“A magical tale...
“I will not wed a man who thinks to own me.”
Furthermore, Esmeraude of Ceinn-beithe declares that she alone will name the winner of her heart. To the knights gallant who ride from afar to do her bidding, she issues a challenge: a riddle that is both quest and test. And then she flees, daring her suitor to follow. Thus begins the Bride Quest of Bayard of Villonne, to compete for the hand of a woman he has never seen...
Newly returned from the Crusades, Bayard has warned his family of a pending attack upon their estate. When they pay no heed to his message, he swears to protect the family holding himself...even if its price is a marriage of convenience. It seems a simple matter to win the hand of a rural maid in a barbarian contest — until the chase begins. Esmeraude's challenge makes her far more intriguing than Bayard had dared to hope.
But when he follows her across the waters and rescues a tattered, ravishing damsel in disguise, he knows he has found her. Recklessly, she offers herself to the handsome stranger. But not even a passion that touches both their souls can win her hand. For Esmeraude will settle for nothing less than total surrender of the crusader’s worn and weary heart...a treasure Bayard is determined to keep shielded forever.
(NB - Esmeraude is impetuous and impulsive and romantic. I enjoy her, but by this scene, I'm always feeling sorry for her maid, Célie, who tries so hard to keep her charge on the straight-and-narrow path. But Esmeraude has barely escaped being traded for her maidenhead, so she's determined to be rid of it. What better candidate than the hero she meets on a moonlit beach, the man who is already pursuing her? - CD)
When the lilt of Esmeraude’s last song had been carried off by the wind, Célie suddenly clutched the maiden’s arm. “Look!” She pointed to a craft somewhat larger than their own had been, riding the evening tide to shore ahead of them.
Esmeraude halted and stared. The boat was silhouetted against the mist as if it were darker than the night itself, and it seemed touched by starlight in a manner not wholly of this world. A man stood alone in its prow, his cloak flaring behind him in the wind. He appeared master of all he surveyed, in Esmeraude’s fey mood, a returning champion come to claim his due.
What treasure did this one bring? What lands had he seen? What dragons had he conquered? She had no doubt that they were legion. The moonlight gleamed on what could only be a mail surcoat, revealing his status as a knight.
But no ordinary knight, Esmeraude was certain. Nay, this one was an emissary from Faerie, not unlike the enchanted Tam Lin. She watched the boat draw closer and felt a curious sense fill her, an odd certainty that he was her destiny. Aye, he had been summoned by her desire to be rid of her maidenhead as surely as if she had called to him by his own name.
This, her heart told her with surety, was the man.
The coast was deserted here, wrought of rocks that might have been scattered by giants interspersed with beaches of ivory sand. The sea reflected the moon and the stars, the wind was cool and filled with the scent of salt and shore.
The knight drew closer. Esmeraude’s mouth went dry and she urged a dubious Célie farther along the beach. The sea lifted the craft on a great dark wave as they watched and fairly deposited it upon the shore, like a great hand facilitating what should be.
A young boy leapt into the shallows to haul the boat ashore. The knight called to him, his voice melodic, the words tinged with a foreign accent. When a rogue wave pulled the boy down, the knight laughed and waded into the water himself, plucking his squire from the ocean with ease. Esmeraude’s heart missed a beat as the knight turned and the moonlight caught at his rugged features.
He was the most handsome man Esmeraude had ever glimpsed. His jaw was square, his profile proud. Starlight glinted in the dark waves of his hair, as if stars dwelt there as readily as within the midnight sky, and she wondered what hue his eyes might be. He could not be mortal, such a man, or if he was, she had never heard tell of the land where such men were bred.
But he was brought by the sea for her alone. Some higher force granted him to her as a gift and Esmeraude had listened too often at the knee of Duncan MacLaren not to understand her part in this unfolding tale.
Ignoring Célie’s protest, she leapt over the last scree of rocks, standing tall so that she might be clearly seen against the isle when her knight glanced up.
But he did not. He and the boy hauled the boat onto the sands together. The knight jested with the boy, aiding him so subtly that the young boy seemed convinced that he had brought the craft to safety himself. The knight, whom Esmeraude already thought had a fine character, ruffled the hair of the boy with undisguised affection.
They laughed together and roughhoused on the beach, and he looked so masculine a man that she ached to feel his gaze upon her.
If not more.
“Oh, Célie,” Esmeraude whispered in awe when her panting maid reached her side atop the rocks. “My mother knew of what she spoke when she said that knights had an unholy allure.”
The maid groaned. “Esmeraude! What madness has seized your wits?”
Esmeraude gave her maid no more than a smile.
“Nay!” Célie’s eyes rounded with horror and her voice dropped to a hiss. “You would not do as you pledge to do!”
Esmeraude began to climb down the rocks, to be closer to the man who would be her partner this night.
“Not...that! Not with a knight and a stranger and...” Célie sputtered briefly to silence, then began again. Her rebukes were so distant to Esmeraude as to be unheard. The maid seemed to sense as much for she spoke with greater vehemence. “Nay, I forbid you to do this deed. Why, I shall stop you if I must throw myself betwixt you...”
But Esmeraude knew what she would do and naught could change her mind. She moved as a maiden snared in a dream from which she desired no awakening. Esmeraude would surrender her chastity to a nameless knight in the moonlight, a man wrought of moonbeams and Faerie dust, a man whom she knew she would never see again.
‘Twas perfect. Her heart pounded at her own audacity.
“He is a stranger,” she interrupted Célie’s tirade with a calm she was far from feeling, “for I know without doubt that he was not among those who came to compete for my hand.”
“A man like this has no good reason to be in these parts!”
“Perhaps he has a matter to discuss with the King of the Isles.”
“He arrives too far north to seek that court. Nay, he is a scoundrel, fleeing the courts, upon that you may rely! A thief, perhaps a murderer. Esmeraude, you have no means of knowing the character of this man!”
“The sea is capricious, as you well know. Does he look sufficiently familiar with this locale to know its tricks?” Esmeraude shook her head. “And did you not note his manner with his squire? Nay, he is a man of honor, or a knight from Faerie, I care not which. I have chosen him to aid in my quest.”
“Esmeraude! We flee that same king whom you believe he may visit. Surely you have not forgotten as much? What if he tells the king of us?”
“Why should he? He will never know my name.”
“We have need of a boat, Célie,” Esmeraude said firmly, knowing that only a practical solution would appease and silence the older woman. “The one this knight has brought will suit us very well.” She bestowed a confident glance upon her maid, though it cost her dearly to look away from the knight’s figure, so lovingly touched by the silvery moonlight. “And if he tells the king of us, ‘twill be too late, for we shall have sailed away.”
“God in heaven!” Célie passed a hand over her brow in frustration. “You mean to steal the possessions of a knight after you pretend to be a whore? Oh, your mother will be most irked with me! It seems that I do not save you from misfortune despite my good intent.”
“Not a whore, Célie, I could not feign such experience.” Esmeraude ran her hands over her now tattered and dirty garb. “I shall be a villein, a mere country maid overwhelmed by my first vision of a knight.” She smiled and her voice turned soft. “Like an old, old tale in which naught is as it appears to be.”
Indeed, ‘twould not be that difficult to pretend thus - Esmeraude’s mouth was dry at the mere thought of drawing closer to him. How would he kiss her? How would he touch her? How would mating feel? She was terrified at what she might discover, yet at the same time, she tingled in anticipation.
She could not have walked away to save her soul. This was adventure!
Célie moaned behind her as Esmeraude strode toward the knight with purpose. She held her chin high and her heart thumped with painful vigor. And when he heard her footsteps and glanced up, she saw that his eyes were as blue as a sunlit sky.
Then he smiled a smile as dazzling as the sun at midday. And Esmeraude knew, she simply knew, that this would come more than aright.
©2001, 2011 Claire Delacroix, Inc.
1992 - 2012 Claire Delacroix, Inc.