Sworn Loyalty - Sample First Chapter

Sworn Loyalty - A Medieval Romance Here's the full first chapter of Sworn Loyalty - A Medieval Romance.

Chapter 1

England,1197

It is not death that a man should fear,
But he should fear never beginning to live.
-- Marcus Aurelius

Mary paused for a long moment before the pockmarked door of the Mangy Cur Tavern. Raucous shouts and harsh laughter made the dilapidated building shudder as if it were groaning in pain. She glanced around in the deepening twilight, her breath puffing crystalline in the biting air. There were no other travelers visible as the meager dirt road twisted into gloomy forest on either side. It was as if this one isolated clearing, with its scum-coated pond, shuttered tavern, and tumbled-down stables, was all that existed in the world.

She took in a deep breath, let it out, then pushed open the door.

A rough cheer of welcome rang in her ears, and it took all her willpower not to tug up on the low-cut bodice of her scarlet dress. She drew her worn tambourine from her hip with a gloved hand and waved it high overhead, sending a shimmer of sound into the crowd. The room was layered with dense, fragrant wood smoke. On all sides burly, scarred men sprawled at tables cluttered with half-empty mugs.

A stumpy, dark-haired man stood at the back of the tavern, his eyes sharp on her. “I knew you’d be back!” he crowed with satisfaction. “Barkeep, a mead for our songbird.”

A path cleared for Mary. Her emotions roiled as she approached the stocky man. She was well aware that Caradoc’s marked attentions afforded her protection from the rest of the gang. At the same time, the wolf’s head was dangerous. He had well earned his outlaw status, the designation that he could be slain on sight like a rabid dog. His keen knife had found its way into countless backs throughout the county. His fiery temper could turn on the point of a pin. If she were to survive the next few weeks, and accomplish her mission, she would have to walk a delicate line.

The grimy stool at his side was vacated by one of his many bull-sized henchmen. She took it with a wave of her tambourine, then nodded gratefully to the flame-haired bartender who handed over a mug.

Caradoc thunked his substantial weight back down onto his own stool, then glared at the two other men at the table. “I told you she’d return, so pay up. Even though you’re my brothers, you’ll hand over what you owe.”

Espan and Arbert were cut from the same cloth as their older brother – stocky, dark-haired, sporting heavy brows over brutish faces. They might have been twins, but for the twisted nose Arbert featured and the pair of hairy moles on Espan’s left cheek. The men reluctantly dug into the leather pouches at their sides, handing over the coins to the delighted winner.

Mary took a long drink of her mead, her eyes scanning the rough crowd in the guttering torchlight. How long had she been out on her task? Three weeks? Four? The days and nights were running together in one endless, grime-smeared blur. She longed for the solid walls of her keep, the strict but predictable routine she had followed since she was eleven.

She gave a sharp shake of her head. She had known, all those years, that her privileged lifestyle came with an unshakable obligation. She was honor-bound to serve as guardian angel for Erik, whether he wanted it or not; whether he even knew of it or not.

From all reports it seemed she’d finally be able to fulfill her duty.

Caradoc’s spittle spewed across the deeply veined table as he laughed, tucking the last coin into the bulging pouch at his side. He drew down a long pull on his ale, then turned to smile at Mary. “They said you might have gone south, to London,” he growled, “but I knew better.” His eyes took on a crafty look. “You know, if you joined our band, you wouldn’t have to go from tavern to tavern to keep your tips fresh. I could take care of all your needs.”

Mary forced her smile to stay bright. “I like to be my own master,” she stated, holding his gaze. “Just like you. I am sure you understand.”

His eyes grew smoky. “Indeed I do,” he murmured, leaning forward. “Kindred spirits.”

Mary downed the rest of her mead, grabbed up her tambourine with her left hand, and gave it a shimmering rattle as she stood. It had the desired effect – Caradoc sat back, a pleased smile spreading on his lips. The room’s roar eased off as well, and a circle of attentive eyes focused on her. She felt uncomfortably like a doe in the center of a pack of wolves, and the image wasn’t far off from the truth. Nearly every man here was a member of Caradoc’s band; they would follow him without question. She could only hope that the news from her contacts was wrong, that Erik was not being drawn in as a sacrifice to this bloodthirsty crew.

The front door creaked open, and Mary’s blood ran cold.

She had only seen Erik in person that one time, a full decade ago, but there was no mistaking the man who stepped across the threshold. He was tall, lean, with short-cropped blond hair and the controlled grace of a stalking panther. He wore a chestnut-colored leather jerkin over matching leggings, and a long sword hung at his hip. She knew through personal experience what the rigorous training regimen at the keep entailed. Michael, the Master at Arms, still spoke of Erik’s skill at every turn. Erik’s exploits in the Holy Land in the intervening years were nothing short of legendary.

Erik’s eyes swept around the room, judging, calculating, and she held in a flinch as his gaze momentarily connected with hers. She needn’t have bothered – he was scanning for dangers, nothing more. There was no way for him to connect the lithe, raven-haired gypsy woman in this den of thieves with the young, shy girl he’d once met in a quiet farming village.

Satisfied, he turned, putting a hand behind him to draw in a stunning blonde woman in an elegant forest-green dress. This time Mary knew she did not quite hold back the tremor of anger which coursed through her, but it did not matter. All eyes were focused on the newcomer, on the long, curled ringlets of gold which cascaded down her back and the sensuous curve of her ruby-red lips.

Erik’s voice was a low mutter, but in the silence of the tavern Mary had no trouble hearing every word. “Lynessa, are you sure you wish to take your rest here?”

The woman’s eyes grew bright, almost predatory, and she nodded, taking a step forward. “Absolutely. My cook said they had the worst mead here she had ever tasted, and I have five pounds on a bet. I can’t believe it’s more disgusting than that hell-hole in Augustine, but there’s only one way to be sure.”

A rumbling growl circled around the edges of the room, and Erik’s hand eased to the hilt of his sword. His mouth set into a thin line.

“Lynessa, I think –”

She took a step forward, giving a delicate sniff. “Although, judging by the odor here, perhaps my cook was right after all.”

Mary shook herself free of the shock which had nearly frozen her. After so long, after the years of training and the weeks of waiting, it was still hard for her to accept just how mercenary Lynessa was, how ruthlessly she was willing to discard Erik now that he no longer served her purposes. Lynessa had even neatly arranged it so Caradoc and his men would be drawn into the chaos, and they themselves would be brought down.

Mary did not mind the latter one bit, but she absolutely had to prevent the former.

There was a movement at her side, and she glanced over. Caradoc rose menacingly to his feet, by all looks a dominant bull preparing to stomp an intruder into a bloody pulp.

She knew she had only seconds in which to act. Mary took a dancing step in front of Caradoc, whirling her tambourine up with a glint of shimmering gold, drawing all eyes to her. Lynessa blinked in astonishment, her mouth hanging open.

Mary’s smile grew into an authentic grin. Lynessa hadn’t planned for this in her intricate schemes and machinations.

Mary pitched her voice to be condescending but patient. “Oh, Lynessa, my dear, is this really the limit of your planning skills? I had hoped for something a little more elegant.”

It was another moment before Lynessa was able to close her mouth and pull herself up in an affronted huff. “What in the world are you talking about?”

Mary gave a wave in the air with her tambourine hand, releasing a delicate trill of sound. “I was telling Caradoc just the other day that I’d seen the sheriff’s men in the area. Now here you are, and you just happen to be stirring up trouble.” She draped Erik with a dismissive glance. His fingers were wrapped around his sword hilt, his eyes carefully sweeping the antagonized group of men. “Let me guess,” she continued. “You draw Caradoc’s fine band of men into attacking your pet, and when they heroically defend their home, you send the sheriff and his team after them?”

Caradoc was at her side, his greasy hair nearly bristling with anger. His two brothers were close behind. “Maybe it’s time we taught that damned Sheriff a lesson,” he growled. “Starting with this whelp here.”

The mood in the room crackled with energy, and Mary clung desperately to her path. If she could not divert the thieves now, Erik would be slain. All she had worked for would be lost.

Lost forever.

She pitched her voice low, low enough that Caradoc would think it meant for him alone, but she held her body pointed at Erik. She hoped with every ounce of her being that the man contained a shred of instinct for self-preservation.

“Dear Caradoc, you are no man’s master,” she insisted in a seductive purr. “Least of all that arrogant sheriff. Yes, you want to make them pay. But do it on your own terms, on your own schedule. Choose your own location.” Her voice became husky. “Create an epic tale which will ring in the great halls for centuries to come.”

Caradoc’s eyes lit up at that, and Mary warmed with the slightest kindle of hope. She had studied him carefully for weeks now, preparing for this eventuality, and her research might just pay off. If there was one thing Caradoc craved, it was to build a legacy for his name.

Caradoc puffed up his shoulders, tossing his hair back as he strode forward to stand before Erik. His head only came up to Erik’s chin, but with his barrel chest and muscled hands … Mary held in a shiver. It would be an even enough contest just between those two, never mind the twenty rabid men who ringed them.

Caradoc’s voice was the soft growl of a wolf. “I am the master here,” he stated, “and I will not have our sanctuary disturbed by the likes of you. Go, and take that pale trollop along with you.” Lynessa gave a soft cry of outrage, but bit it back when Caradoc’s amber gleam swung around to pin her. After a moment Caradoc returned his gaze back to Erik. “Do not think this is the end,” he warned, his voice deceptively quiet. “No matter where you hide, no matter who you hide behind, we are everywhere. We will find you, and we will have our fun. On our own terms. In a place of our own choosing.”

Mary had no doubt that any other man would have been running for the door, pleading for his life, scampering from the palpable threat which pulsed in the smoky air. But Erik took his time, his eyes making a slow circuit of the men in the room, drawing around to –

His gaze settled on hers, and Mary gasped as if an electric shock had coursed through her. For so long there had only been that one painting over the keep’s fireplace, the eyes dead and stagnant. But this Erik was vibrantly alive, full of passionate energy, and the corners of his eyes creased with dawning understanding. She was not sure what he thought he knew, but she prayed to God that he would turn and leave before all Hell broke loose.

He nodded, and then he was taking Lynessa by the arm, stepping back toward the door, and ushering her through. He gave one last look to the room before closing the door behind them.

Mary leapt into the center of the room, shimmering her tambourine in triumph, raising her voice high. “Caradoc!” she cried out, hoping with all her heart to distract the men, to give Erik the cover he needed to safely get away. “Caradoc!”

The cries were taken up on all sides, tankards of ale were raised in toasts, and at long last Mary’s breaths came in full, even draws.

Caradoc’s eyes glazed in fury. “When I find him, I will kill him myself,” he vowed. “I will break every bone in his body!”

“I know you will,” encouraged Mary, taking the mug of mead that the barkeep pressed into her hand. “But make sure he is brought to you unharmed! You want to savor every moment of his punishment for yourself.”

Flames of delight blossomed in Caradoc’s eyes, and he climbed onto a nearby table. The surface groaned under his weight, but held steady.

“You men!” he cried out to the roiling masses. “Tomorrow we will go out to hunt down this Erik. But I want to make it clear – he is MINE. He is to be brought to me without one scratch on him. And then we shall have an arena!”

Cries of delight and anticipation thundered around her, ringing in her ears. She hoped by all that was Holy that she could get to Erik before Caradoc’s clan put into motion their plans for revenge.

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