When Rya serves a battle prisoner his final meal, is his shocking refusal an act of love or betrayal?
As I step into his dark cell, the stench strikes like a blow. I lift my torch to see him. Under chains, the sinews of his wrists glare in the dingy light. Raw, pink grooves mar his magnificent chest, and blood pools under his nose.
I gulp down the bile rising in my throat. Using the iron willpower I’d only seen in Father, I dam the sorrow flooding my insides. If anyone notices, we’re both dead. I meet his eyes, which look like the glistening sea. But now they’re grey, as if a thunderous cloud rolled in. Indeed, it did.
My heart shreds. Lord Tristan can’t take much more of this. I toss his plate onto the dirt floor. “Your breakfast.”
“It’s slop.” His voice is hoarse.
“It’s what you get.” My harshness is a cover, and so is his. We have a code. He’s hurting badly, so I’ll put something in his next meal to ease his pain.
As I turn to leave, Warrick, the prison guard, raises his torch and ushers Lord Gylle into the cell.
Gylle kicks Tristan. “One more time. How did your men receive word of Evershire?”
Please, not Evershire.
I wince but recover quickly.
Provoked by Tristan’s silence, Lord Gylle strikes his face. His head goes slack.
Lord Gylle snarls, “You won’t be a hero in death. So, speak, and live.”
When Tristan doesn’t respond, I try to slip away. I cannot watch anymore. But when Gylle yells, “Wench, stop!” I halt.
Holding my breath, I turn around. “Yes, my Lord?”
In the flickering light, I see Gylle’s nose flair. “Go to my quarters and remove your clothing.” His voice is jagged.
My legs quiver under my smock, but I bow. “Yes, my Lord.”
“No!” Tristan smashes his plate against the wall.
I plead with my eyes. Don’t. Not for me.
“I knew it.” Lord Gylle’s smile is wicked. “You’d cave for her.”
Tristan shifts his fiery gaze to Gylle. “As I said, time and again, I told no one of your plans.” He blows out a breath. “You Northlanders don’t know this, but tonight is Evershire’s eve of Sol. They’ll be drunk.”
No, Tristan! He knows my every facial expression, intonation, and gesture, but he doesn’t know that my family lives in Evershire.
Gylle looks at Warrick. “We strike tonight. Then Lord Tristan’s men will pay.”
“No!” Tristan exclaims. “It is your men who betrayed you.”
“Liar!” Gylle shouts. He leaps at Tristan, and I back away, tears tumbling down my cheeks.
No man since Father has risked everything to protect my virtue.
Hideous screams echo from Tristan’s cell before Warrick says, “Remember My Lord, you said we need him alive.”
Gasping for breath, Gylle replies, “Fine. But after tonight’s battle, he’ll be worthless. Send word that he will be quartered in the square at sunrise.”
I make it outside before retching. By morning, my beloved and my family will all be dead.
* * *
Gylle leaves to ready his men, so for now, I’ve escaped becoming his bedmaid. I make plans to flee and warn my family, then I prepare porridge for the prisoners and meat scraps for the guards. Mother gave me a pouch of Hemlock before I was captured.
Always keep this with you, Rya.
I’ll put it in Warrick’s meal in hopes that when he dies, Tristan can escape too. I form the meat into balls with bread and spices so as to hide the taste of poison.
Approaching the prison at dusk, I glance down the dirt road. Muddy and winding, it’s beautiful to me. Soon, it will be the path to my family.
After giving Warrick his dinner, I enter Tristan’s cell. As always, I toss his plate down. But then I do something new: I meet his gaze, lingering a beat too long. “It’s your last night. You might wish to stay awake, so as not to miss it.” My eyes dart to Warrick’s plate and back.
Tristan looks and studies it. Going wide-eyed, he yells, “Guard, come now!”
My face twists in confusion, and I fight to hold my composure.
Warrick stomps inside. “This better be important. It’s suppertime.”
“It is,” Tristan replies. “Your meat is poisoned.”
I shake my head feverishly. “No.”
Without hesitation, Warrick grabs me and carries me away. Kicking and screaming, I’m put into a cell of my own before crumbling to the dirt floor, sobbing.
My mind is reeling. In our brief moments alone, Tristan learned my secret hopes and dreams, and I, his. Our hearts and spirits connected. Or so I thought.
And now because I trusted him, the rest of my family will join my father.
I deserve to rot here.
After an endless night, Warrick opens my door. “Come with me.” I stumble up and follow him. Stepping outside, I cannot believe the brilliant shades of scarlet and tangerine that dare color the horizon. The world carries on without my family in it. Tears drip from my chin.
From behind, I hear Tristan. “Rya.” His voice is soft.
I turn to see him on the dirt road, and he’s not alone. My mother and older sister are beside him. My little sister is in his arms.
“Tristan!” I put my hands over my mouth. “Mother, Krea, Alyssa! Is it really you?” They nod before racing to me. Even when I’m in their arms, it doesn’t feel real.
When we separate, I look at Tristan. “How?” I shake my head.
“Lord Gylle’s betrayer was one of his own. His prison guard.” He nods to Warrick. “Last night, Gylle was killed by the men of Evershire, who were waiting for him. Warrick and I rescued your family.”
I tug him into an embrace, and when his strong arms envelop me, my heart awakens. He pulls away to meet my gaze, and his eyes shine once more. “Lady Rya, I will love you, always and forever.”