The release of book 2 in the Chained Trilogy is less than 2 weeks away! I can’t wait for you all to read it … so much so, that I’m posting chapter 1 to give you all a little tease. For those who wanted to know the reason for Caden’s actions at the end of book 1, this should offer a little insight.
*Warning: Do not proceed if you haven’t read book 1. Major spoilers and all that*
BTW, that “30 years later” bit is a reference to the prologue (which I am keeping under wraps until release *wink*). But I can say that it gives insight into the beginning of the War of Four Kings, and the blood feud that pitted Caden’s family against Gwen’s in the first place.
Minas Bothe, Daleraia
30 years later …
“Open the door, this instant! By the gods, I vow you will not know peace until I am released!”
Urien Durville, squire to Sir Caden Maignart, leaned against the heavy door of his master’s bedchamber and closed his eyes. He pressed his fingertips to his temples with a heavy sigh, and tried to massage away the headache forming there.
It had been a fortnight since Lady Gwendolyn Toustain became a prisoner of Minas Bothe, yet for Urien it had felt like an eternity. Every morning, after Sir Caden took his leave of the chamber in which he kept the lady confined, the upheaval began. Unhappy about being imprisoned, she never missed an opportunity to make her displeasure known.
“Milady,” Urien said, just loud enough to be heard through the door, “you must know by now that your behavior will gain you nothing. You are only causing yourself—and us all—undue distress.”
Her reply came in the form of a resounding crash that echoed through the chamber and rattled the door. Urien’s eyes flew open. A sigh of exasperation turned into a growl in his throat as he turned, swinging the door open with a swift tug. The tongue-lashing dancing upon his lips died as an object came hurtling at him from within the room.
With lightning-quick reflexes, he reached up and snatched the object—a cooper chamber pot—out of the air. Thankfully, it was empty.
Tucking it under one arm, he clenched his jaw in determination and marched into the room. With his gaze narrowed upon Lady Gwendolyn Toustain, he kicked the door closed behind him.
The person standing before him did not present the perfect picture of a lady that Urien had become accustomed to. Dressed in only a linen chainse, with her unbound hair hanging down her back in loose, unkempt waves, Lady Gwen more resembled a bird about to take flight than the daughter of a high lord. Wide, dark eyes resided in an angular face with slashing cheekbones and full, opulent lips.
“You have succeeded in gaining my attention, milady,” he hissed, teeth clenched and eyes narrowed.
“Good,” she spat, her nostrils flared with righteous indignation. “I must insist that you summon Sir Caden this very instant.”
So it begins.
Urien folded his arms across his chest, lifting his chin in challenge. She would not bait him into this again. “Milady, we have been through this every day for a fortnight. Milord is occupied.”
“Yes,” she replied with a sneer, “I am well aware of what occupies so much of Sir Caden’s time. You will go to him this instant, and inform him that I wish an audience with him straightaway. His plans to make war against my family can wait for a short time, I am sure.”
Urien’s fingers curled into his palms, and he trembled. “Hear me—”
“No. You hear me.” The chain uncoiled and dragged against the stones, scraping noisily as she advanced upon him. Despite her bonds, Urien fled, matching every backward step to one of her forward ones. “If you think me an annoyance now, wait until you have had the privilege of standing outside of that door every day for yet another fortnight. I have only begun to make a nuisance of myself.”
The chain reached the limit of its length, causing her to come up short. Despite himself, he flinched, taking another step away. Sir Caden had warned him to not underestimate the lady. She might be a slight little thing, but she was cunning, and stronger than she appeared.
“Milady, please,” Urien pleaded, nearing the end of his rope. Perhaps he did not have what it took to be a hardened knight like Sir Caden. He could not even manage one, tiny shrew of a woman. “I am only doing what I was commanded. I am his squire, ‘tis my duty to obey and serve him in all things.”
“Serve your master by protecting him from me,” she insisted. “For if I have to spend another fortnight in shackles, I swear to every god of my people that I will use this chain to strangle him as he sleeps!”
Without so much as a word, he turned on his heels and retreated. The devil take that woman! He was a squire, not a bloody nursemaid. Shoulders squared with determination, he strode confidently down the curving stairs of Minas Bothe’s northern tower.
His boldness carried him through the great hall, and out the front doors, which had been thrown open to allow servants to come and go toting casks of ale, barrels of wine, and baskets full of fresh bread from the bakehouse.
Tonight, the great houses of Daleraia with eligible daughters of marriageable age would feast with the Maignarts. Lady Victoria had sent for them in hopes that her eldest son would choose one for his bride. Now nearing his thirty-third year, the heir to Minas Bothe, and future High Lord of Daleraia had procrastinated on the matter of marriage long enough.
Within the inner bailey, the knights and their squires were about their swordplay; among them, he expected to find Sir Caden. It was his custom after taking breakfast to indulge in swordplay for a few hours before seeing to the other tasks that required his attention inside of the massive keep.
The winds blustered quite strong today, pulling at Urien’s clothing and causing the garments to cling to his long, slender frame. Tendrils of cinnamon-hued hair came loose from the leather thong taming it at the back of his neck and whipped about his face.
Through the howling of the gusts, the clashing of steel upon steel, as well as the grunts, bellows, and curses of the men rose and fell. Squires cheered as their knights sparred, and pages looked on with young, wide eyes. Beyond the swordsmen, more knights instructed their squires at the art of the flail, mace, and morningstar. Further on still, others trained with spear and shield.
This is where I belong, down here training with the other squires … not playing nursemaid.
If Sir Caden wanted the harridan monitored day and night, he could bloody well do it himself. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Sir Caden just that when he laid eyes upon the knight’s broad back. Even from behind, he knew his master, a man of exquisite grace and precision with the longsword. His booted feet moved as if engaged in a graceful dance, his every muscle taut and controlled as he held the weapon before him in a two-handed grip.
Urien drew up short, not daring to interrupt his practice, but determined to have a word with him the instant the sparring match was over.
His opponent was none other than Lady Loreena Maignart, sister to Lord Theodric and Sir Caden’s aunt. One of Daleraia’s many knighted shield maidens, she’d proved herself to be as fearsome as any man, and more skilled with a sword than most. Not a man among them would dare to ridicule or challenge Lady Loreena, whose skill had been proven on and off the battlefield. Upon the field of the Battle of the Athils—the last skirmish of the War of Four Kings—she earned her knighthood. There existed only a handful who could claim the honor.
Akin to her brother and nephew in looks, she possessed strong, handsome features, glittering blue eyes, and midnight-black hair cut short in the style of a man.
The dark curls tumbled about her head riotously as she struck first, slashing low. Caden reacted without hesitation, his shield blocking his legs in a downswing. Loreena backpedaled with a few graceful steps, recovering just as his blade arced toward her middle. She deflected it with her own sword, while planting her foot in the middle of his chest and throwing him off balance. Before he could regain his footing, she was upon him, bringing her sword down over his head.
He fell to one knee, but brought his shield up to repel her sword. The blade clashed against the shield with a resounding clangor, causing Urien to wince—he knew the pain of such a powerful blow which now radiated up Sir Caden’s arm.
As the knight rose, his sword arced upward, knocking Loreena’s blade from her grip, sending it crashing to the stones below. She lifted her shield defensively and crouched for her sword, but he advanced upon her before her fingers could find the hilt.
Kicking the weapon aside, he dropped his shield and unsheathed the shortsword at his waist. He advanced on her, swinging both weapons now in the fighting style known to Daleraia. He slashed with the longsword and thrust with the short, landing a blow at her shoulder with one as the other glanced off her shield. The lady knight cried out from the blow, but did not bleed as the weapons were blunted. She’d suffer no more than a bruise from the blow.
With a grunt of annoyance, she charged, her shield raised. He thrust with his shortsword, but her shield made contact with his wrist, causing him to bellow in pain and drop the blade. Recovering quickly, he spun and slashed with the longsword. Her hand wrapped around his wrist, halting the blade. With her other hand, she brought the shield up and thrust it at Caden’s middle, forcing the air from his lungs and sending him staggering backward.
Loreena recovered her sword, as well as his. Bending her knees, she held one high over her head and the other extended before her, advancing upon him with slow, measured steps. She circled him as he regained his footing, finding his only remaining weapon, the blunted dirk sheathed against his ribs. Pulling it free, he went for her fearlessly, heedless of the two longswords outmatching him.
With a hearty laugh, she lunged, both swords swinging with expertise and flair. Caden ducked beneath the first one, driving his shoulder into her middle as the second one came down between his shoulder blades. If the swords were sharpened, she’d have laid his back open like a butchered side of beef.
Heedless to the pain, he tackled her to the ground. Straddling her, he knocked the second longsword from her hand and captured her wrist, pressing it to the ground. He held the dirk against her throat with his other hand, and leered at her in triumph.
“I do believe you have been beaten,” he declared as the gathered knights, squires, and pages applauded him. “Do you yield, Aunt?”
Loreena’s blue eyes twinkled with mischief as she stared up at him. “Aye, Nephew. I yield.”
Caden grunted in satisfaction and stood, offering her a hand up. She took his hand and used it to pull him off balance as she rose, driving her knee upward and between his legs. He crumpled with a groan of agony, his hands clutching his middle as he writhed upon the ground.
Loreena stood over him, hands upon her hips, a robust laugh shaking her shoulders. Others who had gathered around fought to contain their laughter, yet failed miserably.
“Have I taught you nothing, Nephew?” she teased, now offering him her hand. “Never trust a woman … not even the ones in chainmail.”
“Especially the ones in chainmail,” Caden agreed, accepting her assistance to stand. “Well met, Aunt. A valuable lesson that I will not soon forget.” His gaze met Urien’s over her shoulder and narrowed. “Pardon me. I believe there is a matter that requires my attention.”
Urien swallowed past the lump in his throat as Caden advanced on him. The knight’s jaw clenched and his nostrils flared, his fingers clenching at his sides as if he wished to choke the life out of him.
He took the squire by the shoulder, turning him back toward the castle. He had no choice but to match Sir Caden’s pace, his shoulder throbbing from the tight grip the knight had on his shoulder.
“You have thirty seconds to tell me why you are here, instead of standing guard outside of my door as I instructed you.”
Urien took a deep breath and spoke before he could lose his nerve. “Milord, something must be done about Lady Gwendolyn,” he said in a rush. “She is relentless in her attempts to undermine me, and delights in making a pest of herself.”
Caden’s lips twitched in amusement. “Never say you cannot handle a task so small as a woman.”
Urien scowled. “I think we both know she is no ordinary woman, milord,” he grumbled. “A more exasperating female cannot possibly exist upon this earth. She speaks too freely and boldly, without restraint or regret, and she makes threats—”
Caden paused, turning to face him. The amusement faded and his countenance became thunderous once more. “She threatened you?”
Urien gulped again and cleared his throat. “No, milord … that is to say … well, it was not I she threatened, rather … well, you, milord.”
The knight’s chest swelled and his jaw began to twitch, this time with anger. For a moment, Urien feared his reaction, but then reminded himself that the lady would be the one to suffer the consequences, not him.
At long last, the knight spoke, his voice like a rumbling roll of thunder. “Find Sir Hektor, and inform him that I would appreciate his help in training you today. Go back to your swordplay, Urien.”
He fought not to let relief show upon his face, but within he felt like jumping for joy. “Aye, milord, but what of the lady?”
Sir Caden turned back toward the front doors of the castle, his back stiff. His measured footsteps were akin to those of a man-at-arms marching off to battle.
“That is no longer your concern.”
Gwen paced toward the single window in Caden’s room, then back toward the bed—as far as her shackle and chain allowed. The iron dragged against the stones below, scraping in a manner that set her teeth on edge. Yet she could not find it in herself to cease pacing, not when every fiber of her being craved movement.
She was accustomed to constant activity—riding, walking, archery. Beyond Seahaven’s walls, the forests stretched on, offering miles and miles of places to discover. She missed the smell of the sea and the feel of damp grass beneath her feet. The shady treetops of Seahaven’s woodlands and the gurgles of its streams. She longed for white sand between her toes and the surf lapping at her ankles. Most of all, she craved the company of the people she held dear.
Pausing mid-stride, Gwen sank onto the bed, lowering her face into her hands. Evrain’s body would have been delivered to Seahaven by now. Her mother would be inconsolable, and her poor sister-in-law … Josaine had been his lady for all but a year, and now she had been made a widow. It was too cruel to be borne.
Ah, and Jorin. Her youngest brother was alone in Vor’shy, and while Gwen did not doubt Lord Mador Saint-Clair had done his best to comfort and protect him, a young man would need his family during such times as these. Josaine had Gwen’s mother, Lady Enid, as well as Achart, who had been released from Minas Bothe to return Evrain’s body to Seahaven. While her third brother, Leofred, remained locked away in the castle dungeons, he was aware of her presence here. They might be separated by several levels of stone, but they were near enough. Jorin had no one to draw solace from.
“Tinitas, give me strength,” she prayed aloud to the god of the sky and seas. The vengeful deity was said to have a heart carved from stone. Unfeeling. Strong. A force with which no man dared to trifle.
Would that my heart were made of stone.
Aye, a heart of stone. It would have saved her from the pain of betrayal.
Lifting her head again, she clenched her jaw, fighting back the tears that threatened to spill. Standing, she filled her lungs with a deep, cleansing breath and issued a slow exhale. Determination filled her entire being as she strode toward the window and threw open the shutters. Closing her eyes, she embraced the biting cold and the howling winds atop the Radaughorm Mountains. The cold stung her skin and sank as deep as her bones, yet Gwen felt exhilarated. The hem of her chainse billowed around her calves, and her hair became a living thing fluttering about her face.
For a moment, she forgot the chain coiled at her feet and the shackle circling her waist. The wind dried her tears and filled her lungs with frigid air. For that small amount of time, Gwendolyn Toustain was no longer a prisoner … she was free.
“Planning to jump, wench?”
His voice boomed in the cavernous room, and Gwen heard it even over the howling of the wind. She turned to face him, her arms falling to her sides. The wind continued its assault, its frigid fingers yanking at her chainse and fondling her skin, causing goose bumps to prickle.
An expression of pure rage had marred his face when first he entered the room. However, the moment their eyes met, it changed into something else altogether. She stood, captured in the thrall of his gaze. His steely blue eyes darkened, and his jaw clenched. He wore black, as he had since his brother’s death. A leather jerkin clung to his chest and abdomen, and the sleeves of a linen shirt were cuffed to the elbow. Breeches in an equally dark shade clung to his thighs and legs. His hair was windswept and standing on end from being out of doors.
Gwen’s mind flooded with memories—Caden’s mouth on hers, his hands caressing her in the most intimate of ways, their bodies joining as one. She lowered her gaze and shuddered.
Gods, even my body betrays me.
Had his perfidy not been enough to purge her from all softer emotions? Curse him, even after the pain he’d caused her, Caden Maignart’s gaze was still enough to make her weak. She’d become a bloody fool, one who well deserved the predicament she now found herself in.
“I would not give you the satisfaction, Daleraian,” she declared, lifting her chin. She strode toward the windows and closed the shutters, casting the room into silence as well as near-darkness. Though the sun had risen hours ago, the rooms of Minas Bothe remained in perpetual shadow. The wailing winds forced its residents to close the shutters more often than not, blocking out any and all light.
Candles, braziers, and a cavernous fireplace offered a meager orange glow that cast sinister shadows across Caden’s face as he came further into the room.
“Milady does me a disservice,” he replied, his tone laced with annoyance. “You suppose I wish for you to suffer, and that is simply not true.”
Gwen’s control snapped and she rushed forward, her bare feet slapping over the stones. Her fingers clenched, the desire to wrap them around his neck overwhelming.
“What do you think you have done with your shackle and your chain?” she bellowed, grunting as the length of the chain prevented her from further movement. Screaming in frustration and anger, she grasped the chain and gave it a rough yank, causing it to rattle and clank. “Day after day you keep me here, chained to your wall! I am forced to remain in this room with no one to talk to, nothing to do, not even the light of the sun upon my face. The only company I am allowed is yours, and it is dismal at best. You will not even inform me of the condition of my brother, Leofred, nor your plans concerning the impending war. Where once I thought we were allies, you have ensured that we can never be anything but enemies.”
“No, you did that!” Caden railed, coming within arm’s length of her. The anger was back, turning his face to stone and his eyes to narrow blue slits. “You, with your shackles, and your chain. Did you think my father would pardon you for the crimes committed against myself and my men because you are a woman?”
“I thought he would pardon me because of your promise,” she hissed. Her voice trembled with anger. Her hands began to shake at her sides. “You made a vow to me, one that I believed would be upheld.”
“Why?” Caden asked, his voice dropping as he approached her, coming so close that she could smell him. He smelled of the outdoors, leather, horse, and something else—that distinct scent that was his alone. His hand came up to her face, his thumb stroking the line of her jaw. “Because we made love? Because I said things to you that I should not have said, and allowed myself to feel things that could not possibly lead to anything good?”
The surface of her skin tingled at his touch. It resounded through her in pangs of longing so strong and fierce that she had to fight to contain them. His countenance had softened, and in the place of anger was something else altogether.
“No!” Gwen cried out, snatching away and putting a bit of much-needed distance between them. Steeling herself, she turned her back to him. She would not fall prey to his seduction again. “I trusted you because you are a knight of Daleraia,” she said, her voice as biting and cold as the wind beyond the window. “I believed you were a man of honor. Obviously, I was mistaken.”
“Goddamn it, Gwen, you do not understand!” She could hear him pacing behind her, his breath racing. “If I wished for you to suffer, all I needed to do was allow my father’s gaoler to come and drag you away. He would have stripped you of your clothes and thrown you into a cell within the depths of the dungeon. Would you prefer it there amongst the rats and fleas, with no more than gruel, bread, and water day after day? Perhaps you would favor sleeping on a straw pallet as opposed to my bed—the bed I vacate every night to preserve your dignity, I might add. Do not think the guards and gaoler would be any kinder to you than I, for you would be making a terrible mistake. How long before they notice the feminine body beneath that chainse of yours, I wonder? How long before they grow bored enough to seek you out, looking for a bit of sport? Aye, you would fight them, I know, but even you are not fierce enough to win that battle. Make no mistake, if they wanted you, they would have you and no one would speak up in your defense.”
“Enough,” Gwen declared. The trembling became stronger now, exacerbated by the terror his words had conjured. “Do not think to mollify me by making yourself out to be my shining, heroic knight. How am I to believe you after what you’ve done? I risked everything to free you. I defied my family and my father’s most trusted advisors because I believed in your innocence and wanted to make things right. This is how I am repaid.”
“I had no choice,” he argued. Gwen still refused to face him, yet felt him nearing her once more. Her back stiffened in response, awareness causing heat to suffuse through her. “I did what I could to protect you, but nothing would sway my father from having you as a prisoner. ’Tis only temporary … until a ransom can be agreed upon. You and Leofred for the rest of my men.”
Gwen crossed her arms over her chest defiantly. “I do not believe you. I put my trust in you once, I won’t be so foolish again.”
She felt his fingers, gentle upon her hair. Her breath caught and held, burning in her lungs as his touch ran over the tangled strands.
“I do not expect you to trust me,” he whispered. “Nor am I foolish enough to believe that our friendship could ever be repaired. Aye, I tricked you. I stole your freedom. I am a bastard, and you have every right to hate me. Yet, when this is over, I do hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me. My actions might have saved you from a fate worse than death.”
Suddenly, his touch was gone. She turned to find him striding toward the door. His shoulders were broad beneath his jerkin, squared with determination and rigid with resolve.
“You have not yet heard my demands,” she called out, halting him at the door.
Amusement pulled at the corners of his mouth as he turned to face her. “Aye, wench? What makes you so certain that I will grant any of your demands after the way you have driven poor Urien to madness?”
Gwen shrugged dispassionately. “If you are going to assign a gaoler to me, you might want to ensure that he is up to the task. I am no shrinking violet.”
“No,” he agreed with a smirk. “No, you are not.”
“I want a hot bath,” she said, raising her chin. “Not just a basin to wash with as you have provided thus far. A real tub, hot water, and a maid to tend me. As well, I grow weary of staring at the walls of this room day after day. I wish to be allowed a moment of respite. I give you my word that I will not attempt escape.”
He laughed in response, the sound echoing loud and boisterous. “I believe you,” he said with a snort. “You may have the bath if you promise to cease your campaign against Urien. The boy acts under my orders. I am more than up to the task of bearing the brunt of your shrewish rage, the boy is not.”
Gwen’s hands found her hips. “You mean to leave me here, languishing in boredom?”
“It was my belief that Dinasdalian ladies preferred a life of idleness.”
She glared at him. “Do you know me so little? I am going mad with naught to do but worry.”
Caden sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “I will try to remedy that. For now, the bath you requested will be granted, as well as clean clothing.”
“One last thing.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
She ignored his muttering and continued. “I wish to see Leofred. I have not spoken with him since the night I was imprisoned, and I wish to see for myself that he remains unharmed.”
Caden nodded, stroking the thick growth of beard upon his jaw. “Let me think about how best to arrange that,” he said. “I would like to be able to give it you.”
Gwen frowned, studying him with curiosity. As ever, he bewildered her. On the surface, he appeared a man of honor and integrity. Yet, the secrets he kept from her and the actions he’d taken without her knowledge condemned him. The sullen man who had stood in this very chamber and sentenced her to imprisonment, and the one who had so passionately tutored her in lovemaking were not the same. The conundrum, of course, was discerning which man he truly was.
She wanted to believe that he was the second man—the one who had defended her from degradation at Gaiwan’s hands, the one who held her as she grieved her brother, whose mouth had worshipped every inch of her body with reverence and tenderness. However, that belief had gained her nothing but pain in the end, and Gwen could not allow herself to forget that.
“Thank you, Sir,” she said with a stiff curtsy.
His gaze lingered upon her for another moment before he turned to leave. “And you may as well know,” he said over his shoulder, “Leofred was moved to a tower room overlooking the bailey not a day after you were detained. He will serve out the remainder of his time here in relative comfort. I hope that will ease just a bit of your worry, milady.”