Edmund shook his wet hair out of his eyes, squinting to make out Adeline's form just ahead of him.
The torrential downpour had caught them that morning, with the first drops coming right as they'd been packing up. Within minutes they were all cold, wet, and miserable. Still, they kept doggedly on, the horses trodding through the thick mud, threatening to bolt every time thunder cracked through the sky.
He glanced over at Lucy; she was hunched over, shivering and keeping a tight grip on the reins. Her horse had been the most skittish about the storm, and several times they thought the mare was going to throw her. For now, though, the horse was relatively calm, and he shot his sister an encouraging smile which she returned. Turning his attention to the front again, he saw Adeline had come to a stop. He pulled alongside her and shouted to make himself heard above the rain.
"What is it?"
She looked thoughtful, peering through the trees as though she was looking for something.
"I'm not sure we can cover more ground today. We'll all get sick, one of the horses will fall, or some other catastrophe will happen if we try to go on through this rain." She must have found what she was looking for; she guided her horse to a small gap in the trees that he hadn't noticed. "There's a small inn not far from here; it's not terribly out of the way, and we could at least dry off and have a warm meal. If we needed to, we could probably stay the night and cross the border tomorrow."
He nodded. "How far are we from the border?"
"With better conditions, no more than three hours."
The others had joined them by now; they all agreed that a hot meal sounded wonderful. She led them down a path that would have been hard packed dirt, but now comprised of something that Edmund could only call mud soup.
He said as much to Lucy, which got her and Susan giggling, so in slightly improved spirits they arrived at the inn, a small, modest structure built at something of a crossroads.
Adeline dismounted so she could go inside and pay, and without even thinking about it Edmund joined her. She looked at him, confused, for just a moment before shrugging slightly and preceding him inside.
He didn't look behind him at the others, but if he had, he would have questioned why they were all smiling.
Adeline pushed her hood back off her face as she entered the dim room; there were tables scattered all over, with a large roaring fireplace at the far end. The counter was just opposite them. There was a man standing at the far end writing in his ledger. She approached him, very conscious of Edmund walking slightly behind her.
"Excuse me, sir."
The man looked up, his face friendly and open.
"Yes miss, what can I do for you?"
"There're six of us; is there a place we can put our horses while we come inside and eat?"
"Yes, miss, the stable's out back. Two pieces for each mount."
A price a bit too high for her liking, but she had just enough and it wasn't likely they'd need funds again before they reached Cair Paravel. She paid the man, and they'd just turned to go outside when the man spoke.
"The storm ought to last through the night, miss. You need lodging as well?"
She looked at Edmund, silently asking what he thought. He shrugged, and said, "We can decide that once we've eaten. Right now I just want to dry off."
The innkeeper nodded understandingly, thanking them before they exited the building. The others were more than glad to follow them to the barn just behind the inn, down a slight hill that had turned into a death trap with the rain.
It didn't take long to stable their horses, and on the way back up Adeline discovered that the path was, indeed, "mud soup". She slipped again and again; suddenly her left foot found a hole, and she would have fallen on her side if a pair of strong arms hadn't wrapped around her.
She craned her neck and saw Edmund's face above her own; he gently set her upright, resting his hands on her waist briefly to make sure she had her balance. For some reason she felt her collarbone grow warm; she met his gaze with difficulty. "Thank you."
He grinned easily, the strange look in his eyes vanishing as he fell into the easy banter they'd established during the hours of travel.
"No problem. I'll expect the favor to be returned, though."
She snorted slightly, and rolled her eyes as she replied, "As though I could catch you. I'm not even half your size."
It was true; even with them both standing upright she didn't even reach his shoulder. But he laughed and said, "Yes, well, we can't all be widely renowned as terrifying beasts that resemble some sort of pixie."
"Terrifying beast?" She tried to sound indignant but she couldn't help laughing, and he caught it, looking pleased with himself that he'd won. She glanced behind her at the others, just in time to see Peter and Lucy exchange a knowing smile.
A knot of familiar dread settled low in her gut; she'd seen that look before, except it was on Gwen's face when she'd introduced Adeline to Xaviar.
She knew she was wrong to leave so suddenly without even seeing him, but when she'd awoken in Gwen's room and it was still so dark but she could still see the crimson stained sheets so vividly and the mask of death on the face of her friend, her sister, was too much and she couldn't think straight, couldn't plan properly, she just knew she had to get out before anybody else came. So she packed her bags, snuck into the stables and by sunrise Tashbaan was nothing more than a smudge on the horizon behind her.
Now, that night with the feast and the dancing and the feeling of Xaviar's hand clasping her own…it all felt ages ago. Almost like it had never even happened.
She remembered liking him; she even remembered why she'd liked him. But it all seemed like a figment of her imagination, a fairy tale amidst a fortnight of nightmares that woke her in the darkness, panting and clammy with sweat.
She shook her head slightly as they reached the inn, knowing that now was neither the time nor place to dwell on such things. She needed to focus on getting the Four, along with Amos, safely to Cair Paravel. Concentrate on the living, not the dead. There would be ample time to grieve later.
The warmth they found upon entering the inn was pure relief, and without much ceremony they all sat around a simple table, not unlike the one Amos had had in his kitchen.
Dinner was hot, and tasted decent enough. The innkeeper came around as they were finishing, asking if they wanted to rent a room.
"A room? Is there only one available?"
"I'm afraid so, miss. The others…a band of soldiers came through just last night. Left everything a horrible mess. It will take at least three more days to repair."
"Soldiers? Did you recognize where they were from?" Peter asked.
"No, sir, I did not. They were boisterous, and rude, and drank much wine. Likely the reason for the shape they left their rooms in. Furniture broken, smashed glass everywhere..." he shuddered. "But our largest room is ready, with two beds. We have plenty of clean, dry blankets for the gentlemen."
Adeline turned to face them all, and knew what they were all thinking: she'd rather be crowded than wet and cold. Peter looked interested about the soldiers, but she shook her head almost imperceptibly, signaling that they'd talk about it later. He nodded slightly in agreement, and she turned back to the innkeeper.
"The one room will do nicely, thank you. How much?"
"Oh, no, miss, no payment. It is not often in these parts we have guests who are so civilized. It is our pleasure."
Surprised, she smiled at him and thanked him sincerely; the others echoed her before he took their plates.
A short time later, the six of them stood in the doorway, observing the two double beds in the small room. It was certainly warm enough, and the innkeeper had brought up enough blankets to wrap all of them in a thick cocoon if they needed to. Adeline nodded in satisfaction; they would do just fine.
She turned to say something, but when she caught the determined glint in Peter's eye, her mouth clamped shut.
"You're taking the bed, Adeline." His voice allowed absolutely no room for argument, but she couldn't stop herself from at least trying.
"But, Peter, it's not right-"
"Addie, you're sleeping in that bed if I have to tie you to the frame." Edmund interrupted her, and she stopped talking, if only from shock that he'd used her nickname. He held her gaze evenly, equally determined as Peter, if not more so. "We're going downstairs so you girls can change and get settled; we'll be back in fifteen minutes and you had better be tucked in when I come through that door."
Without another word he spun on his heel and marched down the hall. Peter seemed to fighting back a smile, but he and Amos followed, the latter closing the door behind them.
Adeline turned slowly, facing the young queens who were doing absolutely nothing to hide their amusement.
"Is he always like that?" she asked, baffled.
"Not always. But sometimes." Susan told her, with a grin that could almost be described as smug.
She shook her head as the three of them dressed in the driest clothes they could find; the oiled leather of her saddlebags kept out most of the rain, but some things were slightly damp. Anything was better than what they had on, though, so in short order they had all dressed, clambered beneath the woolen blankets and waited.
Sure enough, the sound of heavy boots approached their door; the knock came, waiting for a call to enter. Susan gave it and Edmund came in, grinning shamelessly at Adeline, who was glaring at him over the edge of her blanket.
She rolled over on her side, determined not to encourage him anymore, and he must have taken the hint because everyone was silent as the men settled onto their respective pallets on the floor.
Adeline had every intention of staying awake for a while; after all, somebody needed to keep watch; but the long days and the short nights caught up with her, and sleep claimed her.
Edmund was sleeping rather soundly, at least for someone who was sleeping on the floor, but a strange sound woke him. He held his breath and waited, praying it wasn't another group of soldiers.
There it was. A quiet, muffled, sniffling sort of sound, almost like someone was crying. He frowned, thinking he was hearing things, but it came again, a bit louder this time, and he realized it was coming from Adeline's bed.
His body acted without thought; he was on his feet and silently padding over to the bed, moving out of instinct. He moved around to the other side since Adeline was facing away from him, and he saw that she was crying, softly, in her sleep.
Something in his chest contracted painfully, and he knelt beside her and reached a hand gently to touch the hand that lay beside her head on the pillow.
The contact woke her instantly; her eyes were wide and alert, and they found his. But they were still full of tears, and he saw the embarrassment in them as she realized what he'd seen. He felt a twinge of regret; he didn't want her to feel that way in front of him.
She shifted and he saw that she was wearing only her camisole. The sight of her bare shoulders, the curves of her collarbone, made the back of his neck flush, but he pushed the thoughts out of his mind and focused on her face.
"Addie, what is it?"
"I'm-I'm sorry." She sniffed, propping herself up on one elbow and wiping her face with her free hand. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"That's alright," he whispered, "I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
As he spoke he moved his hand over hers; he gently squeezed it, stroking the back with his thumb without even thinking about it. She didn't seem to mind; in fact, as she continued to wipe her face she turned her hand so she could grasp his fingers. Her grip was firm, silently asking for comfort, and he moved his other hand to smooth back the strands of hair that wisped about her face.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked.
She shook her head, squeezing his hand, and unless he was imagining things she leaned into his other hand, and he let his palm rest on her cheek for the briefest of moments before he stood slowly.
"Are you alright now?"
This time she nodded, and released his fingers. She looked up at him, and it suddenly struck him how vulnerable she looked in that moment.
He almost missed her whispered, "Thank you." He merely smiled, and crept back to his pile of blankets, and as he closed his eyes again he couldn't help but wonder if her skin was always that soft and smooth.
The next morning Adeline woke, more refreshed and invigorated than she'd felt in a weeks. She pushed the blankets off and stood, reaching for her tunic, and was buttoning up the front when she froze, the events of last night rushing back to her.
She felt the color start at her collarbone and sweep up to her hairline. Not only had Edmund seen her crying, of all things, but he had actually been concerned, and come to comfort her. And she'd let him.
She knew that the feel of his hand clasping hers and brushing back her hair was no dream; she'd clung to him like some sort of weakling. What he must think of her, she didn't want to know.
And to make matters worse, she'd forgotten at the time that she wasn't fully dressed; she'd removed her tunic so it could finish drying fully during the night. Realizing she'd only been wearing her camisole, baring her shoulders and far more of her chest than she was used to, she closed her eyes in utter mortification.
So, basically, she thought, I've given the legendary King Edmund a bloody nose, nearly gotten him killed by rogue man-hunters, then woke him with my hysterics, while practically half-naked. And now we get to travel some more today in each other's company. Fantastic.
Fighting the urge to hide beneath her blankets, she packed up her things and finished dressing, strapping on her sword, with her dagger just beside it. She tugged on her boots and made sure the small hunting knife was tucked securely at her ankle, and picked up her quiver on the way out the door.
She stopped short at the foot of her bed, however, when she discovered that there were three men lying between her and the door. It would take a great deal of stealth to maneuver around their sleeping forms, and she was just trying to decide how to go about it when an almighty crash sounded downstairs in the kitchen (someone had probably dropped some dishes), and she had to fight back laughter at the five very startled people who bolted upright, eyes wide in surprise.
Eventually they all spotted her standing there, miserably failing in her attempts not to smile, and she didn't want to say what had amused her so she said quickly, "Come on, breakfast is probably ready."
As they went downstairs Adeline set all her weapons except for the hunting knife on a table in the back corner. She turned to join the others and caught Edmund watching her discreetly; when her eyes met his she felt the heat on her neck but she stamped it down, determined not to let him see that side of her again.
She was seated between Peter and Lucy, directly across from Edmund. She refused to blush, deciding to act as though last night had never even happened. He apparently had chosen a similar tactic, and other than the polite "pass the butter" he didn't speak to her.
This strategy actually worked quite well; the toast was passed around, the hot tea was poured, and the poached eggs sprinkled with copious amounts of salt and pepper all served as wonderful distractions from her discomfort.
In short order they had all finished eating, wiping their mouths and draining the last of their tea from the crockery mugs. The innkeeper was just coming out to take their empty plates when the jangle of harnesses and wagons sounded from the yard.
The man's face paled slightly, and he went to the window, turning back to face them with a look of fear in his eyes.
"It's those soldiers again!"
Adeline stood and crossed to the window. She peered out carefully, drawing a sharp breath when she recognized the armor of the men who had been following her.
"Who are they?"
Peter's voice right behind her made her start a little, but she said calmly, "It's them."
They all immediately understood, and Peter turned to the innkeeper. "Sir, you might wish to stay in the kitchen. We'll handle them, since they followed us here."
He nodded, scurrying out of the room and closing the door tightly behind him.
Adeline paused, weighing her options. They could run, as they had before, but their chances of escaping this time were slim to none; it was broad daylight, and the inn sat in a much larger clearing than the farm had. There was no way they would make it to the cover of the trees without being spotted.
Their only choice was to stay and fight. Not her preference, but she was sure she could handle them. She took another peek out the window and guessed the men to be no more than twenty in number. An insignificant number, really. No problem at all.
"Peter, Edmund, Amos, you three get the queens back in that corner. Do not let anyone besides myself to come near them."
She knew the last bit wasn't necessary, but old habits die hard and now wasn't the time to be assuming anything. But the men clearly had some trouble with her instructions.
Edmund especially looked stunned; he'd gone to the back table and picked up her sword, still in its sheath but somehow she knew he hadn't been planning on handing to her.
"Adeline, you can't be thinking of fighting them all by yourself?" Peter asked incredulously.
"Indeed I am. I'll be fine, and one of you can take my dagger in case one of them gets too close. I'll need my sword, though, Edmund." She added, holding out her hand for the weapon.
Edmund simply stood and stared at her, looked at his brother, then back to her and said, "But you're a girl!"
Adeline felt her eyebrows shoot up. "I beg your pardon?"
"What he means," Peter explained hastily as he shot his brother a look, "is that you've protected us for the past three days, and it feels like we ought to help somehow."
She rolled her eyes. "Peter, you said that you and Edmund haven't touched a sword in six years. And you will be helping if you will just give me mine."
Edmund was clearly uncomfortable with the idea, but she heard heavy footsteps on the porch outside and she all but shouted, "Edmund!" just in time for him to toss the sword to her, still in its sheath.
The door opened behind her, Peter bolted towards his sisters, and Adeline caught the handle of her sword midair, spinning on her heel and twisting the weapon downwards as fast as she could, and the sheath went flying off the blade and smacked the first soldier square in the forehead.
The man just behind him realized what was happening; he yanked his sword from his belt and the first man did the same, charging Adeline. She sidestepped the first swing, dodged a fist, and slammed the hilt of her blade into the first one's helmet so hard it dented the metal. He stumbled back, disoriented, and a quick thrust of her sword into his abdomen finished him.
The second man had got behind her; he wrapped one arm around her shoulders, across her chest, and placed his blade at her throat. She couldn't hold back a condescending snort at his obvious inexperience. The type of hold he was attempting was only successful if your captive was disarmed. Which, as he ought to have realized, she was not.
With incredible ease she slid her blade between his and her throat, shoving it away from her. She jumped, using his grip on her shoulders to swing her body weight backwards, and ended up doing some sort of backflip over his head.
She landed on her feet just behind him, and promptly sank her sword to the hilt in his back.
As he fell to floor, she caught a glimpse of Peter standing in the back, his jaw hanging wide open. She rolled her eyes, then bent and picked up the two swords recently derived of their owners.
"Here," she said, tossing them to the kings, "since you're so determined to help a girl."
Edmund had the grace to look sheepish, but he caught his sword easily and joined her and Peter; the other men had come running in the door to see what the ruckus was all about.
It wasn't long before the three of them stood amid an impressive amount of carnage. She whirled around when the kitchen door creaked open and the innkeeper poked his head. His eyes widened as he took in the scene before him, and Adeline felt a pang of guilt at the wreck they'd made of his dining room.
"I'm sorry." It sounded pathetic, even to her ears, but his eyes snapped to hers, and he quickly shook his head.
"Are they all dead?"
"Yes; unless there are more coming." The possibility settled uneasy on her stomach; she absolutely hated leaving this mess for their host to deal with, but if they wanted to be long gone before the reinforcements arrived they had to leave now. Unless….
"Sir, may I have your name?"
"Right, then, Tomas, do you have a safe place you could hide? If more of these men come they'll likely blame you. We don't want you to suffer for it."
"This is all I have, miss." He said quietly, and Peter spoke up.
"Then come with us. We're less than half a day's travel south of the Narnian border; once we get across we'll make sure you're safe."
To her surprise Tomas agreed readily, gathering a few of his things and joining them in the stables. Fortunately he had a horse, so with their new member they hit the trail on a run, while Adeline prayed they wouldn't meet the other soldiers coming the opposite way.
Finally they hit the fork where they had left yesterday. The mud was mostly dried, but still thick in some places. She carefully maneuvered her horse around the worst spots, and when they hit a stretch of open ground, already dried to hard-packed dirt in the hot sun they once again pushed the horses into a gallop.
Every once in a while she would glance over her shoulder, to make sure the others were keeping up. Amos and Tomas, she was glad to see, managed quite nicely. The Four, of course, were expert riders and moved over the uneven terrain with ease.
Watching them, with the wind at their backs and sun shining brightly in the skies that had been so dark the day before, she felt the first seeds of hope begin to blossom within her. Maybe, just maybe, they would make it out of this alive.