A powerful horsewitch struggles with her gift, her love for an enemy horseman, and fights to save her kingdom!
on-stop action-adventure, suspense, perilous danger, and romance. From the first scene...Dennis pitches into the conflict and keeps you there!
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By Kathrynn Dennis
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Kathrynn Dennis
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBorn in the saddle, he loved the chase, the course, and ere he mounted, kissed his horse. -William Cowper
Dover Beach, England, 1269 Eve of the Eighth Crusade
The warm ocean breeze, damp and heavy with the scent of brine, pasted Sir Robert Breton's muslin shirt against his broad chest and lifted the dark hair that curled at the nape of his neck. But neither his skin nor his temper cooled.
"Have they been whipped?" he asked, his voice tight. He wrapped his fist around his sword's hilt and drew small circles with his thumb on the end of the handle, a place so worn from rubbing it shone like a silver mirror.
The royal clerk, a narrow man with shrewd eyes, licked his lips before he answered. "The sergeant-farrier beat them to make them walk. I intervened before he'd done his worst, knowing how you abhor the lash."
Sir Robert's gut slammed into his backbone. As a knight-for-hire in Prince Edward's wartime service, he'd witnessed cruelty aplenty. The visions crept into his dreams and kept him up at night.
But this was too much.
He clenched his jaw shut, the muscles in his neck and shoulders as tight as a loaded crossbow. God's bones, thesehorses were his most prized possessions. The only living beings on earth he could trust. He'd whip the sergeant-farrier if the coward dared to show his face. Any fool could see the poor beasts had foundered-so footsore they couldn't move. The bay, the chestnut, and the dappled gray stood stiff-legged in the back of the wagon with their necks extended, their tails lifted and their anxious eyes filled with pain. The sergeant's whip had only added to their agony.
The ocean beat against the shoreline, unrelenting, and a slow burn smoldered in Sir Robert's belly. His throat tightened in response, and he got that heavy feeling that plagued his soul whenever someone whipped a horse-the savaging of skin and muscle by a weapon one could not escape. He'd known that kind of pain, better than most men of four-and-twenty.
A string of oaths erupted from his throat as he jerked his shirt over his head and split the garment down the middle, the fabric shredding in his hands like parchment. Garbed only in his black leather breeches and his thigh-high riding boots, he strode past the clerk to the wagon, dunked the tattered shirt into the water bucket, then took the soaking cloth and spread it over the gray's trembling haunches.
An idle crowd gathered round and watched while he soothed his horses-pilgrims, washer women, men-at-arms, knights, and clergy all distracted from the tedium of waiting for the tide. They'd come to gawk at the knight once called the Dark Rider, come to get a glimpse of the horseman who rode for five seasons undefeated on the lists, until the day, a year ago, when he'd been unseated and almost killed, his horse knocked off his feet by the force of their opponent's blow.
Sir Robert rubbed the jagged scar that tracked across his neck, the old wound a grim reminder of how close he'd come to death, of the unfinished business he would leave behind in England. But service to the crown and God precluded personal vendettas. His enemy would have to wait, but he would not be forgotten.
Pivoting on his heel, Sir Robert spun around to face the royal clerk. "We sail at dawn, and my mounts aren't fit enough to make the journey. My horses are critical-to me and to the Holy Cause." He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his large hand, then thrust his chin forward. He gestured to his horses. "Their affliction is suspiciously severe. I suspect they have been poisoned, though God knows with what. I've heard rumors a horsewitch is on the beach. I need her counsel."
At the mention of the word "horsewitch," the crowd gasped.
The clerk's face turned grim. "Sir Robert, she's the daughter of the Earl of Crenalden. He would not let her come, and she might refuse to give assistance, especially to a Breton. Do you really think-"
Sir Robert's fist gripped his sword's hilt. He shot an urgent glare at the clerk. "My destriers might die. She will be safe with me. You may give the earl my promise."
A hard line of disapproval formed around the clerk's mouth. He said not a word, though he studied the horses as if considering all alternatives.
Sir Robert drew an impatient breath. Truth be told, he loathed the Earl of Crenalden as did every member of the house of Breton. To seek assistance from the man's daughter, a woman called a horsewitch, was an act of desperation that stabbed his conscience.
But if anything happened to his horses, his soul would be torn apart, and all hope for the future would be lost.
The clerk looked up, his face full of reservation, but his tone acquiescent. "She might do as much harm as good, but if you are determined ... the prince can persuade the earl and his daughter to be compliant. You need only give the order."
Sir Robert's head ached with a peculiar knowing, a sense that the rising wind would soon be more than just a salty breeze.
A gale was coming.
His heart pummeled against his sternum. He planted his feet squarely in the sand, clenched his fists, then said the words loud enough for all to hear. "Fetch the horsewitch."
Her father's words, spoken not an hour past, pounded in her ears. "Do nothing to attract attention. Do not set foot outside our camp, and most of all, do not lay a hand on a horse."
Her hands shaking, Eldswythe pulled the cork from the leather wineskin, then forced a hollow length of cane into the spout. "Mother Mary, please forgive me. But there is one who needs my help. I must go."
With the ocean winds whipping at her veil and her fine blue tunic, she hurried toward the haggard horse tethered to a wagon not twenty feet away. Placing the heel of her hand beneath his chin, she raised his muzzle. "Just a draught to help you breathe." She slipped the cane into his mouth and squeezed the wineskin like a bellows.
The horse closed his eyes, as if he savored the taste of the mare's milk, ale, and honey. Then a cough erupted from his head. The outburst was followed by a fit of retching. Medicine spewed from his mouth and nostrils-splattering Eldswythe's face.
She dropped the wineskin and wiped her cheeks. "Jesu! Swallow what is left and be at peace. Else you'll get me discovered!"
From the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of a scarlet tunic headed toward her. A soldier. A royal guard. Fear paralyzed her legs as a rough hand caught her elbow. "Are you the Lady Eldswythe? The one they call the horsewitch?" The soldier smelled of sweat, roasted pig, and wine. His fingers dug into her arm. "I've orders to find her. They say she bears the mark of the devil's horse on her backside. Will you make me look?" He leaned closer. "Horsewitch?"
Her throat tightened, impeding her ability to swallow or move her tongue. Horsewitch. That word could still undo her, even after all these years.
She cast a furtive glance at the tent behind her where her father slept, resting after a long day's journey. Mother Mary, she hated being called a horsewitch, but if he awakened to that word, he would be furious. And the very mention of her mark would inflame him. He would fight the man to defend her reputation. She could not have her father risk his life again-for her.
She glared at the soldier's small eyes, then lowered her gaze to the dirty glove that held her arm. "Unhand me, sir. You overstep your bounds. I am the Lady Eldswythe, the daughter of Aldrick, the Earl of Crenalden. Don't force me to wake him."
Instantly, the soldier's grip relaxed. Without another word, he wheeled around and headed in the direction from whence he'd come, his booted feet kicking up the chalk-white sand.
Emboldened by his fast retreat, she cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, "I am not a horsewitch, or else I'd cast a spell and make you grow a horse's tail. And that, good sir, would much improve your backside."
She hurried to the refuge of her father's tent. "At times I wish I had some magic," she mumbled to herself. "Then I'd conjure a home, a handsome husband, and children of my own. A normal life like any other woman's."
Leaning against a stack of oaken chests, she drew a deep breath and brushed a straying curl off her forehead, tucking the recalcitrant lock of hair beneath her veil. The old horse had finally stopped coughing, and above the ocean's rumble, her father snored like a man who could sleep a thousand years. Endless waves rolled to the shoreline and for a moment, all was calm. Like the days she spent as a girl, playing and working in the stables, caring for her father's horses. She knew no greater joy than the hours she spent with them-or with Safia, a servant woman with a talent like her own. Her teacher and a woman who had loved her like a mother ...
Eldswythe shook her head, fighting back the black mood and dark fear that surfaced when she dwelled on the past. Horsewitch. The very name they'd called her beloved Safia the day they drove her out.
Overheated, she pulled her veil from her head and scanned the crowd. A vast assembly, an army of a thousand men, congregated on the beach. Heraldic silks in vibrant jewel-tone colors beat against the bright blue sky. The sounds of horses, men's shouts, and war drums pounded in the air. Swords clanked and armor glinted in the sun, while pilgrims prayed and peddlers hawked herbs against seasickness and holy relics meant for luck.
Eldswythe reached for the sugared plums she always carried in her satchel. The treat soothed her like no other sweet, and she chewed while she watched a royal clerk, a thin-faced man with bags beneath his eyes, weave his way between the jumbled rows of tents. He tromped in her direction. His brown velvet robe, too warm for summer, billowed in the wind and wrapped around his wiry legs. Pink-cheeked and breathless, he stopped to shake the seaweed off his pointed shoes and smooth his lank blond hair.
He stepped beneath the awnings of her father's tent and bowed. "Lady Eldswythe, Prince Edward sends his greetings. I am here to ask you to come with me to Sir Robert Breton's camp. He has need of your assistance."
Eldswythe straightened. She dusted sticky sugar from her hands, knowing that her fingers and her lips bore a plum-colored stain. She swallowed, then tugged at the neckline of her tunic. The rose-and-laurel stitching there prickled as if it had suddenly sprouted thorns. "Sir Robert Breton asks for my help?"
Despite the feud between their families, her heart thumped with secret pride. He was her enemy by birth, but he was a gifted knight, renowned for his horsemanship and his exquisite horses.
Armor clattered and a stream of curses erupted from within the tent behind her. The clerk stepped backward as her father strode forth. His young squire, Malgen, stumbled out behind him.
Her father grabbed her hand and pulled her to his side. "What does Robert Breton want?" He glared at the perspiring clerk. "Lady Eldswythe is not some strumpet to be summoned to his tent for his amusement."
Malgen, sweet-faced and easily embarrassed, stepped beside his lord in a show of support, but a faint wash of color rose to his pale cheeks.
The clerk's jaw muscles began to twitch. "Someone has poisoned Sir Robert's horses, my lord. He knows of the lady's equine expertise and has need of her assistance." He lifted his chin. "And, my lord, Prince Edward has named Sir Robert as commander of the mounted guard. An honor for a knight not yet twenty-five years old. A man so favored by the future king can surely be trusted with your daughter."
Eldswythe bit her lower lip, struggling to contain her excitement. It would be an honor to examine horses as fine as those belonging to Sir Robert, even if he was a Breton and the scandalous younger son of her father's greatest enemy, the Earl of Hillsborough.
Eager for the chance to prove herself, she pried her father's hand from hers. "I wish to go, Father. Perhaps I can be of some assistance." She gestured to the surf, where men readied rowboats that would ferry them to waiting ships. "I'll be back before you finish loading."
She forced a smile, knowing her father disapproved. He'd been tolerant of her gift so far and sensed he watched her with the scrutiny of a father who was proud, but wary of her skill and uncertain of what to do with her. She'd no doubt he would have liked her better if she'd been a boy.
Yet she could not deny her calling. She had a gift for rooting out the cause of equine maladies. Only a month ago, she had cured Sir Hallard's stallion of chronic pizzle rot after many men had tried and failed. The grateful knight had gifted her with a fine lady's saddle cut from the finest leather.
Pride emboldened her. "Please, Father, I want to-"
The earl held his hand up. "Hear me out on this, Eldswythe. I know you well enough. You are headstrong, though well-meaning. You'd go marching to Sir Robert's camp, to do what you felt you must, heedless of my warnings or of the consequences of your actions. But no daughter of mine will give audience to a Breton-thieves, blackguards, scoundrels, every one of them. Robert Breton is the worst. He's filed a petition with the king, claiming Crenalden land east of the River Greve. Your dowered land. And he's the swine who ruined Margaret of Suttony-"
The clerk's voice rose above the wind. "My lord, Sir Robert did not-"
"You dare refute me?" the earl bellowed. "Robert Breton does not abide by the code of chivalry expected of a knight. Lady Eldswythe is just a year from the convent, and soon to marry. I've not kept her so protected to have her ruined on the whim of the Breton horseman. She is here today to see me off, to say goodbye. I've brought her here for no other purpose."
The clerk squared his shoulders. "Good sir, it is Prince Edward's strong desire that your daughter assist Sir Robert with his horses. He asks that you remain behind, since your presence in Sir Robert's camp might incite a riot. I've brought the royal guard to escort us. Your daughter may bring her maid. They will be safe." His voice was stern and strident, his manner unflinching as he tipped his head toward the soldiers who stood discreetly in the distance.
Eldswythe held her tongue, certain the king would not give away her land. That would alienate her father, his rich and staunch supporter. And her father, as much as he hated the House of Breton, would not go against a royal command. Best she did not tell him her maid, Bertrada, lay prostrate in the sick tent, suffering with the others who could not take the heat.
His face creased with frustration, her father let out a long breath as he rubbed his forehead. He glowered at the clerk. "Because our prince desires it, and for the sake of the Holy Cause, I will let her go-with her maid." He jabbed a thick finger at the sweating clerk's chest. "Tell Robert Breton if she comes to any harm, he will pay the price."
The clerk grimaced, then nodded once, but his head barely moved.
Eldswythe tossed her leather satchel over her shoulder. "I'll be careful, Father. I've long learned to be wary of a stallion in a box."
She pecked a kiss on her father's cheek, feeling wise and independent. Then she looked away, lest something in her face reveal it was not just Sir Robert Breton's horses that flamed her interest. The man intrigued her, too. All of England knew of his extraordinary gift for training horses.
The truth be known, she craved a glimpse of this so-called master horseman. She'd heard he was a man who could tame a vicious destrier with his gentle touch and soothe its troubled spirit with his voice. And he could ride a horse as if he had some special insight into the equine mind. Perhaps he, too, was blessed with a powerful connection to the greatest beasts that ever roamed the earth.
This man she had to meet. But she would be cautious. 'Twas rumored Sir Robert Breton was a knight who held his horses dearer than he did a lady's heart. His charm, 'twas said, was especially appealing to women who thought themselves immune.
But I am not just any woman, and after a few short hours it is doubtful that I will ever lay eyes upon him again.
She gathered up her trailing skirts and hurried toward the clerk. "I am ready. We can fetch my maid along the way."
Excerpted from Dark Rider by Kathrynn Dennis Copyright © 2007 by Kathrynn Dennis. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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