| Lord of Desire |
By Paula Quinn
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LATE AUTUMN 1065
Brynna paced her bedchamber, creating a worn path in the rushes. When she could not take another moment of waiting, she slapped her palms against her thighs and turned her tight, frowning lips on her handmaiden. "What can possibly be taking them so long?"
Alysia watched her mistress from the edge of the bed. She shook her head, afraid to say a word. Lady Brynna was a good-natured woman, though at times she sported a temper hotter than fire. Today was one of those times. Still, Alysia never had seen her this furious before. But then, so much had changed since the lady's father, Lord Richard Dumont, had returned from battle, defeated. Alysia knew that her mistress's only concern was that her father had returned alive, but the Norman bastard had beaten him. It was a shock to all who lived at Avarloch, for no one had ever defeated Lord Richard. All their lives were about to change with the arrival of Lord Brand Risande. The victor was coming to lay claim to the castle and Lord Richard's title. But even worse than having a Norman lord rule Avarloch were the rumors that he had been spoiled by betrayal. Whispers had reached as far north as Aberdeen about the dark knight, how his heart had turned cold and cruel. Poor Alysia had spent many a night with the other maidens and with the serfs and vassals of the castle fretting over what would become of them when Lord Richard and Lady Brynna were cast out like unwanted baggage. But Brynna did not worry. She just grew angrier by the day, vowing never to leave her home no matter what manner of beast moved in.
When the witan, a council of the Anglo-Saxon nobles, arrived this morn to counsel with Lord Richard, they forbade Brynna from attending their meeting. Alysia sat quietly for most of the day while Brynna spewed forth curses and accusations that made the swarthy handmaiden cringe in her own skin.
"It's treachery, Alysia." Brynna fumed. "Our king, who is himself a Saxon, conspired against my father." "But why?" Alysia asked.
"Because my father has gone to the church to voice his displeasure with the way King Edward rules England. Edward is weak and has placed too much of this country's fate into the hands of his brother-in-law, Harold of Wessex." Brynna's auburn hair was loose, save for two strands braided at her temples and pinned to the back of her head. When she whirled in her pacing, thick waves shimmered and fanned outward like flames around the waist of her organdy gown. "Edward is a coward who would turn this land over to a Norman rather than stand up to my father's scrutiny."
Alysia remained quiet, not daring to suggest that Brynna spoke treason. Not that anyone in Avarloch would betray her for the like. Her mistress was well loved here, as was Lord Richard.
"Now my father has lost his home and my fate is being decided by a council of men I scarcely know. Well, I will tell you this." Brynna pivoted around once more. "If the Norman swine thinks he's going to come here and take my home, he is in for an unkind awakening. I will tear the eyes from his head, I swear it!"
Alysia gulped. It was a slight sound, but Brynna heard it and glared at her, eyes blazing like fire within emerald stones.
"What? I should not kill the bastard?" she demanded. Alysia shook her head again. "I-I did not say anything, my lady."
"You think I should just leave my home without a fight?"
Alysia had no choice; she had to say something now. "Mayhap he is . . . not s-so bad," she stammered, wringing the edge of Brynna's bedsheets in her fingers. "I heard tell that he is quite handsome and tall and strong and-" "I care not if he is as tall as Goliath!" Brynna shouted. Then seeing Alysia cower, she lowered her voice and came to kneel before her. "Forgive me, Alysia. I did not mean to raise my voice to you. It is just that . . . that . . ." She didn't finish. Her lips quivered for just an instant before settling into a hard, determined line.
The door opened and one of her father's guards stuck his head inside the chambers. "You can go down now, my lady. The council awaits you."
Brynna cast the guard a dark glare, though he had nothing to do with her father's betrayal, then rose to her feet. "Thank you, Sir Martin." Her voice was suddenly soft, her expression, a mask of calm she wished she felt.
"What will become of you, m'lady?" her young handmaiden asked, twisting her hands in her lap.
Brynna looked down at Alysia with a beautiful smile and reached for her handmaiden's hand. "Fear not. I will do whatever I must to remain here. I will not leave you."
Brynna entered the great hall with all the grace and elegance of a queen . . . much to Lord Richard Dumont's delight. She smiled at her father when his eyes met hers across the crowded table. God's breath, she loved him. He was the most handsome man in the room, but since the men sitting around him at the long trestle table looked like fat hams ready for the roasting, it wasn't saying much. Brynna scanned every face, her lovely smile growing tighter on her lips with each face she passed.
Formed in the time of King Alfred, the witan were a group of nobles who ruled in consultation with the king. They gave grants of land, administered justice, and decided matters such as war and peace, with the consent of their king.
Lord Richard stood up from his seat when his daughter reached him. He took her hand and lifted it to his lips for a tender kiss. "My sunshine," he whispered, and offered her the chair beside his.
Before she sat, Brynna spotted her uncle Robert seated next to Sir Nathan. The cranky knight nodded at her silent appraisal.
"My dear," her uncle began, and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "You know why we are here." "To decide my fate," Brynna told him. She kept her expression neutral, though in truth she wanted to tell them all to rot in hell. No one was going to force her to leave her home.
"I wish it were so, child," he said quietly. "I would have you come back to my home until your father arranged a proper marriage for you." Sir Nathan grumbled under his breath and Brynna was tempted to smile at him before returning her attention to her uncle. "I'm afraid your fate was already decided when the Norman defeated your father."
Brynna raised a perfectly arched brow. "What do you mean, Uncle?"
"Brynna," her father answered for him. It was most dif- ficult to look into her eyes when she turned to him, but he wanted to be the one to tell her. It was his fault for losing to the Norman-a regret he would live with forever. "The council refuses to forfeit this land to the Normans." "But what can we do?" She turned and searched the faces staring back at her. "Will the king allow my father another battle with this Norman?"
"Nay, daughter," Richard said, shaking his head. "The council has demanded that the Norman warrior marry you. Having a Saxon wife is the only way to assure that the land partially remains under Saxon rule."
"Wife?" Brynna almost choked on the word. She felt the blood draining from her face and fought to regain control of her senses when the room began to spin. "But I . . ."
"You are ten and nine now, Brynna," her uncle reminded her gently. "Well past the age when a lady should take a husband."
She wasn't ready to become a wife. She didn't want to marry the man who defeated her father in battle. She hated the Norman already. How was she supposed to honor and obey him when she wanted to command him to Hades? She wanted to protest, but when she opened her mouth, only a soft moan came out. She realized this was probably the only way to remain at Avarloch.
"The king sides with the Normans in many things because of his kinship with Duke William," her uncle explained, though it was clear he was growing impatient with his task. His niece should be embroidering a tapestry, not sitting with men, discussing politics. "Lord Brand Risande does not wish to marry, but the king has agreed to enlist the aid of Duke William in the matter. Risande was trained under the duke's tutelage and our king assures us that he will obey William's command to marry you."
"Our king?" Brynna's temper finally flared. She narrowed her eyes on her uncle first, and then on the others. "Do you mean the same king who signed a decree giving away ownership of Avarloch to any noble who battled against my father and won?-a king who did not counsel with you as the law requires before he did this grievous thing? And, why, after he conspired to remove my father from his land, would Edward agree to help us?" "Because," a gravelly voice answered her, and Brynna shifted her gaze to Sir Nathan, "we will bring battle to Avarloch if the Norman refuses you."
"Nay!" Brynna almost leaped from her chair. Her father's hand on her shoulder stopped her. She turned to him. "Father, you cannot agree to this."
"We don't believe it will come to that, Brynna," her father assured her. "Edward may be many things I detest, but he's not simple-minded. If the council comes against Lord Risande, the Normans will surely take offense, especially now that we have involved Duke William. It could start a war." Lord Richard smiled and patted Brynna's hand when she shook her head. "Don't you see, sweeting? If there is war here, Edward must side with the Saxons, and he will lose all alliances with Duke William if he does. He has to help us. He may not want a Dumont in Avarloch, but now he has no choice. As for Duke William, he has already sent me a missive stating that he will arrive here sometime within the next sennight. He made a request to the king that I remain here until he arrives. I don't know why he wants me to stay, but I am certain he doesn't want to go to war over a single castle in England. So you see? There will be no fighting here. The duke will convince his man to take you as his wife. You will not have to leave your home, and Avarloch will remain, in part, a Saxon holding."
Brynna's heart hammered in her chest at the thought of battle in Avarloch. The very idea of her vassals losing their lives made her want to weep. Images of her home destroyed at the hands of warring men hardened her resolve to do whatever she must to ensure that it never happened. And what choice did she have? None. Her fate had indeed been decided when her father lost to Lord Brand Risande. She had to marry the Norman. She turned to face the many nobles who watched her. Her delicate shoulders squared with determination. "I will not let Avarloch be destroyed. Whatever you command of me, I will do. But I will never forget King Edward's treachery against my father. He is undeserving of your fealty and he will never have mine."
A flurry of murmurs went up in the great hall. Beating the king at his own underhanded deeds was one thing, treason was quite another. Sir Nathan, who wore a frown of disgust, shook his head at Brynna.
"You speak treason at your own peril, young girl. If you were my daughter, I would have you flogged."
In that moment the sun fled. Rays of light that had been filtering through the arched windows in the great hall vanished. It seemed the sun sensed her father's wrath and shrank away. Darkness filled Avarloch as Lord Richard slowly rose to his feet.
"Sir Nathan, we have known each other for many years. And mayhap you think that gives you leave to speak to my daughter with such disrespect. You are wrong." Richard's eyes were as sharp as daggers. "I will grant you mercy because you are a good friend to my brother. But never think to lay your hands on my daughter, else I will dismember you and leave your parts scattered upon the moors." Richard's challenging gaze swept over his other guests.
"My daughter speaks her mind as I have taught her to do. You know Risande was sent by order of my own king to kill me. The Norman spared my life, though I know not why. A fierce warrior, he fought like no one I have ever seen, save for rumors of William of Normandy himself.
Edward's efforts to rid England of me have placed one even more dangerous in my stead. The king will realize it soon. When he decides to send someone to battle the Norman warrior, he will need a man whose arm is swifter than the wind and whose heart beats to the sound of a battle drum. And still, I doubt any can beat him. I could not, and now my daughter must pay for my defeat. But this I promise, if she is harmed in any way by King Edward's continued treachery, I will come back from hell if I have to and kill him." He waited for a moment, and when no one spoke, Lord Richard took his daughter's hand and led her out of the great hall.
Brynna returned to her room and threw herself on her bed. Alysia was gone. The hearth fire had died down to glowing embers and her bedchamber was cold. Winter would come early; the Norman was bringing his hated cold with him. Brynna shivered at the thought. She was willing to do anything to save Avarloch and her people from strife, but how would she be able to give her life and her body to a man she did not love?
Her thoughts drifted, as they always did, to a cloudless day two summers ago, when she was in Porthleven; to a man whose eyes were the color of heaven and earth; a man whose heart sang with the pleasures of life. She would never forget the passion in his smile and the way it warmed her loins.
She sighed deeply against her pillow. If only it were him, her magnificent merman, she was going to marry.
Excerpted from Lord of Desire , by Paula Quinn . Copyright (c) 2005 by Paula Quinn . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top