She could, however, torment him gently through this unseated warrior by encouraging the man to barter. The thought made her smile right through the strain of this odd conversation with a total stranger.
The sun slipped lower on the horizon, causing the man to shield his eyes.
“Might I know your name so that when I speak to your father I may tell him we have met?” He stood bathed in sunlight, his rough-hewn garments taking on a golden sheen as he studied her.
And once again there loomed a flash of recognition, a sense that she had once known him…Perhaps it was a good thing her knife was not more accessible.
“I am Sorcha.” She owned her identity with pride despite her father’s desire to make her regret all that she was. “And I assure you that your bargaining will prove more favorable if you do not mention my name to my sire. Fare thee well, sir.”
Turning, she kept the knife tucked up her sleeve. She wanted to put distance between her and the source of her muddled feelings—fear and resentment at his intrusion on her privacy, worry that he was some relative of her former lover. She recoiled at the thought. Her exile gave her far too much time to mull over past mistakes and fret for her son’s future. She didn’t need any more worries. There was no choice but to forget she’d ever met this dark-eyed stranger.
“You do not wish to know my name in return?” the stranger called to her.
“We will not meet again,” she returned without looking back, holding Conn’s hand with her free palm.
Sighing, she paused. Turned.
“You must hold the blade at your side. Within the folds of your skirts.”
“I beg your—”
She stopped when his gaze slid unerringly down her body toward the hand concealing her weapon.
“Your hold is too awkward to be unnoticeable. Whereas if you grip the handle in your palm, you are more comfortable and in more of a position to use it quickly. For instance, if I came at you now—”
He stepped forward.
“Do not.” She pulled Conn behind her again. Shaking her arm, she slid the blade free of her sleeve so she could use it if necessary.
By God, she would let no man touch her son. Not even one who looked strangely like the boy’s father.
“I only meant to suggest you could not react quickly enough with a dagger inside your sleeve.” He halted his progress, although she guessed he felt little threat from her blade. “I will pray you never have need of your weapon, but if you are inclined to use it, you would do well to draw blood from the enemy and not from your forearm. Godspeed, Sorcha.”
The mercenary spun on his heel, a crude excuse for a shoe covering his foot in straw and linen as he walked away. Was he a desperately poor knight? A common thief playing games with her? She could not imagine how a commoner could have taught himself such a pretty accent, but perhaps that was no more strange than a horseless English knight strolling through her father’s kingdom on shoes of straw.
Either way, she was well rid of his company and she would be more careful in the future. Hadn’t she heard the foreign wars would find their way to Connacht before long? And how sad that she feared the idea of foreign invaders less than another, more personal threat against her.
Plucking up Conn in her arms, she ran home with all haste, grateful for another day of freedom from the convent to be with her child.
She knew him or she knew of him. Of that much Hugh was certain.
He paced an empty antechamber within the walls of Tir’a Brahui, the coastal keep belonging to Tiernan Con Connacht. Hugh had reached the holding the night before but did not wish to intrude in the dark and appear a threat. He truly had lost his horse and his sword, but not to thieves as he’d told Sorcha. He’d needed to trade them for various supplies on the long journey since he’d had no funds to speak of. Last night, he’d foraged for food, stamping down the desire to build a fire, and spent the night anonymously in the king’s forest, the same way he’d spent so many nights these last two moons on the road.
Now, at midmorn, he paced the sparse room adorned in naught but colorful tapestries that were surely aged and tattered a hundred years ago. The petty kingdom ruled over by Sorcha’s father was subject to a higher king of Connacht, but Hugh’s understanding of the country’s leadership stopped there. He’d been too focused on figuring out who he was and how to survive the long journey to pay attention to politics and the incessant warmongering that seemed to take place among the smaller kingdoms.
Now that he’d come to Ireland, he hoped to see something or someone that would nudge a memory. His impression of Tiernan Con Connacht was not favorable thus far and Hugh rather hoped they were not related. What king allowed his daughter to live unprotected on the fringes of his kingdom? Hugh could not envision the woman and her son surviving for long with Norman invaders at Hugh’s heels.
The idea of harm befalling her did not settle well. In fact, he’d felt pulled to her so strongly he guessed they must have met. And yet she’d denied any knowledge of him. Still, even without a connection between them, he’d been compelled to protect her. The memory of her gripping a knife so fiercely her fingers bled stayed with him long after night had fallen yester eve. The warrior in him recognized her absolute commitment to protecting her son at any cost, and he had no doubt she would have wielded the blade fiercely if Hugh posed a threat.
Had he left behind a woman so devoted to family? Stopping in front of a faded yellow tapestry depicting a man and a woman releasing their falcon, Hugh smoothed his hand over the lady’s face. He’d given little thought to the possibility of being married, but the stirring in his blood at the sight of Sorcha made him consider the likelihood.
Could he have forgotten a wife? A child?
“You may see His Highness now,” a man announced as Hugh spun to see him. A servant was dressed in red and blue, his clothes as vibrant as everyone else’s in this strange land.
“Thank you.” Hugh released a pent-up breath, more than ready to get answers about his identity.
He’d offered up a false name at the gate to Tir’a Brahui, calling himself Hugh Fitz Henry. The surname was common enough, the kind of moniker bastards received all the time when their mothers wished to point fingers at a father. Other times, the name was chosen in homage to a king since there had been a Henry on the English throne for nigh on seventy years.
How sorry was it that Hugh remembered more about the king’s seat than his own place in the world?
“Follow me,” the servant said, disappearing into the corridor lit by a torch despite the daylight hours. The keep allowed in precious little sun, and the interior corridors remained shadowy.
Squinting to adjust to the dimness, Hugh planned his strategy for this meeting. He needed to pinpoint the king immediately—to gauge the lord’s reaction before he could mask his response to Hugh’s presence.
Perhaps the king was a friend. But what if he was somehow behind Hugh’s predicament? The stitches healing in his head told him someone had brutalized him. Was his lack of memory due to the beating? He knew he was no half-wit since his skills with a weapon and his instincts for survival had proven well honed on the journey here.
“This way, sir.” The servant paused beside a door but did not enter it, standing aside to let Hugh pass.
Hugh nodded and surveyed the portal. Light streamed from the chamber. The one wall within his view contained a rack of swords