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Lady Christine is about to be married to Prince Randolph against her will. Who will come to save her from a lifetime of suffering? A story about love and how it breaks all the rules.
Big Cliff’s hooves pounded the earth beneath her as she fled. Christine looked over her shoulder, but they were still chasing her. She kicked Big Cliff hard in the flanks. He snorted and shook his beautiful mane but could go no faster. He was a large horse, built for strength not speed.
She looked behind her again. They were closer now, close enough she could identify Prince Randolph amongst his score of men, hair whipped back, sword at his hip, bent low over his horse’s neck.
He was determined, Christine couldn’t deny him that.
Ahead, there was nowhere to hide, all rolling fields and blue sky. There was a copse of trees to the East, but that was no good, not with Big Cliff’s size.
They were closing in, the sound of pounding hooves loud in her ears. Then a hand grabbed onto her bridle from the left, another tore the reins out of her grasp from her right, and Christine clutched onto Big Cliff’s neck as he reared up with a neigh before his hooves hit the ground again with a heavy thud.
‘Lady Christine.’ Prince Randolph dropped from his mount, his tunic’s golden buttons blazing in the sunlight. He grabbed onto her bridle and smiled up at her. She tried to kick out, but the knight next to him seized onto her ankle so tightly she had to stifle a gasp.
‘Why must we play these games?’
‘They’re no games to me,’ she said.
‘Come down. Join me. Let’s stop this silly fighting.’
When she refused, he seized her around the waist and pulled her into his arms. She struggled against him, but he merely laughed and held her tight. Arms pinned to her sides and surrounded by his knights, Christine could do nothing but let him kiss her.
He sniffed at her hair, sighed. ‘You have no idea how long I ache for our wedding night.’
‘You have no idea how much I loathe the thought.’
He laughed again and kissed her on the nose, then turned to his knights. ‘Let’s be off.’
He hoisted her onto his grey stallion and sat heavily behind her, arms on either side of her as he gripped the reins. He turned the horse around and nudged it into a trot. She could see Castle Greyton, a dark smudge in the distance. She loved and hated the place, home to both her greatest love and her greatest enemy.
Prince Randolph kicked his horse, and they galloped towards it.
Prince Randolph was no fool. Though he looked the part of a pompous prince, he was also a knight, skilled with the sword and trained to sniff out any danger.
He was sniffing now, and it stank. The church was overflowing with people: the pews, the aisles, the balconies upstairs, the steps outside, the rest spilling out into the courtyard beyond, all waiting to view a royal wedding.
He looked hard at his groomsmen: friends Sir Wentworth and Prince Valden of York. Could it be one of them? Then he looked at his best man, his brother Prince Christian, who smiled at him. Younger by two years, he was next in line to the throne. Prince Randolph loved his brother, and he thought his brother loved him, but was he wrong? Could it be he who was conspiring against him?
He glanced over at the bridesmaids and dismissed them. His ugly, big-jawed sister sat with her husband, Prince Hannagan, in the front pew below. Beside them were his parents, the king and queen. He dismissed them too. His eyes trailed over the crowd of lords and ladies, princes and princess, barons and dukes and knights. Bright sunlight coursed through the stained-glass windows above, shining on their hair and clothes. It could be anyone. He locked eyes with Sir Henry standing in the shadows below. He too had been scanning the crowd carefully. His best knight dipped his head at him, hand on his sword, ever watchful.
The news that someone had been conspiring to disrupt his wedding was both a shock and unsurprising. If that made any sense. It was not unusual for someone to attempt to unseat him. He wasn’t the most liked prince in the world. But for someone to steal his bride—
He shook his head. Who would be stupid or mad enough to risk their head for love? Political gain, yes. Riches and ransom, of course. But for love? Ludicrous. Nevertheless, he kept a wary eye. A crazy foe could be just as dangerous as a sane one.
The procession began. Trumpets sounded, the organ played, and the crowd stood as the bride entered. Her arm hooked in her brothers, she glided down the aisle, her long sweeping dress gathering the petals strewn along the carpet. His attention strayed as he focused on Christine. She might not have been of the purest royal stock, but there was no doubting her loveliness.
Her brother gave her away with a bow, and she stood before him, small and quivering. He frowned. She had better not be crying behind her veil. The crowd sat, and the bishop’s deep voice lifted to the rooftop.
Prince Randolph listened, repeated the Bishop’s words, one eye on his bride, the other on the crowd. But nobody stirred. Perhaps his source had been wrong, or perhaps the traitor had backed out. He smiled. Coward.
They exchanged rings and when it was time to kiss, he lifted her veil. She hadn’t been crying. In fact, she was cold and stern, her eyes hard. Her lips were like ice, and he began to wonder whether he misjudged his little princess. She was only young, and he had thought her innocent, but there was something behind her eyes that hadn’t been there before. Perhaps, she had finally resolved herself to the inevitable.
The deed was done, and they were wedded. Dancing and dinner and celebrations followed, but Prince Randolph was anxious for only one thing—his bedchambers.
It was late into the night when they finally ascended the stairs. Prince Randolph buzzed with wine, his bride’s little hand tight in his grasp. Against tradition, he had dismissed her maids and his manservants, neither needing nor desiring assistance. He could manage quite all right on his own, he was sure. The closest he allowed anyone to witness their lovemaking was outside his doors, where he posted three guards, including Sir Henry.
The three knights stood aside as the couple entered. He closed the doors, and they were finally alone. His chambers were lavish: large fireplace with a crackling fire, glowing candelabras, walls covered in portraits from floor to ceiling of family members long dead. Everything was trimmed in gold. The furniture was only the best—built of mahogany and great oak, crafted by the greatest cabinet maker on the West side. Then there was his bed—four-poster and fit for a king.
He took her chin, smiled and kissed her. She was looking pale now and trembling in his arms, but she still had that hard look in her eye.
‘So, you’ve come to your senses,’ he said when she didn’t resist. ‘Good. There’s no point in fighting. We’re wedded now, and you’ll commit to your wifely duties.’
Her hair had been tucked into an elegant bun for the wedding. He unpinned it, and long, bronze lengths flowed down her breast. He brushed some aside and kissed her neck. She smelt of lavender and soap, and her skin was so soft. He turned to her gown. It was billowing and puffy, and he fought to open it—all laces and buttons and ties.
‘You women are ridiculous.’
Maybe he should have kept a maid after all. She was panting, breaths light against his throat, as he struggled and cursed. Partway down, he’d had enough. He reached into his boot and took out his knife. She gasped as he sliced open her dress. It slid to the ground in a heavy heap, revealing the shift underneath. No loss. It was ugly anyway.
He smiled hungrily. Now he could see her properly: slim hips, full breasts, long graceful neck, flawless smooth skin. She was blushing now and trembling harder. He dropped his knife and brushed the sleeves from her shoulders so the shift slithered to the floor in a shimmering puddle.
He whistled under his breath. His manhood throbbed and swelled. His heart began to pound. She had perfect, brown nipples which puckered and hardened as he pinched them. His mouth watered. Then he reached between her legs. She sucked in a breath but didn’t pull away.
He smoothed her wetness between his fingers. ‘I thought you said you’d loathe this night.’
Looking at her feet, she didn’t answer, her bronze hair falling over her face in a soft curtain. She was having trouble with her nakedness: folding her arms over breasts, placing her hands over her brown thatch before dropping her arms to her sides again, hands twitching.
‘No need to be nervous,’ he whispered, taking her chin and forcing her to look at him. For a moment, her big brown eyes were filled with fear, then they iced over. She stiffened as he dragged his finger down her arm. ‘I’ll be gentle if you don’t try me.’
She gasped as he lifted her into his arms. He lowered her onto the bed, then began shedding his clothes. His attire wasn’t much better than hers: heavy velvet and voluminous cotton, stiff collars and buttoned cuffs, layers of pointlessness. His sword thudded to the floor, something ripped, buttons popped off, his boots flew across the room. Then he was naked and as hard as iron between his legs. He looked down at her lying on his bed, her hair splayed out, her legs tight together and angled slightly to the side so he could see the curve of her rump; the light from the candelabra above glistened against her supple breasts. He gripped onto his length with a wince when it gave a hard throb.
He crawled over her. ‘Open up.’
She did, slowly and with a whimper. He kissed her, grabbed her breast. Her eyes bulged as he prodded his penis against her opening. He nudged and pushed deep inside. She cried out, he felt something pop inside her, then he tilted his head back as cold steel pressed against his throat.
He raised his hands in surrender and slowly slipped off her. Christine scrambled to her feet, clutching the sheet to her chest. A hand grabbed his shoulder; the blade pressed hard against his throat until he felt a sting. He raised his hands higher.
‘Are you such a coward as to kill a man while his back is turned?’ Prince Randolph said.
‘Might I not at least see my murderer before I die?’
A moment’s hesitation, then the blade released, and he turned around. He dropped his hands, stunned. Then he laughed, a great chortle that echoed around his enormous room.
‘You’re kidding,’ he said. He glanced at Christine who was glaring at him, then turned back to his sister and laughed some more.
‘Stop laughing,’ she said, gripping the knife tighter, ugly face blazing red.
She had braided her hair and knotted it at the back of her head. She wore men’s clothes: tunic and britches and dusty boots. His eyes flicked to the sword at her hip. He immediately recognised it. Its silver sheath was engraved with a phoenix—their family’s insignia, his own sword. He used to practice with it every day as a man almost grown. He could nearly feel the pommel pressing into his palm. Light and sharp, its balance unequalled, it was perfect for a woman—if she knew how to use it.
He backed away, still laughing, teasing her until her face became as red as her hair.
‘I said stop laughing!’ she cried.
Christine went to Emily’s side and slipped her hand into hers, sheet wrapped around her. They looked at each other in that way, and he silenced. Blood rushed into his face.
‘This is obscene, a travesty against God,’ he spat. ‘Both of you will go to hell.’
‘I have no fear of hell, brother. I’ve lived it every day, ever since mother and father saw fit to hand me over to that pig Hannigan.’ She gave Christine the dagger and unsheathed her—his sword. ‘Now you too can see what hell’s like, along with my dear husband.’
They stared at each other. The light from the candelabras flickered against their faces. Then she charged. Randolph dropped to the floor, rolled and seized his sword, still sheathed. Emily slashed at his face, but he blocked it. She slashed again. He rolled away, the sword thudding against the floor behind him, and leapt to his feet. He unsheathed his sword, and they clashed, steel upon steel. For a moment, they held against each other’s might, but he was stronger, and with a shove, sent her stumbling back. Now it was he who was slashing and she who was backing away. She blocked every thrust, every slice, every jab. She was good, but not nearly good enough. He grinned when he saw the panic flash across her face.
She managed a thrust at his belly, but he blocked it hard and swept the sword out of her grasp. It skidded across the floor. She backed into the wall, chin raised as he pressed the tip of his sword to her throat.
‘Dear sister, how I love you, even now.’ He tightened his jaw as he prepared himself for the kill. ‘But you’ve messed with the wrong brother.’
He dropped his sword with a yelp as a sudden, sharp agony ripped through his right side. He turned around. ‘Christine.’
She was glaring at him, ashen-faced but determined, bloodied dagger poised in the air. He looked down at the gaping wound and pressed his hand against it. It was agonising but not fatal. He looked up, sneered, then charged with a roar. She stabbed at him, but he dodged and seized her wrist, crushing it in his grip until she dropped the knife with a cry.
Fire tore through his back, through his stomach, and he released her with a scream. He grabbed at his belly, the tip of his own sword poking out between his fingers. It pulled back, and blood gushed in his hands. He staggered, dropped to his knees. He stared at the blood trickling through his fingers, warm and dark and sticky. He looked up as a shadow fell across him. His sister stood before him, lips pressed together in a hard, white line, his silver phoenix hanging loose in her grasp.
He tried to say something, but his mind wouldn’t obey. Blood filled his mouth. He slumped onto his side, clutching himself as wave upon wave of agony coursed through his body. He choked and spluttered as blood poured from his mouth. Vaguely, he saw the women flee his room, their footsteps thudding against the floor. He curled into a ball, began to shiver, soiled himself. He stared at Christine’s dress, his eyes following its ridiculous creases and puffs as the room faded, grew dim, then finally blackened.
Christine hastily pulled on her shift before exiting the room, gripping tightly onto Emily’s hand as they stepped over the guards at the door. Sir Henry stared up at her with vacant eyes, the side of his head bloodied and sunken. She looked away and swallowed a swell of vomit.
‘How did you—?’
‘One of the few quirks about being a woman—,’ Emily began, ‘everyone underestimates you. Quickly, we must move.’
Christine followed, tensing at every corner, sure they would run into someone. But having grown up in Castle Greyton, Emily knew every secret corridor, every shortcut, every creaking step, and they fled the castle without detection.
Their mounts were waiting for them. A warm breeze gusted through Christine’s shift. Moonlight glanced on the silver sword at Emily’s hip.
‘You got Big Cliff,’ Christine said, tears in her throat as she petted him on the nose. He snuffled against her hand.
‘Of course. I know how much you love him.’ Christine wiped at her cheeks and pulled Emily into a hug. Emily smiled and kissed her. ‘Come. There’s no time to lose.’
Emily threw over a cloak, and Christine covered her shift.
Their mounts trotted sedately as they passed beneath the portcullis. Christine tensed and drew her hood but nobody stopped them, and the gate didn’t come crashing down. Clearly, Prince Randolph hadn’t been discovered yet.
The castle was at a distance when the horns finally sounded. As they kicked their mounts into a gallop, clouds gathered over the horizon. Christine glanced behind her, fear clutching her heart. The odds were against them. They would surely be caught, if not in the following days, then in the weeks or months or years to come. It would become clear who killed Prince Randolph, and the king would be vengeful. He would never let them get away. Not even his own daughter.
She locked eyes with Emily, who smiled. Her heart swelled. Then she glanced at her sword, and her fear turned to determination. If death were to be their fate, then they would be like the phoenix—die and start over as something greater. There were powers in this world she didn’t understand, forces beyond comprehension. Nothing would stand in the way of their love. Not the king, not even God. She would find a solution.
She spurred Big Cliff on.
© Morgan Tonkin 2018