Wild Roses

By: Miriam Minger

Prologue





Ireland, 1212

Near the Hill of Tara, Meath





The moment he ducked his head inside the fire-blackened hut, a scream rent the air.

Terrified. Shrill. Fading into frantic whimpers as the girl, her eyes filled with stark fear, clung to her weeping mother.

Cursing again that he'd come too late, Duncan FitzWilliam could see the girl was dying. Thirteen years old, perhaps, no more, already her tear-stained cheeks bore an ominous pallor, as glaring to the eye as the brilliant red blood soaking the lower half of her gown. Forcing back the fury that threatened to engulf him, he moved slowly to the girl's pallet but stopped when she made to shriek anew.

"Woman, tell her I mean no harm,"he said to the mother who stared up at him with fear in her own eyes though she hugged her child fiercely. "My men and I—we've come to help."

"Help, lord?"Her voice hoarse, breaking, the Irishwoman looked from him to her ravaged daughter's face, her work-worn fingers caressing an ashen cheek with heartrending tenderness. "You can't help my Uta . . . not you, not the priest . . . not the angels above—ah, God!"

As the woman's sobs filled the hut, her dying daughter's whimpers become as weak as her labored breathing, Duncan felt his rage grow hot and deep once more that an innocent should so suffer.

Yet thus it had always been. The innocent suffered and the ruthless trod them like dust under their heels. But not this time. Not on his land. Not while he held breath.

"Come."He knelt and gathered the girl in his arms before the Irishwoman could protest, and so gently that she stared at him in teary-eyed astonishment. She could but hasten after him as he rose and carried his broken burden outside into a spring morning so gloriously sunny that it seemed to mock her sorrow.

Mock, too, the ring of smoldering huts, sunlight dancing upon scorched earth and slaughtered sheep and chickens. Fortunately for the Irish tenants, most had escaped into freshly sown fields of wheat and rye when the three rogue Norman knights had come upon the tiny settlement. Fled for their lives, a few panicked souls reserving enough presence of mind to alert him at Longford Castle. But it hadn't been swiftly enough for young Uta, whose slender body had borne the worst of the knights' brutal attack while her mother had been made to watch helplessly.

"Clement!"

"Yes, Baron, I come! I come!" A stout man with a wide, kindly face came running, his monk's robe held above his knees. "I've done what I can for the few wounded—"

"Good. Tend to the girl and give comfort to her mother. Take them away from here, to the stream. The girl should have some peace—"

"Bastards . . ."

Duncan glanced at the Irishwoman, her face filled with such hatred that he knew she had spied the three prisoners slumped to their knees near the horses.

"Unholy bastards! God's curse upon you! God's curse for what you've done to my Uta!"

She flew at the closest prisoner so suddenly that Duncan couldn't have stopped her, but he hadn't thought to try. Nor did he signal for any of his men to wrest her away from the bound Norman knight who bellowed in pain as she raked her nails down his face.

As the woman's enraged shrieks filled the air and the two other prisoners clamored for mercy, horses stamping their hooves and whinnying in fright at the din, Duncan cradled the girl who moaned piteously in his arms. It was more for her sake than the prisoners' that Duncan finally nodded for one of his own knights, Gerard de Barry, to stop the frenzied attack.

A moment longer and he had no doubt the woman would have scratched out the Norman's eyes which, in truth, made no difference to him. His prisoners would have no use for sight where they were bound.

"Go, Clement, take the girl," he quietly bade the friar. With a cry the mother shrugged free of Gerard's hold and ran to clutch her daughter's limp hand as Clement set out for the stream, though just before they disappeared into the trees, the Irishwoman glanced over her shoulder and met Duncan's eyes.

He saw fear no more, only a burning look of comprehension as if she sensed what lay ahead. And a flicker of gratitude. But Duncan turned away, his purpose not wholly to avenge her dying daughter. His grip tightening upon the hilt of his sword, he gave the barest nod to his men. At once the prisoners were hauled to their feet, all three swaying more from drunkenness than any rude handling.

Fools. Sotted with ale, they had raped and plundered, and so they had been captured, sleeping off their cruel deeds along the same stream where Clement had taken the girl. For such witless folly alone, they deserved no pity.

"Hang them."

Duncan's growled command might have been a dousing of ice-cold water for how sober the prisoners suddenly appeared, their expressions incredulous as thick twists of rope were yanked down over their heads.

"M-my lord, s-surely you misspoke," cried out one stricken knight, only to wheeze and cough at the noose pulled taut around his neck. In desperation another man began to fight his captors, while the third, looking the worse for the Irishwoman's attack upon his face, nonetheless drew himself up in belligerent fury.

"You cannot hang us without a trial, FitzWilliam! We've rights, damn you, not like these Irish dogs you treat as if they were your own kind!"

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