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Warrior's Heart Chapter 3

3


The most precious thing a father protects is his little girl’s heart


Ayleth awoke to cooking smells. Galen’s croaky high voice sounded from downstairs. “The black and yellow one is my favorite, Da. Kyla says she’ll trade it to me for my green shooter. Should I trade her?”

“That’s up to you,” Ren said. He was surely smiling, if the tone of his voice was any indication. Ayleth crawled out of her bed. Plates clanked.

“Remember it won’t stay small. It will have to live out in the barn with the other hens, and one day it will be on this table.”

“But glass marbles are easily replaced,” Galen argued. At eight years old he was already very smart, and the spitting image of Ren, with his bright green eyes and dark hair.

Ayleth joined her brothers at the table.

“I think I’d like the chick,” Galen decided. “Can I go to Kyla’s after breakfast?”

Ren set down a platter of eggs he’d been frying with bacon. He nodded to Ayleth, but said nothing. A chill settled into her. Ren was home. It felt unnatural—unbearable. She ate silently, Ren surely still angry with her, and tried to remain invisible as she attempted to accept what she couldn’t change.

She couldn’t imagine any argument would convince him to allow her to see Aarin again. After the breakfast dishes were tidied away, Dorian and Galen ran out the door for Kyla’s house, and Ayleth headed back to bed. Ren didn’t even try to wake her.

A long day—the kind that preceded many other long days as time slowed to a crawl and threatened to stand still. As the sunlight faded in the west, Ayleth put her book down. Galen and Dorian were in bed already, exhausted after playing all day with the new chick Galen named Lucy.

After placing Lucy in the coop with the other chicks, Ayleth had taken her book out to the porch to read in the fading light while Ren cleaned the supper dishes and tucked the boys into their bed.

Her heart pulled at her mind, begging her to just run into the woods and down to the river. She doubted Aarin was waiting for her, but just the possibility made her almost willing to take a punishment—if it meant seeing him again.

No matter how her heart tugged though, her legs would not comply. Her palms were sweaty and her mind agitated. Aarin was correct; the summer was over. Carefree days in the sun, afternoons at the river telling stories, and nights making love in the barn were all a thing of the past. She closed her eyes. Except those things had become all she desired.

“Ayleth,” Ren said, exiting the cottage to stand behind her, “come to the garden with me.”

She got up and followed him to a wood bench. He patted the seat and waited for Ayleth to sit next to him.

He sighed and leaned forward, elbows on knees, with his head bowed. “I’m sorry I was gone so long,” he finally said. “I failed in my duties and am to blame for all of this. I sent Mairi away because of me, Ayleth, not because of you.”

“But why?” she asked. “Why did you make her leave?”

“Because I didn’t love her and both of us deserved to be free. I realized as much when I was in Andruain, but wouldn’t have had the resolve to do anything about it if she hadn’t forced my hand.” He turned to face her. “You’re a good girl, Ayleth. I don’t want you to think I’m angry with you, because I’m not. No matter what you did, Mairi should never have thrown you out of the house. It was poor judgment on her part.”

“She was angry with me after I came in late. She started screaming and throwing things all around, scaring Dorian and Galen. I was afraid too, and when she demanded I get out, I went to the barn. Next morning I tried to explain I’d only fallen asleep by the river, but she wouldn’t hear me. She said I…wasn’t even your bastard, but someone else’s and she didn’t want me in her house anymore.”

“That was a cruel thing for her to say to you.”

“I made my bed in the hayloft and only came into the house to do my chores. She hardly spoke to me after that. It was so scary my first week out there and Aarin offered to keep me company.” She stared down at her feet and her voice quivered. “I’m sorry I made you angry, Da. I shared my bed with him because I care for him deeply, not to make you upset. I never thought you or Mairi would care either way.”

He sighed. “I know it probably looked like we didn’t care, but that simply isn’t true.”

“Da? May I see Aarin again if you’re not angry anymore?”

“No,” he said. “It isn’t a good idea.”

“But we care for each other.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“What if we married? He already said he’d marry me.”

He stood from the bench and appeared to want to pace, before he turned to face her again. “You cannot marry him. No matter how you beg me or what you threaten, I cannot give you my permission.”

“Whose permission do I need?” she asked. Ren might be skirting around the truth, but Aelith was determined to get it out of him. “How did I come to you?”

“You were given to me almost thirteen years ago to keep safe.”

“More likely to keep secret from someone’s husband or wife.” Play on his pity—that ought to get him to spill a little.

“You aren’t illegitimate, Ayleth. Mairi only said that to upset you and because she didn’t know the truth. Your parents were married when you were born, and are still. High-born citizens of Andruain.”

“I’m assuming you aren’t going to tell me who they are, or you would have already.”

He sighed, shaking his head. “I can’t.”

“Am I like them?”

Ren smiled and put his hand on her shoulder. “Yes,” he said. “Exactly like them.” He took his seat next to her and pulled her into his broad chest. “You’re as smart and strong as your mother. It’s her magic you have, you know, not mine.”

“She’s a mage?”

“She isn’t third tier like me, but she’s very talented.”

“Do I look like her?”

“No.” He chuckled. “There can be no question who sired you. You’re the spitting image of your father.”

“Is he also a mage?”

“No, but he’s one of the finest men I know—a man of great heart.”

“Have you known them long?”

“Aye,” Ren said, his voice sad. “A very long time. Two finer people I’ve never met, save perhaps my own parents.”

“I don’t understand why they didn’t want me.”

Ren took a deep breath and let it out.

Perhaps Ayleth had given the impression she preferred her real parents to him. She hoped not.

“I think they feel this is the safest place for you. We made the decision many years ago, when Andruain was fractured by civil war. They wanted you where my family could protect you, and I was the obvious choice because I already loved you.” He squeezed her tight—the way he had when she was a girl. She missed his arms—the way they could quiet any restlessness that gnawed her mind or spirit. “I was there when you were born, you know. I held you when you were just moments old, naked and wrinkled. I washed you and wrapped you in blankets and handed you to your mother. I’d never held a baby before.”

Ayleth giggled and wrapped her arms around his waist.

“Your hair was the softest thing I’ve ever touched and your eyes were so big and dark. I fell in love with you the moment I saw you. We used to walk around town together with nowhere to go—you wrapped in a blanket, in my arms.”

A tear rolled from her eye, and then more followed, his linen shirt absorbing them. When she sniffled he pulled her chin up to look at her. “Hey now, why the tears?”

“I love you too, Da,” she wept. “I don’t want to leave you.”

“Why would you think you had to leave me?”

“I heard you tell Mairi that they would probably take me away from you now.”

He wiped her cheek with his thumb. “I’ll do whatever I must to make certain that doesn’t happen .”

“What if they do want to take me back?”

“Well, I’ll just have to beg, then, won’t I?” He smiled to her and then clutched her head so she could hear his heartbeat. “But I don’t think that will happen.”

“Are you going to tell them about Aarin?”

“I have to. It would be better if I was honest from the beginning and they have a right to know.”

“You’re leaving again?”

“Shortly.”

“Will you speak on my behalf?”

“I am to blame, along with Mairi’s careless words. You’ve nothing to fear, dear girl.”

“I mean about Aarin. Will you ask them if I may marry him?”

Ren sighed. “For what little good it will do, I will say that you care for him.”

She threw her arms around his neck. “Thank you, Da.”

*

For fifteen days, Ayleth was never without her shadow. She resented Ren’s distrust, wondering how he could get anything done when he was so busy watching her. Did he expect she’d run away? But then she learned why he kept such a close eye on her every moment. As soon as he had proof she hadn’t conceived, he relaxed. He sent for his parents, Rhiana and Logan, to care for his home in Hawksrill while he returned to Andruain.

With the time of his departure fast approaching, Ayleth made one last desperate plea, playing on his weakness. “Da, since I’m never going to be allowed to see Aarin again after you leave, may I say goodbye to him now?”

He glanced up from a paper in his hands. Voice steady, he said, “Alright. How about now?”

“What?”

“Come, I want to talk to him.” He grabbed her hand and led her from the house. Toward Aarin’s shack, they went, Ayleth growing more nervous as they approached. “You aren’t going to hit him, are you?”

“No.” He didn’t say any more than that.

When they reached the door, Ren strode right up and knocked loud. Meg, Aarin’s older sister, answered, smiling. “Hello, Ayleth. Mr. Travers.”

“Is Aarin about?” Ren asked.

“He’s out back, chopping wood.”

Ayleth pled for Meg to say anything, but cowed by Ayleth’s father, she didn’t. Ren dragged Ayleth around the house, to the yard.

Aarin placed a log on the chopping block. Sweat glistened on his bare back as he hefted the axe. Ren’s heavy footfalls stomped through the yard and Aarin turned to see who approached. His eyes went wide with fear and he took two steps backward. The axe fell from his hand, landing in the grass. “Sir.” He said.

Ren halted his advance. Ayleth’s heart pounded, fearing what her father would do. While she’d been trying to trap him by playing on his pity, he’d turned her game around on her and caught her in a trap of his own. The victory belonged to him—all that was left was to see what it would cost her.

“My daughter incessantly begged me to see you until my mind could no longer take it.”

An exaggeration. She’d only asked a few times, knowing he wasn’t ready to negotiate until his anxiety ebbed.

“She has become unreliable and her duties suffer from her constant preoccupation.”

He was toying with his prey, she realized—not her, but Aarin.

“The only sensible choice for me is to grant her outrageous request so that she may again be productive. You may see one another again, but only in public. You are not to be alone behind closed doors for even a moment.

Aarin chanced a glance at Ailiff—perhaps trying to read whether it was a joke of some sort.

“And…” Ren continued, his voice stern like the baron’s—authoritative and unyielding. “If either one of you puts a hand upon the other in an intimate way… I’ll kill you. Not her… you!”

Ren reached into his pocket and produced a leather pouch. With a jingle, he threw it upon the chopping block. “Keep that safe for me, will you?”

“What is it?” Aarin asked.

“Your weregeld.”

Ayleth’s throat tightened, threatening to cut off her air. Cruelty.

Aarin’s expression changed from fear to anger. He stood up to his full height—not close to Ren’s. “I don’t need anyone to remind me of my worth. Nineteen crowns, payable to Baron Ainsley in the event of my unnatural death.”

Tears welled in Ayleth’s eyes. Too late, she realized Ren’s game. Well played. Aarin wouldn’t want anything to do with her after bringing his life’s value into question.

Aarin stood his ground, scrawny chest held out. “Keep your coins, sir. I won’t give you cause to flay me and I’ll have her home before dark.” To Ayleth, he said, “Fancy a walk, miss?”

Ayleth searched Ren’s face, not certain whether he ever intended to give his permission. Sternness covered his façade but for a moment, the corners of his mouth turned up slightly before he stifled his smile. He gave a miniscule nod of his head, as if to say “go on.”

When Ren turned and left, Ayleth stared at Aarin for several long moments. Silence overpowered her, crippling her vocabulary and slaying her voice.

“I missed you,” Aarin said. And everything felt back to normal—his smile, their eyes locked on each other’s, and their hands reaching out to clasp.

“I thought for sure he wouldn’t let me see you again.” Ayleth couldn’t bring herself to feel happy, though she knew she ought to. “I guess he’s more reasonable than either of us guessed.”

Aarin placed his hand on his chest. “I thought he was going to kill me. Gods, Ayleth, my heart is still pounding like I ran here from the castle.”

“He shouldn’t have said that awful thing. He wouldn’t really hurt you.”

“Probably not,” Aarin said. “He just wants me to remember my place and keep my hands to myself. I can respect that.” His eyes scrutinized his feet. “I shoulda in the first place.”

Changing the subject, Ayleth patted Aarin’s hand. “Are we going for a walk or not?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “Where do you want to go?”

Ayleth smiled, jingling Ren’s purse of coins. “The market?”

“Let me get dressed.”

*

When Gran and Granddad Logan arrived from Mist a few days later, the little house on the edge of Hawksrill felt again like a happy home. Long evenings with Grandad Logan and his guitar weren’t allowed when Mairi ruled the roost and Ayleth missed them terribly. Unfortunately, Ren insisted the children hurry off to bed early, just after dinner and the music and wine would have to wait for another time. Ayleth kissed cheeks and climbed up to her loft without argument. As soon as Ren left, Gran would make time to spin tales for Ayleth and the boys. If there was anything the old woman liked more than spending time with her little ones, she’d never mentioned it.

Ayleth lay awake in her bed while the adults talked well into the night. When had she become an eavesdropper? Guilt-ridden, she listened to what she knew she wasn’t meant to hear.

“It isn’t bad enough you’ve only just returned, you’re going back?” Gran’s voice betrayed her fear.

“Caution, son,” Granddad Logan said.

“I’m always careful,” Ren replied. “I’m familiar with the clime in Andruain. It wasn’t long ago we fought by the king’s side. Now we must hide within his kingdom.”

“King Aethan is not our enemy, Ren,” Gran said. She always had a way of speaking that broadcasted her motherliness. “The people of Andruain want to feel safe. It is a king’s duty to give his people security.”

“But we’re the ones that keep them safe!” Ren replied. “Aethan sides with us!”

“War and fear are powerful things,” Granddad Logan said. “The northern kingdom has known nothing but war for generations and a man raised to fight does not easily lay down his sword.”

“Or his gun,” Ren interjected.

“True enough.” Granddad Logan’s voice got quieter. “They know our vulnerabilities. Are we going to forfeit the whole of Andruain, though? We have family there and friends.”

“Why can’t we turn our backs upon a kingdom of religious fanatics and bloodthirsty nobles?” It was probably Ren who slammed the table downstairs. Ayleth jumped and he continued. “How long have we bled for his cause and called his war ours? Now, cultists and fear-mongers spread lies that tear into the very fabric of a long-standing alliance—one forged in our blood.”

“Ren,” Granddad Logan said, “I know how you feel…”

“Do you?” Ren interrupted. “Your blood! And Mother’s and mine—left on a field in Andruain, for what? We were the ones who walked away. What of those whose bones remain?”

Gran spoke, her voice soothing and calm. “What should we do? Kill everyone who doesn’t see things our way? We are not without allies. Aethan resists the zealots and their teachings but is afraid to outlaw religion, lest he be named a tyrant king.”

“Thirty women and children, dead in a prayer school,” Ren said. “No one will believe we weren’t involved.”

“What did you find?” Granddad Logan asked. “Was it as we feared?”

“Wolves,” Ren said, spitting the words out like sour milk. “Four of them dead amidst a schoolhouse of carnage. Up by Cardain.”

“So far north?” Wherever Cardain was, Gran’s worry struck Ayleth, deep in the stomach.

“I will have Thayne and his boys meet you in the capitol,” Logan said.

“No, Father,” Ren said. “I’m going for personal reasons this time. With Mairi gone, I need to remain here with my children.” There was a moment of silence. “I’m no longer going to be able to guard the western front. You’ll have to find someone else.”

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