The hiss of the whip cut through the silence before a sharp crack made Elyssia look up. Unwilling to watch, she had cast her eyes down, but a morbid fascination pulled her gaze toward the prisoner in the yard.
Standing erect against the whipping post, he radiated strength and defiance. He was not one to surrender. Where others screamed and pleaded for mercy, his only reaction was a slight tensing in his shoulders, a ripple of muscle just before the lash struck, leaving an ugly criss-cross pattern–an English soldier’s handiwork on the body of another Highlander. He tightened his hands into fists, and his arm muscles bulged with tension, yet still, he made no sound. Iron clinked against iron as he strained against the manacles on his wrists which were chained to the post.
A low chuckle to her side gave her enough warning to suppress the shudder of revulsion at her betrothed’s touch before a smooth hand grasped her own. Edward Morland, Earl of Allendyne. Though gallant and chivalrous during his courtship, his sadistic nature had emerged since their betrothal. Once married he would no longer be honour-bound not to violate her. She would cease to exist, other than as his possession to do with as he pleased, as much a prisoner as the man being lashed in the courtyard now.
“What say you, my dear? This one shows unusual strength, even for these animals. I think I may have found my champion. He would provide me with much coin and entertainment back at Allendyne.”
“I know not, my lord. I have no interest in such forms of entertainment.”
Though she spoke quietly, the prisoner turned his head in her direction. Her skin tightened as two eyes the colour of summer grass fixed their gaze upon her. Even at a distance, their intensity made her skin tighten and a warmth of guilt spread through her. A spark of hatred flashed in their green depths before another crack snapped across the air, and the whip struck again. But this time he let out a grunt of pain. He closed his eyes and bit his lip. A crimson droplet bloomed on his mouth.
Mirroring his gesture, she licked her own lips, dry with anticipation. He opened his eyes again. Bright with pain, they focused on her, calling to her; twin souls connecting across a dark chasm. Her consciousness circled inwards, magnifying her heartbeat which pulsed in her ears.
Though she tried, she could not avert her eyes. Palms slick with sweat, her body weakened as the heat of his gaze coursed through her; not the lustful gazes of Edward or his men, but a call from beyond the physical which stirred something deep within her–passion, a burning need. He stared at her like a man dying of thirst stares at a winecup, as if only she could quench his thirst.
Lifting a hand to her chest, she found herself trembling and heard a low voice cry out before she recognised it as her own. Edward tightened his grip, asserting his ownership of her.
“Come, my dear, ‘tis time for you to retire.” He led her out of the courtyard, not speaking until he reached her chamber–an office in the garrison in which a small cot had been placed with her belongings.
Withdrawing her hand, she moved towards the cot. The door slammed behind her, and she flinched at the hands which touched her shoulders. How would she survive her wedding night?
“Does my lady have a weak stomach?” The smooth, cultured voice held a note of warning, but anger conquered her self-control.
“No, she does not,” she retorted, “neither does she have a weak enough mind to take pleasure in such treatment of an unarmed man.”
Edward scoffed. “These men who defy the king are traitors. Longshanks requires loyal subjects to rout them out. These Highlanders are naught but animals and must be treated as such.”
Longshanks. Edward I. Elyssia had yet to meet the king; the man determined to conquer Scotland. Though Papa was a staunch ally and had met him often, Longshanks rarely ventured this close to the border between England and Scotland.
“They’re not animals,” she said, “they’re men and women, with homes, families, and loyalties, just as we are.”
“They are savages, my dear,” Edward said quietly. Ignoring the danger in his voice, she shook her head.
“I saw only one savage in the courtyard.”
He pulled her towards him, his fingers digging into her arms. “It seems my lady is in need of some instruction. Your father warned me of your childish sensibilities towards these Highlanders.”
He thrust his face close and forced his mouth against hers, his thick tongue probing, fighting to gain entrance.
“No!” She pulled her head away.
“Nobody denies me,” he hissed, his expression contorting with anger. A slight movement to her left was her only warning, and she flinched, but too slow–a sharp crack and pain exploded in her face where he struck her, and she fell onto the bed.
Before she could move, his weight bore down on her. Hands tore at her skirts, a shock of cold on her legs, and she squirmed away from him.
“Stay still, woman!” he roared and forced her thighs apart.
“Edward, have mercy!” she cried. “We’re not wed yet. Papa would have you disembowelled for dishonouring the name of de Montford.”
Letting her go, he stood back, his eyes bright with lust, the sour stench of wine on his breath. A slow smile slithered across his face. She lay still, paralysed with fear, legs still akimbo where he had parted them, her face throbbing with pain.
“Very well,” he said quietly. “I can wait, for the sake of honour, but rest assured, I’ll have you. When you are mine, you’ll pay for your defiance.”
After the door slammed behind him, female shrieks echoed in the passageway outside. Edward had found one of the whores servicing the men at the garrison. With luck, he would take a mistress after they married and leave Elyssia alone; the thought of his hands on her made her flesh itch.
Undressing and slipping under the blanket, she closed her eyes, but sleep eluded her. Pained green eyes penetrated her dreams. Who was the man in the courtyard? How might it feel to have his hands on her? Her mind’s eye conjured images of strong muscles straining against the chain, beads of sweat running along the bronzed skin of the Highlander who in one brief instant had touched her heart more deeply than she had ever experienced.
But she belonged to Edward. In a matter of days, he would be able to do what he wished with her.