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Authors: Lynn Wood

Keeper of the stone

 

 

 

Keeper of the Stone

 

 

Lynn Wood

 

 

 

Copyright © 2013 Lynn Wood

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1494259036

ISBN-13:978-1494259037

Cover Design Copyright: Melissa[email protected]

Cover Art Copyright: DepositPhotos; Ebrehnn Myptona, Alexey Gnilenkov, Dmitry Tereshchenko, Mihal Blanaru

 

TITLES BY L. M. WOOD

 

Fiction:

Norman Brides Series:

Keeper of the Stone

  Coming Soon:  Finder Keepers

Awakening Series:

Awakening

Choose

The Firstborn Series:

Michael, Beloved of God, Prince of Heaven

Dancing with the Devil

 

Non-Fiction:

Lessons In Illumination

…A Beginner’s Guide to the Eternal Way

Yoga Behind the Veil.. A Journey of Self-Discovery

 

PROLOGUE

 

The queen’s prediction proved accurate.  The heavy door barely closed behind Matilda when Rhiann heard it creak open again.  She stood in front of the hearth trying to draw ragged breaths into her suddenly tight throat.  She refused to turn around; hoping a few more moments would help her gather her courage to face the terror of the night ahead.

Nathan stepped through the thick wooden door barring the entrance to his quarters and closed the door behind him, sliding the latch into place to bar any interruptions.  His eyes immediately sought out his new bride where she stood in front of the stone hearth.  Her back was to him but he noticed how she stiffened at his entrance, her fear evident in the way her shoulders trembled and the way her hands were clenched together in front of her.  Though he couldn’t see them from where he stood by the door he suspected her small hands shook so forcibly they were causing the trembling evident in her entire slender body. He drew in a deep, cleansing breath hoping to calm his raging needs.  His bride’s slight, womanly form was outlined by the light from the fire.  The see-through gown did little to hide her naked body from his avid gaze.  Nathan knew he needed to gather his discipline before his bride turned to face him, lest he terrify her with his lustful intent. He willed his thudding heart to slow down, not surprised when it completely ignored his mind’s order. His normally iron will and self-control was already losing this battle against his manly passions.  Normally he would be irritated with himself at the evidence of his loss of control, but tonight was different.  Tonight was the one night of his life it was acceptable to surrender to the urgency coursing through him, to give life to his desires and take the bountiful treasure before him.  The maid was his for the taking.  A gift of his king for Nathan’s long years of faithful service to accompany the lands he was awarded by his marriage to her.

Though she belonged to him, was his property by virtue of the laws of both men and God, he would not have her cowering before him in terror when he consummated their wedding vows.  He needed to regain control over the lust riding him so hard now he could barely put two thoughts together in an orderly fashion. He recognized he was never going to be able to summon the patience he was certain would be needed to gain his bride’s trust if he couldn’t clear his head and slow his body’s incessant urging to take the maid and have done with it. 

“Rhiann.” Nathan cringed at the harshness of his tone as his bride’s name echoed in the hushed silence of the room. 

Reluctantly Rhiann turned to face the man who was now her husband. She unclenched her trembling hands and wrapped her arms around her stomach in a protective gesture, and in what she knew was a foolish attempt to cover herself as much as possible.  Even in her innocence she recognized her husband’s lustful intent in the way Nathan’s glance raked over her and knew she would be defenseless against his greater strength.  Just as she was unable to prevent the Norman siege on Heaven’s Crest, she would be unable to defend herself against her husband’s assault on her virgin’s body. Involuntary shivers passed through her at the thought of what was to come.

Not wanting to give the terror his bride was unable to hide from him a chance to take hold, Nathan captured her frightened glance and demanded, “Come to me, wife.”  He winced at the sound of his stark command in the silence of the room.  He was already struggling to contain his raging desire.  He suspected his self-control would be tested tonight in a way he was never tested before.  When his innocent bride took an instinctive step back towards the heat of the fire he could almost believe from the blind panic he read in her eyes she found going up in flames a more preferable option to a night spent in his bed.  Hoping not to push her any further, he added softly, “Do you remember your vows to the priest?”

She nodded reluctantly.  “Do you intend to keep them?”  He watched the flare of annoyance at his gentle reminder flash across his gentle bride’s face a moment before she swallowed nervously and took a hesitant step forward.  Nathan remained where he was by the door.  It was important to both of them she come to him willingly.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

The smell of death engulfed her.  The clash of swords, the angry shouts of men engaged in a fierce battle for their lives, and the moaning of the dying assaulted her senses.  The blood of the fallen pooled at her feet, turning the lush green grass of autumn a deep red to match the changing leaves in the trees of the forest providing a backdrop to the deadly scene. The duchess accepted her own blood would soon join that of the dead and dying lying unattended like so much refuse at her feet. Death stalked her, surrounded her, and beckoned to her, whispering words of their impending introduction in her ears. She no longer contested against its sly promises of release from her grief.  Despair pounded relentlessly against her battered spirit until she could no longer rouse her will to do battle against its heavy weight as one loss after another was heaped upon her slender, unprepared shoulders these past dark weeks, choking off what little light remained within.

She felt guilty about the cowardly deed she was contemplating but not enough to turn aside from her sinful intent. Besides, it was too late now for regrets.  The battle raged around them and would soon be upon her.  She prayed to God her end would come with merciful swiftness.  Was she not entitled to some small parcel of his mercy?  Had she not strived enough, suffered enough, clung to this life he chose for her hard enough to satisfy him? Without her husband, who rested beside two of their sons in the family burial plot by the chapel on the ridge, the life she elected as a young girl no longer held any appeal for the woman who still lingered within in its unrelenting grip.  Her husband’s faithful guards would lead her younger daughter, Rhiann, to safety.  God willing she would elude the pitiless grasp of the enemy who even now surrounded Heaven’s Crest, closing off all escape routes.  She prayed they had not discovered the secret passages built into the thick walls of the old keep, else her daughter and those escorting her would be trapped. She spared a few precious moments to wonder about the fate of her remaining children, her beloved twins, Michel and Melissa.  Were they safe?  Were they even still alive? Her mother’s heart tried to convince her grief-stricken mind her beloved twins still lived, but it was a losing struggle now, to strive against the toll of the bitter losses that had been heaped unremitting upon her dwindling hope.

The battle surged towards where she stood among the younger, more inexperienced soldiers, who were too concerned with trying to save their own lives, to question who this slight newcomer was among them.  They did not speak to her.  If any spared a glance in her direction at all, it was a pitiful one.  Within it held the certainty the youth before them would be the first to fall beneath the enemy onslaught.  She did not disabuse them of their false conclusion.  She was old enough to have already lost sons older than they to this senseless war.  There was only a single additional life she prayed it would claim in its quest to spread the dark claw of evil and destruction across all of Saxony.  Her own.

She recognized her blasphemous prayer was about to be granted, but it would not come without cost. The icy grip of terror closed around her heart and throat, shutting off her ability to breathe and dragging her focus away from her dark thoughts.  She met the light brown eyes of her executioner and for a brittle moment thought she heard death’s haunting laughter in her ears as the enemy raised his sword.  Time slowed to a fraction of its usual pace.  The stone around her throat weighed heavily upon her. She was unable to see the fire burning in its depths in protest of her fainthearted surrender before the enemy, but she could feel its heat against her skin and comprehended her intent to seek death at the enemy’s hands aroused its ire. 

More important to her at this, the bitter end of her physical life, she recognized the stone would not interfere with her decision.  She was the stone’s rightful keeper.  Despite the teachings of the church to the contrary, it was her right as its steward to choose when she would depart this physical world and free her eternal soul of its constraints.  She made her choice and was content with it, but even so her guilt engulfed her as her enemy lowered his arm.  Instinct born of stark terror led her to raise her son’s sword in her own defense. Her puny gesture was a useless one against her huge, well-armed opponent and they both knew it.  She thought she saw his lips curve upward, a hint of amusement in his light eyes as his blade met hers. 

She was a slender woman.  Despite his repeated urgings, it had been long years since she practiced the warrior’s skills she learned as a child under Amele’s careful tutelage. Years of the soft life her husband’s wealth purchased for her robbed her of the deadly proficiency she once possessed, but even in her youth she would have been unable to match the strength contained in her enemy’s massive chest and arms.  The downward descent of his blade didn’t slow when he met her paltry defense, nor when her sword fell from her numb hand at the impact of the collision with his.  No, it continued on its downward arc slicing through her cloak, the boy’s armor she wore beneath it, and cutting through flesh and bone with the ease of a sharp blade through soft butter.

Her severed arm fell uselessly to the ground.  She thought she heard the echo of her stunned cry of pain mix with the devil’s laughter resonating in the air around her.  Her knees gave way under her weight and she slid to the damp ground unaware it was already soaked in her own blood where it pooled around her. 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Rhiann hurried through the long halls of the keep, screaming for her mother.  She could feel the Norman siege closing in around them, was aware of the increased tension of her father’s guards who urged her to leave now before it was too late.

“Mother!  Mother!”  Tears blinded her vision as she flew up the steps to her parents’ room, thinking perhaps her mother wished to bid her father’s memory a final farewell before they fled. She pushed open the doors, but discovered the room empty. Where could she have gone? Had her mother left her too?  Did she follow Melissa and leave her behind?  Was she completely alone now? Was everyone she loved dead?

Despair overwhelmed her and she collapsed to her knees, wrapping her arms around her stomach in an instinctive protective gesture.  She remained there long hours, until the final breach of the keep’s failing defenses came, and the humiliating details of its surrender were attended to, the enemy found her in her parents’ room still on her knees, dazed and alone. 

Green eyes so filled with grief they appeared almost black in her white face were blind as she responded to the summons of the enemy knight who stood in her parent’s doorway.  Mercifully she was numb by then, her spirit dead already as she met the merciless eyes of her enemy and saw her own death reflected there.  She made no move to defend herself when he stepped forward and reached down to raise her to her feet with his strong grip beneath her arm.  He half-led, half-carried her down the stairs leading to the hall of what was now her former home.  A part of her wished she had been blessed with her sister’s fearlessness.  Melissa was no doubt even now enjoying the safety of their grandmother’s tents far away from the wars of men and its deadly consequences. If Melissa was in Rhiann’s shoes she would even now be raising her blade to fight off their enemy’s grip on her arm, but Rhiann possessed no blade to lift in her own defense. Her father did not approve of his daughters’ unusual training and she was a dutiful daughter.  Melissa was the headstrong one. Rhiann prayed fervently if belatedly, her maker would bless her with a little more of her sister’s courage.  She thought perhaps she would have greater need of it than Melissa in the dark hours confronting her.


Page 2

The bloody sight greeting her halfway down the keep’s main staircase leading to the great hall dispelled Rhiann’s foolish assumption she had already passed beyond pain’s reach.  Her gasp of denial escaped between her clenched lips as she flew down the remaining steps, understanding now why she was unable to find her mother when there was still time for the two of them to escape.  Kneeling beside her dying mother, Rhiann understood only one of them would escape from their enemy’s grasp. Her mother would never be forced to leave her home, at least in life.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Rhiann was nauseous with hunger and exhaustion when she was led through the large wooden doors into the impressive former home of her Saxon king but that now belonged to the Norman Duke William.  She was barely conscious of the noise of the loud conversations echoing throughout the great hall or how they slowly trailed off as the other occupants became aware of her presence.  The long months of war and grief took their toll on her once carefree spirit as did the lonely, fearful trek to London as a prisoner of the Norman soldiers who now occupied her former home. She could neither summon the energy nor the inclination to take an interest in her surroundings.  She felt empty inside, dead already, if that indeed was the fate awaiting her at the hands of the Norman duke.  Her father, the powerful Saxon Duke of Weston, was dead.  His estates and the only home she ever knew at Heaven’s Crest, were forfeit.  All of her father’s property was now booty for the victor of this war to dispense as he willed.

She supposed that included her as well.  She accepted she was likely the only member of her immediate family who still lived, but it wasn’t death itself she feared, only its prelude. Rhiann believed she might even welcome the blessed forgetfulness of everlasting sleep.  Now as she stood in her enemy’s stronghold, confronting her own mortality, she deeply regretted she was not among the defenders at Heavens Crest’s last stand.

Rather than speculate on the enemy duke’s intentions for what would no doubt prove to be her short-lived future, she busied her mind with memories of the fateful day when everything went so horribly wrong and her old life died around her. Rhiann and her mother were to have been secreted to safety beyond the enemy’s reach by a loyal few of her father’s household knights. The other soldiers in charge of the defense of the duke’s home made a last desperate attempt to distract the invading Norman foes with a final offensive thrust in order to give their comrades the opportunity to spirit Rhiann and her mother to freedom in the north. 

In the confusion of those final desperate hours, her memories seared with the rank smell of death and the anguished cries of the dying, Rhiann became separated from her mother. It wasn’t until later when the keep fell, its defenders overwhelmed at last, that she learned the full extent of her loss.  Her mother would not accompany her along the harsh journey to London.  Rhiann was forced to face the uncertain future alone without the comfort of her mother or anyone else she loved, or even knew.

She discovered too late her mother chose a different end; perhaps to avoid the very one Rhiann now faced. At the last, the mistress of Heaven’s Crest armed herself with a boy’s blade, the only one she was capable of lifting from the store of the keep’s weapons, and disguised herself beneath the armor her sons wore when they were young.  They were dead too.  Lost to them in the early stages of the invasion, more grief heaped upon them as the news of each loss was carried back to the duke’s expansive seat by those sworn to serve her father.  Even as Rhiann took in each devastating blow with a dazed spirit, her mother remained unbroken until the final strike revealed the extent of the damage of its predecessors on the duchess’ proud but slender frame.  It was her husband’s death that shattered her mother’s spirit until she existed as only a shadow of her former self; as if her soul neglected to inform her body she no longer required its services.

The thin blade the duchess carried into battle that day was no match against the expertly wielded broadsword of an experienced knight. Rhiann tortured herself these past weeks with worries over her mother’s final confrontation with the enemy.  Did the man she faced laugh at the sword she raised against him, assuming it was one of the servant’s boys called upon to wield a weapon in the final defense of the duke’s home?  When did he learn his mistake?  Was it when the sound of her mother’s agony erupted in a woman’s voice from her lips as the arm that held her son’s blade was severed in two?  Did he realize the extent of his mistake when the blade she held fell uselessly to the ground and her blood joined that of the already fallen? Did the earth of Heaven’s Crest cry out in sympathy as it received the body of its fallen mistress?

Rhiann did her best to tend to her dying mother.  There was little to be done but give her the comfort of her presence as her mother bled out, her strength draining along with the blood staining the sheets of the bed she shared with her husband and where she gave birth to their five children.  Even if Rhiann could have found a way to heal her mother’s grievous wounds, she knew of no secret to mend her ravaged spirit.  So instead Rhiann honored her mother’s last request of her.  She held her hand and whispered lovingly to her, promising she would pray for her, and did not fight death as it stalked her mother’s battered body.  Together they asked God to forgive both of their sins, though silently Rhiann wondered what sins they could have possibly committed that such a deadly penance was the required offering to expiate them.  The Normans at least did not violate her mother’s sick room, but stood guard outside her door lest Rhiann attempt to escape or think to join her mother in death and thus thwarting their mission.

As soon as the duchess drew her final breath, Rhiann was taken sobbing from the dim room and literally thrown on a horse to carry her to London. She was not even allowed to see to the details of her mother’s burial.  Her old nurse, Addy, promised to see to the task.  It was a futile promise and they both knew it but Rhiann was able to pause in her grief long enough to nod her grateful appreciation for the old woman’s fervent vow.  In her mind she consoled herself with the thought of her mother being peacefully laid to rest beside her father in the family burial plot.  She doubted the Norman invaders would extend her that courtesy, but if she didn’t know the truth with certainty, Rhiann saw no harm in clinging to the one fantasy left to her in her current bleak reality.

Rhiann wished her mother had confided her intent to her, even as she acknowledged that though her mother might choose the escape death offered for herself, she would not force the same choice upon her daughter.  Maybe it was because her mother foolishly clung to the hope the Normans would honor Rhiann’s youth and her former status as a lady.  Rhiann could no longer delude herself with such foolish fantasies. She was a prisoner of war and guessed her former high status only guaranteed her a more public execution in the sight of the new king.  For what other reason would they have dragged her to London in such haste and under such heavy guard?

Rhiann was sunk too deep in her melancholy musings to pay attention to her surroundings.  At the moment it was requiring every ounce of the will power she still possessed to simply remain upright.  She therefore missed the imperious summons from the huge man seated at the head of the large table enjoying his mid-day meal.  As a reward for her inattention she received a nudge in her back from one of the Norman knights who acted as her escort on the long trek to London.  At the unexpected contact, she tripped and would have fallen but for the quick reflexes of her captor who caught her before she keeled over and ended up humiliatingly sprawled at his feet on the cold,  stone floor. The bitter hate in her eyes as she raised them to his scarred face had him dropping his hand from where it gripped her arm to steady her.  At the same time he nodded towards the center of the room where the new king was awaiting her attention.

Rhiann turned her focus to the Norman duke who would be a king. She battled the nausea welling up inside her as she faced the man who stole her life and the lives of those she most loved.  At the same time she became reluctantly aware the large open hall where she still hovered at the entrance was crowded with knights, and not a few ladies, all of them watching her.  The smell of food permeated the room.  In her current state she couldn’t decide if the smell was making her more acutely aware of her hunger after her long fast, or if it was simply making her more nauseous. 

Finally she raised her glance and dared meet the arrogant gaze of the man who sat impatiently waiting for her attention.  She didn’t immediately drop her own as their glances met and their two wills clashed silently across the distance separating them. She remained unbowed before him, meeting the Norman duke’s intent regard with proud defiance.  The new king raised his brows at her unspoken challenge then motioned her forward with an abrupt sweep of his arm.  When she hesitated, the guard at her side raised his arm to give her another push in the king’s direction but the scathing look she sent him prevented him from seeing his intent through. With a silent inward sigh Rhiann accepted her escort would drag her across the scarred floor on her knees if necessary if she failed to quickly comply with the king’s unspoken demand.

Reluctantly she took a few halting steps in the new monarch’s direction, not wishing to approach any closer than was absolutely necessary.  His glance darkened at her continued show of defiance and he gestured to her again, indicating she was not to stop until she stood directly before him.  A hushed silence followed her halting progress across the crowded room as every conversation in the hall fell quiet and all eyes turned to watch her stilted approach towards the king.  Her feet stopped only a few small steps from where he sat at the head of a large wooden table, heavily laden with full trenchers of food and pitchers of freshly brewed ale. Her stomach roiled again as the rich smell assaulted her overtaxed senses. 

The silence holding sway over the room was now heavy with expectation.  Rhiann wondered at the change in the mood of the room even as she struggled to calm her stomach and keep her feet.  She risked a glance at the face of the man who summoned her, took immediate note of his fierce scowl and belatedly understood the new sense of anticipation from the silent observers. The witnesses to her humiliation seemed to close around them savoring apparently the prospect of the king’s punishment of her defiance, even though no one dared approach closer. Rhiann recognized she could put an end to her own dark forebodings by simply continuing to stand there.  She could ensure her death or imprisonment at the very least by refusing to give the man seated before her the show of respect he could demand as his right as the new king of England. 

Her pride waged a final battle with her wavering will as memories of holding her dying mother in her arms passed through her thoughts.  Two of her brothers’ bodies were returned home for burial in the initial months of the war.  Her father’s was returned to them towards the end of the invasion when a Norman victory was all but assured.  It was that day her mother truly died… on the chilly autumn morning when she could no longer deny the truth of the rumors of her husband’s loss.  The last assault on Heaven’s Crest merely added the final indignation to the insult of a war that had already stolen everyone and everything she most cared for.  Her body lingered long enough to be felled in the final offensive, but long before the last bitter autumn morning, her mother’s heart was buried on the hill next to the chapel along with the bodies of her husband and sons.

Even the Normans kept silent as Rhiann flew down the stairs at the sight of her mother’s limp body being carried into the hall, discovered only after the formalities of surrender and disarmament were attended to.  Her mother was barely conscious when she bid Rhiann a brief and bittersweet farewell before pressing the stone Rhiann now wore around her neck into hands trembling too violently to receive it.  The stone clattered to the hard floor and landed in the pool of her mother’s blood spreading around her from the carelessly bound stump that was once her arm.  Rhiann knelt dry eyed on the floor, her eyes fixed on the stone, already dark without the warmth of her mother’s skin to light the fire within.  There was little to distinguish it from its bloody surroundings as the fresh blood took on the darker, almost black color of the stone.

Their enemies all but carried them both to her parents’ chambers.  Her mother’s breath was shallow as Rhiann knelt beside the bed.  Her eyes opened as Rhiann gripped her hand and gently pushed the matted hair back from her beautiful face.  There was no desperate attempt to stop the flow of blood, to disturb their final moments together with useless, intrusive activity.  Green eyes held their mirror image and what passed between mother and daughter could not be carried by an exchange of inadequate words.  Her mother’s hand reached for the stone Rhiann clutched in her hand.  “You are its keeper now, daughter.  Before I leave this world I would know I have not failed completely in the trust my own mother placed in me.”  Rhiann understood what was being asked of her.  Still it was with great reluctance she slipped the thin chain over her head and tearfully watched the smile softening her mother’s pain-filled glance as the stone settled between her breasts.

Rhiann wasn’t aware she was swaying unsteadily on her feet, her eyes blind as her thoughts drifted back over those final moments with her mother. She was so tired of the constant battle to keep despair at bay.  She was tired of this war and all it wrought – the deaths of her family, the loss of her home, the loss of everything she once called her own.  There was no her own any longer. She supposed she didn’t even own the clothes on her back.  She fought the tears springing to her eyes at the thought and fell into a respectful curtsey before the new king. Perhaps she no longer feared death, and in fact believed she might even welcome the escape its cold fingers held tantalizingly out to her, but she had no desire for her death to be preceded by the sting of the lash on her back for insolence.  She therefore rose when the new king bid her but kept her eyes lowered.


Page 3

“What is your name?” He demanded in his deep, autocratic voice.

“Lady Rhiann.” She replied quietly though she was unsure whether or not it was proper for her to still use the title of lady.

She missed his narrowed glance.  “Whose daughter are you?”

He didn’t even know who she was, whose life he stole. Why the knowledge surprised her, she wasn’t sure.  Why it angered her, she guessed she knew.  Everything angered her these days.  “The Duke of Weston’s.” Rhiann wondered if perhaps she offended the Norman duke by not placing the word former in front of her father’s title.  Thank God he was not alive to witness this final humiliation at his enemy’s hands.

“Where is your mother? I instructed the duke’s entire family be brought to London.”

“My mother is dead.”  Rhiann was surprised by the lack of emotion in her voice.

“Dead?  How?”

Rhiann was unable to keep the disbelief from her expression or the bitterness from her reply.  “By a Norman sword. Would you like me to detail her injuries for you?”

Shocked gasps at her audacity filled the hall.  The king’s eyes flashed angrily but he swallowed his instinctive reaction and warned instead. “I will forgive your insolence because of your youth and the great trials you have obviously suffered.  However, I would advise you, Lady Rhiann to keep a closer watch over your tongue.”

Rhiann released the smoldering breath she was holding and nodded bitterly.  Seeing her surrender he asked, “How old are you?”

Rhiann thought the inquiry bizarre under the circumstances but she answered honestly, “Six and ten.”

The king considered this information for a moment, “I was under the impression the duke’s daughter was older.”

Rhiann wasn’t certain if the king was accusing her of lying or if he was unaware her father sired two daughters.  “I imagine you are referring to my older sister.”

“Where is your older sister?” Rhiann dropped her glance beneath his.  In truth, she could not know for certain but she felt in her heart her sister was dead.  “She is dead.”

The king sat back in his chair, absorbing her news. “Your father, your brothers?”

“Dead.” Rhiann barely recognized the hollow voice responding to the king’s questions as her own.  She was forced to swallow the lump in her throat and bite down hard on her bottom lip to keep from crying out. Could he not just pronounce her sentence and be done with it?  Why these endless questions? 

She swayed unsteadily on her feet and would have fallen but for the quick action of the knight who followed her across the hall and now stood close behind her.  Forgetting for a moment he was her enemy she smiled gratefully at him then pulled away when she regained her balance.  She did not wish to embarrass herself by fainting at her enemy’s feet but if she was not allowed to sit down soon she was going to do exactly that.

“We will discuss the matter of your future after you have rested.” The king announced, not unkindly.

Rhiann quickly lifted her head to regard him with a quizzical glance.  The matter of her future?  Was her execution something needing discussion?  Her thoughts were so thick and fuzzy in her head she was having difficulty thinking straight.  She was barely conscious of the king summoning a servant to take her to her room.  Room?  Should she not be assigned a cell?

“You will rest from your ordeal, Lady Rhiann and change your gown and join us for the evening meal.” Rhiann made no effort to stifle the bitter laugh at the king’s pronouncement.  At his sharp glance she explained.

“If you would like me to change, sire, you will have to provide me with suitable attire.”

“Why is that? Where is your travel bag?  Was there some mishap on the road?”

This time Rhiann swallowed her sarcasm in time. “No, sire, we met with no mishap to my knowledge. However, my escort informed me if I were to attempt to remove any personal items from my father’s estate I would be labeled a thief, a crime apparently punishable by death under Norman law.”

She was aware of his quick glance to the skies as if begging God for some much-needed patience, an action that brought her father to mind, but he merely replied in a mild tone.  “I will see to it you are suitably clothed this evening.”

She nodded and then at a curt nod from the king, the housekeeper approached and led her out of the hall and up a wide staircase to the second floor.  The room she was led to was spacious and well furnished.  She was surprised to be given chambers which she guessed were normally reserved for important guests, but she was too tired to question the housekeeper.  The room was cold after the relative warmth of the crowded hall and when an involuntarily shiver passed through her the older Saxon woman quickly lit a fire in the large stone hearth.

“I imagine you would like a nice hot bath.”  The housekeeper suggested as she bustled about, pulling drapes and turning down the bed.  She went to the door to order a servant to see to Rhiann’s bath, all the while keeping up a steady stream of conversation. “You must be starved as well, traveling on your own with a bunch of men.  You would have thought one of them would have the sense to see to it your maid accompanied you, but if they could not be bothered to display the courtesy of bringing a traveling bag for you, I suppose it is too much to expect they would realize a lady would have need of her maid.”

The older woman gently pushed Rhiann down on the thick bedding and helped her with the ties of her cloak.  She helped her stand once more to assist in its removal then pushed her back down on the bed.  When the bath arrived moments later, the housekeeper disappeared for a few moments and returned carrying soaps and oils for her bath.  She helped Rhiann undress and watched as she carefully stepped into the large tub, then assisted her as her fingers struggled to loosen her thick braid and wash her long hair. 

Rhiann was so tired after her bath and being wrapped in a large soft cloth warming by the fire she barely managed to swallow any of the food on the tray sent up for her.  The older woman led her to the bed and gently lifted her legs and tucked her warmly beneath the thick quilt.  Rhiann whispered a thick thank you, her words as muddled as her thoughts.  Her last conscious thought was filled with confusion.  Why are they being so nice to me?

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Nathan was in the great hall when Lady Rhiann was brought in.  His friend, Baron Bruce, was given the task of assuring the lady arrived safely.  Bruce was called away from his escort by a more urgent mission and sent a young contingent of knights to see to the safety of the duke’s family on their way to London.  Bruce gasped audibly when the lady revealed her mother was killed by a Norman sword, and then turned a shocked glance in Nathan’s direction when the lady informed the king his men had not allowed her to pack a traveling bag. 

“Was it necessary for me to instruct them to see to it the lady traveled with sufficient gowns for the road and for her stay here?” His urgent whisper was filled with disbelief at his men’s stupidity.

Nathan grinned sympathetically in response. He experienced his own trials with his youngest knights during the course of the invasion.  Like most young men on their first foray into war, they were an unpredictable mix of too much brash ego accompanied by too little common sense. Despite his shared empathy he still could not resist teasing Bruce about his own difficulties.

“Do you think one of your men was responsible for the death of the duchess?”

Bruce raised a horrified glance to Nathan’s smiling face, the thought apparently just occurring to him.  “If they were, I will refrain from offering even a mild protest when the king decrees the idiot responsible meet a similar fate.  I might even volunteer to carry out the execution myself.”

Nathan’s eyes lit with amusement, but he swallowed his laughter, not wanting to interrupt the king’s questioning. “I doubt that will be necessary.  I am quite certain the lady herself would be only too happy to carry out the king’s judgment.” 

Nathan didn’t blame her. Young Lady Rhiann was obviously sorely treated by her escort.  She almost fainted during the king’s questioning about her family – whether from hunger or exhaustion he could not be certain.  Her face remained hidden beneath the dark cloak she wore.

“Baron Bruce.” William’s voice interrupted their speculations. Nathan raised his hand to smother the discreet cough he used to disguise the amused bark of laughter that escaped him at the king’s summons.

“Yes, my lord.” Bruce threw a sharp, annoyed glance in Nathan’s direction before hurriedly approaching the king.

“I believe your men were responsible for escorting Lady Rhiann to London?” Paradoxically, the monarch’s mild tone only served to emphasize his extreme displeasure.

“Yes, my lord.”

“It would appear the lady is without suitable attire for the evening meal.”

“Yes, my lord, forgive me.  I will see to it Lady Rhiann has a gown to wear this evening.”

“And since it was your men responsible for the lady finding herself in such reduced circumstances, please see to it she has everything she needs for her comfort as befits her status as a guest in my home.  Apparently your men did not see fit to allow the lady’s maid to accompany her, so I suggest you see to that as well. I imagine one of the local women would be willing to serve in such capacity for the generous wage you will no doubt be offering.”  After voicing his displeasure, the king waited for his vassal to bow his assent and then dismissed him.

 

At the conclusion of the meal Nathan was summoned to the king’s private drawing room.  “You summoned me, my lord?” 

Though the two men’s long acquaintance matured into a solid friendship as the years passed Nathan never forgot he was merely the younger son of a lesser Norman noble while William was his liege lord to whom he owed not only his allegiance but his very life.  Nathan was placed in William’s household as a young man.  As his father’s second son he would inherit neither his father’s title nor his lands and he would therefore be forced to make his own way in the world.  All he had to rely on was his physical strength, his intelligence and a fierce determination to succeed. 

It was the latter trait that attracted William’s attention. The duke developed a fondness for the young man Nathan had been and applauded his desire to better himself.  William placed Nathan in the hands of his personal guard for training. Determined to take advantage of any and every opportunity provided him, Nathan trained hard and excelled as a young soldier, and was soon given command of a contingent of men.  He expected the soldiers under his command to be better than any titled nobleman’s knights and welcomed into his ranks younger sons and bastard sons whose determination to better themselves matched his own.

  His reputation as a leader of men grew and he was given greater responsibility within the duke’s realm.  He proved his unswerving loyalty on the field of battle.  He proved his superior judgment in handpicking his men by their relentless, merciless precision in battle.  The defeat of the Saxon challenger to the throne made William a king.  Nathan harbored a secret hope it would make him a landowner. 

William had already awarded many of his supporters with lands of their own.  Of course the majority of these were wealthy nobleman in Normandy.  They supplied ships, paid mercenaries and horses in support of the war effort. All Nathan could offer the duke were his arms, his blood, and the swords and loyalty of his highly trained men.  Not an offering to be dismissed lightly but certainly no match for the hundreds of ships other, wealthier lords could deliver.

“Come in, Nathan,” William was saying.  “There is a matter I wish to discuss with you privately.”

Nathan entered the richly appointed room and sat in the chair William graciously offered.  His father, while a landed lord, was not a particularly wealthy man.  Nathan was raised in a gentleman’s home.  His mother insisted all of her sons be familiar with the ways of the world in the finest households. So he knew his manners were acceptable; a fact he silently thanked his mother for the numerous times he was required to spend the evening in the company of the duke and the highest members of the Norman nobility.  At least he never embarrassed himself by making the kind of mistake that would mark him as a poor country soldier lacking in the trappings of a gentleman. He suspected he was accepted among the ranks of the landed lords more easily because he could so easily pass as one of them.

“I am faced with a bit of a dilemma,” William remarked.

Nathan remained silent. After their long years together he was acquainted well enough with his liege lord to recognize when he was merely thinking out loud.  When he wished for a response from Nathan, he would ask a direct question. “You were present in the hall when Lady Rhiann arrived?”

“Yes.”

“I originally intended to award the former duke’s holding to Robert or Baron Brice,” William explained, referring to two rich noblemen with already extensive holdings in Normandy.  “Both men are widows and it is time they remarried.  The duchess would need a strong man to protect her estates and I believed her marriage to a Norman lord would provide a calming influence on the Saxon inhabitants to see the duchess retain her former status.”

Nathan nodded.  He was aware of William’s plan to marry his single knights to Saxon ladies to keep the peace in his new kingdom. Nathan thought the idea a brilliant one.  Intermarriage would make it difficult to sustain the resistance for long when the sons and daughters of the new nobility would be half Norman and half Saxon.

“However, it appears the duchess is dead, though I intend to discover how it was she met her death by a Norman sword.  I cannot believe any of my men would act in such a reckless manner, particularly when I ordered the duke’s family be brought to London with all due haste.”

When William looked expectantly at Nathan, he replied honestly. “I cannot believe any of Brice’s men would be capable of putting a sword through the duchess.”

The king sighed heavily. “Unfortunately war causes men to do things they would not ordinarily be capable of, but the lady’s death and that of her older daughter leaves me with Lady Rhiann’s future to settle and the duke’s estates to award.  I believe we have exacted a high enough toll on the lady, I will not ask her to wed a man old enough to be her father.  So my friend, I decided to award the duke’s estates to you, assuming you’re willing to wed Lady Rhiann?”


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Nathan was so stunned by William’s announcement he was convinced he must have imagined the words he believed passed through his friend and lord’s smiling lips.  William meant to award the duke’s estates to him?  The duke’s estates?

William’s smile widened at the astonishment reflected on his vassal’s face.  “You earned them Nathan.  I admit I did not originally plan to award you the Weston holdings and there will no doubt be a great deal of grumbling among my barons when they learn of my decision, but my mind is made up.  The land is yours.  I suspect you will defend your new estates and my interests here in Saxony against any who would attempt to challenge them.”

“Yes you may rest assured of that,” Nathan could only summon a harsh whisper in reply.  Lands of his own.  A duke’s estate, no less.  He still couldn’t take it in.

“And you will wed Lady Rhiann and treat her kindly?” William continued.  “I believe you mentioned there was an understanding between you and Lady Sara, and it was your intent to wed her on your return to Normandy.”

Nathan met William’s glance unflinchingly.  “I will wed Lady Rhiann.  She will be treated with every kindness and respect as deserving her position as my wife.  I will not be returning to Normandy, my lord, unless you are in need of my services there.”

“I suspect I will require your services more here, Nathan, which is why I decided to award the duke’s estates to you.  If I gave them to a man of wealth with lands of his own in Normandy he would be reluctant to make his life here.  You on the other hand are not troubled by such divided loyalties to hold you back from committing to a life in this new realm.  I want you to make your home here, Nathan and keep as many of your men who are willing to stay. The duke’s estates are quite vast and profitable.  You’ll encounter no trouble paying the wages of as many men as you can persuade to stay.”

“My lord, I do not know how to thank you.  I never expected…”

The king smiled and patted his arm, dismissing his vassal’s awkward attempt at gratitude.  “The lands you earned, Nathan.  The lady is my gift to you.  See that you value my gift as you should.”

Nathan nodded and William continued. “I will see you this evening and introduce you to your bride then.  The wedding will be held tomorrow evening in the new abbey.  I imagine you would like your family present but it is best for Lady Rhiann and for the keeping of the peace among my knights if the matter of the duke’s estates and the lady’s future is settled as soon as possible.”

Nathan bowed, offering another stumbling attempt to express his gratitude for the king’s magnanimous gift, and at the older man’s smiling dismissal, turned on unsteady legs and left the room.  His long stride carried him quickly along the hallway leading into the great hall and the exit.  He didn’t pause to exchange words with his friends, or even those of his own men awaiting his return. 

The chill air and dim light of a late autumn afternoon greeted him as he exited the keep.  Upon reaching his tents, he called for his horse.  When his young squire arrived leading the huge stallion, Nathan mounted him in a single fluid movement.  At a galloping pace he sought to escape the city, away from the questioning glances of his acquaintances, away from the wealthy nobles who looked down at him for his lowly status and behind his back questioned his right to dine at the king’s table. 

He still was unable to take in the soon to be, abrupt, incredible, unprecedented change in his fortunes. He was to be lord of his own lands, the estates of a former duke no less, who died defending his country against invasion, whose daughter was to be given to him along with her father’s lands.  The Lady Rhiann would no doubt be less than thrilled at the prospect of being joined in marriage to a man less nobly born than herself.  But Nathan did not doubt in time they would manage to deal reasonably well with each other. 

He would keep his promise to William.  He would treat her kindly.  She would give him sons.  That was all he required in a wife – strong, healthy sons to pass his lands onto when he died.  And when he breathed his last he would be laid aside his former enemy in death and together they would watch the progeny of their bloods govern the lands once belonging to them both.

He refrained from speaking of his good fortune upon his return to his tent, even to his commander and close friend, Archibald.  He saw the questioning looks in the eyes of those closest to him, but no one questioned him about the reason for his abrupt departure earlier, and Nathan offered only the most general of explanations for his extended absence, merely stating he was sent on an urgent errand for the king.

He dressed carefully for dinner.  A wealthy man could appear at less than his best in the king’s hall since no one questioned his right to be there.  A lesser man could not.  Nathan never gave anyone a reason to question his presence among them. His garments were rich and fit his tall, muscular form perfectly.  As soon as they began to show wear he discarded them.  With his commander by his side, he entered the great hall as if they both belonged there. After tomorrow night, God willing, they would.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Rhiann felt as though she was lost in a dark cave stumbling towards a tiny light at its entrance.  Her steps were heavy and her thoughts dazed.  Finally she became conscious of a quiet voice urging her awake.  Her memory surged back and she sat up abruptly amongst the thick quilts, aware of the housekeeper smiling kindly down at her as she apologized for waking her.  Rhiann nodded and pushed a hand through the heavy weight of her hair.

“Forgive me, my lady, but the dressmaker is here to measure you for your new gowns,” the older woman was saying.

Rhiann drew her brows together in confusion.  “My new gowns?”

“Yes, apparently the king was most displeased you were not allowed to bring your own things with you and he ordered the man responsible to outfit you as befits a guest in his home,” the woman replied, grinning widely.

Rhiann sat staring up at her with an astonished look on her face.  Why in the world would the king order new gowns made for her when she was going to be executed?  “I don’t understand.  Is this some bizarre Norman custom that I’m well dressed and well fed for my execution?”

“Execution?” The housekeeper’s astonished reaction could not have been feigned.  Seeing it, Rhiann felt the beginnings of hope stir in her breast.  “My lady, you cannot possibly think the new king intends to order you killed.  Who’s been filling your mind with such lies?”

Rhiann was a little surprised at the Saxon woman’s fierce defense of the new king.  “I’m his enemy and the daughter of a high ranking noble under the former king.  If it is not his intention to have me killed what does he intend to do with me?”

The older woman eyed her sympathetically.  “I imagine, my lady, he intends to marry you to one of his knights.”

“Marry me?” Rhiann echoed stunned.  She never even considered the possibility of an arranged marriage – especially marriage to a Norman knight. “You cannot be serious.”

“Forgive me, milady, but there have already been several such arranged marriages.  The new king believes marrying the widows and daughters of the former nobility to his knights will help ensure the future peace.”

Rhiann leaned back against the thick pillows while she absorbed this latest disclosure.  She supposed the Norman duke’s intent made sense in some obscene way, but she refused to believe the king could honestly expect her to marry one of his knights. She was barely six and ten.  Now she understood why he asked her how old she was.  “You must be mistaken.  He meant to marry my mother or my sister to one of his knights.  I am too young to wed.”

The older woman clucked sympathetically. “We will have to wait and see what the king decides.  In the meantime we need to get you dressed and out of bed.  The dressmaker is waiting outside the door and he will need time to fit you for your new gown for tonight.  You’ll be dining with the king.”

Rhiann allowed herself to be dragged from the bed and bustled into a loose fitting robe that was not her own.  She supposed there was no point in putting her soiled gown back on if she was to be fitted for a new one.  The harried dressmaker was ushered into the room along with two assistants, all of them with their arms filled with bolts of cloth and bags to carry the threads and patterns required for their work.

“My lady, I am Eton, and these are my daughters, Pricilla and Andrea. We are instructed to outfit you in a manner befitting a guest in the king’s home.  I understand your most urgent need is a gown for this evening.  I carried with me a gown that was ordered before the war and never claimed by its intended owner.  Hopefully we will be able to alter it so you might wear it tonight.”

Rhiann noticed the older man was not much taller than she was.  He emptied his burdens onto the bed and motioned for her to hold out her arms so he could take her measurements.  She smiled when she realized she stood eye to eye with him.  She was so used to the Norman knights towering over her she forgot what it was like to look a man in the eye.  His daughters were even more petite and stood almost a head shorter than she was. 

When the old man completed his measurements, he nodded satisfied and motioned one of his daughters to step forward with the dress she held in her hands.  Rhiann was surprised by its richness.  The dress was a deep emerald cut from a fine, elegant material with gold threads stitched in a floral design around the neckline and cuffs. Rhiann stood still while Eton and his daughter lifted the dress over her head and pinned it to adjust the fitting.

Rhiann’s mood lifted at being clothed in clean, beautiful clothes again.  It was a silly thing maybe but it was nice to have people fuss over her and exclaim at her beauty and how the green coloring of the gown exactly matched her eyes and the gold threads, her hair.  Eton directed his daughters to remove the dress, and then held up a rich burgundy cloth against her.  The burgundy was followed by a pale gold the color of freshly churned butter.  Rhiann’s head was spinning with the number of gowns the little man seemed intent on sewing for her.

  When she tried to protest, her concerns were waved away.  He assured her he was under very strict instructions to ensure she had everything she needed.  Once the dresses were complete, he addressed the issue of her lack of chemises and stockings to wear beneath her gowns.  He clucked disapprovingly at her dirty shoes and promised to have several pairs delivered to see to her needs.  He also pulled from his bag ribbons and silks of all colors for her hair, and belts for her gowns.  He fitted her for a new winter cloak and told her he would see to it boots were delivered for outer wear. 

A hesitant knock on the door brought the arrival of a lady’s maid assigned to see to her needs.  She informed the gathering the king’s guests were already arriving for the evening meal and shyly requested Rhiann take the chair near the fire so she could begin the laborious process of arranging Rhiann’s waist length gold curls into a fashionable style. Eton and one of his daughters were working furiously to ensure the green gown would be ready in time. The other daughter was sent in search of a suitable pair of shoes.  It was decided Rhiann would have to wear her own chemise for the evening as her new ones could not possibly be ready in time. 

By the time her entourage pronounced her ready to join the king and his guests, Rhiann’s head was sore from the maid’s attention, her skin felt like a pin cushion from all the minor adjustments that were made to the gown once it was already on her, and her feet were already sore from wearing the last minute slippers procured from somewhere but which were unfortunately too small for her feet.  She was just heading towards the door when a peremptory knock announced the arrival of a member of the king’s guard sent to escort her downstairs.

Rhiann strode silently next to the king’s knight, her head held high, outwardly calm, but inside her stomach was in knots.  The housekeeper must have been mistaken about the king’s intent to marry her to one of his knights, but if so what else could he do with her?  She could not stay indefinitely in London as a guest of the king.  There was no family in Saxony she could go to.  She doubted the king would agree to send her to her mother’s mother, and while he might agree to send her to Normandy to her father’s mother, she thought perhaps she would even prefer marriage to one of the fierce knights who escorted her to town rather than spend her days under the thumb and obligation of the grandmother who disowned her son when he married Rhiann’s mother.

She hesitated at the top of the stairs, seeing the hall was already crowded with company, most of them male.  They were an older and obviously more substantial group than the young men who provided her escort to London.  Oh God, did that mean the king meant to marry her to one of them?  Surely not.  Most of the men assembled below were closer to the king’s age than her own.  She wanted to turn around and flee back to the relative safety of her chambers but knew she would not be given the opportunity by the guard at her side.  He was already regarding her questioningly at her hesitation.  Sighing inwardly, she lifted the skirt of her gown and slowly began descending the stairs.

 

Nathan watched Lady Rhiann’s descent from his place at the opposite end of the room, aware his heart was suddenly thudding loudly in his chest.  His position near the rear of the hall prevented him from seeing her clearly earlier. Now he understood William’s pronouncement of the lady being his gift to him and what a magnificent gift indeed!  She was perfection.  Never in his life had he beheld a more beautiful woman. Certainly he never expected to be able to claim such a woman for his own.  She was only of average height but that was the only characteristic she could claim as average.  Her hair was a deep gold the color of polished coins.  Her face beautifully formed, her skin was flawless, her mouth full, and her eyes matched the deep emerald of her gown.  She was slender but the top of her gown clung close across the tantalizing curves of her breasts, proclaiming while she might be young, she possessed a woman’s body.


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He recalled her earlier conversation with the king.  Her mother had given her father several sons and two daughters, so while Lady Rhiann appeared on the slender side, he did not doubt the core of strength within her.  Did she not demonstrate that strength when she refused to cower before the king earlier? He admired her spirit, even though in this case she should count herself fortunate for William’s restraint. He knew many, and none of them kings, who would have backhanded the maid to the stone floor for her defiance. Still Nathan was impressed when she met William’s gaze boldly, her bearing regal, her answers to his questions direct.  Aye, she was magnificent and worth perhaps as much as the dowry the king would award him when he wed her. 

She would be his wife.  He smiled at the thought, in a hurry now to get the deed over and done with.  He was reluctant to wait even the single night the king decreed before they were wed. He was certain there was no finer woman in all of Saxony.  Her beauty was already attracting the attention of every man in the room. He understood now the king’s haste to see the lady’s future settled else fights broke out amongst his knights over who would be given the right to claim her.  Too late, he thought with a great deal of satisfaction.  She was his. He would kill any man who attempted to take her from him.

“She’s a beauty,” Archibald commented from his place at Nathan’s shoulder.  “No doubt there will be much anticipation and speculation over who the king means to award her to.”

“No doubt.” Nathan readily agreed. He had yet to confide his good fortune to his close friend. He would let the king make the announcement in his own time, not wishing to risk offending his lord by claiming a prize not yet publically given, though in Nathan’s eyes the prize was already awarded. The maid was his.  No other man would ever touch her. 

He watched as the king summoned her to his side, noticed Rhiann’s graceful curtsey before him and the ease with which she accepted William’s introduction of his wife. Nathan was so nervous when he was first presented to Matilda at an age when he was not much older than the lady herself, he almost knocked her over when he bowed before her.  He could smile now at the memory of his younger self – so eager to please, so lacking in the knowledge of what it would take to make his own way in the world.

The idealism of the young boy placed in William’s household was ruthlessly crushed beneath the weight of the intense, back-breaking training he voluntarily submitted to in his quest to become a knight. He took on every challenge.  Never backed down from a fight.  His father made it clear to him at a young age he would be forced to earn his own way in the world.  Rather than fault his father for robbing him of a young boy’s dreams, Nathan was grateful for his honesty.

What little of his boyish idealism that survived long years of harsh reality meant to prepare him for a life of blood and battle was mercilessly crushed beneath his initial taste of war and death.  The first time Nathan slid his blade into a man’s soft belly beneath his hauberk he almost got himself killed by dropping his sword in surprise at the other man’s astonishment when he realized he would die on the blood soaked fields that day.  Another knight retrieved his sword and handed it to him just in time to deflect the death blow intent on slicing open his helmet and seeking the vulnerable flesh below. 

From his first taste of death, Nathan carved out his future.  Kill or be killed became his silent motto and he brought the same brutal determination to every challenge he faced in life.  It was his single-minded pursuit of his goal of becoming lord of his own lands that brought him here tonight…to the brink of achieving every wild boyhood fantasy  beyond even his most outrageous imaginings… lands of his own, a fine lady for his wife…a duke’s daughter no less.  Yes there was definitely going to be some grumbling when the king made his intent known. 

The call for dinner was finally announced and Rhiann found herself seated next to the new queen.  Try as she might to keep a cool distance from the motherly figure Rhiann towered over, Matilda was having none of that.  “Your quarters are comfortable, my dear?  You were able to rest from your long journey?” The new queen inquired as if she truly cared whether or not Rhiann found herself in comfortable quarters.

Rhiann couldn’t bring herself to slap down the woman’s kindness regardless of how she felt about her husband and his war.  “Yes, thank you, your highness.  It is most kind of you to concern yourself with my welfare.”

“Not at all, my dear.  Such an awful thing this war, but it is done now and it is a woman’s place to bring healing and peace in its wake.”

Rhiann sighed inwardly and replied without thinking. “I should prefer a man’s place I think.”

Matilda patted her hand sympathetically.  “No doubt, but perhaps in time you will come to feel differently.”

Rhiann was surprised by the understanding in the older woman’s voice.  She supposed she was no stranger to war given the fact her husband was now a king.  Rhiann thanked the servant who laid a full plate in front of her and waited for the king to signal the start of the meal before picking up her fork and partaking of the rich offerings.  It seemed to her the meal was more a feast than a simple evening repast.  She knew she would be unable to swallow more than a sampling of the mountain of food on the plate in front of her.  The reminder of the hungry refugees they passed on their way to London dimmed considerably her enjoyment of her first hot meal in many weeks.             

“That’s an unusual stone you’re wearing, Lady Rhiann.” The queen’s comment distracted Rhiann from her unwelcome musings.

Rhiann glanced down at the stone around her neck and quickly lifted the delicate chain over her head. She offered it to the new queen. “How remiss of my escort to have overlooked a potential item of value.”  She was aware of the king’s bristling at her sarcastic remark from his place at the head of the table next to his wife.  Matilda merely patted his hand where it rested next to hers on the table. Rhiann concluded that while the king was apparently willing to overlook her prior insolence to him he would not tolerate any towards his wife.

The queen accepted the stone from her outstretched hand.  Rhiann saw the surprise in her eyes and guessed it was from the unexpected weight of the stone and the way the color swirled vividly within its depths.  “I have never seen such a stone.  Where did you come by this?’

“The stone has been in my family for many generations,”

“I am surprised I have not seen more Saxon ladies wearing them.  Look how it swirls with color as if a storm is brewing in its depths.”

“The stone does not pass through the Saxon side of my family, your highness.”

The queen raised her glance in surprise at her comment. “Your mother was not Saxon?”

“Only by marriage. “

The queen nodded and returned to her perusal of the unusual adornment.  “The colors are gone. The stone has gone dark.”

  Rhiann wasn’t surprised. “Somehow it knows when it passes outside the family.”  Her explanation was not exactly true, but she thought the queen might take offense if Rhiann told her the stone recognized its rightful owner and would go dormant in the hands of any other.

“It knows?”

“A poor choice of words perhaps, but the stone reacts thusly when held by another.”

The queen glanced back at the stone which now lay dark and lifeless in her hand. It appeared as a shiny black onyx set in fine silver; still beautiful, undoubtedly still valuable, but dead after the life it displayed against the maid’s fair skin.  “Do you know anything of the history of this jewel?  How did it come to your mother’s family?”

“As a young girl I heard many stories of the amulet’s history.  There were fanciful tales about the stone becoming wayward and dangerous in the wrong hands.  No doubt those were invented to discourage potential thieves.  To be honest I never paid much attention to the myths surrounding it. The stone should not have come to me.” 

“Why not?”

“It passes through the eldest daughter on my mother’s side of the family.  The stone was meant for my sister.”  Rhiann let her voice trail off as she wondered about her sister’s fate.  It was the amulet’s acceptance of her, Rhiann, more than anything else that convinced her Melissa was dead.  If her sister was still alive the stone would lay as black and lifeless against Rhiann’s skin as it appeared in the queen’s hand. Shaking herself away from her dark thoughts, she turned to the queen with a forced smile. “It matters little now. I am certain the stone’s new owner will start their own traditions.”

Rhiann was not disappointed to give up this particular bequest. She would be relieved to be rid of its constant weight and the memory of it lying in a pool of her mother’s blood.  She thought foolish the old legends surrounding the mysterious jewel.  If the stone held the power it was rumored to hold her mother would still be alive. 

The queen offered the necklace back to her.  “I think it is best for such things to remain in the hands of their true owners.”

Rhiann made no move to accept the queen’s offering.  “Are you certain there is not a Norman lady you would like to make a gift of the stone to?  Perhaps one of the king’s loyal knights would like to make an offering of the jewel to his lady.  I believe it is quite valuable.”

Matilda smiled at her barely veiled attempt to distance herself from the necklace. “I think not, Lady Rhiann.  I believe we have demanded enough from you.”

Rhiann sighed resigned.  She suspected the stone would not be so easily gotten rid of.  Reluctantly she accepted the necklace from the queen’s hand and slid the fine silver chain around her neck. “As you wish, your highness, but it is an uncomfortable inheritance.”

The queen nodded, smiling at her disgruntled tone. Her eyes widened in surprise as the amulet grew bright against Rhiann’s skin.  The cold dead stone was suddenly alive with new light, taking on a rich emerald color.  “Does it take on the color of your gown or your eyes?”

Rhiann shrugged.  “I cannot be certain.  It was always gold when my mother wore it and her eyes were green as well, red in my grandmother’s possession and her eyes are dark.  The stone chooses the color it takes on when a new owner takes possession.”

“Fascinating.  Is it magic then?” The queen’s rapt attention remained on the stone.

Rhiann smiled sadly.  “If it was magic I would surely not find myself in my current predicament.”

The queen met her glance and nodded her understanding.  “I suppose not.”

 

“Well Nathan? Have you considered my proposition?” The king interjected and Rhiann was glad to be distracted from any further discussion about the stone or her family.  The king’s attention was focused further down the table.  Rhiann turned to follow his gaze.  The man was apparently waiting for her to look his way because he immediately captured her glance with his intent blue one as soon as she turned to him.

He was younger than most of the other knights in the room and richly garbed.  The deep blue of his garment accented the lighter blue of his eyes.  He was tan from long hours spent laboring in the sun, but his sharply etched features were unscarred. There were gold streaks in his light brown, shoulder length hair that was secured away from his face with a leather tie.  She could not tell his height as he was seated at the table but his shoulders were broad and unbowed.  She suspected the hands resting in a deceptively mild fashion in front of him held the strength to crush her own slender form between them.  She could not hold his intense regard for long and quickly lowered her gaze to where her own hands were clasped nervously in her lap as she followed his response to the king’s query.

“Yes, sire.”

“And you are content with my gift to you?” The king spoke in riddles and by the startled reaction of the others around the table Rhiann was not the only one to think so.

“More than content, sire.  I find myself deeply in your debt.” Rhiann detected a thread of amusement in the man’s deep voice as he reassured his overlord.  He was obviously on good terms with the new king.  This Nathan understood his place in the new order and was obviously content with it. Rhiann heaved a silent sigh.  Perhaps one day she would know such contentment again.

“Good, then as we discussed, the wedding will be held tomorrow evening in the new abbey.”

There was a surprised murmuring around the table and Rhiann was uncomfortably aware of the attention suddenly focused on her.  She raised startled eyes to the stranger’s face.  “You are to be wed on the morrow, my lord?”

His amused smile revealed straight, white teeth and made him appear less intimidating than before.  “Yes, my lady.”

Rhiann glanced suspiciously from the stranger back to the king, who seemed equally amused by her question, as if the two shared some private joke.  Rhiann could not help but notice the queen was regarding her sympathetically.  In a near panic she turned back to the Norman knight with the light blue eyes.

“Your betrothed is traveling from Normandy for the ceremony?”

His grin widened at her attempt at self-deception.  “There is no need.  My betrothed is already in London.  She arrived earlier this afternoon.”

Rhiann shook her head in denial as the truth sank in. Perhaps he was playing some cruel game with her.  She turned pleading eyes to the king.  “Surely, sire, you cannot mean to… you would not…”

When words failed her the king reached across the table to pat her hand reassuringly. “Nathan will make you a fine husband, my dear.  There is no need for the fear I see in your eyes.”

That was supposed to comfort her?  His assurance she had nothing to fear from the stranger he meant to marry her to?  Raw panic rose in chest until she thought she might choke on it.  Without asking the king’s permission she jumped up from her seat at the table and fled the hall, amused laughter echoing in her ears at her hurried flight. 

Matilda shot her husband a disapproving frown and rose from the table to follow Rhiann to her room.  She found her staring out the window into the cold night, her arms wrapped around her middle to ward off the chill.

“My dear, come away from the window.  You’ll catch a chill,” Matilda commanded and clucked sympathetically as Rhiann turned to face her. The girl’s face was white as the sheets on her bed.  Her arms weren’t wrapped around her waist to ward off the chill but to still their shaking.  Matilda rushed forward and enfolded Rhiann’s slight frame in her arms.


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Rhiann allowed the queen to lead her to the bed.  At the queen’s gentle insistence she bent her knees and sank down onto the feather mattress.  “Baron Nathan is a good man.  You need not fear marriage to him.  He will treat you kindly.”

Rhiann shook her head in denial.  How could this be happening to her?

“You will be able to return home after the wedding,” the queen continued softly, rubbing Rhiann’s hands between her own in an attempt to bring some life back into them.

“Home?”

The queen smiled at the hesitant hope in the single word.  “Yes, though I would ask that you keep such knowledge to yourself until an announcement has been made. The king plans to award your husband your father’s estates.  So you will not be returning to Normandy with your new husband. Baron Nathan intends to make his home here in Saxony.”

Rhiann never considered the possibility she would be forced to return to Normandy.  She was grateful the queen relieved her of that worry before it even occurred to her.

“I am sure your people will be relieved to see you safely home,” the queen added, though Rhiann was no longer listening.

She could go home.  She clung to the single word in her wildly careening world.  The price for such a magnificent gift?  Her freedom.  But was her freedom such a high price?  Was she free now?  Did she wish the king to find her another knight to wed? 

At least the baron was younger than most of the men of his rank in William’s service.  He seemed clean and healthy.  Would he demand his rights as a husband? Though the thought struck terror into her heart, she suspected he would.  She noticed the way he looked at her, was aware now of the possessiveness in his gaze as it skimmed over her, lingering on the swell of her breasts.  She was not so naïve she was unable to recognize desire in a man’s eyes. She guessed war did not grant a knight much opportunity for such diversions.

Was such a fate truly more heinous than the execution she envisioned on her journey to London?  She could return to the only home she ever knew.  Even if it was no longer hers, she would be its mistress.  She could see to the care of her family’s graves.  The welfare of her father’s people would not be left to the whims of strangers, though she acknowledged she would be powerless against the baron’s commands.  Whatever power, if any, she would wield as mistress of Heaven’s Crest would be at the baron’s discretion.  When she wed, she would become her husband’s property to do with as he willed. 

She sighed heavily and met the queen’s concerned glance.  It wasn’t as though she had any real choice in the matter.  She could refuse her consent before the priest called upon to bless their vows but where would that leave her?  Certainly not with a chance to return home. The king would no doubt choose another Saxon lady to wed the baron and Rhiann would forfeit her only chance of returning to Heaven’s Crest.

“You will wed the baron tomorrow evening?” The queen asked, and Rhiann reluctantly nodded her assent.  Matilda smiled broadly.

“It will be a good match.  You may safely leave the question of your future in Baron Nathan’s hands.  He is strong enough to protect you and will allow no harm yo come to you.” Rhiann forced her trembling lips to curve into a semblance of a smile at the queen’s continued fussing, not wanting to offend the older woman. 

Rhiann understood very well Matilda was not in the least obliged to concern herself with Rhiann’s feelings in the matter of her marriage. She pretended to believe the queen’s reassurance of the baron’s concern for her welfare and her conviction her new husband would not let anything evil befall her. No doubt her mother believed the same thing about her father, but in the end she faced their enemy alone because he was already dead.

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Rhiann didn’t see her future husband again until she was walking down the long aisle of the new abbey on the arm of the king.  Armed knights dressed in deep blue livery stood respectfully at attention as they walked slowly passed.  The pews were filled with noble lords and their ladies dressed in their colorful finery. 

Rhiann’s hand shook noticeably on the king’s arm, and she was grateful for his support as she walked down the aisle for she was convinced she could not have traversed the distance on her own.  The abbey felt cold even with the hundreds of candles burning overhead to provide light for the ceremony.  Her gown was a soft gold. The shade provided a rich backdrop to the lighter strands of her long hair which shone in the shadows cast by the flickering candlelight.  The gown was made of a heavy, warm material that brought a subtle glow to her skin.  Her mother’s necklace was replaced for the evening by a strand of magnificently matched pearls, the gown and pearls a gift of the new monarchs to mark the occasion. 

She held her head high and kept her glance centered on the altar, unable to bring herself to look at the man who would soon be her husband.  She was afraid if she did and she remembered later this evening he would likely demand his intimate rights as her husband she thought she might turn and run in the other direction.  Perhaps this was all some hideous nightmare. The hopeful possibility tantalized her with the chance of escaping the bond, stronger than any steel chain that would close around her as soon as she repeated her vows to the priest.  If this was a nightmare, she needed to figure out how to rouse herself from it and soon.  Maybe she was ill and hallucinating in a fevered state.  She would wake up any moment now to find her mother’s concerned face bending over her, with her father and sister by her side.

Nathan watched his bride sway slightly as she approached the altar.  Her complexion was so pale he thought she was in danger of fainting.  There was a glazed look to her eyes he found nerve wracking.  He willed her to look at him.  If the maid chose to faint after they exchanged their vows he would not in all honestly blame her. 

Never in her wildest imagination could she have envisioned finding herself bound for life to an enemy knight. In the past months she lived through the deaths of her entire family who were killed by his comrades, was forced from her home and dragged to London without even the benefit of her maid for company, and was now being constrained to marry a man who could very well have been the one responsible for the loss of her family. 

He would treat her kindly.  She only had to speak her vows and get through the ceremony.  Then the land would be his.  Nothing else mattered. His lips curved in an involuntary smile as she approached the altar.  Even in her obviously anxious state she was easily the most beautiful woman in the room.  Her golden hair glowed in the firelight and lay in thick curls down her back where it fell to her hips.  Her eyes were deep green pools of the mysteries that fill a woman’s thoughts.  Her lips trembled slightly as did the elegant hand resting on the king’s arm. 

Still she carried herself as befitting the daughter of a duke.  She was like some ancient pagan princess, young, proud, almost too beautiful to be real.  They came to a stop next to him and William nodded his approval and lifted Lady Rhiann’s hand from his arm and presented it to Nathan as the maid seemed incapable of performing the act herself.  Nathan took his intended bride’s icy hand in his own sweating one.  They both feared what the imminent future would bring.  She no doubt feared the consummation of the ceremony, while he feared the opposite outcome. His heart was pounding with panic at the thought something would happen before the priest announced the final blessing, making the lady his in the eyes of the church and under the law.  He was so close to realizing the dream he sacrificed everything to achieve his mind was filled with a relentless fear something would snatch it away from his eager grasp at the final moment.

He tightened his grip on the maid’s hand until he knew it must be painful.  She tried to pull her hand away but he refused to release her. Finally, she raised her glance to his.  He immediately loosened his grip.  The glazed expression in her eyes was replaced by a hesitant wariness.  He held her glance, willing her to trust him, lending her some of his strength.  The priest demanded their attention and they turned towards him and together took the final steps to the altar where they knelt side by side before him.  Rhiann was unable to still the trembling of her hand where it rested in the grasp of the stranger who was about to become her husband. He squeezed it reassuringly. Panic welled up inside her until she feared she might choke on it.  What was she doing?  How could this be happening to her?

Nathan, already attuned to his bride’s anxiety, was aware of her quickened breathing and the trembling that now shook her entire slender form.  He squeezed harder the hand resting in his until his bride attempted to free herself.  He refused to release her.  The foolish tug of war that ensued took his nervous bride’s thoughts away from the source of her terror.  She was now regarding him with a definitely disgruntled expression as she abandoned her unequal struggle to regain her hand.  He grinned at her obvious displeasure with his high-handed tactics. She would soon learn who would be master in this marriage, and which one of them would be the chattel.

Nathan looked forward to the task of instructing his young bride in her wifely duties.  He was especially looking forward to initiating her into the more intimate of her duties tonight.  In fact it was the contemplation of just such an initiation that forced him to spend the past twenty four hours in a state of semi-arousal.  Even now the feel of her soft skin resting against his was making it difficult to concentrate on the priest’s instructions.  He willed the frail, elderly man to get on with the final blessing before his would-be wife fainted at his feet.

When it was time to speak their vows, Rhiann waited silently as her betrothed proclaimed his promises, her eyes glued to the clear blue ones so intently holding her own.  Her soon-to-be husband repeated his vows with an assurance she knew she would be unable to match when she was asked to recite her own. His voice was deep and solemn as he promised to honor and protect her, the look in his eyes letting her know he meant the words he gave her.  Rhiann felt his promises settle somewhere deep within her, taking root near her heart.  Even if he was marrying her only to gain possession of her father’s lands she thought he intended to honor his vows.  This was not a man who would easily break promises he made in front of his king and his God.

When the time came to declare her own vows she kept her gaze focused on Nathan, hoping to borrow some of his strength.  Certainly he was blessed with a surplus of that commodity.  She was not able to discern his height the previous evening because he was seated at the table when she first became aware of him. Now she was uncomfortably aware of the way he fairly towered over her, the top of her own head not quite reaching his broad shoulders.  His chest spanned two of her own and she suspected he learned at a young age to keep a tight leash on the strength she could feel in the calloused hand hers rested in. She was unable to repeat her own vows in more than a shaky whisper but the priest seemed satisfied.  Without further ado he pronounced them husband and wife and gave his permission for the king’s knight to kiss his new bride.

Rhiann lifted startled eyes to her husband’s and noticed his held a devilish glint of amusement as he bent his head towards her.  She held herself stiff in preparation of his assault and was surprised when he merely brushed his lips across hers before lifting his head to accept the congratulations of the king and queen and their guests.  He nudged her to face the smiling monarchs.  As if in a dream Rhiann accepted their hearty congratulations and best wishes for a happy future.

Afterwards, the king and queen stepped to one side and William nodded his approval as the knights who lined the aisle when Rhiann and the king walked down it prior to the ceremony came forward and knelt before them, repeating their own vows of loyalty and promising to give their lives to preserve hers. Dazed and confused, Rhiann scooted closer to her husband’s side until she felt his hands settle reassuringly on her shoulders and pull her back against his hard frame.

Nathan nodded to each of his men, acknowledging their pledges of loyalty.  His skittish bride was obviously overwhelmed. She kept edging closer against his side until she was literally standing between his legs.  He let his hands rest possessively on her shoulders.  She was his.  The land was his. Satisfaction filled him at the thought.  He drew in a deep breath, filling his senses with her tantalizing scent. Tonight she would give herself to him and he would plant his seed in her young, tender body. God willing it would find fertile soil and she would breed true.  His sons’ lineage would be far greater than their father’s. Aye he was well satisfied with this day’s work.  All of his years of back breaking work, his sweat, his sacrifices, the hideous trials of blood and death. The stark, anonymous existence of a single soldier in the king’s service.  If his life leading up to this moment was the price of what he was awarded this day, he paid it willingly.

When the last of his men knelt before them Nathan led his bride down the long aisle to the hearty cheers of those gathered to witness the ceremony, and out into the damp, icy cold of the late autumn evening.  Stars glittered overhead as they made their way back to the keep where the king’s guests would gather to celebrate their nuptials.

The newly wedded couple had yet to exchange a single word.  Rhiann was aware of the silence between them but was too nervous and tongue-tied to be the one to break it.  She kept trying to put some distance between herself and the huge man who was now her husband by pulling as inconspicuously as she was able away from his side.  He seemed aware of her inclination and each time she gained a little space between them as they walked side by side in the chill evening, he would draw her back close to his side with his strong arm wrapped securely around her shoulder.

  He seemed unwilling to acknowledge the obvious hint she was trying to deliver that she was uncomfortable with the close physical contact he was apparently intent on maintaining between them.  He had not ceased touching her since the king placed her hand in his much larger one in front of the altar before the priest. She reminded herself of her new husband’s vows to honor and protect her, but they did little to ease her anxiety.  Did she not just utter similar vows before a man of God to honor, love and obey this stranger?  She doubted her husband meant his promises to her any more than she meant her own.  Their pledges were exchanged to satisfy the priest and the customs of the church.  How could she swear to love a man she spoke no more than a dozen words to prior to the ceremony that would bind them for life?


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She shivered involuntarily, uncertain if her tremors were caused by the cold or her anxiety about the fate awaiting her later this evening, much less the course of her entire future after tonight. 

“Are you cold?” Nathan asked, surprised by the slight tremor beneath his hand.  The night air seemed unseasonably mild to him. 

Rhiann’s voice deserted her when she lifted her glance to meet her new husband’s intent one and she could only nod in response.  Nathan immediately removed his cloak and wrapped it around her.  The garment hung around her much smaller form like a heavy quilt. She hurried to lift the lower half to keep it from dragging along the ground behind her.  His masculine scent lingered on the fine cloth and Rhiann found her senses filled with the evidence of him.  His heat clung to the garment and she welcomed its warmth.  “Thank you,” she whispered, shyly meeting his glance.

Nathan smiled at his wife’s evident timidity.  He found it amusing the way she kept trying to put some distance between them, how she attempted to pull her hand free from his grasp, and even now how she was unable to bring herself to hold his glance for long.  He couldn’t resist the urge to push a stray strand of her long hair, now blowing gently in the breeze, away from her lovely face.  The golden curls felt like silk in his hand and he let his knuckles linger on her soft skin.  His body was already reacting insistently to her nearness and the thought of the banquet he would feast upon later this night. Her eyes were huge in her pale face but she didn’t recoil from his touch.  He smiled tenderly at her wary expression.  “You’re welcome.”

He heard her sigh audibly at the same time she dropped her glance beneath his.  The smile playing around his lips turned into a grin. 

His bride was so honest in her reactions, so openly genuine.  He reached out and lifted her chin so she would be forced to meet his gaze. It was hardly a revelation to discover he liked touching her.  He especially enjoyed the way she pressed herself up against his side at the church when his men offered their pledges of loyalty.  He easily captured her startled gaze as she raised her eyes to his. She was as skittish as a young colt, with the same wary fear in her vivid green eyes at his touch.  His hand slid along her jaw, underneath her silken tresses and cupped the back of her neck. 

Her eyes widened at his boldness and she drew a quick panicked breath but though he could read the temptation in her eyes, she restrained from drawing away from his hand. He suspected she knew he would not allow her to retreat from his touch and no doubt his young bride had learned the painful lesson over the course of the past few weeks and months that some battles were not worth the price one paid to wage them. 

“You belong to me now. It is my right to touch you.” His voice was harsher than he intended.  The softness of her skin, the sight of her gold curls blowing gently in the breeze, the wide-eyed innocence of her gaze all combined to tantalize his masculine passions in a way he had not allowed himself to indulge in since he was a young man. 

He was an innocent once.  As innocent as the maid he somehow managed to capture for his own.  He paid a high price for surrendering to his naive lust for a woman he thought was as pure as he once was.  He acknowledged now how foolish his younger self was then.  There was no mistaking the purity of Rhiann’s eyes. The way she flinched beneath his every caress was evidence of her unfamiliarity with a man’s touch.

“I know.” She whispered in response to his claim it was his right to touch her.  Tears filled her eyes at his fierce reminder.

“I’ll never hurt you.” His thumb was gentle as he brushed away the tears that spilled over her lower lids.

“Truly?” Rhiann wanted to believe him.  She wanted to trust him, because if she was unable to rely on his word her future was too terrifying to contemplate.

“Truly.” His assurance was whispered against her lips as he brushed his own against hers.  Rhiann fought conflicting emotions at his gentle touch.  One to draw away from this new intimacy, the other to restrain the urge to lean into his arms and let herself be swallowed up in his strength. 

“I don’t wish to hate you.”  She whispered.  Their lips were still just a breath away as he lifted his face away from hers.

“Then don’t.”  Nathan recognized he was asking a lot of her considering the events leading up to their marriage.

“I will try to love you.”

He smiled in surprise at her hesitant declaration.  Her adjustment would be much easier if she could eventually grow to have some affection for him, but he would not demand her love.  She could save her tender feelings for his sons, but if she needed to love him, neither would he crush her gentle regard.  “I will do my best to be worthy of your love.” At her hesitant smile he wrapped one arm around her slender waist and steered her towards the king’s home and the celebration awaiting them.

A large cheer erupted at their entrance and Nathan grinned when Rhiann immediately edged closer to his side.  The king beckoned them forward and Nathan knelt before his liege lord.  Rhiann did not need his gentle urging to kneel by his side. He nodded approvingly at her graceful action and squeezed the small hand he held in his.

The king gave them his blessing and bid them rise.  He signaled for silence from his guests. “I am well pleased with this match.  I bid you all to welcome Lady Rhiann and join me in offering your best wishes for a happy future.”  A loud cheer erupted at his words, and after a few moments the king once more held up his hands for silence.  “Tis my privilege to provide a generous dowry fitting for such a worthy bride, though as I have already informed my vassal, even the most generous dowry must take a distant second to the woman it accompanies.”

A hushed silence fell over the crowd.  All knew who Rhiann’s father was and the rich estates he left behind.  They waited anxiously to learn if one of the richest estates acquired in the invasion of Saxony would be awarded to the duke’s daughter’s new husband.  “My loyal vassal and good friend, Nathan, has proven his value and loyalty again and again in his years in my service.  As you all know I reward service in the measure it is given to me.  For this reason I award the lady’s father’s estates to Baron Nathan, the new lord of Heaven’s Crest.”

Thunderous applause erupted at the king’s announcement.  If there were noblemen who were dissatisfied or disgruntled over the king’s proclamation, their disappointment was drowned out by those who were genuinely happy for Nathan.  His own men, many of them younger sons with no hope of inheriting lands of their own, saw his huge step up in status as a reflection of their own possibilities.

Rhiann lifted her glance toward her husband’s face and for a brief moment saw the flare of triumphant satisfaction in his eyes.  She knew nothing of his family background but she guessed this moment meant a great deal to him, more than she could possibly understand.  He looked down to find her watching him and bent towards her and whispered in her ear.  “I will take good care of your father’s lands and his daughter.  You need have no fear entrusting either to my care.”  He turned to his king and repeated his pledge to guard his lands, his wife, and the king’s interests with his sword, his will and his life’s blood.  Even more thunderous applause erupted at the conclusion of Nathan’s fierce vow.

Large mugs of fresh ale were passed around by harried servants and Rhiann recognized her husband’s commander when he stepped up on the platform and raised his glass.  “Hail Baron Nathan and Lady Rhiann!  May they know long life.  May their lands prosper.  May their sons be blessed with their father’s strength and honor, and may their daughters be blessed with their mother’s beauty.”

“Here! Here!”  Loud shouts of agreement echoed around the festive hall, filled to capacity, as mugs were lifted and drained.  Rhiann raised her own mug and took a tiny sip of the ale.  She never cared for the bitter taste.  She noticed Nathan downed his full mug in a single swallow much to the delight of the approving crowd, and then took her still full mug from her hand and downed hers as well.  A loud clatter arose as mugs were banged against each other. 

Nathan could see by the confused look on her face his young wife failed to understand what the crowd demanded.  Rather than explain matters to her he decided to show her.  He turned her into his embrace and covered her mouth with his in a kiss far different than the ones they exchanged to date. His mouth moved warmly over hers, coaxing her response as loud cheers of appreciation from the crowd watching them faded into the background.  When her lips trembled beneath his and her hands gripped his shirt, he groaned his approval in the back of his throat.  Uncaring of their audience, he wrapped his arms around his bride’s slender form and drew her up against his hard chest.  The crowd cheered all the louder.  When she began shaking in his arms, Nathan reluctantly allowed their surroundings to intrude and he raised his head.  At the glazed confusion in his bride’s eyes he was forced to restrain the urge to sweep her into his arms and carry her up to his rooms and answer the questions he could read in her glance.

The king clapped him heartily on the back and Nathan turned to accept his outstretched hand.  Well-wishers rushed forward.  Rhiann shyly accepted their congratulations and Nathan turned her in his arms so she stood between his legs and her head rested against him just below his chin.  The signal for the evening meal came and the crowd made their way to the full tables set up around the hall.  Rhiann was too nervous to do more than taste any of the offerings artfully arranged on the full plate placed in front of her.  Rather than risk offending the king she pushed the food around on her plate while the other guests ate.  She noticed enviously her husband appeared to have little trouble finishing the food placed in front of him and downing several mugs of the seemingly endless supply of fresh ale.

After the meal, the queen led her upstairs to new quarters she suspected belonged to her husband.  A steaming wooden tub was placed before the hearth.  The queen herself assisted her with her gown and wrapped her in a warm cloth before helping her into a sleeping gown in a material so fine she could see through it.  Rhiann tried not to panic at the thought of the night ahead.  As if sensing her rising anxiety, the queen squeezed her hands reassuringly, and then helped her into a robe made from the same material as the sleeping gown.  “All will be well, my dear.  You need only trust your husband.  He is a good man and worthy of your love.”

Rhiann bit her bottom lip to keep from crying out.  Tears glittered in her eyes as she tried to smile bravely at the queen, well aware of the great honor she was shown when the monarch helped her to prepare for her wedding night.  “I’ll leave you alone for a time.  Though I doubt you will have long to wait before your husband joins you.”

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

The queen’s prediction proved accurate.  The heavy door barely closed behind Matilda when Rhiann heard it creak open again.  She stood in front of the hearth trying to draw ragged breaths into her suddenly tight throat.  She refused to turn around; hoping a few more moments would help her gather her courage to face the terror of the night ahead.

Nathan stepped through the thick wooden door barring the entrance to his quarters and closed the door behind him, sliding the latch into place to bar any interruptions.  His eyes immediately sought out his new bride where she stood in front of the stone hearth.  Her back was to him but he noticed how she stiffened at his entrance, her fear evident in the way her shoulders trembled and the way her hands were clenched together in front of her.  Though he couldn’t see them from where he stood by the door he suspected her small hands shook so forcibly they were causing the trembling evident in her entire slender body. He drew in a deep, cleansing breath hoping to calm his raging needs.  His bride’s slight, womanly form was outlined by the light from the fire.  The see-through gown did little to hide her naked body from his avid gaze.  Nathan knew he needed to gather his discipline before his bride turned to face him, lest he terrify her with his lustful intent. He willed his thudding heart to slow down, not surprised when it completely ignored his mind’s order. His normally iron will and self-control was already losing this battle against his manly passions.  Normally he would be irritated with himself at the evidence of his loss of control, but tonight was different.  Tonight was the one night of his life it was acceptable to surrender to the urgency coursing through him, to give life to his desires and take the bountiful treasure before him.  The maid was his for the taking.  A gift of his king for Nathan’s long years of faithful service to accompany the lands he was awarded by his marriage to her.

Though she belonged to him, was his property by virtue of the laws of both men and God, he would not have her cowering before him in terror when he consummated their wedding vows.  He needed to regain control over the lust riding him so hard now he could barely put two thoughts together in an orderly fashion. He recognized he was never going to be able to summon the patience he was certain would be needed to gain his bride’s trust if he couldn’t clear his head and slow his body’s incessant urging to take the maid and have done with it. 

“Rhiann.” Nathan cringed at the harshness of his tone as his bride’s name echoed in the hushed silence of the room. 

Reluctantly Rhiann turned to face the man who was now her husband. She unclenched her trembling hands and wrapped her arms around her stomach in a protective gesture, and in what she knew was a foolish attempt to cover herself as much as possible.  Even in her innocence she recognized her husband’s lustful intent in the way Nathan’s glance raked over her and knew she would be defenseless against his greater strength.  Just as she was unable to prevent the Norman siege on Heaven’s Crest, she would be unable to defend herself against her husband’s assault on her virgin’s body. Involuntary shivers passed through her at the thought of what was to come.

Not wanting to give the terror his bride was unable to hide from him a chance to take hold, Nathan captured her frightened glance and demanded, “Come to me, wife.”  He winced at the sound of his stark command in the silence of the room.  He was already struggling to contain his raging desire.  He suspected his self-control would be tested tonight in a way he was never tested before. When his innocent bride took an instinctive step back towards the heat of the fire he could almost believe from the blind panic he read in her eyes she found going up in flames a more preferable option to a night spent in his bed.  Hoping not to push her any further, he added softly, “Do you remember your vows to the priest?”


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She nodded reluctantly.  “Do you intend to keep them?”  He watched the flare of annoyance at his gentle reminder flash across his gentle bride’s face a moment before she swallowed nervously and took a hesitant step forward.  Nathan remained where he was by the door.  It was important to both of them she come to him willingly.

He considered himself a patient man.  His little wife seemed intent on putting that conclusion to the test with each tiny, tentative step she took towards him.  It seemed as though it took her an hour just to cross the width of the room separating them.  With each cautious step his body’s needs rode him harder, reminding him of his long abstinence.  The campaign into Saxony was an intense one, with little opportunity for dalliance.  He’d gone long months without the comfort of a woman’s soft flesh beneath him, surrounding him. The thought he would soon have this beautiful woman’s tender flesh and untried body beneath him was like the burn of a lash spurring him on, testing his hard-won self-control to its very limits.  Sweat broke out on his forehead and beaded on his skin.  But it wasn’t the heat from the fire in the hearth eliciting such a response from his body; it was the heat of the fire burning in his loins.

When after a seemingly endless trek across the room, his bride was finally close enough he could see the outline of her erect nipples through the transparent gown and robe, she abruptly stopped her forward progress.  Her eyes were filled with both tears and terror at the unbridled lust he was unable to conceal in his own.  Nathan raised his gaze back from his perusal of her perfect silhouette almost bare to his lustful gaze beneath the transparent gown, and returned his eyes to her face. 

“Closer.” He commanded softly. She took another tiny, barely discernible step towards him.  Her vivid green eyes were like saucers in her white face, filled with both terror of him and the unknown awaiting her this night.  She trembled noticeably. Her hands were wrapped around her waist as if in anticipation of some blow and clenched the sheer robe in a death grip.  The fabric was so delicate he was surprised the garment was still intact and hadn’t already shredded in her hands. He reached out and lifted her chin with hand so she was forced to meet his intent gaze.

“Closer.” She bit her lip and took another tiny step forward.  He breathed in her womanly fragrance and was forced to restrain the urge to sweep her off her feet, lay her on his bed and force her innocence in one fierce thrust.  He drew an unsteady breath, clamping down on his manly inclination though the effort cost him.  Just drawing breath into his lungs was a painful alternative to his body’s insistent urging. His voice was therefore less than gentle when he demanded, “Take off your robe.”

Tears filled her eyes until they became emerald pools, shimmering in her stark face.  His bride shook her head, denying him. He could tell the small act of defiance cost her for her trembling was more pronounced now.  No doubt in anticipation of his retaliation.  Nathan therefore adopted a gentler tone. “Did you not promise to obey me?”

The shimmering tears spilled from her eyes and slid slowly down her cheeks as she loosened her tight grip on the thin robe and reached up to untie the ribbons holding it in place. She could not bring herself to meet his intent glance as she shrugged out of the robe and let it fall in an iridescent pool at her feet. When he was unable to control his sharp intake of breath at the sight of her perfection revealed through the thin layer of the gauzy material of her night gown, she flinched as if he struck her.  The garment was masterfully designed to entice a man to succumb to his lustful thoughts and concealed little from his avid gaze. 

His bride was perfectly formed, a gift for him from his maker and his king.  A thin waist rose above gently curved hips. Long slender leg tantalized his imagination and he shuddered to think of them wrapped demandingly around him.  He could not deny the urge to reach out and cup one full perfect breast through the thin material of the gown. Heat and softness filled his hand and spilled over.  His bride gasped at his boldness but she remained still beneath his questing hand, even when he brushed his thumb across one erect nipple.  She was panting now, her breasts rising and falling rapidly in fear.

Nathan let his hand linger while at the same time he wrapped his other arm around her tiny waist and pulled her towards him. His bride recoiled instinctively from the feel of his rock hard erection pressed intimately against her soft middle.  Struggling for control he pulled her gently, but inexorably back against him.  His own ragged breathing matched his wife’s as he bent his head and buried his face in her silken curls, trying to summon the iron discipline that governed his life until this moment. He suspected he was fighting a losing battle.  The hand cupping her breast was shaking with the urge to tear the thin gown off of her warm body and get his hands on her bare skin.  He reluctantly removed his hand from her breast and used it to gently lift her face so she would meet his gaze.

“I won’t force you.” He promised at the stark terror he read in her eyes, though how in hell he was going to keep his vow he could not fathom.

Her expressions passed in swift succession across her face…surprise, relief, hope, and then fear again, as if she was afraid to trust his vow.

“You will give yourself to me willingly, wife.  I won’t force you.” He repeated his promise.  Ignoring the tears still spilling silently down her cheeks, he covered her mouth with his.  He tasted the salt of her tears as he prayed for patience to endure this slow torture.  Trying to rid her of her fears, he gently coaxed her response to his touch.  When she hesitantly leaned into his embrace and tentatively moved her lips beneath his, he altered his grip to pull on her chin to get her to open her mouth for him.  The moment she did his tongue swept inside, tasting her, filling her.  His bride was not ready for this new intimacy and tried to turn her face away.  He would not allow her retreat after it had taken him so long to gain so small a concession out of her.  He used his tongue to claim possession, sinking deep within the sweet crevice of her mouth again and again until she grew accustomed to his taste.

Rhiann could not begin to understand the storm of emotions her husband was unleashing within her.  She couldn’t catch her breath.  She kept trying to push him away to gain a little space to consider what was happening to her but it was like trying to move a mountain.  His arms were like iron bands around her, though his touch was incredibly gentle. It comforted her to know he was being so careful not to use his magnificent strength against her.  At the thought, she let down her defenses a bit and gave herself up to the new sensations coursing through her. She didn’t remember making the conscious decision to lift her arms to cling to him, but suddenly her hands were fisted in his thick light brown hair and she was kissing him back. 

He groaned his encouragement when her tongue tentatively brushed against his, then pulled his own back into his mouth beckoning her to follow.  Feeling bereft without him inside of her, she followed where he led. Her tongue slid along his bottom lip then slowly, hesitantly entered his mouth.  Nathan drew her in. 

It was strange this mingling of breaths but not as terrifying as when he stood silently staring at her, his eyes dark and intent, his stance tense, like an animal readying itself to pounce on its prey.  The arms around her were strong but tender, and his hand he wrapped in her hair to hold her head still caressed her gently.  He promised he would never hurt her that he wouldn’t force her, and perhaps she was beginning to believe him a little. 

She let her hands slide tentatively under the crisp white shirt he wore.  His instant reaction to her touch on his incredibly hot skin made her hesitate in her exploration.  “No Rhiann, that’s it, touch me,” he whispered harshly against her ear.

She continued sliding her hands up his hard, flat stomach until they rested in the heavy mat of hair she discovered on his chest.  She caught her fingers in the crisp curls and pulled gently.  He groaned in response.  All the while their mouths teased, pressed together, breaths mingled, tongues danced.  Her fingers continued their exploration until they found his nipples buried beneath the thick hair on his chest.  She brushed her thumb across one much as he had done to her own.  She felt him jerk against her and suddenly found herself swept up in his arms and being carried to the bed.

“I am going to lose my mind if I can’t touch you right this minute.  If you don’t want me to tear that gown off of you, take it off – now.”  Rhiann supposed she should be frightened by his harsh demand but part of her thrilled at the thought she could drive him to the brink of his control.  He set her on her feet at the edge of the bed, towering over her, his massive chest rising and falling as he watched her nervously pluck at the ties of her gown.  Nathan removed his own shirt before she even loosed the tie holding the scooped neckline in place. 

Rhiann couldn’t stop herself from stealing a glance at his naked chest and suddenly her fingers were all thumbs. Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of his muscular chest covered with golden curls.  Her eyes stole lower to where the golden hair formed a v and disappeared beneath the tight fit of his breeches where his maleness strained noticeably against them. She blushed and quickly dropped her gaze to her feet, her hands forgetting they were supposed to be working on the ties of her gown.  At the thought of her husband thrusting his huge maleness into her the fear returned a hundred fold.

Nathan could see the fresh panic building in his bride’s face and thought to give her something else to worry about.  He brushed her fumbling fingers aside and tore the gown off of her with one firm sweep of his hand.  At the same moment her glorious breasts spilled out of the torn gown, she lifted outraged eyes to his face.  “The queen gave me this gown!”

Nathan laughed at her indignant response and reached a gentle hand that shook slightly from the force of his need to explore her naked skin and cupped one full breast in his hand.  He thought he was prepared for how soft she would be, how her unblemished skin would feel against his own calloused palm.  He closed his eyes against this new sweet torture he inflicted on himself and let his other hand drift down her stomach until his fingers were caught in the golden curls shielding her virginity from him. 

Shocked at his boldness Rhiann tried to push his hand away.  He smiled at her shyness and slid one finger beneath the curls and sought out the damp cleft they hid.  His wife’s attempts to get him to stop became more frantic as she pushed against his probing hand. He dropped his head and buried his face in her hair.  He couldn’t wait much longer.  Feeling her body’s response to his touch made his control slip another notch. 

Realizing she lacked the strength to push his hand away, Rhiann sought to free herself from his bold touch.  She sank backwards on the bed and quickly scooted to the other side, intent on escape. Nathan caught her before she could emerge from the other side and came down heavily on top of her.  She raised her hands to fight him off but he easily captured them and pulled them above her head.  Nathan was fascinated by the way her breasts were heaving from her futile attempts to struggle against his restraining grip.  His tongue slid along her parted lips capturing the taste of her rapid breaths.

He couldn’t resist the urge to kiss her again, to coax her warm response to his touch from her parted lips.  He let his weight sink more heavily against her lower body so she was aware of his maleness rubbing against the opening he would soon breech.  His mouth covered hers and battled with her resistance, forcing hers open when she tried to fight him.  His tongue sank deep, branding her, making her accept his possession. 

In and out, in and out he stoked the fires in her until she whimpered in the back of her throat and kissed him back. He lifted his head and let his mouth slide along the slender column of her throat, down her chest, until he circled one straining nipple with his tongue. She gasped in astonishment.  He smiled and drew the peak into his mouth and sucked gently.

“Oh God,” Her stunned whisper was all the encouragement he needed.  He released the hands he held over her head and let one of his own come between her legs to search out her damp curls again.  This time when his finger slid beneath the curls and played with the dampened skin beneath she didn’t push him away but lifted her hips in a silent demand for more.

When his fingers separated her and one plunged boldly inside that secret place, Rhiann couldn’t stop the moan of pleasure that erupted from her lips.  His mouth teased her breasts until they felt heavy and strained for more of his touch.  His hand was sliding in and out of her in some secret rhythm until Rhiann was bucking against his searching hand.  When his thumb pressed against one special spot she screamed in amazement.  “Nathan, Nathan, please.” 

She didn’t know what she pleaded with him for, only guessed he knew the answer to the questions her body was so insistently asking.  She felt as though she were racing towards some unknown destination, her body strained in anticipation and only Nathan could take her there.

His hand moved more forcefully, he slipped another finger inside spreading her at the same time his thumb found that special spot again.  Rhiann arched forcefully off the bed and tried to lift her hips against his probing hand.  She cried out again, this time not in shock but in need.  She needed him to keep touching her.  She needed him to bring an end to this rising force within her or she thought she might go mad.

Nathan watched the tension build in his wife’s innocent body, knew Rhiann had never known passion by the astonishment she greeted each new sensation with. He understood she didn’t even know what she begged him for, but he wouldn’t let her find fulfillment until he was buried deep within her young flesh. She was writhing beneath him, her head moving back and forth, her whispered pleas not to stop urging him to take her higher and higher. “Nathan!” he smiled at the demand in her voice and bent down and captured her lips for a long, drugging kiss.  She eagerly kissed him back.


Page 9

“Tell me you want me inside of you,” he whispered against her ear.  At her hesitation, he stopped stroking her wet cleft and she moaned in protest.  “Tell me you want me inside of you.”

The dazed passion in her eyes turned to anxious understanding.  He wouldn’t force her.  She would have to give herself to him.  That was what he promised her.  She clenched her legs together trapping his hand within her.  He smiled at her instinctive encouragement.  He slowly drew his hand away from her restraining legs.  Tears filled her eyes.  “But Nathan you won’t fit.  You’re too big.”

He bent and kissed the tears from her eyes.  “Trust me, love, we’ll fit perfectly together.  You belong to me now.  Your body was made to mate with mine.”

Rhiann’s body felt as taut as a string stretched across a bow.  “Please,” she begged him.

“I’ll give you what you need, wife, when I’m inside you.”

Rhiann bit her lip and uncertainty filled her glance as she met his.  He knew she could feel him against her tender body, was aware of the fear she struggled with.  He wouldn’t force her. She would have to give herself willingly to him and neither of them was leaving this bed until she conquered her fear and spread her legs in welcome for him.

“All right,” her whispered acquiescence tugged at his heart. 

“The words wife, I want the words.”

She raised sad eyes to his and said in surrender, “Come to me husband, I need you inside me.”

Nathan needed no further encouragement.  He rose from the bed and undid the ties of his breeches.  His male member sprang free like a wild animal released from its cage.  He quickly shed his breeches and came down on top of his wife before she could give in to the urge to flee he read in her eyes.  Rhiann went perfectly rigid beneath him, trying to prepare herself for the pain of his invasion. She held little hope he wasn’t about to tear her apart.  Her legs were clenched tightly together. 

Nathan summoned the last of his patience and set about calming his innocent wife’s fears once more.  He tried to kiss her.  She turned away and closed her mouth against him, so he let his mouth drift along her skin and take one straining breast in his mouth.  Her body responded immediately even as her mouth whispered a soft denial.

“Yes,” he countered, as his hand slid down and teased the skin just below the damp curls.

She wouldn’t open her legs.  He pressed one finger through her resistance until it slid along the wet cleft and sought entrance to her heat.  Her legs parted slightly, just enough to allow his finger entrance but not the part of him he so desperately needed to bury inside her beckoning heat.  He stroked the fire in her, but still she kept her legs closed tight against his hand.  He kissed her again.  She gave herself eagerly to his kiss. 

“Spread your legs, Rhiann.  Let me inside.”  He felt a tiny easing of the pressure against his hand.

“More sweetheart,” he encouraged her.  A little bit more and he eased a second finger inside of her, spreading her, preparing her for his invasion.  “A little more,” his whispered encouragement was accompanied with his thumb pressing against the nub hidden by her curls and his fingers pressing deeper inside.  She moaned and clenched her legs around his hand.  “No Rhiann, open up, let me inside.  I won’t stop; I’ll give you what you need.”  She spread her legs for him and he pushed her higher, closer to fulfillment.  She bucked against his hand.  “The words Rhiann, tell me you want me.”

Rhiann surrendered.  “Yes, Nathan, I can’t stand this torture any longer.  I don’t care if you tear me apart.  Just come to me now.”

Nathan felt the same way.  He couldn’t stand the torture of holding back another second.  He positioned himself above her, then took one of her hands and wrapped it around his burning erection and helped her guide him to her heat.  Rhiann was shocked at the heat emanating from him and the soft skin covering his burning sword.  She felt him part her, far more than his fingers had done and tensed against him.  “No love, relax, let me in.”  She tried to follow his harsh instructions, knew it would be easier on her if she could trust him.  His hands forced her legs farther apart as he pressed deeper inside her. 

“Nathan, it hurts.  I told you, you’re too big,” she whined, her pain and frustration and exhaustion getting the better of her.

Nathan hesitated at the shield giving evidence to his bride’s virginity.  Rather than continue this slow torture on both of them, without warning he surged forward in one powerful thrust.  Rhiann cried out in pain as he tore through her.  Nathan couldn’t restrain his own shout of masculine pleasure.  Tears filled her eyes.  “You lied to me.  You said you wouldn’t hurt me,” his wife protested and strained to push him away. 

“Sh, love,” he gathered his shredding control long enough to try to soothe his bride’s fears.  He suspected the pain of what she perceived as his betrayal was as great as the pain of this first joining.

“The pain will ease, Rhiann. It’s only the first time, because you were a virgin.”

“Of course I was a virgin,” she countered disgruntled. “Did you doubt it?”

He rested his head against the top of hers and hid his amused grin at her pique.  His hips rose slowly as he couldn’t resist the urge to move and slide back into her.  They both moaned when he embedded himself deeper into her liquid fire, but for opposite reasons.

“I’m no longer a virgin?”  He couldn’t tell if she was relieved or disappointed.

“No, you’re no longer a virgin.”  Once more, he thought, as he slowly retreated and sank into her heat.

“Then we’re finished now?” He couldn’t hide his grin at his bride’s hopeful question.

“No wife, we are definitely not finished.”  His movements became more forceful.  She grimaced with pain but no longer made any move to push him away.  He supposed she accepted she had no hope against his greater strength.  He was beyond rational conversation or reassurances or even trying to gentle his thrusts to give her time to grow accustomed to his size. 

She fit him like she was made for him; as if his maker knew when he formed her she would need to be able to accommodate his thrusting passion.  His hand reached down between them and pressed against where their bodies joined.

Rhiann’s cry of protest turned to one of staggering pleasure.  She squeezed around him.  He thrust harder.  She wrapped her legs around his waist to keep him inside her.  She couldn’t hope to restrain his furious thrusts.  They rocked the heavy bed with their frenzied movement. 

Nathan held back, needing to see to his wife’s satisfaction before his own.  She was panting beneath him.  She met his every action forcefully, extending and giving them both greater pleasure.  She whispered his name in an awed cry as her body instinctively tightened around him.  Her slender body went rigid in his arms and she threw her head back as the orgasm tore through her.  Her scream of release was echoed by his own fierce shout of surrender as the ripples of her release surrounded him, massaged him, tightened around him and he emptied himself into her.

In the aftermath of the storm they both struggled to draw breath into their straining lungs. Nathan knew the stunned look on his wife’s face would be echoed on his own.  She was the innocent, he the experienced one, but never before had he drunk so deeply of passion’s elixir.  By deferring his own pleasure, waiting until his wife found her own satisfaction, his own gratification was multiplied a hundredfold.  He still braced his weight against his elbows and he gazed down tenderly into his wife’s face.  Her lids were heavy and he could tell she was struggling to stay awake.

“Are we finished now?” She asked again in a soft voice barely a whisper.

He smiled and smoothed the tangled mass of gold curls away from her face.  “For now.”

“Can I stay with you?”

“Where else would you go?”

“I thought maybe you would want me to return to my own room.”

“You are in your own room, Rhiann.  You will sleep in my bed every night.”

“Are you going to insist on your husbandly rights very often?”  Nathan thought it safe to smile now at his wife’s drowsy expression.  She was barely coherent.

“Yes.”

She sighed and whispered, “I’m glad I married you.”

He smiled at her hesitant admission and waited for her to give in to her exhaustion.  “Are you sorry you married me?”

“No.”

She supposed he had to marry her to gain control of her father’s estates.  “Can we go home tomorrow?”

“No, Rhiann, we cannot leave until the king releases me from his service.” His hands still smoothed her hair.  She sighed and squirmed beneath him.  He still filled her and his body reacted instantly to the feel of her moving beneath him.  “Hold still.”

“Why?  I thought you liked it when I moved.”

He grinned. For some reason he found this bizarre conversation highly arousing.  The scent of their joining still whispered along the air.  This time he was the one who subtly shifted positions.  Her body tightened instinctively around him, resisting his retreat.  He fought the urge to grab hold of her hips and slam into her.  It was too soon for her.  He needed to put some distance between them before he could no longer fight the heady effect she had on him.  When he would have pulled away, she protested.

“No Nathan, not yet.  Stay with me.”

“I’m not leaving, wife. I just need to remove myself else I forget my good intentions and show you exactly how often I mean to demand my husbandly rights.”

“We can do it again?”

He groaned his frustration. “It’s too soon for you, wife.”

“But not for you?” She sounded irritated by his consideration. Her hands played in his chest hair.  Her touch was as light as a small child’s on his skin.

“You’ll be sore in the morning as it is.  If I take you again now, you’ll have trouble getting out of bed.”

“Surely you exaggerate, husband.” Experimentally she bent her knees and squeezed him between her.  She could feel him grow hard again within her.  She circled one of his nipples with her finger.

He trapped her hand against his chest.  “Stop that.”

She reached up a hand to pull his head down to hers.  He liked her show of aggressiveness.  He let himself be persuaded. Her mouth opened beneath his.  She lifted her hips in encouragement.  Nathan was no saint.  He slowly pulled free and thrust back into her.  He saw his wife’s grimace. “Should I stop?” Even as he made the offer, he wondered if he was insane for making it. Was this some new form of torment he was intent on inflicting upon himself?

Her nails dug into the skin of his shoulders.  “No, Nathan, please don’t stop.”

He couldn’t fight both of them.  He released the reins on his body’s natural urgings and let his lust take over.  His fingers tangled in her hair.  His hips pumped furiously.  Rhiann arched off the bed, her nails raked his arms as she urged him on, her body already finely tuned to his.  It took only short minutes to drive her up and over the edge.  She clung to him fiercely and surrendered to the ecstasy that washed over her.  She called his name as she gave herself to him fully.  She held nothing back and Nathan would give her no less than his own complete surrender. 

His bride went limp in his arms and he collapsed on top of her, his strength deserting him as he poured his life’s essence into her welcoming warmth.  She tiredly protested his weight and he reluctantly drew himself free and collapsed on his back. Contrarily, she objected to his retreat with a whispered denial then scooted close against his side and rested her head on his shoulder. 

He drew her closer with one arm, captured her legs beneath his and fisted his hand in her hair.  Stray tendrils teased and mixed with the darker golden hairs on his chest.  He reached down to draw the quilt over them both and smiled with satisfaction as his wife snuggled closer, sighed with contentment and wished him good night before falling asleep wrapped protectively in his arms. 

Neither of them moved until the following morning.  Years of waking before dawn pulled Nathan from a deep slumber.  He was surprised to find a soft, warm woman in his arms. Then erotic memories of the past twenty four hours came flooding back, reminding him the lady sprawled across his chest, her head resting against the side of his neck, her legs tucked between his, was his wife.

The soft skin of her stomach nestled his morning erection reminding him forcefully of their wedding night.  He would have to restrain his lust.  He used her less than gently the night before.  She was an innocent.  Her tight young body served his pleasure well, but for her there would be a price for the pleasure they gave each other.  Unfortunately he had no such discomfort to ease his body’s natural urgings.

He lay there for long moments torturing himself with his wife’s bare skin resting along his own.  He stroked her back, amazed anew at how soft she was all over.  Her full breasts pressed against his chest.  Her breath whispered along the side of his neck.  He let his hands drift lower to gently squeeze her fleshy buttocks.  From there it was only a short distance to part the full globes and slide his finger in between until he was probing her channel from behind. 

He gently stroked her, telling himself he was still in control of his body’s rising needs.  Her body responded even while his wife still slept, bringing forth the nectar of her response to drench his finger in.  He parted her further and slid his finger into the dark place between her legs.  His slumbering bride moaned softly in her sleep and moved erotically against his probing finger.  He parted her legs enough to insert a second finger.  Nathan felt his wife’s breath quicken against his skin.  She probably thought she was dreaming.  His wife slept like the dead.  He wondered if he could bring her to climax while she slept on.  Her body squeezed his fingers, her hips rubbed enticingly along his engorged flesh.  He applied pressure to her feminine nub and she woke on a scream of pleasure.

She slid along his hard shaft and he lifted her hips until she was straddling him.  She was still groggy and he had to show her how to take him inside.  She sank down on him and groaned with a mixture of pain and pleasure as he penetrated her.

He showed her what to do, how to slide up and down, rocking forward and back on her knees.  It wasn’t long before she surrendered herself into his keeping and collapsed against his chest.  He held her hips, his own still thrusting powerfully until moments later his own shout of masculine triumph echoed in the room.  His wife sighed audibly, then she snuggled closer in his arms and went back to sleep.


Page 10

Nathan wished he could join her but his duties beckoned.  He bent and kissed her gently then slowly withdrew from her clinging heat.  When he rose from the bed, Rhiann called after him.

“Nathan where are you going?  You promised to stay with me.” Her whispered accusation brought a smile to his face.

“I did stay with you, wife.  It’s almost dawn and time to rise. I have duties to see to.”

“You’re getting up now?  But it’s the middle of the night!” She protested, raising her head and squinting at him in confusion.

He pushed the tangled mass of curls back from her face.  “No, wife, the sun will be rising soon.  You can already see the lightening of the night sky.”

Rhiann looked at the window and turned a doubtful glance back to him, before an awful thought struck her.  “You don’t expect me to rise now do you and see to whatever duties I’m to see to?”

He grinned at her horrified expression.  “No, I expect you to go back to sleep.  You don’t have any duties.  You’re my wife and a guest in the king’s home.  Your only duty is to rest.”

She let out an audible sigh of relief and sank back against the bed.  Her eyes followed him as he moved about the chamber.  When he was ready to leave he turned back to the bed to find her watching him.  She blushed at being caught staring.  “Go to sleep,” he commanded as he left the room.

Rhiann rolled over, wrapped herself up in the heavy quilts to replace her husband’s warmth and closed her eyes.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT               

It was almost mid-day before Rhiann slowly emerged from her deep slumber.  She snuggled deeper beneath the warmth of the quilts, noting the fire in the hearth barely provided any warmth at all to the room.  Embers were all that was left of the large logs Nathan threw on the fire before he left earlier.  Bright sunlight pierced the crease between the heavy drapes drawn across the window.  She sat up abruptly in bed.  From the strength of the sunlight she guessed it must be close to mid-day.  She was shocked at her own laziness, and then quickly brushed aside her feelings of guilt, blaming her ordeal for her exhaustion.  That and the fact it was very late before Nathan let her sleep last night. 

She blushed at the memory of their shared intimacy and shifted experimentally.  She was painfully sore, but she thought she could indeed still rise from the bed. She was a married woman now.  The thought filled her with a sense of dazed incredulity and she wondered what she was supposed to do. Nathan said her only duty was to rest.  Well, she already spent half the day in bed so she supposed she better rise and see what awaited her in this new Norman world.  Maybe the king would release Nathan from his service today and they could go home.

Cheered by the thought, Rhiann rose gingerly from the bed and donned a heavier robe than the one the queen gave her for her wedding night. She found the tattered shreds of her nightgown on the floor and blushing profusely at the memory of Nathan tearing the gown off of her, quickly swept up the remnants. 

She folded them along with the robe the queen gave her and shoved them both at the bottom of the large chest at the opposite side of the room, underneath her husband’s heavy breeches and socks.  She didn’t want a servant to see them. She shivered in the robe the housekeeper lent her for her first night in London and laid a fresh log on the fire, wondering if she could call for a bath, thinking the warm water might ease her tenderness somewhat.  A soft knock came at the door just as she debated the thought. At her answer, the housekeeper peeked in the opening, and seeing she was awake entered the room carrying a tray of food.

“I’ve ordered a bath for you as well.” The older woman informed her, eyeing her closely.  Rhiann got the impression the housekeeper was checking to see how she fared in the bed of her Norman husband. Truthfully Rhiann had no complaint to offer and would not have done so even if she did. Satisfied apparently by what she saw in Rhiann’s face, the other woman set the tray of food at a small table in the corner of the room. 

Rhiann suddenly realized she was ravenous, probably because she was too nervous to eat anything the previous evening.  She thanked the woman for her consideration and sat down to break her long fast.  A large tub was carried in moments later and filled with steaming water.  Rhiann eyed the bath longingly as she ate, then dismissed the housekeeper, slipped out of her robe, and sank gratefully into the tub. 

Her hair was washed the day before so she could enjoy her bath without tending again to the long strands.  She lingered in the tub until the water began to turn cold and then reluctantly rose; dressed in one of the new chemises and gowns the little dressmaker delivered to her yesterday, eyed distastefully the too small slippers, and pulled on her stockings. 

Sitting in front of the mirror, she brushed the tangles caused by Nathan’s rough treatment from her long hair, surprised she felt not so very different from the day before.  She was a woman now and no longer an innocent girl.  She shivered at the memories of her husband’s intimate touch against her skin, blushed at the thought of him inside of her, the way she pleaded with him to come to her. 

She was his wife now. It was her duty to give herself to him. Rhiann hoped her parents did not judge her too harshly from where they watched from heaven. Their union was blest by the church. Surely God would understand.  What choice did she have?

 

Nathan was finding it difficult to focus on the important task of turning ordinary men into the ruthless, precise core of William’s feared army.  Memories of his young wife’s soft skin and womanly scent kept distracting him.  He would recall himself to the present only to find his mind drifting back short moments later to the feel of her naked body beneath his, her soft whispers begging him not to stop caressing her, her green eyes filled with tears and a mixture of fear and awed amazement as each fresh sensation washed over her.  Nathan shook the memories aside once more only to discover his men watching him expectantly, obviously waiting for him to complete the instructions he began moments ago. 

Nathan was appalled at his lack of discipline.  He couldn’t recall what order he was intent on imparting to his men before thoughts of his dainty little wife intruded into his mind.  His men were struggling to control the grins flirting across their lips as their previously ruthless commander seemed to be having difficulty recalling his thoughts. Nathan hoped his new affliction was not a permanent one.  If so, his enemies would have little trouble wresting his new estates from him in his newly acquired imbecilic state.  Fortunately, the thought of his new wealth and the responsibilities accompanying it were enough to restore his focus. 

His men were no longer fighting grins when an hour later a member of the king’s personal guard approached seeking a moment of Nathan’s attention.  The soldiers gratefully accepted the momentary respite as their lord turned his attention to the newcomer.  The man’s manner was almost fearfully respectful at the sight of the scowl Nathan greeted him with and he rushed to deliver his message.  “There is a man at the gates seeking word of your wife.  He claims to have a message from her family.”

Nathan’s scowl deepened at the news of another man requesting his wife’s attention.  Rhiann was his.  Her family was dead.  He was her family now.  She belonged to him.  She was his wife, his property.  No one and no message could change that. 

He nodded abruptly in response to the king’s soldier and turned his attention in the direction the messenger indicated.  There was notaman seeking his wife, but several and surprisingly there didn’t appear to be a Saxon in the bunch. They appeared to be members of one of the nomadic tribes that crisscrossed the countryside, calling no single place home. 

Curious, Nathan’s eyes swept over their proud, weathered faces.  These men were not poor refugees but proud warriors, richly dressed and sat astride horses a knight would willingly offer a year’s wages for. Nathan knew of them or thought he did.  They were members of the Salusian tribe, and took their name from the pure-bred Salusian stallions they bred and trained, and that were the source of their wealth.

Nathan could admire their mounts even as his mind puzzled over what they could possibly want with his wife.  He supposed if any of Rhiann’s family survived they could have paid the Salusians to take a message to her.  The nomadic tribes were not interested in the wars between landed barons and took no sides.  For this reason they were left largely alone to go about their own lives.  The other reason of course was the horses they could sometimes be persuaded to part with for the right, but always ridiculously high prices, they charged.

There was an extra horse among them.  A black-as-night stallion who stood proudly in their midst, suffering no rider to mount him.  If they were of a mind to sell him Nathan would be among the bidders.  He would need to begin breeding his own horses to expand his new stables now he was the master of his own estates.

Nathan gestured for Archibald to continue with the training session and strode towards the men looking for his wife.  One dismounted at his approach.  The others seemed content to remain astride their horses, seeming as much a part of them as if they were another arm or leg.

“You have a message for my wife?”  Nathan made no attempt to conceal his fresh irritation at the thought of any other man seeking Rhiann’s attention, even if it was only to deliver a message from her family.  He wondered at his fierce possessiveness over a woman whose very existence he was unaware of a few short days ago, but dismissed the thought as unworthy of his attention.  She was his wife, his property.  He was always fiercely possessive.  When a man possessed so little to truly call his own, he held fast to what was his and learned the value of each precious item in his small collection. 

Rhiann was a rare treasure.  One he expected he would face several challenges over and he would accept each one and overcome it whatever the price.  Such a treasure was worth whatever expense a man was required to pay to preserve it.  Nathan accepted this truth without rancor, but admittedly he had not expected to face such a challenge the morning after his wedding night. Memories of which even now intruded unwelcome into his thoughts.  He squelched them ruthlessly, telling himself he would do well to get over this strange weakness quickly before his inattention got him killed.

The messenger stood silently regarding him, obviously aware of Nathan’s inner battle and merely waited for him to return his focus to the matter at hand.  When Nathan’s frown deepened at the continued silence, the man finally responded.  “Yes, my lord. Though we had not heard Lady Rhiann was wed.”

Nathan took the man’s mild comment as a challenge and responded in kind. “The lady is my wife by the king’s command and with the blessing of the church.  Who sends this message to my wife?”

“The lady’s grandmother, my lord.  May we see Lady Rhiann to deliver it?”  The man’s words were a demand, thinly veiled in the guise of a polite request. It was obvious he was unhappy at the prospect of being in the position of having to ask a Norman lord for permission for anything.  For some reason testing his permission for anything concerning Rhiann seemed to irritate him more than it should. 

Nathan was immediately suspicious.  Rhiann never mentioned a grandmother when the king questioned her about her family; only that her mother was only half Saxon.  Was this message from her maternal grandmother or her father’s mother? He was half inclined to send this arrogant stranger on his way, but after the trials she suffered Nathan wouldn’t deny his wife word of her family.  He acknowledged to himself he would have to allow this, though in truth he would rather this man take his message and return to wherever it was he came from.  He turned and with a gesture summoned his squire.

“Yes my lord?”

“Return to the castle and inform my wife there is a messenger here claiming to have word for her from her grandmother.  If she wishes to hear this message, you will escort her here.”

“Yes, my lord.”

They waited in silence for Rhiann’s response, neither man making any effort to break it.  Nathan guessed the man in front of him was closer to Duke William’s age than his own.  His skin was bronzed from long hours in the sun, and roughened by the elements.  His shoulders were broad and lean muscles rippled beneath the linen shirt he wore.  The man was seemingly unaffected by the biting wind and cold temperatures. He wore a thin sword at his waist and a dagger strapped to his arm.  The confidence with which they were displayed was a warning to those who would test his skills that he was adept at both.

  Nathan would see to it his wife did not get close enough for the stranger to harm her with either.  He noted the other man was giving him the same frank assessment.  The look in his chocolate eyes measured the likely strengths and potential weaknesses of his opponent.  Nathan didn’t recall his name or even if one was offered.  More likely, he admitted with an inner sigh of frustration, introductions were proffered and his mind was too consumed at the time with memories of his wedding night and his wife’s innocent response to his manly insistence.  One thought led to another and…

“My lord.” Rhiann’s soft, familiar voice sounded more real than the misty memories playing through his mind, and she certainly didn’t address him so formally the previous night.  He looked towards the soft sound only to find his wife in a deep curtsey at his knees, her fair head bent respectfully before him. 

He admitted he found the sight of her at his knees not an unpleasing one, and then bent to assist her to her feet, only to discover the cloak she wore was barely adequate against the wind.  She was shivering with cold.  He thought to offer her his own, realized he wasn’t wearing one and sent his squire to retrieve it.

“Rhiann, what are you wearing? Surely you have a heavier cloak for winter?” 

Rhiann looked puzzled by his question.  Her eyes kept darting nervously to the man waiting to speak with her.  He could damn well wait.  Nathan wasn’t about to let his innocent little wife catch a chill and die – at least not before she gave him a son and heir. 


Page 11

His squire returned with his cloak and Nathan draped it around her, tucking it closely under her chin.  His wife was regarding him as if he was feeble minded, even as she tried to lift the extra feet of cloth off the muddy ground while he continued to pull the fabric tighter across her slender form. 

He caught the puzzled look she exchanged with the stranger, saw the fleeting smile flash across the other man’s face before the Salusian carefully schooled his features back into an expressionless mien.  Irritated at having been caught being considerate of his wife, Nathan returned to the source of his frustration.  “Well wife?”

“Well what?  And my name is Rhiann, not wife.” 

So much for her little reverent gesture of wifely submission upon her arrival.  That was fine with him.  He liked her spirit – especially in bed, when she…

“Nathan?”

She was gazing up at him with a look of such confusion Nathan was tempted to sweep her into his arms and carry her back to his bed and to hell with any messengers and their messages.  He fought the urge as he responded to her question. “What?”

“What?” Rhiann mimicked.  “Husband, you’re not making any sense.”

He couldn’t fault her for speaking the truth, but his mood darkened at the thought that after a single night spent in her arms his bride managed to transform him from a ruthless, feared warrior into a babbling idiot.  His voice was therefore sharper than he intended when he responded to her question. “I asked you where your winter cloak was, wife.  And I shall call you whatever I like.”

“Are you angry with me?”

Her eyes instantly filled with tears at his harsh rebuke and she quickly turned her attention to the ground at his feet so he was forced to strain to hear her whispered question.  This being married was a lot more complicated than he ever imagined.  He found himself feeling a sympathy he never experienced before for his father and older brother.

How was a man supposed to concentrate on important matters when he was constantly being distracted by thoughts of his wife?  Now he was having to soothe her injured feelings at a perfectly rational statement on his part.

“No wife, I am not angry with you.  We will discuss this later.  Do you wish to hear this message from your grandmother?” He assumed reminding her of the purpose of his summons would erase the tears from her eyes.  Instead she merely shrugged, her attention still directed to the ground at his feet.

He was surprised and confused by her reaction.  He didn’t remember ever feeling confused before meeting his wife.  He pulled her in front of him and turned his back on the messenger, his broad shoulders effectively shielding her from the stranger’s view.  “Are you saying you do not wish to hear this message?” 

When she merely shrugged at him again, he clamped down on his rising frustration, lifted her chin so she would be forced to look at him and instructed her mildly.  “Stop shrugging at me and answer my question.” Tears filled her eyes and streamed silently down her cheeks. “For God’s sake, Rhiann…”

“Lady Rhiann.” The stranger’s gentle voice emerged in marked contrast to the clipped tones he used with Nathan.  When Nathan would have rebuked him for intruding, he looked down and saw Rhiann staring at the stranger, listening to him.  Nathan swallowed his annoyance at his inference.

“Lady Rhiann.” The stranger’s soft voice was no more than a whisper and his wife took a small step towards him.  “Your grandmother charged me most sincerely with delivering her message to her beloved granddaughter.  Would you have me return to my queen in shame for having failed of her request of me?”

Nathan watched as his wife silently shook her head and couldn’t help but admire the stranger’s tactics.  His gentle little wife wasn’t about to let this proud man return in shame to face his queen.

“What is this message?” 

Nathan was pleased the man made no attempt to deliver his message privately, as Nathan had no intention of allowing such a request no matter how many tears his wife shed.  It didn’t take long for him to realize his presence was irrelevant as he couldn’t understand a word of the message the man was now intently delivering to his wife. 

Rhiann didn’t seem to have any trouble deciphering the rapid flow of the lyrical Salusian tongue. She nodded occasionally and responded softly in the same tongue when the stranger asked a question requiring a response.  When the message was delivered the man bowed and excused himself and returned moments later carrying a jeweled box.

His wife went stiff at the sight and shook her head.  Nathan reached out to place his hands on his wife’s shoulder’s, not wanting to intrude but wanting to reassure her he was there. The stranger offered her the box in his outstretched hands but Nathan noticed Rhiann made no move to accept it.

The stranger knelt in the mud and laid the box reverently at her booted feet, his head bowed.  Nathan looked up to discover the stranger’s companions were watching the proceeds intently and so silently he’d forgotten they were there.  The black stallion was no longer among them and Nathan looked up to see him grazing on the hillside.  His own men too he noted were no longer training but had drawn subtly closer and no longer made any pretense of sharpening their battle skills. Apparently his new affliction was contagious. Everyone waited with bated breath for Rhiann’s reaction.

She stood staring down at the jeweled box.  From his vantage point over her head Nathan could see the box was of incalculable value, the businessman in him noting the plump jewels would have kept him and his men fed for several long campaigns.  Most women, and men for that matter, of his acquaintance would have been too enamored by the wrapping to care what was inside the box.

Nathan couldn’t help but be impressed by his wife’s indifference to the fortune lying in the mud at her feet.  At the same time her attitude only served to underscore the vast gap between their family backgrounds.

The stranger remained motionless on his knees at his young wife’s feet.  Rhiann remained still as the statues in the square staring down at the box.  Nathan suddenly felt an urgent need to protect her from what was inside. 

“Rhiann?”  The eyes she lifted to his were filled with such stark desolation he felt their emptiness to the depths of his soul.  “What is it?”  His hands on her shoulders tightened their grip and turned her to face him.  Her voice was barely a whisper when she replied.

“I have to let them go.  She says I have to let her go.  I don’t want to.  I don’t want to be alone anymore.”

“You’re not alone, wife. I’m your family now.”  Her glance probed his, testing his assurance, trying to decide if she could count on it or not.

“I don’t want them to leave me, Nathan.  It’s too soon. It’s cold here now with all this blood and death.  Do you think it’s warm in heaven?”  Nathan’s eyes locked briefly with the concerned glance of the man still kneeling in the mud at his wife’s feet.  He wanted to know what the hell was in that box and why his wife was resisting it so desperately.

“Do you?”

His wife’s soft insistence refocused his attention.  “Do I what?”

“Do you think it’s warm in heaven?”

How the hell was he supposed to know if it was warm in heaven or not?  “Yes, I’m sure your family is warm in heaven.”

She nodded distractedly, not really believing his assurance.  “I have to let them go in my heart, otherwise they’ll linger here.”

Nathan’s head was beginning to spin, but he sensed the core of Rhiann’s dilemma and even appreciated the stranger’s help with it.  Until his wife accepted the deaths of her family and her old way of life she could never embrace the new life they could build together.  “Yes wife, you have to let them go in your heart.”

She nodded.  “She said I have to cry for them.  How did she know I hadn’t?”

Nathan felt his own tears stinging behind his eyes at his wife’s bewilderment.  The tears she denied were streaming silently down her cheeks and dropping like blood in warm drops onto his hands resting on her shoulders.  “I don’t know how she knew.” He admitted with an effort.

The insistent sounds of the neighing stallion reached them from a distance and Rhiann turned her attention to where the black stood proudly on the hill, his head turned towards her as if it was possible for the two of them to communicate.

Nathan felt his wife’s slender form slip from his grasp as she slid to the surface and hesitantly reached for the box.  Nathan watched her stilted movements from his vantage point over her bent head.  She undid the clasp of the box and found inside a plain and well-worn leather pouch.  Rhiann’s shoulders started shaking as she reached for it.  Nathan was surprised by the tingling sound, like tiny bells, emanating from the pouch. 

More disturbing was the sight of the jeweled dagger beneath the pouch.  He watched Rhiann’s trembling grip close around it and every nerve within him instantly came to full alert.  He had no wish to interfere with her private grief over the loss of her family, but nor would he allow her to take her own life in response to the devastation he read in her eyes.  His own again met the stranger’s over his wife’s bent head and he relaxed a little at the quick denial he read in his dark eyes.  The stranger’s concern for his wife was obvious to Nathan but still he didn’t trust him.

The black neighed again and Rhiann’s glance once more lifted in his direction.  It was as if he was waiting impatiently for her to join him.  A ridiculous fantasy he knew, as a woman of Rhiann’s slight form could never hope to seat the black.  It would take all of his strength for Nathan to gain his back.  The stallion was still wild – like his wife, Nathan thought, finding a glimmer of humor in this bizarre situation he suddenly found himself in the middle of.

Nathan glanced back down at his wife to find she now gripped the dagger firmly in her hand and was cutting her hair with it.  When he instinctively reached down to take it from her hand, she passed it to the stranger, who accepted it reverently in both of his own.  Rhiann took great care curling the long strands of a length of her hair into the jeweled box, then closed it and handed it back to the Salusian.  Nathan did a quick inspection of his wife’s head, relieved to see he couldn’t tell where she’d taken the length from.  He was all for her mourning her family and getting on with her life, but he had no intention of waiting several years for the glorious gold curls to grow back if she took it into her head to cut them off.

The black neighed again and this time rose up on his hind legs, a magnificent sight against the unusually bright sun of a typical dreary Saxon winter day. As if the action was some mysterious signal meant only for her, Rhiann rose to her feet, seemingly unaware of Nathan’s hand under her arms to assist her. 

Her eyes were fixed on the stallion and she started walking towards it, her husband’s heavy cloak falling unheeded to the ground.  When Nathan reached out to stop her, the stranger’s hands and quick shake of his head momentarily stopped him.  The black remained where he was, some distance away at the top of the hill.  As long as Rhiann didn’t get too close, Nathan wouldn’t interfere.  The black could kill her with one outraged kick of his magnificent legs. 

Rhiann appeared almost in a trance as she walked towards the animal, the tinkling from the leather pouch audible in the heavy silence of the onlookers.  When Nathan had just about made up his mind to go after her, she stopped and stared up at the sky.  Nathan drew a relieved breath.  Maybe this was over now.  Rhiann was bidding a final farewell to her family after which he would, like any considerate husband, take her back to the warmth of the castle, a hot meal and tuck her into his bed.

He turned to signal to his squire to bring his mount when the sharp intake of collective breaths behind him had his head swinging back around to where his wife was now running towards the hill, where the black used to be, but was no longer. He was racing down the hill on a collision course with Rhiann.  Nathan threw an accusing glance at the stranger, wishing he had time to strangle him before he raced off to save his foolhardy wife’s life.

“Rhiann, no!” His voice was drowned out by the sound of thundering hooves advancing on his wife.  He would kill the bastard, Nathan vowed silently.  After he killed his bride for the terror that threatened to overwhelm him.  He would never reach her in time.  She would be trampled beneath the horse’s onslaught. 

“Nooooo….!” The anguished denial was dug from the very depths of his soul.  He couldn’t lose her now.  He needed her. It wasn’t fair, damn it! He shouted silently to the creator of the universe.  ‘Why did you give her to me only to take her away after a single night?’ 

He cursed his God even as he accepted the inevitable.  His legs kept pumping, straining to reach his young wife, to shield her slender form, gladly accepting death in her place so as not to have to face the empty bed awaiting him back at the keep.  He closed his eyes as the two met in the grassy plains, just yards away from where Nathan still strained to reach Rhiann in time. 

He was too late.  His knees almost gave way at the agony of his loss, but he wouldn’t stop while there was still a chance.  He opened his eyes, forcing himself to watch the final crushing blow to his newly resurrected hopes and dreams.  Without Rhiann the estates he fought so hard to secure would be cold comfort after the warmth of his marriage bed. 

He was still too far to intervene when the final collision came, but rather than see his wife go down beneath the steed’s trampling hooves, at the last second she reached out to grab the black’s mane and pull herself onto his back in a single graceful movement, the black never breaking stride as it raced off back up the hill. 

Nathan shouted his outrage at the stallion’s retreating back.  The steed galloped away so swiftly he appeared to outpace the wind and only the echo of Nathan’s command drifted back to settle around him in the hushed silence surrounding him.  His wife never looked back.  She was too busy hugging the black around his proud neck as he raced off up the next hill and out of sight of those still standing glued to the earth, their astonishment over the amazing feat they just witnessed momentarily robbing them of their ability to both move and speak.  Nathan was the first to recover his senses.  He retrieved his own mount held at his squire’s side, the young man’s expression bordering on awe at the spectacle of Rhiann’s horsemanship.


Page 12

Nathan was too furious to appreciate his wife’s skill.  Instead he grabbed the reins out his squire’s hands then changing his mind,  instantly threw them back again in the direction of his surprised squire, who recovered himself quickly enough to keep the horse from bolting. 

Nathan strode towards the stranger who stood regarding Nathan’s approach with a satisfied look on his face, at least until Nathan let his fist sink satisfyingly into the other man’s rock hard stomach.  His taut muscles might have saved the stranger’s life but they didn’t prevent him from sailing through the air and landing in a hard thump several feet from where he previously stood, his grunt of pain audible, his face no longer wearing the smug, gratified expression of moments ago.  Nodding now with his own satisfaction, Nathan returned to his mount and took off after his wife, gesturing for his men to follow.

He was going to lock her in his room until she was pregnant with his son. Nathan consoled himself with the cheerful thought – that or beat her regularly, a practice he considered barbaric but he knew some men resorted to in order to control their wives.  He thought them ridiculous for resorting to physical violence in order to prove themselves masters of their own households. After less than a day of married life, he was clearly in danger of losing control of his own. 

He was going to have to take a firm hand.  As soon as he caught up with his errant wife and her untamed horse. Obviously Rhiann was allowed to run wild in her father’s household.  And what did the stranger mean exactly when he referred to Rhiann’s grandmother as his queen?  What did that make Rhiann with the rest of her family dead?  Her heir?  Over his dead body.  Rhiann was his.  The Salusians would have to find a new heir to their throne.  Surely the queen had a son to inherit.

Nathan gained the hill and looked around, expecting to find his wife in the valley beneath him.  His heart started racing again when he could find no evidence of her.  Didn’t she spare a single thought for her own safety?  Wasn’t she aware of the dangers a woman alone tempted outside the city gates?

He caught up with her after a hard, panicked ride across the countryside.  That was a lie.  He didn’t catch them. He spotted sight of the black standing at the entrance to the old forest. Rhiann was nowhere in sight. 

Fear gripping him, assuming she must have been thrown from the stallion, remembering her death grip around the black’s neck, Nathan urged his mount on, his mind painting dark images of his wife being trampled beneath the hoofs of the wild stallion, or lying motionless near where the horse stood, pawing at the ground, her back broken from the force of being thrown from the stallion’s back. 

Relief slammed through him at the sight of his wife sitting quietly and apparently uninjured leaning up against the trunk of an ancient tree at the entrance to the forest, and was quickly replaced by the hot spill of fury.  Nathan slid off his mount just a few feet from where she rested and when he would have reached out to pull her to her feet and into his arms, the black objected strongly.  He rose up on his hind legs and bandied his front hooves threateningly in Nathan’s direction. 

Rhiann seemed unaffected by the stallion’s outburst.  Nathan took a cautious step back, recognizing incredulously the stallion was actually protecting his wife from his anger.  The black settled back on all fours but kept a cautious eye on Nathan.  Archibald slid up cautiously to stand beside him.  The two men exchanged incredulous glances. 

Then Nathan shook his head at his own fanciful interpretation of the black’s actions and once again stepped towards his wife.  The horse moved to block his approach.  Nathan turned back and exchanged one more incredulous glance with his friend, this time noting the amusement Archibald made no effort to conceal beneath his astonishment.  His men, who accompanied him on his reckless race across the countryside, still remained mounted on their own steeds and all bore the same astonished expressions at the sight of the stallion’s defense of their new mistress.

Resigned, Nathan tried to peek around the black and address his wife.  “Rhiann.  I believe, as your lord and husband, I’m entitled to an explanation about...” Words failed him and instead he spread his arm in a wide arc, unable to give voice to the full extent of his frustration, and ended lamely, “…about all of this.”

His wife acted as though she didn’t hear him.  In fact, she’d yet to acknowledge his presence at all.  He took an impatient step forward, then just as quickly retreated at the stallion’s bristling manner.  His unusual retreat tasted sour in his mouth but he was unwilling to risk the stallion backing up and crushing his wife beneath one of those threatening hoofs.  The stallion was wild.  There was no telling when he would turn on the object of his defense and attack her instead.  Forcing himself to adopt a calm demeanor he was far from feeling, Nathan squatted down and peered at his wife’s still form and bent head between the stallion’s massive legs.

“Rhiann.”  No response.  “Rhiann, look at me, wife.”  He forced a soft, patient tone he was far from feeling, and waited, his patience straining to its very limits, until she lifted her head so he could see her face. 

He drew in a breath at the sight of her devastation.  Tears streamed down her face and the look in her eyes revealed her abject defeat.  The strange box and the arrival of the stranger was the final burden that broke her spirit.  He couldn’t stand seeing her like this.  “Rhiann.” He whispered her name and stood to approach her, only to be stopped by the black once again.  His impatience exploded within him.  Damn it!  He should be the one comforting and protecting his wife in her hour of need, not her stupid horse.  “Rhiann if you don’t call off the black, I swear to God I’ll instruct one of my men to put an arrow through its heart.”

His threat shook her out of her misery long enough to whisper a few soft words in the Salusian tongue to the black, who turned a suspicious glance back at Nathan before neighing as if he understood every word his wife spoke to him, then dipping his proud head before his wife, took off towards the crest of a nearby hill.

Nathan stood and approached his silent bride.  Her head was bent towards the ground and she continued to refuse to acknowledge him.  He reached out and lifted her chin so he could see her face. As soon as their eyes met he forgot the lecture he was planning on delivering about scaring him to death, about forbidding her to ever go near the wild stallion again, about how he was her husband now and he deserved an explanation about why she was wearing the jeweled dagger from the strange box strapped to her arm, did she think to use it on him? About why there were tiny bells woven into her hair that tinkled softly in the almost still breeze. 

Nathan couldn’t believe he was only now noticing the last few details. His brain was so addled from his fear of his wife getting herself killed; he apparently somehow managed to overlook them.  He felt as though he stepped into an alternate existence.  Nothing was the same in his usually ordered, disciplined life since he became tangled up in his wife’s ever expanding web of chaos and confusion. 

He definitely needed to take a firm hand.  And he would do so just as soon as Rhiann stopped staring at him with that hollow expression in her eyes, as if the grief she managed to avoid until the stranger’s appearance suddenly caught up with her all at once. She sat regarding him with an expression of despair and the hopelessness of death as if all the life was sucked from her beautiful eyes.   

“Rhiann.” Her name was a whisper on his lips.  The hand he used to cup her chin and wipe away her tears was as gentle as if she were indeed the still half-wild, untamed colt she brought to mind earlier.

“I should have died with her.  Then you could have my father’s estates and not be saddled with me for a wife.”

Her pitiful confession stirred his heart.  “No wife.  Without you, your father’s lands would be small consolation.  A cold bed at night.  No one to instruct me in my husbandly duties.”

Her lips curved in a tiny smile at his weak attempt at humor.  “You’re a wealthy man now, Nathan.  There wouldn’t be any shortage of ladies, even Norman ladies, who would be pleased to wed you.”

“Perhaps.”  He conceded her rather mercenary point.  “But none who would please me as you do.”

“You’re angry with me.”  So much for his effort to conceal his dark mood until she was feeling better.

“You belong to me now.”  He reminded her, thinking the statement explained everything she needed to know.

“I know.  I like belonging to you.”  A blush stained her cheeks at her soft admission and her lashes dipped low over her green witch’s eyes.

Her confession took his breath away.  “I like it, too.” He was somewhat stunned by his willingness to admit his weakness to his wife, and even more astonished by how much time he already wasted chasing after his young bride this morning.  His schedule was in complete disarray. 

Rhiann apparently possessed not the slightest understanding of the concept of self-restraint, or even a minimal concern for her personal safety. He was at a loss as to how she managed to survive so long without some semblance of the discipline and self-control that ruled his life since he was a boy.  She was turning his previously well-ordered life into a mockery of discipline and self-control. He had no idea how to convince her of the danger she was in when she left the city alone on her foolish gallop across the country.  He accepted she was in no real danger.  He would never allow anything to happen to her. 

But what if she took it into her head to go off on one of her jaunts when he was occupied with other matters?  He was a busy man.  He couldn’t spend every waking moment in pursuit of his flighty bride. She was his wife now.  He remembered quite clearly her vow before the priest to obey and honor him.  He was her lord.  She needed to understand she was under his authority.  Just like one of his soldiers, who would never take off on some personal errand without first seeking his permission.

His wife apparently failed to grasp the basic concept she needed to gain his permission before taking a step in either one direction or another. Nathan was just warming up to his planned lecture as his mounting frustration over his wife’s lack of discipline overrode his previous reluctance to injure her sensitive feelings when he noticed the tears  filling her eyes and spilling silently down her cheeks.

“What is it now, wife?” He could barely disguise his frustration and impatience.

“They’re gone, aren’t they?”  The few moments of blessed calm when she sat silently leaning against the trunk of the ancient tree vanished in a heartbeat and her slight form was suddenly wracked by silent sobs.

Nathan gave up.  He hoped his easy surrender at the sight of his wife’s distress did not become a habit, else his previously well-ordered life would dissolve into unrestrained chaos. He reached for his young bride, his strong arms barely registering the small, trembling burden he held against his chest. His quest for answers would have to wait a little while longer.  Right now Rhiann was exhausted and wracked with grief.  He needed to get her back to the king’s home and out of this damp cold.  He strode back to where his men waited, their faces all wearing the same serious expressions of sympathy and concern.  He gained his mount, settled Rhiann on his lap, and then turned back at the sound of the insistent neighing from the top of the ridge. 

For a moment he considered sending a few of his men after the horse, not wanting to add to his wife’s grief by admitting he lost her prized stallion, but then thought better of the idea.  There was no way his men’s sturdy war horses could keep up with the pure bred stallion.  Nathan also suspected the black would enjoy leading his men in circles before tiring of the game and leaving them in his dust.  No, he had enough mysteries on his hands.  The stallion was on its own.  At least until his wife came back to him and unraveled the growing mystery surrounding her past.

Rhiann’s sobs grew quieter as they rode silently towards town, and then stilled completely.  Nathan looked down at his wife’s tear-stained face and realized exhaustion finally won the battle with her grief.  Occasional sobs still shook her, even in sleep, and she shivered against him.  He took care to wrap his cloak more firmly around her and she snuggled closer against him.  At least in sleep she apparently trusted him enough to abandon her secrets and cling to his strength as any obedient wife should. 

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

His bride slept through the afternoon and right through dinner.  Nathan ignored the curious and speculative stares of his dinner companions gathered around the king’s table.  His blank stare did not encourage questions about the rumors circulating about his wife. There was no shortage of speculation concerning the Salusian’s visit, Rhiann’s astonishing show of horsemanship, or the black stallion that could still be seen lingering outside the city gates.  Even if Nathan were inclined to respond to their curiosity he possessed little enough information to share with them. 

He was still trying to puzzle out how he came into possession of a duke’s estates, his lovely and innocent daughter for his wife, how he became tangled up in the mystery of an odd stone and the strange rumors surrounding his young bride’s family.  Was it really only twenty four hours earlier he was just a simple vassal in the service of his king?  A knight who commanded men in the science of war? 

Nathan understood steel and training, loyalty and self-discipline.  He was considered a skilled judge of a man’s character and the impulses that ruled his heart.  He therefore understood a man’s weaknesses and how to exploit them to his advantage.  He attained his status as a close confidant of the king as much for his discerning judgment as for his unswerving loyalty and the highly trained army under his command. 

Now he could admit he was completely at a loss as to how to deal with his young wife.  Was Rhiann so different from Lady Sara, the woman he planned to wed upon his return to Normandy before his life turned on the king’s whim a few short hours ago?  Yes, of course she was.  Sara was a younger daughter of a lesser lord, biddable, obedient, understanding her place in her husband’s household.  She would bring a small manor into their marriage as her dowry. 


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Nathan had been content with the match.  Sara would not have caused him a moment’s anxiety.  She would not have disrupted his training schedule.  He imagined he would never have given her a second thought outside their marriage bed.

The reminder of the fate he so narrowly evaded caused Nathan to break out in a panicked sweat.  He could no longer envision his life without Rhiann.  He feasted upon the manna of angels and he would never again be content by the offerings of this lesser earth.  His wife was a rare, untouched gift from a benevolent God.  If she needed his understanding and patience while she dealt with her grief over the loss of her family, then he would provide it.

In time she would open her heart to him.  Was it only short hours ago he deluded himself into believing he had no need of his wife’s love, only the sons she would give him to inherit his new-found wealth?  He could barely comprehend the depths of his own misconceptions.  He wanted his wife’s love as much as he previously longed for the land she made it possible for him to acquire by their marriage. He believed he understood how to gain the latter.  The correctness of his assumption was born out by the king’s generous reward of his faithful service. 

He possessed not the slightest inkling how to win his wife’s heart.  He was versed in the ways of a gentleman but never learned the ways of winning a young maiden’s love.  A younger son could not waste time concerning himself with such endeavors.  He was too busy making his own way in the world.  Nathan witnessed the flirtations of landed men seeking to expand their wealth with their connection to another high ranking noble by winning the heart and hand of the other’s daughter.  He thought he could imitate their strategies, but he remained unconvinced such ordinary tactics would work with Rhiann. 

She was not like other ladies of the king’s court.  He had never seen another lady wearing a jeweled dagger around her arm or bells woven through her hair.  He was an intelligent man.  He would figure out the key to his wife’s heart.  He felt certain unraveling the mystery of her past was the first step in his quest.  He would try to speak with her again tonight, to make her understand she needed to trust him so he could help her with her grief and protect her from her fears.

Nathan found the long evening in the company of his equals interminable. Another first for him.  Before his marriage he was overwhelmed by the honor William bestowed upon him by often seating him at his side during the evening meal.  Now Nathan caught himself for no less than the tenth time glancing up the stairs, wondering if his wife still slept or if she awoke alone in a strange place and was already doubting his promise that she was no longer alone in the world - that he was her family now. Then he would realize what he was doing, grow annoyed at himself for allowing his bride to so thoroughly disrupt his concentration and vow to enjoy the evening as if he was still the bachelor he so recently was.  Then thoughts of Rhiann would intrude on his concentration and the whole vicious cycle would repeat itself.

It was with a feeling of intense relief when Nathan noticed the king’s gesture calling for an end to the evening.  Nathan was loathe to linger as he once might have done when there was no one waiting for him in his bed.  He used to join in the camaraderie of single men when their married counterparts rushed off to the comfort of their wives after a long evening spent over ale and table.  Now he found himself in the company of those he previously mocked, realizing why the married knights accepted the ribbing of their single counterparts with so much complacence. 

Memories of his wedding night encroached on his reminiscences and he found himself taking the stairs two at a time in his hurry to reach his wife. Yes, married life was not starting out on the orderly course he envisioned when he repeated his vows before the priest, but there was one aspect of his new status with which he had no complaints to voice.  Rather than the cold and empty pallet awaiting him in his bachelor’s tent, a warm bed with his wife’s even warmer passion awaited him tonight.

He would calm her fears of being left alone in the world and she would reward his patient understanding as she did last night in the soft throes of shared passion.  He dismissed the guard assigned to his door and opened the heavy barrier with unaccustomed hesitation, both surprised and grateful when he discovered the door wasn’t barred against him as he feared.  He shut the door behind him, fit the latch in place, and then turned to regard his wife’s sleeping form.  As far as he could tell she had not yet moved from when he placed her in the bed long hours earlier. 

He smiled when he realized she scooted herself in her sleep over to his side of the bed and wrapped her arms around his pillow, clutching it beneath her.  Her skin took on a golden hue in the soft glow of the firelight.  For long moments he stood at the door simply staring at the beautiful young woman in his bed, wondering how it was possible she belonged to him now. 

He could admit to himself he was slightly in awe of her.  So much beauty, such a gentle spirit, even after all she suffered.  She was so generous with her passion the night before.  It was a miracle she gave herself to him so openly…her family’s enemy.  The enemy who took from her everything she loved, everything she valued.  Yet here she slept in his bed, waiting for him to come to her.

He would have to be patient with her.  It would take time for her to grow accustomed to his ways, and for her to learn to trust him.  He smiled at the sight of the strands of tiny bells interwoven through her golden curls.  They lay silently now, as still as his wife’s sleeping form.  He was thankful to see the jeweled dagger the stranger brought was on the chest next to the bed.  The bells he was willing to concede, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about his bride arming herself with a warrior’s dagger. 

The blade was no slim lady’s knife for cutting meat, but one used by a trained warrior in hand to hand combat.  He’d seen similar blades strapped to the legs of the men accompanying the stranger.  They were of similar craftsmanship but without the ornate jeweled hilt of the one his wife now possessed. 

If he was a suspicious man, he might suspect his wife of planning to take revenge for her family’s loss by murdering her new Norman husband in his sleep.  He quickly dismissed the dark thought.  Even after so brief an acquaintance he knew his wife was incapable of committing such an act of violence and treachery.

He would demand her explanations in the morning when she was well rested and the hollow devastation of near grief was gone from her eyes, or at least cloaked behind her attempts to evade his questions.  She would tell him what he wanted to know, but for now his thoughts were turning to more pressing matters.

Even now he was fully occupied with his body’s natural urging.  After long months of celibacy the feast he enjoyed last night gave him a taste for further indulgence of his male passions.  He sighed with regret, recognizing instead of satisfying his passions he would have further opportunity tonight to hone his patience.  His wife was in no condition for a repeat of their wedding night.  She was exhausted, and no doubt still sore from last night’s activities.  He was less than gentle with her innocence, but he could find no well of regret within him to worry his conscience. 

Not even a saint could have restrained himself more patiently than he did last night. Particularly given the fact he approached his wedding night like a dying man lost in the desert, suffering from an unquenchable thirst, who suddenly comes across a mirage of a sweet spring and cool pool to refresh himself in.  Even knowing the vision is an illusion, the dying man still cannot prevent himself from diving in head first.  It was the same with him.  He never imagined, never dreamed he would possess such a woman for his own.

His wife was some exotic, precious gift his maker sent to him to ease the pain of the bleak years of his youth. He left home at a young age and grew into manhood under the stark tutelage of men, whose concerns were focused largely on war and lust and avoiding both death and defeat, the latter too often synonymous with the former in his world.  There was no time for the gentleness of a woman’s touch, except for the largely unsatisfying encounters with the occasional whore or camp follower he could ill afford on his meager soldier’s wages.  Unsatisfying because while such encounters could satisfy the temporary needs of his body, they could do nothing to sate the urging of his soul.

Now he understood what such temporary indulgences lacked.  He could appreciate what his soul longed for even when neither his body nor mind were capable of procuring it for him.  His spirit longed for its equal in courage, in resilience, and in faith.  How ironic he should find what he yearned for in a foreign land, in the slender body of his enemy’s young daughter. 

He was not a man given to deep thoughts.  There was little time for contemplation of the higher gifts in a life ruled by the sword and his skill in wielding it.  It was only now as he watched her sleep he could acknowledge his wife filled a hole in his psyche he was barely aware of prior to her entry into his life.  He only knew to lose her now, even after a single day, would cost him whatever remained of his tarnished soul. 

Uncomfortable at the recognition of the stark truth buried beneath his fanciful admission, Nathan left his place by the door and strode across the room, disrobing as he went.  His lust for his wife he was completely comfortable with, though he was stunned by its seeming ability to distract him from more important matters.  Luckily, at this moment no more important responsibilities competed for his attention. 

He was free to unleash the restraining hold on his passion. Naked, he threw another log on the fire, then turned and crossed the room to where his wife slept peacefully on; completely unaware her sanctuary had been violated.  The thought worried him.  His wife’s innocence concerned him.  She exercised no care at all for her own safety.  It was almost as if she was unaware there were evils lying in wait for an innocent, well-bred lady outside the gates of the city.  How was it possible for her to still retain such innocent trust in the world in light of the trials she suffered over the past few months? 

It didn’t matter how.  He admitted he liked the way she gazed up at him with the purity of an angel in her eyes, as if she only ever knew heaven’s blessing and was completely untouched by the lash of the devil scarring her back, and hell’s fire nipping at her heels.  His lips curved at the memory of her asking him if he thought it was warm in heaven.  It must be, he supposed, since the closest he ever came to heaven was in her arms last night and they were very warm, and welcoming, soft and hot.

He drew in a sharp breath as his mind caught up with his body and gritted his teeth against the temptation he was about to subject himself to.  It was too soon for her.  He promised Rhiann he would never force her.  She deserved a night to rest and mourn for her family uninterrupted by his lustful intent.

He slid between the cool sheets, and then lay flat on his back watching the shadows of the flames from the fireplace dance off the ceiling while at the same time he did battle with his faltering will to get his desire for his wife under control.  The struggle he was engaged in astonished him.  He believed he possessed the same passions of any normal man in the prime of his life, but he never before experienced the craving that gripped him whenever he found himself within his wife’s orbit.  Now lying next to her, knowing full well the paradise awaiting him just inches away, he could barely control his body’s urgent yearning. 

He recognized part of his desperate longing was the need to stake his claim, to make her so fully his she would never look at another man and never surrender her sweet passion to anyone but him.  Even after last night he remained the dying man in the desert who discovered his mirage wasn’t a fantasy after all.  He somehow managed to stumble upon an even more impossible reality.  She was his.  By the word of the king and the blessing of the church.  Rhiann was his wife, his possession, and he would defend his claim against anyone who sought to take her from him. 

In time he hoped this urgent drive to possess her would ease and they would settle down into the routine of married life.  He could not continue along this crazy course she led him along over the past twenty four hours.  He was a landed man now.  There were estates to protect and fighting men to train. 

He’d yet to speak to his men about remaining in Saxony with him or to devise a plan for replacing those with a home and family in Normandy.  He had few concerns there as most of his men were younger sons or bastard sons, with few prospects in Normandy to return to.  That was why they signed on with him in the first place.  The majority regarded this campaign into Saxony with the same hope he did, as a chance to improve their status in life.  His own hopes were answered beyond even what he dared dream in the silence and secret places of his heart during the dark years of his coming of age.

How he longed to ride north into the English countryside and feast his senses upon the estates his king awarded him.  His eyes yearned to rest upon the land where his body would be laid to rest, where his sons would be born and would grow into manhood. 

Perhaps the God he always believed was too busy with weightier matters to concern himself with the offspring of a lesser lord would see fit to bless him with a daughter as sweet and beautiful as her mother, since for the moment His eyes seemed to be focused in Nathan’s direction.  His lips curved in anticipation at the thought of chasing after a younger version of Rhiann, then reversed themselves into a forbidding frown when he dwelt on the near-impossible task of keeping the young bucks away from his yet to be born daughter.

He was distracted away from his pleasant musings by the sound of his wife sighing in her sleep. He rolled over on his side and couldn’t resist brushing aside a stray curl that had fallen across her lovely face.  As if sensing his nearness in her sleep, Rhiann rolled to face him.  Then feeling his warmth, scooted herself closer until she was plastered up against him and only her thin chemise separated him from her soft skin. 


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The flimsy barrier provided its wearer little protection against his suddenly raging needs.  He reached out and slowly urged the garment above her waist, then let his hand roam freely over the warm, tender skin beneath, amazed anew at its softness.  Not even the finest of silks he came across in his travels matched the softness of his wife’s skin. 

He was playing with fire and he knew it, but he could do nothing to stop his hand from exploring further, creeping upward, until his knuckles brushed the swell of her full breasts.  From there it was only natural for him to slide his thumb across one rose-budded nipple until it hardened beneath his caress and strained for more of his touch. His wife sighed in her sleep again and she moved restlessly against him. 

He inched the thin garment she wore up a little higher, and promising himself he was still in control, rolled her a little closer into the circle of his arms so he could drop his head and bury his face in the golden tendrils of her long hair, spread out like a cloud now on the sheets beneath her.  Tinkling bells sounded their warning but his wife slept blissfully on as he inhaled her woman’s fragrance and his calloused hands played across her skin.

When she scooted closer still seeking his warmth against the chill in the room, he rolled over on his back.  His wife followed until she was now sprawled on top of him, her legs tucked between his, her head resting on his chest with her face pressed against the side of his neck.  She breathed his scent with each breath and he adjusted himself just slightly so his hard erection was pressed up exactly against the beckoning heat of her center.  This sweet torture he inflicted on himself could not go on much longer.  Either he must wake his wife and gain her permission to satisfy his body’s insistent inclination or he needed to leave this bed and quickly. 

His conscience fought a losing batter with his male passions, but he was saved from further self-recrimination when his wife moaned in her sleep and she lifted her head and opened sleepy, passion-filled eyes to his face.  He stared warily up at her, preparing himself for her to tell him she was too sore to perform her wifely duties tonight.  She would remind him if he was a gentleman he would accede to her wishes as he was the one responsible for her condition in the first place.  It would not be an unreasonable request on her part, he acknowledged reluctantly, even as his gut twisted in denial at his unwelcome conclusion.

“Nathan?”  His name emerged in a drowsy, sleep-drugged whisper. 

“Yes?” 

“Can we?  Do you think it would be all right if we…?”  Her voice trailed off as a fiery blush stained her cheeks.  Her innocence and inexperience made her too embarrassed to be able to continue.

In response, his hold tightened around her and he rubbed his hard member against the sweet opening that beckoned.  She moaned and sat up until she was straddling him.  His eyes feasted on the view of her heavy breasts rising and falling now with her rising passion, her hair in tangled disarray around her face.  She threw her head back and the tinkling of bells surrounded them, a soft echo against the loud hammering of his heart.  He lifted her hips and fitted himself at her damp opening even as he raised his head to take one straining breast into his mouth.

Rhiann moaned as he entered her in one swift thrust, a riot of emotions coursing through her she couldn’t put a name to.  Pain warred with pleasure until the two merged into one fierce emotion and she couldn’t tell if it was exquisite pain or exquisite pleasure overwhelming her.  “Nathan, God Nathan, please, I can’t wait any longer.” 

She begged him to give her release from the unquenchable force building within her. Rhiann thought she might literally die of pain if he left her now, if she woke alone in bed and this turned out to be just another dream, a fantasy to chase away the dark memories of the past few weeks and months.

Nathan needed no further urging.  He held her hips and thrust himself into her glorious heat again and again until he felt her explode above him, his name a breathless cry on his wife’s lips.  Only then did he let his own orgasm wash over him and cleanse him of the pain and loneliness of his prior life. 

She was panting as she collapsed against his chest, and then without warning burst into chaotic tears.  Since she was unable to see his expression where she lay sprawled across his chest, Nathan thought it safe to smile as his wife flooded his chest, understanding the intensity of their lovemaking overwhelmed her.  He was not unaffected by their lovemaking either, but he was more inclined to shout his satisfaction than cry over it. 

He stroked his wife’s soft skin beneath the blanket of her hair, amused at the sound of the bells as they quieted into a softer sound from the wild cacophony that rang out earlier when they were fully engaged with their passions.  He was growing rather fond of the tiny crystal and silver bells linked together along a delicate chain and then woven through his wife’s silken hair.  He had yet to get her explanation for the bells, and decided he could wait a little while longer.  The flow of her tears slowed to a trickle against his chest and he felt his wife’s breath whisper across his skin as a heartfelt sigh passed through her.

“Nathan?” He liked the way she whispered his name in her soft feminine voice, deeper now, husky from sleep and passion.

“Yes, wife.”

“Can we go home soon?”

He suspected this was going to become an oft-repeated exchange between them.  “I cannot leave London until the king releases me from his service.”

“Do you think that will be soon?”

He disliked squelching the hope in her voice, especially since there was so little for her to hope for lately, but he was even more loathe to raise expectations he was in no position to fulfill.  “I don’t know, Rhiann. The king hasn’t confided his plans to me.”

“I’m sorry to keep pestering you.  It’s only…” Her voice broke once before she quickly regained control of her grief.  “They wouldn’t let me stay to bury my mother.  I just need to know she’s up on the ridge, under the old willow tree, beside my father and brothers, near the chapel.  That’s what she wanted more than anything…even to be with me.  She wanted to be with him.  I guess she knew…”

Her voice trailed off again, and Nathan found himself struggling to keep up with his wife’s rambling revelations. He was too busy fighting to control his fury over the affront his fellow countrymen gave his wife by removing her from her home before she could see to the arrangements for her mother’s burial.  Was such a courtesy not common decency, whether the person be Norman or Saxon?  Concealing his anger with an effort, he asked mildly. “You guess she knew what?”

Rhiann shrugged against him.

He already discovered his wife’s habit of shrugging at him was her way of evading his questions.  He leaned up and lifted her chin so she would look at him.  “You guess she knew what?” He repeated more insistently this time.

His wife avoided his searching gaze when she answered him.  “I guess she knew your king meant to marry her to a Norman knight.  She couldn’t…she wouldn’t be able to…she couldn’t bear…”

He took pity on his gentle bride.  “She couldn’t bear the thought of sharing a bed with a Norman?”

Rhiann dropped her head back against his chest and nodded against him.  “She didn’t tell me.  Do you think I should have been with her?  Do you think I was a coward for not dying in defense of Heaven’s Crest?”

Nathan couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  His response was instinctive, with no thought to how his brutal honesty would sound to his wife.  “No, Rhiann.  I think it was your mother who took the coward’s way out leaving you alone to face the consequences.”

She needed no prodding this time to raise her head and search his gaze.  “Truly?  You don’t think…last night… you don’t think I shouldn’t have…”

Was there no end to the foolish anxieties his wife’s busy little mind would come up with? “Rhiann, you’re my wife.” He waited for her solemn nod to acknowledge his truth.  “It is a grave sin to refuse your lord his husbandly rights.”

Her lips twitched at his serious tone and a sudden light danced through her eyes.  He thought it was just an illusion of the shadows cast by the fire until a joyful little laugh escaped her lips.  “A grave sin, Nathan?”

An answering smile lit his face.  “Absolutely.  Imagine your embarrassment when you were forced to confess such a serious transgression to the priest.”

Laughter erupted from her lips, joined in its happy song by the bells woven through her hair.  The warmth of a blush lit her face even as her green eyes danced with amusement.  “Really, Nathan I would do no such thing.  The priest would likely be more embarrassed than I if I attempted to bring up such a private topic in the confessional.”

Nathan was just as certain she was wrong, but refrained from commenting on her naivety.  “Since it’s unlikely you will ever have to confess such a sin to Father Bernard, we will never know.”

“Father Bernard?” 

“Father Bernard is the name of the priest who married us, wife.  Don’t you recall?”

Rhiann blushed at her slip.  The priest’s name was the last thing on her mind last night. She was too worried about the possibility of Nathan demanding his husbandly rights to inquire after the name of the priest conducting the ceremony.  “Oh.  I suppose I should go and re-introduce myself tomorrow after mass.  Do you know the hour daily mass is celebrated?”

“No.”

Her husband’s bald reply startled her.  “No?  You truly do not know?”

“I have more important things to see to, wife.”

Her shocked expression amused him.  “More important than seeing to your soul?”

“As it happens I have a wife now, so I believe in the eyes of the church it is your duty to see to the care of my eternal soul.”

She failed to grasp the fact he was teasing her.  “Yes, yes of course.  In that case I better become better acquainted with Father Bernard as soon as possible.”

Nathan laughed at the genuine worry in her voice. “I was only joking wife.  Do not concern yourself with my soul.”

She appeared aghast at his suggestion.  “But Nathan, it is as you said.  I’m your wife.  It’s my duty to pray for you.”

He liked the idea of her praying for him.  He was certain God would be more inclined to listen to the prayers of his gentle little wife than he would the prayers of a man who made his living waging war.

“All right, wife, you may have the care of my soul, but at the moment I am far more concerned with the more immediate care of my body.”  He nuzzled the side of her neck.  Rhiann could feel him growing hard inside her.

“Really Nathan I don’t know when I’m going to find time to care for your soul when my other wifely duties seem to be taking up so much of my time.”

“You’re not performing your wifely duties now, wife.”  He began moving inside her.  Rhiann felt her breath quicken as his strong hand slid down between their joined bodies and stroked the very core of her.  She couldn’t suppress a moan of pleasure as she tightened around him. 

“I’m not?” She retained a thread of their conversation before her head became too heavy to hold upright.  She dropped against him.

He continued to stroke her as he turned his head to the side and kissed his way up the tender column of her throat and whispered dark promises in her ear, “No, wife.  You are not performing your wifely duties now.  I am generously performing my duties as your husband.”

No saucy reply was forthcoming to his bold proclamation.  Nathan wasn’t even sure his wife heard him.  She was moving insistently against his probing hand.  Her breath came in short gasps of pleasure.  “I don’t understand.” She whispered against his flesh, her tongue circling his nipple and forcing a groan of intense pleasure from him.

Now he was the one having trouble keeping up with their conversation.  “You don’t understand what wife?”

She moved her attention to his other nipple, circling around and around, before capturing the swollen member between her teeth.  In an instant he switched their positions so she was beneath him.  He lifted her hips high on his legs and pumped furiously into her, giving full rein to his passion.  His wife voiced no objection to his rough treatment of her.  Instead she arched up against him and wrapped her legs tightly around his waist.  Her eyes opened and held his in their smoky depths just as her release claimed her. She tightened around him and he watched as she surrendered completely to his insistent passion, his name a breathless scream on her lips as he took her over the edge. 

He watched entranced as she drifted down from heaven, a soft smile curving her lips, even as she opened dreamy eyes to mesh with his.  It was only then she seemed to become aware he had yet to share in her release.  “Nathan?”  His name emerged anxiously from her lips.  “You didn’t…I didn’t…Are you angry with me?  Did I do something wrong?”

He was hurting too much from the strain of holding back for him to explain he wanted to watch her fly in his arms, and then come slowly back to him.  So instead he showed her.  He forced himself to go slow.  The tiny ripples still surrounding him, still squeezing him where he rested deep within her, were fighting his inclination to take her up again, slowly this time so they could jump together off the nearest cloud.  He pushed back into her.

Her green eyes widened with understanding.  “We can…we can…”  Her breathless voice, filled with desire and anticipation was nearly his undoing.

“Yes, we most definitely can.”

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

It wasn’t until the following afternoon he realized he had yet to gain his wife’s explanation about the significance of the bells and the dagger.  The strangers who presented them to his wife absented themselves as soon as Rhiann took off on the black yesterday so they were no longer around to enlighten him.  Nathan still didn’t know who they were and what connection they had if any to his wife and her grandmother.  Did Rhiann’s grandmother simply engage them to deliver a message?  The more he thought about it, the more his assumption made sense.  Surely a Saxon duke would not have been wed to the daughter of a Salusian queen.

At least he would not be forced to face his wife’s disappointment when he confessed to her he lost her stallion.  The black lingered on the grassy hills surrounding the city as if waiting for Rhiann to take him on another gallop across the countryside.  Since Nathan had no intention of allowing that to happen he wondered how long the horse would wait. 


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At the moment though it was one of his wife’s more pressing revelations distracting him from his duties.  He was inexplicably insulted by the fact his wife was removed from her family home without the comfort of a maid or traveling bag to see to her needs on the journey, but he found unforgivable the fact Rhiann was taken from her home before she was able to see to her mother’s burial.

He prayed the duke’s remaining servants had seen to that unwelcome chore, but even if he was unable to take her home, Nathan could give his wife the comfort of knowing her mother was laid to rest in death beside the husband she was so desperate to reunite with she committed a form of suicide.  He wondered if the king knew and thought to confide as much to him before he thought up some unpleasant consequence for the man who brought about the duchess’ death. 

Nathan longed to take the journey himself.  On a fast steed he could make the round trip to London in under a week, but Rhiann would never forgive him for not taking her with him and she was too exhausted to make the trip at such a grueling pace.  So he reluctantly assigned the duty to Archibald and a small contingent of his men. 

He had no intention of telling his wife about their journey until his men returned home with the news her mother was buried exactly where she longed to be, even if his men were forced to dig up her remains from wherever she was laid to rest and move her next to the duke’s resting place.  In that eventuality there was no reason for his wife to ever know her mother began her eternity anywhere else besides at the top of the ridge, beneath the old willow tree, next to the chapel, between her fallen husband and sons.

Ironically it was the queen who first heard Rhiann’s explanation of the traditions surrounding the bells in her hair and the dagger she now wore strapped to her arm.  After a long day spent training his men and several surprisingly not unpleasant conversations with men of now equal rank, Nathan finally made his way back to the keep.  He was looking forward to a hearty meal, a cool glass of ale and a long satisfying evening giving his wife further instruction in regards to her wifely duties.  He hoped William was not inclined to linger late into the night this evening. 

A smile curved his lips at his change in attitude.  Prior to his marriage he took great delight in the king’s company, and was anxious to be of service in even the smallest matters.  He wondered if the king noticed his distraction lately and thought he should make amends for his inattention lest William think having been awarded the lands of Rhiann’s father, Nathan no longer intended to be as diligent a servant as he was in the past.

The opportunity for such a conversation appeared instantly, as if the good lord was indeed privy to his thoughts lately and was following them with great interest.  The king was leaving the new abbey and returning to the keep just as Nathan was passing in the same direction.  William hailed him and Nathan paused to give the king and his guard time to catch up. 

When William approached, Nathan noticed his friend eyeing him curiously and intently.  After a long silent perusal he seemed to find himself satisfied with what he saw, nodded as if confirming to himself a previously held, but undisclosed opinion, then greeted his friend.

“Nathan, I was hoping to run into you.  I’ve missed your company these past few days.”  William’s booming voice was genial and Nathan was grateful he thought he heard amusement, rather than anger underlying it.

“My lord, yes, I wished to speak to you about the very same thing.”  Despite their years as friends and companions, Nathan was always acutely conscious of the wide gulf between them.  William was his king.  Nathan his obedient and loyal servant.

William laughed aside Nathan’s discomfort.  “I was only joking with you, Nathan.  I would be very disappointed in you, my friend, if you found my company more to your liking than your young wife’s.”

Nathan thrust a hand through his long hair, wondering how he was supposed to respond to his liege lord’s teasing comment.

William was apparently not finished with him yet.  “You do find your new wife’s company pleasing, do you not?”

Nathan gave up the battle to maintain an appropriate level of formality between them.  “Yes, my lord.  Though she appears to be in desperate need of a firm hand on the reins, if you take my meaning.”

William laughed delightedly. “Yes, I was quite conscious of her unbroken spirit within minutes of her arrival in my home.  You do remember our initial encounter do you not?”

Nathan grinned at the memory of Rhiann’s barely concealed insolence before the new monarch.

William shared his amusement at the memory.  “I believe you are exactly the man who can supply that firm hand Nathan, without breaking the spirit accompanying it.”

“Two days ago I would have agreed with you, sire.  Now I’m not sure who’s training who in this marriage.”

William’s booming laughter erupted at Nathan’s honest admission.  He clapped him on the back in a show of male commiseration.  “Yes, it seems clear the former lord of Heaven’s Crest allowed himself to become hopelessly entangled in the spell of his beautiful, younger daughter.  It remains to be seen if the current lord of Heaven’s Crest will make any more effort to extricate himself than his predecessor did.”

Nathan sighed ruefully.  “Admittedly sire I am in no hurry to do so.  But I assure you, I have not forgotten my duties or loyalties to my lord and king.”

William patted Nathan’s arm affectionately.  “Of that my friend, I have no doubt.”

 

When they entered the keep, Nathan assumed his eyes were still adjusting to the dimmer lighting inside, else he would have sworn he saw his bride huddled close to the new queen on a padded bench placed in front of the fire for warmth.  The two women’s heads were bent together and his wife was removing the jeweled dagger she seemed intent on wearing strapped to her arm and handing it to the queen. 

Nathan’s eyes widened in shock at the sight of his wife drawing a weapon in the queen’s presence. William smiled over his friend’s astonishment and patted his arm again in sympathy.  Nathan looked at the queen’s guard, noted William wave them off, and wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or nervous that their anxiety over the situation seemed to match his own. 

His wife’s foolishness left him in an uncomfortable position.  He could hardly interrupt her conversation with the queen without invitation, yet he was somewhat concerned what she might next take into her head that the queen’s guard might object to in a more strenuous manner.  He was as relieved as the guard when the queen handed the dagger back to Rhiann and she fitted it safely back in the leather strap on her upper arm.

Curious, William stepped closer so he could hear the conversation between the two women, who appeared oblivious to their audience.  William motioned silently his permission for Nathan to accompany him.

Nathan couldn’t restrain his start of surprise at the queen’s comment, spoken in a low voice.  “So the dagger serves as a reminder life is a choice you make each day.”

Rhiann turned at Nathan’s outraged gasp.  “Nathan I didn’t see you come in.”  Seeing the king at his side she quickly jumped to her feet then rushed around the bench to kneel before him.

“Rise, my dear, and please take your seat and finish this fascinating conversation.  I believe you were explaining to Matilda the significance of the dagger you wear on your arm.”

Nathan watched his wife’s eyes dart nervously between the king and himself, but she was obviously in no hurry to comply with the king’s request.  Sensing her young friend’s hesitancy before both the king and her new husband, Matilda filled the awkward gap as Rhiann silently took her place again on the bench. 

“Yes, dear, Rhiann was explaining her grandmother sent the dagger to her as a reminder that each of us is given a choice to go on living or not.”

Nathan couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  The church did not give one permission to end his or her life no matter how miserable the life in question was.  What his wife suggested was blasphemy.  Suicide was a mortal sin.  Surely he misunderstood the queen’s explanation and accompanying implication.  “And if the person on the receiving end of the dagger decided continuing to go on living was not her choice?”  His voice was unnaturally quiet.

The queen and king exchanged an amused glance, but Matilda deferred the answer to Nathan’s question to Rhiann, who was silently regarding him with increasing anxiety.  “I do not wish to discuss traditions anymore.  Please forgive me for upsetting you.”

“I don’t give a damn whether or not you wish to discuss traditions anymore; we are not through discussing them.  And I am not upset for God’s sake, I’m furious at the suggestion you might one day decide your life was not worth continuing and you feel you have the right to use that ridiculous dagger to end it.”

He was shouting by the time he finished instructing his wife and expected her to cower before his righteous fury.  Apparently his bride was not yet done surprising him.  Rather than tremble before his just outrage, she jumped up again from her place next to the queen and actually dared to stamp her foot, her eyes blazing with a fury to match his own when she shouted back at him.  “How dare you call my family’s sacred traditions ridiculous?  I would never insult your family in such a manner.  And yes, it is my life, husband, and if I decide to return His gift to our heavenly Father, it is my right to do so.”

Nathan could not credit his wife would actually challenge him so openly before his lord.  If one of his men dared defy him as his wife seemed intent on doing he would be sorely pressed not to kill him for his insolence.  He could hardly kill his wife, he accepted reluctantly, though he was beginning to understand certain men’s inclinations to beat theirs.

The hall had grown unnaturally quiet while everyone in it awaited his reaction to the obvious challenge Rhiann just issued.  His reputation did not favor his wife.  He dropped his voice so only Rhiann and the king and queen could hear his response.  “I beg to differ, wife.  You are my property.  Your life belongs to me.  You have no rights in the matter.”

Rhiann’s face leeched of all color.  Where a fine blush rested on it moments ago, her skin paled until it was now a deathly white.  The green fire in her eyes was mercilessly quenched.  Her hushed voice, devoid of all emotion, matched his own. 

“Thank you for your instruction in regards to my worth to you, husband.”  Each stilted word acted as a lash against his conscious.  Was he so concerned about his status before his king and his fellow noblemen he could not make allowances for his wife’s extreme youth and very near grief?  Rhiann apparently wasn’t through chastising him yet.  She reached over and drew the dagger out of its strap and presented it to him hilt first.  “As I am now your property I must assume this ‘ridiculous’ dagger also belongs to you.”  She reached around her neck and removed the chain holding the unusual stone her mother left her and handed it to him as well.  “This at least I am happy to pass to a new keeper.  May you find joy in it.  I cannot.  The stone is stained with my mother’s blood.”

The bells in her hair sounded in mournful communion and then fell quiet as she dropped her arms back to her side.  Her eyes glistened with tears now, her fury spent as quickly as it arose.  She even dropped her head in what another might interpret as respect for his just position as her lord.  He read only defeat in her subdued manner. “I won’t trouble you further with my ridiculous presence.” 

She turned to William, her head still bent.  “With your permission, sire.”  She didn’t lift her glance to see if the king granted her request or not, but turned quickly away and hurried towards the stairs, no doubt her intent to escape her husband’s obnoxious presence as swiftly as possible.

Nathan looked down at the dagger and the odd stone resting in his still outstretched hand.  “What the hell am I supposed to do with these?”  He muttered, and then swiftly apologized to his lord’s wife for voicing the profanity in her presence.

Matilda regarded him sympathetically and waved off his apology before excusing herself and leaving the two men alone.  “Perhaps sire you wish to re-evaluate your conclusion I am the right man to instill some discipline into my wife’s life without breaking her spirit.”

“No, Nathan.  I have no doubts in that regard, but she is fragile, son.  Be gentle with her tender heart.”

How was he supposed to do that? Nathan asked himself silently.  By returning the damned, ridiculous dagger to her so she could end her life with it whenever she objected to one of his dictates?  He eyed the stone curiously. In the few moments it was removed from its place nestled between the warmth of his wife’s breasts, the stone lost all color and warmth.  It now felt like ice in his hand.  He picked up the chain with his other hand and examined the now dark stone in the light of the fire.  There was no sign left of the emerald color it took on against his wife’s skin. Instead, it appeared as cold and lifeless as it felt.  Like death against the warmth of his hand.  “Have you ever seen anything like this stone?”

“No.” William replied, eyeing it just as curiously.  “Though I believe my wife spoke the truth when she suggested such things are better left in the hands of their rightful owners.”

Nathan nodded.  “I can assure, sire, I plan to see it is returned to its rightful keeper at the earliest opportunity.”              When he parted from William, Nathan considered following Rhiann to his rooms, and then decided he needed a little time to calm down and clear his head before confronting his wife.  He needed to figure out how to convince her they must find some form of common ground between them that did not involve potential suicide on her part whenever she decided her new life with him was unbearable.

 

Through the window overlooking the courtyard, Rhiann watched Nathan leave the keep and stride off in the direction of his men’s tents.  She supposed he was anxious to get away from her.  Across the courtyard she saw Father Bernard in the courtyard of the small church dwarfed by the new abbey.

Tears stung her eyes at the fresh memory of the awful scene with her husband. For a moment she was afraid Nathan might strike her when she challenged him so forcefully in front of the new king and queen.  She knew there were not many who would contest his right to do so.  Some of them would be cheering him on at the prospect of witnessing her humiliation at her husband’s hands.  She was appalled at her behavior and was grateful neither of her parents was alive to see her act with such ill grace.  They would have been gravely embarrassed by their daughter shrieking at her husband like a common fish-wife. 


Page 16

Thinking to escape the close confines of the room and the feeling of the walls closing in on her, she decided to go re-introduce herself to the priest who married her and find out when daily mass was offered.  Maybe resorting to her former routine before the war would help her find her center.

Nathan was busy instructing his men and was annoyed at their distraction at the sight of some scene unfolding over his shoulder.  Curious at the cause, he turned to find his wife striding towards the old parish church.  He sighed at the sight of her leaving the keep without an escort and made a mental note to add her lack of care for her personal safety to the list of things he wished to discuss with her.  He motioned for one of his men to follow her and the man bowed and trailed hurriedly after his wife, who seemed oblivious to his protection.

 

Rhiann entered the sanctuary of the small church and tears filled her eyes at the hushed quiet of the interior.  Dwarfed by the abbey still under construction which was originally undertaken to serve the needs of her former Saxon king, she was nonetheless aware of the sacred aura emanating from the more humble altar in comparison to its exalted neighbor’s.  She stepped quietly forward, kneeling with her head bowed before she approached the front of the church.  Genuflecting beside one of the pews, she knelt on the wooden kneeler and bowed her head before her creator, her thoughts in turmoil.  She wasn’t adjusting very well to her new status in life.  She imagined God was on Nathan’s side in their dispute.  He was a man, after all.

“Daughter.”  The tears she held back until now streamed down her face as she lifted her head to the altar at the gentle call to her heart.

“I’m sorry.”  Her whispered prayer emanated more from her heart than her lips.  No sound of her heartfelt regret disturbed the reverent silence of the church.

“Daughter, you misjudge me.  Do you think I am unaware of your sufferings?  Do you believe I don’t feel your grief in my heart?”

“They’re all gone.  You took them away from me.”  She poured out her complaint, even knowing she had no right to question God.

“And you think I did this to punish you?”

Rhiann drew a deep breath and brushed aside her tears.  “No, of course not.”

“Are you not pleased with the husband I chose for you?”

The tears fell faster.  “Yes, but I do not know how to be a good wife to him and there is no one left to instruct me.”

“I am here.”

“You have more important matters to see to.”

“There is nothing more important to me than my children’s happiness.”

Rhiann fell silent wondering how that could possibly be true. She wouldn’t ask. She figured she’d done enough challenging of her lords this morning, both her husband and her God. In the silence that fell between them she could hear the sounds of children playing in the small courtyard of the church outside the windows.  Even though they were orphaned in the war, she knew they were the lucky ones.

Father Bernard had generously taken them in.  What about all those who were displaced in the war who didn’t have a Father Bernard to see to their needs?  The priest was an old man.  What if he was called away by his superiors in the church? Who would see to the children?  Who would make sure they were fed and warm and had some place to go?

“Try to have some faith in me, daughter.”

Even though His rebuke was a gentle one, she was overset by it. She felt as though every door of her old life was slamming shut on her. She couldn’t seem to find her place in this new Norman world.  She was unused to having so much unstructured time on her hands.  She knew Nathan was being considerate of her by not asking anything of her beyond catching up on her rest, but she needed to find some sound footing in this new order and knew she was unlikely to find it resting in her husband’s bed.

She was distracted from her self-pitying musings by the renewed sound of children’s laughter reaching her through the heavy doors of the church.  The joyful noise only served to emphasize her dissatisfaction with herself.  These children lost everything and yet they could still laugh with their friends and find joy in a new day. 

It was time Rhiann took a lesson from the children.  She would stop bemoaning what she could never have again and take a positive step into her new life. She was the mistress of Heaven’s Crest now.  She would have responsibilities to see to when Nathan was released from the king’s service and they returned home.  For now, she would do what she could to begin fulfilling those responsibilities.  The first of them was to speak to Father Bernard about the children’s needs and see what she could do to ease them.

The elder priest’s gentle manner was a balm to her shattered spirit.  Rhiann spent the afternoon with Father Bernard discussing the charitable needs of the children and those left homeless by the invasion.  She was overwhelmed by the list of essentials the old priest rattled off.  Normally she would have promised to help, but she no longer had access to Heaven’s Crest’s accounts and since Nathan made it perfectly clear he considered her nothing more than his property, she was hesitant to make any promises in his name.

Her eyes took in the wretched looking crowd gathering for the midday meal. She saw a young mother nursing her infant, dressed in little better than rags.  She inquired as to her story of Father Bernard and he shook his head, confiding quietly.

“Her name is Willa. She is the widow of a Saxon soldier who died before his son was birthed.  Their cottage was destroyed in the invasion.  She has no place to go.  Like all of those gathered here in God’s house.  They are here because they have no place else to go.” 

Rhiann nodded, thinking how ill-used she felt by her change in fortunes at the Norman invasion.  Yet here she stood dressed in a fine gown and warm cloak with a wonderfully patient, gentle lover, a live husband, and still mistress of her former home.  She stood and removed her cloak and pressed it into Father Bernard’s reluctant hands.  “Please Father. I have little else to offer, but will you give this to Willa?”

The priest accepted her offering, blessing her for her generosity.  Rhiann wasn’t sure how to respond other than to thank him as graciously as she could.  She felt even guiltier about the earlier scene she instigated with her husband and promised herself she would apologize for her shrewish behavior at the earliest opportunity. 

In the meantime, she was determined not to try Nathan’s temper further by being late for dinner at the king’s table. After assisting Father with his youngest charges, she exited the small church.  She was surprised at the chill air after the relative warmth of the church and rubbed her arms against the cold, even while at the same time refusing the cloak Nathan’s soldier tried to wrap around her soldiers, not wanting to deprive the man of its warmth.

She caught sight of her husband striding towards her and cringed at the sight of the dark expression on his face, concluding he was still angry with her from earlier. Bowing her head as a good submissive wife would, she halted in the middle of the courtyard and waited for him to approach. She felt the warmth of his massive cloak wrap around her though his hands were gentle as he tucked the ends close around her and then pulled her towards him. His tenderness was in direct contrast to the harshness of his voice as he berated her.

“Where is your cloak, wife? Are you determined to end your life by freezing yourself to death now I’ve taken possession of your sacred dagger?”

Rhiann remained quiet, staring down at the ground between them.  She was uncertain if Nathan was expecting her to answer him or not, so she concluded the safer bet was for her to remain silent.

“Well wife?  Where is your cloak?  You were wearing it when you left the keep.”

Abruptly realizing her mistake Rhiann’s face flushed with fear and embarrassment at her husband’s angry tone.  “I’m sorry, Nathan. I forgot it was your property.  I gave it to one of the woman at the church.  She lost everything in the war and had no cloak of her own to keep her warm.  I cannot ask for it back.  I don’t know how I’m to repay you.”

Nathan’s head started aching with the effort of trying to make sense of his wife’s tearful confession.  He finally abandoned the effort and simply asked for an explanation. “What are you talking about?”

“I gave away your cloak.”

He could barely make out his wife’s whispered admission, but he was no less confused by the explanation she offered. “‘You’re wearing my cloak.”  He thought he sounded foolish pointing out the obvious, but he discovered over the course of his very brief marriage nothing was obvious where his wife was concerned.

“Yes, but I gave away the one I was wearing.  It belonged to you.  Don’t you remember?”

A glimmer of understanding was beginning to seep through the wall of confusion his wife erected around herself.  He sighed his frustration.  “Rhiann, if you are going to keep track of every ridiculous thing I say in the heat of anger to throw back in my face at a saner moment, you’re going to need an excellent memory.”

Her shocked expression brought a grudging smile to his face. “Ridiculous?  But Nathan you said…”

He held up his hand not wanting to be reminded of the unpleasant scene between them earlier.  “Forgive me, wife.  It was not my intent to insult your sacred family traditions.”

“You’re apologizing to me?” Rhiann whispered appalled.  “But I should be apologizing to you.  I challenged you before your king.”

“Yes, you did.”

Rhiann was puzzled by his calm demeanor as she reminded Nathan of her transgressions. “There were other witnesses as well.”

“Yes.”  Nathan decided against letting her off the hook too easily.  Her sins had been serious enough to warrant his displeasure. 

“I thought you were going to strike me.”  She confessed tearfully.

“The thought did cross my mind.”

Rhiann took a hasty step backward. 

Seeing her fear was real, Nathan made no attempt to stop her retreat.  “The fear I see in your eyes is an insult to me, Rhiann.  Do you not remember my promise to you?”

Her hands were shaking.  Rhiann wasn’t sure if it was from the cold air or the cold tone of her husband’s voice.  “Which one?”

For a moment Nathan thought his wife was mocking him, then noted her anxiety and concluded her concern was real.  “I promised I would never hurt you.”

She nodded; assuring him she remembered his promise.  “But you broke your promise to me, Nathan.  Don’t you remember?”  Then added quickly at his dark expression.  “The other night…”

When his wife’s voice trailed off and a hot blush heated her face, Nathan realized she was referring to their wedding night. He lifted her chin with his hand so she would be forced to meet his glance.  “I explained why I had to hurt you the other night.  Did you expect me to live as a monk in my own home forever?”

Her blush grew fiercer and she quickly dropped her eyes back to the ground between them.  “But you were angry with me.”

“On our wedding night?  I assure you Rhiann the last thing I was feeling that night was anger.”

“No, not then.” If her face got any redder, Nathan might not be able to restrain the urge to laugh, and no doubt once again bruise his wife’s foolishly delicate feelings.  “Not that night.  Earlier when I challenged you before your king.”

“Our king.”  When she merely shrugged away his automatic correction, he added, “And you believe I would abandon my honor in a fit of temper?”

“You confuse me, Nathan,” she whispered finally.

“It pleases me we are both suffering from the same condition.”

She raised her head at the amusement she heard in his voice, her eyes wide, her expression confused.  “You’re not angry with me anymore?”

“Apparently not,” he conceded with a sigh.  He removed her grandmother’s dagger from his belt and held it out to her hilt first.  She made no move to accept it, just stood their regarding it and then him with a puzzled expression on her face.  Sighing he reached down for her hand, held it out in front of her, then placed the dagger in it.  She raised wide eyes to his face. 

Next he reached into the pouch at his belt, removed the unusual stone and its thin silver chain, and then placed it around her neck.  His lips curved at how the lifeless stone took on new life as soon as it was returned to its proper place.  He shook his head at the fanciful thought and raised his eyes to his wife’s incredulous expression.

“What are you doing?” Her voice was a hushed whisper.

“I’m returning your property to you, wife.”

“My property?  But you said…”

“I know what I said, Rhiann, but I also recall neither asking for nor demanding you hand over your grandmother’s dagger and the stone around your neck.”

“I don’t understand, Nathan.”

He forgot how young she was.  She appeared intent on giving every word out of his mouth its literal interpretation.  He grinned down at her puzzled expression, took the dagger from her hand, slipped it into the leather strap on her arm, then took her hand and began leading her back to the keep.

Rhiann hurried to keep up with her husband, doing her best not to stain his fine cloak with the mud and dust from the ground.  “Nathan, but what about my cloak?  How am I to repay you for it?  I don’t have any funds.  Everything is yours now.”

He lifted his eyes to heaven seeking the blessing of a little added patience he was certain before he met his wife he possessed in abundance, then stopped and turned towards his confused wife, lifting her face to his.  “Rhiann, nothing has changed for you, at least from a financial perspective.  Did you have access to your father’s funds?”

She nodded and confided, “He was most generous with us.”

Curious, Nathan asked, “And what did you do with these funds?”

“We saw to the needs of the villagers.  Father said it was our responsibility to see to their needs and ease their burdens when we could.”

He brushed his thumb across his wife’s soft lips, resisting the urge to kiss her.  “So you thought to ease the burdens of the refugees under Father Bernard’s care?”

She nodded.  Her voice grew a little breathless at his nearness.  “Willa didn’t have a cloak.  Her husband died in the war.  He didn’t even live long enough to see his infant son birthed.  She lost everything and now she has an infant son to care for.”


Page 17

“So you gave her your cloak.”

She shrugged and admitted, “I didn’t have anything else to offer her.”

He couldn’t resist the urge this time and bent down to brush his lips across hers, then tucked her slender form in the curve of his arm and began heading towards the king’s home once more.  “I have a feeling we better procure several additional cloaks for you, wife.”

“You needn’t spend any funds on me, Nathan.  I have several fine cloaks at Heaven’s Crest.”

Nathan sighed at her reluctance to spend his money.  Although he’d been a landless knight he was by no means a poor one. He reached in his pocket and drew out a heavy pouch of coins.  When she just stood there regarding the leather pouch with a puzzled look on her face, he reached for her hand again and dropped the pouch into it.  “You are not to give away any of your gowns or cloaks from Heaven’s Crest,” he instructed her.

The confused furrow between her brows deepened.  “But Nathan how could I?”

He cut her off.  “Promise me.”

It irritated him that she seemed to need a few moments to consider his request before acquiescing to it.  She finally nodded her assent.

“The words wife.”

“I promise, Nathan.”

“And in the future, Rhiann, if one of my men offers you their cloak you will accept it.  They are responsible for you, and it would go ill for them if anything were to happen to you while under their care.”

Rhiann blushed guiltily and glanced back apologetically at the soldier trailing them back to the keep. He accepted her whispered apology with a smile and a nod.

             

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Later that evening at the king’s table Rhiann tried to stifle a yawn.  She was not accustomed to such late hours and even when she was finally allowed to retire to Nathan’s room, she was not given much opportunity to sleep. Nathan seemed intent on exercising his husbandly rights at every opportunity.  Surprisingly she had no objection to his intent but it left her with very little time to rest. She wondered why Nathan never seemed tired.  She was certain she never saw him sneaking into the keep for an afternoon nap.  Her lips curved at her foolish thoughts and she leaned tiredly against her husband’s side.  He was engaged in conversation with the man at his left. On her right, the queen’s head was bent close to her husband’s at the head of the table. 

She was reluctant to ask her husband’s permission to be excused for the remainder of the evening.  She had been enough of a bother to Nathan today. She thought she should concentrate on being a more pleasing wife to him.  So she did her best to follow the conversations drifting around her, smiling politely if someone chanced to look in her direction, and edged a little closer to her husband’s warmth.

Even with the fire roaring in the fireplace and all the overhead candles in the chandeliers hanging over the tables for light, there was still a chill to the air.  The gown she was wearing was somewhat thin considering the approach of winter but she couldn’t fault the little dressmaker.  No doubt deliveries to the city were interrupted during the course of the invasion. She scooted a little closer to her husband’s solid warmth and promised herself she was just going to rest her head on his shoulder for a moment.  She definitely would never embarrass him by falling asleep at the king’s table.

From far off she heard the queen asking her a question.  She struggled against the fuzziness in her thoughts to try to recall her query. She was very careful not to embarrass Nathan any more than she already did that day. Nathan, hearing Matilda address his wife, and being greeted only by silence, turned to question the cause of his wife’s rudeness.  He met Matilda’s amused glance over Rhiann’s head nestled up against his shoulder.  She seemed to be having trouble staying awake.

His apologetic glance further amused the queen when he reached down to lift his wife’s chin from where it rested against him.  Heavy lids struggled to lift over sleepy green eyes.  She smiled when she saw him staring down at her so tenderly.  Maybe he was pleased he married her after all.  Her expression took on a faraway dreamy quality, and Nathan quickly reminded her of the queen’s inquiry in an effort to bring her back to the present.

“Rhiann, the queen asked you the significance of the bells in your hair.”

Rhiann blushed, remembering the queen’s earlier query and she quickly straightened away from her husband’s side and turned to face Matilda.  “Forgive me, your highness, for my inattention.  You asked about the bells.”

The older woman smiled kindly back at her.  “Yes, my dear. I would have you finish your story from this afternoon.  I understand now the purpose of the dagger you wear strapped to your arm, but you’ve yet to enlighten me as to the purpose of the bells.”

Rhiann nodded and offered softly.  “The bells are meant to remind me of why I should choose life over death.  Though in truth there is no death, only this life on earth, and the more wonderful life awaiting us in heaven when our heavenly Father calls us home to Him.”

Eavesdropping on Rhiann’s conversation with the queen, Nathan was stunned by the purity and conviction of his young wife’s faith in the Almighty.  Seeing his astonishment, Matilda prompted Rhiann to continue with her explanation.  “So their purpose is to encourage you to choose life here rather than life in heaven.”

Rhiann nodded.  “Our heavenly Father is in no hurry for His children to return to Him.  He’s not going anywhere after all.”

At the monarch’s smiling nod, Rhiann continued, “The bells serve as a reminder of His many blessings over His children here on earth: of a soft breeze on a warm day, a gentle rain sent to cleanse the earth, the joy contained in a child’s laughter, the love of family and friends.  So many gifts He sends freely to all of His children.  They are far more important than gold and fine gowns; jewels and lands.”

“And does a time come when you make a definitive choice?”

“Eventually, at each little reminder, the dagger is used to cut a length of bells and leave them as a blessing with the source of the reminder.  With each decrease in their number, I am to remember that like the bells there will come a time when I can no longer remember the sound of my family’s voices, but their love for me remains behind with me and we will be joined anew in the next life.  When there are no more bells, I am to return the dagger to my grandmother and then she will know my choice is to remain so she may draw comfort from it.”

“I am certain she will, Rhiann. Thank you for sharing your family traditions with me.  They are quite beautiful.” 

“Nathan said they were...” The rest of her reply was smothered by her husband’s hand clamped firmly around her mouth. 

“I have already apologized for my insult to your family traditions, wife.  You need not embarrass me further in front of the queen.”

Rhiann reached up to push his hand away, her eyes dancing with amusement.  “Really, Nathan, men do not get embarrassed.”

“We don’t?”  He liked seeing the laughter in her eyes at his gentle mockery, and he was loathe to threaten it, but one thing about her explanation still puzzled him.  “Did your grandmother send your mother a jeweled box with a dagger and a pouch of bells?”

Shadows immediately replaced the laughter in her eyes.  She nodded.  “Notajeweled box and dagger, Nathan.  The same ones.”

He did a quick calculation in his head.  “That’s impossible wife.”

She shrugged.

He pushed.

“She refused it.”

“You can do that?”

“Of course.  If you know you would rather not be reminded.  If you have already made up your mind…”  Her voice, already barely above whisper, trailed off.

He remembered her reluctance to accept the box from the stranger’s outstretched hand, wishing at the time she would refuse it, only now understanding the significance of her decision to accept it. 

“I am glad you didn’t refuse.” 

“At the time you seemed irritated I accepted it.”

A smile curved his lips at her disgruntled tone.  “I failed to understand then the significance of sacred family traditions.”

Her eyes lit for a moment at his teasing, and then she added, still in a soft voice only he could hear.  “You understand why I had to accept it.  When Amele asked me not to send him back to my grandmother with the unopened box…she’s already lost so much, Nathan.  I could not add to her grief.”

“So the strands of your hair you sent back in the box were proof he actually saw you and you accepted the bells and the dagger the box contained.”

“Yes, there was nothing else I could think of to send back.”  She saw his eyes pass over the stone nestled at her breasts, knew what he was thinking. “She would have refused the stone, as much as I would have liked to return it to her keeping.  The stone has already passed from her hands.”

Nathan seized on the inconsistency.  “How was it in your mother’s possession to give to you if your grandmother is still alive?”

She shrugged.  He assumed she was too tired for any more explanations.  Too bad. He wasn’t about to let her escape until he had all of his questions answered.  For some reason his wife seemed to be in a malleable mood tonight.  He planned to take full advantage of the unprecedented opportunity for as long as it lasted. 

“Rhiann...”

She had the nerve to roll her eyes at him for his insistence, but he refused to let up. 

“It happens like that sometimes.”

“That is not an explanation, wife.”

She shrugged again.  “Sometimes the stone decides to seek out a new keeper before the current one has passed.”

“How does it do that?” 

“Do you remember how the stone appeared when you held it in your hand?’

Away from his wife’s warm flesh the stone became instantly dark and lifeless. “Yes.”

“That is what happens.  The current keeper then knows she has been released from the stone’s service and the time has come to pass the stone to its next keeper.”

“So your grandmother sent the stone to your mother.”

“Yes.”

“Before or after your father was killed?”

“Before, many years ago when I was still a child. I cannot recall the exact date.”

“And your mother did not refuse her.”

“She could not.”  His wife sounded shocked by his suggestion.  “She knew her entire life the time would come when the stone would pass to her.”

“As did your sister.”

“Yes.”

“What is your sister’s name?”

“Melissa.”

“What happened to Melissa?”

“Before the siege, she left the keep in search of my brother.”

Nathan felt his head beginning to spin again, but he wanted the entire story of his wife’s family history.  It was the only way to help Rhiann reconcile herself to the future.  He would have preferred to have their conversation in a more private location, but he feared interrupting her now would take away his chance.  Besides her voice was so low he thought only he could hear her soft responses to his insistent questions, though he noticed both William and Matilda’s heads were bent in their direction, straining to hear his wife’s soft voice.

“She just left the keep?  No one accompanied her?”  He was so astonished by her revelation about her sister, it required an effort on his part to keep the tenor of his voice even.

“She snuck away one night and left us a note as to her intentions.”

“How did she get past the guard?”

Rhiann shrugged.

“Answer me, wife.”  This time Nathan made certain his voice was hard and demanding.  If Rhiann took it into her head one day to sneak off into the night, he wanted to know how she planned to accomplish her escape and put a stop to it in advance.

Rhiann’s eyes widened at his harsh tone and her voice fell even quieter when she confessed, “She left through the secret passage in the old keep.  It leads to the sea.”

Nathan made a mental note to have Rhiann point out this secret passage to him as soon as they arrived at Heaven’s Crest.  “This was before your brothers were killed?  Why would she leave the safety of the keep to go in search of them?”

Rhiann shook her head.  “My older brothers were already dead when she left.  She went looking for Michel.”

“Michel is another brother?”

“Yes.  Melissa loved him best.  They were twins.  His body was never returned to us.  The men who accompanied him north, some of them returned, but in the fighting they became separated from my brother.  They searched for him for many weeks but never found any word of him.  They finally returned to bring news to my mother.”

“They believed your brother perished in the war in the north.”

“Yes, so did my mother, but Melissa refused to accept his death.  She believed if her twin was dead she would know it in her heart.  My mother was in no condition to comfort her.  Melissa was head strong.  She refused to listen to anyone.  She was angry at us for giving up hope.  She said Michel’s blood was on our hands for abandoning him.”

Nathan gave her slender shoulders a comforting squeeze.  “She didn’t mean it, Rhiann.  She was overcome with grief.”

“No Nathan, she did mean it.  She didn’t confide her plan to us.  She knew mother would inform the guards and they would stop her.” She added in a meek voice, “I would have told on her, too.  I was afraid of losing my sister.”

“But she didn’t confide in you?”

“No, she knew I couldn’t be trusted to keep her secret.  Isn’t that pitiful?  My only sister didn’t trust me and she was right not to.”  Rhiann bowed her head at the remembered pain of that morning when she found the note and realized Melissa left the keep, leaving her behind alone with their grieving mother. The news of her husband’s death had robbed their mother of the last of her will to wage any additional battles.  Rhiann wasn’t certain her mother even recognized the significance of Melissa’s absence or the great danger her elder daughter was in outside the thick walls of Heaven’s Crest.  She believed her mother was lost to them the day their father’s mangled body was returned to his estates.  Her physical death weeks later was merely a formality.

“You believe your sister is dead.”

Rhiann nodded tiredly, hoping her husband’s endless questions would be satisfied soon. She was trying so hard to be a good wife to him and satisfy his curiosity, though what difference the answers to his questions could possibly make now, she was unable to fathom.


Page 18

“Her body was never returned to you?”

“No. I tried to hold out hope they were both by some miracle still alive, but when my mother died, when she passed the stone to me, I knew both Melissa and Michel were dead.”

He mulled over her comment and seeing the soft glow of the stone on her breast, he understood.  “Because the stone accepted you as its keeper. You concluded your sister must be dead.”

Rhiann nodded, remembering her last hope being dashed when the stone came to life in her hands.  “Both my brother and sister.  They were twins.  The stone could have passed to Michel from my sister’s hands.  It would not be against the rules.”

“There are rules?”

“Yes.”

“What are these rules?”

Rhiann was too exhausted to continue. She turned back into her husband’s arms, wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her head against his chest.  Her eyes slid closed as she reminded him.  “I don’t know the rules, Nathan. I didn’t listen to the stories when I was a little girl.”

She sighed as he stroked her hair, comforted by the tinkle of the bells as his hand wove through them.  “Because you never expected the stone to come to you.”

“Hmmm.”

Nathan held his wife against his heart and considered all she confided in him, putting all the pieces together and satisfied by the orderly, if unique, manner in which they lined up and fitted together.  “Rhiann, how long has the stone been in your mother’s family?” It was a minor detail, just idle curiosity on his part.

“A thousand years.”

“A thousand years,” he echoed stunned.

She nodded against his chest.  “Yes, now you understand why I could not refuse.  My mother said…”

He shook her back awake.  “Your mother said what?”

“My mother begged me not to let her fail her own mother’s request of her.  I couldn’t refuse her final request of me.  You understand, Nathan, surely you understand.”  Tears fell from the exhausted eyes she raised to his face.

He kissed her forehead.  “I understand, Rhiann.  Of course you could not have refused your mother’s last request of you.”

Satisfied with his answer, Rhiann sighed relieved, then closed her eyes and fell into a deep sleep lulled by the safety and comfort she found against her husband’s broad chest and encircling arm.

Nathan tightened his hold around his sleeping wife, wondering how she managed to retain her faith amidst her family’s trials and still remain so firmly convinced of the love and mercy of an Almighty God.  He became aware of the still silence of the room, audible after the loud conversations and clinking of full mugs of ale, of plates being served and passed, and he wondered how much of Rhiann’s story was heard and being repeated around the room.  He met the king’s concerned glance over his wife’s bent head.

“It pleases me Nathan you remember your promise to me in regards to your wife.”

Nathan nodded, remembering his assurance he would treat Rhiann kindly.

“Lady Rhiann has still not recovered from the ordeal of losing her family.  You may be excused, Nathan.”

Nathan nodded, relieved at his lord’s understanding, and stood with his wife in his arms and took his leave.  As he passed behind the queen, Matilda reached out and brushed her hand against his arm.  “You will take every care Nathan to remind Rhiann of the many reasons she should continue to choose life.  She has come to mean a great deal to me in a short time.”

Nathan replied seriously. “Yes, your highness that is certainly my intent.”

When he gained the privacy of his rooms, he laid his wife on the bed, taking care not to wake her as he removed her gown and under garments.  She barely stirred, and it was a testament to her exhausted state, she was completely naked and tucked beneath the heavy quilts on the bed without once opening her eyes and questioning his intent.

Once his wife was settled, he stripped out of his own clothes, threw fresh logs on the fire, and then crossed the room to slide between the sheets next to his sleeping wife.  He reached for her, curled her slender, soft form against his naked flesh and fought the instant lust springing to his loins.  Tonight he would act the gentleman and let his wife dream on undisturbed.  He realized, unsurprised, she had come to mean a great deal to him as well.

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

Rhiann was lost in the forest.  She was freezing. And wet.  The fury of the storm threw her out of the boat and into the icy sea.  She barely managed to swim to shore in the freezing water.  The weight of her wet gown seemed intent on dragging her under the surface at every opportunity. She thought she swam the entire distance, but she couldn’t remember reaching dry land and hauling herself out of the surf, fighting the heavy, drenched gown.  More likely the sea coughed up her numb, unconscious body onto the shore when she lost the last of her strength and went under the surface for the last time, too exhausted to fight any longer.

She woke sprawled on the beach, shivering, starving, and aware of a thirst she had no means to satisfy even when all she could see was water surrounding her from nearly every angle.  She struggled into a seated position.  Her eyes stung with salt water.  She spastically coughed up the fluid she swallowed.  Her chest hurt, her hands were blistered and calloused, her shoulders hurt, her eyes stung from the sea water.  She considered just lying back down and letting the sea take her. 

She failed.  She couldn’t return to Heaven’s Crest and now there was no means for her to use to reach the north.  It was a foolish attempt anyway.  She knew that going in, but she couldn’t just sit there in the keep, watching her mother die a little more each day, waiting for the final loss to shatter a heart already more dead than alive.  She couldn’t confide in Rhiann.  She was still more child than woman.  She was so hopelessly spoiled by their father, so sheltered from the evils of life.

Even in her sleep Rhiann felt her brow furrow in confusion.  How could she have left herself behind?  Why was she referring to herself as if she was someone else?  She let the tiny puzzle simmer in her mind as she glanced back at the sea, wondering what to do next.  It wasn’t in her to just lay down and die. 

She acknowledged she would likely die before this day was through but she was more Salusian than Saxon.  She would die fighting death with every ounce of her strength until she drew her last breath, or until, more likely, death came and stole it from her despite the battle she waged against him. Death was a man.  On that score she was completely clear. 

Men enjoyed the ultimate contest, the opportunity to test their prowess against other men, beasts, even fate.  Wasn’t that the only explanation for the constant wars fought over a strip of land and a silly title?  It always puzzled her why the Almighty decided to put men in charge of things.  She thought the world would be a lot more peaceful with a woman in charge.

Her foolish musings were interrupted by the sight of a small craft being lowered from the ship that just appeared on the horizon.  Her sluggish brain was still sharp enough to recognize the Norman flag the main ship flew rippling in the brisk wind.  She needed to move and now.  Perhaps her death was inevitable but she would rather suffer it beneath the sharp teeth and tearing claws of a wild beast who made its home in the forest than allow herself to be captured by the murderous Norman invaders.

“Melissa!”  Rhiann was unaware she shouted her sister’s name as she sat up suddenly in bed.  Nathan jumped out of bed at his wife’s scream, sword in hand, but after a quick check of the room, rightfully concluded his wife’s scream emanated from the depths of a nightmare intruding upon her sleep rather than a physical intruder.  He set the sword aside, sank back down on the bed and shook his sleeping wife gently awake.

Rhiann stared up at him with a dazed expression on her face.  “What is it, Rhiann?  Did you have a nightmare?”

She leaned gratefully into her husband’s warmth.  “Not a nightmare. It was Melissa.  I am certain it was not a dream.  It must be the stone seeking its rightful keeper.  Nathan, I think my sister might still be alive.”

Nathan comprehended instantly he needed to tread carefully through the maze of the conversation he feared was about to be thrust upon him, else risk insulting a few more of his wife’s sacred family traditions.  He smoothed the tousled hair away from her face.  “Rhiann, sweetheart, do you remember telling me about your sister tonight while we dined?”

She nodded, her deep green eyes glued to his.

“You were upset.  She accused you and your mother of having your brother’s blood on your hands.  Likely there is still a part of you that carries the burden of guilt for having survived when your family is dead.”

“No, Nathan, it wasn’t just a dream.  It felt as though I was my sister.  I kept referring to myself as Rhiann, as if I was someone else, like I was inside Melissa’s head.  I was so cold.  My boat capsized and I was tossed ashore.  I woke up shivering.  I knew I was going to die.  I was thinking how I couldn’t confide in me, Rhiann.  She said I was still a child.  That I was hopelessly spoiled by our father and sheltered from all of life’s evils.” Rhiann couldn’t bear the thought of her sister, cold and alone, waiting for death.  She shivered in shared despair and was grateful when Nathan pulled her up against his chest.

“Rhiann you’re freezing.”  Nathan rubbed his hands up and down his wife’s arms, which were covered with goose-bumps.  The room felt warm to him.  The logs still burned briskly in the fireplace.  He realized her dream had affected her in a physical way.  It was odd hearing her recount her dream, as if she was seeing herself through her sister’s eyes. 

He was unable to deny Melissa’s, if it was Melissa’s view of her sister, was dead on.  Rhiann was caught between the innocence of childhood and the harsh reality of acceptance every adult eventually must face.  Somehow Rhiann avoided facing hers.  He hoped to avoid being the one to hold that particular mirror up to her eyes.  “Rhiann, the past few months are all catching up to you.  Everything you haven’t had time to come to grips with.  Your father and brothers’ deaths, and then your sister’s disappearance followed so closely by your mother’s death.  Your dream is your mind’s way of trying to comprehend the loss of your family.”

It was as if he hadn’t spoken.  “There was a Norman ship. She was thinking she would rather be attacked and killed by a wild animal than allow herself to be captured by the murderous Norman invaders.  They were heading towards her.  Maybe they found her.  Maybe they’re bringing her to London.  Oh, Nathan, you could have married my sister instead of being stuck with me.”

Nathan didn’t want to be the one to enlighten his innocent wife about her sister’s fate if a ship full of Norman soldiers found a young woman wandering alone in the wilderness.  Melissa, if she somehow was communicating with her sister through her dream, apparently did not share his wife’s naivety. 

While he was still trying to figure out how to gently disillusion her, thinking if he were in her sister’s shoes and a choice confronted him between death in the forest or death at the hands of undisciplined enemy soldiers, he would choose the former as well, Rhiann’s last statement penetrated his thoughts.  Something about him being stuck with her.  She was regarding him so anxiously, with such regret; he couldn’t resist the urge to bend down and kiss her.

Wonderingly she raised her fingers to her lips.  “Why did you do that?”

“I was not stuck with you wife.”

“Yes you were.” She had the nerve to contradict him.  “If you wanted my father’s estates you had to marry me.”

He could hardly argue with her reasoning, because naïve as she was, she was still well aware of the reason he married her.  He took a different approach.  “Rhiann, I would not have chosen your sister over you.”

“But Nathan, she’s much prettier and more spirited.  Though father often called her headstrong and said how she was going to lead some poor man a wild chase one day.  Melissa used to laugh and claim no she wouldn’t since she didn’t have any intention of marrying and becoming some stranger’s property.  She thought that was an outdated law and she was determined not to subject herself to it.”

Nathan grinned, thinking Rhiann’s father was right about his older daughter.  “What was her plan for her future if not marriage?”

Rhiann watched the way the firelight danced in her husband’s eyes, turning them an even lighter shade of blue.  His evident amusement at her sister’s unusual opinions made them lighter still.  He had the most beautiful eyes.  His hands were on her back stroking her bare skin.  Her brow furrowed in confusion and she spoke the source of her puzzlement out loud.  “Nathan I don’t remember taking my clothes off.  Why am I naked?”  She watched the light in her husband’s eyes darken with desire as his eyes roamed over her bare skin.  Her breasts were uncovered and his eyes feasted hungrily on them, before sliding lower to where the sheets covered her hips and legs.  She felt her face blush at his intent regard, understood even after their brief marriage the direction of her husband’s thoughts, and forgot to keep breathing. 

Her breath got stuck in her throat at the sight of his lips curving upward, the amusement sneaking back into his eyes, as he trailed the side of his hand up her belly to brush his knuckles beneath the underside of her heavy breasts, and then slide his thumb across one nipple, which reacted instantly, becoming painfully erect at his touch. 

His other hand slid beneath her hair and rhythmically stroked her back, causing her to release the breath she was holding on a soft sigh.  Her lids began to close sleepily and she leaned into her husband’s strong arms and rested her head against his chest.  He slid his other arm around her back and continued gently caressing her skin, up and down, in a soothing gesture, his hands stopping every so often to straighten an errant tangle in her hair.  She closed her eyes and let herself be lulled back to sleep by the steady beat of his heart beneath her cheek and by his soothing touch. 

She felt him shift his weight and push her back down against the sheets.  She forced open her eyes to whisper a soft ‘Thank you,’ was confused for a moment at the grin that flashed across her husband’s face, but was too tired to ask him what he found so amusing before her eyelids slipped down over her eyes and she drifted back to sleep.

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