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Authors: Rachelle McCalla

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BOOK: A Royal Marriage
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Chapter Three

T
he deeper they traveled into the forest, the greater John’s sense of anxiety grew. He recognized these woods. They were transformed from the snow-covered lands that had hidden the herb that might have saved his mother, but they looked all too much as they had the day his father had died here.

Woods of death, that’s what they were. And he’d been foolish enough to travel here in search of healing.

“Almighty God in heaven, have mercy,” John prayed in a low voice as Gisela’s moans became less frequent and her fever grew. But hadn’t he prayed for God’s mercy when his mother had died?

He scanned the underbrush, spotting bladderbark, motherwort, hyssop, wormwood and devil’s nettle—enough herbs to cure a host of other ailments, but none that would take care of the infected injury above Gisela’s right eye. The shadows lengthened, threatening to cloak the tiny leaves of hare’s tongue in darkness.

There was nothing for it but to give up or continue deeper into the territory the Illyrians had stolen from Lydia over the past several generations. If Lydia hadn’t lost those lands, the hare’s tongue would have been easy enough to get. The loss tugged at him. Perhaps there was something to be said for taking back these lands.

But there was no point thinking about that now. Gisela lay deathly still, with only the fiery warmth of her fever to reassure him that he hadn’t lost her yet.

Fledge had flown back to him and now pranced in place on his shoulder, straining forward, pointing her beak toward potential prey. John recognized her dance and followed the aim of her gaze to where a plump bunny sat among the underbrush, a long leafy stem drooping from its mouth, half-eaten, dangling like a green tongue.

Hare’s tongue.

The animal had sensed their approach and stood frozen like a furry statue.

Fledge’s wings beat thrice as she lifted off from John’s shoulder. As she sped toward the hare the animal took off, the falcon in hot pursuit.

John didn’t waste any time watching to see if his falcon caught her prey. Noting the place where the rabbit had been munching on the precious herb, he scooped Gisela up in his arms and slid from Moses’s back, settling her in a soft bed of leaves.

“Lie here. I’ll be right back,” he promised the princess, though he doubted she was in any condition to hear him. He darted to the spot where the rabbit had been munching the herb, and found, to his relief, several plants nearly as high as his ankle—a good size for the reclusive vegetation and an indication that these late-season specimens were mature enough to contain the fever-reducing oils. Grabbing them up roots and all from the loose soil, he stuffed all but one into the bag he wore strapped crossways over his chest.

He tore leaves from the last plant, crushing them between the gloved fingers of his left hand as he hurried back to the princess.

The underbrush beyond him rustled with movement. His attention on the herb and the suffering princess, John paid the sound no heed until a flash of activity ahead of him caught his attention.

Fledge had her hare to the north beyond him.

So what was that sound coming from the south, behind him?

John had his right hand on his sword hilt as he spun around. Branches shifted in a stand of bushes.

Something was there.

It could be a bear or a fox or possibly a slighted falcon that had lost his lunch to Fledge. Or it could be an Illyrian war scout. Whatever it was, it wasn’t attacking, at least not yet.

But the Frankish princess needed the herbs, and the sun was sinking fast, taking with it any hope for her recovery. Even if that was an Illyrian in the bushes, it would take a flurry of arrows to kill the princess any faster than the fever that already had her in its grip, dragging her relentlessly through death’s door.

Crouching at her side, John hastily applied the crushed herbs to the festering injury, ignoring its ugliness. He’d seen worse.

Of course, most of those had killed the men who’d borne them.

* * *

The pungent scent of freshly crushed herbs teased her nostrils. Gisela tried to think past the pain. Herbs were important somehow, vitally important, but she couldn’t think how.

Suddenly jabbing spears prodded at her eye and light exploded across her field of vision. She tried to cry out, but all she managed was a whimper.

“It’s all right. I’ve found the hare’s tongue. You’ll be fine,” a deep voice soothed. The spears stopped jabbing, and coolness ebbed through her fever, with every feverish pulse of her heart drawing relief out of the mass that had been crammed against her eyelid.

A gentle hand cupped her cheek for just a moment, then slid under her head, lifting her, tying something around her eyes, binding the cooling herbs against the point of pain. “There now.” Fingers brushed her face again, tenderly, almost reverently. She heard a whisper of words, realizing only after a moment that the speaker wasn’t addressing her directly. It was a prayer.

* * *

With the crushed herbs packed over and around the open wound, John peeled off Princess Gisela’s silk veil to use as a bandage to hold the healing compress in place. A long, thick braid of golden hair brushed his hand, freed from the veil that had hidden it. The silken strands were scented like roses, and for an instant John pictured her with the lovely locks cascading about her shoulders, and imagined what her flowing mane might feel like if he ran his hands through it.

John immediately chastised himself for being distracted by her beauty. She was the emperor’s daughter. It wasn’t proper for him to feel these swirling emotions that cracked the crust of his hardened heart. His job was to save her life. He hastened to fulfill that obligation.

In spite of his chastisements, John couldn’t help picturing how the lovely princess would look without the injury above her eye. If she was fortunate enough to survive, the wound would likely blend in with the fold of her eyelid.

She would be a picture of royal beauty.

His work done, there was nothing more he could do but pray.

The bushes rustled again, nearer this time, and John looked up.

Three red feathers stood stiffly like a plume from the helmet of the man in the bushes. An Illyrian—the distinctive feathers indicated his status as an infantryman. He’d obviously been watching John.

For an instant, John considered speaking to the man, explaining his situation and excusing himself.

But the man had obviously realized he’d been spotted. He raised an arrow and fitted it in his bow.

John scooped up the princess. “Still, Moses,” he insisted, grateful when the horse stopped his nervous prancing long enough for John to toss the princess over his withers before leaping on after her. It wasn’t graceful, but the whiz of an arrow’s flight just past his ear told him there wasn’t time to attempt a more genteel position.

Nor was there time to find Fledge. The bird would have to find him.

“Fly, Moses, fly!”

The stallion pranced backward a few steps before he spun around and took off to the south, more than eager to return the way they’d come. After wrapping one hand tightly around the reins and looping his other arm around Gisela’s waist so she wouldn’t slide off the speeding horse, John risked a glance behind him.

The plumed man had turned and headed north on foot, leaping over logs and underbrush in a mad dash.

Back to his village? John had posed no threat to him. He obviously wasn’t running for safety. No, there was only one explanation for the man’s mad-dash flight through the woods.

He was going to get reinforcements.

Rather than risk injuring the princess any more, John paused just long enough to hoist her upward, so that she was resting on her rump instead of her ribs. They’d make faster time, and she’d handle the trip better.

Her head slumped back against his shoulder almost lifelessly, but the sound of her sigh told him she still had the breath of life in her. For now, at least.

“Fledge?” John called out and whistled for the falcon, but saw no sign of his bird. When she was hunting for herself and not for him, she liked to carry off her prey to an isolated spot where she didn’t have to share. He didn’t usually begrudge her the indulgence, but today he did not have time to linger. “Fledge!”

No sign of the bird, and John couldn’t wait. If his estimations were correct, the Illyrian would reach the nearest village in a matter of minutes. If he returned on horseback, single-mounted riders on fresh horses might easily overtake Moses, encumbered as he was after a long journey.

“Fly, Moses, fly.” John gave the horse his head. The animal knew how to find footing in the woods better than John could guide him. Darkness fell as they dashed through the trees. John could only hope the lengthening shadows would camouflage his position from the Illyrians who were sure to be close behind him.

“This way.” As they came to a path, John nudged Moses in the direction of the wayside inn where he’d agreed to meet Renwick and the riding party traveling with Gisela’s maid. It was out of the way of the route they’d taken earlier and far off the meandering path they’d picked out while looking for the hare’s tongue, but the inn at Millbridge still lay much closer than his castle or the walled city of Sardis. Nonetheless, there was little chance they’d reach it before the Illyrians caught up to them.

John regretted that he hadn’t had an opportunity to change from his cross-emblazoned habergeon before departing. Though its metalwork would protect him from the direct hit of an arrow, the symbol nonetheless clearly identified him.

Assuming the Illyrian recognized the Lydian crown, or could describe what he’d seen well enough for another to identify it, the Illyrians would know who’d trespassed on the land they’d taken. Luke always had his scouting men ride in the unassuming leather garb of huntsmen. The Illyrian’s bright red plumage told John that the Illyrians hadn’t caught on to Luke’s disguises, since they’d failed to adopt the technique themselves.

Nonetheless,
he
was bound to be recognized by the inlaid mother-of-pearl disks that formed the design splashed across his front and back. So in spite of his determination to be a man of peace, he’d end up bringing trouble to Lydia after all.

Something thwacked at the leaves near him. John glanced back.

The Illyrians were gaining on him quickly, even as they fitted arrows to their bows.

Suddenly Moses reared! John spotted the spot where an arrow had grazed his haunch. Moses took off at a fierce speed while John struggled to keep Gisela upright. He couldn’t lose her now. The very thought tore at his heart, and he pulled her tighter against him.

Trees barred their way. In his frightened state, Moses had left the path and now dipped and darted between the trees in a frenzy.

John let the horse find his own way. He had his hands full holding on to Gisela, keeping them both on the rocking back of the pain-crazed stallion.

With a twang, an arrow lodged itself deep in a tree just ahead of him.

The Illyrians were gaining on them.

Splashing sounds below told him Moses had found a stream. The horse took advantage of the creek’s clear path, charging through the shallow waters. John tried to think of all the streams he knew of in the area. If he had the right stream, this one met the river up ahead, just before the place where the miller’s wheel churned the waters beside the wayside inn.

Splashing sounds behind told him the Illyrians had found the stream, as well. John scanned the steep banks, looking for a place where they might leave the open streambed. They made too clear a shot here. Once the stream joined the river, the water would be too deep for Moses to run through it.

But there wasn’t a low spot on the banks. Their steep muddy sides rose up higher than John’s head, and it was all he could do to keep Gisela on the lurching horse’s back while he ducked low over her, shielding her from the flying arrows with the chain mail on his back.

Roaring water up ahead told him the river was near—and surging with water from the summer rains that had fallen in the snow-capped mountains. The water would be frigid.

John tried to pull Moses to the side, but the banks grew steeper as the water plunged over the falls.

John had forgotten about the falls.

They weren’t high—no more than half his height—but Moses leaped over them as though he were leaping from the earth itself. John gathered Gisela in his arms, dropping the reins and allowing Moses free use of his head. The animal would need it if he was to find his feet.

As they came down in the deep swirling pool at the foot of the falls, the water scooped him up like a hand, sweeping him off Moses’s back. John cried out as the cold water swept through his clothes, chilling his skin with its overpowering grip, carrying him downstream. John held tight to the princess and struggled to right himself. The water swirled halfway up John’s chest, and he recalled another disadvantage of wearing chain mail.

It was heavy.

So was the princess, with her draping robes now sodden with water. He struggled to lift her above the level of the churning waters, to keep her safe from the hungry river. His leather boots slid against the smooth rocks of the riverbed. Beyond him, shining pale in the moonlight, the miller’s wheel turned steadily in the surging current.

* * *

Gisela’s prayers for relief from the unrelenting fever had stilled on her silent lips, yet her heart still pounded with the plea. Numb as she felt, she couldn’t be sure what was happening, but it seemed the mount they rode had bolted in fright.

Should she be frightened? No. She trusted the arms that held her, wrapping around her more protectively as the horse galloped frantically. With trembling fingers she grasped the strong arms, holding on. Whatever was happening, she felt instinctively that she could trust these strong arms. She could trust the man who held her.

The sound of splashing water teased her thirst. She’d give anything for a taste of cool water to soothe her parched tongue and throat.

Suddenly cold water enveloped her, dousing the flames of fever and rushing into her open mouth. She drank deeply, grateful for the relief, more grateful still for the strong arms that held her securely and refused to let her go.

BOOK: A Royal Marriage
10.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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