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The Reluctant Bride by Chula Stone – Sample

The Reluctant Bride by Chula StoneChapter One

Turn Arrow Battlefield, 1486

Lord Barnet Reyhold forced himself to rise quickly, keeping the grimace of pain off his carefully controlled countenance. Indeed it was easier to straighten out old creaky bones when his determination was fueled with anger and grit. He would rather have eaten a branch from the old oak they were sitting under than let his adversary know that the simple motion of getting out of a chair took an act of courage these days. He shot his hand out with alacrity, with only a small twinge of regret that it held no sword.

The man sitting across the table from him, a decade his junior, leaned slightly to the left when he stood. Barnet knew this to be the result of an old battle injury that worsened with age. Two years ago, when they had sat across the peace table to sign a treaty, Lord Wilborn had barely limped away. After this handshake, his gait actually rolled, like a ship on high seas. No medical man could cure that any more than he could cure the pain in his own joints. Even with summer coming on, Barnet was glad to follow at his own pace rather than try to keep up.

A cheer went up from the gathered troops when the two men entered the tent together. Barnet gave Wilborn a grim smile as the flaps of the tent entrance fell together. “You should change your mind, you know.”

“About what?” came the wary reply.

“About my daughter marrying Andrew. She’d be the making of Bornland as Braxton’s wife.”

Wilborn gave a rueful shake of his head in a rare moment of shared clarity between the two old enemies. “And offending His Highness would be the ending of it. I’ve had my heir’s marriage contract in place since the boy was ten. It was a shock when the offer came to align myself with the most powerful ruler on two continents, but I’ve profited by it already and can’t give it up. Braxton would be grateful to get your Liliana as a wife, but the daughter of a king…”

Barnet nodded. “I hear His Highness dotes on the girl even though she’s half blind and talks like a magpie.”

“Every year when we offer to go collect her, Braxton holds his breath in dread until the word comes back delaying the marriage yet again. It can’t go on forever and well he knows it, but he’s dodged the arrow so far. Seeing Liliana go to his younger brother is a blow, but he’ll bear up.”

“I’m sure he will. No use in stopping hostilities with me just to be destroyed by King Arnold’s armies. Your son Braxton’s smarter than that.”

Wilborn nodded at the grudging compliment. “And his brother Andrew is smarter than he. Your Liliana isn’t doing so badly out of the deal either.”

The two men, having seated themselves at opposite ends of the feast table, watched each other in silence while servants brought food and the rest of the knights who were to lay down their arms and dine together filed in warily. Neither Braxton, nor Barnet’s own heir Derrick was present. It wouldn’t do to risk both ruler and second in line by having them in a tent unarmed with their ancestral enemies.

At first the men, still tense after strenuous and uncertain negotiations, ate in brittle silence, but eventually Barnet felt the time was right to try a little culinary diplomacy. “This venison is fit for the high king himself. From your camp, I think, Wilborn?”

“Yes, indeed,” replied Wilborn. “Shot by my own captain at arms, if memory serves.”

The captain, seated at his lord’s right hand, sat forward. “I had that honor, my lord, and glad it is I am to do my part for peace. It’s thanks to the peace that any of us has leisure to hunt. To peace!” He stood and tipped back his goblet. The other men of the same rank and lower stood when he stood and drank as well, but when Barnet stood and drank with the rest, a shocked silence fell.

Barnet stared straight at the other leader at the table, the man at whose doorstep Barnet laid much of the blame for the devastation visited on his lands. His gesture was a challenge, a concession with a threat, the unspoken meaning clear. Barnet was making his declaration for peace and prosperity in their time. Would Wilborn at last admit the folly of violence and lay aside old grudges?

Slowly, with deliberation, Wilborn took up his goblet and filled it. Then, like a majestic wave rolling ever higher on a storm-swept sea, he rose to his full height and with an obvious effort straightened his stance by spreading his feet wider apart. Raising his glass in a defiant and yet somehow still respectful salute, he drained his goblet. Clanking it down on the table hard enough to make the crockery clatter, he cried, “To peace!”

The rest of the men followed suit, some with a laugh, others with a satisfied glance at their superiors at either end of the table. Barnet in reply drained his goblet and let it crash down in like fashion before reaching over and piercing another piece of meat off the platter with his knife.

In that rough tent, far away from the refinement he enjoyed in his own hall, Barnet reverted to the habits of an earlier, simpler time. His father had told him stories of feasts when he was a lad when the knife was the only utensil used at the table and bones were thrown on the floor among the rushes for the dogs. While in his great hall, rushes had recently been replaced with carpets, and forks or spoons were commonly in use, on this afternoon, it seemed fitting to stab and thrust, chomp and belch like a common soldier, especially while none was around. They had been provided with a feast of their own to celebrate the peace treaty being signed and speed them on their way home.

Several other toasts were made before the singing started. Feasting lasted long into the night, while bonfires blazed to symbolize the fire beacons that would be lit at dusk to proclaim to the inhabitants of both realms that peace had come. And this time, Barnet felt more confident than he ever had before, that finally the peace would last longer than the warmth of the signal fires.

* * *

Several days later, Liliana Reyhold stormed into her bedchamber and threw the bolt home with a clang. Her lady’s maid jumped, roused from slumber by the fireside by the din. “My lady? Whatever could be wrong? I thought you’d be long at your father’s welcome feast, celebrating peace and the return of good fortune to the land.”

“Good fortune? What’s so good about it? Do you know what my father just announced?”

“I can guess it, my lady. You are to marry, I’ll wager.”

Lili went on as if she hadn’t heard. “They wish me to marry a Wilborn! All my life I’ve heard the name used as a curse, synonymous with death and now, here I am, to be wed to one! How can my father expect me to go through with this?”

“He’s your father and ruler of more land than anyone can name anymore. That’s how.”

“And if I refuse?” Lili answered slowly. “What happens to his precious peace then? How many does this make? The sixth or seventh last chance for peace? Last chance for our survival? After the first four, one does get a little jaded. And we both know the truth. Arrows will fly again whether or not I agree to be bullied into marriage to some second-class second son.”

Her maid, Eubie, looked shocked. “Please, my lady, your father might be hearing you or worse, the other servants might. If they do, the news will be all over the realm by morning and over the borders into Bornland by nightfall. And we both knows as it’s nonsense.”

“Why is it nonsense?” The young woman brushed her blond hair off her shoulders so that it cascaded down her back like a pennant when the wind dies.

“Because you won’t be refusing. My bet is, you can’t. The contract’s done been signed.”

“Part of the peace negotiations, I suppose.” Sarcasm tinged her low, throaty voice, making her seem older than her eighteen years.

“Not that I’d be knowing such things, but yes, I reckon it’s so.”

“So, I won’t have to refuse. The marriage will fall through when the peace is broken. And don’t try telling me this peace will last. Wilborn and his spawn cannot keep the peace no matter how many concessions my father makes. So what you’ve said is true, Eubie. I won’t refuse because I won’t need to refuse. Braxton Wilborn will see to that for me.”

“How can my lady be saying such? As if another broken truce won’t be the ruin of both realms!”

“That’s what everyone said the last time, Eubie. And I’m sure they’ll say it again next time. It’s the way of the world. The Reyholds give in and the Wilborns take more and more.”

“This time will be different, with you wed to His Lordship’s son.”

“His younger son, Andrew, not the heir. I won’t even be the wife of the heir. I’ll be a hanger-on. A dependent.”

“Is Your Ladyship telling me you’d rather wed Braxton Wilborn? Him with his temper and his love of fighting?”

“No, indeed, of course not. Braxton’s little better than a common soldier. If I’m to marry a Wilborn, better the younger than the elder.”

“So what is my lady complaining of? There’s many as would like to have your troubles, my lady. There’s worse fates than being the wife of Andrew Wilborn, son of Lord Wilborn and been to university in foreign parts and all.”

There was such awe in the woman’s voice, Lili had to soften, revealing her true fear. “But what about love, Eubie? I always thought I would marry for love. Ever since I learned of all my friends’ marriage contracts and arrangements, some made the day they were born, and found that Father had not lifted a finger to use me in such a fashion, I have hoped to be free to make a match of my own choosing.”

“Your father has indulged Her Ladyship for far too long, as I’ve said many a time and oft, as well Your Ladyship knows. And I’m not sure as it was indulgence on His Lordship’s part. May be he was but too busy grieving for your dear mother to take much notice of his own hearth and home. Always a-fighting they was and has been more than ten years now. What time has he had for the making of contracts? I’ll wager he’s just barely noticed Your Ladyship did grow up.”

“Well, someone must have brought it to his attention. He bartered me away along with the grain and grapes.”

“Pshaw! It weren’t like that, for certain sure. His Lordship is a good man and your brother the same. If they hadn’t thought much of Andrew Wilborn, they’d have found a way around. Could be they think that a lass as can read and write, such as yourself, would be needing a smart, well-educated husband as himself is. University and all, just like Master Enecus.”

“I’d as soon wed Enecus! At least he has a sense of humor.”

“And he’s fifty years old if he’s a day. Goodness, my lady, what will you be saying next?”

“Where is Enecus? I could use his counsel now.”

“I’ll fetch him, shall I? He’ll make Your Ladyship see the right of things.”

Lili felt a new determination swelling in her heart. “Yes, bring him at once, please, Eubie.”

After what seemed like hours to her, she heard the distinctive tread she was listening for. His footsteps reminded her of waves lapping at the shores of a lake in a high wind and for a moment she found comfort in their familiarity. She let him into her sitting room off her bedchamber, barely containing her indignation when he gestured for her to be silent while he closed the door. His first words to her, as always, came in the form of a question. “What will be the benefits of marrying Sir Andrew?”

“Wh-What?” She had invited him in expectation of a sympathetic ear, not a lecture.

“My lady heard her servant.” His manner was stiff and formal, allowing for no personal complaint as he folded his slender hands into the long full sleeves of his robe. “What will be the benefits of marrying Sir Andrew?”

“There aren’t any!” Lili exploded. This wasn’t going at all the way she had planned. “None at all.”

“What price peace?”

“The peace won’t hold. It never does.”

“And has Her Ladyship’s marriage ever been part of the peace negotiations thus far?”

“Of course it hasn’t! You know it hasn’t! But—”

“Then what makes Her Ladyship think she can judge this peace by all the others?” Suddenly her old tutor’s formal manner disappeared into an impassioned puff of smoke. “Your father, God bless him, has never understood your worth. He’s allowed you to be educated, trained in arts of war, and exposed to things few women ever see, not out of respect for you but out of neglect. He hasn’t noticed! Now, here you are, presented with an unparalleled opportunity to do something worthwhile and serve this realm, and what do you do? Fuss like a pouting scullery maid denied the chance to go to the ball!”

Lili whirled on him, thinking of shouting at him to remember his place, but the words froze on her lips. She could no more protest her dignity by reason of rank than she could dismiss him from her service. He was her oldest retainer, her dearest friend and, next to her brother and Eubie, the person she loved most in the world. She had hoped to find comfort in his presence, but his words brought only the odor of shame.

As Lili so often contrived to do, she turned the course of her chagrin into channels of aggression. “He’s a Wilborn! How can you ask me to accept as a husband anyone whom I’ve spent the last ten years of my life hating? You, who have filled my head with love poems and tales of romance since my girlhood.”

The tutor shook his head. “You can’t lay this at my door. Yes, I’ve taught you poetry and literature of all types, trying to instill in you a sense of duty. No, a love of duty. A love of self-sacrifice. I suppose I should have listened when my colleagues said I was wasting my time on a girl and that I should find some worthy pupil, by which they meant a boy.” He bowed low, in a manner more formal than he had used with her in many a year. “Good day, my lady.” He made the title sound like a slur.

Lili bit her lip, but the tears came despite her best efforts. Her father’s return from the battlefield should have been an occasion for great rejoicing, but instead he had ruined it with his announcement. Her mind was sent forcibly back to the night her mother had died. Her father had not even stayed to tell her himself. Enecus had broken the news to her while her brother and father had chased off into the night on heaven only knew what errand. She felt as if she were alone on a raft on the raging River Tolm in winter, with the freezing waters roiling all around her.

Eubie put her head in at the door and said quietly, “My lady, the page is come. He’s been sent to escort her ladyship back to the feast.”

“Oh, send him away, Eubie, do. I’m not going back.”

Eubie entered and closed the inner door behind her. “It’s young Rowan, my lady, and my daughter’s husband’s own cousin. Please don’t be sending him back to face your father’s wrath alone.”

“Father won’t hurt him or even blame him.”

The old servant came and sat by Lili on her bed, patting her hand with an air of maternal consternation. “No, my lady, but he will shout and that’s sure to put Rowan off his food for a week, he’s such a timid soul. That’s how come he’s such a beanpole as it is. A stern look can send him into a panic and an ill word is enough to set him sulking for hours. Come now, my lady, for pity’s sake.”

A knock sounded at the door and Eubie rose to answer it. Lili tried to dry her eyes, thinking of young Rowan, thin as a rail and growing into his feet with alarming rapidity, but an emotional sort still, given to sulking when upset. It wouldn’t do to let him go a week without food, but she simply couldn’t face that crowd again, all yelling and cheering for her to marry a stranger.

“Poor little Lili. I looked for you in the garden first.” It was her brother Derrick’s voice. She had wondered why he hadn’t come after her.

“I didn’t want you to find me, you traitor,” she pouted, no heat in her words. “Besides, it was raining.”

“And you knew the guards wouldn’t let you leave the great hall directly, didn’t you? You had to slip out by the gallery and from there, only the residence halls are easily accessible. Come, my little flower, you’re only hurting yourself. Father’s feasting with the best of them and only your presence can keep him from drinking himself under the table.”

“Why should I care if he does? Let him have a splitting head tomorrow. He deserves that and a year more of them for what he’s done to me.”

“And what exactly has he done to you? Made a good marriage for you, that’s all. Andrew Wilborn is a good man. I got to know him at the university the year I was there.”

“He’s our enemy and a Wilborn.” Running on before he could reply, she said, “And what about love, Derrick? How often have we dreamed of love? You had your Maria. Father had Mother. Why may I not have at least a chance?”

“And if you had lived through losing your love as I have done, you wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a good steady man.”

“He’s a Wilborn. How can he be good and steady? But even if he were Saint Sebastian come again in the flesh, I wouldn’t love him.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’m being forced to marry him!” Lili couldn’t understand why her brother looked confused at this obvious statement. “And it’s the way Father announced it. In front of everyone like that. It was insulting! Doesn’t he ever have a thought for me?”

“He does, dearest. You are his little girl, but since Mother died, he has no heart for tenderness. He was proud of his bargain and if he thought about it beforehand, he felt you would be as pleased as everyone else at the prospect of peace.”

“Peace! Don’t make me laugh! How many times—”

“Didn’t you understand the plan? Father explained it before he made his announcement.”

“I heard him give his boring history lesson on how the River Tolm was a bad choice for a border because its course kept changing.”

“That’s right,” Derrick answered patiently. “Did you understand that there’s to be a new province, made when both Falls and Bornland give a little bit of land to make a new realm that Andrew will rule?”

“Yes, I heard that much,” Lili replied sulkily.

“The valley where the river lies will be the new Tolm province, so that the borders will be more stable. There will be roads to show the boundaries.”

Impatiently, Lili waved her hands. “A very sensible plan. What I don’t see is why they can’t do it without me! What do they expect me to do? Lay the roadbeds myself and guard them, too?”

“In a sense, that’s exactly what you are doing. If the River Tolm continued to change course, and if no accord was signed, then yes, there would be continued bloodshed. When you marry, the resultant barrier of land on either side of the river given to you and your husband will clear up the dispute once and for all. Because both houses will be involved in the ownership of the resultant lands, the peace is very likely to hold. It must hold, Liliana.”

She turned to look her brother in the eye. He had bowed his head away from her to gaze into the fire, but was looking her way again, his gaze searching, serious. “What are you not saying, Derrick?”

“Let me ask you a question.”

“Enecus already did. Just tell me.” His silence was beginning to frighten her.

“How old do you think Father is?”

“I don’t know. I assumed he was in his forties.”

“He’s seen fifty-two summers, many of them on the battlefield, especially this last decade. It’s taken its toll, Liliana. If there is another war, it’s not he who will lead Falls’ armies into battle. That job will fall to me.”

Lili’s eyes widened. “But you just said he was drinking himself into a stupor. If he’s strong enough to drain a tankard, he’s strong enough to lift a sword.”

Derrick slammed his fist into his hand. “It is because he is aching and in pain that he drinks. And it is because he sees the end that he makes this final concession. He is letting you go, trusting you with this one task so that he can leave the realm better than he found it. You have one gift to give him that he will treasure above all others: your obedience. It will grace his life like a jewel would grace his sword hilt.”

“Him! His realm! His plan! What of me?”

Derrick stood. “A bit spoiled, I knew you to be, but selfishness bordering on treason I won’t tolerate! Father couldn’t bear to take you in hand, but just like everything else, where he’s falling behind, I’m taking up the slack.” He peered down into his sister’s face. “You will marry Lord Andrew and you will smile through the ceremony.”

“And how do you intend to make me?” Lili snapped back confidently.

“I’ll take a leaf out of Lord Wilborn’s book. I overheard him talking to Andrew about it. When Lady Wilborn gets obstreperous, Lord Wilborn takes a strap to her backside.” With that, he strode to the door. “Five minutes, Lili. I expect you back at that feast, with a smile on your face, sitting by our father’s side. You’ll sit there, or you won’t sit at all.”

As soon as he was gone, Eubie stepped back into the room. “My lady, oh, please go down! Do! You don’t want the strap and that’s a fact.”

Lili could tell that Eubie was upset by the way her speech became less formal, but she shrugged dismissively. “Derrick wouldn’t dare use a strap on me.”

“I’ve never seen him so riled, my lady. Best not try him too high on a night like this. Men do love their battles so. It’s a mighty insult for you not to be there to celebrate.”

Lili thought a moment about what Derrick had told her about their father’s condition. Was he really getting old? She felt a wave of sorrow come over her at the thought of losing him. Next came a wave of gratitude for the ways in which he had indulged her over the years. Through neglect or affection, he had given her most of what she had wanted and everything it had been in his power to give. She rose and shrugged. “Oh, all right. I’ll go. It won’t hurt me to oblige the old dear in his minute of glory. I’d best make haste before the Wilborns ruin it for him again.”

* * *

The next few days were a whirlwind of activity. An unseasonably warm wind had brought out early buds and sent the wheat sprouting higher than anyone could remember for the time of year. Lili scarcely had time to enjoy the almond-scented breezes or the sight of the newborn lambs frolicking in the meadows. Instead she spent hours preparing for an event she had no wish to even attend, much less play a major part in. One afternoon in the library however, her temper snapped and she shoved her ledger across the table at Derrick with a shout. “Enough! I don’t know why there are more cups than saucers on the silver inventory and I don’t care! I’m going out!”

Eubie, sitting by the empty fireplace with her knitting, drew in a sharp breath.

“Sit down, Lili,” Derrick chided her sternly. Pushing the ledger back toward her, he said not unkindly, “You know we have to finish these packing lists before dinner. I’m sorry, but there’s no time to waste.”

Again, she shoved the book across the table at him, this time with such force that it bounced off his chest and hit the floor with a thud. “I said, I’m going outside!”

“Now, my lady…” Eubie began.

Derrick stood up, cutting her off and giving his sister a harsh look. “I’ll handle this, Eubie. You may wait outside in the hall, if you please.” He caught Lili by the hand as she tried to sashay past him.

Eubie gathered her work and rose. “Must I, Your Lordship? Please, don’t be harsh. His Lordship’s sister has been hard pressed, he must recall…”

“My sister must learn the meaning of the words duty and obedience. Better she start now than have a very rude awakening once she’s married. She’s been indulged for far too long, I fear.”

Lili fought Derrick as he pulled her across the high table while Eubie scuttled out of the room. Flushing hot with anger and indignation, Lili glared at her brother over her shoulder. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Helping you get ready for married life.” Holding her with one hand, he reached for one of the long thin ledger books they had been examining. “This will do. Hold still.”

“What? No!” Tears of embarrassment and frustration stung her eyes before the first swat of the book even fell. No one had ever treated her like that. She had always done exactly as she pleased, so a man taking notice of her was a new and surprisingly unwelcome situation.

Derrick swung the book hard on her backside with an upwards arc that lifted her onto her toes. The thuds resounded through the stillness of the sunny library like balls tossed in an empty cistern. “Do you expect to shout and throw things at a man and have him not respond? I fear that despite all your education, certain topics have been sadly neglected. A young lady does not shove books or papers or anything at all at a gentleman.”

“Stop that, you brute!” she screeched.

She put her hand back to try to catch the book, but before she could grasp it, he trapped her wrist against her side and kept on spanking her. “Promise me you will sit down and get back to work.”

Lili thought for a moment that she would rather eat the book than make such a promise, but the ache in her rump was growing with every crack of the book. Despite the protection of her skirt and petticoat, Derrick’s lesson was getting through. As another pop landed, she suddenly felt as if she were waking up from a momentary doze. Even more embarrassed now, Lili got still. Forcing her voice not to shake, she said, “All right. I promise. I’ll finish the work.”

Derrick gave her two more hard pops with the book before he said, “That’s better. Now, sit back down and no rubbing. Maybe the sting will remind you to watch your manners. I expect better from you because I know you can do it, Liliana. You can face this challenge with grace and wit, like you do everything.”

When he released her, she straightened up. The temptation to rub her throbbing bottom was fierce, but she resisted. Sitting down slowly, she opened the ledger Derrick handed her and tried to regain her composure.

After several minutes of awkward silence, Derrick said, “You’ll be glad of this one day. The Wilborns are not shy about enforcing good behavior. Losing your temper is likely to get you much worse than a few taps on the backside. Best you be reminded now than have to pay the price later.”

“I’ll be sure to be on my best behavior,” Lili commented coolly.

Just then, there was a knock at the door. Lili, in her agitation, had quite forgotten anyone was out there. Expecting Eubie, she looked up, but it was Rowan who entered when Derrick called, “Come in.”

“You’re wanted, my lord.”

Derrick gave Lili a searching glance. “I’m busy with Lady Liliana at the moment. Is it urgent?”

Rowan bowed nervously. “Your father said I was to fetch you quick.” With a visible start, the boy seemed to remember his manners, causing him to stammer, “I mean to say, His Lordship said I was to… Begging pardon, that is, His other Lordship said I was to fetch His—”

“Yes, all right,” Derrick interrupted with a chuckle. Rowan’s nonsense had broken the tension in the room. Rising, he smiled sympathetically at Lili. “I’ll be back to help you finish.” Then sternly, he added, “And I’d better find you here.”

Lili blushed and looked down at the table with a grimace. “You will. Don’t worry. I am sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

“More than understandable, my dear. Just don’t let it happen again and I’m sure you’ll be fine. I’ll send Eubie in, shall I?”

“Please do.” Lili waited a few moments after Eubie had seated herself by the mantel before she asked, “Did you hear what happened?”

“I doesn’t have to, my lady. I knows what a man is likely to do when he’s vexed with a woman he do care about and want the best for. He won’t be letting her run amok, nor should he.”

Lili couldn’t help seeking comfort from the only woman she had left in her life who would really understand. “Cares about me? Is that what it all means? It’s so confusing, Eubie.”

“Confusing? No, and indeed it’s not. It’s as simple as simple, my lady. If a man do care, he’ll pay attention. If he do see ought that need correcting, he’ll correct it. Nothing confusing about that.”

When Eubie put it that way, it did seem simple. “Derrick said that I should get used to being treated thus. That can’t be right now, can it?”

“Indeed it can. Husbands treats wives just like Her Ladyship’s brother treated her lady. It’s the way of the world.”

Obviously Eubie was untroubled by conflicting emotions. Lili hated to admit that Derrick’s actions had calmed her, but if she were honest, she had to acknowledge that she felt more centered and focused now. Aloud, Lili commented cautiously, “Derrick said I would be glad one day that he had spanked me. In fact, I almost feel glad of it now. That’s passing strange, is it not?”

Eubie sighed her gentle sigh. “Indeed, it be not strange at all. My lord has showed my lady she be loved and cared for. I can only hope she be so tended all her life.”

Lili continued to mull over Eubie’s words as she continued examining the ledgers well into the evening.

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