Bethel couldn’t hide her disappointment when Potron told her that he, not Adain, would be the one to accompany her back to her home. But she smiled and thanked him for his help, then gave Pola a warm hug before saddling up early that morning.
“How can I ever thank you?”
Pola smiled and patted her cheek. “Take care of that shoulder the way I told you, and stay home after dark.”
Smiling, and with tears filling her eyes, Bethel nodded and hugged her one last time before allowing one of the men to give her a leg up into the saddle. Several of the encampment members had come to see her off, none of whom she’d ever met, but she understood why. She was a stranger, and therefore a possible threat to their existence. She would never learn the truth about why they’d gone into hiding. Should she ever give away their secret, the less she knew about who and how many lived here, the fewer people she could endanger. Which was why they’d remained in the shadows during her recuperation.
Now that she was leaving, they were emerging just long enough to see her off. She didn’t know it, but something rare and different about her had drawn them out. In this close-knit almost family, emotions spoke as loudly as words, and the knowledge that this brave, petite woman had irrevocably captured the heart of one of their own was enough to pique their curiosity and draw them out of seclusion. It was an opportunity they couldn’t resist. More so because the man most affected by her leaving was not there to bid her off. Instead, he had disappeared hours before, without a horse and without a word to anyone as to where he was going, or how long he would be gone. And that kind of behavior from him was most unusual.
Hours later, as they slowly but steadily made their way out of the forest and onto the open road, Potron had answered few of her questions and made even less small talk. No matter, Bethel decided. Since their departure, she had withdrawn into herself. Sometimes she prayed. Sometimes she hoped for a miracle. She tried to imagine how the confrontation with her father would go. Yet, no matter how many times she told herself he would remain comforting and understanding, no matter the fact that he would always love her, in his eyes the ultimate damage had been done and could never be reversed. Her denial of that fact would be swept aside, but there was the hope that their attending physician would back her up. If he examined her and found her still intact, would it change her father’s belief?
It’s not my father that’s the problem, she told herself. It’s the other villagers. And any possible suitors who might still try to bid for me. She could deny the loss of her virginity, but they wouldn’t believe her. Neither would they believe Dr. Vess. The townspeople would accuse both her father and the physician of trying to cover up the truth in order to lure in a decent suitor.
She could argue her case, but the truth remained that she had been attacked. And because of that, her future was changed. Her life would become dramatically altered, and she would have no more say about it. Ever.
In fact, there weren’t many choices left for a woman in her position. The most obvious would be the Church. Miserably, Bethel knew she would never be happy in the nunnery. Her free spirit would be crushed within the first few months by the strict license of convent life.
They topped a crest overlooking the modest manor of Banderling Mayne by late afternoon. Bethel reined in Quick to watch the hustle and bustle of the servants below as they went about their daily duties of tending to the outlying fields, caring for the various livestock, the cattle and sheep, and the usual upkeep needed to maintain the buildings and premises. The work was never-ending, and its familiarity—the sights and sounds she was accustomed to and had grown up with—brought a sweet ache to her heart. The thought that she could easily have died at the hands of the lion beast men sent a cold shiver up her spine. She clucked her tongue, giving the stallion her heels to head him down the rise toward the manor.
It was then she noticed that Potron had not followed her, but remained behind at the top of the crest. She pulled up and turned around in her saddle.
“Why are you not following? My father and I would gladly have you as a guest.”
“I cannot. I promised I would return as soon as you were safely arrived.”
“But, at least have a cup of wine and a brief rest before you journey back,” she insisted.
However, the little man would not be persuaded. “You know it’s dangerous for me to be seen, even as far away from the castle as we are. I’m in exile, along with Adain and the rest of our group, so I must take the same precautions. Forgive me, my lady. Your offer is tempting, but…”
She waved a hand, nodding. “Go then with my thanks and my prayers for a safe trip back. And please convey my thanks to Pola once more.”
“I will,” he promised. “Anyone else?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye and an elfish grin on his face.
Bethel blushed at his reference, surprised by his astuteness. “And tell everyone else that I will miss their kindness,” she answered.
Potron dipped his head. “Yes, my lady. I will convey your messages to…everyone.” Giving her a wave of his arm, the little man wheeled his mount around and headed back down the other side of the crest, away from Banderling Mayne.
Bethel watched him leave until he disappeared into the surrounding forest from which they’d emerged, then turned and continued on toward the manor. Halfway across the fields, she was spotted by the guards standing watch by the entrance gate. By the time she entered the main compound, her father and many of the servants had gathered to welcome her home.
Before she could step down from her horse, her father pulled her into his embrace. Wrapping her arms about his neck, she pressed her face against his chest and begged his forgiveness. Quickly, Lord Voril hustled her inside the main hall and into his study where they could be alone. Along the way, he ordered food, drink, and a bowl of warmed water brought to the room.
Once inside, he sat his daughter down in the nearest chair and handed her a handkerchief to dry her tears. He took the moments she needed to calm herself to look her over from head to foot, noticing the fading telltale bruises and marks which still mottled her face and hands. When she was calmer, he took her hands and kissed them.
“You are looking extraordinarily well,” he murmured. “I had thought you would arrive all trussed up like your Uncle Richard’s foot when his gout acts up.”
Bethel giggled, remembering what her father was referring to, then impulsively leaned over and hugged him around the neck once more. “Forgive me, Father. I’m so sorry. I never meant to hurt you, or to bring shame upon our name.”
Lord Voril tried to calm his daughter, patting her back and shushing her. “It’s over and done. We cannot go back and change what is irreversible. What we need to look at now is your future, and to discuss your options.”
Bethel pulled back slowly, looking her father full in the face for the first time since she’d arrived. “There are no options, Father,” she softly said. “I know you may not believe me, but I am still intact. I’m still pure. But I realize others won’t believe me.”
Voril was stunned. “You’re still a virgin?”
“Yes. Call for Dr. Vess. He will confirm it.”
The man paused. “Even if he does, as you say, who would believe it? The damage is done. No man will consider you to be marriage material, despite our insistence that you’re unsullied. However…there may be more than you may suspect.”
She leaned back. “What do you mean?”
Lord Voril sighed. “Sir Efram was here yesterday. He was aware of what had…of your incident. He wanted to make it clear he was still interested in asking for your hand in marriage.”
Bethel’s jaw dropped. “What? How? I mean—”
“After all,” her father continued, interrupting. “The man has had three previous wives. He does not seek your dowry. I believe he has honest emotions for you, my Bet. I believe he is seeking companionship and someone to give him an heir. As I see it, he is your only hope for making the best of the current situation.” Voril smiled. “Imagine his surprise when, on your wedding night, he discovers you are intact as you claim.”
“But…but I don’t love Sir Efram,” she gently protested.
Voril shook his head, the first sign of his impatience and anger coming in the clenching of his jaws. “You have no other choice, unless you’re willing to give yourself to the Church. Father Francis has also been by to offer his condolences and a solution.”
Agitated, and unable to sit still any longer, Bethel rose to her feet and strode over to the fireplace. She pressed her forehead against the cool, stone-carved mantel and stared into the low flames. Her father was right. Her options were few. Only because she had the good fortune to be of noble birth did she have even those.
In the flickering flames, she could see Pola’s benevolent face as she tended to the wounds on her arm, shoulder, and leg. It reminded Bethel that she needed to have the bandages freshened.
“You’re right, Father. It’s time I face the consequences of my actions. I will do whatever you say, be it marriage to Sir Efram, or the Church.”
“Personally, I would prefer giving your hand to Sir Efram,” Voril replied. “That way I can be assured you’ll live the kind of life I’ve always wanted for you. That, and I may yet have a manor full of grandchildren to give me more gray hairs than you already have.”
Relieved by the gently teasing tone in his voice, Bethel walked back over to where her father was sitting, sank to her knees in front of him, and embraced him around the waist. “Thank you,” she murmured. “I was afraid you would be so terribly angry and hurt that you would dismiss me on sight.”
“I admit I was confused and worried, until the herald came from King Jabbot to tell me of your attack. After I had some time to think about it, then I was angry.”
Yes, the attack. The story was that she was set upon by a band of ruffians, and was miraculously saved by a band of mercenaries, who turned her over to the king’s guards after she was rescued. It was a shaky defense and riddled with deception, but it was far better than the truth.
Her father stroked her hair as she lay with her head on his lap, reminiscent of many times in the past when she was an errant child needing his attention. And forgiveness. Many times he’d confessed to her that he was always surprised how much of Calda was in his daughter. Yet it frightened him to discover how much of himself was in her, too.
“We cannot change what is in the past. But we learn from our mistakes and go with the best the future has to offer us. Sir Efram said he would return within a fortnight to speak with you. I strongly suggest you take him up on his offer.”
She nodded. Her father’s kind hand had once more done its trick, soothing her worries and conveying his deep love. “When he arrives, if he asks, I will accept,” she assured him.
“Good. Then my mind is at rest.” He gestured to the tray a servant had silently slipped into the room during their conversation, and to the large bowl of warm water near the door. “Have something to eat and drink after you wash some of the dirt from your face. You’ll feel better, and you’ll be able to think more clearly afterwards.” He lifted her head from his lap and got to his feet to head for the door.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“To tell Norra to ready your room, in case you wish to rest before supper. I’ll be back shortly,” he promised and left the study.
She listened to the sound of his footsteps die away before slowly moving toward the bowl of water to wash away the dried tears and grime. She then approached the tray of food. She wasn’t hungry, but she had vowed to herself that she would no longer question nor go against any of her father’s requests. She owed him that much. She owed him her obedience.
The tray held a selection of cold meats, a hunk of freshly baked bread with butter, and some of the cook’s jellied preserves. Nibbling on a slice of lamb, Bethel stared at the dusk gathering outside the window. She listened to the sounds of the manor as it prepared itself for the night. A horse whinnied (Quick? she wondered), on its way to the stables, and an overwhelming sense of déjà vu flooded her being.
She was transported back to the encampment in the woods, listening once again to the people as they tended to the livestock and their families. As women prepared supper around the campfires. As children laughed and chased each other around the grounds. At any moment, Pola would come through the doorway, a steaming tray in her hands. Soon afterwards, Adain would come and sit with her while she finished eating to tell her about his day, or about something which had happened at some time in the past. At times they would trade jokes, or test each other on their individual knowledge of horseflesh.
Bethel never knew how much she would miss those moments until she felt her face flame with sorrow. Tears blurred her sight, and a heavy weight filled her chest. Raising a napkin to her mouth to muffle her sobs, she cried for the feelings which twisted in her gut. Feelings which had a name and a voice, but for which she had no face or hope of ever being with again.