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Forever His

By´╝ÜShelly Thacker

Forever His



Shelly Thacker


Prologue


Artois Region, France, 1299

Rain pelted down from the iron-gray sky, choking the first tentative rays of morning sunlight and turning the trampled battlefield to treacherous mud. Unarmed and unescorted, Sir Gaston de Varennes walked slowly past the two assembled armies, his dark mood matched by the clouds overhead, his pace slowed by pain from the freshly bound wound in his side—and by the agonizing knowledge that the action he was about to take would haunt him for the rest of his life.

He stopped a few paces short of his destination, his body tensing as he stared at the hastily erected tent and its drooping white-and-blue pennant. The downpour deepened the autumn chill in the air, sluicing off his helm and soaking through his surcoat and chain mail until he felt the cold to the raw depths of his soul. The drenching rain could not wash away the scents of smoke and blood that hung heavily in the air.

He turned a narrowed gaze on the men gathered around—his own forces on the right and his enemy’s on the left. The tent’s festive colors struck a sharp contrast to the somber, grit-smudged, determined faces of these warriors whose weapons lay at their feet. The steady ping of raindrops upon discarded blades and shields and battle-axes made strange music in the uneasy silence.

As he studied his own ranks—loyal knights who had served his family for years, men who had fought valiantly beside him these two months—Gaston saw the message vivid in each pair of eyes: despite the fact that they were badly outnumbered, despite their almost-depleted supplies, they would fight on if he but said the word.

One word and they would battle until the death of the last man. Until they had claimed some measure of justice from the soulless whoreson who had by treachery taken lives and land from the house of Varennes.

Gaston felt as if he were being ripped in half. His warrior’s heart was one with theirs, pumping fire through his veins, searing him with a longing for steel and vengeance. Never had he felt more like the symbol emblazoned on his surcoat: a black lion on a silver field. A dark predator stalking the shadows.

But the leader in him knew the foolishness of continuing this battle with winter’s bite in the air, with his forces and his food stores already dangerously depleted. He could not so heedlessly spend the lives of those who depended upon him.

Nor could he defy the man who had called him to this place. The one man in all the realm who could force a halt to this war.

Clenching his jaw, he turned, thrust aside the tent flap, and entered the torchlit darkness where unwelcome peace would be met.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the flickering light. He removed his helm and straightened to his full height, his dark hair brushing the top of the tent. A rough-hewn table and two chairs had been placed in the center of the small pavilion.

The table, he noted, was round, traditional symbol of honor among knights, a table to be used for the making of noble bargains and the sealing of vows of friendship. The sort of table that he himself found use for only rarely. On the far side of it stood the Duc Alain de la Tourelle.

Gaston fastened a murderous expression upon him and saw his own hatred mirrored back tenfold.

By nails and blood, how many weeks had he fought to get within blade’s reach of this cur? In every melee, Gaston had battled like a madman, trying to win a clear path to that pale visage with its keen blue eyes and wild crop of red hair. He had never quite managed it.

Now his palm itched for the pommel of his sword and his muscles went taut with ready violence. The deep slash in his side throbbed, but he barely felt it through a haze of frustrated fury.

Holding his enemy’s gaze, he stepped closer to the table, ignored the chair that had been provided for him, and tossed down his helm. It landed with a clatter.

“Varennes,” Tourelle said with a humorless smile, leaning forward and bracing his arms on the thick oak, “as our host has not arrived yet, mayhap you and I might come to an understanding, without his interference. The claim I have upon the chateaux and the lands I have taken is—”

“Your claim is a lie.” Gaston yanked off his mail gauntlets and threw them down beside his helm. “The lands you took by treachery mark you as a thief, and the lives you took mark you as a murderer.”

Tourelle sneered. “You are a strange one to accuse another man of knavery, Blackheart.”

Gaston ignored the familiar gibe. “Is that why you dared attempt such blatant theft?” he asked scathingly. “Did you truly believe that the arrant son would offer no resistance?”

“It is surprising that you could tear yourself away from dicing and comely wenches long enough to lead men into battle,” Tourelle shot back. “But we waste time. The claim I have through my mother’s line is both ancient and valid. As for the tournament which went awry—”

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