“Sanna is yours,” Henry said happily. He’d been waiting for this all week and now that the young Duke had finally asked he was elated. His wealth as well as his name was about to grow exponentially, but first he had to part with a piece of his own estate. He slapped his future son-in-law on the shoulder and led him to the table. “Let’s discuss the dowry with a little wine, shall we?”
“That will not be necessary,” Aidan said quickly. He’d spent weeks getting to know Sanna and now that she was his, he wanted nothing more than to take her and return home.
“The wine or the discussion?” Henry asked.
“Either.” Aidan looked past Henry and into the garden where Sanna sat waiting to hear her father’s answer. “I wish only to be the one to tell her you have handed her over to me.”
“Granted,” he chuckled. “And the wedding?”
“Not here.” Aidan watched as the air left Henry’s body. Only when color returned to his face did he continue. “I meant no disrespect. I have been away from home for so long I wish to return as soon as possible. My hope is that Sanna will return with me.”
“Who am I to say no?” Henry said, shrugging his shoulders. “I myself have been weeks on end away from home. It is most unpleasant regardless of the comforts one’s host may provide.”
“Aye. You have been more than gracious. My family will of course take on all financial responsibilities of the ceremony upon our return. You and your wife are welcome to travel with us.”
“Nonsense!” Henry almost shouted. Arriving with the newly engaged couple may well force him to part with a handsome sum of money. “Just send word. We shall make the journey then. I am sure your parents would like the opportunity to speak with her for a time without the interference of her own loved ones.”
“They may,” Aidan said, bowing his head respectfully. His gaze moved to the blond haired beauty, who now sat absently picking the petals off one of her stepmother’s favorite white rose bushes. “There are many layers I have yet to unfold.”
Henry saw the look in the young man’s eye and smiled. He himself had once loved like that. Sanna’s mother was the only woman he’d ever loved. After she passed he’d taken on the role of both mother and father until the day he realized his little girl was blooming into a woman. Several women came and went over the years. None could compare to the love he lost. Over the years he stopped looking for love and settled. Now he was content to have his needs met and his house in order.
“Go,” he said waving the young man toward the garden. “She’s waiting. I am afraid my wife may not have many blooms left if we draw this out any longer.”
Aidan bowed his head respectfully as his future father in law left the room. As soon as the man’s heavy footsteps faded, he hurried to the garden, kneeling in front of Sanna with a huge smile on his handsome face. She smiled back, dismissing her maid with a nod.
“It seems you are now spoken for,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.
“And who pray tell has asked for my hand?” she teased, batting her sapphire blue eyes innocently. She brushed a lock of black hair from his forehead, revealing a pair of intense green eyes.
“Though many men have made the request during these past few weeks, your father has accepted mine.”
“I can think of no other man I would want.”
“Then it is a good thing I asked! I would not want such a beautiful young woman to be unhappy.” He stood up and looked around the garden for the woman Sanna had dismissed moments ago. He’d had an uneasy feeling when he’d met her for the first time. As he and Sanna grew closer, so did the uneasiness. “Your father has granted my request to return home as well as allowing us to host the ceremony at my parent’s estate. Will you still leave with me?”
“Of course,” Sanna answered, standing to look at him. “I understand your desire to return home. I’ll not request that you stay here a minute longer than you wish to.”
“Thank you,” he said kissing her delicate fingers. “I would like to leave within the hour. Can you say your goodbyes within that time?”
She smiled warmly. “If you so command it, I shall.”
“Good. I’ll go ready my men and my horses. You go ready yourself.”
As he watched her disappear into the house a sense of relief washed over him. He’d been here long enough to see the lust that burned in the eyes of the men who looked at her. He’d also seen the jealousy in the woman who lusted after those men. Sanna was so naïve, so trusting she didn’t notice the looks of contempt they shot her when they thought no one was looking.
Once Aidan had announced his plans to ask for her hand one of his men had taken to following her while she rode into the village with her stepmother. When asked why he simply said he couldn’t ignore the warning signs. The signs being the catty whispers he’d overheard regarding Sanna’s expected life span. As soon as Aidan got word, he thanked the man, promoted him and assigned him solely to her, though Sanna still didn’t know.
“You’re leaving?!” her maid asked. “Now? Right now?”
“Right now,” Sanna answered happily.”Aidan’s ready to go home. He misses it so.”
“But that leaves you no time,” she complained. “There are so many things you need to gather.”
“Don’t be silly, Crete,” Sanna coaxed. “My trunk will hold my clothes. There’s no need to take much more than that. You’ve seen his tents. They’re more than suitable. Everything else will be provided once we arrive.”
“And the wedding?” Crete asked curiously. Would there be time to try to come between them?
“It will be held there.” She began folding her belongings into her trunk. Since most of what she owned consisted of clothes and a few pieces of her mother’s jewelry packing didn’t take long. “There now, all set. Would you please see that this gets where it should be. I need to go find my father and tell him goodbye.”
No sooner than she’d turned to leave the room than she felt a warm sensation spread across the back of her head. Something heavy fell to the ground behind her. Then came pain. Her head felt as though it had been split in two. She tried to roll over on her back, but she couldn’t move. Blood seeped onto the ground, surrounding her. She saw Crete’s small feet run past her and into the hallway.
“Good,” she thought. “She’ll get help.”
Minutes later four more sets of feet including Crete’s rushed back into the room.
“I can’t believe you did it,” one of the women said. Sanna thought she recognized the voice as Crete’s sister, but her head was now so fuzzy she couldn’t be sure. “How? Why did-”
“Don’t sound so surprised, Bea. What would you have done?” Crete asked coolly. “She was about to leave here forever with the man I love.”
“Don’t be silly,” Bea snorted. “He’s in love with her. Everybody sees it.”
“He just needs time to see all he feels for her is lust. Maybe with her head split open like it is, he won’t even feel that.”
“Maybe that’s all any of them need,” Another woman scoffed. The rough tone gave away her identity as her stepmother’s maid, Sally. “We should parade her out the gates and see if they still treat her like a queen.”
“Those men are dogs,” the fourth woman said. Her sweet voice belonged to Alex, Sanna’s new maid. “All they’d do is cover her head with a dirty old sheet and use her body. That’s all they want anyway.”
“Perhaps we should let them,” Crete squealed. “The tavern outside the village would be the perfect place for that!”
Mortified by what she was hearing, she forced herself onto her side. The four maids she’d come to trust more than anyone were standing over her with disgusted smiles on their faces; glad to see the pain, fear and confusion in her eyes. Where had all this hate come from? Why hadn’t she ever seen it before?
“Why?” was all she could get out.
Crete knelt down beside her and smiled. “Why? You act as though you can’t see the fire burning in their eyes when they look at you. You act as though it makes no difference to you that you have been promised to a man meant for me. Aidan may not know it yet, but he was destined for more than you. His future lies with me!”
“What fire?” Sanna cried. Her father had always told her NOT to look in the eyes of his men, of the people who inhabited the village. Regardless of how she felt, he believed they were beneath them and should be treated accordingly. “Crete, I don’t understand. What are you-”
Her question was cut short when Crete grabbed her by the wrists. Sally and Bea lifted her feet off the floor and motioned for Alex to open the door. As they dragged her from the bedroom something popped at the base of her neck. The warm sensation grew as well as the pain. It was so intense now she didn’t want to feel the left side of her face anymore. Sharp, tingly sensations, much like hot needles, coursed throughout her body. It felt as though fire was consuming her from the inside. Unexpectedly numbness took hold of part of her head as well as her throat, rendering her voice useless. Though it terrified her, none of the other women seemed to give the bright trail of blood the gash on her head left a second thought.
Sanna’s father’s voice rang through the air as they passed the dining hall. She tried desperately to call out, but no sound would come. Before she could try again Alex ripped a piece of cloth from their tunic and shoved it in her mouth. Soon they were headed out the back door. Sanna glanced around frantically looking for anyone who could help. No one was there. No doubt they were all in the stables making sure Aidan’s horses had everything they would need before they left.
The women dragged her further away from the house. She watched in disbelief as they passed through the back gates and onto the rough dirt road that led to the lake on the far side of her father’s property. She tried to will her body to fight back, but whatever Crete had hit her with had left her head swollen and her body unable to move. The pain however was ever present.
Crete wasn’t going to stop. Not now. The girl was alone and helpless for once in her life. Not to take full advantage of this amazing opportunity would be a sin. Who’d miss her besides her father anyway? Certainly not his wife. That woman hated Sanna from the moment she stepped foot into his house. None of the women she knew here or in the village would miss her either. In fact, they’d be happy to see her gone. The men would finally see them instead of comparing every female who crossed their path to the rich bitch she had incapacitated. There was Aidan of course, but given time and a little extra effort on her part he’d forget all about his beautiful intended.
Sanna’s upper body was dropped carelessly to the ground as Crete’s head turned right then left, scanning the area for any sign of prying eyes. The maids released Sanna’s feet to do a quick search of their own. When Crete turned to face her, a wicked smile gracing her thin lips, she knew there would be no one there to help. That’s when her doomed fate hit her in full. Tears sprang to her eyes. Her insides began to shake uncontrollably. She was at their mercy.
“Shall we?” Crete asked, placing a hard kick directly to Sanna’s temple.
For what felt like hours Sanna endured a horrific beating. Her eyes were so swollen she could no longer see. Crete had made sure of that. Blood had pooled in her ears so thickly thanks to the repeated hits to her face and head she could only hear the sound of her own gradually slowing heartbeat. Huge clumps of her long blond hair lay on the ground around her. Pieces of her dress were either stuck to her bloody body or left to blow into the field behind them.
She knew without a doubt the rock that had been dropped on her ankles so many times had broken bones. Before her hearing had been cut off she’d heard them crack. Her ribs were cracked, making what breath she could manage to draw feel painfully un-necessary. Short gasps were her norm now. Sally’s little knife had come in handy for them. Sanna had felt every cut they made across her torso and chest. Thankfully shock had taken over and the sensations of the blade sliding into flesh were merely a dull ache. She hadn’t even flinched when they tried to slit her throat.
Only when the women were satisfied their work was done did they drag her body into the water to die. They knew she was broken beyond repair. It may take hours for her to succumb to her intended tomb, but she would eventually give up. What did they care how it happened? Drowning, exhaustion, simply giving up.
Sanna watched them go, relief and regret filling every fiber of her being. This was her future? To die alongside a lake she and her father used to come to for peace? The same lake Aidan had let his love for her be known? This lake, where so many wonderful memories were made was to be her deathbed?
With her last breath she pleaded to return, begging the powers that be to let her stay, if only in spirit. Her body may not be of use to her now, but her soul could live on. They had had no qualms about killing her, what if they decided another woman was a threat? What would become of those poor souls? What would become of her father; of Aidan?
“You may stay,” a soft, melodic voice whispered. “But know this. Your home is the water. Your boundary the fields. You may never again set foot inside your father’s home. Your wish is to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Do so. Walk these shores whenever you like, but do not abuse the privilege my dear Water Lily. Revenge was not a part of your request.”