For the Reader: This Chapter has a scene that is graphic in nature - you may want to scan past it if you are easily offended or shocked.
The guards had been killed first. Never had Theldry thought to see such blood, such violence. She had known there was war in the Land, and even known that Corstarorden was likely to be called upon as Tortoreen and S’hendalow would be due to the Northern-Coastal Partnership Agreement. But this… this… senseless brutality….
Troops! Mercenaries, more like, were camped inside the estate, and all about the surrounding lands! Many of them were wearing, if Theldry was not mistaken, Storden colors, and she knew her heraldry. The man who had sat at the Great Hall table was bedecked in Stordish colors and finery. The boar’s head over a castle, that was the Storden family, yet Storden was neutral. How, then, Theldry’s benumbed mind fumbled for answers, did this man command a ruthless, bloodthirsty army? Who was he?
As soon as the thundering of hooves had sounded upon the earth, Cathall and the guards immediately knew the estate was under attack and withdrew to the gatehouse to draw the gate down, shouting for men to man the baileys.
Jeanie and Kallia had pulled Theldry upstairs into her chambers for her safety.
“Quickly, now, change clothing with me,” Jeanie had whispered.
“Whatever for!” Theldry had hissed. Kallia was already changing into a dress left behind of Mina’s.
“So they’ll think that I’m the lady of the house. If they think you’re the servant, they’re more like to leave you alone, and you can hide in the storeroom!”
Numbly, Theldry had stepped out of her dress and pulled Jeanie’s maid dress over her head.
“There now, let your hair down a bit, and take those jewels off. Quickly, quickly!”
“Why don’t we all hide in the storeroom –”
“My lady, if they find us, they’ll think I’m the lady of the house. Now here, put those ruddy gems on me and we’ll be out of here! The first place they’ll look for the lady of the house is in her chambers, don’t you know!” And then the three of them ran to the storeroom.
Soon enough came the sounds of men fighting and then of a battering ram. Tears had spilled down Kallia’s frightened face. Jeanie swallowed. Sitting in the darkness on the storeroom floor in Jeanie’s maid dress, Theldry reached out for their hands and squeezed them. These were the women who had taken her in here at Mendellion, even though she was the Duchess, and been kind to her in all her boredom and lightened the everyday tedium with their laughter and tales, shown her how a household was truly run… by the servants.
She heard running in the halls, the sound of boots. Soldiers. And then all was quiet.
Seconds passed like hours.
Then the purposeful stride of boots sounded in the hall outside the storeroom. A torchlight flickered beneath the storeroom door. And the door creaked open slowly.
A tall man stood, holding a wall sconce above him. Firelight spilled into the small storeroom. “Ah. What have we here?” Then he turned to the soldiers behind him. “You see, Colonel, General, I knew if we looked long enough, we’d find them.” Then he returned his attention to Theldry and the women who cowered with her.
He gestured. “Up, stand up.”
Theldry rose to her feet slowly. The other two women scrambled to help each other up, for they were frightened. And why not? They had never seen the insolent stare of soldiers, nor of a man such as this cowardly ilk as stood before her. But she had. Theldry had walked the Palace at Tortoreen and seen men such as them each day of her life, starting with her own father.
“A lovely estate, to be sure, but a dinner laid for two? I knew there to be at least a few of you about. And I would extend my compliments to the chef, but I’m afraid he ran.” He sniggered. “Not very fast, I’m afraid.”
Theldry seethed. Chef Nivell was one of the very best chefs in all of Corstarorden. But she would mourn his loss later.
“Come along, ladies, finally, true ladies. Except for you. But look at you, aren’t you… exceptional. For a servant.” The tall man led Theldry out of the storeroom and traced the back of his hand down her cheek. She jerked her face away. He smiled. “And spirited. Excellent.” He led Jeanie and Kallia out. “Ah, the Lady of the house. Hm, exquisite gown, quite – tasteful. Silk. I do like silk.” He fingered Theldry’s gown upon Jeanie, who was too petrified to move.
He turned over his shoulder. “I believe I’ll have this lovely servant for my appetizer, the Lady of the House for my main course, and this – come out of the shadows.”
The man saw Kallia and immediately smiled. He reached out and lifted a breast. Kallia squirmed and cried out. “Yes. Yes, you. The lady-in-waiting, no? You shall be my dessert. Lovely little thing, aren’t you. Don’t cry, muffin, we’ll have lots of fun.” He turned and addressed his soldiers.
“Once I’m through with them, they’re yours. But not – not the servant, keep her intact, we need someone to serve us meals while we’re still here. Besides, I like her.”
“Now see that they don’t run, and don’t so much as touch them until I call for them, understand?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” said one.
“Yes, Prince Varley,” said the other.
Prince? This man – was a prince? From – where? Theldry recognized the name only vaguely.
Varley reached out and grabbed her wrist. “Come along, darling, you have the privilege of being fucked properly tonight, and by a crown prince. You’ll never get this chance again, so enjoy it while you can.”
A Crown Prince? However did a Crown Prince come to conduct himself in such a manner? Perhaps he was lying, or a by-blow who had not been acknowledged. Still, his name sounded familiar….
He dragged her along behind him through the estate. She wondered what would happen if she resisted – tried to run, but the estate was overrun by his troops. Damn!
Finally, Varley pulled her into the Great Hall.
Then all rational thought left her as took in the sight before her. Soldiers stood randomly throughout the hall and there was blood upon the floor – obviously a great fight had taken place in here.
But her Cathall – her husband, the Duke of Mendellion… hung from the rafters above the head of the table. The one time he shouldn’t have come home….
Theldry took in the sight of her husband’s dead corpse above the Great Hall table and immediately she began to fight. “No! No!”
“Relax, little darling, it will go easier. Someone can cut the man down when we leave,” Varley commented as he dragged her along.
“No!” She pulled against Varley’s fist encircling her wrist but he clubbed her in the head with his free fist.
Everything went blurry. Theldry heard him instruct his guards to drag her up upon the table. Dimly, through a ringing in her ear, she heard the sound of the food and silver being pushed aside.
Then she was hoisted upon the table like a sack of vegetables. Immediately, Theldry began to kick and fight. She fought with every ounce of energy in her body, though her vision was blurry, though her ears were ringing. She threw punches at Varley, but he backed away. Was that him, laughing? All she could see in her mind was Cathall, swinging from the rafters above them….
For her trouble, she was slammed back against the table by soldiers who grasped her shoulders. Her head bounced off of the thick oak on which she’d eaten her meals so many times. And up, up, up above her, swimming blurrily, was Cathall.
Theldry began to fight again, but Varley laughed. “Hold her, I said! Two of you, each.”
And two soldiers bore down on Theldry’s arms. Then her bodice was ripped open, exposing her flesh. Theldry recoiled and squirmed beneath him.
Varley loomed above her, an ugly, unshaven face blotting out her field of vision. He inspected her flesh and she itched inside when he ran his hands all over her breasts. He squeezed them and said, “Not bad for an appetizer. Too small for my preference, though. Maybe you weren’t fed well as a child. No matter.” He unlaced his surcoat slowly, drinking in her exposed body the entire time. Theldry glared back at him the entire time, but he never met her gaze. Finally, he hung his surcoat on the main chair – Cathall’s chair, Theldry thought, and she glanced up to where his corpse hung above them.
But Varley – Crown Prince Varley, she thought darkly – had unlaced his breeches and was looming above her. With every bit of strength, she fought against the men holding her down but they were too strong for her.
And then Varley pulled her legs apart and forced himself into her. Rammed himself. Theldry sucked in her breath with pain and her eyes were forced out of their sockets. Above her, Varley groaned with gratification. Over and over and over he rammed himself into her – Theldry felt her insides tearing with each thrust. She focused on the swinging corpse of her husband above her and tried to feel nothing. On and on it went – would he never stop!
She did her best not to cry out, for she refused to give him the satisfaction, but at times a whimper escaped her when the pain was too great. She knew blood was gushing from between her legs. He clawed at her and she cried out. Theldry distinctly saw him grin.
That was it, she suddenly recognized. He enjoyed her pain. It was her pain that he liked. She immediately went limp, pretending not to care.
After a few minutes, Varley slapped her. The side of Theldry’s head bounced off the table and irritated the ringing in her ears that had begun to withdraw. But she remained uncaring. Finally, Varley withdrew and flipped Theldry over on her hands and knees.
“Hold her!” he growled to the soldiers to either side of her.
And then he thrust himself inside her again from behind. Theldry squeezed her eyes shut as he forced himself into her, over and over. She tried not to cry but tears formed anyway and dripped onto the oaken table as plentifully as the blood that flowed down her legs. Her arms trembled with the effort of holding herself upright while he rammed into her. But she did not cry out. There was nothing left in her. All she saw was the overturned vegetables on the table she’d been laying in while he’d violated her – spiced beets and honeyed carrots….
Finally, Theldry felt Varley release himself inside her. He felt like acid….
Varley pulled himself free of her and shoved her away. Thank all the gods, it was over….
“Go,” he panted, as he climbed off the Great Hall table. “Get out of my sight.” He gestured with disgust as he tucked his flaccid penis back into his trousers.
Theldry scrambled off of the oaken table, nearly falling. She felt for the bodice that Prince Varley had ripped open, pulled it up to cover herself, and limped out of the Great Hall.
She had hidden in the unused conservatory under a sheet in a corner until Varley and his troops left. Varley and his troops had stayed only the night, and for that, Theldry had been grateful. As soon as the estate was quiet, she came out from under the sheet, but sat against the wall with her knees pulled up to her chin, numb.
It was then that she saw that far against the room, either Kallia or Jeanie had thought to run in here and exchange the cover over Ayrissa and Cathall’s portrait for that of his and hers, so that the troops would not believe her to be the Duchess. What amazing women they were, she mused absently.
She knew they had gotten the worst of it. She had heard their screams, particularly Kallia’s. Of the three of them, Kallia was a lovely woman, with an hourglass figure, plump, blonde and blue-eyed…. The screams – Theldry had heard the screams sound throughout the estate half the night.
Finally, at dawn, the men rode out and silence pervaded the estate.
At least two hours slipped by in blessed silence before the whispered voice of Jeanie echoed in the conservatory. “My lady? Are you in here? My lady?”
Tears slipped down Theldry’s face and she sniffled. She stood up on uncertain feet, holding her ripped bodice.
“Oh, my lady,” breathed Jeanie. She immediately crossed the room and enveloped Theldry in a tight embrace. Theldry broke down and sobbed until she had no breath left in her.
How dare that – that man! How dare that man reduce her to tears! Jeanie was patting her back. “My lady, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry….”
Theldry pulled away, her face wet. She took a good long look at Jeanie. The amethyst necklace was gone and scratches were left on her neck where someone had ripped it free. Her face showed the start of a black eye and her hair was frayed. The silken dress she’d worn now hung loosely off of one shoulder and was ripped down the front. A dark stain, undoubtedly blood, blotched what had once been a mint green silk.
Kallia stood behind Jeanie. She hugged herself and stared absently. Her lip was split and her face was bruised already. Her tangled hair was matted with blood from a cut on her cheek and her dress was stained in a number of places with dirt and blood. She had been used terribly. Even as Theldry took in the sight of Kallia, she trembled.
“Kallia –” and she outstretched an arm to her.
Kallia shrunk away. “No!” Her blue eyes had grown wide with horror.
Jeanie pushed Theldry’s arm down gently. “She’s in shock, my lady. She’s going to need a lot of time, I think.”
“Yes, I can see that.”
Theldry shook herself. “We need new clothes. Have you other dresses?”
Jeanie nodded, her face solemn. “We need something else.”
Theldry raised an eyebrow. It was too hard to think. Then she said, “Baths.” What she wanted more than anything was a bath.
Jeanie conceded but held out her hand. “Wormwort.” In her hand lay the root. It had to be crushed and immediately taken in a tea. But there wasn’t enough of it for all three of them.
Theldry raised her eyes to Jeanie. She had just had her moon days. She was unlikely to have… gotten with child… by that monster. Especially after what he had done to her.
“There’s not enough for all three of us. Begging your pardon, my lady, but given how she is –” and Jeanie nodded toward Kallia, “I forced her to take a cup of tea already. So this here is for you. You’ve got to take it right now, before we do anything.”
Wormwort. It was powerful and it worked every time, it was said, but sometimes, it took a woman’s ability to breed with it. Theldry wasn’t likely to have gotten with child. She felt him – tear her – inside. That and coupled with just after her moon days….
“You take it. He only used me once. I just had my moon days, Jeanie. Take it. Besides,” she added gently, “you need it more than I.” Theldry reached out and closed Jeanie’s hand around the wormwort. “Take it.”
“But, my lady –”
“Take it. I’ll not have you be gotten with child after such as what happened. He – hurt me inside. It’s wasted on me.”
Jeanie’s eyes filled with tears. Theldry had never seen Jeanie become so emotional.
“Come,” Theldry encircled Jeanie’s shoulders. “Let us brew some strong tea, and then bathe. Then we shall put on fresh frocks and be rid of those bastards forever, Jeanie, shall we?”
Cormber had cut down her husband’s lifeless body from the rafters. Theldry promised Cormber that he could stay on as long as he liked, though he had no master to steward for anymore. She was personally glad of any male assistance.
She and Cormber wrapped Cathall’s body in soft linen and a few of the guards who were left carried Cathall to the tomb beneath the estate, where they left him in a hastily constructed wooden coffin until they could commission a proper marble coffin such as his forebears lay in.
Then Cormber sat down at Cathall’s desk. With shaking hands, the steward opened Cathall’s files and finally found his personal will.
“With your leave, my lady?”
Silently, Theldry nodded. Just a day ago, Cathall had arrived home, and now they were about to read his last will and testament, his instructions for his properties upon his… death. Theldry swallowed.
“Oh. Oh my.” Cormber looked up at Theldry. “He’s changed this recently.”
Theldry stared at him but the man remained mute. “Well?” she prompted, trying to keep her voice from being too sharp. He, too, had been close to Cathall.
“You see, my lady, Cathall died childless, and the last time that I knew him to speak of this subject, he had not yet remarried.” He paused. “He had intended to pass the estate and the properties to a nephew.” Cormber took a breath.
“He still does, but…. You, as Duchess of Mendellion, are to run the estate and all of its properties and extensions, including the village, until your death, unless you choose to relinquish your title and move away. After your death or relinquishment of title, then the estate and its properties and extensions, including the village, moves on to his nephew, cousin, etc., and he has a list of family members here who will inherit.
“My lady, you are now the sole proprietress of the estate. You, Lady Theldry Eochair, are the Duchess of Mendellion and all its properties.”
Cormber’s words washed over Theldry slowly. Her father’s words rang in her mind…. Duty before love, Theldry, duty before love…. Now she had a duty to perform. She only hoped she was half as competent as her late husband.