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County Essex, England
The road lay enshrouded in mist. Though Hugh had traveled through this area many a time—as a squire accompanying Robert d'Aulnoy to Colchester, and once as a knight fleeing to the sea and seeking passage to Normandy—the familiar verdant landscape receded under the fog as it smudged groves of trees into vague shadows, erasing distance and detail with unrelenting gray.
The fog lay across the road, but could not obscure it. If not for a well-worn track, Hugh would have been forced to wait; the river ran too close to venture forward blindly, and his cargo was too precious to risk. But in the soft, illusory mist, the ancient road proved a solid guide as it unwound below him. Hugh watched fine gray tendrils eddying around his gelding's legs, and each step pushed them into a swirling dance.
The ring of hooves against stone, the murmurs of the servants, and the wooden creak of the countess's wagon seemed more insistent with nothing but the ground to look upon. He glanced back at the sun once; poised like a dull, silver coin, it shed weak light that turned gray to white, but failed to penetrate or burn away the thick vapor.
"Will we lose our way, Sir Hugh?"
Hugh turned in his saddle, reined his mount to the side and waited for the wagon to draw even with him. Lady Isabel had ordered the curtains tied open to better watch their progress— though there was not much to see. The countess's silks, weaved through with metallic threads, failed to shine as brightly as she'd no doubt intended them. Even the golden curls peeking from beneath her filet seemed subdued. Though she had dressed in her finest raiment for the final day of their journey and the reunion with her husband, Hugh detected neither excitement nor pleasure in her expression. And despite her question, nor did she appear concerned that the fog might delay them; her countenance remained as sweetly demure as ever.
"Nay, my lady, so long as we do not stray from the road." The perfection of her cheek drew his gaze; younger even than he was, she possessed flawless skin unmarked by time or labor. His hands flexed in his gauntlets, and he felt the rasp of calluses against leather. He'd earned them protecting her—in constant preparation to protect her, and to serve d'Aulnoy.
"Are we near Fordham Castle?"
"If not for the mist, we could see it." Hugh pointed to the northeast. "Do you notice the incline of the road? We are approaching the ridge on which the first Earl of Essex built the castle."
The countess glanced down, as if searching for evidence of the gradual rise. Her servants did not need to see: they would feel it in the ache in their legs.
"Are we near the ruins, Sir Hugh?"
He dipped his head in confirmation. The remains of a Roman settlement marked the beginning of d'Aulnoy's holdings. "We shall come upon them soon. They lie a short distance from the road, however, we may not see them through the fog."
One of the countess's ladies-in-waiting leaned forward. "The thieves' den you spoke of, Isabel? Is it true, Sir Hugh, that we shall be set upon by bandits hiding among the ruins?"
The young countess blushed delicately; but Hugh had realized long ago the serene demeanor she affected in the courts and before her subjects hid a fanciful imagination, and it did not surprise him to learn she had been spinning tales to her ladies in private.
Would that he could blame his own yearnings on his age, but seventeen was long past time for fancy.
"Indeed, my lady. An ideal spot for an ambush it is," he said solemnly. In truth, lovers were more likely to be discovered between the deteriorating walls than outlaws. "Fear not, however; you are well protected against their villainy." He waved behind them, indicating the two knights who rode at the tail of their train and the foot soldiers. "I shall return you unharmed to your husband within hours."
The lady offered him a soft smile. "You have fulfilled your promise well, Sir Hugh. My husband shall be pleased, and I will request that he rewards you accordingly."
Surprised by her compliment, and trusting that the pale light and his helm masked the betraying heat in his cheeks, he bowed and said, "Serving you these two years has been its own reward, my lady."
He immediately regretted the triteness of his response, but she blushed and sat back against her cushions. She slanted him a glance wrought by delight and longing before she looked away, regaining
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