When she woke, Anwen was aware that someone was bending over her. Light and shadow wavered above her as she lay with her eyes closed; how long had she slept? Was it Alaric smoothing a cloth gently over the cuts and scratches on her leg? A soft blanket was placed over her, soothing in its warmth. She opened her eyes.
A black haired woman was tending her, her dark glance flicking to Anwen's face every few seconds. There was a slight hesitation in her movements as she gently wrapped a cloth around Anwen's calf. Warning was in her gaze; Anwen desperately wanted to ask who she was, whether they had traveled further, but the woman went to the flap of the tent and disappeared before she could say a thing. A masculine voice grunted outside, and footsteps faded away.
Seeing that no one else was in the tent, Anwen relaxed slightly. It was nighttime; a candle flickered in its lamp a few feet away, sending shadows dancing over the soft, richly decorated pillows and animal furs that covered the ground. She could smell the remnants of a fire burning somewhere outside as the wind blew in the tent flap and showed her a glimpse of the guard outside.
It disturbed her that he kept such a tight grasp on her. Why was he so possessive of her? Pride? He had caught her, and he wanted to prove that he could keep her? The guards outside aided that theory, and she tensed. What did he intend to do with her when they arrived at their destination? What would she become? Dread raced through her veins as she thought of the possibilities.
As if on cue to her distress , Alaric pushed open the flap and ducked in, his face impassive. She pulled the blanket over her leg, her breath coming short when she realized that the garment she wore was not her own. It covered her body sufficiently, but she had no recollection of being changed, and the fabric's construction made it attire fit only for a wife in her husband's presence. Her mother had once showed her a similar garment- wedding night clothes.
The implications in her dress and the undecipherable intent in Alaric's eyes filled Anwen with hate and fear. The man had killed her family, massacred her village. Was he now going to ruin her as well?
She held her breath when he bent over her, bit her tongue when his hand touched her brow. O God, hear my cry! Help me! I know I have not been faithful these last days, but please, spare me now! I would rather feel death's bite than the caresses of this man! Her eyes wide open, she cried out in her heart to the God who had led her through her young life. Please…
A look of satisfaction came over Alaric's face, and he stood. "Berhta cared for you well. Take rest. We leave early in the morning."
Relief flooded through her when he did nothing more. She bit her lip and exhaled, watching warily as he turned and walked to his own bed and stripped of his belted shirt. Rippling muscle glowed tan in the dim light. She could not help but stare at the long haired Saxon. That strength could break her neck in an instant. A chill of fear swept through her body. He glanced back at her, a warning passing his lips as he extinguished the candle.
"There are four guards posted outside, one at each corner of the tent, and two more at the door. If they see you during the night, they have no orders to hold back any wrath or lust they may feel." She heard a slight rustle as he lay down. "I advise you to sleep. You'll not escape."
Just before the light had gone out, Anwen had noticed that a dagger beside his head, within easy reach of his hand. It tempted her thoughts; if she could get the dagger, she could kill him. She could avenge her mother and her brother. She could escape whatever fate he had planned for her. Heart racing as her mind swirled with plans, she waited for what seemed like hours, listening to the breathing of her enemy.
A wind whipped up, biting at the edges of the tent, blowing in through the flap. It was a warm wind that came in gusts between the spans of silence over the camp. Horses nickered softly to one another, stamping their feet on the grassy earth, and Saxons quietly conversed with one another in their guttural language. It seemed that they would never sleep.
Yet eventually, the noise outside died down into a dreamlike silence, and Anwen sat up. It was time. Hands shaking and thoughts swirling, she steeled herself to her purpose. This was not only about her, but about her people. If she could defeat this man, it would drive insecurity into his soldiers, and courage into hers. With an ear cocked to the occasional shuffling of guards outside, she slowly eased from beneath the light blanket and crept across the floor.
He did not stir when she reached his side and curled her fingers around the dagger. His face was tranquil, bereft of the sardonic twist of the lips, the critical look in the eyes. Beneath the stubble of dark beard, his jaw was relaxed, his mouth slightly open, almost smiling. She could see the slow rise and fall of his chest in the dark.
He was not covered by a blanket, and his right arm, opposite her, was flung over his stomach, his left arm crooked over his head. His dark hair spilled over the lighter surface of the fur-covered pillow beneath his head, the tangled brown strands curling every which way.
Clutching the blade tightly in her hand, Anwen hesitated. Would this be murder, to take the life of her enemy as he slept? Was it not an act of war? His death could bring safety for her people, for herself. Yet she knew that beneath the other reasons, there was a hate rooted in her heart that made this more personal than slaying a soldier in battle. He had killed her family.
Anwen clenched her teeth and stifled the voice that told her this is wrong. He deserved to die.
It was a pity that so finely built and well-favored a man was so arrogant and ruthless, so worthy of death. In the dark, she could almost forget the biting sarcasm of his wakeful being in lieu of the misleading sweetness of his sleeping expression. Once more, her mind swayed her to reconsider, but she shook her head. No mercy rose in her heart. Guide my blade, Lord.
Both hands grasping the elaborate, gem-encrusted handle, she whispered a prayer and thrust downward with all her might. But in his sleep, Alaric shifted away from her. The dagger pierced his chest just between his torso and shoulder, driving in to the hilt. Breath left him with a stifled grunt and his eyes snapped open, immediate understanding dawning in the green orbs as he saw her bent over him.
He lunged at her with a roar, catching her neck in his hand and pinning her to the ground beneath him. Though his left hand was useless at his side, his right was choking her. The weight of his body sat squarely on her hips, effectively weighing her down. Blood flowed freely from his wound, dripping onto her arm as his fingers tightened around her neck, cutting off her air supply.
Weakness crept into her limbs; her arms felt rubbery, her legs numb. Of its own accord, her mouth opened and her tongue convulsed as she desperately tried to breathe. The fury in Alaric's eyes dimmed as a black haze covered her eyes. Kill me now, she silently pleaded with him. Kill me now and I will not be your plaything. I will be free. God, make him kill me!
But her prayer was answered with a resounding "No!"
The pressure on her throat ceased, and she inhaled sharply. How thankful she was for that breath, though only a moment ago she had wished herself dead. The Saxon pinning her down did not sound so thankful that she was alive.
A guard called from the flap of the tent, his young voice concerned, and Alaric answered him with a guttural snarl. Then he yanked the dagger from his chest with a grunt. "Fool of a woman!" he growled. "You could have died for that."
Anwen struggled for oxygen beneath the weight of his body. "Then… why didn't you… kill me?" Her words were halting as she fought to breathe.
Despite the pain, there was a devilish look in Alaric's eyes. "Kill you?" He slammed the dagger into the ground beside her head. "Oh, no." His lips were inches from her cheek as she turned her face away. "You will bear me powerful sons."
As though he had struck her, all of the strength left Anwen's body. Though he rose off of her, taking the blade with him, it was all she could do to keep stand up, to keep breathing, to keep trusting in God.
A guard came in then, carrying a bucket full of sloshing water and a few strips of cloth. The young man's face was confused, and he looked from Alaric's wound to the blood on Anwen's chest and arm, obviously curious. Alaric barked something in his own language, and the soldier left hurriedly.
"Now… I have heard rumor that your people are great healers." Alaric pressed a cloth to the gash in his shoulder, keeping the dagger in his hand. "I trust this gift has been passed on to you?"
Slowly, Anwen raised her eyes to his face. He expected her to undo the damage she had done? "Why should I help you?"
He smiled grimly. "Call it a return of good faith. I spared your life."
"And I would rather die than serve the purpose for which you keep me." Anwen backed away from him and lifted her chin.
In a sudden move, he dropped the cloth and had the dagger at her neck. "Would you?" He loomed over her, pressing the knife into her skin painfully. "You have too strong a wish to die, woman. It is not a request I will grant." Slowly, he lowered the dagger and snapped something in the direction of the tent flap.
Picking up a clean cloth, he resumed staunching the blood, and he looked at her. "You have no reasons for which you would live?" There was curiosity in his tone.
"The only passion I have in life is to see you dead," Anwen shot at him. There was too much humanity around him just then; too much amusement in his expression and pain in his eyes. She did not want to think of him as anything but a monster.
"I see." He smirked slightly. "Then perhaps my passion in life will be to make you love me."
Before Anwen could answer him, a guard entered with Behrta, the woman who had tended her earlier. While the woman went to take care of Alaric's wound, the guard came to tie Anwen's hands behind her back. He was rough, glaring at her and shoving her to her bed when he was done. Absolute loyalty to Alaric was obvious in his treatment of her. He left at Alaric's command.
"Sleep while you can." Alaric told her as Behrta finished wrapping his wound. There was a diabolical glint in his smile. "Tomorrow, you walk."
Finally, Deirdre could hear the familiar chants of Alaric's army. They were victory chants. With a squeal, she bounced from her seat at the window in the alcove in her room and ran to the gates outside. The army moved over the hill as one dark shape, prisoners in a huddle, wagons full of spoils, men chanting and laughing. The sweet triumph they exuded spiked Deirdre's excitement to see Alaric.
He led them, rich red cloak commanding attention as his muscled frame moved with his horse. As he came closer, Deridre could see that he favored his left arm considerably. It surprised her to see the blood that stained the shirt beneath his coat; Alaric had a skill far beyond that of any other man, and rarely came home with debilitating wounds.
A wave of concern swept over her. Whoever had done this to him must have been a great foe. She had often watched Alaric in action, practicing and tutoring young soldiers who needed to learn the art of the sword. She knew that he was not easy to defeat. But he was alive, and that was all that mattered. With a little hop, she went to stand directly beside the gate, having to restrain herself from waving wildly.
A rope was tied about Alaric's good wrist, tense all the way back to someone stumbling along behind his horse. Involuntarily, Deirdre backed up a step as her eyes fell upon the woman. Though dirty, bruised, scratched, and sweating, the woman's dark hair and sky-blue eyes promised a beauty far beyond that of any woman Deirdre had ever seen.
She took a sharp breath and felt her heart fall. Alaric did not so much as glance her way as he passed through the gate and into the village. Soldiers strode in after him, greeting their families with affection, but no one stopped for Deirdre. The one she wanted was sliding from his horse and speaking to the woman she did not know. They were far enough away that Deirdre couldn't hear what he said, but she could see a look of defiance on the woman's face before the guards to took her away.
Shaking herself from her trance, Deirdre scurried through the crowd towards Alaric. She barely caught up to him before he was walking again. "Alaric…" She caught his sleeve, but he didn't slow down.
"Not now, Deirdre." His eyes were irritated, and he did not stop.
Hurt, Deirdre stared after him. Never before had he ignored her, no matter how rough his journey had been. At the very least, he would touch her cheek before going to find his father. What was it that bothered him, when everything around her boasted of his success? Did not the cartloads of spoils and animals make him happy?
With all her heart, Deirdre hoped that it was not the woman who nettled him. A woman who could stir Alaric's anger was one who had found a way into his heart, and competition was not something Deirdre needed.
Shaking her head, she turned and stretched to her tiptoes, looking for Alaric's bright coat and dark curls. He was disappearing into his cottage; with a deep breath, she decided to follow him. Perhaps she could help rectify the situation. Pushing away the thought that he might be angry with her for meddling, she made her way through the crowd. Whether he wanted her to be there or not, Alaric needed her.
Or at least, that was what Deirdre hoped. When she got to Alaric's cottage, she knocked gently and was rewarded with Alaric's rough answer.
He was sitting on a stool, leaning forward, resting his chin on his right fist, a stormy look in his eyes. Deirdre walked softly towards him, unsure. He stirred slightly; his eyes turned to her, but his focus was obviously elsewhere. From the look on his face, Deirdre wondered if he was thinking about the woman.
"Alaric?" She stopped a few steps away and waited for him to respond. He shook his head slightly, and finally noticed her. His eyes were impassive, his jaw was clenched, but he did not order her to leave.
"What is it?" His voice was surprisingly soft, considering the ire that Deirdre could sense emanating from his tense frame.
She stepped a little closer, encouraged by his gentle voice, and whispered quietly, "I missed you."
Briefly, his cheek twitched and he seemed to let go of the anger. "Forgive my mood, Deirdre. I have too much on my mind." Though somewhat preoccupied, he lifted his good hand and offered it to her. "Are you well?"
"Yes." Deirdre felt assuaged by his apology and question. Moving closer, she grasped his hand; warmth flooded through her. There was comfort in being so close to him. Confidence that he still loved her. Hope that the other woman meant nothing.
"And you have been treated well in my absence?" He tugged her into his lap and stroked her hair. She could see that he was not fully attuned to her, but right now she would take whatever she could get.
"Oh, yes," Deirdre was quick to assure him. "I have always been well cared for here." She was careful not to lean on his wounded shoulder as she relished the affection he bestowed on her. Gently, she touched the bloody slice on his neck. "Was it a horrible battle?"
Alaric smiled slightly. "No battle is good, Deirdre."
Quickly, she shook her head. "Of course not. I only meant… I haven't seen you wounded in so long. It must have been--"
"There were difficulties I did not expect," he told her, and the irritation had returned to his voice.
For a few minutes, they were silent. Deirdre was content to be near him, and Alaric seemed to relax in her presence.
"Were you successful?" She knew the answer to this by the spoils outside; she merely wanted him to speak to her. To tell her how he felt, why he was so silent. Most of all, she wanted to know more about the other woman.
"Yes." He nodded slightly, and glanced at her. "I've forgotten, Deirdre-I brought you something." He slid her off of his lap and started to rise, but she stopped him.
"I…" She shrugged a little. "I don't need it now."
His attention was fully hers now; he was more alert as he studied her face, green eyes clear of the ire that had been there. "Is something wrong?"
Taking a deep breath, she lowered her gaze. "Who is she? The woman who walked in behind you?" Her heart sped up as she anticipated his answer- that the woman was his new choice, and she was no longer his betrothed.
When he lifted her chin, she could see the compassion in his eyes. "Don't concern yourself with her." He stroked her hair and kissed her forehead. "Tomorrow, we celebrate my return." A semblance of a smile caught his lips. "And I expect that many will want to see you at your best."
He dismissed her then, shutting the door firmly behind her. Clenching her fist, she sighed. He had not answered her questions. Was it intentional, his secrecy, or was he merely trying to spare her pain? Pacing away from his hut, she went towards her own. Perhaps she would find out later who the woman was. For now, she would have to rest in the shaky assurance that Alaric's heart still belonged to her .
Then again, he would never fully be hers. Alaric did not belong to anyone.