Love Over Prudence
There sometimes comes a time when you have to choose one.
Lady Madalena’s heartbeat doubled its pace as a knock sounded at the door. In an attempt to be nonchalant, she slowly placed her book on the table in front of her and stood, but the nonchalant persona disappeared as she galloped to answer.
“Well, hello there,” she said with a grin, as she looked up into the freckled face of the handsome page.
“Hello, My Lady,” Colin bowed his head and rested there as his eyes rose and met Madalena’s with a smirk. “The hall is empty, by the way,” he whispered.
Madalena couldn’t contain a giggle as she grabbed his arm and pulled the page into her room, hastily closing the door after him. She stretched onto her tiptoes to lock her lips to his, realizing with a start how tall he was getting. Fitting, for a 17 year old boy to finally have a growth spurt.
Colin wrapped his hands around her waist, pulling her up to kiss her more easily. After not nearly long enough, he set her down gently but kept his hands where they were.
“Okay, okay, I did actually come here for a far less preferable reason.”
Madalena gasped. “Amelia really is pregnant, isn’t she? I knew it! Oh I hope Father keeps her on as a maid, I would hate if she lost her position for something like-”
“That’s not why I’m here,” Colin interrupted. “Though, you know I wouldn’t be able to tell you if Amelia was pregnant, even if I knew.” He smirked again and nodded his head dramatically.
Madalena scoffed. “I knew it.” Another laugh bubbled out of her mouth, and Colin couldn’t help but join in. His face usually rested in a smile anyhow.
“No, the real reason I’m here is because I have a message for you. Lord Isaac would like to see you in his study.”
Madalena sobered immediately. “What for?”
“I don’t know, I’m just the page.”
Nerves of a different kind caused her hands to shake and heat began enveloping her, the way it always did when her father beckoned.
“Right, thank you. Suppose I shouldn’t keep him waiting.” Madalena muttered.
“It’ll be okay, Love” Colin took her hands. “I’ll come find you after you speak with him.”
All she could do was nod.
Colin lowered his lips to hers once more, then Madalena checked the hall to be sure no stray maid would witness him leave her bedroom.
She knocked lightly on the large, ornate door, and opened it with a creak after her father bid her entrance.
“Close the door behind you,” he said gruffly. His eyes remained glued to the parchment in front of him.
“Hello, Father, how was your business trip?” Madalena took two steps into the room, keeping an appropriate distance from her father’s desk, and clasped her hands behind her back, digging her fingernails into her palms.
“Fine.” He continued to look at the parchment.
Madalena stood in the middle of the room expectantly, unwelcome sweat forming on her brow, fingernails digging in even harder in anticipation.
At last, he looked up with his eternal scowl piercing her. “I have arranged your marriage to a knight who saved my life from robbers while I was away on my business trip. As part of your marriage, he will be given a plot of land large enough for his own estate and your dowry will pay for the workers to build a house.”
Breath did not come easy to Madalena’s lungs and several moments passed before she could form any semblance of speech. “You...you-I…”
He didn’t seem to hear her. “You will marry Sir Thomas by next week’s end.”
The ice turned to fire, this time from anger and exasperation.
“Not...Sir Thomas Blackthorn?” Madalena spat. Surely she wasn’t made to marry a man twice her age at 32, who always smelled of rum and had leered at her every chance he had.
Isaac looked up, his scowl deepening. “Yes, Sir Thomas Blackthorn. And I expect you to keep that attitude out of your marriage, Madalena.”
“But why?” Why was he doing this to her? Lord Isaac loved his money, he was the greediest man she’d ever met, looking down upon anyone of lower standing. Why would he give all these riches, and his daughter, to someone of lesser consequence?
“That is not your concern.”
The fire in Madalena caused her blood to boil. She’d put up with nothing but anger and resentment from her father, she’d taken beatings, dealt with outrageous sexism, and had always been told she was worthless. She’d grieved the death of her mother alone and was told that her mother’s life was nothing because she hadn’t produced a son. Did her father think so little of her that he could simply marry her off without at least telling her the reason?
The boiling in her body couldn’t be contained. “I will not marry him.” Her voice was sharp as a sword’s edge. “You cannot force me.”
Her bravado faltered as Isaac stood slowly, an eerie calm washed over him. Each of his footsteps echoed in Madalena’s soul and further crushed her confidence as he made his way over to her.
“What was that?” Isaac asked softly, though each word was like a punch to Madalena’s stomach and tears sprang to her eyes.
All she could do was shake her head as her father towered over her. She felt as though she were five years old, tiny and weak, standing next to a giant who could squash her in his fist. She felt insignificant. Small.
“Say it, Madalena,” Isaac continued his soft, yet intimidating voice. “Say it.”
Her voice shook as she said, “I said I will not marry hi-”
Her shoulder hit the cold stone floor just before her head, and her cheek stung from where he’d backhanded her.
“You will show appreciation to Sir Thomas for saving the life of your father, and act as a respectable wife.” Isaac said in a low voice. “Now get out of my sight.”
Tears pooled in Madalena’s eyes as she walked to her room as fast as she dared so as not to warrant attention, resisting the urge to put her hand to her stinging cheek in case anyone was watching. It turned out someone was, as a knock sounded at her door seconds after she closed and locked it.
“Who is it?” she called with a shaking breath.
“It’s Colin. Let me in.”
Tears blocked her vision, causing her to fumble with the lock. Colin burst through the door the moment it unlocked and pulled Madalena into a tight embrace, closing the door behind him with his foot. He let her sob into his chest for longer than usual before interrupting.
“What happened?” he asked, gently.
Madalena took three shaking deep breaths to steady herself enough to speak. “I’m getting married.”
Colin released her in shock and Madalena felt as though someone had smothered a fire that had been keeping her warm.
“What?!” Shocked outrage replaced Colin’s usual mild-tempered face. “Tell me exactly what he said.”
They sat on a small sofa at the foot of her bed. Hiccups shook Madalena’s body as she explained her conversation with her father, and she put a hand to her chest to try to stop the growing ache. By the time she’d finished, Colin’s face was a stone wall while the hand rubbing her back was a soft wool blanket.
“No,” his voice was strained, as though holding back a harsh volume, which Madalena appreciated. She’d had enough shouting and violence for one day. “This is not happening, I won’t let it.”
“What is there to do?” The hand rubbing her back helped her stop hiccuping and she spoke more clearly now.
“We run.” His eyes were steady on hers, his voice confident.
“And how do we do that? Neither of us has any money. Where would we go?”
Colin paused and looked away, his brow furrowing. After a moment his face smoothed and he took a deep breath. “Then I’ll challenge him.”
The problem here was that Colin had to win in order to gain those things, and Sir Thomas was a knight. He was trained to fight and had the muscles to do it well, while Colin...did not.
Madalena felt her eyes widen. “Ch-Challenge whom?”
“Sir Thomas. If I win, I’ll earn the right to ask your hand in marriage, I’ll have a more noble status, and everything the bastard owns. Challenges are usually over women anyway, this is perfect.”
“And if you lose you die.” New tears were forming in Madalena’s eyes, now from panic at the thought of Colin’s death.
Colin shook his head. “I won’t lose.”
“Are you kidding? Sir Thomas is a knight! You must be a little prudent.”
“Don’t worry, Maddy. It’ll all be okay” He took her hands in his and bent to kiss them. “Maybe I value love over prudence.”
With that, he stood to leave the room.
“Colin!” Madalena sprang to follow him, to stop him. “No!”
“It’ll be okay, I promise,” he said just before closing the door behind him, leaving Madalena with this new terror. She thought back to when they were children playing together and Colin had wanted to see if he could light a fire with two sticks. She’d tried desperately to talk him out of it, but he ended up setting fire to the curtains.
She knew him well enough to know there was no dissuading him if his mind was set. She was also certain the man she loved was going to die, and the man she hated would be her husband.
Madalena sunk slowly to the floor as sorrow threatened to drown her. Or was it her tears?
“So what do you think of this challenge? You wouldn’t happen to know the reason for it?”
Madalena was stunned out of her daydream of Sir Thomas choking on a fig as Aunt Charlotte asked this. “Challenge?”
“Yes, the challenge of the young page to the knight. It’s the talk of the town, haven’t you heard of it?”
How could news of the challenge have traveled so quickly? Madalena thought. It was only that morning that she’d told Colin of her impending marriage and his gallant, though brainless, solution.
“Oh, yes, I’ve heard of it.” Madalena’s teacup shook as she took a sip.
“Dear, whatever is the matter?” Aunt Charlotte asked, seeing through Madalena’s veil of composure. Aunt Charlotte could always read her so well, just like her mother before her death.
Tears threatened to fall once again as she told her aunt everything, beginning with her father’s news and ending with Colin leaving her in her room. That image of Colin leaving flashed in her mind repeatedly, and she thought she’d probably have to get used to it.
“Oh, dear, it’s happening again.” Aunt Charlotte shook her head and clicked her tongue.
“What do you mean, ‘happening again’?”
“This is how your mother and father were engaged.” Aunt Charlotte’s soft eyes bled pity. “Your father was also a knight, who paid a great service to your grandfather, your mother’s father, and so he repaid the knight with...Francesca. Your mother.”
Shock smothered Madalena’s urge to cry.
Aunt Charlotte continued. “That’s how he got the estate you now live in; your grandfather gifted it to him along with your mother. It wouldn’t surprise me if Lord Isaac wanted to do the same for another knight, perhaps someone who reminds him of himself.” She sighed and sipped her tea.
It all made sense. Lord Isaac would never do this sort of thing for anyone below him, but perhaps he viewed Sir Thomas as his equal? He was just as arrogant and heavy-handed, Lord Isaac probably was reminded of himself. Which meant that Sir Thomas would probably be just as abusive.
Madalena pushed that thought from her mind and tried desperately to think of something happier lest she break down completely. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Colin did defeat Sir Thomas? Even though she knew that was unlikely, she held onto that thought as she finished her tea with Aunt Charlotte, then made her way back to her father’s estate.
She realized her aunt was right, the challenge really was the talk of the town. As the day progressed, she heard all sorts of gossip about the challenge and how no one expected the lowly page to win over a great knight. No one seemed to know why he’d made the challenge in the first place, as he was sure to lose. She even heard a group of maids making wagers on why he made the challenge and how fast he would die while they hung the laundry. Madalena’s stomach churned.
As she entered her father’s estate, she waved a servant over. “Find the page and send him to my room for a word.”
“Yes, My Lady.”
Not five minutes later, there was a knock at her door.
She mentally locked any remaining tears in her body in a cage and threw away the key as she let Colin in. Just as before, he immediately pulled her into an embrace the moment he was in, and Madalena’s tears beat at the bars attempting to escape.
“How are you?” he asked.
“I’m all right,” she said, hoping she sounded convincing. She pulled away to look at his stoic face. “You’re not really going through with this challenge, are you?”
His brow furrowed. “Well, I sort of have to, haven’t I? The news is out, everyone is talking about it. I can’t exactly back out, the challenge is tomorrow.”
“But if you do, you’ll survive.” She clung to his shirt, begging him to listen.
His brow furrowed further. “You don’t believe that I can win?”
“He’s a knight, of course you won’t win!”
Colin removed her hands from his shirt and held them, but stepped back. “Well, glad to know you have faith in me.”
“Love over prudence?!” Madalena asked, exasperated. “When has something like that ever ensured survival?”
Colin released her hands and stepped back further. “I am trying to protect you, and save you from an awful fate. What did you expect me to do?!”
“Anything but this! I don’t want to lose you!”
“And I don’t want to lose you!” He looked angry now. “This is the only way to be sure you won’t be taken away from me.”
The cage in Madalena’s mind was beginning to collapse, and a flood of tears would escape when it did. She closed her eyes. “Please, Colin. Please back out. I can’t handle marrying that man if you’re dead, I need you to stay alive.”
“I will, but you don’t believe that, do you?” Colin released her hands and stepped back farther. “I know I can win, Maddy. But I need you to tell me you believe in me.”
Madalena hesitated, biting her lip. She didn’t see how he could win, but she also didn’t see how she could talk him out of it. “I believe in you.”
“Thank you.” Colin stepped forward and gave her one small kiss before turning and leaving.
The tears succeeded in breaking their cage and for the second time that day, Madalena collapsed to the floor. She was positive that that was the last conversation she would ever have with her love.
Madalena’s hands were cold as she walked just behind her father to the Challenge Arena, which was nothing more than a small corral with a shoddy wooden fence around a dirt ground. Even though they were early, a crowd was already forming, but began to part when Lord Isaac approached. Madalena was glad she’d refused breakfast after looking at the ecstatic faces of the bystanders, giddy with anticipation of the coming slaughter.
She’d relocked the cage with her tears inside, determined to keep it closed until she was alone to grieve. As the time for the challenge drew nearer, the two men entered the arena and stood on opposite sides, facing each other. Madalena noticed the stark contrast between them: Sir Thomas was tall, at least a half foot taller than Colin, and nearly twice his size in muscle mass.
A knight she’d never seen before also entered the arena and signaled for the fighters to face off. It was time for the challenge to start. Colin squared his shoulders and took a fighting stance, his face calm and determined. Sir Thomas did the same, though he wore a more jovial expression. He was having fun.
“Begin!” the knight yelled, and the men began circling each other.
Madalena’s body went numb. It felt like she was suspended in midair, no longer tethered to the ground as she watched and waited, though time ceased to have any meaning.
The men circled for quite some time, waiting for the other to strike. Sir Thomas was first to get impatient and lunged at Colin. The crowd gasped in unison as Colin dodged, spun, and landed a direct punch to Thomas’s throat. He staggered, choking momentarily and Colin took the opportunity to try another one. Thomas feigned to the side and kicked Colin square in the chest, eliciting cheers from the crowd.
The men’s strikes, dodges and hits fell into a sort of rhythm, each of them sizing up the other’s fighting style and trying to match. Madalena’s wide eyes never left Colin, her lungs reluctant to draw in a breath, her fingernails digging into her palms. She was pleasantly surprised that Colin was so lithe and quick on his feet, her faith in him growing with each successful dodge and hit.
The crowd was growing impatient. Screams from individuals sounded for Sir Thomas to “end him already!” as he struck again and missed again. Both men were breathing hard and fast, sweat pouring from their faces. Irritation lined more and more of Thomas’s face - he obviously thought it would be an easy win - but Colin’s expression remained stoic and focused.
Thomas’s frustration seeped into the rest of his body, and he began to move faster with less precision. It was a paradox: as Colin easily stepped out of the way more often, the bigger man’s strikes became more hasty and clumsy, which only angered Thomas even more resulting in more inept combat.
The pivotal moment came as Thomas yelled in anger and dove for Colin, who once again dodged easily, only this time, Thomas had pushed so hard he had made himself stumble. Colin took advantage of the extra second and gave a swift kick to Thomas’s back, causing him to faceplant. He was just barely too slow in rolling to dodge Colin as he leapt onto his back and in one swift motion, took Thomas’s head in his hands and gave a sharp twist, breaking his neck.
Madalena could see nothing but Colin as he slowly stood and looked around at the crowd. The air came back into her lungs and she took a deep, shaking breath. The side of his jaw was beginning to swell from a lucky punch from Thomas and he had some scratches and red spots in various places, but he was still standing.
Her senses came back slowly, and she took in the shocked faces of the crowd, only a few of them cheering for Colin’s victory. Colin held his head triumphantly high as he found and marched toward Lord Isaac.
He gave a small bow before saying, “My Lord, I would like to ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.” His face was still and unblinking. Confident.
Madalena looked to her father to gauge his reaction to the outcome of the battle as well as Colin’s request. His scowl, as ingrained into his face as chips in ancient stone, was ever present, but he didn’t look any angrier than usual. He gave the fraction of a nod as he scaled up the man in front of him.
“According to the rules of the challenge, you may have everything promised to Blackthorne,” he muttered and turned back to the estate, without sparing a glance at Madalena.
Bewildered at the lack of a reaction from her father, Madalena met Colin’s ecstatic eyes and they both broke into grins, so wide that Madalena’s face hurt in a good way.
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