Authors: Cherif Fortin,Lynn Sanders
Leanna closed her eyes, fearing that her glance would betray her revulsion. Bran forced her legs open and thrust his still-covered manhood against her. He pinched her nipples and she cried out with the sudden pain. She heard him make an approving sound and knew he had taken her cry for one of pleasure.
Leanna fought back the urge to resist him. Desperately, her mind searched for a haven where she could flee from the impending rape. Emric’s image rose to her mind and she clung to it as her last hope.
She recalled how he would seek her out in her chamber while the castle slept. She remembered the thrill of the telltale creak of her door opening. Sometimes he stood at her bedside for long minutes, staring down at her nakedness.
“What are you gazing at, my prince?” she had asked once.
“I am drinking in your beauty, Leanna, so that it will always be with me.”
“Is it enough for you simply to behold?” she had teased him. Staring into his eyes, she slowly pushed away the blanket from her body until she lay fully exposed to his gaze. “It is not enough for me.”
Inflamed by her words, her half-shy, half-brazen action, he unlaced his clothes and pressed his aroused body against hers.
His hands caressed her and his fingers slid between her thighs, finding her ready. He quickly joined their bodies in a languid thrust, then stilled until she thought she would go mad with anticipation.
She moaned for mercy. “Please, Emric …”
A sudden fierce slap across the face shattered the haven of her memories. Her eyes flew open and she saw that Bran’s face was contorted with fury.
“You called for Emric,” he spat.
“N-no,” Leanna stammered. “I am yours …”
“I warned you,” he shouted and hit her again. “You will be mine without all pretenses, or your father will suffer for it.”
He stepped back from her, his arousal gone, and Leanna closed her eyes as relief vied with a sense of regret for her carelessness.
“Do not think for one moment, Leanna, that you cannot be made to suffer as well,” he snarled.
He opened the cellar door and called out to a servant. “Ready her. We march for Brimhall in one hour.”
Leanna gathered her skirts and returned to the dry corner of the cellar. For the first time in days, the tears did not come to mingle with the rain.
eanna huddled, shivering against the frigid night air. Vainly, she pulled at the hempen rope that bound her to the stout central pole of Bran’s pavilion.
In silence she had suffered the indignity of a day’s march slung across a horse’s rump, a punishment Bran had decreed for her indiscretion. Every bone in her body ached from the ordeal.
The whole of the prince’s army had marched until long after sundown, driven by Bran’s eagerness to attain Brimhall. When darkness made travel too treacherous for horse and wagon, it was with near petulance that he ordered his men to make camp.
She knew what Bran wanted: to hear her beg for his forgiveness. But Leanna vowed privately he would get no such satisfaction, and she held her tongue. Even when he ordered her fed from the same carrion as went to the hounds, she held her tongue. She kicked the platter the watchmen brought her into the dirt, feeding on thoughts of vengeance instead.
Bran did not beat her that night. He drank his fill of wine from an earthenware jug and stared at her moodily for a time, until the sight of her disgusted him. He threw the jug at her then, missing by a hairsbreadth, and stormed from the tent without a word. After an hour passed and he did not return, Leanna tried fitfully to sleep. The cold night air woke her several times with a shiver.
As she struggled against the cold, Leanna slowly became aware of shouting and the sounds of frantic men. The entrance to the pavilion flew open and she was momentarily blinded by torchlight that seemed to explode into the tent.
“What is it?” she asked, recognizing Bran behind the firelight, his face panic-stricken. “What has happened?”
“Loriel is attacking!” Bran shouted. He thrust his torch into a nearby brazier.
Leanna reeled at the news, her heart beating swiftly with fresh hope. She concealed her excitement and watched as Bran raged inside the tent. He threw the furnishings about without regard, frantically searching for something.
A man clad in an undertunic and hose, but bearing a sword and shield, ran into the tent.
“My lord, Duke Loriel’s outriders have breached our camp,” he gasped. “Our men are taken by surprise. Lest we can muster them, all will be lost.”
“Return to your post!” Bran bellowed, his eyes wild. “Organize the ranks. I shall lead us to victory against this feeble rabble. Now go!” He resumed his frenzied search.
“You are undone, Bran,” Leanna heard herself say. The days of torment endured at the hands of her captor filled her with an unexpected courage. “If Loriel attacks you, it can only mean that all of Wareham’s lords are prepared to rise against you. No one can help you now, not even your barbarian allies.”
“You dare?” Bran shouted, and in that moment he found the object he had been seeking. It was the bone-handled knife that slipped from his belt while he had lounged in his wine cups earlier. He advanced on Leanna, blade flashing in the torchlight.
She bit her lip so she would not cry out with fear.
“I will yet defeat that lickspittle, Loriel.” Bran’s frenzy mounted. “He can slaughter this army to a man, for all I care. It is lost to me already, fit only as a diversion while I return to the safety of Karvoie. I will levy another army, and muster aid from Lorccan’s quarter. This is but a mere delay of the inevitable.”
He yanked Leanna roughly by the hair and twisted her face upwards. His blade came up and pressed against the soft flesh of her exposed throat. It hovered there, and when Leanna met his stare, she could see terror and madness dancing in his eyes. ”When the enemy takes this pavilion, I shall have set my feet on the road to victory, and you, dear Leanna, will be little more than a memory.”
Leanna screamed when Bran’s knife lashed out in the gloom. In the deathly silence that followed, the rope binding her to the pole fell, severed, to the ground.
hey galloped toward Karvoie, Leanna seated unceremoniously before Bran in the saddle of his giant stallion. Six of Bran’s bannermen rode escort, and the group thundered at such breakneck speed Leanna feared she would be thrown from the saddle at any instant. Bran tightened his hold on her with one arm while he guided his steed with the other.
Bran had come within a heartbeat of killing her in his pavilion. Leanna had seen his thoughts clearly as his blade hesitated at her throat; he would rather see her dead in the dust than admit defeat. But there was something else. Something that surprised her. He could not suffer the thought of her in the arms of another. Was it possible that Bran loved her, in his fashion? She had never thought it possible and certainly it would not have made a difference to her; Bran was a monster. His crimes were too vile and too numerous to be redeemed by mere sentiment. If he loved her, Leanna decided, the knowledge was perhaps her greatest weapon.
The rising sun was barely a hint of golden crescent when they entered a thickly wooded area. Through the boughs, Leanna could see the ruins of a monastery thrusting up from a hilltop like jagged fingers. She started at the distinctive slice and thrum of bowshots from behind.
As Bran reined in his mount and wheeled it around, she saw that two of their escort had crashed to the dusty ground. The crimson-shafted quarrels that protruded from them at gruesome angles snapped with the violence of impact. Suddenly, and as if by some enchantment, men appeared from the thicket on either side of the road.
Leanna drew a sharp breath when she saw Emric stride to the center of the road. A dozen men, crossbows held high at the ready, swarmed around him. Naked steel was plain in his hand, and his eyes burned with an inner fire. He was the most beautiful sight Leanna had ever beheld.
“I see the Heldanners failed to end your bothersome life, brother,” Bran said with contempt. He spat into the dirt at their feet.
Leanna struggled against Bran’s hold and he fought to control his steed. Emric took a step forward as the rest of Bran’s guard lowered their weapons in surrender.
“I knew you would flee to Karvoie if Loriel challenged your advance,” Emric said. “For all your bluster, you are little more than a base coward. There is no escape now. Release Leanna and join your men.”
Bran cast about him. Seeing no alternative, he lowered Leanna slowly to the ground.
She rushed into Emric’s arms.
An exaltation the likes of which she had never known filled her as he embraced her. She gripped him tightly, needing to assure herself that he was real and not some specter born of desire. All she had suffered in the last days vanished like chaff on the wind of Emric’s gentle kisses.
“Now you will bring me to justice, I presume,” Bran interrupted. He was smiling, though there was no humor in the expression.
“That is a privilege you do not deserve,” Emric said icily. “You cannot know how many have died and suffered by your hand. And our father … To what avail, brother?”
“I did what was necessary. Do you think I did not see you scheming for the throne? That I did not see Loriel’s rivalry?” He made a harsh sound in his throat. “Did you believe I would simply allow you the succession?”
“You are mad,” Emric whispered, so quietly only Leanna heard him. “Dismount,”
Bran complied, for the crossbows leveled at him brooked no argument.
Emric ushered Leanna into the protective arms of one of his men. “Now, draw your blade.”
“What?” Leanna broke free and seized Emric’s arm.
“He must die, Leanna, here and now, and by my hand.”
“No,” Leanna pleaded, clutching at him desperately. “No, not now that we have been reunited. I thought you dead, but my prayers have been answered.” The words tumbled from her mouth. “Let the headsman at Brimhall make justice, but do not place yourself in danger again, I beg you.”
“I love you with all my heart and soul, Leanna.” Emric touched her cheek. “But I cannot allow my brother to live a moment longer without atoning for the evil he has wrought.” Gently, he pried her fingers from him.
“Do not intervene.” Emric said to his men-at-arms. “My honor will be satisfied only after I am victorious in single combat.” He waited until the ranking sergeant nodded acknowledgment, then shifted back to face his brother.
“Let us cross steel, Bran.”
Bran tore his sword free with a snarl and leaped at Emric. His blade flashed like summer lightning, feinting toward the legs, then slashing upward. Dull orange sparks shimmered as blow after blow fell on Emric’s blade, forcing him away from the escort.
Leanna watched in horror as the two men fought in grim silence, grunting with the fury of their strokes. Terror flashed through her when Bran’s blade ripped across Emric’s thigh. Blood gushed to Emric’s ankle, but the two men fought on. The sound of steel against steel seemed to fuel their ferocity.
Emric pressed his brother with a series of powerful lunges, barely pulling his sword back in time to parry. The men locked blades for a tense moment, then Bran twisted his wrist in an expert motion, smashing the hilt of his weapon against Emric’s unprotected temple.
The prince reeled, his senses still weakened by the wound he had received at the hands of King Lorccan. His grip slackened, releasing the blade, and he fell, struggling against unconsciousness.
Tearing at the fastening of the whip laced to his belt, Bran was upon him in the passing of a heartbeat. The lash encircled Emric’s neck in a fatal embrace, and Bran tightened it relentlessly.
“This is my vengeance, dear brother,” Bran hissed in Emric’s ear. “You were a fool to let me live. I will yet be king and Leanna will be my consort.”
Emric fought the darkness descending upon him. His lungs burned and panic rose within him, stealing the last of his breath. His pulse pounded thickly in his temples. He was dying. Dying by Bran’s hand … like their father. His vision dimmed.
“Bran, my love …” Leanna called in a clear voice.
Bran turned to face her with a start, bewilderment plain on his face.
“Leanna?” he said almost as a supplicant, heedless that the deadly circle made by the whip slackened the span of the merest breath.
Emric thrust his head backward, feeling the snap of bone as it connected with Bran’s nose. The whip was cast loose as Bran collapsed, and Emric’s body heaved uncontrollably to find air at last.
Emric struggled to his feet, scooping up Bran’s discarded blade from the dust. With a forceful yell, he raised the sword and sent it down. It shivered through the air and found its mark in a soul as dark as night.