This excerpt is the prologue from One Knight Enchanted, and introduces the knights in the Rogues & Angels company.
“We could join the Lombards and this new crusade,” Thierry Douglas suggested, his opinion of that strategy clear in his tone. “If we want to fight with peasants.”
The eight knights who had become friends as well as comrades sat in the tavern they favored and drank young red wine. They had each ridden to crusade and had met in Outremer, ultimately joining forces to fight together. Rolfe de Viandin liked to jest that his friends were rogues and angels, for it was true that their natures could not have been more varied.
Thierry and Luc Douglas were twins from the north of England, and Rolfe still found it uncanny how well they anticipated each other’s thoughts and movements. The sole difference between them was that Thierry’s eyes were green, a striking contrast to his black hair, while Luc’s remaining eye was hazel. They, too, had ridden in pursuit of adventure and Rolfe admired that neither hesitated to engage a foe.
Rolfe had met the twins at the siege of Antioch four years before, when both he and they had noticed two other knights being struck down and taken captive. Rolfe, Thierry and Luc had rescued Quinn and Bayard, which had formed the core of their company. Luc had lost an eye in that battle and had worn a patch ever since.
Quinn de Sayerne, with his auburn hair and amber eyes, was the most thoughtful of the company, as befitted an older son and heir. He often fought back-to-back with Bayard de Neuville, dark-haired and dark-eyed, a younger son with no claim at home, much like Rolfe. Bayard was quick with a jest and quicker yet to strike a killing blow, which was a good balance to Quinn’s temperance. They had met shortly after arriving in Palestine and become close companions. Rolfe thought that Quinn had joined the crusade for experience and pursuit of justice while Bayard sought adventure and opportunity. They might have been lost without such timely intervention.
Never mind the aid of Lothair. Lothair, who they called the Viking, was taller than any of them and ferocious in battle than any knight Rolfe had ever known. He was also a talented healer, and had ensured Quinn’s survival, thereby bonding those two together. Lothair had blond hair and green eyes and must have hailed from some frozen north land. He was inclined to be enigmatic but there was no doubt of his ambition—he had joined the fight for plunder.
The company was completed with two handsome knights, both with a measure of charm. Amaury de Montvieux was another with a legacy he had only to ride home to claim. He had joined the crusade out of a conviction that it was right, and was an excellent fighter. He was affluent—no surprise, given his status as heir to a prosperous holding—and inclined to be a little proud. His heart was of the best and valiant, too. Because of his connections, the company had been shown favors in Outremer by the king himself.
Finally, there was Niall MacGillivray, a Scottish mercenary with a fondness for damsels in distress—with his fair hair and blue eyes, he easily gained the favor of any lady he sought to woo though he vowed that he would never lose his own heart. Although he was even more shameless in his pursuit of women that Rolfe, he listened well and often learned details from the ladies that were of advantage to them in battle.
It was after sunset by the time they had all gathered at the tavern and had their first sip of the wine. Although they met most nights, on this night, they had a decision to make. Lothair had pronounced Quinn to be fully healed, and Quinn had received a message from his overlord that he was now Lord de Sayerne. Would Quinn leave? If so, there was no doubt that Bayard would accompany him. But what of the others? Should they join another battle, like the one mustering in Constantinople, or should they dissolve their company?
The wine had become sharper than had previously been the case and Rolfe de Viandin found it less palatable.
Not as unpalatable as Thierry’s suggestion, though. He had endured enough war.
“I failed to bring my plow,” Rolfe said, then quaffed the rest of his wine. He recalled, not for the first time, the rich wine made at his home estate and felt his yearning to return grow stronger.
Niall grinned, his blue eyes dancing. “I forgot mine, as well.” He filled Rolfe’s cup and the two toasted each other before drinking anew.
“They killed Alexios’ pet lion,” Lothair said grimly. “Regardless of their social status, they lack sense in any measure.”
“Allying with fools will see a man dead quicker than any other choice,” Luc, the strategist, agreed.
There was a murmur of agreement to that.
“I see little to be gained by remaining in Outremer, but much to be lost,” Rolfe said. “Jerusalem is taken and secured. We have gained some riches, which could be lost.”
“Just as our health could be,” Lothair agreed. “We have sufficient injuries between us, to my thinking.”
Again, there was assent.
“It is said that other forces arrive,” Quinn noted, speaking with his customary calm. “Knights among them. Raymond IV of Toulouse is said to be arriving at Nicodemia with troops.”
“He turned back from the first crusade before the battle was won,” Amaury scoffed. “I see the reason they already call this the crusade of the faint-hearted. I am not hungry to join such company. They might falter in battle, which would lead to no good result.”
The knights nodded at this.
“They come to reap the spoils now the hard labor is done,” Bayard muttered. When Quinn might have protested, he gave his comrade a hard look. “We only lingered so long in Outremer because of your injury. Now you are not just healed, but heir to a holding! I say we ride for Sayerne, pray at your father’s grave, and find you a wife.” They drank to Quinn’s health and congratulated him again.
Quinn did not reply to that, merely sipped of his ale. Was it possible he was not happy with these tidings? Rolfe wondered if he had been close to his father and mourned his death.
“But not all of us are so fortunate as Quinn,” Thierry noted. “Not all of us have a holding that merely awaits our arrival.”
“Although some of us do,” Luc said, giving Amaury a nudge. That knight only smiled, for the truth was indisputable. “Perhaps we shall all come with you and live off the fat of the land at Montvieux.”
“God spare me the expense of a company of hungry mercenaries!” Amaury said and they all laughed. “And then there is my fair cousin. No, no, no. You will not be welcome at Montvieux.” He pointed at Rolfe. “Not you.” He pointed at Niall. “And especially not you.”
“How fair is she?” Niall demanded with a grin. “I might make her happy.”
“For a night,” Rolfe teased.
“Then you will make her happy for the next,” Niall agreed easily.
“Do not provoke me in this,” Amaury retorted, his eyes flashing blue fire.
“You can all stay away from my sister, as well,” Quinn added.
“Then we shall have no place to sleep,” Niall complained in good temper.
“I say we visit both Sayerne and Montvieux and confirm the beauty of these ladies,” Rolfe said. Niall chuckled.
“I say you will sleep in the stables if you cross my borders,” Amaury said and Quinn agreed.
“The fact remains that not all of us have a destination where we will be welcomed,” Thierry noted.
“We have need of a company of heiresses,” Lothair declared. “Beauties, every one, burdened with wealth and property and ripe for the plucking.”
“So long as you do not dream of too much good fortune,” Rolfe said to much laughter.
“Now there is a fantasy worthy of a tale!” Thierry said with a laugh. “Keeper! We shall have more wine, if you please.”
“I say we shall make our fortunes at home,” Bayard argued, raising his voice over the merriment to sound a more somber note. “Outremer has been divided and allotted. There are few futures to be made here now and, indeed, I fear the Latin Kingdoms will not remain stable for long.” He shook his head. “There are few prospects for us here.”
“It was a blow indeed that Godfroy died last summer,” Lothair contributed with a shake of his head. “There are few leaders his equal.”
“Though his brother promises to do well as king,” Quinn said.
There was another grunt although it was harder to determine whether the greater mood was skepticism or agreement.
“Here is a suggestion,” Quinn said. “Let us leave Outremer. As Bayard notes, there is little opportunity for good here and more for peril. Let us ride home together. My holding might be besieged, seeing as it is without a lord. I might have need of your expertise.” He fixed a stern gaze upon Rolfe and Niall. “You are all welcome to visit Sayerne, so long as you pledge to leave my sister and other women at Sayerne untouched.”
Niall and Rolfe agreed with a show of reluctance, for they knew it was a generous offer and one they welcomed—they would both tease Quinn about his sister, though Rolfe knew Niall would also keep his pledge.
“So, we have a destination,” Luc said with satisfaction.
“And must choose a route,” Thierry added, turning to Quinn. “Where is Sayerne?”
“North of the Alps, west of Martigny. We rode south through the great Beauvoir Pass with Robert Courteheuse, then down to Brindisi, sailed to Greece, then rode through Byzantium to Constantinople.” He shook his head. We will reach the pass in winter, though, if we depart now. I would suggest Godfroy de Bouillon’s route, through Byzantium and into the Holy Roman Empire, then approach Sayerne from the north in the spring.”
Thierry, who remember a map of all the world, shook his head. “I would ride for Acre and sail for Venice, avoiding these newly arrived crusaders and whatever trouble they would make. It would be quicker…”
“But still you will reach the Alps in winter,” Quinn said. “I will not undertake that ride again.”
“We could linger in Venice,” Luc suggested.
“Too expensive,” came a chorus of protest. The Venetians were reputed to charge visitors richly.
“But if we do not depart soon, we might be swept into this new battle, the fight of fools,” Rolfe noted. “I, for one, would be glad to reach home for the Yule.”
Marcus, the keeper, arrived with another pitcher of wine as there was a chorus of agreement. He glanced around at the knights as Quinn’s squire Michel took the pitcher to fill the knights’ cups. “Is there some cause for celebration?” he asked politely.
“Perhaps for you,” Lothair said with a smile. “For you will finally be rid of us.”
“Say it is not so!” the keeper protested, and Rolfe knew the man had come to rely upon their regular custom. When the knights insisted it would be, he raised his hands in surrender. “I have long feared that this day would come, so I have prepared gifts for you all.”
“Marcus, there is no need,” Quinn began to protest.
“You have defended my home,” Marcus said to Quinn and Bayard, recalling an incident in which they waylaid a thief. “You have given me coin to build an olive press,” he said to Amaury who nodded acknowledgement of that. “You have aided in the healing of my son,” he said to Lothair, who knew more of herbs than any man Rolfe had ever known. “You have brought Franji to my door who had need of hospitality, and you have ensured that they paid,” he said to Luc and Thierry. They hadn’t all been from France, but the occupants of Outremer called all the crusaders Franji. Marcus smiled as he turned to Rolfe and Niall. “And you have left my daughters untouched.” He bowed as the knights laughed together at his jest. “I will thank you all.”
Marcus hurried from the common room as the knights exchanged glances. “Provisions for the journey ahead?” Quinn guessed.
“Nieces and daughters,” Niall suggested with a wink.
“More wine!” Luc said.
But Marcus brought gifts. He set them upon the table in the middle of the room and the knights leaned forward as one, their squires appearing from the shadows to peer at the small heap of presents, as well. There were several wooden boxes, a collection of small bags of velvet in different colors, a small glass vial and a large dark decanter. “My wife is said to have the gift of seeing the future, a gift from the angels themselves. When I spoke to her of all of you, she prepared these gifts, telling me which was for each of you and why. It seems my wife knows something of your reputations.”
Smiles were exchanged as Marcus chose a small red velvet sack and presented it to Amaury. At his nod, Amaury opened it and poured its contents into his palm. It was a stone the size of a very small egg of a mottled green color. He raised his gaze to Marcus, his question clear.
“A stone to detect poison, found in the gullet of a winged lion,” Marcus said. “Place it in any food or drink that you fear to be poisoned. If it remains the same, all is well. If it turns black, do not consume that substance.”
Amaury nodded, hiding his skepticism. “I thank you, Marcus.”
“My wife says you will face treachery upon your return home, and you will have need of it.”
Amaury’s eyes narrowed and he tucked the stone away with care after thanking Marcus again. Rolfe wondered if there was someone at Montvieux who Amaury did not fully trust.
Next was a glass vial with a swirled stopper, sealed with wax. “A perfume that will win the heart of the most reluctant maiden,” Marcus said. Niall grinned and stretched out a hand, but Marcus scoffed at him. “You have no need of this gift!” he said, then passed it to Bayard. That knight flushed, for his clumsy manner with women was a jest with the others.
“I have no need of a maiden’s heart, so long as I have no home of my own,” he said.
“You will have both, otherwise the gift would not have been meant for you,” Marcus replied.
Bayard bowed and thanked the keeper, his appreciation clear.
Rolfe knew he was not the only one whose curiosity had been whetted. It seemed the gifts gave some hint of their respective futures.
Marcus handed Quinn a small box with a pattern of small flowers inlaid on the lid. He made to open it but the keeper stopped him. “You must keep it. When you have found the residence where you mean to remain forever, then open it and have your home blessed forevermore.”
Quinn frowned a little, then smiled and nodded. Rolfe’s sense redoubled that Quinn believed some trouble awaited him at Sayerne. Perhaps the overlord’s messenger had told him more than he had shared.
Another velvet sack was given to Lothair, this one made of dark green silk. At Marcus’s nod of encouragement, Lothair opened it and spilled the contents into his hand. It was a gold coin, but one unlike any Rolfe had seen before. It had a square hole in the middle and a swirling design that might have been script in another language. “A coin, stolen from a dragon’s hoard, and one that can buy your very soul,” Marcus said.
“Though none of us are surprised that it is for sale,” Niall muttered, earning a quick look and a grin from Lothair.
The Viking thanked the keeper graciously and tucked the coin away.
A blade in a heavily ornamented sheath was passed then to Luc, who regarded it with awe. “A dagger that always strikes true,” Marcus said. “For it has a hilt of dragon bone.”
“So it can see where you cannot,” Thierry said, making a reference to Luc’s injured eye.
“A welcome gift. And a fine blade, as well,” Luc said, turning it so that it caught the light. “This is fine steel. I thank you, Marcus!”
Thierry was given another of the small velvet sacks, this one being blue. He opened it and immediately light flooded from inside it. He removed the contents with care and the knights gasped as one at the stone that hung like a pendant from a fine silver chain. It was as clear as a drop of water, but it shone with inner light. The squires nudged each other and pushed closer to see it better.
“The Virgin’s Tear,” Marcus said softly. “Said to have been gathered from a maiden when the unicorn that had laid its head in her lap was snared and slaughtered.” He nodded. “Its luminosity indicates the future of the bearer. When it is radiant, as it is now, all prospects are fine. But when it clouds over or turns dark, take warning.”
“Thank you, Marcus,” Thierry said, the awe in his voice echoing what Rolfe felt. “I will treasure this forever.” Rolfe guessed he was not the only one glad to see the light shining brightly from the stone.
“This is for you,” Marcus said, offering a smaller carved box to Niall. At his nod, Niall opened the box, revealing black seeds as large as a man’s thumbnail. “The red bloom of passion. It grows only when a destined lover appears in the life of the bearer. Plant it and it will grow, a mark of your heart’s true impulse.”
“It will wait a long time for Niall to experience true love,” Lothair teased. “Do the seeds become infertile in time?” The knights laughed at this.
“Whatever do you mean?” Niall asked in mock outrage. “I feel true love daily. Hourly! Each woman I meet, I cherish from the depths of my soul!”
They laughed again and Marcus shook his head. “There will be one, and you will have need of this gift to win her to your side.”
“If she is clever, that will certainly be so,” Niall agreed easily. He bowed. “I thank you, Marcus.”
There was only one gift remaining on the table, the tall stoppered bottle of deepest black. Marcus touched it with a fingertip, then turned and presented it to Rolfe.
“This rich gift cannot be for me,” he protested.
“It is,” Marcus said and smiled. “For it alone has the power to make dreams come true.”
Rolfe took the bottle with care, surprised that it was so heavy. The stopper was sealed with wax and the surface seemed to move with a thousand lights.
“It is too small to have a woman in it,” Niall teased and Rolfe grinned.
“Let alone half a dozen,” Amaury agreed.
But Rolfe knew that his dream did not involve a woman. He stared at the bottle and knew that the one thing he desired above all else was a home of his own.
It was so simple and so true.
He would be content to have a place to defend, perhaps a border territory sworn to Viandin. Five years of travel had taught him the merit of having a place to call home. This remarkable bottle, presented to his older brother Adalbert as a gift, might be rich enough to earn his brother’s favor.
Adalbert, after all, had a taste for the exotic.
“I thank you, Marcus,” he said with a deep bow. “I am honored by your generosity.”
The knights thanked Marcus again and toasted his welfare. They remained at the tavern to eat a hot meal and plan for their departures, Thierry tracing routes on the tabletop as they debated the best way to ride. In the end, their ways did part: Rolfe, Thierry and Luc would ride for Acre and the quicker route via Venice. Quinn and the others would ride for Constantinople. They agreed to meet in Sayerne in a year, then gathered a collection of coins for Marcus and his family.
Rolfe was packing his belongings to depart at the dawn when the bottle rattled just a little, moving on its own. He wondered what could be inside it.
Had it moved? Or had he simply indulged too much in the wine?
It did not matter. This gift was for Adalbert, and it would make Rolfe’s dream come true, just as Marcus had vowed.
Excerpt from One Knight Enchanted by Claire Delacroix
© Copyright 2017 Deborah A. Cooke.
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