Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire, 1217
Sir William Bowman glanced back at the big black gelding lagging along behind him. Bran had come up lame soon after they'd entered the forest, but they couldn't stop yet. Pausing to stroke the horse's swollen fetlock, Will murmured soothing words rather than the curses echoing through his head, gave a gentle tug on the reins and picked up his stride.
The sun disappeared behind the tall trees, leaving naught but an eerie yellow glow that made specters of the branches overhanging the narrow path. Will peered into the deepening gloom. Not true night, but close enough to warn him he'd best find shelter soon. Like a fool, he’d allowed his anger to distract him; he'd already wandered so deep into the dense forest he wondered if he'd e'er find his way out again.
He and Bran had roamed far in Lord Rannulf's service these past weeks, a long journey nowhere near finished. What he wouldn't give for a flask of usquebaugh and the company of a warm and willing maid at the end of this part of it! Yet thanks to Sir Richard Belleville's overcautious nature, Will now found himself lost in Nottingham forest with an injured mount instead of lodged comfortably at the next keep along his way, where he'd planned to spend the night.
Damn Sir Richard! He’d kept Will so occupied with trivialities that he’d had no chance to leave Birkland--surely the least important of Lord Rannulf's keeps--until well after the midday meal. Yet when Will had suggested he wait until the next morn to resume his travels, the slippery knave had nigh slammed the gates behind Will himself!
And in their haste to see Will escorted on his way, it seemed Sir Richard's men had set Will upon the wrong path through the forest, for 'twas clear this route had seen little traffic of late.
Nor did it appear to lead anywhere but deeper into the wilderness of Sherwood.
He could do naught to remedy that mistake tonight, alas. He'd be better served instead to calm his anger and use the sense God gave him to find his way out of this dilemma.
Assuming, of course, that he had any sense. His low chuckle sounded loud in the silent woods. Judging by his recent behavior, that seemed doubtful. He squared his shoulders and buried deep the lingering sense of imminent threat that skittered down his spine. He was a knight well blooded in his lord's service, he reminded himself sternly, not some cringing villain afraid of shadows and looming dark.
Bran nudged him in the back as though to urge him to move faster and crept up nigh onto Will's heels. Had the gelding with his better hearing noticed something he could not? Will shifted the reins to his left hand and hitched his sword into a more accessible position with his right. Best to be prepared.
At least the outlaws of years past were no more--a blessing, no doubt, though the thought of spending time with their legendary band held a tantalizing appeal. Tales of Robin of the Hood had traveled even into the remote area of the Marches where l'Eau Clair Keep stood guard over the Welsh border. As a youth, Will had been fascinated by the stories; time and again he and his compatriots had roamed the rugged countryside in search of adventures, taking it in turn to be part of the band of outlaws or the sheriff's henchmen.
A flock of birds shot up out of the brush, startling him from his memories and sending Bran into a squealing, plunging frenzy. Teeth bared and ears pressed flat, the gelding reared back, dragging Will along with him. "Easy, lad," Will crooned, grabbing at the slippery leather as the reins slipped through his gloved hand and his feet slid through the loose leaves covering the ground. By the rood, he'd ne'er seen Bran react so sharply to so little provocation!
Wanting to free his sword hand to hold the bucking beast, Will tried to shove his sword into the scabbard one-handed, but another bird swooped close overhead. Bran jerked back hard. Off balance, Will tumbled backward into a prickly thicket as the terrified gelding, eyes rolling wildly, somehow spun around on the narrow path and raced off the way they'd come.
The uneven clatter of hoofbeats echoed away. Cursing in a mixture of Welsh, English and Norman French—which didn't relieve his frustration a whit--Will fought the clinging brambles and twisted free of the thick brush. Jesu
, 'twas a miracle he hadn't impaled himself on his own blade!
He wrenched his sword belt around and rammed the weapon home, plucking thorns and leaves from his surcoat. He could only be glad he'd been wearing his mail, for other than a few scratches on his cheek, he'd emerged unscathed. But Bran had disappeared into the night, carrying with him all of Will's baggage save the small pack he carried slung over one shoulder.
He'd best go after the beast at once, before it got too dark to follow him. It would do neither of them any good for the horse to injure himself further, nor for them to blunder deeper into the wood.
Will stood for a moment and let his eyes adjust to the deepening gloom, all his attention focused on the silence surrounding him. No sound or glimpse of light pierced the trees to give him a hint of civilization nearby, or a clue to which direction Bran had headed. Giving a weary sigh, Will shifted his pack higher on his shoulder and set off along the faint trail through the heavy brush.
How far could the beast have gone, after all, injured as he was? Besides, there was no place to settle for the night here. Perhaps he could find his way back to Birkland--no doubt Bran's destination, he thought wryly.
Though he doubted whether Sir Richard would allow him--or his horse-to spend another night within the confines of Birkland. He’d certainly been in a hurry to see them gone.
By the time Will stumbled from the heavy forest onto a rutted road, the moon had risen high in the sky and he felt ready to sleep on the first clear bit of ground he could find. Of his errant mount, he'd found no sign save a few broken branches far back on the path near where the horse had taken off. He could only hope he'd find the horse's trail more easily come morning. For now, however, since the road before him looked well-traveled, he might as well follow it. It had to lead somewhere.
A rustle of sound made him pause. Leaves fell down from the branches overhead, heralding the two men who leapt into the path in front of Will before his sword had cleared the scabbard. Faces masked, weapons raised, they set upon him at once.
Will drew a long-bladed dagger from his boot with his free hand and laid about him with a vengeance. 'Twas hard to follow his opponents in the shifting moon shadows, but he'd been alert before the attack, his senses focused wide about him. He used that intensity now to gauge what they would do.
They could not see him well, either, thankfully, for 'twas soon apparent they were skilled fighters. Will parried blows and thrust at the pair with some success, judging from their grunts and cries of pain, though not without sustaining a few injuries of his own.
Warm blood trickled down his brow and arm as he began to flag. He cried out a few breathless taunts, hoping to draw them into foolishness, but 'twas a waste of time. They seemed tireless, and with two of them against him alone, he began to wonder if perhaps he could not outlast them after all.
A blade slid over the mail covering his shoulder and slipped down his throat. The sharp pain spurred him on, even as his foes redoubled their efforts, as well. A hard blow to the head sent Will reeling, and they were upon him like flies to a midden, pummeling him, knocking loose his weapons and moving in for the kill. A stream of blood gushed from his forehead and ran into his eyes, further blurring his vision.
A hard pounding sounded in the distance, drowning out the heavy pulse of his heartbeat. He could scarce care about its cause when he couldn't find the strength to hold himself upright. He clung to his knife--a meager defense, but better than nothing--as his legs crumpled beneath him and he muttered a silent prayer that his death be swift and clean.
But before his attackers could strike a killing blow, the distant sound became the thunder of hoofbeats drawing near. Muttering curses, the two men turned and fled into the forest, leaving Will sprawled in the road.
He tried to stand, but could not make his legs support him. His searching fingers closed about the hilt of his sword and he dragged it close as the horses came to a plunging halt nigh at his feet.
Had he survived the attack to be run down in the road instead? He pulled himself up on one elbow and stared at the blurred, shifting scene before him, but he could make no sense of it. Horses shuffled their feet nearby, appearing, to his bleary gaze, to have too many legs and heads; moonlight shimmered eerily on the armed and mail-clad riders, lending them an otherworldly appearance. One of them called another "milady."
Were they the warrior women of legend, come to escort him to Valhalla? Or the devil's handmaidens, mayhap, ready to carry him away to Hell? Did it matter? Will tried to laugh, but 'twas a feeble attempt. Whoever they were, if he must spend eternity with them, he hoped they were beautiful.
Perhaps he hadn't survived after all, Will thought as he watched the smallest of the riders slip from the saddle and remove his helmet. For unless the blow to his head had scrambled his brain completely, 'twas a flesh-and-blood woman who dropped to her knees at Will's side and leaned down to touch his face. "Rest easy, sir, and let us help you," she murmured as she shifted and reached down beside him. Before Will could reply or give in to the urge to resist, she slid his sword from his grasp and handed it to a man behind her.
Disarmed by a woman again! Will's confusion mounted as his vision began to fade. Her long, disheveled braid brushed over his face, teasing his senses with the scent of flowers. Unfamiliar, but clearly a woman--not Gillian, however.
But who was she? He squinted up at her, but her features blurred in the uneven light. His strength gone, his arm collapsed beneath him. His head hit the ground, and he knew no more.
* * *
"Hellfire, he's swooned," Lady Julianna d'Arcy grabbed hold of the fallen man's mail-clad arm--caught beneath him when he collapsed--and shifted it to rest at his side. Her touch gentle, she brushed his hair away from his brow with a frown. Blood welled under her fingers and ran down his face; more dark streaks of it oozed sluggishly from his neck and arm.
He clearly needed more help than she could give him here. She grabbed the hem of her surcoat and sliced away two strips of fabric with the long dagger lying beside him on the road. "Rolf, come help me bind his wounds, then you and Bart may move him."
Bart knelt on the far side of the victim and carefully raised the man so she could wind the material round his brow while Rolf tended to his throat. "Move him where, milady?" Bart asked.
She knotted the linen and used the end of it to blot away the worst of the blood besmirching the man's face. "Back to Tuck's Tower, of course." Clambering to her feet, she took up the dagger and thrust it into her boot top, next to her own.
"Bring a stranger within our walls, milady?" Bart protested as he rose.
"He's no danger to anyone in his present condition," Julianna pointed out tartly. By the saints, would he ever cease look upon her as a child? Her father had been gone for nigh on a year now, her mother slightly more, yet unlike most of her people, Bart continued to quietly challenge her authority to rule her lands, treating her instead as the cherished young lady of Tuck's Tower.
Something she'd never sought to be--and had certainly never been.
Rolf, waiting patiently near the injured man's head, motioned for Bart to help lift him, but her father's old retainer ignored him and moved closer to Julianna. "What of later, Lady Julianna?" he asked low-voiced. "Once he's healed? What will you do then, if he turns out to be dangerous?"
"You dare to question me, Bart--to question me here, now?" Though she kept her tone as restrained as Bart's, she made certain he could not mistake her displeasure. "Make no mistake, we shall
discuss this later." Biting back a snarl of frustration, Julianna spun away and bent to grasp the victim's feet. She nodded to Rolf and they lifted the man. "Now is hardly the time,” she added. “At this point, the poor fool's more like to die here in the road."
Though 'twas a struggle for her--the fellow was tall and solidly built--she didn't permit herself so much as a grunt of discomfort as they carried him to her mount.
"I'll take him with me," she said, gratefully shifting her burden to a glowering Bart and climbing unassisted onto her mount.
It took three men, grumbling and complaining, to support the fellow and shift him into the saddle before her. Biting back a few curses of her own, Julianna fitted her arms about him to hold him more securely. His tall, lean body fit snug against her, his back to her front, making her all too aware of his muscled physique even through the layers of mail separating them.
She eased her hold a bit, making him groan and shift in her grasp and his empty scabbard bump against her leg. Tightening her hold again, she glanced about, hoping to catch a glimpse of his sword. If he survived, he'd not thank her for leaving the weapon behind in the forest.
And if he did not, 'twould be another blade to add to her own ever-dwindling arsenal. Though the thought made her feel like a grave robber, of late she'd reached the point where she could not afford to be too particular. As long as she wasn't forced to turn outlaw . . .
"Rolf, find his sword and anything else that looks like it belongs to him," she ordered. "His horse, as well, if it hasn't run off. God willing, he'll have need of them someday soon."
Wheeling her mount, she led her troop along the moon-shadowed trail, doing her best to ignore the intriguing feel of the man's weight pressing her into the saddle. She glanced down at the stranger's face, at the strength no amount of blood and bruising could hide.
And prayed she'd not have cause to regret this night's work.
From the book Bride of the Tower by Sharon SchulzeHarlequin® Historicals, March 2003, ISBN: 0-373-29250-3Copyright © 2003 by Sharon M. Schulze® and ™ are trademarks of the publisherThe edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.For more information surf to http://www.eHarlequin.com