The Champion by Heather Grothaus

Prologue

February 1077 Near the Welsh border, England

“She’ll saddle me like a horse.”

“My lord?”

Nicholas FitzTodd, Baron of Crane, glanced at his riding companion, the bright moonlight allowing him to easily see the curious frown on his first man’s face. The two men were paused atop a rocky promontory where a woodland stream crawled sluggishly from the forest at their backs and ran invisible and black to throw its end waters into the icy Wye below. The winter night itself seemed frozen in its stillness, a thought that pleased Nicholas as he and his man-at-arms rested their mounts and scanned the shadowed hills of the Welsh borderlands.

There would be no raids this night, Nicholas was certain. Not even the most bloodthirsty would risk the Wye’s ice-crusted clutches. King William’s border—and Nicholas’s as well—was safe.

At least from foreign invaders.

Beside him, Randall cleared his throat. “Er…who would have you saddled?”

Nicholas gave a sigh that sounded put-out even to his own ears. “My betrothed, of course.” Majesty had drank his fill at the stream, and so Nick clucked and urged the horse onward.

“Your betrothed?” The towheaded man drew his mount even with Nick’s as the beasts picked their way over the rocky terrain.

“Aye, Randall. My betrothed.” Nicholas had not planned on revealing his true motive for riding to the village of Obny this night until the deed had been done. He didn’t know what had prompted him to speak his black thoughts aloud, but now that he had, it felt rather good to voice his displeasure with the task he’d set himself to. Any matter, the visit itself was no more than a formality, a courtesy to an old friend. As baron, Nick’s right was a bride of his choosing.

“Once I hear Lord Handaar’s report, I will tell him of my decision to take his daughter as my wife.”

Randall’s hoot of laughter echoed off into the inky sky. “God’s teeth! The blasted cold must’ve frozen my ears, Sire, for surely I did not hear you true. It sounded as though you said you were to take a wife!”

Randall’s jest was like a splinter in Nick’s pride, but he held his temper in check. Had any other man dared make light of the decision Nicholas had made, that man would at that moment be lying on his back with a sword at his throat.

“Aye, those were my words.” Nick blew out another stiff breath, the vapor ghostly white and curt in its own manner. “’Twould seem my mother has proven successful in her incessant nagging—she has managed to convince me that I must now provide the barony with an heir.”

Randall’s chuckles mingled with the hardy breeze and were whisked away. “Ah, well. ’Twas inevitable, my lord. And what better maid could you choose than Lady Evelyn?” Nick heard a rustling and then the soft pop of a cork. A moment later, Randall thrust a leather flask into Nick’s shoulder with a gulp and a hiss. “To the next Baroness of Crane, then.”

Nick seized the flask, but paused before bringing it to his lips. “Bah.” He spat on the ground and then drew deeply at the strong spirits. The liquid expanded down his throat and into his guts with a soothing heat. He handed the flask back to Randall and then urged Majesty down the narrow, rocky path that led to Obny.

Randall continued from behind. “You should be relieved to take a bride as well met as Lady Evelyn. Most only meet their wives the day they wed—you’ve known the lady since her birth.”

Nick merely grunted.

“You’ve spent much time in each other’s company. You get on well, hold many of the same views—I fail to see what catastrophic difference making her your wife will cause. Save that she will share Hartmoore with you.” Randall paused, as if carefully considering his next words. “And your bed, of course. But I doubt you would consider that a great hardship.”

Nick said nothing.

“She’s quite easy to look at,” Randall continued, now in an almost goading tone. “Her beautiful wavy hair, skin like cream. Not to mention her great, round, plump br—”

“Enough!” Nick shouted, but he could not keep the laughter from his voice. The path had widened to a sandy ledge and Obny lay before him, twinkling in her candlelit robes, Nick’s future—wanted or nay—safe within. Nick paused on his mount to stare grimly at the border town. “There is no blight upon Lady Evelyn, in body or mind. She is a good match for me, and in truth, I would have no other.”

Randall’s smile faded. “Then why rail so, my lord?”

“Because a woman—a wife—is a shackle.” Nick shook his head and snorted. “This is all Tristan’s doing. Had my brother not become so fully ensnared, Mother likely would have let me be to decide the time to take a wife. Now I feel obligated to appease her.”

“Lord Tristan does not seem shackled by Lady Haith. He—”

Nick waved a hand to cut Randall off. “Be not fooled, my friend. He is shackled, as well as any beast of burden.” Nick’s bark of laughter jarred the starry stillness. “Saddled.

Nicholas abruptly swung down from Majesty, looked around, and then scrambled up a jumbled motte of boulders—a mountain of sorts. He turned slowly, taking in the shallow bowl of the valley, draped in winter black.

He, by God, would not be saddled.

Nick spread his arms wide, drew a deep, aching breath of the frigid air, and called for any and all to hear.

“Nicholas FitzTodd answers only to God and King William! No woman will own me! I swear it!”

His words echoed over the valley and died away, and Nicholas felt cleansed. He was in control once more and could now face the chore ahead of him. Marriage would not change him, for good or ill. He was the Baron of Crane, and all within his demesne would still bend to his will.

Nick was off the boulders in two giant leaps, and he looked up at Randall’s quirked brow.

“Feeling better now?” his first man asked.

“Aye, better.” Nick swung up into Majesty’s saddle with a grin and wheeled the beast to once more face Obny. “I’m ready to tell Lord Handaar the good news, that I have chosen his daughter for my wife.”

And with that, Nick spurred Majesty in a gallop toward the border town.

 

“Lord Nicholas.” Handaar rose from his chair before the hearth as Nick entered Obny’s great hall. The elderly lord of the small town bowed slightly at Nick’s approach, and although the man’s smile seemed genuine and welcoming, he appeared to have aged a number of years since last they met. “’Tis good to see you again, son.”

Nicholas reached Handaar, and the two embraced as old friends. At this close range, Nicholas saw more clearly the deeply etched lines on the man’s face, the thinness of the white hair that ringed Handaar’s shining pate.

“And you as well, Handaar.” Nick clapped the old man’s bony back and drew away. “How fare things at Obny?”

“Well. The border is quiet and my scouts report no sign of trespass.” Handaar gestured to the pairing of chairs before the hearth. “Sit, if you would.”

Nicholas gratefully complied, sinking into a padded chair near Handaar’s. His eyes traveled to the small table between them, on which sat a carafe and two chalices—the one closest to the old man already half-full of deep red wine. Nick’s leg bounced on the ball of his foot several times before he took notice and stilled it. He knew it was a nightly ritual for Handaar and his only child to share a drink and talk of the events of the day before retiring, and as thoughts of Evelyn crossed Nick’s mind, his tongue seemed to dry up completely and swell against his teeth.

As if Handaar had noticed Nick’s longing glance at the carafe, he filled the empty chalice and handed it to Nicholas with a weary smile.

“To warm you from your journey.”

“My thanks.” Nick drained the vessel and was immediately obliged with more. He gestured toward Handaar with the chalice. “I vow Lady Evelyn will be much put-out with me for claiming her comfortable perch and cup.”

Nicholas thought he might have seen Handaar flinch before he spoke. Slowly, as if choosing his words with great care, Handaar said, “Evelyn will not be joining me this evening.”

Nick’s brow lowered. “She is not ill, I hope.”

“Nay.” Handaar gazed into the blazing hearth, and the firelight danced across his worn countenance. “She is not ill.”

“’Tis well, then.” Nicholas could not fathom the root of Handaar’s melancholy from the blunt statement, and so he pressed on. “I do hope to speak to her this night if she can spare me a moment. I did not send word of my visit as I wished to surprise her, but mayhap I should have.”

The old man shook his head, his gaze focused on the brilliant flames. “Nay, ’twould have mattered not that you sent word.” Handaar looked directly at Nick now, and his face took on a pained expression. “Two days past, she told me you would come.”

Nick’s eyebrows rose. “Did she? But how…?”

Handaar shrugged. “You know as well as I that Evelyn has always possessed a keen ability to sense certain events. Just as she seems to know what any lowly beast would think.”

Nick chuckled, even though his discomfort with the task before him was being compounded by Handaar’s strange behavior. Something was about in Obny’s keep.

“Yea, you are right, Handaar. Did I not know otherwise, I would wager she calls Majesty to her, therefore requiring my presence as well.” He took a sip of his wine. “Oft times, I suspect she cares more for my horse than for me.”

Handaar’s gaze sharpened. “Evelyn cares for you very much, Nicholas.”

Nick’s stomach clenched like a tight fist at the man’s grave tone. Now was as good a time as any would be.

“Lord Handaar, I—”

Handaar rose abruptly and strode to face the hearth. “How fare your brother and his wife?”

“Well.” Nicholas frowned at being cut off. The subject was difficult enough to voice without being forced to begin again. But mayhap ’twould be better to humor the old man. “They have a daughter now—Isabella. Mother has recently returned from Greanly and brought word that Tristan’s town prospers.”

Handaar nodded but did not turn. “Then the baroness is in good spirits as well?”

“Yea.” Nicholas chuckled and relaxed a bit. “As beautiful and overbearing as ever, and still hounding me ceaselessly.”

Handaar did not laugh at the jest, nor did he make any reply at all.

Nicholas placed his chalice on the small table with unnecessary care and leaned forward in his chair, his forearms braced on his knees. He took a deep, silent breath.

“Her hounding has relevance to my visit to Obny this night.”

“Of course it does.”

Nick frowned at the man’s back. “Handaar, I must speak with you in seriousness. I—”

“Do not, Nicholas.”

Nick’s nerves were wearing thin. “Please, friend, hear me out. This is not a thing I would take lightly and I think ’twill please you.”

After a moment of silence, Handaar sighed, and his words were curled with sorrow. “Go on, then, if you feel you must.”

“Very well.” Nick cleared his throat, rubbed his hands across his thighs. “Since my father’s death, it has been fully realized to me the responsibilities I now hold. Barring Mother’s nagging, I know that for my father’s line to be continued, I must marry. As you know, I am the last FitzTodd.”

He cleared his throat again. “I have known Lady Evelyn since her birth. You were like a brother to my father and a second father to me.” Nick’s voice grew a bit hoarse with his last words, so he stole another quick gulp of wine before continuing.

“The baroness loves Evelyn as she would her own daughter, and I care for her as well.” Nick took a deep breath, his heart kicking against his ribs as if it would burst from his chest and gallop from the hall without him. “As my wife, Evelyn will want for naught. I swear it to you.”

“’Tis not possible,” Handaar said, his voice gravelly and low.

Nick paused a moment to collect his thoughts. He had expected this, and he was prepared. “I know that she is promised to the convent, but Handaar”—Nick rose—“I will secure her freedom. I will pay the abbess her dowry so that Evelyn may marry.”

When no reply came, Nick’s nerves were outrun by his growing frustration. “Do you not see? She need not throw her life away by joining the order. You must admit that you are loathe to send your only child from you, and now, ’twill be avoided. She will be close at hand for the rest of your days and cared for by one you claim to be as your own son.” Nick felt confident in the logic of his argument. “It only makes sense that we wed.”

“I made a vow to Fiona,” Handaar said. “I beg of you, Nick, let us not speak of it further.”

“Evelyn’s mother is dead, Handaar,” Nick said as gently as possible. “Though do you not think if she were still alive, if she could see what a companionable match your daughter and I make, that she would bless this union?”

“Mayhap,” Handaar said quietly. “But it matters not. As I’ve said, ’tis impossible.”

Nick felt his choler rising as it never had before with the old warrior. “Nay, ’tis not impossible. As baron, ’tis my responsibility to see to the welfare of my people, and I will not have Evelyn waste away in a moldy priory when she could live in comfort, among family and friends.”

Nicholas stepped closer to Handaar’s back. His next words would be difficult to say to the elder lord, but Nick felt his authority in this matter need be exercised.

His voice was steady now, deep with resolve. “Handaar, as baron, ’tis also my right to take a bride of my choosing. I have made my choice, friend, and there is naught you can do to sway me.” He placed a comforting hand on the stooped shoulder. “Fiona would understand, I am certain. Now, let us seek Lady Evelyn and share with her the good news.”

Handaar turned under Nick’s palm, and Nick was shaken and disturbed to see streaks of wet glistening on the wrinkled cheeks. Handaar’s voice was strained but, aside from the tears on his face, his expression was stony.

“Evelyn is already gone, Nick.”

Nicholas took an involuntary step back as Handaar’s words hit him like a physical blow. “Gone? What do you mean?”

“She has left for the convent.” Handaar swiped a hand over his face. “Two days past, when she foretold of your arrival.”

Nick returned to his chair, stunned. “But…but why would she go if she knew I was coming? Were we not always friends?”

“That is the very reason,” Handaar said, as he too regained his seat. He poured more wine into the chalices. “Although I am certain you perceived your hints about the matter as subtle, Evelyn knew you would offer marriage. As you yourself said, it only makes sense.”

“But…she knew?” Nick asked, his thoughts tripping over themselves. He looked at Handaar and at the old lord’s expression of sympathy, Nick knew that his bewilderment must have been evident on his face. “She would choose the convent over me?”

Handaar shook his head and looked to a spot between his boots. “She had no wish to marry, to bear you the children she knew you would require of her. Evelyn took the vow I made to Fiona most seriously.”

Nick felt his jaw harden until he thought his teeth would crack. “Then she is selfish and stupid. There is no guarantee that her fate would have been as Fiona’s—that she would die in childbirth. She has thrown her life away and abandoned me.”

Handaar sighed quietly. “In her heart, she felt she was freeing you.”

Freeing me? For what purpose? To be forced to take a stranger for a wife?” Nick’s bark of laughter was bitter and jagged. “Ours would have been a union of friendship and trust. That she would leave me is unforgivable. She never cared for me at all.”

“Evelyn loves you very much, Nick.”

“Nay!” His palm sliced through air thick with tension. “Nay, you do not treat one you claim to be in love with in such a manner as this—with deceit.”

“I said that she loved you, not that she was in love with you. There is a difference.” Handaar looked weary now to the brink of collapse, but Nick’s hurt was not considerate of the old man.

“Love, in love.” Nick waved a hand. “What does it matter?”

“Mayhap that is the very core of why she left—to give you the opportunity to see how much it truly does matter.”

Nicholas stared at the old man for several moments, and Handaar stared back. He had already told his mother, his brother, and several of the other underlords of his plan to take Evelyn as his wife. He’d even told his first man. What would they think of him now, when a woman Nick had known the whole of her life would prefer a convent before him as her husband?

Never had he felt such awkwardness, such humiliation in this place that was as familiar to Nicholas as his own home. He could no longer sit under its heavy weight, and so he stood.

“Very well, then. I bid you good night, Lord Handaar.” After a curt nod in the old man’s direction, Nick crossed to the great hall’s doors.

“Nick, son.” The sounds of Handaar rising and calling out chased Nick’s retreat. “Let us not part on poor terms. Stay at Obny tonight. Would that I could have spared you this hurt, but in truth, I am not certain I can bear it myself.”

At Handaar’s words, Nick paused in his stride.

“Please, Nick.” Handaar’s voice hitched on the plea. “I have no one left now.”

Nick turned, and at the sight of the old warrior, his once broad shoulders stooped with age and sorrow, Nick’s chest tightened. He recrossed the hall and embraced Handaar while the man’s shoulders shook.

“Ah, Nick,” Handaar gasped, “I miss her so already.”

“Forgive me, old friend, for my callousness,” Nick said. “Never would I want to further your grief. But I cannot stay within these walls when every stone carries Evelyn’s memory.”

Handaar nodded, clutching Nick’s arms and drawing away to look at him. His voice was gruff when he spoke. “Of course I forgive you. But ’tis my hope that you’ll not stay from Obny forever.”

Nick shook his head. “I will return.”

Handaar nodded and released Nick, his wide, gnarled hands suspended in the air for a moment, as if reluctant to let him go. Nick saw their tremble. “Safe journey, my son. Godspeed.”

With a final squeeze of Handaar’s shoulder, Nick spun on his heel and departed Obny’s hall, leaving Handaar alone with only the ghosts of his wife and daughter for company.