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Chapter One


In dead darkness, Biranda crept along the dry chalky wall, feeling her way with her fingers. As a child she’d explored these passages from time to time, even though it had been forbidden her, but she’d not been in them for years now, not since Rafeon had gone. She could not fight the happy memories, though. On more than one occasion they’d concealed themselves and made hideous moans and scratchings, then laughed themselves sick at the terror of the servants.

At the thought of her brother, her eyes pricked with the same stinging tears as always, but she clenched her jaw and fought them back. Rafeon was gone – most likely for good – and there was no point in thinking about that now. She was about more important things now than mischievous pranks, such as figuring out why her father had closeted himself in one of the oldest parts of the castle with only the dark mysterious knight she’d seen at last night’s dinner – the knight and his… whatever. She had no clue what the second man was to the knight; he was far too old to be a squire and there was nothing in his demeanor that bespoke a servant status. “Companion,” Biranda guessed, would have to do.

Neither man, Biranda realized, as she crept slowly forward in the blackness, had had anything subservient about them. Strangers were rare now in the castle. Her father was mostly surrounded day and night by trusted courtiers and friends, so the knight had caught her immediate attention at dinner, even though he did nothing but sit quietly at a table barely higher than the servants’ trestle. She’d seen him watching her several times, his dark blue eyes firmly on her, and she didn’t like it a bit. She’d asked Lacie, her maid to poke around and ask a few questions – the only information Lacie had brought back was the man’s name: Jansen. The other man’s name, no one knew.

Nor did she care for the way some of her father’s courtiers were watching HIM. There was something foul here, and Biranda intended to get to the bottom of it. No fool she, this morning Biranda had told Lacie to watch Jansen and his companion. Small and slight, in her servant’s garb, Lacie could creep about and never be noticed, and when she’d rushed back to Biranda with the news that Biranda’s father had disappeared into the old section of the palace with no one but Jansen and his companion, Biranda had had no choice but to follow.

It was a perilous venture, for while she had an idea of where her father might be she could not be sure, and the system of secret passages was extensive and twisted. Yet, she hadn’t dared bring any candle or lamp, because in this old section, with the crumbling walls and rotting wainscoting, a light might actually glow through a crack or fissure, particularly if the room itself was dark. She took a deep breath, steadying herself. It has been so long since she’d explored here – could she have missed the turn she’d intended to take?

No, here it was – and then three more shuffling steps, and there should be a very narrow spot… Yes. She was exactly where she thought she was, and with any luck… She twisted her way past the tight stones and relief washed over her as she heard deep voices, faint but growing stronger. Her father had brought Jansen and the other man to his old audience chamber, next to the bedchamber that her father and mother had shared when she was very young, before the new wings had been put on the castle.

“My Lord, there IS no more time.” Biranda had heard Jansen speak several times at dinner, and she recognized his voice. Slowly and cautiously, she eased herself forward. At this point in the passage, a false wall had been built out from the old stone – a wall of thin plaster and wood – and some light entered here and there. That was a good thing – for there was a good chance she’d be able to see something, but it was also a bad thing, for she knew that she must be totally silent, as the wall provided almost no protection for her.

Biranda’s father, King Mikos, spoke. “I do not wish to bring the city into a battle.”

A lower voice, more gravelly, interjected. It was the companion. “The battle will be brought to the city. Your preferences are of little relevance in the matter. Even now, many villages within a day’s ride of here have been quietly overrun.”

“My advisors say…’

Jansen interrupted, “Half your advisors are senile old men and the other half are in the pay of the enemy. You can trust nothing they say, my lord. There is only one hope. Everything that Trevor and I have seen as we came here supports this. You cannot withstand without Trollodon – and we cannot withstand without the Northern Marches. My lord, I should not have to beg this. Make the alliance now. You still have troops – good troops – strong fighters who are loyal. But without leadership, they will go over to the other side. Even now, they are likely infiltrated by those who – at the first sign of trouble – will encourage them to defect.” There was a long pause. “Make the alliance now.”

“There must be another way.”

Biranda eased herself quietly to a sitting position, so she could listen more easily and remain absolutely motionless. She’d noticed a bright flicker of light on her shoe and she knew that down low there would be enough of a crack in the wall for her to see what was going on in the room. Finally, her eye found the right position and she adjusted herself to the best view. It had been years since she’d explored much in this part of the castle – the old keep tower, and she was shocked at how barren it looked. There was nothing to be seen but a large empty room, filled with a few pieces of rotting furniture and a tattered wall hanging here and there. As she looked across the chamber, she remembered that another entrances to the warren of secret passages had been through a crack that was hidden behind one of those hangings. The three men stood in front of the massive – and obviously empty – stone fireplace.

As Biranda squirmed herself from side to side, trying to get more comfortable, she cursed the long gown she’d not thought to change out of – and on the wall behind her, a small piece of masonry, obviously dislodged by her gyrations, crumbled to the floor of the tight passage. Biranda froze. All three men in the room turned towards the wall.

“What was that?” The companion – Trevor, Jansen had called him – whirled, his hand to his sword hilt, and Jansen quickly followed suit. It seemed as if they were gazing right at her. Biranda’s face flamed but she forced herself to not move. The crack was tiny – less than the width of a child’s smallest finger, and there was no light behind her, while two torches burned within the chamber. She knew they could not see her.

“Nothing but mice in the walls,” King Mikos murmured, though Biranda saw her father looking at the place with something in his face that made her wonder if… “We are totally alone here,” he reassured the other two men. “No one comes to this area of the palace any more.” But still his gaze held thoughtfully on the spot in the wall.

“Sounded bigger than a mouse.” The look on Jansen’s face was still and wary.

“A rat then,” Mikos allowed. “But still nothing of danger to us.”

Biranda saw Jansen hesitate, then, with a final glance, dropped his hand from his sword and turned back to the king. “Make the alliance, my lord.”

“What I do not understand is why your father will not come to our aid just on my word alone.”

Jansen shook his dark head. “He may yet. I know not. But he is still the king of Trollodon, and I cannot speak for him. He sent me to make a blood bond and that is all I am authorized to do. He is very traditional – and he demands it. It’s the way of our kingdom for centuries.” Biranda heard Jansen’s troubled sigh from where she sat. “What I do not understand is why you resist. She’s of an age and past it – and unbetrothed. She is the Princess of the Marches and I am the Prince of Trollodon. Even without the rise of this enemy, it should be a match pleasing to both families.”

Biranda’s heart pounded sickly in her chest. They were talking about her, it had to be. This was about her. They wanted her to marry… this Jansen. This dark large man – this soldier - with his rough beard and piercing blue eyes and huge hands, no ordinary knight he. This was Prince Jan of Trollodon…

Mikos sunk down on an ancient chair, which had been left behind because obviously no one had wanted it. Dust rose around him like a cloud. “When my son was taken, Randa vowed never to marry. She swore that after my death she would rule the Marches as queen by herself.”

Jansen snorted. “And what was she then? Fourteen summers? Fifteen? The hysterical vow of a grieving child. Understandable at the time, but ill advised. Nothing but a fancy and one should she NOT have been allowed to persist in. This could bring your kingdom down, my lord. You do not realize how dire it is. No woman could rule in the face of what is coming. Lord Eron is more powerful than ever, now that he has made a treaty with the Isle of Orsina.. Even if you and I make this alliance, I fear what will happen. But without it, the Marches are lost.”

“Then make the alliance without the marriage, Prince Jan. I beg you. The word of the King of the Marches must be good.”

“Your word is good, my lord. There is no dispute. But the law must be upheld. Without the blood bond, if you should die, Princess Biranda will be Queen and she is bound by nothing. The ancient laws are clear in both our kingdoms. Simply tell the girl.”

Biranda saw her father put his head down. “And if she refuses?”

Both Jansen and Trevor looked up sharply at that. “Refuses?” Trevor asked.

“To do as she’s bid?” Jansen added. “Surely she has more sense than that – to say nothing of loyalty.”

“She’s very loyal. But… she will not see the need for it.”

“Then she must be MADE to see the need. My Lord, are you telling me that the fate of two kingdoms now rests on the whim of a female barely into womanhood?”

Mikos looked up angrily. “As you say, Prince, the laws are clear. Women must consent. Must freely say the vows. She will not.”

Jan looked disgusted. “Even in the Marches, some laws are surely more – shall we say – flexible – than others? Many a bride in Trollodon goes red-eyed to the altar and does not sit comfortably at her own wedding feast. Is it not the same here? Surely if one form of persuasion does not work with the Princess, another will.”

“If it happens in common families, it is of no concern in the palace. But what you are suggesting… would not work with her.”

Jansen laughed, and even dour Trevor looked amused. “As the older brother of three younger sisters, I promise you that, if reason fails, a sound bare bottom whipping almost always achieves the desired result. And if the first does not, the second surely does.” He paused. “Perhaps in the princess’s case the switch or strap has not been wielded with sufficient vigor in the past. I assure you I have no such qualms.”

Mikos sighed and said nothing.

“Or am I beginning to see the truth here?” Jansen said coldly, his brief joviality gone. “In the Princess’s case, the strap has not been wielded at all.” It was stated as fact, and Mikos did not bother to dispute it.

Biranda sat, in the dark, filthy passage, still as the mouse they had thought her to be and burned with rage. How dare they speak of her as some common thing, to be spanked into submission? Surely no royal prince could actually think that she would be subjected to such. She closed her eyes, and heard the man’s reference to his sisters again in her head. The assertion had not been an idle one. In Trollodon, it sounded as if royal princesses could be – and had been – bottom spanked like children.

And she was angry at her father as well. Why had he not come to her? Were things really as bad in the countryside as this Prince Jan was suggesting? Or was this all a trick, this Prince Jan trying to manipulate her father through fear, to his own advantage? Maybe Eron was not the enemy at all… Biranda could sense that her father had never even considered that.

Jansen’s voice raised. “Your kingdom is nearly lost, my lord. Lord Eron is at your gates – perhaps not his whole army – but one village, one shire at a time, your country has been eroded. How many of your stewards are still loyal? And how many are in Eron’s pay? These are men with lands and families too. If they think you will not protect their positions, they will turn to whomever can.

“If the castle falls, what do you think will happen to your daughter then? Do you think the enemy will care one whit about you or her?” Jansen strode about the room angrily, his big body obviously bursting with frustration. He creaked as he moved, and Biranda realized that he was wearing full leather armor under his jerkin. “Old man, you must listen to me.”

“Do not call me, old man, you young pup. I will do as suits me and my daughter best.”

Biranda could see the muscles work in Jansen’s throat as he tried to regain control. “My lord, I apologize for my discourtesy. But you will likely be killed – or at the very least put on the throne under guard - and she will be married by force, bound and gagged, to whomever it best suits. At least at my side, she will rule as queen, honored as a true and bonded wife. As the wife of one of Eron’s minions, she will be nothing but a puppet, likely kept alive ‘til an heir is produced. And then…?” His words trailed off.

Biranda blanched at the stricken look that washed over her father’s face. WAS it truly that bad? And did her father truly not know it? She watched as the color slowly drained from him. He does look old – so old – she suddenly thought. His whole body slumped in defeat. “It could be as you say… that I have been misled by the cheerful reports of my advisors. But my brother, Archbishop Bethos…”

“Archbishop Bethos, of all your advisors, is the least to be trusted,” Jan snapped.

Mikos face was stark. “My own brother?”

“Your half brother, my lord. Your bastard half brother. Who has always wished the throne for himself. I do not know which of your other advisors is loyal or not, but the archbishop is most definitely in the pay of Eron. This is talked about openly, even in the streets of my capital, leagues distant.”

“But if Bethos is turned, then everything I am being told is tainted.” Mikos ran his hands through his hair, and looked up, suddenly resolute. “I’ve been a fool. You’re right, Jan. We must speak to her.”

“Do you want me to speak to her first?”

“No, let me try.” Mikos snorted. “I sense, my young prince, that you are a man who will brook little nonsense. Perhaps I have been too lenient with my daughter.”

“No perhaps about it,” Trevor muttered to himself, though all in the room, including Biranda behind the wall, heard it clearly enough.

“Let me try first,” Mikos repeated. “Biranda is headstrong – but she is extremely intelligent and as you say, reason first is best.”

“Did I say that?” Jan asked, his face just a bit amused again.

Mikos shrugged, his mouth also twitching into a smile. “More or less.” He sighed and grew serious. “And then, if she will not listen to me, perhaps she will… listen to you.”

“Oh, she’ll listen to me. I’m sure of it.” Jan shook his head, his eyes again growing somber. “I’ll not lie to you, sir. It’s no good way to start a marriage with a husband having to teach all the obedience that should have been learned at a father’s knee… and over it. I don’t thank you for this. But I will do what must be done. In Trollodon, we have been keeping Lord Eron at bay for a generation already – and we have little time for the niceties. Your daughter must be brought to reason… and quickly. The best hope for all is for her to be wedded, bedded and spirited out of the city before the enemy’s spies know what is afoot. My presence here just might still be a secret…”

Although she was totally alone, Biranda could feel her face again flame. Wedded… and bedded? She was not so naive that she did not know what THAT was about. Lacie had had a few lovers – and was always ready to share the details. In spite of herself, Biranda looked at Jan with new interest.

“Trevor and I traveled with great caution,” Jan continued. “If word, though, comes to Eron that I am here – and I may have been recognized by one or two or your advisors – he may move more quickly.”

“Why?”

“Because having you and the Lady Biranda to hand makes things easier for him. Make no mistake, he’ll have the Marches one way or another. But with you on the throne as his puppet and the Princess married to a man of his choosing – it is inevitable that there will be less revolt.”

“I will never submit to being any man’s puppet.”

“If you’re daughter is taken from you and locked into a fortress somewhere, hostage to your cooperation? What then?”

Biranda could see at once in her father’s face that this was the final argument. “I will tell my daughter that I wish to take the noon meal with her privately. We do that from time to time – it will cause no remark. And I will speak to her then.”

Jan nodded. “Good enough. And perhaps if the objective is not achieved during the noon meal, I will take the evening meal with her – also privately - and see if I have a better result.”

Mikos dropped his face, his eyes sad and weary. “You will not…”

“Hurt her?” Jan snorted. “Likely a bit. Maybe more than a bit. But no girl or woman ever died of a sore backside, and I swear this to you, my lord. I was raised to brook no disobedience in my household, and I will not. But I was also raised by a father who respected and honored his bonded wife – my mother - ‘til the day she died, and the woman I take for mine will have the same from me. The protection of my body. The old ways are still strong in Trollodon. We do not forsake our blood bonds.”

Mikos stood next to Jan, and Biranda, still squinting through the tiny crack, realized just how much larger a man Jan was than her father. In spite of herself, she thought about his words, “the protection of my body,” and realized that it was no idle promise.

The men moved out of the room and Biranda sat quietly for a few moments, to insure that they were gone. Her cheek rested on her knees and she stared blankly through the crack, stunned at everything she had just heard. Just as she was ready to move, she saw the hanging twitch and part on the other side of the chamber, and shocked, her eyes went wide and her heart began to pound. Holy God, it was Bethos. He too had been in the passages – it was only through greatest chance and luck, Biranda realized that she had not tripped right over him. But how…?

Well, why not, Biranda realized. If her own spy – Lacie – had so easily seen the men leave the main hall, it was foolish to assume that Bethos would not have spies of his own, and ones likely more clever and quicker than Lacie. And thank God for that, since Bethos had obviously entered the passage ahead of her. Her heart raced as she continued to envision what could have happened – she and her uncle could have literally crashed into each other in the blackness, and then what might have ensued? It did not even bear thinking about.

She forced herself to count to 100, slowly and deliberately, allowing Bethos ample time to pass out of the old fortress – and then to be on the safe side, she traveled back the way she’d come, exiting the passages through the opening under the altar in the old chapel, as opposed to simply following on around the chamber and exiting where Bethos had. All the while, she considered frantically what she should do. Her earlier doubts about Jan – that his entire warning to her father could have been some sort of trick on his part – were gone. Seeing fat Bethos come out of the wall himself confirmed for Biranda everything Jan had said. While she was no happier about what Jan was trying to pressure her father to do, she knew she must warn her father that his ally’s identity – if it had in fact still been a secret – most certainly no longer was.

Walking quietly through the corridor, she reached her chamber. Lacie looked up from where she was folding Biranda’s linen on the bed, her eyes wide and dark in her pale face. “Lady, I was so worried.”

Biranda moved to Lacie’s side and pulled her down next to her on the bed. The maid reached up and brushed some filth from her mistress’ coif. There was no reason to think that there was any way in this chamber for them to be overheard, but after what she’d just seen, she still wished to keep her voice as low as possible.

“It’s not good, Lacie. I must think what to do.” Quickly, she told Lacie what she’d seen and heard. Biranda knew she was extraordinarily fortunate to have Lacie. As was the custom in the Marches, noble ladies did not feed their own children but had a nurse to do so. Although some women required their nurses to, in turn, put their own infant out with another woman, Queen Herra had not required that of Lacie’s mother, Hildine. So the two young women were of an age, Lacie only five days older than Biranda, and literally had been raised at the breast together. And when Hildine had died in childbirth, when Lacie and Biranda were seven, Lacie had been allowed to stay on at the castle as Biranda’s companion and eventually – her maid. Although they maintained a certain formality between them as was required in public, in private they were more like sisters than anything else.

“He is Prince Jan?” Lacie’s voice pitched up, grey eyes wide as saucers. “Heir to the throne of Trollodon? And he wishes to wed with you?”

Biranda shook her head impatiently. “That is not our concern now. I have no wish to wed with anyone,” her mind flashed briefly on his comment about how he would have no qualms wielding a strap with – what had he said? - vigor? “and PARTICULARLY with him.. – but I still must warn my father that Bethos IS a faithless spy and not his loyal brother, just as Jansen said.”

“I have never liked Bethos. For a man of the church, he is not very holy.” At Biranda’s inquisitive glance, Lacie looked awkward. “It is whispered he takes women into his rooms and,” she licked her lips, “is cruel with them. But he only takes boys to his bed.” Biranda blushed red. Boys? These were things she knew little of, and sometimes the gulf between her and Lacie was larger than she realized. She decided to ignore that. “You?” Biranda whispered, focusing on the other. “Has he been cruel with you?”

“No. I am too protected. All in the castle know I would run to you if I am mistreated. But other women are not so lucky.”

Biranda shook her head. As much as the plight of the women bothered her, it was the least of her concerns right now . If Jan’s dire predictions were true, they had more to worry about with Bethos than the discomfort of a few of the wenches, no matter what that involved. “I’ll wait here. You must find my father – tell him the truth. That I was concealed in the old passageway – and what I saw. He must know at once that Bethos is spying on him – and that all that Jan says is likely true. Here.” Biranda looked around, and quickly thrust the cleaned linen that Lacie had just folded back into the woven laundry basket. “We must be especially careful.. .make it look as if you’re on an errand…”

Lacie nodded, grasped the basket and hurried from the room, leaving Biranda in a froth of stress and emotion.

 

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