Maddoc looked over at Anwen as she sat on the ground, her back against a large tree. She was struggling to keep her eyes open as he pulled out some food and prepared some tea. He moved over to her quickly, offering her some dried meat and some wine. She took it with a tired smile.
“You look done in, my love,” he said with worry as he touched her cheek.
“I am fine, Maddoc. That last village wore me out a bit more than even usual. I am sure after a good night of rest, I will be back to normal. I will even ride my own horse tomorrow. I know you must be tired of having to hold on to me as you ride.”
He chuckled. “You think I ever get tired of holding you in my arms? I should never have had Graves procure two horses. Then you would have been forced to ride with me the whole way.”
She gave him another smile that turned into a yawn.
“Eat, Anwen. The tea will be ready in a moment, and then you need to sleep. I’m sorry you will have to lie on the hard ground. I had hoped to find a small inn to stay in at the last village, but with the number of sick around, I doubt they had any beds to spare.”
They had ridden through four more small villages since their first turn at curing a village. It seemed sickness was spreading rapidly on the east side of the kingdom. Maddoc wondered why he had not heard of it. Those in the villages said they had written to the lord of their land for aid and even sent word to the Quinlan. Maddoc shouldn’t have been surprised to not hear anything. Lord Mannon was an old friend of Maddoc’s uncle. The lord would have spoken with Prince Korben about the disease first.
Still, Maddoc wondered why his uncle would not have told him. What did he have to gain by ignoring the needs of Calumbria’s people? Whatever the reason, the result was there were many sick people in the villages they had come across. He did what he could with his recently discovered Gift. Anwen was patient with him, helping him learn to heal the sick. It was hard work but very rewarding. To feel life come back in someone, and see a mother cry with joy when her child was saved gave Maddoc a sense of satisfaction.
With the limited use of his power, Anwen left him to cure the less sick, while she took on the most severe herself. She had spent the last two days working almost nonstop in each village. She was so exhausted at the end of each day, she could barely keep her eyes open and sit straight.
Maddoc kept her close to him as they rode. Though she had rebounded the morning before, she had less energy throughout the day, and now she looked as though she could sleep for a week. He knew the nights on the hard ground were not enough to revive her. He had to get her somewhere she could have real rest. Somewhere she could be clean, well-fed, and revived.
He poured some tea into a cup and took it over to her. “We will ride further into the kingdom tomorrow. I know a place I think we can rest for a few days and maybe get some information about the kingdom.”
She took a sip of her tea. “Where?”
“I believe Elias’s summer home is less than a day’s ride southwest of here. We can find shelter there. I am sure it is just a few servants in residence this time of year. Hopefully, none of them will send information on us, or if they do, we can still stay a few nights and leave at dawn without them knowing.”
“I’m not sure it is worth the risk,” said Anwen. “Would it be better if we moved further south and tried to contact allies as we come close to Quinlan?”
“I will not put your health in jeopardy for anything. You can argue all you want, but I know you are barely able to go on. We won’t linger long, just a few days. Perhaps we can find a way to contact Elias through his servants.”
“I wonder if there are other villages nearby with those who are sick. I hate the thought of abandoning your people if I could help them.”
He gave her a small smile, thinking of her goodness. She amazed him every day. “No matter how much you might want to, you cannot help them all, Anwen. I’ve been thinking it over, and I believe the best way we can help them is to move into Quinlan and eventually face my uncle. Whatever has been happening here has been happening for a while, and he and other lords have kept it from me.
“Once we know what we face and come up with a way to take the kingdom away from any influence from my uncle, the better off all of Calumbria’s people will be.”
She took another sip of tea and nodded. “I know you are right, but it is hard to comprehend at the moment.”
“It is because you are exhausted, my love.” He took off his cloak and spread it out over the ground before getting up. Picking up two blankets they had with him, he brought them over and sat back down. “Lie down, Anwen. You need to rest. I know this isn’t ideal, but sleep as well as you can, and tomorrow you will have a proper bed.”
She nodded and lay on his cloak. “Will you lie with me? I know you might not be ready for sleep, but will you hold me until I fall asleep?”
“Of course. I told you I never grow tired of holding you.” He lay beside her and placed the blankets over them before taking her into his arms. He pulled her into him, and she laid her head against his chest.
“I love you, my king,” she whispered with her eyes closed.
Maddoc smiled and looked down at her. He kissed her forehead. “Sleep well, my queen.” Though he didn’t believe he was tired, the peace that enveloped him as he held Anwen in his arms, caused his eyes to feel heavy. He kissed her one more time before he let sleep take him.
The next day Maddoc awoke very early. He hated to awaken Anwen, but he knew it would be a long day of journeying. She insisted that she was feeling better, but she did not resist when he asked her to ride with him instead of on her horse. Less than an hour after journeying on, she fell asleep against him. He tightened his hold on her and kissed her head, hoping that night she would be able to rest in a bed.
They crested a large hill when Maddoc got a bad feeling. There were dense woods on each side of them, making it hard to see between the trees. He wasn’t sure what was making the hair on his arms stand up, but he just knew something wasn’t right. He slowed his horse, making Anwen’s stop next to him as he tried to decide what to do.
He could ride swiftly, even let Anwen’s horse go so he could ride even faster. They would lose her mount, but they could be at Elias’s summer home by nightfall. There they could procure another horse before they left again. They could journey on as they were, hoping he was just being paranoid, or he could investigate further and see if there were any threats. As he was trying to decide, Anwen stirred in his arms.
“Maddoc, is something wrong? Are we stopping for a rest?” she asked as she moved to sit up.
“I don’t know, but something doesn’t feel right to me. I’m trying to decide if we should leave your horse and run or maybe I’m just being paranoid.”
Anwen sat up even further and looked around. She looked closely at one side of the forest and then the other.
She tried to get off the horse, but Maddoc held on to her. “Let me go, Maddoc,” she said as she turned her head towards him. “I need to ride my own horse. We need to leave this place.”
“Then we will ride together,” said Maddoc as he pulled out his sword to cut her horse loose.”
“No. We will ride quicker alone, and if needed we can split up to get to safety.” She wiggled and pushed until she was free of his hold, sliding down his horse onto the ground.
She started untying the rope that tethered her horse to his when there was a disturbance in the forest. Maddoc held up his sword as Anwen turned towards the trees. A group of over a dozen men on horseback emerged. All were dressed in the royal guard of Calumbria.
“Your majesty,” said a man who was slightly ahead of the others. “We have ridden night and day, trying to find you. Everyone is Quinlan is desperate for your return.”
Maddoc lowered his sword only slightly as Anwen glanced at him before turning towards the man. “You have been looking for the king?” asked Anwen. “Who sent you to find him?”
“Prince Korben, of course,” replied the man. “He is desperate to have his nephew and king back where he belongs in Quinlan.” The man smiled at her. “I imagine he will be happy to see his betrothed is alive and well, Princess Anwen. He was afraid you had perished due to the foolishness of the man from your kingdom.”
“I’m afraid I have no desire to go to Quinlan at the moment,” said Maddoc. “I plan to continue my tour of the kingdom visiting a few lords. I am on my wedding trip, you see. You should address your queen properly and not make false reports of her being tied to any man but me.”
The soldier’s smile faltered. “I will not argue with you about your marriage state, your majesty, but you must come back with us. You belong in Quinlan, overseeing Calumbria.”
“Who are you to tell me where I belong?” asked Maddoc furiously.
“I am Jasper, the captain of the royal guards, and I have been sent to complete a task. I will do it.”
“You are not the captain of my guard.” Maddoc held his sword back up. “I only recognize Matthias, the man I chose as the captain.”
“Things have changed while you were away, your majesty. We can talk about it on the way to Quinlan.”
“No,” said Maddoc. “My queen and I will continue on our way, and you will go back to Quinlan. You can tell my uncle that I will return when I am ready to secure my kingdom from any control he has.”
“I really do not wish to harm you or the princess,” said Jasper as he unsheathed his sword. “You should come willingly. I would hate for anyone to unintentionally get hurt in a skirmish.” The man’s eyes glanced toward Anwen.
Maddoc moved his horse forward to shield Anwen from Jasper and the other guards, but half of the men broke off and circled around. “Let us pass,” said Maddoc.
Jasper laughed. “Please, your majesty, as you can see, we have you surrounded. Come quietly, and all will be well.”
Maddoc glanced back at Anwen to see she had her eyes closed. She was slowly raising her hand, and he knew she was preparing to strike with her power. As weak as she was, he worried what it would do to her.
“Will you come with us?” asked Jasper.
Maddoc turned back to look at the man, wishing he knew how to unleash his own power. Jasper nodded to the men behind Maddoc, and Maddoc turned to see two men jump off their horses and unsheathe their swords as they moved towards Anwen.
“Last chance, your majesty,” said Jasper with a sneer.
Maddoc heard a noise and saw a bright light out of the corner of his eye. He looked behind him to see the two men on the ground, and Anwen leaning down and breathing heavily. Jasper made a noise, and Maddoc turned with his sword up to block the man’s strike. Maddoc pushed off, and Jasper struck again. Maddoc blocked and moved his horse back as two more men rode towards him. Before they could get to him, there was another light. One man’s horse reared up throwing him off. The other horse bucked uncontrollably until the man was flung into the trees.
Maddoc looked again at Anwen to see her staggering around, not able to keep her head up. He was afraid one more use of her power would do her in. He was so distracted by her that he almost didn’t block Jaspers next thrust in time. The locked swords, both men pushing against one another. Maddoc heard Anwen cry out behind him. He pushed off as hard as he could, and Jasper fell back in his saddle.
He turned to see a man had grabbed Anwen. He roughly pulled at her making her cry out again. Maddoc felt a fury build inside of him, seeing the man hurt her. The thought that something else awful could happen to her because of him was too much. The fury inside of him turned to something else. It filled him with warmth, invading every part of him. The sounds around him were muffled. He was vaguely aware that Jasper had regained his seat and was about to attack again, but the buzzing in his mind made him not care.
He sat focused on Anwen, watching her struggle against the guard that held her. Maddoc had to protect her. She was everything to him. He could not lose her again. Instinctively he pushed out his free hand and a bright light enveloped him. It moved forward and took up every bit of the space around them to where Maddoc could see nothing.
The light finally faded, and Maddoc slumped in his saddle, feeling exhausted. It took him a moment to realize how quiet it was. He blinked his eyes and looked around. A few of the guards lay dead on the ground. The rest and their horses had disappeared. Maddoc kept looking until he saw Anwen lying on the ground. He felt his breath hitch as fear filled him. His exhaustion forgotten, he jumped off his horse and moved quickly to her, kneeling beside her.
He rolled her gently over to look at her and felt immediate relief as her eyes slowly opened. “Anwen, are you well?”
She took a few shuddering breaths as she opened her eyes fully. She made to sit up, and Maddoc took her hand to help her. “I think so. I am just dreadfully tired. What happened?”
“I think my Gift finally responded, though I barely had control over it. I have no idea where I sent some of those men, though I hope Jasper made it back to Quinlan to deliver my message to my uncle.”
“Do you think your uncle has sent out many different groups of guards to find you?”
“I don’t know, but I would rather not find out, at least not right now. We need to get to a place you can rest.” Maddoc reach out and stroked her cheek.
She put her hand on his. “I’m fine, Maddoc. It’s just been a tiring few days. You must be worn out as well.”
“I haven’t worked half as hard as you. Now, let’s get out of here, and see if we can get somewhere safe.” He stood up and held out his hand to her. She took it, and he gently pulled her up. They stood still and looked at each other for one moment before Maddoc pulled her to him and held her.
“I was afraid they were going to kill you,” said Anwen softly.
“When that man grabbed you, I couldn’t take it.” Maddoc pulled her back a bit and looked at her. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”
“Not really,” she said shaking her head. “My arm will just be a little sore.”
He kissed her forehead and took her hand, walking to his horse. “You will ride with me. Hopefully, if we ride hard, we can still make it before nightfall.”
She didn’t argue with him, and he was glad for it. Besides being worried that she would fall off her horse from exhaustion, he wanted her in his arms after what had happened. He needed her close to help still the fear and rage and that flowed through him. His uncle was trying to get to him, and Maddoc imagined the prince would have no qualms in doing anything to Anwen to get what he wanted.
They rode through the day only stopping a few times when necessary. As the sun set in front of them, Maddoc felt the events of the day and the past week wash over him. He was tired of being on a horse and tired of sleeping on the hard ground. Anwen dozed off and on as they traveled. She would sometimes fall asleep in the middle of talking to him. He hoped they would find shelter at Elias’s summer home because he didn’t think they could make it another night in the woods.
Just before they completely lost the light of day, Maddoc turned on the path that led to the manor. As they moved over a small hill, he could make out the torches that burned on either side of the front doors. He urged the horse on faster to reach the house before they lost all light.
They came to the front doors, and Maddoc hopped down before helping Anwen to slide from the saddle. He kept his arm around her as they moved to the front door and knocked. The door was answered by a tall, slender man with dark hair that was graying in the front. He looked Maddoc up and down before turning his gaze on Anwen. He looked back at Maddoc with a frown.
“Can I help you, sir?”
Maddoc cocked his head and realized this man had no idea who he was. He supposed it was to be expected with how they both must look. Their clothes were simple, and they were filthy from the road.
“We were hoping to find shelter for at least the night,” said Maddoc as Anwen stood straighter, and Maddoc let her go.”
“There is an inn in the village about ten miles away. If you move around the back, I am sure the kitchens can give you a little food before you move on,” said the man with a small sneer.
Maddoc gave a harsh short chuckle. “I would rethink your hospitality before you send us away. You have no idea who you are speaking with.”
“And you obviously have no idea of what house you are visiting,” said the man, loudly. “Our lord does not want the likes of you disturbing him. Please leave before I have to call someone to see you out.”
Anwen looked at Maddoc as he felt his annoyance grow. “Your lord is within?” asked Maddoc. “Let him come out and see us. I am willing to bet he will be more welcoming than you.”
“Lord Bennington has no time to deal with you. I would rather this not get uglier than it needs to. Please leave.”
“Good lord, Davis. What in the kingdom is going on that you have to be so loud,” said a voice from within the house.
Maddoc pulled the door wider as Davis was distracted by his lord speaking with him. “He is merely refusing to give hospitality to his king,” said Maddoc as he walked into the door to look at Elias.”
“Good gods,” said Elias with wide eyes. “Maddoc, is it really you?”
Before Maddoc could respond, Elias walked forward as Anwen moved from around Maddoc.
“Princess Anwen?” asked Elias breathlessly.
Anwen smiled and gave a small curtsey. “It is good to see you, my lord.”
He walked forward and took her hand, raising it and kissing it. “I don’t think you can even imagine how wonderful it is to see you, princess.”
“As wonderful as it might be, you will need to address her properly, Elias,” said Maddoc with a smile.
Elias kept hold of Anwen’s hand, but he turned to look at Maddoc.
“Let me introduce you to my wife, and the Queen of Calumbria, Anwen Claren-Cadden.”
Elias turned back to Anwen who nodded her head. Elias kissed her hand again. “Your majesty, it sounds like you both have quite a story to tell.”
“We do,” said Maddoc. “But it will have to wait. We have been traveling for several days and are exhausted. I hope you can provide us with at least a warm meal and a bed.”
“Of course,” said Elias. “Davis, see to the king and queen’s horses and have some water brought up for baths. They shall be put into the adjoining rooms at the end of the east wing. I will show them up myself.”
“Very good, my lord,” said Davis.
“Now, I will allow you one evening to rest, your majesties, but tomorrow I will want to hear your tale in return for my hospitality.”
“You shall hear it, Elias, but only if you tell us of what has happened while we have been gone, and why you are here instead of Quinlan.”