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Fires of Winter
by Johanna Lindsey
Avon, 2002

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Chapter One

A Few miles inland from the west coast of Wales, and to the left of Anglesey Island, a small village was nestled in a tiny clearing. On a steep hill overlooking the village stood an imposing manor. Jim gray stone building looked down on the village, almost like a mother guarding her children with a watchful eye.

The village basked in the luxinims warmth of the midsummer sun. Not so the manor on the hill, which remained cold and forbidding, even with the sun touching its harsh gray walls. Travelera passing through the countryside often had the same impression of coldness. Today was no different.

A stranger slowly found his way to the heart of the village, keeping a wary eye on the manor. But soon the activay around him took the tall newcomer's attention away from the protecting mother on the hill. His unease gradually left him, and was replaced by a feeling that he was about to have some long overdue good fortune. More than once he turned in a complete circle, his hard eyes feasting on the peaceful tranquility, the dozen or so closely-spaced cottages, the children dashing here and there, playing their innocent games, and the women -- ah, the women!

He quickly spotted five or six who were to his liking. They didn't even notice him, as they went about their everyday chores.

The stranger, his trousers gartered but deplorably threadbare, with a filthy wolfskin serving as his mantle, could hardly believe his eyes. There was not a man in sight, not a single one. And the women, so many, and of all ages! Could he have stumbled on some ancient Amazon village? But no, there were children, boys and girls alike. The men must be working in the fields somewhere to the east, for he had seen none on his way.

"Can I be of help, good sir?"

Startled, the stranger jumped, then swung around quickly to face a girl with a bright, curious smile, whom he judged to have seen no less than sixteen winters. She suited his tastes perfectly, with her neatly braided flaxen hair and wide green eyes set in a cherubic, innocent face. His eyes traveled downward, but only for a second, so the girl would have no hint of his intentions, but in that instant her overripe breasts, pressed hard against her brown shift, and her wide, sturdy hips caused an ache in his groin.

When the stranger did not reply, the girl spoke again, cheerfully. "It has been many months since a traveler has come our way-not since the last of those from Anglesey Island Passed through on their search for new homes. Do you come from Anglesey also?"

"Yea, 'tis not the same anymore," he finally answered. Oh, he could tell her of his woes if he was of a mind, but she would have her own soon enough, if he had his way, and it was not a sympathetic ear that he was in need of. "Where are the men of your village? I do not even spy an old man whittling away his time."

The girl smiled sadly for just a moment. "As it happens, the old ones took the fever two winters past, and are no more. Many young and old died that year." Then her smile .brightened. "A wild boar was spotted this mom, and the men who remain have given chase. There will be a feast tonight and you are welcome to join."

His curiosity prompted the man to ask, "But are there no fields to tend? Or is a wild boar more important?"

The girl giggled unabashed. "You must surely be a man from the sea, or you would know that the crops are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, with little to do 'atween."

A frown creased his haggard brow. "Then you expect the men to return shortly?"

"Oh, nay, not if they can help it," she laughed. "They will linger over the chase, to enjoy it more. 'Tis not often a boar comes this close."

The man's features relaxed somewhat, and his thin lips curled in a grin. "What is your name, girl?"

"Enid," she replied easily.

"And have you a husband, Enid?"

She blushed prettily, her eyes lowered. "Nay, sir, I live with my father still."

"And he is with the others?"

Her green eyes gleamed with laughter again. "He would not miss the chase!"

This is too good to be true, the man thought gleefully before he spoke again. "I have traveled far and the moming sun is so warming, Enid. Might I rest a while in your home?"

For the first time she looked nervous. "I -- I don't---"

"Only for a few minutes, Enid," he added quickly.

She thought for a moment. "I am sure my father would not mind," she replied, and turned to lead the way.

The dwelling she entered was small indeed: only a single room, with a makeshift wall separating two sleeping mats placed in a comer of the dirt floor. A blackened stone hearth occupied one wall; two crude chairs and a table were placed before it. Two exquisitely crafted chalices inlaid with semiprecious stones, were on the table. They caught and held the man's eye. They were easily worth a small fortune; he could not understand how they might have found their way into this humble cottage.

Enid watched the man curiously as he eyed the gifts she had received from the lord of the manor for her services gladly rendered. The tall stranger was not handsome, but neither was he repulsive. And although he obviously owned little of worth, he had a strong back and could provide well for her as a husband. She had little chance of finding a husband among her own people, for all those who were eligible had already tried her charms, and though they did not find her lacking, neither would they take her to wife, knowing their friends had also tasted of her.

Enid smiled to herself as she developed the scheme, She would speak with her father on his return and lay her plan before him. He was sympathetic to her plight, and longed for a son-in-law to help him in the fields. Together they would coax the stranger to stay for a time. Then Enid would use her wiles to bring forth the man's proposal. This time, yea, this time she would have the marriage first and the play after. She would not add another mistake to her long list.

Excerpted from Fires of Winter by Johanna Lindsey. Copyright © 2002 by Johanna Lindsey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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