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Cecelia Holland was born in 1943 and has written 24 historical novels, the first of which was published in 1966. The New York Times has called her a "literary phenomenon." She attended Connecticut College and now lives in Northern California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
From Chapter One:
Other pilgrims offered silver at the shrine; Maria brought an armful of wildflowers. She laid the vivid little blue blossoms down at the foot of the Virgin and smiled into the statue's face. In the gloom of the cave, her flowers were the only color. Kneeling, she began the prayers she had come here to say.
She asked for the rescue of the Holy Sepulcher from the Saracens, for her father's good health and salvation, and for her own call into the holy life. The raw stone floor was damp and uneven beneath her knees. The air lay icy against her cheeks. She crossed herself. Down the slot in the rock that led to this cave, her escort talked and shuffled their feet. She closed her ears to the noise and willed the womanly stone face above her to soften and call her into a marriage with God.
The dank air raised gooseflesh on her arms. She started to shiver. The moment of rapture faded. For a few more prayers she struggled to bring it back, but the clammy cold and the sounds of the men outside the cave distracted her. She genuflected to the Virgin and went out the door into the cool spring sunlight.
The knights and their grazing horses were scattered over the meadow and down the slope in the sun. Across the little yard, beneath the beech trees, Elena was standing with the monk who served the shrine. All smiles, the monk started toward her, and the maid with the heap of Maria's cloak and hat followed after. She reached Maria's side, digging into her basket for the gift of money. Maria pushed the maid's hand with the offering toward the monk. She hated giving money to God. Elena helped her settle her wide hat on her head and tie the ribbons under her chin.
"God keep your highness," the monk said. His pale fingers counted the purse expertly through the leather and dropped it out of sight in his sleeve. "I hope your gracious and most mighty father is faring well this spring?"
Maria mumbled some answer and went past him toward her horse. The monk hurried around to hold her bridle for her. She could not meet his eyes. She felt like a fool, shy and stupid. Behind her, Elena spoke smoothly to the monk, assuring him of Robert Strongarm's good health. Elena was no older than Maria, but she was always able to talk to men, even strangers. Maria gathered her reins.
This year her father had sent only six knights with her, keeping back the rest for some other purpose. They were lining up at the far end of the meadow, next to the road, and she nudged her horse toward them. She knew none of the knights' names; she saw them only in groups, all doing the same thing. While they arranged themselves around her, she looked up at the steep hillside above the cave. Hermits lived up there, safe from the world, close to God. On her mule Elena rode into their midst. The straw basket hooked on her arm was full of apples for their dinner. Side by side, the two girls rode out of the yard.
The shrine was in the hill country north of Maria's castle, and their way home led them over the steep little hills, half-covered with brush. Occasionally, in the west, the sunlight flashed on the sea. Elena got out the apples, gave two to Maria, and scrubbed one on her sleeve to a hot shine. The mailed coats of the knights around them jingled softly. No one talked.
Maria ate one apple and rolled the other up in her sleeve. Through the corner of her eye, she studied the young knight on her left. He looked hardly older than she-Maria was fourteen. He was tall and slender, his face pretty as a girl's. His helmet covered his head. She wondered what color his hair was. Beside her, Elena was munching through her second apple. Perhaps this boy was Elena's knight-she had hinted that someone highborn loved her. Maria thought Elena's ruddy cheeks and wide lips were coarse, but she did have nice hands. A ballad singer once had sung of a knight who fell in love with a glimpse of a maid's white hands.
The flinty road curled along the slope ahead of them, half-hidden in the hairy leaves of the overgrowth. When the bushes blossomed, all these ugly hills would be flooded with red and yellow. She liked to make her year's pilgrimage just at Easter, in hopes of riding through the bloom, but the winter had been dry and she was too early. Now the young knight rode slightly ahead of her. From this angle he was not so pretty. She waited for another glimpse of the sea.
Elena leaned toward her. "Did you see the lay brother at the shrine? He said he would give me his gold cross, the next time we come, if I sit with him in the orchard." She giggled. "Let's go again in the summer, he says there are lots more people there-foreigners, people from all over."
"Why would you want to sit with him?"
"If you had a lover you would understand."
"I will understand now. Tell me."
Elena giggled and turned her head away. Under the cloth of her bodice, her round breasts were like two apples. Maria knew that Elena stuffed her bodice with linen. Maria arched her back, to thrust out her own breasts, and sneaked a glance at her shadow on the ground; she could see no difference.
The warmth of the sun lulled her to sleep. In the early afternoon, she woke and talked to Elena. The long day's riding had stiffened her legs and she let her feet dangle. They had climbed up into the hills. Short wind-driven trees curled in among the gray-green bushes and the rocks. Where the boy-knight had been was a man with gray eyes. Maria went back to sleep.
A yell brought her awake with a jolt so sharp she grabbed her horse's mane. The knights were surging up around her. Hoofs battered on the ground. All around her were the heavy mailed bodies of the men and their plunging horses. Somewhere people were screeching. Maria's horse reared, flailing out with its hoofs. An arrow jutted from its neck, fletched with red feathers. She jumped down to the ground. Iron rang on iron. The thrusting flanks and shoulders of horses walled her in. Her mare sank to its knees. Elena's mule was gone. A stallion's wide rump swung toward her, and she dodged its heels. The horse's tail lashed her cheek.
Ten feet away in the road, Elena lay sprawled on her back. She would be trampled. Maria went toward her. A knight bolted by her, and she heard a voice screaming in the Saracen tongue. The air was heavy with dust. She bent and seized Elena by the arms and heaved her up onto her feet. The girl slumped against her. Maria smelled blood and the crushed herbs in Elena's bodice. She closed her eyes. Prayers rushed through her mind. She opened her eyes again and drew a deep breath. She was Robert Strongarm's daughter and not a coward to die with her eyes shut. A horse spun around before her. Hoofbeats pounded away. There was a ragged whoop of triumph in her own language. She lifted her head, dazed with being saved. The knights rode laughing around her, shaking each other by the hand.
Maria let Elena slide down to the ground. A knight rode up to her and dismounted. When she started to kneel down beside the maid, he took her arm and held her on her feet.
"Leave her lie, girl. She's dead."
Maria stared stupidly at Elena. Two knights lifted the maid up across her mule's saddle and covered it with her cloak. No one else had died, not even a Saracen. Maria wiped her eyes on her sleeve. The knight beside her took her by the arm to steady her.
The boy-knight was coming toward her. He had taken off his helmet; his hair was bright red. He led a roan stallion, a war horse, and the hand on her elbow tightened; they expected her to ride a war horse.
"No," she said.
The knight beside her said, "Come on-we have to go."
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Book Description Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. Hardcover. Condition: New. Brand New!. Seller Inventory # VIB0394485092
Book Description Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. Hardcover. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0394485092
Book Description Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0394485092
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Book Description Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. Hardcover. Condition: New. 1st. Ships with Tracking Number! INTERNATIONAL WORLDWIDE Shipping available. Buy with confidence, excellent customer service!. Seller Inventory # 0394485092n