Enchanted, p.1Elizabeth Lowell
In the British Isles of the eleventh century, honor and loyalty weren’t merely virtues; they were a matter of life and death. The more I thought about this simple fact, the more I wondered what a loyal man would do when faced with choosing between a terrible insult to his honor and his loyalty to his lord Dominic.
Simon had learned the bitter lesson of loyalty, life, and death in the First Crusade. He had learned it so well he was called Simon the Loyal, and his loyalty was to his brother (and his lord) Dominic. When his brother faced war in the Disputed Lands over a vassal’s broken engagement, Simon stepped forward to marry the jilted lady.
Ariane was a lady with secrets as dark as her midnight hair, as dark as her songs. A woman betrayed. A woman without hope. A woman who no longer believed in anything, especially love. No longer a virgin, she had been sent by her father as a living insult to her future husband’s honor. She expected to die when Simon discovered the truth.
She didn’t expect to find herself drawn so intensely to Simon, enchanted by a man whose loyalty was to his brother. A loyalty so great that he swallowed the insult to his honor, kept his non-virgin bride, and the peace of the land.
And then he learned there would be no peace unless loyalty and honor, were joined by something magical—love.
first class all the way
“Which will it be,” Ariane whispered to herself, “a wedding…
The teasing words of the newlyweds filled the taut silence…
Melancholy, subtly clashing chords quivered through Ariane’s corner room. Although…
A brazier sent warmth and a small bit of fragrant…
Between shouts of wind and bursts of icy rain, the…
The marriage toasts from the assembled knights grew more and…
If I cut my throat, how can I be certain…
Simon watched while his wary bride approached him. The hand…
Dominic swept aside the last scraps of the previous night’s…
“’Tis a beautiful day, lady,” Blanche said. “Almost worth the…
When Cassandra came into the great hall a short time…
Brightly colored fleets of leaves sailed toward the distant sea…
As soon as Ariane heard Simon’s warning shout, she hauled…
“’Tis like an oiled eel,” Meg muttered, turning to Cassandra.
Cool water soothed Ariane’s dry lips and poured gently over…
For nine days Simon had been tending Ariane as though…
Warily Simon eyed the pot of fresh balm Cassandra was…
The cobblestones in the bailey of Stone Ring Keep were…
Thunder leaped down from the peaks and through the glen…
The possibility that Ariane might actually have shared his dream…
The lord’s solar in Blackthorne Keep was spacious and luxurious.
Dominic flashed a silvery glance at Meg, who shook her…
For the rest of the day Ariane sat in her…
Sensing someone coming up behind him, Simon looked away from…
Ariane got up from the supper table and went to…
The candle died in the fierce wind that howled around…
“Horsemen!” cried the sentry.
No sooner had Erik and Duncan arrived than sleet began…
“My lady?” asked Blanche.
Silently the four warriors watched Baron Deguerre ride up to…
Long after Baron Deguerre had been settled in the lord’s…
“Vanished?” Simon demanded. “What do you mean she has vanished?”
Simon and Erik rode as though pursued by demons, but…
Baron Deguerre stood at Blackthorne’s moat bridge and saw the…
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Autumn in the reign of King Henry I.
Stone Ring Keep, home of Lord Duncan and Lady Amber, in the Disputed Lands at the northern reaches of Norman England.
“Which will it be,” Ariane whispered to herself, “a wedding or a wake?”
Ariane stared at the dagger in her hands, but no answer came to her save that of candlelight running like silver blood over the blade. As she looked at the ghostly blood, the question rang again within the silence of her mind.
A wedding or a wake?
The answer that finally came was no comfort to Ariane.
It matters not. They are but different words for the same thing.
Beyond Stone Ring Keep’s high walls, the wind wailed of coming winter.
Ariane didn’t hear the mournful cry. She heard nothing but echoes of the past, when her mother had pressed the jeweled dagger into her daughter’s small hands.
In her mind Ariane could still see the dark flash of amethysts and feel the cold weight of silver. Her mother’s words had been even more chilling.
Hell has no punishment greater than a cruel marriage bed. Use this rather than lie beneath a man you do not love.
Unfortunately, Ariane’s mother had not lived long enough to tell her daughter how to use the weapon, or upon whom. Whose wake should it be, the groom’s or bride’s?
Should I kill myself or should I kill Simon, whose only crime is to agree to marry me out of loyalty to his brother, Lord Dominic of Blackthorne Keep?
A yearning tremor went through Ariane, making the rich cream and russet of her tunic quiver as though alive.
Dear God, to be so blessed as to know that kind of fidelity from my family!
Dark nightmare turned, threatening to break through the wall Ariane had built against it. Grimly she shifted her thoughts from the night she had been betrayed first by Geoffrey the Fair and then by her own father.
The blade of the dagger bit delicately into Ariane’s hand, telling her that she was holding the weapon too tightly. Distantly she wondered what it would feel like when the dagger bit far more deeply into her flesh.
Certainly it could be no worse than her nightmares.
“Ariane, have you seen my—oh, what a lovely dagger,” Amber said, spotting the quicksilver gleam as she walked into the room. “’Tis as finely made as any brooch.”
The voice startled Ariane out of her grim reverie. Taking a slow, hidden breath, she loosened her grip on the jeweled dagger and looked toward the young woman whose golden outer tunic highlighted the color of her eyes and hair.
“It was my mother’s dagger,” Ariane said to Amber.
“Such extraordinary amethysts. They are the exact color of your eyes. Were hers violet, too?”
Ariane said no more.
“And your thoughts,” Amber continued matter-of-factly, “are the exact color of your hair. The darkest part of night.”
Ariane’s breath caught. Warily she eyed the Learned lady of Stone Ring Keep,
Yet Amber wasn’t touching Ariane now.
“I don’t have to touch you,” Amber said, guessing the other girl’s thoughts. “The darkness is in your eyes. And in your heart.”
“I feel nothing.”
“Ah, but you do. Your emotions are a wound that has been concealed rather than healed.”
“Are they?” Ariane asked indifferently.
“Aye,” Amber said. “I felt it when I touched you the first time. Surely you must feel it too.”
“Only when I sleep.”
Ariane slid the dagger back into its sheath at her waist and reached for the lap harp that once had been her joy. Now it was her consolation. The dark, graceful curves of the wood were inlaid with silver, mother-of-pearl and carnelian in the form of a flowering vine.
But it wasn’t the harp’s elegance that lured Ariane. It was the instrument’s voice. Her long fingers moved, calling from the strings a chord that was in eerie harmony with the storm wind, a wildness that was barely contained.
Concealed, not healed.
Hearing the harp speak for the silent harpist, Amber wanted to protest the combination of fear and rage and grief that burned just beneath the Norman girl’s calm surface.
“You have nothing to dread from becoming Simon’s wife,” Amber said, her voice urgent. “He is a man of intense passion, but it is always disciplined.”
For an instant Ariane’s fingers paused. Then she nodded slowly. Gradually the sounds she drew from the harp became less wild.
“Aye,” Ariane said in a low voice. “He has been gentle enough with me.”
Much gentler than he will be when he discovers that his wife is no maiden.
Wars have begun over lesser insults. Men have killed. Women have died.
The last thought held a dark allure for Ariane. It whispered of an escape from the brutal trap of pain and betrayal that life had become.
“Simon is strong of body and fair of face,” Amber added, “with a quickness to put the keep’s cats to shame.”
Ariane’s fingers hesitated. After a moment she murmured, “His eyes are very…dark.”
“’Tis only that sun-colored hair of his that makes his eyes seem so black,” Amber said instantly.
Ariane shook her head. “It is more than that.”
Hesitating, sighing, Amber agreed.
“’Tis the same with many of the men who came back from the Saracen battles,” she admitted. “They returned less light of heart.”
A minor chord quivered in the silence.
“Simon mistrusts me,” Ariane said.
“You?” Amber laughed without humor. “He trusts you enough to show you his back. I am the one he mistrusts. In the silence of his heart, Simon calls me hell-witch.”
Surprise lightened the bleak violet of Ariane’s eyes for a moment.
“If it helps,” Amber said dryly, “your own eyes, for all their fey beauty, are as remote as a Druid moon.”
“Should that comfort me?”
“Can anything comfort you?”
Ariane’s fingers paused in their delicate stroking of the harp as she considered the question. Then her fingers struck like snow falcons, ripping a harsh sound from the strings.
“Why does he call you hell-witch?” Ariane asked after a moment.
Before Amber could answer, a deep male voice spoke behind her, answering Ariane’s question.
“Because,” Simon said, “I thought she had stolen Duncan’s mind.”
Both women turned and saw Simon standing at the entrance to the small corner chamber that had been turned over to Ariane for the length of her stay at Stone Ring Keep. Ariane didn’t expect the visit to be long; all that held Lord Dominic of Blackthorne Keep here was his determination to see Ariane wed to one of his loyal men before anything else could go awry.
Simon was the second groom chosen for the Baron Deguerre’s daughter. Though Ariane had never been drawn to her first fiancé—Duncan—in any way at all, just seeing Simon sent odd currents through Ariane. He filled the doorway with little left over. Because most people first saw him standing next to his brother Dominic, or to Amber’s even larger husband Duncan, Simon’s size often passed without particular comment, as did the width of his shoulders.
Yet Ariane noticed everything about Simon, and had from the first instant he had strode up to her at Blackthorne Keep and told her to prepare for a hard ride to Stone Ring Keep. She had been vividly aware of Simon’s quickness and grace, and of his supple, powerful body. His eyes had burned like black fire with the force of his intelligence and will.
And sometimes, if Ariane turned to him unexpectedly, she had seen Simon’s eyes burning with an intense sensual heat. He desired her.
She had waited in dread for him to force that desire upon her. Yet he had not. He had been unfailingly civil, treating her with a courtesy and disciplined restraint that she found as reassuring as it was…alluring.
Simon could have been standing in a forest of giants and he would have towered over them in Ariane’s sight. There was something about the feline quickness and male elegance of Simon’s body that in her eyes overshadowed men more brawny.
Or perhaps it was simply that he had been kind to her in his own sardonic way. The ride from Blackthorne Keep, where she had just arrived from Normandy, to Stone Ring Keep had been hard indeed. Blackthorne Keep was in the far north of England, on the edge of the Disputed Lands where Norman and Saxon still fought over estates.
Stone Ring Keep was still farther north, in the very heart of the lands where Normans claimed estates and Saxons held those same estates by force of arms. The Battle of Hastings had been won more than a generation ago by the Normans, yet the Saxons were far from subdued.
“It seems,” Simon said as he walked into the room, “I was wrong about Amber. It was only Duncan’s heart that she had stolen. A far more trifling matter than a mind, surely.”
The Learned girl refused to rise to the deftly presented bait, though the amber pendant she wore between her breasts shimmered with secret laughter.
Simon’s smile warmed.
“I no longer think of you as the devil’s tool,” he said to Amber. “Will you ever forgive me for making you faint with pain and fear?”
“Sooner than you will forgive all women for whatever one woman did to you,” Amber said.
The room became so silent that the leap of flame in the brazier sounded loud. When Simon spoke again, there was no warmth in his voice or his smile.
“Poor Duncan,” Simon said distinctly. “He will have no secrets from his witch-wife.”
“He will need none,” Duncan said from behind Simon.
On hearing Duncan’s voice, Amber spun toward the doorway, glowing as though lit from within.
Ariane stared. In the seven-day she had been at Stone Ring Keep, she had yet to become accustomed to the sheer joy Amber took in her new husband. Duncan’s joy was no less, a fact that was simply beyond Ariane’s comprehension.
When Amber rushed across the room, holding out her hands to Duncan, Simon gave Ariane a wry sidelong glance. The look told her that he was as bemused as she was by Duncan and Amber.
The moment of silent, shared understanding was both warming and disconcerting to Ariane. It made her want to trust Simon.
Fool, Ariane told herself coldly. The smile is but a charming ruse to make you more at ease, so that you won’t fight the brutal coils of marital duty.
“I thought you were going to take all morning listening to the serfs’ complaints,” Amber said to Duncan.
“So did I.” Duncan gathered Amber’s hands in his much larger ones. “But Erik took pity on me and sent the wolfhounds in to lounge by the fire.”
“Stagkiller, too?” she asked, for her brother was rarely without his canine shadow.
“Mmm,” Duncan agreed. He kissed Amber’s fingertips and tickled her palms with his mustache. “Shortly afterward, everyone left.”
The serfs revered Amber’s brother Erik, the former lord of Stone Ring Keep, but they were distinctly wary of the Learned man’s animals. More than one tenant and cotter had been overheard thanking God that the new lord of Stone Ring Keep was a brawny warrior not given to ancient ways, Learned teachings, and animals more clever by half than common folks.
“I shall miss your brother when he goes back to Sea Home Keep,” Duncan said.
“My brother or his hounds?” Amber asked, smiling.
Enchanted by Elizabeth Lowell / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes