Torn: The Dothan Chronicles Book 1

Fiction Book, medieval, Fantasy, War, Princess, KnightKing Wolfric Eberhand battles the last nation to stand against his raging armies. With help from the deadly knight, Sir Erin Caldry, he hopes to conquer the land of Dothan once and for all. Using his wealth and power, he has formulated the perfect plan to finally take their rich land. What he doesn’t realize, is the youngest Dothan princess is currently a slave within his very own castle walls.

While out visiting the remote estate of a relative, Princess Bethany Kavadh is kidnapped by slavers. Bedraggled and weary, she finds herself sold into slavery. To her horror, she soon discovers that her new owner is none other than her family’s worst enemy, King Wolfric. To fight her rising despair and to keep what little sanity she possess, Princess Bethany begins to fight back, sabotaging the efficient running of the House and function of their Armies.

But what happens when they realize her true identity?

Will they ransom her for the wealth of her nation?

Will they keep her as a slave? Or will they inflict an even crueler punishment?

The only things for certain are: The war between two nations will escalate, and one young princess’s life shall forever be TORN.

Due to scenes of intense violence, reader discretion is advised.

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Excerpt

 

Chapter One

Bethany squatted in the tiny cell. It wasn’t anything more than a small, stone box with a tiny drain, and an access point in the ceiling, which was securely fastened from the outside. The cell was too short for her to stand up, and too narrow to lie down. She shifted to a new position, trying to stretch out her cold, aching body in small segments without causing any further pain to the throbbing mark on her thigh.

Solitary confinement wasn’t enough for a runaway slave. She had been branded—discreetly of course. The wealthy didn’t like ugly slaves. Granted, she knew if she were caught running again, she would be branded on the neck. A third offense would mean her death.

She leaned her head back against the wall and flinched away from the cold stones pressing against her bare flesh. Bethany had lost track of the hours since she’d been placed in the cell, though she suspected it had been about two days. Twice she had received a cup of water and a leftover scrap of food.

The first had been maggot infested bread, which she refused to eat. The lump still sat in the far corner, as far away from her as she could place it. The second offering had been some charred meat, which she’d eaten mostly out of desperation. Bethany never said thank you when they dropped the food and lowered the cup of water. They didn’t expect her to, and she hadn’t been taught such manners. Then again, she hadn’t been born a slave, either.

No one was. Slaves were people who either had been unable to pay their debts, or unable to protect themselves from the dreaded slavers. Bethany was the latter. She tried not to think about her life before slavery, but it was difficult, nigh impossible. The two lives were so very different.

Bethany had been born the daughter of a king. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying not to remember the tall walls that surrounded her family’s keep, or the sprawling city encompassing it. The only thought that kept her calm was the knowledge that her home still existed, that her family continued to live. She knew because she’d often heard King Wolfric, the father of her new master, complaining about their continued defiance. Of course, he didn’t know she was the youngest daughter of his enemy, Middin, King of Tokë.

She had been returning from Garrul, near the border of her family’s shrinking land, when they were attacked. Her large caravan was traveling through the winding mountain pass. Bethany squeezed her eyes tighter, but the memory invaded her senses unbidden.

“Are you comfortable, my lady?” her lady-in-waiting, Nuala, asked.

Bethany nodded, keeping her thoughts to herself. She hated traveling through the steep mountains, even in spring, when the forest was alive with new growth and noisy birds. The jostle of the large wagon gave her a pounding headache and a rolling stomach. These were more than ample reason to not want to visit Uncle Lord Elias in Garrul. The fact that the old man was completely inept at entertaining a young woman was just salt in an open wound. He was gouty and lazy in general, but he was family and her father had insisted she make the visit. There had been peace between him and Wolfric for nearly two years, so there seemed little chance of an attack. Well, a lack of fighting, if not actual peace. Besides, her uncle was sickly and in need of encouragement—what better occupation for the youngest daughter of a king than lightening the heart of a war-weary man?

Finally, after a long and lonely month, Bethany was returning home.

The first hint of trouble came when the cumbersome wagon came to a stop. Such an event only happened at high noon or at the end of the day’s traveling; it took too much time and energy to get the six enormous horses moving again. The men often rode ahead to clear fallen branches from the road or lay gravel on muddier portions, and sometimes the forerunners would even turn aside other travelers, forcing them to wait until her caravan had passed. Of course, seeing the wagon of a princess was a form of entertainment to the lowly bystanders. Occasionally, Bethany would even condescend to waive at them from the small window.

Bethany was just about to send one of her three maids out to see what the delay was when she heard shouts, followed by a piercing cry of pain. The clanking of swords and yelling of men quickly followed. Bethany shrank into the fur lined bench. The other women in the wagon followed her example. All, but one. Her lady-in-waiting, Nuala, jumped to the tiny window and tweaked the thick drape aside to peer out. She quickly ducked back as something thudded into the wagon, jostling the heavy wooden frame. Nuala’s eyes had grown in fright, but she kept her wits about her while Bethany quivered in her seat.

Nuala yanked the fur covering from the floor to reveal the tiny trap door. “You have to run,” she ordered, staring at the princess.

Bethany understood the words, but couldn’t grasp their meaning. Fear deadened her limbs and slowed her mind to a crawl. More out of shock than obedience, she moved towards her lady-in-waiting and the small opening in the floor, which permitted the sounds of battle to fill their plush sanctuary.
“Where do I go?” she wailed, as though the other women would have some hidden insight. “Anywhere! Just run and hide. And don’t come back until you know the battle is over,” Nuala said before unceremoniously pushing the princess through the trap door. Bethany didn’t fight her, though she barked her shins against the axel and smacked her forehead on the opening. Before she could respond, Nuala closed the hatch and locked it. For a fleeting moment, Bethany wondered if Nuala had sent the princess into the forest to save those still in the wagon. Would they spare the women if they didn’t find royalty? It didn’t make sense. Then again, the entire attack didn’t make sense.

Bethany didn’t wait to figure it out. She inched her way to the edge of the wagon closest to the lining forest, glanced in both directions to be sure no one was too close, and bolted for the surrounding trees. Three steps from the wagon she found herself dancing around a frantic horse’s backend. Thankfully, the rider didn’t notice her, his whole attention on his frantic mount. Just a few feet from the nearest tree, her soft leather slippers sank into the deep mud and disappeared. Bethany hesitated, wanting to stop to dig them free from the mire, but the screech of an injured horse sent her flying.

She tottered up the incline and into the forest. The trees were close together where large slabs of granite didn’t interrupt their growth. Some even twisted around the protruding rocks, determined to grow despite nature’s obstruction. The rocks and pine needles defaced her feet as she scrambled through the forest. She stumbled a few times, adding new bruises to her legs and hands while the branches reached out, clutching at her dress and hair.

A few minutes into her headlong run, she vaulted over a rock, right into a river. The water was slow, but icy cold. Her long gown quickly grew so heavy she could barely keep her head above water as she paddled towards the other side. At the opposite edge, she dragged herself out, using the thick branches of wild berry bushes to keep herself from slipping back into the water. The banks were covered in spring mud, and by the time she reached solid ground, Bethany’s elegant, green dress was caked in black sludge. She almost wanted to jump back into the river to cleanse herself, but a gust of wind reminded her just how cold the water was. Another dip in the river would only make her colder; besides, she’d just have to climb through the mud again.

For the first time, Bethany stopped to take stock of her surroundings. She stood next to a wide river that came from a short waterfall a half dozen yards away. Enormous fir trees grew in splotches around the river. The ground was covered with last winter’s pine needles that pricked her bare feet. Through a clearing, she thought she spotted a road. Had she doubled back on herself or was this a different road? She wasn’t even sure which direction she’d run. As the princess forced herself to think about it, she had a sneaking suspicion that she’d run in the general direction of King Wolfric’s lands.

Bethany shivered, wrapping her arms around her chest in an effort to conserve body heat. She belatedly realized that her plush cloak had been torn off at some point. She reached up and touched her head; the simple ring of gold had fallen off, too. Bethany wanted to go back and search for it, but that would require another dunking in the river. Not really worth it, she realized as she considered her predicament. Another guest of wind set her teeth to rattling. From the distant clearing she heard men’s voices and horse’s hooves.

Bethany forced herself to move and find some cover. The only thing she could find was a large bush, much closer to the road than wisdom promoted. Other than that one dead bush, every other piece of ground cover was too thin or small to hide her entire body. In retrospect, Bethany had one moment of wisdom that day; following a sudden instinct, she pulled her small, gold signet ring from her pinky and slipped it into her mouth, hoping she wouldn’t swallow it in her fright.

“What’s that?” a man’s voice called out.

Thinking she’d been discovered, Bethany stepped out from her bush. “P-please, h-help m-m-me,” she asked, her teeth clattering together and making it difficult to speak. She felt the ring pressed between her gums and her cheek.

The man smiled, showing the many gaps in his teeth. Bethany glanced at the rest of his caravan and realized just what a mistake she had made. Trailing behind the smiling man was a row of men and women connected by a rope twined around their necks.

She had just asked for help from a slaver.

Bethany didn’t think she had any energy left, but fear gave her strength, and forced her legs to move again. She ran along the river, towards the small waterfall, hoping to find a fordable stretch further upstream. Of course, the hope was fruitless. Faster than she thought possible, she heard the sound of hooves gaining on her. Bethany didn’t waste time looking over her shoulder, but turned to jump back into the icy water. Just as she did, two hands reached under her armpits and yanked her off her feet. She cried out as she tried to break free from his grasp, but before she could, he had her lying on her stomach across his lap.

The slaver turned the horse and pushed him into an excruciating trot, the saddle and his legs digging ruthlessly into her stomach. The horse took a sudden turn forcing her body into the saddle at an awkward angle. Her side erupted with fire. The slaver jerked his horse to a stop, and Bethany let out a gasp of pain.

Another man yanked her from her perch, and dumped her on the ground near the end of the line of pathetic individuals. Without being told, Bethany scrambled to her feet with as much dignity as she could, which wasn’t much, considering she tripped over her sodden dress twice. Once on her feet, Bethany tried to take a deep, calming breath. The movement sent a fresh stab of agony through her side. She clutched it as she bent forward, doubled over with the pain. It was nearly enough to make her forget the importance of the ring hidden in her mouth.

The man grabbed her by the hair, and jerked her back into a standing position while quickly slipping a loop of rope over her head and tightening it around her neck. Despite the pain in her side and scalp, Bethany felt as though a large rock had been thrown at her stomach—the rope sliding into place around her neck felt very final.

There was no escape now.

The next four days, Bethany had walked behind the other slaves, her once beautiful gown slowly turning into rags. When they made their way out of the dense mountains and into the rolling valleys, Bethany knew without a doubt they were truly and completely in Wolfric’s territory.

Though slavery was not something her father, King Middin, condoned, he did not actively battle the issue. He had worse enemies to fight. Bethany considered, time and again, telling the traders who she was and showing them her signet ring, but she had a strong suspicion that they would just laugh at her and take the gold. They would probably beat her too. She had already received a few harsh blows for small indiscretions such as talking or looking them in the eye. Bethany quickly learned to emulate the other slaves. As a child she had learned the art of imitation in an effort to get the same treatment as her older siblings. She finally decided to bide her time, and only tell someone who might have the ability to help her return home.

But on the tenth day, when they met with the rest of the slaving caravan, she lost hope of that ever happening. They had traveled so far and no rescue had arrived; how could she possibly hope to make it home again?

The other slavers had not been as successful, hauling only three miserable souls behind their horses. Bethany recognized one as a Lurran; her teak skin stood out in contrast to the pale people around her. The girl’s cheeks were stained with rivers of tears. The Lurran people dwelled in the fiercest part of the tall mountains that lined the Narrow Sea. It wasn’t really a sea, but rather an incredibly wide river. Even from the tops of the tall trees, a person could barely make out the distant shore. Nonetheless, it was freshwater.

Bethany eyed the foreign girl. She had heard of the Lurran from her tutors, but had never actually met one. The girl did more than live up to her expectations. Though Bethany suspected her to be no more than eleven or twelve, she was just as tall as Bethany, and far slimmer. Even the very structure of her bones appeared more inclined towards height than mass. Her eyes were an abnormal silvery color. Bethany wanted to hound her with the many questions about her reclusive culture, but couldn’t remember if the Lurran people spoke her language. It didn’t really matter; the slavers would have beaten her had she spoken anyway.

The next day, a third group of slavers met them in a small valley where they pushed and prodded the slaves into an enormous wagon with thick drapes to block out any light. And there they remained.

Bethany had lost count of the days and nights, marked by the slow change of temperature in the wagon.

Now, as Bethany sat in her cell, she realized she couldn’t remember much of those horrible days. They were all blackness and putrid odor. The slaves quickly learned it did them no good to hold their bladders. They had no idea when they would be let out of the wagon. Bethany was one of the last to relieve themselves on that first miserable day in the wagon. When she had finally given in to her body’s needs, she’d almost cried, but her body was too dehydrated to produce more than a few tears and a short stream of foul urine.

That day had been her twentieth birthday, Bethany remembered as she sat in her tiny cell, and did the same deed. At least in the cell there was a drain so that she didn’t have to sit in it, but it still smelled. Now, after three months of slavery, she had little dignity left; there was too much reality in her life to remember the fairytale.

Of course, everything had changed abruptly when the slavers reached their destination, nearly a month later. The heavy wagon began to slow and take sharp turns. From within the wagon, they could hear the sounds of a prosperous city. She tried to remember how many lefts and rights they had taken, again hoping to escape, but it was pointless. Finally, when Bethany was fully turned around and confused, the wagon came to a stop. The tailgate dropped and harsh voices began urging them to climb out. Bethany crawled out after the others, too weak to stand. They had been given small portions each day, but often Bethany received her meager hunk of bread with a few bites already taken out by those who had passed it through the mob of starving slaves.

It was in those instances that her hatred had begun to burn. The fiery passion was all that helped her stand outside the wagon, while her weak muscles shook with the effort.

She was in a small court surrounded by high walls topped with spikes. The other captives were shaking in the heavy wind that whirled down among the walls. A gust of frigid air hit her from the side, causing her to tumble into the mud.

“Get up,” demanded one of the slavers while giving her a blow from some sort of staff, which forced her to scramble back to her feet. Evidently, the slaver had no desire to touch her. She couldn’t blame him; she didn’t want to touch herself, either.

“Get them cleaned up,” ordered the same man to a plump woman in a warm shawl, and a heavy skirt that jerked around her thick ankles in the fierce wind.

Bethany was ushered into a small room with a long trough of water and thin towels. The women prodded them into position with her own staff.

“Off wiff ’em rags,” she ordered.

Bethany glanced around, seeing the others begin to pull their clothing off. She swallowed the lump in her throat. She had been raised to be a modest, private person, as all her siblings had. Even those not of royal blood in Tokë were modest. No one was permitted to see her naked, not even her maids. That honor was saved for her spouse.

“What’d Ah jes say?” slurred the woman as she jabbed Bethany in the back with her stick.

“Please, ma’am,” Bethany begged, trying to put as much deference into her voice as she could, desperation forcing her to be diplomatic. “May I have some privacy?”

Bethany glanced at the other slaves, hoping for their support. They had stopped in their efforts and were watching the confrontation. Their eyes grew wide, just as Bethany felt a blow to her side hard enough to knock the air from her lunges. She doubled over, wrapping her arms around her filthy stomach.

“Ye’ll git nak’d right here an’ now, an’ clean yerself good, ye hear,” snapped the plump woman.

Bethany blinked the tears from her eyes and with shaking fingers began pulling at the laces of her gown. She forced her eyes to stay focused on her own task, refusing to be witness to the other people’s shame. She just hoped they’d do the same for her. The hum she heard from the man next to her suggested otherwise, but he was quickly silence by a hard jab from the woman’s staff.

She didn’t try to wipe the tears from her cheeks as she pulled the sodden dress from her body. Though she had experienced horrors beyond her wildest dreams during the last month of captivity, this new degradation was a distinct breaking point. With her gown, she discarded the last hope of ever returning to the life she had known. No man would marry her now that this gift had been stolen by another. Not only would she never marry, but she would never fulfill the one role she had been raised to do; bring wealth and alliance to her family through marriage.

While they cleansed themselves with pungent smelling powder and filmy water, another woman entered and removed their discarded robes. When they were finished, thin unisex garments were slipped over their heads and bound to their waists by worn leather belts. The one given to Bethany was too long and she found herself tripping over its hem.

But that was then, she told herself back again in the cold, damp pit.

“Hey you! Get up,” a woman’s voice commanded. Bethany jerked, hitting her head against the cold stones of her cell. “You hear me?” the voice repeated from the opened hatch. Bethany blinked a few times before squinting up towards the soft glow of a torch.

It was time to get back to work.

Chapter Two

Bethany carefully climbed out of the pit, no longer concerned about her lack of clothing. This wasn’t her first trip into the pits. Two guards stood alongside Flora, a female slave that had managed to rise to some level of authority. She held out a slave’s frock—a simple gown with long sleeves and braided belt, tied at the waistline. Bethany took it and moved to the long trough, where she scrubbed the dirt from her body and hair. In some ways, she would have preferred to stay dirty. The filth helped keep her identity hidden. She had been noticing certain young men staring at her shapely figure, or what was left of it.

Flora joined her at the trough to help her lace the back of the rough sewn dress. The older woman had been a slave since her father sold her, and her siblings, to cover his debts. Unlike most people who hoped to gain their freedom, she seemed resigned to her life as a slave. After twenty years in the service of the king, it wasn’t so surprising to Bethany; even after just two months, Bethany felt a certain level of resignation herself.

She had already given up her aversion to hard work and blisters; such things were simply a part of her life now. Bethany finished her bathing, and followed Flora up to where the work waited. Bethany stopped in front of the door of the crown prince’s room, and shuddered as another memory crowded her mind.

Two months ago, Bethany stood on a sturdy platform with the other slaves. It was a few hours after their arrival in the compound, and the growing crowd was making bids on them, when a sudden silence descended on the packed courtyard. The buyers parted as a man garbed in a long, leather tabard, and a heavy wool cloak lined with fur made his way towards the platform. Bethany shivered in the spring chill, and felt a new wave of jealousy. Between the crest on his cloak, everyone’s cautious yet deferential, treatment of the man, and the gold ring resting on his head, Bethany had a pretty good notion of who he might be and therefore where she was—Tolad, the capital of Wolfric’s land and the vast Aardê nation.

Bethany shied away from the approaching man, pressing herself against the wall and trying to position one of the other slaves in front of her. The sturdy wall was a comfort to her tired and shaking body. The prince, for that’s whom she assumed he was, dismounted and climbed up onto the platform to inspect each slave in minute detail.

“Prince Féderic,” groveled the head slaver. “How may I serve you?”

“I’m looking for a maid servant—a pretty one,” he added as his eyes ran across the mass of huddled bodies.

“All women step forward,” barked the slaver.

The other ladies did so immediately. Bethany spotted the Lurran girl at the other end, and hesitated. She hoped the mass of male bodies would hide her. This proved to be a big mistake. The slaver noticed her and, shouting at the top of his lunges, drew her from the crowd while simultaneously beating her buttocks with the short stick he carried. The racket drew the prince’s attention away from the other women. He sauntered over to where Bethany stood, occasionally pausing to look at one of the other women as he passed by. At one point, he even stopped long enough to pry a woman’s mouth open, and inspect her teeth. From where Bethany stood five feet away, she could count at least three missing.

Prince Féderic dismissed her with a wave of his hand, and continued towards Bethany. The rejected women stepped back into the crowd of men. The prince, meanwhile, slowly stalked around Bethany, taking in every detail. He lifted Bethany’s thick hair and ran a calloused hand down her neck and shoulders. Bethany stood tall, some semblance of pride still in her. Féderic stopped in front her, and motioned towards his mouth. Bethany knew what he wanted, but refused to oblige. His distant look turned into a glare as he pushed his strong finger into her mouth and pried it open; he tasted of salt, leather, and dirt. She was thankful she had managed to move her signet ring to her matted hair while stuck in the wagon. The prince took a firm hold of her chin and shifted her face until she was forced to look him in the eye.

To Bethany’s surprise, the enemy prince smiled. “I’ll take her. Pay the man,” he said to one of his attendants.

And so Bethany became Prince Féderic’s slave.

“Ann?” Flora asked from her place by the door, using the name Bethany had given when purchased. “You ‘kay?”

Bethany nodded, blinking one last time to clear the remnants of the uncomfortable memory. “Yes, sorry,” the princess said.

Flora stared at her a moment before pushing the heavy wooden door open to reveal the large bedchamber of the crown prince. He wasn’t present, but signs of his recent activity were spread across the room. One of the many tapestries was hanging at an angle. Clothing lay in a myriad of piles around his room, while his thick blankets rested three feet from the bed. The enormous stone fire place was missing its essential quality—a fire. Food dishes were scattered around the room, some hidden under the piles of fabric while most of the food lay a fair distance from the plates. A puddle of something unrecognizable stained the wooden slats near the deep set window.

Bethany clenched her jaw in an effort to keep herself from grinding her teeth—an action her mother would never have allowed. Then again, her elegant mother never expected her daughter to be faced with the task of cleaning up someone else’s filth. Up until very recently, Bethany had lived a life of coddling by family and servants; they did everything for her from lacing her slippers to rubbing lavender oil on her temples if she had even the slightest headache.

But that was her old life, and this the new. The two were so vastly different from each other that Bethany struggled to call them both hers. Her existence had been torn in two; the tear so neat and clean, it felt as if the life she had lived as a princess did not belong to the hard, bitter slave standing on the threshold of this vile room.

Bethany couldn’t help but sigh at the work laid out before them. Flora mimicked her. The two women smiled at their mutual frustration before stepping into the room and beginning the chore. Flora moved to the bed, and began arranging the blankets while Bethany began clearing away the food and dirty dishes.

“What was he doing to make such a mess?” Bethany wondered aloud.

“Ha! Not for us to know. When we’re told to clean, we clean. No more.”

Bethany bit back a tart reply. She was continually learning the tough lesson that she was no one, and barely worth the price Féderic had paid for her. She bent to her task. An hour later, the two women were just finishing up when the door banged against the wall. Bethany looked up to see the prince stride in, his muddy boots leaving prints on the newly polished floor. Both women bowed at the waist until the prince had entered.

“Leave me. Not you,” he added, pointing at Bethany. Flora eyed the younger woman a second before scurrying away. Bethany tried to stay as far away from the prince as she could. He had used his fists on her more than once.

In her younger days, Bethany dreamed of meeting a prince. Though she had many variations on the scenario, her favorite included a flute, flower petals on the floor, and a stolen kiss. Now that she’d met an actual prince, Bethany found herself disgusted by her own ignorance.

Growing up, the only princes she ever came in contact with were her brothers, and they had never struck a woman. She never imagined that the royal character of her childhood dreams would turn out to be so awful.

Prince Féderic’s cruelty came from his need to be respected. Being the eldest of a family with numerous other sons, Bethany could imagine his fear and insecurity. She knew the Aardê king, Wolfric, would choose his heir based primarily on age, but also on who was more capable and cunning. A younger prince would not be punished for destroying the life of an elder brother, but likely rewarded. Bethany had occasionally seen Féderic punish an impudent younger brother to keep him from getting any ideas. Féderic was not weak and he would prove it whenever the opportunity presented itself.

“I need to dress for dinner,” he said before hesitating.

“Ann,” Bethany mumbled, providing her name, again.

“Ann,” he said with an unnerving smirk. “Mother insists on these ridiculous rituals.”

Bethany didn’t respond as she moved to untie the thick, mud caked cloak, needed even in summer in the southern lands of the Aardê nation, where it was not a shock to see snow fall in May. Bethany didn’t respond to the prince’s complaints. She had learned during her first week or two of service that the prince spoke to hear his own voice, not to enjoy conversation. In retrospect, Bethany realized she had often done the same thing to her servants.

A gentle tap on the door interrupted her efforts.

“Enter,” ordered the prince.

One of the cook’s assistants, Malak, entered carrying a tray and mug of mulled wine. He silently set it on the table, winked at Bethany, and left.

Bethany hung the cloak on its hook near the door and returned to his side. Féderic had lowered himself to the bench near the fire, which now burned brightly, and removed his own dirty boots. The prince stood and waited for her to begin unlacing his leather jerkin. Bethany swallowed the lump forming in her throat, and tried to keep as much distance from him as she could while still completing the task. Féderic smiled down at her.

Her discomfort was a running joke with him—one she did not enjoy. Bethany’s people valued privacy, and though she had initially run from such chores, she knew better now. The first time he’d expected her to help him dress, she had flat out refused. Bethany bore the marks across her back from many blows with a lash. The next time she’d tried to get out of it, the slave master had caught her, and added to the scars. Bethany now did it without complaint, though she tried to keep her eyes away from the prince’s naked body.

She obeyed in body only. It was all they required, the appearance of obedience. Inside, though, Bethany railed against their strict rules and high expectations. In her life of freedom, the only rules she was expected to follow were those that would help her attain a husband—be demure, elegant, and not too terribly smart, and these she obeyed with her whole heart. It was her greatest desire to attract a husband, but with the continuation of a bloody war and men scarce, her chances had dwindled until it seemed almost ridiculous to keep up the act of ladyhood. It definitely was not needed in her new life.

Once she had the jerkin off, she went to work on the lacings of his trousers. She felt her face heating up with a deep blush. Thankfully, before Féderic could mock her, she heard a loud pounding on the door. Féderic swatted her away, and took a firm hold of his trousers. The door swung open to reveal Sir Erin Caldry, the royal family’s most trusted knight.

The man was all sturdy muscle, built from years of hard labor and hefting a large sword, both in the practice ring, and on the battle field. There were many legends from her youth that described a scarred warrior blazing the battle field, and defeating her people single handedly. Bethany hadn’t believed in the stories until she’d met Sir Caldry.

A long, nasty scar ran from his left temple, down his face and neck, and ended somewhere beneath his tunic, as though someone had taken a dull knife and dragged it down his face. His dull green eyes were deceptive as they scanned the room, momentarily taking notice of Bethany hunched in the corner. She lowered her own eyes before he could become offended. Like Féderic, the knight had a mean swing. Her cheek was still tender from the last time he had roughly punished her for an impudent remark.

“Oh, it’s just you,” Féderic remarked as he motioned for Bethany to continue her task. She returned to his trouser strings while he pulled his own tunic over his head.

Bethany’s embarrassment increased with the knight present to witness her shame. Her fingers shook as she struggled to finish the last of the bindings. When she had finally completed the task and stepped back, she noticed Sir Caldry staring at her. Her blush deepened, and she forced her gaze to the floor.

What could he possibly mean, staring at her like that?

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