Egelric thrust the blankets down halfway to his hips, knocking Maire’s hand away in the surge of wool, but he paid her no more heed.
She waited, breathless, and watched the crescent curve of firelight that rocked across his broad chest as he breathed, slow as waves breaking, gleaming on his damp skin until it dried in a dull haze of salt.
All the while he gazed up with the glassy, passionless, unblinking eyes of a snake—but not at her.
His disregard was more hypnotizing than a stare. He still did not see her. Perhaps, she thought, she was dreaming. Perhaps she had left her body and was going about as a ghost, as her grandmother was said to do. Perhaps she was simply dead.
Or perhaps he refused to see her—refused to acknowledge her as a fellow creature, or as a woman, though she had come to his very bed, in her very nightgown, at this very hour of the night.
She thought she would rather be dead.
As she still stood numb and wondering, his body jerked up from the bed and his arms sprang out like twin snakes, latching onto her wrists with the perfect aim of predators who have been silently watching their prey for some minutes. Immediately he flung himself back again, dragging her down across the mattress.
Maire’s feet flew up behind her and tangled in the curtain, and her body fell hard and helpless upon his, her hips across his hips, and her face engulfed and blinded by her own hair.
Before she could so much as lift her head, she felt a stinging slap on her behind, loud as a whip crack in the silent house. Maire had never been so cruelly spanked by any man—not even by her father in his fury.
“What are you doing out of your bed?” he whispered angrily, as he might have scolded one of his children.
Maire spat out a mouthful of wet hair, but Egelric did not leave her the time to wail. His body heaved up beneath her, and he rolled her off like a log, letting her tumble onto the foot of the bed beneath a tide of blankets as he rose up onto his knees.
“I wasn’t meaning to wake you!” she squealed.
He stopped, still looming over her.
“Weren’t you then?” he asked. His deep voice seemed lower than a whisper, more felt than heard, like the growl of an imprisoned dragon thrumming up through stone.
“I wasn’t,” she whispered. His body blocked the light and heat of the fire. It seemed to unshelter her from the wind and the sleet outside, and she could not stop shivering.
“Only to look at me?” he chuckled darkly. “Only to touch me? And then go back to bed and touch yourself?”
His big hand came at her face, blacker than the surrounding darkness. He did not pat her cheek so much as softly smack it, knocking her face aside with each tap.
Maire choked on her own outrage. She tried to get her elbows beneath her, but Egelric rose up still higher and then curved himself over her. He planted his hands on either side of her shoulders and slithered over the ridge of crumpled blankets to lie almost atop her, his hip nudging into her hip.
Her gown still separated his skin from hers, but she could see the ribbon of firelight rolling over him, snaking up across his leg and hip and back to die in the shadow of his shoulder: a sinuous curve, shining on his skin, glowing in a wispy halo in the fine dark hair of his thigh, but unbroken by any dull cloth.
Egelric had gone naked to his bed, as he had not three nights before. Maire did not know this man and his habits. Perhaps he had been waiting for her.
At last she managed to rise up onto her elbows, but too late—her breast could rise no higher than his.
She tried to hiss, “Get off of me!” but her shivering jaw mangled the words.
Egelric simply clucked at her and slipped an arm behind her lifted shoulders.
Maire’s body went rigid, instinctively, in the prey animal’s last defense. Her nightgown still covered her, she reminded herself. Her legs were half-hidden in the blankets, and he was not between them; she could clamp them together, clamp her lips together, clamp her eyes shut, and wait for him to grow bored and slink away.
But his opposite hand toyed with her a while, roving over her body, kneading her soft flesh in handfuls as if to show her how little mattered the rigidity of her limbs. He squeezed the back of her calf, the back of her thigh, and he slipped his hand deeply enough into the crumpled blankets beneath her to pinch the stinging flesh he had just smacked.
He squeezed and tugged at a slab of hip, and then he dragged his hand up over her belly. The slack skin of five childbirths rolled up before it in a wave, until the hand reached her breast—and even then it did not cup her breast caressingly as men’s hands did, but tightened around it where it joined her ribs, as if he meant to rip it off.
He mocked her woman’s body, mocked everything that motherhood had made it, and though he might not have known it, he mocked her maidenhood, too.
His hands were a rough mockery of Malcolm’s hands in their bridal bed, and this interminable manhandling a mockery of the long minutes Malcolm had spent touching her that first night, caressing her shaking legs and arms, murmuring nonsense to her, stroking her softly as a man might stroke a skittish filly, until she had calmed and quietly allowed him to climb atop her, secretly grateful, secretly relieved.
And she had hated him for that, and mocked him for his feminine gentleness in the morning, because she could not admit she had been skittish and had needed to be soothed, nor even that she had wanted him.
Maire found that she could not unlock her jaw, but still she groaned “No!” through her clenched teeth.
Egelric’s hand fell harmlessly away, and his head lifted away from hers.
“What did you say?”
At last her jaw sprang open, and she snarled, “No!”
Egelric slipped his arm out from beneath her, letting her fall back onto the bed—the better to smack her face with the opposite hand: no rough pat this time but another stinging slap.
“Say again?” he asked coldly.
She saw his hand above her, a heavy silhouette against the dimly lit curtain: a mockery of the candlelight shadow-puppet shows Aengus sometimes made to calm the girls during nighttime storms.
The shadow-fingers curled and flexed like many snakes into the palm. Perhaps his skin, like hers, was tingling painfully from the slap, or perhaps he was preparing a fist in case she did say it again. She said nothing.
At last he laid the hand down on the bed beside her shoulder and leaned over her again.
“You’ll not be refusing me tonight,” he whispered. “I warned you I’d not be heeding your ‘No’ if you came again.”
He leaned his head over her until his mustache bristled across her earlobe.
“And that’s just what you’re wanting,” he murmured. His voice was so deep and low that she felt it thrumming in the fine bones of her cheek. “A man who won’t listen to your ‘No’. But Aengus is too kind for that,” he chuckled grimly. “You married the wrong man, Maire. And when you tried to say ‘No’ to Malcolm, you found he didn’t even want you enough to force you.”
She heard him suck in his breath, an instant before he reared up and slapped her again. She cried out, but said no coherent word. Her heart was galloping: she could feel her pulse pounding in the arm he held. His grip was so tight around it she could feel her hand swelling.
After a moment he let out his breath in a soft laugh. He arched his back as he leaned over her again, until his beard tickled the tops of her breasts.
“That’s just what you’re wanting, daughter of Aed.” Her skin shivered into goose bumps everywhere his breath passed. “That’s just what you like, girlie. Dirty— little— slut,” he whispered, and he bit her nipple teasingly through her gown.
Outraged, Maire flung up her arms beneath his and gasped, “No!”
He let her throw him off, but only to sit back and slap her again. This time he scarcely paused before he laughed. He pulled down the hand Maire had lifted to her burning cheek and crooned, “What were you expecting, Maire? Kisses and cuddles?”
He grit his teeth and slapped her again, so hard she felt a tearing pain in her neck.
Maire whimpered incoherently in confusion and fear. She had only tried to answer his question. He was playing with her, cruelly.
“That’s too easy, Maire,” he growled. “Let a man have his way with you—do everything you want him to do to you—and then go off crying about it to make yourself feel better. Boo hoo, he raped me,” he pretended to pout. “Boo hoo, I’m not a dirty little slut, I’m a victim.”
His body jerked strangely over hers for a moment, and then she learned why: his hand had found its way down to her hem, and he was dragging her nightgown up her legs, shocking her skin with cold.
Her thighs were already weakening from being pressed so tightly together for so long, and her legs were shaking with a bodily fright. She thought her knees would fall open if only he touched them.
Instead he leaned over her again and laid his hot leg along the length of hers.
“That’s not how it’s going to be,” he whispered. “You’ll not be saying ‘No’ to me.”
He lifted his knee and neatly wedged it between hers, and he rolled over her until he lay astride her leg.
Her last fragile hope was crushed then, along with the doubt he had been feeding with the elusive swerving of his hips. She could no longer hope he was not the man he was pretending to be—that he did not truly want her—that he could not bring himself to do all he threatened. She felt an undeniable proof to the contrary pressing painfully into her thigh.
“I shall make you beg for it, Maire, and plead. You’ll not be telling yourself you didn’t want it.”
Fearfully she whispered, “I don’t!”
She had not quite said the word. He did not slap her.
Instead he sighed and laid his head upon her chest. His left hand swept in gentle curves over her belly and up to caress her breast—not roughly now, but with an admiring intensity, as a man ought to touch a woman.
He murmured, “Maire… Maire…” almost in a moan, and she felt his voice humming through the ribs on which his head lay.
Maire closed her eyes and let her stiff and shaking body soften beneath his warm hand. He might not have known it, but it was so like Aengus’s humble, hesitant, fervent touch of those first nights in her locked room at Lord Colban’s house.
Even in the sackcloth blackness Aengus had seemed to find himself unworthy to look at her on her level. He would lie with his head on her breast, at times almost weeping with love and gratitude, until he had calmed from the cold and the fright and the exertion of climbing the wall. Then he would slide himself up alongside her, and kiss her and caress her, and make love to her until she fell asleep, all dizzy and limp-limbed and loved.
Mild, easy-going Aengus, who had never before loved a woman enough to knock him out of his mild, easy-going ways! Climbing the wall!
“You do, Maire. You do, you shall,” Egelric crooned, startling a gasp out of her with the strangeness of his deep voice. He was not Aengus.
He lifted his head and smiled down at her. In the darkness she saw only the glassy whites of his eyes and his many sharp teeth. From such a hideous smile she would not have been surprised to feel a fallen drop of venom.
He caught her wrists and pinned them to the mattress before she could twist away. She squirmed and struggled beneath him, but he held her expertly in place with hands and knees. Only her right leg was still free, kicking helplessly like the last dangling limb of a frog being swallowed alive.
“It’s begging for it you’ll be!” he hissed. “Dirty little slut that you are!”
Before she could squeal or scream she felt a drop after all, and she was petrified. On her bare skin it fell hot as venom and quickly chilled in the cold air—on her bare thigh.
“Sweet Jesus,” she whispered. Her chattering teeth mangled the words past heavenly comprehension, perhaps, but Egelric had understood.
“Even Sweet Jesus won’t help you, Maire.” He shoved her last leg aside to make room for his body. “You’ve come full-willing and full-knowing to the devil.”