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An Unholy Marriage
It had been days since Nicholas Cree and his sister, Gillian, had eaten. Their bellies rumbled; their heads ached with hunger; their fingers and toes were numb with cold, their lips blue. The snows through which they were wading had turned their limbs stiff and they could no longer drag themselves through the building drifts.
Prince Kaelan Hesar made the mistake of falling in love with a girl of whom his Jarl did not approve and was thrown into prison because of that love. His heart broken, his spirit crushed, he was sold in marriage to the highest bidder and forbidden to ever see his love again.
Lady Gillian Cree, fleeing the unwanted attentions of a man she'd been ordered to marry, stumbles upon a derelect manor house in the midst of a snow storm and discovers true love never dies.
A tale of unrequited love, undying devotion, and lovers searching for happiness in a world set against them.
It had been foolish to try to escape in the dead of winter; they knew that now. The horses had run off the second day, frightened away by the snarling of timber wolves. Nicholas had lost his direction in the blowing snow and they had been wandering uselessly for several hours. In the whiteout that encased them, there was no glimmer of hope; no light toward which they could guide their tired bodies. Now, almost to the point of exhaustion, the two young people took refuge beneath a low rocky mountain overhang and sat shivering as they huddled together, trying desperately to blend the dwindling heat of their rapidly chilling bodies. All that was left was the heartless, icy death that awaited them during the long, frigid night.
"I'm sorry, Gilly," Nick croaked through cracked and bleeding lips.
Gilly Cree used what was left of her strength to squeeze her brother's hand. "You did the best you could, Nick," she answered him.
Nick pressed his face against the wet wool of her coat and sobbed, his tears freezing on his chapped cheeks as he cried. He could not feel the trembling of his sister s cold fingers as she stroked his damp hair.
"I don't blame you, Nicky," she whispered. "You tried to help."
The wind whipped past them, sending clumps of pristine white flakes, heavy and damp, cascading over the overhang s rim. Piercing howls as the blizzard increased made the wind seems like a sentient being screaming its protests to the world around them.
"I didn't want it to end like this," Nick sobbed. "Oh, God, Gilly! I didn't want it to end like this!"
She began to hum to him, a lilting tune from their Chalean childhood, hugging him to her as best she could. Her voice broke now and again as happy memories of their growing up together flitted unbidden across her mind s eye. As she let the tune dwindle away, she imagined she could hear someone calling to them from out of the wind. But that was just a painful wish, she thought with bitter regret for no one knew where they had gone. No one, not even their beloved sister, Adele, had been made privy to their hasty plans to spirit Gillian out of Hellstrom Point and away from the unwanted attentions of Rolf de Viennes.
"He'll not find us in Serenia," Nick had sworn to her as he had helped her pack her small valise. "We'll find work in Boreas; change our names. Everything will be all right. You'll see!"
They had left Virago on the night before her wedding to the man her father had decreed she spend the rest of her life with, despite the fact that he hated the de Viennes family almost as much as Gilly hated Rolf.
"It's a matter of honor," her father had shouted at her. "You'll take him to husband and not argue about it!"
"The man is vile!" Gilly had argued with her father. "I can not walk the corridors of the Keep without him trying to paw me!"
"It is past time you were married," her stepmother had said icily. "The de Viennes family is important in the Realm. They are people of means. You could do worse that Rolf de Viennes."
"How so?" Gilly had shouted at her stepmother. "He has asked for the hand of every eligible maiden at court and has been turned down. Can you not see the man is..."
"It is settled!" her father, the Duke of Warthenham, had hissed at her." I owe the Hesar family a debt of honor and I will see that debt paid!"
No amount of honor could force Gilly to accept Rolf de Viennes or make her even consider spending her life at his mercy. His reputation alone, one of cruelty and viciousness, had turned Gilly s heart to stone with fear; but every argument she had made to her father, every tear, every tantrum, every pleading, had been met with stony silence.
"I won't let Papa give you to that lecher, Gilly," Nick had pledged. "Not if my very life depends on it."
As the guests began to assemble two months later at Tempest Keep, the mighty fortress of the Hesar family where members of the peerage had taken their marriage vows for generations, Nick and Gilly had made plans for her escape.
Now, here in this godawful cold; in this desolate place where nothing stirred and warmth was just a fleeting memory, Nick s life might well end because he had loved his sister too much to see her shackled to a man she could not abide.
Gilly lifted her head, hearing the phantom calling once more. She tensed, hoping against hope that it was not someone sent to bring them back. Praying as she hugged her brother closer to her breast that no trackers had been close on their heels when they had crossed over into Serenia.
If they had crossed over into Serenia. Nick was not sure. For all he knew, they might well still be in Virago.
"Do you hear that, Nicky?" she whispered to him, bending down so she could place her lips to his ear. Above the keening of the arctic wind, she doubted if he could hear her otherwise. "Do you hear it?"
"What?" he asked tiredly, his eyes closing against the spreading warmth and lassitude that was beginning to envelop him.
Again the ghostling voice came out of the wind and Gilly pushed her brother away, too tired and cold herself to notice the languor that was claiming her own body. "Listen, Nick!" she told him. "Do you hear someone calling for help?"
"Trackers," Nick stated in a flat, emotionless voice. "They've found us."
"No," Gilly disagreed. "I don't think so." Easing her brother out of her arms, she wrapped her heavy coat closer around her shivering body and leaned out beyond the overhang, ignoring the fat clumps of snow which fell heavily on her quivering shoulders. She squinted into the bright white swirl of snow that spun around her and imagined for a moment she saw a arcing light off to her right.
"Come back, Gilly," Nick pleading. His teeth were clicking together so hard he had to clamp his jaws shut to control them.
"Help me, please!"
"There! Did you hear it?" Gilly cried out. "Someone is in trouble, Nick!"
"No more so than we are," Nick mumbled as he pressed his back against the unbearably cold rock behind him.
Once more Gilly saw the flare of light, closer now, and she reached back for Nick s arm. "We've got to try to help, Nicholas!" She dragged on her brother's sleeve. "Nicky, please!"
A part of Nicholas Cree wanted to stay where he was; to close his eyes and sleep; to let the frigid wind lull him into the arms of the Gatherer and keep him there for eternity, but another part of him was touched by the pleading in his sister s voice and he stirred, coming to his knees in the snow, reaching out to restrain her from venturing out from under the overhang.
"How do you know it isn't a tracker, Gilly?" he asked, listening intently for the ghostly voice he, himself, had heard calling for help.
"I just do," Gilly said forcefully. "Whoever it is, he is in need of assistance, Nick, and so are we. Maybe he can lead us to safety."
"He may well be just as lost as we are, Gilly," Nick sighed, but he crawled out from under the overhang, stood, then held his hand out to his sister. "Come on, then. We might as well freeze out here as under there."
Lowering their heads against the onslaught of the pummeling snow and biting wind, brother and sister began trudging their way toward the bobbing light.
Jasper Kullen lifted his lantern once more toward the thrashing sound coming from the frozen pond then shrugged indifferently. He turned his head slightly to follow the bolting of the doe as it wove through the tall spruce and disappeared into the forest beyond, wishing he had his crossbow with him. The doe would have fed his family for several weeks had he been able to bring her down in the force of the blizzard s wind.
Kullen looked back toward the pond just in time to see the man s head disappear beneath the surface of the water. The broken chunks of ice around where the man had vanished bobbed for a moment as a struggling hand pushed up from the water, clawing at the ice floe. The grasping fingers slid away from the slippery ice, grabbed frantically at the floe, missed, then disappeared beneath the churning waves.
"Die, you sorry bastard," Kullen spat. "Do us all a favor and die!"
The crack of ice breaking away shot over the howling wind; the pond water heaved, splashing over the ice floe as the man tried desperately to claw himself out of the water once more. Unable to lever himself up, the man sank heavily beneath the waters, thrashing as he did, his hand grabbing feebly at the ice to keep himself from going under again.
More ice broke off from the main floe and the struggling man disappeared one last time below the surface, his hand, descending slowly through the cold water, still clutching a jagged section of ice in its rigid fingers.
For a long time, Kullen stood watching the waters subside. When at last the ice was still and the surface began glazing over, freezing solid once more, he let a vindictive smile slowly spread over his weathered face.
"Good riddance," Jasper Kullen said, nodding. "And may the Demons roast you over a slow spit."
Hitching up his shoulders into the relative warmth of is great cape, the woodcutter turned and headed back up he path to his hut