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The Shielded Heart, 12/98

Book #5, the l'Eau Clair Chronicles

Copyright © 1998 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher

An excerpt from The Shielded Heart


          He'd lingered here too long.
          Heart pounding hard in his chest, Swen rolled onto his back and stared at the night-shadowed ceiling.
          He could not halt the images his traitorous mind painted there.
          Past, present . . .
          He closed his eyes, yet the illusions taunted him.
          He lay there, eyes open, as scenes plated themselves out before his unwilling gaze. How he hated them, and himself--powerless to bring them to an end, powerless to change the cruel hand of fate.
          Had he made yet another life for himself--found a place where he'd gained respect, found friends dearer to him than his own family--only to lose everything he valued once again?
          The images faded. Despite the weariness and loss weighting him down, Swen climbed out of bed and began to dress.
          The only way to escape this curse was to run farther, faster, never allowing his emotions to catch up.
          Eyes burning, he stared into the darkness.
          Alone. Running all his life.
          Why had he believed he could ever stop?

* * *

Chapter One

Welsh Marches, Autumn 1215

          Anna accepted her escort's assistance and climbed atop the chestnut gelding, giving the earnest young man a smile despite her discomfort. It wasn't his fault she'd come to loathe the factious beast they'd given her for the journey. 'Twould have been the same had they mounted her upon the most docile palfrey; over the years she'd agitated many a steed by her mere presence. It made any form of travel, save shank's mare, a battle of wills.
          If only her workshop were nearer the abbey, she could walk when Father Michael summoned her, instead of traveling nearly a day's ride surrounded by a troop of guards. So much time lost, away from her work--time she could ill afford. Yet the abbot pressed her for more, always more, in his vain attempts to please the abbey's most eminent patron, King John.
          She took a last look from atop her lofty perch. The brilliant sunlight made the grey stones of the Abbey of St. Stephen of Murat gleam with a heavenly aura.
          Though she appreciated its beauty, she also knew 'twas just the effect the order sought.
          Heaven on earth . . . with his Eminence, Pope Innocent, as its king.
          And Anna d Limoges as the Church's faithful servant.
          Her lips curled into a wry smile as she nudged her horse into motion. She knew better than most just how calculating even Father Michael, the most gentle of men, could be.
          He was no different than any other man of God in that respect.
          Yet how could she complain, when they allowed her to practice her craft?
          Once they'd been on the road for a time, Anna and her mount reached enough of an understanding that she could focus her attention on more important things. Her design of the chasse the abbot had commissioned to hold his latest acquisition--reputedly a splinter of the True Cross--didn't seem quite right, though she hadn't yet decided what bothered her about it. She'd created a number of reliquaries in the past few years, but this one. . . She must make this one different from the others, something unique, special--the perfect frame for so holy an object.
          The perfect gift for King John.
          If only Father Michael had permitted her to touch it. . .
          She sighed. 'Twas likely just as well she had not. For whether the splinter truly came from Christ's cross, or was nothing more than a piece of wood, the abbot would have her embellish this chasse with the finest enamelwork.
          Mayhap he had good reason to keep the relic from her grasp. It was not for her to decide if the object was worthy of the frame she created for it.
          Anna shook off her uneasy thoughts. 'Twas unusual for her to see darkness looming about her, tainting her view of the world. With little more than bits of metal and glass, and the images that filled her mind, she created pictures of color and light. Through her vision stories of God's love, transformed into art fit to grace any altar.
          Her attention focused inward, she relaxed in the saddle and settled down to ponder her creations.
          To create the enamels was her purpose in life; for as long as she could remember, her thoughts had centered about her work. She'd been blessed with a gift.
          And because of it, she had become a gift of the Church.

* * *

          The chill of dusk settled over Anna like a blanket, startling her from the dreamlike state she'd fallen into. The rhythmic tread of the horses, the warm sunshine upon her face, had conspired to fill her mind with the scenes she would use to create her unique designs. 'Twas ever thus when she worked. Her mother had said more than once that a team of oxen could tread right over Anna, and she'd scarce take notice of them.
          Her mind still muzzy, she clambered out of the saddle on her own and gazed about her. She shook her head and stared at the men of her guard as they set up camp.
          The sounds of their banter filled the air, then faded from her notice as a rush of sensation overwhelmed her.
          At the sudden tingle at her nape, she turned so quickly her feet tangled in her skirts. She caught her balance and straightened. The tingle intensified to an icy chill.
          Upon the hill across the clearing sat a warrior upon a mighty destrier, silhouetted dark and menacing against the fiery glow of the setting sun. Both man and mount appeared huge. Before she could do more than gasp, he nudged the horse into motion and descended into their camp.
          Four of her guards raced toward him as another grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back toward the fire. "Over here, mistress," he rasped out. He released her, drawing his sword as they joined the others on the far side of the leaping flames.
          Anna craned her neck, peering around the fire and the men who surrounded her to catch a glimpse of the warrior. Why had she felt that strange awareness of him, before she'd known he was there?
          The chill of it lingered still.
          Suddenly the warrior laughed, jolting her, and halting her men in their tracks. "Think you I'm so foolish as to attack you single-handed?" he asked, his deep voice tinged with mirth. He removed his helm and tucked it beneath his arm. "I mean you no harm. I've traveled far. I only wish to share your company--and your fire."
          William, the captain of the guard, stepped forward, shoulders back as if to emphasize the bulk of his barrellike chest. "and who might you be?" he demanded, the sword he grasped in his meaty fist held at the ready.
          "Swen Siwardson, a Norseman late of Lord Ian ap Dafydd's household."
          That set up a murmur of comment. "You serve Prince Llywelyn's Dragon?" William asked.
          Who was this Dragon, Anna wondered, to tinge William's voice with such awe? She'd never seen him treat anyone--not even the abbot, his own master--with any more than grudging politeness.
          Evidently viewing her guard as little threat, Siwardson dismounted and led his horse closer. "Aye. I left his keep at Gwal Draig not a week since."
          She'd expected a hulking brute, but the man who approached with purposeful strides was anything but. Though he towered over her men and his shoulders appeared broad beneath his fur-trimmed cloak, he moved with an easy grace. If only the fire weren't in her way, she thought, struggling to see around it.
          William motioned to the men behind him. "A moment, milord." They huddled together, their conversation too quiet for Anna to hear, then William left them to join her and the other guards near the fire. "I say we let him stay, mistress," he said, low-voiced. "Be a good way to hear what's goin' on on the other side of the border."
          "If you think it safe," she said, as William would know this better than she.
          He grunted in agreement and returned to Siwardson and the others. "You may join us, milord so long's you put aside your sword while you're in our camp. I'm William de Coucy, captain of the guard. You may give your sword to me, I'll make certain no harm comes to it." He nodded toward Anna and the men surrounding her. "And we've a lady with us, milord. I trust you'll treat her polite, if you take my meanin'."
          "Of course. I thank you." Siwardson bowed in Anna's direction. Surely he could not see her past the fire? He then hooked his helm onto his saddle and led his mount to the cluster of trees where the other horses were tethered. After he hobbled the massive beast, he returned, unbuckled his sword belt and handed the weapon to William.
          After cautioning her to remain where she was, her guards left to join the others. The men talked briefly, then split up, some to unload the pack animals, the rest to finish setting up camp. Perhaps because of Siwardson's size and presumed strength, William
set the warrior to work putting up Anna's tent.
          Anna unclasped her cloak and laid it aside, then settled herself next to the fire to observe Siwardson. He appeared created of shadows, his movements smooth and graceful despite his size, his face a mystery. What kind of man would laugh as he faced eight armed men, alone?
          And to venture unarmed into a group of
strangers . . . ?
          Intrigued, Anna rose and, after noting that her guards were all busy elsewhere, moved toward him. She wanted to see Siwardson's face, to judge for herself this stranger who had sent a frisson of awareness dancing down her spine.
          She wandered closer to where he knelt hammering the last tent peg into the ground, and stopped a few feet away. Her hair shone white-blond in the firelight, but with his back to her, she still could not see his face.
          His movements slow, deliberate, he straightened and turned to stare at her. Stifling a gasp, she stared back. Light blond hair fell to his shoulders, curling slightly about his darkly tanned face, and his eyes . . . so pale a blue, they shimmered like ice.
          Still holding her fixed with his gaze, he muttered something--a curse, from the sound of it--in a language she did not understand.
          Recognition lit his gaze, she'd have sworn, yet she knew they'd never met.
          He bowed, releasing her. "Milady. Thank you for allowing me to share your camp."
          Her heart beat so fast, she had to draw a deep breath and force herself to calm before answering. "You are welcome, sir. But 'tis William who deserves your thanks, not I. 'Tis not for me to say who joins us or not."
          "Surely the men take their orders from you?"
          "Nay, milord, they don't answer to me. I'm naught more than the baggage they protect and convey from one place to another." She smiled. "You wouldn't expect a coffer of plate to venture an opinion, would you?"
          Finely chiseled lips curled into a grin, causing a dimple to appear in his right cheek. "Nay, milady." He stepped closer and, casting aside the stone he'd used as a hammer, took her hand in his. Warmth swept through her fingers and up her arm to envelop her heart as he brought her hand to his lips. "You're unlike any baggage I've ever seen--" he tightened his hold "--and far more lovely."
          Anna snatched her hand free, afraid he'd notice how her pulse pounded so strangely at his touch, his words. She couldn't tear her gaze away from him so easily. His face, limned in firelight, held her spellbound. His strong, even features fit his size, and his tanned skin provided an enticing contrast to his pale eyes and hair.
          And his height . . . Rarely did she need to look up to meet a man's gaze, yet the top of her head scarcely reached Siwardson's broad shoulders.
          "If you're no coffer of plate, milady, what kind of baggage are you?" His grin widening, he stared at her hair, disheveled by her hood. "A bundle of furs, mayhap?" She stood motionless while he brushed the wispy curls away from her face, his fingers lingering against her cheek. He shook his head. "Nay, nothing so coarse. Silk--aye, 'tis--"
          "Sir!" Ana cried, her voice little more than a croak of sound. His rough palm remained cupped about her cheek, evoking a confusing array of thoughts and sensations. 'Twas too much to bear! She took a deep breath and raised her hand to grasp his wrist. "You must not--"
          As her fingers closed about her arm, Swen finally paid heed to the strange sensation he felt where they touched--and to the unusual awareness of her he felt inside--and released the woman. She let go of him just as swiftly. "I beg your pardon, milady. I did not intend to abuse your trust." Lips twisted in a mocking grimace, he stepped away from her. "Please, may we start over?"
          She looked uncertain, confused, but she did not run from him, nor did she call for her guards. Perhaps he had not overstepped the bounds of propriety too badly.
          As if to calm a frightened animal, he moved slowly and reached for her hand. He clasped it gently within his sword-hardened palm and swept a bow worthy of a French courtier. "I am Swen Siwardson, milady. I am most pleased to meet you. Will you tell me your name?"
          She stared at their joined hands for a moment, then looked up to meet his gaze. "I am Anna de Limoges, chief artisan for the Abbey of St. Stephen of Murat."
          Though he heard her speak, the words scarce made an impression on him, for he was drawn once again to her face--unknown to him, yet as familiar as his own heartbeat. Swen feasted his senses as he sought to remember where he'd seen her before.
          'Twas no hardship, for she appeared lovely in the flickering firelight. She was tall for a woman, large-boned and buxom, yet slim enough to entice him to span her waist with his hands. She carried herself with a bold grace, her shoulders thrown back and her head held high. Her unbound hair, streaked blond from pale to dark, swept back from her face and fell in a mass of wild curls to her hips. Her lashes and brows were dark, a fitting frame for her light amber eyes.
          He saw dreams there, an otherworldly vision not quite focused on the here and now. Her eyes captured him, drew him into a place he'd never been.
          Swen shook his head and forced himself to look away. Nay, he knew he'd never met her, for if he had, there was no way he could ever have forgotten her.

From the book The Shielded Heart by Sharon Schulze
Dec. 1998, ISBN: 0-373-29042-X, Harlequin Historicals®
Copyright © 1998 by Sharon M. Schulze
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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Reviewers' praise for The Shielded Heart:

"A fine addition to the author's l'Eau Clair Chronicles and one that will make readers look forward to more!"

--Gerry Benniger, Romantic Times Magazine

"Schulze offers up her own artistry with an evocative sense of place and history and strong characters, worthy of meeting."
--Sandy Huseby, Bookpage

"Sharon Schulze creates characters of depth and substance."
--Kathee S. Card, Romance Communications

"The tale . . . was a delight to read."
--Julie Shoup, Reviewer, Old Book Barn Gazette

"The Shielded Heart is a gentle love story set against a bold Medieval tapestry."
--Carol Carter, Bookbug on the Web