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He rode toward them out of the sunset, a knight upon a milk-white destrier with his armor burnished to eye-stinging splendor by rays of orange and gold. The white plumes that topped his helm danced and swayed. The gilt embroidery on the white tabard worn over his armor shimmered with his every movement. The nimbus of brilliant light surrounding him made him appear incredibly tall and broad, a figure of legend.
The knight slowed his mount, turned broadside so he blocked the road. Sitting at his ease upon his monstrous warhorse caparisoned and armored as if for war, he raised a gauntleted hand in a gesture of command.
The mounted column with which Lady Marguerite Milton was traveling to her wedding came to a jangling halt. Just ahead of her, the captain of the men-at-arms exchanged an inquiring glance with Sir John Dennison, the emissary for her future husband. That gentleman's broad face creased in a self-important frown and his mouth tightened as he stared at the apparition before them.
The noises of early evening faded to breathless silence. Not a bird, frog or cricket was heard from the copse of oaks and alders that crowded the roadway. For a moment, a soft breeze fluttered the pennon of pale blue marked by a green-leaved crown that rose above the opposing horsemen. It sighed into stillness so complete it was almost possible to hear the dust trail of the column settle into the ditches.
"The Golden Knight "
The whisper came from somewhere behind Marguerite. A shiver moved over her as she heard that strangled sound with its edge of awe. Her heart stuttered in her chest before rising to lodge in her throat.
Everyone knew the name, one awarded by the king of France after a grand tournament, along with a priceless suit of armor chased with silver and gold. Champion of champions, bravest of the brave, boldest of the bold, the man who held it was celebrated in song and story, known across the reaches of Europe and up down the length of Britain. Invincible, they called him, unconquered and unconquerable, though never arrogant withal. He fought like the devil himself, so it was said, using intelligence and honed instinct instead of brawn, though he had the last, as well. Known to be of a learned turn, he could debate any issue. As handsome as one of heaven's militant archangels, he was a favorite with the French queen, and a gallant of tender prowess and renown among her court ladies and their nubile daughters. The very soul of honor, not an ill word could be said against him.
Such a paragon was he painted, so full of strengths and virtues, that many doubted his existence. Marguerite had been among them. Until now.
He appeared all too real, a solid presence blocking their passage, as immovable as the mountains of the northern marches from whence she had ridden on this, her nuptial journey. A shiver of dread ran down her spine with a prickling like the scrabble of mouse feet. Marguerite jerked with it, so the mare she rode danced a few steps to the side, arching her neck before Marguerite could bring the palfrey under control again. Through the brief struggle, she kept her gaze upon the knight, her mind churning with doubt and a healthy measure of distrust.
"Good day to you, sir!" Sir John called in testy greeting as he eased his considerable weight in the saddle with a great creaking of leather. "Know you that we are upon the king's business. Stand aside at once."
"That I cannot do. No, nor would I if you rode under Henry's own dragon banner, which you do not." The answer was courteous yet layered with steel.
Sir John swelled with indignation. "By what right do you stay our progress?"
"By right of arms."
The reply was followed at once by the slithering rasp of metal on metal. A great sword flashed silver fire as it appeared in the knight's hand, its blade chased with gold near the hilt in the same pattern as his armor.
Jostling chaos ensued for long seconds. Marguerite's guard shouted as they reached for their own weapons. Her serving woman screamed. Horses whinnied in alarm.
"Hold or die!"
Such grim authority rang in the Golden Knight's hard command that the men-at-arms around Marguerite stilled with their swords half-out of the sheaths. In that moment, a flurry of movement appeared at the edges of the tree-lined road. Eyes wide, faces flushing dark red with choler and sudden horror, the soldiery stared around them.
They were surrounded. From shadowed and leafy ambush, a band of knights rode forward at a slow walk. Some fifty in number, compared to barely twenty in Marguerite's guard, their lances were in their hands, leveled and ready. Heavy armor, polished yet showing the hard use of battle, marked them as a fighting force it would be unwise to meet while protected only by chain mail topped by woolen tunics.
"Hold!" Marguerite cried in echo of the knight's command.
Her voice was high-pitched, sharp with fear that the men with her would go to their deaths trying to protect her. Against a more equal, less well-armed foe, they might have afforded her some chance of escape, but not here, not now. She'd not have them fall for nothing. Though a half dozen had been sent by her betrothed, the rest were from her brother-in-law's keep of Braesford Hall, detailed by him to guard her on her journey. She had known them since coming to Braesford a decade ago.
"Hold! For the love of God, hold!"
That cry came from Sir John Dennison as he stared around him with bulging eyes in the frog-belly pallor of his face. His major concern seemed to be for the sharp and glittering tip of the Golden Knight's blade that was now centered on his barrel chest, requiring only an instant of cold effort to drive it through him.
The curses, the snap of reseated swords, rattle of bits and bridles and stamping of hooves died away. Sir John, his breathing hoarse, turned to the knight again, speaking in guttural outrage. "What is your purpose here? If it be thievery"
"Nay." The reply was deep and scathing, resounding in hollow dissonance from behind the Golden Knight's helm. "I seek the mounted escort taking Lady Marguerite Milton to the lord who would claim her as his bride."
Beside Marguerite, her aging serving woman, Gwynne, muttered a dire warning of rapine under her breath. A cynic to the core, she had supported Marguerite's two older sisters through their weddings, had seen the disasters they were forced to endure before their vows could be spoken. She had predicted a similar disaster for Marguerite. This was based on the curse of the Three Graces of Graydon, as she and her two sisters had been known when they first appeared at Henry's court. The dread prophecy foretold death for any man who attempted to marry them without love.
"Nonsense," Marguerite answered the woman in reproof, though the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach belied it. The hard gaze behind the nosepiece of the Golden Knight's helm had turned in her direction. It seemed to scorch through her dark blue cloak that hung open in the heat to reveal her riding gown of rust-red summer wool, to strip away the veil of red-edged cream linen that covered her hair. He centered his gaze upon the shape of her female form, the lift of her breasts, the turn of her waist and span of her hips crossed by her jeweled girdle. Only then did it lift to her face.
His eyes were metal-bright blue glimmers behind the face guard of his gold chased helm. Pitiless in their assessment, they weighed her, plumbed her and sought her essence. Nothing of what and who she was escaped him, or so it seemed. He knew her sorrows and her joys, her fears and bad habits, understood the fey, retiring side of her nature as well as the bravado she held up like a shield for it. He knew her past and present, and appeared certain he could change her future at will.
Marguerite's heart leaped in her chest, pounding into a frantic beat. Her gloved hands clenched upon her reins while vulnerability pooled in the center of her being. She had prayed to be delivered from the marriage decreed for her as a ward of the king, prayed until her voice was hoarse and her knees callused from the chapel's stone floor. But not like this, never like this.
The arrival of the order to wed had been an unpleasant surprise. So many years had passed since Henry VII had arranged marriages for her elder sister, Isabel, and middle sister, Cate, that Marguerite thought herself blessedly forgotten at Braesford Hall. Why the king had suddenly remembered her, none could say. It was also a mystery why he had chosen Alfred, Lord Halli-well, a pompous and spindle-shanked braggart with a son older than she was, as her future husband. Gwynne swore Marguerite had naught to fear from the match, that the curse of the Graces would protect her. If this confrontation on the road was its work, she did not think highly of it.
Could this be it? Had it come, here and now?
Oh, but what if this was no rescue at all, but something infinitely more dangerous? The messages she had sent flying across England and Scotland, to France, the four corners of Europe and beyond, had not been to any man so terrible in his magnificence as the Golden Knight. No, not at all. They were meant for David, her brother-in-law's onetime squire, sweet, humble David who had pledged his heart to her when she was only a lass. Dear David, who had been knighted after saving the king's life at the Battle of Stoke, and neither seen nor heard of since.
"Aye, and you've found the wench's escort, so you have," Sir John said to the leader of the mounted company that held them at bay. "What would you now?"
"Why, what else?" the knight answered behind his mask of a helm, "I would have the lady."
He sheathed his sword with whistling slide and snick, and then set his destrier in motion. Marguerite gathered her reins as she watched him push through her escort to where she sat beside Gwynne. A tremor shuddered over her. The closer his approach, the larger he seemed until he took on mythic stature, as if a knight of ancient Camelot, stronger, braver and more daring than any mortal man had the right to be.
She flung a swift look around her for the chance of escape. There was none. She was hemmed in, unable to move her palfrey more than a few steps, much less flee.
"Milady" Gwynne began in nervous warning.
The knight reached a gauntleted fist for her bridle with its blue leather trappings. Marguerite hauled on her reins, forcing her mount backward into the men-at-arms behind her. Her retreat shoved them into each other, forcing them closer to the lances that hemmed them in on all sides. Hearing their curses, she regretted the necessity, but would not be taken easily.
"What is your purpose, sir?" she demanded in breathless haste. "How came you here? Who sent you?"
"No one sent me. 'Twas my own desire, held through a journey of a thousand leagues and more. As for my purpose, have I not said it was to take you?"
"Nay, it cannot be!"
"Yet I hold to it."
Hard on the words, he reached for her, circling her waist with a mail-clad arm. Such power was in it that she was snatched from her palfrey as quickly as a hawk takes a sparrow. She seemed to fly through the air in a sweep of skirts while the sky and trees wheeled around her.
Air left her lungs in a hard gasp as she landed with her back against the unyielding surface of an armored chest. She could not draw breath for the constriction of tempered steel across her rib cage, could not see for her veil that flew around to cover her face. The great stallion beneath the knight reared so she was flung back upon the large and rigid form of the man behind her. A shudder ran over her from the top of her head to her toes. Her skin tingled, burning as if she had landed in a flaming pyre. As the horse's front feet struck ground again, the knight held her tight, supporting her with what felt oddly like protection.
The steel mesh-covered thighs beneath her bunched with the flexing of strong muscles. The destrier immediately plunged away. That first leap snapped her teeth together so hard she bit the inside of her cheek. Thrown off balance, she clutched desperately at the mailed arm that threatened to break her in half.
A shouted order roared out above her head. The white stallion beneath her galloped off at ferocious speed while somewhere behind them Gwynne screamed and Sir John shouted curses. In mere seconds, the hooves of mounted men thundered after them. The horsemen pounded closer, ever closer, but became nothing more than the knight's men pressing in on either side. They closed ranks about their leader, a defensive cordon bristling with lances and grim purpose.
Disbelief gripped Marguerite as surely as the powerful hold that clamped her against her captor. This could not be happening. Her life was staid, even boring. Nothing occurred beyond the childish ailments of her nieces and nephews or an occasional noble visitor to her brother-in-law's keep. To transfer to her bridegroom's possession had promised little in the way of change beyond the necessity of submitting to a lust-ridden gray-beard. She might have dreamed of being rescued from that act, but such fantasies had not involved being carried off by the renowned Golden Knight.
Dread rose inside her, along with disturbing, febrile excitement. What he wanted with her, she dared not think. Yet she feared she would discover it soon enough.
She greatly feared it.