Believing Your Eyes - Sample First Chapter

Believing Your Eyes - A Medieval Romance

Chapter 1

England, 1200

“Full wise is he that can himselven knowe.”
The Monkes Tale

Geoffrey Chaucer

The forest landscape undulated innocent and pristine beneath the frosted white of a fresh blanket of snow. Sunlight glinted mischievously through bare branches of oak and chestnut. Stephen drew in a lungful of the crisp late-January air, riding with lighthearted ease along the narrow path, keeping just in front of his younger companion.

Ian pulled ahead suddenly, his blonde hair shining in the sun. The wintry air made his breath puff in clouds of glittering lace as he cheerfully shouted out, “A pound says I beat you to the clearing!” He kicked his sleek, alabaster horse into a gallop.

Laughing, Stephen spurred his black mount and raced after him, his horse ploughing up the snowy trail with its hooves. It was only a matter of moments before he had caught and passed his friend.

The woods stretched on in a sea of twisting branches and sparkling icicles. Long streaks of clouds drifted far above, wafting across a pale-blue sky. The steeds flew across fallen logs and narrow streams. The distance between the two horses grew until Ian’s horse had fallen far behind. Ian’s challenges echoed distantly from the hollow depths of the woods.

The opening drew into view, and Stephen smiled. His younger friend was improving, but it would be a while before Ian could keep up with him through the twists and turns of the wooded path. He slowed the horse – and then as he drew in closer to the clearing he pulled harder, sliding to a stop in the dense snow. Every sense went on high alert as he scanned the area before him. He held up a hand, hearing Ian approach, and his friend was soon cascading to a stop beside him.

The horses snorted softly as they caught their breath. Echoes of the chase faded into silence. The pause lengthened as the men surveyed the woods with alert eyes. The two waited, watching, hearing only the distant sound of snow sloughing off branches.

The forest seemed, suddenly, very quiet.

Ian’s voice came in a soft whisper. “What is it, Stephen?” He ran a hand through his short blond hair, then wrapped his brown traveling cloak tightly against a gust of crisp wind. Ahead to his left the sun was streaming through a gap in the trees, and the silence seemed almost palpable.

Ian shivered and looked around again. Gulping, his left hand lowered to the hilt of his sword, loosening the leather clasp on the scabbard with a deft twist of the thumb. “Do you think the Grays are finally turning south? Is that why you recommended we patrol the far north borders?”

Stephen’s voice was soft. “Steady, Ian.” Stephen motioned for Ian to be patient and listened intently again for a moment. He pointed to himself, and to the west side of the clearing. Then Stephen indicated for Ian to move to the east. Ian nodded, slipped off his horse and tied the reins securely to a nearby birch. He turned to Stephen, but dropped his eyes. Stephen saw in a glance the nervousness that added a tremor to Ian’s movements.

Stephen looked with fondness at his friend. Ian had been trained well in the ways of arms, but although he was nearly twenty-five, he’d not been in many actual combat situations. Stephen gave him a nod of encouragement. The lad was long past ready for patrol. He reached out an arm, firmly clasping Ian’s forearm, offering a smile. “Courage,” he whispered.

Ian stood a moment to regain his composure, glancing over the sturdy, elegantly decorated breastplate and bracers he wore as if to steel himself. Then, taking a deep breath, he drew his sword and approached the clearing from the right.

Stephen watched him for a minute before slipping noiselessly to the left. Ian was Stephen’s junior by five years, and Ian’s father had routinely shielded his son from danger. Stephen knew the older man was nervous about risking the life of his only child. Still, surely the Lord knew it was critical for Ian to gain practical knowledge of how to defend his lands and home. When Stephen had been tasked with the training of the keep’s forces, he had insisted that Ian join the patrols and put in his time on the wall.

The winter sun was bright against the open field of snow; Stephen gave his eyes a moment to adjust from the relative shadows of the forest. The cold seeped in through the leather armor he wore, but he preferred its flexibility and lightness over the heavy bulk that Ian gravitated toward.

Easing carefully through the deep drifts along the edge of the clearing, Stephen’s eyes were drawn to a clutter of objects. He froze as their nature became clear. Sharp tension drew across his shoulders, and his grip tightened on his hilt. Ten snow-coated, rough looking men lay sprawled on the ground, their darkened blood marbleizing the pure white around them. To one side, hidden by trees until now, a cairn of ash sent wispy tendrils of smoke upwards, the melted snow around it languidly extinguishing the edges of the low flame.

Stephen’s every sense went on high alert, attentive to the slightest movement, the faintest sound. The woods obliviously went on with its raspy sweep of branch on branch, the delicate flutter of snow easing from a passing breeze. At last he gave a calling wave to Ian, and the two moved into the clearing proper.

Stephen’s brow creased as he drew close, taking in the gear on the fallen men. “Bandits by the look of it. All long dead. A few survivors ran off north.” He glanced at a swath of tracks leading out of the clearing. “Those belong to the fleeing wolves’ heads.” He took in the signs of their lack of discipline; it was one of the few advantages they held against the bandits. He glanced up past the tracks with concern; a new wave of the storm was darkening the edges of the sky overhead, and a light flurry gently drifted down, slowly swirling into their prints.

Stephen motioned toward the glowing embers. “Whoever took them on, at least one person remained alive,” he added quietly, walking toward the low mound of ash and stone. “Grays would leave their dead for the wolves. These bodies have been given a decent sending off.” His eyes scanned the dead bandits for a moment, then moved again with curiosity to the cairn of ash. “I wonder who ...”

His voice trailed off as he gazed into the reddish glow. Something within gleamed and caught his eye. He picked up a stick and pushed the object out of the coals with it.

Ian’s eyes lit up. “A bronze bracer!” He jumped forward and reached for the glowing object. The metal band was finely worked and glinted brightly as the clouds opened for a moment.

“Wait!” shouted Stephen in alarm, knocking Ian off balance enough that the blond fell sideways into a heavy drift under an oak. Stephen sighed and smiled fondly at his friend. “It is red hot - you would have burned your hand!” He shook his head as Ian ruefully climbed out of the snowbank and brushed himself off. “Still, do look at it,” Stephen remarked, kneeling near the bracer to get a better look. “I have not seen lettering like this for years. An old language, but the engraving is new.” He sat quietly for several moments, examining the markings.

A far-off horse’s whinny snapped Stephen’s head up, and he grabbed Ian by the arm. Together they sprinted toward the trees, coming alongside their own mounts to steady them, loosing their ties. A hush fell over the woods again; Stephen concentrated to hear any noise that seemed out of place.

Several full minutes went by without a sound. The light snow continued to fill their prints, melding them with the landscape.

Then, growing in intensity, the distinctive crash of hooves on dead branches approached from the north. Stephen drew back, pulling deeper into the shadows. The noise grew louder until two bearded men with wolfskin capes galloped thunderously into the clearing, broadswords held high. The redheaded man in front trampled through the edge of the cairn as he twisted the reins forcefully to slow his mount. He turned to snarl angrily at the second, who quickly spoke up.

“See, she ain’t here,” whined the smaller man, a greasy, unkempt redhead in a makeshift uniform. “We killed off her escorts, we did. Just like you ordered. Then Barney, yeah - it was Barney! He tried to wing her horse with an arrow, see, to make sure she didn’t get away. But she was near the beast and the arrow got her in the side.” His eyes furtively slid from side to side as he related his tale in a quick staccato. “It was poison dipped. It was an accident! He panicked and ran. I came back to tell you what happened. You wanted me to face her alone? Anyway, she didn’t get far, it’s sure. She’s gone to her maker by now. What a tigress she was. Yeah, she put up a fight!” He licked his drooling lips, and his eyes glowed with some obscene thought.

The leader’s face glowed crimson with fury at this news. “Your orders were to bring her in alive, fool,” stormed the heavyset man. He cuffed the smaller man across the head, sending him tumbling off his horse.

“It was Barney!” pleaded the man, cringing in the snow.

“But you were in charge,” shot back the larger man, “and Master was adamant about wanting her alive.” A wolfish smile twisted his face. “I’ll send you in to give him the news. Maybe you’ll die more quickly than Barney did.” He chuckled to himself. “You’d better hope so,” he added with a sneer.

He looked around the clearing for a moment, then up at the sky. His brow furrowed. “With the storm, she won’t last long, if she is even alive. We’ll come back later to fetch her corpse.” He glanced up at the gathering clouds again, then nodded. “That will have to do.” Wheeling his shaggy mount, he galloped out of the clearing.

Gulping, the other scrambled onto his horse and spurred it on after his leader.

The hoofbeat echoed, faded, and then was lost in the valleys of the deep forest.

Ian let out a shuddering breath, creating a cloud of frost. “We had better get back to town,” he whispered nervously, his hands shaking as he smoothed down his hair. “There could be more of them searching for the woman.” He jumped as snow tumbled from a heavy branch.

Stephen retied his horse to a limb and circled the edge of the clearing, examining the ground. “This woman, whoever she is, is obviously wanted for a reason. She could provide valuable information on the Grays’ movements. Search around to the west - see if you can pick up her tracks.”

Ian made as if to protest, but seeing the set look on Stephen’s face, he instead turned and set off hunting for any sign of the wounded woman.

Stephen moved with careful attention, his eyes scanning every drift of snow, every stray bent branch. His gaze moved past a shadow – and then swept back again.

There. Scattered drops of dark crimson – and the faintest of scratches, made by the sweep of a pine branch.

He kept his voice low, but pitched it to carry. “Here, to the east.”

Ian ran to join him, and Stephen pointed out the signs. “Whoever she is, she has talent at covering her trail,” he murmured as he eased forward. “Get our horses and follow behind me.”

Soon they were tracking the tracing path through the wilderness, a light snow falling about their shoulders.

After an hour, they had traversed quite a distance. Many times the trail seemed to disappear in a stream or rocky area, but, with diligence, one of them was able to spot a broken branch or a smear of dried blood clinging to a sapling. Still, as twilight settled a violet cape over the forest, Stephen worried in earnest that they might lose all view of the faint signs under the gently falling snow.

Then, all at once, the way became clear. The pair came over the crest of a hill to find quite distinct footprints heading down the slope and ending under an ancient willow tree by a frozen stream.

Stephen stopped to survey the scene. Beneath the tree lay a roan stallion that turned his head protectively at their approach. Curled up against his flanks was a sleeping woman wrapped in a thick, black cloak, the hood pulled close around her face. She had apparently been there for a while; the snow had covered much of her body with a fine layer of white. The sun was setting behind them, and shadows were stretching across the hollow.

Stephen motioned Ian to stand guard and handed his own horse’s reins over. He glanced around the clearing with a sharp eye, then he carefully worked his way down the snowy slope. The horse watched him steadily, but there was no other sound or movement. Stopping for a moment at the foot of the hill, Stephen then slowly moved toward the tree, careful to keep his hands away from his weapons so as not to frighten the woman. He grew concerned when she didn’t stir at his approach, and, reaching her, he dropped easily to a knee at her side. He gently brushed off the snow to find a sign of the arrow the Grays spoke of.

In a flash, Stephen felt cold metal at his throat. The woman’s eyes flew open; a pair of fever-bright green eyes burned into Stephen’s own. He kept his body perfectly still despite the decidedly wicked edge on the dagger pressing into his neck. He looked steadily into that desperate gleam.

“I am here to help,” he told her quietly. “We come from the keep at Penrith. We can take you there; you will be safe and cared for.” He didn’t move a muscle, willing her to trust him.

The woman seemed undecided, but her arm did not waver.

Stephen gently placed his fingers over the hand she held the dagger with. “You must know that you have been poisoned. If you kill me, it will not matter if I am telling the truth or not. You will die here in the snow.”

This seemed to penetrate the fog behind her eyes; she nodded her acquiescence and reluctantly allowed him to take the dagger from her hand. He reached behind her and put the dagger in the leather saddlebag on her steed. Stephen then lifted the edge of her cloak to see the damage. Her blue tunic was ripped open and soaked through with blood. The scarlet rash flaring around a jagged wound on her lower ribs showed that some sort of poison - probably dwale - was already working its way into her system.

“We have got to get you back quickly,” he explained as he worked. Examining the injury more closely, Stephen swore beneath his breath. The wound in her side was bad enough, but the poison was already taking hold of her. He could see how dilated her eyes were, and her body was trembling, although that could be the cold doing its own harm. Stephen looked back up the hill. “Bring the horses,” he called to Ian. “She needs treatment as soon as possible.” Ian led the steeds down the hill as Stephen lifted her in his arms. Her horse stood immediately beside them.

“Who are we rescuing? The lost daughter of a nearby Lord?” Ian asked in breathless wonder as he drew near. Stephen could almost see the puff in Ian’s chest, the stories spinning in the man’s mind with which he would boast to the serving wenches in the local taverns.

Stephen shook his head. Taking care not to jostle her, Stephen gathered the woman securely in his arms. He gently placed her onto his horse sidesaddle, then climbed up behind to steady her. Her roan moved close in, apparently prepared to follow. Ian reached for the horse’s tack, but the horse only had a leather saddle and bags - no bridle or reins. He glanced around, shrugged, then mounted and turned his horse to follow Stephen.

Night fell quickly, and soon the winds were swirling the light snow into their faces, stinging their eyes. Stephen guided their horses back through the woods, moving with speed now that they could follow their own trail back. He held the woman tightly against him with one arm and tried to keep her warm despite of the dropping temperatures. Behind them, Stephen could hear Ian following close with the riderless roan.

Blinded by thick falling snow on this moonless night, Stephen struggled to see the path before him. Yet, when they drew near the clearing, the woman straightened against him and turned her face up to his. She tried to speak, but was unable to make any sound.

Understanding her need, Stephen turned the horse to face into the clearing and reined in to a stop. She raised her head and looked evenly out over the bodies, to the now dark cairn. She pulled the left side of her cloak back, revealing a long leather scabbard at her hip. It was made with high quality leather, but was simple in design - meant to last rather than impress. Down the center were stamped the letters ‘Lucia’.

The woman took a deep breath, then drew her sword. It matched the scabbard - it was sturdy and well-made without being flashy. The sword bore the hundred small marks of frequent use. She solemnly saluted the cairn with her sword, paused for a wordless prayer, then kissed the hilt before resheathing it. Stephen watched the tears slide down her cheeks as she looked up at him and nodded. She was done.

“Thank you,” she rasped softly, pulling her cloak around her body. Then she closed her eyes and slumped back against him.

Stephen wrapped her within his own cloak and moved off again at a quicker pace. They were still a half hour at least from the keep, and the temperature was dropping quickly.

Shivers racked her body, and he drew her even closer. His mind sorted through the possibilities as they rode. What woman would be traveling in the winter with the bandit attacks coming so hot and heavy? Where had she trained with a sword? He rode the remaining miles as quickly as he dared, pushing to get her to safety.

It seemed too long a time before the town’s outer stone walls and main gate loomed ahead darkly, somber against the storm clouds. Stephen rode hard across the open meadow to the sturdy doors, pulling to a stop beneath the walls.

Ian’s voice rang out in order. “Open the gates,” he cried. “We’ve a wounded girl! Open up!”

Torches could be seen moving around in the windows by the stout wooden gate as the soldiers recognized the two men. The logs holding the doors secure made a low grating noise as they slowly slid free. The heavy doors were pulled open, and the three horses galloped inside.

Stephen led the way through the wide dirt streets of the town, galloping past the lights from windows and torches to the main building atop the hill. A few sleepy heads poked out of stone-lined windows to see who was racing through in the dense darkness. The streets were clean and the buildings well-kept; garden plots scattered in open areas were tended and neat.

Soon they had arrived at the main keep’s gates, which stood open. Stable boys hurried with torches in hand to take the horses and guide the two companions inside. Stephen put his injured charge over his shoulder and hurried up the main stairs, taking a right in the great hall, down a narrow, twisting flight of steps to the healer’s room. He grabbed a torch from the wall as he passed.

“It makes no sense to me why they heal down here in the dark,” he muttered, balancing Lucia on his shoulder while carefully lowering the torch toward the bronze oil lamp on the side table. The wick caught, and suddenly the room flickered with light and shadow.

Ian came in behind him and lit the other candles while Stephen placed Lucia on the low central oak table, draping his own cloak over her for warmth. She lay curled up and motionless while Stephen moved to a cluttered bench beneath a tall set of shelves. Stephen reached for a pottery bowl holding a scant amount of yellow powder, a glass vial of water, and a marble mortar and pestle. All four stone walls were lined with shelves full of odd-smelling potions, drying herbs, and musty parchments.

Ian finished with the candles and stood by the wood table, apparently unsure of what to do next. Stephen let him be, carefully mixing the ingredients together, then adding in a pale yellow liquid from another glass vial.

A raspy voice called from the top of the stairs. “I am coming, I am coming.” An elderly man in a rusty-brown robe hobbled down the flight, rubbing tired eyes beneath heavily sprouted brows. “I heard from the stable boys ... she has been poisoned?”

Stephen nodded, brow furrowed as he showed his results of his efforts to the tonsured monk.

“I know,” sighed the monk. “It has been a long winter, and the Grays have been very active. Our supplies are running out. If only we could find more, and did not need to ration our remaining medicines. I guess this will have to do for her, though.”

Lucia lay on the table, motionless now except for the slight trembling of her hands and feet. Her eyes were closed. Stephen gently drew the cloak back. In the light of the many candles, he now saw that she wore a long, blue tunic over a pair of black leggings. He heard Ian’s snort of surprise, and smiled to himself. Not so unusual after all. He had met numerous women on his travels who preferred the warmth of pants for winter riding.

Stephen loosened the brown leather belt and gingerly slid the tunic up above her stomach, revealing her waist. The fabric was soaked with blood, and a long slice could be traced from her hip up to her lower ribs. He could also see that a speckled rash was spreading across her skin. He took a folded square of cloth from a shelf and poured some of the mixture into its center.

The monk turned to Ian. “Hold her wrists. She may struggle because of the pain,” he warned the blond, gently pressing down on her ankles. “We have got to try and keep her from hurting herself. May the Lord calm her,” he added to Stephen.

“Thank you, Matthew. Let us hope we have gotten to it quickly enough this time.”

Stephen carefully cleaned the wound with a damp cloth, doing his best not to cause her further harm. She moaned softly while he worked, twisting beneath his hands, her body shivering more violently with every passing moment. As he wiped away the layers of caked blood, he found to his surprise that it was not deep after all; rather, a glancing slide along her ribs that had bled a great deal. Others he had worked on had been poisoned by far deeper wounds. With such a shallow injury, he didn’t believe that enough poison could have gotten into her system to cause the spreading rash and bone-deep trembling.

Maybe the Grays were using something new, something even more vicious?

He held back the racing thoughts with practiced effort. For now he had to address the task at hand. Then he could have the luxury of dreading an even greater threat.

He quickly finished cleaning the wound, then put a clean cloth against it to hold back the bleeding. He used another cloth to wrap around her waist and hold the first one in place. A leather thong was tied to hold the bandage in position.

Satisfied that the wound was not mortal, he did a quick survey of the rest of her outfit while Ian looked away in embarrassment. In addition to the tunic and pants she wore high black, well-worn leather boots, which he removed, and simple stockings. He did not find any other indications of a wound beneath any of this, and his gentle examination of her arms and legs found strong muscle, but no obviously broken bones. This arrow wound seemed to be the only serious injury. Still, it should not have caused the rash that he could see on her stomach, nor the trembling that had seized her.

The reactions concerned him. What had happened?

Ian’s eyes drew with curiosity over the woman’s face. “She does not look familiar,” he mused. “Who could she be?”

Stephen did not break his concentration, staring intently at the wound. “I think her name is Lucia,” he replied, and glanced at the sword at her side. The Grays had deliberately sought her for some reason. They’d apparently poisoned her by accident, and had wanted her alive. As for the poison - it didn’t seem to him like the arrow wound could account for her state. What, then?

He looked up at her face, at her closed eyes, down to the rosy lips. They were dark crimson against the paleness of her cheeks.

Dark crimson?

He looked more closely. There were flecks of blood around her lips. He took one of her trembling hands from Ian, examining it. He could see now that there was ash and blood mixed in with the dirt, and that they were singed, as if by fire.

Suddenly, the answer hit him clearly. She must have tried to clean her wound herself, of course, when her enemy had fled. She had gotten the poison on her fingers. His mind searched the possibilities. While building the cairn for her fallen comrades, she had burned herself. Naturally, she put her fingers in her mouth to soothe them.

The poison wasn’t on her body - it was in her stomach.

“Sit her up,” ordered Stephen, as he turned to the bench for his bowl of mixture.

Lucia half-opened her eyes as she was raised, and he could see again how dilated her pupils were. She tried to speak, but no words came out, and she gave up in exasperation and weariness. Stephen stood before her for a moment, holding the bowl. He looked across at the exhausted woman.

“You must drink this,” he quietly requested, again willing her to believe him. She hesitated, looking up at him. “Please. Trust me,” he added softly, holding her gaze.

She looked down at her tended wound, and at the rash that was visible even beyond the bandages. Looking back up at Stephen, she appeared to be weighing something in her mind. Finally, she nodded quietly.

Her hands were shaking too badly for her to hold the bowl herself, so he carefully poured the mixture into her mouth. She drank it down, closing her eyes at the taste of it. Almost immediately, she clutched at her stomach and moaned in pain. Matthew grabbed a nearby pail, and after a few moments, she vomited convulsively, gagging out the contents of her stomach. She continued to retch long after her belly was empty, the shivers wracking her entire body. All the while, Stephen wiped her brow with a cloth, keeping her long, auburn braid to one side. Matthew held her shoulders, and Ian kept her from rolling back.

When she was finally done, she slumped back onto the table, limp and exhausted.

Ian looked with concern at the still figure, but Matthew gave Stephen a pat on the shoulder. “I believe you were on the mark,” he asserted. “She must have ingested some. That explains the symptoms.” He put the pail to one side. “We have done what we can to get the base of it out – we will need to keep her warm now, and help her to stay awake, at least for a short while.”

Stephen glanced around at the room, which, while bright with candlelight, was chill and damp. “It would be best if we could settle her in one of the rooms upstairs.”

Matthew nodded in agreement. “With the seriousness of her symptoms, we should arrange a twenty-four hour watch too, for perhaps a week, until the symptoms fully fade.” He glanced to the younger man. “Ian, could you arrange that?”

Ian brightened with a task to take charge of. “For my lovely lady, of course!”

An odd twinge ran through Stephen at Ian’s possessive language, but he said nothing.

Ian continued, “I shall go wake my father right away. We can arrange for her to have one of the larger bedrooms.” He looked over to Stephen, then his smile widened. “She should have great fun spending time with Anna once she recovers,” he added with glee. “I need to get things ready!” He grinned with pleasure, then turned and ran up the stone steps.

Matthew turned to Stephen as Ian’s footsteps finished echoing off the cold, stone walls. He chuckled, then looked down at Lucia, who lay with her eyes closed. “Aye, she is a pretty lass, though perhaps not the Lady that Ian is hoping for! Whatever she is, she is real enough. Call me a fool if he is not already smitten with her.” Matthew smiled to himself at the thought, then gathered a woolen blanket off the shelf to wrap about her.

Stephen turned away from Matthew and gazed down at the exhausted woman. Lying there, she almost seemed to be a child, her arrow wound perhaps a youthful nightmare. He reached absently to her face and eased a stray hair back into the braided weave. She made a small noise, then lapsed back into silence.

Child indeed. Stephen could tell by the firm muscles in her arms that any appearance of helplessness was deceiving. She obviously knew how to wield that sword, and much else besides. Yes, it would be interesting to find out where she was from and where she had been headed.

His brow furrowed. For all he knew, she was the ‘companion’ of one of the wolves’ heads and was being hauled back to pay the piper for some misdeed. Time would tell the truth, though.

Stephen took the blanket from Matthew and wrapped it gently around Lucia’s body. He lifted her swaddled form easily, then snagged the handle of the oil lamp and headed toward the stairs. He could already hear muted footsteps and shouted orders as the great hall came to life.

Above it all, Ian’s voice gave the commands.

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