Authors: Amanda Quick
A BARGAIN STRUCK
“I ask that you provide me with a dowry.”
Hugh gazed into the brazier coals as though he saw something of great interest there. “A dowry? You wish to be wed?”
Alice chuckled. “By the Saints, whatever gave you that notion, my lord? Of course I do not wish to wed. My goal is to enter a convent.”
Hugh turned slowly toward her. His amber eyes gleamed intently. “May I ask why?”
“So that I may continue my studies in natural philosophy, of course.”
“I see.” Hugh’s expression was that of the hawk that has sighted its prey. “That is unfortunate.”
Alice’s heart sank. Desperately she rallied her arguments. “My lord, pray think closely on this matter. The green crystal is obviously very important to you. I can see that you obtain it. Surely that is worth the cost of my dowry.”
“You misunderstand me, lady. I am willing to provide a bride price for you.”
She brightened. “You will?”
“Aye, but I’ll want the bride to go with it.”
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lice prided herself on being well schooled in logic and possessed of intelligence. She was a lady who had never put much credence in legends. But, then, she had never needed the assistance of one until quite recently.
Tonight she was very willing to believe in a legend, and as it happened, there was one seated at the head table in the hall of Lingwood Manor.
The dark knight known as Hugh the Relentless dined on leek pottage and pork sausage just as though he were an ordinary man. Alice supposed that even a legend had to eat.
She drew courage from that practical thought as she descended the tower stairs. She was dressed in her best gown for the momentous occasion. It was fashioned of dark green velvet and trimmed with silk ribbon. Her hair was bound in a fine net of gold threads that had belonged to her mother and secured with a delicate circlet of gold-colored metal. She wore a pair of soft green leather slippers on her feet.
Alice knew that she was as ready as she would ever be to greet a legend.
Nevertheless, the scene that she encountered at the bottom of the staircase gave her pause.
Hugh the Relentless might well dine in the manner of an ordinary man, but there the resemblance ceased. A small shiver that was part dread and part anticipation went through Alice. All legends were dangerous and Sir Hugh was no exception.
She paused on the last step, the skirts of her gown clutched in her hands, and gazed uneasily into the crowded hall. A sensation of unreality seized her. For a disquieting moment she wondered if she had stumbled into a sorcerer’s workroom.
Although it was filled with people, an ominous stillness shrouded the chamber. The air was heavy, as though weighted with awful portent and somber warning. No one, not even a servant, moved.
The troubadour’s harp had fallen silent. The dogs huddled together under the long tables, ignoring the bones that had been tossed down to them. The knights and men-at-arms who occupied the benches sat as though hewn from stone.
The flames on the central hearth lapped futilely at the shadows that seemed to seethe and roil in the chamber.
It was as if a spell had been cast over the once familiar hall, rendering it strange and unnatural. She ought not to have been surprised, Alice thought. Hugh the Relentless was reputed to be infinitely more fearsome than any magician.
This was the man, after all, who carried a sword said to be inscribed with the words
Bringer of Storms
Alice looked down the length of the hall, straight into Hugh’s shadowed features, and knew three things with great certainty. The first was that the most dangerous tempests were those that raged inside this man, not those attributed to his blade. The second was that the bleak winds howling deep within him were contained and controlled by the force of an unyielding will and a steely determination.
The third thing she learned in a single glance was that Hugh knew how to use his legendary reputation to his
own advantage. Ostensibly a guest, he nevertheless dominated the hall and everyone within it.
“You are Lady Alice?” Hugh spoke from the heart of the oppressive shadows. His voice sounded as though it came from the bottom of a very deep pool inside a very dark cave.
The rumors that had preceded him had not exaggerated. The dark knight was dressed entirely in unadorned, unembroidered, unrelenting black. Tunic, sword belt, boots—all were the color of a starless midnight.
“I am Alice, my lord.” She deliberately sank into a very low, very deep curtsy on the assumption that good manners never hurt one’s cause. When she raised her head she found Hugh watching her as though he were quite fascinated. “You sent for me, sir?”
“Aye, lady, I did. Pray, come closer so that we may speak.” It was not a request. “I understand you have something in your possession that belongs to me.”
This was the moment for which Alice had been waiting. She rose slowly from the graceful obeisance. She started forward between the rows of long dining tables, trying to recall everything she had learned about Hugh during the past three days.
Her information was scanty at best and based primarily on gossip and legend. She did not possess nearly enough knowledge to satisfy her. She wished she knew more because so much depended upon how she dealt with this mysterious man during the next few minutes.
But time had run out for her. She would have to make do with the bits and pieces of information she had managed to glean from the whispers that had swirled through the village and her uncle’s hall.
The soft rustle of her skirts on the floor rushes and the crackle of the fire were the only sounds in the great chamber. An air of terror and excitement hung over the scene.
Alice glanced briefly at her uncle, Sir Ralf, who sat next to his dangerous guest. There was a sheen of sweat on Ralf’s bald head. His plump figure, garbed in a pumpkin-colored tunic that had the unfortunate effect of emphasizing his gourd-shaped frame, was all but lost in the shadows that seemed to emanate from Hugh. One of
Ralf’s pudgy, beringed hands was clamped around a tankard of ale but he did not drink from the vessel.
Alice knew that for all his loud, blustering ways, tonight Ralf was anxious to the point of raw fear. Her burly cousins, Gervase and William, were equally alarmed. They sat stiffly at one of the lower tables, their eyes on Alice. She could feel their desperation and understood what inspired it. Facing them sat Hugh’s grim-faced, battle-hardened men. The hilts of their swords gleamed in the firelight.
It was up to Alice to placate Hugh. Whether or not blood flowed tonight was in her hands.
All knew why Hugh the Relentless had come to Lingwood Hall. Only the occupants were aware that what he sought was not here. It was his probable reaction to that unhappy news that had everyone trembling at the knees.
It had been decided that it would be up to Alice to explain the situation to Hugh. For the past three days, ever since word had come that the grim knight was to be expected, Ralf had complained loudly to one and all that the impending disaster was entirely Alice’s fault.
Ralf had insisted that she must bear the burden of attempting to convince Hugh that he should not wreak vengeance on the manor. Alice knew that her uncle was furious with her. She also knew that he was very frightened. He had good reason.
Lingwood Manor had a small, motley contingent of household knights and men-at-arms but they were farmers at heart, not warriors. They lacked experience and proper training. It was no secret that the manor could not possibly withstand an assault by the legendary Hugh the Relentless. He and his men would turn the entire place into a most unpleasant mincemeat pie in less time than it took to snap one’s fingers.
No one thought it strange that Ralf expected his niece to assume the responsibility of soothing Hugh. Indeed, most would have thought it unusual if he had not done so. Everyone on the manor knew that Alice was not easily intimidated by anyone, not even by a legend.
At three and twenty years of age she was a woman
with a mind of her own and she rarely hesitated to let others know it. Alice was well aware that her uncle grumbled about her decisive ways. She knew full well that he called her shrew behind her back, although not when he wanted one of her potions to ease his painful joints.
Alice considered herself resolute but she was no fool. She was aware of the dangers of the moment. But she also knew that a golden opportunity had arrived tonight along with Hugh. She must seize it or else she and her brother would be trapped forever here at Lingwood Manor.
She came to a halt in front of the head table and looked at the man who brooded in the hall’s best carved oak chair. It was said that Hugh the Relentless was not the most comely of men in the best of light, but tonight the combination of flame and shadow rendered his features as forbidding as those of the devil himself.
His hair was darker than black chalcedony and brushed back from a peak above his forehead. His eyes, a strange shade of golden amber, were brilliant with a remorseless intelligence. It was plain to see how he had won the appellation of
. Alice knew at once that this man would stop at nothing to obtain what he wanted.
A chill went through her but her resolve did not waver.
“I was disappointed that you chose not to join us for the meal, Lady Alice,” Hugh said slowly. “I am told that you supervised its preparation.”
“Aye, my lord.” She gave him her most winning smile. One of the small facts she had managed to discover about Hugh was that he valued well-prepared, finely seasoned dishes. She was confident that the food had been above reproach. “I trust you enjoyed it?”
“An interesting question.” Hugh contemplated the matter for a moment as though it were a problem in philosophy or logic. “I found no fault with the flavor or with the variety of the dishes. I confess I have eaten my fill.”
Alice’s smile dimmed. His measured words and obvious lack of appreciation annoyed her. She had spent hours in the kitchens today overseeing the banquet preparations.
“I am pleased to hear that you could find no obvious
fault with the dishes, my lord,” she said. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her uncle wince at her tart tone.