Betrothed to the arrogant Lord Francois, Nicolette Duprey was plunged into blissful confusion upon meeting Davide, a mysterious knight-errant en route to the Crusades. In countenance he could have been Francois’s twin, yet his heart was as gentle as her lord’s was cruel. But Nicolette’s fragile hopes were crushed when Francois insisted on marrying her before he too joined the fight against the Infidels. Cherishing a precious yet dangerous secret, Nicolette dreaded her husband’s return. When the day came, she raised sad eyes to behold him, resigned to her fate. But in his face she saw a miracle—for the man who embraced her was the gallant, tender Davide, the lover she feared she had lost!
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’TWAS A GLORIOUS MAY MORN, YET NICOLETTE Duprey’s heart was as heavy as her footsteps were quick, as she hurried down the rutted road from the castle of St. Aliquis toward the forest. Although she had prayed with the deepest reverence to the Virgin Mother at this morning’s Mass in Baron Perdant’s chapel, she knew that not even Mother Mary could save her from her fate.
The morrow would bring sweet, dear Bruge’s thirteenth birthday and the thirteenth anniversary of their mother’s departure to Heaven. Nicolette had been barely three, yet she remembered her mother clearly in her dreams, smiling down upon her with a smile as sweet as that of the picture of the Lord Jesus’s own mother in Nicolette’s Bible. Nicolette fought back her tears as she remembered her own thirteenth birthday. On that day they had learned from their stepbrother, Henri, Father’s son from his first wife, that Father had been killed in battle for Baron Perdant. Henri, knighted by the baron shortly after Father’s death, had been richly rewarded for their valiant father’s death.
But for Nicolette, the nightmare had begun. She could not save herself, she had soon, bitterly learned. If only Henri had died in battle rather than Father, God forgive her. This morning she thanked the Virgin Mother for at least sparing Bruge, far more delicate and trusting than herself. For in a pique of anger at her attempted defiance, Henri had declared that if Nicolette would not agree to marry François Perdant, the good baron’s youngest, prodigal son, then Henri would cajole François into taking her young sister Bruge instead.
Henri had won. Only in her prayers to the Father, the Son, and the Blessed Mother had Nicolette ever asked for mercy again. Last month, upon François’ dubbing—his confirmation as a knight on his eighteenth birthday—Father Gregoire, the chaplain, had come to the castle chamber to hear Nicolette’s consent to her betrothal. For the church demanded even a woman’s consent. A consent that only a maiden as noble as Mademoiselle Alienor, François’ sister, who she and Bruge served, might dare deny.
“Good day, my lady,” a peasant, carrying heavy sacks of grain on his hunched shoulders, respectfully bid.
“Good day,” she replied, forcing a smile. The peasant headed toward the castle, where his wife was most probably baking bread at the great oven.
Dressed as she was, in but a modest gown, mantle, and her delicate white slippers that she had impetuously decided to wear, despite the sometimes rough underbrush she would encounter in the forest, she knew she appeared to the “villein” as a noble maiden. But despite Henri’s pretensions, the Dupreys were but “petty nobles.” The proud death of their father made Henri knight and vassal to Baron Perdant and allowed Henri to move them from the thatched roof country house where Nicolette had happily lived to the dank chambers of the palais itself. Nicolette and Bruge were ladies-in-waiting to Alienor, the baron’s only daughter. Service to Alienor, as kind and sensitive as she was beautiful, was as much a pleasure as honor. Nicolette and Alienor were but weeks apart in age, and soon, despite their difference in class, became as much friends as mistress and maid. It was Alienor who sent her off, after Mass at five, on a supposed errand with a love note to Sire Guy, the handsome knight to whom she was most happily betrothed.
Nicolette laughed aloud as she recalled Bruge’s disappointment in not being permitted to accompany her. How Bruge loved romance! . . . Nicolette’s laughter disappeared as she remembered her own dreams of falling in love with a tenderly handsome, gallant, romantic, brave knight in his mailed suit of armor, sitting high upon his destrier, his white fighting horse. This knight, to whom she would have given her silk sleeve and stocking to hang upon his lance, would ride off to battle with a lock of her hair set around a gold ring and a larger blonde lock which he would twine about his helmet. Until her cavalier returned, she would hold the gold ring he had presented to her with a passionate kiss close to her heart. How clearly she had pictured the ring, one just like Sire Guy had presented to Alienor with both his name and hers engraved thereon. Her beloved would return from battle and carry her off to his castle where they would marry and live most happily forever—
“Watch where ye go, girl!” Michel, one of the baron’s squires, shouted as he rode quickly past her, causing Nicolette to scurry out of his way. But it was too late. For his horse’s galloping hoofs had splashed the muddy water from a puddle all over her mantle and slippers. Arrogant Michel had not even turned back to notice the damage! How she disliked him, ever since he had attempted to steal kisses from her the night they had arrived at the castle. She had fought him off and he had tripped and fallen into a mound of horse manure. Instead of running away, Nicolette had stood and laughed so loudly that a passing group of nobles visiting the baron had walked upon the scene. Michel had been properly cuffed and word quickly spread that Nicolette was a maid who took “unkindly” to amorous advances.
He probably had splashed her on purpose, Nicolette realized, as she turned off the road and onto the footpath that would lead her into the dense forest. How happy she would be if Michel’s punishment was to be the worst to befall her. For compared to Sire François, Michel was almost a saint! She had fended off François for almost two years, but now with Henri deaf to her entreaties, when François arrived at the castle tonight she would be as helpless to save herself from him as if she were bound to the torture rack. Well, he could take her body, force her to become his wife with Henri’s greedy complicity, but he would never have her heart or her soul!
Nicolette trod gracefully through the forest’s thick underbrush. How she loved the peaceful beauty of the forest. She headed purposefully toward the mossy stream. There she would find the wildflowers that she would pick and weave into a beautiful chaplet, her secret birthday present for Bruge. On the morrow, no lady of the noblest rank would wear a garland more glorious than Bruge! Bruge, now of age, would win the heart of the finest, most gentle young squire. She would win a match that would have made their father happy. Bruge would live and love for both of them. This vow Nicolette had made upon her forced agreement to marry François. A silent vow to her dear departed mother, father, and the Holy Virgin!
Yes, it truly was a glorious day as the first of the sun’s rays streamed through the redolent branches of the newly reborn trees. The dew still clung to the underbrush and seeped through Nicolette’s already muddied slippers, yet she did not mind. She would wash them and her mantle at the stream and lay her slippers and cloak upon her favorite rock where they would dry beneath the bright morning sun. The sweet scent of the honeysuckle further filled her senses with joy. It would be this woodbine, her favorite, the flowers tiny yellow and as lovely as they were sweetly redolent, and hawthorn, the delicate pinkish flowers that blossomed on the thorny bushes already in purview, that she would use to make the chaplet. With the colored ribbons that Alienor had generously given her, they would form the crowning beauty that Bruge would find on her chest before the morrow’s matin Mass. Nicolette began to sing a song she had learned from a trouvère who had entertained at the barony a week before. She retrieved her small, sharp knife, tied at her girdle, and deftly cut her first branch of hawthorn.
“Can par la flor justal vert fuelh,” she sang. How she loved to sing, though it embarrassed her when Alienor had her perform for visiting knights and nobles. Yet the joy of the melody and words of this May song lifted her heart as she sang out into the serenity of the forest.
“Oh!” she cried out, as a thorn pricked her finger, then laughed and began her song again. “When the flowers appear beside the green leaf, when I see the weather bright and serene . . . and hear in the wood the song of the birds which brings sweetness to my heart and pleases me . . .” Lost in song, she carried the flowers carefully toward the brook. “The more the birds sing to merit praise, the more joy I have in my heart and I must sing, yea I must sing . . .”
* • *
The young knight knew not how long he had stood transfixed, gazing at the vision of the maiden as she wove a garland, singing ever so sweetly. On his way to join the Count of Champagne on the Crusade, he had detoured from the main road although he had ridden his proud destrier for two days since he had left his father’s castle and still had two days of journey before him. But something had caused him to return to the barony of St. Aliquis, where he had spent the earliest years in his life. Years so long ago that they seemed more like fragments of a dream than a reality. Fragments of an unhappy dream at that, except for his flash of memory of playing in this forest.
He had watered his horse and walked him up the steep cliff above the stream when he had heard the first enchanting sweetness of a maiden’s voice. Quickly he tied his horse to a tree limb out of sight and sat in wait for a glance at the maiden who sang the May song. From the moment she filled his vision he knew that it had been providence that had brought him to these woods this morn. This gentle damsel was the promise of all the songs and stories of romance he had learned when he had been “nourished,” trained, to be worthy of knighthood. Since he had been “dubbed” into knighthood almost two years before, he had traveled throughout the French kingdom and across most of the Christian world. He had been introduced to maidens and fair ladies from the rank of queen to servitor, yet he had never met one woman who had made his heart pound and his palms dampen as this unknown maiden now did.
Again he tried to make himself either slip away or find the courage to bring himself down the cliff and on his knee before her. But he feared he might frighten her away or that she was merely an apparition that would disappear should he move a muscle. Only twenty-three and he had already fought valiantly for his count. Now he was off with the Count of Champagne to join King Philip Augustus. They would drive the infidels out of the Holy City of Jerusalem. He feared not fighting mighty Saracens, their leader the fierce Saladin, Sultan of Egypt, just as he had never feared following his liege lord into previous battles against rebelling counts who had sought to seize his lord’s power. Yet here he stood in mortal fear of a lovely damsel whom he could carry away with one arm. Oh yes, the monks were right. Woman was the undoing of man as Eve had been to Adam, he thought with a sudden, deep knowing laced with wry humor. He must summon his deepest courage and seize the moment. He had to know this bewitching creature, who sat upon a smooth rock at the edge of the stream, her blonde hair unbraided and falling down her shoulders to her arms as she nimbly and industriously wove a brilliant garland. Yet the flowered chaplet paled in comparison to the damsel’s beauty.
Soundlessly he edged closer. A twig snapped beneath his boot and he feared discovery, but the maiden’s sweet trilling kept her innocent of his presence. When he viewed her more closely, his heart pounded beneath his mailed hauberk. She was more beautiful than he’d thought possible. As she raised her head and smiled at a bird on a beech tree limb who sang with her, he had a full view of her face.
Beneath her golden hair, affixed with little lovelocks, shone her forehead whiter than lilies. Her eyes were blue saucers and laughing; her face most dainty with lips more vermeil than ever was rose or cherry in the time of summer heat. Her face outvied the white and pink of the flowers she wove. She had a witching mouth, a delicate nose, and an open brow.
Suddenly she rose, taking him by surprise. She reached into a purse tied to her white girdle that emphasized her slender waist and bodice. “Here, my friend,” she called in a voice as melodious as her singing. She tossed crumbs of bread upon the ground beneath the tree. “I have brought you dinner, as I always do. You shall eat this morn as well as the baron supped last eve.”
She stretched, raising her face and slender arms to the sun, unknowingly showing off her white bodice beneath which her breasts pressed so firm, like two rounded sweet nuts. Her throat was whiter than snow on winter branch, and as she suddenly raised the hem of her pale blue tunic and massaged her finely formed calves, most probably stiff from having sat cross-legged as she wove, he saw the delicacy of her instep, as white as the rest of her flesh. How he suddenly ached to see all of her.
Nicolette turned to stretch her neck that had stiffened. “Oh!” she gasped as she saw the blond, curly-haired knight staring at her. She dropped her gathered hem and stood rigidly uncertain. It could not be but it was! Somehow Sire François had discovered her secret place. She covered her mouth to suppress a frightened, despairing cry. She must never let him know the depth of her fear of him. Why had the Lord made a man so beautiful to the eye and so brutish and evil in the heart?
He did not know what to do, but the look of horror upon the maiden’s face made him flee from her view. How could he have evoked such fear on the face that had burned a spark into his heart? He had caught her by surprise but she had reacted with more than fear. Her blue eyes had darkened with visible terror and hate. Why had she looked upon him, a stranger, with such abhorrence, as if she had despised him forever—That was it. The maiden had thought he was another! A knight who had given her cause to stiffen and be reviled at his sight. He must rush back to her, if she had not already run away, and apologize and allay her fear, plead her forgiveness for the fright he had caused her.
The knight had disappeared and Nicolette found her breath once again. Should she gather her things and hasten back to St. Aliquis? She had been so certain that the figure on the cliff above the stream had been François. But it could not have been. For François would have laughed viciously in triumph at her fear and come after her. In her immediate fright she had not been able to absorb the expression of panic on the handsome face of the knight who watched her before he fled, she suddenly realized.
Nicolette sighed deeply. She was safe. It had been her imagination at work! For as much as she drank in the serenity of the forest and enjoyed the work of weaving Bruge’s chaplet and the image of Bruge’s joyful face on the morrow, she had not been able to erase her fearful hopelessness. With the tacit approval of her greedy stepbrother, she would be forced into François’ bed tonight. She had overheard François and Henri in collusion the other day, right before François had ridden off to the Duke of Quelqueparte for a few days’ visit.
“I shall return in two nights and I want your sister to finally be mine. For surely I must test that her beauty satisfies me as fully as I imagine, if I am to wed the wench and make you the lord of a large fief of land, Henri! The church be damned with their injunctions. We speak man to man, do we not, Henri?”
Henri had laughed. “Certainly, my liege lord. And I am certain that you will break her in, to your liking, as easily as you did this fine fighting horse you sit upon. And a fine ripe virgin she is. Were I not her kin by our mutual father I might have wanted her for my own. But I am but your vassal and she is destined to serve and pleasure a cavalier of noble blood,” he answered and sighed with feigned obsequiousness.
“Yea, you are as wise as you are ambitious, my friend Henri. Soon I shall say my brother, Henri? Have her as pliant as she is tasty and you will be rewarded with a fine wench for your own as well as the Castle Petitmur. For I hear tell that a certain neighboring baron has died, leaving his castle and daughter, his only heir, unprotected. The Count of Champagne must find her a fine husband. And although she doesn’t exhibit the exceptional beauty of your sister, I believe that her father’s castle and fief may act upon you as deeply as the strongest aphrodisiac? Do you gainsay, Henri?”
“No, Sire. I most heartily agree! I have heard of this lovely maiden and am most desirous to experience the sweetness of her great charms. Thank you, François. Nicolette will be waiting eagerly for you upon your arrival home night after next. You have my word.”
The men’s raucously shared laughter had caused Nicolette, hiding behind a stable post, to shudder even more deeply.
She shuddered again as she wove and cried out as she pricked her finger on an unseen sharp thorn. Suddenly the sky darkened. Too late she realized that a cloud had not passed before the sun but that a figure stood before her, the gold tassels of his mantle glinting. She cried out despite herself. She gazed up at the towering figure of François and cursed herself for her dangerous misjudgment. It had been François watching her! But no! She tried to think through her confusion as the garland fell into her lap. She had to have full control of her senses. The knight had not been François. For here stood François in an aggressive open-legged, crossed-arm stance before her dressed not in knightly raiments but in a brilliant blue bliaut and linen, white leggings, and fine, jeweled slippers.
Unbeknownst to her the knight watched from his hiding spot and quickly withdrew his sword from his scabbard, his eyes steeled upon the lord standing before the damsel. He was ready to come to her protection, but the question was, did she require it? Or had she been so badly shaken moments before that she now was frightened by the surprise of the young sire who smiled benignly and familiarly at her?
“Good day, my sweet Nicolette! I am sorry if my sudden appearance caused you a moment of fright,” the lord, wearing the blue of St. Aliquis, said so kindly that the knight was further uncertain.
“Good day, Sire,” she responded evenly. She would not show him another taste of fear. For like a wild boar, it would only make him bolder. “Fright no, my lord. You startled me, for I was lost in my weaving and my thoughts.” She forced herself to meet his eyes with head held high, jaw firm.
“And such a lovely, delicate garland you weave, my dear.” He looked down at her lap, then his eyes rose to her waist, then bodice, openly and slowly appraising her. Indelicately he stared at one breast and then the other, making her want to cover herself, but she dared not acknowledge his lust. “But of course not even nature’s finest flowers can match your succulent, ripe beauty, Nicolette. May I hope that your dreamy thoughts were of me, your husband-to-be?”
The knight’s heart was crushed at the utterance of the lord’s last words. Suddenly weary, he placed his sword back into its scabbard and turned away. Most unmanly tears filled his eyes and his knees became so weak that he had to rest beneath the tree for a moment until he could compose himself.
“They were not, my lord,” Nicolette answered evenly and wanted to laugh at the expression of shock at her honest defiance upon his face. However, as he boldly sat himself beside her, fear clenched her heart again.
“I adore not only your beauty but also your feisty manner. For that is a quality I seek in a wife as well as in my finest destriers.” He grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her into an embrace as his mouth tried to devour her lips.
For a moment the cry she tried to utter was trapped in her throat as his hands grasped beneath her chemise and pulled at her breast. All thought fled and Nicolette bit so hard at his lip that she could taste his blood.
“Bitch!” he screamed in pain as his hand went to his bleeding mouth. “I will not wait until tonight. I shall have you now and teach you how to treat your lord and master!”
The knight jumped to action. Withdrawing his sword he quickly grabbed hold of a strong vine which would enable him to fly across the stream and come to the maiden’s rescue.
Nicolette rose, but François grabbed her ankle cruelly, causing her to lose her balance and tumble toward the stream. Had he not held her fast she would have fallen in. But he was upon her, as if he had a dozen hands, ripping at her chemise, pulling at her tangled bliaut as she heard the rip of the girdle that held her chemise tied at her waist. Suddenly she realized that she had the sharp knife still clenched in her right hand. But if she used it, what fate would befall her sweet sister?
François caught the glint of the knife, and having the wench securely immobile beneath his strong thighs, he stopped for a moment. She would either hand over the knife or woe the day she was born! Tears filled her large blue eyes as she wordlessly dropped the knife that fell into the stream. Her tears of submission made him laugh lustfully as he felt his manhood throbbing in demand for release. He ripped off the sleeve of her pale blue bliaut and then the chemise beneath it. He grabbed her breast and tasted her shoulder as his hands roamed her body, her skirts having risen so he could reach the seat of her maidenly womanhood. Suddenly, she twisted in such a manner as sent him off balance.
“Damn you, whore!” he screamed as he tumbled into the stream, suddenly enjoying the hunt as much as he would enjoy his inevitable victory. For he righted himself as Nicolette unsteadily tried to flee. “Run,” he called out, laughing heartily. “For like the hunt of the wild boar, that will only make the chase more exhilarating, wench. And I shall show you no mercy, this I promise you. You are mine!” he yelled as Nicolette tripped upon some underbrush a few yards away. He would take no chances with this wild one, he decided and started to reach for his sword, but something clenched his neck. An arm in a mailed hauberk. A knight.
“The chase is over, my lord,” the voice shouted. “The sweet doe has escaped, hasn’t she?” François felt the edge of the cold steel against his throat.
“You misunderstand, my fellow knight. We are but lustfully gaming. The maiden is my betrothed. I am Sire François Perdant, son of Baron of St. Aliquis. Ask the lady. Her name is Nicolette. Ask her if she is not my duly intended wife and lady-in-waiting to my sister, the gentle Mademoiselle Alienor!”
Nicolette stood in shock, unaware that her ravaged clothing gave view to her small, pink-nippled breasts. The knight could save her. Perhaps he would take her from St. Aliquis forever, but if she saved herself what would become of Bruge? “Yea, what he speaks is true,” she said weakly as her bitter tears fell, though she tried to fight them back.
The sight of Nicolette’s surrender for reasons he didn’t understand, the tears that streamed down her delicate face that she tried to wipe away as she pushed back her tangled hair, made the knight want to slash the Sire of St. Aliquis’ throat all the more! For the rich, cowardly knight’s unchivalrous deeds were widely known throughout the kingdom. He had despised François’ very name for years now, but had never expected to come upon him in this way! But the knight could not slash the throat of a fellow knight who was unarmed. Moreover, what François did not know was that they would be riding together on the morrow’s eve with the Count of Champagne for King Philip Augustus. The knight was now glad he’d placed his helmet upon his head before swinging across the stream, for François would not easily identify him in his mailed suit of armor. But what to do about the maiden? He could not leave her to François.
“Sire Perdant. I am much surprised to come upon you behaving such when the lady is not in the mood for amorous adventure. For I have heard of your gallantry and august reputation as a gentleman and a chevalier of honor.” The knight released his hold.
François turned and glanced through blurred eyes at the helmeted knight who matched him in height and build. The sun prevented him from distinguishing much else about the knight who was not carrying an identifying shield. François did not want to challenge him to a duel, for bully though he was, François had no taste for dueling and fighting, much preferring whoring and drinking through the night. He cleared his throat and glanced at Nicolette who now sat, trying to cover herself with maidenly modesty.
“You are right, Sire, eh, what is it?” he asked, feigning camaraderie in an attempt to learn his attacker’s name. But the knight did not offer his name nor any word. Nervously, François continued. “I am so enchanted with my Nicolette that my love overwhelmed me, as I’m certain you must understand. Yea?” The knight remained silent, his sword lowered but ready. “Being a man of the world I had almost forgotten the, uh,” he whispered, “the modesty of a virgin. My dear Nicolette had asked me to meet her in this secret place, but I can now see that the damsel, so reverent a lady, hears the incantations of the church louder than her own passion. I so adore her that I think it best if I wait for our wedding eve. It was upon her insistence that we met today, for I am riding with the Count of Champagne and the great suzerain lord himself, King Philip Augustus, in the Crusade on the morrow. Are you riding with us, perchance?” François asked in bold, casual voice again, hoping once more to trick the knight into revealing his identity.
“Then perhaps you should ride off,” the knight said, glancing at François’ horse, peacefully watering at the stream bank, “and leave the maiden to regain her composure and suffer her embarrassment at her understandably passionate invitation to you, my lord?” the knight asked amiably, pretending to believe the despicable coward’s story. If François were half a man, he would have challenged him to a duel. But this was François Perdant, a knight who believed that his father’s wealth and power could buy him anything.
The knight knew something François did not. François had no more intended to ride off on the Crusade on the morrow than the lovely maiden Nicolette had offered herself to him. François intended to pay scutage—a fee—to a poor knight who would take his place in the Crusade. For the knight expected to replace François had told him so at the inn, shortly before the fool had died in a drunken brawl last night. So, unknown to François, his plan had been foiled.
“I think you speak wisely, man to man, Sire,” François said. “I am hungry and from the look of the sun it must be nearly nine and time to dine. Would you care to honor us with your presence at dinner?”
“Thank you, but no. Perhaps another time. For I am certain that we shall meet again, Sire.”
“Then I shall take my leave. I must pay my thanks to you for the chivalry you showed my lady, though misconstrued.”
“The pleasure was mine,” the knight replied evenly.
François smiled charmingly and then turned and walked downstream to his waiting destrier. The knight watched as François turned his head to the maiden but apparently decided to leave without a word. Then he turned back to the maiden on the bank and called, “I shall see you tonight, my sweet Nicolette. I bid you a good day, my lovely betrothed.” The knight watched Nicolette fight back a shudder in response.
If only God would strike you dead and save us all, Nicolette thought. But she had to appease him or only the Devil could know what he might do if he left the forest in abject humiliation. “I am sorry for my silly behavior, my lord. I beg your understanding and forgiveness. I will try to make it up to you, François”—she forced the words out—“my dearest, kind husband-to-be.” The delight on François’ face made the bile rise in her stomach. For only a man as vain and arrogant as François was so easily appeased. Bruge should be safe. Nicolette doubted that François would report this morning’s events to Henri now.
“You have my forgiveness, my lovely songbird. Tonight I shall prove it to you,” he replied, laughing.
François jumped on his horse and galloped off as the knight stood in the stream and watched. Nicolette rested her head in her lap and cried bitter tears of relief. She cried so hard she couldn’t raise her head when the knight who had saved her called her name.
“Sweet lady, you are safe,” the knight said tenderly. She looked through swollen, blurred eyes at his face as he crouched before her. She gasped in shock for a moment, for he was again unhelmeted and he looked so like the monstrous François. But she saw the gentleness in his eyes and the softness in his smile and she realized he was as far different from François as the Lord was from the Devil. Tentatively, so as to not frighten her, she realized, the knight reached for her hand.
“Cry the terror away, fair maiden. Then we shall talk,” he said.
She gazed into his eyes, bluer than her own, as he brushed a blond curl from his forehead. Suddenly she felt a sense of safety that had died with her father. Nicolette fell into the knight’s arms and sobbed with despair. And unexplainable hope.