The baron, my husband, is dead. I am fighting to secure these lands and title in my own right as his widow. If you still feel as you once did, come to me now. I have need of you and your sword both.
With all my love,
Myrtle, Baroness Fireridge
Eryk folded up the well-worn letter and tucked it away in his jerkin. Six months ago Baron Balmont of Cliffside had invited him to swear fealty and become one of Balmont’s knights. For the bastard son of the hated Black Baron it was a chance to belong and a dream come true. He accepted the lord’s invitation without a moment’s hesitation. Three weeks later, Myrtle’s letter had reached him.
From the tower, a bell rang the time. He stood and stretched, forcing his thoughts to more productive trails. He had a patrol to run. The border with the Cirisian Empire might be quiet, but it still needed watching.
A short time later, he and his detachment of men at arms rode out from the castle. One of several fortifications on the Baron’s lands, High Range Castle overlooked one of the few roads to cut through the mountains between the Westerlands and the Empire. The mountains were the main protection for the warring minor lords of the Westerlands against the ever-expanding Empire. The mountains -and the Empire’s knowledge that if attacked those feuding lords would band together until the intruder was driven out.
The trade caravan Eryk saw passing by as they exited the gates was the most common traffic on the road. Still they guarded, just in case.
The patrol was simple routine. When they stopped halfway through their circuit to water the horses, Eryk set sentries more by habit than need. Or so he thought.
Eryk was checking his saddle’s girth when he heard the first of several strange “thuds”. He whirled around, to see the men of his detachment falling off their horses without a sound. He had barely taken a step toward them when exhaustion swept over him, and the world went black.
Eryk woke to the movement of a horse under him. He came awake in an instant. His hands were tied to the saddle in front of him and there was a blindfold over his eyes. Straining his ears, he heard the quiet clomping of horses walking a forest trail. Too few horses. “Where are my men?” His voice was hoarse with disuse.
There was a long moment of silence, then, “Told you he’d beent alright. Long sleep never hurt none.” The voice was rough with the accent of a mountain peasant and full of good cheer. Eryk growled and pulled at the rope binding his hands. “No need to get excited. We left your men sleeping like babes. Even tethered the horses so theys wouldn’t get stepped on.”
Eryk started to ask how knew he was being told the truth, but stopped himself. Even if they were lying, there was nothing he could do until he was able to escape.
They rode through the afternoon and made camp in the evening. His guards were careful, and never gave him opportunity to get free. Nor did they answer any questions.
For three days and two long nights, he endured. By the middle of the first full day, he knew they had to have left Balmont’s land behind, but he no clue where they were. The long ride gave him plenty of time to think.
Magic was rare – very rare. He had only even heard of three mages in the Westerlands, but the way he and his men had collapsed had to be a spell. Someone very powerful or very rich had sent these men to capture him. There was no way this was an attack o the Baron. He didn’t know enough of the Baron’s secrets to be worth interrogating.
Years ago, the Black Baron had terrorized the northern Baronies. Even though he had been killed over two decades ago, there were still people who hated, and feared him. Eryk had spent a life time fighting to be accepted as himself and not the Black Baron’s child. Might someone have decided that with the father dead, they would have to take their revenge on the son?
It was not a comforting thought.
The third night they didn’t stop, but pushed on. Eyrk couldn’t tell exactly the sun set, but shortly after the frogs started singing, the horses moved onto a cobblestone road. A few hours later they passed through a guarded check point.
Soon after, the horse under him stopped, and his captors pulled him from the saddle. They led him into a building, and a tired voice told them to bring him upstairs.
Climbing those stairs, blind and with his hands bound, was slow and nasty. But they allowed him to move as best he could, rather than dragging him or carrying him. He was grateful for the small dignity.
A hand on his elbow guided him through the second floor until they stopped in a carpeted room that smelled of wood polish.
“You hain’t caused us trouble yet, sir. That change if I untie you?”
Unarmed against three men with swords, and god only knew how many guards stationed about this place, “I don’t think I’m ready to commit suicide today,” Eryk replied. He felt a tug at his wrists, and then the ropes fell to the floor.
“I’m told the lady’s spelled the room to keep you here. She don’t throw around magery much, but when she does it usually works.”
There was nothing to say to that so Eryk didn’t reply. A few moments later he heard a door close behind him.
He reached up and pulled the blindfold off. The room was faintly lit by a single candle, yet even that was painful to eyes that had been blind for days. Gently chafing wrists that had been rubbed raw, he tried to get a feel for where he was.
A wooden bed with a sturdy post at each corner dominated the room. It was covered with thick blankets, and larger than some wagons. The only other furniture was a small table and single chair. There was carpet underfoot, and while only one candle was lit, he could see two oil lamps hanging on the walls. All in all it was a room that wouldn’t have been unsuitable for a minor lord.
It was a ridiculous place to stick a captive, and made his revenge theory seem even more ludicrous than it was to begin with.
In the end, it didn’t matter. He had to get out of here and back to Baron Balmont. Unsurprisingly, the door was the only way in or out. A few minutes careful listening left him confident that no guard had been left on the door. Apparently they trusted their mage.
He turned the handle, and it moved easily under his hand. The door swung open, and could clearly see the empty hallways beyond. Either the men who brought him here were idiots – in which case he should have been able to escape days ago – or their mage was good enough might as well give up now.
Well, no one ever called him smart. He reached a hand through the door way, prepared to pull back at the first sign of danger.
His eyes rolled up in his head and he collapsed to the floor. Sound asleep.
He woke on the bed, with his hands and feet bound to the bed posts. This was starting to turn into a habit. One he didn’t like.
Standing at the foot of the bed was… Shock turned his blood cold in his veins. “Baroness Fireridge.”
“Eryk.” The passing years had only made her more beautiful. The lithesome girl he knew had turned into a full figured woman. Her hair had darkened to a deep sable that didn’t yet show any white.
He pulled against the ropes, but it was clear they weren’t coming loose anytime soon. A thousand questions flooded his mind, but he said nothing.
“I’m sorry the ropes are needed.” She shrugged. “Even if I knew you still loved me… well, I couldn’t risk pitting love against honor. Your honor would always win.”
In what world, he wondered, would he ever not love her? “Is this your notion of love?”
She shrugged and came to sit on the bed next to him. Looming over him.
“Balmont will be dead within the season. Five months ago he accepted an overture from the Cirisians. He would give them access to the Westerlands and help them conquer us and they would make him their puppet king.”
“What!” Surprise jerked him upright – or tried to. He wrenched his shoulder and collapsed back with a groan.
Myrtle murmured something and ran her hand along his arm. The pain faded, but he barely noticed. “If I thought your sword would have made one lick of difference in Balmont’s survival, I would have left you there. But the other lord’s are mobilizing now. And my own forces, of course, will join them.”
The Cirisian Empire had outlawed magery centuries ago. Myrtle’s life – and why didn’t he think of her when he realized a mage had helped capture him? – would be worth less than rock in the mountains if they conquered the Westerlands.
And the life of the bastard son of the Black Baron, who had taken service with Balmont mere weeks before he accepted the Empire’s overtures? That, Myrtle knew, would be worth even less. Her fellow lords would never believe he wasn’t the instigator of Balmont’s treachery.
She watched as he worked through the same logic. The same distrust he had faced throughout his life would be the ultimate cause of his death, even if he survived Baltron’s downfall. The old pain flickered across his features before he relaxed against the bed.
“Better dead than forsworn, Baroness.”
“Perhaps. But you aren’t forsworn.” She couldn’t help grinning. “You’re a captive. My captive. And anything that happens to Balmont while you are my prisoner is no reflection on your oath.”
She gave in to her desires, and allowed her hands to wander over his body. By the mulish expression on his face he wanted to argue with her. But he wouldn’t waste words, he’d just do everything he could to escape.
That was fine with her.
His eyes widened as her fingers unlaced his shirt and pulled it up. Of course, with his hands tied to the bed, it couldn’t come off. But it was out of her way.
“What are you doing?”
“My captive, Eryk.” She bent down and bit his exposed nipple. Hard. “When Balmont is dead you will be free of your oath. If you swear fealty to me, the other lords won’t be able to touch you. If you don’t, I’ll just keep you here. Either way.” She sat back and began unlacing her own dress, “You’re mine to do with as I wish.”
Eryk didn’t know if he was in heaven or hell. He watched, helpless as Myrtle slowly stripped off her gown, then her under garments. He knew that body better than his own, or he had 10 years ago. But still it captivated him. He pulled against the ropes, and tried to ignore his growing erection.
When she was finished, she began unlacing his hose. He kicked and squirmed under her hands, wondering why he fought so hard against something he desperately wanted. But not like this, the thought ghosted through his head, not when my life is sworn to another.
She straddled him then, setting his hard length against her cleft.
“Tell me you don’t want this, Eryk.” She leaned forward and her hair became a curtain cutting them both off from the world. “Here, where it’s just the two of us. Where you have no choice, because I’ve taken them all away. Tell me you don’t want this, and I’ll stop.”
He opened his mouth to tell her exactly that. But he couldn’t. Could lie to himself. Couldn’t lie to her. “I want this. And damn your eyes, Myrtle you know it.”
Her eyes gleamed and she seemed to sag against him. “I hoped, Eryk. I hoped.”
She sat back and pushed her against his length. But instead of taking him inside her, as he expected, she began to rub herself against him. Pleasuring herself while denying him.
He fought against the ropes binding him, and he truly didn’t know if he fought to escape or to take her for himself. And it didn’t matter.
She moaned deep in her throat, the soft sound driving him crazy. Her warm wetness caressed him without surrounding him, a sweet torment he’d never imagined.
She moved faster, eyes wide and face rapt. He wanted to beg, to plead. He bit his lip, refusing to make a sound.
He began to move his hips against her, trying to throw off his rhythm, to shift enough that-
His length slid inside her. She stilled. Her warmth engulfed him, but pleasure was in abeyance as she sat unmoving across his hips. “Naughty, Eryk. I wasn’t done yet.”
She squeezed and he gasped as pleasure shot through him. “Next time you interrupt me I’ll stop and leave you like this for the maid to clean up.”
“Damn you, Baroness!” he snarled.
She laughed, then, slowly, started moving. Instinct and desire overwhelmed him, and he moved with her, reveling in the feel of being inside her once again. Pleasure built filling them both. He couldn’t hold back and didn’t even try. He came, the shock and ecstasy ripping through him. She peaked a moment later and cried out, digging her hands into his chest.
They remained still for a long moment, each catching their breath.
Eryk wanted, desperately to reach out to her and take her in his arms. But he couldn’t. And if he could, if he was free… he didn’t want to think about it. Was grateful that he couldn’t make that choice.
As if she saw into his thoughts, she leaned close to whisper in his ear. “There is one question you needn’t torment yourself with, beloved. Killing me won’t undo the spell at the door. It will fade on it’s own if I don’t remove it. In five months or so.” He shuddered. The thought hadn’t occurred to him – yet.
After a moment, she lay down beside him. Curling up with her head on his shoulder, she was asleep almost instantly. After a few minutes he allowed himself to relax – what other choice did he have after all – and enjoy the feel of her beside him.
When he woke in the morning, the ropes binding him were gone. And so was she.
“The lady be asking if you’d like her to visit this evening.” Eryk looked up from his exercising to see Pawl leaning in the doorway. The old warrior had been the one who led Eryk’s capture. Since then, Pawl was always present whenever the maids came in to clean the room or bring Eryk food. Myrtle wasn’t taking any chances with Eryk getting his hands on a hostage.
“If you think I’m going to sit quietly and let you tie me up, you are crazier than the Baroness.”
Pawl chuckled, “Well, you could always try and stick your head out the door again. Beent a week since your last try. Starting to think you’re getting cozy in there.”
For two weeks Eryk had tried any number of desperate things to trick the mage ward into letting him through. He hadn’t been surprised when things like throwing a blanket over himself hadn’t worked. But he had to try. About half the time, he had woken up tied to the bed with Myrtle waiting – or on one memorable occasion not waiting – for him to awaken. Eventually, he ran out stupid ideas.
For the past week he’d been slowly chipping away at a section of the wall where it was hidden by the shadow of the bed. God only knew how long it would take to scratch his way through to the next room, but be damned if he wouldn’t try.
When he didn’t say anything further, Pawl closed the door, leaving him alone.
He’d had far to much time alone the past few weeks, and next to nothing to do. Most of the time he hadn’t been unconscious had been spent thinking.
He’d doubt his own honor before he doubted Myrtle’s honesty. But even if Balmont was selling out to Cirisia, that didn’t change his fealty. Yet there was nothing he could do. No way he could even send his lord a message of warning. He was literate – barely – but had nothing to write with or on. And even if he could convince a maid to carry a message, Pawl was always right there.
With nothing else to do, he lost himself in the effort of exercise. At the very least, whenever he managed to get out of this room he would be fit enough to do something with the opportunity!
He woke up and found he was sitting. Tied, this time, to a chair. He didn’t remember going to sleep, and he damn well hadn’t put an eyelash across that damn door.
At least, if he was in a chair, he could be reasonably certain Myrtle would be leaving his clothing alone this time. That was a good thing. Right, just keep trying to convince yourself, m’lad.
When he opened his eyes, he wasn’t surprised to find himself sitting at the table in the corner of his room. A second chair had been added and Myrtle sat with him. The table held plates of rather finer fare then he’d been receiving the past weeks, not that it did him any good with his hands tied behind his back.
“Baroness. So good of you to invite yourself.”
She just grinned at him. “You told Pawl you wouldn’t sit still for him to tie you. Not that you didn’t want me to come.”
It was so typically Myrtle he couldn’t help rolling his eyes. Her grin stretched wider.
Then she sobered. “No games tonight Eryk. I have news for you, if you wish it.” She speared a vegetable on her knife and offered it to him.
He leaned forward to take it.
“Balmont’s lands are overrun. He’s retreated into his central keep and the other lords have him under siege.” She took a bite herself while he struggled to swallow with a mouth suddenly gone dry. “I’ll being joining them tomorrow. I expect to see Balmont’s head off his shoulders by the end of the week.”
The vicious delight she obviously took in the prospect twisted his stomach. But he was honest enough to admit he would have felt the same way about any other lord who had cut a deal with the Cirisians. Damn it had Baron Balmont been that greedy? Or just that stupid?
He managed to swallow and cleared his throat.
“Baron Balmont is known for his siege-craft. You’ll need more than a week.” And if the Cirisian Empire found out, they might send troops through the mountains to help their erstwhile ally. Might.
“Your forget.” Myrtle offered him meat this time. He bit into it savagely. “Balmont won’t be fighting just warriors. And he won’t last long once I dry up his water source.”
Eryk felt himself blanch. Mages were so rare, and so valuable, that their skills were almost never used in warfare. What mage would risk themself in battle when they could command a king’s ransom making sure the crops prospered?
He swallowed the meat with difficulty. “I don’t suppose you have a drink you care to share with me? Or are all the baron’s loyal men going dry?”
She picked up a tankard and raised it in salute before taking a long drink. He closed his eyes and forced back rage and grief and something very like hate.
Gentle hands took his chin and tipped his head back. Soft lips pressed into his and for a moment he wondered what the hell she thought she was doing. Then she parted her lips, and ale flowed into his mouth. He took the liquid, letting it wash away the dryness of his mouth and throat, and his rage as well.
She released him but didn’t move, staring into his eyes for a long moment. “Why, Baroness?”
“I will share everything I have with you, if you will let me.”
“But I am to sit back and accept your part in destroying my lord, in slaughtering the men I served with and commanded?”
She sat down and applied herself to her food. She offered him nothing further, but then, he wasn’t sure if he would have accepted it.
So he watched her eat in silence. Damn it he knew, he KNEW she had no choice. But then, what choice did she think he had? He had given fealty.
She ate slowly and neatly, and didn’t look at him again. Once, he thought he saw a glitter of tears in her eyes, before she blinked them away.
“The castle you patrolled from was overrun with few casualties. Sleep spells, you may have noticed, are useful things. Though crafting them large enough to affect entire arrisons is hard enough I could only prepare a few.”
And the castle that guarded the invasion route of the Empire was important enough to spend one on. So most of the men he knew would have survived.
“Those who were captured and knew nothing of Balmont’s treachery will be released to seek new service. If you can tell me which ones are worth their salt, I might invite them to enter my service. After Balmont is dead, of course.” She met his gaze, her own eyes seemed to plead with him.
He looked away. “I can’t answer you, Baroness. And I’m not going to stop trying to escape, however futile it may be.”
“I know.” When he looked up, she held out another piece of meat for him. He leaned forward and took it gently between his lips. “And I’m not going relax the safeguards I’ve set on you. Hopefully… hopefully soon you will be able to answer me.”
The grin came back, like the sun shining on water. “What I’m going to do now is forget about this mess for a while, and enjoy a meal with an old friend. Care to join me?”
After a moment he nodded, “But you’d better not hog the turnips.”
The next time he asked for a drink, he was vaguely disappointed when she gave it to him from the tankard.
The next several days were spent in thought. Not, this time, of escape, but of the future. He had, he realized, accepted Baron Balmont’s death as inevitable. There was nothing he could do, with the whole might of the Westerlands, and the first mage to go to battle in three generations, arrayed against him.
At first he worried over his honor. There was no question of if he wanted to be free to offer his fealty to Myrtle. His fealty and, he knew, a great deal more. More which he fully expected she would accept. It wasn’t like she’d been at all shy in her affections over the past several weeks.
The mind boggled at putting Myrtle, Baroness Fireridge and “shy” in the same sentence.
But could he offer that fealty, in all honor, when she had prevented him from defending Baron Balmont, ripped him away from his duty?
On the third day he realized he was being ridiculous. He would have no such doubts if he were taken captive in battle, so why was he tormenting himself with them now?
Then, he began to plan.
When Pawl mentioned in passing that the Baroness had returned, five days after her departure. Eryk knew what he would do. He stuck his hand directly through the door, and caught a glimpse of Pawl’s smile before his eyes rolled back in his head.
He was a bit surprised to wake up in the chair rather then the bed. But Pawl clearly hadn’t shorted on the rope. Myrtle sat across from him, holding a goblet of something that smelled like sweet wine. He’d seen dead men that looked healthier. Whatever magic she had used to reach Balmont Keep, dry their wells and return in under a week hadn’t been without cost.
Myrtle smiled. It was a bitter thing. “It’s done. Balmont was killed when the walls were breached. I am hailed as hero by my fellow lords for ending the siege so quickly and offered Balmont’s lands in addition to my own.” She drank from the goblet and set it aside, “I told them to go to hell and left them to squabble over the scraps.”
Eryk couldn’t help grinning at her obvious distaste. Maybe there was more than one reason mages didn’t go to war.
She licked her lips, then spread her hands on the table between them. “I assume you wouldn’t have sent for me unless you had an answer?” Her eyes skittered about the room, looking everywhere but at him.
“Yes, Baroness. I will offer you my fealty. If-” her eyes snapped to him but the spreading grin froze at his pause, “if you swear that you will never again use magery on me unless I ask you too.”
Myrtle didn’t hesitate even a moment, “Never. My magic will never touch you again unless you wish it too.”
Now it was his turn to grin and leaned back against the chair, “Then will you please untie these damned ropes?”
She laughed and moved to stand behind him, using her belt knife to cut through the knots rather than picking them out. A waste of good rope, but he wasn’t complaining.
He stood, shaking out his arms. For the first time since he arrived here, he was able to look down on her. He’s forgotten how small she was, barely reaching his chin.
She looked up at him but before she could say anything, he sank a hand into her thick hair and yanked her head back. She stumbled against him and his other hand caught her wrists easily. “Eryk! What are you–” He silenced her with a deep kiss.
“I will give you my fealty, Baroness, but before I give you power over me again,” he released her hair, and let his free hand grab a breast that had dangled just out of his reach for far to long, “I am going to repay you for some of the torment you put me through these past weeks.
“As I believe you once said to me, Myrtle, if you want me to stop, say so now. Otherwise, I will do with you what I choose.”
She gave a breathless laugh, “I should have known better than to let my guard down before you were fully mine.”
“I am yours.” He picked her up and tossed her on the bed. Before she could move he climbed on top of her, pinning her with his weight and hands both. “But you are also mine.” He leaned forward and kissed her. “Yes or no, beloved.”
She laughed again, reaching to pull him down for a long kiss. “You need to ask?”