Cindra doesn’t run a third time

Cindra squeaked in terror as the strange pale man began to stride towards her, murmuring throatily in a language she did not understand. This must be the man that had attacked Goodwife Rawtharn so viciously and she wasn’t about to stay around to see what he had in store for her.

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She turned to run and almost collided with him. She hadn’t even seen him move and now he was standing on her other side, blocking her path so she had nowhere to run to. She was trapped. She tried to scream but it felt like his icy hands were already around her throat, and she found she could not.

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He chuckled softly, hissing between his sharp teeth, “Shh shh petit fille. Be not afraid. I give you great gift”.

He had begun to purr to her in English now, advancing on her like a great cat circling a tiny shivering mouse.

She backed away slowly until she came up against the wall with a bump. There was nowhere left to go and she waited shuddering in terror for the moment when he pounced.

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He pressed up against her pinning her to the wall with an arm on either side and she could feel his ropey muscles, taught beneath the fabric of his clothes. She tried to squirm away from the chill caress of his hand on her neck but she found she could not move as he whispered in her ear.

Inside she panicked, her terrified heart flailing in her breast, the mouse in the jaws of the slavering beast, limbs skewed, whiskers quivering. But try as she might to lift her tiny arms and push him away she could not muster the will.

He brought his face close to hers, his icy lips brushing against her trembling open mouth and she could taste the metallic tang of blood on his breath.

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She waited for the crunch of the jaws to end her life, snapping her fragile bones, severing the arteries through which her blood thundered, but it did not come. He was nuzzling her neck, growling softly words she could not make sense of. His hands stroked down her shivering arms, his slender fingers caressing where the skin poked through the lace of her sleeves, chilling the blood the ran frenzied beneath her skin.

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Then he stepped back, his hands dropping to his sides and she felt a brief surge of hope. But his glowing red eyes were still on hers as he gazed at her hungrily.

“Now come to me”, he opened his arms like her father waiting for her to run on stumpy legs into them and she was sickened by the comparison.

He wasn’t finished with her, now he was just playing, sending her tiny body soaring through the air and letting it plummet to earth between his cruel paws. She began to cry, hot tears that streaked down her face mingling with the freezing rain.

She would not come to him, even if it meant the end of her. He smiled at her and the moonlight glinted off his sharp, curving fangs.

“Come to me ma fille… come to me”, he crooned and to her horror she felt her body detaching from the safety of the wall and creeping, trembling in fear into his outstretched arms.

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“Bien, ma fille, bien…”, he muttered, his arms wrapping around her shivering body and pulling her close to him.

She found her hands were moving on their own, clasping around his neck, holding fistfuls of his coarse black hair, her tear-stained face pressed against his frigid cheek.

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She felt his icy mouth sliding along her soaking neck, his rasping tongue tasting her and she waited for those sharp teeth to pierce the skin, for the exquisite pain and then the ecstasy. He was right, this was a gift, it was all she had ever wanted.

But suddenly he drew back, spitting, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.

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“Tainted as well!” he cursed, “Do every of you splay-legged whores have filthy blood running in the veins”

Cindra stood trembling, upset that he would reject her so. She reached out a shaking hand towards him but after a moment it slowly fell to her side.

“And I am so damn hungry! Years I wait for someone to come, anyone to come to this godforsaken island and now so many come and still I don’t take my fill!”

Then the fog lifted from Cindra’s mind and she remembered what was happening. She opened her mouth and let out a piercing shriek that rang long and loud.

“Merde! Tais-toi! Shut your whining mouth little wretch!” he grabbed a fistful of her hair in his hand and swung her around, tired of the game now, wanting only the fast kill.

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She smacked face first into the bulkhead, staggering as he pulled her to her feet. She tried weakly to struggle away but his heavy hand came up and smashed into her delicate face. She blinked, trying to recover as his fist came at her again.

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This time she collapsed, sliding down onto the floor at his feet, gazing in terror at the big black boots that would surely pound into the softness of her body. Blood ran down her face from her nose and into her mouth and all she could smell was the sharp metallic scent, the thick fluid choking in the back of her throat as she feebly held up her arms to protect her face.

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Then she heard the pounding of boots and she closed her eyes expecting to feel sharp pain rattling through her body. But there was nothing and she thought perhaps she was dying, moving beyond the realm where she could feel pain to a place where she never would again.

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“Merde!” she heard her attacker growl again, and then his boot clomped out of her vision.

“You!” she heard Lochan’s voice roar and she began to weep with relief, “You! Stop!”.

She looked up with blurry eyes, to see the pale man jump with catlike grace onto the railing. He turned and snarled at her and then launched himself over the edge.

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She waited to for the splash as his body hit the water far below but it never came.

And then Lochan was beside her, his arms wrapped around her shivering body, his strong hands stroking her hair, his voice whispering comforting words in her ear.

“Oh my poor dear”, he murmured, “He’s gone now, you are safe. Did he hurt you? Did that bastard hurt you?”

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She could not even answer between the racking sobs that were tearing from her throat. She leant heavily against him, burrowing her face beneath his hair and pressing it against the warmth of his neck.

They stayed there until her weeping finally subsided and she tried to stand on her trembling legs. He was on his feet in an instant helping her to hers and holding her upright with gentle hands.

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He reached up and carefully wiped her nose with the edge of his sleeve. She could see the white of it stained red with her blood. It spread through the rain-soaked fibres of the fabric, a dendritic network of tiny veins exactly like those that ran just beneath surface of her shivering skin.

“I didn’t finish the bet Lochan”, she said in a wavering voice, “I only ran around the ship two and a half times”.

He exhaled sharply, the air rushing between his teeth and he pulled her to him, crushing her body against the warmth of his.

“Let’s get you inside where it’s warm and Lisbet can take care of you”, he breathed into her hair as his hands stroked slowly up and down her back.

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Cindra runs around the ship twice

Cindra scrambled up the stairs hoping to warm herself with the exertion. A cool breeze had sprung up and it was damply grabbing at her hair. Her feet were freezing, but she only had to make one more circuit after this and then the stupid thing would be done. She puffed as she ran, almost out of breath. Goodness, having Atholt had really gotten her out of shape. She would have to get outside more often. It might be fun to go and see what was happening with the construction of the castle, or even the church. They must have made a lot of progress since they had renewed building when the snow thawed, she mused as she puffed her way up the stairs.

Luckily there as noone around to witness her efforts, she was thinking, as she came to the top of the stairs and collided with a solid body.

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“Ooof”, said the body as they both went tumbling down onto the deck.

It was Lochan, and now she was lying on top of the poor man while he blearily peered up at her.

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“Oh my goodness! Lochan! I’m so very sorry, are you alright”, she squeaked in dismay.

“Mmmphf…”, he blinked a couple of times, “Cindra?”.

“Yes, yes it’s me, have I hurt you badly? Can you move at all?”

“Hmphf”, he tried to shift weight and when he found he couldn’t he laughed.

“Perhaps I could move if you weren’t lying on top of me! At least somebody got a soft landing. These poor old bones are getting too old for you to tackle me you know”.

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“Oh, oh I’m so very sorry!” Cindra cried scrambling to sit up and get her weight off Lochan’s chest, “I forgot I was squashing you”.

“And you have gotten a damn sight bigger than the 5 year old who used to launch herself at my knees and try and topple me”, he replied, gingerly sitting up himself, “but don’t worry, I seem to be intact for today but I don’t recommend you repeat the process or you might have to ask Hepsie how to put me back together”.

He grinned suddenly, noticing her attire, “Well then young lady, what on Earth are you doing running about in your nightgown? I thought those days were over too.”

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Cindra blushed, remembering how as a child she had often interrupted important meetings, tearing in on her stubby legs in nothing but a nightgown and demanding her father’s attention. Everyone had laughed at her but not him, he had only reached down and placed her on his big strong knee, letting her play with his beard until she fell asleep in his arms. Her heart gave a sharp pang at the thought of him and she had to choke back an unbidden sob.

Lochan noticed her distress and gently stroked her arm, “Now then, I didn’t mean to upset you. You can run about in whichever outfit you choose, I only ask that I not be the target of evening nightgown clad offensives”.

He always knew how to make her laugh and she giggled as she helped him to his feet.

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“No it’s alright. You see, the reason I am running about like this is that I lost a bet with Lisbet and this is my punishment… oh blast!”

“What’s wrong?” Lochan asked his smile falling.

“Oh it’s just that now it’s gone and begun to rain and I still have to run around this ruddy ship one more time or I will never hear the end of it”, she gazed up at the sky in dismay.

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“Well then I guess I had better send you on your way”, he was shaking his head slightly with a knowing smile, “It just like you to make a bet like this Cindra. But don’t be too long out here or you’ll catch a chill. You’re not even wearing shoes!”

“Well I don’t wear shoes to bed do I?” she replied with a laugh, “And wouldn’t I look silly clomping around in boots and a nightgown”.

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“Only slightly more silly than you look now dear”, he said affectionately, “Now come here and let me pinch that chubby cheek of yours for luck and it’s off with you. I’m going inside, it’s too damn miserable out here for me”.

He reached up and gently pinched her wet cheek with a tender smile.

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“Off you go!”, he cried with a chuckle.

She trotted off down the stairs, trying to run in a delicate way to minimise the jiggling, knowing he was watching.

Once out of sight, she ran fast to the opposite side of the ship, the cool wind whipping at her face, the fat raindrops splashing down onto her flushed cheeks.

It would be nice to get inside she thought, away from the cold where Lisbet was surely waiting for her with a cup of mulled wine and a nice warm fire.

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“Only one more time to go”, she sang as she rounded the corner, stopping abruptly as a man she had never seen before emerged from the shadows.

“Bonsoir ma belle fille”, he crooned in a voice as icy as the sleet that pelted her face.

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Cindra runs once around the ship

“Well then my dear Cindra”, Lisbet clasped her hands as she spoke, a gleeful grin spreading across her face, “I think you and I both know your time has come”.

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“But Lisbet!”, Cindra cried with an exaggerated shiver, “it is so very cold outside tonight and here I am with nought but a flimsy nightgown”.

“Would you be so very cruel as to send me out on a night like this”, she battered her eyelids with her most endearing look, clasping her hands beneath her chin for added effect.

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“Very cold my big fat belly!”, Lisbet retorted.

“Oh!”, Cindra cried in mock dismay, “oh how can you say such terribly crass things. I would not have expected it from a lady such as yourself. I shall feel ashamed to be seated in your company”.

They could not hold in a snigger at this, thinking about the earlier altercation of the day. That Nyawe really was too much.

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“Now Cindra, there is no escaping your duty tonight… you have already made every excuse under the sun and it is positively barmy outside this evening. So you better hike up the skirts of that flimsy nightgown of yours and get going around the ship on your pretty little ankles”, she looked down appraisingly, “which are decidedly not swollen and for that very fact you should be exceedingly glad. Oh to run again…”.

“I on the other hand, am going to go inside, rest my dreadful ankles on something soft and watch your progress through the window”.

“But Lisbet!”, Cindra quickly scrabbled around for an excuse she had not already used, “it is so dark. What if I fall and twist one of these pretty little ankles? What will we do if we only have one lovely ankle between the two of us. Someone needs to draw the eyes of the menfolk, else they be continuously focused on the slender ankles of a certain black-haired hussy. And to be honest with you, I just don’t think one will be sufficient”.

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“Oh Cindra… truly, you are killing me. Enough with the excuses. You lost the bet. I won. Therefore the end result is you, this ship and three times a nightgown clad run”.

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“Beside”, Lisbet gazed upwards, “There is a full moon tonight so I think those ankles of yours are safe”.

“Now my lady, do you think you are up to the task or must I admit that my friend is a coward who cannot keep her promise”.

“Now, now Lisbet, don’t be too hasty to bring out such words. There is not a doubt that I am braver than most, I simply had a few concerns that needed to be dealt with. Do I not look like I am up to the task”.

She paused, lifting her arms in the air in mockery of their husbands posing before an arm wrestle, “Can you not see these bulging biceps”.

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“Yes dearest, but I don’t expect you to walk on your hands so what use is a bulging bicep to me”, she giggled as Cindra began to grab a the hem of her nightgown, “No no! Put your skirt down, I am sure you have strong thighs, you are already indecent enough as it is without displaying any more skin”.

“Now off with you and I don’t want to see you again until you have been thrice around the entire ship”.

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Cindra began an awkward run down the stairs hearing Lisbet’s giggle behind her. Laugh as she may Cindra was a Baroness and she would run like one. Unfortunately her short stature and the lack of a corset to hold in her jiggly bits were making it a little more awkward than she had anticipated.

Also the waterlogged floorboards were really quite cold under her barefeet despite the warmth of the spring evening, meaning that she felt disinclined to leave them there for too long. This had an undesired effect on turning what would have been a graceful gallop, into a clumsy trot.

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She wondered what Garrick was doing. Probably in the galley drinking again. She would wake up after some dreadful dream about his dead sister to find him snoring, stinking of ale. She was so involved in scowling that she wasn’t paying attention as she ran up the stairs and she almost ran into a shadowy figure leaning over the railing.

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A large portion of the shadowy figure suddenly detached and she heard both a female and male gasp. Then Alexis and Nyawe were standing before her with sheepish grins.

She stood fixed to the spot in shock. She and Lisbet had whispered many things about Nyawe but they had never thought of her and Sir Hwratar. In fact they had never had any proof of their imaginings at all and so, she realised, this was a moment to be savoured.

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“Oh… oh your Ladyship”, Alexis said still unconciously gripping the arm of the steward’s wife, “How fortunate you are here”, his gaze wandered downwards to the buttons along the front of her nightgown, “taking some exercise in your… err… night attire”.

She stared haughtily at him until his eyes moved back up to hers, “I… I was just trying to help Mistress Elmvarn. She… she has something in her eye”.

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Nyawe tore her arm from Alexis’ grasp and began to rub furiously at her eye for effect, “Yes.. ow.. it’s really hurting. I can’t think what on earth it might be”.

Cindra desperately tried to keep a straight face and not come up with helpful suggestions as to what might have accidentally lodged there. They stood before her, faces flushed, hair dishevelled, their eyes wide in the moonlight. It really was too perfect.

“Do you have any suggestions”, Alexis asked with a winning smile.

Cindra pretended to consider for a moment while he shifted feet awkwardly.

“Why yes Sir Hwratar. I have always thought that perhaps in such moments, the application of one’s tongue to the mouth is perhaps the least useful method of removal of the offensive object. You might have better luck asking Goodwife Cade for help”.

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She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively although she was unsure they could see it in the moonlight, probably a good thing on second thought since she suspected she may have looked ridiculous.

“I’m sure she will try a different method. Lord knows how many times the tongue-in-mouth procedure has been employed without a significant result. But really you weren’t to know that it was out of fashion”.

She turned on her heel, scampering down the stairs and onto the lower deck. When she was out of site, she nigh exploded with pent up laughter, leaning against a mast for support.

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Really it was too much, to watch them floundering before her, to have her revenge against that woman who had flirted so outrageously and openly with her husband.

She laughed until her sides ached and she was bent over, clutching at her shaking belly. She couldn’t wait to tell Lisbet. But first she had to make it twice more around the ship.

Cindra_44

Nyawe finds a worthy opponent

Nyawe hurriedly closed the door behind her to hide her blushing face. The nerve of that woman to embarass her like that in front of the Queen. Not that she didn’t have a point but really, it was undignified to behave in such a manner. And for all she had said, Nyawe had never been unfaithful to her husband.

She began to walk to her mistress’ chambers, taking her time. It was a sunny day and it was beautiful outside. She could not understand why the Queen always insisted on spending the days locked up in that stuffy room of hers. Nyawe would have much preferred to sit outside but Madlenka did so love her company.

She almost squealed when she felt a sure hand on her hips, and then she realised it was Sir Hwratar. She had been flirting with him since they arrived on the island but since his wife had been ill she had barely seen him and even after her recovery he had not sought her out again.

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His hand came to rest on her arm as he firmly pushed her in front of him, into a dark corridor leading off the main deck. She pretended to struggle slightly for the fun of it, feeling a rush of heat in her body as he squeezed her arm tighter.

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He spun her around roughly so they were face to face.

“Well then Sir Hwratar”, she purred with her most winning smile, “Is there something I can do for you?”.

Her heart was fluttering in her chest, and her stomach felt sick. But this was what she had wanted. Wasn’t it?

“My dear Nyawe, I think in fact there is something I need and you seem like just the woman to help me with it”, he grinned at her, flashing his brilliant white teeth.

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“Oh dear”, she said mockingly, twisting her mother’s cross between her fingers, all the time feeling like a hypocrite. He watched her closely, his eyes lingering on the creamy skin beneath the necklace. Then his gaze began to wander around the room he had pushed her into.

“Hmmm…”, he said, his slender brows knotting with worry, “there seems to be an awful lot of swords in here my dear. Where exactly are we then?”.

“Oh”, she tittered, “This is the armoury, did you not know?”.

She continued to twist her fingers around, gently caressing the cross, somehow calmed by the smooth edges, worn down by pious hands that weren’t her own, “Did you perhaps need some help with your sword. Because if you did it seems you have come to the right place”.

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He grinned at her, chuckling softly, “You read my mind like a book, lovely Nyawe. My sword is exactly the problem I wanted to consult you about, since you seem to be such an expert on the topic”.

“Unfortunately this seems like an inoppurtune place to have such a discussion with you, I am sure I wouldn’t want your husband to find us here, surrounded as we are by such sharp and pointy objects”.

She thought the mention of her husband should have disturbed her more than it did. Her husband, Garald, taking her to his bed for duty’s sake and now that she was with child she spent the nights cold and alone, waiting while he snored in a chair outside the King’s door.

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“Oh Sir Hwaratar, I wouldn’t worry about that. My husband doesn’t know how to use a sword properly and even if he did”, her gaze slid down his torso and she smiled and whispered engagingly “I’m sure your sword is much bigger”.

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Her husband who barely had a moment for her. The mornings, pulling open the curtains for the Queen finding her wrapped sleepily in the loving arms of the King. And her husband, an expanse of bed seperating them, her swelling belly distasteful to his awkward hands. In the darkness creeping, curling up beside him while he slept, desperate for some warmth, desperate for his touch, however clumsy.

Alexis threw back his head laughing till tears formed in the corners of his eyes, “I see I have definitely found the right woman for the cause then, En garde!”.

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“But I should probably warn you my lovely that I am pretty good when it comes to the sword. Are you sure you can keep up”, he grinned at her, wagging his finger at her.

She could scarcely keep her eyes off the lean lines of his body, the muscular chest peeking through the ties of his tunic. Had it really been so long since a man had satisfied her?

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“My dear Sir Hwratar”, she replied mimicking his movements in counter-attack, “Are you forgetting who you are talking to. I am quite the expert when it comes to swords. If I were you I would be concerned that your apparent prowess is not quite enough to keep pace. Perhaps your advances will be met with a parry”.

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He leaned in close to her and she felt a thrill through her body, her heart speeding up, her breath quickening.

“And so comes the riposte. Oh my dearest Nyawe, I don’t think I’ll have a problem keeping pace, did I not tell you, I am quite the master of the thrust”, he whispered, his hot breath tickling her neck.

She unconciously began to stroke her bare arm longing to feel the heat of his touch against her skin.

She would give it up, she had been wrong in pursuing Garald. Her husband would never love her no matter what she did. She had been stupid. He was cold and distant where Alexis was warm in all the right places.

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He moved even closer so she could feel the length of his body pushing up against hers, corps-a-corps. He was staring at her so intensely she had to look away.

“Now tell me my dear, how did your pussycat of a husband manage to tame a tiger such as yourself”, there it was the feint, reminding her of her husband again, testing her resolve.

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“Do I look tame to you”, she replied huskily, her voice a sharp, angry beat against his armour.

Then he lunged at her, throwing her off balance so she had to cling to him while he nipped hungrily at her throat. It had been such a long time since she had felt like this that she could barely contain her moans.

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Finally their lips met, taking from each other what they both needed. Her breath was coming ragged between her lips, an unbearable heat building between her legs.

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Then he pulled back, gazing at her flushed face.

“Not here, someone might come”, he panted, “Tonight. Meet me tonight by the mast and we will go somewhere noone shall find us”.

She stared at him for a moment, taking in his open lips, his dilated pupils, the face of desire. This was what it felt to be wanted.

“Touche”, she murmured then disengaged, turning on her heel and walking from the room, leaving him alone to compose himself.

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The Queen was waiting, she would have to hurry. But there was tonight to look forward to.

The women spend an awkward afternoon

“Isn’t it wonderful news that the Countess has finally awoken?” Lisbet said brightly, trying to alleviate the awkward silence.

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The room was so quiet one could almost hear the soft rustle of the thread running through the fabric as they sat with their various tasks. Lisbet was carefully embroidering a pattern of horses on a tiny white gown. Every so often she would pause to marvel at its delicacy, the miniature sleeves flaring out from the smallest of holes meant for chubby little arms. She could scarcely believe that soon she would be holding the creature small enough to dress in such an item.

She gazed across at Cindra who was sitting opposite her, her features set in an uncomfortable smile, nodding her head in agreement.

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It was Cindra who had convinced her to come along and she felt sorely out of place amongst women of such a higher rank than herself. But Cindra had whined and pleaded until she had finally agreed but she was definitely beginning to regret that decision as she waited for someone to reply to her desperate attempt at conversation.

“Hmmm… yes I’m sure that the Count is going to be very pleased about that fact… and do you know what else I think?”, Nyawe spoke up.

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Lisbet bristled, there was nothing she could not stand more than that women. At least the addition of Nyawe to the small party meant that she was not of the lowest rank, but even so Lisbet wished she were not there. Most of the women despised the Queen’s maid, wife to the King’s steward. But the Queen was very fond of her, and so she was often included where she should not be.

And she knew that they only despised her because of the way she could transfix a man merely by sashaying past him. And she did not like the sideways glances Nyawe threw at her husband with her catlike eyes when she thought Lisbet was not looking.

Cindra spoke up, her tone flat and her eyes flaring, “No, actually Nyawe, I don’t think anyone is particularly interested in what you think”.

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Lisbet knew that her friend hated the woman. She had once found her chatting flirtatiously with Garrick in the kitchen during one of his drinking binges and now she could barely stand to be in the same room as her.

“Oh shush Cindra, don’t be silly”, the Queen snapped, “of course we want to hear what you think Nyawe. Please do go on”.

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“Well…”, she paused for effect, “I think he’s not the only one who will be pleased. I am under the impression that there is something going on between the lovely Countess and our pious Father Harndall”.

“Have you seen the way they look at each other? I mean, during his sermons his eyes always fall on her and once they are there they are stuck for good. Although I am not that surprised with that dress she often wears. Any man would find it hard to look away when greeted with a sight like that”.

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Her eyes flicked down for a moment, probably to make sure her own dress was displaying her assets to advantage.

“Not only that”, she continued barely drawing breath, “but I heard that when they were found the Father had his arm around her. Which begs the question why were they together in the first place doesn’t it?”.

Lisbet could feel anger boiling up inside of her. She glanced at the Queen whose expression suggested she was definitely wishing that she had not encouraged Nyawe to speak.

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She was about to open her mouth and speak when Isaura began to cough, a dreadful hacking sound which shuddered through her tiny frame and burst from her mouth. She paused for a moment and an inaudible relief washed through the room. Then suddenly it began again, her mouth open as her frail hands flew up, trying to hold it in, her swollen belly heaving with the effort.

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When it finally ended she dabbed her lips with a handkerchief held between her shaking fingers. Lisbet was distressed to see bright splatters of blood staining the petals of the tiny flowers embroidered there red.

“Oh dear, I’m so sorry about that”, the poor thing raised her face, obviously embarrassed although there did not seem enough life left in her to let a blush rise in her pale cheeks.

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“You poor thing, don’t you be worrying your dear heart silly”, Cindra reassured her, “it is not trouble”.

She looked at Lisbet with an overly, wide-eyed innocent look, “Now what were we talking about, oh that’s right, Nyawe was saying how she was sure that Father Harndall was behaving in a undignified manner with the Countess. Isn’t that right?.

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She could feel her friends gaze directly upon her waiting for her reaction and she knew Cindra was just stirring her up because she was bored, but she did not care. The return of anger was a familiar fiery rush in her belly, and she did not try to fight it.

“Yes, that’s right. Nyawe was just slandering the good Father for her own amusement. Shall we continue with that?” Lisbet spat.

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Nyawe looked up at her, with a shocked expression but it did not deter her. She could not bear to hear such rumours spread about the kind, gentle Father who had held her hand while she sobbed and comforted her while they prayed together over her dying husband’s bed. He was a good man and it was wrong to say such things as this.

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She noticed that the Queen was staring at her rather icicly but she did not care. Somebody needed to put Nyawe in her place and she was going to be the one to do it.

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“I mean, have some decency woman! You are speaking of people who have been extremely ill… nearly died in fact. And you come in here saying these dreadful things as though you knew them to be true”.

“You only think the worst of people because perhaps that is the way you feel inside. Maybe you have no qualms about making eyes at other women’s husbands but that does not mean that everyone is like you!”.

She looked up to see Cindra making a pained face at her and she knew she had gone too far but she was so infuriated she was beyond the point of caring.

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“You come in here and sit with us, and pretend to be a lady but all that comes out of your mouth is filthy lies about good people. And Father Harndall is a good man. He does not deserve such treatment and neither does the Countess. Just because you spend most of your time entertaining men who are otherwise, does not mean that standard should be applied to all of them”.

“That’s enough Lisbet!”, the Queen hissed, “You have no right to make such claims about her. In making them you bring yourself down to the level of the common gossip you claim to be standing so far above”.

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Lisbet was about to retort, about to reply, to challenge the Queen even though Cindra’s frantic eyes signalled wildly to her that it was a stupid idea. But she was angry now and Lisbet was not a woman who was good at controlling herself when she in this state. Who cared if she burnt bridges? Who cared if she was not welcome in the Queen’s society anymore? It didn’t matter as long as she proved her point.

She drew breath and was about to speak when suddenly Isaura began coughing again, this time so hard that her body was bent over, her breath wheezing painfully between her teeth, a small dribble of bloodstained spittle drooling from her mouth.

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“Oh for goodness sake”, the Queen said curtly, “Nyawe would you be so kind as to get the poor Duchess a tonic from my room”.

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Nyawe gracefully rose to her feet standing before them, her hips tilting defiantly but her features soft and her voice as placid as a kitten’s mew, “Of course Your Highness. I will only be a minute”.

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And with that she turned, slinking out the doore her hips swaying rhythmically, a habit so entrained that she did it automatically despite the lack of a male audience. Once again the room was silent.

Morven cannot

She had been so focused on the internal workings of her body that she had not even noticed Alexis until he was right behind her. She had been trying to choose a book to read now that the babies were finally asleep. But the mere movement of lifting her arm to reach to the higher shelves had completely distracted from the task at hand. She was horrified that even with such a small effort her heart would beat sickeningly fast.

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She slowly lowered her arm, the thumping in her chest increasing as Alexis languidly ran his hand down her side. Then he suddenly pressed his body desperately against the length of hers, pushing her up against the bookcase. She felt her body stiffen at his touch, her stomach churning and her mouth dry.

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His hand found the hollow of her flank, lazily drawing circles over the spot that always made her stomach flutter. Today it did not flutter, but writhed and squirmed away from his touch. He firmly grasped her hipbone, deftly spinning her around his mouth finding hers.

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The weight of his body pushed her against the bookcase with a thump and a small cloud of dust floated down around them. The things they had done here, her back to the bookcase, her skirt around her waist and now all she could think of were the wooden shelves jutting painfully into her spine and the dreadful constant pounding of her heart.

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She waited for her body to respond to the yearnings in his, but she could only feel weak and sick in his grasping arms. She wondered if she fainted there in those arms would he catch her, or would she merely fall to the floor in a dishevlled heap. She felt dizzy, and in her desperation for air she had to push him away.

She stood for a moment, trying to hide the great gulping breaths she sucked in, almost choking on the dust.

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After waiting a moment, Alexis moved in to kiss her again but she turned her face so he met with a cold cheek instead.

“What’s wrong Morven love”, he asked suddenly realising her lack of response might be reason for concern.

She couldn’t tell him, couldn’t let him know how ill she felt most days, how her heart beat rapidly at the slightest task. She didn’t want him to know that the mere act of holding Colthan or Riandur was too much for her weakened body, that when he lay her down at night sometimes the clenching pain was so great she felt she would die there in his arms.

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“Oh nothing dear… I.. I’m just a bit tired is all”, she tried to smile, but could feel that the muscles in her face were not living up to her expectations, “I don’t think I’m really up to it right now. You know how those boys of ours are keeping me awake”.

“It took me so long to put them to sleep now, it would be a shame to wake them with all our moaning and groaning and hollering”, Morven thought she was doing a better job with the smiling but it nearly fell from her face at the thought of what she had lost.

Alexis was still looking at her, concern flickering across his face in the green light from her father’s lamp. He rubbed gently at her rigid arm. She would have to do better.

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She gently pushed away his hand, “Oh look at you there with your poor eyebrows knotted like that. If you’re not careful, worrying about me is going to give you wrinkles. I’m fine, really, just a little tired that’s all”.

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That did the trick as Alexis’ attention was suddenly focused on the dreadful possiblity of wrinkles creasing his handsome face. He rubbed vigourously at the spot between his brows and by the time he turned back to her Morven had managed to compose her face in to a much more realistic semblance of a smile.

“You run along then, I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than stay here and watch me read and feed the babies”.

He grinned at her, “Well I wouldn’t mind watching the feeding part. But you’re right, I guess I should go and see how things are going with the church”.

He gently stroked her under her chin, “Alright then kitten, we’ll just have to make up for it another time”.

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He pulled her towards him and kissed her. Then he was off, striding towards the door, humming to himself as he clicked out a rhythm with his fingers.

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She continued to smile until he had closed the door and she had heard the sound of his footsteps clomping off down the hallway.

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The smile cracked and fell from her face slithering to the floor as she slid wearily down the bookcase into a crumpled heap. She would have cried but it seemed like too much effort to her sputtering heart and so she sat there, leaning heavily against the bookcase, her knees pulled towards her face and arms resting limply at her sides.

He would go and he would find another woman as he always did. She had nothing left to offer him.

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Valeriya cannot escape

She awoke, carefully pushing herself up into a sitting position. She had heard her name called desperately, whispered entreatingly and finally she had stuggled upwards out of the fog that surrounded her. She looked around in confusion, the sounds in her ears muffled. Her body felt like it was burning from the inside, heat rising from her so that she could only peer dimly through the haze.

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She thought she heard dully over the ringing, a sobbing, as though the person who was making the noise lay in the next room, so only the smallest sound reached her ears. She turned to gaze at a man, kneeling on the floor beside her bed, his face resting in his hands which were curled into tightly balled fists, the knuckles straining white. He was wearing a plain robe, his hair cut short and as her ears adjusted to the sound she realised he was weeping bitterly, the cries she had heard had only been the loudest.

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Poor man, she thought gazing down at his trembling shoulders. She wondered why he cried so, for whom did he weep. Her heart reached out towards him, brushing at his pain with its fluttering fingers.

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He looked up with a gasp, hiding behind his clenched fingers, as though afraid of what he saw.

“Valeriya!”, he cried, her name, and it flowed from his mouth like a cool liquid pouring over her flaming body.

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She struggled to a sitting position as he clumsily found his feet, standing far above her so she looked up in wonder at his face. It was a face she knew well though it had changed much since she last saw it, slowly hollowed out as though time had scraped at it with his tools, chipping off pieces here and there that seemed unecessary to his artistic eye.

“Harndall”, she whispered, surprised to be able to find her voice at all.

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She brought her face towards his, her whole body trembling. She could see tears forming in the corners of his eyes, pooling there and sliding down his face. She longed to feel the chill of those tears falling on her burning cheeks, relieving the aching pain that was consuming her body.

“Harndall”, she repeated, looking into his eyes, recalling that she had never called him this before, the addition of Father seeming somehow a barrier to folly. She was shocked at how easily the wall was broken, how purity and virtue could be stripped with the mere removal of a title.

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He was looking at her intensely, his eyes hungry, his hands twitching like pinned insects at his side.

Then suddenly he fell to his knees at her feet his hands clasped in front of him, his eyes gazing up at her, entreating her to ease his suffering.

“Valeriya, I cannot, it is a sin. It is a sin to love you”.

His words plunged into her body like a sword, flaying her skin, scraping through bone and sinew to reach the burning centre of her, the cold steel sliding smoothly into her boiling heart.

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She slowly reached out a hand, tentatively touching his own. His skin was achingly cool, the merest brush a relief to her scorched body.

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She pryed open his fingers, taking his hands in her own and helping him to his feet.

He stood before her, his features written with grief, “Valeriya I cannot”.

He paused to take a deep sucking breath, “I cannot love you. I must not. It is wrong”.

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The pain in her heart was so great now she thought it must combust in a fiery inferno, leaving nothing but a pile of blackened ash that would smoulder for a while until it finally grew cold. But that seemed a relief too, for a cold heart could not ache, could not feel.

“I understand”, she mumbled, the fire in her body cracking, sparks spiralling into the air, “But know this Harndall. I love you. With every fibre of my being, with every scrap of my ruined soul”.

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The words poured out like flames from her mouth, great tongues of fire flaring out to brand Harndall’s heart claiming it for her own, “I love you”.

She turned to go, and suddenly felt his hand clasping at her arm, his fingertips pressing against her skin, chilling her through the flimsy fabric of her nightgown. His grip was firm and she turned back towards him, opening her mouth to tell him to leave.

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She was silenced by his lips against hers, his arms wrapping around her body as the flames roared up inside her.

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They fumbled with each others clothing until finally it was gone and she pressed up against him, feeling his cool skin against the length of her body. She was boiling inside while she shivered in his arms, her stomach churning, sickened by his kisses yet yearning for their searing pain.

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He tipped her far backwards, so she hung above the bed, afraid to let go and fall into the waiting fire below. She clung desperately to his neck praying he would not let go and that if they fell it would a least be together as one, to be consumed forever in the torrid flames.

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But they did not fall and he laid her gently on the bed, his body covering hers like a blanket so that her trembling subsided, and the fire starved of oxygen began to flicker to a soft glow. His kisses fell upon her face like soothing rain, his cool hands stroking her hair and her neck.

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She turned achingly towards those soothing hands, but suddenly they were warm once more and the fire mounted in her again, moving through her body with a dull roar as she moaned in pain. The hands scraped roughly at her face, scalding her where they touched.

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She opened her eyes to see Harndall’s face and with horror she saw that is was not him at all, but a massive form towered above her, his shadow falling over her burning body, the fire flaring up in glee at the dark.

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She heard a muffled voice cry out far above her, a deep sound that made her teeth ache and her head throb.

“Varda! Varda! Get over here! I think she’s waking up!”.

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She tried to cry out in terror but all that came from her mouth were a series of urgent animal groans. The flames were now almost unberable, the flesh curling back from her bones, agony blistering through her roasting body.

And try as she might weakly turning her head from them, she could not escape the dreadful grasping hands that pawed hotly at her screaming body.

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Harndall is only a man

Harndall shuffled slowly into the room as Varda carefully shut the door behind him. He stopped at the foot of the bed, unable to make his legs move, unable to walk the distance that separated him from her motionless body. A trembling began in his legs, shuddering its way through his thighs and groin, to throb in the base of his spine.

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The blankets curled around her alabaster face like a shroud, protecting her frail body in their cocoon. Her lips were parted and he could hear the faint sound of her breath as it forced its way between them, the soft sigh of a breeze stirred in the musty depths of the crypt.

They were only a few steps and yet Harndall could not make his weak human legs walk them. He stood there, before her, frail flesh and bones, wrapped in the scratchy robes of his sin. The illness had taken its toll, his body wasted, the skin stretching taught and angular, his eyes sunken and hollow. His hair had fallen out in tangled clumps until Hepsie had finally cut it all off. It seemed fitting somehow, the crying of a young boy taken from his family, the rough hands of the monks as they pulled at his scalp, shearing away great clumps of hair and sin as it piled around his bare feet. Cutting away his youth, snipping until nothing was left but humility and obedience.

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But he was still a man, despite the hymn in his ears, the prayer on his lips, and a man could walk across the room on the legs God had given him. He took a deep breath and stumbled to her side.

He looked down at her pale face, lying among the soft folds of her hair. Her hair had not fallen out like his, still pure it splayed out on the pillow like sheets of spun gold. Varda had carefully plaited it, twisting the strands solemnly between her skilful fingers, turning the lolling head to one side as she worked.

It was too much, to look at her lying there, the light of the candle flickering over her face like a funeral pyre.

“Valeriya”, he moaned his mouth open, his breath ragged between his teeth.

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She groaned softly, her eyelids flickering only the whites visible and he thought he heard his name sighing softly from her mouth. Then she cried out, her teeth gritting in pain, her head thrashing on the pillow.

He leapt back from the bed in dismay, his hands flying up in defense, protecting his chest, his heart that pounded frantically, then slowly dropping to his sides in defeat.

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A great sob welled up inside him, forcing its way out of his throat with a moan of despair. The blame for her illness was his and his alone to bear, Radomir was right when he said it. She had given herself, her life perhaps for his and he was not worthy by any stretch of the meaning. He was as sinful as the people he protected, if not more but who would hear his confession. He was weary and ill and alone and the world was a cold dark place with foul things lurking beyond the candlelight.

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He bent his head in shame, shame for who he was, shame that he had never been different, despite his teachings he was just as guilty as the rest. Even more so for they looked to him for guidance, guidance he was not worthy to give.

His exhausted body crumpled at the side of the bed, rejoicing in the pain flaring in his knees hit the bare wooden boards of the floor.

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He knelt there, clasping his hands desperately above the bedcover.

“Our father who art in heaven. Forgive us our sins…”, he began to mumble the Lord’s prayer softly to himself.

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“Forgive us our sins… forgive us… forgive us our sins… forgive us”.

“Forgive us… oh Lord forgive me! Forgive me for what I have done, for the evil thoughts that have seeded in my heart!”.

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“Please forgive me”, he sobbed between gritted teeth, “Don’t take her for what I have done, for the rotten sin that runs through my weak body!”.

“Don’t take her… please don’t take her. She has done no wrong”, he clenched his fists burying his face in the scratchy folds of his robe as he wept, his shoulders shaking with grief, hot tears rolling down his clenching jaw and spattering onto his hands.

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“Please don’t take her. I am to blame. I am weak. I am… I am only man. I am only a man”, he sobbed wretchedly into his hands. His hands, the hands that clasped together many hours in prayer, the hands that tended the sick and comforted the weak, the hands that had trembled whenever she came near, the hands that had held hers rubbing her soft fingers between his own.

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“I am only a man!”, he cried suddenly more forceful, finding strength in his grief.

“I am only a man Lord, but I am your servant here on Earth as you have chosen for me and I will continue to do your bidding. I offer you my confession here on my knees as a sinner, if you will hear it”, he raised his arms in submission, “I have been tempted by the flesh and my weak, corrupted body almost failed you. You have sent me here to protect these lost people and I have been callous and selfish. No more Lord, I ask for your forgiveness. I offer you myself once more, your humble and obedient servant, penitent on my knees before you”.

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He knelt there beside her bed for a long time, until finally Varda came back in and helped him to his feet. He crossed himself, silently blessing her as the blood rushed back into his cramped legs and he walked from the room.

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Isaura’s doubts are dispelled

It was early Spring, and that meant not only was it both Eallair and Lochan’s birthdays, but also nearly a year since they had left their home for this godforsaken island. Despite the hardships faced by the people, Eallair had declared that this be a day of celebration. He had also insisted that everybody present wear red and gold, the royal colours of Branwhuld that had been so often a fixture of court celebrations in the past.

So they had solemnly unpacked their fine dresses and tunics from the musty chests that had hidden them from sight and remembrance. Each of them had carefully shaken off the dust, hanging the cloths to air away the musty smell of a year, empty sleeves hanging limply, kinsmen of Branwhuld dangling from the gallows. But tonight was a night to remember the good things, to be happy despite their exile.

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Looking up at Lochan as he danced with Cindra, Isaura thought he looked happy. She was glad, he had not been so for as long as she could remember, the strain of her illness weighing heavily on his shoulders. He was a strong, willful man but she did not know how much longer he could carry this burden, and she thought it might almost be a relief to slide from his desperately grasping hands and let him finally be free.

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But then, there was so much to live for, and she was not ready to let go yet as the moving form inside her reminded with a gentle kick. No, all she could do was hang on, despite the pain, despite the diseased, winding fingers that tried to drag her down and hope that she had enough strength left to hold on to him and that he was strong to carry the weight of them both.

She sat next to Morven, both too exhausted to partake in the energetic dancing before them. Morven had not recovered well from her illness, frequently out of breath, clutching at the pain in her chest. And so they sat together watching their husbands dance with other women.

Next to them, Garrick was lounging, his head heavily propped up on one elbow, his eyes bleary. He was obviously drunk, and Isaura thought it a pity to see him that way. The whole night, he and Cindra had barely said two words to one another. Garrick had poured back ale after ale as Cindra chatted animatedly with everyone but him.

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Eallair seemed to be having a good time, slightly bleary-eyed himself, but with a good-natured smile plastered on his face, oblivious to any tensions in the room. He was dancing with Varda, whose graceful steps served to conceal his every clumsy movement.

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Isaura’s eyes wandered down to her boyish hips which were swaying rhythmically in contrast with the King’s flailing motions. She could not help but notice the flatness of her stomach and she felt a pang for the woman. She herself understood well the suffering that came with an inability to bear children. She rubbed her belly gently, softly murmuring a small prayer of gratitude.

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But tonight Varda looked happy, Isaura was surprised to see she was actually smiling, a genuine proud smile directed at the King. Of all of them, Varda had been the only one who hadn’t carefully folded away the robes of Branwhuld, wearing them defiantly every day, to remind them of what they had left behind.

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Her gaze fell on Sigurd who was perched awkwardly on the edge of his seat, watching as his wife danced with the King. Every now and then he smiled shyly towards Varda but she never looked his way.

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Her eyes came to rest on the large tapestry which was now hanging on the wall. The women had worked hard to make this gift for the King, spending many hours during the winter, their needles flicking through the fabric. Out of the threads had appeared the soaring heights of Branwhuld, emerging from embroidered forests around. A small company on horseback were turning for one last look at the fallen city before they embarked on their journey to a new land. The scene was woven with threads of sadness stained with their tears, stitches of defiance hotly pulled through the heavy material with angry hands and here and there, small knots of hope.

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Below the tapestry Lisbet and Cordell had forsaken the dancing for now and were laughing, sharing some private joke. His arm was gently resting around her shoulders as she giggled at whatever he had said.

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Lisbet had worn her hair down for a change. Isaura couldn’t remember if she had ever seen it that way, the wild curls cascading down her shoulders. She noticed that Cordell’s hand was almost continuously buried in her hair, caressing the thick strands between his fingers.

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He pulled her in closely for a long kiss, oblivious to those around him. Isaura knew this sort of love and she was glad for them, glad that they had been given a second chance at happiness.

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She wondered if she would get a second chance. But then again she had taken her first, as she sat in the gardens of the castle, Lochan’s arms wrapped around her slender waist, her face pressed against the warmth of his neck. She had the man she wanted but now her illness was slowly destroying him.

Sigurd was gazing at them longingly, his smile fading, drowning in the stagnant, green pools of his eyes. There was a man who had never even had a chance.

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Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud grunt from beside her. Garrick’s big shaggy head had finally carried him down and he was snoring loudly, his mouth hanging open. She shivered in distaste. How could that dreadful drink change a man so much?

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“No Alexis, that is not the key to a woman’s heart”, she was distracted by the Queen snapping at Sir Hwratar.

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Beside her Morven was looking up in interest too. She looked over at Alexis who was dancing with the Queen. She always found him slightly ridiculous, especially today with his ruffled shirt and his tight pants. There was a man who thought much too highly of himself.

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And that silly little moustache of his, curling above his smirking lips. Really she could not understand how any woman could find it attractive, but it seemed they did. She had often overheard her maids conversing about handsome Sir Hwratar.

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Since Morven’s recovery he had become even more insufferable than usual. Morven usually managed to curtail his outright flirtations but since her illness she seemed to have given up, too exhausted to care.

Isaura followed his gaze down to the point on which it was focused, which happened to coincide with the Queen’s ample bosom.

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“My eyes are up here Alexis”, she scolded, a brittle smile plastered across her face.

“Oh… Your Highness… you did not think… oh I never… I was just admiring your jewels… er jewel that is”, he smiled winningly.

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“They’re all the same aren’t they”, Morven sighed beside her. Perhaps she did care after all.

“What do you mean dear?”, Isaura asked. Everyone knew what sort of a man Alexis was but not everyone was married to a man like that.

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Morven said nothing but her gaze turned rather pointedly to where Lochan was dancing with Cindra.

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Lochan did look like he was having a good time. She could tell he was happy because he was smiling with his eyes too, not just the dreadful forced contortion of his mouth he wore so often these days.

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So he was happy. It was his birthday and it had been a lovely night with their friends. And he did like to dance. And was fond of his young cousin. It didn’t mean anything.

Just then Lochan’s hand swooped close to Cindra’s face as they danced, stopping midflight to cheekily pinch her chubby cheek.

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“If you were referring to my husband he is not like that”, Isaura retorted haughtily a burst of anger and doubt flaring in her.

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Morven looked at her sympathetically and patted her hand, “Yes dear, of course you’re right. Not all men are like my husband. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you”.

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They were startled by a sudden loud snort next to them, as Garrick awoke, rising to a sitting position, blinking in confusion.

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His blurry eyes fell on his wife’s form, giggling as she danced around Lochan and the dull look on his face abruptly changed to one of anger. He lurched out of his seat and stumbled towards them.

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Lochan noticed first, stopping mid-movement his arms falling to his sides as saw Garrick’s reddened face. Cindra did not see for a moment more, turning towards Lochan first with an inquiring look, then noticing her husband’s bulky form standing before them she stopped.

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She slowly lowered her arms, looking straight at Garrick, the radiance of her expression gone, her smile frozen on her face, her eyebrows slightly raised in defiance.

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“S’my wife your dancin with Lochan”, he slurred, his fists balled at his side, his mouth curled into a sneer.

“Yes of course Garrick”, Lochan replied congenially, “I was merely minding her while you had a nap. Was it a good sleep then? The sound of our revelry wasn’t too loud for you”.

Isaura could clearly hear the sarcastic lilt in her husband’s voice but it appeared Garrick was too drunk to notice.

“Mphf… well thanks”, he replied, roughly grabbing his wife’s hand, “but I’m back now so she doesn need you anymore”.

Lochan turned away as they began to dance awkwardly, Garrick swaying drunkenly, Cindra’s entire body going stiff as she avoided his pawing hands. His smile fell on Isaura and she instantly knew she had been wrong, that smile was meant only for her.

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“Well then my beautiful wallflowers”, he said with a laugh, “I was hoping for a dance but unfortunately I haven’t arms enough for two”.

“Oh that’s alright, I am too tired for dancing anyway”, Morven replied with a forced laugh.

“I think I am too dearest”, Isaura smiled weakly at her husband, wishing with all her heart that she could bend her fragile body to her will.

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“How about we make our own dance then, a very slow one without all this arm-waving nonsense. A dance that only goes on as long my lady’s feet aren’t tired”.

“Alright then”, she said smiling as he gently helped her to her feet.

“Garrick, you’re going the wrong way!”, Cindra shrieked, “Ow! And stop stepping on my feet you big clumsy oaf”.

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Isaura looked over at the unhappy couple, wondering what could have changed so much between them. They had always seemed so good for one another, and now they could barely stay in the same room without arguing. It was sad to see, but it made her value her marriage all the more.

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Lochan carefully wrapped his arms around her swollen waist, rocking her back and forth slowly while the other whirled around them.

“There now, I think the little one in there at least wants to dance with me”, he looked into her eyes with a wistful grin, “judging by the kicking I would wager it’s actually quite enthusiastic about this dancing thing”.

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It had only been recently that he had tentatively begun to speak of the child she bore within her. It was only recently that they had dared to hope that perhaps this would finally be the one. If not she knew they would never hope again.

She pressed her face against the warmth of his neck as she had done that first day in the garden.

“Happy Birthday my darling”, she whispered in his ear.

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“There now y’see”, Garrick drawled at them with a goofy grin on his face, “mush better dancing with your own wife isn’it”.

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“Garrick! You stepped on my toe again! Keep your stupid clumping feet away from mine! And don’t be vulgar!”.

Isaura ignored them and leant forward to gently kiss her husband’s smiling mouth.

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