Devastation (Beastly Tales #3)


by M.J. Haag

Chapter 1

The tattered remnants of the world I’d held so dear drifted from my mind. Anger and hate clouded my thoughts.

I shook fiercely but refused to give in to the tears that so desperately wanted release. My stomach cramped from the recent abuse and the restraint to contain myself, and my face ached from the blows Tennen and the baker had delivered. Yet, the pain did not distract from the lingering feel of that grotesque, vile man as the carriage rumbled toward the Water. My skin crawled, and my lungs refused to work properly.

I remained so lost in the violent experience that I barely noticed when the carriage pulled up before my father’s house.

The driver hopped down from his perch and offered a hand to help me down. I needed the help. The shaking in my legs had only grown worse.

Once I was on my feet, the driver turned to Father’s home and knocked on the door. Trembling in Mrs. Medunge’s cloak and my nightgown, I stood behind the man.

Father opened the door, took one look at me, and ushered me in.

“Benella, what’s happened?” he said, wrapping an arm around me to steady me.

I could only shake my head. He tried quizzing the driver, but the man bowed and said to expect to hear from his master soon.

That penetrated my clouded mind. My stomach dropped. The returned Lord of the estate. The image of him standing so calmly burned my eyes; still, no moisture gathered.

As soon as the door closed, Father led me to a chair then quickly left to pull water from the well. When he returned, he dipped a cloth into the pail, wrung it out, and held it to my cheek. I flinched from the pain and the reminder of what had happened.

“I’ll fetch the physician,” he said, already turning away.

“No.” I caught his hand to stop him.

I wasn’t hurt so badly that I could justify what a physician would cost. I would recover. Yet, as Father faced me with concern, I knew he would insist unless I explained my abused appearance.

I averted my gaze as words spilled forth.

“I interrupted an attempted thievery at the beast’s estate,” I said, staring at the table. “The beast was...elsewhere. The thief carried me to the baker. The baker attempted to rape me. His grotesque belly saved me,” I said in a broken whisper. “I’m shaken and bruised. Nothing that won’t heal.”

“Oh, my girl.” Father knelt beside me and wrapped me in his arms. His compassion almost released the tears I struggled to withhold.

“I don’t want to go back,” I said in a tight, pained voice. “They all play cruel games. I thought Aryana a friend, but she’s the enchantress who has held the beast this whole time. They were both there at the baker’s.” I lifted my head and met my father’s agonized gaze. “Their presence stopped the baker, but they otherwise stood by indifferently.”

“I’m so sorry, Bini,” my father whispered with tears in his eyes. “I wish I knew how to fix this.”

I knew he meant more than the attack I’d suffered. He pulled me back into a comforting hug, trying to protect me as he had from Tennen’s bullying when he’d moved us to the Water. Yet, instead of Father making the sacrifice he’d intended, I’d been tricked into staying with the beast who I had thought would protect me as zealously as he’d protected his estate. Sadly, I had wrongly assumed his level of affection for me. The ache in my chest continued to grow, but for Father’s sake, I withheld my tears.

Father pulled away and offered me the use of his room, along with some of his clothes. After I dressed, I sat on his bed with my elbows on my knees and stared at my folded hands.

All the advice Aryana had given or not given made more sense. She’d used me in her game with the beast. As Rose, she’d tried to dissuade me, thus steeling my determination to help. As Aryana, she’d given me the knowledge I’d needed to navigate a world I’d not understood. I recalled all the times she had said she worried about me. She had been sincere; I didn’t doubt it. Yet, it hadn’t been enough to stop her game.

Finally, tears fell hard and fast. With a muffled sob, I curled up on my father’s bed. I cried until I felt empty and numb. Then I just lay there, remembering not the attack but my last days with the beast and his caring attentiveness. It made the pain I already bore twist bitterly. How could I miss someone who so easily watched my abuse and just as easily sent me away?

A knock sounded at the cottage door more than an hour later, jarring me from my thoughts. I recalled the driver’s promise, and I felt a stab of pain through my chest. A small part of me wanted Alec to rush through the door. Yet, if he did enter, which Alec would it be? The mercurial beast or the cold lord?

A shiver ran through me a moment before Aryana strode into my father’s room without knocking. Though her unannounced appearance shocked me, I didn’t sit up or acknowledge her. Instead, I continued to stare at the space the door had once occupied.

My heart continued to break as I realized Alec wouldn’t come because there was nothing left to say. Bitterness began to eat the pain. He’d gotten what he’d wanted. His freedom. And by mere seconds, he’d made sure I’d left with the last piece of myself for my husband. I almost snorted. Husband. There would be no husband for me.

“Fifty years ago,” Aryana said, pulling me from my musings, “Alec’s mother came south looking for a way to help her son. She found me just before she died. Her story and love for her son moved me enough that I gave her my word I would help him become a better man, a man of whom she could be proud.

“When I came to the North, I could not believe the depravity. It was simple to open the Whispering Sisters. We serviced men, and I gained power from their lust. I used that power to shift the balance. I cursed the beast and drove out the dregs he had let in. Those of his servants who had stood by and let their Liege sink lower and lower without attempting to reason with him joined him in his enchantment.

“To give him hope, I set the price of his freedom on one night of pleasure. His earliest attempts fueled me so much that some of the energy seeped into the estate, making it possible for him to control some of the enchantments when I allowed it.”

When she allowed it. The phrase struck me cold. She had been the one to control the vines, then. She’d allowed Tennen to take me, even after witnessing his past crimes against me. She’d sacrificed me so the Lord of the North might be free. Whatever friendship I’d thought we’d shared had only existed in my mind. The knowledge hurt me more than Tennen’s fist had.

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