“I’d rather be in battle, fighting Saracens,” grumbled Simon Chastain, Sir Marcus de Rancourt’s trusted sergeant and good friend.
Marcus stood and stretched his tired muscles, then regarded his sergeant. “I’d rather you be in battle too. At least then you’d be in the Holy Land, which is definitely downwind. Have you smelt yourself lately?”
Simon leaned on the pitchfork he had been piling hay with, and gave his master a look. “Have you yourself? You’re no rosebush, my friend.”
Marcus took an exaggerated smell of his armpit and genuinely winced. “Have we become smellier, or is it just that we’re no longer surrounded by hundreds of men who all smell as bad?”
Simon glanced at the barn, filled with livestock and horses. “I think we’ve degenerated into animals. Perhaps we should be living with them, rather than in our own quarters.” He glanced at the incomplete barracks on the large property. “The facilities were much more civilized at our barracks in the Holy Land.”
Marcus glanced at the half-built barracks still under construction by the townsfolk in their spare time, the completed barn rebuilt by the guilty feelings of the same men who had burned down the original. It had been the priority, and his men hadn’t minded waiting for their own barracks as their new situation was worked out.
Sir Marcus was a Templar knight, and still was, though given special dispensation by the Grand Master to continue in his role, despite his circumstances. His sister had died, leaving her two children—his niece and nephew—orphaned. He had returned too late, and had reluctantly agreed to take on the responsibility of raising the two young children, saving them from an uncertain life. It had meant giving up his life of soldiering, effectively curtailed regardless by a Saracen arrow not four months earlier, weakening his left shoulder.
His men, Simon, whom he had fought with for over two decades, and his two squires, David and Jeremy, who had been with him for the better part of a decade, had all agreed to stay with him and work the farm he had inherited, his late brother-in-law deceased, having died two years earlier, saving young Angeline from drowning. He had never met the man, but from what he had been told, he had been a loving husband and father, who used his limited means, and distant aristocratic title, to provide his family with a better life than most in these parts.
But without anyone to work the farm, and no one to take care of the children, they would have been left destitute, given to the church, or worse, left to fend for themselves. It was something for which Marcus knew his sister would never have forgiven him, had he let it happen.
He stared at his young nephew Jacques and the orphaned Pierre, brushing the horses, and his niece Angeline, collecting the eggs from their chickens, and smiled. “We may smell, but we’ve done a good thing.”
The rest of his men stopped what they were doing, following his gaze. Jeremy spoke first. “I have no regrets, sir.”
“Nor I,” agreed David.
Simon growled. “I have a few, one of which is agreeing to share accommodations with you two.”
Marcus chuckled. “You’ll each have your own room when the barracks are complete, as I promised.”
Jeremy smiled. “I think that will be the first time I’ve had my own room in my entire life.” His eyes widened. “I think I might get lonely!”
David grinned. “Then find yourself a nice young lass to share your bed with!”
Jeremy rubbed his chin. “That is the most intelligent thing I think I’ve ever heard you say.”
“I’m not just a pretty face.”
“No, you’re definitely not that.”
“I said just.”
“I know what you said. Have you ever actually seen your face? It is quite revolting.”
David’s eyes widened. “You know, I don’t know if I ever actually have, come to think of it.” He jabbed a finger at Jeremy. “I just hope I’m not as ugly as you are. That would be a sin.”
“It would also explain your success with the ladies.”
“I’ve been as successful as you, I assure you!”
“I am not ashamed to admit I’ve had limited success. I take it as a matter of pride that I’ve been able to resist the temptations of the flesh.”
David snorted. “Easy to resist when you have no prospects.”
Tanya, the farm’s mastiff that had taken a liking to Marcus, the new alpha male of the homestead, growled, her nose pointing down the path leading to the farm. They all turned to see someone on horseback racing toward the property, half a dozen in pursuit several hundred paces behind.
“Is that a woman?” asked Simon, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the sun high in the western sky.
“Help!” cried the person on horseback, waving at them, answering the question.
Marcus bristled. “Weapons!”
The men scrambled toward the barracks as he rushed toward the home where he lived with the children. “Come!” he ordered Tanya, who dutifully followed. The last thing he needed was the eager beast frightening the horse upon which the lady in distress rode. “My sword!” he shouted, and Isabelle Leblanc appeared in the doorway for a moment, her eyes bulging at the approaching sight, before disappearing inside. She reemerged as he reached the doorway, tossing him his sword. He yanked it from its scabbard and raced down the path toward the woman, Tanya at his side, his men emerging from their unfinished quarters, Simon with his sword, David and Jeremy with their bows and arrows.
“Help me! You must help me!” cried the woman, dressed far finer than any he had seen in these parts. He reached up and grabbed the horse by the lead, steadying it as she came to a halt, her pursuers pounding nearer. “Is this the de Foix farm?”
Marcus nodded. “It is.”
The woman gasped in relief as her shoulders collapsed. “Then you must be my cousin, Sir Henri de Foix. I am Lady Joanne de Rohan. We met some ten years ago at my father’s estate. You must help me! I fear they intend to kill me!”
Marcus had no time to decide whether to believe her or not, nor correct her on the mistaken identity. He was not her cousin. Henri was his brother-in-law, dead two years. All that did matter was that this was a lady, and if a relation, she was aristocracy, and nothing could justify what now arrived on his property—six men, armed, with no sign of good intentions on their faces. He placed himself between them and the new arrivals as Simon joined him at his side, David and Jeremy taking up flanking positions to his left and right, a good hundred paces off.
One of their uninvited guests advanced. “I am Louis Forbin, captain of Lord Charles de Rohan’s guard.”
“And by what right to you intrude upon my property?” demanded Marcus, his sword casually over his shoulder as the men appeared content to remain upon their horses, but not on the attack.
“By right of this woman’s husband, Lord Charles. We are here to arrest her.”
Marcus concealed his surprise. “On what charge?”
This time Marcus failed as his eyebrows rose slightly.
He glanced back at the woman, vehemently shaking her head.
“I swear to you, I am innocent of these charges. I have never been unfaithful to my husband, in body or in spirit.”
Marcus turned back toward the men. “The lady claims she is innocent. What evidence do you have of her guilt?”
Captain Forbin sneered. “I require none. I have orders from my master to bring her back to Paris so she can be arrested, and I intend to fulfill my duty.”
Marcus tapped the hilt of his sword. “Do you know who I am?”
“It is of no concern of mine.”
“I am Sir Marcus de Rancourt, Templar knight, and sworn to protect the innocent. This is my sergeant”—Simon bowed slightly—“and my squires. We have decades of experience fighting the Saracen. I suggest if you intend to press the matter, you leave now and return with more men so that it can at least be a fair fight.”
Forbin drew his sword, quickly followed by the rest. “You’ll find I have little time for Templars.”
Marcus smiled. “Prepare to make the time.”
The man’s horse reared up on its hind legs then leaped forward, followed by the others. Marcus took a step back, preparing himself as an arrow embedded itself in the thigh of Forbin, another in the shoulder of the man to his right. Both cried out as they slumped forward, their momentum killed as their rides sought instructions no longer provided. Marcus surged forward, reaching up and grabbing Forbin by the arm and hauling him off his horse, booting him in the head as he hit the ground. Tanya lunged forward and Marcus pointed at the downed captain.
Tanya stopped, growling at the man, but holding her position. A grunt on the other side of Forbin’s horse indicated Simon had taken his man down as the thuds of two more arrows finding their marks were heard, two more cries confirming success.
Marcus raised his left arm. “Halt!” he ordered, pressing the tip of his blade against the captain’s throat. “End this now, or he dies, then so do you!”
Those still on their horses stopped, uncertain of what to do, their swords slowly lowering as David and Jeremy closed the gap, ensuring their arrows would penetrate the chainmail even deeper should they loose them.
“Drop your swords.”
Swords clattered to the ground, and Marcus lifted his foot off the captain’s chest. “Tend to your wounded, and be off with you.”
The two uninjured men dismounted and helped their wounded comrades back onto their horses. Marcus grabbed the lead of Forbin’s horse, staring up at him. “Take this message to your master. I will be coming to Paris to find out the truth in this matter. He has my word as a Templar that should I be shown sufficient proof that she is indeed guilty, I will hand her over to the Court myself. Understood?”
Forbin nodded, and Marcus released his horse, the man flicking the reins and heading back down the path with the others. He paused, turning back slightly. “Templar knight, I would say something to you.”
Marcus crossed his arms. “Proceed.”
“You know not what you have done here, this day. I fear you will not live to regret it.”
“Is that a threat?”
David and Jeremy stretched their bows.
“No, it is merely a warning. You have become involved in something far more dangerous than you can possibly imagine, and one lone knight will not be able to stop what has already begun.”