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During the Ancient Time, before the Kingdom of Francovia was ripped asunder by a madman's fury, the Mother Planet was a world of wonder, albeit a savage one. In those days, when the Day's-Eye rose from its sleeping-place within the Great Ocean, it shone upon a land still innocent and vital.
Its awakening rays would touch the peaks of Francovia's Blue Mountains, shining on a castle built upon the gorge at the lower slope where it flattened into forest and meadow. The first faint rays brushed windows curtained against the light, but at one room, set apart from the others, it fell upon a balcony and a doorway always open to the morning, the bright beams casting a pattern upon the floor of the chamber where the Giarl of Lindenscraig lay with his lady-wife.
For all the years he lived there, 'twas his custom to rise early to watch the sun come up over the land where, by the Margrave's Grace, he was sole Lord and Magister, again to see the dark forests and meadows slowly illumined by a new day's light. For that space, as he stood silhouetted in its glow, feeling the warm fingers of sunlight upon his face, he would once more marvel that he, the son of a barbarian sell-sword, was now a Noble of the Realm.
His enemies held that being the King's Favorite had brought it about; his friends believed 'twas luck and nothing more but he had his own opinions though he prudently kept them to himself. Bad enough that he'd taken a wife and settled down to the dull life of a country giarl but to have his old drinking-cronies believe he'd embraced religion in his old age?
It had been many years a gone since he had taken his Lady to wife, years ofimpassioned disagreement and equally passionate conciliation, and, if anything, he loved her more now than he had at the beginning--and was totally faithful, a fact that surprised him most of all when he considered how freely he had bestowed his favors upon any willing female before that marriage.
Sometimes, he felt that, from their first meeting, the gods had planned her for him--or, perhaps, it had been the other way around.
He had no way of knowing that he was totally correct, or, as the Father of the Gods had stated on the day Riven kan won his Barbara, that the gods weren't finished with him, yet....
"When we get to Aljansur, I'll marry you," he had told her. "You'll be no soldier's minion."
The women he had desired for so long was now his.
He should have felt dishonor in the way he'd won her, buying her from her husband for a silver hunting dagger--but the boy had seen the way they looked at each other, had known for years that, though she lay beside him at night, 'twas Riven's image held in her heart. Rather than fight his friend, rather than risk losing her by killing the man she loved--or by having the man she loved kill him--he chose to let her go, for the price of a knife whose blade had never tasted blood.
Yes, Riven should have felt dishonor in the bargain, in truth, had nearly ridden out of the farmyard without her, but when he saw her standing there, beautiful, confused, not wanting to believe that 'twas actually happening, he couldn't leave her behind.
He held out his hand, and she took it, was pulled up onto the back of the black charger, and they rode away.
He should have been ashamed of how he won her but he wasn't. He was too happy, though what Barbara thought of the bargain, of being swapped like some prize mare by the husband who declared he loved her, he would never know.
For now, he didn't care.
She was his.
That was all that mattered.
They rode far that day, putting as many miles between themselves and the farmhouse, as if Riven feared she might suddenly demand he return her to the valley and her no-longer husband, and when at last he stopped the black charger and dismounted, pulling her from the horse's back and setting her gently on her feet, she still hadn't said a word.
As he tended to Taj, she simply watched him, hands clasped behind her back.
Once the horse was settled for the night, he gathered wood for a fire, remembering another camp made in the desert, one in which he and a child had camped--a child he thought a young boy, a child he eventually learned was actually a very young woman, and once that identity was revealed, he fell in love with her then and there.
Arranging the sticks in a hollow he scraped in the sand, using flint from his tinder box to light the fire, when 'twas burning to his satisfaction, he opened one of the saddlebags lying on the ground and extracted the packet of food from it.
"There's plenty here," he noted as he opened it and took out a parcel wrapped in white cloth.
His voice sounded loud in the dusk's stillness and gruff, though he didn't intend it so.
'Twas the first time he'd spoke, also, since leaving the valley.
Gods, there was so much he wanted to say to her!
Opening the packet, he uncovered two wedges of buttered bread with a thick slice of mutton between them. He held it out to her.
"I know," she said quietly, taking it from him. "I helped prepare this. I wondered why Mikel insisted on so much food!"
Mikel, Riven realized, wasn't the guileless, trusting soul he had thought. His offer to sell his much-loved wife to the foreign soldier hadn't been a spur-of-the-moment alternative to bloodshed after all, though he still couldn't understand how the boy could bear to let her go, even to another man who swore to love her.
Tossing the piece of cloth on the ground, he began to open another packet.
Barbara moved suddenly, startling him.
Kneeling, she picked up the little square, pulling the one he held out of his hand, also.
"I wove these out of cotton thread Mikel bought from a merchant traveling to Ak'Madesh." She sat down and placed the square upon her knee, smoothing out the wrinkles with her forefinger. "There was enough left for a shirt for little Tirza, too."
Riven didn't answer.
She had loved the child, though he was son of Mikel's second wife. Would he have let her go, would she have come with Riven, if their union hadn't been childless?
At this point, things were still fragile between them, and whatever he said now could be the wrong thing. Quickly, he bit into the bread to make certain he didn't say it.
Barbara began to eat, also, nibbling with dainty little bites.
That made Riven smile, remembering the first time he'd seen her eat, crouched over her food like a defending animal, fearful 'twould be snatched away, tearing at the hot meat and growling at the two dogs who hovered nearby waiting for scraps.
Oh, my little barbarian! Five years of a good life had tamed and nourished the starveling, it appeared.
Had it also broken her spirit?
She spoke suddenly, "Your dogs, where are they?" as if she had just noticed their absence.
"I was on a peace mission. A man's who's not preparing to fight has no need of war dogs running at his horse's heels."
"A peace mission. You didn't come back just for me, then?" She sounded disappointed.
He wanted to say that he had but he'd sworn never to lie to her. How could he tell her he despaired of ever seeing her again, reluctantly accepting it, until this wonderful, almost miraculous, opportunity had presented itself?
Quietly, he answered, "No, little one, I didn't," and went on before she could ask the question he knew was hovering on her tongue, "I was sent by my king to arrange a marriage between the Princess Aleza and His Majesty, Traxis of Izhmir."
"Aleza and Traxis?" Barbara didn't try to conceal her surprise or her laughter. "That indecisive little man?"
"Is that any way to speak of your ruler?" Riven admonished sternly, before he smiled, also.
Traxis had indeed been indecisive. They'd had to force him to fight for his throne!
"He'll never know." She shrugged away her ridicule. "I'm surprised he managed to make up his mind about who he wanted to marry, however."
She looked over at Riven, blue eyes, those ocean blue eyes that had always intrigued him, staring directly into his.
"Are you sorry?"
Once, he might have loved Aleza but the moment he met the wild little creature who had grown into the woman sitting across from him, the princess had been lost to him forever. Too bad it had taken his stubbornness and pride so long to admit it!
She finished eating, dusted the crumbs from her fingers, and accepted the water bag he offered. Though 'twas summer, as the desert night set in it brought with it the wind from the mountains, and as Barbara returned the bag to him, she began to shiver.
"If the wind chills you," he said, "There's a cloak of marten furs in my saddlebag."
Rising, she walked to where the bags lay next to his saddle, knelt and unbuckled one pouch, reaching inside.
"Oh, Riven!" The sadness in her voice made him look up in concern.
In her hand she held, not the expected cloak, but a short, slender sword. The firelight flickered and glanced off the blade.
Like an over-long knife, 'twas made from a stone that had fallen from the sky, star metal fashioned into a weapon purchased for a barbarian child by a young soldier, long ago.
"Mikel." Barbara whispered, touching the blade gently, as if she were once more caressing the man who had been her husband. She looked as if she were about to burst into tears.
He remembered Mikel handing him the saddlebags. The boy must have hidden the sword inside while Riven's back was turned.
"Keep it," he said curtly, startled by that first, faint stirring of the jealousy that would stay with him for the rest of his life. "You may need it!"
"For protection, My Lord?" She swung around to look at him, eyebrows raised. "From whom? Not you?"
He didn't answer, just turned away, staring into the fire.
Read the flames for me, woman, as you did when we first met. Tell me if our life together will be all I want it to be!
Returning the sword to the pouch, Barbara peered inside the saddlebag, and in a moment, her cry of delight told him she had found the cloak.
He smiled slightly as she swung it around her shoulders, rubbing her cheek against the dark, thick fur which trimmed its edges.
'Twas an expensive garment; he'd spent the last of his back-pay on it, what he hadn't squandered on women and ale and payment for damages incurred during the drinking bouts he'd put himself through trying to forget Barbara. Just before leaving for the Southern lands, he had purchased it from a furrier, cheap, because summer was setting in.
"Where did you find it?"
"In Jestey, just before I left. Cost me half a month's wages." And worth it, to see that look on your face.
In the midst of her delight, her hand stopped stroking the fur, one golden brow arching upward.
"Before you left? Certain of yourself, weren't you? What if I hadn't come with you? What if Mikel had taken a hayfork and driven you away? What would you do with this, then?"
"I wouldn't worry." Riven shrugged indifferently and ate the last morsel. "There's a black-haired wench at a tavern in Jestey who would be very grateful for such a gift!" He swallowed and nodded. "Several of them, as a matter of fact!"
He stood up and moved closer to the fire, his back to her.
Though he expected it, he was still startled as small fists pounded his shoulder. Spinning around, he caught her wrists, laughing.
Then, he kissed her.
When he released her, Barbara didn't speak. She simply stood on tiptoe, put both hands on his face, fingers gently caressing the scar on his cheek, and pulled his head down, pressing her lips once more against his.
Abruptly, his mouth was seeking and demanding hers. At last, he held in his arms the woman he'd hungered for these five years!
As her small body pressed against his, he could feel her breasts, nipples suddenly as hard as little rounded stones, through the thin gauze gown, the dress he had given her to wear to her wedding with Mikel.
Gods, how he wanted her!
He bent and slipped one arm under her knees, lifting her off her feet.
Just this once, he wished he had the eloquence of the men at Court, to be able to say exactly what he was feeling.
You're my woman now, Barbara, he wanted to tell her, and the love I'll give you will make you forget that Izhmiri farmer--but he couldn't say it, not yet. His present love still held enough lust that he knew he couldn't be gentle.
He'd wait. He had to.
With a sigh, he set her down.
He had to take three deep breaths before he could speak, and all that time, she waited patiently, looking up at him with those disturbing storm-blue eyes.
"I've made many vows that I've broken, woman, but you'll not make me break this one!" he announced, kissing her forehead. "I'll not touch you 'til we're wed. In Aljansur."
"And what of the black-haired wench in Jestey?" she wanted to know, and he didn't miss the tiny demon lighting her eyes. "And the several others?"
"I think I'll have no reason ever to see that one or any of them, again!" he declared, knowing in his heart that he wanted no other but the little woman who stood before him.
"No wenching, River ... ever!" she murmured, leaning against him. His arms went around her without his thinking about it.
"Never, sweetling. Only you--from now on."
Gods! I sound like some moonstruck youngster!
And why not?
He loved her, had always loved her and perhaps at his age, after a life of whoring and heart-stealing, his foolishness could be allowed, for he was experiencing true love for the first time in his life, and--Ildred forgive him!--what a sweet and painful feeling 'twas!
"'Tis time for bed." He hated to let her go but forced himself to release her, pulling the blankets from his saddlebag and spreading one upon the ground before moving around the fire to unfold the second.
She followed behind him.
"What are you doing?"
"I'll sleep here," he told her, smoothing out the creases in the cloth.
Thank the gods the soil was fine and not rocky! As a warrior, he'd slept on hard ground for most of his life but didn't like the thought of Barbara's soft body trying to find comfort on the unyielding soil.
He looked up at her, thinking once again that quite possibly this was where he belonged, kneeling at Barbara's feet.
"There'll be no loving between us 'til we're wed, girl. Didn't I say that?"
"I know you said so, but--" her voice trailed away.
Riven stood up, dusting his knees, and just stood there looking at her, marveling once more at how small she was. He towered over her by a fair twelve inches or more.
"I thought you were just saying that so I'd come with you."
Sweetheart, he wanted to say, you had no choice but to come with me. I bought you! But he couldn't. She was aware of the transaction, that Mikel had sold her to the man whose life he had once saved, a man who suddenly reappeared to once again awaken her passion for him.
Why remind her of the way they were finally able to be together?
Instead, he put his finger against her lips.
"No, I meant it. We'll not touch. No matter who has come before, we'll come to our wedding day virgin of each other!"
She still looked unconvinced.
"Now--" He caught her shoulders, turned her around and marched her like a disobedient child, around the fire and back to her blanket. "Go to sleep. We've many days of traveling ahead of us."
He left her standing there, returning to his own bed. Out of habit, he pulled his sword from its saddle scabbard, placing it on the ground within arm's-reach, then lay down, his back to the fire, head pillowed in the crook of his arm.
For a long time, there was no sound but the crackle of the dying fire.
Riven was tired. The long ride and the emotions the day had engendered were wearying. He was nearly asleep when he sensed someone close by though there had been no sound of footsteps.
Rolling over, he reached for his sword and raised it as he looked up.
Barbara stood there, the blanket clutched to her breast, one end of the fur cape trailing the ground.
"Please, Riven, let me sleep with you," she whispered, the words almost desperate. "I'm afraid!"
He was about to argue, and make some chiding remark about his little warrior being afraid, but she looked so fragile silhouetted against the fading light of the fire.
Of course she was afraid! Her entire world had been turned upside-down this day!
Releasing the sword, he took the blanket from her, placing it by his own, and pulled her down to lay beside him, spreading the fur cape over them both.
He didn't touch her.
"Why did he do it?"
The question he had waited for all day.
He spoke into the darkness, not turning to look at her.
"He wanted you to be happy. 'Twas the only way. Otherwise we would've killed each other!"
"But, Riven, what will happen now?" She sat up, staring at the embers of the fire. "If the gods made my life barren to punish me for loving a man not my husband, what will they do now? Riven, I'm truly afraid."
Abruptly and surprisingly, she began to cry.
When he put his arms around her, she pressed her face against his throat, hot tears wetting his skin.
"Shh, little one. All's righted now. Don't you know the gods favor lovers?" Awkwardly, he patted her shoulder. He was painfully aware that he had no skill in comforting a tearful woman. "Why, we'll live happily ever after!"
Oh, aye! Of a certainty, some of the gods might favor lovers, but others are deathly jealous of a mortal's happiness. He hoped there weren't too many of the latter!
As the sobs quieted, he felt her relax. Riven didn't move or push her away, just lay there savoring her warmth and her nearness, until he, too, fell asleep.