Joan Swan followed a well–worn deer trail through the trees near Ravenswood Castle. Her pack of hounds kept pace like a phalanx of the king's men. They did not roam, nor step beyond the length of her stride.
The hound near her right hand whined. She paused and listened. The hounds fell still in a ripple of sleek gray and brown muscle.
At first, she heard nothing. Then she heard the distant neigh of a horse. If she remained still, the rider might pass her by unseen.
The horse drew closer. From her right there was the sudden tearing sound of an animal forcing its way through underbrush. With practiced ease, she drew her bow from her shoulder, then stepped from a pool of golden sunlight into a pool of soft green shadow.
The thrashing sound grew louder. A horse snorted, whinnied, and she heard the thunder of its hooves as it broke into a gallop, crashing through underbrush. It was a wild sound, the sound of a horse out of control.
The hound at her side whimpered again. Through the trees she saw the reason for the animal's fear. A boar. Her arrows were useless against such a beast.
She shouldered the bow. Her heart thumped in her chest. They must get away before it scented them. She lifted her right hand at the wrist so it was parallel to the ground. The hounds crouched. With a sharp gesture, she dipped her fingertips and the hounds went down on their bellies, preparing to slide through the brush like snakes in the grass.
Then she saw the man. He lay on his back, half supported on one elbow. His skin was stark white in contrast to his black hair and beard.
The boar clashed its tusks, lowered its head. Thank God she and her hounds were downwind.
The man was not.
Fear caused her stomach to churn. Were the dogs ready? Was she?
The man moved. The boar charged.
She swept her hand out in a quick, sharp gesture. Her dogs leapt in a monstrous, snarling maelstrom of teeth and sound.
The man scrabbled back and rose. He drew his sword. He did not run as she expected. Instead, he faced the swirling mass of animals who held the great boar at bay. In a motion as planned as if he and the dogs were one, they parted and he thrust the blade deep into the boar's neck.
It swung its monstrous head, eyes rolling. The dogs brought it down.
Then all was silent.
She closed her eyes, bent her head, and offered thanksgiving for the man's life. A hand touched her shoulder and she opened her eyes. Dazed from her deep concentration, she was startled to find the man so close.
""Are you hurt?"" he asked.
His vivid blue eyes were grave. His skin, no longer white, was suffused with high color. The close–cropped beard did not conceal his well formed mouth. His high cheekbones betrayed his Norman ancestry.
Though uncommon in appearance, still, he was common enough. He wore a simple V–shaped iron pin to hold his mantle at one shoulder. Red streaked the humble wool.
""Are you hurt?"" he asked again.
He had a low voice with a touch of an accent she could not place. A man–at–arms to one of the visiting nobles at Ravenswood, she decided.
The man looked down and she did too. Blood splotched her gown.
""It's not my blood,"" she said ""Are you hurt?"" She touched his mantle with her fingertips, briefly, lightly.
He shook his head. ""I'm well, thanks to your hounds. Well trained, they are, not to feast. I'm Adam Quintin by–the–by," he said.
They faced the wide clearing where her dogs stood like sentinels over the carnage. In truth, the hounds awaited her next signal. They had killed and now wanted their reward. But not here. Not yet. It was time to go.
She turned. Her path was blocked by a small, wiry man who led a gray horse as huge as any she'd ever seen. Its hooves were the size of meat platters, its black mane plaited in a fanciful manner with leather thongs. The horse danced and pawed as it neared the dead boar.
""Yer mount,"" the little man said to Adam. ""Ye rightly named him when ye called him Sinner.""
Adam grinned and looked sheepishly in Joan's direction. ""He should be called Lady. He's as spoiled as any of those fine creatures."" Then he took the reins and patted the destrier's heaving side. ""And he dumped me like an inconvenient suitor the instant he saw that boar. Never take a nervous horse on a hunt."" The horse bumped his shoulder.
Slung across the battle charger's saddle was his shield. Adam was no common man–at–arms, for the shield bore his personal device. It echoed the simple shape of his mantle pin. But painted on the leather cover of the shield, she saw it more clearly. It was a gold ""V"" rendered as if by an illuminator of fine manuscripts. The Roman numeral of five––five for a man whose name meant fifth son.
Men with their own devices were not simple. That she'd mistaken him so staggered her.
""I have to forgive him, though, as he's not a hunter,"" Adam said, pulling himself slowly into a sleek saddle of Spanish leather. ""Now, in battle, there's no finer horse in all––""
Joan darted into the trees.
He was a knight. Mayhap a lord. That meant he was here for one purpose only––marriage to the most beautiful woman in Christendom. Lady Mathilda.