Tomorrow would be her wedding day.
Arianna, Queen of the West, viewed the growing storm gathering over the mountains marking her country’s northern border feeling as if the blackened clouds and flashes of lightning echoed the turmoil of disquieting emotions she tried to still in her heart. This day had been planned for many months, negotiated over more than a year, and she had thought herself resigned to this day—not excited, for she doubted any queen enjoyed her wedding day. But resigned to the fact that she must make a political marriage to the fellow ruler of one of the four nations that divided her island home, a man who seemed amiable enough but whom she simply did not know.
At the moment Arianna stood on the balcony of her small manor home, contemplating the next day’s events: since a formal agreement had been reached twelve months ago, uniting her small western territory with the much larger country to the south, she and its self-proclaimed emperor would be wed tomorrow morning as the final seal to that agreement. It promised a great deal of political standing to the west, the smallest of the four courts, in return for the vast wealth the south so desperately needed. Arianna supposed she ought to be excited by the thought of her impending marriage, and all the treaties she and her council had so carefully bartered for, but she couldn’t help feeling a bit like the golden ram offered up for sacrifice.
Her council adamantly wanted the match, and Pietro had been courting her, almost from the moment of her father’s death; the Emperor of the South wanted nothing more than to gain an equal footing with the powerful Lords of the North and East, and marriage to her would certainly be a step toward accomplishing that. She knew she had few options, not when she had always accepted she would eventually make a political alliance, to either one of her own noblemen or even possibly one of the ruling members from the island nations, and not when her council presented her with a united front on the matter. This arrangement was nothing more than a formality, one long ago decided. Until this very evening she had been acquiescent to that fact.
She sighed; it must be typical bridal nerves, the sort every woman felt the night before her wedding. Pietro, the southern emperor, was charming, handsome, intelligent—all things a woman should appreciate in a husband—but while Arianna found him pleasant she held no affection for him. Arianna doubted, with her upbringing and the example of her own parents cool, emotionless union, she would ever find any sort of love in the bonds of marriage. She thought she could respect him, even like him, though she found his obsession over appearances and his sometimes petulant behavior when he didn’t get his way to be more than a bit grating. But then she would probably need to learn to moderate her stubborn, forthright manner as well. Pietro preferred her quiet, demure, an attitude she’d learned to adopt while dealing with her courtiers and advisers—Arianna had a much fiery temper, as her council knew when they pushed her too far. They would have to learn how to deal with each other as people, she expected, or find a peaceful agreement in the sort of marriage her parents had.
However all misgivings aside tomorrow would be a magnificent day for both their countries; a great deal of funds and planning had gone into this wedding and it was a chance for her country to celebrate after the long mourning period following her father’s sudden death. Arianna had little taste for pomp and extravagant spectacles, but Pietro seemed to practically demand them, so the day long proceedings were filled with as much ceremony as could be crammed into the daylight hours; she had very deliberately chosen an autumn wedding date so she at least wouldn’t be up with an early dawn and stuck in a tedious display until the wee hours of the night. She would still need to play the part of dutiful, acquiescent queen, but at least she could sleep in, as much as her maids would let her.
“Arianna, my dear, will you be spending the entire night brooding at that rather dismal horizon?” Pietro chided her from inside the chamber; she turned toward the open balcony windows with a wryly apologetic smile, holding her hands out as he came into view. The man strode forward, taking her hands and pressing a demure kiss to her cheek, giving her a complacent smile as he joined her. “It is a rather depressing night. One hopes the storm passes and there are only blue skies tomorrow.”
“Yes, rather,” Arianna agreed dryly, thinking of the outdoor festivities planned for the royal wedding party and her gathered noblemen. She had a small court, and even fewer handmaidens; Arianna had little patience for the trappings of a royal woman, preferring simplicity and comfort over current fashions. Pietro unfortunately seemed something of a rather effeminate dandy to her with his devotion to appearance and fashions, and the emperor had often stated that with their fine blonde coloring and fair skin they made a handsome pair. Personally she found him to be the more attractive of the two, but took the charming compliment as he intended. “Have you settled on a coronation mount?” she asked politely, since that had been his chief concern for the day.
“Hmm, yes I preferred white but the grey stallion in your stables will have to do,” Pietro replied with a heavily annoyed frown; Arianna resisted the urge to roll her eyes—his concern with appearance truly did border on obsession, but on this occasion she felt it appropriate to humor him. As part of their marriage contract Pietro’s—and no few of Arianna’s—advisers sought an agreement that would see him crowned king of the west, a nicety that she sourly noticed was not extended to his realm. She didn’t feel a particular desire to be empress, a title that she found oppressively pompous and unneeded, but her council’s defection of her rule in favor of a man’s rankled. Since Domenick, her younger brother, had died of fever at the age of eight she had been raised to govern after her father; she had the right and the ability, but felt more than a few old men objected to her on the basis of her gender. Knowing her position outnumbered, however, she had elected to bow graciously under pressure, and sought a contract that crowned Pietro as her consort rather than give him the standard and mostly useless title of Prince of the West. Arianna had very carefully worded it though, so while he gained some rights, she alone retained absolute controlling authority over her kingdom. She had the suspicions Pietro hadn’t fully read the contract and didn’t realize he had very limited power—she wondered at his reaction, but it wasn’t her problem; she’d spelled it out clearly, and she would cede her position to no man.
“I’m sure if we had waited another year we could have bred a mount specifically for you,” Arianna replied with a smile. Pietro frowned, a flash of irritation and something more passing through his eyes, quickly replaced by a rueful, apologetic expression.
“Hardly, my dear. I would think I’ve waited long enough to make you my wife,” he replied smoothly, taking her hand and bringing it to her lips. “You’ve tormented me endlessly to make me wait this long.” His fingers gripped tightly, painfully around hers for only the briefest second before he let her go. “I am quite…eager to finally have you as my bride.”
“My lord, you flatter me,” Arianna said with a laugh, giving him a very deep court curtsy. Pietro nodded in approval and gestured for her to rise, taking her arm and strolling the length of the balcony with her. “It will be over soon enough tomorrow, provided I manage to lace into that most incredible gown you had made for me.”
“Hmm, yes it is lovely,” Pietro agreed absently. “I should have added more details to my surcoat I think. More sapphires at the cuffs. Or pearls. The quality of pearls in the west is quite surprising.”
“I’m sure you will look magnificent,” Arianna reassured him, having no doubt that Pietro would be immaculately groomed on the day. He had brought his own personal tailor, an extravagance she found amusing, but the clothing the man presented would have them outshining her entire court on the day. Arianna’s own wedding gown contained an impressive amount of gold thread and sapphire and diamond beading; she could only imagine Pietro’s would look much worse. Carefully she covered a snicker behind one hand and gave her betrothed an ingenuous look, silently praying he didn’t see the mirth in her eyes.
Pietro continued to prattle on about wedding details, leaving her on the balcony and returning to the chamber inside for a glass of wine; Arianna returned her gaze to the storm, her eyes reflecting the more frequent flashes of lightning dotting the clouds that continued to grow ever closer. A low rumble of thunder echoed from the mountains, and an icy blast of wind whipped her hair and cloak around her; not too many moments more and she would need to seek the warmth and shelter indoors. But as raindrops began to fall in heavy splats around her she lingered, drawn to the chaotic weather raging outside.
Just as she turned to seek shelter, and as Pietro called to her, more than a hint of growing irritation in his pleasant voice, a strange man, hooded and cloaked in dark, inconspicuous grey clothing appeared just below the low rail, spotting her with an almost pleased growl as he lifted himself higher. Arianna stared blankly, too startled to scream; the man scaled the balcony in seconds, reaching her side and clamping a hand over her mouth before she even thought to move or make noise.
“Open your pretty little mouth and I’ll gag it,” the man warned from beneath his dark hood, his arm tightening around her and drawing her perilously close to the balcony’s edge. “I hope you’re not afraid of heights.”
Arianna struggled then, as it became clear the stranger intended on taking her with him—she tried kicking with no effect, and bit her teeth hard into the man’s hand; he swore and cuffed her, making stars dance in front of Arianna’s eyes. She slumped dazedly in his arms and he swore again, checking her closely for serious injury.
While he carefully lowered her to the balcony tiles Pietro appeared at the still open door, pushing aside the gauze curtains aside; he frowned in aggravation and then shouted, seeing Arianna dazed and cradled in the strange man’s grasp. He seemed to almost hesitate, then ran at them with his ornamental sword—nothing more than a rather flimsy, decorative rapier—drawn; the stranger pulled his own larger, heavier short sword from his side and, leaving Arianna lying on the wet balcony, he disarmed Pietro with a few swift blows. Her fiance proved completely inept with the use of his weapon, and no challenge to the skilled opponent facing him; Arianna gasped as her betrothed’s sword skittered across the rain-slick tiles, watching in growing terror as the stranger repeatedly pummeled her fiance, one good punch snapping Pietro’s head back and sending a spray of blood across the paving. Their attacker continued his assault, landing blow after blow to Pietro’s head and body until the man collapsed in a bloody, unconscious heap at the stranger’s feet. For good measure he kicked Pietro in the stomach, grunting when Arianna’s fiance didn’t move.
“I hope you don’t care about these,” the stranger commented as he moved to the open balcony doors and ripped down the curtains, tearing them into strips which he used to bind Pietro’s hands and feet. Arianna remained frozen in fear, shaking from more than just the cold rain that pelted her; she flinched away as the man approached her, more tattered strips of fabric in his hands. Quickly he bound her hands, more gently than he had Pietro though Arianna was too terrified to notice.
“Please,” she whimpered as he lifted her up, unsure if she begged for her life or just her freedom; the stranger saw the dread in her eyes and brushed one bloody hand across her cheek in a surprisingly kind gesture.
“I’m sorry my lady that you’ve been dragged into this,” the man replied, his voice gruff with unexpected concern. “Tell me where I can find your queen and I’ll unbind you before I go. No one need discover you with that bastard.” He turned and spat in Pietro’s direction.
“My queen…?” Arianna repeated stupidly, and let out a faint, hysterical laugh. “I am the queen!” Had she felt anything besides terror she might have laughed genuinely as the man startled slightly at her response.
“You?” he repeated. From beneath the hood cam a dry, amused chuckle, and Arianna gasped as her attacker suddenly lifted her into his arms. “Well then, I’m sorry my lady but you’ll be coming with me.” She opened her mouth to scream, only to find a wad of curtain fabric shoved unceremoniously inside before she was slung face down over his shoulder. “Careful there, or we’ll both end up a mess on the cobbles below. You might try not to struggle so much.”
He swung one leg and then the other over the balcony, ignoring the whimpering sounds of fear from Arianna as she stared at the ground below; she held herself as motionless as possible as he began the steady climb down, terrified of the heights, the wet stone and the very real chance she could slip and fall from his grasp. Her breath was a frightened hysterical rasp by the time he set his feet on the cobblestones, but his gaze as he righted her was one of nearly reluctant approval. And then she sagged in his arms as he dispatched her with one swift and painful cuff with the pommel of his sword to her head.
Arianna returned to consciousness some time later, slung face down over a horse in front of the strange man who had abducted her. She fought nausea and the gag in her mouth, struggling weakly as the rhythm from the moving horse made it worse; the man’s hand steadied her, hearing her pained whimper, and a moment later the horse stilled and he swung down from astride it. Carefully he lifted Arianna, tugging the fabric from her mouth as she staggered and then retched on the ground, supporting her until she felt the contents of her stomach had been finally emptied. Once she felt her stomach would no longer protest, Arianna staggered upright and screamed.
“Easy, my lady,” her abductor said, grabbing for her when she made the attempt to run. Arianna beat at him with her fists, kicking and clawing and screaming hysterically until her strength gave out, giving in to sobs as she sagged and the man gently cradled her limp form. “I’m sorry I’ve terrified you. I promise no harm will come to you.”
“What do you want? Where are you taking me?” she demanded frightfully, wiping the taste of bile and tears from the corner of her mouth. Silently the man unslung a water skin and handed it to her, watching as she brought it shakily to her lips and rinsed and spat, removing the bitter taste from her mouth. “Who are you?”
The man laughed. “My apologies,” he said, grasping the edge of the hood and pushing it back. “I am Severin Cearach, Lord of the North.” Arianna gasped; she had seen his likeness often enough, though she had never met the young lord—a few years older than her, he had the pale skin and dark black hair common to those of the north, but with piercing silver eyes that seemed to look right through her. “Where I’m taking you, I thought that would be obvious. We’re going to Castle Cearach.”
Arianna scowled at the man, no less afraid but determined not to let him intimidate her any further. “What do you want with me? I don’t know what you intend but you won’t accomplish anything by beating my betrothed nearly to death and kidnapping me from my home. Pietro will certainly hunt you down once he recovers.”
Severin laughed abruptly. “Sweetheart, I am hoping he comes after you. Nothing could make me happier.” He turned her around, roughly untying the gag from her neck and tossing it aside before lifting her astride the horse, upright this time. He swung himself up behind her and Arianna stiffened as his arms came around her, flicking the reins to set the horse in motion again. “The so-called emperor of the south bears a debt to me. I intend to make him pay for it.”
“By stealing his bride the night before his wedding day? By attempting to murder him?” Arianna demanded angrily. Severin laughed at her outrage.
“Oh yes. I took a great deal of pleasure in that,” he replied amusedly. “He won’t tolerate this blow to himself or his reputation. And he needs you. Without the wealth of the west he can’t fund his growing army.”
“An army we both need, to protect ourselves from you,” Arianna snapped back. “You’re nothing more than a northern barbarian.” Severin threw his head back and laughed at her scathing attempt at an insult.
“God, you’re a shrew. I almost think I should return you to Pietro, and wish him joy of you.” The man leaned down, his breath warm against her ear. “Shame your temperament doesn’t match the exterior. I could almost…like you.”
“I can’t say the same of you,” Arianna replied tautly, quailing at his closeness. She felt the man’s lips curve in a smile and he retreated from her, his voice a low chuckle behind her. “Barbarian.”
“Shrew. I can’t wait to see what my uncle thinks of you.”
They traveled through the storm, the worst of it petering out the higher into the mountains they climbed. Arianna’s realm was a narrow, coastal strip of land bordered by the ocean to the west and the frigid mountain range to the east and north, those same ranges marking the end of her territory and the start of those of the Lords of the East and North. Though neither were particularly large countries, together they compromised two thirds of the entire island; the south fell mostly under Pietro’s rule, with the resource rich strip on the western side of the dividing mountain range entirely Arianna’s. North and East were currently united under bonds of family; until her abduction just that night, the West and South would have formed those same bonds. Arianna had no doubt Severin intended that link to never happen.
She had no idea how long they traversed what looked to be no better than a goat track, but she sighed in weary relief when the signs of campfires appeared through the misty rain ahead of them. The horse picked up its feet—obviously it knew they’d reached food and shelter—and within moments they were in the middle of what looked to be a military camp; Arianna saw more than a few men bearing weapons and the wolf’s head emblem of the north. She grimaced in distaste. From the way the men watched her as she rode past, smiling or nodding in approval, it appeared they had been anticipating her arrival.
“My lord!” A young teenage boy, no more than thirteen or fourteen years of age, ran up to the horse and took the reins, grinning cheerfully at Severin who returned his eager smile. “You were successful then? Or you’ve found a new lady for your collection?”
“Watch your mouth, scamp,” Severin admonished the boy with a laugh. “This is the Lady Arianna, Queen of the West. You treat her with respect.”
“Of course, my lord,” the boy replied with an impish bow and a wink, dancing out of the way as Severin dismounted and reached out to cuff him. The older man turned to Arianna, lifting her down; he frowned as she shivered violently, her thin cloak saturated and freezing cold.
“Leibh, make sure there’s a warm fire in my tent. And ensure Bethioloch is properly groomed before you disappear tonight,” he directed, lifting Arianna in his arms and carrying her the short distance towards one of the larger tents in the camp. The boy followed, scampering inside and building up the fire in the brazier as Severin placed Arianna gently on the camp cot, removing her cloak and briskly rubbing his hands over her bare, blue-tinged arms. She wore the thin, short-sleeved silk gown designed for the warm ballroom at her manor house, where she’d toasted her impending marriage only hours before; now it did nothing mitigate the biting chill of the mountain air, only marginally warmer within the canvas walls of the tent.
“I’ll fetch something hot to drink, my lord,” Leibh spoke quietly as Arianna’s teeth began to chatter, his gaze turning somber as his eyes darted in the woman’s direction. Severin nodded curtly; her clammy skin and glassy expression more than hinted at impending hypothermia, and he cursed his foolishness for not seeing the signs earlier.
“Hurry, Leibh,” he directed the boy, but the youth had already taken off, the tent flap rippling in the speed of his departure. Swiftly Severin pulled items of clothing from a travel pack , undoing the laces of Arianna’s gown and stripping it away; she offered no protest save to shrink away from him fearfully, shaking uncontrollably as he and dressing her in the warm woolen garments. They were sizes too big—spares he must have brought with him—but they offered protection from the elements, and soaked up the heat from the fire as Severin moved her closer to the brazier. Arianna sat numbly as he knelt beside her and rubbed feeling back into her aching hands, gently massaging as the painful ache indicated the return of warmth to her extremities.
“It hurts so much,” Arianna whimpered, tears pricking her eyes at the sharp tingling in her hands and feet. Severin glanced up at her and winced, wiping the tracks of tears from her face.
“I know, I’m sorry. Forgive me I should have seen it sooner,” he said quietly, removing his hand as she shuddered away from his touch. Arianna wrapped her hands around her violently shaking body and moved closed to the fire, ignoring the tight frown on the man’s face as she mutely sobbed.
“Return me home at once,” she finally demanded, the tears on her lashes still dripping down her face. Severin grimaced, a harsh expression, and moved to the other side of the brazier, watching her with regretful but determined eyes. “You have no right to keep me here, to treat me this way, you are on my lands uninvited. Take me home now.”
“We crossed into the north over an hour ago, my lady,” Severin told her with inimical pleasure, enjoying the way her eyes widened in surprise and horror. “You are in my country, and these are my men guarding us. You’ll find no one to rescue you here.”
“You cannot keep me!” Arianna protested, hating the way her voice trembled and the way her body shook from fear and cold. Severin snorted, amused by her response. “I am Queen of the—”
“My lord, I couldn’t stop him!” Leibh interrupted as the entrance to the tent was shoved aside, a much older and grizzled man appearing in the gaping doorway. He entered, the young boy trailing behind him, his expression chagrined as he glanced between Severin and the new intruder.
“Did I not tell you, make sure you don’t kill the lady when you abduct her? Were you mad to try it in this weather?!” the older man demanded, staring in disgust at Severin. “My pardon, Lady Arianna. My nephew apparently has no common sense or courtesy.”
“So it would seem,” Arianna commented, teeth clattering for further good effect. Severin scowled when the other man laughed. “You must be the Lord of the East, Lord William. Please I beg you to help me get home!”
“Unfortunately, I can offer you no assistance there.” William gave her a rueful grin, overlaying the anxiety with which he gazed down at her. “Severin controls the men here, and I’ve no desire to find myself walking back to Castle Cearach. I am however here to ensure you’ll be treated with respect on the journey, and after our arrival there.”
“I can ensure the same myself,” Severin quipped sardonically, ignoring the raised eyebrow his uncle directed at him. “Lady Arianna is our guest.”
“Fine way to treat a guest,” William replied, glancing at Arianna’s still trembling form significantly. Leibh used the opportunity to duck past the older man, handing Arianna the large tankard he carried. Half the contents had spilled out and rather questionable lumps of—something—floating on the surface; Ara wrinkled her nose and William crouched beside her, helping her to take a tentative sip, encouraging her to drink more when it proved not only potable but tasty. She however left the lumps in the bottom of the mug.
“How long do you intend to keep me?” she asked, closing her eyes. The liquid of her drink warmed her from the inside, making her instantly drowsy and easing slightly the unbearable shaking that gripped her body—she felt the numbness give way and a lassitude spread through her, either from the cold she’d endured or the shock of her abduction, or both. He head bobbed and she felt someone putting his arms around her; her eyes opened just enough to see Severin lift her again and she cringed away from him, trembling as he carried her the short distance to lay her gently on the camp cot. He frowned as she instantly moved away from him the moment his hands left her. “You cannot keep me forever,” she said, struggling to keep awake. William started as the young queen abruptly slid into unconsciousness, moving toward her though Severin reassured the older man she was unharmed, had only fainted. Arianna didn’t see the way he smoothed her hair away from her face, his features pulled into an expression of anxiety and self-doubt.
“Watch me try, my lady,” he murmured, his fingers lingering against the soft skin of her face, rubbing away the tracks of her tears. “Watch me try.”
Despite the strange environment and unusual circumstances Arianna woke at her customary time the next morning, watching the dawn creep under the lip of the tent as it broke through the chill mist covering the mountainside. She sat up, feeling slightly disconcerted that this should have been her wedding day, and she should have been in the attendance of a good dozen maids, preparing to dress in her wedding finery; instead she was a hostage of the Lord of the North, a rather callous young man who cared not at all that he’d made her a pawn in his conflict with the Emperor of the South.
“Oh!” the gasp of astonishment left her quite involuntarily; Severin lay before the tent’s door, wrapped in a large, dun patterned blanket, his face youthfully innocent in sleep. Arianna observed him carefully, as she had not done the night before: he was rather handsome, in a rough sort of way, far different to Pietro’s carefully manicured and groomed appearance. His long, straight black hair fell in a tangle around his face, jaw covered in a haze of matching black stubble, and she thought a bit petulantly it was unfair of the man to have such long, thick black lashes. Idly she wondered what her response would have been if he had approached her with an offer of marriage before Pietro.
Shaking her head at such silly thoughts cautiously Arianna rose, tiptoeing around his large figure; she pulled the tent flap aside and ducked out, thinking to try to make her escape while her captor slept.
“And where do you think you’re going?” William regarded her with an amused smile as Arianna froze in the cold morning air, looking in dismay at the older man casually sitting on a broken stump outside the tent opposite her. He lifted a pipe and used an ember from the nearby fire to light it, puffing smoke before he spoke to her again. “Sev will notice you’re gone. And you won’t get far, with only those woolen socks on your feet.”
“He’s done no such thing,” Arianna refuted, giving the man a smug smile. “He’s asleep in the tent as we speak—” she cut off abruptly as a hand clamped around her ankle, drawing her gaze downward. Severin’s head appeared from inside their tent, a boyish grin on his face. “Bloody hell.”
“Good morning to you too,” he replied, disappearing back inside. A moment later he stepped out, smiling cheerfully as she glared at him. “Glad to see you’re an early riser. I wasn’t looking forward to waking you when it was time to depart.”
“Go bugger yourself.” William roared with laughter as Severin’s face immediately dropped at her rude retort.
“You’ve met your match in this one, Sev,” Lord William spoke up, giving Arianna an impish wink. “She’ll keep you dancing to a merry tune all winter, I expect.”
“I certainly hope not,” Severin replied, giving Arianna a wary look now. She narrowed her eyes and raised both eyebrows deliberately in an expression clearly full of challenge; to her disgust, he grinned and chuckled at her. William watched the interchange between the pair with an entertained half-smile on his lips, laughing when neither of them showed any sign of backing down.
“Well, I can see things have not changed the slightest between the two of you.” Arianna turned wide, questioning eyes on the older man and even Severin looked perplexed by his uncle’s response. “Aye, I’m not surprised you don’t remember, you’d have been only five or six at the time, my lady. Sev’s father and I had gone to the west to see your own father about a trade agreement and his Da brought young Severin with him. The lad got bored and found you in the garden with your nurses. Decided he’d push you into the fountain on a lark, oh the uproar it caused when you thought you’d drag him in with you.”
“I’d forgotten about that,” Severin said with his own laugh, grinning more when Arianna flashed an outraged scowl at him. “It was more than twenty years ago, my lady, surely you still can’t bear a grudge.”
“I can now,” Arianna snapped, her scowl deepening as both men burst into hysterical laughter. With the sound of their raucous, mirthful hoots following her Arianna stormed off—to where she didn’t know, since she knew now she couldn’t leave the camp without the entire company of men coming after her, and not with the damp already seeping in through the bottom of her socks. She spotted Leibh at one of the fires and approached reluctantly; he glanced over at her and smiled, a roguish expression the match of Lord William’s earlier one on his young face as he waved to her.
“Good morning my lady,” he greeted her, offering the mug in his hands. She took it, glancing at the contents; more of the same from last night. Sighing, she took a careful swallow and spat a gelatinous lump back into the drink. “So did you have a pleasant night, or did my lord keep you—”
“Finish that thought Leibh and you’ll be mucking stalls with your teeth,” Severin warned the lad, approaching the pair of them. Arianna stiffed and he stopped beside her, a wary expression on his face. “We leave as soon as camp’s broken. Leibh, find something for the lady’s feet, her slippers are ruined.”
“Aye my lord,” Leibh replied, bobbing his head and giving them a cheeky wink. Arianna continued to ignore the older man, drinking carefully and spitting lumps back into the fire; Severin watched her with an amused grin forming, taking the mug from her and fishing one of the questionable objects out with his finger.
“It’s just dough,” he told her, popping one in his mouth and chewing. “Flour and water, nothing to be afraid of.”
“I’m used to better fare in the west,” Arianna replied in a cool tone. He snorted and handed her back the drink, clearly unimpressed with her answer.
“Aye well, we’re not so spoiled in the north,” he said curtly. “One hour until we leave, my lady. I suggest you be ready.”
It was less than that by the time they broke camp; the men, soldiers all, disassembled the tents and gear, packing it all on the horses with an efficiency that astounded Arianna. She’d seen her servants go about the tasks quietly and quickly, of course, but she had little knowledge of soldiers and to see that same skill applied in the wilds of the mountains seemed unbelievable to her. Leibh had somehow found a pair of boots small enough for her; she suspected, from the way he clomped about that he’d scavenged a larger pair for himself and given his to her. They fit well enough, though the toes pinched a bit—Arianna felt at least grateful she’d be riding and not walking in them. Leibh also accompanied her to the edge of the camp where she tended to her personal needs, only a little embarrassed by his attention and thankful it hadn’t been Severin escorting her.
“I’ll see you back at the castle, my lady,” Leibh told her when Severin sought them out, ready to depart. He carried Arianna’s dried cloak in his arms, his expression neutral as he handed it to her; she wrapped it around herself as a shield and tried not to react as he lifted her onto his horse.
“He’s a sweet boy,” Arianna surprised herself by saying as Severin mounted up behind her. The older man chuckled, clicking the reins as his arms settled around her. “One of yours?” she added archly.
“Hardly,” Severin replied. “His father’s one of the castle guard. Mother died of a fever last winter, and I told him to bring the boy here. He squires for me now, and in another few years he’ll join the guard with his father.”
Arianna couldn’t help but sniff disparagingly. “We’ve no need for child soldiers in the west,” she commented. Severin glanced down at her, his expression severe.
“Aye, and if I didn’t face raids every month from the south I’d have no need of them either,” he stated curtly. “We don’t live lives of pampered luxury in the north.”
Arianna stiffened at the implied insult. She opened her mouth to speak but William rode up to them, a rather sheepish look on his grizzled face. He bowed in the saddle to her, making a surprisingly eloquent gesture of apology.
“I should hate to think I offended you this morning, lass,” he greeted her, giving her a broad smile that Arianna couldn’t help but return. “It’s been years since we’ve had a fine lady for company, eh Sev? You almost forget how to act around them, when you’ve been in the company of soldiers for so long.”
“But you’ve picked up fine manners somewhere,” Arianna found herself teasing the man. Despite her loathing for his nephew, Lord William seemed amicable, and certainly to have spent time in court. She knew little of the east, beyond the trade agreements their country had in place; the west was a small court, unlike the opulent lavishness of Pietro’s southern empire, or the rough clans of the north. But William obviously knew the behaviors of the west and treated her with the same dignity as any of her own noblemen.
“Aye my lady, I traveled a bit when I was younger,” William agreed now. “I knew your mother, when you and your brother were wee bairns. She was a free-spirited woman, your mother was. I was saddened to hear when she died.”
“My mother?” Arianna spoke with no small amount of surprise; her memories of her mother, reportedly taken in childbirth when she was only nine years old, were of a cold, indifferent woman, uninterested in her children or their father. “I…I don’t really remember her.”
“She and young Severin’s mother were friends in their youth,” William told her with a grin, ignoring the way his nephew frowned at him. “Had all the men of the north, the east and the west chasing after them, did that pair. Our mother despaired of ever making a prudent match for my sister.”
“And yet she married my father,” Severin commented wryly and William laughed; he chuckled as well, the rumble of amusement felt through their contact at Arianna’s back. “But you remained the old unmarried bachelor, uncle.”
“Well, Lady Arianna’s father married the only woman worth having,” William replied after a moment, with a wink to Arianna. “You’ve a younger sibling as well, do you not? Besides young Domenick, the poor lad.”
“Yes, a sister,” Arianna replied. “Rossiana is only eighteen.”
“And she’ll be fighting to get you back, I’d guess,” Severin spoke in her ear. “Assuming Pietro doesn’t convince her to marry him first.”
“My younger sister has devoted her life to religious studies,” Arianna told him abruptly, reluctant to impart even this small bit of information to him. “So long as I am alive she will hardly bother with my fiance, the council or its demands.”
“Your sister does not care about your safety?’” William queried, sending his nephew a glance that clearly indicated he should keep his mouth shut. Arianna snorted, but her more affectionate expression softened the unkind reaction.
“Rossiana cares nothing for politics,” she explained. “She is direct, outspoken, and the absolute bane of the temple priests. She also,” Arianna lingered over the words, her look pointed, “knows that I am a more than capable ruler, and can negotiate on my own without her involvement. And she will point all of that out to my council and leave them to get on with the job of contacting you and arranging for my return. Which you will do, my lord. Or else one night when you’re sleeping I’ll find your room in the castle and slit your throat.”
William burst into laughter, the older man clutching his sides as he shook with mirth. “My lady, I think I will greatly enjoy your stay with us,” he told her, wiping tears from his eyes. “Rumor had you as a demure spinster. I’m pleased to see you’re anything but.”
“Hardly.” Arianna rather felt that was a compliment, backhanded as such but much more meaningful than the flowery tributes Pietro had given her. “Twenty-seven may be old for a first marriage, but my father preferred I stay unwed in my youth for political reasons. After his death, my council found it prudent to recommend I accept the proposed alliance with the south.”
“You mean someone’s been accepting his bribes,” Severin commented sardonically, and she froze at the insult. “He’s no friend of yours, my lady.”
“And the men of the north are?” Arianna shot back. Severin grunted and she rolled her eyes, biting back a further sarcastic response. “Pietro at least gave me the courtesy of a marriage offer, rather than abducting me.”
“My nephew speaks the truth, lass,” William spoke up seriously. “We didn’t just take you to get Pietro’s nose out of joint, and you’d have good reason to listen to what he says.”
“And those reasons are?” Arianna questioned skeptically. Lord William looked at his nephew, whose eyes were focused grimly on the trail ahead, and the older man sighed wearily.
“His to tell and not mine, I’m afraid. But I agreed to this mad plan of Sev’s for your own safety, and I support him completely against that cruel bastard from the south. You’ve no idea what Pietro’s capable of.” Lord William gazed at Arianna seriously, his entire countenance so grave that she felt the first stirrings of doubt. “Did you not ever get the message I sent, after your father died?”
“I received your formal condolences, yes,” Arianna replied softly, a look of disquiet on her face. “But if you sent something more then no, I never received it.”
“I was afraid of that,” the older man murmured softly. Arianna looked away, unsure what to think; Pietro and his messengers had been in and out of her court for over a year, and in all that time she had never seen anything to cause concern other than an obsessive preoccupation with appearances and perhaps a bit of a childish temper. Severin she did not trust, but Lord William did not seem the type to lie needlessly—if he spoke the truth, then what deception had Pietro been enacting for so long? And who on her council knew about it?
“We both warned you, lady,” Severin spoke in her ear; Arianna stiffened at what she thought was a rather condescending tone in his low voice.
“I received no warning,” she returned frostily, hearing Severin’s snort of disgust and trying very hard not to jam her elbow into his stomach—he, after all, was the one directing the horse. “I have no reason to believe you.”
“Aye, but you should,” Lord William said, giving the younger man a quelling look.
“When he agrees to return me home, maybe I will,” Arianna replied stubbornly. “Until then, very little he could say would convince me.”
“Shrew,” Severin spoke low, so only she could hear. She turned around to glare at him.
“Barbarian.” Arianna didn’t like the way he only grinned in response.
Arianna hadn’t expected the bitter cold that greeted them as they made their ascent deeper into the mountains; having lived her entire life in the warmer coastal lowlands, she was ill-prepared to endure the windy, frozen climate of the north. William helped her along, providing fur robes and heated stones to ease the chill in her bones whenever they stopped, but nothing seemed to relieve the cold for long.
“You picked a bad time for a kidnapping, lad,” he told his nephew as they made their final push for Caste Cearach, four days after her abduction. “Winter will be here before you know it.”
“Aye,” Severin replied, his expression grim. “But the lady picked a bad time for a wedding.”
Arianna stiffened in insult but did not comment; she was becoming used to the way he insulted her, or more often her betrothed. The northern lord seemed equal parts scathing of both her and Pietro, though the majority of his anger was reserved for the southern emperor. However he didn’t treat her cruelly, for which she was immensely thankful.
“I worry the cold season will last well into spring this year,” Severin continued. “If you hadn’t have offered aid, I don’t know how we’d have survived this year.”
“Ah well, in times past your father did the same,” William spoke absently, as if it mattered little. Arianna watched the interchange curiously, wondering why despite the casualness of their words a tension hovered between them. “It’s no matter. We’ll sort this issue with the southern upstart before spring planting next year, even if it does come late.”
“I hope so.” Severin’s expression was forbidding, and Arianna dreaded asking why he despised the southern emperor so much. The men treated her with courtesy and respect throughout the journey, even Severin, but any mention of her betrothed was met with grim faces and curt replies. She still could not understand why her charming—if somewhat petulant and effeminately useless—fiance had garnered such a poor reputation in the north.
“I certainly would like to be home before spring,” Arianna murmured, and felt Severin’s arms tighten around hers. Any attempt so far to negotiate the terms of her release had been met with silence; Lord William repeatedly told her it was a matter between his nephew and Pietro, and she would stay with them until Severin resolved it. Arianna didn’t much care for that answer.
“We’ll get you home eventually lass, don’t worry,” William reassured her, giving the younger man a warning glance. Severin shrugged and clicked the reins, sending them riding to the head of the company. Despite the actions of his nephew Arianna had taken an immediate liking to Lord William, and feeling which only grew the more time she spent in his company; the much older man apparently shared her feeling as well, for he treated her with a great deal more amiable affection that polite courtesy demanded. William called something out to his nephew as the pair of them rode ahead, which Severin pointedly ignored, his mouth tightening into an aggravated line.
“There’s no need to be rude,” Arianna murmured, thoroughly annoyed with his behavior. Severin snorted abruptly, clicking the reins a second time and sending the horse into a canter; Arianna clung to his arms, terrified of falling off the beast. She didn’t ride, had never learned how—her father claimed it a skill only soldiers and peasants needed, and preferred the luxury of a carriage whenever they traveled. Severin’s mount stood much taller than the ponies of her home, and its temperament was also unlike its placid, coastal counterparts. She hated to admit her fear and give him new reasons to mock her, but she hated riding even more; Severin leaned into her as the horse went from canter to gallop, and a small scream burst from her lips as she held on in terror.
“Surely you’re not scared?” Severin yelled into her ear, as the cold mountain air whipped past them and the jolt of the horse’s hooves striking the ground shook the very breath from Arianna’s body. He laughed at her stammered reply, reining them back to a canter and then a walk, a derisive smirk on his lips as he regarded her. “Huh. A fine lady who’s never ridden a horse.”
“I had no reason to learn,” Arianna gasped, truly frightened by the ride. Severin looked at her again and his expression sobered, a flicker of regret in his eyes. “It wasn’t necessary.”
“Everyone rides in the north,” Severin said, in a tone more explanatory than insulting. “Children are taught from a young age. I had my first pony when I was four.”
“Aren’t you special,” Arianna snapped, and instantly regretted her tone as his gaze became shuttered, remote. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“I know what you meant,” Severin replied coldly. “You don’t like me, my lady, and that’s fine. I don’t much care for you either. But in the north we’re taught courtesy, and if you don’t learn to hold that shrewish tongue of yours you’ll find it a very unpleasant winter you’ll be spending at Cearach.”
“I won’t be spending winter with you at all,” Arianna replied firmly, ignoring the rather cruel chuckle Severin gave her in return. He kneed the horse, moving them into a trot as shouts were heard just behind them; Arianna tried to control the jouncing in her stomach, unwilling to give him the satisfaction of hearing her beg for a moment off the horse. It didn’t matter anyway as only a few seconds later they rode off the track onto what was clearly a road, with a large village, almost big enough to be called a town, visible ahead. Beyond that lay more forest, cut by the road and most likely leading to Castle Cearach, from where Severin ruled his part of the island.
“My lord!” one or two men about the village green called a greeting, nodding heads or removing caps, to which Severin responded with quiet nods. Arianna gazed around curiously; she had never been outside of the west, and though some parts of the village seemed familiar much appeared to be quite different. The homes were constructed of wood and stone, with thatched roofs, unlike the brick and slate shingling of her lands, and most were no more than two stories high; many seemed to have stabling for livestock below, and the living quarters for family on the level above. They rode toward the largest building, a three story dwelling constructed entirely of stone, and Severin dismounted, reaching up to lift Arianna down beside him. A young boy ran out to take the horse and Severin guided her inside to what was clearly a large taproom, filled with rough tables and benches and a tall apron-clad man behind a long counter at one end.
“My lord! Didn’t think we’d be seeing you back this quickly,” the man greeted them, wiping his hands on a cloth and coming around the counter. His eyes went over Arianna curiously, quirking an eyebrow in the younger man’s direction, the hint of a smile curling his mouth. “So you’ve done the southern lord one better and stolen his bride from under him, have you?”
“I may have,” Severin replied slyly and the man laughed. “Do you mind Hamish, could we get the lady a meal and a bath, and perhaps a change of clothes? I don’t want to bring her to the castle looking like a camp follower, if you know what I mean.”
“Aye, I do,” Hamish agreed with a nod, looking at Arianna again as she froze at the not-so-subtle insult. “Come, my lady, my wife will look after you far better than this young ruffian has. We’re not so backward as he’d have you thinking.”
“No of course not,” Arianna murmured, unable to resist giving Severin her own sly smirk as she allowed the tavern keeper to lead her away. Up the stairs and a large woman, nearly as wide as she was tall, took one look at Arianna and started clucking like a mother hen, dragging the young woman from her husband and into a large suite of rooms where she promptly organized an army of serving girls to bring steaming water and hot food, grumbling over the state of Arianna’s hair and clothes, getting into her first hot bath in four days and leaving her in contented bliss while she sorted out more appropriate clothing for the young queen to wear.
“I’m sorry, my lady, we don’t have much that’s suitable…” the older woman apologized when she reappeared, carrying an array of garments and wearing a frown of distress on her pleasantly plump face. Arianna sat up in her bath, mopping the steam and clinging tendrils of hair from her forehead.
“I’m sure it will be perfectly all right,” Arianna reassured her, looking at the items the woman held out. “Please, Mistress…?”
“MacGillivraey, Bonnie MacGillivraey,” the woman replied with a wink, shaking out a deep brown velvet dress with intricate lighter brown and golden embroidery at the cuffs and hem, placing it over the screen beside the fire. “I’m not much to look at now, but in my younger days I lived up to my name.”
Arianna laughed, thoroughly amused by the woman’s cheerful attitude. “Well Mistress MacGillivraey, that gown looks perfect. Anything that’s not a strange man’s clothes is more than welcome at this point.”
“Aye, what that young fool of a lord was thinking, stealing you away like that,” Bonnie replied, clucking her tongue and shaking her head. “It may have been done in the old days, but taking a man’s bride on her wedding day is nothing to be proud of.”
“Do you know his reasons why?” Arianna queried carefully. Bonnie MacGillivraey shot her a pensive look, and hesitantly opened her mouth to speak when the door flew open, young Leibh bolting inside. He took one look at the two women, seeing Arianna waist deep in the hip bath and blushed a deep crimson to the tips of his ears, whirling and fleeing the room just as quickly as he entered. A moment later a rap and a muffled voice from the other side of the door requested permission to enter, and both women burst into laughter at the poor boy’s embarrassment.
“Teach you to come bursting in on a lady in her bath,” Bonnie chided the lad good-naturedly, while Arianna reached for the cloth for drying and wrapped it around her body. Leibh shuffled inside, his face carefully turned toward the floor, as Bonnie shooed Arianna behind the screen and began the assisting her with the linen shift and other undergarments necessary for a lady to wear. “I suppose those men are anxious to go, and this poor lass hasn’t had a bite to eat yet. Well you tell his lordship he can wait, and if he’s not a mind to he can deal with Mistress Mac. He’ll not be in such a hurry then.”
“Yes Mistress,” Leibh mumbled, making a second hasty escape. Arianna hid a smile behind one hand; the boy had attached himself to her for the duration of their trip, serving as a sort of page and protector whenever Lord William or Severin were not about. She found his sudden devotion endearing—it seemed equal parts adoration and a substitute for maternal affection, something she understood only too well. His company had also helped break the monotony of the travel, Leibh's sometimes nonstop chatter the only thing that distracted her from the cold and the rather dire prospects of her current situation.
“There, I think you’ll do,” Bonnie MacGillivraey said as she finished tightening the laces at the back of Arianna’s gown, giving the young woman’s hip a gentle pat and gesturing for her to inspect herself in the mirror set above the small dressing table in the room. Arianna stared in disbelief: the gown was completely unlike the high-waisted, thin silk dresses of the western court, being made of much thicker woolen velvet, fitted in the bodice and flaring into a sweeping skirt from her waist to her ankles below. The edges of her linen shift peeked above the square cut neckline and at the edges of the sleeves, which ended at her elbows; finely knit, warm woolen mitts covered her hands and up her arms, and Mistress MacGillivraey handed her a thickly woven shawl to drape over bare her neck and shoulders. Sturdy boots covered her feet to well above the ankle, completing the ensemble.
“My hair?” Arianna asked, fingering the unbound length. Bonnie brushed her hands over the soft length, smiling a bit wistfully as she patted her own wiry, silver-streaked and cap-covered head.
“In this country, if a lady is unwed she wears it down,” the older woman told her with a kind smile. “And hair such as yours should never be covered. Such gold! You’ll have all the men’s eyes on you.”
Arianna blushed at the compliment; her hair was her one vanity, a pale white-gold color that matched the prolific ores that made her country the wealthiest on the island. It fell midway down her back, slightly curled when unbound, though at home it generally remained pinned up beneath a coronet. She couldn’t remember the last time she wore it down.
After she’d managed a small meal and a cup of tea—Mistress MacGillivraey insisted—she made her way back down to the common room, where the company of guards and the two lords awaited her. True to the older woman’s words all eyes were on her as she descended the stairs, and Severin rose hastily to his feet, his gaze never leaving her as she approached. Lord William watched with an amused eye, also rising to his feet and taking one of Arianna’s hands, directing a gallant kiss above her mitt with a courtly bow and a sly wink.
“You’ll have all the ladies at Castle Cearach jealous, my lady,” William told her, noting the way Severin frowned at him in displeasure. “A fine day when my nephew brings such beauty into his home, I think. May your stay be a long and happy one.”
Arianna laughed at his words; they echoed the traditional greeting in her country to a bride in her new home, and she could guess at where his thoughts were leading. “I would rather it be a brief one,” she replied, smiling as the older man offered her his arm. “And since I know you are all so eager for home, perhaps we should be on our way now?”
“The sooner the better,” Severin grumbled behind them, thoroughly annoyed as William roared with laughter.
Castle Cearach was an immensely imposing structure, Arianna realized as they rode up to the bailey walls late that afternoon. Constructed sometime in the last two centuries, it was a castle meant for protection, with wide outer stone walls and a high tower, able to hold at least the nearby village’s population within its walls. Arianna noticed some families camped in the shelter of the inner stables, and she glanced at them curiously as they watched the company ride inside, the adults all wearing identical grim expressions. William rode directly to the castle steps—she had lucked out, and ridden the last legs with him instead of Severin—dismounting and handing her down with all the care due her as a ruling lady.
“We’re not so finely polished in the north,” the older man warned her as he lead her into the castle’s great hall, having passed his horse off to the stable boys who appeared as soon as they dismounted, “You’ll find the castle far different to your manor home in the west. But you’ll have no discomfort here, I hope. Severin said he’d make the ladies solar available to you during your stay with us. My sister made it into quite a lovely chamber.”
“I’m sure it will be fine,” Arianna murmured, gazing wide-eyed around the hall. Huge tapestries hung against the bare stone walls, blocking drafts and helping retain heat from the massive fires dominating both sides of the room; trestle tables lined either wall, pushed out of the way for the day, and a wooden dais sat at the far end and beyond that stairs led up to the next level, doors below leading deeper into the rest of the castle. “Do you also live in at Cearach?”
“No, most of my time is spent in the east,” William told her, guiding her through the hall and up the far staircase, along the wide gallery that stretched one length of the large room. “Severin has had some…difficulties lately, and I’ve come up to offer my aid, as you can see.” At the far end of the gallery he opened a door, leading her into a room filled along one wall with clerestory windows, cushioned benches lining the wall below. The wide shutters were pulled back, allowing light to flood the room, and a small fireplace with a crackling fire burned at one end. Delicately carved and padded chairs, chests with linens and wool threads on display and a large table and loom filled the space, making it a comfortable retreat for any lady. “The solar, Lady Arianna.”
“It’s beautiful,” she murmured, crossing into the room to stand before the fire. “And warm.” She smiled and held her hands to the radiant heat as William chuckled at her response. “I never thought it could get so cold.”
“Wait until winter truly hits,” William told her with a grimace. “You don’t feel it so much on the coast, either mine or yours. But here in the mountains, well it’s enough to freeze any man’s b—bits.” Arianna laughed aloud and the older man grinned sheepishly back at her.
A loud, irritable shout from beyond the open solar door caught their attention; William strode back out, Arianna half-listened to his equally challenging growl as he called out some inaudible reply, the sound of his heavy boots thumping on the wooden gallery floor as he returned to the hall bellow. Minutes later Leibh raced into the solar, followed by half a dozen giggling maidservants burdened with various baskets and fabric.
“My lady, my lord wishes to see you in his chambers,” Leibh told her, bobbing in his approximation of a bow. Sighing, Arianna took his hand and let him lead her from the comfortable room, ignoring the titters and whispers from the maids as they left. Leibh took her to a door at the opposite end of the gallery, pushing it open and waving her inside with another awkward bow; Arianna grinned and ruffled his hair as she stepped past, holding onto her smile as she entered the room.
Severin stood in front of the fireplace, his expression remote as he gazed into the fire; he glanced up as Arianna entered, his mouth tightening into a grim line as he saw her cheerful smile. Slowly her smile faded and she clasped her hands in front of her, silently waiting for him to speak.
“I will send a message to your council informing them that until Pietro meets my demands, you will remain a guest of the north and a hostage against any further attacks against my people,” Severin told her curtly, turning away from her. Arianna stood rigid, swallowing the angry retort that instantly came to her lips, and waited silently for him to continue. Severin glanced at her quickly, grimacing before he spoke again. “You will be safe, Arianna, I promise you that. No harm will come to you here.”
“Forgive me if I have trouble accepting your words,” she replied carefully, clenching her fingers tightly together. “You have taken me from my home, with no explanation why, and make veiled accusations against my fiancé that I know nothing of. You deny being the villain in this, but you have given me no reason, nothing to believe otherwise.”
“I owe you no explanation,” Severin returned harshly, striding away from the fire and grasping her shoulders painfully; Arianna bit her lip, unwilling to show that he hurt her. “But I will give you this much: your betrothed lord has taken much from me, so I have taken something of value from him. And I do not care if you remain until the end of your days, I will keep you until he pays for everything he has done!”
Arianna’s eyes flashed with rage, but her voice was cool and under control when she spoke again. “You have made your point, sir. Now if you excuse me, I would prefer to seek out my own chamber, since it seems I will be here for some time.”
“By all means, my lady. Make Castle Cearach your home.”