Authors: Kathryn Le Veque
Allaston tossed the robe on and tied the fastens at the side. It was a rather luxurious piece of goods for belonging to the daughter of an innkeeper because it was lined with something very soft, lamb’s wool, she thought. In any case, it was clean, warm, and wonderful. She ran her hands over the sleeves as Bretton spoke, not particularly concerned with his view of their relationship.
“Mayhap that is true but you shall not be doing any looking tonight,” she told him as she stepped out from behind the screen. “I am hungry and I am weary, so if you will kindly direct me to my room, I would be grateful.”
He eyed her as she came out from behind the screen. In the pale robe, with her hair wound up around her head, she looked like an angel. He just stood there a moment, gazing at her, thinking she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
Seeing the odd expression on his face, Allaston cocked her head at him. “Why do you look at me so?” she asked.
He simply shook his head. “I have not had much experience telling a woman of my thoughts,” he said. “At least, I’ve not had much experience telling a
what I am thinking. I’ve not been around many of them and when I have, the situation has not been particularly calm.”
Allaston tightened up the tie on the robe as she approached him. “You mean the women you have killed when you have laid siege to their homes?” she asked softly.
He nodded slowly. “Mayhap.”
Allaston couldn’t help her thoughts from turning to Lady Miette. She sighed sadly. “It could have so easily been me,” she said quietly. “You could have very easily attacked my home and you would have killed me without care. I simply do not understand how you can do those things to people who could not possibly harm you.”
She wasn’t being combative but he didn’t like it when she brought up his methods. It made him feel so very guilty and that, in turn, frustrated him.
“You could very well ask your father the same thing with all of the carnage he created twenty-five years ago,” he said. “Whatever you ask me, and whatever you disapprove of, know that I am simply emulating what your father did those years ago. My methods are nothing new.”
She thought on that. The entire thing left a bad taste in her mouth. “May I ask you something?”
He lifted his eyebrows at her. “You are going to whether or not I give you permission.”
That was true and she pursed her lips wryly before continuing. “Lady Miette,” she ventured. “You… you did not personally kill her or defile her, did you?”
His gaze was steady. “Would it make any difference to you whether I did or not?”
She had asked the question. Perhaps she wasn’t brave enough to hear the answer. But she answered with her usual honesty.
“Aye,” she said softly, “it would.”
“It would make you look at me differently?”
He realized he wasn’t prepared to risk it. They’d spent the past several minutes with a warm mood between them, something extremely rare in his world. It had lifted his heart and spirit in ways he couldn’t describe. Still, he was truthful with her. He could be nothing else, for he was not ashamed of his life or what he had done. The sooner Allaston accepted it, the better it would be for them both.
“Then in answer to your question, I am the commander and commanders to not usually follow through with tasks better left to the subordinates,” he said. “I simply give the commands, lady. I do not partake in the actions, but I do ensure that my orders have been followed. I look for the end result.”
Allaston digested the information. Her expression was guarded, sad. “Did you give your men orders to rape that poor woman?”
He shook his head. “It is considered spoils of war,” he said emotionlessly. “If they consider it a reward, then I will not stop them. These men fight for me not because they love me but because I provide them with reward. The lady of Cloryn, as well as the lady of Rhayder, was a part of the spoils.”
Allaston winced and lowered her gaze. “The lady of Rhayder, too?” she asked, feeling sickened. “Bretton, if you could do one thing for me, I would beg you to please call your men off from defiling any more women. Please leave them some dignity since you are taking away their very lives. Had you not been seeking me as part of your plan to lure my father, then it could just as easily have been me that your men defiled and murdered. How would that make you feel, knowing me as you do now? Would you like for your men to abuse me to the point of death, touching me in a way that only… only my husband should touch me?”
That hard, guarded expression came over his features again, but Allaston wasn’t sure if it was because he was growing angry with her or because he was thinking on nameless, faceless soldiers violating her body in all possible ways. She reached out to touch his arm, feeling the hard sinew and muscle beneath her fingers.
“I am not trying to upset you, truly,” she said. “But it is so barbaric and terrible to do this to women whose only crime is to be lady of the castle. I am only asking you to consider showing a measure of mercy to them, Bretton. It would mean a great deal to me.”
His expression was still hard. “Why?”
She grew serious. “Because I do not believe that you are all monster,” she said. “I believe there is some good left in you. You would have killed me long ago, as Jax de Velt’s daughter, if there was not some measure of decency left in you. I would like to hope the man I marry allows for that decency to show.”
He very much wanted to disregard her but there was a large part of him that wanted to listen to her. It gave him hope. She wanted to respect him, which was an utterly foreign concept in his world. There was no respect in the dominion of Bretton de Llion, only fear. But he couldn’t give her an answer. Would that long-buried decency she spoke of surface for her because she wished it and asked for it? Only time would tell.
“I cannot know for certain what will happen in the future,” he said. “As for showing mercy, some would perceive that as weakness and I will not show weakness to my men. Remaining as I am, with ruthlessness, is the only way to maintain control for my purposes.”
Allaston knew that would be his answer but she was not discouraged. “Then mayhap you will at least think on what I have said when the time comes,” she said quietly. “Mayhap you will think of mercy the next time you are faced with a frightened woman whose only crime was living in a castle you want as your own. Throw her in the vault, or do whatever you have to do in order to keep her from your men, but I would pray that whatever comes, you consider showing mercy in all things. I… I want to be very fond of you, Bretton. Mayhap even love you. Please give me a reason to.”
Bretton refused to look at her, as he was in the process of removing his mail and tunic, thinking to use some of that sweet-scented water on his dirty, weary body. More than that, he thought that he needed some time to think on all of this. There had been a great many things said over the past several minutes. He needed time to digest it all. He was, at the moment, overwhelmed by everything. He wasn’t accustomed to such personal conversations.
Give me a reason to love you.
He just couldn’t bring himself to speak on it. The mere thought made him feel wildly uncomfortable and wildly joyful. Since he couldn’t adequately respond, it was best not to until he could.
“The room I rented is directly across the corridor,” he told her, ignoring her last statement altogether. “You may go to bed. I will be there shortly. If you run into any hazardous situations in the three steps it takes to cross the corridor, then scream. I will come.”
Allaston watched him as he peeled off his tunic, revealing a magnificently scarred and sculpted chest. She was beginning to feel disappointment that he hadn’t responded to her statement regarding mercy and love, but seeing his bare flesh quickly diverted her attention. Having never really seen a naked man under such intimate circumstances, her cheeks immediately flushed red and she averted her gaze. But she wasn’t embarrassed enough that she didn’t sneak a couple of glances before quitting the bathing room. He was rather delicious to look at and the sight set her heart to racing. It didn’t take much imagination to think of his flesh against hers, something completely foreign to her but utterly titillating. She was so caught up in stealing glances of his naked skin that she smacked into the door as she went to open it. Startled, she grasped the latch and threw open the door.
“I will bid you a good sleep, then,” she said, trying to cover up her embarrassment.
Bretton was running a rag along the back of his neck. “Why?” he asked. “I will be with you in a moment.”
Allaston didn’t reply. She was too busy trying to get away from the sight of all that naked flesh. Once inside the small but comfortable chamber across the hall, she noticed that someone had put food on the small table near the very warm hearth, and she delved into the bread and cheese hungrily. She even took a piece of cheese to bed with her, eating it lying in bed as she thought of her conversation with de Llion.
There wasn’t much to think about, really. The conversation had been circular, as she had mentioned, rolling over the same subjects again and again, only now there was the added element of a marriage between them. She could only pray that she could eventually break de Llion down of his hatred against her father. Perhaps if she could make him happy, if she could fill those big holes inside of him that drove the man to do what he did, then maybe he would be willing to forget about de Velt. Perhaps she could fill his mind, and his heart, with something better. It was all she could truly hope for.
I am not sure I can let go of what I have become.
His words kept rolling over in her mind but she pushed them aside. She wouldn’t dwell on them, not tonight. Finishing her cheese, she said her prayers and rolled over, falling asleep almost immediately. Exhaustion and a full belly saw to it. She was sleeping so soundly that she didn’t hear Bretton enter the room a short time later.
Noticing Allaston was asleep, he wasn’t really surprised. He was almost relieved. He just didn’t have the energy to continue their conversation. Therefore, he finished the food that was left on the table and lay down on the floor next to the tiny bed. It wasn’t where he wanted to be but he suspected she would not take his presence on the mattress next to her very well, undoubtedly leading into more of an exhausting conversation and a restless night. And he very much wanted to rest and to think about what had been said.
For him, there was so much more at stake, things she would never understand. It was much more than showing mercy. It was trying to change the unchangeable. Did he want to do as she asked? He did. Whether or not he could was another matter altogether. Her hand was hanging over the side of the bed, right over his head. Reaching up, he stole a secret touch of her soft flesh, as light as butterfly wings, as he thought on the things she had said to him.
Give me a reason to love you
. He wanted to. With God as his witness he did. But he wasn’t sure he could.
The entire ride back to Cloryn the next day was completed in brooding silence.
De Lohr must know.
Rod’s first impulse upon leaving The Falcon and Flower Inn in Newtown was to go to Lioncross Abbey and tell de Lohr of his meeting with his cousin. The man would want to know, so in a blinding rainstorm, Rod set out for the southern Marches and de Lohr’s fortress. It was a fair distance away, at least a day’s long ride, so he set off at a steady pace, but it soon became clear that traveling in a rainstorm in the dead of night was unsafe at best. His horse had tripped twice and the second time, he had nearly pitched off the animal.
Therefore, he had been forced to stop at a farmer’s hovel along the way. The old farmer provided him with his stable to sleep in, and it was dry and fairly warm so it wasn’t entirely miserable. The rain let up before dawn and Rod was back on the road again, heading for Lioncross Abbey.
The rain the night before had created divots on some of the roads where the mud had washed away and holes remained, which slowed his pace somewhat. As the sun came out and began to dry up the water, the fields were alive with foraging creatures, and he passed more than one farmer on his trip south. He even passed a man who had an entire cart full of small green apples, he told Rod, from a tree that he had pruned in the wintertime and was now producing fruit. He gave Rod a few to take with him. They were extremely sour but, hungry, Rod managed to choke them down. It was better than nothing. He gave his horse the apple cores and let the beast graze for a few minutes, watching it chomp down the fat, wet grass along the road.