|Honour of the Heart
Author: Deedee Elle PM
When Aline, Lady of Leavingham is betrayed into enemy hands the last thing she expects or wants is to develop feelings for the man tasked with guarding her. Nor he for her...Rated: Fiction M - English - Romance/Adventure - Chapters: 29 - Words: 88,611 - Reviews: 324 - Favs: 62 - Follows: 59 - Updated: 04-16-12 - Published: 05-16-11 - id: 2915060
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
In her mind she was on horseback, racing through a forest, her mount powerful beneath her, a deep, laughing voice close behind. She closed her eyes and felt the intoxicating beat of a drum, skirts whirling, feet skipping, strong arms around her waist pulling her close. She lifted her eyes to meet the gaze of the stranger, lips parting expectantly…
A sharp tug of the hairbrush pulled Aline back to reality, the face of the dancer melting away in the sunlight before she could glimpse it. She drummed her fingers on the table impatiently, shifting in her seat as the maid moved around, brushing and twisting her hair.
"Please sit still, my lady," Susanne chided her, "I know you are eager to leave, but if you wish your hair to stay put while you ride you have to let me finish."
The Lady of Leavingham had been eagerly anticipating this morning for days, and was determined her planned ride would go ahead. The weather was turning colder and she knew such a chance might not come again. For one, rare, day she had no engagements, and was anxious to escape the castle before something arose to stop her. Accordingly she forced herself to sit immobile, regretting that she had asked for the intricately twisted braids. Susanne, her maid since childhood, would not let Aline leave the chamber before she was flawlessly presented, however long that might take.
Her eyes closed again as the soft, familiar hands deftly carried out their task. But the thoughts that filled her imagination were no longer of heart-racing diversions or unseen lovers. Her mind turned inescapably to what the future might hold now the last days of summer were drawing in.
The Lord of Leavingham, Aline's grandfather, seemed weaker and of shorter temper every day. He could no longer hide that he needed a stick to help him walk, and Aline could no longer deny the fact that her carefree days were numbered. When he died it would fall on Aline's shoulders to rule Leavingham. More crucially, she would become High Lord of the five provinces that made up the country. 'High Lady' she supposed the title would be, though she would be the first woman to ever take the role. The thought of the responsibilities this would entail made her long for the days of her childhood and more determined to clutch every last chance for freedom.
Aline had been only fourteen when her much loved father and brother had succumbed to a winter influenza leaving no male to carry on the line. For a time it had seemed that Leavingham would be forced to surrender the title to one of the other provinces. Then against all convention, the grieving High Lord had named his granddaughter as heir, with all the obligations the role demanded.
Aline had vowed to the memory of her family to carry out the role as well as any man, and since that day six years ago her life had changed beyond recognition. As well as the skills expected of a young noblewoman she studied diplomacy, law and languages. She discovered her intellect was as sharp as any of her fellow pupils: the sons of the councillors and nobles of Leavingham. She had been on horseback since almost before she could walk, but insisted on learning archery and fencing as well. The lessons were some of the happiest times of her life, until the boys she learned with became young men. Aline then found her childhood friends reluctant to engage her in combat any longer, their stammered excuses and flushed cheeks telltale signs of the sort of contact they really craved.
A discreet cough from Susanne brought Aline back to the present.
"There my lady, all done. Now try to keep it so for at least half the day please," Susanne instructed with mock severity but patting Aline's cheek affectionately.
Aline regarded herself in the polished bronze mirror, pleased with what she saw. A sleeveless dress of fine green linen set off her pale blonde hair and grey eyes perfectly. The bodice with black laces at the front emphasised the curves of her figure, and the full sleeves of her under-tunic rippled as she moved. The outfit was becoming, yet sufficiently modest that even her grandfather would be able to find no fault should he see her. She added to this outfit her favourite necklace; a smooth amethyst set into a distinctive filigree of silver, the legacy of the mother who had followed her husband to the grave four years after his death.
Aline dismissed the older woman with a smile and walked from her bedroom into the outer chamber. She paused to pick up her riding cloak and gloves as she passed through the door, briefly wondering whether to take her dagger before rejecting the thought. She slipped through the doorway and down the winding staircase that led to the smaller of the castle's two halls, hoping to avoid meeting anyone who might delay her. She almost made it as far as the outer door before a voice hailed her.
"Lady Aline, a word if I may!"
She paused and fixing a smile on her face turned to face Quinter, Leavingham's chamberlain and her grandfather's oldest friend. He brandished a roll of parchment in his hand and Aline's heart sank as she guessed his purpose. Becoming ruler would inevitably mean marriage and producing an heir. The approach of her twenty-first birthday had seen a rise in the number of envoys from the other provinces.
"We have had another request for the honour of your hand," he said, a smile crossing his face. "This time from the Conte of Mullan on behalf of his son."
Aline let out an audible sigh. "Surely he cannot be serious. The visconte is twelve years old! What does my grandfather say?" she asked.
"He says what he always says, my lady. He wishes you to give the match your consideration but he wants you to consider your happiness too. I think in this case he would view the difference in your ages an acceptable barrier to the match."
Aline looked into the kindly eyes of her old friend. She knew that her grandfather would not force her into a union with a man she hated. The day was coming closer however that she would be expected to make an advantageous match for Leavingham.
"I will consider it, I promise, only not right now. Today is too fine for serious thoughts." She took Quinter by the hands and gave him a quick peck on the cheek, receiving an indulgent chuckle in return.
Aline walked out into the clear morning sunshine to the stableyard where she stopped in surprise. Instead of Robert her usual groom, a younger man stood holding the reins of the two horses that stamped their feet and tossed their heads impatiently.
After a moment of thought Aline recalled his name was Dickon, a groom who had arrived only a few months previously at the castle. He was a good horseman and younger by a number of years than the other grooms, most of whom frustratingly still treated her as a child. Dark brown eyes, curling sandy hair and the complexion of one who spent all day outside made him an appealing prospect for company, yet Aline felt a pang of indecision at seeing this unexpected companion.
Robert had been her escort for as long as she remembered; had been the person who lifted her onto her first childhood pony and was well trusted to accompany Aline unchaperoned. Though her grandfather held strong views on Aline leaving the castle without a full retinue he allowed her this one indulgence. She knew that riding alone in the company of this young man was highly improper and she hesitated, debating whether to ask for a maid to accompany them. But none wasvery skilled at riding and she so wanted an exciting day...
"Greetings, My Lady," Dickon said, bowing low.
"Where is Robert?" Aline asked him.
Dickon grinned in mock embarrassment. He admitted that he had 'persuaded' Robert to let him take his place instead of stable duties by means of a game of dice. Aline laughed, instinctively liking this man and decided that just this once she would not send back for a chaperone. Dickon helped her onto the grey mare, smiling up at her with an appraising look in his warm brown eyes as he put his hand on her back to steady her. He mounted his own horse and side-by-side they trotted out through the wide streets of the city to the main gate, talking idly of their plans for the day.
Aline and Dickon were both accomplished riders, well matched and fearless. They rode far across the moorland that made up much of the province, daring each other onto greater speeds. When they came upon a small village towards the middle of the morning both agreed it was time to stop for respite. They bought ale from the small tavern and drank the welcome liquid. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve Dickon stood up.
"If you would care to wait here and finish your drink, my lady I will buy lunch in the market."
Aline agreed and watched him depart, a swagger in his step. She sat idly in the sunshine, enjoying the chance to sit among people without ceremony for once, and to see children playing and lovers walking arm in arm through the stalls.
Seeing such happiness the conversation with Quinter tugged at her memory. At her age, when most of her friends were married and producing child after child she knew she was lucky to still have such independence. It could not last forever of course. Sooner or later she would have to accept one of the offers of marriage, but she did not relish the thought of a cold, political match.
As was the case for all high-born women, her husband would expect to be the first man to bed her. In moments of honesty she admitted to herself that, though this was a daunting prospect, she was not without curiosity. The few chaste romances she had experienced growing up had never gone beyond stolen kisses and resulted in no more than a short-lived broken heart. Sometimes, watching other couples in the court laughing and dancing she ached so deeply inside for someone to seize her up in an embrace that the sensation was almost painful.
She shook her head, chiding herself for allowing such melancholy thoughts to overshadow the lovely day. Leaving the bench she walked between the brightly covered stalls, nibbling at a handful of cobnuts and looking for Dickon. She finally spotted him as he appeared from behind a hut, his saddlebag slung carelessly over his shoulder.
More hours and a morning of races passed before the riders stopped for lunch. The purple heather of the moorland began to thin and clusters of trees appeared, providing some welcome shade from the sun. Aline was surprised at how far they had ridden and how late it had become. She had not been keeping track of the direction, leaving it up to Dickon to choose the route.
Now as she dismounted she felt a vague stirring of unease at being so far from the castle with only one groom for security. She wondered if she would be able to escape the inevitable lecture if her grandfather found out and determined to broach the matter of secrecy with Dickon
She tethered the horses to a tree, affectionately scratching them behind the ears while Dickon unloaded a pannier and laid out their picnic. He handed her a goblet of cool wine. She drained it thirstily and he refilled it, a broad smile lighting up his face.
The day was unexpectedly warm given that the year was well into autumn so they removed their cloaks and gloves and sat lazily against the trunk of a tree, sipping the wine and picking at bread and cheese. Dickon was easy company, though the talk never moved much beyond horses and the amusing snippets of gossip he told her about the goings-on of the castle staff.
Dickon refilled Aline's goblet once more. She lay back in the warm heather and stared at the sky, sleepily enjoying the chance to leave behind her duties and lessons. Circling airily above was a hawk on the watch for some small prey. Aline brightened as she remembered her falconry master had a new clutch of eggs he had promised to show her.
Recalling this she decided that they really should be starting back towards Leavingham. She reached for the goblet at her side but found her arm sluggish and her hand refusing to grip precisely. Surprised at having drunk more than she had intended she attempted to pull herself up onto her elbows. Her body felt heavier than usual, and alarmed she realised her head was starting to swim.
She realised with discomfiture that Dickon was staring at her, his eyes narrow. She wondered with shame how to tell him she was feeling tipsy, but before she could make her excuses he spoke.
"It didn't taste strange in the slightest did it, My Lady?" he said.
"What do you mean, Dickon?" she asked, his words sounding like a riddle.
"The wine. It tasted no different from usual but you've been drugged, My Lady. By me, I'm afraid. I put Rock Poppy juice in your wine. Not the most sophisticated of drugs but highly effective. As you have already discovered it paralyses the drinker very quickly and soon you will be unconscious," he said.
"What do..?" Aline tried to make sense of what the man was saying but was finding it hard to concentrate. Her tongue felt thick and her words sounded slurred. "What have… you… done?"
"I just told you, I've drugged you," Dickon explained matter-of-factly. "I have been employed by the Duke of Roxholm. He has paid me very well to hand you over to him as a hostage. In a short while a number of his guards will be here to take you to the Citadel of Roxholm."
He sat back on his heels, his face expressionless.
"I will of course manfully try to defend you from their 'surprise' attack but sadly I will be no match. I will be found with some minor but alarming looking injuries, wandering near to Leavingham Keep, dazed and with a ransom letter some time this evening."
Comprehension dawned and with growing alarm Aline tried again to sit up.
"…filthy traitor…hang…for…this!" she tried to snarl, though her voice barely broke the silence surrounding them.
Dickon's response was a smirk. "Ah, my lady, so fierce! Do you think I would tell you any this if I thought there was a chance that might happen? I have no doubt you would try your hardest, which is why I shall be far away overseas by the time your fool of a grandfather has negotiated your return."
He lay down beside Aline and spoke softly in her ear, "I'm sorry we have to part like this, I will always think of you with a certain fondness. But as attractive as you are, the price I was paid was even more so."
He started to run his fingers through Aline's hair, pulling the combs out and unwinding the twists. Aline realised with horror that she could barely lift her arms to push him away. She gave a scream that in her head sounded loud and piercing, but which came out as half gasp-half sob.
"Still," Dickon continued as though he had heard nothing, "as this will be the last time we meet we may as well say our goodbyes thoroughly. I imagine we have some time before my associates arrive. I've been longing to do this since I first saw you."
With that he began with one hand to pull at the laces of Aline's bodice, moving closer so that his wine-scented breath on her face sent waves of panic through her.
At his touch a feeling of overwhelming terror overcame Aline. She tried again to scream but before she could cry out his mouth was on hers, lips crushing her own and his tongue forcing them apart. Dickon pressed his body closer against her and, able to think of only one form of protest, Aline bit down hard onto his lip. The man pulled away with a cry of surprise, a trickle of blood leaking from his mouth. He grabbed a handful of her hair and jerked her head sharply to the side then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
Aline cried out at the pain which shot through her head but again found that her voice was no more than a mewl. She glared at him her face full of hate but her eyes pleading with him to stop.
"Lady Aline," Dickon chided her, "your modesty is commendable but you know you find me desirable. I've seen it in your eyes when you look at me so don't be so reticent. We must take our pleasure while we can."
Dickon moved swiftly so he was astride her, one knee forcing its way between Aline's legs, the weight of his body crushing the breath from her chest. His mouth worked roughly down from her neck to her breasts while his arms pinned her own to the ground. By now Aline's body felt leaden and the blood was pounding in her ears. She realised she could no more fight his assault than she could prevent the wind from blowing. Her mind revolted at the prospect of what was about to take place. Her only hope that the unconsciousness he had assured her of would come quickly and save her from experiencing it.
She made one last futile effort to throw her assailant off but the effort sent her head reeling. Her vision began to blur. From what seemed like a great distance she heard the sound of hooves followed by raised voices. A black clad figure loomed above them, a dagger glinting at Dickon's neck.
"Stop what you're doing or I'll slit your worthless throat," a harsh voice said before the speaker dragged the groom to his feet.
The figures spun like puppets before Aline's heavy eyes; the groom in his rough brown jerkin and a dark haired man, the severity of his black leather broken only by a slash of wine coloured cloth at his neck. She had only a brief glimpse of her rescuer, piercing blue eyes flashing in her direction, before merciful blackness closed over her and she was lost to the world.