“Halt!” came a dreaded cry. The Duke of Manning’s party came to a quick pause, the four guards in helmet and mail, their swords drawn, moving awkwardly about on their huge stallions in the narrow trail to discover from where the command had come. The forests, these days, were simply filled with outlaws. At first, there was nothing to be seen. They were in the densest part of the forest, riding upon trails where none would dare come without a guard. The Duke of Manning, however, was a cocky fellow, and he had decried the outlaws of the forest, damning them and claiming that he could best a few wild peasants himself with one hand tied behind his back. Despite his boast, he hadn’t come into the forest with the wagon that carried his soon-to-be bride. He had left the matter of her conveyance—her person and her property—to these four fine figures upon horseback, Sir Waylong, Hugh de Frieze, Genovese St. Montmarte and young Alain de Lac, all of them masters of the joust and proved and seasoned in battle. The problem here was that they could see no one to battle. “There you are, my good men! Now, leave the wagon behind and move on to your master, and no harm will come to you.” “Leave the wagon!” Sir Waylon, the oldest of the guards, with iron gray hair and a temperament to match, repeated in his crusty voice, outraged. “What fool command is this! Show yourself, you rogue. And quickly. Or cease your prattle and let us pass.
Leave the wagon, indeed! Leave the wagon that carries my Lady Kate at the command of talking trees?” At that moment, the man who had waylaid them chose to make his appearance, leaping down from a low branch of the tree. He was tall and well muscled, yet startlingly agile. When he stood, his size could have rivaled that of any of the guards. He was dressed in black from head to toe, breeches, boots and tunic—and mask. His concession to defense was composed of light chain mail—painted black, as well—that covered his tunic. He wore a swath of black cloth over his head, hiding his hair, tied at his nape. The mask was a piece that covered eyes and nose, and, combined with the black cloth upon his head, kept his identity a complete mystery. He swept the men on horseback a bow. “No talking trees, my good fellow. But a man who warns you to ride—and thus preserve your lives.
” “What talk from a single braggart!” Genovese, young and brash, cried back quickly. “Why, I shall decorate the wagon with your head as we proceed to Manning!” “Come try, then, my friend!” invited the man in black. Genovese quickly turned his heavy charger, swinging his sword to bear down upon the man in the trail. He leveled his sword with vigor as he approached, the speed and impetus of his animal adding to his favor. Yet the man upon the ground quickly weighed these things and swung his own sword in such a fashion as to not only deflect the blow that was about to come his way, but to cause his opponent to become unseated, as well. Genovese fell upon the ground with a mighty crash of steel and metal. As he started to rise, the man in black cracked him firmly upon the head with the flat of his sword, and he fell again. This time, he did not move. “I take great pains not to kill,” the man in black said casually, “since this poor fellow is but in the employ of a wretched lord who would seize what is not his while the king is away. The Duke of Manning is the one playing lackey to the young prince.
This fellow here will awaken, I think, within the hour. However, he will have a dreadful headache.” “A headache, indeed!” cried Sir Waylon, furious now. Genovese was a Florentine, a man considered to have skills beyond compare. “Well, we will see to it that he does awaken to the sight of your rogue’s skull upon a pole, and therein will lie his cure!” Sir Waylon’s fury did him in. He bore down too quickly upon the blackclad man, and thus was just as easily unhorsed, since his opponent did not rely on muscle, force and bulk, but rather on quick and easy movement, knowing how not to oppose the weight that came his way. Sir Waylon was brought down. Likewise, he was dealt a blow to the head. And so silenced. Hugh de Frieze looked to Alain de Lac.
“It is madness that we oppose this forest monster one by one.” “Madness truly! An intelligent fellow among the roster!” cried out the mysterious forest outlaw with something like relief and pleasure. “Four of you might have taken me, at that. And now you are two. This isn’t a joust, fine fellows. There is no one to whom to prove a single man has the greatest glory. Come then, come and take me. Else take your fallen and depart. The wagon will be mine.” “What manner of man would leave a maiden to the likes of you?” Hugh demanded.
“She is in no danger. The love of her suitor will be proved, for I will simply help myself to what dowry comes with her now—and will ask, of course, for a payment in gold for that most precious dower of all, the sweet maid’s very person—and she will be returned to a man who must simply love her above her property value.” Alain de Lac shook his head sadly. “Good fellow, you speak well, surely you must have some birthright that would save you from this wretched life you’ve chosen to live here in the forest! Outlaws hang—” “And in-laws just the same!” The stranger laughed. “Prince John would be the death of us all, and you’ve not seen it yet.” “You’d have done well to fight with the king when he gave battle in the Holy Land, rather than against the prince here! If you seek riches, you should seize the gold and jewels of the Infidels, rather than preying upon rightful Christian lords!” Alain warned. “Ah! Therein lies the question. Just who are the rightful Christian lords?” the rogue queried softly. “Remember, good men, our rightful Christian lord, King Richard, lies languishing in an Austrian castle, prisoner until ransomed. Prince John seems quite slow to collect the necessary ransom, don’t you agree? Ah, well, surely I cannot expect to win you to my way of thinking quite so easily.
The day wanes. Do what damage you will to me, or be on your way!” They could not, of course, leave a lady, and therefore the two glanced at one another one more time, spurred their steeds and bore down upon their opponent. It seemed a good plan, one on either side of the standing man, pounding hard against the terrace, attacking him simultaneously. He could not unhorse them both. But he could. Just as the horses neared him, he began a mighty swing, cracking his sword around with such force that he knocked first Hugh, then young Alain, down upon the ground. Hugh groaned, groggily trying to rise, crying out as he set weight upon his broken right arm. As he realized his predicament, he heard a moan of pain escape fromAlain. The moan died out as Alain clamped down hard on his jaw, determined that though he had fallen, he would not whimper. “All right, you jackal!” Alain cried out.
“You’ve done your damage! Take the riches from the lady’s coffers, but I beg you, leave the damsel herself. You have the sound of an educated man, for the love of God—” “Sorry about the leg, but it is disjointed, I believe, rather than broken, and though you’ll be sore, it is really far less dangerous than that poor fellow’s arm,” the rogue said, kneeling down beside Alain. “I did ask you to leave, remember? Joshua!” he called suddenly, and was joined by a man as big as the walls of Jericho, who leapt down beside him from a tree branch. “Give a pull of this man’s leg, will you, to set it back?” Joshua grunted, taking hold of Alain’s leg with both his massive hands. Alain, despite his bravery, let out a shriek that threatened to split the heavens. Then he passed out. “You’ve killed him!” Hugh cried. “Not at all,” said the rogue. “Joshua, we now need to set these men on their horses and steer them from the forest.” “Aye, as you say,” Joshua agreed carefully.
As if he lifted feathers, Joshua placed the fallen knights upon their steeds, seemingly heedless of the weight of the chain mail, helmets and plates that added to the already admirable bulk of the men who wore such armor. Hugh rose unassisted, groaning as he tried to protect his injured arm and mount at the same time. “I’ll give you a hand, my man—” Joshua began, but Hugh would have none of it. “I’ll be back!” he shouted furiously. “I’ll be back with scores of men. You’ll pay for your thievery—your arrogance and your impudence.” “Well, we shall see you then, shan’t we?” inquired the rogue. “Take him on out,” he told Joshua. “I shall see to the wagon—and the lady, of course.” Hugh was still blustering, swearing that all forest vermin would be hanged or worse.
The Rogue of Heffington Forest, for that was what he was coming to be called by those who whispered about the dangers of travel to the far north of London in the dense no-man’s-land there, looked to the fine gilded wagon that had so recently belonged to the Duke of Manning. He took a step toward it, wondering what he would find within. Knowing Manning, he would wed a snake-haired monster, were she rich enough, with the right property. Well, whatever, he had to look to the soon-tobe bride, be she an aging gorgon or a frightened young damsel. * * * She’d heard about the forest men. And being determined, Kate had simply dismissed all possible fear of them. She would be escorted by four tested knights, no less. No rabble of outlaws should have had a chance against them. And she had remained quite confident. Until she’d heard Alain’s screams….
Dear God, by all the saints! What had they done to the poor man, what manner of torture had they used against him? Run! she had warned herself. Throw open the door to the left of the road and take flight. These men of the north might well be no better than heathens. Some said they had come down from farther north, that they were the breed of barbarians who had roamed the Scottish Highlands, who had offered such fierce battle and brutality that not even the Romans could cross their lines. They were vicious, they were animals, creatures from hell, Satan’s very spawn…. But then… She couldn’t run. She wasn’t leaving the wagon. She’d worked too hard and long to get where she was, there were far greater things at stake than the petty thievery of a cast of renegades, and she wasn’t going to give this wagon over to any rogue or heathen. Justice lay in the future, so close she could very nearly taste it. Alain screamed again.
She trembled violently. There were horrors that could be of ered by men. Horrors so filled with pain and anguish that death could become a gentle boon. Shouldn’t she run now, and live to fight another day? Run where? Into the forest where the rogues lived and worked and plied their wretched trade. There was no running…. Only waiting. She reached into the pocket within the skirt of her gown and found Lord Gregory’s final gift to her, a dagger with a pearl-studded silver handle, embossed with the family crest. When the door to the wagon swung open, she would be ready. And yet, she was not! For it seemed she had scarcely heard the sounds of hoofbeats once again, moving along the road, when the door was wrenched open with startling speed and purpose. And he was there.
For a brief second, all she saw was a shadow, a figure looming tall and dark against the sudden brightness of the day. He was all darkness, filling the day, clad in black like Death itself, a demon risen straight up from hell. An unreasoning fear clamped icy fingers around her throat, but then she assured herself furiously that he was no demon, only a man, one tall and broad shouldered, a well-muscled knight dressed in black down to his painted armor. A man. No more, no less. Yet she trembled again despite herself. Her heart thundered. His face was hidden in darkness. Only his eyes peered through the holes of his mask. Burning.
Hazel gold. The fierce, fiery eyes of a demon. Touching somehow, as if they’d never let her go. A man! she cried out in her heart. And her fingers gripped with greater promise the pearl handle of her dagger. CHAPTER TWO He hadn’t known what to expect, but it was certainly not the creature he found there, awaiting him with a grim and furious expression upon her beautiful face. She was blessed with features that caused a man to pause, to forget to breathe. She was, indeed, the stuff of which legends were made. She had eschewed all headdress other than a ring of silver about her pate with a gossamer fall of soft blue fabric behind it. Her hair was a combination of the sun and the moon, a light blond, as delicate and beautiful as spun gold.
Her eyes were as blue as the royal color of her gown, an object of fashion that seemed to cling to a form that had been sculpted with an eye toward absolute perfection. Her skin was ivory, translucent, her bone structure absolutely fine. She was elegant, glorious. He felt a sickness deep within him that she was intended for such a wretched excuse for humanity as the Duke of Manning, but it was not his intent to destroy the lives of others, but rather to gather the income necessary to ransom Richard from Austria. “My lady,” he began—most politely, most courteously. But before he could assure her he intended nothing but her safety, she let out a furious shriek and came flying down from the wagon upon him. She came with startling, amazing speed. With an energy he’d neither imagined nor prepared for. In fact, she hurtled at him like some missile, some flying object catapulted out of the shadows. She slammed straight forward into him with such a fury and force that she brought them both flying to the ground.
Indeed, he barely—just barely!—had the breath and strength left to seize her wrist when he saw the dagger held within it, and to deflect the blow she would have brought against his throat. He heard laughter. Joshua had returned from his escort task and was watching the struggle with amusement. There was more laughter as his men began to drop from the trees, observing the battle here as he grated his teeth, determined to seize the dagger from the wild thing fighting with such agility and determination to stop him. What ailed this elegant vixen? He meant her no harm, he had intended to be a gentleman…. But then, the laughter did it. He did have a reputation to uphold, after all. He tightened his fingers around her delicate wrist, causing her to cry out and release her weapon. With far less tenderness than he might have originally offered the damsel, he pushed her from him, rolling to lay her beneath him while he straddled her, reaching for the fallen dagger. A mistake.
He had left her arms free. They were instantly flailing at him, fists slamming, nails clawing, nearly dislodging his mask, catching the bare flesh of his jaw. He swore, startled as the words escaped him, then repeating them in earnest as he struggled against the writhing creature beneath him to capture her wrists at last. “What are you, a madwoman, my lady? Cease and desist, and no harm will come to you—” “Tremendous harm will come to you, rogue! You wretched snake in the grass, thief, outlaw, renegade—” “My lady—” “The deepest dungeon will be your fate, they’ll cut your entrails from your body and strangle you with them, they’ll draw and quarter you, hang you—” “I don’t think I’ll much mind being hanged once I’ve been strangled with my own innards, my lady,” he told her, both wearied and somewhat amused. She was still seething, much like a simmering caldron, ready to bubble over and lash out if given the very least chance. “It’s not much hospitality you’re offering the lady,” Joshua called out. “Perhaps if you’d been gentle with the lass…” “Gentle!” he snorted. “Do you need help, Shadow?” Joshua offered. “I do know that a little wisp of a girl can be a hard combatant!” The men guffawed again. “I’ve had it!” cried the Shadow, the Rogue of Heffington Forest.
He leapt up, dragging her with him. He wagged a finger before her nose. “My lady, you will behave—” But she would not. She had seized his sword from his scabbard. Now gracefully backed away, she was ready to go to battle once again, sword raised as one who knew how to use such weapons would raise it. And he, of course, was suddenly weaponless. “I shall skewer you myself!” she declared. Amazingly she was still elegant, moon gold hair now wild and tumbling down her back in glorious disarray, those crystal blue eyes of hers alive with fire and vengeance. She moved toward him, swinging with such vigor that he ducked just in the nick of time to avoid his own beheading. “Sweet Jesu!” he cried in surprise, taking a flying leap that brought him down, grappling her ankles, bringing her to the ground once again.
She tried to find balance to raise the sword again, but luckily the sheer weight of it at last caught up with her. He rose, kicking the sword far from her grasp. He reached for her and she tried to flail at him once again. With absolute impatience he swore and reached down, plucking her up with no courtesy whatsoever and throwing her over his shoulder. “Sure you don’t need help?” Joshua called, laughing. “I’m quite fine, thank you.” “Er, um, shall you then be escorting our guest to camp, Shadow?” Joshua inquired, his voice still filled with laughter. “Indeed!” To camp! He was incredibly anxious to bring her to camp, to set her inside one of the warm wooden huts camouflaged by the denseness of the forest and the branches he and his men had dragged down to create a natural barrier between their haven and the trails throughout the forest. By God, he simply needed to be rid of her for the time being—before she managed to either kill one of them or bring great harm down upon them at the very least. After all, an injured rogue in the forest could do little good for an incredible cause.
“Stop!” she commanded. She tried to rise upon his shoulder, still beating against his flesh, not at all admitting defeat. “You will let me go this instant, you will return my belongings to me—” “What belongings, lady?” “The wagon!” He started to laugh then, hurrying as he moved through the trees to reach his horse. “My lady, whether I take the wagon or your future husband does so, no belongings remain yours!” Quite purposely, he walked with a jaunty gait, causing her to slam against his shoulders as he took her unawares with a quick step. She swore, garnered her balance again. “You’re quite mistaken! The Duke of Manning is a noble and generous man—” “I’m quite afraid you are mistaken, my lady. The Duke of Manning is a coward, a bore and a selfish man, my lady. But then, it seems that he is your choice, since you are so very willing to leap to his defense. Not to mention your own. When you are returned to him, you—just like any other fixture within his dwelling—will belong to him fully.
I promise you that.” “How dare you suggest—” “I don’t suggest anything. I am telling you the truth quite bluntly. But don’t fret, my lady, I will see to it that you are returned to your noble, generous lord. And if he is such a generous man, he may even wish to see that the contents of the wagon are purchased to be returned to your keeping.” “I cannot be kept a prisoner in this forest!” she cried. “Ah, but you can!” She beat her hands against his back once again. “Put me down, you oaf. Damn you, put me down —” He did so. He had reached Windrider, his magnificent black stallion, the only possession he cherished.
But then, he didn’t actually think of the stallion as a creature he possessed. Windrider was, in his way, as free as the air surrounding them. No other man in the forest could ride him. Yet he came when the Shadow called his name. He served the Shadow with respect, and by something amazingly like mutual agreement. Now, the Shadow plumped his burden of wriggling woman upon the horse’s back. He stood back to mount, yet in those split seconds, she had managed to take up the reins. “Yaw!” she cried to the horse, setting her heels against Windrider’s ribs. Windrider, comrade in arms that he was, merely snorted and reared upon his hind legs, seeming to dance there until sending the ever-battling Lady Kate down to the dust-strewn forest floor. The Shadow reached for her instinctively, praying that no delicate bone might have been broken in the fall, yet he should have known—she was not so delicate as she appeared.
She swore, refusing his hand, stumbling up, ready to run once again. He caught her and tossed her upon the horse. “Stay there!” he commanded, but not trusting her, he held her even as he leapt up from the ground to ride behind her. “Bastard!” she hissed at him. “Fool. A stallion like this could kill you.” “Because he is like you. Because he thinks that force will seize for him all that he wants. Because he idiotically fails to realize that logic and intelligence can win the day when brute force fails. Because—” “Indeed, yes! Do give me a speech on logic and intelligence after you have attempted to knife a man twice your size!”