The Captive - By Joanne Rock
“IF I HAVE TO EMBROIDER one more rose petal, I will unsheathe my eating knife and run myself through.” Gwendolyn of Wessex tossed aside the linen nightgown she’d been suffering over for hours.
She despised needlework in the first place. And in the second, why bother making a night garment a work of art when her future, yet-to-be-named husband would only shred the thing off her anyway?
The women in the lesser hall stared at her in mild horror, as if they wanted nothing more from life than to stitch miniscule flower buds on a decorative garment for Gwendolyn to wear at her next wedding. As if they wanted nothing more from life than to warm a man’s bed. Gwendolyn didn’t even have any definite plans to wed just yet, but like all wealthy Saxon widows, she knew a union was inevitable.
The ladies who sat with her on this warm spring day were more like soulless jailors than noblewomen who embraced the happy state of widowhood as much as she did. Gwendolyn had never mourned the cruel knight who’d been foisted on her at eighteen summers, a man who had adopted the custom of keeping concubines while battling their Norse enemies. Gerald had died at the end of a Norse blade some moons ago, leaving her widowed, but waiting for the hammer to fall and her overlord to announce another marriage.
What she wouldn’t give for her life to be her own. For her future to be in her hands! She’d been taught young to think for herself thanks to her parents, wealthy scholars who’d traveled the world. Their deaths on the road to Rome had devastated her. She’d spent the rest of her childhood in the custody of Richard of Alchere, an ambitious lord who’d shackled her into an advantageous marriage at the first opportunity—only to find her widowed on his doorstep two summers later.
She’d been twenty.
Now the power-hungry nobleman was so busy kissing King Alfred’s royal rear, she feared what scheme the two might script for her next union.
Richard was the most powerful lord in Wessex, and he protected a key stretch of the coastline for Alfred. Alchere had been her father’s neighbor before his death, after which Richard had made a fast grab for power by bringing her into his household.
While their lands may have been a neat fit against each other, Alchere’s militant and unimaginative household bore no resemblance to the worldly haven her parents had ruled. Once upon a time, they had hosted scholars from all over the world to share ideas and study in their expansive library. Alchere, on the other hand, wasn’t smart enough to see beyond the point of his sword. He ruled with brute force, however, and King Alfred needed military might as much as he needed scholars. Well, he needed that more, truthfully.
That military might accounted for why Gwendolyn found herself back in proud, vain Alchere’s keeping again now that her first husband had died. She’d sent a messenger to Richard the moment she’d heard of Gerald’s death in battle, knowing Alchere would gladly send protection for her to return to him. This she did, much as she disliked her overlord. Better in Alchere’s hands than to wait around for Gerald’s family to try and keep her inheritance by marrying her to his equally brutish brother. She’d packed up everything she could carry and fled the whole vicious clan.
Now, Alfred kept track of her vast dowry once again, while Alchere kept her safe in his prison of a cold keep. Her former in-laws would never touch her here, but peace came at the price of her freedom.
She tipped her face into the warm sunshine filtering in through high windows overhead; the group of widows had been consigned to remain indoors due to fear of raiding Danes spotted along the coast.
“Lady Gwendolyn, what will your future husband think if your trunks are packed with naught but old gowns sewn while you were wed to another man?” Lady Margery currently hunted for a third spouse, so she considered herself an expert on the matter of husbands. All the rest of the old hens looked up to her for that reason.
Not that any of them were ancient. Margery held the distinction of eldest at twenty-four summers. The five women had been herded together by their king during wartime to keep them safe since they were a valuable lot. Each of them represented opportunities for important political alliances upon remarriage and as such, they required protection from the