had a long day and are weary. Get inside and leave me to finish tending my own horse.’
Rosamund did not move, remembering the noise of the men drinking in the tap room. What if one were to come out and pick a fight with her? ‘I would rather wait here,’ she said.
Alex shrugged. ‘Please yourself. I am not your keeper.’
Are you not?
she almost said.
Alex decided to test her. ‘Do you have a mother?’
‘She is dead. Died when I was just a child. What about you?’
Alex decided that it should do no harm telling her a little about himself—it might encourage her to talk more. ‘My mother died shortly after I was born.’
‘So who looked after you?’
‘A wet nurse and my grandparents.’ Alex recalled his grandmother telling him that his mother, Maria Nilsson, had gone to Scotland in the train of Princess Margaret of Denmark on the occasion of her marriage to Scotland’s then king. She was a widow and the Earl Douglas already married when they met. Apparently the affair had lasted several years. Maria had given birth to him in Scotland and he had been named Alexander Christian. His mother had died a week later.
‘What about your father?’
The muscles of Alex’s face stiffened, remembering as a boy asking his grandparents about his father. They had told him that Christian Nilsson had been a mighty soldier, killed in a battle with the Danes before Alex was born. He had grown up, believing himself to be the son of a Swedish soldier hero, and was proud of the fact. He had been devastated when he had discovered that he was Earl Douglas’s bastard instead of the son of the Swedish hero.
‘You don’t have to tell me,’ said Rosamund softly. She had been watching his expression and hazarded that his thoughts were not happy ones.
‘My father had naught to do with my upbringing,’ he said tersely. ‘I was reared by my grandparents in Sweden.’
‘So you are Swedish,’ said Rosamund, satisfied that she now knew where he came from. ‘I have heard that the sun scarcely rises there in the winter.’
Alex made no comment, only saying, ‘You can go inside now. I’ll only be a moment here. Perhaps you can carry the saddlebags.’
She was disappointed that he was not prepared to tell her more about his country. She hastened to pick up the saddlebags and managed to sling them over her shoulder in what she deemed a manly fashion.
Alex rolled his eyes and picked up the saddle. ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m famished, Master Wood.’
She agreed that she was hungry and followed him out and remained hard on his heels as they crossed the darkened stable yard. Alex had a word with the innkeeper before leading the way upstairs.
The sleeping chamber was not as large as she had imagined and the air was exceeding chilly. She soon discovered that the pallet and blanket were damp, but did not comment, unlike Alex. ‘This will not do,’ he muttered, bundling pallets and blankets beneath his arm and leaving her alone in the darkened bedchamber. She would have followed him, but the thought of facing the raucous crowd downstairs was enough for her to stay put. She perched on his saddle and hoped he would not be too long.
Rosamund had no idea how long she was there before she heard someone coming upstairs. Instantly, she rose to her feet and went to open the door. A buxom woman stood there, carrying a lantern in one hand and a pitcher in the other. ‘Here you are, young master.’
‘Thank you,’ said Rosamund gruffly, taking both from her.
The woman entered the sleeping chamber. ‘Your mate is making a right fuss downstairs. Yer’d think he owned the bloody place. A furriner, too. He wants to watch his step.’
‘The pallets and blankets were damp,’ said Rosamund, placing the lantern and pitcher on the floor. ‘He paid good money for hiring this chamber.’
The woman sniggered and brushed against her. ‘There’s more than one way of keeping warm, young master.’ She placed a hand on Rosamund’s thigh.
Shocked, Rosamund reacted by pushing her away. ‘Get out of here,’ she said roughly.
‘Oh, we’ve a haughty one here, have we? Or are yer one of them?’ She placed a hand on her hip and swayed about the room.
Rosamund watched her uneasily. ‘I don’t know what you mean. Will you leave!’
The woman ignored her and went over to the saddlebags on the floor. ‘What have we in here?’
Rosamund rushed over to her. ‘Leave them alone! They’re not your property.’
‘What is going on here?’ said Alex.
Rosamund felt a rush of relief as she whirled round to see him standing in the doorway. She noticed that he had slung the bedding over his shoulder and carried a tray. ‘This woman is being offensive,’ she said stiffly.
He thrust the tray at Rosamund, but before he could lay a hand on the woman she scuttled past him and out of the door. Alex slammed it behind her and locked it. He dropped the bedding on the floor and stared at Rosamund. ‘What did she do?’
Her cheeks reddened. ‘I’d rather not say.’ She breathed
in the appetising smell of the broth and placed the tray on the floor. ‘Now you’re here, she’ll not come back.’
Alex had some idea of what the serving wench might have said to her and thought that must have given
a fright. ‘I had the innkeeper’s wife air the bedding in front of her fire. She was willing to do so for an extra penny.’
‘I am not surprised,’ said Rosamund. ‘One can buy a lot for a penny.’
Alex realised he had made a mistake by revealing he was not short of money. ‘I deemed it worth it and we did not have to pay for our shelter last night. As for that wench, she was no one of importance, so you can forget aught that she said.’ He took off his hat and his fair hair seemed to glow in the lantern light.
Her breath caught in her throat and for a moment she could only stare at that handsome leonine head. Then she pulled herself together and went over to the pallets and rolled them out several feet from each other on each side of the tray.
Alex picked up the lantern and pitcher and put them close by so they could see what they were eating and removed his gloves. ‘The broth smells good,’ he said.
She agreed and removed her own gloves, but decided against taking off her hat. She lowered herself on to the pallet and eased off her boots before reaching for one of the bowls. She placed it at her side on the wooden floor.
Alex glanced her way and noticed that the lantern cast light on her weary face with its delicate nose and generously curved lips. He considered how not a word of complaint had escaped her that day and could not help but admire her stamina. He reached for the jug of mulled wine and poured her a drink and decided to test her further.
‘Have you ever paid court to a woman, Master Wood?’ he asked casually.
Rosamund was in the act of tearing bread from the loaf and almost dropped it. She paused. ‘No. I do not have the means to support a wife…and besides, I doubt a woman would find me to her taste.’
‘Why? You’ve a handsome face,’ said Alex, pushing the cup across the floor to her.
Rosamund looked at him in astonishment before picking up the cup and taking a thirsty gulp of the warm liquid. ‘My stepbrothers told me I was ugly. I confess I am not in the habit of gazing at myself in a looking glass.’
‘You are an extremely modest young man if you can resist preening in front of a mirror. Most youths of your age are obsessed by the growth on their faces.’ He dipped his spoon into the bowl of barley broth and waited for her reaction.
Rosamund’s stomach clenched. She had given no thought to the male need to shave. ‘I am not most youths,’ she muttered.
‘I would agree,’ said Alex smoothly. ‘How old are you?’
She hesitated and decided it would serve her best to not give her proper age. ‘I have seen eighteen summers.’
‘Then you are young to know much about women or to have a beard.’
‘I know enough about them to know what they want from a man,’ she retorted without thinking.
Her reply amused him and he gave one of his rare smiles. ‘Your confidence amazes me. I am twenty-eight years old and I reckon I will find women difficult to understand till the day I die.’
Rosamund realised her mistake in giving such a confi
dent answer. She picked up her spoon with unsteady fingers. ‘You don’t have a wife?’
‘No. I enjoy travelling too much to give much thought to marriage. Although, one day I will need to settle down, for I would like to have children. But not yet.’
‘Tell me, do you consider women greatly inferior to men and good for nought but keeping house and bearing babies?’