Read an Excerpt
The Knight's Kiss
By Nicole Burnham
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSan Rimini, November 1190
Two men he could defeat. Perhaps three, given the element of surprise.
But from his hiding place behind a tangle of low bushes, deep in the richly forested hill country of San Rimini's western borderlands, Domenico of Bollazio counted five men in the glade. Turkish spies, he realized with alarm, noting they wore San Riminian garb yet spoke with heavy accents and carried Turkish short swords. They stood in a circle, kicking angrily at a whisper-thin youth of no more than fifteen years.
A fool's mission, Domenico warned himself, reluctantly drawing his fingers away from the leather-padded grip of his own sheathed sword. Better to ignore his instinct to help the lad and return to his horse. Complete his real mission.
Still, he couldn't help but watch as the youth on the ground cried out in Italian, begging for mercy. The infidels paid him no heed. They'd come for blood and no doubt they'd have it.
"Where is it?" one of the armed men demanded. His accent made him difficult to understand, but there was no mistaking the threat in his tone. "Make it easier on yourself and tell us now where you have hidden it." He kicked the young man in the ribs for emphasis.
Domenico closed his eyes at the sickening sound of bones breaking. Cursing himself for stopping, for allowing himself to care, he eased back from the edge of the glade, careful not to rustle the thick coat of autumn leaves beneath him.
"I know nothing of this ... this message!" The young man's frightened cry carried to Domenico's ears despite the knight's determination to shut out the sound.
"Deny it if you wish. Our spies know the king's messenger was to pass here this morn on his way to Messina."
Domenico stilled, his heart turning to ice in his chest. Still crouched low, he crept back to the glade, his attention once again riveted on the scene unfolding before him.
"Do not let him leave," one of the infidels ordered the rest, keeping to Italian so the youth would understand his words. "If he continues to foolishly insist on his innocence, do with him as you please, then search the area. It's likely in the woods nearby."
Out of habit, Domenico's hand rubbed the pommel of his sword. In his gut, however, he knew any rescue attempt would be futile. The young man rolled on the ground and attempted to gain his feet, but stopped when the tallest of the Turks drove a dagger into his leg.
Anger rose in Domenico's chest, but he had no time to contemplate the innocent youth's injury or his death, which would likely come soon. Afterward, the spies would discover what Domenico had - that the youth's pack pony carried only a half day's provisions. He hadn't the means to convey a message hundreds of miles over difficult terrain.
But if Domenico didn't make his own escape now, the men would certainly find him, and perhaps even the message they sought, now safely tucked against his chest, sewn into the lining of his quilted gambeson.
King Bernardo had warned Domenico of the importance of the message, and that there were those who'd give their life to see its contents. Less than two hours after he'd left the San Riminian king's presence, the knight realized the truth of those parting words. He'd be lucky to reach Lionheart and his army, now camped with France's Philip Augustus on the island of Sicily, alive.
Within minutes, Domenico located his horse, hidden amongst the trees a half mile from the glade. He led the animal back to the road, but before he could mount, a noise in the nearby bushes startled him. He spun around just in time to see a panicked woman with fiery red hair crash through the brush.
"Please, my knight," the woman begged, grabbing his arm, "have you seen a young man about? Fourteen years of age, with blond hair?"
The youth. Domenico glanced over his shoulder, making certain the woman's voice hadn't alerted the soldiers to his presence. When he was certain they were alone, he turned his attention back to her. Judging from her age and the desperate look on her face he suspected she might be the poor lad's mother. Still, that wasn't what set his nerve endings abuzz in warning. There was a familiarity to the woman, though Domenico knew he'd never laid eyes on her in his life.
Keeping his voice low, he asked, "What is your name, madam? How do you come to be near the border? Do you not realize how dangerous -"
"They call me Rufina. Please, I know you have seen my Ignacio. Your eyes tell me so."
Rufina the Witch?
No wonder she seemed familiar. He'd heard of the red-haired conjurer who lived in this area, a woman who'd been fortunate enough to flee the city before being tried for her crimes against the church.
Though he didn't believe in witchcraft himself, Domenico sensed brushing her aside would be a mistake. "I have seen him. Over yon, in the glade. But he is in trouble -"
Not bothering to ask what kind of trouble, the woman turned in the direction Domenico pointed. Before she could take two steps, he grabbed one of her bony elbows. "A group of infidels have captured him. If you enter the glade, they will likely kill you. Wait until they are gone and you will be able to treat the young man's wounds."
Rufina was known to be practiced in the healing arts, though the pious accused her of calling on the Devil for assistance. With her skills, the youth might have a fighting chance at life.
If he wasn't dead already.
Rufina didn't appear to find the advice helpful, however. She stared at Domenico, her eyes filled with a hate and blame as complete as that of any warrior he'd faced in battle. "My son is bodily injured, yet you did nothing? How dare you wear that sword and call yourself a knight of San Rimini!"
She raised her hand to strike him, but Domenico moved faster, corralling her thin wrist midswing. "I could not. I am on a mission from the king, and to assist your son would have jeopardized it." He swore to himself and dropped her wrist. He shouldn't have even told her that much. "Please understand, madam. Go now, do what's best to help him -"
"Mission for the king," she spat, showing no fear. "You possess a knight's sword, yet you wear no crest of nobility. Is the king's mission so pressing you cannot stop to help someone in need? A young man raised in a humble home, as you were? Or is it your ambition - ambition to gain your own lands and title by currying the king's favor - that prevents you from taking even the slightest risk to help another?"
Domenico started in surprise. In only a few seconds, this woman, this witch, summed up his life better than he could himself. And he didn't care for her conclusions.
Excerpted from The Knight's Kiss by Nicole Burnham Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.