A/N: Sorry everyone that it took me a lot longer to post this chapter. I just went through a series of writer's blocks that didn't let me get very far. But I finally finished another chapter. Please tell me what you think. Enjoy
Michael paced the floors of his bedroom chambers, feeling restless despite the late hour. He just could not settle with what had happened that afternoon, with the knight practically stealing his own catch from him! The woman had been his to find and should have been his to take back with him where he had every right to imprison her for stealing from him. But the damned knight stole her from me! He thought bitterly, and scowled at his own inability to stand up to the man.
It wasn't that he feared him, but rather, his status. Challenging a knight to the King just didn't happen; it was an unspeakable thing to do. And Michael sure as hell did not want to gain the reputation of challenging one of the King's sworn protectors. He didn't know what he could do, either, save for to wait for the reward money. But something about that just came across as wrong. As if he somehow knew that the knight wasn't going to keep his word.
Michael felt his anger boil more toward the ridiculous thought, unsure if he should trust and wait, or perhaps confront the King himself. He paused in his pacing to stare out the window of his bedchambers, seeing nothing but a lit candle or two in the darkness of the night, and then began to add one suspicion of the other about the knight. The only thing that stopped his accusations was that the man hadn't revealed even the slightest of hints that he was disguising himself or lying, which left Michael's intuitive feeling as nothing more then a simple judgment call. But, damnit to hell, Michael just did not trust him!
Perhaps it was his ill timing, or maybe his quick suspicions he laid down on Michael at first glance. The whole scene almost seemed as if….
No, Michael thought immediately, that must be wrong…
And yet….he thought back to how the man kept looking for excuses to either set her free or not let her be taken back with him; almost as if the knight had been protecting her.
Michael shook the thought away immediately and scrounged his face in disgust at the mere thought of someone playing such trickery on him and getting away with it!
He began to pace the floor again, until finally he could stand the claustrophobic air his crowding thoughts created no longer. Without a word he stalked out of his room and made his way into the kitchen where he hoped to find his advisor.
Nathan, was always spotted somewhere near the damned place, always having his mind on food to some degree. And yet the man was thin and wiry, Michael had been trying to understand that logic for years and finally decided it was not worth the effort. All that mattered to him now was that his advisor was healthy and strong.
"Nathan, prepare for a fortnight's travel immediately," Michael growled as soon as he found the man, eyeing at him with contempt. He didn't take much of a liking to men who abandon him at the slightest outlook of danger, and remembering Nathan's quick retreat when the knight had come, still sent his anger roiling.
"A fortnight's travel, my lord?" the advisor said, his mouth half stuffed with leftovers from supper.
"Aye, as I have said."
Nathan looked perplexed, "Why such a long travel?"
"We're going to Treston."
Jade was struck by a fit of coughing, feeling the pain in her chest searing her lungs. She grasped it to help ease the pain, but to no avail. "You're ill, and the autumn's chill is only going to make it worse." Alec said from across the camp, packing the things he had set aside the night before. It wasn't much, since most of his things were still on the rider-less horse and more likely stolen by now. All he really had was his weapon belt, which consisted of daggers and swords.
Jade couldn't stop staring at him, and though she knew it was rude, she could not help herself. The man was shirtless! Naked from the waist up. She had never seen so much of a man before, and it wasn't exactly anything like she had imagined. Not that she had much to imagine from, seeing as she really hadn't any idea of what a man without a chemise looked like. Now, however, she did. And for the oddest reason she could not remove her eyes from his figure as he moved about the camp. It was amazing seeing the muscles in his arms and back, move and flex each time he used them. And the flat of his chest and stomach, was an even more desirable sight…
Alec wasn't even a large man compared to the guards that used to watch over her. He was strong though, despite his lean figure. Now staring at the strength in him, she hadn't a doubt. The one thing she could not understand, however, was why she was so drawn to how he looked. She thought staring at a man that was indecent would look exactly as it sounded… indecent. But, as she stared at him with wide-eyed innocent curiosity she realized that he didn't look indecent at all.
"Did you not hear me?" Alec growled, chasing away her thoughts of his upper body and sending a wave of color in her cheeks. "We have to start figuring out where your escape stunt landed us. I would prefer not to have you out in the night air again."
Jade immediately straightened from the order and gruffness surrounding his voice, "Who are you to order me?" Alec shook his head in frustration and tossed his now dry chemise over at her. The light cloth landed on her in a crumpled heap and she looked up at him in confusion. "What's this?"
"It will keep you warmer and will serve better to cover you decently then the remains of the one you wear now." He then took hold of another chemise, and pulled it on.
Jade flushed, remembering how much her own tattered chemise revealed and gave no more protests before slipping it over her head. "Thank you," she muttered, glad that his chemise went as far down as her knees.
"The best way to show me you're grateful is to allow yourself to trust me." When Jade obviously wasn't planning on answering, he added, "Come on, we must leave now." Alec turned and started in the planned direction but only took two steps before he realized she hadn't even moved to get up and turned in a scowl. "Damnit woman! If you do not bring yourself to your feet and follow me, I will carry you myself!"
Jade glared at him with everything she could muster. How dare he tell her what to do, or threaten her! Nay, if he did not treat her better she would not do as he said.
Wrong choice. Before she was able to react, Alec slung her petite figure over his shoulder and started back down the trail.
"You bastard!" Jade screamed. Twisting and wiggling in his tight grip. "Put me down this instant!" She even slapped and pounded on his back but Alec continued his route as if undisturbed by her feeble attempts at escape. Oh, she hated this man! He was too strong for her to break away from, and he seemed incredibly careless toward her rejections. As if all that mattered was that she remained a convenience to him! Jade scowled behind his back; did his action that inconvenienced her not matter to him at all? Obviously not.
"I will have my reward if I cannot have the valuable stolen from me by that wench!" Michael growled, carrying a large bag filled with clothing and other necessities for the travel. Nathan just shook his head and stared in disbelief at the man, finally assured that he had gone mad.
"Michael, do you know how absurd that sounds? The King would think of you as mad for waltzing into his palace to demand money from him. He'd consider you a fake!" Nathan pointed out logically, following Michael as he worked on packing food supplies for the trip.
"Not if the knight spoke of me," Michael replied back, stuffing a loaf of bread into a sack filled with other rations.
"You don't even believe the knight," Nathan said and walked around an island counter to stand directly in front of Michael. "You have high doubts, and you are usually right. So why risk facing the King and looking like a fool?"
Michael let out a growl of frustration and threw the sack of food across the table, the bag only just barely stopping before the edge of the counter. "Then what is it you propose?"
"A letter of concern," Nathan replied calmly, despite the tension rapidly building inside the atmosphere. "If I leave on the morrow and ride without stopping, I can reach the palace in two days time and have it delivered to the King. It's the fastest course."
"If I were to deliver it, I would not need to wait for the King to send word back," Michael said, walking around the counter and pulling out a stool to sit down.
"True," Nathan replied, nodding his head and taking a seat on the closest stool. "It would far better, however, if you sent word with me to prepare the lordship to take in your concern. Then, you show up a few days later, giving the King time to think about your letter and you time to be ready to come before the King. What say you of that plan?"
Michael sat a moment, considering, before he finally nodded his head, "Very well." He took to his feet and grabbed the bag with the ration of food and placed it inside a cupboard. "I'll be writing the letter, how fast can you be off?"
"As fast as you wish," Nathan said, a grin widening across his face.
"Well, then prepare yourself. I'll need you off before nightfall."
Alec was growing impatient with the woman, and her high pride and defiance was beginning to itch beneath his skin. Why wouldn't she accept he really is trying to help her? He knew trust was hard to come about, especially after hearing of her dark past, but had the fact that he saved her life more then once seemed like nothing to her? Did the woman in his arms really prefer death over life?
If that were truth, Alec couldn't even begin to comprehend why…After watching her for the past fortnight Alec had gathered her tasks to steal seemed very important to her. And even when she faced death, she always looked determined to find a way to survive. So why was it now she didn't seem to care at all? Was it just an act? Maybe, Alec had definitely considered it. After watching Jade, he had realized she was a great actress, always leaving him and whomever else she was tricking, guessing. It was a remarkable talent, but right now it was just serving as a great annoyance.
"I hate you," he heard her grit out, and could scarcely hold in the laugh that fought to undo him. She would surely hate him if he laughed at her.
"Hate is a strong word, my lady."
"Aye and unfortunately not strong enough," she growled quietly. Jade had long since grown quiet, with the exception of a racking cough here and there, which undoubtedly meant that she had given into defeat that he, was not going to let her go.
"'Tis a harsh thing to say," Alec said with mock hurt and grinned silently when he could imagine her flushed anger he was obviously stirring. It was growing fun to tease her, with her quick anger.
"Tis a harsher thing when one is not trusted to walk on her own two feet!"
"Then perhaps you should have listened to me," Alec replied with pure logic written inside of his voice.
Jade scowled, and crossed her arms, "I am growing lightheaded."
"Oh, I see. The all powerful woman does have a weakness after all."
He heard her take in an irritated breath and then was surprised to feel her fists begin to pound on his back as she had done earlier. "Put me down this instant!" It wasn't her fury that had him placing her figure upright once again; it was the pure desperation in her voice that had him immediately worried. As soon as she was standing in front of him, he actually regretted treating her the way he was when he found her eyes glaring into his own and felt a stinging slap across his face. "That is for treating me like chattel!"
Alec didn't move, couldn't move. He had never been slapped by a woman, never allowed anyone to hit him and not get rewarded with a similar fate, and yet he just took it from her. Jade had just put him in his place, and he knew it. Never mind she was being a pain in the ass from the beginning, never mind she was refusing his orders, he should never have treated her so poorly. And yet, he could not bring himself to apologize…
She glared at him and stood her ground, as if undisturbed that he was so much taller and stronger then her. She was certainly a bold lass, he had to give that to her. Swallowing back his anger toward himself and the apology he knew he should have given, Alec hid away any emotion that might have shown on his face. "There is a nearby waterfall, we'll rest there."
"How do you know of the waterfall?" Jade blinked in confusion as she watched Alec turn away from her.
"Can you not hear it?" Jade paused a moment to listen and sure enough the sound of pounding water on water met her ears. And without a word Jade joined the man as they walked toward the place where they would rest and find some fresh water to drink. Jade's mouth had felt utterly dry despite the fact that she had swallowed so much of it the day before.
During the walk, neither of them spoke, which was just as well, Jade thought. She was still furious with him and did not trust herself to speak, knowing an argument would surely break out. Not that she loathed the idea, seeing as the man obviously didn't care if he hurt her one way or another, but Jade was growing exhausted and a fight would only make her feel worse. Nay, speaking her mind at this moment would not be the wisest of choices. So she bit down her anger, and set her jaw tightly closed, and made sure to conveniently walk a good distant to the side of Alec so the tension between them wouldn't grow thicker between them.
When they reached the waterfall, Jade was rather surprised to find that for such an enormous sound that was made, the falls weren't really that large, and splashed down into a little pool of water. The moment she saw it, Jade was certain she had never seen a better looking spring of water before, and had to restrain herself from stepping in to bathe. Of course she planned a way to get Alec away so she could have the precious time she needed. She felt so utterly filthy that any type of water sounded like heaven whether it was heated or not.
She watched as Alec kneeled down by the bank of the river and scooped some water with his hands and then drank easily. Jade wondered how he did that without the water escaping between his fingers. "What are you doing?"
Alec paused in drinking the water and looked back at her, "Drinking water."
"Can you show me how to do that?"
Alec looked perplexed, obviously never even expecting such a naïve question. He was sure anyone would know how to drink water like such. "I suppose so…," Alec trailed off wondering where to begin, "Just kneel down here," he scooted over a bit, and pointed to where he had just been sitting. Jade immediately followed suit, bringing herself gracefully to her knees. "Okay, now just put your hands together, like this." He demonstrated, cupping his hands together, and Jade, wide-eyed with curiosity did as told. "Now lean down and place them into the water--- I'd pull your hair back if I were you."
Jade paused and looked at her braid that fell over one shoulder and quickly put it behind her back. Then, she turned those questioning eyes toward him, silently asking him to continue showing her.
For a moment, he forgot to think, it was one of those rare moments where she didn't look at him with contempt, and most of all, she didn't look like she had a wall that hid everything she felt. It almost seemed as if this small spark of childish curiosity was one of the few things that momentarily broke down her barriers. Alec was awed that her anger and distrust of him before seemed to of vanished.
"Are you going to show me, or not?" A single flame re-sparked in her eyes, the barriers slowly rebuilding again.
"Yes," Alec finally said, blinking away from her. "You've cupped your hands, good, now just lean over the side, like this, and dip your hand into the water."
Before Jade followed directions she looked back at him in confusion, "That's it?"
He chuckled a little bit, and gave her a small smile, the first she'd seen from him. And to her surprise she actually thought the smile looked much better upon his lips then a scowl, though immediately shook away the thought. She wasn't supposed to like him! And yet here she was almost allowing a friendship between them.
"Yes, Jade, that's it," he said quietly, and hearing him speak her name too softly, and liking it how it sounded, she turned her eyes away from him and frowned.
"Oh, then I should never have asked for assistance," She suddenly replied coldly, dipping her hands into the water and bringing her cupped hands to her lips. But the water had leaked through her fingers just as she had first thought would happen. She quickly glanced over at Alec for some helpful hint, but instead of finding him smiling at her, she found a glimpse of a scowl before he brought himself to his feet.
"Aye, my lady, because you can do everything yourself," he left before she could have given any reply.
Alec could not believe that woman! She had just given him a glimpse of a sweeter side, her more womanly side, and in just a blink of an eye, her cold exterior was rebuilt. "Damned wench," he growled under his breath, "Insulting me after helping her!" And then expecting more assistance! He thought bitterly.
Stomping off, he stopped at a tree far enough way, but where he could still keep a watchful eye on her and took a seat. He was furious, and he didn't even know the full reason. However much he refused it to be because she had hid away that precious side of her too easily.
Taking out a stone out of a small pouch attached to his belt, he removed one of his daggers from it's sheathe and began to sharpen it, using so much force against the blade he sent sparks flying. He didn't even care in his blind fury that the dagger he was sharpening was already perfectly sharp, with a pointed edge so sharpened it could have pierced skin before even putting much pressure.
"Planning on killing me now? Am I too much of a hassle to be worth the money you'll receive from delivering me?" Alec glared at her when he realized she had come to him despite his attempts to be distant from her.
"Nay," he growled, and continued sharpening.
"Nay?" she asked, a single brow raised in sardonic question, with her arms crossed in a pose echoing her mockery.
"Do not push me, my lady, for the idea is tempting." The mere threat in his words was not as horrible as the truth revealed in the glare in his eyes. Jade had to catch her breath and fought to take control of the fear stirring in her blood.
She held her ground, "You wouldn't kill me."
Before she could breathe a dagger was pressed skillfully at her throat, "Are you certain of that?"
Jade couldn't breathe; her heart rate freezing in fear any small movement could cause her to slit her own throat and despite her inner protests she felt her body begin to involuntary shake in fear. However, as she stared into the dark green of his eyes, she realized they were not the cold eyes of a murderer. His eyes were promising, but the threat was empty. "Aye, I am certain you do not have the eyes of a slayer."
She wasn't sure how she was able to say such words in the fear she was feeling, but she knew they were exactly the words he needed to hear. His eyes, which were cold and relentless, softened and he brought the dagger away from her throat. For an eternity neither of them spoke, and Jade could not remove her eyes from his even if she wanted too. She felt compelled, and amazingly less frightened, despite what had just occurred. Eventually, however, Alec broke the gaze, leaving an awkward silence thickening the air.
"I'm going to hunt for food," he said, swiftly bringing himself to his feet and sheathing the sharpened dagger. "If I come back and your not here, there will be hell to pay. Understand?"
Jade mutely nodded, and watched him stalk off into the surrounding forest. She was speechless. Not even sure what happened. And even though her life had been threatened, that wasn't what was on her mind at all. It was that gaze they had shared. There had been an unspoken understanding between them, though she couldn't quite place what the understanding was. And suddenly, she wasn't sure if trust with him was such a bad thing after all.