Author's note: Okay, this is the dragon of a piece I began writing four years ago. Since then the work as a whole has reached 850 pages, been split into two books both needing serious revision and the first needing an entire rewrite. That's what this is-the rewrite of the first book. It has, as of yet, no title-not even a working one. I'll warn you that I edit a chapter at a time, and, as I've only reached about half way through the second chapter, it'll take quite some time to get it all up to date. Not only that, but it is still in early stages- I do consider this a first draft that is under constant scrutiny; it will change. Please be patient, and, as always, enjoy then review.
"What will you do?" The question, cautiously asked in a tentative voice, suggested apology in its concern. Don't run away again, his golden eyes pleaded. Don't lose your temper with me again.
Even that provoked her anger, but she held it back this time. No, she wouldn't run away again. She would not be the coward another time. But the carpet proved interesting as she avoided his gaze.
"Carry on." She had answered sullenly, for, although the only thing she could do, she hated it. Carry on.
"Very good." No, that wasn't right. He hadn't answered, just nodded in sympathy? empathy?, surely not, and the room hadn't been cold though outside the white light reflecting from the snow was blinding. The fire was lit. The room glittered, but now it was dim and chilly.
Aware of the discrepancy, Elisabeth tried to open her eyes. They flickered for a moment in the low light and then closed against her will. She moaned softly with the effort. Her head throbbed too much, her shoulder ached, and when she tried to flex them, her gloved fingers were numb in a way they shouldn't have been.
"Are you awake yet, sweet'aht?"
His voice, a low, smooth tenor just developing a husky edge, startled her although she realized she had been listening to it for some time. She flinched. He laughed softly.
"I was afraid that great demon of yours had done permanent damage to your striking head."
She winced as every word, however quiet, seared through her. Noct could have killed her if she'd been a little nearer when he came down. As it was she could barely focus her mind and didn't dare contemplate the injury he had done. But it was her fault, and she couldn't be angry with him. With herself, however? She flexed her fingers again. Her hands were bound. Yes, with herself.
"Well, aren't you going to say something?" her captor prodded, and she heard the rustle of cloth as he moved nearer.
"No," she answered, trying for bland but sounding as nauseous as she felt. She rolled slowly onto her left side and curled her legs to her stomach, searching for a better position. The blanket that so carefully covered her slipped a little.
She attempted to cradle her pounding head in her hands, but she only managed to cause a searing pain down her right arm. She gave up trying and was still, listening to the rain on the tent and the thunder rolling across the plain to echo back off the distant mountains. From its intensity she judged she'd been unconscious for half an hour; they would be wondering where she was by now.
"I think you would find I can be worth talking to if you were to give me the chance," he commented, his cultured voice playfully disgruntled and teasingly offended.
"Talk to yourself," she snarled, tucking her head to her chest, eyes closed resolutely. She didn't want to see his irritatingly flirtatious smile. It would only make her want to kill him that much more.
"What fun would that be?" Her fingers itched to throttle the false innocence out of him, but as she twisted her wrists again, slowly, she knew there would be no chance.
"Do you live solely for the purpose of fun?" she finally snapped, trying to be scathing. If she hadn't been injured, wet, and tired, she would have achieved it. As it was, it came out mildly irritated but otherwise soggy and powerless.
This is so much worse, she thought miserably, casting back for their encounter two nights ago. Then, at least she had been on her feet with her sword in hand. Then, he had taken her seriously. Eventually. But now she was tied, vulnerable and at the mercy of his tongue. Injured, shivering and exhausted. Now there was no one to command him to silence.
"No, I work," he answered promptly.
"I doubt it," Elisabeth muttered disdainfully, more to herself than to him. Typical courtier. Can't even take a thing seriously with a knife at the throat. Doesn't think anything can shake that position…Untouchable…
"You wouldn't know," he snorted, indignant. "You have no idea what I do when I'm not, how did you put it the other night? 'inviting myself into your kingdom'."
"Playing games and chasing women," she offered scornfully as she unsuccessfully tried to tug the blanket back over her. Her shivering was intensifying; the tent was far from warm. Cold seeped up through the recently thawed ground, and the wind still howled, every once in a while sending an icy finger through a seam. There was a rustle and the blanket was pulled over her back.
"You're good," he commented, moving away again. "But that's not all I do."
Quickly losing her already short temper, Elisabeth bit her lip against the pain and rolled onto her back, her cutting grey eyes finally snapping open to glare at him.
"There now, that's better, isn't it?" he asked cheerfully, crossing his long legs and propping his chin in his hands.
Even in the weak light from a single candle she could see his features better than she had the other night. Subtle and yet strongly defined, his breathtaking face had a certain femininity in the perfectly arched eyebrows and the gently sloped nose, but he bore it so confidently it could be nothing less than masculine. The single light seemed to emphasize the white spark in his aquamarine eyes, now twinkling at her cheerfully. All told, she had like him better when she couldn't see him.
"Hardly," she answered dryly, eyes narrowing as his perfect lips curled into a smile.
"Don't worry, I understand; you nearly got yourself killed. I wouldn't be happy, either." She glowered.
"If you were so understanding, you would go away," she answered, disliking him even more for reminding her of her stupidity. And for pointing out she was still alive. And for existing at all and not leaving her to her own thoughts, which was either a good thing or a bad. She didn't know and couldn't think about it now.
"There's nowhere for me to go; this is my tent," he commented cheerfully, looking around in pleasure as if seeing the dark canvas, blankets, saddle and pack for the first time. "And I must say, the décor has quite improved."
"Give me a sword and I'll change that, Charming," she growled, tugging futilely at the ropes around her wrists.
He clucked disapprovingly.
"Haven't changed your song since our last conversation? But I'm being so hospitable."
"Then untie me," she answered with a savage smile that wilted at the corners, uninterested. They could do what they liked with her. In fact, without knowing what it would be, their option already seemed more appealing than returning to her father and his present opinion of her. Either way there would be problems, though.
"Sorry, I can't do that. You're too much of a threat," he said with a smile that laughingly petitioned her understanding. She would have bet all of her jewelry, granted not much, that he would have loved very much to untie her. As such, she couldn't let the situation go.
"I bet it really bothers you that it's not your decision," she retorted caustically. It didn't work quite the way she had intended because he tossed his long golden hair in delight and laughed.
"Oh, you really are firebrand, aren't you sweet'aht? And to answer your question, no, it does not bother me to be taking orders. In fact, I tend to agree that you're too dangerous; I might be tempted to do something I'd regret if you weren't-"
"Spare me the details," she said, a first twinge of alarm making her heart flutter unnervingly.
Surprisingly, he broke off, but it was only because the tent flap opened, admitting a blast of frigid wind. The little candle flickered wildly, and a cloaked figure slid inside, letting the canvas drop behind him. She wiggled away from him as he dropped to his knees next to Charming, setting down her pack.
"Good evening, Your Highness," he greeted her, brushing the hood back.
It wasn't the title that made her blood run cold but instead his voice. A touch higher than his second's, melodic and heavily accented, that voice held such restraint and caution against its own power it scared her.
Slowly and with as much dignity as she could muster while feeling like a half-drowned and still-dazed rat, she sat up. It took a few moments for her head to stop throbbing and her vision to gather into a single image, but when it did she could see he was holding a sheaf of parchment wrapped in rain-spattered oilcloth. The letters she had been carrying for her father. How unfortunate, she thought distantly, gazing at them and not quite able to feel anything other than tired.
"Princess?" squawked Charming, looking so delighted she thought he might forget what he had said earlier about doing something he'd regret. She inched away from him, her gaze growing hard and wary.
"You have my horse, my pack, everything I'm carrying-" she glanced at the offending letters. "Let me go." Her voice was calmer than she felt, and her eyes showed nothing but deep exhaustion that reached far beyond this situation.
Charming snorted, but the commander just looked at her through gold-flecked green eyes so devoid of any emotion she could only guess what he was thinking. Impossible. she didn't doubt that was the one word in his mind. The war had dragged on for so long, for so many generations, that her capture would be just the sort of stroke needed to end it. Not that N'tal needs the help, she thought grimly, gazing back stubbornly.
"I think we should take her," Charming finally commented into the thickening silence.
"No, you just want to sleep with her," the commander retorted, snapping her previous impression of a taciturn, aloof leader with those few words and forcing her to begin her evaluation of the pair all over again. Especially of him, though. She shivered a little and drew her legs up to her chest as if in defense against the gaze he had turned on her two nights ago.
"That too. But I really do like her," Charming responded with a quick smile and a wink.
"Well I don't like you." It slipped out before she could stop it, but she managed to halt the audible gag that threatened at his gleeful expression. She turned back to the commander, severe again. "Let me go."
"I suppose you want to keep the horse as well," Charming said with a theatrical sigh.
Her eyes snapped back to him. "Do you always play the fool?" It had more bite than anything she'd yet said, and the laughter leeched from his eyes under her gaze and, now, the commander's as well. Charming looked from her to him, and in the silent moment of eye contact that followed, Elisabeth noted a relation between the two. There was faint resemblance there in the eyes, in the strong chin and defined jawbone. His was a little more square, more assertive, less refined in semblance and yet, on the whole, far more powerful.
"Sibling rivalry?" she tried, the corner of her mouth twitching in a smile. Still, she could have sworn Charming to be older, which rocked siblings loose almost before she said it. Her touch of lightness vanished as the commander looked back at her, his face stone. She wanted to cower from his severity, the kind of severity that comes before tempers flare and voices are raised, but she kept her eyes bent on him.
"You'll come with us," he said simply, leaning to untie her ankles.
Charming looked startled and said something in N'talian. Elisabeth was taken so off guard that she missed his first words, but she caught the tail end of the commander's response.
"…they'll be looking for her."
Ah, yes, Aeton and Wren. She would have smiled smugly if Charming hadn't suddenly crouched within a handspan of her, making her heart skip a beat and then begin to drum wildly.
"With your permission, lady love," he murmured, attempting to pull the blanket away from her. But it had slipped down when she'd sat up and was now caught around her legs and waist. "You're going to have to move." He leaned closer, reaching around her as he said it, and suddenly his face was a mere breath from hers. She froze, pinned by his proximity and gripping fear. He smiled disarmingly, but he was so close his lips brushed hers. Panicked, Elisabeth kicked him in her haste to take advantage of her newly freed ankles and scramble away. He fell back with a look of shock that quickly recovered into his easy smile.
"It's not like I was taking your shirt off," he laughed, gathering the blanket. She could only stare at him mutely, trying to control her wildly beating heart. It's fine, she repeated to herself, but all the same she wanted to run and her eyes searched frantically for anything that might help her. And all the while she could feel his gaze on her.
Her eyes finally tripped and stopped on the commander, who was watching her expressionlessly. Intrigued by the way he made the lack of expression seem thoughtful, she stared at him. Her heart slowed and her panic faded, and the less attention she paid to herself, the more curious she became. Not irritated, not…anything, really. Devoid of emotion. Even she couldn't pull that; severity, maybe, in every situation, but not that.
"We'll be with the horses," he said shortly and so suddenly Charming shifted his stare from her to him.
The commander gestured her out of the tent, and she warily scrambled past Charming, shooting him a vicious look that would have left any courtier shaking. She passed the commander as quickly, hating turning her back to either of them, and nearly fell out of the tent into the strong wind and occasional splatter of rain. The commander must have been directly on her heels, because as she pitched forward he caught her arm to steady her. She stiffened.
"My apologies, Your Highness," was all he said in response.
For all of its strength, the wind had calmed a hair, and the rain had certainly eased, but the eerie lightning showed the roiling clouds and promised a second onslaught. Calmer now that she was in the open and away from Charming, Elisabeth glanced around to grasp the situation. The horses had been moved, tethered apart after they had nearly killed one another in panic. She wondered how many were injured, and when she couldn't find Noct she began to worry. Casting a furtive glance at the commander, who was now shouting orders in N'talian to the men, she risked a loud whistle to locate the charger. He answered with a trumpeting call that made her smile grimly until a hand clapped over her mouth.
Muscles tightening, she froze in fear as the commander pulled her against him. His body was tense, echoing her own alarm. He had every right to be afraid; he was in a much more dangerous position as long as she was there. She might have been willing to overlook their foray into her kingdom if they had let her go, but now that was out of her hands. They showed no sign of returning Noct and letting her go.
"Don't be difficult," he breathed in her ear, slowly easing his hand away from her mouth. She nodded faintly in agreement; she wouldn't be difficult for them. Once she managed to get free, she wouldn't be an immediate problem at all. He released her, but as he steered her towards the horses she could feel that his fear wasn't gone.
Ignoring him for a moment, she glanced around again; the horses would be her escape. There were five other men that she could see, but as long as they had the same number they had two nights ago there were three more somewhere. The clearing was a good mile from the road through thick forest, and then another five miles to Aeton's camp. The men were breaking quickly, saddling their horses and not paying much attention to anything but leaving. And footing was terrible in the thick mud churned by hooves and feet.
Without a second thought, she let her ankle roll enough to help her slip. In a pretense of trying to stay upright, she caught the commander's arm, but she hooked her stable foot around his ankle and brought him down with her. They landed in the mud, Elisabeth on top. His reflexes were considerably better than she had anticipated, and he twisted sharply under her and sent her rolling into the mud even as she scrambled to her knees. She rolled once, saw him leap towards her, and rolled again to avoid him. As he regained his footing, she set up to kick him in the knee if he tried to get near her.
She was glad he didn't try. Instead, he stayed well back, examining her as if she had just become far more interesting. As if I weren't interesting enough before, she groused, slowly rolling to her knees, then to her feet, but staying in a crouch that warned him she was ready to either fight or bolt. Royalty, indeed. With lack of hesitation like that, you'd think he met royalty every…The thought trailed away and she was left staring.
As if picking up on her slip of concentration, he lunged, capturing her and holding her tightly before she could slide back into the mud.
"Cousin, if you're quite done playing with your princess," Charming's voice broke the trance she had been caught in.
No, not Charming, she thought, twisting in the commander's arms and gazing at the man striding towards them, leading two saddled horses. EM.
"Etienne." The thought slipped into her throat and then her voice before she could be sure, but it didn't take the next flash of lightning for him to respond, "What?"
She felt the commander's arms stiffen around her, and Etienne froze, the lightning flashing white off his wide eyes. Even in the roaring wind and thunder, suddenly everything seemed deathly quiet, and she could only stand in utter shock. The tightening in the commander's body recalled her, and suddenly both his arms were gripping her, vice-like. But I've just become that much more dangerous, she thought, her mind still unable to comprehend what was happening.
"We need to move, now," the Prince said, his measured tone becoming just a hint urgent. If she had been in his position, Elisabeth was sure she would have sounded more than urgent, but she could feel the tension and need for haste, so carefully restrained in his voice, in his tightly strung muscles.
Etienne shook his head a little as if to clear it of shock and nodded. "I've begun to agree with you." He tossed his cousin the reins of one of the horses and swung onto his own, pulling the mare around sharply and beginning to call orders above the wind.
Elisabeth squirmed in the Prince's tight grip, and he looked down at her with a curious expression she couldn't decipher. It had been unnerving enough to be completely unable to read him, but not understanding any look he might give was worse. All she could do was shrug it off because suddenly her own escape had become more imperative. With the Prince's strong arms wrapped around her, pinning her arms to her sides and holding her nearly off the ground, however, she thought escape might be postponed.
Her opening came when, in a sudden move, he tossed her up onto his horse and made to swing up behind her. She reflected briefly as she kicked at his chest, gripping the horse's mane tightly to maintain balance, that he should have bound her hands behind; she would have had no stability in the saddle. But she wasn't complaining as he stumbled back in pain and surprise. She snatched up the reins and kicked the horse, drawing her knees up and crouching low. The horse, already jittery from the weather and earlier brawl, sprung forward in a long-legged leap unlike anything she'd ever felt, and she nearly lost her seat. She regained it as the horse broke into a smooth stride that she directed towards the far edge of the clearing.
She heard men yelling, and an arrow whistled past. She crouched lower, pressing her body against the horse's outstretched neck. Hoof beats followed her, but she was already out of the clearing, trusting to the horse's good sense to avoid roots and her own to avoid branches. The pursuer broke off, and she found herself cast into a silence broken only by the slap of wet leaves with nothing but the sense of urgency to return to Aeton and bring men back to retrieve Nocturne; and her note would be far less polite than Etienne's had been.
The horse was a spindly-legged hot blood, prized in N'tal but unsuited to Elêa's mountainous terrain. Elisabeth had seen hybrids in the southern regions of Elêa, but she'd rarely ridden them. She was instantly impressed by this horse's smooth, ground-eating stride, but she could also see how such a horse could go terribly wrong in breeding or training. Fortunately, the Prince's horse did justice to N'tal's royal house, and it made short work of the few miles to the camp with little problem for her, and even fewer after she discovered the Prince's sword in its saddle scabbard and promptly cut the rope that bound her wrists.
Even from a short distance away, she could see the camp was a hive of activity compared to when she had left it more than an hour ago. The wind had died briefly in that calm before the second storm, and she could hear orders called, the squelch of boots in mud and the dull thud of heavy hooves. As soon as she was near enough to recognize Aeton at the hub of the commotion, she called out to him. He spun around and bolted towards her as she reined in the horse, a look of nearly frantic relief on his weathered face.
"What went wrong?" he asked, slowing as he approached the hot blood and eyeing him with grim curiosity.
He reached out carefully and gripped the reins as she slid down. On the ground in safe territory, she sagged against the horse, leaning her head back and shutting her eyes. Her head throbbed and she was becoming aware that her shoulder had at one point been dislocated then hastily popped back into place. She was tired, wet and cold. She wanted a bath to free herself from the gritty mud that caked on her clothes, and then she wanted to sleep in the real bed she had deprived herself of for the past month. But above all she wanted to go get her horse.
"Elisabeth?" the old guard intoned, and she felt him shift and lay a calloused hand on her shoulder. She twitched.
"So many things," she finally answered, abruptly ending her few moments of security and lifting her head to look at him. The worry in his voice echoed in his heavily creased face and watery blue eyes. Everything in his short and stocky body, from his stance to the way his right hand hovered over the pommel of his sword, showed his inclination to protect, maybe a bit too much. So many things. His worry would be threefold if he knew the extent of it.
"But it's not important." She straightened and took the reins back from him, shrugging his hand from her good shoulder. "We need to get moving if we're to catch up to them before tomorrow, and it is imperative that we do."
"To fetch back darling Beastie?"
She squinted at the sudden torchlight that bounced out from behind Aeton.
"But your manner of arrival begs the question as to whether you can fetch back the demon," Wren continued, tossing his straight black ponytail behind him and giving her a full-lipped smile as he settled beside the guard.
Her eyes narrowed, but she twitched a few lank brown curls out of her eyes and raised her strong chin in defiance. Only when she saw Wren wince did she realize maybe it hadn't been the wisest move.
"Oh, lass, what did you do to yourself?" Aeton murmured, reaching for her head at the same time as Wren, butting in front of the guard, whined, "Elisabeth…"
She ducked the medic's hand, knowing if she let him get a hold of her now the company would never catch up to Noct's captors.
"It's trivial," she snapped, tightening her grip on the horse's reins and easing around the two of them towards the camp. "The N'talians were breaking when I made it out; we need to get after them, now."
Wren dodged in front of her, arms crossed.
"Not until you let me take a look at that," he said resolutely, mimicking her defiance down to the expression in his snapping grey eyes and raised chin. She stopped, feet spread in a fighting stance, and met his gaze. For a few moments he managed to resist her, but finally he dropped his head in defeat and backed away.
She turned her attention to Aeton.
"How quickly can the men be ready?"
"You said there were ten N'talians?" he answered, falling into step beside her.
"Ten exceptionally well-trained N'talians," she said.
Yesterday she'd told him they were little more than the frequent marauding party from northern N'talian forts. In response, Aeton had gathered a force of some twenty citizens of Creighton; now she was wondering if that would be enough. Royalty did not travel with just any rabble of common soldiers, and the village peacekeeping force was even less than that.
"Still, if it's speed you're after we could leave a few men here to follow behind and be ready in five," he offered, a sly smile in his voice.
"Do it," she ordered, ignoring the smile. They'd been together too long for him not to know just what she wanted in every circumstance, and even for the problems they'd been having lately she was grateful he knew her so well. For all its downsides, it had its perks as well.
Just like having had the same medic for seven years now had its undeniable advantages. She wasn't thinking of those, however, when Wren led his bay mare up next to her and stopped.
"I believe we were having a discussion," he commented, lounging against Starling's neck as casually as if they were sitting in the kitchen at the Den.
"It's over," Elisabeth answered shortly, her desire for haste making the slightest sign of relaxation an irritation.
"Let me be the judge of that," he answered, a twinge of sharpness in his usually calm voice. "What happened?"
She was saved from answering as the hot blood suddenly snaked his head towards Starling, ears pinned and teeth bared. Wren yelled and yanked her away as Elisabeth snapped the reins and then promptly mounted to avoid further confrontation. Wren followed suit, and she hoped he'd be dissuaded from bringing Starling near the hot blood and persisting. But he was as stubborn as she.
"Well?" he prodded, this time keeping Starling a safe distance from the hot blood.
"Noct spooked," she answered shortly, craning her neck around to see if Aeton was ready. Almost.
"You fell?" Wren sounded genuinely surprised at the possibility.
"No," she snapped, and then nudged the hot blood towards Aeton's assembly. She reined in next to him, aware of Wren following her closely. "They'll take the road to make all haste. That will be our best option, I think."
Aeton nodded in agreement, and was just opening his mouth to address the men when Wren stopped him.
"If you really want to outrun them, and you're sure they'll be on the road, I know a shortcut. We can head them off."
Elisabeth turned in the saddle and gave him a scathing look that would have left anyone who spent less time with her shaking. Wren just smiled lazily and yawned, flopping his black-gloved hands idly over the pommel of the saddle. If the suggestion had come from anyone else, Elisabeth would have doubted the information enough to refuse, but Wren had been raised at the Lair and knew the surrounding countryside almost as well as the Lion. She returned his smile, but it was icy with warning for him not to lead them astray, even by accident. He just shrugged and showed a row of perfect teeth much like her own.
"I'll lead the way, then," he piped, clucking to Starling.
The path turned out to be little more than a game trail through the thick oak forests of southern Elêa. Local farmers allowed their livestock to graze here on occasion, making the passage a little easier, but within half an hour Elisabeth wondered if it wouldn't have been better to take the road after all. She voiced this concern to Wren and, gratefully, missed his indignant retort in a roll of thunder. Seeing as he was just as determined and confident as before, she resigned herself to the mud and tree roots of the narrow trail and trusted his judgment.
The promised rain came not an hour after they moved out of the disordered camp, but she pressed the men on even as sheets of water drove through the thick canopy of leaves to drench them. By just after midnight, she was shivering in the saddle as the rain turned to a mid-spring sleet, common farther north but unusual so near the border. Her cloak, oilskin and gloves had disappeared at the N'talians hands, and now she wore nothing warmer than her drenched short coat of wool and silk-lined lambskin. But she wasn't going to order a halt for any reason, and moving kept her mind occupied with the skittish, high strung southern horse.
The sleet kept up until little more than an hour before true dawn, but under the leaves and heavy clouds that lingered, light might have been hours away. About that time Wren ordered the horses to slow, and Elisabeth, who had been riding just behind him, moved up.
"Problem?" she asked, keeping a tight rein on the horse just in case the hours of cold and wet hadn't tired him out. But she could feel him slowing, and his head was dropped dejectedly. She allowed herself a moment of triumph; the night's weather wouldn't have slowed Noct's gait and he would have held his head up unfalteringly.
"We should be crossing a creek soon. I don't want us to run into it accidentally," he answered quietly, rotating his head this way and that as if listening.
She understood his unease. It would have swelled in the night's rain, and there was no telling how the horses would react, especially in the dark.
"Is it the same the road crosses?"
He nodded to the affirmative, and she smiled grimly. They had come far during the night, and even with the slower pace, if they weren't bogged down in the next few miles there was a very good chance Wren's shortcut would work. But then there was the matter of stopping the N'talians and hopefully persuading them not to fight. She nibbled at her lip as she contemplated this. They wouldn't give up easily, and regardless of how diplomatic she could be, the heir to the throne would resist captivity to the end. She shook her head. The heir to the throne. What in the name of the gods was he doing in Elêa? It was a question for another hour, when Wren wasn't ordering a dismount. She slid down from the hot blood, freezing, numb and perplexed.
"Take Starling. I'll go check the bridge," he murmured, thrusting the reins at her. He hurried off into the slowly fading dark towards the sound of rushing water.
Standing ankle deep in litter and mud, Elisabeth once again doubted why she had chosen to leave the relative comfort of the Keep for her freedom. But the question was the answer. Mindlessly, she slid her hand under the hot blood's mane and ran her fingers up and down, warming them as she contemplated that treacherous word. Freedom. For her, it meant only a longer leash to roam on. She was still tied to her family, and far more tightly than she wanted to be. Tied by heritage, by the past and the present. And it is crumbling, she reminded herself, squinting beyond the leaves above to the lighter grey beyond. The delicate balance between them was finally collapsing, and however happy she should have been, she wasn't. She had to keep it together.
She was shaken from her thoughts by the murmuring of the men behind her, and she turned to survey them. The baker, the innkeeper, a handful of long retired soldiers; these men did not belong out here in the cold and mud. They should be just leaving the comfort of their homes to go about their daily work under the shadow of the Lair. When she'd first encountered them yesterday, they had been gathered around a table in the local tavern, called there by Aeton to search for her. The letters were to be sped to the forts ahead of schedule, and she was needed up north. The young lieutenant who had found her, slogging along on the road leading Noct, had said so much. Needed. Wanted. There should be a difference, she had thought. Still thought.
So she had hastened to Creighton, concerned as to why she was called for and why Aeton had chosen that village. It was not a place to call attention to, and she avoided it when her movements were known. And as for her father…the king was not a patient man, and she dreaded the encounter he sought to force upon her. Avoiding promises to her family, she had said she only might consider his mandate, but she knew this time he would not take no for an answer. She sighed and leaned her head against the hot blood's neck. Where was Wren?
He reappeared out of the dusky shadows, and even in the gloom Elisabeth could see he wasn't happy.
"Gone?" she asked, handing back Starling's reins. She wasn't surprised, but there was a sinking in her stomach. Every moment lost the risk of losing Noct was greater.
He grimaced and nodded. "Can we ford it?" she pressed.
"It won't be easy. The banks have washed out, and it looks deep. Snowmelt might have added to it," he answered grimly. She nodded briskly and turned to Aeton.
"We're fording," she murmured, standing on tiptoe so he could hear.
"Hardly surprising." He straightened in the saddle and turned to the men to give the orders. Elisabeth returned to Wren, who gave her a rueful grin.
"Sorry, Kitten. I didn't think-"
"You're not the Lion, Wren. I don't expect you to think of everything," she interrupted him, returning his grin with a tired smile. She was fast becoming sick of this whole business, and the presence of royalty was always nagging at the back of her mind. It seemed wrong he should be north of the border. This whole affair seemed skewed somehow, absurd. It had since the first night when she had been turned away from an inn into the frost. That wasn't supposed to happen now, eighteen years later. But some people still dwelt in the past. She glanced at Aeton.
"The men are ready to proceed," Aeton said, and then added, "But you might want to watch that southern horse closely."
Elisabeth, who had been turning to lead the way with Wren, stopped and looked at him. You think I don't know that, she wanted to snap, but she bit her tongue. Instead she nodded.
"Yes. Wren." She nodded to him and the company moved slowly towards the stream, eyes intent on the horses.
When they moved beyond the bend in the road, Elisabeth saw that the situation confronting them was worse than Wren had reported. The banks were completely gone, and the pounding water rushed unchecked around the trunks of the trees that at one point had been dry. About five feet of path had been swallowed on either side, and she could only guess where the bridge had been, even though she had used it before.
The hot blood took to the stream worse than she did, and even before they came within sight of it he began to dance uneasily at the sound, forcing her to drop behind the rest of the group to lessen the chance of panicking the other horses and to give her time to gather him in hand. Aeton moved back with her to help.
"Glad he's not yours?" the old guard asked casually as she fought to keep the hot blood from jerking the reins from her hands. He had been riding the same horse, an unshakable gelding named Major, for nearly as long as she could remember and never had problems; he could afford to be amused.
She couldn't spare him a glare, so she gave it to the hot blood instead, dodging hooves and nearly slipping as he pivoted around her, trumpeting angrily. She would have loved to respond with a curse, but shouting would only make things worse, so she kept quiet and calm as she slowly shortened the rein between them. By the time she had worked her way to the bridle with sweet murmurs, he was standing splay-legged, sweating and trembling. She took firm hold of the bridle and began to stroke his head.
"Easy, love, easy. It's fine, Handsome," she whispered, her cheek against his so she could look him in the eye. "Just a bit of water, love, and the sooner you cross it the sooner you get your owner back." As she crooned these words to him, she wondered if the Prince ever had trouble with the horse. In her mind's eye she recalled his powerful build and firm muscles. Probably not, she thought, a little wistfully for the advantage of size.
"Elisabeth, they're all across," Aeton called to her, already mounting. "But you're going to have to ride; it's too deep for us and the current's too strong. I'll ride next to you."
She nodded and eased over to the saddle, looking at it with distaste. Not only was it far too large, but also the southern style had lower knee rolls. No knee rolls, actually. On the hot blood's narrow back, she felt insecure at the best. She waited for Aeton to take the hot blood's bridle before attempting to mount. It took two tries for her to finally settle onto the dancing horse's back, and she was considerably muddier and sorer for the effort. She gathered in the reins tightly, and Aeton let go, still ready to reclaim control if anything went wrong.
"Okay, love, let's get this over with. It's just a bit of water," she continued to croon as she urged him forward.
One halting step after another brought them around the curve and within sight of the stream. Elisabeth kept her eyes fixed on the horse and tried not to acknowledge it for what it was. There was no room for them both to be afraid; nonetheless, she desperately wished she were riding Noct. She could trust him. He would see her safely across. This southern horse could just as easily send her into the icy water…
As if he had sensed her thought, the hot blood suddenly screamed and flew backwards in a panic. Elisabeth, leaning forward, hauled in the rein until he regained all four hooves, and then pulled his head around until his nose touched her boot. Nervous, he danced in that tight circle before finally calming down enough for her to release him.
"Are you okay?" She looked at Aeton and saw her fear reflected in his face. But it wasn't the horse she was afraid of. She glanced at the stream and wiped her sweating face on her sleeve.
"I'm fine. Let's try this again, shall we?" she returned to murmuring to the horse. He snorted and shied sideways into Major, who calmly stepped aside. "Maybe if you go ahead?" she suggested coolly, slowly mastering her emotions.
"Of course," Aeton said, and without any trouble urged Major into the rushing stream.
The hot blood stopped in his tracks and stared as if that were very curious indeed that Major had not disappeared or been swept away, screaming.
"See, not that bad," Elisabeth murmured, sparing a hand to pat his withers reassuringly. "He's just considerably more solid than you are, my fiery southern friend. Shall we?" She urged him on, trying to convey confidence. She did something right, for the hot blood reluctantly stepped into the stream.
It was deep enough the horse had to swim, and the current was strong enough to carry them a little downstream, but on the whole she thought they came out very well. Aside from being newly wet, as opposed to just sopping, and frigid, again, the hot blood dragged himself onto the far bank to join the other horses without incident. As they picked up the trail again and moved on at a trot, she could feel his exhaustion, and she winced involuntarily. If they did catch up with the N'talians, the Prince was going to wonder what she had done to his horse.
Yes, the Prince. With nothing to distract her, she began to consider that burning question…
Enough. The word shivered through her with a force of will and command for respect that even her brother did not have. She backed away, sheathing her sword without thinking about the action, only doing it because he had ordered it and so she had to respond. She obeyed no one; why did she now? She wanted to respond but could not. Confusion and fear pricked in her. She tried to watch him as he glided nearer, but the moon was riding low and the shadows in the clearing were deep.
He stopped, and she could feel his eyes bent on her. There will be no bloodshed over this. She caught herself about to bow her head, and her eyes flashed in hot anger. He was controlling her. She could not allow it to happen. You will give me my horse. It was an uncontrolled snarl, and it echoed primitively next to his cultured command. She took a deep breath and gathered her emotions to her, smoothing her face and meeting the pricks of white light that were his eyes. She had better control than this. She had to have it.
Yes. But we are letting you go, do not forget that, was unsaid. A smooth gesture called a man to bring Noct to her, and as she took the reins she found her hands were shaking. The charger arched his neck and blew angrily, swinging his head to eye the man. She mounted, finding comfort in Noct's size. This isn't a good idea. Charming was watching her distrustfully. She'll inform others we are here. We are in secret; she can't be allowed to leave. He said it all in his hostile look.
Did I ask your opinion? She took in rein uneasily, her throat clenching at the quiet disapproval in his voice. His skill was astounding, and even subdued his power captivated everyone. Especially her. Because she had been searching for someone to respect, to follow, to trust. That was why she was shaking. And because no one held that much power without holding something else.
She shivered even in recalling the incident and silently thanked the gods that her second encounter had been less unsettling. She was fairly sure he had picked up on her awe -as much as she hated using that word, and being in close quarters with him like that would have been intolerable. Or maybe she had simply been too afraid and in too much pain to notice. And their next encounter? I am no courtier to grovel and flinch, she thought angrily. I am his match, whatever he may think.
"Thinking about your baby?"
Wren's voice and a playful tap on her shoulder startled her out of her reflections, and she found that the trees were beginning to thin and the horses to move more quickly.
"No, why?" she answered, flicking her eyes to the scattering clouds and snatches of pale blue beyond. The day would be warm, and she would welcome it. A cool breeze still blew enough to make her shiver every few minutes, but it would die soon.
"You didn't respond when Aeton asked how your sabbatical was," he answered, and she noticed an impish gleam in his grey eyes. "He thought you were ignoring him. Again."
"I do not ignore him," she answered, exasperated with the medic for not recalling her earlier. She glanced back at the old guard and caught his eye, gesturing him forward. "I merely avoid talking with him after he's insulted our mutual friend."
"Ah, the loyalty," Wren sighed, fighting a broad smile. "Would that you were so good to me." She frowned, her eyes narrowing suspiciously, and his smile wilted a little. "Never mind," he said, shaking his head and urging Starling on.
"Your Highness?" Aeton asked carefully, now moving to occupy Wren's spot on her right.
"Miserable. It was miserable, Aeton," she answered him honestly in a quiet voice. He raised an eyebrow in question, and she shrugged to belittle her answer. "Father," she said simply, hardly desiring to go deeper into it with him. But he nodded in sympathetic understanding.
She doubted he understood, however. He been Captain of the King's Guard for fifteen years, but what he had seen and learned of her father then did not so much brush the truth of him. No, she had brought out his worst side. She hadn't asked for it, hadn't searched for it, had done nothing to merit it, but she was one of the few who knew just how far he would go to secure his position. Even thinking of their current relationship, she had to fight to keep her face neutral.
"Any other problems on the road?" he asked, searching, she knew, for the reason of her first encounter with the N'talians.
"I had a brush with a hostile innkeeper," she answered grimly. Eighteen years later and independent women are still treated like streetwalkers, she wanted to add but kept it to herself. Aeton would shrug evasively and say, 'Eighteen years is a short time, Elisabeth. After centuries, you can't expect people to accept the new law without questioning.' It never should have been a law in the first place. In her mind she heard Aeton respond, 'Perhaps it was a good thing. There were benefits.' At least the Lion agreed with her.
"Put you out on the road?" Aeton prompted, and there was a protective and angry snarl under his calm voice.
"I decided I wouldn't stay anywhere I was unwelcome," she answered, remembering the big man's threats and snide remarks about sleeping in the stable with the hostlers for her board.
She heard Aeton heave a sigh, and she knew he wanted to tell her again that she should take advantage of her birth. She also knew he would never say it because it was only another battleground to separate them. She loved Aeton, but she wasn't the girl she used to be. That Elisabeth died three years ago, and the new couldn't be close to him because he had been there before. And because he didn't approve of the company she had chosen to keep afterwards.
"So you slept outside in the sleet?" he snapped, irritated. Inwardly, she flinched from the steel in his voice, but her face was hard and unyielding.
"I was prepared for it, and the sleet had gone by then," she answered, struggling to keep her voice steady even though her anger was mounting.
"And you ended up in a camp of thieves?" She didn't know what he was trying to accomplish with this line of questioning, but she would bear it out if it meant keeping peace.
"They are not thieves, and I hardly intended to have my horse stolen one time, let alone twice."
Her fingers clenched angrily around the soggy piece of rice paper in her pocket as she said the last. Sorry, love. If I can't have you, I'll settle for your horse. EM. Etienne M'Karran. Only a few years older than herself and already a legend in the southern court for his games with women, courtier and commoner alike. Etienne M'Karran. Son of the Duke of Caeto, nephew of the king of N'tal and only cousin of Dyren M'Karran, heir apparent to the throne.
Aeton must have realized he had struck a dissonant chord, because he apologized quietly and withdrew tactfully, leaving her to catch up with Wren, impatient again.
"How far?" It seemed that his shortcut was interminable, and for all his reassurance, she felt sure they couldn't possibly out pace the N'talians.
"Very far, if you start asking that," he answered lightly, but one sharp look made him add, "We're close, and, yes, I believe we will come out ahead of them."
"They're on hot bloods," she responded apprehensively.
He did a double take, eyes a little wide. "All of them?" From what news Elêan spies had been sending to Keep recently, the N'talian army was hindered by a shortage in well-bred hot bloods. She wondered, amused, if it had anything to do with the fairly lengthy "trading" job that had taken the Lion south last year and had resulted in a new stock of horses for the Pack. And the Crown thinks they're all southerners, she mused.
"All, and all as fine as this young man," she said, patting the horse on the withers. He pricked his ears back a little in the first response she'd pulled from him. Her lips twitched in a smile that died young. Wren whistled, but shrugged nonchalantly.
"We'll make it," he reassured her. "The road will be a mess with the weather, and you know the Lion. In his territory he likes to keep things interesting, especially for foreigners."
"What are you saying?" For a moment she dared hope Wren knew something of Robert's whereabouts, highly unlikely as it was. He shrugged again.
"He's due at the Lair. When I told him we were going to be in Creighton looking for you, he headed south."
She could have hugged him in glee. It faded rapidly. The Lion rarely traveled by roads. Still, the smug look in Wren's eyes made her suspicious he did know something, but she also knew having been raised by the Lion, nothing would drag information from him. She let it be and did not ask again, but instead forced herself to relax. With the sun breaking through the clouds as it had not done for four days and the wind slowly warming, she could not waste the natural beauty on apprehension.
She had no need, for, as Wren had promised, before the sun was even halfway to noon they caught sight of the winding brown ribbon of road. Shortly thereafter the path that had dwindled to nothing over the green pastures reappeared just in time to spill them down a dangerously soggy bank into the mountains and valleys of well-churned mud. But as the hot blood slid down the slope and her eyes swept the road for signs of passing, her stomach churned uneasily. Any decipherable tracks had been washed away.
"It's not possible," Wren repeated as the horses slogged south at a slow trot through the mud.
"They were-" Elisabeth began unhappily.
"I don't care if they were flying on hippogriffs," Wren interrupted, voice irritated and slouched shoulders defeated. "It never should have happened. They're behind us. They have to be."
"There's simply no way to tell. I'm merely following the prudent course of action," she responded, somewhere between comforting him and defending her order to ride south in case the shortcut had failed.
"I still say we pull off the road and wait," he groused quietly.
"We could send a man to scout behind us," Aeton offered by way of settling the dispute. Elisabeth and Wren looked at each other, rolling their eyes.
"He's just too practical," the medic sighed, shaking his head. "What are we going to do with him?"
"Send him out because it was his idea?" Elisabeth suggested, giving Aeton a wicked grin.
"I would be delighted." His look of distaste left no doubt that he hadn't been the one in mind for that mission, but he turned Major and trotted past the group to disappear over a rise.
Elisabeth shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position for the long ride ahead of them. The saddle was quickly becoming uncomfortable; it was well worn and certainly not to her arse, therefore hitting her in all the wrong places. She guessed she would be bruised in the morning. Aside from that, her headache had returned with particular ferocity and there was a bone-deep throb in her shoulder.
"Are you feeling alright?"
She had to pause for a moment before answering to keep from snapping at him, and her answer came out calm but strained. "I'll be fine."
"So what did your darling beastie do to you?"
Sometimes she wished she didn't travel with anyone else. Not that they give me a choice. She reflected on the irony of that for a brief moment and then shrugged it off. She'd obey the orders she wanted to obey, nothing more.
"Their horses were picketed in a line during the storm. Noct panicked and set them off," she answered, rather hoping he wouldn't probe further. Telling him how near she had come to disappearing didn't bode a favorable situation.
"And?" he prodded.
She sighed, knocking a few curls out of her eyes. "And he reared and nearly landed on top of me while I was trying to free him."
His reaction was calmer than she had expected. "You did what while he was misbehaving? Have you noticed how dangerous your beast can be even when he's not trying to be?" he roared so suddenly that the men quieted and the hot blood shied away from Starling. Her heart skipped a bit and she bit her lip hard, looking away from him under pretense of controlling the horse.
"Would you please keep your voice down?" she asked quietly, glancing back at the men and then to him, giving herself ample time to compose her expression. "I couldn't leave him, and the men were starting to flock. It was my only chance," she went on, eyes pleading with him to understand her enough not to be that angry.
His face had gone hard, though, and his look cutting. "What were you thinking, plunging into a brawl like that?"
"He's my horse. I couldn't leave him," she answered, becoming stubborn now that his anger was colder.
"And we could have caught up with them today anyway. We're in the same position we were, if you haven't noticed, except that you're injured," he retorted, his voice sharp.
She affected a look of sincere humility and apology, hoping he wouldn't continue. But he did.
"And might I ask how, then, you managed to extract yourself from that situation with a blow to the head and a dislocated shoulder, as I assume it was?"
He's good, she couldn't help but think. She had tried not to favor her right arm, but she had never been good enough to fool his trained eye.
"Without either of your cloaks or your gloves, and riding a southern horse?"
She straightened a little and gave him an indignant look. "I can't remember how it happened." It was true enough in at least one way, which made it good enough for her. She had been unconscious when, she assumed, they had found her. She couldn't remember. A convenient truth, as Robert would call it. It didn't work when the Lion himself had raised the man she was trying to fool.
"A convenient truth," Wren echoed her thought.
She frowned at him in the ensuing silence, testing her stubbornness against his. A cricket whirred somewhere close by, a songbird called, and they continued to glare at one another. With anyone else, Elisabeth would have emerged the victor. Even with her father, or brother, or any number of advisors. But this was Wren, and they were matched evenly. Wren, the Lion, and not even a handful of others could win. Wren won, and she sighed, looking away first.
"I woke up bound in one of the southerner's tents," she said resignedly.
"Mmhmm." She glanced over at him. His hands were crossed casually on the pommel, reins held loose in his right hand. He was watching her with an air of casual interest now, and a touch of arrogance for having won.
"And was trying to talk my way out of the situation, but didn't quite manage. They weren't chatty," she continued, and then added, "About my release."
"Then you happened to steal a horse?" he asked idly.
"They didn't let me get near to Noct, so I kicked the…man who was lifting me onto his horse and made my escape," she finished.
"With your hands still bound?" He looked pointedly at her wrists, and she reached across with her right hand to draw the Prince's sword just enough for Wren to notice it. He raised an eyebrow.
"Thank you, I didn't notice." He rolled his eyes at her sarcasm and extended a hand.
"You weren't kidding when you said they were exceptional swordsmen, or at least one of them. No common soldier carries one of these. May I?" he asked. With a twinge of reluctance she carefully drew the sword. It was longer than her own and heavier, but true to the simple and graceful Elêan style, it was perfectly balanced. She handed it to Wren to examine the blade.
"It's ancient," he murmured, dropping his reins and running his black-gloved thumb along the blade. He stopped at the ricasso and his eyes narrowed as he studied something there.
"Yes, and lovely, but we shouldn't be playing with someone else's things," Elisabeth said quickly, snatching it back before he could decipher the worn crest there. She hadn't taken the time to do so yet, but she knew what he had found and it was the last thing she wanted him to see.
He gave her a puzzled look, and she smiled disarmingly. "It's not polite."
"Something about kicking him and stealing his horse. He's a noble, isn't he?" She was grateful he glanced behind to be sure none of the men were listening and still lowered his voice when they weren't. "With a personal guard?"
She paused before responding, "Something like that."
Wren whistled and then began to chuckle. "So what was it he did want to chat about?" The smile suddenly vanished from his face. "Your father's letters!"
"You're assuming a good deal there. Maybe he was visiting a friend…with a heavy guard…unwilling to let me go," she said.
"He has the letters?" Wren prodded.
"How do you even know about those letters? Father, Duke Rainier and I were the only ones who-" She gave up at the mischievous grin in his eyes. "He didn't ask about them, no."
"But he'd read them?"
"I would assume so; they were carrying the royal seal with my father's signature," she answered. "And I don't know why it's so important to you if he read them or not."
"Don't you care that the battle orders are in N'talian hands?" he hissed, lowering his voice even more so that she had to nudge the hot blood nearer to Starling and lean over to hear him.
"If we apprehend them, it will make no difference."
Truthfully, she could care less about the orders. N'tal and Elêa had been feuding for generations, and while Elêa became weaker, N'tal only seemed to gain strength, drawing on their natural resources and advantageous coastal location to build their economy. Elêa, secluded behind its mountain ranges was losing everything. She wagered N'tal would end the war within her lifetime, and the sooner the better for her.
"And if we don't?" he asked.
"That's not an option. They have my horse," she told him, straightening in the saddle to put an end to the conversation. He muttered something that sounded like an exasperated curse and rolled his eyes to the sky.
"They won't listen," she said as his lips moved silently.
He gave her a sharp look. "Don't say that." She shrugged.
"They don't care."
"Elisabeth, please. Don't."
She was silent, but her thoughts didn't cease. Wren prayed to the gods. Fire and Earth, everyone prayed to the gods. Maybe they haven't noticed, but the gods haven't been answering, she thought bitterly. She had prayed to the gods, too, at one time. But their only purpose was to take advantage and manipulate. They were courtiers to the worst degree. Lying, double-crossing, sick-minded leeches, the lot of them. The thought came vehemently, and she couldn't help but twist her face in dislike.
"Maybe They never respond to you because you don't respect Them," Wren suggested when he had finished his prayer. She raised an eyebrow at him.
"They had Their chance and They failed," she answered coldly.
"You really never do give anyone more than one chance, do you?" he asked as if just realizing it.
"How many do they need?" she responded, her voice as hard as her face. If they failed her once, they would do no better the second, or third time. She had learned that the hard way.
"More than one," he said, and then shook his head. They were headed into a serious argument, and this was hardly the time for it. She backed down as well, never looking for a confrontation with Wren, and seeing the displeasure on his face, she felt she had to make amends.
"I didn't intend to insult you," she said quietly after a period of silence.
"I worry about you. The gods might not appear to answer prayers immediately, but they can damn as well as bless," he replied unhappily.
"I'm already damned, Wren," she muttered, glancing back over her shoulder to see if Aeton had reappeared.
"You are not," he answered vehemently, "and thinking like that will only make you believe it."
"Can you honestly look at my life and tell me something has not gone terribly wrong?" she asked.
"…Damned is a strong word, Elisabeth." But the pause before his answer was enough to twist her stomach. So he agreed, no matter what he said to cover it.
She glanced back over her shoulder again, and this time saw the distant figure of Major loping toward them. Let's hope someone has good news, she thought grimly, raising her arm for the horses to stop. They were on the flat of a small rise; the banks of the road had risen above them, but behind they could see the road stretching out over the hills. The hot blood naturally gravitated toward the shade under the bank, and she let him as she squinted out over the green fields.
"Want it?" Wren asked, offering his extended spyglass. She took it and swept the horizon, then followed the road. She focused on Aeton and Major cantering towards their hill. Suddenly a company of horsemen appeared in the distance only to disappear again in a blink, down into a hollow. She snapped the spyglass shut and handed it back, shaking her head at Wren's arrogant smile.
"What do I owe you?" she asked.
"Dinner and drink at the Dog and Duck will suffice," he answered, his thin, pale face glowing with glee.
"You're expensive," she commented. "Can I get out of next month's physical?" He laughed in response and waved her off.
She fixed her eyes beyond the swiftly growing dot that was Aeton to where she next expected to see the horsemen. Already she could feel her stomach tightening in eager anticipation. Her heart fluttered excitedly at the promise of danger and a difficult situation. She lived for this, loved it. To have it taken away…She shook her head. She could think of nothing but how they would stop the N'talians. Only after that had been accomplished could she allow herself to become distracted.
"Ten, you say? The banks are high; we could position archers," Wren suggested, examining their position.
"But how good are the men? If they can't hit a moving target, they could be more harmful than helpful," Elisabeth answered, looking around for inspiration. It didn't come. "Head on," she finally said. The road was narrow enough it seemed the best option.
"Not very graceful," Wren muttered, wrinkling his nose. "And they could see us and run."
"They won't run. Not these men."
Wren raised an eyebrow at her but didn't comment on her certainty. No, the Prince will confront us; he would not have it any other way, she thought, vaguely pleased that she could anticipate at least something from him. He would be staking his honor on this encounter. He was too blue-blooded to turn away. And she was a woman.
"Let's have Aeton's opinion first," Wren went on cautiously.
"Of course." Regardless of her personal feelings for the guard, Aeton had had far more experience than she in ambush, combat and encounter. She respected his authority as a soldier and a guard no matter how poorly she got on with him.
The horsemen appeared again, this time near enough to be distinguished by the naked eye. A murmur arose from the men and her excitement was quelled a little. Eyes intent upon the blob moving towards them, she bit her lip. They were villagers; most of them knew nothing beyond the basics. She had been there once. She knew their clumsy ways, their unfamiliarity with a sword, their inability to kill if it came so far. For a fleeting moment she wished she were as innocent as many of them, but she destroyed it with a savage blow. She could not afford that thought. But she still did not want these men to see a fight.
Aeton was now at the bottom of the hill, and there was an anticipatory silence as Major slowly trotted up towards them. He was frothing at the mouth, and sweat gleamed on his flanks and ran down his chest. It had warmed up quickly, and even Elisabeth was starting to feel the heat. She'd forgotten how quickly the weather in southern Elêa could change.
"What do you suggest?" she asked Aeton as he reined Major in next to the hot blood.
"Their horses will be tired, but they will still fight," he answered, his eyes sweeping the narrow, flat stretch of road she had chosen. "If we meet them head on we might be intimidating enough to persuade them otherwise, but we're exposed. They know we're here by now."
"I'm not concerned about that," Elisabeth answered calmly. "They've been expecting us and will not shy away. And I think I know how to avoid drawing blood-" she paused and reconsidered that statement. "Too much blood."
Aeton raised an eyebrow in an expression that clearly said, Enlighten me.
"They are civilized and will only draw their swords if we meet them in such a way. We might be able to negotiate," she answered, her eyes shifting from his face to the road, where the blob of horsemen was growing steadily larger. She swallowed to ease the nervous flexing in her throat. I am his match. She would not be afraid to speak with him on even terms.
"Negotiate? After what they've done?" Aeton asked, incredulous. Even Wren snorted in disbelief.
"It could be done." Her eyes stayed focused on the N'talians as her memories raced on without her voice. You were too willing to draw the sword, Elisabeth. You have that urge, now you have to control it. If I'm to teach you, you need to know when to fight and when to talk. I will teach you diplomacy. A small, ironic smile curved her lips. Diplomacy from the Lion. But she had learned it better than her father knew it, or her brothers. She could only hope the Prince would be willing to see reason.
"We'll be behind you, whatever you decide," Wren assured her, and she caught the nasty look he gave Aeton. Having been raised by Robert, Wren was only on slightly better terms with the guard than she was. She nodded in appreciation.
"Let me talk first," she said, finally looking away from the horses. She guessed they had a good wait ahead of them yet. "Move the men to the other end of flat so the N'talians are not threatened. Spread them out and tell them not to so much as touch their weapons." She swung a leg over the pommel of the saddle and rested there for a moment, looking at Wren and Aeton. Aeton was watching her almost suspiciously, unhappily. "You trust me?"
"Yes." But the answer was not enthusiastic. Indeed, it was begrudging.
"Then what is the problem?" she pressed. She never went into a dangerous situation with doubts about the men who had her back.
"It seems like a plan Lord Astor would come up with," he answered reluctantly. Her blood ran cold, and her eyes frosted over.
"And you do not trust Robert? If I were with him in this situation, you would not trust him to do his utmost to protect me?" She could feel her voice drop a few notes, heard it come out smooth and soft and dangerous. He flinched.
"I would." Again, grudging.
"Then do as I requested," she said, fighting to return her voice to normal.
She cast a glance at Wren as she slid down from the hot blood, and he shrugged, perplexed. Aeton usually wasn't so vehemently against Robert, but apparently something had sparked his old protectiveness. He had seemed to finally square with her choice of company, but this reminder of how he had been before was unsettling. This distrustful, suspicious Aeton who questioned everything.
She led the hot blood deeper into the shade and stood there, watching as Aeton reiterated her orders. The men scurried, eager to appear ready and orderly before her. Some of them, no doubt, eager for action having never experienced it. She sighed and turned away from them to block out the sadness the caused. Slowly things quieted and she knew they were ready. But she wasn't.
She dropped the hot blood's reins, trusting him to stay in the shade, and set her feet, stacking her spine and rolling her shoulders. Her earlier excitement was still there, ready to be called out in a burst of energy that would carry her through this but needing to be contained. She shut her eyes and began to breathe deeply and evenly, controlling the fearful, eager anticipation. She felt the ground under her feet and drew strength from it, felt the cooling breeze on her face and smelled the fresh spring grass.
She cleared her mind of its distractions and focused on this one thing. She would speak with him, try to reason with him. The law clearly stated he and his men were trespassing, and she was under the obligation of the law; they had to be apprehended, but if he was compliant she could make things easier. She could see his men released on easy terms. He proved a challenge, but she could promise to try and influence the negotiations as much as possible. And that could not be said before the men. His identity was to remain a secret.
And if he refused? Then things would not be so pleasant. She opened her eyes and began to tread a mindless circle, making each step slow so she could stretch. If he refused they would see which was better with the sword. It would keep the men out of fighting, and she hoped they would both have enough honor that neither would be hurt. She rolled her shoulders again and stretched her arms, taking the hot blood's reins again as she glanced down the road.
Seeing them nearer, far nearer, made her heart leap, but she calmed it, focusing on the distinct horsemen. She could pick out the Prince, riding Noct, and his cousin. She smiled grimly as she watched her horse. Even at this distance she could tell they were in a perpetual battle for control. Given enough time, she had no doubt Noct would win. But she was about to cut their time short.
She turned and strolled towards the semicircle of men in which Aeton and Wren had stationed themselves. The retired soldiers looked bored, but she saw eagerness on the faces of many. Let there not be one happy on the draw, she thought, her eyes scanning hands to be sure they were clear of weapons. She looked to Aeton and his disgruntled face, and then to Wren, who smiled at her encouragingly. She turned at less than half the distance to them, shrugging out of her jacket and rolling and tying it to the saddle. With the reins clasped between her hands, she stood and waited.
This time the wait was short before she felt the first tremor of hoof beats. The hot blood raised his head, tugging at the reins, but she kept her eyes fixed on the crest of the hill as the beats slowed. They knew she and her men were there. She swallowed again, forcing her muscles to remain loose when she heard Noct scream at scenting her. He broke suddenly onto the flat, fighting against the Prince to reach her, trumpeting and straining against the rein. The hot blood shied away from the noise, but she caught him under the bit and held him steady. The other men spilled onto the flat around their Prince and came to a halt behind him.
She watched coolly as he exchanged a few words with his cousin, and then with a natural grace he dropped to the ground. Noct needed no urging to follow him, and as the Prince led him nearer to her, he became docile. In the light of day, free from a cloak, the Prince's face was a play of shadow and light caused by his strong features. Elisabeth raised her eyes to meet his, as hard and unyielding as he. He stopped a few paces from her.
She stood and contemplated him in the silence for a few moments before speaking. I can see why they call him a threat. He had gathered his power around him in a way she had never felt anyone do, and within that protective sphere of impenetrable authority and command she felt he was untouchable. But he couldn't be; no one could shut himself, or herself, off entirely. She merely had to find his weak spot.
"I thought we might come to a civilized agreement," she finally said, putting all the force of authority she knew how into her eyes and voice, letting the words roll off her tongue as Robert had taught her.
His face remained the same, his eyes the same, so remarkably unchanged as he answered evenly, voice emotionless, "What might that be?"
She kept her voice quiet, now, speaking just to him. "You have broken our laws and are therefore subject to punishment. I could, however, ease the process."
He raised an eyebrow, a movement almost too delicate for his chiseled face. She went on, her eyes fixed on his as an anchor. Somehow he was less intimidating, less powerful when she looked him in the eyes; they seemed softer to her, more human when the rest was nearly godlike.
"You will return what belongs to me, you will be taken into custody. I can assure you that you will be treated well, and I can do my best to see a conclusion to the business reached quickly and justly," she said. In other words, I haven't the slightest idea what I will do with you, she clarified silently, understanding just how little she was giving him.
It wouldn't have been good enough for her, and it wasn't for him, either. "And if we refuse?" Her stomach nearly dropped out in fear at the deadly warning in his voice and eyes, but she kept her gaze on him steadily.
"You see these men, Your Highness," she answered with a small gesture visible only to the Prince. His eyes never left hers, never even looked at them, and just that refusal to follow her thoughts flustered and scared her, but she pressed on.
"Shopkeepers, farmers, a few old soldiers gone to pasture. These are not fighting men." His complete lack of emotion suggested he wasn't following her, and she couldn't help but think maybe he was less human than she had hoped to believe.
"They do not belong here; they are here because my guardsman thought we needed numbers. We cannot win if you choose to fight us, Your Highness. But please, for the sake of these men's innocence, do not make that choice. Let them go back to their lives with nothing but a thrilling tale of adventure to tell their children, but not with blood on their hands. That is something that would never leave them."
She opened her face to her plea, letting her eyes fill with this desperate request. You have been a warrior. You are not even a knight, and yet you are a god to your people. Remember the innocence, the first blood, the horror. Please. His expression did not change.
"We do not fight, and yet we do not acquiesce. What would you suggest?" There was a flicker of some emotion in his eyes, but it was so deep and hidden that she did not understand what it was. It was enough, though, for the relief to flood her. So he did feel something. He was a man, not just the face of an unfeeling prince.
"Then, we duel," she answered simply, cocking an eyebrow in challenge. It was a twinge of arrogance she had adopted from spending too much time in the Pack, forever competing with the kingdom's most elusive and most wanted men.
Her jaunty response was met by a gratifying display of shock that worked his smooth face in a brief wave beginning with his rich eyes widening a hair to his lips twitching in an incredulous smile. She returned it with arrogance and a charming smile that invited him to play her game, the smile she reserved for her deadliest traps and most dangerous emotions. The emotion vanished from his face as if he sensed her intention and realized she was truly serious.
"What are the stakes?"
It was her turn to be shocked, but she didn't let it show. She had hardly expected him to agree, but turning it into a gamble? Well that's what it is; in the Cult they bet on the outcomes of duels, and it is seen as a game. Here you are merely playing with something more precious than gold, she reminded herself to keep her easy flow of thought.
"You win, you come with us to Creighton where we pick up a band of men more suited to be your escort. I, personally, will see you safely to N'tal, not requesting anything more than my mount in exchange for yours.'
"I win, you come with us to Creighton and that same band of men becomes an escort to the Lord's manor where you will reside until I decide what to do with you," she answered. It was the best she could come up with on the fly, and she wished she had actually expected him to agree.
He seemed to consider this for a moment, retreating behind the terribly blank face that was so unsettling to her. When he seemed to have come to a decision she found herself gazing into that curious expression she couldn't understand. But it was only for a flash. He bowed his head.
"I will confer with my cousin," he said, not as a request but as a command. He would, regardless of what she thought. Swallowing back her natural response to that tone coming from him, she nodded once and refrained from asking if she could have her horse back.
He turned slowly and strode back towards his men, his posture the paradigm of grace and dignity even when Noct began tugging at the rein. She stood and waited, refusing to glance back at Aeton and Wren for their reactions. She would have them soon enough, and she doubted either of them would like the agreement she had worked out. I can't please everyone, she thought grimly, rubbing her thumb idly along the reins.
She watched intently as he stopped by his cousin's knee and spoke with him briefly. Not even their murmurs carried on the air that had suddenly stilled, but she saw the Prince gesture to one of his men, who handed him something. Heart in her throat, she realized it was Noct's harness and her pack, which she had lost now three days ago when she had encountered them for the first time. The Prince turned, carrying it over an arm, and returned to their meeting point. She straightened a little.
"The proposal is acceptable, and to show our trust in your promise we will return your horse," he said formally, extending her belongings and then Noct's reins. She fetched her jacket, flicked the hot blood's reins to him and retrieved what was her own, relieved to finally have Noct returned. As he swung around behind her, his head butted her shoulder affectionately, and she winced a little but still raked her fingers through his forelock.
"Shall we say ten minutes, here, then?" she asked the Prince, her hand mindlessly stroking Noct's nose.
"Five," he answered almost hurriedly. She didn't show that she had caught his slip, but she was surprised and perplexed by it. As well as irritated. She had wanted the extra time to try and stretch her muscles, sore from riding all night in an unfamiliar saddle. Still, looking into those eyes she felt her choice in the matter stripped away. He had commanded, she had to obey.
"Five." She bowed her head and turned sharply, returning to Wren and Aeton with a measured stride that did not betray her slowly rising anxiety.
"What are you planning?" Aeton snapped when she was a few paces away.
She closed the distance in silence and waited to drop her belonging on the road before calmly answering, "We have reached a suitable agreement." She freed her sword from its scabbard and quickly examined it for hurt, but it was as perfect as the day she had received it. Custom made to fit her small hands and stature, the blade was too short to be a proper long sword and too long to be a true short sword. Consequentially, she either wore it or hung it on Noct's harness depending on her mood. Her brothers poked fun at it, not only for its size but also for the lack of decoration. The simple blue-grey blade melded seamlessly into an elegant, straight cross-guard, which then rose into a leather-wrapped hilt and a round pommel.
"Elisabeth, please tell me this ingenious plan of yours is not what I think it is," Wren commented, swinging down from Starling to join her beside Noct as she began to loosen up.
"What does it look like to you, Wren?" she asked patiently. She wished he'd leave her in silence to calm herself.
Glancing over at the N'talians, she could see the Prince leaning casually on his sword speaking with his dismounted cousin. I've dueled men his size before. Robert is nearly his size, for gods' sakes. Why am I nervous? She knew she would have felt better if she had so much as been able to pinpoint what about him made her so anxious. To say it was merely an energy he emitted that made her swallow compulsively and her hands to sweat was not enough, it was not logical. She could not understand it.
"There is no way you are dueling against a man of unknown strength-" Aeton began, but the Prince was already striding towards the halfway point.
Wren clapped her on the shoulder as she turned and followed suit, matching her stride so she arrived at the same time as he. They stopped a few strides from one another, and she took her biggest gamble yet in a sign of trust, hoping his lineage would determine his answer.
"You set the rules." Her voice sounded quiet but surprisingly firm in the thick, unnatural silence that had fallen.
He paused as if thrown off stride, and then answered loudly enough to be heard by all, "Until one or the other yields."
That could have gone over worse, she reassured herself, nodding once in agreement. With no one to moderate the duel, training dictated they acknowledge each other before formally beginning. She narrowed her stance and bowed more deeply than she would to most people, trusting to take her eyes off him; he responded in kind. They both came up and all eye contact was gone. There were no minds, no word plays, no intelligence. No eyes, no face, no feelings. For Elisabeth it was body against body, had to be in this fight against this opponent. She had trained intensely three years to be the best, and here was her test because she did not doubt for a moment he was the best.
The breath slid out of her body and her focus narrowed to him, crouched and ready for her. But she made it a policy never to attack first, and she mirrored his position, waiting for his patience to give out. It didn't, and they remained crouched like that for what seemed an interminable time. She watched his face and body for any sign, and in doing so she could see the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. She noted how a breeze ruffled his hair, sending a few strands into his eyes. He didn't so much as move, but she wanted to flick them away. She shook the notion and realized by waiting he was giving her time to become distracted, and it was working.
She lunged in before another thought could divert her, and the speed of his parry didn't surprise her, but his slip did, forcing her to extend herself that much more. His sword swept up as she was trying to pull back and the cut nearly unbalanced her, nearly forced her guard up, but she managed to skitter to the left and compensate. She broke away to regain her footing and composure. He had surprised her; it would not happen again.
This time he pursued her, cutting down from one of the most graceful and natural hanging guards she had seen. She blocked his blade easily and then let his sword slide away from hers as she spun left, swiping at his feet. He voyded and moved around her, trying to force her face to the sun. She stopped him by moving in with a particularly daring thrust that brought her so close so quickly he only just rotated enough to avoid her. But it had been a gamble, and suddenly she found herself face to face with him so close neither could possibly make a move with sword.
Time stopped as her eyes met his. In this duel there was no room for hiding emotions, no thought to spare on blankness, and she found herself dropping into his unguarded eyes. His expression was of confidence, admiration and cunning, and the next thing she saw was a movement out of the corner of her eye. She was too slow in dodging and suddenly she found herself sprawling backwards, slamming into the ground with incredible force, blinded by terrifying white.
Then the pain came, a piercing, shattering pain that made her eyes stream, blurring her slowly clearing vision. Blood mixed with the tears, clouding her left eye and burning down her cheek and nose. She couldn't help look down, and the blood drenching her shirt was sickening. She looked up at the Prince, squinting through the blood and pain, and found herself looking up the blade of his sword. There was no blood. She blinked in confusion.
I lost. The words hit her almost as hard as the pain, but she could fight pain and she certainly hadn't indicated she'd given up, despite her prone position. She dropped her head back, forcing the pain away until she finished this, and lay utterly still, eyes drifting shut. The blood was still running, still pooling over her closed eye, but she was aware of it on her lips, too, and in her mouth. She couldn't breath through her nose, and she opened her lips for breath only to have her mouth fill with blood. But she couldn't think of that.
Through slits of eyes she could see the Prince slowly approach, sword in a low guard aimed at her. She waited, a little closer, and rolled suddenly, catching his bloody hand and hilt with her foot. She managed enough force to send the sword sliding over the dirt, and in the same move she rolled, reaching blindly for her sword. She found it and leapt to her feet, spinning to level it at his chest and finally opening her eyes. The left was useless for the blood, but she could see his shock clearly through the right.
"Yield?" she asked, her voice twisted by the blood, pain and broken nose. He froze, eyes flicking to his sword, and she stepped in nearer, pressing the point into his white muslin shirt so he would feel the tip.
He stepped back with a bow, yielding the fight to her. Trusting to Aeton to see to the details, she turned around and began spitting ferociously to clear out her mouth, but even so, the sickening taste of blood prevailed. At least I can't smell it, she thought, attempting to wipe it out of her eye. She failed miserably and looked up for Wren, who was running towards her, kit in hand.
"That could have been worse," he commented, and she knew from the grin he was wearing her injuries couldn't be as bad as they felt. Either that or they were and he just knew how to heal them.
"I feel like it couldn't have been," she spat at him, wanting to press on her brow to ease the pain but too afraid to.
"Sit," he commanded, taking her arm and balancing her as she collapsed to the ground, nauseous. He knelt before her, opening his kit and rummaging through it. She tried to drop her head down to take care of the nausea, but he raised her chin hurriedly. "Keep it up; actually, back would be preferable. Fire and Earth, you're bleeding a lot!"
She would have responded, but he had just soaked a linen in water and was now gently blotting the blood away. It didn't feel gentle, though. Every time he came near her nose, her eyes welled with tears and she had to clench her fists to keep from squirming away. What did he do to me? she wondered as another burst of pain seared through her head, clouding her vision again for a terrifying moment.
As if he had read her thought, Wren began conversationally, "But damned if it wasn't a good show; Robert would have been pleased."
"I'm sure you'll recount it in every detail," she snarled, finding release from the pain in vocalization.
"You better believe I will. But he'll be upset about that lunge. For him or me it would have been nothing, but he's going to tell you that your stature can't accommodate those distances safely," Wren went on as if he weren't causing her blinding pain at every moment.
She responded with a curse so distorted by displeasure even she was unable to decipher it, and he just snorted. "You're not intimidating right now, Elisabeth. Anyway, I was really impressed by his training. I don't even think Robert would have been fast enough to pull what he did."
"And what exactly did he do?" she gasped as Wren dabbed a clean linen over her left eyebrow. The medic pulled back briefly to stare at her, and she did her best to glare back.
"He hit you, sweet Kitten, pure and simple. He just happened to be holding a sword, which rather got in the wa- well, the blow would have broken your nose anyway, but that cross-guard bit deep enough to warrant stitches, and you're lucky the pommel was below your chin. A third contact point might have fractured your jaw," Wren chirped cheerfully.
Her glare turned to a stare. "He hit me?"
"What else was he going to do with you so close like that?" Wren asked, and then he positively beamed at her. "Don't worry, you'll get over it, and I'll make sure your nose isn't too crooked when I set it." Her howl of rage merely complimented his delighted laugh.