Princess of Fire – Heather Graham

“The Norman duke is dead! Duke William is dead!” The cry had begun as a murmur, but it rose like a shrill wind at the least opportune moment. Among the left division of the Normans, the knights had broken. A chaotic and horrible retreat had begun, and the horses slipped and fell in the marsh. Men and animals alike shrieked, but the Saxon line remained unbroken. “Fools!” Alaric thundered over the cacophony of clashing battle-axes and swords. “William lives! There, see! He casts his helmet aside to prove he is alive!” Alaric’s emphatic declaration stilled the panic, but the situation remained bleak. The damned English! They were a mob—a disorganized but stalwart body. William, leader of the Normans, attacked with horsemen; Harold and his English forces had none. But if William’s forces were fewer, his battle plan was superior. His weaponry was more advanced and deadly, whereas a number of the Saxons fought with nothing but crude slingshots—and desperation. They fought for their homeland and for Harold, their king, Alaric realized, and they would probably do so bare-handed if necessary. William rode before his troops; Harold was afoot. How order could be sustained, Alaric did not know. But in spite of it all, the English were holding the day upon the battlefield of Hastings. William had come in with arrows and missiles to break and confuse the ranks; his knights followed on war-horses to trample down those broken ranks, and foot soldiers finished the grim task.

Yet for all William’s military finesse, nothing went right. The horsemen moved before all the arrows had flown, and Norman arrows had downed Norman fighters. The Saxons’ shields had created an impenetrable wall, and little damage had been done. Caught in the melee with the retreat in abeyance, Alaric paused and stared at the line of Saxons upon the ridge of their defense. Thousands had died; more men came to replace them. England was being defended by a wall of flesh and blood. And by God, for all that Alaric would lay down his life for William without hesitation, he was heartily sorry for the bloodshed. Harold Godwinson was a good man and a fair one—an excellent king. Somewhere among his troops he fought, barely returned from battle with Viking scavengers in the north. He had fought with genius, it was said, and with mercy; he had proved himself both a man and a king.

Now, today, he fought again; fought with raw men, and raw weaponry, fought in desperation—and Alaric was one of those invaders he must fight. Among the Norman banners was that of the pope—and Alaric suspected that this pennant was the most potent weapon on the field. For he knew Harold, and he shuddered to think of the Saxon’s feelings when he believed that even God had turned against him. “God’s will,” Alaric muttered between his teeth, and drew his sword, for a Saxon defender was upon him, swinging a crude ax and letting out a horrible cry. Savage blows rained on him, but Alaric was well trained in the art of warfare, and the Saxon fell before him in a pool of blood. “Alaric!” He turned his horse around. William was calling to him—tall in his saddle, tense, and still bareheaded, to assure his troops that he lived. “They come; the English are attacking. Hold the ranks and cut them down as they come!” Perhaps the counterattack was the Saxons’ first mistake, for they were cut down. The Norman retreat was halted; horses trod upon screaming Englishmen where they fell in the mire.

Chaos reigned again, but at last the tide was turning. “By God, ’tis Harold! Harold is dead! The Saxon king is dead.” It began as a murmur; it rose to a chant. And this time, the news was true. After the long and bloody battle, Harold lay dead. The shouts of victory rose. It seemed that no one near Alaric really knew how Harold had died—some claimed he had been wounded in the eye by an arrow, then hacked to bits by the Normans. But he was dead. And the Saxon wall of defense, which had been unbroken by arms and carnage, blood and death, now scattered like autumn leaves in the wind. Harold Godwinson, the Saxon king, was dead.

Alaric smiled bitterly. He had liked and admired Harold; now he felt no victorious joy—only pain. He knew that this moment was only the beginning. This bountiful land of forests and fields would fall, too, before William’s pillaging troops. William did not advocate rape or murder or mayhem. But he had promised riches to those who rode with him, and riches were attained through plunder. Like the Saxon king, the land would bleed and scream . “Alaric! Count Alaric!” Falstaff of Boulogne, heavy in armor, was riding his charger over the corpse-strewn battlefield toward Alaric. “A large group of Saxon swine retreated down the ravine, and our men went in chase. Their horses tumbled and fell, and the Saxons fell upon our men, slaying them.

They are fighting fiercely still, led by one who knows nothing of surrender or retreat.” Alaric swung his horse around and cantered toward the ravine. He did not make the mistake that had killed his men, but dismounted and made his way downward on foot, drawing his sword to join the battle. Sheer force of numbers brought the Normans and their Breton supporters to triumph as swords clashed and axes fell. The Saxons began to flee and beg for mercy. “My lord!” With a heavy, shuddering sigh, Alaric strained to retrieve his sword from the fallen form of his latest foe. Falstaff—great, bearlike Falstaff—was behind him again, calling for his attention. “The men—they pause—there, by the oak! ’Tis a Saxon swordsman so adept that our men can only circle about him. They ask if he seeks quarter—he asks none! He fights like a madman gone amok— like a Viking berserker, by God! My lord—” Alaric waited for no further explanation but sped up the ridge. The climb was difficult for him, for he was in full armor—so heavily clad that nothing of him showed but his thunderous, brooding gray eyes.

At the ridge he mounted his horse, spurring the well-trained steed to hasten, and quickly came upon the scene at the tree. Like many of the Saxons, this warrior was clad in leather armor, a tunic that protected his body, a mask to shield his face. Alaric was annoyed to see that ten armored and well-armed Normans were still circling this one fighter. The position had been a fine choice for the Saxon warrior; his show of bravado had surely allowed many of his men to escape into the forest. Alaric watched one of his own men move in; he saw the defender’s prowess with the sword, and his mouth tightened. “Stand back!” he ordered grimly. “The fight is mine.” Perhaps it was not fair, for the defender was surely exhausted, yet so were they all, for it had been a bloody day. Nor did Alaric intend to fight to the kill, for he admired the brave show and would rather have had him a prisoner. But he moved in with a measured fury, for by God, he would see no more of his own men slain or crippled.

Alaric was mounted; the Saxon was on foot, and yet prepared. As Alaric moved in, the defender’s sword came up and caught his own. But Alaric’s strength was greater, and he was aided by the speed of his mount. The Saxon’s sword flew high into the air like a silver bird or a comet with a flashing tail—foreshadowing doom for the defender. That same force sent the Saxon to the ground, flat upon his back. He did not rise, but lay there—panting, gasping for breath, awaiting the death blow. Still grim, Alaric rode in a circle around the fallen swordsman. His great steed paused with his hooves just a foot from the Saxon’s head. Alaric leaned down and pressed his bloodied sword against the Saxon’s throat. “Surrender and live,” he said quietly.

No answer came his way. With great agility he leapt to the ground, graceful despite his armor. He reached for the leather mask that concealed the Saxon’s face. “Nay, leave me be!” Alaric started. A wave of astonishment seized him, and a fiery sizzle cascaded along his spine. The voice was soft; it was English, naturally, but melodic and fluted . And it was no man. Alaric’s senses told him who the woman was. Just as he had known Harold, so, too, he knew her. Disarmed and fallen, she still fought, struggling viciously with her bare hands against his hold.

He felt vicious himself as he grappled with her with clenched teeth and bulging muscles. She was strong, but she was not his equal hand to hand. He caught the tie at the back of her head and furiously wrenched the mask away. She paused at last in her struggle and tried to stand. Smiling grimly, Alaric planted his foot on the tress of midnight hair that had fallen free. She was forced to stare up into his face, into his eyes. He spoke English to her—bitter, biting English, for she had sworn herself his enemy and proved it many, many times before this battle had been joined. “Cease, Fallon! You are beaten!” “No! Never!” she choked out. “Never!” With a startling and desperate surge of force, she lunged at him, tearing her own hair beneath his boot in her frenzy to attack him and free herself. He saw her eyes dart, and he knew she sought to escape into the trees, as her mates had done.

She flew against him, seeking his weakness, his inner thigh where the armor did not protect his flesh. Her teeth hit him and in exasperation, impatience, and raw ire, he swore out an oath and released her for the briefest moment. She tried to spin and run, but he lunged after her and threaded his fingers through her hair, dragging her hard against the cold steel that covered his body. “Bloody Saxon bitch! You are beaten. Surrender!” “To the bastard henchman of a bastard duke?” she retorted, as tears of pain filled her eyes. But her courage was unshaken. “Nay, William will not have England!” Even then—ill clad and muddied with the filth of the battlefield—she was strikingly beautiful. Eyes as blue as the crystal sky over the northern realm of her Viking ancestors, hair as black and glistening as ebony night. Her face, a delicate heart, lips as red as potent wine. Beneath the dirt her skin was as fair as cream, her cheeks like rose petals.

Her brows were high and arched like a pixie’s and, laughing, she was more stunning still, like a playful goddess, more enchanting. Like a princess . S he was a princess—if not by birth, then by the acclaim of the English people. Harold Godwinson’s daughter by his “Danish marriage,” she was as proud as any queen and as English as the earth on which they stood. She was a beauty, yes—a great and enchanting beauty. This Alaric could acknowledge, for it was as simple as the grass being green, or the ocean blue. She had been a thorn in his side since the day he had met her, and standing there he knew she had to be subdued if ever William was to rule all of England. Fallon was Harold’s cub, and she had to be tamed. Alaric released her, then removed his helmet and ran his fingers through his hair. “Fallon, you are done.

You are my prisoner—” He halted, gritting his teeth as she spat in his face. He wiped his face with a gauntleted hand, watching her defiant blue eyes. Then he caught her wrist in no subtle grasp and wrenched her back to him. “Lady, you are done! England is done!” Her head fell back and she stared into his eyes, her own still gleaming rebelliously. “England, sir? This is but a battle, and England is a big country. My father’s country.” “Your father is dead!” She suddenly seemed to wilt, as if consciousness were leaving her and she would fall. He reached out to steady her; furiously she wrenched her arm from him. “No!” she denied hoarsely. “My father is not dead! He cannot be dead!” “Fallon, I tell you the truth.

Harold is dead.” “No!” She stared at him, seeking some word. He knew that she longed for him to deny himself, to tell her that Harold lived. “Please! For the love of God, Alaric . ” Alaric stood as stiff and cold as steel. He longed to reach out to her and soften the blow, for she had adored her father. He did not wish to be cruel, yet for Fallon just now, perhaps, swift cruelty was the greatest kindness. He was too busy to spend time tangling with her, but she had to be handled. If she kept fighting, she, too, would soon be dead. She was lucky she did not lie among the dead now, after the fool’s stand she had taken to save her friends.

She had to be beaten, Alaric realized wearily. She had to be beaten so thoroughly that she could not rise again and bring about her own end. “England is not lost!” Fallon cried out. “Surely my brothers live! Edgar Atheling lives, and the English will turn to him! William will never, never be king—” “Take the—uh—princess back to camp,” Alaric told his men, interrupting her, his tone a cool dismissal of her. “See that she is kept under guard until we determine what we shall do with her.” Two of his armored knights stepped toward Fallon, each taking one of her arms. Thank God for armor; she struggled against them still, biting and kicking. But sadness clouded her voice when she spoke again. “The bastard will not be king! The lords of the witan meet together to choose the king in England. The law creates the king! The witan made my father king, and my father—” “Get her out of here!” Alaric commanded his men.

He turned away, clenching his jaw, glad that few of his Breton horsemen spoke English, for they would surely take exception to her calling William a bastard—true though it was. He was Duke William to those who loved him, and that was that. Alaric started back to the center of the field. The Saxons were gone—slain or dispersed. Night was falling. It was time to separate the wounded from the dead, to pick up the pieces and plan further strategy. Falstaff, carrying Alaric’s helmet and the gauntlets he had pulled from his hands, followed as Alaric went from one fallen soldier to the next. Alaric had known many battles; he had fought at William’s side for years to retrieve the duchy of Normandy from the hostile barons who had tried to steal William’s inheritance. Alaric had fought— but he had seldom felt as he did this night. Bodies were entwined with bodies.

Men cried out for water, for God, for life, and for death. The priests had arrived and were quickly giving last rites. The surgeons and barbers and the whole men hastened to the wounded. Alaric watched these ministrations and inhaled sharply. Just before him lay a boy with arm outstretched—dead beneath the body of a heavy Norman horseman. The sight of the youth hurt him. A young lad, fresh from his wheat fields, battling with nothing grander than a stick. “He promised us rewards. Right, Alaric?” called a voice. “What?” Alaric turned with a frown.

“Nothing, Alaric, nothing. I’ll speak when we’ve seen to the men.” The grisly chore took them well into the night. William sent for Alaric, who made his way to the duke’s tent. As he entered, William clapped him enthusiastically on the back and handed him a silver chalice of wine. Alaric downed the wine quickly, eyeing William. Somewhat shorter than Alaric and broad in the shoulders, William was handsome at forty years plus. He still shook with excitement and emotion. “Alaric, we’ve done it. In one day! Harold is dead, Alaric.

We’ve taken England.” “We’ve not taken England,” Alaric said bluntly, knowing their twenty-year alliance gave him the right to speak his mind. “William, ’tis a big country. Harold is dead, but the land stretches before us.” William stalked across his tent, frowning. “I know. But God is with us—destiny has spoken. Alaric, my mother felt it when I was conceived; I was to be like a giant tree spreading its limbs across the Channel.” He paused, taking his comrade by the shoulders. “England will be mine! And you shall have any of it you desire.

” “Ah, yes, I shall be rewarded,” Alaric murmured. He walked to the rough wooden camp table in the center of the tent and pointed at a dot on the map. “London, William. We must reach London; we must get the witan to proclaim for you and not for Edgar Atheling.” “Bah! He’s just a boy.” “William, you know as I do that the witan must proclaim the king. You must be crowned in London.” “We’ll march for London, then,” William said, falling into his chair wearily. “We’ll battle all the way if we must. We’ll move carefully, but I will prevail.

I had hoped . ” He slammed his fist on the table. “By God, Alaric! England was promised to me! I meant to be a good king, a fair king, and now —” “And now,” Alaric continued for him, “you owe a pack of French and German mercenaries half of your new kingdom—not to mention what you owe your loyal Normans.” William clenched his jaw. “You are right; I am in debt.” He glanced at Alaric sharply. “The people will despise me.” “Perhaps.” “There is no question about it,” William said flatly. He sighed long and deep, shaking his head.

“I will prevent what plunder I can. But the people must be broken, and my hold on this country must be like an iron fist. I shall prevail.” “Yes, I believe you will.” William rose. “I’m going back out. We must find Harold’s body. Christ in heaven, so many dead —’tis near impossible.” His voice softened. “He was an honorable adversary.

I shall find him and bury him with all honor.” “I wonder if the Saxons will appreciate it.” “I do not do it for them; I do it for myself.” He smiled. “Ah, Alaric! My right hand. When I found you battling all alone on that ridge so long ago, I did not know that such a ragged scrap of boy could grow to be my strength. But then, you were a bastard, too, young but fighting for life and rights, as I had always done. We won those battles, Alaric, and we shall win the ones that await us. I shall be king.” “William, Harold’s sons fought today.

You know they will rise against you. There is more slaughter coming.” “There were times when I wondered if we would ever see this shore,” William said softly. “I tell you it was destiny. We shall prevail.” “Yes, I believe we shall,” Alaric agreed. “I just pray that it is not a wasteland of corpses and scorched earth that you rule.” William lifted a hand. “I did not seek Harold’s death; he died on the battlefield as I might have done. If his sons are captured, they will not be slain—unless they refuse to surrender.

They will I assure you, eventually swear an oath of loyalty. Harold’s family I will respect—” “Oh, my God, family! William, I have his daughter, Fallon.” “Fallon!” William said sharply, his teeth grating. “We captured her on the battlefield, where she was fighting.” “Fighting? I’m sure her father did not know,” William brooded. “What shall I do with her?” “She is still hostile, I imagine?” “Aye, that she is.” “Keep her prisoner, under tight guard.” He hesitated, and Alaric could see that William was remembering Harold’s daughter, too. He stiffened his shoulders and said coldly, “Take her yourself or give her to one of your men.” William’s words were harsh and bitter.

He could be a merciful man when he chose. He could also be as hard as stone. “Or give her to all of your men. Her tongue is more dangerous than the strongest sword. She must accept that I will be king. She must swear an oath of allegiance.” “She’ll never do that.” “If she insists on fighting me, she will lose her head. Alaric, the battle will be long and hard. I will not have her at my back through it all! She is yours.

Do with her what you will, but control her. If she will bend, she will have my love and protection; if she will not, she will have nothing, perhaps not even her life.” William stood again and clamped a hand on Alaric’s shoulder. “Go, the night is yours. I will finish with the death detail this night and tomorrow. Then we will forge ahead, and I will pay heed to your strategy, as I did this day, and trust in your sword arm, as I have these past two decades.” Alaric nodded and left. He was weary, having been awake all the previous night, awaiting the morning and the battle. Outside the tent, Falstaff fell in behind him. Alaric smiled at his faithful follower, this great hulk of a man, deadly in battle, as gentle as a kitten to his friends and loved ones.

Many times, with hostile swords at their backs, each had been saved by the other’s prowess and loyalty. When Alaric had first joined William, Falstaff had decided to protect him, and he had followed Alaric into battle ever since. He was a huge man, dark and grizzly, with pudgy cheeks and flashing dark eyes and a quick smile. He was not born to lead, but created to follow well. Alaric was the leader to whom Falstaff gave his allegiance; yet theirs was a fine friendship. Where Falstaff was eager, Alaric was wary. Falstaff was sympathetic, and his heart was easily won. But the years had made Alaric hard. His emotions did not show, and few knew what went on behind the steel-gray mirrors of his eyes. The hostile barons who had fought William in Normandy had learned that Alaric’s sword meant death; those who had come to honor their duke had then given Alaric their respect and their friendship, having learned, too, that he gave his gravest concern to his men, offering justice and a quick wit and careful use of his power.

“Wine, women, and song!” Falstaff declared, smiling broadly. “Alaric, William will be king! The country lies before us . Which of our camp followers will you have tonight, my lord? The buxom redhead? The blonde? Or will you choose a Saxon wench from the towns we took upon arrival? Will you drink and dance and laugh?” Alaric arched a dark brow. “I wish a bath and a good meal. Then I shall study the countryside we must traverse in order to reach London. And then—” “Then?” “Then perhaps I shall share some good wine with the redhead with the huge smile—” “And the huge breasts!” Alaric chuckled softly. They had reached their horses and they mounted, then started off at a brisk trot for their base camp. “Alaric, William will give you anything you ask for, won’t he?” Alaric shrugged. “He has little to give me as yet.” “Alaric .

?” “What are you trying to say, Falstaff?” The great man gave him a sheepish smile, then leaned across his horse to grip Alaric’s arm. “I am a man in the deepest throes of agony. I have fallen in love; I wear my heart upon my sleeve.” “For God’s sake, Falstaff, what are you talking about?” “The girl, the lady, the princess! Harold’s cub. Never have I seen eyes so blue, hair so rich, flesh so fair! A face finer than an angel’s! A body—slender, supple, curved, and trim. Ah, but her lips are like roses; she’s as splendid as the rising sun, as glorious as the twilight, as—” “Enough, enough!” Alaric laughed, looking at his friend curiously. It was true; the man was enamored of Harold’s beautiful little shrew. “Alaric, please. I beg you! Ask William if I might have her. I will love her, I will be good to her.

I will honor her and cherish her, and if she will have me, I will marry her. Alaric, if you would grant me any small favor, grant me this! At least speak with William.” Alaric was silent, feeling a hammer thud against his heart. Nay, he could not do it. He could not give her to anyone, for he could not untangle his own emotions regarding the minx. He spoke at last. “She is a witch! She despises Normans. She will fight you tooth and nail. She can be dangerous; she can rouse the people. And you saw her today; she knows how to wield a weapon.

Friend, I grant that she is beautiful. But she is proud and knows nothing of bending. If you take her, you win only trouble.” “You know her so well?” “Oh, aye. I know her well.” For Alaric knew the sweet taste of her kiss, and the bittersweet fury of her heart. He knew what it was to want her beyond sense and logic . “I met her when she was a child, Falstaff. You must remember when she came to Normandy with her father.” “Aye, I do! I adored her from afar!” “When I came here this year as William’s messenger to Harold,” Alaric said, “I saw her again.

” Touched her again, felt her fire and her wrath, and nearly lost his soul before it! “Falstaff, before we came here as invaders, she had good reason to hate and mistrust us. She thinks us barbarians, rough and uncouth. ‘Norman dung,’ I believe, is her favorite epithet.” “I will be so gentle and tender!” Falstaff declared nobly. “I love her, you see.” Something about Falstaff’s passion rankled Alaric. Perhaps Fallon could spark in any man this deep emotion, this fury like a living blaze. How many times had he felt it himself? How often had he touched her and thought he was lost? A strange feeling slid along his spine as he remembered battling her today. William thought it was fate that would give him England. Alaric thought it was fate that had decreed his struggle with Fallon today.

Their feud seemed ancient; she had been a child when it began. Years and years had passed before he had seen her again, yet it had been there, between them, instantly—a hostility that filled the air with tension. Alaric shook his head. He knew he had to answer Falstaff’s request. Aye, he should give her to the great bear who adored her! Alaric did not trust himself near her. Whatever it was, passion or pure hatred, it burned too brightly between them. Alaric had the duke’s business at hand. There was a whole country before them to conquer; he dared not find himself weakened by his efforts to save her from her own temper and wounded pride. She was beaten. She was conquered.

Alaric inhaled sharply. He wanted to wash his hands of her. He wanted to see her locked in a tower far, far away. He did not want to see her, or feel the ravaging desire she elicited from him. William had given Fallon to him; she was his property now, to do with as he would. She was Harold’s daughter, he reminded himself. And Harold had been his friend, a man who did not deserve dishonor in death. And still, wouldn’t he seek her life above all else? He cocked his head at Falstaff, glad of this chance to so please his good friend. “Falstaff, she is yours.” “Bless you—” “Take care!” Alaric raised a hand cautiously.

“Love her, cherish her, be tender—but take care, Falstaff. Fallon must be imprisoned and well guarded until she swears an oath of loyalty to William. You must watch your back!”

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