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?” 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?”
“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.