He slams his fist down, silencing my screams of distaste from the sudden noise. Here I am, once again questioning my sanity. Has everything led up to this ignominious reality? Could I back out after all this preparation? My gaze lowers, and I stare at his hand. His tanned skin is beaten red from where his fist continually connects with the wooden table. I see it fading to white, as blood slowly stops flowing to his clenched hand. A sheer sign of him holding back his temper.
With my long waves of hair draping over my face, using it as a curtain to hide behind, I peek up at the man I will inevitably marry. His thick, blonde, unkempt shag is falling below his eyebrows, his eyes glaring at me from under. His jaw is tight, he is barely holding back his rage. Never once has he laid a hand on me but tonight, I fear our relationship has changed.
“Silence Claire!” Chadwick snaps at me.
Reality is barely settling in my mind, and I’ve become exhausted from endless yelling. My body wobbles, and my face pale from lack of sleep. Gripping the table, I try to hold myself up, while I struggle to calm my trembles of rage. Another outburst from me and Chadwick’s restrained emotions will unravel.
Lifting my head, I stare at him with disgust, “Don’t you dare silence me.” I shake my head as the memory of that woman floods into my thoughts.
Chadwick walks me to the door, it was getting late, and I needed to get home. I opened his door and became startled by the person before me. Her long blonde hair cascading around her dirtied clothing, it appeared she had come a long way to be here. She looked beautiful but exhausted and worn. A moving twitch came from the bundle of blankets, and in her hands, I registered the baby stirring from sleep. I gasped, stepping back into Chadwick. He held me remaining still as the woman looked up into his eyes and passed me.
Last night’s events still haunt my memories. A woman had come to town with a small child, not even a few months old. She informed Chadwick of the bastard child, which he had fathered. The news ripped the air from my lungs. A heavy sigh of memory leaves my lips, “I can’t marry you.”
I lean onto the table to support my weight. I find the last bit of strength I have, as my exhaustion takes over. We haven’t slept, only screamed endlessly through the night. My hatred only increasing with each hour. The argument has brought me to tears, yet the situation remains the same. I begged him to cancel our wedding, but he won’t. I am beginning to feel as though nothing is left in my control. Either he will dismiss me, or lash out, as he has done. He betrayed me. I am helpless, and can do nothing, but voice my opinion, and pray I upset him enough to get rid of me.
“You are promised to me. Remember that,” Chadwick shouts, belittling me with his pointed finger, as he always does.
How could I forget? Each day, someone reminds me, complimenting me for this prized engagement my family has landed. This is the inevitable life I will live, trapped behind walls with an arrogant man in my bed.
“That was before your son showed up,” I snap. The pain of his betrayal wounds me deeply. I have given up my freedom for his desires. My family has risked everything for what: complete disrespect?
All men of a title have no consideration for the repercussions of their actions. How could I have believed this man was ever sincere when he said he loved me? He only saw my appearance, and when that didn’t satisfy him, he went elsewhere.
Fearful of the news that could stain our marriage, he refused to let me leave. I have not even informed my family. How could I tell them of this? First, we need to figure out how we are going to handle his mistake. I know my father will still desire this engagement. After all, it was status that motivated him. If I want things to change, I have to fight for myself, so here I am, screaming to control my future.
“He surprised both of us,” Chadwick fires in defence, stepping forward. He is trying to shift the blame and intimidate me, but I won’t let him.
How could he have done this in the first place? To be around that child would be humiliating. Everyone would think I wasn’t capable of keeping my man adequately satisfied, even while he is still just courting me! How could I be expected to hold his attention during our marriage?
“He is a bastard! You want me to stand by and be faithful? This is an awful sin you have committed against me!” I cry.
I have failed my family in more ways than one, but Chadwick has failed me as my betrothed.
I watch his face heat up, reddening from the embarrassment that I made him feel. He became increasingly insulted and angry as I repeatedly begged him to reject me. No matters how much I push him, he still enforces my parents’ wishes. I am nothing but property to him. I may not have control over my future, but I promise I will have my revenge against him.
“Claire, be still. I am the vassal. What I do is my business,” he responds coldly, relaxing his muscles as he tries to calm his rage.
A vassal? He speaks as if this title gives him lordship. Hull is still owned by a lord, he is merely employed to direct its structuring and guide the villagers on behalf of the absent lord. Though with the village being so far from the lords, this gave the Stewart family full control over the residents. I know if I don’t marry him, I will be banished; if not by my family, then by his orders. He unintentionally won with his reminder. I gulp at the thought. He always received my compliance with this reminder. I am bound by his words, enslaved by his choices.
“How can you say that? You are my betrothed,” I whine, trying to instill more power over my status than I actually had.
“You behave like a child,” he seems to dismiss me altogether, claiming that I am at fault for his actions.
Rage bubbles inside my veins, my jaw clenching into a grind as I try to reign in my emotions towards him. I’ve stepped far over the line, only pitiful grovelling will protect me now. But he should grovel, not me. I have done nothing but express my humiliation.
“How dare you blame this on me,” I screech at him, tears running down my cheeks.
His hand reaches out over the table with a swift movement. The loud crack that echoes through my head leaves me shocked while my whole face is thrust to the side. My balance is gone. I tumble over grabbing at the table to stop my descent. Cups and bowls come crashing down around me, and my bottom slams against the old wood floor.
My hand lifts to my cheek. The sting still burns lightly from his assault. This was apparently his breaking point. He is done with my disobedience. My next steps need to be for survival. I look down at all the wooden items around me and gasp for the air that left my lungs. Scurrying away from the mess, I scoot across the planks.
His boots come into my field of view; he steps around the table. Towering just over me, he waits for me to react. Shivers run down my back, as I look up into his murderous eyes.
“You are useless to me with this behaviour. Why should I even waste my time with a farmer’s daughter? What man would want someone incapable of even keeping his house clean?” He kicks one of the bowls that had fallen with me. It slams against the wall behind me, and I shrink away from the noise.
He squats down staring darkly into my eyes, “Of course, I would bed another woman when I am given someone as useless as yourself.”
Now he is threatening my reputation. How could he claim I’m the reason for this situation? He will proudly ruin me. If word got out that I am unsuitable to be his wife, I would lose all chances of ever finding a decent husband, and securing financial stability for my family. If I am to convince him to end this engagement, this is not the way.
I suck in every ounce of anger I have built up. The hatred and disgust burns from the core of my soul. If I don’t reign in my temper, I will be shamed or banished. My only choice now is to be with him as the woman he expects me to be. To protect my family and my well-being, I force myself to say what he desires to hear: grovelling.
Every ounce of my body tenses in rebellion against my decision. Lowering my head, I stare at the surrounding clutter. The old oak wood flooring is chipped and destroyed from our years of growing up in the house. Hate-filled tears burn my cheeks on their way down, staining them with another set of memories. I hold back the urge to scream, containing my anger into a whisper.
“I’m sorry, Chadwick. I got angry. You are right this is a surprise to both of us. I will be more supportive of your choices,” I plead, almost begging him not to spread the word.
He stands up seeming satisfied with my current state of mind. The beast is tamed. For now, my family’s reputation is safe if I continue to tread carefully.
“Your father will hear of this. Get out of my sight, you have offended me,” he snaps.
Deep down inside, I know I will never become the kept woman he expects. It isn’t in my nature. I hold my head low in shame. How could I degrade myself so easily? I stare at the floor, counting each step I take, while his watchful eyes analyze my movements for any sign of rebellion. I turn my back, refusing to show weakness, and make my way towards the door.
Every ounce of muscle recoils against my slow march to the door. I stare at the thick splintering door, the light peeking through like a ray of hope. My body urges me to rip the door open and dash out. My trembling hand flexes as I reach out grabbing the basket placed beside the door frame. Opening the door, I can hear my heart pulsing with hope. The hope to be finally free of this building. I take a deep breath as the fresh air fills my lungs and I pass through the frame, shutting the door behind me.
Without a second thought, I rush down the obnoxiously long set of stairs. My hand slides down the railing. I look back and feel a sense of dread. The dread he will change his mind and call me in. The sun casts a shadow that looms over me in warning. I will be back. It’s a fact. A matter of time. But for now, I’m free. The feeling of escaping this wretched cottage has me almost giddy as I briskly descend the many steps towards the market in the square nearby. I nearly leap off the last few steps in delight and disappear between the surrounding buildings.
Without a word, I had left the man that had betrayed me. This engagement had been his doing. Willing or not, I will become his wife one day.
Shuffling through the condensed crowd, I stare down the small makeshift square placed in the street of old clay buildings. The clay is crumbling from age, exposing the straw behind it. Slipping behind the carts against the wall, I escape the crowd.
One of the merchants glances at me, and I give an apologetic smile and slip by him. “Sorry,” I mutter. He smiles, and continue on down my secret path. Abruptly, I am blinded by a sharp light. I squint away, watching as the dirt gets turned up by the many feet near the cart beside me.
Following the beacon of direct light, I find myself in front of a mirror on display. A large cart cluttered with odds and ends from the merchants travels. Most of the items are covered by a bland, thick cloth protecting it from the dusty air. The fabric around the mirror has fallen, and the sun is reflecting off the mirror lighting up my face. Stepping towards the mirror, I reach out touching the bevelled frame. Dirt sticks to my fingers, a clear smug exposing the bronze work under the caked dirt. It had journeyed far across the Plains of Lanercoast as everything does that ends up here.
I glance out past the crowd towards the scattered cottages surrounded by endless fields of wild grass. My reflection shifts with my movement, and it catches my attention. Pausing, I take a moment to take in my appearance, something I hardly get to see for myself. Haunting stoic green eyes stare back at me, screaming a question of, ‘why?’ Why did I have to go through all this? Before Chadwick, I was someone else.
Chadwick is infatuated with my appearance. Every man astounded by my wavy locks of light brown. Uniquely bright green eyes set me apart from the crowd of other women. I am but an exotic prize to be won, in his eyes. I was the only thing he had left to claim. Commoners gifted with my features would use them to rise in the ranks, helping their family prosper. Before my engagement, I had various men to pick from, but short-lived. He is the wealthiest man in the village, so he feels entitled to me. No one would dare to challenge him. Unfortunately, if I don’t manage myself better, I could become undesirable. If I were to lose Chadwick altogether, I’d be in ruin.
I grimace at my appearance and turn away stomping through the market. Walking endlessly through the street in a rage-filled daze, my thoughts of revenge distract me. I kick up the dirt beneath my feet and watch the familiar faces of villagers pass by. Being raised in such a small village was a curse and a blessing. Everyone knew my name and face. I know I can’t escape the fate of our marriage, not in the public eye. Too many witnesses would inform my father or Chadwick of my behaviour, both would punish me appropriately. My revenge needed to be silent, only my own knowledge would be satisfaction enough.
This is a loveless arrangement, proud as my family is, this was never a choice for me. When Chadwick had seen me shortly after I had finished ageing into a woman, he suddenly lusted after me. Immediately, I was instructed by my family to entice him into courting me. My father quickly invested our savings into educating me. If I were to become a vassal’s bride, I would need to be reasonably educated.
The crowds are thick as usual at this time of day. Everyone is crowding around the baskets and looking for food. Placing some herbs into my basket mindlessly, I look over towards the small market table with the same old books displayed. I sigh heavily, emptying my lungs of air. If only we lived closer to the castle, then I might get to read more.
I step back from the crowd, my back pressing into someone’s arm. Foot over foot, I stumble to catch my balance as I descend to the ground. Bracing for my fall, I wrap my arms around my basket. Large hands quickly surround me, halting my fall. Without a thud, my body gives in entirely to the stranger’s grip, and my hair dangles away from my face, trailing towards the ground. I look up at my victim and saviour, and I gasp.
Utterly in awe of the man wrapped around me, I forget briefly that I’m in this predicament. The man leans over me supporting my weight. His long chestnut hair frames his face, his full, tight jaw is peeking out under the thick ends. It isn’t clenched from anger, he looks somewhat relaxed, and his smile has a bemused expression. My eyes trail up into his natural brown coloured eyes, his soft gaze locks with mine.
“I’m terribly sorry,” I gasp, remembering I had bumped the man.
After standing up and stepping away from the man’s touch, I quickly brush my dress down. Not daring to look up, I stare at the ground. How humiliating. Not only had I bumped him but I had plainly ogled over him, like the commoner I am.
“Forgive me. It was I who stepped into you.” The stranger profoundly bows towards me.
The action threw me off. Looking up, my jaw drops in complete confusion. Even people who knew I belonged to Chadwick would never behave like this towards me. I am just a commoner, one of the people, and they all knew this. My face heats up as he graciously helps me, even after all that I have done to disturb his day.
Having the opportunity to look over the rest of his figure, I see the basic white shirt and brown pants he is wearing. The cloth is untarnished and looks almost new. A bright shine from his side indicates to me that he has a sword, though most blades around here never shine. This man must hold a title higher than Chadwick’s since he is carrying such an excellent polished metal.
Registering that he is still bowing to me while I blatantly take in his appearance, I quickly curtsy, and almost fall to the ground in panic. He is of title and bending to a commoner, it is uncanny. Whatever title he holds, I need to be careful. After our fight, I’m in such deep water with Chadwick that any adverse action he hears about could be blown far out of proportion.
“Thank you for your kind words, sir,” I stutter, trying to not disrespect his unknown title.
Holding my curtsy firmly, he rises from his bow to me. A small smile lifts my cheeks. I rise slowly, and my legs tremble. Keeping my head lowered, I allow my hair to fall in front of my face. He stares at me while I peek towards his calm, gentle eyes.
“I’m rather pleased to have bumped into you,” he almost chuckles, his smile widening.
“Why is that?” I immediately question him, alarm tensing my muscles.
“You are the most beautiful creature, that I have ever had the honour of laying my eyes on,” his husky voice shocks me. I struggle to absorb what he has just said.
Slowly, my cheeks begin to turn a blazing red. I look away, unable to contain my expression towards this stranger’s kind words. Many men have looked at me with such desire, yet none have offered me such words of passion.
“Your words are far too kind, sir,” I lightly snap.
This man cannot have a title. All titles brought arrogance, and many were raised to be self-centred, controlling and egotistical. Nothing in this man’s tone hinted at such a personality. The distinct features of noble status were distinct to spot, and this puzzled me. Who is this man?
“They are true nonetheless,” his educated words ring confidently in my ears.
Blushing, I look away and notice his sword is partly misshaped. The hilt is bent, causing the sword to remain partially unsheathed, and turn in a slight angle. Gasping, I realize this is all my fault, I turn to grab it, for further inspection.
My fingers wrap around the leather grip, and his hand quickly slams down on mine. His firm hold of my hand stills my action. He is alert, analyzing my actions for any foul intent. I must have startled him because his hand is guarded with muscles flexed, but his expression shows no concern.
I extend my neck and feel uncomfortably close to his towering figure, I stutter out, “Y-your s-sword, please tell me I-I’m not the reason its bent?”
“I wish, that you did because I feel a desire to make you squirm,” he smirks lightly, patting my hand gently.
Realizing my error, I slowly pull my hand away, and we begin to walk down the street together, “What happened?”
“Oh just a common hazard, from travelling on the roads for days. Nothing to concern yourself with,” the traveller explains, grinning crookedly at me.
“Allow me to take you to the blacksmith?” I immediately offer, and suddenly feeling uncomfortable with the thought.
“Lead on,” he gestures forward.
We turn, walking towards the blacksmiths, silently but happily. I had never before, felt this overwhelming interaction. It is so peaceful being in the presence of a man, who valued you, instead of treating you as a trophy. My spirit almost feels free from the burdens of my own destiny.
We enter into the dark, overhang of the blacksmith’s shop. I bounce up and smack the metal bell, and the echoes rattle lightly through the air. The smoke from the fire surrounds us, warming me with a light layer of ash thick in the hot air. Expectantly, I look at the door in the back where a woman enters from, to come to our attention. She is wiping her hands with a cloth. Clearly, she was preparing supper.
“Carmen, it’s so good to see you,” I greet her.
When I was here last, it was to have sickles sharpened, at the beginning of the season. It is not often I need a blacksmith.
“Who is this strapping young man?” her eyes ogle the stranger, whose arm I grasp.
The stranger steps forward, his arm reaching out to take Carmen’s. Cradling her hand in his, he bows, and lightly pecks the top of her hand. Of course, he would greet her, like a proper woman that she definitely wasn’t. “I am but a traveller passing by, my sword was damaged on my journey. This place came highly recommended.”
Both Carmen, and I blush profusely, his words make me feel uncomfortable, and his actions overwhelm her pride.
“And that, we can be of assistance for, allow me to fetch my husband,” she speaks, with such kind words. She turns her head towards the door, that she passed through when greeting us, and calls out, “HAROLD!”
She returns her attention to us, and with a warm smile, blushes at her own barbaric way of calling her husband.
“What!” Harold comes barrelling down the stairs, nearly smashing his round belly through the narrow doorway.
“We have a handsome, young customer,” she flirts outwardly, in front of her husband.
Oblivious of his wife’s flirtatious behaviour, Harold steps forward.
“What will it be, lad?” He looks down at the sword in question, “a straightening?”
“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
The stranger remained respectful, even when Harold treated him as a child. I shake my head, slightly chuckling at Harold’s unknowing degrading of the man’s title. If only the lighting were better here, they might realize this traveller has some type of authority to his name. My only worry is, what kind of title he has?
Grabbing the sword Harold lifts it and groans, “this is heavier than I’m used to.”
He flips the blade around looking at the metal in detail. Inspecting the slight bend, before squinting at the details in the hilt.
“Where did you steal this from, lad?” Harold questions with a raised brow.
The traveller smirks, “it’s an heirloom, is the metal too much for you to work with?”
“Of course not. I’ll handle anything for a friend of Claire’s” he winks at me.
Harold’s son, Caleb had been good friends with my brother. In such time, his family grew a great fondness towards me. Before my parents, forced my brother to befriend Chadwick, I spent many suppers here.
“Run along now, you too,” Carmen shoos us away like she would with her own child.
We snicker, while we are chased from the building. Nearly stumbling, I feel the traveller’s arm tighten, around my grip. He holds onto me until I’m able to gain my balance. Suddenly the thought of being in this man’s presence could be my revenge. Sure enough, gossip would spread of the dashing man who I had bumped into at Market. Word would reach Chadwick, and a small smile spreads across my face as I think of the betrayal he would feel himself. I could show him that I have other options as well. Sweet satisfaction would be seeing Chadwick lose his composure from jealous rage.
Another blush fills my cheeks with warmth, and I step out of reach. This man haunts my mind with an opportunity: the chance to live wildly. Of course, I couldn’t tarnish my families reputation by acting so unbecomingly. My family would never forgive me for such disgrace towards our name.
Quickly, I dismiss myself from the man before me, “Excuse me I have errands to attend to.” With a slight bow, I turn and step into the crowd.
My last impression of this magnificent man will forever be his slightly slack jaw as I abruptly depart. I recall his arm slightly reaching out as if to halt my decent, but I am slipped out of sight far too quickly.