By Royal Command

By Royal Command

By Royal Command

Jul 02, 2012


When a step sounded on the stair, Katrin turned swiftly. Apprehension snatched her breath.

The sword-theyn filled her doorway, eyes sweeping the colorful spill of faded tapestries draping her walls, the clutter of scrolls and parchments among racks of burning candles, the great curtained bed. Harsh and forbidding, he could have been a Viking invading her home, tawny hair blazing with firelight.

When his gaze lit on her, she braced for an explosion of wrath.

“You have a facile tongue, Lady Katrin,” he said, low and dangerous.

In the gathering dusk that pressed against her window, his presence strung her nerves tight. Yet his expression was inscrutable. Impossible to tell if her lies had angered him. Still, her knowledge of men told her to step quietly.

Trying to pacify, she strove to flatter him. “I dare swear you were not long taken in.”

“By the time we reached this hunting lodge, I had my doubts,” he said grimly. “You revealed yourself by your ease of command.”

Perhaps she need not endure a thundering tirade, or summon her housecarls to restrain him. Still, she didn’t make the mistake of thinking this formidable warrior would easily forgive her deception.

Well, reduced in fortune and desperate she might be, but let him recall her rank. She was no serving wench to cower before him, no matter how shabby her estate.

“I pray you’ll pardon my small deceit.” Gracefully she sank into a chair, the table standing safely between them. “You and I were alone in the ruins, far from any assistance, and I couldn’t be certain of you. Do be seated.”

Frowning, he lowered himself into the opposite chair. Despite her gnawing worry, she was forced to concede he drew the eye: broad-shouldered and larger than life, even without his armor. Tonight he wore a tunic of ocher cloth bordered with knotwork, a dragon gripping the bronze buckle of his belt. He was certainly not handsome, his features too harsh for it: his nose too prominent, cheekbones slanting too sharply, skin chafed by sun and wind—a man who spent too much time frowning into the weather. His eyes seemed to penetrate the flimsy veil of her deceptions, to seek out her hidden truths.

He would be perilous to oppose. But oppose him she would.

When Gwyneth bustled in with the winecups, relief surged through her.

Perhaps this long-traveled nuisance will drink himself insensate. They await my word outside. We can leave him somewhere, lost in the wood, and bar the door against him. In any event, she would find some way to be rid of him.

She smiled. “Will you take wine?”

After a token swallow, he lowered his cup to the table. Dismayed, she realized he intended to spill out his business. Thus far, drink had not forestalled him.

She said the first thing that came into her head.

“Pray tell, how fares my uncle?”

He checked himself on the edge of speaking. Impatience drew his brows together. “That tale’s long in the telling.”

Praise God for that. She slid the flagon toward him.

Glancing around with a courtier’s caution, he propped his elbows on the table and hunkered forward. Firelight glowed on the bronze-hammered torques that banded his forearms, sinuous with a warrior’s strength.

“The king mourns the loss of another son. Edward died of a hunting accident on Lammas Day. All of England grieves for him.”

“God’s mercy! It’s the second son he’s lost, in as many years.”

“Aye, and he needed Edward badly for alliance. That marriage will never be made now. Five sons, four daughters, and all spoken for, with the king himself wedded to Normandy’s sister.” He leaned forward. “The Danes are overrunning these shores. Every summer the Forkbeard and his dragon-ships bring more of them. Ethelred’s spread thin as oil over famine bread—he needs more allies.”

Need them he may, but he can find them elsewhere. I’ve done my duty.

“Aren’t you eager to hear his bidding, lady?”

Nay, he would have sensed by now she was anything but. Dread constricted her chest.

“To the contrary, sword-theyn. I’d prefer to hear nothing at all and be forgotten utterly. But I see ’tis too much to hope for.”

“The man’s your king, and you his sworn vassal.”

“The man is the Devil, and my husband was his sworn vassal! I swore nothing, nor was asked to.”

“He’s your kinsman.” Eomond frowned. “I thought your relations must be cordial.”

“When last I saw him, I was a pawn to be placed where it suited him, no matter my wishes or my grieving mother, my father barely cold in his grave.” Simmering, she thrust to her feet. “And here you find me. I assure you cordial is the last word to describe our relations.”

Restless, she strode to the casement and struggled to regain her composure. “I suppose you’ll relate what he sent you to say, whether I wish to hear it or nay.”

“So I’ve sworn.” He studied her through narrowed gaze, as though she spoke a foreign language.

Mercy, she could burn in those eyes of his—dark embers, no Viking blue at all. And he stared at her as though he saw nothing else.

She swallowed against the dryness in her throat. “I would hear it straight out, without softening.”

“My charge is to bring you to court,” Eomond said flatly. “You’re summoned to appear by Midwinter.”

Whatever she’d expected, it was never this. Her stomach sank with dismay. Her gaze flew to Gwyneth, who clearly shared her alarm.

Blindly, Katrin gripped the casement behind her, and anchored herself against the sweeping tide of fear. Still she felt small and helpless—a condition she despised—before this redoubtable warrior whose presence in her chamber was an unmistakable threat.

“So he’d end my exile at last,” she whispered. “To what purpose?”

“Ethelred seeks another great alliance, and all his kin are spoken for, save the babes in arms. He’ll seal it with your marriage.”

She felt as though she were falling from a vast height. Her blood hammered painfully in her chest. She couldn’t seem to catch her breath. Try though she might to think, her thoughts swirled like a rising river.

“Another marriage?” she breathed. “To whom?”