The day had come at last. The sun was rising slowly from behind the green hills, the birds waking up from their slumber. Isobella turned over in her light sleep, reluctant to wake up from the last night she would spend in the bed of her childhood. Her maid dosed and snored loudly on the small bed at the foot of Isobella's grand one, her hair falling off the end and brushing the wooden floor softly. This time tomorrow she would be waking up in her new husband's bed, away from the maid who had cared for her since she was a child. Waking up next to, little better, than a complete stranger.

At 18, Isobella was the oldest of her friends to get married. The daughters of the other nobles that made up her father's kingdom had long since been betrothed and sent away with which ever man had been chosen for them, not by them. Isobella had known that one day it would happen to her, but she also knew that her father would wait until her use as a political pawn would be of optimum advantage to him. Unfortunately, that day had come some three years ago. Her father defeated in battle by another king, with no other leverage than her, had pawned her away to the king's brother, the man who had won the war for the king. In return for the Isobella's hand, he would fight a battle a year for the king instead of taking half of his land as was customary after a defeat.

It had occurred to Isobella to run away from her father and her new general fiancé. But every man, woman and child in the land knew her from the parades and lavish spectacles her father had spent money on every year for the anniversary of her birth. She would be brought home again within ten miles and no doubt whipped for her disobedience. It was therefore, with a heavy heart she opened her eyes on that early spring morning in the year of our lord 1236. Her maid, Manda, was on her feet and ready with the girl's mantle right away. Isobella lifted her arms above her head and allowed her maid to slip the shift over her body, docilely. She must have done this simple routine a thousand times and more, each day and each night. And yet never before had it held the significance it did today. For today was the last time Manda would be doing it. She was staying at the castle, to look after Isobella's little sister Katriana. Since she was a baby in the cradle Manda had looked after her, told her off when she was mischievous, stroked her hair when she was crying and cajoled her when she was miserable. It would be fair to say that Manda had been her mother and friend, her confidante and her advisor. And tonight, she would be saying goodbye for a long time.

It was not particularly unusual for ladies maids to come with their ladies to a new household after marriage, indeed Isobella had petitioned to her father for this allowance to be made.

She had walked, straight backed and proud into the court room of her father's quarters, right up to the grand throne he sat on and knelt before him. His eyes were the only thing he had given her, enough to prove that she was of his blood and not some kitchen boy or steward. Everything else had come from her mother's Irish family.

"Father, as you know, in a short time from now I will be married. I beg of you, as your eldest daughter, to allow me the pleasure of taking my ladies maid with me to my new home. If you see fit, your majesty, I will bring Manda with me. Sire, you know I would not waste your valuable time if it wasn't so vital an element in my happiness.'

She had said all this with her face down, as if talking to the cold slate floor and not her father. She peered up hopefully when he did not respond. Wishing with all her might, that if there was any fatherly affection for her in his heart, it would surface at this moment, in this room, on this day. As King Andras considered what his eldest daughter had just told him, he thought also of the effect the ladies maid would have on his headstrong girl. He had thought for a while now that she needed bringing down a peg or two. If she took the women with her, she would have an ally, she would never be alone and no doubt she wouldn't submit and make an ally of her new husband. And if that happened, there would be war again, which he could not let happen. If she went alone, she would be forced to seek an alliance with her husband, and become obedient to him. Her stubborn streak might welter also if there was any luck. It was with a slightly heavy heart that he refused his daughter on her knees before him the one thing in her life that had been constant and in doing so sealed her fate for the next five years.

The look on Isobella's face was bitter as she recalled that day, she didn't even feel Manda tighten her corset or lace her dress around her. As she moved in front of her, Isobella buried her face in her arms and wept.

'Now now dear, t'will not be so bad. Young and pretty as you are, your husband's sure to take a keen liking to you.' Manda did not allow Isobella to see the shudder she surpressed when she thought of the kind of liking that would seal the marriage. Her princess was completely unversed in such things and Manda kicked herself for not having prepared the girl on a more emotional level for what would be happening on her wedding night. Of course, she had heard what the crass maids in the kitchen talked of when they thought she was not near and she knew that though it hurt at first, it might also become something she would enjoy. She had been told though, that whatever she felt, she must submit or face the price of being returned. Something her pride, if nothing else, would not allow to happen.

There was a knock at her door just as she was finished being dressed and slipping her feet into the soft indoor slippers she wore around the castle. Manda looked at her, her hair still not pinned beneath a veil, her cheeks flushed from sleep and her eyes wide from crying.

'I shall see who it is child' she heard Manda pad gently to the door way through the hall and gasp as she opened the door.

'Your highness, you cannot be here right now. The princess is not dressed…' the maid tailed off. Isobella thought her father was at the door.

'Tis bad luck also sire to see your bride on the day of the betrothal…"

Isobella's stomach lurched inside her…Richard! Her breath came short in her throat and her heart started beating horribly. She had not seen this man in nearly three years, and even then it had been brief encounter, shrouded in ritual and custom.

Since then she had pieced together what he was like from what she overheard in her father's court.

Richard Algrean, brother to the king of Mercia, was the general of the Mercian armies and had so far not lost in battle to any other king, foreign or local. He was second in line to the throne and had been married before to a young Spanish noble's daughter, who had died in child birth. He had apparently loved her deeply and missed her sorely. This fact had made Isobella anxious. It was bad enough that she was being married off, but to have to live up to another a women who had been canonized in death as the perfect wife and mother was something almost unbearable to her.

In reality, Richard had had nothing but distaste for his first wife. Who was strange in her mannerisms and cold in her heart. The fact that she had conceived so quickly after they had married had lead people to believe they were wildly in love, when in reality, he had been drunk and she had been willing. He of course had been sad to lose her, mainly for her link to the Hispanic south, but otherwise, she was one less thing he had to worry about. This new marriage to him, was merely a requirement in order to secure his own line. Nothing more.

And now, Richard, commander of the armies of Mercia and second in line to the throne, was stood in Isobella's doorway, peering upon her with eyes of granite.

Isobella felt herself blush underneath the direct gaze of her would be husband. However, and despite her embarrassment, she lifted her chin defiantly, placing her hands on her hips and looking him right in the eye.

'Is there something I can do for you, my lord?' Isobella deliberately used the lower of his two titles. Richard had been quite transfixed. Looking at her in a trance like state.

The last time he had set eyes upon her, she had been little better than a devil, clearly having been dragged in from the fields to meet her new husband. Hay in her hair, flushed cheeks and a ripped and stained dress. The woman he saw before him, was quite the opposite, despite the fact her maid had clearly not yet finished dressing her. Her skin was lightly tanned from being outdoors with her younger siblings, and although it was not the fashion to have sun kissed skin, he found it oddly appealing that when her head turned a sprinkle of freckles across her nose shimmered in the early morning sun. Her hair, when he had last seen her, was tied back (scruffily) and an odd colour of dark ale. As it was now, loose and flowing down to her waist, it seemed almost black, like the colour of his horse's hair, shining a dark red in the sun. He realized then that she had spoken to him and that he must be staring at her blankly. Indeed, Isobella had looked enquiringly at Manda, wondering what to do when her fiancé did not reply. Richard shook his head briskly, and frowned.

'I merely wished to see you before the wedding this afternoon. To tell you not to worry, that my family, and little sister in particular, are waiting your arrival with anticipation.' He smiled tightly, as if he was out of practice and it pained him to do so.

Isobella was astounded. She thought how best to reply.

'That is very kind of you sire.' She breathed in as he relaxed a little, pleased to see she was grateful at least and not as head strong as he once thought her to be, perhaps she had grown out of her stubbornness.

She then added, ' but I am not in the least bit worried' a lie, of course, but it did not please her that he thought she was weak and at a disadvantage.

He straightened a little in his armour, a red glow of anger staining his cheeks and a dangerous glint in his dark eyes. Not worried? How could she not be worried? It was only appropriate to be worried. Anything else was merely improper.

'I see. Well then Madame. I shall see you at the altar.' He said ominously then turned neatly on his heels and was gone as quickly as he had appeared.

Manda had been watching from her place in the corner, where the young prince had pushed past her, with a slight smile and frown on her face.

To be sure her lass had been lying, but Richard would not have known that, and Isobella had mistaken his embarrassment for anger which would come later if she continued to speak to him like that.

'That was perhaps a tad foolish my dear.' Manda said gently. Worried for whatever repercussions the young woman would feel tonight, when the chamber doors were closed and her and her husband, the husband she had just shamed, were alone for the first time.

"He was angry I could tell….but I was feeling vulnerable, he has no right, to just walk into my room"

'Oh my pet, but he does. You are as good as married.'

'No we are not. Not yet. I am still my own person for at least…'

'And he wasn't angry my dear. He was shamed. He came here to calm you and he thought you made him look a fool.'

Isobella considered this and realized, with a horrible sensation in the pit of her stomach, that humiliation was far worse than anger and usually turned into it after time. She hoped that she had not just scorned what would be her only comfort in the years to come.

♥♥

The church was extremely crowded. And smelt of deep scented musk. Every noble that was worthy of calling himself so was there with his wife and retinue. Isobella felt distinctly claustrophobic, like she was about to bolt any minute. She wouldn't of course because she knew that the consequences, whilst dire in their own right, would only be an addition to the marriage. Running away would only postpone the inevitable and in doing so, make it worse also. She could see Manda sat in the very far corner with the rest of the servants and help and wished with all her might that instead of a princess she was a serving wench. With that thought the organ started up. She had not even so much as glanced in the direction of her groom, as far as she was concerned there would be a whole lifetime to look at him after today. These people however, would be as good as lost to her after this afternoon and she wanted to savour every last moment with them. Isobella shook herself and forced a docile and obedient smile on her face beneath her heavy veil, not allowing the tears to fall.

As she put one foot in front of the other and made her way slowly down the aisle, Richard felt his heart constrict. He knew she must be terrified of him, he also knew that she would most likely hide it and to see her walking down the aisle towards him with her head held high despite her fear made his heart swell. Catalina, his first wife, had wept all the way down, and been silent on the wedding night and every other night besides. If there was thing that he found most repugnant in a woman it was lack of grace and elegance. And if he told the truth, its presence was something he found irresistible. It was with a slightly swollen heart he took her hand in his and faced the priest, the stern look on his face only slipping once she couldn't see it.

King Andras sat in the place of honour next to Richard's brother, the King of Mercia, Rupert. His hands were restless; he was highly suspicious of his daughter's new found submission and was on tenterhooks that she was about to turn and run any minute. It was only after the vows were said and the couple was walking towards the door of the church, did he allow himself to exhale with a sigh of relief. She was no longer his problem; he could love her now, without fear that the demonstration of affection would hurt her when he had to be stern. He knew tonight he would pray for her well being and for her to be strong. What he didn't know was the maid Manda, sat at the back of the church away from the finery, and would be sharing his prayers that night.

The sun was sending scarlet and crimson streaks across the sky. The night was fairly warm and the birds whistled happily in the trees as if it were dawn and not dusk. The butterflies in her stomach had not left Isobella, and the she had barely touched the platter of food she shared with Richard, who was eating and drinking heartily and laughing loudly with his comrades. Isobella was thinking of the kiss.

The vows had been said slowly and with meticulous care. She had not faltered and nor had he. The emotion she had surpressed was hidden well, no one would have been able to tell that she wasn't marrying the man of her dreams. Richard's voice had been low and well spoken. She had found it almost pleasing to listen to him. The priest had guided them through the ceremony flawlessly and as he had uttered the words you may kiss the bride, the whole congregation had seemingly drawn in a breath, in anticipation.

As he had leant forward to lift her veil, Isobella caught the smell of leather and soap she would come to associate with her husband. His strong hands were surprisingly gentle in placing the thin veil over her head and drawing back to take an up close look at her, his breath had stopped in his chest. But god she was beautiful.

Isobella herself was caught short by the look of admiration and affection mixed with longing she could see in his eyes and for a brief second she had nearly swooned with love for him. But he had leant in almost clinically and pecked her on the mouth, as he would have done no doubt with a favourite horse. And that was that, their first kiss. She could have wept with bitter disappointment and shame at herself for allowing herself to see love where there was clearly only lust... Underneath the table, Richard gently took his wife's hand and caressed the back of her knuckles. She looked at him, shocked; he turned and smiled at her. Peering deeply into her eyes, like he had done at the alter. She turned away first. But let her hand rest gently in his, happy that he wasn't angry.

He gently shut the chamber door behind her, sensing the nervousness coming off her in waves, palpable to every one of his senses. And yet she didn't show it. She walked straight and smiled a little bit when he looked at her. The only thing that gave her away was her hands. They had not stopped moving since they had left the table. If they weren't playing with each other they were busy in her belt, or working the loose tendrils of her hair. Richard, wondered what the hell to do. He was beside himself with angst; he had never felt this nervous. She was his wife; he couldn't understand the niggling feeling in the pit of his stomach. He…he…wanted her to like this. He wanted to make her love this. She looked at him in the eye, and though what he saw there was anxiousness, it was not all together fear. There was something else there, a hooded look about her, a faint coquettish air that lingered in her cheeks and made her mouth pout a little bit. He was absolutely awestruck. He moved a little bit closer to her, taking one hand in his he said to her

'I have promised to protect you Isobella and so I shall. I have vowed to honour you and I swear on God's grace I will. But there will be times when you think I am doing things to hurt you and I am not. I will ask you only to trust me tonight and then I will leave you if that is your will.' He breathed heavily. The unfamiliar rush of emotion seeping away. Isobella gulped a little, then said back to the man who was her husband.

'I have promised to obey you…and so I shall. I have promised to honour you sir with everything that I am. And I will. And I trust you to know what is best for me, when I do not.' She finished. She had not looked away from him for one instant, instead looking at him in the eye, fiercely and without remorse. Allowing him to see that the passion was a mixture of affection and hostility. And that she would not love him because he made her submit, but because she wanted to.

Richard, was speechless. He had had no idea that she felt so strongly, and with such ardour. These sentiments were not implied in the words, but in the way she said them. Her stance, her eyes, her flushed cheeks. Her hands had been oddly still.

He shifted closer to her, standing close enough to smell the flowers and oils in her hair. She could feel the warmth from his body drifting over her. He leant in gently and took her face in his hands, pulling her gently towards him without much prompting. He gently placed his mouth upon hers, letting her move closer to accommodate the new proximity. She wrapped her arms gently over his shoulders whilst he allowed his to slip slowly from her face to around her waist, where he locked them round her and pulled her so she was about five inches off the ground. His kiss grew more intense, opening his mouth so that hers naturally came with it. Allowing his tongue to smoothly massage her mouth and to play with hers. Isobella felt something inside her buckle and knew that if he hadn't been holding her she would have collapsed underneath it. Her body started to tingle and her breath became hot in her chest. He pulled away slowly, kissing her softly once again, but not letting go of her. He looked her in the eyes, and she at first felt something quiver near her mouth and realized before she could hold it back that she was grinning at him. Her whole face lighting up.

Richard laughed deeply in his throat…by god she was a witch.

Isabella, gently put her feet back on the ground. She knew faintly what was about to happen, she knew the reason behind her menses., and what begot children. What she did not understand was the feelings she had right now for her husband. Deep in her body things were awakening for the first time that she could only liken to the sensation she felt whilst riding astride her horse galloping when no one could see she wasn't on her side saddle. Right now…those feelings were mere shadows. Every fibre of her being was tingling with anticipation. From her fingertips to her toes her body was getting ready for something it knew how to do without her instruction. And secretly, her mind was taking over her senses too. She wasn't scared. She was perhaps a bit anxious but if any emotion overrode the others it was her animal instinct and curiosity. Her body knew how to move, she knew that whilst her husband was about to kiss her. She wanted to kiss him back so much it burned.

He turned her around slowly, unpinning the elaborate veil and allowing it to fall softly to the floor in a whispering sound of silk, he pushed the thick plait of her hair to one side and bent to drop soft teasing kisses on her neck. Extracting from her a small sigh of appreciation. She closed her eyes and allowed her head to fall back and rest on his shoulder. Richard lifted his head, placed his hands around her waist and moved her around so she was facing him. He looked her dead in the eye, unwavering and asked her if she was ready. Isobella swallowed thickly and nodded.

The covers over them were of the finest silk and satin, with cloth of gold inlaid into them in elaborate patterns and swirls. The sheets beneath them were cotton, recently traded from Egypt, soft and gentle and the purest white Isobella had ever seen. But the bed clothes meant very little to the two people now inside them. Isobella's senses were overflowing with new sensations she had not even known existed until tonight. Richard was experiencing for the first time in his life what it felt like to truly give without the thought of receiving.