One Knight in the Forest – Catherine Kean

Put the dagger on the top of William’s belongings. That way, he will be sure to see it,” Lady Edwina Langston said from the doorway of the solar. Partway across the chamber and carrying the leather-sheathed knife, Lady Magdalen Suffield glanced at her dear friend, an auburn-haired beauty. “Of course.” Edwina smiled her thanks. No doubt she would have put her husband’s dagger away herself, except that she was holding her four-month-old son, wrapped in a yellow blanket Magdalen had embroidered with white lambs and gifted to the happy couple a few weeks before Timothy was born. The little boy burbled, and Edwina kissed his plump cheek. “Your father was silly this morning,” she murmured, “forgetting his dagger in the great hall. What made him do such a thing, hmm? I can only imagine he was preoccupied with his day ahead.” Timothy gurgled, as if answering her, and Edwina chuckled and kissed him again. Envy tugged at Magdalen as she continued toward the painted, iron-bound linen chest pushed against the solar wall: a finely-crafted piece of furniture like the four-poster bed, carved chairs, and cradle that she passed by. Magdalen’s gaze skimmed over the cozy infant bed with its soft cloth toys, and the envy pulled taut within her like the fastening laces of a gown. Motherhood was a role for which Edwina was perfectly suited. She’d sung to her babe and talked to him before he was even born, and now, every time she looked upon him, her eyes shone with love. Magdalen had always adored children and wanted to have some of her own; she couldn’t imagine a more wondrous adventure than falling in love, marrying, and creating children born out of true love.

She’d witnessed Edwina’s romance, and had waited for her own chance to be swept off her feet by a handsome, gallant knight. Yet, despite her many suitors, she was now twenty-eight years of age and without any prospects for a husband. She’d been engaged once—a marriage arranged by her parents when she was young—but her fiancé had turned out to be a hot-headed fool who’d gotten himself killed in a challenge settled by swordfight. She’d mourned him, as was right, but secretly, she’d been rather relieved not to have had to wed him, for he’d been far from an honorable man, and certainly not a hero like Edwina’s William, a former crusader and loyal subject of King John. Until Magdalen met her own chivalrous warrior worthy of a chanson, a man who’d capture her heart and cherish her and their children forever, she’d continue to enjoy the great honor of being Edwina’s lady-in-waiting, as she’d done for the past three years. Magdalen reached for the lid of the linen chest. Edwina laughed, the sound tender and warm, and must have tickled Timothy under the chin, for he giggled too. Their happiness eased Magdalen’s discontent a little, for she felt very blessed to be living among a family that shared such affection. The lid rose with a faint creak, releasing the scents of wood and laundered garments. She set the sheathed dagger on the neatly folded clothes inside.

Just as she was about to draw back and shut the lid, a rough-edged section of wood caught her eye. Part of the back panel of the chest was loose and jutting out the slightest fraction—as though there was a hidden cavity behind. Excitement fluttered in Magdalen’s breast, for she’d heard of such secret hiding places, sometimes found in furniture or plank floors. William was lord of the castle, though, and out of respect for his position and his privacy, she should close the chest and forget she’d seen it. Yet, truth be told, he hadn’t seemed himself this day, or for several sennights past. Her thoughts slipped back to last week at the town market, when she’d visited a cobbler’s shop to help Edwina choose a new pair of shoes. William had waited outside, his men-at-arms within hailing distance. While looking at the items near the window, she’d glanced out to see a man with a black beard brush past William and push a small parchment into his hand. William had swiftly tucked the message into his cloak. The exchange might not have seemed so odd, except that four days ago, when they’d returned to collect Edwina’s finished shoes, Magdalen had seen the same man outside the baker’s shop.

She’d discreetly kept watch, and had seen him push a small object into a loaf of bread on the shop’s display; moments later, William had bought the loaf. Uncertain what she’d witnessed, Magdalen hadn’t mentioned either instance to Edwina. Magdalen hadn’t wanted to worry her friend, for there was likely a reasonable explanation for each incident. Yet, the secret panel was Magdalen’s third unusual discovery, connected to William, in less than a week. Her hand shook, and she gripped the side of the linen chest. Could William be in some kind of trouble? She’d heard rumors of noblemen who were unhappy with King John’s ongoing wars with France and his relentless taxes; some lords had been arrested for treason, their castles confiscated by the crown or battered down to rubble. William had grumbled about the coin he was obligated to send to London, but that surely didn’t mean he’d turned traitor. Should she take a closer look at the hidden cavity, or should she forget what she’d found? “My sweet boy,” Edwina said from the doorway, followed by the sound of more kisses. Magdalen bit down on her bottom lip. Edwina was completely smitten by William, and had been since he’d started courting her years ago.

What if he was keeping a secret that could put Edwina and Timothy in grave danger? Didn’t Edwina deserve to know? Ignoring an inner cry for caution, Magdalen eased aside the garments pressed against the back of the chest and wiggled the panel free. Inside was a folded piece of parchment. “Magdalen?” Her heart lurched. Glancing over her shoulder, she said, “I will be there in a moment. I… thought I saw a spider.” “Oh, nay!” Edwina visibly shuddered. “Please, catch it. I will not sleep tonight until I know ’tis gone.” Edwina hated spiders. A few nights ago, she’d found a large, brown-colored one in her and William’s bed and had screamed as though she’d been attacked by a wild boar.

While Magdalen had consoled her and helped to quiet Timothy, William had trapped the poor creature inside a goblet and had told a servant to set it free in the garden, but Edwina still thoroughly checked the bedding each night before climbing in. “While I finish searching, why do you not go to the sewing chamber?” They’d wanted to sit in the orchard and enjoy the lovely spring blossoms, but after opening the shutters earlier that morning to ominous gray clouds, they’d decided to stay indoors. “I will join you shortly,” Magdalen added. Relief flickered across Edwina’s features. “All right. And thank you, for dealing with the spider.” Magdalen smiled. “The best ladies-in-waiting are trained to catch them.” Edwina’s brows rose. “Are they? I had no idea.

” With a mirthful wink, she added, “Who knew you kept such an important secret?” Foreboding rippled through Magdalen, but she managed to maintain her smile as Edwina strolled away. Once the sound of her footfalls had faded, Magdalen picked up the missive and opened it, the crisp parchment rasping against her fingers. Lines of black ink scrawled across the cured skin. My lord, Redmond will be lodging at The Merry Hen the night of the 21 st . Did the note refer to Lord Redmond, one of the prominent officials in King John’s London court? He’d visited Glemstow last summer. Holding her breath, Magdalen read on. You are to use the entire contents of the vial. Pour it into his drink. This will ensure swift death— Magdalen gasped. Do not fail us.

Her head reeling, she braced both hands on either side of the linen chest, the parchment trapped between the wood and her fingers. William was going to commit murder. The letter wasn’t signed, so ’twas impossible to know who had ordered him to do such a terrible thing. Oh, God. Oh, God. How did she tell Edwina? Her friend would be devastated, her marriage likely destroyed. Why, why, would William be involved in such a vile plot? Her throat knotted with fear, Magdalen quickly searched in the chest for the vial. ’Twas not to be found. After carefully pushing the loose panel back into place, she shut the linen chest. Still holding the missive, she searched the table by his side of the bed.

Naught. The twenty-first was only a few days away. A sickly chill settled deep within her, for until that vial was found and destroyed, Redmond’s life was in grave danger. So, too, was hers, now that she knew of the plot. She was a terrible liar; she’d never be able to look upon William without betraying that she knew more than she should. She’d believed him to be a hero, but he’d fooled her well, just as he’d fooled Edwina. Oh, God, what was she going to do? Anger simmered, while her thoughts leaped and tangled like a trapped deer. She couldn’t tell Edwina. She didn’t dare. She would never intentionally put Edwina in peril; Edwina’s not knowing protected her.

Magdalen shivered and looked down at the crumpled parchment. Oh, mercy, but she truly had no other choice. She must do whatever she could to stop the murder. Or die trying. Chapter Two “Magdalen!” William’s bellow carried to her on the wailing wind. Her breaths coming in harsh gasps, Magdalen raced through the forest, branches clawing at her hooded cloak as she ran. Rain pounded through the shifting tree branches overhead. The leather bag tied at her waist bumped against her hip like a lead weight, but she was grateful for the reassurance ’twas still there and hadn’t come unfastened. The items inside, especially the ruby she’d been given by her mother, would provide her with a new life—as soon as she’d delivered the missive to one of the King’s men. Shouts, distorted by the storm, reached Magdalen.

Fear whipped through her, for she couldn’t slow down for even a moment. William and his men-at-arms were gaining ground. Not long ago, she’d convinced one of Glemstow Keep’s stable hands to saddle her a horse, and had galloped away from the castle, but William had quickly learned of her departure and set out after her. She’d ridden horses since she was a girl, but her mount had grown increasingly skittish and hard to control as the storm worsened. When lightning had split the sky, the horse had whinnied and reared, and she’d almost fallen onto the forest road that had become a dangerous sea of mud. The animal had refused to go any farther, so she’d left it in the shelter of trees and bolted into the woods. The local town wasn’t far away. She must elude William and his men long enough to reach the outskirts and find help. Lightning tore apart the sky overhead. Thunder growled, and rain pelted her face, forcing her to halt, shivering, behind a tree and wait until the wind had diminished before pressing on.

Twigs and leaves rained down upon her, but she didn’t dare slow her frantic pace to brush the debris away. Another peal of thunder dulled to an angry snarl, and she caught the cries of the men-at-arms in pursuit. They sounded nearer than before. They were going to catch her, and then she’d have to answer to William. If that happened, she might be as good as dead. Run, Magdalen! Run! She leapt over a rotting log and raced along a narrow deer path that led deeper into the forest. Low-growing, spindly branches snagged on her cloak, slowing her down, while sticks on the ground snapped under her waterlogged shoes. She should have donned boots, but she’d wanted to get away from Glemstow as swiftly as possible. “This way!” a man yelled. A blinding flash of lightning illuminated the woods around her in an eerie wash of white.

She couldn’t outrun the men-at-arms. She needed somewhere to hide. Now. Desperately, she looked for a hollowed-out tree stump, or a fallen tree covered with vines— A gray shape emerged from the undergrowth ahead: a wolfhound, loping toward her. Its bright gaze followed her as she slipped on a half-buried stone, fell to her knees on the loamy ground, and then scrambled to her feet. Run. Run! Not five paces in front of her, a man stepped onto the path. Magdalen stumbled to a halt. The man held a longbow. The weapon wasn’t primed, but a quiver of arrows hung over his left shoulder.

His calf-length, green woolen cloak, brown hose, and knee-high leather boots blended with the earthy hues of the forest. The archer’s shoulders were broad and muscled beneath his cloak. He was obviously a strong, skilled warrior who could easily fell her by throwing her to the ground, if not by using his arrows. The dog halted beside him, ears pricked, watching both her and the surrounding forest. Through the pelting rain, Magdalen’s gaze locked with the archer’s. His eyes, thickly lashed, were brown and piercing. Sleek strands of straight brown hair had escaped from his hood and stuck to his angular, aristocratic cheekbones. He was a handsome man, but also a fearsome one, for his expression bore unwavering resolve. She’d seen him before. Her frantic mind struggled to remember his name.

He wasn’t one of William’s guards, but he was friends with William and had visited Glemstow several times in the past. He was…the local sheriff. She had to get away— “Lady Suffield.” Her anxious gaze shifted to the trees to her right. “Lady Suffield.” This time, the sheriff’s tone held a warning. “Let me go,” she pleaded, her cold hands curling into fists. “I am here to help you. We must get you out of the storm.” She shook her head, partly dislodging her hood.

“You are one of William’s lackeys.” Rainwater dripped down the warrior’s face as his mouth tightened. “Milady—” “I will not go with you!” Misgiving crossed his features as he stretched out his gloved hand to her: a sign that he wanted her to surrender. She would not yield willingly; not when surrendering surely meant death. She’d rather risk being shot by an arrow. She dashed into the underbrush to her right. The archer cursed. Magdalen ran, her feet flying over the wet ground. Branches snapped behind her, warning her that the warrior had taken up pursuit. A fallen log appeared ahead.

She scrambled up onto the thick, rotting wood covered with moss, but as she jumped down on the other side, her feet landed on uneven ground. She tried to regain her balance, staggered sideways, and her lower leg scraped against a newly fallen branch. Jagged wood gouged into her calf. Pain shot through her leg. She cried out, shock spiraling up inside her. Hands trembling, she lifted the sopping hems of her cloak and gown to check the wound. Blood oozed, trickling down to stain her shoe. “Oh, God,” she croaked. She couldn’t stand the sight of blood, not after watching her mother die while struggling to give birth to a stillborn babe. Bile burned the back of Magdalen’s throat, while the pain in her leg intensified to a brutal throbbing.

She had to fight the pain. To run. Run— The wolfhound dropped down from the log to land a few paces away from her. “Go away,” she sobbed, hobbling forward. “Lady Suffield.” She spun, to find the archer standing by the log. With an injured leg, she couldn’t possibly outrun him. He’d take her captive, and then he’d hand her over to William. Terror clutched at her, making her want to vomit. He stretched out his hand again, palm up; not an offer of help, but a silent command to yield.

His lips parted, and he spoke again, but whatever he said blended into the shrill hum filling her mind. The noise grew louder. Louder. The forest before her blurred into an inky nothingness. *** Lord Cynric Woodrow knew the instant she lost consciousness. Her green eyes, filled with fear, closed as if she could bear no more. The tension suddenly left her body. Rushing forward, he caught her before she would crumple to the ground. His arm slid around her waist, and she slumped against him. The side of her face pressed to his shoulder, while her hood slipped all the way back from her head.

Her wet hair, wavy and dark chestnut brown, tickled his jaw as he leaned his bow against the log and carefully lowered her to the ground. Her head listed to the left as she settled on the loam. Strands of hair stuck to her cheek, and with gentle fingers, he pushed them aside, noting as he did so her thick lashes, slim nose, and wellformed mouth. Surrounded by the silken mass of her hair, her pale, oval-shaped face was exquisite. Disquiet wove through him, for he’d seen a similar loveliness before. He’d visited Glemstow Keep several times through the years, and he’d seen Lady Suffield in passing, but this sense of recognition rooted deeper; it revived a treasured memory from his childhood. How could that be? How could this maiden resemble the beautiful lady by the lake? Mentally shoving aside the thought to ponder later, Cyn glanced over her cloak, for he’d heard her cry out in agony before he’d reached her. His gaze moved down to where the edges of her outer garment parted, revealing the slender length of her legs outlined by her green silk gown; the fine bliaut was ripped in several places, showing hints of her gauzy, ivory-colored chemise underneath. His gaze slid lower, to find the crimson stain spreading across the gown’s hem. The wolfhound whined and pawed at the ground.

“Easy, Lancelot,” Cyn murmured. He gently lifted the edges of her gown and chemise. Blood trailed down her calf into her shoe and onto the loam. The wound looked deep and would require stitches. Shaking his head, Cyn swore softly, for he’d never meant for her to be hurt. She’d gotten this injury running from him, and thus, he was obliged to help her. Even if he hadn’t been a knight who’d vowed to uphold the rules of chivalry, he would have helped anyway. He had to know why she looked so much like the woman from his past. He was also damned curious what William wanted of this lady. William hadn’t seemed himself for many days, and this woman might know why.

Mayhap she’d learned about William’s secret meeting with one of the King’s men days ago in this forest—a meeting Cyn’s steward had witnessed, but had been too far away to overhear. Cyn hated to think that William, his closest friend, had turned traitor. Yet, more and more noblemen—even officials in the London courts, if rumors were correct—were supporting the idea of a rebellion against King John. If William was involved in such a plot, and Lady Suffield knew, ’twould explain why he was so anxious to capture her. Whatever was going on, as sheriff of this county, he had a duty to find out. Men’s voices carried from a short distance away. No way in hellfire was he going to let them take her from him. Cyn slid one arm under her shoulders, the other under her lower back, and lifted her into his arms. Her cheek rested against the front of his cloak, while her hair tumbled down over his arm. He picked up the longbow and walked out from behind the fallen log, Lancelot loping beside him.

One of William’s men-at-arms ran to meet him. “Sheriff Woodrow. Thank you for catching the lady.” “She is injured.” The man’s gaze sharpened on her bloodstained hem, and then he reached out to take her from Cyn’s arms. “She will be cared for at Glemstow—” Cyn stepped away. “I am taking her to my home.” The man-at-arms scowled. “Milord, Lord Langston’s orders—” “I do not care what Lord Langston ordered. She is coming with me.

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