BY HONOR BOUND
He had lost a son he had not known he had—providing the child was his. After all, there was a reason he had not married the mother. More, a reason she had not wished to wed him. And it appeared the reason had not changed.
“Dead,” she repeated, then lowered her voice. “’Twas the d-devil took him.”
Elias had reached for his purse to put coins in her palm, money he prayed would not be spent on drink, but he stilled over those last words sent past teeth no longer pretty.
He considered her gaunt face lit by a torch outside the alehouse from which she had stumbled minutes earlier, then once more eschewing French for the language of the English people conquered a hundred years past, rasped, “The devil, you say?”
Fear leapt from jittering eyes.
“Why the devil, Lettice?”
She moistened colorless lips, glanced around as though to ensure no others listened. “Marked by evil, he was. I had no choice. Ye must know I did not.”
One question answered only to breed more. “How marked, and for what had you no choice?”
She opened her mouth, left it ajar as if reconsidering her next words. Then she raised trembling fingers to the corner of her left eye and swept them down cheek and jaw. “All red and purple he was, as if kissed by…ye know. Him.”
Elias dug his short nails into calloused palms. A mark of birth, possessed by many—though rarely so large or visible—did not a devil’s child make. But as ever, superstition ran rampant.
“That would alarm, indeed,” he said with control lest he frighten her away. “What did you do?”
“I couldna keep him, Elias.” She shuddered. “Though lovely one side of him, that other side…that mark…”
Lord, he prayed, no matter my son or another’s, let her not have been so cruel to set the babe out in the wood.
“What would have been said of me?” she bemoaned.
Would it have been much worse than what was said of her when she took coin for the use of her body? he wondered with resentment he should no longer feel for a woman he had mostly ceased loving years ago.
He unclenched his jaw. “How did the babe die?”
She flinched, drew a shoulder up to her ear. “I did not wish to know. It was taken care of.”
Pain. Anger. Disgust. All set their brand upon Elias. It seemed naught remained of the woman he had loved. In looks, speech, spirit, and heart, she was unrecognizable. And just as he had been unable to save her then, he could not save her now. Worse, he could not save the babe who might have been his.
Though he longed to walk away, remembrance of what he had once felt for her bade him open his purse. “Promise me,” he said as her gaze shot to the leather pouch, “you will take what I give to better your circumstances, not—”
“How much?” she gasped.
He hesitated, then cinched the strings, and as she whimpered like a child shown a sweet and denied it, removed the purse from his belt. “Much,” he said. “If you spend wisely, ’twill last through this season into the next.”
He handed it to her, and she snatched it to her chest and ran.
He was tempted to follow, but for what? Just as her life was hers to live, the coin was hers to spend.
“Lord,” he groaned, “let it not become a stone upon which to stumble. Let it bless her.”
Once darkness stole her from sight, he lowered his head and felt the sting of tears of which he would not be ashamed even had the one who knighted him told he ought to be. But Sir Everard Wulfrith of that family known England to France as the mightiest trainers of knights said only those unworthy of defending king and country were bereft of tears for the hurts and sorrows of their fellow man.
“Lettice,” he breathed.
He jerked, cursed himself. Tears were naught to be ashamed of, but succumbing to them in this place at this time of night—leaving himself open to thievery and gutting—was unworthy. An instant later, the one who had stolen upon him knew better than to quietly approach a warrior.
Back against the alehouse’s wall, a Wulfrith dagger at his throat, the man who had gone as still as the dead gaped.
Elias assessed him. He was attractive and fairly well groomed, near his own age, shorter by a hand, more bone than muscle, and of the common class as evidenced by a tunic fashioned of homespun cloth—albeit of good quality and showing little wear.
“What do you want?” Elias growled in the man’s language.
“But to earn a few coins.” He splayed arms and opened fingers to show empty hands. “No harm intended, milord.”
Elias thrust his face near and smelled drink, though not of the sour sort. “I have given the last of my coin.”
A loud clearing of the throat. “Surely a lord as fine as you can get more.”
He could. His squire awaited him at the inn which lay opposite the direction Lettice had fled, in Theo’s possession several purses fatter than the one with which Elias had parted. “Why would I wish to do that?”
“The harlot’s babe. I can tell more about him than she.”
What else was there to know? Elias wondered, then asked it.
The man moistened his lips. “There is much that none but straight-fingered Arblette can reveal, milord.”
Straight-fingered, Elias silently scorned. Could a self-proclaimed honest man truly be that?
“Buy me a tankard of ale, milord?”
Elias released him. “One, and if you think to make a fool of me, every drop I shall spill from your belly.”