Category Archives: Claiming An Ally

Chapter Seven

Arnold was dressing for the evening meal when a hurried knock rapped upon his chamber doors. His valet left his side to answer it. He returned quickly. “Sire, apparently the King Edrich, who left not an hour ago has entered the castle by force and rushed your daughter’s room.”

“What?” the king was baffled, taking a moment to process the information. “Surely it is a misunderstanding. Perhaps he…”

“He was apparently in quite a rush; pushing past the guards…he wouldn’t wait to be announced…” The valet didn’t attempt to hide his concern, hinting he thought the princess to be in some sort of peril.

The king, still confused, rushed out to find his daughter. Many servants were gathered along the long hall that led to her bedroom. They were whispering and peering towards her room. When they saw him approach, they stiffened against the walls and then bowed their heads before dispersing. Arnold walked through the open doors of his daughter’s chamber and saw her clutched in the arms of the man who had refused to marry her.

“What goes on here?” Emera jerked from the comforting embrace at the sound of her father’s voice. She reached to dry her face, relieved that most of the moisture had been absorbed into Edrich’s cloak.

“Father, I-”

“Sire,” Edrich cut in, standing, “upon contemplating your offer further, I found it wisest to stay for another night or two and discuss such arrangements with your daughter, as opposed to my previous thought of leaving altogether. I hope this meets with your approval.” He gave a small bow.

The old man began beaming. “Why, I think that is a very wise choice, indeed. Emera, what say you? Will you welcome the king to dine with us this eve?”

“Not entirely certain what offer he is reconsidering, I am inclined to want more information on the subject, before committing to anything. However, yes, my initial response is that it would be most gratifying to host his Majesty as long as he desires to stay,” she said softly, still overcome by his abrupt and unexpected return.

“Ha! Good then!” the king cheered, walking over to slap Edrich on the back. “Well, why don’t you come with me and you may have your rooms back, I take it they were satisfactory before, though you were…” his voice trailed off as he led Edrich out of the room, allowing him only time enough to give a longing look back, crested by his heart-filling smile.

A rushing wave of joy surged in her, her body responding in quickened heart beat, flushed skin, and dizzied head. She twirled once, clasping her hands tightly together, squeezing them to her chest. Her face contained the widest smile of her life, her eyes filling from the overwhelming jubilation surging powerfully through her. She collapsed on her bed, laughing and crying for some minutes, thrashing about in tiring excitement. With a start, she realized the dinner hour was upon her and she was still in her riding clothes.

She rang for her maid. “Quickly, brush out this wild mane and do something with it,” she said, straining to contain her giddiness.

“Yes, my lady,” the young girl said. She set about brushing out the thick hair, waved by the plaits Emera had worn it in since early that morning. When her hair shone like the silk it was, she began a new braiding style that wove gently back away from her face, forming an intricate tangle of threaded hair. A few wisps fell to the side of her face and at the nape of her neck, turning in angelic curve.

“Always so lovely. Thank you. Now, bring me a proper dress for dinner while I wash up, yes?” She hurried off to the beautiful washroom. As the bell rang calling for diners, the thrill of her heart was making her feel light headed and she knew she was most certainly flushed. Emera descended the stairs, the perfect image of a refined princess, something she hadn’t looked like in quite some time, she mused. As heir apparent to Adalynd, Emera should have always behaved as a queen, with grace and decorum, observing all the practices of a fine lady. However, Emera found at an early age, there was much lacking in a fine lady when considering qualities for a strong leader. She quickly took up other skills, besides needle work, like swordsmanship and archery. She was a voracious reader of her father’s old scrolls detailing military exploits of her kingdom’s history. She had much rather be riding through the neighboring villages, observing life and all the various issues that accompanied it rather than trimming roses in a private garden.

Because her concern for her people was evident, and she proved herself worthy of the skills and talents she pursued, no one ever considered criticizing the princess or her slightly less-than-common habits. Her natural beauty and grace went far in easing her way in the world as well. As such, she spent more time in riding clothes or hunting garb, than in fine silks and satins. The rare sight descending the staircase in floating silence stilled the room of all speech from the small circle of lords and ladies. Edrich, who had been speaking with Arnold, upon hearing the hush, turned to spy the cause. He stood mesmerized by the innocent enchantress.

Unaccustomed to being so blatantly stared at, Emera blushed as she approached her father and Edrich. She braved a glance at Edrich who quickly looked at the floor and then away.

“Emera, my dear, you look exquisite. If the king’s presence was enough to get you into a suitable dress, I would have invited him years ago, if only to see you looking like the queen-in-waiting you are.” Arnold reached out and took his beautiful daughter by the hands and kissed both her cheeks. Emera blushed at the insinuation she would do anything to please Edrich, even something so out of her character as to dress up.

“Thank you father, but I always dress appropriately when we dine with guests.” She smiled, trying to lessen the strangeness of her actions. She glanced again at Edrich, but he was still looking off, seemingly distracted by something else. Before anything was further mentioned, the head butler, Andre, entered, declaring dinner ready.

Arnold, as was custom, proffered his arm to his daughter and led the way into the dining hall. Emera dared a look back. Her heart stopped when she saw Edrich finally look at her. The heat in his eyes inflamed her and she suddenly regretted she would be surrounded by others for the next hour, knowing she only wanted to be surrounded by him.

Increasing the severity of her discomfort even further, as he was the honored guest, he sat to the right of her. So close, she lamented. Though she ached to be near him, the current state of their closeness only served to distract her from appropriately hosting the small party.

The guests, the Lords and Ladies Macomb, Wayn, and Goun, were able to keep the entertainment high with constant questions of Emera’s recent adventure. The princess felt more and more anxious with each passing minute. Her usually beautiful wit was in hiding under the pressure of being so near to Edrich, and yet unfulfilled, discussing her innocent intrigue in front of her accuser, and attempting to skirt around discussion of her torture sitting next to the very afflicter of her great anguish.

The retelling of her and Edrich’s story forced the subject, but allowed no true discussion of the events. Although she attempted to detail only the basic outline of their time together, Edrich had to react quickly to answer diplomatically when Emera became flushed. While he wanted to alarm no one by speaking of her punishments, at both his hand and Jenner’s, he didn’t want to appear as a liar in front of her.

“You see, I failed. For years, I never quite trusted the man, and yet I never acted upon my instinct. I betrayed myself, my kingdom, and eventually Emera. I allowed myself to believe his lies instead of whole-heartedly seeking the truth. I am quite vain, and he used that against me.” He looked to King Arnold across the table. “For that, I ask your Majesty for forgiveness.” He bowed his head slightly.

Arnold, never one to linger on unpleasant things, stammered, “Well, the important thing is that you realized your mistake and my daughter has apparently forgiven you, so all is well.”

The others at the table began speaking about the idea of spies and traitors, but none of their words found his ears when he felt thin, warm fingers slid up his thigh and grasp his hand. She was looking slightly askance down the table at Lord Goun, a fork in her hand. But her reassuring grasp in his own hand told him she sat alone in the room with him, no one else present. He squeezed it back, closing his eyes, feeling peace that only whole forgiveness can bring.

The anxiety of the discussion faded, but their growing hunger, despite their dinner, only increased throughout the evening. The fading hour was upon them, the others present having left for either their rooms or their own estates. Her father had fallen asleep with a book in his lap in front of the fire in the library.

They stood in the darkened hall, the chandeliers having been extinguished an hour before. The blue light of the moon cascading through the large windows competed with the soft, warm glow of the small candles in the sconces that ascended the walls. He stood only a foot away, his dark energy pulling at her like a drug. Slowly, she lifted her gaze to his, though his face was obscured by shadows of the night. Her breathing was increasing and she was finding it difficult to remember why they were standing thus.

In the lightness of her head, she knew she had words to say, but not what they were. In all suddenness, she only had desire and no words. She had need of strength and touch and lightning, but she had no words to voice it.

Edrich struggled to maintain his position. The overwhelming decree in his heart to haul her to him, take her to his room, to claim her forever rushed through him. Still he held back, even though barely, knowing, for countless reasons he could afford no such careless urgency. She was looking into him, her blue eyes darkened in the night, but also with desire. She quivered as she brazenly stared up at Edrich and licked her lips thoughtlessly. The shimmering full petal shivered delicately. Bewitched by the erotic sight, he took the small step to her and reached to cup her cheek. He would devour what she offered, knowing only her entirety would satisfy him all the while making him starve for more of her. But before he could lower his lips to hers, a voice interrupted their desire-ridden oblivion.

“There you are, my child. I was afraid you would have gone to bed before I could speak with you.” Stifling a yawn, the bleary-eyed king approached them from the amber light of the library door. In his own oblivion, the old man failed to grasp the tone of the scene he had stumbled upon. In all innocence, he patted Edrich on the back. “Well, I am glad you are come back, Edrich. I hope we can soon make a new alliance of an altogether different meaning.” He extended his hand for the man to shake. “Well, we won’t keep you up any further. I’m sure you’ll excuse us while I speak with my daughter.”

In his own desperate need for Arnold’s daughter, Edrich could only reply rather curtly to the unsolicited farewell. “Yes, thank you. Goodnight to the both of you.” He bowed and stiffly ascended the wide staircase leading to his bedroom on the second floor.

“Well, my dear, what do you think of that? He returned for you! And I dare say you are quite lucky to be attractive to such a good king. Though, I am sure you are attractive to a great many people. You are quite like your mother in that regard. But a little more in the way of your mind. Always your best asset, I’m sure.” Slowly he took his daughter’s hand in his arm and led her up the two flights of stairs to their floor.

“Now, I am quite certain you understand that the king intends to offer you his hand in marriage. I’ve been very lax with you, applying no pressure to ever marry. Primarily because I have had yet to meet a man I thought that could be best for you and the kingdom. But also, I knew you would be a great leader regardless of who you married, and therefore did not see the urgency in it.

“As it is now, you have the best of all possible men, and I see how keen you are for him in return. Therefore, my daughter,” he paused in front of her bedroom door and took both her shoulders in his hands, looking intently into her face, “If he does give you an offer, you know what your answer should be.”

“Yes, father. I know,” her voice breathed.

“Good, my child. Then, in that case, my mind at rest, I shall leave you to sleep. Rest well, my dear.” He kissed her on the forehead and strolled back to his room, content that soon he would be the happy father of the queen that united two kingdoms. He chuckled to himself; he would love to have a grandchild or two, as well.

Emera’s maid was waiting for her to return that late evening. She hadn’t had a proper wash earlier before dinner and wanted to be the cleanest possible. The young girl drew the princess a warm bath and poured the milk in. Emera immersed in her large tub. She scrubbed herself quickly. Despite the urge to linger in the warm depths, a bubbling of anticipation hurried her along. Circling in her mind was the desperate hope she would not sleep alone. Dressed in the most gossamer gown she possessed, she lied in bed, her eyes keen on the handles of her doors.

The hush of the sleeping castle floated into her darkened chamber. The tension radiating from her clutched the silence in strained expectation. Her ears were tuned to every fall of sound. She waited, hoping. The seconds ticked away, the moments passed into the night, and yet she remained alone. At last, exhausted from her vigil and the emotional havoc of the day, Emera’s eyes closed under their heaviness. She waited, listening in her blindness, arms open to her night visitor.

Edrich waited more violently tortured. He paced back and forth in his chamber, anxiously waiting, hoping beyond measure. He stood before his doors, looking at the handle, debating whether or not he should throw them open and march off to claim his love or patiently wait for her to come to him. He knew anything brash might rekindle the loathsome fear he already provoked upon her. He paced back to his bed and sat at the foot, clasping his hands together to rest his chin. He watched and waited and prayed.

Her expectation woke her as the dawn broke through her window. Though rested, she still carried the quiver of anticipation of what the day would bring. She looked at the pillow beside her, small disappointment creeping in at the lack of its use in the night. He hadn’t come to her. Perhaps it was for the best. Though understandably eager to meld their flesh once more, they should discuss…well, everything.

She bounded out of bed and groomed herself. Her hair fell in its loose braid over her left shoulder, per the norm. Her cheeks were pinking with anticipation, and her gown, though finer than her typical dress, was still plain and practical. Its deep blue matched her eyes and seemed to warm her skin. Before long, breakfast was served and she bounded down the stairs and walked as calmly as possible into the breakfast room. The two kings were already seated; Arnold was leaning on his elbow closer to Edrich, his ear turned toward the younger, listening gleefully.

At the sight of her, the two stood and bowed. “Good morning, my dear,” her father beamed.

“Good morning, father, Edrich,” his name tumbling from her lips in pleasure. The blush of the night before had returned.

Will she always be that stirred to greet me in the morning? he wondered amused. Though he had waited for her until his body slumped and his eyes shut of their own accord, the shimmering sight of her refreshed him, renewing his desire and hope.

“Good morning,” he replied, his deep, warm voice touching places covered by her clothing. “Your father and I were just discussing what a pleasant morning it is. A fine morning for a ride. After breakfast, perhaps you could show me the surrounding land.” His eyes were glittering with hope.

The thrill of being alone with him at last excited her. She wanted to giggle at the tingling sensation. “Yes,” she managed to say, though she still sounded breathless. “A morning ride would be quite nice. There are a few places that you may enjoy viewing.”

“I do hope so,” he smiled. Though Emera wanted to feel confident and free in Edrich’s presence, she was overtaken by a giddy shyness, the likes of which she had never before felt. Edrich, anxious to uncover what transpired between them while he fell ill and Emera’s feelings regarding the matter, contributed little to the conversation as well. That left Arnold to continue on his own, rattling away ideas of the recent and the newly budding alliances. Fetes, and contests, and merchant exchanges drifted around the table, though only one person was interested at the moment in discussing those aspects of collusion.

Edrich ate quickly, and Emera barely ate at all. Quickly, the two were finished with the meal. “Arnold,” Edrich broke in the king’s ramblings, “if you would allow, I would enjoy letting Emera lead me around for a bit.”

“Oh, yes! Of course, of course. Well, off with the two of you then. A good ride, to the two of you. Enjoy your day, dear,” he said as Emera leaned down and kissed him on the cheek.

“Thank you, father, you as well.” She walked out to the stables, Edrich by her side. Quickly, their horses were saddled and mounted, and she led him to the meadow to the east. A thick forest lie just beyond sight of the castle, and Emera felt it was the safest route for privacy. They raced along, the thrill of reaching an unknown destination spurring them on. At last, the forest they reached split with a rushing white river. The bank was steep. Ecstatic to share one of her favorite spots with Edrich she smiled bashfully and slid off her horse.

The two walked slowly along the edge, their horses lingered behind to graze on the soft grass. Neither knowing where to begin, they remained silent, hoping the other would speak first. At last, the uncomfortable edge in the silence prodded Emera in to speaking.

“You came back.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Why? I thought that was obvious. Your father has done an impressive enough job in announcing my intentions.”

She smiled. “Yes. But that is not exactly what I meant. If you came back, with such intentions, why did you leave in the first place, and with no goodbye? The two actions do not seem to be those of the same man.” She rubbed the back of her neck nervously, and then paused, realizing he had stopped walking. Turning to him, she waited anxiously for his answer.

“They are the choices of the same man, but the same man with different knowledge.”

“I do not understand.”

Edrich was reluctant to begin with the question or accusation that she had willingly given herself to him during his delirium and thus sought a different tact. “Perhaps I can explain if I am able to ask you a question, first.”

Emera shrugged her shoulders and sat on an enormous log. “Very well. What do you wish to know?”

“Have your feelings for me changed? You no longer hate me, am I correct?” he ventured.

She nodded slowly and softly smiled. “That is correct. I-I might have held a justified animosity towards you, but…considering all things, I am no longer bound by such antagonistic feelings.” Her admittance was bravely given, she thought, as the weaker in all things of their entire engagement she further made herself vulnerable. She looked at him with eyes of fear of his rejection, of need for his care.

Edrich approached her, kneeling down to look up into her eyes. “I deserve none of your goodness,” he confessed. “I am humbled by your forgiveness.” He sighed, uncertain where to lead from there. He turned so that he sat on the ground and leaned against the log, an arm propped over his bent knee. Her leg at his side provided a comforting perch for his head. “Emera, while I was sick…you stayed with me, yes?”

Her breath hitched a little. “Yes, I tended to you,” she admitted hesitantly. “After all, you were sick because of me. Undoubtedly, had I stayed and not run away, you would have freed me once you learned the truth. You would never have been harmed. I felt powerless as you wrestled with demons in your sleep.” Mindlessly, her hand had begun passing over his head, her fingers threading through the short, dark strands.

“You comforted me greatly. I…often times I believed myself to be in hell. I was tortured, beyond any reason or understanding. But, so often, I felt myself pulled into warmth, into safety. In the deepest part of me, I knew it was you. You saved me, in more ways than one.”

She smiled softly at the sentiment, her mind drifting over the times of his anguish she had touched him, called to him, soothing his despondent cries. Eventually she thought of the night she stayed with him, how she had allowed herself the freedom to be swept away in the comfort his desire generated. Stroking his hair, she suddenly became heated and self-conscious. She stilled her hand, pulling it back to tightly sit with the other in her lap.

Edrich, sensing her shift of mind, knew the subject had to be broached. “Emera, you asked why I returned.” He struggled to continue. “While negotiating the treaty, your father asked that I consider taking you as my wife. While he asserted you had feelings for me, I thought differently. I believed, even if you held some sort of emotion, it would be wrong to bind you to me, when all I wanted to do was repair the damage from imprisoning you and…the other. I was a beast, and I didn’t want you trapped to someone like that.

“So, I left.” He took in a long, deep breath. “However, my horse threw a shoe in that first little village on our way. As we were stopped, Robert told me, much to my surprise and alarm…” he paused, gaining confidence to continue, “the guard outside my bedchamber heard us…making love.”

“Oh, good lord!” she hissed. He felt her crumple into her hands, her face hiding her shame. He quickly stood up to sit on the log next to her. He tentatively reached out and took her by the wrists, lowering her hands so he could look into her face.

“Emera, is it true then?”

Some moments passed as a defeated Emera sadly searched for words to ameliorate her dishonorable actions. With quivering voice she answered. “Yes. Edrich, I am sorry,” she rushed, apologizing. “I-I don’t know what happened. Well, that isn’t entirely true. I…well, I was tending to you, like I said. It was late and you had such terrible fits. I didn’t want to leave you, but I was so tired myself. Once you had quieted, and not wanting to leave you, I decided to sleep near you. I was worried, you see. But, in the night, in your fevered state, you…well, you reached out for me. And though I tried to dissuade you, I…”

Thinking he had once again overpowered her, he began to burn furiously. His face darkened before he angrily stood and paced away. He vehemently raked his hand through his hair.

Emera mistook his self-directed anger for rage at her actions. In despair, she pulled her knees up to her, throwing her face back into her hands. At hearing her weep, Edrich spun. “Emera,” he said as he sat back down and gathered her into his arms. “I am so sorry. I-I didn’t know, I wasn’t in control. Please, please forgive me.” He pulled her tightly into him, fearing any headway he had made to be washed away.

He was apologizing? “What do you mean, you are sorry? I am the one that should be ashamed,” she spoke.

Puzzled, he pulled her away and peered down at her. “Why should you be ashamed?”

“Because I took advantage of you,” she wailed in distress.

Relieved to hear her tears were because of her own conscience, and not because he had attacked her, he chuckled and cupped her face. “Em, my sweet, please be at ease. You have nothing to be ashamed about. You did not take advantage.” Her look communicated her strong doubt. “If anyone is to be a suspect in this entire affair, it is me, not you.”

“But I…I wanted you, and you weren’t aware of anything you were doing. You were sick, but I didn’t stop. Your touch was…” she blushed, suddenly realizing what she was speaking of.

At the evidence of her desire for him, Edrich grew serious again. “Emera, your father wishes that we wed, but I do not want to force this upon you. I want you, I won’t deny it, but, if you feel trapped by this, in anyway, I want you to say so.”

She stared into his eyes with such thankfulness. “Truthfully, yes, Edrich, I’ve hated myself for wanting you so. But I know I’ll never want anyone as I do you. When you were sick, I realized…I knew I would be forever haunted by you. Not by my treatment at your hands, but by my complete need for you. When I thought you might die…all else fell away. And when I thought you left me, it nearly crushed me.” Tears had sprung to her eyes at the memory of watching him depart. “Edrich, if it is what you desire, not because you feel guilty, or feel as though you need to make amends; but if you want me, as I want you, then yes, I’ll marry you.”

For some moment he held his breath, needing nothing more than the sight of her eyes, the sound of her voice. At last, he sighed happily and smiled. He reached to cup her cheeks, pulling her face to him as his mouth slowly stalked closer to the succulent treasure he had craved for so long.

His heady flavor flooded her senses, triggering her hunger for him. She quickly opened her mouth, yearning to feel him take possession. His tongue captured her bottom lip, trailing the length of it, and then dipped inside, greeting hers. It was a meeting of tenderness, a promise to be ever-loving, ever-kind and loyal. She moaned, overcome by relief and joy.

In the moment of her exhilaration, Edrich too became aware of his own desire that crashed against his self-restraint, thundering to be released. He broke from her, their breathing harsh and urgent. Her eyes were swirling pools fixated on his lips. Her lips hung heavy and loose, wet. Slowly, she looked up into his eyes. He shuddered to witness the raw, powerful carnal hunger that filled them. He took a ragged breath and held her at arm’s length when she made to kiss him again.

“Emera, I don’t think we should continue. If we don’t stop this now, I won’t be able to resist taking you completely.”

In the huskiest voice he had ever heard from her, she said, “I don’t want you to stop.” His heart, along with his loins, clenched in happy terror, and then released into hot liquid. Her eyes had fallen back to his lips, and she was pushing her way forward to reconnect them once more. Overpowered by her admission, by her scent, by her desperation for him, he fell still and allowed her to engulf him like the ocean claiming the shore.

She pulled him into her, devouring his mouth in starvation. She forced her way into the cavern, occupying him the only way she knew how. She raked her tongue against him. She was running her hands from his stomach, up his chest and over his shoulders. She clung to him, binding herself to him. Her arm snaked around his neck. As she leveraged her body up, her far thigh crossed over to fall possessively on his lap. With her other foot still on the ground, she pushed up to take the high position, using her advantage to crash down upon his mouth.

Her eager domination was erotic and provoked his body to respond instantly in agonizing ecstasy. He allowed her any freedom she willed to take, knowing her pleasure would be his. He exalted in the knowledge her bliss was not at his coercion. He felt the greatest appreciation that she wanted to be touched by him and that she was responsible for the brutal passion now passing between them. She wanted him, and she wasn’t afraid of those desires anymore. She denied nothing.

Her right leg that had come to rest over his lap was rubbing sensuously with the rest of her body. It dragged over his hardened length. Mindlessly, his hips began to move with her leg, pushing into her as it passed over him. In response, Emera shifted to completely straddle him. Her hot core was pressed fully onto him, her mouth never having left his.

Emera’s arms rubbed aimlessly over and around his body to cleave her to him. She was grinding her hips into him, riding the bulge. When he growled at the exquisite pain shooting through his body at her crushing his cock, she paused, breathing heavily into his mouth. His eyes opened to find her watching him. His own breathing stilled as he saw that animalistic hunger, contemplating him, like a wolf calculates the attack of its prey. Her movements had stilled, and in the respite of their actions, he felt the tips of her fingers slide slowly down, past his chest, down his stomach to land quietly on the edge of his britches.

His breathing returned, ragged and strained. Her eyes never wavered from his gaze, though her cheeks reddened as her hand pulled out the treasure she sought. He stared into her molten blue, watching for her intent. His gaze fell to her lips. They were parted. Her pinkness slowly emerged to run along her bottom lip before treating the top in the same manner. Moistened, she bit lower lip and looked down between them.

Her skirt ballooned in her way, blocking her view. Looking back to his darkened eyes, she released herself to slide painfully, slowly down until her knees perched her in front of him, pushing his legs apart and settling close. She had kept him tightly in her hand, not once relinquishing that heavy, masculine part of him.

Edrich looked down to see her hand clasped tightly around him, squeezing the purpled head. He looked uncertainly back to her face, but found her eyes mesmerized by the sight of the prize her hand gripped. She leaned into him, drawing her closer to investigate provocatively. Her left hand steadied her against his knee as her right began to slowly move down his shaft. She released her grip to let her fingers trail over his springing length.

It was hot, she noted. It was the familiar burning in her tight walls, availing itself to completely stroke her most intimate flesh. She felt the silky texture and explored it further by spreading two fingers, allowing it to glide between them. She stroked slowly, up and down, feeling the silk caress her skin erotically. The large heat fell to the joint of her fingers, reminiscent of another body part it treated similarly. It simultaneously soothed and ignited the itch between her fingers. The sensation caused her vaginal walls to clutch in reaction. The squeeze of her secret walls caused her to undulate forward against Edrich’s thighs. Her eyes closed at the sensation and her head lolled back, a soft moan escaping her lips as her fingers stroked him.

Her fingers finally circled around him again, catching him tightly as she slowly drew up his length, pushing all the pulsating blood to thrum in the tip. She heard him suck in his breath through clenched teeth. She held him firmly as she looked up curiously into his strained face. He looked as though he were in pain, sweat beading on his brow. She raised her eyebrows at him, but with no concern. She continued to hold him tightly, watching the tension grow on his face. When he sucked his breath in even further, his chest puffing out at the enormous amount of air he was holding, she slowly released him, allowing the blood to flow back. She watched him relax from the strain, though his stiffened posture told her he was on guard against such a brutal assault again.

She turned her eyes back to his beautiful shaft, her eyes roaming its contoured length. It was a beautiful part of him, she realized. She continued to revel in the sight of him, so often hidden during their skirmishes. Again, she tightened her fingers and drew up the length. His breathing continued as it had before, but she no longer looked up to watch his tortured countenance.

Keeping her gaze on thick rod, she continued to slowly pump him, holding at the top until she felt the tension threaten to spill over in him. Then she would release him. When his precum leaked from the tip, she moved her left hand to take over the strangling torment so her right could dip a finger in the sticky fluid. She rubbed it between her fingers and then went back to the source. Slowly, she used two fingers at the tip, spreading the fluid around the head, swirling it hypnotically around and around. She could feel his increasing pulse, the clenching of his thighs.

His aroma was assaulting her and without thought to the appropriateness of such an action, she bent her head forward and opened her mouth to allow her tongue to slowly extend. Edrich watched in rapturous horror as her pink tongue tentatively emerged to flick at the head of his cock. He let out a loud, moan-filled breath at the sensation shooting through him. “Emera…”he barely managed in broken voice. “Please, love, you should stop.”

But she didn’t. “I want to taste you,” she muttered, consumed by the desire of her task. Hell, what could he say to that? She had released the overwhelmingly tight grip on his shaft, only to engulf his head in the scalding heat of her mouth. She started slowly, suckling the tip as he might her breast. He stamped down the surging desire to immediately build to climax, wanting instead to experience all she wanted to take.

When she heard his breathing grow to quick gasps, she knew she had to take it more slowly, wanting to glory in the feel and taste of him in her mouth. She ceased her intense sucking to take him deeper, more languidly into her mouth. She shaped her tongue lovingly as he slipped deeper. Her left hand glided up his thigh. Stopping at the hem of his pants, she began tugging at his shirt, releasing it from his breeches. She wanted to run her fingers over more of his skin. Once her hand had freed the shirt edge, she continued under the fabric up his torso, her fingers bouncing gently over the musculature there. Her hand quitted its journey at his chest where her fingers grasped boldly at the large muscle she found there. In concert with her sweet sucking, her nails grated over the pebbled nipple under her hand.

Edrich moaned in appreciation of the exquisite attentions she gave him. Desperate to touch her in return, his hand threaded through her bound hair, releasing it to fall erotically. He restrained the desire to fuck her mouth, but instead allowed his hand to be a part of the movements of her head, relinquishing all control to her sway.

She was taking him slowly into the depth of her hot mouth and creating a vacuum as she withdrew. She would let him fall from her mouth so she could trace the hot silk with her tongue, exploring. She mewled at the incredible feel and erotic flavor of him, her mind over-rushed with pleasure. Her right hand, feeling its own build up, ached to claw at him. With rhythmic squeezing, it moved from the inside of his thigh, higher and massaged the taut muscles as it went. When she reached the base of his shaft, her fingers stumbled over the full sack there. The warm, soft flesh was compelling, and without thought, she began to pull and play, rolling him between her fingers and squeezing him. She heard him moan happily, so assumed he must enjoy it as well.

Edrich had fallen back on one hand while the other enjoyed running through her silken strands. He watched in ecstasy, awash with lust as he had never before known it. The basic components of finding pleasure in another’s touch was there, but that other-wise common feeling was deepened by the piercing emotion of love, which heightened the pleasure of not only receiving, but giving as well. The fact that she found pleasure in him swelled his heart with joy. He loved to watch her rapture, regardless of the matchless pleasure her actions gave him.

Emera found heavenly bliss stroking him with her tongue. Once, mouth closing around the knob, her teeth accidently grazed the flesh there. When she felt him jump under her, she decided to try something new. Lowering herself on him again, she held him filling her mouth. Using her tongue, she pushed the enormous weight slowly around her mouth, sending his cock to scrape against her rows of teeth, and then stopped to suck once or twice before commencing again or withdrawing to the tip.

Edrich felt as though he would evaporate from the heat engulfing him. When the harsh sharpness of her grazing teeth connected with his skin, Edrich gasped violently. He shifted on the log, trying to escape the unbearable agony. He managed to control his breath long enough to growl. “Emera, please, stop. I cannot take another moment.”

She did look up at him at that. She was enjoying the delicious weight in her mouth. But she was also aware of her own need. His cock could still be put to good use. She released him from her mouth and reached up for his shirt, pulling him down hard against her mouth. “Edrich,” she managed to breathe as she tried to assail his mouth with her tongue, “please, I need you. Make love to me now. Here.” She was wrapping her hands at the back of his neck, pulling him down to the ground. She maneuvered him so he came to sit where she had been kneeling, his back leaning against the moss-covered log. She pulled his trousers down further and quickly straddled him again. She took his hands in hers and slid them under her skirts to settle on her undergarments. She nudged forward, silently commanding him to free the barriers between them. Needing little coaxing, Edrich soon had the material pulled out of the way.

Emera returned to his mouth. His lips and tongue and breath were the center of her desire, and she found she wanted to always be connected to him. Needing the feel of his hot skin under her hands, she began fervently tugging at his shirt, stripping him bare of his layers. Her hands ran down the sides of his neck and over his shoulders.

She left the sweetness of his mouth to lave his skin with hot kisses. She followed the chiseled lines of jaw and the strong muscles of his neck as she went. She reached the hard line of his collar bone and in her excitement bit it, feeling the muscles of his chest firm in reaction. She ground against him only two or three times before feeling the fat head rub at the center of her dripping wet cunt. “Please, Edrich,” she begged hungrily, rubbing her head into the side of his.

Edrich waited for no further request. His hands were still hidden under her skirts, gripping her hips. He reached under her to position himself. He was still wet from her loving attention and the newly acquired liquid she leaked from her creamy depths. He stroked her with his fingers, suddenly overcome with joy at having her blissful folds now at his disposal forever. She was still rolling against him and two of his fingers slid into her incredibly wet heat. She hissed at the delightful sensation, it temporarily easing the ache in her. Her lower lips were swollen with her need, and he relished in the engorged feel of them.

“Edrich, stop teasing me. Please, now. I want you in me,” she moaned.

The unsolicited request broke his concentration at play. He had no thoughts of being coy, but with his own matching urgency, positioned his shaft into her wetted folds. She quickly raised to better position him and then slid down, feeling the glorious stretch momentarily satisfy the tension in her inner depths. She sat a brief time, catching her breath from the built up excitement. Feeling more in control, she opened her eyes.

Edrich was staring at her, his own labored breath evident. She wanted to stay, bound to him in their exquisite affliction. But the shooting pain of glory through her body caused her to twitch against him. She could no longer control the movement of her body. She fell into the persuasion, slowly moving on him. Emera knew at some point in her life, the sensuality she displayed would have embarrassed her, but she was unable to know any feeling other than the driving pleasure that pulsed in every cell of her body.

The delicate and keen nub of flesh at the top of her pussy was able to rub occasionally against him, but the rest of her felt slightly dissatisfied. Her knees were bent so she rested, not only on his lap, but on the ground either side of him. Her lower legs were back, and her toes dug in the soft, dampened soil. She used the position to drive against him powerfully, but her body felt like a chaotic mess of yarn. “Help,” she whimpered, wanting the rhythm, but too overcome by rippling sensations to expertly find it.

Understanding her need and frustrations, he took her hips in his large, strong hands. His fingertips bit into the flesh. “Relax,” he tried to whisper through his choked throat. Slowly, he began to move her on top of him, helping her glide up, and then ease back down. He guided her hips to roll against him so he was strumming the electric parts of her channel. She let out a grateful moaning exhalation.

Emera, at last composed in the sensual movement, sat looking into his eyes as she drove against him. She invited him into her soul while hosting him in her velvet channel. The invasion, complete as it was, caused her being to tremble at the vulnerability at being so exposed.

“Edrich,” her trembling voice called. She reached for him, kissing his jaw, and sucking on his ear. “I love you,” she whispered, her breath falling into him.

Edrich’s heart leapt. His arms came up to wrap tightly around her, crushing her to him. She likewise hugged him back and hid her face in the crook of his neck, still following the rhythm he had begun. She arched up and then thrust herself fiercely down, impaling herself on him until he could feel his cock hit her deepest wall. She sat up to look him in the eyes again. Though she was afraid of the openness, she was also addicted to the consummate eroticism of staring into his beautiful eyes as he brought her to pleasure. In two, then three more falls of her hips, her inner walls began to quake around him. Her body followed suit, quivering over his form as her thighs tightened. She cried out, her broken voice drawing his orgasm forward.

On his own edge, he thrust violently up once then twice to bring himself over. Feeling his energy exploding from his being, he shot into her hot cavern copious amounts of cum. He growled fiercely, squeezing her to him even more tightly. His continued gyration trilled her into another orgasm, causing her to cry out in tears as the pleasure tore her apart. Her body spasmed, slamming her violently down against his chest.

“Edrich, please,” she moaned, choking back tears, the intense, continued sensations becoming too much for her sensitive flesh to handle. Running a calming hand down her back, he nudged against her with his head, rubbing comfortingly. Moments passed and her cries subsided, only the shuddering movements of their bodies remaining. They drifted slowly down from the rapturous heights, clinging wholly to each other.

At long last, their heads began to clear of the lust-driven fog. She pulled back to look at his face. He smiled, reaching up to dry the tears on her cheeks. She looked at him with such wonder, such faith, such love, that his chest could only rise in the power she gave him. He kissed her again, softly. For long minutes, he held her, caressing her gently. Her open acceptance of his tenderness, as well as the forceful, passion-driven touch, mended the pain and doubt he carried, afflicted by his own hand.

The power of their arousal sated, they were able to clearly discuss the details of marriage. The conversation began lightly, but quickly grew as their clever minds began working. Most would have thought the father and current king would have been better suited to make decisions regarding affairs of state. However, in consideration that the best decisions Arnold had ever made, save the choice to marry his wife, had all originated with his daughter, the welfare of the kingdom was well looked after.

In the end, they determined their lands would be unified, and to provinces would be established that served to further unify separated sections. The heir apparent would rule the entire kingdom, while establishing governors, either siblings or appointed officials, to monitor and represent the provinces. There were other details to iron out, like where the reigning royal would reside, but those were not immediately important, and could be left to discuss with their advisors and generals.

Eager to enter into their new life, they decided upon the quickest wedding possible. Emera wasn’t certain what expectations her father would have, but knew he could be persuaded to her way of thinking. In tandem, the two raced back to the castle. The morning was gone, and they were both starved for something other than each other.

Emera noted the extra activity of the bailey as they entered, but disregarded it as her mind was happily occupied elsewhere. However, by the time she passed through the entry and great hall, the swirling furry of dozens of servants scurrying to and fro, carrying everything from flowers to large swathes of material, to plates and trays made her and Edrich slow in their trek to the kitchens. They looked at each other quizzically, and decided to find her father. He was in the ballroom, throwing his arms up in grand gesture.

“Flowers upon flowers! Emera loves flowers and I want the room filled,” his boisterous voice boomed to the butler next to him. When Arnold saw the couple enter, his smile broadened. He immediately rushed over, leaving the servant to bow quickly and head off to fulfill one of many of his lord’s commands.

“Father, whatever is happening here?”

“Why, you are my dear! Well, at least your engagement party. That is, if everything went according to plan,” he lowered his voice, looking questioningly at Edrich.

“Yes, your Majesty. Emera has agreed to marry me.”

“Excellent, excellent! I told you she would didn’t I? I decided to make preparations as quickly as possible. The party will take place in a full two days’ time. Hopefully, that will give your people time to arrive. My head chef has been preparing the menu all morning…” Arnold continued to prattle away as he led the stunned couple through the dizzying, swirling chaos.

The next two days did not contain enough hours for the head butler, the chamber maids, or the chefs to attending to the preparations to their liking. For Edrich and Emera, however, the times were torturously long. The afternoon they arrived back from their tryst in the forest, her father, with oblivious humor, instated the age-long custom of a chaperone for his daughter. He had waited many years until he could call upon the favor of the old governess once more. She had never been much use to Emera as a child since she was head-strong and saw to her own learning, and she certainly wasn’t use now, when all the princess wanted was to be in Edrich’s arms every waking, and sleeping hour.

The couple was bustled about tirelessly from one seamstress to another to be fitted for a wedding outfit and trousseau. Emera, never one for difficult fashion found the entire thing tedious. Edrich, knowing a gorgeously-wrapped, divine body to be his reward, happily encouraged her to cooperate when she threatened to wear her favorite chapel dress.

The next two days brought changes to the castle, mainly by increase of persons roaming its many halls. Some were extra servants hired for the event; others were guests from both Adalynd and Lidio. Much to Emera’s relief, the two factions tolerated each other with more grace and decorum than she would have imagined. Few, if any squabbles, happened quietly and were resolved with diplomacy.

As the two were unable to steal any private time for themselves, they settled on spending much of it with her father, discussing policy. Edrich was far and away the most qualified to guide discussion of defense of their states, while Emera was able to design balanced policies that fairly considered all parties. She wisely drew upon laws the two countries had in common, sieving out the essential commonalities and creating a cohesive pandect, which would hopefully satisfy both nations. Arnold, per the norm, contributed little of value, mainly serving as a source of first and second-hand accounts of old stories of kings and queens, and all the people in between that contributed silently to the history, both for the good and the bad. Though the stories were simply little more than a distraction, they did give Emera things to consider, and often provided them all with a serious chuckle or tear.

One of Edrich’s first orders of business was to order his troops at the border to return to their station of origin and to call for his general. Obviously, he would not be attacking Adalynd, as it was soon to be part of his kingdom. However, he needed to assess Adalynd’s army and general condition. Meeting with Arnold’s Field Master General and his own, they discussed military sizes and training and training requirements. Edrich met some resistance from General Theodore; however, his own general only exacerbated the tension by repeatedly remarking on the superiority of his army. Edrich had to privately caution him to not wound the ego of the old man. After all, he most likely did the best he could with what Arnold had given him in way of direction and support.

In the end, though Theodore was somewhat miffed at the apparent demotion, it was agreed upon for the sake of unifying the two countries’ armies, that General Wells would lead the unified army throughout all the land. It was then brought up, by the aging Theodore, under what colors did their nation fight? Edrich, exhausted at compromising, pinched the nose of his bridge. The doors to the great room opened, and he sighed in relief to see Emera grace the room.

Smiling, she approached the men with a maid following, pushing a cart for tea. She sat next to Edrich on the large arm of his chair, wrapping her own arm around his shoulders. “How goes it, my lord?”

“Tiring, my lady.” She gave a sympathetic smile, and leant down to kiss him.

“Then, perhaps you gentlemen should take a break and refresh yourselves with tea and cakes.” She took the cup from the maid and handed it to her betrothed. “Tell me, what things have been decided upon?” Edrich relayed the morning’s agreements and decisions, bringing him to their current topic of consideration.

“Yes, I see the problem; it also likely means we will need to consider a new emblem for our new country, will we not?” Edrich huffed a little, trying to disguise it as a sigh, but failing. “Is there a problem, my love?” Emera asked, humorous temper bristling somewhat at his behavior.

He sighed again. “Perhaps we should stop our discussions for the time. Our engagement party is not four hours away and we are in need of preparing, are we not? Let us return to these talks after our wedding.” His word being final, he stood and bowed to the two men, biding them good afternoon and extending his hopes to see them enjoy themselves that evening. He turned to Emera and held out his hand to escort her.

She narrowed her eyes at him, but her face didn’t lose its slight humor. She followed him out of the room and up stairs and down hallways, studying him as they went on in silence. Before she knew it, they had turned down a dark hallway that she herself rarely ventured down. “What are we doing here?” she asked somewhat confused. She turned to look at him for her answer. Her breath caught at the darkened face that greeted her. ‘Edrich?” she choked quietly as he began to stalk closer to her.

“And, where, pray tell, is that old croon of a chaperone? Left you in quite the vulnerable position, has she not?” his body edged closer, pushing her back against a door.

“Sh-she is get-getting r-ready,” she stammered out breathlessly.

“Mmm,” he said thoughtfully, extending a hand slowly for her. But it reached passed her and turned the knob. The door flew open under Emera’s weight. She stumbled back into dark, only the dim light of the hallway visible. Edrich’s black silhouette stood menacingly in the gray frame until he took another step forward and reached to shut the door.

In the dark, Emera listened, suddenly anxious at the feel of being locked in the room with a predator. Her breathing, faster and more ragged, filled her ears. Though she could not see him, she felt his presence draw closer, enwrapping her in his energy. “E-Edrich?” she breathed. The pulsating energy from him pushed her back a few more steps until she hit shelving. Quickly grabbing at them to feel where she was, her hand landed on linens. She realized they were in the east wing linen closet. She stood, unclear why she felt a small terror running through her, livening her body until she tingled.

He stood only an inch from her, his hot breath cascading down her form. Slowly, and ever so erotically, she felt his hands at the sides of her thighs surreptitiously grasp her skirts and begin to bunch them higher. She could not feel the pressure of his hands, only the delicate tickling of the swaying fabric running up her legs provocatively. Though the sensation was light, it was more than enough to light her skin on fire, sending wave after wave of thrilling electricity to her hastily dampening core.

When her skirt was high around her waist, she felt one had at her undergarments, teasing its way in. His hand, hot and insistent, covered her mound. A jolt of pleasure rippled through her, causing her to moan wantonly. She bit her lip, trying to muffle the sounds of the whimpering her drew from her.

Wordlessly, and with no other touching than his one hand, he gently pushed up into her sex, finding the folds brimming with her honeyed response. She heard his shuddered breath then, but still no words. She ached for his mouth, his kiss, his tongue to be her undoing. She wanted to violently press into him, but she understood his wordless command to remain still while he plundered her.

The one finger slowly ran the length of her wet slit, reaching between her thighs and then back to the top. It flicked the electric nub there, causing her hips to buck forward. He was not swayed by her body’s response, but instead continued his slow torture. Eventually, he added a second finger, and together, the two eased slowly, slowly into her molten core. The ache and buildup and pleasure were too much for her sensitive body. Her tight channel began to clench spasmodically around his fingers. She whimpered more, wanting to cry at the cruelty of the sweet torture. And then he stroked, once then twice on her anterior wall, strumming that secret place. In the briefest of moments, she was clutching fiercely down upon his fingers, crying in her release.

When her knees buckled, she felt his arm slip under hers and cradle her against him, even as he smashed her into the shelves behind. He pressed his hips into his hand covering her mound. “Release me,” his voice grated out. It was raw and urgent, giving away his strained need.

Though she leaned forward against him, her forehead resting on his shoulder and her body quaking with the remnants of her orgasm, her hands shakily fumbled with the laces of his breeches, seeking to free him as he ordered. When at last he sprung from his restraints, he tore his hand from her cunt, allowing her to wrap her leg around him and position him for the impaling. His hands grabbed her ass, pulling her into him. He filled her with every stroke until she felt as though she would rip. He lifted her higher, driving into her ferociously. Though his voice never broke again, his breathing rushed in and out of her ears, filling her mind with him. He did not last long, and within a few powerful thrusts, his body shuddered violently, a groan ripping from his throat. Though he felt his knees buckle in the overpowering sensation of his release, he only had to lean into her, crushing her against the wall. He held her, his arms wrapped possessively around her, squeezing the air from her. She still vibrated from her own orgasm, even as she clung only to him.

After some long minutes, their bodies regained their lost strength. He released her and felt her slide down his body, feet landing on the stone floor. He pulled from her, feeling his cock slide out of her heat into the coolness of the room. He was immediately aware of a great loneliness, but consoled himself in the knowledge she was his for the rest of his life. They quietly reassembled their personages, straightening their clothing, smoothing her hair.

Overcome by the powerful union, coupled with the still lingering fear, Emera reached out for him. “Edrich, what was that?”

He pulled her into his arms, spreading a hand over her jaw, his fingers in her hair, his thumb rubbing her cheek. “I’m sorry, did I hurt you?”

“No. You frightened me, though. Whatever came over you?” She felt him lean down into her, felt his lips graze hers before opening to run his tongue over the crease. She allowed him into her mouth, feeling his tongue mate gently with hers.

He pulled away, pulling her into him again. “It is difficult for me, this union.” He felt her stiffen and rushed to explain. “Please, do not misunderstand; I am beyond words in my joy at marrying you. Only…”

“Only what?” she prompted when he hesitated.

He took his time in collecting his thoughts. “I am king. All my life, I have been the ruler of all those I know, with the exception of my own father. I never believed I would have to be subjugated to my wife, even compromise with her.” She pulled away from him, seeking his face with her eyes in the darkness. “But I am not your sovereign. We are equals, and I struggle with giving so much power away. I suppose this moment in the dark was my attempt at regaining some sort of domination, though it frightens me to take such power away from you, considering…”

He felt her hand on his cheek, then. “Thank you,” she softly replied. “I mean no offense when I say, I knew instantly the moment we met you were the most arrogant, controlling man. But I understand why. Thank you for accepting me as an equal, though it strains your authority. In all things, I am yours. If we are to be equal, I will allow you to dominate me, so long as I can dominate you,” her voice huskily replied. She pulled him down to her mouth, sealing her bargain with an erotic kiss that quickly began to build his arousal for her again.

“Emera, my love, we should stop. You no doubt have many things to attend to in readying yourself for this evening. Though I wish for nothing more than to love you all afternoon and evening long, we have responsibilities elsewhere.” It pained him to open the door and draw her back out into the light once more. He slowly escorted her to her chamber rooms. He kissed her with aching need, rapidly growing unhappy that they were not yet free in marriage.

Edrich returned to his rooms and bathed, his mind weighed by his need, his duties, the giant task of uniting two previously feuding nations. Eventually, his worries melted into the steaming water, easing away with his relaxing muscles. He took comfort in Emera’s strength, intelligence, and pleasure in his desire for her. He would have a good life.

The hours passed slowly as Robert assisted in his dressing and grooming. He lounged with Arnold for the last hour in his study. The old king was fond of the pipe and sat reposed in a chair before the fire. Edrich contemplated the monarch, fascinated by the difference, not only in Arnold and his daughter, but by him and Edrich’s own father. The two were quite different kings, and Edrich was pleased that, despite weakness as a ruler, Arnold continued to prove as a comfort as a father-figure.

Eventually, the time to enter the great hall and join the lively celebration was upon him. He noticed his growing excitement at seeing the princess, finding it intriguing that he should have her, but with each possession, the desire for her grew exponentially. The wedding was set for the day after the next, and Edrich hoped, rather than believed, he could waylay his longing for her until such time as it was sanctioned by others.

The music was lively. Edrich noted that there were subtle differences between the music of Adalynd and Lidio, but Arnold had done a commendable job in assuring both were equally and beautifully represented. The dishes served, also varied slightly by nation, but equally served as the undercurrent of the new fusion the chief had created. The colors of the hall were brilliant. Edrich stopped and noticed how both countries’ colors actually went well together. Adalynd’s light blue and rich gold were accentuated in equal portion by his own deep crimson and black. An equal pairing of two colors could be easily done, he thought. He felt some of the weight of compromise and upheaval sweep off his shoulders, lightening the burden of the union.

The time came for the princess to make her entry. Edrich stood next to Arnold at the foot of the stairs where Emera was set to descend to, and the royal herald waited at the top to commence the announcement formally. Trumpets sounded and all faces turned toward the staircase.

“Announcing her royal highness, the Princess of Adalynd and betrothed of King Edrich Mather of Lidio, Princess Emera Lein Calwren!” The trumpets blew again and the red velvet drapes that hung at the entrance to the stairs drew back. All watched to see the glorious entrance of the future queen. But the crowd gasped upon the startling sight.

Edrich, fear-gripped, dashed up the stairs to kneel next to the figure. Glenna, blindfolded, beaten and bloodied, sat tied to a chair, a note pinned to her chest. The woman sat unconscious and unable to detail the events leading to her current state.

Upon spying the letter, Edrich tore it from her bodice.

My dear King,
You will no doubt by now realize your sweet princess is otherwise engaged at this time and unable to celebrate a future no longer possible. If you would like to ensure she lives, you may join us, ALONE, at the clearing in Dennenbrock not an hour’s ride from where you stand. And so you carry no delusions about this evenings’ outcome, know that only one will be allowed to live after tonight. Either you or your precious princess,

Yours, humbly,

Jenner

He shook as his vision darkened and went black. When piercing light returned, he looked about him, the bloodied woman in the chair, the guards leaning over her, the king, crown slipping, shaking his shoulder, mouth moving slowly but no sounds, no sound, no sound. Only the piercing through his ears, only the sharp edge of pitch stabbing through his head.

“Edrich! Edrich!” Arnold’s voice came rapidly, sound returning to the deafening silence. “Edrich! What is this? What is the meaning?” Edrich’s mind quickly snapped into place. He stared down at the letter again. Somehow, the bastard had slipped into the castle and stolen Emera. He stood and marched down the stairs. Quickly scanning the crowd, he saw Robert making his way to the doors first.

“Arnold, I am sorry to tell you, but Emera has been kidnapped by Jenner, the seditionist who tried to convince you to attack me and convinced me that Emera was a spy. He holds her at Dennenbrock. Where exactly is that? I will need a guide.” The crowd parted as he had made his way to the castle’s entrance and waited for Robert to bring his horse.

“I do not believe this! My daughter, you must bring my daughter back, Edrich.”

“Of course, your Majesty. A guide?”

“Oh, yes, yes, of course.” Arnold motioned for the captain-of-the-guards. “Please, escort King Edrich to Dennenbrock. Follow his command. Assist him in any way possible to bring back my daughter, Captain.” The stoic man bowed, signifying he would act as bidden.

“Do not fear Arnold, I will die before I allow this sick devil to harm her. I will return with her,” and then bounded down the stairs to the horse Robert led along. The Captain followed suit, a horse brought quickly to him. A young sentry approached when the captain motioned him forward. He handed each a sword and gave the captain a bow and quiver. The three bolted from the courtyard, the flying horses’ hooves thundering against the cobblestones.

The darkness Emera had been shrouded in the past few hours was drawn away as Philip, the fat man who aided Jenner, lifted the hood off her head. She blinked, taking in the lit torches blazing in a semicircle around the smallish clearing. The night sky over the forest was that deep blue turning to black. She looked up; her hands were chained to the wall of rugged stone. She knew instantly she was in Dennenbrock. An old ruin of a society before her people, it once served as a sacrifice site. Generally, as there was no village nearby, it remained forgotten in the woods.

Emera began to shiver, the fear of being helpless before the vile man creeping into her bones. She was alone, and she wondered if anyone knew she had been taken and by whom and where and when…she breathed, trying to quell the panic that was rising in her blood. If she had any chance of survival, she needed to remain calm and keep her wits. Controlling her raging fear was easier said than done, and she watched the figure in the center of the circle, whimpering and struggling against her chains.

Jenner stood, watching her terror take over her mind. He smiled cruelly. If all went well, not only would he depose Edrich and ascend the throne, he would keep this new toy. His smile was cruel, quite satisfied his plan had thus far proved well. Stealing into the castle had been simple enough, sneaking the princess out presented the challenge. Thus the cleverly designed note, forged in Edrich’s hand, requesting her presence in the forest just beyond the castle garden.

The princess came, just like a bitch in heat, just like he knew she would. He stood with his back to her, his cloak drawn over his head. “Edrich?” she asked, curious at his furtive behavior. Jenner, standing just a few yards in the woods, turned when she stood only a few feet behind him. Removing the cloak from his head, he turned to leer down at her. Her face, wide in shock, went limp as Philip stepped behind her, hitting her over the head with the butt of his sword. Unfortunately, as he gathered her on his lap atop his horse, he heard a gasp. Turning to the opening in the tall hedge of the garden, a scant five yards away, Glenna stood, hand over mouth.

“My lady!” she yelled.

“After her!” Philip, on his own horse, bolted forward, quickly catching up to the older woman. Before long, he was standing behind her, holding her arms tightly. They dragged her into the woods as well. “Deal with her.” And then after considering, he altered his plan. He commanded Philip to leave her tattered, a visceral omen to Edrich as to what would befall his princess. He knew it was risky, but instructed Philip to remain behind another hour until the announcement, pinning the note to the battered woman. He knew the melodrama would serve to enrage the king, hopefully hindering his thinking.

Philip had succeeded in following the orders with no difficulty. Long before the unveiling he was on his way back to Dennenbrock.

Jenner stalked closer to the quivering girl who bravely stared him down with disdain, despite her obvious fear. He chuckled, looking over her regal form. He slanted his eyes cruelly at her as he drew his knife. Emera eyed him warily, tightening her body rigidly against the stone.

“Oh, come now, little princess, surely you are not afraid of this steel, are you?”

“If I said yes, would you put it away?” she snarked. He backhanded her across her insolent mouth.

“Doubtful,” he hissed. “Now, is this any way to greet your fiancé? Let us see if we can make your appearance more appropriate.” Taking his knife, he began slicing at her dress, the shreds falling away, leaving her in her thin chemise and tight corset. He felt himself aroused at her sensual sight. He traced his fingers across the top of the laced corset, watching her repulsed reaction as they grazed the top flesh of her breasts. She turned her head and squeezed her eyes as he ran the blade of his knife down over the laces of the corset, cutting them one after the other. The material fell away.

Edrich, please, please, please… she repeated desperately over and over in her mind.

“I think this,” he leered as his hand ran slowly down her side, feeling her curves under the thin slip of material left, “is far more appropriate. Do you not?”

“No, as a matter of fact, I do not. I would only find it acceptable once it is soaked in your blood.” She turned her dazzling, hate-filled eyes at him. For her bravery, she received a crushing hand wrapped round her throat.

“You will learn in time, my pet, you are not to speak to me as you see fit.” His face was inches from hers. Having no freedom of hands, she spat in his face and then kneed him in the groin. He grunted and leaned for forward, but recovered enough to punch her squarely in the face, causing her head to reverberate backwards and knock into the rock. She fell limp, hanging from her hands.

Jenner stood, the stinging ache lessening. He reached out, grabbing her by the jaw. He looked over her face, nose bleeding, and cheek red from his smacking. Soon he would train her to respond with pleasure at his beatings. Soon, all his scheming would come to fruition.

“Jenner,” his name was growled from the edge of the trees. “Release her.”

“Edrich, Edrich, you were foolish enough to come. And here I thought you might sacrifice your little miss in order to completely vanquish me with your many men. I trust then, you came alone?” he asked over his shoulder, his hand still around Emera’s throat.

“I used a man to guide me here, but left him at the road.”

Jenner huffed. “How very stupid of you.” His knife was soon at her throat. “As I wrote you in the note, by coming here, you are agreeing to give your life for hers. So, put down your sword.”

Edrich, unhappy to comply, did as he was told. Until he could release her and see her safely out of harm’s way, he could not show his hand. He threw his sword on the ground. He watched menacingly as the fat man approached and retrieved it, taking it to Jenner. “Now, release her.”

“My king, you do have a funny sense of humor. Release her? Whatever for?”

“Because that was the agreement,” he ground out, thankful he had not trusted Jenner’s conditions.

“Yes, well, I said I would spare her life if you gave up yours, I do not think I said I would release her, that would be wasteful of me. Why would I give up such a succulent little pleasure, now that I have her at my finger tips? Can you imagine all the glorious pain she will feel as I take her over and over and over? How long do you think she will last? A year? Maybe two? No, I do not think I will be letting her go.”

The injured sight of her was enough for him to vanquish the man from the world, but the tortured images he conjured enraged Edrich almost beyond his control. Calm, calm, calm he soothed himself, knowing Jenner sought to provoke him into making a mistake. Control your temper, if you are to save her. “Even if you kill me, you will not be king. My people will never accept you, and if you hurt Emera, the entire Adalynd nation will rise up to overthrow you. You will be hunted for the remainder of you short life.”

“Oh, how little you know, your Majesty. As it just so happens, all those men you thought I was arresting in the borderlands, I simply…relocated until such time as I could use an army. Once I unleash them, they will devour this spoiled, lax state like an evil plague. There will be no spirit left to fight with. And as for your own people, I have thought of a solution to that as well. Fortunately, I have it right here in my pocket. Here,” he said, pulling out a scroll. Stowing his knife, he began reading aloud, amusement filling his voice.

“I, King Edrich Mather, 22nd ruler of Lidio, do by here renounce my crown and throne over the nation of Lidio and its subjugated provinces. I relinquish any and all rights to governance as well as claims over royal holdings, treasuries, and payments. I sign freely, under no coercion.

“Quite nice, do you not think? Believe you me, with my little private squad of mercenaries, this beautifully signed document (which you are about to do), and that lovely signet ring I am about to pry off your dead finger, I shall have no trouble positioning myself on your throne. And once I have that power, to hell with what others may try to do to usurp it.” He smiled. “Now, time to sign away, my liege. The longer you delay the more little marks I shall have to adorn your beautiful princess’ skin with.”

As he stepped further away from Emera and approached the king, the captain, whose name he learned was Remy, stepped quietly from the trees at the side of the monstrous rock, securing himself between the princess and the two traitors.

Spotting movement to his side, Philip spied Remy and shouted, “My lord! Behind you!”

Jenner, realizing his position was compromised, dropped the letter and grabbed his sword. He lunged at Edrich who blocked the driving blade with his forearms. Normally, he would be dressed in his leather cuffs, effectively protecting himself. Unfortunately, dressed in his formal garb, he had little protection in the sleeves. Though the blade sliced him, the cut wasn’t mortal. He drew a concealed knife from his back, arming himself. The blood running down his hands made holding it slippery, but his training kept it steady in his hand.

Philip lounged for Remy, but was struck by an arrow before he reached him. Robert shot another from his hidden position on a branch twenty paces in from the tree line. Philip dropped to his knees, and watched in strangled terror as Remy took two steps forward and ran him through with his sword.

Jenner, seeing he was alone and outmatched by the younger Edrich and his hidden company, turned and ran for his horse at the edge of the clearing. Edrich stopped him the only way he could. He flipped the blade round in his hand and threw it with deadly precision at his back. The steel lodged itself between two ribs, puncturing a lung. In agony, Jenner fell to the ground and rolled to his back, digging the knife in further. He was choking on the blood pouring into his once air-filled lungs. His breath was strangled, and he squirmed in anguish. He watched, horror-stricken, as the enflamed king advanced toward him with deadly deliberation.

He weakly gripped his sword, mindlessly aiming to flail it, but Edrich stepped on his wrist, causing him to lose his grasp. Edrich bent over and picked up the sword. From behind, Robert and Remy approached, watching their king mete out justice. Too bad he can only die once, Robert thought.

“For your crimes against the crown, for your barbarism and torture of a royal, for deceiving your king and attempting to send your nation to war, you, Jenner, shall die.” Edrich’s voice, gripped in hatred for the snake, condemned him to hell. In one swift, decisive move, he plunged the large blade through his black heart until he felt it stick in the ground beneath him.

Edrich stood panting over his lifeless body, resting his weight on the sword. Remembering Emera, he began searching the pockets for the keys to her chains. Feeling the small cold metal, he seized it out and rushed to her still lifeless form. Releasing her, she fell into his waiting arms. He cradled her in his arms, calling to her softly.

Slowly, she started squeezing her eyes, wincing in pain. Her eyes edged open, but she flinched automatically, struggling to free herself from the captive arms about her. Edrich comforted her, avoiding the red marks on her face. His gut clenched in fiery pain. How he wished he hadn’t killed the beast so he could torture him slowly for years. He stifled his anger and held her closer, whispering comforting words to her.

She reached up to Edrich’s collar, pulling herself into him. She began sobbing at the pain and fear gripping her. He held her tighter, rocking her back and forth. “Emera,” he soothed, “Em, love, you are safe now. He is dead. It is over. Please,” he whispered. He knew her tears had a right to pour, but her agony was his, and he wished it to end. He held her until she had emptied herself of her terror.

In the course of time, Emera’s tears stopped, and she was able to allow Edrich to attend to her wounds. He dabbed at the blood trickling from her nose. The gentle ministrations were comforting. She smiled softly, thankful he was her strength and assurance. He stood and lifted her into his arms.

He turned the men. “Burn them,” he commanded. He lifted Emera to his horse and mounted behind her. He felt her body sag into him, conforming herself to fit in his embrace. They wove back through the dark forest making for the road that would lead them to the castle. He questioned her about what had transpired. He was careful not to cause her too much stress, though he noted her spirit seemed to be reviving, the fight and strength returning to her abused form. She let out a sigh, and fully regained her composure, putting the incident behind her.

Emera was safe tucked inside Edrich’s arms. She rested her head back against his shoulder, feeling the cool breeze of the night sweep delicately over her warm face. Before long, she had fallen asleep in his arms. He nudged the horse forward into a smooth gallop, eager to get her home.

She awoke in the morning, her head throbbing. Belinda was immediately at her side. “Easy, my lady. Your head has taken quite a beating. How do you feel?” she asked as she helped Emera sit and lean back against the pillows of her bed.

“My head hurts.”

“Here, this tea should stop the pain. Your cheek is a little red, and your nose swollen, but your face should be lovely again by tomorrow. I will leave you for a moment, my lady, as King Edrich asked me to tell him the moment you awoke this morning.” The old lady scuttled from the room. Emera concentrated on the drink warming her hands. It wasn’t as objectionable as the soup she had made for Edrich, but it wasn’t tasty either. She downed the golden liquid, eager to be rid of it. She leaned back and closed her eyes, breathing deeply, feeling the air fill her head, easing the pain.

After a few minutes, a tingling sensation filled her and her eyes flew open. Someone was watching her. Edrich stood to the side, near the doors, quietly taking her in. When their eyes met, he smiled softly and approached. He sat on the edge of the bed. “You are well?” he asked, running his hand over her brow, brushing a few wayward strands from her face.

She smiled in return for the sweet gesture. “Yes, I am alive, thanks to you,” she murmured softly, taking the hand and pressing it to her warm lips. She then felt him flinch at the touch of his forearms. “What is the matter? What are these bandages?” she asked upon her exploration of his arms. He explained how he received them during the short fight. “How did you know where I was?”

Edrich became somewhat uncomfortable at the topic, not wanting to cause her distress from learning about Glenna. “Jenner left a letter. You told me a messenger brought you a note, claiming it was from me, but you met Jenner there instead. Did Glenna accompany you?”

She frowned, thinking. “Glenna? No, she wasn’t there, why?” When he hedged in answering, she became more concerned. “Why? Where is Glenna? Why do you ask about her?”

“Last night, at the party, when you were announced, it was Glenna at the top of the stairs, not you. She was…” he clenched his jaw, and mindlessly began stroking her hand, “tied in a chair. She had been abused, I am afraid. Jenner left your ransom note attached to her. I am sorry love.”

Her face constricted in anguish, tears began clouding her eyes. “How is she?”

“She is alive, but has not yet awoken.”

“I have been treating her, my lady, with the best herbs for her injuries. She will recover, but slowly,” Belinda interjected from the side.

“I wish to see her,” she said firmly. But as she stood, the room began spinning and she swayed on her feet.

Catching her, Edrich gruffly said, “That is out of the question. You will remain in bed for the day. You yourself are recovering and are in no condition to scamper about the castle.” He laid her back in the bed.

“What? Edrich, you cannot expect me to remain in bed, all day!”

“I can and I do. I am thankful to any service Glenna rendered you, but you are my number one concern, and I will not allow you to further make yourself sick. No, you will remain in bed. I will tie you to it if I must. The healer will look after her well.”

“You are being ridiculous. I am not going to go scampering about the castle. I simply want to look in on her, and then I will come straight back to bed.”

“You may see her in the morning, provided you are better. Do not forget, tomorrow we wed. But if you continue to act obstinate and do not recover because you are unwise, we will have to put that off. Is that what you want?”

“Of course not. Only, I do not see how being out of bed for only ten minutes would harm anything,” she pouted.

“You only just stood and nearly passed out. I had to catch you, and you think you can go walking about the castle, for ten minutes?”

She ground her teeth. The officious man had a point. “Very well. But first thing in the morning. And Belinda, I want you to keep me informed of her progress, and let me know when she awakens.”

“Yes, your Majesty.” She bowed and left the two alone.

Emera sat propped against the pillows, slightly perturbed at the man standing, looking down upon her. Eventually, Edrich sighed and sat back down. He leaned in and kissed her gently on her forehead. “I cannot relay to you the indescribable fear at reading the letter. To know you were in the hands of that…Once I saw you, I knew you were alive. I knew you would be safe. Foolishly, Jenner was outnumbered. I still do not understand why he didn’t have more men,” he said, almost to himself. “Well, at any rate, I am the most thankful man that you were not harmed more…you weren’t, were you?” he asked slowly, finally looking up in a questioning, side-ways glance.

She furrowed her brow. “How do you mean? He nearly crushed my skull. But no, he didn’t strike me more than twice. He did take his knife out, but he only used that to strip me of…oh,” she said slowly, knowingly. “I see your meaning.” She breathed a sigh. “No, he didn’t harm me, not in that way. I think he would have, had you not rescued me. But as it was, I think he cut away my clothes to present a more enraging picture, to throw you off your game, so to speak.”

A knock at the door interrupted their conversation. Arnold entered, concern and then relief washing over his face. He walked into the room and stared at his daughter before rushing to her side. “Oh, Emera dear, how are you?”

“I am well, father. Only a headache, and Belinda has already seen to that, so I shall recover soon enough.” She smiled at him reassuringly. He patted her gently on the cheek, and she tried not to wince at the pain.

“Edrich tells me this man Jenner is dead and should no longer be a threat.”

“Well, your Majesty, while he is dead, we still need to locate the outlaws he stashed as opposed to imprisoning. Unfortunately, the only other man that I am sure would have known the location is dead as well. Your captain-of-the-guards seems a very reliable man. I would like the use of him, if I may.”

“Yes, of course, Edrich. Do as you see fit. After all, soon, I will no longer be king, but you.”

“Father, whatever do you mean?” Emera asked, puzzled by his statement.

“Well, when you and Edrich marry, you plan on uniting the kingdoms, do you not? Well, Edrich is already king of one, and as you stand to inherit the throne of the other, does it not follow that the rulers of the new state will be the two of you, and not me?”

“Oh, father, I had not thought of that. That is true. Well, we either wait until such time as I would ascend the throne of Adalynd and then unite them, or do as you say now. It is something to think upon,” she said in thought, biting her lip.

“Well, I do not think it is something to decide upon immediately. Especially as we are not prepared to unite them presently.” Edrich interjected.

“True, true. Well, I am happy you are safe, and that you have such a man who could save you.” He smiled at her and kissed her lightly on the top of the head. He left the two in solitude.

Edrich settled back next to Emera, claiming his side of the bed. He put his arm around her, allowing her to draw up comfortably next to him. Before long, the medicine Belinda had given her for the ache in her head lulled her to sleep.

The two spent the day quietly. Edrich waited upon her so as to leave Belinda free to care for Glenna. Before lunch, the healer returned word that Glenna had woken. While changing the bandages on Edrich’s wrists, she relayed the news about the maid. She had asked about her princess. Reassured that all was well, the faithful maid was resting peacefully. Though she was in a considerable amount of pain, Belinda was certain she would heal well.

Emera was much relieved and able to convalesce for the remainder of the day in Edrich’s pleasant company. She mainly slept while he read her father’s history books, learning all he could about the lands he was shortly to join with. They talked during their meals about plans and hopes. Edrich shared stories of Lidio, of his explorations there as a youth, and even a few battle stories.

Emera confided how she had always been happy to take on the responsibility of a leader, organizing the play of her and her friends when they were young. When she was older, and her use of the bow a bona fide legend, she orchestrated the hunts that opened the season for the new game. All in all, it was a satisfying day, though Edrich was confined and Emera in a small amount of pain.

The next day, Emera awoke free of pain, with the exception of a slightly sore nose. There was a bruise across the bridge, but her young maid had talent with cosmetics and was able to hide it effectively. Due to the rushed nature of the engagement and the now painful interruptions that demanded time for healing, the wedding was planned for the evening, with the merriment following into the dark hours of the morning.

Edrich accompanied Emera to Glenna’s small room. The lady’s eyes were swollen shut, but she was still able to weep at the sound of her mistress’ voice. “I am so thankful you are safe, my lady. I was certain that man would be the death of you.”

“Hush, now Glenna. I am well. I am so sorry you received such brutal treatment. You have been a faithful servant and you do not deserve this,” her voice broke slightly.

“I am only sorry that I will not be able to attend your wedding.” That caused Emera to weep a little more loudly. She primarily felt relief the woman would be well again, but felt the pain at seeing her thus. Now, knowing she would not join in her special day added to the emotion of the room and Edrich left, waiting quietly in the hall. Emera emerged five minutes later, hugging him tightly around the waist.

Though the sadness lingered, Emera slowly became more and more enthused at the approaching ceremony. Before the midday meal, the two parted ways. Edrich went hunting with Remy, who showed him the best hunting grounds near the castle, before returning to bathe and dress for the wedding. When Emera had learned he was to hunt without her, she offered to show him herself. Edrich, still concerned she wasn’t fully healed wouldn’t allow it. He was also afraid they would find themselves precariously stripped of their clothing and would be late for the big event. She was, therefore, left to receive appropriate pampering at the castle. As she lay in the hot bath, one of her maids gently scrubbing her hair, she had to admit it was quite a pleasant alternative.

The only unpleasant moments of the afternoon were in the form of her chaperone dryly discussing with her the expectations of a new wife. The art of love making was not easy, she had said, but given time and appropriate still and calm, the man would not make it too unpleasant. Dear lord, woman, Emera thought someone has greatly lied to you. She was suddenly overcome with a new pity and felt as though she had been unkind to a woman who apparently had never experienced pleasure in her life.

After many long minutes of preparation and waiting, Emera found herself on one side of large double doors that lead into the long chapel. Edrich waited for her at the far end. She only had to pass before a thousand eyes before she reached him. Her father, at her side, squeezed her arm gently, reassuring her that he would be with her the entire time.

She looked down at the crimson flowers in her hands. They were of Edrich’s colors, she realized. She smiled faintly, comforted by his presence, even through his colors. She took a deep breath as the trumpets called on the other side. Slowly, the doors opened and an entire congregation stood. Emera marched slowly forward, the short train of her dress pulling languidly behind her.

Edrich smiled anxiously. She was beautiful. Her hair was braided back away from her face and lace through her simple crown; though he spotted the few wayward strands. Her cheeks were pink, no doubt from her own flush. Her dress, though modest, still clung to her perfect form. The outer layer of the dress was white, but underneath laid the deepest blue, peeking out between folds. It was the color of her enchanting eyes. The color of power and grace.

The ceremony was perfunctory, just like the king and princess. Before long, all the guests had traveled to the great hall. The party was much like the previous one, only it lasted longer and was much more joyous. The various families of the two countries had grown closer and great camaraderie abounded through the music and feasting.

The couple first danced with each other, and then led the feast. While Emera laughed with the gray general of Lidio, she spied Edrich’s eye from across the room. He was speaking with a small group of men from Adalynd. They were eager to pepper him with questions, and he smiled graciously at them all. But at the sight of his bride, full of mirth and love, he had quite enough of the party. He excused himself from the men and slowly made his way through the crowd.

Placing a hand upon the low of her back, he apologized to his general and led her away. During a swell in the dancing, the two snuck through a hallway and ascended a quiet set of stairs away from the party. They made their way to her suite of rooms. The bedchamber already lit with candles, was warm from the thousand flickers.

Edrich, surprisingly, found himself nervous. The extreme elation from knowing he would have her all the days of his life, her beauty, her voice, the way she smelled, and all the new ways she made him think, was overwhelming and he stood frozen in the moment. He watched as she walked to the fire. Her back was to him as she reached behind her waist and slowly untied the ribbon there. Slowly, she unthreaded it until it was free to slip from her shoulders. She stepped out of it, and threw it on a chair. He could see her form, molded as it was by her corset, which she slowly began to remove as well. Before long, she stood naked before him, head turned to the side as she looked at the floor.

Compelled by her beauty, he walked to her, gliding his fingers over the skin of her shoulders, and back, then trailed back up her sides. Emera closed her eyes and tilted her head back. She fell into his body and was engulfed by his strong arms. His lips found her exposed neck and he quickly set about to make a feast of her.

On the soft fur before the hearth, Emera gazed at the sensuous dance of the flames. She felt Edrich’s hands run lovingly over her flesh, warming her in a way the fire’s flames never could. Their lovemaking had been slow and sweet, allowing her time to luxuriate in the heavenly feel of his hard body and smooth skin. His kisses had been erotic and deliberate, never losing control. Building her climax over and over, she lied in his arms in exhausted bliss.

He smiled warmly down at her. “And how are you, my love?”

“Alive, my lord.”

He smiled at her use of words, recalling the first time he had brought her to the heights of lovemaking. He chuckled, “More alive than you have ever been?”

She gave no pause but answered instantly. “Yes, always in your arms, yes.” He kissed her happily at that. “I have a gift for you,” he whispered.

She smiled brilliantly. “And I have a gift for you. But first, you may go.”

He walked to a dresser and pulled a box from the top drawer. She smiled as she opened it; then her face melted into gentle awe. “Edrich, it is beautiful!” she gasped. She took out the stunning sapphire ring set in the shiny gold. It fit her finger perfectly. She kissed him eagerly. “Thank you!”

He smiled, happy she liked it. “That isn’t all.”

“No? What else do you hide in my drawers,” she asked mischievously.

“Nothing. It is the ring.” He took her fingers in his hand so he could look at it as he spoke. “I chose it because it is my favorite color.”

“Truly? It is lovely,” she said looking at it.

“But I love the color, because it is the color of your eyes,” he said seriously. She looked at him as he continued. “The other day, when I took you in the linen closet, you had interrupted our discussion of state affairs. Your general had asked what our new nation’s color would be. Of course, I thought we should simply combine two of our preexisting colors to make the union seem equal. But, the more I thought of it, the more I wanted what we were creating to be just that, something new we made. There is no other color I would want to adorn my armor as I fought for my kingdom, for my wife, than the deep blue of her eyes. If you agree, then, I would like this to be our color.”

He heart clenched unimaginatively hard in her chest. What she received from him was more than she ever thought existed. With tears in her eyes, she kissed him and accepted his proposal. After collecting her composure, she stood and walked naked across her chambers into her sitting room where her desk stood. She brought back a scroll wrapped in crimson silk ribbon.

“My gift for you.”

He unrolled it. The emblem painted in ink was striking. It was a silhouette of a griffin superimposed on a shield. Above it sat a glorious crown. All were surrounded by a wreath of oak leaves. “Em, it is beautiful.”

“Shall I tell you its meaning?”

“Yes, please do.”

“It is encased by oak leaves, which are the storehouse of wisdom. The crown is of course, a symbol of authority. Now, the griffon, he is the heart of the matter. He stands not only for the power and majesty, nor for simply being guardian of the divine and precious treasure (which is what you are to me), but because griffins mate for life, never to be whole again once they have lost the other.” He ran his fingers slowly over the symbolic figure that held such portents. She continued slowly. “My life is no longer my own, just as yours is no further your own. Your breath is my breath and I will live, only so long as you do.”

He was overcome by the weight of her words. “I am happy that you have thought of our kingdom’s color, because I would like this to be our emblem. So truly, I think this must be another gift for me,” she smiled sheepishly, realizing he would gift her with his acceptance.

He kissed her, passionately ignited by her thought and care. He knew she was right. He was hers for life, as she was his. He smiled perfectly satisfied as he pulled her back down to the fur, eager to consummate their agreements about their future kingdom.

Emera, giggling as he tickled his way up her stomach to her breasts, thought, only briefly, how fortunate she was. Not long ago, she had set off to find an ally, and yet, she returned with so much more.

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Chapter Six

He was blazing, his skin a stage for the black flames to dance upon. The weight of unlit time crushed him, shrouding him in its darkness. His body contended with its clutching fingers. He fought to stay upright, to keep his head level so his thoughts wouldn’t drag him down. But the swirling sensation flowing through his mind would not leave. He slung his body violently, trying with all his might to hold onto his being. But he felt the gold ripped from his chest. He watched the radiant heart stretch from his soul and suddenly snap out of his body into the darkness. He felt his life’s energy rush out with it, releasing his being into the void. “Emera!” he cried in unnerving desperation. He reached for the golden light, but it slowly faded away, out into the pitch, illuminating nothing despite is glow.

Emera paced in front of the doors to Edrich’s room. She stopped occasionally to stare in fear at them. His groans and eventually shouts had grown over the past few hours. After he collapsed in the great hall, he was taken to the best guest suite and the royal healer was called. His men were given accommodations, but they took turns keeping guard, one inside to watch the healer, and two outside to control access to his room.

In his newly appointed chambers, he was stripped of his clothes and the old healer applied a compress of some sort meant to remove the infection over his wound. But it was too late to save his mind from the delirium of the fever. It took him from reality and deposited him in some torturous hell. At first, his shouts were just yells, noises of pain. But before long he began calling out her name, screaming for her in demented agony. At last, his call was too painful for her to ignore.

Emera threw open the doors and almost ran to his side. He was writhing afflicted on the bed, little of his clothing remained. “Emera,” his shaky voice called in moaning anguish. His eyes were shut as his head shook back and forth. She reached out and stroked his brow.

“Shh,” she whispered soothingly. “Edrich, do not fret so.”

“Emera,” he called as if he recognized a voice in the distance.

“I am here, Edrich.”

“Princess, you should not be in here. This is not the place for you,” the old croon Belinda reprimanded.

“As the princess, I decide what place is for me. Now, tell me, what can I do to ease his suffering?”

Reluctantly the woman commented, “His fever is too high. He must cool down.”

Emera immediately took a rag from the basin full of water. She began to wash away the sweat. She then realized he was soaked as were the sheets underneath him. “I will make him a broth with the petroselinium. At this point, I’m afraid it is all we can do, my lady. You must make him eat it. Is it fitting for me to leave you to tend to him alone?” she asked, hinting at impropriety.

Considering all that had transpired between Edrich and herself, she bit her tongue and said nothing of the needlessness of the concern. With as much conviction for her words as she could muster, she said in air of authority, “I think it shows great resolve for the alliance that a member of this household would tend to the visiting king.”

The lady studied the young girl for a moment, aware that, while the princess gave a reasonable answer, the political cause seemed to cover a deeper feeling.

“Plus, I doubt he would take advantage of me in the state he is in,” she added dryly.

The woman had begun to turn to leave, but stopped. “Oh, no my lady, uncontrollable amorous feelings can accompany such a high fever with the delirium he has. Do not assume you are safe.”

Emera contorted her brows in disbelief. “Well, there is a guard standing near, should he be needed.” The answer seemed to placate the woman so she left as planned.

Emera relaxed a little when the woman left. Her mind eased into the soothing motion of her hand. She felt calmed, just being able to touch him, though her mind had yet to realize that fact. She did notice, however, that Edrich seemed to ease his tormented movements, and his calls for her were less agonized scream and more breathless longing. Occasionally, Emera would touch his skin with her own, feeling for the fever flowing through him.

His slickened skin was almost scorching. Though his agonized movements had lessened at her comforting touch, she knew he was nowhere near better. And if his fever was any indication, it would last awhile, the worst yet to come.

The night had slipped down across the sky, removing the day like a cleaned slate. The chamber maid had entered before dusk to build a fire and light a few candles as the princess directed. It was then she remembered the guard standing silently in the corner, standing guard over his liege.

“You and your men have had no food. Please, go to the kitchens and you will be served.”

His unaffected resolve to stay near his lord needed no words to communicate. “I understand your reserve. However, I promise to guard him with my life. You know I am as capable as any,” she said, eyeing him with her own resolve. At last, the man nodded.

“One man will remain outside the doors…should you need anything,” he added. She nodded her thanks, and he left. The sound of boot steps carried them away.

In the quiet of the room and the warm, glowing light, Emera was overtaken by the strain of the day. She resisted closing her leaden eyelids, not wanting to sleep and leave him.

While he seemed to lie in peace, Emera seized the opportunity and called for a bath. Though there were questioning looks from the maid and young boy that carried the water, Emera ignored them as she directed the two to set the bath up in front of the fire. They enclosed the area with a screen and then bowed to depart.

After days of heavy burden, Emera sank into the hot depths of the water, holding and then releasing. The suds lifted away the grime and smell and with them, part of the dismal weight. Closing her eyes, she breathed in the material of the glowing room, soaking in his presence.

At some point, the young maiden brought Emera a clean nightgown, robe and slippers. Emera continued to ignore the questioning look full of meaning, appearing, instead as if her attendance to the king was the standard practice for an ill, visiting royal.

Dressed, with her long hair falling down her back in dampened clumps, Emera emerged from behind the screen and made her way to Edrich’s side. He had begun to grow restless again, kicking the last of his sheets away. She worked at soothing him, but he was grabbing at her, pulling her from the chair next to his bed. Eventually, she succeeded in easing his distress by sitting next to him, her body lying over his torso, her fingers running along his face and into his hair. Her name was still low on his lips, but the ache in him seemed to relent in her arms.

Much to her relief, the door opened and the old lady returned. Belinda pushed a cart with the soup and various dinner items on it. “Here is the broth, my lady. I also took the liberty of bringing you food since you ate no dinner when the king took ill. And it is now quite late.”

“Yes, it is. Thank you. I should feed the king first, since I have my strength.”

“Very good, your Majesty. Then, as he is in capable hands, I will depart for the night. I will see him in the morning. Besides that broth, the best thing for him now is rest.” The lady curtsied and left.

Emera took the lid off the large pot and dished out the broth into a bowl. It was a greenie-yellow and smelled medicinal. Emera scrunched her face, the smell bringing back, not only unpleasant memories of being sick as a child, but the vomit-inducing flavor that hung in the back of the throat after swallowing it. She was thankful to not be sick, though, I wish he weren’t sick either.

Her mind began wheeling, trying to unravel the meaning of that thought, which lead to the analysis of her entire concern with his current state. There was unease and apprehension, but buried beneath that was fear and pain. If he dies I… She caught the thought and waited for the completion. If he dies, shouldn’t I rejoice? My evil tormentor is dead? That should be a good thing, right? The world rid of just another villain. She waited for the feeling to accompany that thought. But no feeling of the sort came, only the quiet, lingering pain. She watched his face as the thoughts drifted in and out.

Why would I be hurt?

Because I want him. Because I like him.

But he hurt me! She raged.

Yes, he did. But that doesn’t change how I feel about him.

It should, she harrumphed. Emera felt angry by the undeniable, unbreakable pull the brute had on her. She did not react, did not think or feel as she believed she should.

So you care for him. Is that wrong? Is he evil? Maybe he made an evil choice, but he is remorseful. You saw the guilt and the mental anguish in his eyes. And now, look, he is even willing to accept any punishment you decree, any verdict you render. He subjects himself happily to any treatment to purge your anger with him. He cares, too!

With sorrow-filled eyes, tormented by her own internal war, she watched Edrich, wishing she felt nothing for him while simultaneously wishing he would comfort her. “Edrich,” she called, trying to rouse him. “Edrich, take this broth, it will heal you.” He stirred at her voice, but did not open his eyes. She touched his face, his cheek, his lips. “Edrich, awaken,” she pleaded softly. He wrestled against his slumber more, but remained secluded in his sleep.

Thinking she may not be able to rouse him awake, she took a spoonful of the broth and brought it his lips. They were parted enough that the liquid slipped from the silver to run into his mouth. He coughed slightly, but began making eating motions with his mouth. Encouraged, Emera tried again. This time he swallowed as he should and spit none out nor coughed on it. He took half the bowl before he seemed disinterested. Proud of what was accomplished, Emera let him rest.

She turned her attention to the food meant for her, but had no stomach for it. She yawned and stretched her back. She wondered if he should have an attendant through the night, and if so, would it be improper if she were the one to stay? Desirous to be near him, and in defiance of her earlier argument with herself, she extinguished the few candles about the room, slipped from her robe and lied in the bed. As large as it was, the distance from edge to edge was enough to sleep four grown men. And yet, despite the freedom of space, Emera scooted until she almost touched him.

On her side so she faced him, an arm curled under her head, she reached out to delicately trace the profile she had unwittingly fallen in love with. What’s not to love? He’s too incredibly handsome for even a blind girl to not find him attractive. Emera closed her eyes and gave into the calling sleep, praying one last time to awake in the morning with no feelings for him, while at the same time content in being near him so peacefully.

In the deep of the night, Emera was overcome by the slowly building, delicious ache spreading through her body. Her body began to move sensuously against the erotic heat at her back and delightful pleasure in her breasts. It was the electrifying shock through her core that caused her to stumble out of sleep and fall into the dark night. It took her a moment to orient herself.

His breath at her neck drew her mind instantly into reality and she realized she was once again in the arms of her captor, being tormented by her traitorous body. He was pressed against her back, grinding his crotch against her buttocks as his hand wrapped around her massaging her breasts. Her heart was drumming out as the last of sleep slipped from her mind. “Edrich?” she said, her voice quivering in fear. He only moaned softly in her hair.

She quickly came to reason he was too sick to know what he was doing; his mind was suppressed by the fever and his body was left alone to respond to its natural desires. She felt his body, in searing heat, rub erotically against hers. She needed to extract herself from his hold. She turned over, his hands gliding possessively over her as she did. In the dim light, Emera could just make out the beautiful features of his face. His eyes were closed, and his breath rushed out from his slightly parted lips. He was asleep.

She began to ease away from him, stretching out his arms as they clung to her. When she was at the end of his reach, she almost sighed in relief, but Emera felt his fingers close tightly over the flesh of her arm and buttock. His long, inescapable arms pulled her back into his embrace.

“Edrich, Edrich, you know not what you do. Edrich, let me go,” she whispered afraid another would hear her in the mammoth castle, afraid to let her voice slip into the dark. But the only one that heard was the delirious Edrich as his lips grazed down into her hair, seeking out the silky skin of her neck.

“Emera,” he moaned. His blistering fever warmed her thoroughly, drugging her into giving up her resistance momentarily. “Emera,” he breathed into her, his lips connecting in beautiful agony with her skin. His mouth hotly devoured the sensitive flesh, causing her to shake with growing need.

Make him stop this. This cannot be happening. He doesn’t know what he is doing. Don’t give in, don’t stay. You won’t survive. “Edrich,” she pleaded once more. “Edrich, let me go.” She began more fervently wrestling out of his grip, but found that only incensed his fight. He quickly rolled on her, forcing her to her back, pinning her with his glorious weight. She made to call out to him more loudly, but found her breath stopped by his mouth.

Emera was immediately caught up in the overpowering sensation of his tongue and lips and breath. A most intimate and delightful feeling she had been too long without; she had no desire to resist him. Her heart was fluttering in her chest, painfully and pleasurably. She grabbed his tongue and suckled, luxuriating in its velvety texture.

Edrich growled, pushing his taut body into her even more. His pelvis dug into her thigh, and her body mindlessly adjusted so she cradled him into her yearning tenderness. Edrich’s roving hands ran down her body forcefully, digging in erotically.

She dragged in a breath to strengthen her resolve. Alright, this has gone on far enough. Make him stop. You cannot allow this to continue. After all, you are no longer a prisoner locked away in his tower. You are home and free. Free to control your life. Free to choose.

Free to choose…, the thought rolled languidly through her mind.

Then I choose this she decided with a sigh as she felt his hand edge her gown up her thigh. She suddenly was overcome by the desire to feel her skin set alight by his. She wiggled purposefully, allowing him to hitch the material even higher, reveling in the ever-increasing touch of his body. Soon, it was around her waist. She helped him by reaching down and then tugging up, and then flung it off the side of the bed.

His skin, inflamed by his fever, seared her breasts as he crushed himself against her. His mouth left hers and was devouring her neck. His hands were fanning her growing flame as he grabbed and squeezed her breasts. He plucked the nipples, pulling until she felt the electric cord burning into her core.

His body slid down hers as his mouth devoured everything in its path. At last he latched onto a nipple and was suckling it lovingly. His hand continued its attention, effectively stacking up the aching need within Emera. Her muscles clenched in reaction. She suddenly was painfully aware how empty she felt without him.

She called to him through his fogged mind, like an erotic nymph beckoning him from beyond this world. He looked up, his eyes open, though Emera knew he didn’t see her, didn’t truly know. His eyes were heavy with his fever-driven lunacy. But behind the delirium, she saw his ever-present longing for her. Will he ever lose that hunger for me? the thought came quickly. She shook herself mentally, and reached for him, dragging him forcefully to her.

She placed a hand on his jaw and his shoulder, clinging and guiding. She captured his lips with abandon, knowing this to be the moment to give herself unrestrained to him. He would have no knowledge of it to use against her. There would be no shame because there would be no consciousness to remember. She could have him and give to him completely, only the quiet dark holding the memory.

She absorbed his life while he in turn ravaged her lips. His body was undulating against hers, driving his hardening shaft against her slit that was flooded with her heady cream. She could feel him spreading her slick essence, coating him thoroughly. To relieve the sweet torture, she had begun grinding against him. His breathing was harsh and when he hit that sensitive bud, she gasped vocally.

“Em,” he sighed against her mouth. She opened her eyes and pulled away to look at him. His eyes were open too as he tried to make for her mouth, to reconnect to the source of such pleasure. She saw it in him, and wanted to be entirely consumed by him. As he had no thoughtful drive, only reacting in their sensuality, she knew she would have to be the controlling force, and it thrilled her, to know that their combined pleasure was within her power.

Her roaming hands trailed down between their gyrating bodies and wrapped her fingers, not quite touching, around the thick girth. He was slick with her need and she couldn’t resist squeezing him up his shaft, and then down, milking out his own pre-cum. His hips were thrusting into her hand as his face fell into the crook of her shoulder. “Em,” he continued to chant in desperate yearning.

“I’m here Edrich,” she whispered in reply, guiding the heavy knob into her swollen folds. His pounding against her made her delicate work difficult. But when he was in deep enough, stretching her in aching ecstasy, he caught into the rhythm, surging fully in. She cried out in pleasure and let her head fall against his. Her entire being clenched in the excruciating bliss thrust upon her. She wrapped her legs tightly around him, squeezing him to her. She felt his right hand trail down her body and grabbed her thigh firmly, pulling her into him even more securely. His left arm was wrapped up and around her head, pulling her down into him with each thrust.

There was none of the artistry he had shown before, none of the finesse in his drives into her. He thrust brutally, in long, complete strokes. His hand guided her hip to pull away and arch back to him, working in concert with his own movements. She wrapped her arms around him, holding on to be carried along the rushing river. She clawed his back as she felt the divine build up.

She was so aroused, his thrusting made quick work of her. She could contain none of her moans or cries. “Edrich.” His name spilled through her lips in broken pleasure. His assault became more urgent and less rhythmed. She knew he was nearing the end and she reached for his mouth, wanting to cry into him as he poured into her.

He was grunting against her and then he growled her name into her mouth as she felt his hot seed erupt into her, filling her. His spasming body dragged chaotically against her, sending her into her own throes. Her legs tightened as she was overcome by her orgasm. The sensation of the overwhelming intimacy of looking him in the eyes as she did so flamed her cheeks. She felt freed in him by her lack of shame, her ability to share with him the intense, privately personal response her body had to his. Though she knew he wasn’t fully aware, she thought at least it was a start.

His straining body relaxed on top of her, and her own climax had begun to subside. She felt the reeling pleasure slowly bring her down, landing her softly in his arms. The world of thoughts began to gradually form once again. She lie, with her arms still around him, her finger tips softly caressing the exhausted muscle under them. She had allowed him to fuck her again, and while that particular need was sated, she found there were others. She exulted in the feeling of him at her finger tips, to touch him, tenderly, lovingly.

It was not some minutes afterwards that she realized she was struggling to breathe. The giant man of stone lying atop her, while pleasant in feeling, was slowly crushing her. She pushed at him with all her strength, managing to nudge him up. His sleeping form responded by rolling over, freeing her at last.

She laid uncovered, panting in the cold dark. The sweat from their amorous activity evaporated from her skin, causing goose bumps to form, sending a shiver racing through her. She looked over at the king who was in a similar state. Though, he probably needs to cool off, she mused. She quickly got out of the bed and redressed in her nightgown. She stoked the fire back to life and laid herself on the large fur in front of it.

She watched the flickering, deep in thought. With her sexual needs met, some normalcy of thought returned. Good lord!>/i>, she moaned, I just raped him!

Surely not. He was the one that initiated it. He was the one caressing you, remember? You even tried to get away but he overpowered you. It isn’t wrong that you stayed to enjoy it.

Yes, but he’s incapacitated! He is so sick he isn’t aware of anything, let alone what he is doing!

True, but he always wants sex from you. Sick or not, if you had been lying in that bed he would always try to seduce you.

Regardless, he wasn’t culpable. If the roles had been reversed, and I had been overly amorous in my sickened nature, it would not have been honorable if he had taken advantage!

Fine. You took advantage, but only of his own nature. You didn’t rape him.

Not fully convinced, but not overly guilty in feeling, she left the subject to other troubling thoughts. Why was she so eager to be close to Edrich, to allow such great intimacies? She wondered if any man would want her now that she was no longer a virgin. What does it matter? The only man I want, wants me she thought.

She gave a small smile as she thought about the man she wanted. She truly had come full circle from her initial attraction to her justified hatred, to her now joyous desire for him. But where did that leave them?

<i?When I was his prisoner, he said he would keep me, forever. But why? Did he only want me as a slave for his sexual need? Now that I’m no longer at his disposal, no longer able to keep a liaison, would he forget about me and move on? Or, would he want more?” That familiar fear at losing Edrich was creeping back causing her heart to race.

Perhaps it had been a mistake to give in once again, though she regretted none of it. But she knew it only strengthened the pull he had on her. Not again, she decided. Not until I know his desire for me matches my own. I can’t lose my heart if he won’t keep it. She sighed, sadden she couldn’t join in him in bed. Though she would not leave his side, she wouldn’t keep exposing her heart to possible disappointment that would most likely kill her.

Emera stood and walked over to his side. He laid naked, arms strewn out and legs tangled in sheets. She pulled, dislodging the material from around his legs before flinging it into the air, sending it billowing out sail-like to fall silently back down to the bed, covering his body, but not hiding his form. She adjusted his head so he looked more comfortable. She leaned in, running her lips ever so gently over his, bidding him goodnight. She stretched herself out on the large chaise that sat near the fire and drifted to sleep.

Her father found her in the afternoon. She was sitting on a chair next to his bed, her body fallen over onto his mattress, her arms tucked under her head. He approached the charming scene and gently rubbed her shoulder, stirring her awake.

“Emera, my dear, wake up.” She sat to with a jolt, her chest heaving from fright.

“Oh, father, you scared me,” she chuckled, clasping her hand to her chest. She could feel the thudding of her heart.

“Sorry. How goes it with our guest? Belinda reports he is still having fits?”

“Yes. He woke me this morning, screaming incoherently,” she said as she looked at the subject of their discussion. Despite his battle, or perhaps because of it, he was resting peacefully, the look of terror gone from his now placid face. Emera restrained the urge to reach out and stroke his cheek, knowing her father would most likely find it inappropriate.

“I see. Emera, dear, I am very pleased you have been able to make a friend with this man. However, I don’t know that it is entirely proper for you to stay here with him…alone, tending to him.”

She spoke quietly as she continued to look at the man she wished nothing was improper between them. “He saved my life. He is sick, because of me, because he fought for me. He killed nearly ten men, father, trying to ensure my safety. I know it may seem untoward, but I cannot leave him, not when I am alive because of him.”

Arnold sighed, knowing he would not be able to persuade her away from his side. He let her continue her vigilant care over Edrich with the agreement she would eat with him at dinner. They discussed terms of the treaty and improvement of security for the borderlands.

Through the next two days, Emera attended to Edrich with Belinda’s guidance. She ensured he had the broth, washed him from his fever-induced sweat, and comforted him when is nightmares returned. But she never lied next to him again, knowing she was not to be trusted. Edrich had lucid moments when he was able to communicate his thirst or the fact that he was freezing from chills. Emera attended to each need, speaking reassuringly to him that his illness would pass, that he would feel better soon.

Robert and Glenna arrived at the castle early the second morning of Edrich’s condition. Robert was brought to the king’s chamber, surprised to find the princess sitting on the edge of Edrich’s bed, talking soothingly to him. “Please, Edrich. Shh, my love, you are safe.” She was stroking his face with a wet cloth, touching him reassuringly. The king was thrashing wildly, screaming out.

“May I be of assistance, your Majesty?” he asked as he approached the disconcerting scene.

Emera looked up in surprise, relief washing over her features. “Robert, you’ve brought Glenna?” When he nodded, she smiled. “Thank you,” she said with meaning. She turned back to Edrich and chuckled, “Out of the frying pan, no? Yes, you can help. Dish me out some of that broth. Belinda, our healer, has put calming herb in it. It seems to help relieve his anxiety somewhat.”

As Robert obeyed he asked, “What has happened?”

“I was attacked during my escape. So many men, and I couldn’t outrun them. Though I was able to kill one, I couldn’t have fought them all. Edrich came. He saved me and then he told me how Glenna had been captured and explained everything.

“Hold him, so I can get him to take it,” she instructed once Robert handed her the bowl of the steaming liquid. She blew on the spoon and forced it in his mouth. Together, they continued to force the soup down him until the bowl was emptied. Robert released him and Emera began wiping his face, cleaning away any of the spilled broth. He was still muttering to himself and shivering slightly, but his fight was gone. Emera tucked the sheets and coverlets around him tightly and then threw on a fur for extra measure. “Shh, Edrich, rest,” she said, stroking his brow.

Content that he was at peace, she led Robert to the sitting area. “Where is Glenna?”

“She retired to her rooms, I believe. A bath, she said, was the first order of business.” Emera smiled, happy to know her faithful servant was safe.

She noticed Robert’s attention on Edrich. “He was injured during the fight, you see. Stabbed quite deep in the side. Though it didn’t damage anything internally, he caught an infection. He rode like a man determined to bring me safely home. He collapsed upon meeting my father,” she giggled at the double meaning in that. “He has been seeing things for the past day and half. Our healer says he will recover, but I…”

Robert turned to watch the pained emotions dance across her face. She was looking into the fire, slightly shaking her head.

“Is it foolish? To feel as I do about a man that has treated me villainously?” She asked, before directing her gaze to Robert, an incredulous smile on her lips, tears in her eyes.

“You care for him?” Robert asked, not overly surprised after witnessing the princess’ care of Edrich in the past half hour.

She smiled genuinely at that. “Truth be told, I think I love him. But how?” She looked down, trying to reconcile the emotions deep within her.

“When Edrich was only 17, he led a small group of his best warriors out to find and destroy a small gang of men near our western border. The reports regarding their deeds were chilling, to even the most stalwart of men. But my king was not afraid. He knew there was evil and he was charged with plucking it from his country. At last, we had trailed the men to a very small farming village. Upon breaching the valley it sat in, we saw the utter destruction only capable by mad men. The fields were burned and the livestock were slaughtered in grotesque ways. I will save you the hearing of what we saw, but believe you me when I say no man ate dinner that evening for the sickness that came at such a sight. When we entered the village, we saw no one. There were tracks and signs of great struggle, but the villagers were gone. Edrich ordered we spread out and find what we could.

“Someone called from the far end and we all rushed to the source of the cry. The small meeting house was on fire. But what had caused the alarm was the fact it was chained from the outside. Cries could be heard from within and Edrich bolted forward, using his sword to undo the binding. When the doors flung open, people fell out. Some were on fire. We rushed in, carrying out as many as we could. The building was beginning to collapse, but an old woman started screaming her husband was still inside. Of course, we all thought he was dead, and as the timbers groaned and started to fall, only one rushed in to save the old man.”

Robert stopped his story, his voice constricted with emotion. Emera sat, watching in a mixture of amazement, fear, and anticipation. Robert cleared his throat and continued. “Just as the last of the walls caved in, Edrich emerged, carrying a small man over a shoulder. They were both blackened from the smoke, and Edrich struggled for breath when he sat the man down.

“When we returned, after having found the gang and slaughtering them (which was less than they deserved), the king wanted to flaunt his heroic son by giving him a large gold medallion and a celebration in honor of his victory. Do you know what Edrich demanded instead? He wanted that the money that would have been spent on his prize be instead given to the village to help repair the damage, and to be given relief of their taxes for that year.” Robert laughed at that. “Of course the king wouldn’t allow not making money from his subjects, but he did agree to give the reparations in place of the medallion. Edrich was also able to talk him into sending a few of his less needed soldiers to help with the replanting of the next season’s crops.”

Robert watched Emera as she processed his story. He sighed as he tried to mold his thoughts into his purposed speech. “I say all this, your Majesty, to tell you, I know not what the king has done to you, nor do I know all that you have done to him. But my experience of knowing him since he was a boy is that he is a good man, an honorable one that fights for the right and just cause. Yes, he may be a bit arrogant, but he is also at times humble when he has made a mistake. If you find yourself torn by your feelings for him, trust your heart that he is a good king, a good man.”

He stood and bowed. “Now, I am off to locate the kitchens,” he said with a smile. As he reached the door he turned to her once more. “I am happy to see you are not broken, but well.”

Emera was touched by his sentiment. Robert was a good and reliable man. She reasoned that such a man would not be loyal to a bad king, nor was he likely to be duped into believing his king was good when he was in reality a villain.

Throughout the day, Edrich began to slip in and out of sleep, waking to ask for water or to stand to relieve himself. He was never hungry, but was cooperative when Emera told him he should eat the broth as it was making him better. When Emera joined her father for their midday meal, he broached the subject again.

“Emera, I know you have been very loyal to your new friend, but now that his man is here, he can attend him. With Belinda’s skills, hopefully, the king will be well enough to join us for dinner tomorrow night, and you may see him then.”

In spite of her superior argument and reasoning skills, Emera tempered her obedience often, and chose very few battles with her father, thinking this made her bargaining power even greater when she chose to use it. She knew he was right, even though she did not wish to leave Edrich. Deciding rest would be good for her, she agreed, and retired to her own chambers. She called for her chamber maid and ordered a bath and to be waited upon. Usually, Emera tended to her own needs, bathing herself, dressing herself, occasionally finding her own food if she was riding out for the day. But she knew there were times that pampering did wonders for her spirits.

There was also the small, slightly hidden motive that she wanted to appear as the royal she claimed she was when Edrich felt well enough to join them. He had only seen her as a rugged, capable maiden, often times caked in mud or sweat, or occasionally a half-drowned rat. Was wanting to be thought of as beautiful wrong? The decadent grooming session lasted for the better part of the evening. Emera was lightly napping on the chaise in her room when a knock at her door awoke her. Slightly drowsy, she stumbled to the door and straightened immediately upon seeing Glenna. She broke into tears and grabbed her maid in a crushing hug.

Glenna was overtaken by similar emotions. Emera dragged her in, seating them in her sitting area. “You are well, my lady?” Glenna asked, touching her cheek maternally.

“Yes, oh Glenna, I am so relieved you are safe. If I had known the journey would have been so treacherous, I never would have allowed you to accompany me. I never meant for you to be in harm’s way.”

“Oh, dear me, no, my lady. I am so happy to have been able to help you. Though there were parts that were uncomfortable, I am glad to have been able to convince his Majesty that you were the princess. When they took me to the castle,” she said, tears beginning to well in her eyes, “I feared for you so. I was certain you had been unjustly murdered.” She began crying fully then. Emera smiled sadly, knowing their journey had been more than likely unnecessary. “But the king, he didn’t yet know you were the princess. When I showed him your letters to prove you weren’t the spy he thought, he realized who you were. And when he realized you weren’t trying to steal information, only hoping to trust him, the look that overcame his face,” she said, her eyes wide as she shook her head.

“Yes, well, I believe the king is very sorry for accusing me, for the entirety of his behavior. In the end, I think we have been successful. The king is willing to negotiate. Glenna, I am glad you are here, because I wanted to discuss certain aspects of our trip. My father, well, actually no one, knows of how Edrich responded, of what transpired. Everything is fine now, and therefore, for the sake of the peace of our country, please, please speak to no one of what happened.”

Glenna, understanding the need for discretion, nodded her head in her consent. “Yes, your highness, as you wish.”

The two parted and Emera walked out onto her balcony. She was where she had hoped she would be, though not exactly in the same state. There was still work to be done, both inside her heart and between their countries. She sighed when she was summoned for dinner, leaving her sanctuary for thinking another time.

That night, Emera asked that Robert and Glenna be allowed to dine with them, telling her father they had done her great service over the past week and should be rewarded so. They dined pleasantly, and Robert, following Emera’s lead, regaled the king with funny and heroic stories of Edrich. Per her plan, her father was quite eager to meet the dashing king.

In the morning, Edrich found himself clear of fever. He had no aches or chills and thought clearly, though he was tired from the ravages of the illness. He had no memory of the past two days, but was relieved to see Robert at his side. He relayed to the king much of what had occurred, reporting he brought Glenna with him and the welcomed reception he and Edrich’s men had received.

Edrich dressed and was welcomed at the breakfast table with Arnold. Emera, however, was not present. Not wanting to appear overly attached, he made no mention of it, but tried to remain pleasant with the older man. Eventually, their talks turned to the treaty signing. Edrich shared with the king his original concerns regarding the protection of the borderland. Arnold consented that he had been too lax in the protection of his lands. He continued amiably discussing all his many faults as ruler until Edrich was amazed that Emera was his daughter. The two were completely different in their approach. Adalynd would be lucky to survive Arnold’s reign, and blessed once Emera took over. If only she could rule with me, he wished sadly.

At long last, they left the table to make for the king’s study. They sat and drew up the treaty together, discussing the ins and outs of border protection. Edrich, seeing the king’s deficit in understand tactical protection, guided the old man he had hoped he could call father-in-law. The only times he acknowledged Arnold had a good idea, it came out that it was originally Emera’s. Finally, as the afternoon sun shone through the large windows of the room, the two men had an agreement on paper they were both satisfied with.

As Edrich reached for a quill to sign his name, Arnold spoke up. “There is one more thing, if I may ask, Edrich.” Edrich’s eyebrows drew together in question, but paused and motioned for the king to continue. “You see, for some time now, I have been contemplating who to marry my daughter to. She is such a unique diamond, that not any man I have known would be worthy of her. I must admit my surprise when she so faithfully succored you during your illness. Until your man arrived, she never left your side except to eat a meal with me at my adamant request. I know my daughter, you see, and I recognize her affection for you. I understand if you hesitate, but I would like to put my daughter’s hand in marriage on the table, so to speak.” The king waited, watching the young man sit in utter shock. “Well? What say you?”

“You honor me greatly. There is no greater honor than your daughter’s hand. An honor I would die for,” he said quietly. “However, despite any feelings you believe your daughter may have for me, she does not want me, would not marry me. In fact, I remember at one point her venomous words that she would choose any other choice in the world over staying near me.”

“Well, my boy, that is Emera. I’m sure you no doubt said something offensive to her and she let it be known. She is quite competent at telling you your faults, believe you me. But, I know my daughter well, and she holds affection for you, Edrich, I am sure of it.”

“Perhaps,” he said softly, wishing it were true, “but I will not force her to marry me when she has her reasons why she would not want to. I will never force her.”

“What if you were to talk with her, before you make your decision?” the king offered.

“Because she would know, or at least suspect, that the marriage would be part of the treaty. She would feel obligated. She is very loyal to her kingdom, sacrificing much for them. In the end, she would be feel forced. No, I am sorry, but you must trust me that marrying me is the last thing on your daughter’s mind.”

Arnold sat back in his chair and leaned back. He rubbed his hand throw his short beard and thought. “Well, I suppose if you don’t think it would work between the two of you, perhaps it is best we forget it. I only thought…well, no matter. Shall we sign then?”

Edrich nodded and the two men continued. Though they were happy with their enterprise, the air had turned between them and now lay awkward in the silence. Edrich rose and bowed to Arnold. “It has been an honor, sir, however, I have urgent business in Lidio that I am afraid my prolonged absence has compromised. My men and I will depart presently. If you should need anything, I would be grateful to assist you.”

Arnold stood and was about to argue to keep the man near for a few days more, but, upon seeing the resolve in his eyes, shrugged and extended his hand. They shook as he said, “Thank you, Edrich, my boy. It has been a rare pleasure.” As he escorted him to the door he said humorously, “And Edrich, should you change your mind, the offer always stands.” He slapped him on the back and bid him fair journey.

Edrich raced casually up the stairs, nearly boiling out of his skin in eagerness to escape. Through his illness, he only remembered a few pieces. He mostly remembered Robert waiting upon him yesterday, but he knew, without being told, that Emera had been there, had nursed him to health. He couldn’t remember what was dream and what was real. He had been lost in darkness, battling demons of dubious origin, black and invisible. He had been blind, he had been starved of water, been naked and dead. But through it all, he felt pulled into glowing salvation by golden beauty. Her voice, sometimes her smell, even her touch had penetrated the blackness and pulled him through.

When he awoke that morning, one thing, and one thing only was more certain than the sun spilling through the window; he loved Emera. And realizing he loved her, he was crushed by the harm she had received at his hand. He was sickened to the core. He knew now, he couldn’t have her, couldn’t keep her, not when he had so viciously ripped her being apart. Even if she did return some sort of feeling for him, he wouldn’t trap her to him. He wouldn’t be her captor, never again. Though it would kill him, he would set her free. Free to find happiness again, somehow.

He found Robert going through the clothes he had brought with him for Edrich, trying to decide what to dress his king in for dinner. “Pack now, we leave immediately.”

“Sire?” Robert questioned, caught off guard by the urgency in the king’s voice. “Did things not go well during your talk?”

“Things went very well. The treaty has been signed and we are therefore finished. Everything has been put right, so we are now needed to find Jenner. That traitor will not escape me. So pack, and let’s be off.” Edrich left to find his guards. By the time everyone was packed and the horses saddled, Edrich was saying his goodbyes to the king one last time. They stood in the large hall at the entrance of the castle. As Emera strode by in the balcony in the grand entrance, she paused at hearing Edrich’s voice. She had been told when she arrived from her ride that the visiting king was well, and he and her father had signed the peace treaty. Desirous to see him, she slowly walked to the edge, leaning against the railing, looking down upon them.

Edrich was shaking her father’s hand. Her smile faded when she heard him say his goodbyes. Her father caught sight of her. “Emera! Do bid the king goodbye. Edrich is departing from us.”

Her breath caught as the weight crushed down upon her chest, squeezing it most painfully. Edrich was looking at her, watching. His eyes were dark and potent, intense beyond bear. He made a gracious bow, took one last look, and marched out the double doors. Emera stood, stunned. Only the fat, hot tear rolling down her face betrayed any emotion. She quickly wiped it off and turned, running down the hall and up another flight of stairs to her chamber. Robert watched her leave, and then looked after his king who was already mounting his horse in the courtyard.

Robert followed, and soon the small party was upon the road, headed towards the mountains. Fortuitously, Edrich’s stallion threw a shoe near the first small village, still within sight of the castle. They stopped at the local smithy and waited while he fashioned a new shoe. Edrich strode quietly away from his men and leaned upon a tree in the back. He watched the white stone of the castle turn soft orange as the setting sun threw her colors upon it. He sighed and closed his eyes, imagining Emera at his side, leaning her head against him.

“Your Majesty,” Robert called, his voice breaking his moment of peace.

“Yes.”

“Your Majesty, you know I would never presume to question you in doubt, but, seeing your countenance just now, I am compelled to wonder, what is it that troubles you?”

“I think you know very well what troubles me. I wouldn’t have believed I am strong enough to give up the thing I desire most, especially in the face that it feels as though I will die,” he confided quietly.

“I see. Your Majesty, may I ask you, what you remember when you were taken with fever?”

“Not much, bits and pieces, some of yesterday. But certainly nothing of the day before. Imagine waking up and learning you’ve lost two whole days of your life. Quite unsettling,” he commented.

“Yes, you were taken with great hysterics and delusions. Are you also aware that her highness attended you the entire time?”

“Yes, her father told me.”

“Hmm, did he also tell you, by chance, that she slept with you?”

His face stretched in surprise and then darkened. “No, he did not, nor would he be likely to. Just exactly, what are you implying Robert? And chose your words carefully, old friend, lest they be your last.”

“I imply nothing, your Highness. Only that the guard that stood out your door the first night told me, in strictest confidence, that he heard not only you, but her Majesty…coupling.”

Edrich adamantly shook his head. “You are wrong, she would have called out for help if I had attacked her…”

“And if she did not return your affection…as it was, she made no cry for help,” Robert offered gently. “Not only that, but she remained, even against the bequest of her father, at your side until I arrived, without any emotion but concern and care.” He watched Edrich’s reaction.

“Willingly?” he said in doubt. “Are you saying willingly?”

Robert gave a slow, confirming nod. “I know I am being presumptuous in asking, but did we leave in such haste so you could avoid seeing her? Because you knew but had, what?, grown tired of her?”

Edrich grabbed him by the shirt and slammed him against the fat trunk of the tree. “I warned you, watch what you say,” he growled. He released him and stepped back. “No, I did not know what you claim, and most certainly did not grow tired of her. I left because…because I did not want to see her plagued by my presence. I wanted to leave her in peace, to be free of me.”

“While that is noble, I will tell you one last thing. At your departure just now, she cried. Now, do you think that is the action of a woman who feels freed by your absence, or pained by it.” All the claims Robert had made were wheeling through Edrich’s head.

He had tried to keep hope from his heart, knowing that it, coupled with his own want would be enough to overpower him from what he believed to be the right thing to do, that is, leave her alone. “Your Majesty? Your horse is shod. In which direction do we travel this evening?” Robert asked satirically.

Emera fell defeated in front of her large window, her arms and face resting on the large window seat. She sobbed in loud torrents, tears falling with fury. With her heart shattered into a thousand pieces, the emotions she had fought with her entire being to restrain flooded from her. She clutched her chest, the pain this time would surely kill her. But when her heart beat in the next moment, and then again in the next, she knew she would live, only feeling as though she were dying each moment of her life.

She sat in that position for nearly an hour. The tears would slow, and then stop. When they were almost dry, the river would pour forth once more. Eventually, she was entirely spent, and the energy she had spent the past few days refueling had been depleted. Through the emptiness in her head, rumblings in the hall drifted, but she gave no attention to the quiet commotion.

When her bedroom doors flew open and crashed against the walls, she jumped at the crash and flung her head up to see the bow that had shot the arrows through her heart standing in the doorway, looking around the room.

Edrich quickly scanned the surroundings. His eyes fell upon the billows of skirt that piled on the floor near the window. Her face was streaked with tears and her eyes were red and swollen. He witnessed her agony for all it was. She was in pain because of him.

His face gave way to agony, and Emera could see the sorrow and regret in his handsome features. Her heart fluttered as he strode near to her. “Emera,” he whispered after he squatted down so he could reach a tentative hand out to stroke her cheeks, erase the tears.

Her face eased and her eyes pleaded. “Why have you come back? I thought you had left.”

“Emera,” he paused searching for the words. But Emera saw the emotion in his eyes without them. She flung herself toward him, wrapping her arms around his body. She cried in joy as she felt his arms fiercely hug her in return, crushing her to him, as it should be.


Chapter 5

The cool, damp morning air rushed harshly into her lungs; her heart slammed ferociously, sending the potent blood to her aching limbs. Her hair had fallen from its braid once more and streamed in violent torrents behind her, flying like a tattered banner. She dodged as gracefully as her fatigued legs allowed around trees, under branches, over fallen logs. Her cloak tangled her, slowing her escape.

The rising sun continually provided more and more soft, gray light to filter into the woods as she ran for her escape. A soft rumbling that had accompanied her through the night warned of coming rain. Morning birds fluttered and fought over their breakfast. The wind picked up, rustling the tops of trees, dipping down to shake the ferns. She neither heard nor saw any of it as the blood rushed in her ears, like waves slamming into shore. Only the clamor of straining feet and labored breaths close behind her cut through her terror to send her raging onward.

Once in the night Emera had stopped to eat part of the food Robert had wrapped for her. She leant against a tree along the road, her tired and eviscerated mind shutting down, sending splintered and shattered thoughts of pain out to deaden her spirit. Given her physical and emotional state, it was a feat she had eaten the five bites she did, even more so that she kept the contents of her stomach in place.

She trudged on through the empty darkness. The obsidian sky glittered with sharp lights vibrating indiscernibly. The air hung with portents; animals called from their safe homes. None of these filled her soul. She was a void, her sleep-deprived mind only able to form heavy thoughts that slipped like sludge from her consciousness. She had been robbed. He had viciously stolen from her and left a ragged, hollowed-out carcass. Though she was moving toward home, her journey felt purposeless.

As dawn approached, she decided the safest avenue of travel would be just off the road in the woods. Emera’s deadened mind stirred to life when the smell of smoke wafted by her. Its scent was comforting, filling her with feelings she found in the warmth and comfort of a fireside meal with her father. Her mind scrambled to place the scene in the current context she found herself. Her head shot up as she quickly searched for a fire. She stopped walking when she spotted a group men sitting around the dancing flames. Invisible. Be invisible. Don’t see me, she commanded with her mind. But they had.

One shouted and pointed at her. “Who goes there?” a gruffed and unrefined voice yelled. He sounded like a fierce wolf defending his territory. The campfire’s orange glow illuminated the figures as they rose to standing.

Emera’s stomach fell out with an uncomfortable surge of nerves. Mindlessly, she backed up. They moved towards her. “It’s a woman,” she heard a voice mutter. Their speed picked up as they approached. Turning, she bolted from them, praying the forest would hide her from their evil eyes.

She ran for as long as her strength would carry her. But the men gave no hint of giving up their pursuit; they would run her until she dropped. After she stumbled a third time, she knew she could not hold out much longer; her body was failing to obey her commanding mind.

Emera broke free of the trees to run into a clearing with short, green grass and emerging crocus. This is as good of place as any, she thought. With all the bravery she could muster, she turned, allowing the sharp focus of a warrior to pour down her, calming her nerves and training her eyes onto the four approaching men.

She drew her short sword and positioned herself, ready to fight. Emera did not notice the dirt that covered their unshaven faces or tattered clothing. She didn’t see the missing teeth or the dull blue eyes of the nearest man. She only saw what she needed to.

Almost ten men of similar dress and demeanor began to slowly encircle her. She quickly thought back to Edich’s admonishment at her plucky claim she was capable of traveling alone. She shook herself free of his memory. Focus.

She noted which ones had visible weapons, which had limps, which had more strength than the others. The man in front, apparently the leader, was over six feet and well muscled. He held his sword like a soldier. His eyes full of confidence in his movement. The rest hung in the back, waiting for the strike. One ruffian with a knife held it as any common dolt might, and not as though he could throw it with accuracy or strike with strength and precision.

She could tell by their various approaches and attitudes they would not fight well as a unit and she would have the best chance taking them out one by one. Start with the leader. The others might flee if he goes down. She fastened her attention on the tall brute. He’s stronger; fight with finesse. Quick, fluid motions.

“And just what are you staring at? Think you can take us all out?” he mocked. The men chuckled. When Emera made no reply but eyed him calmly, his cruel smirk lost its humor, leaving it just cruel. “Thane,” his coarse voice snipped.

Despite her planning, the man to her right attacked instead. His lunge was sloppy. She dodged quickly, making a small sweep to the back off his leg, cutting the tendons at his knee. He turned as he buckled to the ground. Without thought or hesitation, Emera’s sword flew again, slicing dully across the fatty throat.

The large man was at her back before she could reposition herself. He grabbed her, spinning her around. He struck her cheek with a quiet thud, her head exploding in nauseating pain. She was on the ground, her vision blurred, unable to focus on the feet approaching. She heard his laugh.

She concentrated on breathing deep and slow, stabilizing her nausea. Her vision normalized, thoughts began to take shape in the form of words again. Get up! she screamed at herself. Vulnerable, don’t be vulnerable! Her hand clasped the sword again as her body clenched in defense. She slowly raised herself to her knees. She was about to stand to her feet when her wild hair was grasped with great force, holding her in place. He stepped on the blade, effectively stripping it from her hand.

“Wait a minute. I think I like you in this position,” he sneered lecherously. She vaguely heard the men behind her laugh at the insinuation.

Emera’s hands were on his, attempting to refrain him from pulling too hard. She looked up at him, her eyes having found the daggers her hand had lost. He huffed amused at her spirit. It would be beautiful to strip it from her.

He opened his mouth to give a command, but was stopped when a shrill whistle cut through the morning air. He spun around. “Hault! Lay down your weapons!” Emera knew that voice.

Edrich traveled in the growing light with an intense urgency burning in him. When he had found her gone, a fear he had never before felt invaded the deepest part of his soul, freezing it to its shattering point. His mind tried to unravel her mysterious disappearance.

Obviously she had been freed even though the key still hung on the little hook in the stairwell. But the door stood open without force and therefore must have been unlocked from the outside. While he felt betrayed by whoever had let her out, he knew she had been viciously wronged. Therefore, to free her, in some way, must have been right. Someone betrayed him by doing the right thing. That stabbed him in the chest causing his heart to clench painfully. He was wrong, in everything.

He had put off the search for a few hours, waiting for the approaching dawn. In the early hours of the morning, the sun still hours away, he could wait no longer. Calling for his best hunting hound, he held the sheet she had wrapped her luscious body in until the dog was able to pick up her lingering scent in the courtyard. She couldn’t have traveled too far.

The dog lead Edrich for nearly three hours before the trees in the valley thickened, forming the great forest. The only peace Edrich felt came from the fact his hound was on her trail and he had never failed to lead him to his quarry. The dog left the road, charging up an embankment and out of sight.

Edrich spurred his steed onward, climbing the steep face of the slippery hill into the sparse forest. Leaves of last fall still coated the ground. Moisture-laden, they stuck in thick clumps to the stallions black hooves, flying chaotically as the horse picked up speed at the top of the climb. She had left the road, and was weaving through the greening forest.

The hound called to him, bound to her scent, pulling him rushing forward. Soon she would be in his arms. Soon the end would begin. The dog’s aggressive and assured hunt told him he was getting closer. They raced in tandem until they passed a smoldering fire. The dog sniffed the ground in circles several times. Edrich immediately knew she would not have built the fire, drawing as little attention to herself as possible; the fact that her scent did not go to the fire pit but stayed several yards away confirmed it. His eyes shot wide; there were others on her trail. Perhaps they’ve already captured her?!

The dog bounded off again, its mournful bay ringing out through the trees. Edrich followed until at last they came upon a soft ridge that eased down into a small clearing. He called for his dog to heal. The ever restless dog stood and pranced around the horse, eager to continue the chase, his prey within sight.

Edrich’s heart froze as he watched the gang of men slowly encircle Em. She took the first down with such velocity and skill he had little time to react before the leader grabbed her and hit her, sending her to the ground. The man will die.

Edrich shouted his orders, effectively stopping them from further attacking her, even if momentarily.

“And who commands it so?” the ruffian returned.

“The king! Step away from the woman!”

“And if I don’t?”

“Your life is forfeit.” The man at last moved to the side, allowing Emera a view of her savior and destroyer. He held her gaze for a moment, her apprehension both simultaneously suspended and ignited anew. She breathed once, then twice. She then quickly regained her wits; he was distracted, his back to her. Snatching her sword, she stood and, in one powerful lunge, bathed her blade in his blood. He fell slowly, dragging the sword from her hands.

Shaking, she looked down at the dead man and then up at the on rushing storm of terror. Edrich charged at them, sword brandished high. The men dashed forward as well, as though the thunderous hooves would not carry him to them fast enough. Weapons in hand, they threw all their might into dismounting him. He fought back with a fearsome offense. One, two, and then three of the men had fallen, their blood pouring from their fatal wounds. The criminals were able to land a few blows of their own, slicing him on his thigh and in his side.

As he was turned to his left attacking, a large man on his right grabbed his clothing and pulled him violently to the ground. Instantly, the remaining men were upon him, fists and metal railing against his felled body in chaotic fury. His hound charged into the fray, effectively tearing a man off his master. Edrich managed to get to his knees, but the large man kicked him in the stomach, sending him sprawling once more.

Emera stood dazed. She was overtaken suddenly with great fear. Not for her life, but for his. She charged forward, slicing one man across the back. A second turned, but was unable to stop her from running him through. He collapsed to his knees, his startled eyes slowly fading into nothingness.

The last man, the large one that had thrown Edrich from his horse had turned his attention to her. He picked up a sword and took a challenging step towards Emera. His strike was quick and powerful. Emera’s sword flew up in defense. The force of the blow vibrated down the blade, tearing painfully through her hands and up her arms. The second was even more skilled and it caused her to step to the side to dodge it, throwing her off balance. His last approach was even more violent than the first and knocked her completely off her feet.

As Emera struggled to sit upright, his mammoth frame shadowed over her. His sword was raised for the finishing slice when he was kicked from behind. He immediately turned to face Edrich, who had regained his feet and his sword. Though he was badly damaged, he engaged the man, striking with skill that far eclipsed his opponent. Edrich’s attack was relentless as he lunged and struck with the precision refined from years of disciplined practice. The man, tired and frustrated at failing to land a blow, became overly eager with a lunge. Edrich quickly blocked and turned round so he faced the attacker’s back. Before the man could position himself to defend, the king drove his sword into his back, stopping only when the hilt made contact.

Emera watched in nauseating horror at the sight of Edrich’s blade impaling the supposed strong man. Her greatest enemy had so easily and powerfully dispatched her pursuers, she was torn from fear and relief. Edrich kicked him, prying him off his sword. The man fell face forward onto the ground in front of her. Emera looked up into Edrich’s bloody face, unaware her heart had stopped beating.

Her insides were a tangle of warring emotions. She had run from him, escaped his castle and therefore flouting his authority. She knew her punishment would be severe. On the other hand, he had just saved her from a torture worse than death. She felt oddly saved by him. A short moment of warmth washed over her. She wanted to hug him, to let him hold her safely. But she remained where she was.

Edrich, however, was not so passive. He stepped over the dead body in unsteady gait, on wobbly legs, his head sloshing about in pain. A shaking, bloody hand reached out to stroke her brow.

“Are you harmed in any way?” His voice was hoarse and his breathing labored.

She saw the worry in his eyes, even through the blood that poured down from his brow. He had several welts over his face that foretold of bruises to come. Part of his hair was messed by blood and dirt. His clothes were also dirty. She cringed at the sight of the dark crimson pouring from the gashes and cuts along his body. He had stood between her and danger. For what purpose? To take her back? To keep her his slaver forever?

She quickly stepped back and clutched her sword in her hands, her knuckles turning white. She had her freedom; she only now realized she would have to fight to keep it. After the melee she just witnessed, she knew she could not defeat the man who had slain the six or so men single-handedly. Still, she would rather die than go back, rather end than continue bound to him by her perfidious body. Perhaps he was too tired and weak to chase her.

His face grew serious, though softened by confusion at her reaction to him. Before he understood her intent, she turned and sprinted away. His body gave his mind no time to contemplate a course of action. Instead, he sprung after her like a wolf chasing his prey. The searing pain in his legs shot to his mind, but only for the first step and then was quickly forgotten. She was faster than him at that moment, but seeing the distance grow between them, he surged forward. As she clamored to race up a hill, he jumped and wrapped his arms around her. The two fell and softly rolled down.

His hound was at his side immediately, snarling at the girl. She was railing against him with her hands. “No! Let me go! I’m not going back! I’d rather die!” she shouted over and over at him.

To still her fight, he pinned her struggling hands above her head and used the weight of his body to overcome her thrashing about. “Emera, stop fighting me and listen!” The position only inflamed her further. Was he planning to force himself on her again!

But then she stopped, realizing what he said. Emera. He knew her name, her real name. He knew who she was? “What? Edrich, what did you call me?”

He sighed in relief as she settled, her attention now under his control. “Emera. You are Emera, the princess of Adalynd, are you not?”

“How-how do you know that? How long have you known?” The endless possibilities flew through her mind.

He paused momentarily, gathering his thoughts. He did not think he had the energy to proceed fully. However, he knew she wouldn’t leave him be, leave the topic unfinished. She would question him until she knew everything he did. “Since last night. My scouts found Glenna and brought her to me.” Her eyes widened in fear. He quickly relieved them. “She is fine. No harm came to her and no harm will. She explained everything.” He took a moment to judge her reaction.

Emera stared up at him. “Would you mind getting off me?”

Edrich was beginning to think loosing contact with her body was painful, but he knew she needed space apart from him to feel safe. He felt desperately saddened that he did not bring her comfort or a feeling of protection. <Of course not, you’ve ripped that from her. She’ll never feel safe with you. She doesn’t want you. You’ve destroyed her, he berated himself. He moved off her slowly and sat next to her, slightly turned away. His dog settled himself near his feet and proceeded to fall asleep.

She regarded him, with his knees bent up and arms laid overtop. His head was bent. She thought she had seen anguish mar his face before moving. He was a mystery. He had pursued her for physical pleasure while they travelled. But he obviously had no feelings for her since he so easily believed Jenner’s lies and allowed him to abuse her. But then he let his anger bleed away by consoling himself with her body. Now, upon knowing her true identity, he fought for her, bled for her, and seemed somewhat pained by her apparent rejection of him. She didn’t understand him in the least.

They remained in silence, neither knowing what to say. When Edrich could bear it no longer, he began attempting to repair what he had so brutally damaged. “Emera, I was wrong. I was wrong to not trust my instincts that you weren’t what Jenner accused you of being. You aren’t an evil person, you aren’t a manipulator. I felt that, but…I was scared and hurt at the possibility, it made me angry. And he knew that. Jenner knew my pride would be pricked if I felt betrayed or manipulated by someone I desired.”

Though he never looked at her, she could see he was crushed by his weakness that Jenner had exploited to harm her. She sighed. “Yes, I fear he did the same to me.” He looked up at her questioning. She gave a small, reluctant smile. “You see, when he came to bring me to your tent, he told me you wanted me beaten badly. He said you had laughed at my fighting skills and that I annoyed you. You only tolerated me because you wanted to…” she left the statement unfinished as she scowled in pain and looked away. “He knew his words would enrage me. He played me for a fool, too.”

“I’m sorry.” A lump had lodged itself, blocking the passage of air, disabling him from swallowing. He had wronged her, and the regret, guilt, and grief overwhelmed him. He wanted to apologize, wanted things righted. But he knew it would not erase the abuse and hurt of mistrust. It would not heal her heart, would not bring her closer to him.

Though it was completely against his capable, controlling nature, he knew only one way to proceed. With vulnerable need, just as Emera had approached him. “Emera, I was wrong, at every turn,” his confession breaking in his voice. “I foolishly believed lies without seeking the truth. I treated you disgustingly, my own arrogance justifying my repugnant behavior.” He watched her reaction, seeking words to explain his position. “I will not make war on your country. I am at your disposal to see you safely home. I-I will submit to any sanctions you decide on for my behavior.” Though his words were meant to kindle forgiveness and understanding, the only served to fan the flame of indignant anger buried in her heart.

She wanted to lambast him, to destroy him under her foot. All he had done, all she had suffered, and for nothing! She stood and marched away, needing distance. She began her pacing as she fumed. Despite her burning rage, she knew she needed to take care and not further injure the situation, and by extension the safety of her country.

Emera closed her eyes and breathed deeply. I breathe, not as myself, but as the princess. She knew, despite her wounded self, she was unable to make war against him. Not only would she be using her men for her own personal revenge, she would be sending most of them to their deaths. Her army was in no way prepared to battle Edrich’s.

He was remorseful, completely so. He had said he would allow whatever punishment she devised. She could take her anger out on the one man responsible and guarantee peace for Adalynd in the meantime. Emera did not have a full fleshed-out plan for her revenge, but she knew she wouldn’t stop until she felt his life slip from his eyes. She composed herself before turning to face him.

She momentarily felt some remorse for her hate-filled thoughts. He looked at her now, his handsome face marred by anguish. His body, once large and full of fear-inspiring power seemed small and helpless. He was a shadow of the man she first knew. His guilt ate away his being, dissolving him into sorrow.

“Very well. For the time being, I will accept your explanation. Take me to Clearvalley, instruct your general to cease and desist any and all plans of aggression against Adalynd. Send for Glenna’s release back to my castle. Insure not only her safety, but her comfort as well. I demand you arrest Jenner so that I may see him executed. Take me to my home. Upon arrival, you will apologize to me in front of the entire court. Then you will enter into a treaty with my father to never instigate military force against Adalynd again. Those are my terms.”

He watched in relief and fascination as she accepted the reality and took control. He suddenly understood her entire personality he had witnessed during the time traveling together. She was a fierce and decisive leader. His hope grew in her handling of the situation. Perhaps she wasn’t beyond his reach.

“I accept.” He moved to stand to his feet but his face contorted from the pain in his body. She was gripped with concern for him and then shook herself in chastisement for the sentiment. But she also knew she needed him strong if he was to protect her during their ride. She walked over to him and released her cape.

He sat back in question as he watched her take his knife from his belt and begin ripping the material. She pushed him gently back so he lay down as she began wrapping his wounds tightly with the strips of her cloak. She then dabbed at the drying blood on his face, revealing the deepening bruises. Lastly she looked at the injury in his side. It was deeper than the others and still bleeding.

“Take off your jerkin and shirt.” He struggled to do so, so she helped him. She was nearly overcome by the desire to stroke the deep lines of the muscles of his shoulders and chest and stomach. But she focused on her task. She made an absorbing bandage from the material and then wrapped it securely. “How far is Clearvalley.”

“We can make it before sunset if we ride hard.”

“This wound is deep. You need a healer’s needle to sow it together. Let us hurry. The longer we tarry, the worse it will be.” She helped him to his feet. He strained against the incredible pain of mounting his horse; his face reddened and sweat began to pour from his forehead.

They sprinted forward, finding the road just as the rain began to fall. The hound followed faithfully behind. Emera sat between Edrich’s thighs, with little of the same feeling she had felt the first time she found herself in that position. Her mind was plagued with the swirling thoughts and emotions that all seemed at odds with each other. Fantasies of torturing him in revenge flittered in and out mingled with more subtle thoughts of reconciliation and kisses and caresses. She sighed often during the ride, exasperated with herself.

She realized she was losing her fight against him. She originally had thought her body betrayed her when it responded to his touch and longed for his return. But she now found her mind betraying her as well with its gentle thoughts of forgiveness and concern for her nemesis and torturer.

The cold rain distracted her frequently, making it hard to think clearly. It was also cold. With the air rushing by cooling her even further, Emera found herself settling deeper into Edrich’s arms, allowing their combined warmth to envelope her.

Edrich’s own thoughts were more focused, but equally troubled. His mind repeated over and over the imagined scene of Emera leaving. The fear that she couldn’t forgive him made him want to crumple into a thousand broken pieces. He knew he couldn’t live if he didn’t have her.

The rain eventually stopped, but the clouds stayed. Neither knew when the sun actually set, but it was dark before they spotted the lights from the fire at camp. Tired beyond her experience, Emera let a soldier lift her off the horse. “He needs a healer now,” she commanded the man.

As the two entered his tent, another man rushed in to light the lanterns and candles. “Food. Please bring us food and water.” She turned and regarded the king as he began stripping in pained movement. “You had better bring him the strongest wine you have. And several bowls of hot water.” The man left, leaving Emera to help the king. She helped him undress, noting that he seemed even weaker than that morning. She also saw the wound in his side still be bled. He lied upon his bed and closed his eyes to the pain as she carefully undid the bindings around his waist. The wound was still open, blood trickling from it, mixing with the wetness the rain left. Now, the deep cut was red around the edges making it look angry.

“Edrich,” she sighed, worry escaping from her. She grabbed a towel on a near-by table and pushed it firmly into his side.

Edrich fought to ignore the pain. He called for his captain-of-the-guards. The man knelt in front of him, before rising. “Jenner, where is he? Bring him here, now.”

“Yes, my king.” As the man turned to leave, a young man came in, carrying a bag.

He bowed slightly to Emera and then walked to Edrich, kneeling down to better reach his wound. “This is infected,” he mumbled. As he opened his bag to begin tending to the wound, several men appeared, carrying the provisions Emera had asked for. Food was set on the table and the healer was given water and rags.

“Have you boiled this water?” the young man asked. When they nodded he accepted it. He slowly washed the dried blood away, though that only stirred fresh blood to the surface. His fingers prodded the wound, feeling inside. Emera tensed as she watched Edrich’s face cringe in pain. Unable to see him so, she walked over to the other side of his bed and took his hand. He opened his eyes and stared at her, unable to express anything in words.

“Well, no vitals have been punctured, only the muscle. It will repair in time. My main concern, your Highness, is the redness around it. I think it is becoming infected. I will clean it best as I can, but you must be careful. If you catch a fever-“

“I will live,” Edrich said assuredly, almost annoyed at the insinuation the minor wound would be the end of him. Emera stood and poured him a full goblet of wine. She handed it to him.

“For the pain,” she said quietly.

He would have argued that he was strong enough for the pain. But he took it, grateful that she showed concern for him. “Thank you,” he said and drank it down. He laid back and waited for the warmth to wash over him. The two remained in silence as the young man began sewing the wound. Rain began falling on the tent again, filling the air with soft noise.

“Your majesty,” the captain-of-the-guard said in unexpected excitement. “Jenner, he is no longer in the camp. Most of his possession in his tent and his horse are also gone, as is Phillip, the man that attends him.”

Edrich almost sat up, but Emera’s hand was at his shoulder, reminding him to stay flat. “When was he last seen?” she asked, surprising the two of them. The man looked questioningly at Edrich and then answered her.

“I saw him this evening. He was not at the tent for supper, though that is not unusual for him. His man Phillip was, however, gorging himself as usual.”

“Good, then he couldn’t have gone far. Send men out and bring him back, no matter the cost. He is a traitor to your king. Do not let him escape.” Her voice was calm but undeniably full of hate.

Once again, the captain looked to his king. Edrich nodded in agreement. “I ride to Adalynd in the morning, please have an escort ready for us at first light. Send in General Wells, I have much to discuss with him.”

The man bowed. “It shall be done, your Majesty,” and he turned and left.

Emera felt his eyes on her. She had overstepped her authority by commanding his soldier. But when she looked at him, the fear that began to bubble up, evaporated instantly. He wasn’t angry with her. Though he wasn’t exactly smiling, his mouth was soft and his face looked relaxed. “Food is here, Edrich. Are you hungry?”

“You should eat, your Majesty,” the young man piped in as he finished the stitches on the skin. “You will need your strength to recover, especially if you catch the fever.” He finished by rinsing the remaining blood off. He then noticed the bandages around his legs. “May I see these as well, my lord?”

Edrich then looked up at Emera. She blushed slightly, knowing his hesitation. “I will step outside.”

“No.”

“No?” she questioned, confused.

“I do not feel comfortable letting you out of my sight.” When he saw her begin to scrunch up in anger, he explained. “Not with Jenner missing. Who knows where he hides in the darkness. Plus, it is raining out. No, you may stay and sit at the table and eat. You can turn your chair around and look the other way, if you wish.”

Emera eased, accepting his explanation. “Fine, as you wish, your Majesty,” she said with sass.

He smiled at that. “Thank you, your Majesty,” he threw back at her.

“Andrew,” he said, at last giving the young healer a name, “send one of the maids in with a clean gown for the princess. Would you like a bath as well?” he asked turning his attention to her.

“No thank you. I’ve seen enough water to feel clean for a year,” she said dryly as she indicated to her soaked outfit. He smiled in return.

The general entered. When he saw Emera, and then the state of the king, he looked between the two of them in confusion.

“General, may I introduce Emera, the princess of Adalynd?” The usually reserved man was unable to hide his shock as the girl stood in more regal grace than he had ever seen from Edrich.

He turned and gave a stiff bow, still unsure what to make of the situation. Emera received his acknowledgment with a nod of her own.

“Wells, Jenner is a traitor. He sent information to Adalynd in hopes of instigating a war. He also falsely accused the princess of being a spy intent on assassinating me. I wrongfully punished her and am on my way to Adalynd to make reparations. We will not be attacking our neighbors to the north. Is that understood?”

“Yes, your Majesty. What are your new orders?”

“Troops are to remain in a holding pattern until I am able to sign a treaty with Arnold. No aggression is to be taken against Adalynd. Now, please, inform the troops of my wishes. Dismissed.” The general bowed to both royals and left.

The atmosphere was more somber as she sat back and began eating the food while Andrew stitched up the king.

As she was finishing her meal, a woman was shown in by a guard. She bowed before the king, trying not to notice the muscular thighs exposed to her. She quickly turned her attention to the young lady and handed her the clothes. “Thank you,” Emera smiled, relieved at a change of clothes. The woman left and Emera looked around for a private place to change. She stepped behind the folding screen and stripped out of her garbs.

Even in the dim light of the tent, she could still see soft bruises on her ribs where Jenner had beaten her. She still felt tiny, nagging reminders of her physical abuse from the past few days. Given her mental exhaustion and physical pain, she broke into silent sobs. She buried her face in the dry, new clothes, hoping to keep her ringing sorrow to herself.

After wringing the last tears from her spent form, she breathed a few calming breaths and wiped her eyes of the tears. She dressed and ran her fingers through her hair, teasing the dark tresses free of tangles. She braided it so it laid over her left shoulder. Patting her face dry one last time, she reemerged. She was a little concerned given that the dress was on the tight side. It pushed her breasts together and up so their plump flesh nearly spilled over the top.

She tried to shake of the self-conscious unease and was relieved to see Andrew had left. Edrich’s eyes were closed. The rain had stopped and suddenly it felt as though the world was empty. The silence carried a weight she didn’t know existed. She didn’t know what to do and began turning around and around, trying to focus her mind on something.

“I am hungry.” His voice broke through her haze. Making herself useful, she brought a platter with meat and bread on it to him. He sat up and leaned against the headboard. Emera helped him prop the pillows and then handed him the plate.

“Would you like more wine?” She poured him another full glass when he nodded. He tore into his food with a ferocity she’d never seen in royalty. It made her smile to think he was more like a caveman than a king at that moment. And many others, she mused. “Now, how about Glenna?”

“I can write a letter and Robert will escort her to your home. Good enough?”

“Tonight?”

“Yes.” He went to stand, pulling the blankets from his body when he stopped. “You may want to turn around.”

“Of course,” she said softly. She was facing the tent wall while he went to his writing table and scribbled out the missive. It felt strange that he should protect her from his nudity when he had stripped her of her clothing and then used every inch of himself for her undoing. She didn’t know if the irony was humorous or not. He eventually went back to his bed and covered himself.

Before he settled in, he called for one of the guards and asked a messenger be sent to him. The youth entered the tent, some five minutes later, dressed to ride. Edrich handed him the note and instructed him to give it to no one but Robert.

When he had departed, Emera looked around. Edrich was lying deep under the covers, barely able to keep his eyes open. He knew it was sensitive, but he had to speak. Knowing he simply could not command her about, he had to reason with her, something he was not accustomed to. “Emera, I know you most likely will not want to, but you need to rest. If we are to make it to your home tomorrow, we will have to travel all day, and it will be a hard, long ride. As I said, I do not want you out of my sight, especially while Jenner is free. You may sleep here, the bed is large enough.” He saw her immediately recoil. “You have my word, I will not touch you, unless you ask me to,” he added in a low tone. “Take that knife,” he said, pointing to a large dagger on the writing table. “If I breach your safety in any way, you can plunge it into my heart.”

She regarded him for a moment, his face displaying his earnest feelings. Sleep would be nice, she thought. And despite everything, I feel safest with him. She scrunched her nose at that. She nodded once, reluctantly. “Very well. Though,” she continued cheekily as she sat on the bed, “to stab you through the heart would require you to actually have a heart.”

“Ow, I think you just did.” He smiled gently at her. She returned it, her head resting on the soft pillow. She closed her eyes to escape the sensual familiarity that threatened to overwhelm her calm.

The cold air of the night infiltrated the tent sending Emera to seek out the heat near her. In her sleep, she snuggled against Edrich’s warm side. He laced his arm under her head, cradling her closer. Her body was intimately nestled against him, her right leg partially overlaying his.

The sound of the waking camp entered her dreamy thoughts. She had felt warm and amative, though without distinct thought or purpose. Her eyes slowly opened, a heady yet clean scent invading her mind. The scent threw erotic scenes into her mind of hands and muscles, and skin and…She sat up, fighting against her natural predisposition to be close to him.

Even in her sleep she was attracted to him. She rolled her eyes in disgust. “Edrich,” she called to him, shaking him lightly. He didn’t stir. She sat a moment waiting, her eyes beginning to rove over his body. The wound left by the arrow from the day they hunted together was healing well, little more than a scab. She touched it lightly, remembering her crushing fear at the threat of his death that day. How disconcerting it felt to have been slung to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum in just a day’s time. Going from willingly dying for him to wanting to kill him. At the moment, she wasn’t certain where she was in that spectrum.

Her fingers trailed down his chest. He was hot and sweaty. She grew concerned. “Edrich,” she said more forcefully. “Wake up.” He began stirring, slowly waking. He frowned and grimaced as he sat up. “You look awful. How do you feel?”

“Fine,” he said dismissively. “Send someone for food and have them prepare us food to travel with today. I’ll get dressed and we can go.” She watched him briefly. He moved stiffly and touched his temples with his fingers.

“Are you certain you feel well?”

“Yes, I am well enough.” She gave no more argument, but went to see about their food. Before long, they were riding away from Clearvalley, headed towards the mountains. The passage through them was chilling, a snowfall meeting them near the top. Emera had been given her own horse, but secretly wished she was riding with Edrich, warming her back. She missed the contact and almost asked if she could ride with him.

She watched him throughout the day. His energy dwindled from little to nothing as the time passed. Once they were through the pass and reached the small town, Emera suggested they stop at the tavern. She immediately remembered Alistair was still stationed there, awaiting word from her. She was able to locate the young man and relay her message that they were headed to the castle; Edrich would sign an amicable peace treaty. After a quick meal, they were off again.

Edrich said very little during their meal and ate even less. Their speed picked up towards the end of the day; Emera was eager to be home, to be safe. The gates opened and the bailey filled with people cheering. Not only were her people happy to see her home, news of the promised treaty signing had spread quickly through the castle and surrounding village.

The party dismounted from their horses and entered the castle. King Arnold sat in his chair in the great hall. Seeing his daughter alive he stood and rushed to her. “Emera, dear, you made it! I was so worried. I expected to hear from you sooner, but no matter. You are alive and well!” He clasped her in his arms tightly; tears began welling in his eyes.

“Father, yes I am well, though I have had a most trying time. But I think it may have been worth it. As I hope Alistair informed you, the king is willing to sign a treaty to never bear arms against us.” She looked grave and happy simultaneously. “Father, my I introduce Edrich, king of Lidio.” She stepped to the side and extended her hand towards the man she had only escaped from the morning before.

Edrich stepped forward, bowing slightly. “Your Majesty,” his deep voice barely audible. Emera stood even more erect, noticing Edrich looked strange. He lifted his eyes to her before they glazed over as he fell forward, collapsing out of reality.


Chapter Four

Emera’s eyes slowly opened, focusing on a pillow near her face. On her stomach, her hair was strewn about. She lifted up onto her elbows, wincing at the pain throughout her body. Her face was still sore from Jenner’s fists, and she felt a dull ache between her thighs. All of her muscles were sore from exhaustive use, and she was incredibly thirsty and hungry. She was also naked, she noted. The front of her body was still red with a few bruises over some of her bony prominences.

The sun still sat below the horizon, gaining energy before it rose in the morning sky. The cool air drifted easily in the windows, sending a chill through her. She grabbed a sheet and tied it around her, partly to warm herself and partly to hide her injuries. It then occurred to her that she was no longer bound and was free to move about. She wondered just how free she was.

Emera made for the door, took a deep breath and tugged at the handle. It was bolted; she was locked inside. She huffed and looked around the dimly lit room. The fire that had raged in the night was nothing more than smoldering embers.

She put a couple of logs on the fire, nursing it back to life. While she slept, someone had brought up a plate of food and a pitcher of wine and sat them on the small table. Her tattered dress that had been shredded from her body was gone. She noticed the leather bottle with the water Edrich had left. She opened it and drank, grateful to relieve her parched throat. When her thirst was quenched, she began picking at her food. Though she should have been starved, as she mulled over the night’s events, sickening apprehension crept up on her turning her stomach to knots. Despite the discomfort, she ate knowing she would need her strength.

She sat on the edge of the fire pit, warming herself. Slowly, she threaded through the words and deeds of the night. She tried to set aside emotion to allay the overwhelming anxiety that threatened to overtake her.

She was still a captive, for what purposes remained unknown, however. He hadn’t bothered to question her further. He only seemed interested in dominating her desire while she fulfilled his. Without bidding, the passion from the night before swept over her, and she suddenly felt warm at the thought of his touch on her lips and neck and breasts and…she stood and began pacing.

She had succumbed to his touch just like he had taunted. Not only had she enjoyed it, she’d begged! She would have let him take her soul away if he’d asked. She’d been a mindless idiot. She had so easily given in to her body’s hunger. Even now, the pull of her desire for him was overpowering. Despite any logical argument against him she could devise, she knew her longing for him would forever pulse through her veins.

And that sickened her. He was her enemy now. He was at this very minute poising his army to decimate everything in Adalynd in his bid to conquer. Her mind quickly flew through her confrontation with him in his tent. He had told the general to prepare to defend against an attack and to also prepare the troops to begin the siege. Her heart began thumping wildly at that. He had also called for Glenna’s capture. The whole of her country is on the brink of a devastating attack, and she let herself be seduced by the leader. She clenched her fists in grave determination, squeezing so hard they shook.

If she let him rule her, she wasn’t fit to be queen. She shut her eyes at the thought of her consequences. It seemed that her presence in Lidio was the cause for the upcoming battle. It was she who had catapulted the entire affair out of order and into chaos. She steeled herself against the onslaught of guilt. I will defend my people. I will be as strong as any man and prove I am fit to rule, she thought.

She began pacing again as she planned. She had to warn her father, save Glenna, prepare for battle, something! She felt so entirely impotent at the top of the ridiculous tower. As she saw it, there were several ways out of her present predicament. Firstly, Edrich would kill her immediately, either by his sword or some barbarous torture. Despite the hatred she had seen in his eyes, she didn’t think that was likely considering he had provided sustenance for her after he had used her. That reasoning brought her to her second option. He would keep her as a slave, for sexual deeds or otherwise. This was the most likely solution since he kept her alive and secluded. If he had meant to interrogate her further, she thought he would have chained her back up and withheld rations. However, she had the freedom to move about in the room at least, with appetizing food and wine. The question then became, how long would he keep her?

Would he plan to use her a few more times and then kill her or throw her to his men or simply make a common slave out of her, or would he keep her indefinitely? She allowed her mind to wonder down both possibilities before her thoughts drifted to the reasoning behind each. When she felt somewhat warmed by the possibility he would want her forever, she shook her head and scolded herself. This line of thinking is irrelevant. If he plans on doing anything with me any longer than today, I have a chance to make it home. I don’t care what his plans would be and why he would make them, she lied to herself.

If he wasn’t going to outright kill her, she needed a plan of escape. However, before escape, she wondered if an alternative could be reached. Could she negotiate with him somehow? Would finally telling him she was the princess and her entire scheme produce any fruit? Not likely. The dolt wouldn’t want to trust me enough to believe it, she bemoaned. Plus, at this point, she didn’t want him as an ally anymore. Granted, not all men could be as kind and gentle as her father, but at least they could be honorable. She felt a little dejected at the thought that war was now inevitable, despite all her planning and maneuvering to avoid it.

She felt used, both physically and mentally. Her thoughts drifted over what Jenner had said. The king had laughed at her? Even though she was a woman, Emera knew her skills with the bow rivaled any man’s. The soldiers in the tent, she remembered, had stared at her with awe. The young one said they were all impressed by what the king had told them; he had extended his protection over her since she had saved his life. She felt the dissonance in what she witnessed and what the snake Jenner had claimed. Slowly, her initial distrust of the man reemerged, warning her that he was a liar and manipulator.

Emera was pulled from her thoughts when a screeching click indicated someone was unlocking the door. She stood and tied the sheet about her more tightly. The sickening butterflies returned to flutter in her stomach as she waited to see Edrich’s intimidating form. Relief washed over when a very thin, old lady carrying a tray walked through the door.

Emera noted the wary look the lady gave her as she nodded and approached the table. She placed the meal down while picking up the dirty plate. As she turned to leave, Emera reached out for her, calling, “Please, what is your name?” The woman only turned to look in a fearful manner. “My name is Emera. Please, won’t you tell me who I am to thank for this food?” she tried to smile pleasantly to ease the woman’s tense countenance.

The older lady did straighten a little more confidently at that. “I am Alma, miss. My husband is the cook.”

“You are married to Leonard?” Emera asked amiably, brightening at the mention of the sweet old man.

Alma mirrored her obviously pleased face. “Yes, you know my Leonard?”

“Yes, I helped him in the king’s tent when I was traveling. He was very kind to me because I actually do not think I helped at all. I’m not a very good cook, you see.” She smiled sweetly, blushing at the admittance, looking sheepishly at the frail old lady.

“Ah, I see.” But her face suddenly dropped as she realized the young girl was obviously a prisoner. And by the look of her dress, or lack thereof, undoubtedly the king had availed himself of her beautiful charms. She noticed her face looked ill-used and wondered at the state of her. She had never known her king to behave in such a dishonorable manner before. She knew she should leave and curtly bowed.

“Please, I know it may be asking a lot, but, I am rather cold, you see, and my own gown was…” Emera’s eyes blurred with tears, “taken. It was so dirty and torn. I was hoping I might have a dress, maybe a robe as well? Please, I am so cold.” She gave a small shiver to punctuate her need.

Alma looked concerned, both for the girl’s plight and also the danger at angering the king if she aided his prisoner against his wishes. However, the kind lady could not refuse such a pitiable sight as the beautiful, shivering girl. She gave a slight, reluctant nod. “I will see what I can do, miss.” She finally turned and left.

As Emera began to eat her meal, she sighed. Well, that is one less thing I will need to worry about, should I need to escape. She decided she would keep the clothes hidden until it was time for her to leave. That brought her to her next hurdle. Exactly how was she to escape from a locked tower?

She began to thoroughly examine the room, searching for any weakness or clue. Alas, no stone was movable, the solid wood door only locked from the other side, and the outside walls were not scalable. Obviously, the only way out would be when someone opened the door. Thus far, only two people had entered the room. If she planned for it, she might be able to subdue him and make good her escape. She’d rather not implicate the innocent woman during her flight, so she would leave her be if at all possible.

Another possibility occurred to her. He may not keep her in this room forever, but send her to sleep in the servants quarter, giving her more freedom. Of course, what would precipitate a change of rooms? Trust, she mused. He would have to trust that she would stay, not leave, not betray him. She could pretend to reluctantly want him, demonstrate a need for him that would keep her bound to him. She winced at the thought of that. The problem lied in the fact that she wouldn’t be pretending. She didn’t trust herself to allow him to touch her again; she would be completely under his control. It was better, for her own resolve, to openly deny him and never again submit to any of his wishes, no matter the pain in the refusal. Back to designing a more straightforward escape plan.

The ray of light that poured in with the bright morning moved across the floor as the sun rose high in the sky. Emera yawned loudly. Acknowledging she was still exhausted from the night before, she went to sit on the bed. She wasn’t so comfortable with her situation as to lay down fully vulnerable so she propped herself up against the headboard. Despite the slightly disagreeable position, she was soon asleep.

Emera woke with a start. Alma’s hand was on her shoulder, her kindly face peering in at her. “So sorry to startle you, dear, but I’ve brought you dinner.” She then presented the folded package to her. “And also a dress and clean underthings. I had to guess your size, so I hope it fits adequately.”

Emera was touched by her kindness and thoughtfulness. “Thank you,” she said with some relief. “It will be nice to be completely warm again. Not to mention female modesty,” she said with a growing blush.

“Yes, well, dress and eat. I brought you plenty of food since you looked so thin, dear.” She smiled and patted her on the shoulder then left. Emera quickly snatched up the newly given wardrobe and looked through it. All the clothing items were clean and tidy, if not new, and there was even an over coat and perfectly sized shoes. Grabbing the bundle, she looked around for a secure hiding space. Given the bareness of the room, she decided upon stashing it under the bed.

Once she had finished off her food, she walked to the window overlooking the courtyard and watched the activity of the day. There were a few soldiers, but the majority of the people seemed to be servants and peasants. She was taking note of exits and guards when the door opened.

Edrich hungrily eyed the picturesque beauty standing at the window, a sheet tied provocatively around her chest, hanging down in sensuous folds, smoothing over curves that were seared in his memory. He watched her form stiffen slightly, still looking out the window, but very aware of his presence.

Edrich had awoken during the middle of the night, her warm form laying over him. Before he opened his eyes, he gently squeezed her sleeping body and nuzzled his face into her hair. Contentment washed over him as he thought about breakfast in bed with her. Then his eyes flashed open and reality crashed down like a bucket spilling ice cold water. He was in bed cuddling his prisoner as though she were a treasured lover, even a beloved wife. He stiffened, suddenly extremely uncomfortable. Edrich gently slid out from under her, eager to escape the uneasy feeling.

He found his way to his room and stood before the fire. He didn’t know what to think about what had transpired between them. He only knew he was damned. He had set out to simply break her by using her own passion against her. He wasn’t ashamed to admit it served the second purpose of satisfying his own lust, but there was the rub. Despite his powerful attraction to Em, he thought, or rather hoped, he would tire of her. And yet, the moment he tasted her, he knew none other could compare. And then she’d begged. She said the most erotic things in such an innocent, lust filled voice.

Innocent. She had been a virgin. Something he didn’t expect, despite all the signs he had witnessed in the short time he knew her. Jenner’s man insinuated she was well versed in the art of seduction. He knew, even though she responded passionately, she had been innocent.

When he brought her to her second orgasm, his only thought was that she belonged to him. Forever. One part of him easily accepted the new acquisition into his life. He should be happy that he had found a body he desired with his whole being, a person he enjoyed entirely. But that wary side nagged him; the happiness he wanted to feel was a problem. Don’t you see, wanting her so entirely weakens you. It makes you bound to her, dominated by her. You aren’t in control if you want her so completely, so thoroughly that you’ll never be satisfied, he argued. With a sigh he crept into bed, knowing he didn’t have the mental or physical strength to confront the issue further at the moment.

He awoke that morning with an instinctual expectation. With a dream-laden smile, he reached out for his enchanting bed companion, only to feel cold sheets. He opened his eyes unhappily, only to remember his bed partner remained locked in the old turret he had run from during the night. The wariness at feeling so needful of Em returned as well. He expelled an angry huff and flung back the covers. He was tempted to return to her room and use her bewitching mouth to relieve his morning erection, but decided against it. He might still crave her scent and touch as he did no other, but he also felt that danger lied in his surrender to her pull. He wanted to clear his thoughts and come to an agreement with himself before he approached her again.

As a result, the battle plans he should have been contemplating all morning went undecided as he sat at his desk and mindlessly sketched a perfect mouth with his quill on the edge of one of the maps. Despite the danger that lay in his capitulation to his obsession, he knew life offered no other options. He couldn’t live without Em. He couldn’t give her up, either to leave him or die at his hand. He wanted to possess her eternally.

His anger at her vocation had faded somewhere in his sleep and he no longer cared where she was from. Granted, she wouldn’t be going back and he would make the daft old king pay for his deceitful dealings. But he no longer saw why Em needed to remain in the equation of the feuding countries. After all, she was just a citizen doing the bidding of her king.

Regardless of the accusation that she meant to kill him eventually, he was confident in his assessment of her nature; she wasn’t an assassin, and she wouldn’t have harmed him. He remembered her genuine distress when she’d slain the two men in the forest. She had never killed before and it wasn’t likely that she would enjoy doing so again.

Perhaps, given a few more encounters with him, she would hand over her loyalty to him. If she craved him to any comparable depth he did her, he knew she couldn’t resist forming an attachment for long. He had already proven to himself she desired him. Hell, she wanted him enough that despite the fear of death or enslavement she still responded to his caresses, came under his touch.

At the remembrance of their night together he felt his lust stir once more. He quickly ate his midday meal and freshened up. His mind was decided, and he felt almost giddy as he ascended the stairs to her room. In the back of his mind drifted thoughts of when her room would be next to his, making access to her an easy thing whenever his passion swelled. He smiled at the thought of how frequent that would be.

Leaning against the door, arms folded, he watched and waited. He was patient, unnerving his prey with his silent study. At last, she straightened and turned from the window, looking at him with quiet resolve. He moved away from the door and poured wine into the goblet. Neither spoke as he downed the warm contents, coating his tongue in the heady flavor.

As he stood watching her, she could feel the desire radiating off him in powerful waves. His obvious lust-driven purpose in spite of her demeaned and defenseless state angered the last of the remaining dignity in her. When hell freezes over, she fumed.

Edrich sat in the chair, propping his feet on the end of the bed, hands clasped behind his head. Emera rolled her eyes in annoyance and turned back towards the window. “And how do you fare today?” he asked easily.

“Still a prisoner, king, so not as well as other days,” she quipped tersely.

He squinted his eyes at that. “Yes, well, I suppose your position here is dependent on your will.”

She turned to him, angry and skeptical. “You are mistaken there. If it were up to my will, I would never have been brought here. I would not be a prisoner, and you would never have touched me. But as it is, all this is because of your will,” she said waving angrily at her body and stone surroundings.

He grunted in disagreement. “As I recall, it was you who first touched me. And it was your will of deceit that brought you here.” He watched her huff and turn away again. It wasn’t going as well as he had hoped, but given their history, he had to allow for some conflict. It was best to get it out of the way now and leave nothing but their pleasure for the future.

She sighed. “And what can my will decide now?”

“There are several ways to proceed. Which one you take is your choice. But do not deceive yourself. No matter your choice, I will have what I want.”

She stiffened and turned to him, questioning him warily. “And what is it you want?”

His half-cocked smile turned his face rakishly handsome. “Just you.”

Her heart fell out of her chest and fire rose to her cheeks. Her surmise that Edrich would keep her as a slave rather than kill her had been correct. And though she knew the knowledge could serve her no purpose, she couldn’t keep from asking. “For how long?”

“How long what?”

“How long do you intend to keep me?”

“Only until my death. I hope by then to be rid of this desire for you,” he stated somewhat comically, somewhat irritated.

She knew she shouldn’t have asked. Her dejected face was covered by her hand as she stroked her brow in pained thought. He narrowed his eyes at her. “Though, you don’t seem happy or relieved to learn the king, with the power to end or save your life, is inclined to keep you pleasure-bound forever.”

“I’m sorry, your Majesty,” she crooned in mock apology, her voice dripping with sarcasm, her hand over her heart, “if I have not responded with the heart-felt glee and thankfulness you were hoping for at learning you intend to keep me as a sex slave forever. In order to ease your confusion so clearly marked upon your face, let me explain, and please do tell me if you cannot follow my reasoning, for I would not want you to be mistaken.”

Her voice lost its satirical air and dropped to deadly gravity. “I would rather die a thousand deaths than stay locked by your side in a life of slavery where my every breath only exists to fulfill your sexual needs. Had I any other choice in the world, I would not choose to remain near you. The very thought of your touch sickens my heart.

“You are a villain of the worst kind. You send false information to your neighbors in hopes of luring them into war, drawing them in by duplicitous means. Those are the actions of a power-hungry man out to destroy and conquer. But you,” her voice breaking with emotion, “you do not stop there. You seduce innocent ladies into debauchery and then beat them for fictitious crimes. And not only am I to be taken prisoner and treated barbarically, you chain me to the wall, strip me naked and then rape me!

“And yet, you expect me to happily and willingly allow you to fulfill yourself with my body over and over again? Until your death? Where is a sword and I can bring us happily to that end.” Her eyes were enlivened by rage and she was shaking fitfully. Her breathing was ragged as she stared at him.

His face had lost all its humor. He clenched his jaw tightly. He was angered by her accusations and summation of his character. Rape her, indeed. She had begged him! “Your memory seems to be a bit defective. As I recall, you kissed me first in the forest. You kissed me back last night. Your body responded eagerly to my touch, or do you not remember the liquid heat from between your thighs? You cried in pleasure over and over again. And despite any denial you promised, you did beg me.” He stood and was stalking to her, backing her up against the wall. “You begged me over, and over, and over.” The heat of his voice poured out like lava, enveloping her in his anger and lust. He drew his finger up to run down the side of her face, down her neck, running over the top of the fabric at her breasts. “Or do I need to remind you just how joyful you were in allowing me to fulfill myself with your body.”

Despite the thudding of her heart, she mustered her courage to fight him back. Looking up into his darkening eyes, she challenged. “Do you really think a woman means ‘yes’ just because you are able to provoke and draw out a physical response with your well trained caresses? A body can respond to anyone’s touch given its skill. It is the heart you must conquer, not the body.” She folded her arms obstinately and sneeringly said, “Besides, as your man tells it, I have no genuine feelings for you. I was only in your presence to seduce you, bending you to my will, remember? And yet you are trying to convince me that I am a victim of my own desire for you. Make up your mind, Edrich, you cannot have it both ways.”

“Don’t start trying to play innocent, now. Or else do you wish to recant on your earlier confession?”

“I only confessed to being from Adalynd. How that is worthy of this punishment, I have yet to see.”

“Because you were sent by the king,” he prodded.

“Yes. To discover what sort of man the king here is. As you said before, our countries were feuding at the border. After receiving information, from your own man, nonetheless, that you were mounting an attack, how did you expect me-us to react?”

He took a step back. She was trying to evade guilt by this new, yet reasonable explanation. He paused mainly because it was far more in line with the woman he had come to know than that of the deceitful seductress. He narrowed his eyes at her. “What man?”

She rolled her eyes and stepped around him, trying to put distance between their overheated bodies. “No need to play coy with my, your Majesty. He has already explained that it was a set up crafted by you, and that no matter what our response had been, you would have inevitably attacked Adalynd.”

“Now I really demand to know what you are talking of. Who is this man?”

She smirked at his acting. But it was rather good acting, and she hadn’t known him to pretend with her before. She decided to play along, seeing where it would lead. “Why, Jenner, of course. He came to the palace telling my fath-king that you planned an attack. He gave him locations of your troops and intended movements. Of course, one should never outright trust a traitor, and so I came to Lidio to confirm or deny the reports.” Her hands were on her hips waiting for his next move.

He cocked his head, eyes slanted in mistrust. He mulled over her accusation. He never had liked or trusted Jenner, but she was a spy; did she deserve any more trust? Despite his doubts, her claims did agree more with her behavior and mannerisms than that of Jenner’s charges. She most certainly was not an assassin or seductress. And, despite being able to get close to him, he didn’t think she was an exceptional spy. Why had the king sent her? Why not secret military spies who could infiltrate the area undetected and leave the same?

Emera was slightly confused at his reaction, subdued as it was. If he had been part of the plot, she imagined he would have cruelly laughed and elaborated on his scheming since she was no longer a threat. He wouldn’t have missed an opportunity to flaunt his superior machinations. And yet, he was considering the truth of her words, which only meant that he hadn’t been a part of Jenner’s deeds. Suddenly, all the doubt and mistrust she held for that evil man came rushing forth. He had duped her, that much was clear. Though she was convinced of his treachery, she could tell Edrich still held reservations about her confession. Perhaps she could convince him still.

“Edrich, you must let me go.”

He harrumphed at that. “I’ve already told you your future. You stay with me.”

Her face darkened at his denial. “Is war what you really want?”

Edrich sighed loudly. “I am tired of discussing this topic. Come, let us move on to more pleasant things.” He sat on the bed and leaned back, propping his feet up in relaxed repose.

Her hands were on her hips as she scowled at him. “How can you disregard the needs of your nation for the needs of your body? Have you no honor that all you can think of is…” she lost the courage to continue. “Only a few words more and countless lives will be spared. How can you so easily…” she stopped again, trying to organize her thoughts. She had begun pacing, and he watched with slight amusement mingled with annoyance. “Can you not postpone whatever it is you are planning, invite the king here, on your territory (where you will be safe), and discuss with him? I assure you, we do not want war,” she took a pleading step toward him. He saw the sincerity in her eyes and was disconcerted by it.

“What I now choose to transpire between Lidio and Adalynd is no longer your concern.”

“Adalynd is always my concern. I will not so easily abandon my country, my people.”

“You will because I command it so.” He stood and moved around the bed, walking to her.

“You cannot dislodge my duty, not by words or deeds.”

He was standing toe-to-toe with her, glowering down in growing frustration. “I can and I do. Your duty is now to me and me alone.” He grabbed her roughly, exhibiting his frightening power. His mouth crashed down upon hers, causing her to gasp in surprise. He wasted no time in plunging his tongue possessively into her mouth, stroking her tongue. She tried to wriggle away, but a hand held her head firmly in place. His lips moved against hers in bruising force, causing her to whimper at the show of unbridled dominance.

Her hands moved to his chest, pushing back against him, even as her lips moved tentatively with his. At the increase of her whimpering, Edrich pulled away violently and rasped, “You belong to me. You cannot continue to deny this any longer.”

“I can and I do,” she ground out, throwing his words back at him.

Her statement set him alight, his fury burning loudly. He threw her to the bed, ripping the sheet from her body as she went. Emera landed on her stomach and quickly crawled to her knees, making for the other side. He was upon her as she was kicking her feet off onto the floor. He flung her back, pinning her down. Before she could scream in protest, his lips were covering hers again in a savage kiss. She was able to flick her head away. “Stop!” she screamed. She was able to wiggle her hands free and began to push and hit at him.

He was undeterred and simply took her hands in his own, immobilizing them above her head. He resumed his assault on her mouth, his tongue relentless in its pursuit to make her respond. She still fought him with her body, thrusting against him, wiggling in desperation. But the friction of his clothing against her sensitive skin only served to arouse her further so she stopped.

His lips felt as erotic as ever, igniting the intimate and delicious burn deep within her. She wanted him, so much of him. But she knew if she abandoned herself to his darkness, she would be forever lost. She whimpered again as the misery of her situation washed over her. Emera begged one last time, but this time, for an entirely different release. “Please, Edrich, please stop.”

His own desperation to hear her longing pleas for pleasure snapped his restraint. “If you can’t beg me to fuck you, don’t say anything!” His mouth ground harshly against hers. “Tell me,” he growled. “Tell me you want me.”

She shook her, holding out with the last of her strength. He unleashed the full fury of his desire. Unlike the night before, he did not seek to seduce her to give into her own longing. If she wanted to fight the inevitable, unparalleled affinity that ran through them like an undertow, he would let her. But he wouldn’t be denied. Holding her hands with one of his, he used the other to snake down his body to unfasten his breeches. He shoved them down past his hips and drew her leg over him. He gave no warning and no reprieve as he impaled her mercilessly. He had yearned for her too long, his entire being a pent up ball of explosive energy.

She cried out against his lips. He held the position as his head dipped to her ear, then her neck. His searing breath scorching her a moment before his lips and tongue attacked her sensitive skin. Her tunnel had been dry, but the pain from his invasion coupled with his masterful seduction on her neck quickly aroused her body. When Edrich felt her cunt gush with liquid fire he began thrusting into her, bent on finding his incensed release.

Though Em refused to give in consciously, her hands stopped their struggles to lace their fingers with his own. They then grasped his shoulders. Her nails dug into his flesh, leaving angry imprints through his shirt. Her head was tossed back as he devoured her neck. Her eyes were squeezed shut, trying to block out the sharp, electric thrumming coursing through her. The pleasure was building unbidden and unwanted. Without thought, her leg that was wrapped around his hip tightened, pressing him more firmly into her.

Given his angrily aroused state, and the tight slick channel he was burying himself into, he didn’t last long. With one loud growl he emptied himself into her, knowing she had not reached her own release. Good. He flowed in rushed torrents into her, seeking to claim her from the inside out. The deep black fire that had possessed him finally settled into a tempered, waiting flicker. He lay on top of her, panting, trying to focus his mind to a single thought. It took many minutes for the loud water raging through his ears to ebb away, his heart no longer thumping in his head. He raped her. That was the single thought that came when all died down.

Disgusted with himself, he eased off her, suddenly anxious to be as far away from her as possible. The shame threatened to crush him. He dared a look down at her tortured form. Her eyes were still closed, but a copious amount of tears had escaped. Her breathing remained ragged, and her hands laid over her chest, covering herself protectively. Seeing her distressed state agitated him beyond all tolerance. His longing to ease her discomfort rivaled his desire to satisfy himself within her. Without thinking, he fell between her thighs seeking to comfort her.

Her eyes shot open when his firm lips settled on her pussy, licking her slit hungrily open. He pressed into her tightly, shoulders digging comfortingly into the backs of her thighs. His right arm wound possessively around her thigh and laced it over his shoulder, affording him better access. His other hand wound round to her stomach and slid higher, claiming a breast in erotic caresses.

He drew her soft flesh into his mouth and suckled the smooth, delicate flesh. He moved over her knowingly until he found the tender nub at the apex of her sex. In a hungry kiss, his mouth opened over it, teeth grating over her flesh in agonizing pleasure. His tongue flattened against it and then sucked it into his mouth. Over and over he lapped at it, making love to her cunt. She was biting her fist, fighting the blissful waves he was building in her again. Involuntarily, her hips shot up hard into his hand as two fingers delved inside her, stroking her. She let a ragged breath draw; she hadn’t realized she had been holding it.

“Please, Em,” he moaned into her flesh. His ‘mmm’ was long, causing his lips to vibrate against her. The raw edge to his voice was cutting at her again. Her body responded to it as acutely as it did to his lips or fingers. He sucked her clit again, his fingers strumming that magical spot. “Please,” he begged. It was her undoing. She cried desperately as her inner walls clamped repeatedly around his fingers, her orgasm rushing through her, tearing her apart.

He did not stop his loving touch, but continued fucking her with his fingers and mouth, pushing her through wave after wave of mind-controlling bliss. He tasted his own cum as he lapped up the last of her sweet essence. When he felt her body slide down from her orgasm, he crept back up her body and settled next to her. Her head was still turned to the side, eyes closed again. Her breathing was under control, but her lungs continued sucking air in deeply. He could see her heart beat thumping at the side of her neck. He bent his head down, rubbing his lips softly over the spot, feeling her life flow beneath them.

“Em,” he hunted for the words. “Em, I’m sorry. I-,“ he wanted to justify his rage, his possessiveness. “It hurts. It hurts to want you so entirely, need you so powerfully, and yet your resist me. Your refusal to admit the bond between us…it’s killing me.” He was stroking her dampened hair from her face, running his lips over the line of her jaw. “Please, I don’t give a damn about who you are or why you’re here. I’m keeping you,” his rough voice promised. When he felt her stiffen slightly, he sighed in resignation. He kissed her brow and rose. “We can talk later. I’ll give you time. Don’t worry, I won’t force you again.” He waited for a response, but when none came, he left heavy-hearted, screaming internally for death.

When she heard the door shut and the bolt slide into place, Emera turned onto her stomach, her face buried in the pillow. She cried rivers, her whole body convulsing violently.

Edrich marched empty headed to his room. It was approaching the hour for supper, but he had no appetite. He had much to mull over, but no thought formed in the dark eddy of his mind. He could grab nothing solid. He was standing before the gallows and all that awaited him was a vast black nothingness. Its cosmic vacuum sucking his soul from his burdened flesh.

“My Lord, I have drawn a bath for you before the evening meal.” Robert’s voice caused the dark fog to lift, allowing him to focus on the steps of the evening.

“Thank you. Bring my meal here; I am in no mood to see anyone tonight.”

“Yes, sire.”

As Edrich bathed, Robert went to the kitchens to fetch his food. He noticed Alma preparing a tray. Obviously, it was meant for the captive in the tower. He approached her, avoiding the notice of the others bustling about. “Tell me, Alma, how does the Lady?” His voice was low, full of caution.

Her wary and worried eyes shot to his. She looked about for ears that might be listening. “The young miss fares tolerably. Her face has received too many hits, though. And I’m afraid his Majesty has… “ her eyes knitted together in anxious reproach, “used her disgracefully.” She said the last bit as low as she could. She knew it was never her place to judge the king. However, the obvious, distressful plight of the sweet, innocent girl touched her heart and tugged at her loyalty. She didn’t want to be a part of any nefarious dealings.

Robert’s stomach tightened. He had served the king since Edrich was a youth. He taught him how to fight, even. He had been proud to witness the stern, but just punishment Edrich dealt out over the years. He had always believed his king was honorable, a man truly worthy of loyalty. But this entire affair revealed a villainous nature that he was loathsome to serve. He nodded to the lady, allowing her to take her food away.

After placing the tray of food on the table in Edrich’s chambers, he laid out his clothing. Edrich was still soaking in his bath. He left quietly and slipped through the shadows of the castle to the turret. At the top of the stairs he unlocked the door with the key that hung just outside it. He knocked gently as he opened it. The fire was dying, its glow dimly illuminating the gloomy room. He laid a few more logs on the fire. As it grew, casting its light about, he scanned for Em.

The table Alma had laid the food on sat near a wall, an empty chair beside it. The bed was empty as well, though it bore witness to vigorous activity. The coverlets and furs were scattered about on the floor and only the bottom sheet remained. Then he saw her to the far side of the bed. She was huddled down against the wall, a sheet wrapped haphazardly around her. As he slowly approached her, he saw her face was streaked with dried tears and her hair, once long and silky, was now a disheveled, ratty mess.

He knelt before her. “Miss,” he called softly. “Miss, please look at me.” When no response came, he reached out a hand and stroked her hair. “Em, please.” Her eyes finally moved to his, though they were lifeless. They moved him beyond words. “Come, little one, I’m getting you out of here.” He pulled at her arm, helping her to her feet. When the sheet began to slip, he tightened it up for her. “We’ll have to get you clothing,” he said more to himself than to her.

“I..I have clothing. Alma brought me a clean dress and things.”

“Alright, then. Here, I’ll let you dress while I pack this food up for you. You will need to eat while you have the chance.” He turned to give her privacy. He quickly thought further along the escape plan. He contemplated giving her a horse. However, it would already be extremely suspicious to find her missing; very few knew of her existence there, but if a horse was to go missing as well…he didn’t think he could risk it.

“I am ready,” she said approaching him. She was fully clothed, including a cloak. Life was beginning to sparkle in her eyes once more, even if severely muted in comparison to its previous dazzle.

He felt as though he should explain his actions, partly because he felt the girl deserved an apology and partly because he never wanted to be disloyal. However, even though the air fell heavy with need, he remained wordless and led her to the door. They descended the staircase in darkness and silence. She followed him through a short maze of empty halls, though she could hear voices reverberating off the stone corridors. Within in no time, he was standing next to a large entrance that opened into the main hall. Emera could see a few people about as the evening supper finished. She immediately sucked herself against the wall and looked to him with frightened eyes.

“Do not be so afraid. The king is in his chambers. No one knows of your presence here with the exception of Alma and myself. We will walk along this wall calmly and out into the bailey. The strength of this castle is that it has no other entrance or exit. That also means there is only one exit from the courtyard, and it is guarded by at least two men. Now, I will approach them first and distract them. When their backs are turned, that is your only chance of escape. I am sorry, but I cannot give you a horse.” He looked around once more. With a sigh, he reached into his tunic and pulled out short sword and passed it to her. She hid it under cloak as well as the small parcel of food.

As he had planned, she stood to the side in the shadows of the courtyard waiting until the three guards around the castle’s gate were gathered around Robert. Ta-dunth, ta-dunth, ta-dunth her heart in her ears beat. Deep breath in, she slipped through the raised port-cullis and into the darkness of the open valley.

She followed the muddy road for over an hour, the occasional animal screech the only accompaniment she took with her. The moon only half full gave enough light she could see a step in front of her, but not further. Her ears were trained for the sound, looking behind her, listening for her fear to approach on dread hooves. As she neared the woods Robert had described, her ears lit at the distant dampened ba-da-rrump, sending terror shooting through her.

Advantageously cloaked in the black obscurity of the night, Emera dashed from the road, concealing herself behind two trees. She waited, listening, as the oncoming horses drew closer and closer. With much relief, she realized the sound had been coming from in front of her, and was therefore not the doom of a search party. After a few minutes of waiting, two horse sped by, the riders barely discernable silhouettes against the vast darkness. Breathing for control over her fears, Emera stepped back onto the trodded path and entered the woods.

“Your Majesty,” Robert entered Edrich’s chamber and found the king on the floor, his body leaning against the hearth with his knees drawn up so his arms could rest leisurely on them. He turned towards his trusted servant.

“Yes, Robert?” In his broken position before the fire, the flames cast light and shadow across the king’s face. His power highlighted in the strength of his jaw and cheeks, and forehead and his agony deepened by the shadows at his eyes and mouth.

“Your Majesty, the…accomplice to the alleged spy has been brought to the castle.”

His eyebrows cut thoughtfully at that. Robert thought he saw the faintest tightening of his body, jaw clenched in restraint. “Did Jenner accompany her?”

Robert kept his eyes focused on the floor. “No, your Majesty. Before I left the camp yesterday, I took it upon myself to personally instruct the scouts looking for the woman to bring her directly here. I wanted…to ensure her capture and thorough interrogation by you, sire.” He dared a glance at him, hoping to find the king pleased. Instead, he found him pensive, but not angry, so he accepted it with caution. “She is in the great hall.”

Though Edrich had dispensed with his anger against Em, he knew truth was still hidden in the muddy waters of the entire incident. He needed to confirm exactly what information Em gathered and attempted to send to Adalynd. It would serve to both protect his troops’ positions, but also to satisfy the hope that somehow, Em hadn’t betrayed him as deviously as Jenner had claimed. He nodded and stood.

Robert followed behind, anxious to hear what the woman would have to say. Though he generally trusted his instincts, he prayed he was not wrong in trusting Em. The king stalked slowly into the room. The scout, tired and dirty from constant travel stood in front of the woman he recognized as Glenna. Two guards stood at either side of her. Her hands were tied together in front of her. She was dirty and her face looked wearied and full of fear.

As Edrich approached, the two guards forced her to her knees. The scout took a knee as well. “Sire,” he began, “I captured the spy on the far side of the mountain. She was traveling alone and had this bag of supplies. It contained a letter.” He handed the folded, sealed paper to Edrich.

The king took it silently as he continued to study her face for any hint of truth. She only gave him fear. “You know why you are here. You and Em are spies from Adalynd. I want to know what your exact mission was and what information you carried back to your king.”

Glenna had begun shaking her head. “No, no, your Majesty. We are not spies-“

“The espionage is assured. Do not wiggle now that you are caught. Tell me, what I want to know.”

Her voice quivered as tears welled deep. “No, not spies, your Majesty. My mistress only wanted to know what sort of man you were, what sort of king. When that man came to the palace, the king, he was afraid you were planning an attack, he wanted to believe. But the princess-“she stopped, eyes wide as she realized her slip.

Edrich narrowed his eyes. “Princess? What has the princess to do with this?”

Glenna only mutely shook her head, no more breath to speak with. He scowled at her. When her fear took over her senses, her eyes drifted to the letter. Edrich looked slowly down at the missive in his hand. He watched the woman as he broke the seal and unfolded the crisp paper. He finally, slowly turned his eyes to the exquisite script.

Father,
All things are well in the beautiful land I find myself. The trees here are larger around than those of the forests near our home. There is plenty of wild game, providing adequate sport. As you know, I can never refuse a hunt, and have thus far killed enough to feed an army. Of course, the boar was incidental to defending a newly found friend. I am enjoying the liberty that travel provides and anticipate when we will be together again.
All my love,
Emera

“Emera,” he whispered. “Who wrote this?” She made no reply. “Who wrote this!” he raged.

“Th-the princess, the princess of Adalynd. Princess Emera.”

He was breathing torrents of air. “When did she give you this letter?”

“In the village. In Clearvalley, after we left your camp.”

Through the whirling buzz in his head he grasped for what he could to anchor him to his honor. “You lie,” his voice wavered, his uncertainty clear.

“Your Majesty, that is only one letter. I have another. Another that tells the information you want to know.” He did not object as she reached into her bodice and pulled out the secreted letter. In trembling hands, she held it to the giant man.

He took it and opened it quickly. The same hand filled the small page.

Father,
If, by now, you have read my other letter, you know I am well and happy. We are quite fortunate that I left to corroborate or disavow the information the man Jenner brought to us. I hope you will join me in taking delight in the truth. Edrich is not interested in making war on us to amass more territory. He is concerned only with the peace in our borderlands. He does not think our forces adequately protect and guard against the brigands that roam the land so freely. I believe he is willing address the issue with you, father. Please, come at once to Clearvalley or at the very least send a letter to him, inviting him to discuss the protection of these lands. Please make every effort to seek peace with this man. Not only because it affects the well-being of our country, but because I would like to keep the friend and ally I have made, forever.
My deepest love,
Emera

Edrich could only stare numbly at the writing. Em was the princess of Adalynd. She came to him, seeking an alliance, not to steal information to harm him with. His eyes began to cloud with moisture, blurring his vision. His fingertips felt the condensed thump, thump, rap against the paper. His thumb rubbed softly over the fallen sprinkles of his eyes. The ink smeared, rubbing off slightly onto his thick digit. He stopped rubbing and let the tear soak into the thick paper, bubbling it in rounded deformity. Emera, Emera, Emera. The lyrical sound reverberated through his soul, his mind. His heartbeat. He felt his heartbeat.

He lifted his eyes to the woman, whose fear shifted into bewilderment. Glenna recognized something in the king’s eyes that made her feel as though her position was safe. “Your Majesty, where is my lady?” The question left dangerous answers hanging in the air.

“Emera? She is the princess, Emera, yes?” He had to hear it. Had to have the verbal confirmation. The sound had to be expelled into the air, confirming his fears and hopes.

“Yes, your Majesty. The girl, who you knew as Em, is the princess. Please believe me, her intentions were good. She wanted to stop war, not make it. She is the best ruler there is.” Her eyes pleaded.

Edrich turned from the group, his purpose clear. “Treat her as a guest,” he directed Robert on his way out.

Not a traitor. Not a traitor. Wanted to save her people. Stop war. Not a traitor. She wants me as an ally. She wants more. She wants me. She wants more. Not a traitor. Not an evil traitor. She wants peace. She wants me. He ascended the stairs, his heart flying to her, his heart pulling him through his chest. Soft light falling down the steps, sweeping up the walls began registering in his mind as out of place. The fall of his footsteps slowed and then stopped, his eyes flooded with the open door. The light from the fire pit running out of the room, flashing past him in haunting taunt.

The door was open.

Rushing in, he slashed around, looking frantically. Empty. She’s gone; she’s not here. Rushing to the window, he leaned out into the dark. “Emera!”


Chapter Three

His breathing was harsh as he inhaled and exhaled quickly. He looked down at his hands; his knuckles were covered in blood. Beating her until she fell limp made him feel better than he had in a long time. Despite the fact that his manipulations of the heads-of-state were producing the inevitable conclusion he sought, namely to kill Edrich and take the thrown, drawing blood from beautiful women had always given him a secret, unparalleled pleasure.

He took out a rag and wiped the blood off on the white linen and tossed it to the table. He regarded her again. She was quite beautiful. For a moment he considered keeping her to himself. He would have been happy to repeat that afternoon’s performance with her again, and again. His women didn’t usually last long, but that was to be expected considering how much he took from them in their short lives. However, he knew she would be the greatest weapon against Edrich than any others he could create.

Despite his efforts, the girl in front of him had given him no information. She was tough. He knew she worked for that weakling king of Adalynd, obviously a spy. He had been a fool to think that idiot would have taken his word about Edrich moving onto Adalynd territory without any proof. Clearly, the man was wiser than he normally appeared and had sent a spy to confirm or deny his claim. He had overheard enough from the alley to know this spy thought Edrich would be willing to discuss a truce.

From what he had learned about her from his man Philip, the king had taken a keen interest in this young lady. Apparently on the march there, she had saved his life twice, and the king was enamored with her. He heard her voice as she spoke to the older lady; she was enamored with the king as well. Most would have decided attacking and harming her would be treacherous because of the king’s severe protective and possessive nature. But Jenner knew something else about the king. Edrich was extremely confident in his ability to rule and control. Edrich’s ego would not handle the knowledge of being duped because of her charms. He decided to twist that fault until Edrich was so enraged he would kill her himself and then mount arms to obliterate Adalynd.

He decided to leave her bound as she was to the center pole of his tent with her arms behind her back. He retied the gag around her mouth and left to look for Philip again. Of course he found the overweight man at the cook’s tent, chewing on what appeared to be mutton. He signaled for him to follow. Thankfully the tent was on the edge of the encampment and would offer the most privacy. Jenner strode to an old oak some distance away on the edge of a tall grass meadow and leaned against it. “What developments, my lord?” the fat man asked.

“I have decided that we will tell the king of the girl. I need him to think she is a spy intent on manipulating him to surrender to Adalynd, or stealing Edrich’s battle plans. If all else fails, she is committed to killing him. I need you to tell the king she confessed to being sent by the Adalynd king. Her mission was to gain as much military information as she could while trying to seduce the king and manipulate him. I will say that I heard as much from her when she sent her accomplice away.”

“I understand, but what if it isn’t enough?”

“Don’t worry,” he sneered, “I know exactly where to stick the knife to make Edrich hurt the most. Now, I want you to send a scout out to find that woman she sent off.” Jenner had quickly come to regret not stopping the second party the moment he realized what the two were about. “Find out from one of the newly arrived soldiers what she looks like. Bring her back immediately. After you’ve done that, come to the king’s tent. It’s time to reveal our little spy.” He flicked his hand in dismissal. His thin, drawn face slowly eased into a cruel smile. He imagined the amount of pain and then rage Edrich would be in when he told him. Tonight would be fun.

Linus, looking carefully at the clearing, slowly emerged from the tall grass that surrounded the camp. He didn’t know what to make of what he had just heard. Who was the Lord High Marshall talking about? A spy? Though Linus wasn’t sure who the person was, he thought it sounded as though the Lord High Marshall was going to lie to the king, but he wasn’t certain. He mused over the words of the two men as he carried the firewood back to the tent.

“You Highness, may I speak with you a moment?” Jenner appeared at the king’s tent.

“Yes, Jenner, come in.” The king waved him in and offered a chair. He didn’t really like Jenner and had been for some time thinking about how to replace him. A distant cousin of his late father’s, he had held the position as the Lord High Marshall since Edrich could remember. He remembered as a boy being afraid of him in a way he feared no one else. There was something he didn’t trust. He seemed to fit in with the criminal element he was charged with arresting.

His first thoughts when the violence in the borderlands had increased were to fire him. But somehow Jenner had convinced him that it was due to misfits from Adalynd causing trouble. He had suggested the king there was not fit to control the lands and that the borderlands would best be protected by Edrich. That’s what he had been led to believe, and yet, within the last two days, an unknown girl had convinced him otherwise.

He breathed deeply at the thought of Em. She had disappeared before he could find her to ask her to stay. He still didn’t have a plan as what to do with her. He only knew he didn’t want her to leave. But she had disappeared and no one could find her in Clearvalley.

He turned his attentions to the matter at hand. “Tell me, Jenner, what is the state of these lands? My men ran into a small gang of men just yesterday eve. What do you have to report?”

“Sire, my men are spread thin, capturing the outlaws. Though some still remain, the peace increases with our presence,” he offered. Edrich gave a small frown of consideration and nodded for him to continue. “However, Your Majesty, I have something great and pressing to bring to you. I have just this very afternoon captured a spy from Adalynd.”

The king severely frowned at that. “A spy? Who? How?”

Jenner began to lay down his lies. “This spy, Your Majesty, was sent by the king himself to steal your battle information. I heard myself as the spy gave instructions to the accomplice to report to the king your current location, the number of your troops, your weak points.” He said the last more slowly with meaning. “Unfortunately, this spy has been successful in fulfilling the mission. She was also meant to manipulate you and your decisions by whatever means possible. I know I have not travelled with you these past days, but I understand she did just that.” His eyebrows raised in question, perhaps slight accusation.

Edrich had been about to deny any manipulation had taken place. He had only spent the past two days with Em. When Jenner said ‘she’ Edrich’s heart began to slam harder in his chest. He began to shake his head in denial. No, Em is not a spy, he thought.

Jenner knew the king understood who the spy was but was trying to deny the possibility. “Think, Your Majesty, since you have known this girl, has she asked about the camp? Your men or what you are doing?” Edrich knew she had, but had thought it was simple curiosity. She seemed so interested in everything. “Has she given you her opinion on what you should do with Adalynd? Perhaps she has tried to discourage you from war? Did she display any skills or traits that would be remarkable of a normal young lady? As I heard it, Your Majesty, she was traveling alone, deftly used a bow and arrow to save your life, not once, but twice, and allowed herself to become a camp follower when clearly she needed no protection.” Jenner was a master at manipulating the vulnerable emotions he saw in people, pushing, pulling and poking in exactly all the right places. Slowly, all the tiny questions and doubts Edrich ever had about Em, her behavior, talents, and comments all began to come together with meaning. But still his desire for her, and maybe even his heart, were all clashing against the implication. He continued to shake his head, anger at this man for attacking someone he held dear.

Phillip called from just outside the tent. “Your Majesty, my man interrogated the girl. Would you like to hear what he has to report?”

Still unable to believe the beautiful woman that had saved his life and passionately kissed him was a spy, he consented. He needed to hear more proof. “Enter. Tell me,” he said to the kneeling figure before him, “what do you know of this business?”

“Your Majesty, my lord here asked me to question the spy he captured. At first she was reluctant to talk, but then she confessed that she was gleaning military Intel. She took down all the information of your troops and movements and what plans you were making. Apparently she had snuck into some of your officers’ tents and copied maps and plans they had. She also said, my Lord, that she was to manipulate you. Evidently, the skills she excels in are intrigue and seduction. She was to seduce you and either make you act as her king wanted or…” he dramatically stopped, leaving the door open for Jenner.

Edrich waited for the man to finish and then looked to Jenner. “I am sorry to say that before I was able to apprehend her, she also told her accomplice that once you had ordered your troops as she suggested, that she would finish her mission.” Edrich’s painful unease increased, waiting for Jenner to continue. “To kill you, my king.” Jenner answered, the unspoken question.

Some sickening emotion surged through his veins. His stomach clenched as he shook his head. “No,” he said in a voice roughened by emotion, “no, she saved my life. Why would she save me if she planned to…to kill me? It doesn’t make sense.” He was staring at the floor as he tried to make sense of the information.

“Well, of course, Sire, you were no use to her dead at the moment. She needed information, she needed to direct plans, guide your decisions. She couldn’t do that if you were dead,” Jenner’s smooth reply came.

The moments dragged on as conversations and looks and memories of kisses flew through his head. Slowly, the sickening emotion that was probably fear transformed into anger. It built as he thought that everything she said or did had been deception. Rage slammed through him. He was boiling and wanted to see her, to wrap his fingers around her neck. “Bring her to me,” he ground out. He stood and began to pace wildly, raking his fingers through his hair. He would question her personally. Otherwise, he couldn’t accept it. But the rage slammed in his chest over and over.

Jenner gave a small bow and left to fetch the prisoner. During his interrogation of her, he learned she was more stubborn than the king and prideful as well. She was innocent of the duplicitous and malevolent schemes he was accusing her of. He would use that in combination with her pride and stubborn nature against her. He quickly organized his thoughts before entering his tent.

He found that she was awake, though definitely worse-for-wear and in considerable pain. However, her haughty chin told him his manipulations would work. The two idiots would play well into his hand. As he squatted in front of her to study her battered face better, he was becoming rather happy that the dopey old king had sent a spy. Things couldn’t be going better if he had planned them.

“Aren’t you a beautiful sight? Well, let’s just hope it’s enough to satisfy the king. He really wanted you bloodied.” At that, her spine stiffened and she inhaled. He gave a small smile. Perfect reaction. “What do you expect? A man only keeps a woman like you around for one reason? Did you honestly think it was for your conversation?” He could see she was struggling with what he was implying. “Oh, poor dear, you did think that. You thought you were such a good little spy, feeding the king little tid-bits, when all the while he was just think about your tid-bits. You must feel like such a fool knowing he laughed at your use of the bow to his officers.” She shook her. “More than one man has told me how Edrich had to fight his annoyance of your continual insistence that you were fit enough to defend him. Couldn’t fight off two men? Did you really think that you were his only hope of survival?” He harrumphed at that and shook his head. He had begun to slowly pace like a disappointed parent giving a scolding.

“You really were quite blind to what he was about. He told me you actually thought he wasn’t going to make war on Adalynd. He was quite proud of himself for that one. Your king is dumber than we originally thought. Edrich sent me to give that dope of a king information that would play right into our hands. Of course, we hadn’t counted on him sending a spy to check the information, but no matter. We have you, and soon we will have your accomplice, and before all is said and done, Adalynd will fall to Lidio and become less than a memory to those in this land.” His voice dripped with venom and caused Emera to shake. “And all that pretending just so he could fuck you.” He shook his head again and then gave it a noncommittal tilt with a shrug of his shoulders. “Well, now that he knows you’re nothing more than a spy, I’m not sure what he has in mind for you. He had talked about throwing you to some of his more…unsavory soldiers. You know, the ones that can’t even pay to get it. But we’ll see what he decides in the end.”

He reached behind her, untying the restraints. He grabbed her hair gruffly to enjoy her wince. He stood, hauling her up by it. She fought him, trying to wriggle away as he viciously dragged her to the king’s tent.

The king was standing, his back to the tent entrance. Jenner shoved her forward though the flap, causing her to trip and fall, landing at Edrich’s feet. Her fear for her lands and her ruined mission began to give way to hatred at the baleful man staring down at her. Her eyes grew with enraged passion and she stared hatefully up at him.

For Edrich’s part, his heart was torn, not wanting to believe the poisonous words of his men, but not knowing what else to make of the information they presented. The moment he saw the fire raging from her eyes, he knew they spoke the truth. This woman had no feelings of love for him. His heart turned to stone. He would burn her alive. He wanted to face the humiliation of being duped alone, so he gave a dismissing hand to Jenner. The man did not want to leave, but decided to keep an ear open just outside, in case the sparks of mistrust and accusation needing a helping fan.

Emera knew her fate included death. Torture depended upon whether or not she was cooperative and civil. Screw that. “Is this, oh king, how you repay those who have saved your life? Is this treatment indicative of the worth of your life? Truly, this conduct only befits cave men and ruffians, outlaws. But a king?” She huffed indignantly. “You’re not a king. You are a monster! You are a putrid blemish on the face of this earth. There is nothing great or honorable about you. You are worthless.” She was breathing hard in her torrent of rage, watching him as he had begun to pace and then stopped, anger-stricken. Here it comes, she thought. Two steps closer, he would reach down, take her by the neck (the neck she had allowed him to stroke) and snap it like a twig.

“You have no right to speak to me, let alone in such a manner. Because you saved my life is the only reason I haven’t sent for an executioner yet.”

“Why put it off?” The two continued to stare bitterly at each other. “You have no right to treat me like this!” she screamed at last.

He took the two steps then. Reaching down grabbing her by the neck, he pulled her level with him. Her hands were clawing at his, struggling to be free. “No right!” he thundered. “I have every right! I am the king! You, spy, have no rights here. Or do you deny it!” he threw her down at that. She struggled to breathe. She righted herself and looked up at him. He was still staring at her, expecting an answer. “Are you from Adalynd?”

She stood up calmly. She straightened her shoulders and tilted her chin high. She looked him in the eyes. “Yes.”

He turned and raked his hand through his hair again. How he wished she would deny it, explain it away and ease his soul. Without turning around, he continued. “Sent from the king?”

“Yes.”

He stood, silent, calming, thinking. “What information did you send him?” When no reply came, he turned around and gave her an angry, incredulous look. She only softly shook her head. She looked defeated finally, and he wondered what that meant. He strode to her. “What information did you send?”

Emera refused to tell him she was the princess. Firstly, the bastard didn’t deserve to know anything more about her. She had given him so much and he only ended up crushing her in spite of herself. Secondly, if she were to believe Jenner, though she was remiss to do, he had set her father up, making him treacherous and not to be trusted. If she told him she was the princess, and he actually believed her (which was yet another reason she chose to not even start that line of argument), he might use her against her father, either through ransom or threaten with further torture. Her father was too soft to hold out against the threat of his daughter and would gladly sacrifice anything, even Adalynd. No. He thought she was just a spy and a spy she would remain.

“I told the king you said you weren’t interested in Adalynd, that you were only concerned with the peace in the borderlands.”

He grunted at that. “And that’s it?”

“Yes.”

“And why don’t I believe you.”

“Most evil and dubious men find it difficult to trust others,” she sneered.

“Oh, yes, especially when they are duped into trusting their enemies’ spies.”

“You say spy as if there is only one kind. As if the simple fact I am from another country seeking information makes me evil.”

“Doesn’t it? And it’s not just any country. We were…no scratch that, we are on the verge of war. How can you possibly not be a threat?”

She wanted to tell him her reasoning. She wanted to tell him it was her idea, not her father’s, because she wanted to know what sort of man he was first-hand. However, she didn’t think that saying any of these things would make her present predicament better. In all likely cases, he would use the knowledge against her and her country.

Edrich mistakenly took her silence as a yield to his claim that there was nothing honorable in her intent. Finally, he had all the evidence he needed. He convicted her in his heart and was ready to sentence her. He looked at her. In the glow of the candle light, the blood from her nose and mouth was dark. The large amount of dirt that covered her face belied the smooth, youthful skin underneath. Her clothes were also dirty as well as torn. For a moment he acknowledged the small tinge of regret and pain at seeing her like that, maybe even a little anger at Jenner for abusing her so. But when he saw the higher tilt of her chin, he squelched any compassion his previous relationship with her might have instilled. He reacted violently against being made a fool of. Therefore, all that was left in its place was a burning rage at her betrayal. And perhaps, just a little bit of lust. He was then decided. He would punish her alright, and he would make himself feel better in the process. Or rather, she would make him feel better.

“Jenner,” he ground out. The man reappeared quickly, trying his hardest to not seem overly zealous and happy. He needn’t have bothered with hiding anything because Edrich’s eyes never left Emera. He wanted to watch her reaction to his sentencing. “I have decided to take over the punishment of this prisoner. See to it that the other woman is found and brought to me as well. I need to hear everything in the letter she carries.” He waved another dismissing arm. He continued watching her. Her face, though slightly distressed never revealed any internal thoughts. “Robert!”

His valet entered and cast a wary eye at Emera. He had overheard some of what had transpired before when Jenner began accusing the girl. He also heard her defend herself, if it could be called that. He served his king faithfully, but there was something about the girl that he shared his food with that caused him to believe that all was not as it appeared. He bowed slightly to Edrich. “Robert, saddle my horse and bring a second one as well. Bring plenty of rope. Send for my general to be here immediately. Pack a satchel with a day’s worth of food.” He turned to look at Emera. “Make it for one. Get the general here first, and then see to the other things.” He dismissed him.

Emera stood in heavy silence, trying to control her fearful thoughts. She breathed deep, calming breaths and focused on a candle as it flickered in the dark. Was it not just the night before she had sat across from him at that table and felt that her mission was successful? Clearly she was a fool to think that charming man that made her heart ache and flutter could be trusted. Dear god, she had let him hold her on his lap, kiss her passionately, grope her breasts. Her body began to respond to the memories. She tamped down the passion by rubbing her bloody nose. The pain made her eyes water and made her knees weak. That is what he does to me. He puts me in the most unbelievable pain. I have no feelings for him except revulsion and pain. He is the terror of my life. A brute, a monster!, she hissed trying to convince herself.

Edrich ignored her and her silent torment as he quickly gazed over two maps. Before long, his general appeared. At first, the gray man was taken aback when he saw the disheveled and injured state of Emera. He reached out for her and looked to Edrich with concern and questions.

“Leave her. She is a spy for Arnold, the Adalynd King. I’m taking her back with me to Edlebrock.” He gave the general plans for preparing for a potential attack and to ready the men to move on Adalynd. “Let’s let the king think he has the upper hand. I’m pretty sure Arnold hasn’t changed his ways and any number of troops he brings will be wholly insufficient.” At that, Emera sucked in her breath and stiffened. Not only was he insulting her father, though she would have agreed with him, he was planning for attack. And now her only hope for survival was her maid carrying nothing about the danger.

Her thoughts were interrupted when Robert stepped back in the tent, telling Edrich the horses were ready and the food was packed. “Good. Before you gather my things, take her down to the river. Make sure she gets in and washes all that blood off.” He regarded her for a moment. “Clothes stay on.” Robert turned reluctantly to her. He held out his hand to allow her to lead the way. Edrich quickly cut her off and took the rope that bound her wrists roughly. He handed the end of it to Robert with a pointed look. Clearly, she was not an honored guest, rather a dishonored prisoner and should be treated as such.

As they walked down the river, Emera couldn’t help but feel embarrassed. She knew she had done nothing that should be construed as evil or wrong and yet here she was, being dragged around like a prisoner. Forget like a prisoner, I am a prisoner! She momentarily became dejected and her mind numbly began processing her position and her next move.

“Here we are. The king said to get in, so…” Robert refused to look at her. She assumed he was slightly disgusted. Resigned, she walked to the water’s edge. She knew it would be freezing and was thankful that Edrich had extended her the courtesy of allowing her clothes to stay on. She wouldn’t have wanted to expose herself to Robert and the dress buffered her from the frigid water, momentarily at least. Eventually the water encapsulated her and her heart threatened to stop beating it was so cold.

The pain from the cold competed against that of injuries. She remained under the water, willing herself to disappear from there. The water was dark and still and she wanted to be still with it. The discomfort of the frigid waters became consoling, as if manifesting her pain of her betrayal, telling her she had been wronged. Just as peace descended upon her she was forcefully grabbed and hauled out of the water. She was gasping violently as Robert dragged her to shore and let her collapse. She hadn’t noticed her lack of oxygen, calming in her dying reverie.

“Miss, are you okay?” He gently shook her until she responded.

She looked up at his face. It was heavy with concern. He doesn’t hate me, she realized. Suddenly strength and determination returned to her. He gently stroked her face around her injuries. She was shivering in her gown that felt like ice all around her, weighing her down. Edrich had given no consideration for her modesty. He was torturing her without doing it directly, forcing her to stay frozen.

He took his time as he spoke. “Your face is bruised. It will take some time to heal. Are you okay? You can’t give up, Miss. You can’t. I’m not quite sure what is happening, what he will do to you, but I know you’re not what Jenner accuses you of. You have to be strong.”

Clearly, her actions reeked of a coward giving up. “How do you know that I’m not what they say? I am a spy. I am from Adalynd.” It was an effort to talk between the violent shakings that consumed her.

He smiled in pity at her. Honest and brave despite all appearances and circumstances. “That may be true, but you willingly gave up your life for him. If you ever meant him harm, surely you would have let the men have him. But you didn’t. Plus, I have a very good sense for people, and I watched you when you rode with me in the wagon. Your countenance is open and honest. You were plotting no evil. You aren’t evil,” he said with conviction. He pulled her to her feet and commented on her cold state. “I’m sorry, but I can do nothing for you. I am sure by now you realize you are meant to stay in those freezing garbs.”

As he took her slowly back to the tent, he held his hand out at his side and nudged her. She looked down to see he was trying to slip her some meat. She took it and greedily devoured it. She hadn’t eaten since that morning. Robert was loyal and did not want to disobey his king. However, while Edrich had said to pack food for only one, he didn’t outright forbid him from giving her anything to eat immediately. “Thank you,” came the whisper as they approached his tent.

Edrich emerged. “It’s about bloody time. What took so long?” He slowly appraised Emera. He was satisfied to see her shivering almost uncontrollably. “Cold?” he snarked. He enjoyed watching her stand taller and nearly stop her body from shaking.

“No.” He gave a cruel, lopsided smile.

“Since you took so long, I took the liberty of packing my own things.” He gave another pointed look to Robert. He could tell the man had sympathy for her and was giving him a warning to not cross any lines. Robert bowed in resignation to him. Edrich grabbed Emera by the wrists and threw her upon the second horse. “I assume,” he said as he quickly secured the rope to the saddle, “that you are accustomed to riding straddle.” He took the lead rope of the horse and gracefully mounted his own stallion.

He took one quick glance back at Robert. “Gather your things and meet us at Edlebrock.” With no further ado, Edrich charged off into the night, guiding Emera’s horse along at a neck-breaking pace. Though it was spring, it was still very cold at night and Emera had yet to warm up. She grew even more uncomfortable as her wet thighs rubbed against the leather of the saddle. She had to squeeze her thighs tightly to keep them from moving against the animal. When that didn’t work, she used her thighs to move her skirt around them until they were padding her.

He was taking her to Edlebrock. She had only heard stories of the infamous castle stronghold of Lidio. It was supposedly carved out of a mountain of stone that sat imposingly in a vast meadow. She tried to ease her fear by telling herself she could gain valuable information about this country. That, of course, only led her to be saddened at the turn of events. She was no longer a spy. Her mission had failed. She had failed.

Damage control, she told herself. She would take this entirely shitty, unfair situation and make the best out of it. She would survive, she would learn, and she would make Edrich pay. With that determination under her belt she smiled maliciously. Revenge, she breathed. She would live on revenge.

Late the next day they arrived at the mammoth castle. The stories had not been exaggerated. She was thankful to have the traveling behind her. His treatment of her had grown intolerably crueler as they went on. First, at mid morning, stopping to relieve himself, he ate the food Robert had packed, knowing well she was nearly starving. Hell, he could hear her stomach growl from where he was.

Then later he refused to acknowledge her when she said she needed to relieve herself. Stubborn and brave as she was, she was relentless until he skidded his horse to a stop, unbound her from the horse, and holding the rope, trotted his horse on, causing her to run to keep up. When at last the speed was too fast for her weakened state, not to mention her human legs, she tripped and was dragged along. Though he didn’t drag her far, it was enough to make the front of her burn and tatter her clothes beyond repair. He said she had thirty seconds to relieve herself. At first she struggled to even understand him as her body screamed in excruciating pain. She was slightly flabbergasted that he expected her to do so when he was right there, but her bladder demanded to be appeased and so, crouched on the other side of her horse, as much out of his view as possible, she did so.

And here she was, a night and day gone without sleep, little food to speak of, no water, bleeding cuts from being dragged, and near embarrassment while relieving herself. She was to the breaking point. Despite her state, Edrich was still surprised when he reached up for her and threw her onto the ground from the horse. She stumbled to her feet and lifted rage-filled eyes. Before he could react she struck him across the face with bound hands. She was wild, and it took all the discipline he had garnered over his life not to choke the life from her that moment.

He grabbed her by the arms and dragged her along as he entered his gray-stoned keep. Everyone along their path stopped to bow their heads only to stop paralyzed, gaping at the beautiful, albeit dirty prisoner he yanked with him. The rage emanating off him warned everyone to stay back, else he would take it out on their hides at the whipping posts.

He led her along the many hallways until at last they came to a door. He flung it open and she saw that it was a stairwell up a tower. Despite her weakened mental state, she tried hard to pay attention to her surroundings, especially the path they had just taken and any secondary exits out of there. After dragging her up the stairs, he opened a door at the top. The room was scarcely furnished. Only a large bed, a chair and small table with a fire pit in the center, she noted. There were two opposing windows with no coverings over them. It looked as though it hadn’t been occupied for years, as evidenced by the cobwebs and dust.

What Emera had failed to notice were the manacles hanging from the wall. Before she knew his intentions, he cut her wrists free of the rope only to grab one and chain it. She fought as he reached for the other. She screamed and railed against him. However, considering he was 6’4” and full of muscle, her struggles were no more than a nuisance, dissuading him from nothing. He strode to the door and left without saying a word.

Emera was left to gape after him. She screamed out, calling him every vile name she had ever heard. But he didn’t return. Eventually, she gave up her tirade breathing heavily. She took inventory. Her wrists were chained with enough slack they were able to hang at her sides. Her clothing was still damp, but only slightly. Her hair had come unraveled from its braid and fell in big waves down her back. Her face was still extremely sore and her head thrummed in pain with every heart beat. Her legs were shaky and sore from the ride. No one in Adalynd knew where she was. She had no food or water. She was tired. Given everything, the tears that began to stream down her face were well earned. She sank to the floor and emptied her soul.

After descending the stairs, Edrich stalked to his room and called for a dinner and a bath. As he sat soaking in the hot water, steam rising around his body up into the cool room, he contemplated his next move. At the bottom of his slowly evaporating rage, he found a curious emotion. Disappointment. He sighed and sunk lower into the water, eyes closed, thoughts turning off.

In the darkness of his mind a pair of deep blue eyes flashed. Insolent, strong, challenging. Damn. He still wanted her. There was no way around it. Despite who she was and what she had done, he still wanted her. He sighed again. He was restless in the tub, shifting back and forth. He had to settle his mind. Fine. He could just get out of his bath and go up to her and fuck her until he couldn’t stand her, whether or not she wanted him. Overpowering her wouldn’t even be an issue. Making her cry, a tear for each lie seemed reasonable. He was enjoying the thought of her reparation, evidenced by his hardening length.

That was until he imagined the look of repulsion on her face, the feeling of her struggles, all screaming she didn’t want him. Her desire, he realized, was the last thing she held. She had nothing at the moment but her thoughts, her likes and dislikes. He was decided. He would take the last vestige of free will from her by forcing her to want him, her warden, her conqueror. He would subdue her and dominate her body and soul. He would trap her to him, all the while taking pleasure for himself. And in the end, when she had satisfied the last of his desire for her, he would deny her and send her to his men. Resolved, he stood out of the bath.

Emera didn’t know if it was her shivering in the cold dark or the sound of heavy, rusted hinges swinging open that awoke her. She lifted her head from her fallen place. Candlelight shone as a massive figure approached. She slowly slid up the wall, tucking herself in as tightly as she could. She had never played the coward’s part before, but at this moment, she knew she could do nothing to stop the approaching figure she knew so well.

For the time, Edrich seemed content at ignoring her. Instead, he stooped in front of the fire pit and began to set the room aglow with the small fire’s light. The silence grew as he drew nearer to her with a large bowl of steaming water and small satchel. He sat them down. Standing before her, his eyes raked over her taking in her countenance. She was wary of him, fear rumbling in every breath she took. Had he not once thought she would never stand in fear of anyone?

From the satchel he pulled out a leather bottle and uncorked it. He handed it to her. She cautiously took it, lifting it to her nose. It was water. She greedily drank it until it was pouring down the sides of her mouth, running down her throat. Eventually he snatched it away setting it on the edge of the fire pit.

“Are you hungry?” The question was an obvious one.

“Hungry? How could I possibly be hungry, my lord?” she sneered. “I haven’t eaten in over a day. Surely you don’t think I am one of those strange creatures that needs to eat daily, do you?” She stepped away from the wall, hands on her hips.

Ah, there it was, her sparkling wit turned into disdain. He would have been concerned if it hadn’t surfaced eventually. “Oh, well, in that case, I shan’t have anything sent up when we are finished.”

Her breathing increased at that. “Finished? With what?”

He folded his arms and slanted his eyes angrily at her. “Why, meting out your punishment, of course.” His voice was cold and slashed her. Her eyes darted about him, looking for some sort of torture device, but only saw the bowl and bag. Maybe he kept whips or clubs inside the sack. He would beat her. Would he stop before or after she died?

Rightfully, she was afraid. But she was also angered. How dare he? After his duplicitous scheme to provoke her father into war by sending Jenner, he had the nerve to affront her with his hollow self-righteous indignation. The pompous, vicious, monstrous man! Her lip sneered at him. “You cowardly dog.”

He grew more tense. He quietly bit out, “I would be careful what you say.”

“Why? What worse can you do to me? No doubtless this will end in my death, I have nothing to lose.”

“I can make it worse.”

“There, you see that? The fact that you think anything you could do to me in threat to keep me from speaking the truth is what makes you a coward. You may allow such tactics keep you from doing what is right, but I will not be bullied by you or anyone! Do your worst, I am not afraid.”

“Truth? What truth can a liar tell? Your entire being is a forgery, a fiction created to insinuate yourself in situation where you steal what is not yours for evil purposes.”

“There you are wrong. Nothing I did was for evil. But why would you think otherwise when your whole self is consumed with artifice and nefarious dealings? Evil only knows evil and can only suspect others of the means with which it operates.”

“You use your beautiful mouth to spout confabulated reasoning but to no avail; I see through you. And in the end, you will bleed, you will die, and I will obliterate Adalynd for it.” In blind rage she bolted at him to attack, but her chains snapped her back painfully. Pain shot up through her wrists and shoulders. She was breathing heavy again as she stared up at him. He was close enough she could smell his clean skin, see the sparkles of gold in his brown eyes, but not claw them out. With a clenched jaw, she stepped back. Clearly she wanted to fight, he recognized. Her stance said as much, bound though she was.

As much as he enjoyed the ability to rile her, he knew an even pleasanter way to torture her. His eyes dropped to her heaving chest and bodice, with heat and determination.

Her stomach began a slow burn. “What?” she asked, noticing the focus of his gaze

“You are injured and dirty.”

“You think? Perhaps had I not been beaten by your man and dragged by your horse, you might find me in another state. But as it is, our histories only conclude you find me thus.” She knew not where she stood with him, only that she had never wanted an enemy, only an ally. And alas, she had nothing more than a brute for a warden. At least I learned his true nature before it was too late, she lamented.

“As it is, you wounds need attending to, the dirt to be removed.” He reached for the front of her dress then, but she pulled away quickly, the fire still raging in her eyes.

“Why? Why bother treating my wounds when you only intend to inflict more? Don’t waste my time or yours and just get on with it.”

He ground his teeth at that. “Because I decide what happens. And I say your state is unacceptable.” With that, he quickly drew his dagger and sliced the front of the dress, the laces bursting free. She gasped and threw her hands over her chest. “Relax, your dress is too dirty to keep.” But still she resisted as he continued to strategically cut and tear her garments until she stood naked before him, the raggedy material a pool at her feet, the glow of the fire warming her skin.

This was the last. This was the end. He could not possibly take more from her than her visage, her skin, her complete nudity. In shame she had never felt before, she turned her head and hid her face on her shoulder, trying to hold back tears. Edric stood back in pained restraint. Never before had he thought a woman as beautiful as she was. He found perfection in every part of her structure, from her shoulders, to her firm breasts, the curve of her ribs, the taunt navel, the flaring hips. Her thighs were glorious and the length of her legs he imagined wrapped powerfully around him. He imagined the silky texture of her nipples and the erotic taste that lay hidden past the triangle of dark curls. She was sensuality personified. He breathed fire as he looked at her.

But his cruel vengeance tempered the flame in his soul. He would not be undone by this treacherous seditionist. He would make her suffer greatly. He took a rag, wetted it, and began wiping her face. She resisted at first, but the pain she received from fighting stilled her motions. He was surprisingly gentle, removing the dirt and grime softly. She relaxed somewhat, thankful to at least feel clean. She dared a look at his face and was warmed inexplicably by the look in his eyes as he traced his hand over her jaw, down her neck, across her brow.

His movements were caresses, she realized. They were warming and soothing, and strangely erotic. She closed her eyes and for a moment she imagined his touch was that of her lover’s, caring for her, saving her. No! He is nothing so beloved, she screamed at her body. Her face hardened as she stared incredulously at him.

Anger fought with passion as she resisted the sensation of his touch. He continued his way down her neck, over her shoulders and around her arms. She held her hands rigidly at her sides; they were clenched, perhaps in outrage at his touch or in struggle to deny the feelings he aroused. She had never been so thoroughly touched or explored before, and she was fighting to hold on to her sanity, to not feel the seduction in his actions. She clung to who he was, what he had done to her, and the sure fact he would eventually kill her and her people.

Edrich was fighting his own war against his desires she so easily inflamed. She was biting her lip, her increased breathing causing her heavenly chest to rise and fall more quickly. Her responses to him were so natural, so erotic. They spurred him on. He could see the angry brow and her fists opening and clenching at her sides and knew she was trying her damndest to resist the feelings he invoked. He slowly moved over her breasts. Her nipples tightened immediately, almost as if they were thankful for his touch.

He noted the entire front of her was reddened, even a few scratches from where he had dragged her with his horse. As he drew the warm cloth down the front of her, she tried to contain the hiss the escaped her lips, but was powerless against the sensation. Maybe from the stinging pain, maybe from the pleasure. Despite the warmth from the fire pit, the water evaporating off her skin chilled her slightly, causing goose bumps to form over her creamy skin.

Her wet, puckered breast called to him, begging him to suck it into his mouth. He was growing harder and realized he was torturing himself just as much as her. He swathed the breast again and was satisfied to feel her fall into his hand ever so slightly. He glanced back at her face. Her eyes were closed and her scrunched face softened to reveal her arousal. Back and forth her countenance changed as she continued to fight the invading feelings.

He moved to waist and slowly reached around her hips to swipe over one buttock, and then again, before moving onto the other. His pleasure increased as he noticed her small movements of whichever body part he was touching to follow his touch.

He was kneeling before her and was drawn to gaze at the apex between her thighs. He was close enough to get the faintest whiff of her aroma. In a trance his head nodded forward to graze his lips over it. However, she shifted uneasily under his intense study of her, stopping him. When she felt his hand still on her stomach, she looked down to find his eyes fixed to her mound. She immediately lit up and felt unbearably uncomfortable. As she shifted her weight, he pulled back with a slight shake of his head and returned to stroking her skin with the hot, wet rag.

Emera was indeed on fire. She burned from the deepest part of her core out to her flushed skin. Her breathing was deep but quick. She no longer fought his touch and watched with darkened eyes as his hands slid over her hips, around the sides, curved to her inner thighs, and then down to her knees. He lifted her right foot and cleaned it thoroughly. When he placed it down he moved to the back of her leg, rubbing the calf firmly in a glorious massage. He turned his attention to the other leg and repeated the torturous care.

When at last he was finished, he stepped back from her and took in her aroused state. Everything from her breathing, to her eyes, the flush of her skin, the clenching and shifting of her thighs told him his caresses had achieved the desired effect.

Emera was standing on unstable ground. One foot seemed to stand in the solid reality that this was the man that would soon pull down utter destruction on all she held dear. The other was placed firmly in the heat of the moment leaving her heavy and full of desire. She watched him watch her with a mixture of wariness and lust in her eyes. She wanted to hate herself for longing for him, but she couldn’t quite muster it forth enough to control her thoughts.

Edrich could see the fight in her eyes. He wanted her to fully surrender to him. He slowly walked to the bed and turned so Em could watch him. “Em,” he began to unbutton his shirt slowly, watching her reaction to the revelation of his body, “I want to make one thing very clear. Tonight, I am going to fuck you. And before you begin to worry, not only will you enjoy it and want it, but you will be begging me to bring your release.” The entirety of the picture tore her heart. His now bare torso only increased her incredible desire for him. His face, though handsome and full of lust, was also hardened by the venom he held for her.

She was shaking her head. “I will never give myself willingly to you. I will never beg. If you do this thing, you will have no consent from me.” Her face showed her fear and displeasure.

Edrich began to stalk towards her, the heat of his desire darkening his gray eyes until they were almost black. “Oh, little Em, how foolish you are.” His hands reached out to lightly caress her face before taking her glorious brunette hair and twisting it loosely to bring it over her right shoulder. She pulled gently away from his contact and retreated from the heat of his eyes. Her back was against the stone wall, and she tried to bury her face in her shoulder. She quivered with fear with every exhalation. She was trapped. She knew she couldn’t fight him, or dissuade him, or run. She knew he would successfully bed her. Despite the prospect of the forthcoming rape, she more feared her inability to resist the desperate need for him.

He stepped in close, blocking her. “Em,” he whispered in a voice laden with lust as his head dipped. His lips lightly brushed her ears; she could feel his hot breath as it spilled down her neck followed by his grazing lips. The second pass produced soft, open-mouth kisses. The third brought out his tongue to trace the cords of her straining muscles. Her breathing was growing harsh. When his teeth firmly sank into her neck, she slightly arched into him and bit her lip. It did little good to stop the moan from deep in her throat. He kissed and sucked the tender flesh drawing more sounds from her.

When he lifted his head to gaze down at her, she too looked up at him. She hated him. She had to. But dear lord, he made her ache. She wanted to touch him, glide her nails over the firm flesh of his chest and then dig her nails in. She wanted to run her tongue over the smooth skin and sink her teeth into him. As it was, she had given her word to not desire him, to not beg. She was quickly coming to regret her untenable situation.

He began to skim his fingertips over her face, outlining her eyebrows, the bridge of her nose, her lips, her jaw line. Her eyes fluttered closed, and she drew in a ragged breath. He smiled slightly to himself. His soft caresses continued down her sensitive neck. He ran his fingers over her collar bone, out to the curve of her shoulders and back in. When his fingers hovered just above her left breast, he looked into her face. Her eyes opened and looked at him warily. Down the smooth globe a finger traveled, circled her areola once, twice. As he watched her eyes, he took the small peak in his fingers, pinched and pulled. Her pupils dilated. Her eyes changed to painful resistance. She watched as his head dipped to pull the orb into his mouth and clamp down. She involuntarily arched into him and let out a small cry of pleasure.

His touch caused electricity to shoot from her nipple to her core. The ache that had been slowly building was now thrumming painfully through her pussy. Her lower lips felt swollen and achy. When she clenched her inner muscles to relieve it, she could feel the slick walls sliding against each other. She momentarily panicked when she realized she was excessively wet. She cursed her body for so easily responding to this monster she tried desperately to hate.

She felt him flatten his tongue, turning it into a silky blade lathing her breast and then focus on her nipple before taking it between his teeth to clamp gently. Pulling on it slightly, he brushed his pointed tongue over it again and again. He was rewarded with a desperate moan. Not to neglect the other, he switched sides and began to soothingly knead the breast he just left. She was arching into him more forcefully now. Satisfied she was thoroughly aroused, he stood fully to look down into her face again.

This time, he stepped into her, pressing himself fully against her body. She never would have thought the touch of skin against skin would have been so erotic. Her breasts her touching his abdomen and his pant-clad erection hit just above her mound, digging into the soft flesh of her stomach. He nestled a thigh between hers and took her face into his hands. She tried to draw back, but the wall and his irresistible gaze held her in place.

His lips stopped to just an inch above hers, his eyes piercing her. Her eyes lit up with question coupled with requests. Before she began to struggle against the increasing intimacy, his mouth claimed hers. It wasn’t overwhelming or ravaging, simply comforting and thorough. When his tongue grazed across her lips, they opened magically allowing him to deepen the kiss.

Slowly he began to thrust his tongue in and out of her mouth, sensuously rubbing it against hers until she was responding in kind. His hands slid down her neck, one stopping at her nape to thread his fingers into her hair, the other traveling slowly down, pausing at her breasts, tweaking them to keep them firm and achingly aware of him.

His kiss continued until she moaned and pressed into him. Wanting to draw her out, he relented his actions slightly to see if she would continue and seek him out. When one of her hands slowly drew up his body to clasp his shoulder, pulling herself closer, he moaned. She had access to his mouth and thrust her tongue into it, stroking his tongue as he had hers. She found his taste to be arousing and hungrily sought out more of it, flicking her tongue over his teeth, pulling his bottom lip into her mouth and sucking it.

Despite the plan to make her the aggressor, her kiss ignited a deep hunger in him and provoked the beast within. He took over the kiss again, slanting his mouth over hers, dominating her. His hand left her breast to wrap possessively around her, crushing her into him even more. His lips broke from hers to blaze a heated trail down her face and her neck before returning again.

The sensation of being eaten alive was intoxicating. Emera struggled to form a thought, let alone keep one. She allowed her body to slowly undulate against his heavenly body. Unconsciously, her body sought to relieve itself against him, rubbing her crotch against his thigh. Edrich complied to the unspoken need by hiking her left leg to wrap around his hip. He leaned into and ground himself into her. She cried out at that and quickly sought to escape the heat and suggestive position she was in. Edrich would allow none of it, grabbing her ass with both hands, holding her to him tightly. He continued his assault on her mouth while he stroked himself roughly against her sopping wet cunt.

Her breathing began to grow shallow and she tore her mouth from his, her head shaking back and forth as she felt a wave bring her entire being up and then…he stepped back from her, breathing raggedly, looking at her with black eyes. Her head was swimming and she fought to focus on his awesome figure. Though his body no longer touched hers, he leaned forward on his hands placed on the wall at either side of her head. Having no idea what was raging through her, but knowing only he had the power to finish it, she looked at him questioningly. Her breathing stopped when she saw the cruel smile turn up the corners of his mouth.

It took Edrich a moment to speak, composing his strength. “Tell me, Em, tell me what you want.”

Of course the innocent girl was clueless. She shook her head. “I-I don’t know. I feel dizzy and boiling.”

He reached out a hand to stroke her brow and trail the finger down her jaw. “And my touch felt good, when I kissed you, or shaped your breast in my hand, or rubbed your cunt with my cock.” His voice was smooth and nonthreatening. Though she blushed at hearing not only the words he spoke but also the reminder of the physical intimacies they just shared, she could only agree.

“Yes, it felt good. Though I think it was your touch that makes me ache now.” She sought to accuse him, but somehow her words sounded like praise.

“Yes,” his lips were just grazing her face, not really kisses, more like caresses. “As you say, my touch made you ache, and it is my touch that can bring about the pleasure to cease it.” She was leaning into him again. “But before I do, I have to hear your voice ask me. Ask me to fuck you, to make you cum, and I will happily comply.”

He was right. He was maneuvering her into a position where her only option was to beg him. The bastard used her body and its special responses against her honor. She stiffened when she saw his plan. Her breathing increased from the developing anger. He will not control me, she fumed.

When Edrich saw she understood his game he stepped away and picked up the satchel, pulling out two long ribbons of silk. He walked to the bed and tied each to either post at the head of the bed. He then threw back the bed linens so that only the bottom sheet remained.

He unlocked her shackles and led her to the bed. Though she knew there were no alternatives, she couldn’t stop the desperate fear that arose; she began to struggle and whimper. “That will get you nowhere,” he gruffed, hauling her to him, stilling her movements. “Just relax, and before you know it, your body will be alight with pleasure. And you will beg me, make no mistake.” He threw her down on the bed, only to reach out and capture her as she tried to scurry away. He deftly tied a wrist and then swiftly moved to the other side of the bed to do the same.

He continued his taunt as he finished undressing. “Em, I will never understand your reluctance. It’s not as if you don’t find overwhelming pleasure in my arms. You are obviously very passionate. What is it that makes you resist this?” he asked the last as he sat on the bed, gliding his fingers up the inside of her leg coming to the silken curls dampened by her lust. His eyes shut momentarily as he fought the irresistible urge to plunge his fingers into her heat.

In terror at being so intimately stroked, so close to the sum of her virtue, Emera twisted her hips away. Before she could defend her position, Edrich had pulled her to lay back again, her leg near him now forcibly held in place by his hand with indomitable strength. “I can feel your passion for me,” the fingers of his other hand slowly running over her engorged lips, a finger trailing at the slick opening. “Stop trying to deny it.”

She closed her eyes and turned her head away as two fingers slowly delved in between her outer lips, spreading them wide. His touch was gentle but firm, like an erotic massage. His touch explored every fold, pulling and pushing. At last his fingers slid to the top of her slit to flick across her sensitive nub. Her hips bucked at that. But she quickly fought to regain control of her responses. Edrich pushed back the flesh laying over it back with his middle finger while he used his thumbnail to scrape it until she burned. Her face was reddening from the fire building through her. He flattened her clit with his thumb, and then rolled it around over and over.

The delicious smell of her arousal wafted through his nose promising a glorious taste, but yet he held off. Slowly he slid his middle finger into her opening gently. She was so incredibly tight. The feel of her snug flesh made him question the claim that she was experienced in sexual intrigue. She hissed as his finger went further. It felt as though her liquid heat would burn it off. Slowly he withdrew it, letting it slide along the top, hitting the rough ridge, drawing a powerful, ragged breath from her. He repeated, slowly in, deliciously out until he felt her hips begin to move with his. When he felt her passage ease around him, he slid in a second finger, stretching her more.

She was moaning erotically, causing his strained cock to jump against his thigh. He could feel her heat rise and was just about to stop his ministration when he heard her whisper. “Yes, please.” Her eyes were still closed, and despite the words from her mouth, he knew she still fought to overcome the pleasure he made her take.

“Em, open your eyes,” he commanded. The breath caught in his chest when the deepest blue hit him with such open lust and desire. “Em, tell me, tell me to make you cum. I want to hear your voice. Tell me,” he soothed. “Please, Em, let me make you cum.”

She hesitated only a second. “Yes, Edrich, please, please, please…” she trailed off, her hips working with his fingers. He watched in open lust as her hips undulated, rhythmically fucking his fingers. With the two fingers in her, scraping along her g-spot and stretching her, his thumb rubbed simultaneously over her clit. Just before her walls began to clench around him, he withdrew. With wild breathing, she opened her eyes at him in question.

“Tell me Em, beg me.” His face was dark, though not altogether malicious or angry.

“Please, Edrich, make me cum.” Because of her beautiful obedience, she didn’t have to wait long. Edrich was between her legs, his tongue a flat blade running over her opening. Then he dove in as deeply as possible, gathering her juices with his tongue, drinking her in.

She had the most erotic flavor he had ever known. He wanted all of it. In desperation to release more, he planted his mouth around her clit, sucking it in between his teeth, flicking his tongue over it roughly. His two fingers returned to their previous location, tapping at her g-spot. Within moments Emera’s stomach began to quake, her pussy lifted up, smashing into his face. Her thighs tightened and she screamed his name. He suckled the bit of flesh, dragging the orgasm roughly from her body. He then returned to her slickened tunnel to lap up his reward.

He continued to stroke and kiss her cunt lovingly as she descended from the precipice he had flung her to. When at last he felt her body cease shaking and her breathing slow, he left that favorite spot to crawl predatorily up her body. His head dipped occasionally to lick or nip her skin. He watched the entire time, wanting nothing more than to see those darkened blue eyes flame with desire for him. He settled himself so his mouth had easy access to her flushed tits. He slowly began to devour them, sucking them into his mouth, taking in as much flesh as possible, and then drawing back until he suckled just the nipple. Over and over his mouth worked to rekindle the embers deep within her.

Emera finally returned to a semi-normal state. Her head no longer flew past the stars, the built-up, demanding ache in her loins had subsided, and her thoughts slowly settled in her conscious mind, allowing her to use words. She never knew such bliss existed. The reality of what her body just experienced was beyond her comprehension and she suddenly wanted it again. She knew that she was losing this game Edrich had set up; she couldn’t win. A curious smile formed at the corners of her mouth. Why did losing feel so wonderful? She would willingly lose again, given the chance.

She slowly began to focus on Edrich, his mouth, and his body. He was at it again, building a fire in her. Now attuned to him, she began to arch into him, a moan slipping from her lips. When he felt her participation, her increased arousal, he slid up until he was over her entirely. Her spread thighs gripped him encouragingly and her hooded eyes told him she was conquered.

“And how are you, my sweet little Em?” He was stroking her brow, tracing the exquisite lines of her face.

“Alive, my Lord.”

He smiled at that. “More alive than you have ever been?”

Her heart fluttered at his sweet ease. “Perhaps.”

“Only perhaps? I must work on that. It is very fitting then, is it not, that we are not yet finished. I intend for you to be very alive when I am through with you.” Before she could further question his meaning, he dipped down to claim her mouth in a kiss meant to light her up again. His hands roamed over her, arousing her. She was so well attuned to his touch and the pleasure he could bring that her body immediately flushed and prepared itself. She was moaning into his mouth as he sucked her tongue and nipped her lips. Her hips, in seeking to find relief, began to rub against him.

She was faintly aware the new heaviness that lied on her thigh, occasionally touching her mound was what would join them, but she was too intent on seeking that bliss he blew into her to care. Edrich used the sensual grinding of her hips against him to position himself so her lips coated him with her own lubrication. Emera adjusted well to the feel of his thick shaft slide up and down her slit. She quickly learned to dip her pelvis so he grazed over her clit, heightening her arousal even more. She tugged at her restraints, desperate to feel her arms around him.

When he knew she was ready, Edrich pulled back and looked into her desire-laden eyes, his damp forehead against hers. “Tell me, Em. I need to hear you say the words.”

She almost cried at that. “I can’t, Edrich. I won’t. Isn’t it enough for you to know the truth by the way my body responds. Please, don’t make me say it.”

He growled at her resistance and leaned down to angrily kiss her, to dominate her. “Say it,” he ground out. She overtly shut her mouth, biting her lips closed. She shook her head. He growled even more ferociously and reached up to release her right hand. He took it and brought it to grasp his hot, thick member. He led her to stroke him once and then twice. He knew she could feel her slickness on him. “Say it, demand it, and then guide me in.”

Her breathing was almost out of control. She was in pain with need and knew nothing could cure it except what she held in her hand. The monstrous hardness felt glorious and she knew it would be divine inside her. “Okay. Edrich, please, I don’t want to breathe if you don’t fuck me right now. So please, stop teasing me and fuck me.” He plunged his tongue into her mouth, promising her what was about to come. He watched her eyes and she stared back into his as she took the head of his cock and slowly slid it up until it touched her engorged clit. Then, she guided it back to her entrance. Her eyes burned with desire but flickered slightly with uncertainty. She placed the fat head just inside her lips, slowly stretching the space his fingers had previously stroked. She lifted her legs to wrap around him and pull him into her. “Please,” she whispered.

He was unleashed. With one thrust, he tore into with all the violence his soul felt. She threw her head back as she cried out. Edrich stilled, knowing she had been a virgin. He had felt the ripping as he entered and her tight walls clamored as they struggled to adjust to the uncommon thickness. In awe, he stared at her beautiful face, marred by a scowl of pain. She attempted to control her breathing, slowing it by taking deep breaths. He had never been more compelled by anything before. “Shh,” he whispered, drawing tender kiss down her temple. “Give it a moment and the pain will go.” He kissed her mouth gently at first, seeking to soothe her. Without much prompting, she began to respond more passionately to his lips and tongue. As before, his kiss was a powerful aphrodisiac; it had Emera moaning and leaning up into him. When he felt her hips move tentatively at first, he slowly withdrew and then plunged in again.

The pain was less and the pleasure was more. Emera was quickly adjusting to the rhythm he created. He propped himself up on his forearms to look down at her as his hips stroked in. Emera loved the movement of his hips. He seemed to curl them around and down as he entered her, and then dragged his cock out at a higher angle, hitting that sensitive nub. She had remnants of embarrassment as he watched her while he entered her, but it evaporated as the delicious tension in her cunt grew. She closed her eyes and let her head fall back; she gasped in delight when his searing mouth kissed and licked her exposed neck.

Her free arm found his shoulder and then wound around to his back. She faintly acknowledged how powerful and sensual his muscled contours felt as they glided under her hand. “Em,” he began to slowly chant. “Em, I want to hear you say it. I need to hear you say it.”

His voice, raw from his sexual need, stabbed at her heart and her pussy. She responded to it with a series of lusty cries. His voice had threatened to send her over the edge. The only thought she managed to have during the entire consummation was the realization if his voice did that to her, hers would probably have the same effect on him. “Please,” she whispered. “Please, Edrich, fuck me. Make me cum.” She knew she was right when his thrusts grew in power, drawing out even further and sinking in with an almost vicious force. “Please! Please, I need you. Please, I’m almost…” but she couldn’t finish when he thrust in brutally, causing her to scream in a mixture of fevered agony and sparkling bliss. She was faintly aware that in two or three more thrust Edrich came, the pressure of his seed spurting into her causing her muscles to continue their torturous contractions around his shaft.

He had called her name. She remembered that too. His voice had been full of his satisfaction and his desperate need for her. She tightened her free arm around his neck, clinging to him while she drowned in the river of their desire.


Chapter Two

The morning came before the sun could usher it in. Bleary-eyed, Emera went about stoking a large fire, setting out the food Leonard prepared and cleaning the few utensils used. As the men moved into position to shove off, a youth of less than 13 came rushing up to Leonard. He whispered to him before the old man turned to Emera. “Dear, this boy here says you are to follow him. The king wants to see you.” In quick reaction, before she thought, she straightened her skirts around her and tucked a few wayward strands of silk back behind her right ear. She glanced up to Glenna who was settling in the wagon seat. Her eyebrows were raised, shooting her a ‘be careful’ look.

Eventually, she and the boy made their way forward and stopped at another wagon. “This wagon is for the king’s tent. You are to ride up here today.” He held out a hand to help her up. However, she looked surprised and gazed around, trying to spy the king. Her independent nature wanted her to refuse, but logic won out as she decided perhaps she could learn something more today than yesterday. She quickly scurried up the side of the wagon and gracefully seated herself next to the driver without the boy’s aid. As she was situating herself, taking in the surrounding company, the boy left without another word. She introduced herself to the gruff wagon driver. He was polite, but not sociable. Motions and sounds were made and eventually the camp was moving forward once more.

Despite her best efforts to engage the man next to her in conversation, her riding companion gave nothing more than monosyllabic responses. After waking early from an unrestful night’s sleep following a grueling day of marching, Emera found sitting still coupled with the relaxing breeze a recipe for sleep; soon her head slowly dipped forward, her eyes shutting of their own accord.

“I shouldn’t be surprised that one foolish enough to travel on foot alone would also be foolish enough to fall asleep atop a moving wagon, risking falling off and breaking her neck.” His condescending voice slapped her from her dozing. She sat up straight, arching her back to stretch. Edrich’s breath caught at the sight of her lithe figure contorting hypnotically. Trying to distract himself, he spoke. “I see you are appreciating my great concern for your well-being.” He tried to distance himself from the effects of her allure with his condescension.

“Your great concern?” She nearly rolled her eyes; he really was too much.

“Yes. I noticed you did not fare well walking on foot all yesterday. I have arranged for you to ride here. Great concern and effort to arrange it.”

“Roger,” she spoke to the driver.

“Yes, Miss.”

“Who normally occupies this seat next to you?”

“No one, Miss. It is usually empty.”

She turned back to the king as he rode his horse next to them. “Empty. I wonder at the effort it takes to have a messenger find one person to fill an empty seat.” Her face was blank, waiting to be contradicted over his great effort.

He frowned at her. “Very well. Then, at the very least, you should be impressed that not only am I attentive to the needs of your body, but I can satisfy them with little effort.” His dark brown eyes were glittering.

She made no argument, partly because he was right, but also because she had the distinct feeling his words held a double meaning she was too ignorant to understand. “Your thoughtfulness, though perhaps unnecessary, is appreciated. Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Again, her half thanks satisfied him somewhat as he could see they were more than she wanted to give. “Unnecessary? You prefer to walk, then?”

“I prefer to remain busy, my Lord.”

“Then how do you find working for Leonard?”

She laughed somewhat. “Well, I am not afraid of hard work, my Lord, but I fear that I am not qualified to assist him in any cooking whatsoever. My maid is better suited to that.” She looked down at her hands, smiling.

He watched her closely. He could tell she was an active girl. Hell, her perfectly toned body revealed in the setting sun just the evening before had given testimony to that. He began to see that his concern and effort to protect her body were actually robbing her of much desired exercise. They remained silent a few minutes more. “We did not camp in a very sport-rich site yesterday eve. Our scouts had difficulty finding enough food for this evening’s meal. There are better hunting grounds near tonight’s destination. I plan on taking a few of my best hunters with me to bring back dinner.” She nodded in understanding. He seemed nervous, as though he wanted to say more. She turned, giving him a curious look. “It is a shame that you are not helpful in the kitchens.” She attempted to defend her place in the cook’s tent but was cut off. “Is it not sad that you don’t possess other skills?” He rubbed his chin. Again, she tried to argue that she had skills when he stopped her. “Oh, yes, as I recall, you are somewhat capable with a bow and arrow, are you not?”

The man was a mystery. Had he been hit in the head with a blunt object since yesterday morning when she felled the charging boar? Somewhat capable with a bow and arrow, my foot, she thought. He felt her anger building. “Well, if you would like to join us for our sport this afternoon, provided you stay out of the way and don’t slow us down, I suppose you would be welcome.”

She was about to yell a thousand miserable words at him when his ploy suddenly began to dawn on her. He recognized she wasn’t happy or fit in the kitchen and was giving her an opportunity to do something she was happy and fit in; hunting. The anger melted off her. “Yes, thank you, Your Majesty. I would be most happy to assist with this evening’s kill.” His face showed no interest, one way or the other, but accepted her agreement with a slight nod and then abruptly rode on. Despite still being tired, her countenance brightened and she stayed awake, surveying all she could. When the sun was high, she shared food with Roger who had opened up a little to give a brief history of his service to the king. He concisely detailed being a favored soldier when he was younger. However, a battle wound gave him an inescapable and costly limp. Favored as he was by the king, he was allowed to serve in any capacity of his choosing. As such, he became the king’s valet.

Within two or three hours of stopping for the day, the king rode up once more. “It is time, Em.” He held his hand out to her as her rode next to the wagon.

“Time for what, Your Majesty?”

“To go on the hunt. We need to advance ahead of the men to make time; when the men arrive at the camp site, we will have the kills skinned and ready to be cooked. There is too much travel and not enough day to postpone the hunt until we arrive.”

“Am I not to have my own horse?” No, of course not, you idiot, she thought to herself. Ride with a man! Never! Her mother would roll over in her grave at the very idea. It was one thing to buck convention and ride straddle on a horse as opposed to side-saddle. It was quite another to be intimately nestled between the thighs of a man she had not known for more than a day, let alone was not married to.

The king grew impatient. “Come now, Em, or you do not go on the hunt.” He was stern.

She’d broken so many rules of a demure princess that at this point she couldn’t see that it would hurt anything more. She reached out and made a small leap, landing in his firm arms. He settled her so that her right leg was bent around the small pummel of the saddle, her left leg hanging down, gripping the horse. Not exactly side saddle, not exactly astride, but still very naughty in feel. He urged his horse at a sprinting pace forward, breaking away from the marching men. She then realized he had been surrounded by a group of five other men on horseback the entire time.

Once acclimated to the rush of joining a group of strange men on a hunting expedition, Emera became achingly aware of the intimate position she was in. The king held the reigns in his left hand as it rested on her thigh. His right hand firmly held her around the waist, pressing her tightly against his body. She felt heat and arousing strength surround her as he leaned forward, urging the horse on. She could smell his heady scent, and it was intoxicating. And added to all that, she was tightly positioned between the king and the pummel. With each stride of the stallion, it rubbed her sex against it until it throbbed in aching desire. Focus!, she chided herself. Most of their travel was through a bright wood with tall, old Beech and Adler trees. Occasionally, the path was strewn with fallen logs which the king’s horse flew over gracefully. Those powerful, jostling movements only served to heighten the arousal of her body more painfully, setting every part of her on fire.

For Edrich, the ride was a glorious nightmare. It had excited him as he planned their excursion together, imaging the feel of her in his arms. Naturally, he fantasized the progression of liberties allowed; a hand on the waist, the other on the thigh, rubbing soothingly. He would hear a soft moan and skillfully move his hand to her breast, her head back against his shoulder, head tilted away giving him access to her neck. He imagined the intoxicating taste of her skin as his mouth glided up it while he firmly knead her breast, causing her to arch into his grip, moaning sensually. He had stopped the fantasy there, his erection growing as though he was an undisciplined youth.

Now, however, in the reality of full, round buttocks pressing intimately and firmly into his groin, the heat of the fantasy wilted away when compared to the scorching fire he found coursing through his veins, igniting a fierce hunger for more. His blood was pulsing to his turgid member, and he had to fight the rhythm of the horse that caused their bodies to move in a mock-fucking form. This is what he had wanted, but now he realized, unlike his fantasy, there were surrounded by his men and despite the passion Em showed, she was still a maiden and not likely to allow him to bed her. Frustrated, he leaned more into her, his nose near her hair inhaling her scent comfortingly into him.

Eventually, the forest thinned out to a large accommodating clearing. Obviously, this is where they would make camp for the night. He swung down and then reached up, taking her by the waist. He let her slide down slowly, pressing her into the side of his horse with his own hard body. She felt every inch of him and prayed the agonizing torture would end. His gaze had turned dark again, but she knew it wasn’t with anger. Her face was heated, and she felt as though she might faint. She never had before, and she wouldn’t start now. She dared to look up at him, forcing herself to appear braver than she felt. He lingered, looking down at her. She thought he would say or do something, but after a time, he stepped back and called for Drake. The soldier came forward with a bow and a quiver full of arrows. The king took it and handed it to her silently.

When she shook off the haze fogging her brain, she realized the other men had left and only she and the king remained. After tying off his horse with the others, he gestured with his head, indicating she was to follow him. They veered off the path where the forest became thicker and trudged through the growth as quietly as humanly possible. At one point, she aimed for a fowl taking flight, but he lowered her bow. In a hushed voice he explained. “We have too many to feed. If we caught enough pheasant for them all, we would spend an eternity plucking and cooking them. We need large game.”

She never realized that. She nodded, understanding. They eventually spotted a small herd of forest deer. By that point, she had veered off to the right and was standing at one end of the herd. They looked at each other, nodding. Both drew their arrows. He let his fly first, causing the herd to scatter quickly. The buck she had her eye on turned away from her and dashed off. Damn! She quickly ran another few meters to the right to get a better angle at its body. She let her arrow fly, penetrating it deeply in the animal’s side.

“Mine fell instantly. Looks as though we’re going to have to chase yours down,” he taunted smilingly.

“Yours was standing still, only a couple of yards away.” She held her chin high. “Plus, mine will feed more.”

“Only if we can catch it,” he chuckled, and they headed off in the direction the animal had flown. They followed the blood trail until it led up into a craggy hill with tall boulders surrounding it like a crown. Then the trail stopped. They spread out searching for it. “Found it!” he shouted from the other side of the hill. She climbed to the top of a small boulder to spy him. She smiled wide when she saw him waving.

As she hopped down to approach, the quick jerk of his right shoulder back was the only warning something was not right. She watched in horror as he looked down, blood pouring from an arrow pierced in his shoulder. She drew her bow, quickly scanned their surroundings, and then fired at a man sitting atop the tallest boulder, shrouded by trees. He fell and tumbled violently to the ground. She spun back to Edrich to see three men jump from behind a boulder, kicking him to his knees. Two of the men grabbed either of his arms while the third held him by his hair, forcing him to bare his throat to the dagger the man held.

She had already pulled another arrow from her quiver and had it aimed at the man. For a moment, no one spoke. “I don’t think you are quite in the position, you think you are, missy,” the man with the dagger grated out.

“Neither are you.” Her voice was unwavering.

The man grunted at that. “Really think you can kill all three of us before we slice open your lover boy’s throat here?”

“I know I can kill all of you, regardless of what you do to that man.”

“Not disputing that, honey, but you should be asking yourself, do you really want to watch him die?”

“No, the question you need to ask yourself, is do you want to die?” She drew the bow back even tighter in threat.

“Seems we are at an impasse. And the only thing I can think of to get us out of it, without the loss of life is a trade.” He smiled leeringly at that.

“Trade? What sort of trade?”

“You discard your bow, walk over here, and we let him go on his merry.” The king began to furiously thrash at the man’s suggestion.

She looked into his eyes. No! he clearly told her. Her breathing increased finally. Trade herself for the king? Was there no other way out? She began to frantically look about, trying to find some way. But there was none. And for the first time, in an absolutely long time, she felt helpless. She looked at him, and he knew she had given up. He began to thrash even more violently, despite the arrow piercing his shoulder. He was able to throw one of the men off momentarily, but they regained control of him, striking him in the process. His brow and nose were left bleeding.

It never crossed her mind to wonder why she was desperate to save him, to give up her own life. She never once questioned if this was the solution to her problems, to rid herself of Lidio’s king. She never considered denying their request to run for her own safety or even for help. In that moment, she was driven only by the deepest desire to protect him from harm. She lowered her weapon and threw it away. She watched his desperate face as she walked solemnly across the clearing to them. Be at peace, she willed him. She no longer thought of the men, just easing his heart. She knelt in front of him, wiping the blood and sweat from his brow, her hand gently stroking down his cheek. She was overcome by the need to give and receive solace from him. She hedged, only for a moment, and then leaned in, her lips grazing across his ever so slightly, and then deepened it briefly.

He broke the kiss to lean his forehead against hers. His breathing was harsh and ragged. “Do not do this,” he begged.

With fixed determination she quickly stood and looked at the man with the dagger with deadly calm.
“Let him go, now.”

“Come to think of it, I don’t think I will. This bastard’s given us too much trouble. But I will collect on your offer, just the same.” He leered as he stepped around the men to reach out to her. Liar! Rage shot through her as she thought only a moment before grabbing the nearest man’s sword. In one motion, she pulled it out of its sheath, turned to slice across the leader’s throat and on the returning arc skewered the belly of man she stole the sword from. Edrich used the distraction to throw the last man to the earth with his overpowering strength, pulling his dagger from his belt and plunged it into the man’s heart. For a moment, the only sound was her ragged breath as she struggled to maintain control. He looked at her and then bounded forward, embracing her tightly.

She was momentarily dazed at his powerful show of emotions before she pulled herself back. “We have to get you back to camp and see to your wound.” Her voice was raw. She trained her thoughts to address the problems at hand, and not to be swept away with emotion. She looked about her, slightly confused as though she was looking for something but didn’t know what. She began muttering to herself, something about “who knew killing a man…” and her actions became indecisive and frantic. He knew she was disintegrating and pulled her roughly to him again. She began to sob violently, clinging to him for support. He fully embraced her, letting her emotions take possession of her. Eventually, her tears dried up. He pulled her back, took her face in his hands, and gazed down into her eyes.

“Shh,” he whispered. “It’s over, my brave little savior,” he continued to gently shush her. He cupped her face and kissed her eyes, then her tear streaked cheeks. When his lips nudged at the corner of hers, his pupils dilated and he looked into her eyes. For a moment they held, and then he crashed into her like a wave coming to the rocks on shore. He could feel her desperate need for him. Her innocent mouth opened willingly, an innate knowing of how to respond perfectly. Her tongue followed his lead. She moaned delicately and he growled in response. In frenzied need, Edrich’s arms forcefully hauled Emera to his body, but his pain shot through him and broke through his haze of lust. His arms loosened, but he still held her. He tried to breathe through the pain, holding it and letting it gently pour out of him. His chin resting on the top of her head, he whispered, “Aw, Em, what am I going to do with you?”

She took a decisive step back. “Well, I know what I am going to do with you. I’m taking you back. Now, come along, don’t dawdle.” Before he realized it was happening, she transformed into the know-it-all girl of action he was becoming so familiar with. She quickly turned, picking her bow and quiver as she left the area on her way. She marched forward, hoping he wouldn’t catch up to her. Her mind was racing, her heart was slamming so hard in her chest it ached. She knew she was too far over her head. She was damned! She was falling for the king. How was she going to deal with him in the future when she became queen? How was she going to leave him? She had never let a man touch her as he had, let alone kiss her so thoroughly she could die happy and perfectly satisfied with life, well, almost perfectly. She didn’t know how to proceed. She was still uncertain if her country could approach him and expect reasonable peace talks; let alone what he would do when he discovered who she was.

She hadn’t planned on getting so close to him. She had only set out to find out about him, his political perspective, not how warm and soft his lips were, or how his mouth was more addictive than the strongest wine. Her mind was muddled, overcome by his presence. She needed to distance herself from him and walked even faster.

Edrich found her behavior concerning. Had it been too much? She kissed him first. She willingly sacrificed her life for him. Clearly, she must have felt something for him. And when he kissed her, she clung to him, nearly sucked his life from him. She wasn’t disgusted or even startled. She wanted him. Why then did she now act as though she wanted nothing to do with him?

They reached the clearing, the others having arrived a half hour earlier. She marched towards the cook’s wagon, not looking back once. He made to follow her, but a few of his soldiers saw his injuries and rushed him. Before he could stop her, his men ushered him to his tent that had just been put up. The doctor saw to his wound and stitched him up. His face would heal on its own. At some point, he sent two of his men to bring back the two deer they had slain. Edrich had a bath and then met with his general. He tried to focus on the discussion. He managed to decide to send two squads out to split up and scour the forest for any more outlaws. However, all he could think of was Em. Finally, he was resolved and sent the same page back to the cook’s tent to have her join him for dinner in his own tent.

Emera’s immediate reaction was to refuse. She wanted to keep as much distance from the dangerous man as possible. Her attraction to the king scared her but he also drew her as well. At times, it felt as though he had wrapped a cord around her and was pulling her to him, despite her reluctance. She balled her fists, determining to stay in control. She still had unanswered questions, she reminded herself; she couldn’t let her fear stop her mission. She nodded to the boy, indicating she would follow. Thankfully, she had washed the sweat and grime from her body when she had returned earlier. Would he kiss her again, she wondered. Would she stop him? She had ten more days, no, make that nine. Nine days were a long time to keep up a wall, holding back the gut-wrenching fire that he so easily built. She bit her lip in thought as she entered his tent and then stopped mid stride. Her thoughts evaporated when she saw him. He was standing at a desk reading a paper.

He was shirtless.

His form was hypnotically male; long and lean. His shoulders were wide and muscled. The bandage for his shoulder seemed to be wrapped to accentuate his finely sculpted shoulder, arm and chest. She saw him as she had the day before and was painfully reminded of what a perfect being he was.

Edrich observed her response to seeing him half naked and knew he had not been wrong about her. He saw the desire, but he also saw her reluctance. Why did she resist what was so natural and overpowering between them? He saw her stifle her desire and looked at the surroundings with resigned eyes.

The king’s tent was warmly lit with many candles. The table was set with plates and a platter of the meat and breads. There were a few roasted root vegetables along with fruit and cheese. Emera took several deep breaths in attempt to push down her apprehension and focus on the task at hand. Eventually, her eyes swept back to Edrich, who still hadn’t bothered donning a shirt. He held his hand out, offering her a chair. She took it.

“Do you usually eat in your tent?”

“No, usually I join the men.”

“Then why here tonight? Are you not cold?” she said somewhat agitated that he still hadn’t put a shirt on.

He saw her eyeing him warily and looked down at his chest. He chuckled before answering. “It hurts more than I care to admit to put one on.”

“Ah, but didn’t you just admit it?” her eyebrows raised in question.

He sat back and smiled. “Wanna dress me?” his caressing voice asked. There was that tone again, suggestive and seductive. She got the feeling his meaning was more along the lines of removing clothes rather than putting them on. To distract herself she took a bite of food and contemplated her meal. They began eating slowly; she was searching for words and he was studying her intensely. “May I ask Your Majesty a question?” He nodded his consent and she proceeded. “What will you do once your men have reached Clearvalley?”

“What soldiers do.”

“That is a little noncommittal, isn’t it?”

“Perhaps.”

“You seem to be making a habit of it,” she mumbled. “How long will you remain in Clearvalley?”

“That hasn’t yet been determined.”

“Why does not your Lord High Marshall deal with the bandits? After all, soldiers are for keeping peace between nations, not tracking outlaws.”

He chuckled. “And you know what soldiers are for? Two days with us and you are already an expert. Unless of course your father or brothers were soldiers?”

“My father did not make a very good soldier, I’m afraid, thus my present predicament.”

“I see. I’m sorry to hear that. If you had been his son, I’m certain you would have made him proud.”

“I would hope, Sire, that I make my father proud, regardless of my gender.”

“I’m sure you do. Yet another reason why I’m sure you would have made him proud.” They continued eating in silence, both weighed down by the thoughts running through their minds. She chanced to look up at him, but his intense gaze held her captivated. “Thank you,” he said low.

She held his gaze for a moment before returning as nonchalantly as possible, “You’re welcome, Your Majesty.” She tried to focus on the food. Chew, chew, chew, swallow. But found her throat wouldn’t properly work.

“Despite my gratitude, I would like to tell you of my displeasure in your actions. However I am finding it difficult.”

Her head shot up at that. Just a hint of anger came out when she spoke, “Displeasure, my Lord? For what?”

“For your selfish actions, of course. In your grandiose attempts to save my life by sacrificing your own, did you not stop to consider how I would have felt at the outcome of that? Did you think it would be honorable to let me live the rest of my life knowing it only existed because you gave up yours? How did you expect me to sleep at night? Or command my men or deal with various heads of state, knowing that my every breath belonged to you and that I had no choice in the matter? You would have enslaved me eternally. I would have been a soulless man walking.”

“Forgive my stunned expression, my Lord, but I would have thought a king would have expected such a sacrifice from a lowly subject,” she had become impassioned by his speech and was letting her anger slip.

“A king might of one of his subjects, but not a man of the woman he-“ he couldn’t finish because he wasn’t quite certain of where his thoughts were leading. After a moment, he proceeded. “You kissed me.”

She gently shook her head, trying to find the words to argue with, but what was there to say? Somewhat defeated, she consented. “Yes, my Lord.”

“Why?”

“Why not? I was handing myself over to men who would have not only killed me but done…horrible things to me. I didn’t want you to fight. I wanted you to go freely, safely. Plus, I was afraid and needed to feel safe…one last time.”

The image she conjured of the men ravishing her brutally only further angered him. He knew his possessive feelings for her were ridiculous, but he couldn’t shake them. “You knew I didn’t want you to, yet you decidedly ignored, once again, my wishes.”

“I am sorry, Your Majesty, that I have not received training to properly handle such situations. I’m sorry that the choices were not of your choosing and that I did what I wanted in the situation, not you. You speak of your conscience, what of mine?” At his confused countenance, she continued. “You speak of how you, a man, would not want to live knowing I had given my life for yours. What of me? Am I any less of a human, with less feeling or sense of desire, regret, or duty that I should have been made to live knowing you died, when I could have saved you? I had no thoughts, Your Majesty, only to see you free. I’m sorry my own desire to not live in a world that you were not in causes you distress. But, as it is, it didn’t come to that since I, once again, saved your life.” She felt as though she were on fire. He had dragged the conversation away from what she wanted to know and forced her to face emotions she couldn’t risk having. She looked away, unable to look into his intense stare any longer.

“Em,” he started slowly, choosing his words carefully, “perhaps I have been foolish to think I was the only one that held such feelings. To think of you going to those men,” he fist clenched tight, knuckles whitening, “was more terror and agony than I have ever known. That pain, I would not wish on you. I’m sorry.” He stopped and waited, gathering his thoughts. They were coming to the place it would be futile to ignore how they felt, yet he didn’t know how to proceed. “When we get to Clearvalley, I would like to meet your family.”

“My family, Your Majesty? What for?”

“To honor the head of your family. You have saved me, nearly countless times. It is the very least I could do.”

“Not so countless, my Lord. I know of only two. I would be most honored to introduce you to my family, but I am all that remains alive, here in Lidio.” Her subtle qualifications to all her answers were the only things that made her feel as though she wasn’t quite lying. She was truthful, he just didn’t know what truth she spoke.

“I am sorry to hear that. I did not realize you were all alone. That does change things, somewhat,” he said softly. “Why did you choose to move Clearvalley?”

“We had heard it was under Your Majesty’s protection. Truly, the safest village of Adalynd.”

“Adalynd…” he said softly, slowly twirling the stem of his goblet in his fingers. He seemed deep in thought, and Emera saw the opportunity she had been looking for.

“My Lord-“

“Em, I would be most happy if you called me Edrich.”

“Edrich? My Lord, I do not think that would be-“ again he cut her off with a raised hand.

“It would be, whatever I want it to be. Please, I insist. After all, I think the person who seems destined to save my life should call me by my name. Don’t you?”

She looked at him warily, he really was becoming more complex as time went on. “Very well, Edrich, may I ask what troubles you? You speak of Adalynd with such disappointed regard. Why?”

He sighed heavily and was quiet for some time. “I am charged with keeping peace in Lidio. As the king, I am responsible for the well-being of all my citizens. And yet, how can I do such when such a weak hand rules to the north? The borders are crumbling because the Adalynd king is weak. How can I protect my people when lawlessness will still abound elsewhere. I said it true when I said the peace of Adalynd affects us all.”

She thought on his words a moment, and when she judged them against the emotion she saw in his eyes, she knew he spoke the truth. She remembered the words the traitor Jenner had spoken, trying to incite her father into war. She wasn’t completely certain that Jenner hadn’t been sent by the king, but she was coming to recognize and trust with confidence that Edrich was not dishonest nor was he war hungry.

“That is very true, my-Edrich. However, and I mean no disrespect, where will your assertion of power end? I understand your reasoning because I understand you. It is in your nature to assure things, to be responsible for the welfare of others under your rule. Unfortunately, there lies many things out side of your control, and dealing with those things you find is beyond your abilities. And so, in order to ensure what you must, you extend yourself into more and more in attempt to control everything. Am I correct?” She had laid down her observations in such a gentle, coaxing way, that he felt no disapproval from her, only a sweet mind curious to understand.

“I think that is quite possibly true.” He laughed, somewhat frustrated and derisively. “But where does that leave me? So I don’t know when to stop controlling. That doesn’t solve for me how to keep peace when others do not.”

“Is there no way to speak with the king of Adalynd? Is he a tyrant or an idiot that he would not meet with you? Surely, as you are most likely seen as the stronger of the two, he would be inclined to meet with you and discuss options for peace. Unless I am mistaken…my Lord, what do you want with Adalynd?”

He had never truly wanted to take over Adalynd, only insure safety for his people that bordered the weak country, but he didn’t know how to do that without putting those lands under his protection. This strange, young girl, however, seemed wiser in the ways of politics than he would have believed. His eyes narrowed at her. “Tell me, how did you become so savvy in the ways of politics?” There was a slight amused sound to his voice.

“Your Majesty is avoiding my earlier question,” she challenged in an effort to avoid his.

He sobered somewhat. “I don’t want anything to do with Adalynd, other than a country I know will not cause me trouble, either directly or indirectly.”

“Then what will you do to obtain that? As it stands now, you are on the march towards war, and I am afraid you won’t receive the peace you are looking for until you’ve completely conquered Adalynd. Even then, there are always dissidents that never leave the reign of a foreign power at peace.”

He thought. “Perhaps it would be a wise decision to meet with the Adalynd king,” and with that, we finished off his wine. “And now,” his voice changing slightly, “we must decide what to do with you.”

Emera was so enraptured to have confirmation that the king would happily leave Adalynd alone that it took her a moment to focus on his words. “Do with me, my Lord?” He raised his eyebrows. “Edrich,” she corrected herself.

“Yes, I am rather reticent to leave you unprotected, especially now after hearing you have no family to belong to. I’ve grown accustomed to having you under my wing for the past two days, I am reluctant to not having you near.” He looked at her, waiting for her response.

Her heartbeat picked up considerably. “You are not, my Lord?”

“Edrich,” he corrected.

“Yes, of course, Edrich. I must say I myself am a little saddened that we will be parting. However, there is no need for me to remain under your protection. Though, given our recent run-ins with misfortune, I wonder who is protecting who?” She smiled, a little mischievously, a little sad.

“There is more than one type of protection, though I would be lying if I said it didn’t damage my male ego that you have done all the protecting.” He took a deep breath. “But as I said, there are different forms of protection. My name, for example, is a form of protection,” he said slowly, anxious for her reply. Her insides felt as though they were bubbling, lighter than normal and dying to escape in a blissful explosion. She felt light-headed. She stood quickly.

“Thank you for dinner, my Lord. I am very tired after today’s events and must see if Leonard needs any assistance before retiring for the evening.” She attempted a quick and awkward bow before leaving. He caught her wrist and looked up into her face. He watched the fear in her eyes dissolve as they softened into sensual warmth that made his breath quicken. Before he thought, he pulled her onto his lap kissing her fiercely. She responded immediately with the same enthusiasm she displayed that afternoon. He wrapped one hand at her back, the other at her throat; his fingers were splayed possessively and erotically, his fingertips at her jaw. She was sitting sideways on his lap, her head slightly back to reach his mouth.

Emera knew it was dangerous to touch this man and let him touch her. Her senses were overwhelmed by his smell and taste and the magical skill his mouth worked on her. Despite the danger, she had no strength left to fight, even if she had wanted to. She quickly put all discouraging arguments away and rode the waves of pleasure with her whole being.

Their tongues met instantly, pushing and rubbing one against the other. He occasionally drew hers into his mouth only to capture it and suckle. He loved her uncontrolled responses. She moaned and pulled him harder into her with her fingers threaded through his hair. Her fingers developed an arousing rhythm gripping and then releasing. He was faintly aware that her hips had begun to roll on his lap in concert with her fingers. Her moans, too.

The hand at her back kept up its control of her while the hand at her throat slid down until they were firmly claiming her soft flesh under her dress. She arched into him with a slight hiss. The mutual partnership of control ended and Edrich was taking over. The hand at her back snaked up into her hair at the nape of her neck and roughly gripped it. His tongue dove victoriously into her mouth where he took all of her sweet flavor. His hand at her chest was determined to discover each breast’s sensitivity. After cupping her right one, his fingers erotically crept over the flesh to flick the nipple through her dress between his fingers. He rolled it back and forth, demanding a response. The material, though finely woven, was becoming coarse and irritating to her sensitive skin. When he cupped it again, only to take the pebbled peak between his thumb and finger in a pinch, she throatily gasped and leaned into him harder. Her eyes opened at that, and for a moment he thought the spell was broken. But when she continued to kiss him and closed her eyes again, he growled in desperate thanks.

He explored the other breast in nearly the same fashion. However, the torturous rhythm of her hips grinding against his cock was fast sucking his control away. He only sought to relieve her pent-up rivers of desire, but his fingers dragging up the inside of her knee, then her thigh, were overwhelming and in her head her sanity finally broke through her lust-saturated being and screamed at her. Run!

She knew she had to break free quickly and not look back. It felt physically painful to stop the pleasure her body had been greedily absorbing from the erotic god she had melded to. But she knew only disaster awaited her if she stayed longer. She gave him no look, no apology, just departed before he could react to stop her. The king was sitting back in his chair, panting hard and feeling confused. Surely she understood his desire, his want; why did she behave as though she was afraid? Perhaps it was a frightening thought, being involved with a king. After all, she was most likely a virgin, despite her voracious, passionate nature. He was tempted to go after her, but decided she needed time to herself.

Edrich had to admit that he needed distance from her as well. This whole time he pursued her like an animal out to sow his seed, but he too lately realized that his feelings for her were more than a bed partner. He wanted her; most likely he wanted her forever. And that thought was terrifying. He never thought he would want a woman in more than one way. He wasn’t sure if he actually loved Em, but he knew he was not ready to part with her and that he would most likely be content if he had to spend the rest of his life with her. But as what? Did she hold a position that would allow him to marry her? If not, would she avail herself to him as his consort? He knew the answer to that. Despite her passion, her desire for him, she was chaste and not likely to willingly bed any man she was not married to. He could take her choice away, he thought. But that idea didn’t actually appeal to him. He had never had to beg let alone force himself on any woman. They all came to him willingly. And he wouldn’t start now. No, he would just have to find a way to convince her to stay, deceptively or honestly, he didn’t quite care. He just knew he had to have her.

Emera raced back to the cook’s tent and found Glenna just bedding down. She rinsed off in the wash basin and changed into her sleeping gown. “Well, my Lady? What news have you?”

Emera was quiet a moment. She wanted to confide, but no longer wanted to share the intimacies of her heart with anyone. She was still extremely riled up from her intoxicating experience with Edrich. She decided to stick to business. “The king says he has no desire to take over Adalynd. He only distrusts the lawlessness that threatens to take over the borderlands. He hasn’t a diplomat’s perspective of discussing all his options, even with those who are potential allies. I think that we can come to an agreement. My father trusts me; perhaps, if he hears Edrich’s view, he will do more to protect his boarder and we can stop the bandits and Edrich will give back our land.” She smiled slightly, trying to convince herself it might work. She still was uncertain of what Edrich’s response would be when he learned who she was, but she hoped that he liked her enough that it wouldn’t matter.

The camp made it to Clearvalley before noon the next day. The large town was already full of soldiers. As the cook to the king, Leonard took over. The tent they carried was added to the existing tent. Emera quickly scouted out the numbers and types of troops.

Eventually, Emera and Glenna were able to give their goodbyes to Leonard and Linus and left as quickly as possible, before the king could see her. It took some effort to convince Glenna that she would remain behind. The plausible explanation was that she needed to stay to keep an eye on things and perhaps continue to persuade Edrich to agree to an alliance. And while the reason was true and logical, she would have argued anything to be able to stay near the king just a while longer. His pull on her was more than she could resist, so she decided to not waste energy denying it and to use her energy elsewhere.

The princess was able to procure a horse that Glenna would be able to take back through the mountains. She quickly wrote a letter to her father, detailing the good news and to write back to Edrich, requesting an audience with him to frankly discuss the matters of their respective states. She then wrote a second letter to her father that read like a common-place letter home, with no information about her mission. Glenna secured the significant letter to her person under her shift, bodice and dress. The second she carried less securely in the satchel.

They were standing in an alley way next to the stables. “Now, the way back to the passage through the mountains that will take you to Alistair, should be straight north once you’ve reached the village of Meadlemeyer. Here is the note for the king. Please, please reiterate to Alistair to tell the king I trust him. That man, Jenner” she said his name with quite a sneer, “lied to the king. Edrich is not evil. We can come to a compromise. Wait for Alistair to bring you a reply from the king and then return to me. Travel safely!” She hugged Glenna and watched her ride away. Now I need to decide what to do with myself, she thought.

Emera was deep in thought as she walked out of the alley. She was taken by surprise as a firm hand grasped her by the arm and painfully forced her back up against the wall. “Who are you!” the disgustingly smooth voice asked.

She looked up startled and angry into the face of the man she recognized as Jenner, the man who offered information to her father. She narrowed her eyes and yanked her arm from his grasp. Then she began to realize this man must have heard at least part of her conversation. “I have nothing to say to you, sir. Excuse me.” She stepped to the side, in an attempt to leave but he grabbed her again. “Let me go, you snake!” He back-handed her. Her ears were ringing and her cheek felt as though it had been seared. She stumbled and fought to focus.

“Bite your insolent tongue! You have no idea who you are dealing with.”

“I know exactly who you are, traitor! Now release me!” He recoiled from her.

Understanding showed in his angry face. “You are from Adalynd?” He stepped back from her. “Guards!” he yelled to the two men standing a few feet behind him. “Take this spy into custody!”

“Yes, Lord High Marshall,” one replied. Before she could react, the two men had approached and taken her away.


Chapter One

Emera took one last look out her father’s balcony which viewed the castle’s gardens, the lake, and forest beyond, and finally the mountains that separated her kingdom of Adalynd with Lidio, ruled by the powerful King Edrich Mather. And it was that treacherous kingdom she was bound for, to change the courses of both their destinies. For decades, the borderlands had been squabbling and feuding over land rights. Those of Adalynd maintained their properties extended to the river that ran near the foothills on the south side of the Glass Mountains. Those of Lidio, however, were not inclined to give up the rich, fertile soil between the river and the mountains. There was also the fact that the mountains facing Lidio held a vast wealth of gems buried deep within their bellies. The old king of Lidio had been a merciless, greedy ruler who often encouraged his citizens to take what they could, which he in turn taxed highly. The atmosphere began to breed ruffians no longer belonging to either country, but instead making a living by pillaging the less protected villages on the borderland.

Her own father, who was of a timid nature, avoided confrontation and settlement of the issue until at last the violence in the borderlands grew; he sent soldiers to maintain as much land as possible. When the old king of Lidio died, his son Edrich ascended. He seemed less blood-thirsty, but more military driven than his predecessor. His military presence was stronger at the border. While his men overcame any outlaw threat they encountered, they also slowly began encroaching into and claiming Adalynd, village by village. Her father was at a loss of what to do, never having spent the time or money maintaining a strong army.

However, Emera was not one to easily give up. With her mission firmly planted in her mind, she was soon on the road with her maid Glenna and a king’s messenger named Alistair. They traveled with only a large bag filled with essential items, and the princess’ bow and quiver. Strapped to her thigh was the dagger the captain of the guards had given her after she had trained with him. Eventually they left Alistair, who stayed behind in a small village on the north side of the mountains, ready to act as a fast relay back to the king when Emera had news to report. Before long, they were walking through the last free-held village. “Miss, what is your plan for finding information about the king?”

“Clearly, we can’t stay here and gather accurate information about him. We need to reach another village now under Lidio rule. I’ve heard the guards say the land past the miller’s hut is off limits since there are reports of marauders lurking in the woods. Obviously, that is where we need to head. We can leave once darkness has set.” They rested for the remainder of the day, and at nightfall began making their way into the thick forest that was the last barrier between free and occupied Adalynd territory. In the morning light, wearied and starving from travel, Glenna began building a fire while Emera went to hunt a pheasant. She was stalking through some bushes when she happened upon a river. Her eyes were focused, waiting for the rustling of bushes before the birds flew when splashing drew her attention. Emerging from the water, a man hard-cut from stone began walking to the shore. All thoughts evaporated from her mind as she stood mesmerized. He was the most beautiful person she had ever seen. His black hair was shorter than most men’s, barely touching the nape of his neck. Her conscious mind faded away, and she did not realize her heart rate and breathing had increased. A thrumming rush of heat and swelling pulsated through her and her skin lit on fire. An ache began to grow deep in her core and she clenched her intimate muscle to ease it. As she was to the side of him, she only saw the muscles rippling down his flank, though she was surprised as she realized she wished she could see all of him.

Then he stopped, frozen. She wondered at his behavior, until she followed his gaze. A boar with enormous tusks had emerged from the brush and had spied him. Unfortunately, the beast was between the man and his pile of clothing where his sword lied; he was defenseless. He stood motionless, waiting for the beast to move on. However, the fowl she had been on the search for chose that moment to fly not two meters from the naked man, startling the boar in the process. Seeing the threat, the beast charged. The man took a position as though he would wrestle it to the ground. Without hesitation, Emera stepped from her hiding place, drew her arrow and let it fly, piercing the hog in the heart. It slid to a stop in front of his feet.

He swung around, tension, perhaps anger splayed across his face. When he spied her, he straightened and his face fell blank as he analyzed the girl before him. He watched her, noting the bow her hand. He watched as fierce concentration from shooting at the charging animal faded away to more of a sensual, heated look. His head nodded in a sort of acknowledgment of her saving actions. But still neither spoke. The rush from the charging boar was quickly converted to a delicious desire fueled by the sight of the ever-increasing arousal of the beautiful woman. Without much thought, he slowly approached, curious and a little hungry. Her innocent, yet erotic inspection of his body was burning him and his growing arousal was proof of his mutual attraction to her.

She had never seen a naked man before, much less one as divine and powerful as the one who stood before her. Though she tried to discipline herself to only watch his eyes, she couldn’t keep hers from the now turgid prominence before her.

Just as he was about to reach out and touch her, angry blue eyes shot to his. He was taken aback by the unexpected emotion until she spoke. Her voice was warm and husky. “Would you mind putting your clothes on, sir?” Her annoyance amused him slightly, though his ego pricked a little at being spoken to by someone who should tremble in fear of him if he so wished it. Eyeing her thoughtfully, he doubted she would ever tremble in fear. He reluctantly walked to his pile of clothing. He had had his morning fun and it was now time to be about his business. Once dressed, he belted his sword around his waist and turned to her again.

Though she faked it greatly, she still didn’t have much control. Her breathing was slowing somewhat, but her heart thumped so gloriously hard in her chest she had to take deep breaths to concentrate. Hunting had never exhilarated her as much as the moment he stood before her. As he turned back towards her, she finally noticed his uniform and the military issued belt holding his sword. “You are a soldier?” Her voice was easing some as her focus rapidly shifted to her preexisting mission. He nodded. “You are camped near here?” He squinted his eyes in scrutiny, and then nodded. She too nodded as nonchalantly as possible; he was becoming suspicious. “My maid and I have left our home, in Waybridge and are traveling to Clearvalley.”

“Two women, traveling alone? It is nearly four days travel and your are still at least two days away.”

“Yes, well, with no family left here, I must relocate.”

“I see.” He began slowly stalking back towards her. Her moment of indignation had faded and he could see the returning lust. Even as he approached her, he silently rebuked himself for becoming so easily distracted; his mind should be on battle. But he had never been quite so strongly drawn to such a lovely form before. Not to mention, she boldly saved his life, and her obvious delight in his naked form was too arousing for any man to not respond to. He was close enough to see the long lengths of her black lashes, and the growing pink that spread across her cheeks. “These woods aren’t safe, not even for a woman who can shoot a bow. You, and your maid, should come with me back to the camp. We happen to be traveling to Clearvalley. We can offer you protection, in exchange…” His change of tone, suddenly hinting at something less than noble, slapped her out of the trance he had put her in.

“In exchange for what?” She felt disgruntled, even though she wasn’t quite certain what he was trying to suggest.

“In exchange for saving my life, of course. Plus, maids can be very useful to a camp full of soldiers.” His voice was growing lower and fuller the more he spoke. “Surely you know how to make yourself useful, right? In ways that do not require deadly weapons.”

She felt his voice run like warm caresses down her neck, and yet his actions remained harmless. Though she may have been innocent, she certainly wasn’t immune to his allure. And she immediately resented him for using it on her. “I’m sorry sir,“ she ground out, “but other than shooting an arrow,” her grip tightening around her bow, the leather glove squeaking as she did so, “I don’t know what other abilities I possess.”

He noticed her agitation, and found it amusing. He could have sworn, not a moment before, she would have readily let him bed her. Now, however, her slightly indignant tone suggested his touch would be unbearable. He smirked to himself, this wench was extremely haughty, and though he knew he should focus on the immediate state of his foreign relationships, he couldn’t resist the challenge of taming the passion he saw ignited so brightly, so easily, as she gazed upon him. “Come, come,” he purred, “I’m sure you are an excellent…cook.”

“Cook?” her face implied she had never heard the word before, let alone done anything to suggest she knew how.

“Miss! Miss! The fire is ready!” Glenna stumbled through the brush and stopped dead in her tracks.

He raised an eyebrow at Emera. “This is my maid I told you of.”

He suddenly, furrowed his brow. “How is it, a lady, such as yourself, only travels with a maid? Surely you should have had protection.”

“Yes, well, as I told you, I have no family left here. So, regrettably, there was no one to protect me, though I would have thought my obvious skills would have precluded the need for another’s protection.” She mumbled the last bit under her breath, though he heard it, knitting his brow together even more.

He harrumphed, slightly and turned, presumably back towards his camp. He stopped at the beast, reaching down and grabbing it by a giant tusk. “Follow me,” his voice commanded, without so much as a look back.

Of all the arrogant, self-important…“For a soldier,” she clipped loudly, hands on her hips, “I’m surprised you would have gone so far from the protection your sword provides, allowing yourself to be caught by a deadly animal. Not much tactical forethought, I imagine.”

He stopped, and then he did turn around. The audacity of the young, impudent girl made him balk for the first time in an extremely long time. The persons he usually dealt with were soldiers under his command, diplomats that cowered before him, and sultry women that only had heavy-lidded eyes and pouty lips, but certainly no smart-aleck quips. He had no ready comeback, only a gaze full of fire. “Come, no more talking.” He made to turn, but her words stopped him yet again.

“And if we decline the great offer of your protection?”

“Your declination would be based upon the presumption that you have any free choice in the matter.” He was facing her, silently warning her to not challenge him further.

She was about to do just that when a nervous Glenna grabbed her by the arm and pulled her quickly aside. “Miss,” she said in a hushed whisper, “this is the opportunity you have sought. We can get much better information from the army about the king. This soldier is providing exactly what you wanted. Please, don’t anger him further, and let’s do as he asks.”

Emera bit the inside of her cheek, trying unsuccessfully to lessen her scowl at the towering figure watching them. Glenna was right, and so with a huff, she straightened her shoulders and addressed him. “Very well, we accept your offer.”

He lifted his eyebrows at them, wondering what the older woman had said to change her mind, and turned and continued on his way. She sighed heavily, communicating her displeasure at his officious manner, but followed on. Glenna stared hard at the back of the tall, dark brute. The look in his eyes, though partly lit by anger at Emera’s words, was mostly heated by intense desire she knew the princess was ignorant of. The danger of their mission would increase greatly if Emera continued to draw this sort of attraction from the soldiers they were to subtly gain information from. She was concerned, but held her lip, saving her warning for later.

Upon reaching the camp clearing, all the tents were packed away in dozens of wagons. The soldiers gathered in their ranks, reading to leave for the day’s march. He stopped in front of a wagon, where an old man was tying down the last flap of the cover on the back. He dropped the boar on ground before speaking with the old man. He called him Leonard and instructed him the two ladies were to be his help until they reached camp at Clearvalley. Leonard quickly bowed to the tall man as he walked on.

“Oh, now, there dear, look at you. Gone and gotten yourself a job for the king’s cook tent,” the old man said struggling to lift the pig into the back of the wagon.

Emera rushed to help him and struck up a conversation. “The king! He’s here? In this camp?” The old man just looked up at her, dumbfounded. “Tell me,” she said, looking about at all the soldiers walking around, “where is he?”

“Why, that were him, the man that brought you here. Didn’t you know?”

She shot a stricken look to an equally surprised Glenna. “That-was-the-king?” she could barely speak, the color draining from her face. Damn! Her mission had just become complicated by her insolent mouth and a budding awareness of attraction.

The day passed comfortably enough despite having to walk the whole time. The seat in the wagon was only able to accommodate two people. The old cook had made the young boy that served him give up his normal seat to one of the women. Glenna had vehemently refused to sit next to the cook in the wagon, in hushed tones saying the princess should not have to walk. “It is a ridiculous thing, Glenna, to make a woman of your age walk when I am fit and healthy and quite able. Now, stop fussing, (you are making a scene) and climb up. That is an order,” she hissed the last part and watched the faithful servant’s dejected face as she hoisted herself up.

Emera used the time on the ground, walking next to the wagon as an opportunity to obtain as much intel as her eyes and modicum amount of training would allow. She was able to count four troops with several platoons in each. From her rough estimations, she counted just fewer than 800 soldiers in this regiment alone. She wondered at their number. Would they pick up more, leave some behind, or keep their numbers the same once they reached the next village? If the king was leading them, and not just a general, she assumed these were some of his elite. Verifying that assumption with her own eyes, she saw many hulking, yet tactically refined soldiers either on foot or on monstrous beasts clad in armor. The horses were all of them carved from stone and livened by breath from Hades. She had nearly been trampled at one point when she was trying to locate the king. She grew up riding horses, but her own stallion was built for speed. These brutes were as deadly as the soldiers on their backs.

Emera considered her fortune at landing under the protection of the very king she was intent at spying on. She thought back repeatedly to the conversation she had with her father to convince him to allow her to discreetly obtain information about this king and his plans. A man, calling himself Jenner, claimed to be part of the Edrich’s council and had information to give her father. He claimed Edrich was an evil man, bent on taking over as much land as possible. The man reported the king was building up his army in several key villages on the border, intent on laying siege to Adalynd within a month’s time. Emera had argued with her father that it was dangerous to go to war based on one traitor’s claims. “But, my daughter, he provides good information and claims to seek peace. What else can I do?”

“Oh, I don’t know, how about speaking with the king before attacking? Is it not possible to avoid war if you first find out what the opposition wants? Can no deal be made?”

“Deal? What deal is there to make? Edrich will only demand the river valley, and once I’ve given that to him, he’ll only demand more. Where will it end?”

“So you would resort to such subversive, dangerous methods before ever meeting the man? I have heard tales of this King. And it is true, all agree that he is harsh and brutal in battle. But many also say he is reasonable and honorable. Surely, a man with such characteristics deserves some faith to at least be given a chance to discuss these matters?”

“Emera, my dear, you are still so young, so naive. If he is anything like his father, there will be no reasoning with him.”
“Well, I am happy to report that children aren’t always like their parents.” The accusation hurt her the moment she said it, and she was sorry to attack her own father’s character. She had, thankfully, received none of his cowardice, but she knew she could not, should not hate him for it. “Father, I am sorry.” She thought for a moment, walking to the window. “Father, if this is the course you would take, then may I ask a favor, first?” She walked to him and kneeled at his feet, looking up, pleadingly. “Let me go, in disguise, and discover for myself that the King is not a man to negotiate with and that he has rallied his troops as this spy claims. Even if my hope is misplaced, and he turns out to be a man hungry for more land, let me be assured that we are not falling into a trap. Father, please?”

He thought for a moment, and could no longer look into her eyes. He looked away, his gaze falling upon a portrait of his wife. Emera so resembled her, but seemed to be made out of a different cloth altogether. He knew she would be a powerful leader, but only if she had a kingdom left to inherit. “Very well, my child. I know you have been trained well, and can protect yourself. I will trust your report and your suggestion for battle. I will give you two weeks to return. If you are not back by then, I will have to presume I must proceed based on the information we received.”

Being part of the king’s camp made her mission easier to gain accurate information. It also heightened the danger by being so close to the target, the cunning and merciless king. However, she was confident in the martial skills her father had allowed and then even encouraged her to practice when her natural talent and interest were discovered. She knew she could always handle herself, even with a larger opponent due to her own set of specialized skills. Obviously, given that morning’s performance, she was a deadly shot, even at a staggering distance, with her bow. But she was also just as deadly with a short sword. Though she had some success with a claymore, the strength required to outperform her foe with the two-handed sword was all she could muster. She therefore chose a fighting style that was brainy, not brawny and stuck to the lighter weapons.

As she marched along with the wagon, she was lucky enough to be accompanied by the youth that helped Leonard. He introduced himself as Linus, told her he thought he was about 10, and the various jobs he performed for the cook. He had a simple, straight-forward way of looking at things that she thought was charming. Eventually, she was able to ask him where he was normally stationed. “We cook for the king, always. We go where he goes. Master Leonard is quite good at making delicious food with very little.” Though he was a quiet type of child, he still had obvious pleasure and pride as he spoke of the old cook.

“How long have you been traveling this time?”

“We left home two weeks ago, I think. We’ve been patrolling the border now catching bad guys.”

“Really? Why are they bad?” Her voice was warm and smiling.

“They steal and kill. They take things that are not theirs.”

“Hmm,” she said in thought. “Tell me, does your king often chase after thieves? Is there no Lord High Marshall to do so?”

He looked up at her then, his cheek twitching in an unpleasant smile that hinted that he thought she was stupid. “The Lord High Marshall does an excellent job. But our King is fighting the blackguards from Adalynd, that is why he leads his troop. We are going to war.” She stopped then, her heart slamming in her chest, her cheeks burning. War?! The sound of thunderous hooves shook her out of her revelry. She defiantly looked up at the would-be intimidator and was slightly taken aback to see the handsome man she had fully spied that morning.

The king looked down on the willful, insolent girl. He had been watching her for sometime as she happily engaged the young cook’s apprentice. But something he had said made her stop foolishly. She would have been trampled had he not surged his horse forward between her and the oncoming men behind. He was slightly irritated both by her previous demeanor and now her willful impudence. However, he reminded himself it was most likely her independent, self-assured nature that was the driving force of his salvation just that morning. Perhaps it wasn’t without its charms. Then again…“Why do you stop? You hold up the line.”

“I’m sorry, my lord, I did not mean to cause trouble.” She moved forward then, her heart racing still. He urged his horse forward to walk along side her. She realized this as a prime opportunity to understand the man her father claimed was the enemy. But looking at him caused her heart to race and her words to tumble out her ears. She took calming breaths to focus.

He stared down at the top of her head, but she refused to look back. From his vantage point, he could see the tops of her full breasts as she marched ever briskly forward. Then he noted that she walked, instead of the woman she claimed was her maid. The act seemed contradictory, but he shook of the dissidence. “You are tired.”

“No, my lord, happy to be walking freely,” she countered.

“You are hungry.”

“No my lord, I have eaten my share this morning before we left.”

“Thank you.” That did get her to look up at him. She tilted her head in question. “Thank you, for saving the life of the King. You are a good citizen.” He stated magnanimously, looking forward regally.
She was a little galled at his pompousness. She snorted, grabbing his attention, “You mean, saving your life.”

He frowned at the contradictory woman and then sighed. “Yes, my life. Thank you.” There was sincerity in his words this time and she accepted them.

With a smile she said, “You’re welcome, just don’t expect that I should be your personal body guard because you can’t take the proper precautions to arm yourself as you should.”

He was about to shout a punishing order at her, but, besides the insolent tone, there was wisdom in her words and he had no rebuttal. Her words were also softened by the sweet humor he heard there. He remembered why he had sought her out to begin with. With a disgruntled sigh, he relaxed somewhat and said, “Because you saved my life, and because it was your kill, you are to eat at my table tonight.” Before she could turn and protest, his horse jumped forward trotting away.

She had never said “Yes, ma’am” or “Yes, sir,” to anyone since she was fifteen. Growing up, free of subjugation had developed a healthy independent spirit. And as her father was a weak leader, she had always determined to be a strong one. Now, being commanded around by her enemy was threatening to break her composure that she worked so hard to maintain. She huffed until she realized Linus was staring up at her. “Sorry, Linus, I do not mean disrespect to your-our king. I am just flustered at the…wonderful opportunity to eat at his table. Quite excited, really,” she stopped speaking because she knew the more she went on, the more it sounded like a lie. She shored up her resolve however, determining to use the meal as a means toward her end.

Eventually Linus ran off with two other boys that served officers. She was left to herself and her thoughts. The man was infuriating. She realized what irked her about him was the fact that he acted like he was her king. She had to gently remind herself that he was the King, just not of her country. She was not here to interact as she might normally if she were in her own home, in her own country. She was on a serious mission to learn what she could of this country and its king and ascertain if a truce could be called. She placed her resolve to not be affected by his officious manner but to see him through the eyes of an ordinary citizen.

With her mind settled and a renewed peace about her actions, they made camp. Three soldiers, of what she guessed to be lowest rank came over to help Leonard set up the eating tent. She learned that the men casually came and went as time permitted for their morning meal. They sat to eat together in two shifts for their supper. The king traditionally took the last shift.

Emera knew she was to eat dinner with the king and begged Leonard to allow her to go and bathe quickly so as to not be offensive, claiming she was filthy and smelled from walking all day. The kindly cook gave in to her request, though he wouldn’t allow Glenna to accompany her. Taking her bag filled with her clothing and soap, she hurriedly made for the small river they had crossed a ten-minutes walk back. Though there was a larger body of water they had camped next to, Emera was not eager to bathe in so close a distance to men.

The water was clear and ran fast. Her first thought was to just kneel next to the water and splash herself, but since she was alone and not likely to be discovered, she decided to disrobe and immerse herself completely. The water was strikingly cold, causing her to lose her breath. She knew she had to be quick so she dunked herself and began scrubbing. The water was numbing to her skin and she hoped it would penetrate into her now stiffening muscles. She was a little disappointed in herself that she wasn’t fitter. Walking for the better part of the day was a strenuous ordeal, but she thought her training would have better prepared her. As it was, her feet were screaming in pain and the sides of her thighs were angry and tight. She braided her thick chestnut colored mane, letting it fall over her left shoulder. Once dressed, she stretched her tight muscles and took in several calming breaths that served to strengthen and focus her. She headed back for camp and found Linus tacking the pelt of the boar up on a stretching board.

“Did you learn how to skin a boar? Was it hard?”

“Yes, their hides are tough and don’t like to be removed,” he said matter-of-factly before running off to gather more fire wood with his small hatchet.

While serving up the food, Emera heard whispers and noticed the appraising, surprised looks of the men as she dished out their food. Finally, when she reached a table of privates that openly ogled her, some leering, some whispering with something akin to respect, she sat the bowl sharply down and, hands on hips, demanded, “Why do you stare and whisper about me? I demand to know what the issue is.”

The men were slightly surprised at her imperious tone, but a kindly-faced young soldier spoke up. “Is it true, Miss? Are you the girl that saved the king’s life by killing the boar with an arrow?”

She was slightly taken aback by that. Upon quick reflection, she would have believed the King the type of man to not boast about the fact he had been taken by surprise by the wild animal and that a girl had been his rescuer. “How did you hear of that?” she asked as she served out the meat.

“Everyone has heard,” the first replied.

Another spoke up. “Yes, the king told his lieutenants the girl serving under the cook was not to be bothered as she had saved his life.”

“Too bad,” another laughed, “some men were eager to bother you.” He continued to laugh as he drank his ale. Again she was surprised by the meaning behind his words but was so flustered by it, she had no witty reply and simply dished out the food and left. She was not accustomed to being viewed in such base manners. Though she spent great amounts of time with her own soldiers at home, they had never behaved in an unfitting manner. They knew she was a princess and such comments would result in their loss of life. These men, however, thought she was nothing more than a slightly elevated peasant, lucky enough to be serving in the king’s camp.

Glenna, who had proven herself more helpful in the kitchen than the princess was at a table cutting up the meat while Linus served the men on the opposite side of the tent. Dishing out more meat onto the platter she carried, Emera spoke in whispered tones. “Glenna, he has told them.”

“Told them what, my dear?” she asked distractedly, slicing more and more meat.

“About me, that I saved him. He told his men expressly that they were to leave me alone.” She stood up and looked around at the men thinking, “That was very kind, protective. Surely such a man is not so bad,” she said, trying to convince Glenna they had more evidence that this king wasn’t nearly as bad as she had been lead to believe.

Glenna cocked up an eyebrow at her then. The poor girl was so naïve. She didn’t realize that by keeping his men away from her, he was staking a claim to her. The king wasn’t protecting her from his men for her own sake, but for his. Eventually the first shift ended and the men cleared. The four worked quickly to clean the platters and began serving the next group. The king arrived and all the men stood. He looked around and saw Emera piling meat on a large platter. He took his place and sat, the signal for the rest of his men to do likewise. That was the cue for them to start serving. Just as Emera was about to pick up the platter, a man approached her.

“The king wishes to thank you for the service you rendered him by allowing you to eat at his table. This way, please.” She took another deep breath, set her platter down, removed her apron, and followed behind the man. She felt all the eyes in the tent on her. Her stomach was folding itself in such tight knots. Despite being royalty, dining frequently with other royalty, she was apprehensive about eating next to this man. Part of her assured it was simply the nature of her mission, but part of her felt as though it was something different, something more. When she approached the empty chair, no one stood, as was custom for the princess, but she understood why.

Be polite, be gracious, be subservient… the last thought irked her, subservient indeed. But this was her opportunity, this was the reason she was here and she could not afford to let her cheeky retorts damage that opportunity.

Edrich had watched the emotions play across her beautiful face, her eyes closed. He wondered what she thought about. Her breathing was increasing and he chanced a glance at her quickly rising and falling breasts. It was a mesmerizing reminder of what he witnessed not just a few hours previously. After stopping the march for the day, while discussing strategy with a commander that was to stay at the next village they entered, he noticed his newly placed subject walk hurriedly from camp with her satchel. Was she leaving? They were not near Clearvalley, and she was walking in the opposite direction. Her behavior puzzled him so he followed. As the road bent and became a bridge over the small river, he heard splashing water and a loud, shrill gasp.

Twenty yards off the road, he stood that afternoon, in the shadow, mesmerized by the most tantalizing, compelling sight he’d ever seen in his 28 years of life. She had been a beautiful sight that morning after she had saved him, even when she was standing defiantly against him. But naked, lathering and rinsing herself in the water which was obviously freezing, she was sheer perfection. He couldn’t move, even wanting to go to her and join her, he stood in the shadows entranced. His breath grew ragged and an unsettling ache filled his loins. Despite his growing discomfort, he stayed and allowed the torturous sight to fill him with torrid desire. Only when she moved to get out was he brought back to reality, and slipped away quietly.

Now, seated across from her at his table, her eyes closed in concentration, he felt the threat of that entrancement creeping up on him again. That disturbed him. He was torn between his natural want of speaking to her to hear her tart replies and ignoring her altogether so as to be free of the obsessive feelings she inspired. Unfortunately, it wasn’t his choice to make.

“Tell us, er-“

“Em, you may call me Em,” she replied to the graying man.

“Em, lovely. Tell us, Em, what transpired this morning that you earned so many privileges, my dear.” The general was curious about the beautiful interloper that the king had laid such strong protection over.

“Privileges, sir? I’m not certain I follow.”

“Well, for starters, you are under the personal protection of the king. I would think that alone would be the highest honor a simple maiden could receive, and yet he has extended to you a seat at his table. Surely, these are great privileges, are they not?” he asked comically.

“I take your meaning, sir. Yes, indeed, these are great privileges.” She looked at the king sideways, to gauge his reaction. “But I will tell you the service rendered this morning, and you may tell me if the rewards are equal to the service.” She smiled, daringly at the king. “My maid and I were traveling and I was out in the brush looking for pheasant for breakfast when I came upon a man emerging from the lake. As he approached the bank, a wild hog came out of the brush and attacked. The man was defenseless, but I had my arrow ready, aimed and killed it. I saved, at the very least, his legs if not his life.” She began eating the aforementioned beast. Tasty, she thought. She looked up at the quizzical, amused faces of the men sitting near the king. He himself looked amused, but with an edge of danger, as though silently warning her that her tongue was too sharp for his liking.

“Ah, so this man, I take it, was he a soldier?” the general grinned knowingly.

“Presumably the best, sir.”

“And he had no weapon?” the man taunted.

“Not within reach, sir. When I realized he was soldier, I asked him about it, that he would go far unarmed in such dangerous territory.” She looked at the king as she continued to speak. “He did not appreciate my observation of his lack of care.”

The gray man began laughing whole-heartedly at that. “I don’t doubt it. Arrogance is a dangerous thing when it leads a man to believe he is invincible.” At that, he patted the king’s shoulder.

“Yes, as I have observed. And let me assure you, general, the man was quite arrogant. In fact, do you know what he said, just moments after I saved his life? He dared to suggest I was the one in need of protection, as though he had not just witness the death of the beast that had threatened him. And that the protection, he could offer. Imagine such arrogance,” she chuckled, looking over her goblet at the king. His dark gaze piercing her, stopping her breath.

“Yes, well, two women traveling alone is dangerous regardless of ability to use a weapon. It was ridiculous and soft-headed of you to believe you could have made safe passage through the borderlands alone. There are too many dangers here for a woman.”

She bristled slightly, but overrode her temper with reason. He was being offensive to her, a highly trained person accustomed to having her word obeyed. Nonetheless, she knew he was right. Despite any skill she had, could she fight off a gang of five or six men? Most likely not. He was not attacking the Princess of Adalynd, he was merely pointing out that a woman, possibly even a single man, traveling alone in this dangerous time was not wise. “You are right, my lord. It was fool hearty to believe we would have been safe. It was very…fortuitous, that we should come across Your Majesty and be granted such benevolent protection.”

Her words were sincere, even though a little reluctantly spoken. He raised his eyebrow at her acquiescence. She agreed, but not happily like most ladies he knew would have. Her continual insolence made him wonder at her breeding. She spoke as though she thought herself equal to him, the king! He would love to discover just how equal the two of them were, in the bed, that was. With that thought, he grunted. She looked at him and it was her turn to wonder about his thoughts.

“Yes, the borderlands have become very dangerous. And now, with Your Majesty claiming more and more villages previously under Adalynd rule, I wonder that it won’t continue to grow more tumultuous.” That statement stopped all other conversation at the table, and wide eyes glanced between her and the king. He too had stopped eating and his expression began to grow dark once more.

“Do you intend to mean that I am causing war?”

She was a rush of hot nerves, her face flushing with fear. Deep breath. “I only mean to point out that land under the king’s protection grows daily. This no doubt is disconcerting for the king of Adalynd.”

“You think I am stealing?”

“Is that not what war is? Taking over land that was not yours through the use of force? Why else would countries fight? The ever expanding kingdom, is that not Your Majesty’s goal?”

“Not necessarily,” he said, feeling as though he were walking into a trap. She was correct. He was taking over Adalynd village by village. In his mind, these lands should belong to him, though technically, they were part of the Adalynd kingdom.

“Truly, My Lord? Where will Your Majesty be satisfied, I wonder? At which village will you feel that you have gained enough land? When will your…our kingdom be whole?” She tried to remain innocent and simply curious during her inquisitions, but found the very thought of someone, even this powerful man, taking what belonged in her kingdom, infuriating. However, despite the bubbling turmoil in her heart, her face remained calm.

“The borderlands are unsafe.”

“Yes, My Lord, there are often attacks from soldiers.”

“From bandits pillaging.”

“Not from soldiers? What accounts for your presence here?”

“Soldiers are here to keep the peace. When the marauders attack, the soldiers subdue them, and to ensure continued peace in a village, the soldiers remain.”

“Even when the village technically is of Adalynd?”

“Yes. Their disruption of peace affects us all. If they had such a king as to be responsible to care for his land, my soldiers would have no need to encroach further.” There was a round of agreeing grunts and ‘hear, hear’ from the men surrounding the arguing pair.

“Despite the fact that your encroachment further angers and disrupts the peace in Adalynd?”

He squinted his eyes at her. “You are quite concerned with the peace of Adalynd?”

“Only as Your Majesty has pointed out before; the peace of Adalynd concerns us all. War should be avoided at all cost, especially with a neighboring country.”

“Histories show us that war is most common between neighbors,” he rebuffed.

“And that makes it right? The existence of many depends on the harmony they feel towards their neighbors. When it is the policy of the king to view the neighboring country as a rival, those who live on the border are risked, though they have just as much value as those living in the capitol. An ordinary man, who seeks to take over the property of the man next to him, and then the next, many would see as a greedy parasite, not interested in the welfare of anyone besides himself. He is a detriment to society and should be gotten rid of.”

“Do you call the king a parasite?” the gray man asked.

“No, sir, I simply seek to put the actions of the entire country into perspective. I mean no disrespect,” she turned to the king, extending an unspoken apology. She was finding it harder and harder to not argue with the king as an equal. But someone had to make him see his actions were wrong. “You claim the king of Adalynd is incompetent. Have you not spoken to him? Alerted him to why your soldiers are encamped into his many villages?”

“No,” again, he felt as though she were laying a trap.

“Have you spoken with the king about your intentions for the land you have…placed under your protection?”

“No.”

“If the king were committed to protecting his land from the outlaws, would you relinquish his lands?”

“No.”

“Even if it meant avoiding war?”

He harrumphed at that. “No.” She sat in quiet contention. The man was insufferable. He had no honorable intentions. He didn’t secure the villages to keep peace, rather used the conflict as an excuse for taking what was not his. She stared openly into his challenging gaze. Just before he spoke, the gray man interrupted.

“The boar you caught was quite delicious, Miss. Thank you for the meal.” The general stood and bowed to the two. The men surrounding them followed. Eventually, Emera looked up at the king who was eyeing her severely.

“You take great interest in my actions.”

“Should not all of your citizens take concern in the actions of their leaders? Does it not show loyalty and support?”

“Is it the right of citizens to question their king?”

“Sometimes questions are helpful in determining a line of thinking, establishing what are good and just actions.”

“Again, is it a citizen’s right to question their king?”

“Is a country’s leader not responsible to be a just leader?”

“You are avoiding my question.”

“As you are avoiding mine.” There was silence; they were sitting alone in the tent. Suddenly she felt uneasy, the heat of the discussion gone, only her vulnerable position was left. “I am sorry if I sound disrespectful, My Lord. I am only concerned with the welfare of my nation, as I am certain you are as well.” She bowed her head and made to get up, but grimaced. Once she had sat after walking all day, her muscles were tight and sore. But she hid her discomfort and took his plate with hers.

It wasn’t the first time he had noticed her pain with movement. As someone with a keen eye for weakness in an opponent, he was an excellent observer in a person’s movement. He knew that she moved gracefully only that morning, so he surmised her pain and discomfort were due to the long walk. He mulled over the fact that she walked instead of her maid. Her behavior touting her selfless character and her argument over foreign policy intrigued him while simultaneously infuriating him.

That night she slept on her pallet with Glenna. Though she was tired and her muscles ached, her mind wouldn’t stop churning over her interaction with the king. Clearly he was a strong leader bent on taking over as much land as possible. However, she didn’t feel his aggression was malicious, just perhaps unreasonable. She wondered if he would back off if the borderlands were better patrolled for outlaws by her own soldiers. That had been, after all, his argument. Could he be dissuaded from further encroaching on Adalynd territory? Perhaps even more importantly, would he ever give back the land he had taken so far?

Edrich lied on his make-shift bed staring into the dark. He could not remove the beautiful girl from his mind. In one day’s time, she had gone from being his savior, to an enchantress, to a belligerent youth, to a challenging heroine. When he first had met her, he had thought to make her a delightful bed partner, but as their interactions shifted through the day, ending with her brave, though slightly cheeky behavior at dinner, his attitude altered. It wasn’t that his desire for her diminished; if anything, it increased ten-fold. However, he became increasingly interested in hearing her speak, though granted that was second on his agenda with her. Tomorrow, he determined, tomorrow he would satisfy himself with her. One way or the other.