Chapter Sixteen

The insistent ache in CC's body caused her to wake early the next morning. It started in the pit of her stomach and traveled through her in a wave of pain. The distant sounds of the ocean spilled through her window, enticing and tormenting her at the same time. She lay with her eyes closed, breathing deeply and trying to quell her internal torment. Just one more night, she told herself, then she could rest in her natural form—and she could be with Dylan again.

"Dylan," she whispered the merman's name. Just the sound of it made her stomach flutter.

Last night she hadn't had the opportunity to think about what had happened between them. After her confrontation with Andras and the abbot, she had only been able to keep her eyes open long enough to apologize to a silent, sulking Isabel, get undressed and fall into bed. She thought she might have been asleep before her head had hit the hard, narrow cot.

But this morning she was completely awake. The soft gray of dawn filled her room with a hazy, slate-colored light, reminding her of last night's fog. CC smiled and stretched like a cat, the ache in her body suddenly secondary to the memory of pleasure. She longed to be with him again and not just so that they could make love—although she admitted to herself that she was eager to do that again, too. She wanted to hear his deep, caring voice as he explained the fascinating world beneath the seas to her. And she wanted to make him laugh. She wanted him, all of him.

"I love him," she spoke the words quickly, then covered her mouth like she had betrayed a secret. "Oh, Gaea," she breathed. "What are we going to do?"

Sitting up, she kicked her legs free from the scratchy blanket. The air force had trained her to act when there was a problem to be solved, not to sit around and worry. That morning she said a silent thank-you for her early crises training. She needed Gaea's help, and a plan to get it was already forming in her military brain. Not wanting to wait until Isabel decided to assist her, she rejected the multi-layered gown. Instead, she pulled on the raw wool robe that Isabel had left in her room and took off all of her jewelry except for Gaea's amulet. Then she rolled up the sleeves of the robe and used one of several long-stranded pearl necklaces as a belt. Satisfied with the results, CC remembered to make her bed before she quietly pulled open the heavy wooden door.

Peering into the hall, she listened intently. Nothing was moving, and no one was making any noise. She tiptoed silently down the hall, glad the soles of her slippers were soft and soundless. When she came to the entrance to the courtyard, she hesitated. No, she thought sternly. She absolutely did not want to chance facing Sarpedon. But she needed to get to the kitchen, and the entrance to the kitchen was on the other side of the dining room, which was on the other side of the courtyard. She closed her eyes and visualized the dining room. There had been, she counted in her head, the entrance from the courtyard, the entrance the servants used that had to lead to and from the kitchen and two others. Opening her eyes she looked down the shadowy hall that led away from the courtyard. It was, after all, a main hallway. It must lead to something that would eventually take her to the kitchen, she decided quickly. She'd definitely rather get lost and bumble into some lecherous monk's bedroom than come face-to-face with Sarpedon.

When the hall came to a T, CC chose the left-handed fork and breathed a sigh of relief when the smell of hot porridge drifted to her. Ahead she could see that the hall turned to the left again, and she thought that from there it would probably empty out into somewhere near the area of the dining room. Happily, she picked up her robe, ready to rush ahead, when she heard the sound of two familiar voices. She slowed, creeping noiselessly forward until she could make out their words, then she stopped, listening intently.

"But a Wyking?" Andras sounded as shocked as he had looked the night before when the priest had mentioned the word. "I would not have thought so."

"After the news you received last night, how can you doubt it? The heathen have been raiding the shores of the mainland anew. It is simply too coincidental that she was discovered at the same time. She was quite possibly involved in the raiding herself. It is known that the Wykings educate their women, so why not involve them in their plundering, too?"

"It is so difficult for me to believe. Are you certain, Father? She attended mass. And look at her tie to the Blessed Mother—how could one of the heathen be touched so?"

"She is a princess. She could easily have been nursed by a slave who had been captured from our shores. The poor woman probably tried her best to instill within Undine the true religion. You must remember, though, that she refused to take Holy Communion," he said, self-satisfied and smug. "My son, it was her beauty that deceived you." The abbot's voice turned warm and fatherly. "From the first I knew that she was evil. Look at the garish show of wealth in which she is swathed, and her unusually tall stature. And remember how outspoken and willful she became last night?"

CC pulled at her bottom lip, sorry she hadn't kept a better hold on her temper the night before.

"And I simply thought of her as exotic and beautiful."

Even though CC didn't love the knight, she felt stung at the betrayal in his words.

"The heathen mean to entice us to forget ourselves," came the priest's answer.

"Then my time here has been wasted, and my quest to find a wife who could dower Caer Llion back to its original state of glory has failed."

CC blinked in shock. Andras was on a wife hunt and her jewels and her title had made Undine look like the perfect prey. She shook her head in self disgust. Why should she be so surprised? Noblemen had been allying themselves with wealth and land for centuries. Actually, arranged marriages were probably the norm for ancient Wales. What would be unusual would be to marry for love. And she had to admit she did feel a sense of relief. The knight didn't love her. Sure, he desired her body, but at least she didn't have to feel guilty for breaking his heart.

"Let us not discard the princess's possibilities too hastily," continued Abbot William.

"You would have me ally Caer Llion with Norsemen?"

"Perhaps." CC could hear Andras begin to sputter a response, but the abbot interrupted. "True, the Wyking are heathen murderers, thieves and blackguards, but they have wealth. Caer Llion is far enough inland that you need not worry that her family could appear at your gate, so the alliance would be tenuous at best."

In other words, CC thought angrily, Andras should just take the money and the girl and run.

"Remember, once she is your wife, she is your property to do with as you so desire." The abbot's voice was sly. "And she would be beyond the reach of her heathen people. Of course you would immediately have to correct her willful spirit and be sure that her religious training is completed."

"I had already decided that if she became my wife she would have to curb her tongue and end her unacceptable behavior." He made a sarcastic scoffing sound. "Walking alone at night is not the behavior of a good Christian wife!"

"Just remember the Rule of Thumb, my son." The priest's voice sounded pleased. "You may not strike her with anything thicker than your thumb, no matter how much she vexes you, or how deserving she is of harsher discipline."

CC's mouth dropped open in shock.

"It would not please me to strike her at all, but I do understand that it is my duty," Andras said.

"I have no doubt that you would do your duty."

CC thought the abbot sounded almost giddy at the prospect, but his tone shifted and became more serious as he continued.

"There is one thing that concerns me very much. I am not certain that her walking alone at night is entirely innocent."

CC tried to still her heart from beating as she strained to catch every word.

"She may have been attempting to contact her people."

CC blinked in surprise. How was she supposed to have done that?

"How could she, Abbot?" Andras echoed her question.

"For all of her supposed ties to the Holy Mother, I believe that she is heathen, and perhaps even a sorceress."

She clearly heard the knight's sharp intake of breath.

"She could have been casting a spell in an attempt to contact the Norsemen. Did you not notice how mysteriously the fog suddenly surrounded Caldei? It could have been her conjuration in an attempt to cover her use of the black arts. Since Undine's arrival, Caldei has been filled with a sense of unease." The abbot paused, and neither man spoke for several breaths.

"I, too, have felt something." Andras's voice was almost a whisper, but it carried to CC's listening ears like a church bell. "I have not wanted to speak of it, but I have felt discord within these good walls."

"I cannot help but agree with you, my son. The woman's presence here in some way is causing evil."

CC thought that the abbot sounded more pleased than upset at the prospect.

"And knowing this, you still think I should consider marriage with her?"

"The Rule of Thumb, my son. Do not forget the Rule of Thumb. And do not underestimate the power of a strong, God-fearing husband. I believe once she is away from the sea, and the possibility of contact with others of the hea-then, she will be able to be controlled. Of course, you may choose not to marry her at all."

'Then what of Caer Llion?" Andras asked.

"The princess could be ransomed. True, a dowry would probably be more profitable than a single ransom payment, and the Wykings are notoriously difficult traders, but then you would be free of the problems she could create, and you would have at least a portion of the money needed for Caer Llion."

The priest sounded like he was considering trading an animal or buying a piece of property.

"I shall decide upon my course with the princess soon. It is not honorable to give the impression of courting her, when I am, in truth, only willing to ransom her."

CC was pleased to hear that the knight did sound sincere in his desire not to mislead her. He wasn't evil; he was just a man of his times.

"Do not fret, my son. There is no need for a hasty decision. If her powers were great enough to truly call forth the heathen, she certainly would not have allowed herself to be lost at all, and it will take some time for your squires to spread the news of her rescue so that it can reach her people. Perhaps their response will illuminate the path you need to take."

"As always, Father, I look to you for guidance."

"You were wise as a child, and you have grown into a fine man." The priest's voice was wistful. "I often wished that you were not your father's firstborn son, so that you could have entered the priesthood. But Caer Llion needs you, and my desire was not to be."

CC's eyebrows raised. She thought she knew just exactly what Abbot William's true desire was for the knight, even if Andras refused to read between William's very suggestive lines.

"You flatter me, Abbot."

"And you please me, my son…"

CC's mouth twisted in a grimace as she silently retraced her steps. She didn't need to listen to the conversation deteriorate into a "You're so great—No, you're so great" contest. And anyway, she'd heard what she needed. They believed that she was a heathen Viking who had magical powers.

Well, she thought, her grimace changing into a grin, one out of three wasn't too bad. She had magic. That she knew for sure. She also knew that she wasn't going to be anyone's chattel, whether that anyone was Andras or Sarpedon.

She walked several yards back down the hall before she turned and began making her way very nosily to the entrance to the dining room. Smiling, she began to loudly hum the USAF theme song, hearing the "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder…" singing in her head. She pretended not to notice the knight and the abbot until Andras cleared his throat, then she jumped and giggled girlishly.

"Oh, you frightened me! I didn't realize anyone else was in the room. Good morning Andras, Abbot Williams. Isn't dawn a lovely time?"

"Good morning, Undine." The knight's voice sounded strained and unnatural.

"I am surprised by your attire, Princess Undine." The priest fluttered his fingers at the monastic robe she was wearing. "I would have thought our simple robes much too plain for your august tastes."

CC sighed and painted her face with a long-suffering expression. "So many people believe that princesses have to be constantly swathed in jewels and silk. It's simply not true. How would we get any work done?"

The priest raised a single, haughty eyebrow at her. "And what work could there be here for you to do, Princess?"

"I pledged that I would restore the statue of the Holy Mother," she admonished him. "It surprises me that you have forgotten such an important task."

For once the priest didn't have a glib comment waiting. CC realized that he really had forgotten and pressed her advantage, heading quickly for the servant's exit.

"I'll just go to the kitchen and have the servants lend me some cleaning supplies."

Andras finally found his tongue. Speaking quickly he said, "Undine, I can help you with collecting and carrying your supplies."

"No, Andras, this is something I need to do alone. I feel a special connection with the Virgin Mother, and I think it is important to her that she is cared for by another woman, but thank you. You always seem to be looking out for my welfare. I do appreciate your consideration very much." She smiled warmly at him and was pleased to see the knight shift guiltily in his seat.

"Princess Undine, will we be seeing you at evening mass today?" the abbot asked.

"Yes, Abbot William, I am pleased to say that you will be seeing a lot of me in the chapel. The statue of the Blessed Mother is in a sad state of disrepair, and it will take much work to be restored." she said over her shoulder as she disappeared into the servants' hall.

Ugh. what an awful man!

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