"But I don't want to marry another." Marion took her husband's cold hand and touched her lips to the back of it in an uncharacteristic display of affection. Theirs had not been a love match, but she had developed feelings for the aging warrior during their five-year marriage.
She'd just turned eighteen when the King had awarded Raynor the village of Ravenhill on the eastern boarder of Northumbria. In return, Raynor had kept the coast safe from raiders and Norse marauders who still haunted the neighboring Scottish shores. His defense of the very land he had once preyed upon had been a source of many arguments between Marion and Raynor.
"The King has already agreed that you and Ravenhill will belong to my cousin Wyborn. He will keep our village safe and prosperous. He will not abuse you."
"I'm not worried about myself." She blinked back the tears that threatened to spill. Wyborn, the last of the Norse conquerors, held property in Scotland and his homeland. Marion had no desire to wed him. "I'm not ignorant of the stories about your cousin. He's a monster. He's--"
"If Wyborn is not given this land, he'll come and take it. Only his devotion to me stopped him from raiding these shores long ago. At least this way, none of what we've worked for will be destroyed. You and our people will be protected."
Marion turned for a moment to stir the mixture of herbs in the black pot hanging over the fire. The strong scent permeated the room, but over the past few days, the herbs had eased Raynor's troubled breathing. The pungent odor clung to Marion's clothes and hair in spite of how she scrubbed herself daily.
"But I could rule. I still have your warriors to serve as a defense, and I know how to keep our land prospering. You know that I've provided you with advice that has saved, even earned, you gold."
Raynor smiled, his withered hand clutching hers weakly. He had been more like a father to her than a husband. When they'd met, he had never spoken of it, but she knew by his avoidance of the marriage bed that he had lost his ability to enjoy women long ago. She had respected him enough to ignore the condition, not that she any desire to consummate their marriage in the first place. Wyborn would be another matter. Though his cousin had been little more than a boy when they'd last met, stories of Wyborn's prowess filled Raynor with pride and hope.
"Wyborn is a fine man and Marion a good woman. No longer the willful child I wed, she will perform her duties toward him." Marion didn't respond, as she knew from the blank look in his eyes and the softness of his murmurings that he was no longer conscious of her. Still, his next words struck a chord of fear inside her. "I pray that Wyborn will appreciate the woman he has been promised as well as the land he has been given."
The old warrior's voice faded and his breathing ceased.
"Raynor?" Marion whispered, tears streaking her face as she lowered her forehead to her husband's still chest. "Oh, God, Raynor, what sort of a curse have you brought upon us?"
Marion wiped her cheeks with her sleeve and glanced up at the tall, slim boy with a reddish beard. In spite of his rugged appearance that made him appear like an experienced man, his blue eyes belied his youth.
"Stig, he's dead, and for us this is only the beginning."
"Raynor and the King sent word of his illness to Wyborn months ago. I'm sure he'll be arriving any day to take what has been promised him."
"Raynor may have been willing to surrender our land to his boar of a cousin, but I'm not so eager to see our home ruined. Wyborn will take what's his. The King wills it. We have no way of stopping it, but should Wyborn not be as worthy as Raynor believed, we will stop him."
"He's a skilled warrior and a sharp-witted man. What we've been planning is risky, my lady."
"One way or the other, I will be prepared for him. Already I'm as accurate with throwing a dagger as you are, and our training with the bow and arrow is coming along quickly."
Stig closed his eyes and muttered a silent prayer. "If anyone knew what I've been teaching you, they'd lock us both away for madness."
"I'd rather be a madwoman than the wife of an ogre."
Marion stood and touched Stig's forearm. The youth's eyes snapped open and he gazed at her. Since the moment they met, Stig had been her most faithful friend. She knew he wanted a deeper relationship with her, but he was too considerate to press the issue. Still, he had never been able to deny her anything she asked for, though he'd tried when she'd come to him months ago with the insane idea of learning a warrior's ways. Stig finally relented and coached her on how to throw daggers and fire a bow and arrow, all the while complaining that if Raynor ever discovered what he was teaching his soft, gentle wife, he would have his head chopped off.
"We have to inform the others and prepare for the funeral," Marion said, casting one last, sad look at Raynor before following Stig out of the chamber.