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Lord of the Hunt
By Ann Lawrence
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
Joan Swan followed a well-worn deer trail through the trees
near Ravenswood Castle. Her pack of hounds kept pace like a
phalanx of the king's men. They did not roam, nor step beyond
the length of her stride.
The hound near her right hand whined. She paused and listened.
The hounds fell still in a ripple of sleek gray and brown
At first, she sensed nothing. Then she heard the distant neigh
of a horse. If she remained still, the rider might pass her by
The horse drew closer. From her right there was the sudden
tearing sound of an animal forcing its way through underbrush.
With practiced ease, she drew her bow from her shoulder, then
stepped from a pool of golden sunlight into a pool of soft
The thrashing sound grew louder. A horse snorted, whinnied,
and she heard the thunder of its hooves as it broke into a
gallop, crashing through underbrush. It was a wild sound, the
sound of a horse out of control.
The hound at her side whimpered again.
Through the trees she saw why. A boar. Her arrows were useless
against such a beast.
She shouldered the bow. Her heart thumped in her chest. They
must get away before it scented them. She lifted her right
hand at the wrist so it was parallel to the ground. The hounds
crouched. With a sharp gesture,she dipped her fingertips and
the hounds went down on their bellies, preparing to slide
through the brush like snakes in the grass.
Then she saw the man. He lay on his back, half supported on
one elbow. His skin was stark white in contrast to his black
hair and beard.
The boar clashed its tusks, lowered its head. Thank God she
and her hounds were downwind.
The man was not.
Fear caused her stomach to churn.
Were the dogs ready? Was she?
The man moved. The boar charged.
She swept her hand out in a quick, sharp gesture.
Her dogs leaped in a monstrous, snarling maelstrom of teeth
The man scrabbled back and rose. He drew his sword. He did not
run as she expected. Instead, he faced the swirling mass of
animals that held the great boar at bay. In a motion as
planned as if he and the dogs were one, they parted and he
thrust the blade deep into the boar's neck.
It swung its monstrous head, eyes rolling. The dogs brought it
Then all was silent.
She closed her eyes, bent her head, and offered thanksgiving
for the man's life. She knew the terrible sounds of the kill
would remain in her head. At least none were human, none that
of a man being torn apart by razor-sharp tusks.
A hand touched her shoulder and she opened her eyes. Dazed
from her deep concentration, she was startled to find the man
"Are you hurt?" he asked.
His vivid blue eyes were grave. His skin, no longer white, was
suffused with high color. The close-cropped beard did not
conceal his well-formed mouth. His high cheekbones betrayed
his Norman ancestry.
Though uncommon in appearance, still, he was common enough. He
wore a simple V-shaped, iron pin to hold his mantle at one
shoulder. Red streaked the humble wool.
"Are you hurt?" he asked again.
He had a low voice with a touch of an accent she could not
place. A man-at-arms to one of the visiting nobles at
Ravenswood, she decided.
"Me?" she managed, not sure if she could stomach the sight
that surely lay over his shoulder. The man looked down, and
she did too. Blood splotched her gown. She shook off her
squeamishness. She had witnessed the end of a hunt often
enough, watched the butchering of the animal. Why did she feel
"It's not my blood," she said "Are you hurt?" She touched his
mantle with her fingertips, briefly, lightly.
He shook his head. "I'm well, thanks to your hounds. They are
your hounds, are they not? Well trained they are, not to
feast," he said.
They faced the wide clearing. Her dogs stood like sentinels
over their carnage. In truth, the hounds awaited her next
signal. They had killed and now wanted their reward. But not
here. Not yet. There would be no traditional unmaking of the
beast here, no blood of the beast for them this time.
What distraction should she offer this man so she might
exercise her power over the animals unseen?
A crashing of branches and the sound of several horses coming
at speed made the man swing about, his back to her. "God's
throat. They would appear now when I'm unhorsed," he said
under his breath. "I've never been unhorsed."
Joan lifted her left hand and cupped her fingers into her
palm. The dogs bounded to her, passed her, and disappeared
into the thick forest.
A knight on a mud-splattered destrier burst through the trees
into the clearing. He drew to a halt by the boar. "By the
Rood. What happened? Your horse passed us in a frenzy."
The knight's face was hidden by his helm, but when he wheeled
his horse, she saw the device on his shield. A blue field with
a wolf rampant. The house of de Harcourt. It was suddenly cold
in the clearing-icy cold.
The knight slid his helm and mail coif off his head. 'Twas
Brian, the youngest de Harcourt son.
Brian de Harcourt's gaze moved slowly over her. He gave her an
almost imperceptible nod.
She swallowed hard and backed closer to the safety of the
trees, but the man she'd rescued took her arm. His grip was
gentle, but yet too firm for her to break away.
"You did not kill this beast on your own, did you, Adam?"
Brian asked, swinging his attention to her again.
Adam. A simple name for a simple man. Then she realized the
rest of Brian's men would be right behind him.
She must go. Now.
"In a manner of speaking. I took the beast with one lucky
stroke, but it would have had my entrails for supper if not
for this kind woman's hounds. They saved my skin."
Joan tried to tug away from him as three more men and horses
pushed their way through the trees. She trusted a pack of
hounds far more than a pack of men.
Adam still held her imprisoned, his gloved fingers almost
encircling her upper arm. He sketched a quick bow. "Mistress?
How may I reward you?"
More men surged into the clearing, their horses shying from
the sweet stink of the boar's blood. Soon the clearing was
crowded with men. She looked from one face to the other. Most
were hidden by their helms as de Harcourt's had been.
The forest shrank around the men and scores of iron-shod
hooves. The scent of greenery was overwhelmed by that of
horses and men.
"Please, I must go," she said softly, urgently, loath to draw
anyone's attention but he who held her.
"This is quite a trophy." Brian dismounted and approached the
dead boar. He measured the tusks against his forearm.
Others did as he, touching the beast and prodding it with
their feet. A woman was not safe with so many men-with these
men in particular. Her heart beat more quickly. Her hands
began to sweat.
Brian drew a short sword and hacked a tusk from the felled
beast. "Here, Adam, have it carved into dice. They would
surely be imbued with your good luck." He tossed the tusk to
Adam in a spray of blood.
He let her go to catch the trophy. More blood dotted his
mantle and hers. He frowned. "Brian, you've insulted this
"Joan's not easily insulted, are you?" Brian inclined his head
to her. He had hair the color of roasted chestnuts.
Joan made a deep curtsy to him, but bit her lip on any retort.
Brian's father held an adjoining manor, had hunted with Lord
Guy just the day of the man's death, though Brian had not
deigned to visit Ravenswood for nearly two years.
Heat ran over her cheeks. Brian could be at Ravenswood for
only one purpose-the Harvest Hunt and Tournament, at which the
lady of Ravenswood was set to choose a husband. The suitors,
ten in all, were all due to arrive before nightfall.
Joan carefully turned to Adam, a man more of her station-a man
who, by the lack of ornamentation or trim on his black garb,
was the only man she might comfortably speak to or acknowledge
with any propriety. "You owe me nothing. Now, I must go."
"Surely you could use a few pennies?" Brian's words held her
in place. "After all," he continued, "you saved Adam's life.
He can spare the silver, I assure you."
How dare Brian imply she was needy? Her father was Master of
the Hunt, not some lowly kennelman. She fought to keep her
voice mild. "I ask no reward, my lord."
There were quick, sharp exchanges of quips about Adam's
unhorsing from the newly arrived men, then a voice penetrated
the banter. It was as hard and harsh as the winter wind that
would come in a few weeks.
"Ah, Adam Quintin and a wench. A dog and a bitch will always
end up in the grass together."
Joan pulled against Adam Quintin's hold. His fingers tightened
on her arm, then relaxed and slid down to take her hand. The
sensation was soothing, but nothing he could do would make her
feel at ease, save that he would release her-and she could
"I can only assume, my lord Roger," Adam said, "that you've
spent so much time with your men, you've forgotten the proper
conduct before a woman. Lady Mathilda will be tossing you in
the moat where you'll stink as much as your manners if you
don't improve them."
There was a beat of silence. Then the men laughed and the
baron reddened. Joan was a bit shocked a lord would tolerate
so tart a response from a mere swordsman.
The baron jerked his reins and retorted, "I've no time for
such nonsense. Fetch someone to butcher this animal and see
the best of the beast gets to the bishop's table." With a kick
of his mount, he and half the party cantered off. The ground
trembled at their departure.
"Forgive Lord Roger's churlish manners," Adam said to her.
Joan's heart slowed, her stomach eased. "It is nothing."
She squared her shoulders, prayed the man would release her
hand. His glove was frayed, but of fine, well-tanned leather.
It made her uneasy to stand with her fingers in his.
Just as the thought entered her head, he dropped her hand and
made her a more proper bow. "A few hours in the saddle and
Lord Roger's as prickly as that boar's snout."
Then Adam smiled and Lord Roger and Brian de Harcourt fled her
thoughts. She could but stare at his eyes. They were blue as a
field of harebells and framed with thick black lashes.
"Now," he said. "Your name is-"
"Plain Joan," interjected Brian.
She wanted to put an arrow right through his throat. She
almost reached for the bow slung at her back.
Adam raised a black, straight brow. He cocked his head and
considered her. "Plain Joan?"
She ducked her head. "Aye. So I am called."
His voice dropped even lower. It coiled about her like a
silken thread. "Lord Brian is right. I must reward you in some
manner, Plain Joan."
Now. I must go now. She turned. Her path was blocked by a
small, wiry man on a dun-brown mare coming straight toward
her. He led a gray horse as huge as any she'd ever seen. Its
hooves were the size of meat platters, its black mane plaited
in a fanciful manner with leather thongs. The horse danced and
pawed as it neared the dead boar.
"Yer mount," the little man said to Adam. "Ye rightly named
him when ye called him Sinner."
Adam grinned and looked sheepishly in Joan's direction. "He
should be called Lady. He's as spoiled as any of those fine
creatures." Then he took the reins and patted the destrier's
heaving side. "And he dumped me like an inconvenient suitor
the instant he saw that boar. Never take a nervous horse on a
hunt." The horse bumped his shoulder.
Slung across the battle charger's saddle was his shield. Adam
was no common man-at-arms, for the shield bore his personal
device. It echoed the simple shape of his mantle pin. But
painted on the leather cover of the shield, she saw it more
clearly. It was a gold "V" rendered as if by an illuminator of
fine manuscripts. The Roman numeral of five-five for a man
whose name meant fifth son.
Men with their own devices were not simple. That she'd
mistaken him so, staggered her.
"I have to forgive him, though, as he's not a hunter," Adam
said as he pulled himself slowly into a sleek saddle of
Spanish leather. "Now, in battle, there's no finer horse in
Joan darted into the trees.
He was a knight. Mayhap a lord. That meant he, too, was here
for one purpose only-marriage to the most beautiful woman in
Christendom. Lady Mathilda.
Joan heard Adam Quintin shout after her, but she ignored him.
She'd save a beggar with her hounds if he had been one so
cornered. And in truth, 'twas the dogs, not she, who'd done
the work. She paused a moment, hand to her breast and took a
deep breath. The boar had almost killed the man, but the dogs
had performed for her as needed.
Her hand signals worked.
The dogs were waiting on the bank of the river that wound from
Winchester to Portsmouth Harbor, passing Ravenswood Castle on
its way. They had run through the shallows, romped on the
banks, cleaning themselves.
She hugged them one by one, stroking velvety ears and rubbing
smooth bellies. "I am sorry you cannot have your just reward,
but I could not remain for the butchering. You made me proud,
my loves. You rescued a man of worth for Lady Mathilda."
She remembered how he'd been addressed with familiar ease by
the other men. It took little effort to imagine the carnage to
the men's friendship as they vied for Lady Mathilda's hand.
Plain Joan, Brian had called her. His tongue was as quick as
ever. Her cheeks heated that Adam Quintin should be introduced
to her in such a manner. Now, Brian's opinion would be Adam's.
It was an uneasy thought and she thrust it aside.
Her passage through the woods was no longer a joy, the dogs
frolicking ahead of her no longer the pleasure of the day.
At a barely perceptible crossing of one deer path with
another, she turned to the west. She would come up to
Ravenswood Castle from that direction lest she meet any more
men who might be rushing to fall at Lady Mathilda's feet.
But as she walked, she found her thoughts on fields of
harebells. Harebells as blue as the new gown Lady Mathilda had
worn this morning at chapel.
Adam Quintin was as fine in appearance as Brian de Harcourt,
mayhap finer. Lady Mathilda would have great difficulty
choosing between them. She discounted Lord Roger altogether.
He looked like a starved crane. She hoped Brian fell in the
foul water of the moat along with the rude Roger.
"Adam Quintin." She said the name aloud without thought. One
dog lifted his head and whined. "Aye, Paul. You're right. I
will not think of him." The young hound she'd named after her
favorite saint woofed. She patted his head. "Nay. I mean it.
He's forgotten already."
Excerpted from Lord of the Hunt
by Ann Lawrence
Copyright © 2003 by Ann Lawrence .
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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