A Sense of Duty - First Chapter SampleThis is a the sample first chapter of the medieval romance novel A Sense of Duty.
I wish I had been the wife of a better man,
someone alive to outrage the withering scorn of men.
-- Helen in the Illiad by Homer
Constance stood motionless on the rocky beach, gazing out at the rolling ocean waves with slowly growing acceptance. Today had been the most joyful day of her life … now it would become the most painful. She spared one last glance for the parchment scroll held in her hand, then deftly rolled it up and tucked it into a small leather bag at her belt. A seabird soared far above, wingtips outstretched, drifting easily on the wind currents, but otherwise she was alone. She had walked a distance from town before reading the missive from her parents. She’d had a foreboding of what the note would say; she had wanted time to absorb the message alone, unwatched.
Footsteps sounded on the gravel, and her heart leapt with welcome recognition. Gabriel, her personal guard for the past five years, strode steadily down the beach toward her. His short blond hair, chiseled face, and muscular, lean build were all as familiar to her as the sharp tang of salt in the brisk air. She had seen those dark blue eyes sparkle with laughter at a shared joke, had watched them narrow with displeasure at any perceived slight to his lady.
Constance had grown up around guards, spent her childhood with swords and shields a part of her daily life. Even so, when Gabriel had been hired by her protective parents, her world had changed instantly. Where others had treated her as a porcelain vase, working to keep her safe from all dangers, Gabriel had insisted she learn how to face and conquer threats. She had gone from a cautious girl of fourteen to a self-assured, confident adult. She knew she owed much of that transformation to his diligent efforts.
Gabriel smiled as he came up behind her, drawing his long, woolen, full-circle cloak around her snugly to shield her from the brisk autumn wind. An absolute sense of peace and calm filled her as the folds enveloped her. She was in the most beautiful place on earth. The man she loved cradled her in a protective embrace. If only she could stop time, preserving this moment for an eternity.
A tear slipped down her cheek, and she turned her head to nestle against his chest. The wind blew her long, tawny hair across her face in waves, and he gently lowered a hand to brush them aside. Glancing more closely, he cupped his fingers beneath her chin, raising her eyes to his.
“My darling, what is it?” he asked quietly.
Constance smiled wryly. She would not spoil this moment for the world. “I am just so happy,” she replied, admitting only half the truth.
His arms wrapped more tightly around her, and she sighed as he lowered his head, pressing his lips gently to her forehead. The cloak sheltered them there for over an hour, the waves on the beach flowing and ebbing in quiet harmony.
Finally the setting sun caused the sky to redden and mist. Reluctantly, Constance slipped free from Gabriel’s cocoon and walked alongside him back toward the village, her protector’s hand resting lightly on his sword’s hilt. They climbed a short, grassy hill, then moved across a heather-thatched meadow. There was no need for words; over the years they had become comfortable with silence, with simply being together. He took her hand in his as she passed over a stile in the fence, and the touch was familiar, natural. Even so, every time her fingers met his it sent a new thrill through her body.
She shook the grass and sand from the bottom of her sea-blue dress as they moved on to the packed dirt roads of the village proper, heading toward the small tavern at the town’s edge. The building was well kept and neat, with a wooden sign shaped like a copper kettle hanging above the entrance. Gabriel pushed the sturdy door open for her, standing aside to let her in before following behind.
“Gabe! Constance! Welcome back!” called out the portly innkeeper with delight, coming over to clasp Gabriel’s hand firmly.
“Pete, always a pleasure,” greeted Gabriel with a grin.
“Here, let me bring you to your table.” The owner led the pair through the half-empty room over to a small oak round, tucked in a back corner, flanked by a pair of simple wooden chairs. He gave the table a once-over with the cloth from his waist, then went to fetch a pair of tankards of ale for the couple. Pete was back in moments with the fare, then moved on to help another patron.
Constance chuckled as she sipped the proffered drink, looking at the back of the friendly owner. “I swear, you must know every tavern keeper from London to Portsmouth,” she offered with a shake of the head. “However do you do it?”
Gabriel gave her a wry smile. “You know I do not reveal my secrets,” he rebuffed her with a wink. “Still, keep it in mind if you are ever in trouble. Just leave word at the nearest pub and the news will get to me in a flash.”
Constance did laugh at this. “Good to know,” she agreed with a toast in his direction. “I will make sure to remember that.”
Gabriel took another sip, scanning the room briefly with a sharp eye, nodding to a pair of men who sat by the fire in matching yellow on white tunics. Satisfied with what he saw, he leant forward and lowered his voice. “So, was there anything interesting in that letter from your parents? I take it they want you to come back home from visiting your aunt, since they sent those two with the note and not simply one of the messengers. You have been out here only two weeks – I thought you meant to stay for longer?”
Constance looked down at the worn table. She evaded the answer deliberately, wondering how long she could delay the revelation. With an effort, she kept the tone of her voice light and playful. “I know being here is a welcome vacation for us both - but also difficult for you since I spend all day with Silvia at the nunnery. Few men are allowed within those walls.” Her mouth quirked into a smile. “Still, I do enjoy staying with her, assisting her with her daily tasks. She has always been so good to me, and I am immensely curious about her way of life.”
Gabriel chuckled softly. “Maybe your parents thought you were becoming too curious, and that is why they are bringing you back,” he agreed with a grin.
Constance continued to gaze down at the table, taking one of his hands within her own. She ran a finger over the bronze ring he wore on his little finger. The band’s face held an engraved cross. She knew Gabriel had been given this ring in the holy land by his mentor, Sir Templeton, the man who had raised him after his parents had died.
Constance wondered again just what atrocities Gabriel had witnessed during his years of service in the Crusades. There were times she caught him at an unguarded moment, when his look was shadowed and lost. She wished there was a way to keep this fresh pain from him.
She took in a long, deep breath, and then let it out in a smooth rush. She could not dodge the issue any longer. Her voice came out low and flat, lifeless.
“I am to marry Barnard in one week.”
There was complete silence, and after a moment Constance glanced up. Gabriel sat in shocked surprise, his drink halfway to his mouth. Slowly, carefully, he lowered his mug to the table.
“You cannot be serious. Your wedding will not be held for another year at least. Barnard had agreed to wait until you turned twenty-one.” His eyes searched hers, the color draining from his face. “We have another year ...”
Constance shook her head slowly. “You know what the fighting has been like with the bandits. My father needs Barnard’s troops to man the Beadnell lands.” Her voice fell into the rhythm of a catechism long recited. “However, to let Barnard’s forces move in without legal protection of my family’s rights would be suicide. Father needs the marriage to guarantee that our family has some control over that land – through me.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Through my children.”
Gabriel let out a low growl. “The man is twenty years older than you are,” he shot out. “He is a coward, a weakling. How could you go to him?”
Constance lowered her eyes. They had gone over this ground countless times over the years, argued about it, talked about it, and it was a situation they had never found agreement on.
“Barnard has waited these ten years for me, since the engagement was first made,” she pointed out quietly. “He has been more than patient. The need is upon us, and I will do what I must to keep our people safe.”
“You do not have to do what your father orders!” bit out Gabriel, his voice a plea. “There are other options!”
Constance sat back in her chair. “You know full well that I agree with this marriage,” she sighed. “Not for me personally, but for all those innocents in the Beadnell area. As a noble I have a responsibility to keep the people on our holdings safe. It is the legacy I will pass down to future generations.” Her eyes grew fierce. “I will not neglect that duty due to cowardice or personal selfishness.”
Gabriel’s voice was hoarse. “And so you would go to that sickly, grey-haired neighbor of yours …” His knuckles went white on the mug still in his grasp. “Constance, you will wither in that home. I cannot sit back and …”
Constance felt the fear grow within her at the prospect of decades of loneliness. She fought it off with familiar effort. “I can handle any personal pain for the sake of those families and children who are at the bandits’ mercy.”
Gabriel leant forward. “Yes, of course,” he agreed tightly, “it is about safeguarding the innocents. If your aim is to protect the defenseless villagers, surely there is another way. One that does not involve you selling your soul …”
Her gaze did not waver. “You know there is not. Could you protect that large area of land on your own? Even my father’s forces cannot manage that. No, we need Barnard and the trained soldiers he has at the ready. This is the path I must take, and I am set on it.”
Gabriel’s eyes became distant, and long moments passed.
“I am lost,” he finally stated. “I shall never love another. I shall wait for you to come to your senses, or for him to leave you a widow.”
Constance wavered as all color drained from her world. It was one thing for her to consign herself to a loveless, lifeless marriage. She had long since reconciled herself to that fate, and was determined to make the best of it. Her long talks with Silvia had given her guidance on how to find comfort in quiet routine. After all, many girls and women deliberately entered the far more restrictive walls of the nunnery in order to escape life’s troubles.
Still, could she doom Gabriel to a miserable existence? Not Gabriel, not the man whose strong arms had protected her for so long, whose sharp eyes could spot danger from a mile away. Not the man who shared walks along the beach during golden-hued afternoons and held her close when ink-black storms hammered the keep’s walls. This man deserved to love, to live, to glory in his strengths. Somewhere out there was a woman free to give him the comforts and consolations she could not. He was only twenty-five. His entire life stretched out before him, full of potential, open to all possibilities.
She loved him far too much to deny him that life.
She began to speak, but her throat closed up. She took in a long, deep breath, then let it out again slowly. A second try, and she still could not say a word.
Finally, she took up her tankard and swallowed the ale down in one long draw, pulling strength from the rich brew. When she was done, she put the empty mug solidly down on the table and looked up at the man she loved. She spewed the words out in a rush, knowing if she stopped she would never get through it.
“I will never go to you, Gabriel. You are my guard, and it has been an amusing few years. Now it is time for me to marry, and I must have a real noble as a husband. I need a title for my children, and a fine house to raise them in. Surely you knew this.”
Gabriel stared at her for a long moment, stunned. Constance struggled to keep her face still, to keep even the slightest hint of emotion from her demeanor. She nearly broke from the effort, but she held firm.
Then he was standing, his gaze cold, distant. He straightened, turned, and walked toward the door. He did not look back as he strode through the archway and out of her life.
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