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"If I have to embroider one more rose petal, I will unsheathe my eating knife and run myself through." Gwendolyn of Wessex tossed aside the linen nightgown she'd been suffering over for hours.
She despised needlework in the first place. And in the second, why bother making a night garment a work of art when her future, yet-to-be-named husband would only shred the thing off her anyway?
The women in the lesser hall stared at her in mild horror, as if they wanted nothing more from life than to stitch miniscule f lower buds on a decorative garment for Gwendolyn to wear at her next wedding. As if they wanted nothing more from life than to warm a man's bed. Gwendolyn didn't even have any definite plans to wed just yet, but like all wealthy Saxon widows, she knew a union was inevitable.
The ladies who sat with her on this warm spring day were more like soulless jailors than noblewomen who embraced the happy state of widowhood as much as she did. Gwendolyn had never mourned the cruel knight who'd been foisted on her at eighteen summers, a man who had adopted the custom of keeping concubines while battling their Norse enemies. Gerald had died at the end of a Norse blade some moons ago, leaving her widowed, but waiting for the hammer to fall and her overlord to announce another marriage.
What she wouldn't give for her life to be her own. For her future to be in her hands! She'd been taught young to think for herself thanks to her parents, wealthy scholars who'd traveled the world. Their deaths on the road to Rome had devastated her. She'd spent the rest of her childhood in the custody of Richard of Alchere, an ambitious lord who'd shackled her into an advantageous marriage at the first opportunity—only to find her widowed on his doorstep two summers later.
She'd been twenty.
Now the power-hungry nobleman was so busy kissing King Alfred's royal rear, she feared what scheme the two might script for her next union.
Richard was the most powerful lord in Wessex, and he protected a key stretch of the coastline for Alfred. Alchere had been her father's neighbor before his death, after which Richard had made a fast grab for power by bringing her into his household.
While their lands may have been a neat fit against each other, Alchere's militant and unimaginative household bore no resemblance to the worldly haven her parents had ruled. Once upon a time, they had hosted scholars from all over the world to share ideas and study in their expansive library. Alchere, on the other hand, wasn't smart enough to see beyond the point of his sword. He ruled with brute force, however, and King Alfred needed military might as much as he needed scholars. Well, he needed that more, truthfully.
That military might accounted for why Gwendolyn found herself back in proud, vain Alchere's keeping again now that her first husband had died. She'd sent a messenger to Richard the moment she'd heard of Gerald's death in battle, knowing Alchere would gladly send protection for her to return to him. This she did, much as she disliked her overlord. Better in Alchere's hands than to wait around for Gerald's family to try and keep her inheritance by marrying her to his equally brutish brother. She'd packed up everything she could carry and fled the whole vicious clan.
Now, Alfred kept track of her vast dowry once again, while Alchere kept her safe in his prison of a cold keep. Her former in-laws would never touch her here, but peace came at the price of her freedom.
She tipped her face into the warm sunshine filtering in through high windows overhead; the group of widows had been consigned to remain indoors due to fear of raiding Danes spotted along the coast.
"Lady Gwendolyn, what will your future husband think if your trunks are packed with naught but old gowns sewn while you were wed to another man?" Lady Margery currently hunted for a third spouse, so she considered herself an expert on the matter of husbands. All the rest of the old hens looked up to her for that reason.
Not that any of them were ancient. Margery held the distinction of eldest at twenty-four summers. The five women had been herded together by their king during wartime to keep them safe since they were a valuable lot. Each of them represented opportunities for important political alliances upon remarriage and as such, they required protection from the Norse raids all over the coast. Three of the women had lost their husbands to the bloodthirsty invaders.
"I do not even have a marriage contracted," Gwendolyn pointed out for the tenth time in a fortnight. She'd put forth a great deal of effort to keep it that way since the idea of another marriage made her blood run cold. "And if I did, he would surely ignore my bridal clothes in the rush to the marriage bed anyhow. Why would any man care about the needlework on a lady's nightgown when their only interest is ripping a woman's garb from her body?"
She shivered with distaste. Gerald had handled her roughly those first few months of their marriage. Later, when he'd gone back to his concubines, he'd visited her less often, but his touch had remained abhorrent. Painful. Gwendolyn could not understand why some women spoke of marital pleasures with blushes and giggles. She'd found no tenderness in her husband's bed.
"Perhaps," Lady Margery began, peering over the tapestry she embroidered along with the others, "that is why Lord Richard finds it such a difficult challenge to obtain a good marriage for you. The poor man does not think you will be able to behave with any sort of decorum for the summer let alone a whole year."
Gwendolyn closed her eyes to let the inciting comment wash over her rather than box the woman's ears the way Margery fully deserved.
Once the other women stifled their giggles, Gwen shot to her feet and circled the benches they'd drawn up next to each other, wishing she could run on the fresh green grasses outside rather than pace a musty old hall. The lack of activity combined with the need to keep a civil tongue would make her sheep-brained in no time.
"Lord Richard is not finding it difficult to contract my marriage." Her youth and her wealth made her a sought-after bride, if nothing else. She did not deceive herself that men wanted her for her submissive manner or extravagant beauty. The years with Gerald had only made her more unwilling to cater to any man. "I have been actively bartering with Alchere for more time to consider the candidates so I might weigh in on his decision for my next spouse."
At least, that was the version of events she preferred. And it contained some truth. But Margery put down the corner of a small tapestry she worked on to better lift her snooty nose in the air.
"Lady Gwendolyn, we all know the earl asked you to remain out of trouble for a full year before he'd ever consider letting you choose a husband for yourself." Margery's gaze returned to the patch of needlework where she stitched the outline of a pasty-faced maiden. "He only offered such a boon since he is certain you will never fulfill your end. We all know you'll be wed to someone, whether you will it or nay, before next harvest."
Ah, another nip to Gwen's pride. Gwendolyn had a bit of a reputation for mischief-making, and she'd never been able to resist an opportunity to tweak her overlord's arrogant nose. Of course, she'd lived in Alchere's awful stronghold for far more years than these widows who came and went under his all-mighty protection, so she knew how wretched he could be. His tempers were notorious and his dictates ranged from unfair to downright evil. He'd even forced her to burn the books that she'd inherited from her father's household so that she would not grow "too self-important with knowledge."
The book burning had nearly killed her. Could she help it if during her youth she took what revenge she could by occasionally adorning his ugly mug with beauty paints while he slept off too much drink? Or tucked the bones he discarded onto the great hall floor inside his boots so the castle hounds gnawed him mercilessly?
None of the other women understood her long and frustrating relationship with Alchere, however. They only saw that she baited the man wherever possible. So a retort rose quickly to Gwen's tongue to set Margery straight on the matter of Alchere, but it was cut off by the abrupt opening of the hall's doors from the other side.
A page of no more than eight or nine summers burst through the entrance, his eyes wide.
"Ladies, you must hasten to the keep." He did not bother with courtesy, but began grabbing their embroidery to carry away. He spilled a basket of threads and stepped on the corner of a half-finished tapestry. "The Norsemen's boats make their way close to shore."
Gwendolyn forgot all about her quarrel with Margery and the soul-smothering boredom of the women's conversations about husbands. She understood the danger the enemy presented. Their raids had cost many lives, much gold and countless maidens' innocence. These invading warriors were brutes that had terrorized lands far and wide. The only part of England where they did not have a toehold was Wessex, as King Alfred had made a pact to keep them away.
But when you bargained with devils, who was to say they would honor it? Only a fool wouldn't know fear.
"Hurry," the young page implored, his wide, dark eyes frightened. "The boats came from the north where the view is thick with trees. The watch did not see—"
"Go," she ordered him, pointing toward the doors where the other women fled in a flurry of colorful skirts. "I must retrieve something from my chamber."
She lurched toward the door, wanting to gather up the few belongings that were truly hers—belongings greedy Alchere did not know about. She'd managed to save one of her father's books from the lord's burning frenzy and she would not see that prized possession hacked to pieces by pillaging Danes.
The boy tugged on her sleeve. "There is no time. I was told to have all the women in the keep at once. They will lock you in to ensure your safety."
As if anywhere was safe when the Norse terror came. These Danes could sniff out riches from many leagues distant, and that surely included a barricaded keep full of heiresses. Gwendolyn guessed she would be safer on the walls with an armed knight before her than stashed away with all the other lucrative possessions. Still, right now all she cared about was her father's journal. One last tie to her parents that no man would pry from her fingers.
"You have done your duty," she told the page, walking with him to the door. But as they reached the timber corridor that opened onto the courtyard, she pried his fingers from her wrist. "You may say I refused to go with you, but unless you plan to drag me by force, I will not retreat just yet."
The boy appeared ready to argue, his brows knitted in a fierce frown. But then he shrugged helplessly and ran off, leaving her unattended. Alchere would be in a fury if he learned of it. And didn't that suit her just fine? For all she knew, her king and overlord could start bartering off wealthy widows as part of their ongoing bargain with the Danes to keep them away. Perhaps that was Alchere's purpose in gathering the women together—not to keep them safe, but to use them as bribes to the enemy. Gwendolyn had no intention of making herself available for a political alliance with a bloodthirsty heathen.
Lifting her skirts, she raced through the gallery above the great hall and found her chamber. Retrieving the journal swiftly, she tucked the hide-bound book into her garter that held her stocking and retied the knot to secure it. Then, peering about the small chamber that had been hers since childhood, she sought anything else that she wanted to bring. Heart racing, she scooped up a handful of rings and tucked them into a small pouch that hung from her girdle. On her way out the door, as a last moment thought, she plucked her first marriage veil from where it dangled off a flag post that held her family's old banner.
Pushing it over the plaits wound about her head, Gwendolyn knew the veil counted as the most costly item in her wardrobe. The circlet incorporated priceless jewels from both sides of her family and boasted metalwork from the finest goldsmith in Wessex. If the keep was overrun today, she'd rather have items of value with her than sitting here unprotected.
Fleeing from her chamber like a thief with stolen goods, she was headed for the stairs down to the courtyard when a horn and shouts nearby caught her by surprise.
Undeniable curiosity warred with good sense.
Had the invaders arrived? Was battle imminent? She caught a whiff of the sea breeze rolling in off the water and smelled change on the wind. She'd sensed it once before—that day her parents left her for their trip to Rome, she'd somehow known despite their assurances that her life would never be the same. She had that same tickle along her senses now and wanted to confront her fate rather than hide from it. If she went out there—up to the castle walls right now—maybe she would know what was coming before it happened. Maybe she could make a difference by alerting Richard to…
She knew not what exactly, but that desire to affect her future drew her feet toward the stone steps that led up to the partition over the courtyard. Quietly. Discreetly. She was adept at climbing all over the keep, quick as a cat, to spy on Alchere. Of course, she'd been more of an intrepid scout at fourteen years old, back when she'd hung from the rafters to drop a fat, furry spider into Alchere's ale after the book burning. She had hoped the creature would be poisonous, but no such luck.
Now, she dashed up to the walls, filled with the hopefulness of her daring. The more she thought about it, the more certain she became that Alchere would bargain away his lucrative widows before he let the Danes overrun the keep. The raiders could take the women and demand their inheritance and holdings from King Alfred. Alfred would pay the way he'd always done in the past to keep peace. How many treaties had he negotiated with these knaves already?