Read Dauntless (Valiant Hearts Book #1) Online

Authors: Dina L. Sleiman

Tags: #Middle Ages—Fiction, #Robbers and outlaws—Fiction, #JUV026000, #Great Britain—History—13th century—Fiction, #Nobility—Fiction, #Adventure and adventurers—Fiction, #Orphans—Fiction, #Conduct of life—Fiction, #JUV033140, #JUV016070

Dauntless (Valiant Hearts Book #1)

BOOK: Dauntless (Valiant Hearts Book #1)
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© 2015 by Dina L. Sleiman Published by Bethany House Publishers 11400 Hampshire Avenue South

Bloomington, Minnesota 55438

www.bethanyhouse.com

Bethany House Publishers is a division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan
www
.
bakerpublishinggroup
.
com

Ebook edition created 2015

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

ISBN 978-1-4412-6537-1

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Cover design by Paul Higdon Cover model photography by Steve Gardner, PixelWorks Studios, Inc.

Author represented by The Steve Laube Agency

To my readers:

My prayer is that you will be strong and courageous. Follow the path God has laid before you, wherever that might lead. Be a doctor, a lawyer, a professional athlete, a wife, a mother, or even a president.

Chase after your dreams, and if a handsome knight in shining armor should happen to come alongside you, headed in the same direction, and you should happen to fall in love . . . then join together and become partners in your quest.

But please remember—you are complete, you are beautiful, and you are dearly loved by God just the way you are.

Contents

Cover
1

Title Page
3

Copyright Page
4

Author Note
5

Epigraph
6

Prologue
7

Chapter 1
13

Chapter 2
23

Chapter 3
33

Chapter 4
43

Chapter 5
53

Chapter 6
61

Chapter 7
73

Chapter 8
83

Chapter 9
93

Chapter 10
101

Chapter 11
111

Chapter 12
121

Chapter 13
131

Chapter 14
141

Chapter 15
149

Chapter 16
157

Chapter 17
167

Chapter 18
179

Chapter 19
189

Chapter 20
201

Chapter 21
211

Chapter 22
219

Chapter 23
231

Chapter 24
243

Chapter 25
255

Chapter 26
267

Chapter 27
279

Chapter 28
289

Chapter 29
301

Chapter 30
307

Chapter 31
315

Chapter 32
321

Chapter 33
331

Chapter 34
341

Chapter 35
349

Chapter 36
355

Historical Notes
361

Acknowledgments
365

About the Author
367

Back Ad
368

Back Cover
369

To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the L
ORD
, that he might be glorified.

—Isaiah 61:3

Prologue

I am air.

I am wind.

I am stealthy like
a cat.

A wild lynx of the forest.

I whisper my chant as I await my prey, crouched in the branches of a tree, one with it, as I must be. My green tunic and hood, my brown leggings, even my stray wisps of hair blend into the forest about me. The rough flaxen sack, the quiver and bow upon my back, add texture and disguise my feminine shape. Only my trembling hands give me away as human, as other. But I must be dauntless to accomplish this task.

Again I steel my heart. Steady its beating. Will it to turn hard and sharp like the dagger in my belt? Though I have never thrust a blade into human flesh, if needed, I think I could. I fancy myself a fearless leader, but my hands—I glance down and rub them together—my trembling hands always give me away.

Taking deep, calming breaths of maple-scented air, I study the forest across the dirt road from me, picking out the eyes from
leaves, bushes, and branches. My “men” remain well camouflaged, as usual, but if I peer closely enough, I can always find their eyes. Tough eyes, strong eyes, yet with echoes of little boys hidden in their depths, begging me to care for them. To somehow, someway, be the mother and father they each have lost, though I am naught but seventeen myself. My men will back me up, protect me with their lives if needed. But I cannot call upon them to do so.

I will do this thing alone. Stealthy like a cat. In and out before they realize. ’Tis always best this way.

In the distance, I hear the first creaks and jangles against the rustling of the leaves. I sigh. One way or another, soon it will be over—until next week, or perhaps tomorrow. I must not think about that now.

I have heard tales of a fellow in Sherwood Forest, not so terribly far away. Robyn of the Hode, they call him, with his own band of men, although I imagine his are actual
grown
men. Oh, a few of mine are large enough. And I’ve trained them to fight like the guards who once protected me . . . in a stone castle that used to be mine . . . until it was all taken away. Robyn and I, we have that in common if legend holds true.

Yes,
I tell myself,
I am ready for
this.

An explosion of bright color bursts onto the scene. Two stalwart knights on white steeds, covered with drapes of purple and red, proudly displaying some inconsequential coat of arms, ride to the front of the retinue. Another knight in a matching surcoat drives the traveling wagon and clicks to his well-trained team. The wagon itself is painted and gilded like an exotic bird swooping through the green and brown world of our forest. A wagon intended for noble travel, with a rare wooden roof and luggage fortuitously secured on top, just as my informer reported.

I await, lest there be more.

But no.

To my great relief, that is all. A rear guard would be my worst enemy. Perhaps a servant or two yet ride along back to hue the cry if trouble approaches, but no guards watch from behind. The quaking in my hands subsides to a slow tremble. If I still believed in God, I might have whispered a thanks. But I do not. I only believe in me. And the children I must protect. Robyn of the Hode might steal from the rich and give to the poor, but we are the poor, and I concern myself only with caring for us.

I ready myself. Stealth and silence. These are my allies. Cunning and the forest. My forest. And timing. Timing is of the utmost. I will rely on these, and I will prevail.

I give my men the signal. The whistling call of a crested lark.

As the wagon approaches, I scramble along my branch at precisely the right moment and hop onto the roof with nary a thud. I hold tight for a moment, but if the occupants sensed a disturbance, they must have thought it naught but a bump in the road. With great haste I rifle through bags and trunks, grabbing up food supplies and useful trinkets, stashing them in the sack upon my back but leaving nothing amiss.

I catch a flash out of the corner of my eye. My men flying through the forest, quiet as phantoms alongside the wagon.

There remains one last chest. A small one. Locked. I know what this means, and I must make my choice in an instant. It may be the difference between meager dinner and feast. Between prison and death. But our funds run low. One never knows when a little one might need a physician. Or we might require quick passage aboard a ship. And so I stash it as well, with not a moment to spare.

Just ahead, there it is.

The most delicate part of this mission. My escape branch—higher than the one I descended from. I must jump to catch it
and swing myself up before I am spotted. One fraction of a moment off and all could be lost. I must account for the extra weight upon my back. But I have trained for this.

Moving closer to the front of the wagon, I leap, a cat, at just the right time. I catch the branch and swing myself up, clutching, clinging, indeed like a scared kitten.

The wagon continues down the road, no one the wiser. My branch sways ever so slightly as a servant perched on the rear board stares up into the puffy white clouds while picking at his teeth with a stick. And then they are gone, around the next bend.

Once upon a time I, too, stared into clouds, dreaming they were dragons, or flowers, or . . . or handsome princes who would carry me away.

But I no longer believe in handsome princes. So I climb down the tree and am met by a quiet but hearty round of hugs from my men. They slap me on the back, grinning like the overgrown children they are.

“Good job, Lady Merry,” whispers Allen, as Red and Cedric boost me atop their shoulders.

I wish he would not call me that.

Red grunts. “She’s heavy today, boys.”

“Must have caught us something good!” Henry, only fourteen, nearly shrieks with delight.

We all shush him.

James returns the conversation to a whisper. “I’d say she caught us an awfully big fish.”

“I think you shall be pleased,” I say with a sly smile. Taking my sack from my back, I withdraw the small ornate chest and display it for them.

They stare in reverent silence.

“But you know what this means.” Shrewd Robert, always a step ahead of the others, knows that if gold lies in that chest,
we shall have to move camp. I had only stolen anything so substantial once before, and we all agreed if it happened again, we must move on.

“’Tis worth it.” Red waves his hand in dismissal. “A great story and an even greater victory!”

“Besides,” says Cedric, “’tis high time we start a new adventure.”

A new adventure indeed. I will miss this stretch of forest, which has grown to be a friend, but I agree with Cedric. Time for a fresh start. Whispers already circulate through the surrounding villages that ghosts reside in these woods, stealing from passing travelers. The Ghosts of Farthingale Forest. Would anyone believe that ghosts had need of gold?

We have survived for nearly two years here, but we can start again. “Let us get back to camp for now. The chest is locked, and we need to pick it. No doubt the girls and the little ones are anxious for our return.”

Being carried through the woods thus, seeing the appreciative smiles of my men, hearing the joy in their voices, makes it all worthwhile. But a piece of me will always long to be back at camp like the other girls, caring for the children, preparing the meals. No, not at camp. In the castle great hall with my mother, embroidering and playing the lute. Waiting for my father to run through the door and catch me in a warm embrace. But those days are long gone, and truth be told, embroidery never made my blood rush like a successful plunder.

I grin in spite of myself.

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