As they travel on their quest, the hot-tempered couple learn more about themselves and begin to compromise. Respect changes to fondness, perhaps even to love, but what future can there be between knight and bondswoman?
When Matilde is taken by outlaws, Gawain realizes, almost too late, what she means to him. Can he rescue her? Can he and Matilde join forces to combat a deeper conspiracy that is ranged against them?
And the unicorn? The unicorn, too, has a part to play…
Order the ebook now from Bookstrand Publishing http://www.bookstrand.com/the-virgin-the-knight-and-the-unicorn $2.99
and on Amazon: The Virgin, the Knight, and the Unicorn Reply w/
and on Amazon UK…http://www.amazon.co.uk/Virgin-Unicorn-BookStrand-Publishing-Mainstream-ebook/dp/B00MEN2S0G/ …
Summer, England 1196
In the late summer semidarkness, snug and warm within their castle, the lord and lady whispered together. They spoke softly so as not to disturb their younger children, who lay curled asleep in the same great bed with them.
“She will go with him?” Lord John asked, squinting through the shutters at the rising moon.
Lady Petronilla huffed and pounded her pillow. “The girl should be glad to go.”
“But will she?” her husband persisted. “I know she is a bondswoman, but this is Matilde of whom we speak—Robert’s younger sister, with exactly his same cleverness, like his older sister Ivette.”
“Am I a reader of minds?” snapped his wife. “Very likely your turbulent knight will force Matilde to leave with him, and there is an end of the matter.”
The lord shuffled onto his back. “Yes, Sir Gawain is certainly most eager.”
“Greedy for treasure,” his wife sniffed.
“Treasure, yes. But he is a younger son and must make his own way in the world.”
“Did he steal his armor and that warhorse from a battlefield?”
“I did not ask. He did save my life in Normandy.”
“And you knighted him in thanks.” Lady Petronilla sniffed a second time. “Why is he not satisfied?”
“Gawain is ambitious. And the renown of capturing or slaying a unicorn, that also appeals to my knight.”
“Do such creatures exist?”
Lord John yawned. “Does that matter? Gawain is a troublesome fellow. A week or more slogging through the wild woods will curb his temper.”
“Our other people in the woods?” inquired his lady softly.
“That arrangement does not start until winter. Gawain and Matilde will be quite safe. Meantime their quest should bring Gawain down off his high horse.”
Lady Petronilla murmured agreement. “My ladies think him handsome, if lacking in courtesy. If he spoke more to them, Gawain would do well in courtly romance.”
Her lord grunted, then laughed. “Still, the wenches of the stew make no complaint against him. They appear to relish his visits in spite of how he uses them.”
“Hush!” warned his wife, glancing at their slumbering youngsters. Seeing them sound asleep, she added, “I hope he treats Matilde the same. That girl is too proud.”
“Unless he tries and Matilde kills him. Or he and Matilde kill each other.”
Lady Petronilla pursed her lips. “I would be sorry to lose such an excellent dairy maid.”
“The time of three milkings has passed for this year,” Lord John observed.
“But can you not see, my lord?” his wife continued. “We must ensure that Matilde is a long way from the castle when the king’s justice comes here after harvest. Ivette may protest at our plans, but she is by nature contemplative—I can foresee her becoming religious, or a nun. Her sister Matilde is very much of this world. In her way, she is as ambitious as your knight and angry at her low status in life. If she is still here, Matilde will argue furiously and dispute well. She may even know something important, some morsel of fact or law that we have overlooked, and so she will win.”
“I know. The girl could spoil everything, which is why I devised this quest for Gawain. I told him she was a virgin and so a fit lure for a unicorn. That is all he wanted to know. He never properly listens to anyone and he will not listen to her.”
Reflecting, Lord John closed his eyes. Like his wife, he was mildly disconcerted at the thought of losing their clever and frankly beautiful dairy maid, but Matilde was dangerous. She argued like a lawyer and she knew things. If anyone can track a unicorn, it will be Matilde. But she will never find it because Gawain will not listen to her.
Considering those two opposing points, he fell asleep.
* * * *
“The girl you want is weeding in the great field this morning,” Lord John told Gawain. “You will know her by her beauty. Her name is—”
Gawain ignored the rest of his lord’s speech. The girl was a peasant, so why should he bother with her name? Did serfs have names? He gave a stiff bow of farewell to Lord John, nodded curtly to Lady Petronilla, and mounted his palfrey.
Riding to the great field, Gawain spotted the girl at once. She was the youngest, cleanest, and the prettiest of those peasants toiling along the rows of peas and beans. A small, slender blonde, she was nimbly weeding along the flowering rows of his lord’s field strip. Pleasantly surprised to find her so comely, he stood up on his stirrups and hailed her. “You!”
You plunged her hoe into the soil and looked up at him. Her eyes, gray as steel, flicked over him, a long, cool stare. Without speaking or bobbing a courtesy, she spun about on her bare feet and stalked away.
“Hey!” Gawain called, astonished that she dared to turn her back on him. Half of him wanted to ride her down, but that would mean trampling his lord’s crop, so he had to content himself with nudging his horse along the ridge between the field strips to follow her. Gaining on the disrespectful wench with his bay’s every stride, he watched her kiss a wizened field-worker on the cheek and pick up a neat cloth bundle clearly left at the end of the strip. Now I have you.
“Follow me, girl,” he ordered, smirking at the dust his horse raised as he cantered past her. When he looked round after a few paces, he saw her lagging way behind, making no effort to run. “Make haste!”
“I am,” came her instant reply. “Though I am a dairy maid, I do not yet have four legs. If I might ride with you, we would go faster…Sir.” Staring at him full in the face, she added his title deliberately late.
Scarcely believing her insolence, Gawain glanced at the other, crook-backed serfs. Had any been fit, he would have clubbed this wench to the ground and taken another but, looking properly at her fellow peasants for the first time, Gawain realized they were all old. There were no more maids in this field to take in her place.
Reining in, astonished afresh, he saw by the wench’s half smile that she knew this, that she had probably even planned it that way. Temper scorched through his body. Catching his darkening mood, his horse snorted and laid back its ears. He tugged the reins again. “Easy.”
“Do you speak to me, your horse, or to yourself, Sir Gawain?”
She spoke with a rough accent, her mouth soiling his name. Incensed that she should know it, he swung down from his horse and stepped closer.
The girl stood her ground. She was a foot smaller than him, dressed in patched but clean green skirts and an earth-colored tunic. Her blonde hair was partly hidden by a short veil, but her face was not hidden at all. She studied him as if they were equals, as if she had a perfect right to look at him.
For an instant her beauty cooled his anger, as a sparkling frost may coat and still a pool. Cloud-gray now, her eyes were fringed with long, golden lashes and shone with intelligence and life. Her skin was flawless, rich cream and roses. Gawain found his hand rising, seemingly by its own will, to touch her perfect cheek. Forget the unicorn. This wench beguiles me, but where is the treasure or renown in that? Quickly, he jerked his arm down and gripped his belt instead.
“Do we begin the quest, Sir Gawain?”
Gawain twitched, irritated afresh that she should speak to him. I should speak first.
“May I make a suggestion?”
“No,” growled Gawain. “I need nothing from you but your obedience.” Tired of talk, he snatched her off her bare feet, cast her over his shoulder, strode back to his mount, and slung the writhing, gasping girl across his horse’s neck. As she opened her mouth yet again to protest, he leapt into the saddle, spurred hard, and rode off at a canter, laughing when her head bounced against the bay’s muscled flank and she shut her eyes tight. Keeping her secure with a heavy fist in the middle of her back, he galloped for the woods.
The forest where I shall find and slay the unicorn, where this wench will be my lure, but first she will learn, indeed she will learn.
As he reached the end of the fields, where the trees began, Gawain was smiling.
* * * *
Pain drove its blunt knives into her head and sat like a stone in her stomach. The hard pommel of the saddle dug constantly into her flank, keeping pace with the horrible pounding of the horse’s hooves. Only her pack, which she had luckily kept clutched to her, saved her ribs from being bruised by the horse’s neck.
Sitting above this mental terror, this swirl and anguish of aching muscles, the knight laughed. Matilde, squeezing her eyes shut against the ground skimming and lurching a hand-span from her face, supposed he was handsome—if “handsome” was the word for a petulant, curly-headed, even-featured boy. He was the tallest person she had yet encountered, rangy and muscled, his blue eyes shining with vigor in his tanned, lean face. She felt his easy strength with the horse and for an instant knew terror. He does not think of me as human, merely a tool. He does not even want to know my name.
Other maids watched out for knights and squires, sighed over them, imagined themselves in love with them. Matilde had always been wary, as she was of any brute beast or force stronger than herself. And this brown-haired brute will never have known a hunger-headache in his life.
The old rage against the unfair ways of this world boiled in her, steeling Matilde afresh. Gnawing her lip against the pain, she vowed to herself that this handsome, careless man-boy would heed her, would learn from her. He must, or my family will starve by next spring.
Through a haze of nausea, she felt the horse slowing and risked opening her eyes. The knight spotted her looking.
“I shall deal with you presently,” he said, and reined in.
Moments later, Matilde tried to slide from the bay but was not given time. A muscular arm hooked about her narrow waist, hoisting her aloft. She kicked and her knight from hell dropped her straight down into bracken, a soft if undignified landing. Jerking from her back to her knees, she forced herself upright. Her companion approached, his lean face determined, his hands spread and crook-fingered. However he wants to deal with me, it will not be to my good.
Matilde crouched and scrabbled in the leaf litter, found a broken branch and jabbed it at the looming figure. “No farther, knight.”
He tried to snatch the branch but she whipped it away.
“I am Matilde!” She waved the stick like a sword. He laughed sharply and stopped, folding his arms across his chest, his eyes glittering with cold amusement.
“Do you expect to best me, girl?”
“God gave us speech to share, Sir Gawain,” she countered. “Call me by my name.”
“Share! What would I want to share with you? All women chatter too much.”
“Your mother never talked to you? Or did you not listen to her, either?”
For an instant, the years fell from his mocking face and he looked puzzled. “She sang. When I was small. I remember her singing.”
Pity swelled in Matilde. “Where is she now?”
“In heaven. A long time in our years.” The words seem to slip from him, for now he scowled. “Chatter is for cowards and fools. I will have no more of it.”
He grabbed again for her stick but she snapped it down, missing his knuckles by a whisker as he skidded sideways to avoid her clumsy blow. Before he could lunge at her a third time, she backed up, glancing round. Instantly she recognized the clearing, the steep, scree-studded banks surrounding it and the deep, muddy pool a spear’s length farther down. All were notorious in the village.
“Not here!” she panted, scything with the stick to keep him off, to make him listen. “Not here, understand?”
He swore in Norman French, caught the stick, and wrested it away. Anticipating a blow with it, she flinched but still repeated, “Not here! Listen to me—”
He hurled the branch into the undergrowth and charged. Matilde stepped back. “If you will not listen, then look!” She kicked the banking desperately with her heel.
At first, she thought the roar was the knight, but then she saw his astonishment as a large section of the bank fell away and shuttered down in clouds of stones, soil, and grass, splashing into the pool.
“Bad place,” she gasped, before sucking in a large, steadying breath. “We call it the dragon’s tear in the village. One year, I almost lost a cow to the slippage of these banks.”
“I am the dairy maid, Matilde,” Matilde said, through gritted teeth. “Do you ever listen?”
The knight was still staring at the litter of fallen stones. “My horse could have broken a leg in that.”
Finally, he talks to me and admits I know something! “If you want to stop, there is another clearing past those limes.”
“I do not know.” Matilde had never had the free time to explore father than that.
He turned his back on her and stalked to his horse. About to mount, he looked round. “Why do you linger?”
Though she knew she really should not do it, Matilde could not resist. In a deliberate echo of his earlier haughty, amused pose, she folded her arms across her chest. “I will not go another step with you unless you say my name, sir knight. And should you not thank me for preserving your horse?”
Suddenly, shockingly, he was beside her, bundling her off her feet and onto the horse—not over its neck this time, but onto the saddle with him. Sitting behind her and snaring her wrists in one large hand, he trapped her completely simply by crossing one long, lean thigh over both her legs and then sharply snapped the reins with his free hand. The horse sprang forward on the track and they were off again.
What have I done? Why can I not control my temper? Why must I always fight for the last word? What did he say, that chatter is for cowards and fools? Someone has taught him that kindness, gentleness, even speech are worthless. And he did not learn otherwise from his mother, for she is long dead. Now I come and challenge him, a challenge he understands only as a battle, as something to be won. What have I done? And what will he do to me?
* * * *
“Women always want things,” Gawain’s father had told him. “Your mother did her duty and was biddable but she was rare, a jewel. Most women talk too much and want more. Show them who is master from the start or you shall have no peace.”
It had worked for him with the wenches in the stews and he intended to lay down his terms now to this squirming blonde piece of lusciousness. Lush, yes, she is that and more, but that is the danger. She was so glorious in her gold-and-rose beauty that he was tempted to be soft with her, to tickle her and to make her laugh. I cannot do that. Yet she slotted so nicely into his arms, with her round rump pressing deliciously against him. Each time she wriggled her arms, trying to break free—and she never stopped trying—he experienced a tingling buffeting against his groin so that he rode in a building daze of pleasure.
“Keep still!” he warned, when she almost pitched off the horse into a hazel. He swiftly snatched her back to safety. Without considering why he should feel the way he did, Gawain realized that he did not want her pretty face to be scratched.
“Let me go!” She said more and he almost ignored her, but then recalled how she had saved his horse from injury. Irksome as her chatter was, perhaps he should pay attention.
Instead of being grateful that he used her name, the naughty creature glared at him.
“Off to the southwest there is a woodman’s hut close to the next clearing, a day’s walk from here,” she said in her gruff little voice. “There is a pool close by where many creatures come to drink.”
“Including a unicorn, perhaps?” This was worth knowing.
“Yes, perhaps. The hut is old now and abandoned, but sturdy enough still for us to stop there for the night and plan. Now, are you going to let me go? I am as engaged in this quest as you. I shall not try to escape.”
He snorted at the idea of a peasant on a quest, more amused still when her eyes took on a steely glint.
“Let me go!” she snapped.
“No.” He was less amused when, raising her hands that he clasped tight in his left, she avoided her own fingers and bit into his palm.
And that is quite enough.
He released her hands, gripped her jaw, and squeezed, reining in at the same time. She yelped and he brought his face close to hers. For an instant, seeing the prints of his fingers glowing red against her chin, he was ashamed of his roughness to her, then sense asserted itself. She was a peasant and, moreover, she deserved it. “Were you a man, you would spit teeth for that trick, girl.”
The woodcutter’s hut and clearing, the still pool, must all wait. Sure of himself again, Gawain leapt down from his slowing horse, yanked Matilde after him, and dropped into a clump of wild garlic, tossing the girl over his lap. A spanking is what I had planned for Matilde anyway, but now it must be for longer and harder. This wench needs management.
* * * *
Trapped across Sir Gawain’s knees, Matilde struggled in vain, cursing the world, the knight, and herself. Why had she bitten him? Because I let my temper reign me, as I always do. She had known that he was already displeased with her because of her love for the last word. Now she had fueled his anger by indulging her own.
And what was he doing, tying her hands before her with a linen strip? She tried to rear up, crawl away, fight back, and found herself snared again by those hellish long legs of his. He simply hooked her kicking feet under his sinewy calves and she was stuck. “Beat me and be done!” she snarled, still unable to curb her fury.
“Quiet.” He bundled a cloak under her head and wound an arm about her middle, pulling her so her head was down, pressed into the cloak, and her bottom raised. Lifting herself on her elbows, she struck out with her tied hands, her tiny, flailing movements knocking feebly against his firm male flank.
“Be still. Be quiet,” came the growled orders above her.
Was he determined, annoyed, or amused? With the blood singing in her ears, Matilde tried to appeal to his knightly self-interest. “You need my help!” She wanted to break free and punch him first. Disconcertingly, it seemed he understood this.
“Aye, and you would like to scald me in a cauldron, but I am the man and knight, not you.”
“Do knights often boil their prisoners?” she shot back, bucking again and failing to budge him a finger-width. The arm coiled about her waist was thicker than rope and as immoveable. Her own blood felt to be boiling as she heard him chuckle.
“Are you the youngest?” he asked, surprising her.
“What?” She strained her hands against her bounds, but could not break them. “Yes, but what of it? Why…?”
To her horror and renewed fury, she found the rest of her question stifled. Swiftly, with a casual efficiency, her tormentor proceeded to gag her with another strip of linen. These are bandage strips. He is using bandage strips to gag me.
“I am the youngest, too,” observed her captor. “We young ones always have to fight for everything.” He patted her rump. “But you will learn not to fight me. Indeed, ’tis time you learned the rules.”
“What rules?” she gasped behind her gag but he took no notice of her protest.
“Yes,” he continued, as if she had not spoken, “My rules. Now you must listen to me, Matilde, and feel my hand as well.”
Two times he has called me by my name. But this was no comfort, with her tied and gagged and hung over his lap.
“Finally you are quiet, little peasant, as you should be.” He continued to gloat, the pig.
“Only by the custom of the nobles,” Matilde tried to say, but all that escaped was a high-pitched, mewing sound.
“Easy now.” He stroked a hand down her back. “Take your chastisement like a good maid.”
“Why?” she started to argue from behind her gag, her breath and speech failing altogether as she felt him draw up her skirts, exposing her legs. She rolled and writhed but only succeeded in rucking up her skirts even more. A warm, callused palm tucked her gown about her middle and she was naked from the waist down. Pinned, bound, and helpless, she thought of revenge, of shaving Gawain half-bald, or smothering him in mud, and was mortified when a tear of frustration trickled down her cheek.
“You will not bite me, or anyone, again.” A large, heavy hand smacked her left bottom cheek. “You will not speak unless I invite you to.” The hand struck her right cheek. “No more argument.” Another stinging slap. “No more questions.” Again, her hips felt to burst into flame. “Never run away.” Slap! “Respect me.” Slap! Slap!
Determined not to give him the satisfaction of her tears, Matilde bit down hard into her gag. He must stop soon. I will not stay. I will run off.
Surely he will stop soon?
* * * *
Under his fierce attentions, her bottom was already a rosy pink, and promised to become bright red. Gawain smacked on with a will, his anger decreasing and arousal increasing with every swift, stirring slap. Were she a lass from the stews, I would couple with her after this and a fine, lusty joining we would make. But then of course this was not a bawdy, eager wench from the stews but a maiden, and he was not giving her a few love pats but a firm hand spanking, and warnings.
“You will always address me as ‘sir’ or ‘my lord,’ and you will not scowl. Whatever you may believe, I am no bully or monster, Matilde.” Why did I say that? I give to the poor at the castle gate and I know the lasses of the stews like me right well and will take me for free when I have no coin, but I do not have to justify myself. Flustered, Gawain laid on a battery of fast, stinging swipes to the raised, glowing target presented to him.
The girl shuddered, but she no longer kicked or tried to evade his punishment. For an instant, he even thought she raised her haunches up to him, but then he heard her whimper and he fixed instead on her scarlet face, her narrowed, tear-filled eyes. He rested his hand on her overwarm seat and thought he heard her whisper through her gag, “Stop. Please stop.”
Have I been too harsh? The thought was new to him, and disconcerting. Where he had expected to continue spanking until she broke down and wept, he untied the strip of linen he had unceremoniously thrust into her mouth and drew it away from her reddened lips. “There now. Over.”
Panting, Matilde lay sprawled over his knees, her veil lost somewhere in the undergrowth, her mass of golden hair escaping from its plait. Her face was becoming less red and strained and she swallowed.
“You will have a drink soon,” Gawain found himself saying, “but first—”
He reached under her head and brought out a small flask from his cloak. He had bartered this ointment from a peddler who had assured him of its magic and certainly. He found the stuff good on his hurts. He poured some onto his hand and palmed it smoothly over Matilde’s scarlet rump.
She sighed and he felt her relax. “Better?” he almost said, which was absurd. The girl had deserved her spanking and if she was uncomfortable, so was he. His own arousal was as hard as a sword, and he was sorely tempted to scoop her off his lap onto her back and have his way with her. Not yet, though. I need her to be a lure for the unicorn. Yet perhaps I should ensure that she is indeed a virgin. Just because a peasant girl says she is a maid does not mean she is.
But they had fought enough for one day and he wanted to believe Matilde, so he stroked and smoothed more of the ointment onto her bottom instead. Just to save her soreness, for we must ride again today.
* * * *
Matilde knew she ought to protest. No one had ever spanked her and no one had touched her as Gawain did now. But his caressing, sweeping fingers felt so alarmingly excellent, cooling and comforting. Her whole backside felt to have been pounded to a huge, throbbing blister that she had even feared might burst. She had not realized Gawain could strike so hard or fast, that his palm could hurt so much. At the same time, as her spanking had progressed, she had become aware of a different kind of heat pooling through her loins, making her womanly parts swell and become wet. And now that it was over she felt strangely safe, all the strain of the past weeks taken from her. Even his scolding had not been so terrible. The mint-scented unguent he gently worked into her scalded skin took away the bee-sting pain and left only a glowing warmth.
Again, as she had during her spanking, she lifted her hips to his attentions, higher and higher. The cool, tingling ointment glided over one cheek, then the other, Gawain’s hand cupping and molding, tender, not punishing. His fingers dipped lower, slipping lightly between her thighs, brushing her intimate folds in a single, long, lovely caress that tipped her from contentment into delight.
“Sir!” Unsure if she protested or if she was thanking him, Matilde closed her eyes and let the pleasure come.
* * * *
Was this little golden firebrand responding to him? Gawain had been unable to discipline himself and keep his roving hand in check. In truth, it had only been the faintest of touches between her thighs, one he had been prepared to deny or claim as a mistake, but now her eyes were wide and sparkling and her face flushed. Even as he raised his hand and so caught a savor of her sweet intimate scent on his fingers, she sighed. Pivoting onto her side against his ribs, she looked up at him and smiled.
“I am thirsty,” she breathed.
I spank her and she smiles at me. What next?
At a loss, Gawain smoothed down her skirts and righted her so she was sitting on his lap. His painfully aroused lap, though clearly Matilde did not know that, for she watched him quite innocently, trying at the same time to reorder her hair. He handed her his flask of ale. “Here.”
“Thank you.” She drank and offered him the flask again. “Do we move, Gawain—sir?”
She calls me by my name! The old, pre-Matilde Gawain would have hauled her back across his knees and spanked her afresh for that slip to remind her of his knightly status. Now he traced her soft lower lip with a finger. “I am glad you remembered my title in the end, Matilde.”
She colored up very prettily and lowered her head. “Yes, sir.”
He drank himself. “In a moment.” When I can move without feeling aroused.
She leaned back into the crook of his arm and they sat together in quiet.
I want to kiss her. Worse, I want Matilde to kiss me. What next?
He could hardly wait to find out.