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Authors: Rachelle McCalla

A Royal Marriage (16 page)

BOOK: A Royal Marriage
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John appreciated the man’s astute grasp of strategy. “The Raider should not be expecting us so soon. He emptied Millbridge so that none would warn us. He wouldn’t have bothered to do that if he’d known Renwick had already fled.”

The men nodded solemnly.

“We’ll have no way of knowing whether Luke lies in that hut until we take it. If we wait until the sun rises, we’ll have no chance of succeeding.” John didn’t have to note that they had little chance of success as it was. They’d come on foot, save for one horse meant to carry Luke if he was badly wounded. Though it meant slowing their possible retreat, horses were simply too large and noisy. Their secondary party held extra horses, should John and his men need them.

Vasil spoke up. “Your Highness should wait here while we take the hut.”

John hated to send the men in without him, but he understood the wisdom of Vasil’s plan. As king, John had a duty to stay alive, even if it meant hiding in the bushes while other men risked their lives for his brother.

“The guards haven’t budged from the front door of the hut,” Farris observed. “The roof is low and made of straw.” His eyes twinkled mischievously.

Vasil’s eyes brightened. “We could remove part of the roof.”

“It will be too dark to see inside.”

“If it is a trap and many men hide inside, we may flee before we are spotted. If it is a lone figure, or few, we may be able to take them.”

John liked the inventiveness of the plan, but certain aspects concerned him. “If my brother is too injured to climb out, how will you escape?”

“Through the front door.” Vasil shrugged. “But we will only fight the guards if we have no other choice.”

It seemed as good a plan as any John might contrive, even if he had all morning to plot. And they didn’t have much time. Already the sickly gray-green of dawn smeared the eastern mountains with its light. If they waited until roosters began to crow, the village would awaken and they’d lose the advantage they’d ridden through the night to obtain.

“Go silently,” John commissioned them. “My prayers go with you.”

* * *

Gisela was grateful that the guard on duty at the Sardis gate recognized her. “Has a horse and rider passed this way?”

“An hour ago. The rider did not stop. He rode like a woman.”

Gisela might have laughed at the man’s confused description, had his words not confirmed her worst fears. “Which road did she take?”

“Toward Millbridge. I can only assume it was a messenger.”

“Of sorts. Thank you for the information.” She pointed her horse down the same road.

Her body ached for want of sleep and from a second long journey within the span of a day. When Eliab and Urias had realized what she was planning, they’d tried to send a guard with her. Perhaps it had been a reflexive protest, but she’d refused. Furthermore, she’d purposely left Castlehead under military command rather than put Eliab and Urias in charge.

Gisela felt her horse tiring and she rubbed the animal’s neck, encouraging the gelding onward. With any luck, Elisabette’s mount would be tiring, too. Gisela could only pray it would. She’d have little hope of overtaking her otherwise, not with the considerable lead she’d gotten.

* * *

John had Dan double back to report the plan to their reinforcements, while the other three men crept toward the low-roofed hut. By the time Dan caught up to them again, John had watched them quietly pluck enough straw free from the roof to create a space big enough to climb easily through.

Vasil leaned his head inside, then turned back toward where John hid in the bushes and gestured with his fingers upright from his forehead.

A crown.

The smile on Vasil’s face confirmed it. They’d found Luke.

With the feathered plumes at the front of the hut still unmoving and the misty gray of morning creeping higher in the east, John’s men wasted no time. Dan bent his knee for his fellows to use as a step up, and Farris and Sacha vaulted the wall.

John watched the red tips of plumage dance on the other side of the hut. The men had turned their heads. Hopefully they were only conversing, perhaps questioning each other about hearing a noise. As long as they didn’t disappear inside the hut, John had hope.

He waited a tense moment. Farris and Sacha would have to evaluate Luke’s condition. With any luck, freeing him would be a simple matter of cutting any bonds that held him before leaping back out through the roof.

The longer they took, the greater their chances of being caught, and the likelier that Luke was too badly injured to be easily moved.

While three red plumes stood still near the door, the other three bobbed away.

With rising fear, John realized one of the guards had decided to circle around the hut. John tried to gesture to Dan and Vasil to dive inside the hut as well, but their backs were to him. The dome of the roof blocked their sight of the bobbing plumes, which were already nearing the corner of the hut.

John thought quickly. His men still outnumbered the guards. As long as no alarm was sounded, they had a chance of making their escape without provoking a battle. And though it was difficult to tell for certain, John estimated that Bern held at least as many soldiers as he’d brought to Millbridge. Whatever Garren’s and Warrick’s relationship to Rab the Raider, they’d granted him uniformed Illyrian war scouts.

It hardly counted as disciplining the man.

John fitted an arrow to his bow and pointed it at the corner of the hut. He was at the far limit of his range, but if he could weaken the man, even if his shot missed but gave Dan and Vasil a split-second’s warning, perhaps they could dispatch with the Illyrian quietly.

The clang of sword on sword would only draw the other guard, if not awaken the entire village. He’d do whatever he could to avoid that.

Just as the Illyrian came into view, John let his arrow fly. He watched the man’s face as the Illyrian spotted Dan and Vasil.

The soldier opened his mouth to cry out.

John’s arrow struck him in the leg.

Instead of a shout, he let out a groan of pain.

Three red plumes left the front door and came toward the back at a run, just as Dan grabbed his sword and leaped toward the soldier who gripped his injured leg. Dan slammed the hilt of his sword against the man’s helmet, and the figure sank silently to the ground.

John fitted another arrow as the second set of plumes reached the corner of the hut.

Where were Luke and Sacha and Farris? Vasil was head and shoulders inside the hut as John let fly a second arrow, pulling back harder and erring higher than the first shot he’d taken.

It struck leather armor, sticking to the guard’s shoulder for just a moment before the man pulled it out with a roar.

Dan silenced him with his sword, but the cry had already been raised.

Vasil leaped away from the hole they’d made in the roof.

Where were Sacha and Ferris? Where was Luke?

Three more figures rounded the hut. John had an arrow fitted before he realized his men had escaped with Luke through the briefly unguarded front door.

Sacha and Ferris had Luke propped between them. The prince sagged as he ran.

John pulled the horse closer. He met his brother just as Illyrians emerged from their dwellings, rubbing their eyes before crying out.

“Can you ride, brother?” John helped Luke onto the horse. “Can you make it to Millbridge?”

“That way?” Luke pointed. He looked feverish. Disoriented.

John would have to see to his injuries soon, but he’d have to get him to safety first.

At least Luke had pointed in the right direction. “Fly.” John gave the horse’s rump a swat.

“Run, Highness!” Vasil practically shoved him after his brother.

John wasn’t about to let his men die defending him. The Illyrians were still organizing, only a few had taken after them on foot. The rest were mounting horses.

He wasn’t sure how far they could get before they were overtaken, but the closer they got to the rest of their party, the less likely they were to be slaughtered. And it wasn’t as though the Illyrians would stop after killing the four of them. They’d follow Luke’s horse and cut down his men all the way back to Millbridge.

John screamed at the men in his raiding party. “Retreat!”

* * *

Gisela tore down the road toward Millbridge. She hadn’t traveled any farther than Sardis since she’d ridden blind with King John, but the trampled hoof prints left by King John’s cavalry made the way unmistakable as the pink glow of morning lit the way. She prayed Elisabette’s prints were among them. If the girl had wandered from the path in the darkness, Gisela feared she might never find her.

As it was, she’d owed John too many apologies. He was right, of course. If she’d gone straight to Warrick instead of sending Boden on his mission that day, Luke would not have been taken and Elisabette would not have run off. It had been pure selfishness on her part that had caused her to stay, whatever virtuous claims she’d made to excuse it.

Innocent Lydians might die because of her decision.

Guilt and fear goaded her onward as exhaustion threatened to pull her from her horse. She practiced her apology to John, but no matter how lofty her words or how generous her promises of future compensation, nothing she could think of erased the truth.

Elisabette was in danger. And it was Gisela’s fault.

* * *

“Where is she?”

“Where is who, Luke?” King John inspected the gash on his brother’s side and marveled at the fine stitches that held him together. This was no brute patch job. Whoever had tended to Prince Luke in the night had known what they were doing.

John was impressed.

Luke was delirious. “A vision of beauty. She bent over me in the firelight. Her hair was as pale as the moon’s light.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen hair that color.” John sat back from his examination, satisfied that he could do no more for his brother.

“I must find her.” Luke moved as though he wanted to sit up.

“You must rest.” John left instructions for the guards, then he left the private room at the Millbridge Inn and went in search of Dan and Vasil. He’d spoken with Farris and Sacha since their return, but his men had been so scattered over the course of their retreat—some no doubt hoping to lead their pursuers away from the injured prince—that John still had a dozen men unaccounted for.

It was likely any number of those were lying in the forest, their bodies too close to Bern for John to risk sending men to bring them back. The villagers might be able to help them. John couldn’t risk any more lives.

As it was, the only thing that had likely saved them was the absence of Rab the Raider. In his delirium, Luke hadn’t been able to tell John of Rab’s whereabouts or if he’d even been with the party that had raided Millbridge the day before.

It worried King John. Rab the Raider had been in the area recently—that much they knew from several informants. Why was he absent from Bern that morning? What mission could possibly be more important than guarding the prince they’d stolen? Were Sardis and Castlehead safe? As soon as he could round them up, John hoped to dispatch units back to the city and his fortress. But the men were exhausted, scattered and wounded. Reorganizing would take time.

“A rider approaches from the Sardis road, sire!”

John ran toward the shout. News? Good or bad? It seemed far too soon for a message from Castlehead or Sardis, unless Rab had attacked shortly after John and his men had left. His heart clenched with concern for his loved ones. He leaped up the brow of a hill and spotted the approaching horseman.

It was no man.

Gisela’s golden hair streamed loose behind her as she urged her horse toward him.

He ran to meet her.

“Your Majesty!” She slid from her horse and dropped immediately into a deep bow. “I must apologize. The fault is all mine.”

John pulled her up by her shoulders, and since her shaking legs seemed unable to hold her upright after her arduous ride, he propped her against him.

“She insisted on going. I left Hilda to watch her. Urias gave her a horse.”

“What? Who? What are you talking about?”

“Elisabette. Isn’t she here?” Gisela straightened and looked around. “She had to have reached you before me. She had an hour’s head start.”

“An hour ago my men and I were fighting for our lives throughout these woods. Many are still missing. Are you telling me Elisabette rode into this?”

“She should have reached you by now.” Gisela bit her hand as though to hold back a sob and looked frantically around her as though the younger princess might be somewhere in their midst, unnoticed.

Given Gisela’s obvious distress, John felt inclined to pull her more tightly into his embrace. Her hair had come loose and hung in thick waves to the backs of her knees. But his men, exhausted as they were, were already gathering around, watching and listening.

John couldn’t embrace Gisela, not this close to the Illyrian border. Instead, he held her at arm’s length. Warrick and Garren could all too easily hear of it. He focused on the unthinkable message Gisela had brought him. “Where did you last see Elisabette?”

“Castlehead. But Hilda reported that Urias had given her a horse, and the watchman at Sardis saw her ride past, headed this way.”

“Whatever would compel my sister to ride toward battle?”

Gisela bowed her head. “She feared for the safety—”

A sound like a guttural growl carried from the road behind Gisela.

John looked past her to where a man flanked by soldiers had stepped from the thick cover of the woods onto the middle of the road.

His crooked nose was unmistakable. That face had haunted John’s nightmares since the day the man had killed John’s father.

Rab the Raider stood with his blade tucked under Elisabette’s throat.

The Raider shouted something fierce and angry. John’s grasp of the Illyrian language, which varied by innumerable dialects according to region and tribe, wasn’t perfect. Rab the Raider’s use of it was dreadful, and his anger only seemed to make it worse. In spite of his lack of eloquence, certain aspects of his announcement carried clearly. He was angry. He wanted something. And if he didn’t get what he wanted, he was going to kill Elisabette.

BOOK: A Royal Marriage
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