As we’re two weeks out from the release date of the second boxed set in the Once & Future Hearts series, today, as usual, I’m providing the entire, unedited first chapter from the first book in the series, War Duke of Britain. Patreon members will also be able to read the first two interstitials.
EXCERPT FROM ONCE & FUTURE HEARTS BOX TWO
COPYRIGHT © TRACY COOPER-POSEY 2021
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
On the far eastern borders of the Kingdom of Guannes, Lesser Britain. 475 C.E. (Ten years ago.)
Arawn’s family, all five of them mounted, paused at the crest of the long, sloping hill down into the valley. Around them and behind them, Arawn’s army assembled itself. It was a magnificent sight, for Arawn had eight thousand men under his command.
The impressive numbers of armed warriors who answered to Arawn, King of Brocéliande, paled to insignificance compared to the troops and fighting men who sprawled upon the immense valley.
“The stars save us,” Ilsa murmured. “There must be fifteen thousand people down there.” She glanced at her husband. In twenty-five years of marriage, Ilsa had barely changed from the energetic, intelligent woman Arawn first met within the Perilous Forest, covered in mud from head to foot. The mud was gone and some would say her youth was gone, yet the life and joy had not faded from her eyes. Neither had her extraordinary love for him, for which Arawn was humbly grateful.
“Twenty thousand at least,” Arawn told her. “I can see Uther’s banner from here. If Uther is here, then half his British contingent will also be here.”
“I can see King Ban, and Bors of Guannes, and Hoel’s people,” Alun said. He controlled his big warhorse with unconscious ease. At seventeen, he was still becoming the great battle commander Arawn suspected he would be. Alun jerked his chin toward the valley. “Who’s is the white banner with the red cross?”
“Bedrawd’s,” Arawn Uther murmured. Arawn Uther was only twelve and not yet ready for battle. When the general calls for arms and aid reached Brocéliande, he had insisted he come along. Arawn was happy for him to see a real battle. It would be a sobering experience for the boy. “Is it true Bedrawd is the perfect soldier?” Arawn Uther added.
“He is a man. He has faults, just like any other man,” Ilsa replied.
“Faults get a man killed on the battlefield,” Arawn reminded her.
“And a woman.”
Arawn didn’t respond. Despite years of Ilsa fighting in the Queen’s Cohort, he was still not used to it. He could never relax after a battle until he knew she was safe.
“Shall we go down?” Ilsa asked. “By now, they have seen us.”
“Do we have to?” Elen asked. She was the only one in the family mounted on a gelding. She had refused to learn how to command a warhorse. At fifteen, she had reached the extent of her growth and could manage the gelding without trouble. In the early morning light, with the sun before them, Elen’s red hair burned fiery bright. It was her only bright note. War was not to her taste.
“War waits for no one,” Arawn said. “Remember why we are here. Claudas has taken Bors and Lionel. And Lancelot, too. We must get them back.” Arawn picked up his reins again. “Claudas has spent decades harassing us from the east. Now, finally, he has overstepped his bounds. Now there will be a reckoning.”
There were no more arguments from his children. They followed him and Ilsa down the gentle slope, their heads turning as they merged into the assembled armies.
There were so many people here, even Arawn could not identify all the banners and shields. The general call had gone out and all Lesser and Greater Britain answered.
He saw Pellinore, King of Listenoise, with two of his many sons. The jovial king had ties to Brittany through his wife and queen, Alis, a daughter of Uther’s greatest battle commander, Cadfael.
Mabon and his Queen Maela were here, with their grown son, Bevan. Bevan had married Lowri, who was Alis’s sister. If Mabon and Listenoise were here, it was likely Cadfael’s other offspring were also here. Most likely his widow, Lynette, too.
Thanks to Maela and her Queen’s Cohort, the practice of including all the adult members of a family in a battle had become more common. The women fought in the auxiliary while the men fought together on the main battlefield.
It gave rise to armies like this one, with thousands of people who had much to lose and an even stronger determination to win, because their loved ones were here, too.
Arawn led his family and his men deeper into the valley, searching out the command tent. The sun had barely risen yet the battle would soon be joined. He must get his orders from Uther before then.
Around them, everyone prepared for battle. Elen straightened in her saddle and pointed to the far right. “There is the surgery tent.” She nudged her gelding in that direction. Elen had been trained by Nimue, Lady of the Lake, and was a competent surgeon.
It was impossible to ride all the way to the command tent. There were too many people thronging about the tent, trying to receive their orders.
Arawn dismounted and handed his reins to Alun. Ilsa straightened in her saddle, scouting about with her gaze. “There is Maela.” She smiled at Arawn, then wheeled her horse and weaved between clumps of men, heading for where the Queen’s Cohort assembled.
Arawn ducked and weaved his way to the big white tent and slipped through the opening.
Not unexpectedly, there were a dozen or more men in the tent, most of them murmuring to each other and watching the big chair at the end. Arawn knew nearly everyone. Tristan the Elder, who was actually young, but not the youngest Tristan in their family, stood beside the high chair. Tristan was King of Kernow, and Uther’s war duke in times of war. It meant he spent more time as war duke than he did as king. Tristan had become war duke when Cadfael died. No one disputed the appointment, for Tristan was a prodigious soldier despite his youth.
He coordinated the placement of the field, handing out positions and orders, while conferring with Uther. A sense of urgency filled the tent. The rising sun hurried their arrangements.
Uther rose to his feet and greeted Arawn with a hard embrace. “You made it. Thank you.”
“As if we would not answer the call.” Arawn patted Uther’s shoulder and hid his reaction to the King’s appearance.
Uther looked old. The fiery red of his hair, which was a family trait Ilsa and Elen shared, had faded. His cheeks were gaunt. The thick red beard he had worn for many years was thin and as faded as his hair.
They had all grown older. Arawn had not noticed it until greeting friends he had not seen for many years, as he was doing today. Arawn was considered to be an old man. He didn’t feel like one, yet he could remember the youngest of his soldiers being born. His reflection in the water, or the copper mirror Ilsa possessed, always caught him by surprise.
Mabon pushed his way through the kings and leaders and took Arawn’s arm in friendship. His thick black hair was liberally shot with gray. The lines around his eyes were deep. His grip was firm, though. It lacked none of the strength Arawn remembered.
Mark of Kernow, Tristan’s brother, rested his hands on their shoulders, explained the layout of the field and where they were to assemble themselves. “If you can, identify Claudas’s son, Dorin. It is he who masterminded this scheme to steal the boys. Uther wants him alive. Good luck,” he added in his gravelly voice.
Then he turned to face Ban and Bors with instructions for the placement of their men. Both kings looked haggard, for it was their sons who had been taken. They were handsome men, yet neither appeared so now. Hoel of Brittany stood just behind them and bent his head to catch what Mark was saying.
The tent emptied as everyone received their orders. Arawn had his. He lingered for a moment to nod acknowledgement at the kings and lords who had traveled from Britain to help Bors and Ban subdue Claudas one final time.
Pellinore, Bedrawd, Bevan. Leodegrance, from the Summer Country. Brandegoris, the half-brother of Tristan, and a capable fighter, as all that family was. Cador of Cornwall was there, too.
Arawn pulled Cador to one side. “The golden-haired man in the corner, there. Who is that?”
The man he referred to was the only stranger in the tent. He was young, possibly not any older than Alun. He had strong good looks and thick brows from under which his eyes twinkled. He waited patiently. His armor and weapons were of a strange style.
Cador glanced at him. “Accolon of Gaul. He is the second son of the king whose land lies beside Claudas’s. His father is holding Claudas back on his own land. He sent Accolon and his men to help us confront Claudas.”
“Generous of him to send his second son,” Arawn said, his tone dry.
Cador raised his brow. “From what I’ve heard, the second son out fights every man in his kingdom. His father sent his best so he can attack Claudas on two fronts.”
“That does make a difference,” Arawn said. “If I wasn’t so incensed about what Claudas has done, I might even feel sorry for the man.” He pulled on his gauntlets. “Let’s get this over and done. I would like to see Claudas’s head on a pike by the end of the day.”
“May it be so,” Cador breathed, as they ducked under the tent flaps and went to find their men.
Even from a mile away, it was impossible to mistake the sound of battle. When the two great armies came together, the ground trembled. The clash and cry, even from a distance, made both women look over their shoulders. They could see nothing from here, for they were in a gully high above the valley where the armies met. They had crept along the trail for more than an hour.
They bent low over their horses’ necks, keeping their heads down. There was just the two of them and from a distance, they looked vulnerable. It was better to not be seen, to save themselves the effort of fighting off attackers who thought they would be easy pickings.
As the gully deepened, Nimue sat up. She glanced back over her shoulder. Vivian followed her, sitting up and pulling her hood over her dark hair, to hide her hair and face and to disguise that she was armed. Her sword was strapped to her waist and the cloak hid it.
Nothing would hide Vivian’s slenderness and graceful movements, though. If a man saw her moving, he would know he looked upon a woman, whether he saw her face or not.
Nimue shoved aside the thought and turned her mind to the task at hand. They had been making their way along the high sides of the valley since before the dawn, when there had been barely enough light to see. One of Bors’ local men described to them the narrow trail which would lead them around the valley and the battle, to the edges of Claudas’s camp. They could come upon the camp from the rear. With careful maneuvering, they would find their way through the camp and locate the boys.
Nimue’s heart went out to the sons Claudas had taken. Bors the younger was only fifteen. He was not quite a man and he was the oldest of the three. Lionel was thirteen and Lancelot only seven. Even if Nimue did not know what lay in their future, she would still feel pity for the fear they must be feeling.
The gully widened enough to allow the passage of two horses at once. Nimue waved Vivian forward. Vivian’s stallion rubbed shoulders with hers in a companionable way, for they were stablemates.
“If you feel the need to speak, now is the time to do so,” Nimue told Vivian. “We will descend to the valley shortly. Claudas’s camp will be deserted. We will be heard if we make too much noise.”
Vivian did not speak at once. She appeared to be deep in thought.
Nimue let her think. She had learned to appreciate the way Vivian’s mind worked.
“I have been running through my mind all the banners I saw as we passed through the host,” Vivian said. “Uther sent out a general call. I know he has never done that before. My understanding of a general call is that everyone who owes any allegiance to Uther is expected to respond.” She glanced at Nimue. “That is correct, isn’t it?”
Nimue nodded. Vivian was a quick student. Even though she had come to politics and power play only since arriving at Brocéliande, she had a natural talent for it.
Vivian’s frown deepened. “I am quite sure…that is, I am certain I did not see some banners I expected to be among those on the field.”
“You are speaking of the northern lords,” Nimue said. “I noticed their absence, too.” She nudged her horse with her knees, to encourage him to move down the sloping path. It was stony. Pebbles rattled under his feet, making him shy from the descent.
Nimue picked up the reins for greater control. “You will hear the truth soon enough,” she added. “Urien of Rheged wed Uther’s daughter Morgan just yesterday.”
Vivian’s frown did not smooth away. “The girl was betrothed to him for years. Only now does he wed her?”
“It is curious timing, isn’t it?” Nimue sighed. “She has just turned sixteen. She is marriageable but still young. The wedding might’ve been delayed for a year or two, and no one would have been slighted by the delay. Yet, suddenly, Urien must wed her, and at once.”
“And King Lot, his cousin, would have to attend the wedding as a witness, at the very least. Caradoc, too.” Vivian hesitated. “Ector of Galleva is missing. He is one banner I would have counted upon. I’ve heard it said he is fiercely loyal to Uther.”
“Yes, Ector’s absence is a puzzle,” Nimue admitted. She rested her hand on Vivian’s bridle. “Silence, now. We grow close.”
They descended into the valley where the enemy laid.
The enemy laid beside her.
Morgan held herself rigid on the lumpy mattress, her heart racing. It had not slowed throughout the night, as she nursed her bruises and aches, and worked to restore her equanimity.
She knew no spell which would work against this type of evil. It was the basest sort, born in the root of a man’s heart and impossible to remove without removing the man himself.
Morgan rolled her head to her left, moving slowly so she would not disturb her husband. Dawn filtered through the narrow windows and with it came the frigid air of morning. It was much colder in Rheged than she had been led to believe.
The dawn light let her see Urien’s face. Even in sleep, the sour amusement with which he greeted everything, including her, had not departed. His thick blond hair, shaved at the temple, and his jutting beard did not enhance his looks. If anything, they made him appear more ferocious. It was likely he cultivated that appearance deliberately.
He had not arranged new clothes for the wedding. He arrived at the altar barely by the appointed hour. The nuns who delivered Morgan to him fluttered and shuffled backward as Urien stalked up the aisle of the church.
Urien tossed his sword and belt onto a bench, causing the wedding guests to shriek and shuffle sideways to accommodate them. He flung his braid back over his shoulder and nodded at the priest to continue.
He didn’t look at Morgan. It was as if he willed the priest to hurry and get it finished.
When the priest announced they were joined, Urien gripped Morgan’s chin with his big hand, pulled her toward him and kissed her, grinding his lips into hers. His tongue pushed deep into her mouth, making Morgan moan—and not in pleasure.
The nuns had lectured Morgan on her duties as a wife and the new Queen of Rheged. Morgan accepted the kiss and wiped her lips when he released her.
Still he did not meet her eyes.
She might have been eating alone at the wedding feast, for Urien did not speak to her. No other man at the table would dare converse with her when Urien sat in stony silence, drinking heavily.
The only man who did to speak a single word to her was Lot, her sister’s husband and king. He was Urien’s cousin and held his face in the same way Urien did, in the way which said he was laughing at the world.
Lot raised his brow at Morgan. “Welcome to the family,” he told her. “I wish you well of it.”
He was the first and last person to speak to her that night. Even Morgause, her sister, did not dare raise her veil or look at her directly. Besides, her sister spent most of her time trying to control her brood of four redheaded boys, for her nurse was useless at the task.
The bedchamber to which Morgan was led to prepare for her wedding night was cold enough to make her breath fog the air. She was stripped, and the covers thrown back for her to climb up into the big bed. She laid shivering beneath the furs, waiting for Urien and bracing herself.
Morgan had not anticipated Urien’s resentment of her association with the High King. He stalked in and stood over her, peering down at her with bleary eyes. They were blue, but the red made them seem almost black. “You’re not even a proper daughter of his,” he growled.
Morgan’s heart jumped. “Uther has no daughters. I am his stepdaughter.”
“Through you, he expects to tug and make me perform to order.”
She opened her mouth to speak, while trying to think of what she might say which would placate him. Nothing came to her. She was so surprised by Urien’s dismissal of her royal rank as not good enough, her thoughts were scrambled.
She had taken too long to speak. Urien’s resentment boiled over. He struck her with a growl of fury.
Two more blows left her stunned enough for him to take his pleasure without resistance. She tasted blood as he used her, grunting with the effort it took to overcome the prodigious amount of wine he’d drunk. He seemed to feel it was her fault, too. It earned her another blow.
When he was done, he rolled to one side and began to snore.
Morgan pulled the furs up around her, rolled over onto one side and tried to piece back together her confidence. She watched the dawn light brighten the narrow aperture of the window, still considering.
The thought which returned over and over, was to wonder where her mother was. Or Uther. Surely the High King would want to see his political pawn safely married? Yet it was her mother’s absence which hurt the most. Did her mother care so little for her she could not travel to Rheged to see her daughter married?
Was her mother sitting in the palace in Venta Belgarum, warm and dry? Why had no one from the south been here? No one but the nuns had accompanied her to Rheged. It left Morgan alone here, for Morgause would return with Lot to Lothian today.
Even as she wondered, deep in her heart Morgan knew this was the way it should be. It had always been this way. Everyone knew what she was and shunned her because of it. She had the Sight and was a witch, the nuns assured her. She was an evil thing, alive only because her royal parentage prevented anyone from executing her as they should.
Morgan embraced the explanation. It told her why her mother had allowed her to be taken to the nunnery when she was five. Of course her mother wanted her gone. She was a bad creature.
It explained why Uther had never once spoken to her directly, since that first day in the courtyard at Tintagel. He had cast her aside in favor of the unborn son her mother carried. The son no one had seen for twenty years earned more of the High King’s favor than did Morgan.
She had spent the last ten years learning more about her nature. She had accessed secrets which the nuns were not aware of. She bribed with coins, jewelry and sometimes her body, to uncover pockets of knowledge which would have terrified the nuns.
Urien had been so drunk, he had not noticed her less than virginal state. The fool.
Until this night, none of it had touched Morgan on a personal level. She had not accepted what she was. Now, though, she understood and welcomed it.
When Urien woke and reached for her, then used her with a cold indifference, Morgan was braced. As he strained over her, she formed her plans.
I’m not sure how she does it, but Tracy continues to make each story more exciting than the last! I can’t stop reading these, even when I should be sleeping! – Reader Review
The next three books of the series that will “keep you hooked until the end”, featuring the myths, legends and magic of the beloved King Arthur stories, surrounding heart-rending romances of the men and women who lived and loved in these perilous times.
War Duke of Britain
He is not the enemy she came to fight.
Idris the Slayer is the champion of the northern kings. Undefeated in battle, the dark, lone warrior who rides to war with a black wolf at his side spreads fear before him, even among those counted his allies. When Rhiannon of Galleva rides to her first battle with Emrys and Cai, she expects to fight the Saxon hoards pouring into Britain. She is not braced to defend herself against Idris’ incursion into her heart.
High King of Britain
All she wants is to fight for Arthur and Britain.
Lady Mair is a daughter of Corneus—the house of perfect warriors—and wants only to serve Arthur, War Duke of Britain, as her brothers Lucan and Bedivere do. Yet King Alun of Brocéliande wants to make her his queen, which would mean leaving Britain and Arthur’s court. Alun’s younger brother and Mair’s best friend, Rawn, sees things as Mair does—nothing is more important than being the best warriors they can be. But Rawn is hiding secrets of his own, that run counter to Mair’s desperate wish to be free to fight for Britain.
Battle of Mount Badon
Their every encounter gives off sparks of contempt and misunderstanding.
Bedivere is one of King Arthur’s companions, his marshall and war duke of his army. Handsome, remote, traditional and honor-bound, all he wants is to be a perfect warrior and serve Arthur. Only, Arthur’s people face another dark winter of deprivation and defeat at the hands of the ruthless Saxons. How can Bedivere find victory for Arthur when there is no hope? Cara of Brynaich is half-Saxon, the younger daughter of a reviled family. Her facial scars keep her apart from everyone. Her heart holds only hatred for the Saxons who betrayed her mother, murdered her father and brought her and her kin to such misery. She has no time for honor and tradition. Hope is for blind fools.
1.0 Born of No Man
2.0 Dragon Kin
3.0 Pendragon Rises
Included in this boxed set:
4.0 War Duke of Britain
5.0 High King of Britain
6.0 Battle of Mount Badon
The remainder of the series:
7.0 Abduction of Guenivere
8.0 Downfall of Cornwall
9.0 Vengeance of Arthur
10.0 Grace of Lancelot
11.0 The Grail and Glory
Readers have described Tracy Cooper-Posey as “a superb story teller” and her ancient historical romances as “written art”. Get the second boxed set today!
And remember that if you pre-order your copy directly from me, you get the set next week, a week earlier than all other retail stores.