Vardene stared at the child in his arms.
The day had started so well. Catlyn had been up and running around. She had been pestering him. She had been chattering incessantly. Charlie had been there, smiling indulgently at Catlyn who had been happily running between them. Charlie had been smiling, smiling up at him.
A lone tear escaped Vardene's eye as he held the child in his arms closer to him, trying to keep her warm against a day that was slowly cooling. He looked towards the horizon, back to where Charlie was. Would she be missing them yet? Would she come looking?
He remembered her face as he had last seen it, all smiles and blushes as he had moved to stand too close to her and run his fingers loosely through her hair. She had not been the only one to blush, he thought with a slight smile. He was not used to feeling the way he did, not used to feeling pleasure because of a woman.
It had been after this that he and Catlyn had gone walking up to the nearby waterfall. She had been pestering him for near a week for him to take her. The girl was persistent if nothing else.
His pleasant musings ended. He wished to the Darkness he hadn't listened to her, but instead told her no, that it was too dangerous. But he had not. He had given in to the girl who had taken her place in his heart as a younger sister. And now she lay cold and bloody in his arms.
Vardene squeezed his eyes shut. He could still remember her scream as it had shattered the tranquil air, could still remember seeing her fall from the rocks she had been so impulsively scampering across despite his protests. He could still remember seeing her body lying still in the shallow water below.
He hadn't stopped to think, had climbed straight down that rocky slope as fast as he could to reach her. Too fast. He had slipped and landed heavily on his leg. And because of his stupidity, his unthinking haste, he had been unable to carry her far from where she had fell. He had only been able to get her out of the cold water, only been able to carry her awkwardly up onto the nearby dry rocks. She had needed him, trusted him. He cursed himself a thousand times for that. He hated himself for not being able to help her, hated himself that he could do nothing.
His body started to tremble. Catlyn was fading. Her skin was too cold and whimpering cries no longer left her lips.
Where were they? He needed them. Needed Charlie. She was a Healer. She could heal the fading little girl held in his arms. She could save his little sister.
"Catlyn," came his gut-wrenching cry as he buried his face in her neck, rocking them both back and forth.
So lost as he was in his pain, Vardene did not immediately hear the far off voices calling out, losing him precious minutes every call he missed.
His head snapped up.
"Here!" his emotion clogged voice croaked, "Mother Night, here!" he finished, his voice rising in desperation.
He vaguely heard people below moving quickly in his direction.
"It's okay now… they have come, little sister," he murmured softly, brushing her damp hair from her face.
"Mother Night," a shocked voice whispered, "Vardene… what happened?"
But Vardene neither heard, nor cared for the man who questioned him. Neither did he notice as the man helped him to his feet and down the slope towards the capitol of Dena Nehele. Asides from a few attempts by those who had come to their rescue to take Catlyn from him, he did not notice anything. He was lost in his pain, lost in the face of a girl who should never have trusted him to keep her safe.
Charlie watched the sleeping child. She had not left her side for some time now, but she now knew she would be okay. She had done all she could for her and thank the Darkness it had been enough.
But her emotions could not rest yet, not when another was all to ready to fill Catlyn's place. Vardene's image filled her mind. No one could get through to him. She still remembered his face as he had limped in between Valen and Reagan with Catlyn held in his arms. It had been so blank. So devoid of all feeling.
No one would have known how he felt if there had not been silent tears sliding down his cheeks.
He had been so unwilling to give the child in his grasp up to anyone. He had never growled, snarled or glared. He had not once acted as he had upon his arrival. Instead he had just quietly hung on, unwilling to surrender the small battered bundle in his arms.
But she had finally gotten through to him, had finally convinced him to give Catlyn to her so that she could begin her healing. She looked back affectionately at the sleeping child. Had Vardene not been there Catlyn would surely be dead. Had he given her up to someone else she would definitely be dead. But his unyielding embrace had stopped the flow of blood from the gash in her side, and the heat from his body had kept hers from chilling. He had saved her. He just needed to see it. If she could just get him to see Catlyn for himself… but so far all her efforts had been in vain.
Valen's quiet words came back to her.
"He just stood there, Charlie…" Valen ran a hand roughly over his face, "we didn't know what to do… we got him back, put him to bed… we had to take his boots off, had to tuck him in like a child… and he let us! That was the worst part, Charlie, he let us."
A quiet knock echoed through the room. Charlie moved from her bedside vigil to answer the door.
"Yes…?" her eyes widened at the man who stood there. Vardene. She took his hand and pulled him gently with her towards the bed that Catlyn lay in.
"She is okay, Vardene."
He remained quiet. She glanced up at him. He was staring at Catlyn, his gaze unmoving. Abruptly he turned to her, tearing his hand from hers so he could pull her into a hard embrace.
"Thankyou," came his fierce whisper.
Vardene found her later that day, still beside Catlyn's bed, but this time asleep herself. He had left them both in order to fetch some food. His little Healer had obviously been tired if those few minutes he'd been gone were all it took for her to fall asleep. He smiled as he gently lifted her into his arms and started towards her own quarters.
He knew now he was completely free from abuse here. He had not known a part of him had still feared the women of Dena Nehele would still rise against him until Charlotte had shown him that he had nothing to fear as a result of Catlyn's accident. He knew that if the same thing had happened in Hyall he would definitely have felt the agony of the Ring. Especially if she had been a treasured daughter of one of Hyall's Hundred Families.
Hell's fire, the Ring would only have been the beginning.
But Charlotte had shown him, was still showing him, that he had nothing to fear. Her light, her laughter and warmth, still shone from within her, even when he had feared it never would around him again.
A small smile curved his lips as he reached her chambers. He carried her to her own bed and placed her tenderly on its mattress.
He looked down startled, but she was still asleep. And yet she had called to him.
It nearly undid him. He stared down at the exhausted woman, his heart beating a rapid pace. He knew he would not be able to bring himself to leave her room. He laid down next to her, wrapping himself possessively around her sleeping form, hoping he would find the strength to leave her before she woke, but knowing he would not.
Charlie awoke to find herself not alone in her bed, a lone candle casting dancing shadows on the face of the man beside her. He had not noticed she was awake yet. She wriggled against him slightly to see what he would do.
Vardene's head turned swiftly, his eyes locking with hers. She blushed.
He reached out and ran his fingers across her lips making her body tremble. Her breathing quickened. She wanted him. She did not know if she dared reciprocate his touch though. She did not want him to think she was the same as all the women he had encountered in his past. She could not bear that.
But neither could she bear her need.
She moved her hands under his lose shirt and down his bare chest, tracing the well defined muscle, her eyes unable to stop following the progressive her fingers made. But all too soon he grasped her wrists making her eyes fly to his.
What she saw there both excited and scared her. Fear. Lust. Violence. Love.
She could not tear her gaze from his. But oh how she wanted to hold him, to smooth away the hesitance and conflict so clearly etched on his face. He was warring with himself, wondering if he dared test the beliefs he had held to so strongly, wondering if he dared place his trust in a woman. Yes, she wanted to scream, trust me! But she knew it would only make things worse. Would only make him aware she knew of the inner turmoil he suffered. So she held her tongue.
His fingers traced her cheek, whispering slowly down her neck, his eyes slowly following before quickly darting up to meet her own. He looked wary. She had expected no less. Any woman looking at him, the way she knew she must be, would only have meant him harm after they had ridden him.
"Charlie…I… I can't do this…"
She watched, helpless, as the man she cared for filled with anguish, but he needed to figure this out himself.
"Mother Night, but you're beautiful," he whispered.
His fingers tangled in her hair, tugging it down so her head tilted back so he could kiss her neck.
"Charlie," his voiced caressed her name in a husky whisper, "you're not afraid of me are you? Only, I… before you were…"
"No, I am not scared of you," she breathed, becoming further flustered. He always called her Charlotte. Always.
"I have never felt drawn to anyone like I am drawn to you," he whispered as released his hold and cupped her face in his hands, "I have never cared for a woman how I care for you… But I've had enough of not caring, I've had enough of killing and running from pain. Let me, and I will always keep you safe, Charlie, I will never run. I will never leave you... I love…"
"Vardene… I…" she did not know what to say. She cared for him so much and she had no idea how to tell him. She was still scared he might run, still scared even though he was telling her he never would.
Pain flickered across his face and he pulled away. She could have howled in frustration.
"You are scared."
"No," she pleaded, "not of you!"
"Don't feel sorry for me, Charlotte," he growled, "Never pity me."
"Don't ask me to stay away from you, I can't… I don't want to fight it anymore, Charlie. I don't think I can…"
"I would not… could not… Vardene, I love you…" she gasped as her words brought his hands back swiftly to her face and watched in loving wonder as delight transformed his features.
His hands started to softly explore her body as his lips lightly brushed hers before becoming more forceful, more insistent, making her arch into his grasp.
And then he showed her not what an ex-pleasure slave could do, but exactly what a man in love could.