The dark-haired young man had a smug, satisfied grin on his face as he walked through Weldon Manor with a slight spring in his step. His long, wiry legs carried him with an awkward gait as he made his way through the large, fortified manor and headed outside in search of his brother. He knew that his younger sibling would either be outside in the stables, fussing with one of his prized stallions, or over at the military barracks, carousing or sparring with the guardsmen or some of the foot soldiers. Entering the stables, the young man smirked as he spied a familiar, dark-haired figure brushing down a cream-colored horse.
He walked up behind his brother, leaning on the wall of the stable, "Brushing, brushing... you're always brushing and pampering this blasted beast of yours." Aldred said without greeting.
The dark head turned and light blue eyes regarded the young man coolly. "This 'beast' is a trusted friend and deserves to be pampered, brother... not that you would understand that in any regard." Anton responded, lifting an eyebrow at his always irritating elder sibling.
Aldred laughed, "You count an animal among your friends? How very provincial of you, Anton!"
The antagonistic banter between the two brothers was common, and as always, Anton didn't refrain from being pulled into a battle of words.
"At least I can say that I have friends... unlike you, brother dear." Anton said, smiling with false sweetness as he resumed his brushing.
"Pah," Aldred sniffed, "I don't need friends. Especially now." He walked around Anton, dragging a hand along the horse's smooth, shiny coat as he drew in closer to the younger man. "Do you want to know why?" He asked, smirking again.
Anton rolled his eyes and sighed, pausing his brush strokes. "Alright... 'why, Aldred'?"
"Father has finally chosen my bride-to-be." Aldred said, a broad, smug smile filling his sharp-featured face.
"'Finally'? don't you mean 'again'?" Anton asked sarcastically, shooting his brother a sideways glance.
"No, no... this is it. This time the girl will be my bride. Father said the deal is good as sealed."
"Deal? What happened to the 'deal' that was supposed to be struck with Viscount Langeley?"
Aldred huffed, "Pah! Langeley was practically a peasant... he didn't have nearly the money nor holdings that he claimed. And besides, his daughter isn't as fetching as this new one."
Anton rolled his eyes again and shook his head at his brother's comments, then turned his back and resumed his brushing. "Well, congratulations, brother; I hope it all works out for you." He said, his voice intentionally flat and monotone to prove his lack of awe.
"Anton!" Aldred scolded, "Come on! Aren't you curious? Don't you want to know who she is?"
Anton sighed again and pushed away from the horse, crossing his arms. "Very well, Aldred... who is the lucky wench?"
Aldred glared at the younger man, "She's not a wench... she's glorious! The most beautiful girl in the realm!"
"If I recall, that's what you said about Celene of Langeley." Anton dead-panned.
"Oh no, no," Aldred shook his head forcefully, "Lady Gwynneth is much better than Celene. Earl Leopold of Clarendon has vast land holdings and numerous knights sworn to his service. It's a much better alliance than Langeley. Father feels certain."
Anton's brows frowned in question, "Father feels we need an ally for war purposes?"
"Not necessarily war, Anton. He just feels that it would not be unwise to align ourselves with someone who possesses a reasonable amount of strength, that's all."
Anton considered the words for a moment, filing them away for later contemplation. "So... Lady Gwynneth, hmm?" Anton asked, an eyebrow creeping upwards again.
"Indeed. 'Lady Gwynneth of Clarendon'... isn't it a lovely name? ...A beautiful name for an equally beautiful woman." Aldred said, his chest puffed out in pride.
"You've already met her?"
"Well then, how can you be so certain of her beauty?"
"Father said she's reported to be very lovely. 'Young, pure and beautiful' is what the rumors say."
"Ha," Anton sniffed, "Rumors are rarely true, Aldred. You may find yourself dreadfully disappointed when your wedding day arrives and you lift your bride's veil to find a gawky, pimple-faced child staring at you."
Aldred shook his head and made a clucking noise with his tongue, "Poor Anton... of course you would react negatively to this news. You won't ever be able to experience your own wedded bliss, so you can only stew and fret over mine." He gloated, smirking at the younger man. "I suppose you'll always be envious of me for that, won't you?"
Anton turned and regarded Aldred darkly, "Envious? No, brother," Anton said, leveling a warning glare at his sibling. "I feel many things for you, but envy is not one of them."
The two young men glared at each other for a moment, each harboring his own thoughts and feelings on their circumstances and their perpetual sibling rivalry.
Aldred finally broke the spell and smiled falsely again, "Father intends to make the formal announcement at dinner these evening," he said, slapping Anton harshly on the back. Before he walked away, however, he turned back to his younger brother, "I'll tell him that you'll be in attendance." He said as he exited the stables, leaving Anton alone again.
Anton could only stare after his older brother, hating the way the Aldred treated and condescended to him. The young man knew that his older brother was right, though... he would never experience the satisfaction of marriage. Anton would never have a woman by his side, children at his feet, nor a family and a manor to call his own.
He would never have this, because, unlike Aldred, he wasn't really his father's son.
Anton and Aldred called Weldon Manor their home. It was a small but wealthy fiefdom that sat peacefully along the coast, and it was ruled by their father, the Marquess Edgar. Edgar of Weldon was an intelligent mountain of a man who governed his people with fairness and high expectations. He was respected and loved, and his kingdom flourished quietly. Medieval life at Weldon was good.
Unfortunately, many years ago, the small kingdom was a vassal that served the cruel and tyrannical King Wesley. Wesley of Rencor was a former warlord who won the throne by defeating King Joffrey a little over two decades ago in a bloody battle that lasted for months and ended with the death of Joffrey and the devastation of nearly his entire family. Wesley usurped the throne and announced himself King of all the lands, daring anyone to challenge him for it. Of course none of the smaller fiefdoms had the means nor the manpower to fight against the powerful Wesley, so they were forced to submit to him. Wesley immediately began his rule by sending his armies to all the smaller manors and fiefdoms in the realm and demanding gold, silver, weapons - anything and everything that would increase his wealth, power and holdings. He also made a point of taking 'prisoners' from his new vassals; specifically, the female children of the ruling nobles.
Wesley had several sons and numerous brothers and half-brothers, so he decided that the best way to protect his throne and secure the loyalty and allegiance of his vassals was to take their noble women and marry them to his own blood. Sometimes he didn't even bother to marry them; sometimes he just sent the young ladies to serve as concubines or servants in the homes of his children and family members. Horrible stories circulated around the realm concerning the fate and treatment of the young female nobility that Wesley forcibly abducted. It seemed that Wesley and his sons and brothers took great pleasure in using and abusing the young women, and it also seemed that no one could stop them.
Every noble in the realm feared the day when their daughters reached their teenage years, for that was when they'd be snatched away, sent to a life of abusive servitude. People began sending their daughters away as early as possible. They'd marry them off to knights when they were just children, or send them to live with commoners - anything to preserve their lives and protect them from Wesley and his cruel brood. This is how Anton came to meet his destiny.
Marquess Edgar and Marchioness Marina of Weldon had a son one year after their betrothal. They named him Aldred, and deemed that he would one day take over Weldon and rule it as his own. One year later, the realm was being overthrown by Wesley and his forces, and Edgar found himself subjugated by a man who was feared as much as he was hated. Only a few months after Wesley's takeover, Lady Marina became pregnant again. Edgar was thrilled, but once they heard about Wesley's abduction and forced servitude of young female nobles, both Edgar and Marina prayed that they would have another son.
When the child was at last born, Edgar and Marina were dismayed to find that they were the parents of a baby girl - a strong, vibrant baby girl, but a female, nonetheless. They knew that they had to do something drastic. Once the babe's birth was announced to the whole kingdom, the news would reach Wesley, and the girl would be marked as a future possession for the ruthless King and his heirs. Edgar decided that it would never happen. He would never give his daughter up to Wesley and his monstrous offspring, and he would not send her away nor marry her off as a child. He would not deny her the life she was entitled to. So he made a decision. They would announce the birth of a second son, and they would raise the child as a boy. He would be called Anton - named for Marina's Spanish mother, Antonia. It was a risk, but they decided that it was one they had to take. No child of theirs was going to be snatched up or given away.
Anton grew quickly, unaware that she was any different from her brother Aldred and, in fact, proving many times over that she was much stronger and braver than he was. It almost seemed as though she really should have been born a boy. She looked very much like Aldred, and in her male attire, no one could tell the difference. When Anton was nine summers old, Marina and Edgar sat the two children down and explained to them how and why Anton was different, and why it was absolutely necessary for them to keep it a secret. The two siblings seemed to understand, although Aldred made it a point thereafter to tease Anton whenever they were alone. As they grew older, both sons received constant lectures and coaching from Edgar as he explained their roles at Weldon and their responsibilities for the future. Anton understood that her role was mostly just to appear as the second son, but as she matured into a young woman, she increasingly began to have trouble with the deception and the confusion that dwelled inside her.
Nevertheless, she grew into a fetching young 'man'. Tall, strong, and athletic, Anton showed great prowess with a sword as well as the bow and arrow. Her warrior skills were so impressive, in fact, that her father placed her in charge of his small army of soldiers when she was just eighteen years of age. Despite her age and hidden gender, Anton showed great aptitude for leadership, and her troops respected her a great deal. When the day finally came when all the feudal kingdoms banded together and rose up to overthrow King Wesley, Anton lead her men into battle. The 'War of Insurrection', as it came to be known, was a long, bloody conflict, but the fiefdoms persevered and won their freedom. The former King Joffrey's only remaining son, Joffrey III, was reinstated as the rightful ruler, and all was right in the realm once again.
At twenty-one years of age, Anton was renowned as a fierce warrior and highly capable military commander. After being knighted by King Joffrey, Anton purchased her own small manor along the coast and spent most of her time there. Wextony Manor certainly wasn't Weldon, but it was the place Anton now preferred to call 'home'. Since the task of filling her father's shoes was put upon Aldred's shoulders, Anton was free to live a simple, quiet life at Wextony, away from everyone's prying eyes. She knew that she would not marry, but figured it was a small price to pay for the luxury of being able to live her life the way she pleased rather than being saddled with the responsibilities of ruling her father's house. She gladly left that task to Aldred. Being alone suited Anton, and she enjoyed her freedom.
Aldred, on the other hand, spent most of his young adulthood shadowing his father while learning the trade of being the next Marquess of Weldon. The time that he didn't spend with his father he spent drinking and visiting ladies of ill repute. It was a well known fact that Aldred frequented brothels, and he didn't bother to deny it. Lord Edgar did his best to discourage his son from carrying on in such a disrespectful manner, but Aldred didn't seem to care. He didn't seem to care about much, in fact. Unlike most of the noble sons of the realm, Aldred did not fight in the War of Insurrection, and he had no interest in earning the respect and loyalty of his army, nor his people. Aldred was proving to be a very incapable leader of limited intellect, and Edgar worried greatly about the future of his small kingdom.
Anton was fashionably late to the lavish dinner her parents had thrown in honor of Aldred's engagement announcement. She had been staying at Weldon for the past week, her father beckoning her from Wextony by saying he needed to discuss plans for the future with her. She was somewhat disappointed to find that the 'future plans' seemed to only consist of announcing Aldred's betrothal, and she planned to return home as soon as possible.
After dinner was over and the engagement announcement was made, Anton promptly disappeared, eager to return to Wextony and escape the forced excitement that surrounded Aldred tonight. Sensing his younger child's disgust, the Marquess sent for Anton in the hopes of speaking with her before she disappeared.
Anton approached her father's chambers knowing that she would be in for a tongue lashing. She couldn't help her disinterest and inattentiveness at dinner; watching Aldred's drunken, conceited arrogance made her ill. Anton drew a deep breath and knocked loudly on the heavy wooden door. Hearing her father's deep voice as he instructed her to enter, she swung the door open. Her father was reclined in a large chair, his once robust frame now withered and weak as he got on in years and fought one illness after another. Still, he smiled warmly at her as she stepped inside.
"Anton," Edgar said with a grin, "come in and sit with me for a while." The door was closed behind Anton and Edgar watched her as she walked in and took a seat.
She was such a striking figure. He wondered if she ever resented him for the fate he forced upon her at her birth. It really was amazing that she'd gotten away with her secret for so many years. It almost seemed as though it were meant to be, in many ways. Stern-faced and tall, Anton had a powerful, commanding presence without even trying. She carried herself with grace and dignity, yet within the deceptively lean figure lay the strength and cunning of a skillful warrior. She had a face that was chiseled and fierce, yet subtly beautiful; the strong features of her father coupled with the piercing blue eyes of her mother made her equal parts intimidating and alluring. She was not overly masculine in appearance, but she certainly wasn't feminine either. Most importantly, she was intelligent, level-headed, and brave. She had the respect and admiration that Aldred could never and would never garner from the people. She was the heir Edgar should have had... oh how he wished she had been his first-born son.
Edgar forced the thoughts from his mind as the servant poured wine for the two men before being dismissed. "I assume you'll be leaving at dawn?" Edgar asked, taking a sip of his wine while regarding Anton with steady gray eyes.
"Yes. I have no reason to stay on here... do I?" Anton returned carefully.
"Actually," the Marquess began, placing his cup on a nearby table. "I'd like you to stay so that you could meet Earl Leopold of Clarendon and his son, Gerrod."
Anton frowned, her curiosity immediately piqued, "When are they coming?" She leaned forward, placing her cup on the table as well. "And why should I meet with them? Isn't Aldred the only one they should be concerned with?"
Edgar sighed. He dreaded going over all this with Anton. She surely wouldn't understand. "I plan to arrange Aldred's wedding as soon as possible."
Again Anton frowned, "Why? Why such a hurry?"
"Anton," Edgar paused, looking into his daughter's concerned eyes. "Daughter... I am not well."
Anton's face tightened. She knew that her father had been ill recently. Her mother had told her that her father's health was declining to the point that he had to be assisted nearly everywhere he went. Still, Anton thought that he was carrying on most of his duties as usual. However, scanning her eyes scanning over her father's face now, she could see the weariness evident in his gray depths.
Anton stood up and walked over to the fireplace. "Why will Aldred's marriage help your illness, father?" She said as she turned around to face the older man, suddenly angry that he was, apparently, preparing to turn everything over to her imbecilic brother. "And why have you chosen this Earl of Clarendon fellow anyway? Aldred told me that he has virtually no money, only many knights sworn to fealty. Why must we be so concerned with military might?" Anton spat the questions out quickly, her piercing eyes demanding answers.
"It is always wise to be allied with someone of power, Anton, you know that. We aren't at risk now, but you know the rumors that abound regarding Wesley of Rencor's sons and their constant threats that they'll return one day and war with us again." Edgar reasoned. "Earl Leopold is not very wealthy, that's true, but he has vast land holdings, a large army, and his son Gerrod is a knight in his own right. He needs our financial assistance, and we need his military reinforcement. With our combined forces, we'll make an ideal alliance."
Anton turned away from her father, considering his words. "I still don't understand the need for a rushed marriage and how that affects your health."
"I want to be prepared."
"Prepared for what?!"
"I want Aldred to be married and settled when the time comes for him to be Marquess. I need to know that everything is in place before my time comes."
Anton snorted, "Aldred will never be settled. He will never be prepared to take over. No alliance can solve the problem of his incompetence, father."
Edgar sighed, "I know this, Anton. And this is why I want you to be acquainted with Earl Leopold and his son. I need them to realize that Aldred is not the sole representation of our house." Anton began to scowl at her father. "I feel they will be reassured once they meet you."
The dark, angry look that appeared on Anton's face told Edgar that he was pushing his luck. He'd hoped to win Anton's support without demanding it of her, but judging from the look in her eyes now, he wasn't so sure. "I'm sorry to make such a request of you, daughter, but I need your help... just as Aldred will need your help in the future."
Anton made a noise of disgust and shook her head, her anger bubbling close to the surface. She walked briskly toward the chamber door, turning to look back at her father once she reached it, "I'm leaving for Wextony at sunrise. Send for me when the Earl and his son arrive and I shall make an attempt to come. But keep in mind that I do this only for you, father, not for Aldred." With that, Anton disappeared.
Edgar sighed again, hating himself for forcing yet another task on his daughter. He knew she was angry with him and truthfully, he couldn't blame her. However, despite their occasional bouts of disagreement, Anton was devoted to her father and would do nearly anything he asked. Edgar knew that Anton was well aware of why he asked for her assistance now. They both knew that Aldred needed every bit of help and reinforcement he could garner, and the only one Edgar truly trusted was Anton. The ailing Marquess just hoped that his daughter would come through for him in the end.
"Oh, Milady, look! There 'tis!" The ladies maid pointed out the window of the carriage to the looming image of Weldon Manor in the distance.
Lady Gwynneth of Clarendon strained her neck to see the stone manor that would be her new home. "Good heavens... it is big, isn't it?" she marveled. Although she was nervous about her reasons for coming to Weldon, she was grateful that the long journey from Clarendon was finally nearing its end. The winter weather made the trip miserable and dreadfully cold, and she could hardly wait to have a warm bath and sleep in a real bed.
Her home in Clarendon was small, and she was eager to see Weldon and experience the wealth and lavishness that it reportedly enjoyed. Weeks ago, her father and brother had visited with the Marquess of Weldon and her husband-to-be, Aldred, and they had told her that Marquess Edgar was indeed a wealthy man. Although her father assured her that the alliance with the House of Weldon would be a good one, her brother Gerrod told her in private that the Lord Aldred was a brash and arrogant fop who spent all his time drinking and bragging about his exploits with women. The Marquess had a second son also, but Gerrod only said that he seemed standoffish and snobbish. Gwynneth and Gerrod didn't get along with one another, and the fact that he made it a point to tell her these things worried her intensely. She wasn't sure if he was just saying it to make her fret, or if he was being sincere. One thing she knew for certain was that she would be marrying the young Lord Aldred of Weldon very shortly, and there was nothing she could do to change that. Her fears and misgivings didn't matter in the slightest; she was merely the vessel to join their houses and bear the offspring that would link them forever. She wished, not for the first time, that she had been born a boy instead of a girl.
As nightfall approached Weldon Manor, Lady Gwynneth rested in her guest chambers, still struggling to get warm while reflecting back on the harrowing first two days at her new home. With the wedding only five days away, she was filled with anxiety and dread, and the activities that buzzed all around her in preparation for the big event made her head swim.
Weldon was gorgeous - her father had been right about that - and the Marquess and Marchioness were gracious hosts. The manor itself sat high on a hill and overlooked a picturesque countryside of rich, fertile farmland. Inside, the House of Weldon enjoyed luxuries that she experienced little of at her former home. Fine tapestries and furniture filled every room, sumptuous, extravagant meals were served every day, and there seemed to be a servant or handmaid to cater to her every whim and desire. The one blemish on this otherwise picture-perfect setting was her husband-to-be.
Aldred of Weldon was positively repulsive.
It wasn't that he was ugly or offensive-looking, he was just obnoxious and pompous, and he always smelled of alcohol. Upon their very first meeting, Aldred made rude, lecherous comments to her, and the sinister look in his eyes chilled Gwynneth right to her very core. She knew that it wasn't so unusual for a man to treat a woman in such a way, and in all honesty, she had been expecting such; but there was something about Aldred that truly frightened her.
"Would ye like me to brush yer hair now, Milady?" The soft lilting voice of her ladies maid pulled Gwynneth from her reverie.
"Yes, Alice, thank you."
As Alice began brushing the long blonde locks, Gwynneth resolved to tell herself that she simply had to accept her fate. Her role was to marry Aldred and bear his children, period. She could not escape it, and it didn't matter if she liked it or not. She could only hope that she might find something or someone at Weldon to occupy her time and brighten her days. At the moment, the only friend she had was Alice.
Gwynneth closed her eyes, enjoying her handmaid's gentle ministrations, when a knock sounded at her door. Alice opened it and Gwynneth was shocked to see Aldred standing there.
"My Lord," Gwynneth said, unable to hide the surprise in her voice.
Aldred boldly stepped into the room, coming to stand in front of the petite blonde beauty who would belong to him in a matter of days. "Lady Gwynneth," Aldred said, reaching out to take her hand and place a wet kiss upon it. "Forgive me for barging in like this, but," he paused, fighting to quell the sinister grin on his lips, "I wondered if I might have a word with you," he said, then turned to glare at Alice. "...Alone."
Gwynneth's heart leapt into her throat and she shot a nervous glance at her ladies maid. Alice gave her a wide-eyed look, knowing full well that it was highly inappropriate for Aldred to be here like this before the wedding. If anyone were to find out, Lady Gwynneth's reputation would be severely tarnished, and the whole wedding could, in fact, be negated. Alice knew that her mistress was already frightened of the abrasive, crude young man, but what could she do? Gwynneth nodded at Alice to leave, and the maid did so, though unwillingly.
When the door closed behind the ladies maid, Aldred's lips twisted subtly in glee. This would be a cinch.
"W-What is it that you need, My Lord?" Gwynneth nervously asked, her heart thundering in her chest at the strange predicament she now found herself in. She could smell the overpowering odor of wine on Aldred as soon as he entered her room, and it sent a shiver of dread through her.
Aldred sighed and sat himself upon Gwynneth's bed, earning another silent, shocked look from the blonde, though he was unaware. He then put on his best pathetic act and looked up to face his unsuspecting bride-to-be. "Sweet Lady Gwynneth," he began, staring at the young woman with sad, earnest eyes, "I am frightened."
Gwynneth regarded him skeptically, "Frightened, My Lord? Of what?" she asked.
Aldred looked away, his face a perfect picture of despair, "Frightened that I may not be... the man you need me to be."
Gwynneth frowned at him. Whatever is he talking about? she wondered.
Before she could say anything else, Aldred turned back to her, "You see, dear Lady, my act of bravery and arrogance is but a ruse... a ruse to cover the truth."
"Yes... the truth that... that I am just a pathetic fool of a man who is sorely lacking in the experience and wisdom of how to love a Lady such as yourself." Aldred lied, laying it on as thick as he could. "I fear that I won't be able to fulfill my role, and that you will find me unfit for my husbandly duties."
Gwynneth was shocked by Aldred's words, and did not know how to respond. "Well, My Lord, I-I doubt very much that you will be unable to fulfill your... duties." She stammered unsteadily. She didn't know what to say to him - what could she say? "I'm a bit nervous myself, but I'm sure that everything will be fine once the wedding is over and the pressure eases." She offered, trying to sound upbeat and reassure the young man.
Aldred's dark eyes glistened as he looked up at her and smiled, "My dear, sweet Lady... you are as wise as you are beautiful." He practically sang the words to her and reached out to place another sloppy kiss upon her hand.
Gwynneth blushed at his gesture and darted her eyes away. Her heart was pounding harshly and every hair felt like it was standing on end. Something in Aldred's eyes was unnerving her tremendously, and she fought to quell the nauseous feeling that churned in her stomach. He seemed different than before, and though she wanted to believe his claim that his obnoxious behavior was just an act, something inside her told her that it didn't make complete sense. If he truly were unsure and fearful, he wouldn't have had the brashness to come to her like this, would he? The confusing thoughts were dashed away when Gwynneth felt Aldred's hands grasping her upper arms.
"Dearest Gwynneth... I believe I have a solution that will ease both our minds and lay our fears to rest." Aldred said, his voice suddenly low and husky.
Gwynneth looked into his blackened orbs, her heart increasing its thumping tempo tenfold. "M-My Lord?" she whispered uncertainly.
Aldred continued to stare at her, a malevolent gleam in his eyes. He spun her around and sat her down upon her bed, making her gasp aloud. When he quickly grabbed her nightgown and slid it upwards while pushing her knees apart, she yelped aloud.
"My Lord! What are you doing?!" Gwynneth squawked, grabbing her gown and trying to push it back down.
Aldred grabbed her wrists and wedged himself in-between her knees, forcing them open farther. "Now, now, my dear Lady... you would be wise not fight me." He said, his upper lip curling into a feral snarl. "If you just let me have my way with you now, we won't have to worry about the dreaded 'wedding night', you see?" he said, explaining his perverted reasoning to the frightened young woman.
"B-But, we can't!" Gwynneth sputtered.
"Of course we can, my dearest... I only want to sample you," he purred falsely, "consider it your duty to give yourself to me in this way." He said, grinning at her cruelly.
"But My Lord, it isn't proper! It's sinful!" Gwynneth insisted, trying to wriggle back away from the man.
The slap to her face caught her completely by surprise. Aldred laughed at her stunned, horrified expression. It was a vicious, hateful sound that assaulted the young woman's ears and turned her stomach inside out.
Quickly reaching out, Aldred grabbed her arms and pulled the small blonde toward him, leaning his face in close to hers. "One day very soon, this kingdom will be mine... I will own everything - and every one - within its domain. Therefore, whatever I desire, I get... and right now, I desire you. Do you understand that, my dearest?" He spat the words at her, and Gwynneth could feel the tiny flecks of spittle hit her cheek as she turned her face away, fearful that he'd strike her again. He harshly grabbed her face and twisted her head so that she faced him, "I am your new Lord and Master, and you will do what I say. Never forget that, dear Gwynneth... never ever forget."
Anton made her way up to one of the open towers. She was exhausted after making her journey from Wextony, and she wanted to enjoy the peace and quiet that the darkness of the night sky offered before retiring for the evening. Her brother's wedding was just a few days away, and even though she'd just arrived, she was already tired of all the activity and excitement.
Climbing the stairs, she inhaled a lungful of fresh air when she reached the top of the tower. Walking over to the parapet, she peered out over the countryside. This was her homeland, but she enjoyed Wextony much more. It was small, simple, and quiet, as compared to the pomp and circumstance that usually surrounded the goings-on at Weldon. Once Aldred was married, their father would officially make him his steward, and he would turn over most of his duties. Anton vowed that she would leave immediately thereafter and return to Wextony, lest Aldred come up with some ridiculous reason for her to stay on and assist him with something. She would not stick around and be Aldred's patsy. Aldred wanted to play the part of Marquess, so she would let him play it, fully.
A quiet gasp interrupted Anton's thoughts, and she turned around to find a petite young woman entering the open space of the tower as well.
"Oh, forgive me... I-I didn't realize anyone else was here," the woman said as she grasped the shawl that covered her head and shoulders.
"It's alright... I was just getting some fresh air." Anton said, motioning casually with her hand. The young woman wavered hesitantly for a moment, as though she were frightened of the idea of being in Anton's presence. Since it was dark, Anton couldn't make out her features, but she looked quite young, more like a girl than a woman. Wisps of light-colored hair peeked out of her shawl covering, and she wore a dress that looked fairly simple, but nice. Anton didn't recognize her and figured that she must be one of the Clarendon staff people or someone who was involved with the wedding somehow.
"I-I think perhaps I should come back later," the young woman finally said, backing away toward the steps.
Anton shrugged, "Suit yourself." She said, returning her gaze to the dark landscape of Weldon and not giving the young woman another thought.
Loud banging combined with shouting noises woke Anton from a deep sleep. Normally an early riser, she wanted to sleep later than usual today because of her long journey yesterday. Apparently, that was not meant to be.
Dragging herself out of bed, she opened the door, "Good heavens man! What is going on?!" she growled to the man who stood before her. It was one of her father's servants.
"Milord, you must come quickly!" the man choked out, breathing heavily.
"Why? What's the matter?" Anton asked, feeling a sense of dread fill her.
"Your father needs to see you in his chambers, immediately!" the man rasped, then turned and sped down the hallway toward the stairs.
"What the devil's going on!?" Anton shouted to no one in particular.
A few minutes later, after dressing hastily, Anton entered her father's chambers to find the man sitting in a chair, his large frame slumped, his face ashen, his eyes bloodshot and red. Her mother, the Marchioness, sat in another chair, weeping openly.
"Father?" Anton said as she approached him. The Marquess didn't stir. "Father?" Anton repeated, "What's going on?"
A long silence ensued until Edgar finally spoke, "There's been an accident, Anton," he said, his eyes staring, unblinking, at the wall.
"An accident?" Anton said, "What kind of accident?" The Marquess swallowed and closed his eyes. "Father?" Anton pressed.
"Your brother is dead."
Anton had stood in shocked disbelief as the tale of Aldred's sudden, unexpected demise was laid out before her. It seemed that Aldred had gone riding with a 'lady friend' in the early hours of the morning - with the intention of sowing some 'wild oats', no doubt - and somehow, for some reason, he was thrown from his horse. His neck snapped when he landed on the ground, killing him instantly. The 'lady friend' was questioned, and she claimed that Aldred's horse simply went crazy and began rearing and bucking, and Aldred couldn't control the beast.
It sounded suspicious to Anton. Not only would Aldred not sit himself upon a horse and go riding, she couldn't remember the last time her brother had arisen from his chambers at an early hour. The man was usually in such a drunken state the night before that he always slumbered well past the breakfast meal. The only thing that did seem reasonable was that Aldred would take off to have a tryst with some woman only days before he was to marry another - that part didn't surprise Anton in the least.
Another day passed as Anton continued to discuss the situation with her father while trying to console her mother. Once the realization sunk in and everyone began to calm down, Lord Edgar realized that they needed to do something about the wedding and the alliance that was to have occurred between the House of Weldon and the House of Clarendon.
It was a few days later when the Marquess again summoned Anton to his chambers. Obviously some type of agreement had been reached with the Earl of Clarendon, and Anton had to admit that she was curious. How disappointed and perhaps even angry Earl Leopold must be now that the alliance would not be made. She knew that the Earl needed money for his kingdom and that it was highly beneficial for his daughter to marry up. Perhaps her father would offer to pay the Earl off as compensation for the now-defunct marriage and alliance?
When Anton entered her father's chambers, he was seated in his usual chair with her mother present as well. They both managed to smile weakly at her as she walked toward them.
"Anton," her father greeted, "have you taken care of the funeral details with the chaplain?"
"Yes, father. Everything's arranged."
The Marquess sighed, "Thank you... I can always count on you, Anton," he said, looking up at his daughter with sad gray eyes, "That is a great relief to me." Anton merely nodded in deference. Edgar pursed his lips, nearly afraid to ask the questions and broach the subjects that filled and plagued his mind. "Have you learned anything else about... the incident?" He began with trepidation.
Anton shook her head, "No. The woman maintains her story, and the doctor can only confirm that," she hesitated, darting her eyes to her mother, who sat with her eyes closed while twisting a handkerchief in her hands, "...the neck was indeed broken."
The Marchioness made an audible whimpering sound, and Edgar drew a deep sigh, bringing his hand up to rub at his graying temples. "Very well then. We shall rule the death 'accidental' and proceed with the burial."
Anton gave a sigh and walked over toward one of the windows. "I suppose we must... although the whole thing still doesn't sit well with me."
"What do you mean? Have you heard something?" Edgar asked.
"No, it's not that. It's just that the whole thing seems odd. Aldred never went riding, and he certainly wouldn't go at sunrise. It arouses my suspicions, that's all."
"You suspect foul play?" The Marchioness spoke up, her voice fearful.
"I don't know, Mother," Anton said. "I can't be sure. I don't think anyone can. We have only the words of that wench to go by since there were no other witnesses, so what else can we do?"
"You speak the truth, daughter. We must bury Aldred and move on." Edgar's voice was tired and strained.
"Yes, father." Anton nodded.
"And see that the wench - whomever she is - is removed from the manor grounds." The Marquess said, his voice suddenly harsh. "Regardless of whether or not she had anything to do with Aldred's death, I want her sent away so that I don't have to look upon her."
Anton nodded again, "Yes, sir; I'll take care of it."
Sensing that the meeting was over, Anton nodded and turned to start heading for the door. The Marquess and Marchioness looked at each other and exchanged quiet, knowing glances. They dreaded this moment.
"Anton, wait." Edgar called out to his daughter.
Anton stopped at the door and turned back, "Yes, sir?"
Edgar was silent for a moment, and he ventured another glance over to his wife, who clutched her kerchief and brought a nervous hand up to her mouth. "Anton... we need to talk about the alliance with the Earl of Clarendon."
Anton's stomach leapt into her throat and she swallowed hard. "What alliance? The agreement is null and void now that Aldred is gone."
"But it doesn't have to be." Edgar said somewhat cryptically.
Anton could feel her heart rate increasing as her eyes grew wide with fear of what her father might be intending.
"Come and sit down... we need to discuss the future of Weldon, my child."
Hesitating for a moment, Anton slowly walked to the chair that sat opposite her father. Her heart pounded against her ribcage as she sat down and her ears were ringing, making her feel lightheaded.
"Anton... you know what needs to be done now," Edgar began, "You know what you must do." Anton cringed and closed her eyes. "You are the sole heir to Weldon now... you must take Aldred's place."
Anton opened her eyes and stared at the floor, her ears refusing to hear her father's words.
All her life she had pretended to be someone and something she wasn't. It may not have been her choice at first, but as she grew older and began voicing concerns and misgivings to her father, he told her not to worry. He assured her that Aldred would be the one to take over and rule Weldon. She would not have to marry, nor would she have to produce heirs; all that responsibility would fall on Aldred's shoulders. So she agreed to continue with the deception, and luckily, she'd gotten away with it for all these years. She served in her role as her father's second son, and she managed to fashion a comfortable life for herself at the same time. Now her father was asking her to change yet again. He was asking her to give up her life and serve him once more, and she didn't know if she could do it this time. She didn't think she could give up her freedom and pretend to be, yet again, something and someone she was not.
Edgar was watching his daughter's face carefully. He knew she did not want to be Marquess. He knew that she was happy with her life at Wextony, and he was loathe to take that from her. He already felt like he had taken some of her happiness away by asking her to live as she had for the past twenty-one years. But surely she understood the need for their nobility to live on. Surely she understood the importance of preserving her own legacy.
Edgar cleared his throat and began slowly, "Anton... I've spoken to Lord Leopold... he has agreed to keep our alliance if you consent to marrying his-"
"NO!" Anton interrupted loudly, springing up from her chair. "No, father!"
"Anton! Listen to me!" The Marquess said.
"No!" Anton fumed. "I will not marry that girl!" she shouted. "How could you even ask that of me!?" Anton turned and began to pace back and forth.
"Anton! You must! You must marry Lady Gwynneth! It is the proper thing to do, and we must keep our word to Lord Leopold! You must take your brother's place, Anton!" Edgar insisted.
Anton slowly shook her head and glared at her father. "I have done everything you have always asked of me, father - everything!" she shouted, her voice angry and hurt. "I have played the part of your son... I have kept the secret that you forced on me... I have fought your wars and fulfilled my duties as you have asked me... but I will NOT do this!" her voice reverberated off the stone walls, "I will not marry some poor, unsuspecting girl and pretend to be a husband to her! I cannot and I will not!"
Edgar knew of his daughter's proclivities toward women; Aldred had always taken great pleasure in relaying to him tales of Anton's same-sex dalliances. The Marquess had always wondered if she favored them because she played the role of a man, or if it was something she would have preferred anyway. Regardless, it didn't really bother Edgar. He might not understand Anton's desires, exactly, but he didn't expect her to be celibate either. He never discussed it with her, nor reprimanded her about it. It was her private affairs, after all, and he saw no harm in it, so long as she stayed out of trouble, which certainly wasn't a problem with Anton. So, if Anton's being with a woman wasn't the problem, then it must be something else. And Edgar felt that he knew what it was.
"Anton...," Edgar began again, his voice pleading but calm against his daughter's fury, "I know that you have served me over and over, and you know that I am grateful for that, child. This duty I ask of you now is not merely as a favor to me. I ask this of you because it is absolutely necessary! What will Lord Clarendon think if you do not take Aldred's place? What will become of the alliance between our houses?"
"I don't know, and I don't care!" Anton shouted. "Tell him that I am not fit to marry his daughter... tell him I am already married or engaged to another! Tell him anything! I don't care!" she yelled.
"I cannot tell him these things! He knows that you are betrothed to no one!" Edgar argued. "And he has met you already - he thinks you're a fine young man-"
Anton interrupted again, "Yes, father, he thinks I'm a fine young man. Everyone thinks I'm a young man. But I am not... I am no man at all! What I am is a fraud!"
"Anton, don't say that," Edgar scolded. "You are a finer man than most men in this realm. You are smarter, stronger, and more brave than any man I know. Lord Leopold thinks very highly of you. He would be pleased to have you wed his daughter."
"It would please him, and it would please you," Anton said, her voice now subdued. She turned around to face her father, tears of frustration welling in her eyes. "And what of my pleasure, father? What of the life and freedom you promised me once Aldred had taken over Weldon? Are you going to turn your back on those promises?"
Edgar hated himself for the hurt he saw in his daughter's eyes, "I'm sorry, Anton, but I'm afraid I must." Edgar said gently, looking directly into angry, anguished blue depths. "Aldred is dead. You are the only one who can replace him. You must marry this girl and unify our houses."
Anton shook her head and closed her eyes again, "I cannot father... I cannot bring myself to do it."
With that, the Marchioness spoke, "Anton, none of us ever thought that something like this would happen, but it has." She said, her voice soft and surprisingly calm, "Your father needs you to step up and take control; the kingdom cannot rule itself. Surely you realize how important it is for you to marry and continue our family ownership of Weldon?"
"Why must I marry at all? What good will it do for me to marry a woman?" She said, looking first at her mother, then her father. "A marriage to a woman would be pointless and unproductive! I cannot make children with a woman, or has that not occurred to you?" she snapped, the blue fire returning to her eyes. "What will Lady Gwynneth think when she does not become pregnant? What will everyone say when we fail to produce an heir, month after month and year after year?!" Anton's voice grew louder as she continued to vent her frustration.
"You could find some children to adopt," the Marquess interjected hopefully, "It's been done before. Not everyone is able to have children."
"Adopt? That's ridiculous!" Anton sniffed.
"It isn't ridiculous - you need to have heirs to take over when you pass on, Anton. Weldon must have heirs!" Edgar was becoming annoyed with his daughter's reticence. "If you can't adopt, then buy some children - convince Gwynneth to take a lover and hope that she falls pregnant, for godssake! Anything! Just get yourself some heirs!"
Anton opened her mouth in horror, "What!? Are you mad!?"
Edgar lumbered out of his chair and came to stand in front of his daughter, placing his meaty hands on her shoulders. "Anton, listen to me," he began again, his voice softening. "I know that I ask for you to bear a great burden, but you must secure Weldon's future. There is no one besides you, except for my brother's children, and I'll not hand my kingdom over to them... they are no more fit to rule here than Aldred was!"
Anton scowled and stared into her father's eyes in challenge.
"Weldon belongs to you... it is your future. You are the only one I have left, Anton... you are my legacy. Do what you must to make your marriage with Lady Gwynneth bearable, but above all else, secure your future with children in any way that you can." He spoke gravely and stared hard at Anton.
"It won't work, father," Anton insisted, her voice still hard and unwavering. "How long before Lady Gwynneth begins to suspect that I am not what I say I am? How long until she discovers the truth about me? What of your precious alliance then?!"
"It will work, Anton. It has to work, for your sake... for all of Weldon's sake." He looked deeply into his daughter's eyes. "I am trusting you to make it work."
Lady Gwynneth was fairly certain that she would be violently ill before the day was over. Never before in her young life had she been through such a whirlwind within the space of a few weeks. And now, on this day, she was expected to stand up in front of dozens of people and marry a man she'd never even spoken to, who was from a noble family that she now detested.
After Aldred's death, Gwynneth thought that the wedding, obviously, and the alliance between her father's house and the house of Weldon would be called off. She was astounded to hear that this was not the case. When her father informed her that she would simply marry Marquess Edgar's second son, she screamed at him in outrage. A firm slap to her face brought her back under control, and she sat and wept quietly as her father laid out his plans for her to instead marry Anton of Weldon.
Gwynneth had never told a soul about what Aldred had done to her, not even her trusted ladies maid, Alice. Aldred had forcibly taken her six times over the course of three nights. He'd snuck into her chambers late at night, preying upon her like a hungry wolf and forcing himself on her and in her repeatedly. Six times he ravaged her against her will, striking her across the face when she tried to resist and threatening her viciously. Six times she endured the horror and held her tongue when all she wanted to do was scream aloud from the pain, anguish and humiliation. Six times she prayed that the hand of God would reach out and strike her down so that she would not have to go through the torture the next night. But rather than strike her down, it seemed that God instead decided to strike down her husband-to-be.
When she heard the news that Aldred had been killed, Gwynneth secretly rejoiced. Aldred was the most loathsome, vile man she'd ever known, and she hated him for what he'd done to her. When he died, she thought she'd be free, but again, she was mistaken.
Although never married, Gwynneth had been betrothed to another man before Aldred. She was just fourteen years old when her father arranged her betrothal to the middle-aged Harold of Lansing, in order to save her from being snatched away by the cruel King Wesley. When Harold was killed a year later in the War of Insurrection, Gwynneth was thrilled to be blissfully free again. But of course, it didn't last. Her father had no rest until he found someone to ally with and successfully marry Gwynneth off to. After the war, finding an eligible suitor proved difficult, especially one that was somewhat youthful. It seemed that most of the younger men perished in the war, leaving only the widowed - but wealthy - old codgers. When Aldred of Weldon was finally decided upon, Gwynneth was glad to hear that he at least was young. She had no idea how misplaced her priorities would end up being.
And now she was to be married to the monster's brother, a man she knew absolutely nothing about. He was the second son, and everyone knew that the second sons were the frivolous, careless ones... the ones who had no idea what responsibility and duty was all about, because they had virtually none. For all Gwynneth knew, the entire manor could be full of rich snobs who treated women and wives as though they were mere play-things that could be bought and then cast away like daily garbage. Anton of Weldon could be ten times worse than Aldred. Thoughts and images of more torturous bodily plundering and abuse raced through the young woman's mind, and her stomach churned and twisted itself into knots.
"Milady, ye tremble," Alice whispered in her ear, drawing Gwynneth out of her deep reverie. "Are ye so very frightened?" the ladies maid queried as she brushed Gwynneth's long hair and finished up her preparations for the day's ceremony.
Gwynneth swallowed hard, her throat dry and thick, "I'm...," she hesitated, not wanting to reveal too much, "...I'm certainly very apprehensive, Alice." She admitted in a quiet voice.
Alice felt for her mistress. Indeed, Lady Gwynneth had been very subdued since arriving at Weldon, and she'd been downright withdrawn for several days now. The maid knew that pre-marital stresses would be enough to jangle one's nerves, let alone having one's husband-to-be suddenly die. Combine that with the hasty installation of a new, unknown suitor, and you have a good recipe for a very upset bride. Alice knew that her Lady did not care for Lord Aldred. Lady Gwynneth never gave specifics on why she loathed the man, exactly, but Alice could tell, after only a few days, that there was animosity between them. In a way, she thought that her Lady's marriage to Lord Anton may prove to be a better match. She had spoken to some of the staff and subtly inquired about the only surviving son of Marquess Edgar, and the replies she received were generally favorable. Still, she understood her Lady's misgivings.
"Milady, I feel certain that Lord Anton will be much better for ye than Aldred." Alice said, wanting to comfort her mistress.
Gwynneth sighed, her eyes threatening to fill with tears, "I certainly hope so, Alice. I don't believe I'll survive if he is cruel."
"I don't think he's cruel, Milady. I've heard that he treats his servants well... and he's also very young and handsome." She added with a wink and a smirk.
"Yes, and Gerrod told me before that he was stern and didn't talk very much." Gwynneth reminded the older woman.
"Well," Alice hesitated, "Yes, but he's a warrior, Milady. Warriors would naturally be that way, would they not?"
"I don't know, Alice." Gwynneth said, her voice sounding tired and utterly resigned to her fate. "Honestly, I don't really care if he talks or not. I just don't want him to be heartless or... forceful."
Alice suddenly had the distinct impression that what troubled her mistress the most was this evening, when the marriage would need to be consummated. Again, she couldn't blame her Lady for being fearful, but she wasn't sure what she could say to ease her dread.
"Milady, forgive me for being so forward, but," Alice began, "I believe if ye remain submissive and obedient to yer new husband, he shant have any reason to be harsh with ye."
Gwynneth huffed, "I'm beginning to believe that all men are horrible, vile creatures, Alice, regardless of whether or not their wives bend to their will." The words were surprisingly venomous, coming from someone who was normally so pleasant, as was the Lady.
"Aye," Alice nodded. "I'm afraid that may be true, Milady. I suppose one can only hope that Lord Anton will be different. Hope and perhaps pray that he'll be gentle and careful with ye." The maid said, looking into her mistress' worried face and giving her a knowing look.
"Is that wrong Alice?"
"To hope for a docile husband? No, of course not, Milady."
"No, to...," Gwynneth paused, embarrassed to be talking about intimate matters, even in a roundabout way. "To pray for kindness and delicacy in ... a union?"
Blue-green eyes that were once bright and shining were now dulled with worry. Bow-shaped lips that had always held a smile now held doubt and uncertainty. If this marriage turned out to be nightmarish for her young charge, Alice didn't know what she'd do. To see the light inside her Lady's heart extinguish any further would be agonizing, for both of them.
Alice reached out and cupped Gwynneth's cheek, "No, Milady," she whispered. "Tisn't wrong to pray for that either. I believe all women pray for that."
The chapel was full of people who came to see the wedding of Anton of Weldon to Lady Gwynneth of Clarendon. Despite being rearranged and thrown together in the space of little more than a fortnight, the wedding was proving to be a lavish and well-attended affair. The music, entertainment, and day-long feasting was mostly responsible for that, as was Anton's reputation and the high level of respect she commanded with the people.
As she stood near the church doors awaiting her bride, Anton's thoughts ran amuck. Everything from how her stiff, unfamiliar wedding clothes itched her to how she was going to successfully consummate her marriage tonight without her new bride figuring out her deep, dark secret. Beads of sweat dotted Anton's hairline and she wished again that she could have convinced her father to let her wed outside in the manor's courtyard where it would have been cool and breezy. Bending to the ailing man's desire for tradition, however, Anton conceded to have it in the chapel. She quickly swiped her fingers across her forehead as she thought back to the other conversations she'd had earlier with her father.
He had told her that he was proud of her, and that he thought she would be 'pleased' with the young, pretty Lady Gwynneth. Anton really didn't care one way or another. She didn't plan on being with her 'wife' any more than she absolutely had to be. Remembering more of the conversation, she recalled how she nearly laughed when her father awkwardly reminded her that she would have to 'somehow consummate the union'. At the time, it struck her that her father probably had no idea about her sexual experiences, and so he might have feared that she, too, was a virgin and therefore had no idea what to do with a wife on her wedding night. The Marquess had no need to worry, but of course, he didn't know this. Anton had to admit that it was probably a good thing she had experience. Although she'd never been with a virgin, she at least knew what to do and how to 'function' as a man.
Realizing that she was attracted to women rather than men had been perplexing for the young Lord. She hid the fact for many years, thinking that it was just a misplaced sense of her 'manly' duties. But when she befriended and eventually became intimate with a young servant girl, she realized that she was not the only woman to appreciate and prefer the tenderness of a woman over a man. Being that everyone saw her as a man, Anton soon realized that she was free to pursue relationships with all kinds of women. She was careful, however, keeping her escapades to a minimum and eventually, keeping company primarily with one 'favorite' woman at her home in Wextony - the young servant girl who'd befriended her so long ago.
Genevieve had become one of Anton's personal attendants, and she served as a lover and playmate as well as Anton's only real friend. She was the only one who knew the truth about the young Lord, and she earned Anton's trust by keeping her secret. In return, Anton protected her and kept the girl employed in her own personal service. The two spent time together both as lovers and friends, but neither one called their relationship 'love'. Anton knew that Genevieve felt no true passion for her, and the servant girl knew that her relationship with Anton was forbidden to be anything other than Lord and servant. They mostly served as each other's friends and confidantes. Still, Anton was grateful for all the intimate lessons they'd shared together. They would come in handy now that she had to put them to use on a 'wife'.
The changing musical tunes turned Anton's attention toward the processional where her new bride suddenly appeared, wearing a bright purple dress, and clinging to the arm of Earl Leopold. Anton swallowed against the lump in her throat as they began their approach.
A wave of nausea rippled Gwynneth's stomach and she drew a deep breath as she scanned the crowd that had gathered at the church. When her eyes landed on the tall, dark visage of her groom, she felt her knees buckle.
Earl Leopold felt his daughter's hand tighten on his arm. He glanced down at the young woman, noticing how pale her face was. He knew she was terrified, but alas, it was her duty to marry into the House of Weldon for him. She understood this, and she would do as he commanded. She was an obedient daughter, despite her occasional moments of outspokenness.
When the chaplain signaled for them to begin their forward march, Gwynneth felt her body sway and threaten to swoon. She clutched her father's arm fiercely, praying that she didn't faint dead away. Once they reached the altar, the Earl took his daughter's hand and placed it in Anton's. It was only then that Gwynneth ventured a glance up.
Anton of Weldon was not what she'd been expecting. Widened, blue-green eyes darted all over the countenance of the man who would be her husband in a matter of minutes.
Gwynneth first took in the expensive clothing and jewelry that Anton wore. Richly colored clothes embroidered in gold thread adorned her husband-to-be, and he cut a dashing figure in his finery. Shifting upwards, Gwynneth's eyes raced over Anton's dark, shoulder-length, blunt-cut hair, his slightly pronounced jaw and strong cheekbones, his straight, unblemished nose, smooth, tanned skin, and lastly, his eyes. They were piercing - the color of the summer sky on a clear day - and they watched her with an intensity that, while not frightening like Aldred's dark orbs had been, unnerved her nonetheless. Gwynneth was just taking note of two scars that marred her husband-to-be's left eyebrow and chin when her stomach surged again and she had to swallow quickly against strange sensation that threatened to race up her throat.
Anton, too, was shocked by her bride's delicate beauty and grace. She had been so busy convincing herself that the girl would be nothing more than an annoying, teenaged twit, she hadn't paid attention to any of the gossip surrounding the future Lady of the House. The girl, though she was a teenager, was quite lovely. Petite in stature, her face was gently rounded and gave an innocent appearance. Fine, fair skin was highlighted by heart-shaped lips, a small nose, and deep-set eyes that were the same shade as the ocean. Long, flaxen-colored hair was brushed out and cascaded loosely down her back, and she had a halo of fresh flowers woven into a dainty crown that was worn upon her head. The girl didn't wear much jewelry, and Anton figured it was because of Clarendon's lack of wealth. She did wear perfume, however, and the light, flowery scent tickled Anton's nose. As she glanced down at the girl's soft face again, she couldn't believe that she was actually being married to a woman. She just didn't see how it would all work out.
The chaplain's words interrupted both of their thoughts, and before they knew it, they were being asked to repeat vows. Gwynneth was ordered to be obedient and submissive to her husband, and Anton was charged with honoring and protecting her. The time then came for Anton to give her bride a ring, and the young Lord cursed inwardly as her hands trembled while she slipped the gold band onto Gwynneth's slender finger.
When blue eyes sheepishly darted up to meet hers and Anton quirked his mouth in a tiny, self-conscious gesture, Gwynneth felt a rush of relief flow through her. The small concession of nervousness from the young Lord somehow eased her mind, and she suddenly felt her anxiety diminish slightly, if only for a brief moment.
As the chaplain proceeded to read the dowries and gifts that were given, Anton wished that she could wipe at her forehead again. It was stuffy inside the church, and she was tired of standing. Her nerves were shot, her patience was ebbing, and she was ready for the whole show to be overwith. Anton already knew that Lady Gwynneth's dowry to her was a wide assortment of household goods and several personal servants, which she brought from Clarendon, as well as a fair amount of gold and silver coins. Lord Leopold was not a wealthy man, so for him to offer a sizable dowry was generous and respectable. Either that or he was more desperate for a son-in-law than he let on.
The chaplain read Anton's gift aloud, announcing that the groom was gifting a gilded chest full of precious jewels and family heirlooms, as well as a considerable amount of money, to his bride. Anton shifted her feet nervously, wondering what Lady Gwynneth would think of the gift. She knew that her father had already discussed it with Lord Leopold, but would her new wife like it?
Actually, Gwynneth was thinking that perhaps her father would be embarrassed that Anton's gift was probably worth more than hers. Her family was supposed to be offering the dowry for the honor of marrying up and into the House of Weldon, not the other way around. She knew that wealthy nobles like the Marquess of Weldon and his son could buy or sell nearly anyone they wanted, so a hefty gift such as this was a surprising and unexpected statement of Gwynneth's perceived value. She just hoped that her new husband found her worth her price when all was said and done.
As the chaplain droned on, Gwynneth wished that she could look at Anton again, but she wasn't sure if it was permitted. She hadn't had enough of an opportunity to digest his handsome, youthful face, so she tentatively shifted her eyes up to look at him again.
Anton remained motionless as the chaplain continued to read aloud. She stared silently, her head tipped downward so that her face could not easily be seen. Keeping her eyes fixed on the long skirt of her bride's dress, she listened to the monotonous words. Suddenly sensing eyes upon her, Anton raised her head slightly. Lady Gwynneth's green-blue orbs widened as their gazes met, then she dropped her eyes abruptly. It seemed that obedience and subservience would not be an issue with this new wife.
Finally joining the bride and groom together in a hand-fasting, the chaplain wrapped his stole around the couple's hands and gave a final blessing. Gwynneth's nerves returned full force as she listened and then watched the chaplain bestow the kiss of peace upon Anton. As Anton turned to her and bent down, her stomach flip-flopped. The kiss was soft and chaste, and Gwynneth felt her cheeks flush uncontrollably. Turning the couple to face the congregation, the chaplain announced them to be officially united in wedlock as husband and wife.
Gwynneth nearly fainted.
...Continued in Part 2...