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Heart of gold

A damsel in distress meets a chivalrous knight in this medieval tale, originally commissioned for St Valentine's Day by The Australian Women's Weekly.

Demoiselle Madeleine de Bellegarde-sur-Cher took a deep breath and stepped up onto the cart that the villagers had overturned to block the bridge.

‘My lady, the English!’ exclaimed one of her doughtier fellows, as the enemy troop rode into sight. ‘God have mercy on us!’

‘Be brave, all of you,’ she said with a calm she did not feel.

Ever since their victory over France at Poitiers, the English had been laying waste to the lands of the neighbouring lords; now it was her turn. She shivered, trying not to imagine the horror that might engulf them. God grant that the English brigands would be sober enough to listen to her.

‘BY Jesu, sir, look at that!'

The English company of knights slewed to a halt behind their leader, Sir Robert Knollys, as the road sloped down to a river. The young man on Knollys' right, Sir Raoul de Whitacre, had never seen anything so defiantly wonderful in his entire life; beneath a fluttering pennon, a slender noblewoman stood like a warrior princess on the narrow bridge.

In her right hand glinted a longsword, its tip resting upon the upturned cart. In the curve of her left arm she supported the pole of the banner. The icy February wind batted at her silken skirts and she was keeping her footing with difficulty. Did the small turreted castle in the distance belong to her?

‘Some ruse to delay us while they hide their valuables,’ muttered Knollys.

‘At least hear what she has to say,’ warned Raoul. He was sick of the devastation. The English had vanquished the French, but did they have to ravage northern France daily in the name of a king who had gone back across the Channel and did not give a damn what lawlessness raged behind his back?

Knollys fumbled for his leather flask and took a swig. ‘You go and parley then. Tell her to get down and grovel or we will raze her paltry little castle to the ground.’

‘Willingly,’ Raoul's smile was tight, the leash of obedience at straining point as he kneed his stallion forward.

The noblewoman was beautiful and young, scarce twenty, he guessed.

‘You are the leader?’ she asked. Presumptuous of her to speak first!

‘No, I answer for him. Step down and let us pass, lady! We claim your goods and livestock in the name of England. Defy us and you and your people will wish you had never been born.

‘The lovely lips trembled. Raoul felt pity and admiration for her. Dear God, she must be frozen, tricked out in her finery to awe them. He observed the jewels glittering on the beauteous skin and the tempting cleavage below. She must be insane to flaunt herself so.

‘Sir!’

Reluctantly his gaze rose to the glossy dark braids that framed her delicate, face, and he tried to listen to what she was saying, wondering how he could prevent this courageous girl being stripped and violated.

‘I do not wish my peasants slain and my goods stolen. I will not have it so!

‘The sword rose, so long, so weighty that she had trouble raising it with but a single hand. Such courage!

‘Lady, tell that to your fine French overlord. You are fortunate that your valley has been forgotten until now. Now stand aside!’

‘I will strike a bargain with you.’

Raoul was hard put not to give a shout of bitter laughter. She thought she could bargain with Knollys!

‘Well, tell me!’ he ordered, his voice grim. He could sense the impatience mustering behind him.

MADELEINE understood his edginess. She could see better than him the horses of the English fidgeting impatiently.

‘Sir, I am a widow,’ she told him swiftly. ‘I am willing to marry one of your company to save my land.’ Interest grew in the blue eyes studying her, and she continued, ‘I will feast your company here and set up a contest and wed the winner. In return. I will have your oaths under the law of arms that no one will be harmed nor anything stolen and the rest of you will ride away afterwards.’

‘Save for your new husband.’

‘Yes.’ Madeleine dreaded placing her castle and her person in the hands of an enemy stranger, but she loved this valley and, as her father's heir it was her duty to protect her people.

The young man was smiling. Desire curled his lip. He was imagining himself already her bedfellow. Madeleine felt the hot blood rise unbidden to stain her chill skin, but she haughtily held his gaze and was surprised to find compassion not mockery in the blue eyes.

‘Madame, I salute your courage. I hope this works.’

‘SHE suggests what!’ Knollys, astonishingly, roared with laughter as Raoul repeated the girl's terms.

‘Heroes' sport. Bid her feast us then!’

‘You will honour your word?’

Getting Knollys to keep an oath was like expecting the Devil to forswear soul-collecting.

‘Aye, for the next hour maybe.’

It was better than could be hoped for, thought Raoul. In other circumstances, his companions would have tumbled the cart into the river by now and set fire to the hovels. He rode back across the bridge and dismounted. ‘Our company agrees, madame. But I warn you that there will be no mercy for you if you are lying to us.’

In a bound, he sprang up onto the cart. The lady thrust away the banner and clutched the sword with both hands.

‘Your husband's sword?’

‘Yes,’ she lied, facing him suspiciously, her cheeks sucked in with concentration, but laughing he sprang down among her peasants, scattering them like sheep, and held out a hand to her to descend.

‘Move the cart!’ he ordered ...

‘MORE!’ The English knights seated in the great hall at Bellegarde were like ugly, monstrous fledglings forever calling for liquor to be tipped down their gullets. Insatiable and dangerous, thought Madeleine, anxious for this nightmare to be over. More of this and these drunkards would forget the bargain altogether. At least the young man she had parleyed with and a couple of others drank more cautiously.

‘So, pretty putain ...’ Their leader slammed down the leather jack upon the wooden board. ‘What is this contest?’

Suggestions bombarded her, English words with meaning she dared not guess.

‘This way, Sir Robert,’ she invited them.

They lurched from the hall behind her while her servants looked on helplessly. There was no-one able-bodied enough to help her if her plan went awry. The men-at-arms had never returned from the battlefield; only the horseboy had survived to bring her father's body home.

In the courtyard an archery target had been set up against the far wall. One of her elderly retainers was waiting with a primed crossbow.

‘We fight with swords not bows,’ snarled Knollys with knightly disdain. Madeleine ignored him, hoping that she could trick him into compliance by distracting him. She took the crossbow, being careful not to point it in Knollys' direction although she longed to send a bolt into that black fiend's heart, then she gracefully raised it at the target.

The English, bloated with goat meat and high as kites, looked on open-mouthed in fascination as she checked the distance and wind direction. The little rabbit tails on the bow stirred, and she adjusted her aim accordingly. Holding her breath, she tried to keep a steady hand. The bolt hurtled from the bow and slammed into the centre of the innermost whitewashed circle.

Lowering the crossbow to her skirts, she declared: ‘Whoever can shoot a bolt closest to mine, I shall marry.’

THE girl had done it again, applauded Raoul silently. With that grasp of spectacle and timing, with that beauty and allure, she had these bullies captivated,

‘Well, I'm free to enter,’ guffawed Knollys' cousin, belching. ‘Shall I be first?’

Eight of the knights stepped forward as eligible. Raoul saw how Lady Madeleine's gaze slid along the queue of faces, estimating their sobriety and moving in dread past those that showed grossness of manners; she must be praying whoever won her would be just. God forbid she should fall to the foulest amongst them!

Folding his arms, Raoul grimly watched his opponents almost as tensely as Lady Madeleine did. He wanted her land and he wanted her like he had never wanted a woman in his life. His gaze locked with hers, telling her plainly of his appreciation and intent to win. For an instant, defiance flashed at him. The winner would not have so easy a task at the bedchamber sport. To win would not be a victory – yet.

He watched the girl's shoulders shake and the relief in her face as she saw the first contestant's bolt strike the target's edge.

Out of the next five knights, three shot badly, eyes glazed, fingers fumbling. But two sent shafts into the second circle. Lady Madeleine's bolt with its scarlet leather feathering alone held the centre. But it was whoever shot closest who would win, no matter how blundering or accidental the shot.

Sir John de Boroughbridge was next, rocking on his feet like a ship at anchor, not fit to shoot a crossbow, but curse his luck, the bolt landed a thumb's breadth from the lady's. Sir Gregory, last but one, gave the girl a leer before he primed the bow. His shot fell best so far, a grain seed's width from Madeleine's. She looked in panic to Raoul.

Last of the contestants, Raoul stripped off his gauntlets, and strode forward with a prayer upon his lips. The yard grew silent. He primed the bow, but before he took aim, he reverently touched the small leather drawstring bag that hung upon a chain around his neck. Within it was the charm he always carried. Then, closing his mind to all else, he steadied the bow, determined to win. This was his hunt.

He let fly the bolt.

For an instant he thought the shout of those closest to the target meant a second round with Sir Gregory, and then an awed hush settled on the crowd.

‘Let me see !’ They stood back to let him through. His bolt had sheared straight up the centre of the lady's arrow.

Knollys' buffet upon the shoulder nearly sent him sprawling across the target, ‘Behold the new Sieur de Bellegarde!

‘His companions hoisted him shoulder high and set him before his frozen bride, then they all traipsed across the snowy grass to the church, where the frightened priest stammered his way through the Latin as Raoul and his prize knelt.

‘I want you to leave now,’ Raoul told his companions as they returned to the castle.

‘Nay, we need to see the task is truly done,’ Sir Gregory wrapped an arm about his shoulders.

‘You want proof of consummation, Gregory? She is a widow, remember. Leave me with my destiny.’

‘But, lad, we can amuse ourselves with the serving wenches while you ...’

‘You gave your word, sir,’ Raoul swung round to confront his leader and watched Knollys' moustache twitch sulkily. ‘The law of arms, remember. If there is any man here that would gainsay me, I will fight.’

He was the best swordsman. save for their leader, and they knew it. ‘Enough! Mount up!’ Knollys jerked his head, dismissing them. ‘You mount up too, de Whitacre,’ he muttered, glancing in Lady Madeleine's direction. ‘That is too clever a bitch you have on the leash. Be careful!’

MADELEINE let out a breath of relief as the last of the company galloped beneath the gatehouse, and sank down exhausted onto the cushions in the window recess. She had done it. Knollys and his men had gone. Then she heard the footsteps.

‘My lady.’ The hand holding the wine cup out to her was authoritative, the nails clean, the fingers well-formed, graceful, strong. She accepted, hugging the vessel within the bowl of her fingers, realising that she had eaten and drunk little. Nor she suspected had he. She had watched Sir Raoul de Whitacre appear to drink with his comrades and stay sober. Too clever by half.

‘Come!’

She rose, not obediently but warily, shyly. What choice had she?

‘Your maidservant tells me you are a liar, my lady.’ She lifted her chin at his words. ‘You told me you were a widow.’

‘Does it matter, sir? I thought it would give me more authority.’

‘And so it did, but tonight is different.’

The new master of Bellegarde-sur-Cher led her into her father's bedchamber, lifted the door bar and slid it with ease across the rungs, closing out her tiring women.

‘How so?’ She moistened her lips nervously.

‘I thought to give us time to be better acquainted, but it seems that I have to take measures to protect my prize against insult and theft, and certainly human vermin. In short, the winner must take all.

‘Her new lord's blue eyes, warm and caressing, implied the rest. His fingertips slid sensually down her cheek and he held her face up to him, rubbing his thumb across her lips. ‘No more lies, Madeleine. There shall be no war between us. Besides, I have a peace offering.’

‘Stolen?’ Instantly she regretted having spoken so.

‘No!’ he said sharply. It was the token that he wore about his neck.

‘For you. It was my mother's and I have carried it with me as a charm.’ He lifted her hand and shook out onto her palm a golden heart-shaped brooch set with river pearls and amethysts. A golden arrow winged with tiny seed pearls lay across it. This inexplicable trust offered so generously moved her more than the whisper of words.

‘My father gave it to my mother on the Feast of St Valentine in the first year of their marriage.’ he was saying.

‘But today,’ she danced away and spun back, ‘today is St Valentine's Day.

‘So it is, thought Raoul, glimpsing the joyful girl within her, his heart lifting, and who would have believed this day would end with such a blessing?

‘Then today it is a fitting gift for a lady of great courage. Stand still!’ He solemnly pinned the heart onto her surcote and kissed her on each cheek in the fashion of her country.

Her voice was husky. ‘I rejoice your arrow found the mark. If it had not ... ‘ Her lovely, dark eyes filled with tears, but a slight smile touched her lips, like a rainbow promise.

Some targets were invisible. One day soon, very soon, Raoul vowed, he would tell her that her arrow had found a second mark as well.

Copyright Isolde Martyn