Excerpt: Another Chance to Dream

Excerpt: Another Chance to Dream

The de Piaget Family

Chapter One

The Year of Our Lord, 1200
Ayre, England


She was going to die.

It was a pity, though, to die so soon, seeing that so much of her life remained before her and that ’twas only now she’d had her first taste of true freedom. But there was no denying the direness of her current plight. Who would have thought it took such skill to ride a horse? Perhaps she should have spent more time in the stables learning of horses and less time loitering in her mother’s solar working heroic designs on fine linen. That she could scarce tell one end of a horse from the other should have told her that she knew too little about them to handle one with any skill.

Too late now for regrets. All she could do at present was cling to the saddle with one hand and the horse’s mane with the other and watch as both the surrounding countryside and the more noteworthy events of her life rushed past her with dizzying speed. Her sins, too, seemed determined to present themselves with all haste–likely before the horse either ran her into a tree or managed to scrape her from his back and leave her in a broken heap on the wild grass.

Stealing. Aye, there was that grievous folly for which she would unfortunately have no time to make a penance. At the time, though, thievery had seemed her only choice. She’d needed a sword to aid her in her new choice of vocation and ’twas a certainty no one would have given her one had she asked for it. It had taken her a pair of days to study the inhabitants of her fiancé’s keep intently enough to decide on a likely victim. Fortunately, the hall was in enough disrepair and the knights drunken enough for the most part that filching a sword had been an easy task. She half suspected her prey had laid it beside him in the marshy rushes on the great hall floor and then thought he had lost it in the filth. Obviously the like had happened to others, for the lout had only cursed heartily, received condolences from his fellows, and then gotten on with his business.

As far as repenting went, perhaps she also should have done so for the bodily damage she’d done to a pair of knights and a serving wench as she’d struggled to get herself and her newly acquired sword to the stables without being marked as who she truly was. One wouldn’t have thought merely walking about with a blade strapped to one’s hip would have been so hazardous to others nearby.

Lying. She squirmed in discomfort, but what else could she have done? ‘Twas perfectly reasonable to have won booty while dicing–never mind that she’d never thrown a die in her life. And if she were going to win some beast while gambling, why not Alain of Ayre’s finest stallion? The stableboy had swallowed her tale readily enough and seemingly been impressed with her wagering skills.

Besides, lying and stealing were perfectly acceptable traits in a mercenary. Indeed, she suspected such talents were more than desirable; they were necessary. Perhaps they would make up for her lack of ability with a sword.

And, of course, with a horse. Her teeth snapped together as she bumped along furiously on the back of her racing steed. A pity the reins were naught but a fond memory as they dangled well out of her reach. They likely would have aided her in controlling the beast.

Her third sin fought mightily for her attention, but she ignored it. Yet the harder the horse’s hooves pounded against the earth, the more the very sound of the word seemed to echo in her head: covetousness. She coveted a man and that surely was something to repent of. Never mind that his very reputation should have sent any sensible maid fleeing for cover. ‘Twas said he wanted nothing to do with wedded bliss, though she believed otherwise. But it had been a handful of years since she’d seen him last, so ’twas possible things had changed. She had cause to wonder. He should have returned from France long ago.

But the man hadn’t, so she was left with speculation about not only the state of his feelings for her, but the truth of the tales circulating about him. She had decided to take matters into her own hands and seek him out. And if the rumors were true that he no longer wanted a wife, perhaps he wouldn’t be opposed to having another sword to guard his back. And if it took her even as long as a pair of months to hone her skills so she could offer them to him, then so be it. She would have Sir Rhys de Piaget, whether he willed it or not.

His battle prowess was a desirable thing. His foul temper could be ignored. His single-mindedness could eventually be turned from swordplay to her. Convincing him to wed her might entail tidying her person up a bit and unlearning the warrior’s skills she currently sought to acquire, but she felt certain she would manage it. No matter the perils of pursuing him, no matter the rigors of living as a mercenary while her swordplay improved, it would be worth the effort if he were the prize.

It certainly was preferable to the hellish future she’d left leagues behind her at Ayre. 

She stiffened in fear as a low fence of rocks appeared suddenly before her. Her mount, however, seemed to find it much to his liking if the equine glee with which he sailed over it was any indication. Gwen was reunited with the saddle, accompanied by a mighty clacking of her teeth. She realized immediately that dwelling on her destination was a dangerous activity, given that all her attentions should have been focused on her mount. 

She raced through the countryside, feeling as if an eternity had passed since she’d managed to get herself into the saddle outside Ayre’s gates. Perhaps speed was a boon. By the time Alain realized she had fled, she would be well on her way to Dover. Surely it would be a simple thing to sell her betrothal ring and find passage to the continent. If not, more lying and stealing would likely be called for. ‘Twas a good thing she’d had her first taste of both while still on familiar ground. She suspected she could do either now without so much as a twitch. 

She caught sight of something dark out of the corner of her eye. She hazarded a second glance only to find that a man was riding toward her. She would have stiffened in horror, but she feared to move, so she contented herself with a small squeak which was immediately lost in the rushing of wind around her. Merciful saints above, had Alain noticed her absence this quickly and sent someone to fetch her? Or was it instead another mercenary, bent on stealing her blade and her horse?

Ah, so the first test of her mettle would come sooner than she had thought. Perhaps ’twas just as well. Like her vices, her skill with the sword could be first tried while she was still on English soil.

If she could have stopped her horse long enough to draw her sword, that is. 

“Away with you, oaf!” she shouted as the man drew alongside her. Then she realized it was more the tone her mother might have taken with a recalcitrant servant. She immediately attempted something more mercenary-like.

“Leave me be, you…you…” She racked her poor brains for something appropriately vulgar, but soon found herself distracted by the amazing display of horsemanship going on alongside her. 

Without so much as a pucker of concentration marring his brow, the young man leaned over, reached out a gloved hand, and swept up her reins. A sharply spoken word and a healthy tug brought her horse to a gradual, graceful and quite dignified stop. Gwen was so grateful for the cessation of motion, she couldn’t find her tongue to speak. That, and she was too busy running it over her teeth to make certain all of them still resided in their proper places. 

Satisfied they had survived the journey thus far, she bared them at the man and held out her hand for her reins. Then she pulled back her hand. Dirty as she might be, she looked passing tidy compared to the man facing her. Touching him was not something she was sure she wanted to do. 

He’d been traveling, and for a great amount of time, if the condition of his worn cloak told the tale true. He would have been better off to have shaved his cheeks more often, for his beard was ragged and scruffy. Shaving also might have helped scrape away a bit of the dirt that adorned his features. Indeed, the whole of him could have used a good scouring. 

She considered. A mercenary, and obviously a good one by the disreputable look of him. A pity she hadn’t the time to sit and have speech with him. He might have offered her advice on how to comport herself. 

She sighed regretfully and turned her mind back to the task at hand, namely recapturing her reins so she might be on her way again. 

“Release my mount, you fiend,” she commanded in her huskiest tone. 

Your mount?” the man drawled. “Why is it such an idea stretches the very limits of my imagination?” 

“Perhaps you use yours less than I do mine,” she said, sending him what she hoped was an intimidating glare. 

“Horse thieves are hanged, you know.” 

“Won him dicing,” Gwen returned, finding that this time she hadn’t even flinched while spouting that bit of untruth. Indeed, she was beginning to think perhaps learning the skill of dicing would be a good addition to her repertoire. Who knew what sorts of things she might acquire thus?

“From whom, lad?” 

“Alain of Ayre, not that ’tis any of your business. Now, give me those bloody reins!” 

The man only shook his head with a smile. “Alain is many things, but a poor gambler he is not. No boy would have bested him so thoroughly as to have relieved him of this piece of horseflesh.” 

“Then you know little of me,” she said, eyeing her reins and wishing her horse would in his shifting but shift a bit closer so she might make a more successful capture, “for I am most skilled not only with dice, but also with the sword. And” she added, “I am a bloody good horseman!” 

She leaned over and snatched the reins from his hand. 

And with the next breath, she found that her horse was no longer beneath her. 

As she lay with her face in the dirt, she wondered if she might have executed her move with a bit more grace. She was too winded at first to notice that she no longer held on to her horse’s reins, or that her horse was no longer close enough to step on her and crush the life from her. She could hear the man shouting at her, but it took her several moments before the ringing in her ears cleared enough for her to understand what he was saying. 

“–trampled, you fool! Saints above, since when do the lads in England know so little about horseflesh? Bloody hell, but you’re just as much trouble as I suspected you’d be. Damn that chivalry; I should make ignoring it more of a habit. As if I had time to aid some fool youth who’ll find himself hanged inside a fortnight just the same!” 

The tirade went on as Gwen managed to heave herself to her feet. She looked about her for her mount. 

“There!” the man said, gesturing impatiently back the way she had come. The bay was nothing but a speck in the distance. “He’s gone home to Ayre, likely to look for someone who has the skill to ride him!” 

Gwen considered her situation. Horseless and bruised she stood little chance of walking all the way to France. She eyed the young man before her, then looked at his very well-behaved mount. There appeared to be only one course of action. She twitched aside her cloak, put her hand on her sword hilt, and planted her feet a manly distance apart. 

“You cost me my horse,” she said. “I believe I’ll have yours in trade.”

That, at least, was enough to stop the man’s tirade. He blinked at her in astonishment. 

“Surely you jest,” he said, seemingly overcome by the very thought. 

Gwen took courage at his expression. Obviously she presented a more intimidating look than she’d dared hope. Perhaps it had to do with the unruly swing to her shorn locks. She hadn’t been half satisfied with the work her eating dagger had done on her tresses, but plainly the raggedness lent her a dangerous air. The soot she had liberally smudged on her face no doubt added to her sinister appearance. Perhaps she would need to do less lying and stealing than she’d feared, if her aspect would daunt those about her. That she should intimidate someone even dirtier than she gave her a fresh surge of courage. 

She motioned him down with a wave of her hand. “I’m in earnest. Dismount, if you will, lest you force me to draw my sword.” 

A corner of the man’s mouth began to twitch under his scruffy beard. Fear, Gwen noted with satisfaction. Aye, this was much easier than she’d thought it would be. 

“Let me see if I understand you aright,” the man said, leaning on the pommel of his saddle. “You wish me to dismount and hand over the reins of my horse. To you.” 


“To you, who could not control that pitiful beast from Ayre’s stables.” 

Gwen gritted her teeth. “He is a very fine horse. Powerfully spirited. Besides,” she added when the man looked less than convinced, “even the most seasoned of mercenaries has the occasional run of ill luck.” 

The man snorted, then began to cough, his eyes watering madly. Gwen toyed with the idea of felling him while he struggled to regain control, then reluctantly let go of the thought. It wouldn’t be sporting to do in a man who was obviously having such trouble breathing. 

“By the saints,” the man said, gasping. 

Gwen folded her arms across her chest and frowned. “You’ve no need to fear. I’ll do you no harm if you’ll but dismount now and let me be on my way. I’ve many leagues to travel before the sun sets.” 

He wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of his glove, smudging a bit of dirt in the process, snorted yet another time, then seemed to master his fear. “Is the whole of Ayre coming after you, or just Alain?” 

“Likely the whole garrison,” she said impatiently, “so as you might imagine, I’ve little time to waste. Now, do you obey me or must I draw my sword?” 

The man swung down with another muffled exclamation of fear. At least Gwen thought it was fear. He was still wiping his eyes and his shoulders were shaking. There could be no other explanation for his actions. 

He took off his soiled cloak and tossed it over his saddle, then stepped a few paces away from his mount. Gwen took a moment to indulge in envy that he possessed a mount who remained where he’d been left, then turned her mind to other matters–namely the man standing before her wearing a sword that seemingly didn’t get in his way when he moved. Then there was that ruby the size of a child’s fist in the hilt of his sword. Who was he? How had he come by such a sword and a mount that any knight would have groveled to own? 

A pity she wouldn’t have answers to those questions. Already she had wasted more time on him than she had to spare. She planted her feet more firmly in the dirt and dragged herself back to the task at hand. 

“I see you wish not to cooperate,” she said. “You leave me with no choice but to do you bodily harm.” 

He lifted one shoulder in a negligent shrug. “’Tis a chance I’ll have to take. I have yet need of my horse.” 

“As you will, then. It pains me to do this,” she said, gritting her teeth as she struggled to remove her stolen sword from its sheath, “but you are obviously a stubborn”–she huffed as she twisted herself to one side for better control–“soul with perhaps a less developed desire for long life than another.” She jerked the sword free triumphantly, then almost went sprawling from the movement. She let the sword rest where it seemed to want to–point down in the dirt–and hunched over it as if she’d meant to be doing the like. “One last chance to spare yourself.” 

“You are too kind.” 

“Aye, ’tis a trait I’m seeking to rid myself of,” she agreed, grasping the sword and pulling it upright. “It only hampers me in my mercenary endeavors.” 

“I can see how it might.” 

Gwen felt a small twinge of unease at the fact that the man had not yet drawn his sword. It seemed passing unfair that she should cut him down where he stood, but surely she had offered him ample opportunity to save himself, hadn’t she? 

She lifted her blade and brandished it. Saints, but she should have been hefting other things besides sewing needles these past few months. The blade wasn’t that heavy, but to untried arms it was very awkward. With a grunt she got the blade upright and pointing in the man’s direction. She gave him her most menacing glance and waved her blade meaningfully at him. 

He shook his head. “I should have remained abed this morn.” 

“Too late for regrets now,” Gwen said, swinging her sword carefully. It moved more easily than she’d hoped, but certainly was reluctant to give her any ideas on where she should cut first. 

“Go to, would you?” he asked politely. “I am in haste, with much to see accomplished before the sun sets.” 

“I am going to,” Gwen said, through gritted teeth. “This sword is heavier than those I am accustomed to.” 

“Perhaps if you waved it with more enthusiasm, you might manage to nick me here or there.” 

“I know that,” she said, beginning to wonder if he thought her less skilled than he should. She took a swipe at him. It almost sent her sprawling, but she managed to regain her feet before the blade overbalanced her into the dirt. She shoved the remains of her hair out of her eyes and frowned at him. “Are you ready to cry peace yet?” 

“Not quite yet.” 

“Then fight me,” she said. She lifted her weapon against him again. “You haven’t even drawn your swo –” 

Sword, she meant to say. Somehow, though, the word was lost in her astonishment at the feeling of her blade leaving her hand. She stared in fascination as it flipped end over end up into the air and then came back down, flashing in the sunlight. The man caught it neatly with his left hand. He resheathed his own sword–the one she hadn’t even seen him draw–then assessed hers with a practiced glance. 

“Damascus steel,” he noted with admiration. “You’ve a good eye, at least.” He impaled her sword into the dirt next to him. “From whom did you filch it?” 

“I won it d–” 

“–dicing,” he finished with a sigh. “Lying is a sin, you know. As is stealing.” 

“Desirable traits in any ruthless mercenary,” she corrected him. “Now, as you have made off with my sword in such a dishonorable manner, you leave me with no choice but to take my knife to you.” 

He clapped his hand to his head with a groan. Taking that as a very good sign, Gwen fumbled in her boot for her dagger. She drew it forth with a flourish, hoping it had come out as if she’d planned the whole exercise to come down to this. 

The man didn’t move, so she took her courage in hand and stabbed the air in front of her with as much fierceness as she could muster. 

Stabbing the man before her was, however, quite another matter. 

The man shook his head sadly and clucked his tongue. 

Perhaps if she merely impaled him in his sword arm it would wound him enough that he would be unable to wield his blade, but it wouldn’t finish him off. It occurred to her that she would likely be finishing off a great number of men in her future as a hired sword, but that would perhaps come later when she had more stomach for the deed. For her first conquest, a mere stabbing would have to do. 

She lifted her knife and commanded her body to fling itself forward. 

Her arm, and her feet for that matter, wouldn’t cooperate. 

“Too much bloody time at a tapestry frame,” she muttered under her breath. She took herself in hand and tried again. She forced the blade to descend and felt a faint satisfaction when she saw it heading directly for the man’s upper arm. 

And then quite suddenly she found her wrist captured in a firm grip and her knife removed from her hand. And then the man paused. He looked at her and frowned. 

“Have we met?” 

Saints above, this was all she needed, to be recognized and carried back to Ayre. 

“Nay. Never,” she said, gritting her teeth and trying to pull her hand from his. “’Tis my fierce mercenary mien that has confused you. I’ve no doubt you’ve seen like expressions on many fighting men’s faces.” 

“Nay,” he said, staring at her intently. 

He looked at her shorn hair, tucked her knife in his belt, then clamped a hand on her shoulder to hold her in place. Before Gwen could protest, he reached out and started to clean her face with the hem of his tunic sleeve. Apparently that didn’t satisfy him, for he licked the fingers of one hand and rubbed industriously on her cheeks. 

“What do you—” she spluttered. 

He whirled her around so the sun shone down on her face. She blinked against the brightness of it. He reached out suddenly and tucked her hair behind her ears. Then he went still and his jaw hung slack. 

“Gwen?” he gasped. 

Aye, was almost said, then it occurred to her that no one loitering so far from her own keep should have known who she was. She frowned up at him. 

“And you would be…?” 

He smiled dryly. “Ah, how soon they forget, these fickle maids. Though I will admit,” he said, reaching out to tug on her ear, “that though you don’t look much cleaner than the first time we met, you smell much more pleasant.” 

And in that moment she knew. 

“Merciful saints above,” she breathed. “’Tis you.” 

“Aye, chérie, ’tis I.” 

Gwen frowned. She hadn’t intended to be covered with muck the next time she saw the man before her. 

She opened her mouth to begin to ask the scores of questions she had to put to him, then she caught sight behind him of a company of horsemen in the distance. Alain of Ayre’s white stallion was easily recognizable in the lead. Gwen closed her mouth around her queries. 

“Alain comes,” she said simply. 

“Damn,” he said, looking over his shoulder. He looked back at her. “You’ve been at Ayre?” 

She nodded. 

He frowned deeply. “We’ve much to discuss, I can see. But later,” he added, with another look over his shoulder. “Perhaps he won’t recognize me in my current state.” 

“We wouldn’t be so fortunate.” She looked up at him appraisingly. “Obviously we’ll have to invent a ruse for why we’re together.” 

“Nay, not that.” 

“We must.” 

“We mustn’t. I’m not recovered from the last time–” 

“What choice do we have?” 

He shook his head firmly. “We have several–” 

Gwen knew there was nothing else to be done. With a regretful smile, she drew back her arm and let fly her fist… 

Straight into Sir Rhys de Piaget’s nose.