Spring of 1096 - Mount Canigou, Eastern Pyrenees
Her heart drumming like a runaway destrier, Palatina sat on the elevated flat rock inside her cave and crossed her legs in a meditative pose. Closing her eyes, she focused her inner vision on the young man steadily climbing the rock face outside, along the roaring waterfall.
His scabbard knocked against the slick stone. Despite the water rushing by, she could hear him breathe heavily from the effort. His blue eyes narrowed with concentration, and the late morning sun set his blond hair ablaze. She envied his freedom. It had been so long since she’d felt the warmth of the sun on her skin, the breeze in her hair, or smelled the flowers, or the grass after a spring shower.
She enveloped him with a protective glamour. He had strong, muscular arms and thighs, but one weak grip, the slightest imbalance, one slip... Palatina quickly erased the fatal possibility from her mind with a banishing spell. She wanted him to reach her and free her from this prison.
Long ago, her curse stated that after centuries, a noble knight of her family line would claim her father’s treasure for a noble cause, thus ending her solitary obligation to guard it.
“O Great One, please, let him be my liberator,” she whispered with all the fervor she could muster.
After nearly three centuries of waiting, she had almost lost hope. Almost. For Palatina, curious and erudite, avid to see new places and meet new people, isolation proved particularly harsh. She had studied and memorized all her books and scrolls. Although her gift of sight let her see faraway places, she yearned for more. Her prison had no bars, but leaving it would unleash the wrath of the Great One.
Of course, she’d deserved her punishment... she had done a terrible thing as a child with her two sisters, locking their mortal father in a crystal cave, where he’d spent the rest of his miserable existence. She understood why the Goddess had struck her with the same cruel fate. Unlike her mortal father, however, Palatina was Fae. She would survive her ordeal.
Tears escaped her closed eyelids and rolled down her cheeks. Her throat clenched at the memory of her cruelty, but she’d been a child then. Now, she understood compassion and sorely regretted the horrible deed.
Outside, the handsome man still climbed the cliff, closing upon the hidden entrance of her cave. The waterfall thundered past his ears. Almost there. He finally emerged through the water curtain and stepped onto the flat stone marking the threshold of her cave. She breathed easier.
Heart pounding, barely containing her excitement, she watched his tall figure stride with purpose into her lair. The warrior dwarfed the stone arch of the entrance with his imposing presence. The flames of the oil lamps wavered, casting shifting shadows on the rough stone shelves, strewn with worn, heavy volumes of ancient knowledge.
He walked slowly, deliberately, like a predator stalking prey. His wet tunic molded muscular shoulders. Golden hair dripped on his square face, tanned by the outdoors. A northerner.
A large silver cross glinted on his bare chest through the open fold of his linen tunic. A Celtic cross in a circle. A Pagan symbol also used by Christians.
Palatina sensed a hint of Fae blood roiling through his veins, she probed the mind of the handsome man, to determine whether or not she could trust him. To her surprise, she could not read his thoughts. Strange. Perhaps his spatter of Fae blood protected him from her probing.
“Who dares disturb the peace of this sacred cave?” Her voice strangled in her throat from lack of use. Her tone sounded strangely formal.
A small rodent scampered into the rocky recesses of the large cave.
The man took a deep breath, released it slowly, then faced her at three paces, feet slightly apart, hands behind his back. Still seated on her elevated flat rock, she gazed on an even keel into his deep blue eyes... eyes that could make any woman forget her duties.
He tilted his head. The square lines of his smooth face relaxed into an amused smile that dimpled his cheeks and bared perfect white teeth. “I was expecting someone older.”
Flustered, Palatina frowned. Was that meant to be a compliment or an insult? She wouldn’t let him manipulate her. She may not have lived at the imperial court, but she had seen enough of the world through her water basin to avoid such tactics. She steeled her voice. “I asked for your name and title.”
He bit back his smile and nodded. “Pierre de Belfort, knight of Lower Lorraine, my lady.”
She must make sure he was the one. As the guardian of her father’s treasure, she could only release it to the right man, for a worthy cause, or suffer the wrath of the Goddess. The Great One punished the slightest mistakes with ruthless curses. “State your family line.”
His brow arched. “I am the bastard son of a lowly concubine, my lady.”
She could tell this man had learned good manners and received a good education. His braies and tunic were fashioned of the best cloth, and his boots of the finest leather. Besides, he was a titled knight. “But your father is a powerful lord, is he not?”
He narrowed his gaze upon her. “Aye, he was. Before he passed, he bestowed upon me the modest holding of Belfort.”
Of Palatina’s two sisters, only Melusine had married and borne children, first in Luxembourg with Sigefroi, a son of Lorraine, then in Forez with Count Artaud. This knight had to be related to her somehow, and if he were, he might know of her dark family history. “Any ancient legends or Fae ancestry in your noble family line?”
The knight’s jaw tensed and his daunting blue eyes hardened to cold ice. His hand gripped the sword hilt. “Who dares challenge my good name?”
Palatina shuddered at his outburst. Why would he bristle at the mention of legends and Fae? She blinked away her surprise and cleared her throat but no words came.
“I gave you my name, my lady. Now I demand to know yours.” His rich baritone voice echoed throughout the cave, filling it with warmth.
“My name is Palatina, Princess of Alba, daughter of Pressine of Bretagne and King Elinas of Dumfries.” She didn’t mention immortal, or Fae, or cursed… not even Pagan.
“Pardon my rudeness, my lady.” He bowed with unexpected grace. Definitely a refined nobleman.
“How did you know where to find me?” Had her sister Melusine been kind enough to leave directions for her descendants?
Furrowing in the open fold of his wet tunic, the knight pulled out a tightly wound parchment and unrolled it. Then he held it open for her, angling it to the light, so she could see and read it.
On the illustration, Mount Canigou, the river and the waterfall were outlined with gold filigree, and an abundance of ochre, purple, red and blue ink. Many details and instructions in Latin calligraphy explained the location of her cave.
“How did you get this?”
The knight gazed into her eyes with unsettling calm. “This family scroll belongs not to me, but to my liege, Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine.”
“Your liege?” Her sister Melusine had strong connections with Lorraine. “This Godfrey sent you on his behalf, then?”
“Aye.” The knight nodded gravely.
A weight flew off Palatina’s shoulders. She and this handsome knight weren’t related at all.
She took the scroll from his hands and the contact of his warm fingers sent shivers along her arms. The document looked authentic, with the dangling seals of Luxembourg, Lorraine, and Flanders. Palatina remembered Melusine’s oldest daughter had been queen of Flanders, but she had also been a devout Christian, some said a saint. The scroll was so accurate and detailed, the Latin words so exquisite, unlike the rough Latin of most monks, only an erudite like her sister Melusine could have drawn it.
Still, the knight could have stolen the scroll.
Unfazed, he stared straight into her eyes. “My liege sent me to claim his family gold, so he can finance an army to free Jerusalem and reclaim the Holy Sepulcher from the Turks.”
The blood drained from Palatina’s face, leaving her cheeks cold and stiff. She’d seen the early pilgrims bound for Jerusalem through her water basin. They’d looted their way across the Empire, raping and ravaging the populations and pillaging the land on their way to redeem their sins in the east… but that was the least of her concerns. “You mean to say that you and your liege are Christian knights?”
His brow furrowed. “Of course, my lady. Knights before God. The only worthy kind.”
“And your liege sent you to claim his family treasure for a Christian quest?” The very words grated in her throat.
“The greatest endeavor of all times, my lady.” The knight glanced around the cave with its fluttering oil lamps and its many volumes. “I do not see any gold here.” He gestured toward the manuscripts and scrolls filling the niches and strewn on every flat surface or piled up along the sheer walls. “This library is worth a small fortune, but not enough to raise an army.”
Was this a cruel jest? Her father’s treasure was Pagan. Palatina served the Goddess. Had the world spun out of control?
She swallowed the lump in her throat and wove a calming spell. She couldn’t let her emotions cloud her judgment. Perhaps her relative, Godfrey of Bouillon, was Pagan in his heart. “And what kind of a man is the Duke of Lower Lorraine?”
Pierre de Belfort smiled, and genuine kindness softened the even planes of his face. “My liege Godfrey is the kindest, the most honest, the most pious, the most fair and righteous of knights. His men would die for him and his enemies dread his sword. He would give his mantle to a cold vagrant without a thought, and already renounced all his lands for the just cause of liberating the holy city where Christ died to redeem our sins.”
Such dedication, such emotion, such righteousness. Palatina knew not what to do. “The claim sounds legitimate,” she said flatly, regaining control of her voice. “However, I need time to verify it. Return in the morning, and I shall give you my final decision.”
“May I?” The knight extended his hand, palm up, to claim back the scroll.
Palatina rolled the parchment but set it on the stone at her side. “I shall keep this for now.”
Pierre the Belfort pulled back his hand and inclined his head to the side, narrowing his deep blue eyes. “Is there truly a hoard of genuine gold?”
“Tomorrow morning, sir knight.” Palatina’s voice took on a sharp edge, and she immediately regretted losing control.
“Until the morrow, then.” Pierre de Belfort bowed curtly then turned around. She watched him walk away, wishing it were the next morning. She already missed him and longed to see him again.
See him again? Dear Goddess! She must be crazed. He was a Christian.
Palatina had little time to figure out what she must do. This had to be a mistake. The Goddess would not be pleased, and displeasing the Great One always came at a great risk. One could lose much more than life by incurring Her wrath.
* * *
Back in his heavy chainmail, Pierre de Belfort still reeled from the encounter. He rode ahead of his twenty knights on the arduous climb to the Abbey of St. Martin of Canigou, where they would spend the night. He should rejoice at having found the maiden and the cave but didn’t believe in silly legends. He doubted there was a treasure at all.
Furthermore, if that maiden in white robes had guarded the treasure for a very long time, she should be an old crone by now. His heart fluttered at the memory of her intelligent gray gaze, too serious for one so young. Long black hair framed her lovely face. He chided himself. Her cave reeked of witchcraft and Pagan symbolism… and he of all men, would know.
The stone arch of the abbey entrance, flanked by tall junipers, came into view. Pierre and his knights rode through the open portal, into the large, rectangular courtyard. Loud bells pealed, filling the air with pristine sounds, bouncing off the jagged mountains, and spilling over the deep valley below.
His pommeled gray reared. Pierre pulled on the reins with one firm hand, while patting the destrier’s neck with the other. “Easy, Hailstorm. Easy.”
He wondered what could have spooked his mount. The big war horse didn’t scare easily. At the end of a long journey, and after the steep climb on the mountain path to the abbey’s promontory, how could the beast still have the strength to rear?
Pierre led his score of mounted knights through the courtyard, toward a tall oak shading a long stone building… the stables, judging by the strong odor of manure. The shadow of a tall, square tower, like a silent sentinel, loomed over the courtyard, where a hot fire blazed. Perhaps, the smell of smoke had spooked his destrier.
He raised his arm to signal his men. “Dismount!”
The clicking of scabbards, the jingle of chainmail, and the creaking of harnesses competed with the men’s soft grunts, the snort of horses, and the fading echo of the bells.
Pierre slid down from his destrier. Young lads hurried out of the stables to see to the horses. He offered the reins to a dirty-face urchin and flipped a small coin in his direction. “Take good care of my gray. His name is Hailstorm, and he’ll be gentle if you give him carrots.”
The boy caught the bit of silver in mid air, grabbed the reins and grinned. “I like him already, my lord.”
Near the bonfire in the middle of the paved yard, a monk in black robe intoned a Latin prayer, extending his arms to the heavens, then genuflecting and kissing the wooden cross hanging from a rope around his neck. From a pail on the ground, the monk retrieved various objects and cast them into the fire one by one, all the while reciting an incantation. Some pieces looked like Pagan trinkets, bits of old cloth, healing amulets and even a wooden carving of the Pagan Goddess.
The resin-scented smoke hung in the air, reminding Pierre of another hot afternoon, long ago, in the searing heat of a witch fire. He pushed away the atrocious memory.
Answering the call of the bells, hooded Benedictine monks in black robes streamed out of the many buildings and strode purposefully toward the chapel for Vespers, their late afternoon prayers. Forearms tucked inside their wide sleeves, they kept their gaze to the flagstone… a futile attempt to ignore the disturbance of the knights’ arrival.
The oppressing heat made it difficult to breathe. When Pierre removed his helmet and pushed back the head mail. Perspiration stuck his hair to his forehead. By the Rood, 'twas only May. His chainmail weighed his shoulders with each step. He couldn’t wait to get out of it.
Leaving his men with the horses, he strode to the covered walk bordering one side of the rectangular yard. Beyond the Moorish colonnades he gazed over the low wall, down the precipice. Stone steps carved in the cliff face, would allow an agile man quick access to the river below. At the bottom of the abrupt cliff, a silvery ribbon snaked in the cool penumbra of thick trees, reminding him of the waterfall and the cave of the maiden, just this morning. He’d felt so light and free in her presence. Yet, a sense of doom followed him ever since.
He raised his gaze higher, to the top of the massive mountains. There, Mount Canigou jutted out of the rocky slopes, like a sharp tooth on the skyline, golden in the glaring sun. The view of the mountain in front of him exactly matched the rich illustration of Godfrey’s family scroll. He hoped 'twas not a mistake to leave it with the maiden.
By the Rood, why had Pierre accepted this errand? No one believed in legends anymore. An ancient treasure guarded by a maiden? Despite finding the cave and the girl, Pierre doubted the mountain held any gold, and if it did… his throat contracted at the thought. It might predate Christianity. Who knew what kind of evil such Pagan gold might carry.
Without that treasure, however, how would Godfrey finance an army of forty thousand to march to the Holy Land? He’d already sold most of his holdings to the bishops, and still needed an immense fortune in easy-to-carry gold.
Pierre sighed, pushing away his anxiety. He’d given his oath, and he would honor it, out of loyalty to his childhood friend and liege, Godfrey of Bouillon, now Duke of Lower Lorraine.
An old monk approached him and bowed, hands joined as if in prayer. “My lord de Belfort, welcome to the abbey of St. Martin of Canigou. We reserved a private cell for you in the cloister. Your esteemed knights may lodge in the main hall with the servants.”
Pierre smiled despite his worries. “I always sleep with my men. A true knight of God doesn’t need a bed.”
“Very well.” The old monk offered a strained smiled. “The evening meal will be served in the refectory at sundown.”
Pierre glanced around the courtyard, where the fire had been banked and no other monk lingered. “I need to speak to the abbot.”
“Our lord abbot will grant you a private audience in his study after vespers, my lord.” The monk bowed and turned away, hurrying with small steps toward the chapel, from which rose a chorus of heavenly voices, chanting in Latin the glory of the Lord.
Pierre would have time to freshen up and rest a while. He hoped to get rid of the sense of doom that plagued him since morning.
He recognized stirs of ancient magic in the air. Even the monks actively fought the insidious encroachment of evil upon their peaceful retreat. He must not let unholy memories and false premonitions influence his fate.
He wished Godfrey would hurry their departure for Jerusalem. Pierre’s soul desperately needed cleansing and salvation. Of course, in order to depart, they would need the family treasure. Pagan gold. Pierre shuddered at the very notion.
“Thank you for the generous donation to the abbey.” Tall, thin, in sober black robes, Abbot Suniaire shuffled his sandaled feet. “That silver will feed many hungry mouths come winter.”
The setting sun, visible through the large windows of the tower, warmed the gray stone walls to amber. The high fireplace gaped, black and empty on this late spring day. The abbot indicated a wooden chair in the center of the austere, square room.
Pierre settled into the offered seat, easing the scabbard of his sword to the side. It scraped on the rough wooden floor.
A few volumes and scrolls sat on a trestle table against one wall. Open chests revealed more books and parchments. The smell of burnt tallow, from the two tall candles on the table, lingered in the air.
The abbot gingerly sat on the facing chair, then leaned against the back of his seat. He smoothed the plain wooden cross on his chest. “I am certain the Lord will reward you in heaven for all your good deeds.”
“That is not why I donate.” Pierre bit his lips. The abbot wasn’t his confessor. He didn’t need to know about his wretched childhood, or his Pagan mother, or the fact that there might be no heaven for him at all.
The abbot smiled thinly. “What are you doing so far from home? Shouldn’t you be with your liege in Lower Lorraine, preparing to journey to Jerusalem, like every pious knight in Christendom?”
“Aye, but first, I must fulfill a special errand of the utmost importance.” He couldn’t wait to return to the lovely Palatina. If the treasure was real, however, the less people knew about it, the safer it would be. Even his men knew not what they would be protecting.
The gilded light of the dipping sun softened the abbot’s lined face. “The missive announcing your visit on such short notice surprised us.”
“Aye. ‘Tis only for one night, then we’ll be on our way.” Pierre wanted to be gone and safely back to Bouillon with the gold… assuming there was any.
“Can I be of assistance, my son?” The abbot laced his fingers and narrowed his dark brown eyes.
Warnings coursed along Pierre’s spine. What if the maiden and the treasure were Pagan? “I noticed the burning of amulets and such.”
The abbot’s dark brows knitted together. “Heresy is rampant here in the south. Many dissident sects have taken root. Their dangerous beliefs have tainted even some of the most respectable monastic orders. King Philippe of France ordered many burnings of late.”
“Of things? Or people?” Pierre shuddered at the horrendous images in his mind.
“Both.” The old abbot sighed. “Fortunately, the Canigou belongs to Aragon, not to France. We are content to burn only offensive objects.”
Pierre nodded and took a calming breath. “I’m curious about the local legends. Are there any about a treasure?”
The abbot pursed his lips and shook his head. “Many legends are rumored in these parts, mostly Pagan… but none concerning a treasure.”
“How about a maiden living in a cave?” Pierre held his breath. If there happened to be such a legend, the lovely Palatina could be hundreds of years old, hence probably a witch or a shape shifter. Born Pagan, he knew such creatures did exist.
The abbot shrugged frail shoulders. “Some villagers say there is a hermit living in a hidden cave along the river, but no one has ever seen him, or the cave in question.”
Relief washed over Pierre. If there was no ancient legend concerning a gold treasure or a maiden, both might be recent, and untainted by Paganism. Yet, the scroll was much older than the girl... “My men and I will depart before dawn and leave you and your community to your peaceful beatitudes.”
The bell tolled for the evening meal. The abbot rose.
So did Pierre. His stomach growled, reminding him he hadn’t eaten all day. He bowed to his host and smiled. “May I ask for your blessing, Lord Abbot?”
“Of course, my son.”
Pierre knelt on the wooden floor and joined his hands in prayer.
The abbot drew the sign of the cross over Pierre’s head with his right hand. “In nomine Patris et fillii et Spiritus Sancti, Amen.”
“Amen.” Pierre rose, bowed to the smiling abbot then turned around and hurried out of the room.
His steps echoed down the stone stairs. In the courtyard, he joined the monks and knights walking quietly toward the refectory.
Inside the large pillared room, along the trestle tables, monks and knights sat on long wooden benches. They bent their heads and prayed while male servants filled the wooden bowls with broth. At the sound of a chime, everyone started eating. No one spoke, as per the monastic rule.
Then a monk walked to the pulpit in a corner and read from a Latin prayer book. His clear voice rose over the slurping of soup and the chewing of bread. The oldest monks who lacked teeth soaked the bread in the broth to soften it. Unlike the princes of this world, the Benedictines followed an ascetic way of life.
That night, despite the comfort of a clean hall with a roof, and the reassuring presence of his knights, Pierre turned, punching the sac of grain supporting his head, unable to sleep. The lovely maiden’s gray stare, her dark hair and her willowy white robes haunted his dreams. Then his nightmares slithered with shifting reptiles that threatened to smother him and swallow him alive. He awoke, drenched in sweat, cursing his mission.
Then he reminded himself of his duty to his friend and liege, and returned to his uneasy slumber. He’d given his word. His path was clear. He would complete his important errand. The future of Christendom depended upon it. So did the salvation of his immortal soul.
* * *
Palatina paced her cave, wide awake, wondering why the Great One did not answer her call. The Goddess had strong mood swings and could be baleful and demanding at times, but never before, had She ignored Palatina’s invocation. This had to be a trial. The Great One must be watching, to give Palatina a chance to make the right decision on her own… or She waited for her to fail, so She could unleash Her wrath.
If only Palatina knew what to do. If she made the wrong decision, she could end up like her sister Melusine, who shifted into a water serpent from the waist down on certain days... or it could be something worse.
Her reasonable mind told her to hold off until she found some guidance, and she knew exactly where to find it.
She walked to the stone basin set on a pedestal in a dark recess. She lit oil lamps around the stone rim with a firebrand. The still water on dark stone acted as a mirror, and her reflection smiled in the water.
Then she called softly. “Meliora, dear sister, are you awake?”
The water rippled. The face in the water shifted. A very similar face, softer and rounder, with mussed hair, gazed back at her with the same river gray eyes. “I’m happy to see you, Palatina.”
“Meliora. Are you well? How is life on Mount Ararat?”
Meliora pouted. “I am forbidden to love, I live as a recluse on a mountain at the edge of the civilized world, with a magic hawk for only companion. It has been the same for three centuries. How do you think I fare?”
“Sorry. We all bear our burdens in different ways.” Palatina hesitated to state her dilemma. Instead, she switched the topic. “Any news from Melusine?”
“Nay.” Meliora shook her head. “She still resents us for not taking her side at every turn. I fear she will always be a rebel.” She glanced up at Palatina. “You did not wake me in the middle of the night to ask about Melusine. Something troubles you. What is it, dear sister?”
Palatina bit her lips. “I had a visit, today.”
“A visit?” Meliora’s gray eyes sparkled and a smile brushed her lips. “Pray tell.”
“A knight came to claim our family treasure for his liege, the duke of Lower Lorraine, probably a descendant of our sister Melusine, and I am of a mind to give it to him.”
“This is wonderful news.” Meliora paused. “Why are you troubled? Is the cause unworthy or selfish? Is the duke not a man of high morals?”
“I believe the requirements are met. The cause is unselfish and worthy, the duke seems beyond reproach.”
“Then release the gold. Why do you need my advice?” Meliora’s round face lit up. She laughed and threw her hands in the air. “You can finally be free of your curse! This is a joyous occasion. I am so happy for you.”
Palatina sighed and dropped her shoulders. “‘Tis not that simple.”
“Why not? What is wrong?”
Palatina chewed her lips. “The knight, the duke and the worthy quest are Christian.”
“Christian?” Meliora’s hand flew to her chest. Her mouth remained open and her eyes rounded.
“I invoked the Goddess for guidance, but She refuses to answer my call.”
“How odd.” Meliora pinched her lips together. “If I remember right,” Her expression sobered as she closed her eyes to revisit that fateful day. “The curse did not stipulate the cause should be Pagan… only that it must be worthy.”
“Aye. And I fear this is my one and only chance to end my curse and get out of here.” Palatina’s heart weighed like a stone in her chest. “I want so badly to leave this cave. But if the Great One finds fault with my choice...”
Meliora smiled softly and love shone in her clear gray eyes. “What does your heart tell you?”
Palatina grinned back. “I want to be kind, and allow Pierre de Belfort to walk away with the treasure. He deserves it.”
“Then do it.” Meliora nodded. “I would.” She smiled mischievously. “Is your knight handsome?”
Palatina shivered at the recollection of his imposing presence. “Very handsome, and strong, and refined, and kind.”
“I see….” Meliora tapped her lips with one finger. “And giving him father’s treasure would set you free from the curse, free to roam… free to love, free to come and visit me.”
“Aye.” Palatina’s throat clenched. Tears welled in her eyes. “It has been so long. I want to walk out of this cave, feel the wind on my skin, the sun on my face. I want to taste and smell the world outside.”
“I understand, sister, believe me. But if I read you right, more than anything else, you want to get to know Pierre de Belfort.”
“Stop reading my mind!” Palatina chuckled. “I do like his muscular shoulders, his deep blue eyes and the square line of his smooth jaw. When he returns at daybreak, I must give him my answer.”
“‘Tis your decision, dear sister.” Meliora’s face grew serious. “If you ask me, the fact that you fancy the knight is also a good sign. He found the secret cave, his liege is related to our sister Melusine. If the cause is worthy, you should give him our father’s gold.”
“I agree.” Palatina sighed in an attempt to relieve her frustration.
“But remember.” Meliora gazed deep into her eyes. “No matter how good the cause, in the end ‘tis only as worthy as the hearts of the men who command it. Wealth often corrupts those it touches. Will Pierre and his liege remain pure of heart when tested?”
“I hope so.” Palatina felt more confident now. “Thank you for your advice, dear sister. I believe I shall follow my heart.” With a wave of the hand, she erased the reflection on the water basin.
When she walked to the back wall of the cave, it dissolved at her approach. Beyond it, a vast hollow space overflowed with scintillating riches that would drive the average mortal to perdition. The clean, metallic smell filled the entire cave.
Palatina strode to the golden throne in the back of the room and caressed its encrusted precious gems. Gold vases and statuettes of Celtic divinities and horses sat on a shelf along one wall. Gold crowns rested on cushions of woven metal threads. Funereal masks of ancient kings hung from the cliff wall, along with sun disks, spears, and ornate staffs.
Gold coins brimmed over the rim of tall urns in one corner. More gems winked back the glow of the oil lamps from gold and silver bracelets and necklaces, overflowing from large gold cauldrons. Palatina lifted an ancient gold collar. It felt heavy as she held it around her neck. It covered her entire chest and shoulders.
She opened one of the many chests. The lid squeaked against its hinges, revealing hundreds of exquisite scabbards and swords, chainmail, rich daggers with their hilts encrusted with rubies and sapphires.
Piled up in another corner, gold helmets competed with long oval shields and armor breast plates, as they glistened in the wavering light of the small flames.
From a gold platter, Palatina lifted heavy torques, coat pins, pendants and thick rings. They trickled from her fingers, chiming like tiny bells. Another bowl held a multitude of armor buckles, brooches, earrings, hair pins. Celtic crosses and triskel pendants hung from gold chains on golden spikes. Ornate seals sat in wait to stamp a parchment that would never come. Those who had owned these precious objects had long disappeared from this world.
All this wealth left Palatina unmoved. Would it help a good cause, or drive unworthy knights to depravation, wantonness, and abuse of power? Gold often muddled good intentions and blackened the heart. Did Pierre and his liege have the rectitude of character to handle such a hoard without dooming themselves?
Such a heavy burden to drop on mere mortals... yet, she must. Something about Pierre called to her. She couldn’t help thinking that the two of them were linked, somehow. She truly believed he was no ordinary knight, no ordinary mortal. She trusted him to behave with honor.
* * *
At dawn, still exhausted from lack of sleep, Pierre rode at the head of his knights, on the road along the river.
Near the bend in the river hiding the waterfall and the cave, they came upon a stopped convoy of very large four-wheel chariots with high wooden sides, piled with hay and tightly strapped, as if for a long haul.
Pierre halted Hailstorm and raised one hand. “Dismount!”
He slid down from the saddle to inspect the unusual train. Double teams of strong, healthy horses in the traces chomped at the bit and snorted. Some stomped the dirt of the road, as if impatient to leave. Their harnesses and trappings looked brand new and smelled of oiled leather. Too rich of a train to transport hay. Also, too many horses, even for such big loads. Besides, farmers used oxen for these tasks, not costly horses.
Emerging from the mist at the bend of the road, the lone figure of a young woman in white robes and a blue mantle walked toward him. Long flowing black hair cascaded below her shoulders.
His fatigue dissipated and his heart raced as he recognized Lady Palatina. An expression of pure joy illuminated her entire face as she turned and twirled, like a child out in the snow for the very first time. Pierre couldn’t help but smile at the innocent tableau, remembering his dreams of her slender body.
Then he remembered his nightmares.
By all the gates of Hell, he would not let a maiden control his dreams and thoughts, and take away his reason and his ability to think. This weakness for female beauty had ruined his father’s life. Pierre would not let that happen to him.
Wanting to keep their conversation private, he motioned to his knights. “Go water the horses. We have a long ride ahead of us.”
Robert, his manservant, took his destrier away and walked with the rest of his men down to the gravelly shore. Pierre strode to meet Palatina halfway and struggled to keep a stern face. “So, my lady, are you going to tell me whether or not there is any gold, and whether or not I can take it to my liege?”
Pure radiance emanated from her entire being. She smiled sweetly and pointed her chin to the convoy. “‘Tis all here, lord knight, ready to go north. I thought it would be better to keep it hidden on the road.”
Cunning maiden, who could entice him with a smile. Pierre struggled to keep his wits about him. “Am I to take your word that there is gold under all that hay?”
She nodded gravely. “‘Tis a great responsibility.”
If the amount of gold was even a small portion of the volume of hay, it would represent more riches than the emperors of Rome boasted to own. “Why should I believe you?”
Her pretty eyebrows shot up. “You may check for yourself, but I warn you against showing it to any of your men.”
Sound advice. Yet, Pierre wanted to ascertain she didn’t play him for a fool. He stared into her eyes, seeking the truth there. She held his gaze and he found himself drawn into their clear gray depths.
He glanced away quickly. “Show me.”
“All right.” She turned and walked resolutely toward the last chariot at their end of the convoy and slipped behind it.
Good. Even if his men by the river happened to look, they could not see.
He followed her, still unconvinced. When she scraped the hay on the exposed back side of one load, shiny gold glinted in the timid rays of the rising sun. Pierre touched the cold metal, then realized the hay was only inches thick over the treasure hidden underneath.
“By the Rood!” He frowned. “All this is gold?”
She nodded. “Except for the chests that contain my personal dowry.”
Did she say dowry? Of course, she was of marrying age. But why send away her dowry? For safekeeping?
He drew his sword and poked the chariot side through the narrow space between the wide wooden slats. Each time, the blade hit something hard, just a few inches deep. Then he strode to the next chariot and probed it with the same result. All six of the enormous chariots were loaded with chests and large objects of precious metal. No wonder they required so many horses.
“Sweet Jesu, help us all!” The blood drained from his face. How could a score of knights protect such a large treasure? He sheathed his sword but kept one hand on the hilt and glanced right and left, searching for witnesses. “Who loaded this for you? They are a liability if they talk. We could be attacked on the way.”
Palatina flashed a beguiling smile. “No one will talk.”
Under her playful gaze, hot blood rushed through him and he swallowed hard. “How can you be so certain? Such riches would turn anyone to perdition.”
“Trust me.” Her eyes turned serious.
He couldn’t look away and cursed himself for such weakness. “I wish I could trust you.”
“You have no choice. You have to trust me.” She released his gaze.
He could breathe again. “All right.”
“But there is one condition for you to take possession of the train.”
“What condition?” As if she could impose conditions after the fact. The gold was here. What could she do, alone, against a score of knights?
“I must accompany you on this journey.” She sounded determined.
“What?” Part of him rejoiced at the prospect of her company, but he could not be responsible for the death of an innocent. “This is going to be a very arduous journey, my lady. The roads of France are notoriously dangerous, especially for a woman.”
“That is my condition, sir knight. Take it or leave it. This is my late father’s gold, and I must make certain it is delivered to its rightful owner. Besides, I want to see for myself what kind of man is this Godfrey of Bouillon to whom I am related.”
Pierre’s head reeled with the many complications of such an endeavor. Of course, he could just ride away with the convoy and leave her behind… for her own safety.
She observed him with such intensity, he wondered for an instant if she had guessed his traitorous thoughts. Heaven forbid.
He took a deep breath to clear away the unwelcome thought. Nay. Even though the treasure belonged to his liege, stealing it would be dishonorable... especially from such an extraordinary woman. Besides, Duke Godfrey might also like to meet his wealthy relative.
“I may not be able to protect you, my lady.” Pierre glanced toward the river. “Even my knights might present a danger to your virtue.”
She chuckled as if to a private jest. “I trust you will protect my virtue with your very life, sir knight.”
He couldn’t help but smile briefly. Of course he would.
His knights slowly returned from watering the horses. Some of them cast interested glances toward Lady Palatina. By the Rood, he would have to keep them in line.
Robert struggled with Hailstorm’s reins as the destrier reared and snorted. The manservant paled and quickly handed the reins to Pierre.
“Easy, boy.” Pierre patted the feisty beast and it calmed at the sound of his voice. He turned to his men. “This is our convoy, and Lady Palatina is coming with us. She is under my personal protection.” He realized as he said it that the lady didn’t have a mount, and the chariots did not offer a decent bench.
As if guessing his thoughts, she walked up to him and patted his destrier. “I believe Hailstorm can easily carry both of us, right, big boy?”
The destrier whinnied a friendly response. Surprising, for a beast that scared most men, but she didn’t seem afraid at all. He also wondered how she knew his horse’s name but wouldn’t ask in front of his men.
Most knights mounted and spread to flank the chariots on all sides. Others tied their mounts and the pack horses to the chariots, then climbed into the precarious driver seat to take the reins.
None of them had any idea what they were escorting. Pierre shuddered. The slightest indiscretion could spell disaster. Even his men might turn on him if they knew what the chariots contained. Yet, Lady Palatina remained completely calm about this journey.
Pierre walked his destrier to the front of the convoy, and she followed at his side with an easy, graceful stride.
When he reached the head of the train, he stopped Hailstorm and turned to the lady. “Can you ride? We can saddle one of the pack horses for you.”
“That will not be necessary.” Her gray gaze settled upon him. “We have much to discuss, and sharing a mount will give us some privacy.”
Pierre couldn’t argue with her logic. He, too, had many questions he didn’t want his men to hear… most of them of a personal nature. Jesu, but he dreaded sharing a mount with her. Just the idea of her lovely curves so close to him made him lusty enough to send him straight to hell.
Before he could lift her onto the saddle, she surprised him by vaulting into it on her own, and straddling the destrier like a man. He realized that her white robes split in the middle to allow freedom of movement, like wide, flowing leggings. What a clever fox.
Shaking his head, he mounted behind her. As his thighs cradled her round hips, blood flooded his manhood. He thanked the almighty for the heavy chainmail.
She wiggled a little as she settled against him, causing more heat. “Is this to your liking, sir knight?”
Heat flushed his neck and crept up his cheeks. He wished he wore his helmet to hide his face.
Pierre grunted, struggling to keep his wits about him. He would certainly be damned before the end of this journey. He raised his hand, the signal to depart.
The convoy lurched forward among the plodding of many hooves on the packed dirt of the road. The drivers flipped the reins and called to the teams. The harnesses creaked and the large wheels grated. Horses snorted and huffed. Chainmail clinked, reminding Pierre of the gold in the chariots.
Sweet Jesu, with such a sprightly woman sharing his mount, this might prove the most difficult ride of his life. Young Palatina had the ability to turn him inside out with a flick of her tongue and a wiggle of her slender body. He was doomed to eternal hell, and right now, he didn’t really care.
Palatina wedged herself closer to the hard body of Pierre at her back. He straightened behind her, and his arm tensed around her waist. He smelled like strong moss and aromatic leaves, in the summer breeze.
Even through the chainmail, she sensed his arousal, and it made her warm all over, and giddy as a child. A virgin she might be, but from her prison cave, she had studied the outside world for centuries. His physical reaction told her he found her attractive, and she thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of her humanity.
Never, in nearly three centuries of confinement, had Palatina expected her release to be such a thrill. What she remembered from her youth, she had taken for granted. Now, she appreciated even the smallest form of life to the fullest.
Over the plodding of the horses and the clang of the chariot wheels in the ruts, the forest around them trilled with birds, and burst with animal life force. The aroma of so many plants surging with life filled her spirit with joy. She could barely contain the urge to sing with the birds. Her heart beat like a dance drum at the festival, and she felt so light, she could probably fly.