tagNonConsent/ReluctanceThe Long Betrothal Ch. 05

The Long Betrothal Ch. 05

bySteffiOlsen©

Dear Readers-- Quoting you: "Write more, write more, write Edon's story..." Sure, to YOU they're casual comments! To me, it's a TRILOGY!! (See End Note for more info.) Again, thank you so much for the hearts, stars, and comments. I'm incredibly grateful to know that my characters come to life in your minds and hearts, too. --Love-- Stefanie

--o--

It wasn't the shaking which woke him, it was the pain of his teeth rattling around in his swollen head.

"My lord! My lord! My lord Maxen!"

He groaned and flailed out with a blind, violent backhand, trying to kill whichever idiot was interrupting his alcoholic slumber. Just one good hit and he could go back to sleep. He missed.

The voice changed and the shaking intensified. "Maxen!"

He didn't respond, hoping Edon would give up.

Not a chance.

"You! Girl! Give me that bowl of water."

Maxen groaned again, opening his eyes and rolling heavily onto one elbow, ignoring the handful of servants cowering around the door. "I surrender. What could possibly make you think I'd want to rise from the dead before noon?"

Anticipating his reaction, Edon stepped back and folded his arms across his chest.

"Our man in the basement is bleeding and unconscious. Milot, Geralt, and your wife have fled."

In a quarter of an hour twenty men were mustered and mounted for the search.

Eight men followed the main trail, which led north to the nearest settlements, six followed the lightly-traveled trail leading south-east into Powys. Maxen, Edon, and the four remaining men took the ill-defined path westward, which wound higher into the mountains before descending toward the heart of Gwynedd. To any thinking man, it was the least likely route to take, being steep, rocky, cold, and generally difficult to traverse, plus providing few of the desiderata to maintain human life.

Most of his men raised a brow at Maxen's choice, but Edon concurred. Kerin and Geralt were clever, and all three runaways were at home in these harsh environs. Kerin would chose the most difficult terrain, hoping to discourage pursuit and confuse trackers.

They rode in silence, stopping periodically for one of their most experienced hunters to examine the ground, and dismounting occasionally to lead their mounts up the steepest parts of the trail. At mid-morning they were rewarded with two clear, nearly overlapping footprints, one significantly smaller than the other.

"Geralt and Lady Kerin." Edon commented.

Maxen nodded and they continued their pursuit.

After a while, Maxen reined in and fell back. Edon slowed also, until fifty feet separated them from the rider ahead. He glanced across at his liege.

Maxen's jaw was tight, his eyes burning brightly. He spoke quietly, a mild breeze whisking his words away from the other four men.

"Three men were present when-- " he stopped.

It was the first time Edon had seen Maxen at a loss for words. He would have made sport of it in other circumstances, but today he answered the unasked question without jest or hesitation. "Yes, my lord- Cadell, Iago, and Eduard."

"What were they told?"

Edon heaved a deep, quiet sigh of regret for his brother-in-arms. "I was forced to kill Eduard before he left the keep. I instructed Cadell and Iago to tell others the truth-- Eduard spoke ill of the Queen and I ran him through. In addition to my earlier instructions, I believe that helped convince them to keep their silence about what took place."

Maxen didn't question Edon's judgment in killing Eduard-- the man was a notorious lecher, and if Edon believed his death was necessary to protect Kerin's honor, then it was necessary. Maxen frowned at his horse's mane. If he'd been as concerned with his wife's welfare yesterday as he ought to have been, Edon would have been spared the decision, and Eduard would still be alive.

They rode in single-file for the next ten minutes, paying close attention to the rock-strewn path, where a sharp drop on one side lay waiting to turn a simple slip into tragedy.

When they were past the worst of it, Maxen cleared his throat. "I owe you an apology and many thanks, Edon Glyn. I hope my stupidity has not led to the loss of your friendship as well as the loss of my wife."

Edon was slow to answer. "I am also at fault, my lord. For several days now, I have suspected Lady Kerin still harbors tender feelings for you. I had no proof and much doubt, but I should have shared my thoughts."

After his initial rush of anger, Maxen considered more carefully. Would he have believed Edon's suspicions? Probably not, he concluded. Aloud, he answered, "My sin is by far the greater, Edon, and I must beg your forgiveness."

Edon replied quickly. "You needn't request it, my lord. I cannot imagine a sin so great that I would sacrifice my brother."

Maxen was silent again, and Edon didn't need to look over to know how his answer was received. His own chest was tight with emotion. He didn't allow himself to think how Maxen would react if Kerin was hurt, or worse, if she was never found.

After a while, Maxen shook his head. "I understand nothing of this, except that I've somehow misjudged her."

"I too, my lord. But we will find them, and once we are back at the keep, the queen will take you into her confidence."

Maxen wished he could be as sure.

Around noontime, the increasingly dangerous terrain forced them to abandon their horses, which actually allowed Maxen's party to travel faster. Welshmen were tough and hardy, and even a lowlander could scramble these peaks for days without food or water. Maxen's men had plenty of both, but most of it proved a useless burden. An hour after leaving their horses, the tracker turned back from his position to hush the men with hand signals, beckoning Maxen forward. In low tones, he said he'd heard what he believed to be the echo of a feminine voice from the next convoluted fold of the rocky earth.

The tracker went to the back of the party while Maxen and Edon cautiously led the way. Their furtive tread mattered naught. As soon as Maxen rounded the bend, he lowered his sword, gesturing a simple command to Edon before he venturing forward.

His quarry were perched on the hillside to his left, twenty paces off the path. Kerin was seated on the ground, her knees drawn to her chest. Milot and Geralt were between Maxen and his wife, their swords drawn and their backs to Kerin. A bit of color on the slope behind Kerin caught Maxen's eye. The fabric matched the men's tunics, and was currently serving to pad what appeared to be the top of a makeshift crutch. He scanned Kerin from head to toe. Excess bulk beneath her skirt might indicate a binding, he decided.

Maxen's men spread out in a half-circle around their prey. Following his lead, they lowered their swords.

"My lady, are you wounded?"

She ignored the question. "I'll come with you if you release my men unharmed."

Milot turned his head to mutter something at her, but a hiss from Geralt brought his attention to the front where it belonged. Geralt's expression said he didn't like Kerin's offer, either, but Maxen suspected he'd obey his lady's command. He also suspected Geralt would then devise a plan to whisk her out from under his nose. Maxen repeated his question. "Are you wounded, m'lady?"

"I'll answer your question, my lord, when you answer mine. Will you let my men go unharmed?"

Maxen sighed, his glance flitting quickly over Milot to land on Geralt. "Sir Geralt, will you treat with me a moment?"

Geralt waited for Kerin's answer. She stared at Maxen and murmured a few words he couldn't hear. Without taking his eyes off Maxen, Geralt turned his head slightly to answer her question.

After another long stare, Kerin nodded.

Maxen sheathed his sword first and Geralt followed. By unspoken agreement, they met at a flat rock some distance from the others. They sat comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder, unlike every other battlefield negotiation in which either man had taken part.

Geralt spoke first. "Her ankle is wrenched but not broken, my lord, merely swollen and bruised from a false step. It will heal in less than a fortnight."

Maxen sighed again. "Thank you."

He paused, rehearsing phrases in his head, but gave up almost immediately and told the truth without diluting it. "I love her, Geralt."

Geralt's head came around in a hurry.

Maxen went on. "I've made a thousand mistakes since her surrender, but I love her. I wish only for time to show her how much."

Geralt looked away. "My lady Kerin..."

The silence of a hundred unsaid answers sat between them.

Maxen interceded. "I know she's hiding something, and I know she fears whatever it is, but I will protect her with my life, no matter what secret she harbors."

It was Geralt's turn to sigh. "I can order Milot, but I cannot command Lady Kerin. He and I will relinquish our weapons, but I fear she will not go with you peacefully."

Maxen smiled. "I would have her no other way."

He wasn't smiling an hour later.

Kerin had switched quickly from cursing Geralt for his surrender to cursing Milot for his compliance to cursing Maxen for everything from her injury to his very existence. He'd given up carrying her the normal way when she wouldn't act like a normal noblewoman. She'd been relieved of her eating dagger, but she punched him twice in the jaw before he gave up cradling her and swung her over his shoulder, where she was reduced to hissing and beating on his back, with virtually no effect. After a while, she figured out that pinching did have an effect. He winced every so often, but he bore up under the persistent, irritating assault, providing much amusement for their combined troops. From the first, Geralt ignored the bindings on his wrists and exchanged banter with the men guarding him, while Milot was sullen and uncommunicative, responding only to Edon's comments.

Since the last portion of the trail was relatively safe, Maxen opted to continue their descent after darkness fell rather than making camp on the mountainside. Once inside the gates of the keep, Maxen gave orders for riders to depart at first light to call back the other two search parties, and he took his wife to bed.

She hissed and spat and swatted at him until the midwife arrived to look at her ankle. With her joint unbound, she became suspiciously silent, and Maxen glanced up from her swollen joint to find her face pale and misted with a fine sheen of perspiration.

He murmured an order to one of her ladies, who was back in a flash with a small, squat tureen and two pieces of straw. Kerin's eyes were closed, her lips pressed tightly together as the midwife prodded her bruised flesh, so she didn't see Sallie running Maxen's errand or crawling under the edge of the bed. Kerin opened her eyes to find the tiny gray kitten in her lap. Maxen put a bowl of thickened milk next to her uninjured leg and dropped the straws in her lap.

"I don't know when last she ate," he said, and went back to watching the midwife work.

While her sprained ankle was washed, packed with a poultice, and re-wrapped, Kerin patiently fed the squirmy Sir Furball, wincing once or twice, but much more relaxed than she'd been at the beginning of the procedure. A maid fetched food and drink, two boys carried up hot water for washing, and everyone departed, leaving Kerin and Maxen alone. She ignored him until the kitten's bulging belly lulled it to sleep.

He exchanged the bowl of milk at her side for a tray of cheese, bread, and meat, propping his shoulder against one of the bed posts to watch her.

Eventually Kerin looked up, her face carefully expressionless. "I will flee again."

Maxen replied just as calmly. "And I will find you again."

She swallowed a bit of food, shrugging as though she didn't care. "You'll tire of it eventually, my lord."

Maxen tossed the hunk of bread he was eating onto the table behind him and dropped to a squatting position beside the bed, where he stayed until she met his eye. Leaning his forearms on the mattress near her feet, he held her motionless without a single touch. "I will never tire of you, Kerin."

He let the silence hang for a time before taking up his speech.

"I've been a fool, ten times over, and you are correct to despise me, but I won't give up. I know there is something which pains you-- other than what has passed between us-- something you fear, but I love you. I have loved you since first we met, and I will love you until I die, whether or not you ever forgive me, whether or not you return my affection. I won't touch you before it pleases you, but I will sleep with you at night. I will never bind you again, but I will keep you safe. And I will never tire of you."

Kerin's eyes were wide. She'd stopped chewing in the middle of Maxen's speech-- when he said he loved her-- so she had a big lump of food in her mouth that she was sure would choke her if she tried to swallow it. She swallowed around it and slowly returned to chewing. Between the platter and her hip, the kitten slept, unaware of the cornucopia resting nearby or her mistress' heart beating frantically above.

With a small quirk at the corner of his mouth, Maxen at last rose. He turned his back for her benefit when he bathed. She lowered her eyes, but she couldn't help sneaking peeks from under her lashes. His legs were like tree trunks, she thought, though she'd never secretly yearned to run the tips of her fingers up a tree trunk. Kerin pressed her lips together, holding back an unladylike snicker.

To assure Kerin that he meant what he'd said about not molesting her, Maxen wore loose drawers when he climbed into bed beside her. She didn't resist when he helped her remove her surcoat, but he changed his mind about fetching a maid to help her bathe when he saw her eyes drifting shut before he'd finished. He smiled as he lowered her to the bed beside him and curled his body to fit the contours of hers. Draping his arm across her chest with a satisfied sigh, he slept without dreaming.

--o--

At a public proceeding in the outer bailey two days later, Maxen sentenced Kerin's men to twelve lashes each for their part in the escape.

Kerin's sentence for bashing Maxen's man over the head with a stick of kindling was deferred until the soldier in question could be present. Welsh law was less about punishment than restitution, and the injured soldier would have a say in Kerin's case. Maxen expected to award and then to pay his own man a large fine for Kerin's crime, and he was not at all bothered by the thought.

The lashing sentence was more for the benefit of his people than to punish Geralt or Milot. The lesson would serve to reinforce the concept that Maxen would fiercely defend what belonged to him, be it lands, fields, or men. Twelve lashes each would pain them, but not wound them severely. More than that would appear extreme-- at least to Kerin-- and Maxen's own troops would interpret less than ten lashes as weakness on his part.

Kerin stepped forward from the crowd and raised her voice to be heard. "My lord, I will take the punishment for my men."

Maxen froze.

A struggle erupted as Milot and Geralt began to shout in unison, objecting to Kerin's offer.

"SILENCE!" Maxen roared.

The men continued to thrash against their bonds until steel was applied to skin, threateningly close to heart and throat.

Kerin ignored the outbursts. "As their liege, I must take responsibility for their actions, my lord Maxen."

Maxen's eyes burned. She had the right to do this. Everyone within hearing knew she had the right to accept punishment for her men.

At his elbow, Edon shifted restlessly. Maxen raised his hand to forestall the intervention he anticipated. No one could change what he had to do, nor make the decision in his stead.

Kerin stood waiting for his judgment, silent and serene, every inch the queen Geralt had called her. Maxen wondered how he could ever have thought otherwise. With a hard, deliberate blink, he tore his mind back to the present situation. Like it or not, the issue was one of law, not love, and he had no choice but to allow it.

His face like granite, not moving his eyes from Kerin's face, he half-turned his head and nodded once at Edon.

Edon walked slowly forward to take Kerin's elbow, supporting her as she half-hobbled toward the posts.

Milot began to holler, "Nay, I-- "

Geralt silenced him with an angry warning. "You will undo all she has done to save us."

Maxen heard but gave no sign, his eyes on Kerin's slim back as Edon secured her hands overhead, not stretching her to maximize the effect of each stroke, as he would any other prisoner.

He flicked an eye at Kerin's men. "Remove them."

Milot's anguished eyes were all for his lady, but Geralt saved his final glance in the courtyard for Maxen, who read only sorrow there, not the condemnation he expected to see.

The bailey was silent as Edon rent her dress. Normally it would have been stripped from her and left hanging at her waist, if not removed completely, but Edon took care to bare only Kerin's back.

Maxen's fingertips were white on the arms of his chair, his teeth clenched tightly. No matter what care was taken, the whip would probably tear the rest of it away. Edon wouldn't whip her as he would one of the men, but the tail of the long-handled ox-whip would still wrap around slightly, leaving marks on the sides of Kerin's breasts and ribcage.

It was actually Drew's turn to wield the whip that day. He stood ten feet behind Kerin, white-faced and glaring murderously at the sky as Edon approached. Without a word, Edon took the whip from Drew's hand, feeling the tension drop from the other man's body like a weight as the leather left his fingers.

Allowing Maxen time to intercede, Edon cracked the whip once, testing its weight and warning Kerin what was coming. Her pale body shuddered at the sound, but she didn't cry out.

With his jaw set and his left side facing Kerin, Edon swung right handed across his body, laying the first stripe perfectly across Kerin's white shoulders.

Kerin cried out then-- she couldn't help it-- and Maxen was on his feet before he could stop himself, Edon's hissed warning ignored as he strode past.

He cut the ties from Kerin's wrists and motioned her women forward, disregarding the question on her tear-drenched face. "Take her to our chamber and tend to her wound."

If he appeared weak to his men, so be it; he'd hurt Kerin enough. He wouldn't do this to her.

His eyes ran around the circle of crofters and soldiers as he stood with his back to the whipping post. "As it is my lady's right to accept punishment for her men, so it is my right to take the lash for her."

With a single piercing look for Edon, Maxen stripped his tunic off and turned to place his palms high upon the post. No doubt he'd be hugging it by the end, he thought grimly as he bent his head, but he'd be damned if they'd have to tie him.

For twenty-nine strokes, other than the whistle and crack of the whip, the only sounds in the bailey were the weeping of women and Maxen's broken, labored breathing, interspersed with an occasional soft grunt. In the unrelieved silence, those closest heard the difference in the last ten strokes, as his back bled freely and the whip landed on wet flesh instead of dry.

Toward the end, his most trusted men took up positions to either side to catch him if he fell, but Maxen was right; they didn't have to tie him. He kept his feet until the very end. He was unconscious by the time they got him into bed, mercifully.

Edon was startled to find Kerin dressed and waiting with her maids, wine, bandages, herbs, and salves at the ready.

She met Edon's eyes without rancor as he directed the men in stripping Maxen's bloody leggings away and getting him laid out on the bed. She was pale and moving carefully, he noted, but her expression didn't betray the burning pain she must be feeling from the stripe he'd laid across her back. Edon had been whipped before, and he was surprised a gentlewoman like Lady Kerin wasn't still crying, or drugged and on her way to sleep.

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