A Knight's Resolve (AKTR Vol.3)

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Chapter 32

I loathed riding in carriages, so riding in a wagon was something beyond that. It was humiliating and made my blood boil. Yes, I was pregnant. Yes, we had been travelling for three days. And yes, I still would have preferred to be on a horse any day over this blasted bench seat.

The wagon wrenched to one side as one wheel sunk into a pothole. I gripped the bench but still slid into the man sitting next to me. That was not helpful. I didn’t want to be that close to him.

I glared at my driver. He was the one who insisted that I ride this contraption. He was the one who had become all protective of me and my unborn child. And he was the one with the smug grin.

In truth, they both had become old women, fussing over me at every opportunity, much to the amusement of Douglas and the chagrin of me. It was as if they were trying to out-do each other in annoying me. I have no idea what they thought they were achieving by doing this, but it clearly didn’t deter them in pouring more oil onto the fire.

That didn’t mean that they were wrong, not all the time. In fact, it made in worse to know that I shouldn’t complain, that I looked petty with my protests, and that their condescending helpfulness was, on occasion, justified. I knew I was sulking but that only intensified the indignation of it. This was the perfect example, it made very little difference that I knew him to be right about the horse, this remained a mortifying experience and the fact that I knew him to be correct only soured my mood more.

He turned and shot me a small smile. It should have made my blood boil and have me snarling mad, and yet my heart betrayed me. I looked away as it skipped a beat. How did he do that to me?

I covered my weakness with a hand over my mouth. I couldn’t stay mad at him, not when he looked the way he did. I felt my lips curl into a smile and my chest vibrate as the laughter escaped. I knew that the annoyance was still there but I couldn’t deny the irony of the situation.

Now it was his turn to scowl. It had been three days and still I could not look upon him with a straight face. I alternated between scowling at my own predicament and laughing at his. It would have been most perplexing had it not been so humorous.

The twelve rode behind us and, although I knew they shared my hilarity, they were more discrete about expressing it. They knew him well and the relationship was one of respect, so they kept their smiles discreet, and their comments guarded. However, Thomas’ smug taunts were less jovial and resulted in terse replies. Whereas, my sly smiles and gentle mocking quips were usually greeted with pained expressions. But that did not stop us. This humbling experience was beneficial for him.

He flicked the reins and the wagon lurched forward again wiping the smile from my face.

I looked away and into the distance. Today we would be arriving at Lord Percival’s halls. This visit must go well. Lord Percival held the answers to many questions, and he was the most likely to be sympathetic to Torc, or I should say, to Jonathan and Thomas.

Jonathan wished to be referred to by his birth name now. He told me that Lord Torc is dead, and Jonathan was a new man. I closed my eyes as I remembered how Jonathan had softly touched my face as he had told me that the love Torc knew lived on but the life he led was built on lies. It was time for him live his own life, to be himself not the character he created. I could see the vulnerability in his eyes. I knew the source of his fear fore I was once in love Torc, not with Jonathan. I knew that name, but it was Torc and all his bravado that I fell in love with. I didn’t really know Jonathan.

It didn’t help matters that his life as Jonathan was not beginning how he expected it to be. Jonathan believed that we would ride proudly on this quest, he in his family colours on a gallant steed with a flag unfurled in his wake announcing his birth right and status. He saw himself as the hero returning to claim what was rightfully his.

I immediately saw the folly in this plan. For should he be so bold, all who saw us would know our purpose. This could not happen. This would end is disaster. Word would get to the King faster than a pigeon could fly, and he would act immediately. Edward would not allow this. I had no understanding of his part in my uncle’s murder, but I did know he would not want that history to be revisited. We would be dead before we released our fate and he would easily justify our deaths.

We needed to approach this subversively. We had to gain support without attracting attention. And we had to probe out the truth without raising suspicions. It was a delicate operation and must be done quietly so that by the time the King realised what we were up to, we would be in a position of strength. Then we would be harder to silence.

And then there was, of course, the not so small matter of uncovering the spy that was within our ranks. I had my suspicions as to that person’s identity, but I shared that information with no one. With some luck, having a known traitor relaying our plans to the King, could work in our favour if managed correctly. Therefore, only Douglas, Thomas, Jonathan, and I knew our true purpose and the rest were told half-truths and mis directions.

The final deception was in our appearances. The King was unaware that Torc had returned. He met the men as they rode out to find me and from that point on, they had searched for me. Both he and Douglas were confident that there had been no opportunity to communicate Torc’s reappearance back to the King. We had to keep this from the King.

For the same reason, I too needed to remain lost. The King was spreading lies that I had been kidnapped by a foreign nation to justify a campaign. Should he learn my whereabouts, he would not rejoice. He would capture me and keep me hidden rather than expose his lies. He then could kill me in his rescue attempt, without raising suspicions. Hostages die, and he might arrive only in time to save the child not the mother. It was a good story that many would believe.

We needed to be discreet and avoid recognition. For this we adopted disguises. It was far from noble, but it was necessary. I had experience at this from my time as Lord Maine on the tournament circuit, thus I knew it was possible.

The twelve were sworn to secrecy. We made it clear that if word did get back, we would know there was a traitor in the Twelve. We had no choice but to take this risk. Hopefully we would gain some ground with the Lords of the land before word got to the King. At least I hoped that Edward might be sceptical or confused by our method enough to pause and send a scout to verify before sending the guard.

The disguises also served to gain entry to the halls of the Lords we needed to visit. This was where the risks of being uncovered truly lay. The King would have spies in each court, and we would need to be vigilant. And the Lords might see our arrive as a direct threat to their relationship with the King. If we are too bold they may decide to gift us to the King, to strengthen their position with him, before listening to the words we have to say.

I glanced down at my garb. Disguising me had proved problematic. I was showing in my pregnancy. To have me travel with the twelve warranted only one alias. I returned to being Lord Maine and, in that name, I took leadership of the Twelve.

The name and role were an easy fit for me. And the identity was already established, and I would be welcomed, given many of the Lords I had met at Tournaments with over the years. Although there were many questions as to how I managed to be accepted given the history of that name, that too would serve our goal. We wished to see their reactions as I was introduced, and it allowed us to discuss the history of the title without suspicion.

However, it was not an easy transformation. To make this believable I was padded to give the effect of an overweight man, which given it had been three years since I had last seen these men was plausible. And, of course, it hid my belly and developing breasts.

I felt a warm hand softly come to rest on my leg. As usual I tensed and resisted turning to see if anyone was watching.

“Do you really think that is appropriate Brother Jonathan?” I asked as I brushed the hand off my thigh. “I believe the vows of celibacy included sexual relationships with men as well as women.”

Jonathan ground his teeth and growled softly, “Why this? Could I not have been a stable boy, a smithy, or... anything other than this?”

“Do I need to explain it again, Brother Jonathan?” I spoke softly because I was well aware how much this troubled him. “Travelling with the Twelve as a man of the cloth will bring the least notice to you. With your hood and long robes, you will be unseen.”

“As a Blacksmith I could have been unseen.”

“Yes, but as a blacksmith you would not have been welcomed to the high table nor would you be in attendance when I speak with the Lord. As my spiritual council you will have an excuse to be where you need to be.”

“I know Maeb,” he released his held breath, “Lord Maine, but it itches.”

My reaction caused him amusement he leant in and whispered, “That is not the itch I was referring to. No, my love, I was referring to these course woollen robes abrading my skin.” Then he laughed as I relaxed.

“Brother Jonathan, are you adding to your sins?” I voice behind us laughed causing the men to chortle. “Long and sordid will your confession already be Brother Jonathan.”

Jonathan just shook his head as the men enjoyed this well told jest.

“What did Thomas say to you last night?” He asked as the men returned to speculating if the confessional priest would collapse from shock or flee in horror.

“Why do you ask?” I turned so he could not see my expression.

“Well you have been quiet today, more so than other days and he has not ceased glaring at me,” Jonathan’s forehead creased as he glanced to me. “Please Maeb, he clearly upset you.”

“No, not really,” I laughed softly as I thought back Thomas’ words.

“Maeb...” his voice held a note of sadness.

“Why aren’t you angry with me?” I interrupted with sudden bluntness.

It was the question that had been troubling me since his return. I had sat next to him for three days and in that time I had failed to find a delicate way of phrasing it. It was Thomas’ accusations last night that had spurred my courage to ask.

“Why would I be angry with you?”

“Well I... broke my word. I slept with Thomas.” I whispered in shame.

I listened to the silence as I examined my hands.

“Maeb, I would be hypocritical if I was,” his voice was gentle almost like he spoke with a soft smile on his lips, but I did not dare look. “I have been with more women than I can count. We made that vow and I still hold true to it. But I hurt you. I am thankful to Tommy really. He kept you alive so that I could find you again. I don’t judge you for finding comfort in his arms.”

“You held true to the vow?”

“Yes, my love I have taken no other since I left you. My love is only for you.” His voice was soft, almost a whisper. In shock I glance over and found him staring ahead, his hands tight on the reins, “I respect you and if you are in love with Tommy then I can only hope that you don’t love him as much as you love me. I hope that our love is deeper. But if he holds your heart then I want you to be happy. I truly love you Maeb, more than just for myself, I love you enough that your happiness is paramount to me.”

I looked at him confused by this confession.

“Don’t spare my feelings Maeb,” he glanced at me as he said it.

I couldn’t help but smile. He obviously thought I had forgiven Thomas last night. I glanced back at Thomas who was certainly playing the part of the paranoid lover more so now than other days but not for the reason Jonathan believed.

“Are you jealous?”

“Yes, but I should not be. It is not my place to be.”

“You have no reason to be so. I am married.” I stated firmly but as he opened his mouth to ask again, I added, “Thomas said something, about your youth.” I blushed as I remembered Thomas’ warning.

“About?” he caught my glance and slight blush.

I hung on this time as the wagon pitched sideways.

“I see,” I heard him grimaced before continuing. “He is my brother Maeb, and we were boys. We had opposing views on many things. But one stood out - sex. He has always been quite righteous about finding ‘The One’. So, in reaction to his conservative views towards marriage, I used to rile him up by talking of conquests, of carnal lust and women as objects of sexual pleasure. It created the desired outcome in him. He would get so angry with me. I was his brother and so I thought it was hilarious at the time. It is understandable then that when I left he had a poor opinion of my ability to commit, both to relationships and to my family. Don’t misunderstand me, I am his brother and I love him, but he doesn’t know me anymore.”

I didn’t know how to reply to this, so I sat in silence. Part of me wanted to ask more about how he had managed to honour our vows. Had he really not taken any women in the months we had been separated? That seemed unlikely. But it was not something I had a right to ask about. I was really none of my business.

Jonathan moved. His back straightened and his hand flicked upwards and yet his attention remained focused on the road ahead. The Twelve instantly reacted, as did I. A rider was approaching. We were only an hour or two away from Lord Percival’s halls and although we had sent a messenger announcing our arrival we were too far to expect aid if there was trouble on the road.

The twelve took defensive position around the wagon and I acted out my role. Torc hung his head but I knew his sword was ready. Thomas was ready too. He had been training and although they saw themselves as rivals he did take instruction from his brother. I noticed the twelve paid almost as much attention to subversively defending Thomas as they did me.

The lone rider came around the bend and drew his horse up jumping from the beast to land in front of Douglas.

“Maeb? She is here?” Percy proclaimed through his heavy breathing.

“We are in search of Queen Maeb, Percy. We believe she came this way.”

“Douglas, where is Lord Maine? Where is Maeb!” he growled not as a question but as a demand.

“Greetings Percy, I didn’t think you would be here,” I smiled. Of course, Percy would see through the Lord Maine disguise after all it was our pretence. Percy was rarely in the halls of his father and so I had not expected him.

He laughed as the pulled me from the wagon, “My Lord you have partaken in too much ale of late! They say to leave the foam head in the mug else you fatten.”

He laughed further at his pun joined by the sniggers of many of the men. Thomas glared at him and Jonathan stayed still, not lifting his head.

“Maeb, I am sorry. I believed him to be honourable. I was not there when he spurred you. Had I been there I would have fought for you.” Percy growled furiously. In the background I saw Douglas and some of the other men turn to us with curious expressions.

“He is no man Maeb. I will care for you and the child if you will have me?” Percy continued oblivious to the expressions of the men around him. “I will be the man he failed to be.”

Thomas was turning a shade of red and his jaw was clenched as he swung from his horse. I then remembered that when Torc returned he had listed Percy’s name as one of the men I had agreed to marry. But even as Thomas’ feet hit the ground he was too late.

Jonathan was already blocking the path between Percy and I.

“Percival, do you have something you wish to say to me?” He threw back the woollen unbleached hood of the cowl to revel his strong face and distinctive sand coloured rebellious hair.

“Torc?” Percy spluttered and took a step back as the colour draining from his face. Then his eyes came back to mine and he drew himself up straight. “You joined the church rather than face your responsibilities? I aided you thinking you were the one who could free her from that tyrant and you turned out to be little better than a cad.”

My eyes widened as I watched Percy grit his teeth and take his stance. This wasn’t what we needed.

“Percy, put the sword away before someone gets hurt,” I tried to soften the situation with a laugh, “We have come for ale not blood.”

I turned to find Jonathan in his monk’s habit with a sword in his hands, this was not good.

“Put down the weapons,” I sighed, “This is not what either of you want.”

“He insulted me Maeb,” Johnathan growled, “I cannot let such a slur pass.”

“Yes, you can, and yes you will.” I said firmly as I watched Percy’s left leg jitter, “Your quest is larger than your pride. Do not forget why we are here.”

I had to stop this now or this would end very badly. After years of being with Percy I was shocked that he put himself in such a position.

I stepped in between the two men and raised my short blades to catch their long swords. I stood there braced with my arms outstretched and above my head were four very sharp weapons, the two in my hands held the other two from falling on me.

Jonathan stepped away instantly his eyes wide, “Maeb? Are you hurt?” His weapon was gone and his hands gently touched me.

“You took to her with a sword!” Thomas shrieked as he took a swing at his brother with his fist. Jonathan ducked and threw a punch in his gut.

“Sorry Maeb,” Percy whispered but I saw the relief on his face. “Who’s that?”

I hugged Percy before turning back to Jonathan and Thomas who were now rolling around punching each other on the ground. Jonathan was fighting his heavy robes almost as much as he fought Thomas. In between blows he seemed to be emphasising the need for Thomas “not to tell his poisonous tales to the mother of his child”.

“Let me guess,” Percy whispered to me, “this is when father of the child meets man who converts his woman in his absence?”

I signed, “something like that, although you missed ’is reunited with his brother the man who...” I raised my eyebrows at his broad smile of disbelief and scoffed, “Why me Percy? Is my life not complicated enough?”

Percy laughed at our whispered conversation. I had missed him. I held his secret, and he was my confidant. The fighting continued which at least distracted the men from the insults that Percy had levelled.

“Douglas, get the men to separate them,” I ordered in my gruff Lord Maine voice, “Can’t have Brother Jonathan toting a bruised face. I am sure the Bishop wouldn’t approve.”

With the brothers separated and glaring at each other sullenly. I introduced Percy to Thomas and suggested that if we were going to reach the hall by nightfall we should ride on.

“So,” Percy teasing smile came naturally as he helped me to my seat, “What’s with the wagon Maeb?”

“Do not think to start on this Percival, even laden with child I can still break your nose.”

His hands flew to his face and he stepped backwards, “Just asking.”

“Lord Maine had an unfortunate fall injuring his pelvis,” Torc grumbled, “He is unable to ride as yet.”

“And if I know Lord Maine, I am sure he is a gracious passenger,” Percy laughed and rode ahead to speak with Douglas.

“You never told me,” Jonathan muttered to me.

“Told you what?”

“About Percy. He hides it well. I did not know until that moment. You have obviously known for some time.”

“You know?”

“His hands shake too much. He eyes betrayed him too. I have fought too many men to miss the signs.”

“Please don’t say anything. His father suspects and their relationship is not good as a result. Without me there to hide the evidence it has been difficult over the last three years.”

“Why?” his face turned to me curiously.

“He is a good man. Just because he cannot hold in a fight does not make him lesser of a man.” I hissed back at him. “He is my friend and he is no coward.”

Jonathan smiled at me, “I am not suggesting he is. He risked all for me and that was an act of bravery.”

“Thank you,” I whispered softly as I watched Percy joking with Douglas. All these years I had known him and I had protected him. I manufactured events to make him look good and woven stories to hide his lack of courage with the sword. But it was true, he had no head for battle or skirmish. He would flee if he could and I was impressed that he raised his sword today.

It was almost night fall as we passed through the gates and into the home of Lord Percival, the friend of Torcal and Grace, of my father and of my husband.

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