Any expectations for a crown-wearing lord in a high throne were dashed by the sight of twelve men seated at a table, none higher than the other. He scanned the faces quickly, his eyes starting at one end of the table and working down, only to be struck by the sense that the king was the largest man seated in the center.
That noble wore a jeweled brooch at his collar and the ruby at the center was the kind of stone few lords would possess. In a land where the number of colors a person wore seemed significant, this person’s garb contained the most. Purple and yellow vied with green and blue. Checkers on his tunic were not enough ornamentation. Stripes on his crimson cloak made him a target for the eye. Every other knight at the table wore bright silks and satins.
But for a court that adhered to a hierarchy of dress, giving slaves but one color to wear and the king as many as imaginable, Hugh was surprised the king did not take a seat at a higher table or even at the head.
If Tiernan Con Connacht was a man of traditional custom, Hugh had yet to see a sign of it.
He also had yet to see any hint of recognition in the sovereign’s face. While it was disappointing not to discover an answer to the matter of his identity, it also meant he was able to relax without having to pretend to know someone he did not recollect.
“Your Highness.” Hugh swept a low bow. “Thank you for seeing me.”
Bowing did not feel natural to him. Another hint he spent more time battling enemies than licking royal boot soles.
“If you are here to talk peace between our lands, you are the strangest courtier I’ve ever seen.” The older man spoke between sips of ale, the knights around him going quiet. “Ye look more like a warrior than a peacemaker.”
The knights clustered around the king appeared ready to lunge for their knives at any moment.
“Peace is no business of mine. I come to offer you my sword if you have need of a mercenary.”
He had no sword, of course. He’d bargained with lords and thieves, merchants and even a child who had taken the bribe of a cake in exchange for help unlocking an armory on his way to their seaside kingdom. He’d not stolen any weapon from that armory, but he’d needed a blade to obtain a meal, after which he’d replaced the knife. In that way, his journey had been unbearably slow, but he’d arrived in Connacht at last.
He would talk his way into a place among the king’s court until he had time to know these people. To understand what connection bound him to them.
“I find it hard to believe you would offer that which you do not possess.” The king’s keen eye assessed Hugh’s lowly garments. “I spoke with my man at the gate and was told you carried no weapon save a dagger, and I would be more than surprised if you could inflict much damage on a sword-wielding enemy with such a knife.”
“You might be surprised what cunning will accomplish when it allies with such a knife.”
Someone at the king’s table snorted.
“And think you I will take your word on this skill?” One sandy eyebrow arched and Hugh knew he was a moment away from being dismissed.
His lack of checkered clothes and leather shoes put him at a disadvantage.
“I am content to prove the claim.”
For a moment, no one at the table spoke, and then the king barked with laughter.
“Do you hope to cut down my men from inside my walls, English? Are you my enemies’ latest weapon?”
One of the king’s men stood, his hand still on his sword, although he did not draw it.
“I would lay waste to any enemy first, my liege,” the younger man swore, his cheeks flushed with impassioned feeling.
“No need, Donngal.” The king waved him down, still studying Hugh. By now, Hugh thought he spied a hint of interest or—possibly—respect in the other man’s eyes. “I would ask that Fergus do the honors.”
With a nod to the man seated at his right, Tiernan Con Connacht as good as gave the battle order.
“You must know your gatekeeper relieved me of my knife.” Hugh gauged the other man’s height. His breadth.
“Donngal, give him yours.” The king took another sip of ale and leaned back in his chair at the table. He seemed ready for a show.
Hugh would strive not to disappoint. Being taken in as a mercenary meant earning the right to remain in the court, where there must be a clue to his past. The right to remain in Connacht long enough to discover why Lady Sorcha’s eyes lit up when she first spied him.
The boy who’d risen to threaten Hugh now flushed even deeper to hand over his dagger to an English knight.
“Thank you.” He accepted the blade as Fergus stalked around to Hugh’s side of the table.
Before the knight stepped within sword’s reach of him, Hugh reacted. He arced back the blade and let it fly, seeing the knife launched from his hand before he had time to wonder if he possessed the necessary skill for such a trick. The knife traveled end over end, spinning through the air until it found its mark under Fergus’s arm, pinning the fabric of his tunic and cloak to the wall behind him.
The captive cloth pulled the knight back in midstride. Steel clanked and reverberated as ten men drew their swords in response. Hugh marveled at this newly discovered talent even as he thanked the saints he did not kill the warrior. Every day he learned more of his skills and he had to think he’d once been a powerful knight. A leader of men, perhaps. Or a battle tactician.
“Hold.” The king lifted one arm, a heavy gold nasc thick with engraving about his wrist. “Donngal, free Fergus and sheathe your knife. Men, you may put away your swords around our unarmed friend.”
When Donngal looked as though he would argue, Fergus growled low at him and that was all it took to quiet the younger man.
“Leave us, my friends,” the king continued, motioning to his knights.
Hugh watched as ten men filed out, some glaring at him, others paying him little heed. Only Fergus and the king remained. He sensed that boded well. If Hugh had been destined for death, he suspected the king would have accomplished the deed in front of all his men.
“Well done, sir.” The king’s whole aspect changed as he waved Hugh closer. “I have need of a man with your skills in the matter of my daughter.”
Warning hummed over Hugh’s skin. Did the king despise his exiled offspring so much that he would hire a mercenary to…He could not complete the thought. And he would not hurt a woman no matter what the prize.
“I hoped to fight at your side, Your Highness.” He inclined his head to show respect in an effort to balance his words of disagreement.
“You have already met my daughter.”
His head snapped up.
“She may be in exile, but that does not mean I do not watch over her.”
“It is true we exchanged words,” Hugh acknowledged.
“You could have killed her. Or worse.”
“I would harm no woman.”
“Precisely why you show potential as a protector for her.”
Who entrusted a princess to a foreigner, and a stranger at that? Tiernan would be at war with the Normans before the year was out. The king had no reason to trust Hugh.
“Why not a man of your house?” Why not Fergus?
“She is protected from afar, but not from up close, and she has always been too willful to allow my guards near her, even when she lived within my walls.” He scowled. “She once sneaked from the keep to ride with my men on a campaign against the Norsemen. She journeyed halfway across our lands in the guise of a man’s garb before she revealed herself, informing Fergus she was bored and wished to return home.”