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A Knight Well Spent
By Jackie Ivie ZEBRA BOOKS
Copyright © 2008 Jacquelyn Ivie Goforth
All right reserved.
Chapter One AD 1141
He was awake, he was moving, and he was in pain.
Rhoenne eased his step to accommodate the pain lacing his calf. It was more a shuffling stumble than a walk. He wiped a hand across his forehead and grimaced at the sweat beads there before rubbing them away on his tunic's edge. He couldn't prevent the shudder. He knew why. He was fevered.
He forced another step, another wince, and another quickly drawn breath. He couldn't prevent the signs of weakness. All he could do was make certain no one else knew it. That was why he was forcing one agonized step after the other onto a leg mangled to the point he was afraid to look at it.
Rhoenne stopped, listened, and sagged with relief. He could hear the sound of running water. His instincts hadn't failed him. Knighted at sixteen and awarded this fief at the age of a score-and-one, he'd made it a point then to visit every croft, every field, crop, every water source. It had been years ... but he still remembered.
Rhoenne brushed the hair that many likened to a lion's mane from his forehead before entering into the glade. There was one huge boulder, four large stones arranged like steps, and a row of overhanging willows weeping into the brook. It was exactly as he recalled-except for the strange figure straddling the waterfall that fed the brook. Rhoenne was sodisappointed and frustrated he didn't bother to hide the weakness. He lowered his head and groaned loudly, letting every bit of agony pierce the sound.
The black-shrouded figure promptly fell right into the pool, showering everything, Rhoenne included. He kept from a major dousing by stumbling back two steps, before the motion became an all-out fall, slamming him onto the carpet of grass, and stealing every bit of air from his body.
"Oh! How could you?"
Rhoenne opened his eyes, started sucking for air, and glared at the girl who was screeching her words. It didn't work. She was angrier. And she had command of her breathing.
"You-you great big-oaf!"
She was standing beside him, dripping water everywhere, shaking what looked like a child-sized fist at him. Then she gave him the oddest indignity of his life. She stepped right up onto his chest and hammered her feet into it. Rhoenne had only a moment to grasp his luck that she weighed little and that she hadn't anything on her feet, before she was putting words with her steps as she stomped.
"I have to start anew! You've ruined everything! Dinna' just lay there with those big blue eyes and stare! Go! Move!"
The growl he gave hadn't much sound, but he had her off him and onto what scrawny buttocks she probably possessed, by grabbing and twisting her ankles and letting the spin make her fall. He registered that she had fairly shapely legs before she rolled back to her feet, pulling her sodden black mass of clothing about herself.
"So ... you have a bark? I'm cheered for you. Now run along, before The Lady gets annoyed with you." She'd punctuated her speech with heaven-sent arms. "Well? Dinna' just lay there after ruining my blessing ritual. I have to finish."
He bristled. It was rare, but he knew what it was. He knew what caused it, too. He'd never been treated like this. He pulled in a breath. He couldn't decide which pained him more at the moment; his chest or his lower leg. The leg won out. He held the bit of air he'd managed to breathe, and then let it out extremely slowly, since anything else seemed beyond him. The leg was definitely more painful, and it throbbed worse; due, no doubt, to how he'd been forced to move it as he fell.
That was her fault, he thought.
"Are you a dimwit? Why dinna' you say something? I wouldn't have been so angered at you. Come. Tell me why you've sought the services of the Lady of the Brook. I'll na' hurt you."
Rhoenne made fists as she knelt beside him and looked him over with strange-colored eyes. In fact, if he wasn't mistaken, she had one of green and one of brown. That was interesting.
She smiled then, showing two very deep dimples. Rhoenne stared. She wasn't as young as he'd first thought, nor was she uncomely. If he wasn't mistaken she was freshly bathed and clean-looking, too. His eyes widened. She was wearing a head covering made from what could only be his own vivid blue cloth, beneath her own wimple! No one outside the Ramhurst castle was allowed to wear it. It was his own command. He was still reeling from that revelation when she put an icy hand against his cheek.
"You're fevered. You came to me just in time. You ken? Take off this tunic. What is wrong with you now?"
Rhoenne didn't know what she was referring to. He was looking at her with as little expression as he could manage. It was actually better that he didn't have use of his voice just yet. Otherwise, he'd probably be yelling.
"I canna' begin healing if I dinna' see the reason for it. Have you been ill long?"
She lifted the hem of his garment. Rhoenne tried not to move while she peeled it up, exposing his belly flesh to the early morning air. Despite his every effort, the bumps rose, making his shiver worse.
"This is na' good. You've size ... and strength. How can a dimwit get so-so ... fit? You're na'going to hurt me, are you?"
She dropped the garment and came back into view. Rhoenne barely held the reaction to how it felt to have the wet weight of the tunic join with his other ills. Now she asks it? he wondered. He shook his head.
"You ken me?"
He nodded. She sighed.
"Good. I'm known as the Lady of the Brook. I'm a healer. You look to need a healer."
Rhoenne nodded again, slower this time. He couldn't believe his luck. As strange as she was, he'd heard of far worse from those few gifted in the healing arts. He didn't waste time debating it. If she could heal him, mayhap he wouldn't take a switch to her when she finished. Maybe.
"I'm na' a witch. I want you to know this."
His eyebrows rose.
"I dinna' practice it. I never have."
He sucked for breath as she pulled up her skirts. Then she was splitting bare legs to straddle his torso, dampening him worse and making him shudder anew. Then she made it all worse by burrowing both cold hands well beneath his tunic and placing them directly atop his heart. Everything in him reacted; his heart stopped, his shuddering ceased, his breath caught. Then his heart decided it would continue beating, and rather rapidly. He was afraid she'd spot it.
Rhoenne watched her and admitted to himself that he'd slighted her on her comeliness. She was more than that. She was beautiful. She had arched black brows, long, perfectly spaced lashes, high cheekbones, and very full lips. He found himself wondering if she was in possession of all her teeth, and if they were in as perfect condition as the rest of her. He wondered what color her hair was, and how long, and how it would feel between his fingers.
"I canna'work if you insist on such thoughts," she whispered, stiffening her arms and sitting forward so that her upper body hovered above his.
Rhoenne flushed. He knew it, although he couldn't remember ever experiencing it before. He watched as she arched herself above him, catching the first rays of sun as the dawn broke over the biggest boulder. He caught his breath for an entirely new reason as light flooded her features.
She wasn't just beautiful, he decided, and wondered what word did fit.
"You've been injured," she said softly, moving her head down to match her gaze to his.
Rhoenne's eyes showed the surprise. He couldn't prevent it.
"You took a weapon in your lower leg. You have na' had it seen to. You're hiding it. You dinna' even clean it. You're very brave.... Or very foolish. It's poisoning within you."
His eyes went wider still. She winked. Rhoenne knew he had a full-out blush now. He didn't know how to hide it.
"You need na' fear me. I'm a healer. I have strange methods, true, but I can heal you. I swear it. Do you wish me to go on?" she asked.
"Are you a knight?"
He shook his head after a moment. She didn't look like she believed him.
"Dinna' lie to The Lady. I canna' heal you, if I canna' trust you."
"I'm not a knight," he replied in a raspy whisper. It was true. He wasn't. He was the liege lord. He had legions of knights serving him. He didn't say a word about any of that.
At his reply she hesitated. Rhoenne waited. She couldn't have known that he had a great, deep, resonant voice. It was notorious. He'd been described by it. It came along with the immense frame the Lord had gifted him with. A small voice would have been incongruous coming from him.
"You're na' a dimwit ... are you?" she asked with very little sound.
He shook his head.
"You're na' a knight yet you've a battle wound? This is na' the mark of a learned, scholarly man ... nor one using his wits, if he possessed such."
Rhoenne bristled. "I am not a dimwit." He couldn't keep the defensive tone from the whisper.
"Then why did you lose?" she asked.
Rhoenne's mouth gaped.
She grinned, bringing the dimples back into existence. "I dinna' have special powers. I'll na' stand accused of such." Her face clouded and her grin died.
He shook his head rapidly.
"That's good, for I'll na' be able to heal if you worry over the methods."
"I don't worry," Rhoenne whispered.
He didn't know if she believed him or not, for the enigmatic look she turned on him didn't tell him anything. The word came to him then. She was absolutely exquisite. Her skin was silk-smooth, her mouth reddened and lush-looking. He found himself hoping she had black hair that matched her brows; thick, glossy strands of it. She deserved the setting of his castle room, richly covered with tapestries and filled with gilded furniture.
"I already have all that," she said.
Rhoenne went stiff with the surprise.
She giggled and the stiffness went straight to his groin at the sound. There wasn't anything he could do to prevent it. That was unbelievable. He'd never had his body betray him to this extent. He tried bringing the pain of his wound back to the forefront of his mind. It almost worked. He was afraid he was rose red with the reaction.
"If I close my eyes, I have castles, servants, and silver. Anyone can. Close your eyes."
He didn't want to. He almost said it aloud.
"You have to mind The Lady. Right here. Right now. Otherwise...."
She left her threat unfinished. Rhoenne closed his eyes. That was worse somehow, for she not only was clean-looking, she smelled like fresh-picked wildflowers. He pulled in a long breath and held it.
"You claim you are na' a knight ... yet you've every mark of one. You're nae idiot, although you dinna' show much in wits when you entered my glade. I surprised you. You're na' easily surprised. All of that is strange. Verra strange. You've a battle wound, so you have been in a battle. If you'd won this battle, you would have had your wound tended to before now. You must have lost. You see the method of my knowledge? I weigh out what I know with what has to be. You dinna' even take out the weapon, I'm guessing. How can you pretend 'tis naught? You're very strong. You're very brave. You're very manly ... and you're very foolish. Verra."
Rhoenne opened his eyes and lifted his head. She wasn't hovering over him anymore. She was kneeling next to his boiled leather shin-guard, the one he'd strapped tight to hold in the grotesque-looking, linen-swathed swelling below his knee. He wondered when she'd moved. He hadn't even felt it.
"I'm going to have to remove this Sassenach thing ... and this hose. Will that be a problem?"
He wondered how she could ask such a question, when the answer was starting to distend the patch at his crotch. He groaned the breath out and lay back down. Perhaps if he pretended she was a man-and a fat, ugly one at that-he could stop such a reaction.
"I mean ... I-I canna' just cut through it. Those you have been hiding this from ... they-they would ken your wound. It would na' remain hidden. Your bravery would be ... for naught. You do see?"
She was stammering and stumbling through the words. Rhoenne sucked in on both cheeks and kept any expression where she wouldn't see it. He guessed she hadn't had that reaction before. She didn't sound like a confident healer calling herself the Lady of the Brook. She sounded just like what she was; a young, beautiful, virginal maiden with a man at her fingertips.
Rhoenne groaned again. Virginal, he repeated in his thoughts.
"Forgive me. I try na' to pain."
Her face was back in view as she scooted to his side. He did the best he could not to let her see, or think she could see, where his thoughts had just been. He suspected he hadn't been successful and he moved his glance away before he reddened again.
"I canna' tend your wound like this. You must unstrap that leather shield piece and shed your hose. Will you need assist?"
"No." Rhoenne gave her the answer, before undressing himself. The act of rolling his own wet tunic back into place was checking his earlier reaction to her and the tremor of his frame was back. He couldn't help it. The material was wet, clammy, and cold. And he was fevered. He hoped she wouldn't spot the weakness and nearly shook his head at his own idiocy. She was a healer. Healers dealt with weakness.
Then he had his hands beneath the tunic edge, fumbling with the rawhide ties at his waist. He eased the garment down over his hips. That's when it got difficult. Rhoenne forced himself into a sitting position so he could maneuver his own clothing down. He didn't want her to assist with it and not only because he never let anyone see such weakness.
It was something more.
It was her.
He had trouble the closer he got to his wound. He couldn't keep the reaction hidden. He tensed. He sucked in each breath, only to ease it out with a groan of sound. He had to let the stoicism go. She was right. He was injured, he'd worn the hose for days, and he didn't want it sliced through, either-because he didn't want anyone else to know of his injury. He'd strapped the shin guard on for the same reason-and because it gave him stability enough to move. Rhoenne untied the straps with a vicious, efficient motion, breathing rapidly and shallowly the entire time.
He still had to shed the hose. That garment had been excellent for its purpose; keeping him warm and the bandage hidden. When he was finished, it was just a puddle of gray-shaded fabric about his ankles. And he was drained.
Rhoenne felt as wearied when he finished as if he'd just been on the list, battling. About the only good thing was he had the pain to a bearable level. He turned his head, met her gaze, and then his heart lurched-sharply and powerfully. Rhoenne had it hidden almost the moment it happened. He couldn't do anything about the flare of his eyes, the increase of his pulse, or the sudden tautness of his frame. He had to react slowly, and do what he could to keep her from seeing or guessing at any of it.
She looked away first, saying nothing, although the two spots of pink on her cheeks were telling him plenty.
Rhoenne watched her look him over. It helped mute the throb of ache he was ignoring. He was grateful he'd shed his chainmail hauberk, shirt, and the steel-grommeted leather gauntlets before seeking sleep last night. He was doubly grateful he'd left the sword named Pinnacle in the sheath at his destrier's side. If she knew who she really had at her fingertips, she wouldn't be looking him over with her lower lip caught between her teeth and a blush that was easy to spot with the growing dawn.
"I've been puzzling this ... and you have too much strength na' to be a knight," she finally said when he just sat there regarding her, with hands resting on his thighs, which appeared to be the same exact position she was in.
He waited for her to finish surveying him, although it took some time as she slid her gaze back down to his boots and up. He was afraid his body could feel a touch that wasn't actually happening. He was very tempted to tighten the muscles beneath the skin she was looking at, too.
"You're certain you are na' one?"
"Do you wish me to be?" he whispered.
Her eyebrows rose at that. She finally shook her head and moved down to attend to his wound. Then there was nothing in his world but fire and pain and ache. The moment her fingers started circling and probing the bulge of bandaging around his calf, Rhoenne went stiff with the agony. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Knight Well Spent by Jackie Ivie
Copyright © 2008 by Jacquelyn Ivie Goforth. 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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