Authors: Rue Allyn
Copyright © 2015 by Rue Allyn.
All rights reserved.
This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher; exceptions are made for brief excerpts used in published reviews.
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ISBN 10: 1-4405-9261-6
ISBN 13: 978-1-4405-9261-4
eISBN 10: 1-4405-9262-4
eISBN 13: 978-1-4405-9262-1
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this novel are either the product of the author's imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any character to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.
Cover art © iStockphoto.com/DianaHirsch
To my readers and all those who tilt at windmills, thank you.
This is a work of fiction. With the exception of Edward II of England, none of the characters portrayed are real or based on real persons, and the events related in this book, although possible, never happened. The dates referring to the first papal abdication and the inciting incidents of what would later be called the Inquisition parallel or refer to actual incidents chronicled within papal history, but to my knowledge no letters ever existed such as those related in this novel.
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Northwest of Genoa, July 1294
A harsh rumble and a chorus of screams tore Lady Juliana Verault’s attention from directing her small party up the riverbank. Only steps away, a bridge collapsed, raising a shower of mud and havoc. Moments before she’d declined to follow the rest of the caravan across the clearly unstable structure.
She must save as many folk as she could.
“Gretle, Berthild, find the salve and bandages we packed.” As the shout left her mouth, Juliana plunged down the slope. She’d covered half the distance to the shore when a mounted knight raced past her.
By the time she reached the river’s edge, the man, still on horseback, had doffed his surcoat and mail shirt, plucked two women from the current, and tossed a rope around the large chunk of bridge stone that pinned the caravan’s screaming guide up to his neck in water.
Downriver in midstream, a small boy clung to the pointy tip of a rock. The water rushed around him, drowning his cries for help. Busy with rescuing others, the knight could neither see nor hear the boy.
Juliana could not allow an innocent to die. She shed her tunic and boots, tied the skirt of her shift around her hips, leaving her legs free, and waded into the icy stream. Without warning, the river bottom dropped. She sank, her mouth filling with muddy water. She couldn’t see. Desperate to breathe and get to the boy, she kicked against the current, praying she aimed for the surface. Air and light hit her at the same instant. But relief died in the moment it took her to push her hair from her eyes. Where was the boy?
A weak “help” jounced to her over the roaring water. Fighting the current, she turned her head toward the voice. The boy still clung to the pointy rock, thank heaven!
Numbing cold threatened to drag her under, but she refused to yield and focused on the boy’s face. Closer now, Juliana gave up her fight against the current. Allowing the stream to carry her, she stroked toward the rock. Though her lungs and body ached, she swam for her life and the child’s.
She hit a submerged portion of the stone before she could reach him. The impact jarred her bones and flattened her along the hidden rock face. The boulder was larger beneath the river’s surface than she expected. Water pushed along the length of her, pressing her down onto the slick rock. She lifted her arms but could not grasp the child.
“Grab on to me,” she urged. “I will take you back to land.”
The boy whimpered and shook his head. “Mama.”
“She waits for you on the bank. Come, I will take you to her.”
Pray heaven I speak true, and the woman still lives.
The child let go and reached for Juliana. She stretched. A crest of water splashed over her and smacked the boy backward. He teetered. She lunged for him, catching his foot as he fell into the river. He flailed against the current. Pain wrenched her shoulder, but she managed to haul the boy up and wedge him between her body and the rock before her arm fell useless to her side. He clung, coughing from the water he had inhaled, shivering with cold.
“You are safe now, lad. I have you. You will soon be with your mother. Just hold tight.”
The boy nodded and wrapped his arms about her neck in a near stranglehold, burying his face beneath her chin.
Juliana looked beyond him to the riverbank. Her shoulder throbbed so much she could scarce lift that arm. The short swim from the bank to the rock now stretched to an insurmountable distance. How could she get to the riverside with only one good arm and hold on to the boy at the same time? She wanted to weep but said a silent prayer instead.
“Are we going back now?” The child lifted his head and looked at her.
Her vision grayed. Juliana fought back the effects of pain and exposure. The boy needed reassurance. “Yes, child.” She did not know how, but she would keep him safe.
The only possible course would be to have the lad climb onto her back. They would float with the current until she could drift close enough to shore to find her footing and then carry the boy by land to his mother. She prayed she would not drown them both and shifted to let go of the rock.
A wet rope smacked the water in front of her face. Instinctively, she grabbed for the lifeline with her injured arm. Pain arced through her shoulder and limb, yet she managed to wrap the rope around it, anchoring the line in place. With her good arm, she maintained a sure grip on the tip of the rock, securing the boy against the stone with her body.
“Tie the rope around you both. When you’re done, tug on the line, and I will pull you to shore.” The strong, clear voice struck her ears.
She could no more tie knots one-handed than she could swim upstream. In either case, she would have to let go of the boy. The force of the water would snatch the child to a certain death the minute she released him, and that she refused to allow.
“What is your name, child?”
“Piers.” He gulped.
“And I am Juliana. You’re a good, strong lad, Piers. Can you tie a knot?”
The boy nodded. “Me da says I allus tie ’im in knots.”
Juliana grinned. “Can you tie a knot in a rope?”
“I think so. I watched Da do it.”
“Good. I need you to tie this rope around your middle. I will keep you safe while you do so.”
“You will not let go?”
“No, Piers, I will keep hold of you.”
When the boy had the rope about his waist, Juliana continued. “Now, tie a knot in the rope good and tight.”
“Should I tie the rope around you, too?”
“Nay, I will be fine.” She could feel herself weakening. Would she slip from the rock before he managed to get the rope secured around him? “Hurry.”
“I have it tied.”
“Look over there. Do you see the knight and horse on the shore?”
“Keep your eyes on them. They will pull you through the water to land and take you to your mother.”
“But I don’t want to let go of you.”
“You must, Piers. Your mother is waiting, and if you don’t let go, she cannot get you back.”
“You are a very brave boy, and I know you can do this. Are you ready?”
Piers whimpered once more and nodded.
Juliana released him, then tugged on the rope with her good arm. And Piers was gone.
Her vision grayed again. The current pushed her sideways away from the rock. She had very little strength left. Numb with cold, her good arm dragged, slow and ineffective against the rushing water. The river tossed her about. Her head banged into another rock. She had not thought she could hurt more. Then darkness closed over her.
• • •
Unknotting the rope, Sir Robert Clarwyn thrust the boy into someone’s arms and kneed his destrier into the water. He refused to allow another woman to die when he could prevent it. The riverbank rose steeply on either side. He let the horse do the work of keeping them above water and headed downstream toward the deadfall where some of the cloth of the woman’s shift had snagged, though she herself had disappeared from sight. He gripped the horse tighter with his thighs, urging his mount to hurry.
Holy Mother, let the water around the deadfall be shallow and the footing solid; else even if the woman lives now, she might die before I can save her
The horse scrabbled over the rocky bottom as the depth of the water shrank. ’Twas the first time since his mother’s passing that Robert could recall having his prayers answered.
He leapt from the horse to stand knee-deep beside the deadfall where the cloth held fast between two logs. Just beyond, a quiet pool formed. The woman lay unnaturally still, floating face up.
Straddling the log nearest her head, Robert pulled her to him, securing her in a one-armed hold. With his free hand, he released the cloth of her shift. Then, with her cold form cradled against his chest, he swung his leg to the outside of the deadfall.
One stride took him to his gelding. He laid his precious burden across the steed’s withers in front of the saddle, then mounted, secured the reins in one hand, and took her back into his arms. Heading for the small group huddled on the spit of land near the ruined bridge, Robert kneed the horse into motion and concentrated on keeping the woman, himself, and the horse all above water.
Finally they reached dry land. Still holding her, he dropped to the ground and bent close to her face. Air, faint and warm, pressed against his cheek.
She lives, thank the Holy Virgin
. He expelled the breath he had not realized he held.
The woman shuddered in his arms. Her long, dark lashes parted, and he got his first close look at her face.
Had heaven fallen to earth and hidden itself in this woman’s eyes?
She came to her senses, and their color changed swiftly from the misty azure found where sea met sky to the pure, clear blue of high English summer. She smelled of the river mixed with the faint scent of heather. Would her hair be a warm, burnished gold that some would call red? Would her cheeks flush with rosy color against her creamy skin? Now, cold chased any roses from her features and paled the lips he wanted desperately to smile at him.
He shook his head. ’Twas nonsense. No woman who knew his name would smile on him.
Those infinitely blue eyes were the only color in her face. That and the faint red in her slowly drying hair convinced him he’d found his quarry, Lady Juliana Verault.
The pain shining in her expression speared him as surely as a well-aimed arrow felled a stag. Like any wounded beast, he fled, forcing his gaze from hers before she could see the damage she had done. His glance traveled down her torso, checking for breaks in her delicate skin. He found none.
What he did find compelled him to turn his eyes back to hers. Only a shift covered her. Soaked as the material was, it might as well not have been there. Images burned in his mind, of tightly budded nipples thrusting against thin linen, of a tiny waist, of shapely limbs and a darker triangle flaring above her thighs.