Excerpt from The Captive's Release by Lucynda Storey

Finola wanted to escape, wanted to scream. The hot, heavy air in the room made it difficult to properly breathe. The close walls of the throne room were far too confining. Gazing out the window, the lush woods and cold streams beckoned her. In their splendor, she would be able to renew her beaten spirit, find a way out of the diplomatic mess her father had managed to get the kingdom into.

If only Calder were here! Her obstinate father had sent him off on some mission. The slight tapping of her foot gave her anger expression. Fools both of them, Calder for allowing himself to be manipulated and her father for placing so high a price on her maidenhood.

Calder’s quick, clever mind would be greatly welcomed in this newest situation. How she longed for his wit, logic, and the strength and comfort of his arms. He always knew the right, stately words of an ambassador to say when she found herself embroiled in a situation like this one. Finola sighed, feigned a smile, and turned from the window and back to the conversation between the King, her father, and the ambassador from Hamre.

“Your Excellency, the king of Hamre expects a messenger within the week. In order to accommodate his wishes, I must send a rider no later than tomorrow. Will you or will you not concede to giving your daughter and her dowry to Lacombe?”

“Father,” she genuflected toward him before turning to the ambassador, “Your Excellency. Am I to have no say in this matter?”

The men look at one another warily, the ambassador dressed in ornate, red silk robes with long fringe dripping from the sleeves and hem, her father in his warrior’s clothing of hardened leather armor. The former armed to wage a war of words, her father ready for a march into battle, although he had precious few men to turn into soldiers. The tapping of her toes inside her suede boots became more insistent. She would not become a pawn in one of their stupid war games.

“No!” her father shouted.

“I would rather be kidnapped and raped by brigands than be sold to the highest bidder.” She glared at them both wishing she had the power of magic at her command. “I will not be taken hostage to the Hamre Empire to live my life in the barbaric conditions imposed upon the numerous wives already forced to live with King Lacombe!”

The ambassador’s face grew bright red, but he managed to hold his tongue.

Ignoring his discomfort, she continued, “Surely, your Excellency, you would not confine a woman of my stature and intelligence to living as a concubine?

“Have you gone daft daughter? You would insult King Lacombe of Hamre? I, and I alone will decide what is best for our kingdom, and the people of Talone, not you.” He paused, perspiration beading on his upper lip. “You will do as you are told. You will bring honor onto our house, not disgrace. Now, get out before I have you locked in the tower! Leave the running of this kingdom to me. I will not be usurped by an untried maiden, royal or not!”

Finola spun on her leather-clad heels, her long hair swinging wildly, and stormed from the room, without paying the required protocol to either her father or the honored guest. Her father could have her flogged for her insult. Physical pain would be preferable to the emotional suffering she was sure she would endure in Hamre. Hands clenched, she looked for something to strike.

Like a horse, she galloped to her rooms, her cotton skirt flying against her thighs in the empty hall. The cool air of her room did nothing to diminish her temper. A few precious belongings, her lyre, her charcoals and a gift dagger Calder had given her, were stuffed in her seldom-used traveling bag. She pounded her fist on the ancient, wooden chest shutting it with a slam. She would not remain a moment longer than necessary in a house that considered her no more than expendable chattel. Damn their political maneuverings to hell.

“I’ll not stay here a moment longer.” Let her father wrangle what he wished from the Hamre ambassador. Let them haggle until the moon was high in the night sky. Down the darkened rear stairway she fled. Finola inhaled the fresh air of freedom.

She was on her way, outside the gray, cold palace walls. It would be late before they discovered she was missing. If the Goddess was with her, she might even have until midmorning on the morrow. She twirled, spinning her skirts as the child she was long ago, making them billow like sheets blowing in the breeze.

Through the grasses that waved their golden, ripened heads at her, Finola walked, head high. She wouldn’t get far on foot, but a horse would be missed from the stable by nightfall and its height would expose her above the seasoned grain to any searching from the right windows in the cold, stone keep. Quick capture or theft allegations were not in her plans.

Besides, her father and the ambassador wouldn’t suspect she’d fled. How dare her father threaten her as if she were a disobedient page! They’d be busy concocting treaties as they drank the strong wine of the kingdom. She’d have no reprisal to fear from their hands this night.

Finola didn’t skulk. At least the tall grains gave the appearance of bowing to her. She smiled, waved to those tall limber stands recognizing her nobility. The very grass saw she was worthy of better treatment, but not her father. The thought settled in her stomach like a stone.

She would not hide in her own country. Finola straightened her back, tilted her chin, confident of her people, of her course in light of the most recent political blackmail. Amongst her own people, her father had done away with the first rights of the lords to take the virginity of a maiden. Why had he not afforded her, a royal daughter of the monarchy, with the same rights? Trading her virginity to a king was the same!

Ahead was the deep green forest she’d gazed upon from the throne room window. Following no path here, she would walk until the sun dipped beneath the horizon. “Come, night. Wrap me in your welcoming arms of concealment.”

She would greet the magic of night falling and the cooler fresh air. Perhaps she’d finally tire, and with her energy expended, her anger would wane. Perhaps.

Twilight was upon her before she knew it. It gave way to darkness so suddenly she had no time to gather more than a handful of dried, brittle twigs to make a fire. Finola hurried to gather more dry wood. She piled the timbers in an uneven heap. Insects made high pitched, screechy sounds. The night did not seem as welcoming as she’d hoped.

Near a fallen log, softened by the weathering of many seasons, Finola cleared an area for her fire. The spongy ground, covered with short, tender grasses would provide comfortable slumber. Sleep would come easier knowing her back at least, was protected by the wood. With the meager fire for warmth, and the handful of nuts she found while wood gathering she would continue on the morrow well rested. In the meanwhile, she would use the stillness to think, formulate a plan for appeasing Hamre and accomplishing her father’s goals, if such were possible.

She grasped Calder’s gift dagger, clutching it so tightly, her fingers began to sting as they numbed and fell asleep. She forced her fingers to lessen their rigid hold. The insect sounds of the woods dimmed. She was not in danger, yet. But tales had filtered back to the castle of attacks on wayfarers in the woods. She’d stay prepared.

If only Calder would find her and attend to her needs this night. He was the only one she completely trusted. His advice would be sincere and not full of double intents. He always came to her at night. So often he quietly entered her chambers that he no longer frightened her. She could sense him when he was nearby.

That same insight let her know he was near the log. His presence alerted her, but she did not move, so content was she in her position on the ground. He crouched next to her, his movements slow, deliberate, and languid.

He couldn’t help being so sneaky, she supposed. Their relationship was covered in the heavy curtain of secrecy. His life and hers would be forfeit if knowledge of his intimate, permitted, and desired touching became known. She slid toward him, to be warmed by his arms around her. The Goddess had answered her prayers.

“Finola, wake up, my Princess.”

Her eyes opened to reveal his silken, yellow tresses framing his tanned face. His long hair was tied at the nape of his neck, just reaching his shoulder. She reached toward the thin, leather string that held it back and released his hair. Among the people, especially mothers, hair like his was an honor, a desirable gift of physical beauty. If they could have daughters with hair like his, they would find husbands for their offspring quickly.

Calder deserved it and every tribute he’d earned over the long years of unrelenting, unthankful service. Working for her father had come with a price.

His eye color, too, was held in high regard. She envisioned their brilliant blue, which marked him as touched by the Goddess. Among her people, he was the only one to have such eyes. However, none of that mattered now. Calder was here, with her. The world, her world, would certainly get better. He would apply reason to the knot her father had created, thereby releasing her from her invisible prison.

“You’ve no idea how I’ve longed for you to be with me this night."

“Aye. I think I do. I could not keep my mind from you once the sun dropped below the horizon. I searched your rooms and when I didn’t find you, I went to the king. Only I didn’t have to speak to him to know what your heart told you to do, fair one. He and that buffoon from Hamre were congratulating themselves on a well-made treaty, with you at the center of it. I made a hasty departure without speaking to either.” He lifted her higher into his arms and her flesh tingled in anticipation of his kiss, his touch.

“Why are you here alone, Princess?”

“If my father would sell me to King Lacombe, no one could know I’d left. He would find out immediately!” Finola looked into his eyes. “You understand what this means, do you not?”

“Of course, I do. You’ve run from a possible tyranny worse than that under which you currently live.”

“You know?” How could Calder know about the workings of Lacombe’s kingdom?

“Aye, Hamre is ruled by an iron fist. A fist that resounds with the torture of its citizens for the slightest offense. You are in great peril. I cannot allow you to go to such a place.”

Finola rubbed her eyes. “What shall we do? I will not be a prize heifer to be fought over between kings.”

She quieted, and waited for his response. His arms, unbreakable steel bands, tightened about her. The silence of the forest echoed her abandonment and betrayal at the hand of her father. “Calder, is there nothing that can be done?”

“Aye, I can think of a few things. None of them pleasant, I fear.”

“What can be worse than being held in Hamre, as nothing more than property? Even death is preferable.”

“Let us pray, Princess, that it will not be such an irredeemable decision.”

“What then? What shall we do?”

His large hand stroked her hair. Longing erupted in her. She nestled closely against his solid chest as he whispered, “Follow your original plan?”

“You know my plan?”

“From appearances it seems you have no plan other than escape. My darling, you have simply run away, with no plan at all. In that, I can aid you.”

Finola sighed. Calder knew her well. He’d always been able to see into her mind, from the time they’d been children, playing games of strategy forbidden to women. She snuggled into him closer. “Why can’t my father choose you for my husband?”

You know good and well her mind screamed. He has no wealth, no elevated position of noble power. He was nothing more than a child captive, given to an elevated commoner, the palace blacksmith, without a son of his own.

Abruptly, she halted the discussion, before he could reply. “Let us talk on this no further. I simply wish to be here, in your arms. The morrow will take care of itself. We must be careful to make the most of the moments we have together.” She wrapped an arm about his neck, and pulled his head closer to hers. “Kiss me.”

Behind him, Finola heard the pop of an ember. In the dark, the noise was loud and threatening. But Calder was here, her Calder. Closing her eyes, she gave herself up to the sensation of his rough lips on hers. She ran her tongue over the dry edges, moistening them before she delved into his mouth. He tasted of tepid, tart wine and reminded her of picnics in the summer sun.

His response to her wasn’t long in coming. “Is this what you wish tonight, my Princess?”

Roaming the broad expanse of his chest with a free hand she searched for the tiny peaks she loved to torment. Slowly, she stroked a nub through the rough material he wore when he was on the road, ignoring his question. “How was your trip?”

“You know,” he gasped, “I cannot reply to your questions intelligently when you abuse me so.”

Slowly, she pulled up his tunic and allowed her hands to stroke the warm skin underneath. “Love me.”

“A request or a command, my princess?”

“Both. I need you to touch me, as no other has.”

Calder laughed. “I should hope not. I would be forced to remove the hands from the body of such a culprit.”

With agonizing slowness, he untied the cotton strings of her bodice, releasing her breasts. They pebbled in the cool night air and she anxiously awaited the feel of his mouth on her.

Calder had taught her much about being a woman. He’d pleasured her often without compromising her honor, making sure their mutual satisfaction did not come at the cost of her maidenhead. Oh that she’d given herself to him long months back, that she was married to him, that she carried his child in her womb. Then she wouldn’t have to be concerned about being sold to the highest bidder or keeping an imaginary political peace.

“Do not delay, my love. I grow desperate.”

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