She was smaller than I expected. That was my first thought upon seeing her. Taller for an English woman, though not by Swedish standards of course. But she was as blonde as any girl I had grew up with and that worked in her favour. My father, he… and I preferred lighter haired women. He told me it was our curse, as they may look angelic, but more often than not were feistier than the devil in a spin. She had spirit too, which surprised me. One that I could see she worked hard to repress, to do as she was told by so many, but that her thoughts sometimes would run away with her, causing her brother or her father to look at her in warning. I found myself wondering how many times she had to be reminded of her place, and how many of those times she resented that place because it required her to silence herself when she wanted to scream.
I knew what that was like, to silence myself and my thoughts so that others may carry on in ignorance, all for the sake of a name, or a position. It led to a lot of bitterness within myself, I knew that. Within her though it only seemed to strengthen her resolve to be heard whenever possible. It wasn’t that I disliked her on sight, quite the opposite, she was shapely and well kept, she had sweet eyes and a mouth that I was sure would be any man’s downfall, but, she was the replacement, and that instantly set all my nerves on edge. When I am ordered from my homeland in the middle of a war that could crush our lands and our people to simply ‘fetch’ my father’s new wife, his new breeding mare, the new woman to replace my beloved mother… needless to say it did not sit well and sadly because of that fact, Susannah, or Sookie as I would come to know her, bore the brunt of my rudeness. As unintentional as it was, at least at first.
At first because soon I saw how it affected her, even when she attempted to shield me from her angry eyes or frustrated sighs, and all too soon I started to aim for those reactions. As bad of me as it may have been, I found I enjoyed causing her a little of the frustration she clearly caused me, even before I had set eyes on her.
Johan was taken with her smiles, but he was even more taken with her help – another beauty by the name of Tara. I was happy to see she came from a household that valued their help, that treated them well, and in Tara and Sookie’s case there was a genuine friendship there, one I knew was rare for a highborn girl and her staff. Of all the facts that I was made aware of by my father about his new, young and beautiful wife, her kindness was one he left out. Perhaps he was all distracted by her portrait and her youth to notice, but I noticed, and as much as I wanted to dislike her intensely on principle, I found I could not. Not entirely.
“Ease up on the girl would you, she means you no harm,” Johan chastised me yet again as we rode forth from our disastrous boat journey, into the woods into uncertain terrain.
I just rolled my eyes at him as we conversed in our native tongue. I knew we were far forward but I put nothing past Miss Stackhouse and her ability to poke her nose into others business.
“I was ill, she had no business–”
“She was merely aiming to ease that illness. I have been telling you for eons to take some form or an aide before we sail. You know how it affects you.”
I merely rolled my eyes again in his direction.
“Are you my friend Johan or my mother? Sometimes I do so forget which.”
“One day you will be forced to listen, and I will tell you what I have told you so often my friend. Because you know I am right in this matter, as in all matters.”
Yes, Johan, he was right, but not as often as he liked to believe. Which was all too often for the sake of my poor ears.
“I am also right, as is Sookie. She may have put it in a more harsh manner than I have in the past but I do agree with her. It is time Eric. Time that you picked one woman and started to live, started to love –”
“This again? And why are you always aiming this at me? You are as unsettled in matters of the heart as I am,” I said gruffer than I would have liked, but this was an old conversation.
He just grinned at me, that same boyish grin that told me he had ideas, mischievous ones. He looked back to the carriage.
“Yes this is true but if I have any luck in the world it may not be so long before I am settled…”
Tara, I thought. Not that it would be unlike Johan to fall for a woman that would no doubt cause a stir in our village, or even the whole country come to that. When we were only entering our young adulthood he cemented his manly reputation with a vicar’s wife, so falling for and possibly marrying a servant girl would be tame for him.
I just laughed, as I did at all his crazy notions, but something told me this may not have been so crazy.
“I know after Karoline, that-”
“Johan –” I snapped kicking the horse to ride on. When I looked back some time later I saw that of course he was at the carriage window with his smile aimed at the precious cargo inside.
Just as I was about to lose my thoughts to more self-pity, an arrow flew past my head, missing me by half an inch and snapping me right out of my impending melancholy.
Soon we were in the thick of battle. That is how it happened, as always. You think you are safe in travel and the next moment you are under siege. It was a larger ambush than even we had expected this far out, this far from home, from any real supplies of any kind, and from a party of thieves and murderers who did not fly any banners or have any obvious allegiances. We lost many in our travelling party. I sent Johan after a terrified Tara, and soon found that the English mating mare was not just a quick wit, she was also somewhat of craftswoman with her bow and even more so with a sword in her hand. Even I, as cynical and as against the very idea of her as I was, could admit that I was impressed.
Even if I only admitted that to myself.
She charged for the man I was fighting, with no fear or seeming anxiety. She just ran toward him with her blade and struck him, allowing me to finish him off, saving us both.
As we stood and looked upon each other, not a word could be spoken. All we were capable of in the moment was breath, and as hard and laboured as it was, at least we could still stand and breathe. She looked … well, she looked magnificent standing there, wrecked and covered in blood. The streams of red against her porcelain skin was something I found rather hypnotic. The warrior in her shone through and she no longer had to put up the front of her ladylike upbringing. I knew as well as anyone that you are who you truly are in battle where it counts, and it seemed she was a fighter. Though she was still all heart I soon saw as she tended to my dying men, and then, strangely enough even to me. Even after my unkind words and behaviour she still helped me. That too impressed me because had I been in her position I doubt I would have been as forgiving.
Our journey into the woods was a silent one, mainly because I never knew what to say and I think we both knew that silent and fast was the way to go. The death of our travelling party and the disappearance of her friend and mine taught us that if nothing else. So, we walked beside one another silently for what must have been miles, until it the sun started to fade, then I knew we needed to bed for the night somewhere with shelter, somewhere difficult to be found.
After our personalities clash once more over our dinner, and where we were to bed for the night, she finally gave in and took her rest by my side. Did I think it necessary for her safety to bed down next to me underneath my furs? Not exactly. I knew whoever attacked us was long gone, and I knew the fire and her cape would keep her from freezing, but, in truth, I wanted to be close to her.
Why, I could not say exactly. Only that while a large part of her being made me more angry than I recall ever being in the past, a part of her too I found to be intriguing, and obviously, physically attractive. I wager with myself that finding her agreeable was not such a bad thing, after all in our current circumstance I had no one else, nor did she. We were in a bind, and as my mother always would say, we’d best get on with things because if not they get on without us. And I needed to get us both home. No one need know how I felt about her, or how nice it was to have her next to me in the night, how soft and warm she felt pressed against me, how I enjoyed our closeness… or how I fell asleep listening to the sound of her breathing and found that it was the most comforting sound I had recalled hearing in a very long time.
No one need know but me.