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?”
“If the king were committed to protecting his land from the outlaws, would you relinquish his lands?”
“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.