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Her Gilded Dragon: A Norse Warrior Romance by Susannah Shannon – Sample


From the Keeper of the Keep, a manual for the dames of the North Wall.

A dame is in an unusual position. She is responsible for the bodies and souls of all under her care. She is expected to be righteous, honest, frugal, hardworking, resilient, and kind-hearted. She is also expected to be in obedience to her husband the paladin. This is a tricky balance to negotiate: to be a leader and yet in submission…

Realize now, that you will not get it correct every time. What you must do is graciously accept chastisement at the hands of your husband the paladin. Arguing is beneath you. Only the bravest, most honorable members of the Snow Force attain the rank of paladin. If your husband has deemed that discipline is needed, he will administer it in private. Although this is something intimate between the two of you, at a keep there is very little privacy. It is not unlikely that everyone will know that you were given a bare bottom spanking.

Your behavior and attitude determined your fate. You can expect your husband to ask you to lift your skirts. The Snow Force values personal responsibility; you will need to demonstrate your understanding of that by actively participating in your punishment. You may be sent to fetch an implement. It is at his discretion whether he uses his hand or a strap. A paladin will have no trouble spanking his dame to tears. No knight enjoys causing his beloved pain and tears. However, rest assured, a member of the Snow Force is prepared to execute his duty, at all times.

Chapter One

The princess paced and nuzzled the downy head of the baby who had never been out of the tower. She tried not to think of all that was at stake. What would happen to the baby of a minor royal whose mother had been accused of murdering her husband? Would the Crown take the baby in after her mother was executed? Did the king even want to protect the daughter of his youngest, ne’er-do-well brother? She opened her dress to nurse her baby. So far, Hannelore had refused to allow herself to think about the only possible outcome of her dire situation. She felt a sudden chill and wrapped her cloak tighter around herself. She imagined them prying the baby from her pleading arms and forcing her to her knees. Being royal, she would at least get an executioner with a sharp sword. This was small comfort. Her mind refused to allow her to even contemplate leaning forward and placing her chin over the rough stone block… She had heard rumors that they made you drink a potion that made you so sleepy, as to be almost senseless since they did not want people fighting as they were led to their own execution. Even the sweet presence of her baby daughter could not calm her trembling; she was shaking from head to foot. She tried to quiet her mind and only focus on the rhythmic nursing of the baby. It was impossible though. How long would it take the magistrates to convict a guilty woman?

Six months prior…

He had driven another business into the ground. This time it had been a wool export business. He hadn’t counted on the expense of shipping. Before that it had been summer wine; the vines had sickened and died, leaving him with nothing but empty casks and unpaid creditors. A long trail of poorly thought-out expensive ventures trailed behind him. As a crown prince, he could not be ruined. There was that, but the shame of it turned his spirit rancid. The Crown would quietly pay his debts; the one advantage of being the fourth in a line of royal sons. Still, it rankled that people said scoffingly, as if it were a synonym for shiftless, ‘the fourthling.’

His eldest brother Oskar was the king of Vastra. He was an excellent king: learned, reasonable and just. Willem was his second eldest brother—the archbishop of Vastra. He was pious, devoted, and passionate. Georg was the general of the armed forces. He was brave, daring, and honorable. Friedrich hated all of them. Between them, they had forged roles for themselves and left no room for him. It was not fair. He was sure he would have made a fine king, or general or archbishop. All that was left for him was business, and they all conspired to make him an abject failure at it.

He waved his valet away with a dismissive slap. “Piss off. Wait, I want vodka.”

Dag knew exactly how he liked it, icy cold and shot through with anise. It was a wonder how cold the valet could make it whenever it was asked for.

Friedrich crunched the splintery anise seeds between his molars. The denizens of the manor had made themselves scarce. His fool of a wife had allowed her lady’s maid to marry, so she had gone home for the evening. Who had ever heard of such a thing? Servants did not marry. They served. Without a word, he lifted a foot and when Dag didn’t immediately rush to remove his boots, he gave the man a violent kick. “Idiot! Vermin, good for nothing! Get my shrew of a wife.”

The valet yanked the boots off, and ran with them still in his arms to call for Princess Hannelore. The princess was newly pregnant, still slender but with a blossoming softness of face and bosom.

Friedrich was pacing like a caged panther when she arrived. She avoided stepping too close to him; she had been in this situation before, and would like to stay out of the range of those fists. Her husband was too irate to tolerate her caution. With a sneer he grabbed her arm hard enough to leave five little bruises where his fingertips dug into her skin. “Have you already written your parents to tell them that they married you off to a failure?”

She proceeded gingerly. If she agreed that he was a failure, he would slap her. If she disagreed with him in any way, he would slap her. “Husband, please rest yourself, it’s been a hard day.”

The back of his hand crashed into the side of her face. “Bitch. What would you know about a hard day?” His backhand had knocked her to the hard floor. She stayed there with her arms wrapped around her belly, afraid to rise. “You stay on that floor until I say you can get up. Learn some respect, Hannelore—ha! Your money-grubbing, social-climbing parasites of parents tried to raise you above your station by giving you a royal first name. They should have stuck with plain Hanne; common as dirt, that’s you.”

Dag knew better than to say anything, and Friedrich settled into his armchair confident that at least in this house, he was king, archbishop, and general.

Hannelore lay on her side on the marble hearth. She forced herself to remain calm; it was just a hard backhand, and she’d had worse. Her lady’s maid Eidit would clean the laceration on her cheek tomorrow and it would heal quickly. She wasn’t sure if looking at her husband would help or hurt, so she adopted a neutral gaze.

“Quit laughing at me, bitch.”

“I’m not, husband.” She pressed her bleeding cheek onto the marble floor, enjoying its coolness on her ravaged skin. This had the added benefit of making her look even more meek and dejected. In the year she had been married, she had learned that her husband was never happier than when he was reminding her of the powerlessness of her plight. He slowly stood and she tried to shrink herself as small as possible. His boots stopped in front of her face. With the quickness of a serpent he snatched her braided hair and yanked her to her unsteady feet. With his left hand he reached down and menacingly stroked her belly.

“This is just an excuse to be a fat hag and humiliate me.”

She willed herself to slow her trembling. “No, it’s not. Why would you be humiliated? None of your brothers have children. You will be the father of the next king, think on that,” she said, trying to placate him.

He shoved her back to the floor, towering over her with clenched fists. “Father of the king?” The first punch landed on her mouth and she felt the blood spurt. “Brother of the fucking king?” The next punch broke some ribs. “When do I get to be fucking king?” She was crawling away from him when the kick caught under her belly. She wrapped her arms around herself and prayed her babe was unhurt. Friedrich was enjoying himself now; he unbuckled his belt with a flourish. He flexed his shoulders. “I think I need to teach you a lesson in wifely obedience.” He stalked her, circling like a jackal before the attack.

“Please, Friedrich, please. Think about the baby. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

The belt landed on the back of her head and ricocheted across her shoulder. The force of it knocked her flat. He was standing above her, rearing back with the belt when she grabbed a stick of firewood from the basket by the fireplace. She struck out wildly. He slapped the wood out of her hands. The floor rose up to greet her and the world turned black.

Her lips were dry. She ran her parched tongue over the split in her lip. It had scabbed and tore painfully as she opened her mouth. She ran a cautious hand over her belly, not sure how to determine if the baby was all right. Her ribs ached. She gingerly pressed her fingers to the back of her head. Somehow Friedrich must have gotten behind her and clobbered her. She had heard that people who were hit on the head couldn’t always remember things that happened right before they were injured. That must be true, she thought, since she had no idea exactly how he had done it. It was so dim, even when she opened her eyes she had trouble discerning where she was. There were no windows. She went to sit up, and realized she could not because she was chained by the neck to the wall. Hannelore had known that the palace had a dungeon, but she had never seen it. It wasn’t as if civilized people still locked up prisoners in their palaces.

A door opened. Two sets of footsteps descended. Dag was carrying a lantern. The light burned her eyes. Friedrich held out a swollen, infected hand with a large angry-looking splinter in it. “You whore, I’ll make you pay for this.”

She tried to think. Blinking her eyes seemed to clear her mind some. “Husband, I am sorry, so very sorry.” It was a ridiculous thing for a bruised and battered pregnant woman who had awoken in a dungeon to say, but she said it. “Friedrich, you need to let me tend to that for you.”

He angrily yanked his hand away from her like a petulant, terrifying child. “You would like that, wouldn’t you?”

She took a deep breath, which made her ribs throb. “Of course, I’d like to make you better.”

He spat at her and turned to triumphantly look at Dag. “See what happens when you argue with me?”

Dag, the loyal sycophantic servant answered, “Don’t let her touch you; she’ll make it worse.”

“No, I won’t,” she pleaded, to deaf ears. Dag led the way to the stairs and the prince slipped on a puddle that Hannelore hadn’t noticed was frozen. Dag grabbed his arm and kept him upright. Friedrich’s cursing echoed against the stones as the light faded and the footsteps disappeared up the stairs.

In the darkness, time had no meaning. The dungeon was hot and dank; she felt the sweat gather at her hairline and trickle down, weaving tracks through her filthy face. Every second was forever. Lying gasping for breath while every breath caused shooting pains through her flanks, she wondered how anything could have frozen. Perhaps she was getting a fever and that’s why she felt so hot.

Apparently, they did not intend to starve her to death. One of the boys from the kitchen brought her a plate of food and a skin of water. He was clearly terrified of the state she was in. She knew he couldn’t release her. The chain around her neck had a heavy lock. She decided not to make things worse for him by begging him to help her. The boy slid the plate over to her and quickly turned to flee. Hannelore couldn’t hold her tongue. “Wait, wait—what is going on upstairs?”

He looked around as if unsure whether he should answer her or not. “The prince is in bed. His wound is festering.”

“I can help him,” she begged frantically. “An onion poultice…” Her voice trailed away as the boy ran up the stairs, taking the candle with him and leaving her in total darkness. After several days of the scared boy bringing her food and being unable to answer any of her questions, Dag appeared. Her eyes were bleary. She did not remember him being so stylish. His velvet tunic boasted a dashing cut, and he greeted her with utter disdain. “He’s dying, you know—they will execute you for this.”

“I can help him. We need to draw the poison out of the arm, please.” She was babbling and even in the dark she could see the mist caused by her breath.

He held up a scornful hand. “You’ve done quite enough. He’s telling everyone who will listen that you did this to him. Soon enough the royal guard will be here for you.”

She’d had no idea that he hated her so much; his loyalty to his master had made him immune to reason or pleading. He was enjoying her pitiable state. “Princess,” he said the word with venom, as he retreated up the stairs. She wanted to be stoic and brave but she failed. The sound of her own voice, pleading, whimpering, and begging him to help her echoed through the chamber. It was interrupted only by the slamming of the stout wooden door at the top of the stairs.

The food they brought her was terrible, but she forced herself to eat every bite. Her belly now had a distinct bump. The princess learned to sleep even in a haze of terror, with no blankets on a rancid wet floor. She prayed for the strength to live long enough to deliver her baby. Once the baby was safe, she no longer cared what happened to her.

The door opened, and unlike every other time, several people came down the stairs. More light than she had seen in weeks flooded her cell. She blinked, trying to make out who it was. Her brother-in-law, the general, was silhouetted in the lantern’s glow. He took in her state and surroundings. Hannelore began to cry, afraid he was there to execute her.

“Shhh.” He stilled her with a wave of his hand. “Courage,” he whispered so low she could barely hear him. He repeated, “Courage.” The general turned on his heel and left the chamber.

With a gesture from him, Eidit rushed in and wrapped her solid arms around the chained princess. “Oh, my dove,” she cried, stroking her mistress’ belly. “They’ve starved you. I’ve been trying to find you.”

“Did Friedrich send you?” Hannelore asked through dry split lips.

“No, my lady, he died this morning.” Someone produced the key that unlocked her fetters. Eidit leaned very close and whispered, “It will all be all right, my friend.” In a much louder voice, she continued, “Since the prince has died, you will have to stand trial. We are moving you to the royal tower.” Hannelore felt her eyes grow wide. Eidit held a finger to her lips and whispered so quietly that the princess could barely hear her, “Shhh. The very walls have ears.”

At the tower, even with her trial looming, things were better. Eidit brought her soups and hearty breads and bathed her battered skin in hot water slicked with sweet-smelling oils. Hannelore had expected to go to trial immediately. It appeared that the Crown was in no hurry. She paced her pen, watching her belly grow rounder and waiting, waiting, waiting. She had been given a modest cell, but it was a tremendous improvement over the dark dungeon. She had a bed, a chair and table, and a window that looked over the inner courtyard. There was even a wooden bookshelf that took up most of a wall.

With her meager belongings the bookshelf languished mostly empty, except for a basket of wool and knitting needles, the baby clothes she was sewing and the few books Eidit brought her. She could prop herself up in bed and rest a book on her belly as she read. Eidit could not read and that absolutely showed in the books she had selected. The covers were richly colored, old leather, but the titles included The History of Wildlife in the Far North and Gardening Without a Summer. Hannelore had tried to start a book about the mythical sabre toothed tigers, but even that didn’t hold her interest.

Giving up, the expectant mother sat by the window and sewed baby clothes. She had been taught delicate needlework, ‘frippery’ as the sensible Eidit called it. Each of the tiny gowns she attempted had been hopelessly botched until the more practical Eidit showed her how to securely sew the pieces together. The wool that Eidit had brought her was soft as rabbit fur. Hannelore knit tiny caps and booties. The days were long and she found herself compulsively keeping her hands busy.

To her relief, she was not entirely confined inside. With her guard supervising, she was allowed to walk around the small grassy area. She caught bits and pieces of gossip as she was moved through the corridors. She heard two young maids whispering that Prince Friedrich had died in agony when the purulence had spread from his hand into his chest. Hannelore continued walking around the courtyard. Her perfidy was clearly the girls’ favorite subject, since even when she circled back around by them, they were still yapping about her. The stories were terrible. “I heard that the valet swore that he had begged Princess Hannelore to help and she refused.” The heavier of the two scullery maids leaned chummily toward her companion.

“That’s nothing,” the skinny one with acne scars all over her cheeks continued. “She knew he was dying, and she bolted the palace doors, wouldn’t let anyone in to help.”

“He was a good for nothing, but still you can’t have wives going around murdering people for no reason.”

Hannelore rounded back toward the gossiping duo. A hand on her arm stopped her. The exceptionally large jailer forced her to refrain from responding. She angrily shook his hand off. His constant presence was galling. It was absurd that they would think they needed a young, athletic giant to control a pregnant woman. She seemed to be his special charge. Except for Eidit, he was the only one who ever brought her food or spoke to her. He was striking looking, with pale blond hair and a much darker beard. He was not friendly, but not unkind. He made sure she had everything she needed and was not harassed by other guards who might desire to humiliate a jailed princess. Each night he would check on her, walking around her sparse cell, as if someone might have smuggled her contraband. He would ask after her health, ascertain that she didn’t feel unwell and then leave. The sound of the key turning in the lock, when she knew she would be locked in until dawn, was a heavy one.

Eidit visited every day. She would only make light chatter and would hold up a warning hand any time Hannelore tried to protest that she hadn’t meant to kill him. Eidit was clearly certain that there were spies everywhere and would only speak about inanities like the weather. Although she knew she would be tried once the baby arrived, Hannelore took comfort in being warm and well fed. Eidit had been allowed to bring her some of her dresses, the largest, simplest ones the princess owned. Hannelore had to laugh at the well-meaning maid; she had brought loose dresses, sensible shoes, and a cape that the princess had worn to the opera. As if Hannelore might decide to attend a recital some evening while she was awaiting trial for murdering a prince. Soon enough, even the largest dresses grew taut across the belly. Despite the shadow of terror that threatened to overtake her, her baby grew and grew.

The first pains came in the middle of the night. She rubbed her lower back and tried to move around, hoping that would cause the twinges to abate. They grew stronger. She took a sip of water and felt the pangs intensify. Hannelore had never seen childbirth. She was afraid of waiting too long to summon help and having to deliver the baby by herself. She pounded on the sturdy door with all of her strength. “Get help! Call the midwife! Please!”

A gruff voice at the door assured her that they would get help in all haste. The pains were coming closer together when Eidit arrived.

“Shhh, shhh, lamb. Just you and I, we can do this.” They walked in circles around the small cell, until the princess felt herself double over.

“Just you and I? That’s ridicu…” The groan that forced itself from her lips made it impossible for her to finish.

Eidit pressed her forehead above Hannelore’s ear and whispered, “I’ve learned how, it’s best this way. There must be no one else.”

“Learned how? Learned how? You don’t know anything about this, and neither do… Oh, God…” The pains continued without abating, growing more ferocious with every contraction. Sweat drenched her skin. Her hair was plastered to her face and neck. For hours they walked, stopping only when Hannelore had to clutch her belly and pause. Her cries grew hoarse as she was worn out by the pain and travail. She collapsed onto the bed.

Eidit looked between her legs. “Soon, lamb, soon. You need to sit up so you can push better.”

Hannelore shook her head desperately; she was too weak to raise herself up any way. Eidit bit her lip. She turned and dashed to the door. Some frantic whispers later, Eidit returned with the hulking guard with the dark beard. “Oh, no, get him out of here,” Hannelore wailed.

“Hush, I need Erik’s help.”

Hannelore wondered briefly if there had been some sort of cataclysmic weather that had killed every woman in the kingdom. Why on earth would Eidit seek out the help of a young soldier? She was too exhausted to insist that he be removed immediately. The man hastily crossed behind her and at Eidit’s direction, lifted Hannelore’s shoulders. Eidit was careful to drape a blanket over the laboring woman’s wide flung knees. For all that, there was no being delicate about what was happening. With his support, she could push more efficiently. The sun was high in the sky by the time the princess was safely delivered of a delicate red-haired daughter. It appeared that the soldier was as embarrassed as Hannelore was. The second the baby was delivered, he gave a quick nod to Eidit and hurried out of the room. Usually the sound of the heavy iron lock clanging shut filled her with dread. She didn’t even notice it this time. For the first time since her wedding to Friedrich, she felt something akin to joy. Eidit wrapped the newborn and laid her onto her mother’s chest. Tears began to run down the new mother’s cheeks. “Edit, promise me that you will take care of her after I am executed. If you sell my jewelry, you will have enough money. Take care of my little Lilja,” she implored.

Eidit made soothing noises and stroked Hannelore’s hair. So quietly that the new mother could barely hear her, the lady’s maid whispered, “Have faith, all will be well.”

After months of waiting, it suddenly seemed that the wheels of justice were determined to move at a frightening clip.

During one of her walks outside, she overheard the gossipy serving girls speculating that perhaps the baby didn’t belong to Prince Friedrich at all, but had been conceived after his death. It was all Hannelore could do to not scream at her unseen accusers. Simple math should allow anyone to figure out that the child belonged to her late husband. She was not sure that simple math would help her though. Her legal counsel had been there late the night before. His powdered wig askew, he had made her go over it time and time again. Yes, Friedrich had hit her before, many times in fact. Yes, she had grabbed a piece of wood from the firebox to defend herself. No, she’d had no idea that the branch would leave a needlelike splinter in his hand.

Yes, she had begged him to let her put a poultice on it to draw out the poison.

Somehow he had hit her from behind, she was not sure how, but she had come to her senses chained in the small dungeon under their home. Her husband’s manservant had kept her apprised of his illness, and then demise, but he was impervious to her begging to be released to try to heal his wounds.

The counselor looked as if he heartily wished he was anywhere but where he was. He wanted to provide reassurance to the terrified young mother. It was clearly hard to find any though. Leaning against the bookshelf, he explained the dire situation they found themselves in. The king had been clear. Anyone accused of murder would face a trial, anyone, even if they were royal by marriage. This did not bode well.

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