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The raven came first. It landed upon the window sill in the kitchen of the silversmith's wife and croaked so loudly at me that I nearly dropped my ladle into the hot wort.
"Wretched bird! Shoo!" I waved my hand at it, but it merely tilted its head to regard me with bright eyes. "Fie! Away with you!"
I knew as well as any the repute of these birds, but had less desire than most souls to be in the company of a creature so associated with superstition.
I had sufficient trouble without being found in the company of drinkers of blood and harbingers of death. The silversmith's wife would be rid of us for once and for all, if anyone in this village whispered that I kept a raven as a familiar. Such tales were all nonsense, of course, but I dared not risk an inopportune rumor.
"Shoo!" I flicked a cloth at the bird, which seemed untroubled and unimpressed by my antics. The creature bobbed its head and seemed to cackle at me, no doubt enjoying my discomfiture.
"Begone!" I picked up an onion, the bird watching me with knowing eyes all the time, then flung it across the kitchen with all my might.
I missed the raven by a good three hand-spans, though the onion splattered against the wall most impressively. The bird screamed and took flight, uninjured and apparently insulted, which suited me well enough.
I sighed and rubbed my brow as I eyed the mess. I not only had to clean the shattered onion but would have to explain to my patroness why I had seen fit to destroy her foodstuffs without admitting to the presence of the raven, lest her superstitions be fed. How sweet it would be to have no need of Fiona, with her sharp face and sharper tongue!
I had learned long ago, though, that there was nothing to be gained in bemoaning one's circumstance. I stirred the wort again and fought the urge to grumble.
My ale is fine, I dare say, the very finest. But with no kitchen, no pot, no spouse, the law decrees that I cannot be granted a license to brew. My ale has long provided what little coin my family had, so I am compelled to brew. What choice have I but to ally with this wife or another?
Fiona it was, for she would have me as her partner, if by her spouse's command. It would take a more foolish woman than myself to not perceive that though I did most of the work, Fiona kept most of the coin-and one less aware of nuance than I to not note that coin and spousal approval were not sufficient in Fiona's view to suffer a witch in one's kitchen.
We were convenient to the silversmith and his wife, and it was for this, not a matter of principle or Christian duty, that they tolerated us. I have learned not to be surprised that charity is so circumscribed, nor that principles can be so readily forgotten.
Once this massive pot was strained and flavored with my particular combination of herbs, I hoped for brisk sales over the holiday season. The ale would spoil in several days and, as I worked, I worried anew that I had made too much.
I could not risk the loss of any of my investment in ingredients. Competition was fierce in Kinfairlie for alemaking, there being so few other sources of profit. I had a good repute, but the harvest had been mean and all the other brewsters would be making similarly large batches. I frowned and stirred the wort while it came to the boil.
Making ale is a tedious trade and one requiring much heavy labor. I am not afraid to work, indeed I welcome labor. A heavy day ensures a solid night's sleep, at least, and a reprieve from the multitude of worries that plague me.
This day was the first day of the so-called Twelve Days of Christmas, though I should undoubtedly have to explain to young Tynan again and again why there were fourteen days in total so designated. The prospect made me smile.
The wort began to sputter and splash. It was a feat to move the cauldron from the fire myself, but I would have to do it again. I cursed Fiona, who contrived to be absent whenever her assistance might have been helpful. The pot was large enough and hot enough that even once it was away from the heat, it continued to chortle.
It was when I had wrestled it from the fire and halted to wipe my brow that I heard the hoofbeats. I turned, eyes narrowed, and listened.
Three fleet steeds, their hooves shod with iron. Dread prickled down my spine. Not plough-horses, for they pranced too lightly. Palfreys lightly burdened, perhaps. And a fourth steed. Larger. Faster. I listened, wanting to be certain, my heart thumping with its own certitude.
The fourth beast was a destrier. There could be no doubt. I closed my eyes, swallowed, and prayed that the beast's rider was not who I feared it might be. There was no reason it should be him. After all, Kinfairlie's meager tithes have been hotly contested since the liege lord and manor were lost. We have become accustomed to various nobles assaulting the town in search of tribute.
Especially before a holy day.
The hoofbeats came closer. When the raven cried, even at a distance, I knew.
The silversmith's house faces the main square of Kinfairlie, where markets are held and criminals are hung, and it was here that the new arrivals came to a halt. I stiffened, but did not go to the door. The steeds' hooves clattered to silence, the destrier neighed and no doubt tossed his head.
"I seek Ysabella of Kinfairlie!" roared a man, his voice achingly familiar.
Merlyn. My heart lunged for my throat. For years, I had imagined how we might meet again, how I would scorn him with blistering wit, yet now I merely whispered his name beneath my breath like a besotted damsel. In truth, I did not know whether to be frightened or relieved, to be joyous or disappointed. He had come in pursuit of me, after all this time, a boon to my pride if not a good omen for my future.
"Ysabella!" he shouted anew and I wondered if he was drunk.
I glanced over myself and smiled wryly at the embellishment of fermented malt upon my skirts. No doubt the hair had escaped my braid, my face would be hot and nigh as red as my hair. It was a far cry from the reunions I had so oft envisioned, when I was garbed in richness and hauteur, my words as sharp as lances.
My appearance would do very well to show my spouse his importanceor lack of itto me.
I crossed the kitchen and opened the heavy wood door. Even though I braced myself, my heart stopped. Merlyn was just as imposing as before, his two young squires fighting to control their palfreys. He was garbed in the black and silver he favored, the hues of his house, the hues that made him look more dangerous and dashing than even he was. I looked hastily at his companion. Stalwart Fitz was still with Merlyn, his face only slightly more lined than before.
"Good morning to you, Merlyn," I said, feigning an indifference I hardly felt. "What brings you to Kinfairlie?" He urged the steed closer, then dismounted, casting the reins aside. His smile was confident, roguish, and enough to set my very flesh to flame. His gaze swept over me, leaving a tingle in its wake and I gripped the door lest I cast myself at him like a harlot. His breath made a cloud against the sky that darkened too early in this season.
"Well met, chère," he murmured, with the intimacy one reserves for lovers.
And I flushed scarlet, heating from nipples to hairline. Worse, I could not summon a sound to my lips.
Merlyn knew it, curse him, and grinned with wicked satisfaction as he closed the distance between us.
I could not draw a breath. I knew the dark truth of Merlyn, and yet, and yet despite all of that, despite my moral certainty that he would burn in hell, I still yearned to touch him again. He infuriated me, yet I had not felt so alive in all the years we had been apart as I did in this one moment, holding his gaze in winter's cool air.
I had assured myself that my attraction to Merlyn had been born of my ignorance, but he approached with all his wretched surety and the loss of my ignorance did not keep his allure at bay. Far from it. If anything, I desired him more ardently than ever.
To think that I had long fancied myself a clever woman. "I seek you, chère," he said, his words husky. I caught the scent of his flesh and lust unfurled within my gut, memories flooding my thoughts of nightsand days spent entangled in each other's arms. I squared my shoulders, determined to resist him and failing utterly.
"What else?" He claimed my hand and bestowed a kiss upon my knuckles, his eyes filled with an answering heat that weakened my knees.
I snatched my hand away, hating that I so quickly fell beneath his spell once more. "And it has taken you five years to remember the way to Kinfairlie village? God in heaven, Merlyn, even the slowest child can walk to Ravensmuir in a day."
I inclined my head curtly, excusing myself, and retreated into the kitchen. I knew full well that he would follow, though I bristled when he did so. I stirred the wort vigorously, showing a belated care that my investment did not burn.
"You might at least leave the door ajar," I snapped. "But then, when have you had a care for my reputation?" "Always, despite your conviction otherwise." Merlyn's words were more harsh than I expected. I pivoted and his gaze locked with mine as he flicked the portal closed with his fingertips. He did not apologize, he did not so much as blink.
I raised a finger. "You. . ." He interrupted me with resolve. "I am your legal spouse, and there is no law writ that says a man cannot be alone with his wife."
I turned back to the brew and stirred it with an enthusiasm undeserved. "And you have developed a sudden interest in law?" I asked archly. "How strange. I was certain that your sole commitment to the law was to break it."
Merlyn laughed. I felt him pause behind me and heard him doff his gloves. He cast them on the board and I caught my breath when I glimpsed them from the corner of my eye. Had he chosen scarlet ones apurpose this day? Did he mean to prompt memory in me?
I knew him well enough to understand that nothing was accident with Merlyn Lammergeier.
Even knowing he approached, I still jumped when his warm fingertip landed on my bare nape. His gentleness always caught me unawares. I inhaled sharply, hoping my indication of disapproval would halt him.
It did not, but then, I had expected as much. I stared at the wort as Merlyn's finger traced a beguiling path around the neckline of my ancient dress. I felt the barest whisper of his breath before he kissed me beneath the ear.
I jumped truly then, swatted him and moved to the other side of the cauldron. I looked daggers at him, but he was unrepentant.
"The fire still burns," he murmured, his eyes gleaming. No doubt he reveled in having some power over me. "Trust me. It is doused beyond reviving." I scrubbed the hot mark of his kiss with one hand as he laughed. Merlyn blew me a kiss across the cauldron. "I have missed you, chère."
"I can tell by the speed with which you sought me out." He studied me for a long moment, then slapped his gloves against his palm. "You are vexed that I did not come sooner."
"I expect nothing of you, Merlyn Lammergeier. Indeed, I would appreciate your absence." I indicated the door. "Do you still cede to the request of a lady?" Merlyn sobered. "Not this time." He fixed a gaze upon me that was so intent that I nearly squirmed. "Why did you leave Ravensmuir?"
"How can you ask me such a thing? Is it not obvious?" "No." "Then you should have asked sooner. I have forgotten by now." I stirred and blushed and ignored him as best as I was able.
Which was not particularly well. When he finally spoke, Merlyn's voice was no more than a whisper. "I was certain that you loved me." I scoffed, irked anew that he made no sweet pledge himself to persuade me to come back. "You never held my heart, Merlyn, and even if you had, it would have been lost to you the moment that I learned that you had lied to me." He watched me, as a cat does afore it springs upon its prey. "What lie is that?"
"So, even you cannot keep them straight." I surveyed him with disdain. "You trade in religious relics and we both know it well."
"In the greater service to the Lord, that all his faithful might have access to saintly intercession on their behalf." A smile touched Merlyn's lips. "It is my solemn Christian duty."
"Nonsense! You do it for coin!" "My expenses must be compensated." He began to circumnavigate the cauldron again, though I moved too, and kept the pot between us. "And who am I to argue with an abbot or a bishop so anxious to gain a foreskin or a lock of hair that the coin fairly spills from his fingers?" "Who are you to trouble yourself with ensuring that the relic is genuine?"
"Chère," Merlyn chided, "there is not a relic in all of Christendom with a provenance above repute in these days." "Except perhaps the ones that you and your brother Gawain have wrought. Do they not have impeccable credentials?"
Merlyn's eyes lit with surprise, then something that might have been admiration. His tan crinkled beside his eyes when he smiled. "How do you know of this?"
"I guessed, once Gawain made his confession to me." Merlyn leaned forward, suddenly intent. "Is this why you left Ravensmuir? Because of my brother's tales?" I dropped the ladle and propped my hands upon my hips. "I did not leave Ravensmuir, I left you, Merlyn. I could not abide with a thief and a forger and a liar."
Merlyn was not in the least bit insulted. "I am not a thief, chère." He had the audacity to smile. "Perhaps you misunderstood, but acquisition has long been Gawain's part in our endeavor."
"I could not abide with a forger and a liar, nonetheless." His smile flashed briefly and my cursed heart skipped a beat. "Ah, while you could have remained with a mere liar. You should have said as much, for I long ago surrendered the forging to Fitz. He shows a tremendous talent for the details."
I glared at him. "Liar. You told me that your trade was in textiles. I thought you an honest merchant, but you lied to me."
Merlyn prowled the width of the kitchen, his expression so serious that I knew he meant to mock me. "And this is the root of it? For the sake of a single lie, I could have been happily wedded all these years." He turned and granted me an inquiring look that I knew better than to trust. I stirred with a vengeance. "I am certain you would have left many comely wenches disappointed."
"Perhaps not." There was laughter in his tone, though whether he enjoyed the idea that I might be jealous, or whether he was amused at the idea of monogamy, I could not say.
Asking him to clarify would only humiliate me further, and the realization made my anger boil as surely as the wort. Truly, if ever there had been a wicked wretch draw breath, he stood before meyet still I felt my blood quickening to Merlyn's presence. My flesh still sizzled where he had planted that kiss.
"One lie is not the sum of it," I insisted. "You cannot make a jest of this, Merlyn. I could not live with who you are, I could not be a part of your crimes. I dared not become like you, a lawless renegade devoid of morals and ethics." "So, you live in poverty and destitution instead." He spared a skeptical glance for the kitchen which must appear humble to him, the kitchen which was in fact neither my own nor within my means.
"My coin is honestly earned. You cannot say as much. How often does Gawain steal back what you have sold, that it might be sold again?"
He laughed, for I had surprised him again, and his eyes sparkled as they had on a long-ago afternoon. I held his gaze, my own expression stony. "The art of this trade, Ysabella, lies in not asking too many questions. I do not ask where my brother makes his finds."
"Just as you do not ask how there could be three crowns of thorns surviving from the crucifixion which featured, as I recall, solely one."
His smile was unrepentant. "Who are we to decide which is genuine and which is not?" "So, you sell them all. It is reprehensible. Do you not think of those people, imagining that they touch a relic of import when they in truth are caressing a fistful of brambles from Ravensmuir's moat?"
"We are not so graceless as that." Merlyn looked at me assessingly. "Yes, that was five years or so ago," he mused, clearly thinking of the three crowns. "Was that Gawain's tale?"
"Much of it. He was in his cups and unaccountably proud of himself." "Who else was enjoying his tales?" "Just we two." I cleared my throat, feeling an odd compulsion to protect Gawain from Merlyn's wrath. "I believe he thought that I already knew the truth and that we enjoyed the jest together."
Merlyn's voice hardened as he crossed the chamber. "Who did you tell of what you knew?" "No one. Why?" He seized my arm, compelling me to meet his gaze. "No one?"
"What ails you, Merlyn?" I fussed, but his intent matter unsettled me. "Who would I tell?" "Swear it to me, chère," he insisted. "Swear to me that the tale never crossed your lips again." He was serious, more serious than ever I have seen him. A goose crossed my grave and I shivered. "What has happened, Merlyn?"
"I doubt that you truly wish to know." His gaze was unwavering. "Swear it."
I held his gaze for a long moment, startled not only by his intensity but the fear he awakened in me. "I told no one." "Not even your sister, Mavella? Or your mother?"
"My mother died shortly after we left Ravensmuir," I said, though I immediately wished that I had not. Merlyn released my arm and a lump rose in my throat at the compassion in his gaze. "I am sorry, chère. I know that you were close."
I nodded, embarrassed at my tears. I pushed up my sleeves and made to strain the wort, for I could not linger over the task any longer, and I would not have Merlyn believe that his presence changed my routine a whit. Merlyn moved with astonishing speed to seize my left wrist. He turned it so that light played along the ravaged flesh of my inner arm. I have a scar from wrist to elbow, one that I oft forget now that the wound is healed, but one Merlyn had never seen before.
"What is this? Who did this to you?" To my surprise, his voice shook with rage. "The wort must be strained from the brew while boiling hot. I have seen worse injuries than mine." I tried to shake off his grip without success. "It is nothing." Merlyn's eyes narrowed. "Does it hurt?" "No longer."
He ran a gentle fingertip along the considerable length of puckered flesh and awakened a most unwelcome sensation. "Did you have care for it?" I scoffed with feigned impatience. "A witch should know to heal herself."
I had his attention now, though I would have preferred otherwise. "What is this? Who has called you a witch?" "It is nothing of import. Our lives are no longer entwined, Merlyn, and what happens to me is of no import to you. Your steed awaits you, as do your unholy relics and comely wenches. I have labor to doif you will excuse me." He watched me grip the pot. "You drained the mash alone once before and it spilled," he guessed. I straightened to regard him sternly. In truth, I did not trust myself to do this deed beneath his eye. "The silversmith's wife did not come to aid me as she had promised, which is not uncommon as you can see. The brew would have spoiled if left any longer and the cost of the ingredients would have been mine to bear. I had no choice but to act alone, as I intend to do now."
"So, you will inflict another wound upon yourself. How then, will you and your sister survive? You are too proud, chère. You should ask for aid." "My patroness does not oblige." "You should have come to me for aid." "Oh yes, that I could blacken my soul with some trade in disreputable relics." I snapped at him, stung that he who labored in such sin dared to criticize me. "That would solve all my woes."
"I make no jest." "Nor do I!" I shook a finger at him. "It is a raw wager to be born a woman in this world, to be poor, to be scorned, to be denied the truth. The sins of Eve and the taint of womanhood are mine to bear simply for the crime of being born a woman. I have made my choices and survived as best I could. . ."
"By letting your neighbors believe you to be a witch?" he demanded, then arched a brow. "You could be burned alive for the accusation alone."
"I did not begin the rumor of my otherworldly powers, though it is true that I did nothing to deter the lie," I admitted. "There has been a time or two that I lifted my fingers in that ancient hex sign to perpetuate the tale." Merlyn leaned against the table. "Would this be a lie, chère?"
"If I have permitted a lie to taint my life, it is because my sole alternative was to die." He clutched his heart. "I bleed for your pain, chère." That he should mock me was beyond infuriating. "And so you should! If I, protector and provider of my small family should perish, who then would ensure the welfare of my sister and brother? Who would feed them? Who would make ale to sell so that they had at least bread to eat each day? Who would clothe and shelter them? Who would take them in?"
I advanced upon Merlyn and poked him in the chest with one finger. "You? I suspect not. It has suited me to be known as one with arcane powers, only because that has kept a certain kind of wolf from our door."
Merlyn's eyes were glittering and I sensed the anger coiled within him, though I could not guess the reason for it. "You blame me for this."
I knew I tickled the dragon's belly, but I did not care. "And why not? What choices had I?" I flung out my hands. "I was neither maiden nor widow nor wife. I was without the legal comforts of marriage but denied the opportunities that would have been mine otherwise. I could not have my own license to brew, as an unwed woman might. I could not wed again. Worse, I was shunned and less likely to receive charity from our fellow villagers. To be called a witch was the least offensive of choices I did have. I could have become a thief or a beggar, I could have abandoned my family, I could have become a whore."
Merlyn's eyes narrowed. "It was you who chose to leave Ravensmuir, chère." His lips drew taut. "And interestingly, it is you who calls me a liar."
I could have struck him. Instead, I drove my finger into his chest again. He did not so much as flinch. "I do blame you. I blame you utterly for my circumstance. Had you not been the rogue you are, I would have remained by your side for all of our days, Merlyn. A nuptial pledge such as we exchanged is no small thing." I took a shuddering breath. "I abandoned you only because I feared for my soul in being wed to a criminal. I left you because a woman of any merit would have no other choice."
Merlyn folded his arms grimly across his chest. "So, here we stand. Rogue and witch."
"I am no witch!" I replied hotly. "Look at me! What manner of witless fool would not expect a witch to change the contributing factors of her family's misery? Why would a witch not summon riches for herself, or coax the return of a suitor for her sister, or conjure a meal for her starving brother?" I glared at Merlyn, expecting him to refute me, but his eyes narrowed.
"What brother?" he demanded with such ferocity that my breath caught.
"The brother my mother died bringing into this world!" I turned my back upon him, choking on an unwelcome tide of emotion. "Good day, Merlyn."
I stirred my wort, furious that it cooled, furious that Merlyn was responsible, furious that I responded to him as vigorously as ever I did. He did not leave.
I had not truly expected him to. I refused to acknowledge him, though the kitchen was thick with the tangle of emotions left between us.
"I came to seek your aid, chère," he said quietly. "You shall not have it. I want no part of your crimes." "Even if I give you my word to share the truth with you?" I shook my head impatiently. "Merlyn, you cannot discredit a lie with another lie."
"How is it that Gawaina man occupied in the same trade as myselfis given more credence by you than I am?" Merlyn's words were tinged with bitterness. I turned, my voice faltering. "You have never given me your word."
"Because you never had the courage to make your charges to me!"
"I could not believe whatever you said to me now." Merlyn's eyes flashed. "Even if it was the truth?" "I doubt that it would be."
He made a sound of frustration and I glanced back to find his expression grim. He closed the distance between us with one step and caught my chin in his hand. His voice was unexpectedly hoarse. "What if I were to reform my ways? What if I were to pledge to you that I would abandon my father's trade?"
My mouth went dry. I wanted to believe him and my lips parted before I recalled that I had been fool enough to be deceived by Merlyn's lies five years ago. "Prove it to me." "I give you my pledge." "It is not enough, Merlyn. Not now."
He studied me, seeking some encouragement that I hoped he would not find. Disappointment slowly filled his gaze, the myriad stars that always lurked in his eyes dimmed, and I felt a wretch for having denied him his will. No doubt as he intended me to do.
"I hope you do not regret this choice, chère," Merlyn whispered, then kissed me with possessive ease. I nearly melted against him in my surprise. A thousand yearnings awakened by his presence nigh betrayed me, but I recalled suddenly that he meant to bend me to his will. And a man with nothing to lose and no ethics to steer his course would use any weakness against another. I let him kiss me, and managed just barely to hold myself aloof.
Merlyn's gaze was flinty when he lifted his head, his disappointment nearly tangible. "You should have spoken to me before you left," he insisted, with what might have been hurt in his tone.
He held my gaze for a long moment, and I felt the odd sense that I had failed him. I knew very well that it was the other way around, but beneath his regard, my conviction faltered.
Had I given Merlyn a chance? Had there been an explanation that might have exonerated him? Had I been unfair? Did he truly mean to change his ways? Before I dared voice my doubts, Merlyn turned on his heel and walked away. He donned his gloves as he went, leaving the door open behind him. He crossed the square without a backward glance, a telling choice to my thinking. He swung up into his saddle, gathered the reins in his gloved fist and gave his spurs to the destrier. The beast tossed its dark head and galloped away.
I, in my weakness, clung to the edge of the door and watched Merlyn go. A thousand doubts assailed me and I just barely restrained myself from calling after him. In fact, I might have done so, if the village boys had not drawn closer.
They had gathered to stare at the steeds, and now circled closer as the sound of hoofbeats faded.
One bold and gangly boy who imagined himself on the lip of manhood swaggered toward me. "Ysabella," he taunted, then leered. "Ysabella, I have a missive for you from your spouse. He says you have need of a reminder of your nuptial night!" He grabbed his crotch and made a lewd gesture as the other boys hooted my name.
I slammed the portal and leaned back against it, my anger at Merlyn fed once again. How could I forget his cruelty so readily as that? How could I dismiss the crimes he had wrought against me?
"Curse you, Merlyn Lammergeier!" I cried to the empty kitchen. "Curse you for your careless cruelty! And a pox upon my own self for forgetting your wiles."
I returned to my wort in poor temperthough in truth, I was more angry with myself for failing to learn from experience, than with my spouse for persisting in being the rogue I already knew him to be. I wrestled the cauldron back to the fire, knowing that Merlyn would haunt my dreams. I was not to be disappointed. The man could be relied upon in some matters, at least.
It is market day in Kinfairlie village some five years past, a fine spring day. The sun is glorious, the wind filled with warmth. May Day is nigh upon us and there is frolic in the air, as there so oft is when spring shows her face after an arduous winter. All the village is merry. It is a day filled with possibilities, a day when any dream could ripen unexpectedly.
I am but eighteen summers of age and my footstep is still light. I hear the nobleman before I see him. The horse could belong to no other, its shod hooves and proud gallop revealing its value, size and lineage.
The nobleman has ridden his destrier through the throng and between the stalls as his ilk so oft do. The sound of that massive stallion's hooves carry over the chatter of the market. Conversations fall silent at the familiar sound, the villagers fearing what toll a nobleman will take of us now. This one has not come for coin.
I feel the nobleman's presence, feel his gaze upon my back, feel my cheeks heat with the awareness that I have been chosen. Dread rises within me. His is a stare so burning that it cannot be ignored. I try desperately to do so, nonetheless. I am not so young that I do not know what happens to a peasant girl who snares a laird's desire, let alone one who boldly meets his eye.
Indeed, I know my own assets. To be red of hair is not so much of a liability, not if one's hair is long and thick and curly as mine. I am tall and strong, though not without a few curves. I know that I have become desirable, by whatever measure is used by men, but I do not intend to give away what meager advantage I have.
Marriage is my sole chance of better circumstance, but marriage is not what noblemen offer to village wenches who arouse their lust.
He walks the horse not two steps behind me, but says nothing. Though I know my color rises, I do not acknowledge him. People halt to watch, some nudging and smiling, some whispering, some shaking their head with disapproval. As I hasten my errands, and he patiently stalks me, I know the dread of a mouse cornered in the kitchen. Are noblemen not said to adore the hunt above all else? I hope against hope that this lord will choose more willing prey.
Had I known more of Merlyn then, I would have understood the futility of this hope. Merlyn never sways from winning his desire. He is the most patient man ever born, or perhaps the most determined one. He always has a surety that he is right, and that certainty ensures that he never abandons his objectives.
However disreputable they might prove to be. I spare a glance back and my heart plummets. The nobleman's horse is fine beyond belief, blacker than black, larger than one such as me might imagine a horse could be. It is so high-stepping and proud that it seems another kind of creature entirely than the sole plough-horse in Kinfairlie. I turn and race away, a glimpse of the steed enough to make me flee. Unwilling to lead him to my home, I lead him upon a chase through the alleys of Kinfairlie.
He laughs and clicks his tongue to the horse. I duck through every streetfor there are not manyand every twisted alley that should have been too narrow for his steed. Yet I fail to lose him nonetheless. Breathless and exasperated, I spin to confront him in the relative security of the marketplace.
That first sight of him nigh steals my breath away, as does his alarming proximity. My heart lodges in my throat as I note the black of his garb, the golden bird with outspread wings that forms the clasp of his cloak. He can be no other than the scion of the Lammergeier family who have rebuilt Ravensmuir keep. Their wicked repute has preceded him and my fears redouble.
He is beside me in a heartbeat. I have to look up, over his knee, to meet his gaze and then, I am lost. Oh, this is a wickedly handsome man, of that there can be no doubt. Black of hair and broad of shoulder, he would be striking by his features alone. His lips curve in a knowing smile, his carriage is proud and confident. He has been born to wealth, and grown tall and straight beneath its advantages. His smile is crooked, confident.
His eyes temper my fear and awaken my curiosity. They brim with merriment, sparkling as though wrought of stars. He seems amused yet mischievous at the same time. There is a shadow of knowingness deep within those eyes, an awareness of dark secrets, a certainty of not only his own allure but of my reaction to it. The reaction of any woman to him. "What do you want of me?" I demand, knowing full well the answer.
The rogue's smile broadens. He leans down from his saddle with a male grace unfamiliar to me, and flicks his gloved fingertip across my cheek. It is a possessive and intimate gesture, one that makes the old women in the market begin to whisper and cluck.
I am struck to stone. His glove is soft, softer than I had believed leather ever could be, and his touch is gentle. The glove is dyed to the most remarkable shade of crimson. I am tempted to close my eyes and lean against his unexpected caress, tempted to welcome the softness against my cheek, tempted to forget every warning I have ever heard. I do not succumb.
"I desire what all these men desire of you," he whispers, his words deliciously low. "I desire what you promise with the sway of your hips." "I promise nothing to any man." I give him a disparaging glance. "And grant them even less." "Are you wed then?" "Nay." I spin and walk yet again, my fear changing to intrigue with startling ease. I had expected violence of him, a capture and a rape, not an inquiry.
Not a caress. Not a flirtation. I almost smile when I hear the horse trot behind me. "Have you been spoken for?" "Nay." "Pledged to the convent?"
"Nay." "Then, what is your name?" "It is not for you to know." His voice brims with laughter. "And what, my lady not-for- you-to-know, would it take for you to grant a smile to a suitor?"
I glance back to scoff. "You are no suitor!" He feigns such affront that I nearly laugh. Indeed, I enjoy myself overmuch with this handsome rogue. "But one glance and the lady knows my intentions. What an uncommon prize of a woman!" His eyes gleam down again. "I can only assume that you refer to knowledge in the biblical sense."
I survey him from unruly hair to fine boot toe with apparent disdain. "In your case, I most definitely do." The villagers laugh. He catches at his heart and pretends to be injured. "The lady wounds me."
The crowd gathers closer, much entertained, nudging each other as they strain to catch every word. I prop my basket upon my hip, toss back my braid and scoff. "Understand this, sir rogue. I would grant such knowledge more willingly to a farmer than to one of your ilk." He is not insulted, as I might have hoped. He laughs aloud, the rich sound tempting me, among others, to join his merriment. "Do you not imagine that a nobleman could pay a finer price?"
"Oh, undoubtedly he could, but I doubt that he would do so." Certain our parlay is done, I walk on. He clicks his tongue and the beast strolls after me. A crowd of villagers begins to follow us, clearly enjoying our wordplay. Their interest makes me realize that my conquest has become a spectacle. I do not take kindly to being the butt of a jest. The fact of my neighbors' entertainment steals the pleasure of matching words with this handsome nobleman.
And truly, I know what he wants and I know what he will do once he has it.
"Why would you think as much?" he asks, his low voice making a part of me tingle in a most unwelcome way. I have never been shy and my next words prove as much. "Village women are so much chattel to noblemen," I declare." They plough our furrows and plant their seed, then abandon the fruit to others."
My fellow villagers roar with laughter. The nobleman's lips twitch. "And what man, fair damsel, will win the right to plough your fields? Would you choose him solely for his experience at farming?" The crowd jostle around us, all certain that we do not truly speak of fields tilled. "Of course not." "No?"
"It is my suspicion that all men are born with the knowledge of farming, so there is no merit to be found in considerable experience."
His smile puts a dimple in his chin. My heart skips a beat, though I try to hide any response from that bright gaze. "What then?" His tone is teasing, though his eyes are solemn. "What then are your terms, my lady not-for-you-toknow?" He dares me, but he does not guess that I will rise to his challenge.
I smile, feeling my pulse quicken at his proximity, even though I know he will not accept my demand. "My virgin fields, of course, shall solely be the right of my legal husband to furrow."
The villagers alternatively gasp and roar, thinking the matter resolved by my audacity. I turn away, certain of that myself.
But the nobleman seizes my elbow and pulls me to a halt. His gaze burns with unexpected avidity. "Then marry me," he says and I cannot summon a word to my lips for shock.
Does he mock me? Certainly, there is a reckless gleam in
"But bed you first, I am certain," I scoff. "Or take vows before your priest, who will be revealed to not be a priest with morning's light."
I pull my arm from his grip and turn away. "You make a jest at my expense, sir, and I need not linger to hear more of it. Unlike you and your kind, I have labor enough to fill my waking hours." I march blindly across the market with the unwelcome sense that amusement has been provided at my expense.
"I make no jest." He speaks with such volume and resolve that the marketplace falls silent. I glance back in surprise.
He stares fixedly at me, the merry glint in his eyes gone and his smile banished. He is the image of a man resolved, if inexplicably so. There is a majesty about him that draws every eye, that compels every voice to silence. We all stare, knowing we have never seen the like of him. And I understand suddenly that such men are different from those I know. This resolve, this commanding presence, is why men follow other men, even to their deaths. He holds my gaze for a long moment, then he raises his voice to address all in attendance.
"My name is Merlyn Lammergeier, newly pronounced Laird of Ravensmuir by my father's own dictate. I seek a bride to grace my home." "Merlyn," I whisper, trying his name upon my tongue though I know I should not.
He turns his horse that he might address all of the rapt crowd, the creature arching its neck as it circles in place with perfect composure. The wind lifts the ends of Merlyn's cloak and the steed's tail. The vivid blue of the sky shows the hues of Merlyn's garb and his eyes to advantage, the sunlight glints on the gold of his cloak clasp and the silver of his steed's harness. They are magnificent, the two of them, as far beyond our daily lives as might be imagined.
"Let it be known by all that I would wed this woman honorably on this very day, that I will do so in the chapel before whosoever of you will witness the match." I stare at him in shock. Is he mad? Do I care?
"What about the banns?" cries one bold woman as I grapple with the whimsy of his offer. "There is no consanguinity between us," Merlyn declares, then winks at me. "Unless you have kin in France." I shake my head, marveling.
He nods but once, the matter resolved. "And I have no kin here. I am certain that a donation to the chapel can see such trivialities waived. We shall be wed by the priest of the lady's choosing." He turns back to face me and his eyes shine. "If my lady's terms are truly as she declares." He smiles, and as his voice falls low, I have a sudden sense that I wager with the devil himself. "If her deeds are truly as bold as her speech."
The villagers laugh, jostling each other at this unexpected marvel, then turn to watch me. It is the first but not the last time that Merlyn astounds me with his choices. Nor is it the last time that he makes my heart thunder. "Are you certain of your choice, Laird Merlyn?" shouts a bold villager. "This one has the sharpest tongue of any damsel in Kinfairlie!"
Merlyn's gaze darkens, his smile turns seductive. "I have a fancy for maidens with sharp tongues." He coaxes the steed closer and offers his hand to me. "But is this lady of bold speech equally bold in deed? Is she bold enough to accept me, the heir of the Lammergeier? Or have I guessed wrongly that she is sufficiently stalwart to face any challenge?" There it is again, that mischief, that certainty that not only is his family's repute well known but that I will not rise to his dare. Perhaps it is a test of whether I will make a fitting bride for him.
Perhaps it is a warning. The truth is that I do not care. I know only that Fortune smiles upon me. I know that Merlyn has wealth, I know that he is handsome, I know that he is not a fool. I know that he makes my heart leap. I know that even if he is a rogue, even if he is mad, that as his wife I could still live well enough on his coin. I know that this chance would only be mine if I seize it immediately.
And most importantly of all, I know that I want to surprise him. I am seduced by that dimple and by that dare in his eyes. He is irresistible, and he desires me. I have no intent of granting him the time to change his thinking. I hand my basket to the woman beside me, an elderly neighbor of ours. "Take this home to my mother, if you will, Anna, and please bid her hasten to the chapel if she would see me wed to Laird Merlyn of Ravensmuir by Kinfairlie's own priest."
The crowd hoots with glee but I see only Merlyn's brilliant smile. My heart lurches, but I take his hand as if there is nothing uncommon in what I do. I catch my breath at his strength and surety when he grasps me around the waist and pulls me directly into the saddle before him.
And I find the evidence of his desire pressed against my buttocks, my breath deserting me as his lips touch my ear. "So, you are indeed as audacious a woman as I suspected," he murmurs, his voice making me shiver. He seems untroubled by what has always been perceived as a liability in my character by others. "Your intrepid nature will serve you well at Ravensmuir."
I wonder then if there is more to the tale of him, more to his need for a bride than I might be pleased to learn. But such concerns grow no roots in my thoughts, not then. He kisses me, possessively, thoroughly, exhilaratingly, coaxing the spark between us to a smoldering blaze. When he lifts his head, he smiles knowingly at me, fully aware of the hunger he has awakened within me.
"Well met, bride of mine," he whispers. He flings his cloak around me and spurs his steed to the chapel, his hand rising in the shadows to cup the weight of my breast. My flesh tingles in a startling new way. I know with dreadful certainly that I have been claimed by a demon, and that with my own consent.
But I do not step away from the flame Merlyn kindles. The devil has chosen me as his handmaiden, and for the moment, I do not care.