Authors: Knight Storm
Rhianna faced the old chatelaine and smiled.
“You are always so good to me, Andarra. Why, if I did not have you seeing to my comforts, I don’t know how I would have grown to womanhood. Thank you. I will be but a moment longer. I have a good deal of thinking to do.”
“And can you not think inside, next to a roaring fire, with a warm mug?”
“The air clears my mind. I am trying to reach out to Randall. If only I could feel him, then I would know he is alright.”
Andarra was not surprised or daunted by such a claim by the young Mistress of the keep. She had grown used to the precious gifts the Ancients had bestowed on the lass. She had been steeped in them, herself. Her old cousin Morag had taught her well of the Ancient Ways before she had come to this place so very long ago.
“And do you feel him, lass?”
Shaking her head sadly, Rhianna said, “No, but I don’t feel he is lost, either. I know I would sense that emptiness in my heart. It almost feels as if he is alive but caught between the living and the dead.” Rhianna shuddered at the thought. Whatever had befallen her brother, it was not good.
Andarra knew that to be true. She had long relied on the Gift that Rhianna harbored. She hated when the people whispered dangerous words to malign her mistress because of her Gifts. Andarra knew no fear in such things as she had been honed with them, too. She had lived a long life. Nothing frightened her much anymore; except the loss of the girl of her heart. Sighing, Andarra said, “Alright. Don’t be too long. A tempest is brewing. I can feel it in my old bones. Come inside where it is warm.”
Distracted again, Rhianna nodded and watched as the old chatelaine moved more slowly than she had in days. It must be because of the impending storm. Rhianna hated storms; she really did! Nothing good ever came with storms, she was certain. She would have to remember to prepare some of her special liniments to aid in the rheumatisms that plagued her dear old chatelaine and friend.
When the first cold drops splattered against the hood of her cloak, Rhianna gave up her post and hastened inside. The lightening had streaked across the sky and the thunder pounded in a heart-stopping crash. Rhianna did not waste any more time out in it after that. Try as she might, Rhianna just could not sense her brother’s life force. It was like he was alive, but dead as well. That thought chilled her to the bone more than any fierce weather brewing outside her shuttered windows.
Then there was the other thing she had been sensing. She did not want to give any merit to that for it was too worrisome a thought and Rhianna feared that the unseen storm would change the course of her life from that day forward. Rhianna was not prepared for the ramifications of such a change. Of that she was certain. So she pushed the sense of the foreboding maelstrom to the far recesses of her mind. This night she would not ponder it any longer or give it a place to brew and fester.
No. Not this night
Erik Ragnorsen peered at King Edward, staring incredulously at the monarch as if he had truly turned daft in his progressing years. Erik pleaded, “Please, Your Majesty. I do not wish to take a wife. I am happy to serve your ranks, but as an unmarried man.”
Erik certainly did not want to marry. In learning about the woman the king thought to saddle him with, bile rose in his throat. The king had said she was an heiress to a rich demesne, complete with a moldering castle, no doubt. Erik had heard the woman was old.
by the sounds of it!
Besides her advanced age, she was known to be quite willful. Erik imagined the old hag to be as disagreeable to look at as an ornery old goat and the last thing he needed was to be tied to one such as that. No amount of lands and riches could sweeten the bitter draught of having to marry.
Erik had not advanced up the ranks just on brawn alone. He kept his eyes and ears opened and heard the talk. The du Montefort hag was said to be a sorceress. Witch, she was called. Erik wanted no part of the unholy conjurings of some wart-faced heathen. He felt his stomach lurch at the mere thought of it.
The king eyed his loyal knight who was bent on one knee before him. Sir Erik Ragnorsen was one of his best soldiers. He supposed the Viking blood that coursed through the man’s veins, ran deep. He could always count on Sir Erik to rise to the fight or to lead the best of his campaigns. The man was unstoppable, albeit a little headstrong. The king was able to put that flaw to the side as time and again, the young knight proved himself within the ranks of his army. A partial smile cracked the monarch’s royal lips. Despite being on one knee, Erik’s head was raised; his gaze level with the king’s. Insolence was not usually tolerated, but for this one, he made an exception. He leveled his gaze upon the knight kneeling before him. He said, “Sir Erik, you are needed to take the du Montefort holdings in hand. Our loyal vassal has been missing and is presumably dead. His sister has been left to manage the estates, but we daresay, that she will not be able to continue for much longer. Already, We have received word of uprisings forming to garner her lands. As her Monarch, We must see to the protection of this woman and that her holdings do not fall to the wrong hands. Lord Randall may yet return and in that event, you will not be forced to marry the Lady Rhianna.”
“But Your Majesty,” Erik began but stopped when the king held up his hand. Erik knew at that moment, the issue was not up for discussion. The matter was already decided and closed.
Erik’s cold blue eyes blazed as they never strayed from the king. He had thought to plead his case against such a union, but he clamped his jaw firmly and gave only the briefest of nods in capitulation. This show of insolence was not usually tolerated and Erik risked incurring the wrath of this sometimes unpredictable and volatile monarch. Instead, the king gave the young knight a bit of leeway not only because of his past service, but because he was the son of a powerful lord and knight of the Realm in his own right. Sir Rurik Ragnorsen had proven himself a valuable ally and so the king turned a blind eye to this blatant show of disrespect by Sir Erik. He would not allow much more of it; that was certain. He watched as the tall blond with the cold blue eyes masked his annoyance. Finally he said, “Sir Erik, have a care. We are not above schooling you in the proper etiquette befitting Your king.”
Erik nodded again and rose. “By your leave, Majesty.”
“Aye, prepare to leave for the du Montefort holdings by the new moon.”
The new moon?
Bloody hell, that barely gave him three days! Erik could barely contain his anger and dread at that command. With a brief bow and salute of his fist to his heart, Erik turned on his heel and strode from the sight of the king. Cursing under his breath again, he fumed at the decree. He did not want to be married to anyone, let alone to a conjuring old crone. Why just thinking upon the idea turned his stomach sour. Erik had grown up in the shadow of chivalry and he knew that when the king was of a mindset, there was nothing that could be done to deter him.
But to be saddled with a heathen hag who none else saw fit to marry was asking much of a loyal Knight of the Realm
. Given the choice, Erik would have rather been sent to the middle of a raging battle than to be forced to marry this old witch. Grumbling to himself he said, “Mayhap I will be lucky enough to be killed in battle before I must wed the hag. Please Lord,
mote it be
Not usually prone to carousing and partaking of too much drink, it was odd to find Erik Ragnorsen in a local tavern, well into his cups. Drew Brandham, Erik’s captain of the Elite Guard sat beside his friend and motioned for the maid to bring him a round. Taking a gulp of the cool ale, Drew said, “In all the years we have spent as foster brothers and friends, I have never seen you taking more than an ale or two. Nor have I seen you dally with maids, such as the one you are fondling. What gives?”
Drew eyed the pretty little tart with her backside nestled on Erik’s lap. Her ample bosom pressed to Erik’s chest.
“Oh, I am celebrating, my friend. Have you not heard the good news?”
Drew could detect the slurring in his friend’s speech. “Celebrating, is it?”
“Aye, for I am to be wed. We leave on the morrow to meet my lovely bride.” Drew stared in disbelief at Erik’s proclamation. He thought for a moment that perhaps Erik was sporting with him. He said, “Wed? Nay, I don’t believe it.”
“Aye, but t’is the truth. Andrew, old boy, by the king’s decree I shall be a very rich man, for my bride is an heiress complete with lands and a keep of her own.” Drew smiled tenuously and said, “Then why the…
Erik pinched her bottom, causing her to squeal and giggle. “Oh, Annie, here? She is keeping me company this night for alas, it would seem my blushing bride is a hag who practices the dark arts. Annie may be the last pretty face I ever see.”
Drew rolled his eyes at the seemingly melodramatic statement of his usually unaffected friend. He had fought beside Erik and had always known him to be cool and stoic. He did not frequent establishments or for that matter, ladies of this ilk. The women who warmed Erik’s bed were usually high born; oft times young widows and most times beautiful. Erik remained unattached to the trappings of love, as he himself had, but Drew had been much less discriminating than Erik had. This was completely out of character for Erik. Drew knew that Erik would regret his decision after he had a chance to sober up so he did what every good friend would do. He slipped the girl a coin and he whispered for her to go. Swallowing down the last of his ale, Drew said, “Come with me now, Erik. Time to go. Annie has other…uhm…
to tend to.”
“Nay. She is mine tonight. What did you do to make her leave? I know; you want her for yourself.”
Shaking his head, Drew said, “Nay, my friend. Not tonight. For if we must leave on the morrow, it would be best we settle our affairs and ready ourselves for the trip. T’is late. Come with me. I will see you to your bed. You are going to have a nasty aching skull come morning as it is.”
Erik tried to shrug Drew off. Had he not been drunk, the blond giant would have easily thwarted Drew. Instead, Erik stumbled on his feet and missed his mark sorely. Shaking his head with a smile, Drew Brandham grabbed hold of Erik and he said, “Up we go now. Come on.”
Drew seemed to always have Erik’s back. Truth be told, they were more like brothers. They had taken turns saving each other’s lives in a battle or two. Drew owed Erik his life. The last time his friend pulled him from Death’s grip had been a close call. Drew frowned when he thought about that horrible day and it was then that he had sworn allegiance to Erik Ragnorsen, his foster brother and best friend. Drew knew that the Ragnorsen name was well respected. He was not going to let Erik dishonor himself with raucous public drunkenness or lewd dalliances. Drew knew that Erik prided himself on self-restraint and cool headed logic and discipline. Obviously, the king’s decree to marry the supposed craven heiress had truly rattled the carefully guarded knight and warrior. Drew would daresay that he could not really blame his friend. Erik could have the pick of any woman and oft times women tripped over themselves just to get a chance in his bed. Neither men had ill-luck, nor for that matter, lack of willing women to warm their beds, but where Drew never craved the intimacy that came with relationships; Erik did. Erik often joked that his Viking blood, although generations removed, flowed in his veins and he would never settle down. Drew knew differently. Erik wanted a family. He and Drew were very different in that regard. Erik grew weary of casual bed sport and his mood would many times change when he had spent too much time with meaningless bedmates. Drew, on the other hand, never felt the pull to settle down. Drew did not think about marriage or for that matter, love. But he knew that despite his words, Erik did. The cold façade was only set to mask the tender heart that beat beneath his most trusted friend’s chest. Erik craved love. Drew knew that, though Erik would never admit it, he longed for a family of his own. Erik would make a very good husband someday. It was too bad that love was not playing a part in this arranged marriage, because his friend deserved to be in love.
As Drew led Erik to his quarters, he pondered the predicament his friend now faced. If the wench was truly old, Erik would have no choice but to take a mistress in order to beget sons. Drew knew that thought would be abhorrent to his friend. Erik’s own father and mother were completely devoted to each other. Drew had grown to love his foster family as much as his own. He admired the bond Sir Rurik had with Lady Brekka. Drawing in a deep sigh, Drew helped Erik to bed and then retired to his own. He hoped the king had not made a grave mistake in forcing Erik’s hand to marry a woman that was on in years; for dishonoring any vows went against Sir Erik’s sense of chivalry and integrity. Drew knew that those things were most important to Erik and without them, he would forsake all he held dear. Drew admired his friend’s devotion to the codes of honor. There was no one more honorable than Sir Erik Ragnorsen; that was certain.
Rhianna read the missive again. Her mouth was set in a grim line as she assessed the news. An envoy from the king himself had brought the distasteful tidings to her doorstep. She had read it so many times, she had memorized each letter and word, but she could not help herself from staring at the cursed scroll that suddenly felt like a stone slab in her hands. Rhianna thought by re-reading it again and again, that she could somehow change the message it bore. Edward, the King, in his infinite wisdom or love of manipulation of his subjects, saw fit to betroth Rhianna to a man she knew nothing about. His name was abhorrent to Rhianna, for it sounded like one of the Norse invaders that had laid waste to her country and ancestry so long ago. Hatred ran deep, even after all this time, and Rhianna did not forget that they had come; wreaking havoc on the land and its people. No amount of centuries between those times could erase the scars that were born from one whose lineage ran through his veins; just as her very own heritage did.