The Wolf's Captive Ch. 03byanais_v©
Rowena watched with a sense of contented detachment as Cedric lifted his body from hers and slowly, stiffly, straightened to full height. Resting his eyes briefly on her, he abruptly looked away, and with his cool treatment, Rowena's senses returned.
Covering herself, feeling suddenly exposed and shy, she wondered fretfully what she had done to displease him. Had her response repelled him? She had behaved wantonly. But she has been at his mercy throughout...if he was to feel anger at anyone, it should be at himself, she reasoned.
Buoyed by the thought, her gaze flickered over him haughtily, running from his tousled golden hair to his hard chest as she attempted to conceal the onslaught of emotions coursing through her - but her eyes paused when they fell on his stiff malehood. Glancing quickly at his face in bemusement at the evidence of his unspent desire, she was stunned by the mounting hostility in his eyes. But he soon dismissed her. Striding rigidly towards the stream, he re-entered the water and began to wash himself with rough, jerky movements
Rising shakily as he continued his bathing, Rowena collected her garments and pulled them on in clumsily haste but her haste attempt to shield her modesty from Cedric was redundant for he hadn't once looked her way.
"What is it? What did I do?" she pierced the silence, unable to stay as stoic as he as he dressed himself and wordlessly took her by the elbow, steering her through the trees and back towards the camp.
Eyes fixed frustratedly on his stony profile as they walked, a choice insult floated on her tongue at his silence but he said tersely in belated response,
"In case you haven't noticed, Rowena, the sky has darkened - and I have left my men to set up camp alone. There are many duties to attend to yet. As pleasant as it would be to while away the eve loosing myself in your bewitching body, we cannot all be so idle," and with that curtly delivered explanation, his lips once more became a stiff, unsmiling line.
But Rowena didn't believe for a moment that that was at the crux of his foul mood. To a man who had so far been tolerant, lenient -- kind and indulgent, even -- to her up until this point, his change of demeanour perturbed her. She was, after all, completely at his mercy but more than her own hide, there was her brother's to think of.
As they approached the camp, Rowena halted, plucking nervously at her wrinkled garments and smoothing ineffectually at her untamed hair, loathe to greet knowing, judging looks that would meet them.
"Please," she called out to an impatient Cedric, "I..." but her tongue was stayed by the light, icy stare he trained upon her, a stare that held not a hint of tenderness.
She realised then why she had never allowed herself to revel in his former attempts at friendship -- whether the attempts had been in a bid to seduce her, or to stave the conscience in his seemingly gallant character at the situation she and Edwin were in: when they reached his demesne, when the necessary conditions forcing them to be so closely in one another's company ended, she would be alone once more and bruised of heart. She wasn't sure when she had started to fall for him, but fall she had. And Cedric? As a young, handsome man of title and wealth, he would not want for feminine attention. No doubt there was a leaman (or two) eagerly waiting his return. To Rowena, Cedric was a wonder, but to Cedric, she was no more than a novelty and a convenient heart to play with.
"Well?" Cedric arched an annoyed brow.
"If you don't mind," Rowena nodded towards the camp, pushing her depressing musings away for the moment. "I'd like a moment by myself."
Cedric's eyes ran over her dishevelled form.
"Very well," he lifted his shoulders indifferently. "But do not linger -- there are worse creatures than my kind roaming these parts," but before he left, he gave her one final, hard stare and swore.
Pulling her forward abruptly, he kissed her fiercely, his caressing hands almost painful in their arousing exploration. Releasing her lips, his mouth moved over her face and he muttered words of love and passion as he handled her. Delirious from the pleasure he could so quickly arouse in her, confused at his tempestuous nature, Rowena could do nothing but yield him fully, her pride be damned.
"Cedric," she muttered throatily as he pressed his face against her neck, bending over her to meet her slight height.
But her voice seemed to pull him back to himself for he stiffened and released her, his eyes fever-bright, his cheeks stained a light red.
"Do not linger," he repeated after a moment. And then he was gone.
Throwing another longing look towards Cedric's tent, Rowena reluctantly dragged her eyes back to the fire. Without the refuge of the thin canvas structure away from his men, she felt anxious and exposed and dared not let her eyes wander from the flames before her for she would only meet watchful eyes and an onslaught of sneering and sniggering comments. Without Cedric's championship and protection, she was completely alone. It has been two days since their trip to the stream and two days of him dismissing her completely. But the camp soon began to quieten as people sought their pallets or else disappeared into the night and Rowena shivered at the distant hum of animalistic noises beyond. She considered heading over to Edwin's miserable tiny tent but remembered his vitriolic comments of the past few days and decided against it.
She should be used to such solitude having endured a lifetime of it with only Edwin as her infrequent companion -- yet despite the logic, she couldn't help but feel a great sense of loss without Cedric's baffling interest and concern for her. He hadn't once attempted to engage her during the remainder of this evening - no sardonic comments, no coaxing smiles as had been his way before. Where usually he would be certain to ensure she was given a sizable portion of food for each meal from those who would otherwise gladly see her starve, he had simply taken his own portion of food, made his way to the fire each night, and eaten it in silence before disappearing into the thick copse for the night.
But thoughts of Cedric's formally melting smile and intense eyes were soon replaced by a greater desire for food, her belly aching with want.
"Didn't I tell you, little lady?" a smug voice suddenly intoned behind her. "I told you our lord would soon tire of the witch."
Rowena started hard at the booming laughter that followed and slowly rose from her formally hunched position before the fading fire. Two figures came to a slow stop uncomfortably close to her: the young child, Emma, and the ethereal fair-haired Mariah.
"Is it true?" Lady Emma demanded with all the arrogance of a commanding elder, her eyes narrow slits of dislike. "Has he kicked you out of his bed?"
Endeavouring to stride past them, her cheeks hot with mortification, Rowena cried out in alarm as her arm was caught in a hard grip and it was with surprise that she followed the biting fingers to the thin, fair-haired child who so loathed her.
"We aren't finished with you - have you no manners?" Emma sneered.
"Let me go -- please," Rowena fixed the girl with a firm look, frustrated that her voice shook slightly but now that the clearing had emptied and quietened, the threat her two hostile companions presented set her blood to ice. Her relief as a fourth person joined them was shameful, not least because of who it was.
"Stop causing mischief, you," Cedric called over, his expression amused, and Emma gave Rowena a final, piercing look before setting her free obediently.
"We were only talking, my lord," she lifted her shoulders casually and Cedric eyed the girl wryly before lifting his gaze to Rowena, his formally amused brow now smooth, his expression remote.
"It is late," he said at length. "Why do you linger?"
A gleeful witness to the cool exchange, Emma watched for Rowena's reaction carefully.
"Is that pallet in your brother's tent not to your comfort? I did offer you a tent to yourself."
Rowena lifted her chin. "It is fine."
Cedric nodded and gestured vaguely around the clearing. "Then I bid you goodnight. Should you need anything...I am but your humble servant," he bowed low, his lips moulding into a smile of mockery.
Emma giggled, her eyes widening in outraged satisfaction, and Cedric favoured the child with an indulgent smile, his gaze returning slowly to Rowena. The smile still plastered to his lips, his eyes were direct, unyielding. There was little humour there and she found this new mockery foreboding.
Hurt by his manner with her, Rowena held his stare for a short moment before turning stiffly, tracing the path to the small tent housing her brother.
Awakening from his slumber at her arrival, he met her with a surprised exclamation, chaffing at the rope binding his wrists. His eyes rested on the extra pallet laid out.
"Still keeping you from his bed, then?" he quipped scornfully. Clearly he would get along famously with Emma if his smarmy satisfaction was anything to go by but Rowena elected to ignore him and his quick apology, his plea for her to untie him.
Struggling to settle into a comfortable position, she stared at the oiled canvas wall as she willed sleep to claim her and Edwin soon quietened, falling into a noisy sleep himself.
The sky had lightened by the time Rowena's body finally defeated her mind and it seemed like mere moments had passed before the activity around the camp increased. Loud voices, excitable birds, the scent of roasting meat...and the urge to stay inside the tiny shelter was strong.
"So you're finally up," Edwin grumbled as she stretched and rubbed the sleep from her face, her mood deflating as reality replaced the blank pleasantness of her sleep drugged mind.
"Unless you wish to starve, I'd soften that tongue of yours, brother," Rowena snapped, irritable from both lack of sleep and hunger.
"I don't wish to be terse -- for God's sake Rowena, my skin crawls with filth and I swear I've lost all feeling in my legs. I am going mad," he whispered fiercely.
At the vulnerable tilt of his voice, Rowena said, her grudge against her brother and his insults disintegrating at his pitiful state, "We're nearing his lands, soon enough-"
"I'll be put out of my misery?" Edwin cut in, his face pinched. "Kill me now, I say!"
"Don't say that! If he meant to kill you, wouldn't he have already? You must acknowledge that he's not like most men...most would seek immediate revenge and-"
"Precisely -- he's merely delayed the inevitable. It speaks of character alright -- he's barely let that calm mask of his drop and it's...disturbing, Rowena. I've been left alone, given food, spared the wrath of his men, all at his command. We know he is not like you and I and there is something more, something quiet and watchful when he would look upon me. No anger, no fury over what I have done but something more..." he trailed off, and closed his eyes. "Be careful, Rowena. If he has tired of you, who knows what he will do with me now? You should-"
"I'll bring food," she said flatly and crawled out of the suffocating space, unable to listen to him any longer.
She was met by the sight of Cedric's handful of men and women loading up horse and cart and it was not long before the party set off. The two remaining nights it took to reach the perimeter of his hands followed in a similar manner -- where before she had never gone hungry, now she struggled to get enough scraps for both her and Edwin and she was in a near constant state of light-headedness because of it.
It was dark when they finally arrived and it was strange after days spent on horseback and nights in forests.
In the distance, sitting on top of a high hill, sat the mammoth façade that was Haverton manor, its many windows illuminated by blazing light, magnificently opulent - a stark contrast to her father's dark, decrepit abode. As the small party rode towards it, a cheer rang out in the distance and the cart she was riding on jerked harshly as the horse picked up speed.
Beside her, Edwin's eyes quickly met hers, fear and desperation plain.
Torchlight flooded the clusters of eager spectators as the finally entered through the large gate leading onto a courtyard surrounded by a number of stone buildings.
The horses were taken to the stables and the carts unloaded and when it came time to unload the last burden in the last cart, Rowena's chest tightened unbearably. Without care, Edwin was hauled from the cart by a lumbering giant of a man but he paid Rowena little mind. Struggling to follow closely behind, Rowena walked the unfamiliar path towards the entrance hall beyond, keeping her eyes lowered to her shabbily shod feet as curious eyes fell upon her and her bound, soiled brother.
The warmth that hit when she entered the great hall was of little comfort for seated at the head of a long wooden table sat Cedric -- tall, stiff, regal. Powerful. His cold eyes were for Edwin alone.
"I hear that my trusted steward has served me well in my absence but that there are a few complains and queries that would be heard -- so I have decided to hold court for a short while before the meal is served."
An appreciative mutter rang out at his words and looking about the hall, Rowena saw well-fed, well clothed men and women; sturdy, happy children, and all looked upon Cedric with reverence in their eyes.
As a succession of people chewed his ear off airing this ill or that and Edwin justly dealt with each request, Rowena almost believed that there would be a reprieve -- for tonight, at least. But it was not to be. As the serfs began to move about the hall and bring forth the evening meal, Cedric's strong voice rang out suddenly:
"Bring our guest forward, Thomas -- may I introduce to you all Edwin of Marston Let us all show him the respect he is due as the son of a Baron! The respect he is due as a murderer. I introduce to you all the man who slayed my brother."
Beside Cedric, the thin woman seated to his left who had spoken to him so fondly since his return paled and Edwin struggled in his bonds as he was dragged towards the head of the table.
"Have you any final words, Edwin of Marston?" Cedric enquired in monotone.
"I didn't know!" Edwin cried pitifully. "By God, I tell you, I did not know! About you or what your-"
Thoroughly unmoved, Cedric held up a silencing hand.
"Edwin of Marston, your punishment will be decided in due course for it is not my decision alone to make That will be all, Thomas."
"Stone him!" someone shrieked into the tense silence following the announcement as Edwin was slowly directed out of the hall, all the better for him to be subjected to the mounting hatred brewing in the air.
"Nay, feed him to the rats!" another bellowed.
"The rack, then the rats!"
As the suggestions came thick and fast and the irate crowd gained volume without a hint of order from Cedric's lips who watched the scene stoically, Rowena tried desperately and unsuccessfully to meet his eyes but she didn't waste her time on him for very long.
Stumbling to his knees as a brave young boy broke away from the serfs and other folk watching Edwin's exit from the room and kicked him hard, Edwin groaned and seemingly gave up altogether as fists and kicks rained down on him. The giant in charge of handling him, Thomas, watched the chaos with unconcerned eyes.
Struggling to make her way through the wall of bodies surrounding her brother, Rowena decided on a different tact and instead shouted out,
"They will kill him! Cedric, please!"
"You dare address our lord so, wench?" an outraged man asked ominously, his disdain for her lack of respect distracting him momentarily from causing Edwin further bodily harm.
Moving away from him and the few others who stared at her oddly, Rowena ran to Cedric's side but he merely stared straight-ahead.
Panting hard, she pleaded with him. "You promised, you said-"
"I promised you nothing," Cedric dismissed coldly.
"Who is this, Cedric?" the thin woman beside him asked, her voice wavering in distress, her face pinched at the sudden chaos that had ensued.
"No one of importance, mother-"
"Please, Cedric -- I will do anything-"
Finally eyeing her, in clipped tones he said, "You have nothing novel to offer me -- what little pleasure you hold can be purchased for a far cheaper price. You shame yourself, woman. You knew from the start his fate was not yours to be decided."
The one he addressed as mother gasped but Cedric remained ever calm, his attention once more returning to his serfs and kinsmen but frustrated at his calm manner, Rowena grabbed with biting fingers at his arm.
"You're fair and just, Cedric, you are! You know the facts surrounding Edwin's actions, surely you can understand them! They will tear him limb from limb - that is no just punishment, Cedric!" she argued, dashing fiercely at the tears on her cheeks.
Standing abruptly, his arm slipping out of her hold, Cedric watched his people for a moment longer before demanding they cease, his voice ringing out strong and sure in the cavernous space.
As Edwin was hauled from his curled position on the floor and finally removed from the hall, the excitement died down and Cedric seated himself once more. Taking a measured sip of wine, he said with calm finality, still staring calmly ahead, "You cannot prevent the inevitable, Rowena."
The measured words eradicated the last hope Rowena held for a display of clemency from Cedric. Feeling faint, Rowena stared down at him, stared at the fine texture of his skin, at the growth of beard adorning his sharply cut jaw and everything suddenly seemed too bright, too fast, too loud and it was with some surprise that she found herself sprawled across the fresh rushes covering the ground, eyeing the high ceiling above.
"Leave her, Margaret," Cedric's voiced called out as if from a great distance as a cool hand ran over heated forehead, her cheeks.
Struggling up, her limbs heavy and uncooperative people, Rowena gave into the gentle pressure on her shoulder pushing her back down. The smell of rose water drifted in the air above her, calming her considerably and closing her eyes, her body and mind weary, she revelled in the light, comforting touches.
"Margaret -- leave her be," Cedric repeated the order, his voice becoming clearer, less hazy. "She is of no concern, nothing but a whore, a village wench who joined my camp to seek greener pastures."
A ringing slap met his words and pulled her sharply from her languid state.
Scrambling to her knees, her sense of serenity long gone, Rowena stared at Cedric's reddened cheek before her alarmed eyes fell upon the person who had no doubt administered the blow.
"You lie, my lord," the regal woman standing above Rowena breathed. "Why do you lie, I wonder?"
Watching her with hard - albeit wary - eyes, Cedric remained silent.
"Here, give me your hand," the woman coaxed then, her formally icy façade melting as she looked upon Rowena. "All will be well," she promised, placing an arm about Rowena's shoulders. "Never again will you speak to or of her like that," she said then, facing Cedric with not a hint of fear or reverence.
"Do you command me, lady?" Cedric asked calmly, though bemusement still lingered in his eyes.
"Aye. I do."
"For a command to be made of me, I would hear your reasoning," Cedric returned.
But the lady ignored him and instead took Rowena by the shoulders and held her away a distance.
"Do you not know me, child?" she murmured.
In a rush of colourful memory, Rowena saw the woman who had watched her those many years ago from the edge of the forest -- the ethereal, beautiful woman who had been so constant throughout her infancy and childhood only to disappear so suddenly. The one who Rowena had half believed to be her mother, if the rumours and whisperings around the keep were to have been believed.