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Every woman considered stealing a horse and running away on her wedding day, didn't she?
Isabel de Godred fought the restlessness building within her. It was her duty to obey her father. She understood it, even as she clenched the crimson silk of her kirtle and eyed the stables.
In her heart, she knew an escape was futile. Even if she did manage to leave the grounds, her father would send an army after her. Edwin de Godred was not known for his tolerance. Everything was done according to his orders, and woe to anyone who disobeyed.
The marriage might not be so bad, part of her reasoned. Her betrothed could be an amiable, attractive man who would allow her the freedom to run his estates.
She closed her eyes. No, highly unlikely. Otherwise her father would have paraded the suitor before her, boasting about the match. She knew little about him, save his Irish heritage and rank. 'Are you ready, my lady?' her maidservant Clair asked. With a conspiratorial smile, she added, 'Do you suppose he's handsome?'
'No. He won't be.' Toothless and ageing. That's how the man would look. Panic boiled inside her stomach, and Isabel's steps felt leaden. Her rash escape plan was looking more and more appealing.
Isabel shook her head. 'Clair, Father wouldn't even let me meet the man at our betrothal. He's probably half-demon.'
Her maid crossed herself and frowned. 'I heard he's one of the Irish kings. He must be wealthy beyond our imaginings.'
'He isn't the High King.' And thank the saints for that. Though she might rule over the tribe, at least she did not have the burden of ruling a country. As they walked down the wooden staircase outside the castle donjon, she wondered how her father had arranged a betrothal in such a short time. He'd gone to aid the Earl of Pembroke's campaign only last summer.
'If I could, I'd take your place,' Clair mused with a dreamy smile.
'And if I could, I'd give him to you.' Unfortunately, that wasn't possible.
Isabel's imagination conjured up a monster. The man must be unbearable to require such secrecy. Though she knew it was unfair to pass a judgement before she'd met her intended, she couldn't help but imagine the worst.
'You'll be mistress of your own kingdom.' Clair sighed. 'Imagine it. You're to become a queen.'
'I suppose.'And that added even more fear to the forthcoming marriage.What did she know about being a queen? She knew how to run an estate and make it profitable, but that was all.
Her father Edwin de Godred, Baron of Thornwyck, awaited her outside the chapel among a small crowd of guests and servants. Tall and thin, his greying beard and moustache were neatly groomed. He examined her with a glance, and Isabel felt like a mare about to be traded. She resisted the urge to show her teeth for inspection.
No, it did not bother her to leave this place. But what should she expect from the Irish king? Was he kind? Cruel? Her nerves wound tighter.
'Is he here?'she asked her father, staring at the men waiting near the church.
Edwin gripped her cold fingers, keeping them in a tight grasp as he escorted her to the church. 'You will meet him soon enough. My men sighted his travelling party a few hours ago.'
'I would rather have met him at our betrothal,' she muttered. Her father only grunted a response.
Isabel shivered. Until she saw this man with her own eyes, she'd not surrender her escape plans. With each step, she felt more alone. Her sisters were not here to lend their support. Edwin had not permitted it, and it had hurt more than she'd thought it would.
When they arrived in the courtyard, a well-dressed man was speaking to the priest. He had little hair, save a snowy fringe around his pate.
'Is that him?' she asked. Her father didn't answer. He seemed preoccupied, his gaze focused into the distance.
The older man swallowed hard and wiped his palms upon the hem of his tunic. He glanced around as if searching for someone.
Isabel sent up a silent prayer, her cheeks flaming. God, please save me from this marriage, she thought, even as her father's hand closed over her wrist.
A moment later, she heard the sound of a horse approaching. Startled, she glanced up at the heavens. 'That was quick.'
'What is it?' Edwin demanded. 'Nothing.'Isabel forced a neutral expression onto her face, but the rumbling sound intensified. Her father offered a strange smile, and he motioned for the priest to wait. Moments later, the elderly man stepped among the other guests. So he was not her bridegroom.
The noise grew louder, and her father's hand moved to his sword hilt. A few guests looked to Edwin, the women glancing around with uncertainty. The priest turned to Isabel, a questioning look on his face.
Isabel froze. There, riding towards the guests, a man emerged. His clothes were little better than rags, dried mud coating the hem of his cloak. And yet he rode a sleek black horse, a stallion worthy of a knight.
His sword was drawn, as if to cut down any man who dared oppose him. Guests scrambled to get away from the horse, several women shrieking.
Isabel's heart leaped into her throat, but she held herself straight, refusing to scream. Instead she darted behind one of her father's men, a soldier armed with a bow and arrows.
What was wrong with them? The men hadn't moved, nor released any arrows. As a single rider, the intruder was an easy target. Would no one stop him?
'Do something!' she shouted, but the soldiers ignored her. The man drew his horse to a halt, sheathing his sword. Isabel's breath caught in her lungs, a strange sense of foreboding sliding over her. No. This could not be him.
Black hair flowed down his shoulders, his granite eyes burning into hers. He reminded her of a savage barbarian, bold and fearless. He wore a strange garment, a long tunic of blue that draped to his knees, and dun-coloured leggings. A crimson, ragged cloak hung across his shoulders, pinned with a narrow iron brooch the length of her forearm. Gold bands encircled his upper arms, denoting a noble rank.
Her father's calm acceptance of the interruption could mean only one thing. The barbarian was her betrothed husband. Isabel bit her lip, fighting back the fear and the desire to flee.
Edwin confirmed it with his words. 'Isabel, this is Patrick MacEgan, king of Laochre.'
She didn't want to believe him. While the barbarian's horse and sword suggested a high rank, the man looked as though he'd come from a battlefield rather than a throne. And where were his escorts, his servants? Kings did not travel alone. Her suspicions darkened.
The king dismounted, and Isabel kept a clear eye on his horse. Now, more than ever, she longed to escape. Perhaps she could seek sanctuary in the abbey. There was a slim chance she might make it.
'You are Lady Isabel de Godred?' he asked. The lilting accent in his voice sounded foreign in the Norman tongue.
'I am.' She stared at the man. 'Is this the way you usually arrive at a wedding? By trying to kill the guests?'
'Isabel,' her father warned. She stilled her voice, fighting back the fear that pounded inside her. His steel eyes studied her dispassionately, and her gaze shifted to his hands. He could tear her apart with them, no doubt.
The barbarian king blinked a second. The fierce expression returned to his face. 'Let us get the deed done.'
Not if she could help it. He wasn't at all half-demon. Full-blooded demon, more like. If she ever intended to make an escape, now was her only opportunity.
Isabel dashed towards MacEgan's horse. She gripped the saddle, trying to haul herself atop the creature before strong arms surrounded her like a shield. Sinewy muscles possessed her in a prison of strength.
Though she fought him, the king lifted her down as though she weighed no more than a fly. He kept her pinioned against his chest. His body heat warmed her cool skin, and the top of her head reached just below his shoulders. In his stance, she could feel the caged fury.
'I cannot wed you,' she insisted. This was not the sort of amiable husband who would sit upon a throne and let her handle the household. He was the sort of man who would lock her in chains and feed her body to the crows.
No one listened to her protests. Father Thomas began murmuring the words to the marriage rite. The king took her hand in his, and blood roared in Isabel's ears.
This could not be happening. This man would steal her away from her homeland, to the island of Erin where she had no family. She'd never see her sisters again. Pain twisted within her skin, and she held back tears.
His hand squeezed hers tighter, and she caught the warning look. Anger rose up within her, permeating and harsh. What had she done to be punished with a husband such as this?
The priest was waiting for her vow. Isabel shook her head and her throat closed up. 'I will not wed you.'
'You've no more choice than I, a chara.'
Isabel tried to break free of him, but the Irish king overpowered her. 'You wish to have your freedom, do you not?'
She made no reply. What did he mean? 'Agree to this marriage, and it shall be yours.'
She did not believe him. Every inch of this man was uncivilised. Her father sent her an icy glare. 'Look around you, Isabel. If you do not wed the king of Laochre, there is none other who will have you. What man desires a disobedient wife? You bring shame upon yourself.'
Hot tears gathered in her eyes, but Isabel held her ground. The wedding guests appeared uncomfortable.
The king softened his grip upon her wrist. Lowering his voice, he brought his mouth to her ear. His breath made her shiver.
'Your father holds the lives of my people under his control: men, women and children. The only way to save them is if I wed you. And wed you I shall, a chara, be assured of it.'
A single tear slid free, staining her cheek. The truth broke through, unwanted. Her father's conquest in Erin had made her into a bargaining pawn, her own wishes meaningless. This was a political alliance, and the king's rigid expression made it clear he would not accept a refusal.
Was he telling the truth? Would children and women die if she refused? She turned and studied her father. In his eyes she saw no mercy.
She looked closer at Patrick MacEgan. Past the anger she saw exhaustion. And a hint of sadness. If he was right, if innocents would die without her acceptance
She closed her eyes, knowing she could not escape her fate. In that moment the chains of obligation tightened around her.
When the priest asked for her vow again, she forced herself to nod aye. Within moments, the rite had ended. Her husband brushed a kiss of peace upon her cheek, and Isabel clenched her teeth to keep from screaming.
Throughout the Mass, Patrick kept her hand imprisoned in his. She barely heard the priest's words, her head spinning with disbelief. So fast. Wedded to a man she didn't know, a king who lived a world apart from her homeland.
Afterwards, they walked into the inner bailey. Isabel's stomach roiled at the scent of the wedding feast prepared. Peacocks, a roasted pig, and all manner of exotic fare awaited them. She couldn't imagine touching a bite of it. Celebrating was the furthest thing from her mind.
Patrick stopped in front of his horse. 'We leave now. Say farewell to your father, for you will not see him for a long time.'
His command caught her unawares. 'But my belongings and dowry,' she protested. 'The wagons'
'We'll send for them later.'
Isabel cast a glance towards Edwin de Godred. No longer did she see the face of her father, a man she had tried desperately to please. Now she saw a man willing to sell her into marriage with the devil, should it further his own ambitions.
Her father moved forward. 'You cannot depart until the marriage is consummated.'
'I have met our agreement.'Patrick's expression hardened, and his palm moved down to the hollow of her spine. Isabel stiffened at the mark of possession. 'You need not doubt the rest. But it will be on my terms, not yours.'
Lord Thornwyck deliberated before at last handing over a scroll of sealed parchment. 'If she is not carrying an heir by the time I return to Laochre, I will require evidence that she is no longer a virgin.'
Isabel's face burned with mortification. Now it seemed they viewed her as a brood mare. Terror lanced her at the idea of submitting to the Irish king. Though he'd granted her a reprieve from the ceremonial bedding, she had no doubt he would want to share her bed later this night. Her skin prickled beneath the touch of his hand upon her body. The awareness of him only heightened her fears.
'At Lughnasa, we'll expect you,'Patrick replied. He did not await a response, but lifted her on to his horse. He swung up behind her, spurring the stallion into a gallop.
The horse raced onwards while strong arms confined her in an iron grip. Neither her father, nor his men, made any move to stop him. Isabel's last thought was, God, this was not what I meant when I begged you to save me from this marriage.
Patrick kept the woman in a firm grip as they rode through the fields. He needed to put distance between them and Thorn-wyck's fortress. Though the Baron had let him leave freely, he didn't trust the Normans to keep their word.
Isabel de Godred had startled him. He didn't know what he had expected, but it certainly wasn't a wife who'd accused him of trying to murder the guests. He'd hoped for a plain-faced, biddable maiden who would follow his orders. Instead, fate had granted him a beautiful woman who looked as though she'd never obeyed a command in her life. Even now her body tensed against his, as though she were contemplating escape.
In silent response, he tightened his hold. Without Isabel's presence, he could not free his people. The orders signed by Thornwyck were not enough. The Norman captain had to see her for himself.
Patrick stared at the horizon, wondering if he would glimpse his brothers. Though he'd ordered them to remain beyond the Welsh border, he suspected they hadn't. During the wedding Mass, he'd caught a slight motion to his left. But when he'd turned, there was nothing.
Then again, his brothers were well trained. Like shadows, if they didn't want to be seen, no one would find them. The fear of anything happening to his family added yet another rope of tension to this tangled web.
Brutal memories slashed at his heart, of the children who had died in the fires. His brother's wife, stolen and killed by the Norman invaders. So much loss. And all because of Thorn-wyck and the Earl of Pembroke's forces. He could hardly think about the woman he held in his arms, for she was one of them.