Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.
Copyright © 2016, Michelle Hoppe.
All rights reserved.
Like gossamer threads, pale green wisps of Spanish moss hung from the limbs of majestic pines. Water dripped in a steady cadence from the great canopy, running down time-weathered bark and forming droplets of silvery light on spider webs spun through the branches. The forest floor was littered with decomposing pine needles and moss; lichen and ferns crowded the base of trunks several feet around. Wild mushrooms fought for footing in the moist soil and the bark of every tree, big or small.
High atop a rocky crag and tail, on the far side of Summit Ridge, shrouded in mist and hidden from the eyes of modern man, Castle Hart blended into the surrounding woods. Built of local granite, the castle held fifty-six opulent rooms, designed and decorated by the lord of the manor, Sir Anthony Hart. Each room uniquely its own, in purpose, form, and function. Unless directed to its location, most people would pass by without ever noticing its existence.
Like King Arthur before him, loyal and brave knights protected Lord Hart, his subjects, and the castle. This hidden world, steeped in mystery, where old ways were honored and men controlled all things, was a secret realm created as an escape from a contemporary world. Each citizen of the palace believed the ancient ways somehow held more promise than the current lack of morals plaguing today's society.
This community of lords and ladies, masters and slaves, existed in complete separation and secrecy; where Sir Anthony Hart ruled with the might of his sword and the honor of his word. The world he created and controlled was his to govern as he saw fit.
It was midwinter and the storms had settled into their normal pattern, wind whipping the coast, as clouds raced inland over forests as old as the earth. This time of year palace life was slow, most choosing to stay in the warmth of their chambers until evening arrived. Each eve at seven sharp, a banquet was served in the great hall. This twilight feast was a time when everyone came together for companionship, good food, and to enjoy the pleasures of life.
Lady Elizabeth Cowen had lived at Castle Hart for two years. As first lady to Lord Hart, and a free woman, she was allowed more liberties than most ladies of the court. Her position in the palace permitted her to lead a pampered existence most women might only dream of.
Elizabeth enjoyed all the pleasures available to her. Anthony was a fabulous lover, who put forth great effort to make sure her needs were met. She was permitted to enjoy sexual encounters with unattached free men and knights if she chose. Lord Hart was a broad-minded man, who believed free persons should partake of sex in an open and honest fashion.
Hart also enjoyed the pleasures available to him here at the palace, although he'd never taken a slave, which was his right as lord and master. This arrangement worked wonderfully for Elizabeth because she didn't have to share his affections with another woman. All in all, life here was peaceful; she was loved and cherished.
Elizabeth felt satisfied. She'd had two years of uncomplicated living and happiness, two years of enjoyment and pleasure, two years of peace, until the fateful evening three months ago when Lord Thomas Wolfe returned from a raid. She'd known Wolfe, first knight to Anthony Hart, for a long time. And yet she'd barely really noticed him before. Never observed the way his hair hung over his collar or the deep blue color of his eyes. Never noted the way his mouth turned at the corners in a smile or the laugh lines around his lips. Nor the deep tenor of his voice as he spoke of the trials he'd endured during his raid on another castle, far to the south of this secluded valley they called home.
Anthony spent hours listening to Thomas recant the details of the attack, while Elizabeth sat close by, studying the face of Lord Wolfe. She knew Hart was pleased with the incursion and the capture of several slaves. These women would be trained in the art of a jakara, taught the proper way to enter and greet, the correct way to serve a meal and the intricate steps to the dances performed nightly for the enjoyment and sexual arousal of the audience. The knights also returned with a number of free men and women to join the family here. It had taken several days and many hours of reliving the finer points of the mission before the castle settled back into a normal routine, normal that is for everyone except Elizabeth.
No matter how hard she tried, it was impossible to keep her mind off Thomas Wolfe. She watched him each eve at feast. The way he stroked the breast of his slave girl made her wet and hungry for his touch. The striking way he controlled the conversation after banquet enthralled her. She hung on every word, wishing it were her body he played with absent-mindedly while telling stories to the assembled crowd.
And Lord Anthony Hart was aware of her distraction. It was two weeks after the knights returned in triumph when he finally reminded her, “You have my permission to seek out knights, Elizabeth.”
Looking down at the plate in front of her, the food barely touched, she responded, “Yes Milord, I know this.”
She felt his finger on her chin, as he gently lifted her head until her eyes met his. “Look at me, Elizabeth. It's been too many days that you've hungered for Wolfe, so why not just get on with it?”
“I cannot speak of this here Anthony, not with everyone watching and listening. Please, can it wait until this eve in our chamber?”
She saw the surprise written in his eyes.
“This is not what I think it is.” He paused to take a breath. “Is it?” His eyes bore into hers with such intensity she wanted to run away.
“Milord, please,” she started to say, desperately wondering how to explain to Hart her desire to have more than casual sex with Thomas Wolfe.
“Stop!” His voice rose. “You will get yourself to our chamber and await my pleasure.”
Elizabeth, afraid to do or say more, stood without answering this command. She curtsied deeply, a tear welling in the corner of her eye, as her look implored him to understand. Withdrawing from the great hall, she went directly to the chamber she shared with Anthony Hart to await his arrival.
Lord Anthony Hart looked down at the crowd assembled around Thomas Wolfe. His first knight was a handsome man and his lady had seemed to realize it recently. Thinking back, he tried to remember when it was she'd started paying more attention to Wolfe. It was shortly after he returned from the raid on Sunshine Valley.
Anthony had been pleased with the raid. Wolfe returned with seven slaves, four freemen and six free women. These new additions to the population of Castle Hart were good for everyone here. More free citizens to work the fields and stores, more slaves to serve the needs of all.
Thinking back, he realized Elizabeth's distraction indeed started within days of Wolfe's return. What does it mean? he wondered to himself. Is it possible she could have deeper feelings for Thomas? Is it possible I might lose my lovely lady to another? Shaking himself out of his reverie, Lord Hart stood and left the hall.
Two minutes after parting the assemblage, Anthony arrived at the door to his chamber. Pausing a moment in the hall, he gathered his strength to confront the woman he loved. Reaching for the doorknob, he slowly turned it as he pushed the heavy door inward. Entering the room, his gaze scanned until his eyes came to rest on Elizabeth, sitting on the window seat staring out at the midnight sky. He walked over to the casement and placed his hand on her shoulder. “Milady, I think we need to talk.”
Looking at him with tears in her eyes, she pleaded, “Oh Anthony, what am I to say? You know I love you.”
“Of course, my sweet. I also know your love is not as deep as I had hoped it would be. You've resisted marriage to me for several years. And while I understand your past sexual diversions have been just that, I think something new has surfaced with regard to Lord Wolfe.”
“He is a knight. A slave owner! This will never work, even with your consent to pursue it.”
Sitting down next to his lady, Anthony wrapped his arms around her and pulled her body close to his. “You cannot fight what you feel for the man Elizabeth, and I could never stand in your way if he will make you happy. 'Tis true he's a knight and slave owner; this, my dear, will be your greatest difficulty. He is unlikely to accept you in his bed as a free woman.”
“I will not give up my freedom for any man, Milord; you know this to be true.”
“Then I fear you will suffer terribly if you choose to attempt this.”
Anthony felt her body stiffen. “You would allow it, Milord?”
“I confess it would be easier to stem the flow of a river, than challenge love. If you believe Lord Wolfe will make you happy, if you think your love for him can grow beyond what you feel for me, who am I to stand in your way? I love you, Elizabeth, and because of my love, I will set you free to follow your heart.”
“And what am I to do if he rejects me, Sir?”
Laughing at the sad tone of her voice, Anthony pulled her tighter into his arms. “You, my beautiful lady, will remain in my chamber and bed until such time as you succeed in tempting Lord Wolfe into your web. I will continue to partake of your sweet and luscious body. You will feast at my table and plot your attack in the safety of knowing I will catch you if your plan fails.”
Her smile was all he needed to assure himself he'd said the right things thus far.
“If you do succeed, I will not await your return to my bed. You must understand I will take another as my first lady.”
“I understand, Milord.”
“You will always be welcomed back into my arms. However, I will not again ask that you marry me. You will never be more than a sexual diversion, a warm body to slake my thirst.”
She looked into his eyes, a teardrop still shimmering on her lash. “I think I may love him, Anthony. I must find out if 'tis possible he might feel the same for me.”
Anthony released his hold on her and stood, turning to face away from her. “I know,” he stated dryly as he started to walk toward the door. Stopping in the open passageway, he spoke again without turning, “Sleep now, Milady, rest well and dream sweet.” He slipped through the door and headed back to the great hall for a long night of drinking and forgetfulness.
The blatant sexual overtures of Lady Elizabeth caused great consternation for Thomas, as he felt his tranquil life being turned upside down. The lady took every opportunity to brush against his body and spend time in his company. It was mystifying and disconcerting to have her as his constant companion.
For over a month, Thomas fought the advances of this beautiful woman, made excuses to leave the great hall early and spent extended time away to hunt. Yet every time he returned to his normal pattern, there she was, smiling into his eyes, talking about anything and everything, and most disturbing of all, touching him at each occasion their bodies came close.
Unable to understand the game she was playing, Thomas finally broached the subject with Lord Hart. They had just returned from a ride in the country. The air was crisp with the coming fall. Foliage on trees and bushes had turned brilliant colors as the days grew colder and shorter. Instead of returning to the castle, Thomas invited Anthony to inspect the newly-trimmed vines in the vast gardens.
While hesitant to bring up the subject, Thomas knew he must confront Lord Hart about his lady's behavior of late. Taking a deep breath, he spoke boldly, almost demanding a response with his tone. “Anthony, you must give me guidance with regard to your lady. I fear she has plans to seduce me.”
Laughing, Anthony responded, “Oh, my faithful knight, her seducing you is the least of your worries, trust me.”
“Milord, you must tell me if this is some kind of joke. I don't like being made the fool!”
Turning serious, Lord Hart moved to sit on a garden bench, while Thomas paced in front of him. “'Tis no joke. Elizabeth believes she may have deep feelings for you and is testing the waters, so to speak, to see if perhaps you might have interest in her.”
The words hit like a bolt of lightning. His world could be thrown into ruin if her plan succeeded. Pacing quickly back and forth in front of the bench on which Hart sat, he replied, “Anthony, you must realize I did nothing to give the woman such a notion. I would never covet your lady.”
“Rest easy my friend. I know this is not of your doing. The lady in question has come to this decision of her own accord, and has my approval to proceed with her attempt to win you to her way of thinking.”
Stunned, Thomas stopped his pacing, placed a hand on the hilt of the sword hanging at his side, turned and faced Hart. “My God man, you cannot be serious. I will have none of her devilment! You must tell her to stop this game.”
“'Tis not a game, Thomas. Elizabeth fancies herself in love with you. She believes, most likely incorrectly, that you will give up your dominant ways to be with her. Truly she wants to become your lady.”
Thomas began to pace again. “This is beyond reason. The woman has no sense of what she is trying to do. To think, first of all, that she would believe I would betray you, my lord.” Thomas paused. “What the hell kind of game is she playing?” This last statement was delivered in a harsh tone, as Thomas kicked at the rocks on the path below his feet, sending a cloud of dust on the wind.
“Calm down, Tom. It's not as dire as all that. Elizabeth will discover you cannot be turned from your authoritarian ways. You will train her in the art of being a jakara, teach her to serve you, enjoy the pleasure of having her naked body available to your touch, and all will be right with the world.”
“Have you lost your mind, Tony? I will not train her, because I will not take her to my bed, either as a free woman or a jakara.”
“Watch yourself, Thomas. Your tone may be justified under the circumstances. However, you have no quarrel with me. I will step aside and give you free reign to proceed with Elizabeth in any way you determine best.”
“You're telling me, you will allow your lady to…”
“Enough!” Hart was standing. “I have said all I care to on this subject. 'Tis in your hands to do as you wish. Either take the lady or don't, it's of no concern to me.”
Bowing at the waist, Thomas replied, “As you wish, Milord.”
“Nothing is as I desire, Thomas. However, I am powerless to stop the coming events, so will simply await the outcome.”
Thomas watched as Lord Hart walked back along the path and disappeared from sight. Turning to sit on the now vacant bench, he stared into the distance and cleared his mind of all thought.