Soldier by Catherine Lloyd

Outside the walls of Castlemuir ~ March 1202


TESS STUMBLED running through the wood. Blinded by terror, mute with panic, the sound of fire crackled behind her—the village was burning to the ground. She heard the screams of women and men being murdered or captured. Tree branches caught and pulled at her long black hair, tearing it out at the roots but she dared not slow down. One of the raiders had marked her escape and was hard on her heels.
Soldier
Soldier by Catherine Lloyd
Horse’s hooves pounded the forest floor, shaking the birds out of their nests and sending the night creatures scattering to their burrows. Fear clawed her throat. The animal must be huge—what manner of man required a horse of such fantastic size? He was upon her in an instant despite the panic that sped her feet. The horse reared and its rider shouted an oath, ordering her to stop. Tess ducked into the underbrush where he could not follow. She heard the rider swear an oath and then the sound of crashing and the clang of metal. The raider was giving chase on foot! What did he want from her that made him so determined? She had concealed her identity. He could not know who she was—could he? Mud from the spring run-off marked her trail. Branches stung her eyes and cut her cheek. Her gown twisted around her ankles. Tess was unused to the forest, and most especially at night. Terror made her push deeper into the dark wood. The man was close behind her. “Stop and you’ll not be harmed but if you keep running, I swear on my life I will make you pay!” She dove under a thicket not yet in bud just as he closed the gap. Tess was certain he didn’t see her, but the raider stopped abruptly on the path and turned back as though sniffing her out like a rat in a trap. The soldier was a mercenary. The poor quality of his armor indicated that he served no lord; his breastplate was not emblazoned with a crest. Tess’s mouth dried. Mercenary soldiers were notoriously vicious and without scruple. The stories of their brutal attacks were known all over England. The man who hunted her was a common foot soldier, fighting for profit rather than faith or fealty. He was more of a threat to her than a knight in full armor. ♠ BRODERICK SWORE under his breath. He had better things to do than to chase a slip of a girl through the wood. The March air chilled him through his brigandine. He was not paid for prisoners unless they were men or youths who could be conscripted into King John’s army. Furthermore, Kylie was waiting for him at home. His wife worried the nights he was out on a raiding party. Broderick had to earn a living and as long as the king paid in gold sovereigns, he would offer his sword. He stretched his arm into the thicket where the girl had hidden and hauled her out by the scruff of her neck. Broderick landed her in front of him to get a better look. The light was not strong in the forest. He could not make out her features. “What have we here? Be you a noblewoman or commoner? Speak up girl!” He clamped his massive gauntlet-gloved hands on her small shoulders and shook her roughly. “What is your name? I’m not going to hurt you. Are you the daughter of Lord Harald whose castle we have seized? He is a traitor to the king and he and his household are subject to imprisonment.” A thin shaft of moonlight penetrated the canopy and fell across her face. Broderick frowned. The girl was a great beauty. The most beautiful and delicate creature he had ever seen. Lord Harald had fallen out of favour since King John’s ascension to the throne. He suspected this girl was his daughter but he could not say for sure. She was expensively gowned for a lady’s maid but perhaps she was a decoy to lure him away from his real quarry—the elusive Lady Tess. “Do you not speak?” The girl shook her dark head. “A mute?” Broderick grinned and swung her around back to front. “You’d better find your voice, girl. For if you are not Lady Tess of Castlemuir, all manner of evil could befall you here. Her ladyship is valuable for ransom. A lady’s maid is of no value to a mercenary soldier except for what is between her legs. Which do you prefer—ransom or ravishment?” Tess did not answer while her mind worked. Her maid, Gretchen, had been afflicted with an illness in childhood that had robbed her of speech. Swapping places with her lady’s maid was a clever notion. She would pretend to be Gretchen, posing as Lady Tess. As for Gretchen, she was far away, having been sent out of the county after the last raid. The raider was a large man, made larger still by his shoulder armor and leather brigandine. He wore linen braies and leather boots. Tess could not make out his features under his iron helmet and nose guard. Escape would not be an easy matter. She darted away from him. He pulled her back and lifted her off the ground. With one thick arm clamped about her waist, he carried her in the direction of the forest. “Ravishment it is then.” In truth, Broderick did not know what he meant to do with her now that he had her. He had given chase, thinking the girl could increase his purse if she was a noblewoman. He had gone to a great deal of trouble to capture a mute lady’s maid. King John would not pay for this one; killing her was cheaper. She was not worth anything at all, dead or alive. The night had turned chilly though spring solstice had been celebrated and Easter was close behind. The girl was small and light. Her wide eyes were fixed on him and her black hair swung down to her back. It crossed his mind that she could have a fetching figure under her finery. Like the men he rode with, Broderick was frequently disloyal to his wife. Women and maids were the spoils of war and fighting men had to take their pleasure where they found it, lest they get lonely and give up warfare. This was understood by nobility and commoner alike. Kylie was none the wiser. Married to him for ten years, with no children to occupy her, he was more considerate of his wife than most husbands. But then Broderick loved Kylie with his whole being and all the lasses in the world would not change that. But this little wench was proving hard to resist. Her silence was alluring. A beautiful mute girl unable to scream was very attractive indeed. If she was Lady Tess, however, he could not touch her without risking his own neck on a charge of treason. The Lady Tess was King John’s prize in this campaign. “I have a bargain for you,” he said meditatively, setting her on her feet. “If you are a very good girl and do not cause trouble, I shall restore you to your family. Give me their names and I’ll send word that you are safe and unharmed and they may have you back.” She shook her head vigorously and fought to escape. Broderick clenched his jaw and gripped her thin arm tighter. “You are certainly stupid enough to be a lady’s maid. If you are not Lady Tess, you will be used by my men and when they are finished with you, you’ll be left to starve. Food stores are reserved for soldiers. Did her ladyship ask you to wear this finery to fool us? I am a hired soldier—I have no master. I can release you, but you must give me something in return. If Lord Harald is not dead, he soon will be and your lady cannot save you then. Hold!” She struggled against him as though she believed she could escape. “I am not going to harm you but if you push me past my patience, I shall smack that insolent look off your face!” Tess fought to get free of him, although it was useless. Her heart trembled, fearing what this raider would do if she could not escape. She was resolved not to give away her identity and be held for ransom. Her father would pay any sum to get her back and Tess would not allow him to bankrupt his estate and bring their people to starvation for her sake. The raider lost patience. He pushed her to the ground. Tess fell on the path, landing on her back. She stared up at the giant, her mouth in her throat. Her skirts had pushed up above her thighs. Her hands scrambled over her dress to cover her bare legs. “Do not trouble yourself on my account, wench. It is not me you need to fear. I have more pressing concerns at the moment than my cock. I want Lady Tess and you shall give her up to me or find yourself delivered up to my men. Your silence just might save you. With luck, you’ll find a man among my soldiers willing to take a discreet girl under his arm. What say you?” Tess touched her throat and the mercenary soldier made a noise of impatience. “You cannot speak but you can sign can you not? Point the way and I’ll give chase. There now. That’s a fair offer.” He reached down to help her up. Tess turned and lifted her arm, indicating the path that wound deeper through the wood. It was a horse path frequented by market carts and villagers travelling from Castlemuir to the town of Edwinstowe. “Her ladyship escaped in that direction?” Tess nodded and pointed again with greater confidence. “Was she on horseback or on foot?” Tess hesitated, wondering which would be most likely to encourage him to give chase. She indicated her foot. “On foot. That is well. I’ll have her before daybreak. Come, show me the way.” She shook her head vigorously and gave him a light push in the direction of his quarry. She indicated her intention to return to Castlemuir. The soldier caught her by the arm. “Ho no! Nay, my girl, I’ll not let you go until the Lady Tess is captured and is exchanged for you. If you have lied to me, I’ll want something for my pains. That’s how it works, girl. A mercenary must make a profit, even a poor one. Come along, the night is wasting and my men will be looking for me. Pray they don’t find you first. I won’t kill one of my own to save your hide.” Tess stood her ground, unable to think of what to do next to stall the soldier. She could not fight him and she could not outrun him. If she was returned to his camp, she would be violated—he did not exaggerate the debauchery of his fellow soldiers. King John’s use of mercenaries to fight his battles had brought shame to the women in her father’s parish. There was not a virgin left among them. It was the reason she had discharged her maids and sent them out of the county. The man’s sword rattled its sheath as he moved to fetch his horse. Her eyes went to it. Tess had a daring idea. If she could not fight him physically, she would have to manipulate him emotionally. One man was easier to master than a dozen. She caught his hand. The soldier turned and though the iron mask of his helmet, she saw his eyes widen in surprise. She drew him toward her so that he could not mistake her meaning. He stopped her. “Do not tempt me, wench. I’m not one of your milk fed boys—mind how you go.” Tess smiled beguilingly and with a slight jerk of her head, she led him off the path and into the dark cool of the forest. There was a mound of damp moss that grew in a sort of clearing a short distance away. She led her soldier to it and then lay down upon the earth. Still and scarcely breathing, she reached her hand up to him. His posture was resistant but she could see he wanted to yield. Truly, she almost felt sorry for him but she would cut his throat nonetheless. “Let there be no misunderstanding between us,” the soldier said as he removed his helmet and shook his golden head. “We shall take our mutual pleasure here and then we shall part company. I’ll go after your ladyship and you may go where you wilt. A fair bargain, I’d say and a better one than you’ll get with King John. I suppose you may kill me at some time in the future. But if you do, it will be murder as I have done you no harm.” Tess forced what she imagined to be a wanton smile to her lips. His sword was sheathed at his waist. The mercenary unbuckled his belt and it fell to the ground with a clatter. She began feel a sliver of doubt about pulling off the deception. Her soldier was very tall and the worst of it was he was handsome and not as old as she had thought. Tess was nineteen. Her father had given up trying to marry her off after she declared she would take the veil before she’d consent to marry a man she detested. Sadly, every single nobleman her father had paraded before her, Tess found utterly detestable. The soldier stood over her and for a moment she thought he would change his mind. She pressed her hand to her chest and then circled her palms outward as she had seen Gretchen do. “You like me.” He laughed. She nodded and the raider dropped to his knees at her side. “I like you too, girl. I like you too well. Your beauty has condemned us both.” He stroked her face. “I am married to a fine woman and until this moment, I have only broken our marriage vows with whores. I am glad you cannot speak for your eyes are doing sufficient damage to my soul. Your voice would be my undoing.” Broderick tugged at the tie at his waist and his brais came loose. He liberated his cock from its protective cup and stroked it to fullness. The girl’s face expressed curiosity and astonishment but she was not frightened. He eyed her curiously. “Ah, so you are not a virgin then. I thought as much. A young beauty such as you would know a thing or two about men. I should think you were plucked years ago.” The moon cleared a cloud. A soft blue glow washed over the forest, dousing them in moonlight. The girl was far more beautiful than Broderick thought. Her hair was long, thick raven black, glossy as silk. He pulled off his gauntlet gloves to gather it by the fistful to his nostrils and inhaled. Her eyes were fastened on his face, as puzzled and entranced as he was by the change between them. “How old are you? You are above seventeen by my reckoning. I hope not as young as fifteen. I cannot abide a miss of fifteen—not a lick of sense at that age. Nod once if your age is above seventeen; twice if you are less.” She nodded twice and he laughed. “Now, if you were fifteen, I doubt you would’ve had the wit to lie about your age. I daresay you’re as old as twenty and I am not your first.” The girl turned her face away. “Hah! I have hit the mark! Ah now, there is no reason to be ashamed of enjoying sex. I am not your judge. And by my troth you are beautiful ... no man could resist one such as you in his household.” For a moment Broderick forgot where he was and what he was about. She had captivated him with her eyes that were shaped like crescent moons and weighted with heavy black lashes. Her eyes shone silver and her lush red mouth trembled. The girl’s black brows knitted together. She seemed to want to say something. Broderick shook his head and kissed her deliberately on the mouth. “Nay, do not try to speak. It is better for us both that you cannot. You cannot testify against me and because of that, I will not expose you as a traitor when I capture Lady Tess. I am not a good man,” he murmured as he kissed her neck. “I am not a gallant knight or the chivalrous hero of maidenly dreams but I won’t betray you. If you are indeed Lady Tess’s maid, giving yourself to me is treason. Lord Harald’s supporters will kill you if they learn of this.” Broderick slowly opened the stays at her bodice. Tess’s eyes followed his hands and then went to the sword. It was out of reach. If she made a lunge for it now, she would give herself away and he would surely take her prisoner to be handed over to King John’s camp. Then it was only a matter of time before she was identified as Lady Tess of Castlmuir. Chapter II “DO NOT be frightened,” her soldier murmured. She reacted with shock when he opened her gown and squeezed her breasts. “I am your master now. Lord Harald can go to hell.” Tess choked down a retort. Later, later, she told herself. She would break her disguise long enough to hurl abuse at the soldier before she slit his throat. He guided her hand to his thickening cock. “That’s it, touch me there. Ah, like that ... stroke it ... yes ... oh girl ... it is you who has fired this lust in me.” Tess’s eyes widened as his member doubled in her hand. He was bent over her, half-dressed, his brais about his knees and her skirts pushed up. She stared up at the starry night sky, stunned by how rapidly he had taken possession of her, and that she was shamefully excited by this possession! The mercenary was a masterful man though he could not be above thirty. She pushed him away a little to examine him better. He grunted and raised his head to look at her. Her mouth was open. Broderick groaned aloud, imagining those puffy lips fastened on the rigid staff between his legs. Her eyes were dark and serious as his gaze travelled to her breasts. “By God, you are magnificent,” Broderick breathed. “See how you fill my hand. Generously-sized to suckle a babe—and your teats, they are petals, soft protrusions that incite a man to forget himself. Rejoice in your good fortune, that it was me who caught you and not one of King John’s men.” He put his lips on her tit and it budded and plucked taut under his tongue. His cock pulled like a wire in response. This would be no ordinary romp. Broderick would take his time with this little maid. The girl’s breasts were high and firm and curved like white marble. Just looking at her had thickened his erection to extraordinary proportions. Broderick stroked her hair that fanned out around her head. “Lift your arms,” he instructed softly. She obeyed, raising her arms slightly above her head. There was a strange light in her eyes that shot through him like hot flame. Though she was not a virgin, she seemed intensely curious to learn what he would do next. Broderick could not bear to allow her mind to change at this point—he stripped off her gown. She squirmed, naked between his massive thighs. The maid had had nothing on underneath the light silk. “What means this,” Broderick grunted. The sight of her young body was felling him by degrees. “It appears your mistress grabbed you straight from bed when she forced to assume her persona. Don’t hide your face. You should not be ashamed to be seen thus. On the contrary, you were made to give a man pleasure.” Broderick’s eyes felt hot as coals looking at her. Never before had he beheld such a beauty. Her breasts were the image of youth and perfection. She had no voice but the heavens had blessed her with other attractions ... slim hips and thighs, and a tapered waist that he could encircle with his large hands. A thick, glossy bush concealed her sex and he petted as though it was a fine pelt. Her slit was juicy beyond description, a cherry red glistening tart that begged to be eaten. No man could have passed up a jewel such as this for long. Still, his conscience gave him pause. “Lord Harald has a notorious reputation for bedding his daughter’s maids. I should not like to be cast in the same light as that knave. Has his lordship had you, then?” Tess bit down hard on her lip to keep from bellowing the retort that sprang to mind. What the devil was the beast talking about? Her father, admittedly, had a lustful eye—Tess had upbraided him on more than one occasion for it—but Harald’s conquests were more than willing. Her father was not at this very moment prowling the halls at Castlemuir on the hunt for young women to ravish—his men were! Tess warmed with the vision of cutting the soldier’s throat but she held her tongue and adjusted her expression to one of demure desire. She shook her head in answer to his question and flattered him with a kiss. His lips were warm and responsive. Her stomach tightened. Tess was aware she was naked. Being exposed thus had felt terrible at first, but the feeling soon passed and was replaced by something warmer and less familiar than modesty. The soldier was extremely handsome. Good God, she was just like her father, Tess realized with a start. Seduced by a pretty face! Though he was a mercenary, she could not deny the man was beautiful. It was rare to see such perfection in one of his class. She shook herself. Stick to the plan, Tessie. Don’t falter now. You almost have him... He openly perused her naked body and stroked her skin from her knees to her shoulders and down the length of her arm. Tess grew very still under his caress. With the tips of his fingers, Broderick lightly explored her nakedness; her skin was like cream, soft as butter. When he next looked into her face, he saw the sultry beauty of a young woman who was sexually aroused. Broderick’s cock expanded to a desperate size. He bent lower between her legs and kissed the pillowy folds of flesh that were protected by her silken bush. His warm breath on her mound seemed to stimulate her further, for on impulse, the girl parted her legs for him. “Are ye so hot to be taken, lass?” Broderick chided. “You know what I mean to do?” She nodded. He laughed deep in his chest, stricken with a peculiar case of nerves. “Your sex is wet and shivering to give up its prize. Your modesty has abandoned you to the desires of your body.” He kissed her mouth, thrusting his tongue between her lips and she struggled briefly against his chest. Broderick was not usually a gentle lover, but he wanted to be with her. He stroked between the folds of her sex, fingering the pearl bud that drove whores wild when it was touched. It worked on lady’s maids too, for the girl gave up her weak resistance and returned his kiss with unexpected passion. Tess took the soldier’s tongue in her mouth, linking it with her own. Between her legs, she felt a peculiar pressure—a tension unlike anything she’d experienced and then fluid—a gush of moisture like she was relieving herself, only she was not. The soldier slowed his sensual assault on her sex to drive his fingers inside her. He pumped in and out, foretelling what was to come. Tess grew weaker by the second. If she did not act soon, she would lose the will to stop him. He took her breath away. The mercenary had captivated her—that she could actually desire him! There must be an explanation—a man as coarse as this would have to work a spell to get so far, so quickly. Tess was certain she would feel shame if she understood what he was doing, but she did not. She only knew the rhythmic stroking of her sex made her head swim. A man’s masterful hand touching her down there ... filling her with rising ecstasy, unlike anything she had ever known. She lunged up against him, overcome by a climax—a pleasure that had no language. “You are in heat, little maid. I believe what I carry between my legs is what you are craving. Show me it is so.” His words were coarse and urgent but Tess heard him as a girl hears her lover. She forgot where they were, she could not recall who she was before this moment. Tess had prayed not to be taken—was this man the answer to her prayer? When he kissed her, she entered his soul and he was joined with hers. United in holy passion, matching him kiss for kiss, caress for caress, Tess was falling in love with her father’s enemy. Her pale, slender thighs parted for him like two birch saplings. Broderick moaned and positioned himself between her legs, lifting her easily in his powerful arms. “Oh my love, my love....” He whispered endearments, knowing she could not repeat them. His soft feelings for the girl would be locked in her silent heart. Broderick moved her legs further apart with his muscular thigh and guided his manhood, thickened and swollen to massive size to the core of her womanhood. He offered her the glazed look of a man shattered and overcome—and then drove his staff into her. The girl made an odd noise of release that could have been mistaken for pain. She pushed against his shoulders and then went limp. He collapsed too, falling over her, panting as he struggled to control his passion. Broderick was shocked by the strength of emotion he had in taking her. The more she surrendered to him, the sharper his pleasure. He nipped her neck and the lobes of her ears and then forced his mouth over her resisting lips. Broderick waited until their breathing was joined and the girl’s legs parted wider with a will of their own. It was only natural they would do so for she was made for him. He knew with supernatural clarity that this girl was created to be loved by him and him alone. She was his. But even in his passion, he found it odd she was wet with both blood and womanly fluids. Broderick assumed she was in her monthly. Unlike the men he served with, he had no objection to loving a girl at this time in her moon cycle. Knowing he could not get the lass with child unleashed a reservoir of passion in Broderick. He did not have to hold back, he could fill her with his seed without risk. He withdrew his shaft and then plundered her again, inch-by-inch. Her eyes were on his face. Lit by the moon, they gleamed with a look that was intimate and spoke to his soul. They did not need words; Broderick knew her thoughts, for they were his. He was in love with her. But it was impossible. Their love was doomed. It could not survive the current political climate. Broderick would be putting her life in danger if he ever attempted to see her again. If she were caught, the girl would be tortured to give up Lady Tess and then executed. How cruel and strange it was that the good God would join a soldier with the servant of his enemy when there was no hope of ever seeing her after this night? Broderick closed his mind to everything but the love they shared now. He plundered her vise-like pussy with greater heat. Her silence conveyed more to him than squeals and moans would have—she was in communion with him beyond the physical pleasure he took in her body. Though he was near to the brink, Broderick pushed his rigid shaft inside her rhythmically, slowly stretching her to take his size. She was so very wet, milky fluid soaked his balls—and tight; he was twice her size—he ought not to have touched her. But oh, how the maid’s pussy grew hotter and wetter with each thrust! “Good God ... you make a man weak.” His voice was thick. His breath—he could not draw breath. The girl was maddening him with the innocent hold her womanhood had on his cock, with her silent mystery. She melted into him, fully giving up herself to his lovemaking. There was no shame in her now. Her body and senses were overpowered by physical ecstasy and she responded with passion he did not expect to find in one so young. Her youth and beauty fired his lust as she submitted to his strength and desire. “By faith, you have me in your snare,” he cried, through clenched teeth. “I shall burst inside your sweet, honey womb if you do not take care!” And then, with a roar that shook the night birds from their perches, Broderick ejaculated inside the lass, filling her with his seed. He was thirty-three; a looter, fornicator and killer. Broderick was a mercenary soldier who’d seen all manner of evil and committed even more. But he’d never lived a day until this moment of climax inside this silent, willing girl. Broderick rolled away and lay flat on his back facing the night stars, catching his breath. “I have no daughters or sons,” he said quietly. He suddenly needed to tell her about himself. “I have only my Kylie, my sword and the men who fight alongside me. They’ve been life enough for me.” He twisted to look at her. “Until now.” Broderick lifted his hand and hesitantly drew a finger over the girl’s tender mouth. She watched him with the same expression of love he felt in his heart. They were suspended in the still quiet of the forest, joined in supernatural union that transcended the act of physical intercourse. “Do you believe it is possible for a man to fall in love with a woman in the space of an hour? In the blink of an eye?” A smile lit her face. Then she trembled and nodded and the smile faded. She understood as he did that these few happy minutes they shared in this time of war were at an end. They must part and never see each other again. The realization was unsettling. This is why a man must keep only to whores, he thought irritably. A lusty wench did not incite anguish when the act was finished other than the sorrow at parting with a sovereign. He was already suffering at the thought of leaving her. “You may get up now. You are free to go,” he said gruffly. He stood up and reached for his brais—and just in time for he heard horse’s hooves thundering down the path on the other side of the trees. “Broderick, you whoring bastard, where have you got to?” One of his men, Davey, was looking for him. Broderick turned back to the girl with a wink and pulled up his pants. The instant his attention was diverted, the girl lunged for his sword. “Hold there! Drop it or I swear I shall take off your head!” Broderick was quicker and taller, with a longer reach. He snatched the blade up and buckled it to his waist. The hilt of the sword was secured under his arm. “Love or no love, we are on opposite sides again. Is that how it is to be? I’ll give you this once, little maid, for I am in closer sympathy with your instinct for self-preservation than you might imagine—but do not test me!” he hissed. “Do not trust my affection to shield you from harm. I have a neck to save as well as you.” Davey’s voice boomed through the wood. “Broderick, get off whoever it is you are fucking and let’s away, man! The horn has sounded!” Broderick cast Lady Tess’s maidservant a last look. And then, tongue-tied and angry with his weakness, he lunged out of the wood to the path. “Aye, here I be—hold your bloody noise. I could hear you the length and breadth of the forest.” “Did ye find her?” “Who?” “The Lady Tess, for God’s sake! The reason ye bolted off into the damnable forest in the first place leaving me to fight alone. Well, did ye find her?” Broderick rubbed his mouth, cleared his throat and cast a quick glance behind him. “Nay, I caught a little fawn, but she made good her escape. I’ve been wandering this wood lost for the past hour.” Broderick caught up the reins and vaulted astride his horse. “Let’s away then.” “Nay, hold fast! We’ll find the little chicken yet. She can’t have got far. She may serve as a bed warmer for one of John’s nobles if she be comely.” “Comely! By God, I never beheld face so ugly.” Broderick snorted with disgust. “A goat is better-featured. She was naught but a waste of time and I’m for bed. My good lady awaits me. Let us away.” Tess curled up into a ball on the moss that was damp with her blood and the soldier’s seed. She waited until the horses’ hooves could no longer be heard before she rose to her knees and pulled her tattered gown on over her body. The mercenary’s name was Broderick. She had tried to kill him—her conscious was clear on that account. She had done her duty to her father and the people at Castlemuir who had trusted her to protect them by attempting to kill the man she loved. Tess pressed her shaking hands to her face. What if she had succeeded? What if she had spilled his blood and watched him die? How could she live in a world that did not contain him? The events of the night taught Lady Tess an important lesson: in time of war, love was a luxury she could not afford. She wiped her eyes and drew herself up to her feet. No man or night of bliss would divert her from her mission ever again. She would put Broderick out of her mind and reclaim Castlemuir one way or another. She only had to stay alive until she saw her chance. Chapter III Castlemuir ~ 24 December 1202 THE MERCENARY Broderick was now Lord Broderick of Castlemuir. For his service to the Crown, King John had made him an Earl and granted him the traitor Harald’s castle and lands. Harald’s daughter was never heard from or seen again and though Harald was spared execution, he was living in exile. King John’s spies reported that Lady Tess had not sought her father out but there was worry she was raising an army of guerilla fighters, loyal to her father. Broderick no longer cared about Lady Tess or her cursed father. Joy had lifted him out of the realm of warfare when his wife announced in June that she was carrying their child. The pregnancy was a miracle, for at thirty years of age Kylie was believed to be barren but God had smiled on Broderick when his wife gave birth to their firstborn son on the twenty-first of December. He was in the great hall celebrating the winter solstice when he heard the lusty squalls of his baby boy. Throughout the pregnancy Kylie was happy, glowing with the fruit of her womb. Each night they marvelled over the movements of the babe growing inside her body. But the birth was a difficult one. Broderick had spared no expense in securing the finest apothecaries and physicians. However, Kylie began to bleed and though he was reassured by the physicians that this was to be expected, there was such an awful lot of blood. In all his years of fighting and killing, Broderick had never thought of the blood. His sole concern when delivering a killing blow was to spill as much of it as possible. Kylie’s bleeding never stopped. His beautiful darling was dead less than three days after his son’s birth. And now the child was dying too, rejecting the wet nurses who were brought in to feed him. Word had just come to him that the infant had vomited the goat’s milk. Broderick’s son was slowly starving to death. ♠ DAVEY HAD summoned his lordship to the Great Hall to attend to the business of the county. Christmastide was almost upon them and Castlemuir was festooned with holly and fragrant evergreen boughs. Cheering smells of baking and roasting meats emanated from the great kitchen below stairs. All of which went unnoticed by Broderick. Davey’s old friend and comrade took his seat, sunk down with grief and sunk down in size too. Hour by hour the three-day-old infant failed and there was naught Broderick’s men could do about it. It was women’s work to keep a babe alive. After all the tits in all of Christendom that Broderick and his fellows had taken for pleasure—to have the babe reject even one for sustenance was diabolical! But at last, Davey thought he might have hit upon an answer. A group of gaunt prisoners from the latest raid were herded into the middle of the room. “I came upon this one fleeing through the wood,” he said, dragging a girl out of the crowd. She had short dark hair that had been chopped to a ragged cap about her head. “I caught her running through the wood as swift as a doe. I swoops down and swings her up, light as a feather she is and very small. But her unnatural short hair and strange silver eyes put me in fear of doing anything more to her. I brought her back for you, my lord. I’ve not had a peep out of her from beginning to end.” Davey shoved her forward so that she fell at Lord Broderick’s feet. “What am I to do with her,” he asked without interest, barely giving the girl a glance. Somewhere in the great castle a baby was heard crying. The girl’s thin binding was soon stained with milk. “Aha, I thought as much!” crowed Davey. “That is what you are to do with her, my lord. Look—she is ripe with mother’s milk.” The girl fixed her eyes on the floor. Lord Broderick appeared troubled by her. “My son has had wet nurses before. He has refused them all. What is her name?” “The prisoners from the village claim they don’t know who she is. She came to them two days ago from the woods, pregnant and close to her confinement. She is a mute. This is all they know. One of the village women took pity on her and acted as midwife else she might’ve birthed the babe in the field for aught the women of the village cared. That was yesterday night. No one knows her name or where she came from. She cannot or will not speak. They are glad to see the back of her as since she came, the village has had nothing but bad luck. Rumour has it she is a witch and the boy child of hers was the spawn of Satan. Midnight blue it was and stone dead, is the report of the midwife. Its body was destroyed in the fire raid on the village. No man has stepped forward to claim the girl.” “Kill her, my lord, and put this rebellion to rest,” said Charles. “We shall blame the crop failures this past year on the witch and restore the confidence of the peasants.” “Kill the girl who could save Broderick’s son? Are you mad?” Davey rounded on Charles. “Let the monks worry about witches; they have naught to do with us.” He turned to Broderick who was staring at the girl with a strange look of fear. “What think you, my lord? Burn her for a witch if you must, but put your son to her tit first.” Davey knew his old friend was superstitious. But he also knew Broderick wanted a comely wench, ripe with milk for his boy. The physician concurred that the breast milk of a beautiful wet nurse would protect the child from all manner of disease and death, and though the girl’s hair was shorn, she was undeniably beautiful. “Have you ever seen such tits as these, my lord?” Davey hauled her up and spun her around to face her captor. “Curtsy for his lordship, girl. He is master here and your very life is in his hands. There isn’t a man in this room would save you from the stake if it’d mean an end to this infernal rebellion—save Lord Broderick. Show some gratitude, girl.” Tess stood in the Great Hall of Castlemuir blinking in the light from the torches and tapers. Her father’s castle, the only home she had known was unchanged. Evergreen boughs and holly hung from the rafters and the Christmas crown was overhead. The servants were preparing for the Christmas feast tomorrow. Peasants and landowners alike would stop work make merry for twelve days at Castlemuir as it was done in her father’s time. Despite how she got here, Tess was so grateful to be back in familiar surroundings that her eyes filled with tears. How far she had fallen! Her own household would not recognize her now. The once proud Lady Tess was barefoot, her face muddy and her tunic was stained with blood. “Open your vestment, wench,” Broderick ordered. Davey and Charles exchanged a look. His men knew Lord Broderick’s ways of dealing with prisoners: break them and then save them. Broderick’s grief had not softened his heart; he was still a leader of men and a soldier. He knew a soldier’s prize when he saw it. The men watched with close attention as the girl’s trembling fingers worked the leather thongs holding her vestment together. And then, as if impatient with herself or in despair, the prisoner wrenched open the ties and her breasts spilled free. Round, high and tight as a drum with milk. Her dusky pink nipples puckered in the cool air. The girl tucked her chin against her shoulder, trying to hide her face. Broderick rose to his feet, controlling his breathing and the muscles in his face. He would betray nothing to the girl or to the men watching. It was her. He did not know her at first. The silver eyes, the full young tits ... it was the girl he’d made free with in the woods last spring. Her breasts leaked milk, dripping from pink nipples. Davey was correct; she was ripe to suckle a babe. An unnatural hunger suddenly possessed him. Grief for his dead wife and her baby mingled and Broderick was weak with a lusty, mad, insistent need to bed the girl immediately. Pale white liquid fell in drops to the stone floor from her nipples. Her tits whetted his thirst for her and his cock stiffened, remembering how he had ridden her. Broderick stood in front of her, hiding the shaking helplessness he felt behind cold examination. He viewed her as he would a particularly valuable breed of dog. He had thought he loved her once but death and power had killed all feeling in him. “She can be put to use if her milk is plentiful as a wet nurse for my son.” The image of his baby’s mouth clasping one of those velvety nipples, the flesh of his flesh feeding on her, caught him and the lustful hunger whipped though him again; a hunger to be that boy, to press his mouth to her breast.... Broderick sucked the air slowly back into his chest. He wanted her. Kylie was dead only three days and he wanted this girl in his bed. She must be a witch to have him so completely in her thrall. Dirty, helpless and silent ... what hold could she possibly have on him? The night he shared with her had lost its sweetness months ago. Not entirely the truth, Broderick admitted ruefully. He thought of her but only in his night dreams and on the long rides he took across the moor. Not even the heady joy of Kylie’s pregnancy could banish the silent girl from his thoughts. And then Kylie died and his son screamed with hunger. Darkness closed around Broderick and his heart turned to stone. He stopped thinking of a love that was little more than a fantasy. She met his eyes and seemed to read his thoughts. The girl was not afraid of him and though her breasts were exposed, she did not look away in shame. She appeared equally unconcerned by the ogling stares of the men crowding near. Broderick wished he could order them from the room but that would expose his weakness for the girl and cause them to question the reason. Lord Broderick was known for his harsh rule. The tenants, squires and men under his command were familiar with his cold-heart and fiery rage. As for women, he was fond of saying the best way to break a woman was to take a woman. To demonstrate his control, Broderick squeezed the girl’s breast, knowing it would cause her pain. His large hand tightened on the ripe mound. Milk spurted from her nipple, dribbling between his fingers. The girl’s eyes widened and stared into his. Her lips parted and her cheeks crimsoned. There was a laugh behind him from the men enjoying the display. Broderick wiped his hand on his tunic embroidered with his family’s newly created crest and turned to his audience. “The wench has enough milk to suckle us all.” The laughter grew louder and the tension in the room was broken. His men no longer questioned his judgment as they had of late believing him wallowing in grief and womanly cares. Two of his soldiers moved to the table to examine a map. A lively discussion ensued in setting the date of the next raid, after Christmastide twelve days from now. Broderick returned his attention to the girl. She was paler than he remembered. Her eyes had dark smudges under them. He motioned to a servant woman and gave instructions for the prisoner to be taken to the midwife. “Put the babe to her breast. If he takes it, she will live. If not—burn her.” ♠ THE MIDWIFE handed Tess the baby and then stepped back from the bed to observe. Tess held the tiny bundle awkwardly. Broderick stood off at a distance in the shadows. She could feel him watching the scene closely. Two of his man stood near, hands on the hilts of their swords as though ready to spring if she attempted to smother the infant or mutter a dark incantation upon its head. The other people in the room were the physician and Lady Broderick’s maid who had taken charge of the baby after his mother died. Under such conditions, held captive and before an audience, Tess was clumsy in her nervous handling of the infant. She tried to cuddle the boy her chest. Though he was listless with hunger, he gave out a mewling protest. “Not like that, stupid girl. You are hurting him.” The lady’s maid turned to her master. “I warned you this would not work. The child needs more time to adjust. He’s been passed from pillar to post. Small wonder he will not take the breast.” “He will not take your breast, you mean,” Broderick growled. “You’ve had your way long enough; look at him! He grows weaker by the day. I will not stand by while my son starves to death to accommodate your vanity.” He stepped out of the shadows and into the firelight. Tess looked up from the bed where she was settled with the infant. Seeing his face and body in full light weakened her. The new master of Castlemuir was tall and commanding. And handsome. It must be admitted. But there was something different about Lord Broderick that caused Tess to gaze at him intently. There was suffering in his eyes and she pitied him. For the first time, she could see the man he was inside the mercenary. “Try him again, girl. See if my son will take your breast. Please.” Tess lifted the infant’s head to her nipple. She had not been a mother long; her experience with babies was that of a novice. Her mother did not speak of breastfeeding or show her how it was managed. Tess was acting on instinct and a genuine fear for the baby’s life when she rubbed her teat against his lower lip. The baby opened his mouth like a little bird and Tess guided him over her nipple. The baby instinctively seized upon it and began to suckle. The milk in her breasts began to flow effortlessly. Tess closed her eyes. Tears streamed down her face as she thought of her little boy. He had not yet had what she was giving this baby. Broderick’s son reached up and rested his tiny hand upon her chest, kneading her skin with his wrinkled fingers. She looked down his small head, his eager, almost frantic suckling and she cradled him a little closer. His father might be past redemption but his child was blameless. Tess wept silently. “He is feeding.” Broderick turned to the assembled with a look of awe. Tears stood in his eyes. “My son is taking her milk—see how he well he suckles!” he crowed. “He’ll live now,” he demanded of the physician. “He will survive?” The physician moved closer to examine the baby’s hold on Tess’s nipple. After prodding her breast with a dark and dirty finger, he turned to give Broderick his verdict. “Aye, he has a good latch. He’ll grow stronger with every drop and that will improve his chances of drawing milk from the teat. The girl has sufficient quantity, but I recommend expressing milk from her breast manually to ensure a rich supply. Thus, the infant can be fed by dropping the milk into his mouth on one’s little finger if he tires before he has eaten his fill. You have good reason to hope that your son will survive.” Broderick ducked his head to hide his emotion. His men were silent. “Let us leave them to their women’s work,” he said brusquely. He snapped a look at the servant woman who had escorted the girl to the midwife. “You shall wait upon the girl. When my son has finished nursing, take her to my chambers and make her a bath. I shall expect to find her waiting for me, out of those peasant clothes and clean and refreshed.” The group filed out of the room and Broderick followed, pausing at the doorway to wonder at the miracle. His silent lover from the forest had arrived in time to save Kylie’s beloved baby. Chapter IV TESS WAS led down the familiar corridors to a room that used to be her father and mother’s. She was composed, her eyes were dry; a strange calm had come over her. She appeared to be in the grip of a deep sorrow. The stillbirth of her son had killed her will to live. Reveal nothing, she thought. Or Broderick would use her until there was no life left in her. Tess had heard the prisoners say that since Mistress Kylie died, hope and kindness had left Castlemuir. Tess watched her keeper, a sour-faced woman of advanced years, move silently about the room filling the washbasin, setting out lotions and a heavily embroidered robe. The bath was prepared behind a tapestry screen. Tess was instructed to be quick about it as the wee bairn was not long for this world. Then the woman paused as if wanting to say something else, and then catching Tess’s warning look, she nodded and left the room. Tess quickly removed her muddy peasant garb and slipped on the robe. She gathered up a warm fur against the winter chill. A great fire roared on the hearth. The chamber was comfortable though no memento of her father or her mother remained. All had been cleared away to make room for the new lord and his lady. She darted to a panel hidden in the shadows to the left of the great raised bed, and pressed gently on an oak carving of the Harald family crest. The panel slid back into a recess and Tess stepped into a narrow stone room. Her baby son was sleeping soundly in his rush basket. Alive, perfect, and beautiful. She almost wept with gladness at finding him exactly where the midwife had promised to hide him. The moment of handing the infant off to the two old women, trusting his precious life to their care, had been the worst Tess had experienced since she first discovered she was pregnant. In the months that followed her tryst with the soldier in the forest, Tess had been on the run and in hiding and consequently did not realize it had been many months since her last bleed. And then one day in August, she felt the babe move in her womb. That had been a terrifying day. But not as terrifying as the night he was born and she had to give him to a stranger for safekeeping. Hiding her belly while on the run from raiders and men who would do her mischief had been harrowing. But as long as the baby was safe, Tess could be brave. When the midwife insisted that hiding the child in Castlemuir was the safest place of all, Tess was frantic. She no longer had to feign being mute—Tess lost the ability to speak from sheer terror. The midwife got a message to her sister who was employed at Castlemuir and the woman agreed to conceal the babe. She relayed the sad news of Lady Broderick’s death the day before, a tragedy that could work in Tess’s favour if they were careful. That night, she was captured in the raid (as they anticipated she would be) and brought before Lord Broderick. Once inside Castlemuir, her only objective was to reach her baby. All had gone according to plan. Tess tucked the fur around her son to protect him from the sharp chill in the hidden room. She remembered this room from her childhood and had instructed the midwife’s sister to hide the boy here. Tess prayed Broderick had not discovered it as she stepped back into the bedchamber and slid the panel closed. She knew Castlemuir as Lord Broderick could not hope to if he lived here for a dozen years. Tess knew every stone and hidey hole. Her father had a secret alcove behind one of the hanging tapestries where he hid weapons in the event of attack. She found the small stone and dislodged it easily. Glinting in the depths of the dark cubby was a dagger. Tess withdrew it, her heart pounding, and examined its blade. It was as sharp as the day her father had hidden it. She held it as she removed the robe from her narrow shoulders and lowered herself into the tub. Streaks of blood crusted her inner thigh highs. Blood from childbirth. The raid on the village prevented her from washing after her baby was taken. The dagger rested out of sight under the steaming water, ready for use. Pain and blood, she thought dully. Just as it was the night her child was conceived. There was pain and blood when he seeded her, and pain and blood when she delivered the fruit of their act. Tess remembered the midwife’s sharp instructions to bear down, hold your noise, they’ll hear you! And then her baby boy slid from her body. Perfect. Perfect. But so still. So silent. And then there came a mewling cry from his tiny body. His little face puckered and his pink hands coiled to fists. Tess wept with relief when the old woman put him in her arms. He was not dead. She had fought for nine months against the worst and won. The water scalded. Tess stared into the fire. She envied Broderick’s wife for dying. Her baby was still alive and likely to remain so, safe from the evil beyond the walls of Castlemuir. Lady Broderick was free of this life where the war of men took the lives of women and children. Tess’s stomach knotted thinking of what would happen to her son if her secret was ever discovered. How long would Lord Broderick’s head remain on his neck if his men found out he had fathered the child of the traitor, Lady Tess? The door behind her opened. She tensed but did not look around. It was he. Her hand reached for the dagger. ♠ THOUGH SHE could not see him on the other side of the tapestry, Tess knew his lordship had entered the chamber. She knew his presence by the rush of blood to her head and the tingling in her flesh. And then he was before her. Broderick stepped boldly around the screen. “Who are you? What is your name?” She did not answer him. The mercenary did not require her name to get what he wanted. His eyes of copper brown were the same as she remembered. As was his flaxen hair, broad shoulders, and the lines around his mouth. He put Tess in mind of the Norsemen she had read about in books. Ruthless and without conscience, like Broderick they took what they wanted. He looked older than he did last spring. Recent sorrow had aged him. “Do you know me,” he asked as he unbuckled his brigandine. Tess nodded. He had worn metal armor the night he took her virginity, lit by the moon, gleaming dully in the dark wood. His hair had dragged with sweat despite the chilly spring air and his lips were hard and cold—until they met hers. Tess refused to remember the pleasure she had taken from that night. The cost had been too high. His lordship moved to the edge of the tub and Tess tried to cover herself. “Don’t,” he commanded. “I want to see them. They are mine now.” She gazed at him steadily, her eyes never leaving his face. Her silver stare unnerved him. Broderick felt he had stumbled into something that was beyond his control. He shrugged out of the vestment and pulled his shirt off over his head. The girl looked away though she seemed to know what his intentions were. “The way I am with you, I was not like this with Kylie. Ours was a match forged in love not lust. When she became pregnant, our joy was complete.” She stared unseeing at the space ahead. He had hurt her quite deliberately. “But I cannot forget—I will not allow myself to forget that my seed robbed my beloved Kylie of her life. My wife was the best of me. For nine months, I loved her with all my heart and remained true to her.” She turned and fixed her silver eyes on his copper gaze. They were opposites in looks. She was the colour of cool night and moonlit silver. He was the sun and warm earth, copper and blazing fire. “I was true to Kylie with my body but not my soul. My soul had become ensnared by a girl in a forest, a silent nubile waif with silver eyes. And then Kylie died.” Broderick’s stomach tensed and the bitter tang of resentment was in his mouth. “I will never allow a woman to coax me to softness again. I can confess this to you, for you are a mute—I have no feeling in me anymore. Save the desire to kill and fuck. My soul is submerged in black hate for everyone and everything. I am not the man you met last spring. I am not a man at all. I am a corpse.” Bare-chested, Broderick stood over her, clenching his fists with mingled frustration, resentment, and desire. She could hear well enough. Why did she not acknowledge him? There was no alteration in her countenance. The girl pressed a hot towel over her breasts to relieve them and closed her eyes. Her tits were filling with milk again. Broderick’s cock hardened. Winter’s night had come to the fields and the snow began to fall. It was the eve before Christmas, a time of peace and hope, he mused sadly. The burden of his son’s survival had been lifted but Broderick did not feel unburdened of his demons. The soldier knelt at the girl’s side and removed the towel from her breasts. One glance in her face revealed the suffering he was feeling was reflected in her eyes. Her baby had died. His wife was dead. One act of lust had brought them to this pass. He could not call it love anymore. They were already condemned in the next life—he would take his pleasure in what remained of the life he had now. Broderick pressed his mouth to her nipple. She stiffened. He drew the petal-soft teat between his lips and with gentle, yet firm pressure, the soldier suckled at the girl’s breast until he was rewarded with an expression of milk. She tilted her head back against the edge of tub. Steam rose from the hot water, dampening their faces and curling her chopped hair. His large hand gripped her breast and kneaded it to extract the milk as the physician ordered. Tess closed her eyes. Her hand was on the blade. Pleasure—sexual pleasure flowered between her legs. He was so big everywhere—his hands, his thighs, his shoulders—he dwarfed her. His blonde handsome head, his sensuous lips fastened to her nipple suckling her delivered relief and awakened a sharp insistent desire. “No,” she said weakly. Her voice cracked from disuse. “No, no, no!” She lifted the blade out of the water, swinging it in a high arc over his bare muscular back. The dagger glinted in the fire light. Broderick lifted his head. His expression was frozen in pure astonishment as though he had been given a great gift at the moment of his death. In that instant, they both heard an infant cry. Tess rose up in alarm. Broderick’s eyes comprehended the danger too late. She lunged up to drive the blade into his neck just as Broderick pulled back. The blade pierced his shoulder below the collarbone. Shouting in pain, he caught her wrist and bent it back until she was forced to release the dagger. “Who are you?” he demanded, twisting her wrist. “Speak!” The infant cried a second time, muffled but clearer and rising. Broderick flung her back and leapt to his feet. “My son is with his nurse. Where...?” He gazed over the room. Tess made one last heroic effort to reach her baby. She flung herself out of the tub and scooped up the dagger. Before Broderick could react, she pressed the blade to his throat. “I will slit you from ear-to-ear if you do not do as I say,” she hissed. Naked and dripping, she forced the soldier across the cold stone floor to the panel. “Press down on the crest.” Broderick did as she instructed and the panel of carved oak slid open. Tess pushed Broderick aside and darted in the room to gather up the sobbing child. The fur had slipped from the basket. With his mother only a few feet away, her baby would have frozen to death if he had not cried out. Terrorized by what could have happened—of opening the panel to find him dead—Tess fainted from the strain and collapsed against Broderick. The dagger clattered to the floor. Broderick swooped mother and child up in his arms and carried to the bed where he covered them with the fur wrap. He rubbed her feet and hands to bring the girl around. The baby squalled and his tiny body stiffened. The girl opened her eyes, blinked twice and then realizing where she was, she sat up in alarm. “Oh God, please God, do not take him from me! Oh sweet little baby, I am here, I am here. Shush now, shhh....” “Whose child is this?” Broderick demanded. “Speak, now that I know you can.” Her reserves of strength gave out. Her hands were shaking horribly. Nearly losing the baby was too much. A rock of tension in her chest let go and Tess broke down in tears. “I cannot endure ... I cannot endure this. He is mine,” she sobbed. “Do not hurt him. He has done nothing wrong.” “Stop that noise. I’m not going to hurt him for pity’s sake. You’ll wake the whole household. Here, give him to me. You’re frightening the lad with that racket.” She held the baby tighter but her arms were shaking and his little body stiffened feeling her distress. His face almost purpled with choking screams. Broderick took the child from Tess and held his small body against his bare chest. “There now, little man,” he crooned. “What is all this fuss about? You’ve had a scare, eh? No harm done, all is well. I’ve got you. You are safe now.” The baby quieted in Broderick’s arms. He turned to Tess. “I’ve always run hot. Kylie complained about it often for I was always kicking the blankets off in the night. See, he’s warming up now.” He stroked the baby’s head as he settled down to soft supping cries held against Broderick’s broad chest and warm skin. “You are bleeding.” She had nicked a vessel and a trickle of blood coursed down his chest. “Tis only a flesh wound. I’ve had worse. Where is the boy’s father?” “He is ... he is ....” Tess forced the words to her lips. She would have to trust him; it was clear she could not protect her son alone. “He is holding him right now. You are his father, Broderick.” Chapter V THE SOLDIER his head slowly as if to deny it. “That isn’t possible. You were—I saw your flow. You were having your monthly bleed.” “The blood was for another reason. I was a virgin. There is no need to look cast down, my lord. I gave myself to you that night for my own reasons. Perhaps it was to conceive this child. I do not regret what we did—do you? What do you mean to do with us, Broderick?” He was about to answer her when a loud pounding at door stopped him. Tess froze and met Broderick’s copper eyes. He pressed a finger to his lips and handed her the sleeping babe. “Lie down, put the cover over you and do not make a sound,” he said in a low whisper. “Lord Broderick! What has happened? We heard you cry out.” His man, Davey. Broderick pressed his hand over the cut on his shoulder to staunch the flow of blood. He was weak from shock but he had been wounded before; he knew the spell would pass. “Broderick! For God’s sake, man, answer me else I break the door down!” He hurriedly pulled the embroidered robe over his nakedness, hiding his bloody wound, and flung open the door. “Have you never heard a man climaxing inside a woman before? I am fine, you miserable ass! What do you think—that I should be murdered in my bed by a slip of a girl?” Davey snorted and peered into the room. “Where is she now?” “Asleep in my bed, where else should she be?” Broderick joined the man in the hall and closed the door behind him, silently praying that the babe would not cry out. “I might’ve expected it, but even I could not credit you with fucking the wet nurse! You’re as randy as a goat. Here is a coil! We’re for it now—” Broderick cut him short. “What ails you man? You’ve seen me bed a girl before. Spit it out for I am in the middle of something.” Blood from his wound was dripping down his side and about to splash on the stone flags. “A piece of intelligence has come our way from a noble who switched allegiance after Lord Harald’s arrest. Lord Deward had been presented to Lady Tess as a suitor two years ago. She was unmarried and likely to remain so for no nobleman was good enough for the bitch, or so his story goes; she rejected his suit at any rate. But mark you this—Lady Tess is described as a great beauty with long raven-black hair. But here is the most significant part—he said she had strange silver eyes and in attendance at their meeting was her lady’s maid, a girl who was mute!” Broderick controlled his response. She lied to him! Posing as her maid instead of the other way around—it was a clever ruse—it had certainly fooled him. Now they were all in danger. “An astonishing tale,” he said coolly. “Your lordship,” Davey whispered furiously. “You cannot ignore the similarities. She pretended to be mute and cut her hair but she could not change the colour of her eyes. This girl we have captured—this girl you have made free with—is an Earl’s daughter and King John’s prize! What are we to do? We can’t send her back for ransom in this condition. Her ladyship has had a child—God only knows what tales she’ll have for King John. The king has come under sharp criticism for employing mercenary soldiers to do his dirty work. The nobility are up in arms. When the news reaches London that a lady of the court was violated and made to wet nurse a soldier’s son—our heads will be on a pikestaff before Christmas night!” Broderick rubbed the back of his neck. His wound throbbed. He would have to sit down soon before he fell down. “How many know about this from our company?” “Only Charles and myself. We were careful to keep it from the rest. Broddy, it is only a matter of time before the news spreads. What then? Charles is for handing her over to King John in the hope of saving our necks.” “The cowardly bastard! My son took the lady’s breast when he would take no other and was near to dying. It is a miracle that she is here at all.” “What then?” Davey leaned forward. “We are dead either way but perhaps we are less dead if we let her go to meet her fate on the high road.” “It is too risky,” said Broderick. “The roads are busy with the tenants arriving at Castlemuir for the Christmas festival. Lady Tess is not without support here; we risk an uprising if she is harmed. Her father still lives. Perhaps he has proven his usefulness to King John. The lady might be worth something yet. We could have a prize in our midst; we would be fools to let it get away from us before we’ve calculated its value. We’ll wait until after Christmastide, twelve days from now, to decide what to do with her.” Broderick dismissed Davey, knowing he would relay the message to Charles and the men. The diversion only bought him time. Broderick would have to produce Tess for ransom twelve days from now. If he did not, he would lose control of his men. He returned to the room and met her eyes as though waking from a dream. “You must tell me the truth or I will not help you. Do you know where the Lady Tess is hiding? Your answer may save you.” “I am Lady Tess.” Her face was streaked with tears. “Tess, the Traitor, as I am called at court. My son is the bastard child of the king’s trusted right hand, Lord Broderick.” She met his eyes. A shadow crossed her face as she realized the danger. “Whatever you mean to do with me, I accept. But you must protect our son. Tell your men he is the offspring of one of your whores. It will not be far from the truth.” “You are not my whore.” “What am I then?” She rose shakily to her feet, clutching the baby to her breast. “Look at me! The great Lady Tess of Castlemuir with her bastard son, sired by the usurper—a mercenary hated by her people. I do not fault you—how can I?” Her voice broke. “I wanted you that night. I don’t know why. I want ... I love you even now.” “That was my man, Davey. They know who you are, Lady Tess.” Tess laid the baby gently on the bed and pulled the fur over her naked shoulders. “I have to go.” “I have persuaded him to wait the twelve holy days to hear what I mean to do. I will not see you arrested and hanged, Tess,” Broderick said in a low voice. “I can persuade them you are no threat to King John. You shall not hang.” “Do you imagine you can stop them?” She shook her head. “I will hang. And so will my father. Our days are numbered. If you want to help me, give me a horse and let me take this dagger. I’ll leave tonight during midnight mass. The household will be too occupied with the Christmas feast after that to mark my absence. Say nothing to anyone. Only keep my boy safe.” “And what about my son?” Broderick caught her arm fiercely. “He’ll die of starvation without you. You cannot live as you have been, running from King John, hiding out in the forest like an outlaw. You are needed here at Castlemuir!” Her eyes blinded with tears. “Explain that to your men! Explain to your king that your sons need a mother! I am tired of running! I am sick of cold and hunger and the spectre of death. But if that is your only reason for wanting me to stay—if my services as a wet nurse are all you require of me—I cannot. I’m sorry.” She turned away. “What reason could be more important than the lives of two infants?” She would not answer him. She held the answer on the tip of her tongue but she would not answer him. Broderick had to return to love himself. He had warned her he had changed. Tess saw that this was true. The soldier she had met in the forest had loved her. The lord she saw before her did not. Her peasant clothes were behind the tapestry screen. She dressed quickly, her eyes blurry with tears. “You and the boys will be safe when I am away. Tell my son I am dead. Do not let him come to harm or send him out to be a soldier. Promise me!” Tess emerged from behind the screen, dressed as a peasant boy and ready for flight. She belted the dagger to her waist. “I’ll not have my son killing and burning at the whim of the king.” “How will you live? How will you make your way?” “I’ll steal. And when there is nothing left to steal, I’ll hire out my sword.” “We have switched roles it seems,” Broderick said with a grimace. “I am the law and you are the mercenary.” She set her jaw. “Order a horse to be brought round to the west gate. I’ll escape through the passageway. Do not raise the alarm until I am well away. You owe me that much.” “Wait—what is the boy’s name? What will I call him?” Tess thought for a moment and then: “Kyle. His name is Kyle.” And then she was gone. Kyle. Tess’s reason for naming her son after his dead wife was not lost on Broderick. His lover was asking forgiveness of Kylie, extending her hand across the boundary of death. The child Kylie had died bringing into the world still lived thanks to her rival. Yet he sensed Kylie was glad to have it so. The ways of women was baffling. His wife had forgiven Tess. Had she forgiven him? Tess had the courage to seek Kylie’s forgiveness. Broderick could not. But Kyle ... Kyle had pierced his heart. Broderick fought tears and the rise of gratitude as he carried his son to the nursery. He laid the boy side-by-side with his brother in the basket. The babes were the picture of innocence and peace. No past dishonour marred their perfect features. Snow continued to fall in fat white flakes, but the fire on the hearth kept them warm. “This is the place for you, my son,” Broderick said gruffly. “You will grow up beside your brother. There shall be no separation between you in this house. I swear.” He wiped his eyes and straightened. The old serving woman who had assisted Tess with hiding her baby in Castlemuir hovered, clearly terrified. Her master was hard and ruthless. She had every reason to be afraid. “They are motherless now. Give them a drop of ale if they’ll take it—enough to ease their hunger pangs. And guard them as though your life depended on it.” He added: “It does.” ♠ THE GREAT HALL was ablaze with candles and laughter rang to the vaulted ceiling. Dumas, the Jester was entertaining the kitchen maids with his clowning. He was juggling the dried fruit they needed for the mince pies and their squeals of gleeful protest spliced through Broderick’s skull like the blade of an axe. “Enough!” he roared. “Do I not give you enough work to do? Christmastide begins tomorrow morning, not the night before! I daresay it will be a sorry feast if this is how you’ve been amusing yourselves. Get back to work!” He was being overly harsh. The season was a blessed relief from their toil and the servants made the most of it. The savoury smells of baking and roasting had been wafting from the kitchen for a week. When the maids had run off, Broderick slumped to the carved oak seat at the head of the Great Hall. The seat of a nobleman, the lord of the manor. A title not his by right, but one he’d seized by might. For all the good it had done him, Broderick thought morosely. He’d had nothing but trouble and grief since becoming the Lord of Castlemuir. “My lord, if I may.” Dumas approached, grinning like the fool he was. His red and green cap was askew, resembling a flaccid crown. The man was born with a hideous hunch on his back and an acidic tongue in his head. He had put both to use, travelling the country in a caravan with his servant boy, performing at castles and manor houses for pennies and food. Broderick groaned. “I am in no mood for clowning, Jester.” “A poem then to distract you from your troubles: Lady Tess must live, mother’s milk to give; but the babies will perish for Lord Broderick sulks, his temper to cherish.” He lunged for Dumas, catching him by the collar. The clown’s serving boy darted from the shadows to help his master. “Dumas!” “It is all right, boy, I am not hurt. I only wanted to distract his lordship and it appears to have worked. He has forgotten his sorrow in his desire to wring my neck.” Broderick shook Dumas violently. “How do you know about Lady Tess?” “Your servants recognized her, though none could say for sure.” The clown was out of breath from the strangling hold Broderick had on him. “It has been almost a year since she disappeared from Castlemuir. But the wine steward said he would know their lady anywhere. They talk, my lord, and their talk could be troublesome if you take my meaning. One cannot hang one’s entire household for gossip.” He slung the jester away from him. “Your poem was for naught—she would not be persuaded to stay. She said she would hang and there is nothing I can do to stop it.” “Nothing at all,” the jester said with a mournful leer. “Nothing could persuade the lady—no earthly force. If only there was a man willing to claim her for his own ... a champion ... a lover....” “Take care, Dumas, not to provoke me past my patience. You forget what I have suffered.” “Forgive me, my lord but I would not speak so if I did not see a gleam of hope in this tragedy. Though I am grossly disfigured and shrunken in size—we have much in common, you and I. We are survivors, living by our wits. Our first lesson from the cradle was this: give our rulers anything they want and we will rule them. The trick is in knowing what they want.” “You are talking in riddles. King John wants Lady Tess arrested and hanged. Is it your advice I should turn her in?” “King John wants nothing of the sort,” Dumas snorted impatiently. “King John is a tax collector at heart; he loves money, not power. He wants the ransom paid or he wants her dead. One or the other, he is not particular; though I wager he’ll choose ransom nine times out of ten....” Broderick lifted his head and peered at the Jester. “The ransom ... a ransom would have been demanded of her father if she had been captured.” “Aye, so capture her and pay the ransom, my lord. It does not signify who pays—King John will not quibble if it is your gold or her father’s that is deposited in his treasury. Only that someone has paid for her release.” Broderick leapt to his feet. “My lord!” Dumas shouted after him in a hauntingly powerful voice. “The Lady Tess is a young lady of courage, and proud. Offering to buy her freedom will not be enough to induce her to return. You must give her what she needs.” The soldier nodded. “I understand.” The question gnawed at his gut as he mounted his horse. Did he have the courage to offer Tess what she needed from him? Chapter VI THE NIGHT forest was peaceful with falling snow but cold. Tess gathered sticks to make a fire. The walk across the field and then along the creek had taken her to the meadow in the forest, the same place she had made love to Broderick nine months ago. Her arrival here was not a coincidence. Tess chose the spot purposefully. She needed the memory of that night to comfort her and remind her that he once loved her. Her breasts ached, condemning her for abandoning the babies. They would be crying with hunger. Tess dashed tears from her eyes and bent to gather up an armload of sticks. She heard a noise. A horse snuffled, a soft whinnying sound in the fringe of trees that circled the meadow. Tess froze. In the clear winter air, she heard the distinct squeak of the rider’s leather saddle as he dismounted. She moved to her own horse and withdrew the dagger from her belt. “Show yourself,” she ordered. Broderick stepped into the circle of snow and light. Tess gasped, took a step but was halted by the tears that were streaming down the soldier’s face. “Oh god,” she said weakly. “The babies—they are dead?” He shook his head. “No, they live, but our sons need their mother.” Tess reeled back from relief and anger. “If that is the only reason you’ve come, you’ve had a wasted journey. You will find a way to keep them alive. There are women in the village to oblige you but you must pay them well and treat them kindly. How did you find me?” Broderick heart was breaking. The pain was visible on his handsome face. Tess knew how he suffered over Kylie, blaming himself for her death, but she could not help him. She would not spend her life with a man who hated her for the love they shared. “When I could not find you on the road, I thought you were gone for good and I would never see you again. I wanted to be here, the last place I felt complete and truly a man. Do you believe it is possible to fall in love in a blink—and stay in love through hell and back?” he asked softly. Tess found her voice and stepped toward him. “Yes, I do.” The soldier took a step toward her, his face ravaged by grief. “I love you. Come back with me, Tess. We belong together.” “I cannot.” Tess bowed her head. Tears flowed down her cheeks. “I don’t fear what King John will do to me, but he will kill you and our sons.” Broderick flung his handsome head back and drew her into his massive arms. He held her so close that she could feel the mercenary’s defenses crumbling beneath his heavy brigandine. “I am sending Davey to London with the ransom demanded of your father for your life and I have matched it with my own. As your betrothed, I claim the right to pay your ransom and secure your pardon. We will wed tomorrow morn—Christmas Day, if you will have me, Tess. I am not a knight—I am not a nobleman—” She threw her arms around his neck. “You were my choice from the start,” she cried. “From the first moment I saw you—I know not how—but you were in my heart from the beginning. Yes, to your proposal. Yes to all. I will wed you, Broderick.” They embraced and kissed as the snow fell in soft silence around them. Tess and her soldier did not linger in the meadow forest long for two infant boys needed her and she was anxious to return to them. They rode through the night that sparkled with frost to Castlemuir, marvelling at the change in fortune the courage of love had wrought. The gift of Christmas Eve. The End Jester I—that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty to strut before a wanton ambling nymph.... Richard the Third—Shakespeare Chapter I A field outside Castlemuir walls ~ 25 December 1202 THE ROUGH board walls of the caravan closed around them and his squire lit the lantern against the encroaching darkness. Fallon’s master sat on the stool, removing the greasepaint from his face with a towel. His jester crown had been hung on a peg and his pointed shoes returned to the bench where he stored his costume. Fallon had never seen him out of the bright green and red tunic; he always undressed after the light was extinguished. They’d had a long frosty walk in the snow to the caravan after the Jester’s performance at Castlemuir. Lord Broderick had returned with Lady Tess and in a hastily arranged ceremony that put the priest in a temper, they were married. The infant sons were shown around to the assembly and all declared that Lord Broderick had never looked happier. But the celebration had delayed Jester’s performance to after midnight. His lordship expressed his gratitude with a gold sovereign but the jester could not be persuaded to bed down at Castlemuir for the night. He insisted on returning to the caravan with his young servant. “I heard the advice you offered his lordship, master,” Fallon murmured. “Did you believe all that about love and giving the Lady Tess what she needs to win her?” Dumas didn’t answer right away. “I believe in giving his lordship what he needs to hear to keep the peace and we are a gold sovereign richer for it. I believe in gold, Fallon.” He craned his misshapen form to examine his squire. “You almost gave the game away tonight. What were you thinking crying out like that?” “I was frightened for you. Lord Broderick has a terrible temper.” “I am a better judge of Broderick’s temper than you are; I was in no danger. Do not let it happen again.” “Yes, sir.” Fallon moved to the corner and set about arranging a bed of sacks to lie on. “What are you doing?” “I am preparing for sleep, master.” Fallon did not meet his eyes. Surely, he did not expect a show at this late hour. “You are forgetting something,” he said after a brief silence. “It is Christmas, master. I fancy you are too tired after your performance to desire anything but sleep.” Snow was falling outside the caravan but they were warm inside the snug wooden home. “I am not tired. Begin.” Fallon turned away to watch the snow fall from the tiny window. “I do not wish to perform tonight, master. Your speech to Lord Broderick affected me deeply. It was noble and courageous to speak so boldly to his lordship. Think of it! It is because of you that his son will live and Lady Tess is restored to Castlemuir.” “What is that to you or me? Fallon, I have kept my end of our bargain; you must keep yours. You are warm are you not? And you have food in your belly; as my squire, you move unmolested through the streets. In return, you promised me to do me one service. I can always hand you over to Lord Broderick to sweeten the offer of ransom he is sending to King John. I shall be well rid of you. Your lip may tremble but I will not be moved. Fallon—I am waiting!” Her keeper turned on his stool, planted his hands on his knees and gazed at the ragged urchin before him. Fallon the boy squire was in reality an eighteen-year-old maiden, rescued from the streets of London by Dumas, the Jester. She had never known her parents. Abandoned at birth and raised in an orphanage, the girl had lived on the streets from the age of ten, surviving on hand-outs and kitchen scraps until Dumas found her four months ago. The clown had struck a bargain with his protégée that Fallon had not objected to until a few hours ago. “Why do you hate me so?” she asked, trying hard not to cry. The scene at Castlemuir had affected her deeply. It wounded her that her master could speak eloquently about love between a man and woman and fail to acknowledge the woman who shared his troubles and his joys for the past four months. She wanted what Dumas had spoken of—honour, courage and love. Fallon wanted to be loved. Above all, she wanted the jester to love her. Fallon raised her chin and fixed her eyes on her master’s deformity with a determined stare. Dumas took care to conceal the grotesque malformation on his back from her sight but he needn’t have bothered—it did not repulse Fallon. What had twisted his back had twisted his mind. The jester kept his distance until the night hours when he demanded payment for the roof over her head and the food in her belly. To think she had been grateful to the clown when she first came to serve him. Night after night of pleasuring her master had gradually drained her of all feeling. “You are obstinate tonight. Why do you stand there gawping? You have seen my ugly visage many times before this. The first night, as I recall, you were titillated by my demand.” “I thought because you were kind to me that meant you loved me.” “I was not kind to you. I rescued you from a hoard of rapists for my own use. We have a bargain; please do not talk of love again. Begin.” The girl set her mouth and her breathing constricted. The bargain they had struck had begun to change her too; Fallon did not realize how much until tonight. At first, it had been strangely exciting, then it became degrading and now she pitied her master for his perversity. “Lady Tess was forced to cut her hair too. Did you notice? We are of the same age. She donned a boy’s disguise for the same reasons that I did. Lady Tess found love even with her shorn head. Do you think I will be loved one day, master?” “Lady Tess was a noblewoman. It was her nobility that attracted Lord Broderick, not her hair. You are not gentry, nor even a peasant woman. I’m not trying to be cruel; it is unlikely you’ll attract a husband.” “You are not trying to be cruel, but I believe you are cruel.” “Good. There’ll be fewer delays in future if we understand each other. Begin. I will not ask you again.” When Fallon looked at the jester, she did not see his deformity or hear his evil tongue and yet the man was both evil and twisted. The fine qualities buried within his soul were invisible to everyone but her for she saw him as she saw no other man. He intrigued her, and tormented her too. God had blessed the hunchback with a beautifully formed face. Perhaps it was a curse to be so lovely and yet physically repulsive. Dumas’s eyes were an arresting shade of blue and grey, adorned with dark lashes, brows and a noble forehead. His mouth was sensual and appealing when he smiled, which was rare. Dumas’s head of thick nut-brown hair was covered by his jester’s crown during performance. Fallon was the only one who had seen him out of make-up. When they were in town, Dumas did not leave the caravan. It was one of Fallon’s duties to purchase their bread, cheese and wine. With her cropped hair and boy’s disguise, she was known as the jester’s squire and no one was the wiser. “How old are you, master?” Fallon opened the vestment she wore as the jester’s squire. “Thirty-eight. Why is my age significant?” “I am eighteen. I shall outlive you, I think. And when you are dead, I shall take your crown and this caravan and I shall become the jester. That will be my revenge for this degradation.” She removed the vestment and then the tunic. The order of her disrobing never varied: vestment, tunic, linen shirt, followed by hose. When she was standing before him wearing only the binding that secured her breasts and a short slip, Dumas motioned her near. “There has been no degradation between us. A bargain was struck, Fallon. In this life, a bargain is a great thing; it means people like us can get what we want.” Dumas’s legs were clad in diamond-patterned black and white hosiery. Fallon stood between them, recalling their first night together and how she had trembled with erotic sensations, though she was also frightened and repulsed. On that night, with shaking hands, Fallon had slowly unravelled the binding under her tunic and her breasts sprang free. The deformed half-man had made a sound in his throat and said he had not seen a girl as fine as she, and still a virgin, naked. Dumas had only known prostitutes until he found Fallon. “What do you mean people like us, master? What is wrong with us that we cannot have what other people have? Why should we not be happy? We work hard, we do not lie, we do not cheat—why should we not find love too?” “Because the world does not love deformed men or fatherless girls,” he said impatiently. “Now stop talking. You ask too many questions. Remove your binding and slip.” Dumas’s words troubled Fallon. His eyes had darkened and he ran his tongue over his dry lips as she stripped naked for him as she had done every night for four months. “Then I am never to be loved because I have no father,” she said miserably. “You have me. I will have to suffice.” He brought his face close to her mound and inhaled the musky scent between her legs. “Turn and bend over.” Fallon obeyed without thinking as she always had, but with each pose and order given, she became more stimulated and troubled by the hunchback. Dumas never touched her and would not permit her to touch him. This display was all he wanted; to be free to gaze at her naked body from every position. This was the bargain Fallon had struck with the hunchback four months ago, one she now chafed under and longed to understand. There had to be more between a man and woman than this. Dumas had shown her there was more in his speech to Lord Broderick. “Lie down on my bed and stroke your breasts as your lover would.” Fallon did as he asked, but this time she was filled with sadness. The performance usually consisted of her disrobing and then touching herself while he watched. This is what Dumas liked best. Fallon had learned the skill of controlling her body to match his demand. She did not look—but she was aware he fondled himself. The noises her master made in the dark corner of the caravan had confused her at first and then she was aroused. “I do not have a lover. I don’t know how one would touch me.” Fallon turned to him. “You could kiss me if you like, master,” she suggested softly. “I would not object.” “You should object for I am twice your age.” Dumas groaned. His hot eyes watched as Fallon stroked her full, high breasts. “And I am deformed.” “What is that to us?” she retorted. She was deliberately provoking him; she had become irritated with this silly game. “We can do as we please in the caravan. To the world, I am a dirty boy and you are a clown. In here, you are a knight coming to my rescue and I am your lady love. Please. Lie with me. I’m lonely and you must be lonely too or you would not require this dumb show night after night. Why do you push me away? Dumas, I cannot act out this pantomime of love with you anymore! I am a woman—not a puppet. My heart is as tender as any woman’s.” “Enough!” The jester’s voice cracked. “Do not threaten me, girl.” “Or else what?” Fallon sat up and spat at his feet. “Have you never loved anyone in your miserable life? Have you never been kissed? I am eighteen and all I know of men is what I have learned from you—that men care for their cocks and naught else.” “It is a good lesson. I congratulate myself on keeping your expectations low.” Fallon refused to be baited this time. “But you spoke so passionately,” she continued, “so bravely to Lord Broderick! Thus, I know you have been lying to me all this time, pretending to be full of hate when there is no hate inside you. You are a good man.” Her heart was in her throat. “I want us to be as Lord Broderick is with his lady. Castlemuir was beautiful—transformed by their happiness. We could have that too.” She looked down at her hands. “Whatever you decide, I cannot go back to being your plaything, Dumas. You must tell me how you feel about me. Don’t you love me at all?” The jester scowled. “Who gave you permission to stop the performance? Stroke your mound. Slide your fingers between your legs and show me how you pleasure yourself.” “No,” Fallon said mutinously. “You do it. Fondle your plaything yourself.” The jester blanched and could not meet her eye. “I want to watch. Do as I say.” Fallon rose to her feet and stood between his legs. She was naked and suddenly possessed by a strange determination. The hunchback would love her tonight or he would release her from this bargain. Violating his rule of no contact, she took up his hand and pressed it between her legs. Dumas emitted a guttural choking noise from deep within his chest and tried to pull away. “Nay, do not refuse, Dumas. Touch me, you coward. Do to me what you have ordered me to do to myself these past four months.” Her pupils had dilated, her sex quivered with lust and grew wet and warm as his fingers moved tentatively between the fold of her flesh. Dumas lifted his face to her, his mouth opened in ecstasy and his eyes closed as he fingered her. Fallon’s response was immediate. The hunchback stroked her to sensations that dizzied and weakened her. His cock was thick and hard under his checked hose. Fallon motioned to it. “Release it. I want to see. It is not deformed, I take it. You are a man, are you not?” Dumas reached under the band at his waist and exposed his erection to her eyes. The jester was a man like no other. Fallon had a moment’s regret when she saw his size. She could not stretch so wide for a cock so huge. And yet she wanted to. She wanted to very much. “Is falling in love the same feeling as making love, Dumas?” “It can be,” he said in a choked voice. “It is supposed to be, but don’t look for it.” He turned away with a look of agony on his incongruously handsome face. “I have changed my mind. You do not have to finish the performance tonight. You may make your bed now. Go! Did you not hear me?” Chapter II “I WISH to sleep with you in your bed, master.” “That is not possible.” The jester would not look at her. “I am repulsive.” “You are repulsive, aye, but for what you have done to me, not for the hunch in your back.” “I am different and it is my difference that revolts and excites you. You think I am a monster panting for an innocent maiden. To be defiled by a grotesque is what you seek. The girl, Fallon does not want a nobleman to fuck her; she wants a freak. Ah, you are wet for me. I can smell you.” He pushed his fingers rudely between her legs. “If that is so, then why do you deny me? Make love to me,” she breathed, throwing her head back in ecstasy. His fingers teased the bud of her sex to engorged fullness. Erotic fondling, charged with lust, Fallon longed to feel her master’s mouth on her breast—to kiss his sensual, cruel mouth, to be taken by him. The demand he had created in her was past bearing. “I will not take your virginity, Fallon, but I can give you another release. There, open your legs wider, there—my hand will serve you well and leave your maidenhead unbroken.” She was hot for his prick, too hot to be put off by his deformity. Dumas’ strikingly handsome face put Fallon in mind of the Prince of Darkness who was also said to be beautiful. Dumas the Jester was as twisted in his soul as he was in body. “You are a monster for making me love you with no hope of being loved in return. You have turned me into a wanton who desires to know a man. I did not have such thoughts until you. Do you not desire to take me, master?” Fallon heard her voice pleading with him and she was ashamed. The work he performed between her legs had crushed her self-respect. She craved a release she didn’t understand. “I cannot, Fallon. It is more than my life is worth.” She wept and writhed between his legs as he stroked her faster and faster. Her legs parted and milky fluid dripped from her womanhood. He jerked his prick with his other hand and the knob came dangerously close to her tight entrance. Fallon held the beam above her head to keep her balance. The jester had an excellent view of her young taut skin, full firm breasts and the slim hips of a virgin. At thirty-eight, Dumas was too old to be this slavishly hot for a young girl. What had transpired between them was not his intention when he rescued Fallon from her attackers. One night of loneliness and a desire to look upon youthful beauty had turned him into a lecherous jailer. She was in his power and he was too weak to resist the temptation to make the girl perform for him. Self-pleasure had satisfied him until this night. Fallon was pushing him beyond his willpower. Dumas did not lie, nor did he exaggerate—fucking her would likely be the death of him. He had seen it too often with the spies working for King John to believe that he would somehow be cleverer and not be found out. Loving a woman made a man vulnerable and a vulnerable man made mistakes. And Fallon was a girl like no other. Four months of living with her had softened his wits. She stirred feelings in him, beyond the thrill her nubile body delivered. She was passionate and giving, she warmed him on waking with her smile and she lifted his spirit through the grim hours with her enthusiasm for even the smallest trifles. If he made love to her, he would be lost. If she were captured—if anything should happen to her—they would only have to threaten her life for him to tell them everything. Dumas never imagined he would be faced with this dilemma. Fallon, standing over him, naked and offering her body—nay! demanding that he make love to her—and he wanted that very thing from the depth of his soul. He had trusted the deformity to protect him. He did not anticipate the girl seeing past his physique and loving the man within. “It is Christmas Day, Dumas,” she urged. “Are we to have no pleasure of our own? No one will know. I swear. I will never reveal what we do here. Please, master! I do not understand your objection!” Dumas could not answer. Love was dangerous to a man on the run. Mistakes get made, a man stops thinking. If they were exposed, Dumas would be executed and Fallon would be sold to the soldiers’ encampment. Fallon was a beautiful copper-haired, green-eyed vixen. And she was also a virgin. She would be used by the soldiers until there was nothing left of her, or she was consumed by disease or impregnated with a babe that would be born dead. “Do not consent to lose so rich a prize as your virginity to half a man,” he managed to reply. “Nay, I have taken what I can from you. I’ll leave the rest for your husband.” He had lain with many women before but never wanted to possess one as he did this girl. Dumas had been shaken the first night she stood before him naked. So young, so pure and shy, and yet trembling with desire for a shrunken, grotesque hunchback. Her compassion for his loneliness and her need for his protection had moved him deeply. Though he had done his best to push her away, it was no use. His feelings for Fallon were deepening daily. And what of hers? What did she feel for him? She had almost given the game away tonight when Broderick lashed out at him. Fallon had cried out with a scream that was distinctly feminine. She moaned from deep within her body. Dumas had urged the girl close to climax. His cock throbbed to be inside her. “I shall never marry. You said it yourself. No man will have me, therefore my maidenhead is mine to give, and I choose to give it to you, Dumas.” Fallon suddenly grasped his shaft and straddled his thighs. Dumas protested as she pressed his rod to the entrance of her hot, wet vagina. “You must,” she panted. “Say you will! You must take me, master, you must or I swear I shall leave the caravan and find a man who will.” The hunchback could no longer restrain himself. “This once, Fallon, this once and never again, do you hear?” With his powerful thighs, he thrust up, impaling her virgin sex on his shaft. Fallon gasped and cried out from the pain, and then fell over him, sobbing. He had timed the fingering of her budded rose with the splitting of her hymen so that pleasure and pain were joined in one ecstatic moment. His cock was huge and hard, filling and stretching Fallon’s virgin sex that squeezed him like a vise. Dumas dared not move for he was too close to spilling his seed. “Oh god, is that what it feels like? Is this love? It hurts me so, Dumas.” Fallon’s breath came in short gasps. “Dumas, the pain is terrible.” “Shall I stop, Fallon?” “No, no, no ... I am unharmed ... I am ... it is ... oh my ... this sensation is unlike anything I’ve experienced....” Fallon bounced up and down, riding him. She was a hot wet tunnel stretched round his cock, her breasts jiggling with each thrust. “I am sorry....” The words strangled in his throat. “Forgive me for this...” Dumas lost control. His face clenched and his neck corded. He gripped her small hard buttocks in his strong hands and pounded her slick tight sex. Months of foreplay, months of watching her undress for him had unmanned him. He threw his head back, roaring with the ejaculation as he filled the girl with his seed. She cried out with pleasure and then broke down in tears. “Oh! Oh, Dumas you must love me a little now. You must.” He stroked her shorn head and held her close, tenderly rubbing her back. “You foolish girl, I do love you. How could you avoid seeing it? I love you, Fallon. I could not stop it.” “You do, you do,” she wailed and laughed. “You love me! Then why, Dumas—why didn’t you say so. We could have been together all this time. I was growing to hate you and hate myself—until tonight—until I realized that you had played false with me, pretending to be a lecherous villain when you were a good man.” “I’m not a good man ... I’m not ... I’m not. A good man would have let you be.” But Fallon would not be persuaded. “You love me, Dumas. You love me. That is all I care about. And I love you. With all my heart, I love you.” Fallon kissed Dumas on the lips, softly pressing her plump full mouth to his and kissing him with great love and passion. Dumas held her face in his strong hands and took possession of her mouth, kissing her deeply—wildly hot for her again while still inside her. Sweat beaded his brow. Fallon gripped him tightly in a hot embrace, and then, puzzled, she released him and drew back to examine her lover. “Dumas, the hunch in your back has moved.” Instantly, the jester tried to push her away from him. “It has not,” Dumas said weakly. “It is only that you are crossed-eyed from riding my staff.” “No, no, the deformity has moved from your right shoulder to the middle of your back. Here, I will show you—” He leapt to his feet and flung her off him. Fallon fell rudely to the floor. Her master rose tall and straight above her, his chest heaving. “There, see—you are standing upright! You are straight and tall as an oak tree! What trickery is this? You are not deformed at all—but as straight as an arrow!” Dumas dropped to his knees and clapped his hand over her mouth. “Shut up, you little fool. Do you want to get us both killed? You mistake me, Fallon. I am only a fool, a court jester, deformed at birth. You are the boy who assists me, who fetches and carries my props for my performances. We two are poor entertainers, no danger to anyone. Thus, we travel where we will, unmolested. Do you understand?” Fallon nodded her head and the jester removed his hand from her mouth. “You have been in disguise all these months and did not tell me. It is not fair that you see me as I really am and I am not granted the same pleasure,” Fallon whispered. “Show me yourself. No—do not douse the light, Dumas. I want to see the man who has made love to me.” Her keeper drew up to a great height. Dumas pulled the heavily embroidered tunic off over his head. The deformity was a mere prop, a bit of stagecraft strapped to his muscled chest. Fallon’s master was a whole man, strong and well-formed. Exceedingly well-formed, she thought after he removed his hose and stood over her naked. Her pulse raced as she looked upon him. “Who are you?” she gasped. Chapter III “I WAS Sir Dumas, a knight in the service of King Richard. A warrant was put on my head when King John took the throne. Richard had named another as his successor and I fought to see my sovereign’s dying wish honoured. In doing so, I forfeited my life and assumed the jester’s disguise to escape arrest and the executioner’s blade.” “Oh my God, Dumas! It is a miracle ... you are a soldier...! Why do you stay in England if it is dangerous? We could go any number of places and be together!” “You would have me give up my country for a bit of tit? That is all we have between us, Fallon—a romp, a peep show. I am still a lecherous, twisted man. Only my body is straight.” Fallon drew up to her knees. “You are a poor liar, my love. Now it is your turn to show me. Turn around.” He did, revealing a broad strong back, straight spine and curved buttocks. “You are perfect, Dumas.” He turned and a rare smile worked his lips. “You have very little to compare with, my love. I take it you do not object to living with me now that I am not deformed?” “I did not object to living with you in any case.” She gazed at him with wide green eyes and rose to her feet. “I have loved you from the second week of living with you when the caravan became stuck in the mud and you would not whip Gladiator to pull harder.” Dumas’s horse had suffered enough indignity without being whipped. Trained to carry a knight into battle, only a horse of great merit would consent to be harnessed to that same knight’s caravan and travel the countryside dressed as a fool. Fallon unstrapped the hunchback from Dumas’s body and cast it aside. She slipped her hand into his and led the knight to their bed. When Fallon had come to live with him, she had been given a pile of sacks in the corner to sleep on and was glad to have it. Dumas slept a bed of clean rushes and a down mattress. A thick animal hide offered warmth against the winter night. The caravan was warm and the light mellow. The snow continued to fall. They listened to the sound of the church bells and held each other close. “They’ll find us out,” Dumas said. His handsome face was worried. “We will not be able to keep this a secret, Fallon. It has already happened—one lapse in self-control and you found out my disguise. I am wanted for treason. If I am arrested, they’ll sell you to the soldiers’ encampment.” Fallon stretched her narrow slim body on top of his, her breasts squashed against his chest. She kissed his lips gently at first and then with greater urgency. “We will keep it a secret. You will teach me how to be as quiet as a mouse. Silently now, make love to me, Dumas. Oh, make love to me,” she sighed as he took her tongue in his mouth. The hours passed in an orgy of sex—he was insatiable, kissing her perfect naked body from her lips to her toes and then suckling her sweet young sex until she came in his mouth with a shout of pleasure. Dumas took Fallon over and over again; she was sore from being ridden so often and so thoroughly by her master. But he was no longer her master. Dumas knew that he was her lover now and Fallon would not behave with him as a boy squire ought again. She could not pull off the deception now that she knew the truth. Fallon was passionate and she wore her feelings in plain sight. That was what Dumas loved best about her. She had never held anything back from him in the four months they had together. Not her revulsion or her fear—or her budding sexuality. His beloved curled against his chest, her warm, lithe body wafting the milky scent of her sex to him. He wrapped her in his arms. Dumas had fallen deeply in love with her and that would be their undoing. He was already losing the edge of hate he’d had that had kept him alive this long. Loving Fallon made him want to come out of the shadows and be a man worthy of her love. How could he put on the jester’s crown now and play the fool? How could he protect her without giving himself away? And most importantly, what would become of Fallon if he was arrested? “I love you, Dumas. You must never leave me. Promise you won’t,” Fallon said sleepily. “I love you....” “I will not leave you. I promise.” But she must have sensed his torment and doubt for she clung to him and kissed his neck. Though she was half-asleep, Dumas bent over her smooth young flesh and buried his prick inside her again and again until the cock’s crow was heard. The first day of Christmas. Loving Fallon had made him a man again but it could not last. Dumas looked around him, knowing what he must do. He had no gift to give his love but one. Her freedom. Fallon knew how to manage Gladiator; the caravan was her home. It would keep her safe. Dumas would ask a theatre troubadour he knew to take her in and join their company travelling from town to town. She would earn enough to keep herself fed. He rose from the bed and strapped on the hunchback, dressing quickly before he could change his mind. With a last look back at the sleeping girl, Dumas pulled on the jester’s crown. “I love you, darling Fallon. I love you. Forgive me.” And then he slipped noiselessly into the sparkling Christmas morning. Fallon would understand how much he loved her by leaving her, Dumas told himself. He had to work hard to keep the tears out of his eyes. She would know the truth. I love you, Dumas. His heart lifted, remembering her words. Love endures. Nothing can destroy it. Warmed by happiness, the jester hobbled across the snow-dusted field and out of Fallon’s life. ♠ SHE WOKE to a cold and empty bed. Frightened, she leapt to her feet and flung the door open with a bang that startled Gladiator and caused him to turn. “Dumas!” No answer. No sign of the jester. Her heart was pounding with fear and panic. The air was sparkling with frost, bright, cold, and the sky was blue. Fallon stared into the distance across the wide, white and empty field. Dumas had left her. He would not come back. Fallon took a breath. Exhaled slowly. And then took another. She thought of Lady Tess waking beside her husband and her two baby sons this morning. She thought of Tess returning proudly to Castlemuir with her shorn hair, boy’s clothes and an unwavering determination to wed a soldier in these dangerous times. Fallon knew why Dumas had left her and her heart swelled to overflowing with love for him. For his sacrifice. He would never leave Gladiator behind unless he loved her very much. She bolted back inside, dug up the clothes of the boy squire and donned them quickly. How far could he have gotten? Not far. Not on foot. Fallon jammed her hat on her head and leaped out of the caravan, slamming the door behind her. She whistled for Gladiator who trotted over as if he expected this all along. Wrestling with the harness, she felt time melting like snow and Dumas slipping farther and farther away. She would find him. “Never fear, Glad, he will not escape us that easily.” They would begin with the field and if they did not find him here, they would go to the cathedral. It was Christmas after all. Fallon had experienced the miracle of finding love; she would not let it slip away without a good, honest fight. The only fight worth having was the one for love.

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