Charmed destinies, p.1
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       Charmed Destinies, p.1

           Catherine Asaro
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Charmed Destinies

  Three masters of their craft in one terrific volume!

  Praise for M ERCEDES L ACKEY

  “She’ll keep you up long past your bedtime.”

  —Stephen King

  “With [Lackey], the principal joy is story; she sweeps you along and never lets you go.”

  — Locus

  Praise for R ACHEL L EE

  “Lee is an evocative writer with the ability to effectively build suspense…a series that will stand out.”

  — Romantic Times BOOKreviews on Shadows of Myth

  “A suspenseful edge-of-the-seat read.”

  — Publishers Weekly on Before I Sleep

  Praise for C ATHERINE A SARO

  “Asaro’s latest installment in her fantasy romance series ( Moonglow, The Fire Opal, The Misted Cliffs ) features her characteristically sensual prose and rich descriptions.”

  — Library Journal on The Night Bird

  “A tasty mix of love, action and intrigue…Once again, Asaro skillfully blends romance with a solid fantasy scenario.”

  — Publishers Weekly

  Mercedes Lackey

  Is the New York Times bestselling author of the Heralds of Valdemar and A Tale of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series, plus several other series and stand-alone books. Mercedes has more than fifty books in print, and some of her foreign editions can be found in Russian, Czech, Polish, French, Italian and Japanese. She has collaborated with such luminaries as Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey and Andre Norton. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband and frequent collaborator, Larry Dixon, and their flock of parrots.

  Rachel Lee

  When Rachel Lee was nine years old, her mother would tell her to go out and play, but instead she hid in the basement reading and writing stories. Now, four decades later, Rachel would like to go out and play in the Florida sunshine, but her editors force her to hide in her office and write. Rachel is the winner of four Romantic Times BOOKreviews Reviewers' Choice Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, and is a five-time finalist for the Romance Writers of America's RITA® Award.

  Catherine Asaro

  Is known for her award-winning Ruby Dynasty series that combines futuristic adventure with strong romantic story lines, as well as for her Lost Continent series. Her novel The Quantum Rose won the 2001 Nebula Award from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and many other awards in romance and science fiction alike. Praised for her ability to mix fantasy with character-driven romances, Asaro has been a writer, a Ph.D. physicist and a ballet dancer. Her husband is the proverbial rocket scientist at NASA, and her daughter loves math and ballet.






  Three classic tales of fantasy-filled romance





  by New York Time s bestselling author Mercedes Lackey










  by USA TODAY bestselling author Rachel Lee











  by Nebula Award-winning author Catherine Asaro













  Dear Reader,

  This story was written as a little vacation for me from all of my other books, and what inspired it was a passage I read in a book on medieval history about something called a “glove marriage.” Most marriages between noble houses were strictly matters of power brokerage and alliance; seldom was a young woman given any say in her fate, and even when she was, she generally let her loyalty to her house decide for her, rather than her emotions. Often enough she didn’t even see her prospective husband until the day of their wedding, and sometimes, in a “glove marriage,” not even then! In that case, she would go through an entire wedding ceremony with a glove standing in for the groom, and someone else, often one of her relatives, giving the responses. So just how might a particularly resourceful young woman deal with such a situation? That was the genesis of this story.


  Mercedes Lackey


  The crow cawed morosely to himself; he had gotten separated from the rest of the flock when he flew off to investigate something shiny in the dead leaves, which had proved to be nothing more exciting than a bit of shiny ice. Now he was alone, cold and very hungry.

  It was late autumn and most of the leaves from the tree on which he perched littered the forest floor. He balanced on the topmost twig, surveying the leafless forest and the leaf-strewn road below him, hoping to spot something to eat before he went in search of his flock. The squirrels had made short work of the acorns and other nuts; the crow knew that he could probably find some but it would be hard hunting in the fallen leaves and on the ground, where it was d
angerous for him to linger.

  While he was making up his mind about risking that hazardous descent, he heard something in the distance. He stretched out his neck and peered through the skeletal branches, down to the broad track that cut through his forest, a track made by men and their tame beasts. This was not the usual season for travelers, though, and it might only be a herd of red deer who sometimes ventured onto the track.

  He cocked his head to listen. There were a great many creatures coming on that track, shuffling through the leaves—and there were other sounds besides those of footfalls, sounds that no wild things made. This sounded more like men and their beasts, a string of them, which often meant easy food.

  He stretched his neck farther and waited impatiently for them to come into view. He was impatient, but he was also lazy and not inclined to fly to meet them when their own feet would bring them to him. Soon he saw them and knew at once that he had wasted his time; he cawed in derision and disappointment.

  He knew the look of men like this. No food from this lot—or, at least, they weren’t going to let anything fall to the ground while they were moving. These were the men-in-shells, the ones with hard, shiny skins who carried pointed things and commanded flying sticks— they didn’t leave things on the road like the ones in carts did. There were eight of them; two of their kind were without the shells. Four rode in front and four behind the two who were different. There were also four beasts with burdens not riders. The burdens were far too tightly wrapped up for anything to fall from them. He peered hopefully at the different ones, but concluded very soon that they weren’t going to let anything fall, either. There was nothing in their claws but the strings tied to the horses’ mouths.

  Still. He flicked his wings restlessly, feeling the urge to fly. They were men, and men were dirty by nature, always leaving litter wherever they went. They might not drop anything tasty here, but somewhere on their back trail they had probably nested overnight and there might be something there. Besides, it wasn’t healthy to linger in the neighborhood of the men-in-shells. They were all too inclined to send their flying sticks buzzing after anything that moved, and that certainly included crows. He gave another mocking call, telling them what oafs they were and how inconsiderate for disturbing his peace without bringing anything to eat. Then he shoved off from his perch and beat a hasty retreat down the way that they had come, rowing his way through the sky, shouting insults and hoping to raid their nesting place before any of his numerous kin got there.

  The sound of the horses’s hooves, slightly muffled by all of the fallen leaves, was more than made up for by the rustle and rattle as they trudged their way through the scarlet, gold and brown drifts. The bitter scent of dead leaves permeated the air with its sad perfume of dying summer.

  Gwynnhwyfar looked up at the sound of a crow calling overhead, shading her eyes with her hand. She just caught sight of him, screened by the bare branches, flying off into the grim sky, a sky in which the sun was visible only as a bright spot in the sea of gray. “One for sorrow,” she murmured more to herself than to her companion as her palfrey ambled onward, hock-deep in yet another ridge of rustling leaves.

  Her spirits were at their lowest since this journey to her new husband had begun. She was weary with dawn-to-dark riding, worn out with being cold. Every night had been the same: waiting on her palfrey’s back until her well-armed, livery-clad escort pitched the dubious shelter of a tiny pavilion, then descending to dine on watery stew—featuring whatever they had shot while traveling—eaten with bread hard enough to build a wall. Then she would creep into a cold bed on the ground, to sleep fitfully until dawn, when she would be awakened to eat the same stew and bread, climb into the saddle and begin another day like the last.

  She craved heat the most, at the moment. She might have huddled near the fire with the men when they all stopped, but she didn’t like the way they looked at her with eyes as cold as the wind and as indifferent as the rocks. Her hands and feet were like those of a corpse, and she felt as if she would never be properly warm again.

  Or clean. She stopped herself from self-consciously rubbing at the travel stains on her brown woolen gown and cloak. She had slept in her gown and undergown for the past week, without even a chance to wash her face and hands. Her hair, at least, Robin was keeping tidy. She could never have managed it on her own, as long as it was. But she wanted a hot bath so badly she could hardly bear it.

  Her tiring-maid, who had been looking out suspiciously into the underbrush and had not seen the bird, shook her head. Robin was probably just as cold and weary, but she didn’t show it. “One what?” she asked curiously, tucking the folds of her own gown of a coarser gray wool in around her legs. “What are you speaking of, my lady?”

  “’Tis an old rhyme, Robin. A way of telling fortunes by counting crows,” Gwynnhwyfar replied—but softly so that her words didn’t carry past the ears of her maid. This was not something for the armsmen to overhear. “One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a wedding, four for a birth—” She sighed. “I am not overmuch surprised, but meseems this is no good omen for what awaits us.”

  “Well, and you wouldn’t get three, for you’ve already had the wedding, such as it was,” Robin reminded her. She glanced at the scarlet velvet pillow that Gwynnhwyfar carried in front of her on the high pommel of the saddle. A rich, down-stuffed pillow upon which rested a single glove—that, of course, was as clean as she was travel-stained. Gwynn let her own eyes rest on it, as well, for all that she’d tried to avoid looking at it for most of the journey. That scarlet glove—elegant leather fashioned in the manner of a hawking glove but of finer materials and with the device of a blue boar inset into the wide cuff of it—represented her lord, husband and master, whom she had never yet seen. That device was echoed on the surcoats of the eight armored men who rode with her; the blue boar ramped across the fronts and backs of their scarlet tunics, in stark contrast with the gray cloaks and brown-and-gray gowns of Robin and herself.

  “And all things considered, ‘tis a bit early for a birth at Clawcrag Keep to get the four,” Gwynn agreed, trying to make a feeble joke.

  But Robin frowned, her swarthy face reflecting distaste. “Not,” she answered darkly, “if all we’ve been told of Lord Bretagne be true.”

  Gwynn bit her lip to restrain her own too ready tongue. Lord Bretagne had no good repute—but she’d had no choice in this marriage, not if both she and her father were to survive the unhealthy interest of their own nearest neighbor.

  Or the displeasure of His Majesty, for this was a marriage made in the King’s Council Chambers, and the King greatly desired that Gwynnhwyfar’s marriage portion from her mother, a rich dower of the income from certain vineyards, town houses and tanneries, should go to—

  Well, to someone whose loyalty the King required and whose loyalty, to put it crudely, the King could purchase with the annual purses from those properties.

  “It matters not,” she said with resignation. “Repute—well, when did any man care for his reputation, so long as he’s thought to be quick of wit and strong of arm? And good repute or bad, Father needs the King’s support to keep him safe against Baron Anghus. Thus, we gain it, and Father’s safety.”

  “And you need to get from under the fat bull’s eye yourself,” said Robin with equal resignation. “He’s been stretching his hand toward you for as long as I can remember. Still—is it better to flee the devil you know for one you know not?”

  “Perhaps his reputation is a matter of envy or spite,” she replied. “All that it takes is one ill-natur
ed person within the Court to blacken someone’s name.”

  “Milady—if you’d had the choice of husbands— would you have had a choice?” Robin asked suddenly, quite out of nowhere.

  Gwynn blinked. Where had that question come from? “No,” she lied quickly, for there was no point in giving Robin any more reason to feel sorry for her.

  But there was someone, even though she had not seen him for a decade or more. Her first love, which fact surely must have embarrassed him, although he never gave her a hint of it. After all, few young knights in their twenties would find it flattering to have a little girl in love with them.

  But Sir Atremus had been everything a little girl, raised on the tales of Arthur and his knights, would find irresistible. Tall, strong, skilled with sword and lance and unfailingly kind and courteous to his friend’s importunate child.

  Gwynn sighed and removed her own glove for a moment to rub at her weary eyes. Her glove smelled of horse and smoke. She smelled of horse and smoke. She supposed that she should be just as glad that she didn’t smell of worse things and that the pennyroyal with which she had anointed herself liberally before she began the trip was keeping the fleas away.

  A pity she could find no potion to repel Baron Anghus. No sane woman would care to find herself in the keeping of Baron Anghus; even had he not been uncouth, unkempt, loud, violent of temper and filthy. Three wives had already been laid to rest in the baronial chapel, under mysterious circumstances. Gwynn was not eager to find herself carried, bound and gagged, to the altar to become the fourth. That was how Anghus had “won” his third wife, as well as his first.


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