Authors: Rachelle McCalla
“Your father will send payment. King John left on some expedition—”
“Made necessary by my injury,” Gisela finished for her. “You do realize that his quest for the hare’s tongue herb created the situation on the borderlands.”
“There was trouble brewing long before you arrived, my lady.”
“Yes, but I was the spark that lit the fire. My conscience plagues me. What if war breaks out on my account?”
“I trust King John can put out any fire you light. You’ve got an Illyrian prince waiting to wed you. Let’s not keep him waiting.”
“I’m not due until Christmastide.”
“No, but I expect he’d welcome your arrival sooner.” Hilda chuckled.
Gisela squirmed, disturbed by the tone of Hilda’s chuckle. The maid seemed all too eager to see her married off.
Her uneasiness was brief enough. The litter slowed to a stop.
She stuck her head out to inquire of the reason.
“A rider approaches swiftly,” Renwick informed her.
“Is that a bad sign?”
“Your curtains are spread with the royal crest. All riders give way to the crown.”
Gisela’s fear spiked. “Perhaps it’s a messenger with important news.” She squinted with her lone good eye toward the approaching horseman. “Isn’t he wearing the same royal crest?” Sunlight glinted off the mother-of-pearl inlay on his habergeon.
Renwick’s stiff posture relaxed as he let out a breath. “Your Highness is correct. I do believe—” he eyed the horseman as the figure drew nearer “—it is King John himself.”
“Help me down.” Gisela shot her hand out before Hilda could stop her. With Renwick’s assistance she was standing on her own two feet as King John’s horse came to a stop in front of them.
“Is everything all right, Your Majesty?” Renwick asked.
“As right as it can be with one Illyrian war scout dead at our hands.” He dismounted, holding tight to his stallion’s reins. “There’s no sign of Illyrian activity along the borderlands.” He nodded to Gisela. “I thought you’d be relieved to hear that, Your Highness.”
“Quite relieved, Your Majesty, and honored that you took the time to deliver the message personally.”
John nodded, but his eyes roved the road instead of meeting hers. “After finding the border in such a peaceful state, my concern immediately arose for the safety of those in Sardis and Castlehead. I wouldn’t put it past the Illyrians to circle around and mount an attack.”
“Are they able to organize themselves so quickly?” Gisela had spent her youth discussing military strategy over meals, while traveling—any time she was around her father. Her interest was immediately piqued, especially since any attack had essentially been provoked by her intrusion.
“The possibility exists, although I believe their prime window for attack is only now beginning to open.”
Gisela appreciated King John’s astute appraisal. Since he had yet to cast more than the briefest glance her way, she took a step toward him. “I fear my imposition has brought trouble on your peaceful kingdom.”
“Trouble has been brewing for many years, Your Highness.”
“And my arrival has brought it to a full boil. I can’t, in good conscience, allow your people to be endangered for helping me.” She reached for his hand.
He drew back and placed his hands on his horse’s neck.
His action jabbed at her heart, stinging like a tiny spear, but she didn’t allow the pain to show on her face. The guards were watching and listening. She couldn’t show any weakness in front of them.
“You’re injured,” John stated flatly while fussing with his horse’s mane. “The best thing you can do now is be on your way. If trouble comes, I don’t want you to have to meet it.”
Gisela felt as though the tiny spear that had snagged her heart had begun to tear it open. Had John made the journey to meet her, only to send her away?
“Please, Your Majesty. I owe you a debt of gratitude. My father has immense resources at his disposal. Allow me to do whatever I can to assist Lydia’s defense.”
King John felt the eyes of his men upon him. He was trying to push the princess away, but he couldn’t be rude to her.
And he heard the double-edged warning in her words.
My father has immense resources at his disposal. Allow me to do whatever I can to assist Lydia’s defense.
She was offering to help, true enough, but he didn’t miss the implied threat if he failed to accept her help.
My father has immense resources at his disposal.
The last thing he needed was for the emperor to turn those resources on Lydia to avenge a slight against his daughter. But at the same time, he knew it wasn’t wise to spend time with the lovely princess. Even Luke, who was far more adept at spotting signs of war than signs of love, had picked up on the attraction he felt for her.
“Your Highness.” He risked looking at her, and felt his heart lurch inside him as he caught her one good eye. Even injured, she held herself with dignity. “The situation with the Illyrians is quite complicated.”
“Then explain it to me.” She placed her hand over his. “Please?”
He couldn’t risk insulting her. And something deep inside him cried out for her presence as his lungs cried out for air. How could he deny her request? It wasn’t in him.
“Are you able to ride a horse?”
Relief filled her face. “Yes.”
John called for his men to bring a spare horse. “Ride with me, Your Highness, and I shall tell you the ugly story of the relations between Lydia and her Illyrian neighbors.”
With the other riders spread over the road before and behind them, John felt slightly more at ease in the princess’s presence than he had at the inn three nights before. Any of his men or her maid could vouch for his propriety.
They were simply talking. She was well guarded.
He would just have to keep his heart guarded against her as well, and prove to himself and his brother that whatever strange emotions she’d evoked in him were not permanent, and would soon be squashed.
“Tell me more about your kingdom,” the princess prompted as they got underway. “How long has Lydia been a Christian nation?”
“Lydia has always been Christian—the Kingdom of Lydia dates back to the days of the New Testament.”
“In the Bible?”
“The very same.”
“I have read the New Testament several times. I don’t recall reading of any Lydia other than the woman who was a dealer in purple cloth.”
John couldn’t suppress a smile. Princess Gisela was well schooled and astute. “In the book of Acts, Paul met a woman named Lydia, who became one of the first converts to Christianity in this region. She set up a church in her house. It grew to encompass many households, until this entire peninsula was filled with faithful Christians.”
“But didn’t the Roman Empire consider Christianity a crime? Weren’t they persecuted?”
“Very much so. The Christians went into hiding and retreated to Castlehead, where they built the fortress that is now my home. The mountains where we found the hare’s tongue provided a natural boundary for the fledgling nation. The Lydians considered themselves a separate people.”
“I find it difficult to believe they weren’t overpowered or overrun.”
“For several centuries we were left largely alone. Few have bothered to peek past the ridge of mountains to learn about the small kingdom of Christians who cling to the coastline. We have been safe because we are small and not worth the effort and expense of sending an army through the mountains.”
“But aren’t you vulnerable by the sea, as well?”
“Ah, you were consumed by fever when your ship approached, or you would have noted the rocky shore.”
“Our ship put down anchor at some distance to avoid the rocks.”
“And you came in at our most passable point. Castlehead provides a watchtower over the only possible point of approach by sea. The rest of our shoreline is completely impassable, except by small fishing vessels. And I must add—” he leaned a little closer as their horses trotted side by side “—the fishing off the Lydian coast is excellent.”
Gisela beamed at him. “Then I must be sure to sample the fish while I am here.”
Her sunny expression highlighted her beauty, in spite of the bandage slung across her face at an angle to cover only her right eye.
John returned his attention to the road. He didn’t need to be reminded of the woman’s loveliness or the power she held to sway his heart with only a smile.
She, too, seemed to feel the need to keep their conversation on the approved topic. “Now I understand how Lydia has survived since New Testament times. But how is it that the Illyrians threaten you now?”
“The Illyrians have been a source of irritation for the past few centuries. As their population has grown, they’ve sought to expand their boundaries.”
“They do seem to involve themselves in constant warfare.” Gisela sounded thoughtful.
Her response intrigued him. How did she feel about marrying into a battle-hungry empire? Would she be able to influence the Illyrians toward more peaceful relations with their neighbors? If she could, her friendship would be worth any strain on his emotional state.
Encouraged, he finished his story. “They have made several attacks on our borderlands over the years. The most recent was four years ago.” John felt his throat swell at the memory of that battle.
“Were you King of Lydia then?”
John let out a slow breath. “Not when the battle began. My father died defending a village called Bern. I was at his side.”
“We were outnumbered, vastly outnumbered. We never had a chance. Their attack was unprovoked. We weren’t expecting them. My father had brought me there as part of his annual tour. The Illyrians heard about our visit and struck just as we reached the village. We should have fallen back when the first wave of attackers hit. If we had, my father would still be alive.”
he sun had begun to set, its red-tinged glow lighting on the distant towers of Castlehead, painting the fortress in shimmering gold.
Beautiful though the image was, Gisela’s heart felt heavy. Sorrow carried through King John’s account of the loss of his father. She hated to see the strong king’s head bent in grief. More than that, she felt her anger rising against the enemies who had taken the Lydian village out of sheer greed.
“Who were these men who attacked you? I understand they are Illyrians, but many tribes go by that name, and not all war parties operate under the consent of their regional king.”
“The war band moved northward again after the attack. The village was incorporated into the holdings of the nearest Illyrian king.”
“The Illyrians have many kings, but they all must ultimately answer to the Empress Irene of Constantinople, who has an explicit agreement with my father to keep these lands where our two empires meet in a state of peace, with stable borders. Irene has granted my father leave to enforce that peace as needed, even if it means taking action on her side of the border. An unprovoked attack on a neutral kingdom like Lydia should not be tolerated. Who commissioned the attack?”
“To my understanding, the war party wasn’t commissioned by any king. They were led by a rogue leader named Rab the Raider.”
“Rab the Raider,” Gisela repeated the name with a scowl. “He has a crooked nose?”
“Yes. They say his nose was broken in battle.”
“His nose was broken by my father,” Gisela seethed, “as an ever-present reminder that the kingdoms of the Roman Empire are to live at peace with one another and their neighbors. Rab’s mother was Frankish, and he was raised under my father’s rule. But rumors say his father is a man of some rank among the Illyrians, and that is why Rab roves these borders. Whatever the reason for Rab’s actions, my father made it perfectly clear that acts of war would not be tolerated—not within the Holy Roman Empire, nor along her borders, nor against her neutral neighbors such as yourself.”
“When was this?”
“It was the first year I was old enough to travel with my father on his imperial tour. I was fourteen. That would make it six years ago. And your father died when?”
“Four years ago this winter,” John answered.
Gisela felt her fury mounting as they drew closer to the king’s fortress. “Rab the Raider was supposed to be under the supervision of a local tribal king.”
“Do you know which king?”
King John’s question was innocent enough, considering that he didn’t already know the answer. He didn’t know the name of Gisela’s future husband. He didn’t know that her future in-laws had benefited from his father’s death—that the family of the man she was supposed to marry should have prevented the battle that killed John’s father.
Castlehead lay before them, and Gisela spurred her mount forward, launching into a gallop. She could see Boden, the acting captain, on a boat nearing the shore. He’d likely been making provisions to head out again.
King John cried out behind her, asking what had caused her to sprint away, but she kept her good eye focused on the road and encouraged her horse to run faster. She couldn’t face King John. How could she admit to him that she was pledged to be married into the family that sheltered his enemies and held the town that had been stolen from him?
Instead she met Boden on the wharf. He’d spotted her rapid approach and ran up the dock to meet her.
“Your Highness? Whatever is wrong?”
She slid from her horse and found herself panting from the exertion of the swift ride. Her health had not yet returned completely. She glanced back to see King John riding at a full gallop toward the wharf.
Her message would have to be delivered quickly. “Is the ship provisioned to sail?”
“Yes. Everything is loaded but your personal items, which have been placed in a suite at the castle.”
“Good. Have repairs been made to the ship?”
“All of them. Are you eager to sail? We can have your trunk returned.”
“No. I need you to deliver a message to my father.” Though young, she knew the captain was both honest and clever. He’d have no trouble accurately relaying her words. “My life has been saved by King John, the Healer of Lydia. I owe him a debt of gratitude. For that reason, I cannot in good conscience marry Warrick until a certain murderer has been disciplined. The man who killed King John’s father is under the protection of Warrick’s family.”
Anger flashed in Boden’s eyes, as well. “While we’ve been in port I have heard about this man—the one who killed the Lydian king, Theodoric. It was Rab the Raider, the notorious warmonger. Didn’t your father break his nose?”
“Yes.” Gisela smiled, feeling confident now that Boden would have no trouble remembering the names of those involved. Still, she asked him to repeat back the message so she could be sure he’d gotten it right. Her smile grew as he accurately recounted everything she’d said.
“Good man.” She clapped him on the shoulders. “Tell my father that Warrick’s household must chasten Rab the Raider and make compensation to Lydia. Can you carry the message to Rome?”
“The men are all on board, Your Highness. We can sail straightaway. Are you sure you’ll be safe if I leave you here?” Boden looked up the road to where John rode toward them, his pace slowed only slightly as he studied them, as though wondering if he ought to interrupt.
“Far safer than I would be in Illyria. You’ll be sure to carry the message to my father?”
“Swiftly and accurately, Your Highness.”
“Good. Godspeed to you.”
“Should I wait for the king—”
“Please, no. Leave before he reaches us.”
“Give him my thanks. His household has provisioned us well.” Boden broke away and clambered back into the rowboat. Seconds later the oarsmen had pushed off, and they were headed back to the ship at a steady clip, each dip of their oars rippling through waters painted red by the dying light of the sun.
John’s boots echoed against the planks of the dock as he approached her.
Gisela prayed silently that God would help her to explain what she’d done—and that King John wouldn’t blame her for her association with the men who’d killed his father.
“Your Highness?” John’s deep voice sent a shiver of awareness up her spine. His words carried concern along with a hinting suspicion of betrayal.
She chided herself for her reaction. She was promised to Prince Warrick. Depending on the political maneuvering her father might have to engage in to convince Warrick’s family to discipline Rab the Raider, she’d likely be bound more strongly to her contract, with an increase in dowry and other contingencies tacked on for their trouble.
But it would be worth it, knowing that the man who’d killed John’s father would be held accountable for his crimes. She owed King John for her life. She’d already very nearly started a war by forcing him to the Illyrian border. How could she sleep at night knowing her future family was in allegiance with the rogue who’d killed King Theodoric?
“Are you all right?” King John stepped closer while Gisela gathered her thoughts.
She turned to face him with a meek smile, fearing she’d insulted him by riding off so swiftly. And yet, if he’d known what she was doing, he might have tried to prevent her. “I’m better now.”
“Why have you sent Boden back to the ship? He and his men may sup with us tonight. Shall I call him back?”
“Please, no.” She took hold of his outstretched arm. “I’ve dispatched him to carry a message to my father.”
Distress shot through John’s concerned expression. “He’s leaving you here?”
“It’s the safest place for me while I recuperate. If you don’t wish to have me as your guest, I can find lodging in Sardis.”
“Of course you are more than welcome to be my guest, but, Your Highness—”
“Thank you. My father will compensate you for your trouble.” She dropped his arm and started to step past him up the dock. Hilda had broken away from the riding party as well and advanced upon them at her fastest lumbering speed. If Gisela waited for the maid to arrive, she’d waste many long minutes, so she set off to greet her.
“I am not in need of compensation.” King John cupped her elbow and turned her back to face him.
She looked down at his hand.
“I’m sorry.” He withdrew his hand quickly. His accent grew stronger—an indication, she’d noticed, that his passions were rising. “I must understand why you’ve sent your ship back to your father. Isn’t your prince expecting you?”
“By Christmastide,” she admitted, praying the date wouldn’t be moved forward as part of the negotiation process. “But that is still three months away. Boden can reach my father and be back in plenty of time.” She tried to keep her tone cool, but John’s concern, as well as her guilt at what she had yet to confess, softened her words until they sounded nearly like an apology.
King John shook his head, obviously trying to understand. “Have I offended you?”
Guilt speared through her. Perhaps she ought to have discussed the message before she ran off toward the wharf. But she got the distinct sense that John would have protested her intentions. And she was determined to have the message delivered. Powerful men were always trying to “advise” her. They hated giving heed to a woman.
But perhaps she hadn’t been fair to assume John would have done the same. From all she knew of him, he was caring and attentive. But he was, still, a man. The two thoughts warred inside her as her thumping heart pounded with guilt.
When she didn’t answer, he prompted her, “Your Highness?”
“If anyone should be offended—” she looked up at him with her one good eye and wished she could see him better “—
should be offended by my behavior. It was rude of me to run off without warning, but I needed to reach Boden.”
“He was coming to shore. You wouldn’t have missed him.”
“I wanted to speak with him before you arrived.”
“If you’d asked me to, I would have lingered behind. As it was, I hastened to learn if you were in distress.” He dipped his head and looked into her face more closely, blinking in the absence of light since the sun had set and the stars had not yet appeared. “Are you in distress?”
“Perhaps somewhat,” she admitted reluctantly.
“I apologize for any alarm my story may have caused you—”
“No, please, I am the one who needs to apologize.”
Gisela cut him off before he could ask another question. “Your father’s death. His unconscionable loss.” She let her good eye settle closed for a moment, blocking out the sight of the pain that filled his face at the mention of his beloved late father. Searching for words, she asked him, “Have I ever told you the name of my betrothed?”
“An Illyrian prince. There are many.”
“I am pledged to be married to Prince Warrick, eldest son of Garren, King of the Dometian tribe.”
Angry realization flashed in his eyes, but Gisela pressed on before he could react to her confession. “The very house that pledged six years ago to restrain Rab the Raider and prevent him from further warmongering.”
“They count the village of Bern among their holdings.”
“I can only pray that is through some oversight, but whatever the cause, I’ve dispatched Boden to explain the situation to my father, and compel the king to discipline Rab for your father’s murder.”
John studied her face as the first stars began to appear in the eastern sky. Gisela wished she was brave enough to return his gaze, but she felt far too ashamed for her association with those who had committed such grave crimes against his kingdom and his family.
Hilda approached, stopping at the head of the wharf with her hands at her hips. “Your Highness,” she gasped for breath.
“It’s all right, Hilda. Everything is all right.”
“The ship,” Hilda wheezed frightfully. “It’s leaving.”
“I know. I sent it away.”
A series of groans and whines carried up the dock as the maid slumped to sit on one of the many boulders that lined the shore. “They’ve abandoned us here?”
“Lydia is a very pleasant place.” Gisela picked her way up the dock, holding on to the arm King John had offered her as she made her way to shore, and then up the road toward the Castlehead fortress.
“I’m glad you find it so,” John murmured softly. “I imagine dinner has already been served for the night, but I suppose you’d prefer to take a light supper in your room. Tomorrow, if it pleases you, we’ll have a noontime feast celebrating your arrival. I’d be honored if you’d agree to attend.”
“Thank you for the kind invitation.” Though normally not particularly fond of formalities, for the moment she was glad to retreat to the safety offered by speaking the expected words. It was certainly preferable to not speaking at all.
“I’ll have a room made up for you and your attendant.” He paused and studied her face until she was forced to meet his eyes. “Please promise me you won’t run off without telling me where you’re going? The Illyrians aren’t to be trusted, and they may have sympathizers among us. I wouldn’t presume to limit your freedoms, Your Highness, but it is for your own safety.”
Gisela smiled meekly, knowing her sudden flight had caused him undue vexation. “I shall do my best not to bring any further trouble upon your household. That includes taking care not to endanger myself and risk international war.”
A smirk bent his lips, letting her know he appreciated her appraisal of their predicament.
“And I’m sorry to have been so much trouble,” she added.
He squeezed her hand briefly before letting it go. “You have been no more trouble than you are worth.”
Attendants hurried out toward them, bowing as they approached, and within seconds Gisela found herself pulled away, off to find some promised tub of steaming water large enough to soak in, where the trunk that held her clothes had been taken, and supper—she’d overheard John telling a courtier that she’d expressed interest in sampling the fish.
It wasn’t until the tub soaked away her worries and her stomach was calmed of its clamoring for food, that she had a moment to consider the words King John had spoken.