Essence of the game is deception...
When her half-sister refuses to marry the powerful earl of Hellborne, Greyson de Verre, Lesslyn de Sancerre sees the chance to have a life, a home and a husband of her own, so she agrees to take her sister's place. Her sister, in turn, is off to elope with the man she has fallen in love with. Everything appears fated in this pact the two women seal. What seemed like a logical solution at the time soon becomes a battle to keep ahead of the lies. Lesslyn quickly learns plots and schemes are easily concocted, but realities arising from the falsehoods are a different matter altogether. Especially, when she is quickly falling in love with Greyson de Verre...her husband to be.
Commanded to wed by royal decree...
When Edward Plantagenet demands you must marry, you have little options...or do you? King Edward has commanded that the earl of Hellborne must marry the heiress of Sancerre. After all a bargain is a bargain—even if the earl views the coming marriage with disdain. Only, the enigmatic lord of Hellborne needs must wed on Yuletide...so wed he shall...no matter what.
Even if it is a Marriage Made in Hell. . .
William, head of the guard, pulled his mount alongside hers. “My lady, I wonder—should we not call halt and shelter up ahead in that stand of pines? The limbs will provide a break against the snowfall and the wind. The needles will be dry and full of pine sap so we can start a fire to warm you.”
She knew William spoke the rightness of the situation. Howbeit, as tired and cold as she was, she pondered if stopping were a good idea. “I admit I am chilled. Only, wouldst not the pause delay meeting up with the earl as arranged? How far are we from Hellborne?”
William frowned. “In this weather? I cannot say for certain. The earl sent word he would meet us on this road and escort us the rest of the way. Howbeit, what if he is of the same mind and has held up and shelters against this storm? Also to consider—we have to fear brigands seeing us as exposed to attack.”
“Surely, none wouldst dare to attack a cadre bound for Hellborne?” she opined. “I assume men feared the earl too much for such an affront.”
William’s mouth compressed before he answered. Disapproval molded his face. “In this land I suppose three men are feared above all others: Julian Challon, Redam Maignart— and the third being the earl of Hellborne, Greyson de Verre. How they travel through life creates enemies, my lady. Men willing to risk much—or with naught left to lose—-might seek to settle a score. They mayhap could also be lured by the notion of gaining a fat purse for a ransom. These are troubled times. One cannot be too careful."
Laughter bubbled forth from Lesslyn before she could stop it. “Ransom? For me? I fear no man wouldst bother.”
William gave her a soft smile. “You fail to see your value, my lady.”
Lesslyn was surprised by his words, so much so she was unsure how to respond. Men never paid her much mind when she stood in the shadow of her golden sister. Surely, a colorful kirtle and mantle did not magically transform the brown wren?
She had no chance to give a response as screams split the air. They seemed to come from all directions at once. Her guards were turning every which way, heads whipping around, trying to locate from where the threat would come. The hushed landscape suddenly saw movement as men ran from the shelter of the trees and shrubs on both sides.
William called for more riders to move up before them. Poor Ena pulled her hood up and huddled in the corner of the wain, hoping to make herself as small a target as possible.
Snatching up the rein on her horse, William dragged the animal under low hanging boughs of the tall trees. Pulling back a limb on one he motioned for her to ride into the space between two close pines. “Stay here. I will return for you when all is clear,” he barked, before leaving her hidden in the shadows.
The limbs dipped low from the weight of the heavy wet snow, so she had to lean forward over her horse’s neck to try and see what was happening. Shouts and cries echoed all around the road. Horses from her cadre flew by as the men, with swords drawn, clashed with horsemen now coming down the trail. Enemies on foot rushed forward, trying to drag the mounted knights from their destriers. Having only the narrow view of what was ensuing, she had no way to tell how many men were attacking them, or under whose banner they fought.
Something went flying past her head. Startled, she gasped as she turned to see an arrow lodged in the tree trunk, still vibrating. Shaken, unsure what to do, she watched as bodies were falling to the snow-covered ground. Horses reared, fighting, screaming as they lashed out with teeth and hooves.
Swords clanged as they crashed together. The stomach-churning sounds of men dying in agony.
Lesslyn wanted to put her hands over her ears to blot out the too real nightmare. Never had she been exposed to any sort of fighting before, leaving her unprepared for facing an all out battle, the ugliness of men sliced half open by the swing of a sword, or hear the sickening sound as arrows found purchase and lodged in a chest. She hated staying hidden, yet knew she risked harm should she venture out. The palfrey was getting nervous, the scent of blood spooking it, causing the beast to shift from hoof-to-hoof. She patted its neck, trying to calm the fidgeting. Her mind remained frozen, unable to decide what she needed to do.
One man in ragged clothes, directly in front of her, yelled out to be heard above the din, “Riders coming!” He and the others afoot fled as horsemen came in from the north.
Her hands trembled, but she struggled not to convey her fear to the animal. It was getting harder to keep it calm as men shouted in fear, in agony.
A straggler, running down the roadway, jerked up short in the face of the oncoming cavalry. In panic he looked around. He turned and came crashing through the tree limbs. Eyes wild, blood flowed from the side of his face, down his neck, and into the edge of the boiled jack. He seemed shocked to find her hiding there. He raised his sword.
“Get off the horse! Now!” he demanded, reaching out for the bridle. Stupidly, he jerked on the leather lead. “Get down, wench! The Devil hisself comes!”
Too startled to think, let alone move, she sat on the palfrey and gaped. She looked about to see if any of her guard were close to call for help. Again, he yanked on the tether. The horse started a deep throated rumble and backed up three steps. Lesslyn grabbed the high, square cantle, in effort not to lose her seat in the sidesaddle. Her right hand went to her waist, and she removed the dagger from the small sheath. Like everything else in life, it was up to her to protect herself.
The half-crazed man reached up to drag her from the horse. Lesslyn did not hesitate, but drove the knife into his lower arm. His howl blended together with her scream as he refused to let go. The mare bounced on its front hooves, and then took off. The instant the animal hit bowing limbs, he ducked down to fly under them. She could not get low enough. A thigh-sized bough caught her in the head, sending her backward and out of the saddle.
Lesslyn hit the ground hard, knocking the air from her lungs. She lay there, struggling to draw a breath and finding it impossible. Worse, the pain in her head was nearly blinding her vision. She frantically struggled to focus. Only, she could not move, no matter how fear drove her.
“You stupid, bitch!” the man snarled.
She blinked and her sight began to come into focus, enough so she could see the savage warrior had his sword drawn back and was ready to kill her.
Lesslyn lay there in the snow, the sounds of battle receding to mute. The snow was falling heavily. Big fluffy flakes hit her face.
And she was going to die.
She almost laughed at the injustice of it all. To finally stop being a shadow—a brown wren—and reach out for a life with both hands, only to end up dying on the road to Hellborne.
She saw the sword start to descend, and closed her eyes
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