Fera returned the next two mornings, staying only a few minutes to set down his tray. He no longer shouted when she opened the curtains but he didn’t really talk to her either. Still, she looked forward to seeing him, even if it were only for a moment and though he cared nothing for her.
On the third morning Henry stopped her at the door. He stooped over her, a thin eyebrow raised over a sunken eye. Fera frowned up at him, expecting trouble.
‘Wait a moment,’ he said in a croak that echoed though the hall. He disappeared behind a tapestry, returning with a basket filled with bandages, ointments and dressings. He placed it on her tray. ‘The physician says he needs his wounds anointed and his bandages changed every day, particularly the one around his wrist. He fears it’s infected, but Lord Tyron won’t let anyone touch him.’ A shadow of sorrow passed over his face as he pushed the door open for her. ‘I’ve known Lord Tyron since he was a boy. Help him.’
Fera nodded, surprised. The door shut behind her, snapping off the light. She set down the tray and opened the curtains. Lord Tyron’s breathing changed but he didn’t budge. Fera gazed at his bare back, his bronze skin gleaming in the light. She had a host of tasks to complete this morning and Analise would punish her if they weren’t done, but she no longer cared. There were more important things. Fera watched Lord Tyron’s gentle breaths, quietly admiring the contours of his muscles across his back and shoulders, aching to touch him. She took up the basket of bandages and sat on the edge of his bed.
She felt Lord Tyron stiffen, heard his breath catch. The bed sank as he rolled over. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’
Fera didn’t respond, keeping her back to him.
He sat up with a growl and seized her arm. Fera looked at him with a start. His eyes were bloodshot, his cheeks drawn and his hair hung around his face in a greasy curtain. He dropped his gaze to the basket and tightened his mouth. ‘You presume too much. I want you to leave.’
Fera just stared at him, heart thumping in her chest.
He threw her arm away. ‘I said, get out!’
When she still didn’t move, he leapt to his feet with a roar. Fera sat frozen, head bowed, as he went about destroying his room: punching walls, tipping over furniture, throwing things. The stench of old urine stung her nose as his chamber pot hit the floor with a crash.
The door opened ajar. ‘Lord Tyron?’ came Henry’s small voice.
‘Out, old man!’ The door clicked shut. Lord Tyron turned on Fera, his eyes flashing. ‘And you!’ Fera reeled back as he loomed over her, pushing his face so close to hers she could feel his hot breath against her face. ‘See what I’ve become? Nobody should have dealings with me. I can’t fight. I can barely even pull up my pants. Much less run a kingdom.’
Straightening, he swung around his stump, glaring at it in disgust. ‘Look at this! Nobody should live like this. I should have died out on that field like a proper knight. Not left to live the life of a cripple.’ He spat on the floor. ‘I’ve become everything I hate—half a man.’
Fera glared up at him, tears swelling in her eyes. Is that what he thought of her? Half a person? Did he hate her too? Bandages rolled across the floor as she sprang to her feet. She jabbed her finger into his chest, then tugged down her scarf so he could see her scar. She gasped and coughed and made weird noises in her throat as she tried to vent her outrage.
How dare he! Self-pity, self-loathing, self-indulgence—she had never had the luxury. Nobody cared that she woke up sweating and crying. Nobody cared that she had been raped so brutally she still ached deep inside. Nobody cared that her parents had been murdered right in front of her eyes or how she struggled day in and day out to survive. He lost an arm? She lost her whole life!
Fera bared her teeth, fists clenched at her side as her fury washed over her in waves. Lords! They knew nothing.
Lord Tyron stared at her, aghast, speechless that she should dare to be so forward. No matter how hard Fera tried she would never make him understand, she could never make anybody understand, and it infuriated her. She would have given anything to get her voice back and shout out her pain to the rooftops, even her right arm.
She turned on her heel and stormed out.
Fera threw herself into her duties, but her fury didn’t last long and all too soon regret and fear ate away at her. By late morning her stomach had knotted into an anxious ball and she was trembling so hard her skin prickled with cold sweat. What had she done? She had overstepped her place. What would Lord Tyron do? Would he throw her out? Would he punish her? She should go back and bow her head in apology like the good submissive servant she had always been.
Fera hunched low, bunching her shoulders tightly against her neck as she scrubbed the floor. No. Just don’t see him again. Keep yourself hidden away. Work hard with your head down, arse up and hopefully it’ll all be forgotten.
But it wasn’t to be. It was three days later when Lord Tyron seeked her out. It was a warm sunny day, the keep filled with the noise of servants hard at work: barrows rattled along the cobblestones, horses whickered and stomped in the stables, there was the murmur of low conversation as men and women crossed the courtyard. Bees buzzed from blossom to blossom in the keep’s garden as Fera pushed through the bushes, searching for strawberries.
‘Miss Fera,’ came Henry’s croak. Fera started, dropping her basket. Strawberries rolled everywhere. Red-faced, she hastily bent to pick them up. ‘Leave them. Lord Tyron wants to see you.’
Trembling, Fera followed the old manservant up the stairs, head lowered as she gazed at his heels. This was it. Lord Tyron would throw her out for sure. Panicked thoughts chased each other in a circle in her head: where to live, how to earn money, who to trust. How would she survive?
Glimpsing the room as she entered, she folded her hands respectfully in front of her and bowed her head. Henry pulled the door closed behind her. The room was so different she almost hadn’t recognised it. Light reached the darkened corners, the floor had been scrubbed and all the broken furniture had been replaced, polished and new. The big four-poster was neatly made with new satin sheets. And the smell was gone.
‘Fera,’ came Lord Tyron’s voice. She looked up, startled. He knows my name. He was standing by the window, looking out, silhouetted against the light. ‘Fera Louise Catrell. Daughter to Frederick and Louise Catrell. Farmers.’ He turned to face her. Her heart skipped a beat. It was the Lord Tyron she had fallen in love with: strong, beautiful, regal. He had bathed and shaved and was fully dressed in a velvet tunic and a pair of beige britches, the ends tucked into his leather boots. The end of his right sleeve had been tied neatly around his stump. His hair was washed and combed and hung in curls over his shoulders. His green eyes gleamed into hers. ‘Both her parents murdered by the barbarians,’ he continued. ‘She, herself, raped and tortured and left for dead, her throat slit from ear to ear, so deep nobody thought she’d live. Come to Appelwhite Keep for refuge.’ Fera stood frozen, not knowing what to say. There was nothing she could say. He lifted an eyebrow. ‘Surprised? Didn’t think I would care to find out who you were?’ The corner of his mouth twitched, threatening a smile. ‘The block-headed slattern who dared disobey me?’
He left the window and approached her. Fera looked up at him. He was smiling at her—and it was beautiful. Heat swept up from the soles of her feet to the top of her head. Her knees buckled. The room spun. Then he put his hand on her shoulder and it took all her effort to keep upright.
‘I was a weak fool,’ he said. ‘And I’m sorry.’ She gazed into his eyes, unable to look away. His hand was so big and warm and it sent little zaps of wonderfulness through her body. ‘No longer will you be scrubbing floors and pots and pans. Now you will be relegated to the great hall, tending to myself and my men, and of course any Lady who should visit these parts. You will also earn a wage and no longer sleep with the rest of the servants. You’ll have your own room.’ He released her. ‘What do you say to that?’
Fera opened her mouth, shut it. It was all so overwhelming. For a moment she was at a loss at how to respond, her mind whirling. She dipped into a low curtsy. Lord Tyron laughed and Fera’s heart pounded at the sound of it. She smiled back.
Her room was a level below Lord Tyron and his knights and on the other side of the keep. It was basic, little more than a nook with no door, but for the first time in her life she had privacy and it was Lord Tyron’ s gift. She no longer had to deal with Cook Weira or Analise. Now she answered to Henry. Every day she tended to Lord Tyron, cleaning his room, drawing his bath and when she served him meals he would always look at her and smile.
But rarely anything more than that.
Like a good lord and gentleman, he kept her at arm’s length. Only once did he meet her out in the garden for a brief chat, to see how she was fairing and if she were enjoying her new quarters. She could feel the other servants’ eyes on her as they strolled together. She heard their whisperings, knew the rumours; it wasn’t proper for a simple maid to be treated so familiarly by a lord. Fera ignored them. Let them be jealous.
As she gazed up at him amid the flowers, her heart swollen to bursting, she couldn’t help but feel a little heartsick. Didn’t he care for her at all?
‘What’s wrong?’ he said, frowning, his hair gleaming in the sunlight. ‘You look a little sad.’
Fera shrugged and turned her head, willing herself not to cry.
Lord Tyron watched her a moment, then took her chin, forcing her to look up at him. He gazed down on her, his eyes dark with passion as he stroked her cheek with his thumb. ‘The last thing I want is for you to be sad.’ And he kissed her on the forehead.
Later that night Fera sat on her pallet, touching her cheek where he touched her, touching her forehead where he kissed her. She felt so hot and agitated. Fire blazed between her legs, her breasts ached. She couldn’t take anymore!
Dressed in only her shift, she slipped on her shoes and padded lightly through the keep. It was dark and quiet, most asleep except for the guards patrolling the walls. It was a big castle and she climbed several stairwells and passed innumerable doors. Grabbing at her arms, she picked up her pace, anxious she should be discovered.
She stared at Lord Tyron’s door, trembling, heart pounding so hard she found it difficult to breathe. At least she was alone. Henry no longer sat at his door. With Lord Tyron well again he no longer needed to be at his master’s beck and call.
Fera pushed the door open, wincing as it creaked, and slipped inside. Moonlight streamed through the open window, though she had no need of the light, knowing his room too well. She tiptoed over and stood beside his bed. She held herself more tightly, gazing at his still figure. He was so close, she tingled all over. Even the sound of his breathing filled her with heat.
She teetered with indecision, filled with terror, desire, anticipation. Finally, she released a shuddering breath and slipped into his sheets.
Lord Tyron rolled over and Fera froze, staring at him wide-eyed. ‘It’s about time,’ he told her.
Pulling her into his arms, he kissed her, and Fera could have wept at the joy she felt. Cupping her cheek, he rolled on top of her. She was nervous at first, the memory of her abuse rising quickly to the surface, turning her insides cold. But he was tender and slow as he gazed deeply into her eyes, checking she was all right at every thrust. He murmured quietly in her ear, words of love and comfort and sweetness until she felt so utterly safe she clung to him.
Afterwards, they held each other close, his arm wrapped tightly around her. Fera gazed into the moonlight, hoping it would never end.
She saw him every night for the next five nights. Usually they would make love, but sometimes they would simply hold each other, their skin bright in the moonlight, as they lay in each other’s arms. He was a beautiful man, kind and gentle, and his stump never bothered her. Though it still bothered him. Sometimes she caught him staring at it when he thought she was asleep, moving it up and down, a frown on his handsome face.
Usually she would escape back to her quarters before first light, but on one particular morning she slept in. When she woke, she was hurrying to get dressed when she paused, noticing the basket of bandages sitting on his table.
‘What is it?’ Lord Tyron yawned, rubbing at his head.
Though Lord Tyron was comfortable being naked around Fera, for some reason he never let her see his wounds. Fera picked up a bandage and gestured at his stump.
Lord Tyron shook his head. ‘No.’
Fera shrugged at him.
‘Because I don’t want you to see.’ He threw off his blanket and pulled on his britches.
‘Henry dresses them for me.’
Fera went over and helped him with his buttons. When she was done she looked up at him, hands on her hips and tapping her foot. He tightened his lips, the corner of his mouth lifting, then rubbed his face irritably. ‘Fine. But be quick about it.’
He sat on the edge of the bed and let her unwrap his stump, face turned aside. The bandage fell away, revealing the wrinkled, puckered skin. It wasn’t pretty but it was pink and healthy looking and Fera lovingly rubbed in the ointment before rebandaging it as best she could. Next, she turned to his wrist. Fera frowned as she undressed it. The wrapping stuck to the wound and she wrinkled her nose at the stink. What she revealed made her heart lurch. She looked up at him fearfully.
‘Have no fear. It is infected, yes, but the physician said it should pass if it’s washed and soaked in the ointment every day. Best leave that one for Henry. He knows what to do.’
Fera nodded but couldn’t ignore the anxious knot in her stomach.
Though they did their best to keep their relationship secret, the rumours quickly began to build, and Fera soon found herself at the centre of attention. How could she not be? An affair between a lord and a scullery maid was a juicy scandal. The other servants would whisper as she went about her chores. Whenever she needed to deal with Cook Weira, the woman would look at her funny and never dared to threaten her with the wooden spoon again.
Once, Analise stopped her in the stairwell.
‘I know about you and Lord Tyron,’ she hissed.
Fera shrugged. And?
Analise shook her head in disgust. ‘You’re just a plaything for my lord while he’s recovering. You, a cripple, plain and despoiled. Just you wait, once he’s stronger he’ll find a better woman and toss you aside like dirty bathwater.’
Fera merely gave a gasping laugh: you, you mean? And the head maid left with a scowl.
What the servants thought or said didn’t matter to her, but sometimes Lord Tyron’s men would eye her curiously where once they had ignored her. That made her nervous. Did they speak to their lord about it? If they did, he didn’t show it. He was never reluctant to smile at her when she served in the great hall and was just as passionate a lover as ever, his bed always waiting for her at night.
Despite the building tension in the castle, Fera was happy. Not since the death of her parents had anyone treated her so kindly or loved her so deeply—and he loved her deeply, Fera could tell. Analise was wrong. It was so much more than sex. She could see it in his eyes, could feel it in the way he touched her, hear it in the gentleness of his voice.
At least, she had to believe it.
Then one day Lord Tyron fell ill. As usual, she was walking through the great hall carrying his breakfast, when Sir Chaprey stopped her at the door. Henry stood beside him, looking grim.
‘You cannot enter. Lord Tyron is in a bad way.’
They all turned at a bellow. Fera dropped her tray, dishes smashing against the floor. She threw herself at the door but Sir Chaprey caught her before she could crash through.
‘There’s nothing you can do. His other arm has taken the rot.’ She struggled against him, gasping and grunting, but he simply held her tighter until she stilled in his arms. ‘I know who you are, and I know you love him, but the best thing you can do for him now is pray.’
So she did. Throughout the day and between her tasks she would get on her knees and clasp her hands together. She saw the other servants doing it too. The castle was quiet, the servants pale, his knights downcast. But Fera kept hope he would be all right.
He had to be.
When darkness fell she went to see him. The door creaked as she pushed it open. Henry woke in his chair, blinking rapidly at the sight of her. Fera paused, but he didn’t stop her, giving her a nod and turning away. The door clicked shut behind her. It was pitch black, the curtains shut tight again. She went to the window and opened them. The air was cool against her face and the moon was so bright she was forced to squint.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ came a hiss. ‘I said no one is to see me. Especially you.’
Fera froze, gazing at him, not at the stump of his right arm, not at the stump of his left hand, but directly in his eyes. They were black against the moonlight.
‘Get out,’ he growled. She shook her head. ‘Get out. Get out! GET OUT. GET OUT. GET OUT.’
Fera approached his bed, unfazed. He wasn’t angry, he was in pain. And I am here for you, she wanted to tell him. Here to love you and hold you and grieve with you. There were so many things she wanted to say, so many things she couldn’t say. Nobody understood his agony like she did. Her hands ached, her heart lurched. How badly she wanted to touch him, to hold his face and kiss the tears on his cheeks, to curl up against him and let him weep into her hair.
He sat up. ‘Where’s Henry? Henry! Get this woman out of here!’
But his manservant didn’t answer and Fera crawled up onto the bed beside him.
Exhausted, Lord Tyron sprawled onto his back, flinging out his stumps on either side. He was panting, his skin slick with sweat. The bandage around the stump of his wrist was dark with blood. Tears glinted on his cheeks.
‘Look at me,’ he gasped. ‘I’m not even half a man anymore. I’m disgusting. Keep away. You don’t want me now.’
But Fera didn’t listen. If anything, she wanted him more than ever, but how could she tell him that? Kneeling close to his side, she gently took his face. He looked up at her, eyes shining as more tears streamed down his cheeks. She stroked the stubble on his chin, ran her fingers through his hair.
‘Leave me, Fera. Find yourself a real—’
Fera silenced him with a kiss. And it wasn’t a kiss of pity—but of passion, a kiss no man could refuse, especially a man like Lord Tyron. His lips quivered and they were wet with the salt of his tears, but they were soft and wonderful and hungry against hers.
She pulled away, their lips still brushing. Lord Tyron was silent, panting lightly against her cheek. The look he gave her threatened to break her. He was astonished, as though certain she would leave him. Never, she told him with her eyes.
Fera kissed him on the forehead just like he did in the garden, then lay down beside him, curling into him and pulling his arm gently around her. Lord Tyron didn’t resist, holding her tightly against him, his wet face pressed deep into her hair.
They stayed that way through the night, saying nothing, neither budging, enjoying each other’s touch, not even when dawn’s light blazed hotly against Fera’s back. Birds chirped outside. A cart rattled against the cobblestones. There was a burst of laughter. And Fera and Lord Tyron held each other. Then Lord Tyron stirred, gently pulling away and Fera saw that his eyes were bright again, as green as a forest lake. He smiled at her, and Fera smiled back.
Lord Tyron cantered into Appelwhite Keep, his arm curled around Sir Chaprey’s waist as he sat mounted behind him. It had been weeks since he had left home to attend his sister’s wedding and he had ached to return the whole time. It wasn’t easy leaving those he loved behind for so long.
Lord Tyron slipped from his horse before anyone had a chance to offer to help him dismount. He was getting used to it now. He didn’t really need his arms all that much. His two legs were sufficient, at least for getting down. Mounting was another matter, but he didn’t let the thought bother him. Very little bothered him anymore. There was too much to be excited about.
‘Lord Tyron—!’ Henry called after him as he raced up the stairwell. Servants squashed themselves against the walls as he took the steps two, sometimes three, at a time.
Three weeks was far too long to be away. He loved his sister, but he wanted so badly to stay home. It wasn’t fair he should be taken away so soon, but duty called and after all the drama surrounding his and Fera’s relationship, he had no choice but to go. It was either that or face his father’s wrath. He was already on the brink of losing his land. No lord openly took a commoner as his partner. It was one of his duties to marry a lady with good connections.
But that would never happen. Appelwhite keep, or no.
He threw open his bedroom door. ‘How is she?’ he demanded, striding inside.
Fera looked up with a grin. Lord Tyron’s heart leapt into his throat at the sight of her. She was almost aglow in the sunlight pouring through the window. Then he lowered his eyes and his heart beat hard in his neck
Little Marigold squirmed in her arms, only five weeks old and already more beautiful than all the gold in the land, more lovely than all his possessions, even more valuable than Appelwhite Keep. He dropped to his knees before Fera and curled what was left of his left arm around the squirming bundle. As Lord Tyron gazed into the bright blue eyes of his daughter, he had never wished more than to have his hands back, to brush his fingers against her face. He found himself wishing for that simple touch more than anything in the world.
He couldn’t understand how something so perfect could arise from such two broken people, how in a world filled with so much darkness and turmoil and sorrow, she could bring so much light.
‘My little miracle,’ he whispered, kissing her on the cheek.
© Morgan Tonkin 2018