Conquer the Mist

Conquer the Mist

Susan Kearney

November 2014 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-5-829

Only her enemy can save her...

 
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To warrior-princess Dara, her father’s decision to bring a Norman knight into their Irish homeland is dangerous at best. Dara distrusts all things Norman. But the king of Leinster sees Strongheart, a landless knight with superior skills at warfare, as the perfect advisor and trainer for his men.

Strongheart makes no secret of his desire to marry the princess and become Lord of Leinster. When enemies attack, he and Dara unite as they make plans to retake her homeland. During their exile in Wales, his skilled seduction and courtship proves irresistible to both her body and heart. Yet her proud and passionate nature challenges their future together.

When the battles come, the fate of both the kingdom and their love will be decided once and for all.

 


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"If you’re looking for some hot sex . . . this could be the book for you." —All About Romance


Excerpt

 

Chapter One

"HAVE THE FAIRIES stolen your wits, Da?” Princess Dara O’Dwyre paced the upper hall, berating her father beside her and glaring at the Norman knight who stood below the dais. At her chilly words, the Norman Roland de Clare saluted her with his goblet and a scoundrel’s grin, nettling her even more.

Dara met the devilment in the Norman’s dark eyes squarely while she continued the argument with her father. "This stranger just rode into Leinster. We know nothing about him, yet you wish to put him in charge of our castle defense. To be sure, Da, there could not be a worse time to trust a stranger, especially a Norman.” Without a shred of remorse, she spat out the last word as she would a curse. "Do we not have enough border troubles without inviting problems inside County Wexford?”

At her harsh words, the Norman’s bronze face remained implaca­ble, his stance casual, although a muscle clenched in his jaw. Dara thought it significant that while she insulted his honor he maintained such iron control. Perhaps he wanted more than the position of chief marshal. Only a warrior with an ulterior purpose would endure her ha­rangue without protest.

Conor O’Dwyre, King of Leinster, ran his hand through his curly gray hair and sighed. He sat for a few moments in silence, considering her argument. Unlike Dara, who’d inherited a sharp tongue from her mother, her father always thought long and carefully before speaking. But sometimes of late, he drifted, needing a bit of prodding.

"Da?”

"We need his expertise. A Norman warrior can teach us English strat­egy. He won’t upset things.”

She spun on her heel and set a hand on her hip in frustration. "The devil take him! He has already upset things. I should be setting a trap for the raiders instead of arguing with you.”

At her words, the Norman warrior’s eyes widened slightly. His lips twitched, whether in anger or laughter she couldn’t tell. With a rising sense of desperation, she refused to allow his muscled arms and superior weaponry to impress her as they had her father and his men. She had no doubt that on the battlefield, Strongheart was aptly named. However, one bold man, no matter how fine a warrior, could not save them from the constant border raids. If Strongheart thought he could ride in, dis­play his fancy armor, shield, and spear, and convince them to trust him, he’d overestimated his powers of persuasion.

She raised her hand to the four-leafed shamrock she wore at her neck, the O’Dwyre symbol of their right to rule. The tips of her fingers traced the gold edges of the rare emerald enamel leaves outlined in gold, inlaid with tiny pearls, and encircling a sparkling diamond. The treasure had been handed down from one generation to the next—her family had ruled Leinster since the mists of time.

O’Dwyres had built Castle Ferns on O’Dwyre land. O’Dwyres had de­fended Leinster and died for the right to rule from Kilcowan to Cloncurry. She and her father continued the tradition. This was her home, her people, her family, and they had no need of any bloody Nor­man to teach them to defend what was theirs.

When her father opened his mouth to speak, she held up her hand, struggling to maintain an even tone. "I know the plan. You will keep him so busy training the men-at-arms and archers, I’ll barely know he’s here. That is what you always say whenever you make a decision I do not like.”

As she stole his argument, Conor rubbed his gray beard sheepishly. "He’ll cause no trouble.”

She rolled her eyes and gave him a wry look. Furious that she couldn’t prevail upon her father to change his mind, she ground her teeth together to overcome the urge to argue further. Above all else, he had to appear Leinster’s leader. But in truth, more and more of late, he refused to see reason. Still, she could only say so much in the public hall, and by the prowling, predatory intelligence glimmering in Strongheart’s dark eyes, he had knowingly taken advantage of her predicament.

She tossed her hair over her shoulder in a gesture of defiance. "Men always cause trouble.”

"Impertinent chit.” Her father’s affectionate grin softened his words. "The Norman is different.”

"Just like the last marshal you hired was different?” she asked causti­cally. First she’d had to fend off his unwanted attentions. Then, the traitor had near gotten away with their gold. "Have you already forgot­ten the wee bit o’ trouble he caused us?”

Her father had the grace to look somewhat abashed. "Lass, how could I know the man spied for O’Rourke?”

Dara bit back a sharp retort, suspecting there would never be peace between the clans. The O’Dwyres would always have to fight to hold their land. She had been born in Castle Ferns, and to her this was more than just a home. After her mother left them, the solid castle walls of the O’Dwyre estate represented safety and strength to her. The dark gray, ivy-covered stones stood rooted on O’Dwyre land, linking the past with the future. Castle Ferns protected her, as it would her children and her grandchildren. It was a comforting thought that though O’Dwyres would come and go, Castle Ferns would always shelter them.

Strongheart’s presence threatened their home more severely than los­ing a bit of gold or cows to their old enemy O’Rourke. Wherever the hated Normans ventured, they conquered the native people of the land, looting, raping, pillaging. Normans had taken over Wales, and now their relentlessly greedy eyes looked westward to the uninhabited riches of Eire. If only her father’s mind was clear, he would see the Norman was the first of a conquering race, the vanguard of an army of invading warri­ors. But age could make a fool of any man, even the King of Leinster.

She shook off the disconcerting thought that her father was not the wise leader he once was. Ignoring the giant Norman who watched every sway of her hips with unseemly interest, she stepped beside the king’s great chair, placed a hand on his forearm, and spoke softly. "You could not know of O’Rourke’s treachery, but we must suspect all strangers, especially a Norman.”

Her father lowered his voice, and Dara leaned forward to catch the words meant for her ears alone. "You are wise, my dear. Stay close to him. Beguile him with your winning ways and learn his secrets.” Then Leinster’s king spoke loudly, so the Norman could hear. "I shall keep close watch.”

Dara bit off a curse. Her failure to convince her father could prove disastrous. At the triumph sparkling in Strongheart’s black eyes, she swallowed the bitter taste of defeat, stifling the urge to punch the arro­gant Norman’s nose. "Da, have you heard nothing I’ve said?”

"Enough! I will hear Roland de Clare’s opinion of Castle Ferns’ de­fenses. Above all things, I would keep you safe.”

While she paced restlessly with anger she couldn’t restrain, Strong­heart stood by the large hearth, solitary as a rock island, rooted as a rowan, self-contained as a force of nature. They glanced at each other like wolfhounds taking measure of a menacing new rival. Sweet Jesu, the Norman knight was big! Although her father was tall, very masculine, and a man of great size and strength, the foreign knight towered over him.

Strongheart’s dark hair reached to his fine linen tunic embroidered with gold thread. His glimmering, arrogant eyes dominated his face, giving him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward and making him seem all the more dangerous. His nose was bold and straight, and his cheekbones angled sharply, the hollows almost gaunt above a sensual mouth.

His broad shoulders left no doubt of his profession. Not even the mail that covered his torso could hide the enormous power of his broad chest. But it was his arrogant confidence that proclaimed him the best of warriors.

Unlike the men of her land, he covered his muscular legs with cloth, filling his leather boots until he strained the top lacing. As he advanced, taking huge strides, the great bulge of his thigh muscles shifted.

Although he’d left his lance and helmet with his mount, he carried an axe with a fan-shaped blade, and a broad-bladed sword in a scabbard of wood was belted to his waist.

She swallowed hard in awe of his unusual weapons, and fear chilled her spine. Irish men, without mail or battle-axes, could not fight an army of Normans wearing chain hauberks like his. Irish short bows, spears, and slings could not penetrate his mail. And his longbow, carried across his broad back, was the largest she’d ever seen.

But it was the challenging look in his eyes that had her bracing for an attack. The intensity of his stare made her weigh her words with care.

Suddenly nervous, Dara ran a hand through her hair, trying to ig­nore Strongheart’s keen scrutiny. Let him watch. She would not give up as long as she drew breath. "The Normans’ greed for our land cannot be underestimated. They come seeking our rich green pastures just like the Gaels and the Danes before them.”

The knight approached with repressed energy, his emotions under ironclad control, his chain hauberk reflecting the candlelight with each long stride. "Princess, let me remind you, I am only one man.”

But quite a man at that. A hard man seeking glory. At her first sight of him, when he’d set down his shield upon entering the hall, her breath had caught at the width of his shoulders and the powerful muscles of his bare forearms. When he entered a room, all were immediately aware of his presence. He projected a virile intensity, and within minutes of his arrival, every maid knew his name and of whence he came.

Strongheart wore the scars of battle on his arm and neck like marks of honor, seemingly uncaring of his isolation among enemies, undis­turbed by her mistrust. His strength could be their undoing. All the more reason not to trust him and his piercing eyes that reminded her of glisten­ing black stones on a cloudless day. Although he’d ridden onto their lands alone, he could have hidden knights and foot soldiers in the forest beyond.

She struggled with the almost overpowering need to take a step back. Instead, she lifted her chin, prepared to argue as long as it took to keep Castle Ferns and its inhabitants safe. These days her father’s perpet­ual optimism could be more than irritating—it could be danger­ous. "If you allow him to stay, more Normans will follow, enough Nor­mans that the land will no longer be ours.”

"Strongheart is a soldier, not inclined to settling in one place, I think. I’d wager he’s never herded, milked, or butchered cows,” her father protested mildly.

She gathered her courage to leave her father’s side and locked her gaze with the brooding stare of the Norman as she approached him. "Tell me you do not covet the fertile lands of County Kildare. Tell me you do not longingly eye the abundant wealth of Carlow, Kilkenny, and Wexford, and I will say you lie.”

Strongheart’s coal-black eyes lit up like a banked fire, and he meas­ured her with a hard intensity before he answered. Dara hoped that in the end, his words would do him no good. Her father usually indulged her behests. When she called the Norman a liar, she thought he would shout, pound his great fist on the table, or demand she leave the great hall.

Instead he laughed, the deep sound rumbling in his chest, and he bowed mockingly. "I applaud your fine hospitality, Princess O’Dwyre. If you accuse all your guests of dishonor, the bards must sing the truth of it from Cork to Derry. Is your shrewish tongue and lack of manners the reason you are not wed?”

"Sweet lamb of divine Jesu!” Rage boiled in her stomach. She was all the more furious because he had every right to fault her lack of hospital­ity, but she’d never admit it to him. Nor would she admit she found him interesting—all the more reason to send him on his way.

At his remark about her lack of a husband, her cheeks flushed hot. How like a man to get the situation backward. Battles had been fought for the right to claim her. The kings of Connaught and Munster had offered for her. And he, arrogant man, thought no one wanted her?

How dare Strongheart stand and insult her in their castle? But worse, he’d turned the table on her. She’d called him a liar for which he had no defense. And like any good warrior without a defense, he’d at­tacked, insulting her and changing the subject. The man was clever. But so was she.

She swallowed the anger and allowed her father to hear her real fears. "Is it not bad enough that traitors surround us? Must we bring one into our midst?” She spun, clenched her fist at the Norman, and let loose her building rage. "We do not offer food and drink to our enemies. Get out, I say!”

The Norman’s expression did not change. He didn’t acknowledge her attack by so much as a flicker of an eyelash. He simply turned his broad back to her.

He might not have been so arrogant if he’d known her skill with a dirk. Even if he had no craving for their rich lands, no good could come of his presence here. Why didn’t her father see that the Norman repre­sented a threat more dangerous than Munster, Meath, Connaught, and Ulster combined?

For now, the Ard-ri, the Irish high king, remained in Connaught, set­tling the constant border disputes between the lesser kings from afar. Instead of lessening, the old enmity between the Ard-ri and her father had only intensified during the last eighteen years. The Norman’s pres­ence here would give Leinster’s enemies reason to unite, and they could not afford to take that chance. The longstanding feuds had already taken too many innocent lives.

From the southeast, the ambitious Borrack MacLugh, King of Mun­ster, coveted the rich lands and vast cattle herds of Leinster. Only an old agreement kept him at bay. And one-eyed Tiernan O’Rourke, King of Meath, was forever a thorn in the side of the O’Dwyres, staging quick raids across the border, leaving only flaming villages, hungry old men, and motherless children behind.

A Norman in Castle Ferns would escalate the confrontations. One look at the Norman’s superior armor, and their enemies would fear Leinster’s advantage. And what men feared, men attacked. Leinster, with her moist skies feeding lush fields, would become a bloody battleground. Great numbers of men would swarm over their land. Dara’s throat tight­ened with thoughts of never again riding free through the open country. The armies would set fire to the crops, ransack the villages, and ruin Leinster’s open green pastures.

Dara prayed the Ard-ri’s army would remain in Connaught. While her family had troubles in Leinster, they’d solve them without the high king’s interference. She saw no reason to invite Strongheart onto their land. That her father had even considered such a decision distressed her deeply.

More and more she had to cover up her father’s mistakes. Although Conor O’Dwyre had the strength of three men, his forgetful spells came more frequently now. But since Leinster’s men still followed Conor into battle without hesitation, the O’Dwyres had no need of a Norman gain­ing the men’s allegiance, usurping her father’s authority.

Strongheart set down his silver goblet of wine on the great yew ta­ble, then strode toward her father. Her heartbeat quickened in alarm, and Dara’s hand closed on the handle of the dirk at her waist. But the Norman’s hands stayed clear of his magnificent diamond-and-amber encrusted sword.

His tone resonated lethal confidence. "Your men lack training. Pur­chasing mail for the men-at-arms and armor for the horses is vital. And the triple rings of stone on the southern wall need major reinforce­ment.”

Dara’s stomach lurched in growing resentment and horror. His sharp eyes had assessed their every weakness.

Stiffening her spine, she wrapped pride around her like a cowl. "Ferns is the finest castle in all Eire.”

Strongheart raised a dark brow. The set of his mouth bordered on mockery, and his tone remained dangerously even. "Pillars of bronze, roofs of tile, and gongs of silver will not halt an army. And neither will your spiked tongue.”

"Och. The great Norman knight has come to safeguard Leinster. If I believed that, I’d have the sense of a flea.”

"Stop snarling. I cannot afford a fight between you.” Her father leaned back in his chair, rubbed his beard, and stared hard at Strong­heart. By his long silence, Dara knew he still considered the man’s sugges­tions.

"I want to see what he can do. You may stay—”

"No!” Acid burned Dara’s stomach as she rushed to her father’s side, blinking back tears of defeat. Conor could not force the Norman on their people. Castle Ferns would not harbor a traitor.

"You will not gainsay me, Daughter.”

Fully aware that tears wouldn’t change her father’s mind, she forced herself to speak with strength. "I say what I please. We cannot afford another mistake.”

"Strongheart can stay the night. I will decide by—”

"Raiders,” bellowed a guard from the lower bailey, interrupting their argument.

At the first sign of trouble, the Norman’s hand moved so quickly to his sword, his hand was a blur. He spun, sword half-drawn from his scabbard before she could shout, "Where?”

"Sletty,” came the reply from below.

Conor pounded the arm of his chair with his fist. "The thieves grow bolder; they steal our cattle during the day.”

With a sudden rush of panic, Dara’s blood drained from her face. Her maid Sorcha had gone that morn to visit her brother in Sletty, less than a half-day’s ride away. At this hour, perhaps Sorcha was already on her way back, but Dara could not shake off the dark premonition smoth­ering her like a cloak. Sorcha was like a mother to her; she couldn’t bear to see her harmed.

At the news, her father leapt from his chair with a hoarse battle cry on his lips and sprinted down the stairs, with Strongheart close behind. Perhaps this time they’d catch the thieves and end these constant border raids.

In the bailey, women hugged their men goodbye and offered bread and cheese for the journey, and children raced about the men. Below, horses whinnied at the call-to-arms. Men cursed. Dogs barked at honk­ing geese.

Dara ran lightly down the steps, seized her bow, and slung it over her shoulder. She grabbed her traveling pouch packed with clean cloths for bandages and needle and thread for stitching. After seizing a few bundles of herbs and filling a waterskin, she stuffed the supplies into her pouch.

She slipped a dirk into her boot, then hurried outside to see the men already mounted and galloping across the scrub land. But she couldn’t stay behind without going mad with worry. Not with Sorcha’s life at risk. Dara sprinted to the stables and bridled her red stallion Fionn. Hiking up her tunic, she vaulted onto his back.

"Go, Fionn.” She goaded him with her heels, and he bolted after the warriors.

Her great steed’s powerful hooves devoured the distance between Dara and the men, sending the occasional hare zigzagging for cover. Overhead, a kestrel hovered, steadily holding its position in the air with no more than a tremor of its wings. If only finding Sorcha would prove so effortless.

Although her father would not be pleased by Dara’s actions, he would not stop her. Often her tracking skills brought them victory, especially when the raiders hid cattle in a marsh. Besides, he knew how much Sorcha meant to her.

The sky grayed to a weighty, depressing gloom, but no impending storm would stop Dara. Drawing in great draughts of air, she followed the dust blowing in the eternal west wind. Beneath Fionn’s hooves, the verdant green pastures whirled away, becoming hilly crag. She topped a heady rise, and the wind keened, blowing her hair back from her face and giving Dara her first clear view of Sletty in the distance.

From the peak, the village looked deserted. Not a whiff of smoke emerged from the wattled huts. Only chickens clucked in the empty mud lane through the village’s center.

After sending for her father’s help, the villagers must have hidden the swine, sheep, and milk cows in the nooks of these hills. At least the raiders had not burned the thatch roofs. No bodies lay in the street. Perhaps Sorcha was safe.

She rode down to join her father and his men, who had stopped to confer with the smithy. When she advanced, the warriors drew their mounts aside, leaving her a clear path to her father, then closed ranks protectively behind her.

BY THE ROOD! What is Princess Dara doing on a raid? So great was Strong­heart’s incredulity, he almost shouted the words aloud. He glanced from her straight back, high chin, and squared shoulders to the faces of the Irish men. Not one warrior looked surprised.

From their casual acceptance of her presence, he gathered Irish prin­cesses rode on daily raids, or at least Dara O’Dwyre did. Apparently riding into danger was an everyday occurrence for the red-haired woman who rode as if she were part of her stallion, indifferent to her tunic hiked well above her knees, revealing delicate ankles.

If the king risked his daughter’s life by allowing such pagan behav­ior, it was no concern of Strongheart’s. Yet pretending nonchalance was proving more difficult than he’d imagined. Neither the long hair that reached her thighs nor her hose hid the shapely muscles with which she straddled the bare back of her huge roan stallion.

When he caught her fierce glance darkened with the merest hint of worry, her eyes sparkled like the sun glinting through Leinster’s emerald forests. Her straight, short nose seemed to turn up at him, and her full lips clamped together in disapproval. The air crackled with tension, sizzling his flesh from his scalp to his toes. For one brief moment, he forgot to suck in air. Then she moved on, breaking the eerie spell she’d cast over him.

Strongheart took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He would have coveted the King of Leinster’s daughter even if she’d been as gnarled as a crone. To find such an enchantress only increased his determination to have her and her rich lands. Her ruby lips were made for kissing, her provocative eyes flashed with clear emerald sparkles, and her fair skin had a golden glow that made him yearn to possess her. If he ever owned such a treasure, he vowed to guard her well. Had these Irishmen no pride to allow a woman to ride with men into battle?

When Conor spied his daughter, he interrupted his conversation and held out his hand to her. "’Tis dangerous to ride alone. Why did you tarry so long?”

She squeezed his hand and nodded toward the pouch stuffed with remedies tied to her waist. "I came prepared.”

"For battle?” Strongheart nudged his horse forward.

With a defiant toss of her glorious hair, she squared her shoulders. "I am always ready to defend Leinster’s assets.”

"And most beautiful are those assets.” He ran his gaze from the tips of her smoky lashes to her booted toes, taking in the proud tilt of her chin, the enticing curves of her breasts, the graceful way she sat her horse.

Her eyes glared at him icily. "I’ll slice the throat of any man who tries to take what is mine.” Turning her horse, she gave him her stiff back.

Bloodthirsty wench. Strange how she objected to an honest compli­ment. Odd how she was savvy one minute, guarded and cool the next.

Conor finished his questioning of the smithy and urged his mount southwest. The band of riders rode hard, past ruins engulfed in ivy, through a wood of oaks undergrown with holly, and onto the upland moors.

As they rounded a rocky crag, the path deteriorated into battle-site un­evenness, and they startled a flock of white-fronted geese and feral goats. Despite the majestic peregrines, ravens, and sparrowheads flying above the rough terrain, Strongheart’s gaze repeatedly returned to Dara. Keeping his destrier abreast with her stallion, he was nearly mesmerized by the rhythmic bounce of her auburn tresses.

With her creamy complexion flushed from the wind and her long hair streaming like a banner behind her, she fired his imagination. Her intelligent sea-green eyes, the boldness of her presence, sent his thoughts whirling. What would it be like to taste her provocative lips? To hold her naked in his arms? To watch her face when she experienced her woman’s pleasure for the very first time?

As if sensing his thoughts, she looked over her shoulder. He’d half-expected her to frown or sneer, but she grinned in challenge and dug her heels into her stallion’s sides, darting ahead.

Accepting her silent dare, Strongheart dug in his heels, and his horse broke free of the pack. To catch her, he used all his horsemanship to prod his steed faster. Unburdened by saddle or armor, she rode as well as any knight, perhaps better since her diminutive size seemed no match for the powerful stallion. Catching her did not prove easy.

Finally he came abreast. She rode high on the stallion’s withers, her face aglow with exhilaration, her eyes sparkling. No matter how much she was enjoying this ride, she shouldn’t have left herself unprotected.

"Hold up. Conor’s men are far behind,” he shouted, his voice muf­fled by a strong western gust.

She began to rein the stallion in. And then above the wind, a woman’s scream pierced the air, followed by several sharp curses.

Dara paled. He expected her to draw her horse to a screeching halt. Instead, she leaned forward, crooned in her stallion’s ears, and dug her heels into his flanks. The horse bolted ahead, and he realized he’d caught her only because she’d let him.

In frustration at being left to eat her dust, and worried over her safety, he yelled over the pounding hooves, "Stop! Don’t go alone!”

"’Tis Sorcha!” Dara shouted back, riding on without pause.

Bloody fool woman. Would she risk her life for a maid? As she put her­self in danger, Strongheart’s gut clenched.

Another scream resounded from the copse of elms directly ahead of them. Through the trees, Strongheart spied a clearing where several men squatted around a campfire. At the northern end of the cleaning, a larger group herded milling cattle.

Dara veered toward the woman struggling on the ground at the far side of camp. Did the princess not realize the danger? While he would take on any man with his sword, he estimated ten times that number in camp.

Heedless of her own safety, Princess Dara charged straight into the group of men, scattering bellowing cattle in every direction. With her horse at a full gallop, she flung herself from the stallion’s back into a throng of startled men.

Strongheart’s heart slammed into his chest. Rarely had he seen such courage in knights wearing full battle armor. The fool girl could die before he reached her. He raked his mount’s sides with his spurs. With­out taking his gaze off the spot where she’d jumped off her horse, he withdrew his sword and hefted his shield, guiding his animal solely with his knees.

He dared not risk a moment to look back to see how far behind Conor’s men lagged. As he neared the throng, the raiders pulled back from the attacking Irish princess, leaving him a clear view.

Sorcha lay with her legs splayed wide, her arms held tight by two men. A huge man, naked from the waist down, kneeled between her thighs.

After leaping from her horse, Dara had landed atop the shoulders of the rapist. Suddenly the man toppled, his neck spurting blood as Dara yanked her knife from his neck. He was no longer a threat to Dara. But another raider advanced upon her from behind.

He urged his mount forward, but his steed would never reach her in time. "Watch your back!”

Men closed in around him. He lost sight of her in the fray. His sword sliced through the men’s leather armor like a knife through lard. Still, by sheer overwhelming numbers, they forced him from his saddle and kept him pinned.

He sliced and parried, ducking past one man only to have another in his way. The coppery scent of blood filled the air as he fought in des­pera­tion. But no matter how slick the grass ran with blood, he couldn’t reach Dara.

Horses milled, circled, then bolted, all except his battle-trained mount, which held its ground. The panicked horses stampeded the cat­tle, and in their fright, their hooves knocked embers from the fire’s protective stone circle. Flames whipped across the grass. Smoke blocked his vision. The unmistakable stench of burnt flesh permeated the air, filling his nostrils.

And the maid never ceased her screaming.

As Strongheart blocked a knife with his shield, he thrust his sword into another raider’s heart. Between parries, he searched for Dara; with each downed opponent, he edged closer to where he’d spied her last. If she lived through this hour, her father should beat her for risking her life so wantonly.

Where in bloody hell was she?

Thick, dark smoke prevented him from finding her. Sparks caught one man’s clothes on fire, and he ran wildly through the melee, his fran­tic howls ignored by his fellow raiders. Strongheart stumbled over a corpse. A sword came toward his face. With a war cry, he raised his shield, blocking the blow. A pike stabbed under his raised shield, and he coun­tered with the thrust of his sword. Before the man he’d smitten fell to his back and died, another took his place. Then, at his side, a third appeared.

Surrounded, Strongheart struggled to regain his footing, turning in a slow circle to protect his back. Four men attacked at once, two from the front, two from behind. From a crouch, Strongheart lunged forward, moving his back farther from the enemy, and simultaneously running down a forward opponent. Before he freed his broadsword, the other two attacked from the rear.

He spun, abandoning his sword and pitching his shield at one adver­sary to delay him, then rending the second with his axe, splattering brains and flesh in a death blow. Shifting to the side, Strongheart readied for another charge, but the third man fled, and the fourth’s deadly strike never came. Instead, the Irish raider collapsed to his knees with a startled look in his eyes, a knife’s hilt protruding from his nape.

Strongheart squinted through the smoke, searching for the fighter who had come to his aid. He spied Dara supporting the half-naked maid with one arm. The Princess must have thrown her dirk with the other!

Finally, her father’s men charged, the king roaring his fierce battle cry, his men taunting their enemy with death. Conor’s men-at-arms surrounded the wood, trapping the men fleeing with the cattle. Their foes stood no chance of victory since they were afoot. Fire and smoke flushed the raiders straight into Conor’s converging men.

Strongheart retrieved his fallen sword, but before he reached Dara’s side, a raider grabbed her from behind, tearing her from the maid. Sor­cha cried out, stepped toward Dara, and then collapsed to the ground.

With his arm locked around Dara’s throat, the raider forced her to­ward a rearing horse tied to a fir. She struggled, stomping the man’s instep, jamming her elbow into his gut. Although her struggles delayed her captor a moment, the leather armor protected the man from her blow.

The man pressed a knife to Dara’s skin. Strongheart’s heart shot straight to his throat. He dared not close on him, for he could lose her before her next breath.

Her attacker backed away. "Drop your sword, Norman.”

Strongheart threw down his weapon. Slowly, he shrugged his shoul­der and eased his bow into his hand.

Ever the fighter, Dara raised her knee and slid her hand to her boot.

Her captor jerked her upright, but her struggle to reach the weapon she’d hidden there was just the distraction Strongheart required. In an instant, he drew the bow.

"No.” Dara’s eyes widened. For the first time since her capture, fear flickered across her horrified face.

A woman had no place in battle. Especially this woman.

Strongheart loosed his arrow.


 

 

Chapter Two

WITH THE KNIFE at her neck, Dara faced death from the raider behind her, as well as from the Norman before her. Strongheart’s arrow flew straight toward her. Terror squeezed her throat.

The arrow struck, its immense force knocking Dara to her knees and freeing her from the man clutching her throat. Behind her, the raider shrieked his death knell.

Turning, she gasped in pain as her hair caught on the shaft, and she yanked the trapped locks loose. The Norman’s great arrow had narrowly missed her, piercing the raider’s right eye, killing him instantly.

Ignoring her nausea at the gruesome sight, she rolled free, scram­bling for the dirk hidden in her boot, at the same time frantically search­ing for Sorcha. She spied her, but before she could reach her, another Norman in battle garb galloped into the smoky clearing and abducted the maid.

Tears threatened to spill down Dara’s cheeks. She had come so close to rescuing Sorcha only to lose her to another bloody Norman. Strongheart had lied. As she’d suspected, he had not come alone. He may even have conspired with their enemy and set a trap for her father and his men.

Fear rose up to choke her. She fought the urge to aid Sorcha. Against mail,her small dirk would do no good. She had to reach her father’s men and bring help before the fire spread. Picking up her skirts, Dara sped through the bushes, desperate to lose herself in the smoke.

"Gaillard,” Strongheart commanded to the heavy-set Norman, "take the maid from the woods.”

Terrified she’d never see Sorcha again, Dara sprinted from the burn­ing grasses and into the smoking trees to hide. If Strongheart meant to kill her, he would use his bow again. Her shoulders tensed, expecting an arrow between her shoulder blades, but she kept her feet racing.

Trees burst into flames around her, and fiery sparks flickered danger­ously close to her skirts. Branches crackled overhead. Hot air seared her lungs, and she placed an arm over her mouth to block the hellish smoke. Still she coughed and feared he’d track her by the uncon­trollable hacking breaths. With a sick feeling of failure churning in her gut, she realized the fire had outrun her. A spark almost caught at the hem of her tunic. She wouldn’t reach Da in time to warn him. Within moments she would succumb to the smoke.

A horse’s hooves thudded on the ground behind her, and she glanced back in confusion. Strongheart galloped toward her, his hand empty of a weapon, his arm outstretched.

If she stayed in the clearing, the flames would engulf her. Clasping Strongheart’s large hand, she jumped. With his great strength, he lifted her easily onto his horse.

She scrambled for balance to ride pillion behind Strongheart and caught sight of the other Norman as he encircled Sorcha’s plump waist with powerful hands, lifting her onto his massive thighs. Then Strong­heart’s destrier bolted forward. Dara clutched his mailed sides, scarcely able to wind her arms around his thick chest.

During the short ride out of the wood, Dara tried to breathe in clean air and expel the smoke. But when her father and his men spied them and let out a cheer, she still hadn’t drawn a clear breath or put her spinning thoughts in order.

As Strongheart reined in his mount, her father approached, his eyes dark with concern, trailing Fionn behind. Her heart lifted at the sight of her horse, and while she decided what to say, she dismounted to inspect her stallion, running her hands over his flanks and down his legs.

Conor spoke gruffly, but she heard the distress in his tone. "Are you hurt?”

She coughed. "No, Da.”

"You should beat her,” Strongheart said, seeming to take pleasure in taunting her while she had not the breath to answer, "until she cannot sit that horse for a week.”

Conor cast Dara a fond grin. "The lass is wild like her mother. Both of them have a propensity for trouble.”

Dara hid her face against Fionn’s warm flank. I’m not like her. I’m not. What Dara had done was for another. Her mother only pleased herself.

Strongheart scowled at her as if she were a temperamental child. "By the rood! Your daughter could have been killed. Riding straight into the enemy is a fool’s scheme.”

Hiding the hurt her father had caused by mentioning her mother, she forced a demure smile and mounted Fionn, preferring to argue from the back of her horse, where she was closer to eye level with the Nor­man. "I had a plan.”

"Really. What was your plan?” The Norman’s every word reeked with skepticism.

She cocked her chin at a saucy angle and confronted the Norman with a brazenness she was far from feeling. "While you distracted the men, I’d save Sorcha.”

His frown vanished, wiped away by astonishment. "You were so sure I would defeat them all?”

She met his arrogant gaze with one of her own and shrugged with cas­ual indifference. To let him know she was shaking inside would be revealing weakness to the enemy. "Either your fighting skills or your death”—she paused for emphasis—"would have created the diversion I needed.”

His jaw clenched, his mouth tightening a fraction more. "You little fool! You had no way of knowing how many men waited inside those woods. They could have killed you.

She shook her head, struggling to keep her tone even in front of the others. But she hurled the words at him like stones. "My face is well known. At worst, they would have held me hostage. It was you who almost killed me with your arrow.”

Dara expected an angry denial. Instead, he stared at her with a slight hesitation in his hawklike eyes before breaking into a mocking grin. "You will learn not to doubt my skill. My shaft always finds its mark.”

While the men around them chuckled at his boast, she stiffened her spine. Despite her best intentions to remain above his stable-yard hu­mor, heat rose to her cheeks. She’d made a grand mistake in the clearing, throwing her dirk into that raider to aid Strongheart.

Twisting on Fionn’s back, she faced her father and pointed an accus­ing finger at Strongheart. "This Norman nearly murdered me.”

Her words wiped the smiles off the men’s faces, and they rode closer, protectively. Conor looked askance at the proud warrior, awaiting an explanation. Strongheart didn’t alter his tone, but projected his voice so all could hear him. "I killed the raider who held a knife to her throat.”

Dara tossed her hair over her shoulder, glowering at them all. Ran­cor sharpened her tongue. "By accident, no doubt. Your arrow missed me so nearly, I lost a lock of hair.”

Except for the one muscle pulsing in the side of his neck, Strong­heart didn’t reveal his fury at her accusation. "If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead. I saved your life. Do not make me regret it.”

As he eased his mount closer to hers, the heat of her temper flared hotter. The lively twinkle in Strongheart’s eyes, as if he was enjoying the argument, incensed her more.

Before she could form the ball of spit she meant to spatter across the Norman’s face, her father intruded. "Lass, you are skilled at the gab. Does the Norman speak truth? Or does he lie?”

Today her father seemed sharp, his old self, and she must use her wiles to convince him the Norman only meant them harm. Damn this Norman rogue for encroaching on her and her people.

"Da, how can you ask me that?” Instead of arguing against Strong­heart’s logic, she stirred the doubts any Irishman would have had against a man from Britain. Defiant, she gestured across the field to the other Norman, who’d followed at a slower pace, just now leaving the wood with Sorcha. "The Norman told us he rode alone. Clearly, he lied.”

The men murmured among themselves. But no one reached for a weapon, out of fear or respect she couldn’t guess.

Brilliant black eyes glowed with the fearsome power of old granite from Strongheart’s weather-toughened face. "I rode into Castle Ferns alone. However, no knight travels without a squire. Once I gained your trust, I intended to bring Gaillard to the castle.”

She flashed him a look of disdain. "We shall never trust a Norman.”

Strongheart turned his horse toward Conor, his back straighter than an arrow. "My skill with a bow is unparalleled. ’Tis no brag, but truth. I shot the raider without risking your daughter’s life. Despite her determina­tion to die a martyr, she was never in danger from me.”

"Ha,” Dara muttered.

He didn’t address her. Didn’t bother to raise his voice but spoke with haughty confidence. "Put me to a test. Should I not possess the skill I claim, you may do with me as you will.”

Apprehension nipped her, for surely the tall, strong, and absurdly at­tractive Norman would win Conor over with his warrior skills. She had no more time to waste trying to enlighten her father. Sorcha needed her.

Before Conor replied, Dara flicked her reins and dug her heels into Fionn. The horse lunged toward the deep wood. Let her father adminis­ter the test of Strongheart’s skill. From the Norman’s immense self-possession, she knew he would succeed. Proving his skill with the bow would only be his first trial of many. Later, she would devise other challenges to reveal his treacherous nature.

It wasn’t just his skill with a bow that threatened them. He might be able to hide his lust from the others, but she knew he wanted her. She recognized the look in his probing gaze. Strongheart was not the first man to try to use her to gain control of Ireland’s richest county. She’d read the determination in his eyes, the suggestive curve of his smile, noted how he hadn’t let her from his sight, always positioning himself nearby.

Holding tightly to the reins, she forced her thoughts away from the Norman knight. Dara raced toward Sorcha, the woman more her mother than the one who had birthed and abandoned her. Please God, let Sorcha not be hurt too badly, in mind or spirit.

Fionn’s long strides covered the field, and soon Dara drew along­side her maid. Gaillard had ridden free of the burning wood and stopped by a stream running through the heather and gorse. Her friend rested on Gaillard’s saddle, leaning weakly against his barrel chest. The squire had removed his helm, revealing a shock of white hair, a flaring mustache, and a kindly countenance.

Dara’s gaze dropped to her friend. Never would she forget the sight of the raider pulling his turgid flesh from between the maid’s bloody thighs. At the blood soaking Sorcha’s skirts, she forced back a cry of dismay. Was the life blood Sorcha’s or from the rapist Dara had killed?

Her stomach churned at the memory of Sorcha’s screams and the spurting blood of the man she’d killed. She’d plunged her dirk into his neck like a Viking berserker gone mad with battle lust. Ruthlessly, she squashed down her nausea.

Although her heart lurched at the memory, she steadied herself. Sor­cha needed her. Now was not the time to fall apart. She had to be strong for Sorcha’s sake.

Gaillard’s hefty shoulder supported Sorcha’s head, her chestnut hair dirty and matted. "What should we do?” he asked.

"I must stop the bleeding.” Dara untied her traveling pouch and dis­mounted, then helped Gaillard ease Sorcha to the ground. Placing her friend on the grass, she squeezed the moaning woman’s hand. "I’m here, Sorcha. You will be fine.”

"Thirsty.”

Dara tipped a wineskin to her friend’s full mouth, her best feature af­ter her warm brown eyes. As she sipped weakly, Gaillard knelt beside her. The maid opened her eyes, looked at him, and screamed.

The knight flinched and twisted the end of his mustache. "Lady, I mean you no harm.”

"You are safe, Sorcha. Sir, please. We need privacy.”

Gaillard nodded and led his horse away. Across the meadow, her fa­ther cantered into the wood with most of his men-at-arms, leaving six men to escort them home. She easily picked out Strongheart among the escorts since he towered over the Irishmen. He headed toward her, sitting straight and proud in the saddle, obviously pleased he’d proven his skill.

His warrior abilities caused a shiver to skitter over her shoulders. As long as he remained in Leinster, her home was endangered. Not until he left would she be satisfied. Only Castle Ferns made her feel safe. It gave Dara the security she’d never received from her mother. Whenever she was troubled she climbed the tower and stared out at Leinster’s rich herds of cattle, and the walls wrapped around her, providing solid com­fort and protection. But the Norman imperiled all she held dear.

Enough. Sorcha needed her help. Turning her attention from the men and thoughts of war, Dara unpacked her supplies. By the time he neared, Dara was lifting Sorcha’s skirts.

"Stop,” Strongheart ordered. "That is no job for an untried maid.”

"Do you see a healer nearby?” she snapped. Pushing her annoyance with him aside to concentrate on the woman who’d taken the place of her mother, she set about easing her pain.

Dara peeled the bloodied skirt from Sorcha’s legs. "Leave until I am through,” she ordered, her voice as frosty as a mountain stream.

To her surprise and further annoyance, the Norman didn’t argue, but then he never did the expected. He dismounted, and, from pouches tied to his saddle, he removed strips of clean cloth as she lifted Sorcha’s skirts and inspected the damage. Dara didn’t want his help, but with Sorcha bleeding, there was no time for obstinacy. Efficiently she cleaned the wound while Strongheart held the woman’s head in his lap.

"This woman, she is dear to you?”

Dara bit her lower lip. "Sorcha has been both friend and mother to me. Without her...” As the woman moaned, Dara choked on unshed tears.

"When men are without honor, my lady, then they are little better than animals.” Big hands stroked Sorcha’s forehead, and Strongheart’s voice softened. "Take a tunic from my bag and place it under her hips. Raising the wound may stop the bleeding. And there is salve. Apply it generously to the wound.”

While she worked, she thought upon his gentleness and generosity, so different from the warriors she knew. He offered the maid a sip of wine and hummed a lullaby. Dara cared not why a knight stooped to helping a servant woman, but was thankful he distracted Sorcha from her pain.

When Dara finished her ministrations, her hands were shaking. Why could they not live in peace? Men fought the battles, but it was the women and children that suffered most. Long ago Dara learned that tormenting herself over the way of the world served no useful purpose.

She had done all she could there and knew she should be thankful Sorcha slept. "She must not be moved.”

"We cannot stay in the open until she heals. Tomorrow, we will carry her to Ferns.”

Thankful he didn’t ask whether Sorcha would live, Dara used a water­skin to rinse the bloodstains from her hands, wishing she could wash the memories from her heart. The raiding beasts had held Sorcha down, uncaring of her protests, laughing at her screams.

The brutality of the rape had brought out a matching savagery in Dara, one she’d long suspected lurked inside her, waiting for the right moment to erupt. Her blood had boiled so hot, her passions had soared so fierce, she feared she’d never tame them.

She took in a deep breath and stared off into the mist, vowing never again to lose her self-control. Her hands and feet felt icy, her entire body numb, but she couldn’t suppress the mad terror of her thoughts.

During battle, she’d turned into a wild animal, surging with primi­tive impulses she recognized all too well. She’d believed she’d conquered the wild temperament inherited from her mother. Finding it unvan­quished twisted her stomach with revulsion.

She had to conquer the passion that overwhelmed her, if not for her­self, then for the good of her people. From her experience, bloodlust always led to trouble. Eire would need all the cool heads available to keep the minor skirmishes from breaking into all-out war. Strongheart’s presence could only cause the balance of power to tip out of kilter. Fear of the Norman might cause all Leinster’s enemies, MacLugh, O’Rourke, and the Ard-ri, to unite and invade her home.

Why was the Norman here? Did he spy for his British king? Alt­hough her father did not yet believe her, the Norman would bring change to Eire’s shores. She wanted him gone to avoid war. If he stayed, she sensed another peril, one of a more personal nature. His combina­tion of strength and gentleness appealed to her on a level she didn’t want to admit—not even to herself.

She stood alone for a long time while the villagers brought food and supplies and the men pitched camp. Sorcha lay under a mantle, sleeping. The wind keened, bringing chilly air, but Dara barely noticed the drop­ping temperature or the dark clouds scudding in from the west.

Several men approached, but when she didn’t answer their queries concerning her comfort, they left her alone. Strongheart soon joined her, and then she shivered. Without a word, he removed the cloak from his hauberk and placed it over her shoulders, wrapping her in warmth, his male scent mixing with leather and engulfing her in a cocoon of heat. He stood close, peering at her intently. For a moment she ached to rest her head on his chest and take comfort in his strength, but she resisted the temptation. She would always resist.

He spoke softly. "Rape is not an act a lady should witness.”

"I’m told men cannot control their passions.” And neither can I. She did not regret avenging Sorcha’s pain. When her dirk plunged into the raider’s neck, fierce satisfaction had surged through her. What kind of woman was she to allow a killing rage to overwhelm her usual good reasoning?

"’Tis no wonder you are cold.” Strongheart took her elbow and led her gently to the campfire. He found her a place on the far side of the fire, across from the men roasting a haunch of beef.

Since she had no desire to discuss her failing self-control with him, Dara let the Norman believe witnessing the rape was the only thing upsetting her. If he thought his kindness would warm her to him, he’d learn differently. Other men had been kind, and she’d sent them on their way.

His sudden thoughtfulness only heightened her suspicions, since af­ter she’d accused him of attempting to kill her when he loosed his arrow, he had no reason to treat her gently. But after all she’d been through this day, she didn’t have the energy to fight him now.

Pulling herself from the comfort of the fire, she examined Sorcha. The maid slept lightly and the bleeding had stopped, so Dara returned to her place by the fire with a lighter step. When Strongheart offered her a cup of ale, she drank deeply, and the cool draught quenched her parched throat.

Strongheart handed her a trencher piled high with bread, meat, and cheese. "How is she?”

"Better, I think.” The meat smelled so tempting, Dara picked up a piece and dropped the morsel onto her tongue. She fanned her mouth to cool the hot meat, and the Norman smiled at her.

At her first glimpse of his beautiful white teeth gleaming in the fire­light, she stopped fanning her burning tongue and stared. His entire countenance changed with his smile, the harsh planes of his smoke- darkened cheekbones softened, and the fine lines at the corners of his black eyes made him appear younger. If before she’d thought him attractive, now she found his smile devastating.

He removed his mail and hauberk, revealing a jagged wound on his muscular arm, and her gaze lingered on his broad chest tapering to a flat stomach and long, powerful legs. She’d assumed he’d come through the skirmish unscathed and wondered why he’d risked his life for her. His actions bespoke a courage and determination which she found intimidat­ing and ominous.

Seemingly oblivious to her suspicions, he set aside the most tender pieces of meat for her without commenting on her prodigious hunger. She needed no further reminders of her unusual sensual appetites. They shared the trencher in silence until the last morsel of food disappeared.

She finished her ale, staring into the fire. "Your arm needs stitch­ing.”

At the husky turn of her voice, his eyes glittered with smoky inten­sity. "Are you offering to sew my wound?”

She nodded, surprised she’d agreed, knowing it would have been churlish to refuse.

He rose to his feet with the grace of a wolf awakening after a nap. "I would bathe before you tend my wound.”

Bathe? Her mouth dropped open. He might as well have said he would fly. Strange men, these Normans.

It was common knowledge that dirt protected against all manners of illness and evil spirits, so he could not know of her penchant for soaking in a tub. She, at least, had the sense not to flaunt the teachings of the church by bathing openly.

While he disappeared into the darkness, she again visited Sorcha. Her friend continued to sleep, and Dara didn’t disturb her. Returning to the fire, she made her preparations, laying out needle and thread, healing herbs, and her wineskin.

One of her father’s men approached and spoke softly so no one else could hear. "Lady, your father commanded us to give you privacy with the Norman. We will remain within shouting distance should you have need of us.”

As he stepped back into the shadows, Dara wrapped her arms across her chest. At least her father had listened to her words and was testing the Norman. She wondered if Strongheart suspected, wondered if most kings used their daughters as bait. But then, Conor was not a typical father—her mother had made that impossible.

"Beguile him,” Conor had told her and then arranged the privacy for her to do so. Just how far did he expect a maid to go? Somehow she didn’t think a beguiling smile and a handful of soft words would charm Strongheart into revealing his plans.

With darkness, the men settled onto their blankets around the fire. One man played a lyre and another sang a love ballad. A few soon snored.

In the chill air, Dara held her hands to the fire. The Norman must be freezing in the stream. Perhaps he’d drown of a cramp. She sighed. She’d never be rid of him that easily.

When he finally appeared, she jumped at his looming nearness. He’d crept upon her with the stealth of a red fox stalking a hare, and her heart thudded against her ribs.

At the sight of his bare chest burnished by the light of the campfire, her eyes widened, and she swallowed hard. He moved with an unruffled grace and a commanding confidence, towering over her, devilishly attrac­tive, and his sun-darkened chest and muscular shoulders made her acutely conscious of his masculinity.

The shadow of a beard strengthened the lines of his square jaw. Drops of moisture clung to his damp forehead, and when she took in a deep breath to regain her calm, her senses careened from his musky male scent.

Get hold of yourself. She’d seen a bare chest before. He was skin and muscle the same as any man.

Pretending a nonchalance she was far from feeling, Dara fought to keep her voice casual. "Sit near the fire, and I’ll look at your arm.”

He did as she asked, flexing the muscles of his shoulders as he seated himself, then turned his injured arm toward the fire’s light. Bath­ing had reopened the wound, and fresh blood oozed from the gash.

Ignoring the nearness of him, she concentrated on the wound. "The slash is long and deep, but the muscle appears uninjured.”

His silence unnerved her. As she touched his flesh, he didn’t flinch, but no matter how gentle her touch, she knew she must be hurting him. She frowned. Beneath her fingertips, his skin was firm and hot. Had bad humors set in?

Her hand went to his forehead, checking for spreading putridness. He raised a brow, his pulse quickening at his temple, but he let her touch him as she wished.

She spoke in a cool, efficient manner, belying her urge to smooth back a dark lock that fell over his forehead. "Are you always so warm?”

He grinned lazily. "Warrior princesses have a way of heating my blood.”

"Let this cool you off.” His unnervingly personal smile reminded her she must work on building her resistance to the man. She poured wine over his wound to make the blood run freely. "That should wash away the bad humors.”

He didn’t move, except for his lips that split into an even wider grin. "We’ll have to work on that temper of yours, Princess.”

"Is that so?” She stiffened, waiting to be condemned for her unlady­like behavior.

"Aye. I find your spirited nature... exhilarating.”

She raised her brows at his surprising gallantry. "Did you suffer a knock on the head? You make no sense, Norman. If you find me exhila­rating, then why do I need to work on my temper?”

"Passion needs saving for the proper moments.”

"Get on with you.” She ignored his teasing, suspecting he wanted an­other reaction from her. Well, he would not get one. She couldn’t sew him up and argue at the same time. After patting the wound dry, she threaded her needle. "Can you sit still, or should I call a few men to hold you down?”

"You’d enjoy that, wouldn’t you?” he accused, his tone mild, his eyes hard, but his mouth twitched with humor.

Could six men hold him? She knotted the thread, then held the nee­dle up for him to see. "Perhaps you should not trust me with such a mighty weapon.”

"If you are as accurate with your needle as you are with your dirk, I have nothing to worry about.”

She pinched the wound closed with the fingers of one hand while she sewed with the other. His muscles tensed beneath her fingers, but he remained as still as a cairn.

"When I was a child, I pestered Da for a fortnight until he taught me to throw a dirk.” She spoke as she sewed, attempting to distract him from the pain, distract herself from flesh the color of fine ale, golden and intoxicating.

His tone was more curious than condemning. "’Tis unusual for a woman to have such skill.”

"My guards are not always there when I need them.”

He shot her a look that said her guards were inadequate, but he did not insult her people aloud. "Your mother didn’t object?”

She squeezed his skin tighter between her fingers. "I never speak of her.”

Thinking he would ask more questions, she prepared to rebuff him. Instead, he revealed a little of himself. "My mother died when I was still a boy.”

Recognizing the longing in his tone, she sympathized. "Have you memories of your mother?”

"I remember crying when I was about three years old. She swept into my room and held me close, disregarding the stain of my tears on her blue silk dress. She always smelled wonderful, of rose perfume and rice powder. I can’t remember her face, but sometimes when I close my eyes, I recall her special scent and her melodic voice.”

Was he attempting to gain her sympathy? The circle of firelight amid the darkness seemed conducive to sharing confidences, but not many men would lie about a childhood story and their mothers. Despite her wish to feel otherwise, his tender story touched her, and deep down she warned herself to beware.

"You are fortunate. I have no memories of my mother,” she admit­ted and then immediately was sorry for sharing something so personal with him.

"She died at your birth?”

Only because she heard commiseration in his tone did Dara resist the urge to stab him with the needle. He couldn’t know the nature of her loss and couldn’t realize her discomfort with the topic.

Dara let his question hang unanswered in the air between them. Af­ter knotting her last stitch, she turned his arm and admired her sewing. The flesh remained closed, and though he would scar, it would be a minor one.

Turning his shoulder to inspect her handiwork, his brows lifted at her neat stitches. "Thank you.”

She allowed herself a satisfied smile. "I’m good with embroidery. Did you doubt my skill?”

"I’m just amazed you did such a painless job. Perhaps now, we can call a truce.” He reached for a clean tunic and slipped it on.

She backed away from his intense gaze and packed away her sup­plies to avoid meeting his stare. "This conversation changes nothing between us.”

Faint amusement persisted in his tone. "Just like a woman. So we are back to being enemies, are we?”

She answered quickly, fiercely, over the pounding of her beating heart. "We shall always be enemies.”

"I saved your life, Princess.”

"And I saved yours. It changes nothing.” She crossed her arms stub­bornly over her chest, wary of him. The Norman’s presence could inflame Leinster’s enemies into consolidating their forces against her clan. If his presence escalated the constant border clashes into a war, she could lose her home. And all her life she’d longed for peace. "You are Norman. You will try and steal the land that is our legacy.”

His eyes had a burning, faraway look in them, and then they focused on her, full of half promises. "Once I convince your father of my loyalty, you will welcome my help. If your enemies unite, Leinster cannot stand alone.”

She shivered at words that rang like a prophecy. "If you think us doomed,” she asked in a broken whisper, "why did you come here?”

"Opportunity.” He winked, his expression hungry. "I’ve come to sam­ple Leinster’s assets.”


 

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