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"We'll stop here," Tristan Carlisle called as he reined in his horse and flung himself from the black destrier so his company might rest for the night.
He cursed his trip, even as he savored this last stop before he reached Prague and the squawking women awaiting himthe largest retinue ever to accompany a princess for her nuptials. A bloody dubious honor for a warrior.
"Escort," he muttered, disgusted by the very sound of the word. Fifteen years in service to kings of England, and this was the mission his hard work had earned?
England's war with France raged while he was sent on a courtier's assignment. Did they think his sword arm grew weak? He could fight better than half of Richard's hasty-witted front line with his dagger alone, since most of the young king's men were naught but beslubbering babes who'd seen little combat.
Richard had made excuses about the importance of his bride's protection and a recent threat to the Bohemian court. But the questand the king's concern sounded a bit hollow to Tristan, despite Richard's promise of long-overdue lands in exchange for Tristan's success.
The black horse snorted as it slaked its thirst, echoing Tristan's opinion.
"I couldn't agree more, friend. No warrior in his right mind should accept a courtier's job, and yet here we are. Roaming our tired arses across this fair land with naught but a bastard's lot in life by way of royal appreciation. If Richard fails to come through with lands this time " Snort, indeed. Tristan would be looking into a mercenary's life if the king did not recognize his efforts after this.
"Tris?" His friend Simon Percival called to him from a few feet away. Thepresence of Simon on the journeya knight almost as ancient as Tristan at thirty summerswas one of the few circumstances that made the endless journey bearable. "Should we stop here for the night, or do you wish to ride farther? We can arrive in Prague tomorrow if we pick up speed."
"I am in no hurry. Tell the men to unload and I'll search the area." Needing to clear his resentful head so he might fulfill his duty, he vaulted back onto his horse.
Tristan worked with slow caution to secure the encampment as twilight approached. The solitude of the land suited his mood. The dark woods gave way to rolling hills, providing plenty of cover for foreign knights on strange terrain.
As the sounds of his men quieted in the last purple light of day, he heard a distinct cry from deeper in the forest.
He paused, reasonably sure the noise came from an animal but waiting to be certain. Although he seemed to be in the middle of remote country, perhaps a road wound nearby and some hapless traveler had met with thieves. When the cry came again, Tristan still questioned whether it was animal or human, but it sounded too tortured to ignore.
Sliding from his horse, he stalked toward the sound. When it became continuous, he hastened his step until he reached a clearing with a perfect circle of aged oaks in the middle. The noise emanated from within that ring, but in the falling twilight he could not clearly make out a form. He was fairly certain there were no animals fighting here, nor could he see any horses or thieves.
Moving forward, he gained ground until he touched one of the old oaks.
The cries stopped.
A figure stirred within the ring of trees.
Squinting, Tristan recognized the shape of a young woman or was it?
Half-reclining on the ground, the woman wore garments that belonged to neither a peasant nor a lady. Her long dress had a full skirthe could see it floating all about her legs on the groundbut it was not long enough to hide her bare feet. She was covered from head to toe with small twigs and pine needles.
And her hair
It called to mind a fey witch or fairy in a child's tale. Thick waves cloaked her upper body in the same way her long dress covered the lower half. The dark tresses reached her waist and looked unaccustomed to the rigors of a comb.
Surely he dreamed.
No woman would be in the middle of the wilderness like this. Yet, she appeared to belong in the woods wild and uncivilized. An unearthly beauty about her made him wonder if he'd been bewitched.
Her strange appearance in the ancient circle of trees where no superstitious mortal would dare tread supported that conclusion. And before her abrupt silence, she had wailed with pagan fury to the unyielding oaks.
Tristan yearned to satisfy himself that she was real. Softly he approached her, spellbound by the strangeness of the vision.
For a moment, the woman did not move. She seemed frozen, peering into Tristan's eyes and searching his face. Tristan was so close that he caught a vague scent of her, could see the heavy rise and fall of her breasts, discern the damp trail of tears down dirt-smudged cheeks. Still not convinced she could possibly be real, Tristan lifted his hand to touch her. In one swift, soundless movement, the green-eyed wench sprang to her feet and ran.
"Sit still, Arabella."
By now the gentlewoman's command sounded like a threat, and Arabella forced herself to cease her restless wriggling on the velvet-covered bench inside the Prague home of the king. She had been sitting stillmostly stillfor the last hour while the matron of the royal retinue pinched, pulled and poked in an effort to fit her with an appropriate traveling gown for the journey to England. Five other young women stood or sat quietly for their maids in the upstairs chamber that had served as home to Arabella and several other noblewomen from far-flung parts of Bohemia for the past few nights.
Yet Lady Hilda grumbled as she worked.
"Merciful heaven help us, you look as fit to join a royal entourage as a wildcat."
"Pay her no heed, Lady Arabella," a girlish voice whispered at Arabella's elbow. "You are a wonderful addition to our company."
Mary Natansia, Arabella's lone friend since she had arrived in Prague, squeezed her hand as the two of them suffered the none-too-gentle hands of Tryant Hilda, a distant relative of the princess with enough titles to give her freedom to speak her mind.
Arabella's brief education in the noble world had already taught her that much. Titles made women invincible here. Their power did not come from herbs and knowledge, or even saving lives.
"Thank you." She smiled back at the delicate blonde with skin so fair Hilda remarked glowingly upon it.
A quiet girl of eighteen summers, Mary was King Wenceslas IV's ward, a position of great prestige since the Bohemian king also served as the Holy Roman Emperor. Although Arabella gathered the younger woman was wealthy enough to rule the glittering court life of Prague, Mary shied away from it. After arriving in the city three days ago, Arabella had been consumed with preparations for the upcoming journey to England. She had worked on a few of her own surcoats under the careful tutelage of the princess's maids. She had been advised what was expected of her on the journey. But she had not ventured out of the women's apartments for long, and tonight would be her first formal supper at Prague Castle.
She was nervous since her old formal surcoat had appeared like peasant's garb next to the rich attire of the women who greeted her politely, then dismissed her with their gazes. It did not help that she had arrived at the castle's gate with her grandmother. Zaharia was a wise and gifted woman, but the superstitious called her a sorceress.
Mary Natansia, however, did not hold Arabella's family or less exalted appearance against her.
"There," Hilda announced, smiling with satisfaction at having finished her work. "I will render you presentable whether you like it or not." Pointing a long pin as if it were a sword, she threatened her wayward charge while she waved over a younger maid. "Now, Millie will assist you with your hair for the celebration this eve."
Submitting to the dressing and the brushing provided to ladies-in-waiting without their own maids, Arabella allowed her mind to wander with the rhythmic strokes of the silken brush.
The visage of the knight appeared in her mind's eye, the way it had so many other times during the past sennight since she had first seen him.
The knight had been brazen to walk so close to the circle of trees some called enchanted. No one of Arabella's acquaintance, aside from her family, would stray near such a place.
And no man had ever dared to look upon her so boldly. For that matter, she had hardly ever met a man's eyes directly until that day. Her mother worried about the motives of strange men after Luria's experience with Arabella's father, who could not be forced to wed the mother of his only heir.
The men of her homeland feared and respected Zaharia, so they avoided her granddaughter out of deference to the wise woman. But the knightly stranger had not only stared at her, he had shamelessly extended his hand to touch her.
His reaching out to her had been compelling in those moments before her sense had returned. His presence had been impressive. Large and looming with gray eyes. His whole countenance had a rather fearsome element about it, with the predatory eye of a wolf.
She had run her fastest to elude that gaze and the touch that went with it. When she finally paused to discern his whereabouts, the forest remained silent as death. No one followed her. The stranger had vanished as quickly as he had appeared. Yet the moon had trekked halfway across the sky before Arabella stopped trembling. She realized she had grown up too isolated by half, if a stranger could frighten her thus. Who would ever callArabella wise, like her grandmother, when she fled life like a craven minnow?
"All finished, my lady," Millie proclaimed finally, drawing Arabella to her feet. She and Hilda stood side by side, wreathed in smiles, until Hilda tugged Arabella's arm.
"Come and look in the glass, Arabella, and try to appreciate what magic we have wrought."
Hilda prodded her to a looking glass mounted inside a trunk that had been carted into the room for the day.
Curious, Arabella glanced into it. The startled figure who stared back at her bore little resemblance to the young woman she'd seen reflected in the stream that pooled near her home.
Gone were the unruly tresses that her mother once snipped off in frustration. They were replaced by silken waves that shone even in the dull glass. She reached to touch them until Hilda and Millie both lurched forward as if to intervene.
Dutifully returning her hands to her sides, she took in the crisp white linen kirtle topped with a cotehardie of royal-blue velvet, a color so deep and expensive none wore it but those of an exalted station. Tonight, that would be her. Her flat slippers were barely noticeable beneath her long skirts, but when they peeped out from underneath, they matched her velvet skirts.
Arabella wondered where her former untamed self had gone, now that this refined creature had taken her place.
As if sensing her thoughts, Hilda winked and gently turned her toward the door.
"I trust your manners will be inspired by the beauty of your appearance. Pray, do not disrupt our hard work too soon."
Turned loose to find her way to the great hall, Arabella felt every bit as lost here tonight as she had imagined she might in those final nights on her bed at home. But before she could become fully confused in the maze of corridors leading to the hall, Mary caught up with her, her pale hair tied with a sky-blue ribbon like an angel in one of the castle's religious paintings. "This way," she called, gesturing in the opposite direction and then steering them down corridors growing more populated. The swell of music reached their ears as they neared the great hall. "Do not be nervous, Arabella. The feeling dissipates once you get through the door."
Arabella halted in her pretty slippers, adrift in this world that had hurt her mother deeply with false faces and false promises. Would Arabella be as susceptible to its beautiful cunning?
"Mary." She turned toward her new friend, trusting this one woman if no one else. "Perhaps you can guide me on one more matter, since I know nothing of men. I have no father. No brother. I have scarcely conversed with any male. Are we expected to talk to them at an event such as this?"
Staring back at her with intent eyes, Mary said nothing for a long moment, but Arabella was only too glad to delay her entry into the hall as long as possible. Finally, Mary blinked.
"Yes." Reflexively, she reached for a little knife she normally kept at her waist, only to remember she had lost it that day in the woods she'd met the strange knight. It had been a talisman from her grandmother. Arabella sorely missed the small charm that was the tool of a wise woman's herbal craft, especially when she needed the comfort of something familiar.
"You really did grow up in the forest, didn't you?" Mary's voice possessed a childlike wonder that made Arabella feel a bit stronger for having been raised by the region's most revered wise woman.
"I have never denied it. I do not look at it as a defect, the way the court does."
"Nor do I, Arabella, I promise you. Your life sounds wonderful to me. But truly, men are not so ill behaved, at least not around me." She laughed and her eyes took on a mischievous light. "There are advantages to being the emperor's ward. Remain at my side, and we will face the men you meet together."
"Together." It sounded simple enough. And, although her mother always talked about men as if they were dangerous creatures, Arabella had often wondered if Lady Luria had merely had the misfortune of meeting a poor example.
The lilting strains of the music drifted through the corridor, reminding them of their duty while other ladies-in-waiting passed by them in soft swishes of velvet and linen.
"You will be fine," Mary assured her, tugging her through the huge doors and into the extravagant hall.
Vaulted ceilings and narrow wooden arches supported the cavernous stone chamber, which vibrated with the din of humanity. Bright silks dazzled her, while torches lit walls filled with colorful tapestries and paintings etched with a metallic sheen that looked like gold.
A woman greeted Mary, who was well-known because of her position, despite her usual lack of presence at court. Arabella smiled, but used the time to study the vast chamber and the people within the walls.
Her attention moved slowly over each individual, fascinated by every detail of the lavish gathering. She admired the precious gems decorating the women's garments, the fur-lined cloaks of the men, the more austere dress of one man in particular .
Her heart caught in her throat.