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Authors: Rachelle McCalla

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BOOK: A Royal Marriage
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His touch imparted comfort, and when he drew his hand away, she missed it.

“Are you thirsty? Can you drink?”

Gisela mustered her voice. “Please.”

Moments later a flask touched her lips, and cool water flowed into her mouth. It tasted so much better than what they’d had on the ship, which had begun to carry the flavor of the wood barrels in which it was stored. The water John gave her was slightly sweet and blessedly refreshing to her fever-parched tongue.

“Now rest if you can,” he murmured, slowly urging the horse up to speed. “We have a long way to travel yet.”

Rest. If only she could—if only the pain would fade away and allow her a measure of peace. The cacophony of sound and light roared inside her head, thundering with each rise and fall of the horse’s stride. Would this infection be the end of her?

“You need to rest if you’re going to keep your strength.”

The king’s words were a reminder she sorely needed. Yes. She had a mission to fulfill. She couldn’t die. She had to keep up her strength. To rest.

The people they’d left back at the dock were depending on her. If she didn’t make it, there would likely be war, not only for her father’s people, but for King John’s, too. She owed it to them to survive.

More than that, she owed it to King John himself. His willingness to help her, politically motivated as it may have been, was nonetheless an act of charity. It would be ungrateful of her to die when he’d gone out of his way to procure for her the means of life. Besides, she had to recover if she was ever going to see if King John was half as handsome as she imagined him to be.

* * *

John kept to the main road that led southeast down the Lydian peninsula. When the woman in front of him finally slumped into a fitful sleep, he prodded his horse to greater speeds. He hadn’t wanted to upset Gisela too much, but they needed to hurry. He’d wasted precious time arguing with his courtiers.

Fortunately Moses, his favorite stallion, had been bred for speed. The animal hadn’t been out for a hard run in weeks and was eager to stretch his legs. “Good boy, Moses.” John reached past the Frankish princess and patted the stallion on the neck, encouraging him. If he had to take the emperor’s daughter to the Illyrian borderlands, there was no animal he’d rather ride.

And Fledge, his falcon, perched upon his shoulder with her beak pointed forward, the wind produced by the horse’s speed hardly ruffling the raptor’s feathers. Fledge was used to diving on her prey from blustery mountain updrafts. Their pace didn’t bother her in the slightest.

The only one John worried about was the Frankish princess, who moaned and twitched as she fought her rising fever. The late-summer day was warm, but her flushed face felt warmer still. John had seen this type of infection far too many times, and he knew its usual pattern. Without the hare’s tongue to stop it, the fever would continue to rise until the woman was dead.

It was just such a fever that had killed his own mother when he was a boy of twelve years. Tragically, she’d fallen sick during winter when there was no hare’s tongue to cure her. Nonetheless, John had set out with a search party in hopes of finding some tucked away under the snow.

He’d returned in the night half frozen from his search, with nothing to show for his efforts.

His mother had died the next morning.

The memory spurred him forward. It had been his last failure for many years. Some had said that with his mother’s passing he’d inherited her healing gift full force. For a while he’d almost believed them.

Then his own wife had taken ill during childbirth three years ago, after years of battling recurring illness and a miscarrying womb. In spite of all his efforts, he’d lost her and the child she carried. From then on, failure haunted his every effort at healing. Even simple maladies had spiraled out of his control, as though the touch of his hands carried death instead of healing.

His conscience tugged at him. What if his efforts at helping Princess Gisela only led her more quickly down the road to death? The Emperor Charlemagne would blame him and rightly so. Illyria, too. He’d bring war upon his people. Gisela’s death would bring more death until Lydia itself was conquered by foreign empires, dying to rise no more.

The thought of losing the princess prodded at a tender spot in his heart, and he pulled her closer against him, almost as though he could hold her back from death by the strength of his arms. Over the distressing smell of her infection he caught the delicate scent of rose perfume. He fought the temptation to bury his nose in her silk veil and breathe in deeply.

What would Charlemagne say? And yet, John found the impulse surprisingly difficult to resist. The woman’s obvious charms fascinated him. He would do well to find the herbs quickly so she could be on her way.

They passed vineyards and orchards and olive groves. Moses slowed as they came to a stream. John supposed the animal would have liked a drink, but he knew the water here was salty. The sea had cut a ravine through the slender bend in the finger of the peninsula. Every tide washed it wider.

John led the horse upstream to where the locals had improvised a bridge of beams. The site, John realized, could use some attention. Someday the sea might divide the peninsula into its own island. Even now, the beams barely stretched the width of the ravine, and John eyed the waters ten feet below with a wary eye as Moses’s hooves clattered across the sturdy planks. The princess shifted restlessly.

John peeled back the veil that covered her face from the sun and felt her forehead.

She was burning up.

He held his relatively cool hand against her skin as though it could absorb her heat and relieve her discomfort. But the touch imbued more than mere heat. Emotions that had lain dormant deep in his heart roused as though warmed by the sun after a long winter. But John had no intention of letting his feelings blossom to full flower.

“On, Moses,” he encouraged his horse. They still had a ways to go before they reached the point where the peninsula joined with the mainland. From there, they would turn northeast, toward the mountains. The ride lay long ahead of them.

The sea breeze faded behind them as they entered a more heavily wooded stretch of road. Here on the peninsula, travel was quite safe. Seaside villages clung to the rocky coastlines on either side of them. The road connected them to the mainland with its agricultural produce and access to the lands beyond.

But once they entered the dense woods at the foot of the mountains, John knew he’d have to be alert for trouble. Though Lydia’s borders had once followed the ridge of the mountains, the Illyrians had been encroaching on their land for generations. John’s father had died defending a village there. He’d lost his life and the village.

John’s younger brothers, Mark and Luke, sometimes talked about trying to take back those lands, but they hadn’t been with their father that day. They hadn’t seen him die or felt the sharp tang of fear as death dogged their heels. Had it been up to John, he would have died there next to his father. But he’d been injured as well, and Urias, his father’s one-time right-hand man, had pulled him away and fled toward home. They’d lost two dozen men that day in a skirmish that should never have happened. They could have let the Illyrians take the village without a fight.

He couldn’t change what had transpired that day, but John wasn’t about to invite death and trouble into his kingdom by trying to get those lands back. His brothers feared that the Illyrians would one day take over the entire kingdom. Luke had thoroughly scouted throughout the area and had even asked to be dispatched with a team to recover the closest villages.

John wasn’t sure how to handle the situation. He wouldn’t risk his brother’s life if it wasn’t necessary.

As the woman who shared the horse with him moaned and twitched, John’s thoughts turned to her father, Charlemagne, who’d famously united the various tribes on his continent into one Holy Roman Empire. The man didn’t seem the least bit intimidated by a fight.

How would Charlemagne handle the situation with the Illyrians?

Charlemagne wanted to marry Gisela off to an Illyrian prince. From what John understood of the emperor, Charlemagne preferred to keep his family close. What had prompted him to seek a marriage agreement with Illyria? What did he hope to gain? John wished he could discuss the issue with the emperor. Perhaps, if he saved Gisela’s life, he could meet Charlemagne and learn about his political strategies.

But he’d have to save her life first. Could he do it? Uncertainties raged inside him. He’d failed so many times before. He prayed that God would be merciful and grant him success, not for his sake, but for the lovely princess who suffered so.

The road bent northward as they cleared the end of the peninsula. Moses shook his mane as John pointed him toward the mountains instead of riding into the city of Sardis. Of course, the animal wasn’t used to traveling away from the city. He hadn’t been born yet when John had last traveled there seeking herbs. Moses hadn’t known John during his years as a healer. He wouldn’t understand.

“Yes, Moses, we’re going toward the mountains.” John bent his head past the woman to speak to the horse, encouraging him on the right path, prompting him to gallop faster. They needed to move quickly. Gisela’s suffering was a constant reminder that every minute was precious.

* * *

Gisela fought against the pain that threatened to keep her from sleep. She’d been told to rest. Why? By whom? She had to rest to get better. But what was wrong with her?

Pounding sounds and flashing lights filled her mind. She couldn’t see. She could hardly think. She was too warm, and yet, she shivered. Words pattered against her ears like gently falling rain, making no sense. She wasn’t near any mountains. She’d been at sea. Yes, her ship had been at sea when the Saracens had attacked them. They’d told her to stay below—Hilda had nearly strangled her trying to keep her below deck—and yet, Gisela had heard enough of the battle to know they needed her.

needed her.

Perhaps, if she’d gone to help sooner, their captain would not have died.

And if she’d been a bit quicker with her blade, perhaps she wouldn’t have been injured herself.

Injured. That’s right.
was the source of the throbbing pain in her head. The pirate had sliced her just above her right eye, catching her off guard while she battled with another man. She’d forced them both overboard before she’d had a chance to staunch the flow of blood. First she’d thought she’d bleed to death. Then she’d thought Hilda might smother her with her sobbing.

But they’d brought her to a healer. Some king who was supposed to be a healer. And...what was it he’d said?

She’d be dead by morning.

How soon was that? And where were they going?

The man’s voice spoke again. “Faster, Moses. We’ve got to help the princess. We can’t lose her.” His arms tightened around her, pulling her close against his muscle-hardened chest as the horse charged on at greater speeds. “I can’t lose another one.”

Determination and sadness laced through his words, and Gisela felt her heart lifting up a prayer, that this kind man wouldn’t lose... Who was he afraid of losing?

She tried to remember, but her thoughts were blurred. So instead, Gisela snuggled into his embrace, grateful for the solid arms that kept her on the horse, since she was certain she would otherwise fall.

* * *

Moses wouldn’t go any faster, and they’d finally entered the wooded region where John had some hope of finding the hare’s tongue at any time, so he let the animal slow his steps. Fledge had been sleeping on his shoulder, her head tucked in the crook of her wing, but now she looked about as though the scent of the woods sparked in her a hunger for wild game. She pranced impatiently. Her sharp talons prickled him through his leather shirt.

“You want to find a hare, Fledge?”

She cocked her head and trained her bright eyes on him.

“Fly, then. Find a hare. Perhaps it will lead me to the hare’s tongue.”

The bird flew to a branch not far ahead and looked back at him impatiently. John kept his eyes down, scanning the underbrush for a sign of the distinctive leaf pattern he sought. Hare’s tongue tended to grow in shady areas, often in loamy soils, in earth enriched by a long-fallen tree, or among the pebbled manure of the rabbit warrens, as the name of the herb suggested.

The soil was too rocky here, with too much hard yellow clay. John looked past Fledge to the forest beyond. If he traveled farther north, he’d only skirt the rich soil. The chance of him finding the necessary herb wouldn’t be good there.

And yet, if he turned east and plunged into the cool darkness of the woods, he’d quickly enter Illyrian territory. Yes, hare’s tongue might await him there.

But so might his enemies.

For an instant, John recalled the distinctive crooked beak of a nose and the sneering face of the man who’d killed his father. A bandit of sorts, powerful in his own right, Rab the Raider lived by the sword, took what he wanted and didn’t seem to care what destruction he left behind. As John understood it, Rab had come from the north years before. He thrived on war and had moved south to conquer more villages, leaving the once-Lydian village of Bern in Illyrian hands.

Luke kept John updated on the Illyrians’ movements, always with the unspoken implied request to go to war with them. But the situation was stable, if undesirable. John wasn’t about to invite bloodshed on his people—and on his own brother—just to satisfy a desire for revenge. A thirst for revenge could never be satisfied. Even if he killed Rab to avenge his father’s death, one of Rab’s men would then come after him in return. To meet death with death was only to create a cycle of death with no end.

It simply wasn’t worth it.

If he’d had his way, John would have kept to the tip of his peaceful peninsula. But Gisela’s fever grew, and John’s concern for her grew with it. He couldn’t let this precious woman die. She meant more to him than continued peace, more to him than proof that his skills had not dissolved completely. The warm bundle in his arms provoked a sense of protectiveness and allegiance he didn’t fully understand. But there was no time to examine those feelings now. He had to act quickly to save her life. He turned Moses toward the east, to the cool shadows of the mountains. He prayed the shadows held only hare’s tongue and not Illyrian war scouts, watching him.

BOOK: A Royal Marriage
10.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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