Julian took in a deep breath as he set forth towards his captive bride. His eyes set as he focused on the immediate need at hand. Breaking their loyalty. He needed their loyalty to shift to him.
Julian recalled Ciliel's words when she had surrendered to him. In Michael's name. This, I vow, in King Michael's name.
And her men's reaction. Just those words alone had brought them to their knees.
His victory might have come easily but it was nearly an empty one. The only victor here, Julian acknowledged to himself, was …. Michael.
It made him feel almost like a beggar. A princess had surrendered herself and her army to him in return for a guarantee of her men's lives and well-being.
Her men had followed her words, unbidden. Her selflessness to her men. Her unwavering loyalty to her King. Her men's immediate compliance to her orders
Biting his lips, Julian hardened his hold upon his sword. With the Princess and her men around, he had better keep an eye over his shoulder. Decisively, Julian marched over to Ciliel and grabbed her roughly.
"You will walk with me. We have a long journey to cover and need to reach by dusk. Make haste."
As Ciliel followed him in silence, Julian cast a glance at Richard. His friend had brought his men to flank the back and the sides. No one talked as the party hiked in silence. The path was unkind, with thick undergrowth, snaking branches and thorny stems. Adding to the test of the travellers was the chill setting in as darkness approached.
As night crept in, the travellers continued their journey in an unrelenting pace. Julian glanced at Ciliel, who was walking in front of him, once in a while. The chill of the evening had started turning into a biting frost. Being no stranger to these regions, Julian and his men were well-dressed to battle the harsh environment they lived in.
The same, however, could not be said of Ciliel, or her men. But at least, her men had the protecting of tunics covered by rugged cloaks. Ciliel, however, was dressed in a long gown, which was really quite unflattering. It hung over her like a sack, probably felt like one too. Her sleeves only reached her elbows. exposing her hands, which were now covered by scratches. She was probably feeling uncomfortable and for some strange reason, kept reaching under that terrible excuse of a gown of hers.
Julian gave an unkind smirk. Soon, the princess would try to get his pity by feigning weakness. She was in an apt position to play an innocent victim and would definitely use it to feign paleness in order to play into his pity. In fact, she had already tried it once when she had stumbled forward over some slippery rocks and conveniently towards a protruding branch.
Julian had countered that with a raised brow as she had straightened herself quickly after that. If the princess wanted to play her little lady's game, he would wait for it. And that would be the start of a lesson that she would never forget. For it would never end.
So far, the opportunity had not presented itself fully. But Julian was a patient man and he had long learnt that patience was a virtue that was usually well-rewarded. Aye, he could be patient this time too.
Julian eventually called a halt after hours of silent hiking. They were within an hour of Montsworth and were in safe grounds. There was no imminent danger of attack in these areas, although Julian never really let down his alert. He had entertained the sadistic idea of pushing Ciliel on without a break but the fool had not even paused for water. And he could not deny her that. Grudgingly, he also had to admit his surprise that she had kept up pace despite her apparent fatigue. Her skin was visibly paler and her face was drawn. As if she was in some kind of pain.
It made Julian snicker. The princess was so pampered that a day's hike had left her in excruciating pain. Had she been carried out by her guards in Lorindell?
Disgusted, Julian watched her even as he raised his hands and his men encircled the prisoners and dismounted. They took turns going to stretch, wash up and have a drink. Julian, himself, settled on a rock and took a sip of water, his eyes still on Ciliel.
She remain in her spot but her mind was everywhere. Julian wondered what she was thinking until he caught those extremely light, almost imperceptible movements of her head again. She was taking in her surroundings. Acutely.
So, she was observant. Not exactly a sign of a fool. Though, foolish, she did appear in all other aspects, especially her dressing and her packing for travel. Or, maybe she had been too lazy to pack.
With a shrug, Julian shifted his eyes, scanning the surroundings, and ended with them landing on Ciliel's men. Julian drew in a short breath as he realised what they were doing. All ten of them, including young Flavian. They were doing exactly the same thing that Ciliel was doing. Observing their surroundings, gauging their capacity for survival in these surroundings, not as individuals. Nay, they were gauging for their group.
Not a fool.
Getting slightly agitated, Julian got up and walked briskly over to Ciliel.
His command had Ciliel turning in his direction and as she had promised, she moved to his command without question. He led her beyond the trees towards a more private area of the stream, motioning for her to wash up. Her face betrayed no emotion as she hurried to do his bidding. She went behind the rocks, probably to relieve herself and wash up. Julian did not care. He looked away, wrapped in his own thoughts until he realised that she was taking a while to return.
Furious at the idea that she might have planned some foolish escape, Julian took his sword and dashed behind the rocks only to halt in haste. Ciliel was sitting on the ground, her gown lifted, her legs parted. She was looking down at her right thigh. It was fine, bloody sight. Her flesh was open and the cut had been deep. The blood flow had stopped though, it had dried and clotted making a blotch on her thigh. Julian wondered how he had not noticed it and then saw the reason. She was holding a white substance in her hands. Salt. The minx had been in front of him. She must have used it to rub onto her wound.
"You….!' Julian swore loudly, unable to complete his words.
She what….what in the world was this irritating, unpredictable utterly confusing….creature in front of him?
He was furious, with himself actually. How and when had she injured herself?
Julian forced his memory back to their trek and could not recall anything except for the … stumble. Had she gone to the extent of actually injuring herself?
His anger must have shown on his face for the Princess looked up with a gasp.
"I…my lord, it was a mistake. I truly did not intend for it to happen…"
Julian did not wait for her to finish. Reaching forward, he grabbed her chin roughly, forcing her eye to eye. For a moment, his fury of her intended victim playact incensed him so much that his words came out in hiss.
"Do ye intend to melt my heart with yer pitiful existence, Princess? Think ye that I care for yer blood and tears?"
And that shook her. For a moment, he saw the blank stare in her eyes replaced by an actual look for silent desperation. But before she could say a word, he pushed her to the ground with a gruff, "Ye had best stay put till I return."
Hurrying over to Richard, he explained the situation as he took the balm and some herbs.
"How did she get hurt?" Richard asked him, a hint of anxiety in his voice.
Julian looked at his friend sharply. "I am not her guardian angel, Richard. She strikes me as a fool. My guess is that she is a clumsy fool."
Richard did not reply but the thin set of his lips told Julian everything.
Unbidden, a tinge of guilt and remorse crept in and Julian looked down with a grunt.
On his part, Richard looked at him gently, "Ye will be her lord, Julian, as ye are mine. I would not dare question yer ability to fulfill yer duty to those who swear loyalty to ye. As I would lay my life down for Lord Montsworth, the same I would for my lady."
Unable to look back at Richard, Julian nodded his head quickly and left. Throwing it at her, he barked softly, "Apply it and bandage the wound."
Julian's thoughts returned to Richard as he absently observed Ciliel, who had complied immediately. It nagged at him to think of Richard's reaction if he ever found out his true intentions. Was he doing something wrong?
Luckily for him, the sudden panic that was bubbling inside him was squashed as he spotted Ciliel hurrying towards him. She was hurrying towards him walking as straight as she could. Quelling an irritated grunt, he waved her ahead as she bowed to him. What was her game? Women usually tried to use their fragility to melt men. But Ciliel seemed intent on covering it up and putting on a strong front. That much he had to give it to her. He had thought her a weakling for her apparent fatigue. But if that fatigue was from the result of blood loss and a gaping wound?
The more he thought the more irritated he became and he defiantly pushed all thoughts aside. Instead, he summoned the memory of his sister, the beautiful innocent child. She had been younger than Ciliel and had suffered so much more. This wound was a mere scratch. And nothing compared to the stripes that had smeared his sister's body. Whipped. Raped. Branded. And she had been thirteen. A child.
A tremor shook Julian as he suppressed the haunting memories and turned to look at Ciliel. A surge if sardonic pleasure filled him when he saw her actually take a step back and swallow as she looked into his eyes.
"My lord, I…I can walk. 'Tis a small wound. I will get better very soon. I…I can learn whatever ye want me to. I will be helpful in the gardens, cleaning, anywhere."
Julian looked up and for the first time, he had to admit that she had caught him. He had no idea what she was blathering about. He tilted his head, and eyed her casually with a raised brow. Again, she pleased him with her nervous swallow and a slight wetting of her lips.
Understanding dawned on Julian together with a slight dent in his smugness. The bargain had been for her in return for her men's safety. She was pleading his assurance for them again. So, she feared that he would call off the deal if he was displeased by her injury. Well, loyalty was apparently a trait of the young devils of Lorindell.
"I can hear ye, Princess. Rest assured that yer capacity to work will be tested," he replied tautly as he bade her to move on. Ciliel hurried ahead and had soon taken her position at the front of the group. Julian looked ahead, meeting Richard's eyes as they both noted the nod of assurance that she gave her men. Loyalty. Julian found himself wondering how he could get her to transfer all of that loyalty to him. It would not be an easy task.