by: A. K. Naten
For disclaimers, etc., see Part One.
It was nearing the end of what had been a long, exhaustive day for the Marchioness of Weldon. Keeping her promise to her husband, Gwynneth had worked diligently all day in getting the manor ready for the gathering of the allied military leaders and knights of the realm. Even Lady Marina contributed to the preparations. She said very little, but she agreed with Gwynneth's thoughts and ideas and followed whatever instructions the young Marchioness doled out.
As they worked, Gwynneth's heart remained filled with a sense of dread and foreboding, and her mind continually conjured up all kinds of terrible thoughts and ideas about what could happen in the days and weeks ahead. She realized now that Anton must have been practicing his swordsmanship over the past few fortnights with good reason, and it disturbed her to think that he may have known about this brewing problem for some time, yet did not tell her. But, she told herself that military matters were not meant to be her concern. Her duty was simply to fulfill her role as Lady of the House and not question her husband about his affairs. So, as she worked, Gwynneth forced herself to push her fears aside and simply do what was asked.
When the evening mealtime approached, Gwynneth was grateful. She was so washed-out, she instructed the cook to simply prepare whatever he wanted; she cared not what they all ate this evening. She just wanted to retire to her bed for the night. Another bad dream had caused her to sleep restlessly during the night, and she arose quite early in the morning to get started with her work.
The Marchioness sat in the library as she awaited the call for dinner, her body trying to find a comfortable position in the padded armchair. She rested her hands on her rounded belly, hoping that the child inside didn't decide to start kicking and squirming too much. She had steadily been growing larger and larger, and people had begun noticing and making comments about a little woman having such a big baby. She knew they meant well, but she was tired of being made to feel like she was inordinately humongous. She wondered if the expansion of her waistline would ever slow down, or better yet, cease altogether. She felt like a waddling cow as it was. As Gwynneth's eyelids began to grow heavy, she blinked longer and longer. Drifting off into a light sleep, her mind immediately filled with visions of the disturbing dream she'd had earlier that morning.
It had been similar to the dream she'd had before - where a warrior was struck by large arrows and fell to the ground in a bloody heap. This time, however, it seemed to move in slow motion, and there were no sounds. The whoosh of the arrows could not be heard, Gwynneth only saw them as they zipped through the air and struck the warrior, who was dressed like a knight. As the knight fell to his knees, his face turned heavenward and his mouth opened, but again, not a word could be heard. When he finally collapsed to the ground, his face was clearly discernible. The dark hair was long and the face was streaked with dirt and blood, but Gwynneth's mind could not mistake the contours of the strong jaw and cheeks and the eyes so pale and blue...eyes that could only belong to her husband...her Anton. As the nobleman lay bleeding on the reddened earth, a pair of muddy boots appeared beside his head. Gwynneth's dream eyes trailed away from the boots, traveling up the mail-clad legs and chest until they reached the face of the newcomer. Gerrod of Clarendon stared expressionlessly down at Anton for a long moment before looking up and staring coldly into what would be his sister's eyes.
Having searched the castle for her wife to summon her to dinner, Anton smiled when she reached the library and found the little blonde slumbering in one of the large chairs. She paused a moment, taking in the cherubic face, now more filled-out and softly rounded from pregnancy. She'd always heard that a woman was most beautiful when with child and, gazing at her young wife, Anton had to conclude that it was true. Gwynneth was beautiful - more beautiful than ever. She knew that the blonde worried about growing large, but Anton didn't care. In her mind, Gwynneth's ever-burgeoning abdomen meant that she was eating well and that she and the child were healthy. Smiling again, Anton leaned down close, pausing to inhale the smell that was uniquely Gwynneth before gently pressing her lips to the exposed, ivory skin of the young woman's neck.
The feeling of warm pressure on her neck startled Gwynneth out of her dream, and her eyes flew open as she flinched and shrieked aloud.
Anton jumped from her wife's sudden reaction, then frowned as she took in the blonde's fearful, wide-eyed look. "Gwynneth? Are you all right?"
Gwynneth couldn't answer at first. Her blood rushed through her head so loudly, she could barely hear, and she clutched at her chest, feeling her heart hammering harshly. A gentle, calloused hand touched her cheek and her eyes fluttered as they looked up and into familiar eyes...eyes so pale and blue. Eyes that could only belong to her husband...her Anton.
"Anton! ...Oh my love!" Gwynneth whispered, her voice strained and anguished as tears instantly filled her eyes.
Anton quickly knelt before the blonde, "What? What is it?" She cupped Gwynneth's face in her hands, wondering and worrying at her wife's distress.
Gwynneth brought her shaking hands up and laid them atop Anton's as she continued to stare into his eyes, unable to say anything or explain her irrational panic. It wasn't him...he's not dead...he's right here! Her mind whirled as she realized she'd simply had another nightmare. Closing her eyes, Gwynneth felt embarrassed. She shook her head. "I'm sorry husband. It was just...I was just dreaming."
Anton stared at her wife, unconvinced. She noted the dark smudges that underscored the brilliant jade eyes and felt certain there was more to her distress than Gwynneth let on. "Just dreaming?" Anton asked as she trailed a finger over one of the dark shadows beneath her wife's eyes. "Are you certain that's all it is?"
Gwynneth flushed, knowing that Anton didn't quite believe her. "It was a bad dream...a nightmare. I've had it several times."
Anton frowned, "And you've never told me of this. Why not?"
"It is nothing, husband, truly. Just a dream." Gwynneth answered softly, hoping to escape further scrutiny. She didn't dare tell him all the details and how real the dream felt.
"But if it distresses you, dearest, I wish to know about it." Anton gently cupped her face again, "Even something as seemingly insignificant as a dream."
Tears filled Gwynneth's eyes and she closed them. She squeezed Anton's hands, "I'm all right now, love." she opened her eyes and looked back at him with as much surety as she could muster. "I'm all right."
Anton leaned in and placed a soft kiss on her wife's lips, then stood and extended her hand. "Come. The evening meal is ready. Let us eat and then retire for the night. We've another long day tomorrow."
The next day dawned bright and warm as Weldon prepared to welcome the allied forces. By midday, people slowly began to arrive. Some came alone, some came by the dozens. Nobles and their entourages, knights and their squires, and lone warriors - they continued to stream in all day and into the early evening hours.
Gwynneth made herself scarce as the allies - mostly men - began to arrive. The presence of so many warriors and knights frightened her, and she decided that she'd be better off overseeing the kitchen staff and helping them prepare the meals that would need to be served. She did not know if her brother, Gerrod, would be in attendance, but she imagined he would be. If she did not see him by nightfall, Gwynneth decided that she would ask Anton if Gerrod was or would be present. It had been so long since she'd seen or heard from her family; perhaps seeing her sibling would lift her spirits and ease some of her ill feelings about her disturbing dreams and the whole Liam of Rencor affair.
As evening drew near, Gwynneth retired to her favorite sitting room to rest. She'd managed to keep herself busy all day, but now she was exhausted, and her back and feet ached tremendously. She sat in one of the chairs, propping her feet on a nearby stool and preparing to close her eyes when a knock sounded at the door.
"Come in," Gwynneth called out as she sat up from her slouched position.
The door opened and Gerrod stepped inside. "Gwynneth!" the young knight exclaimed, his arms opening in invitation.
Gwynneth smiled. Even though she and Gerrod were not close, and indeed, were often at odds with one another, it was good to see a familiar face. "Gerrod." The Marchioness smiled as she rose from the chair and walked over to give her brother a hug.
"Ohh, it's so wonderful to see you!" Gerrod said, embracing his sister tight - a little too tight, in fact, as Gwynneth made a noise of discomfort and pushed away. Taking a moment to look at his sister, Gerrod quickly understood why. "Oh my." His eyes were wide as he took in her large, rounded belly, "I-I had no idea, sister." Gerrod covered his shock with a forced smile. "You certainly work quickly, don't you?"
A bright blush raced across Gwynneth's face and she felt embarrassed. "Yes." She quirked a forced smile. Gerrod had always had a way of making her feel uncomfortable by subtly insulting or belittling her. She had hoped to forget the discord that had always existed between the two of them, but that seemed impossible.
"It's nice to see that you've fulfilled your role and secured your future so adequately. I suppose congratulations is in order."
Gerrod's voice carried an edge of sarcasm and Gwynneth felt ill at ease. She didn't understand why her brother would be upset by her pregnancy. Still, she remained calm as she looked back at him, "Thank you, Gerrod." They looked at each other awkwardly for a second before Gwynneth motioned toward the chairs. "Why don't you come and sit down. Tell me about father and the things that are happening back at Clarendon." She was determined not to let her brother rattle her.
As the two siblings sat and chatted, Gwynneth became increasingly uneasy with Gerrod. He had always been flippant and condescending to her, but she'd always attributed that to youthful arrogance. It didn't matter that they were only half-brother and sister, they still endured a strong sibling rivalry, and Gerrod had always treated Gwynneth as though she were less. He used to make comments about her figure or the way she dressed, and he would stand close to her or brush against her and say inappropriate things. She was sure that he did it intentionally, as a way of making sure that she feared him. And it seems to work, still, Gwynneth considered.
As they talked now, it seemed to Gwynneth that Gerrod's arrogance had grown and changed into something else. Something more sinister and hostile. Gwynneth felt as though an air of darkness surrounded Gerrod, and it unnerved her a great deal. He talked very little about their father, Earl Leopold. Instead he spoke mostly about the day when he would take over Clarendon, which, according to him, was close at hand.
Gwynneth worried about the Earl. "Is father not well? Is that why he'll be handing things over to you so soon?"
"Oh well, you know how it goes, Gwynneth. Father is old and weary. He needs me to take over. I'm younger, I'm stronger, and I know what's best for Clarendon. As soon as I find a suitable wife, I'm sure father will turn everything over to me. Then I shall make him proud and happy." Gwynneth merely nodded, not knowing what else to say. Gerrod eyed his half-sister with suspicion. "And what about you, sister?"
Gwynneth frowned, "What?"
"How are you faring here at Weldon? Are you happy?" Gerrod pinned her with dark eyes.
Gwyn faltered but forced a pleasant-looking smile, "I'm fine, truly," she nodded, "and yes, I am happy."
Gerrod nodded back, seeming to accept her answer. "And what of your husband? Are you happy with him as well?" Gerrod leaned in closer to her, "Is he good to you, sister?"
Gwynneth swallowed, her throat suddenly feeling dry. "Yes, brother, he is good to me." She paused just for a second, averting her eyes. "My life is quite...content." It sounded like she was unsure and Gwynneth immediately regretted it. She wasn't unsure, she was just becoming flustered by Gerrod's inquisition.
Gerrod frowned at her answer, "Content?" he questioned, furrowing his dark blonde brows, "Content is a far cry from happy, sister dear." He placed his hands on her shoulders and leaned down to look her directly in the eyes, and Gwynneth immediately stiffened. "You can be honest with me, Gwynneth. If Anton is not treating you well, or if you are dreadfully unhappy, you must tell me." His voice was low and serious. "The situation can be rectified, just as it was before."
Forgetting her discomfort, Gwynneth frowned and looked at Gerrod in confusion. "Whatever do you mean, brother?"
Gerrod was now the one who was uncomfortable. He hadn't meant to say what he'd said. "Nothing, I merely meant..." He faltered and stood up quickly, walking a few steps away from his sister. "I merely meant...you were so unhappy with Aldred, as was everyone else...but then you ended up with Anton, and...well, it all turned out for the best." He was rambling, and Gwynneth was instantly suspicious.
"No, Gerrod." She shook her head and stood up, walking after him and pinning him with narrowed eyes. "Why did you say, 'just as it was before'? What are you talking about?"
"Nothing, nothing...forget that I spoke of it," Gerrod waved a hand at his sister and began to turn away, but Gwynneth grabbed his arm and spun him back to face her.
"Don't treat me as though I'm an ignorant child, Gerrod!" The Marchioness spoke loudly and stared harshly into eyes the same color as her own. "You know something about Aldred's death, don't you?" Gerrod clenched his jaw and shifted his gaze away from her. "Tell me, brother...I demand to know!" Gwynneth's eyes were hard and unyielding.
Gerrod drew a deep breath and closed his eyes, feeling annoyed. He hadn't planned to let the information slip. Gwynneth wasn't supposed to know anything about that fateful day. She, like everyone, was supposed to think it was an accident...a well-timed, convenient accident, and nothing more. But then again, Gerrod considered, would it really matter if she knew the truth now? If things went well and the opportunity that he'd been waiting for presented itself, Gerrod wouldn't have to worry about any of the secretive nonsense anymore. He finally looked back at his sister, his face blank and emotionless. "Alright, I'll tell you. Aldred's death wasn't entirely accidental."
The young Marchioness frowned and gave him a confused look. "What does that mean exactly?"
Gerrod sighed loudly. "It means that his death was somewhat...intentional." There...he'd said it. Now he would wait for the fallout.
Gwynneth stared at him, her eyes widening and her mouth falling open as comprehension took hold. She could scarcely believe what she was hearing.
"Oh don't look so flabbergasted!" Gerrod scolded, "You detested him! You told father that he was vile, hideous, and evil!"
"Yes, but I never told him to get rid of him! For the love of God, Gerrod!" Gwynneth exclaimed incredulously, placing a hand on her heaving chest, "You...you murdered him!" she was aghast at the horror of it all.
"Oh I wouldn't say 'murdered', just...provided assistance with his unfortunate accident, really." Gerrod sounded nonchalant as he made a flippant motion with his hand. "And I didn't do it personally...someone else did." He added as he shrugged at his sister, who remained stunned with disbelief. "We paid a woman to seduce him - which, as you well know, was quite easy - and lure him away from the castle, then take him riding in a secluded area to give us the perfect opportunity. When one of our men suddenly appeared on the trail in front of the fool, his horse reared fitfully and the stupid bloke couldn't control it. He got himself thrown off and killed - we didn't have to do a thing!" Gerrod wasn't going to try to justify it any further. He knew that his sister was shocked beyond comprehension.
The only thing he needed to do know was to convince Gwynneth that Aldred's murder was necessary. He couldn't afford to have her turn against him. At least not yet. "Sister," Gerrod began calmly, "believe me when I say that it was really just a political maneuver...purely strategic." He watched the blonde woman for a reaction, but she just stood there, stunned and staring silently at the floor. "Aldred was weak...cowardly...he was a despicable rake, and you had good reason to despise him. He would have been of no use to anyone, or to you. Anton was a much better choice to be the Marquess of Weldon, as well as your husband." Gerrod continued to reason, "And you ended up with a much better man, did you not? Haven't things have turned out infinitely better? I mean, look at you! The Marchioness of Weldon! Living in the lap of luxury, expecting a child." Gerrod motioned with his hands.
Gwynneth's stomach churned when he said that. Of course Gerrod didn't know that the murdered man he spoke of was, most probably, the father of her unborn child, but she knew. She felt dizzy and nauseous and placed a hand on her forehead. "I-I need to sit down," she mumbled.
Gerrod reached for a chair and helped her ease into it. Brother and sister didn't say anything for a few moments as Gwynneth held her head in her hands and Gerrod just looked on, knowing he really couldn't say anything more to defend himself. His thoughts, therefore, began to turn to how he would convince his sister to keep quiet about the information. That would prove to be much more difficult. If Gwynneth were to tell anyone about what she'd learned, Gerrod's long-range plans could be ruined for good. And that was something he would not allow.
Meanwhile, Gwynneth sat and tried to make sense of all that she'd heard. And she struggled to recognize the man who stood before her. This was not her brother. This was a man who supposedly shared her bloodline, but whom she did not know at all anymore. She and Gerrod had never been close, but now, he was an absolute stranger to her. Moreover, he was a murderer. No matter what rationale he gave, she still saw him as a cold-blooded killer. And that thought chilled her to the bone.
Gwynneth began to shake her head back and forth, whispering aloud, "I can't believe it...I just can't believe it..."
Gerrod sighed deeply, growing tired of the scene. "Oh come now, Gwyn, you can't tell me you never knew that father dabbled in the mercenary business? With all those warriors and knights and unseemly characters hanging around our little kingdom all the time? What did you think they were doing there?"
Gwynneth shook her head, feeling a surge of anger. "I most certainly did not know! How would I have known such a thing? I had no idea!" She paused for a moment and looked up at her brother with hard, angry eyes, "Who else have you killed for political reasons?" Gerrod didn't answer. "Who else, Gerrod!"
"That is of no importance to you. We do what we have to do when the situation calls for it. Always have, probably always will." He bit off the words.
Gwynneth was so outraged she could barely speak. The man in front of her was not only a murderer, he was a heartless monster as well. She gritted her teeth and shook her head slowly, "If Anton knew about-"
"No!" Gerrod shouted, leaning down and sticking his face in front of Gwynneth's, making her shrink away. "Anton must never know what happened to Aldred. Do you understand me? Never!"
"You expect me to keep something like this from him!"
"Yes...you must...for his own well-being...and yours." Gerrod said, looking at his sister with ominous warning in his eyes.
Gwynneth's mouth dropped open again, "Are you threatening me? Are you saying you would do away with me...your own sister!" she asked with incredulity.
"If it ever came to that, I would defend and protect you as much as I could...but, Anton..." Gerrod trailed off with hesitation, shaking his head slightly.
"You would kill him if he caused a stir." Gwynneth said, more in statement than question. "You would kill him just as easily as you killed Aldred, and you would think nothing of it, would you!" She was horrified at the thought.
"We do what we have to do to keep things under control in this region!" Gerrod retorted with an angry glare.
"Who is this 'we' that you speak of?" Gwynneth shouted back, her courage bolstered by her outrage. "Some kind of clandestine horde of ruthless murderers who roam the countryside, killing anyone who doesn't suit their agenda?"
"We are not a horde of ruthless murderers! We are a necessary, but secret, military order! We keep the peace and resolve problems and situations before they get out of hand! We are a brotherhood, and we never want to deal with another 'Wesley of Rencor' again! We will never have a leader or a Lord who does not abide by the ideals and the laws of this land!"
"You mean who abides by your ideals and your laws!" Gwynneth spat back.
Gerrod's eyebrow shot up, "You may interpret it however you desire."
The two siblings glared at each other for a moment, seemingly at an impasse. Finally Gerrod spoke again, wishing to bring the conversation to an end. "The fact of the matter is, Aldred was a blathering idiot who was unfit to rule, and I knew he would not treat you well. Simply put, he had to go."
Gwynneth stared at her brother incredulously. "What kind of a monster are you? Are you so inhumane that you can kill simply because someone doesn't please you? Tell me, brother, if you decide that you dislike Anton, shall you just snap your fingers and make him disappear as well!"
Gerrod paused for a moment, staring at his sister defiantly. "At this point, I suppose that depends on you." His lips curled into a sneer as his voice taunted Gwynneth. "Tell me again, sister, how truly happy you are here, with Anton."
Gwynneth glared back, determined now to appear strong and certain. "I assure you, brother, I am truly happy."
Gerrod was genuinely surprised at his sister's confidence. She had changed a great deal since coming to Weldon. He smiled at her cruelly, "Well then, see...you and your beloved have nothing to fear." He held a finger up in front of her face. "Provided you keep our little 'discussion' to yourself, that is."
Gwynneth fought to contain her disgust. She glared at her brother with pure disdain in her eyes, "You disgust me...the whole bloody lot of you!" She spat the words out and stood, abruptly turning and walking toward the door, needing to get away from Gerrod and his wretched words immediately.
Gerrod laughed dismissively. "Of course we disgust you, but dear sister, before you condemn us all to the fires of Hell, there's something you should know..." His voice trailed off enticingly.
Gwynneth stopped and half-turned to look back at him.
"...Your beloved husband is one of us."
Gwynneth searched the castle for Anton, but was unable to find him. She was still filled with shock and horror, and she needed someone to quell her jangled nerves. She figured that Anton was probably with the gathered men, but she was unwilling to venture that far to find him. Not knowing where else to turn, she decided to go to Anton's chambers and wait for him there. Even if he didn't return until late, she would at least take some comfort by being in his room and being surrounded by his things.
As Gwynneth lay upon Anton's bed and stared into the darkness, she thought of Gerrod's treachery, and her mind spun with worry and dread. Aside from her chambermaid, Alice, she had no one that she could confide in, save her husband. She wouldn't dream of telling Alice everything that was going on, and she knew that she could not tell Anton about the things Gerrod had told her. As she replayed everything Gerrod had said, she wondered just how much Anton knew of the other political murders her brother had hinted at. Was Anton a part of the scheming and plotting? Could he not be trusted either? She thought about how Gerrod had threatened her life, and her husband's. How was she going to keep all this awful knowledge to herself? If she told Anton, what might he do with the information?
The Marchioness thought about her husband and his constant swordplay and practice. If Anton were indeed part of Gerrod's secret sect, he would have to be prepared to go off into battle at any time. She imagined that all the men who'd gathered at the castle were involved, and that they were probably going to go to battle to kill Liam and his army. Gwynneth's heart constricted as she thought about Anton going off to war. She didn't want him to leave her and go fight. The young lady was worried sick and feared her husband leaving for many reasons - mostly because, now that she knew the truth, she feared what Gerrod might do to Anton, and to her. She hated that she knew the truth, and she hated that she couldn't tell her husband. Gwynneth shivered at the thought of what could happen if she did tell Anton, and he in turn confronted Gerrod.
Gerrod would surely kill him. I could see it in his eyes, Gwynneth thought fearfully. Even if I didn't tell Anton, Gerrod must be uneasy with my having this information. What if he does something to Anton? What if he thinks he can't trust me to keep quiet and decides to kill Anton anyway? For if Anton were killed off, she would be alone, desperate and vulnerable, and Gerrod could maneuver himself into taking control of Weldon. Marina would be easy to get rid of, and there would be no one else left who could help her. Her brother would have an instant dynasty on his hands and would have no need for her, nor for her child. Gwynneth cringed, squeezing her eyes shut at the horrific thought.
Gwynneth didn't want to believe that her own brother could have his sights set on Weldon for any reason, nor did she want to believe that he would hurt her or do such a vile and heartless thing as murder her own husband. Then again, after what he told her, and in the manner with which he told her, Gwynneth feared she no longer had any idea what her brother was capable or incapable of.
All the visitors arrived by the time night fell, and the meeting of the allies began in earnest. As the men feasted and theorized about what Liam and his army were planning, it became clear that the group was divided in their beliefs.
Gerrod and several other knights and warriors felt that a swift and ferocious battle should be waged against Liam immediately. Anton and most of the nobles wished to try a diplomatic solution first, to avoid bloodshed if at all possible. The argument began to heat up as the evening dragged on.
One of the noblemen stood and spoke to the group, "Liam has been quiet for nearly a fortnight. I believe he realizes that he is running out of options and would be open to negotiations." The room filled with grumbles and murmurs.
"He isn't running out of options, he's only plotting his next move!" one of the knights argued.
"But we can't be certain of that. He hasn't given notice of any plan to attack." another argued.
"He doesn't abide by any standards! He won't give notice!"
Gerrod of Clarendon stood, "I sent men to spy on Liam's camp. They returned a few days ago and informed me that Liam is building siege weapons." The room hushed at this revelation. "This can only mean one thing: Liam is preparing to lay siege to one of the fortified manors or castles." He motioned to the men, "I daresay it might even be one of our own." The room erupted with noise again.
"How in the world does he have the means to build siege machines?" one man asked.
"He's thieved and stolen so much - it's no wonder he's got the means and the supplies!" another cried out.
"He must be stopped!" Voices began to rise in agreement. "He must be stopped now!"
Gerrod smiled and stood again, holding his hands up to urge quiet. "We are not dealing with someone who will listen to negotiations. We are dealing with a brutal, heartless killer." Gerrod's eyes scanned the crowd. "I propose that we move immediately to destroy Liam and his army." A murmur of approval sounded. "His forces are stationed near the village of Alsbury, but Liam himself is camped in the town of Yardon. I say we catch him off-guard by burning both towns to the ground. While he scrambles to gather his men, we will easily overwhelm him with our forces. Once that is done, we can divvy up the lands amongst us."
"Now wait just a moment!" The cry of outrage came from Anton, who stood abruptly. "Why must the villages be destroyed and conquered? The people whom Liam overran are waiting to have their homes and communities returned to them. If we burn everything and take the lands for our own, they'll have nothing left!"
"They'll be left with their lives, Anton!" Gerrod scowled at the Lord of Weldon. "I should think they'd be grateful for that!" The room seemed to hush at the tense discord between the two noble warriors.
Anton gave Gerrod a fierce look, "Burning the towns and taking them isn't necessary, Gerrod. The people of these villages and towns came to us to help them defeat Liam. We can do that without completely destroying their homes and land. We have the power to drive Liam and his men away from this region. Anything in excess of that is uncalled for. We must not be as heartless as Liam!"
"You want everything to be neat and tidy and fair, Anton. Well war isn't neat or tidy, and it isn't fair!" Gerrod's voice grew louder. "It's brutal and destructive, and there are prices to pay! Liam and his men must not be merely driven out of the region; they must be annihilated! And the people can repay us by giving us their land!" More loud murmuring ensued and the room was filled with commotion.
Finally, one of the older noblemen stood. He was a revered knight who was admired and respected by many. "Comrades, comrades," he called out, waiting for the voices to quiet. "I do not wish for this meeting to end at an impasse. We must make a decision, and my suggestion is this: we make war against Liam, immediately. We move our forces quickly to the outlying areas of both Alsbury and Yardon, arriving under the cover of darkness." The murmuring began again. "But-" the man's loud voice quieted everyone again. "We will not burn the towns nor take them over. Instead, we will lie in wait and make our charge just before daybreak, before Liam and his men have awakened. Once they've been destroyed, we shall leave." The men began to chatter. "All those in favor, raise your hand and say 'aye'!"
The room erupted loudly with waving hands and the united sound of agreement. The elder nobleman nodded at the group. "It's settled then. We shall leave Weldon tomorrow. In three days, we will gather in Falsworth Valley, just to the east of Alsbury. The following morn, long before the sun rises, we will move into position and attack."
It was well into the evening hours when Anton at last climbed the steep stone stairway that led to her chambers. She was exhausted after the grueling meeting with the allies, and she was quite ready to retire for the night. She'd thought about looking in on Gwynneth but figured that the young Lady was surely fast asleep. I'll wake her in the morning and ask her to have breakfast with me before bidding our visitors farewell. Anton thought as she reached the door to her chambers. When she opened the door and saw the candlelit form of her wife lying on her bed, Anton's weary face broke into an easy smile. She closed the chamber door and approached the figure, sitting carefully on the edge of the bed and reaching out to caress a soft, downy cheek.
Gwynneth flinched, the subtle flutter of something against her face rousing her from her restless sleep. She opened her eyes, fear nearly taking hold of her before she had a chance to focus on the face she saw before her. Once she recognized the easy smile and glittering eyes, she relaxed. ...Anton. Gwynneth smiled sleepily at her husband.
"Hello my love." Anton leaned down and kissed Gwynneth lightly. "Was your bed not satisfactory this night?" he teased gently.
Gwynneth slowly sat up. "No, I just...I hadn't seen you all day." She shrugged sheepishly. "I was feeling...uneasy. I missed you tremendously."
Anton smiled again. "And I missed you." She leaned forward and placed a firmer kiss on Gwynneth's lips, humming happily when the blonde returned the overture. They broke apart and Anton cupped her wife's face. "Why were you feeling uneasy?"
The Lady sighed. "All these knights and warriors and unsavory characters lurking about the castle. They wreak havoc on my nerves. And the murmuring talk of war and fighting...it worries me. I'm frightened, husband."
Anton scooted closer to her wife, laying a hand on her thigh. "Well, yes, it is worrisome but what worries me more is that the villages around us are being overwhelmed one by one. Soon Liam and his army will attack entire kingdoms. I daresay that he may even target Weldon. He must be stopped." Anton explained, her voice remaining gentle and calm.
"So it's true then. You are going off to battle."
The Marquess felt a pang of guilt as her wife pinned her with an unwavering gaze. The blue-green eyes, once so clear and bright were now dulled with worry, the delicate skin beneath them lined with dark shadows. "Yes. I am." The words came out in a shameful whisper.
Gwynneth felt her heart constrict and her eyes filled with tears. She closed them tight and hung her head so that her husband couldn't see.
Anton hated that she'd put such a worry in her wife's fragile heart. "Gwynneth, my dear, please try to understand." She reached out and touched a finger to her wife's trembling chin, urging her to look at her. The tear-streaked face and reddened eyes finally looked back at her. "The people of these villages are desperate. They have turned to us for help; we cannot turn our backs on them."
Gwynneth reached up and urgently clasped Anton's hand, "Yes, but why must you go, husband? Why have these people and these men come to seek your help? Weldon has but a small fighting force - why can't these embattled villages seek some other knights and warriors to help them?"
Anton sighed and gentled her voice further, "I am part of the allied league, my love. What causes they take up, I take up. What battles they fight, I must also fight."
Gwynneth shook her head, letting it fall into her hands. "I don't understand. I don't understand why you want to go and be a part of this!"
"Gwynneth," Anton began softly, reaching out and pulling the little blonde closer, "I must go...I am the leader of my men and my people. What kind of a leader doesn't stand up and fight alongside his brothers in battle? What would it say about me if I didn't go?"
"It would say that you wanted to stay alive!" Gwynneth's eyes flashed as she jerked her head up. "It would say that your family is more important than a bunch of peasants who don't know how to fend for themselves!" Her voice was suddenly louder and emphatic.
Anton frowned and looked at her wife, trying to put herself in Gwynneth's shoes and understand why she was so upset. It was unlike the Lady to not give a damn about others, and Anton wondered if there was something more bothering her. Then again, it was perfectly natural to worry about someone who was going off to war. Anton supposed that all she could do was reassure the younger woman as much as possible. "You needn't worry about me. In addition to my own forces, there will be many allied knights and warriors fighting with me. And, Gerrod and his numerous knights will be fighting alongside us as well. Surely you know how skilled your brother's forces are? They're among the most cunning and powerful in the realm."
Looking down again, Gwynneth grimaced and closed her eyes, feeling her heart lurch at the mention of her brother. "Yes...I know." she rasped, her voice strained.
Anton noticed the odd response. "That doesn't ease your worry, I take it?"
"No, it does not."
The Marquess touched a finger to her wife's chin and again lifted it up. "Why not?"
"Gerrod's forces are his men, not your own. They shall act on his interests first."
"Yes, and Gerrod's interests are my own."
Gwynneth shook her head. "No. Gerrod is...he's...different, somehow. He's changed. I don't trust him."
Anton frowned and gave her a puzzled look. "What do you mean?"
Gwynneth sighed and blinked her tears away, "I don't know." She scolded herself for arousing Anton's suspicions. "I just wish that you would send Gerrod away, and all the men. Please. Send them all away!"
"Dearest, why do you speak this way? Gerrod is an ally and a trusted friend. We've known each other for years."
Gwynneth's eyes flashed, "He is no friend to you, Anton! He does not respect you! You must not trust him! He...he..." She leaned forward, pressing her face against her husband's shoulder as she began to cry anew, unable to verbalize anything more.
Anton was momentarily dismayed at the blonde's frantic words. Recalling how her wife had once told her that she and Gerrod did not get along, the Marquess figured that the younger woman was just experiencing a fit of panic. She tenderly stroked her silky hair and kissed her head. "Gwynneth," she whispered the words softly, "why do you say these things? Tell me what is wrong?"
Gwynneth just shook her head, her eyes gushing more hot tears. She struggled to speak without breaking down. "Please, Anton. Please don't go! I implore you! If you go...I fear you will never come back!"
"Gwyn, Gwyn," Anton soothed. "You're speaking nonsense my love. I shall always come home to you, my beautiful, precious wife." He kissed her fretting mouth but she shook her head again.
"Please, just...just send everyone away from here."
"They're all leaving the morrow, love, as am I."
"What?" the Marchioness gasped in horror and reached up to clutch at her husband's shirt. "So soon?"
"Yes." Anton covered Gwynneth's hands with her own. "But I promise you, I will be gone only a fortnight. Perhaps more if the battle proves difficult, but I don't think it will. At any rate, I will return hale and hearty, and we will laugh at your fears. You'll see."
"I hope we will laugh," Gwynneth whispered, weakly letting her hands fall away.
Anton sighed, wondering how to assuage the younger woman's fears. She placed her hands on Gwynneth's shoulders. "I know you don't understand, and I'm afraid I cannot explain the many reasons why I must be involved and why I must go. You shall just have to trust me, Gwynneth."
Teary jade eyes looked up. "I do trust you, Anton. I just...I dislike having secrets and mysteries between us." The statement was meant for the both of them.
Anton closed her eyes, feeling guilty. She brushed her knuckles along a fair cheek. "I know this, and if I could, I would tell you everything, my beloved. Every detail...my whole life story...one day I truly hope that I am able to lay everything at your feet. Please believe that." she whispered, a pained look crossing her features.
"I do believe you." They stared longingly at each other until Gwynneth finally worked up the nerve to speak her heart. "I...I love you, Anton."
The words struck Anton with such impact, she drew in a sharp breath. Her eyes began to burn with tears as she smiled unsteadily and reached out to place a hand behind Gwynneth's neck, pulling her close. "Oh Gwyn...I love you too."
Their lips met with a sudden urgency, the turmoil of the situation mixing with their jumbled feelings of love, longing and fear. Gwynneth wrapped both her arms around her husband's neck, pulling him to her and pouring all her desperation into the consuming kiss. She held Anton close and tight, thinking that if she couldn't make him listen to her words of plea, then perhaps she could make him feel them. Feeling bold, Gwynneth slowly pushed her husband backwards until he lay down on the bed. Maneuvering herself so that she straddled his hips, the younger woman leaned down and took her husband's mouth with a combined tenderness and ferocity that left him quaking, but with no doubt about the depths of her love and devotion.
Anton's hips automatically began to move beneath the warmth of her wife's womanhood. As they continued to kiss, she brought her hands down and slid them beneath the layers of the blonde's bunched-up dress, stroking the soft skin of Gwynneth's thighs and squeezing her buttocks. The Marchioness moaned quietly and rocked her hips, the motion grinding their sensitive parts together and mutually inflaming their desire.
Unable to take any more, Anton finally slipped a hand between Gwynneth's inner thighs and touched her intimately. Her fingers slid slowly through the wetness that'd gathered there, spreading the slick moisture that seeped out of the petite body and pressing against the center of her pleasure. Gwynneth threw her head back and moaned, her hands seeking purchase on Anton's shirt as they grasped and kneaded it. Anton watched the expressions that flitted across her wife's face as she continued to stroke her, enjoying the view but wanting to share in more of the physical ecstasy too.
Gwynneth's eyes opened to mere slits as she looked down at her husband, his fingers continuing to milk her as his hips worked in tandem beneath her. She struggled to keep her eyelids open as she watched him watching her, the lustful glint in his eyes lighting a fire deep inside her. She quickly decided that she wanted more than this. She wanted to be even closer, as close as possible. She wanted to feel her husband fill her completely. She wanted that precious connection that only an intimate coupling can bring, for she knew not when she might feel it again. She wanted her husband's passion, and she wanted to have the evidence of his love deep within her.
Not even stopping to consider whether or not Anton would approve, Gwynneth leaned down and kissed her husband deeply, brashly. "Anton," she rasped against his lips, "I want...I-I want..." She struggled to speak the words aloud. She had never dared to say such a thing before. "I want you...inside me."
Anton had been thinking the very same thing, and she smiled against her wife's mouth. "Oh yes, my love...yes."
Eagerly lifting herself and parting her legs wider, Gwynneth gave her husband room to maneuver. Moving quickly, Anton worked beneath the cover of Gwynneth's dress to free her phallus. Grasping it with one hand and her wife's hip with another, Anton slowly, carefully guided the shaft into the welcoming warmth. Gwynneth let out a loud, breathy gasp when her husband filled her, unable to keep quiet from the feeling, and her fingers dug into Anton's shirt and the flesh of his abdomen as her eyes fluttered shut.
Anton began to work her hips slowly, forcing herself to be easy and gentle. Her hands grasped and squeezed Gwynneth's hips and soft buttocks, and her eyes closed as her body began to surge with arousal. "Mm, Gwyn," she groaned, her breathing growing ragged as she pushed in and out carefully. "My wife...my beautiful, beautiful wife."
Gwynneth's heart surged at her husband's words, and she began to feel perspiration erupt along her forehead as their bodies slid together and blissfully merged with each other again and again. She was amazed by the nearly forgotten sensations and her own shocking need of them. "God," she breathed aloud, "Anton...oh, God." Her eyes began to fill with tears as her heart thudded and she squirmed and rocked against him, the waves of pleasure slowly beginning to rise and ripple through her body. She moved her hips and ground herself against her husband a little harder, meeting his every stroke with hedonistic delight. Leaning down again, Gwynneth placed her hands beside his shoulders and dipped her head to kiss him deeply, eliciting a deep groan of approval. Traveling her lips down her husband's face and throat, Gwynneth kissed and nipped at the soft skin there, gently biting at the cords that stood out in his neck and then laving her tongue over the bites. She had never felt this way before, so hungry, so brazenly bawdy and lascivious. She craved her husband and wanted to touch and smell and taste every bit of him. She wanted Anton's climax. She wanted to feel his body quake and hear his voice break as he called out her name. She needed, somehow, to reassure herself that her vital young lover was alive and well and that he would stay that way.
Anton was nearly going mad. Gwynneth was out of control and bold with desire, and though it surprised her, she was enjoying it immensely. The younger woman's fiery passion had quickly pushed Anton to the edge, but she didn't want it to be over just yet. She had missed sharing such intimacy with Gwynneth. She'd missed the beauty and perfection that was her wife's body, and she'd missed the intense pleasure and emotional connection their lovemaking had always brought about. Anton felt the firm bulge of Gwynneth's belly pressing against her stomach, and she thought about the child for a moment, hoping that their actions weren't hurting it. Her thoughts on that vanished when Gwynneth lifted her head up, her face so near but her eyes closed as she panted softly and continued to move her hips.
Feeling herself teetering on the very edge of climax, Anton tugged her wife's hips a bit harder. "Gwynneth," she whispered urgently, "open your eyes," she begged. "I want to see your eyes, my love."
Gwynneth forced her eyes open and they locked with her husband's. She felt her thighs begin to tremble as a hot feeling began to burn within her chest. Anton reached up and pulled her head down, crushing their mouths together. She could feel his body shuddering as he arched up against her, clutching her hips and gasping against her mouth as he called out her name. Anton's explosive release instantly triggered her own, and Gwynneth dug her fingers into his shoulders as the waves began crashing over her. "Oh, God!" she shouted as she shattered and broke apart, then promptly collapsed onto Anton's chest.
They both rested for a long time, still and quiet. Gwynneth kept her face nestled against Anton's neck, her body still thrumming and her eyes still leaking hot tears.
Anton felt the wetness against her skin and wrapped her arms around her wife, holding her and reaching up to stroke her damp hair.
They lay like that for a moment until Gwynneth finally raised her head, "I'm not too heavy, am I?" she whispered.
Anton grinned, "Not at all."
Gwynneth smiled back but began to ease her body off her husband anyway. As she positioned herself on her back, Anton quickly tucked the phallus back inside her pants and turned on her side so that she could lean over her wife. Seeking out her lover's hands, Anton wove their fingers together and dipped her head, placing gentle kisses all over the fair face. "Gwynneth," she whispered against the parted lips as she kissed her, "my beloved."
The young Lady sighed with content as her husband continued to trail tender kisses along her jaw and throat. Although her body was relaxed and enjoying the lazy afterglow of their love, Gwynneth's mind slowly began to churn, and ugly thoughts started to surface. Thoughts about war and the fact that Anton would be leaving her and going off to battle. She recalled her terrible dream and her heart clenched with fear. She bit down on her lower lip, feeling the sting of tears in her eyes once more.
Anton could sense the change in her wife's demeanor and she pulled back to look into the watery blue-green eyes. "What is it?" Gwynneth shook her head, seemingly embarrassed, but Anton knew what it was. Her leaving to go off to war was a dark cloud that would hang over Gwynneth and haunt her the entire time she was gone. Anton wished she could do something to prevent that, but she couldn't. She leaned down and kissed Gwynneth again, trying to communicate to her that she understood her, and her fears. All Anton could do was promise to come home as quickly as possible, and comfort her wife while she was here. Comfort her, and love her.
The desire to see and feel her wife's body - all of her body, in its fully naked glory - had been gnawing at the young Lord for quite some time. Now that she knew she was going off to battle - a battle that, while not major, would still be dangerous - she felt the urge grip her even more thoroughly, as though it were an absolutely necessity rather than just a pleasurable indulgence.
Anton released Gwynneth's hands and pulled away from her. She propped herself up on one hand and reached out with the other to finger the scooped neckline of her wife's dress. Her hand trailed across Gwynneth's chest and up to a shoulder, where she gently tugged the material until it slid off, exposing pale, glorious skin.
Gwynneth could see the hooded look in her husband's eyes and realized what he intended. Her heart began to pound in panic at the thought of Anton seeing her body exposed. She felt hideous enough while clothed; showing her bulging body in the nude would be even worse. She squirmed uncomfortably and felt her skin flush violently as her husband peeled the dress off her other shoulder, his eyes watching her carefully.
Sensing Gwynneth's unease, Anton paused her actions and leaned down to kiss her wife. "Let me see you, my love...please?" she whispered. "I want to look upon you in your purest form, unobstructed and unencumbered by anything."
The young Lady hesitated, not wanting to doff her clothing, but not wanting to deny her husband his desire either. What she'd rather see is the pure form of her husband. She bit her lip, "Might I see you as well, husband?"
Anton felt a flash of panic. She'd been dreading this situation since they married nearly half a year ago. She knew the time would come when Gwynneth's curiosities would pique and the younger woman would begin to wonder what lay beneath her husband's clothes. She had to put her off somehow without hurting her feelings or arousing her suspicions. Anton leaned down to kiss succulent lips again, "For now, allow me to just enjoy your loveliness, hmm?" she smiled and kissed her wife again.
Gwynneth was disappointed but made herself smile in return. She had dearly hoped to get closer to her husband by way of flesh, but since he wished only to see her, she would acquiesce to his desires and put off her own until later.
It took a few moments to untie laces and remove all the confusing layers, but when at last Gwynneth wriggled free of her cumbersome dress, she was literally laid bare before Anton's searching gaze.
Hovering over her wife, the Marquess took a long moment to run her eyes all over and behold the lovely vision of flesh and perfection spread before her. She knew that Gwynneth was gorgeous, but now, seeing her displayed like this, the reality of her fair, delicate beauty was breathtaking. "So lovely...my god, so lovely," Anton whispered reverently.
Anton stayed at Gwynneth's side while reaching a hand out and letting her fingers glide up one arm and down the other. They criss-crossed over her silky-smooth chest and trailed down and over each plump, rosy-nippled breast. So fascinated and absorbed was she with the display of flesh that she was actually shocked when she came upon Gwynneth's swollen abdomen. Anton stopped abruptly, removing her hand as she stared incredulously at the wide, bulging protrusion. She was well aware of Gwynneth's impending motherhood, of course, but seeing the belly fully exposed, looking larger than ever, truly drove home the reality that there was a tiny human being growing and thriving inside her wife's body. Anton's throat constricted at the sense of amazement and humility that suddenly filled her, and she blinked against the emotion that unexpectedly made her eyes flood with moisture.
Gwynneth felt her husband's halted movements and watched as a shocked expression overtook his features. She immediately feared that her earlier worries were rearing their ugly heads again. When Anton had avoided her before, for such a long time, she was sure it was because her body had grown so distorted and hideous. She felt certain that her husband was disgusted by her condition. She squeezed her eyes shut and was just preparing to apologize when she felt one of Anton's hands come to rest ever so gently on her swollen stomach. The hand began to move very slowly, touching and caressing with such reverence and tenderness. Confused by the action, Gwynneth opened her eyes and ventured a look at her husband. What she saw filled her with such emotion, she thought she would burst. Anton had a look of pure astonishment on his face, and his blue eyes were filled with wonderment and awe as he brought his other hand down to join in the gentle exploration.
Anton glanced up and caught Gwynneth's tear-filled gaze, and the realization that this baby was, indeed, a beautiful and wonderful thing came crashing down upon her.
The two of them smiled at each other and Gwynneth reached down to place her hands on top of Anton's, wanting to share in the emotional magnitude of the moment and feeling the need to pass the blissful feelings on to her unborn child - as much as she hated to think it, she knew that there was a very real, very horrible possibility that Anton might never get the chance to see the child nor hold it in his arms. It was a bittersweet moment.
Gwynneth's eyes were so blurred with tears that she felt rather than saw Anton move back up and lean down to kiss her soundly. She brought her hands up and wove her fingers through her husband's dark hair, pulling him down further and holding him tight as they exchanged deep, emotion-filled kisses.
"I love you Gwynneth," Anton whispered emphatically against her wife's lips, "...oh how I love you so."
Tears began to trickle down Gwynneth's face and her voice broke as she whispered back, "I love you, Anton...so very much." Wrapping her arms around his neck, she kissed him with every ounce of passion she had left.
After a few moments they parted and Anton lay down beside Gwynneth, pulling a blanket over her naked body and encouraging her to snuggle against her. For a long time they lay together in silence, Anton gently stroking her fingers through her wife's silky blonde hair and Gwynneth faintly caressing her husband's stomach through his shirt.
Neither of them wanted to think about the next day, but as they began to drift toward sleep, Gwynneth considered how wonderful it had been to make love, and proclaim love, with her husband. She felt the burden of her marital troubles at last lift from her shoulders, but just as one fear had been allayed and put to rest, another seemed to take its place and loom even larger.
...To Be Continued in Part 10...
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