I slipped through the gate, pulling it shut behind me while I laughed. Gareth simply vaulted over, grinning at me. I ran around the arena, away from the castle, toward the forest. The ground began to slope slightly. I glanced over my shoulder to see Gareth gaining on me. He reached out with both hands.
“You cannot run from me, Serena!” Gareth laughed gaily, but his words brought the dream back instantaneously. My shadowy attacker in the woods.
“You cannot run from me, Serena...”
I dodged his hands nimbly, pressing my eyes shut for a moment. Fear. I blinked hard. Stupid. I stumbled on the edge of the path and lurched forward, tumbling down the gentle hill between the arena and the forest on the northern side of the castle grounds.
“Serena! Are you alright? What happened?” Gareth rushed to my side, again triggering the memory. It had felt so real. He leaned over me and gingerly shifted me onto my back.
I recoiled instantly. He reached again, placing his hand on my shoulder, softly, a caress, tender.
It’s not him, it’s Gareth. Calm down. Breathe.
I struggled to gather myself. I gritted my teeth.
“I am alright, thank you, Gareth.” Although I winced involuntarily as I bent my knee. There was a gash oozing blood. I vaguely recalled wincing after hitting a rock on the way down.
When Gareth saw the blood, he immediately scooped me up, staring into my eyes. His blue orbs calmed me, anchored me in their depths. His gaze washed over me and I was comforted.
I felt his grip tighten a bit and I welcomed his protective arms around my body. His eyes bore into mine, the silver stare slipping from my thoughts. He continued to stare. I was diving deeper, into the cobalt pools.
He didn’t speak, he merely smiled at me, softly, as he turned and climbed the hill on powerful legs. I admired his profile as he focused on the terrain in front of us. His scent filled my nostrils, the faint musk of his skin, mint, lemongrass, and the salt of mild exertion. His cotton shirt was cool and soft.
Gareth continued to carry me down the path. We passed the arena gate where a couple of the soldiers stood chatting.
“Looks like ’e got ’er aft’r all!” the older one chuckled, elbowing his companion in the ribs.
“Perhaps you should set me down, Gareth.” I murmured, flushing.
“No, you are injured, my lady.” Gareth, ever chivalrous.
I put a hand on his chest, looking pointedly at the men. He let me down gently, but kept an arm around me. The wound was still leaking blood, but otherwise my knee was fine. I was grateful some traumas were only skin deep.
We made our way back to the castle in companionable silence and parted ways in the hall outside our bedchambers after I convinced Gareth I didn’t need to see the castle healer.
“I’ll meet you back here in an hour then, I suppose.” I suggested as Gareth deposited me in front of my door. His eyes smiled into mine, the steady blue of the ocean. He bent to kiss my hand.
Riselle came around the corner and I shrank into my doorway, hand on the knob, not wanting to deal with her. I bitterly remembered the cut on my temple would need tending as well.
“Goodbye!” I whispered and pushed him toward his chambers. Riselle immediately called out to him.
“Lord Gareth, good to see you. You’re visiting Lady Serena quite early, some might say.”
“Actually we just returned to the castle together, after a bit of training with the house guard earlier this morning.”
Riselle huffed and the air in the corridor grew noticeably colder. I pressed into the alcove of the door, grateful for the thick, reinforced stone structuring of the castle.
“I cannot see why you waste your time with her, riding and sparring and reading and whatever other nonsense she drags you into.” Riselle drawled. I hid in the doorway, listening.
“As all of those are hobbies of mine, it quite pleases me, spending time practicing them with your lovely sister,” he answered in a clipped tone, “now, I apologize, Miss Riselle but I must freshen up before breakfast.”
I began to smile as Gareth strode away but my lips faltered when she followed from a distance, not noticing me as she passed my chambers.
“She does not know how to truly please you,” Riselle hissed. I heard the smirk in her voice when she sneered, “after all, how would a virgin know how to touch a man?”
There was a pause. The smile dropped from my lips completely.
“Lady Riselle, it seems to me you should concern yourself with your own affairs and learn to respect your elders. I bid you farewell until breakfast.” I heard Gareth dismiss her, his voice deep and authoritative in a way that made me warm. Riselle, however, shrunk back and Gareth shut his own door nearly in her face. I slipped into my chambers and gently closed the door as she stomped past, back the way she had come.
I drew a bath and pulled off my breeches. My knee and shin were crusted over with blood, all the way to my ankle. I prodded the scabby blood on my head as I disrobed and lowered myself into the tub carrying a couple cloths with me.
I soaked my knee as I bathed, then gently cleaned the clotted blood from the gashes. The flesh over my knee gaped, raw. It was quite a deep gouge.
I rinsed once more and dried off before donning a silk robe. The hem trailed the floor as I knotted the sash tightly and walked into the sitting room. I retrieved my sewing kit from a decorative box on my desk, a bottle of spirits from the drawer, and sat on the settee with a towel, where the light was brightest. I fished out the needle and horsehair I always used.
I sent a trickle of fire into the metal, sanitizing the surface. Glancing at the timepiece, I hurriedly threaded the needle. I arranged my leg before me and sanitized the area with a pour of alcohol. I took a swig before I pinched my flesh together and aimed. I plunged the needle carefully into my skin, dragging it smoothly through one piece of flesh and into the other, slowly drawing them together once again. I clenched my jaw and pretended it wasn’t my knee before me. I counted the stitches. Nine. Not the worst. I glanced back at the timepiece. How had almost the full hour passed?
I applied a salve to ward off infection, nearly jumping when there was a knock at the door. Gareth was early.
I had naught on but the silken robe. I wrapped the material around my nakedness tightly, clutching it together at the neck, and pulled open the door. Gareth stood before me, dashing in a periwinkle tunic. He reminded me of a sunny day.
“Hello again, my lady.”
“Oh, I-” I blushed fiercely when Gareth closed the distance between us and kissed me before leading me to the sofa where the gauze and needle still lay on a small tray. He moved them to the low table before the settee with a frown.
“Serena, I came early to inspect your injury.” Gareth gave me a look as he placed the tray. I sat on the settee and he sat on the ottoman opposite. He drew my leg up and the silk slid away as he held it across his knees.
Gareth’s touch was electric on my skin. His fingers trailed up my leg, starting at the arch of my foot, until his hand was under my knee. His other hand hovered with concern over the stitches and the salve and traces of blood drying there. It was perfectly fine. I would wrap it before we left.
“Why wouldn’t you see the healers?”
“No need to bother them.”
“Even though you can obviously take care of yourself, wouldn’t it be nice to be taken care of - for what I assume would be a change?”
I shifted slightly, his words giving me pause, and his hand traveled up my leg, more of the silk falling away.
“We have lovely silks in the south, a common cargo item on my family’s ships. You would look ethereal in white.”
“Well, you’re in luck!” I pulled out a roll of white bandaging.
He smiled. His hand followed the slit of the ebony silk I barely wore, encouraging it to part over my thigh, not catching the hint meant to deter his expedition over my skin.
I felt warmth blossom just before the robe whispered over my hipbone and the right side of my body was almost fully exposed to him as the material fell from my right shoulder too. One breast, full and pert, peeked from behind my curls.
Gareth’s gaze dropped down to the exposed skin and he cleared his throat. It couldn’t have been nerves that caused him to pause. Lord Gareth had definitely had his share of women. Had he seen my mark?
No, his attention was on my face. It took me a few seconds to realize I was holding my breath. I was fixated on his hand, still resting on my upper thigh, his fingertips mere centimeters from the place no man had ever touched me before.
Gareth’s eyes flicked from mine to my exposed bosom, back to my face, my lips. Back to my eyes.
He reached out, toward my neck, and brushed my hair back behind my shoulder. My spine straightened, my posture called to attention. I was a statue frozen under his eye.
Gareth gazed at me, his eyes dark and amorous, and he leaned forward slightly, I met him, some of my hair spilling back over my shoulder. He captured my lips, his hand on the side of my face, and kissed me passionately. His hand traveled to my neck, shoulders, my side. I pressed toward him, driven by need, and his hand found my breast, his thumb circling the nipple. My robe fell completely open as I put my arms around his neck.
He clutched me to his strong chest and joined me on the settee. The velvet of his tunic was soft on my breasts, a delicious contrast with Gareth’s calloused palms. He devoured my mouth as I wound my hands in his hair and explored his muscled arms and torso.
He pressed into me and I reclined against the cushions. His touch ignited that dull ache in my center, the need I had never fulfilled with a man.
His hand wandered south, landing on my hipbone before exploring my navel. My nipples hardened further and I gasped as Gareth found my sex. His fingertips circled the ball of nerves there, and I moaned softly. His lips grazed mine. He dipped further, between my folds and found my arousal. He was barely touching me, yet I yearned with need, I burned for him. He pulled back from our kisses and I stared into his eyes. He gently probed my entrance and I grabbed his wrist, yanking his hand to the side.
“I’m sorry, I-” I swallowed, “I have never, uh...” I felt my cheeks start to color and he gazed at me, understanding and adoration still tinged with lust.
I caught sight of the timepiece and announced the hour abruptly, standing and wrapping my robe around myself once more. I strode into the bedchamber, to the wardrobe, my cheeks warm, the place between my legs practically quivering. I heard Gareth follow.
He nuzzled into my neck, breathing in the scent of my hair. I pulled a shift and a simple ochre gown from the closet and turned to face him, the fabrics draped over my arm a barrier between us.
“I apologize if that was too forward of me, Serena, I never wish to make you uncomfortable.” Gareth whispered, placing a hand on each shoulder. I inched closer and he held me once more. I looked up at him.
“You could never make me uncomfortable, Gareth. I... it’s just that I... well, Riselle... in the corridor. What she said to you-” my eyes fell after I failed to finish the sentence.
“What Riselle said does not matter. You are the only thing that matters to me.”
He lifted my chin gently.
“Even if it’s the truth?”
“Especially if it’s the truth.” He bent and kissed me.
He turned to descend the step into the sitting room when I spoke his name softly. I decided. I dropped the gowns on the bed next to me. I wanted him to see me. He turned and I rolled my shoulders back, the robe slithering from my shoulders to the carpeted flagstones.
Gareth’s face wore a look of surprise and I felt my hair flame forcefully. He gazed at my form, head to toe, slow and appreciative. He didn't notice the small mark, the pale silvery color of scar tissue, just above my left hipbone. I covered it automatically with my palm.
I turned, smiling, and laughed when he whistled. The bell tolled the hour and we locked eyes.
I dressed swiftly, yanking on the material, and shook out my curls, snatching a plain gold ornament to secure the upper half with as I jammed my feet into short boots. A few wisps around my face sprung loose anyway.
Breakfast with my family began peacefully for the most part. Gareth had selected the seat next to mine after we entered together to the approval of my mother, and his proximity gave me fortitude enough to weather Riselle’s withering looks. My youngest sisters chattered at my mother’s side, beseeching her for new gowns. As plates of fruit were added to the table my father commanded our attention.
“I will depart for Sorcha at sunrise tomorrow,” he rumbled, “I apologize for the lack of notice, but I have a few days’ business to attend there before we board the ship. I know you ladies may not be able to prepare in such a short time frame, so you may either leave with me or in a couple days’ time as originally planned.”
“Why, I think that we should all travel together, my lord!” My mother chimed in, “a few days on the coast, in the city, would be lovely. I’m positive we can be packed over the course of the day. If not, we can have trunks sent to meet us on the ship.”
“Oh yes, Mother! We could do some shopping!” the twins excitedly agreed. I glanced at Riselle but she seemed less than thrilled. She kept throwing looks at one of the servers, a man of middling height with fair coloring, perhaps 30 years of age. He was fairly new to the staff and perhaps had not yet been warned about Riselle. He returned her smile as he took her teacup, her hand gently stroking his. Unnoticed by my parents as usual. I’m sure he was to be her self appointed consolation prize after Gareth shut her down in the hallway.
Josi and Eli scampered over to me, surrounding me and bombarding me with questions about Sorcha, asking me if I would take them up the coast and across the narrow channel to Unicorn Island, an uninhabited stretch of land.
The island was home to the herd of wild Rourke horses, the cousins of the beasts filling our stables. The horses swam across the channel to the main land and would hide in the Austris Mountains before returning to their mysterious island. Sometimes they would breed with our herd, supplementing the gene pool. My sisters wanted to try to spot a unicorn, undoubtedly due to the legends we had heard since we had been small children.
“Only if mother and father allow it, and only if you’re willing to sacrifice an entire day of shopping.” I laughed at the children’s perplexed faces.
Gareth chimed in, “I shall accompany you ladies, if you’ll have me!”
They were clearly debating the merits of each excursion. They whispered fiercely for a moment before turning to me and announcing the chance to see a unicorn was worth it. Their innocence charmed my heart. Riselle hadn’t ruined them quite yet.
My father clapped his hands.
“Then it’s settled. We depart for Sorcha at first light tomorrow.”
I hope you are enjoying the story so far! What do you think of the characters? Are you ready for some action?
If you have a moment, please let me know your thoughts!
Cheers! - Adrian :)