| Lady Danger |
By Sarah McKerrigan
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SO. WHERE IS THE THIRD WENCH?” Sir Pagan murmured casually, feeling far from casual as he and Colin du Lac hunkered behind the concealing cloud of heather, spying upon two splendid maids bathing in the pond below.
Colin almost strangled on his incredulity. “God’s breath, you greedy sot,” he hissed. “Is it not enough you have your choice of the pair of beauties yonder? Most men would give their sword arm to—”
Both men froze as the blonde woman, gloriously drenched in sunlight, sluiced water up over a creamy shoulder, rising above the waves enough to bare a pair of perfect breasts.
The blood drained from Pagan’s face and rushed to his loins, making them ache fiercely. Lord, he should have swived that lusty harlot in the last town before he came to negotiate such matters. This was as foolish as shopping for provender with a full purse and an empty gut.
But somehow he managed an indifferent grunt, despite the overwhelming desire disrupting his thoughts and transfiguring his body. “A man never purchases a blade, Colin,” he said hoarsely, “without inspecting all the swords in the shop.”
“Ha! A man never runs his thumb along the edge of a sword presented him by the King.”
Colin had a point. Who was Sir Pagan Cameliard to question a gift from King David? Besides, ’twas not a weapon he chose. ’Twas but a wife. “Pah.” He swatted an irritating sprig of heather out of his face. “One woman is much the same as another, I suppose,” he grumbled. “’Tis no matter which of them I claim.”
Colin snorted in derision. “So say you now,” he whispered, fixing a lustful gaze upon the bathers, “now that you’ve laid eyes on the bountiful selection.” A low whistle shivered from between his lips as the more buxom of the two maids dove beneath the glittering waves, giving them a glimpse of bare, sleek, enticing buttocks. “Lucky bastard.”
Pagan did consider himself lucky.
When King David first offered him a Scots holding and a wife to go with it, he’d half expected to find a crumbling keep with a withered old crone in the tower. One glance at the imposing walls of Rivenloch eased his fears on the first count. And to his astonishment, the prospective brides before him, delectable pastries the King had placed upon his platter, were truly the most appetizing he’d seen in a long while, perchance ever.
Still, the idea of marriage unnerved Pagan like a cat rubbed tail to whiskers.
“God’s eyes, I can’t decide which I’d rather swive,” Colin mused, “that beauty with the sun-bleached locks or the curvy one with the wild tresses and enormous . . .” He released a shuddering sigh.
“Neither,” Pagan muttered.
“Both,” Colin decided.
Deirdre of Rivenloch tossed her long blonde hair over one shoulder. She could feel the intruders’ eyes upon her, had felt them for some time.
’Twas not that either sister cared if they were caught at their bath. They suffered from neither modesty nor shame. How could one be ashamed or proud of having what every woman possessed? If a stray lad happened to look upon them with misplaced lust, ’twas no more than folly on his part.
Deirdre ran her fingers through her wet tresses and cast another surreptitious glance up the hill, toward the thick heather and drooping willows. The eyes trained upon her now were likely just that, belonging to a couple of curious youths who’d never seen a naked maid before. But she didn’t dare mention their presence to Helena, for her impetuous sister would likely draw her sword first and ask their business afterward. Nay, Deirdre would deal with their mischief by herself, and later.
For now she had a grave matter to discuss with Helena. And not much time.
“You delayed Miriel?” she asked, running a palm full of sheep tallow soap along her forearm.
“I hid her sais,” Helena confided, “then told her I saw that stable lad skulking about her chamber earlier.”
Deirdre nodded. That would keep their youngest sister busy for a while. Miriel allowed no one to touch her precious weapons.
“Listen, Deir,” Helena warned, “I won’t let Miriel sacrifice herself. I don’t care what Father says. She’s too young to wed. Too young and too . . .” She sighed in exasperation.
What they both left unspoken was the fact that their youngest sister wasn’t forged of the same metal they were. Deirdre and Helena were their father’s daughters. His Viking blood pumped through their veins. Tall and strong, they possessed wills of iron and skills to match. Known throughout the Borders as the Warrior Maids of Rivenloch, they’d taken to the sword like a babe to the breast. Their father had raised them to be fighters, to fear no man.
Miriel, however, to the Lord’s dismay, had proved as delicate and docile as their long-departed mother. Whatever warrior spirit might have been nurtured in her had been quelled by Lady Edwina, who’d begged that Miriel be spared what she termed the perversion of the other two sisters.
After their mother died, Miriel had tried to please their father in her own way, amassing an impressive collection of exotic weapons from traveling merchants, but she’d developed neither the desire nor the strength to wield them. She’d become, in short, the meek, mild, obedient daughter their mother desired. And so Deirdre and Helena had protected Miriel all her life from her own helplessness and their father’s disappointment.
Now ’twas up to them to save her from an undesirable marriage.
Deirdre passed her sister the lump of soap. “Trust me, I have no intention of leading the lamb to slaughter.”
The spark of battle flared in Helena’s eyes. “We’ll challenge this Norman bridegroom then?”
Deirdre frowned. She knew that not every conflict was best resolved on the battlefield, even if her sister did not. She shook her head.
Helena cursed under her breath and gave the water a disappointed slap. “Why not?”
“To defy the Norman is to defy the King.”
Hel arched a brow in challenge. “And?”
Deirdre’s frown deepened. One day Helena’s audaciousness would be her undoing. “’Tis treason, Hel.”
Helena puffed out an irritated breath and scrubbed at her arm. “’Tis hardly treason when we’ve been betrayed by our own King. This meddler is a Norman, Deirdre . . . a Norman.” She sneered the word as if ’twas a disease. “Pah! I’ve heard they’re so soft they can’t grow a proper beard. And some say they bathe even their hounds in lavender.” She shuddered with distaste.
Deirdre had to agree with her sister’s frustration, if not her claims. Forsooth, she’d been just as outraged upon learning that King David had handed over Rivenloch’s stewardship, not to a Scot, but to one of his Norman allies. Aye, the man was reported to be a fierce warrior, but certainly he knew naught of Scotland.
What complicated matters was that their father had launched no protest. But then the Lord of Rivenloch hadn’t been right in his mind for months now. Deirdre frequently found him conversing with the air, addressing their dead mother, and he was ever losing his way in the keep. He seemed to live in some idyllic time in the past, where his rule was unquestioned and his lands secure.
But with the crown resting uneasily on Stephen’s head, greedy English barons had begun to wreak havoc along the Borders, seizing what lands they could in the ensuing chaos.
So for the past year the sisters had hidden their father’s infirmity as best they could, to prevent the perception of Rivenloch as an easy target. Deirdre had served as steward of the holding and captain of the guard, with Helena as second in command, and Miriel had overseen the household and the accounts.
They’d managed adequately. But Deirdre was wise enough to know such subterfuge couldn’t last forever. Mayhap ’twas the reason for this sudden appointment by the King. Mayhap rumors of their father’s debility had spread.
Deirdre had thought long on the matter and finally came to grips with the truth. While Rivenloch’s knights were brave and capable, they hadn’t fought a real battle since before she was born. Now, land-hungry warmongers threatened the Borders. Only a fortnight ago, a rogue English baron had brazenly attacked the Scots keep at Mirkloan, not fifty miles distant. Indeed, it might serve Rivenloch well to have the counsel of a warrior seasoned in combat, someone who could advise her in her command.
But the missive that had arrived last week bearing King David’s seal, the one Deirdre had shared only with Helena, also commanded the hand of one of the Rivenloch daughters in marriage to the steward. Clearly, the King intended a more permanent position for the Norman knight.
The news had hit her like a mace in the belly. With the responsibility of managing the castle, the furthest thing from any of the sisters’ minds had been marriage. That the King would wed one of them to a foreigner was inconceivable. Did David doubt Rivenloch’s loyalty? Deirdre could only pray this compulsory marriage was his attempt to keep the holding at least half in her clan’s hands.
She wanted to believe that, needed to believe it. Otherwise, she might be tempted to sweep up her own blade and join her hotheaded sister in a Norman massacre.
Helena had ducked under the water, cooling her wrath. Now she sprang up suddenly, sputtering and shaking her head like a hound, spraying drops everywhere. “I know! What if we waylay this Norman bridegroom in the wood?” she said eagerly. “Catch him off guard. Slice him to ribbons. Blame his death on The Shadow?”
For a moment, Deirdre could only stare mutely at her bloodthirsty little sister, whom she feared might be serious. “You’d slay a man unawares and accuse a common thief of his murder?” She scowled and grabbed the soap back. “Father named you rightly, Hel, for ’tis surely where you’re bound. Nay,” she decided, “no one is going to be killed. One of us will marry him.”
“Why should we have to?” Hel said with a pout. “Is it not loathsome enough we must surrender our keep to the whoreson?”
Deirdre clutched her sister’s arm, demanding her gaze. “We will surrender naught. Besides, you know if one of us doesn’t wed him, Miriel will offer herself up, whether we will it or nay. And Father will let her do it. We can’t allow that to happen.”
Helena bit out a resigned curse, then muttered, “Stupid Norman. He doesn’t even have a proper name. Who would christen a child Pagan?”
Deirdre didn’t bother to remind her sister that she answered to the name of Hel. Even Deirdre had to agree, however, that Pagan was not a name that conjured up visions of responsible leadership. Or honor. Or mercy. Forsooth, it sounded like the name of a barbaric savage.
Helena sighed heavily, then nodded and took the soap again. “’Twill be me then. I will wed this son of a whelp.”
But Deirdre could see by the murderous gleam in Hel’s eyes that if she had her way, her new husband would not last out the wedding night. And while Deirdre might not mourn the demise of the uninvited Norman, she had no wish to see her sister drawn and quartered by the King for his murder. “Nay,” she said. “’Tis my burden. I’ll marry him.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Hel shot back. “I’m more expendable than you. Besides,” she said with a scheming grin, rubbing the sheep tallow soap back and forth between her hands, “while I lull the bastard into complacency, you can marshal forces for a surprise attack. We’ll win Rivenloch back from him, Deirdre.”
“Are you mad?” Deirdre flicked water at her reckless sister. She had little patience for Helena’s blind bravado. Sometimes Hel boasted like a Highlander, thinking all England could be conquered with but a dozen brawny Scots. “’Tis King David’s will to marry off this Norman to one of us. What will you do when his army comes?”
Hel silently pondered her words.
“Nay,” Deirdre said before Hel could come up with another rash plan. “I will wed the bast—Norman,” she corrected.
Helena sulked for a moment, then tried another tactic, asking slyly, “What if he prefers me? After all, I have more of what a man favors.” She rose from the water, posturing provocatively to lend proof to her words. “I’m younger. My legs are more shapely. My breasts are bigger.”
“Your mouth is bigger,” Deirdre countered, unaffected by Hel’s attempt at goading her. “No man likes a woman with a shrewish tongue.”
Hel frowned. Then her eyes lit up again. “All right then. I’ll fight you for him.”
“The winner weds the Norman.”
Deirdre bit her lip, seriously considering the challenge. Her odds of besting Hel were good, since she fought with far more control than her quick-tempered sister. And Deirdre was impatient enough with Hel’s foolishness to take her up on her offer at once and see the matter settled. Almost.
But there were still the spies on the hill to deal with. And unless she was mistaken, Miriel was hastening across the meadow toward them.
“Hist!” Deirdre hissed. “Miriel comes. We will speak no more of this.” Deirdre squeezed the water from her hair. “The Normans should arrive in a day or two. I’ll make my decision by nightfall. In the meantime, keep Miriel here. I have something to attend to.”
“The men on the hill?”
Deirdre blinked. “You know?”
Hel lifted a sardonic brow. “How could I not? The sound of their drool hitting the sod would wake the dead. You’re sure you don’t need assistance?”
“There cannot be more than two or three.”
“Two. And they’re highly distracted.”
“Good. Keep them that way.”
“God be praised,” Colin said under his breath. “Here comes the third.” He nodded toward the delicate, dark-haired figure scampering across the grassy field sloping down toward the pond, disrobing as she came. “Lord, she’s a pretty one, sweet and small, like a succulent little cherry.”
Pagan had suspected the last sister might be missing a limb or several teeth or most of her wits. But though she looked frail and less imposing than her curvaceous sisters, she, too, possessed a body to shame a goddess. He could only shake his head in wonder.
“Sweet Mary, Pagan,” Colin said with a sigh as the third maid jumped into the pond, and they began splashing about like disporting sirens. “Whose arse did you kiss? The King’s himself?”
Pagan frowned, bending a stem of heather between his fingers. What had he done to deserve his pick of these beauties? Aye, he’d served David in battle several times, but he’d met the King in Scotland only once, at Moray. David had seemed to like him well enough, and Pagan had saved a number of the King’s men from walking into a rebel ambush that day. But surely ’twas no more than any commander would have done. ’Twas an enigma.
“Aye, something’s amiss,” Colin agreed, at last tearing his attention away from the three maids to focus on Pagan. “You’ve lost your wits.”
“Have I? Or am I right to suspect there may be a serpent in this garden?”
Colin’s eyes narrowed wickedly. “The only serpent is the one writhing beneath your sword belt, Pagan.”
“Tell me again, what exactly did Boniface say?”
Pagan never rode onto a field of combat blind. ’Twas what had kept him alive through a score of campaigns. Two days earlier he’d sent Boniface, his trusted squire, in the guise of a jongleur, to learn what he could about Rivenloch. Forsooth, ’twas Boniface who had alerted them to the daughters’ intention to bathe in the pond this morn.
Colin rubbed thoughtfully at his chin, recounting what the squire had reported. “He said the lord’s wits are addled. He has a weakness for dice, wagers high, and loses often. And, oh, aye,” he suddenly seemed to remember. “He said the old man keeps no steward. He apparently intends to pass the castle on to his eldest daughter.”
“His daughter?” This was news to Pagan.
Colin shrugged. “They’re Scots,” he said, as if that would explain it all.
Pagan furrowed his brow in thought. “With Stephen claiming the English throne, King David needs strong forces to command the Border lands,” he mused, “not wenches.”
Colin snapped his fingers. “Well, that’s it, then. Who better to command Rivenloch than the illustrious Sir Pagan? ’Tis known far and wide that the Cameliard knights have no peer.” Colin turned, eager to get back to his spying.
In the pond below, the voluptuous wench playfully shook her head, spattering her giggling sister and moving her naked torso in a manner that made Pagan instantly aroused. Beside him, Colin groaned, whether in bliss or pain, he wasn’t sure.
Suddenly realizing the significance of that groan, Pagan cuffed him on the shoulder.
“What’s that for?” Colin hissed.
“That’s for leering at my bride.”
“Which one’s your bride?”
They both returned their gazes to the pool.
Pagan would be forever appalled at the momentary lapse of his warrior instincts then. By the time he heard the soft footfall behind him ’twas too late to do anything about it. Colin never heard it at all. He was too busy feasting his eyes. “Wait. I see only two now. Where’s the blonde?”
Behind him, a feminine voice said distinctly, “Here.”
Excerpted from Lady Danger , by Sarah McKerrigan . Copyright (c) 2006 by Glynnis Campbell. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top