The Defiant Bride(6)

By: Leslie Hachtel

Someone groaned. She strained to listen. The two men had declared him dead. Were they wrong? She peered out from around the oak and listened. Nothing. She stepped out and approached the sound as one compelled. There was no one there. Nothing. Perhaps she had conjured the noise from her terror. She turned to go and stopped. What if there was someone and he was hurt? Needed aid? What if it was a trick to ensnare her? She could not go without knowing. How could she live with herself if she left a man to die?

Emboldened, she stepped into the clearing. A man lay motionless on the ground. The clothes he wore declared him as nobility. He was magnificent—a chiseled jaw, straight nose, and white-blond hair suggesting the Vikings of old. His body was strong and well-formed. In horror, Dariana saw an arrow rising from his shoulder. It took her a moment to realize his gray eyes were open and focused on her.

“Help me,” he croaked through parched lips.

A scream rose in her throat. His eyes closed again, his lifeblood pouring into the earth. The two men had been right after all. The knight must now lay dead.

She knelt beside him and placed her hand on his neck. Still warm, and there was a pulse of life there. She closed her eyes. This could mean the end. If he lived, he might tell others of her existence and her terrible secret would certainly be revealed. Then her father would die for certain.

She could not save herself with the blood of another. It would be far worse than any act against the crown. If this man died because she turned away, how could she live, no mater the consequences?

Dariana roused herself into action. She grabbed the dagger from its sheath at his hip and cut away his leather jerkin, the dark green velvet doublet, and the soft, white linen shirt beneath. She was careful to avoid the arrow that stood out in vivid relief, buried as it was in the flesh above his heart. She was quite near her cottage, but she would be unable to move the powerfully built man. In his current state, he could not be counted on to assist her efforts. She would do what she could to minister to his wounds here. Then she would fly before he woke. If, of course, he even survived.

Dariana ran home and pulled some warm furs from the bed. She hurried back to the injured knight. She covered him with the skins and cushioned his head, each movement eliciting a moan of pain, although he appeared to remain asleep.

She shifted him and examined the wound. The missile had penetrated deep into his flesh, the tip visible through the torn skin of his back. Dariana was grateful the assailant hadn’t had better aim. It was lucky, too, the arrow had gone completely through his shoulder. This would make the extraction easier, though perhaps no less painful.

Catching her lower lip between her teeth, she snapped the arrow close to its entry, grimacing at the thought of the agony this must be imparting, grateful the man still lay unconscious. Summoning all her courage, she turned him over, then grasped the end of the arrow. Her hands trembled violently and she had to concentrate to steady them. With a prayer to God for aid, she grabbed the barbed edge and pulled with all her strength. The arrow moved forward, but it took three more tries before the thing came away.

Blood flowed copiously from the wound. Dariana tore away pieces of her soft woolen skirt. She pressed the fabric against the holes to stanch the gore. The man fell back against the furs and his rest deepened. Convinced he was unconscious but still alive, she sought a bucket and hurried to the nearby stream.

She returned and washed away his blood and cleaned the wounds. She tore more strips from her gown and made bandages. Satisfied with her work, she ran back to the cottage to put on a proper dress lest he wake and humiliate her for her improper attire. She laughed at herself, thinking how silly she was to care as to her appearance.

Her old gown, once a lovely shade of pale gray wool, was ruined, but she tucked the scraps away under the cot in case they should prove of some use later. It struck her as odd that she had learned to value even scraps of fabric in her new life, wasting nothing, so unlike her other existence as the pampered daughter of an earl. She found another dress, the color faded to a soft mauve, and donned it. The new gown Tamara had brought was still tucked away, as though saved for an occasion. Then she returned to her charge and sat beside him as he slept.

After some time had passed, Dariana realized she hadn’t eaten this day. The knight, too, would need some nourishment if he was to recover. She did not know how damaged he was or if he had sustained other injuries in his fall from the horse, but she prayed her efforts had been enough.

Darkness would be upon them all too soon, so she walked back to the cottage for some dried strips of meat and a pot. She filled the vessel from the stream, gathered some wood, and built a small cooking fire, hoping this time it might actually attract his vassals looking to find their lost lord. Certainly someone would come. His attackers thought they had succeeded, so she was certain he was safe from them.

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