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The Coast of France
"Melisande! Melisande! His ships are here!"
Melisande had been a flurry of motion. The words brought her to a dead standstill in the center of the tower, a sudden cascade of both fear and anticipation sweeping through her.
She had not believed that he would come!
But with Marie de Tresse crying out the warning from the wooden parapet beyond her open tower door, Melisande could no longer doubt his promise that he would have his due.
She stared at Marie's anxious face for a moment, dropped the tunic of delicately crafted mail she'd held, then tore through the doorway from the high tower chamber and ran out along the stone wall to stare out to the sea from the parapet.
Indeed, he was coming.
Dear God, it had been a day like this when he had first come. It seemed so long ago now! Was he always to catch her in adversity such as this? Would she always be left to wonder if he had come to her aid–or to destroy her completely?
There was no question today, she told herself. He had come for what he considered his.
She felt suddenly hot and cold at once. She pressed the back of her hand to her face. Her face felt like fire, her hand like ice.
God, he was coming, he was coming. Wave after wave of tremors shot through her, sweeping her up. It seemed so long since she had seen him. As if it weren't enough that a thousand Danes under that loathed Geoffrey were at her door! Now, he was coming, too. After so long. Maybe there was a lot he had forgotten.
And maybe there was a lot he had remembered.
And God, how ridiculous! She wasn't half as afraid of meeting the Danes as she was of meeting him!
Not afraid . . .
Yes! Afraid, after all that she had done.
And surely, with what his coming must mean!
Dear Lord, he was almost here. She could see his ship, see the man!
It was an extraordinary ship with its huge dragon prow. He rode his ship just as he had those many years ago when she had first seen him.
One booted foot was high upon the helm. His great arms were crossed over his heavily muscled chest.
A crimson mantle, broached at his shoulder with an ancient Celtic emblem, flew wild behind him with the whip of the sea wind. His hair, as golden and rich as the sun, also flew back.
She couldn't see his eyes yet, but she didn't need to see them. She could remember them all too well.
God, yes, she could remember their color! Remember that astounding, piercing blue. Sky blue, sea blue, deeper than cobalt, brighter than sapphires. They were eyes that looked at her, and through her, stripping her bare to the soul.
"So, he will not come, eh?"
She heard the taunting question spoken from a rich masculine voice at her rear and spun around quickly. Ragwald was there on the walkway with her, as ancient as the moon, as nagging as a fisherwife. He wagged a finger at her. "Milady, you cannot turn your back on a bargain with such a man!"
"I made no bargain! You did."
"I bargained for our lives!" Ragwald reminded her with great dignity. "And thank the good Lord! It does appear that you might have need of the man again. Then again, perhaps the young jarl is angry and not in the mood to be very helpful, eh?"
"You–" Melisande began, ready to tell him that he was the adviser, she was the countess, and therefore, hers was the final word. But she broke off, biting her lower lip. There was a more immediate danger. When she stared down from her vantage point on the fortress wall, she could see her men already engaged in battle.
Odd, how things came around! They'd made these very enemies they fought now that long ago day when he'd first come, and now they were embroiled in battle again, even while his ships sailed through the seas, their great dragon prows slicing the water.
Strange that the day was gray, that lightning ripped, that thunder drummed. Strange that he had a penchant for coming in such a tempest, as if he were one of the gods himself, casting down his fire bolts as if he cast out his fury.
"Which shall it be?" Ragwald mused. "Has he come to slice and dice us–or has he come to the rescue once again? A Norse Viking–to fight these Danish Vikings!"
How could it be that they lived in such a lawless land? Melisande wondered for a pained moment. She used to love to hear her father talk about the great King Charlemagne, and about his love for the arts and astrology–and peace!
But Charlemagne, like her father, was dead. He had ruled nearly a hundred years ago, and many things had changed since then. Charles the Fat was king in Paris–except that he wasn't in Paris, he was off somewhere in Italy, and the Danes had been ravaging the coast, heading for Rouen, forever, or so it seemed.
Melisande's enemies had joined with the Danes once again to attempt to take what was rightfully hers.
She'd gone against them before. Ever since that day years earlier when her father had fallen dead, she had learned to still her cries when she watched men die by the sword. She had learned not to shiver before the war cries, and hardest of all, she had learned not to run! She had been all that was left to lead her people, and she had learned how to lead.
Not that he had ever intended that she should, but then again, that first meeting had been a long time ago. So much had happened since then.
So much for which he must surely long to wind his hands around her neck. His very powerful hands. She could almost feel them.
That thought again made her hot and cold, and incredibly weak. She had vowed to him that she wanted no part of him, yet even the thought of him made her tremble.
Ah, and there was the rub! For she dared not show the man weakness, dared never let him know her mind, her heart! Never let him know that thoughts of him filled her days, her life, always.
Most definitely not now! She couldn't be weak. She didn't even dare think about herself at the moment.
Or fear him or his touch. Think about it, loathe it, anticipate it, loathe it, ache for it. Hate him, love him, despise him, long for him . . .
Her men were in trouble, she realized suddenly. Deep trouble. From the parapet she could see the changing position of the warriors below, see the promise of defeat when they could not.
"Sweet Jesu above us!" Melisande cried. "Pray God someone has come for our side! I must hurry out there, Ragwald. Our forces are being split, there, see!"
Ragwald caught her arm. "Let it be! Don't go! Let the Viking come in! One of them will have it–the Danes or the Norwegians. Let them battle it out, you remain here safely this time!"
Melisande pulled from him, angry at first, and then with sorrow.
Ragwald loved her. In these dark days love was hard to come by.
"I remind you, my dear adviser, you first sent me out in armor. I am the countess! I will hold this place. You are right about one thing–let them battle one another. But I must lead our men from the trap that is beginning to divide them now!"
"Wait!" Ragwald called. "See–his ships are beaching!"
"I cannot wait! See, Ragwald!" She dragged him to the edge of the parapet, pointing out the shore far below. Her father had built an exceptional fortress. A motte and bailey work, a castle. Such structures had become very prominent here in the last century since the Vikings had started their constant raids. Theirs was a truly fine example of all that such a fortress might be. They were located upon a mount with a safe harbor and beach directly in front of high stone walls. Most castles or mottes and baileys were wooden–her father had seen the great benefit of stone. It did not catch fire. Within the high walls there was the promise of safety. There was a great courtyard with room for men and animals, space for smiths to work, stables for the great war-horses, craftsmen's shops, kitchens. To the left and to the right of the walls high precipices with forests mounted great cliffs that rose above the sea. The view from the parapets seemed never ending, and it was possible to gain infinite information here. Indeed, the fortress's cunning placement had kept it standing when the troops left to defend it were minimal.
Now Melisande took full advantage of her bird's-eye view. "See, Ragwald, there's Philippe, and there's Gaston, their forces being split, and they are so fierce in their combat that they cannot see! I must go."
"Melisande, no!" Ragwald repeated. He gripped her arms when she tried to run past him. She stared into his eyes, and for once Ragwald could see a glimmering of fear there.
In Melisande? Melisande feared nothing.
Except the Viking, Ragwald thought in silence. She always had. He had both infuriated and fascinated her. Perhaps she had good sense to fear him now, as well as pray that he had come to defend them. After all, she had quite directly defied him in everything.
And now she meant to take her sword and ride out and do battle on Warrior!
"Don't do this!" he warned her, holding fiercely to her once again.
"I have to!" She cried back, her voice husky, tinged with a certain desperation now, her eyes wide and wild with the tempest of her emotions.
"No–" he began again, but she had wrenched herself from his arms. "Melisande!" She ran from him down the parapet and into the tower.
Her name rose on the air and seemed to echo at him in a long taunt.
It didn't matter. She was gone. Tensely he paced the tower parapet, the highest point of the fortress. He could see the courtyard below, the wall, the outer parapets; the field beyond the gates, and even to the sea.
Ten minutes later he saw her. His old heart leapt to his throat.
She was mounted upon Warrior, before the gates. She was clad in the gilded mail he had first seen so many years ago.
Clad as she had been when she had gone to war before.
Ragwald could see that the Viking ships had beached. From his distance he could see their leader donning his conical war helmet. The horses were being loaded off the ships. His majestic Thor, a huge horse, muscled like his master, but as agile as his master in every movement, came, too.
The Viking needed no explanations. His men were ready, striding straight from their ships into hand-to-hand combat on the shore, or leaping atop their Viking mounts, horses that had withstood their daring sea voyages time and time again.
Instantly they were within the fray.
Ragwald's hands tightened around the edge of the parapet. Melisande was in the melee, too. Away from the new arrivals she was circling groups of fighting men, her sword extended and waving high in the air as she ordered her forces to regroup. The Danes–with their treacherous Frankish allies–were after her men in much greater number, perhaps a thousand of them to a mere two hundred of hers.
There were more coming, Ragwald had heard. Thousands more. They meant to lay siege to Paris, it had been rumored.
But they could care little about Paris here today. Melisande had gathered her troops. He could hear a cry going out. She was bringing the men back behind the walls of the fortress. Some sign had been given to the guards. Great caldrons of boiling oil were being brought up to throw down upon the invaders should they follow.
The gates opened. With Melisande in the lead, the defenders came rushing through.
"Strike!" Philippe shouted to the men above them on the outer wall of the fortress.
Ragwald closed his eyes. He heard the sound of agonized screams. The first of the invaders had been driven back by the boiling oil that had cascaded down upon them.
And there, dead still, hearing the screams as he did, was Melisande. So very pale and straight as she sat atop Warrior, she had just ridden into his sight within the courtyard, the men streaming in around and behind her.
She hated it, he thought. She hated the battles, she hated warfare. She had seen everything the day her father had died, and she dearly cherished peace since then.
But what if she lost?
Well, that consequence would be clear enough if the Danes were victorious. They would rob and pillage, murder and rape, and be done with it.
And the land and the fortress would be left to Geoffrey, just as soon as his raiding allies thought that they had taken their fill of the spoils.
And Melisande's fate would be dire.
And if the Viking won?
She might consider her fate every bit as dire! But the people would live, the fortress would stand. Dear God, no matter what her fate, it would be much better for her people if the Viking were to win the day. There would be no pillaging, no robbing, no raping–no murder. Melisande would know that and accept her own fate, no matter what the consequences for her.
"The girl!" Came a cry from beyond the walls. "Give over Countess Melisande! Then will there be peace!"
Ragwald, from the tower parapet, could see everything so clearly! It was Geoffrey himself calling out. He had been in pursuit of Melisande, yet now the guards from the wall parapets held him off with their threat of death from the pots of burning oil. He sat on his own horse, fury contorting his features. Paused there just beyond the wall as Melisande's men struggled valiantly to stream in behind her. Soon, enough of Geoffrey's men would be with him so that more would be forced to brave the walls.