The Stolen Jewel
An Episodic Medieval Fantasy Romance
Kimberly A. Rogers
This is the third episode in The Stolen Jewel. Read from the beginning here.
The Monster she knew or the laughing madman who stole her. What sort of choice was that? A simple one he claimed but she knew better. She was the one who would have to live with the decision. She was the one who knew the people the consequences of her decision would fall upon. “What of my father?”
Duke Ronan looked down at her, amusement still crinkling his eyes, and shrugged. “I’m certain he’ll be more than willing to return you to Mauger.”
Etain clenched her hands into fists then blushed as he raised an eyebrow and lightly squeezed her wrists. She had forgotten he was holding onto her. Still, she permitted frost to enter her voice as she raised her chin. “It is very easy for you to make such a jest. It was not your lands and people that Mauger threatened to burn and enslave if I attempted to flee this marriage.”
“Mauger will not carry out his threat if your father can convince him that he had no foreknowledge of my actions, which he did not. And that whining weasel Mauger keeps as his enforcer will have no choice but to attest that you were not taken until after the caravan had left Haderyn’s borders.” The duke bent his knees, dropping just far enough so they could look each other in the eyes. “This is your choice, my lady. I will not make it for you. And your father is not here to push your hand.”
Her choice. Etain looked away from his intense gaze. Her choice. She scanned the courtyard below. Most of the people, humans and gryphons alike, were watching them, watching her. What had he told them? Did they know that he meant to take her as wife? Or were they simply watching to see what his captive would do? Her father would demand she surrender to Sir Grimbol and his master. But . . . her father was not here. And if he were stronger, he would not have surrendered her to Mauger or, at least, he would have given her the chance to run.
She studied Ronan again. Mad fool, yes, but he had dared to defy Mauger. He had dared to defy the Monster of Cymru in one of the most blatant ways possible. She still was unsure of whether that made him brave or completely insane. Her choice. For once, it would truly be her choice about the direction her life took from this moment forward. It could also be her doom. But could it be worse than the doom that awaited her as the wife of the Monster of Cymru?
Etain looked up, searching Ronan’s eyes. They still crinkled with that hint of humor that vexed her so but now she looked deeper. She searched for the signs that would give away his cruelty, his malice, his lust for power and women, but there was none. His brown eyes didn’t show her everything but she could see beyond the humor an eagerness of some type and something stronger, something that was missing even from her father’s gaze. She could not find a word to give to that elusive trait but somehow she knew that he would not be the abuser Mauger was known to be . . . could she trust Ronan?
Perhaps, which was more than she could trust other men who would have dared to steal her away or even the man he had stolen her from. And for now that was enough. Etain uncurled her fingers, allowing them to rest on his wrists, no longer resisting. She nodded once. “I choose you.”
He grinned. “Excellent.” Then he turned to the gryphons and raised his arm. The magnificent creatures stepped back as he shouted, “Filbert!”
Etain flinched slightly, resisting the urge to cover her ears in case he decided to bellow again. But then she was distracted by the shuffling figure emerging from the shadows—the simple grey surcoat of Shaddai’s priests was too short for the lanky frame of its wearer and ended just below his knobby knees, his legs looked rather like twigs covered in matted dark brown moss and his broad feet were shod in worn leather sandals. The priest cleared his throat, drawing her attention from his scrawny frame to his face. Large eyes stared back at her, so wide that he looked startled but she suspected his rheumy blue eyes wore an expression of constant surprise. His mouth was thin and puckered, his nose was long and hooked at the end, while his ears stuck out and his dark hair had receded so his forehead seemed overly long. He offered a jerky bow that reminded her of a hunting stork. “Your grace?”
Ronan released one of her wrists but kept a firm hold of the other. “Come here, Filbert. The lady has given her consent. We will wed.”
Filbert blinked. His rheumy eyes turned to Etain, staring wildly. His large Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “Her? When?”
“Now, Filbert.” The duke grinned, far too cheerful for a man whose own people were questioning his decision. “I’ll even ask Corydon to take you up for a brief tour of the citadel.”
The gryphon tiercel let out a loud screech that made the priest jump as though he were attempting to take flight or perhaps a child had pulled on his strings all at once. Etain could not help but think that neither the priest nor the gryphon was particularly pleased by Ronan’s offer. Filbert tugged at his surcoat, looking around wildly before his gaze once more returned to Etain. He looked her over, no doubt taking in her disheveled appearance, the rain had lightened to a steady drizzle but she probably still appeared half-drowned. “Perhaps the lady should change into-”
“Nonsense!” Ronan shouted jovially as he slapped the priest on the back of his shoulder with such force that the man bobbed awkwardly and flapped one arm to regain his balance. “None of this delaying and silly primping. We are simple, honest folk at heart. And this wedding shan’t be delayed a moment longer. There are witnesses aplenty and the sooner we complete the vows, the sooner we can seek shelter from the storm.”
The priest darted another nervous glance at Etain. She willed herself to present a strong and willing front. None could know that her knees quaked and threatened to give out as she allowed herself to wonder if she had made the right choice. She licked her lips then nodded. “Please. Let it be done without delay.”
She glanced at Ronan. This was her choice. She had given him her word when she chose him. She would not shirk it now. He was nodding to something the priest was saying but then he abruptly turned to her, the wide boyish grin from before back on his face. Then his grip on her wrist slid down so he gently cradled her hand in his, callouses making his touch rough but the pressure was light and would leave no hint of a bruise. “People of Aelwyd, hear me! This day I, Ronan of the house of Brynmor, do stand before you and in the sight of Shaddai to take as wife Etain of the house of Lugh.”
Her pulse was pounding so loudly that it became a dull roaring in her ears. She heard nothing that the priest said but everything Ronan said was as clear as if he were etching it onto her heart. Brown eyes held her gaze, amusement and something else flickering in their depths, as he rumbled, “Before Shaddai, I pledge to take you, Etain, as my wife. Through plenty and famine, joy and sorrow, sacrifice and reward, I will stand with you and in front of you as your shield. No harm will I allow to befall you if it is in my power to prevent it. I will give you my children, my lands, my every possession . . .” There was a pause but then he continued, completing the traditional vow, “and my heart.”
“My lady?” The priest’s voice squeaked a little, jarring her attention back to him and to the fact it was now her turn to pledge her life, her everything, to the strange man before her. He bobbed his head. “Repeat after me.”
Etain’s attention returned to the duke. His mouth was still curved by a lingering hint of the grin that made her want to smile back at him. She licked her lips then squared her shoulders and raised her chin, trying to look taller. Her voice was surprisingly steady as she recited the vows. “Before Shaddai, I pledge to take you, Ronan, as my husband. Through plenty and famine, joy and sorrow, sacrifice and reward, I will stand by your side. I shall keep your confidences and protect that which you entrust to my care—your lands, your possessions, your children, and your heart.”
“What is pledged before Shaddai may not be broken by any being. His blessings and grace shine down upon this marriage, may it bloom in love, prosperity, and children, and may the prosperity of your marriage spread to Aelwyd.”
She had done it. She had joined herself for life to the madman who dared to steal her away from that miserable caravan. Ronan’s grip on her hand tightened as he tugged her the scant step between them. His free hand touched the corner of her jaw and traced its line to her chin, making a shiver skitter down her spine. Fingers curling around her chin, he pushed until she titled her head back and then he captured her mouth in a kiss.
For a moment, just one thrilling moment, she lost herself to the kiss. But then the roaring of the crowd intruded on her senses, grating against her ears, and she stepped back, a fiery blush creeping up her neck and cheeks. Ronan maintained his grip on her hand, though. Her husband raised his free hand once more then shouted, “The feast has been laid in the hall. Let us enter and celebrate the return of our missing people and the arrival of my bride!”
The shouts climbed to a new deafening level as the gryphons added their own shrieks of delight. Ronan flashed her that grin of his and then he led her past the priest and across the walkway to a sturdy door too small for the gryphons to use. As they entered the corridor, Etain tried to keep track of the path her new husband chose but soon admitted defeat. Eventually they came to another door but when Ronan opened it, she gasped in unbidden delight at the sight of the large tub waiting only feet from the door. Steam rose in lazy plumes bearing the promise of the soothing embrace only a good bath could provide.
“I hope this means you will forgive me for making you stand in the rain for our wedding, my lady.”
Etain jumped then blushed. “My lord, I-”
“Ronan. We are married now, after all, and there’s no need to stand ceremony.”
“I didn’t know you knew how to stand on ceremony.”
As soon as the impulsive words slipped free, Etain wished them back. But Ronan tilted his head back and let out a hearty bark of laughter. “Oh yes, I think we’ll get on very well.” He grinned at her then bowed. “My lady, if you will forgive me, I must attempt to make myself look somewhat less disreputable before I return to your side. Clothes have been laid out for you once you have finished with your bath.”
He handed her a large key and then strode past the tub and the large bed beyond it to slip through a smaller door. It must have led to an antechamber since she caught the glimpse of a smaller tub before he pushed the door shut. Etain stared at the door until her stomach rumbled a complaint and she set her trembling fingers to undoing the laces of her soaked clothing. The tub and a change of clothes would set her physical appearance to rights. She was not so certain of what would straighten out the tangle of emotions she now felt within her breast. What path would her choice lead her down?
The Stolen Jewel Copyright © 2015 Kimberly A. Rogers and blog. All rights reserved. This story is a work of fiction and a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Illustration: “Stitching the Standard” by Edmund Leighton, 1911.