A crusader, haunted by grief and guilt. A bride-to-be, struggling with old yearnings and desires. Can Sir Guillelm de la Rochelle and Lady Alyson of Olverton rediscover the innocent love they once had for each other? When Guillelm makes a fearful vow on their wedding night, is all lost forever between him and Alyson? And will the secret enemy who hates their marriage destroy them both?
“A Knight’s Vow” is a tale of romance and chivalry. In a time of knights and ladies, of tournaments and battles, of crusades, castles and magic.
(First published by Kensington Publishing, New York, in 2008.)
Excerpt. (Taken from a skirmish where the hero Guillelm is fighting and the heroine Alyson is desperate to save him.)
Alyson began to run again, to Guillelm, aware she only had seconds, instants before the enemy raised his helm and wound up his deadly crossbow.
He would shoot at Guillelm—
‘Down! Get down! Get away!’ Yelling warnings, she ran straight at Guillelm, her one thought to save him, her only wild plan that if she could not make him hear her warnings, she might spoil the aim of the enemy archer.
Ignoring the growing pain of her heat-seared lungs and her fading, tiring limbs, she screamed again, ’Get down!’ and now Guillelm heard and saw her, shock and horror warring in his face, his mouth forming the question, ’How?’
‘Down!’ Alyson cried, but she was too late. She felt a punch slam into her shoulder, spinning her round so that she fell backwards, the breath knocked out of her. She tried to move, to reach Guillelm, shield him, but as she raised her head a jolt of agony drove through her body and she blacked out.
Guillelm reacted without conscious thought. He lowered the shocked, sobbing Prioress gently onto the ground and seized the quivering arrow shaft buried so sickeningly in Alyson’s shoulder, determined to draw it out before she came round from her faint.
Even as he worked, images flashed constantly before his eyes. Alyson running towards him, arms outstretched, making herself a target. Over and over, he saw the bolt thud into her slender body, saw her feet actually leave the ground as she was flung around by the force of the impact. She had been shot in the back and he had done nothing to save her; worse he had not even known she had joined the war-band. He had been so keen to lay sword against sword with Étienne the Bold, who, cur that he was, had turned tail the instant he saw him, riding through the smoke and soot of the burning convent.
‘Ah!’ Although he tried to be steady and careful and the crossbow bolt came out cleanly, the sharp decisive tug hurt her—Alyson came out of her swoon with a shriek of agony.
‘Sssh, sweetheart, it is done.’ Guillelm wanted to cradle her but dare not: he could not bear to hurt her again. Kneeling by her, he packed his cloak around her body, terrified at how cold she was. Her shoulder was bleeding freely and that must be good, for the ill-humours would be washed out.
What if the crossbow bolt was poisoned?
What if she died?
‘Live, Alyson,’ he whispered, too afraid to be angry at her. He should have known she would attempt something like this: she was never one to sit still when those she loved were under threat. Where was that sister of hers? The Flemings had herded the nuns into the courtyard while they torched the buildings. None had been harmed so where was she?
Blinking away tears, he raised his head and met the pasty faces of the squires. The lads had dismounted and gathered round, forming a shield with their horses. Too late, Guillelm thought bleakly.
‘My lord, we did not know…’
‘Truly we never suspected…’
‘She moved so swiftly, ran right amongst the horses…’
‘We could not stop her!’
Their excuses died away and they hung their heads.
‘What can we do?’ asked one.
Guillelm raked them with furious eyes. His knights were still searching for survivors in the wrecked convent—friends or foe—but these useless, lumpen youths should be good for something.
‘Get me that archer,’ he spat.
‘I will do so, my lord.’ Fulk stepped into the circle, glanced at Alyson’s still body, and then turned, shouting for his horse.
At first Guillelm thought it one of the squires, or the half-blind old militia-man he had led away to safety from the burning church.
‘Do not scold them, sir. I rode in disguise.’ The small, breathy voice was Alyson’s. She was looking at him, her eyes dark with pain and fear.
‘Peace!’ Guillelm took her icy hand in his, trying to will his own heat into her. ‘We shall have you home safe, soon enough.’
‘I am sorry to be so much trouble.’ Alyson tried to raise herself on her elbow, gasped and fell back.
‘Alyson!’ For a dreadful moment, he thought she had died, but then saw the quick rise of her chest and realized she had passed out again. He should lift her from this burnt, wrecked ground as soon as possible, but what way would be best? In his arms, on horseback? On a litter?
‘Give me your cloaks!’ he snapped at the hapless squires. ‘Cover her with them. You! Bring me the infirmarer! You! Make a fire here! You! Find Sir Thomas.’ He almost said Sir Fulk, his natural second-in-command, but Fulk was off on another necessary task and one he longed to accomplish himself, though revenge on the archer would not save Alyson.
Live, please live, he thought. It was a prayer and wish in one.
‘Where is that infirmarer?’ he bellowed, above the steady weeping of the Prioress. He was growing incensed with the lack of speed of everyone about him and exasperated with the cowering, wailing nuns who had trailed after him like ducklings following their mother as he carried the helpless, vacant-eyed head of their order away from her devastated convent. If Alyson’s sister was in that drab company, why had she not come forward to be with her? Was she so withdrawn from the world that even the sight of her own flesh, broken and bleeding on the ground, stirred no passionate care? ’Is there no one?’
‘I am here, Guido.’ Calm as a rock in a sea of troubles, Sir Tom leaned down from his horse. ’What say I find something to use as a stretcher?’
‘Do it,’ Guillelm answered curtly, ’And tell your men to search the infirmary for potions and such.’ A late thought struck him, but he could not feel ashamed at it, not with Alyson injured beside him. ’See if any of our own men are hurt, and tend them.’
‘They will not be hurt. Men never are.’ A small, slim nun emerged from the smoke, her arms full of books and manuscripts.
‘I am Sister Ursula, who was once Matilda of Olverton Minor,’ she said, calm as glass. ‘I have been in our scriptorium, where our true treasures are stored. The mercenaries did not recognize them as such.’ Slow, careful, she laid the books on the ground and only then looked at Alyson.
‘Your infirmarer?’ Guillelm asked, as Sister Ursula’s lips moved in prayer. His hands itched to shake her out of her complacency: was this woman human? ’Your sister is still bleeding.’
‘The infirmarer is dead.’ Sister Ursula opened her eyes, fixing Guillelm with a stare of utter dislike, mingled with distaste. ’Our sister in Christ passed away eight days ago.’
‘Mother of God, have you no one who can help my wife?’
‘Do not blaspheme against the name of our blessed Lady of Heaven.’
Sister Ursula stared at a kneeling squire striking sparks off his knife to light a small, swiftly-gathered bundle of kindling until the youth shuffled out of her path. She knelt beside Alyson, facing Guillelm across her sister’s body. ‘I will pray.’
‘Please —’ Guillelm felt to be out of his depth dealing with this smooth, polished creature, he felt to be drowning in her piety. If it had been a man he would have appealed to honour, or come to blows. How did women deal with each other? He thought of his sister Juliana, but their relationship had been oddly formal, she being so much the elder and out of reach of sibling contests.
Rivalry. The answer came to him as he recalled the scrapes and scraps that he had seen and sometimes intervened in between brothers. It was a risk to employ it against women, but what other tactic could he use? Luck and recklessness were all he had left.
‘If she could speak, Alyson could tell us how to treat her,’ he remarked, adopting Sister Ursula’s calm tones while around him his squires and gathering knights held their breaths against the approaching storm. Gently: he had to do this right. ‘She is an excellent healer.’
Sister Ursula said nothing.
‘She told me you had no diligence in such matters,’ Guillelm went on, lying shamelessly and worse, feeling no guilt as he did so. ’That you love books more than people.’
‘She is wrong,’ said Sister Ursula.
‘You put your skill above hers, then? I have seen no other to match her, even in Outremer.’
With a small shake of her head remarkably like Alyson’s, Sister Ursula unclasped her palms.
‘I thought her judgment a little harsh, but I see that she was right. She said you lacked the healing touch.’
‘What nonsense.’ Sister Ursula rose to her feet. ’Build up that fire,’ she commanded. ’I must have more light.’