Anwen rocked back and forth, hugging her knees to her chest. What now? How could she mend the gap that she was continually pushing wider and wider between them? Every time she tried to control herself and submit to both Alaric and to God, her fears got in the way and she stirred up a bigger mess than ever. Now, Alaric was trying to explain that their lives were in danger, and she had just angered him… again.
Closing her eyes, she shook her head. Maíthar, what do I do? I can't… I would rather die than be forced to have a child with a man I don't love. At least… I don't know what to feel about him. I wish you were here. I need you!
Beloved, I am here.
The calm, quiet voice resounded in her heart, a reprimand and a comfort all in one. Oh God, forgive me. She looked up at the ceiling and poured out her heart. I have been resisting You for so long, God. Every day, I promise I'll do better, and I end up doing worse. Now I am under threat of death, and I've killed the one chance I had to save my life… and his, Lord.
Anwen stopped her prayer suddenly. She had not let Alaric's words sink in fully. His father would not only kill her if she did not produce an heir… he would kill Alaric as well. God… I don't know what to do. She moaned. She was torn within. Part of her urged her to make peace with Alaric fully, and the other part of her urged her that there must be a way around his father's threat, that there must be a way to lie, to hide, to run.
Should she accept the one solution and offer herself to Alaric? Or refuse the solution and find a way to run again? God, could I even make love to a man I don't love? But her heart caught her attention. She could no longer say she did not love Alaric. She could not call it love, but she had to acknowledge that there was some feeling there for him. She just did not know what it was.
She jumped up from the bed and paced the room. What should she do? Run, or make peace? Love, or hate? Try, or give up? She looked around the room, then at the door. It was not fully closed. One swift push, and she could be free. Alaric might let her go. She took a breath. Two options.
Which one would she choose?
Alaric stood in the cold night air and closed his eyes, forcing himself to breathe evenly. How could she think he would force her to bed with him? After all the pains he went through to resist taking her into his arms, after asking her permission to court her, after offering to move out of the cottage? How could she still think that all he wanted was to fulfill his own pleasure? He let out his breath slowly.
He knew how. It was only two days since he had forced her to marry him. With an admission like the one he had just given her, what woman would not react as she had? In her mind, he was still a barbaric, lustful prince with less morals than a dog.
He opened his eyes and stared up at the sky. For a long time, he did not think. He just took in the majesty of the stars, the velvet sky, the millions of points of light above him. It was beautiful. He could almost believe that there was a God, if only to create such a world as this. The thought of God made him think of his mother.
Maíthar, what would you have me do? The woman drives me to distraction with the sheer power of her femininity. Would you have me abstain entirely from touching her, looking at her… thinking of her? He sighed, knowing that if he were talking to Brigid, she would advise him to give Anwen some space.
Perhaps he should do so. Turning, he pushed open the door of the cottage, and was about to speak when he looked up. The sight of Anwen was like a blow to the stomach, and it stopped him dead in his tracks.
She stood in the middle of the rug before the fire, clothed in the thin nightshift Deirdre had made for her, hair tumbling down her back, eyes uncertain as she looked at him. The firelight shone through the nightshift, clearly outlining her curves. She looked down at her hands, which were trembling, and then took a deep, slow, sure breath.
"Were it only my life threatened, and were I not convicted more and more by God that I must be your wife… in every sense, I would go to your father and spit in his face… and probably get myself killed. Or worse" She looked up and squared her shoulders. "But it's not just my life. And I cannot be responsible for your death." She hesitated, looking away for a moment. When she looked back at him, her eyes were clear of the troubled look that had been there. "And I can no longer run from God's will, nor can I block out his voice."
Alaric frowned. Was she saying what he thought she was saying? The mere idea of it weakened every resolve he'd had to give her some space. He stepped inside and closed the door behind him. Some of the insecurity that had left Anwen's eyes came back in, and she flinched at the sound of the door.
Taking another deep breath, shaking this time, she licked her lips. "If it takes an heir to save your life…" She half laughed nervously. "Then so be it."
Alaric stared at her. Was she serious? She was offering to give up her virginity in order to save his life? It sounded bizarre, even with all the things he had seen and done. He raised an eyebrow. And her God had ordered her to do this? That sounded craziest of all.
"Why?" He asked. Why was she trying to save his life, when up until now, she had made it clear that she hated him?
Anwen frowned. "Why what?"
He shook his head. "Why are you trying to save my life suddenly? Why now? What changed? Why…?" He crossed his arms and waited for an explanation.
She twisted her lip in her teeth, thinking for a few seconds. "I remembered my mother, and her devotion to my father." She said softly. "And God… all He teaches in the Bible. Wives are to submit." She laughed quietly. "I haven't been doing that."
The slight smile faded from her face, and she lowered her eyes. "I remember how… how horrible it feels to have the death of another man on my head." She swallowed, hard. "And I know if your father killed you because of me… I… I can't stand the thought of another human dying on my account."
"But you will be dead, too." Alaric pointed out.
Anwen nodded. "And facing God's judgment."
Alaric clenched his jaw and ignored the irritation that sprang up at her mentions of God. She was attempting to make peace. It hit him fully. She was attempting much more than just peace. She was offering herself to him, fully and without exception. As a wife. The way she looked now, he could almost forget his morals and take up her offer without another thought.
He closed his eyes to shut out the sight of her, and tilted his head down. Even without the sight of her, her scent filled the room and assaulted him. Wildflowers. Why did she have to tangle up his thoughts, his plans, his life? Why had he taken her as a wife? He could not deny the powerful attraction. It went deeper than her beauty. There was something in this woman that drew him to her like a dying man to water.
"Do you realize the entirety of what you're saying, Anwen?" He asked quietly, not opening his eyes.
She was silent for a few seconds, and then her answer was resounding and unwavering. "Yes."
He looked up at her, and she returned his gaze without flinching. "Do you want this?" He pressed. He would not take her if she did not want it. Tempting as it was, he would never do that.
Her eyes were clear and calm, and she fluidly closed the space between them. Never breaking his gaze, she brought his head down with her soft hands, and kissed him. Alaric stood still for a minute, unbelieving of her soft lips on his, her curving form against his, her gentle hands on his face. Was this real? He put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her away.
"Anwen…" He stared into her eyes, looking for the anger, hate, fear, anything to prove she was only bluffing. But she stared back at him with a certainty there, and she dropped her hands to his arms.
Slowly, she pulled him towards the bed. "I'm not doing this… to save your life, or mine." She said, her voice low and steady. "Even with the threat of death, the threat of judgment... and the order of God… I could not give up my body to a man I hated." She took his hand and put it on her chest, over her heart. "There's something in there that tells me… maybe not right this moment, but some day I will love you."
Alaric could have been knocked over with a feather at the power of her words. The implication of her words. He shook his head, and Anwen stopped the movement with her hand at his cheek. "I'm not saying I love you." She laughed softly. "But there is something. I don't know what to call it." She bit her lip. "It's like…"
"… a parched man drawn to water…?" Alaric suggested, finally finding his voice again. Anwen looked a little startled when he equipped the phrase, and her breath caught. Alaric felt the heat rise to his face. He looked away from her eyes briefly. "I've felt that since I saw you, and it's only grown stronger." He admitted.
Anwen sat on the edge of the bed and took his hand. She looked up at him for a long while, and then she tugged him down to his knees. With a look wavering between confidence and insecurity, she leaned forward and kissed him again. This time, he kissed her back. He took her face between his hands and kissed her until both of them were gasping for breath.
He opened his eyes to see that Anwen's were still closed, and her face was flushed. He leaned his forehead against hers, fighting against every desire being brought forth to say what he must. When she opened her eyes, he stared into them. "I'll not…"
Anwen stopped his words with a kiss. It was short, but sweet. When she pulled back, she shook her head. "You're not." She reassured him.
Alaric let out his breath. It was a gift too sweet. There had to be a catch. He rose, drawing her with him. She stared at him questioningly when he walked away from her, and then he turned and stared at her. Would she be like his mother? Become with child and then run away? He would not repeat that history. There had to be something he could do to protect her from his father. But what?
Anwen walked away from the bed and went to stand before the fire, her back to him. She was giving him the space to think, and he mentally thanked her for that. He did not know what was wrong with him. He had been hounding her to accept him from the day he had captured her, and now when she finally offered peace… and herself… he could not quite get himself to accept it. Why? Was it guilt? Doubt?
A new thought struck him. Fear? Why should he be afraid of her? But he knew before the thought completed itself. No other woman had worked her way into his heart like Anwen. No other woman had had that power over him. If he accepted her into his arms, he would be giving her leave to come into his heart as well. And when he left for war, he knew that a part of him would be with her… for her to control.
He studied her back. Even turned away from him she was alluring. Her hair tumbled down her back, and her hips gently curved beneath the nightshift. She stretched out her hands to the fire, warming them. It was then that he noticed she was trembling again. Was she cold, or nervous? He sighed. No other woman had had him wondering what was going through her mind.
Anwen stared at the fire, every sense highly attuned to Alaric behind her. She could hear him breathing, sighing, moving, pacing. Thinking. She brought her hands in and wrapped her arms around her waist. With the first kiss of that night, she had been ready to go all the way. But then he had hesitated, and now she trusted him more. She would be content if he decided to wait. But she would be compliant if he decided to take her offer.
She was ready. The thought scared her to death, but she was ready. She turned to look at him, and found him staring at her. His gaze sent a blush through her, and her stomach tightened into a funny knot. Until today, she had not let herself see what an attractive man he was. Rather, she had not let herself think about it. When she was trying to forget that something within that pulled her to him, she had pushed away the beauty of his eyes, the strength of his figure, the ruggedness of his jaw, and focused on his temper.
He stared at her, and she caught her breath. She had not let herself think about the part of her that wanted his attention. The part of her that admired his strength and command. The part of her that whispered they would have beautiful children. The last thought fueled her blush, and she was glad the light was low, for her face had to be flaming by now.
She could have a life with this man. They had a common sadness, a common people… and a common temper. Anwen smiled a little, wondering if their tempers would ever allow them to be completely at peace with each other. Then she realized she was thinking of a future together, and she was almost bowled over by the realization. He was her husband. For life.
For the first time since their wedding, the thought did not bother her.
When Alaric finally moved, Anwen tensed though her heart told her not to. She was aware of everything about him. The masculine, fresh smell of him, the fire deep in his intense eyes, the feline grace of his movements as he walked to her. He said nothing when he reached her, but slid his hands around her waist and pulled her to him. His hard chest warmed her through the thin cloth of her nightshift, and fleetingly, Anwen thought she would surely set the cloth on fire if she burned any hotter.
He did not kiss her. He studied her face, inch by inch, until his eyes finally settled on her lips. Even then, he bent forward and kissed first her forehead. His calloused hand stroked her hair away from her forehead, and he kissed her left temple, then her right temple. She could not break her eyes from his as he pulled her even closer and kissed her cheeks, then her nose, then her chin.
Anwen could barely breathe. She curled her fingers through his hair, breath entirely cut off by the funny constriction of her chest. Alaric's eyes were melting her bones. His heartbeat kept time with hers, raging in his chest and pulsing in his neck. He looked at her as though he were going to devour her on the spot, and it was everything Anwen had to stay standing.
Finally, he kissed her lips. Time stopped. Every sense in Anwen's body flooded her with a sensation unlike anything she had ever known. She melted into Alaric's embrace and returned his passion with her own, a passion she never knew she had. And when he swept her up into his arms, she felt no fear.
There was a strange disoriented feeling when Anwen opened her eyes. She felt very safe, but very strange. It was odd to be laying so close to the man who she had once seen as only her enemy, without a feeling of disgust or fear. She stared at Alaric's still-sleeping face for a few minutes, wondering what he would look like without the constant rugged stubble, then decided she liked him better with than her imagined without. She wriggled a little to readjust to a more comfortable position, but to no avail. Even in sleep, the strength of his arms around her denied her any movement.
Biting her lip, she stilled her movements and wondered how long it would be before he woke. How long she would have to lay there and be so aware of him.
Thankfully, he opened his eyes as soon as she sighed. His crooked smile melted the muscle around her knees and sent butterflies through her stomach. She took a breath and smiled back. Biting her lip when he raised an eyebrow at her, she swallowed.
"I have to relieve myself." She blurted.
Alaric stared at her with shock for a split second, and then he laughed out loud and released her from the bond of his arms.
The only other room, if it could be called that, was barely more than an alcove. It was separated by a curtain, and was just big enough to give one room to squat over the crude bucket meant for relieving oneself. Thankfully, the bucket was empty. Anwen did not really have to use the bucket, she only needed to get away from Alaric for a moment.
She was not quite having second thoughts. It was more unsure of where to go from there. She felt little butterflies all over when she thought about what this meant, what this could mean for their future, and what was going to happen next. Leaning against the wall of the room, she sighed and smiled. So far, she did not regret making the decision to do what she felt God was leading her to do. Though, she was very reluctant to go back out. For all she knew, Alaric was still laying abed, waiting.
Anwen shook her head. What was wrong with her? Only last night, she had given herself up completely as a wife did for her husband, and now she was too shy to go back out to the same man she'd slept with the night before? She almost laughed at herself for her timidity. Just go. She straightened her shoulders and parted the curtain.
A breath of relief left her to see that Alaric had gotten up and stood at the window in his breeches. His torso was still bare, though, and maddeningly distracting. She almost growled when she felt another blush coming, and went to straighten the bed, to busy her hands. Alaric came up behind her unexpectedly and slid his hands over her shoulders. He kissed the back of her neck.
"Good morning, muirnait." His voice was honey-smooth but still husky with sleep. She felt the heat spread from her neck to her heels.
"Good morning." It was a pleasant heat, she decided, and she grabbed her dress from the floor, wondering how she would put it on without exposing herself. Alaric chuckled, and she felt another blush rise up. She turned to him and smiled slightly. He was looking her up and down without shame.
"Did I ever tell you how becoming you are in the morning?" He asked, bending to kiss her lips.
She leaned into the kiss, feeling her courage return, and then shook her head. "Once, maybe."
A knock on the door startled her, and she jumped away from Alaric. He chuckled, sliding his arm around her waist. "You are my wife, muirnait." He reminded her. He pulled her with him and opened the door.
A young man stood there, looking slightly nervous but more curious than anything else as his eyes darted from Alaric to Anwen and back again. As he spoke, he let his gaze rest for longer periods on Anwen. He said his piece rapidly, and when he left, he smiled at her and bowed. Anwen frowned a little out of curiosity and turned to Alaric for explanation. He closed the door.
"I must go to oversee the preparations to leave." He told her, grabbing a shirt to pull over his head. "Would you like to come?"
Anwen considered it for only a second before nodding. She looked at the red dress in her hands, and glanced at Alaric. He made no move to turn away and give her privacy, so with her cheeks reddening, she let the nightshift drop to the floor and pulled the dress up over her hips and arms. Alaric helped her lace it up.
"Why so shy, muirnait?" He asked her, gathering up her hair and surprising her by braiding the length of it swiftly and efficiently.
She fiddled with the cloth of the dress as he tied a ribbon around the end of her braid and let it fall. Wisps of her hair already escaped the braid and fell around her face maddeningly. She pushed them away and turned to him. "I've never been a wife before." She answered.
Alaric smirked. "Nor I a husband."
She raised her eyebrows. "Nor have I slept with a man before."
He only grinned and kissed her. She could not resist returning the smile as he grabbed her hand and pulled her with him. The new childish side was one she had not been expecting. He had an exuberance that was endearing and irresistible. She had to quicken her pace to keep up with his long strides, and many curious stares followed them as they made their way towards a large gathering of men.
Anwen slowed with Alaric and put herself slightly behind him as every eye turned towards her. Alaric approached a man she recognized; the man who had taken the child. He bowed to Alaric and said something, motioning to her. Alaric grasped the man's arm and smiled slightly, shaking his head as he replied. Anwen sighed. She had to learn the language, or she would forever be confused and curious.
She followed Alaric down the length of men, and then towards a long, shining row of weaponry. Keeping a good distance between herself and the weapons to show Alaric she meant no harm, she studied the collection. She saw a few weapons of her people mixed amongst the cruder swords and spears of the Saxons. The Celtic blades were highly decorated and beautiful among the plainer weapons of the Saxons, and she felt a longing for her people.
Alaric said something to the man behind them, and he nodded.
Then, she stood next to Alaric as he spoke to his men. The faces that stared at them both looked at her with curiosity, and at Alaric with loyalty. These men loved their leader, making Anwen wonder how Sigebehrt treated his soldiers. Did he even lead them in battle, or did he send his sons to do the work for him? Anwen remembered similar situations in her village. Her father, leader of the village, had always been a leader on the battlefield as well.
The sun was bright and warm as she stood waiting for Alaric to finish. She closed her eyes and turned her face up to it, soaking in the warmth she had not felt for what seemed like forever. Would she be trapped in the cottage while Alaric was gone? She hoped not. But would Sigebehrt allow her to roam the village unharmed? At least in the cottage she could hold him out.
While she stood, Anwen realized that Alaric had stopped speaking. She opened her eyes to find that most of the men had either dispersed or stood talking, and Alaric was looking at her with a smile on his face. He sighed.
"I would take you with me… or not go at all…" He said softly.
Anwen felt her heart drop. She had been trying to forget why he was leaving. But his words brought up the painful reminder that he was going to kill her people. She sighed. "Don't go." She said softly, but she knew he had to.
Alaric touched her cheek gently. "If I knew of a way to make peace between my people, I would." He looked out over the men who were readying to leave on the morrow. "But everyone fights. The Saxons believe that this land belongs to the strongest, the Celts have it by rights as the first to occupy it. I'm torn between the people who raised me and the people I never knew. They're both in my blood." He looked back at her, and she could see the conflict in his eyes.
"You can't… refuse to go?" She knew it was impossible.
"If I go, I can save all those who will surrender. If I don't go, another tribe will overtake the same Celts and kill them all. Women, children, old, sick… everyone." He slung an arm over her shoulder and pulled her in to kiss her hair. "I go hoping I can let as many as possible live."
Anwen opened her mouth to protest that slavery was no life, but a middle-aged man interrupted with a short, quick inquiry. Alaric looked at her, then at the man. He slowly nodded. The man handed her a wooden rod that was roughly the length and weight of a sword. She stared at it.
"He wants to spar with you." Alaric told her.
Anwen shook her head. "Why?"
There was a smile on his face. "To see if you really have the skill that it took to kill those four horsemen." He took the rod from the man and pressed it into her hand. "He won't hurt you. I promise."
Anwen opened her mouth to protest, but a circle of men was already forming around them, and Alaric smiled at her. "I don't think you can beat him. He's one of my best." He told her with a smirk.
Anwen looked at the rod in her hands and then up at the man. His face was grim, but friendly. He nodded once at her and then set himself in position. Was he serious? Anwen looked back at Alaric. He crossed his arms, and his grin grew wider. Anwen scowled at him. It would serve him right if she beat the man. A blow to Alaric's pride would do him good.
Taking a deep breath, she gripped the rod firmly and moved her gaze from Alaric to the man across from her. She lifted her chin and set her feet, thinking about her surroundings like her father had taught her. The grass beneath her sandals was just long enough to tickle the sides of her feet. A slight breeze blew the smell of hay over her, and a fly buzzed past her ear.
She had just made up her mind to attack first when he lunged.