Xavier dropped his head and pinched the bridge of his nose trying to stop the growing headache. For three days, relative ease. This morning appeared to be another day of the same. Only after Io consumed a meal, washed her face and smiled at everyone, she refused to get in the wagon. This morning, with dark clouds looming and a stiff cold wind blowing, his wife demanded to walk.
“She does not have shoes, you cannot let her,” Jon said in a ground out whisper.
“He needs to let her make these choices.” Gerald worked to keep his voice low as well.
Before, he’d have declared her stubborn and forced her to get in the wagon, likely with a few good smacks to her rump. Now, he tried to give more consideration to things Io said or did. If this was a challenge, he couldn’t say. If she only wanted to stretch her legs after three days in the small wagon, he wouldn’t assume. He’d been told Io needed to have periods of exercise to help her heal from the miscarriage. Xavier’s concern was more that she’d exhaust herself out of spite.
She didn’t want to return home. She’d agreed but she wanted to be as far from him as she could get. It hurt knowing his own wife hated him. And it confused him because he sometimes caught her looking at him the way she’d done before he’d failed her so completely.
“…and the weather is turning again, this will slow us down,” Ian grumbled.
Xavier heard the arguments why he should deny Io. None of them stood against the one reason he shouldn’t. She wanted this. He’d spent the entirety of their relationship telling her she could have whatever she wanted that was his to give and then denying her time and again for no reason better than it was inconvenient to him she should have it. His wife no longer trusted anything he told her; she assumed he never considered her in any matter, regardless of how small. Dropping his arms and forcing his hands to relax out of fists, Xavier headed to where Io waited leaning against the side of the wagon he’d taken special effort to make comfortable for her.
His steps faltered when her expression became one of distrust and fear. He watched her tense and step back. The vehicle behind her kept her from going far and Xavier reached her before she chose which way to run. To her credit, she straightened her posture and pulled back her shoulders the same time her chin came up to meet his eyes. She could still do that. She could meet his gaze directly, so few could. This woman could look him in the face even when she was afraid of him.
“Io,” he started.
“Am I not allowed to walk? You will not let me?” she interrupted with a sneer.
“Io, it is not about what I allow.” Xavier folded his arms across his chest to prevent reaching out and pulling her against him like he wanted. “You wish to walk, there is no danger in doing so.” He tipped his head a bit to the right and saw a bit of her stiffness slip. “I would that you allow if you tire or if the weather grows worse…” He looked up at the sky and knew it would rain. His eyes came back to hers. “You ride again.”
“I am not stupid,” she snapped.
“I know, Io. I also know you often become willful when you think you have something to prove.” It wasn’t the conversation he wanted to have. He was weary of every conversation becoming an argument. It seemed they couldn’t do anything except argue or ignore each other. They needed to be able to speak, honestly, without anger or fear.
“What do I have to prove,” she asked, sadly. “I have been declared a failure.”
Xavier inhaled sharply, ready to deny and rebut her statement. Then realizing that would lead to yet another fight between them, he made the conscience choice to ignore it. “You have nothing at all to prove, Io. You have never had to prove anything to anyone.” He stepped back so she might feel free to walk away. “We should be on our way.”
He headed back to where the men waited and signaled everyone to mount. Seeing Io start down the road, turn, look back before picking up her pace, Xavier set his foot in the stirrup when Gunther rode up.
“You know she tends to be… talkative when she walks,” he said, giving Xavier a pointed look.
Again Xavier looked at her moving down the road. “She does not want to talk to me.” He again made to mount.
“She also tends to be willing to listen,” the man added.
He was correct. If Xavier didn’t start trying now, then when? He pulled his foot from the stirrup and drawing the reins over the horse’s head he started, on foot, after Io. As soon as the animal realized this, he nearly trampled Xavier to catch up with her. Xavier came alongside his wife, stumbling and red faced. And he almost kissed the beast when he caught sight of Io trying to hide a smile.
He reined the horse back and cleared his throat. “Do you care if I walk with you?”
She gave him a hard look. “Do you intend to strap me the whole way?”
He bit his tongue. He deserved that. Without a word, he pulled the horse to a stop. Removing his sword from his side, he secured it behind the saddle and made a show of pulling his heavy belt from around his waist and stuffing it in his saddle bag. He patted down his person and pulled the small knife out and put it in with the belt. Tugging his oilskin cloak down, he folded it over his arm as he took the reins and stepped up beside Io again.
Her eyes stayed on him the entire time and he caught the unguarded surprise at his actions. She hesitated when he took the first step forward then fell in beside him. They walked in silence for a while, but needing an opening Xavier did something he wasn’t accustom to doing.
“Io, I want to apologize. I was wrong to take my belt to you.” He kept his eyes forward as he spoke but he felt her staring at him. “I did not hear you out about why you left the house and I certainly did not ask your reason for not wanting to ride. If I had, perhaps we might not be here now. So I say again, I am most sorry.”
He looked at her then. Her head was down and she picked at her nails. “It was too late, my reason then, for not wanting to ride,” she said softly.
“We did not know. I should have asked. I was impatient and tired and I did not give you so much as a basic courtesy.” He still didn’t understand how something as important as Io’s mare being sent to slaughter was done without his consent, without him being informed of the act. He’d enough time, trying to catch up with his runaway wife, to conclude the control he had in his home was diminished. Expecting Io to have any when his was lacking, was a miscalculation that cost them both dearly.
They walked awhile more in silence and Xavier thought perhaps that was all the progress he’d make today. She’d listened to his apology; it was a start. He could think on it more and maybe tomorrow he’d have something more to say.
“You are angry with me,” she said, dropping her hands to her sides and taking her bottom lip between her teeth.
“No, Io, I am not angry with you.” The look she gave him prompted him to clarify. He needed to be as honest as possible if he was going to regain this woman’s trust. He took a deep breath. “I am angry. I am angry and disappointed and… hurt. I am those things. But I am not angry with you. I am angry with myself. I was very sure I was doing things as they needed to be done.”
“You were…” Io interrupted.
“No,” he cut her off hoping she’d hear him out. “No, I placed you in my house and gave no other thought to it. I placed a large burden on you then did nothing to support you in carrying it.”
“And I failed.” She sighed and again started picking at her nails.
“You were undermined, Io. I believe eventually you would have mastered everything. Unfortunately, time was not on our side after Charlotte.” His mother was a weakness he didn’t know how to handle. His habit of biting his tongue and letting Charlotte do and say what she wanted caused Io more distress than he knew possible. As much as he wanted to continue to respect his father’s wife, he couldn’t keep doing so at the expense of his own. “You were outnumbered and undefended,” he went on.
“And if I had done things the way they were meant to be done, I—”
“Io, you could have done everything just as Charlotte would have and still have not pleased her. You did… do things your way. Those ways are acceptable. I could say it leaves you vulnerable, but I should have acted as the shield, that you could act on matters as you saw fit and not be left open to hurt, harm.” He chanced a glance sideways and hope flared a little seeing her expression. He knew that look. When she was trying to understand something she’d never considered, she looked that way. Her brows furrowed, her eyes got a bit brighter, lips set in a hard line but shifting to purse before becoming a line again. He went on while she thought about his words. “I failed to be your shield, Io.”
“And this makes you angry?”
“Of course. Regardless of what else I think I should do, my priority should always be your protection—”
“I am capable of caring for myself,” she said hotly.
“Yes, Io, you have shown us all you are far more than capable.” He could admit had he not gotten her with child and had the pregnancy not turned bad, Io would have reached the coast and kept going. Xavier would still be trying to catch her but for that twisted fate. “It is not that I think you incapable. It is simply a matter of a husband’s duty to his wife and family. And I do not speak only of your bodily safety. I speak of protecting your policies.”
“My policies? I do not understand.” She stopped walking and he backtracked a few steps.
“Io, what you set in place in the house and the shires, I had an obligation to enforce. If I found them unacceptable, I had an obligation to speak with you in private and work to resolve issues. Had I done that simple thing, again, we may not find ourselves here.” He touched her arm to urge her to start forward again. “I am angry I gave so little effort as to cause you to flee. I am angry I allowed so much discontent to go unchecked.”
“That I fled, you are angry with me for this.” She was looking at him now and he held her eyes while he spoke.
“I am disappointed,” he said, and her eyes dropped away. He reached out and lifted her chin so they again looked each other in the eyes. “I am disappointed, Io, but you were not wrong.” Her eyes flared wide. “As much as I want to deny it, your instincts were correct. Had you not run, I cannot say things would improve.” She pulled away and her eyes narrowed into mere slits. Not knowing the reason, he pushed on. “I am disappointed we did not speak sooner. I do not know when it became acceptable for us to not speak on matters. When I began to accept you hid things from me.”
“Do you accuse me again of lying, my lord?” Her defensive tone rang clear.
“I cannot. I know you did not speak out because I was not listening. I will be listening now, Io.”
“What is there to say?” She shrugged and looked away. “What difference can speaking make?”
“Io,” he called, moving to step in her path. “If you allow me, I will set this right.”
The wind picked up and the strands of hair that escaped her braid whipped into her face. She struggled a minute to brush them away. He watched as she pulled her shoulders back, took a deep breath and he prepared to hear her rail at him. But as she opened her mouth, a wicked clasp of thunder dropped on them. Before he could react, Io jumped forward into his arms. She clutched at him and he felt her trembling.
“Io?” He set his hands on her arms and pushed her back. He chuckled a bit when she resisted being set away. “Io? What is it? I have never seen you jump or shake at a storm.”
She didn’t get the chance to answer as a second clasp nearly as loud sent her slamming into his chest. Xavier barely got the oilskin over her before the drizzle became a downpour. Bending he wrapped his arms around her knees and lifted her. She stayed upright, holding the oilskin over their heads.
Splashing through puddles, Xavier took them to the side of the road where they could wait for the wagon to pull up under the shelter of the trees, setting her down and adjusting the protective covering around her. The thunder rolled over them followed by a sky splitting bolt of lightning. If she’d been one step away, he’d have missed the sob for the pounding of the rain.
“Io?” When had his wife become afraid of bad weather? He worked his hand under her chin and lifted her face. Her eyes were wide and her face pale. “Io? You are safe.” The wagon reached them. Jon and Gunther were quick to open the covering so Xavier could lift Io inside. She scooted back into the pile of furs, pulled them around and over her and lay down without another word.
Xavier stepped back as the covering was secured and the men again mounted. “Xavier?” Gerald called, holding out the reins for him.
Xavier mounted and the group took up their regular stations around the wagon. As worrisome as Io’s odd reaction, Xavier couldn’t dismiss the elation of having her move towards him, leap in fact, when she was startled. Certainly he’d consider that a victory after having to admit she ran from him because she feared him. He needed to know what he’d done to cause the fear—what exactly she’d come to fear about him. But they were headed in the correct direction now if Io was again willing to seek him out when she wanted to feel safe. Settling into the saddle, Xavier urged Cloud into a faster trot towards home. He’d get Io home, get her back where she belonged and be the man he promised her he’d be the first time he took her there. He’d ensure this time she’d never want to leave.
Io sniffed, drew her sleeve under her nose and then pulled the edges of the fur lined oilskin cloak closed. Warmth enveloped her despite the cold heavy mist falling. When they passed through the town a week ago, Xavier made the choice to stop traveling. He’d found her a room and a woman to help bathe. She’d not known where he disappeared for two days, but the morning they prepared to leave, Xavier appeared with a pair of new boots and the thick warm cloak. She could be out of the wagon even if there was rain.
His thoughtfulness disturbed her though, as did his new ability to apologize. Neither of those things disturbed her half so much as how easy it was to go towards him when the boom of thunder nearly made her shriek with the terror she’d felt.
She pulled the cloak closer. She’d become a coward. She jumped at everything. Wondering always if the small sound would be someone with a knife to press to her neck or a dangerous animal ready to shred her.
But for those few moments when Xavier’s arms were around her, when he stood there for her to lean on, she’d felt the way she’d always felt when in his arms. Safe.
After everything, how was it possible he made her feel protected? How was it he appeared to honestly be trying to keep her as his wife? Io moved her hand to the spot in her own cloak, under the new one, where the message from him stayed tucked away. How was it in late summer he wanted her buried and forgotten and now in early winter he seemed set to have her as his wife again? What happened after she left? Did he find Lady Sabrina with the stable hands?
“My Lady Io?” A hand settled on her shoulder. Io flinched away before she realized it was no one who would harm her. That Mark was able to frighten her at all bothered her. The last few months she stayed alert to her surroundings for any danger. Just days in Xavier’s company and she got lost in thought. She heard him laugh softly, perhaps because she was frowning so sharply as to feel the pull in her jaw. “Beg pardon. I called, you did not hear?” She shook her head then looked away. She didn’t know how much she could trust this man, any of the men in Xavier’s ranks. “What were you thinking on so hard?”
“Nothing,” Io said on a heavy sigh.
“My Lady,” Mark started, then laughed a bit more when she again gave him a hard look. “It is his will we remember, make sure others remember, you have a status.” He laughed again at the incredulous sound she made. “Io,” he conceded as he sat next to her on the damp ground, “he is trying to right the wrongs committed against you.”
“And forcing upon me his title will do this?” Io grumbled.
“It is your title, Io. Ah, ah.” He hushed her protest. “It is your title and your status. You claimed it when you agreed to be his wife.”
“It is a useless thing to have. What benefit did I receive from it? None.”
“You did not use it. You made it known to no one that you are Xavier’s wife, his countess—”
“And he did not either,” Io said hotly, swinging around to face him. “He made no effort to make it known. Why was it my responsibility? And who would believe? It was not as if he accompanied me any place. He did not take me riding each morning. He made effort to not be seen with me.”
“Io…” Mark tried to cut in.
“I made it known I had authority to act in his name. I did that, and it took nothing at all for everyone to believe another was to be his wife, his lady. Not even stating I was who Xavier placed in control kept Charlotte’s will from being done. What difference had I told anyone I was a lady?” The disgust rang clear in her voice with the utterance of the word. “All of them demonstrated I was not the last, the only one with that title or those authorities.” She shook her head, shrugged and turned to again face away.
“Io,” Mark called. She shook her head again. “Io.”
“No, I will not be the only one blamed for what transpired. I failed but it was not for lack of trying.” And had they not tried to murder her, she might have continued to try and she hated herself for that. She’d have kept trying because he made her believe there was a possibility, there was more than hope. He made her believe in a home and forever. Xavier made her believe against everything she knew was true and having to again face the truth left her without hope.
“Io.” Mark rose then came around to stand before her. “Io, no one finds you at fault.” He took hold of her chin when she began shaking her head and forced her face up. “Mistakes were made. By both of you. Had Xavier given more consideration to—”
“He gave no consideration,” Io snarled and pulled away. “Well, I was ready, from your own advice, to be always considered second as his wife. But you should have advised truer. You should have allowed what I knew from experience. That I am rarely, if ever, considered in any house in which I am placed. It was no different this time.”
“Io, I do not try to absolve Xavier. And you are not innocent in these troubles. You each bear responsibility, in different measures for different matters. There will be no resolution though if you continue to keep all things to yourself. What matters concern you then, now, you must speak on.”
“What matters if, do I speak, even that I shout, when no one listens? When I am told again and again I am wrong, that what I know is not at all what I know. Always I am wrong. Better I say nothing.” She stood and moved toward the road looking in the direction from which they’d come. “Better perhaps I remain gone if I cannot be heard, than to think falsely I might cry out and someone should respond.” She took another step towards the road not thinking Mark followed. “Better I save myself.”
“No,” Mark snapped before he took hold of her arm in a firm, unyielding grip and began dragging her towards the large group of men who were finishing their meal and preparing for sleep. “No, you will not go. Not before you are heard.”
Io dug in her feet and tried to pull away. She’d so far not done more than give a polite greeting as she passed someone. She didn’t want to engage with these people. She didn’t want to give them a chance to make her hope. And as Mark pulled her, stumbling into the circle of knights and soldiers, she saw Xavier stand. She really didn’t want to again hope he might hear her this time. If he said things which made her believe in those promises he gave her a year ago, she might not have enough left to stand alone.
“What is this?” Xavier asked as he came towards them.
“Our lady needs to be heard,” Mark said loudly, calling attention to them. The group became quiet with only a few mutterings, mostly to call others over. “Lady Io has want to speak on her concerns. To gain answers beyond meaningless reassurances.”
Io watched Xavier stiffen at those words and opened her mouth to deny she wanted anything. But before she could get out a sound, Mark pulled her around and set her center within the crowd.
“Io?” Xavier stepped closer and, damn, she stepped back. She couldn’t hold ground. She at one time could stand against any man, even one set on doing her harm. Against Xavier, she retreated. And she did so not out of fear he’d harm her but out of fear, the real fear, she’d want him more than she wanted life.
“Now, my lady, speak,” Mark said and stepped back.
Io watched Xavier look between her and his man. His confusion was clear, he didn’t know any more than she did what Mark was expecting her to say. “Io, if you need to speak, we can go—”
“No,” Mark interrupted. “No, let her speak here with witnesses.”
Xavier gave the man a deadly look but when he looked at her, it was with a softer, questioning expression. “Io, you can speak here, or…” he again shot a heated look at Mark, “we can speak in private.”
Io looked from Xavier to Mark and then to the crowd of men who wait for her to disclose some great secret. She didn’t know what she was expected to say. She dropped her head and blinking back tears, said, “I have nothing to say.”
“You will not remain silent, Io.” Mark stepped up and grabbed her arm. Xavier moved to pull her free but Mark wouldn’t relinquish his hold. He gave her a sharp shake. “You will not remain silent. You will not sit alone and contemplate when you will run—”
“Io?” Xavier gasped.
“Speak now, be heard on what it is you want, need, to find resolution,” Mark demanded, giving her a second shake.
“Io.” Xavier lowered his voice and stepped closer. “Do you really think to leave?” Io couldn’t hold his eye and she shrugged as she looked away. “Io, why? You are not willing to try?”
Did he have to sound so hurt? And why did he sound that way?
“Tell him, Io,” Mark said from behind her. “Tell him now.”
“Tell him what?” Io turned to face the man putting this unknown expectation on her. Why did he do this? What was she to say? What could saying anything help? “What do you think I should say?” She could feel heat rising in her chest as she tried to resist screaming at Mark, at Xavier at all of them. They shouldn’t have come for her. They only took her back to meet her end, to watch Xavier want another woman.
“Tell him,” Mark nearly shouted. Why did he feel so free to yell? “Tell him.”
“Tell him what?” Io shook with the strength behind those words. “Tell him what? And to what end to speak? None better than I have seen. Tell him what? Anything I say, I am wrong. Everything I know is denied.”
“I do not deny you,” Xavier shouted and Io turned to face him. The hurt was gone from his expression and what she recognized from the past several months was there.
“Every time I speak, you say I am wrong.”
“I do not,” Xavier snapped.
“I say it is true, you call me a liar.”
“No, I do not.”
Io looked back at Mark as she tossed her arm out towards Xavier. “Again, what is the point?”
“Io?” Xavier called.
“No, you do not hear me, I—”
“I do,” Xavier said through clenched teeth.
“My lord.” Mark stepped to Io’s side and put his arm around her shoulder. “Xavier, do you hear yourself? All you say is counter to what Io is saying.”
“It is not.” Xavier lifted his fists to his temples and breathed out heavily, causing his nostrils to flare.
“You did it again,” Gerald said, stepping up.
“No,” Xavier denied, causing a few uneasy chuckles.
“Yes.” Lucas set a hand on his shoulder.
“What the hell am I supposed to say? I listen when she speaks, I do not call her a liar.” He sounded and looked as frustrated as Io felt.
“Tell him, Io,” Mark again urged as he moved her closer to Xavier.
“Tell him what? I do not know what to tell him.” She could hear the defeat in her voice and the anger again started to churn. Why did she have to always be the one in the wrong, the one to yield?
“Tell him everything, Io. Start at the beginning.”
“What beginning?” She really didn’t know what Mark meant.
“Tell him when you completely stop trusting him. Tell the truth; you never gave him your full trust. Tell him that. Start from the beginning.” Mark stomped towards what she guessed was the place he intended to bed down and lifted her small pack from the pile of belongings. He pulled her journal from it as he walked back. “Tell him all these things.” He held out the book to her. “Tell him everything you have kept to yourself that you should have said out loud.”
“I said them out loud. He would not hear me.” Io pushed the leather bound pages away.
“You told him? I think you did not. Tell him now; tell him again.”
“Io.” Xavier said her name the way he used to before he punished her. “You have never trusted me? Why? What did I do that you find me unworthy of your trust?”
Io knew that tone. He was insulted. Well, so was she. “You lied.”
“I did not,” he yelled back.
“Xavier,” both Jon and Gerald yelled back.
“You did, you do.” Io snatched the book from Mark and hurled into the dirt between them. “Everything you ever said to me was a lie. Everything.” She watched Lucas again set his hand on Xavier perhaps to remind him not to answer with another denial. Io didn’t give him the chance. “You should have sent word and let them come for me when you had the chance. Before you knew I was correct and had to cover your lies with more lies.”
“What lies Io? What did I lie to you about?”
“Everything,” she screamed.
“He can do nothing with so much, Io. Tell him something smaller,” Mark said so softly she nearly missed his words for the pounding in her ears. “Start when the doubt set in.”
“When his mother came?” Io gasped for a breath trying to stop the shaking.
“Io, I know Mother caused—”
“No, you caused it. You,” Io shouted and pointed at him. He shouldn’t be allowed to pass blame. “You caused it from the start. You.” The sob rose up and she slapped a hand over her mouth to silence it.
“Tell him how, Io. He cannot act with so little.” Mark now spoke from the other side. What was he, both the devil and the angel to be on one side with too much and the other with too little?
“Charlotte came and he abandoned me.”
“I—” Xavier started but Io pushed on. Even if he wouldn’t listen she’d speak this time. She would and then she’d go and everyone would let her because it was the best thing.
“You left me, you walked away first.” Io wiped at the tears. “She came in declared me his whore, declared me unfit and he went with her.”
“I told her we were married, Io. You were there.”
“You did not deny her words. She called me a whore.”
“I told her you are my wife,” Xavier shouted and stepped towards her. This time she found the courage to not step back.
“You said it like it was not your want. ‘Lady Io and I were wed by royal edict, Mother,’ that is what you told her. That is what you said and only hours before you said you were not bound to me by anything but your own will. And you never refuted, ever, that I was some whore, you let her words stand. You let them stand and you stepped away from me.” This time the sob slipped out. “You walked away first because she showed you the truth, that I was not what you needed.” She finished and pressed both her hands over her mouth. Shrugging off Mark’s hold, she turned from Xavier and started back towards the wagon. They all knew now, Xavier left her first. He made it clear she wasn’t his choice. Now they could let her go and not feel they failed in any duty. Now, before she could find a reason to hope, she could leave her dreams behind.