Excerpt from The Wise Virgin, from the collection The Brides of Christmas, Harlequin, November 1999


    "They've stolen the Blessed Virgin Mary!"
    The serfs of Woldingham gaped after the horsemen thundering away down the road into the winter woods, their captive's cries fading on the frosty night breeze. Then, like a flock of starlings in the field, they scattered. Most ran for their simple thatch-roof houses, hoping not to be connected with the disaster. The really cautious gathered their families and took to the woods themselves.
    After all, who else but the de Graves would commit such a crime? And when the Lord of Woldingham clashed with his old enemy, no one was over careful where the arrows and even the sword blades fell.
    Soon only the village priest and headman were left on the moonlit road leading up to the castle, if one didn't count the abandoned donkey stolidly waiting, head down. Even Joseph had thrown off his borrowed cloak and scuttled away. The two men looked at each other in silent commiseration, then they set off at a belated run toward the castle that loomed nearby. Despite narrow hall windows blazing with festive light, and bonfires in the bailey, it was an ominous shadow against the starry sky.
    Someone had to tell Henry de Montelan, Lord of Woldingham that his daughter had been seized by his bitterest enemy.
    At Christmastide, too.
    The gates stood open, waiting for the traditional procession to bring the holy couple up to the castle seeking shelter on Christmas Eve. Unlike the wickedness shown in the Bible, the Lord of Woldingham would offer the shelter of his keep to Mary and Joseph, leading them into the luxury of his solar chamber. It was a tradition dating back generations, to the last de Montelan to go on crusade, a tradition closely linked to the blood feud between Woldingham and the nearby castle of Mountgrave.
    The two guards stared at the hurrying men, then peered behind for sight of the procession. Father Hubert and Cob Williamson told the disaster as they rushed through. The guards came to full alert.
    And at Christmastide, too.
    The two men threaded their way through the crowded bailey, calling their news but not stopping to answer alarmed questions. Tipsy cooks stopped basting the carcasses roasting on spits, and the sweating baker cursed then called his assistants to clear tables of bread into baskets and out of the way.
    There'd be armed men and horses through here soon.
    And at Christmastide, too.
    The noisy celebration in the great hall spilled golden light out of the arrow slits, and billowed jollity from the open, expectant door of the keep. The two men labored up the outer stairs then stopped to catch their breath. Within the hall, huge fires leaped to drive away the winter chill, spraying sparks as logs settled, blending smoke with the torches flaming on the walls. Around the room the ladies and gentleman of Woldingham made merry, along with guests, household knights, and senior servants. A tumult of children -- striplings to babes -- romped under and around the tables, tangled with a pack of dogs.
    Slowly, they were noticed, and an expectant silence settled.
    Lord Henry de Montelan rose, massive, gracious, and rosy with good cheer. "Here at last, eh? Well, say your piece!"
    The headman looked at the priest, and the priest accepted his role. He stepped forward. "Lord Henry, a terrible thing has happened..."
    The silence darkened. "What?" demanded Lord Henry, coming down off the dais toward them. His four stalwart sons rose, dazed but alert. A hound growled.
    "What has happened. Where is the holy couple? Where is my daughter?"
    The priest fell to his knees. "The de Graves have stolen her, my lord."
    After a deadly moment a man howled. Sir Gamel, fiercest of Lord Henry's sons, leaped the table in front of him in one bound, teeth bared. "My sword! My sword! I'll gut them all. To horse! Revenge!" He stormed toward the door, brothers not far behind.
    Lord Henry stopped him with a hand, perhaps the only man in England able to do it. Though Lord Henry's color stayed high, it was not a sign of good cheer any more. "Aye, my son, we'll have revenge, and blood and guts aplenty, but we'll not run into a trap. Horses!" he bellowed, and the men in the hall burst into action. "Armor! Weapons! Gamel, Lambert, and Reyner -- you hunt them down and bring Nicolette home safe. Safe, remember. Ivo," he said to his eldest son, "you and I will stay here. In case."
    "At Christmastide?" young Reyner asked, sixteen but nearly as big as his brothers. "They'd steal the Virgin on Christmas Eve?"
    "Nothing," growled his father, "is too wicked for the de Graves."
    In moments the noise of the castle changed to martial tone, and the lord, his oldest son, and his master-at-arms were huddled in military conference. Father Francis and Cob silently congratulated themselves on coming out of it whole and slipped away down the steps. Since no one seemed to be in a mood for feasting, a hunk of roast pork and some loaves went with them. A bit of a feast for the poor villagers.
    "A fine state of affairs," mumbled Cob around a piece of juicy meat.
    "At Christmastide. At a holy pageant! Godless men. Godless!"
    "It's to be hoped the poor Lady Nicolette comes to no harm, Father. For everyone's sakes."
    "Indeed. Indeed." Then the priest slid a look at his friend. "But do you know, Cob, I could have sworn I saw Lady Nicolette up in the gallery over the hall, peeping out."
    The headman stopped. "What? Nay, Father, you must be mistaken. How could that be?"
    "Well now, what if some other gentle lady played the part of the Virgin? I thought it a little strange that Lady Nicolette did not speak to me and kept herself so huddled in her cloak."
    Cob swallowed the meat in one gulp. "But it's tradition, Father. A holy tradition. The youngest virgin of marriageable years in the lord's family plays the part of the Blessed Virgin. And by-"
    "-being welcomed into the hall of Woldingham instead of turned away to lie in a stable, brings God's blessings to everyone in the coming year. Yes, yes. It makes you think, doesn't it?"
    "It makes you bloody feared, it does! What's to become of us all with the tradition mucked about like that?"
    "And what's to become of those involved when it all comes out?" the priest muttered.
    He wasn't thinking about the peasants, or even the feuding men, but about the young women involved in this perilous deception.
    And possible reasons for it.
    He crossed himself and started to pray.
    The huge padded belly finally had a benefit, Joan of Hawes decided as she bounced across the horse, face down, in front of her captor. It cushioned the worse of this. She'd given up screaming and yelling. All that had achieved was a sore throat. Her captor was treating her as if she were a roll of fleeces, ignoring her other than one strong hand in her belt that stopped her falling off, accidentally or on purpose.
    Despite fury and fear, she was grateful for that firm grip. They were racing down a woodland track at a gallop and she'd no mind to die over this. But who had snatched her off the donkey, and why? And why now, when it would cause such terrible trouble?
    Suddenly the rider pulled the horse to a head-tossing, stamping stop, and hoisted her up just like a bundle. Before she could shriek, he turned her in the air and put her down sitting sideways in front of him on the horse. By the time her dizzy head had settled, they were off again, and she'd only caught a glimpse of a dark hooded form. Now, however, she could see other riders around. Strange riders, flowing dark, fast, and fiendishly quiet through the winter-bare, frosty wood.
    Earlier, they'd swooped down on the village in silence, like black hawks from the sky....
    "Sweet Mary, save me," she whispered. Had she been seized by the forces of darkness?
    She twisted to try to see if her captor had a human face, but saw only darkness. A shiver of unholy terror passed through her, but then common sense returned. He was hot like a man, and smelled like a man -- sweat, wool, and horse. Now she saw that his hood hung forward to shadow his face, and his skin was darkened in some way. A common raider of some sort.
    Then she understood more. This galloping horse had no saddle, and the man she was squashed against wore no mail. The bridle and reins were rope. Not unearthly devils, then, but men without jingle of bell, harness, or mail. All the horses were dark, too. No wonder they'd appeared as if out of nowhere.
    It was -- it had to be -- the de Graves, her uncle's bitterest enemies, taking this opportunity to ruin the de Montelan's most sacred ceremony. All the same, she couldn't help admiring the planning and execution. She did so love a job well done.
    But why, oh why, did they have to choose this year to cause mischief, when it was going to cause such terrible trouble? Her cousin Nicolette had been supposed to play the Virgin, and no one must know that she and Joan had changed places.
    Perhaps they'd let her go soon. They'd succeeding in disrupting the ceremony, and had no need to keep her. If so, could she get back to the castle before Nicolette was discovered there? Probably. If he put her down now.
    "Sirrah," she said.
    When he ignored her, she shouted it. "Sirrah!"
    He paid no attention, intent on the dark road and speed. Speed taking them farther and farther from Woldingham! Joan eased her arm forward and jabbed back as hard as she could with her elbow.
    The horse mis-stepped, and he grunted slightly, but he only said, "Stop that."
    Then they were off again, and she knew -- knowing men -- that there'd be no stopping until he decided it was right to stop. May the devil rot his toes. She thought of throwing herself off the horse, but wasn't feeling suicidal. Just frightened and irritated.
    What foolish mischief this was. But then, the whole bloodthirsty feud between the de Graves and the de Montelans was foolish. It had cost lives over the generations, and disrupted the whole countryside hereabouts, and all over a piece of cloth carried to Jerusalem back in the first crusade.
    In the weeks since Joan had arrived at Woldingham to be companion to her cousin Nicolette, she'd learned all about the wicked, dishonorable de Graves family. They were supposedly guilty of everything from stealing that banner to putting the evil eye on the Woldingham sheep last August. The stories might be true, but she wasn't convinced, mainly because of the current head of the de Graves family.
    Not that she'd met the famous Edmund de Graves, of course, but all England had heard of the Golden Lion -- beautiful as Saint Michael, brave as Saint George, protector of the weak, defender of the right, dire vengeance on all who did evil.... Legends were told of him, and troubadours sung his praises.
    The Golden Lion was son of the famous Silver Lion -- Remi de Graves, mighty warrior and adviser to the king. Lord Edmund had been trained from boyhood by the best tutors and warriors, including the almost mythical Almar de Font, a renowned hero in his own right. At sixteen, the Golden Lion had carried the prize at a glittering tourney. At seventeen he had fought brilliantly in the war against France. At eighteen he had singlehandedly cleared out a nest of outlaws who were terrorizing the area around one of his estates.
    It was possibly true that generations ago a de Graves had cheated a de Montelan out of the banner, but the Golden Lion could have nothing to do with wicked rivalry and revenge today.
    Could he?
    So, was she not in the hands of the de Graves?
    The horse was pulled to a halt again, pressing her even harder against her captor. Whoever he was, he was a superb rider This was a fiery destrier, heat and muscles seething beneath her, and her captor was controlling the beast with just legs and a piece of rope.
    "Husha, husha, Thor," her captor murmured, leaning forward to pat and soothe the horse's arched neck. His massive chest almost crushed Joan and she squeaked a protest.
    He straightened. "My apologies, Lady."
    "Now, sirrah," she said, ready to argue for release, but he said, "Wait," and turned to the other dark riders gathering around, breath puffing white in the cold air.
    To her irritation, Joan found herself waiting. She studied the half-dozen hooded, darkened men, seeking a clue as to where they came from. They wore no badge, and were almost silent shadows against the moon-silvered woodland, horse-breathing and hoof-shuffling the only sounds.
    "All's well," her captor said, and without comment, the others spun to ride off, scattering.
    They really scattered, too, going in different directions, avoiding paths, and melting into the woodland. This efficiency did hint at the hand of the great Lord Edmund, but she wouldn't believe he would stoop to something so petty.
    It must be some of his men indulging in a prank. She'd heard that the men-at-arms and retainers of the two families were the ones most keen to make trouble. The main point here was to get free and get back to Woldingham.
    "You are from the de Graves?" she whispered, as he turned his horse into the woods, in a different direction again to that taken by the others.
    He leaned over her again, but this time to protect her from the prickly holly branch he pushed aside. "Of course. You are safe, Lady, never fear."
    Safe. It seemed a strange thing to say, and he was wrong. Joan had never felt less safe in her life, and it had nothing to do with him. She and Nicolette had planned to switch back once the Holy Family was in the castle, but the more time that passed, the more likely it was that Nicolette would be found. Uncle Henry would think they had played a childish trick, and would be furious. If he found out why though.... Joan couldn't even imagine the rage and violence that would result then.
    She had to get back!
    "Let me go," she said urgently. "You've achieved your purpose."
    "Have I?"
    "Of course-"
    He put a large, callused hand over her mouth, and she heard what he'd heard -- the distant howls of her uncle's hounds.
    "Sounds carry on still winter air," he breathed into her ear. "Don't try to speak."
    He removed his hand and they moved on, the pace slow now because of the unpredictable ground. Don't speak? How was she to hammer sense into his head if she couldn't speak? All the same, Joan sagged into silence. What point in arguing? How was she to get back to her uncle's castle undetected with hounds on their trail?
    Thought of Nicolette, however, made her try again. Perhaps the hounds wouldn't be interested in her trail. "Put me down," she whispered. "Then you can get away."
    "We are getting away," he whispered back, with a hint of humor.
    "You're alone. You can't fight them. And the hounds-"
    "Have many tracks to follow. You find it hard to hold your tongue, don't you, Lady Nicolette?"
    Before Joan could decide whether to tell him she wasn't Nicolette, he said, "And here is the well-planned water, to hide our trail."
    It was a shallow stream, gurgling noisily over rocks. The horse splashed into and along it, guided by its rider with only subtle shifts of his muscular body.
    Clever yet again. "What do you want with me?" she whispered. "Why are you keeping me?"
    "Can't you imagine?"
    Imagine? Their plan was to disrupt the ceremony. What else?
    Then a horrible thought occurred to her.
    What if the plan went further than that? What if the plan was to stir the smoldering feud into a hellish fire? There were some at Woldingham who wanted all out war, including her cousin Gamel. What if there were similar men at Mountgrave Castle? Men who wanted to pour oil on the fire.
    Disrupting the pageant would be a mere splash of oil. Kidnapping only a cupful. But rape.... Rape of Lord Henry's only daughter would be a whole barrelful. It would start a conflagration only quenched by the blood of a whole family.
    And if only Cousin Joan was available, well, a jug of oil would make a violent enough flame.
    Joan sent an urgent, silent prayer to Mary, protector of all virgins, and tried desperately to think of a way to escape.
    Fight him off? Ridiculous.
    Jump off the horse and run? She'd be caught in a moment.
    Push him off the horse and escape on it?
    A trained war horse wouldn't be taken, and she might as well try to push the hills alongside the stream as push this man off this horse!
    Helplessness started an uncontrollable shivering, and a whirling panic in her mind.
    "Cold?" he said. "We'll be in shelter soon."
    "Where? What? Where are you taking me?" Her voice turned shrill, and with a curse, he clapped his hand over her mouth again.
    "To a cave," he said, sounding irritated. "It's prepared for a lady's comfort. Now, stay silent until we reach there, woman."
    Since he kept his hand over her mouth, she didn't have a choice. However, Joan's fear shrank a little. Thrown back against him as the horse picked its way up what was probably a sheep track of some sort, she considered his irritated tone. Could a man intent on rape and murder really speak like that?
    How could she know? With a bundle of brothers, she knew men quite well, but she knew nothing of how they behaved in war, or in a bloody feud. At the thought of her brothers and her family, tears smarted in her eyes.
    In trouble again. That's what they'd say if she lived to face them. Her brothers would rush to kill her defiler, but that wouldn't do much good after the fact. They'd all think it was her own fault, and as usual, they'd be right.

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