Megan Elder Evans
No one spoke as Cristiana entered the gates of the castle. The guards’ averted their gazes to distant walls or their shoes, and the servants ceased their whispered conversations. Something was wrong, and Cristiana had a feeling it was what she dreaded.
Over the past four years, Earl Edmund Garrard III had presented sixteen men as suitable husbands, the last two scoundrels. Baron Heinrich von Gerolt of Bavaria was caught in the treasury by the guards. He claimed he got lost on the way to his bedchamber, which was located two floors above and on the far side of the castle. Sir Osbert of York, a knight known for his loyalty and fierceness in battle, seemed to have forgotten his oath of chivalry when he chased Lina, Cristiana’s abigail, into Cristiana’s chambers. These two were easy enough to dismiss, but the majority of her suitors were good noblemen. Still, Cristiana dismissed each one, citing various imaginary or barely existent flaws. She never told her father her real reason for refusing them all.
As she crossed the great hall heading toward the stairs leading to her chambers, a voice called her name. She turned.
Captain Laurence Cokewald, her father’s right-hand man in matters of the castle’s and city’s security, bowed. “My Lady, your father wishes to speak with you at once. He is waiting in the chapel.”
She swallowed against the newly formed lump in her throat. Her father had only asked to speak to her one other time in the chapel, the day he announced it was time to find her a husband.
She nodded and turned toward the side door.
Laurence’s mouth turned down. His eyes followed her with concern.
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, don’t look at me like that,” Cristiana said. “We all knew this day was coming. But I don’t suppose you know exactly what my father has planned.”
“I am only the messenger, my Lady.”
Cristiana closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. She held out her satchel to Laurence. “Will you see that Lina puts this away for me?”
He bowed and took the satchel.
“By the way, Roger’s wife had to have the procedure. He will need a few days at home with her.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
Cristiana squared her shoulders and held her chin high, steeling herself against what was to come as she exited into the courtyard.
“My Lady,” Laurence called out behind her. “Your dress. The blood. Don’t you think you ought to change first?”
Cristiana waved her hand. Let her father see the blood.
Outside in the courtyard, black clouds formed overhead. Rain sprinkled the stones beneath her feet and spotted her bodice. The chapel loomed overhead.
Her father stood inside the empty chapel. The Earl had never been impressive looking. No one would have called his short stature and sinewy limbs intimidating, but as he stood before the stained glass windows, the orange light radiating off his silver hair like fire, the pit of Cristiana’s stomach burned. She crossed her arms over her chest, wishing now, for the second time that day, that she had changed her dress.
“Father, you wanted to speak to me.”
“Yes, come here and sit down.” He gestured to the two gilded chairs on the dais.
Cristiana sat. The Earl stood before her, running his fingers through his beard.
“As you know, England has been at war with Scotland for the past fifty years, and both our own King Edward and Scotland’s King David are eager for it to end.”
Cristiana’s stomach knotted. How long would it take to get to the point?
He pulled on his beard, crossed his other arm behind him, and paced before his daughter.
“Berwick has been one of the most fought over parts of Scotland,” he said.
Cristiana bit her lip. Don’t say it.
“And as the Earl of Northumberland, I am in a position to help end the war, at least as far as Northumberland and Berwick are concerned. I have written to King Edward, and he agrees with the peace agreement I have worked out.”
Cristiana looked up at the rafters. Please don’t say it.
“The Earl of Berwick, Raegenhere Auenel, is unmarried and has agreed to end all battles with England on the condition of your marriage to him.”
He said it. Cristiana dropped her head into her hands.
“Earl Auenel will be here in three days. I suggest you use this time to get accustomed to the idea.”
She knew refusal was no longer an option. Still, Cristiana could not stop herself.
“I will not marry him.” She stood and stared her father in the eyes.
The Earl straightened. His jaw clenched. “Enough blood has already been spilt. How many more of our men must die? You will marry him.”
“Find another way. I will not be married to a blood-thirsty barbarian who is twice my age.”
“He wants peace, the same as us. How does that make him bloodthirsty? And he is not twice your age. He is thirty-nine.”
“Close enough.” Cristiana clenched her fists. “I won’t marry him, or anyone else, and you cannot force me.”
The orange window light flashed in the Earl’s eyes. He slammed his fist into the back of the chair nearest him. It careened forward and crashed to the floor. Cristiana leaped back against the column at the end of the dais. She had never seen her father display such anger.
The Earl stepped forward, his finger pointed and his brow furrowed, veins pulsing at his temples. “You will marry him! I am under enough pressure from the king to end this war, and I have lost too many good men. You will do your duty to your king and to me, and I will not hear another word contrary to it.”
Cristiana nodded, every inch of her shaking.
The Earl stepped back and scanned her, pausing at her bodice. His lips pursed. “I see you’ve been doing that again. That stops now, and you are never to mention that barbarism to your husband. Disgusting—cutting living women open—it’s unnatural.”
Cristiana opened her mouth, but her father’s glare shut it again. No matter how many lives were saved, he would never understand, and if Raegenhere Auenel was anything like her father, he would not either.
The Earl stepped closer. “Now, I want no more arguments. You will do as you are told.”
“Yes, Father,” Cristiana said, her voice barely above a whisper. The Earl had never been very supportive of Cristiana’s wishes, but she had always managed to bend him to her will. This was the first time he had not backed down, and she saw him now as the man the peers of the realm knew him to be. The treaty was most important, and he would not be moved.
The Earl backed away, but Cristiana kept herself pressed against the column. It was not until he had left, slamming the chapel door behind him, that Cristiana slumped down and crumpled into the folds of her skirt on the floor.
Doomed. Like her mother, grandmother, and three more generations of women who came before her, she was doomed to die without knowing her child, without living a full life.
This is the last section of Chapter 1. Cristiana is returning to the castle where she lives after helping the old midwife, Ida, and her young apprentice, Beatrix, perform a caesarean section on a woman who is in danger of dying in childbirth. The three women are the only women in Northumberland who know how to perform a live caesarean. Descended from a long line of women with a history of dying in childbirth, Cristiana is not eager to marry, but she knows it is imminent, and with her father feeling her work is "barbaric," she fears not even Ida and Beatrix can help her.
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Excerpt from Chapter 1, Fate's Arrangement