The beast would take what he wanted and answered to no frail man.
Author’s Note: This is very rough. I apologize for all the typos.
The house remained unchanged in that timeless quality he always associated with the Marechal family. They were a fixed point in his life, staying as they had been a decade ago.
It perched near the summit of Boxon Hill, a squat building with honey colored stone walls and faded green shutters, surveying the lord’s domain. The stone glowed in the late afternoon sunlight. He knew from experience that the house was frightfully cold in the winter but remained pleasant throughout the summer. The scent of a wood smoke drifted from the chimney.
He could not shake his surprise when Godwin limped down the front steps, leaning heavily on a short staff.
“Aleksandar. Solenna said a disheveled traveler surprised her at the old cottage and she nearly shot him full of arrows,” his old mentor said, obvious pride in his voice. He wore an eye patch. The flesh surrounding it appeared red and swollen.
“How bad is–” Alek stopped himself from finishing the question. He knew how bad a situation could be when a hunter lost their vision. Even partially. Skills honed over a lifetime would have to be relearned. Fighting stances and preferred weapons adapted. It was bad, bad enough for the proud Godwin Marechal to ask for help.
Or at least, for Solenne to ask for help.
The man aged poorly in the last ten years, and not just from the recent injuries that put the shuffle of pain in his walk. Alek suspected the tragic death of his wife aged Godwin faster than any beast. His hair was more iron grey than dark. Wrinkles and worry set heavy on his face. Godwin Marechal had been fierce and proud, indomitable in spirit and unbeatable in a fight. This man? This man was frail.
Godwin’s good eye glared at Alek. For a moment, he thought Godwin would tear away the patch and demand Alek to gaze on his ruin. No such dramatics occurred.
“The last I heard, you went to the west lands,” Godwin said.
“For a time.”
“They have not done you any good.”
“I disagree,” Alek replied. The west lands were unsettled and wild. Not wilderness, exactly, but lands that had been lost to uncontrolled nexus points. Some smaller farmsteads and villages scraped out a living there and Alek scraped out his own meager existence, turning in bounties for whatever slipped through the nexus. It had not been profitable but the hard work forged him into a stronger person. He could not have survived as long as he had with the curse if not for the experiences of the west lands.
“I’m back to my family’s land now,” he said.
Godwin nodded. That said enough about Alek’s fortunes, meaning he had none. “Nothing has changed,” Godwin said.
Alek drew his shoulders back to stand at his full height, angry that Godwin had to be blunt. Of course nothing had changed. Alek was still the same penniless hunter he had been ten years previously, when he asked Godwin’s permission to court Solenne.
And Godwin was still the proud fucker.
The wound on his shoulder thrummed and the silver ink embedded in his skin burned. He would never contain his beast during the full moon if he let his anger take control.
He knew Solenne or Luis needed to marry well, to bring an infusion of coin into the family’s coffers. The Marechal children would have to be practical. Marriage to another hunter, while common for the previous generations, would not give them the help they needed now. The once proud family could not afford love.
“It seems your circumstances have changed,” Alek said, his voice cold. The beast inside him clawed and snarled, wanting out to finish the job at which the other beast failed. Who was this man to tell him no? To decide he was not good enough for Solenne?
To deny him his mate?
The beast would take what he wanted and answered to no frail man.
Alek snarled. His teeth felt sharper, like they crowded his mouth and needed to bite, bite, bite.
“You’ll stay away from Solenne,” Godwin said. “She has an understanding with a very good match. You’ll not confuse the issue or turn her head.”
“You sorely misjudge your daughter if you think she can be confused,” Alek said, working the words around a mouthful of teeth.
He struggled to contain the beast, to remember that Godwin had saved Alek and took him into his home, mentored him and gave him a profession. That man, the man Godwin had once been, deserved Alek’s respect.
Deferring to an obviously weaker man felt wrong to the beast, whose thoughts were no more complex than the gratification of taking and seizing. The beast respected only raw strength. Godwin could not defend himself, not half-blind and limping. He should be kneeling before Alek, thankful that the strength of the wolf wanted to protect his home and family, not claim those for itself.
Civility, tattered and frayed, held Alek in check. This was the man who saved him. This was the man who took him into his own home, when Alek’s own family had been slaughtered by a monster.
Silver burned, containing the beast. Alek might be a more monster than man now but his rational mind was still in command. The beast might hold dominion over his body, but his mind controlled his actions.
For the moment.
“You will not enter my home until I have your word,” Godwin said, either unaware of his peril or uncaring.
“Very well. You have my word.” Alek held out his hand to shake, as a peace offering.
Having reached accord, they shook.
The beast howled in frustration. Alek knew all the sound reasons why a union with Solenne was foolish and doomed to unhappiness. He could not give her what she needed. He could not be the partner she deserved.
“Come inside. You’ve had a long journey if you came from the west lands,” Godwin said. “You must want nothing more than a hot bath and a good meal.”
Alek wanted several things but he would settle for a good meal and a comfortable bed. “I washed the worst away at the cottage,” he said.
“Then a soak but I suppose you’re young enough that you don’t feel the miles in the saddle,” Godwin said, even as the groomsman led Alek’s horse to the stable.
Inside the front entrance, the house remained the same, as if frozen in a memory. The wooden floor had been axed and polished to a deep, reddish hue. Grand doors lined the foyer to the left and right. From memory, Alek knew the drawing room and the other tidy little rooms of social convention to be to the left and the dinning room to the right. A staircase curved up and around to the second floor. Tucked neatly to the right side was a corridor that led to the downstairs kitchen and baths. Beyond that, around a corner or two, was the oldest part of the structure.
The fading sunlight filtered in through talls windows that could use a good washing. The draperies appeared a little more worn and faded. A console table sat between two closed doors, a bowl of fresh flowers perfuming the air. Alex bet if he checked, he’d still find his and Solenne’s initials carved into the back of the table when he had been eleven and she nine.
“Solenne said you were injured,” Godwin said, pausing at the foot of the stairs.
“A beast attacked our coach. I handled it,” Alek replied.
“I am sure. I’ll send her up with her kit to patch you up.”
“Perhaps not, all things considered.” The beast inside him howled with displeasure.
Godwin gave him a withering look. “I need you in fighting shape.”
“A good night’s rest is all I need.” Lies. So many lies.
Godwin announced that Alek had arrived but would not be joining them for dinner. Instead, he sent up water for bathing, a meal on a tray, and eventually Solenne with her kit. She schooled her expression to remain neutral. Too eager and Godwin would lock her away in her room. Too insolent and Godwin would rage at her rudeness. She struggled not to rush through her meal in her eagerness.
“What is Hardwick like? I barely remember him.” Luis followed her, arms laden with every possible item their guest could require. Solenne herself carried a pitch of hot water.
The bedroom door burst open and a large figure of a man filled the frame. He was cleaner now and dressed casually in a clean white and trousers. His hair had been combed but his beard was as wild as ever.
The traveler at the cottage.
“Alek,” she whispered. This was it, the moment she’d been anticipating for years and the moment she dreaded. She felt like the same over eager girl in the throws of her first love, living for brief touches and stolen moments alone. Nothing had changed. It was as if she had been frozen in amber and she struggled against the binds in frustration, because she had changed and so had Alek. She hadn’t even recognized him. “You look—”
“Tired,” Alek said. He eyed Luis. “You’ve grown since I saw you last.”
“Puberty does that. Can you even eat with that thing on your face?” Luis responded.
Alek’s face remained blank for three heart beats. Solenne scrambled to apologize, because they needed Alek’s help, she begged for it, and they could not afford to offend him. Even if he was smelly and sported a wild beard that made him look more beast than man.
Alek threw his head back and laughed, loud and booming. He stroked the chin of his bushy beard. “Meals are tricky. Sometimes I like to tuck bits away for later.” He mimed picked out crumbs and popped the imaginary morsels in his mouth.
“Set that down on the bureau, please,” Solenne said, nudging Luis.
Travers put Alek in the same third floor room, tucked under the eaves of the attic as when he apprenticed with Godwin. Narrow and small for an adolescent, the room was too cramped for three adults. The ceiling slanted dramatically, requiring Alek to duck his head. A cool breeze flowed in through the open casement windows.
The furnishings were simple: a bed too marrow for the grown man to sleep comfortably, a desk and chair, and bureau. A battered trunk took up much of the floor space.
“I’ll have Travers ready a more appropriate room. This is too small,” she said as she pulled out the chair. “Sit. Shirt off.”
“Do not bother. The room is adequate.” He sat but did not remove his shirt.
“It is a child’s room with a child’s bed. I need you fresh and limber, Hardwick, not twisted and stiff.”
The muscles in his jaw twitched. She raised an eyebrow. He cleared his throat and looked away before saying, “I don’t want to be a bother. Perhaps the cottage?”
Luis perched on the edge of the bed, his knees bumping into Solenne. She tripped over his feet as she moved to the bureau.
“If you wished to be exiled,” she said, shooting Luis an irritated glare. He shrugged and tucked his feet carefully under the bed.
“I’m used to my privacy,” Alek said.
“Well, no. I’m afraid I won’t put the extra work on Miriam and Travers. I’ll find you an adult sized room but you’ll be in the house. Now, shirt. Off.” She snapped her fingers. Alek rolled his eyes but complied.
The wounds were not as bad off as she remembered. They appeared less angry but still red and swollen. The scars on his stomach were faded, almost as if they had been there for ages, but she remembered they were red.
She knelt before him. His knees parted, allowing her space. Up close, the smell of the caustic soap drowned out anything unpleasant. His scent was sweat, green grass and cool water.
Her fingers brushed the sun tattoo, then drifted down to the tight lines that crossed his stomach, his abdomen muscles jumping. A wolf once tried it’s damnedest to shred Alek to pieces. But they had been red. Perhaps that had been a trick of the light.
The bite, though, her memory did not fail her. As red and angry as ever, it needed attention before infection set in.
Solenne was aware of Luis watching her as she inspected Alek’s injuries. She refused to blush. She refused to let her heart flutter or her breath quicken. This was another injury, just body parts not so different from any of the other bodies she tended.
“You know what, I don’t need to be here,” Luis said. As he exited, he managed to kick her calf, trip over her foot, put a hand on her shoulder and nearly shove her head into Alek’s lap. To be so clumsy required an amazing execution of grace.
Alek’s eyes followed Luis, narrow and calculating. When they were alone, he said, “Is he that clumsy?”
“I think he thinks he’s funny.” Solenne rose to her feet, resisting the urge to smooth her hair or fuss with the folds on her dress.
“You changed,” he said.
“I was covered in mud, same as you.”
“I was not referring to your garments.” His tone felt mocking, like he expected her to be preserved in amber while he transformed into an almost unrecognizable man.
Anger flared in her, bright and furious, anger that she normally kept mottled up. So much about her had grown and matured but she felt emotionally stuck at sixteen and it was horrid.
Solenne looked away, needing a moment to collect herself. She breathed in and out. Sweat and green grass and cool water. The scents were warm, like the promise of summer.
Once under control, she approached with a rag soaked in the hot water. Just a shoulder. Never mind the moonlight highlighted the musculature of his upper arms or the cords in his neck. Just another shoulder.
When she dabbed the cloth to the bite, his body tensed but he remained stoically silent.
“Is this recent?” The bite appeared recent.
“It must be, to look like that,” he eventually said.
The teeth had pierced deep. “Any difficulty moving your shoulder?”
With a put upon sigh, he raised an arm, then dropped it quickly back to his side.
“Touch your ear,” she said. He touched the ear on the same side. “No, the other one.”
Moving stiffly, he reached around and tapped his other ear. Then, to be clever, he patted his head, and moved his arms in a circle.
Solenne cleaned the bite and slathered on a generous layer of a creme made with wolfsbane. The red rash under his silver necklace and wristband received the same attention. As she held his wrist, she felt his pulse flutter. He watched her work, eyes sharp and following every movement like a guard dog. There was so much she wanted to say but didn’t know how to start. She wasn’t the same sixteen year old girl, deep in the throw of infatuation, but in that moment, close enough to smell his soap, she was.
His wounds cleaned and covered, she brought the pitcher and bowl and hot water over and placed them nearby on the trunk. Luis had helpfully laid out a pair of scissors, a razor, a small mirror, lather brush and a cake of shaving soap. Using a mirror, Alek hacked away at the beard while she worked the soap into a lather with the brush. Just as she raised the brush to Alek’s face, he caught her wrist.
“You do not need to do this,” he said, his voice thick and betraying the first sign of emotion.
She dabbed on the soap as a means of answering. Slowly the beard vanished under a layer of white foam. Carefully she dragged the razor across his skin, each stroke revealing a civilized man.
“The house is quiet,” he said.
“It used to be filled with…”
The voices of people not afraid to be heard or afraid to laugh. The house used to be filled with life. She wanted to say nothing, focused on the raze scraping along his cheek. Let him think what he wanted.
Instead she said, “I guess something has changed after all.”
He did not waste a beat, pouncing on the crack in her defense. “Afraid of upsetting your father?”
Her hand jolted with surprise. Alek hissed as the blade nicked him. Quickly, she dabbed the injury with a clean corner of the wet cloth until the bleeding stopped.
“Initially, perhaps, but no. Father gets a piece of my mind when he deserves it.”
“Afraid of upsetting your fiance?”
“No promises have been made.” Unlike the kiss and promise Alek made to her. She knew her father regarded an alliance with Colonel Chambers as inevitable, and Chambers himself was a pleasant enough man, but she held nothing more for him than friendly regard. If Chambers was in the mind to marry, he never made his intentions clear.
“Not according to your father.”
Solenne dropped the cloth and sat back on her heels. “What is happening?”
“You’re carving me up like a roast is what’s happening,” he grumbled.
“You’re upset with me.”
“I’m more than capable of shaving myself. Leave.” He grabbed the razor from the trunk.
“You’re upset that I am not the same sixteen year old girl besotted with you.”
“You promised to wait for me.”
“And you promised you’d return, not wait ten years for me to beg you.”
They stared at each other, as if no longer seeing the shadow of their past selves but each other as they were now for the first time. Alek was not the boy with easy smiles and a warm laugh that she remembered. He was harder now, scared and burdened by the world. She was no longer a carefree young woman with a word of options open to her.
The razor’s edge glinted in the moonlight.
“Who is he,” Alek said, breaking the silence.
“You do not know him.”
“Who. Is. He.”
Solenne lifted her chin, refusing to be cowed. “A gentleman farmer. Military. Retired.”
“Old and rich,” he said, a sneer in his voice.
“Not so old and wealthy enough.” Solenne pushed, wanting a reaction out of Alek. When they met earlier at the cottage, he acted cool and indifferent, as if he barely remembered her.
“You must be pleased with such a catch. Soon you’ll be knee deep in babies and diapers.”
“They could be yours.”
“But you left.”
“I had to leave,” he snapped. She knew that was true but still she pushed.
“You did not write. Not once.”
He surged to his feet, knocking the chair back. “And say what? Dear Solenne, today I cleared a pack of wolves but the village could not pay the bounty they offered. Instead they gave me a pair of chickens. I slept in a barn with my chickens.” His tone was cruel and mocking. He continued, “Dear Solenne, I returned to the ruined husk of my family’s home. The roof is badly damaged but the four walls remain upright for the time being. I can not wait to make you mistress of this hovel. I had nothing to offer you then and I have even less to offer you now.”
“I would have known you were alive.”
He held out his arms and turned slowly. Moonlight picked out the pale scars that crossed his abdomen and his back. It seemed as if every part of him had suffered from injury or wound. From the appearance of the situation, he worked very hard to remedy his affliction of being alive.
“Such as it is,” he said.
She shoved her supplies into her kit. So this was it. He was upset that her life had moved on and then wanted to make a grotesque exhibit of why she should have never wanted him in the first place.
She took out a jar of wolfsbane powder and slammed it down on the bureau. Bottles rattled. “One spoonful twice a day in tea or water. It’s bitter and I’d suggest honey but I suspect you like to torture yourself so I won’t bother.”
“Solenne–” His voice almost sounded remorseful.
“No. No,” she said, snapping her bag shut and holding it protectively in front of her. “You do not get to have it both ways. Yes, we were children when we made promises to…” She swallowed, unable to say the word love. “Care for each other. I won’t hold you to that and don’t expect you to do the same.”
He opened his mouth as if to speak.
She continued on, “What I do expect you to do is behave like a gentleman in this house and not insult me or make… aspersions on my character because I have to put my family first.” She lifted her chin. “If I must wed a not-so-old and wealthy-enough man for the good of my family, I will do so and I will not suffer your crass comments or jealousy.”
“Jealousy.” He growled out the word.
“What else could it be? Are you willing to offer me a better prospect? I’m twenty-six, Aleksandar. My options are limited.” And growing more so every day.
“No. I can not. That has not changed.”
“Then good night. I will see you at breakfast.” She paused at the door, unwilling to leave with such unhappiness between them. However far apart they had grown over the years, however much they both had changed, Alek had once been her friend. She believed he could be again.
“I did not know you were such a mercenary,” he said.
“Then you did not know me at all.”
Copyright 2020 Nancey Cummings
What do you think? Alek and Solenne’s first meeting lack sizzle, I thought, so I really wanted to up the tension here.