“You know of him,” Onora accused, her rosebud mouth full of disdain as she pursed her lips. “Why should we believe your motives when you are a Norman?”
Hugh cast a smile upon Sorcha. “She bears great resemblance to you in all ways.” Bowing, he backed up a step. “Lady Onora, I will leave your sister to address your concerns. If you need me, I will be within shouting distance.”
Striding away to speak to Sorcha’s groom who had appeared on the hillside, Hugh left the sisters alone in the sheltering trees.
Onora wasted no time.
“Sorcha, I tried to see you yesterday to tell you that Da wishes to send you to the convent with all haste. He says he will not wait until the end of summer and that you must leave before Lammas.”
The fear and empathy Sorcha saw in her sister’s eyes sent a tremor of alarm through her.
“So soon?” Her heart sank at the thought of leaving Conn before his second birthday. She had thought to have more time with her son before her father imposed the inevitable censure upon her for having a child without the benefit of a husband he chose.
A husband who married her before a real priest with a hundred witnesses.
Old regrets rose high, threatening to pull her under their heavy weight.
“He claims we are both unsafe now. He is to hasten the search for my husband and he will not afford you as much time with Conn as you wanted before you are to—” Onora’s voice broke “—depart from us forever.”
Tears leaped to her sister’s eyes and Sorcha pulled her close to comfort her. Onora made it sound as though Sorcha would be sent to her death. And, in a way, perhaps she would be. She would very likely never see her family again once she was sold into the nunnery. Onora would wed a man from a far-off kingdom for a political alliance. Their father would be embroiled in wars that might last for the rest of his life. Sorcha’s youthful mistakes would be forgotten once she was locked away behind the high gates of a priory. Her sole comfort was that Conn would be raised by the king.
Her illegitimate son would find acceptance at last.
But the price for clearing his name of her sins would be high indeed.
“I have always known this day awaited me.” Sorcha would not cry in front of a sister already disposed toward giving free rein to her emotions. “In the end, we make no choices without consequences.”
The wisdom had come too late to Sorcha, but it might yet aid Onora. Sorcha watched a group of girls chasing butterflies nearby and felt a pang of yearning for those simpler times when they would have joined the village children in such a game.
“But at least they are your choices.” Onora gazed off into the distance. Nay, she seemed to be staring toward Hugh and the groom. “You did not bend to father’s will to wed some toothless old nobleman who would swive with a sheep in the absence of a woman.”
“Sister!” Sorcha sought for a sense of outrage with which to chide her, but could not hold back a laugh. “I cannot fathom where you have gained such a wicked mind.”
“It is not far from the truth, and well you know it from the men Father offered to you.”
Sorcha recalled two different lords her father had suggested as husbands and shivered anew. She had spent so much time these past moons regretting the life she had to offer Conn that she had almost forgotten what made her rebel so strongly in the first place. Would she have been any better off now if she’d dutifully wed one of those ancient noblemen?
“But I have learned that acceptance is more important than you realize.” She squeezed Onora’s arm to emphasize the point as a nearby children’s game grew rambunctious.
Hot cockles always appealed to the most rowdy children as it involved placing a hood over the eyes of a person in the center while others circled him and randomly hit the blinded person until they were identified by name.
Somehow, this round of hot cockles had spread all the way up the hillside as the blindfolded boy listed about, trying to both duck and guess his tormentors’ names.
Hugh must have noted the players’ advance, for he called out to her from his position farther down the hill. She was about to proclaim her safety when she was struck in the temple and fell heavily to the ground.
Reckless youths scattered like the wind.
Hugh plowed past them to reach Sorcha, suspicious of every face that streaked by but unable to search for a culprit until he knew the princess of Connacht had suffered no lasting harm. He had been alert for full-grown men who might wish to hurt her or steal her away, not barefoot urchins in the midst of a game.
“Sorcha.” He kneeled to the ground beside her, careful not to land on the river of auburn hair spilling out onto the grass.
Her skin was pale, the faint freckles on her nose standing out in sharper relief. He plunged his hand beneath the blue veils hung from her silver circlet, feeling along the back of her head for any injury. Gently, he sifted through her silky hair.
Relief rushed through him when he found no blood, though he discovered a lump just above her ear. The spot was swollen and warm to the touch.
“She said nothing before she fell,” Onora told him, her voice breathless. “She merely sank to the ground.”
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