In the chill, relentless rain stood a girl without a name. Her skin a patchwork of scars and motley bruises, her body an untold tale of torment.
Memory played truant, an imp dancing beyond her grasp, laughing as it withheld the knowledge of how she’d come to be lying unconscious on the side of a road in a dripping wet forest, her long gown torn near to shreds, its tatters a pale drape across her emaciated limbs—limbs marked in hues of torture.
Wounds she’d not been aware of smarted afresh, and the invasive drizzle targeted every bared spot of skin upon her. Every shiver from the rain-dark sky painted her aching body as though she were a canvas of quiet agony.
She needed shelter, warmth, but the gluttonous darkness fed ever more insatiably and the rain obscured both stars and moon. Her body was stiffening with the pervasive chill, making her stiff limbs difficult to move.
A tentative step onto the muddy road shot pain down to her bones, marrow-cold. Halting, wincing, she peered at the swampy mire through blood-caked hair. Please, she begged. Please help me. Someone. Anyone.
But no one came, her only companion the impersonal touch of rain—
No. Wait. The spraying, squishy clop-clop of horse hooves galloped along the road.
She dragged up her weary head. Salvation or foe? “Stop!” she called at the unseen rider in the dark. Her bony arm barely lifted, wobbling. A flow of weakness coursed down her like a brook wanting to sweep her away. “Please, I beg you!”
A startled whinny rode the night as the yet invisible traveler dragged on the reins. The silhouette assumed edges and slowed, approaching through layers of darkness and rain.
She strained toward him and discovered that hope hurt.
Breathing in storms and shivers, her anticipation hurt. Crisp air burned a path straight to her lungs, for even the inside of her ached, as if she had been tortured inside out. Or else screams had clawed where human hands hadn’t reached.
A colossal warhorse emerged from the misty drizzle, its ribs protruding beneath a rider just as gaunt as the steed.
The rider dismounted, his arms bared to the elements by a sleeveless jerkin with no doublet beneath. He halted close enough for her to make out details: his face sharp-featured like a hawk’s, a jagged scar slashed across one cheek, an arcane symbol branded the other. A strip of cloth slanted across one eye, tied over the black hair plastered to his scalp.
His gaze alit on her—
And he collapsed.
She was supposed to be dead.
Exavier’s knees caved – he had no breath, winded from the shock to his gut. His knees spattered mud and his fingers mashed into it, dropping him into obeisance before the princess, lowering him to all fours like the low dog he’d been born, raised in castle kitchens and cuffed by every servant, nothing but a raggedy boy no one cared for.
It was beyond belief, but it was her.
Gone her fine damask clothes, her lush figure. Gone the haughty air that had won her so much antipathy from servants. Not even her silken slippers remained, her bare toes squelching into the same mire he knelt in.
Gone her flawless skin – skin that, once upon a time, no one had dared to mar.
Now someone had attempted to carve away every last vestige of her.
There was no reason he should recognize her.
No reason save one.
He had loved her.
Now she dug her hands into his wet hair, the shock of her touch vaulting through his body… even now, after all these months… after all her cold rejection.
She dragged his bowed head back. “You know who I am?”
With her fingers tangled in his hair, he stared up into her delicate, scarred features – features that someone had tried to destroy and failed, because he could still see their beauty.
He would always see their beauty.
Then her question sank into his awareness.
You know who I am?
She abruptly jerked her hands back, and the mouth he had so longed to kiss trembled with fear. “I don’t know who I am.”
Her words struck him so hard he reeled, dizzy, blinking rain from where it dripped off his lashes. “You don’t know who you are?”
A small, stiff shake of her head. She looked away, biting her quivering lip and denying him her yet lovely eyes. “Do you… do you know me?”
I know you, he could say. You’re the princess and I was your father’s watchdog. I protected the sanctimonious tyrant who called himself our kingdom’s ruler but who antagonized the people so vilely that the peasants rebelled. They murdered him and his queen despite how I tried to save them, then they left me to die at the feet of my master and mistress’s slaughtered bodies.
They left me with only one eye.
He’d regained consciousness in a mess of corpses while the marauding rebels still swarmed the palace, laughing and volleying bawdy jests, shucking dead nobles of their jewels and slitting the throats of the last noblewomen they’d raped.
He had a knife in his eye and they’d thought him dead—he should’ve been dead, but he hadn’t been, and after they departed, he’d jerked the dagger out, staggered to his feet and gritted his teeth against the upheaval of his gullet. His hand had staunched the blood flow from the socket as he kept swallowing, swallowing, the pain and throb from the eye unbalancing him. Lurching around the room, he had looked for her body.
He hadn’t found it.
Even knowing he had to escape, he’d pawed through the carnage, his good eye scanning the bodies, terrified he would find her.
Terrified he wouldn’t.
He hadn’t. He’d given up hope.
Now she stood before him, all that had gone before wiped from her consciousness.
He blinked, raindrops sliding into his parted lips and flavoring his tongue with freshness.
All that had gone before was wiped from her consciousness.
She looked to him to tell her the truth.
And he could tell her the truth, at least the truth as he guessed it: that the peasants who’d killed her parents must have taken her captive and tortured her. Tortured her until she’d shut off her mind rather than remember.
He could tell her the other truth, too.
You’re the woman I love. I’m naught but a landless swordsman, forced to wander town to town seeking whatever employment anyone will offer, but I would protect you with my last breath.
There is nothing for you back at the palace. Come with me.
Stay with me.
She stared at him, licking rain off her lips. A shiver traveled her body and she wrapped her too-thin fingers around her shoulders, hunching inward. “Sir?”
There was a third option, as well.
He could lie.
Looking up into her tortured face – the face that was still more beautiful than any other he’d ever beheld – he swallowed.
He told himself there was no other choice.
“Do you not recognize me?” He shot to his feet and took her icy hands in his now feverish ones. He pulled her close to his chest, where she smelled of fresh rain and washed-away pain and sweet hope. He looked straight in her eyes, and his words – for a moment – wrecked on his trembling excitement – fumbled – but then they burst free. “You don’t recognize your own betrothed?”
Her hands jerked slightly in his but she didn’t break his hold, not disbelieving, not yet.
Believe me, his earnest eyes told her. Trust me. He shifted closer.
She blinked up at him, drizzle gemming her eyelashes and her cheeks, her eyes bewildered and unsure. “Your betrothed?”
His mind worked quickly, his words growing stronger as his resolve intensified. “I’ve been searching for you for months. That’s why I collapsed when I got close to you—I couldn’t believe… You were abducted by bandits who torched our home and stole everything we owned.” It wasn’t even that far from the truth, he persuaded himself.” I’ve been searching for you ever since…” And that was true, too – the sincerest truth of all. His heart had been searching and hoping for the impossible for an agonizing eternity.
“Can I kiss you?” His hoarse tone broke, barely audible above the patter of raindrops, the gentle whinny of his horse. “Let my kiss betray my honor.”
Her lips parted, mute, but she jerked her chin in a nod and he couldn’t contain himself any longer.
He buried his hand in her tangled, matted hair and kissed her full on the mouth with all the pent-up passion he’d suppressed inside for years.
Exhilaration, terror – a chaotic mesh of emotion tore through him and shuddered into her. He thought his heart might tear from his chest. He was petrified that she might fragment under his touch like a wraith he had summoned briefly into life.
But she didn’t. She was solid, yielding and exquisitely real in his arms. She kissed him back with unpracticed lips that told him so much it broke his heart a little more, adding to the web of cracks she’d already left there herself, in those soft, quiet moments back at the palace just between them.
Now rain poured through their hair and between their lips, pressing their drenched clothes to their hot bodies.
He forced himself to pull back but kept her hips close, her body cradled so near their mingled breath curled into entwined vapor. “Do you believe me now?” he murmured against her lips.
“How can I not?” She cupped his cheek – the side branded with her father’s crest and marking him as a king’s slave – then she dug her fingers into his wet hair and tugged his head down to hers. “Remind me again who I am… Exavier.”
* If the story seems familiar, it’s because it was redone from a post from November 2017!