Free Fiction Fridays: A Knight’s Sacrifice – Ch 4
Here it is! The most recent chapter of “A Knight’s Sacrifice”. This will be the last one I post for today, but clickity-click back to this blog or to my co-author, S.L. Armstrong’s blog next Friday to read the next chapter! I hope you’ve enjoyed this free fiction explosion. Back to our normal broadcast. ^_^
~*~ For his king, he’d give everything… Even his name. ~*~
The soft clip-clop of the horse hooves along the cobblestone pathways leading from the main gate up to the castle lulled Jarrett into a daze. He’d been shocked when Holden had informed him he would ride in the rear of the Honor Guard that would escort the Lady Primeveire to the castle. He was still young, still low in the pecking order, and Jarrett was sure Holden had done it because he shared Audric’s bed. Not because of his own talents, his own potential, his own anything, but because Audric called for him nightly now. While Malin had been revered as the king’s lover, Jarrett had heard a different sort of whispering about him.
The king’s whore.
Jarrett glanced up, seeing the fine fabric of Primeveire’s dress flutter and shimmer in the mid-afternoon sun. She was beautiful, he had to admit that. Her skin was clear, fair, her eyes wide and bright. The blue was an unusual color, and her hair was the shade of fresh hay. She seemed to laugh a lot, too, softly, behind her hand. Jarrett had the feeling, though, that she laughed to hide her ignorance of whatever was being said. When Holden had explained why their company had been met by the Honor Guard, she’d just tittered behind her hand and thanked the armsmaster.
Audric, Jarrett mused, would grow quickly bored with an idiot bride.
He sighed softly, his back straight as he rode behind the lady and her escort. Audric didn’t want her, but he would marry her just to do his duty. Jarrett understood the position Audric was in. A niggling voice in the back of his head whispered that Malin would have understood, too.
Malin. Once a god in Jarrett’s mind, Malin was now a shadow he could never hope to escape. Audric’s fantasy was painful, breaking Jarrett’s heart again and again. The fucking had been easier to lose himself in, but now Jarrett made love to him, face-to-face, and it was probably his own damn fault. He shouldn’t have asked it of his king. If he hadn’t, Audric wouldn’t have kissed him, touched him, loved him with Malin’s name on his lips.
Liar, he thought. The fucking was easy, yes, but those final moments, and the long night that always followed, were just as hard. Audric wrapped around him, kissing him, whispering how much he loved him, had missed him, but all while believing—because Jarrett was certain Audric believed in those moments that he was Malin—his dead Malin was the one stroking his hair, moaning his name, and arching into his hands. It wasn’t fair. He’d spent so long fighting to be recognized, prized, and so long wanting, lusting after his king, he deserved to be seen!
“Look sharp, Jarrett,” Holden hissed.
Jarrett blinked and was surprised they were coming up to the receiving courtyard, King Audric and two dozen nobles waiting to welcome Lady Primeveire. He felt his cheeks heat and flashed Holden an apologetic smile before Holden caught up to the front of the guard. Dammit, now not only was Audric making him late, but he was making him absentminded. At this rate, Holden was likely to pull him front the ranks and send him packing. He gritted his teeth, straightened his back again, and tightened his hands on his reigns, his head high. Let them call him the king’s whore. He knew who and what he was, and that was all that mattered.
“Lad, you have been late every morning since King Audric has begun to call for you, and now you’re daydreaming while escorting an esteemed guest of the kingdom?” Holden crossed his arms, frowning at Jarrett. “This isn’t going to work if you can’t balance being a knight and being a companion to Audric.”
Jarrett wanted to blush, a sense of failure filling him. He gritted his teeth and shook his head. “I won’t be late anymore, Master Holden. I won’t.”
Holden stared at him for a long time. “And the daydreaming?”
“It won’t happen again,” Jarrett promised. “I’ve wanted to be among the knights’ ranks since I was a child. I’ve been training almost my whole life. I don’t want to lose this chance.”
“I don’t want you gutted on the battlefield,” Holden said. “More than one knight has lost his life because he wasn’t vigilant. You need to be aware. You must keep your back straight, your cloak clean, and, dammit, you need to shine your boots!”
Now a blush stole over Jarrett’s face. He’d forgotten to clean his boots. Usually, he did it the night before he rode in the guard, but last night… last night, he’d been making love with the king, writhing under hands that thought they touched another. Shame fills him, even as love tried to stuff it down. “My boots will be shined by morning.”
Holden scratched at his beard, those old, knowing eyes moving up and down Jarrett’s body. “You look tired. You look drawn. Are you ill?”
“No,” Jarrett said with a shake of his head.
“If you aren’t ill, lad, then it’s the king. I know it’s hard to say no to him; you love him. You worship Audric like most of us do.” Holden sighed. “Maybe ‘no’ is what he needs to hear.”
Jarrett barely kept the stricken look from his face. No? Say no to Audric? If he said no, Audric would never call for him again. He would never feel those gentle touches again, hear those tender words of love. It didn’t matter they were for Malin. Malin was dead; he wasn’t. Those words were his reward for the farce he lived each night to ease Audric’s heartache, and he was sure—so sure—that his patience and unwavering love would be rewarded and returned once the grief finished running its course.
‘No’ simply wasn’t an option.
He forced a smile onto his lips. “Master Holden, I don’t mind. It’s just a routine I need to learn. I’ve been falling down on my duty, but I promise you, I can do this. Please.”
Holden’s frown returned. “Routine? A few nights isn’t a routine, lad.”
Jarrett swallowed. “King Audric has asked I come to him nightly now.”
Holden’s bushy eyebrows rose so high at that Jarrett thought for a moment they’d fly off his face like feathers carried on the wind. It just made him want to hide his face, though he met Holden’s astonishment with as much decorum as he could muster. “Has he, now? That’s quite an honor, but he has to know it isn’t best for you to be taking…” Holden made a motion with his hands. “Double the work load between your duties and his attentions.”
Whatever Holden had originally intended to say, he’d toned it down quite a bit, and Jarrett wasn’t sure if it was out of respect for him or for Audric. “I just have to work harder,” he murmured. “I’ll find a balance.”
Holden hummed, but he didn’t sound convinced. “Just be sure that balance won’t get you run through during practice, lad. He might be king, but you’re a knight first. Remember that.”
“I will, Master Holden,” Jarrett assured him.
Another long stare, and a small smile brightened Holden’s eyes in a way that made Jarrett a bit uneasy. He’d seen that expression many times, and it was never a good sign. “I’ll be keeping an eye on you, lad. For now, I think it’s best that I personally put you through your paces. I have to make sure you won’t be turning soft on the battlefield.”
Jarrett failed to stifle a small groan, and Holden clapped him on the shoulder with a barking laugh, leading him toward the armory to suit up for a spar. With his body already aching, Jarrett knew the afternoon was going to be a long one. With Holden in charge, it always was.
After supper, Jarrett retired to his small room, and he immediately set to shining his boots. They were muddy, scuffed. A disgrace. He’d only been Audric’s for a week, and he had disappointed both Holden and himself. Letting Holden down was almost like letting down his father, and Jarrett refused to allow it to continue. No more disappointment. He would gather his wits about him and, when Audric sent the page for him, he would do as Holden suggested: he’d say no.
It was just a word, and Audric was just a man. He was a man who was a king, yes, but he was still a man. Though he was certain it would hurt them both for him to quietly decline and shut his door, Jarrett was very sure it was what needed to happen. Audric was living a lie each night, and it was driving Jarrett crazy. It was breaking his heart, and he had the feeling it would have broken Malin’s, too. Malin wouldn’t have wanted Audric to pass each night holding onto a ghost, and he wouldn’t have wanted Jarrett to martyr himself. Right now, they couldn’t help one another, not with Audric blind to him, and him unable to speak against Audric. It was a vicious, painful cycle, and Audric wasn’t going to stop it.
So, it fell to Jarrett to end the whole mess.
He set his boots aside, their leather gleaming in the flickering light of his sole candle. Jarrett smiled. Holden would be pleased. Being a knight had been his dream, and he wouldn’t let that dream slip through his hands. He’d worked so hard, and Malin would have been so frustrated if he’d failed to achieve everything he’d set out to achieve. As much as he loved Audric, as much as he wanted his king, he couldn’t sacrifice his life and dream for fleeting moments of pleasure in the dark.
No. All he had to say was ‘no’. One word and it would all end. One word and he could take his name, his life back. Just. One. Word.
The knock at his door startled him, and he shot up to his feet. Jarrett stared at the door, breath held, until the knock came a second time, more demanding than before. He licked his lips, squared his shoulders, and opened it. The page wasn’t more than twelve, his eyes sleepy, and Jarrett tried to offer him a smile. “Gregory.”
Gregory yawned. “King Audric requests your company now.”
Jarrett opened his mouth, the ‘no’ perched there on his tongue, but that wasn’t the word that passed his lips. “Please tell the king I will attend him in just a moment.”
A nod from Gregory and his fate was sealed.
There was no ‘no’. There was no ending this farce. It would go on and on because Audric was weak, and he was weak. He would lay in Malin’s place, accept the touches meant for Malin, and pray to God that Audric would wake one morning and see him instead of the dead knight.
His feet were heavy as he walked the quiet, dark halls. Audric had a kingdom. Audric would have a bride. Audric would have children. What did he have? What would he have left when Audric came to his senses and sent him away because he wasn’t Malin? What would be left of him? He should turn back now. If he didn’t go to that room, didn’t knock on the door, then it could still end!
But his feet kept walking. One foot in front of the other, the steps bringing him closer and closer to the man he loved, the man he hated. Then, that door filled his vision. How had the steps added up so quickly? Why hadn’t he turned back? He should have turned back. He should turn back now, but his hand rose, his fist poised over that dark, old wooden slab. In his ears, he heard the question Malin would always ask him each time he’d fallen in practice and whined about being sore, tired.
“Who do you serve? Who, Jarrett? Whose kingdom do you protect? Whose life would you sacrifice your own for? Who do you serve?”
“My king,” Jarrett breathed.
“Then get your ass up, dust yourself off, and serve him!”
His fist rapped against the door, and it opened almost immediately. Audric stood there, half-dressed in only his leather trousers, his feet bare on the stone flooring. The heat rolled out of the room as the breeze from the open windows brought the humid air into cooler hallway. Audric smiled, his eyes bright, almost wild.
“Malin,” Audric breathed, reaching for him.
Jarrett’s heart sank, but a smile still curved his lips, his voice steady as he stepped into the room. “Yes, Audric,” he purred, and the door shut behind him.
…to be continued July 22nd!