Ensnared (Knights of Brethren #3) - Jody Hedlund

Chapter

1

Mikaela

“This woman is hereby sentenced to death by drowning.” The bailiff’s pronouncement rang out over the silent crowd gathered on the high rocky plateau above the fjord.

Chills slithered up my spine.

Lola was innocent. The earl was a murderer. And everyone knew it.

But poor Lola stood near the edge of Trollveggen Cliff anyway, her long hair swirling in the wind. I didn’t know her well since she’d only recently started working as a laundress. From what I guessed, she was a scant few years older than my twenty-one years—too young and full of life to die. Although she lifted her chin and glared at the earl defiantly, she couldn’t hide the trembling in her hands as the bailiff grabbed them and wound a cord around her wrists.

Only Frans’s presence beside me and his grip upon my arm kept me from rushing at Bernhard, the Earl of Romsdal. The earl held himself rigidly, his angular shoulders straight, his thin face severe. Attired in a black fur cloak over a surcoat and leggings, he was well protected from the biting April wind gusting off the waterway below.

Lola, on the other hand, had no cloak, and the woolen cloth of her undyed tunic was threadbare and frayed. Like all the earl’s other bondservants, she had no choice but to endure the long Norvegian winter and cold spring without proper garments.

The bitter breeze slapped at my cheeks and my own thin smock and tunic, stinging my exposed flesh. At least I had a cloak and hat along with sturdy leather boots to protect me—though I would have given them to my sister Kirstin if I could have done so without bringing repercussions on both of us.

Instead, I was stuck. Stuck watching Kirstin—and the rest of my family—wear rags. Stuck watching them go hungry. Stuck watching them suffer.

Just as I was stuck now, unable to do or say anything for Lola unjustly charged with stealing. No, her only crime was being a pretty woman who refused the earl’s advances. And because of her insolence, the cruel lord was sending a message to the rest of his subjects not to defy him, or we would meet the same fate.

Familiar helplessness ate away at my insides, making my stomach burn.

I loathed myself for my inability to change the circumstances almost as much as I loathed the earl for his unwillingness to see us as more than property to do with as he pleased.

The bailiff finished cinching Lola’s wrists, then knelt and began fastening a stone wheel to her ankles so that it would function as a weight.

I couldn’t bear to look a second longer.

Frans’s muscular arm tensed against mine, and his fingers tightened. No doubt he was holding himself back from attacking the earl as much as he was restraining me. He despised the earl too. Especially after the earl had stolen the extra coins Frans earned from the hand-carved furniture he made during the little free time he had.

Of course, the earl didn’t think he was stealing Frans’s savings. Rather, he blamed Frans and his father, the estate blacksmiths, for causing the fire last month that had resulted in damage to the forge as well as the brewing house and stables.

Thankfully, Frans had spotted the flames early and sounded the alarm so that everyone working together had doused them before they spread even further. Alas, the roofs of all three buildings and the support beams had needed replacing. Bernhard had administered a steep fine for recklessness, threatening to throw Frans and his father in the dungeons if the fee wasn’t paid in full. Somehow the fine had been for the exact amount Frans had saved, almost as if the earl had known of the earnings.

Frans had emptied the crock where he’d hidden the meager stash. His burly face red with rage, he’d handed it over to the bailiff . . . and in so doing, he’d also handed over the chance of paying the bride price in order to marry me.

After a year of saving, Frans had been but weeks away from requesting a marriage certificate. Would he have to wait another year?

I’d wanted to be more upset about having to postpone our union. But I hadn’t been. Maybe I just wasn’t ready. Maybe I would be more so next year. I wasn’t sure. Whatever the case, I still resented that the earl had so much power.

The Earl of Romsdal was one of many among the nobility who clung to the ancient tradition of overseeing the marriages of