His lips were gentle against mine, moving slow, never asking for more until I offered it. I felt warmth fill me from the inside out. I pulled away with a small gasp. The hallway seemed to spin for a moment with us at its center. Amusement danced in his eyes making me embarrassed. I ducked my head.
“Lord Cadfael?” A voice asked softly. I jumped and tried to hide behind Lord Cadfael, but he held me at his side and pinched me to keep me still. I looked at his face and saw it smug, my lipstick marking his lips red like the cherries we had eaten minutes ago.
“Yes, what is it?”
“One of your guests, Lord Gidean, would like to continue his conversation with you before he retires for the night.”
“Hmph, tell him I shall be in my moss garden. Please escort Lady Sol to her future chambers and have the servants ready her to return to her father.”
The servant bowed, muttered understanding then turned on his heel and began to walk away. I spared a brief glance at Lord Cadfael. He smiled once more, kissed my forehead then released me. I ran to catch up with the servant, my bare feet sounding loud on the dry stone floor. My palms were wet with sweat and I rubbed them on my skirts, not liking the feeling it left on my skin. Being out of the water made me feel constantly dirty.
The servants were waiting patiently for me by playing a game with polished carved stone tablets. Already a sprawling design was laid out on the table looking like a starfish. I watched silently as one placed her last piece on the table matching its pattern to one already laid. “I win this time. How about a week of sweeping the receiving hall?” she said, but the others were barely paying attention. They had noticed me in the doorway. Looking guilty they stood abruptly nearly destroying the design.
“My lady,” they said in unison. I laughed at their frightened expressions.
“Calm down, I am not like the Lord. I will not punish you for having fun; in fact may I join you?” I said waving my hands at them. They looked silly staring at me in fear while I grinned at them. My father always said that my sense of humor was out of place, a trait that he said must have come from my grandfather long dead.
“My lady, it would be out of place for us to engage you in a crude game,” a short and squat woman said to me. Her hair was bound closely to her head making it look scandalously short. I giggled and dragged a spare chair up to the table.
“Nonsense, I was born a farm girl, which is lower than a house servant I might add. Just because Lord Cadfael wishes to marry me does n’t mean I am a different person. Only my status will change not me.” I stared at each one levelly. One woman, looking to be my age met my gaze head on then dropped a bag of tablets in front of me.
“Just because you’re from the fields doesn’t mean you can beat us.”
I smiled at her. “I will show you that a field’s hand is always better,” I said. She arched an eyebrow making us both smile. She thrust her hand across the table and I shook it.
“Sol,” I answered.
All the women around me relaxed and we settled into a new game, our hands flying as we fought to rid ourselves of tablets as fast as we could. Soon a design reminiscent of a tree emerged under the “clack” of our pieces as we set them down. I continued to smile and goad the other women, driving them to distraction until I emerged victorious. “Looks like a simple farm girl like me has won against well bred house servants.” I put a finger to my lips pretending to look demure as I thought of what to ask for. “What are your names?” They looked at me like I had sprouted an extra head. “For my win, I would like to know your names.”
They exchanged glances with each other and began to think they were not going to tell me when Cia spoke. “Well, you already know my name; this is Rina, Eve and Mari. The girl you saw earlier is Eve’s daughter Yolande.”
I remembered the girl, she had taken my Grace. Immediately I felt guilty. The hour was late and I had left my father to worry for my safety. I would probably receive another punishment. I shuddered at the thought of running shark pups out of the kelp fields.
Pushing the thought out of my head I smiled at them. “I am most pleased to meet you. Lord Cadfael says that I can return to my father.”
Eve opened up a hamper that had been pushed under the table. She lifted gossamer linen with the tips of her fingers and I gasped in longing. My skin tingled as I touched my Grace. “If you would allow us milady, we will prepare you to return to your father,” she said placing it on the table between us. Tears pricked my eyes and I nodded, my throat too tight to speak.
After a second bath I dressed myself in my Grace and smiled. The tension that had gathered within me released. Soon I would sleep in the protected waters of my father’s house.
It was Cia who led me to the door and I memorized the path we took so that I would find my way to the chambers once more. We hugged at the stairs before she hurried away, her skirts gripped tightly in her hands. Sighing I entered the water, feeling the cold currents wrap around my ankles. Shock brought by the difference in temperature between my skin and the water caused me to shiver briefly.
Gritting my teeth I threw my body out as far as I could into the water. Quickly my body adjusted and I took a deep inhalation of water. When I did not choke I knew that I was complete. I wasn’t confined to land anymore. I wanted to sing, swim as fast as I could, see the surface of the sea to gaze at the night sky.
I paused as a thought bothered me. How had Lord Cadfael known I had crossed the Forbidden Line? I had only told him that I had saved the man from drowning, I hadn’t even told my father. The water suddenly seemed warm as my body shivered with the coldness of fear. How had he known?
I broke through the water and dragged myself up the stairs quickly. Lord Cadfael was supposed to meet with Lord Gidean in his moss garden; I still remembered where it was.
The hallways were silent as the house slept. The only sound I heard were the soft smack of my wet feet upon the stone and the wild beating of my heart. I knew it was foolish of me to sneak through the house alone; I was trespassing now that I had been released from the company of his staff.
A small draft caused my wet clothes to cling to my skin and raise goosebumps. I briefly wondered where the term had come from. What was a goose anyway? Was it a creature like the hounds?
I imagined a fearsome creature with claws and fangs, red eyes that froze the heart and a growl that shook the world. Yes, only a creature like that could cause fear.
I came to an intersection of hallways and peeked around the corner then swiftly pulled back. Lord Cadfael had left his moss garden, his soft light steps fading down the hallway. I peeked again then slid around the corner and began to follow him.
He walked at an even pace, his hair decorations clicking as they were jostled. He held his back straight, not slouching as I was prone to do. His shoulders were broad leading to a thin waist where a decorative belt accented the yellow and green robe he wore. Like most nobles his robe was long going all the way to his feet making the illusion of a billowing tail.
I never understood why nobles lived above the water yet strived to maintain appearances of aquatic life. It was as if they more than anyone missed the land, not content to live with the god’s blessing. I remembered the longing in his voice as he asked about the mainland, so different from my casual curiosity of what lay beyond the Forbidden Line. Had he really sat on that cliff to paint the sunset or had he envisioned it so vividly as he lay in dreams?
Lord Cadfael opened a door and disappeared beyond it. When I came to the door it was open just a crack. I hesitated a moment, my ear pressed to the door. It was strangely quiet. I wavered on the threshold unsure of what lay beyond. Eventually I pushed the door open and leaned in. The room was empty of life with only statues decorating its center. A door way lay to my left and my right. Light illuminated the one to my right so I closed the door behind me and went towards it, my heels raised off the floor. A cloud of mist obscured my view of the room and the torches within looked like floating orbs of lesser suns through the thick warm mist.
Moisture collected quickly on my skin as I crouched, my back hugging the wall. For a moment I felt dizzy then it passed. I had seen a shadow move in the mist then settle. Gathering my courage I crawled through the mist reaching an area where it clung to the floor leaving the air clear. “Oh, I was wondering how long it would take you to come in,” Lord Cadfael said as he sat in a bathing tub. I bit back a gasp turned around and crawled back into the mist. I felt a hand on my back and turned to find him crouched over me draped in his Grace.
“I didn’t mean to disturb your bath,” I said turning my head away. I was so stupid to not recognize steam. I would definitely be chasing vermin through the fields if my father found out about this.
“Don’t go, I can hold off on my bath.”
“Your water will go cold milord.”
He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Just call me Vael, no milord, not Lord Cadfael, just Vael.” I couldn’t stop myself from smiling at the stress in his voice. His eyes widened in surprise. “You’re doing this on purpose aren’t you, you love seeing me like this.” I looked away a smile still on my lips.
“Maybe,” I said carefully. I glanced at him from the corner of my eye as I sat on the floor. “I actually wanted to ask you a question.”
“More questions, do you ever grow tired of asking them?”
I snorted. He sat back on his heels then waved a hand in concession. “Fine, ask your question.”
“How did you know I’ve been on the mainland?” I watched a myriad of emotions go through his face as he watched me silently. For a moment I thought he would lie to me or order me to leave when he took my wrist and helped me to stand.
“I… I had one of my guard follow you when it was found you had ventured away from our waters.” I slipped out of his embrace. He was well within his rights as a lord to send a guard after me, but I was still angry that someone had followed me. I did not like being spied upon any more than I liked being restrained.
“Why?” I demanded. I knew I was in the wrong and did not deserve to be angry, but I was. Who was he to invade my privacy, I was loyal to him. If I truly wasn’t I would not have returned even after being attacked by the Landwalkers.
Suddenly he grabbed me, framing my face with his hands. A strange light was in his eyes and my heart gave a jolt as I recognized it as desire. My body grew warm and a small sigh escaped my lips. I wanted him to kiss me. Even though I leaned in he did not. Instead he continued to stare at me with such intensity I felt I would burst into flames.
My hands reached up and cupped his hands. They felt soft and gentle, so unlike the fierce persona he projected to everyone but me. “Vael,” I breathed. How was he doing this to me? I had been so afraid of him for years, but these few moments that we had spent alone had my body rebelling against me. Why did I want to kiss him, why did I want to comfort him every time I saw sadness in his eyes?
I closed my eyes as I felt my heart tear in two. The pieces fell into the pit inside of me as tears welled in my eyes. My throat felt raw and my skin itched as if it had been scraped raw by stones. I had to find some way to escape. I was losing myself.
A small gasp escaped my lips before my throat closed up.
“Sol, are you alright?” Lord Cadfael asked gently. I shook my head, the room had started to spin and I clutched the closest thing to me, Cadfael. Suddenly he swung an arm under my legs and lifted me off the floor.
“Put me down,” I mumbled. I felt so cold and my hands and feet felt numb. I could feel the warmth of Lord Cadfael’s chest slowly seep into me but it did nothing to erase the chill I felt. Distantly I could hear him mumble incoherent words to me. I let my head drop back as my strength was leeched away by the cold. I just needed to sleep.
My eyelids fluttered open for a second. Lord Cadfael was staring intently with so much concern I felt my heart ache. His lips formed words then a whisper reached my ears; I love you.
I heard a beautiful voice singing to me. I opened my eyes to find my mother standing over me with the late Lady Fiamma. They both smiled gently while the unknown voice continued to sing. “Sol,” my mother said touching my cheek. “You have a warrior’s heart and a mother’s love. Do not be afraid of change.”
Lady Fiamma touched my hand. “Sol, do not fear Vael. His love for you is genuine. Please take care of him.”
The two faded away and I woke up.
The first thing I noticed was that I was not underwater. The second thing was that I was on a large bed amid soft pillows covered by a thick fur blanket. The voice was still singing an old song about the sea. I remembered my mother singing it to me whenever I was sick. She would wrap me in her arms, tuck my head under her chin then hold my hand as she gently rocked me to sleep.
I turned my head to the side and saw my father reclining in a chair asleep. A half empty bowl sat on his lap threatening to tip over. I had never noticed before how frail he had become since my mother died. His hair had lost its luster and was beginning to gray at the roots. He had tried his best to protect me after my mother had died; now it was my turn to take care of him.
I tried to sit up but collapsed as the room spun freely with me at its center. My head began to pound and I pressed my palms against my eyes. Why was I sick now of all times? I hated being sick, I hated being confined to a bed while my family hovered over me offering advice when they knew I couldn’t get away.
I gritted my teeth and took a deep breath. The room came to a standstill and I struck the bed with the bottom of my fist. Suddenly I became aware that the singing had stopped. The bed shifted and suddenly Lord Cadfael was sitting beside me. He rested a hand near mine, our fingers barely brushing each other. “I’m glad you’re awake, we were afraid you would not,” he whispered.
“How long have I slept?” I had only now realized how weak I was. My body was sore, every movement a struggle against myself.
Lord Cadfael slipped his fingers under mine then gently squeezed them. “A day and a half you have been in and out of consciousness. Several times it looked like you had stopped breathing then you would magically start again.”
Shadows lay under his eyes making him look older. Had he stayed by my side during that time worrying about me? Was I so special?
“Did you sleep at all?” He chuckled and shook his head.
“Why do you always ask questions? The first thing out of your mouth was a question, not hello.”
I snorted in response. “Well wouldn’t you want to know what happened to you if you woke in a strange bed with no strength?”
“See, another question. Can you ever be content not knowing something?”
“No, never; the purpose of my entire existence is to annoy you with questions.”
“Well, then I have another question for you. Would you like salmon eggs and rice or eel?”
I couldn’t stop the laugh from leaving my lips. He smiled for me and my heart skipped a beat. I had never admitted to myself that Lord Cadfael was handsome. Most of the time I had not dared to look in his eyes in fear of punishment. Despite this habit I had maintained over the years I found myself wanting to break it. I wanted to look at him; I wanted him to look at me.
“The salmon eggs,” I said lowering my eyes. I stopped myself from flinching when he ran the back of his fingers down my cheek. I had not realized they were wet until I saw a tear drop glisten on his finger. Crying was only possible when we were on dry land. I wiped my own eyes free of the salty liquid feeling embarrassed.
What must he think of me? I had hounded him in his own home, yelled at him then collapsed for nearly two days and now I was crying. I felt my face warm as more tears formed then spilled over like molten rivers. Then Lord Cadfael did something that surprised me, he kissed my tears.
My hand was cradled against his chest warmed by his body heat while his hot breath tickled my cheeks as he kissed each one then lingered over my mouth. I tilted my head and blew my breath on them. “Kiss me,” I whispered.
“Finally, something that is not a question,” he chuckled. I curled the hand he cradled into a fist and gripped his robes.
Suddenly his lips were on mine hot and demanding. I tasted the salt on them from my tears and sucked his bottom lip to clear away every hint of it. When he tried to pull away I bit him lightly then ran my tongue over the bruise making him gasp into my mouth. “Sol,” he groaned, his lips hovering over mine for a second before I quick like a shark kissed him. “Sol, please stop,” he gasped between kisses.
“I should say that I agree with him.”
My father’s voice made me start and I pulled my lips away from Lord Cadfael. I realized my free hand was tangled into his hair holding him hostage above me. Half of his chest hovered over mine heaving like he had been swimming for a long time. One of his hands and found its way beneath my shoulder while the other cradled my captured hand to his waist.
I opened my mouth in horror. My father had just caught me kissing the lord of our waters in bed. “P-papa,” I stammered shaking my hand to free it from Lord Cadfael’s hair. He crossed his arms and frowned at me, but something glittered in his eyes. “I… I… you’re awake.”
My father turned his gaze on Lord Cadfael as the latter sat up, my hand still in his. Something completely male passed between them and my father smiled. “What… why are you smiling?” Lord Cadfael was now smiling as well. Their instant male bonding struck a chord with me and I pushed my body to sit up ignoring the dizziness and bile that threatened to send me down. Both men reached out to help me and I pushed their hands away. “No,” I snapped. “Tell me what happened between you two or I’m, so help me, I’m getting out of this bed and leaving.” My father sighed and rolled his eyes upward while Lord Cadfael smiled.
“Your father has given me his blessing to marry you.”
“Oh, so you weren’t planning on marrying me just to anger my father.”
“Sol, if I had known how much you two love each other I would not have made it so difficult for him to propose.”
“Papa!” I screeched. I looked at both of them feeling my heart throw itself at my ribs. I didn’t love Lord Cadfael, right? My emotions felt so confused and my mind was reeling from the kissing and sitting.
“I just want you to be happy Sol, and if it means to be with our lord then these tired bones will allow it.” Another look passed between them and Lord Cadfael nodded. I ground my teeth feeling irritated. Could they bond on their own time?
My father bowed to Lord Cadfael then left the room pausing once to look back at me with… pride? As soon as the door shut behind him I turned a full force glare on Lord Cadfael. He looked taken aback for moment then patted my hand gently. “Angelfish, what’s wrong?”
“Don’t angelfish me,” I said trying to take my hand away from him. He held on tightly refusing to let me go. Miffed I let him continue to hold it. “What was that all about?”
The corners of his mouth teased up into a smile and I snorted. He planted a chaste kiss on the back of my hand. “Sol… while you slept your father and I got to know each other. Did you know he stormed in here the dawn after you did not return home? Though alone, he looked ready to take down all of my guard.”
“I should apologize to him.” I felt guilty about making my father worry. I was all he had; like me he was an only child. He had buried his parents long before I had been born and many of his cousins had passed away during encounters between the Landwalkers.
I felt Lord Cadfael shift on the bed, but didn’t look up until he touched my chin with the tips of his fingers. “You have nothing to apologize for. You are still sick. If you hadn’t come to my chambers you probably would have collapsed out in the open. Who knows what predators could have snatched you?”
“Are you trying to comfort me?”
“Yes, is it working?” I threw a pillow at him. Before I could throw another he caught my wrist and kissed me again. “Let me get you lunch.” He quickly left the bed leaving a warm spot. I threw the second pillow at him, it clipping the back of his head as he opened the door. There was a soft thud as his nose collided with the wood. He turned to look at me while clutching his nose then shook his head smiling. “Behave,” he said then he was gone.
I wasted no time in scooting into the warm spot left on the bed. The smell of his cologne lingered in the sheets and on my skin. Secretly I felt pleased to be covered in his scent though I would deny it up and down if asked. “Drag me in a whirlpool,” I whispered as I settled back into the remaining pillows. I felt exhausted.
What had gone through his mind when I had interrupted his bath? His mind was closed to me. It was a world I could never fully know, but did he want me to know it? I had never spent much time around the men of my pod. Many had tried to court me, but none had interested me. My father would say I was too young for love, that it would come when I was ready. Was I falling in love with Lord Cadfael? Was I ready? Did he love me or was it some strange fascination with me?
I burrowed deeper into the sheets as I felt the cold creep into me once more. I heard the door open then close gently. Peeking out from the corner I saw Cia holding a wooden tray. She set it down on a low table before drawing back the blankets from my head. She blinked at me in surprise then took a step back. “Sol, what are you doing in the lord’s bed?”
“It’s nothing bad,” I said quickly thinking she might interpret my presence in Lord Cadfael’s bed as a forbidden tryst. “I just woke up here, I’ve been sick for nearly two days.”
“You have?” she said softly. She looked concerned, her hand splayed over her heart as she leaned over me. “I’ve been off duty since the night of the banquet; if I’d known you were here I would have stayed in the household.” She turned away then set the tray on the edge of the bed. “I’m assuming this is for you. It seemed odd that the lord would ask to take his meal in the bedroom.”
While I ate the salmon eggs I spoke with Cia about the household. It had been built long before the great flood that had sunk half the land. Much of it was deep underwater and was used as living quarters for servants. Some parts were inaccessible do to collapses and ghosts.
The thought of ghosts made me shiver. I had heard rumors that they haunted the waters searching for the sky and the ones they left behind on land. Suddenly I remembered my dream of my mother and Lady Fiamma. Was it possible for there to be ghosts or was it my inner self trying to warn me that somehow I had fallen in love?
“Cia, what do you think of Lord Cadfael?”
She lowered her eyes and twisted her robes. “The lord? Though he is filled with such rage, he has never once struck us in anger. He can be just and kind. I haven’t seen him smile since his mother died, but the rumor is that he’s smiled for you.” She brought her eyes up and finally looked at me, her emotions guarded.
“He has smiled with me; I didn’t know he hid it.”
“He has chosen you to be his wife. Do not squander that privilege. His first wife Lady Ai was caught with his rival Lord Gidean. We had never seen our lord so angry. She did not fear nor respect him. They were constantly arguing. Eventually they divorced and she married Lord Gidean. She was with him for the banquet.
I remembered the suppressed anger that had turned to sadness Lord Cadfael had when I had entered his study on the night of the banquet. He had looked so lost when I came through the door. I tried to picture the woman Lady Ai was but failed to remember all but one woman’s face; the Illustria of Meridia.
“Was his second wife unfaithful?”
“No, she claimed the lord was insane and feared for her safety. Her father eventually sent for her and the marriage was annulled through a proxy. Lord Cadfael was said to look angry enough to strangle the man. He did love his wives, if only a little,” Cia sighed. She collected my tray and bowl then stood up. “I must return to my duties while you rest. We will speak later Sol.”
“I’d much like that,” I said and meant it.