Authors: Lynn Wood
Keeper of the Stone
Copyright © 2013 Lynn Wood
All rights reserved.
Cover Design Copyright: Melissa
Cover Art Copyright: DepositPhotos; Ebrehnn Myptona, Alexey Gnilenkov, Dmitry Tereshchenko, Mihal Blanaru
TITLES BY L. M. WOOD
Norman Brides Series:
Keeper of the Stone
Coming Soon: Finder Keepers
The Firstborn Series:
Michael, Beloved of God, Prince of Heaven
Dancing with the Devil
Lessons In Illumination
…A Beginner’s Guide to the Eternal Way
Yoga Behind the Veil.. A Journey of Self-Discovery
The queen’s prediction proved accurate. The heavy door barely closed behind Matilda when Rhiann heard it creak open again. She stood in front of the hearth trying to draw ragged breaths into her suddenly tight throat. She refused to turn around; hoping a few more moments would help her gather her courage to face the terror of the night ahead.
Nathan stepped through the thick wooden door barring the entrance to his quarters and closed the door behind him, sliding the latch into place to bar any interruptions. His eyes immediately sought out his new bride where she stood in front of the stone hearth. Her back was to him but he noticed how she stiffened at his entrance, her fear evident in the way her shoulders trembled and the way her hands were clenched together in front of her. Though he couldn’t see them from where he stood by the door he suspected her small hands shook so forcibly they were causing the trembling evident in her entire slender body. He drew in a deep, cleansing breath hoping to calm his raging needs. His bride’s slight, womanly form was outlined by the light from the fire. The see-through gown did little to hide her naked body from his avid gaze. Nathan knew he needed to gather his discipline before his bride turned to face him, lest he terrify her with his lustful intent. He willed his thudding heart to slow down, not surprised when it completely ignored his mind’s order. His normally iron will and self-control was already losing this battle against his manly passions. Normally he would be irritated with himself at the evidence of his loss of control, but tonight was different. Tonight was the one night of his life it was acceptable to surrender to the urgency coursing through him, to give life to his desires and take the bountiful treasure before him. The maid was his for the taking. A gift of his king for Nathan’s long years of faithful service to accompany the lands he was awarded by his marriage to her.
Though she belonged to him, was his property by virtue of the laws of both men and God, he would not have her cowering before him in terror when he consummated their wedding vows. He needed to regain control over the lust riding him so hard now he could barely put two thoughts together in an orderly fashion. He recognized he was never going to be able to summon the patience he was certain would be needed to gain his bride’s trust if he couldn’t clear his head and slow his body’s incessant urging to take the maid and have done with it.
“Rhiann.” Nathan cringed at the harshness of his tone as his bride’s name echoed in the hushed silence of the room.
Reluctantly Rhiann turned to face the man who was now her husband. She unclenched her trembling hands and wrapped her arms around her stomach in a protective gesture, and in what she knew was a foolish attempt to cover herself as much as possible. Even in her innocence she recognized her husband’s lustful intent in the way Nathan’s glance raked over her and knew she would be defenseless against his greater strength. Just as she was unable to prevent the Norman siege on Heaven’s Crest, she would be unable to defend herself against her husband’s assault on her virgin’s body. Involuntary shivers passed through her at the thought of what was to come.
Not wanting to give the terror his bride was unable to hide from him a chance to take hold, Nathan captured her frightened glance and demanded, “Come to me, wife.” He winced at the sound of his stark command in the silence of the room. He was already struggling to contain his raging desire. He suspected his self-control would be tested tonight in a way he was never tested before. When his innocent bride took an instinctive step back towards the heat of the fire he could almost believe from the blind panic he read in her eyes she found going up in flames a more preferable option to a night spent in his bed. Hoping not to push her any further, he added softly, “Do you remember your vows to the priest?”
She nodded reluctantly. “Do you intend to keep them?” He watched the flare of annoyance at his gentle reminder flash across his gentle bride’s face a moment before she swallowed nervously and took a hesitant step forward. Nathan remained where he was by the door. It was important to both of them she come to him willingly.
The smell of death engulfed her. The clash of swords, the angry shouts of men engaged in a fierce battle for their lives, and the moaning of the dying assaulted her senses. The blood of the fallen pooled at her feet, turning the lush green grass of autumn a deep red to match the changing leaves in the trees of the forest providing a backdrop to the deadly scene. The duchess accepted her own blood would soon join that of the dead and dying lying unattended like so much refuse at her feet. Death stalked her, surrounded her, and beckoned to her, whispering words of their impending introduction in her ears. She no longer contested against its sly promises of release from her grief. Despair pounded relentlessly against her battered spirit until she could no longer rouse her will to do battle against its heavy weight as one loss after another was heaped upon her slender, unprepared shoulders these past dark weeks, choking off what little light remained within.
She felt guilty about the cowardly deed she was contemplating but not enough to turn aside from her sinful intent. Besides, it was too late now for regrets. The battle raged around them and would soon be upon her. She prayed to God her end would come with merciful swiftness. Was she not entitled to some small parcel of his mercy? Had she not strived enough, suffered enough, clung to this life he chose for her hard enough to satisfy him? Without her husband, who rested beside two of their sons in the family burial plot by the chapel on the ridge, the life she elected as a young girl no longer held any appeal for the woman who still lingered within in its unrelenting grip. Her husband’s faithful guards would lead her younger daughter, Rhiann, to safety. God willing she would elude the pitiless grasp of the enemy who even now surrounded Heaven’s Crest, closing off all escape routes. She prayed they had not discovered the secret passages built into the thick walls of the old keep, else her daughter and those escorting her would be trapped. She spared a few precious moments to wonder about the fate of her remaining children, her beloved twins, Michel and Melissa. Were they safe? Were they even still alive? Her mother’s heart tried to convince her grief-stricken mind her beloved twins still lived, but it was a losing struggle now, to strive against the toll of the bitter losses that had been heaped unremitting upon her dwindling hope.
The battle surged towards where she stood among the younger, more inexperienced soldiers, who were too concerned with trying to save their own lives, to question who this slight newcomer was among them. They did not speak to her. If any spared a glance in her direction at all, it was a pitiful one. Within it held the certainty the youth before them would be the first to fall beneath the enemy onslaught. She did not disabuse them of their false conclusion. She was old enough to have already lost sons older than they to this senseless war. There was only a single additional life she prayed it would claim in its quest to spread the dark claw of evil and destruction across all of Saxony. Her own.
She recognized her blasphemous prayer was about to be granted, but it would not come without cost. The icy grip of terror closed around her heart and throat, shutting off her ability to breathe and dragging her focus away from her dark thoughts. She met the light brown eyes of her executioner and for a brittle moment thought she heard death’s haunting laughter in her ears as the enemy raised his sword. Time slowed to a fraction of its usual pace. The stone around her throat weighed heavily upon her. She was unable to see the fire burning in its depths in protest of her fainthearted surrender before the enemy, but she could feel its heat against her skin and comprehended her intent to seek death at the enemy’s hands aroused its ire.
More important to her at this, the bitter end of her physical life, she recognized the stone would not interfere with her decision. She was the stone’s rightful keeper. Despite the teachings of the church to the contrary, it was her right as its steward to choose when she would depart this physical world and free her eternal soul of its constraints. She made her choice and was content with it, but even so her guilt engulfed her as her enemy lowered his arm. Instinct born of stark terror led her to raise her son’s sword in her own defense. Her puny gesture was a useless one against her huge, well-armed opponent and they both knew it. She thought she saw his lips curve upward, a hint of amusement in his light eyes as his blade met hers.
She was a slender woman. Despite his repeated urgings, it had been long years since she practiced the warrior’s skills she learned as a child under Amele’s careful tutelage. Years of the soft life her husband’s wealth purchased for her robbed her of the deadly proficiency she once possessed, but even in her youth she would have been unable to match the strength contained in her enemy’s massive chest and arms. The downward descent of his blade didn’t slow when he met her paltry defense, nor when her sword fell from her numb hand at the impact of the collision with his. No, it continued on its downward arc slicing through her cloak, the boy’s armor she wore beneath it, and cutting through flesh and bone with the ease of a sharp blade through soft butter.
Her severed arm fell uselessly to the ground. She thought she heard the echo of her stunned cry of pain mix with the devil’s laughter resonating in the air around her. Her knees gave way under her weight and she slid to the damp ground unaware it was already soaked in her own blood where it pooled around her.
Rhiann hurried through the long halls of the keep, screaming for her mother. She could feel the Norman siege closing in around them, was aware of the increased tension of her father’s guards who urged her to leave now before it was too late.
“Mother! Mother!” Tears blinded her vision as she flew up the steps to her parents’ room, thinking perhaps her mother wished to bid her father’s memory a final farewell before they fled. She pushed open the doors, but discovered the room empty. Where could she have gone? Had her mother left her too? Did she follow Melissa and leave her behind? Was she completely alone now? Was everyone she loved dead?
Despair overwhelmed her and she collapsed to her knees, wrapping her arms around her stomach in an instinctive protective gesture. She remained there long hours, until the final breach of the keep’s failing defenses came, and the humiliating details of its surrender were attended to, the enemy found her in her parents’ room still on her knees, dazed and alone.
Green eyes so filled with grief they appeared almost black in her white face were blind as she responded to the summons of the enemy knight who stood in her parent’s doorway. Mercifully she was numb by then, her spirit dead already as she met the merciless eyes of her enemy and saw her own death reflected there. She made no move to defend herself when he stepped forward and reached down to raise her to her feet with his strong grip beneath her arm. He half-led, half-carried her down the stairs leading to the hall of what was now her former home. A part of her wished she had been blessed with her sister’s fearlessness. Melissa was no doubt even now enjoying the safety of their grandmother’s tents far away from the wars of men and its deadly consequences. If Melissa was in Rhiann’s shoes she would even now be raising her blade to fight off their enemy’s grip on her arm, but Rhiann possessed no blade to lift in her own defense. Her father did not approve of his daughters’ unusual training and she was a dutiful daughter. Melissa was the headstrong one. Rhiann prayed fervently if belatedly, her maker would bless her with a little more of her sister’s courage. She thought perhaps she would have greater need of it than Melissa in the dark hours confronting her.