Authors: Amanda Forester
Tags: #Romance, #General, #Historical, #Fiction
A soft rustle in the bushes caught her attention. Without making a sound she picked up her loaded crossbow. A deer, an old buck, ambled into view. She aimed and shot. Dinner was served.
Morrigan attempted to haul the carcass back to where she had left the minstrel tied to the tree but the animal was quite heavy. She strained but made little progress, cursing the deer, herself, the minstrel, and her general lot in life.
Digging down with her knees, Morrigan strained to pull the carcass. Suddenly her load became lighter and she stumbled forward, unprepared for the sudden shift in weight. Behind her, someone had lifted the backside of the carcass. Morrigan spun and gasped.
It was the shadowy form of the minstrel.
“What? How?” Morrigan sputtered.
“I am at your service.” The minstrel smiled as if he had offered to pick up a dropped handkerchief.
Morrigan dropped her end of the beast, causing the back end to be jerked from his hands. “I left ye tied to a tree. How are ye here?”
“Yes, my apologies for causing you any unwanted surprise. But see you?” He drew back his sleeve and revealed a sheath for a knife. “I could not remain comfortable while a lady was in need.”
“I am no lady.” Morrigan spat on the ground for emphasis. “Ye’re free now. Ye can go and tell everyone I tried to kill the bishop.”
“Ah, but then I would have to say why I, too, was in the garden, and I do not know what my reason might be.”
“Why are ye still here? Ye could run away.”
The minstrel gave a quick smile that did not reach his eyes. “Yes, perhaps I should go as you say. But then, I am not sure if the bishop is friend or foe. Can you say why you pointed at him the loaded crossbow?”
“I do not know what my reason might be,” Morrigan repeated.
They looked at each other in the dim light of the moon. Morrigan considered drawing her sword or reaching for her crossbow, but her heart was not in it. Besides, she was not sure if she could best him, a chilling thought indeed.
“What will you do with it?” Jacques asked.
“Eat it.” Morrigan’s stomach grumbled with emphasis. It had been a long while since she had eaten meat. Too long.
The minstrel began picking up pieces of wood and small sticks.
“What are ye doing?” asked Morrigan.
“Me, I like my meat cooked. And you?”
By unspoken consensus, Jacques started a fire while Morrigan prepared the meal. It was shoddy work at best, but she was able to carve out some steaks and soon they were both holding meat sizzling on sticks over the fire.
The dancing firelight and the welcoming smell of roasting meat enticed Morrigan to relax. She struggled to stay on guard. She did not know the man beside her. She clearly had underestimated his abilities. She did not attempt to disarm him, nor did he ask for the return of his sword. It was a tentative peace at best, forged over the prospect of a good meal. But something needed to be done. A quick glance at his sword in the firelight revealed intricate metalwork and a jeweled scabbard. Why would a minstrel carry such a sword?
“Who are ye?” she demanded. “Ye are not a traveling minstrel, are ye?”
The man shook his head. “I am Sir Dragonet, at your service.”
“I serve the Duke of Argitaine.”
“But why are ye here? And why disguise yerself as a minstrel? And why…” Morrigan broke off. She was going to ask about what happened in the tower, but she could not, would not speak of it.
The French knight sighed. “I most humbly ask your pardon for the deception. The Duke of Argitaine plans to make war on the English with the help of the Scots. The English have won much in France. We seek to attack them along their northern border—”
“And have the English make war against the Scots instead,” Morrigan added, her eyes narrowing.
“And take the fight to the English,” Dragonet continued. “The duke must know those clans who will support him and those who would betray, so he sent minstrels, such as myself, to determine without revealing themselves, if it might please the clan to join the campaign.”
“Ye’re a spy.”
Dragonet ignored her. “By the singing of different ballads, even those songs which were critical of England, I could judge how it was received and discover their true feelings toward England.”
“And you also took time to talk to the natives, earn their trust, and find out what information ye could.” Morrigan flushed hot. The stick of meat in her hands drooped toward the flames, causing the fat to spit and pop.
Sir Dragonet avoided her eye and instead carefully turned his slab of meat on the stick. “Yes, it is as you say.”
“So everything ye said and did was a lie.” Morrigan’s voice was cold.
The knight’s head bowed slightly, as if her words had stung him. “I have deceived people, yes. But to you, Lady Morrigan, my words and actions have been true.”
Morrigan sputtered and nearly lost her dinner to the flames. “Look at me, ye daft French knight. I am no lady! I have worked and fought and stole like a man ever since I first picked up a blade. Dinna mistake me for something I’m not. I have faults indeed, but at least I have never pretended to be someone I’m not.”
Morrigan’s words spilled out like a bubbling pot boiling over. She could tolerate people responding to her with rejection and fear. What she could not abide was a French knight with a polished manner and sweet words that bordered on… kindness.
The knight became fascinated with his meal, inspecting his roasting job, blowing on it, and taking a bite. The flickering light from the campfire cast him in a warm hue. He was handsome. Strikingly so. A day’s stubble showed on his face, a contrast to his soft, full lips. He paused for a moment in his eating, staring into the fire, his black hair falling over one eye.
“Your roast, you like it well done?”
Her meat was on fire. “Oh!” She jerked it out of the flames but the stick was also ablaze. Her sudden movement caused the stick to break and her roast to fall into the fire. “Damn!” Morrigan scrambled up to find a new stick, something to rescue her meal.
In a flash, Dragonet stood and while she bent over to grab another stick, he deftly drew his own sword, belted at her side. He skewered the flaming meat with his sword, blew out the flames, and held it out to her.
“It is edible, I believe.” Dragonet stood before her, pointing his sword at her heart.
Morrigan’s gaze traveled down the sword to the man holding it. A single lunge would kill her. She waited, her eyes focused on his.
“Or you could have mine, if you prefer.” Somehow he managed to say it with sincerity, not sarcasm.
With a slow, fluid movement Morrigan drew her knife and removed the meat. Instantly, he lowered the sword and wiped it clean on a handkerchief.
“What is it ye want from me?” Morrigan asked. No one showed mercy without wanting something in return.
The French knight sat back down, placed his sword on his far side, picked up his own meal, and began eating again. Morrigan gave up and sat a few feet away, taking on the challenge of eating her own charred meal. Their silence was only broken by the occasional pop from the fire, bursting orange sparks into the sky.
“Did he hurt you?” Dragonet asked softly.
“What do ye speak of?”
“The bishop. Would you tell me why you wish to kill him?”
Morrigan shook her head. She could not speak of it.
“If I can be of service to you, I will help you as I am able.”
“Why would ye care?”
Dragonet finished his meal and tossed the stick into the waning flames. “The bishop, we must know if he can be trusted. Many lives hang in the balance. If he should betray us to the English…” Dragonet let his words hang a moment before continuing. “If you know a reason why he should not be trusted, I am eager in hearing you.”
“Is that what ye were doing in the bushes? Spying on him?”
“But of course. Though if called to testify, I am compelled to warn you, I will disavow all recollection of this conversation.”
“’Tis fair.” Morrigan nodded. “I can speak no ill word against the bishop. In truth I have ne’er met him.”
“I beg you would forgive my curiosity, but why hold a crossbow to his back?”
Morrigan shook her head. “I had my reasons.”
“You decided to spare him?”
Morrigan frowned, but said nothing.
Dragonet slid closer to her. “Please tell me your reasons. You are not one to do anything without cause.”
“How would ye ken anything about me? Maybe I simply enjoy watching a man die.”
“If such was the case, you should have opened your eyes while you pointed the crossbow. No, you are no murderer. You must have a reason most desperate.”
“My reasons are my own.”
“Is it related to your brother being with the bishop?”
Morrigan’s eyes flew open before she could check her response.
“You were not aware?” The French knight regarded her carefully.
It was pointless to lie. “Nay.” Her brother no doubt received the same message—was he trying to kill the bishop too? Morrigan considered her words. “What were the circumstances of ye seeing him wi’ the bishop.”
“They appeared to be breaking bread together.”
Morrigan applied herself once more to her charcoal dinner. It would never do to look too interested. One thing for certain was she needed to talk to Archie before trying to kill the bishop again. A sense of relief flooded Morrigan, a reprieve from the heavy burden she had dragged for the past month. The man beside her was the one loose end. She glanced sideways at the French knight. In the orange light of the fire he seemed to softly glow.
What was she to do with such a man?
“Will ye tell yer duke or anyone what ye saw o’ me tonight?” Morrigan asked the knight beside her without giving him a glance. She instead focused on finding a bite of meat that was not charred, as if her dinner was her foremost concern.
“If I wished to sound the alarm, I would have done so the moment I saw you.”
“Why dinna ye call out?”
“I also was in the bushes.”
Morrigan nodded. “Ye dinna wish to get yerself caught.”
“And…” Dragonet paused, picking up another stick and poking at the fire. “And I recognized you.”
A strange sensation flooded through Morrigan. She shook it off. “Why should that matter?”
Dragonet shrugged. “It did.” He poked another burning log. “It does.”
Morrigan was flooded again with that rush of something warm and tingly. She decided it must be anger. With every word he reminded her of their kiss in the tower. Was he trying to manipulate her into talking more freely? Was he trying to suggest his emotions had been engaged after a brief encounter? It was nothing but lies.
“Dinna try to sweet-talk me, I’ll have none o’ it,” growled Morrigan. “Save yer honey-dipped, forked tongue for someone more gullible. Yer latest conquest may swoon at yer feet, but I assure ye I am no’ so easily fooled.”
Dragonet did not look up from his fascinating work of randomly poking at the fire, but he appeared to decrease somewhat in size, as if her words had deflated him. “I beg your pardon, my lady, if my words give offense.”
“I am no lady!” Morrigan’s voice raised, her exasperation growing. He looked up at her, his eyes glinting in the firelight. She sputtered over her words. “Ye dinna ken who I am.” She turned back to the fire. “Ye can ne’er ken what hides in the heart o’ another. What secrets they may conceal.”
The knight beside her took a sharp breath but said nothing. The leaves around them rustled in the unseen wind, causing the fire to heighten and pop flaming sparks into the air. She was too close to him, both of them sitting beside each other on the ground by the fire. She should pull away, but made no effort to move.
“You speak the truth.” Dragonet’s words finally broke the silence. “You never know the deceit that poisons the heart of man.” His head was bowed toward the fire, his voice soft and low.
His words tugged at her like unshed tears. She shifted her position and her hand brushed against his. She was surprised at the contact with his warm hand, but did not move away. His dark eyes met hers. His lips parted with an unspoken question.
“I…” Morrigan bit her lip trying to think of some explanation. “Speaking o’ deceit, show me the knife ye conceal.”
He lifted his hand into hers and slowly rolled back his sleeve, revealing a small harness strapped to his wrist. His eyes never left hers, the question in them remaining.
Morrigan swallowed on a dry throat. With both hands, she explored the harness he wore and the blade it concealed.
“I have ne’er seen the like. Did ye make it yerself?” Morrigan tried to focus on the knife, but her hands ran over the leather harness, the steel and leather hilt, his warm hand with well-worn calluses on his palm and fingers. The marks of a swordsman.
“Y-yes.” The French knight’s voice wavered. His eyes were wide and black in the dim light.