The Stolen Jewel
An Episodic Medieval Fantasy Romance
Kimberly A. Rogers
The kingdom of Cymru is balanced on the edge of civil war. Tensions are high and cruel King Mauger intends to cement his rule with an heir but first he must take a wife, willing or no. Etain has no desire to wed the monster who wears the crown but when her father pledges her hand to him, she fears she is doomed to a life of misery. But raiders attack her wedding caravan and she is carried off by their masked leader. Duke Ronan’s boldness in spiriting away the tyrant’s intended seems half-mad to Etain, especially when they arrive at his keep to find a priest waiting to wed them. Ronan gives Etain a choice – she can wed him or he will send her back to her father . . . and the king.
“Father, no!” Etain clasped her hands against her waist to keep from clinging to her father’s tunic or twisting her own heavy velvet skirts. Her father did not tower over her by even a head but she still had to raise her chin slightly to meet his piercing grey eyes, her own pleading for him to find a way to deliver her from the horrid fate now awaiting her.
But the man who had always protected her, always listened to her requests, even if he did not always indulge her, only set his bearded jaw in a determined line. Though Lugh, Count of Haderyn, was not a tall man, he was broad. His square build was now cloaked in a scarlet doublet that strained across his chest and shoulders and contrasted with his close-cropped silvered brown hair. The bejeweled hilt of his sword in the shape of a rampant hippogriff matched the family crest emblazoned in silver on the jet clasp of his black frieze cloak. His boots were still caked in drying mud and his hunting gloves were yet clutched in his right hand, testifying that the news he bore had first interrupted his hunt. Now, though there was a hint of regret in his grey gaze, her father shook his head. “You have no choice, lass. I have no choice.” His deep voice gentled as he offered, “Mauger’s offer is a great honor.”
A shudder ran down the length of her spine. Disgust made her tone sharper than intended as she snapped, “He is a monster!”
“He is the king!” Her father stepped forward, shoving his leather gloves in his belt before engulfing her hands between his, as he hissed, “And as king, Mauger may lay claim to any maid in the kingdom. Even if I tried to deny him now that his eye has alighted on you, Etain, he would still have you as wife.”
Etain shook her head, recalling all too clearly the tales of butchery, overindulgence, debauchery, and cruelties too ghastly to be named. Everything in her recoiled at the thought of wedding the Monster of Cymru. “Please.”
The word was little more than a whisper but still Lugh cast a furtive look over his shoulder as though Mauger’s great brute of an emissary might burst into her chamber at any moment. Then he turned back to her, his solemn gaze now tinged with pity, and touched her cheek for a moment before he shook his head. “There is nothing to be done. If you fled, your attempted rebellion would lead to my lands being razed, our people slaughtered, and you would be paraded in chains to his fortress instead of travelling safely in a caravan that will cater to the comforts of Mauger’s betrothed. With his reputation, you should know that any attempt on your part to escape will only make his hand fall heavier on you when you are brought to him.”
She shuddered again, feeling as cold as if the fire burning merrily in the hearth was but an illusion. Everyone knew what had happened to Mauger’s last mistress. The daughter of a wealthy silk merchant whose only crime had been to wish an escape from the gilded cage Mauger had placed her in. The poor girl had been burned at the stake for treason after she defied a degrading command from the king. In her heart of hearts, Etain knew that Mauger’s wife would fare little better. But to escape was impossible and would cause even greater harm to her father and their people. The realization made her sink down into the chair from which she had sprung upon hearing her father’s news. Betrothed. She drew a hitching breath then slowly looked up at her father. However, there was no hitch in her voice as Etain quietly asked, “When will the caravan leave?”
“Tomorrow. As soon as the morning fast has been broken.”
She nodded, but did not permit herself to react. “I will summon Tura so we can pack.”
“According to the king’s emissary, you need only bring travelling clothes. When you arrive at Carchar, Mauger will give you a wardrobe fit for a queen.” Her father’s wan attempt at a smile failed to conceal his unease over the implicit command that Etain bring nothing of her old home, of her old life, with her. She wanted to bristle at the thought of leaving her precious books and the loom where her mother had taught her to weave the same tapestries that now brightened her father’s hall. But if she brought them, especially the books, she would no doubt be forced to watch as they were destroyed before Mauger punished her.
No. No, it would be far wiser to leave them here. She nodded slowly and murmured, “Tura will be relieved.”
The elderly lady’s maid was far more likely to huff and grumble about uppity lordlings even if the ‘lordling’ in question was the king. Her father gave a curt nod then moved to leave but he paused with his hand on the door handle. His silvered head was bent and he spoke in a rumbling whisper, “I never thought I would regret that you survived the fever last spring.” Lugh cleared his throat then stated in a louder voice, “Perhaps Shaddai has a plan for you to help reach Mauger, lass. This could be His will.”
His will? How could the sham of a marriage that Mauger would force on her be Shaddai’s will? Surely, He would not ask so much of her. Could there not be some way for her to escape without bringing Mauger’s wrath down on her father and their people?
Etain was careful to keep her thoughts from showing as her father glanced back at her. She offered a faint smile of her own as she spoke what she did not believe, “Perhaps it is, Father.”
As she watched him slip out, a mere shadow of the proud warrior who had led the charge against an invasion of trolls in 845, and the despise she felt for the Monster of Cymru grew. Whirling about, Etain crossed the chamber to the large window seat. Pulling her skirts up slightly, she clambered onto the worn cushions then leaned her forehead against the cool pane of glass and sighed. Perhaps, just perhaps, there was a way to escape. She simply couldn’t flee from her father’s home. Yes, a smile curved her lips as she contemplated the mud and puddles left behind by the night’s storm, mud that would no doubt slow the caravan’s progress, I will wait until the caravan crosses the borders of our lands and then I can run without Father being suspected.
The heavy oaken door slammed open, crashing into the stone wall and making her jump. She twisted around to see Mauger’s brute of an emissary leering at her. Standing, she watched as the hulking brute loomed in the doorway before he stepped inside. His small, piggish eyes squinted against the caressing rays of sunlight for a moment before he surveyed the chamber—covetousness creeping into his gaze when it fell upon the rich tapestries and furnishings and when he dared to open her jewelry box and draw out her mother’s emeralds before carelessly tossing them back in, a sneer curling his lip as he eyed the seven books spread across her writing table although she rather doubted the thug could read, and, most disturbing of all, sheer avarice mixed with a hungry light as he impudently raked his gaze over her from the top of her head to the hem of her bliaut. Etain raised her chin defiantly even as she shuddered inside and wished that the spring day were cold enough to justify wearing a mantle over the close-fitting gown. Nevertheless, she only allowed a hint of frost in her voice, knowing that Mauger’s pet thug had a long leash and his master had yet to call to him to heel. “Why have you entered my chamber, Sir Grimbol? My lord father and the king would not approve of your presence here. A lady’s chamber is sacrosanct, after all.”
Sir Grimbol’s beefy face crumpled in confusion for only a heartbeat but then his already wine-flushed complexion mottled as anger overrode desire. His surprisingly high voice came out in a whine as he snarled, “King Mauger wants all of his betrothed’s comforts to be met and he has sent you a present of two slave girls.” A contemptuous light entered his piggish eyes as he added, “They will be swifter than that hag the old man claimed was your lady’s maid.”
Horror tumbled and churned its way through her. She had heard the furtive whispers amongst the servants and her father’s men-at-arms before Tura shooed her out of earshot, but never had she imagined that Mauger would grow bold enough to openly parade slaves, much less ‘gift’ them to anyone. It was a breach of the inter-kingdom charter to own sentient beings, human or no. The other five kingdoms would rise against Cymru if they learned Mauger was now bold enough to declare people ‘slaves.’ But . . . who would dare to tell them?
Only when the girls were brought in, cringing and timid, by two hulking guards did Etain register Tura’s squawked protestations echoing up the stairwell. Her eyes flew to where Sir Grimbol was looming over the girls. He noticed her attention and a triumphant sneer curled his lip just before he backhanded the younger of the girls as she made the mistake of reaching for one of the books with a coarse oath that blistered Etain’s ears. She stepped forward to intervene but Sir Grimbol gave her a warning look just before he yanked the stunned girl up, his beefy fingers digging into her arm with bruising force, and then shoved her toward the massive wardrobe, ignoring her muted cry of pain when she tumbled into an open chest. His warning was too clear to be ignored. Any attempt on Etain’s part to interfere would only bring greater harm to the poor girls.
Frustrated at her own helplessness, Etain returned to the window. She watched as a wild gryphon, its jet-black wings standing out against the blue sky, floated lazily on the updrafts. She imagined what it would be like to ride on one, to fly far from Cymru and out of Mauger’s clutches. Once she had flown with her father on his hippogriff stallion but that had been before her mother died after some fool of a hunter shot down her hippogriff. Her father had restricted her to land-bound horses after that incident.
Sir Grimbol’s high voice filled the air, “Set a watch on the lady’s chamber until morning and the slaves are to sleep in here. King’s orders. And tell the old man that a hippogriff shall be served for dinner.”
Etain did not turn from the window. Despite the high offense of requiring her father to not only kill one of their prize hippogriffs but to also eat the very symbol of their house, she did not turn and she did not allow herself to react. It was what he wanted. Sir Grimbol was the sort who delighted most in watching victims squirm and thrash in their attempts to escape his master’s traps. Still her gaze fell to what she could see of the courtyard and the soldiers clad in purple tabards with a blood-red basilisk emblazoned on their chests, a score and five in number, milling about the courtyard and the hall. Members of Mauger’s royal guard, loyal to the Monster of Cymru alone and all as soul dead as him if rumor was to be believed, who had come to ensure that his intended reached his side.
Raising her eyes to the heavens, Etain once more searched for the gryphon but the jet-black creature had vanished. Like her hopes of escape. She would be locked in a gilded cage for Mauger’s amusement. She raised her chin slightly and silently promised herself that though she would be imprisoned, she would not become a victim.
The Stolen Jewel Copyright © 2015 Kimberly A. Rogers and blog. All rights reserved. This story is a work of fiction and a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Illustration: “Stitching the Standard” by Edmund Leighton, 1911.