|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|
Aline's world fell slowly away. She had watched the end of the fight with fear that turned to elation at Hugh's apparent victory. When the two fighters crumpled to the ground she did not believe her eyes. The blade had plunged into Stephen's chest, not Hugh's so why did he lie there, unmoving? She had seen him wounded, true enough, but had not thought the injuries serious enough to kill him. With a heart close to breaking she waited for him to stand, to proclaim his victory and claim his title, confident that he would at any moment. When he did not move her confusion turned to dread greater than she had ever felt before, constricting her chest so she could barely draw breath. A scream built inside her: a discordant wail of loss she knew would never cease. All that escaped her lips was a low, keening moan.
"He can't be dead!" Aline's voice was strangled by the panic that gripped her throat. She looked from Jack to Quinter, hoping for some reassurance but neither man spoke. Quinter shook his head, his face a white mask of uncertainty. Tears were pouring down Jack's face and Aline almost envied his pain. She felt too numb even to cry.
The roar of the crowd had dwindled to a low murmur. All around the arena men stood in uncertainty and disbelief, the excitement of the fight abruptly curtailed by the unexpected outcome. Aline turned away from the scene. Her head told her there was nothing to be done but her heart ached with such longing to be close to Hugh, to touch him one last time. Without knowing how, she was walking on legs of glass round the edge of the amphitheatre.
"My lady, don't!" Jack's voice echoed in her ears as she forced her way through the crowd. Quinter's cloak caught around her legs. She tore it from her shoulders and hurled it away. Cries filled the air as men recognised her. As if parted by some unseen hand they stepped aside to allow her through. Some fell to their knees, others shouted her name but she ignored them all. She recognised Landen standing with three nobles from Roxholm and ran towards them.
"Open the gate," she ordered as she reached the entrance to the battleground, "let me through!" Their faces registered surprise at seeing her, changing to sorrow at the desperation in her voice.
"High Lady…" Landen stepped towards her with a broad smile on his face. "The duke is dead. You have nothing to fear any longer."
Nothing to fear! Was that what they thought she cared about? How could she ever explain the price of her safety had been far too high.
"Let me through. Now!" she repeated. They sprung to obey, tugging at the great gates. One of the knights, a young bearded man, took hold of her arm gently, speaking words she barely heard. She shook him off with barely a glance in his direction and walked into the battleground.
The two opponents looked like broken dolls thrown down in boredom by a careless child. Stephen lay on his back, his sightless eyes staring at the darkening sky. Hugh's face was turned away, waves of hair a dark curtain hiding him. He had fallen half onto his front, one arm over Stephen's chest, the other trapped between their bodies. Blood dripped from his calf where Stephen's sword had sliced the flesh staining the floor beneath. Aline took three paces towards him then stopped, suddenly conscious of the eyes watching her from all around. In front of all these people she was unable to go on. She bowed her head, wrapping her arms tightly around her chest in an effort to crush the ache from her heart. She felt men brush past her as they moved to examine the bodies. She turned away, ashamed of her weakness and found herself in Quinter's arms.
From behind her she heard a shout of astonishment. "He's alive! Sir Hugh is alive!"
Aline's head jerked up. The knights had turned Hugh onto his back. Now they stepped away and Aline saw the almost imperceptible rise and fall of his chest. She took two faltering steps then stopped again, hardly daring to believe it was true. His head moved slightly and he drew a shuddering breath. With a sound that was half laugh-half sob Aline ran forward, shouting incoherently. She hurled herself to her knees beside Hugh and flung her arms around his neck, burying her head in his chest. Now, at last, her tears could fall.
The blackness dwindled leaving Hugh floating in a world of greys and pain. A confusing assortment of sensations assailed his form; the sword wounds setting his leg and hand on fire and the remainder of his body limp. His chest felt weighted under rocks. Gravel scratched his face where his cheek pressed into the dirt. Despite the discomfort he lacked the strength to lift his head. He decided not to try and instead concentrated on piecing together why he hurt so much. Images of his battle flashed through his mind, ending with the memory of Stephen's death. A sense of relief flooded his aching body as he realised he could finally rest. It would be safe now to let go, to slip into sleep one last time.
Gradually he became aware of voices but to open his eyes was more than he could manage. Hands gripped his shoulders and he was rolled roughly onto his back. He frowned at the intrusion into his tranquillity and his tormentor gave a shout. Someone was alive. Apparently it was him. Hugh wished they would leave him in peace, the pounding in his head made worse by the movement and noise. Then he heard the one voice in the world that could compel him to do anything and he remembered why he needed to live.
Hugh opened his eyes and craned his neck to see Aline stumbling towards him, her skirts tangling about her legs and her face ashen. He groaned as her weight - slight though she was - knocked the breath from him. Somehow he found the strength in his arms to pull her close. Tears rolled down Aline's cheeks. "I saw you fall. I thought you were dead. I thought…" she sobbed as she held him tightly.
"I told you before, my love, I will never leave you," Hugh said, his voice rasping in his throat. He decided then he would never tell her how close he had come to accepting his death. He wondered what the watching men must think to see the High Lady sprawling in the dirt embracing him. Though it caused almost physical pain to let go he withdrew his arms from around her. "Help me to stand, please," he asked Aline.
She took his arm and hauled him upright. Aline's arms were firm around his waist but the chainmail was heavy. His wounded leg gave way and lights of pain behind the eyes momentarily blinded him. He almost fell but by now others had rushed forward to catch him, lifting his arms around their shoulders. Unexpectedly one of them was Jack. He flashed the young man a weary smile, glad to see his former ally alive. Someone produced a flask of beer. It was warm and weak but he drained it as though it was the finest in the land.
The knights of Roxholm had entered the battlefield and they knelt before him.
"My lord," Rayce called. "I promised you my oath and you have it." He lifted his sword high in a salute.
A cheer went up from the watching soldiers. Hugh nodded in satisfaction.
"What do we do now?" Jack asked.
"Now we bury the dead and tend to the injured- myself included," Hugh instructed with a smile.
"What about the duke? The previous duke, I mean," Harlow asked, indicating to where Stephen lay.
For the first time Hugh let his gaze fall on his cousin's body. The enormity of his actions struck Hugh and he wanted to weep. "No, he does not belong here," he replied. "Wrap his body. We'll return it to Roxholm. The people will want a chance to mourn." He wondered how true that would prove to be.
Aline had been joined by her own men and stood at the centre of the square, flanked by Landen and Quinter. She faced the crowd and regarded them with head held high. Her expression was one of confidence but to Hugh's eyes she looked small and fragile. His instinct urged him to go enclose her within his arms but he held back. If there was one thing he was absolutely sure of, it was that the High Lady was stronger than she appeared. He stood by and watched as his countrymen walked to her and knelt.
"Lady Aline, there are no words which can atone for what we allowed," Rayce said. "I offer you my loyalty and my life."
Aline gazed down at the kneeling figure, her face solemn and Hugh found his breath catching in his throat. She touched the man lightly on his shoulder.
"I pardon you for everything," she said. Another cheer went up from the crowd who were now clearly enjoying the drama being played out before them. Men from both sides rushed through the gates and knelt before Aline in an impromptu show of allegiance. Hugh watched as they swore their oaths. When they had finished he too walked towards her. Her eyes brimmed with love, desire and so many emotions he could not yet read, but wanted to spend the rest of his life learning. He wondered what she saw in his expression, hoped she could see the love he felt for her. With difficulty he began to sink to his knee but she stopped him with one flash of her eyes. He hesitated mid bow and met her gaze with the raise of an eyebrow.
"No, Sir Hugh. You need never kneel to me," Aline said. Her voice betrayed the slightest tremor that only one who was very close, or knew her very well would recognise. She took his hands, setting his heart aflame with her touch and drew him to his feet. When he was standing she turned to address the assembled people.
"This man is the rightful Duke of Roxholm. Let no one say otherwise. He has won his title fairly. He is honourable, courageous and loyal." The roars of approval prevented her from continuing. She gave him a shy, private smile before holding up a hand to still the voices. "More than this, I love him and he is the man I choose as my husband." She seemed indifferent the ripple of exclamation that ran through the crowd, the whoop of joy from Jack's direction and the cheers from the knights and turned to Hugh. He knew he was grinning from ear to ear. She leaned close, her face suddenly demure and whispered, "If he will consent…"
Tears of joy pricked Hugh's eyes, no words seemed adequate to express just how fervently he consented. Instead he lifted Aline's hand to his lips then, throwing caution and protocol to the wind, pulled her close. His aching arms enfolded her in a powerful embrace, his mouth finding hers waiting eagerly. Her arms slipped round his neck and she met his kiss passionately. She was finally, truly his.
They remained on the island that night, the journey to either camp being too difficult to risk in the dark. The makeshift camp was ample for surviving the troops and the discovery of unopened wine barrels in the keep's storeroom brightened the mood. Fires were lit and the remaining provisions divided, men were sent to hunt and fish and at last the air was filled with the tempting scent of roasting meat. As the moon rose high the camp came alive. Someone produced a whistle, someone else a makeshift drum and a loud chorus of ribald songs filled the night air.
Aline had excused herself from the company of nobles and sat alone by a small fire staring into the flames, waiting for Hugh to return from having his wounds tended to. Finally he appeared at the edge of the courtyard, his arm around Jack's shoulder for support. His face creased into a broad smile as he spied her and the two men made their way across the courtyard. The young man helped his captain to sit before giving Aline a blushing grin and vanishing into the throng of soldiers.
"Hello," she whispered as Hugh shuffled alongside her. She took his hand and softly moved her thumb in circles over the bandaged wound.
"Your stitching was neater," he observed with a smile. "All armies should have a fine lady to embroider their cuts."
Aline studied his face in the firelight. He looked pale and weary and fresh bruises were forming.
"It hurts to move," he grumbled gently in answer to her unasked question. "I ache in places I did not know it was possible to feel pain."
She burrowed closer to his side and planted a kiss on his bruised jaw. Hugh moaned softly but Aline knew it was not from pain. She repeated the gesture and he turned his head to meet her lips with his own. When he finally drew away his eyes were sad.
"You know I have to leave tomorrow?" he said softly, the regret clear in his voice. "I need to go back to Roxholm. There is so much I have to resolve."
"I know, but you'll come back. And you're not going tonight. We have our whole lives to be together, what do a few weeks matter?"
"Should we build a new castle?" Hugh asked jokingly. "Somewhere between both our lands. Or shall we spend summers by the sea and winters in Leavingham?"
"I like that plan," she told him, visions of years to come with this wonderful man playing through her mind.
With his usual regard for protocol Quinter had supervised the construction of a private area for Aline to sleep in. No mentioned had been made of where Hugh would sleep, but when he began to yawn she waved him off with a smile, not bothering to watch the direction he took. Aline spent time walking among the men, talking with them and listening to their tales but all the while her eyes returned to the spot where her heart pulled her. Finally satisfied that her duty was done she took her leave of the company, slipping between the curtains into her tent. She was unsurprised to discover Hugh was there.
He was snoring gently as he lay asleep, wrapped in cloaks of fur, his face serene in the light of the torches. Aline bent to remove her boots and stockings, then unwound her hair and ran her fingers through it feeling the tension begin to leave her head. She unlaced her dress and let it fall to the floor alongside the pile of Hugh's discarded garments. A coy smile played at her lips as she snuffed the torch then removed her underclothes too. Slipping naked into the bed she pulled the furs round her, pressing close to Hugh's body for warmth.
A shift in his breathing told her Hugh had awakened. His eyes remained shut but his hand reached out and snaked into hers. She smiled, flutters of anticipation curling in her belly. He rolled towards her, wrapping his free arm around her shoulder and tugging her close. She came willingly and nestled into the warm contours of his frame, a shudder running through her at the touch of his skin against hers. She slipped her legs underneath his, warming her bare feet between his calves. Her hand moved to his chest, stroking the fine hairs and supple skin, her fingers brushing lightly across his nipples. Hugh sighed with pleasure and Aline felt the heat of arousal growing within her. She began to work her fingers lightly in small circles down the firm muscles of his torso.
"Take pity on me, Aline," Hugh implored in mock misery. "I intend to spend my life making love to you but I've fought two battles today. I fear I'm incapable of another conquest!"
Aline stifled a giggle at his plea, her heart skipping a beat at his words. She pulled herself onto one elbow to grin at him, letting her breasts press against his chest.
"Do you promise me a whole lifetime, my lord? In that case I will excuse you for tonight." She planted a kiss on his lips then lay back down, her head finding space in the hollow between his neck and shoulder. Hugh wrapped an arm around her, his fingers curling into her hair as it flowed over her shoulders.
They lay without speaking, listening as the last noises of camp began to die away. A pleasant drowsiness crept over Aline and she sighed in contentment. It struck her that even though she was lying on an earth floor, wrapped in furs and blankets, there was nowhere she would rather be. Reaching her mouth to Hugh's, she kissed him again, parting his lips with her tongue. Hugh burrowed his hand deeper into the silken falls of her hair, cupping the back of her neck as he tugged her close. She pressed her body closer to his with an appreciative sigh and kissed him harder. He ran his fingers down the length of her spine before rolling himself over to cover her body with his own. Aline arched her back in pleasure, tilting her hips against him. As Hugh's kisses became fiercer and his touch more urgent, Aline recognized with pleasure that he did not intend to wait after all.