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As You Wish
~~ SEVEN ~~
Six months have passed:
The King heard the rattle of carriage wheels coming up into the keep. He felt a wash of happiness fall over him and hurried out to meet it. It was his son-in-law’s carriage, and he was very much looking forward to seeing his daughters. After Rachel and Robert had married the previous spring, Allison had moved in with them so Rachel could help care for her sister, whose pregnancy was a difficult one, and so he hadn’t seen his girls in far too long. Especially Rachel.
The King had planned a large celebration for the visit, as Lord Wynton’s estate was more than four day’s ride, and that was in a fast carriage. He waited patiently, watching as the carriage was unloaded, as well as the passenger. Passenger?
Furious, the King approached the carriage as Robert was helped down. “Where are my daughters?” he asked, looking inside the luxurious vehicle, but seeing nothing but Robert’s walking stick.
“I’m sorry, Your Majesty. Allison grew ill so Rachel decided to stay back and take care of her.”
The excuse was growing cold. This was the third visit where Rachel had not appeared. The imposing man took a step towards Robert. “The last I saw my daughter was the summer festival, and now we’re nearing the fall harvest! Where is she?”
Wynton was feeling the sweat between his shoulder blades, but his expression remained neutral. “Your Majesty, Allison has had a difficult pregnancy, and now that she’s so close to the end, she has to be stayed with at all times.”
The King saw the logic, but something still felt wrong. “You have servants for that, Wynton. Or why did you not allow this visit to go the other way?” He placed a large, intimidating hand on the new prince’s shoulder. “Does that not make sense?” he asked quietly, warning in his voice.
Wynton nodded. “My apologies, my King. It did not occur to me.” His smile was large and laced with fear. “Next time, assured.”
“Indeed.” The King slapped the man on the back – perhaps a little harder than necessary – in friendly invite. “Come. Let us talk of things in our two kingdoms.”
Allison looked down at her huge belly, grimacing in disgust. She pushed herself out of bed, her legs and knees complaining from the immense amount of weight she’d gained from the pregnancy.
“Mildred!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. She needed her chamber pot dumped, as the smell was making her nauseous and irritable.
As if materializing out of nowhere, the young chamber maid appeared. “Yes, M’lady?” she asked, always ready to serve her most demanding mistress.
“I think you’ve work to do,” Allison growled, waddling back to the giant bed. Mildred helped her climb the few stairs to the mattress and lay down. “Don’t touch me,” she hissed, wrenching her arm free of the girl’s helpful grasp.
Nonplussed, Mildred put a fluttering hand to her throat to get herself together and hurried off to do the lady’s bidding. She hated working for Allison; the youngest daughter of the King was difficult, demanding and could be very cruel. She felt sorry for the child she carried within her womb.
After she finished her duties in Allison’s rooms, Mildred hurried on down the hall, intending to go start helping with the wash when she stopped, turning to look at the closed door at the end of the hall, furthest away from the stairs. The door was always closed, and it was said that the lady of the house resided in there. Mildred had never seen her, but had heard the other servants whispering about her, and had heard words such as: herbs, sedation and prisoner.
She heard movement and soft talking behind the double doors, which she’d never heard before. Curious, she made her way to it and pressed an ear to the painted oak. There was only one voice, and it was too muffled for Mildred to plainly hear what was being said. She did know, however, that it did not sound like the voice of the cow Nancy. Nancy was a mean old bird, and the only servant allowed to assist Lady Wynton.
Mildred tried to scurry away when footfalls got closer to the door, then one was pulled open, and quickly shut. To Mildred’s surprise the woman was one she recognized as a washer woman named Tamara.
“What were you doing, girl?” Tamara asked, looking around to make sure no one had seen her leaving the room.
“N-nothing, mum,” the young girl stammered. Just taking care of my duties.”
“You do that.” Tamara leaned in close to the frightened chamber maid. “You need not tell a living soul you saw me exiting these rooms. Understood?”
Mildred nodded vigorously then scurried off down the hall.
Tamara glanced back at the double doors, sickened by what she’d just seen, but only taking the chance because the Lord Wynton was out of town, and Allison was now too large to move but a few feet. “M’lady,” she whispered in dismay, “what have they done to you?”
With a heavy heart and even heavier sigh, she hurried off back to complete her duties.
The breeze had been chilly all night, but now that the windows had been closed, the room was beginning to warm. The massive high-bed at the center of the room was silent, it’s occupant well and truly asleep. Much like the princess of fairytale, she awaited her prince to come and take her from the evil spell which had been cast upon her.
The table next to the bed was laden with vials and jars of various herbs and potions, all mixed and meant to keep Rachel in the land of the unconscious. This day, her gown had been changed and was fresh, as well as her golden hair had been brushed to a shine. Tamara had seen to it that her lady’s person was in good order, as the witch Nancy did not.
Rachel moaned softly in her seemingly endless sleep, her head moving, face instinctually moving to the light coming from the opened drapes, much like a flower to the nearest light source. A soft sigh and she fell back into deep, peaceful slumber.
~~ EIGHT ~~
Timothy Ashton scurried down the long corridors, heading to the practice arena where he knew his lord would be working his skills. The sounds of blades meeting met his ears before he felt the coolness of the day on his face. Waiting a moment, he watched the King practice swordplay with his men, wanting to make sure the King wasn’t in a vulnerable position to be interrupted. It wouldn’t do for him to get hurt.
The King spotted his man. “Timothy,” he said, blocking a sweeping shot. “What news?”
“He is here, Your Majesty,” Timothy said, bowing his head low and dramatic.
All fighting immediately stopped, the King wiping his sweaty forehead with the sleeve of his tunic as he followed his man into the castle proper and towards his study where the requested guest awaited him.
A tall blonde man stood at one corner of the room, an arm tucked casually behind his back as he looked at a painting. His stance and air was casual as though he had all the time in the world.
“Good ‘morrow,” the King said as he entered, resting his sword along his desk.
The man turned, resting hard brown eyes upon the ruler. “Good ‘morrow, Your Majesty.”
The King studied him for a moment, noting his build was wiry but strong. He had a body that was built for speed, perhaps in the art of swimming. “Please, sit.”
Timothy scurried in, taking the King’s sword to be cleaned and polished, closing the door after him. He made sure to post a guard outside the office door, as the Mercenary was known as a dangerous man. Countless stories were told of his exploits among the bards and minstrels.
The King studied his guest for a long moment, knowing all the same stories that Timothy Ashton had heard. “I thank you for coming here today,” he began. The Mercenary was a wanted man by many, but the King planned to utilize his skills, anyway. “What I tell you here today is of great importance to not only me as a father, but me as the lawful regent in this land. I need not bring a civil war to my people.”
The blonde man nodded his understanding, but said nothing. He filed away every word to relay back later.
“You need not know all the details, but know that I believe ill has fallen upon my eldest daughter. I wish for you to get her back for me.”
“Has she been kidnapped, Your Majesty?” the Mercenary asked, a brow raised in adventurous pursuits.
The King sighed, glancing out the window of his study to the gray, storm-heavy sky beyond. “In a manner of speaking, I suppose.” He sighed, getting to his feet for his customary pacing. “She married last spring, and I’ve yet to see her but twice in that time. I’m told stories by her husband and my other daughter – whom my eldest is looking after – of Rachel’s sickness or weakness.” He turned to look at the Mercenary, missing the look of knowing surprise on the blonde man’s face at the mention of Rachel’s name. “I feel something is amiss, and I wish for you to see what that is.”
The Mercenary cleared his throat, bowing his head for a moment of respect for what he was about to say. “Pardon me, Your Majesty, but you are the King. Why do you not just go and get her yourself?”
“You have no idea how often that very question enters my mind.” He sat again, planning large hands on the top of his desk. “But I cannot wage a war against Lord Wynton, which is exactly what would happen. He is Rachel’s lawful husband, and therefore has the right to do as he pleases. That is the King in me speaking. The father in me says, no. This is not right and something must be done.” He met the hooded brown gaze. “Do you understand?”
The Mercenary smiled with a curt nod. “Very well, Your Majesty. I’ve already told your man f my price – half to be paid this day, and the rest when the request is complete.”
The King didn’t take his eyes off the other man as he unlocked his massive desk and pulled out a bag of gold coin. He tossed it across the desk, where it landed with a loud SHUNK. The man grabbed the bag and opened it, bringing out a gold piece and biting it between his teeth. Satisfied at the tooth mark left, he closed the bag once more and rose to his feet.
“I’ll need a few details before I can begin. After that, there will be no contact between us until completion. You must not send your men after me, nor send any word. My job is my own, and my time is my own. Your reward for your patience will be the safe return of your daughter. Agreed?”
The King nodded, rising to his feet and taking the man’s offered gesture of deal sealed. Hands shook, the blonde man turned and left the study.
The King knew there was no going back now. “Pray god I have done right by you, Rachel,” he said softly.
The large black horse’s hooves pounded the earth as the blonde man made his way into the forest. He bypassed the traps that had been set, as well as the twists and turns until finally he neared the cave.
Slowing, he dismounted and led the horse inside the dark confines and over to where a make-shift stable had been built. Another horse was already housed there and happily chomping on a bag of oats.
His heavy boots clicked on the stone floor, the living area of the cave having fresh straw strewn across it to help keep in heat. The blonde man grabbed the torch that was always left lit around the dark corridor, which was out of sight of anyone who might stumble into the cave.
The torchlight illuminated all the carvings and painting that had been done on the cave walls. Many were from former occupants, some from the man and his companion. It was a matter of marking territory in a way that was difficult to miss.
The long corridor gave way to the natural room that had been carved out from millions of years of rushing water through the caves, though long gone, had left an indelible mark. The room had been fashioned into a living quarters, replete with tapestries on top of the straw to promote warmth and style, as well as beautiful, ornate furnishings. A castle without a king in sight.
The blonde man extinguished the torch once he entered the room, as many torches were lit and placed sporadically to light the interior. Sitting at the lavishly carved desk, quill in hand, was his partner in business and friend.
“Good ‘morrow, my friend,” he said, sauntering over to the table and tossing the bag filled with gold onto it’s surface. The dark head of his friend lifted.
“I see you bode well,” he said, returning to his scribing. It was an important missive that had to go out before nightfall of the following day. Since he was the only of the two who knew how to read and write, all written matters fell to him.
“Aye, that I did.” The blonde man fell into a chair that matched the one his friend occupied. “Deal is set, the details in here,” he tapped the side of his head with a finger.
“Excellent.” Task complete, the man rolled up his parchment and tied it with a length of ribbon. The stick of wax at his right hand was held over the flame of a candle until it began to melt. He applied glob to the scroll then finished with the seal of the Mercenary. Setting everything aside, he gave his full attention to his friend.
“I must say, your reputation as the Mercenary certainly does precede you.” He grinned. “I thought the ferret Ashton might wet himself as I disarmed myself.”
The man sitting across from him smiled. “Yes, it is well known that he is a weasel, indeed.” He sat back in his chair, lacing his fingers behind his head. “So, who does the King wish for me to dispatch for him?”
“That is the interesting part, my friend. He doesn’t wish you to kill anyone at all. He wishes you to rescue, instead.”
Dark brows drew. “Rescue?”
“Aye. Lady Rachel from her tyrannical husband, Lord Wynton.” He watched his friend closely, looking for any small sign at the news. True to form, his friend held full calm and composure.
“I see. That is interesting, indeed. Have you the details of the situation?”
The two men discussed what the King had said, and formulated a plan.
“Are you sure you wish to be the one?” the blonde man asked. “If you’re recognized, it’s likely your head.”
The darker man smiled, appreciative of his friend’s concern. “If we’re caught, Flagley, it’s my head, anyway. I am the Mercenary, after all. And that’s simply if I’m recognized as nothing more.”
“Yes, but considering the situation, the history-“
The darker man leaned forward, looking his friend in the eye. “When the King hired you in my stead he hired a lion. Retribution will be swift, and the King shall get what he paid for. Nothing less, and certainly nothing more.”
Flagley nodded, knowing there was nothing he could say. Once the Mercenary made up his mind, naught could change it.
~~ NINE ~~
Lord Wynton walked through the house, dropping his cloak and gloves as he went. His manservant followed behind, picking up the trail. The nobleman, tired from a long journey of business, headed up to the rooms of Allison. Her chambermaid met him outside, a chamber pot in her hands. She gave him a quick curtsey and then rushed off to empty her burden.
“Woman’s got the face of a rat,” he muttered, pushing through the door and into the outer room of the spacious quarters. He could hear the soft music of a violin playing, and rolled his eyes. He was not in the mood for the arts, as Allison so adored.
“Be gone,” he demanded to the young musician, who quickly packed up his instrument and made haste in leaving. Robert’s temper was infamous in his lands. The nobleman walked over to the bed where Allison was sitting up, her ample body resting against dozens of pillows.
“You’re returned,” she said, a smile touching her lips. Of course she knew he would be returning this night, as she’d had her hair done fresh and a fresh dress put on.
“Aye, that I have.” He leaned down and gave her a deep, satisfying kiss. “When are you going to have this thing so I can lay with you?” he asked against her lips.
“Well, it’s because you laid with me in the first place that I carry this thing.”
Robert smiled then stepped away from the bed. “Any trouble while I was away?”
“Nothing of note. All was quiet,” she said, nodding her head towards where the room at the end of the hall would be.
“Good. I’ve got to do something, however. Your father is getting more and more impatient. I fear he might decide to show up upon our doorstep soon.”
Allison readjusted herself, trying to get as comfortable as she could. Not an easy task at nine months pregnant. “Yes, he will. ‘Tis a valid concern, Robert. Perhaps we should bring her out for a bit. Let her laze in the gardens and get some sun, then invite father here.”
Robert looked at her, always loving the way her brain worked. That was in part what had drawn him to her in the first place. Among other fine attributes. “that is an idea of brilliance, my love,” he said, giving her another kiss. “We shall do that. Put him off until the ‘accident’ can finish this for good.”
Allison’s smile was predatory. She took hold of Robert’s shirt laces and pulled him towards her. “Stay with me tonight, my love,” she whispered.
He looked down, taking a good look at her enormously swollen belly and quickly looked away. “I am tired, love. I need rest.” He kissed her quickly on the forehead. “I shall see you on the morrow.”
Allison watched him leave, sorrow her only company for the night.
Tamara sighed in her sleep, trying to get comfortable on the cot she now slept in, in her rooms near the kitchen. She was used to fine clothing and accommodations in being the lady-in-waiting for Rachel for so many years. Now, entering the Wynton household, that position had been pulled from her, sending her down the ranks of servitude to a mere washer woman.
Up before dawn every morning to help ready the household’s breakfasts, then spend the rest of the day gathering linens and clothing for washing and mending. It was back-breaking work, and at more than forty-seven years of age, it was taking a toll on Tamara’s body and health.
In her sleep, she grabbed at the limited night covering, trying to keep herself warm as the autumn nights cooled to make way for the coming of winter. She was rudely awakened when a hand was placed over her mouth, and she was roughly dragged from her bed. She tried to scream, but it came out as nothing more than a muffled moan behind the iron-like grip of her assailant.
Pulled to her feet, she was held from behind, the body behind her tall and solid “Where does the Lady Rachel sleep?” a voice whispered in her ear.
Immediately Tamara tried to fight the man, willing to die to protect her mistress, even if she wasn’t Rachel’s lady anymore. The grip over her mouth and waist tightened.
“Stop struggling ole woman and tell me where she sleeps or I slit your belly right here.”
Tamara realized that the hand around her waist was holding a sharp dagger against her nightdress. Tamara squeezed her eyes shut, trying to decide what to do.
The man was growing impatient. “You try my patience, old woman. I am here on business from the princess’ father. Where does she lay?”
Tamara’s eyes widened at the words, and somehow in her heart they felt right. She immediately stopped her struggles, and was rewarded with the hand being removed from her mouth, even as she was still held tightly.
“She sleeps in the bedroom at the end of the hall on the second floor,” she whispered, her voice high-pitched from fright and surprise.
“Thank you.” The man released her and moved to leave but Tamara stopped him with a pleading hand to his arm.
“She is not well,” she said, her eyes begging for the dark figure to understand. The man before her was dressed completely in black, along with a black mask made of material that covered the upper portion of his face and crown, tying at the nape of his neck, much like a large black kerchief with holes cut out for his eyes. His mouth and downward was visible.
The man said nothing at her words, but did not pull away, either. Tamara felt this may mean a chance for her.
“She needs help, sir,” she continued, her hand not releasing his arm, the coolness of his leather bracer under her fingers.
“And I suppose you wish to provide such assistance/” he asked, a crooked smile lifting the corner of his mouth.
Tamara nodded vigorously. “Aye. I was her lady for her entire life at the King’s castle sir.”
“Yet you sleep in the quarters of a cook,” the man said, doubt and sarcasm lacing his words.
Tamara looked down, shame coloring her features. “When we came here I was put down, sir. Wynton wanted his own lady to care for Lady Rachel.”
“I see,” he said, pulling his arm away. “I have no time to wait for you, old woman. If you can keep up, you may come. If you tarry, it is your own skin.” With those words, he was gone.
Tamara felt her heart begin to pound in her chest as she quickly changed into more proper attire to leave her bedroom. When she emerged, the man was nowhere to be seen, so she hurried up the back staircase to the second floor in search of him.
The Mercenary made his way to the second floor, his booted steps soundless on the thick rugs, which he stuck to. The house was dark, so he had to be ultra careful not to bump into anything or make any wrong turns. He followed the old woman’s directions, eventually finding the bedroom at the end of the hall, it’s double doors looming up ahead.
He was shocked to find the doors locked, and cursed silently as he reached into a black leather pouch attacked to his sword belt, bringing out two slivers of metal. Glancing over his shoulder, he made sure he hadn’t been seen or heard, then went to work breaking into the lock. Within moments he had access to the room and pushed the door open just enough to squeeze his body into, and shutting it behind him.
The outer room was beautifully appointed with lavish furnishings and thick rugs and wall hangings. The doors to the bedroom chamber were also closed, and again to his surprise, locked. Within moments he had sidestepped the second obstacle, and let himself into the sleeping area. This room was much the same as the outer room, and certainly fit for a princess.
The Mercenary saw Rachel’s thin form lying at the center of the bed, unmoving and uncovered, save for a thin sleeping gown. The windows had been left open, the lacy curtains blowing inward with the night breezes. The figure in the bed was shivering violently, her lips near blue.
Anger bubbled up inside him. Someone wouldn’t treat an animal as this woman was being treated. If he didn’t know better, he might suspect someone was trying to kill the young bride. One thing was sure: all that the King had told Flagley was dead on. He had a right to be concerned and suspicious.
Tamara hurried into the rooms in time to see the man in black lifting the frail form of her lady off the immense mattress, and carefully cradling her in gentle arms. She watched him for a moment, studying his movements and what little of his face she could see. There seemed to be a softening of his features, a gentleness with Rachel that Tamara had seen once before, long ago.
“We must make haste,” a voice said from behind Tamara, nearly scaring her out of her skin. A tall figure stood behind her, his blonde hair drawn back in a tight at his neck. He was dressed similar to the other man, though without the mask.
The Mercenary glanced over at his friend, seeing Tamara standing with him. “Aye. Take the old woman with you to the horses. I’ll follow on Apollo.”
The blonde man nodded then took Tamara by the arm, and without a word nearly ran out of the rooms, his steps stealthy and soft despite his speed. The Mercenary followed quickly, though a bit slower with the bundle in his arms, and trying not to bash her head into anything.
He glanced down at Rachel’s face as they passed a stand of windows, the incoming moonlight painting her features in hues of blue and gray. Her face was so pale, as were her lips, which were full and gently pressed together. Her hair was long, falling in a golden wave over the Mercenary’s arm, and nearly reaching his hip.
Before leaving the bedchamber, he’d covered her with a woolen cloak he’d found, which seemed to help somewhat with the shivering, but not nearly enough to be safe. Her skin was so cold and pale, it gave the impression of the finest Greek statues.
Bursting out into the cold night, the Mercenary sidestepped the body of the fallen guards that littered the entrance into the house, and the yard beyond. In the distance a whinny could be heard, and the Mercenary knew it was his faithful mount, Apollo.
Tamara was already mounted up and ready to go, but Flagley stayed to help get Lady Rachel settled while the Mercenary mounted his steed.
“We must go,” Flagley said, once his dark companion was settled in his saddle, the princess’ limp form carefully secured in front of him.
The Mercenary nodded. “Aye. Yah!” he called to his horse, Apollo speeding off into the night, quickly followed by Tamara and then Flagley.
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