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Birds chirped, squirrels chattered, and the road lay sun-dappled as far as the eye could see. A more peaceful-looking scene was unimaginable, but things are never as they seem.
A lone figure rode sidesaddle along the tree-lined road, chestnut mare stepping lively. The rider was mounted a bit awkwardly, but in the long skirts there was little choice. The person gave every impression of being a lovely young lady of no more than twenty years, but reputable ladies did not ride along a public road all alone.
All was not as it seemed. The rider was named David, and he was not as he seemed.
In a matter of seconds, the peaceful scene dissolved.
The men came out of nowhere. Suddenly the mare reared up, surrounded by three men on foot. David managed to hold on, but just barely. When one of the men grabbed him around the waist and yanked him off the horse, he found himself face down in the dirt. The horse took off into the woods on its own, but not until after another man pulled off the saddle bag off.
"Well, what've we got here, missy ... traveling alone? Din't yer papa tell ye t'was not safe?" one of the men drawled. He was bald, rotund, and was dressed in a filthy tunic and patched leggings.
"Leave me alone," David cried in a slightly exaggerated falsetto. If they discovered he was a man, they'd probably slit his throat right there.
One of the other attackers, a man with stringy gray hair that had not recently seen a comb, finished rifling through the saddle bag. He dropped it to the ground. "There is nothing of value here," he said with disgust.
David struggled to a kneeling position, trying to stand, but the bald ruffian standing over him was tooquick, and his skirts tangled around his legs. The man grabbed a handful of David's long hair, and he yelped. The man's odor was almost as horrible as his appearance.
The bald man leered. "Oh, I don't know about that..."
Alexander rode through the woods, heading back to the castle after a fortnight away. His horse was huge and gray, and he had trained it himself from its birth. Alexander avoided the main roads when he could, but he was nearing the river crossing and he had no choice but to use the bridge.
As he approached the road, he heard raised voices. Drawing his mount to a stop, Alexander looked out from behind a tree to assess the situation. All was not well.
What he saw made his blood boil. Three rough-looking men surrounded a young woman, clearly meaning her harm. She was beautiful, long raven tresses spilling from her bonnet, and she was fighting back. But she was clearly no match for the men, and Alexander had no illusions about what they would do next.
He didn't hesitate. Drawing his sword, he galloped forward onto the road, yelling, "Begone, and leave the lady alone." There were three of them and only one of him, but Alexander was on horseback and a trained swordsman.
The ringleader took one look at Alexander and released David immediately. The other two had already started running through the woods. It didn't take long for the bald man to assess the odds and the length of Alexander's steel before he followed his compatriots, snarling obscenities over his shoulder as he went.
Alexander made as if to follow but the men were clearly small-time bandits. The lady needed him right now. He would report the thieves to his father and a royal guard would be sent out to hunt the men down.
David looked up at his rescuer from where he was kneeling in the fallen leaves. He ran his hands through his hair. "Th-thank you," he said softly, pulling himself to his feet. He gathered his wits, focusing on the role he was forced to play, summoning up the reactions of a young woman alone on the road who'd just narrowly escaped being raped. "I am in your debt, sir," he added, bowing his head.
Alexander slid off his horse gracefully and bowed deeply to the maiden. "There is no debt to pay," he said, straightening and stepping closer. "Those men were the lowest of scoundrels, to attack a young lady."
He gazed at the woman; she was even more beautiful close up. She wore an obviously expensive pale blue dress, and it fit her perfectly. Her eyes were huge and brown, only a few shades lighter than her hair, and her features were delicate. "Tell me, fair lady, are you hurt?" He didn't step any closer, knowing the girl would be frightened by her experience, and naturally mistrustful. He wondered what she was doing all on her own, but he didn't want to ask.
"Just my pride," David said with a rueful chuckle. "No, thank you, sir, I am unharmed." He looked at his rescuer, wide-eyed. He could have been an actor on the stage playing the hero, as perfect for the part as he was. He was tall and lean, his brown hair lightening to blond at the ends where it fell into his face. His brown eyes were expressive, and fixed only on the maiden he'd rescued. He was simply beautiful, but David knew that there was absolutely no point in even entertaining such thoughts. He brushed some stray leaves off the full skirts of the stolen costume. "I hope I have no more such encounters, as I doubt I would be lucky enough to meet two such defenders."
"You will have no need of another defender, as I am now devoted to that task," said Alexander without hesitation. "Tell me where you travel to, and I will see you there unharmed, you have my word," he added, leading his horse forward to offer to the maiden. He was in no hurry to get home; he welcomed a diversion. And the girl was lovely.
David blushed because he didn't have much of a destination in mind. As he traveled he'd been thinking of what to tell someone should he be asked, and he related his story carefully. "I ... my destination is anywhere that I might find honest work, sir. I am recently orphaned and forced from my family home with no means. I was hoping to come upon a village that I might in some way to earn my keep in whatever way I can," he said sheepishly. Perhaps a disreputable position to be in, but it fit his true circumstances well enough. He hoped the story sounded believable.
Alexander was stunned that such a beauty would find herself in dire circumstances. He started thinking immediately; in his position surely there was something he could do. "A village is close by, and a friendlier place you will never find," he promised. Then he had it. "I happen to know of a family, clothiers by trade, who have recently lost their daughter and might be persuaded to take you in." Persuasion would not enter into it; he knew the family well, and they would be more than happy to do this for him. "Can you sew?" Then he realized he did not know how to address the girl. "And may I ask for your name, that I may properly address you? Or shall I call you beautiful one?" Alexander was not usually given to such ebullience, but there was something about this girl that he could not resist.
David's eyes widened. Oh, dear. He was flirting. "You are very kind to offer such assistance. I would be eternally grateful for it. And yes, I can sew." He'd repaired enough costumes in his life to be reasonably good at it. "And my name is Mary, kind sir." He'd decided on something simple, nondescript. He wanted to blend in, not attract admirers. He'd counted on his ability to pass himself off as a woman. He hadn't thought about all the difficulties that would entail. He sighed a little wistfully. If this knight errant knew, he would be appalled.
Alexander smiled more. "May I have the honor of escorting you there, then, my Lady Mary?" he asked hopefully. "I promise that I am an honorable man and mean you no harm." He found he couldn't take his eyes off the girl; she captivated him. None of the prospective brides his parents had trotted out in front of him had affected him so. His father insisted he marry, and soon. The ensuing argument had driven him once again to flee to the countryside.
"Thank you again," David said, lowering his head a little. For as easy as femininity came to him, meekness was not quite as easy, but after the attack he was able to sink himself deep in the role for self-preservation's sake. He wasn't afraid of this man. The fact that he was gorgeous and flirting with David made him something to fear, certainly. "How can I hope to repay you for such favor?" he asked softly.
"The only repayment I require is your contentment in your new home," Alexander said, bowing deeply. "The family I am taking you to have been known to mine for generations, and they will be enriched by your graceful presence, I am sure." Not to mention the fact that Alexander could keep an eye on the lovely girl, even if there was no hope of anything between them. He led his horse forward, and said, "If my Lady would consent, I will help you onto my horse, and I will walk and lead you there. It is not a great distance."
"Might I know the name of my beneficent patron, sir?" David asked. Perhaps he would seem less otherworldly heroic if he was a Claude or a Ralph. David watched him gravely. To show interest in return would be foolish beyond measure. A small part of him took pride in the fact that such a man could find him an attractive woman, and yet there was no point in capitalizing on his skill. That would only lead to problems.
"My name is Alexander, beautiful Mary," he answered, thinking it safe to divulge his first name at least. He didn't want Mary to know who he was. That would put them at an unequal footing, and he didn't want that. He knew in his heart nothing could come of this, but he couldn't help but dream. He wore a simple but well-made tunic and pants that gave no hint of his noble heritage. He knew it was a deceit, but he didn't want this to end just yet.