Brooke looked to her mother as they were finishing up their chores for the afternoon. Her mother was taking the washing down from the line, the sun at her back. The girl sighed.
“Tell me what’s wrong, love,” her mother paused in her work.
“I’m worried about the land,” she admitted, folding the linen blanket in her hands and placing it in the basket. “The last few harvests have been meager, and it has been so dry this summer,” she trailed off, looking out towards the winding, pockmarked dirt road that led to their farm. A lone knight sat upon his horse, clanking nearer.
“We’ll manage, Brooke, like we always do. The rains will come.” She cupped her daughter’s cheek, brushing away her wild, raven locks. The crashing of the knight falling off his horse made both women jump. They gathered up their skirts and ran to the road.
He regained consciousness briefly as his helmet was lifted. Suddenly his world was bathed in sunlight. Two beautiful women, similar in features looked down upon him. Light glowed all around them.
“Angels…” His parched lips parted to allow the single word to slip through before he fell into darkness again.
He awoke from battle-plagued dreams to find one of the angels dabbing his forehead with a cold cloth. Her dark, thick hair framed her face, and her bright blue eyes lit up as she smiled. With a delicate hand she lifted his head, placing a small cup to his lips.
“Drink, Sir knight. You need your strength to heal.”
She had a lilting, country accent and a soft voice filled with compassion Cool water touched his tongue and he drank thirstily until darkness reclaimed him.
Time became nebulous. Most of his dreams were scenes from his life replayed. Horrible bloody battles filled with the screeching of metal against metal tore at him in his weakened state. Faces of the men he had killed floated in the timelessness. Sometimes, and these were the best of times, he resided in a blank field of grey. It was peaceful there compared to his dreams, and he could almost make out muffled, indistinct voices around him. But eventually he would be pulled back into his own mind, tormented by the deeds of the past.
He became aware of the room before he opened his eyes. He floated up through a sea of grey, like a swimmer emerging from the depths, and above the waves there was a clarity. He felt the softness of blankets beneath him. While it wasn’t quite the feather beds that were common in the capital, he was comfortable. There were sounds around him: a rustling of cloth, muffled footfalls, and beyond that the gentle sway of wind through tall grass. He remained still, savoring every moment.
The clarity sharpened, and he became aware of two more things. He was naked. And there was a horrible numbness to his left leg.
Reality rushed back to him. There was a battle where he was wounded. Remembering the sound of the blade punching through his armor, he snapped his eyes open and cried out in phantom pain. Fingers clawed at his leg, trying to rip away the blankets to see the damage.
The angel appeared, her face concerned. She pressed him back down on the bed with surprising strength. He struggled against her for a moment, but his reserves of energy were exhausted.
“My mission,” he pleaded to her weakly. “The bishop must know…”
“Shhh, Sir knight,” she soothed, bringing a cup to his lips. “Rest now.”
He drank and the water tasted sickly sweet. The liquid trickled down his throat and he knew nothing more.
Sleep clung to him like a heavy film. Instead of the nightmares, there was just darkness. Faded thoughts and emotions tried to break through, but he only had a vague awareness of their existence. Terrors no longer plagued him. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew that it was artificial. He knew that his body and mind were being forced into restfulness, but fighting it seemed pointless.
Drifting through time, he called up images of the raven-haired woman’s face. Who was she? What was her name? He remembered her vivid blue eyes and the way her hands could be caring and forceful at the same time. He fancied that he could hear her voice ringing through the empty vaults of his mind, calling him “Sir knight” in her melodic country cadence. The sound grew louder.
It was definitely her voice, just as he remembered it. It called to him again, more insistently.
“Sir knight, you must wake now.”
Groggily, he opened his eyes. It took him a couple tries, but eventually he blinked the small room into focus. It was night. Candles burned around the room illuminating the sturdy wood walls. The hand-sewn curtains were drawn. Slowly, he began drawing himself up into a sitting position.
Immediately the girl was there to help, but he waved her away. On trembling arms he drew himself upright, slumping back against the headboard in exhaustion after.
The girl gingerly took her seat again in a chair drawn up by the bedside. She sat on the very corner of the seat, ready to spring up again should he falter. He found that both endearing and frustrating. The candlelight caught her hair as she picked up a cup from the bedside table and it flashed blue-black. With slender fingers, she brought the cup to him, but he shook his head feverishly.
“No. No more drugs,” he insisted.
“‘Tis only water, I assure.” She waited with the cup while he searched her face with squinted eyes. Finally with a sigh he nodded his acceptance. Sniffing the cup before he drank, he found that she was telling the truth and it was simply water. Reassured in her motives and refreshed, questions tumbled from his lips.
“Who are you? And where am I? How long have I slept? I have urgent business to attend and I-“
“Sir knight,” she interrupted with a smile, “I cannot answer if you keep talking.”
She was so unlike the courtly ladies he was used to that he stared at her in stunned silence. Her country ways would take getting used to, but he was indebted to her, and his vows required him to show respect to all walks of life. There was something about her manner that called to him, and before he realized he found himself abandoning his most urgent questions to find out more about her.
“If I must ask one at a time, then my first desire is to know your name.”
She smiled again, and it radiated throughout her entire being, “Brooke.”
A country name to be sure, but a beautiful one. He tested it on his tongue.
“Well met, Brooke. I am Sir Benedict Warren Hastings. And where do I find myself?”
“My family’s farm, Sir. You fell from your horse just outside our home. We have been caring for you.”
“My horse! I am ashamed to admit that I had forgotten all about him. Is he well?”
“Of course, Sir. We have some land for him to graze, and plenty of hay to share between him and our sheep and our goats. He is quite happy.”
He thought about the things she had told him, and tried to remember which road he had been riding down. His scowl must have given away his confusion for Brooke piped up.
“Sir, you were wounded. Do you remember?”
He did now. With horror, he brought his gaze down, fearing the worst. Two feet poked up under the covers and he sagged with relief. His leg was still whole. The left leg was numb all the way up his thigh, but his right foot moved correctly when he flexed it. Trying his left leg again, he was irked when it refused his commands.
“My leg,” he panted through his exertion, “it will not move.”
“Of course it won’t,” she explained simply. His irritation grew.
“What do you mean ‘of course it won’t’? Why can’t I move? How bad is the damage?”
Sliding from her seat, Brooke moved to the left side of the bed. Her skirts swished against the floor as she walked. She drew away the blanket to reveal the bandage on his thigh. Removing the linen revealed the wound was tightly packed with a poultice. A sweet scent of herbs wafted up to his nose instead of the festering smell he was expecting. Their rustic form of medicine seemed to be working, and though he would carry a scar the rest of his life, he was grateful it was healing.
With his mind swept free of fear, it made room for the sharp awareness that he was naked. Scrambling to cover his exposed leg with the blanket elicited a silvery, naughty giggle from Brooke and he found himself blushing. She stilled his hands by covering them with her own.
“You must not disturb the poultice. Let me get fresh linen to bandage your wound.”
She didn’t wait for him to answer. The door to the room clicked shut and he busied himself by carefully arranging the blankets to allow her to care for the hurt, while not offending her honor, or his. When she returned, the savory flavor of stew followed her into the room. Loudly, his stomach grumbled.
“‘Twill be ready soon, Sir knight,” she said in her soft voice as her fingers attended to her work of wrapping the linen around his thigh. “You must be ravenous.”
“I am,” he admitted, clenching his teeth against the vulgarity of the process and averting his eyes to the dark window. “I slept the entire day away.”
The silver peal of her laughter rang through the room again. “You have slept many days, in fact.”
“Many?” His voice was incredulous. “What do you mean many?”
She finished her binding and concealed his nakedness again, tucking the covers carefully. “I mean, Sir, that your wound was grave. You would have died had we not taken you in. The fever almost took you, and you thrashed in terror while you slept, opening your wound again many times. Giving you the sleeping herb was the only thing that saved you, and even now it keeps your leg still so you may recover.”
Emotions warred within him. He was grateful that these simple folk had saved his life. But he was also furious that he had been forced into unconsciousness for so long.
“How long did I sleep?”
The steel in his voice made Brooke draw away from him.
“Sir knight, I-“
“How long?!” he yelled, pounding both fists into the mattress. She shrank back even further.
Despair and rage welled up inside him. He had been on his way to tell the bishop about the uprising. By now, the knowledge was useless. And everyone he had known would think that he had died in the battle.
Hesitantly the door opened and the young girl poked her head into the room. He had calmed himself significantly and he motioned for her to come in. In her hands was a steaming bowl of stew, and she took a seat at the very edge of the chair again. She refused to meet his gaze, but offered the bowl to him. He berated himself for scaring her. What sort of knight frightens young girls?
“I must apologize for my behavior, Brooke. My anger bested me. It won’t happen again.”
With trepidation the luminous blue gaze met his. The young woman was breathtakingly beautiful. For the first time in his austere life, he felt the stirrings of something wicked.
“‘Tis alright, Sir. You’ve been through so much.” She smiled shyly, presenting his dinner to him again. His eyes strayed to the graceful curve of her neck, trailing down her collarbone to the swells of her breasts peeking above the bodice of her linen dress. He took the bowl graciously, bowing his head in thanks, which also serve to rip his gaze from her form.
“Please, call me Ben. You need not stand on ceremony.”
Her fears gone, she giggled. “Seemed a bit silly, honestly, but you city folk are all so proper.”
Trying to restrain himself from wolfing down the entire bowl all at once, he looked back to her.
“Well, seeing as how I’ve been the one bathing you for weeks, it seems a bit daft to be calling you ‘Sir’.” Her smile was positively villainous, and he almost choked as he struggled to swallow a piece of mutton.
Sentences eluded him, and all he could do was splutter. He got a few words out. Something about ‘honor’ and ‘chastity’. With one hand he reached up to clutch his amulet and he began murmuring a prayer to ward off evil and temptation.
Looking up at him from behind thick, dark lashes, her eyes flashed with an inner fire as she purred, “Why, Sir knight, do I tempt you?”
His prayer faltered mid-verse and he released his amulet to stare at her in shock.
The sultry look melted away to be replaced by mirth. Brooke slid from the chair, taking the empty stew bowl from him.
“Sir Benedict, you and your god should both learn to not be so…” her eyes traveled the length of him, “… stiff.”
His voice called out to her before she shut the door.
“Since you carry so much disdain for my God, why did you leave me my pendant, yet take my small clothes?”
Her fingers lingered on the edge of the door and she gazed at him over her shoulder.
“’Tis rude to touch the instruments of another’s worship.”
He made a strangling sound of indignation, “But it is not rude to remove the only thing keeping a man’s decency intact?”
A smile touched her full lips, “They were soaked in blood, Sir. I hardly thought them sanitary.” She let that sink in for a moment and he had to admit she had him on that count. “Rest. We’ll be walking around the farm tomorrow. You must start strengthening your leg, and I have been too long away from my chores.”
That night his dreams were troubled, but sweet.
It turned out that he needed more help than just the walking stick. He tried not to lean too heavily on Brooke’s arm, but when it was necessary he was surprised again at her strength. And the softness of her skin under his fingers.
As they toured around the inner perimeter of the farm, he began to notice the same symbol carved on the fence posts. He limped closer. Part of him was driven by curiosity, and another part of him wanted nothing more to rest for a moment. He leaned against the wood, rubbing his thumb over the symbol. Flakes of brown filtered down.
“What is this? I’ve seen it all around the farm.”
“’Tis a ward, Sir knight. We who worship the old gods believe that it protects us. And, before you ask,” she supplied softly, “Yes, ’tis blood. It empowers the symbol. When we cull our flock after the harvests, we use everything. The wool, the meat, even the blood. Nothing is wasted here.”
At first his heart recoiled from the thought. They rested against the old fence and he looked out over their fields. It was obvious that the dry summer had not been kind to these folk, and that they were slowly falling on hard times. Yet when he needed help, they took him. With a start, it dawned on him that they had never asked him who he was or whether he could repay their kindness because it didn’t matter. They sheltered him, fed him, and cared for him because it was the right thing to do. They were good people. Simple people, but wholesome and kind. Country life was very different from that in the city. They didn’t buy their winter stores with coin. They canned their harvests and butchered their own meat. While some may have accused them of being barbaric, this was how they survived. He thought he understood their life, but in reality, he knew very little.
“Tell me more of your family.” When he turned back to her, those piercing blue eyes were already resting on his face. She must have been studying him as he mused.
“My father is Earnest. He works the fields during the day. My mother is Rain. She and I take care of the housework and cooking.”
“You were named after your mother, then?”
“Of course,” she replied in that flippant way she had. Instead of scowling, it made him smile.
“Of course,” he echoed.
“Come,” she said, pushing away from the fence and offering him her arm again. “We will go visit your horse.”
It was much more difficult to navigate the open fields than to walk around the inside of the yard, but with great effort he managed it. He was sweating and panting by the time they got to the outer fence. Gripping the wood with both hands, he gritted his teeth against the burning in his thigh until it subsided to a tolerable level.
“Look.” She had leaned very close to him, her breath whispering against his ear as she spoke. The scent of her filled his nostrils: sweet hay and dried herbs and flowers. There was a heat to her that radiated out from her skin, and her fingers felt like fire on his arm. More than just pleasant, her nearness stirred secret desires he had long believed mastered. She removed her hand from him to point out into the field. He instantly missed her touch. Shaking his head, he followed her outstretched arm to see.
He chuckled, pulling himself upright to get a better view. To see a stallion, a warhorse bred and trained for battle, bucking and prancing in a field with goats was incredible. He never even knew the horse had it in him. The whistle carried over the fields, and the horse turned and trotted to his master.
“Hey, boy,” he murmured, stroking his velvety muzzle.
“Does he have a name?” Brooke held her hand out to the stallion, who abandoned his master to nuzzle her fingers.
“Valiant. Though I may change it to ‘Traitor’ after that display,” he laughed softly. He really couldn’t blame the horse.
“Valiant,” she tested the word, nodding. “Yes, that fits.”
Valiant promptly abandoned them both to return to frolicking in the field. Brooke was wearing a soft smile when he looked back to her.
“‘Tis my goat, Daisy,” she explained. “She is a good goat and I am happy that she has found a friend.”
The two watched the animals play for a few more moments before he shook his head again, laughing.
“Why do you laugh, Sir?”
He shrugged, at a lack for words.
“Is it really so unbelievable that he could find happiness here?” Dark lashes veiled her eyes.
“I once saw that stallion bash a man’s skull open with his hooves. But here…” He trailed off, ripping his gaze away from her lovely face and looking over at Valiant and Daisy again. He felt her take one of his scarred hands in her own, tracing the faded white lines with a tender fingertip.
“Scars heal. Nightmares fade. Peace can be found, if you look for it.”
His heart had never beat so quickly in his chest. Teeth clenched, he fought with the forbidden ideas that tempted him, teased him, toyed with his emotions. There had been a pleading to her tone, and he was so weary of blood and war. Could there be a future for him here? It would mean breaking his vows, severing his ties to the church, going back on all that he had believed in.
The moment slipped away.
“We should start back.”
Cursing himself, he nodded and she took his arm as they started the grueling trip back over the fields to the house.
By the time they entered his sleeping room, he was ready to collapse. His limbs trembled and his wound was on fire. Drenched in sweat with his dark hair plastered to his forehead, he sagged on to the bed with relief, leaning against the headboard.
Brooke brought in a steaming mug of tea and brought it to his lips. It smelled of herbs and he balked.
“‘Tis not to make you sleep, Sir,” she assured him. “Perhaps you’ll feel drowsy, but it’s only purpose is to numb the pain.”
“I can handle the pain.”
She pursed her lips and looked pointedly at his hand. He followed her gaze down and saw that he was clutching his thigh so hard that his knuckles were white. Relaxing his fingers and dropping his hand to his side he nodded his consent. The warm liquid felt good. He leaned his head against the wooden headboard again, resting while the throbbing subsided.
“Ben?” Fingertips brushed the hair from his forehead and he blinked his eyes open.
“I’m sorry to wake you, Sir. I’ve drawn you a bath.”
Looking around the room confirmed that a tub had been brought in. It looked so inviting with the way that the vapors curled away from the water’s surface. The hot water would drain away the aches in his muscles and he wanted nothing more than to sink into its warmth. Soap cake and towels were laid out nearby.
“You have my thanks, Brooke,” he said, motioning that she could leave him.
“If you can make it to the tub by yourself,” she laughed with a slight mocking to her tone, “I’ll gladly leave. But I’ve not nursed you back to health just to have you take a tumble and open your cut again.”
He fixed her with one of his scowls. Setting his jaw with determination, he moved to push himself from the bed. His arms trembled and, if not for her help, he would have slumped back onto the mattress. When he was standing steadily on his own, her fingers moved to the buttons of his shirt. Quelling her attempts with one broad hand he shook his head firmly.
She huffed out an impatient breath. “There’s no shame in it.”
“There is plenty.”
Her voice softened. “Everyone needs help now and then.” Her big blue eyes gazed up at him, imploring. “You’ve been through so much. You’ve done for so many others. ‘Tis time someone did something for you.”
The muscles in his jaw twitched as he clenched and unclenched his teeth. Lit by the candles in the room, her beauty was luminous. He released her hands.
The shirt fell away to reveal his hard chest, pitted and slashed from old battle wounds. Every time her fingertips brushed his flesh she left a trail of fire in her wake. It took every ounce of his concentration to keep himself calm and steady while she undressed him.
Brooke slid under his arm, wrapping her arms around him and helping him into the tub. The water was almost too hot, but he sank in gladly, the warmth seeping into his bones and easing the soreness in his muscles. Using her hands as a cup, she poured water over his hair and shoulders. Massaging the soap over his scalp, he let out a low groan of pleasure as she cleaned the sweat from his hair and skin. Eyes closed, he relaxed, letting her wash away his cares and he couldn’t help the daydreams that filled his mind. Her touch was thrilling and he allowed himself to imagine things that he had strictly prohibited before.
When he opened his eyes again, he was face to face with her. Her gaze searched his face as she gently washed his chest. Full lips parted as if she was going to say something, but he didn’t give her a chance. Cupping her cheek, he pressed his mouth to hers, kissing her with a passion he had never known until that moment. The embrace didn’t end until they were both breathless. Brooke gawked at him, wide-eyed, bosom heaving as she tried to catch her breath.
“Sir knight,” she stammered, “Y-your vows… Are… are you sure…?”
He ran a hair through her wild, raven hair. She was the most captivating woman he had ever met. Strong, beautiful and confident, he had found himself drawn to her from the first second he laid eyes on her.
“I would be with you, Brooke. I would remain with you forever, if you’d have me.”
Her grin was like the sun. It warmed him just to be graced with it. Breaking from his embrace she stood. He blinked, confused. Slowly, her gaze never leaving his, her dress and small clothes dropped to the floor. She stepped out of them with graceful legs, her skin glowing in the candlelight. His eyes feasted on her like a starving man on mutton stew, and he was glad for the water concealing his growing desire.
Raven hair tumbled over her shoulders. Her frame was ample, totally unlike the courtly ladies he was used to. In the city, the ladies had plenty, but ate little for fear of their figure. This was a girl of the country, one who ate bountifully during the harvests to survive the leaner winters. Heavy breasts and round curves spoke to the prosperity that the farm once enjoyed.
“B-brooke, I…” he stuttered, trying to reason through the lust burning through his veins. “I t-think I should speak t-to your father f-first…”
“’Tis not the way it works out here in the fields, Sir knight. I am the only one who speaks for me. I am not owned by one man, to be passed to the next.” Her lips quirked into an impish smile. One foot after the other, she stepped into the tub with him.
“The old gods are not so strict as yours. They love us and wish us to be happy. Why would those who created us and gave us our desires want us to ignore them?” Sliding through the water, her smooth thighs kissing his, she straddled his lap avoiding his wound. She hovered just inches away, so close yet so far. “Why should I deny myself the pleasures that I yearn for?”
With a strangled-sounding groan, he lifted the chain from around his neck. It fell to the floor beside the tub. Supple arms wound around his neck and she was kissing him, tongue flirting against his lips before exploring deeper. She tasted of warm sunshine and he drank of her hungrily. Brooke melted into his embrace as his hands roamed over her body. He let go of his reservations, allowing himself to indulge all the fantasies he had refused himself. Taking a full breast into his mouth, his hands found her buttocks and squeezed, kneading her flesh. Finding her ready and willing, he plunged into velvety softness and she clung to him. As he thrust, her breathing turned into quick little gasps. Rocking her hips, matching his thrusts, she moaned his name over and over again until finally her whole body tightened, back arching.
Her spasms of pleasure carried him over the edge as well and he held her tightly, one hand caught in her damp hair, until they both floated back to earth. He rested his head in the crook of her neck and shoulder, exhausted. She stirred, reaching beyond the tub to pick up a small cup. Bringing it to his lips, she bade him drink.
“Your medicine, Sir.” Her eyes sparkled with mischief and he attributed it to her mocking propriety until he had taken a couple large mouthfuls of sickly sweet liquid. He tried to spit the sleeping drought out but he had already drank too much. His chin bumped his chest as he passed out.
Groggily, he blinked his eyes open. It was dark. And he was outside. Groaning, he tried to sit up and found his body unresponsive. A flickering light danced in the distance, but a mound of earth blocked his view from it. He craned his neck as much as he could, and he realized that he was in a deep hole and it was the lip of the pit that was in his way. His fingers were touching something soft, wet, and warm. With horror, he saw the dead form of Daisy beside him, her throat cut.
Brooke appeared at the edge. She was naked. Her parents materialized from the darkness and they were similarly disrobed. Helping her over the edge, she dropped into the pit, sauntering towards him. The blade in her hand flashed in the firelight.
“B-brooke…? Wh-what? What is happening? Daisy…? Did you…?”
“’Tis not a sacrifice if it means nothing, Sir knight.”
He tried to struggle, gritting his teeth and grunting in his effort. Nothing happened. She came to him, touching his face with her fingertips.
“I’m giving you want you want, Ben. You’ll be with me forever. You will go into the earth and our farm will prosper. One day, I shall return to this same soil.” She smiled.
The blade was cold. And then all he felt was numb.
As his lifeblood flowed into the ground, raindrops began pattering down, falling upon his cheeks.
The old gods were pleased.
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