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Rhianwyn Mulryan awoke with a start—immediately aware the magical transformation had occurred. Her right side was no longer plagued with excruciating pain. To protect Broccan, her husband and true love, she’d stepped before a blade and been run straight through, incurring what should’ve been a mortal injury. Only the mysterious old woman’s magic had saved her. Unfortunately, because of an otherworldly pact she and three friends were bound to, Princess Lilliana would now be suffering the severity of the sword’s wound.
Rhianwyn sat up in an unfamiliar bed. A simple straw-stuffed mat upon a wood frame. She felt the thick braid and stretched strong, long legs, confirming that she was in Elspeth’s body now. For the next three months, she’d live as a tall blonde castle servant, married to the sheriff’s son, Godric Percival, the brute who’d have sold her into slavery, if not for the same magic.
Sunlight peeking through cracks near the window shutters revealed Elspeth’s husband—no, her husband!—lying on his back beside her, snoring loudly, completely vulnerable. Rhianwyn was tempted to take her pillow and hold it over his face. That would solve many problems but undoubtedly create even more. He was a robust man; she couldn’t bury his body on her own and although she’d have no difficulty finding others who wanted the ignorant boor dead, she couldn’t involve anyone else in the criminality. The punishment for murder was death. Abetting a murderess brought the same judgment.
Suspected of more than one count of murder himself, Godric was clever enough to ensure he was never incriminated and most common-born were afraid to cross him because of his father’s power. Even his cousin Winston, who’d proven himself honorable, wouldn’t accuse Godric—surely thinking of Lucian, a young man who’d dared to speak up and was killed for his trouble.
Knowing Elspeth and Lilliana had suffered his mistreatment, too, filled Rhianwyn with fury, but women held little power in medieval Wessex. Abuse was widespread—the rule not the exception. A wife was merely a possession, worth little more than a sheep or cow and nearly as easily replaced.
She longed to return to her own life with Broccan. He respected her, valued her opinion, and recognized her intelligence. They’d been deeply, passionately in love and remarkably happy. Then the pact changed everything. For one year, she, Elspeth, Lilliana and Selena would exchange lives—their souls and awareness transported to live a season in each other’s bodies.
Last winter when she’d become Selena, the change had been dizzying and disorienting. This time she’d been in a deep sleep—well filled with remedies to ease the pain from the sword’s brutal wound. Instinctively, she touched her side. Of course, there was no injury beneath the rough linen shift. But Elspeth’s life might prove more dangerous than a wound. How would she get through the spring?
Lamentably, just as she’d maintained none of Selena’s memories, she couldn’t recall Elspeth’s either. She didn’t know Elspeth’s morning routine, what food she prepared for Godric, what chores would be expected of her at the castle or at home. Because Elspeth had spent the past weeks in Welshland living Princess Lilliana’s life, Rhianwyn hadn’t been able to ask her.
Rhianwyn felt Godric stir and was repulsed to see the protrusion beneath the bedcovers. As a healer and a married woman, she knew it was a common morning occurrence, but the thought of his erect manhood revolted her.
Maybe she should create more of the potion Elspeth and Lilliana had used to make him less likely to want sexual relations. Lilliana confessed she’d also been dosing him with the elixir Rhianwyn had given her for her father. King Thaddeus had a penchant for young women. Understandably, the princess couldn’t risk her father taking her to bed—even in another woman’s body.
Rhianwyn didn’t blame Lilliana for not wanting to be bedded by Godric, either. But she worried that continued use of combined potions would leave him unable to perform, a condition that, with his violent nature, might make him more volatile. Rhianwyn must find other ways to avoid being intimate with him.
Quietly getting out of bed, she held her breath when he turned over. She spotted a small trunk on Elspeth’s side of the bed. With light filtering through the window shutters she saw two plain kirtles Elspeth wore for work—one gray, the other brown. The prettier blue gown was mostly reserved for market days and church. Rhianwyn pulled the drab brown kirtle over her shift. Locating her wool stockings in her boots under the bed, she put them on and laced up the short brown suede boots.
She made her way through the mostly dark, small stone cottage. Hoping to leave soon, she avoided lighting the fire to heat water, yet nearly gasped when washing her face with the icy water. She didn’t want to wake Godric—now snoring again. She heard several eruptions of flatulence and a noxious odor filled the room. Although also a natural occurrence, her loathing of him made everything about him detestable.
She supposed she would need to stay to prepare breakfast. He’d undoubtedly expect that. She found the strike-a-light on the mantel. Logs already in the hearth caught fire straightaway. By the firelight she saw Godric clearer. He wasn’t an ugly man—some women even found him attractive. He was reasonably tall with a sturdy build. His short pitch-black hair and beard apparently appealed to women, but Rhianwyn only thought it matched his black-hearted countenance.
Godric was the reason she despised beards. Three years previously, when she was six and ten, Godric had two of his reprehensible companions push Rhianwyn to the ground. They held her while Godric lay atop her. Harshly rubbing his coarse beard against her face, he pulled up her skirts and touched her whilst informing her of his further indecent intentions.
She was grateful to Maxim, the castle’s huntsman, who’d come along—or she would’ve been raped. Only recently, at the request of Shandy, the local brothel owner, Godric had fully intended to kill Broccan. Thankfully the arrival of the other knights had saved Broccan. With their tumultuous history, Rhianwyn wasn’t sure how she’d bear three moons living as Godric’s wife.
Glancing in the small, cracked mirror upon the wall, Rhianwyn untied the braid, pulled her fingers through and then re-braided the thick golden-blonde hair. Elspeth was pretty…almost stunning if she wasn’t frowning, rolling her eyes, or making a disapproving face. She had beautiful large blue eyes, lovely hair, flawless skin and a form that drew much attention. It was grand being so tall. As Rhianwyn effortlessly moved the iron kettle, she noticed Elspeth was strong, too.
The one cupboard held a few plates, tankards and bowls, half a loaf of bread wrapped in cloth, some salt and flour. In the cold bin near the window alcove there was cheese, butter and eggs. She longed to have vegetables and herbs to make food tastier. Apparently, Godric complained regardless of what meals Elspeth or Lilliana prepared. A miserable man, he enjoyed ensuring that others were equally wretched.
He stirred again and belched. She smelled disgusting stale ale and stuck out her tongue, but quickly pulled it back as Godric sat up, already scowling. He hadn’t wanted to marry Elspeth any more than Elspeth wanted to wed him. Their fathers had arranged the marriage. Rhianwyn hadn’t forgiven Elspeth’s father for that.
Godric’s first wife died under suspicious circumstances. She was found at the foot of the abbey—her neck broken. It was rumored she’d tried to seek refuge with the monks. Rhianwyn believed Godric had thrown her down the steps.
“You don’t even have my food prepared!” Godric growled, getting out of bed unclothed and well aroused. She looked away.
“I was waiting for you to waken. It’ll be ready soon enough.”
“Get over here first,” he ordered, pointing to the bed.
“I haven’t yet relieved myself. Then I must hastily prepare your meal, for I’m to be at the castle soon.”
Godric glared. “You continue to go earlier and stay later.”
“I can’t deny the king’s wishes.”
“I don’t suppose you deny him much.” Godric’s eyes went up and down her body. “This won’t take long. Come hither. I’ll let you choose. Kneel before me and open your mouth or lift your skirts and bend over, now!”
“I won’t.” She backed away.
Rhianwyn was uncertain what he’d do when she openly opposed him but the thought of orally pleasuring him made her queasy. Him bedding her wasn’t a much more favorable consideration. She’d heard he was vulgar and rough during sexual relations. He’d also sodomized Lilliana at least once during her turn as Elspeth.
“It’s unlawful to deny your husband’s base needs. That is a wife’s duty and what you’re here for after all.”
His arrogance infuriated her, and she continued to the door. “I must use the privy straightaway before I wet myself. Then I’ll make your meal. Ensuring you’re fed is also a wife’s obligation.”
“Are you giving me lip, woman? Use the chamber pot beneath the bed!”
“I prefer the outside privy.” She wasn’t willing to raise her skirts anywhere near him.
“That stenchful hut?”
She went out without replying. The small wooden shack was shared by a dozen large families, but she’d rather fall down the fetid-smelling shitter than be bedded by Godric. When she was done, she pumped water from the common well and washed her hands. Being a healer, Rhianwyn had learned early the importance of cleanliness.
Inside the cottage she found Godric lying atop the bedcovers exuberantly pleasuring himself. She stopped short, shuddered and turned away.
He grinned. “You’re not spreading your legs, therefore you force me to tend to my needs.”
She kept her back to him, trying not to gag at the guttural moan indicating his culmination. She knew it was common for men to toss themselves off, but she didn’t want to be present for any of Godric’s satisfaction.
He stood, farted, and belched again as he dressed. She glanced at the befouled stain upon the bedclothes. She needed to think of better ways to avoid lying with him.
The eggs frying in butter in the copper pan over the hearth fire smelled good, but she wouldn’t eat here. She heated the bread, buttered it and sliced the cheese. Godric’s boots struck loudly on the stone floor. He was attired in the black leather tunic and breeches the sheriff or shire reeves’ men wore. A set of scales upon the chest depicted justice like the scales held by the Roman goddess Justitia—bloody ironic given Godric’s unjust deeds.
He drew the chair out with a screech and sat, drumming one hand, holding a fork in the other. He certainly hadn’t washed his hands; she even smelled his seed. Although she wasn’t prone to a weak stomach, this time she did gag. She’d never been put off by Broccan’s male scent, but everything about Godric was nauseating.
Godric narrowed his eyes. “You look like you’re about to spew, woman. Do you finally carry my child? It’d be bloody time. You’re big and ugly and disobedient but your mother bore several healthy sons and you’ve sturdy round hips for birthing. Otherwise, I’d have chosen someone who’s a better cook and eager to share my bed.”
“Is your self-opinion truly so high you believe I wanted to wed you?” Rhianwyn and Elspeth loathed Godric equally; her friend’s outspoken nature meant Rhianwyn’s words would arouse no suspicion and she took pleasure in them. “I would’ve requested my father choose a knight to be my husband. They’re a fine handsome lot—strong, chivalrous, honorable and valiant.”
That would displease him. The sheriff’s men had a longstanding rivalry with the knights.
“Watch your mouth! I’m the sheriff’s son while you’re a lowly castle servant. I got the short end of the stick in this undesired marriage.”
She bit her tongue and set his plate before him.
“Sarding hell! Eggs, bread and cheese again?”
She quelled the urge to list his many shortcomings. “We haven’t much food here.”
“Then procure more!” he ordered. “That’s another of the duties you consistently shirk.”
“I’ll attend the market tomorrow. What would you request I prepare?”
He eyed her with disdain. “Go to the butcher. Get some damn meat for a change since you don’t favor skinning and gutting the animals I hunt.”
She turned away and rolled her eyes.
Godric was an oaf, but he wasn’t stupid. He formed a fist. “Are you bloody well asking me to put you in line?”
She whirled around to face him. “How do you expect me to ready animals, shop for your food, make your meals, clean your cottage, and tend to your carnal needs when I work dawn to dusk at the castle? Perhaps you could go to the butcher or skin and gut the animals.”
“You expect me to do your tasks?” he scoffed. “I’ll not be taken from my duties nor lower myself to visit shops. See it done, woman!”
“Should I inform the king’s advisors I can no longer work at his castle? When my family’s been so entrusted for generations? Many consider it an honor to serve King Thaddeus. Perhaps you’d like a personal audience with him to request I be given more time to serve you?”
“You’ve always had a bitter bleating tongue but you’re being outright belligerent this day. Probably from being around mad Lady Brockwell. Don’t think I didn’t see you at the brothel when that little whore was hurt, too. I’ve forbidden you to have friends and been tolerant thus far, but I intend to become more heavy-handed. I hoped the wench would die. Maybe she will if her wound festers. I wish painful deaths for her and the mad healer.”
That he’d dare suggest such a tragic possibility for her friends infuriated her!
“I wish Sir Broccan had beheaded you and not Aldrich!”
Godric’s face turned bright red. He stood so fast his chair tipped. When he lunged for her, Rhianwyn jumped back, and he fell face-first into his eggs. Wiping yolk off his face with his sleeve, he snarled and raised his hand. She lifted her chair between them, but he yanked it away and hurled it to the stone floor, where it shattered.
His attempt to frighten her made her own temper further soar.
She grabbed the ale pitcher and threw it at him. He dodged and it smashed. Shards of broken pottery and splattered ale covered the table and floor. Godric’s gray eyes bulged as he roared and charged toward her again. She picked up another chair and threw it. Splintered wood flew about. He stopped, surprised.
“I’ll not permit you to touch me,” she shouted. “Nor will you bed me. Not ever!”
“You sarding bitch,” he cried, outraged. “How bloody dare you! You’re mine to do with what I like! How would you stop me?”
Rhianwyn backed toward the door. She knew the danger but couldn’t stem the tide of fury on behalf of everyone this evil man had hurt. “I could poison your food…hold a pillow over your face…gut you while you sleep. You’d be wise to lay your head elsewhere or sleep with one eye open. How long could you go without sleep?”
“Don’t you know how I could make you suffer for daring to threaten me?”
“Even if I’m obedient and submissive, you can make me suffer. I won’t live fearing you. If I’m killed protecting myself, so be it. However, having two wives die violently would harm your prospects for finding a third wife to carry your sons. It’s unlikely even your father could secure another union.”
He shook his head in disbelief. “You have gone as bloody mad as the healer.”
She alone could change her circumstances and the realization was intoxicating. “I’ll tolerate your abuse no more. Now…I must be off to the castle.”
“You’ll clean this damn mess first!” he roared.
“Then I’d be late. The king could issue worse punishment than you, husband.” She gritted her teeth.
With surprise, she spotted her walking stick by the door. Rhianwyn had taken it when it was left behind by the mysterious old crone the night of the pact. It had obviously followed Rhianwyn in the transformation. She clutched it tightly, grateful for the power and protection it offered. Being married to Godric, she’d need it.
End of Excerpt