"His lordship is right this way, Sir Knight," Magda explained. As a lady-in-waiting to Lord Cronqvist's wife, Elisabetha, it often fell to her to receive guests when the master and his chatelaine were absent or unavailable. "May I offer you refreshment, though, a cup of wine at the least after your journey?"

Sir Bogdan, indeed did show evidence of a hard ride, his armor and surcoat stained by travel dust and his bearded face streaked with grime and perspiration. Nonetheless, he continued to wave aside all Magda's attempts to be a hospitable hostess.

"I am sorry, but this cannot wait a moment longer than is necessary, not even for so small a thing as that." The knight's voice was deep and powerful, which suited the huge, bearlike man to perfection. Magda found it faintly repulsive; like the animal stink brought on by Bogdan's hard ride to Castle Cronqvist it made her think of him as being more beast than man.

"As you wish, Sir Bogdan." She led him down the narrow passage to the garden that lay in the hub of the castle. At least, she reflected, he was decently mannered; others in his position could be--and had been--needlessly curt and insulting to her. Physically, however, he nauseated Magda. She wondered if Bogdan had a wife, and if she was as repelled as Magda would have been at being clasped in those animal-like arms.

Mathias, Lord Cronqvist, was a very different sort of man. As they entered the garden the sight of him took Magda's breath away as it always did. He was tall and lean with the beauty of a fallen angel, his long, dark hair flowing unrestrained past his shoulders and framing a face lovely enough to be a maiden's were it not for the compelling power of the eyes beneath the sharply arched brows. He stood by a low stone bench upon which sat a pale blonde, her hand in his. Some would consider the lady Elisabetha fair, even beautiful, but next to her husband she looked to be but a colorless imitation of true beauty. Yet Mathias doted upon the sickly wench with a dedication that bordered on the obsessive. Unlike other noblemen, he never so much as looked at another woman.

At times Magda believed she could hate him for that.

-X X X-

In truth, Mathias was not actually unaware of the attention he received from the fair sex. He merely dismissed it as irrelevant, the same way he dismissed the idiotic assumption of many men that he was somehow weak in body and mind because he was pleasing to look at.

Elisabetha understood this. She knew appearances were only that. She'd won his interest by not once mentioning his face or form during their courtship; she'd won his heart by her sweetness, kindness, and acuity of thought. What he'd do without her, he did not know.

He feared, however, that he would soon learn. She was ill, quite grievously so. The roses had faded from her pallid cheeks, and she tired easily, especially at night when the son's warmth was denied her, for like a flower she seemed to draw strength from its light and heat.

Still, there was reason to hope.

"Truly, my love, I do feel stronger," she reassured him. "I hardly think a turn about the garden shall do me harm. Indeed, it shall be good to be out in the open air and smell the flowers as they grow."

She did seem to have enjoyed herself--her pleasure was open and obvious. At the end she'd begun to feel a bit faint, and Mathias had swiftly urged her to sit and rest a while, but the episode passed quickly, in but a minute or two.

"You see, Mathias?" she said happily. "I am much improved. The elixir you prepare for me is doing its work well."

He shook his head.

"Hardly the elixir vitae, my dear. It is merely a Saracen medicine, with nothing alchemical about it. A Byzantine acquaintance of mine brought the recipe back from the Holy Land."

"Is their science truly so much more advanced than ours?"

Mathias could not help but chuckle dryly.

"Consider, my love, that with the exception of Father Karel, we two are the sole literate people in this castle. In chemistry, mathematics, logic, rhetoric, astronomy--all the natural sciences--they far surpass European learning. This includes, of course, medicine. And to think that we are the inheritors of the glory that was Rome."

Elisabetha shook her head sadly.

"I had thought we were a learned race."

"Learned in the ways of God, perhaps. But as we lift our eyes to Heaven, we let wane our attention to the world around us."

There was bitterness in his voice, the bitterness of an intellectual in a world that respected only faith and valor. It was not until he had been able to turn his intellect to the arts of war and the glory of their knightly company that Mathias had won a measure of respect. As the master tactician, it was his strategies that had led to the company's unblemished record in battle, when those strategies were carried out under the leadership of Leon, Baron Belmont.

"Perhaps we should do something, Mathias," Elisabetha said. "I am sure there are many within our lands who have been gifted with minds that crave learning but can find none. A way could be found to educate them, to prepare them for something better in life."

His first response was scornful; for his part Mathias saw no reason to keep the fools from stewing in the juice of their own ignorance and superstition. He did not give voice to that sentiment, however, for the pain he knew it would cause Elisabetha. And indeed, perhaps she was right. What would his life have been like had he not been born heir to a noble house, where he at least had the opportunity to feed his mind what it craved?

"Perhaps we should, at that," he said, and took her frail hand between his.

"Pardon me, Lord Cronqvist," a voice cut into the peace of their time together, "but you have a visitor on a most urgent errand."

It was the girl Magda, a distant cousin of Elisabetha's who acted as his wife's lady-in-waiting. Mathias was not fond of the brunette, who seemed entirely too fond of him in turn, so he ignored her as best he could. Had Elisabetha not objected, he'd have sent Magda back to her family, but this would have meant disgrace and an end to any chance of a good marriage for the girl and so his wife's soft heart had won out.

There were times, Mathias thought, that Elisabetha's spirit was a shade too good. To refuse to betray a woman who had eyes for her own husband...there was such a thing as taking Christian forgiveness too far.

A moment later, Mathias realized that he'd managed to do the well-nigh impossible: to overlook the massive form of Sir Bogdan coming up behind Magda.

"Sir Bogdan, you've clearly had a hard journey. What brings you to my home with such haste?"

"The king's command, my lord. The heretics have arisen again and must be stamped out."

The Archbishop's command, then, Mathias thought.

"Surely His Majesty does not need an elite company to suppress some village rabble fallen under the sway of some preacher whose theological arcana they barely understand?"

"It's not so simple as that, my lord. Whether through naked ambition or the spell of some fiend"--Bogdan's scornful tone and curled lip made it clear he believed the former explanation--"the knight of the region, Sir Ferenc, has adopted the ways of Albigensianism and offered the heretics the protection of his men-at-arms."

"Treasonous dog," Mathias growled, quickly analyzing the political factors. "If he can hold out another six weeks, winter will be upon us. By the time the snows melt he'll have had time to sway at least two or three of his disaffected neighbors to his side. Heretics will swell his ranks with fanatical hopes of defeating the Church. By spring His Majesty will have a full-blown rebellion to cope with."

Elisabetha gasped in shock.

"Oh, no. Mathias--"

"It's a possible scenario, nothing more."

"I'd say it's just what His Majesty fears," Bogdan put in. "That is why we are to assemble and crush out the revolt before it has a chance to take root, for God and King alike."

Mathias nodded.

"Very well. I shall be ready to join the company in one week," he declared, judging that by that time Elisabetha should be well on the road to recovery.

"My lord Cronqvist," Bogdan said apologetically, "that will not be acceptable. His Majesty's command was that the company is to assemble immediately. As you said, my lord, time is of the essence."

"Sir Bogdan, my wife is only beginning to recover from a grave illness." He looked down tenderly at her. "I must stay and see to her care a bit longer."

"My lord, I regret the necessity, but we cannot spare your presence."

Mathias snorted derisively.

"Oh, please. You know as well as I do that Leon is quite capable of leading the company to victory without me. It's him they--we--follow. It is his skills and leadership that carry the day."

"Maybe so. Perhaps we would still crush Sir Ferenc before winter without your presence. Consider, though, how many knights and footmen will die in the nooks and crannies of those hills without your orchestration of the campaign to lure the heretics onto ground to our advantage."

Sir Bogdan was no fool. Baron Belmont might be able to ride into Hell and take on the Archfiend himself, but he simply did not have the chess-master's knack for seizing the tactical advantage. Though, to be fair, Leon was well aware of that weakness within himself, which was one reason he worked so well with Mathias; the two men's abilities complemented each other perfectly and they each trusted the other to fulfill his part.

Bogdan was right. Without Mathias's presence, men would die.

Yet what were their lives next to Elisabetha's?

"We'll speak of this more on the morrow," he declared. "The sun will be gone soon, and neither one of us can be expected to press on until morning. I can at least offer you the hospitality of my home and a decent night's rest. Magda, if you would make certain a room is prepared for Sir Bogdan and a place set for him at the table when we dine?"

"Of course, my lord, " she said with a curtsey that dipped a bit too low.

Bogdan met Mathias's gaze, as if he was intent upon challenging the lord further, but he held his tongue. With a stiff nod, he turned and followed Magda from the garden. By no means was it over, Mathias knew; the knight would surely press the point at or following supper rather than wait until the next day.

"Is he right, Mathias?" Elisabetha asked. "If you tarry, will good men die in battle?"

"Let us not talk of it, my love," he said, sitting down beside her. "War is a brutal and stupid business at its best, and you should not have to be troubled by it."

"I am not some innocent child who needs to be protected," she chided.

"No, not a child," he agreed, "but as for protection, that is something I have sworn to give you. I would give my soul to see you safe and happy."

A chill breeze swirled just then through the garden, as if blown by the lips of some mocking spirit, causing fallen, dried leaves to rattle against stone walls in the corners. Elisabetha gasped as the wind washed over the couple, but not from the cold.

"Mathias, don't say that, not even in jest!"

It had not, he reflected, been a jest, but he nodded in assent. There was no point in upsetting her. Instead, he slipped an arm around Elisabetha's shoulders and they watched the sun set together, her head pillowed against his chest while he gently stroked her hair.