Sample Chapter - Seeking the Truth

Seeking the Truth - A Medieval Romance

Chapter 1

England, 1212

Happiness depends upon ourselves.
-- Aristotle

Morgan wriggled her way through the bar’s noisy throng, a feisty salmon struggling against the almost overpowering current, heading always upstream, driven by her instincts. She paused a moment to take a long draw from the tankard of ale in her hand, balancing the other two mugs close against her waist, her hand strung through their handles. A boisterous farmer bumped into her as she weaved past a heavy oaken table, and she laughed as she hip-checked him back into place. The rowdy crowd was certainly enjoying the harvest celebration. The sun had barely slipped past the horizon and already half of the pub seemed well on its way towards drunken abandon.

She plunked herself down on a worn stool, sliding the tankards out across the small round table with practiced ease to her two friends. The men called out their thanks, grabbing at their ales and each downing half the mug in a smooth motion.

Christian grinned up to her. “You are a saint, Morgan,” announced the red-head, a twinkle in his eye.

“Sure, and you get the next round,” she joked merrily, pushing her long, jet black hair back from her face with one hand. The men were still wearing their guard uniforms, having come right from watch duty to join in the festivities. Morgan knew Lady Donna’s keep was well enough protected – there were plenty of guards still left on the walls. Her friends deserved some time off. It was harvest, after all. A season to relax, to have some fun.

She rolled her head, loosening the ache from her shoulders and neck, taking another long draw on her ale as the chaos of the place washed over her with comfortable familiarity. The pub was normally ample for its patrons, but tonight it was overflowing with the crowd, both with the farmers celebrating their crops and the soldiers in from London. It made for a tightly-packed night.

“And just why are those outsiders here?” she asked Christian, looking over at the soldiers. She’d grown up in Shamley Green, knew every man, woman, and child here. The trio of well-built men stood out like hawks in a flock of sparrows.

“Something about a funeral for a friend of theirs,” responded Christian, barely sparing a glance for the newcomers, his eyes warm on her face. “Felix said they should be in town for another few days, perhaps. They are staying down at the inn.”

“Was there bandit action in the area?” Morgan pressed, her interest sparking. Maybe she could talk with Lady Donna, get some time off from her bodyguard duties.

Christian was shaking his head, sending his red curls dancing. “Nothing so exciting,” he calmed his friend, his eyes twinkling. “Rumor has it that the man got on the wrong side of a loan shark and was put out of his misery.”

Morgan sighed. It was always the same; nothing exciting ever happened around here. She put the strangers out of her mind, rolling her shoulders again; that stubborn ache in her neck just would not ease. She turned to her right, to the man who leant back in watchful relaxation. She swatted playfully across the top of his brush-cut blond hair, riffling the gently greying tips. “So, Oliver, what about putting that medical training of yours to some good use?” she teased him with a smile.

He arched an eyebrow, then slid a hand behind her back, unerringly kneading at the knot immediately above her shoulder blade. She sighed softly in pleasure.

God’s teeth, but he was a good man to have handy at the end of a long, wearying day.

Then, suddenly, he stopped. She looked up with a toss of her head, protest on her lips.

Oliver was staring over at the bar, his eyes sharp. Morgan glanced over and saw that Felix, the portly barkeep, was waving one hand toward their table with a wry grin. His red nose practically shone in the dusk as he nodded his head to the right. Morgan followed the look and spotted one of the elderly farmers tottering to his feet, a look of outrage on his face.

Morgan could barely hear his curse over the din of the room. “How dare you say your turnips are better than mine!”

Morgan felt Christian begin to rise beside her and patted him playfully on the arm. “You two hold tight; I will be right back,” she promised, draining her ale. “Sometimes a woman’s touch is what is called for.”

“You certainly have that touch,” agreed Christian with a smile, his eyes sweeping her curvaceous form with appreciation. Morgan leant over the table for a moment, dipping the front of her scarlet dress lower than necessary as she swept up the empty tankards, winking at Christian as his grin grew wider. Then she was turning, dropping the mugs off for refills as she swept past the bar on the way to the corner table.

“Come now, Jonas,” she called out to the balding farmer as she came up alongside him, “I think it is time for you to head on home.” Offering a friendly smile, she tucked her arm in against his. Jonas seemed caught between his pride in his produce and the well-built woman who was insinuating herself against his side. The latter won out, and he turned, his face glowing.

Morgan chuckled. “Let us get you home to your wife,” she suggested, walking him to the door. She dropped her voice down a notch. “Besides, I am sure everyone here knows that your turnips are the best in the county. Let that braggart make a fool of himself if he wishes.”

Jonas’ face shone with pride, and he nodded blearily in agreement. Morgan released him as they got out into the dark street, watching fondly as he ambled his way down the dirt road towards his small cottage. The noise rang out behind her, but the houses were peacefully quiet as they spread out in three directions, lights from candles and fires glowing softly in several windows.

Morgan glanced towards the end of the street, towards the two-story building which housed her parents. The forge would be quiet now, but she knew it would not be silent in the home. Her father and mother were undoubtedly at it again, raging over some perceived slight, some invented ill. No, she would not be heading home until well near dawn. Thank all that was holy that she was due back at the keep tomorrow afternoon and her short visit was nearly at an end.

Pushing her family out of her mind with well-practiced effort, she turned and dove head-first in the roiling chaos of the mob. She saw the fresh tankards waiting for her on the scuffed bar top and began weaving her way through to retrieve them.

She was jostled hard to the left by the tumultuous crowd, staggered, and a spray of liquid misted her arm. She looked down at her stained dress with a wry smile, wiping herself down as she turned.

It was the soldiers from London, their dark green uniforms crisp and neat, an island of order in the stormy sea of muddy turmoil. The man she had hit was shaking drops off his hand, a small metal cup on the table now only three-fourths full. She sized him up in a long glance. He seemed perhaps thirty, his body long and rangy, well-muscled beneath his tunic. His chestnut hair was cut relatively short, brushed back from his face, emphasizing his strong cheekbones, his grey eyes flecked with gold.

One of his companions looked over. “Hey, lass, fetch us another round of ale,” he called out, his speech slightly slurred. Morgan turned her gaze with mild annoyance. This soldier was more muscular, about the same age as the first man, his birch-brown hair cut close to his head. He stared with hazy interest at her buxom form spilling out of the close-fitting dress she wore, then slid his look back up to her face. “Be quick about it and there might be a nice bonus in it for you,” he added suggestively. He glanced over at the well-built man she had hit. His voice became slightly more formal “Did you want a refill on your mead, Sean?” he asked the man.

“No thanks, Roger” replied Sean, wiping the back of his hand on his leg, not looking up. “Take it if you want.” He gave his leg a final swipe. “I wonder how the locals can tolerate the brew - it is foul enough to drop a horse,” he added with a shake of the head.

Morgan’s eyes flashed in outrage. It was bad enough for strangers to take up space in an already crowded pub, but for them to badmouth the homemade liquor Felix took such pride in pricked her to the core. She swept up the cup and without hesitation tossed the entire drink back down her throat, the raw liquid slithering into the depths of her being with the familiar warm sensation. Her world stopped for a moment as the mead sent its curling tendrils into every corner of her body.

Oh, but that felt good.

She slammed the cup back down onto the table with a firm ring. All three soldiers were now staring up at her, their mouths open in shock.

Morgan was not done. “Felix!” she called out, her voice ringing in command. The bar’s patrons turned instantly at the shout, and the place hushed to a murmur, all eyes focused on her with bright interest.

“I think this soldier here would like some milk,” she announced to her audience with a deliberate smirk. “It seems he cannot handle the harder stuff.”

There was a rolling cascade of mirth from the crowd in response. Sean looked up at her in amusement, a ready smile playing on his lips. “I promise I can drink anything you choose to put before me,” he answered in challenge.

A voice rang out behind her. “Two pounds on Morgan!” Christian had come up alongside her, his face split in a wide smile.

Oliver tossed coins on the table. “Make that three,” he added evenly.

The room became a hubbub of bets and offers, and the center of the area was cleared out to make room for the spectators. Morgan sat to one side of the soldier’s table, settling her red skirts around her with practiced ease, getting her feet set up sturdily beneath her. Sean took the chair opposite her, swinging his sword out of the way as he sat.

Roger patted Sean on the shoulder. “You pace yourself,” he advised his friend with a teasing wink. “These village girls can be feisty.”

“I suppose you have some advice, Peter?” asked Sean, looking up at the other man. “You are nearly forty now; you are our senior man here.”

“Never make assumptions,” responded Peter thoughtfully, his eyes sparkling with amusement as he looked over the scene. “Still, I think you have this one easily.” He leant forward. “Four pounds on Sean.”

Sean turned back towards the table. He gave a long look down Morgan’s healthy build, her lush curves. His eyes brightened with anticipation as he sized up his opponent.

“I would hate to cause any real harm to such a lovely creature,” he commented with an appreciative smile.

Morgan watched as his eyes moved from her body towards the pair of men standing just behind her. She could almost read his thoughts in the narrowing of his eyes. Swords on their hips, protective stances, well-toned builds. Not simple farmers, these two.

He muttered quietly to Roger, his voice low, but not low enough. “The wench certainly knows how to choose her admirers.”

Morgan leant forward slightly, drawing his attention with the subtle movement. “Are you sure you are ready for me? You can always back out now,” she teased gently.

Sean's eyes flickered toward hers for a moment, then returned to consider the two men who stood over her. He addressed Oliver, his gaze steady. “You know how to get her home, I imagine, once she can no longer walk?” Morgan sensed a hint of probing in there, of Sean's desire to know just how well she was acquainted with her two friends. She grinned. She had hooked this one almost too easily.

Oliver looked down fondly at Morgan, running a hand absently through his blond hair. “Oh, we will take good care of Morgan,” he agreed with a tender nod. “We are quite familiar with Morgan's haunts and habits.” His mouth quirked. “Now as for you … you are staying at the inn, I hear?”

“Do not worry about me,” replied Sean absently, leaning back in his chair, sizing up the two men as if they were a part of the challenge before him.

Felix trundled over with a large wooden tray, five shot glasses apiece lined up down each side of it. He placed the tray theatrically on the table between the two contestants. Sean looked at the offering almost dismissively before giving an indulgent smile to Morgan. “Well then, I will go first,” he offered chivalrously. He took one of the glasses, downing it with a quick movement of his wrist. A cheer went up from his supporters. He then turned the glass over in the air and placed it firmly, upside down, at the center of the tray.

Morgan sat back for a moment, closing her eyes, fighting the urge to smile. Her friends would win good money tonight, but there was no reason to rush. She enjoyed the showmanship of the process.

She pouted her lips prettily, adding hesitation to her movements, acting as if she had suddenly realized just what a mess she had gotten herself into. She reached forward tentatively, taking the full glass in her hand, staring thoughtfully at it for a long moment. Then, slowly, carefully, she poured the liquid down her throat.

She closed her eyes as she did. As much as she could fake the tenuous hand movements, the trembling of the lips, she doubted she could hide the shine in her eyes as she drank the luscious ambrosia and felt it course down her throat, warming her. She made sure to give a little shudder before opening her eyes again. With a shaking hand the glass was turned over in the air and placed down on the table.

Felix raised his hands in the air. “One!” he announced with delight, and the crowd roared with pleasure.

Sean went glass by glass down the line, matching her at each step, and she watched with interest as his eyes began to betray his growing enjoyment of the liquid, the appreciation showing in his lips as he sensed the hidden layers of flavors. She knew he was watching her with equal interest, and she focused on the hesitation on her movements, giving the sense that she might give up at each stage, but somehow she managed to draw out the inner strength to keep going. His eyes flickered with surprise when, even after the fifth shot, she was able to put her glass securely down on the table.

Felix spun to the crowd. “Round Two!” Cheers and applause rang out on all sides. Sean scanned the crowd which clearly expected the contest to continue for quite a while, and after a moment he chuckled in appreciation. He picked up one of the smaller coins on the table, flipped it in his fingers a time or two, and then tossed it past her shoulder. Morgan had been gazing down at the table with a listless attitude, but out of habit she plucked the coin out of the air easily, and her eyes snapped with laughter when she realized she’d been found out.

She flipped the coin back to him with an amused grin. “All right, then,” she acknowledged in delight, her voice clear and rich. “Let us do this the straightforward way. I find it so much more fun when I face my challenges head-on.”

“You think you are a challenge for me?” asked Sean, his eyes brightening with interest, lingering on her lips for a long moment.

Morgan ran her tongue slowly along her bottom lip, and she watched with delight as his face flushed red with heat, as his breath drew in a ragged inhale. Her smile widened further as she basked in the reaction she had caused.

“I think I will be the one on top tonight,” she agreed throatily, her eyes sparkling.

“We will see about that,” murmured Sean, his voice going hoarse as she shifted slightly in her seat, as her curves moved and realigned.

There was a shadow across the table, and Felix was between them, setting down the wooden tray with a fresh set of five shots each. Sean looked at the line of mead, shaking his head, his eyes reflecting his admiration.

“I imagine a working hazard of being a waitress is building up a tolerance to alcohol,” he murmured to Roger, his voice rough. “Still, it will be a cold day in Hell when one of them can keep up with me.”

Roger's mouth quirked up into a smile. “You have indeed honed drinking to an art form,” he agreed readily.

Sean's eyes moved back to meet Morgan's, to drift down her length appreciatively, taking in her ripe curves, her healthy strength. He gave a long sigh of relaxation. “Even if she does not last long, it will certainly be a pleasant distraction for us,” he mused to his friend.

Morgan held in a snort. Not last long indeed. The amused sparkle in her eyes did not dim as they went through glass five … glass six … Sean seemed almost enthralled by her deep brown eyes, by the ruby red of her lips as her tongue danced out to wet them. She leant forward to take glass seven, making sure the swell of her breast was tantalizingly near. He shook himself, renewing his focus on the contest at hand.

“Round Three!” roared out the room gleefully. Sean gave a toast to his temptress with his next glass, his eyes shining, apparently honestly impressed. She chuckled again. Perhaps he did not know many women who could have lasted this long. Her smile grew wider. On the other hand perhaps none of his drinking companions back home had a form as she did. She gave a glance down the length of her body. She had dressed well for tonight's festivities. The red dress curled deliciously along her shoulders, drawing close at her waist. Her dark hair cascaded down her torso in thick curls.

She brought her gaze back up to meet Sean's and she grinned as she saw him wavering slightly, as he blinked again to keep his eyes in focus. It had begun.

She leant forward for glass number thirteen and her hair fell down across her face in a wave. Christian moved forward with comfortable ease to brush it back for her, and let his hand rest on her shoulder for a moment in a casual gesture of familiarity. Laughter bubbled up within her as Sean's eyes flared with jealousy, as he bit back his emotions with visible effort. Already she had him hooked well. She held his gaze through glass fourteen … fifteen …

“Round Four!”

Morgan could see in his movements that the liquor had taken a hold of him. He narrowed his eyes as if the room was beginning to shimmer. His body weaved slightly; he seemed to be riding on a ship at sea. There appeared to be two sets of each glass before him now, and he concentrated hard to determine which one to pick up. The crowd was continuing to chant the number, giving a roar of approval as each glass was brought to the lips, downed, and placed upside down on the table.


Sean reached out carefully for his eighteenth glass. By his slow hand movements she would have almost guessed that this one was heavier than the previous. He watched with focus as he brought it towards his lips. His tipped it up with a quick motion.

The liquid rolled down his throat, and she saw it in his eyes, the connection they shared, that the mead was bringing him a smooth oblivion, an erasing of the past, the focus on now. She felt guilty, as if she had glimpsed into his soul, into a private haven.

He looked at the empty glass in his hands for a long while, appearing to marvel at its texture. There was a small air bubble in its base, a spherical drop of perfection, and he was entranced by it.

Then he gave himself a small shake, as if remembering that there was something he had to do. He had to put it down on the table. He reached forward with it, his attention a pinpoint focus, watching as the glass approached the table, its edges wavering … wobbling …

The edge of the glass came in contact with the table, and it seemed he found he could not bring it upright. His eyes strove to focus, but his hand slipped. The glass tumbled on its side, rolling in a long circle.

“Ohhhh!” groaned the crowd, half of the voices tinged with panic, the other half in greedy delight. There were hushing noises from all sides as countless pairs of eyes turned to look at Morgan.

Morgan watched the glass make its lazy circle, bringing her eyes slowly back up to the man sitting before her.

God’s teeth, he was handsome.

His thick, lustrous hair lured her to run her fingers through it. His physique was solid but lean, like a racehorse built for speed. Desire built up within her as a tangible force, and his eyes held an answering kindle as he read her look. To think he had almost made eighteen shots … she shook her head. There was work still to be done. Enough time for play later.

She reached her hand out, proud that it remained fairly steady. She had never had to drink eighteen before, never been pushed to this limit. She would not let down her friends, not destroy her reputation. She focused on the glass, on lifting it carefully, on bringing it to her lips. The release of the alcohol, its potent power, thrilled through her as it always did. She kept her eyes open this time, letting Sean see the pleasure it brought her, her comfortable familiarity with its effect. She saw the answering knowledge in his eyes, that he drew the same solace from its deep pools of darkness. She took down every last drop, then with a firm hand she reached out with it.

She placed the glass solidly, upside down, at the center of the table.

The place erupted into cheers, yells, curses, and congratulations. Morgan found herself hoisted up onto Christian and Oliver’s shoulders, paraded around the room as a conquering hero. Money changed hands with laughing good nature as Felix cleared away the glasses and began his last call for the night. Morgan glanced out the window and realized to her surprise that a soft pre-dawn light was beginning to spread across the town. It was later than she had thought!

Her soldiers deposited her down by the table again, and Sean slowly stood. He held out a hand in friendly defeat.

“That was well played, Morgan,” he commended with a smile. “I have not seen it done better. You have my congratulations.”

Morgan put her fingers in his palm, watching as he lowered his head to her hand, brushed his lips sensually over the skin of her knuckles. An answering tremor ran through her, and she gave a soft chuckle. Two could play that game. Her thumb was on the underside of his hand – she ran it slowly, seductively along his skin, her lips pursed with promise. A flush of heat rose into his face, and his grip tightened on her fingers.

Christian pulled her back against him. “All right, Morgan,” he joked, his red curls bouncing around an even more rosy face.

Oliver chimed in with a low voice. “Time to get you home, Morgan, or your parents will tan my hide.”

Morgan smiled. “Even worse, my father will not deliver your new sword for another month in punishment,” she teased, allowing her fingers to slip free from Sean’s grip, allowing herself to be drawn along by her friends. Together they made their way out into the lightening world, weaving their way along the village’s one main road. Here and there they saw other of the bar’s patrons making their way home.

They got to the sturdy oak door of her house in only a few minutes, and Morgan gave each man a warm hug in farewell. “I will see you at the keep tomorrow,” she promised with a wink. She glanced up at the gentle tracery of light drifting across the sky. “Oops, I suppose I mean today,” she amended. “Keep the fires warm for me!”

Christian nodded. “We will,” he vowed with heat.

She gave a wave, then turned to move along the lavender-lined side alley of her house towards the back fence.

Gazing in a low window, she could barely make out her mother, a mug of ale near to her hand, sprawled on the bench in the main room of the forge. Her father was sitting on the sturdy side chair, his head down against his chest, snoring in steady rhythm. Morgan had no interest in waking the pair and being drawn into whatever fight had consumed them this evening.

She grabbed the ladder from its nook, laid it up against the side of the house, and scrambled nimbly up to her bedroom window. Once inside, she gave the ladder a kick, sending it back into its corner with a soft thud. She waited a long moment, but there was no answering sound from below.

Chuckling with pleasure, she made her way over to her bed, flinging herself onto it with satisfaction. She had won. She had taken down and bested a Londoner. Now there was an achievement to be proud of!

Her mind went back to that last glass of mead, the moment when she had allowed Sean a glimpse into her soul, when she had felt a connection with him that went beyond words, beyond any man she had ever met before. Her heart kindled …

She pushed the warmth away, rolling herself under her blankets, pulling them up over her head with a firm tug. Tomorrow he would be gone, and she would return to her carefree life. No man alive had yet put the yoke on her, and with God as her witness, no man ever would.


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