Authors: Catherine Coulter
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Electronic edition: February 2002
To Henrik, the second time around
Croyland Castle, near the northern Welsh border
She saw him across the vast expanse of barren land scored with jagged rocks, scrubby pine trees and thick, low-lying fog.
Â Â Â Â He was astride a black destrier, at least thirty men behind him, fanned out across the horizon. His armor shone bright silver under the sun. His surcoat was black velvet, and even from their distance, Chandra could see its richness. A scarf of black silk trailed from his helmet in the breeze. He sat perfectly still, waiting.
Â Â Â Â Perhaps she would have thought him magnificent if he and his men weren't strung in a long, solid line between her and Croyland. There were only six men with her, two of them carrying the boar between them, tied to a poleâ a boar she herself had brought down.
Â Â Â Â She turned only slightly on Wicket's back and said low to the gnarled old man at her side, who had taught her how to throw a knife to split the core out of an apple, "Ellis, that manâ do you know who he is? He looks like some sort of statue sitting there so quietly. Why does he not come to us? Why this show of force?"
Â Â Â Â "Aye, mistress, I know who he is." Ellis sounded grim, more grim than he had just an hour ago when Ponce, one of her father's squires, hadn't managed to kill the charging boar with a clean throw of his spear, and the boar had nearly taken both of them down before Chandra's knife was planted deep into its small brain. Ellis said now, pointing, "See the three silver wolves on his black banner? It's Lord Graelam de Moreton. Why is he here? I don't know. He is a long way from his homeâ Cornwall."
Â Â Â Â She shook her head. Perhaps she'd heard her father mention his name, but she didn't remember.
Â Â Â Â "I wonder why he doesn't come forward to greet us."
Â Â Â Â "I don't know, but I don't like this, mistress. I don't like it at all. He has too many men with him not to mean some mischief."
Â Â Â Â It all fell into place. Chandra said, her voice colder than the frozen water in the cistern that morning, "By all that's holy, I understand now. Father was tricked. That scrawny little man we caught lurking about Croyland, who finally admitted to my father that Cadwallon's bandits were nearâ it wasn't true, none of it. It was a ruse to draw my father and many of our men away from Croyland. But why? This Graelam must know that he could not hold Croyland for long. My father's vassals would be gathered within the week. He would be killed and all his men with him."
Â Â Â Â "Mayhap his presence here isn't what we think. He is a mighty lord from Cornwall, as I told you. He holds lands aplenty, and great wealth. He is friends with the king's son, Prince Edward, so there is might behind him. He is dangerous and powerful. I do not like this. Listen to me. You remain here while I speak to him. We can't let him see that you are a woman."
Â Â Â Â The man suddenly spoke, his voice hard and deep across the expanse. "Lady Chandra." For the first time Graelam de Moreton's black stallion sidled gracefully forward, his strength held in check by the man upon his back. Another man in armor rode at this side.
Â Â Â Â "He already knows I am a woman, Ellis, and exactly who I am. It is I who must see what he wants. No, Ellis, stay back. Do not argue with me. My father left me in charge. Look at all his men, all armed and ready. There are too many of them. We would have no chance against them. I want no needless deaths on my hands. It would be a slaughter and you know it."
Â Â Â Â Ellis knew she was right, but he didn't want to put her at risk. She knew that, but she was in charge when her father was away from Croyland. Her father trusted her above anyone to protect his castle, her young brother, John, Lord Richard's only heir, and her mother, Lady Dorothy, that purse-mouthed lady who'd disliked her own daughter for as long as Chandra could remember. Her endless cruelties and meanness had ended only when Chandra had turned eleven years old and was large enough and skilled enough to stand up for herself.
Â Â Â Â Chandra said now, "It will be all right, Ellis. I will see what he wants." She gave him a small salute and dug her heels into Wicket's lean sides, sending him galloping forward over the barren, rock-strewn ground. She drew Wicket to a halt some twenty feet from the man with the three silver wolves on his banner.
Â Â Â Â His voice again, deep, dark as the velvet surcoat he wore, a voice that made her want to dive for cover behind the boulders just beside her. She was frightened, more frightened than she'd been when Lady Dorothy locked her in the dungeon when she was nine years old. Chandra couldn't remember what she had done to deserve a day and a half in a cell filled with filth and rats and only a sliver of light.
Â Â Â Â He called out, "Lady Chandra, daughter of Richard de Avenell." Not a question, not a bit of uncertainty, she thought. He knew exactly who she was. But how could he have known? She was dressed in leather breeches, a leather cap on her head, covering her hair, a sword and a knife strapped on the belt at her waist. Her boots came to her knees, the leather cross garters splattered with the boar's blood. Her black wool coat fluttered a bit in the slight breeze. She called out, "And you are Graelam de Moreton, I am told by my man. I ask you what you wish here at Croyland. Why have you spread your men across our path?"
Â Â Â Â He paused for just the slightest moment before saying calmly, "I have come for what is mine, Chandra."
Â Â Â Â "There is nothing here that is yours, my lord. Come, enough of this."
Â Â Â Â "I agree. It is enough." He rode closer, the other man in armor close behind him. The long line of his men stood silently, not moving, the fog swirling about their horses' legs, making them look otherworldly.
Â Â Â Â "Tell me what you want and there will be no battle between us." At that moment, she heard her mother yelling at her, a small child, helpless, but filled with bravado,
"Brave words, you godless little slut, brave words!"
And what she'd just said to this man, they were also just brave words. She knew she was as helpless now as she had been when Lady Dorothy had screamed those words at her so many years before. She flinched, then calmed. Brave words indeed, but she would back them up this time. She had to. But what she'd said to Ellis was true. Graelam de Moreton and his men could cut her down in a second, her six men with her.
Â Â Â Â The man behind Graelam de Moreton yelled out, "What absurdity from a girl dressed as a man with but six ragtag men behind her, don't you think, my lord?"
Â Â Â Â Graelam turned to the man beside him and spoke in a low voice. She couldn't hear what he said, but the man just shrugged and drew his warhorse back a few more paces.
Â Â Â Â "My man meant no insult," Graelam said. "It's true that if I didn't know you, I would believe myself facing a boy. But I do know you. I know everything about you. I know of your bravery, your training as a knight, your strength of character, your endless pride. However, you are not a boy, despite your prowess with weapons, despite the trust your father places in you to see to the safety of his castle. Now, pull off that ridiculous cap. I would at least see you as a woman."
Â Â Â Â He knew too much, but how? And he believed her all those things? She was brave? Proud? They were just words, she thought, just words to gain her compliance; they meant nothing. Calm, she had to be calm, to be reasoned, as her father had taught her. She threw back her head and said, "No, Graelam de Moreton. Now, I will ask you once more. Why are you here?"
Â Â Â Â Slowly, he removed his helmet and handed it to the man behind him. She saw that he was dark, his hair thick, black, slicked to his head with sweat. His face was swarthy, his eyes black as a starless night. Even from the twenty-foot distance that separated them, she could see the blackness of his damned eyes. He looked like the devil, particularly garbed in all that black. Then, suddenly, he smiled, his teeth white and strong, and she felt a bolt of fear that nearly knocked her off Wicket's back. The devil, she thought. That was indeed who he was. Her hands shook on Wicket's reins. No, no, she couldn't show him that he frightened her. She couldn't let her men see her fear either, she couldn't, or all would be lost.
Â Â Â Â "I am here for you, Chandra."
Â Â Â Â For her? By all the saints' sins, what the devil did he mean? "Damn you, that makes no sense. You wish to carry me away for ransom? Are you mad? My father would hunt you down and carve your guts out of your belly."
Â Â Â Â He laughed, a full, deep, rich laugh. "No, that is not it at all. Have a bit of conceit, madam. I have come to take you back to Wolffeton with me. You will be my wife, the mistress of my holdings, the mother of my sons. There will be no killing, no looting, if you will but agree."
Â Â Â Â She turned as cold and still as a rock, sitting tall astride Wicket, her back straight, and the fear licking at her very heart, making it pound hard and harder still as the seconds passed. Well, she had demanded to know and he had told her.
Â Â Â Â She didn't know how she managed it, but she laughed, threw back her head and laughed even more. "Your wife? This is madness. It is impossible. I have perhaps heard my father mention your name once or twice, my lord. You are a stranger. I do not know you, nor do you know me."
Â Â Â Â "You are wrong. I have told you. I know everything I need to know about you. Before the day is done, you will be my wife."
Â Â Â Â "No," she said, calm, her voice low, but carrying far enough for him to hear her. She raised her chin, and her voice was filled to overflowing with contempt and disgust. "What is this, my lord? Are there no ladies in Cornwall for you to attempt to steal? Tell me, are you so ugly, so brutal, so dishonorable, that you must needs come to the North to find yourself a mate?"
Â Â Â Â Again he laughed. "You sharpen your wits on my head, do you? You want taming, Chandra."
Â Â Â Â "Want I want is my knife to cut your bastard's throat."
Â Â Â Â She heard Ellis's angry voice behind her, and the other men, talking in furious voices now. She heard the two men who carried the boar between them drop it to the ground. She knew all of them had their swords drawn, their knives held in their other hands.
Â Â Â Â She was a fool to have baited him. She would be dead six times over before she would manage to stick her knife in his neck. Oh, God would he kill all of them now, all of them except her? But the fact was that she would die as well because she would fight until he had no choice but to run a sword through her.
Â Â Â Â Why had she said those things to him? She was a fool and she would die a fool, die when she was only eighteen years old, so much life ahead of her, but she would be dead and buried. Her beautiful, brave father would be alone, for surely her mother would be no comfort to him. Her mother would be happy to see her gone. And John, his heir, too young, too self-important to give comfort to him.
Â Â Â Â Chandra looked at the long line of his men that still hadn't moved. There was no going around them, only through them. Six men couldn't possibly do it. All those men would be on her and her men in but a moment with a signal from him. She waited, her tongue dead in her mouth, to see what he would do.
Â Â Â Â What he did was throw back his head and laugh. When he had laughed his fill, he said, "I look forward not only to the taming of you, my lady, but to showing you that you have no chance at all against me. It will afford me great amusement. Come now, it is over. Do not let the violence begin. I have no wish to draw blood, nor do I wish you to be hurt."
Â Â Â Â But it was Ellis who would be hurt, not she. Oh, God, she heard his furious shout, watched him stab the heels of his boots in his horse's side, raise his sword high. He yelled at Graelam even as he rode with dead reckoning straight at him, "You bastard son of a witch! You want our lady? Not likely! I'll carve your miserable heart from your chest."
Â Â Â Â She didn't think, just acted. She yelled for him to stop, but of course he didn't slow. She yelled at the five men behind her, "None of you move. If you do, I'll gullet you. I swear it. First I'm going to gullet Ellis."
Â Â Â Â She kicked Wicket's sides and sent him straight at Ellis. She came up beside him in but an instant, for Wicket was fast, and she was determined. She slapped her fist as hard as she could against his arm. "Listen to me! My father would flay me alive if you were hurt. You damned hero, stop it!" It slowed him, but just for a moment.
Â Â Â Â She heard Graelam shout, "Keep him back, Chandra. I don't want to kill an old man." His destrier was dancing forward, eager for combat.
Â Â Â Â Ellis yelled foul curses. He was out of control. She realized then that there was simply no choice. She threw herself at him and knocked him clean off his horse, sending them both crashing to the rocky ground. For a long time, she simply couldn't breathe. She heard Ellis groaning beneath her, heard a roar of laughter. She thought she was dying, but then breath slammed into her lungs and she sucked it in as hard as she could. Finally, she realized she was alive, that she'd only knocked the wind out of herself.
Â Â Â Â She saw de Moreton riding slowly toward them. She rolled away from Ellis, grasped his sword and knife, and threw them away from him. "Don't you move, damn you," she yelled at him, and rose slowly to her feet, her hand on her own sword. She pushed back her cloak and slowly pulled the sword out of its scabbard. She stood there, facing him, her legs slightly apart, waiting.