Home>>read Twin Passions free online

Twin Passions

By:Miriam Minger

Chapter 1


England, 973 A.D.


"'Tis not safe for you to venture out alone, my lady," murmured the shy young stableboy, almost to himself. Biting his lower lip, he fumbled nervously with the leather girths of the saddle. Surely Earl Godric would not allow one of his daughters to ride out of the stronghold without a guard to protect her. Perhaps he should offer to ride along with her? That thought made him flush bright red from his neck to the roots of his scalp. He shifted his feet uncomfortably, sensing her impatience, but for some reason he could not fasten the last buckle properly.

"Here, let me do that," Gwendolyn said in exasperation. She knelt down beside him, her expert fingers deftly threading the leather strap through the metal buckle. "There, now," she muttered, satisfied. Rising to her feet, she brushed the straw from the knees of her buckskin trousers. She looked steadily at the startled stableboy, her emerald eyes searching his ruddy face. "You must be new to the stables," she said. "What is your name, lad?"

"G-Garric, m-mistress," he stammered, awestruck by her fair beauty. For the life of him he could not understand why such a fine lady was dressed in men's clothing almost as simple as his own. He looked down at his feet, fearful that she would think his gaze far too bold. "'T-tis my first day in the stables, my lady."

"Well, Garric, look over there," Gwendolyn said, lifting the stableboy's trembling chin. She nodded toward the far end of the darkened stable.

His eyes widened as he recognized two of Earl Godric's most trusted thanes. The men were quickly saddling their horses, taking care to glance over at Gwendolyn every so often to make sure she had not yet left the stable.

"Though I am quite capable of watching out for myself," she stated, her emerald eyes flashing defiantly, "my father insists that those two thanes ride along with me whenever I leave the stronghold." She lowered her voice, her tone softening as she smiled at the boy. "So, you see, Garric, your fears are for naught. But I thank you for your kind concern."

A slow, creeping blush burned the stableboy's freckled cheeks as he stared at her, his heart beating hard against his narrow chest. He had never been gifted with such a smile before! A look of embarrassment crossed his face. Suddenly he turned and fled from the stable, the hearty laughter of the two thanes ringing in his ears.

"Lady Gwendolyn has power over us all." The burlier thane grinned at his companion.

"Aye. Just like her sister," agreed the other, chuckling to himself. With a sharp yank on the reins, he urged his steed forward and followed Gwendolyn, who was leading her dappled mare into the stable yard.

Once out in the open, the frisky mare nudged her mistress with her velvety nose. She whinnied expectantly, as if to speed them on their way. The cool autumn afternoon seemed to beckon to them. Without even a backward glance at the two thanes, Gwendolyn slid easily onto the mare's back.

"We'll soon be free, my Arrow," she whispered softly, spurring the mare gently with her heel.

Passing through the protective walls that surrounded the stronghold of her father, Earl Godric of Cheshire, Gwendolyn reined in just outside the heavy, timbered gate. The main road before her led through open fields, rich with the bountiful autumn harvest. To her right lay a smaller path that wound toward the river through dense, forested woodlands. With little hesitation, she chose the less traveled path to the river. She had not been for a ride in several days, and yearned for nothing more than to be alone for a while. Well, almost alone, she thought darkly, remembering the two silent thanes who were riding not far behind her. Clucking her tongue to her mare, she set off at a lively canter.

The late-afternoon sun was just beginning to settle into the gnarled oak trees. The brisk air was tinged with the sharp, pungent scents of autumn— damp earth, smoky wood fires—and Gwendolyn took in great breaths, filling her lungs. She loved this time of year, when the entire landscape was awash in vivid hues of crimson, orange, and russet.

Suddenly she sighed. It would not be a long ride today, for the hour was later than she had thought. She glanced over her shoulder at the two thanes wending their way along the leaf-strewn path not far behind her. They reminded her of great, hulking shadows. No doubt they would soon ride up and urge her to turn back.

She shivered, turning up the collar of her woolen shirt against the brisk north wind. She was grateful for the added warmth of her fur-lined leather jerkin, which she had donned only as an afterthought in her haste to get to the stable. She reached up and pulled her woolen cap down over her ears. Her short, silver-blond curls peered out from beneath the narrow brim, softly framing her delicate features.

Gwendolyn's emerald green eyes darkened as she reflected on the events of the past few months. Overtaken by her thoughts, she unwittingly relaxed her firm grip on the reins. The dappled mare nickered softly, tossing her head at this new freedom, and slowed her pace to a meandering walk along the familiar path.

God's blood! Why must everything change? she asked herself, a frown creasing her forehead. As if in reply, a sudden gust of wind rustled through the trees. Dry leaves, tugged from their branches, whirled silently to the ground below. Gazing at the half-naked limbs that until a few weeks ago had been green and full, Gwendolyn cursed herself for a fool.

If only Father had not made that agreement with King Edgar, she thought fiercely. As if it had been yesterday, she recalled all too well the furtive conversation she had overheard in the chapel between the family priest, Father Leofwine, and Grimbald, her father's steward, late last spring. She had been sitting on a far bench in the back of the small sanctuary, as was her wont when she wished to be alone, when the two men entered from the side door. Apparently they had not seen her, for they had not bothered to lower their voices. She listened, unbelieving, to their words, scarcely able to breathe.

"Is it true, then, Grimbald, that a marriage is being arranged?" Father Leofwine had asked, his wheezing cough echoing about the empty chapel.

"Aye, Holy Father," Grimbald replied, nodding his balding head, "but the news is yet a secret. Lady Anora has not been told."

"Hardly a well-kept secret. The very walls have ears," the stooped priest said wryly. "Well, then, why the secrecy? Is it an ogre she will wed?"

Grimbald's eyes narrowed as he leaned closer to the priest. "He is a Danish prince, Holy Father, and one of the most powerful men in the Danelaw! King Edgar himself has proposed the match as a reward, one could say, for the Dane's recent oath of allegiance to an English king."

Masking his initial surprise at the steward's outburst, the old priest nodded his head solemnly. "So, our king is seeking an alliance with the Danelaw," he murmured, rubbing his stubbled chin. "Perhaps this marriage is part of a larger plan . . . aye, a great plan—one that might end the bloodshed and hate between our two people, and further King Edgar's quest for unity . . ." His voice trailed off, and Gwendolyn strained to hear his next words. "And Earl Godric has agreed to this?"

"Aye, Your Holiness, but not without some misgivings. You know as well as I that Anora is very dear to his heart. He is not convinced that this is the best match for her." He paused, catching his breath. "The king also asked about Lady Gwendolyn! But Earl Godric insisted that as the elder of his twin daughters, Anora was the first to be wed."

Shaking his head, Father Leofwine sighed heavily. "Pity that the child must play a pawn in a king's game, even for so great a cause. Perhaps she will go to him willingly." He was suddenly seized by another fit of coughing. "Go now, Grim-bald. I am weary of this intrigue."

Gwendolyn watched furtively through lowered lashes as the priest turned toward the gilded altar, abruptly dismissing the steward. Then, wheeling around suddenly, he reached out his gnarled hand and caught Grimbald's sleeve. "Wait! One more question before you go. What is the name of this mighty prince of the Danelaw?"

"Wulfgar Ragnarson, Holy Father:"





***





Gwendolyn had not noticed that her hands had tightened on the reins until the dappled mare snorted loudly at the rough treatment, tossing her head in protest. Gwendolyn quickly loosened her fierce grip. "Forgive me, Arrow," she soothed, stroking the rough gray hairs on the mare's neck. Her voice was calm, belying the bitter turmoil that raged within her.

He is a Dane, an enemy of our people, Gwendolyn thought angrily. How could Father ever have agreed to such a proposal? Yet, she knew the answer. A king's pawn . . . a reward . . . The words echoed in her mind, over and over. After that day in the chapel, she had known that her life would never be the same. The grim realization that she and Anora could be used as barter at the whim of a king, their fates so easily decided by others, had shaken her to the very depths of her being.

And now, not only had her father betrayed her, but Anora, too. Gwendolyn raged silently. Though her sister had been given the right to refuse this Wulfgar Ragnarson if she so desired, she had fallen in love with him, agreeing to be his wife! How could Anora let herself be used so? Gwendolyn wondered, shaking her head in dismay.

Yet Gwendolyn had to admit that it wasn't just that Anora was to marry a Dane that upset her so. Nay, there was something else, something even more painful. She had watched in silence while her sister underwent a mysterious transformation during the summer months. Where she and Anora had once been inseparable, sharing laughter and tears, secret dreams and hopes, and hiding nothing from each other, Gwendolyn now found herself alone. From their first meeting, Anora and Wulfgar had seemed as if they were in a world that only two could share. Aye, perhaps it was this that had hurt her most of all.

Loading...

Recommend