Setting: Fictitious country of Corrain in the medieval age. The geographical location is Eurasia with the feudal system of government and absolute monarchy.
The story is in the point of view (POV) of Annelise von Falkmor, daughter of a deceased lesser lord in Corrain. The von Falkmor estates are predominantly agrarian.
All I could hear were gunshots and the bawling of my brother, just six winters of age. I vainly tried to quiet him while simultaneously keeping an eye out for assassins.
Why? I questioned myself for the hundredth time since this morning. My dress was ripped in several places and I was scratched and bruised. In my efforts to protect my brother, I had ended up worn out, thirsty, panting, breathless and dead tired.
Betrayed. They were out to kill Troy, the only family I had left. All because my innocent brother was heir to the vast estate of my late father and they wanted to secure his title for themselves. It did not matter whether I lived or died. I am a woman and women were considered some inferior, surbordinate species whose existence could be done without.
The assassins were getting closer. I struggled to my feet, dragging Troy with me. He had been worn out for ages and had no energy left. I kept near the bushes for cover, moving away from the gunshots. The Amayana river came into sight. We had already reached the boundary.
"There they are," an assassin on horseback shrieked as he caught sight of our bedraggled bodies so unlike the aristocracy we are.
My eyes widened. I will protect Troy, my grey eyes hardened in new found steely determination. I tried getting closer to the river. But it was too late. The four assassins surrounded us and dismounted.
Troy was wrenched out of my grasp and two of them held me in a firm grip. I struggled fruitlessly.
"Cease your writhing, woman," one of them hissed, "and watch your brother die."
The one holding Troy drew out a sword. It inched near the face of my dear brother and made a cut on his cheek. Blood began to flow out and his screams got louder. Something in me snapped. I could not bear to watch his fear-stricken face for a second longer.
As my struggles increased tenfold, I managed to break free. I ran towards Troy but one of the assassins grabbed me, hit me on the stomach and flung me into the swift flowing river. I was dazed as I hit the water like a sack of lead. I did nothing to stop the current from sweeping me away.
There was a sudden unexpected noise, I could not comprehend what it was. I could still vaguely see what was happening.
A figure in black was holding Troy away from the assassins. My vision was blurry and I yielded to the strong current. I lost all sense of timing.
I heard the galloping of a horse and then a hand grabbed mine and proceeded to yank me out of the water. A sinking feeling welled up in my chest and my eyes closed.
I believe all is lost.
Pain. Severe, intense pain. It was all I could think of right now. My head throbbed and my back ached. My muscles felt like wood. And I was completely exhausted. I finally understand what 'bone-tired' really feels like. My eyes had been closed all along and I made no effort to open them. I drifted into unconsciousness again.
Suddenly, everything came to mind. The assassins flinging me in the river. A black figure holding Troy in his arms. Somebody yanking me out of the water. Exactly where was I?
Opening my eyes felt like an ordeal even though the room was dimly lit. As far as I could make out, there were two candles burning. The bed I was on was uncomfortable and a couple of thin sheets were covering me. The walls were definitely stone and the room was cool. The single window was screened and I could not tell the time. My throat felt dry and parched and I was hungry. Troy. A small urgent prayer escaped from my lips. The door creaked open.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I opened them to a kindly old face, a woman about sixty. She seemed trustworthy and had a gentle smile.
"I am glad to see you awake, my dear," her voice was soothing and comforting.
Nonetheless, she could be one of them as well. I made an attempt to sit up which was a terrible mistake. Excruciating pain shot through my entire body. Who would have thought that moving an inch could hurt so very much?
"Do not attempt to move just yet," she told me, "I have bathed you and dressed your wounds and applied a balm. All you need now is a good rest."
And some water and food would be wondrous.
"Who are you?" my voice was dry and cracked, "and how long have I been here?"
"My name is Mathilda," she replied in her lilting voice, "I am a seamstress. I live alone and have a fairly good knowledge of herbal medicine. You were brought here yesterday afternoon. It is close to sunset now."
"And the boy? Is he alright?" I asked, deliberately not mentioning the familial tie between us.
"Yes, quite. He is resting as well," she said, "What is your name, dear?"
"Come now," she urged gently, "I can see that you are aristocracy. It is only a matter of time till hearsay will tell me what I want to know."
"Annelise von Falkmor," I answered.
"So the boy would be the young heir Troy von Falkmor," she surmised.
"Where am I? Who brought me here?"
"Well, it was the person who saved you," Mathilda explained, "as you are no longer on your own estates, no one will harm either of you. You are beyond the river."
"I wish to see Troy," I said, accepting her brief explanation, for now.
"Not just yet," she said firmly, "Both of you need rest. You may see him tomorrow. I will bring you some broth. I have just made some." She left the room.
He had been listening outside the door. His brilliant aquamarine eyes watched Mathilda return with a generous helping of steaming delicious broth for the young woman he had saved. She really was the famed beauty he had heard of and was well pleased. Given the circumstances, she was now in, she would have to comply with his intentions. Annelise von Falkmor was aristocracy as well. He intercepted Mathilda and took the tray from her. The seamstress nodded and walked away. He knocked lightly on the door and let himself in.
He smirked. It was going to be perfect.
As soon as Mathilda left, I began to sit up. I did so very, very slowly, and it helped a bit. I was in a lot of pain, but I could not possibly have broth lying down. It was then that I noticed that I was wearing a long simple pale blue dress. A shawl had been draped around my shoulders as well. I started to adjust it, then winced as a sharp wave of pain assaulted me.
Slowly, I reminded myself. There was a knock on the door. It was not Mathilda.
He was strapping, tall and strong. I could tell he was an aristocrat because of his fine clothes. Jet black hair partially covered brilliant aquamarine eyes. He was dressed in black and his boots gleamed. He looked out of place in the small stone room, even more so with a tray of broth in his hands. He had an imposing aura and I felt fear welling up in me as he drew closer. I did not quite trust the expression he had. He moved very quietly and set the tray down. The broth smelt heavenly but I did not pay it any attention. It was highly scandalous for a woman to be alone in the same room with a man who was not a blood relative. It was even worse for a young unmarried woman like me.
He was watching me and I involuntarily shivered. His presence was unsettling and inappropriate. Though he did not seem evil, one can never trust men and he looked like a sort of man who got what he wanted.
"I will get straight to the point," he began.
His voice was husky and captivating. It carried a lot of power and I suddenly noticed a sheathed sword strapped to his side. He was tan and in very good health. He stepped a little closer and I drew back.
"I did not save you and that brother of yours out of compassion," he spat out the word as if it were disgusting, "I did it for a reason and if you do not comply to my wishes, I will have no trouble whatsoever in delivering the two of you to the assassins."
"No," I cried out, my voice still weak and cracked.
I was in pain before, now I was in pain, fear and terror.
"Very well then," he smirked, "the name is Damien Lucas Stravos."
I gulped. My breath quickened and my heart began to beat much faster. True terror overcame me. I had heard of this man. His father was a higher ranking lord with vast estates. This Damien had openly scoffed at his father and had left home when he was only sixteen winters with a handful of rebellious youth like him. Under the leadership of Damien, over a period of five winters, they had managed to bring most of the lands under their control and even had a military force rumoured to be stronger than that of the king. Damien had disowned his father a long time ago, something which was unheard of and incorrect.
The man, just twenty one winters of age, was tactical and highly dangerous and for a fleeting moment I wondered whether it would have been better if Troy and I had met our ends the previous day.
"What do you want?" I asked in a wavering voice.
"I want you to be a sort of companion," he answered, "in return I will protect your life and the life of Troy von Falkmor and even train him to handle his rightful estate. However, if you fail to do as I please, or even make a single mistake inadvertently, the people vying for the title of your late father will be more than eager to kill you. Both of you."
I closed my eyes. He certainly meant every word he said. Cold, cruel, heartless, I thought to myself.
"What must I do?" I was resigned and subdued.
"You may be aware of the fact that I possess no title," he questioned, scanning my face.
It was true. Disowning your family had serious consequences, usually public flogging and other forms of humiliation. But Damien was too dangerous a man to be subjected to such methods and despite him controlling nearly a third of the lands, the king had refused to bestow a title on him. Besides, if Damien truly wished to, he could get the king killed though that was too risky, even for him.
"I know of only a single way to try and obtain a title that does not involve asking mercy of a hateful, worthless man who fathered me," he continued with malice, "and a title will help me to fulfil what I desire in a shorter period of time. Time is invaluable."
I had to agree on this point. If my father had been treated sooner, if his assistants who practised medicine had arrived on time, he would have still been living. And Troy and I would not have been in this precarious situation, our lives in the hands of this calculating man, formerly known as Damien von Heart in the days when he had not yet disowned his father. Stravos, I believe, is the maiden name of his mother.
"You are eighteen winters, are you not?" Damien asked, scrutinising me.
I nodded nervously, wondering what exactly I had to do.
"Remember that in exchange, I will personally see to the safety of your lives," Damien trailed off for the first time.
"Yes, I take your word for it," I said cautiously. For my brother, I would give my life.
"Annelise von Falkmor," he addressed me directly, "I want you to pretend to be my wife."