Authors: Elizabeth Cole
Cecily’s simple words sent a
shock through him.
Of course I remember.
Alric couldn’t form a good response, so he just offered his arm. “Show me the way to the gardens. It’s been a while.”
Cecily took his arm as trustingly as she had when she was a little girl, the warmth of her fingers seeping through the linen shirt he wore. Her gesture awakened so many memories he could hardly begin to sort through them.
They walked out into the courtyard. It was now late enough so the moon rose silver and white over the trees, and illuminated everything with an otherworldly sheen. From the great hall, golden light spilled out of the opened doorways, along with the sounds of laughter and music. People were scattered about, some walking, some sitting.
Cecily pointed the way to the gardens, marked by a thick hedge. She led him through an opening in the hedge, and he suddenly chuckled. “I remember now. We all played hide and seek here.”
Cecily laughed, the sound as silvery as the moonlight. “The children still do. It’s the perfect place for it! I used to worm my way into the evergreens and watch all the seekers go by. No one could see me at all.”
“A confession, Cecily,” Alric said. “Your hair was so gold that no leaves could hide it. But I didn’t want to give you away, so I rounded up the others first.”
“You cheated!” she accused him.
“Hardly. I was being chivalrous by keeping your secret.”
“That’s not how the game should be played.”
He laughed at her reprimand. “I’ll keep that in mind should I ever play it again.”
Cecily shook her head. “Come. The herb garden is this way.”
She took a side path, and within moments, the smells alone told him they had reached the herb garden. Plants grew in rows, all contained within squares. The pattern was tidy and practical, allowing a gardener to reach any plant without needing to step too far from the little gravel pathways. Though Alric knew nothing of gardening, he could tell this place was well cared for.
“You’ve made the garden your domain?” he surmised. “You always liked flowers.”
“My choices are few,” she replied, looking over the silver-washed scene with pride. “By learning the uses of plants, I can do the most good. Follow me. I need to harvest mint tonight. The weather is good, cool and clear. I’m glad I could come…after what happened.” She looked away from him, hiding her expression.
“Rafe would never dare hurt you.”
“I don’t wish to discuss him,” she said, bending down to the ground. She plucked some of the mint and began chewing it. “I love mint,” she murmured. “It always tastes so clean.”
She plucked a few more leaves and offered them to Alric. “Here. It is a very fine variety. I take care to not let it crossbreed with the duller wild mint. If I did, the taste would soon become muddy.”
Alric tried it. The sharpness of spearmint cut through the richer taste from the feast foods he’d eaten earlier.
Cecily began harvesting the stems of mint, placing them in the basket she’d left out for that purpose. Her slim silver knife made quick work of the plants.
Alric looked about the sheltered garden. It was quiet and peaceful here. The sounds of the manor were masked, so they seemed to be the only people in the world. The moon rose above them, so bright it obscured most stars. The air was cool, the sky clear. He took a long breath. This was good, he told himself. This was exactly what he needed after so long on campaign.
After several minutes of diligent work, she stood. “That’s enough for now. If you will follow me, I have to go to the hut and hang these to dry.”
He carried the basket for her, not that the weight of the mint was remotely heavy.
When they reached the little hut at the far end of the garden, Cecily opened the door. “Let me go in first and light the lantern, or else you’ll stumble on something.”
A warm glow soon illuminated the tiny hut. It was about fifteen paces from end to end, and only half as wide. A large worktable dominated the space, so anyone in the hut had to maneuver around it. The peaked ceiling displayed rafters every two feet. Drying herbs hung from most of them, lending an overwhelming scent of summer to the air. And in the middle of it all was Cecily.
Alric stepped into the glow, dazzled by the vision he saw. Her hair gleamed golden in the candlelight, and her smile was even brighter. This was the real Cecily, he thought, the girl he remembered. Not the cool and distant lady in the great hall.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Nothing. You just look so different than how you looked earlier. I was worried that you changed.”
“I’ve changed less than you think,” she said. “But my uncle needs a lady of the manor, so I play the part sometimes.”
She gestured to the large table, and Alric put the basket down upon it. “What must you do now?” he asked.
“I have to tie the stems into small bunches and then hang them over the rafters to dry. Since you’re taller, perhaps you could hang each bunch after I make it.”
Alric was content to wait for her to hand him small bunches of fragrant mint, stretching up to hang each string on one of the many pegs driven into the rafters.
After a while, Cecily paused in her work. “May I ask you something? About Rafe?”
He sighed inwardly. Was Cecily under that spell Rafe seemed to cast on all women? But he said, “What is it?”
“Do I misremember, or was he always so…mocking?”
“The way he speaks, the way he holds himself. Even the way he kissed me. So mean and unfeeling, as if it were all a joke.”
Alric was relieved. So she wasn’t enchanted by Rafe after all. And she’d put her finger on something that had been bothering him as well.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Rafe always had to get the last word in an argument. But he has changed in the past few years. He’s more…” Alric trailed off, not having the word at hand.
“Bitter?” she suggested. “Was it the war that did it?”
“No. Rafe loves a battle, more than any knight I know. It’s something else.”
“Well, I hope he finds some peace,” she said, tying another bundle of mint stalks together. “I’ll mention him in my prayers.”
“Speaking of that, may I ask
a question about Rafe?” he asked then. “Why did you stop the fight earlier?”
“Were you not listening? I couldn’t stand the idea that you had managed to live all those years at war only to kill yourself the first night home.”
“It would not have been me who was killed.”
“The boast of fools,” Cecily said tartly. “It only takes one mistake to make you a corpse.” She almost slapped the last bundle of mint into his hand.
Alric took it, but didn’t hang it up, too focused on Cecily’s response. “And that would have been distressing, to see a corpse on the floor of your hall. But if I had died in battle, you would have done what? Said an extra prayer for a faceless knight, before you forgot me altogether?”
Cecily’s eyes narrowed. “How
you,” she said. “How you could think for one moment that I had forgotten you or our friendship! I wrote to you. I prayed for you! So help me, I would have spilled my blood on a pagan altar if I knew it would have brought you home—”
She was close enough to push her finger into his chest, which he ignored. She was also close enough to pull into his arms, which he did without thinking further.
“Alric,” she said, “what are you doing?”
He slid his hands to her waist and picked her up easily, putting her down to sit on the edge of her wide worktable.
“What are you
?” she repeated, this time in a squeak.
“I need to see you,” he said. “I haven’t seen you in five years. I missed you.”
He pulled the lantern around so the light shone on Cecily’s face and form. He traced the outline of her jaw with one finger.
Cecily watched him, her grey eyes glimmering as if she were about to shed tears.
“Are you just saying that?” she whispered. “Did you ever think of me?”
“I want to show you something.” He pulled away enough to roll up his left sleeve, exposing a loop of ribbon knotted around his forearm, high up, almost to his elbow, so it wouldn’t be noticed when the sleeve was down. “Look familiar?”
Cecily’s eyes widened, and she touched the ribbon, running her fingers over the embroidery. The light pressure grazed his skin as well, sparking thoughts he shouldn’t have.
“It’s still in one piece,” she said, astonishment in her voice. “I gave this to you just before you left.”
“I wore it every day since then.”
She put her hands to her face, laughing softly in wonder. “Oh, forgive me. I should have known.”
“You are forgiven. But I will admit I wasn’t prepared to meet this”—he touched her face—“beautiful woman. I should have, but seeing you was a shock.”
“That’s why you had not even a greeting for me in the great hall?”
“I couldn’t put two words together. Seeing you…” His gut suddenly tightened as he realized exactly what feeling had been dogging him ever since he saw Cecily this day. Not childhood affection. Not at all.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I should not say.”
“Alric! Please. You look so serious.”
“I want to kiss you,” he admitted. “But I should not. Not to mention another man already has done so tonight, and without your leave.”
Her eyes were wide. “Alric. Are you asking me for a
“Forget I said anything,” he muttered, looking away.
“I will not forget that! Besides, why should I not kiss you to welcome you home?” she protested, logically enough. Then she smiled. “I should warn you I’ll taste of mint.”
That sounded perfect to Alric. He leaned in and kissed her. She did taste of mint, and he wanted more of her. What he intended to only be a brief gesture lengthened into something else, something more dangerous.
Hesitantly, Cecily raised her hands to his chest, steadying herself, then she leaned into the kiss, allowing him to taste her as long as he wanted.
Her mouth was soft and warm under his, and he knew this was the only time he’d ever have alone with Cecily, making him want to touch her all the more. If forbidden fruit tasted sweetest, that would explain why Cecily tasted sweeter than any woman he’d known.
Cecily’s tiny, soft sigh of pleasure was more seductive than any bold promise. Alric reluctantly ended the kiss. To do anything more would be madness…on several fronts.
But he wanted to hold her. Other than a startled gasp, Cecily didn’t make a sound as he drew her to him. He buried his face in her hair and neck.
“You smell like your garden,” he murmured. “Mint and lavender and honey and summer. Like home.”
Cecily put her arms around his neck. “I’m so glad you’re home, so glad,” she whispered, hugging him tightly. “Even though you appeared to be a stranger!”
She laughed, ending her embrace so she could catalogue his alterations by touch. “Your skin has tanned, and you’re bigger and stronger now than when you left. Is that a scar from battle on your cheek here?”
“Just a scratch.”
“And your eyes…” she continued, looking at him.
“My eyes are the same,” he said.
“No. They’re darker. More guarded. Is it the war that does that? The battles? I’ve never even seen one.”
“You never should have to,” he said. “I fight because it’s my duty. But don’t believe that it’s just like a tournament. It’s bloody, and harrowing, and leaves men broken on the ground. It destroys towns and makes women into widows and children into orphans. I’ve fought with knights who I’d never trust alone with a maid—and yet these men swear to uphold the king’s law. But all they want is to fight. And drink themselves into oblivion afterward.”
“Alric.” Her hands were on his shoulders now, her eyes searching his face anxiously.
He realized he’d been rambling. He tried to shake off the mood. “Never mind me. Clearly, I was too long among men and war.”
“I wish I could take the pain from you.”
“There is no pain. Or if there is, it’s useful. It helps me fight.”
“You must fight again?” she asked. “But you’ve just come back!”
“I serve at the pleasure of my lord, and he at his lord. Inevitably, I’ll be called back.”
“Not soon. Please tell me not soon.”
“Not for months. Perhaps not till early next spring, barring a sudden shift in the fortunes of the king—or a sudden move on the part of the empress.”
“She is destroying this kingdom with her greed.”
“She was once declared the rightful heir,” Alric reminded her. “The Empress Maud only wants what she was told would be hers.”
Cecily frowned at him. “How can you defend her? She’s the enemy!”
“Her claim precedes Stephen’s. If all the lords who made pledges of fealty to her father actually obeyed them, there would be no war.”
“You blame your own faction?”
“I blame no one,” he said with a sigh. “It is a tangle, and there is no right or easy path out. Both king and empress have worthy claims. Both have supporters. And both have ambition. That’s the crux. Until one of them breaks or loses heart, this war will continue.”
“I hate it,” she said.
“Be grateful you are far from it then. Here you are quite safe.”
“Especially now that you’re here to protect me,” she said, a smile curving her lips.
He needed to taste those lips again, just once more.
She responded with as much wonder as she had before, and soon had his blood hot with her instinctive reactions. She opened her mouth, deepening the kiss into something he never intended, something that let him taste her tongue and hear her murmur in surprise and pleasure.
When he pulled away, Cecily’s expression was dazed but delighted. “You did miss me.”
He swallowed, painfully aware of her innocence. “You have no idea how much. But I’ll never touch you again.”