Entreat Me by Grace Draven

PROLOGUE

From the highest window in the keep, Ballard looked out upon the forests and fields of his family’s demesne and waited for his wife to die.  A westerly breeze blew in the green scent of clover, along with the peppery musk of pine and ash that heralded the coming spring and the summer soon to follow.  Summer had been Isabeau’s favorite season, but she wouldn’t live long enough to see this one or the bloom of her beloved roses.

The creak of an opening door behind him marked the arrival of his sorcerer.  Ambrose’s robes whispered dusty spells as they swept the floor boards.  He paused just before he reached the window.

“Dominus.”

Ballard didn’t turn.  “Is it finished?”

“Soon enough.”  Ambrose’s voice took on a worried note.  “She’s asking for you.”

Ballard abandoned the view of his lands and faced his magician.  The man couldn’t have surprised him more if he said there were purple mermaids cavorting in the fish pond.  “She’s delirious then.”

Ambrose shook his head.  “No.  Quite clear-headed.  Be careful.”

A pointless warning; he always remained wary when dealing with his wife.  He gestured to the wet nurse in one corner of the room.  “Give him to me.”  She rose at his command, carefully cradling a swaddled bundle that twitched and snuffled.  He lifted the baby from her arms and gently pushed aside the blankets to reveal a pink-skinned creature with curled fists, a cap of fine golden hair and bright infant blue eyes that might change as he grew older.  Ballard’s hands, dark and battle-scarred, spread over the boy’s small body as he turned him enough to view his back.  For countless generations, children of Ketach blood bore a sickle-shaped mark just above their buttocks.  Ballard had it, as had his father and grandfather before him.  Smooth and unblemished, this child’s back revealed a truth Ballard suspected.  He’d not been the one to sire Isabeau’s child.

“You can give him to another family.  Lesser knights with barren wives wanting children of noble birth.  One would take him, raise him as his own.”

Ballard disregarded Ambrose’s suggestion, bewitched by the infant’s fine features and the tiny hand clasping one of his fingers.  The baby’s eyes blinked and slowly focused, catching Ballard’s gaze and holding it for one eternal moment, stripping him down to the bare essence of his spirit. For the first time in his memory something moved within him, thawed and stirred—a ferocious instinct to claim and protect.  He bent and brushed his lips across the baby’s forehead.  This child might not be his by blood but was his nonetheless; his son, his heir, the next lord of Ketach Tor and all the lands under his claim.  If he thought she’d appreciate it, he’d thank Isabeau for giving him so gracious a gift.  He looked to Ambrose who watched him with inscrutable eyes, to the wet nurse who turned her gaze to the window.  “This is Gavin de Lovet,” he said in a soft voice, “son of Ballard, son of Dwennon, son of Udolf, heir of Ketach Tor.”

“Proclaimed and recognized.”  Ambrose bowed low.  The wet nurse curtsied.

Ballard returned him the baby to the nurse.  He didn’t want to abandon this peaceful chamber with its newborn hope and promise for the future, but another awaited him.  She’d summoned him with a dying breath.  Isabeau had delivered his heir.  He owed her this.

Her bedchamber smelled like a battlefield after the slaughter was done and the crows picked their way among the fallen.  The indefinable odor of death hung in the air, thickened by the suffocating heat billowing from the hearth’s fire.  In health, Isabeau had borne the title of loveliest woman in the kingdom.  Now, wasted away from blood loss, she lay in her bed, a shrunken wraith flattened by a mountain of covers.  Only her eyes, as blue as her son’s and bright with malice, gleamed with life.  Her gaze tracked Ballard as he approached.

“Isabeau.”  In the months of their marriage, she’d made no secret of the fact the sight of him sickened her.  He never guessed she might wish to spend her last moments with him.

She ran the tip of her tongue over her cracked lower lip.  “Water,” she croaked.

He poured a dram into a cup and helped her sit up so she could swallow.  “Drink slowly,” he said.  For once she did as he instructed without protest.  He lowered her gently to the bed when she finished.

Her chest rose and fell on a labored breath.  “It should be you here instead of me.”

Softly spoken words made razor sharp with hatred, they might have drawn blood had he felt anything for her.  “I can’t ease your mind, wife.  I’m sorry you suffer this way, but I’m glad it isn’t me.”

She laughed, a wheezing cackle that incited alarm instead of pity in Ballard and raised the hairs at his nape.  “Just as well,” she whispered.  Her mouth stretched into a flat smile that never reached her eyes.  “I couldn’t give you my gift otherwise.”  Her pale fingers spidered across the blankets, drawing mysterious designs in the weave.  “I leave you with your precious heir,” she declared.  “To him I bequeath my bitterness, my rage, my hatred.”  The blue eyes burned with more than fever now, and Ballard resisted the urge to step back from her bed.  “When he puts childhood behind him, they will manifest.  The savage you are shall raise up the savage he’ll become.  No woman will love him.  All your machinations—your deceit—have brought us to this.”  Isabeau gripped the blankets until her knuckles turned white, and she heaved herself upward.  “No woman born will ever love you,” she said.  “And the son will destroy the father.”

Her mouth worked in a rictus and she spat, her aim true.  Ballard wiped the hot spittle from his cheek.  Were he of a less pragmatic mind, he might fancy it burned. The effort drained her completely, and she collapsed against the pillows, eyes closed, breath whistling from her mouth.  Despite her venomous declaration, he stayed by her bed, kept vigil and sweltered while Isabeau’s breathing shallowed, quieted and finally ceased.  Her death had been more peaceful than her life.  He left her to her women and found Ambrose waiting in the corridor for him.

Part of him was relieved.  The fighting and clawing were over.  Still, he had regrets.  They had bargained, the two of them, and she had kept her part of the agreement.  He would have honored his after a fashion, given her the freedom—if not the lover—she so desperately craved.  He hadn’t willed her death, hadn’t prayed for it, but he didn’t grieve her passing.  “It’s over,” he said.

In the hall’s flickering torchlight Ambrose’s eyes sparked.  “Are you certain?”

“Aye.  Her parting words commended the boy to me, along with her hatred.  Then she spat on me.”

The sorcerer’s eyebrows snapped together.  “What exactly did she say, dominus?  Every word.  I need to hear them.”  Ballard repeated them.  Ambrose muttered a string of epithets and began to pace.  “Her hatred for you ran deep.  She’s cursed her own son as revenge.”

Ballard shrugged.  Ambrose was a suspicious sort, and Isabeau had always unnerved him.  “I don’t believe in curses.”

The other man snorted.  “Now is a good time to start.  Isabeau possessed the wild magic.  Curses fired by the left hand path are powerful, even wielded by an unskilled hand.”

Ballard strode toward the stairs.  “I don’t have time for your doom-saying, Ambrose.  I’ve a son to raise and a wife to bury.”

Ambrose hurried to catch up.  “Where do you want her buried? With her roses?”

He paused at the question.  Had she been other than his wife, he might have considered the idea, but she was lady of Ketach Tor.  In death, she’d lie in the family crypt, next to the wives of the lords who came before her.  “No.  Her women will prepare her.  She’ll be interred with the rest of the family.”

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