AT HIS MERCY
By Kim Strattford
Lizabet leaned against the walls of the watchtower, looking over the fields in front of the keep. She'd been doing this for three months, ever since Harold had left with his contingent of men—could one call a group so small an army?
"You appear the very portrait of young love." The sour voice of Beatrice, her mother-in-law, grated on her nerves, but she resisted turning around and engaging in the fight the woman was trying to provoke.
Instead she let a dreamy lilt creep into her voice and said, "He'll come home to me."
"Yes, he will. And I will have much to tell him of how you behaved while he was gone—how well you minded me."
Lizabet resisted rolling her eyes. The woman was full of nothing but one impossible demand after another. Lizabet was her daughter-in-law, not her slave.
And truth to tell, Lizabet didn't think that her husband would be back. He'd gone off for at most a month, he'd said. He was well overdue. A comforting absence, until she wondered how long he could be away before others started eying his mostly undefended castle.
"Are you even listening to me, Elizabeth?"
Lizabet took a long, steadying breath. Her mother-in-law called her that to vex her. Said there was nothing wrong with a good English name. Lizabet had been born in this land, but her mother had stubbornly held to her northern roots when she'd named her children. It was a shame she hadn't been able to hold to life with the same tenaciousness. She might have stopped Lizabet's father from giving her in marriage to Harold.
"Go downstairs, Mother." It galled her to call Beatrice that, but it was what she and Harold insisted upon. "You'll catch your death up here." If only that were true—the old woman grew crustier with each passing day, but showed no signs of diminished health.
With a grumble, Beatrice headed for the stairs.
"I almost believed you, big sister," a softer voice sounded once Beatrice was gone. "That you really want him back." Fredrik stepped out of the shadows, his footfalls so light she could barely hear him, even knowing he was there.
"I never wanted him in the first place."
"I know. I hated him from the moment I saw him." Fredrik walked over and touched her shoulder, the place Harold loved to squeeze too tightly. The bruises her husband routinely left were usually hidden by her gowns, but once he'd misjudged and grabbed her too close to her neck, and her brother had seen the mark and been outraged. Fredrik didn't know of the other marks left on her in places no man but her husband would see—he had no idea how ill used she'd been by Harold.
That great pig of a man.
She felt Fredrik tense beside her, and his voice cracked as he said, "What is that?"
Dust was rising on the hill just beyond the limits of their holding. Horses coming up fast—oh, God, please no. Not Harold, not riding in on his own power.
But as the horses came into view, she realized the men riding them were wearing blue and white. Harold always outfitted his men in crimson and black.
The group reined in, and one man rode out in front, his white warhorse prancing. "Am I speaking to the Lady Lizabet?" He looked up at her and the sun shone on his helmet, lighting him up like an angel.
But what kind of angel? Some were destroyers, weren't they?
"I am she." She moved so she was more in view, heard the old men and boys Harold had left behind trying to muster up some kind of defense. "Fredrik," she murmured. "Tell them to stand down. Not a one of them is in any shape to fight for us."
Fredrik slipped away, quiet as ever.
Lizabet moved again. "And who are you, sir?"
"I'm your savior, perhaps. Or the destroyer of your happiness. I'm unsure how you felt about your husband."
"I was a good and loyal wife." All true. The fact that she hated Harold with a passion that was far greater than any he'd ever tried to rouse from her in their bed didn't need to be said to this man. "And you are? Name, sir, not whimsical titles."
"I am Thomas Ridley. Your husband had plans to take my castle. I disagreed with those plans."
"And my husband? How does he fare?"
"He lacks breath, my lady."
"Temporarily or permanently."
She thought she heard him laugh as he said, "It is a lasting condition, I fear."
She closed her eyes and felt herself relax for the first time since she'd married Harold. "I see. And what would you have of us? Did you come to sack this place?"
"I did not. But I will destroy it if you resist. It's my intention to take what I want of your husband's property."
She frowned. That could include her. "Surely not all that was his."
"I may stand corrected." There was rich humor in his voice. "Or I may not. Open the gates now."
Even over the distance she sensed a resolve that told her he was not jesting. He would destroy them all if they put up a fight. But there was something in his voice—a goodness of some sort—that gave her a sense of security.
Perhaps a false one? Perhaps he counted on that velvet and honey voice to lure his prey in without a fight.
She leaned over the inside wall of the keep and yelled down to Fredrik to open the doors.
What did it matter in the end? Not a one of them, other than cursed Beatrice, had been treated well under Harold. She didn't see how anything could be worse.
Lizabet met Ridley in the courtyard. He seemed to be assessing the state of those left in the castle, and she studied him while he did that. He seemed so...familiar.
"We've met," she said softly.
His eyes were gentler than she expected. "Yes. We have."
"What have you done with my son?" Beatrice pushed her way past Lizabet. "Why do you speak to her instead of me? I am mistress here."
"It's obvious where your son got his manners from, Madame. Or his lack of them would perhaps be more precise." He nodded to one of his men. "See that Harold's mother is confined to her rooms."
He was silent as Beatrice was escorted away, then he laughed softly. "You enjoyed that, my lady."
"I am no lady."
"And I am no lord. But tell that to my men." He shrugged. "Not much of a castle."
She'd thought the same thing when she arrived. "And not much of a feast, if you are expecting one. Our men haven't been out to hunt in weeks."
"I imagine not. They look like they'd be hard pressed to mount a horse much less ride after prey."
"My husband took all the able-bodied men with him. I assume you killed them?"
"You assume wrong. But I won't hold that against you." His gaze fell on Fredrik. "Why was he left behind?"
"He's my brother. And he has shot up in height since my husband left. I think now he would have been taken."
"Fortunate timing for a growth spurt, then." He seemed to be watching her with a strange expression—it took her a long time to realize it was tenderness.
"How do I know you, sir?"
"I sued for your hand. I was denied. We...talked when I rode out. I was angry. You asked why."
She made a self-mocking sound. "I was an innocent then. I didn't know my father was interviewing suitors." She swallowed hard. "I would rather he had given me to you."
"Our desires are in accord, then." He studied her frankly. "Do you hate me for killing your beloved husband?"
She looked away. It would be the height of dishonor to admit to this man that she detested Harold.
He didn't press, only said softly, "We will discuss it later." Then he moved his horse further into the courtyard and announced to those assembled, "Harold Trent is no more. I do not intend to hold this castle, merely to take what is mine and leave."
There was a general murmur of confusion.
"Any who wish to stay here and serve Trent's mother, are welcome to. Any who wish to join me, as many of your former lord's army did, are free to do so. I think you might find me a kinder master than he." He looked back at her. "You and your brother may come or stay, as you wish, Madame."
"Come in what capacity? As your captives? As..." She could not say what she was thinking—she knew what Harold would have made of Ridley's widow if the situation was reversed.
Did Ridley have a wife?
"As my guest." His grin was sweet, and she remembered it from when they had met before.
His smile had charmed her. His dark hair and eyes, so different than her own blonde hair and blue-gray eyes, had also delighted her. Harold had ginger hair and eyes the color of a muddy stream, his body course while this man was more slender but still strong, still capable of holding a castle.
"And what will your wife say, sir?" The question was out before she could call it back.
"As I lack one, I have no idea what she might say." His grin grew brighter.
"I cannot stay with you alone."
"You will have your brother. And your ladies if they choose to come with us." He winked and dismounted, striding away from her, into the house.
Most of the servants and retainers followed him. Lizabet thought they seemed very eager to be useful, letting him know where Harold kept his best wines, his precious spices, his gold.
"We can leave, sister." Fredrik sidled up next to her. "Be rid of this place and that horrible old woman forever."
"It isn't without danger, Fredrik. What he says now and what happens once we get there may be two different things." She'd seen only one of Harold's band in the group of men he'd brought with him. Where were the others he said so willingly had joined his cause?
"I can't take another day here, Lizabet. Please?"
She imagined how Beatrice would treat them if the servants did leave with Ridley. There would be no end to what she would expect of them. And soon a new lord would come to the castle if Ridley left it standing. Harold's cousin was in line to inherit. And Harold's cousin, from what she knew of him, seemed worse than Harold.
"We will go, little brother."
Fredrik smiled and left her, following the others as Ridley took what he wanted.
Lizabet had been two weeks in Ridley's stronghold, with apparently free rein to wander as she would. All but two of her women had chosen to come with her; the other two chose Beatrice and she felt vindicated: she'd always thought they were spies for her mother-in-law.
She heard the sound of fine fabric slipping over rushes, the murmured, "My lord," and knew her women were curtseying to their new master.
"My lady Lizabet, how fare you?" He asked her this each time they encountered one another, but she was in his presence much less often than she'd expected. He hadn't abused her in any way, taken nothing from her, and always given a smile.
Her ladies loved to speculate. Lizabet ignored them most of the time.
"A word, my dear?" He took her elbow, turning her away from her women, leading her down the hallway. "Your cousin is here."
He smiled. "Harold's cousin. He's taken over Harold's castle, has made it clear he will not seek retribution against me and mine."
"He has always seemed more...practical than Harold when it comes to risking his life or fortune."
"Then you approve of him?" He looked disappointed. "He has asked that you be returned to the bosom of your family."
"They are not my family," she nearly spat at him and was surprised to see a look of relief on his face. "He's always looked at me in a way I did not like."
"I see." He took her arm, tucked it into his and led her further away into the castle. "There is a problem. Your parents are dead. You have your brother, that is all. And your family's lands and fortune were taken by the men who defeated your father. There's nothing for your brother, even if he is the rightful heir."
"I know." She sighed, thinking of how her brother had raged over this. Too young to defend what was his, too unskilled to challenge for it. She often wondered if that was why he worked so hard to walk unheard—so he could steal it back?
"What your husband's cousin asks is reasonable...for a widow as yet unmarried."
"Then you will give me to him?"
"That is not precisely what I meant." He grinned and led her around a corner.
A priest stood waiting. One of Ridley's men and one of Harold's who had gone over to Ridley's side were also in the room.
"If we were married, I would be well within my rights to deny him his request."
"Married?" She could feel her legs trembling, wrenched herself from his grasp, and sat in one of the chairs set along the wall.
"Leave us for a moment," he said, and the priest and men walked out, giving them the room, the sound of candles sputtering the only noise as she stared at the floor. "What is it? Is the thought of marrying me so unpleasant? Would you rather go to a nunnery?" His voice was a mix of hurt and sincerity.
"You would send me to one?"
"If I displease you so much, then yes. But you didn't seem displeased by me that day we talked on your father's fields."
She could feel herself blushing. "I wasn't. Had I known that was why you were there, I would have been quite delighted." She met his eyes. "Until I found out he'd chosen Harold for my husband."
His gaze was so tender, the way he touched her cheek so gentle, that she whispered, "He wasn't kind to me."
"I don't believe he was kind to anyone. So many of his people left with very little thought. That's indicative of a cruel master."
"Yes. Cruel." She met his eyes. "Especially cruel to me. In..." She could not bring herself to say it.
But he seemed to understand anyway. Regret and anger warred in his expression. "In the bedchamber?"
"Yes," she whispered. "I don't anticipate his cousin will be much better. He is, last I heard, looking for a new wife. His first one died—she was healthy before she met him."
"I cannot take away what has been done. But I can promise that Harold's family will never touch you again, not while I'm alive."
"And you? Will you touch me? If I were your wife, you would have that right." She hoped she was hiding her fear.
He didn't rush to assure her he wouldn't touch her, and she was grateful for that, because it would have been a lie. Men took. She'd seen it with Harold and with his friends—how they'd treated their wives, women such as herself who'd probably once been full of life...and trust. Harold and his kind were hard men, and the only joy they took in softness was in destroying it.
"I wouldn't treat you as he did."
She thought that was true. And she knew the same would not be said of Harold's cousin. "Call the priest and the witnesses back, then. I cannot return to my old life. And Fredrik prospers here." Ridley had given Fredrik remarkable latitude to roam the castle, even had his men teaching him how to fight, something Harold had refused to do.
"I like the boy." Ridley smiled sadly. "He reminds me of my own brother—a fever took William when he was a little younger than Fredrik."
"I'm sorry you lost him. I know so little about you, despite the fact that we are going to marry. I guess that's customary? It's how it was with Harold, too."
"It often is. And I know little about you. But we can change that. If you wish?" He took her arm again and led her up to the priest. "It will have to wait until after we've wed, however—I'm looking forward to saying goodbye to your irritating relative."
Marriage didn't change anything for Lizabet, except that she no longer had to worry about her or Fredrik's future. Ridley had already given them full run of the castle and had obviously ordered his men to treat her and Fredrik with the utmost courtesy.
She'd watched from the battlements as Harold's cousin rode back to his castle. And as he went, she thanked God that she wasn't riding at his side.
Now, life was calm. Ridley invited them to eat with him most nights, something she usually did. Fredrik talked to him as if he were an old friend, chattering on about what he'd learned from the arms master or from the aged huntsman who ran the kennels.
"Lizabet?" Ridley was standing at the door to the inner courtyard she'd chosen as her haven for the day. "Would you fancy a picnic?"
She laughed. "You and I?"
"And Fredrik. He's already getting food from the kitchen for us. He said you were perhaps a bit bored...?"
"It wouldn't be very gracious of me to be bored with my savior or his home."
"You're alone. Other than at dinner, I have kept myself removed. I wanted to let you settle in, find your own way. And I had business of my own to attend to. But I have time today. Now, do you wish to ride out with us?"
"He said you would. I've already got Lucelier saddled for you."
"How do you know I prefer her?"
He shot her a pleased smile. "Even from a distance, I am learning your likes and dislikes."
"And which of those categories would you be in, Thomas Ridley."
"I fervently desire to be in the first. With kittens and warm summer rain."
"Kittens, yes. Rain is never warm here."
"I stand corrected."
Fredrik came in holding a bag that looked like it contained enough food for a small village.
"Ah, good work, my boy. Shall we?" Ridley held his arm out to her.
"We shall." She felt a strange stirring inside her as she took his arm, a warm rush of heat as he turned his smile on her, a smile that made his eyes crinkle and sparkle with life.
Such a handsome man.
"We should do more such things. We are a family now, after all." He said it loudly enough for Fredrik to hear.
Her brother turned around, grinning at her. "And a family we are honored to belong to. Finally."
She didn't know how to improve on what he'd said, so she squeezed Thomas's arm and said only, "Indeed."
That night, Lizabet roamed the lower level of the castle, unsure what she was seeking, why she felt so unsettled.
"Can't you sleep, my dear?"
She turned, saw Thomas on the upper level staring down at her, the candles throwing golden lights on his hair. "I can't," she said.
"Come talk to me." He held his hand out.
She laughed. "In your chambers? We have been married two months now and I've not seen them." Her smile died. Did he really want to just...talk? Did he not desire her? "You've waited so long. Has it been easy?"
He laughed, a short bark of sound that made her smile. "Easy? No, my dearest." When she reached the top of the stairs, he took her arm, tucked it into his, and led her to his bedchambers. "But it was necessary." He gave her belly a significant look.
"Ah. You wanted to be sure I was not carrying Harold's child."
He nodded. "The doctor thought time would be the best way to tell. I'm sorry if I made you think I didn't want you."
"You've been so kind. Even if you didn't want me, I would still be grateful for your company."
"That's intolerable, Lizabet. That your life has been so harsh you would find a kind word such a solace." He bowed her into his rooms, then shut the door behind her. "Did you take no pleasure from your marriage bed?"
"It's hard to take pleasure in something that only brings pain."
"I would kill him again if I could." He led her further in, to the chamber where his bed was. The covers looked as if he'd been tossing and turning. "You'll never have to share this with me if it's something you cannot bear."
"I'm a strong woman, Thomas. I can bear many things."
"My name sounds lovely when you speak it." He touched her hair, which she hadn't put into a braid before she began to wander. "If you're with me, I don't want you to simply bear our time together."
He had the look Harold often had worn, only on Thomas, it wasn't full of violence, only of wanting. He pulled his hand back slowly, as if he regretted having to let go. She stopped him, drew him closer, and leaned her cheek into his palm.
A shiver of heat traveled from where his flesh touched hers, a strange feeling rose in her belly. Not nerves, exactly. "I wish my father had chosen you for me."
"I have never stopped wishing that." He pulled her to him, leaned in, and she realized he was moving slowly enough that she could stop him if she wanted to. "I love you, my Lizabet."
And then he was kissing her, and it was nothing like Harold's violent attacks on her mouth. Thomas's lips were like velvet, and she felt the shock of heat again when he pulled her against him, when he opened his mouth to hers and she let him in.
He eased her robe and shift off, and stepped away, seemed to be drinking her in. She thought she should feel ashamed but she didn't, wanted him to approve of what he saw—wanted him to desire what he saw.
He pulled off his clothing, much more roughly than he'd done with hers, as if he could not wait another moment, and then he took her hand and led her to the bed. They lay, skin to skin, and he kissed her again, running his hands up and down her body with reverence but also with sweet humor. He smiled often, asked softly if something was all right, if she liked what they were doing.
She was breathing hard as he began to follow his hands with his lips, his kisses no longer confined to her lips and cheek and neck but down, to her breasts, his soft suckling leaving her breathless.
Then he kept going, down and down, to the very heart of her, and she arched up into his mouth as he made her feel things utterly new. She felt a strange calm, a moment where everything faded away except for the pleasure he was giving her. And then the stillness broke, and she was crying out, arching again, and he was holding her firmly, not letting go until she lay panting.
He slid up, kissing her way along her body, laughing softly as she arched when he hit spots that had never been so sensitive before. "I believe you enjoyed that."
"I did." She pulled him down to her and kissed him, tasting a bit of herself on his lips.
He moved over her, waiting until she smiled to move into her. He was larger than Harold, but the joining didn't hurt the way it had with Harold. When Thomas urged her to wrap her legs around him, she did.
This divine closeness—her mother had said that once, when Lizabet had asked her what being married to a man would be like. This must have been what she meant.
Thomas was moving faster, murmuring sweet things in her ear, things that made his thrusts not an attack to be feared but welcomed. She pulled him down to her, kissed him as he moved faster and faster and then he cried out. Her name.
And she laughed like a little girl and murmured, "I love you."
It might not be true, not yet, but it would be. If this was how life could be.
He cupped her cheek with his hand, then slid to the side, pulling her into his arms. "You enjoyed that, as well?"
"I did." She smiled and laughed again—she hadn't laughed like this since she was sent away with Harold. "I believe I will enjoy it again. If...you wish to do it again."
He kissed her forehead and said, "Again and again and again. Until we are old and gray."
"Or until the sun comes up?"
"Or until then. Fortunately, it goes down with as much regularity as it comes up. We will have many evenings." His look changed; he looked like a naughty boy caught in the sweets. "And we will have many mornings. There will be afternoons where we could slip away."
"So many times? Will it not fall off with so much use?"
"I don't believe so, no." He pulled her to him and kissed her again, and this time there was a lightness, a sureness. "You're delightful."
"You are, as well."
"Well, now that we have that settled..." He took her hand and slid it with his down his body. "Look what is stirring."
"Can it be? Resurrection comes so quickly, my lord." She found it hard to keep a silly grin off her face.
He didn't appear to be even trying. "You may have some responsibility for my vigor. So many things to do, my dear. So many things to find out about each other."
"So long as we both shall live. That was the vow we took, wasn't it?"
He kissed her tenderly. "So long as we both shall live."
© 2020 by Kim Strattford