“Please turn around, slowly.” Sir Andrew circled a gnarled finger in the air. Rita’s cheeks flamed, and she bit back a curse as she turned.
“Who do you think you are, old man?” Rita mumbled to herself. But she knew of the legendary knight, as did everyone in the kingdom; he was the last of a valiant, dying breed.
Rita bit back a retort and glanced up to concentrate on the colorful pennants flapping in the breeze against a brilliant blue sky. She wouldn’t dare look into the crowd of mostly men. One occasionally called out a crude comment.
“Tell her to bend over a bit,” one yelled out, and chuckling erupted. Pulling up the bodice of her dress to cover more of her bosom, Rita clenched her teeth and fixed her gaze on the castle.
“Now turn back around.”
The three men behind the oak table chatted quietly and sat back, evidently satisfied with their decision.
“Well? The rear view… Is it quite satisfactory?” Rita heard the sharp challenge in her voice, despairing that she hadn’t yet acquired the ability to keep her mouth shut for more than a minute at a time.
The youngest of the three knights smiled briefly and whispered something into his companion’s ear. Rita thought the older of the two look-alikes must be Sir Thomas. But she couldn’t pull her gaze away from the youngest knight, Sir Geoffrey.
Although Rita knew the contestants should show some decorum, she had lost already, and she certainly was not going to let the legendary Sir Andrew or the handsome brothers intimidate her.
Sir Andrew dismissed her with a quick wave. “Next.”
Rita stood still for a moment and kept her eye on Sir Geoffrey, hoping against hope that he had seen something, anything, he might like. He met her gaze and nodded cordially. Rita fell back in line with the other contestants. What a fool. She’d left a position as a swineherd to travel all the way to Hazelrig…for nothing. No doubt her odious uncle had turned his attentions on some other homeless girl to do his smelly work and abide his disgusting insults and leers. What options were left to her? Beggar, whore? No! She had unique talents, and she would find someone who valued them.
A woman behind her nudged her and hissed, “You did well, my dear. Do not fret.”
Rita turned to see a graying, plump woman of middle years and could not suppress her surprise. Why would this lady want to go on an arduous quest with a young knight?
“Don’t think I can impress the grand knights, do you?” The stranger elbowed Rita in the side. She lowered her voice. “Old Gwen wants to get close to that Sir Andrew for a spell… He’s the one for me. Not that pretty boy you’re after.”
“I am after
no pretty boy, madam.” Rita sniffed in imitation of the noble ladies she had seen in her lifetime. “I seek a better station. That is the only
reason I’m here.” I seek any station, she thought.
“I’m sure that’s true, dearie. We all seek a better station, don’t we now?”
Rita watched in growing frustration as one lovely maiden after the next stood before the judges, answered a few questions, and paraded back and forth as ordered. Was it a simple contest of beauty? The women hadn’t been asked to ride, or handle a bow or sword. What kind of quest was this, anyway?She looked down at her tattered dress and pushed her hair back as it slipped out of her long braid.
What were you thinking?
Despite her foul mood, Rita smiled as Sir Andrew called the matron up. The woman flirtatiously swayed her hips before the aged knight, and he nodded with a sly smile.
Rita’s gaze wandered back to Sir Geoffrey, who examined the women paraded before him appreciatively, a gleam in his eye. She thought him too handsome to want to be seen in her company. His shoulder-length auburn hair gleamed in the sunlight. When he laughed, his face lit up and his deep green eyes sparkled. He wore a tunic that matched his eye color nearly exactly. The crest of Hazelrig shone in gold thread on his chest. What must it be like to have coin enough to use real gold thread? She swallowed hard when he suddenly turned and caught her eye. Sir Geoffrey surveyed her again, from head to toe, and Rita shivered with excitement under his examination. Again he leaned in and whispered to Sir Thomas.
“He’s smitten with you, dearie. Look at him.” The matron elbowed her again.
“Nonsense. He is curious, no more. Wondering why a simple grower of herbs, average of face and figure, would think herself worthy of this contest. I now wonder that myself.”
Sir Andrew waved for the crowd to quiet. “That marks the completion of the first round. Ladies, one and all, we thank you for your attendance here today. We will call three names. The rest of you may leave.”
Rita picked up her small satchel and steeled herself for the eight-mile walk back to Bransmoor, resolving not to cry and not to look back. She risked a last glance at Sir Geoffrey, who concentrated on the scroll of names set before him. At least Sir Geoffrey had provided something to dream on. She wouldn’t see another man like him in her lifetime.
“Guinevere of Marlton.”
Rita heard the girl squeal and the applause ring out. She turned her back on the commotion and started up the hill toward the northern road.
“Aspasia of Glenmoor.” Sir Andrew’s voice echoed in the breeze, and a pale beauty at least five years younger than Rita scurried by.
“Marguerite of Bransmoor.”
Rita slowly made her way up the hill, sliding backward a bit on the slick grass.
“Marguerite of Bransmoor.”
Rita heard her name as if from far away and wondered who was calling to her. She froze. No.
A strong hand clutched at her elbow, and she turned to see Sir Thomas, a friendly smile etched across his handsome face.
“Are you not Marguerite of Bransmoor?”
“No. Yes. What?”
Sir Thomas laughed heartily. “My dear, what is your name?”
Rita curtsied. “I am Marguerite of Bransmoor, sir. Some call me Rita. I fear you’ve confused me with one of the others. Perhaps Marie of Barnstead? That one there.” Rita pointed to a slender brunette. “Not that you would make such an error, but I may have mumbled, you might have thought you heard me say Marie… Lady Lamamoor often told me I mumble and demanded I speak up… That could have happened? Of course she was impossible to understand, with that garbled tongue of hers and the heavy accent of the Italians…”
Rita felt light-headed, wondering what the knight wanted of her. Perhaps her sharp tongue had finally gotten her into trouble. She wanted nothing more than to pry herself loose of his grasp and run, but Sir Thomas gently guided her down the hill and led her before his fellow knights. Sir Geoffrey smiled openly at her, sending a fascinating heat coursing through her limbs. The man was magical, no doubt.
Plopping her satchel on the ground, Rita looked at her lovely competition. Compared to the two beauties, she felt like the old crone who lived in the dark part of the wood near Bransmoor.
Sir Thomas took his seat while Sir Andrew waved the crowd away. Rita stared at Sir Geoffrey, who for some odd reason kept staring back. The contact confused her senses, now thrilling, then frightening. Her heart set to pounding, and the heat flowed freely again through her body. Perhaps the man needed a maid or someone to slop his swine? Rita tried to rally her pride but realized she would take anything this man offered to have a warm meal, a roof over her head, but most importantly, a chance to gaze on him for the rest of her days.
“And now, ladies…” Sir Andrew motioned for them to sit in chairs the pages had set up. “We will ask a few questions of each of you. Tom, would you go first?”
Sir Thomas nodded. “Marguerite, I’ll start with you. Why do you want to win the hand of Sir Geoffrey and accompany him on this quest?”
Rita gaped at Sir Thomas in horror. “Win the hand of Sir Geoffrey? I beg your pardon?”
The three men looked at one another in confusion.
When Sir Geoffrey spoke, his voice was low and serious. “You did not understand that the one chosen would become my wife? Why did you come?”
“Wife? I thought you needed a woman for your quest. That’s what Lady Lamamoor indicated.” Rita heard her voice rise and reminded herself not to get hysterical.“For the squirrel. A strong, brave, clever girl to help you find the Sacred Squirrel that lives in southern parts. My lady said that for some reason a woman must help find it. I…I have no place since her passing, my lady’s, that is, not the squirrel’s. I hoped to earn my keep…” Rita trailed off at the looks on their faces, shook her head in dismay, and stared at her worn shoes.
The men exploded in laughter. Sir Geoffrey pulled lightly at his goatee and bit at his lip, then laughed even harder.
Sir Thomas barely got out his words. “My dear, we seek the scroll, the Sacred Scroll. Not a squirrel. Do you know the difference between a scroll and a squirrel?”
The men were nearly rolling on the ground, and her fellow contestants giggled and whispered.
“I am not an imbecile, sir. A scroll is a thing like that
.” She pointed to the parchment rolled before Sir Andrew. “In fact, I quite think that is
a scroll. Perhaps I misunderstood, but that is no reason to…to…” Rita felt a giggle rise up from her stomach and sighed. “Oh no!” She shook her head and put her hands over her face, finally laughing openly with them. “Lady Lamamoor was a bit difficult to understand. I did wonder that it was important to find a squirrel. Didn’t seem like much of a quest for such as you.” She looked at Sir Geoffrey, who was red in the face from laughing but now calmed himself to listen.
“But, sir, I promise you, she said nothing about marriage. It was on her deathbed, you see. She left a little coin for me, but her daughter had no use for a maid or an herbalist. Lady Lamamoor heard of the contest and hoped perhaps I might find some useful work. She did care for me, in her own way…”
The sting of the recent loss of her only friend resurfaced, and she uttered a quick prayer for the woman. Philomena Lamamoor had taken in a skinny, sick orphan and given her food and shelter when her own aunt and uncle would not. Rita was only five, too young to be any real use to Lady Lamamoor, when her unmarried mother and sibling both died in childbirth. But the rich Italian had propped her in the grand, warm kitchen with instructions for the cook to feed her, clothe her, and teach her to prepare meals. As the heiress aged, her servants and daughter robbed her blind, but the senile old woman never abandoned the little girl she’d rescued from sure death. She tried to help, even in her last minutes, but it seemed she hadn’t quite gotten her facts right. Rita offered up another quick prayer for the lady’s soul, for despite her mistake regarding the nature of the quest, she was the only person who had ever been truly kind.
Sir Geoffrey motioned for Rita to come forward. He spoke softly as she stopped a few feet from the table. “Why are you unmarried, Marguerite?”
What a terrible question for a grand knight to ask a simple girl. The man had no manners at all. Was she to answer honestly? Because I am poor, because I am different, because I am plain.
Instead, she asked curtly, “Why are you unmarried, Geoffrey?”
A stirring of the breeze brought his unspoken thought to clarity in her mind. Because I am rich and trust no woman, because I am different, because no one understands.
Sir Thomas bellowed and slapped his brother on the back. “She has you there, brother. I can tell you, my dear, if you would like to know…”
Sir Geoffrey groaned and scowled at his brother. He turned back to Rita. “Would you answer me?”
“I will answer you, if you will answer me, sir.” Rita horrified herself, knowing she would be lucky to avoid shackles.
She jumped back when Sir Geoffrey stood suddenly, knocking his chair to the ground.
“Walk with me, Marguerite of Bransmoor,” he growled and pulled her by the hand toward the castle. Rita quickly picked up her satchel and let herself be pulled along by the tall man, trying to block his thoughts, which she knew would be quite angry ones.
“You may call me Rita.”
may call me
Sir Geoffrey of Hazelrig.”
Rita snorted and tried to slow Sir Geoffrey down, but he pulled even harder at her hand. She rubbed her fingers slightly on the soft suede of his glove, loving the feel of it, wondering what it would be like to feel the skin of his hand on hers, on her body.
“Squirrel. By all that is holy.” He muttered profanities and prayers in the same breath as they walked.
“Why are you seeking a scroll? I would think in the castle there would be an abundance of scrolls.”
Sir Geoffrey stopped suddenly. “You are either rather stupid or rather clever, but I will humor you for the moment. The Sacred Scroll of Saint Cornelius holds the key to the location of the True Cross. I gather you do
know the meaning of the True Cross? Unless you’re a witch or one of those…those…” He made the sign of the cross on his chest.
“Pagans, I think you mean, sir.”
“Aye. One of those.”
“I am fairly certain I’m a witch, but I’m not a pagan. There is a difference, sir. Indeed, I heard that the knights seek the True Cross, but is it not in the Holy Land? It seems you might have looked for it while you were there butchering the infidels.”
“You’re a witch?” Sir Geoffrey’s eyes were wide, and Rita was close enough to see lovely flecks of gold in the green of his irises, eyes to get lost in, to be hypnotized by, to set any woman’s heart and womb longing. Geoffrey cleared his throat and pulled Rita out of his spell.
“Aye, a witch. Simply a trifle fey, sir, nothing frightening for a strong
knight. I know how to foretell a bit. I heal folk who are kind to me. Sometimes I heal sick animals, horses that would otherwise need to be put down, lovely birds fallen from trees, that sort of thing. And I find things.”
“You find things? What nature of things?” He looked completely frustrated, and Rita knew it was happening again. She confused men, even frightened them. They thought she was crazy. This glorious man was no different.
“Things, objects. Rings, ribbons, small knives… Why, once I found a very important chalice for Brother Cadthuil. He was quite impressed and said a special prayer for my soul.” She winked at Sir Geoffrey. “I would have preferred coin, but a prayer is better than a curse.”
Sir Geoffrey’s mouth curved up slightly, and he sighed. “You’re teasing me, Rita, aren’t you?”
“A little, Geoffrey.”
“I do not remember giving you permission to use my given name in that manner.”
“I do not remember asking for permission.”
Sir Geoffrey arched a brow and folded his arms across his broad chest. “I don’t frighten you one bit, do I?”
“Perhaps one bit but not overly so.” Rita looked again into his sparkling eyes and let her gaze fall to his full lips and farther to his broad chest and strong arms and then down to his leg muscles, showing clearly beneath the fine fabric of his leggings. What might those legs feel like pressed against her, the weight of him controlling her as he took her, all of her? A tremor, a thrill at the thought, raced through her veins, and she wondered desperately if he could possibly find her attractive: a plain, plump, poor peasant. No, he was absolutely furious at her impertinence and no doubt intended to throw her in the dungeon and let the rats feast on her toes.
“I’m absolutely furious at your impertinence, my dear, and I’m tempted to throw you into the dungeon.” His teeth clenched tightly, and his jaw muscle throbbed.
“And let the rats feast on my toes?” Rita asked weakly, hating when she could hear their thoughts, wondering why she was drawing out the inevitable. She threw up her hands in defeat. “Sir, why are you wasting your time? I am quite uncomfortable with this conversation. You seek a lovely bride, one who has a role to play in your quest. I came here to earn some coin by helping to find a missing squirrel.” Rita laughed lightly. “I did wonder why you made the women parade in front of you in such a manner. It did not seem like a good test of their hardiness and skills. May I now return to Bransmoor? I truly despise rats.”
“What treasure does Bransmoor hold that makes you anxious to return? A dead mistress?” Geoffrey reached up to Rita’s cheek, and she thought for a moment he would touch her. He pulled away and snickered darkly. “A man? Bransmoor boasts a comely young man, perhaps a smith or a farmer. Am I correct?”
“There are many farms and one smithy in Bransmoor, Geoffrey. None of them is of interest to me, except when I need to buy food or have a horse shod. It is a common, lowly, ordinary spot, with no castle and no knights as you must know, although we do boast an amazing number of swine and a fairly active tavern. Not that the two are necessarily related.” Rita shrugged. “Perhaps someday I will lie in the marriage bed of one of those farmers of whom you speak with such disdain. Good day to you, sir, and might I bid you much success on finding the squirrel and a wife?” Rita winked, curtsied, snatched her bag, and ran for all she was worth back toward the road.
Rita had run no farther than twenty feet when Geoffrey scooped her from the ground. She looked into Geoffrey’s exquisite eyes, and her heart pounded.
“Put me down, please.” Please hold me tighter. Please never let me go.
His warm breath caressed her cheek and neck, and he smelled lightly of leather and ale.
He smirked and looked down at her lips. “I cannot imagine what I’m thinking, but you will earn your coin, finder of lost things. You will help me find the scroll. And, unless you continue to irk me, you will marry me. Will you not, Marguerite? You are unlike any maid I’ve met in my life.”
Rita closed her eyes and wondered if the man was insane. She prayed to God to help her understand what she should do. The answer came, as it always did, from Saint Anthony of Padua, whispered in her ear, faintly. “I will tell you where the scroll is hidden. Trust in me. Acknowledge this servant of God, this earnest knight, and do his bidding. He is strong, true, and inspired by his convictions. Make him happy.”
Rita opened her eyes, astounded at the directive from above, astounded further that Geoffrey was carrying her to the castle itself.
He sighed in what sounded like satisfaction. “It’s not easy to find a beautiful, strong, interesting virgin in these parts, Rita. I’m thankful you came to the contest today.”
“Why, thank you, Geoffrey. I believe you should have better vision for such a young man. Indeed, you are but twenty-one, is that correct?”
“A bit older. At least, that is what I want all to believe. Keep my secret, will you, Rita?”
She barely heard him. A virgin? Had he said virgin?No, it was her imagination. Surely the man didn’t think a commoner of twenty-nine years a virgin? And what could it matter? It wasn’t as if they needed to lure a unicorn. They sought a scroll.
“Aye,” Geoffrey repeated. “I am very lucky. A beautiful virgin. Of course, the unicorn won’t care that you’re beautiful, only that you’re a virgin.”
Rita nodded numbly. The stupid blacksmith had seemed so appealing at the time.
Maybe Geoffrey wouldn’t notice. Maybe if she acted shy and horrified and…Rita glanced up at the exquisite face of the man who had called her beautiful. Beautiful enough to marry. Clever enough to take on a quest. How was she to pretend she didn’t want to strip him down and devour every bit of him? She sighed.
“Is anything amiss?” Geoffrey set her down and took her hand, pressed it to his lips. “I suppose you have not actually agreed to wed me, have you? Is there a problem? Am I not comely in your eyes?”
“Sir, there’s not a woman with sense and good eyesight within a thousand leagues who wouldn’t be honored to marry you.”
Geoffrey smiled and Rita’s heart flopped a bit. She’d simply have to restrain herself and try like hell to remember how to act like a virgin.