21. 21. Like a Thief in the Night
Arathea hastily saddled her mare. She struggled with the cinch; it was proving a difficult task as she could not see well through the tears and her hands shook frightfully. What had she been thinking! Well obviously, she had not! She finally had almost everything she ever desired—a home, employment, friends, respect—and she threw it all away on a tryst with a man whom she knew belonged to another! So distraught was she that she did not hear another enter until a vise-like grip whipped her around. With a gasp she came face to face with the irate Elfhelm.
“So this is how it is? You come to my bed then steal away like a thief in the night?!” he growled as he grabbed her upper arms, giving her a hard shake. “Am I just some trophy? Mean I so little to you?” He shook her again.
Instinctively she tried pull away from the powerful man before her. This caused him to grip harder; her pale flesh beginning to bruise.
“I have wronged you and your lady, my lord. I have brought shame to my family. I cannot stay; please, I beg you let me leave and I will trouble you no more,” Thea sobbed as she struggled against his grip, expecting a strike at any moment.
“Trouble me no more? You expect me just to forget this night. Pretend it did not happen?” His grip on her arms became painful and she cried out despite her resolve to remain silent. Her legs began to buckle. It was her cry that breached the Marshal’s anger. For the first time he looked at the trembling woman. She stared at him with eyes wide with fear; but not as she had just hours earlier. This time it was fear of him—not for him. She feared him. Her face was stained with tears and she cowered as she expected him to…to…but he would never! How could she think that of him? His anger suddenly melted as her words registered. He loosened his grip on her biceps; she crumbled to the stable floor. He took a deep breath and spoke as he reined in his fury.
“I do not know of what you speak. You have done no wrong to me or any other save stealing from my bed. Of what do you speak?” He crouched before her, gently stroking her arms, fearful that she would bolt.
Thea hung her head and let her hair provide a protective curtain. Softly she spoke, “The Lady Ethelfled; she told me the two of you have plans to wed. I see the desire in her eyes and I ignored it; I should not have come to you this night.” She could speak no more as tears flowed and her chest constricted.
It all made sense to him now. Why she avoided him, why she no longer took meals at the king’s table when the Marshal was present. Why she had stayed away. He gentle pushed back her hair and his heart broke as she again flinched; she truly expected him to strike her. He cupped her cheek and turned her face to his.
“You have been deceived. There is nothing between Lady Ethelfled and myself, though it is not for lack of trying on her part. She would see us wed, as it would bring her a life of comfort. She desires to oversee the East-Mark; her designs are her own. It is not she who has captured my heart.” He spoke as he would to a frightened horse. Thea looked into the inky brown eyes that no longer glowed in anger; she saw in them the warmth and kindness that had made her feelings for him blossom those many months ago. Her heart raced as Elfhelm closed the distance between them and captured her lips in a gentle kiss. It was not like the ones earlier, driven by lust and desire. This one was almost chaste and spoke of promise and affection. She could not help herself and melted against him; it felt so right, so safe in his arms. He broke the kiss and pulled her closer to him, holding her in his protective embrace. He brought his lips close to her ear, “Know that I would never strike you.” Silent tears flowed as she nodded into his chest. He kissed the crown of her head before pulling away and pulling her to a standing embrace. Wiping the tears from her cheeks, he coaxed a small smile from her.
“Let us retire,” he said. When she made to protest he added, “You to your chambers and I to mine. We will deal with it all tomorrow.” He raised her hand to his lips and this time kissed her palm. There it was--that blush he loved. As they walked back to the house, hand in hand, Elfhelm finally vowed to be honest with Lady Ethelfled. Then he would court Arathea properly.
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