Authors: Knight Storm
Rhianna, herself, had been raised in the shadow of the lineage of both her mother and father. Her mother was Welsh and Rhianna learned the many aspects of the Old Ways from that part of her heritage. Her beloved father was a direct descendant from the line of the “Conqueror”, it was believed. Somehow, the idea of those Norse barbarians, though, set her stomach roiling. She tried the name of her intended on her tongue.
Rhianna grimaced. It sounded like some Viking aberration.
Men! She thought bitterly. They always seemed to think they knew what was best for women. Rhianna had taken care of herself, her people, and her lands quite well. Yes, the keep was vulnerable with Randall missing, but she still had loyal men who would guard and protect it with their lives. She trusted them and felt quite secure under their protection. She did not want to think…
, she would not think about how quickly their defense could be brought to destruction. Men needed a leader to follow and while Rhianna was far from a timid mouse, she was not delusional about her abilities to command an army against foes. She was also not naïve enough to think that the threats, which she had thus far avoided, did not exist. She knew there were threats. She knew it was only a matter of time until one or more of said threats came to her doorstep.
She cringed, thinking about one of the neighboring barons who would do anything to garner her rich lands and prosperous village as his own. Rhianna had turned down his request for her hand and Randall had wholeheartedly supported her decision. Aaron Jasper, the lord of Morcar Keep, had made no qualms about his desires for the du Montefort holdings. Rhianna felt a chill race through her at the memory. She shuddered at the thought. He was a large man and what had possibly once been muscle had turned to gelatinous fat. His lank blond hair,
well she supposed it was blond
, hung greasily across his broad forehead dipping just over his piggish eye. Pockmarks marred his overly ruddy cheeks and Rhianna was certain the scars were from the pox itself. At the mere thought of Aaron Jasper, Rhianna was filled with unease. The man was positively evil. The way he leered at her with unabashed lust made her blood curdle in her veins. The man practically salivated like a rabid animal when she had the displeasure to be in his presence. He had been disfigured during some sort of fray causing him the loss of an eye. He wore a hideous patch with a monstrous looking eye painted on the flap that could send children running. A jagged scar ran from his temple, cutting into his pock-marked cheek. When he smiled, it was more like a snarl, showing pointed teeth that had broken off in places from rot. Rhianna had no doubt, that given half a chance, he would force himself upon her. She also knew that thwarting his advances had made for a strong and dangerous enemy.
She was not so innocent a girl to not realize that she was in grave danger from any number of foes that would end up at her doors since Randall was missing. Still, the new threat in the form of a supposed protector named Ragnorsen did not seem any less ominous than the threat of marriage or war from Aaron Jasper and she could not be certain that Sir Erik
would be any less odious.
Rhianna tried to rationalize that being a member of the order of Chivalry had some merits but she did not want to give the man any credit whatsoever. He represented an end to her life as she knew it. She crumpled up the missive and tossed it into the fire. Rhianna stormed out of the main hall. It did not matter if her betrothed waged an entire army against Aaron Jasper. She would still not marry him.
Passing Andarra in a swirl of her skirts and with ire forcing her to react sharply, Rhianna stormed up to the battlements, where the captain of the du Montefort forces was stationed with the guards changing shift.
“Tristan, may I have a word with you?”
“Of course, m’lady. What may I do for you?”
“It would seem the king has decided to arrange for my betrothal.”
“That is wonderful news m’lady.”
“Nay, it is not. I have no intention of marrying the odious lout who merely wants my lands and holdings. Therefore, I fully intend to make this
understand he has no place here at du Montefort Keep. I want you to double the guards and upon his approach, make him know he is most unwelcomed in our home. Am I understood?”
Tristan nodded, but he did not think he agreed with the young mistress of the keep.
“My lady, you know I am ever at your service but.…”
“But what? If you are loyal to du Montefort, there is no question as to what is to be done. This usurper is not going to get my lands without a fight. At the very least, I would think your guards can send him a clear message that we are not a force to trifle with.”
Tristan nodded sadly and his shaggy brows were knitted in dismay.
“My lady, I have ever served your father and then your brother thereafter. I would serve you as well and never question your wisdom, but what you are asking me to do is to wage war on one of the king’s knights, which is as good as waging war on the king himself. The king will take it as an act of treason.”
Rhianna frowned. She truly had not thought of that, but she was not going to just open her gates to the man who would insinuate himself into her home and for that matter, between her thighs! Rhianna was not usually prone to such rash and sour moods, but she was furious at the turn of events that would change not only her world but the world of her people in the course of a day. Stiffening her spine in defiance, Rhianna icily addressed the steward.
“Tristan, then we are to bar the doors and refuse them entry. If they forcibly try to gain entry, then I authorize our bowmen to take aim. I know nothing about this man. I will not have my people suffer his dominance over them. He is one of those cursed Vikings and is no doubt, used to crushing people who defy him. He will learn that this demesne thrives because our villagers are treated well.”
With head bowed and eyes lowered, Tristan said quietly, “Alright, my lady. I am your man.”
Tristan was not used to seeing the mistress of the keep so upset. She was not usually a headstrong girl, but he was not sure she was thinking rationally this time. In truth, he did not want to go against the king, but his back was up against a wall. He was loyal to Rhianna and if that meant fighting the king’s man, Tristan reluctantly would oblige. He could not voice his thoughts that the local villagers would more than suffer because of Rhianna’s actions. The wrath of the king was not something Tristan wanted to bring down on the heads of his people. He found it hard to cross Rhianna, who was the daughter of his liege. It was true, his master had been dead a long time, but he had vowed to protect the daughter of the man he respected and sworn fealty to. He glanced at Rhianna. She had grown into a beautiful, independent and courageous woman. It was time she wed and settled down; more than time. Why, any man would be lucky to wed her. Tristan had watched her grow up without the guidance of her parents. She had blossomed despite the tragedy that had nearly destroyed her young heart. Rhianna had not let the ever present pain of so dear a loss bring her to her knees. Instead, she rallied to the cause, taking on the role of Mistress of du Montefort Keep. She had been a Godsend to the locals as she brought healing and help to all who had need of her. She had studied the properties of the plants and herbs and was often called to help a sick villager or child. Many times, she had left in the middle of the night to aid some poor sick baby. She never complained. Tristan would watch her return in the early morning hours after nursing a wee babe all night. She was selfless and beautiful. She dealt with those who needed her with unceasing kindness and compassion. Never had Tristan seen her react with such anger and malice. Then again, never had something threatened her world so completely as the king’s edict to marry. Tristan realized that perhaps, for the first time in her life, Lady Rhianna was truly afraid. No amount of courage could prepare her for the impending marriage to a man that may or may not be kind. More often than not, the arranged marriages were barters to the highest bidders, where the woman’s feelings were rarely taken into consideration. Tristan hoped, for the sake of his mistress, that was not the case and that the match would be a good one. Without speaking his dissention, Tristan knew he would have a hard time obeying Rhianna’s orders this time.
Erik’s head throbbed with each hoof beat beneath him. He silently cursed the drink that caused the constant pounding inside his skull. Erik cursed the king and his decree that had forced him to overindulge in the drink in the first place. He cursed the du Montefort crone, and most of all, he cursed himself. He should have sought private council with the king to plead for his cause, but because of his foolishness, Erik was in no condition to speak to anyone, let alone his king. The sun seemed excessively bright this morn and it caused his eyes to water. The lurching of the beast beneath his saddle was wreaking havoc on his already roiling innards. Muttering an oath again, Erik reined in his warhorse. This caused the line of his men to stop abruptly. They waited for his instructions but for the moment, there were none forthcoming.
Leaping down from the great horse’s back, Erik barely made it to the bushes before dishonoring himself in front of his men. They all tried to ignore the definite sounds of a man retching in the underbrush. Having been in the same predicament a time or two themselves, they turned deaf ears to their knight as he lost his breakfast at the side of the road.
When the onslaught had passed, Erik wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and mounted his horse. While he felt a mite better from purging the venomous alcohol from his system, the sharp pain cutting through his skull was worse after he had so ungraciously puked. With a sly smirk on his lips, Drew tried not to laugh outright at his friend’s sorry state. He rode up to the front flanks and trotted alongside of Erik’s horse. Clearing his throat, Drew said, “There, are you feeling better now?”
Erik growled, “Nay, I do not, as if you didn’t know. My head feels like someone is bashing it with a mace.”
“You were quite in your cups last night. Just what the hell were you drinking?”
“Damned if I know. I remember the ale and the mead and then some vile tasting spirit thereafter, but the rest is a blur.”
Laughing, Drew said, “Well that will teach you. You never mix the
grape with the grain
“Don’t remind me. It blotted out my misery at least for a time, but I dare say, marrying the hag almost seems brighter than this pain in my skull.”
“You don’t know that she is a hag.”
“I was told she is on in years; well past the age to marry. I overheard some of the king’s men talking. No one has asked for her hand thus far. She must be hideous.”
Smiling still, Drew said, “Well, she is a rich hag, then. You will garner her lands and her holdings. That should at least sweeten the prospect of being saddled with an old woman to wife.”
Erik knew that Drew was a landless knight, and therefore he probably thought Erik was foolish to seek avoiding the lot cast upon him. He knew that Drew’s brother stood to inherit the lands and manor of the Brandham estates. At that revelation, Erik said, “I know…why don’t you marry her? Then all her lands will go to you and you will no longer be….”
Drew raised his hand and shook his head.
“Hold on there, my friend. You already know that marriage is not for me. If I am to remain landless all of my days, then so be it. I have never wanted to marry, nor do I intend to. Besides, t’is you who the king has commanded…er, I mean
to take the Lady du Montefort as a wife. We all know it is not wise to go against His Majesty’s whims.”
Erik continued to scowl and quite seriously he said, “I truly know not how to bear this burden.”
“Look, I have bedded my share of…hmm…shall we say, women with less than beautiful faces. In the dark, it matters not. Do your duty by her and seek to slake your desires with any of the comely wenches who scarce can keep their hands off of you.”
Erik grunted in response. Drew knew that Erik was hard-pressed to uphold his code of honor and dallying with any number of mistresses after speaking his wedding vows was strictly not part of his code. Nay, he would have to suffer. Andrew Brandham knew that Erik would try diligently to uphold his restrictive code of honor. Grumbling further, Erik said, “I have no needs of her lands. I am my father’s heir. His lands are mine. The hag can keep her precious lands and stay the hell out of my bed.”
Drew rolled his eyes and whistled through his teeth. He had seen Erik forge undaunted into the thick of the most horrific of battles and never once had the man shown a tremor of fear. Yet, here he was; terrified of bedding a woman. He couldn’t resist teasing his foster brother and best friend, saying, “Well, well, well. I do believe the fierce Sir Erik Ragnorsen is afraid of one little woman.”
“I am not,” he growled. “Besides she is not just one little woman. There is more that the men said about her. She is a sorceress and a crone.”
Drew could see there was no point in arguing the matter further. He let his friend brood while they continued their trek toward the du Montefort holdings.
He woke with a start, not sure of his surroundings. As his heart pounded in panic, he heard the soothing voice of the honey-haired angel that had been tending to him since he collapsed on her doorstep; injured and starved and quite possibly, half mad. Well not mad, exactly, although he certainly did not feel sane. He had no memory of who he was or who he had been. That alone would mark one on the vestiges of sanity, he was certain. He blinked again and tried to remember something; anything, but no memories from his past surfaced. He searched his thoughts because even recent memories at time eluded him. Janelle; at least he was able to name the beauty who had cared for him these past few days. “Janelle”, he said, speaking her name as he remembered it.