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As You Wish
~~ TEN ~~
Terrence Winston made his way out of the house and towards the stables to feed the horses before the master of the house awoke and wanted his mount for the day. The morning air was chill, his breath white puffs in the torchlight of the pre-dawn hours.
He tugged his cloak a little tighter around himself when the toe of his boot caught on something, nearly sending him sprawling on his face. The torch flew out of his hand and snuffed out in the dew of the grass.
“Bugger!” he exclaims, now in total darkness and very cold. He feels around, trying to see both what had tripped him, and where his torch had gone. His hand rested upon something very cold, which he realized was a hand. It was hard, frozen. Further tactile touch revealed the uniform tunic of a guard, then another, and another and finally a third. Terrance cried out in surprised terror and jumped to his feet, running blindly back towards the house.
Before the sun had risen above the horizon, a flurry of panicked activity spread through the Wynton house like fire.
“How did this happen?” Robert yelled, knocking his guard’s captain to the floor with a powerful close-fisted backhand.
The man brought a hand up, stopping the stream of blood that spilled from his split lip. “I know not, M’lord,” he said, struggling to his feet. “My night guard captain was slain. I know not what his log would have been.”
Robert grabbed the man by the front of his uniform tunic. “You’d best find out.” He shoved him away, disgusted and furious. Who could have attacked and killed his men? Why? What was the purpose? He was about to get his answer.
Mildred ran into the room, her skirts held high so as not to trip. She been sent on a mission by Nancy, who didn’t want to face Robert Wynton at the news. The young chambermaid mad her timid way to her master, half expecting to lose her head at the news she had.
“What is it!?” Lord Wynton screamed when he heard the knock at his study door. “Come in, damn you!”
Mildred swallowed nervously then pushed her way into the large, opulent space. “M’lord?” she said, her voice weak and trembling. The nobleman looked up at her, warning in his gaze. “I’ve been sent to give you a message by the servant Nancy.”
‘Get on with it,” Robert growled between clinched teeth. He had matters to look into, not mess with a foolish girl.
“Lady Rachel is missing, M’lord.”
The Mercenary sipped the hot tea he’d been given, absently as he looked out a second-story window. The rains were coming down in earnest now, as they’d been threatening to do all day. Though it had been cold and uncomfortable, he’d insisted they keep traveling. He knew there needed to be as much distance between them and Lord Robert Wynton before nightfall. And so it was, nightfall.
“You need to rest.”
He turned to see Agatha, Flagley’s mother, standing just beside and behind him. Her concerned brown eyes, so much like her son’s, focused on him. The Mercenary nodded. “Aye. That I do.” He sighed, finishing off his tea. “We must cover a lot of ground tomorrow to get the princess to the cave.”
“Why not rest another day, yet? She is in bad health. You must know that she has been poisoned for some time. Her skin and hair tell a great tale of her abuse and neglect.”
The Mercenary looked at the old woman, carefully keeping his face expressionless. He couldn’t allow himself to be moved by such news. Not anymore. “Will she live?” he asked, his voice calm and even.
Agatha nodded. “Aye. But she will need help. You were wise to bring along her lady. I believe she will be of great assistance to you and to the princess.”
He nodded. “Good.” He let out a deep sigh. He was indeed tired, but mostly in his heart, which he hadn’t felt in a great many months. As he stared out upon the night again he made up his mind. “We leave on the morrow.” He smiled down at the woman who had saved his life, and whose son had become his greatest ally and truest friend. “I don’t wish to put you in danger, Agatha,” he said gently. “Your kindness cannot be repaid through violence, and you’ve no idea how violent and evil the man who chases us can be. Look what he did to his wife. I will not chance your safety.”
Agatha smiled, her heart soaring at the kind and gentle nature of the man before her. She had grown close to him during his recovery. She reached up and with gentle, maternal fingers touched the scar on his cheek that would forever mar the perfection of his face. “This is personal for you, and I understand that. But do not allow hatred and vengeance get in the way of what is right, and what is right is for that girl to be allowed to heal and be free.”
“And she will. That is what I’ve been paid to do.” The Mercenary’s voice grew a hard edge, his will to squash any emotions or feeling of the situation apparent. “I will do what is right for her.”
“I know you will.” Agatha patted him on the arm, then left him alone.
The Mercenary continued his vigil at the window for another hour before deciding to go to bed. On his way to the room he’d used for many months, he stopped at a closed door, knowing that the princess lay just beyond. Reaching out a hand, he grabbed the doorknob and slowly, quietly turned it. The door opened easily and made no noise as it was pushed open.
Once inside, he made his way across the moonlit room, easily able to see the frail figure that lay in the small bed near the wall. He had to be careful, as Tamara was asleep on a cot nearby. Rachel had yet to come to consciousness that day, and the Mercenary knew both Agatha and Tamara were worried about her. Throughout the evening they’d taken turns watching over her and giving her herbs to try and counter the effects of whatever had been given to her.
Rachel’s face was so thin and pale, her cheeks sunken. It was a shock, considering the beautiful, vibrant woman she’d once been. As he looked down at her, a gentleness washed over him that he hadn’t felt in a very long time. Too long. Reaching out a hand, he brushed her cheek with the tips of callused fingers, always amazed at the softness he found there. So soft. So warm. What he wouldn’t do to see those green eyes open and look at him.
As though the Heavens had answered his wish, Rachel’s eyes fluttered open, unfocused and glazed, but open. She looked at him wordlessly, trying to focus her gaze. The Mercenary was unable to look away, once again finding himself getting lost in the depths of the rich color.
“She is awake?” Tamara said softly from beside him.
He was angry that his attention had been so drawn to Rachel that he hadn’t even noticed Tamara’s person. “Aye,” he said gruffly, turning to leave the room. “Make sure she is well. We leave on the morrow.”
Tamara watched him leave, a knowing smile curving her lips.
The ground was soggy and wet, which made travel slow. The Mercenary was getting frustrated at their pace, but nothing could be done. They were having to stop about once an hour to clean the horse’s hooves, as they were getting caked with thick, heavy clay-mud, which slowed the progress even more.
They were on a steady walk now, unable to go much faster than a trot. A run was out of the question, even on more stable, solid ground as it would be far too easy for one of the horses to lose it’s footing. Someone could get hurt, or a horse could go lame, and that would be disastrous.
“Bloody rains,” the Mercenary growled, looking up into the skies above. The clouds were fat and pregnant with rains yet to come. It had been raining off and on all morning and into the afternoon. It was showing no signs of stopping, especially by the looks of those clouds.
“Think we should stop?” Flagley asked, also eyeing the heavens. He met his friend’s gaze. “Me thinks this won’t let up, but will get worse.”
The Mercenary sighed. “Aye. I agree.” The clicked his tongue, urging his mount to head off into the trees that surrounded them, Flagley and Tamara taking the lead. The blonde man knew the area well, and knew of a cave the four could stay in for the night. It would be cold and somewhat damp, but at least it would get them out of the coming storm.
Rachel felt listless and like her world was very surreal. For the first time in she wasn’t sure how long, she was conscious. She knew Tamara was with her, as she’d seen her, but had no idea who else was. Her vision was fuzzy at times, her ears ringing. She felt weak and deeply fatigued, which was amusing, considering she’d spent the past half of the year asleep.
She felt the warmth and strength of the strange man behind her in the saddle, but somehow she wasn’t frightened of him. She felt comforted on some level. As the horse’s gentle stride rocked her, she allowed herself to lean back into him and closed her eyes.
The Mercenary looked down at his bundle, able to feel her body relax against him. Rachel had been awake off and on, which made him feel better. It seemed as though she were dozing again, and had decided to use him as a living chair-back. It warmed his heart but chilled his blood, all at the same time. He returned his focus to the path ahead, not allowing her nearness to affect him, just as he hadn’t allowed himself to be affected by anything in nearly a year. He couldn’t afford to, as that was what had gotten him in the situation he was in, in the first place.
The cave Flagley led them to was much, much smaller than the cave fortress they had, but it would definitely work. The two men dismounted their horses, then each helped the lady down that had been riding with them.
The Mercenary grabbed Rachel at the waist and easily lifted her out of the saddle, her frame thin and very light. She rested her hands on his shoulders as she was lowered to the ground, her legs too weak to hold her up. He reached down and swept her into her arms, carrying her into the cave, which Flagley had already entered. He and Tamara were working to light torches that he had left there months before.
“Set her over here,” Tamara said, guiding the man in black to the makeshift bed she’d made with her cloak.
Rachel was set down with care, her weakened state leaving her helpless. Blue eyes looked out from the mask that covered so much of his face. Rachel stared up at him, noticing the scar that peeked out from underneath the fabric. She reached up a finger and lightly touched it, feeling the indentation against her skin.
“What happened to you?” she whispered, her throat tight and raw from lack of use.
The Mercenary gently took her hand in his, taking it from his skin. “Fight, M’lady,” he said softly.
She looked at him, her brows drawing just a moment before her eyes fluttered shut again. The man in black continued to stare down at her, trying to restore his equilibrium, which had been shaken terribly.
He stood and walked away, letting Tamara take care of her charge as the man in black went to help his friend start a fire and gather food.
Night had well and truly fallen when Flagley went to look for his friend. He found him sitting outside the cave, acting as the watchman. Truth be told, Flagley knew he simply didn’t wish to be inside.
“How goes it?” he asked, climbing up onto the rock top of the cave, adjusting his sword to sit more comfortably at his hip.
The man in black glanced at him before looking back into the sky, which had cleared somewhat after a nasty storm. “All’s well.”
Flagley nodded, glad to hear it. After a moment, he said, “She’s beautiful. Just like you said.”
The Mercenary looked at his friend again. “Do not,” was all he said.
Flagley smiled, grabbing a dagger from his belt to pick his nail with. “You have handled well, my friend. You are not in an easy position.”
The man in black sighed, shaking his head. “No. I am not.” He reached up and tugged his mask off, shaggy black hair falling free. He rubbed the skin of his face with a callused hand, glad to be free of his protection for a moment. “This could mean my head, John.” He sighed and looked at his friend. “Should she or the old woman decide to turn me in. I’m finished. In case that happens I want you to ride out of here as fast as you can. No need for you to suffer my past.”
“You think the King will not pardon you? After all, ‘twas you who saved his daughter, Conley.”
He sighed and help up the covering that had been his mask for near a year. “Nay. ‘Twas the Mercenary who saved his daughter, not a lowly, condemned stable boy.”
John Flagley studied his friend for a long moment, then shook his head, looking out into the dark woods. “Where do we go from here?”
“I’ll ride out at dawn, see if we’ve been followed. See if I can find out anything. You stay here and watch the women.”
John looked at him with surprised. “Wantin’ to lose your head, are you? You know you cannot, Conley. The plan stays as it always does, no matter how much you might wish to escape that frail girl in there. You’re staying where your head might stay attached a bit longer.”
Conley sighed, knowing full well Flagley was right. All the same, he hated and resented it. “You know, the last night before I was condemned to lose my head to the axe man, I had all but given up on the thought of life. I had been accused of such a crime that was suitable for a nasty death, yet I had committed it not.”
John listened to his friend, having heard this story many times before. He knew Conley needed to talk, the source of his deepest pain so close by. “Aye,” he said, encouraging the other man to continue.
“When she left my cell, damning me for all eternity, I believed her. I wanted that for myself, too. My face hurt, my body hurt, my very soul hurt.” He sighed, closing his eyes as he tried to block out the pain that had risen once more.
“What made you steal that hairpin, Conley?” John asked softly. “What made you want to live?”
“She sent food.” Conley chuckled softly, shaking his head in disbelief. “She sent food and wine to dull my senses. She even sent medicines to help with the pain.”
“Why did she do that?”
Conley shook his head. “I know not. But in that moment, when Tamara bent down to grab that napkin, I knew it was then or never at all. Maybe, just maybe I’d find freedom somehow. Maybe Rachel would forgive me for both crimes real and false.” He looked at his friend. “I am a fool, John.”
John shook his head. “Nay. You loved her.”
Conley nodded, looking down at the material he held in his hands. “That I did.”
“Well,” John smiled, slapping his friend’s leg. “Good thing the guards feared Wynton so much. When they saw you’d gone they knew ‘twould be their head, and not yours.”
“Aye.” Conley smiled, a bit of brutish pride filling him. “Shame that prisoner had to die in my stead.”
“Well, they had to have some body,” John said, grinning wide.
“Yes. I’m not entirely sure if the story was ever fully believed by anyone – that I had been killed during an attempt at escaping. But,” he said with a sigh, “here I am. Sitting atop a cave with the Lady Rachel hiding within.” Both men laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation.
“Aye, that you are. Come.” John jumped down from their perch. “Let us get rest.”
~~ ELEVEN ~~
A scream was torn from the upstairs bedroom, followed by several gasps for breath and a low, murmuring voice, trying to comfort the soon-to-be mother. Allison’s eyes were squeezed tightly shut as her body convulsed and spasmed, desperately trying to push the child out.
“Another nice push, luv,” cooed the midwife, who beginning to grow concerned. The lady had been pushing for hours, her hair sweat-soaked to her skin, as was her sleeping gown. There was also a great deal of blood. Far too much blood. “Luv,” the old woman said, grunting as she stood to look into Allison’s eyes. “The child is not wanting to come.”
The young princess looked at the midwife with tired, pleading eyes. “Why not?”
The midwife shook her head. “I know not. I must remove her.”
Without hesitation, Allison nodded. “Do what you must.” She just wished desperately that Robert were with her. If only he truly loved her.
“What word?” Lord Wynton asked, slowing his horse as his guard captain approached.
“It’s being said that rat, Mercenary has been seen.” He waited for his head to be lopped off, but was immensely relieved when all he got was a glare.
“That bastard,” Wynton growled. “Should have known.” He turned back to his man. “Take as many guards as you need. You find out all that you can, and then you hunt him like the dog he is. If I have not his head, I’ll have yours. Understood?”
“Aye!” The captain turned his mount around and galloped off to do his master’s bidding.
Robert sat astride his mount for a long moment, thinking. He had to find Rachel, and he had to find her fast. If he did not, it could mean war from the King. Not only that, his plan would be all for naught. With the laws governing the land, if a married Rachel were to die, the throne would go to her living sibling. With Rachel out of the picture, Robert would be free to marry Allison, who would then be next in line for the throne. Robert’s grin was dark as it spread across his face.
“And with Allison gone…”
He kicked his horse into action, racing back towards his estate.
The midwife was frantic as she tried to stem the blood flow. The chambermaid had the crying child in arms, cleaning her off, but now the mother was in grave danger.
“Take the child out of here!” she yelled to Mildred, who scurried from the room, the newborn’s cries in her wake. “Stay with me, child,” the old woman said, tossing yet another bloodied cloth aside. “Stay with me.”
Rachel sat against the stone of the cave, warmed by the fire that danced not far. She was sipping a cup of herbal tea, a specialty of Tamara’s. She remembered it from the time she was a child.
“I’ve missed your special tea, Tamara,” she said, a small bit of color returning to her skin. She was still far too thin and frail, but life was coming back to reclaim the once ravenous princess.
“I’ve missed serving it to you, M’lady,” the lady-in-waiting said, more than happy for her former occupation to be restored. They shared a fond smile. “How are you feeling?”
“Stronger. My head is still somewhat fuzzy at times, but much, much stronger.”
Both women turned to see the Mercenary standing at the mouth of the cave, a stack of wood piled in his arms. Mask firmly in place, he entered the retreat and gently lay the wood in a pile against the wall. He walked out of the cave again, only to return a moment later holding two slain rabbits by their ears.
“M’lady, if you wouldn’t mind?” he said, holding them out to Tamara, who immediately got to her feet and took the animals to skin and clean them for cooking. He looked to Rachel, who was sipping her tea and staring into the flames. A jolt of nerves went through him. She was obviously faring much better, which was a relief, but at the same time, having her awake and alert made him uneasy.
“What do you mean to do with me?” the princess asked quietly after a moment.
Conley squatted down near the fire, also staring into the flames. “I mean to keep you alive until I can return you to your father. He is who bade me to fetch you.”
“Why?” Rachel felt as though she’d been living a horrible nightmare for such a long time. She felt she didn’t know herself very well anymore, nor what had become of her.
“He was worried, M’lady. Your husband,” he couldn’t help but spit the words out, bitterness lacing his voice, “felt the need to keep you drugged and near death. The good King had not seen his eldest in some time, and grew concerned.”
Rachel studied the man in the black mask for a long moment. Her gaze traveled over his form, taking in the black, leather breeches, flowing black shirt with laces at the collar. His mask finished the vision of black. Blue eyes stared back at her from it’s dark depths. “Then I am in your debt,” she said at length, bowing her head to him.
Conley smirked. “’Tis your father who is in my debt.” He pushed to his feet, uncomfortable with the nearness to the lady. “Eat well this morn, M’lady. We will likely be on the road by dark.”
“By dark?” Rachel asked, tea forgotten.
“I’ve found travel by night makes it far more difficult for those who chase me to follow, M’lady.” He gave her a bow, then walked out of the cave with sure, confident strides.
Rachel watched him go, trying to figure out who this dark man was. She sensed danger about him, and felt to cross him was not wise. All the same, his arrogance nipped at her, bringing a bit of a fire alive in her once more.
Tamara nearly had the two rabbits skinned when the man in black emerged from the mouth of the cave, his stride far quicker than need be. The lady-in-waiting chuckled. “Little lady scare you off, lad?” she asked, unable to help teasing the man.
Conley stopped and glanced over at the woman. He wanted to be angry at her for calling him on his behavior, but he couldn’t find it within himself to do so. Instead, he decided to join her. A decision for which he might regret later.
“You’ve done nicely with our breakfast, M’lady,” he said, attempting to steer the conversation away from himself.
Tamara glanced down at the animals, pleased by the Mercenary’s words. “I thank you, M’lord. ‘Tis been awhile since I was made to feel so useful by those who appreciate what I do.” She gave him a small smile. “Not since my days back at the King’s castle.” She paused for a moment, deciding her next words well. “Have you still got my hairpin, then?”
Conley looked at her, his blood freezing in his veins. For a moment he could not speak, but finally found his voice, though it was weak. “M’lady?”
Tamara never missed a beat in her task of preparing the meat for the stew she had in mind. “Worry not, M’lord. I’ve no intention of telling you out.” She smiled at him yet again, giving soft comfort in her words.
Conley was struck, not sure what to do or say. So he had been recognized. He knew in his heart Tamara would never tell the world, but he also knew that her loyalty lay with Lady Rachel. Lady Rachel is one of the people who had condemned him in the first place! He took a steadying breath.
“Lady Rachel need not worry. As soon as I complete this job, I shall be out of her life for good. Just as she wished it.” His voice was quiet, filled with sadness that he could not keep from it.
Tamara stopped her task and turned to him, careful not to touch him with her gore-covered hands. “Conley,” she said softly, “she does not hate you. Far from it. The day she was told you’d been killed…,” her voice trailed off, remembering. “Well, she died that day. Her love for you has not dimmed.”
Conley felt anger build, as he did not want to believe the old woman’s words. “No,” he said, firm. “She condemned me as much as her father and Lord Wynton.” His strength and resolve built with every word. “She made her choices, M’lady.” And with those final words, he made his way off into the woods.
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