Read an Excerpt
The Circle of a Promise
By Helen A. Rosburg
Copyright © 2003
Helen A. Rosburg
All right reserved.
The morning mists had long since blown away. The sun was high
and hot. The stench from the battlefield was nearly
Stephen's knights, victorious, drifted back toward their
baron. They moved slowly, battle weary and bloodied, cleaning
the blades of their weapons as they shuffled along.
Occasionally a man stopped to pat the neck of a faithful
mount, or lean, exhausted, against a massive shoulder. Many of
the horses themselves bore ghastly wounds. Others lay dead on
the ground, amidst the bodies of the fallen soldiers. The
earth was red with blood. Stephen ignored it all.
His eyes searched desperately for the one face he wanted to
see. Sunlight glinting from bright armor made him squint. He
turned and looked in the other direction. Saw her.
The form was unmistakable. Even among men she was tall. Their
Mara smiled. She pulled the mail hood from her head and shook
loose her magnificent hair. It tumbled in silvery waves across
her shoulders and down her back, and Stephen knew there was
not a more beautiful, desirable woman in the world. He started
There was blood on her hauberk, but he knew instinctively it
was not hers. Thank God. Thank God. She had made it through
the battle unscathed. He could tell by the way she moved,
walked slowly toward him. The tip of her sword dragged on the
ground. Hero, her enormous warhorse, plodded along behind her,
head low. He, too, appeared uninjured.
Stephen let his blade fall to the ground. He opened his arms
to receive her, and she stepped into the circle of his
There were no words, they were too exhausted. But none were
needed. They were husband and wife, companions of both heart
and soul, lovers. They were also victors. At long, long last,
the terrible struggle was over. Many deaths were avenged. They
were finally free to be together without fear. It was over.
For a long moment they simply leaned against one another, arms
loosely clasped. Then Mara looked up at her husband.
Her eyes were the color of a deep, deep lake. The lake beside
which they had first made love.
He did not see ... No one saw ... The hidden archer. One of the
earl's men, hidden in the tree at the edge of the glade.
Stephen smiled into Mara's eyes. The blood, death and
destruction all around them disappeared. Trey, their
deerhound, whined and pushed at their legs, but they barely
noticed. They could not tear their gazes from each other.
It was thus that Stephen saw the life go out of his wife's
eyes when the arrow pierced her throat. She was gone from him
Mara slumped, warm in her husband's arms, for the last time.
* * *
Steve Bellingham woke up screaming.
The clock radio read 2:00 a.m.
Even had she not been the daughter of the lord of the manor,
Mara would have commanded the total respect of every servant
within the castle walls. She had inherited not only her
father's full height, but nearly the breadth of his shoulders.
Her waist-length hair was as pale as the frosts that rimed the
winter hillsides and, although she normally wore it plaited,
today it was unbound and whipped about her shoulders in the
cold spring wind. Her stride was long and purposeful and her
blue eyes glinted with dark fire. She was a Valkyrie, a
vengeful goddess, and those who worked in the stables sprang
into action when they saw her hurry down the steps from the
great hall, deerhound at her heels.
The dappled palfrey was her favored mount. The sturdy gray
mare was saddled and waiting by the time Mara had crossed the
yard to the low wooden outbuilding. She mumbled a hasty
thanks, disdained the hand prepared to aid her and swung into
the saddle. Eyes were averted as she pulled her skirt down
over a muscular, but well-toned thigh and slim, booted calf.
She gathered her reins, fitted her feet to the stirrups and
put her heels to the palfrey's flanks. The mare started off at
Though the reign of the previous king had been fraught with
civil wars, Henry III enjoyed a serene rule. The barons had no
quarrel with him. Despite continued tension with their
neighbor, the earl, peace lay upon the land. As a result, the
gate was open and the bridge across the dry moat lowered.
The guard in the watchtower hailed her, but Mara rode on past.
She kept the mare to a collected canter until they were beyond
the castle walls, then gave her mount its head. Her hound
loped at her side, pink tongue lolling, but she didn't slow.
Her father disapproved of unchaperoned rides and would send a
loyal retainer after her as soon as the gate guard reported
her departure. She wanted to get as much of a head start as
The gray mare was heavily built and sturdy, rather than swift.
Nevertheless the miles fell away. The castle, built on a hilly
slope near the great, dark Ullsmere, lake without depth, lay
far behind, and still the mare galloped on. Mara's heart
hammered along with each pounding hoof beat.
Her parents were making her get married. It would be the end
of the world as she had known it. For Mara had no illusions.
No husband would ever be as accommodating as her father had
been. There would be no more wild gallops through the
countryside, no more hawking or hunting. Her husband would not
care that she could accurately throw a dagger or competently
aim a crossbow. He would have no pride in the fact she could
effectively wield a broadsword. No. None of those things would
impress a man. A husband.
Nostrils flared and neck lathered, the mare slowed to a trot.
Mara did not urge her back into a gallop. The mare's flagging
steps were in perfect rhythm with her own faltering heart andhopes.
Beatrice, her mother, was as fragile as she was beautiful,
intelligent and devoted. Two sons had been stillborn before
Mara, and there had been none after. Doting on their daughter
Ranulf had encouraged, and Beatrice had allowed, Mara's
training in what otherwise were purely masculine pastimes.
Beatrice had not, however, neglected her daughter's education
in the feminine arts.
Mara sighed and allowed her mare to fall into a plodding walk.
She was, she mused, unfortunately, amply prepared to run a
manor. She was familiar with the spices that turned an
ordinary table into a grand one; she knew how to store and use
medicinal herbs; how to dry certain flowers with which to
sweeten dank rooms; she could even ply a needle with a certain
degree of competence, if not artistry.
But to spend the rest of her life engaged in these mundane
pursuits? Never again to feel the wind of freedom in her face,
or experience the thrill of a hunt? The thought was
intolerable. Not to mention thoughts of the man himself. Her
life, her future, would now belong to someone else. A
stranger. An intimate stranger.
The palfrey halted when she felt her rider stiffen unnaturally
in the saddle. Mara never noticed. Her hound sat down nearby
and gazed up at his mistress, panting, tongue hanging. He
cocked his head and uttered a thin whine.
The sound intruded on Mara's reverie, and she turned her
attention to the huge, shaggy dog. A bitter smile touched her
mouth. "Would to God I had been born like you, old friend,"
she murmured dryly. "A male."
But she had not. She had been born the weaker sex and so must
have a man to protect and provide for her. Mara chuckled. It
didn't matter she was likely more capable than most men. As
her mother had said, a husband there must be so a husband she
would have. And if her immediate betrothal would save her from
the clutches of the unspeakably cruel and avaricious Baldwin,
she supposed it was at least one small thing to be grateful
For only marriage to another would save her, of that there was
no doubt. If she remained unmarried and refused to wed
Baldwin, the earl would simply petition the king for her hand.
And although Henry was just, he was also a man. He would
neither understand nor countenance her refusal. He would grant
Baldwin's request. Mara shuddered.
Death would be preferable to life with the Earl of Cumbria.
Absorbed in her thoughts, Mara was unaware of how far she had
ridden, or in what precise direction. She did not notice that
she had come to the southernmost border of her father's lands,
to the point where they joined with Baldwin's. She likewise
did not notice a small band of riders crest a distant, brown
hill and halt, their attention turned in her direction. She
noticed only that the day seemed to have grown noticeably
cooler. She pulled her cloak more tightly about her shoulders.
Hawk-nosed and thin to the point of emaciation, Baldwin knew
he did not make a good first impression. All his wealth, all
his power, could not compensate for his lack of physical
attributes. He was aware, moreover, that his predilection for
wearing black caused many people to liken his appearance to
that of a crow. This was whispered, of course, behind his
back. The penalty for such an insult, should it be overheard,
would be a just and fitting one. Rendered swiftly.
Baldwin smiled to himself. His brother had learned that
lesson. Howard, the elder, the chosen, the handsome, the
shining one. Howard, who had been petted and fawned over by
their mother. Howard, who had become their father's constant
companion, accompanying him everywhere as he learned what he
must to assume the earldom upon their father's death. Howard,
who had unfortunately chosen to eat those delicate mushroom
pasties prepared for the boys' noonday meal. The pasties
Baldwin himself had so wisely declined to touch.
Naturally, the cook had been blamed. An accident, surely,
choosing the wrong, the most poisonous, mushrooms from the
forest's bounty. But an accident that could not afford to be
repeated with just one precious little heir remaining. The
cook had been summarily hanged.
No one had ever suspected. Not really. Just his mother, who
had never liked him very much anyway. But he had grown tired
of her long, wary looks, the expression of disgust and
revulsion that occasionally passed over her fine, pale
features. When she finally died, after a long, wasting
illness, no one suspected the honey mead that she took each
night to help her sleep. She had never been the same anyway
since her eldest son's death.
Baldwin's smile of satisfaction deepened. He smoothed back his
long, glossy black hair, certainly his finest feature.
Unfortunately it did not, he knew, enhance his unusually
pallid complexion and pale, slightly protuberant blue eyes.
But these were things that would be overlooked by his future
bride. If she knew what was good for her.
Baldwin licked his thin, colorless lips and cast his gaze down
in dreamy contemplation of the bony hand that gripped the
reins. The hand that would soon stroke that firm, white flesh,
that extraordinary hair. Baldwin's smile gathered into a
Yes. Indeed. The incredible Amarantha would soon be his. For
this time he had an offer her father could not refuse. This
time. If an alliance with the Earl of Cumbria was not enough
for the old fool, then surely hunting rights in Cumbria's vast
and bountiful forests and the gift of several hundred acres of
land along Ranulf's borders, prime grazing land, should be.
All in exchange for his daughter's hand. Why not? He could
afford to be generous. As generous and magnanimous as he
wished. He would get it all back soon enough when the
miserable old fool died and his daughter ... And her husband ...
The mere thought of her thickened the blood in his veins.
Mara. Haughty, arrogant, magnificent Mara. A woman so
extraordinary he was willing to forget, temporarily at least,
the humiliation of his last attempt to press his suit.
"My Lord ... Excuse me, my Lord Baldwin. Look there, just
ahead, at the foot of the hill."
Irritated by the distraction, Baldwin waved the man away as if
shooing a fly. But his train of thought had been broken.
Rewarding the offending knight with a scowl, he gazed in the
direction the man had indicated.
And saw her. Like a dream come to life, there she was.
Unmistakable, larger than life. Amarantha. Ranulf's daughter.
She sat her mount rigidly erect, chin high. Her nearly white
hair bound and caressed her shoulders like a rare silken cape.
There was no one like her and soon, very soon, she would be
The four knights who had accompanied their earl watched a
smile briefly light their lord's perpetually bleak
countenance, and knew they were in for a bit of sport. Not a
man among them blamed the earl for his all too obvious desire,
and not one of them wouldn't have given much, if not all, he
owned to be in the earl's position.
"There she is, lads," he drawled. "My bride-to-be. My beauty.
What say we give her a warm welcome? And escort her home."
Wanting no reply, expecting none, Baldwin cruelly spurred his
mount into a dash down the hill.
Trey's growl was low, ominous. Mara knew immediately the sound
meant someone approached. She looked up and movement on the
distant hill caught her attention. She saw the riders headed
in her direction.
She was relatively safe, even unaccompanied, on her father's
lands. However, it was never wise for a woman to be caught out
alone by a group of men, and Mara experienced a prick of
apprehension. But only because, in her haste to leave the
castle, she had come away unarmed.
Then she caught a good look at the lead rider, black cape
flapping like raven's wings. And the prick of apprehension
turned to a thrill of fear that hurried up her spine.
She might, she thought quickly, wheel the mare and make a run
for it. But the animal was tired and winded from her long run.
She wouldn't make a hundred yards before being caught.
Besides, it was against her nature to turn tail and flee.
Especially from a worm like Baldwin.
Mara cursed herself for her thoughtlessness in leaving without
so much as the dagger she habitually carried in the silver
girdle at her waist. But for Trey, she was helpless and soon
to be alone with the most treacherous and loathsome man in all
of England. She held her mare steady and turned to face the
Baldwin, however, would never know she felt so much as an
instant of apprehension. Mara squared her shoulders and let
the faintest of smiles lift the corners of her mouth.
Mara's expression of disdain instantly destroyed Baldwin's
good humor. But he would soon wipe that smile from her face,
he silently fumed. He would crush her lips with his and take
what belonged to him. And if he did not, wisely, fear Ranulf's
righteous retribution, he would do it right here and now.
Controlling himself with visible effort, Baldwin pointedly
avoided a greeting and motioned his men to surround horse,
hound and rider.
Mara did not acknowledge the movement of the men to encircle
her by so much as the blink of an eye. If Baldwin sought to
discomfit her, he was going to be sadly disappointed. Trey
growled, but Mara silenced him with a wave of her hand. She
gazed levelly at her would-be tormentor.
"So, Baldwin," Mara said at length. "What is this? A hunting
party? It must be. I've heard this is how you bring down both
hart and hind, particularly the doe. Have your men surround
her, cut her off. Cut her down. How clever, Baldwin. How
The earl's knights had the grace to look abashed. Baldwin felt
only rage. He knew an unattractive flush rose to his face, and
fixed his glare on the woman who had lit the fires that banked
in his cheeks.
"I would mind my tongue if I were you, woman," he hissed
through gritted teeth. "My memory is long. And the time 'til I
take you to wife is short."
Mara snorted. "Wife? I'd rather die, Baldwin. Painfully."
The Earl of Cumbria had never been noted for either patience
or restraint. What little he might ever have possessed now
deserted him completely. With a hard spur to his horse's
flank, he lunged the animal forward and slapped Mara sharply
across the face.
The blow took her by surprise. The anger that swiftly followed
the blow, however, was not hot and heedless as Baldwin's wrath
had been. It was steel-edged, cold and calculated. Ignoring
entirely the men who surrounded her, Mara made a grab for the
shortsword Baldwin wore at his side.
The motion was as quick as the strike of a snake. Baldwin
found himself vainly reaching for the weapon already firm in
Mara's grip. The metallic hiss of steel whispered in the
sudden silence as the earl's men drew their own swords. Mara
pivoted her mare, blade raised menacingly, threatening each
and every man, then returned her hard, dark stare to the earl.
Excerpted from The Circle of a Promise
by Helen A. Rosburg
Copyright © 2003 by Helen A. Rosburg.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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