The Captive Pt. 12byJaynaVixen©
I have been quite busy preparing my very first published work, woohoo! The Captive still has a ways to go, and as always I appreciate your feedback and support. I am often amazed at how much you all inspire and motivate me. Please email me or leave comments. While some may be expecting this story to go a certain way, I fear that is not how the muse takes me. Nevertheless, enjoy! This work was made so much better by our own PallasAthena01.
The man's eyes scared her the most. They were black and emotionless. After the keep's forbidding iron gate had opened to admit them, Johanna unconsciously pressed closer to Ryder as two men approached. They were well-dressed and they carried themselves with the typical posture of the higher caste. The older man had a sharp, angular face and a short beard streaked with gray. He was tall, but not so tall as Ryder. Johanna figured the man for the elder Blackhawk. She attempted a timid curtsy as the older man's eyes raked her. She could hardly look up, so nervous and exhausted was she, but she managed to hold her head up at their perusal. The younger of the two would have been handsome were it not for the cruel sneer on his face.
"This is she? This bedraggled creature is my betrothed?" His voice was nasal and haughty as he looked Johanna up and down.
"Now, now. Forgive me, child, but you do look rather... indisposed." The elder man clapped his hands and three young serving girls appeared. Each looked more nervous than the last. "Tend to this poor, careworn child!"
Johanna resisted, looking to Ryder for some sort of sign or encouragement. But he stood stonily beside her, silent and cold, like a statue.
"Please, Miss," one of the maids whispered, "do not displease him." Her eyes flicked nervously to the older Lord. Johanna succumbed to the small hand tugging at her and reluctantly left Ryder's side. She looked back at him beseechingly, imploring him not to leave her here with these strangers. But Ryder would not meet her eyes. Johanna stiffened her spine.
I will endure. He loves me not, but I will make do, she thought, unwilling to despair. "Thank you, milord. I am most grateful for your attention to my needs," she said in a tone that was formal and polite, if not a little hollow. As the maids approached, Johanna shot one last look at Ryder, only to have her heart shatter as the elder Blackhawk tossed a large bag of coins to Ryder.
"Your payment, Mercenary," she heard the older man explain. Johanna nearly doubled over at the sharp pain in her chest. She was naught but a simple transaction after all. Oddly, rather than succumbing to her pain, she allowed a new black anger to encompass her. Johanna took a deep breath, feeling a strange numbing sensation spread through her limbs.
"I should like a warm bath, with lavender, please," she said to the maids, her voice coming out flat and dead. The tallest serving girl smiled tentatively and nodded, looking from Johanna to Ryder. Then, Johanna was off without a backward glance at the man she had fallen in love with only to be scorned by. As it was, she was lucky that she did not hear the conversation that followed her exit.
"Mercenary. I am most pleased that you have accomplished what my lot has failed to do. However, I am familiar with your, shall we say, reputation with women. Does the girl come to us intact?"
Ryder nodded curtly, glancing back toward the direction the stable boy had taken his mount.
"Are you certain, milord Ryder?" the older man whispered. "Although the girl looks much worse for wear, those titties of hers look mighty tasty. It would be difficult indeed not to sample the girl a bit?" The old man licked his lips lasciviously, an odd gleam coming into his eyes at Ryder's curt shake of the head.
"Mayhap we will check to be certain," Blackhawk smiled at the thought of holding the girl down and forcing her legs open to search for the thin membrane that confirmed her virginity. Johanna of Seacliff was petite and looked quite young. Just the way he liked them.
Ryder tried not to react at the old man's callousness. Johanna was not his concern any longer. "My horse," he gruffly requested.
Blackhawk looked somewhat shocked. "Surely you will stay the night? You have been traveling for weeks. Your horse is fatigued, surely you must be..."
"My horse. Now. And keep your blood money; I have no use for it." Ryder tossed the bag of coins to the floor, and stalked out the door, eager to take his leave of this place, and of Johanna.
Blackhawk knew better than to argue and in fact, he was quite pleased that the Mercenary would be taking his leave. He did not need the King's man here in his home. It would be like having a snake in the henhouse. Rubbing his hands together, Blackhawk nearly danced with glee as Ryder's hoof beats faded into the night. Now, at long last, he would achieve what he had always wanted: Seacliff, and all of the treasures that lay hidden within its stone walls.
Johanna was silent as she was bathed and dressed in a shimmering royal blue gown. The neckline was so low as to be scandalous, but she found she no longer cared. I am a whore, bought and paid for. I may as well look the part. While the dress was tiny, illness and arduous travel had taken every ounce of fat from Johanna's body. The little maids clucked to themselves as they cinched the waist tightly with a wide belt. The three of them carried an air of anxiety, but Johanna tried to ignore it. Finally, she stood in her chamber, awaiting her betrothed to escort her to the main hall.
Betrothed. The word grated across her weary mind. Steeling herself, Johanna peered out the window at the courtyard below her quarters. A cold hand reached out and clutched at her heart, and she welcomed the icy fingers that deadened her to her plight. Her soft features settled into a hollow, distant countenance. She would numb herself to survive here, and survive she must... until she could escape.
Instead of heading home as he desperately wanted to do, Ryder knew he had to make an appearance at the royal keep. He hadn't seen Devon since his coronation, and even then, Ryder had been so bewitched by Melinda, he hadn't really had any time with the new king. Devon would be anxious to hear from Ryder's own mouth the Seacliff girl had been delivered as promised.
The Mercenary of Moreland pressed his weary mount hard, hardly stopping for food or drink. It wasn't until two days time that Ryder found himself shaking with hunger. It was odd how he had not taken notice of his body's needs until now. Mechanically, he fed and watered his horse, then netted a small grouse. It was as though he watched himself going through his own motions as he spitted the bird and roasted it. Ryder ate for sustenance only, and although the sizzling meat was crisp and hearty, he did not taste it at all.
It was another week of hard travel before he arrived at the royal keep, so dirty and so long of hair and beard that the guard did not recognize him at first. Ryder had but to brandish his sword, flashing the crest on the scabbard, to secure passage through the gate. He sent his horse to be tended first, and then took a well-needed soak in the communal bath house. Due to the late hour, none were present as he floated in the warm, cleansing waters. Ryder was grateful for that. He slept hard that night, and all through the next day, waking just before the dinner bell rang.
Ryder smoothed his hair and beard as best he could, before throwing on the expensive garments that Devon had left in his chamber. Devon always said that Ryder had a home in the royal keep, and was constantly trying to persuade the infamous warrior to return. Taking note of the clothing, furnishings, and books, it was clear to Ryder that the new king was true to his word. His chamber was large, airy, and overlooked the training commons. A long balcony led to a fountain and trellis. It was, in short, a lovely accommodation. Still, staying here would be nothing but trouble once a certain blonde-haired minx showed up...
"Ryder! You've come at last!"
The woman who had haunted his dreams and had twice broken his heart practically swooned as she fell against him. Stiffening, Ryder set Melinda aside, his eyes roving her as though he was seeing her for the first time. She stood against the wall, clad in a sheer, pink gown that would have had him itching to fuck her in the past. Certainly, her body was still ripe. Childbirth had not marred Melinda's figure, and Ryder actually felt that this was for the best. The woman was far to self-serving to be a good mother. Melinda's prominently displayed breasts still stood high and firm, the daring neckline of her gown nearly baring her large nipples. When he reached her face however, Ryder was struck by the coldness in her eyes, the lines around her mouth, and the haughty expression she wore so naturally.
"Duchess," he acknowledged.
"Oh, Ryder! I thought you would never return!"
He anticipated a rush of desire to wash over him as she pressed against him, but surprisingly, it never came.
"Please excuse me, Duchess." Ryder removed himself from Melinda's embrace and took his leave swiftly, but not before he caught her mouth falling open in disbelief at his indifference.
Johanna lay in the small bed, unable to sleep. Dinner had been an odd affair. She was seated next to her betrothed for the meal, as she had expected. What she had not expected was to be completely ignored. The elder Blackhawk was not present, and her betrothed spent the entire evening deep in conversation with a male companion who seemed even more self-absorbed than Basil himself. Neither man paid Johanna any attention at all; in fact they did not even acknowledge her presence! At first she was confused, but then she was relieved. Although she should have had an appetite, she picked at her food, trying to stay awake and calm until the bizarre experience ended.
When the men took their leave, a serving girl led her back to her chamber and helped her undress. Johanna heard the key turn in the lock once the girl had taken her leave. Sighing, she stared at the window, watching the branches of a large tree sway in the night air. She tried to clear her head of her memories, as they only brought her pain. So, she lay there, unmoving, until the wee hours of the morning finally brought her a fitful sleep that was thankfully devoid of any dreams.
When she woke, Johanna regarded her appearance in the looking glass. The dark circles beneath her eyes belied her exhaustion. One of the maids, Nora, returned to help her dress. The young girl seemed timid and anxious as she set out a velvet day dress, and then went to work on Johanna's bath and hair. Through it all, Johanna was silent and somewhat sorrowful, but she tried to smile encouragingly at Nora.
A breakfast tray appeared and Johanna nibbled half-heartedly, until she recalled that regaining her strength would be paramount to any escape attempt that might arise. She forced some of the food into her mouth, chewing it down although it tasted like sandpaper. Once she had finished, the little maid curtseyed and left, the key turning in the lock once more.
Johanna returned to the window and surveyed the large expanse and the high stone walls that surrounded the courtyard. Her fate was sealed until she figured out a way to escape. She could not believe that a few weeks ago, she was innocently enjoying the comforts of home. Now, thanks to Ryder, here she sat, alone and afraid of her future. Strangely, Johanna realized, she had never felt like a captive in Ryder's company, at least not until the end of their travels. Rage bubbled in her blood at that thought. Here, I am truly a prisoner. I hate you, Ryder of Moreland. I despise you.
Ryder joined Devon at the royal table, relieved that Melinda was seated elsewhere. Her obvious attempts to get his attention now seemed pathetic rather than enticing, for some reason. Ryder was glad that he had finally managed to quell his yearning for the woman. He moved his chair, presenting his back to the widowed Duchess. Devon seemed surprised that Ryder's mission had gone so well. Of course, Ryder left out many details, including the girl's mishap with Blackhawk's men and their convalescence in Marie's brothel.
"You delivered the girl, then?" Devon queried
"But, well... how did you find her?"
"What do you mean, Devon?" Ryder was the only person who dared call Devon by name.
"The girl, Johanna of Seacliff. I have heard she possesses an uncommon beauty. Did you not find her so?"
Ryder tensed. Why the hell should Devon care how he perceived the girl?
"The girl is not unpleasant to look at," Ryder lied. In truth, he found Johanna's appearance delectable. Recalling the sweetness of her tender slit, he nearly choked on his ale. Recovering, he continued, "she is quite young and innocent. I must confess that I am confused about the efficacy of a match between Seacliff and Blackhawk, but as always, I support my king's desires." Devon was looking at him closely, and for some reason, Ryder could not look his friend in the eye.
"So, you did not find the girl...appealing?"
"No," he replied curtly. Ryder's cock twitched as if to deny his claims. He did not want to think about Johanna and her deceit. "The girl is clever, I will give her that. She did attempt to use her beauty to sway me from delivering her to her betrothed, but she was intact when I left her."
Devon drained his wine glass thoughtfully. Hmm. This was interesting indeed. Devon's sire, Damon, had known Johanna's father quite well. The elder Seacliff had been most interested in securing the right match for his only child. He knew that Johanna needed protection, and it was obvious that Seacliff was a desirable piece of property. Devon's father had spent many a night with Lord Seacliff trying to come up with a match for the girl. The same name had come up time and again. The only man that Lord Seacliff would accept for his daughter was none other than Devon's best friend, the man who sat across from him denying that he felt anything for the girl.
It was not the most traditional way to bring the two together, Devon knew. But Ryder would have scorned any match-making attempt, both now and in the past. Before, he had been head over heels for Melinda. And now he was so jaded, he would have shunned any girl that came near him with the intent to marry. Devon glanced at his cousin as she sat staring lustily at Ryder's back. The witch!
King Damon had felt quite responsible that Johan died before achieving a good match for Johanna. As he lay dying from a strange fever, the old king had begged his son to settle some unfinished business, and Johanna was just that. Even though he had heard that Seacliff had promised Johanna to Blackhawk, Devon had promised his father to find a way for Ryder to meet Johanna. If Ryder wanted the girl, Devon would have found a way to dissolve the marriage contract between Seacliff and Blackhawk, but it seemed he was not interested in her. Devon sighed. He had hoped that his friend would find happiness at last, perhaps even swaying his mission for love.
After adamantly pursuing the idea of the infamous Mercenary of Moreland claiming his female heir, it was odd indeed that Lord Seacliff chose Blackhawk's son to take over his stronghold. The man was thought to be somewhat unnatural. He did not appear often at court, and when he did, he always seemed to have his eyes on the youngest of the serving girls. Still, the elder Blackhawk had produced the signed document when pressed. Too bad that Johan of Seacliff had broken his damn neck before he could explain why he wanted such a union.
Still, supporting Blackhawk's marriage gave Devon the precedence to take over the Seacliff stronghold if he saw fit. Blackhawk would truly be a king's man now that Devon's mercenary had delivered his errant bride. Devon knew that his own father had suspicions that Blackhawk was conspiring against the crown. These concerns were unfounded, but perhaps they explained why Seacliff signed a marriage contract with Blackhawk. The union may have been for appearances so that Damon could gain insight into Blackhawk's affairs.
Devon tapped his fingers on the table. He would see this girl for himself. "I am glad you have completed this most challenging mission, Ryder. As payment, you will accompany us to Blackhawk Keep at the end of the month."
Ryder froze, his fork dangling near his mouth. "For what purpose?"
"Why, to bear witness, of course. We will attend the union of Seacliff and Blackhawk. I must show my support publicly if I am to convince the man that I will back his shady ventures. Perhaps we might even collect evidence of Blackhawk's transgressions against the crown while we are there. Folks tend to get quite raucous at weddings. My father always suspected that Blackhawk was involved in something illegal."
Ryder nearly choked. The last damned thing he wanted to do was see Johanna. He certainly had no desire to watch her marry the sleazy, over-dressed fop he had delivered her to. Ryder swallowed. He had to maintain appearances. "As you wish, my liege."
"Very well. I'm sure that my cousin would be most excited to have you escort her." Devon watched Ryder carefully.
Melinda was the reason that Ryder had owed Devon such a major debt in the first place. While she appeared to be soft and sweet, Devon knew his cousin well. She was a calculating bitch. She would insist upon attending the wedding, as it would be the first union of such grandeur to occur over the last few years. If Devon tried to pair her with another, she would most likely pursue some manipulative scheme to get what she wanted, which seemed to be Ryder. Again.
Still, Devon did not want to press on Ryder's bruised heart overmuch. Melinda had hurt his friend more than once. Ryder had even taken the blame for something that had happened when Melinda's husband had suddenly died. Ryder had sworn he didn't kill the man, but there were suspicions, given the awkward circumstances that surrounded the Duke's untimely passing. Devon had cleaned it up, but he still wasn't sure if Ryder told the truth. Ryder certainly didn't appear to desire Melinda's attentions now. Nay, the hardened mercenary could handle the task at hand; he always delivered.
As Devon swirled his wine, deep in thought, he was not aware of Ryder's white-knuckled grip on his tankard. The young, handsome king stood up, seeking the company of one Lucinda of Rolling Meadows. The maiden was young, but she was clever, and Devon found that he quite enjoyed her sharp wit and ribald sense of humor. Lucinda was nice to look at as well; the girl's curves were nearly indecent and contrasted sharply with her tomboyish attitude. Devon took his leave, toasting Ryder as he went, purposely ignoring the conflicted look on his friend's face. Sometimes being king means making difficult decisions. Sorry, old friend, but I need you at my left.
Two weeks had passed, and other than meals, Johanna was kept under lock and key. She had tried to befriend the serving girls, but they all seemed too petrified to speak to her. Most of the servants were very young; the oldest couldn't be more than fifteen summers. Other than the visit from the dressmaker who would design her wedding gown, Johanna was alone with her emotions, which ranged from melancholy to rage. Her nights were filled with fitful stretches of disturbed sleep, and her days were mindlessly boring and uneventful.
Every few days, Johanna was dressed and escorted to a bizarre dining experience where she was treated as though she did not exist. If there was ever a part of her that had entertained the idea of falling in love with her betrothed, it had been thoroughly squashed. In fact, every time she saw the man she was to wed, she disliked him more. As she half-listened to his drivel at dinner, she was convinced that Basil of Blackhawk was a self-serving snob. All he talked about was fine wine, clothing, and material gains.