Bride of the Overlord By Tracy L. Ranson Published by:
Bride of the Overlord
By Tracy L. Ranson
Published by:Sirius Publications ™
© Copyright 2000 by Tracy L. Ranson
All rights reserved. You must have written permission from the publisher to copy any of this material or post it in any form.
Out of the blackening smoke emerged a lone warrior, his tall impressive form silhouetted against the morning sun as the yellow orb tried to burn its way through the blackening haze. The fallen trees that had stood for hundreds of years now lay smoldering in ruins, feeding the black haze that encircled his head. The flaming boulders that had turned the trees to ash lay next to them, still smoking from the battle that had ensued just a few hours before.
His face showed no reaction to the carnage that lay in his path. He had seen countless battles before this one. The depths of his soul had turned black and hardened his heart against all thought or emotion. Halting his horse at the edge of the destruction, his eyes scanned around as far as the rolling clouds of smoke moving across his path would let him for any sign of life. Only the deafening silence prevailed around him, closing in like a blanket. Silently he urged his huge beast forward, working his way around the lifeless heaps and giving a passive ear to the crunching of the grass as each delicate blade coated with dried blood was smashed under his horse's hooves.
The bodies were stacked like cordwood on each side of his horse, the kilts of the Scots blowing gently in the breeze that swept over the massacred flesh. The coppery smell of the blood assailed his nostrils, causing him to grimace. Why had he not gotten used to that smell over the years?
All around him, the massacred bodies of his men gave silent testimony to the tenacity of the Scots if not their nerve for coming to attack his land when they knew he would not be present. How did they known he would not be there?
Peering down, he observed the different colors of the tattered tartans on the Scottish dead with a casual indifference, noticing the various patterns that designated each clan. The Scots wear their kilts as proudly in death as they do in life, he thought. His vision bypassed the slaughtered Scots as he moved forward seeking a patch of untainted ground so that he might dismount. Spying a seemingly untouched patch of green grass ahead, he urged his weary horse on past the wispy tendrils of smoke that rose to join the dark haze above his head. He halted in the middle of the last green area within sight and dismounted quickly. As soon as he heard the crunching of the grass under his booted feet, he knew that the earth here ran red with the blood of his butchered men as well. He discarded his visor and mail coif on the ground in savage frustration, allowing his damp raven colored curls to spill down his shoulders as he sought any sign of life. Had every man in his employ been slaughtered?
As if in a dream, the survivors drifted out of the darkening haze like the fabled fairies of the forest, their armor and tunics covered in blood, their swords drawn ready to fight to the death if necessary. He saw the waves of fear cross their faces. Then they recognized him, and dropped their blood soaked swords to the ground.
"Alexander, you've returned!" Longworth shouted, stepping forward to greet his friend.
Alexander's eyes dropped the soiled, mutilated fabric of Longworth's tunic, Alexander's family crest of the two stags standing in rampant formation on a white and gold field barely visible under the deep crimson stains. Vaguely he wondered how much of the blood belonged to Longworth and how much belonged to the Scots that fell to his sword.
"Tis I. What happened, Longworth?" he demanded, his eyes darting from area to area trying to calculate the losses. This war was costing him greatly, and each loss meant the more ground the Scots gained.
"The Scots, Alexander. They came over the border and ambushed us in the night. Somehow, they knew we were here, but it seems impossible. The only ones that knew we would be here were you, I and Karac."
Longworth saw the danger creep into Alexander's eyes when he heard the name Karac. Alexander knew Longworth would not betray his army, and since he was no traitor himself, that left only one person. Alexander's gauntlet covered hand rose slowly, finding purchase on the hilt of his ornate sword, his fingers aching to use his instrument of justice.
"Where is Karac?" he growled, his eyes turning even blacker than before. That look sent everyone close to Alexander on edge, including Longworth. Alexander could tell by the look on Longworth's face that his heart grappled with the decision of betraying a friend or cutting down a true traitor.
"He... He is over underneath the shade of the tree Alexander nursing his wounds." Longworth choked as though a hand were squeezing his throat slowly. Alexander turned his haunting eyes to where the traitor lay with his hand over his bloodied armor jacket trying to stop his wounds from bleeding. You will not need to do that much longer, traitor, for you will bleed when I dispense my justice, Alexander's mind warned. Turning his emotionless face toward the gnarled base of the tree, he stalked toward him in his long stride with his hair and tunic billowing out behind him.
Karac lay under the tree bleeding from several wounds in his side. The insects smelling his fresh blood buzzed busily around him looking for a meal. He shooed them away with a quick wave of his hand, but they were undaunted and relentless. His armor lay to the side. Through his half-closed eyes he saw the stall figure striding toward him like a dark angel, no emotion whatsoever showing on his face. Then it became all too clear. The Duke had found out about his betrayal, hunting him down so that justice might be met by the Duke's own hand. Karac cowered closer to the tree, his hands creeping up the rough bark but finding no purchase. His leather leggings were stiff and creaking with the blood that had soaked into them. Before he could move further, the Duke was upon him, sword in hand.
Alexander grabbed the boy by the throat, jerking him roughly to his feet, his sword at the Karac's throat. Terror seized Karac and Alexander could feel the Karac's trembling under his hands as though he were a rabbit caught in a snare trap, the creaking of the boy's leather leggings becoming louder with each movement. "Tell me boy, did you betray us to the Scots?"
Alexander's black eyes glowed with an almost devilish fire as he glowered at the boy. The boy's eyes told him all he needed to know, speaking volumes without words ever passing his childish lips. Alexander had learned long ago that the eyes always spoke what the mind would not confess.
Karac's eyes moved from the Alexander's blade then back to Alexander's eyes, seeking a foothold from which he could free himself. "Nay, I did not Milord. I know not how they found us here."
It was a lie. Alexander's heart hammered in his chest, threatening to burst through the wall of strong muscle that enclosed the vital muscle. He had no tolerance for traitors. Pushing the blade a little deeper into the soft flesh, he saw a thin line of blood trickle down Karac's neck to join the fresh blood already dripping out of the wounds in his sides. "I will give you one last chance, Karac. Did you betray us to the Scots?"
The iron wall that held Karac's heart suddenly burst, his emotions pouring through like water rushing through a broken dam unable to hold them back. Clutching Alexander's massive arm in a weakened grip, hoping the Duke would show him mercy, he confessed all he knew: "Aye, I did Milord! I needed the money for my family..."
"If you needed money that badly then you should have come to me for it. Since you have caused so many of my men to die, I have no choice but to make you pay with your life."
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Ignoring the Karac's cry for mercy, Alexander drew his sword across the pleading boy's throat, opening up his neck to let the rest of his blood flow down his chest and spill onto the ground. With surprised eyes, the boy looked at Alexander for a moment, clutching at him until his body gradually made a descent to the ground. Alexander's lip curled in disgust at the ruination of one of his best tunics. Calmly he wiped his sword on the dead boy's clothing as the last of Karac's gurgling sounds quieted down, and he re-sheathed his sword. Turning around, his gaze met that of his bloodied and beaten men. Longworth stepped ahead of them, questions crossing his light-skinned face in waves.
"Why did he betray us to the Scots, Alexander?" asked Longworth.
"Greed. Some of the Scots must have promised him gold for the information and he greedily took it. Now he has paid the ultimate price for that greed."
Alexander should have expected nothing less from the Scots. He had waited with King Edward in London for two days, and the Scottish bastard had nerve enough not to show and sign the treaty, choosing instead to slaughter his men. An inner voice the day before, a voice he always relied on never to fail him, had told Alexander to return to his men at that moment. Instead of following it, Alexander had chosen to ignore the warning, preferring to stay in the comfort of the Royal Castle. Now he berated himself silently for not following his gut reactions. His face hid all the emotions that swam through his mind.
"Did the Scottish King not sign the treaty?" asked Longworth.
"Nay, he didn't. I waited for two days with the King and the coward did not show his face. Perhaps the treaty had been just a ruse so that I would be away for the attack. I vow this, Longworth, that coward will pay and pay dearly for what he has done to our people while there is still life in my body."
Alexander's hatred for the Scots began to grow larger inside of him as though there was a tiny fire that someone was stoking to a roaring blaze. Longworth saw the darkness of his eyes and felt the hate in rolling waves emanate from Alexander putting him more on edge than before.
"What shall we do with the dead?"
"Bury our dead with ceremony and return all their valuables to their families. As for the Scottish dead," he growled, turning his head to gaze at the sea of mutilated tartan kilts, "let them rot back into the earth like the evil fiends they are."
Alexander turned and walked towards his horse that stood in the only bare patch of ground visible, grazing on the crimson grass. The morning sun overhead burned more brightly now, the blackened haze having been driven away. Longworth watched the stride his friend carried, one of arrogance and cruelty along with ruthlessness. Someone once remarked that Alexander's stride put him or her in mind of a dark avenging angel, one who would come and aid those in need. Longworth knew there was only one kind of angel Alexander could be. The Angel of Death.
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"Don't deliver excuses fools, I want results!" shouted King Edward, his fist pounding the table in rage. The lines around his eyes set the blue pools deeper. His fury reverberated against the chamber walls, the air heavy with fear. The advisors sat trembling across from the King, none of them daring to look him in the eyes. They had not done the job he had employed to do and now they were getting their rewards. In frustration, Edward grabbed his cloak, pacing back and forth in front of table. Why must fools and incompetent oafs surround him?
As he paced, his long white hair flew out behind him, dancing on the wind his pacing created. His boots clanging on the stones of the floor echoed throughout the chamber, instilling a deep seeded fear in his advisors.
Alexander stood at the far end of the room, deep in the shadows, listening and watching. His large armor-encased arms were crossed over his broad chest as he leaned his massive form against the wall. He viewed the whole scene with bemused interest, a smile upon his lips. He enjoyed the terror his grandfather instilled in whoever came before him, usually sending the poor fool on his way shivering. He had inherited that presence from the King, for he had killed anyone with Scottish blood that came into his sight, earning him the name Terror of the Isles. Through the years he had heard the many things the people called him, such as Son of the Devil or spawn of the devil, laughing deeply as he heard each one. If he was indeed son of the Devil he would have had the evil Scots stamped out long ago but since he was not, Alexander supposed he would have to eradicate the Scots one man at a time. Gradually, his thoughts returned to the scene at hand and continued to watch, his mind pondering as to why he was summoned here to London so urgently
"I want all of you to know that if there are any more foul-ups, your deaths! I want that crown and if you can not get it for me then I will find someone who will!" the King shouted, gazing at them with a murderous look. The advisors sat there with their shamed heads bowed as if waiting for absolution. With a wave of his silk-encircled wrist, the King dismissed them half-heartedly, his fury abating a little. Rising up, they bowed before the King and left. The only sound that was audible in the chamber was the soft shuffling of their feet as they exited with their heads bowed down in shame.
In their absence, the King sank stiffly into his plush embroidered chair and discarded his crown from his weathered head, rubbing his temple in frustration at the situation. The ineptness of his council was too much. The thought of Alexander in the shadows flashed in his mind and he called for the most terrifying man in his realm.
"Alexander, you may come in now. The oafs are gone," the King said, exasperation finding a foothold in his voice.
Alexander walked out of the shadows and into the dim candlelight, appearing as fierce as ever. His raven colored curls hung below his shoulders, grazing his tunic emblazoned with the crest of Kent. His giant arms were encased in wide shoulder plates; the mail underneath stretched to the limit. The hardness of war was stamped on his youthful face, smoldering in his cold dark eyes. His build was lean and muscular for a man who stood over six and a half feet. Edward let out a long weary sigh and asked Alexander to sit down.
"I see you made it to London no worse for the wear," said the King, gazing up at him through war weary eyes.
"Of course, your Majesty. Did you doubt it?" Alexander shrugged arrogantly, putting a gauntlet-covered hand on the ornate hilt of his sword.
"Nay, I didn't my boy. Well, do sit down for I wish to speak to you about something."
The King leaned forward, his hands upon the table for support. Alexander saw clearly the lines encircling the King's war hardened eyes, speaking of the heavy burden of the crown and the decisions that must be made concerning it.
"What is the reason I was summoned here, your Majesty?"
Alexander sat down and leaned back in his chair with an air of arrogance, something he inherited from his grandfather, causally putting his booted feet upon the table. The point of his sword sheath hit the stones of the floor with a dull clank, reverberating around the chamber, breaking the silence into pieces. When he felt comfortable, Alexander looked at his grandfather in anticipation.
"I wish to end this war with the Scots, Alexander, and soon. The expense has suddenly become too great. If they keep resisting I am afraid that I'll have to empty the royal coffers and they are nearly empty as it is." Slowly and stiffly, he rose from his chair, his purple and gold tunic catching lightly on the edge of the table. In his advanced age, the King could barely get up from the table because of the poor conditions of his bones and the lung rot housed in his chest. A fit of coughing overtook him, shaking his aging body, and he spat the bothersome phlegm in the basin next to his chair with a few perfunctory coughs ensuing. When the coughing fit died down, he cleared his throat and returned his gaze to Alexander.
"I would like to see this war over too, your Majesty and every Scot dead. They have been nothing but trouble for us, especially me. To me, a good Scot is a dead one. Why do you pursue such a useless crown with such fervor?"
"It belongs to me, Alexander and I want it where it belongs. Don't you feel the same about your possessions?"
Alexander did. No man with any amount of sense dare challenge him for what he possessed. Lacing his hands behind his head, Alexander smiled half-heartedly for a moment then fixed his brooding gaze upon the older man in front of him through half closed eyes, his mind turning as to why he was here.
"Aye, that I do. I would kill any man attempting to take what belongs to me. How do you propose to get the crown of Scotland away from the evil fiends?"
"I was hoping you would ask, Alexander. I've a plan which could give us both something we could possess completely."
The King smiled an evil smile, one Alexander had seen before and preferred never to see again. A look of one had something evil in mind and couldn't wait to share the excitement
"What would that be, Sire?"
His mind pondered idly as to what the King was thinking, his hands remaining behind his head, his brooding eyes traveling to the ornate painting of angels flying through the clouds on the ceiling. Why the pursuit of the Scottish crown? Would it not be much easier to stamp them out at once and be done with it?
"I've recent news from the Scottish court. The Princess Catherine has come of age and will be returning to Edinburgh from the convent in which she has spent the better part of her life. If we plan this right, my dear fellow, the crown will fall right into my lap."
Alexander stared at his grandfather through cold, calculating black eyes. What would the Scottish Princess have to do with capturing the Crown of Scotland? Out of the dense fog of his mind emerged a story that had been told to him long ago concerning the mysterious Princess of Scotland. Both of her parents had been killed during an English invasion of her country. Her brother had accidentally killed one of the King's advisors, making her sole heir to the Crown of Scotland. Could the King possibly be planning to send Alexander to intercept the dear little Princess in an effort to force the Scottish King to turn over the crown? Twould serve the coward right for what he did to his men all those years ago. The same evil smile came to his lips that was on his grandfather's face before, as he saw the plan take shape in his mind and become clearer with each passing moment.
"You wish me to kidnap the precious Princess and hold her hostage until they turn over their crown?" Alexander drawled lazily as his mind dreamed of personally serving retribution to the Scottish King for the slaughter of his men those seven years ago.
Drawing his hand through his locks, Alexander's heart beat with a wild excitement at the thought of the nice little kidnapping that was about to take place. The King looked at his grandson with gleaming eyes. "You understand well, Alexander except there is one little detail you left out."
"And that would be?"
"After you kidnap her," he said taking a deep drink from the goblet that sat near his withered hand, "I want you to marry her."
Alexander took a deep breath as the words fell from the King's lips, the wild excitement dying down in his chest. He was up to the task of kidnapping the Princess, but marry her? He hated all Scots for what they had done to his lands and wished to see them all dead, preferably by his hand. Now his King was asking him to take one hostage and marry her against her will. Concealing his, he smiled slowly.
"Why must I marry her? Will holding her hostage be enough to hold the Scottish hellhounds at bay?"
The idea of capturing what belonged to the Scottish bastard indeed intrigued him, but the idea of taking her as his bride did not. He had not a taste for women of Scottish blood and he wasn't about to develop one.
"Nay. If she is held hostage, then they will think they can come and take her back. If she is your bride, then they will think twice about taking her back. Did you forget you are the most feared Duke in all of the Isles?"
Alexander laughed at those words. He was the most truly feared man in all of the Isles, the mere mention of his name causing the bravest to tremble. I wonder if the Scottish princess will tremble, he thought mildly to himself. A picture of a homely, frightened Scottish woman cowering before him, begging for her life, certainly intrigued him no end. He concealed this reaction from the King.
"Nay, I did not forget your Majesty. I do not like it, your Majesty, having a Scottish princess as my bride, but it if will help you to gain what you wish, then your wish is my command."
Alexander rose from his chair to his towering full height, his tanned skin flush with color. A Scottish Princess as his bride? What would his people think once he brought her home to Kent?
"I knew you would, my dear son. There are times, especially now, when I wish I could have acknowledged your father. For you are so like me when I was your age. There was nothing I could not conquer." He picked up his crown that lay discarded upon the table and placed it upon his aged head with a kind of graceless elegance.
"When is this to take place, your Majesty?"
"My spies tell me she will be leaving in a fortnight. That will give you enough time to gather your men and sneak into Scotland unmolested. I have engaged a priest to go with you, for I wish you to be married before you reach Kent in case that there is a garrison following her."
Alexander's heart hammered in his chest, threatening to break through the strong wall of muscle that enclosed the beating organ. The thought of capturing the Princess was quickly becoming the foremost thought in his mind, the ultimate insult to the King of Scotland. What would the King do when she was wed to him? He longed to gain revenge on the Scottish coward and now his King afforded him the opportunity he had been searching for. Secretly, he hoped she would put up a struggle.
"Your Majesty, I've one question. What does my faceless bride look like?"
"I know not. I do remember what her mother looked like though. She was the French Princess Henriette and I am sorry to say she was very homely. If she looks anything like her mother, she will be ugly also."
Bile rose in Alexander's throat at the thought of taking a homely bride. He most certainly would take his husbandly right after they wed, but the thought of spending the rest of his life attached to an ugly creature caused his stomach to turn. Then he remembered the convent that bordered his lands. That was the solution. If she were truly homely, it would give him just cause to send her there, letting God gaze down upon his homely bride so he did not have to. The delight danced in his dark eyes at the thought of sending the Scottish Princess to spend the rest of her life behind the convent walls.
"No matter, Milord. There are plenty of pretty women about to bed if she does prove hard on the eyes. Thankfully I can send her to the convent nearby for safekeeping." He shrugged, gently taking his grandfather's frail hand into his own. The hand felt brittle in his large fingers, as if it could break at any moment.
"Well my son, are you agreed with the plan?"
The King stood there silently for a moment as he awaited the answer, one that he desperately wanted to hear. He saw Alexander draw a deep breath but knew that if his grandson were anything like him, the task would be done.
"Aye I am. I look forward to the retribution I will be paying to the King of Scotland for what he has done to me. I would most certainly like to see the look on the King's face when he finds that his heir to the throne is wed to me." He laughed. Some evil part of his being wanted to be there when the King found out, to hear what the coward had to say when he found his only heir to his throne was wed to the Terror of the Isles.
"I am glad you agree, Alexander. Truly I would like to see the King's face also when he finds out the last of his blood is wed to the most feared man in all the of the Isles. Now listen carefully, Alexander. When you leave here, see my steward and he will release all the money you need. When you and your men move through London, you can pick up all of your weaponry along with my confessor who will be going with you to wed you to the Princess before you reach Kent. With your help, Alexander, I know I will have that crown quickly."
The weary king's eyes still sparkled when speaking of gaining ground in the war. He had seen many battles and been in many wars but this was one he wished to fight to the end. Alexander read all of his king's intentions clearly through the haggard light blue eyes staring his own black ones, his hand upon the hilt of his sword gripping the cold metal tightly.
"That is one thing you can depend on, your Majesty. The hour draws late. May I take my leave of you, your Highness?"
"Certainly, my son. Go now and gather your men for it make take many of you to kidnap the Princess."
"I doubt whether she will put up much of a struggle, your Majesty. If she is homely, she may appreciate marriage being forced upon her." Alexander smirked.
"That she might, my son, that she might."
Bowing low before his King, Alexander exited the chamber with purpose in his stride. His mind was occupied with what he was commissioned to do, the exhilaration of it driving him to near madness. Would she tremble in his presence like so many women before her?
* * *
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The room greeted her with a warmth she had longed for in those long nights in the cold sterile cells of the convent, as she lay awake thinking of Stirling Castle. Now she was back home where she belonged. It was not longer just a concept for her now, as real as anything could possibly be, real to touch and smell. How many times had she told the nuns how much she missed the drafty old castle? She had spoken of it more times than she could count over the years she had spent there. The nuns were kind to her in the convent, giving her spiritual and educational instruction but what she yearned for was the comfort and safety of Stirling Castle. Now with her parents gone, it belonged to her and her alone. Her brother Duncan had become a common outlaw after killing one of her grandfather's advisors mistakenly, leaving her as sole heir. She had not heard from him in the past five years, and she vaguely wondered how he was getting along with his band of rebels.
Catherine strolled along the edges of her room, grateful to see that nothing had changed in her absence. Her quiet footfalls and the soft rustling of her best green gown were the only sounds breaking the solid barrier of quiet. Softly, Catherine walked over to her bed, the one true thing she had missed the most. She sat and taking one of her favorite pillows, she held it to her nose, inhaling the deep scent of home she missed so terribly and imprinting the aroma on her mind forever.
Suddenly, a servant bustled into the room, piercing the hazy cloud of her daydreams.
"Your highness, you look wonderful!" the servant, Taran, cried, taking Catherine in her fleshy arms and embracing her tightly.
"So do you, Taran! It hardly seems like so many years have passed since I last saw you!" Catherine cried, holding onto her dear friend tighter than ever. While she was at the convent, she had longed for the childhood friend with whom she had climbed trees, danced broomsticks, and played games. From a young age, Catherine had been schooled in the art of war, weaponry and military strategies so that she might make wise decisions when she became Queen. Through all her exercises, she had longed for her friend Taran, wishing to break away from the adult world. It seemed like nothing had changed since then, for she had longed for Taran all of those dark nights in her cold stone cell, her tiny hands lifted in prayer. Her prayers had finally been answered.
"Your Highness, so much has changed since you have been gone! The war..."
"Please, Taran, call me Catherine. You know I hate that title and I know about the war. His Majesty brought me back for that very reason."
Catherine urged Taran sit beside her on the bed. As she did so, Taran's dark brown eyes darted around the corners of the chamber as if there were someone there that would admonish her for sitting next to the royal Princess.
"I am so glad you are back Catherine! 'Tis lonely around here without you."
"'Twas lonely in the convent. There was nothing to do but pray and my knees grew tired of that. I wished you were there so we could climb the trees or pretend we were ladies at court, just like we used to when we were children." Catherine's remembered happier times, before she learned of the ugliness of war. Why did war exist? She was happiest with her parents and brother, before England decided that it wanted to rule Scotland along with all the other land and countries it tried to lay its greedy fingers on. Why must the English rule every piece of land that harbored its borders?
"I, too, Catherine. I did nothing but scrub and clean whilst you were away. If you were here, I bet we could have had some fun while working!" Taran laughed, clapping her hands together in a childlike fashion, for a moment taking Catherine back to a time when war didn't exist and there was nothing to contend with but her older brother. Now her concern was the ruling of an entire nation, something she felt she was not yet prepared to do.
"Yes we would! We could have pretended that the broomsticks were our beaux..."
Her words were cut off by the appearance of a tall woman with a pinched face in the doorway. Her hair was tucked so tightly into a bun that he corners of her eyes were pulled into upward slanting slits. The cold gray eyes glared at Catherine, daring her to be insolent.
"You are summoned to his majesty's presence immediately," said the woman in a cold, flat tone of voice.
Catherine stared at the pinch-faced woman with the cold steel blue of her eyes, silently wishing the woman away. Mrs. Fitzgibbons stood rooted in her spot, unyielding and unfazed by Catherine's cold stare. Her gnarled hands smoothed the folds of her gown, which was a sallow yellow that made her face appear to be the color of buttercups in the spring.
"When did his Majesty arrive? I did not know he was coming."
"It is not your place to know, Princess. The important people knew."
Those words stung her as surely as if she had been slapped. How dare this woman speak to her in this fashion in her own house! Now that she was sixteen, Catherine needed neither a governess nor anyone one else trying to rule her life. Summoning her courage from the depths of her soul, she replied regally, "Mrs. Fitzgibbons, since I am sixteen and owner of this castle, your services are no longer required. You may gather your things and leave this afternoon."
"'Tis not for you to say. Until I hear it from his Majesty's lips, I will remain in the employ of this castle," she stonily replied. She stalked over and grabbed Taran by the ear. "As for you, get back to the work you are supposed to be doing instead of bothering her Highness!"
Mrs. Fitzgibbons threw Taran unceremoniously out into the hall, where she crumpled to the floor in a heap, holding her ear with her pudgy fingers.
"Mrs. Fitzgibbons, do not talk to her like that! I am your Princess and I demand that you apologize to the girl!" Catherine demanded, waiting for the hardened woman to make a move to apologize to her friend. Unfazed, Mrs. Fitzgibbons stood there in silence, smoothing her yellow gown. One thing Catherine couldn't tolerate was insolence. She rose from her bed and strode over to the hated woman. They stood looking at each other for several moments, as they sized one another's strength, before Catherine was forced to break the stare in favor of helping her friend.
She helped Taran to her feet. Pulling Taran's straight brown hair aside from the injured ear, Catherine was grateful to see the skin had not been broken but she supposed the injury had hurt fiercely.
"Are you all right, Taran?" Catherine inquired gently.
"I... I think so. It still hurts though," Taran replied, holding her reddened ear with the corner of her grimy apron. Catherine turned on her heel, stalking over the formidable woman to demand the termination of her employ at Stirling.
"I'm going to speak to the King about your insolence and insubordination. Pack your things for you will not be here this afternoon, rest assured." Her teeth were clenched together in anger that colored her cheeks, making her angry countenance a darker crimson. She hoped the look upon her face would make the woman scared enough to leave but her heart sank a little when she saw it was completely useless on Mrs. Fitzgibbons. The woman doesn't have blood in her veins, she has ice, Catherine thought with malice. She had figured that out the first time she had been forced to meet her new governess at the most wretched time in her life. Pushing away the thoughts of a long dead age when she could say she was truly happy, she took Taran's arm and led her down the hall to take care of her ear.
* * *
King James sat at the table that used to belong to his son, food on a plate before him as his hands writhed in agony. He had no appetite. The war with England was costing him greatly and just not in men or resources. His own beloved son and his wife had fallen victim to the English leaving their two children without parents. His grandson Duncan had killed one of his advisors accidentally and according to the law, he was to be executed. With the aid of his rebel friend William Wallace, Duncan had managed to escape. James had searched for him half-heartedly. Duncan and Catherine were all that he had left of his beloved son and his wife so he was not about to execute either of them for any reason.
Gazing into the delicious trencher of food, he grew nauseous. He pushed the full trencher away from him reaching instead for the goblet of wine that was filled to the brim with a rich bountiful wine that reminded him of his younger days. The wine seemed sweeter then, far sweeter than it was now. Then his hair was a soft golden color curling down his back in gentle curls but now the ancient strands only hung white and straight around his face giving him haggard looked. Why did one's youth slip by like a fleeting feeling, only to be felt once and remembered forever with longing in one's heart for its return?
As he drank, the King's eyes migrated to the doorway then to different objects scattered around the large drafty dining hall then back to the door watching and waiting for his beloved Catherine to appear. Then, appearing as if mentally summoned, Catherine filled the open doorway with her presence like an angel dressed in white. James had to take a deep breath when he first beheld her. She was a grown woman. It had been more than a year since he had seen her and the time had passed like an eternity. Her long hair hung below her narrow waist in a thick blonde braid intertwined with bits of gold cord, ribbons and pearls nestling between the delicate knots. The chubbiness of childhood had vanished, and in place of the child he remembered stood a woman. Her breasts, which had been non-existent a year ago, were large and rounded, tapering down to a narrow waist. For a moment he could not speak, then he found his voice and spoke with amazing clarity.
"Come in my child," he said softly gesturing for her to sit with the movement of his hand.
Even her walk spoke of her womanhood. Catherine glided in the room with a careful elegance bowing before her King, taking the chair directly across from him.
"Why have you summoned me, your Majesty?"
Her voice had grown since they last spoke, from a childish one to one of soft femininity.
"I have summoned you here, Catherine, because I have some news for you."
Gazing into his well-worn eyes, she could not understand what he meant. Was she being sent to France to marry the Dauphin? Nay, it could not be! She had prayed diligently night after night hoping that the King in his mercy and wisdom would not saddle her with a husband. She had gone so far as to beg for one last season at Stirling before she married and from the expression on the King's face, she was going to be married and quickly.
"What is the news, your Majesty?" She trembled, not knowing if she truly wanted to hear the truth. She had no desire to be the Queen of any country unless she were Queen of Scotland solely, with no husband trying to rule Scotland from behind her throne. Drawing a deep breath, Catherine sat up straight in her chair as the nuns had taught her to do. She placed a napkin neatly on her lap.
"I have broken your betrothal to the Dauphin. You are no longer going to marry him," the King said solemnly.
Catherine's heart soared, for she had never wanted to marry that ogre. He was slovenly with no manners whatsoever, still eating his food with his fingers instead of the utensils that were created for such purpose. He always sickened her when she was in his presence either by lewd comments or making disgusting noises, both of which caused bile to rise high in her throat every time he came near. Oh, she had never known such relief! Never would she have to lie awake at night praying that it would not happen!
Keeping her expression neutral, Catherine gathered the courage to ask him why.
"Why, your Majesty? I thought we were set to wed in another year."
"With this confounded war with England, 'tis too dangerous for you to be crossing the channel. Instead I have decided to move you to a convent in Edinburgh until the damn war ends."
Catherine looked at him through incredulous eyes with her hands twitching uncontrollably under the table, her palms sweating cold moisture. Why was he doing this to her?
She had just gotten home today and now she must leave her beloved Stirling, her one and only true home, again. Nay, she could not take anymore of this! Drawing a deep breath to calm herself, she tried to reason with him while her fingers toyed nervously with the lace that encased her wrist.
"Why, your Majesty, why? I have just come home today and now you must tell me I must leave again! Nay, I will not leave!" she shouted, turning her back to him, stiffening when she heard him draw in a long breath. Why was she always being ordered away, with no regard for her feelings? I will never marry, she said to herself, and subject myself to any man's rule.
"Catherine, 'tis for your own good! I do not have enough troops to fight my war let alone enough to defend your castle. No one in a sane frame of mind would think of looking for you in a convent." He adjusted his crown. Her response did not shock him in the slightest. He expected it for she had much of his strength in her.
"I will defend my own castle! I have troops and weapons..." she retorted, ticking off in her head how many troops she had. Why, she had more than twenty thousand troops to defend her castle! Even the wicked Duke of Kent could not penetrate her forces. Her army had the latest in weaponry, including the catapult that was made to throw flaming boulders over a high wall and the crossbow that always hit its intended victim with unusual deadly accuracy.
Standing up so quickly that his chair fell over, the King gripped her by the upper shoulders forcing her to her feet and looked into her blue eyes with such sternness she had never seen before.
"Catherine, you are not listening! I have taken your troops long ago so there is no one to defend your castle! As for your weapons, I have taken those too! Do you not see you are defenseless!" he shouted, shaking her.
"Why do you need to protect me? No one wants me so why should I hide?
Her voice rose to another hysterical pitch, her chest heaving in frustration. Why should anyone want anything to do with her? Her mind spun like a whirlwind as to why she couldn't remain at home.
"You are wrong, Catherine. Right now there may be hordes of reward-hungry Englishmen waiting to capture you and hold you hostage until I turn over the crown to that bastard Edward. I will never do that. In order for me to win this war, Catherine, I must have your complete cooperation!"
His words sank in like a stone causing her to think about the situation more intensely. What her grandfather had said was right. If the English did hold her hostage, then her grandfather would be forced to turn over his crown. She could never live with herself if that happened. Catherine swallowed hard, feeling the lump that was beginning to form in the back of her throat. She had always been taught that a monarch must put the people's needs ahead of their own. With heavy regret, she knew what she must do.
Drawing a long breath, she resumed her seat after bending down to pick up the discarded napkin and placed the white cloth square demurely on her white-gowned lap. Peering up slowly to meet the intense gaze of her grandfather and King, she gave her consent.
"All right, your Majesty, I will do as you ask. I can not have my people suffer for my foolishness. When am I to leave?" she asked wearily. The thought of leaving her beloved home was more than she could bear. Her fingers twitched nervously in her lap. To keep them quiet, she pulled her braid out from behind her and fiddled with the end, fraying out the delicate silken strands.
"In a fortnight. By then the fighting will have cleared your route and within the month, you'll be safely ensconced in the convent."
Another convent. She was a devout Catholic but she didn't like the constant praying the nuns made her do when she was at the other convent. She took a deep breath, letting out a long wearied sigh.
"Thank you for waiting a fortnight, your Majesty. I should welcome the opportunity to stay in my beloved home during that time. Might I take Taran with me? I could not stand it otherwise." She cast her eyes down to the scrubbed wooden table before her. Her heart still did not want to acknowledge what she knew to be the truth. For a moment, she wondered if she would have been sent off so easily if she were a man. She did not want the King to see the womanish tears forming in her eyes.
"Aye but little else. We can not give away your identity with large bulky items in tow," he said, re-seating himself in front of the plate he had previously pushed away. He took the little wooden spoon next his trencher and began shoveling in the food as if someone would return to take the succulent stew away from him. Catherine looked at him with disappointed eyes, knowing this was not the same fearsome king she knew as a child. The way the food dribbled down his vestments and into his hair told her that he had changed into a coward. Her stomach turned as she watched him gobble everything down quickly like a sow pig. Where was the strong King she had remembered from her childhood? He was obviously gone. The man before her now was broken down, acting like a coward toward the English. She waited until he was finished to ask her leave.
"If you are finished, your Majesty, might I leave your presence so that I might tell Taran the news."
"Yes, my child, you may go."
Catherine stood up and bowed before her King, leaving the chamber with a heavy heart. Her own grandfather was sending her away to protect her from the war not realizing she could take care of herself and her people if she must. Had he forgotten that she was well skilled in weaponry and battle strategies thanks to his careful hand? Slowly she walked with her eyes cast down, taking in each stone that passed under her slippered feet for she wanted to savor each and every step, imprinting it on her mind. In a fortnight, she would not be seeing the wonderful stone floor of Stirling for a very long time.
* * *
Catherine shuffled into her chamber wearily, closing the door and leaning her forehead against the cool dark oak. How could her grandfather do this to her! She could stand and fight with the best man! Oh God in heaven why was she a woman? Catherine knew if she were a man, none of this would happen. She would have the best men at her disposal and the best weapons but because of her tender sex, she was looked upon as fragile. Suddenly the dam that held her tears broke with a sudden rush at the thought and she began to weep softly feeling the moisture fall down her face to collect upon the open neck of her gown. Out of the corner of her moisture-laden eyes, she caught a glimpse of movement. It was her beloved friend Taran, set to the task of cleaning out the fireplace.
Taran, who had heard the muffled crying, stopped what she was doing to see what the problem was. The moment she saw Catherine crying, she put her arms around her.
"What is the matter, dear Catherine?" asked Taran with a soft Irish lilt to her voice.
"Oh, Taran it could not be worse!" she cried, burying her face into Taran's soft shoulder.
"Come Catherine, you must tell me! What is so terrible?"
Catherine's voice was choked with sobs cutting off all words to her mouth as if she were being strangled. Taran held her for a moment then directed her toward the bed and sat down with her upon soft mattress. Catherine cried with her head against Taran's shoulder. "I do not have to marry the Dauphin of France anymore!" she cried, the sobs coming much faster to her now.
"Why Catherine, that is wonderful news! You did not want to be Queen of France anyway. Come, why are you crying so?"
"The King is sending me to another convent near Edinburgh so that he can keep an eye on me and protect me from danger because the war still rages."
"Oh, Catherine, I am so sorry. When are you to leave?"
She peered up at her friend with both fright and excitement dancing in her eyes, Taran becoming more on edge when she saw that look coming from the Princess.
"You mean when are we to leave. This time you're coming with me. I shall never suffer another convent stay without a dear friend with me." Catherine put her soft hand upon Taran's fleshy arm. Who better to have an adventure with than her dear friend?
"Did the King approve this?"
"Aye, that he did. I told him I would not do it otherwise," she said pleadingly, afraid that her dear friend would not come with her.
"Then Catherine, when are we to leave?" Taran said softly.
"In a fortnight. By that time I should have a plan in place for our departure."
Catherine had thought nothing of a plan until that moment for her mind worked quickly when it came to planning. A thought flashed in her mind. What if Taran were to portray her until they reached the convent and she would dress in knight's armor so that she could protect her entire caravan in case they ran into trouble? She had longed for an adventure such as this, and now the adventure was before her ripe and ready. Her heart beat with a wild excitement that coursed up and down her veins, thrumming along her spine. Twould be perfect! If she dressed as a knight, she could sneak back to Stirling Castle unmolested when the time was right to reclaim her birthright. Surely, her King would praise her for such ingenuity and her people would love her unconditionally. Catherine needed Taran's help more than ever now.
"What do you mean?" asked Taran.
"What I mean dear Taran is that you are going to be me until we reach the convent. I will be dressed like one of knights following behind the caravan. If there is any trouble, I can fend them off. Come, Taran, you've always wanted to wear my gowns!" She laughed. More details about the trip became clearer in her mind and forming a perfect picture.
"Why should I pretend to be you?" Taran stared at Catherine as if she had gone mad.
"I want to ride amongst the men. You remember I was trained in the art of war and weaponry."
"I know but Catherine are you sure..."
"I am sure. That way if we are molested, I can take care of them with my trusty sword," she said. She pulled the large sword from beneath the bed and showing the elite Scottish sword to Taran. It was made of the best Scottish steel that existed with an intricately ornate gold handle that was inlaid rubies and emeralds. The sword belonged to her father before her was mercilessly cut down by the English dogs. Taran laid her hand upon the cold steel feeling the strong blade beneath her fingertips, looking to Catherine with her answer.
"All right Catherine then that is what we shall do. What are you going to do about armor?"
That was one question Catherine had not considered. She had no armor of her own and having it made would take more than a fortnight. The chain mail alone would take months to make. The vision of Duncan's armor in his chamber flashed in her head, giving her the answer to her troubling dilemma.
"Duncan's will fit. He needs it no longer." She sighed ruefully, thinking of the brother that was out there somewhere, just beyond her reach. Deep in her heart, she hoped he was truly happy.
"Well Catherine, I do not think..."
"Come, Taran where is your sense of adventure? When we reach the convent, all will be well and life will continue on. Think of it as some of the games we used to play as children." Catherine said, sounding so much like her old childlike self, that Taran could not help but smile.
"All right, Catherine I will go along with your plan. Do you think it will work?"
"Aye, that it will, Taran never fear. When it is all over, think of the stories we will have to tell our grandchildren!"
The confident glee in Catherine's eyes forced Taran to agree. For what was left of the rest of the afternoon, Catherine and Taran remained secluded in Catherine's chamber meticulously planning each detail so that nothing could go wrong.
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The new moon had yet to be born, leaving the stars to twinkle in the clear sky and cast the forest glen into the darkest depths. Alexander preferred the night this way, for the bright light of moon would only hamper his mission. Around him, the sounds of the night creatures calling to each other in their own special language echoed through the tree-laden forest. The horses' soft sighs blended in so that they could not be distinguished from the other sounds. His eyes narrowed to slits as he crouched in the darkest part of the forest, searching out his prey as he had done so many times before. Longworth crouched next to him, shuffling in the dense grass that surrounded them. Where was the damned caravan?
His spies told him that she would be traveling this route tonight. He hoped for their sakes that they were not mistaken. Perspiration had broken out on his forehead despite the chill wind as the anticipation coursed through his body like a raging fire. He longed for the caravan to come into the forest so that he could behold his faceless bride and finally confirm her ugliness or beauty. Longworth shifted next to him, throwing the hood of his black cloak back in frustration.
"Where is she?"
"Be quiet man! Put your hood back up and cover your hair!" Alexander whispered sharply. Grumpily Longworth pulled the hood back over his light blonde hair and shifted again. His legs were growing tired of being in one position for so long.
Alexander ignored his plight and continued to watch for her, his heart to near bursting with anticipation as to what she looked like. He envisioned a creature with the golden hair that always intrigued him, eyes as blue as the cornflowers that grew near his castle and lithe like a sleek cat. Then out of the blackness came a noise, sounding much like cart wheels groaning, reverberated in Alexander's ear and he poised to see what came through the edge of the forest. He saw several men dressed as peasants; but they rode fine horses and marched in military formation. It must be her. His black eyes trained on the men, watching them come through the forest edge, counting perhaps ten in all. A cart followed them, the wheels groaning with agony at having to go such a long distance. Alexander raised his hand for his men to ready themselves to swoop down upon the hapless caravan. He moved quickly to his massive beast and mounted with amazing speed, lowering his arm in the appointed signal of attack.
* * *
All around them, black figures melted out of the forest, bearing down on their tiny caravan. Taran heard what was occurring and cowered inside the carriage. She could hear the men who were overtaking them speaking in clear English and not with a Scottish lilt.
"Halt." The imposing dark figure seemed to be the chosen leader of the group. He pointed his massive sword at one of her men.
Catherine had lagged behind the rest; she had thought her mare had thrown a shoe. Thankfully, all four of the horse's shoes were still in place. She remained hidden in the shadows wearing Duncan's forgotten armor, the sword drawn at her side. She listened intently to the conversation that was taking place in the clearing before her. The armor fitted almost perfectly except 'twas a little large in the shoulders. She had solved that problem easily by padding her shoulders with linen sacks filled with feathers. For a moment she had the foolhardy notion to charge ahead, but her better sense told her wait.
As she continued to watch the scene unfold before her, a fight ensued between her men and the black cloaked strangers. Her men were obviously no match for the others. Their lifeless bodies piled up like cordwood on either side of the carriage. The lucky survivors surrendered to the captors peacefully, kneeling with their hands atop their heads in the ancient gesture of submission. Their leader dismounted his horse, walking over to the carriage in the largest stride she had ever seen. Taking the door handle in his gloved left hand, he nearly ripped door from its very foundations.
* * *
Alexander put his large gloved hand on the handle of the carriage and opened the door to see his intended bride. Darkness prevailed inside, but he heard small whimpering noises and sensed the quivering female cowering in the corner.
"Bring me a torch!" he shouted to one of his men. Pushing his hood back with a frustrated hand, he thrust the torch halfway inside, taking care not to set the whole carriage aflame. His heart nearly fell from his chest. Inside the carriage was the plainest woman on whom he had ever lain his dark eyes. Her bright scarlet gown did nothing for the paleness of her skin, nor did the rubies around her neck give her face uplift. Her leather brown hair hung straight down just a little past her shoulders with no curl at all. He grimaced a little but kept his disappointment from showing upon his face while extending one large leather-clad hand, demanding she take it.
"Come out here, Princess. I wish to see you in the light," he growled with his heart disappointed at finding such a plain woman. Before she could take his hand, another knight glided out of the forest with his sword drawn ready for battle. He halted his horse from where Alexander stood, gesturing a challenge.
Alexander's eyes traveled from the beast the knight rode to the tip of his visor, taking into account the knight's small size. Was this knight truly daft to challenge him? Alexander drew his sword and grabbed the woman from the carriage, putting the sword tip to her thick neck.
"Get down from your horse, man, or your Princess will feel the tip of my sword slicing through her neck," he snarled. The knight kept silent. He dismounted his horse slowly and challenged Alexander by gesturing with his sword.
Alexander could not understand the knight's thinking in challenging him when he was obviously no match. Alexander laughed softly to himself, knowing that this would be the easiest kill ever. Thrusting the Princess into the arms of one of his men, he threw back his cloak and pointed his sword at the knight.
The knight gave him a slight nod of acknowledgement and proceeded to thrust towards him, Alexander's sword stopping the blade before any damage could be done. Swords clashed. The knight gave a valiant effort, but he never had a chance. As they continued the dance of death, the small knight failed to notice a fallen log behind him. Before he could shift direction, he tripped, landing flat on his back with his sword several feet out of his reach. Alexander was on him in an instant with his sword pointed at the man's slim throat.
"Take off your visor, man, and tell me who you are before I run you through." He commanded, wondering how this tiny being had become a knight. The knight shook his head no, again succeeding to make Alexander angrier than he had been in a long while. Alexander removed his mail coif, throwing the intertwined metal to the ground in frustration, his moisture-saturated dark hair tumbling down his shoulders. A truly evil scowl appeared upon his face.
"I said take off your visor or I will run you through!" he shouted, his patience clearly running out. With shaking hands, the knight removed the helmet. In the dark shadows of the forest, it was truly hard to tell who the man was. Thankfully, the moon was beginning to rise a little, casting newly born silver beams upon the earth.
"Who are you, man, so that when I run you through I might know your name?"
Alexander's dark brows furrowed in frustration. He was not used to anyone standing up to him. Apparently, the tip of the sword at the slim throat did nothing to faze the man. Without speaking another word, Alexander stepped forward and clutched the mail coif on the knight's small head, pulling the links from the man's head. Out of the coif tumbled a long blonde braid filled with complex knots. For a moment, he felt as though his knees would not support his bulky weight, the sight of the hair turning his being to molten metal. For a moment, a dream entered his mind, one he always had about a woman with golden hair such as this, the sensation of running his hands through the gold....
"What have you found, Alexander?" Longworth whispered slowly, completely dumbfound by what lay before them. The woman leaned back on her hands, gazing up at them with incredulous eyes at their dark forms towering over her.
"What is your name, girl?" Alexander demanded roughly, his dark brooding eyes not leaving her armor encased form.
"That is something you will never know," she growled through clenched teeth, her fading fear replaced by a slow anger that filled her body.
"I will get your name out of you, girl. Do you see your beloved Princess over there? If you do not tell me your name," he said, placing a booted foot on the fallen log in front of her, "Then I will have my men behead her before your very eyes. Is that what you want?"
One of the men forced the "Princess" to kneel on the ground while two others held her down. A third withdrew a sword ready to smite her head off at a moment's notice. Taran's screams piercing through her stubborn veil of silence.
Catherine's frightened eyes danced from Taran's slumped form on the ground back to the dark stranger before her. She could read the anger radiating from his eyes although it was too dim to see what color they possessed. Never in her life had she seen a man so tall and foreboding. As he glared at her, she felt his dark intentions wash over her, causing her heart to beat a little faster. She was forced to look away when the feelings began to overpower her.
"Well, girl, are you going to tell me?" He demanded sounding ever more angry. She gazed at him for a moment through terrified eyes not wanting anything to happen to Taran. She swallowed hard, summoning up the courage to tell him. She noticed how tight his chain mail on his arms were wondering if she could even remotely wrap her tiny hands around them. Then the absurd thought of what a night spent in his arms would be like washed over her and she shivered, tingles dancing up and down her spine.
"My name is Catherine, Princess of Scotland." She gulped, her throat tightening as if someone held an unseen noose around her neck. The man before her began to laugh a laughter that came from the depths of his tall being, his gauntlet wrapped hands going to his hips. The laughter continued for a few moments. When the laughter had died, he bent down again to glare at her more murderously than before.
Alexander's heart soared again as he beheld the face of his future bride, a vision of beauty as he had never seen before. With the moon rising higher now, he could faintly make out the features of her face and saw the beauty that resided on her countenance. He stood rooted for a moment until his better senses prevailed.
"Tell me then, dear Princess, who is that girl over there?"
"She is my servant. I dressed in armor to disguise my identity."
The man laughed again, as if nothing in the world could stop him.
"Did you hear that men? She dressed in armor to disguise herself!"
All of his men laughed with him this time, making her situation even more desperate than before. Putting her leather-clad hands behind her, Catherine attempted to push herself from the ground but it was to no avail. The armor was just too heavy.
"Now, dear Princess, where were you going before I stopped you?"
"I was going to a convent to take my vows. I am going to become a nun," she lied. If the stranger knew her true reasons, there was no telling what might happen. Putting her hands out behind her, she tried to get up but the armor would simply not let her. The stranger watched her with bemused interest, then stepped forward to help her to her feet, laughing softly to himself as he did so, causing her ire to rise. As he put his large hands upon her slim armored shoulders, she felt the power that lay in his hands and briefly she wondered how many men had died by the strength those hands. When she was on her feet, the stranger tilted her head toward the moonlight and scrutinized her features carefully.
"'Tis a pity such beauty would be wasted on the church. A woman like you should be married for your body was made for love not prayer," Alexander replied softly. He looked into the deep blue pools of her eyes, seeing a spark there he had never seen in another woman's eyes. Alexander could see the tiny flame that waited to be stoked into a roaring flame that would release the passion stored in her body.
"Tis my wish to become a nun and there is nothing you can do to stop me. Now let me on my way unmolested."
Catherine wrested herself from his grip, the dark brooding gaze of his eyes almost too much to bear. She began to tremble slightly as new emotions coursed up and down her body, her knees trembling as though she would faint. Was it her fear of him or the excitement he caused in her?
"I think not, Princess. You are my prisoner now, and I will be taking you back to my home where you will make a most beautiful addition." he said slow and seductively. She could sense the undertone in his voice, her body trembling at the thought of being held hostage and having God knows what done to her
"I am going nowhere, bastard. I demand you let me go on to the convent." She turned to walk away from him, but he grasped her arm firmly in his large hand.
"Where do you think you are going?"
"I am going back to my horse and make my way for the convent. Release me."
Alexander stared at her through dangerous black eyes, his anger coloring his tanned skin. He was not used to women speaking to him in such a manner and he was determined she know her place.
"Be careful how you speak, woman, for I am not a patient man when it comes to unruly women." He gave her his most menacing gaze, but he found that it did not affect her. She stood there looking at him through innocent cornflower blue eyes.
Catherine gazed at the stranger before her, wondering who he was. He could not have been a mercenary for he had many men, fine horses and clothing. Catherine knew she had seen this man once before but she could not place his face. Just who could this stranger be? Clearing her throat, she summoned the courage to ask him his identity. "Now that you know who I am, tell me, stranger, who are you?"
"I am Duke of Kent, sent here to take you prisoner, dear Princess." He enjoyed the look of fear upon her face as the menacing words fell from his lips.
The Duke of Kent. That name made Catherine's blood run cold. His legend was wrapped in bloody tales of how he killed Scots just for the sheer pleasure of the kill. Others said that he was the son of the Devil sent here by the English King to wipe out anyone with a drop of Scottish blood. Catherine shivered for a moment remembering the tales told to her by nuns when she misbehaved. Then, she had believed he was some imaginary figure devised to scare her into obedience, but now he was flesh and blood standing before her. Taking a deep breath, Catherine summoned up the courage to question him.
"What are... you... going to do to me?" she whispered low, hoping he did not perceive the fear that crept into her voice.
"I told you, I am taking you prisoner." He growled stepping a little closer to her, holding her arm still firmly in his grip. Alexander felt her the slight trembling underneath the armor, wondering if he was affecting her this badly and hoping deep down that he truly was. He gazed at her face, focusing on the color of the hair framing it. That unusual shade of gold set his blood aflame with longing to unravel the braid, knot by precious knot...
"What will you do with me?" she trembled, her voice beginning to quiver much more than before.
Alexander heard the undercurrent of fear that crept in to her voice and he smiled slightly for he knew she was under his control completely.
"What my King had instructed me to do." His deep voice resonated through her body like no other had before. Removing his left glove so that he would be better able to feel the softness of her skin, Alexander tilted her face toward the brightening moonlight, studying the planes of her face. Her eyes had the most beautiful oval shape protected by a dark fan of lashes. Nestled between the twin orbs was a perfect nose that seemed sculpted to perfection by God himself. Her lips were plump and ripe, his thumb unable to resist stroking the soft slivers of flesh feeling they were as soft as they looked. He felt the hot gaze of her eyes as if they were looking deep down to his black soul.
"What is that, you bastard?"
"Marry you before we set foot on English soil." he replied, a slow smile coming to his lips.
Catherine was stunned into silence at what he said. Marriage? Marry the Terror of the Isles? Never! She would rather take her own life than marry the most feared man in England.
"Nay 'tis not true! I will not marry you!"
"You don't have a choice, Princess. 'Tis all arranged for you to marry me." His thumb caressed the sweetness of her lips, feeling the silky soft flesh that lay under his thumb. He sensed the hot desperation of her eyes as she gazed at him. Silently, he conveyed the message with the cold dark stare of his eyes that there would be no hope of rescue.
"I do have a choice! If I take my own life..."
"That is something, Princess, you will never do. I will watch you day and night if I must but you will never take your own life," he snarled. He drew her close to him, the fresh scent of her golden hair permeating the air around them. "What you will do is marry me, whether you like it or not."
Catherine looked up at him, locking her blue eyes with his glittering black ones. She felt the intense waves of hatred flow from him, riding through her and raising her fear of him. Was he going to kill her at a moment's notice because of her Scottish blood? The intentions in his eyes told her that he most likely would not but she still did not trust his motives. Before she could speak again, Alexander went to his horse and pulled out a length of rope. Taking her gauntlets off, he tied one end of the rope tightly around her wrists before her stunned eyes.
"What is this for? Why must you bound me like an animal?" she demanded.
"As I told you before, I am not a patient man when it comes to insolent women so I am going to teach you to obey me. Mayhap this will help you remember who your master is now," he said gruffly pulling the rope tightly around her wrists, ignoring her cries. The other end he tied to the bow of his saddle, leaving enough rope for her to walk behind at length.
"Ouch! You are hurting me, you bastard! I demand that you release me!" she shouted. Her tiny fingers grasped at the rope, but found no slack. He had tied the rope very well to the bow of his saddle, and the intricate knots that he had placed in the rope around her wrists refused to give. He strolled back to her and nonchalantly held her captured wrists high above her head with one hand. The other hand cupped her chin, tilting her face so it was bathed in soft moonlight. Even under the dense moon, her face had the glow of youth. His roaming fingers found that her skin was indeed wonderfully soft.
"You are in no position to demand anything Princess. I have you now, and I have no intention of letting you go. The sooner you realize that I am going to be your husband, the better off you will be."
Alexander gazed into her face for a moment, burning her image upon his mind. Indeed, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever, though she was proving more of a challenge than he had thought. There was nothing he wanted more than to pull that armor from her young supple body and explore the nether regions with his large tanned hands; but his sense of control prevailed again. Tearing himself from her presence, he mounted his war-horse.
What was going to happen to her next was becoming painfully clear. Catherine was to walk behind his horse as if she were some sort of pack animal captured after a lengthy battle. She was a Princess, not some common criminal! How dare he treat her in this manner!
Catherine grasped onto the rope again, trying to free herself, but the only thing she received for her efforts were several tiny cuts on her fingers. Anger arose in her when she felt the warm blood flow over her fingers, an anger that ran deep, causing her whole body to reverberate with the explosive emotion. Suddenly the protective wall that held all the emotions back broke as if someone were throwing flaming boulders at it and she began to curse this devil's very existence in Gaelic, her native tongue. His tall straight back was to her as the steady stream of curses flowed. When he did not react immediately, she assumed he did not speak her language. He dismounted from his horse and approached her again. Silently, he placed a small piece of cloth in her mouth, tying the thin material in the back tightly so that it drew the corners of her mouth up painfully.
"In case you did not sense it, Princess, I know your language and understood every word you spoke. I told you I am not a patient man when it comes to insolence." He returned to his horse and was ready to mount the beast when a small man dressed in monk's attire appeared out of the darkness, laying a hand on the Duke's large arm.
"Milord, please she is hardly more than a child. Do not subject her to such harshness."
"Mind your own business, priest. She must learn to obey me even if I must break every bone in her body to do it. Now be gone or else I will tie you to one of my men's horses so that you can suffer her fate too."
Alexander dismissed the man with a wave of his large armor encased arm, but the man remained rooted where he was.
Catherine's eyes grew wide at the sight of the monk standing next to the Duke. He is my only salvation, she thought. Frantically, she clawed at the material that was around her mouth, but the Duke had tied the ends in the same secure knots that were around her wrist. She sank slowly to the ground with tears running down her face in rivulets as the hope of rescue faded from her mind.
Alexander stared at the insolent man before him, his black brows furrowing in anger. Why would this man not leave his side?
"Are you daft? I said be gone priest."
"Milord, I am afraid I can not let you treat the Princess in such a manner. If she is to be your bride you must treat her with respect and not like some animal."
"What do you intend to do to stop me, priest?"
Alexander watched as the monk gazed about, the hooded eyes darting everywhere seeking a way to the stop what the Duke was about to do to the Princess but he found no answer.
"Milord please find it in your heart..." the monk choked as his gaze was met by Alexander's glittering gaze.
"Be gone, priest. I have no heart."
Alexander mounted his horse, signaling his men to follow. The monk gazed in the direction of the young princess on the ground on her knees, hoping the Duke would be merciful towards her. He turned away with a heavy heart and waited for the signal to move.
* * *
Catherine was angered by the way she was pulled along behind his animal but she was in pain from having to walk so far. Her legs pulsated with pain from her ankles all the way to her hip but she was determined not let it show upon her face.
Alexander turned back occasionally to see how well she was keeping up with his horse's pace, a slight smile on his face when he turned to face forward. He was not used to women having so much spirit in them and this one surely a fiery temper. Where had she learned to fight like that? No woman he knew could pick up a sword, let alone use it.
His heart nearly halted in his chest at the sight of her. Golden blonde tendrils that had been freed from her tight braid flew all around her head like a halo dancing on the wind her stride created. Her face remained expressionless except for a few signs of grimacing with each step. Halting his horse, he felt she had enough punishment for the moment. More punishment would come later tonight in his tent, after they were wed.
"We will rest here." He shouted, pulling his horse to a halt.
Catherine dropped to her knees in thanksgiving for her feet were rubbed raw by the chain mail that covered them. Alexander dismounted his large beast and with two of his long strides, was upon Catherine immediately.
"Get up." He commanded, waiting for her to obey him. Staunchly she remained exactly where she was, keeping her eyes demurely to the ground.
She had neither strength nor desire to get up and with every movement she made her legs cried out in agony. Out in the deep distance of the dark forest she could hear the wolf cry begging for his mate just as this man before her was demanding she become his mate. Never would she make this an easy victory.
"I said get up!" he shouted, grabbing her by the shoulders and jerking her to her feet while she cried out in pain from the spots on her feet that were rubbed raw by the chain mail. From the strength in his hands, she sensed the anger housed in his body and became frightened, but she was not about to aid him in any way.
Alexander's anger rose until it boiled over the wall of his senses that kept it safely hidden. Without thinking, he struck her across the face sending her spiraling to the ground with the force of his hand. Surprisingly she only lay on the ground with her hand to her cheek, gazing at him through those bewitching eyes. As her gaze swept over him, his heart began to beat a little faster, fluttering in his chest. Why did she bewitch him so?
"When I tell you to do something, I expect to be obeyed. Do you understand me?"
She didn't bother to reply but kept gazing at him so intensely with those perfect orbs that he was forced to walk away. Spying the carriage a little distance away, he stalked over to wooden structure on the groaning wheels. Throwing the door open with such force that the wooden structure fell from the carriage, Alexander peered inside to find one of her coffers that were housed on the floor of the carriage. He flicked open the brass lock with a quick finger exposing the contents to his scrutinizing eyes. Calling for a torch, Alexander rummaged through the clothing with his large hands, while one of his men held the torch for him, ignoring the ache that arose in his groin from touching such exquisite fabrics. What he was searching for lay on the bottom neatly tucked underneath her other gowns. It was a beautiful white silk gown with emeralds decorating the squared neckline. The accompanying small gold crown had a sheer veil attached to it. Twould be perfect for his little bride to wear as she was wed to him. Crunching the gown in his left hand, he rummaged around a little more seeking the slippers and bodice that matched finding both of them on the bottom. He grasped all the necessary items and stalked back to where a stunned Catherine was being helped to her feet by her servant.
"Put these on and unbound your hair," he snarled, turning toward the monk who rode amongst them. "Make ready priest, for you will be performing the ceremony once the Princess is ready."
His hands held her white gown and slippers thrusting them to her. What could he mean? Was he proposing that he wed her in the dead of night and in the deep forest glen? Surely he must be jesting!
"Nay, I will not. I will not marry you or any other man until I wish to." From the murderous look in his eyes, she knew she had said the wrong thing. He advanced on her, allowing her delicate gown fall to the damp ground to grip her by the upper shoulders.
"You will marry me this night, rest assured. You have either of two choices. You take your woman with you to help you dress or I can dress you myself. What is your choice to be?"
Delight danced in his eyes as he said that, his strong grip ever tightening on her shoulders. Catherine regarded him with the wariness of a cat, knowing he would be all too anxious to do the latter.
"If those are my only choices Milord then I will take my woman with me to dress. I wish some privacy when I do so keep your men at bay till 'tis appropriate for them to return."
"My men follow my orders implicitly and none will come near you while you are dressing. Go now for I wish to get on with the ceremony."
He dismissed the women with the wave of his large hand. Alexander ordered his men and the priest to reside at the stream that ran through the thick forest until he told them the time had come for the ceremony. He watched his men's departure for a moment then turned his attention to the slight Gaelic whispering in a small grove of trees near him. Walking silently as a forest creature would move upon its prey, Alexander followed the muffled voices to peer through the small thicket of bushes. Beyond stood his captive bride, removing the armor with the help of her servant that hid her womanly curves from his sight. Once the outer shell of the armor was removed, the outline of her body was revealed. The chain mail on her had chest restrained the large breasts that resided there, the intricate links stretched to the limit tapering down to waist and a nicely rounded backside.
He imagined his hands roaming over those charms as he made love to her. His groin began to ache even more to the point of becoming extremely painful against his leather breeches but he continued to watch her as she dressed the fragile curves of her body. Before he knew what happened, she was standing nude in the moonlight with the gold of her hair streaming down her back in blonde waves that nearly touched the ground. A sound behind him drew their attention in his direction so he crouched as low as he could to keep from being detected. Seeing nothing, the women set about their task of dressing and Alexander went back to his task of watching. Her underpinnings followed along with her bodice then the white silk gown. The girdle was last to be put on. Her servant had begun to lace the white garment in the back when Alexander melted out of the forest quietly. He put a finger to his lips as the servant grew wide-eyed at his presence. Brushing her aside, he took the laces in his hands, tying the leather strings on her back while she spoke in Gaelic to her servant.
"When we have the chance, Taran, we must run away from here. That evil fiend must be cut down if we are all to be free. Ouch! Taran you are tying my girdle much too tight. What is the matter with you?"
She felt the fingers cease tying her girdle and she looked down to see two darkly tanned hands move around her waist in the moonlight spinning her around to meet his angry glittering black eyes.
"What were you saying Princess?"
Catherine stared at him with her mouth agape unsure of what to say. She never expected him to be behind her tying her girdle strings but one more frightening thought entered her head. How long had he been deep in the shadows beyond their sight, and how much of her naked body did he actually see?
"I... I...Nothing Milord." She choked casting her eyes down to the ground in shame for she hoped he would not strike Taran down for her angry words.
"Just as I suspected. Put on your crown for the priest awaits us." He ordered sternly picking up the crown with the sheer veil from a nearby rock letting the fragile material blow in the gentle breeze and handed the gold band to Taran unceremoniously. With shaking fingers Taran placed the golden crown upon Catherine's hair, pulling the delicate material around her head like a white halo, letting it ride on the gentle breeze. Taking a deep breath, Catherine held her hand out to him.
"Let us get on with the ceremony."
* * *
The monk was standing the open field as the long summer grasses swayed at his ankles as Catherine and Alexander entered the edge of the meadow. Seeing the monk standing there with a large book in his hands was much more than Catherine could take. She ripped her hand from Alexander's trying to escape the fate that was to be hers but he gripped onto her wrist tightly pulling her towards the monk.
"Enough of this, Princess. You will be my bride for there is no one in the world that will ever halt this ceremony and take you away from me upon the ceremony's conclusion." He pulled her resisting body toward the priest. In front of the horrified priest Alexander forced her to her knees and knelt next to her, signaling on of his men to hold Catherine in place so that she couldn't escape. Feeling the firm grip on her shoulders and on her wrist caused her to cry out.
"Father, forgive me, but I wish for you to hear my confession so that my soul and heart will be clean when my marriage vows fall from my lips." She hoped the priest would be her salvation from the mess that lay before her.
The monk turned a quizzical eye to Alexander seeing the Duke's displeasure at another delay of the ceremony.
"If the Duke will allow you to, then I will my child. Every man should clean his conscience before he weds." The priest remarked, gazing at the angry Duke who knelt before him.
"I have nothing to confess, priest. If the Princess wishes to cleanse her soul, so be it. Make the confession quick for I wish to be back on English soil as soon as possible." He growled anxiously. Alexander grew tired of the delays but hid the disappointment on his face well. Standing up to his full height of six and a half feet with his leather under his armor creaking in response, Alexander folded his large mail encased arms over his broad chest in annoyance gazing at Catherine through contemplative eyes.
"Then come my child and let me hear your confessions."
The monk took her tiny hand, urging Catherine to her feet. He led her to a small clearing a little distance away so that Catherine's confession would not be in earshot of the others. Turning his back to the men, he gestured for Catherine to do the same.
"Now my child, what is you wish to confess?"
"Father I do not wish to marry this monster! He is only doing this on the orders of his King!" she pleaded once again silently begging the priest's help as she tugged on the sleeve of his robe.
"My child, there is nothing I can do against him or the King. My influence is limited and even if I were able to, I could not. Come make your confession child and let us get on with the ceremony." He sighed wearily.
"Father, please help me! If you do not, I will be forced to take my own life and spend all of eternity in damnation! Please do not let that happen to me!"
"My child, twould be worse for the both of us if we do not cooperate. Come let us get on with the ceremony if you have nothing you wish to confess."
Lowering her head, she let the tears fall onto her white velvet gown feeling the damp wetness seep through to her skin. Why would he not help her?
"Then you leave me no choice Father. I must take my own life, for I cannot live..."
"Nay, you will not take your life. What you will do is marry me. This confession has gone on for too long, priest. Get on with the ceremony," growled the menacing voice behind them. Catherine and the priest turned to meet the angry black eyes of the Duke looming over the heads of both of them. The Duke gripped her painfully by the wrist, and with no effort at all, picked her up in his mighty arms and carried her to where his men, her servant and the rest awaited with the priest in tow.
Catherine's heart beat with a wild excitement as she was taken into his arms, forced to put her arms around his thick neck, feeling the damp pitch colored curls tumble down his shoulders to spill over her arm. How odd his hair felt for the dark strands were not the hair of a knight. Moisture laden tendrils curled around his face while the rest streamed free to waft on the gentle breeze that his stride created. She was strangely disappointed when they reached the area where they were to be wed and he put her down on her feet.
"Get on with it, Priest. I do not want a garrison that may be following her to witness the ceremony."
He forced her to her knees again, signaling to his second in command to hold her by the shoulders. He gripped her wrist tightly as he knelt next to her with a slight smile upon his lips.
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