5 Stars – Great Book
(an Amazon reader)
From T. Shafer “This was so good I couldn’t stop reading until the story was ended….”
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Book Two of the Norman Brides Trilogy
The little girl stood and stamped her feet, her gangly limbs like those of a young colt all askew in her disappointment. She wore a look of outraged disbelief in her stunning blue eyes as she watched from the river bank the warriors in their sleek, silent boats set off down the river. She was in such a rage about being left behind she didn’t even lift her hand in acknowledgement of her twin’s excited wave as he rowed his own boat between the warriors and under Amele’s watchful eye. It wasn’t fair Michel got to go along and she didn’t. Wasn’t she the better swimmer, the faster runner? Wasn’t she even more skilled with a blade than Michel? But for once all of her frantic arguments, her pleading, cajoling and even whining were for naught. While they were all packing up their supplies to leave, Amele commanded her sternly to sit on the bank and wait for them to return. They would not be gone long. She wasn’t to get into any of her usual mischief.
Melissa was so angry at the unfairness of it all she swiped away the stinging tears threatening to fall from her lashes. Just because she was a girl she didn’t get to go with him when Michel was being trained with the rest of the warriors. She would show them. She would show them all she was good enough, strong enough, fast enough to be in charge of her own boat.
Jumping up from her perch on the steep bank she scurried down to the water’s edge and with all of her strength she pushed, pulled, towed, and kicked one of the remaining boats to the edge. Breathing hard she just managed to launch the slender craft into the water, but she was unprepared for the swiftness of the current or how quickly her vessel was swept up in it. She didn’t even have time to retrieve the oars from the river bank. Panicked at the thought of Amele’s reaction to her losing one of the Salusian’s prized boats, she raced out into the cool water as best she could in her clinging skirts and just managed to catch a hold of the rear of the craft before it was out of reach. It took her several tries to actually climb into the boat and right herself on the narrow bench in the middle of the craft where the men sat to wield the long oars she left behind on the side of the river.
Having accomplished her first objective to pursue the warriors she sat down in the vessel and smiled with delight as it set off in swift pursuit of the other boats. She would show them, she thought with a joyful smile curving her lips at the sight of Amele’s expression when she caught up with them. She soon realized how fortunate she was that her boat seemed to know where they were going, because she had no idea of their direction, and even if she did, without the oars she left on the river bank, she had no means by which to steer. As fast as she raced along the surface of the rushing water she could not see any sign of Michel and the others. She wasn’t concerned. She was convinced she would soon catch up to them and then Amele would take over. He would know how to get the boat to stop.
Melissa was only just becoming a little bit nervous when she spotted the other boats up ahead. At the sight of them all lined up, she thought her little boat picked up even more speed in its hurry to catch up, as if it too was excited about the prospect of proving itself to be the equal of the other crafts who were all chosen by one of the warriors while it was forced to remain behind with her. She felt an empathetic pang of sympathy for her tiny ship.
Melissa knew enough not to stand up and rock the boat in an effort to try to attract the warrior’s attention, so instead she yelled from her seat on the narrow bench. Unfortunately the sound of the hurrying current, tripping over stones and tree roots in its path, must have carried away her voice as no one turned around to acknowledge her greeting. The boat picked up even more speed. It wasn’t until she was almost upon them she realized why the boats were all lined up in a straight row, and why everyone was straining mightily to row in reverse to keep their vessels so tightly in line. She noticed Michel rowing frantically too, and how his boat remained in line with the others. For a brief moment she puzzled over how his young arms could match the strength of the grown men who strained against their own oars in boats on either side of him. Then she saw the lead attached to her brother’s boat and knew the warriors were keeping him in line with them. She wondered if Michel knew of their trickery or if he thought he was actually keeping up with the others and thought how he would brag of it later around the fires near their grandmother’s tents.
The seconds flew by ticking off the distance as her boat raced along the tide until she realized too late why the men strained so greatly to remain in place. The rushing waters grew louder until she was almost upon the other crafts. She screamed then, her terror lending greater impact to her child’s voice.
At the sound of her fearful protest, Amele turned in the craft behind Michel’s and saw her barreling toward the edge of the falls. The shock on his face had her readying her lips for her usual excuses and explanations. But it was the fear on his face that struck ice into her heart. Immediately he turned to intercept her, rowing with all of his considerable might, but from the horrified look in his dark eyes, Melissa could see he knew he wouldn’t make it in time. She was going over the falls. She was going to die. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair. If they had taken her along with them, this would never have happened. It wasn’t her fault. ‘Oh God, oh God, please don’t let me die. Papa will be so furious with me for disobeying Amele. Are you going to send me to hell for defying him?”
She thought she heard muffled laughter in response to her frantic prayer. Even in her rising terror she could feel the indignation rise in her heart at the thought that her heavenly Father would find her current, life-threatening situation amusing. He was supposed to be rescuing her, not laughing at her predicament, even if it was her own fault. She could see Amele’s lips moving but couldn’t hear his instructions over the thunderous current. The others watched stunned as her boat sped towards them, even as they continued to strain to keep their own vessels, along with her brother’s, from going over the falls.
Melissa was close enough now to feel the invincible pull of the current and knew there was nothing in this world to keep her from going over. No matter how hard he strained against the tide, Amele’s boat was barely inching in her direction. Terror choked off her scream of denial. Her eyes met Michel’s frantic ones so like her own. The look in his told her he knew she was going to die. Seeing her own desperation echoed in her twin’s eyes forced her to action. She couldn’t just sit there and do nothing.
Without giving herself a chance to look back, Melissa stood in the rocking boat, her fragile plan to leap in Amele’s direction and hope he would catch her. She understood the foolishness of her strategy, but if she was going to die anyway she would not take the coward’s way out and just sit there and let the claws of death claim her without a contest. Did not Salusian blood run in her veins? Was she not destined to one day be the Keeper of the Stone?
Amele was close enough now she could hear him shouting at her to sit down. Their eyes met. He was still too far away to reach her. She stepped onto the narrow bench where she previously sat, with the front of her boat just a breath away from angling over the edge of the falls.
Afterwards she wasn’t certain if she leapt or if the boat tipped and sent her careening over. She only knew she flew like a bird for long moments. She watched as her boat hit the churning water below and broke apart, and unable to meet a similar fate with her eyes open, she clenched them shut just before she collided with the surface.
The shock of the impact stole her breath away and it was unfortunate, since she was already under the teeming surface, she instinctively opened her mouth to catch it, then was forced to choke back the water that filled it. She was spinning in the churning water. Everywhere she looked appeared the same. She couldn’t tell which way was up or down. So rather than try to strike out towards the surface and risk heading deeper under the dark water, she let herself be tossed and turned and carried far away from where she entered, trying and failing to hold her breath to keep from swallowing any more water than she already had.
When she woke up she was lying on the stony bank. She twisted her head from side to side, not recognizing where she lay. Her limbs ached. Her head hurt. Her chest was burning and she coughed up what seemed like enough water for her to have drowned in. She struggled into a seated position and looked gingerly around, shoving the long wet tail of her clinging hair away from her face. Her vision was blurred, but not so blurred she couldn’t see the stranger sitting there watching her.
“Who are you?” She asked, her voice raspy from coughing up the water in her chest, wondering who he was and what he was doing just sitting there watching her. His eyes were so dark she could not see any light reflected in them, but he sat there with an amused smile curving his lips as he met her curious expression.
Ignoring her question, he asked one of his own. “Are you all right?”
Melissa inspected her arms and legs before answering. “I guess so. I’m not dead, am I?”
The stranger laughed heartily at her confusion. “No, not yet, but I think you are not destined for a long stay in this world. Perhaps you would like to come with me now.”
“Come with you where?”
“Come and see.”
Melissa was tempted. There was something appealing about the stranger’s offer, and his deep voice tugged at some lost memory inside of her. Part of her wanted to take him up on his offer, but regretfully she shook her head. “I cannot. My papa would be angry if I went off with a stranger.”
“I think we are not destined to remain strangers for long.”
Melissa sighed. She was too worn out from her ordeal, and too young, she thought, to understand the other’s cryptic remark. So instead she asked, “Do you want to be my friend?”
His white teeth flashed against his dark skin at her suggestion. “I suppose we could try that.”
“Do you know where we are? Can you take me back to the others?”
“That will not be necessary. They will eventually work their way here looking for you. I will keep you company until they arrive.”
Melissa heaved a relieved sigh. “Thank you. Sometimes I get scared when I’m alone.”
“You needn’t be. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
Melissa smiled. “Would it be all right if I sat in your lap until Amele finds me? It’s cold here, isn’t it?”
The stranger opened his arms to the little girl with the wild dark curls and the stunning blue eyes. Melissa crawled into them and sighed with contentment as they closed around her. The stranger was warm. She supposed she should ask his name. Her eyelids grew heavy and she rested her face against the column of his throat. Before she had a chance to see to the introductions, she fell asleep in his arms.
The stranger sat holding the slumbering little girl in his embrace until he heard the distinct echo of the approach of those who searched for her. He could take her now. They would never know he was here. They would just assume her small child’s body never surfaced and remained lost beneath the water. As tempted as he was to simply carry her off, he reluctantly rose and laid her gently down on the steep bank. They were friends now, after all, and one did not carry one’s friends off without their permission.
Besides, he thought with a twitch of his lips, he doubted it would be long before he and young Lady Melissa of Heaven’s Crest met again. She’d been tempted by his offer to accompany him. And why not? They were destined to spend eternity together.
The young boy ran on swift, sturdy through the woods of his family’s expansive lands. The massive stone keep of the Michaels’ lord stood majestically in the background, looking down from its proud perch on the more humble inhabitants of the surrounding village who relied upon its thick walls and the strong arms of the lord’s fighting men for protection during uncertain times. From its parapets deep blue flags emblazoned in silver with the family’s crest flapped in the brisk breeze.
Young Luke barely took notice of the grandeur of his surroundings. He was his father’s second son, not his heir. Even though he was still more youth than man, he understood he would never ascend to the position of lord over these rich lands. His half-brother, Mason, his father’s elder son would be given the honor to rule in their father’s stead.
Luke thought he would mind less deferring to his older brother if Mason were more worthy of the honor granted him by right of birth. Instead, Luke hated his older brother… and feared him. This last he admitted only to himself in the silence of his rooms at night. Luke thought he could put a name to the darkness that dwelt within his brother’s black heart. Evil. He saw it lurking in Mason’s eyes as they followed Luke whenever they were in the presence of their father. He heard its threat in his brother’s voice when he taunted him and felt it in the brutality of the blows when they engaged each other. Mason only laughed when Luke could not suppress the tears of pain from springing to his young eyes. It was an evil laugh, reminiscent of the demon who must surely be his brother’s sponsor in this world of men.
Each time he heard it, Luke vowed to harden his tender limbs and never again give Mason the satisfaction of reducing him to tears. Over the years of his young life he’d learned to hide his pain with a careless grin and a biting humor. He could now match Mason taunt for taunt, until his brother no longer took pleasure in their game. It was the innocent Mason sought to break and defile, as if the mere existence of purity was a personal insult the Almighty flung in his face.
Luke’s innocence was stolen from him at a young age, but even so, he could rejoice in the beauty of an early summer morning, especially knowing his brother had ridden out in the company of his men earlier that day. Mason was off to inspect another of the Michaels’ family estates and was not expected to return to the family seat for long weeks. Perhaps even months, Luke added the hopeful possibility with a wide grin framing his boyish face.
In his hurry to catch up with a wispy cloud overhead, alone seemingly, in the clear blue sky, his feet got tangled up in a stray root and he laughed as he tumbled head over heels across the forest floor. He lay there staring up through the bow of tree limbs above him, with the sun peeking through while his breath caught up with his feet, thinking how happy he was to be free of his brother’s overbearing presence. He couldn’t wait to tell Rafe the ogre was gone and they once again had the run of the keep and Margaret’s kitchens all to themselves.
The fleeting cry of what sounded like a wounded animal reached him where he lay. He rolled over on his side and peered through the undergrowth trying to determine where the sound originated from. When he was just about ready to give up, it came again, a whisper of agony, so out of place in the stillness of the perfect morning. He gained his knees and crawled stealthily towards the source, not wanting to come unawares upon a wounded boar.
The next cry dispelled his fears. It was accompanied by the echo of human sobs. Luke quickened his pace and he was suddenly on top of her even as her sobs fell quiet. Shock and repulsion at the vision confronting him emptied his stomach and had him retreating instinctively from the blood and torn flesh of the young girl. She lay at an odd angle, and her gown was torn and bloodied. Her skirts were pushed up above her waist and there was more blood between her thighs. She moaned in her sleep and gathering his courage, Luke approached hesitantly, looking around for the wild animal that surely must be responsible for the girl’s condition.
Flushed and embarrassed, he lowered the girl’s skirts back into place and brushed her tangled hair away from her bruised face. It was a pretty face, or had been, that of a girl not so very much younger than he was. Even her pretty blonde hair had blood caked in it. She shivered as if with cold and Luke removed his shirt and wrapped it close around her. He didn’t know what to do. He was afraid if he left her to go for help the animal would return and finish the meal he only just started. Something must have startled it away from its prey.
Luke looked around again, more cautiously this time, his eyes piercing the shadows of the encircling trees. The silence lay strangely heavy on the air. There was no sound of birds chirping or the small animals that lived on the forest floor scurrying about. Whatever it was that attacked the girl apparently frightened them away too. He was still speculating as to the type of beast that could have so ravaged the girl’s tender flesh, yet leave her alive when she could obviously offer no further defense in her own behalf.
It was then he saw the marks on her arms and around her wrists. Bruises that looked exactly like a man’s large hands, burning like metal manacles into the young girl’s tender flesh. Dazed at the implications of the raw marks and the growing suspicion in his mind, he sat back on his heels, unaware his head was moving back and forth in staggered denial. The tears he swore his brother would never bring him to again filled his eyes. Tears for the girl, tears for himself, and most especially for the loss of his family’s precious honor.
As if sensing a sympathetic presence the girl’s lids lifted over glazed, pain-filled eyes. Hers were like crushed violets in her white face. At the sight of him she recoiled in fear and Luke shook his head, aghast at the terror of him he read in her reaction. “No, no. I won’t hurt you. I’ll get help. I’ll be quick. I know someone who can help you. He’ll know what to do. He’ll find your mother, your sisters.” Luke promised, sensing it would not be a man’s comfort the girl needed at a time like this. Her eyes closed again, and uncertain whether or not it was safe to leave her alone, and only now understanding the reason behind Mason’s unplanned departure earlier in the day, he rose and took off at a sprint, not in the direction of the majestic keep, but towards the one man Luke knew he could count on for assistance.
He watched from the shadows of the secret passageway in the old keep as lovely Lady Melissa set off on her reckless quest down the damp stone stairs, with just a small torch to guide her in the near total darkness engulfing the ancient tunnel. The egress itself was carved from solid rock by the strong arms of the servants of the keep’s first lord, who understood enemies were always at hand and he and his descendants might have need of an exit from the massive castle, one that did not involve passing through the large wooden doors and strong gates guarded by the knights and vassals of the current lord. But even the first lord, who now slept in the family graveyard above the ridge, near the old chapel, might lift his dark eyes to heaven at his young progeny’s latest escapade.
Though he remained in the shadows he was close enough for her to feel his presence, but the lady was too intent on her foolish plan of escape to heed him. For all her reckless courage, the lady could not suppress an instinctive shudder and near silent squeak of surprise as a rat scurried across the toe of her fine leather boot. Still, the unpleasant company did not deter her from her objective and she pressed deeper into the darkness, hurrying now as if she feared her courage might fail her before she traversed the entire shadowed distance. It was not a short one even in daylight in the confined space. At night, when creatures who slept by day and hunted by night awakened and prowled the depths beneath the fortress, the near black passage would give even a seasoned knight a qualm or two.
He supposed that was what attracted him to her. The lady didn’t lack for courage, even as a young girl. She had always been so determined to keep up with that wild twin of hers, she believed she was the equal of any man. She was too young to have yet learned she could do more damage to a masculine adversary through the use of her feminine charms rather than contest against him with the slender but still deadly blade she wore strapped to her soft, womanly thigh.
Her soft sigh of relief brought him out of his own musings and he smiled with reluctant admiration as she used all of her woman’s strength to push open the warped wooden door that led back to the surface. The moonlight and brisk fresh air were welcome to even one accustomed to the night and the evils that lurked within it. The salty tang that whispered along the pre-dawn air gave evidence of the nearby sea and he knew then in what manner Lady Melissa had chosen to make good her getaway. He knew her to be a skilled sailor, but surely the lady did not intend to set off alone to brave the sea in search of her beloved twin who was believed lost in the war along the northern front.
His astonished laughter was carried off by the brisk wind as the young maid set about to do just that. Sighing with amused resignation, he moved to follow her. This crazy plan of hers could only lead to fresh disaster. One way or another his services would be required before this night was through.
Melissa rolled up her skirts and pushed the small craft off the river bank and into the icy water before climbing into it and drying herself with a dry cloth. She was grateful for the light cast by the full moon to guide her as she wove her way down the deep tributary that would take her to open water. She would hug the beaches as she was taught and not risk getting pulled out into the coastal waters, where her small craft would soon be overcome. She thought she had a fair idea where she would find her grandmother and her people. They would be moving east, skirting around and north of the worst of the fighting between the invading Norman armies and the Saxon defenders. Melissa hoped to catch up with them where they would cross the lands north of Stoney Point, the small cove where she would leave her boat behind, and set off on foot for what she hoped would be only a few days trek across the wilderness.
She packed enough food and supplies for a week’s journey. If she failed to find the Salusian camp by then, she would be forced to make do with whatever meat she could catch in the open lands and forests. With the approach of winter, vegetation would be scarce. She pushed the unpleasant thought aside and forced herself to look on the bright side. So far, her plan had gone off without a hitch. No one suspected she would put her plan of escape into action that night. In the end, she decided against confiding in her younger sister, Rhiann, who she feared would not be able to suppress the urge to inform their father’s guard, whose duty it would then be to prevent Melissa from leaving the keep.
The wind picked up and the task of keeping her boat along the beach and prevent it from being pulled out into the open waters of the sea took all of her feminine strength. It was at times like these when she found her slender arms and meager womanly might the most inconvenient. She might be the equal of her twin in a warrior’s skills, but there was no disputing his broad chest and the thick rope of muscles in his masculine arms would prove far more useful in her current endeavor than her own feminine endowments. Michel would have little trouble bending the course of craft to his will. She was beginning to doubt her own strength was up to the task, and for the first time she was aware of the hint of fear that steeled beneath her iron will. Whether she was willing to dwell on the matter or not, the truth would not be changed by her reluctance to acknowledge it. The fact was, her little vessel would not stand a chance against the tidal waters of a winter storm.
She felt control of the boat’s direction slipping from her grasp and for a moment her grip faltered. Stupid tears stung her eyes when she admitted she didn’t possess the strength to contest against the rising wind and unassailable tide, any more than she could prevent the Norman invasion that robbed her of her father and brothers, and would soon deprive her of the only home she ever knew.
As soon as her grip slackened the little boat careened towards the open sea, as if on a gleeful chase to its own end. The boat rocked and bucked beneath the swell of the water and the battering of the rising waves from the approaching storm. Her memories carried her back to another time when she faced a similar death. She was just a little girl then, but it seemed as if it must be her destiny to die beneath the fury of raging waters. So it was with a strange sense of deja vu she gripped the sides of her craft as her little boat rode all the way to up the top of the steep wave challenging its course. For a brief moment Melissa hoped they would make it over the crest, then the vessel tipped and she felt herself being thrown from its uncertain refuge and into the icy waters of the sea, right before her boat emptied itself of the supplies she brought along to sustain her through her journey, and then came crashing down on top of her. The impact left her dazed even as she was drawn under the surface and tossed about like the splintered wood of her vessel.
She didn’t see him this time, but she would swear she heard the stranger’s familiar voice sighing impatiently in her ear, rebuking her in a voice laced with sarcasm that there were easier ways to depart this life than the violent death she seemed intent on inflicting upon herself. Melissa thought his accusation grossly unfair, and she meant to tell him so just as soon as she could draw fresh breath into her straining chest. In the meantime she was so relieved to hear the evidence she was not alone in her watery tomb, she decided to wait to chastise him until after he rescued her. Peeved at his delay in doing so she spun around to demand his assistance only to discover no evidence of his tall, dark form behind her.
Her last hope faltering, Melissa reluctantly concluded she must have imagined him after all, just as Amele tried to convince her was the case when she was a little girl. The cold seeped into her thoughts and into her straining arms and legs at her dejected admission. Tangled up in her heavy skirts, her limbs took on a lethargy that proved of little use against the seething tide.
“Please God…” she whispered in the silence of her heart, uncertain if she was praying for her life or a mercifully quick death.
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