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The runaway halted her horse on the rocky verge at the summit of the steep hill. Her heart raced with apprehension as she viewed the lonely path ahead, winding uninvitingly down into dense woods. Turning the horse, the beautiful fifteen-year-old gazed with misgivings back along the miles to the distant castle from whence she had fled.
A deep sigh of guilty relief escaped from her rose-pink lips, as she saw not a soul in sight; no one in pursuit. Was she glad? Did she wish to continue on her reproachable, dangerous journey? The unthinkable had been accomplished: she, Elissa Jane Dorai, had escaped her dreaded fate.
No, she thought, I haven't escaped. This is just a reprieve. Shivering in the late winter's sun, she tugged her horse around, hoping to gain her destination before dark. Clean air inhaled was chill, matching her numbness within. Patches of melted snow lay in bleak, barren fields, and along deserted roadsides.
Women did not ride alone in Frencolia, and Elissa fervently hoped she would not encounter undesirable characters. Having achieved an undetected departure from her castle home was an incredible triumph; she had not expected to get this far.
At home, safe in the castle, the perilous journey from Leroy to Samdene had not seemed so formidable, but now Elissa realised the danger of her reckless actions. Sensing her fears, Red Boy trembled beneath her. Gazing once more toward Leroy, the runaway almost hoped her brother was in view. Or someone who would command her safely home. But the road was clear.
Elissa's brother, Dorai, had ridden north with a company of his soldiers for a rendezvous at the border castle, andhe was not expected home until the morrow.
The dreaded day loomed all too fast. Tomorrow must be delayed--at least, her part in it. The runaway knew she could not ultimately escape her brother's plans, but she could at least spend tomorrow in sympathetic company. At this thought, Elissa reined Red Boy around and urged him to canter towards the dense woods. Both needed warming, and she flicked the reins, pressing her boots into the horse's sides, encouraging him to gallop faster and faster. Trees flew by. They exited into milky sunshine, and she breathed a deep sigh of relief.
The majestic Frencolian Mountains still paraded heavy white winter coats, and Elissa did not wonder that Red Boy balked at the sight of the turbulent stream ahead. Elissa had ridden this way last summer when the stream was no more than ankle deep; but now, the agitated snow-fed waters swirled and foamed, warning with a fierce roar. The girl imagined that in some places the water would almost reach Red Boy's girth. Drawing a deep breath as if preparing to dive into glacial waters, she spurred her horse forward. Red Boy shied, almost throwing Elissa backwards, but she clung tenaciously to his back.
"Come on, Boy; we're almost half way to Aunt Jane's," she urged; then fiercely; "I'm not turning back now. Yah! Move!" The determination thrown from his mistress' mouth forced Red Boy to obey, and he reluctantly stepped forward. Hastened by the feel of icy water, the horse quickly made the crossing.
"There you are; that wasn't so bad, was it?" Elissa soothed, leaning forward, administering a reassuring pat on the sleek neck. "Now the worst is past. Just the cross-roads ahead and we will be more than half-way to Samdene." Sighing, she flicked the thick black hood of her cloak back on her shoulders, revealing her mass of long coppery curls. Hot now from the intensity of the ride, Elissa wished she could completely remove the concealing, masculine cloak, but she fought the temptation.
"Leroy--Valdemar--Samdene"--these three names, carved into the strong wooden signpost, were a welcome sight to the troubled girl. As Elissa guided Red Boy across the clearing towards the road to Samdene, the corner of her left eye caught distant movement along the road from Valdemar. A company approached. By the standard and color, she knew the men to be Frencolian military. At least Dorai will not be riding with them; he went north, she thought.
The leader quickened the advance to a gallop. Flicking the reins, Elissa pressed her heels, indicating she wanted her horse to gallop. Simultaneously, the fearful girl dragged the hood back over her hair, thinking, Hopefully, the riders will take the road to Leroy. Just as well I traversed the crossroads before seeing them. I'll stay out in front.
Elissa glanced furtively behind and saw the whole company in pursuit, and gaining. Emotions mingling with fright and anger surged over the hooded rider as she realised she faced imminent confrontation, maybe even capture.
The path widened, and Elissa spurred Red Boy on faster. Stealing a look backward, she saw she was widening the gap between the majority of the company; just one rider, a knight, seemed to have gained.
How much longer can I keep Red Boy at this pace? Elissa asked herself, They are the military, and I'm supposed to give right of way. Perhaps when they see I've stopped, they'll ride on...she hoped.
When Elissa reached a wider place along the road, she expertly guided Red Boy on to the grassy verge, drawing back on the reins. She hoped the company would ride past; that their haste was to gain a destination.
The leader-knight followed her action, reining his horse alongside hers. Within seconds, men in green uniforms surrounded Elissa. Three riders were knights with the large gold monogram "K.F." embroidered on their doublets. The leader wore a doublet covered with glittering brassards.
Although there were only thirty mounts, Elissa felt as if a thousand horses enveloped her. Their riders stared at her, waiting. Bowing her head, Elissa decided not to speak to these men. Her brother had over a thousand soldiers under him, and she had been brought up to ignore them. They were soldiers; she was a lady. Lady Elissa Jane Dorai of Leroy Castle. Her pride was shattered as her thoughts were rudely dragged back to her predicament by a hand, reaching out, dragging the hood back, and revealing her long hair.
"A lady does not travel on her own in Frencolia!" the deep, commanding voice was a mixture of reprimand, scorn, and concern. Elissa stared angrily at the knight who dared confront her. He wore a metal helmet, and she could not recognize any part of his face through the grille at the front.
"How dare you! I've done no wrong! I was riding my horse, and have come too far..." Elissa had no difficulty in lying, but hoped her voice sounded strong and convincing. She spoke louder as she raised her chin defiantly and claimed, "I must return to Samdene before nightfall!"
"Your parents will be worried..." as he spoke, the young knight lifted the lattice on his hood.
"My parents are dead."
"You live in Samdene?" the man's warm brown eyes met Elissa's hazel gaze. A feeling that this man knew she was not from Samdene swamped the runaway with guilt. It was as though he read her mind through her eyes.
She thought, He will know if I lie again... In desperation, she tried to tear her eyes from his. Allowing her anger to rise as his eyes continued to hold her, she answered, "No, Sir. But I must hurry. Please allow me continue riding to Samdene. Do you not have better things to do for our king than to stop a lady who is minding her own business?"
"You should not be out on the roads without an escort!" the knight's tone matched the anger in hers, and he demanded, "Tell me your name!"
"It's usual for a gentleman to introduce himself first!" this retort had barely escaped Elissa's lips before she remembered he was a knight and answerable to no one, save the king.
"I am Sir Louis."
"I'm sorry, Sir; you're a Frencolian knight, a keeper of the kingdom; and you weren't obligated to give your name. I...I am Lady Elissa Jane Dorai, and am riding to Samdene, to my aunt--Lady Jane, of Sir Samuel's castle."
"Yes! I knew you were Dorai's sister! You've ridden all the way from Leroy?" The young knight stared as she bowed her head again; he had seen tears forming in her eyes, threatening to spill. His voice grew gruff; "We'll escort you to Samdene." With a flick of his head, the grille fell closed, and he reined his horse around. Elissa noted his black stallion for the first time, and drew a breath at the beauty of the shiny, sleek body and proud head. The horsemen parted, making way, and Sir Louis waited on the road until she drew near. He ordered ten mounted soldiers ahead, and the rest to form a rear guard.
Unable to decipher the reason for further feelings of misery, Elissa also felt embarrassed and exposed. She had been intercepted, and the folly of her flight displayed before strangers. If only she could have traveled to Samdene invisibly. She still hoped her brother, Dorai, would not know of her escape until he returned in the morning. She had been so careful to feign sickness and lock herself in her room. Climbing from the window on linen tied together had been precarious, but the get-away had been completed without incident. A note had been left in her room, and should not be read until tomorrow morning. Having taken a tray of food to her room that morning, Elissa had requested she not be disturbed; she said she wished to rest. Her request was not unusual, and she knew that without her brother's advice, the servants would obey. She had shut herself in her room before, and believed the maids would not think her to be acting out of character. Like a thief, she 'stole' Red Boy from the stables, and led him silently out the back way, moving furtively across the moat bridge. A guard at the gate had challenged her, and she had replied that she was 'going to the village to visit friends'. If he thought it unusual for her to be riding alone, the guard did not say so, and there had been no reason for him to question her further. A change in the guards before sunset would likely prevent her continued absence being detected tonight.
Sir Louis kept the pace up, and Elissa felt Red Boy growing tired. At the crest of a hill, the knight led the horses off the path.
"Samdene," Louis announced, indicating the castle ahead, surrounded by many houses and enclosed by high walls.
"I've been here before. My Aunt Jane lives at the castle."
"Yes. I know." Sir Louis was wondering if he should have taken the runaway back to Leroy. He decided to ask the question that had troubled him with each step his black beauty took. "Why are you running away?"
Embarrassment flooded Elissa's face, and she looked at the two other knights who had drawn near. Speaking firmly, she said, "Please, Sir Louis. It's a private matter."
The knight unclipped his helmet and lifted it off. Nodding at his men, he indicated that they should move from earshot. Drawing his black horse close to Red Boy, he asked, "If I promise that it shall be between you and me alone, will you tell me?" he spoke earnestly, as though to humor a misbehaving child.
Elissa drew Red Boy around and walked him further towards the edge of the crest. As Louis drew close again, she scrutinized him. His sun-tanned skin advertised an out-door life; to have tanned skin after the winter snows must mean that he was out in the weather much of the time. His hair was wavy and sun-bleached, golden brown, as was his thick moustache, which sported a shade of auburn. But it was his eyes that held her. They seemed compassionate and tender toward her. Elissa felt attracted to him; he was appealing. Retiring sunbeams made his warm brown irises glow like amber, and the runaway could see that this handsome stranger was eager to receive her answer. To prevent herself replying, she tightened her lips together.
The knight turned to watch the sun sink into billowing gray clouds before he broke the silence by announcing, as though to the distant mountains, "We need to continue on if we wish to arrive at Samdene before sunset.
"I know your brother, Dorai, very well, and I'm sorry I haven't made your acquaintance before, Lady Elissa. I live further south." Squaring his shoulders, he continued, "I'm a Senior Knight, and we're sworn to protect the people of our kingdom. If you've been treated unjustly..." he ceased speaking, and waited.
"No, Sir Louis. It is not...entirely...quite...like that." Fiddling with the reins, threading the leather between her fingers, she said, "I scarcely know where to begin. It will sound...childish...to a man...a knight...like you..."
Their eyes met, and she read his as saying try me, so she continued, "I...I guess it began when my mother died a year ago...then my father, just three months ago. I was very close to them, both...my father was very sick, and I helped...care for him..." Elissa felt hot tears slip, uninvited, down her cheeks. A plaintive sob escaped her lips, and her embarrassment felt painful now. How could she discuss her heart-feelings with a stranger? Collecting the reins together, she would have urged Red Boy around, but Louis' hand grasped the leather, preventing this action.
He spoke compassionately, "I'm very sorry. I attended...both...funerals."
Elissa shook her head, "I don't remember seeing you. But I didn't really see...anyone ..."
"Please, Sir; surely you do not want to listen to this..." Elissa's voice was doleful, and she watched as the sun descended from the clouds. The large golden orange ball sat above the distant mountains. A border castle stood proudly to the right of the glowing circlet, like a lone sentry. She shivered, watching her breath freeze in the air.
"Yes, Lady Elissa, I do. I want to know. And I promise it shall be between you and me alone." Leaning to stroke Red Boy, the knight said, "He's a handsome horse. What do you call him?"
"He's almost the same shade as your hair."
Avoiding Sir Louis' appreciative eyes as they wandered over tumbling reflections of the sunset shining from her long, now unruly, curls, Elissa reached to stroke the neck of the black horse. "What do you call him, Sir? He's very beautiful."
"I simply named him 'Blue'. When he was born, his black coat looked blue. You'll see it when he's wet."
Elissa wondered curiously, When will I see the horse's' coat...when he's wet?--But she did not ask. Maybe it was a slip, and Louis said 'you', instead of 'I'.
Expelling a resigned sigh, she said, "I'm going to Samdene because I need someone to talk to...and my Aunt Jane is the only one I have.
"You know my brother, do you, Sir Louis? Well, I left him a note so he wouldn't worry. He knows I am an expert rider and Red Boy is such a reliable horse..." The knight's questioning eyes searched hers as she spoke, and Elissa wondered why it was so important that he know. Suddenly the answer came to her, and she exclaimed as in accusation, "You know Baron Chatelain, don't you, Sir Louis?" Her eyes wide, she stared across at the mounted company, asking, "Is he one of them?"
"Yes to the first question, and no, to the second," Louis smiled widely, and Elissa suddenly relaxed.
She asked, "What's he like? Baron Chatelain, I mean?" Elissa waited, but Sir Louis did not reply, and she wondered why he was silent. She asked, "Were you coming to Leroy for the Betrothal Ceremony tomorrow?"
"Yes. We were," the knight answered. "Dorai invited us to join the celebration. Do you plan to return tomorrow morning so that YOU will be there, Lady Elissa? After all, it's your betrothal." If Louis' voice had not been so gentle, Elissa would have imagined that he mocked her.
She answered, "I...it's...unpleasant...for me...to be betrothed...to someone...I've never met." The truth of the matter was finally out, and Elissa confided, "Dorai arranged it, too soon after father's death...and I've not had the time needed, to adjust." Her frustration rose as she spoke more freely, "How would you feel, Sir, if your parents had just died, and you were expected to move from the home where you've lived all of your life?" Elissa felt more tears slide down her cheeks. Reaching under her cloak, into the sleeve of her woolen dress, she drew out a lacy handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. Sniffing, she mumbled, "Sometimes I feel that my horse is the only creature I can talk to."
"Have you spoken to Dorai about this?" Louis' concern was obvious in his husky voice.
"Every day...for the last month. I begged him to invite the Baron to Leroy so that I could meet him; but Dorai...he just teases me...torments me..." She tried to suppress a sob, and turned away. "He's right, though. I'm an incessant cry-baby...and need to grow up," she quoted her brother, unconvinced, adding his words, "I'm sickening...and temperamental."
She opened her heart a little more, appreciating the kindness in his face, feeling she could trust him, that he cared, "I told him that growing up takes time, but he laughs at me and tells me that the Baron will help me grow up. I get angry with him, and he mocks me all the more.
"Please, Sir Louis, let me ride to Samdene where I can cry on my aunt's shoulder. She would be upset to think I confided in someone else..." She would have said, 'A stranger,'--but Sir Louis no longer seemed alien to her.
"It will be, as I said before, just between you and me. You need not tell your aunt you spoke to me." Placing the reins in her hands, he asked, "And if you did meet this fellow, Chatelain, would that make a difference? Would you still go through with the betrothal?"
"There'd be no difference, I suppose. The betrothal will go ahead anyway, I don't have any choice in the matter. I told Dorai in my letter that I expected him to continue with the ceremony. He will carry on, and he'll stand in for me, as proxy." She had ceased weeping, and now spoke with resignation, "I know he'll carry on without me."
Smiling weakly, she added, "I just hope I meet this Baron before we're married." Feeling his tenderness towards her once more, she asked, "What is the Baron like? How well do you know him?"
"I know him...very well. What do you want to know...about him?"
"How old is he?"
"That old!" She smiled again, unaware of the beautiful glow she radiated. "He's seven years older than I am! That's a lifetime. You'd be closer than that to my age, I'll wager, Sir Louis."
The knight stared towards the sun, which slipped behind the mountains. The snow was pink, and the clouds suffused with shades of scarlet turning to crimson. His face looked flushed, and Elissa wondered if it were the color of the sunset reflecting on his skin.
"You could do something for me, Sir Louis," Elissa's voice took on a determined note, "you could travel to Leroy as you planned, and tell Baron Chatelain, when he arrives tomorrow, that I truly wished to meet him before the betrothal. I needed that more than anything else in the world. It's like being thrown into a deep dark lake, not knowing what he looks like!"
The knight's attention clicked back, and he asked, earnestly, "Why didn't you write to him? You must be able to write?"
"I wrote four letters, Sir Louis! One for each week since Dorai told me that I would be betrothed to him. I couldn't understand why the Baron didn't reply, and I was very upset. To be truthful, I was angry! I tried to meet every messenger arriving at the castle, which was no small task. That is another reason I'm angry with Dorai. Yesterday, before he left for the Leroy border castle, he presented me with my four letters, still sealed. He'd intercepted them. Baron Chatelain never received one of them. Dorai torments me by saying that I do not trust his choice. I told him to read my letters and he'd see that I accepted his choice; it was just that I wished to meet the man I have to spend the rest of my life with." Seeing the dark cloud on Louis' face, Elissa warned, "Remember, you promised not to tell Dorai. I believe you'll keep it to yourself, Sir Louis. That is not the worst of it...Dorai told me that the Baron sent me three gifts, but I cannot have them until he returns tomorrow. He told me that one of them had been sent to me before father's death...and also..." Elissa sat upright as Louis turned his horse. She had warmed to this kind-hearted knight, and felt confident enough to tell him all her troubles; of which she had scarcely begun. Closing her mouth mid-sentence, she wondered if he were bored with her story. His next words showed that he understood.
"I'm sorry, very sorry for you. I'd have done worse, had I been in your position. Let's ride to your aunt. I hope she will give you the comfort you need. It'll be dark by the time we arrive."
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As previously, one knight led a number of the soldiers to the fore and the remainder formed a guard behind Sir Louis and Lady Elissa.
Elissa noticed the path widening. Red Boy's hooves resounded on cobblestones, and Elissa knew they approached the Samdene town gates. Sir Louis drew Blue close to Red Boy and grasped the reins. The two knights moved closer.
Speaking to the men in an undertone, Louis said, "Don't tell the keepers on the gates who we are; just announce us as knights on kingdom business." As the men moved away, the senior knight spoke earnestly to Elissa. "I'm going to teach that brother of yours a lesson he won't forget in a hurry! There's just one promise I want you to give me, Elissa." Glancing around to confirm that no one other than his own men could hear his words, he spoke softly, "Promise me, you'll tell no one; not your aunt or your brother; the name of the knight who brought you here. When...you meet me again, you must pretend that you don't know me. Will you promise, Lady Elissa?"
Frowning, Elissa wondered how this commanding man was going to set about 'teaching Dorai a lesson'. But one did not question a knight. Dorai reminded her of this whenever she, his sister, asked him a question regarding his knighthood. This man, Sir Louis, was a senior knight, answerable only to the king.
Elissa spoke lightheartedly, "I shouldn't find that difficult at all, Sir...what was your name? But I would like to thank you for escorting me here, Sir, whomever you might be."
Louis grinned, his pearl-white teeth glittering like stars. He said, "I'll escort you safely to the castle gates."
Due to the riders' concealing helmets, the keepers could not discern the identities of the knights who rode with Lady Elissa; and it was too dark for the soldiers to be identified. The company rode through the gates and around the perimeter of the wall toward the main street.
Samdene Castle was in the center of the town, with a wall and moat around the circumference dividing the town houses from the castle grounds. Aunt Jane was Elissa's mother's youngest sister who had never previously married. Jane had married the widowed Baron Samuel who had one young married son of the same name. The marriage had taken place two years ago, and Elissa wondered how the vivaciously independent Jane was coping with being married to a much older man, a widower of ten years. The couple had attended the funeral services; that of her mother a year ago, and recently, her father's; but in her isolating grief, Elissa had only been vaguely aware of their presence.
Stealing a glance at Sir Louis as they slowed their horses to a walk, due to darkness and the unevenness of the small, worn cobblestones, Elissa wished she had been more observant. He said he had been present, at both funerals. She sighed. So had Baron Chatelain, but she could not place him at all. The Baron had noticed her at her mother's funeral. He probably felt sorry for me, she thought. He had coveted her as his future wife. Just before her father's death, Baron Chatelain had approached Dorai on one of the knights' rendezvous, and the brother had heartily agreed with the match. He had broken the 'good news' to Elissa, two months after their father's funeral, and the betrothal date was set--for tomorrow. Dorai announced that three months' mourning was more than enough. "It's time to set our minds on happier occasions," he had said.
The despondent Elissa remembered her father's words. Foretelling Dorai's lack of emotion, the old man had prophesied that Dorai would be void of real care until he married and had children of his own. When, or if, this happened, then Dorai would really begin to 'live'. And here she was, being married off first, when Dorai had now gained the age of twenty-one. He had recently passed the arduous tests and taken the solemn oaths to become a Frencolian knight, a keeper of the kingdom.
Elissa knew that once the betrothal papers were signed, she was as good as married to Baron Chatelain. The wedding ceremony was incidental.
Maybe Sir Louis was going to talk the Baron out of the marriage. That would surely teach Dorai some kind of lesson--but her brother would be furious! He would blame her.
Elissa's thoughts screamed back to Samdene at the sound of a terrified cat racing across the darkened street, pursued by two bold pariah dogs, barking ferociously at full volume, heedless of the approaching horses. The dogs had been watching the cat wash itself atop the wall. Sitting in the shadows, they had patiently awaited their opportunity to strike. The moment for the chase had arrived.
Simultaneously, Blue and Red Boy whinnied and shied! Louis was able to bring Blue under control almost instantly, but Elissa's mind had been elsewhere, and Red Boy began to bolt before she could pull herself together. Instead of taking the main street, Red Boy continued around the narrow path on the inside of the town wall. Darkness and displaced cobblestones were not a good combination for a terrified horse. He gathered momentum. His foot caught in a deep pothole, and he stumbled. Falling forward at such speed, Elissa could do nothing to prevent herself from landing heavily on the cobblestones. Instinctively, the girl flung her arms forward to cushion the impact, but they crumpled uselessly, and she felt the side of her forehead smack sickeningly against the stone path. At the same time, Red Boy crashed to the ground, and his great body rolled sideways across her legs.
Momentarily stunned, Elissa could think only of Red Boy, her precious friend and loyal servant, Red Boy. His petrified whinny resounded in her ears, but she felt heartened to hear him making a noise, any noise. Elissa remembered one of Dorai's horses having such a fall, and the horse's neck had been broken. Oblivious to the sound of other horses arriving, Elissa turned her head and spoke to her horse.
"Get up, Red Boy, get up!" She was pinned down by his great bulk and the feeling seemed to have fled from her legs. He was too heavy. Red Boy snorted, grunted, and lifted his head, but he did not get up. Shouting at him, she implored, "Get up, Red Boy, get up!" The weight was suddenly gone from her legs as the soldiers lifted the horse away. Sir Louis' voice came to her ears, but she could not make out his form in the darkness.
"Elissa, are you hurt?"
"I don't...know. Red Boy! Why won't he get up?" She willed herself to crawl toward the horse, but Louis lifted her, standing her upright. Leaning weakly against him, she cried out, "My shoulder! Oh! My legs! Oh! My head aches!" Sir Louis lifted her up into his strong arms.
"Let me see Red Boy! Tell me what's wrong with him!" Elissa's voice had reached such an emotional pitch that Louis felt afraid not to do as she asked. He sat her on the cobblestones beside the horse's head, and watched whilst she lay her head against the animal's neck. Feeling expertly down the horse's fore flanks, the knight examined each leg, discussing the creature with two of his men. To Elissa, it seemed an age before he moved back to squat down beside her.
"His front legs are broken."
"Oh, no! Poor Red Boy!" How could she bear him to suffer like this? Her beautiful horse! "How bad?" Even as she heard her mournful voice ask this question, Elissa knew her horse's injuries were fatal. Red Boy suffered excruciating pain; he struggled wildly, snorting louder. She attempted to fling her arms around his neck, but one arm would not respond, and the other felt like a lump of lead. Heart-broken, Elissa sobbed, feeling spasms of panic erupting beneath his sweaty coat.
"One leg is broken in two places," Louis said, reaching to lift her arm from the horse's neck. He did not want to tell her the condition of the other leg. "You know what we have to do, don't you Elissa?" He waited for her answer.
"Yes," she answered dolefully. She closed her eyes, and thought of the grave in which her father had been buried, so recently; wasn't it just last week? Or was it a month ago? Now it was Red Boy! Aware of the horse's terror, she cried, "Please take care of it, Sir. But I would like him buried in my garden at home, please." Turning back to her panting horse, she kissed his nose and said, "Goodbye...Red...Boy...Oh, I can't bear this! Red Boy..." Tears blurred her vision, and she thought again of her father...and her mother. Please, not Red Boy, too! If only she could hold on to him, will him to live...she clung to his mane as he whinnied and struggled in pain.
Elissa fought against forceful hands as they pulled her away from her beloved horse. Someone was going to have to kill Red Boy! This tragedy was more than she could bear. Crying out at the sharp pain in her shoulder, she attempted to push away from Louis with her other hand, but it, too, throbbed. The powerful knight was unintentionally hurting her as he dragged her away. Elissa was no match for Louis' strength, and, as he mounted one of the soldier's horses, with the sobbing girl in his muscular arms, he felt her trembling body suddenly relax, exhaustively limp. Her head slumped against his chest, and she was silent.
"I must take her to the castle. Take care of the horse. One of you must go to the farrier's and hire a cart. Be careful! And remember, no one is to know our identities. I'll meet you outside the Post. We'll take the horse back towards Leroy tonight."
Louis' mind worked rapidly as he guided the horse along the main street. Several of his soldiers rode with him, but when they approached the gates, he motioned them back. Elissa seemed to be unconscious. What frustration! Now he would have to enter the castle himself. Then again, maybe it isn't so bad, he thought, this deed could still be used to my advantage. Samuel and Jane will be good alibis--they may even become 'accessories' to the 'crime' I'm about to commit. There's no way I'm going to give up my idea now. Dorai needs to be taught a lesson; this young lady should never have been driven to ride alone on the dangerous roads between Leroy and Samdene. This accident is proof of that fact. Indeed, but far worse things could have happened!
Sir Louis heard the guard at the gate challenge him, and he called in reply, "I'm a knight of the kingdom! Grant me entry!" He watched whilst the aged guard carried a torch close to his horse to peer at Louis' uniform and distinctive brassards. The guard stared at the unconscious young woman in the knight's arms. "I have Lady Elissa Jane Dorai with me. She needs a doctor's attention." At these words, all was speed and haste to convey the knight to the castle doors.
Voices floated to and fro; the brilliance of the room surged and flitted far away. Elissa focused her eyes on the face of her Aunt Jane, leaning over her. The lady's face distorted, and Elissa closed her eyes. She felt a cold compress placed on her forehead, and opened her eyes again.
"Elissa, can you hear me?" Jane stared into her niece's glassy eyes. To her concern, the hazel eyes disappeared as Elissa's long lashes fell closed once more. Turning, the aunt tried to capture the conversation between Louis and Samuel. A knock sounded on the door, and Jane hurried to open it.
She announced, "It's the doctor." With a flick of his head, Louis closed the grille of his hood as the doctor entered the room. The senior knight drew Samuel out of the room, and they moved to the castle's small library chamber. Once Louis was assured of Samuel's co-operation, they came back to the sitting room where Elissa had been laid.
A sharp, hoarse voice, that of an aggravated old man, rasped in their ears. "Bruises! So many bruises! I'll have to bleed her! That bruise on her head will give her pain; and both her legs are severely bruised."
"They were crushed under her horse. Are you sure nothing is broken?" Louis stared through the lattice at the ancient little man who was tending to the groaning, semi-conscious Elissa.
The nervous doctor stared at Louis in surprise. It was most unusual to see a knight wearing his helmet indoors. In answer to the question, his attention went back to his patient, and he murmured, "No, nothing seems...broken...maybe one of the bones in her wrist is cracked. I'll strap her other arm so that will be immobile; she's wrenched her shoulder...it'll give her pain, too." Speaking to Jane, he questioned, "You said she spoke to you. That's important. Were you able to understand what she said? Did she seem disoriented?"
"She spoke about her horse; she understood that it had to be put down."
Louis spoke, "After the fall, she spoke quite coherently, but she was in a lot of pain."
"Good. That's good. She's taken a nasty bang on her forehead, but I think it'll be all right. Someone must sit beside her and talk to her. It's important that she wakes and is kept awake for a while. When I'm satisfied about the head injury, I'll give her something to help the pain." Turning, the doctor took a small vial from his bag, placing it at the ready.
When the senior knight felt assured that Elissa's injuries were not life threatening, he went to the stables with Samuel where he chose out thirty horses. With Samuel's help, they took them to the Post, exchanging his weary horses for the fresh ones. Within moments, Louis had organized his men. Three quarters of the company would gallop with him to Leroy, whilst the others would journey to a close location, escorting the cart containing Red Boy's carcass. Instructions had been relayed to the men with the cart, and Louis suddenly realised how much more credibility the dead horse would give to the program of 'teaching Dorai a lesson he will not forget in a hurry'.
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Sir Louis and his men arrived in Leroy long past midnight. Waking the guards at the castle, the senior knight identified himself, then shouted, "We should've checked in here earlier, but you know how it is in Leroy! There's too much nightlife in the village to allow a man time to sleep! Where's Dorai? I suppose he's already a-bed?"
"He's on a mission at the north border castle. He won't be back until the morning, Sir Louis."
"Then we'll take ourselves to the Bulwark, where we'll get a bite to eat and some shut-eye."
Before sunrise, Louis had donned fresh clothes, shaved, trimmed his moustache, and was waiting to present himself to the knight in charge. Sir Miles was not up, so Louis sought out the chief servant. Once officially received at the castle, Louis made himself at home. He entered the library and pulled out parchment, ink and quills. When one of his diligent young captains arrived, he had completed the necessary messages.
"Ride out and rendezvous with the men and the cart. This is the ransom note. Take over from them, and have them ride back here to the stables. Remind them to act as though they've been here all night. Once they've eaten and rested, they can report discreetly to me. You know what to do with the other messages. That's all, Felix."
Louis enjoyed the remainder of the early morning. Selecting a book, he retired to the main sitting room from where he knew he could view the action of the day. Servants fussed around him, and he perceived the great consternation and commotion they concealed from the guest of honor. He guessed they had discovered that the Lady Elissa was missing from her room.
Sir Louis called to the chief servant as he hurried by, "You all seem excited. Is there something I can help you with, John?"
"No, Sir! Oh, no, Sir! The master'll be taking care of matters when he arrives back."
With his feet on a footstool, Louis dozed for over an hour before he realised his relaxation was over! The knight in charge, Sir Miles, announced the arrival of guests who were asking for him. Gifts were being delivered and taken to the great hall to be added to the collective display. A knave proclaimed the unbelievable news; "King Friedrich's son, Prince Leopold, has arrived in the village, and is on his way here to Leroy castle!"
"Sir Dorai has not yet returned, and Lady Elissa is not well. We trust that you will be able to greet your cousin, the prince, m'lord." Miles' color appeared to be extraordinarily high this morning, and Louis was sure that he was greatly affected by the missing Elissa. Knowing royal protocol, Louis soon had the guests arranged out in the front courtyard to greet Prince Leopold. The senior knight's mind raced. The prince! Louis had been told that his cousin was unable to come to the betrothal. Still, what difference would this make to his plans? The prince would be sure to take his cousin's side if it came to a confrontation; at least that is what Louis hoped.
Later, when Dorai finally emerged, having viewed his sister's note and her artwork of the window escape, he came red-faced to address the guests who had congregated in the great hall with Sir Louis. His face grew redder as he bowed low before the Crown Prince. Dorai attempted to explain Elissa's absence without having to tell the truth about her running away.
"She...my sister...she's been...upset, depressed, especially since Father's death...I'm sorry, but she won't be present for the ceremony. She's been...she's not well."
"The ceremony will go ahead as planned?" Louis watched Dorai's face. As he had expected, this man would not admit that his sister had run away.
"Of course. I'll stand in as proxy. I'm Elissa's legal guardian."
"Then we'll save the main celebrations until tomorrow, so your sister can be with us; I hope she makes a speedy recovery!"
"I hope she makes haste, too!" Dorai spoke grimly. He had dispatched a company to Samdene to escort Elissa back to Leroy. The company should arrive there tonight, then tomorrow morning they would return with the wayward fiancée. The way Dorai felt, he would give her a sound whipping when she arrived back! He said, dryly, "Yes, we'll save the main celebrations for tomorrow night!"
Baron Louis Chatelain, Nephew of King Friedrich; First Cousin of Prince Leopold; Senior Knight of the Kingdom of Frencolia: Sir Louis wished fervently that it was Lady Elissa Jane Dorai standing at his side, and not this brother of hers, Dorai. As Lord Farey read the Betrothal contract aloud, Louis' mind tried to picture how the young woman would react when she found out that 'Sir Louis' was also 'Baron Chatelain'. Anger surged through Louis as he brooded about this man who had withheld his gifts from Elissa and her letters from him. Had he, Louis Chatelain, known of such discrepancies, he would have visited Elissa long ago. He knew he would find revenge in teaching Dorai a lesson; and he determined that he would not waver, but would work through his 'program' step by step, to the finish, and make the lesson unforgettable!
The Betrothal Ceremony complete; vows exchanged; Dorai had received a ring on Elissa's behalf; the papers were signed and sealed; and according to the laws of the Kingdom of Frencolia, Baron Louis Chatelain and Lady Elissa Jane Dorai were legally joined. More gifts arrived; and Dorai's men rode into the castle courtyard, bringing the bloodstained cart containing Red Boy's cumbersome carcass.
The company had ridden eight miles out of Leroy before they found the abandoned cart, which had been turned to block the road. The knight, Sir Willard, immediately recognized Elissa's horse. But not a soul had been in sight. Willard ordered his men to search the surrounding area for Elissa. A note was discovered, attached to Red Boy's bridle, addressed to 'Sir Dorai; Leroy Castle'. Hesitating but briefly, Willard broke the unmarked seal, and read words that spoke of a dastardly deed and demanded a rich ransom.
"Dorai. Lady Elissa met with an accident, and we had to end her horse's life. To prevent us doing the same with her, we require two hundred gold pieces. Send two men out towards Samdene at first light tomorrow morning. One is to wear plain brown peasant's clothes; the other, a soldier's uniform. Wait at the crossroads sign: Valdemar, Leroy, Samdene. When the gold is safely in our hands, we'll communicate where you may collect your sister: unharmed if you follow these instructions implicitly. Send no escorts. Warn no knights. Summon no troops. You must look after your sister, and not let her roam the countryside. From: the men who picked up your sister."
If Dorai had experienced little emotion when he had viewed Elissa's note, this was not the case when he read the ransom note. The host of the feast was summoned from the sumptuous meal being shared with the guests. The sight of his sister's dead horse caused a sickening knot to rise in Dorai's stomach.
"We think the horse must've taken a bad fall, Sir. Both forelegs are broken." Willard held the ransom note towards Dorai. "But that's not the worst of it, Sir. It seems that some mercenary-minded crooks have found your sister...this...is a ransom note!"
Dorai's stony gaze perused the ransom note. "Two hundred gold pieces! Where do they think I can get that much? We must have it before dawn?" He looked around as Sir Louis approached with some of his men. The newly betrothed man walked straight to the cart.
"What on earth? Whose horse was this, Dorai?" He turned to view his host, but it was to see the man's back disappearing up the steps and in through the back door. Louis followed the path of his victim. Dorai moved quickly to his bedchamber where he unlocked a wall cupboard, hidden behind a small bookcase. Louis entered the room quietly, and watched as Dorai began forming stacks of ten gold pieces. He counted the large eight-sided coins, out loud.
"Eighty-six!" Banging his fists on the small table, Dorai fought to control his emotions. The gold pieces now lay in disarray. Drawing Elissa's note from the drawer of the ornately carved table, he passed it, with the ransom demand, to Louis. The frustrated brother explained, "Elissa left the castle alone yesterday and rode towards Samdene. Her note was not discovered until this morning. As soon as I knew, I commissioned an escort to Samdene to fetch her back; it was this company that found the horse. I'm going to have to ask my knights and soldiers to round up every gold piece they can find." With these words, Dorai strode purposefully from the room.
Louis was interested in Elissa's note; he was still trying to figure out this adventurous young woman. In his life's experience, he had discovered that many times, over half of any problem could be traced to a woman.
"Dear Brother Dorai," he read, "I'm already feeling sorry that I'm depressed enough to resort to running away, but I know you won't feel sorry for me; you'll just be angry. And I know you'll go ahead with my betrothal. My running away will not prevent or change anything, except give me a chance to breathe and to speak with Aunt Jane who will give me comfort that I so long for. We both know that it's better for me to run away than to brood.
"Did you intercept the letters that I wrote to her, as well as those other four? Did she write to me? Sometimes I hate you! But mostly I love you as my only dear brother. I'm sure Aunt Jane and Sir Samuel will see that I am conveyed safely home. I wish to stay for a week or two. Give my apologies to Baron Chatelain and your guests. Enjoy the celebration for me. Signed, Elissa."
Smiling with relief, Louis laid the letter aside. At least the note proved she was not making up a story about the letters she had written him. It was impossible to detect an antagonistic, hateful spirit in the words she wrote. Deep frustration and hurt was what he read. Having no sister himself, Louis wondered how Dorai could treat his one sister so cruelly? The man did not appreciate fortune's smile. He reread the ransom note, written with his own hand. He had disguised his writing, of course. Stroking his chin, Louis stared at the mass of gold coins. Dorai was wasting no time. Louis relaxed back in the armchair, waiting, smiling smugly.
The room was entered six or seven times, and on each occasion, the gold pieces were reassembled into piles. Dorai finally came in with several pieces of jewelry; rings, necklaces, and a gold tiara set with precious stones.
"Those are worth far more than the balance!" Louis examined the jewels. "I hope you send reliable men, or they'll think this ransom well worth the stealing."
"I'm planning to go, myself!" Dorai's voice growled, and for the first time, Louis sensed emotion that the brother was concealing. "I hope to get a good look at these kidnappers before I put my sword through them!"
"I shall go with you, Dorai. I'll be the soldier," Louis said, watching closely to see if Dorai squirmed at the thought of traveling as a peasant. He half expected him to send someone else.
A man who seemed master of every situation, Dorai said in an evenly controlled tone, "I'll have Viktor find us the clothes. We'll leave at dawn. But, now, we must return to the prince and our guests. They must know nothing of this. I'm trying to contain the matter. Only a few of my men know about the ransom note!"
Louis decided to give Dorai one opportunity to discover Elissa's presence at Samdene. He suggested, "I think you should rally all the local knights and their companies, Dorai. Men such as these criminals should be dealt in one way only. Maybe we can do something to rescue your sister, tonight...and..."
Dorai cut Louis short, "What! And endanger Elissa's life! These crooks are for real! I don't believe that horse had an accident. Look what they did to it!" Turning away, he almost cried as he spoke to the wall, so that Louis would not view his overwhelming emotion, "It's unthinkable! I hope Elissa did not see her horse with its throat cut! She'll go out of her mind! I swear I'll have all their heads! Once my sister is safe, we will organize every available company to capture the felons. No wonder our roads are unsafe! No! Not a word to anyone!" Dorai strode from the room.
The Baron sat back in his chair again, feeling extremely pleased with the 'lesson' thus far. 'I have no worries,' he told himself, 'My lovely betrothed is safe.'
When the first day's celebration meal was complete and the guests had eaten and drunk all they desired, the remaining food was carried on heavily laden trays to the castle gates for distribution to eager villagers. Crowds of well-wishers waited there with gifts, and Baron Louis Chatelain was showered with seeds and wheat. The voice of a young person rose from the crowd, "Where's Lady Elissa?" Others took up this cry, "We want to see Lady Elissa!"
Holding his hands up until the crowd was silent, Dorai announced, "My sister's health is poorly. She's resting." He heard a woman's voice call from the throng.
"Tell the truth, Sir Dorai! She ran away again!" A cackling laugh echoed out, smothered by young folk's exclamations; then harmless jests flew at the castle lord.
Waiting servants saw Dorai's gesture for them to distribute the food, and the villagers' attentions were captivated by this welcome event. As the brother turned towards the castle, a calloused hand fell on his shoulder, and the hoarse voice of an old man rasped in his ears.
"I see'd the lass's horse on the cart. She ain't hurt? The Lady Elissa, I mean...is she?"
"No, Jeremy," Dorai said, pushing the man away before continuing his walk to the castle. He felt he needed to evaluate the family jewels once more, and retain the most valuable heirlooms. Dorai's face was dark and stony, and did not reveal the crushed emotions lying heavy, hidden deep in his broad chest.
Guests retired one by one that evening. Small groups had been formed, and the talk was about the rumor of Lady Elissa's perilous escape to run away from the betrothal. Dorai ignored the whispers, and the guests discreetly changed their subject of conversation when he was near. However, when Louis, Dorai and the prince were together in the guest chambers, the prince spoke directly of the matter.
"Did your sister run away, Dorai?"
"Yes, Your Highness. We hope to have her back tomorrow. It's my wish that Your Grace is able to stay for the main celebrations tomorrow night. Viktor will arrange a jousting tournament for you to view, in the morning, if you wish."
"That would be splendid!" The prince turned to Louis, and slapped the back of his hand on his cousin's chest. "What? Did the fair maiden not wish to marry a knight? Maybe she needs taming!"
"I've never been formally introduced to Lady Elissa, nor she to me, Prince Leopold," Louis said, glancing coolly at Dorai, "it's not long since her father died."
"Well, the betrothal is settled! What do you think of this betrothal matter, Louis?" The prince did not wait for an answer. "When I become king, I'll change the whole thing. I was betrothed to a child I'd never seen. Methinks it's atrocious! Father wants us to be married at the end of the year, but I like my freedom." The prince was ignorant of the fact that both these men knew he lied in his latter statement. Leopold was very much in love with his betrothed. He just hated to admit that the woman he loved did not return his affection. She was in love with another!
"You were betrothed when you were seven, Cousin. That's a little different. And you're great friends with Lady Estelle; like brother and sister." Louis stared at Dorai when he said these words, but the man's face was unreadable. "I chose Elissa; she's my chosen love."
"It seems that she's not wanting to choose you, Cousin Louis," Prince Leopold said with satisfaction in his voice. He turned to Dorai, "I'm very interested in meeting your sister; Dorai. She has red hair, has she not? A fiery little thing, I'll warrant! Aye?"
"No, not fiery. Well, sometimes, maybe...a little. Actually...she...is..." In a sudden moment of emotion, Dorai bowed and backed away. The whole problem of his sister's kidnapping had overcome him. "She is...she...has," he very nearly said, 'been kidnapped,' but he made his exit from the room before he blurted this disclosure.
Staring at the closing door, flung back by Dorai's arm, the prince asked Louis, "Now, what made the man so impossible all of a sudden? What did I say, Cousin?"
"Dorai is very concerned for his sister. She's been very depressed."
"You don't mean? She wouldn't..."
"No, not suicide, Leopold, just as well. But he worries about her." Louis thought to himself, And so he should! I'm becoming satisfied to see his anxiety. Revenge is so sweet!
Before first light, Dorai dressed in the plain brown peasant's clothes and walked with Louis to the stables. The Baron was suddenly filled with admiration for this strange man with the deeply hidden emotions. Maybe they would talk as they rode. Louis hoped so.
Dorai set a record-breaking pace. Blue responded to the challenge and kept close behind, but miles flew by before Dorai slowed to a walk, allowing the animals a necessary reprieve. Even then, the stony-faced brother rode in silence. The smoldering sun climbed high into the eggshell blue sky, and every moment Dorai expected to be apprehended.
"Valdemar--Leroy--Samdene." The younger knight sat impatiently on his horse's back for ten minutes before dismounting and taking the horse to a small creek.
"I hope Elissa's not seriously injured. The note said she met with an accident," Louis said, breaking the rigid silence that had enveloped them the whole distance. Dorai made no comment, but kept his eyes darting around the area. Louis spoke again, "By the way, Dorai, what did she think of the gifts I sent? I expected a note of appreciation from her...the necklace I sent before your father died...it was...my mother's..."
They both stood beside the horses now, and Louis saw the clouds on Dorai's face grow even darker. Dorai leaned against the saddle of his horse. He spoke quietly. "Elissa and I don't see eye to eye all the time. Tears, tears, always tears. Womenfolk! Mother was the same."
"Did you give her the necklace?" Louis persisted, sensing Dorai's evasion of the truth.
"As a matter of fact, no." Dorai turned to face Louis. "Gifts and funerals don't go together. Father was seriously ill when your gift arrived. I had no idea what was in it."
"Did you give her the other two gifts?"
"I thought you might change your mind."
Louis was caught off-balance by this answer. He exclaimed, "What! Change my mind? About what?"
"The betrothal. You know that nothing is legal until the papers are signed." Dorai saw Louis' face redden at this truth. The brother continued, "My sister's life has consisted of one sorrowful disappointment after another. Do you know what she thinks about this life?" He laughed bitterly and added, "She regards life on this earth as a time of misery, to be endured before a better and happier life can be enjoyed. I could not bear to tell her one thing, and then have something else happen. Now that it's legal, and could be enjoyed, she has this unbelievable setback. I've always tried to protect Elissa from the misery and depression she succumbs to so often when life goes against her; and to make her happy, I allow her a measure of freedom." Dorai's voice became boyishly forlorn. "Elissa is all I have left. I can't bear it! What is she enduring? Do you think they'll kill her?"
"Kill her?" Louis' racing mind was upon the hidden torment his new brother-in-law was experiencing. He could now see through a chink in the man's defenses. Underneath, Dorai did have a heart. His sister had been greatly depressed, that was obvious; but how depressed, he wondered? And why? Dorai was holding so much back.
Louis heard himself answer, "No, they won't kill her. Not if they get the gold." He stared around the clearing, and urged, "I think we should take a look around." Drawing his sword, Louis walked across the other side of the road and into the bushes. Dorai followed suit, and they inspected the area around the crossroads. Louis moved back into the middle of the clearing, and leaned upon the sign, hoping Dorai would discover the note that his men had planted on the other side of the post. He waited.
"What's taking them so long?" Dorai held up the large bag containing the ransom. He called into the air, "Come and get it. There's more than two-hundred worth here." The distraught man stamped back and forth, cutting off budding leaves with his swinging sword. Louis uncorked a flask and slid down the post to sit on the ground. After drinking thirstily, he handed the flask to Dorai. Pushing his sword back into its sheath, Dorai quickly emptied the contents. "Where are they?" he asked. Turning away, his eyes connected with the small leather pouch that hung on the back of the signpost. "What's this?" He grasped the article and wrenched it loose.
Louis breathed a silent sigh of relief as Dorai took the note from the pouch and read the words aloud. The sooner this ordeal was over, the better, the newly betrothed man thought. Why didn't he learn not to jump to conclusions? Why did he meddle? Hadn't he always told himself to hear both sides of a story before favoring one side more than another? He did not even know half the story, he realised. Why hadn't this man shown his sister that he cared for her, instead of tormenting both her and himself by not truthfully communicating? Now he, Louis, was feeling sickened by the whole affair--he knew the next items on the program! Revenge has turned on me, her told himself, and it's not sweet, but has a bitter, corrosive flavor.
"Dorai. You came yourself!" At this announcement, Dorai stared in concern around the empty clearing. He slowly turned back to the letter to read, "How caring of you. You do feel for your sister. Leave the ransom beside the signpost, and return to the castle at Leroy where you'll find a further communication from us. It is wedged into the saddle on the horse. We have this place monitored, and will stand for no funny business. Go now, and don't turn to look back."