Excerpt from A Knight For Love by A.M.Westerling
Icy water dripped off Alyna Caperun’s cap to puddle between her shoulder blades where the coarse woolen tunic touched her skin. She hunched her shoulders, shivering with what she hoped was only cold and not sickness. For in this year of Our Lord 1251, disease could cut down a man in his prime in a matter of hours.
As had happened to her brother, David, only this morning. She sank to her knees as she watched several men lower his shrouded body into a shallow grave by the side of the road.
Panic at the knowledge she was now alone far from home battled with hunger within her. And overall, anger. Anger at David for dying. Anger at her aunt’s treachery that had brought her here. And even anger at the unsympathetic skies that had unleashed a downpour, chilling her and turning the road into a quagmire.
Someone pounded a rough cross fashioned from two branches lashed together into the loose dirt at the head of the grave before the tonsured priest waved his hand over it in one last benediction. Then the group dispersed but not before casting anxious glances her way – she knew very well they feared she carried the same pestilence that had felled David.
Abandoned, Alyna remained on her knees with head bowed over the grave of her brother. Tears streamed down her cheeks but by now it rained so hard it was difficult to tell where the rain stopped and the tears began. Her lips formed in prayer and she took what comfort she could in the familiar words. Over and over, she repeated the lines, always to stumble over the same one: “Dieu li volt.” God wills it.
With gaze downcast she knelt for some time, lost in sorrow, lost in dejection. Lost in despair of the certain knowledge she now had no way to return home to England.
After the heat of the Holy Land, the rain mercilessly pelting Warin de Taillur was foul indeed. Beneath him, the powerful muscles of his mount, Citadel, bulged and released as the mighty creature plodded through the mud, pulling each hoof free from the sucking earth that almost stopped them in their tracks.
Warin’s thoughts towards the weather were most uncharitable and his lips moved silently as he cursed the rain, the mud, and the loused porridge he had eaten earlier that day that now threatened to sicken him. Moreover, the nasty occupants of the lumpy mattress he had slept on last night left his body a mass of itchy red welts.
Wallowing in clammy self pity as he scratched the offending bites, he took no notice of what appeared to be a weathered tree stump by the side of the road until he was almost upon it. The stump shifted and brilliant blue green eyes beneath a rain soaked cap lifted to him for an instant before looking down again.
God’s blood, but what he had first thought to be a lifeless bit of wood turned out to be a sodden lump of humanity. He pulled his mount to a stop and peered down at the pathetic creature, one of many he’d seen on his travels home. Doubtless there would be many more. He shrugged and urged on Citadel. He had no time for rest until night fell.
“Take me with you if you will.” A thin, reedy voice wobbled through the air.
Compassion assailed him at the feeble entreaty and Warin wheeled around.
“Did you call me?” he asked politely, gazing down towards the slight figure hunched in the rain.
The person, a child judging by size, appeared not to hear him, so Warin tried again, raising his voice several notches. “Are you alone? Do you need help?”
Still no reaction, so Warin tried one last time, endeavoring not to let irritation creep into his voice – the child had hailed him, and if Warin had the decency to stop in this miserable weather, then the child should have the decency to answer. “Are you lost?”
The bowed head bobbed with a quick nod. “I beg you to take me with you. I’m alone.”
Warin frowned. Shepherding a forsaken soul was the last thing he needed. Responsibility for another was not a task he took on gladly; in fact, he had vowed to avoid it at all costs.
“I only have one horse,” he replied brusquely. “The road is soft and the extra weight will burden the beast.”
“I can walk.” The child, a lad, actually, by the looks of his travel stained tunic and hose, kept his head bowed.
Warin groaned and inspected the piteous figure. A weakened lad would only slow him. “You don’t look strong enough.”
“I won’t be a bother.” The boy lifted pale trembling hands, clasped in supplication. “I beg you, I have no one.”
Neither do I, thought Warin, and that is the way I would have it. He glanced longingly at the road winding away through the trees. He couldn’t waste any more time, already darkness threatened.
“Don’t leave me here.” Panic edged the thin voice.
Common decency demanded he offer aid. That and the thought of receiving favor from above for his kindness to a stranger.
With a sigh, he slid down from his saddle, landing with a squishy thump in the muck of the road. “I’ve not seen your face, how do I know you’re not scarred with pox?”
The lad raised his face, slowly, as if expecting to be boxed about the ears, and regarded Warin through gem-colored eyes widened with fear.
Eyes that stood out in dazzling contrast to the grey mist hugging the earth around them, eyes that captivated Warin, eyes that stopped him in his tracks.
Until he realized he stood there, witless and silent, like a sack of grain. Warin shook his head and shut his own eyes to break the spell.
“Let me help you up,” he barked, annoyed at himself with his momentary lapse. He extended a hand, but the lad leaned back. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The youngster grasped the outreached hand and stood up awkwardly, as if he had been sitting in the cold and the damp for some time. He jammed his hands into his pockets and stood silent, swaying slightly, teeth chattering with cold and gaze fixed on the ground.
He was a bit taller than Warin had expected, reaching perhaps to his shoulder and so he pegged his age at about eleven or twelve.
A thought crossed Warin’s mind – how like the capricious heavens to hand him a squire when he no longer had need of one. A year ago, he would have been overjoyed to have a squire accompany him on Crusade, to clean Warin’s armour and polish his shield, to serve his food and run his errands, to care for his horse. But now? He had no need of a squire as he intended to lay down his sword and serve the Almighty in the monastery at Mont St. Michel.
However, squire or no, he couldn’t leave the child stranded at the side of the road and mayhap a good deed would begin to wash the stains of war from Warin’s soul. “How are you called?”
The lad’s lips moved but Warin couldn’t hear for the rain pelting his helmet.
He leaned closer. “Eh, what’s that?”
“Alyna. Alyna Caperun.”
Alyna? He must have heard wrong. Alyna was a girl’s name and a grubby young boy stood before him, not a girl. It must be Alan, then.
“Alan? A fine name to be sure.”
The lad shook his head and opened his mouth to speak but Warin held up a hand. “You’re a child, you must only speak when spoken to.”
The lad stared at him for a few seconds then shrugged.
Warin inspected him more fully. He guessed the youngster had not entered puberty as yet for the voice had been high-pitched and girlish and the cheeks, what he could see of them, were downy smooth. Just as well, for he wouldn’t have to concern himself with the lad chasing skirts. However, he recognized the blank, staring eyes and dull expression as shock – he had seen it many times on the Palestinian battlefields as the mind tried to block what the eyes had seen. He dropped his hand on the youngster’s shoulder.
“I am Warin de Taillur,” he said simply. He gestured with his chin to the fresh mound and crudely fashioned cross, taking a stab in the dark. “Your travelling companion is now in a better place.”
Alyna nodded, mute in her misery, the words slowly penetrating her mind. Travelling companion. David. She blinked hard, once, twice, against the tears, forcing them back. She had no time to cry anymore.
She sucked in a huge, ragged breath. How rude the man must find her. First she had hailed him, now sorrow over David’s death held her tongue. In truth, she hadn’t expected the knight to stop but he had. She opened her mouth to thank him and lifted her gaze enough to finally look him full in the face.
And froze, mouth yet gaping.
He radiated power. It emanated from his every pore, permeating the area around him with a tangible force she could almost reach out and touch.
She could barely see the glint of his eyes behind the shielded helmet and she wondered why he would travel with it on for it must be uncomfortable. Belatedly, realizing she must look a fool, she clamped her mouth shut and again lowered her gaze, all the while inspecting him.
His surcoat, albeit of fine material, was stained and dirty, as were his hose. He – what did he say he was called? Warin? – wore a stained and dirty hauberk, badly in need of repair. All in all, not a particularly reassuring display but something about him had driven her to call out to him as he plodded past her on the road.
She had taken a risk in stopping the knight on the mighty destrier but some nameless quality had drawn her to him – mayhap the white flag with the red cross pinned to his helmet signifying he had been on Crusade. It hung limply in the rain to puddle on his shoulders yet it was the only clean thing he possessed. Someone who had chosen to serve the Almighty in the Holy Land and made sure all knew of it must be trustworthy.
Warin spoke again. “Alan? Are you well?”
Alyna looked around her. Alan? Who was Alan? Comprehension seeped through her when she saw no one, only mist draped trees and the muddy, rutted road. He must have misunderstood her. With the cap pulled low over her forehead and her nondescript, grubby clothing, he must think her a lad.
She at first thought to correct him then changed her mind. Mayhap it would be safer for her to let him linger with his misconception of her identity a while longer.
“I am well,” she replied, her voice husky and barely more than a whisper thanks to the chill air.
“You may ride.” Warin pointed towards Citadel. “I can walk faster than you.”
The horse stood forlornly, chewing on the bit. Rain dulled his normally shiny black coat, and mud clumped his tail and coated his legs up to his hocks. Like his master, the animal also needed cleaning and care.
Alyna flicked a dubious glance towards Warin but he ignored it and gave her a slight push towards the huge destrier.
“I will give you a leg up.”
“Thank you.” Alyna squelched through the soft mud to acquaint herself with the horse, warily scratching him behind the ears, which she could only do because the animal’s head drooped with fatigue. She ran her fingers down the white blaze between his eyes then patted him on the neck.
“What a lovely fellow you are,” she murmured. The massive animal raised his head then turned to look at her as if in acknowledgement of the compliment.
Surely only a knight of good repute would own an animal this fine. Besides, what choice did she have? To sit, hungry and cold, in the rain until another group came by? And even so, would they take her along? Or would they view her with suspicion and simply another mouth to feed? Or go it alone, with only her dagger for protection?
Again she stroked the horse’s nose before gathering her courage to turn and face the knight.
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