|The Measure of a Man
Author: kasey8473 PM
Chapter 25 uploaded. Story Complete The aftermath of AKT. Adhemar and ChristianaRated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Drama - Chapters: 25 - Words: 76,672 - Reviews: 57 - Favs: 34 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 12-08-03 - Published: 07-03-03 - Status: Complete - id: 1411700
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Title: Full Circle
Summary: Final plans are made and secrets told.
Disclaimer: Not mine and I do not own them.
Notes: As much as I hate fics featuring songs, I can't resist the urge to follow in Brian Helgeland's footsteps in this. Songs that inspired me in the writing of this fic include: 'Whenever Hearts Collide' by Jack Wagner, 'Foolish Games' by Jewel, and 'To Love Again' and 'Long Time Coming' both by the truly awesome Jonny Lang. Thank you for all who have reviewed this story and those who may review in the future.
She is exhausted from the terror of those many hours she was held captive, yet I am reluctant to let her slip into gentle, rejuvenating sleep. After being away, even that short amount of time, I do not want to be without the sound of her voice and the touch of her gaze upon me. I rub my palm along her no longer flat stomach, marveling in the change and the thought that we two have begun a new life, in more ways than one. This child is a source of wonderment to me.
Long ago, I expressed my desire that she bear me many children. Faced with the first of such, I do find myself awed and a little frightened. I can admit my fear, for admitting it is no weakness, but rather a step into strength, into facing that fear. These long years since Beatrice I have been hiding myself, locked inside my hurts and fears. No more. I shall face it all with my wife at my side.
"Tell me of Beatrice," she asks, her fingers twining with mine over her belly.
Her request startles me and I raise onto my forearm to look down at her lovely face. There is curiosity at play there. Does she read my mind to know that woman was in my thoughts? No, it is simple wonderings about the woman who tried to destroy us. "What about her?"
She bites her lip, then speaks quickly, as though she is afraid she shall lose her nerve to give voice to her curiosity. "That madman painted a rather unflattering portrait of you and a beautiful one of her, not that I believed him...in full. Much of what he said smacked of flat-out lies. I remember your mother brushing off my enquiries after Lydia mentioned the woman --"
"And what did Lydia say about her?" I loose my fingers from hers and trail my hand over the curve of her hip, smoothing the nearly sheer fabric of her shift.
Christiana looks away, then back. "That to understand you on women I should find out about her." Her hand raises to my neck and around it, fingers curling in my hair, keeping me there over her. Is she afraid I will not tell her? She should not fear. I will tell her any of my past secrets she wishes to know so that there will be nothing hidden between us. I will open myself to her. It may be difficult to do so, old habits and all, but I have a firm resolve to not hide away. "What happened, Etienne? What went on with you two? Everyone ignores my questions about her, even Jocelyn, which is not like her at all. Jocelyn adores scandalous gossip. She says it makes life interesting. This woman Beatrice hurt you deeply and I would know the circumstances. I cannot live with secrets."
"I agree. There will be no secrets between us. Be patient with me though...my love." The endearment feels good coming from my lips and I smile a little. "I may still fight a bit in the telling. Beatrice is a deep wound." She waits, staring up at me, her beautiful eyes wide, guileless. This woman I have wed is everything Beatrice never was. Innocent, generous, faithful...the list could easily go on. "Beatrice Marchant came to this house when Adele and I were six, a month or so before Adele had the accident that made her as she is today. Beatrice was a pretty, petite blond thing, very obviously spoiled and I had little to do with her until a few years later."
Christiana's hand unclasps from my hair, moving to stroke my neck and chest where my shirt is parted. The gesture is a soothing one and I settle lower, relaxing my shoulder.
"I got to that age where boys begin thinking of girls as something other than an object to torment with little animals and frogs. Even at that age, Beatrice knew how to work a person so that they would give her anything she chose. I was a young fool who ignored the advice of men older than I. I was willingly smitten with her, at first adoring her from afar, then, as I grew older, adoring her close up and personal. I did seduce Beatrice, or at least I thought I was seducing her. Looking back, I can see the seduction was all on her part. She needed no seducing to spread her legs."
I frown, placing my hand on my wife's belly.
"Imagine an eager young man, convinced that this girl he adores is a loving, wonderful being. He is convinced that she gave herself to him in love, that she adores him as much as he adores her. She is up on a pedestal, a goddess in his mind, everything woman should be. Then imagine his despair to find his goddess is only human, and not a very nice one at that. I caught her with one of the squires. I stood there, unable to believe what my eyes witnessed. My faithful Beatrice was not faithful in the least, though she had claimed to be many times."
With a sigh, I move my arm and lay flush beside my wife, resting my head upon the supple curve of her breast, breathing in her lavender scent. I can still see the scene in my mind, as though it was fresh. Beatrice teasing the man, encouraging him and brushing aside his argument that what she proposed was the wrong thing to do. Her words of disdain for me and how I was a means to an end, perfectly under her control. It was after that I vowed to never let a woman control me. I would marry a meek creature who would do every thing I told her to do without question. I would have a decoration for my mantle, a pretty thing to show off and put away when I was done with her.
"My first immediate thought was that it was I who had made her that way, that by having her a couple times, I placed a craving in her. My second thought was why she did not come to me then, if that was the case? I would have gladly, willingly...." I swallow hard. "The truth was, she planned to marry me, working her wiles on my father and hers to achieve her aim. Beatrice wanted to be a Countess someday. She wanted to raise herself up...."
"Oh Etienne...." Christiana's fingertips run along my cheek. "Not all women are like that."
"My mother confronted her the next day. I was not the only one who had discovered the tryst. I recall hearing them screaming at each other. It was then that Beatrice took Lydia out on a horse, nearly killing her and causing the fear Lydia still has to this day of horses. Germaine was apprenticing with my father's herald at the time and I took him with me to find Beatrice and Lydia. We barely got there in time. Germaine carried Lydia back to the manor and I dragged Beatrice. She screamed the while that I had gotten her pregnant, that her behavior was my fault, but I knew her brat was not mine. After a couple times together, she had played the regretful maiden, agonizing over the wrongness of what we had done. She would have had to be greatly showing for it to be my child. I reminded her of that and she dropped the act. I saw her for what she was."
It occurs to me then that I had felt the same sense of disgust at the realization of Thatcher's playacting as a noble as I had at Beatrice's deception. The thought makes me pause in my narrative. The hatred that had welled and overflowed in the moment of my grasp of truth about Thatcher...had it stemmed from Beatrice in my past? Had I equated him with her, not truly hating him, but rather his actions that reminded me of Beatrice and the hurt she had caused me? Is it possible?
I sit up, attempting to work through my thoughts. My obsession had not truly been having Jocelyn for my own and beating Thatcher, but rather subjugating Beatrice and taking the power from her, that power she maintained over the years by my memory of her betrayal. During the course of those Tournaments, Jocelyn had become Beatrice, my beautiful, scheming, fallen goddess who I planned to set at my side as...a pretty, silent thing to show off when the mood stuck me. Thatcher also had Beatrice stamped upon him, not at first though. That came later, yes? What should have been a healthy competition for a woman had turned into my fighting my demon, the one that had lain inside me since that day when I was just sixteen; the one who had torn me up inside in innumerable ways.
"Etienne?" Christiana sits also and I turn my gaze back to her, grateful to have her with me still.
"Hmm?" No. It could not be. I hated Thatcher because he stood in the way of my having Jocelyn. She had preferred him, which made it all the easier to hate him. Yes? I do not like being told I cannot have what I want and his very presence had told me I could not have her.
"What? What happened next?"
I tilt my head to the side. Christiana proved me wrong on women on so many levels that I must be careful not to make the mistake of placing her on a pedestal as well. Beatrice held me prisoner in hate for far too long. When I lost to Thatcher, something inside me was released from the grasp of the demon and saw a glimmer of light in his victory over me. I was a man filled with anger and irrational fears, a man who did not even really like himself. I was at the very bottom and there was nowhere to go but up.
'Change your stars' Thatcher had said in nearly a whisper to himself. It had made no sense to me at the time. Change your stars? Men do not change their stars. Men stumble before reaching those lofty heights. I had proved that by Thatcher's fall and confinement in the gaol. But then he won the joust. It was I who fell. If that man could change himself for the better, then why could I not also? I had witnessed his triumph into a new status. I had seen that it was possible. Why could I not free myself from my own pain? What was holding me back aside from myself?
I must extend a hand to William Thatcher, not in friendship, for I do not think I could do that, but in truce. I am changed forever from our dance.
A sense of peace settles over me. I think I have found answers for questions that have plagued me far too long. I must follow my own advice and let the past die. "It does not matter what happened. Not anymore." Beatrice shaped me and my actions in the present more than I had ever realized. Deliberately looking back, I can see how she influenced me, how my motives were not what I had thought them at the time, but deeper, nearly buried in the bottom of the well that is hate.
"Not you too. Tell me the rest or I shall die of curiosity." Her hands turn my face and I plant a kiss on her lips.
"Very well. I saw her for the spoiled, manipulative, scheming bitch she was. Every move she made, word she said was an effort to get her way. She excelled at playing games...much like Jocelyn."
"Be fair, Christiana. Your friend loved those games she played and she played them well."
She shakes her head. "Jocelyn is nothing like that woman."
I raise a hand to stop her from going on. "Very well. She is not. Shall I go on with my tale? Or would you rather discuss Jocelyn?"
"I would not rather discuss Jocelyn." She replies. "Go on."
I ease down onto my back, one hand behind my head. "Beatrice was selfish and assumed she could play any man, or woman, to achieve her aim. My father was so disgusted with her that he refused to touch her, so it was I who tossed her from the hall doors when she would not willingly leave the manor to return home. I spoke my story to her father, supported by my father. She cried and begged and pleaded, finally throwing a tantrum when no one believed her stories. Beatrice admitted to hurting Lydia and hinted she had been responsible for Adele's accident. We left, returned home and received word later that she had almost died from trying to have her baby removed. I threw myself into training and you know the rest."
She lowers hers gaze, shoulders slumping. "How sad."
"To be driven by hate. She hated you, Etienne, her brother was clear on that." Her fingers grasp mine. "When I met her in the galley that day, she hated me as well, only I had never seen her before." She lays beside me, licking her lips, her next words dismissing the topic. "I am glad you are back."
"I am glad to be back." Driven by this peace inside me, I dive into the other issue between us. "I do not mean to hurt you, Christiana. Believe me, please. I know there are misunderstandings between us that need to be put to right. That day in the stable, with Sir Einon--" She turns her head away and I roll onto my side, gently turning it back. "No, do not look away. I was not angry with you. The man had said some things before that led me to believe he would harm you given the chance. I did not handle the situation well, I know. And..." While I am airing every misunderstanding, I might as well cover old ground as well, though a tiny voice inside me says to leave it be. "I misled you months ago by intimating I still felt something for Jocelyn. That was a lie. Whatever I felt for her died a quick death while you and I traveled here."
Christiana pushes my hand away and slips from the bed to stand, her back to me. "You lied to me."
I give a slow nod. "Yes. I did apologize though, something I find difficult to do." I am disappointed when she drags her dress over her head and puts on her surcoat and shoes. "Christiana?"
"You have let me believe, all this time that you still felt something for Jocelyn. How could you?" She ties her surcoat and begins pacing. "I have been in agony--"
"I know. You wrote Jocelyn letter after letter-- "
She whirls. "Excuse me? My letters? You read my letters?" My mouth has run away with me and I have erred in that admission. It seems my lie does not bother her as much as my reading her letters. "You opened up my letters that I had written to Jocelyn before sending them on to her? Is that it?" Her arms cross, a protective gesture over her breasts. "Did you read the incoming letters as well?"
I open my mouth and decide to stay silent. Guilt is rising to the surface.
"Those were private! You invaded my private thoughts. You...eavesdropped!"
What can I say that will even justify my actions? Nothing. Nothing can justify that. "I...am..." I close my eyes with a wince. "Sorry?" There. That did not take as much effort as the apology I gave her previously. That word 'sorry' fairly rolled off my tongue this time. Her weight falls heavily on the mattress and I open one eye.
"If you open my private correspondence again without asking first, I shall be extremely cross with you. You had no right to do that." She has uncrossed her arms, not looking as upset as she did a moment ago. "If there is anything in my letters that I think you need to know, I shall read it to you."
"Am I forgiven?"
She shrugs. "Is that all? There is nothing more you feel compelled to tell me? No other women who will be trying to lay siege here?"
"None. Nothing more. I regret past indiscretions of all kinds that have caused you distress. You are my wife, and I would not hurt you."
Christiana turns to face me, leaning down close to my face. "Then I forgive you. We start fresh this night. From here on we tell each other what needs telling."
I reach up, sliding my hand into that silken mass of her hair. "Agreed."
We begin anew, the past wiped clean.
Somewhere about midnight, I find I cannot sleep. With a glance at Christiana, wrapped in the sheets as usual, I throw on some clothes and make my way down to the kitchens. There must be something there I can nibble on until sleep again beckons. Perhaps I will light some candles and take out a book to read. The manor is quiet, save the thin wail of a baby somewhere in the house. It could be one of the twins or it could be the child of another, I do not know, nor do I care to trek about until I discover the answer.
Going into the large room that houses our kitchen, I am surprised to find William Thatcher already there and I pause on the threshold. He looks up from his cup as I approach, a wary glint in his eyes. "Evening," he says.
I nod and hunt down a cup for my own use, filling it with spiced wine. Taking a hunk of bread, I join him at the long trestle table, sitting directly across from him. "It is one of those nights." I offer as conversation. "I always find it difficult to sleep after the excitement of a battle." He takes another sip and I have the feeling he is wanting to ask me something, a weight about his silence, so I wait, tearing pieces from the stale loaf and nibbling at them. The air between us is strained, as I had known it would be, with good cause.
"Why?" Thatcher runs a finger around and around the rim of the cup, staring at the tabletop, gaze in constant movement along it.
He drains his cup and sets it down with a thud on the table. "Why help Jocelyn? You could have killed them, my babies, wounded me deeply. You could have broken their little necks and told her they were born dead. You did not do that and I want to know why."
Confusion plays on his face, but not the innocence I had seen in him on our first meeting long, long months ago. He is no longer a raw youth, filled with idealistic visions. In a way, I am saddened by what I see. I was not the only one changed by our clash. I sit back in the chair, slumping a bit. It is a late hour for such a conversation, one that would likely be better met in the daylight after a long rest, but he is peering at me now, wanting an answer immediately. "You all have thought me such a monster. Christiana was frightened to death of me months ago."
"And did you not behave as such?" He counters with raised brows. "Did you not behave as though you were perfectly in the right to do as you pleased with little thought to others?"
I almost smile at that. "Yes, I did. As to your question, to be honest, the thought never crossed my mind. And what of you? You killed men to protect my sisters, my wife and my home. You could have taken your wife and friends and fled."
Thatcher blinks, also sitting back. "The thought never crossed my mind."
"And so we have something in common. We helped one another without thoughts of malice entering into it."
"It is not in me to abandon those in need. I do not hate you, Adhemar, only things you have done."
We are having a conversation, he and I, something I never would have thought possible. Never have we two had a discussion as such. "Your lady hates me."
"Jocelyn is very protective of those she considers her family and friends."
"We would have killed each other, she and I, had we wed in the end. I prefer a woman like Christiana." I glance towards the door leading to the hallway. Has she woken? Or is she still asleep, trim form wrapped in soft sheets? A sudden yawn slips free and I finish my wine and stand. Looking at Thatcher's bowed head, I speak. "We will not be friends, William Thatcher. Men strong in the same ways as we very rarely befriend each other. There is too much competitive urge to always be the winner in every endeavor."
He raises his chin, gaze carefully passive.
"But you and your own are welcome here. Good night." I leave before he can say anything, making my way back to my chamber. I should have thought over my statement before actually speaking it aloud, but....This will please Christiana.
When morning arrives, I am awake early. There is no other to perform my duties. I am fully in charge. No one will step in. There were many losses here, despite the timely arrival of Merrick and his army, many good men, women and children who lost their lives in defense of the lands and the manor. I will not have an easy day of it, visiting homes and discovering what needs rebuilding outside the manor walls.
Unsurprisingly, Thatcher asks what he can do to help with the task, so I end up with him along. I do not mind the extra hands. We will be doing hard physical labor this day. While we are gone, Christiana will be putting the manor to rights, overseeing the rebuilding of the gate and the doors. In a few days, she will take Sarah and do her own visits on our lands, bringing medicines to the peasants and comforting words to those who have lost family. She learned well from my mother.
When time for the evening meal arrives, Thatcher and I finally manage to drag our weary selves in to the Great Hall. Christiana and Jocelyn are already there, along with the men who stayed behind to make the repairs here. As the meal progresses, Thatcher brings up a very good question.
"What do you plan to do about that witch of a woman who sent Marchant here? Surely you are not going to let her get away with assaulting your home?"
Our table goes quiet, all waiting for my answer. I take a drink, considering several courses of action that have been circling my mind all day. None of them seem quite right. They all seem wrong somehow. I would rather forget Beatrice, but I do have to act so she does not send more forces here. "I do not know. I need time to think on it."
Jocelyn shifts the child she holds in her arms, pushing food about her plate with her spoon. "I have an idea."
Somehow, I am not surprised that she should have a plan thought up. "Which is?"
She exchanges a long glance with Christiana, her sudden smile almost predatory. "Princess Joan." The woman's name is said with an air of great satisfaction. "Believe me Count..." Another glance at my wife and a barely perceptible nod of her head as she amends my title with my name. "Etienne, if you wish Beatrice punished for this, the best route is to go to Joan."
"What good would that do?" I frown at her. Her husband continues to eat, making no comment.
Christiana clasps my hand with hers on the table top, fingers squeezing. "Women often have ways of dealing with each other that hurt far more than anything men can dream up."
"I do not doubt that." I drawl, raising my wife's hand and pressing gentle kisses upon her knuckles. "Explain how Princess Joan can aid in this."
"Christiana and I shall write to her, telling her of what has happened and asking for her royal counsel on how to deal with the woman. I have a friend in Joan, through Will's friendship with Edward, so she will reply and look into the situation. From there, it goes to her and Edward. They will look into possible political ramifications for them and something will be done. If Beatrice's husband is at war against Edward...." Jocelyn trails off, an innocent expression on her face.
I chuckle. "Well thought out. Mayes fights against Edward. He was nearly made a pauper by the taxes Edward levied after the campaign in Castile."
"And Beatrice is at back at Court in Bordeaux, yes? Trying to smooth the waters with Joan in the event that the insurrection fails miserably. Consider it. You would have to do little personally."
The conversation veers away onto other topics and soon we are done, the tables cleared away. Sitting in my favorite chair, I gather my wife to me, my gaze traveling the room. Thatcher and his family are before the fire, Jocelyn talking with Sarah, each woman holding a baby. William is loudly entreating Germaine to show his skill with a blade and I find the other two of their party sitting on the first two steps. Kate and Wat, for Christiana made certain I knew their names, are occupied with each other. A year ago, none of William Thatcher's family and friends would have been welcome here.
I have changed. I have grown and learned that what I thought was a weakness is far from it. Now, I can freely admit that I love and that love has strengthened me and made me whole. Past hurts are fading, the sting leaving them.
I have been re-weighed.
I have been re-measured.
And I am no longer lacking.
Long ago, I pictured Thatcher saying with impudent grin and wink, 'Welcome to the new world. God save you, if it is right that he should do so.'
I have been saved and I embrace that new world gladly. What a long journey it has been into this new world! Yes.