The Defiant Bride(7)

By: Leslie Hachtel

When the food was ready, Dariana sat behind him and lifted his head. His eyes opened, but they appeared unseeing. She held a spoon with some broth against his lips and he sucked greedily. His parched lips softened and the tension in his face eased. Once he had swallowed a fair amount, she lowered his head again and he slept.

After having taken such care with fires for so long, Dariana felt an almost joyous sense of freedom to have the crackling flames visible. It was comforting to have another beside her, even if her guest was unaware of his status as companion.

Tamara had not been for a visit of late. Dariana hoped she would come soon. If her friend could take the man from the forest before he was aware of his surroundings, her secret would be safe. Those at Tamara’s castle could tend him until he recovered. Of course, Dariana could never see him again. The thought brought an odd ache to her chest. She curled up next to her charge and slept.

Dariana was suddenly wide awake. Daylight had not yet penetrated the leafy canopy and no birds’ voices pierced the quiet. She leaned over to check her companion. His chest rose and fell easily in the depths of sleep. She was fascinated by the play of light from the fire on his chiseled features. Perhaps he was her knight come to save her. She laughed at her own silly turn of mind. Too many fairy tales.

Dariana’s back ached from the too-hard ground and she rubbed it to ease the tightness. It took a moment for her to remember she was still in the forest and near her cottage. Her dreams were fading and the morning wind now freshened the air, as if attempting to banish any possible bad thoughts. Alert, she gazed at ‘her” knight, as she now considered him. He remained in the arms of Morpheus and lay peaceful. Satisfied he was at ease, she rose and slipped into the trees, blending into the foliage.

She hesitated at the sound of approaching footsteps. What to do? Certainly it was his own men come for him. It was with a sigh of relief that she recognized Tamara in the distance and ran to meet her.

“Tamara,” she whispered. “Thank all that is holy.”

Tamara started as Dariana’s disembodied voice reached her. “You frightened me. It is unlike you to come to meet me like this. Is something amiss?”

“Not exactly. But, yes.”

“That is not exactly clear, love. What is wrong?”

“I have a visitor from the court.”

“What?” Tamara’s horror was obvious.

“It is not what you imagine. I am safe and as yet undiscovered. But I need your help.”

“Again, you speak in riddles. Tell me all in a way that makes sense.”

“Near the cottage on the north side a knight was riding through the forest yesterday. As I watched from the shadows, the knight was pierced with an arrow that felled him from his horse. I could not leave him thus—”

“What means this? Could not leave him? What have you done?”

“I tended his wound and even now he sleeps not far from here.”

Tamara took a deep breath. “Will he die of his wounds? Did he see you?”

“He will not die! And yes, he saw me.”

“Do you know who he is?”

“I know not his colors, but there is no doubt he is nobility. I was thinking I could create a story for my existence here. Would it be believable that I was the daughter of the old caretaker of the cottage?”

“Nay, I think not. You are far too fair. And it is obvious that you are not of common stock. Your dwelling is old and obviously spent many years abandoned. No, that will not do.”

“He is not in his right mind and he is a man after all. They are so easy to confuse.”

“You are right. They are easy to bewilder. However, I think it better to try and convince him he imagined you in his injured state. I will have him brought to the castle and when he can ride, send him on his way. In the meantime, I will dispatch some messengers to see if we can discover his identity.”

“He is so handsome.”

“Do not even think to entertain yourself with such notions. He could be the instrument of terrible punishment for all of us. Forget that not.”

The bright sunlight streamed in through the window, waking William from a dream of dragons and villains. He shook the sleep from his eyes and struggled to sit upright, the pain in his left shoulder halting his progress. He was in a soft bed with clean white linen and he was naked. A sturdy bandage was wrapped around his left side. It reminded him there was a villain in this piece who had tried to see him in his grave. How had he come to this place? Surely he was among friends who had seen to his care. He was searching his memory when an image of an angel filled his thoughts, an angel with blackest hair and fairest skin whose eyes were were the color of an emerald meadow. He was so intent on the vision he did not notice a woman approach his bed. He jumped when she spoke.