By T.J. Bennett Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2008 T.J. Bennett
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-933836-36-2
Chapter One Anno Domini 1525, Wittenberg, Electoral Saxony
Baronesse Sabina von Ziegler lay on the floor and listened to the sound of scampering feet in the darkness, bolting upright when her shadowed enemy scurried closer.
"Stand up. Now," she muttered to herself, her voice hoarse from lack of use. "The chains, Sabina-rattle the chains."
A soldier obedient to her own command, she complied; her clanking barely penetrated the darkness. In the corner, the rushes whispered with activity. Her muscles tensed in anticipation. "Stay calm, stay calm...."
The rat streaked toward her ankle, teeth bared. She screamed, despite her resolve, and kicked out, her naked foot connecting with something solid. An enraged squeak gave testimony to the strength of that kick. "Filthy beast!"
Slanted eyes shone back at her like pale glass, even in the darkness. A blink and they were gone. The scampering receded into the far corner of the chamber, where she imagined the rat whispered with its cohorts. Sabina knew it would simply wait for another chance. Shivering and hungry, she slumped against the wall, despair whispering in her ear it was only a matter of time before the rats got their meal.
A silent tear slid down her cheek. Reaching over to the basin beside her, she rapped her fingers against the crust of nearly frozen water, breaking through, and dipped her hand into its chilly depths. A splash onto her face. A square of fabric torn from her hem to wipe up as best she could. There.
When she went to her Maker, at least it would be with a clean face. "Pray," she rasped. "Pray."
She clasped her hands together, searching for words of comfort, but only the Lord's plea on the cross found its way into her prayers:
My God, my God ... why have You forsaken me?
A squeak of metal against wood interrupted her thoughts.
She held her breath while the bolt on the heavy door drew back and it swung open with a creak, the light of a torch spilling into the chamber. She pulled herself upright to await her destiny with as much pride as she could muster.
A man entered, the torch held aloft in his hand. Sabina had not thought of him as her father in many years. Baron Marcus von Ziegler, the Schenk of Wittenberg, had married her mother and adopted Sabina when she was but two. He was the lineal holder of the Castle von Ziegler, her former home and her current prison.
His pale eyes rested on her. "So. You still live."
She lifted her chin in defiance. "Despite your best efforts to the contrary."
"Such a hardy soul. It was always your gift, and my curse." He shrugged. "God's Will. I've come to tell you the search is over."
She clutched at the wall behind her. "Nay."
"I've done quite well for you, actually. Better than you deserve. The wedding will be in two days." His narrowed glance flicked over her thin frame. "We had better clean you up. Mustn't frighten the man away, after everything I had to do to ... persuade him of the match."
"I will not marry a man of your choosing," she croaked. "I would rather starve to death first."
He advanced on her, lowering the torch until she could feel the fine hairs on her forearm shriveling from the intense heat. She shrank back against the wall and averted her face. Beneath the hiss and pop of the flames, she heard his cold voice.
"That can be arranged."
A chill went through her. She had lost. Still, something in her refused to bow down. It had always been thus between them. Throat constricted, she forced herself to speak.
"All I want is my mother's bequest. It is what I came for, nothing else. Promise me you will not stand in my way, and I will disappear forever."
"If I had wanted you to disappear forever, I could have made it happen long before this," he snapped. "But you might prove useful to me yet."
She met his cold, speculative gaze. "Why do you hate me so? Why will you not release me?"
The Baron's eyes darkened with remembered enmity, and he murmured, "You know."
Sabina covered her ears against the well-worn litany of blame. "I never meant to hurt Carl. I've begged your forgiveness." She raised pleading eyes to his. "Please. It was my mother's wish-"
"Oh yes, your mother was very clever." The flaming torch reflected in his eyes like twin fires of Hell. "Too clever, perhaps, for her own good."
She blinked in confusion. "What do you mean?"
He did not answer. Instead his eyes burned hotter. "You have a choice. You will marry this man, or you will stay down here, and no one will ever know."
She shook her head in denial. "The-the servants-someone will talk."
"Nay." He looked at her with a satisfied smile. "No one will. They all believe you returned peacefully to the convent from whence you came days ago. Or, should I say, from whence you escaped? I am the only one who knows you are still here." He leaned his face close to hers, and the tannic smell of new wine washed over her. "And I am not about to tell."
Sabina slid to the floor. He would be rid of her one way or the other, but while she breathed, she could not release her grasp on hope. "I-I will marry this man, but you must promise not to give him the rights to my inheritance. Put it into the marriage contract. Show me the document, and I will do as you say."
"Silence! You are in no position to bargain." His heavy, gray-tinged brows drew down over eyes the color of steel, so unlike the midnight blue of her own. She had inherited her coloring from her long-dead mother. Another mark against her.
The Baron cocked his head to one side and regarded her thoughtfully in much the same way a cat regards a mouse trapped under its kill-sharpened claws.
"However...." He shrugged. "I am nothing if not flexible. If that is what it will take to end this little war between us, then very well."
She lifted her head in surprise. "And in a few weeks' time, when I reach my majority, you will do nothing to stand in my way? You will not change the terms?"
"By that time, I promise you I will do absolutely nothing." His lips stretched in an excuse for a smile. "There. Satisfied?"
Slowly, she nodded in agreement. She felt as though she had just struck a bargain with the Devil.
Freedom. After so long.
But what sort of freedom, and at what price?
The sun reflected through the stained-glass windows, bathing the inside of the church in a prism of light. Sabina blinked at the dance of colors, enthralled. In deference to the weather and her station, Elector Frederick the Wise had given the Baron permission to hold the ceremony inside the church rather than in front of the church door, as was the custom. The light, after so many days in darkness, brought both a physical pain and a palpable joy. Nevertheless, despite the sun's teasing approach, the clouds slowly returned and the promised bright bowed to dawning gray.
A lone, fat taper on the altar sputtered out with a hiss, and a robed attendant hurried to relight it. It would not do for the groom to be unable to see his bride, should he care to look, which he had yet to do. In fact, Master Wolfgang Behaim had looked at everything but her-the Baron's armed attendants, the Reverend, the closed door behind her- anything but her.
He had clad himself for his wedding in a costume reminiscent of mourning, the somber doublet and hose eschewing the slash-and-puff patterns of the day. Still, the conservative suit did little to disguise the powerful body beneath. Though his clothes seemed of serviceable material, watching him was akin to watching a fully dressed lion on the prowl. One imagined him hampered by the seams and sleeves of convention when his own tawny skin would have befitted him better. Even naked, he would be formidable.
The blood rushed to Sabina's cheeks when she realized she entertained such intimate thoughts about a man she'd just met.
The Reverend Bugenhagen pronounced them man and wife and began a lengthy blessing. Sabina's new husband tapped his foot with barely concealed impatience. No fool he, the Reverend hastily completed the blessing and turned to Master Behaim with a kindly smile. "If it be your pleasure, you may bestow a kiss upon your bride."
Master Behaim snorted. "Don't be ridiculous," he said, and with that, turned from them both.
An elderly manservant, stoop-shouldered and yet somehow managing to give the impression of erect servitude, came forward to receive his employer with a heavy cloak. Master Behaim flung it over his shoulders and made for the door, but stopped when the servant cleared his throat. Her new husband frowned, then looked about him as if he had forgotten something. His eyes alighted on her.
He pointed. "You. Come."
He walked away as though he had every expectation she would follow. She stared after her bridegroom while his broad shoulders and long legs maneuvered through the wedding party. The Baron had rousted his servants from their beds to witness the early morning wedding procession from the Castle von Ziegler to the Elector's Castle Church in Wittenberg. At first intent on congratulations, the cowed servants now parted before Master Behaim like soft earth beneath a plow.
Sabina ground her teeth at the impudence of the man. He hadn't even bothered to remove the bridal crown from her unbound hair in accordance with the wedding ritual. He had simply turned away and commanded her like a dog.
She would be damned if she gave it to him now.
She pulled off the ancient fertility symbol with trembling fingers and dropped it to the floor. Despite the Reverend's shocked gaze, she barely resisted the urge to grind the thing beneath her heel.
She seethed. She was a Baronesse. The Baron was the Schenk of Wittenberg, a cupbearer to the Emperor himself. The insolent Master Behaim was only a commoner. How dare he command her? She clenched her hand and caught a glimpse of the gold ring she wore upon her thumb. When the Reverend had asked for a token of their union, Master Behaim's expression made it obvious the thought hadn't even occurred to him. Nevertheless, he had hesitated only a moment before he pulled off his own ring.
She took a deep breath, subduing her pride. The Scriptures said pride went before a fall, and how well she knew it. Her station no longer mattered, since she was now his wife. She sent up a silent prayer of repentance.
Though willing to obey, however, she doubted her ability. To ensure her continued cooperation, the Baron still withheld her food, and she'd eaten nothing today. Her stomach felt hollow. Her head swam. She did not know if she had the strength to follow her new husband down the aisle.
Master Behaim reached for the door, and upon pulling it open, turned to address her. "We must-"
His dark brows snapped together when he became aware she lagged behind and he spoke to the empty air. The draft that blew past him into the church swept dark chestnut hair across a broad forehead, burnished strands of copper mixed in with the brown.
He glared at her from across the gloomy chapel, then at his manservant as if to imply she was his responsibility. The manservant shrugged eloquently and stepped aside. Master Behaim sent a silent glance skyward and closed the door once more.
Sabina examined her new husband while he advanced on her, his measured steps charged with purpose. He stopped in front of her, his fists resting on lean hips tapering down to powerfully formed thighs. She noted how the jut of his jaw contrasted sharply with the sensual curve of his mouth. A long, not-quite-straight nose set off intensely green eyes. She imagined when he smiled (if he ever did, for he certainly was not smiling now), his eyes turned down at the corners.
She stubbornly resisted the pull of attraction she felt tugging at her as a result of his blatant regard. She was immune to such men. She had been made thus the hard way, and she must never forget it.
His jaw clenched a moment before he spoke. "Get your things. Say goodbye to your father."
She refused to be intimidated. "I have no things to gather. As I was not expecting to wed so hastily, I have had little opportunity to prepare for the event."
He gestured with his chin. "Where are your trunks? Where is your bride bundle?"
Glancing down at her gown, she said, "It is as you see it."
Her pride would not allow her to say more.
With clear distaste, Master Behaim took in her gown, so inappropriate for winter's bite. It was her petite stepmother's hand-me-down, worn during a summer wedding nearly three years before to which Sabina had not been invited. In the hurry to be made ready (and in an effort to spare coin, no doubt) no underskirts had been procured for her. Only a thin, worn half-chemisette separated her skin from her outer garments. She felt the lack with every icy draft that crept through the cracks beneath the door.
His gaze skimmed over her, his eyes narrowing. She returned his scornful look with a composure she did not feel. Though dazed by his sharp-eyed glower, she did not look away. After what seemed an eternity, he gave a slight nod and stepped back.
The Baron approached and slid a hand around her upper arm in a display of fatherly affectation. His grip tightened for only a moment, but added to the bruises that already existed, it hurt enough to make her wince.
"Sabina," he said, "I am certain Master Behaim has no interest in being bored to death by your petty problems."
Wisely, she said nothing else.
Master Behaim contemplated them both without comment.
It was Wolf's turn to lag behind while von Ziegler yanked open the chapel door and practically marched his daughter out into the biting cold.
Franz, his family's old servant and one of the few he could still afford to retain, came quietly up alongside him.
Wolf gave him his attention.
"Regarding the young lady," Franz said. "Does she look well to you?"
"How should I know?" Wolf growled. "I've only just met her."
Nevertheless, Wolf glanced at her through the open doorway while the wind whipped her inky black hair into tangled streams around her face. Only then did he notice the dark shadows under her wide blue eyes, the too-prominent cheekbones in an otherwise unremarkable face-except for her mouth. A strand of hair caught at the corner of her full pink lips and it stuck there, but she seemed not to notice. He had to admit, the eyes and the mouth were interesting, but as for the rest of her ... he sighed in dismay.
"She's thin," he grumbled.
"And unusually pale," Franz offered.
Wolf sneered. "Probably too proud to tramp about the countryside in the fresh air with the rest of us unwashed masses."
"I beg your pardon, Master Wolfgang, but I bathed only last night," came Franz's amused reply.
Wolf ignored him. She was thin, painfully so. Predictably, since Wolf enjoyed his women buxom. He liked them blond, too, not with hair blacker than night. Alas, why should any of his preferences be a consideration, since she wasn't his choice of bride to begin with?
Franz stifled a yawn. "Shall I go on ahead, Master Wolfgang? Prepare the household for your arrival?"
Wolf shook his head. "In a moment. I need a witness to finish this ... business before we ride home."
He had the marriage settlement still to sign. He was to be dowered with a letter of exchange from her guardians for a thousand ducats, a fortune that would otherwise take a lifetime to earn. He had to deposit it then at the goldsmith's within the week in her father's name.
Extortion money. A bitter gall rose in his throat.
The irony settled over him. For his participation in this farce, he was to receive money he couldn't spend, and a wife he could never touch. He glanced over at the girl again. Perhaps that part wasn't such a great loss; she was no beauty, after all. Still, there was something about that mouth ...
The Baron drew her outside and whispered into her ear. She grew paler, if possible. She seemed ... afraid. Wolf resisted the instinctive urge to come to her aid. She had likely put the Baron up to this scheme when she'd decided to return home and found she could not snare a husband on her own.
He shook his head. Forced to marry a noblewoman. And a nun! No matter the Reformers had practically taken over Wittenberg, despite his misgivings about the rampant corruption in the Church, he was still a faithful Catholic. Yet they expected him to soil a bride of Christ with his touch?
She was no innocent, but virgin or no, she had taken vows and belonged to God. After they completed this transaction, he would convince her to take up her vows once more- return her to the convent where she belonged. He had no intention of risking excommunication by going against the Church's strictures on clerical marriage. For the time being, however, he was caught as surely as a fox in a snare.
Christ's wounds, how had this happened to him?
Excerpted from The Legacy by T.J. Bennett Copyright © 2008 by T.J. Bennett. Excerpted by permission.
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