Two months later
Sorcha ingen Con Connacht felt the presence of a stranger before she heard his footsteps in nearby woods.
Stilling herself, she reached for her dagger with one hand and hugged her young son closer with the other. No one walked the paths near Sorcha’s home. All of Connacht knew her shame.
Being banished from her father’s small Irish kingdom had put her into exile for over a year now, and the isolation in a remote stretch of forest made her senses keen to the presence of another soul. She could feel a change in the air when anyone neared—even when a maid from the keep delivered food stores or a villager traded meat for clothing from Sorcha’s loom. But when an approaching stranger was male, her senses sharpened all the more acutely.
Sharpened with the undeniably primal instincts of a mother protecting her babe.
Every day she half expected her father’s guard to arrive to take her son away and deposit her in a convent. Her father had threatened as much by summer’s end. But surely her father’s knights would not arrive quietly. They would storm through the forest with a full contingent to seize her.
“Who goes there?” she shouted into the trees in a harsh voice, determined her son would come to no harm even though they were vulnerable here—far removed from her father’s lofty keep on the coast. “My sire is lord of these lands and will allow no harm done to his heir.”
Her boy, Conn, squealed in response to her raised voice from his seat upon her hip. She hushed him softly while concealing her dagger up her sleeve. Should she run? Or did that invite some thief to give chase?
She cradled Conn tighter, squeezing the weight of his year-old body closer. He squirmed now, his hand gripping a hank of her hair and pulling hard.
“I seek the lord of these lands, lady, and I mean you no harm.” A masculine voice preceded the trespasser from the other side of a small clearing at the base of the mountains that protected the headlands of Connacht.
Sorcha roamed the mountainside daily since she’d been confined to an outpost at the edge of her father’s lands, the hills and valleys her refuge from the world’s disdain.
She’d always felt safe here, even if she was scorned. Now she couldn’t help but recall the warnings she’d received from her father’s keep that war might come to Connacht at any time. She walked steadily backward as she watched the man emerge from the trees.
And if the resonant thrum of masculine tones had been impressive, his size was twice as daunting.
The stranger was easily the largest man she’d ever seen. Thick-chested and girded by muscles that could only be honed for sword fighting, the traveler had to be a warrior even if he rode no horse and brandished no sword. Squinting through the late-afternoon sunlight, Sorcha struggled for a better look, only to feel faint as his features came into clearer view.
“For the love of Our Blessed Lady.” Her grip on her child slipped, the boy’s chubby fists shoving her mercilessly in an effort to walk on his own. She had no choice but to put him down if she wanted to maintain her grip on her weapon, so she tucked him behind her skirts.
She straightened, not believing her eyes. Did the dead return to walk among the living? She tucked the knife closer to her body, wishing the point did not scrape open her finger as she held it in place. Still, if the stranger stalked any closer, she would be glad to have the blade within easy reach.
“My lady?” The man paused, as if attempting to prove his claim he meant no harm.
Did he realize how much harm he caused with no more than his starkly featured countenance?
Dark hair streamed down his back, glistening in the sunlight as if he had just rinsed it clean in some fast-running spring brook. His gaze took on a curious gleam, although she could envision those dark, gold-flecked eyes turned to her in anger.
Or in passion…
Heaven help her, but did she have to be reminded of her sins at every turn?
“What business do you have with the lord of this place, sir?” Her words were raw in her throat, stripped of any soft courtesy.
A tremble tripped through her skin, followed by a tangle of emotions in her belly that seemed too convoluted to sort through now.
“Your expression makes me wonder if we have met, my lady.” The stranger did not incline his head like a courtier. He only continued to stare at her with an attention all the more rapt since she began her careful perusal.
And yet, this was not her former lover. She could see the differences in this man’s face now that he’d moved closer and the sunlight no longer played tricks with her vision.
Still…the trespasser’s resemblance to the father of her son was remarkable. Suspect.
“We are unknown to each other, sir. Pray excuse my surprise at seeing you here when I am accustomed to privacy upon this side of the mountain.” Wanting to escape him and flee the quiet glade where no one would hear her if she cried out, Sorcha bent to retrieve the blanket she’d brought along with the basket she’d used to gather flowers. “Conn, we must go, my love.”
While smiling reassuringly at her son, she never took her eyes off the man, watching his hands for any sign of movement toward his weapon. Cursing her father for consigning her to this godforsaken borderland, Sorcha would never feel safe in these woods again—not when Conn’s life depended on her. Keeping her boy secure was the only benefit of allowing her father to dispatch her to the convent. The king would protect his grandson. She would merely have to relinquish all contact with her child and trade the rest of her days to give Conn a future.
For now, she tried to keep her movements unhurried despite the maelstrom of memories, emotions and questions that attacked her from all sides. Not even the scent of spring flowers all around her could cover up the stench of her fear.
“Pray do not let me disturb you.” The man held up a hand in a show of surrender, keeping his distance from her and Conn. “I have journeyed far to see your sire and I would not let anything delay me from the task.”
“You would make better time on a horse, warrior.” Could he be a spy for the invading armies, surveying the lands before others arrived? She could not understand his alliance or his possible purpose here.
The man lacked the accoutrements she associated with a knight. He wore no sword, although a dagger gleamed from its sheathe at his waist. His garb bore no hint of family or heraldry, which she supposed was not strange for a mercenary, and yet his clothes had almost too humble an air for a man of such imposing stature and breadth. Still, given his resemblance to her onetime lover, she half expected to see the du Bois crest upon his person—the white stag rampant upon a blue field.
“I was set upon by thieves some leagues hence,” he explained, locking his hands behind his back as if to reinforce his message that he meant no harm. Unfortunately, Sorcha was well acquainted with men who were not at all what they seemed. “Their numbers were too many to defeat for a lone knight.”
He shrugged as if the loss of his horse and weaponry were no great offense, when she knew some knights owned nothing in the world save their armor and their mount. Had he made up the story about the thieves to explain away his presence here? Had his family sent him to find her? Curiosity grew, but she tempered it with wariness.
“I thought to offer your father my services in cleaning out the lot of them if he can provide me with a horse. Nothing would please me more than to rescue my own mount with the blood of his captors.” He inclined his head again, strangely polite for a mercenary, especially one with Norman forebears. “Begging your pardon for the threat, my lady.”
Something tugged at her hand and she nearly lost her grip on the knife up her sleeve as Conn tried to get her attention. Heart squeezing with a trickle of fear that the stranger might perceive the flash of a blade as a threat, Sorcha gave herself another cut as she shoved the blade back in place.
“My father is wily with horseflesh, sir.” She spoke quickly