Countess Jacqueline

Chapter I

MAY 1414

Philip, the eldest son of Duke John of Burgundy, rode his steed across the meadow and all eyes fell upon him.  “I see no youngster wench among these Dutch,” he whispered to his two companions.  “I hoped to at least catch a glimpse of her before my father so hastily seals our fate.”

“Have faith in Milord’s decision,” Renard advised.  He and Geoffrey were first squires to the Duke and close friends of Philip.  In contrast to both, he was a handsome youth with crystal-blue eyes and sun-painted hair cropped short.  “The Duke’s plan to gain control of the Netherlands through your marriage to Lord William’s daughter is ingenious, one that will surely force France to surrender and place Burgundy on equal ground with England.” 

“I understand his plight…” It was the route his father chose that pricked him.  “Geoffrey told me plenty about the spoiled and unruly Countess.”

“And what would he know of it?  I was born and raised near these heathlands yet heard no such talk.  How could the beastly squire know more than I?”

Geoffrey overheard Renard’s remarks and wedged his mount between them.  “One of these days, Fox, I’m going to cram that sneering tongue of yours down your pretty throat.  While others spoke of her, you undoubtedly were too busy crowing about yourself to hear anything else.” 

“And I’ll wager my trusted horse that you inflated the truth again as you so often do for attention,” Renard threw back, undaunted by the enormity of his red-headed friend or the fury in his seething green eyes.  “Well, out with it.  What ridiculous tale has Philip so upset?”

“It is not a tale!  One of the Countess’ own soldiers described her as a fire-spitting she-devil who curses like a heathen and explodes into violent fits when denied her pleasure.  And she rules a flock of mammoth creatures that feed upon the blood of humans.”

Renard burst out laughing.  But in the next moment, he heard a strange noise coming from the forest and abruptly halted his steed.  

He turned and caught sight of a huge bird flying swiftly, yet gracefully through the trees.  A hawk, he surmised, yet it was of incredible size with double the wingspan and twice the speed.  He watched in awe, wondering how the raptor survived such a treacherous flight, and a faint rumbling came next, like distant thunder but at ground level.  Soon, he recognized it as hooves pummeling the muddy earth at a ferocious pace.

The goshawk suddenly burst forth from the trees, swooping low across the meadow and soaring high with its shrill ‘kareen’ piercing the air.  The crowd gasped with surprise as the mammoth bird circled the open field in a pomp and circumstance manner before perching in the tallest tree.

“God’s wounds!” Geoffrey gasped.  “That bird’s talons are larger than my hands.”

“He is searching for his master,” Philip observed.  “I wonder which brave noble lays claim to such a magnificent hunter?”

As everyone stared at the hawk, Renard’s focus remained within the forest where he spotted a white Arabian stallion charging through the heart of it.  The steed veered to the left then right around tree trunks, kicking clumps of dirt high into the air, although his movements were so swift and agile, it seemed his hooves barely touched the ground at all.  Riding atop the silver flash was a girl of slight size, almost miniature in comparison.  She straddled the animal’s broad back and lay low, dodging low-hanging branches.  A thin bow draped her shoulders and the dagged sleeves of her ivory coloured gown flapped behind her like the wings of an angel.  When she left the shadows and entered the sunny clearing, her long dark curls shimmered with crimson.

The crowd turned to watch her now as she dashed across the level sod at an even faster pace.  The goshawk took flight again when she appeared, flying in shallow circles over her head and calling to her as it went.  A sleek greyhound in full career followed close behind, barely winded by the hearty gallop or the hindrance of a dead snake clenched tightly between his teeth.  Though Renard would be hard pressed to admit it, he had never witnessed such an impressive sight.  The girl appeared more like a mythical faerie queen, glowing white and fearlessly charging across her domain with the beasts as her protectors. 

She maintained her lightning speed and intentionally headed for the thick of the crowd.  As she closed in, she seemed unconcerned about the women shrieking in panic and scurrying for cover.  Rather, she appeared to enjoy such sport and even flashed a victorious smile. 

When she suddenly sat upright, her horse instantly stopped in his tracks, an arm’s length away from a group of male elders.  She tossed her head back with a delightful song of laughter and raised her gloved arm to receive her hawk. 

She was a petite maiden with fair skin and cheeks flushed pink from the hearty ride.  Her thick auburn hair fell in ringlets down the length of her back, contrasting greatly with her white fitted gown, pinned up for riding.  Under different circumstances, Renard never would have taken notice of her, since no maiden in his mind compared to his beloved Raissa.  Yet, the girl’s reckless and flamboyant entrance gripped him. 

With similar intrigue, Philip charged forth to join his father. 

Jacqueline sent her bird into flight and slid off her horse.  Spitefully, she snatched the adder dangling dead in her greyhound’s mouth and marched toward her father with both her dog and horse obediently trailing her steps.

“Forgive me for tarrying in the forest too long, Father.”  She kissed Lord William’s cheek in greeting, yet her icy glare remained planted on the Duke.  “This impudent viper was skulking in the woods thinking he could corner me.”  She lifted the bloody snake up then dropped it at Duke John’s feet.  “Kosmos had a grand time thrashing him to death.” 

The Duke frowned.  “I see you haven’t lost your boyish ways, Lady Jacqueline.  Yet that should come with maturity.”  He turned to his son.  “I would like to introduce you to Philip.  He is sole heir to my reign and preparing for knighthood.  His combat skills surpass those of his own teachers and already he is one of the best archers in Burgundy.”

Philip stood proudly by his father’s side and bowed to her.  “I am honored to meet you, Lady Jacqueline.  Perhaps you will allow me to prove my worth as a hunting companion one day soon.”

“Why not now?”  She glanced around.  “There is a rancid quince dangling from that bush across the meadow.  Why not impress me by plucking it from the branch with your arrow?”

Philip tipped his head in confusion.  “I beg your pardon?”

“If you are as skilled as your father boasts, the task should be simple for you,” she challenged.

The crowd fell silent, waiting for him to accept, but Philip was busy contemplating the great distance between himself and the quince.

“It’s a might far,” Geoffrey whispered to him.

“Yet possible,” she returned.

Geoffrey glared at her.  “There’s little meat to it!”

“Shall I choose an easier target?”

“Nay!” the Duke yelled.  “My son could strike it blindfolded.”

Philip snapped out of his trance and grudgingly reached for his bow and arrow.  As he prepared his weapon, he considered the tremendous humiliation that would surely come if he missed, which seemed more likely than not.  Yet, he didn’t dare let his father down and prove himself a coward for not attempting the feat.  With those thoughts hounding him, he eyed the minute target, cursed his brazen challenger and lifted the bow.  With every eye upon him, he slowly drew the arrow back and held his breath to steady his aim.  He kept that stance a moment longer, praying he wouldn’t miss.

Another arrow whizzed by his ear, struck the target dead center and felled the quince. 

Philip swung around.

“You were taking too long.” Jacqueline slid the bow back over her shoulder.  “Had it been a rabbit, it would have escaped halfway to Paris by the time you took your shot.”

Everyone burst out laughing, except the visitors. 

“If your daughter is through poking fun, William, I would like to continue our discussion in private,” the Duke stated.

“Certainly.  Run along, Jacqueline,” William instructed, trying to contain his amusement.  “Show our guests to the feeding table.  There is plenty of roasted venison and pheasant for all.”

“I’ll not leave, Father.  My place is here with you.”

“Do as you are told,” William said more firmly, although his voice was still laced with pride and affection.  “I promise our conversation will be brief.”

It was the way her father spoke rather than the words themselves that silenced her and her dimples caved with another wicked thought.  She sweetened her tone, innocently batted her long, black lashes at Philip, and posed, “Shall we take a short ride instead?  Our heathlands are quite beautiful this time of year.”

Philip hesitated, as did Geoffrey.  The two brave squires stood there contemplating every dreaded consequence while studying her, the dead snake on the ground and the mammoth hawk perched in the tree above their heads.

She quickly mounted her horse and spat, “Or is the next ruler of Burgundy too much of a coward?”  And she dashed off.

Without thought or permission, Renard leapt upon his steed and chased after her.  He had never acted so impulsively, yet he never refused a challenge either.  And hers was irresistible.  So, he followed close behind her into the forest and drove his horse hard to narrow the distance between them.  It was his most exhilarating ride ever.  His steed whisked past the tight maze of trees, smashed through dense thickets, and leapt over fallen logs.  He never once glimpsed behind him, so whether his companions kept up the frantic pace or had even mounted their steeds yet, he couldn’t know.

All he saw was the feisty wench in front of him and her huge silver beast that seemed more like a powerful arrow skillfully plucked from its bow and shooting through the forest.  Luckily, his horse was youthful and strong enough to endure this rigorous exercise.  Yet, he didn’t want to trail behind her.  He grew intent to surpass the girl.  He was used to the win, thrived upon it, and his vast experiences had taught him that there was more than one way to achieve victory.

He noticed Jacqueline dart around the trees and brush as though she were following some uncharted path.  That theory urged him to take a closer look at these familiar surroundings.  They headed west along the crest of the hills.  Ahead of them would be a grove of sharp, needled evergreens too dangerous to navigate at this hearty pace.  That being the case, she would veer south down the slope to the narrow brook they had crossed earlier.  Since her route backtracked, he could easily reach their destination by cutting straight across with plenty of time to spare. 

Renard smirked and guided his horse off her trail.  He lost the hawk, the dog and the silver beast.  For a few minutes, he feared he lost his bearings, too, but when he spotted the brook, he knew the race was his.

He waited there upon his steed, all puffed up with pride.  Only then did he question his reasons for accepting her childish dare.  He’d acted no better than a randy buck, and he knew Geoffrey would never let him hear the end of it.  Still, the girl surprised him…stunned him really.  No doubt much of it had to do with Geoffrey’s harsh description of her and how she had so smartly put both Philip and Duke John in their place.  He doubted anyone else had ever found the courage to stand up to either of them, let alone a girl of thirteen.

The hawk alerted him of her arrival and he waited there, gloating, knowing she would be furious when she saw him there.  And he looked forward to being the recipient of her cat-eyed glare this time.  She thrived on the win, too, which was her purpose for this chase.  Other girls would have submitted weakly or allowed their father to fight their battles for them.  The future countess of Holland did neither.  She stood up for herself and, in all fairness, deserved credit for her efforts. 

That thought caused him to rethink his desire to win this race and his cocky smile washed away.  Suddenly, besting her at a time when the Duke was attempting to manipulate her for his own gain seemed as unfair as slipping a potion into the opponent’s drink minutes before the joust.

She descended the slope with the same incredible speed.  Her horse dashed by him and soared over the brook with all the grace of a white-tailed deer, easily clearing it and halting on the other side.  Jacqueline remained silent for a moment, mentally grasping how he had come to be here first.  Renard said nothing either, for he was wishing he could do this over, differently.

“Where is my dear cousin Philip and the buffoon wearing the horned helmet?” she asked.

“My guess is three miles back, scouting our trail.”

Her eyelids grew heavy, yet pensively rather than with disdain as before.  “Who are you?” 

“Francis Renard Borselen, first squire.  Renard to my friends.” 

“Borselen...” she considered.  “Are you related to the Lord of Metz?”

Renard nodded.  “I am his son.”

She smiled and sighed with relief.  “Ah…you know this land, then.  I thought either that or you had the powers of God.”  She freed sticky strands of hair from her neck, then dismounted and led her horse to the stream.

“I took advantage and found a shortcut,” Renard admitted, still waiting for her defenses to surface.

“There were no rules, you won fairly.”

Her response surprised him.  She not only lost her anger when he was sure it would go the other way, but she also seemed relaxed, almost casual with him, as though chatting with an old friend.  “Would you say the same if Philip was in my stead?”

“You pose no threat to me.”

“Neither does Philip, I expect.  From what I hear, you get your way on all things.”

She picked up a long, broken twig and swirled the tip of it in the water.  As the circles spread wide, she became mesmerized by them.  “The freedom of my people comes first above all else.  If marrying Philip guaranteed it, I would agree regardless of what was in my heart.” 

Again, she tripped him.  He wondered if that was the reason for her betrothal to the Prince of France.  Whereas her marriage to Philip would secure the northern borders of Burgundy, marrying Prince John, heir to the French throne, would guarantee the Netherlands similar security.  Yet, he wasn’t about to press the issue, for certainly it was none of his concern. 

He swung his leg around and dropped to the ground.  Though the brook separated them, her horse began snorting and stomping his hoof, warning him to keep his distance.  “You have impressive followers.”

She cooed to her steed and pet his cheek to ease his restlessness.  “They were precious gifts from my father.  Feodor was an orphan colt and only a few days old when my father found him in the forest not far from here.  A knight at our castle trained him for me.  Feodor gave him quite a hard time and Dag still insists he is too unpredictable to ride, but he obeys my every command.”

“The horse or your knight?” Renard chuckled and she caught her first smile. 

“People are far less cooperative.”  She glanced at her dog sitting obediently by her side on the water’s edge.  “Kosmos is the most sensible of us.  He quickly grows tired of our frolics and prefers the hunt.”  She glanced upwards with a look of complete adoration.  “Above us flies Kineta.”

Renard grinned and recited, “A flash of light and beauty, then only my Kineta’s perfume...”

“You know the poem?  You surprise me, fair-haired squire.  You hardly seem the type to memorize such tender verses.”

“My mother favored Alexander’s writings.  The last verse in Burning Heart is inscribed on her gravestone.”

“Truly?  She must have been quite dear to you.  You have my sympathy.”  Jacqueline suddenly removed her pointed felt shoes, gathered the folds of her skirt into her arms, and trudged through the stream to join him on the other side. 

Her horse and dog trailed behind her.  Her movements were lumbering and awkward, lacking every graceful lesson taught to young girls of nobility.  Yet, when she stood before him, she appeared quite fetching indeed, as she held that same look of adoration on him now.

“Do you remember the secret hideaway in the Cascade of Divinity?” she whispered as though someone might hear.  “I found such a place, Renard, where the brook flows over a magnificent rock ledge into a steamy pool of water.  The olive trees are missing, but otherwise it’s the same.  Even the air is richly fragrant with hyacinth.  And it is so well hidden, I am certain no one else has discovered it.”

His head was filling with her fragrance, a sweet-smelling perfume that was light and familiar to him, yet indiscernible.  “Are you thinking the place is enchanted like the poem suggests?”

“I was there earlier today.  I cast a stone into the waters exactly as it was written and made my wish,” she confessed.

“Did your pebble skip five times?”  When she nodded, he assured her, “Then your wish shall come true, no doubt.  Yet…I wonder what you wished for.  You seem to have all that anyone could want.  Even the countship of Holland will be yours one day.”

She fell silent.

“Could it have something to do with your desire to rule France, too?  I met Prince John a few times, and, if you don’t mind my saying, he does not seem a suitable match for you.” 

In the blink of an eye, her mood shifted again.  “And you think Philip would make a better match?  Honestly, I see no need to secure my country through any marriage.  We are peaceful people without rich resources to share with the world.  We thrive because we are left on our own.  Things would be quite different if France or Burgundy were given any say in how we lived.  Our heritage and traditions would be lost forever, causing our people discontent.  Holland would no longer exist as a small and peaceful country in the north, but simply a partition of a more powerful and intrusive entity.”

“Duke John worries about invaders arriving by sea.  An allegiance with Burgundy would guarantee the security of your shores.”

“We have no need for any security other than our own soldiers,” she returned with a glow of pride.  “They are a fine lot.  Perhaps stronger in determination than in numbers, but that can win battles, too, can it not?”

Her words and the conviction behind them captured his senses.   He’d never heard such a loyal speech from a mere child.  She showed tell-true signs of a great leader.  “Honestly, after this meeting I agree that both you and your country would do far better on your own.”

Her eyes suddenly caught fire and looked like two golden gems glistening in the sunlight.  “Come with me to the wishing pool, Renard.  I have been aching to share it with someone, but only you would appreciate it as much as I do.”

“Now?”

“We are halfway there as it is, and it is such a wondrous place.”

Oddly, he considered it for a moment.  But he heard voices drifting from the hill.  “Philip is coming...”

“If my wish comes true, you will regret not making one of your own,” she added quickly.

With all his heart, he wanted to traipse through this wonderland with her, the young filly with golden eyes.  She didn’t possess Raissa’s beauty, but she had bedeviled him upon sight with her unbridled spirit and mystical charm.  And if Philip hadn’t called to him just now, he might have taken flight with her again and dealt with the consequences later.

“Blast it all!” Philip shouted.  “We had a hell of a time finding you.  I am covered head to toe with dirt.”

“I expected to find you as mangled as that snake,” Geoffrey yelled.

“Coward…” Jacqueline whispered as she turned and mounted her horse.

“My duty lies with Philip and his father, Milady.”

“They are both pompous idiots!”

Philip approached.  “What did she say?”

Renard winked at her and climbed upon his own steed.  “Lady Jacqueline is gloating in the fact that she outran us all.”

“Even you, Fox?” Geoffrey slapped his knee with laughter.  “Ah, this is rich!  Someone finally bested the crafty fox and it was neither a trained knight nor a skilled soldier.  The great future Lord of Borselen Hall was beaten by a mere...”

“A mere what, you overgrown buffoon?” Jacqueline yelled.  “At least he was in the running.  The two of you couldn’t keep pace with a slug.” 

Philip dragged his neck cloth across his brow.  “Please, Lady Jacqueline, we are all feeling the stress of this situation.”

“And why should you?  This situation, as you call it, is entirely your fault.  I rejected your letter of proposal and yet you appear unannounced during our holiday to press the issue.  You must have a grossly high opinion of yourself if you think for one moment I would disregard my pledge to Prince John for the likes of you.”

“It is a matter of politics!  And this trip was my father’s idea, certainly not mine.”  With his harsh words, Kineta shrieked and Kosmos started snarling at him.

“You would be wise to hold your tone in check when you speak to me,” she warned.  “My friends might think you intend me harm.”

Philip lowered his voice.  “Frankly, you could use a good swat on your behind.  You act no better than a toddler spoiled rotten, and I thank my lucky stars your father refused the proposal.  Someone should have taught you how to act like a lady.”

“You’ll be glad I haven’t grown into a lady quite yet.”  Carefully, she unleashed her bow from around her shoulder, slid an arrow from her purse and took aim.

Geoffrey panicked.  “Bejaises!  What’s she doing?”

“Put that weapon down, Lady Jacqueline!” Philip ordered.

Renard remained calm.  “I suggest you sit still and let her take her shot.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Geoffrey yelled.  “She’ll kill us all!”

“Not kill...just wound,” Jacqueline corrected.

Hysterically, Philip and Geoffrey fumbled around like scatterbrains, yelling at her and each other as they tried to find their weapons and snatch them in hand before she fired.  But Jacqueline took quick and careful aim and sent her arrow swishing between the two of them, into the leg of a wild boar descending upon them from the hills.  With her command, Kosmos charged after the wounded animal and chased him back into the woods.

Renard smiled and nodded his approval.  “Well done, Milady.”

She swung the bow over her shoulder.  “After what Philip said, I should have let the swine devour him.”

“Now you can add compassion to your list of qualities.,” Renard kidded.

“She undoubtedly sent the boar after us in the first place,” Philip muttered.  “She befriended every other wild beast around here.”

“You are angry that I bested you thrice today,” Jacqueline quipped.  “In archery, horseback and a rejection of marriage.”

“I have had my fill of this childish banter.”  Philip steered his horse back the way they came and Geoffrey followed him.

Renard remained where he was.  He rested an elbow on his knee and held a tender smile on her.  “Meeting you this day was an unexpected pleasure, Lady Jacqueline.  Grant me one favor.”

She tossed her hair back.  “Perhaps...”

He waited a moment until he caught her flippant gaze.  “Make a wish for me in your enchanted pool.”

“And what shall I wish for?”

“Find the smoothest, shiniest pebble and skip it across those steamy waters five times exactly.  Then…wish for our paths to cross again.”

She tried to conceal her delight, yet her eyes deceived her.  “I shall do so, Squire.  If it comes true, perhaps then you will find the courage to ride with me to that magical place...”  And she dashed away on her silver beast with wings.

“Are you coming, Fox?” Geoffrey called out.

Renard watched her until she was out of sight.  “‘Illusive girl of mythical fame, seen only by dreamers and poets...’”