OUTSİDE THE HİLLTOP fortress of Caradoc ap Mabon, the wind moaned and the rain swirled in furious gusts. But within the chieftain’s wooden keep, his English guests were warmed by steaming roast venison, the finest wine from Aquitaine, and the traditional music and revelry of Welsh hospitality. Marared, Caradoc’s daughter, watched the festivities from the edge of the room, her green eyes narrowed in fury, her body taut with outrage. She could not believe her father’s betrayal. How could he have brought the enemy into their home? Everywhere she looked, English knights mingled with her father’s warriors and flirted with the female servants. She despised everything about the enemy, from their fine velvet and sarcanet tunics, to their cropped hair and shaven faces. They reminded her of fat, sleek predators, and she would not be more horrified than if her father had invited a bunch of weasels into the shed where their chickens and geese roosted. For centuries the Saeson had oppressed her people, pushing them deeper and deeper into the mountainous lands of the west, where life was harsh and the weather harsher still. And now they wanted more. They built castles and towns in the traditional borderlands, then sent out troops of knights to guard their stolen domains. It seemed to Marared that the enemy’s goal was to conquer and subjugate her people altogether. “Sister, you look like a sour-faced scold.” Her older brother Maelgwn brushed by her and interrupted her bitter thoughts. A drunken grin gleamed beneath his heavy black mustache. He thrust a cup into her hand.
“Here, drink up and join the dancing. We’ve a shortage of women to make up the round.” “Never! I’d sooner cut off my feet than dance with a Sais!” Maelgwn raised a dark brow. “Da wants to arrange a peace treaty with the English. He’s tired of spending all our time raiding and fighting.” “Our father is a fool if he thinks he can trust those scheming wretches!” Marared strode off, her plain russet gown swishing as she walked. She’d refused to dress up for their guests and told her father she’d neither converse with the enemy knights, nor act as hostess. Even tolerance was beginning to strain her nerves. She longed to dash out into the furious weather. Anything to get away from her father’s folly.
But then the Saeson would have succeeded in driving her from her home, and she would not give them that victory. She started toward the kitchen lean-to and on the way, met Aoife, her cousin from Ireland who also lived at Caer Brynfawr. “I can’t bear this. I can’t endure being in the same room with those conniving, lustful wretches!” Aoife giggled. “Mayhap you should lower your voice. One of them just passed by seeking the garderobe. You wouldn’t want him to hear you. Of course, he likely doesn’t speak Cymraeg.” “One of the knights went to the garderobe? Is he in there now?” Aoife nodded. A plan formed in Marared’s mind.
A means of venting her resentment over their unwelcome guests. She smiled at her cousin. “Come.” Outside the garderobe, which was shielded from the hallway by a heavy curtain, Marared paused and winked at Aoife, then spoke in loud Norman French, “Stupid Sais bastards! One of them stepped on my gown during the dancing! What clumsy oafs.” “Aye,” Aoife answered. “Not only are they clumsy, but ugly. With that short hair they look like shorn sheep and their mustaches are puny things.” “I wouldn’t be surprised if other things about them were puny as well.” Marared spoke even louder. “In fact, I’ve heard it said that English knights are hung like field mice.
” Aoife made a sputtering noise. There was a sound from the garderobe. Marared and Aoife looked at each other in exhilarated dread. “And I’ve heard their ballocks are solid wood,” Aoife added. “Just like their heads!” * GERARD OF MALMSBURY, who was finishing his business in the privy, clenched his jaw. He had half a mind to thrust the curtain aside and show his tormentors exactly what sort of equipage this English knight possessed! Perhaps they feared such a confrontation, for he heard more giggling, then the sound of footsteps. Rapidly fastening the drawstring of his braies, he shoved aside the curtain and glanced down the corridor leading to the hall. He saw two young women hurrying off, one with black hair, the other with red-gold tresses. The red-haired wench looked back at him and smiled coyly. His gut tightened.
The little bitch! Gerard sought to cool his temper. He would not allow a couple of ill-mannered Welsh wenches to provoke him. Gerard’s overlord, Fawkes de Cressy, had charged him with making a treaty with the Welsh chieftain Caradoc, and he no intention of failing in his duty. So far, negotiations had progressed well. Caradoc had agreed not to attack Tangwyl Castle if de Cressy would pay him an annual fee of twenty silver marks and keep his men from raiding in Caradoc’s territory. All well and good. But there was another stipulation the Welsh chieftain proposed that Gerard found unsettling. Caradoc wanted the knight who held Tangwyl Castle to marry his only daughter, Marared. De Cressy had promised if Gerard arranged this treaty and was able to maintain it, he could have the honor of Tangwyl. Which meant he was the one who must wed the Welshwoman.
He had not met her yet, which seemed odd. But perhaps she was too young to join in the festivities. She likely looked like Caradoc, with hair so dark it was almost black, blue eyes, and a short, solid build. He was not averse to a stocky, capable sort of wife. Better than a flighty, saucy one, like the little minxes who had taunted him when he was in the garderobe. He recalled the brief glimpse he’d had of the red-haired wench. The simplicity of her clothing suggested she was a servant. But no servant would dare such a thing. And how could a serving girl in a Welsh household have learned to speak Norman French? It was a puzzle. But one he didn’t have time to solve at this moment.
Gerard made his way to the table where Caradoc was seated. The Welsh chieftain grinned rather drunkenly as Gerard joined him, and Gerard knew a moment of surprise. He’d thought the Welshman too canny to let down his guard. Caradoc shrugged sheepishly and said, “I needed to fortify myself before telling my daughter what I’ve agreed to.” Caradoc rose unsteadily and started across the crowded hall. Gerard watched his progress with interest, wondering again about the young woman who would soon be his betrothed. His curiosity turned to shock as Caradoc paused by a woman standing at the far end of the hall. Even from a distance, Gerard could make out the distinctive gleam of her red-gold hair. * “YOU CAN’T DO this! You can’t! I won’t wed a filthy Sais!” Marared stared at her father in despair and outrage. When he’d asked her to meet with him in his private chambers, she’d been surprised.
But nothing could have prepared her for his horrifying pronouncement: he’d arranged for her to wed the new lord of Tangwyl Castle. She felt like she’d been hit in the stomach. Nay, she felt like a trapped animal facing the final deadly spear thrust! “Now, now, Marared, ’tis not such an awful fate. Gerard of Malmsbury is no monster. Indeed, I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen of him. He appears to have fine manners and a steady disposition. He’s ambitious, but not overly so. He also appears to be loyal. When I suggested that perhaps the two of us could come to some arrangement beyond the one I was making with de Cressy, he stiffly told me he was de Cressy’s man and would do nothing without his approval. I liked that.
I also liked—” “But he’s a Sais!” Marared interrupted. “How can you want me to marry our enemy?” Her father shook his head sadly. “Things have changed since you were a little girl and the English burned us out. That’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid, more bloodshed and destruction. More suffering for our people. If we ally ourselves with a strong and honorable Marcher lord, we can stop spending all our time fighting and finally prosper.” “There was a time when you’d never have invited the Saeson into our home, let alone make an agreement with one of them! You’ve grown old and cowardly! That’s why you’re doing this!” Marared dashed tears from her eyes. How could her father have changed so much? How could he betray her? “Maelgwn agrees with my plan, and he’s young enough. He’s also the only son I have left. I want a longer, and better, life for him than what his brothers had.
” With a sigh, Marared thought of Dewi and Padrig, who had both died as a result of the persistent struggle with the enemy. Dewi had been thrown from a horse during a raid, and Padrig had perished when he got lost in a sudden snowstorm while on patrol. She drew a shuddering breath. “So, I’m to be the price you pay for peace. Bartered off like some prize horse.” “Nay. Nay.” Her father’s expression was pleading. “’Twill be better for you as well. You’ll live in a fine, comfortable keep and have servants to wait upon you.
’Twill mean a life of ease and security.” “I don’t want any of those things! I want to stay here and marry one of my own people. I want to live as Cymric women have since the days of Arthur and the other heroes.” Caradoc set his jaw. “’Tis not a woman’s place to choose her own destiny. I’m your father, and that gives me the right to make decisions for you.” Marared stared at him in dismay. Perhaps if she fell down weeping at his knees, he might reconsider. But it wasn’t her nature to wheedle and beg. She squared her shoulders.
“When? When am I to wed this English whoreson?” Her father’s mouth twitched at her crude language. “We’ve discussed late May, when the weather has improved enough for you to travel comfortably.” Marared smiled tightly. “By then, I could be a month gone with another man’s babe. A cowherd or shepherd would do nicely.” Caradoc’s face reddened and his blue eyes flashed. “You would not do that! You would not shame your blessed mother’s memory that way!” Marared felt her cheeks flush with embarrassment. Her father was right. She’d never be able to follow through on her threat. It would be a denial of everything her mother had taught her.
Her beloved Mam had died five years ago of the lung fever and Marared still grieved. She thought now of Catriona’s stern admonishments about duty to family and clan. ’Twas clear that defying her father would be terribly disrespectful. Honor demanded she abide by his decision. Marared forced a tight smile to her lips. “Let us go back into the hall and you can introduce me to him.” * GERARD HAD ONCE thought that possessing a castle and being a lord was worth any price. But gazing at his wife-to-be, he wondered if perhaps he had overreached himself. It wasn’t merely that this young woman was one of the ill-mannered vixens who had taunted him in the garderobe. Or that she was far from his ideal of a placid, ordinary wife.
Nor was it her spectacular beauty that made him wary: her creamy skin, delicate features and wide green eyes as clear as glass. It was the look of contempt and loathing in those green eyes that caused his gut to tighten with apprehension. This woman was not merely displeased with the match, she hated him. “My daughter, Marared,” Caradoc announced. Gerard bowed, wondering if he should try to kiss her hand in the manner of the court. Nay, she would snatch away her fingers and embarrass them both, he was certain of it. “This is Gerard of Malmsbury.” Caradoc gestured. “Lord of Tangwyl Castle.” He turned to his daughter and grasped one of her hands.
After placing her fingers in Gerard’s, Caradoc stepped back and announced to the hall, “I’ve given my daughter to this man, to take to wife and seal the agreement between his liege lord, Fawkes de Cressy, and myself. Heretofore we will be allies, seeking to preserve each other’s interests and united against our common enemies.” Gerard could see Marared struggle not to pull away. As her chest heaved and the nostrils of her dainty nose flared, he was reminded of a terrified filly haltered for the first time. She would take careful handling. Gerard’s body reacted to the thought. She might be a wild hellion, but she also stirred his blood like no woman he’d ever met. She would stir any man’s blood. That hair, like a glowing flame. Her supple, curvaceous form, enticing even in the plain gown.
She had a face to inspire men to do battle. Although at this moment, it appeared she was ready to do battle with him. While Marared’s full lips curved sweetly, her green eyes clashed with his like Greek fire exploding against a castle’s ramparts. The fury he saw there alarmed him, but Gerard reassured himself it would all be worth it. For the bastard son of a hired knight, having authority over a fine castle was a dream come true. He must rise to any challenge he faced in order to keep his hard-won prize. * MARARED REGARDED HER soon-to-be husband with narrowed eyes. Gerard of Malmsbury towered over her father by more than a handspan and his chest and shoulders were broad and muscular. He had wary, hooded eyes that gave nothing away and a chiseled jaw. An air of predatory danger clung to him, reminding her of a cat ready to spring.
Marared chewed her lower lip. She’d thought of English knights as loud, loutish and stupid, yet her husband-to-be did not appear to be any of those things. The air of intensity that surrounded Malmsbury unsettled her. He looked as if he would be a ferocious fighter in battle. Well, she was a fighter, too. And May was weeks away. Much could happen before then. At least some of her father’s clients and allies felt must feel as she did, that any bargain with the Saeson was a bargain with the devil. She slipped her hand from Malmsbury’s grasp and started to walk away. Her father caught her shoulder and forced her to remain beside him.
Addressing the gathering, he said, “We discussed a May wedding, but I see no reason to wait that long.” He glanced at Malmsbury. “The weather is such that you’ll not want to leave for a day or two anyway. I was thinking of fetching a priest and holding the wedding tomorrow. What say you, Sir Gerard?” Marared stood stunned. Her father had guessed her mutinous thoughts and intended to forestall them. How did she get out of this? She looked at Malmsbury, hoping desperately he would refuse her father’s suggestion. The knight met her gaze, his expression unreadable.