Authors: Rachelle McCalla
“Hilda? Could you please ask the king to check my injury one last time?”
“Yes, Your Highness.” The maid heaved herself to her feet and shuffled past.
Gisela listened to the sounds of the night and wished she could see, but the swath of fabric that secured the herbs to her eyelid stretched across both of her eyes. Whether she’d be able to open even the left one without it, she wasn’t certain.
The minutes crawled by slowly. Gisela had tried so hard to ignore her fears, but in the dark silence they taunted her with every unfamiliar noise. Without her sight she was particularly vulnerable, especially alone. Had she been unwise to send Hilda to fetch the king? Worse yet, what if the king and his guards were in the middle of some vital operation and Hilda stumbled into it?
Gisela wasn’t entirely clear on the events that had preceded her arrival at the inn, but she’d caught enough of the discussion through her fever to deduce that they were in danger from enemy war scouts in the area. Was King John needed outside more urgently than she needed him inside?
Had she exposed them to danger through her selfish request? And why did she feel so strongly about seeing the king again?
* * *
John turned at the sound of Hilda’s voice, instantly concerned. The maid should be at Princess Gisela’s bedside, not out here by the river, looking for him. He darted downstream, speaking softly before she called out for him again. “Yes, Hilda?”
“She’s asking for you again.”
A wave of relief hit him with force, followed by an almost euphoric joy he attributed to happiness that the princess was well enough to speak. Certainly it had nothing to do with her request to see him. She only needed his medical knowledge—not anything more personal than that.
Still, he hurried after the maid, fearful that she’d already left the princess unguarded for long minutes while she’d been out searching for him. John had traveled upstream, expanding the search perimeter looking for signs that the Illyrians might have forded the creek.
The darkness had yielded no sign of them. He passed the other two guards on his way to the inn and was relieved to see them patrolling attentively.
Hilda panted as she held her oil lamp aloft and led him into the low-beamed private room.
“Did you find him?” Gisela asked.
Realizing the princess had heard her maid but was unable to see him, John hastened forward and scooped up her hand. “I’m here.”
A smile spread across her lips and the anxiety fled from her features.
John found the expression contagious and couldn’t help grinning back. Certainly his relief stemmed from finding her responsive—from finding her alive at all. He’d not stopped praying for her since he’d left her bedside.
He pressed his hand to her forehead. To his immense relief, her fever had already begun to abate, even from its reduced state when he’d left her last.
“Hilda? Where are the herbs I brought in my pack?”
“I gave them to the innkeeper’s wife, Your Majesty. She was going to put them in a pot.”
Instantly alarmed, John snapped, “She can’t cook with them! The princess is still in a precarious state. I need those herbs—they must be fresh!”
“I’m sorry, Your Majesty. I didn’t mean a cooking pot. She was going to plant them in soil to keep them alive, sire. That’s all. Shall I fetch some?”
Mollified by her reassurances, John softened his tone. “Please, if you can find them, bring me the whole pot. I’ll pick what I need.”
“Yes, sire.” Hilda shuffled past him, taking her oil lamp with her, leaving him only one sputtering flame to see by.
“I’m sorry if she interrupted your patrol.” The princess looked repentant.
“It’s fine. You don’t need to apologize. I’ve seen no sign of the Illyrians, and my guards are actively patrolling. In any case, your condition is of paramount importance. I’m glad you asked for me before your maid retired for the night. I was hoping to change your bandages again and refresh the herbs. They seem to be helping.”
“Yes. I’m feeling more alert and less feverish already.”
“Good,” John said, though he felt a prickle of distress that she might remember the words he’d spoken earlier when he hadn’t expected her to hear. His mouth dry, he posed a tentative question. “Have you been awake since...” His words dropped off as he tried to think of the best way to pose his question.
“Since you heaped flattering words upon me?” Princess Gisela’s slight grin told him she was teasing him.
His heart stuttered at being caught, then an unfamiliar thrill of relief rippled through him. The princess wasn’t upset. In spite of her continued fever, she was playing with him.
King John wasn’t used to lighthearted repartee. Few were the men in his kingdom who would dare to jibe with him. His brother Luke was far too serious in demeanor, and his brother Mark was away on a journey. That left only his little sister, Elisabette, and though she’d once enjoyed nothing more than goading him to laughter, the girl was growing into a woman and leaving her playful ways behind.
Gisela’s smile spread across pearly teeth. “I haven’t forgotten, Your Majesty, though I struggle to understand your embarrassment. Your compliments were quite kind, considering my condition.”
“I hadn’t meant to be heard. I would appreciate it if you keep those comments to yourself. I can’t have anyone thinking that I...” John tried to think of an appropriate way to express what he meant without making the situation worse.
“That you revere the emperor’s daughter for her beauty?” Gisela finished his statement for him. “It is well-known that Lydia is a Christian nation. My father’s empire is Christian, as well. We do not worship our leaders as some nations do. That fact is well-known. I doubt anyone would misinterpret your words, but since you’ve requested that I not repeat them, I shall refrain from doing so.”
Relieved as he was by her promise, John didn’t bother to correct her interpretation. Everything she’d said was quite true, other than her guess at his reason for making the request. And he wasn’t about to correct her on that, since it would require him to explain feelings he neither wanted nor understood.
John hastened to change the subject. “Assuming Hilda is able to find my herbs, I’d like to change your compress. Do you mind if I remove the bandages?”
“Please do. I feel as though the swelling has gone down, and I’m curious to discover whether I can open my left eye.”
“I’m not sure that’s wise.” John began tugging at the knot that bound the herbs in place. “You ought not strain yourself too soon.”
“But how will I know...” The princess began hesitantly as a coy smile graced her lips.
“How will you know
” The knot came free at last, and John eased the bandage away from her eyes. The crust of infection that sealed her lids shut had trapped even her left eyelashes. “Don’t try to open your eyes just yet,” he cautioned her. “Let me use a warm compress to soften the film.”
The pot of steaming water had cooled somewhat, but John found it still warm enough for his purposes. He dipped a soft rag into the boiled water and pressed it gently against her left eye.
“Does that hurt?”
“It’s soothing.” Her demeanor had grown more serious.
John found himself longing for her to toy with him again. It was a silly thing to fancy, but it made his heart feel far lighter than he could recall it feeling in recent memory. “If you can see,” he adopted a serious tone, “what is it you want to know?”
The smile returned to her face, this time with an impish dimple that winked at him from high on her cheek. He hadn’t noticed it before because the bandage had obscured it. Now he instantly wished to see it again.
“I would like to see—” the dimple flashed at him, then disappeared as the princess matched his tone in mock-seriousness “—if the king who heaps such flattery upon me has a face that begs for accolades as well.”
“I cannot answer that, but you may find out for yourself in a moment.”
* * *
Gisela’s heart beat as rapidly as it had at any time during the height of her fever. She wasn’t usually so bold in her chatter, certainly not with near strangers, although in feasting season her father’s household was filled to the rafters with joking and jesting, and several of her brothers prided themselves in their skill at exchanging jibes.
She was no match for them, but there was something about King John’s otherwise melancholy spirit that challenged her to make him smile. And after her long journey holed up in a ship’s cabin to keep her away from improprietous sailors, she was ready to accept that challenge with gusto. Uncertain as she was about his physical appearance, she had nonetheless long believed that a smile improved the features of any person.
Besides, when she heard the sadness in his voice, all she could think about was easing his sorrow, if only for a moment.
“There.” John dabbed gently at her left eye. “The light is not well, but if you can open just your left eye, we’ll see what you can see.”
Cautiously, taking care not to disturb her injured right eyelid, Gisela lifted her left eyelid until she could just make out the yellow glow of the oil lamp. She let out a relieved breath, grateful that she still retained the ability to see. Then she lifted the lid a little farther and turned her head to the place where John’s voice had last sounded.
It took a moment for her vision to focus. Then she saw him dipping the rag he’d used in the pot of warm water and wringing it out carefully before turning to face her. Dark hair revealed that he was young for a king—young enough that no gray hairs discolored his ebony locks.
And he was handsome. As he bent over her, she was able to get a better look and felt a smile spread across her lips in spite of her best efforts to stop it. Had she ever seen a more handsome man? Not with only one eye, that was for certain. She could only imagine he’d look even better when she saw him with both eyes.
King John’s serious expression lightened. “Why are you grinning?”
“I can see you.” She felt herself blushing and wished she could think of a lighthearted jab to cover her reaction at seeing him for the first time. But all she could think of was the way his arms had felt around her earlier. Her blush deepened.
His expression sobered again. “I wonder what’s become of Hilda.”
The giddy delight she felt while looking at him was quickly replaced by fear for her maid’s safety. How long had Hilda been gone? Gisela realized she’d been so distracted by her conversation with the king that she’d lost all track of time.
John set aside the bandages. “I’ll go look for her.”
“Is it safe?”
“For me to leave or for you to be left alone?”
“Safe enough. Try to rest. I should be back soon to redress that eye.” He darted away quickly, almost as though he was in a hurry to be gone from her side.
ohn rushed outside looking frantically for Hilda or either of the guards. Were they safe? He could only pray they were. As for his safety, he’d quickly realized he’d be far safer outside than he was in Princess Gisela’s room. Even if the Illyrians had them surrounded, that was preferable to the dangers of getting close to the emperor’s daughter.
At what point had their discussion turned so coy? He reviewed their course of conversation as he trotted around the inn in search of Hilda or the plants she’d gone to find.
With chagrin, he realized he’d been afflicted the moment he’d entered her room and a thousand times more so when he’d taken her hand.
By the time he’d seen the dimples on her cheeks, he’d been utterly smitten.
Was he a fool? Her father was the greatest leader the Holy Roman Empire had ever known. Everyone knew Charlemagne was a zealous family man who adhered strongly to the tenets of the Christian faith.
John embraced those same tenets himself. So how had he let himself get so close to a woman who was promised to another? If they suspected him of any impropriety, he’d have the wrath of both Charlemagne and the Illyrians on his head—and on his kingdom.
“Hilda!” He spotted her making her way up from the river, huffing along carrying a burden he couldn’t identify in the darkness, though she acted as though it was much heavier than his herbs should have been.
“Sire,” the maid wheezed as she made her way up the bank. Her words came out in spurts between gasping breaths. “She took it down to the river to water it.”
John could only assume Hilda was referring to the innkeeper’s wife, and her plan to pot his herbs like some sort of domesticated houseplant. He rushed forward and helped Hilda carry the heavy pot.
It wasn’t a bad idea to attempt to grow the plants in a portable container, although the pot the innkeeper’s wife had chosen wasn’t particularly portable. And he couldn’t imagine why the woman had decided to carry his precious herbs to the riverside instead of fetching water and bringing it up to the inn.
But as they stepped into a patch of moonlight, John was able to get a better look at his plants and realized they’d survived. Was there any way he could get a fresh bunch of crushed leaves on Princess Gisela’s eyelid without talking with her?
“Hilda, could you pack the herbs—”
“Oh, no, sire. I haven’t got a healing bone in my body.”
“But it’s really just a matter of placing the herbs—”
Hilda waved her hands in refusal as she panted back toward the inn. “I’m no healer, sire.”
John stared after the maid for a moment.
“Lord, what does it mean?” he asked, looking up at the sky, where the stars winked down at him, reminding him of Gisela’s dimple.
He sighed. He wasn’t going to find the answer tonight. The princess needed another compress of crushed hare’s tongue, and according to Hilda, he was the only one who could do it—though the placement of the herbs was simple enough.
No, keeping his heart safe from the emperor’s daughter—that would be the real challenge.
* * *
Gisela recognized Hilda’s huffing as the woman approached down the hall. The smell of boiled cabbages preceded her, and the maid slumped onto her mattress without taking off her shoes.
“Did you find him?”
“Aye,” Hilda panted.
“Is he coming? Does he have the herbs?”
“Yes,” the maid answered, and the sound of approaching footsteps confirmed her words.
Suddenly nervous, Gisela wondered what she should say to the king. Somehow, when she hadn’t been able to see him, he’d seemed...safe. Tame.
But when she’d seen his face for the first time and the silhouette of his broad shoulders in the flickering lamplight, she’d realized he was dangerously handsome. Strong. Regal. Not someone she’d have chosen to spend time with, given that she was promised to another. At least this time she had Hilda in the room.
“Your Highness?” John asked quietly from the doorway.
As Gisela was about to answer, a loud snore rose from Hilda’s mattress.
Gisela giggled, and an instant later the king knelt beside her.
Hilda snored again.
King John smirked. “I knew that wasn’t you.” He carried a few plucked sprigs of herb in his hand. As he crushed the leaves between his fingers, their pungent scent filled the room.
“You don’t sound so sure. Who’s to say I don’t snore?”
“You’re far too lovely.” His words dropped to near silence, almost as though he was ashamed of having spoken them.
Gisela wasn’t sure how to respond. She lay still as he bent over her and pressed the leaves into place over her injury. To her relief, the application didn’t pain her one fraction as much as the first dose had. “How does the gash look?”
“It’s on the mend. And so are you. You won’t need me for the ride to Castlehead tomorrow.”
“You’re leaving?” She felt shocked by the intensity of the pang that struck her at the thought of their separation. “Why?”
“I need to secure this region against the Illyrians. You need to rest in safety.”
“What if my condition grows worse?”
“You’re on the mend,” he repeated as he tied the binding that secured the herbs in place over her eyelid.
Gisela understood. She knew her intended was the only man with whom she should spend any time. And yet, the thought of John’s leaving shook her with surprising force.
“You should rest now.” King John stood and took a step toward the door.
For long breathless seconds Gisela tried frantically to think of some way of keeping him at her side. But just as when her father headed off on his missions, there was nothing she could say to keep him near her. Not then. Not now. Her life was not her own.
“Thank you for all you’ve done for me. I owe you my life. My father will see that you are generously rewarded.”
He lingered a moment and cleared his throat, as though grasping at the proper words that fit their circumstances. Royal positions were all about etiquette and formalities.
But she knew of no formality that covered a king saving the life of the emperor’s daughter. Perhaps she could salvage a bit of her dignity yet. “I’m sorry if I said anything unbecoming. The fever went to my head.”
“You have nothing to apologize for,” John answered finally. “And you don’t owe me anything. I am honored to have been of service to the empire and to you.”
Gisela opened her mouth to respond, but he was already gone, his footsteps retreating rapidly down the hall.
Gisela groaned softly, regretting her words, regretting that she and the king were so soon to part ways. Was he really not going to be traveling back with her? What if she didn’t see him again before her party struck out for the Illyrian kingdom where her prince awaited?
The thought of her coming marriage burned more deeply against the pain in her heart. Why had she agreed to marry Warrick the Illyrian? Granted, the political situation required that one of Charlemagne’s daughters enter into such a union. The Illyrians had requested her specifically. She’d wanted to experience life outside of her father’s household, and given her father’s overprotective nature, nothing short of a marriage agreement would suffice to accomplish that. But now she was set to be wed to a man she’d met only twice. There was no way around it, so there was no sense wishing otherwise.
* * *
“In the past two days we’ve seen no sign of Illyrian scouts.” Prince Luke pulled his horse’s head even with that of the king’s mount. “They’ve made no move to attack. I’ve never known them to be so quiet.”
“They’re surely biding their time, plotting their strategy for the perfect assault.” John heard the morose tone of his words, but he did nothing to hide his attitude from his brother. Luke already knew perfectly well how much he detested war.
“Is that what’s put you in such a bad mood? The thought of war?”
“Fledge is still missing.”
“I know you love your falcon, but I can’t believe your attitude is due to her absence. She’s been missing far longer before and always returned.”
John looked at his brother and tried to judge where the younger prince was headed with his line of questions.
The way Luke pursed his lips, John could tell he was forming his next question.
“You were in perfectly good spirits while we were fencing before the Frankish princess arrived.”
“Yes,” John acknowledged. “That was before all the trouble began.”
“And yet,” Luke continued as their horses picked a path along a deer trail that led up from the river to the mountains, “I don’t believe your doldrums set in until we parted ways with Her Highness.”
John wasn’t about to let his brother lead him into a discussion about Princess Gisela. Luke knew him far too well and would pick up on his divided loyalties.
“You don’t suppose the Illyrians have circled around us to attack Sardis, do you?”
“They couldn’t organize an assault so quickly.” Luke dismissed the suggestion. “Are you worried for the safety of Her Highness? She’ll soon reach Castlehead, even accounting for slow travel by litter.”
“Knowing her, she had the men roll up the litter and she’s taken a horse.”
“You know her that well, do you, brother?”
Unsure how Luke had so quickly trapped him, John evaded his brother’s jab. “She’s easy enough to read. Stubborn. Spirited. Impossible to reason with once she’s set her mind on something.”
“You paint her in a negative light.” Luke drew his horse nearer and spoke in a musing tone. “Why are you so eager to heap insults upon a woman you ought, for the sake of international peace, to hold in high esteem?”
“I esteem her well enough. But let’s not let ourselves be distracted from our plight with the Illyrians.”
“I’ve seen no sign of any Illyrians,” Luke refuted. “But I can’t help wondering why you’re so dismissive of Her Highness. I got the impression she was
fond of you.”
John could think of no words his brother couldn’t twist, so he remained silent.
“You’ve gone rather red in the face, dear brother.”
“It’s a warm day.”
“We should stop and rest, then.”
And face his brother? John was loath to risk it. “We should keep going.”
Luke began to laugh.
“Quiet. You’ll give away our position.”
Luke laughed harder.
“There could be Illyrian war scouts hiding behind any bush. Pray tell me, brother, what you find so humorous that you’re willing to risk giving away our presence because of it?”
“You fancy her.”
“What? Who?” John sputtered, recovering from the question more slowly than he would have liked, the mad thumping of his heart making it difficult for him to form coherent thoughts. “My missing falcon? Fledge is one of the finest birds I’ve ever owned. Of course I fancy her.”
“Stop your horse.” Luke held his mount and studied his brother’s face.
John dropped his voice to a whisper. “Illyrians?”
“Emotions.” Luke let his horse proceed again. “Yours.”
“I have none. I gave them up when Dorcas died.” John spoke of his late wife’s passing, knowing his brother respected his loss. Perhaps Luke would leave off his questioning after that reminder.
“She died. You didn’t. You’re still here and still capable of feeling.”
“Don’t speak so brazenly of my loss. I shall mourn her passing every day of my life.”
“I mean no disrespect, John.” Luke’s voice grew serious. “You loved your wife with your whole heart, with every fiber of your being. I find it difficult to believe that someone who loved so well and so fully could live out his days without loving again.”
“It’s not a matter of loving again. My heart still belongs to Dorcas.”
“But she is gone, and you are here. If you never take another wife then I will be your heir.” Luke gave him a long look.
John remained silent. He was certain Luke understood full well his resolution not to remarry, just as he understood Luke’s disdain for his position in line for the throne.
Finally Luke sighed. “I have never loved as you loved, so I cannot judge. But I saw the look Princess Gisela gave you as you were parted. If a woman ever looked at me that way, I don’t think I could turn my back and ride off as you did.”
“What look? She only had use of one eye.”
“You know the look I mean. And I am correct in thinking you have feelings for her. Your distress betrays that.”
“She is promised to another man—and not just any man! A prince among our enemies. Do you want to be destroyed by the Illyrians for revenge? Or are you so eager for war that you would use her as bait on your hook?”
Luke’s face flashed with anger. “I am not eager for
brother. I’m eager to have our land united again. As king, you have a duty to protect your people. I cannot fathom why you choose to turn your back on that duty.”
“I protect my people—from warmongers like you.”
“Is that what I am?” Luke turned his horse and pranced the steed backward, away from his brother. “Go back to Castlehead and check on your princess, but think on what I’ve said. I’ll be here, protecting the borderlands.”
“I can protect my kingdom,” John shouted as his brother rode away.
“Can you?” Luke’s voice faded with the distance between them.
* * *
Gisela lay back on the litter and tried her best to rest, though her strength had returned in the three days since King John had helped her. She’d have gladly taken a horse instead of resting, except that she’d only find herself en route to her intended that much sooner that way. “Do you think we should stop again?” she asked Hilda.
“We’ve only just got going again from the last break we took,” the maid chided her. “Are you that reluctant to return to your ship?”
“I don’t believe it’s safe to continue on,” Gisela asserted. “Our vessel is wounded, and our crew is shorthanded.”
“But we’re nearly to our destination. With a brisk wind, we could make it up the coast in three days and deliver you to your prince.”
“Hilda—” Gisela felt her distress increasing at the mere thought of the Illyrian who awaited her “—don’t you think it rude to take leave before King John returns? He must be compensated for saving my life. At the very least, I owe him a debt of thanks.”