First Chapter of The Cross and the Dragon

Late August 773, King Charles’s assembly in Geneva

Alda wished she did not loathe the man her brother wanted her to marry.

She glanced at Count Ganelon of Dormagen, sitting to her left at dinner. When she had met him two months before at Drachenhaus, her home many leagues to the north, she had thought him the handsomest man in Francia. Muscular, with broad shoulders and well-formed legs, he had a face that could have been chiseled from marble, topped by a cap of pale blond hair. In the castle’s great hall, his silver medallions gleamed in the light from the walnut-oil lamps and midday sun.

A movement caught Alda’s eye. A cupbearer, head down and shoulders hunched, shuffled toward Ganelon. No older than ten winters, the boy was stick thin and clothed in rags.

How can anyone so mistreat his servants? she thought, wincing.

His face a mosaic of bruises, the boy sipped from the cup and placed it in front of Ganelon. Alda looked away, disgusted with Ganelon and still seething over this morning’s argument with her brother, Count Alfihar of Drachenhaus. Alfihar had ignored her protests, insisting that she did not need to like Ganelon to marry him. No, she didn’t, she admitted to herself, but she wanted to be able to suffer her husband’s company.

She turned her head toward the roasted venison, steaming in front of her on the slab of stale bread that served as a plate. Enticed by the aroma, she tore into the meat with her eating knife.

Ganelon sneered. “I never would have guessed a frail-looking girl like you would have such an appetite.”

Alda’s pale cheeks flushed. She wished she could think of a cutting reply. Any mention of her weight vexed her. She had tried to make herself plump, but no matter how much she ate, she could not add to her hips or breasts. Finally, her words came out in a grumble. “Obviously, I am not frail.”

“You are lucky anyone would wish to marry you. You are so thin you look like a peasant in disguise. Even that servant beside you has more flesh than you.”

The heat of a blush spread over Alda’s face and down her neck. Veronica, her servant and companion, had a fuller figure, but no man with manners would point it out. Why would Ganelon insult her? Baring her teeth, Alda stabbed the meat, wishing it could be Ganelon’s face.

To her right, Veronica nudged Alda. “A pity God blessed Count Ganelon with good looks instead of a good brain,” she whispered. “Most men flatter women they want to marry.”

Alda covered her mouth to suppress a giggle.

“Why do you allow your servants to eat with you?” Ganelon asked contemptuously.

“Her name is Veronica.” Alda’s forest green eyes flashed. “She is my foster sister and my dearest friend.”

Laying aside her knife, Alda squeezed Veronica’s hand under the table. How could Ganelon say such a thing about the young woman whose mother had nursed both of them?

“My servants stay away from the table,” Ganelon said. “I cannot bear to watch them eat like beasts.”

“Perhaps you should give them more food,” Alda snapped. Her gaze fell to the jeweled hilt of his eating knife. “My brother says you can afford it.”

“That is not your concern,” he retorted.

Alda’s nostrils flared. She did not know how she was going to endure Ganelon through dinner, let alone the rest of her life. She gazed to her right. Alfihar was dining five paces away with their uncles and the man she wanted, Prince Hruodland, heir to the March of Brittany and King Charles’s kinsman.

Hruodland’s features were plainer than Ganelon’s but still pleasing. At perhaps twenty-one winters, slightly older than Alfihar, Hruodland was a tall man with the warrior’s build that came from wearing armor and wielding a sword. He had dark brown, almost black, piercing eyes, a long nose, a square jaw, and dark hair that fell to his shoulders. She smiled as she remembered meeting him in the castle’s courtyard yesterday morning and later talking with him long into the night.

Veronica’s whisper broke into her thoughts. “Stop gawking at Hruodland! It will provoke Count Ganelon.”

Alda’s lips drew into a thin line, but she followed Veronica’s advice and turned her head. This meal was difficult enough without Ganelon’s jealousy. Glancing at Ganelon, she shuddered. His icy blue eyes were full of malice.

Other guests chatted and laughed, while the musicians played and sang. But dinner continued in silence between Alda and Ganelon. Alda was glad when the meal was finished and guests started to rise from the benches. As Alda got up and stepped over the bench, she saw Alfihar and their uncles from Bonn, Bishop Leonhard and Count Beringar, stand. In animated conversation, they walked to the stone hearth and sat on a bench, their backs to her. Watching Hruodland leave the table, Alda heard a cough and looked down.

Ganelon’s scrawny servant was staring at the slab of bread upon which her meat and vegetables had rested. Now it was empty save for the gristle and bone. The child gazed up at Alda. He had the look of a dog begging for food.

“Poor child,” Alda murmured. She reached toward the table and handed the servant the bread.

A meaty hand grabbed her right arm and yanked her a half turn, causing her to stumble. Ganelon was standing over her. Alda struggled to pull away, but his grip was like a hunter’s snare.

“That is my servant!” he shouted, his breath a hot blast reeking of wine. “You have no right to defy me.”

“Release me!” Alda cried.

Ganelon raised his right hand, preparing already to claim his marital right to beat her.

Mother of God, save me. Alda clutched her dragon amulet with her free hand.

A shadow fell across Ganelon. Hruodland rushed forward, seized Ganelon’s raised arm and shoved him away. Ganelon let go of Alda’s arm and staggered back a few steps. Hruodland placed his tall frame between them.

“Who do you think you are?” Ganelon snarled at Hruodland. “You have no right to interfere.”

He is the answer to my prayer. Alda’s pulse pounded in her dry throat. Standing on her toes, she watched Ganelon over Hruodland’s shoulder. She rubbed her arm, too shocked to speak.

“Alda is my friend.” Hruodland’s baritone was on the edge of fury. “I will protect my friends.”

“God gives a man the right, no, the duty, to discipline his wife,” Ganelon yelled.

Anger gave Alda her voice. “I am not your wife.”

From the corner of her eye, Alda saw Alfihar, Leonhard, and Beringar hurry toward them.

“Why are you quarrelling?” Leonhard calmly asked.

“This viper, he stuck himself into a matter of discipline between me and Alda,” Ganelon spat.

“Discipline?” Alda blurted. “You were about to beat me for giving bread to a starving child. I hate you, Ganelon! You have no rights or duties over me. God has not joined us, and He never will!”

The men stared, speechless, at Alda. Alda covered her mouth, unable to believe her own outburst.

Leonhard rushed to Alda and put his arm around her shoulders. “Come with me, Alda. You have had too much wine and need to rest.”

As Leonhard led Alda through the great hall, she looked over her shoulder.

“Hruodland, Ganelon,” Alfihar said, raking his fingers through his light brown hair, “this must be a misunderstanding. Let us have some wine.”

Hruodland and Ganelon glared at each other, like two dogs raising the fur behind their necks, growling and baring their teeth.

“I am well, Uncle,” Alda murmured, turning her head toward him. “I had only a few sips from the cup.”

“I know,” he muttered. “I am trying to protect you. You surely were not in earnest.”

“I meant every word. If you wish to protect me, persuade Alfihar to negotiate with another suitor. My brother will not listen to me.”

She drew her sleeve past her elbow. Ganelon’s grasp had left bruises on her pale skin.

“No one has ever touched me that way,” she told Leonhard. She felt hot. Her face was flushed. “My father would never allow it. My father would end negotiations with a man like Ganelon.”

Leonhard and Alda both looked back.

“Alfihar, forbid your sister from speaking with Hruodland,” Ganelon bellowed. “He is trying to steal what is rightfully mine.”

“She is not yours yet,” Hruodland growled, his dark eyes narrowing, “and if you hurt her, I swear by God and all His Saints that you will taste my sword.”

Alda gasped. “I must go back. I can’t let Hruodland risk himself in a fight.”

“You will do no such thing,” Leonhard said quietly and firmly, pulling her closer. “Your presence will only make matters worse. It’s only words, my dearling.”

Something in Hruodland’s voice told Alda he was not speaking idly. Joy and worry washed through her. He would challenge Ganelon to protect her! She tried to twist and go to Hruodland, but Leonhard’s hold on her was strong.

“Niece, I said no,” he muttered.

Alda looked back again.

Ganelon drew his muscular frame closer to Hruodland. “Alda belongs to me, not you!”

“You have no right to touch her!” Hruodland’s spine was arrow straight.

“Uncle,” Alda whispered, “it is not mere talk.”

But broad-shouldered Beringar clapped his massive hands on Ganelon’s and Hruodland’s shoulders and slowly pushed the two men apart. “We should not fight among ourselves. His Holiness will need all of us to fight the enemy.” His deep voice matched his hulking build and boomed throughout the hall.

“I will gladly use my sword to send the Lombards to hell.” Ganelon’s icy eyes bored into Hruodland.

“We are crossing the Alps to save Rome,” Hruodland retorted, “not forever condemn the Lombards.”

“We should be fighting the Saxons instead,” Alfihar grumbled. “The moment they learn we’re far away, those oath breakers will start burning churches again.”

“But we have no choice,” Hruodland replied. “Not even gold will lure Desiderius away from Rome.”

See, Alfihar? Alda thought. I told you the Lombard king is mad.

“Son of a whore’s filthy sow!” Alfihar said. “Still bitter that King Charles divorced his worthless daughter.”

Ganelon chuckled.

Scowling, Hruodland looked about. “Don’t let Grandmother Bertrada hear that. She hoped the marriage would bring peace.”

Ganelon snorted in derision.

Beringar glowered at Alfihar and Ganelon. “The queen mother is not alone. She did everything she could, but peace with the Lombards is difficult, almost as difficult as peace between King Charles and his brother, God rest his soul.”

“I’m surprised the peace between Uncle Charles and Uncle Carloman lasted as long as it did,” Hruodland said. “Uncle Carloman was petty and jealous and not a good king.”

Alda looked forward, glad they were no longer talking about her. “Alfihar is going to rebuke me for causing this quarrel,” she said in a low voice.

Leonhard turned away from the group of men and led Alda toward the door that opened to the garden. Lingering at the doorway, she listened to the men again. Calling Desiderius all sorts of vile names, they were rehashing how the Lombard king tried to divide Francia and force Pope Hadrian to anoint Carloman’s toddling sons, giving his young widow, Gerberga, the power to rule as regent.

“One might think …” Leonhard’s voice trailed off, then he shook his head.

“One might think what?” Alda asked

“Nothing,” Leonhard said. “Hruodland seems fond of you.”

“He is a good friend. If it were not for him, Ganelon would have struck me. He has no right to do that, not yet, has he?”

“No, Niece, Ganelon has no right. Negotiations have barely started.”

“How long will they take?”

“Weeks at least, probably months, maybe even years. Or, God willing, they fail altogether.” He frowned. “I told Alfihar not to choose Ganelon. But you know how pig-headed your brother is, and with Beringar, it is doubly so. Neither admits to mistakes. When will you see fifteen years?”

Alda thought for a moment. “Next summer.”

“Church law will be on your side then. The nuptials will require your consent.”

Alda shivered despite the warmth of the day, praying it wouldn’t come to that. Although Alfihar had never hit her before, her refusal to marry Ganelon might anger him enough to beat her, a punishment for her willfulness and the embarrassment she would cause the family. Or he could disown her and leave her without an inheritance, despite their late father’s wishes. Then what would she do?

For a moment, Alda and Leonhard walked in silence through the garden just past its summer peak. The thyme and sage released their scents as Alda’s skirts brushed past them.

Leonhard relaxed his hold on Alda’s shoulders. “Promise me you will not seek Hruodland out.”

“I enjoy Hruodland’s company,” she protested. “I have no reason to stay away from him.”

“Do you not have eyes to see what happened in the hall?”

“Ganelon was going to beat me for an act of charity. Is that the man you want to be my husband?”

“You know I don’t,” Leonhard said impatiently, “but Alfihar and Beringar do. I will do my best to dissuade them, but if I fail, you must not inspire Ganelon’s jealousy.”

“I will not marry Ganelon,” Alda said, a tremor in her voice. “I will join the convent on Nonnenwerth first!”

“With that crazed abbess?” Leonhard whispered. “That would be worse than marrying Ganelon.”

“It can’t be.”

Alda heard someone approaching them from behind. Gritting her teeth, she wondered if it was Alfihar coming out to scold her. The tread was solid and heavy like a man’s, but no, it was not Alfihar’s footsteps. Her eyes widened. Was it Ganelon? Was that rat going to finish what he had started?

Her throat constricting, Alda looked up to Leonhard.

Her uncle glanced behind them. “We should talk to him,” he said. “He will follow us if we walk away.”

“I’ve had more than my fill of Ganelon today.”

“It isn’t Ganelon. It’s Hruodland.”

“Hruodland?” Alda beamed. She turned suddenly, her long ash blond hair flaring.

It was Hruodland! He quickened his pace when Alda faced him, and she lifted her skirts slightly so she could rush to meet him.

“Alda!” Leonhard’s voice carried a warning, one she dared not disobey, not if he was to speak on her behalf against Ganelon.

She let her skirts fall and waited for Hruodland to come to her.

“Alda,” Hruodland said anxiously, “did that cur hurt you?”

Alda’s long sleeves now covered the bruises. How she wanted to show them to Hruodland and have him fight Ganelon and disfigure that hateful face. But Leonhard shook his head almost imperceptibly, telling her what she already knew. It would be wrong to draw Hruodland into a fight that was not his. She clasped her hands in front of her.

“I am well.” She opened her mouth, but for a moment, no words came out. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“It was nothing,” Hruodland said. “I only wish I had stopped him earlier.”

Leonhard cleared his throat. “Did Count Ganelon see you come out here, Prince Hruodland?”

“Why should I care what he sees? He was going to the assembly with Alfihar.”

“Because I don’t want your presence to send Count Ganelon into a jealous rage,” Leonhard said. “It would be Lady Alda who suffers for it.”

“I don’t care how jealous that monster is,” Alda snapped. “I refuse to marry him!”

“Alda,” Leonhard said evenly, “this is no time to be willful.”

Alda frowned, but she held her tongue, afraid Leonhard would change his mind if she contradicted him again in public.

“Now that you have seen my niece is well, Prince Hruodland, I must ask that you refrain from seeking her out again.”

“Bishop Leonhard, why would your family negotiate with a man who would hurt Alda? Your family can do better than Ganelon of Dormagen.”

“My brother, my nephew, and I will determine whom Lady Alda marries,” Leonhard said coldly.

Alda looked down, her lower lip trembling. Although the marriage negotiations were not Hruodland’s concern, she hated the way Leonhard was speaking to Hruodland, but she felt helpless.

She looked up when Hruodland touched her shoulder. “We are still friends,” he said gently. “If you need my aid, send a message to the March of Brittany.”

Alda nodded. This was his farewell, and there was nothing he or she could do about it. She feared if she spoke now she would burst into tears.

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