Twin Passions

By: Miriam Minger
Chapter 1

England, 973 A.D.

"'Tis not safe for you to venture out alone, my lady," murmured the shy young stableboy, almost to himself. Biting his lower lip, he fumbled nervously with the leather girths of the saddle. Surely Earl Godric would not allow one of his daughters to ride out of the stronghold without a guard to protect her. Perhaps he should offer to ride along with her? That thought made him flush bright red from his neck to the roots of his scalp. He shifted his feet uncomfortably, sensing her impatience, but for some reason he could not fasten the last buckle properly.

"Here, let me do that," Gwendolyn said in exasperation. She knelt down beside him, her expert fingers deftly threading the leather strap through the metal buckle. "There, now," she muttered, satisfied. Rising to her feet, she brushed the straw from the knees of her buckskin trousers. She looked steadily at the startled stableboy, her emerald eyes searching his ruddy face. "You must be new to the stables," she said. "What is your name, lad?"

"G-Garric, m-mistress," he stammered, awestruck by her fair beauty. For the life of him he could not understand why such a fine lady was dressed in men's clothing almost as simple as his own. He looked down at his feet, fearful that she would think his gaze far too bold. "'T-tis my first day in the stables, my lady."

"Well, Garric, look over there," Gwendolyn said, lifting the stableboy's trembling chin. She nodded toward the far end of the darkened stable.

His eyes widened as he recognized two of Earl Godric's most trusted thanes. The men were quickly saddling their horses, taking care to glance over at Gwendolyn every so often to make sure she had not yet left the stable.

"Though I am quite capable of watching out for myself," she stated, her emerald eyes flashing defiantly, "my father insists that those two thanes ride along with me whenever I leave the stronghold." She lowered her voice, her tone softening as she smiled at the boy. "So, you see, Garric, your fears are for naught. But I thank you for your kind concern."

A slow, creeping blush burned the stableboy's freckled cheeks as he stared at her, his heart beating hard against his narrow chest. He had never been gifted with such a smile before! A look of embarrassment crossed his face. Suddenly he turned and fled from the stable, the hearty laughter of the two thanes ringing in his ears.

"Lady Gwendolyn has power over us all." The burlier thane grinned at his companion.

"Aye. Just like her sister," agreed the other, chuckling to himself. With a sharp yank on the reins, he urged his steed forward and followed Gwendolyn, who was leading her dappled mare into the stable yard.

Once out in the open, the frisky mare nudged her mistress with her velvety nose. She whinnied expectantly, as if to speed them on their way. The cool autumn afternoon seemed to beckon to them. Without even a backward glance at the two thanes, Gwendolyn slid easily onto the mare's back.

"We'll soon be free, my Arrow," she whispered softly, spurring the mare gently with her heel.

Passing through the protective walls that surrounded the stronghold of her father, Earl Godric of Cheshire, Gwendolyn reined in just outside the heavy, timbered gate. The main road before her led through open fields, rich with the bountiful autumn harvest. To her right lay a smaller path that wound toward the river through dense, forested woodlands. With little hesitation, she chose the less traveled path to the river. She had not been for a ride in several days, and yearned for nothing more than to be alone for a while. Well, almost alone, she thought darkly, remembering the two silent thanes who were riding not far behind her. Clucking her tongue to her mare, she set off at a lively canter.

The late-afternoon sun was just beginning to settle into the gnarled oak trees. The brisk air was tinged with the sharp, pungent scents of autumn— damp earth, smoky wood fires—and Gwendolyn took in great breaths, filling her lungs. She loved this time of year, when the entire landscape was awash in vivid hues of crimson, orange, and russet.

Suddenly she sighed. It would not be a long ride today, for the hour was later than she had thought. She glanced over her shoulder at the two thanes wending their way along the leaf-strewn path not far behind her. They reminded her of great, hulking shadows. No doubt they would soon ride up and urge her to turn back.

She shivered, turning up the collar of her woolen shirt against the brisk north wind. She was grateful for the added warmth of her fur-lined leather jerkin, which she had donned only as an afterthought in her haste to get to the stable. She reached up and pulled her woolen cap down over her ears. Her short, silver-blond curls peered out from beneath the narrow brim, softly framing her delicate features.