Thorn shot down from his horse to see to the downed deer, while Aura hugged her wolf and congratulated him on his kill. The wolf licked her face and whimpered in frantic ecstasy as he wiggled and gloried in her attention. Thorn watched the exchange and envied the animal his treatment. He wondered how long it would take for his efforts to be welcomed with as much enthusiasm as that blasted wolf. Already he grew weary of the wait. He gave a heavy sigh as he turned back to his work. For all he knew it would always be this way.
The rest of the men arrived on the scene, led by Edwin. It did not take long before they had butchered the meat and they left to join the main troop in a less dense area of the forest. Wolf trotted beside Aura's mare, with his tongue lolling out his mouth and with what Thorn thought, a smug smile on his face. Considering the pleased look and bearing of his mistress, he conceded that the animal had perhaps more than one reason to feel the way he did.
The carca.s.s was taken away when the group rode into camp and while the venison was sliced up for further distribution, they ate. Aura demanded and received a prime piece of the meat for her wolf. By the time they had all finished their meal and things had been cleared away, everyone was ready to move on.
By the middle of the third day that they traveled, Aura was beginning to wonder how she had ever thought that England was a small country. In the time period that they lived now, it seemed quite large indeed. Thorn rode up beside her, after seeing his brother and his troop off into a different direction and he spoke.
"In a few more hours we should be home Aura. I would like you to know what the house I am taking you to is like, as it is not too much of anything yet. I have needed no more until now, so I left it as it was. When we have settled I would like to talk to you about us building a new home. I would appreciate your thoughts on the matter."
Aura's expression grew pensive, though she gave no comment. The land around her was very young and she decided that he had not yet had time to build on the virgin territory. She turned her eyes, almost the shade of violet on to Thorn and sighed with fatigue as she asked.
"Have the horses still another few hours in them?"
It was not the response Thorn had hoped for, but he supposed he would have to be satisfied with it for the moment.
"The horses will be fine. You might also notice that their pace quickens. They knew they are close to home and that a good feed and warm stall is just a couple of hills away."
"I am pleased they are so sure of their prospects. I wish we could all share the same degree of enthusiasm."
"I am no ogre Aura, I shall see you cared for and safe. I ask only one thing in return for all that I will give you personally and by way of possessions. Your love."
Aura looked at him, while revealing nothing of her inner thoughts then replied. "You place a very high price on your gifts. What would you say if I told you that I did not believe what you offer is worth the price?"
"That will change. You guard your heart well Aura, but I will have it nonetheless."
"If I ever offer you my heart, it will be because I feel you are worthy, not because you feel it is your due." She urged her horse into a faster pace and he had his mount keep pace with her, until about a half an hour before they were to reach his home village. He then leaned over to pluck her off of her horse and placed her onto his horse before him.
Aura's objection to this treatment was immediate. "Is it impossible for you to leave me some degree of dignity in our arrival amongst your people?"
He replied. "In a few moments we will round the bend and you will be able to see the home that is to be ours in the near future. I want to feel your reaction. I also want everybody under my immediate protection to know that you are my lady."
"They will accept me as a lady more readily if I am not plastered against your chest."
"I am striving to make a point and an impression." Thorn argued back.
"I know." Aura came right back at him. "At the expense of my dignity."
Thorn considered what she said then relented, returning her to her own horse as he did. His lady had pride, let his people see this for themselves, for it was not misplaced.
The first thing Aura noted was the filth and squalor about her and she tightened her lips in anger as they rode through the town. People peeped at them through doors and windows. A few waved but there were no great joyful signs of greeting, as she would have expected the people would have given their lord. But then, she decided, why should they? He rode through the town with all the arrogance of a master.
She noted the att.i.tude he seemed to have and she was angered further. How could he? How could he be so outrageously self-righteous while the people who served him lived like a bunch of rats? She almost gagged as the smell of animals and people living together in such close unsanitary conditions a.s.sailed her senses. Things, she vowed to herself, were going to change. She would not allow such filth to exist while she lived nearby, and as lady of the manor, she would have plenty to say about it. Thorn caught her attention, as he pointed to a building on the top of a hill and claimed it as his own. She just nodded in a curt and silent reply.
They rode for about another mile before he stopped before the building that was to be their home. He dismounted and, taking her by the waist, lifted her off the back of the mare. Aura looked about herself in interest as a stable boy ran to take the horses and then noticed, for the first time, that they were completely alone.
"Where did all the men go?"
Thorn smiled as he replied. "Home. They have been leaving us a few at a time as we traveled through my lands over the last couple of hours. They return to their own homes and families, something some of us has not seen in months. They will be made to feel very welcome tonight and for a change they will sleep in a bed instead of on the cold ground. Tell me, my lady, shall I be made to feel anywhere near as welcome as they do tonight?"
"It is not my place to make you feel welcome, as this is not my home. Also, as I remember, you have a terrible tendency of abusing a person's hospitality."
"So I remember you telling me, but as you do not yet feel this is your home I shall take it upon myself to make you feel welcome." With that Thorn swept Aura into his arms and entered his house. "Welcome, my lady, to your new home." He then kissed her, seeking a response that she successfully suppressed.
Aura looked about herself as he ended the kiss and set her down in the middle of the room. There was little furniture in the building and what was there was covered in what she estimated had to be no less than a full inch of dust. The floors seemed less dirty, but held signs of other occupants, which she thought Roger would have made short work of. She moved from room to room, taking care not to get any dirtier then returned to where Thorn awaited her. There had been only five rooms to inspect so her tour had ended quickly. When it was over she turned to Thorn to pa.s.s on a meek suggestion.
"Perhaps we could sleep outdoors another night, until I have had time to do something about the condition of the place."
Thorn noted the look of distaste on Aura's face and asked. "Do you not like your new home?"
"It might be perfectly fine when I see it in the full light of day Thorn. But for now, all I can see is that it needs to be cleaned and cared for." She paused then and drew a breath, as if to fortify her nerves before blurting out. "Thorn, I refuse to sleep in such filth. I just will not do it."
His lips tightened as he returned. "Well sleeping outside is strictly out of the question. I will not have my tenants thinking you are not as you should be."
"Why not?" She snipped back in her sarcasm. "Afraid they might be right? Thorn, I meant what I said. I am not going to sleep in here unless we can get at least one room cleaned."
Thinking it would be easier to compromise than continue to argue. "What can I do to help?" He offered, with a sigh of resignation.
"To begin with I will need some proper light, as well as some cleaning supplies. While you get those I will start a fire so I can boil some water. You can pick a room for us to sleep in and I will clean it. After I have the whole house cleaned and in order you can sleep in one room and I in the other."
This was too much for Thorn. He was ready and even prepared to help her in her efforts to do what she felt she needed to do to live here, but he was not going to agree to separate sleeping arrangements.
"Let us get one thing straight right from the beginning Aura. You may do as you wish with the house, but we share the same room and the same bed. Do I make myself clear, my wife?" He emphasized the last two words to get his point across.
She signed then replied. "Just find me some light and some supplies to clean with. We will handle the rest later."
"Yes," he promised sternly. "We certainly will."
For Thorn, who had never thought that cleaning was more than dusting things off and washing anything foul, his wife's preoccupation with the matter was intimidating.
So, for the first few days he went off from the house, to go hunting, or to work on the building of his tower walls, to escape her ministrations. Granted, the place did look a lot better, but she did not seem to be satisfied with just the cleaning of her own home. She decided the whole village had to be reorganized and cleaned as well.
The people humored her, as they felt equally intimidated by her t.i.tle, her manners and most of all, her wolf. They settled themselves down to work along side of her. For, to be honest, she never asked any of them to do anything that she would not have done herself, nor she was afraid to show them that this was the case.
As Thorn labored on his stronghold he often paused to watch his wife as she worked in the village. His men noticed the proud possessive air in the Lord's look as he watched her, and sometimes cheered, as he would ride to her side, to sweep her up onto his horse to give her a wild and pa.s.sionate kiss. The women, working with Aura laughed at their Lord's antics and at how he made his lady scream in shock and outrage. Aura was, more often than not, returned to her feet disheveled and blushing with mortification at his treatment. She knew better than to berate him for it, for the only time she had, he had dismounted and kissed her so soundly that she could barely stand.
After a fortnight of Aura's labors Thorn had to admit, as he rode through the neat little town, that if he had not witnessed the transformation himself, he would never have recognized the town as his own. The pigsties were moved away from the houses and the homes were cleaned, inside and out. There were little buildings erected beside or behind each of the cottage, which Aura had decreed, was to take care of personal waste.
Things did look improved and as much as the people had complained about their new lady's high manners and strange ideas, they now sang her praises as they took a new sense of pride in their meager belongings. Aura had tended their wounds, comforted their children and befriended the villagers. Aura, Thorn decided, had done very well and deserved to be told so.
As Thorn had labored by the side of his men they often told him how their wives spoke of how Aura would watch him as he toiled. They said that they wondered why she looked so sad. They reported that there were times when she would give him a wistful look, then sigh as if in regret. It was this piece of information, coupled with the knowledge that her most strenuous work was finished, that sent Thorn home a little earlier, eager to be with his wife. Perhaps now, he thought with a smile, they could begin their married life in earnest, as although she had never banned him from her bed, she had always been too tired to give him more than a few words of attention.
Thorn's smile turned to a frown in his preoccupation as he considered his state of being. Despite Aura's physical presence at his side, he had the feeling of being alone in his bed. He didn't consider the mere fact that she slept beside him as counting for much. He was sure that something was not as it should be.
He entered the house, after handing his horse to his squire, to find her in an exhausted sleep. Again. That does it. He thought furiously, but remained silent in consideration of her state. Tomorrow he was going to have a serious talk with her. This had to stop.
There was an intense sense of impending disaster in the air and Aura could scarcely breathe. She was falling in a darkness so encompa.s.sing she could almost touch it. It surrounded her, filling her with a fear so deep she wanted to scream. She opened her mouth to do so, but no sound came out. Her body jerked, she woke with a painful gasp, with the sound of her heart pounding in her ears.
The abrupt movement by Thorn's side woke him and he watched as Aura turned terrified eyes onto him. She swallowed hard and took a deep labored breath, deciding it must be an approaching storm that was causing her such discomfort, for it had been unseasonably warm. The look of terror pa.s.sed, as did her feeling of doom, and she looked into the deep concerned eyes of her husband, first to seek comfort then to reject it as it was offered. She moved to turn from him as the look in his eyes made her uncomfortable. He frowned in irritation at her dismissal, and her apparent disregard for what he might have been able to offer. With a mixture of hurt feelings and an urgency to make her aware of him and what could be between them, he pulled her into his arms.
"Do not shut me out Aura. I am your husband. I want to know what causes you such fear. I want to help you."
"It was nothing Thorn, just a dream too silly to concern yourself about." She rested against his chest, refusing to meet his steady gaze.
He softly ordered. "Look at me Aura."
She shook her head as she held her trembling lip between her teeth and his voice firmed as he repeated the order. "You will look at me Aura, then you will tell me what it is which bothers you so much that you woke in such a manner from a dream."
As she knew he would give her no peace until she did as she was told, she raised watery eyes to look into his and answered: "It is nothing, just a dream of emptiness Thorn."
He felt a constriction deep in his heart, as he looked deep into her eyes and moaned as he covered her lips with his, to kiss her lingeringly. She submitted to his embrace and kiss, but returned nothing. It was because of this that he pulled away from her in hurt anger.
"When do the games end Aura, I am getting tired of waiting for all of this to come to an end."
"What games are you talking about? I play no games." She denied.
"Do you not?" He snapped. "Shutting me out of your life. The constant labor until you pa.s.s out every night, sneaking out of my arms every morning and off all day. We are no closer now than we were on the day we were wed and it is long past the time we did something about that. I am tired of you trying to avoid me."
"Avoid you?" Aura slammed her fists against his hard chest as she struck back in her anger. "You think that all I have done so far was just so that I could avoid you? Of all the arrogant, conceited, egotistical, pigheaded people I could ever hope to meet you have got to take the cake." She pushed at him to no avail and continued in frustration. "Leave me go, you big overgrown oaf. You make me sick to my stomach. If I were really out to avoid you I would have just left. I would never have gone to all the trouble of remaking your house and village so it would be comparatively fit for human habitation."
Thorn was surprised by the venomous sound in her voice as she angrily pa.s.sed on a piece of her mind. He then smiled as he hugged her close to himself, to kiss her on the side of her head as he whispered in a thick hoa.r.s.e voice. "You do care. I had begun to think that it might never happen, but you really do care. I cannot begin to believe that my prayers have been answered. That G.o.d would help me find the one soul in creation that would make my life complete and that she would love me in return. Love me Aura, please love me? Make my life complete. You must, for I love you so."
Aura could not believe what she was hearing. Thorn could not be serious. How could she be what he had prayed for? She would not be born for centuries and as far as loving her, he hardly knew her, how could he say he loved her?
"No, it is not true, you do not know what you are talking about." She denied, afraid that it just might be true.
To prove it he lowered his lips onto hers to demand a response. Within moments Aura went from trying to push him away, to winding her arms about his neck as she moved beneath him in unconscious invitation, in her own attempt to get closer.
What did she really feel for him? Aura wondered as their kiss deepened. She was physically attracted to the man. She admitted that much. But then how could she deny it when her body ached for his touch every time she let him close enough to make love with her. For that matter if she was to be honest with herself, that would include every time she thought of him.
"Thorn," she whispered his name, her voice thick and her breathing ragged as his hands ran up the sides of her legs and over her hips, running up and under her bunched up nightgown, to caress and fondle b.r.e.a.s.t.s already swollen in pa.s.sionate reply to his touch. Her mouth met his, seeking closer contact as he moved to deepen the exchange.
She was so soft. Thorn felt Aura's body respond and moaned as their lips fused and he crushed her against his chest. It had been, he felt, forever since he had touched her like this, tasted her sweetness and caressed the curves and valleys of her body.
"Yes," he spoke the word his mind thought, as Aura sought to return some of his caresses.
She ran her hands across his broadly muscled shoulders and down his solid biceps, before winding her hands behind him to stroke the tense muscles in his back. She loved how he felt beneath her fingers. The velvety hardness of his body, the way his shoulders tapered to his hips, to create a form any body builder in her time would have had to have worked years to perfect. She supposed they had been developed, as had his skills at war, by constant practice and by the use of his sword. It was not something she was giving much thought to, not when her blood ran hot through her veins and caused her to writhe against him in a silent plea for fulfillment.
A pounding at the door penetrated their inflamed desires, and the urgency the knocks pressed on their consciousness.
"Something terrible has happened." Aura whispered, in her inability to do little else yet. "We have to go Thorn."
Thorn nodded his ascent with deep reluctance, hesitating to leave go of her. It would not have been more than a few more moments and he would have been thrusting hard into her, searing her with his heat as he filled her with his seed in answer to her responding flame. It would, he realized, take him a few minutes now to collect himself, before he cooled enough to be able to respond to the person at the door.
It was not quite so with Aura, for as soon as he let her go, she rolled off the bed to run to the door. A man, in definite distress, awaited her presence.
"My lady, please come, my wife is in trouble. She bleeds heavy and the child does not come. They say you are gifted in healing, and the midwife says she can do no more for her."
"Lead me," Aura ordered as she ran, still clad in her nightgown, losing her slippers as she rushed. The man raced after her, to pa.s.s so he could show her which house was his.
Giving sharp looks of observation about her as she entered the house, Aura shot out orders as she continued to move into the second room of the hut. "Boil water and get some clean cloths ready and warm."
Nothing seemed to have been gotten ready, and to her estimation none of the conditions were sanitary enough to deliver a child in. She wondered how she would manage to keep the woman from catching infection, if she did not die first.
The woman on the bed gave another scream as she convulsed under another contraction and Aura ran to wash her hands in whatever water was available. A moment later she pushed the midwife out of the way to check the position of the child. It was breach and she sucked the air into her lungs through her teeth, giving off a hissing sound as she did, as an indication of how she truly felt. She knew she was in over her head. She had never delivered a child into the world before, never mind one in the kind of trouble this one was in. She suppressed the fear that threatened to overcome her, and took several deep-bracing breaths. The contractions stopped for a moment and she spoke to the woman as she lay panting.
"I am going to have to turn the child, but you must help me. Take the midwife's hand and when you feel another contraction coming on, let me know. In the meantime, I am going to try to get that child facing the right direction before it happens."
Aura felt as if she was almost incoherent in her babbling then decided that she must have made some sense or no one would have taken their places as ordered. She looked to Heaven for a split second, as she prayed for guidance. She had only seen this done once before and that had been on close circuit television. She hoped she would be lucky enough to pull it off. The lives of two people depended on it.
Aura swallowed, took a bracing breath then slid a hand into the woman's body to turn the babe. Only a split second after that the woman yelled. "Now, it is coming now."
Almost shaking in her fear Aura put the baby down, and cut the umbilical cord. She then cleared off the baby's mouth, to breath air into the child's lungs. After a few tries the child began to mew in a weak pitiful manner, then cry, as he filled his lungs to give great l.u.s.tful and healthy screams. The cries were drowned out by his mother's voice.
"Please my Lady, another is coming."
Aura flashed the woman a quick glance then pa.s.sed the wailing baby to the midwife, ordering her to take the child and clean it. She then turned her full attention to the birth of the second baby. This time the child came easy and he started to cry almost as soon as he entered the world. She had no sooner had the child disconnected from its mother than the afterbirth followed, and as the new mother looked at Aura, she pa.s.sed out.
The midwife returned to collect the second baby, and as Aura pa.s.sed it to her, she asked. "How long did she suffer?"
"It started yesterday. She went into hard labor last night. It is a miracle the children have survived and both boys. It is a blessing my lady, a sign from Heaven."
"Yes, a blessing." Aura repeated, though she was not so sure about that. She turned from the woman before her to view the mess. She was not going to leave the mother to lie in her own blood. As long as she was in command she would not allow any woman in a position where she would have to clean herself after spending twenty-four hours in hard labor. She ordered some warm water brought to her and as she waited for the water to arrive she checked on her patient.
Aura gave a bit of a hiccup as she fought to control her tears and as she finished stripping the covering, which was still clean and untouched by the blood about her. The mother opened her eyes to look at her.
"My Lady! You should not be tending me, you are our Lord's Lady."
"That makes you my responsibility then, right?" Aura stated as a matter of fact then on a softer note added: "You have two healthy sons. Do you feel strong enough to see to them?"
The woman smiled her grat.i.tude and nodded. "I need to know that they are truly alive and well. I have had terrible dreams about their birth."
"They are fine, but first we must clean you up so you are presentable. Are you capable of standing?" Aura felt as if she was asking a lot of the woman, but knew that it was no more than what would have been expected. It was a harsh world they lived in.
"Yes my Lady, I think I can do that much." The woman's smile was weak, but she was willing to try.
"Then I will send the midwife in to see to your sheets. When you are abed again I shall bring you your sons."
Aura left the room to check to see if the babies had been properly taken care of. They had been and were now wrapped in semi-ragged cloths. She held out her arms to the midwife to receive them, as she ordered.
"I will take the children to their mother shortly. Before I do, however, I would like you to get her clean sheets and fix her bed. When she is comfortable and warm again, you are to let me know and I will bring her the children."
The woman nodded as she handed over the babes then rushed to do her bidding. Aura sat with a child cradled in each arm and smiled tenderly as she looked at them. She did so love children.
Thorn stood by the father, with a mixture of love and pride shining from his eyes as he watched his wife. She had not even noticed him. She had been so involved with the twins she had no time for him. He imagined, for a moment, that these were his children. That Aura was their mother and he had to suppress a great urge to go to her. They were not their children, but he knew that when they did have babies that she would be a caring and loving mother. It filled his heart with joy to know that she would someday bear his children.
The midwife came out of the room and nodded at her and she rose to re-enter the room, to place the boys into their mother's eager arms. She noticed how the woman's eyes lit with joy, as she looked up at her and asked.