Northern England 1323 AD
It started to rain, a few drops at first then sheets of freezing water almost horizontal across the sky. That’s all Aleyn needed, to be not only cold but wet as well. To add to the nasty weather and bad mood, he was late. The wind whipped his long wet hair around and slapped him in the face. He swore and quickly tied it back.
Predawn morning was too early and too cold to be up for any woman, no matter how beautiful or persuasive or helpless she was. Then again, this wasn’t just any woman. It was his best friend’s sister. He still wondered how let himself be recruited to bring her to the gathering. “Oh right. I was available.” He thought in disgust. “That’s the story of my life. Ask Aleyn, he’s always available. Like I don’t have anything better to do than travel in the dead of winter to find a woman who doesn’t need my help.”
Despite years of living like a warrior, he still had to fight off the desire to be passive, both physically and emotionally. He’d heard that this woman, Nathaira, was passive to the point of being dangerous. “Wonderful, a match made in heaven. On the up side, maybe she won’t be as demanding and hard headed as the rest of her family.”
As much as he disliked it, Aleyn had a talent for the down and dirty raw violence of physical combat. He’d mastered every weapon he could, learning strategy and cunning. With his tall muscular build, broad shoulders, wild dark hair and piercing ice blue eyes, he made a striking figure. His true gift was his voice; the kind of voice that made people listen, the voice of a leader. Too bad he didn’t have anything to say.
His men followed him on their horses across the fields to the castle of Dexter of Blackwoods. Five men, hand picked for their bravery and steady temperament. All were smart, true and loyal. They were his guards, and in turn he was their teacher. He loved his men and their families with a fierce protective passion. They knew he was different, but they never questioned why. Nobody ever questioned anything in this place. It drove him crazy.
Aleyn’s thoughts wandered back to the gathering he would escort Lady Nathaira to. For the first time, more than 40 of his clan were gathering together. The letter he’d received stated that finally they would be organizing and banding together for solidarity and support. “Support my ass. We’re nothing but outcasts and no amount of support will change that.” he thought. They were stranded to live among a population so different from themselves and there was nothing he or any of his kind could do to change the fact.
This was a place where people still believed their world was the center of the universe. The unknown was to be feared, rather than embraced for the possibilities.
Every time he thought about his situation he could feel the scars on his back and shoulders pull. He had tried to block out his memories of his former self. Home, family, community, his entire world were now dead to him. He’d made a new life in this primitive place. Hope for this world and its people drew him away from his own home and trapped him forever in exile.
Rubbing his temple to fight off a brain splitting headache, he almost lost his balance. “I’ll never get used to this body of mine.” he thought.
His man Garth turned to him with a grim look of concern. I’m fine Aleyn silently mouthed.
Years earlier, Garth had guessed what Aleyn really was. In turn, Aleyn never acknowledged it. If he did he’d risk death for himself and everyone he now loved. Despite the problems and frustrations, he’d made a place for himself and found a small measure of happiness.
As a beloved spiritual teacher and healer, the woman Nathaira had also found a place for herself, practically alone, without her family or a husband to protect her. Everything about her had pointed to failure, but she never failed. In fact, she thrived. Nathaira was the only one in this region of the world, aside from himself, who could teach real hope to these miserable people.
As Aleyn and his men approached the great hall of Lord Dexter’s castle they could hear screaming and the wailing of women. ”Can’t these people ever just shut up?” Aleyn said aloud to himself.
The stone structure was cold and damp.
Not only are they stupid in there, but they have no concept of comfort, Aleyn thought. Knowledge of the great ages of the past had eluded them. In was one more in a long list of frustrating items he didn’t need to think about, but couldn’t get out of his head.
One of his men pounded on the main door. It was slowly opened by a scruffy, timid man wearing ill-fitting dirt colored tunic, obviously a servant. Maybe not. You never could be sure with these people.
“Is your master within?”
The man started to shake. His voice was nothing but an animal like whimper. It sounded like he was saying no, but it could have been anything.
Aleyn pushed his way through. “I am here for Lady Nathaira. Let me pass.”
He scanned the hall. Half a dozen women huddled on benches in the corner, with as many children clinging to their skirts. A few scruffy looking boys of around 8 or 9 stood by the fire, now staring with fascination at the six well dressed, well armed knights and their leader.
Some sort of massacre had taken place. Benches were overturned. Broken pottery lay where it had fallen. Shards of fabric, what looked to have been sumptuous clothing were thrown across the hall. Clumps of long brown hair, still partially braided scattered the floor. A gold necklace with green stones lay twisted and broken. He put his finger to something splattered on the floor. Blood.
He called to his men to check the hall and doorways. They found two badly injured men in the hallway. Long gashes covered their arms and torsos. Aleyn put his hands on their necks looking for a pulse. They’d obviously been taken down by the lord of the castle, trying to protect themselves and perhaps someone else.
“May the healing powers of our Lord be with you,” he muttered. Then turning to a weeping woman he barked out orders, “Get these men by the fire. Warm them up and dress their wounds. Don’t stand there gawking like a frog. Do it.”
The woman ran off for help. These people had been reduced to being perpetual children through fear. In disgust he continued his search for Nathaira, fearing it would be in vain.
A frightened looking, sumptuously dressed woman approached him. “The lord of the house took her last night. He says she’s a witch. He says she cast a spell on him.”
“What do you say about it?” he asked. “Well? Tell me?”
“When he invited her here he expected a crone. She showed up looking like a waiting bride. A virginal beauty with glittering eyes of want.”
“Shut up now.” A second woman, unusually beautiful with long blond braids, slipped next to him and grabbed his arm. “My Lord, Lady Nathaira is a saint. Do not blame her or judge her for what my brother has done. Come, I will provide you with comfort, then…”
Aleyn lost all patience. “Where is Lady Nathaira?”
“There is no helping her. She is damned with no hope of ever being in the light again.”
Why didn’t these people ever just come out and say the truth. Everything was a riddle to him.
“I don’t have time for this madam.” Then again, time meant nothing to them as well.
“Come, let me make you comfortable my lord. I can please you until my brother, the master of this castle returns.”
He took her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. They were almost empty. Her soul was almost gone. Like with so many others it had atrophied into the darkness of her mind. It was a way to survive as comfortably as possible and damn the consequences.
“Come out of your darkness madam. I command you to do so.”
She looked at his face in shock, tears in her eyes. “Up there.” She whispered, backing away from him and pointing to the stairs. “My brother is here, in the chapel…but not himself,” she trailed off in tears.
Aleyn went up a dark stair well into a tower. At the top of the stairs a door was bolted from the outside.
Aleyn unbolted the door. Where are the men she was traveling with? Where is her serving lady? He motioned his men to stay back. Drawing his dagger he walked into the freezing room.
“Put the weapon away. I won’t hurt you,” a quiet, but slightly annoyed voice said from the other end of the chamber. The diffused morning light came through the long crack of a window and illuminated the speaker in a weird perverse halo.
He closed the door behind him. His heart sank as he walked closer to the woman on a wide bench bench. She sat alone, a clutching a rough blanket over her knees to her chest. Her brown hair was a short uneven mess, chopped off at her jaw line. The left side of her face was covered with a mass of ugly bruises and scrapes. Rope burns were on her wrists. Her nose had been bleeding and was now crusted with blood. Her eyes had started to blacken and swell. He knew by ugly scars down her back, scars matching his own, that she was the one he had been looking for.
Her pale blue eyes looked up in calm greeting. “You must be Aleyn. So glad you could finally make it, she said calmly with an ever so slight touch of sarcasm in her voice. She held out her hand palm up. He gently touched the tips of his fingers with hers, in the custom of their kind, then took her hand and gently kissed it. She closed her eyes and gave his hand a squeeze before letting go.
Aleyn sat next to her and carefully touched the burses on her face.
“How bad are your injuries?” he asked as she winced and turned away.
She pulled the blanket around her shoulders and swung her bare feet over the edge of the bed. “I’m fine. Let’s get out of here.”
The lady wasn’t fine. He noticed more black and blue marks on her arms. “Nobody taught you how to fight did they?”
Nathaira took a deep breath. “It is not in my nature to fight.”
“It’s not in my nature either, but I’ve forced myself to do it. You have to fight if you want to survive.”
“Fine, next time I’ll make sure I kill someone,” she snapped back.
“Tell me what happened here,” he took her icy hands and held them between his in an attempt to calm her down. It seemed to work. She leaned a little into him trying to keep warm. He could feel her starting to shiver from the cold.
She spoke calmly, with little emotion. “My first two days here were filled with fellowship and healing. I actually made these people smile and realize that maybe they didn’t have to live in fear. Then last night Dexter shows up ready for a fight. He locks up my people then comes after me. I tried, but I couldn’t get through to him. He has no interest in anything spiritual. If I didn’t know any better I’d swear the man has no soul.”
“Of course he has a soul. Don’t talk that way. Someone will hear you,” he whispered.
“Listen to yourself. You’re as bad as the locals. Nobody will hear me except you,” she scolded him, slightly raising her voice.
“I hope you’re right,” Aleyn answered quietly.
“I am right. Do you want to know what happened or not?”
“Of course, please continue.”
She was still shivering. Aleyn took off his own fur-lined cape and draped it around her, trying to warm her up. For a brief second, Nathaira attempted a weak smile in appreciation then continued. “Needless to say, Dexter only wanted my body. I told him he couldn’t have me. The next thing I knew he had knocked me to the ground and was shouting that I was a whore. Then the stupid ignorant bastard tied my wrists together and hacked off my hair. Son of a bitch almost broke my nose too. Slammed my face right into the floor. He and his brother took my clothes. Cut them right off of me in front of the entire household. Then he dragged me up here for a night of carnal pleasures.”
“He raped you,” Aleyn said quietly almost to himself. He felt sick.
“He didn’t rape me. He tried but I wouldn’t let him.”
“So you did fight.”
She took a deep breath and paused for a few seconds. “Sort of. I tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t listen. I asked him if he believed in hell. He told me to shut up and spread my legs. By then I’d had enough of his abuse, so I put a vision of hell in his mind he’ll never forget. By the time he got to the chapel he’d shit his own pants.”
Aleyn couldn’t believe what she’d told him. “You gave him a vision of hell?”
She rolled her eyes at him in disgust. “Yes. Do you need me to spell it out? You can spell can’t you? I’d be surprised if you could, considering most of the population around here is completely illiterate. They can’t even…”
He gently put a finger to her lips. “Nathaira, please. You’re a healer, you’re not supposed to do things like that.”
She pulled his hand away from her face. “He was going to force me to…he was going to…” she turned her head away in disgust.
He spoke calmly and quietly in hopes of quieting her down. “You know it’s against the rules, to put visions of fear in the hearts of men.”
“Against the rules? Excuse me, Mister tall dark and handsome, sent here to rescue my ass about twelve hours too late, since when have we had rules?”
Tall dark and handsome? Rescue my ass? What a mouth. She really is just like her brother. You could beat the last breath out of him and he’d still get in the last word. He could be drowning and he’d still throw out a sarcastic remark.
“There are rules to ensure our survival.” He told her, firmly, trying to sound in charge.
She gave him the you-clueless-asshole-look that he knew so well from her siblings, then wiped her nose on the blanket. “That little visit-to-hell trick ensured my survival.” She glared at him then looked him up and down. “Would you rather have come here to find that he had raped and killed me? Imagine how my brothers would have reacted to that.”
“I can’t…” he stammered.
She cut him off, “Listen, I don’t have the strong persuasive powers that the rest of my family has. The only real gifts I still have are the ability to comfort and heal. Comfort and healing aren’t going to protect me against a predator like Dexter.” She ran her hand through her hair. “Can you believe this mess? It will take me years to get it half-way normal looking again. Damn that ugly piece of shit and his stupid ass brother. I was supposed to be safe here.” Her voice cracked but she didn’t cry. She took a deep breath and paused, fighting back the tears. “Be glad I didn’t kill Dexter. Believe me, I wanted to.”
He shrugged. He couldn’t begrudge her for feeling the way she did.
Aleyn found clothes for her. A soft under dress and a long over dress of green with ivory colored embroidery. Long sleeves almost reached the ground. Out of her bag she pulled a long embroidered scarf to cover her hair. He helped her get dressed. She didn’t seem to care if he saw her naked or touched her while he helped. He noticed burses on her sides and legs. Every movement gave her pain but she never complained. She took jeweled bracelets from her bag and used them to carefully secure the sleeves at her wrists, then slipped a few silver rings on her fingers. Her fingernails looked ragged and recently broken, Aleyn assumed from the confrontation with Dexter.
Nathaira wasn’t young or breathtakingly beautiful, but she was still an attractive woman with the delicate prettiness of a young girl still in her face. Despite the current bruising and swelling, her skin was smooth and unblemished aside for a generous dusting of freckles. Her figure was sensuous and inviting. Given another time and place it would have given him pleasure to gaze upon her. Today it just made him sad.
Taking her hand he steadied her with an arm around her waist. “Your brothers and Lord Mal will be furious.”
She snapped. “Screw my brothers and that asshole Mal. I’m tired of everyone telling everything I do is wrong.”
He was shocked by her language and defensiveness. “It’s not you they’ll be mad at. I was supposed to protect you. I was supposed to prevent this from happening.”
Nathaira started to cry, big heart breaking sobs. He put his arms around her and held her. He stroked her back and kissed the tears from her eyes.
“Cry it all out. I promise you, I’ll never let anyone hurt you again.” Every sob made his heart break She molded herself next to him. It felt so right, even in this God forsaken place.
He glanced up and saw his right hand man, Garth, in the doorway. He looked stoic but Aleyn knew Garth was glad to see his wifeless leader in the embrace of the woman.
“We found her maid servant and men. Let’s go,” Garth said, trying not to smile.
Aleyn gave a nod. He gently dried Nathaira’s tears and helped her up.
When they went back to great hall the transformation he saw next was no surprise. Gone was the injured, defensive woman he’d comforted. Small and battered she stood in the room, not as a fragile woman, but as an angel of hope, a healer of hopelessly broken hearts and bruised souls. The women gathered around Nathaira and touched her. She embraced them. A few men joined them. She spoke to them in a clear beautiful voice, in their own language. Her tone was calm but her words projected through the hall.
“Keep your faith not in fear and ignorance, but with hope and a pure open heart. Remember God’s love transcends the ignorant and selfish laws of men. Let that love bind your spirit together and keep you strong. Be healed by your faith and the love for your Lord and with your love for each other.” Her words were that of the true teacher. It was a message that had been long forgotten by the ignorant priests that preached fear and distrust.
Tears filled her eyes again as she embraced the women and touched the hands of the men. The morning light filled the chamber. Aleyn knew they could feel Nathaira’s warm healing powers. The children hugged her legs and she held their little faces in her hands and kissed them. She spoke quietly to each of them, giving them strength and comfort. Aleyn knew that they would never forget her, even the few who would survive to old age.
Draping her heavy wool cloak over her shoulders he led her outside to where his men were waiting with the horses. He noticed her eyes dart to their faces and weapons.
Nathaira glanced back at the castle. “These people were so spiritually drained. It broke my heart. They listen to the priest seven days a week telling them that they are wicked lost souls. They’re drawn to the violence and superstitions of biblical stories, not the messages of love and hope. There is no semblance of any grace or understanding in their lives. Ignorance and sheer stupidity rule the land. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it at all. At least that ugly piece of shit Dexter won’t hurt them anymore. I wish I could do more, but you know how it is. “
He didn’t respond except for a slight shake of his head. Experience had showed him how it was, to be practically useless in a hopeless situation. He noticed how gentle her tone was with the people of the house. How different she was with him, one of her own kind.
She said as she hooked her arm in his as they walked, as if she’d known him for years.
He had to smile at her familiarity. “Nathaira, your name means snake doesn’t it?”
“Snakes are creatures of God, just like swans, hawks or horses. Each has a beauty and purity of it’s own that is lost on most people. Besides, I don’t see it as meaning snake, I see it as meaning that I’m flexible.”
He almost laughed out loud. She was a character. Lovely, charming, spirited, and completely obnoxious, all at the same time.
Aleyn tried to keep a serious tone. “It will take us another fortnight to get to the others. You’ll travel as my obedient and dutiful wife. It will be safer that way.”
She gave him a shy smile. “Do we get to sleep under the same blanket?”
He stopped walking and looked at her. “Excuse me?”
She mocked a serious look. “Don’t worry Aleyn, your virtue is safe with me.” Then she chuckled at herself, amused by her own joke.
Aleyn shook his head and smiled. They continued to walk in silence. Glancing over at Nathaira. He knew she was in pain, physically and mentally.
Noticing his look, she squeezed his arm. “Thanks again for coming. Oh, I forgot to tell you, Dexter’s stupid ass brother Niall and the local priest are planning on killing me tonight at sunset. They said it would be slow and painful.”
“Then I suggest we gather up your people and get out of here.”
She smiled and winked at him. “Lead the way, brave and true husband of mine.”
For the first time in years he was at a loss for words, especially with a woman. Aleyn knew then and there he was falling in love with his best friend’s sister and there was no turning back.
Some of you might have read this before. I started this story in 2004. It is part of a much larger work in progress called “A Night at the Crest.” Click here for more. “A Night at the Crest” is one of the better things I’ve written and is what got me writing again after years of not.
Juliette aka Vampire Maman