~From Book Two of the Hunted Mage Trilogy~
They walked in silence for some time. Aila’s hand lay on his crooked arm and Wyman’s free hand reached out to brush the new leaves that sprouted upon the shrubbery they passed.
It was a favorite path that lay just outside the town and curled around a pair of small ponds. They did not have a garden at the keep as she was accustomed to from her father’s home. She found she now preferred the untamed woods to the controlled growth of a private garden.
It was a relief to her that they did not speak. All of their words of late had been of spies and war. She weighed and guarded each word she uttered lest she speak of things she was no yet ready to reveal.
How do spies and traitors cope? My mind is all of a tangle with my own small secrets, she thought. She doubted she could juggle the secrets of armies and kings.
She was surprised that they took the time for this walk. Wyman hardly had time to rest and bathe of late. Rumors flew through the countryside of Ragnor’s advance.
He is coming they say, and he cannot be stopped.
She felt a sudden wave of cold pass through her.
The path narrowed and Aila let go his wrist and fell back a step. She watched her husband’s sure stride and felt tenderness rise in her. He bore many troubles for his people.
There was a cost. The occasional slump of his shoulders, the worry lines that collected around his eyes, the silver glint amid the gold of his hair. They spoke of the price he paid to rule.
He deserves to know…what right have I to keep it from him?
She turned the idea over in her mind. She had been unfair to him in keeping her pregnancy a secret from him.
If I can bring him even a sliver of joy to ease him during these stressful days then I ought to do it. It is selfish to withhold the news from him.
There was a rustle ahead. She had fallen behind a pace or two and could see Wyman’s hand reach out to tug sharply at some brush in the path to clear the way for her. He looked over his shoulder and gave her a loving smile.
Yes, she decided.I must tell him of our coming child.
He would see the need to keep the news secret a while longer. She could not tell him of Eyulf, of course, but if she could get Wyman to keep quiet about the baby then it would buy Avitus time to deal with the mage.
“Wyman. There is something of which we must speak.”
He turned to face her and his face was angry, his eyes narrowed to slits in his face. She had rarely seen such a look on his features and never one directed at her.
“Yes. There is, that!”
There was venom in his voice and she felt her stomach tighten with anxiety.
“Avitus told me of your affair with the mage. I wonder that you thought you could hide it from me, but your game is over.”
She felt a lump of dismay form in her throat. It seemed to lodge her words deep in her throat and left her gaping at him.
No, no, no, she wailed in silent terror.
“How dare you take him back you your bed? Am I not enough for you that you find your old lover and invite him to our keep to renew your dalliance?” Wyman growled at her through clenched teeth.
“No! I did not invite him here! He came without my knowledge,” she cried out.
She gave a start at his shout. His voice filled with a rage she had never heard. She reached out and took his hand.
“Oh, please, Wyman! You must believe me.”
His hand slipped within her grasp. She looked down at her hands and saw blood drip from their clasped hands and patter to the dirt of the pathway.
It was a long branch, thick with thorns, wrapped around his bicep. It wound about his arm just above his elbow and was pulled tight to drive each jagged barb deep into the flesh and muscle.
She let go his hand to pull at the thorny vine but Wyman grabbed her wrist in a huge hand and squeezed. She cried out in pain.
“Do not touch me, woman. Hands that have caressed a burned and crippled thing such as he will not touch me! Did you think you would escape punishment for defiling yourself?”
Her vision clouded with the pain of his crushing grip. The bones in her wrist felt as if they ground together. The pain brought tears flowing from her eyes to drip off of her trembling chin.
Aila lifted her free hand to his upper arm. She took the end of the bramble but when she lifted I away and tried to peel the tiny barbs away from his skin the vine writhed in her fingers and dug back into his muscle.
It is like a snake, she thought.I must get it off of him.
She dug at the thorns but could not get a hold of the strand again. She felt the thorns slice at her fingertips. They stung with sweat and blood as she tried to peel back the vine with a growing desperation.
Wyman’s gaze bore into her. She dared to look up at him once and saw a sneer of disdain and loathing on his lips.
“I have not defiled myself, my love! I would never…”
He twisted her wrist with a tug. She cried out at the pain. His grip was like iron.
Aila instinctively reached for his hand to pry his fingers back from her wrist but he just laughed.
“Did you think that Avitus would keep your dirty secret for you? That is laughable. He is loyal to his king.”
Her gaze clouded with tears and pain but his words brought a trace of anger to her mind. It was a glimmer of indignation amid her terror and grief but she reached for it.
“I…have…not betrayed you, Wyman!” It was a feeble retort but it hardened the resolve she felt grow.
“Did you offer to bed him to have him keep your secrets, Aila? How depraved will you become before it all comes crashing down around you?”
She raised her chin defiantly at the words. The anger she felt surged at the accusation.
“I never did! How dare you think it Wyman? I am yours! Only!”
“Lies! I am sick of them. I can see them all now…I was so blind to your deceit. Well…no more!” Wyman’s voice was a shout of hatred now. “I should kill you for the mockery you have made of our marriage!”
“I am with child, Wyman!”
There. She had done it. He would listen now, she was sure.
“Do not speak to me of that burned devil’s spawn! Avitus told me of your plan to get with child by that freak and pass it off to all as mine! It will…not…be!”
Wyman twisted her wrist back with each snarled word until she was bent to the side.
Huge black storm clouds roiled in above her. The forest grew dark around her.
It is not true, she thought.Why can he not see?
“The child is YOURS, Wyman! I have never…”
His free hand whipped forward, swift as an asp, and slapped her. The back of his hand hit her above the eye and she rocked back on her heels.
Thunder rumbled overhead and the shadows of the trail grew deep. Her eye throbbed. When she turned back to Wyman it already swelled to cloud her vision. She could not see her husband’s face anymore but his grip was still hard upon her wrist.
“Wyman it is not true. I know not why Avitus says that it is!”
Wyman’s growl was his only answer for a moment then he tugged her around with a rough yank. She spun a half-turn away from him and his lips were close to her ear.
“Consider yourself fortunate that I only put you aside. I should kill you for your infidelity, but I will banish you instead and let you forever live with your twisted lover.”
No no, no, sweet Jesu, Wyman! It is not so!
She reached for him with her free hand and this time he did not shove her away. She put a trembling hand on his cheek.
“Wyman, please! Do not believe these lies!”
His face was cold and hard beneath her touch. His jaws were clenched and bulged with anger.
“You will regret your sin, woman. I shall take a wife and she will bear me a son and you will watch and know what may have been!”
She dropped her hand to grasp his shoulder and could not find it. Thunder rumbled once more.
“I wish you gone.” The whispered words reached her, just at the edges of her thoughts.
“I wish you gone,” Wyman said.
“Take your sin-swollen belly and go,” came the whisper.
Lightening split the sky and she looked up to see Wyman’s face, gray and sunken. His eyes stared lifelessly past her.
“Take your sin-swollen belly and go.” It was his voice but his jaws moved woodenly, their movements out of joint with his words.
What is this? What has happened to him?
Her hand sought his shoulder again and then the lightening flashed once more.
There was a shadow in the brilliance. It gripped her wrist with one hand and a silver-veined staff in the other. The whisper came again on the edge of another peal of thunder.
“You will regret your faithlessness.”
There was a glow about the figure now. She saw a cloak with a deep cowl and she saw the burned and ruined skin of the hands that gripped her wrist and the wood.
“You will regret your faithlessness.”
She looked up as Wyman’s voice echoed the ragged whisper.
“You will regret…”
Wyman’s jaws worked falsely beneath his empty eyes. Her gaze dropped to his mouth, then his throat.
“NO! Stop it!”
There was nothing below his neck. It was a mass of gore and tendons that straggled down from his head and wrapped around the staff it was impaled upon.
The runes that covered the wood glowed with a silver sheen but for where the blood dripped from the strands of muscle and veins. Where the blood ran and touched the symbols they glowed crimson.
She saw within the hood now in the brightness of the glow around them both.
“Eyulf! What have you done? Why?”
The skin on his face pulled back into a demonic smile. He twitched his fingers and the lines of silver pulsed along the staff. Wyman’s jaws creaked up and down.
“I told you why,” Wyman’s head snarled at her. “I will take him from you…if I cannot have you back!”
He pulled at her wrist and drew her closer to him. His lips pursed in anticipation of kissing her.
Lightening tore through the sky and flashed full on the hellish remains of his face.
* * *
She woke with a violent lurch and a cry on her lips she was not certain she had uttered aloud. The scream from her nightmare made her throat feel thick and closed up in her panic. Her breath was harsh in her ears