Adeline woke slowly, her head pounding with merciless ferocity against the backs of her eyeballs. Her brain refused to cooperate, almost sending her back into unconsciousness, but a muffled crash and shouting somewhere above her snapped her out of it and she cracked her eyes open.
She could hardly see anything; what little light there was came from a tiny window some ten feet off the floor. As her eyes adjusted they took in the damp stone walls, the filthy earthen floor, and finally came to rest on the ropes that bound her hands, securing them over her head. The rope was fastened to a metal bar somewhere on the ceiling, and she was pulled high enough for her toes to just barely brush the floor.
She tried craning her neck to see behind her, but there was nothing else in the room. As for where she was…well, she didn't have a clue. Judging by the pale light that came in the window, it looked to be about midmorning. She could only guess how long she'd been here.
A low murmur of voices jerked her head to the front again, this time to watch the door creak open. The screeching hinges gave her chill bumps, but she didn't feel the first quiver of fear until she saw who came in her prison.
"Well, missy, this is an odd turn of events, now isn't it?"
General Omri strode through the doorframe, his massive bulk exaggerated by the tight quarters. Adeline's nose filled with his stench; she tasted blood when he reached behind him and closed the door, the dull thud echoing horribly.
For the first time in her life, Adeline was truly, genuinely frightened. She'd been scared before, of course (what woman, standing at less than five feet tall, could face an entire army and not feel the teensiest bit afraid?) but she'd been armed and standing with allies, not bound in a tiny prison with no weapons and no help in sight.
She felt utterly exposed; they'd left her in her nightdress, which she was grateful for. The garment wasn't indecent, really, though the slight V-neck had her wishing for a shawl of some kind. Her arms were bared by the sleeveless design, and the hem hit right below her knees. She was covered, but it didn't make her feel much better.
Still, it wouldn't do for her to lose composure now.
"So, I take it Xaviar is quite determined to have me as his wife?"
Her voice was mild and casual, as though discussing the weather, and Omri's scowl deepened.
"This is no laughing matter, you insolent wench," he snarled "especially if you wish to see daylight again."
"So his plan is to propose, again, and do me in if I say no?" Adeline asked, pretending to be impressed. "Ingenious, really, but you may want to save yourselves some time and finish me off now. I'd rather die than marry that traitorous coward."
"You may find yourself more easily persuaded once I'm through with you."
The hidden implications of his words sent fissions of fear up and down her spine, and despite herself she felt her eyes widen.
He had moved closer, and Adeline struggled to control her breathing. That didn't go unnoticed by the man in front of her, and a menacing, amused grin split his face.
"Ah, now, you mustn't be afraid of me, missy. It's Lord Xaviar you need to fear."
"That worm isn't worth a moment's thought." Adeline spat, and the next second Omri's hand had closed around her throat, effortlessly lifting her higher off the floor. His other hand drew a long, sickening dagger from his belt and held the blade to the bare skin just above her collarbone.
"Brave words for a caged kitten." He whispered. His hot, acrid breath ghosted across her skin and made the hair on her arms stand on end. Black spots danced across her vision when the fingers on her throat squeezed; she was dimly aware of seeing the dagger move from her neck to behind her.
Suddenly her body arched with white-hot, searing pain, and the hand on her throat released her. She dropped, the ropes preventing her from hitting the floor, but the added pressure on her shoulders only intensified the agony that radiated from the gash on her back. She couldn't see how long or deep it was, but it felt like he'd cut her to the bone.
"I'll leave you now to contemplate His Majesty's offer." Omri said coldly, and a moment later she heard the door shut again, leaving her to study the puddle of red that slowly grew around her feet.
It might have been hours later, or it may have very well been just a few minutes. Adeline drifted in and out of her numb state brought on by the pain. She vaguely noticed that bleeding seemed to have stopped, but her back still felt like it was on fire, the skin and muscle ripped in two.
Her heart sank when the door opened. She strained and lifted her head to watch a soldier slip inside, the visor on his standard armor pulled down over his face. He was tall, and something about the way he moved seemed strangely familiar, but Adeline was too busy fighting the new wave of terror that washed over her as he approached.
"Please…" she couldn't stop the word from escaping her cracked lips. The stranger paused, and she got the impression that he was surprised at her begging.
She didn't care. She only wanted out, before Omri could do much worse than slice her back open. The soldier closed the distance between them, taking a wad of dark cloth from under his arm. He unfurled it, the long mass smoothing out on the floor. He turned and made quick work of her bonds, even going so far as to steady her when her feet touched down.
Adeline staggered; whoever this soldier was, he was clearly going to take her out of the room. He might not be a friend, but at the moment he was certainly the lesser of two evils. She'd play along, then figure out a way to escape him once they'd gotten away from this place.
The man's gentleness surprised her; he led her by the arm to the expanse of dark cloth, and gestured for her to stand still. He took the fabric and proceeded to wrap it around her snugly, imprisoning her in a cocoon. He tucked the end in, and then reached in a pocket and retrieved a dark hood.
His masked face turned to Adeline; almost as if he was studying her, but she'd caught on to his plan by now and raised her chin, wordlessly telling him to continue. The hood was slipped over her head, plunging her into darkness. At least the cloth seemed to be fairly clean.
She felt a rope being tied around her middle before a strong arm wrapped around her knees, and she was bent at the waist over the man's shoulder.
She bit back a moan as the injury on her back was stretched, and focused instead on making every one of her muscles to go limp. She hung like a rag doll, held snugly by her unidentified rescuer and/or captor, and she held her breath as the door creaked open and he moved into the hall.
The number of turns he took was unbelievable; occasionally other soldiers would pass them, and it took great effort for her to keep still. Nobody questioned this strange man, assuming he carried a deceased prisoner over his shoulder. Whoever he was, he'd obviously planned their escape quite thoroughly. Adeline had to hand to him.
She felt the air grow a tad warmer and quite suddenly she heard the song of crickets. She heard another door close softly behind them, and then the soft swish of grass against the man's legs.
Still she kept her act up, and a new smell reached her nose: horse manure. They must be in the stable now, since it was a good deal warmer, and she felt herself being lowered gently to the floor. To her surprise the man didn't untie her, instead helping her sit down on a barrel or crate of some kind, giving a firm shake to her shoulders. She got the message: stay put.
So, stay put she did. Once again, she was helpless, and like it or not this stranger was her best chance of escaping. She could heard the jingle of harnesses and the snorting of a horse somewhere nearby, and a few moments later she felt two arms scoop her up, one behind her back and the other tucked under her knees.
She was held against his chest, which felt oddly familiar like the rest of him had, and somehow he managed to mount his horse with her in his arms.
What happened after that was a bit fuzzy, but she felt the cool night air seeping through her cloth prison, and the horse's movements gradually worked up to a fast gallop. They rode for what felt like hours, the man's arms tugging on the reins expertly, but never once letting her slip.
She was held securely against him, and she knew she ought to be scared of her mind, but she wasn't. She felt safe, though she didn't know why.
She felt the horse begin to slow down, and eventually come to a stop. She heard water running somewhere nearby, but the man had already swung out of the saddle, bringing her with him. He walked a few paces and set her down again on what felt like a rock.
Hands gently pulled her hood off, and when she could see again she noticed that he still hid his face. She looked up at him questioningly, and to her astonishment one hand reached to push the metal visor up.
The dark haired king smiled briefly, before going back to work untying her. All she could do was stare, unable to believe that he was really here.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded. He remained silent, loosening the knot of rope that held the fabric tightly around her. Her imagination jumped into action, and suddenly she couldn't breathe.
"Aslan's mane, Ed, did they take the others too?"
He paused at that, looking up at her in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, the girls, and Caspian, and Peter. Did they get taken along with us? Did they escape?"
"You were the only one taken, Addie." He told her quietly, checking her freed wrists for rope burns. She tugged out of his grasp, determined to understand.
"If I was the only one taken, then why are you here?"
He contemplated her for a moment, his eyes dark and brooding. She grew uncomfortable under his scrutiny, but after a moment he answered her.
"I came for you."
Adeline blinked. The way he'd said it, almost like it was the obvious answer, and he'd thought she would have figured it out on her own.
"You…you came for me?" she asked, very aware of how vulnerable she sounded.
He rolled his eyes. "Of course I did. Surely you hadn't resigned yourself to death just yet?"
She shook her head, unable to as much as grin at his attempt at humor.
"Eddy, I'm…I'm glad you came. Really. Heaven knows what that cretin was planning to do to me, it's just that-"
She was shocked speechless (again) when he suddenly reached for her, one large hand clamping around her jaw, the other resting on the rock beside her. His touch was unbelievably gentle, but the look in his eyes was fierce, and shook her to the core.
"Adeline." He said, his tone matching his expression, "Did he touch you?"
Her eyes widened, glancing down to see that his free hand was clenched into a fist, turning his knuckles white. She looked at him again, and felt like the breath had been knocked out of her when it occurred to her that he'd been worried. The realization made an odd, warm, tingling sensation spread from within her chest, all the way to tips of her fingers and toes.
She cleared her throat, knowing what his question had meant. Whether or not Omri had planned on violating her, she honestly didn't know. But he hadn't, and for that she was thankful.
"No, he didn't."
Edmund's eyes closed with relief, and to her surprise he leaned into her, resting his forehead gently against hers.
Adeline kept still, finding comfort in this quiet, intimate moment; his hand hadn't left her jaw, and her own eyes slid shut when she felt his thumb start to trace soft circles on her cheek.
"I went out of my mind when Peter called us to your room." He told her softly. "There was so much blood, it was everywhere, and – you're not hurt, are you?" he asked anxiously, pulling back and peering at her from head to toe. Once again she remembered that she only wore the flimsy nightgown, and tried not to blush.
"It wasn't my blood," she reassured him, "though I've got a nasty cut on my back. Omri is horrible at controlling his temper."
Another flash of anger showed in Edmund's eyes, but he was already on his feet, circling behind her and moving aside the fabric she'd been wrapped with. He inhaled sharply when he saw her back; she knew there had to be blood everywhere, but she wanted to know the extent of the damage.
"How long is it?" she queried.
"Here," he said, placing one finger just below her left shoulder blade, "to here." The other hand gently touched the small of her back, towards her right hip. "It doesn't look very deep, but Lucy sent along some salve that fights infection. We'd better use it before we go any further."
She nodded, only to realize something a moment later.
"Erm, Edmund, I-I can't reach. You'll have to do it."
There was an awkward pause before he cleared his throat. "Right, yeah, of course. No problem."
He shifted the black cloth, letting Adeline drape it across her front for modesty. She fought a shiver when the buttons on her dress were undone, though whether her reaction stemmed from the cool night air hitting her bare flesh, or from the warm hands that occasionally came in contact with her back. Deciding not to think about it, she let Edmund hold the black cloth tightly around her throat, grasping it behind her neck. She then reached underneath to slide the dress off her shoulders, and moved the covering so it left her back and shoulders exposed completely.
The cold was definitely getting to her now, and it was a struggle to not let her teeth chatter. She clasped the rough cloth to her bosom, carefully looking straight ahead as Edmund moved her hair over one shoulder, and there was a moment of rummaging in one of the saddlebags before his warm hands were on her back again, this time wiping with a soft cloth.
"Hang on. I need some water; I'll be right back."
He was, and this time she couldn't repress the shudder as the cold water met her skin.
"Sorry." He apologized. "There's another wound, near the top of your shoulders; it's already mostly healed and not very big. Does it hurt any?"
She shook her head. "It's alright," she managed. Fortunately Edmund was done with the cleaning soon, and a tingling, earthy smell wafted to her from behind.
"Lucy used to help the fauns make this," he explained, carefully rubbing it into the larger wound. "They kept it up after we left the second time. It's the next best thing to her cordial."
Adeline didn't know what to say to that; she settled for a nod and tried to stay still to make his job easier. He was surprisingly tender, almost as if he was…honored, to be trusted with this task.
Inwardly she snorted. All that blood loss is addling your brains, lassie, she reprimanded herself. As though King Edmund would be even remotely pleased to be in this situation.
But he's not simply King Edmund, argued the insistent voice in the back of her head. In fact, he's not even Edmund to you, hardly, he's Eddy. You're as familiar with him as you ever were with Gwen.
That's not unusual, though, her logical side cut in. He's easy to talk to. Why should I feel nervous being myself around him? He's my friend.
Perhaps the better question might be why you don't feel uncomfortable having him rub his hands all over your naked back.
Adeline sighed, unwilling to have that conversation with herself just yet. She focused on the soothing rhythm of Edmund's hands, surprised to find herself fighting slumber.
He must have noticed; a dry chuckle met her ears.
"Just a moment, Addie, till we get you decent again. Then you can sleep while we ride some more."
She jerked awake, her cheeks staining pink, but she didn't get a chance to say anything before he pronounced the job done.
"Now, hold still, we've got to wrap it somehow."
He rummaged a bit in the saddlebag at his feet, and came around in front of her. As he knelt and took a handful of the black cloth she was using to cover herself, she caught a glimpse of a familiar blade in his hand.
"Is that my knife?" she asked, surprised when he nodded. He looked incredibly pleased with himself; he cut a wide strip off of the fabric, making sure it had enough length, and moved behind her again.
"I managed to grab your things right before I left the Cair. Thought you'd want them." She suppressed a smile, but immediately sobered when he cleared his throat awkwardly.
"Erm…th-this has to go all the way around, Addie."
She swallowed thickly, telling herself that it couldn't be helped, that if she just got through this and they made it to the Cair, she could avoid him to her heart's content.
Forcing herself to nod, she managed, "Go on and get it over with, then."
Edmund was, unsurprisingly, a perfect gentleman, remaining collected and professional through the whole process of wrapping her naked torso in the scrap of cloth; he'd even stood behind her, allowing Adeline to pull the bandage across her front herself. In short order he'd tied it off in the back, and when she moved to refasten her nightdress, he stopped her.
"I brought a change of clothes for you."
Despite having just endured the most embarrassing ten minutes of her life, Adeline could have hugged him. Her gratitude must have shown on her face, because he grinned and handed her the fresh, tunic, trousers, and boots, and even a cloth sack that contained her hairbrush, clean undergarments and stockings, and a small bar of soap.
"The bath will have to wait, I'm afraid," he told her regretfully, "But it will be a few days before we make it back to the Cair and I had a feeling you'd want to clean up at some point."
His simple statement brought a whole slew of questions to Adeline's mind, but now wasn't the time to quiz him. Instead she headed for the other side of his horse, the large animal screening her while she changed into the clean clothes, and opted for the obvious question: "Where are we?"
Edmund kept his face averted, obviously not wishing to cause her additional discomfort, but his voice didn't sound embarrassed when he answered.
"Two days west of the Dancing Lawn."
Adeline's eyebrows rose. "They didn't get very far, then. How much time has passed?"
"You were taken nearly a week ago. I left the next morning, in order to not lose the trail."
Her movements slowed, and she noticed how his voice had gotten a bit quieter with the last question. She decided to let the interrogation wait for now, and tugged on her boots. The ruined nightdress was stuffed into the sack, which she handed to Edmund as she shook out her hair, letting it fall loose over her shoulders before brushing out the snarls and whipping it into her usual braid.
It took her a moment to notice Edmund was stock still, gaping at her like a fish.
"How did you do that?" he asked. Confused, she wrinkled her brow and tied off her braid, tossing it back over her shoulder and waiting for him to explain.
"That-that thing you do to your hair. You did it so fast, it was like magic. How did you do it?"
For a moment, words failed Adeline. Call her crazy, but she'd never envisioned having a conversation with King Edmund regarding how she braided her hair.
"It…takes practice, I suppose. It's not difficult, and I do it so much I don't really need to think about it anymore."
"Will you teach me?"
Her throat caught. "Beg pardon?"
"Would you teach me how to braid your hair?"
He looked hopeful, excited even. Curse her for going soft, but she couldn't bring herself to say no.
"Er…alright. I'll-I'll show you how sometime."
Edmund grinned again before he turned and finished packing up their things. He mounted with effortless grace, and held a hand out to Adeline to assist her. She hated being so weak, but while the ointment had soothed some of the pain in her back, it was still quite sore, and climbing onto a horse was proving to be a challenge.
"Here." Edmund leaned down, and before she could ask what he was doing, he'd wrapped one long arm around her midsection, lifting her easily and setting her across the saddle in front of him, her side nestled against his chest.
It happened so fast Adeline didn't immediately notice that her hands were locked around Edmund's neck; he turned his head to look at her and she let go as though she'd been burned.
"Erm…thanks. I could probably ride behind you, if it's more comfortable."
He shook his head. "Not yet. You're still a little woozy from the pain. I want you up here so I can catch you if I need to."
She didn't exactly have an argument for that, so she nodded awkwardly as he started the horse forward. After a moment something occurred to her.
"You seem to have done this before."
He glanced down at her, proving her theory when his grip on the reins didn't slacken. He continued to steer the horse through the trees, the presence of an extra body in front of him doing nothing to hamper his movements.
"You mean, riding like this, with someone in front of me?"
She nodded, and his friendly smile turned into his characteristic smirk.
"Well, I have done this before, actually. I took you to Cair Paravel when you were delirious with fever. You were unconscious, so we didn't have much choice."
Adeline had known all of this; still, it was a little jarring to realize that this man had held her unconscious body closely against him for several consecutive hours.
"Oh," was all she could say.
It's not like you get to complain about it, she reminded herself. This certainly wasn't the first time Edmund had saved her life, and little voice at the back of her head suggested that it probably wouldn't be the last.
Of course, the fact that his arms and chest were strong and warm was completely, absolutely irrelevant, she told herself as she leaned into him, closing her eyes and letting sleep claim her.
Edmund pushed the horse long and hard, stopping only for brief pauses beside the occasional stream so the beast could drink. Then they were off again, riding through the night. There were no clouds, and the half-moon provided more than enough light to ride by.
It wasn't until after four o'clock in the morning that he felt safe; he pulled the horse to an easy walk, confident that any pursuers from Xaviar's castle would have caught them by now. He glanced down at Adeline and smiled. She was out cold again, her forehead resting against the side of his neck.
She shifted in her sleep, her brow furrowing for a second in pain, but a moment later her face was smooth once again. He was struck by how innocent and young she looked like this; he'd never guess she'd seen battles and could best a man twice her size. Here, in this moment, she looked every bit a princess herself.
Bad idea, Ed, thinking that way, he reprimanded himself.
The very last thing Adeline needed right now was another man seeking her affections. He'd thought about it long and hard during his days tracking Adeline's kidnappers, and had realized that she was probably still recovering from Xaviar's betrayal. The whole mess went deeper than just murdering her best friend; he and Adeline had had a special sort of relationship, one that could have turned into a serious romantic interest.
Granted, Xaviar had burned that bridge on that fateful night in Tashbaan, and Adeline had made it clear she wanted nothing more to do with him, but Edmund couldn't help but wonder if maybe her heart hurt a bit more than she was letting on. It wouldn't have surprised him.
The first grey light of dawn was making its way through the trees when he finally stopped beside a small pond; the spot was well hidden from three sides and would allow them time to rest before hitting the trail again.
He dismounted carefully, and he set Adeline down against a small boulder while he took care of the horse. He'd just unbuckled the saddle when he heard a strange sound, and turned to see Adeline owlishly peer around the clearing. Her eyes focused on him, and he couldn't help but smile.
"Good morning, milady."
She rolled her eyes. "Morning, Eddy."
He couldn't suppress the chuckle; her voice was rough, but still endearing and feminine as it always was, like the sound the wind used to make when it blew through the cherry trees.
Edmund's hand jerked violently from where it rested on the saddlebags.
Blimey, was he infatuated with her voice now?
He shoved the thought aside, pulling out the supplies to fix breakfast, and he'd just started to ask Adeline if she wanted coffee or tea when he glanced up and saw her eyes riveted on a spot just over his shoulder, a look of horror on her face.
He whirled, and came face to face with the tip of an arrow that was immediately lowered to menacingly brush his throat.
"Lady Adeline. It is good to see you once more." A man came forward, staying in Edmund's periphery, but there was no mistaking Adeline's voice when she answered, and Edmund felt his stomach drop to his toes.
"Hello, my lord Tisroc."