It was the end of the evening for Cat, of hard work and drudgery. And what a night it had been. There was the regular crowd to contend with; the ones who knew where she hated to be pinched and pinched her there any ways. But there were also many new faces in the tavern as the call to arms for the King drew the mercenaries out.

Cat knew that she was considered common among the townsfolk. It didn't bother her in the least, for only she knew of her past. She wasn't always Cat, the tavern wench, who wouldn't bed every drunken sot who propositioned her. She was once Catherine, loved daughter of a far distant land, ran away to be with her beloved Aaron, only to have him fall on battle grounds, never to give her his name.

She paused as she cleared another table and pulled a tendril of her hair back, tucking it behind her ear. The night had grown cold and the men that hadn't found lodging were still drinking their fill, fighting the cold with warm mead in their bellies. There was a camp set up inside the keep where they would spend the night, wrapped in furs and blankets.

Nessa walked by laughing loudly, her rotund grace barely moving out of the way, balancing two large tankards in each hand. "This will be a fun night of frolic, girlie."

Cat smiled weakly at her friend's innuendo and bent to her task once more. A blast of cold air as the door swung open drew her attention back up.

One more hooded man to add to the rising din of drunkenness. To have their mead and ale was one thing; to drink beyond reason was another. He sat at the tables alone, rather than gathering around the hearth with the others.

She carried the dirty bowls and empty tankards to the bar and barely missed being slapped by Mikael. "Get to work, slut. Stop daydreaming. There's a traveler with a full pouch. See how you can serve him."

Cat sighed and hustled to the newest guest. She stood quietly for a few minutes at his side and then reached out and touched his shoulder. A few of the foreigners visiting this land didn't speak the language and found it easier to point to what they required.

She was taken aback as a jeweled dirk crept out of the cloak and pressed against her ribs, but was slowly retracted. The hood came back to display a deeply lined face of age, his long dark hair stranded with grey pulled back in a silver clasp, but his dark brown eyes still quick. "I apologize pet. You startled me out of my thoughts." His voice was like warm honeyed mead, deep and...

The shivers that ran down her spine were like the ones that she hadn't felt for years..not since Aaron had gone. She smiled pleasantly. "And would you be wanting drink or sup, Sir?"

"Aye, pet, both." He eyes carefully examined her, making her shiver all the more as he seemed to strip her of her tattered and soiled garments in his gaze.

Cat scurried away and gathered up an earthenware bowl, filling it with the thick stew that had been cooking all day and laid a crust of bread on top of it. As she ladled out the steaming mead, she happened to glance up at the stranger to catch his eyes on her. A fine warm blush covered her cheeks as she glanced down to see herself ladle the mead onto her hand instead of in the tankard. With a soft cry of pain, she drew her hand to her mouth sucking softly on the burn and had her ears boxed by Mikael. "Clumsy slut. That will come out of your keep."

She refilled another tankard and gathered up the bowl. She made her way back to the stranger's table and set it in front of him.

The man pulled a spoon from his pouch and started to eat without a word, but as Cat made to move away, his arm came out, hand grasping her wrist and pulled her to sit down. "It's not often that I can enjoy my sup with a sumptuous view," he said between bites.

Cat chuckled softly and propped her head up with her hand, watching the tentative bites as he worked at his meal. She enjoyed the view just as much, trying to garner where he had come from, what his work normally was; just from how rough his hands were, how thick the dust was from his cloak. A slow smile teased at her lips and absently she rubbed at the burn spot on her hand.

"I'm responsible for that you know," He pointed at her with his spoon before sitting upright and reaching for the mead. "Such a scar would torment me in my travels, knowing that I had wilted a lovely blossom with a misstep."

"Not often do I hear prose from a mercenary," Cat chuckled again and then ducked, missing Mikael's slap by mere inches.

"Back to work, wench," Mikael said gruffly.

"I will pay for her company," the man said quietly and returned to his stew without as much as a glance at Mikael.

Mikael looked at Cat, who shrugged back at him. "She's not worth the coin."

"On the contrary, gentle," his eyes searched Cat's once more. "I think she's very worthy." He then glanced up at Mikael. "Double her days wage and a room for the night."

"Done." Mikael walked away looking pleased with himself, a swarmy smile decorated his pudgy face. He even paused and pinched Nessa's broad behind, eliciting a squeal from the woman.

Cat watched the man eat some more, her own thoughts turning over and over. What was the man paying for? Did he think she was.. No. Mikael would never. Or would he?

"Umm, Sir?" Cat started. She really couldn't ask him right out what he expected of her, could she?

"Yes, pet?" He pushed the empty bowl away from him and sipped his mead. His eyes met hers, and then an eyebrow raised. "You think I should have given him more?"

"I just..well," her blush deepened. "I don't .. serve..in that way."

"Keep me company then," He smiled and for the first time in a long time, Cat felt comfortable in a man's company. He offered her the tankard and she took of sip of mead, feeling the warmth cascade to her belly, untying cold knots that had been there for years.

They talked of the weather and the King's summons. They talked of the little keep and the surrounding countryside. Once, just once, he reached out to her burned hand and caressed a rough thumb across the redness.

The night waned and Nessa shuffled around the room, gathering bowls and avoiding lustful hands. She looked over at Cat once and then looked away with a sniff.

Cat refilled the tankard three times, but the stranger's eyes never grew bright with drink. He grew quiet as the tavern emptied and Mikael banked the hearth for the night. Mikael came back to the table and hovered.

"You want the coin." The stranger stated. Before Mikael could even acknowledge, a large pouch was placed on the table and a shimmer of gold was placed into his eager hands.

"Generous Sir, kind Sir.."Mikael was blubbering like an idiot over the unexpected bonus. "Third room on the left at the top of the stairs."

Cat still felt odd about being paid for for just being companionable to this quiet, intelligent man. She drew a circle in the wetness left by the mead tankard, concentrating on that for the few moments as the humbled Mikael bowed himself away.

Nessa had already gone to warm some soul's bed, probably several of the men that she was fond of.

When she glanced up again, all was quiet. His eyes were closed as the last dying embers of the fire crackled at the hearth. "Take this man to bed," he said quietly.

Cat sighed, and with strength gained from years of toting for Mikael, helped the tired man up from the table and guided him to the stairs. He stumbled slightly on the stairs, but whether from the drink or from the weariness seeping through his body, Cat couldn't be sure. She clung to him to drag him the remaining steps to the room and nudged the door open with her foot. Thankfully the hearth in here had been made up, but the warmth of the fire couldn't kill the cold seeping through the peat.

She pulled his cloak off him and settled him on the edge of the bed. Cat draped the cloak over the back of a chair and tugged his boots off slowly. She looked up at him and noticed his eyes were still closed. She stood then and set his boots by the fire and made her way quietly to the door.

"Stay.." it was a soft whisper, a plea from this man. Cat turned and looked at him, seeing more than a stranger, more than a mercenary. Seeing the man that he was; virile still in his aged form, quick witted and a soft tender heart.

She came back to his side and sat beside him gingerly on the edge of the bed. "I will stay Sir, if you will give me a name to call you by."

"Mathesius, pet," He groaned then and leaned into her, holding her close, tenderly rubbing his cheek against her shoulder.

A reflex drew her arm around him, softly circling her palm against his back, but inside a quiver of fear had blossomed, for Mathesius was a name from her country.

"Cat, let your hair down, please," His mellow voice sounded hollow against her, like he was holding back pain.

Cat drew her hands back, tugging at the knot on the top of her head, trying to recall when she had told him her name. Her auburn hair came down in waves, framing her face and lying against her breasts. His hand came up, fingers combing through her hair.

"Ahhhh, Catherine.." What he intended as a caress brought Cat up sharply, pulling away.

"You know me?" Her quick response wasn't quick enough. He captured her hair, holding it tight in his fist.

"Do you know how long I've looked for you?" His breath was rasping out now as his weariness gave way to lustful need. "First it was on assignment to bring you back home. Then it was because ..because..dammit.. I missed you. Now, it's because..you should have been mine. Not that young whelp's." He pulled her to him, eyes glittering darkly, madly in the soft firelight. His desire was evident as he pulled her even closer, enclosing her into his arms. "Mine."

"Mathesius..the captain of the guard." Cat's mind finally connected the name. "But..that was..."

"Years ago. Yes, pet. And that's how long I've been looking." He kissed her then, a deep claiming kiss, teeth scraping against her swollen lips, tongue lashing at hers in heated desire.

And she responded. Not knowing where her passion came from, she clung to him, returning the lust that he offered, tugging at his tunic, scratching the dark hair beneath with her nails.

He ripped the coarse dress from her, and laid her upon the bed, looking down at her. The hair spilled out around her shoulders, her nipples hard in the chill and in anticipation. He leaned down then, ravishing each breast with his mouth, suckling like a child hungry for his mother's teat.

Her fingers wound into his hair, her whimpered moans of pleasure urging him on. His lust lit her own smoldered fire of need, her legs twining around him, rocking against him.

He pulled back then, yanking the tunic from his chest, pulling the riding leathers from his hips. "Catherine, you are mine. You beautiful woman-child." He thrust into her deeply, ignoring her sudden cry of pain, crying out his victory. "MINE!"

With each desperate stroke, he ripped into her, filling her with his hard shaft, pulling back out again only to drive in once more, her sex rippling around him. His urgency increased as his own climax commenced, slamming home his pooling seed deep into her as a cry of pleasure, satisfaction, fulfillment came from his lips.

He fell then, hard against her chest, just barely feeling her encircling arms holding him close, the quiet tears that fell against his shoulder, the feather kisses that accepted his claim.

In the quiet hours of early morning he stirred once more, finding himself still in her arms. He carefully pulled himself up and stroked the matted hair from her face. She turned in her sleep and snuggled deeply into his chest.

"I didn't mean to hurt you pet," He started quietly. "My darling Catherine..after all these years..I thought for sure you and Aaron had.."

"No," came her whispered response. Her bright eyes opened and looked up at him. "Aaron claimed my love. My dreams of lust were always just dreams..and in my youthful fancies, they seemed to center around the captain of the guard."

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