"Flee, my lady! It's a trap. We have been ambushed."
The warning shouted by Flavian, her guard came too late as Ciliel turned to see that she and her guards had been surrounded.
Realising the futility, her guards, numbering ten in all, encircled her, their swords drawn. Her own hands clenching the dagger hidden in her cloak, Ciliel looked at her assailants. With some on horses and others on foot, they were fully masked by their helmets. Ciliel's first thought had been that the men were wayside robbers. But, their actions boasted otherwise. Their movements were orderly, their tactics strategic. Ciliel's heart sank as she realised what that meant. There was a traitor amongst her men.
She looked at her guards. All were ready to fight for her to their death. For that would surely be their fate. The assailants far outnumbered them, leaving them pathetically overpowered. Ciliel could sense the frustration coming from her guards, especially Aedean, her chief guard. He had not been in favour of these travelling arrangements, arguing that the route was unsafe. It had been her stepmother, who had insisted on it.
Ciliel sighed. So much had happened since the death of her brother, King Michael and his Commander, her betrothed, Lord Alastair. Her brother had just been crowned king after the death of her father, the much hated and feared King Baldrick, ruler of the once prosperous kingdom of Lorindell. With her mother's passing at an early age, King Baldrick had ruled with an iron fist, showing little compassion or mercy. The peasants had been overworked, the lords divided as many chose to buy favours from the king, thus deposing those who insisted on a wise rule. It did not help that her father had been aided by a cunning stepmother, Calista, more interested in cementing her own power and position. A woman of great beauty, she had held King Baldrick under her thumb though it was unanimously acknowledged that Baldrick needed no help in being incompetent or cruel.
As her father's atrocities had continued, Ciliel and her brother had learnt to stay away from a young age but the passing of King Baldrick had brought hope to all who yearned for it. Most had yet to recover from the fact that it had been rudely snatched from them again.
"Surrender and kneel or prepare to die!"
The harshly spoken command brought Ciliel out of her reverie and she chided herself for her foolishness. This was hardly the place for reminiscing or wishful thinking. Ciliel looked at Aedean. He was looking intently at her, his hand half-poised. Knowing that Aedean was about to give the signal to fight, Ciliel swallowed, thinking of the consequences of what she was about to do. They were supposed to be on their way to the fiefdom of Lord Bain, an old nobleman who was a close acquaintance of her stepmother. The Queen had arranged Ciliel's marriage to him and had sent her off with, in her own words, much blessings and tears. This was Bain's third marriage, the other two wives having died childless. Ciliel remembered how her lady-in-waiting, Lady Sara, had wept in sorrow upon hearing the news. Ciliel had little doubt herself that she was on her way to hell. With this new development, had she merely been cast in purgatory? Taking a deep breath, Ciliel snapped to a decision.
Before Aedean could signal, she shouted, "Hold!" Aedean turned to her in surprise and she looked at him, her eyes begging his for understanding. He was no ordinary guard, his father a cousin of her mother's, the real Queen Beatrice. His family had been stripped of all power by her father and most had left. Aedean had only stayed on for her, bound by loyalty. Biting his lips, Aedean gave a brief glance to the rest of men and hunched closer towards her instead, his hand in a tight grip around his lowered sword. Mirroring him, her other nine companions closed in towards her forming a tight shield as they turned to face their assailants.
The assailants appeared surprised though none lowered their own weapons or moved. Neither did her men, who remained in heightened caution. Ciliel knew that the assailants would not attack yet. These were mere soldiers, they were awaiting their Commander or their Lord. Who was it? Ciliel looked around and nearly jumped when she saw him emerging from under the trees.
Ciliel gasped as she recognised his colours, was he not a vassal of her father's?