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The Knave And The Maiden
By Blythe Gifford
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneReadington Castle, England, June 1357
"God brought me back from the dead, Garren," William said. "You were His instrument."
Garren looked at his friend, lying in his bed with the hollow cheeks of a corpse, and suppressed a snort. When William, Earl of Readington, sprawled among the scattered bodies on the battlefield at Poitiers, God had not lifted a finger.
Now, watching the candlelight waver in benediction over William's pale face, Garren wondered whether he should have, either. Death in the French dirt might have been kinder.
But Garren would fight God for William's life as long as he could.
"You were the only one," William said. "The others left me for dead."
Or left him for live French prisoners they could ransom.
But William was not dead, although there had been days Garren was not certain the Earl lived. As the victorious troops traipsed across France and finally sailed back to England, William existed in an earthly purgatory, alive because Garren forced water and gruel and prechewed meat between his teeth. "I was just too stubborn to leave you."
"More than that." Between each word, William gasped for a breath. "You carried me. On your back."
"You and your armor." Garren smiled, tight-lipped, swinging a mock blow to William's shoulder. "Don't forget the armor."
Readington's family had rejoiced more over the return of the armor than its wearer. While the rest of the English knights carried home booty, Garren carried only William. Carried William and left behind the wealth that had been the promise of the French campaign.
It had all seemed worthwhile as William gained strength. But in the weeks since his homecoming, the retching had started. Some days were better, some worse. Now he lay on a deathbed curtained in red velvet, high in a tower overlooking a countryside of damp, fertile earth he would never ride again. His hands curled into useless claws. He ran red or brown all day from one end or the other. Servants changed the bed linens, a futile task, but a sign of respect. There was little else they could do.
At least, Garren thought, William could die in his own bed.
"One ... more ... thing I must ask." His cold fingers clutched Garren's with the strength of death.
I gave you life, what more can I do? Garren thought, but as he looked at William, just past thirty and unable to rise from his bed, he was uncertain whether life had been such a valuable gift.
"Go on the pilgrimage for me."
Pilgrimage. A prepayment to a God who never delivered as promised. A journey to a tomb that sheltered the bones of a woman and the feathers of an angel. "William, if God has not yet cured you, I doubt the Blessed Larina will."
"I will pay you."
Garren snatched his hand away. He had given up virtually everything for William, gladly. All he had left was his pride.
"You can find fools aplenty to be your palmer on the journey."
Pain wrinkled William's face. His left arm cradled his stomach, trying to hold back the next bout of retching. "Not ... trust."
Garren mumbled something meant to be soothing, neither yes nor no. He cradled William's bony hand in his large, square ones. How far they had come together since William had taken him on, a seventeen-year-old no one else wanted, much too old to start training as a squire. Everything he was he owed to this man.
William clung to Garren's arm, pulling himself up, half sitting. Only five years older than Garren, he looked as if he had lived four score years. After a glance around the chamber as if to reassure himself they were alone, William reached beneath his pillow and pulled out a folded parchment, no bigger than his hand. Red wax, indented with the Readington crest, doubly sealed the thin thread that pierced the layers. "For the monk. At the shrine."
Taking the message from William's shaking fingers, Garren wondered how he had managed to hold a quill to write.
William's voice quavered, too. "The seal must be unbroken."
Garren smiled, silent. Even in the monastery, he had been a poor reader.
William shook his arm, forcing his attention. Forcing an answer. "Please. There is no one else."
Garren looked into his friend's eyes, eyes that had seen so much by his side, and knew that for as many weeks as William drew breath, he would say yes.
He nodded, clearing his throat. "But I don't want your money." This journey should be a gift.
William rolled his head no, leaving a new chunk of blond hair on the linen under his head. William knew his funds would take him no farther than the next battle. A weak smile curved his pale lips. "Take it. Buy me a lead feather."
A leaden pilgrim's badge. Proof of the journey. A token to flaunt his faith. Garren gripped William's fingers. "I'll bring something better. Since you can't travel to the shrine, I'll bring the shrine to you. I'll bring you a real feather." Somehow it seemed appropriate, to violate a shrine to comfort a man with faith. At least you could see a feather. Hold it. Touch it. Not like the false promises of the Church.
Skin already pale, blanched. "Sacrilege."
A chill skittered up Garren's back. Stealing a relic. Violating a shrine. God would punish him. He nearly laughed at the thought, a residue of training over experience. Garren had seen the puny extent of God's mercy. God's punishment could scarcely be harsher. "Don't worry. No one will miss a small one."
Still shaking his head, William closed his eyes and slipped into the near-death sleep that was his life.
The door opened without a knock and the lilting voice of William's younger brother Richard grated on Garren's ears. Richard, who would not go on pilgrimage for his brother for love nor money. "Does he still breathe?"
"You seem eager to hear me say 'no.'"
"It is just that this state can scarcely be called living, don't you agree?"
Garren did, but not for Richard's reasons. "Perhaps. But as long as he breathes, he is the Earl of Readington." Richard, however, need only wait. He would be Earl soon enough.
"What is that?" Richard reached for the folded parchment as if he had the right.
Garren shrugged and slipped it into his tunic. It nestled stiffly below his ribs. "It must be a petition to the saint." Now that he had said yes, he dreaded the journey. Not the days of walking, but the company of all those trusting pilgrims who believed an invisible God would answer their prayers if they only paid His price. Garren knew better. "He asked me to go to the shrine and pray for his recovery."
Richard snickered. "By the time you arrive, you will be praying for his soul."
And by the time I return, Garren thought, I'll be praying for my own.
Excerpted from The Knave And The Maiden by Blythe Gifford Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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