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Authors: Cherif Fortin,Lynn Sanders

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BOOK: Passion's Blood
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King Morien sent a balled fist crashing against the table. “As long as I draw breath, not a single league of my kingdom will I yield to this barbarian, Lorccan. Tell this insolent chief that if it is war he wishes, then he has found it. He will count his tribute in Wareham arrows, one for each of his cowardly followers.

“Now go, before I lose control over these men and must watch them cut you down.”

Angvard laughed harshly. He and his escort clattered out of the hall.

The king lowered his great lion’s head to his breast. “There will be no tourneys on the morrow,” he proclaimed. “We shall have real war soon enough.”

The sudden din of activity in the hall drowned the sound of Leanna’s griefstricken weeping.

Chapter Four

E
mric dismissed his squires to linger a moment in his apartments. He crossed the room to the giant hearth where a dying fire sputtered and crackled. Lost in thought, he poured himself a cup of wine from a decanter that stood nearby and drank deeply, mulling over the words of the past hour.

“This Lorccan fancies that declaring his mastery over a few savage tribes will earn him the fellowship of kings,” his father had said in the council chamber above the main hall. “He shall come to curse his foolish ambition.”

A general hum of approval had risen from the assembled lords as they bent over their maps, while Aelfric moved small wooden figures about the charts, plotting the movements of Wareham’s troops.

“Never fear. We shall crack this impudent fool like a nut, Father,” Bran cried, pounding his huge, clenched fists upon the table. “I swear to you.”

“Swear us no oaths,” Emric interrupted his brother. “This Highlander is no weakling for us to easily break and sweep aside. Forget not that he has already taken Gallitain, no mean feat even for the mightiest army.”

One knight protested, but the king silenced him. “Emric speaks truly. It would be a grave mistake to underestimate him, else one day his banner may fly from Brimhall’s very walls. Aelfric,” he said, turning to the grizzled captain. “What say you?”

“I will not lie, sire. We are outmanned.” He cleared his throat. “We have but a few hundred here, with less than a hundred horses. Prince Bran’s garrison at Karvoie has twice that number and Loriel has three hundred here.” He pointed to a spot on the map. “But it will take days to assemble them. If we had but a few weeks to raise
our levies …” He gestured helplessly.

“Emric.” The king turned to him. “You have fought at Gareth’s side against this foe before. What make you of them?”

“When we forced the Highland clans back beyond the Saber, they were disorganized savages with naught more than bronze swords and spears who did little but raid border villages. If this Lorccan has power enough to unify the clans, they will be formidable, for they are vast in number and fight without fear of death.

“To worsen matters, the hills and forests around Gallitain are to their liking. They can sally out at their leisure to slaughter along our borders.”

“But they will not be content with Gallitain,” Bran said. “It was plain enough that Lorccan desires all of Wareham.”

Emric nodded and a silence descended upon the council chamber as the king bent his head in thought. When King Morien finally spoke, his voice was loud and clear.

“Aelfric, send half a dozen of your fastest men to Loriel with orders to march half his number to Gallitain and levy what he can from his vassals and peasants. Bran, leave a detachment at Karvoie and march the remainder to Brimhall for our protection.”

He looked to Emric then and it seemed for a moment his voice caught deep in his throat. “Now to you, my son. Would that another be at my command, but I must ask this of you. Take Brimhall’s men and ride with all haste to Gallitain. The enemy’s number is great, but you must engage and detain them until reinforcements can reach you. Else we are completely unprotected.”

All eyes on him, Emric bowed. “I shall not dishonor you, Father. I shall give a good accounting of Wareham courage.” The words were so easy to say, yet Emric knew what living up to them meant.

King Morien nodded. “All of you to your tasks. Good fortune and Godspeed to you all.”

As the assembled men had filed out of the chamber, the king had reached out and gently placed his hand upon Emric’s shoulder. Nothing more was spoken between them. Nothing more was necessary.

Emric tore his gaze from the embers of the fire. His preparations were nearly complete, but his heart was heavy. He had fought often enough against the Highlanders, had seen them slake their steel in the blood of men, and heard their feral howls of joy at the slaughter. He had contemplated upcoming battles a dozen times but never a battle that could well mean suicide. Fear hung about him like a black cloak.

The prince stormed from his chamber and traversed the long stone-lined corridors of Brimhall. Soon he found himself before a stout wooden door he had seen a hundred times before but which now appeared before him as though it were the first, or the last. He cast open the heavy portal and stepped inside.

Leanna sat at her window, and in the stillness of her chamber he could hear the clatter of armed men in the courtyard below. When she turned to face him, he saw she had been weeping, and bitterly Emric recalled it was mere days ago he had vowed to her nothing would ever separate them again. He wondered if some part of him had known he could never keep the oath.

Crossing the chamber in three great strides, he took her into his arms. Even as he crushed her to him, it seemed his arms were already letting her go.

Leanna pressed her lips against Emric’s as his hair fell across her cheeks and mingled with her hot tears.

“I cannot bear it that you are leaving me, my love,” she whispered. “If my father is dead, you are all I have left.”

He looked down at her lovely face. “I must.” Lifting his hands to wipe away her tears, he forced a smile onto his lips. “But I will come back to you. I swear it.”

She shook her head and new tears slid down her face. “You swore that you would never leave me. How can I believe you now?”

“Have faith, my beloved.” He took her hands and pressed them against his chest. “Listen to my heart beat and know that it beats only for you. How could I not come back to you?”

She could say nothing, her eyes wide and full of doubt. Emric wondered if she somehow saw the fear his confident words concealed.

Leanna looked at Emric. He was smiling and his words were easy and reassuring, but she felt such disquiet in her heart, for the Ningal revealed his innermost thoughts as clearly as if he had spoken. She brought her hands up and gripped his hair, seeking to reaffirm her love in the face of their fear.

“Make love to me, Emric.” Her voice was urgent. “Make love to me so that I will feel your body against mine when you are gone.” Her voice caught. “So that I will have
something.”

Emric swept her up in his arms and carried her to the bed.

Undoing the fastenings of her robe, he quickly pushed it back and filled his hands with her soft curves. She arched up toward him, her fragrant skin warm against his face.

They lay together forgetting for just a moment the sadness within them. Lifting his head, he began to touch her. His hands mapped her body as if he could memorize her every curve with his fingertips. He looked down at the fiery hair swirling around her shoulders and cascading across her breast. The ache in his heart grew….

“Come to me now, my love,” she whispered brokenly. “Please. I want to feel your body.”

Emric held her for a short time. He made to rise from the bed, but her arms held him from leaving.

“I shall remember you as you were in the meadow, happy and carefree in the warm sunshine.” He took her face in his hands and kissed her once. When a blue ribbon alighted against his hand, he pulled it from her hair.

He swung his legs to the floor and pulled on his boots before she could protest. When he stood, something in his eyes made him seem suddenly cold and more unyielding than ever before. As though her very presence challenged his resolve, he walked out of the chamber without a final word.

When Emric reached his chamber, he found his squires waiting to gird him with his heavy armor plates. He moved to the fire and lifted both arms for them in the time-honored ritual. “Dress me,” he instructed flatly.

Some time later, he mounted his charger in the courtyard below. The men were waiting, assembled in ranks. He glanced up at the Green Tower and found Leanna’s balcony. Her room was dark, but he knew she would not sleep this night. He held her blue ribbon to his lips and said a silent good-bye.

“Company, ready,” he ordered, touching spurs to the stallion beneath him. “Move out.”

Chapter Five

S
leep was long in coming to Leanna. She lay awake for many hours, praying and weeping in silent torment, both for her father and for Emric. She could not believe the news that her father was dead. There was no tangible proof for it, but his prospects were slim. If he had been captured by his enemies, there would have been a ransom. She clung to hope, even as she knew it might one day exacerbate the pain.

The bitter ache within her was made even more unbearable by her farewell to Emric. He tried to conceal it from her, but she had seen into his heart and knew the truth of his mission:
My love, would that fate decreed a chance for us.
She cursed the gift that revealed his mind, for it left her feeling as though she were already grieving for him.

When she woke, she found her face wet. The tears followed her even in her sleep. The fire was dead, the room dark but for a beam of moonlight that filtered through the window. She sighed and wiped the moisture from her cheeks.

Suddenly, she shuddered, seized by the feeling that she was not alone.

A cry formed on her lips but was stifled by a great, meaty hand. Sharp terror gripped her as the assailant caught both her wrists in his free hand with a strength that defied her imagination.

“Quiet, my sweet.”

She heard the voice as the dark figure loomed over her like a specter from a nightmare.

“I’ve come to claim my prize.”

With a menacing chuckle he leaned back, moonlight illuminating his face, and Leanna recognized her assailant.

“Bran!” She heard the terror in her own voice.

She kicked at him and struggled vainly to free her hands, but her efforts were as puny to Bran as those of a child. Finally, her movements annoyed him, for he swore and struck her across the mouth with the back of his hand.

The blow stung and filled Leanna’s mouth with the bitter taste of her own blood. Unwanted tears filled her vision and dropped from her lashes.

“Enough of that, my pretty,” he hissed, freeing something from his belt. “Fight me again and my next blow shall be worthy of a man.”

Leanna remembered the sight of Sir Owen on the ground and Bran’s laughter as the blood poured from Owen’s crippled body. The horror of Bran’s thoughts that day flashed into her mind. She wondered how she would be able to defy him.

Leanna struggled vainly against the filthy cloth with which he gagged her. Bran seized her by the waist, lifting her easily off the bed and onto his shoulder. As he flung her up, Leanna became aware of two shadows on the floor near the door. The shapes resolved into the bodies of guardsmen, black pools of blood spreading from them. Leanna screamed, but only a muted guttural sound escaped her.

BOOK: Passion's Blood
2.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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