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Hazel Miller gave her heart to a man who went off to earn his fortune, but he’s been gone longer than she thought he would. A lot longer.
Dressed as a boy, Hazel sets out to find her lover, but the roads of Medieval England are fraught with peril. When a ragged stranger risks his life to protect her, how can she refuse his company?
Hazel’s quest is about to get complicated—and at its end, she may discover that her true love isn’t the man she has waited ten years for.
A lighthearted and magical tale of adventure, true love, and disguises.
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ONCE UPON A TIME . . .
IN THE NORTHERN reaches of England lay a long and gentle valley, with villages and meadows and wooded hills. Dapple Vale was the valley’s name, and the woods were known as Glade Forest, for many sunlit glades lay within their cool, green reaches. Glade Forest was surrounded by royal forest on all sides, but neither it nor Dapple Vale were on any map, and the Norman king and his foresters and tax collectors and huntsmen knew nothing of their existence.
Within the green, leafy expanse of Glade Forest lay the border with the Faerie realm, where the Fey dwelled. The boundary was invisible to the human eye; nothing marked it but a tingle, a lifting of hair on the back of one’s neck. Wise men turned back when they felt the tingle, and unwise men continued and were never seen again.
Despite its proximity to Faerie—or perhaps because of it—the sun shone more often in Dapple Vale than elsewhere in England, and the winters were less harsh. The Great Plague bypassed Dapple Vale, and the Great Famine, too. Crops flourished, animals were fat and sleek, and the vale’s folk were hale and long-lived.
One road led to the vale, but few travelers discovered it. No Romans found Dapple Vale, nor Vikings, and England’s latest invaders, the Normans, hadn’t found it either. Even folk born and bred in the vale had been known to leave and never find their way back, so well hidden was Glade Forest. Shrewd inhabitants took a pebble worn smooth by the clear, sweet waters of the River Dapple with them if they ventured from the vale, to be certain of returning.
The folk of Dapple Vale didn’t take their good fortune for granted. They had heard of plagues and famines, heard of marauding soldiers and starving serfs and murderous outlaws. Each was careful to respect the forest that sheltered them, and most careful of all was the Lord Warder of Dapple Vale, who went by the name Dappleward. Dappleward and his sons and his liegemen, the Ironfists, knew the location of rings of standing stones where the Fey had danced in olden times. They knew where to find the great stone barrow that held the grave of a banished Faerie prince, and they knew of the dark and narrow crevice wherein lay a hoard of abandoned Faerie gold. They knew these places, and guarded them carefully.
ALL TALES MUST have a beginning, and our tale begins in Dapple Bend, in the crook of Dapple Vale, where there once lived a miller’s widow and her three beautiful daughters. The widow was half-blind and half-lame, but she had whole-hearted courage, and when she came upon a Faerie babe drowning in a deep, dark pool in the forest, she flung herself into the water to save it.
Now the Fey are dangerous and capricious and cruel, and the folk of Dapple Vale know better than to attract their attention, but Widow Miller went searching for the border with Faerie and called the babe’s mother to her.
The Fey dislike humans, and dislike even more being indebted to them, and the babe’s mother was deeply in Widow Miller’s debt, so she granted the widow a wish, and each of her daughters a wish, too, and their daughters in turn.
Widow Miller entered Glade Forest half-lame and half-blind; she left it supple-limbed and clear-eyed and with a girl’s spring in her step, and two weeks later she married the blacksmith she had secretly loved for years.
Her three daughters were to receive their wishes on their next birthdays, and those birthdays were soon. As spring ripened into the golden days of summer, the widow’s daughters waited with joyful hearts for their birthdays to come.
Thus begins our story . . .
TAM DAPPLEWARD SHUCKED off his boots. The creek burbled at his feet, clean and cold. A wash, a shave, clean clothes, and then home. Home. After five months, home.
He pulled his stained, faded tunic over his head, and began peeling out of his fraying hose—and stopped as his ears caught the scuff of footsteps on the road. I’m in Glade Forest now. There are no outlaws here. But even so . . .
Tam pulled up his hose and reached for his stave. The donkey stopped cropping grass and lifted her head, ears pricked, alert.
Together, they watched a figure come into view between the trees. Tam’s tension eased. Just a lad, slim, youthful, and alone, with a small sack slung over his shoulder.
Tam put down the stave. “I give you good day,” he called out.
The lad jerked around, eyes wide and startled beneath his brown hood. Tam saw him take in the tethered donkey, the small fire with its pot of simmering water, himself half-naked at the creek—and relax fractionally. “Good day.” He was even younger than Tam had thought; his voice hadn’t yet broken.
“May the gods speed your journey.”
“And yours.” The lad gave a courteous nod and continued along the road.
“Go back to your grass, Marigold,” Tam told the donkey. “He was no one to be alarmed about.” Unlike the man he’d met an hour ago. A villain, if ever he’d seen one. But Tam had been taller than him, and armed with the stave, and the man had done nothing more than eye the donkey and pass on. And if he tried to follow . . . Well, no outlaws ever found their way into Glade Forest.
Tam peeled off his hose and braies, tossed them aside, and stepped into the creek. Cold water lapped his ankles.
He glanced down the road at the retreating figure. The lad had no stave, no weapon of any kind. I should have warned him, he thought uneasily.
The lad was striding briskly, too far away to call out to. Tam frowned, watching him. There was something about the way he walked, something . . . not wrong, exactly, but not quite right, either. The way his hips moved, almost swaying . . .
“He’s a girl!” Tam said, his voice loud and startled. And then, “Shit!” He scrambled out of the creek and dragged on braies, hose, boots, tunic. The girl was out of sight, now. Tam doused the fire hurriedly, took two hasty strides down the road, and looked back at his packsaddle. Too precious. He daren’t leave it. Which meant he had to take Marigold, too.
Even working as fast as he could, it was nearly ten minutes before Tam had the donkey loaded again. “Hurry, Marigold. Hurry!” he said, half-dragging the donkey down the road. “If he sees her, if he realizes she’s not a lad . . .”
Not just robbery, but rape, too.
Tam convinced the donkey to trot, and ran alongside her, his stave in his hand. The girl had been walking fast. How far ahead was she now? Half a mile? More?
Another ten minutes, and they passed out of Glade Forest. There was no sign declaring this fact, no fence or marker of any kind, but Tam knew—just as he’d known when he’d crossed into the forest less than an hour ago. His nose told him, his eyes told him, even his blood told him.
The narrow cart track from Dapple Vale intersected the broad, dusty road to York. The junction was clear to his eyes, but few travelers noticed it. Only if one carried a pebble from the River Dapple could one be certain of seeing it.
Tam halted, panting. Where was the girl? Had she gone left, or right?
Marigold’s ears pricked. Her head swung left.
“Voices?” Tam said. “Yes. I hear them.”
Marigold was reluctant to trot again. Tam dragged her with him, around the bend. Fifty yards ahead, he saw three scuffling figures, the girl and two men.
“Ah, shit!” Tam dropped Marigold’s rope.
The men had realized their victim was female; he saw that even as he ran. They weren’t going for her sack; they were going for her clothes, trying to rip off tunic and hose. The girl was fighting back, kicking and biting. Her hood came off. A long plait of dark hair tumbled free. One outlaw snatched at the plait, caught it in his fist, yanked backwards. The girl lost her balance with a sharp cry.
Tam ran even faster. The girl tried to tear her hair free. The other man was closing in, reaching for her legs, evading her kicks.
A shout swelled in Tam’s throat. He choked it back. Twenty yards, ten yards . . . and he was upon them.
He swung his stave at the man gripping the girl’s hair. The outlaw looked up at the last instant, his mouth opening in a cry.
The stave hit the man’s skull with a bone-jarring crack.
The outlaw dropped as if dead. The girl dropped, too, rolled, scrambled to her feet.
Tam spun to face the second man, wielding the stave as if it were a spear—a mighty jab, right into the outlaw’s sternum. Again, he heard the crack of bone.
The man staggered back and fell heavily.
Tam raised the stave again, but the outlaw didn’t get up. He lay stunned, his breath coming in rattling gasps.
Tam lowered the stave. He turned to the girl, panting. “You all right?”
Her face was starkly white, smudged with dirt. Blood daubed her chin. Her eyes were wide, dark, and frightened. Her plait was unraveling. Glossy nut-brown hair tumbled down her back.
“Are you all right?” Tam asked again.
“Yes,” the girl said, but her voice betrayed her, wobbling. She took a deep breath and lifted her chin. “Yes,” she said, more strongly. “I’m unharmed.”
“There’s blood on your face.”
“Not mine.” The girl wiped her mouth and chin. “I bit one of them.” She looked at the blood on her fingers, and then met his eyes. “Thank you. I’m very much in your debt.”
Tam shook his head. “The fault was mine. I should have warned you. I passed that one . . .” he pointed to the man he’d struck first, “not an hour ago. If I’d thought to tell you, if you’d turned back—”
“I wouldn’t have turned back,” the girl said.
Marigold ambled up and nudged Tam’s thigh. He caught her trailing rope. “You have to. You can’t go on alone—”
“I’m not turning back,” the girl said, folding her arms. “I’ve waited ten years—and I am not turning back!” Some color was returning to her face. Tam realized, belatedly, that she was remarkably beautiful. And older than he’d thought. Close to his own age, if he guessed right. A woman, not a girl.
He eyed her. “How far are you going?”
“Mottlethorpe. It’s only twenty miles from here.”
Tam thought of his father’s letter, hidden in his packsaddle. I don’t anticipate trouble, but Faerie wishes have a way of going awry, and I confess I’d like you home as soon as possible, son. I know I have three good shoulders to lean on, but I would be glad of your shoulder, too, should anything go wrong.
His father wanted him home. But his father would also expect him to protect this woman.
Tam looked at her folded arms and stubborn jaw and determined, dirt-smudged face, and weighed his father’s request for his swift return against the danger she faced on these roads. Twenty miles to Mottlethorpe, twenty miles back. It would add less than two days to his journey.
“Very well,” Tam said. “Marigold and I will escort you.”
The woman blinked, looking startled. “I don’t need an escort.” And then she looked at the two men lying on the road and had the grace to blush. “I don’t want an escort,” she said, in a smaller voice.
“Tough,” Tam said cheerfully. “This isn’t the vale; it isn’t safe for a woman alone.” Especially one as beautiful as you.
She hesitated, and then asked, “Where were you headed?”
She rolled her eyes. “Where were you headed . . . truly?”
“Truly?” Tam shrugged. “The vale.”
The woman shook her head. “Thank you, but no. I can’t let you go so far out of your—”
“And I can’t let you go on alone,” Tam told her bluntly. “You won’t turn back. I doubt you’d let me drag you back. Therefore, I go to Mottlethorpe with you.”
She bit her lip, and looked down at the two outlaws sprawled on the road. Emotions flitted across her face: determination, despair.
“And besides,” Tam said lightly. “Marigold insists, and she’s a stubborn creature.” He scratched the donkey’s head.
The woman gave a small, reluctant laugh, and then sighed. “Thank you. I would be doubly in your debt.” She rubbed her face, found a smear of dirt, rubbed it again. For a moment, she looked tired and vulnerable. Her lips quivered. She’s going to cry. But then she blinked fiercely and took a deep breath and lifted her chin.
Tam should have been relieved; instead, he was disappointed. He imagined holding her in his arms while she cried, imagined stroking that glossy hair, wiping tears from her cheeks, offering a kiss or two in comfort. Her lips would be warm, soft, salty.
“What shall we do with them?”
Tam blinked, and followed the direction of her gaze. The outlaw he’d struck in the head was clearly dead. The second man was unconscious. “The dead one in the ditch,” Tam said. “The other one . . . off to the side of the road.” He handed Marigold’s rope to the woman, took the dead man’s ankles, and hauled him to the ditch. A leather purse was tied to the man’s belt. Tam ignored it. Let someone else steal the coins.
He dragged the second outlaw off the road. The man didn’t stir.
“Will he live?” the woman asked.
Tam looked at the pallor of the man’s face, heard his rattling breath. “Mayhap.” But most likely not.
He glanced at her. By all the gods, she was lovely—lustrous brown eyes, elegant cheekbones, delicious mouth—but it was the sharp intelligence in her gaze that he liked the most. The stubbornness of her jaw.
No ordinary woman, this. Strong-minded. Stout-hearted. Determined.
If I hadn’t come along, they’d be raping you by now. For a brief second, bile rose in his throat. Tam turned away, swallowed hard, and crossed to her sack, lying abandoned in the dirt.
It was half empty. Clothes, he guessed. Maybe a blanket. Maybe some food. Tam strapped it on Marigold’s back.
“It seems unfair to make your poor donkey carry my belongings.”
“Marigold doesn’t mind, do you, girl?” Tam patted the donkey’s rump, and turned to pick up his stave. “What’s your name?”
“Hazel. Of Dapple Bend.”
I think I could fall in love with you, Hazel. Tam placed one hand over his heart and bowed with a flourish. “Tam. Of Dapple Meadow.” He almost wanted to tell her his full name—Wistan Dappleward—and watch her manner change when she realized who his father was.
No. If she is to fall in love, let it be with me, not my name.
He took Marigold’s rope from her. “To Mottlethorpe, then.”