Authors: Rachelle McCalla
* * *
John lunged for the banks. The waters tugged at Gisela’s robes, threatening to tear her from his arms. He tried to hoist her higher, fighting against the current and the slippery rocks, nearly falling twice before movement on the bank caught his eye.
Illyrians stood above him on the shore. They fit their arrows to their bow strings and took aim.
There was nowhere to go. Moses swam far beyond him, his nose pointed to the narrow path that led down to the water from the miller’s house.
John gulped a breath, covered the princess as best he could, and bent his knees, plunging them both beneath the surface of the chilly stream. He let his feet leave the rocks, and the greedy current took them both, sweeping them swiftly toward the turning paddles of the miller’s wheel.
At least, in the darkness, the Illyrians would have trouble finding the swirl of water that marked where they swam. And the swift current would deflect the arrows.
John kept his head down until smooth rocks knocked against his knees. He realized that, as the stream widened to meet the miller’s wheel, it also became shallower, and its water flowed less swiftly.
Raising his head and gulping a breath, John stood and found the water reached only to his hips. He could walk, and made for the path by which Moses had already clambered free of the cold waters. Glancing back, he saw the Illyrians in retreat and caught enough of a glimpse of the activity in the moonlight to guess that Renwick and the guards of the riding party had heard the commotion and rushed to his aid.
“Your Majesty?” a voice called from the bank just beyond him.
“Yes. Here! Lend me your hand!”
In a moment two pairs of feet splashed through the shallower waters, and Gisela’s sodden frame was lifted from John’s arms. His hands and fingers trembled after the aching ordeal, yet he still felt a strange sense of loss now that he was no longer holding her. Renwick’s shoulder propped him under one arm and he stumbled toward the bank.
“We ran them off,” Renwick assured him. “We’d been watching for you anxiously. We heard the commotion and saw them shooting. We knew they had no right to be here.”
“Good man.” John stood straighter as he stepped up the dry path. “You did well.”
“Oh, my lady!” Hilda squealed as she ran from the inn toward them.
“Let’s get her inside,” John instructed the men, who carried in the princess.
They hastily brought her in and laid her on a bed while the innkeeper’s wife fussed about the soaking mess she was making on the freshly ticked mattress.
“I thought you were going to pack her eye!” Hilda cried as sputtering oil lamps were brought near enough to see.
With disgust, John saw that Gisela’s eye pack had come off completely and was likely torn apart by the miller’s wheel or swept far downstream. He pulled his pouch from over his shoulder, disheartened to see that the plants inside had been soaked through.
“I’ll make another eye pack.” John tried to be calm, but Gisela’s potential to recover wasn’t good—especially not after the dunking she’d suffered in the chilly waters of the stream. At least she was breathing evenly after her impromptu immersion.
“I need to get her out of her wet clothes. All the men should leave the room.” Hilda began to shoo them out.
“They can leave now.” John got to work quickly crushing the leaves of the best-looking plant. “But I’ve got to get this on her eye. Then I’ll leave and you can undress her.” He hurried to apply the crushed leaves, wishing the light would allow him to inspect her injury more closely.
Instead he ran one hand down her silken cheek, but his hands bore the chill of the river, and he couldn’t gauge how hot her fever burned. Quickly, while Hilda’s back was turned, John pressed his lips to Princess Gisela’s forehead, trying to discern how fiercely her fever raged.
Heat speared through his lips, imparting a far stronger message than the one he’d sought. He recoiled, but not before the memory seared itself into his mind like a firebrand. It was more than mere fever. His lips hadn’t touched a woman since the day his wife had died.
Shoving aside the temptation to press his lips to her again, John focused on her medical condition. Though her fever was down slightly following her unintentional dousing, she would likely suffer chills. How much water had she breathed in? It could kill her even if the hare’s tongue worked.
With a heavy heart he finished and closed the door to her room behind him and prayed silently that his efforts would not have been in vain.
Renwick met him at the door with an anxious expression.
John was soaking wet, cold, hungry—and bone tired.
“The men looked after Moses, Your Lordship,” Renwick offered, using a loftier title than usual.
It made John suspicious. “Moses was nicked by an arrow.”
“We saw, Your Highness. The bleeding has stopped on its own.”
“Good.” John wondered what vexed the man.
Renwick didn’t leave him curious for long. “The men gave chase to the band of Illyrians. They wanted to make sure they were out of the area. They sent a volley of arrows after them.” He gulped a breath. “One of the Illyrians was struck, sire.”
“So was my horse.” John headed for the single flight of stairs that led from the inn rooms above to the common dining hall where a warm fire and roasted meat awaited. He hoped the innkeeper would let him pay for a set of dry clothes.
“He fell and didn’t rise.”
John froze and squinted at Renwick in the darkness of the hallway. “Did he die?”
If they’d killed a man, the Illyrians could use it as an excuse to attack. Death begat death. If his men had killed a man, the Illyrians would kill one of his men—or likely more than one.
“The rest of his band plucked him up and carried him off, but...” Renwick sucked in a breath. Though technically a messenger, Renwick had seen his fair share of battle. He’d ridden with John the day his father died. “It didn’t look good.”
John clapped his hands over Renwick’s forearms and addressed him with greater severity than he’d intended. “Pray that man doesn’t die.”
Renwick winced. “What should I tell the men, sire?”
“Give them my thanks. They did as they were told. They saved my life.”
“And the Frankish princess?”
John shook his head morosely, guilt from his confused feelings swirling with his prayers for her recovery. “Pray for her, as well. If we lose her, we won’t just have the Illyrians to worry about, but the Holy Roman Empire.” He continued to the stairs, the war he’d tried so hard to avoid dogging his every step.
His men looked up at the sound of his boots, their faces drawn with concern.
John offered them a forced smile and held up his hand. “The Frankish princess lives, for now at least—with many thanks to all of you.”
“Sire,” one man spoke up, “we wounded an Illyrian.”
“So I’ve heard. We’ll post a double guard around the inn tonight and dispatch riders to Castlehead to explain the situation to Luke. He’ll need to increase his guard, as well.”
“But, sire,” one of the guards protested, “there are only five of us. If you send two men, there will only be three left to split the guard. One man will have to stand guard all night.”
John sat on a bench as he began the work of prying his water-swollen leather boots from his feet. When he got one off, he addressed his men. “I can take a shift at guard. The Frankish princess lies on the brink of death. It’s not as though I could sleep, given the circumstances.”
As he set about prying the other boot free, John felt a ripple of tension flow through the men. He hadn’t meant to disquiet them, but given the situation, perhaps it was best that they appreciate the potential danger. After all, if Lydia went to war, they’d be on the front lines fighting alongside him.
is arms no longer held her. Gisela shivered, so much colder now that his strong arms were gone. She heard a voice, but it wasn’t the deep, comforting voice of the man who’d protected her. It was Hilda’s voice. The woman’s scent was far more like boiled cabbage than the woodsy, manly scent she’d grown so fond of.
“Where?” She found her voice after a surprising struggle. “Where has he gone?”
“Who, my lady? King John?”
At the sound of his name, Gisela felt her tension ease. Memories returned and chased away the empty darkness. That’s right. King John had kept her safe. His arms had held her so tenderly and so securely. She shivered, missing his warmth. “Yes—King John. Where?” The strain of speaking silenced her question before she could articulate every word.
“Easy now, Your Highness.” Hilda patted her hand. “The king must see to his men. They’ve posted a watch. I don’t know if he can spare a moment for you. Would you like me to ask him?”
Gisela struggled to consider the question. Would she like Hilda to ask King John to see her? She imagined she must look awful. Likely she was in no condition to receive a visitor. And yet, she wanted so much to hear his voice and to feel his strong arms again. Her shivering continued uncontrollably. Could King John ease her fever? They’d called him a healer.
“Yes, please. Ask for him.”
* * *
“Patrol the entire perimeter,” John advised his men. “Don’t neglect the far bank of the river. The Illyrians could easily cross the bridge past the mill or ford the creek upstream and catch us by surprise. We can’t risk that. If they attack with more men...” He shook his head, letting the threat linger unspoken. He could see in the eyes of his men that they understood how outnumbered they were.
In any other situation, he’d have fallen back, emptying the settlement of Millbridge of its inhabitants and fleeing under the cover of darkness to the walled protection of the city of Sardis.
But Sardis was too far away. They didn’t have the luxury of falling back tonight. Princess Gisela had already suffered far more than she should have. He couldn’t risk trying to move her, not after all she’d been through, not even if they tried to keep her comfortable on the litter.
Besides, litters traveled slowly. If they were overtaken on the road without even the walls of the inn to protect them, the Illyrians would finish them off swiftly. Prince Luke would have the war he’d wanted, but it would be on two fronts: with Illyria by land and the entire Roman Empire by sea.
Lydia would be obliterated.
“Do nothing to provoke them,” John cautioned the men. “Even if they attack, don’t fight back unless they threaten the inn itself. Do you understand?”
The men nodded solemnly, and the two appointed for the first shift headed out to patrol. John turned to consult with Renwick but was surprised by a female voice behind him.
“Your Majesty? The princess is asking for you.”
Warm feelings flooded him. Their suddenness and intensity only increased the guilt he felt after kissing Gisela’s forehead, but he couldn’t stay away if she needed him. He’d hoped to survey the area now that he’d changed into dry clothes borrowed from the innkeeper, but the emperor’s daughter would have to come first. She might not be awake for long.
John hurried after the maid, dismissing Renwick. “Try to get some sleep. You and I will have the next watch.”
He entered the private room where the princess lay resting in fresh, dry clothing her maid had brought. Hilda had pulled Gisela’s long hair from its braid. He could see the comb she’d been using to untangle its vast matted wetness. The golden color glowed in the flickering lamplight.
So did her feverish skin. Everything around her eye was still swollen, but at least the herbs were still packed in place where they could do their work.
Princess Gisela turned at the sound of his voice. Relief erased the tension from her features just before a convulsive shiver ran through her.
“Are you feeling worse?” He rushed to her side and felt her face. It was burning hot. Had he imagined it, or was her fever slightly less intense than it had been on the road? Surely the cold river waters had diminished it somewhat, but he couldn’t risk pressing his lips to her again just to be certain. “What can I do for you?”
“I—I’m—” even her voice shuddered as chills quaked through her “—so cold.” Her jaw quivered.
John addressed the maid. “We need more blankets. Tell Renwick to peel the curtains from the litter, if necessary. We’ve got to keep her warm. She’ll waste all her strength shivering otherwise.”
Her fingers felt icy cold as she found his hand, clinging to it as though for dear life.
John scooped her up in the crook of his arm until she sat beside him. He pulled her against him and tried to still her shivers. Hilda headed for the open door, her efforts focused more on fretting than carrying out his instructions.
“Ask the innkeeper’s wife to bring hot water. We’ll have to soak Her Highness’s feet. If they’re half as cold as her hands, they must be like ice.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Hilda lingered in the doorway wringing her hands.
The woman startled and leaped through the door.
It was only after she’d gone that John realized he should have run the errands himself. But he couldn’t leave the princess now. She’d burrowed against his shoulder. Her violent tremors stilled until she merely trembled against him, her feverish breaths even against his neck.
With the pack of herbs still tied tight against her eyelid, there was little he could do but hold her and try to keep her shivering to a minimum. “Is there anything you’d like me to do for you, Your Highness?”
The princess had grown so still in his arms, her shivering reduced to mere quivering, that John wondered for a moment if she hadn’t lapsed out of consciousness again. But then she clenched his hand more tightly and whispered, “Don’t leave me.”
The sincerity of her plea, voiced in such a faint whisper, doused him with an overwhelming desire to see her safely through this ordeal. She was more than just a political pawn, an inconvenience whose arrival might bring war upon his peaceful kingdom.
She was also a woman whose rare bravery had saved her ship. She didn’t deserve to die in return for the good she’d done. An unfamiliar fascination pulled at him. If he could do so without awakening further the emotions buried inside him, he’d like to learn more about the remarkable daughter of the emperor. But in order for that to happen, she’d have to survive the night.
* * *
Gisela clutched at the coarse fabric of King John’s tunic. This wasn’t the same chain mail habergeon he’d worn over leather garments when she’d ridden with him earlier.
But he was still the same man, his woodsy scent already chasing away the boiled cabbage odor that had trailed through the open door after Hilda. His deep accent lilted pleasantly as he promised to stay by her side, to see her through her injuries until she’d recovered.
A sense of peace seeped past her fever as he held her securely, promising to do all he could to ease her pain. She’d have to be certain her father compensated King John for his selfless assistance.
As her chills subsided, she managed to find her voice. “I can’t see.”
“Your injury has swollen your eyes shut. When the infection subsides we’ll be able to assess the damage, but from what I’ve seen, the blade missed your eye. You should retain your vision.”
Relief eased the last of her shivers. She relaxed as her fear of living as a blind woman subsided with the king’s assurances. After all, Warrick, the Illyrian prince she’d been betrothed to marry, would likely frown on the idea of taking a blind woman for a wife—not when he could have his pick of unblemished women.
Again, she found herself wondering what King John looked like. Was he as handsome as Hilda’s inflection had led her to believe? He certainly had a beautiful spirit and a kind disposition. She could only imagine his physical features would match his generous soul.
But what did he think of her? Concern over the festering wound forced words to her trembling lips. “Will I be ugly?”
The question came out bluntly, but to her relief King John took no offense. “The natural fold of your eyelid should disguise the scar. I may be able to suture the gash as it heals to minimize its appearance.”
Gratitude welled inside her, but in her feverish state, she couldn’t find the words to express her thankfulness. Silence stretched between them. Warmed by his presence, her shivers abated and she felt a measure of her strength return.
The king continued in a musing voice, as though almost to himself, “Not that such a little thing could diminish your remarkable beauty.”
“You’re already in my good graces, King John. Don’t trouble yourself flattering me.”
He straightened at her suggestion. “I didn’t realize you were still awake. You had relaxed so.” He sighed. “That wasn’t empty flattery, Princess. You are as lovely a woman as I have ever seen. Your Illyrian prince is a fortunate man. And I will consider myself equally fortunate if your fever erases all memory of this conversation.”
“I think my fever is easing, Your Majesty.”
He touched her face. “Perhaps it is. And I hear Hilda approaching with your blankets, so I’ll give you my leave before I embarrass myself further.” Gently, as though he feared she might break, King John eased himself away from her, tucking blankets up as far as her chin and instructing her maid about soaking her feet.
Warmth spread up Gisela’s legs as Hilda dipped first her toes, then, by stages, her whole feet into the heated water.
And yet, as she heard John’s footsteps retreating down the hall, Gisela couldn’t suppress a cold shiver, missing him.
* * *
John rubbed his temples as he fled from Princess Gisela’s bedside. He was tired. He’d been through a great deal and still had a long night ahead of him.
Still, that was no excuse for the way he’d let down his guard, speaking aloud words better left only in his thoughts. The princess must think he was full of empty flattery!
He tried to tell himself it didn’t matter. He might have been caught muttering far worse, especially with the threat of war foisted upon them. But he knew his lapse rankled him precisely because it was the worst possible thing the royal woman could have heard him utter. Ever since his wife’s death three years before, he had taken great pains to make it perfectly clear to everyone in his kingdom that he had no interest in taking another wife.
Even after so long, the eligible maidens and their eager parents were only now beginning to believe him. If it became known that he’d heaped flattering words upon the emperor’s daughter, people might think he’d changed his mind about not wanting a woman. And with the princess obviously unavailable, he’d be back to discouraging eager females again.
But Princess Gisela was the only one who’d heard him. Was there any way he could beg her not to repeat what he’d said?
Not without revisiting it. And if there was any hope that she might not remember his words, he wasn’t about to remind her of them.
Unless she gave him the impression that she remembered, after all.
John rubbed his temples again as he fled outdoors, grateful for the relative cool after the distressing warmth of the feverish princess.
He’d passed Renwick’s sleeping form in the main hall of the inn, and so sought out his men patrolling the perimeter. He could only pray the Illyrians would think better of launching an assault. At the very least, they might postpone their attack until the Frankish princess was safely ensconced in the queen’s tower, the most securely buttressed point of the fortress at Castlehead.
The thought of further harm coming to her filled him with cold dread. Obviously his reaction was due to their political entanglements. She was under his protection now and would remain so until he could hand her off to her betrothed or until her father sent a more substantial escort than the wounded ship with its inexperienced captain.
Assuming, of course, she survived long enough for that to happen.
* * *
As the warm blankets and heated water chased her chills away and the cool herbs above her eye purged the poison of infection, Gisela’s thoughts began to make more sense, except for one thing.
She missed the king’s presence.
It was odd. She’d never been one to rely on any specific person to make her feel better. Her mother had died when she was a toddler, her father was a busy man and she had enough siblings, half siblings and servants that for most of her life she hadn’t concerned herself much about who was around. It had been enough to know that there were plenty of people nearby and that they all cared for her with more or less equal devotion.
It was a strange sensation, wanting a particular person present, even though between Hilda and the innkeeper’s wife bustling about offering her blankets and hot tea, she might have preferred to be left alone.
She told herself she simply wanted King John near so he could monitor her injury. And of course, she felt she could trust him.
But it wasn’t as though she
trusted her middle-age maid or the innkeeper’s wife.
Still, the inexplicable longing wouldn’t go away.
“Is he coming back?”
coming back, Your Grace?” Hilda’s voice sounded haggard, and Gisela realized the woman would have normally been snoring for hours by this time of night.
“He just left not so long ago. I imagine he has matters to attend to.”
“I see. Of course.” Gisela resolved to rest and forget about the king. “Don’t bother about the heated water, Hilda. You need your sleep.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.”
As Hilda settled onto the other mattress, it occurred to Gisela that, really, someone ought to fetch the king to look at her injury again
her maid went to sleep. Otherwise, assuming the innkeeper’s wife didn’t return (and she’d been gone long enough, Gisela supposed she’d retired for the night), there wouldn’t be anyone to fetch the king, if she needed him.