|Muiden, The Netherlands, 1388
Sometimes, the nicest part of living in a castle was stepping outside its gates. For the last couple of days, high winds and heavy rain had kept Swaneke within the thick stone walls. At last, the storm had blown itself out, and she had ventured from the great hall that smelled of wood smoke, roasting meat, and dirty straw to walk in the woods and breathe clean, fresh air.
Ahead of her, Jop snuffled in the undergrowth, wagging his tail at something he’d discovered. Although her father was no longer able to hunt, he couldn’t bear to get rid of his beloved hounds, and Jop had always been his favourite.
She stopped in her tracks and turned around to look at the castle, its conical turrets silhouetted against the cloudless sky. Her home, her sanctuary, and her father’s, too. But so many things had changed since his accident, not least her father himself. He had grown increasingly shrunken and frail and had all but lost the sight in one eye. Swaneke’s heart ached for the man he had once been—tall and well built, with a booming voice that commanded the respect of everyone in Muiden. He still ruled the city, and the lands around it, and his people remained loyal to him. But for how much longer?
In the last few months, he’d grown anxious to ensure Swaneke was settled with a husband before he died. He wanted a marriage for her that would be a strategic alliance, strengthening his fading grip on power. It was no accident that Muiden Castle had been built at the mouth of the Vecht, where it flowed out into the sea surrounding North Holland. Whoever controlled the river controlled the trade route down to the great city of Utrecht. They could charge tolls and set the conditions under which merchants might pass by. Those tolls had made her father a rich man, albeit one resented by many of those who were forced to pay to travel through his fiefdom, and he didn’t want to see that wealth fall into the wrong hands.
In his mind, the ideal suitor for his daughter was Count Reynold of Utrecht. Reynold had lost his first wife to a fever before she could give him an heir, and by all accounts was keen to marry again. Even now he was on his way to Muiden to make the arrangements for the betrothal. Given the improvement in the weather, he should arrive before nightfall.