Click on image to enlarge.
by P. J. Shay
Category: Erotica/Classic Erotica/Historical Fiction
Description: A Passionate Historical Romance! Poena and Evangeline, twin daughters of the evil Baron LaTrovin, have spent the last fourteen of their twenty-one years secluded from all Niobrean society in a convent. Now they have been taken prisoner by the brawny, good-hearted Seigneur Alaric DeCastille, a clan leader of the warrior class forced to the unprecedented act of marching on the higher-ranking Baron to revenge the cold-blooded murder of DeCastille's people. But, the cowardly Baron LaTrovin has fled, leaving Poena and Evangeline to the mercy of the invading war horde. Fortunately, Poena soon discovers they are safe in the hands of the chivalrous DeCastille. But she learns he may not be as safe with her and her sister in his hands. He dare not turn them loose, for fear of what the Baron's other enemies might do. And, to take them back to his clan's fortress, the Rill, would shake the very foundation of Niobrean society as noble women never set foot on clan land. After a few hours with DeCastille, Poena knows which option she wants him to choose. But she little realizes the arabesque of danger, love, and intrigue she will enter once inside the walls of Rill castle. It is an experience that will change her from a na've young girl to a passionate, full-blooded woman. One willing to brave whatever dangers it takes to win the man she loves. Adult situations and language. You must be over 18 to purchase this book.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: March 2005
40 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [451 KB]
Reading time: 305-427 min.
Poena wasn't certain if there were rules of decorum an Aristoi lady was to uphold during a castle raid, but she did know that the possibility of capture or death during this riotous invasion was pushing her into a foul mood. Her temper slipped further toward fury with each crash of steel against stone.
She had no patience for such annoying distractions.
"Eva, there's no time for you to glance about. Rush now, beloved. We've got to find some manner of sanctuary before this alcazar tumbles down upon our heads!" Another thunderous crash resounded through the halls of Niord, and Poena urged her twin sister forward with careful urgency.
Evangeline hurried as her sister commanded. In times like these, Poena always seemed to know what was best. Still, the horrific sounds echoing through their father's home made Eva grow more and more concerned for the men down below. "Poe, it sounds like some of them may be injuring themselves. Can't we make them stop?"
Biting back her reply, Poena simply ignored the question. As much as Eva's innocence might be vexing, Poena was loathe to tread upon her fraternal twin's soft feelings.
"Shouldn't we at least be looking for Father?" Eva wailed as Poena stepped into an upstairs chamber and yanked her sister along.
"No," Poena snapped, her tone angrier than she'd intended. She was sure their father had already fled the large alcazar and was on his cowardly way to safety at that very moment. Softening her tone to smooth her harsh reply, Poena instructed, "Rest here a moment, dearest heart."
Once she was certain her sister was resting, Poena bolted the door and hastened toward the window of the large room. It was a trove chamber, where some of the alcazar's valuables lay neatly stacked in various chests, bottles, and packaged bundles. Since this room was located in the highest level of the main structure, and toward the eastward side, Poena gambled that its small, barred window would provide a good vantage point from which to view the attack.
Her logical mind had served her well, but the sight below gave her no satisfaction. Just as she had feared, the invaders were making preparations to set the castle and all its outbuildings ablaze. Narrowing her anxious aquamarine eyes, Poena searched desperately for some means of escape. It didn't appear promising. Muttering a curse, the young girl sagged against the wall, rubbed her temples and tried to think. Her sense of duty struggled against the growing concern of her troubled heart. She had to find a way to get Eva to safety.
In truth, protecting her twin had always been Poena's first instinct. Although Evangeline LaTrovin had come into the world a full twenty minutes before Poena herself, it was Poena who had inherited the guardian spirit between them. For as long as either could remember, Eva had been a delicate, gentle-natured innocent, while Poena had been a defiant creature given such labels as "hellion" to by their childhood nannies. It had been Poena's untamable temper that had caused their father, Baron Mortimer LaTrovin, to have the girls sent to a cloister at the age of seven. There they had remained until their twenty-first birthdays and the time for their arranged marriages. They had been torn from their peaceful convent and dragged to their father's now-besieged castle barely a month ago, and Poena wished with all her heart that she and her sister were still tucked safely within the cloister they had called home for fourteen years.
Whoever their father's enemies were, these attackers were ready to decimate the castle. It was clear from the destruction below that the antiquated LaTrovin alcazar, dubbed Niord, would not stand for much longer.
Poena could not claim to be sorry to see the building go. After all, she'd only lived in the alcazar for a few brief years of her childhood, and had returned as an adult for barely a full moon. Still, she did know for certain she'd rather not been in the blasted thing when it fell to the ground!
A seed of germinating fury began to grow in Poena's belly. Their father had fled for his own safety and left his daughters behind. The Baron had unquestionably received word of the impending attack; the army outside was too vast in number to have gone unnoticed. In the quiet of early morning, and no doubt under considerable guard, the dastard had fled, leaving Poena alone to devise a way out of this mess.
Tapping her fingertips against her temples, Poena hissed in frustration. The hoodlums were flanking Niord from all directions. Even if she could sneak Eva down to the ground floor unnoticed, they would have no clear path of escape.
"Poe, I think I hear someone outside," Eva whispered, eyeing the door to the room with open misgiving.
"I bolted it, sweet," Poena assured her worried sister. "Do let me think a moment in silence, beloved."
There were small consolations. If there was to be fighting, Poena was grateful that she'd refused to remove her sword from her side, and that she'd decided to tie her hair up that morning. Had she relented to her father's doctrines of Aristoi propriety, she'd be weaponless, and the rowdy noise emanating from the other side of the door told her she might have to fight her way out. Other trove rooms were being ransacked, and it wouldn't be long before the room they were in suffered the same fate. Pulling her sword out of its sheath, Poena renewed her search for an escape route and scanned the chamber from ceiling to floor. The treasure room might be as good a place to make a stand as any, but it had no secondary means of exit. That had been a careless oversight on her part, but all she'd wanted to do was get a good look outside; she hadn't expected their attackers would make it up the tower so quickly. Weren't any of the vassals down below putting up a fight?
All too soon, a vicious pounding began at the door, followed by a shouted order to surrender. Setting her jaw, Poena studied the entryway and tried to judge how it would hold against the attack that would most certainly follow.
It took one solid charge, and no more.
Before a clear plan of action could even begin to take root in Poena's head, the door came crashing inwards, and a great, blonde bear of a man thrust himself inside, surveying their chamber with first blood-thirsty fervor, and then guarded surprise. He had his scimitar at the ready, and his cat-like stance left no doubt that he was poised for battle. His size and obvious training made Poena inwardly groan. Why couldn't she have started out trying to best a little one? Fighting this barbarian was bound to drain half the energy from her before the battle had truly begun.
Preparing herself for his first, lunging attack, Poena assumed a defensive posture and brandished her sword. Eva gave a timid little yelp, and hurried to take cover behind her twin. Poena stepped resolutely forward, shielding Eva effectively, and addressed their aggressor with firm authority. "Leave us, or I shall be forced to kill you, Sir."
The intruding brute did not answer. He merely frowned and blinked twice, as if to assure himself that his eyes were not playing tricks, and then checked again to be certain no one else occupied the room. His stern face twitched slightly, and if Poena hadn't been so focused on trying to find a weakness in the man, she might have noticed the brief smile that crossed his green eyes.
"Alaric. We have some resistance in one of the upper treasuries," the hulking warrior called over his shoulder, and when a second man stepped into the room, any hope for winning a physical battle abandoned Poena entirely. The first opponent had been a worthy adversary, but she had fostered a few moments of optimism when she noticed the way he'd favored his left leg.
This new intruder, clearly of higher rank than the first, was immense--a solid wall of strength and impassive fortitude. At her best, she'd never be able to defeat them both. Through the fear and frustration that accompanied her realization, Poena was also aware of a traitorous admiration prickling within her breast. She had never seen such men before. These were warriors--raw, defiant, and fierce. The dark-haired one especially drew her approval. His posture was regal, almost imperially arrogant, yet his looming figure bore the bulging musculature that could only be wrought from years of hard training and scars which could only have been earned from scores of battles fought.
They were, Poena now realized, Clansmen. While she couldn't discern which Clan they belonged to from the trossen they wore upon their breasts, their brightly colored cassocks declared their heritage. They were not part of Niobrean Aristoi, nor were they renegades from the savage Inconnu race, which was renowned for acts of viciousness and cruelty. Their crest depicted a tower beside a river with a great sword driven into the shore. It was simple, but bold, and Poena couldn't help but think that she'd seen that particular trossen in one of her books before.
This was a spot of good fortune. According to her readings, Clansmen were reputed to be honorable and did not attack without cause. Poena mused that their father had probably done something to incite such lethal retaliation. Perhaps if these men were made to understand that she and Eva did not support their father's actions, they would be allowed to go free. Clansmen meant there was cause for hope, for had they been Inconnu beasts, Poena wouldn't have been able to negotiate. The Inconnu took no prisoners.
"Who are you?" the new foe demanded gruffly, his throaty roar in itself an intimidating force. He had sharp onyx eyes and velvety black hair that hung down below his shoulders. Her sense of dread doubled, but Poena's resolve never faltered. She'd defend Eva unto death if need be; nothing else, not even this brute's intimidating bark mattered.
"We are Poena and Evangeline LaTrovin, daughters to Baron Mortimer LaTrovin and the late Baroness Gizella JaBez LaTrovin," Poena answered in as formal a tone as she could muster. "You are trespassing in our home, Clansman. As I told your comrade, leave us, or I shall be forced to kill you."
The giant of a man was not moved. Other than a slight expression of disbelief, he made neither motion nor sound.
"Poe?" It was Evangeline's melodic voice that finally interrupted the strange lull. "Killing is a sin. Tell him to leave or you shall be forced to wound him," her tone was the maternal inclination of a teacher reminding a forgetful student.
Poena ground her clenched teeth. Was the blond-headed one daring to smile at her? "If I wound them, they may well die of infection anyway. 'Tis better if I kill them quickly and not allow them to suffer. Now, do stay out of it, dearest," Poena didn't want to lose her temper with her gentle sister, but she did have more important things on her mind just now than future penance.
"If you'd only just wound them, I could minister to them afterward and save you from the sin, good sister. Do, at least, consider it," Evangeline pleaded softly.
Before Poena could reply, the bemused, blond warrior addressed her. "Where is your father, Lady Poena LaTrovin?"
Poena's spine stiffened. Now she'd have to confess the cowardice of her father for these fighting men to hear. How it goaded her.
It would have amused the Clansmen further to know that the simplest way out of such a position never occurred to Poena. It did not so much as cross her thoughts to lie as she gave them the truth. Lying was, as Eva would have quickly reminded, a sin. "Our father is safely away. I heard him tell the manager of the household early this morn that he had business to attend at one of our neighboring alcazars. I hadn't realized he was fleeing from impending attack, or I should have taken my sister and myself safely away as well before your arrival."
The towering warriors balked at her answer. The leader's black eyes narrowed in disbelief. "You mean to tell me he left his daughters behind? Come now, Lady LaTrovin."
"Our father is gone!" Poena shouted hotly. "And I say again, leave us before I am forced to do you harm, Sir."
The faces of both Clansmen frowned in open skepticism, but neither stooped to openly calling her a liar.
"Poe, you have not given them the option to surrender yet!" Evangeline suddenly remembered, her tone patient and sweet. "Perhaps you may not even have cause to wound them."
"I hate to disappoint you, Milady, but neither I nor my Don, will be surrendering to you this day. You will put down your sword and surrender yourself to our custody. The alcazar will be reduced to cinders before we are done with it. This is no place for you or your sister."
The calm statement forced a gasp from Evangeline's lips. "But you cannot mean to set fire to our father's home, Sir?"
The blond warrior now stepped forward, and Poena tilted her sword toward him. When he spoke, it was with a more patient tone than his comrade's. "Ladies, this castle is defeated. There are hundreds of our troops inside, and hundreds more waiting at the gates. You must yield."
Voices rang in from behind the two Clansmen, and Poena's methodical mind insisted there was no option but to surrender and hope for mercy. Still, there were details to settle. Her options were limited, but she was not yet willing to give in before making a few truths painfully clear to their captors. "We will yield under certain conditions."
"Oh, a negotiation," the hulking one with raven's hair sighed impatiently. "I admire an adversary who proposes negotiation in the face of utter defeat, don't you, Rook?" The blonde man offered no response to his leader's sarcasm, save for a controlled grin, so the dark one returned his severe gaze upon Poena, and asked tersely, "What are your terms, Lady LaTrovin?"
"You will not soil my sister's honor."
"Poena, how very dear of you," Evangeline's bubbling praise was drowned out by another harsh question from the black-eyed Clansman.
"And what of your honor?" he sounded angry, but Poena couldn't be certain. The man was so fierce looking that he might be smiling straight at her and she'd have no way to judge.
"I am not as concerned with my honor, Sir. I can defend it myself if need be. My sister is a more gentle creature."
"Your sister's honor is safe, you have my word. Not that it matters, apparently, but yours is safe as well. Now lower your sword," the militant giant bellowed. At this declaration, the yellow-haired warrior made a noted effort to hide his mounting amusement. It wasn't working.
Eva's airy voice began a wailing plea. "Oh, Poena. We can't possibly leave without my trunk and mother's things. If they're to burn the castle..."
"My sister's trunk is to be brought with her as well. And we shall be allowed to gather our mother's things. And, at no time while we are in your custody are she and I to be separated," Poena reflected a moment, scanning her mind to see if there was any other demand she wished to make while she was still in a position to make demands. Nothing else stirred within her calm, logical thoughts. She didn't want to push her luck.
"Is that all, Lady LaTrovin?" The leader's tone was icy and acerbic, but Poena didn't care about that. Let him be as superior as he liked. So long as he gave his word.
"That is all for now," she nodded curtly.
"All of those things can be easily accommodated," the blonde man agreed hastily. He seemed to realize that his commander's temper was at a limit. "Come now, we must get the two of you out of..."
"I'm sorry, Clansman, but unless I am mistaken, you are not in charge here," Poena interrupted firmly. "By the manner of this beast on your right, I would say he holds superior rank. It is his word I seek."
Both men blinked again in disbelief. Green-eyes lost his grin. Poena hid the meager satisfaction she felt over that small victory.
"Lady LaTrovin, this man beside me is Rook DeVrist. He is my Don, and among the Clans, a Don is a second-in-command. If he gives you his word, you may accept that I will honor it without question," the larger man decreed angrily.
"That is all good and well," Poena argued. "But in this case, I want to hear it from your own lips, Sir..."
"My name is Alaric DeCastille, Lady LaTrovin. I am Seigneur of the Clan DeCastille," he took a step forward, and Poena's mind shattered in alarm, but once again, Eva dispelled the tension of the moment. Prancing forward, she placed herself between her twin and the Clansmen.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Seigneur DeCastille," Evangeline smiled, offering the man a formal curtsey. "And, you as well, Don DeVrist," her child-like blue eyes twinkled with excitement. "I've never been formally introduced to Clansmen before. Let alone a Seigneur and a Don. We've read much about your society, naturally, but..."
While the two men were gaping at Eva's fearless amiability, Poena set her jaw and inclined her head toward her sister. "This isn't a formal introduction, beloved. These men are here to take us prisoner, not escort us to a court function."
"I'm sorry, Poe," Evangeline quivered slightly at her sister's sharp tone. "I just meant to be polite."
"I know you did, dearest heart, but please," pausing a moment to regain her composure and soften her voice, Poena continued, "Please. Now is a time I need you to be silent," Poena's voice gentled, but inside she raged with fury.
"You have my word that your sister's honor is safe, that you will not be separated, and that you may take with you anything you like from this place before we destroy it utterly," Alaric growled. He was beginning to have the feeling that he'd wandered into a fairy playground and was being baited by magical beings out for a lark. The bold one especially had his head spinning. Only a creature of myth could be so sensually appealing and yet so damned irritating at the same time.
Poena hesitantly lowered her sword, sensing that if she did not, the Clan leader would step forward and tear it from her hands like a hawk snatching prey out of the talons of an adversary. "Then we are your prisoners, Seigneur," she relented. Without another word, she sheathed her weapon, and stood with her hands upon her hips.
Green-eyes, who Alaric had introduced as Rook, let out a low whistle and shook his head. "And just what shall we do with them, Alaric?"
"They are your wards as of this moment," Alaric declared with a frustrated scowl. None of his scouts had informed him that the Baron had daughters, and it was impossible to conceive that the heartless coward would have left his own flesh and blood behind. A great deal was not right in this castle, and the impatient Clan leader had no patience to sort through it all now. "Take them and see that they come to no harm. Gather a few men and have them remove anything the ladies request."
The younger man paused for a bare moment. Under his breath, he asked, "You don't mean to take them with us to The Rill, do you?"
Hissing through clenched teeth, Alaric fixed his second with a hard glare. "At the moment, Rook, I haven't the faintest notion what I intend to do with them. Just see to their safety," Alaric was in no mood to give orders twice, let alone whispered orders.
The sisters were bickering again as Rook escorted them from the room, and Alaric DeCastille leaned against the arched doorway for a moment to think. He had anticipated that LaTrovin might flee. Any bastard who was cowardly enough to order the murder of unarmed men over a scattering of livestock was not a man of honor. Still, to abandon two beautiful daughters at the mercy of a Clan horde on the warpath; that was simply inconceivable.
And they were indisputably lovely. Wild russet-colored curls had crowned their heart-shaped faces. And in those faces had been two pairs of the most mystifying eyes that Alaric had ever encountered. The fierce one had possessed a gaze of opulent brilliance, variegating hues of blue and green shimmering from her challenging glare. The meeker creature's expression boasted a more arctic quality, tinted with a blue of such icy clarity that he'd almost expected to see a winter ocean reflected back upon him. Both girls had been about the same in size and shape; neither seemed older or younger in appearance. Elfishly small, curvaceous, and slim; graceful of countenance and noble of posture, they held up their heads and kept their backs straight. He somehow doubted those were qualities they'd learned from their craven father. And the bold one ... where had she learned such fearlessness? Dignity and courage--how rare it was to find them beating in the heart of so breathless a beauty.
Alaric shook his head and methodically resumed his search of the alcazar's top floor. While most of the riches had been stored in the bowels of the old castle's cellars and underbelly corridors, LaTrovin had set aside many choice treasures in the upper chambers as well. In a few areas, it was apparent that small boxes and items had been recently removed. There were telling outlines on the floor where the dust had been kept from blanketing the planks. Alaric's blood began to boil. Not only had the foul-hearted scoundrel fled without his daughters, but the contemptible bastard had prized his valuables above his blood.
It simply didn't make sense. Was the blackguard hiding somewhere within the vast halls? Were the girls simply protecting him? Alaric didn't think so. The fiery sister had seemed to stiffen with embarrassment at mention of her father's actions. That kind of shame was not easily pretended. Still, Alaric ordered every inch of the alcazar searched before its final destruction. If the Baron were hiding, he'd be rooted out and made to answer for his transgressions.
While his Clansmen meticulously searched the alcazar, Alaric tried to reconcile the presence of the two sisters. It was true that the Clans were not kept informed about the family members of all Niobrea's Aristoi, but Alaric had taken specific measures to know all there was to know about Baron LaTrovin before mounting his attack. None of the dispatched spies had returned with news of daughters in residence. And it simply was not possible that his men would have missed Poena and Evangeline. There wasn't a hot-blooded man alive who could miss the sight of them.
Damn it all! What was he to do with them? * * * *
As dusk began to settle, there was little left of the vast alcazar that the LaTrovin family had christened Niord over a century before its demise. While a few columns of stone still held stubbornly tall, the majority of the castle had been charred to ashes by the raging Clansmen's pyre.
Other than the armed guards, the Clansmen had not harmed a single servant or vassal upon LaTrovin property. Such was Alaric's decree. There was no cause to hold indentured servants responsible for their master's cowardly actions. There had been many guards, however, and the battle had been furious. Now that all was quiet, it could be counted as a mighty Clan victory. The first victory ever of a Clan over Aristoi lands.
The possible consequences of such a precedent were not lost in Alaric's heavy thoughts. Still, the virile, seasoned Seigneur had every intention of taking the now masterless peasants back to The Rill with him. New hands were always welcome in his fortress though the lack of loyalty amid the large number of captives had surprised him. Few had given any resistance at all. Other than the watchmen and trained guard, no one else had raised so much as a rock in defense of their master's home. That was a telling reflection of the man they had served. A very telling reflection.
Watching the spoils being loaded onto victory wagons, Alaric shook his head in wonder. How could the man have simply run out on everyone and everything that belonged to him? What breed of creature crawled that low to the earth and still managed to hold a title in Niobrea's Aristoi society?
"Everything is secure, Alaric," Rook called from behind his Seigneur. The younger Don was atop his bay mare, and had been hastily seeing to the many duties that needed addressing before the DeCastille Clan would be ready to begin the march home.
"And the women?" Alaric pressed, when Rook purposefully didn't offer a report on the LaTrovin sisters.
"I knew you'd be curious," Rook winked and chuckled. "They're twins, you know. Obviously not identical, but they resemble one another so closely, it's a wonder. Twenty-one seasons old; I managed to get that out of them. They don't know where the Baron fled to, only that he left early this morning a few hours before we arrived."
"Perhaps he means to meet with an ally and bring an army back to face us," Alaric thought aloud.
"But leaving his own blood behind?" Rook questioned, unable to fathom it. "He had to have received reports of our numbers. Even the well-armed guards he left to defend the alcazar could not last long. How could any man abandon such beauty, and leave them to face his enemies?"
"Could they be lying?" Alaric's brow was furrowed in concentration. "We had no word of daughters before today."
"If they're lying, Alaric, it is the most accomplished performance I have ever born witness to. It's almost as if they have no understanding of what goes on around them," the Don's tone was incredulous.
"The feisty one has some concept," Alaric mused. "But the other--the little one--bewilders me."
"What are we to do with them, Alaric?" Rook questioned, sighing heavily.
"They will come with us to The Rill," the onyx-eyed leader announced in a resigned tone. "Once there, we will think further on their fate."
Rook gaped at his friend and superior. "My God, there will be outrage throughout the royal court. The King himself might even take offence."
"We're taking them with us!" Alaric roared. He was in no temper to debate the issue. It was another long march back to The Rill. Not only did he have to concern himself with the fact that he was not there to defend his own keep, but now there was the possibility that LaTrovin was attempting to gather an army to challenge the Clan forces who had sacked Niord. Whether or not the aristocracy got their feathers ruffled over a pair of abandoned sisters being under his rule didn't particularly trouble Alaric at the moment. "We'll march through the night and most of the day tomorrow. Come tomorrow afternoon, we'll make an early camp. There is cause for haste now."
"The men are exhausted, but they'll not dare to grumble," Rook agreed. It was his duty to point out concerns and possibilities to his Seigneur. If Alaric wasn't going to worry about the LaTrovin sisters, then Rook certainly wasn't going to drive the issue.
"I hate to do it," Alaric spat. "Make sure they understand we are not retreating from this wretch. I hope with all my heart he does manage to gather enough of an army to bring up against my men. I somehow doubt that is the case, though," shaking his head in disgust, the towering man mounted a magnificent roan stallion. "But I do not like to leave The Rill without you or me there to defend her. She calls to me."
"I'll issue the orders," Rook acknowledged.
"Then get back to the sisters," Alaric demanded. "They are far too distracting to be left alone among the men. It is my command that they not be spoken to or touched. Make that order as clear as our marching direction."
"I shall," the blonde man kneed his mare into a brisk trot and set off to attend his duties. * * * * CHAPTER TWO
Poena hated riding in wagons.
Although the warrior named Rook had ordered she and her sister to remain out of sight, Poena decided to disobey that particular command. It was hot, stuffy, and cramped. Eva could sleep on the back of a charging bull, but, in sleep, as in everything else, Poena was more restless in nature than her sister.
Pushing her way to the front of the covered cart, she peeked out and climbed through an opening in the canvas. The old soldier who drove the wagon's pair of oxen jolted in surprise and shook his head sternly. "You are to ride in the back, Milady."
"It's too hot," Poena began to argue, only to have the words freeze upon her tongue. Her wide eyes took in the sight around her in amazement. She'd never seen so many men in all her life. For every mile, as far as she could see, there were Clansmen. Some rode horses, some drove wagons, still others marched on foot. All wore the same pattern on their cassocks, with the same crest, upon the breasts of their tunics. Wavy lines to indicate a river, beside it a bold spire of a tower, and a mighty sword driven into the shore between them. It had to be the trossen of the DeCastille Clan: Alaric's Clan. They all wore the brand proudly on their chests. At least, that seemed the case for the ones still wearing their tunics.
Clan cassocks were versatile costumes. Essentially a single garment, their patterns of folds allowed each warrior to fashion it according to his own needs. Looped generously about the middle to form a kilt-like bottom, the generous lengths of cloth were then fastened securely about the waist. The remainder of the fabric was most commonly drawn over the chest, displaying proudly the particular Clan's trossen. When the weather was too hot, however, as the evening seemed to be now, the top of a cassock could be tied behind the man's back, leaving him bare-chested.
Most of the marching warriors had selected to bare their muscled torsos. The sight made Poena gape openly. Their cassocks only reached to the knees, and without a stitch covering their masculine chests, there was an indecent ocean of naked flesh surrounding her. She was relieved that the driver of her wagon still wore his garment more modestly. Otherwise, she would scamper back into that stifling wagon.
"Lady LaTrovin!" Rook's voice thundered, and Poena glanced quickly toward its source. She had been so distracted by the skimpily clad men she hadn't even noticed the Don approach. "I ordered you and your sister to remain unseen."
Poena hissed in frustration. She hoped this was the last time she'd have to explain herself. She wasn't as patient and sweet-tempered as Eva. "Don DeVrist, it's stifling in there. If my appearance is so displeasing to you, I suggest you avert your gaze from my direction. It will soon be full dark soon and you won't be able to see me at all."
The blonde man's jaw set in controlled fury. She guessed he wasn't often spoken to so defiantly. No matter. She wasn't going to swelter merely to accommodate his stubbornness.
"Lady LaTrovin, we are barely two hours from your home. There is a very grueling march ahead, and you're a distraction to my men."
Turning to the wagon driver, Poena sighed. "Am I distracting you, Sir?"
"Yes, Milady," the old man answered earnestly.
Poena bristled. "Well, then I suggest you hand me the reins. I'm not so easily turned from my tasks."
"Lady," Rook growled wearily, "the men are not accustomed to women."
"There are dozens of women among the servants and vassals that your Seigneur is bringing back to your fortress," Poena searched in vain to see if she could spot them, but in the yawning twilight, they were either too far ahead, or too far back. It was no matter. She knew they were there. "I'm certainly no more a distraction than those women."
Gritting his teeth, Rook forced himself to control his temper. She was, after all, a Lady of Aristoi; she deserved proper respect and accommodation. And, for all her bluster, the woman was clearly an innocent. She truly seemed to not understand the effect of her own beauty. How was it possible for her to be so oblivious, and yet so bold?
"Lady LaTrovin, promise me that you will remain with the wagon. You will not distract your escort, and neither you nor your sister will cause any more trouble," he demanded.
Poena yawned indifferently giving a cat-like stretch that created a girlish contrast to her bold words. "I wasn't aware that getting fresh air was an act of defiance. But I shall do my best to abide by your wishes, Don DeVrist."
"Thank you, Milady." Without another word, the powerful man rode forward. Unlike his Seigneur, Poena noted, Rook wore his long blonde mane tied back with a leather strap. It should have made him appear tidier than his master, but he seemed just as wild as DeCastille. Both men were giants, even compared to the brawny army all around her. She'd never seen such men. They fascinated her.
Fourteen years spent locked away in a cloister had impaired Poena's view of the world. She had tried to maintain a worldly knowledge by reading and studying incessantly, but books were no comparison to real life. She had read of the Clan structure, for example, understood their traditions; but could never have envisioned their brute strength and muscular vigor.
Idle, she struggled to recall the lessons from her history books, and the musings from her late mother's diaries.
The Kingdom of Niobrea had been moderately peaceful for centuries, mostly because of the Clans. The main city of Prynne was where the current King, His Majesty Leander JaBayard, resided. At the center of the city was the great citadel, Kistvaen, renowned as the most imperial and fortified structure in all of Niobrea.
Kistvaen had been the birthplace of her own mother. Poena knew that from the journals and letters her mother had left behind. Gizella JaBez had been a Baroness, and the only daughter of the King's second cousin. According to her mother's journals, King JaBayard and Baroness JaBez had played together as children. Her mother seemed to recall him fondly, but distantly in her writings.
But, for whatever reason, Gizella had left Kistvaen and been given in marriage to Duke Mortimer LaTrovin, who became a titled Baron after the match. They had been wed for a mere three years when Gizella became pregnant with the twins. She'd died not long after the difficult labor.
The LaTrovin family was part of Niobrea's Aristoi. Their society was composed of the Lords, Ladies, and other titled aristocracy who attended the duties of Court, and who, through some ancestor or another, had a trace of royal blood in their family lines. The Aristoi lived in alcazars, large castles like Niord had been. Each alcazar served as the focal point of a village. Servants, vassals, and serfs lived either in separate quarters of the castle, or in huts and hostels somewhere upon their master's property. Aristoi lands were close to Prynne, and, as such, well protected from possible Inconnu attack.
Clan life was very different, according to Poena's readings. The Clans had evolved from soldiers who had been stationed on the very outskirts of Niobrean territory. Mighty fortresses had evolved from the once primitive forts, and high-ranking officers had taken to forming their own Clans, assuming the titles of Seigneur, Don, and Chieftain to separate themselves from their Aristoi titles. Ages upon centuries ago, these Clans had formed to defend the boundaries of the Niobrea, and each had their own heritage and tradition.
As such, the Clans were generally respected by the King, and by the Aristoi they protected. Without this mighty first line of defense, all Aristoi lands--even the great city of Prynne itself--would be at the mercy of the nomadic and brutal Inconnu. Still, Poena was certain that it was rare for a Seigneur to exact such a violent revenge upon an Aristoi Baron. Alaric DeCastille must have been greatly ill-used by her father.
Of course, she could only assume that was true. Poena regretted that she had no comparison of experience with either social structure. Clans or Aristoi, they were all foreign to her. She had been educated from the vast tomes of the convent, learning the proper names and designations, but never a true understanding of her subjects. For all she knew, this was a common happening between Barons and Seigneurs.
"You seem vexed, Milady," the wagon driver observed, hesitantly. "Are you uncomfortable?"
"I'm curious," Poena confessed, puckering her face in thoughtful repose. "Would you mind answering a few questions for me?"
"I'll answer what I can, gentle Miss," the soldier agreed with a nod.
"First, may I have your name, please, Sir?"
The well-tanned, older man chuckled softly. "You needn't address me as 'Sir,' Milady. I'm Sentry Willem DeVonn."
"A Sentry. That means you were wounded in battle, does it not, Willem?" she inquired, searching her memory.
"Yes, Miss. It does," he answered with surprised pleasure. He was obviously proud of the title. "I was skewered by an Inconnu Shadow five summers back. He ran a halberd through my gullet. It should have been a deadly blow, but I'm a stubborn sort."
Poena's eyes grew round. Giving the man a thorough inspection, she suspected he exaggerated his tale, but knew it would be rude to speak her suspicion. "Are you sure my questions will not distract you, Willem? Don DeVrist seemed to think I would pester you."
"It wasn't questions that the Don thought would distract me, Lady. It was your loveliness," he corrected.
It was all she could do not to fall off of the wooden bench seat. "My what?" she exclaimed, in an irritated tone.
"Begging your pardon, Lady LaTrovin, but certainly you and your sister realize..."
"Please," Poena interrupted, waving her hand. "No more of such nonsense," she had no patience with false flattery. The sisters at the cloister had often made clear their displeasure with her appearance. Her bronze curls were unruly and difficult to tame beneath a bonnet or into a plait. The color itself was bawdy and coarse. As for her eyes, well, they altered on occasion, and were altogether inconstant and strange. The rest of her was a tangle of limbs she could never quite figure out what to do with. Decorum demanded she possess an air of meek grace, but Poena had never owned such charms. Years of weaponry lessons and hand-to-hand combat skills had given her a lean musculature, which was utterly unacceptable, and, given her small frame, entirely unflattering. Eva was the gentle, lovely one between them. That had always been clear.
Willem merely nodded and deferred to her wishes. He would never understand the female mind. Some refused to admit their allure, others would fume if you didn't compliment them to their satisfaction. Willem was glad Lady LaTrovin was one who detested such talk, for he was not good with such things.
"This is the DeCastille Clan, am I right?" The name was ancient, and had even been in one of her history books. "I think I remember the trossen you all wear. It's something to do with a river, isn't it?"
"Yes, Milady. Our home is The Rill, and our Seigneur is Alaric DeCastille, the Iron Bastion." Willem's tone overflowed with pride.
"The Iron Bastion?" Poena repeated. That certainly hadn't been in any of her volumes.
"Aye. He was given the name years back when he was still a young warrior," Willem explained. "He fought a mighty battle with his father against an Inconnu horde. Employing a great feat of strategy, our Seigneur brought our troops in from two flanks, trapping the Inconnu and assuring our bloody victory. At the head of the line, young DeCastille stood, striking down hundreds of Inconnu by his own sword. They say he never broke stance, and could have been molded from iron he held so fast, dispatching enemy after enemy."
"I think you like telling tales, Willem," Poena chided dubiously.
He grinned at her, and she noted that several of his teeth were missing. "Yes, Milady, I do confess to enjoying the tales, but they are still true."
"Of course they are." What good was it to debate a yarn spinner? She would simply have to glean the important information from his ramblings. "So, Seigneur Alaric leads the Clan DeCastille?"
"Aye," Willem confirmed.
"And what of his property and his family?" she queried.
Puffing out his chest, Willem grinned again. "Well, seeing as the DeCastille Clan is more powerful than any other..."
"Willem, you must stop exaggerating. I'm having enough trouble understanding without all the extra details you add to your answers," Poena didn't want to be rude, but the man didn't seem able to summarize, and she feared Rook would ride up at any moment and scold her for being distracting.
"But, Milady. I give my word. DeCastille is the most powerful and vast of..."
"What Clan is the second most powerful, Willem?" she interrupted curtly.
"I would say the KilBreen Clan, Milady," he answered after a moment's reflection.
Smiling, Poena crossed her arms over her chest. "And if I were to ask a KilBreen Clansman, which Clan would he tell me is the most powerful?"
A sheepish expression made Willem blush. "I would wager a KilBreen warrior would answer that the Clan KilBreen is the most powerful, Milady."
"I believe I've made my meaning clear," she nodded to emphasize her point.
"They'd be wrong, of course. DeCastille is the most powerful, Lass."
Tossing up her arms in exasperation, Poena couldn't help but sigh. "Honestly, Willem. Can you please just tell me of the place where I am to be kept prisoner and the people who will be my keepers?"
Willem looked absolutely stricken. "Kept prisoner, Milady?"
"Really, Willem. You must strive to keep yourself more informed. You cannot rely upon your leaders with closed eyes," shaking her head, she frowned at him. "My sister and I are the prisoners of Seigneur Alaric DeCastille. I'm sure he's taken us to ransom my father, or for some other purpose that eludes me..."
"The Seigneur would never ransom you, Milady," Willem interrupted abruptly.
"Well, then perhaps me means to be severe upon me for raising my sword against him. I read briefly about prisoners of war in one of my history books. Perhaps we shall only be detained until Alaric ends his war with my father," knitting her brow in thought, she mused aloud. "There was a rather unpleasant chapter regarding torture and dungeons. I do hope our imprisonment isn't to include anything like that. I don't think I should ever get accustomed to shackles."
Again, the Sentry looked utterly offended. "The Seigneur would not keep you two gentle creatures in a dungeon! And, I'm certain he has no intention of shackling you!"
"You needn't raise your voice," she chided him stiffly. "I've never been a prisoner before. I'm only trying to find out about the DeCastille Clan so I'll know what to expect.
"Shackles on a gentlewoman," he muttered in disgust. "I'm sure I've never heard of such a thing."
"Please, Willem," she coaxed, fighting a note of desperation in her voice.
"Alright," Willem relented. "Let me see, now. I suppose I can start by telling you that we're taking you home to The Rill."
"The Rill is the DeCastille fortress?" she remembered the Clans called their castles fortresses and not alcazars. "And that's the tower which is represented by your Clan trossen?"
Willem nodded. "Yes. Properly, the fortress is Arabesque Rill, which means 'the patchwork river' but mostly we call it The Rill."
"Why is it called 'the patchwork river'? Or is that another tall tale?"
Chuckling, Willem shook his head. "Nay. That answer is easy. When you get to the vast river that runs alongside our battlements, you'll see that it has many different patches of color. Some blue, some green, some clear as a spring morn."
"It sounds lovely," Poena enthused. "I had thought that because it would be on the boundaries of the kingdom that it might be a barren land."
"'Tis the most beautiful land in all creation, sweet Miss. And that's no exaggeration," he winked at her, and Poena warmed to the humor of his eyes.
"And Sir Alaric presides there alone?" she questioned. "He doesn't have a Rayne? A Rayne is what they call the Seigneur's wife, isn't it?"
"Aye, Lass. 'Tis what the woman would be called, but our Seigneur hasn't yet taken a bride. That is a sore spot of the Clan, Milady. Alaric was the only son of his father, and does not yet have an heir."
Patting his arm sympathetically, Poena sighed. "I shouldn't worry. He seems a good strong man. Besides, should anything happen, his Don would simply take on the DeCastille name and rule on."
Willem turned to face her fully for a moment, his weathered face betraying admiration. "You know a great deal about Clan ways, Milady."
Poena shrugged. "Anything that could be put in a book, I know," there was no pride in her tone. Quite the opposite, in fact; her confession seemed to be something that chagrined her. "But no book could tell me of your Clan's character, or how lovely The Rill would be, Willem," she paused before pressing further questions. "Does Seigneur Alaric have no family, then? No parents or cousins?"
"Nay," Willem said again, a trace of sadness to his tone. "The numbers of the DeCastille family have dwindled since the Seigneurs and Raynes stopped keeping consorts."
"As well they should!" Poena exclaimed. "You needn't sound as though you mourn the end of that sinful practice," he offered her no answer but a shrug, and she decided to leave the topic alone. "So, then who resides at The Rill?"
"Oh, a great many, Lass," Willem gave a soft whistle below his breath. "There is the Seigneur, and his Don, and his many Chieftains and advisors. Their families, of course, reside there also. The servants are there, and a large number of guards and warriors."
Poena nodded approvingly. "And, is it so that the Clan fortresses are twice as large as Aristoi alcazars?"
"Yes, Miss. A great deal larger."
Nodding, Poena appeared sated for the moment. "Thank you, Willem. You've been a great help to me."
"Milady?" the older man asked hesitantly. He seemed to debate whether or not to ask what was on his mind.
"And now, may I ask you a question?"
"Certainly," she smiled. "I've asked you enough of them."
"Did you grow up at court, Miss? I've never met an Aristoi Lady before, but you're somewhat different from what I expected."
She shook her head sadly. Even a Clansman could tell how unrefined she was. "My sister and I grew up in a cloister, Willem. Our mother died upon our birth, and our father knew nothing about raising children. When we were seven we were sent to the Priory of Divine Tacity. The Abbesses and monks raised us until little over a month ago. Our father sent for us to return to him upon our twenty-first birthday."
Willem's mouth hung open. "Fourteen years, Milady? In a cloister?"
"Yes," Poena nodded absently. "It was very peaceful there. I must say no one ever threatened to burn down our abbey or take us prisoner."
"I would think not," Willem agreed, swallowing hard to contain his disbelief.
Stretching her arms out, Poena yawned boldly and rubbed her eyes. "Willem, as much as I hate to climb back into that stuffy old wagon, I'm going to have to rest. It's been a very long, very unsettling day."
"Aye, Lass. I wager it has."
"Goodnight, then, Willem. You will be here when I get up from my nap?"
"I'm certain I will, Miss."
Pleased with his answer, Poena nodded and climbed back through the canvas to the back of the wagon. The night air was a little cooler than the early evening, and Poena was able to breathe without inhaling the musty humidity that had bothered her earlier.
Eva was curled upon her side, in an almost fetal position, sighing softly in contented slumber. Unable to help but smile, Poena lay down beside her sister and coiled protectively around Eva. Humming gently, Poena took her sister's hands into her own, closed her eyes, and drifted into her habit of light, vigilant repose.
It had been a very long day, indeed. * * * *
Climbing down from his ornamental carriage, Baron LaTrovin adjusted his cloak and brushed the dust of travel from his stately costume. It had been a rigorous journey, but he had finally reached the home of Duke Theobald BaSimeon. The magnificent alcazar of the BaSimeon family was called Lateen, and its young master stood upon the front steps of the massive castle, waiting impatiently for the Baron to finish grooming himself.
"Where are the girls?" Theobald called restlessly. He was a lean, weasel of a man with yellow hair cut sharply in the latest fashion of court. His right eye was covered by a stark patch, but the left glowed a dark blue. It would have been difficult for a man so inflicted to exude kindness; BaSimeon didn't even try. His demeanor reeked of sinister conniving.
"I left them at Niord," Baron LaTrovin declared boldly, advancing forward on his spindly legs to greet Theobald. "Has Duke FaLetton arrived yet?"
"You left them?" the Duke barked, outraged. "Are you mad, Mortimer? Messengers informed me that a Clan war horde is bound for your lands!"
The Baron shrugged. "They are doubtless there by now."
"And you simply left the girls?"
His old gray eyes swimming with disapproval, Mortimer glared at the younger man with ruthless authority. "You will not shout at me, Duke BaSimeon. Now, let us go inside; the heat is suffocating today. And you did not answer my question. Has FaLetton arrived?"
"No, he has not," Theobald growled as he followed the Baron like a servant into his own alcazar.
"Are your troops prepared to accompany us back?" LaTrovin pressed.
"I will not commit my forces until I know of Eva's fate. I'm not going to wage war for a bride who's been defiled by a garrison of Clan barbarians," the younger man spat.
"Your concern for your fiance is touching," Mortimer hissed sarcastically. "But, if you'll think for a moment, you'll see I had no choice but to leave the girls. DeCastille was coming to destroy my alcazar and slaughter my troops. Why else would he set out with such a number of men?" They had passed into the large parlor Theobald used as a study on the first floor of the castle. The Baron settled arrogantly into the Duke's favorite chair, and ordered the attending servant to fetch a brandy.
"Do make yourself at home, Baron," Theobald glared at his elder.
"I already have, so you can abandon the sarcasm. Do not bare your teeth at me, pup," Mortimer's tone was threatening. "I am more dangerous than you dare to guess."
When Theobald said nothing more, LaTrovin continued. "As I was saying, it was obvious DeCastille means to destroy me. By leaving the girls there, two possibilities arise. First, he may take pity on the girls and spare my property. Eva may just be able to inspire a man to do such a thing." Sipping his brandy, the Baron nodded in approval. "This is a fine vintage, my boy. Your tastes are improving."
"And the second possibility?" BaSimeon pressed.
The second is that they will destroy my property and take the girls as prisoner. Should that happen, moral outrage will be on my side. I shall go to the King and demand royal troops to aid us in the return of my poor daughters. And I shall take DeCastille's fortune in recompense.
Crossing his arms over his chest, the Duke made a disgusted sound. "Neither of these scenarios inspires me to rush to your aid, Baron."
"Don't be a quibbling idiot," LaTrovin snapped angrily. "Eva is promised to you as Poena is promised to FaLetton. Neither of you are after a loving, blushing bride. You wanted to wed a Baroness to improve your stature at court."
"A dishonored bride does not serve that purpose, does it, Baron LaTrovin?" Theobald asked icily.
Mortimer shrugged. "I think it unlikely that a Clansman would dare to dishonor an Aristoi Lady. Especially Eva. They might slap Poena about a bit because of her sharp tongue, but it's nothing more than I've had to do myself. If they do bed them, the King will be more outraged than I. It would mean the destruction and punishment of DeCastille completely."
"It is a gamble, old man."
"Bloody hell; you do like to piss and moan," Mortimer growled in irritation. "So what if Eva is a little well used afterward? You'll still be able to wed a Baroness, and your sons will be Barons. That's precisely what you're after."
"Maybe," theobald reasoned. "But the price I'm willing to pay for damaged goods will not be the same as we agreed upon for a virginal bride. And, if you require my armies as well, then we have other terms to negotiate also."
Exasperated, Mortimer rose again to his feet and faced the young Duke. "There are dozens of low class Aristoi eager to make a match with my title, whether they get to break my daughters or not. You have wealth, Theobald, but do not think for an instant that you are in control of this situation."
"Your arrogance might get you into trouble one day, old man," BaSimeon threatened darkly.
"Watch the way you snarl, pup. I'll tolerate just so much. It's my alcazar under attack, and my fortune at stake here. Do you think I care that you'll not have the chance to deflower one of my daughters?" The Baron shook his head dangerously. "Now, let's have no more of this dark talk. FaLetton will arrive soon, and he's enough of a cur without my having to battle with you as well. You'll get Eva and her title, and this matter with DeCastille will soon be past us."
"I should hope so," theobald heaved. "Maybe if FaLetton combines his troops with mine we will have enough of a force to consider setting form. We might get there before two nights have passed. It will surely take the barbarians that long to finish their marauding, as undisciplined and rutting mad as they all are."