Her Irish Warrior

The Island of Erin, 1171 AD

Genevieve de Renalt’s breath burned in her lungs as she ran. Every muscle in her body cried out with exhaustion, but she refused to stop. With every step, freedom came a little closer. In the distance, she heard hoof beats approaching. He was coming for her.

I am such a fool, she thought. She needed a horse, supplies, and coins if she had any hope of success. But there had been no time. She had seen the opportunity to flee and seized it. Even if her flight was doomed to failure, she had to try.

This was her only chance to escape her betrothed. The thought of Sir Hugh Marstowe was like a dull knife against an open wound. For she had loved him once. And now she would do anything to escape him.

Hugh kept his horse at an easy trot. He was playing with her, like a falcon circling its prey. He knew he could catch her with no effort at all. Instead, he wanted her to anticipate him. To fear him.

He had controlled her for the past moon, deciding how she should behave as his future wife. She’d felt like a dog, cowering beneath his orders. Nothing she said or did was ever good enough for him. Her nerves tightened at the memory of his fists.

Loathing surged through her. By the saints, even if her strength failed her she had to leave. She stumbled through the forest, her sides aching, her body’s energy waning. Soon, she would have to stop running. She prayed to God for a miracle, for a way to save herself from this nightmare. If she stayed any longer she feared she would become a shell of a woman, with no courage, no life left in her at all.

A patch of blackberry thorns slashed at her hands, the briars catching her cloak. The afternoon light had begun to fade, the twilight creeping steadily closer. Genevieve fought back tears of exhaustion, pulling at the briars until her hands were bloody.

‘Genevieve!’ Hugh called out. His voice sent a coil of dread inside her. He had drawn his horse to a stop at the edge of the woods. The sight of him made her stomach clench.

I won’t go back. Stubbornly, she pushed her way through the gnarled walnut trees until she reached the clearing. Frost coated the grasses, and she stumbled to her knees while climbing the slippery hillside.

A strange silence permeated the meadow. From her vantage point atop the hill, she caught a glimpse of movement. The dying winter grass revealed the presence of a man.

No–men, she realised. Irishmen dressed in colours to blend in with their surroundings. Behind them, at the bottom of the hill, she saw a single rider. The warrior sat astride his horse, his cloak pinned with an iron brooch the size of her palm. He did not reach for the sword at his side, but his stance grew alert. A hood concealed his face, and a quiet confidence radiated from him.

Tall and broad-shouldered, he watched her. She could not tell if he was a nobleman or a soldier, but he carried himself like a king. With a silent gesture to his men, they scattered and disappeared behind another hill.

Her heart pounded, for he could strike her down with his sword. Nonetheless, she squared her shoulders and stared at the man. She walked toward him slowly, even as her brain warned her that warriors such as he did not treat women with mercy.

But he had a horse. A horse she needed, if there was any chance of escaping Hugh.

The man’s gaze locked with hers. If she screamed, it would alert Hugh to their presence. Precious seconds remained, and soon Hugh would overtake her.

‘Please,’ she implored. ‘I need your help.’ Her ragged voice sounded just above a whisper, and for a moment, she wondered if the soldier had heard her. Upon his cloak she noticed a Celtic design. This time, she repeated her request in Irish. The man’s posture changed, and after a moment that stretched into eternity he turned his horse away. Within seconds he disappeared behind a hill, along with Genevieve’s hope.

Bevan MacEgan cursed himself for his weakness. From the moment she spoke, he had recognised the woman as a Norman. The familiar hatred rose within him, only to be startled by the desire to help her.

She had awakened the ghost of a memory. With her face and dark hair, the first vision of her had evoked a nightmare he’d tried to forget for two long years. He closed his eyes, willing himself to block her out.

In the distance, he’d seen her fleeing, long before he had given the order for his soldiers to hide among the hills. Her attacker did not intend to kill her. Were that the case, he could have done so already. No, the Norman’s intent was to capture the woman.

By turning away, he’d let it happen.

He’d been forced to choose, between the safety of his men and a woman he didn’t know. And, though he knew he’d made the right decision, his sense of honour cringed. He was supposed to protect women, not let them come to harm.

If he interfered now, his battle plans could go awry. He dared not risk the lives of his men by giving away their position. Their attack depended upon the element of surprise. He needed to watch and wait for the right moment.

And yet, he found himself issuing orders. ‘I want five men to accompany me inside the fortress. Take the others and surround the outer palisade. At sunset, light the fires.’

‘You’re going after her, aren’t you,’ the captain of his men remarked.

‘I am.’

‘You cannot save them all. She is only a woman.’

‘Do as I command.’ Tá, it was an unnecessary risk. But in the woman’s eyes, he had seen pure terror–the same terror in his wife’s eyes just before the enemy had taken her captive.

And he’d felt the same helplessness now.

Bevan chose the men who would accompany him and led them towards the fortress of Rionallís. It was his land, stolen by the invaders. With the help of his men, he meant to take it back.

Rionallís was not a rath, like the other fortresses, but slightly larger. Within it, he’d built an earth and timber castle, similar to the Norman style. He knew every inch of it and exactly how to penetrate its defences.

At his command, the men moved into position. Bevan waited until they were ready and pushed away the brambles hiding the entrance to the souterrain. The secret tunnel led beneath the fortress, into the chambers used for storage.

He glanced up at the donjon, silhouetted by a blood-red sunset. Inwardly, he prayed for victory.

The chill of the souterrain passage surrounded him as he entered. He had not been here for the past year and a half, and he noted the emptiness of the storage chambers. They should have been filled with bags of grain and clay-sealed containers of food. His people would suffer this winter unless he did something to help them.

Though he hadn’t known about the conquest of his lands until now, he blamed himself. He had allowed his grief to consume him while he hired his sword as a mercenary to other tribes. And last spring, the Normans had descended upon Rionallís like locusts, feeding off the labour of his people and desecrating his home. His small army was outnumbered, but he knew the territory well. He would stop at nothing to drive out his enemy.

When he reached the ladder leading into one of the stone beehive-shaped cottages, he paused. He wished he had not seen the Norman woman, her eyes filled with fear as she pleaded for help. It would have been easy to simply hate them all and kill them, spilling their blood for vengeance. But the woman complicated matters.

She was a pretty cailín, with a sweet face and deep blue eyes. An innocent, who deserved his protection. He had been unable to save his wife from her attackers. But he could save this woman.

It should have made him feel better. Instead, it added a further element of risk to an already dangerous attack. And yet, his mind grasped the possibilities. She would make a good hostage, providing him with the means to regain the fortress. Afterwards, he would grant her the freedom she so desired.

Bevan climbed the ladder, surprising the inhabitants of the cottage. He held a finger to his lips, knowing his people would never betray him. The blacksmith moved toward his hammer, in an unspoken promise to give aid if needed.

At the entrance to the hut, Bevan counted the number of enemy soldiers in the courtyard. He would enter the fortress tonight, he decided. And Rionallís would be his once more.

From the book Her Irish Warrior by Michelle Willingham
Copyright © 2007 by Michelle Willingham
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The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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