An excerpt from To Tame a Warrior's Heart
After a lifetime spent fighting for others in distant lands, he had finally returned to England to take his rightful place among his kind. Tall, strong, handsome--a warrior blessed with skill and grace upon the battlefield.
And between the sheets, rumor had it.
Lord Nicholas Talbot appeared the embodiment of knightly virtue, a nobleman born and bred.
King John knew better.
How it pleased him to bend Talbot to his will, to watch as the arrogant young lord danced warily through the intricacies of Court. Sooner or later, Talbot would trip and reveal his true self to the world.
That thought brought a pleasure of its own.
But until he did, his liege lord would make use of his skills, send him to the far reaches of the kingdom, if he wished.
And if Talbot did not obey, 'twould be an easy task to expose his shame to the world.
King John smiled. No matter what the deed, how could Talbot refuse?
* * * * *
The Welsh Marches
Hooves clattered against the rocky path, the sound echoing through the mist-shrouded trees. Catrin shifted in the saddle; the shiver that ran down her spine owed little to the icy moisture covering her like a blanket. Never had the journey to her cousin's keep at l'Eau Clair seemed so long--or so ominous. She pulled her cloak snug at the throat. Perhaps 'twas her impatience to arrive that made her nerves feel stretched to breaking, not the threat of an unknown menace hidden just beyond her view.
A pair of men rode ahead of her, another behind, to
protect her. But she could sense their unease, hear them mutter low-voiced prayers as they scanned the thickening fog. She should never have brought them, the least skilled of her brother's guard; she feared they'd prove a meager defense.
A soft whine caught her attention and she drew her mare to a halt. "Idris, come," she called to the wolfhound who trotted at her side.
She surveyed the dripping trees as he rested his massive head against her leg. "Is anyone out there? Go see."
Idris nudged her, then dropped back to the edge of the forest, head moving from side to side, ears cocked.
Catrin urged her mount on before turning to the young man who rode beside her. Padrig's bony face appeared calm, though his skin looked pale as a fish's belly. His bright blue eyes perused the area as if he were already the warrior he hoped to become in Lord Rannulf FitzClifford's service.
"Mayhap we should have waited for Ian," she murmured.
"Nay, milady, there was no need." Padrig sat straighter in his saddle. "Though Lord Ian's company would be welcome, of course."
Despite Padrig's brave words, he was afraid, to judge by his pallor. Though fourteen, nearly a man, his life had been sheltered until he came to them. Yet he craved adventure, and the chance to become Rannulf's squire, with the same fervor she'd seen in her brother at that age.
She'd been wrong to leave without Ian, she'd realized as soon as they'd reached the forest. Her sense of unease had grown, so that now only her fear of retracing their tracks kept her moving onward, toward l'Eau Clair.
They'd have been safe with her brother's escort, for no one would dare threaten the Dragon--Prince Llywelyn of Wales's enforcer. But now . . .
She should never have risked Padrig's safety, nor that of the others, for her own selfish impatience.
Her cousin Gillian would give birth when God--and her body--willed it, whether Catrin was there or not. And likely manage just fine, despite Gillian's protestations to the contrary.
"You don't need the others, milady." Padrig looked down at the gleaming sword at his waist, then glanced up, his cheeks red. "There are five of us, enough to protect you. Isn't that what you told Father Marc before we left Gwal Draig?"
Despite Padrig's tact, her face heated with shame. She'd fairly screamed the words at the hapless priest when he'd made a last, valiant attempt to stop them. Ian would berate the poor cleric yet again, no doubt, when he returned home and found her gone.
Padrig laid his right hand on the cross formed by his sword hilt. "I am yours to command, Lady Catrin. I will guard you with my life. I swear it."
She suppressed a smile at his fledgling bravado. Somehow the lad had managed to clutter his head with the foolish tales of chivalry so popular among the Normans. She didn't deserve such loyalty, but it would be cruel to spurn his gallantry. "I am honored, Padrig." She reached across the narrow space that separated them, not surprised when he grasped her hand in his and essayed a rough bow.
"Nay, milady, 'tis I--"
A muted sound captured her attention and she tugged her hand free. "Did you hear that?"
She halted her mount and waved Padrig to silence, but only the distorted clatter of hooves met her straining ears. Yet Idris bounded past them, just as she heard the sound again.
A flight of arrows!
"Hurry." She spurred her horse toward Padrig's and forced him to the side of the trail. "Come with me."
A muted cry echoed through the trees, followed by the clash of steel against steel. Catrin slid from the saddle, grabbed Padrig by the arm and pulled him into the forest.
The two rear guards sped by as she drew the boy deeper into the brush. Heart pounding, she dragged Padrig after her, paying no heed to the icy water and branches that pelted them as they stumbled though the leafless trees.
"Where are we going?" Padrig paused to disentangle his cloak from a bramble. "Shouldn't we help the guards?"
"'Twill do no good if we rush onto the trail and are attacked," she replied, bending from the waist to catch her breath. "Subtlety--"
A horse lunged past them, eyes rolling. One of her guards dangled from the saddle, blood streaming from his throat and mouth and dripping down his arrow-studded chest. The expression of surprise on his lifeless face would haunt her for a long time to come--assuming, of course, that she had any time left.
Padrig crossed himself, his expression grim. She had to get him away before yet another death stained her soul, but she knew he would refuse to leave her. Even as she struggled to form the words, he grasped her arm.
"Your pardon, milady." He tightened his fingers and pulled her along. "Fear not, I'll get you to safety."
Catrin tugged free of his hold and eased back toward the sounds of battle. He reached for her again. "We can do nothing for them. Come, 'tis best we leave while we can."
She reached toward him as though in supplication, then snatched at the sword hanging from his belt. The blade slipped free before he had time to do more than curse. "You've much to learn, Padrig." She closed both hands tight around the hilt and stepped away. He'd better not argue, for she hadn't the strength to heft the weapon for long. But he didn't know that--she hoped. "'Tis my fault we're in this trouble. 'Tis
up to me to get us out." She motioned with the sword. "You must go for help. It's your duty," she added as indecision crossed his face. "Did you not swear a solemn oath to me? You must go back and catch a horse, then ride for help. I will hide here until you return."
"I should not leave you," he protested. "Come with me."
"Nay, 'twill be easier for you to slip away alone, and you can ride faster." She brought the sword tip up to rest against his chest. "I order you to go--now, lest you incur my displeasure."
She could see that he believed she would use the weapon if he didn't obey her. He ducked his head and murmured, "God keep you, milady," before he darted into the bushes.
Catrin drew a deep breath and lowered the blade, her attention on the faint trail before her as she wove through the clinging branches. She had no idea of the enemy, their numbers or their strength. No more than three of her guard were left--and herself, of course, though she doubted she counted as much of an asset.
Who could have attacked them, and why? She'd brought scant baggage and rode surrounded by armed men. What possible benefit could they gain?
She reached the edge of a clearing. Setting aside the sword, she pulled up her hood to hide her face. Then, arms braced to stop their shaking, she took up the weapon once more and left the shelter of the forest.
As the wisps of fog drifted apart, she saw that only one of her men remained on his feet, surrounded by three tattered ruffians. They circled him like carrion crows round a dying lamb, blades and voices taunting his vulnerability. The bodies strewn over the ground bespoke her guards' valiant defense, but for naught. Her men had been outmatched by numbers alone.
She stifled a cry when her anxious gaze found Idris draped over two men, their throats bloodied. Arrows protruded from his dark hide.
Anger and grief lent steel to her backbone and power to her arms. She held the sword before her and charged into the clearing, her voice raised in her brother's fierce battle cry.
The three men turned toward her and, ignoring the guard, stalked forward to encircle her.
Her hood had fallen, exposing her tangled braid--a banner proclaiming her sex, should there be any doubt. Too late to matter, she thought with a shrug, and tightened her grip on the sword.
"Here she is, men," said one, his filthy face twisted into a smirk. He pointed his knife at her. "Think this be the lady we's sent to fetch?"
Catrin stood motionless, only her eyes moving. She didn't recognize them. Who would want her this badly? "Who sent you?" she demanded.
"'Tis not for me to say." He motioned with the knife. "Come now, my pretty, put down the sword. Ye'll not be needing it."
"Aye. Only sword we'll be needin's right here," another added. The others laughed when he jiggled the front of his breeches.
Her stomach knotted. Please God, not that! Better to turn the blade on herself than allow these swine to touch her. But she'd take at least one of them with her, she vowed.
The men had relaxed their vigilance, and they continued to ignore the remaining guard. But though the man looked weary to her furtive gaze, she read a message in his eyes.
He would not fail her.
She swung her sword in a wide arc and ran toward the ruffians as the guard rushed forward, slashing about with his weapon.
Her blade sank deep into the belly of the would-be
rapist. Numbing pain shot through her fingers and up her arm, but she kept her grip. I doubt your sword will serve you now, you bastard.
She smiled in grim satisfaction.
Her smile disappeared when the guard fell. She'd no one to depend upon now but herself. What to do? She braced her foot against her victim's chest and pulled the blade free, then backed up to maintain her defense.
The thunder of hooves split the air and horses burst through the mists. An armed man rode at their head, his battle cry filling the clearing.
Her attention caught by the sight, Catrin never heard the whoosh of arrows until their barbs sank into her flesh.
* * *
Nicholas wiped the beaded moisture from his face, though his glove felt just as wet from the clinging fog. He shook his head to clear the exhaustion from his brain and berated himself yet again for his stupidity. 'Twas foolish not to have accepted Rannulf's offer of a guide; it would have given him company to ease the boredom of the journey, as well as reassurance that he hadn't wandered away from the route to Dolwyddelan.
But he'd dared not linger at l'Eau Clair, not when Lady Catrin uerch Dafydd might arrive at any moment. Gillian's cousin was an enigma, a siren who drew him to her even as she sought to keep him away. Since he didn't understand her allure, he avoided her when he could.
Instead of lingering in comfort with Rannulf and Gillian at l'Eau Clair, he found himself camping along the trail, wet and miserable.
He should have learned patience by now, patience, and how to play the nobleman's game. But he'd angered his king once again. Look where it had brought him: plodding along a muddy trail through the backwoods of northern Wales. It seemed punishment for every sin he'd ever committed. God knew there were enough of them.
Rapid hoofbeats roused him. Three riderless horses
appeared out of the fog, reins flying as they sped down the road toward him.
A signal set his stallion dancing sideways across the path to halt their headlong flight. He dismounted and sought to calm them. Though they accepted his touch, their foam-flecked hides and rolling eyes bespoke their terror.
Blood--a great deal of it--streaked the light grey
gelding, although it appeared unharmed.
A strange cry pierced the air. He'd swear 'twas a battle cry, but the voice sounded feminine.
Someone needed help.
He grabbed the reins and tied the three horses together, then took up a lead rein and leapt into the saddle. Sword held high, he spurred his mount and raised his voice in a roaring bellow to accompany the thunder of hooves as they raced down the trail.
A slight, dark-cloaked figure crumpled to the ground as he broke through the bushes. Even as he rode into the clearing, more ragtag fighters left the brush to add their numbers to the men already gathered within the clearing.
They beset him at once. As they reached to pull him from the saddle, he freed the string of horses and kicked out, sending one man to his knees with blood streaming down his face. He slashed with his sword and sent another to writhe upon the ground.
Perhaps he might escape this fiasco after all.
An arrow pierced his left arm, sending him reeling in surprise. 'Twas all the distraction the ruffians needed. They attacked in force, cudgeling him with stout branches and pulling him from the saddle. His body jerked beneath the rain of blows.
He hit the ground with a thud and struggled against them, but he was no proof against their numbers. Someone stripped back his mail hood and they continued to buffet him about the head and body.
As his vision dimmed around the edges, his lips curled in a smile.
No one would ever believe Nicholas Talbot died doing a heroic deed.
From the book To Tame a Warrior's Heart by Sharon SchulzeOct. 1997, ISBN: 0-373-28986-3, Harlequin® Historicals Copyright © 1997 by Sharon M. Schulze
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