Twin Passions(2)

By: Miriam Minger


Gwendolyn's emerald green eyes darkened as she reflected on the events of the past few months. Overtaken by her thoughts, she unwittingly relaxed her firm grip on the reins. The dappled mare nickered softly, tossing her head at this new freedom, and slowed her pace to a meandering walk along the familiar path.

God's blood! Why must everything change? she asked herself, a frown creasing her forehead. As if in reply, a sudden gust of wind rustled through the trees. Dry leaves, tugged from their branches, whirled silently to the ground below. Gazing at the half-naked limbs that until a few weeks ago had been green and full, Gwendolyn cursed herself for a fool.

If only Father had not made that agreement with King Edgar, she thought fiercely. As if it had been yesterday, she recalled all too well the furtive conversation she had overheard in the chapel between the family priest, Father Leofwine, and Grimbald, her father's steward, late last spring. She had been sitting on a far bench in the back of the small sanctuary, as was her wont when she wished to be alone, when the two men entered from the side door. Apparently they had not seen her, for they had not bothered to lower their voices. She listened, unbelieving, to their words, scarcely able to breathe.

"Is it true, then, Grimbald, that a marriage is being arranged?" Father Leofwine had asked, his wheezing cough echoing about the empty chapel.

"Aye, Holy Father," Grimbald replied, nodding his balding head, "but the news is yet a secret. Lady Anora has not been told."

"Hardly a well-kept secret. The very walls have ears," the stooped priest said wryly. "Well, then, why the secrecy? Is it an ogre she will wed?"

Grimbald's eyes narrowed as he leaned closer to the priest. "He is a Danish prince, Holy Father, and one of the most powerful men in the Danelaw! King Edgar himself has proposed the match as a reward, one could say, for the Dane's recent oath of allegiance to an English king."

Masking his initial surprise at the steward's outburst, the old priest nodded his head solemnly. "So, our king is seeking an alliance with the Danelaw," he murmured, rubbing his stubbled chin. "Perhaps this marriage is part of a larger plan . . . aye, a great plan—one that might end the bloodshed and hate between our two people, and further King Edgar's quest for unity . . ." His voice trailed off, and Gwendolyn strained to hear his next words. "And Earl Godric has agreed to this?"

"Aye, Your Holiness, but not without some misgivings. You know as well as I that Anora is very dear to his heart. He is not convinced that this is the best match for her." He paused, catching his breath. "The king also asked about Lady Gwendolyn! But Earl Godric insisted that as the elder of his twin daughters, Anora was the first to be wed."

Shaking his head, Father Leofwine sighed heavily. "Pity that the child must play a pawn in a king's game, even for so great a cause. Perhaps she will go to him willingly." He was suddenly seized by another fit of coughing. "Go now, Grim-bald. I am weary of this intrigue."

Gwendolyn watched furtively through lowered lashes as the priest turned toward the gilded altar, abruptly dismissing the steward. Then, wheeling around suddenly, he reached out his gnarled hand and caught Grimbald's sleeve. "Wait! One more question before you go. What is the name of this mighty prince of the Danelaw?"

"Wulfgar Ragnarson, Holy Father:"





***





Gwendolyn had not noticed that her hands had tightened on the reins until the dappled mare snorted loudly at the rough treatment, tossing her head in protest. Gwendolyn quickly loosened her fierce grip. "Forgive me, Arrow," she soothed, stroking the rough gray hairs on the mare's neck. Her voice was calm, belying the bitter turmoil that raged within her.

He is a Dane, an enemy of our people, Gwendolyn thought angrily. How could Father ever have agreed to such a proposal? Yet, she knew the answer. A king's pawn . . . a reward . . . The words echoed in her mind, over and over. After that day in the chapel, she had known that her life would never be the same. The grim realization that she and Anora could be used as barter at the whim of a king, their fates so easily decided by others, had shaken her to the very depths of her being.

And now, not only had her father betrayed her, but Anora, too. Gwendolyn raged silently. Though her sister had been given the right to refuse this Wulfgar Ragnarson if she so desired, she had fallen in love with him, agreeing to be his wife! How could Anora let herself be used so? Gwendolyn wondered, shaking her head in dismay.

Yet Gwendolyn had to admit that it wasn't just that Anora was to marry a Dane that upset her so. Nay, there was something else, something even more painful. She had watched in silence while her sister underwent a mysterious transformation during the summer months. Where she and Anora had once been inseparable, sharing laughter and tears, secret dreams and hopes, and hiding nothing from each other, Gwendolyn now found herself alone. From their first meeting, Anora and Wulfgar had seemed as if they were in a world that only two could share. Aye, perhaps it was this that had hurt her most of all.

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