In Debt to the enemy lord
Publication: December 2016 by Harlequin Historical
“You have a debt to pay. You owe me your life.”
Anwen, bastard of Brynmor, has fought hard to find her place in the world. But she’s forced to rethink everything when she’s saved from death by her enemy Teague, Lord of Gwalchdu. Instead of releasing her, he holds her captive…
Teague trusts no one. So, with ominous messages threatening his life, he must keep Anwen under his watch, no matter how much her presence drives him wild. And when passionate arguments turn to passionate encounters, Teague must believe that the strength of their bond will conquer all!
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Helplessly, he stood beside her in the early morning light. He stood partly in darkness, but she knelt on the cold stone floor at the entrance of the fortress and the sun’s light cut like spears across her huddled form.
Tears streamed from swollen eyes and fell to clenched hands. Her fine grey gown gathered around her like shadows and her black hair, tangled, writhed to the floor. She pulled her head back, suddenly, like a wounded animal showing its jugular to its killer and the cruel light slashed across muscles strained with sobbing. She opened her mouth, but the only sound that came out was a guttural crackling deep in her throat. Then silence. Then with a sound he would never forget, he heard her scream a name he would never allow to be spoken again in his presence.
‘William!’ Her body contorted upwards, her face raised in an effort to throw her voice. The name whipped around him as her breath came in small pants.
Teague watched his mother weeping. Watched, as she tore at her dress and as the deep jagged sounds shuddered and tore through her body. He watched and could do nothing to change the truth. No matter how long she cried for him, his father could not hear his mother’s call. His father was dead. He had been standing by his mother’s side when the messenger delivered the news.
Now, he stood behind a pillar and clenched his fists against his side. He did not grieve. His pain came from a much deeper and darker emotion. Anger. The anger he’d felt since he heard his mother and his aunt arguing a fortnight ago.
Their voices had been soft, but discordant, and he had hidden behind the green-linen wall coverings to hear them. It did not matter that he was only a child. He had understood then, in their rushed accusations, his father was never coming back. His father was dead, but he paid no heed to the news. To Teague, his father had died when he had forgotten his son and forsaken his wife.
He did not mourn his father’s death, but he was helpless at the sight of his mother’s grief. She wept, when he could not. She loved him still, when he would not. They were both unwanted. They’d been betrayed. Yet, he could hear the love she felt when she screamed his father’s name. Teague stepped out from behind the pillar and placed his arms around his mother’s neck. He held her for only a moment before she suddenly stilled and let out a new sound. One hand clutched her heavily swollen stomach, while the other clenched his hands.
‘Teague! Teague, get help!’ she gasped. Beneath his mother’s knees the stones darkened with water and rivulets of red. The foreboding liquid pooled and streamed towards his feet before he let go. As he raced to find some help, Teague made his heart a promise.
* * *
Wales — 1290
‘I’m going to die,’ Anwen of Brynmor muttered. ‘And why would that be? Because I climbed a tree and plunged to my death. That’s why.’
She circled the giant oak again. The thick lower branches could easily hold her weight. But it wasn’t the lowest branches terrifying her. No, it was the thinnest sprays of green at the top where she needed to go. She could no longer see her hunting goshawk tangled in the highest branches, but she could hear his screeching.
‘Oh, now you need me, do you? It would have been useful if you heeded me when you broke your creance and flew into Dameg Forest.’
She jumped, reached and missed the lowest branch. Her great blue gown billowed heavily around her legs. She quickly began unlacing the bodice.
‘No, I called and called and you just flapped your little wings, trailing your leather jesses behind you. You care now, don’t you? Now your jesses are tangled.’
Finished unlacing, she shrugged her shoulders until the gown pooled at her feet. Shivering, teeth chattering, she stepped out of the material. It was too cold to be in the forest, certainly too cold to be shedding any layers of clothing. At least it was also too cold for many people to be in the forest at this time of morning so there was no one to protest her lack of modesty. Shaking out any mud or wrinkles, she laid the gown gently on a fallen tree. It was her best dress despite the worn hem and hole in the sleeve.
‘I’d leave you if I could, Gully. But we have England’s fine King, and Gwalchdu’s arrogant lord, who’d order a hand chopping for losing you.’
The tiny hawk let out a wild screech.
‘Oh, you’re for the death punishment as well, are you? It won’t be me who will be punished, it will be Melun. That kind old falconer never hurt you one day in his life. So I’ll fetch you for his sake, not for your stringy neck.’
Stepping closer to the trunk, she crouched low and leapt. She was rewarded with shredding her hands against the bark and falling on her backside in cold partially frozen mud.
She sat catching her breath, but not able to catch her anger which bloomed up out of her. Punching the mud, she vented her frustration. ‘Why couldn’t I simply go home peacefully? You know I loathe visiting Gwalchdu village with all its perfectly thatched houses and perfectly cleaned streets.’
Thinking of Gwalchdu angered her more. She sprang up and threw mud at the tree trunk. ‘Then you fly off, making more work for me. And now I’m ranting, you rotten bird!’
Jumping, she grabbed the branch with her lacerated hands. Pain knifed through her arms, but she wouldn’t let go. Swinging her legs, she pushed her feet on to the roughened bark. Her grip slipped and fury arced through her.
It was bad enough losing her pride and yelling at a bird. It was worse yet wanting to sulk. And for what? Only so she could compare Brynmor with Gwalchdu? Her home was superior to Gwalchdu and it always would be.
She bit her fingers deep into the bark. She refused to slip. Strongly Welsh, Brynmor had fought to the end of the war against the English and so would she. Pulling up with all her might, she screamed.
‘Did you hear that?’ Teague, Lord of Gwalchdu, halted his horse.
‘There is nothing here in Dameg’s Forest but the beasts, the trees and the icicles clinging to my stirrups.’ Rhain shuddered. ‘In fact, I can think of little reason to be this deep in God’s forgotten forest this early in the morning.’
Rhain snorted, but pulled his horse closer.
Teague forced his ears to listen for any sounds above the frozen ground crunching beneath the horses’ hooves. The late autumn air was heavy with the smells of pine and damp earth and the fluttering sounds of small creatures. If there was someone in the forest, they weren’t nearby.
Dismissing the sound as a bird’s cry, he growled. ‘You know why we are here. It’s the only place left to hide.’
‘We hold no chance of finding anyone here,’ Rhain said. ‘It’s been hours since we received the threat and the enemy is gone by now. We search for only a trace.’
Teague’s frustration mounted as he urged his horse forward. ‘Then we search for a trace.’
It was too early in the morning for this search and too cold with a storm threatening. If the enemy was in the forest, they were more foolish than he thought. But it had to be a fool who threatened a Marcher Lord. One who retained and gained more power and land through the wars between Wales and England over a decade ago. One who could request aid from King Edward himself.
But Teague didn’t want aid, didn’t want to call attention to what threatened his home. So he and his brother searched alone. But so far had found no trace of an enemy. An enemy who, without provocation, left him hostile messages.
At first, he dismissed the messages. After all, he’d never been liked by his own countrymen, the Welsh, and certainly not by the English. Still, he earned the right to both sides’ respect. Though his countrymen continued to roll with hatred toward the English, the war was over. It was just a matter of the Welsh accepting their fate. He’d certainly accepted his fate as a traitor when he sided with the English. When he helped win King Edward’s war and kept Gwalchdu as his home.
No, he wasn’t well liked by his countrymen and he could dismiss petty threats. However, now the messages no longer just threatened his own life, but those of Gwalchdu’s inhabitants. When the enemy attached bloodied carcasses of animals he protected within Gwalchdu’s stone walls and showed that his fortress’s defences could be breached, Teague could no longer dismiss the threats.
He didn’t understand why the messages began so long after the war and didn’t understand the purpose of them, since the enemy demanded nothing. But Teague understood that he would put an end to them.
‘It’s uncannily quiet here.’ Rhain slowed his horse to follow him through the narrow passages between the trees. ‘What I wonder, dear Brother, is why you are risking your precious neck for this purpose? If your enemy hides here, you disadvantage yourself by going blindly into his lair.’
Teague leaned to avoid a branch. The skittish horse sidestepped and he pulled the reins sharply to avoid slicing his leg against bark. ‘The coward will not show his face to me, but by God’s breath, I will find him.’
He would find the enemy, and when he did… But it would not happen with words. And it would not happen while he discussed his safety with his brother. ‘I have no patience for this conversation. We will separate until the sun reaches midday.’
His sword ready and hidden by dense foliage, Teague stood awestruck. At any moment Rhain could rejoin him, but he couldn’t clear his thoughts. His blood, coursing hotly through his body, pooled lower. Whatever he was expecting when he heard the harsh creaking of shaken branches, this woodland nymph was not it.
She stood on the branch of an enormous oak tree. Her back was to him and her arms were wrapped around the trunk. Her blonde loose hair fell far down her back as she gazed upwards.
But it was not her standing in a tree that riveted him. It was the fact she was almost…naked. The grey chemise she wore was so threadbare he could see the rosiness of her rear and the large holes gave him glimpses of pure soft skin underneath.
She pulled herself over a higher branch and straddled it. When she grasped it between her hands, her chemise pulled tight and the position outlined the generous curves of her body.
By necessity, he leaned forward to get a better view. It was not enough; he stepped forward. He was less quiet, less hidden, but he did not care. She wore the most tantalising outfit ever conjured in his fantasies.
‘And there I’ll be, trapped in purgatory!’
He paused mid-step and adjusted his sword. Her husky voice was not that of a woodland nymph, but vengeful harpy. Someone was with her. And that cracked through his desire like the tip of a cold sword pricking his neck.
‘If it wasn’t for the food you hunt…’ she stood clumsily, her feet and hands finding little purchase until she braced herself against the tree ‘…food we desperately need, I might risk my hand with the false King Edward.’
Crouching back into the shadows, but not out of sight, Teague listened to her treasonous talk.
Her movements were abrupt, shaky, as she pulled herself up to the next branch. ‘It’s the Traitor’s fault I’m climbing this tree.’
Whoever was with her remained silent. She not only spoke of treason, she talked like his enemy. Higher and higher she climbed, to the slenderest branches, and still she did not stop.
‘All I wanted to do was give you a little training, purchase some fine jesses and return home.’ Adjusting her weight, she stretched out far from the trunk and the branch creaked loudly until she grabbed one above her. ‘I didn’t want to get stuck in this rotten forest. And I certainly didn’t want to have to purchase your jesses from my tanner that the Traitor stole.’
He edged closer, now confident she was alone. It was then he saw her goal: a bird caught by the leather straps around its legs. She talked to the bird and was spouting foolhardy words he was sure she’d want no one to hear.
‘Just like the Traitor stole everything else when he sided with the English vermin.’ Her hands sliding above her, she shuffled away from the trunk until she stood beneath the bird’s branch. With one hand she tore at the thin strips of leather until the bird rose free. ‘Wales should have won the war. Would have, too, if the almighty Lord of Gwalchdu hadn’t switched sides. And why? So he could feed his fat belly!’
His enemy was here. And not a man, but a mere woman, who was neatly trapped in a tree.
Teague slashed the brown dried undergrowth with his sword and strode out underneath the oak’s branches.
Startled, the woman’s hand slipped off the upper limb of the tree. The thin branch she stood on swayed as it took her entire weight. ‘You!’
Even from this distance, he saw her incredulity, then recognition, then a look so full of venom, he knew it mirrored his own.
‘Yes, me.’ Teague’s satisfaction was so complete, he felt like a fox sinking fangs deep into prey. ‘And you will come down to pay your due.’
‘My due?’ she spat, her body tight with ferocity. ‘My due!’ she repeated, as the branch she stood on protested with sickening snaps.
She spun towards the trunk. Too late.
‘Catch me!’ she demanded as the branch cracked. Surging out from the broken tumbling limb, she swung her arms wildly, but it was not enough.
Her arm, her body, her head glanced against unforgiving branches before her landing in his arms forced the breath from his lungs. Then he couldn’t breathe at all when he lowered her seemingly lifeless form to the ground.
She breathed, but blood coursed from her left temple. He laid her down, tore a strip off his outer tunic and wrapped the fabric around her head. Avoiding the deep gashes on her arms and legs, he felt for broken bones. She was intact, but for her head, and she desperately needed a healer.
She was his enemy, but she was alone. Her golden hair was matting with blood. With her paling complexion, she looked ready for the grave. If he left her here she would die.
Cradling her head within the crook of his arm, he lifted her to his chest and whistled for his horse. It would take precious time to reach Gwalchdu on foot, but he could not risk jarring her head.
This wasn’t how he felled his enemies. His enemies died by his own hand, not by some tree.
‘What has happened?’
Teague veered to his right. With several miles to go before he reached Gwalchdu, he hadn’t expected to see anyone. It took a moment to realise his brother’s presence did not represent a threat.
‘Where the hell have you been?’ Teague demanded.
Rhain dismounted. ‘The way you ordered me away, I would not have guessed my presence was so desired. I could have told you how wasteful it was to separate for our search. If I didn’t know better, I would think you thought little of my sword skills.’
‘I have no time to mend your hurt feelings. She is wounded.’
‘Let me help you mount and then I’ll go ahead to notify Sister Ffion.’
‘She’s not dead!’
Rhain stretched out his arms. ‘I can see that, dear Brother. Ffion may have the necessary herbs to help heal her.’
Teague placed the woman in Rhain’s arms, before mounting his own horse and gathering her close to him again. Edward’s wars trained them well in handling the injured. But this was no soldier’s body, heavy with armour. This was a woman: one so slight it was like holding nothing at all.
‘Ffion will not be pleased that you bring someone home at this time,’ Rhain said.
Ffion would not be pleased when she knew whom he brought home. ‘When has our aunt ever been pleased? It appears her God was not listening when He deemed me this woman’s only protection.’
‘You could always leave her with one of the villagers.’
‘No!’ Teague said, surprised at his reaction. He did not want to leave her in the care of someone else. ‘We waste time. Ready my room.’
Teague didn’t wait to see his brother go. His attention was pulled to the woman in his arms. Limp, she moulded against him and he could feel each shallow breath filling her body. His white tunic wrapped around her head was soaked bright red with blood, her hair was tangled with leaves and bark, and her face was almost translucent. He had the horse but even so, the journey to his home would be slow.
He only hoped he wouldn’t be too late.