By Dawn <email@example.com>
Submitted: April 2001
Summary: In this enchanting SoulMates story, Loisette discovers that her betrothed, Baron Tempos, isn't the trustworthy man he appears to be. But no one believes her accusations until a handsome knight named Sir Charles rides into her life and completely changes her world forever.
First, I want to thank my editors, Carolyn and the Lurker, and folcs who have given me feedback on my other stories. Also to Debby for providing the scripts for episodes. The character names and the scenes from the show were valuable references for this story.
I started this story back in October of '98, and other things, including real life, kept interfering. I recently dusted it off and decided to see where it would end up. I hope you enjoy. Usual disclaimers apply. Please do not redistribute without my permission.
"I wouldn't marry you if you were the last man on Earth!" With that proclamation, Loisette turned on her heel and marched out of the great hall, lifting the hem of her gown as she went.
Lord Samuel watched as his daughter made her dramatic exit. Turning back to his guest, a very powerful individual he didn't wish to offend, he attempted to placate the situation.
"Please excuse my daughter, Baron. I do not know what has gotten into her. She is head-strong like her mother, I fear."
"Think nothing of it, M'lord. M'lady is probably overcome with surprise."
"I dare say that may be. Nevertheless…"
Tempos waived his hand in a gesture of dismissal. "I will call another day, when M'lady has had opportunity to consider my proposal."
Lord Samuel bowed graciously to his guest. He would have to have a stern talk with Lady Loisette. The baron was not a man to be crossed.
With that, Baron Tempos took his leave of Lane Castle, taking the opportunity as he rode off with his guard to once again survey all of its splendor. This would be his, he vowed. The castle, though not large by local standards, would suit him well as an additional home. Of course, the Lanes and their household would be displaced when he found the urge to reside there, but in the meantime he would allow them to stay, for a fee. Gentle rolling hills disappeared into a dense wood; a perfect spot for riding. And the well-tended gardens surrounding the castle proper were nothing short of majestic. The scent of rose mixed with boxwood drifted to him as he passed.
But what he was more concerned with was obtaining the lands for their strategic location. With renewed determination, he resolved to summon an audience with his sorcerer upon his return to his own lands. Maybe the evil little wizard could cast a spell on the reluctant maiden.
Striding determinedly through the castle halls, Loisette barely noticed the servants lurking in the shadows trying to avoid her path. She didn't pause until she reached her chambers, slamming the heavy wooden door behind her as best she could.
"How dare he! How can Father be so blind as to not see this man's true motives!" She flung her arms in the air as she ranted, emphasizing more her distress.
Stopping to catch her breath, her anger cooled. No, Father wouldn't believe such a thing about a respected nobleman. She nearly choked on that word. But neither would she if she hadn't overheard him talking with his sorcerer.
She let her mind drift back to events of the past fortnight. The baron had paid a visit to her father, suggesting that the joining of their two houses would be a benefit to all and requested Loisette's hand.
After some consideration, and discussion with her, which she knew he had every right as her father not to, they decided it would be advantageous to their house. The baron had much he could offer them in monetary support, and he was a powerful and respected man in the land.
In a gesture to show the Lane House's favorable acceptance of the arrangement, Loisette, accompanied by one of her handmaidens, rode to Castle Tempos to see the baron and share a meal two days ago. It was during this visit that Loisette learned of the baron's true intentions.
Following an elaborate dinner, which she was sure was not the norm by the reactions of several of the household present, many of his knights left to join a few others who were on patrol. Word had reached them toward the end of the meal that the scouts had spotted a band of marauders looting and robbing, and reinforcements were needed.
Loisette, who was at Tempos's side when the message was delivered, could tell he was not pleased with the news, but he'd indicated the necessary men should leave at once to deal with the situation. The baron made his apologies to her, explaining that he had a pressing matter he needed to attend to as well, and motioned for one of his remaining knights to escort her to her room.
With the castle virtually unguarded, Loisette seized the opportunity to look around what could be her new home. Leaving her handmaiden in their assigned chamber to cover for her, she snuck out into the hallway. She headed back toward the dining room, hoping to overhear news about the raiders. As she neared the great hall, the doors were flung open and Tempos emerged, appearing to be lost in concentration and none too pleased.
Pressing herself as flat against the wall and as far into the shadows as she could, she waited for him to get a little ahead of her, then followed him at a discrete distance. Staying out of sight became easier the further they went, as Tempos made his way into the dark, dank corridors in the lower portion of the castle.
It was in one of these corridors that a rat scurried across her path, and Loisette bit back a scream. How she hated rats! She froze, fearful her sudden movement had alerted Tempos to her presence, but when he didn't immediately turn around and demand to know what she was doing, instead continuing on his distracted path, she silently breathed a sigh of relief.
Once the creature had passed, she resumed her course, going deeper into the darkness. Rounding a corner, she spotted a light up ahead, the faint sound of voices drifting back to her. Inching her way closer to the door, she stopped out of sight behind it. Here she was better able to hear the conversation within.
"…just a temporary setback. What I need is that land. I will have that land."
"Sire, if I may, why are you so determined to acquire this land? Surely there are other pieces that would be easier to obtain, and still allow you the power you seek."
"Possibly, but obtaining Lady Loisette in the process will be an added bonus. Besides, her father needs this. I'm offering him a tidy sum for this exchange."
Loisette could barely contain her rage. She was merely a pawn to be traded for land? Was her father in on this? She thought she'd heard enough, until Tempos spoke again.
"No, raiding isn't bringing in the profits it once did. It's getting too expensive to maintain a legitimate legion of knights and pay off bandits. I hate to admit it, but my knights are getting the better of these high-paid robbers, and the return isn't worth the cost. No, this deal will prove to be much more lucrative so I can continue to fund my thieves and take care of the problem in the forest."
So Tempos was behind the thieving in the forest! She had to warn Friar Harry! But first she had to get out of here without Tempos finding out she knew what he was up to. And she needed to talk to her father.
Carefully, she retraced her steps back to her room, and counted herself fortunate that she had run into no other person on the journey. The following day before taking her leave, she had managed to face Tempos without letting on she knew his plans, or having the contempt she now felt for him show on her features. She could have been a thespian, if women were allowed to. She smiled to herself at the memory of her great performance.
Upon her return home, she had tried to talk with her father, but without proof he was reluctant to believe her. Why would such a powerful man as the baron need to obtain their lands? He owned far more then they did, and surely what they could offer him wouldn't be that significant to him.
She had barely begun to explain what all she had heard when they had been interrupted and informed they had a guest: the baron. As her father left his study to greet Tempos, Loisette surmised he'd come to move up the timetable on their arrangement, since the day before his knights had managed to stop his thieves.
Sure enough, when she'd been summoned to greet their guest her father had explained the purpose of the baron's visit. Still not over her anger of the previous day from what she had overheard, she had blurted out her refusal without really thinking it through. But what did it matter? Her father didn't believe the baron was evil.
Now that she was a bit calmer, maybe she could reason with her father, tell him all that she'd learned at Castle Tempos. But would he believe her? She knew now he wasn't in on this scheme, even so much as to get the payment to make things better for those at Castle Lane. No, he was only doing what he thought best for his youngest daughter, and to have her married to one of the most powerful men in the land could only improve her station in life.
If her father hadn't believed the baron was only after their land, he certainly wouldn't believe the reason for his desire to acquire it. He would never believe that the most powerful man was behind the thieving in the forest.
But Friar Harry would. It was his men, and her friends, who were being blamed, and hunted and hanged, or imprisoned for crimes the baron was orchestrating. She had to warn them.
Friar Harry would listen to her, even such a tale as she had about the baron. He was more like a father to her than her biological one. When she'd accidentally stumbled upon their camp a little over a year ago while out riding, he'd immediately taken her under his wing, and seen that she'd needed a father figure. Someone she could talk to, who would really listen to her, and support her for the person she really was and not make her into what he wanted her to be. He'd taught her to ride like a man, how to shoot a bow and arrow, how to hunt, and how to move stealthily through the forest. Over the past year, she'd spent as much time with him and his group as she could. They were more like a family to her.
And now they needed her. She had to get to them, and soon.
Sir Charles walked down the long corridor to the baron's study. As he approached the door, he saw the sorcerer leaving and head in the other direction. He paused in his step, shuddering slightly. There was something just not quite right about that…man. He pushed the thought aside. He'd been summoned by his liege and he had to be focused on the task at hand.
He knocked on the door and entered at the baron's call to come. The baron rose from behind his desk and moved to meet him at the door, and as was customary, Charles bowed to kiss the baron's ring, hesitating only briefly. It was a custom he didn't particularly care for. He'd never thought it right for one man to be considered superior to another, especially when that man abused that position, as Tempos often did to get what he wanted. But that was the way things were, and there was nothing he could do to change that.
"So, how is my most trusted knight?" Tempos drawled as Charles rose.
"Sir Charles, I have an assignment for you."
Handing Charles a scroll, he ordered, "Deliver this contract to Lane Castle, then report back to me."
"Yes, M'lord." Charles was puzzled, but didn't question his orders. Normally, a squire handled such matters for the baron. This must be something of extreme importance for the baron to send his favorite knight.
Charles nodded and left. Tempos smiled to himself. Charles, like a loyal follower, hadn't questioned the request, and as his best knight, Tempos was sure Charles would leave Lord Lane with a favorable impression of the baron and his intentions, quashing any doubts he may have after Lady Loisette's bizarre outburst. Charles was well-liked and well-respected in the land. His endorsement should help sway Lord Lane that his daughter just had pre-wedding jitters.
As Charles prepared his white stallion for the journey, he puzzled over his assignment. Why would Tempos send him on such a mission? It was only just the other day that Tempos had chosen him to lead the patrol to catch the marauders that had been terrorizing the countryside. So why this task? It appeared to be simple enough, but there must be something more to it. Charles mounted his horse and set off.
An hour later, as he made his way through a grove of trees beside a wide meadow, he spotted another horse in the distance. Even from this far away he could tell the other rider was a skilled horseman. The brown mare was at full gallop, the rider low against the horse's neck.
As the pair neared his position, Charles realized with astonishment that the rider wasn't a man, but a woman, dressed in a man's riding habit. She obviously didn't expect to be seen, dressed like that, and she hadn't spotted him yet. She was too intent on her ride.
He studied her from his hiding place in the trees. Not only was he impressed with her skill, but her beauty nearly took his breath away. Her creamy skin was set off by raven hair, flowing over her shoulders from under the riding cap she wore. She was petite, but her command of her horse would put many a man to shame. He wanted desperately to approach her, to find out who she was. But he didn't want to disturb her, or break the spell that she was weaving around him.
He watched her for a bit longer, then, with a sigh, recalled his assignment and continued on his way, careful not to alert her to his presence.
Loisette prompted her horse to gallop faster. Riding fast helped her to think. She needed to warn Friar Harry, but it was too dangerous for her to make the trip through the woods on her own right now after the recent raids. Even if the robbers did work for Tempos, there was no guarantee that he would have instructed them to leave her alone, or if they would have heeded such instructions.
And she wouldn't risk sending her trusted friend and handmaiden, Sarah. This was her problem. Besides, no one else believed her, not even Sarah. Upon their return to Castle Lane and in the privacy of her bedchamber, Loisette had told Sarah what she'd told her father, testing her reaction before revealing more. Sarah couldn't believe such a thing of the handsome baron who was interested in her lady; surely she'd misunderstood what she'd heard. No amount of convincing could change Sarah's mind, so Loisette had finally given up.
No, she had to find a solution on her own. And fast.
A short time later, Charles entered the front grounds of Castle Lane. Pulling his horse to a stop before the massive door, he dismounted and handed the reigns to a waiting servant. He approached the door and only had to knock once before it was opened and he was shown into the great hall. Explaining the purpose for his visit to the castle to the servant who'd seen him in, he requested an audience with its master.
As the servant left to announce him, Charles took in his surroundings. The castle wasn't as ostentatious as the baron's, but it was well decorated and maintained. A large crystal chandelier hung above the foot of a wide, dark wooden staircase that led to the second floor. At the top of the stairs were rich tapestry-covered windows that would look out over the rear grounds.
The servant had returned at this point, and Charles was led past the stairs down a long, ornate hallway to the main study, where Lord Lane met him.
The lord of the castle, who was seated behind his desk, rose to greet Charles as he was shown in. For a moment Charles was taken aback by the sheer number of books that filled floor to ceiling cases on three of the room's walls. There was even a staircase leading to a second level of more overflowing, tall cases. Charles knew he would be content to spend days on end in this very room.
His gaze returned to his host, and he presented Lord Lane with the contract bearing the baron's seal.
"Thank you, Sir Charles," Samuel began as he came around his desk to greet the young knight and accept the parchment from him. "Please extend my apologies to the baron for my daughter's behavior before. I don't know what has come over her. She has this strange notion that the baron has less than honorable intentions."
Charles merely smiled, unsure of how to respond. Tempos hadn't done anything overtly questionable outside the walls of Castle Tempos to his knowledge, so he himself wasn't sure where the lady would get such a notion. And the orders Tempos did give that Charles felt were unsavory were to those under his command, and even though Charles disagreed with Tempos's treatment of some, he acknowledged that the baron was well within his rights as their liege. He also did keep counsel with that sorcerer who didn't seem quite above reproach to Charles.
Lord Lane motioned for Charles to sit in one of the room's tall-back chairs while he read the missive.
"I wish to discuss this with my daughter before you return to Baron Tempos. Can you remain while I speak with her?"
"Of course, M'lord."
"Thank you. Please make yourself at home." He motioned around the room with a wave of his hand. "I hope to not keep you waiting long."
"Please, take all the time you need, M'lord." Charles was curious as to the content of the scroll, and why Lord Lane would need to talk to his daughter first. He knew Tempos was seeking the lady's hand in marriage, and if the contents outlined the details of that, he could understand the importance of it; maybe not enough to send his top knight, though.
And Lord Lane could have simply ordered his daughter to comply with whatever the contents were. That he was discussing them first with her impressed Charles. What also impressed him was this room, and he set about taking it all in as its other occupant exited.
Samuel sent the servant waiting outside the library door to request that Loisette join him in his smaller study, a few doors down the hall. Timothy nodded to his master, then made his way through the castle to Loisette's room. Sarah was just opening the door to enter to attend to her lady, and friend.
"M'lord requests the presence of M'lady in his study."
Sarah smiled at Timothy, amused by his formalness with her. "Thank you, Timothy. I'll inform M'lady." She turned back to the door in a form of dismissal, but waited until Timothy turned to retrace his steps back down the corridor before opening the door. She'd seen Loisette return from her ride through the great windows, and hoped she'd managed to slip into the castle and her room without being seen by anyone else. Cautious, even with Timothy, Sarah wasn't about to give away her lady's secret. Once Timothy was out of sight, Sarah slipped into the room. Loisette was just changing out of her riding habit and into a burgundy gown. Sarah moved to assist her.
"Your father requests to see you in his study."
"I heard." What could he want? she wondered as she finished slipping on her gown and allowed Sarah to fix her hair. She wasn't really in the mood to discuss the baron with him right now.
During her ride, she'd been able to think through the situation and knew what she needed to do. She'd decided it would be best not to even tell Sarah what she intended; her friend didn't believe even the less evil of Tempos's schemes. Still she would do as Loisette asked without question; not because she was supposed to as her servant, but because she would want to as her friend. Loisette wasn't willing to risk Sarah getting hurt because of her. Besides, this was her problem. Gathering her gown up so it wouldn't drag the floor, she headed for her father's study.
Loisette was absorbed in her thoughts as she exited her room. She didn't even pause to look out the drapes at the top of the stairs as was her normal custom. It was usually with a sigh of longing that she'd rather be out in that back field that she could barely see from the window, riding her horse at full gallop, or with her friends, far out beyond there, than inside, dressed in a confining gown and required to be the lady of the house.
Negotiating the stairs with much practice in her long gown, she turned at the bottom to head for the study. She'd been so absorbed in her thoughts of not talking about the baron and wanting to be out riding, that she couldn't recall if her father wanted her in the large study-library, or his smaller study.
As the library was the first door she came to, she tried that first. Opening the door, she discovered the room did contain one lone occupant, but it was not her father. There, gazing at one of the bookshelves, his profile toward her, was the most beautiful man she had ever seen.
He was tall, but not too tall, with broad shoulders and a muscular chest outlined by his black leather tunic that left his muscular arms bare. A small, flowing black cape hung down his back, just touching the waistband of black pants that outlined his muscular thighs and calves. The pants were tucked into black leather boots. A sword hanging by his side completed the outfit.
He turned at her slight gasp of surprise to reveal to her black hair framing a very handsome and honest face, with a lock threatening to fall into deep brown eyes.
"I'm … pardon … " she stumbled over her words as she made a hasty retreat and closed the door.
Charles couldn't believe his eyes. He'd only gotten a brief look at her but he was sure—it was her! The mysterious rider from earlier. And she was even more beautiful up close. He could drown in those brown eyes.
If this was who Tempos was betrothed to, Charles could certainly understand his haste to wed her. She was a vision. He suddenly hope she wasn't; that maybe she was the lady's sister and that he hadn't found himself smitten with the intended of his liege.
What was he thinking? Even if she were a sister, she would be unavailable to him, a mere knight. But he couldn't stop himself from thinking about her. Suddenly, the books were forgotten and his thoughts dwelled on the beauty who'd first entered his life a short time ago on horseback, and had just disappeared through that door.
On the other side of that door, the lady in question was trying to collect herself. From the outfit he wore—and wore well—she could tell he was a knight. But why was he here? Maybe he was the reason her father had summoned her? Taking another deep breath, she proceeded down the hall to her father's study.
As she entered the room, her father acknowledged her with a nod and rose from his seat, but didn't seem to notice she appeared a bit distracted.
"You requested to see me, Father?"
"Yes, Loisette." He picked the scroll up off his desk. "Sir Charles was sent by the baron to deliver this request for your hand."
That was all Loisette needed to hear. She'd heard of the famous Sir Charles, first knight of the baron. In that position, he must be in on the baron's schemes. Part of her didn't want to believe that possible. She'd looked into his eyes, if only briefly. They'd seemed so honest. But why else would the baron send a knight to do what a scribe normally would? Tempos had to have known that this particular gesture would impress her father and only bode well for him in what he sought. And if Charles didn't know all that was going on, but had simply been given an order, he wouldn't have refused it as a loyal subject. Still …
She needed more time. Time to warn Harry, and to find the proof she needed to convince her father of Tempos's true intentions. But she also knew she had to bide her time with the baron.
"Please inform the baron that you have yet to make your decision, Father." And with that, Loisette turned and left the room. She needed to be alone to revise her plans, and to think.
Loisette paused outside the door, breathing heavily. She had never felt so attracted to anyone in her life before, but, if he worked for Baron Tempos, was he trustworthy? She hurried back to her room so he wouldn't see her when he left.
Samuel exited his study in time to see Loisette begin to ascend the stairs. Surely her reluctance to commit to the arrangement was her fear of the changes that would result from being the baron's wife and mistress of his large estate, as opposed to his daughter and lady of this castle. He was certain she no longer held the foolish notion that the baron was merely after the lands he would gain by marrying her. He returned to the library, and his guest.
"Sir Charles," he began as he opened the door, neglecting to notice the distracted look on the young man's face. "Please inform the baron I need a bit more time to make some arrangements. Thank you for your visit. Timothy will see you out." And with that, Samuel opened the door wider to allow the servant to enter and returned to his study.
As Timothy led Charles back to the door, he couldn't help but look up the stairs toward where he imagined Loisette's rooms to be. He was sure he hadn't mistaken the look, even brief, of attraction in her eyes when she'd opened the door to the library. Once she'd spoken with her father, he'd hoped she would return to talk with him, and, even as improper as that would have been, he'd still hoped. She could have come under the guise of lady of the house entertaining a guest while her father was detained.
But when her father had returned and mentioned the baron he knew that something in that scroll must have upset her. He wasn't sure what had happened, but he was determined to find out. He absently nodded his thanks to Timothy as he left the castle, and to the servant who'd attended his horse while he'd been inside.
He was still lost in his thoughts of the raven-haired beauty who'd entered his life today as he rode back to Castle Tempos. Even though she wasn't the sister, and was a lady to his mere knighthood, he couldn't deny that he was attracted to her, though he barely knew her.
He knew enough to know that she was the kind of woman he had always thought he'd want. When he'd seen her riding earlier, she'd been one with her horse, an expert horseman, or rather woman. She'd ridden with skill, but also with caring for the animal. And she'd been dressed like a man, which told him she wasn't afraid to be her own person.
And, when she'd entered the library, she'd nearly taken his breath away with her beauty.
He was doomed to love a woman who was betrothed to another. But he couldn't stop thinking about her.
As Loisette entered her room, Sarah knew something was wrong.
"M'lady? What happened?"
Loisette debated for a moment telling Sarah about the handsome knight and her conflicting feelings about him and who he represented, but decided to keep her own council for now.
"Nothing, Sarah. It was nothing that you need to be concerned about. Now would you please assist me to prepare for dinner?"
Upon his return to Castle Tempos, Charles immediately reported Lord Lane's message to the baron, which didn't seem to surprise his liege. Taking his leave of the baron, Charles was able to again be alone with his thoughts. He shouldn't be thinking of Loisette, at least not in the way that he was. She was betrothed to his baron! And yet, something just didn't seem quite right about that.
Why would she not jump at the chance to wed the baron? Charles wondered a short while later as he cared for his horse in the stables. The baron was a powerful man; the lady would be in a better position than she was now. Maybe titles and position weren't important to Loisette. She was certainly risking having any riding privileges taken from her if she'd been caught in that riding habit. And she won't be able to get away with that married to the baron. She'd have a constant escort.
Maybe that was it. Maybe she didn't want her free spirit restricted the way being a baroness would force her to do.
Maybe it had something to do with the baron. Charles had been out on patrol the night she'd been at the castle, but he'd heard about her visit. From reports, the raven-haired beauty who'd dined with Tempos that night had seemed impressed enough but not overly enthralled with her surroundings. For some reason he couldn't fathom, Charles guessed that Loisette wouldn't be taken in by appearances.
Maybe she knew something about the baron she didn't like and that was why she was putting him off. Lord Lane certainly hadn't needed to consult his daughter to answer Tempos's missive, but he had, and he hadn't appeared too enthusiastic about the message he'd had Charles to relate.
He also couldn't imagine her looking at the baron the way she'd looked at him. The reports of her visit to the castle certainly hadn't mentioned any look of that nature, and they certainly would have. In fact, rumor had it that upon her departure, the look in her eyes was characterized by some as veiled contempt. But why? Surely Tempos wouldn't have overstepped his bounds. No, something else happened during her visit, and Charles determined that he would try to discover what.
But he didn't want to think about that right now. Instead, he wanted to play over and over in his mind the encounter of this morning: the breath-taking beauty in the black riding outfit, galloping her horse through the meadow. And it was the same perfect lady who'd opened a door later that day and lit up the room, wearing a deep burgundy gown that contrasted her creamy skin and flowing black hair.
After dinner, Loisette returned to her chambers alone. She'd told Sarah she could manage on her own tonight, but in truth she wanted to be alone with her thoughts. She'd only been in the room with Sir Charles for less than a minute, and she wanted to dislike him just because he was one of Tempos's men, but she just couldn't stop thinking about him. He was perfect.
Her father had spoken of him during dinner; how impressed he had been with the young knight in the brief meeting they had had. Charles had been polite and respectful, and if the baron had chosen him as his top knight, there had to be many good qualities to Charles.
Loisette didn't want to hear about Tempos. Now that she knew the truth, she wanted nothing to do with him. But if being aligned with him would help her friends, it was something she had to consider. But she didn't want to think about that right now. Her thoughts drifted back to Charles as she undressed for bed. Sliding in under her quilt and closing her eyes, she fell asleep with his face in her mind's eye.
As the bright morning dawned, Loisette awoke, remembering the dreams she had had of Charles, the handsome knight who'd come to sweep her off her feet. But that was the only place Sir Charles would be. He was in with Tempos and so against her. Steeling herself, she resolved to keep her distance from Charles, except in her dreams. If she accepted the baron's proposal, she would have her thoughts of Charles to help her through what she was sure to be a very lonely marriage. But if it helped her father and her friends, then she would do it.
He had to see her again. There was something about the baron that had turned her beautiful features cold, and he had to find out what. Besides, he desired to take in her beauty again. Discretely asking questions around Castle Tempos hadn't produced any results. Even his squire Jeremy, who seemed to know all that was going on, wasn't any help. Maybe it was only something Lady Loisette knew? If so, then he would need to go to the source. He headed for the stable under the pretense of exercising his stallion.
With Sarah's help, Loisette had dressed in her black riding habit and snuck out of the castle and to the stables. She needed to talk to Friar Harry. He would help her sort this all out. And he needed to know that the crimes of the forest that his people were being blamed, imprisoned, and murdered for were Tempos's doing. That made her angrier than Tempos deceiving her father for her hand to gain her lands and money. He was killing innocent people — her friends.
When she'd accidentally stumbled into their camp about a year earlier while she'd been out riding, they'd been reluctant to trust her, all but Friar Harry; but over time, with Harry's support, they'd accepted her as one of their own. They'd helped her so much just by befriending her. Her only other friend was Sarah. And now she had a chance to help them.
Setting out on an indirect course through the woods to their last known camp, Loisette hadn't gotten more than a few miles when she sensed something was not right. She was being watched. Increasing her horse's pace, she rounded the next bend when she was brought up short by a man wearing dark tights and a hood standing beside his horse blocking her path. She pulled her horse up short and turned to flee back the way she came, only to find two more men dressed similarly on horses blocking her return. She started to head through the woods, but the foliage was too thick and impeded her progress, allowing the men to quickly catch up with her.
"Well, what have we here?" The first man approached her on foot as his accomplices cornered her.
A thought occurred to her. These were probably the hired thugs she'd overheard Tempos talking about with his sorcerer. Surely they wouldn't hurt her?!
The other two men dismounted and secured their horses as the first man reached to pull her off her horse. She squirmed to get out of his grasp. She was in fairly good shape; maybe she could outrun them if she could get away. Unfortunately, she was too far away from Castle Lane or her friends to expect any help from either of them to come her way.
"Oh, look at this! We have a spry one!" His grip tightened as his accomplices approached. He held her with her back tight against his chest as one of the other men reached for her riding cap, allowing her long hair to fall to her shoulders.
"This has to be one of the prettiest ones we've come across," he commented as he tossed aside her cap.
"Do you know who I am?" she seethed as she tried to wriggle out of the grasp of one man and out of reach of the other.
"Doesn't matter to us, lassie," the third man spoke as he eyed her up and down. "No one will believe a woman, and we intend to have our fun."
She tried to kick at any of the men as they moved in closer to her, but the one holding her had her too tight.
Suddenly, a voice broke through her struggles.
"Let her go." He spoke slowly, punctuating each word.
She hadn't even seen him coming, she'd been so intent on getting free.
Charles eyed the three men as they all turned to look at who was interrupting them. He'd heard her struggles as he'd approached the bend, and, tying his horse near the road, proceeded the short distance on foot until he reached the group.
When none of the men complied, he drew his sword.
The man holding Loisette threw her hard to the ground, and she momentarily lost her breath. All three men drew their swords and took up a defensive stance, trying to surround Charles.
Loisette watched the duel from her position on the ground, awed by the skill of Charles's swordplay. He easily kept the three men in check, even getting in a few offensive parries as he defended their clumsy lunges.
She briefly wondered why he was doing this. Could this whole thing be a set-up? But why? Charles was obviously superior, but none of the men looked like they were just putting on a show for her benefit. If Tempos had orchestrated this to get her in his debt, using Charles as his rescuer, it wasn't going to work.
One of the men got in a lucky shot and wounded Charles. Loisette drew in her breath as she saw red blood appear on his muscular bicep. Momentarily stunned, Charles dropped his guard. All thoughts of a conspiracy fled her mind as Loisette looked around for anything she could use as a weapon. Seeing a man she realized she cared for hurt spurred her to action.
Spotting a large fallen limb nearby, she picked it up and sprang at the man who was lunging at Charles with his sword. As Loisette moved out of the range of the swords, the man stumbled, giving Charles the break he needed to fight off the other two men, even mortally wounding one of them. Realizing defeat, the men staggered back to their horses, the one unharmed man helping his wounded cohorts.
Charles lowered his sword, content to let them go now that the danger was over. "Thank you."
"I should be thanking you," Loisette replied, before turning to check on her horse, wanting to avoid his gaze. She didn't want confirmation that he was in league with Tempos and that this had all been an elaborate scheme. She also didn't want him to see her attraction to him that would be obvious in her eyes.
Charles was momentarily puzzled by her seeming lack of gratitude; after all, he'd just risked his life for her and had been injured in the ensuing fight. But he cared for her, and he knew he'd do the same thing again to keep her from getting hurt.
Loisette walked slowly back to her horse. She knew she should be more grateful — the man had very well just saved her life. But the whole incident could have been a ruse to make her indebted to the baron. Well, there was only one way to find out, but she'd have to play it carefully.
Turning back to Charles she began hesitantly, "Thank you for coming to my rescue." She looked at him intently, now more in control and able to mask her own feelings, looking for any signs of deceit in his eyes. It was then she noticed his cut again. "Here, let me tend that for you."
She walked back to him and began to clear the blood with her fingers, checking to see how deep the cut was.
Charles watched her, involuntarily sucking in his breath as her small fingers gently touched his skin.
He was barely able to respond to her. "It was my pleasure, M'lady."
Loisette realized she'd been touching him more than she needed to, but she couldn't stop. The cut wasn't that bad, only superficial, but it felt so good to touch him. He was so … male. And being this close to him, she could smell him, so masculine. She didn't want to believe that this had all been a trick; that he would risk marring that beautiful skin on such a scheme.
But she had to know. Touching his arm one last time, she turned to walk away from him, asking over her shoulder, "Why did you do it?"
Charles was again confused by her reaction. "It's part of what I do. I can't stand by and watch someone in need and not help when I can."
Loisette couldn't help but smile. The sound of his voice sent a warm feeling through her. But she focused again on his response. Fairly general. That could mean anything. She decided to try another tactic.
"Why did you rescue me? You barely know me."
He rushed to catch up with her. "That doesn't matter. You were in trouble. You needed me."
Ah-ha! Now she was getting some answers. He hadn't rescued her because he'd wanted to, so maybe it was part of the set up. She'd needed him, not just help.
"I was doing just fine on my own." He raised his eyebrows at her. "Fine, so maybe I needed a little help, but I would have gotten out of it on my own if you hadn't come along."
If at all possible, his eyebrows rose even higher.
Loisette halted, placing her hands on her hips and faced him, exasperated by his mocking of her. "Why did you help me? You know those were Tempos's men. Were you working together?" There. She'd said it. Now it was out there between them.
Charles looked stunned. "How do you know they were the baron's men?"
"That doesn't matter. Are you in on it?"
"In on what? M'lady, I have no idea what you are talking about!"
Loisette studied him for a moment. He looked so surprised by her revelation. Maybe she had caught him. But, no, there was honesty and complete confusion in his eyes. She was a good judge of character, and his reaction told her he was telling the truth. She decided she could trust him.
"I have no evidence," she began, pacing as she warmed to her speech, hands waving in emphasis. "No one believes me, not even my father. I've got to figure out a way to stop him, before he murders anyone else. Sir Charles, I'm the only one who seems to know! I have to do something!"
Charles watched in amusement as Loisette launched into full babble mode. She was so adorable! Though what she was saying didn't make much sense to him, her intensity and desire to do something about a wrong she perceived made him love her more.
Approaching her slowly, careful of her flailing arms, he gently placed his hands on her upper arms. "Lady Loisette. Start from the beginning. Who's been murdering people?"
She paused for a moment, aware of his hands on her, then proclaimed, "Tempos!"
"It's true! I overheard Tempos and his sorcerer talking!"
Charles dropped his hands as he thought over what she'd said. He'd always been leery of that sorcerer. There was just something … evil about the man. But Tempos was involved in murders? He turned back to Loisette.
"Maybe you better tell me everything."
"I heard Tempos say that the thieves he'd hired weren't paying off any more. That's why he wants me. He wants my land and the power it would give him."
Charles had expected to be more surprised than he was, but somehow he seemed to have already suspected something was wrong.
"You obviously aren't safe, even though Tempos wants your lands. I think you better let me handle this. It's too dangerous for you."
Her hands were now fisted at her hips. "I don't think so!"
"Did you forget already what just happened to you?" He waved his hand back toward the spot of her attack in emphasis.
"No! I didn't! But you don't understand!"
"Then explain it to me!"
She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly to calm herself. An unwelcome tear formed in one eye. She brushed it away. "These are my friends that he's killing."
He moved to take her in his arms. "I'm so sorry. I didn't know."
She let him hold her. It felt so good, so right, to be in his arms. Maybe she could let him help her. Maybe it wouldn't be a weakness to admit that she needed his help, would welcome his help. It would be nice to have him on her side.
She reluctantly moved back out of his arms to look into his eyes. "You could be in danger, too."
"True, especially after what I did earlier."
She gave him a quizzical look.
"I had some suspicions of my own and asked some questions, but nothing came of it." He couldn't believe how much it affected him to watch her face light up at the prospect of finding some additional proof to her story, to fall again when it wasn't forthcoming. "So where do we go from here?"
"I need to warn Friar Harry. That's where I was going before I was … interrupted." She hesitated before continuing. "And I wanted to get Marta's advice about my plan. She's always given me good counsel," she rushed to explain, almost hoping he wouldn't pick up on it, but in a way wanting him to.
"I'll go with you. Wait. Your plan?"
"No. I can't risk it."
His hurt look tore at her heart.
"You don't trust me?"
She reached out to place her hand on his chest. "No! It's not that at all. It's just that they are reluctant to accept strangers."
"I'm not letting you go alone." He was having trouble thinking with her this close, but that was one thing he knew for sure.
She sighed heavily. "Very well. Let me get my cap."
Loisette walked back to where her cap had been thrown in the struggle, and bent to retrieve it.
Charles remained where they'd stopped, never taking his eyes off her.
Loisette returned to Charles's side. He fell into step with her as they walked in silence back to their horses. As they neared Loisette's horse, Charles helped her to mount before leading her on to his horse that was tethered closer to the road. Once Charles was mounted, Loisette nudged her horse forward to join him and they rode on in silence, Loisette in the lead on the narrow road.
As they neared the camp, Loisette was sure the scouts had spotted them by now and would have informed the others that she wasn't alone. Sure enough, before they reached the camp, Friar Harry, with a few others in tow, emerged from the dense woods to meet them. Loisette knew there were others still hiding, prepared if there was a problem. She dismounted and ran to Friar Harry to give him a hug.
"Loisette, honey." He returned her hug. "Ah, who's your friend there?"
"It's all right. He's here to help."
"You know I trust you, honey." Harry raised his voice to address all the scouts around. "Listen up, everyone! Back to camp!"
Charles had remained on his horse, but dismounted to walk with Jon and Harry. Loisette hurried to catch up with Marta.
"Marta, I need your advice."
"What is it, my child?"
"I know who's behind the thefts and other crimes."
Marta gave her a curious, encouraging look.
Marta nodded thoughtfully.
"You don't seem surprised."
"I always suspected that there was something not quite right about the baron. But you mentioned you needed my advice."
Loisette nodded. "Tempos wants to marry me."
Marta visibly gasped.
Loisette placed a comforting hand on her arm. "I know he only wants to marry me for my lands, to gain more power. But, Marta, if I married Tempos I might be able to help you all from the inside."
"My dear, what you propose is very admirable, but I do not think you could help us, or yourself, from inside the lion's den. No, there must be another way."
Loisette sighed, relieved. She hadn't been too crazy about her idea, either, but if it helped her friends she was willing to do what it would take. Now that Marta was working on the problem, she was confident a suitable solution would be soon in coming. They walked in companionable silence the remainder of the way to the camp.
As they approached, Charles was able to view their home. It humbled him to see how simply these people lived. The clearing wasn't very large. The focal point appeared to be a small cave etched into the rock of a cliff to his right. He could just make out the sounds of the small brook beyond that that he knew ran in this area. Odd how he'd never spotted that cave before.
Everything about the camp was natural to the environment, and easily moved should someone get too close. The only visible sign of inhabitants were the remains of a fire, where it appeared they'd left camp quickly to avoid detection from someone approaching. It suddenly angered him what Tempos was doing to these people who were only trying to live the best they knew how.
Once the group reached camp, Marta, Jon, Harry, Loisette, and Charles sat together on a rough circle of stumps and rocks to discuss what had brought the latter two to the woods, while the others resumed their duties.
Loisette got right to the point. "Harry, Jon, I came here to tell you that I discovered that Tempos is behind the criminal activities in the woods."
"Great Caesar's ghost! Child, are you certain?"
"Yes, Harry, I'm afraid so. I overheard him talking with his sorcerer. I had thought to try and thwart him by accepting his offer of marriage."
"No!" Charles exclaimed, a little more vehemently than he intended. "I mean, you can't. It's too dangerous."
"Charles is right," Marta agreed, secretly pleased at the handsome knight's reaction to Loisette marrying another. Neither may know it yet, but she could tell they were meant to be together. "We will need to go about this a different way."
"Marta is right. What else can you tell us, Loisette?" Jon asked.
"Not much. I heard Tempos tell his sorcerer that the thieves he's hired were more costly than he anticipated and he needed my lands to continue to fund them so … Harry, your people are being blamed for Tempos's doings!"
She intentionally neglected to mention what she had gone through to get here, and she pleaded to Charles with her eyes not to reveal her secret. She didn't want her friends to worry about her.
"Maybe we need to approach this from that angle," Marta suggested. "Have them fight back now that we know the source."
"We have many able men, but they need a leader. Harry and I are much too old for the task," Jon added, glancing sympathetically at his friend.
"I'll do it."
All eyes turned to Charles.
"But the thieves will know you!" Loisette protested. "They will report to Tempos and he will have you killed!"
"Not if he wears a disguise." Marta had been studying Charles since he had spoken, taking in his black tights and knight's tunic. "I have an idea."
Marta rose and entered a nearby cave, returning a few minutes later, empty handed. "You two must stay for the noon meal. I think we are having one of your favorites, Loisette, wild boar. I should be completed with what I have in mind by then, and after the meal we will see."
"Can I help, Marta?"
"No, dear, but thank you. This will be a surprise." Marta smiled to the group then disappeared again into the cave.
"Well, you all heard my Marta. Let's see if we can help with the meal," Jon encouraged.
The others left Marta to her task as they made their way to the meal area. Each was assigned a task by the person in charge of the meal that day, and soon the preparations were ready. Marta returned to join them just as everyone was sitting down. She smiled encouragingly at Loisette and Charles, letting them know that she was pleased with the results of her efforts.
Following the meal, Marta led Charles back to the cave, with the others following. The two entered, where Marta showed Charles her creation, then she exited to join the others while Charles remained inside. A few moments later he emerged from the cave to the astonished looks of the others.
He was dressed in green tights and tunic, the color of the forest, with a green mask covering his eyes, obscuring most of his facial features.
"This is ridiculous. I look ridiculous!" he exclaimed as he turned to go back into the cave.
"No! Wait!" Loisette called. "I think you look … great. And I don't think anyone will recognize you. They'll be too … distracted by the outfit to really look at your face," she ventured shyly, trying to hide her own reaction to the outfit.
Charles looked down at himself. "You really think this will work?"
"Yes," Loisette encouraged while the others nodded.
"Let's give it a test," Marta suggested. "There's a patrol going out soon. Why don't you go with them?"
Charles looked doubtful, but agreed.
Jon called the scouts over. "Stephen, Esau, Jeremiah, this is … a friend," he introduced Charles. "He'll be accompanying you on your patrol today."
The three nodded and informed Charles they would be leaving shortly. Charles returned to the cave to retrieve his sword, which he'd left with his knight's clothes, then sought out Loisette to speak with her before he headed out. He spotted her working with Marta. Approaching the two women, he again voiced his concerns.
"So, I guess this is it. Do you really think it will work?"
"Yes, I do, dear," Marta responded as she lightly patted him on the arm. "Don't worry. You are doing a good thing."
"Thank you, Marta, and thank you for all of your help on this. I'm still not convinced this will work, but I like this plan better than the other option we discussed," he finished, glancing at Loisette.
"Me, too," Loisette agreed, much happier to be working with Charles than the alternative. She started to reach up to give him a kiss on the cheek for luck, but then remembered her place. She barely knew this man, even though he was risking much to help her and her friends. Instead, she placed her hand on his arm and imparted him with a sincere "be careful."
Charles looked into her eyes. He'd seen her move to almost kiss him. He'd have liked that. Maybe soon she would feel comfortable enough around him to do that, even as a friend. He wanted more, but he would settle for that much. "Thank you. I will." And with that he left them to join the other three men.
Loisette watched as the men left on foot to begin their patrol. Taking horses would risk them being seen or heard, one of the men had explained to Charles.
She turned to Marta with concern when they were out of sight. "Do you really think he will be all right?"
Marta laid a comforting hand on her arm. "Yes, dear, he'll be fine. Come. Why don't you help me? It will take your mind off Charles until he returns." Marta led Loisette back to the cave, pleased to see her young friend so taken with the handsome knight.
As they worked, Marta would catch Loisette sneaking glances at Charles's clothes neatly piled in one corner. Her expression would vary from one of worry to one of longing. Marta was so happy to see her friend so in love, even if Loisette didn't know it. Marta often wondered if Loisette would find someone and be as happy as she and Jon, and now it seemed that she had. But Marta also realized she might have to help things along.
"That Charles is such a nice man," Marta began as she gathered more mending.
"Hmm? Oh, yes, he is. And brave to stand up to Tempos like this. And, didn't he look handsome in that disguise you made for him? Of course, he looked … great in his black tunic, but the green tights and what they represent … "
Marta smiled to herself as Loisette warmed to her subject. Maybe this wouldn't be so hard after all.
Charles had remained quiet as the group made their way through the forest, watching and learning how the men went about scouting for danger, and how that was different from what he did as a knight protecting Castle Tempos. Now that he knew the truth about Tempos he wondered if he would be able to go back to his former life. Maybe he could help his new friends from the inside. At least he'd rather be in that position than Loisette. And if this disguise thing worked out, maybe he could do both. He'd have to come up with excuses for his absences, but maybe Loisette could help him with ideas. He smiled at that thought. He'd like to work closer with Loisette.
Suddenly, Jeremiah, who was watching point, motioned for the others to stop and stay quiet. They hid behind some rocks and bushes along the road and watched as three men dressed in black charged out of the woods at a carriage. Two of the men held swords on their unlucky victims while the third dismounted and relieved them of money and jewels. Charles's eyes widened. It was the same three men who had attacked Loisette!
Quickly completing their task, the one man returned to his horse and the trio headed off into the woods, in an indirect route to Castle Tempos, Charles noted. He knew these woods as well as anyone, and even on foot, figured he could get a jump on these three before they had a chance to get Tempos's share to him.
Once they were out of sight, he turned to his companions. "You three check on the passengers. Leave the thieves to me. I have an idea."
The others nodded and left their hiding place to go to the carriage while Charles headed into the woods.
Moving as quickly as he could while still listening out for the thieves, Charles made his way to a spot where he was sure they would pass by in due course. Finding a tree with a good perch, he climbed up and waited.
He didn't have to wait long. The men didn't seem to be too concerned with being overheard, as they were making a great deal of noise. Waiting until the last man was directly under him, Charles made his move, silently dropping from the limb and knocking the man off his horse. Charles tumbled to the ground with him, then rolled to stand in a defensive position. The others, hearing the noise, turned back their horses to see what had occurred.
Charles, sword drawn, motioned to the one who he'd seen just moments before stash the money and jewelry they had taken into his saddle.
"Hand it over," he commanded.
The men laughed. "I think not, friend," the leader responded. Seeing their fallen comrade was incapacitated, he motioned to his companion to deal with the stranger.
Dismounting from his horse, the thief lunged for Charles. Without causing permanent damage, Charles quickly dispatched of his opponent.
Facing the leader, he repeated, "I say again, friend, hand over the goods."
The leader studied Charles, taking in his green costume and mask, and then glanced to each of his fallen men.
Nodding at Charles, he asked, "Why the mask, friend? What have you to hide?"
Charles couldn't help but smile to himself. The disguise was working!
"That is my business, and now I am making it my business to relieve you of your spoils."
"You'll have to kill me first," he said, for he knew Tempos would do no less if he returned without the money. As he spoke this last, he jumped from his horse and lunged at Charles. After briefly sparring, the thief joined the others on the ground.
As he reached for the pouch on the man's sash, Charles looked him square in the eye and said, "I don't work that way," before turning to head back into the woods.
If it were possible, the thief sunk closer to the ground. What was he going to tell his baron?
Sometime later, the three thieves faced Baron Tempos. That he hadn't had them killed for returning empty handed was a credit to the incredible story they rushed to tell of a masked man who ambushed them and stole the money they had just stolen.
"One man ambushed all three of you." Tempos was skeptical.
"He was amazing, my liege. A better swordsman than … than even Sir Charles!" Charles was known to be a master of swordplay. Tempos had chosen this man to lead the thieves because he was almost as good, and Tempos knew he would be willing and able to do the job.
Tempos still didn't appear convinced.
"He came out of nowhere, took us by surprise. He was a sly and cunning as a fox!"
"Then get me this 'Fox'!" Tempos demanded.
Charles returned to the carriage where the other scouts where still tending to the injuries of the wounded. He approached the man who appeared to be in charge, and handed him the pouch.
The man couldn't believe his good fortune. "How can we ever repay you, kind sir?"
"I seek no reward," Charles replied.
"But I insist." The man reached into the pouch and withdrew a gold coin, a fraction of what Charles knew to be in the pouch, but an amount that would go a long way to helping his new friends.
He accepted graciously. "Thank you." Turning to the others, he inquired, "And if you have everything under control here, I will return to the others."
Receiving a positive affirmation, he left to return to the camp. It was getting late and he wanted to escort Lady Loisette home, as well as return to Castle Tempos before he was missed too long.
When he reached camp, he quickly imparted the facts of what had occurred to Harry, Jon, and Marta, then explained his reasons for wanting to leave. Loisette agreed, and was very pleased when Charles offered Harry the gold reward. Harry and Jon each shook Charles's hand heartily in thanks, and Marta placed a motherly kiss on his cheek. Charles blushed at the praise, and couldn't believe how good it made him feel to defeat evil and help those in need.
He escorted Loisette to her horse, then, mounting his own, turned to bid a final farewell to his new friends. Motioning for Loisette to precede him on the narrow path, he turned his horse to follow her. They rode most of the way in silence, each lost in their own thoughts.
Loisette couldn't help but wonder what Charles was thinking. Had he regretted becoming involved? He hadn't seemed to when he told them what had happened and gave Harry the gold piece. But why was he so silent now? Had he been discovered? Had the thieves discovered his identity and were now on their way to exposing him to Tempos? But surely he would have mentioned it. She hesitated to break the silence and ask him. She had gotten him into this, and now he could be facing death! Not if she could help it! Not even if it meant … marrying Tempos!
Charles was lost in his own thoughts, trying to sort out the events of the day. It had started out so simply, a routine patrol, to end with him thrust into the role of a hero. Did he want that role? Yes, he did. All of his training as a knight had been to assist those in need, and up until today, he hadn't felt like he'd been doing that. It had felt so good to help those travelers, and thwart the men who had stolen from them. To have his suspicions of his baron confirmed had been a bit of a shock, but to be able to strike a blow to his evil plan had felt right. And, now he knew, this was only the beginning.
Charles noted they had almost reached Castle Lane. "Loisette," he called to her, "we must take care from this point."
"Follow me," she responded. "I know of a safe way to the stables."
The setting sun created shadows that helped to further hide their movements. Approaching the stables, Loisette motioned for Charles to stop.
Leaning close to him, she whispered, "You can't go any further or you will be seen. I will be safe from here. Sarah will have covered for my absence. Good night, Charles." Loisette kept her comments neutral, unsure of how Charles felt.
"Loisette," he began. "I … I can't thank you enough for what you've done for me. I've never felt so good as I did today helping your friends."
Loisette smiled, and impulsively leaned over to kiss him quickly on the cheek. "Our friends. And thank you for helping them. And for rescuing me." With that she pulled on the reigns and guided her horse into the stable, and out of Charles's sight.
Turning his horse, he moved slowly at first, then, as he gained distance on Castle Lane, rode harder back to Castle Tempos.
Charles had a lot to think about. His suspicions about his baron had been confirmed and he'd donned a disguise of green tights and a mask to fight him, all in one day. And despite discovering he was in the services of an evil man, he felt good about what he had done today, better than anything he'd done as a knight. And better it be him that work on the inside against Tempos than Loisette. He knew she was much safer at Castle Lane.
Loisette. He'd gotten to know quite a bit more about her today, and it looked like they would be able to see more of each other in the future as he helped her, and now his, friends. She was perfect. Caring, kind, considerate, beautiful, a little stubborn—no, a lot stubborn. And though she was above his station that didn't stop him from thinking of her. She was everything he'd always dreamed of in a woman who he wanted as an equal partner. He knew he'd have to be content with his dreams.
Loisette slipped into the castle and to her rooms. Closing the door softly behind her, she thanked Sarah for covering for her, then requested she take her leave. Loisette wanted to be alone with her thoughts of the day's events. And Charles.
He was perfect. Not only gorgeous, but willing to risk his life for relative strangers for something he believed was right. And he did look good in those green tights.
But she was to be betrothed to Tempos, as much as she loathed the man and all his evil deeds. If she couldn't make her father see that in time, then she would be forced to marry him. But if that were to happen then she would be in a better position to help Charles and her friends.
Another thought occurred to her. What if Charles was eventually exposed? If that were to happen and she was on the inside, she might be able to save him, to convince Tempos to exonerate his first knight. She desperately hoped it wouldn't come to that. As much as she would do anything to help Charles and her friends, she held on to the hope that Charles would expose Tempos for who he really was. And soon.
The following day, Charles was in for a surprise. A meeting had been called of all the knights, but no one knew what it was regarding.
They gathered in the open field where they perfected their skills. Baron Tempos would address them from the platform he'd had set up to watch his knights as they practiced.
Charles turned to his squire who was standing next to him. "Jeremy, do you know what this is about?"
"No, M'lord. There haven't even been the usual rumors, and I have tried to find out, trust me."
"I know, Jeremy. If anyone could find out, it would be you."
Both fell silent, Jeremy basking in the praise from his mentor.
They didn't have to wait long. Baron Tempos soon appeared and took his place on the podium. "My knights," he began. "It seems we have a new threat in the forest." He opened the parchment he'd had rolled up in his hands. "I am offering a reward of 50 gold pieces for the capture of The Fox, who yesterday robbed a coach. He'll be easy to spot; he dresses in green and wears a mask over his eyes."
Charles tried not to react to Tempos's accusation. That edict was about him! Tempos had turned the incident around to blame him for what had happened. And now he'd given him a name. The Fox. He supposed it could have been worse. The name did carry a certain meaning of cunning to it. Maybe that could be a good thing.
But he needed to know what was known about The Fox — or rather, his other self. "Jeremy, find out everything you can about this Fox."
Over the next few weeks Loisette and Charles continued to sneak out to the camp. Charles would become The Fox before others in camp saw him, and then he would go out on patrol with several of the men. He and Loisette had decided on one of their earlier trips out that since Tempos had put a price on his head, it would be safer for everyone if fewer knew his secret. Only those who already knew could be trusted to keep it.
It was on this particular day that a scout returned with some disturbing news for Friar Harry. Harry escorted the excited scout into the cave, along with Jon and Charles, disguised as The Fox. The scout explained that he'd been in a tavern near the waterfront, two days' ride, when he'd overheard two men who'd had a bit too much ale. They'd been bragging to a third man how the baron had chosen them for a special job. As The Fox had been thwarting so many of the baron's attempts in the area, he'd sent them to steal the cargo of a boat due in a few days' time to help offset the losses. The men were honored to be chosen for such a task.
Charles couldn't help but be pleased at this confirmation that he was making a difference, but now that he was aware of this planned raid, he'd have to try and stop it. That Tempos was getting so desperate as to have to go so far outside the district was good news, so maybe if Charles could stop this it would severely impede Tempos's plans.
Charles approached Harry after the scout had been thanked for his report and dismissed. "I think I should go after them."
"I agree, son. But you should take Jeremiah or Esau with you."
"I think I should do this alone. This could be a trap to lure me away and they could be needed here."
"I hope you are wrong, son, but I concur. Be careful."
"I will, and thank you, Harry."
Charles left the cave, not surprised to find Loisette waiting for him outside. "Let me go with you. You need someone to watch your back."
"No! Certainly not! I could not risk you like that, and besides you are …"
"A girl?" Loisette grabbed a bow from a stump near the cave entrance and firing, pierced a tree 200 feet away. She turned to him with a smug look.
"The answer is still no. I can't be worrying about you. I don't know what kind of dangers there will be."
"Exactly! Which is why you need me to watch your back, and like you said, the others will be needed here."
Charles considered her offer, but only for a moment. He wouldn't be able to concentrate with her there, and not just for fear of her safety.
"I'm sorry, Loisette, I just can't chance it."
Loisette accepted his decision. "Fine. When will you leave?"
"First thing in the morning. It will take almost two days to get there and I want to be there before the ship docks. I think we should head back now. There are some arrangements I will need to make for my absence."
'As will I,' Loisette thought, but merely nodded her agreement. They said their goodbyes to their friends, with Charles accepting well wishes from Harry and Jon, and left the camp.
Neither spoke much on the ride back to Castle Lane; Charles planning his attack strategy and Loisette formulating her own plan. They parted at the stables, Loisette giving Charles a kiss on the cheek for luck then quickly disappearing to care for her horse. Charles rode back to Castle Tempos, intending to see Jeremy first thing to inform him that he would be leaving on a short scouting trip. Jeremy need not know that it was not for the baron, but if asked, at least he would not need to lie. Charles was very fond of Jeremy and feared what would happen to him should Tempos discover Charles's secret.
The next morning dawned bright and clear as Loisette started out on her journey. She'd informed Sarah that she would be gone for several days but would not require the girl's assistance. Her cover story was that she was planning to visit her married sister that lived a short distance away. Lucille was close enough that their father hadn't worried about Loisette going alone to visit for quite a few years, but far enough away that he wouldn't try to confirm her story.
She knew that Charles would have a good head start on her, which worked out well as she didn't wish to meet up with him until they reached the seaport. Spending a night alone in the woods didn't concern her; she'd just be more on her guard this time. The three men had caught her before unawares, but she'd be ready for any such eventuality this time. And Charles need never know she was there. She'd just needed to reassure herself that he was all right, and help him out, if need be, and preferably anonymously.
Loisette took the main road through the forest toward the sea. She was sure Charles would stop around dusk to set up camp for the night, and she planned to stop far enough away from him so he wouldn't detect her. As she rode she thought of Charles and all he'd done over the past few weeks to help her and their friends. He'd sacrificed much and asked for nothing in return. He seemed to be content in just helping others and knowing he was making a difference. And that only made Loisette care for him more.
Over the course of that time she'd discovered her feelings becoming more and more intense for Charles. He was the man she never thought she'd met. He was kind, caring, generous, thoughtful, handsome, and so much more. He was ten times the man that Tempos would ever be. She knew now that she was in love with him. But she also knew it was something that could never be, even if Tempos was exposed and her arrangement to him dissolved. She was a lady and Charles was a knight. But that didn't stop her from having feelings for him.
The sun had slowly started its descent to the horizon behind her when Loisette heard a noise up ahead. She dismounted where she was and tethered her horse. Stealthily she moved closer, hiding in the growing shadows. Peeking over a clump of bushes she discovered the source of the noise. It was Charles! He'd stopped to make camp earlier than she'd anticipated. Making her way quietly back to her horse, she found a spot off the road where he wouldn't see her and set up her own camp for the night.
The next morning, Loisette again snuck to Charles's campsite. She didn't want to get ahead of him, but she soon discovered that he'd already left. Returning to her horse, she, too, resumed her journey.
Sometime in late afternoon, she emerged from the trees to see the seaport up ahead. She'd worn her black riding habit, and, with her hair up in her cap, as long as she didn't draw undue attention to herself, no one would look twice and discover that she wasn't a man. She rode into the small town, staying as unobtrusive as possible.
Riding through the streets, she headed for the wharf. There, docked in the port, was the ship the scout heard report of. Loisette looked around, but Charles was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he was in the tavern, trying to gather more information. She spotted the tavern a few buildings down from the dock. And there, tied out front with the other horses, was Charles's stallion.
Stopping at the building beside the docks and tying her horse there, Loisette crossed the path, and, staying closer to the buildings, walked to the tavern. Slipping in through the door, she kept her head down until her eyes adjusted to the dim room. She breathed a sigh of relief. Charles was sitting at a table with his back to the door. Making her way to the other side of the room, she was careful to keep her back to him, and chose a table where she could see him but he couldn't see her.
Not knowing what to order when asked, she requested, in as deep a voice as she could manage, the house special. The drink was strong, burning as the small sip she'd taken traveled down her throat. She pushed the drink away, not wanting to be tempted to take more; she needed to keep a clear head.
Charles had apparently discovered all that he was able to because he was now making preparations to leave. She paid for her tab and followed him out at a discreet distance. The time they'd been in the tavern had given darkness time to fall, so she was able to follow him in the shadows without being seen. He was headed for the wharf.
Charles walked down the street. He crossed the street leading to the wharf, and, turning towards the dock, disappeared into the shadows where he could watch the ship. Loisette held her breath as he passed by her horse, but if he recognized the animal, he made no indication.
Loisette, too, slipped into the shadows and found a spot where she could watch both Charles and the ship, staying on her side of the path, in a position similar to where Charles was hiding.
And now they would wait.
It seemed like hours in the cool night air as Loisette quietly shifted positions again. In reality it had probably only been less than an hour before their patience paid off. In the pale glow of the full moon both Charles and Loisette watched as two men boarded the ship. Once the men disappeared inside the boat, Loisette spotted Charles making his way through the shadows to follow them. She followed him.
Hiding in the shadows, she watched the scene before her. She didn't want to let Charles know she was here unless she had to. He'd be angry, that was for certain, and she didn't want him to be distracted from what he had come to do.
One of the men was moving toward the cabin of the boat, probably to raid the captain's quarters. She watched as Charles followed quietly behind. As the man worked with the lock on the door, Charles made his move, grabbing the man from behind and spinning him around. The men exchanged blows that slowed neither down. Loisette couldn't help but wince as several blows landed hard against Charles's body and face. He'd have a few bruises, but it looked like he was winning against this one.
Suddenly, Loisette caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. The other thief was sneaking up on Charles and his companion. She had to do something! If she yelled out his name to warn him it would distract him, but it could get him hurt if he was too surprised by her presence. No, she needed to take care of this one on her own. She knew she could do it, at least for long enough for Charles to know the other man was there. She could take care of herself. She'd managed to convince Harry and his men to teach her a few things so she could protect herself when she visited them, if the need arose, and she would have been able to get away from those three men Charles had saved her from if she hadn't been surprised by them. Well, maybe she could have and not needed Charles's help, but she knew she could deal with this one. She had to. For Charles.
Taking a deep breath, she lunged for the man as he passed her hiding place. The movement attracted the attention of Charles and the man he was fighting, but she was too busy to notice what Charles's reaction was to her presence, the second man, or how she was doing keeping him away from Charles.
She soon realized that Charles had been able to incapacitate the thief he was fighting when the man she was wrestling with went limp in her arms. Charles had landed a severe blow on the man's neck, enough to knock him out. Finding some rope he securely bound both men for the captain of the boat to discover at sunrise when he returned.
Grabbing Loisette by the hand, he led her off the ship. When they had reached the street, he finally turned to her and hissed. "Where's your horse?"
She knew he was angry with her. Not wanting to provoke him further, she simply pointed in the direction of her horse a few feet away. Still holding on to her, they walked to her horse. He helped her to mount and then led her horse the short distance to his horse. Throwing her the reins he mounted his own horse then instructed, "Stay close." With that he headed in the direction of home.
Loisette did as she was told, staying as close to him as she could as they rode through the night and the next day in uncomfortable silence. She couldn't figure out why he was so angry with her. She had known he'd be angry, but not this angry. Sure, he hadn't wanted her to come along, fearing for her safety, but she could take care of herself! Who was he to tell her to stay put? And who was he to treat her this way!
She was about to give him a piece of her mind when he spoke.
"We'll stop here for tonight." And with that he dismounted and began to make camp.
Loisette remained on her horse, watching him, and letting her anger build. How dare he tell her what to do!
Charles stopped in his preparation to glance at her. It was obvious she was angry with him. Why would she be angry? She was the one who followed him, put herself in unnecessary danger. He had every right to be angry. She could have gotten them both killed!
They stared at each other for a moment before both speaking at once.
"What did …!"
"How dare …!"
They both stopped. Charles motioned to Loisette to go first.
"Why wouldn't you let me come along and help you? You needed me!"
"You could have gotten yourself killed back there!" he yelled back.
"But I didn't! And as it turned out, I helped you!"
"I couldn't risk anything happening to you! I'd never be able to forgive myself if you were hurt because of me!"
"Isn't that my choice to make?"
"No! I mean, yes, yes it is, but can't you understand?"
She crossed her arms and looked at him from her perch on her horse. "Explain it to me."
Charles hesitated. He couldn't tell her that he loved her. It wouldn't be fair. To either of them. She was to be betrothed to the baron, besides being above him class-wise. It just couldn't be.
But he knew he would always love her, and only her, even if he would never have her because that was just how it had to be. He certainly wasn't going to let her put herself in unnecessary danger, not even for himself. And as long as he remained a knight with the baron, he could keep her safe, and be near her. His other identity as the Fox would also keep him near her as he helped her friends. All of that would just have to be enough.
He also knew that right now he didn't want to be angry with her any more. He wanted to enjoy this rare time they would now have together. The more he thought of it the more he realized he was actually now pleased that she'd followed him. It had been very brave of her to do that. He was proud of her.
Loisette watched as the emotions played across his handsome face. What had he been thinking? She noticed his expression soften as he briefly glanced at her. Had she imagined that look? Was it possible that he felt the same for her that she felt for him? Could she hope? She knew he was too noble to act on his feelings; she was to be betrothed to the baron, as much as she loathed that thought.
But even being married to Tempos she would still be near Charles. It would be difficult seeing him every day and knowing they couldn't be together. But that was better than not being near him at all, always wondering where he was, what he was doing, if he was safe.
Suddenly, she didn't want to be angry with him. She wanted to treasure this time they had together. They may not get another opportunity.
Charles approached her and held out his hand to help her down. She placed her smaller hand in his larger one, accepting his help. He smiled at her as he reached for her waist and effortlessly lifted her down. She returned his smile, noting how firm a hold he had on her, how strong he was.
"Loisette," he began, not letting go of her waist. "I don't want us to argue. That was a very brave thing you did back there and I appreciate what you did for me. I just couldn't deal with it if you were hurt."
"Thank you. I can take care of myself, you know, but I do appreciate you looking out for me."
"I would do just about anything for you, M'lady."
Charles felt Loisette stiffen at the title, and regretted having said it, but he also knew, for his own sake, he needed to keep reminding himself that she was out of reach for him. Right now he wanted nothing more than to take her more securely in his arms and kiss her thoroughly. But it wouldn't be fair to either of them to start something they couldn't continue. And if the baron ever found out, he would, no doubt, have Charles put to death.
Reluctant to let her go, but knowing he needed to, Charles gently squeezed her waist before releasing her. "Come on. Let's get camp ready. Why don't you gather some wood while I find us something to eat." He was conscious of giving her equal tasks so she wouldn't feel he was patronizing her.
Loisette set about her assignment with fierce determination, hoping it would distract her and keep her mind off of what had just happened. It didn't. She couldn't help but replay their conversation over and over as she gathered the wood. So that was how it was going to be. He'd made it clear that he saw this as part of doing his duty of protecting his lord's lady, whether she wanted that role or not. If that's what he wanted then she would comply, but she was also determined to enjoy this time with him, even if it was on his terms. There might not be another chance like this.
Charles watched Loisette from the place in the woods where he'd stopped after leaving their camp. She was everything he had ever wanted in a woman; even her stubbornness drew him to her. She was tenacious, brave, smart, beautiful. The rumbling of his stomach reminded him that right now he needed to focus on their dinner. Reluctantly, he drew his eyes from Loisette and turned to head deeper into the woods.
A short time later Charles returned to the camp to find Loisette bending over the pile of wood trying to get a spark going. Approaching her, he laid the rabbit he'd speared beside the pile and reached for the sticks she was working with.
"Here. Let me."
"I can do it," she replied stubbornly.
Charles acquiesced, turning instead to prepare the rabbit. It wasn't long before Loisette had smoke and then a spark. He returned to her side to help her blow the flames to life, realizing with her in this mood it would be a long night.
As the early morning light began to filter through the trees, Loisette awoke. She'd a fitful night's sleep, not really sure why Charles calling her "M'lady" had bothered her. Yes, she did. She'd hoped they'd moved beyond that, that even if he didn't love her as she loved him, that they were at least friends.
Sighing, she got up and straightened up her riding clothes. Charles, she noticed, was already up and tending to his horse. He hadn't noticed she was awake, or if he had he'd made no indication.
They needed to get back soon. They would be missed. Coming to a final decision, she dropped her bedroll and walked towards Charles. She'd lain awake most of the night thinking of what she would do. It probably wasn't the wisest thing, given their circumstances, and this certainly wasn't the ideal time or place, but there might never be another, and right or wrong she wanted him to know how she felt.
Charles sensed her approaching and stiffened. He'd hoped they would have been able to break camp and be on their way before he'd had to face her anger. Laying awake most of the night he'd tried to figure out what he'd done that was so wrong to incur her wrath. And he'd heard her tossing and turning, imaging that she was getting angrier by the minute.
Deciding he'd try to make amends, he spoke when she was near enough. "I'm not sure what I did to make you angry last night, but I apologize."
"Wha … " Loisette stopped, momentarily taken aback by his statement. This wasn't how she wanted this conversation to begin. She'd been angry at him for trying to tell her what she could and couldn't do, but she'd long since gotten over that. They'd moved past that, or so she thought. So what was he talking about? "I don't understand."
"You were angry with me when I called you 'M'lady'," he replied, not looking up from task of readying his horse.
For a moment Loisette was confused. She hadn't been angry about that, though it had bothered her, but she was past that now. She thought she'd determined why he'd said it — he was reminding them both of their places. But who was he to tell her how she should have felt about that?! And who was he to mess up her carefully planned, sleep-depriving speech?!
"I wasn't angry!"
Her vehement response fueled his emotions as he turned to face her, hands on hips. "You could have fooled me!"
"You don't understand!"
"Then explain it to me!"
"I love you!"
His features immediately softened as relief washed over him. He understood now. She'd been upset by his reminding her that they could never be together. The thought upset him, as well.
Slowly, he walked to stand in front of her, placing his hands on her arms. "Loisette, I love you, too. And I'm sorry. For everything."
"Me, too," she said, looking into his eyes and seeing the love she felt reflected there. "What do we do now?"
"What can we do?"
Tears filled her eyes at the thought of knowing what they could but would never have. She quickly blinked them back. "We'd better head back."
Silently, he agreed, and they worked in companionable silence as they retrieved belongings and broke camp.
They rode in silence for several hours, both lost in their thoughts of what might have been.
"Loisette … "
"Charles … "
They each broke the silence at the same moment.
"You first," they each tried again, smiling at how in sync they were with each other.
"M'lady." Charles motioned for her to start, trying to get back into his role of first knight to the lady of the castle.
Loisette visibly blanched at the title, still knowing it was necessary, and something that she would have to get used to. "Charles, what I wanted to tell you, to assure you, is that I'm … only marrying … Tempos as a political solution, not only for what it will mean to Castle Lane, but also to Harry and the others. I have to do this. What I'm trying to say is that in my heart I'm your wife."
Charles smiled, relieved. He reached across to where she was walking her horse beside his and took her hand in his.
"And I'm your husband. I love you, Loisette." He gently squeezed her hand. "We'll manage. It's not as if we won't be able to see each other. After all, we'll be living at the same castle, and with my standing with Tempos maybe I could request he assign me to your guard. As long as he never suspects my feelings … "
"*Our* feelings," she reminded him, squeezing his hand in return.
He smiled, " … our feelings, we can still be together."
They rode the rest of the way in comfortable silence, side by side, holding hands, until they were near Friar Harry and his group's camp. Charles motioned for Loisette to precede him.
"We may as well assume our expected roles now, M'lady."
"Charles," she asked over her shoulder as she rode ahead of him, "do you know how difficult this is going to be?"
"Yes, my love, I do, but we don't have a choice."
Loisette smiled. "You know, now every time I hear you call me 'M'lady' I'll hear 'my love' instead," she said, trying to help ease the pain they were both feeling.
"As I will be saying in my heart, my love."
"Oh, Charles. You are the most romantic man I will ever know. I will miss this."
"I'm hopeful we will be able to steal a few moments now and then to share our true thoughts with one another."
"As am I."
Both fell silent as they completed their journey. As they emerged through the trees at the campsite, Harry, Jon, Marta, and others ran to meet them, surprised to see Loisette with Charles.
"It was fortunate for me Lady Loisette caught up with me," Charles explained as he dismounted. "I was nearly ambushed from behind. She warned me in time to keep me from being run through." Charles knew he was changing the details a bit, but he didn't want the others to know the part Loisette played in this mission. It would be difficult enough to explain her presence with him, but he was determined to maintain her cover as the future lady of Castle Tempos, and not reveal that she was really a feisty, spirited, independent woman able to take care of herself. That just wasn't the persona expected of someone in her position, but it was the woman he loved.
"Oh, Loisette! It is fortunate that you were able to save Sir Charles," Marta exclaimed as Jon helped her to dismount. "You two must be starving! Why don't you assist me with the meal and tell me all about your adventure."
Loisette resisted the urge to look at Charles. She knew what he was doing for her, and he'd said enough that she was sure she could continue the charade without giving anything away. Plus, her emotions were still too near the surface. She was sure if she looked at him now, everyone would be able to see the love in her eyes and heart.
She followed Marta, overhearing Harry and Jon encouraging Charles to follow them over by the fire to fill them in on what had happened with the thieves.
Charles sighed, which the others interpreted as fatigue. He was trying to collect his thoughts. The incident on the boat seemed like a lifetime ago now. This was going to be hard. Harder than he had thought it would be. But, for Loisette's sake, he would be able to do this.
As they sat down, Friar Harry looked at him with concern. "Son, if you need to rest first … "
"No, I'm fine," he assured them. "I should tell you what happened." He filled them on the events at the dock, careful to leave out any references to Loisette except that she'd warned him about the attack from behind. The men were pleased with the results, confident that they now had Tempos in a more vulnerable position and could plan a more final attack to put an end to his evil.
Charles listened half-heartedly, knowing the others needed this hope that Tempos's tyranny would end soon, but he knew in reality that the baron's reach was too far and too wide for anything they did to be more than a nuisance for him. Tempos would manage somehow to win, and he would have Loisette.
Loisette had risked a quick glance at Charles from the table where she worked with Marta to prepare lunch, but upon seeing his down-stricken look, she continued to sneak glances at him, worried at what was troubling him.
She'd told Marta about his encounter with the thieves, explaining that she'd been hiding in the shadows to watch and make sure he was safe, calling out to him when the one thief had tried to ambush him from behind. She'd convinced Marta that there wasn't much else to tell; that Charles had left the thieves on the deck of the boat for the captain to find and take care of, and so Tempos would get the message that his plan had been thwarted.
Marta had accepted that story, until she caught Loisette glancing at Charles. She recognized that look, and it pleased her, despite the difficult circumstances she knew they faced, that Loisette had discovered her feelings for Charles while they were away together. Marta had known for quite some time that Charles had felt that way for her; she'd seen him looking at the young lady several times with the same look she'd just seen Loisette give him. And even if they hadn't confessed their love for one another while they were alone, it at least appeared they'd acknowledged to themselves their feelings. Everything else would work out on its own.
During the meal both Charles and Loisette reverted back to their former roles among this group as knight and lady who were also friends. Only Marta suspected anything more. Following dinner Charles indicated that he and Loisette should return to their respective castles, and that, per usual, he would escort her home. After again receiving thanks from Harry's band for the blow the Fox was able to deliver to Tempos's plan, Charles and Loisette mounted their horses and headed out.
Once they were well on their way, Charles rode up beside her and broke the silence between them, needing to fill her in on what he'd discussed. "Harry and Jon have come up with another scheme to thwart Tempos." He was careful not to mention anything about their feelings; it would just be easier.
"You don't sound optimistic."
"I'm a realist when it comes to the baron. I know how far a reach he has and how he has everyone convinced that he has only our people and country's best interest in mind. There aren't enough of us who know the real motives of the baron to make a real difference."
"But one man can make a difference. You've proven that. And if we persevere, one day we will defeat him."
"Thank you for believing in me."
"I have to. That hope and your love will be all I have to hold on to for some time."
"We'll get through this. I promise."
"I know," she whispered her response.
As they neared her father's stables, Charles again dropped back to follow her, in case anyone was around. As they entered the barn and no one emerged to help Loisette dismount, Charles quickly dismounted and rushed to her side. Reaching up, he grasped her around the waist and pulled her into his arms.
"I won't have many opportunities to do this. It feels so good, so right to have you in my arms."
"Yes, it does, and as much as I hate to say this, we can't risk being seen." She reluctantly pulled away. "I better go. I love you."
"Good night, my love."
Loisette smiled as she turned to leave the stables. Charles watched her until she was safely inside the castle walls before turning to remount his horse and ride back to Castle Tempos.
Loisette entered her home and went to her father's study to inform him she'd returned. As she entered the room he looked up from the parchments scattered about his desk.
"Ah, Loisette. How is your sister?"
"She is well, Father." Loisette hated lying to him but she knew he'd never approve of her friends. She was relieved Lucille had agreed long ago to cover for her, understanding her sister's need to escape the confines of their station. "Good night, Father."
"Good night, daughter." And with that dismissal, Samuel returned to studying his documents.
Loisette proceeded to her room, discovering on her arrival that Sarah was not there. Given the late hour she assumed her handmaiden had retired, thinking her mistress would not return this evening. Loisette was glad to be alone with her thoughts and free not to hide her feelings. She wasn't quite ready to fill Sarah in on her adventure, even the few parts she would share with the girl. Getting ready for and climbing into bed, Loisette fell asleep with thoughts of Charles.
Later that evening, in the privacy of their tent, Marta told Jon of her suspicions about Loisette and Charles.
"Are you sure?"
"Quite. You should have seen the way they were looking at each when they thought no one was watching! Now if we could just expose Tempos once and for all."
"We may have come up with a plan that will do just that."
Charles had agreed to play his part in the plan. He hadn't been optimistic about its success, but Harry and Jon needed for him to try, and if it even made a small dent, that was progress in their ultimate goal. He'd spent the past several days laying their trap.
Tempos had been furious at the Fox's interference at the docks, raising the bounty on his head and demanding his knights bring the masked marauder in for crimes the baron insisted he'd committed.
Charles was careful to lay low in that persona, giving him time to set in motion the ambush planned to capture Tempos, to face him as the Fox and let him know they were aware of his role in the crimes of the forest.
The plan was to lure Tempos to their turf, where Charles, as the Fox, would confront him after the others trapped the baron. Charles, with Squire Jeremy's assistance, spread rumors that the Fox sought to attack Tempos. Charles knew the other knights wouldn't believe the Fox would be interested in merely talking with their leader, and hint of an attack would intrigue Tempos and draw him out, and probably with those knights that were involved in his evil schemes.
Once word had spread through camp, Charles performed his duty as first knight and sought an audience with the baron. As he approached the baron's tent, he passed the sorcerer. That man gave Charles an eerie feeling, and he hoped no sinister potions were in the works for the Fox.
He entered the tent and, as was customary, bowed to kiss the baron's ring. Tempos could sense Charles's unease, but chose to let it pass this time.
"So, what brings my best knight by?"
"Baron, there is a rumor the Fox plans to attack you."
"So I've heard. Thank you, Sir Charles, for informing me. I'll take it from here."
"But, sire, do you not want me to accompany you on your hunt for the Fox?"
"No, Sir Charles. I need you here."
"As you wish." And with that, Charles left the baron to return to his own tent. If Charles had had any doubt at all about Tempos's involvement with the problems in the forest, that encounter dispelled them. Tempos would have either sent other men or taken with him his top knight to defend any threat. Charles was not in on the thievery because Tempos knew he was too honest and upright to condone such behavior. Now all Charles could do was wait.
The ambush was set for the day after tomorrow. He hadn't been happy about the part that Loisette would play, but did acknowledged that it would be necessary. She was to be the bait to lure Tempos into the forest, under the pretense of discussing with the baron her change of mind about marriage to him. Loisette felt sure he would be more than willing to accompany her, with a small guard, if it meant furthering his wealth. Charles had reluctantly agreed.
Charles, dressed as the Fox, waited by a large tree for Tempos and his men to approach. Harry's men were hiding in the brush, ready to spring their trap.
He knew he'd have to fight a few of Tempos's men to get to baron, but he also knew how to do that without seriously injuring them. No matter what they'd done, he couldn't bring himself to severely harm or even kill them; that wasn't his place. That would be for a higher council to decide. His goal was to expose them and bring them in so justice could be served.
He waited in anticipation as he heard them approach. Then suddenly everything went black
Charles awoke to the smell of dank, musty air. As his body became accustomed to his surroundings, he could feel the cold, hard stone floor against his back. He slowly opened his eyes, but he could see no better. It was just as dark as with them closed. Sighing heavily, he closed his eyes again. It hadn't been a dream. He really was lying on the floor in Tempos's dungeon, his secret identity exposed, the woman he loved about to marry a criminal.
Where had it all gone wrong? He played the events, at least those he could remember, over in his mind. He'd been in the woods, Tempos's men closing in on him. Any moment the others would spring their carefully planned trap. Had the ambush somehow failed? It must have. But what had happened between then and when he had suddenly found himself in Tempos's jousting field, on his knees, staring up the business end of the baron's sword.
Tempos had motioned to one of his other knights. "Take Sir Charles to a cell."
"But, M'lord, you agreed … "
Tempos had given the man a look that froze him in mid- sentence. "Obviously the Fox can not be trusted." He nearly spat the name as Charles realized, with a start, what Tempos had called him. He looked down at himself then realized his mask was gone. How had Tempos discovered his secret?
Charles was too stunned by this turn of events to protest as he was lead away. At the mention of Loisette's name he jerked his head around in time to see Tempos roughly take her by the arm and asking for his bishop to be found.
It was over. It was all over. He'd been exposed and the woman he loved was probably now married to another. And surely Tempos wouldn't let him live after he'd betrayed him, and, Charles couldn't help but smile, nearly put him out of business in his thievery and murder. At least he'd made some difference. That was some consolation.
A sound at his cell door interrupted his musing. He sat up and watched as the knight who had escorted him here opened the door and set a plate and mug on the floor near the entrance before quickly stepping back and closing and locking it again.
Charles eyed the plate warily before getting up to investigate it closer. He grimaced as he saw what had been left, hoping this wasn't his last meal. He picked up the small piece of bread. It was hard and dry. He took a bite, immediately reaching for the water. There was just enough there to choke down the stale meal. He hadn't realized how hungry he was until he'd managed to eat and his stomach protested at the amount. Knowing that was all he was going to get for quite some time he returned to his place on the floor, focusing on happier times with Loisette.
Loisette paced in her room, running recent events over and over in her mind, trying to make sense of it all. What had gone wrong? The ambush had been planned to perfection. She'd been doing her part, luring Tempos into the woods under the guise of discussing their upcoming arrangement, waiting for Charles to carry out his part, knowing that they had enough on Tempos that he would surely admit defeat and stop his villainous ways or be exposed.
Then how had she gotten to Tempos's jousting field? And why was Charles, in his costume but no mask, on his knees with Tempos's sword at his throat? The Murmurs from the crowd told her that everyone now knew their secret. How had that happened?
But what had shocked her to her core was to hear that she had agreed to marry Tempos and pledged her fidelity, with the condition from Tempos that Charles was to leave the country forever. She would never do that! He would never do that! He wouldn't leave her to the mercy of that monster, and would never have agreed to leave the country and to never see her again.
Then how had all this come about? Was it some trick by Tempos? No. She was here, in his castle, something she wouldn't have voluntarily done. Well, no matter how it had happened, she knew she had to get out of here and find Charles.
Tempos had led her back to the castle as she'd watched Charles over her shoulder being escorted away. Had they taken him to the border? Which direction would they have gone? Maybe she could discretely ask around to get an idea of where to start.
But first she needed to change. Removing the elegant gown she wore, she went to her trunk that she had passed several times in her pacing. Tempos had sent for Sarah shortly after the incident in the field to bring from Lane Castle anything that M'lady would need. Loisette pulled several gowns out before spotting on the bottom what she sought. Despite the situation she smiled to herself. Sarah knew her well. There, folded neatly, was her black riding habit.
Pulling the garments out, she slipped on the pants and shirt then the boots. Stuffing her cap in one boot, she searched for a gown that would hide her outfit. Satisfied at the results, she set off to find Charles.
Leaving her room, Loisette wasn't sure which way to go. She'd only been here one other time and had had an escort to the dining room, and she'd followed Tempos to his sorcerer's lair. Overhearing that conversation had been the start of all of this. If she hadn't discovered the baron's true ways, she probably would never have met Charles. She'd be married to Tempos even now, probably still in the dark about who he really was. He would have her lands and more power, and her friends would be in even more danger. And she would probably never know.
No, she corrected herself, she would have discovered it eventually. She was intelligent and curious and she would have learned the truth in time. But would it have been too late for her friends? And what about Charles? He'd once been Tempos's top knight and now he'd been exposed and exiled. Where would Charles be now if they had never met? Would he have eventually discovered what the baron was really doing? Yes, she knew he would have. He cared too much about others to let the thefts and murders continue without doing something, and she felt sure he would have come to the same conclusion she had — that Tempos was the evil force behind it all.
'Oh, Charles. I can't lose you now that I've found you.'
She'd been wandering through the halls of the large castle, not really sure where she was going. Fortunately, she hadn't seen anyone else, but if she did, as the future lady of the house, she hoped no one would question her presence.
Charles lay in the shadows trying to imagine what Loisette was doing now. The strength of the thin sliver of light coming in through the crack at the top of the wall told him it was nearing noon. Would she be married to Tempos now? He knew she'd agreed only to save his life, but she also thought he was on his way out of the country and they'd never see each other again.
He had to get out of here and save her, even if it took his last breath to do it.
Loisette had been wandering the halls for some time without seeing a soul. How was she going to find out about Charles if she didn't meet anyone to ask? Maybe there would be someone in the dining hall. There was usually someone there either cleaning up from the previous meal or preparing for the next. And rumors usually spread through a castle faster than a wild fire. Talk of Charles being the Fox and where he had gone would be big news. Now if she could just find her way there.
As she rounded the next hallway, she could just make out voices coming from a room up ahead. Drawing closer, Tempos's distinctive baritone became clear, along with his sorcerer's squeaky, nasal tones.
"… and I have an image to protect, so make it look like an accident. Many of the men are still impressed that he was the Fox."
"Yes, sire. Should be very easy to accomplish. When do you want it done?"
"Tomorrow at dawn, while I marry Loisette."
He was going to kill Charles! She shouldn't have been surprised. Why should she have expected that loathsome beast to keep his word! That meant that Charles was still here! She had to find him before it was too late.
Quietly backing away from the room so as not to be caught, she turned to retrace her steps back to her room. She needed to form a plan. He was probably being held in the dungeon. She'd caught a glimpse of it when she'd followed Tempos to the sorcerer. But she couldn't very well go there during the day. It was one thing for her to wander around the castle proper during the day, but there was no reason for her to be near the prisoners. She'd have to plan this out.
Charles opened his eyes as his cell door was opened again by the same knight, and the same meal was placed on the floor.
"Wait!" he called, but the door had already closed. He'd wanted to find out what Tempos had planned for him. He'd already surveyed his cell, looking for any way out. There was no way he could escape from this room. The only opening was the thin crack high up near the ceiling that was unreachable, and the door was solid. No, his only chance would be when they came to take him out to kill him. He knew in his weakened state it would be difficult for him to overpower as many guards as they were sure to have escort him, so he'd need to outsmart them.
Pushing himself up, he went to the door to retrieve his lunch, trying the door in the hope the guard had been careless. No such luck. He ate the stale bread and drank the small cup of water, then went back to his makeshift bed to conserve his energy and wait.
As evening approached, Loisette knew it was getting near the time to make her move. Pulling off her gown and shirt, she retrieved her cap from her boot. Twisting her hair up, she stuffed it into the cap before securing it to her head. Dressed all in black, she would now be able to move through the shadows and hopefully not be seen.
The last light of the day filtered through the crack, signaling to Charles the approach of evening. The same ritual from earlier was repeated, as the door opened and another meal of bread and water was left. He got up to eat it, fully expecting this to be his last meal. He doubted Tempos would risk keeping him here for much longer, and under cover of darkness was a good opportunity to take him out and run him through. There would be few witnesses that way.
But that would work to his advantage if he could escape. The darkness would provide a good cover and he could use the confusion of the situation to get away. Once he'd gotten to safety and regained some of his strength, he'd return for Loisette. He knew with the way they felt about each other that he couldn't let her marry Tempos. She'd assured him that in her heart she was married to him, and he felt the same. There would never be anyone else for him.
He lay back on his bed, thoughts of Loisette giving him the strength to do what he knew needed to be done.
Darkness had completely fallen when he heard the door to his cell opening. He opened his eyes and sat up, preparing himself for his plan. He would go quietly until they made their orders known and bide his time until the right moment presented itself.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness he could just make out one lone figure entering through the opening. Tempos was either arrogant, a fool, or both. Surely he didn't think Charles was so weak after this short a time that he couldn't overpower one guard, and not a very large one at that. There must be more in the corridor with only one needed to take him to the others. Would Tempos be with them? Likely not. He wouldn't take the chance of getting his hands dirty, even though most of his loyal knights supported the decision of what they considered Charles's betrayal. Tempos couldn't let something like this go unpunished or there would be anarchy in their midst. And though there were a few knights who were still loyal to Charles despite what had happened, including Squire Jeremy, even though he was the only other one who now knew the whole story, Charles doubted that Tempos would have included any of those in this party. He wasn't that much of a fool.
The guard hadn't entered the room, only looking around as if he wasn't sure he had the right cell. As Charles made to approach the man so he could get out of here and make his escape, the guard spoke in a whisper.
For a moment Charles thought he was dreaming. Loisette! He ran to her and pulled her into her arms, his great relief evident in his voice. "How did you find me?"
Loisette pulled him against her briefly before releasing him. "We have to get out of here!" she whispered fiercely. "Tempos plans to kill you in the morning and make it look like an accident!"
"In the morning … ?"
"I'll explain later! Follow me!"
Loisette led the way through the shadows of the dungeon. She'd been careful to remember how to get back out once she'd found her way in. It had taken her a bit longer than she had hoped since she'd made a couple of wrong turns and had to stop a few times to avoid being seen. But one of those wrong turns had proven very helpful as it led to an outside door on this level of the castle. When she'd taken a quick peek out she noted the wide expanse of grounds around the castle before they met with the surrounding forest. If they could make it across that open area without being seen, she could get her bearings once they reached the woods.
Charles followed close behind as Loisette made a sharp turn down a short corridor leading away from the interior of the castle. They paused when they reached the door.
"This will be the tough part," she whispered in explanation.
Taking a deep breath, she opened the door and motioned for him to follow her through. Staying next to the castle wall, they inched along until they reached the section closest to the forest. A cloud was just beginning to make its way across the crescent moon. Waiting until any light was obscured, they then looked around for any signs of the guards. Taking each other by the hand, they ran as fast as they could across the open field.
When they reached the safety of the trees they both turned to see if anyone had spotted them. Relief washed through both as they realized they'd made it this far without being seen. Only now were they both able to breathe easier.
"Now what?" Charles whispered.
"Well, we aren't out of the woods yet," Loisette teased to lighten the tenseness of the situation.
"Cute," Charles retorted. "I'll make you pay for that remark later."
"Don't make promises you don't intend to keep."
Charles grew suddenly serious. "I plan to spend a lifetime keeping my promises to you."
"And I plan to hold you to that." She looked at him a moment longer, not wanting the spell to be broken, but she knew they still had a long journey ahead of them and they couldn't stay here. Reluctantly, she moved her eyes away from his and they looked around. If they had been seen they would have known by now, so it was probably safe to make their way to the barns.
"That way," he pointed behind her. "The stables are fairly close to the trees, and there isn't usually anyone there this time of night. Everyone within a day's ride has already returned or they will be making camp where they are. If we can get there without being seen, it should get easier."
"We've made it this far." She squeezed his hand lightly as they began to walk in the direction of the stables.
They moved quietly through the trees in silence for a few moments, ever watchful for the guards who patrolled the castle walls.
Finally, Charles spoke. "I haven't thanked you yet for all you've done."
"We aren't out of this yet, and, like you said before, you'll have a lifetime to thank me," she smiled, knowing that even though he couldn't see her he would be able to hear the joy in her voice.
Charles hesitated before asking the question he needed the answer to, but he had to know while she still had a chance to change her mind. He stopped her with a slight pull on her hand and turned her to face him, taking her other hand in his. "Loisette, I have to know, are you sure this is what you want? It's not too late to turn back now. Can you spend the rest of your life in hiding with a man who has a price on his head? You may never be able to see your family again, and … "
Loisette reached up with one of their joined hands to place her fingers over his lips. "Charles. I made that choice a long time ago. No matter what, you are the man I want to be with. You've done nothing wrong, could never intentionally do wrong, and you wouldn't be in this situation if you didn't care about people and sacrificed everything to help. You were nearly killed because you are a good man, the best I've ever known. I love you, and no matter what that will never change."
"What about Tempos?"
"We'll keep after him. Some day — and it may not be in our lifetime — he will be made to pay for the all the problems he's caused."
"I love you, Loisette." He bent to gently brush his lips against hers to seal their promise before turning to resume their journey. Now that he knew for sure that this was what she truly wanted, and understood exactly what she was getting involved in, he could continue. He would have let her go if she had wanted to, but somehow he knew she would stay with him. He had just needed to hear her say it.
"You know," he began, trying to lighten the mood as they continued their walk, "I never thought that disguise would work. I mean, really, a mask over my eyes? But what I can't figure out is how Tempos, and everyone else, figured it out. I seem to be missing this huge period of time."
Loisette stopped again to look at him. "You too? There are some things I can't figure out, either. Once we get out of here, we'll compare notes and see if we can't solve this mystery."
After a few more moments of walking, the stables were in sight. Even from this distance they could tell that all was quiet there. Suddenly, a torch light appeared from around the corner of one barn. Charles and Loisette briefly froze in their tracks before slowly moving to hide behind a tree.
They watched in silence as the light appeared on the far end of the barn and began moving toward the castle. Both breathed a sigh of relief, staying where they were until they were sure the guard was well out of sight and earshot.
Resuming their course again, they slowly approached the horses as they neared, careful not to startle any of the animals. Since the horses were more familiar with Charles, they stayed together as they searched first for Loisette's horse, then his. Loisette had considered suggesting they take one horse, but she rejected that idea knowing that they could move faster with two.
Leading the two horses to the back stable door, they both mounted.
Turning to Loisette, Charles whispered, "Ready?"
Loisette nodded, then realizing Charles couldn't see her, responded with a confident "yes."
They quietly rode off into the night.
…of this adventure
Final note: This story was inspired by the episode Soul Mates, Princess Bride, Robin Hood (the Kevin Costner movie), and Men in Tights