Blood and War

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Chapter 44 - Priest

They left camp and proceeded to ride for five long hours. They made camp under the trees, and by then, both Dillon and Catherine were uneasy.

The Northmen dismounted, and without a word of explanation, they settled themselves. The men took a little nap during the heat of the afternoon, and with no choice but to follow suit, Dillon and Catherine dismounted along with their odd companions.

Less than an hour later they woke to the sounds of sparring men. They watched the impromptu matches with fascination.

It took both Catherine and Dillon less than a minute to realize that none of Dillon’s men had any skill like these men. In fact, few men had skills like these men. They lived for their craft and very little else. They were dedicated, focused and lethal.

They quickly goaded Dillon into fighting with them. He won their respect with a great deal of effort on his part, especially since he had to adapt to their fast humor and unrepentant cheating.

Catherine felt oddly proud of him, and for the first time, she thought that he fit in better with these men than his own. There was some bond here that something deeper than blood.

It was a sense of belonging... She waited for the ache in her chest and frowned when it did not follow at the thought.

“So how does being married feel?” Priest asked unexpectedly.

She hadn’t thought Priest would do idle chit-chat. He was a mean fighter, and he whipped most of the men. He sat down beside her, and it was something else she did not expect him to do.

These men were different from others. They went through hell and they survived less this or that, but they were alive. Changed, yes, how could they not be?

“Not the same,” Catherine admitted. She didn’t know how to feel. This was all too much and too soon. She could not even admit to herself yet, how she felt about Dillon. The pain of her feelings would be too great for her.

“Were you sleeping together before?” Priest asked, and she glanced at him warily. He was just... interested and why she wanted him to know the truth she didn’t know.

“No,” she answered truthfully, and Priest nodded as she watched Dillon.

“You slept with the weak one, because you had too much respect for this one to bring him down,” Priest was amused by the thought and yet it was almost as if he approved.

“Is this confession time?” She asked almost tartly, and his smile unexpectedly transformed his face. It made Priest look suddenly less austere and younger than she thought.

Robert cheated and had Dillon flat on his arse. Both men laughed it off. Catherine never even knew that her eyes didn’t leave Dillon for even a second.

She was not watching them fight, Priest noted, she watched Dillon fight. His eyes became unreadable.

“If this were confession time, I ’d have to tell you that we have the same father and that to keep your Eduardo’s good will, my grandfather sent me to a monastery as an infant. He came to visit a few times and the last time he came, he neutered me and locked me up like an animal.

Aldrich found me and took me away. He had me educated and allowed me to become a fighter,” Priest admitted, and his words caught Catherine off guard.

Her gaze jumped to his face, and now she knew why that blue eye unsettled her so. It was her Eduardo staring at her. Priest noticed her sudden unease, and he noticed her instant wariness.

“Don’t be uneasy, big sister. I hated you at first, but Aldrich brought me to see you in a different light.

He taught me that sometimes, even love can be abusive. He taught me that loving our father and always having to bow to his will, hurt you,” Priest’s words caught her off guard again, and she glanced away in an attempt to hide her feelings.

It was done out of habit and because with distance, it was a truth she had faced in herself. She wasn’t the son her father wanted, and nothing she did was good enough for Eduardo.

“Aldrich taught me to love and respect you. He told me a long time ago that one day I would fight with you and for you.

I was consumed by revenge at one time, until the day our father cast you aside and I realized he was not the man I thought.

His own bitterness at not having an heir, destroyed the only good thing in his life. You.

Eduardo allowed Hellenic to soil you and I am only glad that you didn’t conceive,” the words hit Catherine so hard, she had trouble catching her breath. Suddenly she saw it the way Priest saw it, and the truth ripped the heart from her.

“Catherine, Cathy, I am sorry, I should have...” She caught his hand so hard that if he was human, she would have crushed it.

It hurt more to have this almost emotionally austere man, sound so worried... when he had every right to hate her. He seemed to realize that she needed a moment and gave her some space.

“Catherine,” Dillon was there in an instant. He was concerned, angry and defensive.

Catherine knew that she had to pull herself together because there was no good way he could interpret this. It took a lifetime of conditioning to drag herself out of that dark hole.

“Dillon...” Priest began, but Dillon’s sword was at his neck as if by magic.

“Let go of her,” the tension in Dillon was like a drawn bow and Priest raised his hand to indicate he was not doing the holding.

“Dillon,” her voice was suddenly steady and calm. It did all that Priest could not.

Dillon lowered his sword, slightly. He frowned as he assessed her blazing eyes and her effort to control herself. He would not settle for anything less than the truth, and she knew that.

“Priest is my half-brother. Could you give us a moment, please?” Their eyes met and held. Without a word or even asking a question, Dillon turned away and gave Catherine what she needed.

The sudden lack of tension in the air as everybody relaxed, felt strange. Like the silence in the eye of a storm.

“Dillon must never find out what you just made me see,” her words came almost painfully.

They both understood that Dillon would want to kill Eduardo and that he would never stand a chance against the vampire lord. It was his nature to protect what was his, and Catherine would not be the death of him.

“I cannot think that your mother, willingly took my...our father as a lover,” Catherine still reeled, but she was recovering.

Priest admired her more with every passing minute. She was everything Aldrich said and so much more. She was all he imagined and more than he could have thought. She would do just fine.

“No, her own father put her in Eduardo’s way. He wanted to curry favor, and she was an exceptionally beautiful woman.

He got lands and favors that made him rich and then she became pregnant. Your father wanted her to allow it to be removed, she refused and ran away. She died giving birth to me.

Her father found us, but she was already cold. She wrote a letter with her own dying blood, and she made him feel guilty enough that he could not kill me.

I had bitten her repeatedly, and he would not touch me. He had a woman come, and she was some kind of healer. She took me away and raised me until I was old enough to go to the monastery.

I wasn’t their first little Halfling. They knew how to take care of me,” the bitterness in that statement, after the sorrow of his mother’s death, said it all.

“I hated them, but they were all I had and all I knew. Until they made me into nothing and locked me into a cage.

My grandfather stared at me with more hatred than usual that day, and it was only later that I found out that he blackmailed Eduardo.

The Drake finally had his fill. He just took all of Arthur’s lands and titles away from him, left him destitute, which was nothing less than he deserved.

He took it out on me because he had no one else to blame,” Priest shook his head, but his face held no emotion. Only that blue eye was blazing, it was eerie, and oddly it made her uneasy.

“I am sorry,” the words were involuntary, but Catherine meant them and their eyes met. She knew exactly how cruel her father could be if he wanted to.

“For what? For being born a pure breed? For being the daughter of a man that is as ruthless as my own grandfather?

For growing up with all that cold privilege and emotional blackmail? For being locked up in a cage with open doors?” It hurt that Priest could see her so clearly, and it hurt that she had refused to acknowledge these things to herself.

“I still love him,” the words ripped from Catherine, and Priest remained silent for a long while. She could not read his face then, but she understood the dark shadows in his eyes.

“Of course you love him. Eduardo is your father. Love is not a voluntary emotion. It’s not something you can turn on and off.

I loved you without ever having met you. I even bet he still loves you, but if Eduardo admits that to himself... He’s going to have to admit what he did to you.

He would have to admit to everything, and he can’t do that. He convinced himself that his hatred is all he has left,” it was all too much, and Catherine knew he was right.

To hear Priest say those words was a catharsis and it was odd that he was aware how much she needed to hear them.

Now that she heard Priest speak and she got to know the depths of him, Catherine could see that the coldness and the stern unapproachable facade, was just the armor he wore to keep from getting hurt. A mask to conceal his heart.

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