A loud urgent knock sounded at the door of his small cottage by the rushing river's edge. The pounding echoed through the quaint living room and ricocheted around the simple kitchen before finally reaching the dark doorway of the bedroom. A figure shifted in the shadows rustling the sheets as it moved from the bed.

"Gideon, is that Charles?" Her voice trembled. "By the gods, could he have discovered us?"

"No, Joanna, he would not have knocked." He gazed out into the darkness waiting for another sound.

"Open this door!" A forceful shout accompanied the pounding. The ting of a metal shield sounded under the man's fist hitting the wood. "By order of the king's guard, open up!"

"Joanna, dress quickly and leave through the back." He spoke calmly, but the underlying sense of urgency alarmed her. Gideon gently nudged her toward the door in the corner of the dark room. "Follow the field all the way home without looking back."

"I will not leave you." She threw herself into the man's strong arms. Her long blonde hair drifted over his arm as he held her close to his chest.

"You must return home." He pushed her back from his grasp. His tall muscular frame towered over the petite build on the woman. "Go, now, and know that no one will ever learn our secret."

"I love you, Gideon." Tears were stinging at her eyes.

"Go, Joanna."

She did not bother putting her gown back on over her chemise to leave the cottage, she just wadded up the material and shoved it into her canvass bag. A tear slid down her cheek as she glanced back at Gideon preparing to open the door. Turning the handle on the back door, Joanna cast a quick glance around the field to make sure no one saw her flight. Sprinting between the rows of corn, each foot-fall was one step closer to her home.

"What can I do for you, gentlemen?" Gideon pulled open the wooden door and stood before a small group of armed guards.

"The bailiff has requested your presence." A gruff voice came from beneath the metal helmet. "You are to come with us immediately."

"I wish to grab my cloak." Keeping himself calm was the key to a quick meeting.

"Be fast." The man growled as Gideon turned away.

Gideon disappeared into the shadows of his bedroom and made a quick glance through the window to make sure Joanna was gone. Grabbing his dark brown cloak from the short writing desk by the window, he returned to the guards fastening the ties of material around his neck. He obediently followed the men as they marched him—two in front, two in back, and one on each side—to the bailiff's office.

The gravel road was muddy and holed from the pounding rain which had fallen the night before. Muddy slops and splashes were made by the dampened leather boots of the men as they marched their prisoner to the bailiff for questioning. Gideon held his questions as he was forced to nearly run to keep up with the pace of the men. He and the bailiff had been friends for several years, and he knew Argure would answer any questions he had to ask.

He also knew the man would expect complete honesty in return for acquitting him of whatever it was he had been accused. This was one time he would not be able to keep his code of honesty. For Joanna's sake, Gideon knew he would have to be vague in order to protect her from the wrath of her husband and the law. In the village of Cerrimoore, adultery held the punishment of death.

"In there." The gruff man snapped his finger toward the door to Bailiff Argure's office. "He is expecting you."

Gideon gave a slight nod to the men out as he passed between them and approached the door. The hinges creaked loudly as the door pulled open. Inside, an aging man with salty hair sat paging through parchment at a large oak desk. Two candles burned on the corner of the desk providing just enough light to read in the windowless room.

"Come in, Gideon." A monotone voice came from man staring at a pile of papers scattered across his desk. "Sit down."

"Bailiff Argure." He bowed his head as he sat in the wooden chair facing the man. He noticed another, older man with gray hair sitting beside the bailiff's desk. "Magistrate Perry." He bowed again before turning back to his friend. "Why was my presence requested?"

"There was a robbery in the village last night, Gideon." Bailiff Argure peered at the dark haired man over his wire-rimmed spectacles. "Your engraved pistol was found at the bakery in the broken glass."

"I will accept the robbery charge and pay my fines." Gideon held his head admirably to accept the charge. It was the first thing he could think of to take the attention from himself and save Joanna.

"It is not that simple." The elderly man stood from his desk and paced to window. "The shopkeeper was killed."

"Killed?" The question was out of his mouth before he could stop himself from speaking. His lack of knowledge about the crime he was being accused of would stir interest.

"Gideon, please, you must have an alibi for where you were that night." Argure knew the man he was looking at was innocent, but there had to be hard evidence to support it before a pardon could be requested. "You are not the type of man who could rob and murder an innocent man. I swear to you, you will go free if you can tell me where you really were."

"I was alone in my home." Her protection was all that mattered to him. "I have no alibi for that night."

"If you refuse to help yourself, Gideon, I cannot keep you from a harsh fate." The magistrate leaned forward from his chair to close the distance between himself and the accused. "You will get prison at least—maybe even the axe." When he received no reaction from the man, he straightened his back and leaned into the chair. "I can make no promises."

"I will accept my fate as an innocent man." His words were soft and even as he spoke.

"Magistrate Perry, there must be something we can do." Argure's desperation spiked his desire to save the life of his dear friend.

"Without an alibi, there will be no trial as he will be assumed guilty." Adjusting the square, black hat of office on his head, the magistrate gave no leeway for a good answer. "The penalty will be death by beheading."

"Are you ready to take such a judgment, Gideon?" The bailiff coughed slightly scolding the man for his haste. "Make up an alibi and I will pay to have it validated. Absolutely anything." Urgency cloaked the man's tone as he tried to plead with him. "Gideon, you are too good a man to sacrifice yourself for sake of someone else."

"I am an innocent man, Argure." No expression other than calmness crossed his face through the interrogation. "I did not commit the robbery nor did I murder that man."

"Then why will you not confess where you were that night?" Argure began to wonder if the man had lost his sanity. "Save yourself, Gideon."

"I will not jeopardize the life of another to save my own." He knew he was condemning himself to death by staying silent. To him, Joanna was worth his very life.

Pacing the length of the kitchen and dining area, Joanna could do nothing more than ponder and worry what was happening to Gideon. It was all she had managed to do for the entire day since she had escaped from Gideon's cottage and returned to her own empty home. She did not even pay mind to where Charles might have gone as he was always at the tavern. Her concern lay with Gideon. Certain nothing was too horribly wrong, she tried to concentrate on the stew boiling over the fire.

Her mind sifted through a deep abyss of thoughts and memories as she carefully picked the leaves of rosemary to flavor the stew. It felt strange to her to be cooking without an audience for once. Joanna had spent three long years with Charles always hovering over her every move in the kitchen letting her know she was never spicing and cutting the way his mother had. Dropping the tiny green leaves into the deep brown liquid, she gazed into the dancing flames lapping at the iron.

A measured burn of anger crept into the pit of her stomach as she gazed into the flames. Gideon had never spoken words asking her to leave Charles, but Joanna could often see the desire and worry in his eyes when he saw the bruises. She shuddered thinking of the countless times Charles' handprints had covered her body, often in locations easy to conceal with clothing. The sudden plop of a popping bubble in the stew pulled her back to her task.

Quickly slicing up a few carrots, she reached for the chopped raw potatoes she had cut the evening before. Joanna dumped the vegetables into the thick liquid and watched them sink underneath the surface before stirring once again. Satisfied by the look and smell of the stew, she backed away from the overwhelming heat of the fire and found the sudden chill of the room refreshing. She walked leisurely into her bedroom considering changing into a nightgown.

Joanna sat at her writing desk still ambling through the musings of her mind. She slipped a piece of parchment from the drawer and grabbed an envelope placing them onto the writing surface. Reaching out her hand to lift the quill pen from its perch in the ink well, she felt a lump of fear growing in her throat. The pounding of her heart as the tip of the pen lingered above the paper fueled the hesitation. Could she really be strong enough to run?

The deep, stretching yawn she gave alerted her to the exhaustion she had been ignoring since returning home. She let out a gentle sigh drooping her shoulders in defeat. As much as she had held her pride for convincing herself to go, Joanna realized her actions would find reserves of anger inside Charles no man or beast should ever be allowed to see. Dropping the quill back into the glass bottle, she stood from the chair.

She pulled back the top blanket setting herself down on the cool wool covering the straw mattress, she laid her head onto her pillow. Another yawn pushed her eyes closed as she curled her legs closer to her body and allowed her eyelids to remain shut. The urge to leave the prison of her husband's home still rumbled through her thoughts conflicted against his ability to find her if she did. Trying to will herself to sleep, she forced herself to think of Gideon returning for her. With him by her side, she would be able to go.

"Joanna!" The mumbled shout barreled through the cottage doorway with the tall lanky shape of a man. "Joanna, where are you?" He took in a deep breath filling his lungs with the sweet scent of stewed carrots and potatoes spiced with rosemary. "Smells good." Stumbling forward from the door, the large man slammed up against the lower cabinets. "Need a bowl."

Slurred words and jumbled ramblings were soon accompanied by subtle thuds and loud crashes as Charles fumbled through the cupboards. His big hands rummaged over and around the collected pieces of pottery resting on the shelves. Pulling out a deep saucer he mistook for the prize he was hunting, he shrugged and dropped the clay onto the floor. Red shards of the saucer scattered across the ground over his feet as he continued to explore the dark box.

Stirring from her mild state of slumber, Joanna stretched her muscles and moved from beneath the blankets on the bed. When she heard the commotion radiating out of the kitchen, she stepped onto the chilled dirt floor and ambled toward the doorway to see where the noises were coming from. Another involuntary stretch stopped her at the threshold.

"Charles, where have you been?" When the familiar figure came into view, the harsh burning scent of whiskey filled her nostrils. She stifled a cough as the familiar sight of her intoxicated husband brought her attention to his search. "Sit down at the table, Charles, and I will ladle you some stew."

Pushing himself down into the wooden chair, his head dropped onto an arm flopped across the tabletop. Joanna stepped slowly to the large metal pot hanging over the dimming fire. Lifting a bowl and ladle out of the cupboard, she did as obedient wives should and served her husband. Booming, garbled laughter poured from his mouth as she placed the bowl and a spoon down on the table before him.

"I am an evil man." His bony fingers clamped around her wrist and pulled her onto his lap. The other hand that had been drooped by his side crept up her leg inching along the thin cotton of her nightdress. "Perfect fit for an evil woman."

"Charles, please." She made an attempt the leave his grasp, but his fingers dug into her thigh. She winced in pain. "Charles, you are hurting me."

"I will do much worse to you, woman." The hand from her wrist loosened and moved quickly violently grasping at her breast. Fear flushed over her as she tried to grab hold of his arm and free herself. "You know you enjoy being touched, whore." A darkly garbled voice came from his throat as his emotionless eyes set on her body.

"You are drunk, Charles." Joanna fought against her instinct to run and tried to remain calm enough to reason with her husband. "You should sleep."

"Sleep." He muttered the word to himself. "Yes, sleep would do me good."

Standing quickly from the chair, Charles nearly knocked her to the floor as he bumped against her. As she placed her hands at his sides to try and steady his balance, he raked a hand through his light brown shaggy mane and grabbed her wrist. Joanna stumbled across the room behind him, remaining silent as she was dragged toward the bedroom. She did not fight his force hoping he would lie down and sleep instantly upon hitting the bed instead of striking her as he often did in a stupor.

"Your lover has been arrested for murder." He growled shoving her in front of him into the room. Fear jumped into her throat straining her ability to speak as he backed her up against the bed. "To think I called him my friend."

"Charles." She willed a slight laugh into her voice trying to convince him of her innocence. "You are confusing stories—"

"I am speaking truth, woman!" The force of his words stopped her movements to try and move away as he slapped her face. She choked back a scream from the shooting pain surging across her cheek. "I murdered the bakery man with Gideon's pistol." Evil laughter tumbled slowly out of his mouth. "He will hang for it."

"Why would you do such—"

"Whore!" The thunderous shout rang out above the silence of the night as Joanna was instantly thrown down hard onto the bed. Her heart jumped as the full weight of her husband landed on top of her squeezing the air from her lungs. "How could you?"

Another shout accompanied a fist to the side of her face. She fell into a conscious state of shock as Charles tore at the thin chemise next. Joanna could not manage to fight him from on top her in her dazed state. She could barely manage to move to cover herself as the cotton material tore again exposing her breasts. Rough hands grabbed at the soft flesh leaving behind a trail of faint purple bruises.

"Charles." She finally managed to squeak out a word to try and stop his actions before she was once again beaten into her place. His eyes fluttered, almost rolling back into his head as she watched his consciousness fade slowly.

"Worthless." The last word he spoke before dropping into a drunken slumber brought her from her daze.

Nausea turned her stomach as the words he had spoken in confession returned to her thoughts. Gideon was in grave danger, and she was the only one who could save him. Thankful Charles had collapsed mostly beside her, she gently pulled herself out from under the loudly snoring man's arm and leg. She clutched the torn neckline of her chemise and slipped silently from the bed. Catching a glimpse of herself in the plate-sized mirror hanging above her desk, she almost did not recognize the reflection.

A deep purple bruise was darkening beneath her eye. She pulled the torn cotton of her chemise close around her neck to cover the bruises on her shoulders and chest. A flush of embarrassment for her own weakness to this heinous man colored her cheeks. Her eyes settled on the page of parchment and an envelope resting on her desk from when she was going to leave. Steady steps took her to the desk and she placed her fingers on the paper. Grasping the quill and pulling it from the ink well, her fingers shook as she tried to write.

Taking a deep breath, Joanna wrote as fast as her trembling body would allow. Her mind pushed past the urge to write the note she had originally planned and go as her heart whispered the need to make sure Charles would not escape. As she narrowed her eyes at the thoughts of the sleeping man, she conveyed exactly what Charles had confessed. Not taking a moment more to read the note she had penned, she folded the parchment and stuffed it inside an envelope.

Bailiff Argure's name was scrolled onto the front before she lifted a candle to drip wax to seal it. Blowing on the hardening wax, she wrapped a blanket around her shoulders and padded silently through the bedroom. She paused only to turn and pull the door closed carefully to not make any noise and wake the sleeping monster. Joanna hurried across the kitchen and pulled open the door of the cottage.

"Daniel." She was relieved to see the son of her neighbor walking his horse from the well. Forcing a smile onto her lips, she waved at the child. "Are you going into town?"

"Yes, ma'am." His soft whisper was a sigh of relief to her ears.

"I have a favor to ask of you." The small lad stared at her from under his tousled black hair and waited. She swallowed and placed the letter into his hand. "You must deliver this letter to Bailiff Argure straight away." His eyes were soft and sympathetic as he looked up at her. "I will give you a sixpence when you return."

"You can count on me, ma'am." The boy gave a quick nod of his head as he slipped the envelope inside his coat. When he turned to pull himself up onto the horse and slipped, Joanna lifted him up carefully.

He gave her a short smile, and pressed his heels into the sides of the steed. Retreating back into the doorway, she gazed after the boy as he rode out of sight down the dusty road. A prayer for speed drifted from her lips in hopes the letter would reach the jail in time to save Gideon's life. Her heart leapt at the thought of Gideon's death and she took a step out the door to run after Daniel.

"Joanna?" Jumping at the sound of his deeply demonic voice rumbling through the shadows behind her, she slipped back inside the cottage to close the door. "You opened the door without my permission?"

"Charles." Her voice pitched when she saw his sluggish movements toward her. She tried to ignore the glare of his narrowed eyes to try and calm him. "Would you like me to start breakfast?"

"You ignore my question, woman." Saliva flew from his mouth as he hissed.

"I have no idea what you are speaking about, Charles." Ignoring the pain in her face was proving to be a challenging task even though she had done it several times before. Joanna swallowed hard, gesturing toward the table to distract him. "Sit."

The pounding fear of her heart vibrated in her ears as she turned and walked to the iron pot still hanging over the fire. A frown tugged down the corners of her lips and furrowed her brow as she peered down into the brunt, crusty pot. She filled her lungs and blew out a long sigh as she turned toward the table. The anger in his eyes burned into the flush of her face. Trembling hands slowly removed the soiled dishes from the hours before.

"How many times, Joanna?" She could feel the rage radiating from his body as he approached the table.

"I do not know—"

"Liar!" Charles sent the table toppling over. The pale woman jumped as the clay dishes shattered into dust against the dirt floor. "How many times did he touch you?" Charles' fingers gripped her shoulders with fierce fervor as his rage boiled to overflowing. "I know what you like."

Squeezing her eyes closed to hold back her tears, she bit her tongue hard to silence the pain-filled scream. The rusted taste of blood filled her mouth as the stabbing throb from her tongue overpowered the fingers digging into the delicate skin. Her muscles clenched tightly from shame as his hands pushed down at the tattered edges of her chemise. As his rough, calloused fingers stroked over the supple skin of her breast, the smoldering embers of the anger in her stomach ignited into flames.

Joanna's eyes snapped open when his fingers curled around her neck. A brief flash of panic jolted her body as she felt the tightening grip closing in around her throat. Her arm moved in reflex before she was even aware any strength remained in her body. The stinging sensation tingling through her hand accompanied by the smack and the stunned look on his face were the only evidence of what she had done.

"Whore!" He threw her petite form down onto the scattered clay pieces with another strike to her face. A low growl drifted from his open mouth as he gently touched the tender, reddening skin on his cheek. "How dare you."

Deep, stammering breathed heaved in and out of her chest as she looked up at her husband from the floor. The lid of his left eye jumped and twitched as he glared down at her. Pulling herself up off of the dirt floor against the cupboards, Joanna leaned her weight on flimsy legs. She felt the urge to run course through her veins again, but saw Charles too close to the door for an easy route. As his eyes gazed without focus into the darkness behind him, she saw her opening in the shadows of the bedroom.

Barring the door with the furniture would keep him away from her just long enough to allow her escape through the window. It was a few feet to the ground from the sill and it sloped to the river from there, but the risk would be worth her freedom. With his heavily lidded eyes still staring at empty space, Joanna cast aside the pain in her head and dashed toward the bedroom.

He reached out quickly as she tried to slip past him into the safety of the shadowed bedroom. Yanking toward himself with a fist full of her long blond hair, a sneer curled at his lips. Joanna closed her eyes as Charles raised him arm in preparation to strike her again. She felt herself shoved forward by the force of his hand on the back of her head, opening her eyes an instant before her body slammed against the lower cupboards.

Warm blood slowly crawled down the side of her face from the pulsating gash resting above her eyebrow. Faintness pulled the weight of her bones and flesh as her eyesight faded in and out of the darkness. Her mouth dropped open as she fought to breathe in enough air to keep her consciousness. Blinking frequently to fend off the nagging weakness of fatigue, she saw Charles teetering sideways through blurred vision.

A hideously crazed laugh tore from his lips as he grabbed his chopping axe from beside the door. He raised the weapon high over his head with bloody rage clouding his vision. The dull head dropped into the flesh and bone of her chest with a deep thwack. Dark red blood oozed from the wound with every failing beat of her heart. A dark rusty pool formed on the floor beside the limp corpse as he pulled a dagger from his belt.

"You will never escape me." With one quick slice of his dagger, Charles opened his own throat and fell down beside his wife. Blood mixed together soaking the hard-packed dirt floor.

"Walk him out." Bailiff Argure spoke softly to the jailer holding Gideon's shackle chain.

The executioner took his place beside the chopping block as a bound prisoner was led from the holding cell. Sorrow covered the bailiff's expression as he watched his friend walk without hesitation to his death. Bailiff Argure followed Gideon closely praying his soul would be allowed into Heaven for being so brave. He whispered a silent word that his own soul be forgiven for not trying harder to force the truth.

"Gideon, I am asking you one final time." Argure's voice trembled as they marched up the wooden steps to the platform. "Reveal where you were that night, and you will go free."

Gideon shook his head one last time and kneeled down to put his head on the block. The bailiff turned away and gave the cloaked executioner the signal to carry out his job. Walking slowly down the steps and through the crowd of on-lookers, Argure knew he was killing a man innocent of the accused crime. Gideon had done something wrong, Argure was sure of it from the strange actions of the man, but this had not been his crime. A hollow thud echoed above the whispering people.

"Bailiff Argure, I have a letter for you." A boy grabbed the man's arm and thrust a simple parchment envelope into his hand. "It is urgent, sir."

"Thank you." The boy had disappeared before the mumbled word was even uttered.

Tearing open the envelope, the bailiff pulled the handwritten letter from its encasement and scanned the words. His heart sank deeper within his chest as he read to the signature. The letter and envelope tumbled from his hands and dropped into a puddle of mud. Raindrops patted onto the ground as rumbles of thunder boomed between the clouds. One word proved Argure's worries: innocent.