The Captive Pt. 13byJaynaVixen©
Thanks so much for the welcome back! I see that some of my formatting is not coming through, but character thoughts should be italicized as should the verse at the end. Feedback is always welcome. Again, this story does not follow a traditional arc, but that it how the muse takes me. A BIG thank you to those who have supported my first published release as well!
The night was frigid and Ryder was more than a little concerned. Johanna was cold and while she refused to speak even a word to him, he could feel her trembling. She shifted every so often as well, occasionally emitting a stifled groan. Ryder was unsure what caused Johanna greater discomfort: her recent deflowering, or her healing back. He had seen the marks on her body, and it was only the sense of urgency and duty that surrounded his lust for the girl that masked his rage at her abuse. I am no better than them, he thought miserably. To make things right, I have committed so many wrongs.
Unfortunately, it was well into the next day before Ryder reached a small town that he was familiar with. A relative of Devon's resided here, and while he hated to impose, he knew he needed her help. Johanna did not protest as he took her into the keep in his arms.
"Ryder! It has been so long!" A stately woman rushed him from the hall, and then stopped short. "Who is this lost little bird?"
Ryder set Johanna on her feet and to her credit, she managed a wobbly curtsy.
"Lady Alena of Meadowbrook, my wife, Johanna of Seacliff."
"Your wife?! By the Gods, Ryder, I can't believe it!" Alena leaned in to take a closer look at Johanna.
"Ryder! This girl looks ill!"
The immaculately-dressed woman turned her sharp eyes on Johanna, who tried valiantly to avoid being impolite. This woman was obviously of the high caste, more so than Johanna's family, from the looks of her hall and her attire. "I-I am just tired, milady."
"Nonsense!" Alena clapped her hands together and two serving women rushed to her side. "Draw Lady Moreland a hot bath immediately! And prepare some food!" The women rushed off without a backwards glance. Johanna did not move, so Ryder carefully picked her up in his arms, even though she stiffened to his touch. They were shown to a large chamber and thankfully, Ryder left Johanna, albeit dazed and blinking, to her bath alone.
An older serving woman appeared and helped Johanna out of her dirty, ill-fitting clothing. As her tunic came away, exposing her back, the maid let out a shocked gasp. Finally, Johanna stepped from the soiled leggings and this time the servant shrieked out loud. Johanna looked down at her thighs, and finding them mottled with black and blue bruises, sighed deeply. Blood was crusted between her legs, and truly she had never felt so vile. No wonder the serving woman was so repulsed.
"I am sorry for my appearance. Hopefully, a bath will improve it," she said apologetically.
The woman's eyes went round at her tone. "Allow me to add some healing potion to the waters, dear." Johanna was assisted into the bath and the woman nodded. "You rest, child, and I shall retrieve the salve as well."
She must have fallen asleep in the tub because the next thing Johanna knew, heated whispering met her ears. She opened her eyes a crack to find Ryder and Lady Alena having what appeared to be a hushed argument in the corner.
"Ryder of Moreland, what have you done to that poor girl?! My woman says her back is crossed with stripes!"
Ryder stiffened at this. "I did not mark my wife. You know I would never..."
Alena cut him off. "Whether you struck her or not, you are responsible for the bruising on her thighs, are you not?!" Peeking through her lashes, Johanna was surprised to see Ryder hang his head as Alena reacted to his unspoken admission. "You brute!" she smacked Ryder hard upon his arm. "That girl could be torn and you have the poor sense to ride hell-bent through the night? You will tell me everything! Now!"
The serving woman returned, and glancing at Johanna's inert form, whispered urgently to Alena, who took Ryder by the arm and hauled him out of the room. "Gerta will tend your bride, young man. She will be clothed, fed, and put to bed, alone in this room. You, sir, had better have a plausible explanation for this!"
Johanna heaved a sigh of relief when she heard that Alena meant for her to sleep alone. She wasn't sure she could handle more of Ryder's rough treatment. Her aches and pains had begun to float away into the soothing waters. Gerta helped her from the bath and smiled kindly. Her thighs and inner parts were treated with a pungent salve, which stung at first, then cooled. She was made to lie on her tummy so Gerta could rub a fragrant oil into her back.
By the time the serving woman had completed her ministrations, Johanna was a limp, drowsy noodle. She dozed on the bed until a bowl of steaming, hearty stew was served. Kind Gerta helped her eat it and then tucked her into the bed with warm stones at her feet. Johanna slept like the dead, all through the night and late into the next day.
Alena sat silently as Ryder gave her the gist of his story. He spoke low, his eyes haunted and empty, as they had been when she had first met the boy. For three summers, Ryder had been sent to Meadowbrook to train the guards there, on behalf of Alena's half-brother, King Damon. Alena had recognized the lost little boy that hid inside the gangly young warrior, and she had become almost like a mother to him. When he finished his current tale, Alena had tears in her eyes. The poor soul had been through so much. Now, here he stood, the tortured victim of his own misguided actions.
Sometimes, Alena wondered if Damon had an ulterior motive for sending Ryder to her all those years ago. At the time, Alena herself had been so damaged that it was her own pain that allowed her to connect with the abused young man that everyone else feared. Their relationship was the only thing that allowed her to speak to him the way she did. Alena did not fear Ryder, as many other folks did, and she did not desire him the way many women did. She was simply herself, and he could be himself. It was a comfortable arrangement, while it lasted. After Ryder left, tales of his exploits reached Alena's ears constantly, but she knew the mercenary had a heart, even if it was encased in ice.
She placed her hand over his, and Ryder looked at her, clearly expecting a tirade. Instead, Alena squeezed gently, her eyes kind and warm. "You must clear this up with Devon, Ryder. I will support you, as I always have. It is clear to me that you care for this girl. Your actions tell me that quite plainly. But you have terrorized her, and caused her immense pain. It will take time, and patience, to fix this."
Ryder nodded. Johanna feared and hated him, he had seen it in her eyes and he had heard it from her own lips. But right now, his utmost concern was for her safety. He would send word to Devon immediately. No one but Ryder knew that Johanna's betrothed meant to dispose of her and take over Seacliff. In fact, all anyone would know was that Johanna had been stolen, unchaperoned, by the Mercenary himself. No doubt, the news of his scandalous behavior had already reached back to court. Ryder plodded heavily up the stairs to the small room he had used when he last took up residence here. He flopped onto the small bed and closed his eyes, his fitful dreams filled with images of long, reddish hair, and golden eyes.
The commotion had awakened half the keep, and although he was loath to leave the warm body in his bed, Devon had insisted on accompanying Blackhawk in his pursuit of Johanna. As he mounted up behind the enraged men, he stifled a wry chuckle. There was no other man who could have executed such a rash move. It seemed that Devon had misjudged Ryder's level of connection to the Seacliff girl. Ah, my friend. Whatever shall I do with you?
They arrived at the small church, and Devon found himself reaching into his pockets to make immediate reparations as the other two burst through the door and charged haphazardly up the staircase. The sound of splintering wood made the elder priest groan, and Devon sighed as he handed over the contents of his coin purse. An enraged roar sounded from above them, and the young king bounded up the stairs two at a time. When he entered the small chamber, Blackhawk brandished a bloodstained sheet at Devon. The man was nearly apoplectic in his fury.
"He-he's stolen her! He has taken what is MY right! He must be hanged for this!"
Devon nodded at Blackhawk, slightly sickened as the man railed about his missed opportunity to deflower the Seacliff girl. Ugh. Looking at the younger Blackhawk, Devon knew immediately why Ryder had taken the girl. The gleam in Basil's eye as he looked Devon up and down told him quite plainly that the man was unnatural. Too, now that Lord Blackhawk's careful mask had slipped, his evil nature was thoroughly exposed. There would be another trial. Devon allowed himself a small, rueful smile at this thought. Ryder would owe him a huge favor, yet again.
Johanna was stiff and sore when she awakened, but the appetizing meal and tender care she received put her at ease. Ryder did not come for her, and she was relieved at his absence. When the door pushed open late in the afternoon, she tensed at first, and than relaxed when the Lady of Meadowbrook admitted herself.
"How do you fare, dear?" she asked, settling herself on the edge of the bed.
Johanna was not sure what to say. It was clear that this woman knew Ryder quite well. Johanna did not want to voice her true feelings and put the woman off. Alena was quite perceptive and seemed to sense her reluctance.
"Ryder has told me his version of your journey together. I will say that although his treatment of you was cruel, he acted in your best interest."
Johanna looked away, coloring as the memories returned.
"Of course, Ryder is a brute. He is difficult to get to know, and his appearance is, well, as you know he can be quite intimidating."
Johanna nodded vehemently in agreement, and Alena laughed out loud. Then, her face became somber and she leaned in close to Johanna. "What I will tell you now, I will tell you in confidence. I do not recommend that you speak of this to your husband. Perhaps in time, he will come to you."
Johanna's eyes widened, first at the mention of the her "husband" and then again as Lady Alena lowered her voice and began to speak. "When Ryder first came here, he had terrible nightmares. He thrashed in his sleep. I saw his scars as he trained my staff of guards, and I recognized them for what they were."
Johanna nodded, recalling both Ryder's nightmares and his scars herself. She shuddered, thinking about the strange paradox that had brought about her own nightmares, and the possibility of her own scars as well. Lady Alena continued, telling Johanna that Ryder had been abused as a child, nearly to death. He had lived on the streets, surviving on his wits alone. The boy had been very vulnerable when Damon took him in. Still, he had a good heart and a sweet nature. He began to heal. Then, Ryder had changed. Alena had been very sad to watch the boy turn into such a hardened, cold man. Now, here, was the first time in a long time that Alena had seen passion in Ryder's eyes. That passion had led him straight back to Johanna. To save her.
"I do not think I could ever love him now, Alena," Johanna said sadly. It was the truth. Whatever had been between them was now ruined. Johanna's old life was gone, and while she was relieved that her future no longer included either Blackhawk, the thought of a future with Ryder seemed equally daunting.
Alena nodded, her eyes communicating her understanding. "I did not tell you about his past to make you forget what happened. I only thought to give you some perspective that might eventually help you forgive. He is a good man, deep down. A damaged man, yes. But, underneath it all beats a noble heart."
Johanna sighed heavily. "When will he come for me?"
"Not until you ask for him, dear."
Johanna's eyes widened. "Really?"
"You will have to detour to court to sort out this mess, but not for a few days. Until then, Ryder will leave you to your thoughts if you so desire."
"How can you control him so?" Johanna was genuinely curious.
"Ryder had no mother. I suppose I am the closest thing to that. He will listen to me, and heed my words."
Johanna felt some of the tension she had been holding in her chest float away. Lady Alena was a godsend. Here, for the first time in a long time, she felt safe.
"Would you dine with me tonight, dear? If you are feeling up to it, of course?"
Johanna nodded, thankful to exchange Ryder's company for Alena's. "It would be a pleasure."
Ryder paced in his chamber. Alena had made him understand that it would not help his cause to pressure Johanna. So, he dined alone, wondering if she was well, and hoping that she didn't hate him as much as he thought she should. I am a rogue, a scoundrel...I have always been worthless. His mood became tense and depressed. Perhaps I should have left her to her fate. Nay, he knew he could not have knowingly allowed Johanna to be abused. He cared for her. He...more than cared. Ryder was not sure what love was, but he knew that his entire being ached being away from Johanna. I will win her back. She loved me once. I know that she did. He slept, only to awaken several times in the night. This time, his nightmares were new ones.
Alena had a way of making her feel very comfortable, and Johanna responded to the woman's gentle, yet direct ways. Though she tried to deny it, Johanna was cognizant of the connection she and Ryder shared. They had both grown up without their mothers. Alena was quite caring and Johanna felt her bond to the woman drawing her closer. So close, in fact, that after a few glasses of strong mead had loosened her tongue, Johanna told Alena everything.
From the first time the men had tried to take her from her family home, to her ill-fated escape attempt, to the horrible rape she had witnessed, and finally to the night Ryder had stolen and forced her, Johanna talked in an emotionless tone until the story was done. She heaved a sigh of relief, a great weight lifting from her soul as she spoke the final words of her saga. Alena opened her arms and Johanna flew into them, sobbing brokenly until no tears were left. She gazed at Alena in unspoken gratitude, for eliciting the truth that allowed her to move on.
"We are women, yes. But the truth of the matter is that we have the upper hand, my dear."
While she was exactly sure what Alena meant, strength flooded Johanna then, and she knew she would go on. She would not simper, or whine. She would not protest her lot. She would simply take one step at a time. Once she had rested and healed, Johanna would hold her head up high at Devon's royal keep.
Seeing the weakness ebb from the girl's face to be replaced by conviction and resolve, Alena nodded, a wise smile on her own face as she took her leave. Now, there was one last thing to do. She hastened to the main hall to seek out her man-at-arms. "Sted! Here to me! Take several men to Blackhawk Keep. Bring an extra horse. The young red-haired serving girl, Nora. I want her relocated here immediately." Sted nodded sharply, excitement lighting his eyes. Alena retired to her chamber and slept deeply, knowing that in a few days time she would have another lost little bird to care for.
Johanna was in no hurry to leave the comforts of Alena's home. She was treated with care, fed well, and allowed to sleep until she could sleep no more. While she had supposed they would only stay a few days, a missive was sent to the royal court, and their impromptu honeymoon was extended. After two weeks, her back was healed, and other than a few thin white lines, there was no evidence of her ordeal.
Johanna regarded herself in the looking glass, finding that a slightly jaded veil had fallen into her eyes somehow. She was no longer the innocent virgin. Still, she was no wiser in the ways of love, either. Yet, she had been claimed and there was no going back. It had been two weeks since Ryder committed the act that violated her being. Force was force, and it mattered not to Johanna that she was now the man's wife. Still, Ryder's version of divesting her of her virginity was certainly less cruel than Blackhawk's! Was it not?
Johanna's anger at Ryder was somewhat tempered by Alena's story of his childhood. He had been abused, manipulated, and betrayed. Even so, it was impossible to recall the physical yearnings she had once entertained around Ryder. He had sold her to the very essence of evil. Johanna winced, recalling the pain she had felt at seeing Ryder accept payment for her. Ryder had taken everything from her. Now, she no longer even carried the same name. Lady Moreland. Who is she? Eventually, Johanna grew restless as she struggled to define herself.
Part of her wanted to rail against the tall warrior, and another, equally as forceful part of her wanted to thank him. At least he had not forced himself upon her but the one time. For some reason, this needled Johanna. She found herself wondering about the blond woman she had seen on his arm. Perhaps Ryder truly acted in Johanna's best interest, but had no feelings for her? That explanation fit both Ryder's behavior and with what Alena had explained about his nature, and his abhorrence for abuse. What would the blond woman say when she discovered that her escort had stolen the bride and married her himself?!
Johanna sighed, knowing that it was no use trying to decipher the situation without seeing the man himself. Alena had said that Ryder would not come unless she called for him, and he had been true to his word. After mulling it over in her mind for a time, Johanna informed Gerta that she would require a suitable dress to attend the evening meal in the hall. Certainly, Ryder would be there. Johanna had no idea how he would react to her presence and her nerves grew as Gerta deftly arranged her hair into a neat plait crowning her head. As she descended the stairs, the buzz of the hall sent jitters into her tummy.
"Johanna!" Ryder was on his feet before he realized what he was doing. It took a supreme amount of effort to avoid running to the girl like an overexcited puppy. She balked at his approach, and flinched when he carefully took her arm. Guilt pricked Ryder sharply in the gut.
"How do you fare?" he asked low.
I'll not simper and whine, she reminded herself. Johanna looked the man directly in the eye and saw nothing but concern and perhaps something else that she could not identify. She murmured a reply, and allowed him to escort her to the main table. His eyes roamed her body appreciatively, and she stiffened, although he clearly tried to mask his attentions. She was still angry at Ryder, and his intimate knowledge of her body made her flush uncomfortably. Johanna sank down next to Alena gratefully; her presence was quite calming.
Ryder's plate was already heaped with food. Johanna was rather surprised when he generously selected the best cuts of meat, a large slice of crusty bread with butter, and a large helping of potatoes, placing them on her plate with a flourish. Serving her from his plate signified that she was his wife, and that he gave her the choicest portions was unusual. Most higher caste men selected their food first before offering leftovers to their women.