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Lady Gillian of Westerbrook is a hunted woman, hiding from a king who seeks her death for her father's treachery. But then a handsome, shipwrecked stranger washes up on the shore, a man who remembers only his name—Gareth. But did fate send her a villain with the blackest soul…or a lover with THE TRUEST HEART?

 

 

 

The Truest Heart


Re-released with a new cover
(See the original cover)

November 2005 · Avon Books

ISBN 0-380-80588-X

medieval romanceI must credit the classic movie The Lion in Winter for firing my muse more...

In The Lion in Winter, King Henry II and his exiled wife, Eleanor of Aquitane, butt heads over the matter of which of their sons should inherit the throne of England. The Truest HeartTheir youngest son Prince John is portrayed as a petulant, whiny youth and wasn't a major presence in the film, but I knew that Prince John, passed over by his parents, did indeed eventually become King of England. I'd seen the film before, but this time, I found my interest in the period rekindled. Quite often, it's an instinctive feeling that fuels my desire to write. A sense of knowing it's time to write this particular story--this particular book--about this particular hero--that's what happened with THE TRUEST HEART.

Now, I knew Prince John wouldn't make a very good hero. But he would make a wonderful villain, particularly when he's grown to manhood and become king, a ruler much despised and hated.

I'd also been wanting to write a story with a character who had amnesia for quite some time. One day it was really just an idle thought in the back of my mind. But after seeing The Lion in Winter again, suddenly Gareth, Lord of Sommerfield, stepped forward. The next thing I knew, Gareth was a living, breathing man.

The name Sommerfield came from a housing development I once saw while my husband and I were driving by.

The heroine's name, Gillian, came from the actress Gillian Anderson from the television series The X-Files. (Yes, I was an X-Files junkie!)

This is only one of two books where I got to keep my original title exactly as it was -- yay! The other was Scandal's Bride in the anthology MARRIED AT MIDNIGHT.

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The Truest HeartFeatured on Harper Collins website in an article (by Samantha) called “A Good Villain and other Necessary Evils”.

Available in Large Print

New York Times extended list bestseller

USA Today bestseller

Four weeks on the Waldenbooks bestseller list

A Romantic Times top pick

Nominee for Romantic Times Historical Romance of the Year

Featured alternate of the Rhapsody Book Club

The Truest Heart
The original cover from
June 2001

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The Truest HeartPrologue
England, Early October, 1215

"Tell me. What news of Ellis of Westerbrook?"

The imperious command came from John, king of England, the youngest of the Devil's brood, as Henry II's rebellious sons had come to be known, for they had been ever and always at odds with their father . . . and with each other.

Gilbert of Lincoln crushed his cap in his hands and stared up into the black-bearded face of his king. Like so many of England's people, he, too, was weary of the king's greed; the grumble of discontent was heard throughout the land. Many of John's barons were outraged by his ceaseless demands to replenish his treasury--that and the call to arms that John might continue his fight to regain his lands across the Channel in Normandy and the Angevin provinces. The Great Charter had failed. Indeed, several were so incensed--and so intent upon his demise--that they had hatched a plot to kill him.

'Twas a plot gone sorely awry.

For the arrow loosed upon King John, who had been lured away from his hunting party, had missed its mark, when, at the last instant, the king's mount had reared. Instead the arrow hit one of the king's guards who had given chase to seek his errant king. The perpetrator had escaped into the woods, for the forest had been especially dense. It was several weeks later before he was eventually caught and imprisoned . . . .

It was Ellis, lord of Westerbrook.

But there was another, too . . . the wounded guard, afore he breathed his last, had gasped that there were two assailants. . .

The king's men had immediately taken John far, far away lest there be another attempt. And so 'twas because of this attempted slaying of the king--that Gilbert of Lincoln had taken to horse and ridden madcap through the forest and the mud and the dark for nearly two days to reach his king. He was sodden to the skin by the never-ending drizzle, drenched to the very center of his being! His cloak dripped puddles on the rushes strewn beneath his booted feet. Gilbert did not relish the news he was about to impart, for he very much feared the king's mood would soon be as foul as the weather without.

"Aye, sire. I bring news of Ellis."

John leaned forward. Ellis, the rogue, had been caught near the Scottish border; John had ordered him taken to Rockwell, his castle nearby. But he had grown impatient with Ellis's refusal to divulge the identity of the other man responsible for the attempt on his life, though Ellis had freely admitted his own guilt.

It had posed a dilemma . . . but not for long. 'Twas plain to see that Ellis was a proud, honorable man, a man of principle. But every man had his weakness, John had reasoned, and even the stoutest back would break before the right persuasion. He'd heard how deeply Ellis loved his children--for that very reason he'd dispatched his men to Westerbrook to seize Ellis's daughter Gillian and his young son Clifton. The king had surmised Ellis would sing like the veriest nightingale when his daughter and son were brought before him with a blade at their throats.

"Well, out with it then! Tell me, for I would know, and I would know now! Ellis has confessed the name of the rogue with whom he conspired to kill me, hasn't he? Who is it then? Who is the other blackguard?"

Gilbert had gone pale. He stole a glance at the other occupants of the room, the king's men Geoffrey Covington and Roger Seymour. Also present was the lord of Sommerfield, for it was at his castle that John had decided to take shelter for the night.

Gilbert locked his knees to still their quavering. If he feared for his life, he could not help it. It was well known indeed that John possessed a vindictive streak. If the king so pleased, he might order his eyes burned out or his nose slit . . . or worse. Many a soul had no doubt that John had done away with his own nephew, Arthur of Brittany, who had disputed John's right to the English throne. Ah, little wonder that Gilbert had not been eager to be the bearer of such news that he would give this night.

medieval romanceThe king's questioning left Gilbert damp of palm and sweating at the brow. "I-I do not know, sire," he stammered. "Ellis . . . he confessed nothing of the other man."

John's smile vanished. Thick, bejeweled fingers drummed against the tabletop, for the king was fond of excess and indulged in many. He scowled his impatience. "By God's teeth! Have I naught but imbeciles to serve me? Why the devil do you come to me then? Has he escaped?"

"Nay, sire."

"What then?"

Gilbert swallowed. He knew full well that torture had not compelled Ellis to confess. In truth, he shuddered to think what Ellis had endured, for never would he have been so steadfast and unwavering. If all accounts were to be believed, Ellis of Westerbrook had not cried out, not even once . . .

"He is dead, sire. Ellis is dead."

For one awful moment John said nothing. Then he leaped to his feet, his eyes ablaze.

"Dead? How can that be?"

The king gave Gilbert no chance to respond. "I gave orders that he was to be kept alive," John roared, "alive until his daughter and son were brought to Rockwell and I had returned! By God, who did this? What fool dared disobey me? I vow I will have his head--"

Gilbert spoke up before he lost his own. "You misunderstand, sire. Ellis was not killed, by your men or any other. He died by his own hand. He hung himself in his cell."

The king had gone white about the mouth. "What of his son and daughter?" he demanded.

Gilbert's knees had begun to shake anew, for he was aware of John's reputation of cruelty and ruthlessness. "Westerbrook was deserted, sire. Ellis's daughter and son were gone. It seems they fled in the middle of the night . . . along with many of his men."

For the space of a heartbeat the king stared at Gilbert with frightening intensity. He made not a move, nary a sound. Yet his countenance was such that Gilbert felt every drop of blood drain from his face. It spun through his mind that the king in a rage was not a pretty sight. Nay, there was nothing majestic about this man who called himself king of England. His lips drew back over his teeth in a snarl. His dark features were contorted with rage. Although John did not possess the Plantagenet coloring, the fair handsomeness of his brother Richard, Coeur de lion, upon whose death Henry's last remaining son had come the throne of England, 'twould seem that he did indeed possess the famed Plantagenet temper of his forebearers . . . .

Gilbert's mouth opened in a soundless scream. He was convinced that at any moment the king's fiery gaze would surely bore through him, burning him to cinders in the very spot where he stood.

Then all at once John whirled. He stalked from one end of to the hearth, back to the other. Broad, leather-shod feet kicked about the remains of his meal, for about his chair bones were strewn, along with the heads of fish and crusts of bread. All the while black curses spewed from his mouth. The blaze of his anger seemed to vibrate and leap from the lofty rafters that spanned the width of the great hall of Sommerfield.

"By God, who does he think he is? No, I'll not be duped by him, by that traitor Ellis!"

The king's men, Lord Geoffrey Covington and Lord Roger Seymour, exchanged troubled glances. It was Geoffrey Covington who slipped from his chair and laid a hand on Gilbert's shoulder. Nodding toward the door, Covington spoke in a low tone. Gilbert was wise enough to bow to Covington's request; quickly he took to his heels, anxious to escape the hall . . . and the king's fury.

Geoffrey Covington remained where he was, one slim leg angled away from the other. The broad sweep of his brow furrowed, as if in consideration. The elder of the king's confidantes, Roger Seymour, brushed a hand across his balding pate, then placed his hands on the broad plane of his knees, his expression one of decided consternation. He lowered his gaze, clearly reluctant to interrupt the king's fit of petulance. Covington's gaze had turned keenly observant, his eyes the same rich brown as his hair. Though he was a man of slender proportions, he was nonetheless a man fashioned with wiry strength and fluid, agile movement. As he looped his hands behind his back, the sword strapped to his side caught the light from the fire. He was a man of quiet demeanor, as evidenced by his words to Gilbert and the way he waited patiently for his king's wrath to expire.

At length he cleared his throat. "Sire," he said.

John paid no heed, but continued his pacing. "By God, that wretch, Ellis! He thought to best me, to rob me of my satisfaction. I should have slit his nose. Burned out his eyes. Carved off his ear and sent it to his daughter. Then he would have talked!"

"Sire," Covington said more loudly.

"By God's teeth, he shall not deprive me of my revenge! Do you hear, he shall not!"

"Sire, you must calm yourself."

"Calm myself! How the devil can I?" John stormed. "I want it burned. I want Westerbrook burned to the ground. Seymour, see to it."

Seymour inclined his head. "As you wish, sire."

"He will pay. By God, Ellis will pay. By the robes of Christ, he thought to cheat me, the king of England, of his death--of discovering the identity of the other man who would see me dead! He will not. I tell you, he will not. Ellis of Westerbrook will not cheat me! His treason must be punished."

The Truest HeartCovington frowned. "But how, sire? He is already dead. Is that not punishment enough?"

"Nay, not for him!" John ground to a halt. "His children," he pronounced flatly. "They must die."

Covington and Seymour exchanged glances. "But, sire," Seymour said slowly, "the eldest is but a woman, scarcely out of girlhood. The other is but a boy of twelve. Surely they can do you no further harm--"

"It matters not. Ellis's seed will be wiped out. I will do what must be done. She cannot be allowed to bring forth her father's blood. Neither can her brother. Aye, Ellis's seed must be wiped from this earth . . . forever. Only then will I be avenged."

Seymour had gone pale. Even Covington appeared discomfited. It was Seymour who spoke. "Sire," he ventured faintly. "You cannot mean to murder them."

"And why not? Did you not hear, Seymour? I want them dead, both of them!"

Seymour placed his hands on the table. He glanced at Covington, then back to John. This time it was Covington who raised a hand.

"Sire, I pray you do not misunderstand me. I . . . we . . . do not question your judgment." Carefully he chose his words. "There are those who still believe you may be responsible for the death of your nephew Arthur, which was deplored by the world. I know--we know," he hastened to add, "that you have no knowledge of Arthur's disappearance. But to do away with Ellis's daughter and son would be to risk further condemnation."

By now John had lowered himself into his chair. "Then none will know but those present in this room," John declared.

Seymour broke out in a cold sweat. "But, sire," he ventured tentatively, "I must ask who . . . who would you have carry out such an onerous task?"

For the longest time John said nothing. His gaze alighted on the dark-haired man at the far end of the table, a man whose watchful green eyes surveyed all but said nothing--the man in whose castle he'd chanced to reside for the night.

He stroked his beard, thinking on all Covington and Seymour had said, for in truth, John was well aware of his faults. He was not a trusting man--nor was he a man to be trusted. The question of who would kill a maid and a boy was a very good question indeed, he mused . . .

'Twas not a task for one of his mercenaries. Nor could it be given to a man who might lie or cheat or betray him. But it was rumored that the man opposite him had grown harsh and bitter by the death of his beloved wife late in the spring. Immersed in grief, to John's knowledge, this man had not been among the army of barons at Running-Mead, those wretches who had forced him to sign the Great Charter. Oh, how he'd chortled when he learned that Pope Innocent had ruled in his favor. The Pontiff had cast aside that foolish document and ordered the barons to lay down their arms or risk excommunication.

The threat had done little to dispell the barons' rumblings. But John was still king, and this time he was determined to crush them. His spies told him how they had gone back to their old ways and quarreled among themselves as bitterly as ever. No matter. They had joined together once, and John would not allow it to happen again. Nay, he would not be brought to his knees yet again.

But this man . . . this man had not been held in any particular favor by the Crown, yet neither was he in disfavor. Better yet, he was not a man given to failure; his prowess and success in tournaments was exceeded only by the likes of William Marshall--it had gained him many ransoms and prizes. Besides, John reasoned quickly, if this fellow were thus engaged in finding Ellis's daughter and son, he could not join the ranks of the other barons in plotting against him.

Ah, but lands and riches would not persuade this man to do such a foul deed as murder to a maid and boy, for he was already well endowed. Yet if he were to hold this man's young son as hostage to completion of the deed . . . that was another matter entirely.

By turn, the eyes of Covington and Seymour came to follow those of the king, fixing on the man at the far end of the table--the man whose handsome visage had taken on a cast of dark grimness.

John smiled. He spoke softly--those who knew him well knew this was a sign that he was at his most dangerous. "Who better than one already at hand?" he said smoothly. "And I shall be generous, sir, for I promise I shall safeguard your son until your return . . . ."

'Twas a threat implicit . . . a threat unspoken. Perchance he knew, the king of England, that this man even now despaired the fates which had brought the king to his castle for the night; that now turned him onto a path he had no choice but to follow. Oh, but he'd thought himself so clever not to ally himself rashly with the other nobles, to steer clear of the king. For though he had championed many a battle, he was not a man without mercy or compassion. But even he could not fight the king, not when his son's life was at stake . . .

"Ah, yes," John said slyly. "Who better than Gareth, Lord of Sommerfield . . . "

The Truest HeartCHAPTER 1

There was no sleep for Lady Gillian of Westerbrook this night.

Her heart thundered, as loudly as the thunder that boomed without. 'Twas said to be the most savage coast in all the land, here where the fist of Cornwall thrust into the treacherous waters of the sea. Indeed, Gillian could well believe it.

The wind howled through the crevices, an eerie sound strangely like a keening wail. The cottage was stout and sturdily built of stone; tucked into a fold of the hillside that squatted above, it was shielded from the full force of the gale and thus kept her safe. Yet the fear that the very walls about her would be lifted and flung verily into the raging tempest without was a fear that refused to be banished, try though she might. 'Twas as if a mighty hand from aloft vented his wrath upon sea and shore. As if the gale roared down from the heavens to every corner of the earth . . .

A shiver shook Gillian's form. Indeed, the very walls seemed to shiver and shake with the force of the wind. Yea, but this was a harsh, unforgiving place, this far-flung corner of Britain. It would show no mercy to those who had not the strength to withstand its rigors.

For it was in the midst of just such a raging storm that her father, Ellis of Westerbrook, had come to her chamber. Aye, the storm reminded her piercingly of that night--the night she'd been wrenched from her home, from all she'd ever known. Her brother. Her sweet, younger brother Clifton. Nay, but it was not the first such storm that she had endured in the weeks since she had come here . . . if only it would be the last!

A wave of bleakness swept over her, as endless as the dark gray seas that stretched beyond the shore. Her heart cried out, for each day was an eternity. November had drawn to a close, and she was still here . . . How long must she remain here? Forever, she feared. How was she to bear it? How?

Refuge. She reminded herself it was that which Brother Baldric had sought by bringing her here to the place where he had been born. He'd said that to continue to move about was to risk discovery. That they must hide here until the king's fury died out. Ah, but would there ever come a time when she felt safe again?

Nay, she thought with a sinking flutter of dread. Not as long as King John was alive. How could she feel safe when she felt like an outcast? Tainted.

This was not the life she'd dreamed of, not the life she had ever thought to find. Memories of the past rose up to mingle with a wistful yearning. Papa had always been one to keep his children close to him. Papa had chosen not to have Clifton foster with another family, but to begin his training at Westerbrook. The winter that her mother had died from a stomach ailment had been a difficult one for all of them. Gillian had been sixteen, and Clifton but ten.

Perhaps, after her mother's death, Papa had wanted to keep his children close to him. Papa teased her occasionally that he must find a husband for her, but in truth there had been no haste. Gillian never doubted that someday she would marry, but she knew Papa would never foist a husband on her that she did not love, a husband who did not return her love in the very same measure.

Someday, she trusted, that man would come for her. A man she would love above all others . . .

Sometimes she dreamed of him, of a man strong and valiant, and ever so dashingly handsome! And oh, his kiss--that very first kiss! He'd steal her very breath and make her tingle to the tips of her toes, with arms both tender and strong, and warm, compelling lips. Her life would be one of laughter and love and joy. She would watch in wonder and contentment while her babes toddled about, for she had already decided there would be many. A girl she could rock and tell tales of days gone by. A boy as sturdy and handsome as his father, who would teach him of honor and truth.

But now a shadow had been cast over all her hopes and dreams. A shadow that might well last a lifetime.

But what was this? Pulling the soft wool coverlet more tightly about her shoulders, she scolded herself soundly. She was foolish to feel sorry for herself, for what of her brother Clifton? She was a woman full grown, she reminded herself. And for all that Clifton staunchly proclaimed that he was a man, he was but a boy of twelve.

Not until dawn's pale light crept along the misty hills to the east was Gillian able to drift away in slumber.

Yet despite the wildness of the gale that night, when Gillian tugged open the door the next morning, sunlight poured down from the sky, as pure and golden as any she'd seen in the northern shires of Westerbrook. Such was the way of it here along the coast of Cornwall. No sweet, fragrant fields and rolling hillsides here, not like Westerbrook. Tall grasses fringed the stretch of beach beyond the cottage. To the north and west, white-gray cliffs towered over the tiny inlet. She stood for a moment, gazing out. In truth, Gillian could not deny there was a raw, stark beauty to this land . . .

Her throat closed painfully. She didn't mind fending for herself. She wouldn't have minded living in this tiny, derelict cottage at all, if not for the ever-present fear . . . and the storms.

Oh, it wasn't for herself that she feared. She worried about Clifton, so young, deprived of his family. She worried about Brother Baldric, whose age made the journey here a difficult one, though he never complained.

He had come to Westerbrook as a young man; he'd once been a tenant on Westerbrook lands, even when her grandfather had been lord. But it was when her father Ellis was a youth that tragedy struck. Early one morn, Baldric's cottage had caught fire after he'd left for the fields.

His wife and four children had perished.

In time, Baldric had decided to dedicate his life to the Church. Perhaps it was despair that had brought him to the Church, but it was surely faith that kept him there. Of that, Gillian had no doubt. Sometimes, though, she had wondered it was if the memory of his wife and children that had kept him from taking Holy Orders.

Aye, she'd known him since she was a child. There was not a time that she could not remember him.

But she missed Westerbrook, she thought yearningly. Most of all, she missed her father and Clifton.

Darkness bled through her. One she would never see again . . . as for the other, she could only pray the day would come soon.

It was then she spied the slight figure of a man coming toward her, weaving down the path. Scarcely taller than she, he was spare and thin, his pate shaved and exposed to the wind; the set of his shoulders between his robe was bony and frail. At times she marveled that he had been able to make the journey here to the place where he had been born--that he had revealed much of his character and determination.

"'Twas quite a storm we had last night."

The breath she drew was faintly unsteady, but somehow she managed a faltering smile. "It was," she agreed.

Brother Baldric peered at her. "I am sorry I did not come yesterday."

The Truest HeartGillian gave an admonishing shake of her head. "You need not be sorry, Brother Baldric." She couldn't help but feel guilty. The walk from the sparsely populated village was a long one, yet Brother Baldric made it as often as he could. "Indeed, 'tis most kind of you to help with food and fuel. I know that it takes away from your work with Father Aidan." Father Aidan was nearly blind; since returning here, Brother Baldric had become Father Aidan's eyes. They sometimes walked for days to minister to those in the area, for the villages were few and far between.

She smiled faintly. "I am in your debt, as you well know."

"Debt?" Brother Baldric scoffed. "My first duty is to God. My second to your father, and he entrusted me with your safety. Speak no more of debt." He frowned suddenly. "You look fatigued, Lady Gillian. Are you ill?"

"Nay. 'Tis just that I did not sleep well."

"The storm?" he guessed.

"Aye."

"And other things as well, I vow."

"That, too," she admitted. "I worry about Clifton. He is so young. And he's been deprived of his family--"

"I understand your concern, but it was for your own good that your father sent the two of you away."

Her eyes shadowed, Gillian regarded the dark-robed man who had brought her here. "I know. But it pains me to think of Clifton alone."

"Not alone," he reminded her. "He is with Alwin, your father's chief retainer, and we both know that Alwin will protect Clifton with his life."

Though Gillian knew Brother Baldric meant only to comfort, there was no such comfort to be found for the endless, dragging heaviness within her . . . for what if it should come to that? What would happen to Clifton then?

Her eyes darkened. "If only we could have remained together!"

"It could not be. Your father was convinced his children stood a far better chance apart than together--and he was right, methinks. He dared not take the chance that King John would find you--you or Clifton." Brother Baldric did not speak aloud what they both knew--at least this way, if one were caught, the other might live.

"I should have stayed with him. I should have stayed with Papa!"

"He would not have allowed it."

He was right. Her father could be so stubborn. Yet still the memory speared her heart, her very soul. From the moment she'd left her father so many weeks ago, she had prayed for the best . . . all the while fearing the worst.

Alas, it had come to pass.

Events of the outside world were slow to reach this remote corner of the land, but earlier in the month Baldric had come with news. There was discontent among the barons; that they had ever come together at Running-Mead seemed a miracle. But there was more. . . with obvious reluctance he'd delivered the heartrending news that her father had been caught . . . and was now dead.

Gillian could not help it. A hot ache filled her throat. She choked back a sob.

"Painful though it is--small comfort that it is--try to remember, it was God's will."

"God's will that my father take his own life? God's will that he was buried in unconsecrated ground?" Her tone laid bare the bitterness etched deep in her breast.

"I can see why your faith would be tested. But I pray, do not do this, Lady Gillian."

"My father did not take his life because he was weak-- because he was afraid. He took it rather than give up another to the king's wrath. Nay, he was not weak--it is I!"

"Nay, child, nay! I am proud of you, for not many could live as you do--here, alone with only an old man for companionship. You are strong, Lady Gillian. Strong enough to face the future."

Alone? That single word unspoken seemed to hover between them. For alas, she did not feel strong. Though she was a woman full grown, she felt weak as a mewling child. This austere existence was a far different life than she had lived at Westerbrook . . . Fleetingly she wondered how King Henry's wife Eleanor had lived in exile for sixteen long years. Yet it was not what Brother Baldric thought. Nay, in truth it was not the loneliness that Gillian minded . . . but the storms.

"I leave with Father Aidan to accompany him to the east, Lady Gillian. But before I leave, walk with me a while. It will do you good."

Brother Baldric was right. She must not give in to despair. Nor would she cause him worry--indeed, it almost seemed as if the myriad lines in his forehead were etched even deeper as he gazed at her imploringly. In truth, she decided, surely she fretted enough for both of them!

"Ah, Brother Baldric. What would I do without you to guide me?" She reached out and gave his thin shoulders a quick, fond hug. He was a humble man; he'd grown to manhood poor and remained poor by choice.

Together they set out along the trail that cut along the edge of the beach. As they walked, she glanced over at him. "Is there news of the kingdom?"

Brother Baldric sighed. "All is unchanged, I fear. The barons rumble, yet King John remains unchallenged."

The soft line of Gillian's lips tightened. She was convinced there was naught but vile blackness in the king's soul--naught but darkness in the heart of John of England . . . or John Softsword as he was referred to in snide snickers by some of his subjects.

"John is a fiend." Her tears vanished and her eyes flashed as she voiced her opinion of the king aloud. "He promised his mother Eleanor when he captured Arthur of Brittany that no harm would befall the prince. No doubt he thought he was so clever, for he showed those who had been captured with Arthur no violence. Yet they were given no food, and what is that if not cruelty? Arthur was never seen again once he was imprisoned in Rouen. How can there be any doubt that he was killed and his body thrown into the Seine? How can the people not know that John is a monster? He is a dangerous man. Ah, that we, his loyal subjects, should be subject to his whimsy. He cares not about his people--the people of England," she went on fervently, "but only of his own greed!"

"That is something the world may never know, Lady Gillian, and you must guard your tongue--even here, for it is said there are spies everywhere."

"How such a man commands loyalty, I know not."

"I fear gold can make many a man beholden to the sway of the king's wishes. And no doubt there are other ways as well."

'Twas the hand of fear that Baldric referred to--they both knew it. "And no doubt King John has employed such ways," said Gillian, "and of a certainty will yet again!"

Brother Baldric glanced at her sharply. "I pray you, Lady Gillian, let us speak no more--"

Gillian heard no more, for just then a fierce gust of wind ripped away his voice and stole it high aloft; snatching at the voluminous folds of her mantle, it sent her hair rippling behind her like a streaming pennon, even as it pushed her back a step. The fingers of one hand clutched at the fastenings of her mantle, to keep it from being torn from her shoulders. It was plain, of woven wool, as was her gown; there had been little time to gather her belongings that night at Westerbrook, and Papa had directed that she take warm clothing. With the other, she tugged a sable skein of hair from across her eyes and fought to regain her balance and her breath.

Still gasping at the icy sting of the wind, she felt Brother Baldric stop short as well. But it was not the wind that brought his step to a halt, and a stricken cry of horror to her own lips . . .

The storm had left its legacy.

They had just rounded the massive boulder that guarded the cove. Splinters of wood littered the beach beyond. Here and there, ragged swatches of sail clung to the rocks, fluttering in the breeze.

And the bodies of several men.

"Last night's gale," Brother Baldric's tone echoed her own shock. "It must have carried the ship too close to shore."

Before she knew it she was standing beside first one body, then another, and another.

Shocked, she stared down into faces robbed of the vigor of life, white and pallid and bloated, their lifeless eyes turned to the sunbleached sky. Her stomach churned, as surely as the waves had churned throughout the gale. It was only too easy to envision the helpless frailty of their ship against the momentous forces of the sea--perched dizzily atop the crest of a wave, hurtling through the air, battered against the rocks that rose like jagged teeth just off the headland. Any craft, no matter how sturdily built, would have been as fragile as dried tinder.

"Do you know them, Brother Baldric?"

Baldric shook his head. "Nay. They are not from this area, I'm certain of it."

Refuge. The word played anew through Gillian's mind. Was it refuge these men sought as they sailed around the point? Yet there was no refuge for these men. Or perchance their families even now were patiently awaiting their return . . .

But they knew not that they were dead. Gillian felt sick at heart, sick to the very depths of her soul.

Something of her feelings must have been displayed. Brother Baldric shook his head.

"My lady," he said gently. "Do not look like that. You must remember, it is--"

"I know. God's will."

"Aye," he said heavily.

"Forgive me, Brother Baldric, but I cannot help but wonder at God's ways!"

Even now, she could almost hear the vengeful pounding of the waves surging against the rocks. A guilt like no other shot through her. She had cowered in her bed, fearing for her safety, while these men had perished so very near! Had they been alive, any of them, as the perilous waves carried them to this place upon the sand? Ah, but they were so very close!

If only she could have warned them of the danger of the rocks. If only she could have saved them. But alas, if they had been alive, the wind had masked their cries. And so, she hadn't heard them. Could she have saved them, if she had?

Her gaze rested upon the last man. Unlike the others, his eyes were closed. Heedless of the wet sand that soaked her mantle and gown, she slipped to her knees. Reaching out, she brushed the gritty sand from one lean cheek. The grayish pallor of death was upon his skin, yet it struck her that he was not so cold as she'd thought he would be. Was it merely the warmth of her own hand? Or but a wish so fervent it might have been true?

"A pity all of them died," Baldric lamented sadly. "I shall see to it that they are buried in the churchyard."

Gillian heard, but only distantly. Her attention was captured solely by the man next to whom she knelt.

Nay, she thought vaguely. It could not be. Shock stole her breath, the very beat of her heart. She could have sworn there was the veriest movement beneath her fingertips. But she did not snatch her hand back as every instinct compelled that she do.

"This man is not dead," she said faintly. "He is alive . . . Brother Baldric, he is alive!"


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