Countess Vivienne pulled on her leather gloves, checking her pistol in its holster, as she walked to the stable. “Saddle my horse,” she shouted to young Will Crowley. He winked and smiled at her in his bold way that infuriated her as she walked by. If he didn’t work for next to nothing, she would fire him. Elizabeth, her maid, ran after her asking if she was sure she did not want to wait for the guards to come back from their patrol so that she would not have to venture out alone. Vivienne frowned. The air was fresh and cool and later it would be hot and sticky. This was the best time of day for a hunt, and she did not want to wait. “I will be fine, Ethel. I have my pistol and know how to use it.” With that she swung herself up onto her horse and trotted through the castle gate, headed for the woods of the Debatable Lands.
She was after fowl today, or perhaps a rabbit or some other small game. She rode looking for a likely place to hide, to wait for a duck or goose to waddle by. A sharp crack sounded and she heard something whoosh by her, close to her cheek, disturbing the air around it, but not touching her. Her horse reared up and she felt herself fall. The world around her faded to black.
Bryantt Sands, local businessman and owner of the infamous Maiden’s Head, was joking and passing a few words with Dom, the blacksmith. Karissa, the Madame of the Maiden’s Head and her employee Baylee were picking over the best of the fruits and vegetables in the market on the town square. Baylee kept a sharp eye on Dom, smiling, wondering on what she might wheedle out of him today with her charms. Nathan leaned against the wall of his shop, watching the bouncing, buxom blonde and smiling. Desire, the baker, was sweeping the dust from the step into her shop. They all heard the approaching clop clop of a horse’s hooves, and turned to see Countess Vivienne’s horse trot into the town square, without her, and to the livery stable to nibble at a bale of hay outside the door.
Bryantt recognized the horse as that of the Countess. “Baylee,” he called. “Go up to the castle and ask where the Countess is.” Baylee smiled and bounced up the steps, hoping to entice any men she met there to part with some of their gold.
After a few minutes she returned. “Master Bryantt, the Countess left to go hunting in the Debatable Lands early this morning, alone. The Captain and his men are out patrolling and have not yet returned. She did not want to wait for them.” Her eyes were sad, showing her disappointment that she had not had a chance to tease the men of the guard.
Bryantt looked worried. The Countess must be in trouble and there were none of her men about. He straightened up and took charge. He called Karissa. She came immediately to his side. He smiled warmly at her and took her hand. “Love, mount up and ride quickly to find Sir Maverick, the Warden of South March. Tell him that the Countess went hunting in the Debatable Lands this morning, but her horse came back without her. Ask for his assistance to find her. Ride quickly. She may be in terrible trouble.”
Karissa did not much care for the Countess and the way that she sometimes saw Bryantt look at her, nor the way that he was so solicitous of her favour. She knew he was an ambitious man. She loved him with all her heart, and there was not much on this earth that she would not do for him. “Yes my love, right away,” she replied.
As she turned to go, Bryantt reached out and gently caught her arm, pulling her to him. He crushed her in his arms, kissing her deeply. Still holding her, he gazed into her eyes and brushed a strand of stray hair back from her forehead. “Be careful my love. Arm yourself and stay to the main road. Ride as fast as you can and do not stop for any man.”
Flushed from his kiss, Karissa smiled back at him and said, “Yes my love.” She ran back to the brothel, saddled her horse, and rode off to find Sir Maverick.
“Certainly,” Nathan replied. “Perhaps Baylee might like to ride with me as an extra pair of eyes.”
The men saddled their horses. Nathan offered a hand to the beautiful Baylee, who took it and climbed onto his horse behind him. They rode off into the forest and met up with Sir Maverick, Warden of the south march. Together they searched.
They found her lying in a thicket of grass, unconscious. Not far off a cougar was circling about, interested in the woman on the ground, but temporarily spooked by the approach of the horses. The men quickly dismounted. Nathan drew an arrow from his quiver and fired straight and true, piercing the cougar’s heart. Bryantt moved quickly to Vivienne’s side. He was relieved to see that she was still breathing. Other than a bruise on her head, she appeared to be unharmed. Seeing that the Countess was found and alive, Maverick turned and rode back to Tanninhold.
Bryantt gently scooped Vivienne up into his arms and carried her. Nathan and Baylee followed, leading Bryantt’s horse behind them. As they entered the town square, Vivienne moaned and stirred in his arms, regaining consciousness slowly, her head against Bryantt’s chest, listening to his heart beat. She felt safe with strong arms around her, a feeling she had not felt for some time. As she became more aware, she looked up and was shocked to find herself in Bryantt’s arms, but not totally unhappy at being there.
Bryantt set her down on a bale of hay outside the livery stable and asked what she remembered. She remembered riding out to hunt, but then her memory failed her. Nathan told her of the cougar nearby that he killed. She said that the cougar must have spooked her horse, causing it to rear up and her to fall. She shuddered to think that she was likely found just in time to avoid being the cougar’s prey, the hunter becoming the hunted. She raised her hand to her aching head. Nathan offered her a potion to dull her headache, and they led her into the tavern to get stronger medicine, a stiff shot of whisky. Bryantt assisted her back to the castle, where they were met by the Countess’s ladies in waiting, who undressed her, bathed her, and got her settled into bed.
Tomorrow she would write to the Queen and tell her of Bryantt’s rescue, and that if it had not been for him, she would likely be dead. She would support his application to become warden. As she slipped off to sleep, she felt his arms around her again. In her dream she snuggled into him, lulled deeper into sleep by the beat of his strong heart. She hoped they never got to wherever it was they were going.