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England, 1075, a time of raging feuds and men who pledge their sword for king and country, an era brought masterfully to life in this epic tale of a powerful Norman warrior and the woman who is his destiny...
Tristan D'Argent returns from battle to claim the keep bequeathed to him by King William, only to find his lands under the ruthless control of a treacherous rival--a man who has secured Tristan as his stepdaughter's betrothed. Determined to get his due without being trapped in marriage, Tristan prepares to win by any means necessary, only to be confronted by the beautiful face of the woman who haunts his dreams. She is Haith, the half-sister of his bartered bride.
Haith never imagined seeing the man of her moonlit visions in the flesh, or worse, as her greatest tormentor. Caught in the bitter treachery of sworn enemies, neither Tristan's strong words nor tender promises can quell her fear that their destinies have not yet begun to play out...in a time where the might of men rules with a vengeance, and the warrior who fights for love takes the greatest risk of all....
Release date: November 20, 2014
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 352
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Tristan turned to grin at his companion, who brought his black horse even with Tristan’s gray destrier. His dark-skinned friend stared at the huge man and sighed.
“Must things always be difficult?” Pharao asked, irritation tingeing his words.
“It seems so,” Tristan chuckled. “At least I know my possessions have been secured in my absence.”
“I said,” the keeper of the bridge growled, “state yer business or prepare to meet my friend here.” He gestured with the huge battle-ax he held.
Tristan noticed the man’s boulderlike biceps, which flexed as he raised the ax, and knew that he would be an asset to his new holdings if only because of his brute strength and loyalty to the village. A warm spring breeze raced around the knoll where the keep was perched and ruffled with some effort Tristan’s sweat-darkened blond hair.
“It smells wonderful here, Phar,” Tristan said, stretching his arms wide and then dismounting with a groan. He touched his toes several times, twisted this way and that, and bounced on the balls of his feet.
Pharao, still astride, sniffed the air. “Indeed, ’tis fragrant. Quite refreshing after London’s stench.”
“I’m warnin’ you for the last time,” the guard said eyeing Tristan warily. He raised the head of the ax to his other hand, gripping it tightly across his chest when Tristan completed his stretches and approached the drawbridge with a smile.
Barrett flexed his fingers on the ax and shuffled his feet indecisively, his gaze flying between the foreigner who remained on the black horse and the man who so boldly approached him.
To charge him or no? The stranger was smiling, and his clothes were of noble cut—surely he was no highwayman come to rob the fledgling castle, especially with his comrades riding so far behind. Simply a weary traveler seeking supplies?
On the other hand, he still had not answered the questions asked of him. Indeed, he had cheerfully all but ignored them. Was he sly and daring, thinking to take Barrett by surprise? The breadth of his shoulders and thickness of his legs indicated strength enough to prove a worthy opponent.
The blond man strode to the edge of the drawbridge and peered over the side to the moat below. Turning his back to Barrett, he busied his hands at a hidden task.
“Pardon me,” he said over his shoulder.
Barrett knew that a decision had to be made. For the protection of the castle, he would strike now and see if the foreigner would answer questions later.
With one giant step, Barrett was behind the blond man, raising his ax above his head. Suddenly, a fiery sensation numbed his hands, and the ax fell harmlessly to the drawbridge behind him. Barrett grunted and held his hands in front of his face to see tiny black flecks embedded in the heels of both palms.
“What the—” He looked quickly to the dark man, who was idly swinging a small leather pouch by its strings in a lazy circle and shaking his head. The sound of water being poured from a ewer echoed under the bridge, and Barrett’s head swiveled to the blond man in shock.
“Ay, now!” he said, offended. “There’s no need to be pissin’ off me bridge.”
Tristan retied his chausses and turned once more toward the gate. He smiled and gestured up to a small stone cubicle jutting from the side of the castle wall. “That’s where it all goes in the end, does it not?”
The guard rubbed his still stinging hands on his chausses and glanced at the garderobe indicated. “’Tis rude, any matter,” he grumbled.
“My apologies,” Tristan chuckled with a small bow. “I fear ’tis an affliction I incur when traveling long distances astride. Excuse me, but you seem to have dropped your ax.”
“Who are you?”
“I am Tristan D’Argent, wayward Lord of Greanly.”
The guard’s eyes widened to the point that they nearly came loose of his skull. He quickly fell to one knee and bowed his head. “My lord,” he sputtered. “Forgive me! I did not know.”
“Do not trouble yourself about it, er—” Tristan paused and stared pointedly at the large man who still knelt before him. “Your name, good man?”
“Barrett, my lord,” he said, rising and bowing at the waist. “Sheriff of Greanly.” The big man flushed. “That is, until you decide otherwise, of course, m’lord.”
“Well met, Sheriff Barrett,” Tristan replied. “’Tis plain that you do your duty well, guarding my home until I arrived. I commend you.”
Pharao had dismounted and appeared at Tristan’s side. “He should have struck sooner.”
Tristan was used to the curious stares his friend received, and Barrett reacted no differently as he took notice of Pharao’s pock-marked face, turban-wrapped head, and white caftan.
Pharao returned the appraisal. “Were we highwaymen, you would be dead at this time.”
“Do you think so?” Barrett faced the bold stranger and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Sheriff Barrett,” Tristan said, “my first man, Pharao Tak’Ahn. Phar, Sheriff Barrett.”
Pharao sniffed as his eyes took in the woolly beast of a sheriff, while Barrett merely grunted, perhaps remembering the sting from the man’s sling.
Tristan looked from one man to the other, his broad smile indicating his enjoyment of the situation. “Well then,” he said, “I am eager to see my new home. Shall we call for the portcullis to be raised?”
Barrett tore his gaze from Pharao. “Certainly, my lord.” He turned and called up the stone wall that rose high above the moat, “Raise the gate, you stinkin’ louts! Lord Tristan has arrived!”
The unlikely trio of Tristan, Pharao, and Barrett strolled about the bailey at their leisure while Tristan’s men poured through Greanly’s wall. Amidst the sounds of stamping hooves and shouts among the soldiers, Barrett gave his new lord a tour of the grounds and village that lay within the recently constructed walls.
Greanly was magnificent. Commissioned by the king to be built after his army had destroyed the old wooden town, the construction had taken serf and skilled craftsman alike nearly six years to complete. The keep and outer walls were formidable stone edifices, boasting square turrets that pointed to the heavens and massive battlements along the wall walk. The village spilled out from the hold and was large enough to accommodate a bustling berg of several hundred, with structures for every imaginable occupation required in a holding of Greanly’s size. In all, it reminded Tristan of some of the more vast estates in France, and pride filled him as he realized that this place was now his home.
Tristan had doubted he would live long enough to take possession of his new demesne when he had accepted Greanly’s charge. The years since William had come to power had been filled with the task of quelling uprisings from outlying factions, putting Tristan and his men at constant war with one band of rebels or another. It had been a hard life, one filled with the threat of death at every turn. That Tristan had survived the years of bloodshed to finally come to this reward—a home of his own and soon, a new bride—was a miracle in itself. He pushed the unsettling emotions he felt aside and returned his attention to the sheriff, who had by now brought him and Pharao full circle in their tour.
“Very good.” Tristan approved wholeheartedly of the layout of the town and nodded as he gazed around the open bailey. His men had arrived, and were busying themselves in the new stables, where a pair of harried young boys assisted with the equipment and settling of the horses. Besides Barrett, the stable lads, and a handful of village men, the keep and grounds were deserted.
“Do you wish to continue into the hall, m’lord?” Barrett gestured toward the grand stone edifice that dominated the center of the bailey. “I’m sure you could use a bit o’ food and a skin to brace you from your journey.”
“In a moment,” Tristan said, taking in the vacant cotter’s dwellings, the empty granary, and the evenly green sod surrounding the public well. After the spring rains, the bailey’s interior should have been a churning quagmire, not have the neat appearance of some London picnic area. The few cottages he and Pharao had passed as they had neared Greanly had been vacant as well, and the fields had lain fallow, lush with milkweed and thistle, when the planting season was well underway.
Where were his serfs? Why hadn’t his crops been planted?
“Sheriff Barrett,” Tristan began, “might I ask where my villagers are?”
Barrett shuffled his feet and cleared his throat. “We’re them, my lord. Er, all us here,” he indicated the few men and boys in rough serf ’s garb attending the soldiers with a grand sweep of his arm, “are in your service.”
“Impossible,” Pharao said sharply. “William would not have commissioned a holding for my liege that was without serfs to provide for it. Greanly was said to be a prosperous berg under Harold.”
“That is so,” Barrett said, standing taller and looking down at Pharao. “Before William, Greanly’s people numbered in the hundreds. The horde burned the old keep to the very ground and murdered the old lord and his entire family. Destroyed most of the village, too.” He looked to Tristan, almost in apology. “Those who survived had nowhere to go, my lord.”
“I am well aware of Greanly’s history, Barrett,” Tristan said. “Lord Nigel of Seacrest was charged with taking in the displaced villagers until the new keep was constructed.” His eyes narrowed in speculation. “Reports of Greanly’s completion reached me this past summer in the Northlands, and Lord Nigel himself sent word that Greanly’s villagers prospered.”
“Aye.” Barrett nodded and smiled.
Tristan sighed and grasped the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. The dull ache behind his eyes threatened to blossom into a full-fledged attack.
Pharao looked around the deserted bailey. “They do not appear overprosperous to me.”
Barrett again nodded. “Oh, aye, they prosper. Just not at Greanly.”
“Then where?” Tristan bellowed, losing the last shred of patience he possessed.
Barrett flinched, startled at his new lord’s flash of temper. “Why, at Seacrest, m’lord.”
“Sheriff Barrett,” Tristan said in a measured tone, “why do my people remain at Seacrest when their town has been rebuilt to magnificence? Surely they knew their lord’s arrival was imminent and still the fields lie unplanted, the storehouse, empty.”
Barrett grimaced. “They fear you, m’lord. ’Twas the rumors that done it.” He winced when Tristan cursed but continued. “There’s been talk of the subdued villages along the Scots border. The people call you William’s Hammer.”
The slight crease in Pharao’s forehead was the only evidence of his outrage. “Lord Nigel was duty-bound to see to the welfare of my liege’s people. He should by now have ordered them to return and prepare to serve.”
“Indeed,” Tristan muttered. “He was paid handsomely to foster their care.”
“I have spoken to Lord Nigel about this very matter, my lord,” Barrett said, his shaggy face solemn. “’Tis the reason I’m here meself.”
“What did he say?” Tristan asked.
“Well,”—the giant scratched his head in thought—“said he wasn’t going ter take no orders from the likes of me and that if I cared so much for Greanly, I could live there.” His smile was broad. “So here I be.”
Tristan closed his eyes and sighed. “What did he say about the villagers?”
Barrett flushed. “Oh, aye. He says he couldn’t afford the serfs to leave Seacrest with planting season drawing nigh and no lord to rule them here.” Barrett paused as if searching his mind for a solution that would bring back his new lord’s good humor. “Perhaps when you wed the lady—”
“Very well, Sheriff Barrett,” Tristan interjected. Although he spoke calmly and graciously once more, there was an undercurrent of danger surrounding him. “My thanks for your service and your attempts to return my errant flock to me. Come.”
Tristan turned and strode to the hall, where he flung open the giant doors and disappeared inside. Pharao and Barrett stood for a moment staring after him, Pharao looking exasperated and Barrett clearly at a loss. Both men began following their lord at the same time, the sheriff lumbering solidly along beside Pharao’s unique, gliding stride.
“Are you always so addlepated?” Pharao asked in disgust.
Barrett shrugged his massive shoulders and glanced at the dark-skinned man.
“Do you always go about in ladies’ clothing?”
“Minerva!” Haith bellowed toward the back of the cottage. The little boy sitting on the stool before her squirmed impatiently, twisting his leg and trying to free it from her grasp on his ankle. The gash on the bottom of his foot ran diagonally across the arch and had been left untreated for several days. The wound had festered, leaving the underside of the foot swollen and blazing red. The boy eyed the open door to the cottage and squirmed again.
“Ham, please be still,” Haith said distractedly. She then growled, tossing her red plait over her shoulder, “Minerva!”
Minerva shuffled through the doorway from the other of the cottage’s two rooms, looking thoroughly disgruntled. Her wiry hair stood frazzled from her head like an ancient halo, and her shrewd black eyes glistened with impatience. From the small room behind her, a woman’s groaning could be heard.
“Well?” the old woman demanded. “What is it?”
“Could you hand me the onion poultice?” Haith gestured to a small earthen jug located amongst many similar jars on a topmost shelf. Dried herb bundles hung from the ceiling of the healer’s cottage, and a pot boiled enthusiastically over the fire, emitting an aroma that was both pleasant and tangy.
The moans from the back room turned into a shriek.
“Get it yerself, you lazy chit,” Minerva said. “From what I see, ’tis wee Ham’s got foot trouble, not you.”
“If I release his foot, he’ll run,” Haith gritted through clenched teeth. She looked at Ham with forced sweetness. “Is that not so, Hammy?”
“Yea.” The eight year old nodded with vigor. “I’ll hop out of here on one leg if I have to.” He smiled fiercely back at Haith.
“See?” Haith cried as Minerva sidled closer to look at the boy’s foot.
“Ah,” Minerva said, leaning closer to Ham’s face. “I’ll tell you now, lad, if you so much as twitch yer nose before Haith gives you leave, we won’t trouble ourselves with a poultice at all.” She straightened, and Ham’s large brown eyes went to the sickle-shaped blade Minerva lovingly stroked on her belt. “We’ll just have off with it then.”
“I-I-I-” Ham stuttered. He broke gaze with the old woman and looked at Haith, his small face earnest. “I won’t move.”
Haith caught Minerva’s sly wink as she returned to the screaming woman in the back of the cottage. “Would you quit screeching like a sylkie and just push the babe out, Mary?”
Haith gave Ham a final warning look before retrieving the jar of poultice and plucking some fresh herbs from a bowl of water. She resumed her place in front of him, and he obediently replaced his heel in her lap.
“Thank you,” Haith said and smiled smugly. She took the handful of leaves and rubbed them between her palms until they were a damp, crumbly mass. “Ham, this will burn a bit, but ’twill keep you from feeling the wound when I drain it.”
Ham’s eyes grew even rounder, but he remained still. “Ow-w-w!” he howled when Haith ground the herbs as gently as possible into the sole of his foot.
“Tell me what is about in the hall today,” Haith said, seeking to distract the boy as she readied her small blade. “I saw riders this afternoon, strangers.”
Ham spotted the instrument and quickly squeezed his eyes shut and gripped the seat of his stool. “They come from Greanly,” Ham said stiffly, “for Lord Nigel.”
Haith swiftly drew the blade up the center of Ham’s wound, satisfied when the boy did not flinch. Thick, yellow pus tinged with streaks of red oozed from the cut, and Haith gently prodded the flesh with her fingertips to aid the excretion of the poison. She continued conversing with the boy.
“I did not see Barrett among the riders,” she said, reaching for a brazier that contained a small pot of warm water. She dipped a clean rag into the pot and then wound it around Ham’s foot. The boy sighed in relief and opened his eyes, animated by the soothing comfort.
“Nay, not Barrett,” Ham said, an eager glint in his elfish brown eyes. “Soldiers.”
“Hammy, there are no soldiers at—” She stopped abruptly as she realized what the boy’s description of the riders meant.
“Yea,” Ham said, nodding. “Lord Tristan has come to Greanly.”
Haith said no more for several moments as she quickly but carefully unwound the rag from Ham’s foot and finished the dressing with the onion poultice and a clean bandage. She also said a short prayer over the boy.
“There you are.” Haith gently removed his foot from her lap. “I know the weather grows warm, but find a shoe and keep it on so the dressing remains clean. Stay out of the stream and the tannery, and see me three days hence that I may check it, ken?”
“Yea.” Ham nodded and glanced at the door.
Haith smiled. “Be gone then.”
As the child limped out of the cottage, Haith rose and began tidying her supplies. Her mind raced.
So, William’s Hammer has finally arrived, she thought. He’s come to claim his prize after nearly ten years of terrorizing England. Would that I could have seen his proud face when he arrived to an empty castle.
A final, ear piercing screech came from the back room, followed by the feeble wails of a babe. Mary, herself come to Seacrest from Greanly those many years ago, had borne the child, her and John’s fourth in as many years since they’d wed. The pair had not been many summers older than Haith when they’d arrived with Greanly’s surviving villagers, and no one had been surprised when John took Mary for his wife.
The thought of marriage quickly turned Haith’s reminiscing to concern. Soon after Lord Nigel had claimed Seacrest for his own—and Ellora and Soleilbert along with it—England’s new king had sought a strong alliance among his lords. Nigel had promised his young stepdaughter to Tristan D’ Argent, favored knight of the crown. Eager to please his king, D’Argent had accepted the betrothal by proxy and had promised to claim his bride when Soleilbert was of age and Greanly had been rebuilt at William’s command.
Now Greanly stood once more, this time a stone homage to one of William’s fiercest champions, and his return meant that Haith and her half sister would be separated.
You will never be far from your sister, love.
A sudden cold breeze caressed Haith’s cheek, and she froze, every nerve in her body attentive to her surroundings. A flash of pain, nearly blinding in its intensity, seared her temples, and she raised a trembling hand to her face.
“Haith,” a weary voice called from the other room, breaking Haith’s reverie, “come see the babe.”
“I’ll be but a moment.” Haith blinked back tears. The pain had vanished as quickly as it had come, leaving gooseflesh in its wake. She shook herself to chase away the uneasy sensations and busied her hands gathering dried raspberries and hot water for a tea—Mary’s afterbirth was always stubborn.
“What am I to do now, Sister?” Bertie whispered urgently, her gaze flicking to Haith’s for but an instant.
The two young women sat side by side in a corner of the hall, conversing under the guise of doing needlework. Haith glanced around for signs of eavesdroppers before addressing her sister.
“In honesty, I do not know,” Haith said. “Have you any word from Lord Nigel?”
“None,” Soleilbert replied. “Although I do know Lord Tristan’s message made mention of me. Mother has no news either, save that Lord Tristan will soon visit Seacrest to collect his serfs and his”—Bertie gulped—“betrothed personally.”
“He cannot collect you, Bertie,” Haith said. “You’re not yet wed.”
“I warrant I will be soon enough,” Soleilbert said around a biscuit she crammed in her mouth, the third since she and Haith had sat down to stitch. She swallowed and then continued. “What if he beats me? I would wager Lord Tristan is not called William’s Hammer for naught. ’Tis rumored he is a fierce warrior with a quick temper.”
“If he beats you, ’twill only happen once,” Haith vowed, accidentally pricking her finger at the thought of any man abusing her sister. She popped the stinging digit in her mouth briefly and then pointed it at Soleilbert to emphasize her words. “If ever he strikes you, you must send word to me immediately. I would ride to Greanly that day and relieve him of both hands.”
Soleilbert giggled, her rounded cheeks flushing merrily, and Haith was glad to have soothed her sister’s anxiety, even if only for a moment. Soleilbert grew solemn again and produced another biscuit from beneath the piece she was stitching. She swallowed the morsel with a loud gulp and looked down at her lap.
“What if he will not have me?”
Haith froze in midstitch and looked at her sister in shock. “Bertie! How could you say such a thing? Any lord would be honored to have a maid as sweet and pretty as you for his lady.”
“My shape, Haith,” Bertie said, her voice low with uncertainty. She swept a hand down the soft rolls and fullness of the body contained in her kirtle. “And do not deny it,” Bertie warned. “I know I am overlarge. Think you I am deaf to the jests at my expense from the men in the village?”
“And the womenfolk, too,” Soleilbert added. “Many times their barbs are more painful.”
“Soleilbert,”—Haith set her stitchery on the floor and grasped her sister’s hands—“you are the most beautiful woman I know—in mind and physical beauty.” Haith lowered her head until Soleilbert met her gaze. “There is no one more loving or kind or loyal, and you must never set your worth at what ignorant people may say.” She squeezed Bertie’s hands. “They do not know you as I do.”
Soleilbert’s eyes shimmered with tears when she reached for her sister, and the two embraced. “I will not go without you.”
“Sh-h,” Haith whispered. “Fret not about matters we do not yet face. We will do so when we must.”
“What have you done to upset her now?” a strident female voice asked.
The girls broke apart, both swiping at their eyes, to see Lady Ellora glaring at them. To worsen matters, the demonic-looking Lord Nigel stood at the blond lady’s side.
Haith rose from her chair. “Good eventide, my lady, my lord. We were but discussing Soleilbert’s imminent wedding.”
Nigel smiled at Haith, an exercise that caused one of his slender black eyebrows to arch suggestively. It had the maddening effect of turning a gesture of friendliness into a disgusting leer. His eyes raked her body from head to toe, and as usual, Haith felt naked under his gaze.
“Perfectly common, I would think,” Nigel said. “Women do tend to worry about their wedding, particularly the wedding night”. His despicable eyebrow rose even further at the innuendo. “Perhaps you were giving her advice?”
“I doubt it not,” Ellora sniffed. “In any matter, you have no leave to discuss such intimacies with my daughter.” She dismissed Haith with a wave of her hand. “Be gone from here and back to your hut and that hag you keep. The lord and I wish to speak to Soleilbert about a family matter.”
“Mother, please,” Bertie implored, “I would have Haith stay. She is family to me.”
Ellora’s lips thinned. “I will not argue that point with you again, Daughter—”
“Cease this prattle,” Nigel said. “’Tis of no real consequence whether the wench hears.” He turned to address Soleilbert as Ellora brushed by Haith to claim her recently vacated chair, giving her a wicked look as she sat.
“Stepdaughter,” Nigel began, “as your mother has informed you, Lord Tristan of Greanly has come at last to claim his keep and his bride.” He looked pointedly at Soleilbert, and his mouth was a grim, miserly slash. “He shall arrive at Seacrest at the end of a fortnight, at which time the nuptials will be planned and the details of your removal to Greanly resolved.”
At those words, Bertie pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and held it to her quivering lips. Ellora patted her daughter’s hand, and Haith could only look on, helpless, as Nigel ranted.
“I would remind you that your behavior at the feast is of the utmost importance.” Nigel ticked off his orders on his slim fingertips. “You will not disgrace me with your emotional outbursts or hysterics. You will be agreeable to any terms set forth that eve, and you will abide by them fully”. He paused and fixed Soleilbert with a firm look. “You will not offer comment unless addressed directly, at which time your opinion shall be reflective of mine alone. Do I make myself clear?”
Soleilbert nodded, unable to speak lest she sob, and Haith’s heart reached for her. Nigel bowed slightly to Ellora.
“My lady, if you ha. . .
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