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“For nigh on five centuries that woman kept from me that she was changed by Nottingham and she and Rain were the last of Sherwood jardin,” Harlech said. “Yet when I confide in her, she cannot hold her tongue for five minutes.”

As he had lied to Harlech since they were mortals, Beau wondered whether Viviana’s offer veiled something more damning. “If you have some doubt of me or this mission, brother, tell me yourself.”

“When you were late to assembly, I questioned the men about you. I also asked Rainer.” Harlech lifted a hand. “I know, ’twas wrong of me to assume you were at fault. You are the most loyal of men.”

A dull fear plumed inside his gut, making it difficult to keep his tone casual. “What was said?”

“You know Rain.” Harlech rolled his eyes. “He nattered on about Nottingham and Viviana, and that time one of his trick blades landed in your ribs. I thought I’d go mad listening to him, but then he said something very odd. He claimed that you could not be out wenching, for you had not had a woman in months.”

“Is that all?” Beau hid his relief by opening his case. “Well, that explains why your wife wants to fill my bed.”

Harlech looked uncomfortable. “’Tis not like you to avoid females, Beau.”

“In truth I thought I had tired of them,” Beau admitted. “’Twas not until I had Alys under me that I felt the need.”

“The woman was immune to your scent, and you still took her to bed?” Harlech grinned. “Small wonder half the garrison envies you.”

“I did not take her. ’Twas an accident; we fell together.” Beau paced across the room and back again before he regarded Harlech. “I will tell you this: I wanted to have her, right there, even as she was swearing to hurt me if I did. She thought me a brute come to rape her.”

“No doubt.” Harlech saw his face. “Good God, man, you’ve never had a mortal female refuse you. That in itself must make this Alys seem like the most alluring Aphrodite ever to walk the earth. So, then. Did you force yourself on her?”

Beau gave him a filthy look. “I may have unseemly thoughts, but never would I violate a woman.”

“I never doubted it. I will tell you my great secret, the one that has kept me true and faithful to Viviana all these centuries.” Harlech smiled. “I have known any number of fetching wenches, and yes, a few who have thrown themselves at me, begging to see to my pleasure. When this happens, I see them as children too young to know what they are about.” His mouth curled. “And then I go and find my wife.”

“Alys will not be throwing herself at me,” Beau admitted. “She has disliked me from the start.”

“She will come to like you, Beau. Everyone does.” Harlech clapped a hand on his shoulder. “But likely she is indifferent to you, or her passions run another course. To cool your desire, I suggest you think on some Kyn female you might pursue, and the mortal solely as a sister. A very young sister.”

A sister, when Beau could not even remember his mother.

“And there is that look on your face again,” his captain said. “You’ve worn it like a mask every day since Byrne’s brother attempted to take the Realm. It reminds me of how you were when we were boys.”

“’Twas a shock. I should have known those Saracens meant to harm us.” And if I were to tell you the reason for that, you would have my head piked on the castle gates. “As for women, I see you with Viviana, and our lady with Byrne, and I want the same for myself. A wife, a companion. But there are so few unattached females among our kind that thinking on them in that manner is the same as dreaming.”

“I am sorry I have troubled you about it.” Harlech grimaced. “Only know that if you are in need of anything from a brother, you have but to find me.”

As Harlech helped him pack, Beau’s thoughts drifted back to his brief life as a mortal. He remembered almost nothing of his childhood before he had been sent to foster with Harlech’s family. The smallest and thinnest of boys, Beau hadn’t dared to utter a word to anyone.

Preoccupied with his own training, Harlech had barely noticed Beau until one afternoon in the lists, when some of the older boys had come looking for Beau. That day it had been seven against one, and yet when the tussle ended and the dust had cleared, every squire lay huddled and moaning in the dirt.

Harlech had tethered his mount and walked over to where Beau stood, his battered face tight and his bruised hands fisted, his back pressed against a hay bale. “Well-done. Who taught you to fight?”

Beau spat out some blood, but his eyes never strayed from the boys he had knocked down. “Priests.”

“Huh. I shall have to attend church more often.” Harlech gave him a measuring look. “Go and wash up. Mother hates to see evidence of our labors at her table.”

Beau jerked his chin toward the fallen. “What about them?”

“I expect they’ll be too busy now,” Harlech said, eliciting new groans from the fallen. To one of them, he said, “Do remind me, Master Thaddius, what is the price for a squire who loses a challenge?”

The older boy hung his head and muttered, “Shoveling out stalls for the stable master.”

“Ah, yes.” Harlech smiled. “Shit for shit.”

“Do you remember Squire Langston?” Beau now asked Harlech as he stowed some extra shirts in his traveling case.

“Thaddius the Thickhead?” Harlech chuckled. “God in heaven, Beau, I have not thought of him in seven lifetimes. Why have you?”

“He died at a tourney in France when he was but twenty,” Beau said. “He took a lance through the heart. He couldn’t afford the proper armor, but still he rode. I thought it brave of him.”

“Stupid, more like,” Harlech corrected. “Thaddius was a braggart and a bully who thought himself ever invincible. ’Twas what killed him in the end.” He cocked his head. “You were never friends with Thaddius.”

“Do you recall the day in the lists, when he and the other squires came to thrash me?” As Harlech nodded, Beau said, “I did not come to the evening meal because I was bloodied and beaten. I went to the stables and shoveled out the stalls with them.”

Harlech made an impatient sound. “As angry as they were? They might have smothered you in shit.”

“They hated me because I was small and thin and alone.” Beau closed the case and fastened the straps. “I had to show them that I was no different.”

“And did you?”

“I took a few more cuffs that night, but none in earnest,” Beau admitted. “I have never been one to lead others, Harlech. If not for you, Thaddius might have become my friend and guide. I daresay I would have followed him to France, and died a mortal death as he did.”

“But you followed me into the Templars, and off to Crusade, and back to England again.” Harlech’s expression turned pensive. “Where I, your good friend, gave you the plague that took us both to the grave.”

“As well as the immortal life I’ve lived since we clawed our way out of them.” Beau shrugged into the black leather jacket he wore when among mortals. “For a long time I believed we were cursed by God for our sins. But the modern world has changed my thinking, and now I am persuaded to believe it is as Cyprien’s leech would have it. We were changed by the strangeness of that plague, not divine condemnation. It was not punishment, but accident.”

“You have been thinking too much of late.” The captain folded his arms. “So what if it was chance? Would you have rather died on the wrong end of a lance, as Thaddius did? Is that the real reason you’ve given up wenching? Why you spend so many nights hunting alone? Some manner of atonement?” He peered at him. “Have you taken to excessive praying, or drinking animal blood?”

“No. I have no desire to make myself into a changeling.” Beau felt once more the urge to confess to his friend the truth. “Harlech, becoming a Templar was the making of me as a mortal, but being changed to Darkyn was my penance. If Dr. Keller is right, then I must accept that I have done nothing to make amends, not once in these seven hundred years.”

“You speak as if you need absolution for some terrible crime, but you have done nothing. Indeed, I have known you to be everything that is loyal and true and good in a man, mortal or Kyn.” The captain threw up his hands. “You do yourself injustice without cause. Name a moment when you have not conducted yourself as the most courageous of warriors.”

“It does not matter. We must all face a day of reckoning.” And if he was right, his would soon be at hand.

Harlech looked puzzled. “Reckoning for what?”

Beau looked out into the darkness toward the east. “All our sins left unforgiven.”

Unable to sleep, thanks to the X-rated movie starring Beauregard York that kept playing in her head, Alys went down to the hotel’s indoor pool to swim off her frustrations. By dawn she had managed to exhaust herself, which allowed her to sleep until her afternoon wake-up call. It took another hour to rouse her interns and have their equipment loaded into the rental vans they’d be using for transport to and from the site.

Before they left the hotel, Alys coordinated their GPS units, distributed handheld radios, and gave her student drivers strict instructions to stay together. “I don’t want anyone accidentally ending up at one of the theme parks.”

“Disney is for little kids,” Brenda said, sounding huffy. “We were hoping to hit Knights Realm, but they’re closed for renovations or something until February.”

“I can skip the medieval experience,” Charles told her. “Those guys are just a bunch of wimpy RenFaire freaks anyway.”

“Might I remind you all? This isn’t a vacation.” The disappointment on their faces made Alys feel a twinge of regret; they were still kids. “That said, if you’re diligent and we finish the project on schedule, I might be persuaded to pay for a celebratory visit to one of the parks for everyone.”

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