Nine Years Later ... Spring, 1412, a few miles west of Hagenheim.
Gisela rode Kaeleb over the hilly meadows near her home, letting the horse run as fast as he liked. The morning air clung to her eyelashes, as a fog had created a misty canopy over the green, rolling hills. The wall surrounding the town of Hagenheim stood at her far right, with the forest to her left and her home behind. Hagenheim Castle hovered in the distance, its upper towers lost in the haze.
If her stepmother found out she'd been riding one of the horses without permission, as Gisela often did, she would find some way to punish her. But Gisela didn't care. She could leave any time she wanted to, as she had hidden away the money her father had given her just before he died. She chose to stay, at least for now, because of her love for the horses.
Gisela would probably be forced to leave soon. Her stepmother would end up selling all the horses, or would marry someone despicable, or would create some other type of intolerable situation. When that happened, Gisela planned to go into the town and find paying work, perhaps tending a shop or serving as a kitchen maid at Hagenheim Castle.
Evfemia thought she controlled Gisela. But some day her stepdaughter-slave would be gone.
She didn't want to think about her stepmother anymore. Instead, Gisela focused on the wind in her hair as she flew over the meadow on Kaeleb's back. The cool air filled her lungs almost to bursting. For this moment, she was free.
Kaeleb loved these rides as much as she did. She could sense it in the tightness of his shoulders, in the way he fairly danced in anticipation before she even tightened his saddle in place.
Movement to her left made her turn her head slightly. A horse and rider emerged from the trees and stood watching her from the edge of the meadow.
Gradually, Gisela slowed Kaeleb. She could tell even from this distance the horse and rider were both taller than average. The bare-headed man had short, dark blond hair and wore a green thigh-length tunic that buttoned down the front. His horse was the same size and color as Kaeleb.
The man reminded her of Valten—more appropriately known as Lord Hamlin.
The duke's oldest son had been away for two years, but she'd heard of his return. Gisela figured he would be about twenty-four years old now, as it had been ten years since he and his father had come to buy a horse.
She turned Kaeleb back the way they had come. But instead of riding away, she stared at the man. He seemed comfortable in the saddle, and he held his head high and his back straight. No doubt Valten was proud and self-possessed, but was he also still the kind, gentle boy she had dreamed about as a child?
Probably not. But why should she care? She had ceased daydreaming about him years ago, when she realized she was but a servant now and no longer the wealthy land owner's daughter whose father had been so friendly with Duke Wilhelm.
She glanced down at her coarse woolen overdress. She'd tucked her skirt into her waistband, exposing the leather stockings she wore to cover her legs while she rode, since she hated riding sidesaddle. Her feet were bare and dirty, and her hair was completely unfettered, as she liked to feel the wind lifting and tossing the long strands.
She wouldn't want the duke's son to see her looking this way, if this was indeed Valten. He would mistake her for a peasant, which, when she thought on it, she might as well be, given her position in her stepmother's household.
Gisela urged Kaeleb forward, and soon they were flying back over the hills again. She wasn't running away from the duke's son; she had to go home, for her stepmother and stepsisters would be demanding their breakfast soon, and she still had to give Kaeleb a good brushing after their ride. Besides, Valten, the tournament champion and future leader of Hagenheim, would hardly care to get acquainted with her, the stable hand, cook, and all-around servant for a spoiled, selfish trio of women.
As a little girl she had imagined marrying Lord Hamlin. Now, she knew it was a silly dream. Though she had once cared very much about Valten—following the reports from town of his accomplishments as a tournament champion—it was getting easier to tell herself he couldn't be as noble and good as she had imagined. Her usual trick to keep from feeling bad—to tell herself that she didn't care—worked nearly as well with Valten as with everything else.
* * *
Valten strolled through the Marktplatz for the first time since leaving Hagenheim two years ago. Very little had changed. The vendors were the same. Same old wares—copper pots and leather goods—carrots, beets, leeks, onions, and cabbages laid out in rows of tidy little bunches. People talked loud to be heard over the bustle of market day. They stepped around the horse dung on the cobblestones while brushing shoulders with the other towns people. Everyone had somewhere to go, a purpose.
What was his purpose?
A restlessness possessed him, the same restlessness that had haunted his wandering all over the Continent. Entering all the grandest tournaments for two years had not eased that restless feeling. He'd succeeded at winning all of them in at least one category—jousting, sword fighting, hand-to-hand combat—but often in all categories. He still wasn't a champion at archery, which rankled. But he couldn't be perfect at everything.
Perhaps God had given him archery to keep him humble. Archery, and his little brother Gabe.
He couldn't truly blame his brother. Gabe had seen an opportunity to make a name for himself and he had taken it. Valten would have done the same. And Gabe probably hadn't intended to steal his betrothed.
He didn't like to relive those memories. He'd forgiven his brother, and truthfully, Valten had not been in love with Sophie. He hadn't even known her. Now he couldn't imagine being married to her. She was Gabe's wife, and he didn't begrudge them their happiness or doubt that it was God's will that the two of them were together. But he had been made to look foolish when everyone wondered why Gabehart, Valten's younger, irresponsible brother, was marrying Valten's betrothed.
Why was he even dwelling on this?
He shoved the thoughts away and instead dwelt on the last tournament, where he'd defeated Friedric Ruexner, the man who seemed determined to be his nemesis. Ruexner had tried to trick the judges in Saillenay by substituting a metal-tipped lance for a wooden one when tilting with Valten. But in spite of his lack of chivalry, or perhaps because of it, Ruexner seemed to take special offense every time Valten bested him.
Valten had defeated Ruexner in many tourneys over the years, although the man had defeated him a few times as well, usually under suspicious circumstances. And now Valten was always watching his back, for Friedric Ruexner had muttered a vow of vengeance at their last meeting. But that only meant Valten would relish defeating him all the more in the next tournament, which was to be held here in Hagenheim, hosted by his own father, Duke Wilhelm.
Valten wandered past a vender selling colorful veils and scarves from the Orient, which reminded him of all his travels. Truth be told, he was beginning to weary of the tournaments. He had hardly admitted the fact to himself, and certainly hadn't told anyone else. His dream, his goal all his life, had been to distinguish himself in each competition, to be the best at all modes of war, to be known far and wide as the champion of ... everything. And now people far and wide knew his name, troubadours sang about him, wealthy and titled men's daughters in every town wanted him to wear their colors, and their fathers offered him money and jewels to make their daughters his wife.
He liked the acclaim. All the fame and attention had assuaged his hurt pride after his betrothed chose to marry his brother, but he was tired of that life. What was he accomplishing? What good did it do anyone for him to win another tournament? What good did it do him?
He continued through the marketplace. Most people stayed out of his way and didn't make eye contact. He was used to that; men of his size were often hired soldiers or guards, and sometimes bullies. Valten had been away so long that his people—the people he would lead upon his father's death—didn't recognize him. He wore his hair shorter, he had new scars on his face from his many battles, and today he was wearing nondescript clothing—a knee-length cotehardie of brown leather that laced up the sides and made him look like a farmer just come to town to buy and sell. A few people did stare, as though trying to remember him, but Valten kept walking.
As he wandered, a girl of perhaps seventeen or eighteen years caught his eye. Truthfully, it was her hair that fixed his attention—long and blonde, and somehow it reminded him of his sister Margaretha's hair, even though his sister's was reddish brown. It must have been the thick wildness of it, and that, instead of being covered or braided, it was tied at the end, at her waist, with a piece of rough twine. It also reminded him of someone else, someone he'd seen recently ... Yes. The girl he'd seen riding at great speed across the meadow just outside the town wall.
The girl's coarse gray overgown was covered with patches and odd seams where someone had mended it.
She was arguing with a man over something he was selling.
"You told me it cost three marks and now you say five." Her speech sounded strangely cultured, not like an ignorant country girl.
Also at odds with her dress was the horse whose bridle she was holding. He was magnificent, a horse worthy of carrying a king. Had the girl stolen him?
"I never told you three," the man yelled back. "You're daft."
"I'm not daft, but you are a liar."
"You dare call me a liar?" The man leaned toward her menacingly.
The horse reared, striking the man's flimsy, makeshift counter with his front hoof. The man threw his arms up in front of his face as the rough beam of wood crashed down. The side of his awning gave way, and a rope hung with leather goods fell to the ground, the collapsed fabric on top of it.
"Give me my money back," the girl said, unruffled by the chaos her horse had caused, "and I'll give you back your saddlebag."
"Get your crazy horse out of here!" The man slung his arm wide, cursing under his breath as he stared at the mess at his feet. "Be gone, and take the saddlebag with you." He shook his head, muttering and stooping to pick up his goods, then struggling to push the wooden beam back into place in order to set his booth to rights again.
The girl, whose face Valten still couldn't see, walked away, a leather saddlebag in her hand and her now-calm horse beside her.
Valten followed, almost certain she and her horse were the same horse and rider he'd seen two mornings ago. He continued to admire both her hair and her horse. In fact, the animal looked almost exactly like Valten's own horse, Sieger, the faithful destrier he'd ridden in every tournament. This horse could be his twin.
The girl bought a sweet roll from a plump old woman, then pulled a piece of carrot from her pocket and gave it to the horse, who deftly plucked it from her palm. She gave him a second carrot, then ate her bun as she made her way between the rows of vendors.
Valten admired the way she walked: confident, flowing, graceful, but with a hint of boyishness, as if her horse was more important to her than her hair or clothing. Yes, she was the type to ride astride, instead of sidesaddle, especially if no one was looking. He recalled how she'd given that remarkable beast a free rein when they'd galloped across the open meadow. Her hair had looked like liquid gold in the sun, streaming behind her. But he still hadn't gotten a good look at her face.
Her horse was limping slightly. Had she noticed? The girl was leaving the Marktplatz now and heading toward a side street. He wanted to see where she was going, but more than that, he was curious to see her face.
Just before she entered the side street, Friedric Ruexner appeared around a half-timbered building from the opposite direction, laughing and walking toward them with his squire and two other bearded, unkempt men.
Valten stopped and waited beside a bakery doorway. His nemesis approached the girl. Friedric Ruexner sneered, which drew his lips back and showed his yellow teeth.
The girl planted her feet on the cobblestones in a defiant stance as she stared Ruexner in the eye. Her horse snorted and shook his head restlessly.
Valten was close enough to catch most of their words. "... Too much horse for a girl like you. Where are you going with that fine beast?" Ruexner asked her.
"I have business, and it isn't with you," the girl retorted. "Move out of my way."
"A feisty one." Ruexner looked around at his companions, and all three laughed, continuing to block her way to the side street. He looked her up and down, then muttered something to his companions.
Valten stepped out and strode toward them. "We do not allow anyone to accost maidens in Hagenheim, Ruexner."
The smile left Friedric's dark, brutish face. "Valten Gerstenberg."
"The girl isn't interested in whatever you're offering."
From the corner of his eye, he could see her looking from himself to Ruexner and back again.
Ruexner focused on the girl. "I will fight you for this one."
"No. You will leave her alone, or you'll pay the consequences."
Indecision played over Ruexner's wide brow; he was obviously trying to decide his next move. Finally, he chuckled. "Too bad you came along when you did. The good knight and his good deeds." He turned his head slightly toward his companions. "Valten keeps a close eye on his towns people—when he happens to be here."
Valten crossed his arms while he waited for their scoffing laughter to die down. "For once you are right."
Friedric Ruexner leaned toward Valten, his upper lip curled in menace. "I will be here for the tournament, and there I shall defeat you, once and for all."
Valten gave him stare for stare. "We shall see who defeats whom."
Ruexner turned to the girl and ran his hand down her cheek. Her hand flew up and slapped him, the sound echoing off the buildings on either side of the street. He raised his fist. Her horse reared.
Valten stepped forward and caught Ruexner's forearm and wrenched it behind his back. The horse's hooves pawed the air mere inches from Ruexner's face, causing his eyes to go wide and his friends to jump back. Valten let go of his arm, and Ruexner and his lackeys edged away. When they were twenty feet down the street, Ruexner called, "This will be your last tournament, Valten. For every blow you've ever given me, you'll get double. I swear it."
Valten made sure Ruexner and his friends kept walking, and waited to move until they were out of earshot.
When he turned around, the girl was staring at him.
No wonder Ruexner had noticed her. Her eyes were a clear blue, without a hint of gray or green. Her features were bold and generous—long, thick eyelashes, a straight, proud nose, a full brow, a gently squared chin, and high, prominent cheekbones. Her skin fairly glowed, and he had to remind himself to breathe.
She seemed to be studying his face too. "Thank you." She abruptly turned away and continued on her way as if nothing had happened.
He stood stunned. Should he call after her? He only knew he couldn't let her walk away, so he followed her.
As she turned down the narrow street to the blacksmith's, she looked over her shoulder. "Do you want something, my lord?" She added the last phrase with a bit of slyness in her voice, it seemed. She must realize who he was.
Never good at making conversation with maidens, he ransacked his brain for something appropriate to say. Another way Gabe had been better than him—talking with women. His brother always knew what to say, and it was always something charming or clever. Valten's experience was much different. He'd had little time for women due to his travels and training, and most of the ones he'd met he'd only spoken to briefly. Their fathers had paraded them before him at balls given for the tournament knights, but he'd never known them long enough to feel comfortable. He had not been ready to marry, and therefore he had no interest in showing them how lacking he was in the art of conversation.
He hoped he didn't sound like Ruexner as he said, "A fine destrier you have. He looks very much like my horse, Sieger."
She turned and gave him her full attention. He marveled at her self-reliant expression, a unique trait in a woman, especially one who was less than twenty years old and obviously poor. Or maybe she was only eccentric, wearing ragged clothes to disguise herself, as he was doing.
"Thank you. He is a great horse." Then she turned and continued walking.
He still wasn't ready to let her go.
Excerpted from The Captive Maiden by Melanie Dickerson. Copyright © 2013 Melanie Dickerson. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.