The Loyal Heart

By: Merry Farmer

Chapter One

Derbyshire, 1191

Aubrey knew she was in trouble the moment the carriage hit a rut. Her gloved hands fumbled the heavy pouch of coins as she tied it to her belt beside the others. She was thrown hard against the strongbox whose lock she’d picked. The thick chausses she wore did nothing to keep her shins from being bruised. The jangle of the coins around her waist and the clatter of her sword as it fell from her belt destroyed all hope she had of going undetected.

“Stop the cart!”

She sucked in a breath through the disguise that hit the bottom half of her face at the command. Dammit, it wasn’t worth the risk to bring a smile to Geoffrey’s face if she got caught. Even if those smiles were rare since he’d come home from the Holy Land. The carriage lumbered to a stop. She thought fast, blue-green eyes searching the closed wooden walls for a way out.

“You and you,” the deep voice barked orders, “Swords at the ready.”

A grin split Aubrey’s face under her mask. Sir Crispin of Huntingdon. His voice sent a shiver down her spine each time she heard it. A shiver of defiance. Maybe this time she would finally get her chance to best him. Her brother had warned her against messing with Crispin, but Geoffrey shouldn’t be the only one allowed to cross swords with the enemy when given half a chance.

She pushed away from the side of the carriage, reaching for her sword. As she did the pouch in her hand snagged on a loose nail. Coins showered around her, drumming on the floor. Bloody hell. She held her breath, dropping to a battle-ready stance. There was only one way out of this mess. Sword clutched in her fist, she jumped for the canvas flap at the back of the carriage.

She shot out into the night and landed in a low crouch less than ten feet from where Sir Crispin had walked his horse to investigate. The horse reared the instant it saw her and Crispin’s eyes grew wide in surprise before narrowing into a scowl of recognition. “You!” he seethed, dropping the torch he held and grasping for his sword.

The guards were faster. They had already dismounted and rushed to confront her. Instinct took over. Aubrey swung her sword up and sliced at the guard who reached her a fraction faster than his mate. He stumbled to the side. She spun and landed a second blow on the slower guard’s right shoulder. The unexpected sting made him drop his sword. She took advantage of his weakness and kicked him in the gut. God bless Geoffrey for teaching her like the little brother he never had.

Adrenaline poured through her as she grinned and twirled to face the first guard again. He swung but she parried the blow, brought her sword around and slashed. He defended. She attacked again, aiming low. The blow smacked into his thigh with a chunk, drawing blood. She yanked her sword up, taking a piece out of his leg, then swiveled her hands so that she could bring the butt of her sword up into his helmeted face when he grabbed his wound. The poor man toppled over.

Aubrey’s senses were alive and she felt the second guard coming at her before she turned and saw him charging, sword pointed to thrust at her heart. She dodged in time to bat his weapon away and spun as he lunged past her. She followed the force of her momentum to land a slicing blow to his back. The guard’s mail prevented any real damage, but he tumbled and sprawled to the ground. She went after him while he was recovering and landed a crushing blow to his helmet. The shock reverberate up her arms, rattling her teeth, but the attack had had its desired effect. The guard crumpled to the ground like a used rag.

“Impressive.” Sir Crispin’s resonant voice swung her to face him, sword at the ready. Her heart hammered in her chest and she grinned under her mask, eyes sparkling. He towered over her, cloak black as coal. “But then I always knew you could fight.” He narrowed his shocking blue eyes at her, trying to see past the mask. His pale face stood out in the night. He twisted his sword once in a circle. It was the dagger in his belt, a long blade, handle capped with a silver wolf’s head with sapphire eyes, that caught her attention and made her heart pound. He dropped into a crouch to match hers as they circled each other. Aubrey battled to keep from laughing as Crispin lunged at her.

She gasped at the strength behind his blow and had to concentrate to deflect it. A thread of panic poked its way into her exhilaration. If she’d wanted a challenge, here it was. She pivoted and dodged his second attack before slicing at his right side. His sword met hers with a spark and she nearly lost her grip. She wanted him to look her in the eye but his focus was absolute. He twirled his sword in an arc and thrust at her from the right. She was only able to deflect the blow this time by twisting to the left and using his force against him. He pushed right past her. She pounded the butt of her sword into his back. He grunted in pain but recovered to face her.