Ciliel realised that none of her men were shocked when they betrayed no sound at the arrival of the newcomer. She turned and looked at Aedean who lowered his head. “Discontent had been brewing in Montsworth for some time, my lady. ’Tis not entirely their fault. Laws have been less than fair for many years now. This was inevitable,” he mumbled.
A heavy swallow forced itself down Ciliel’s throat as she turned from Aedean to the newcomer again. She had not seen him in a long time. Ten years to be exact when he had been at Lorindell’s palace, serving as a mere squire. She remembered a cheerful and comely lad, courageous yet kind. Ciliel had been too young then to know what had happened. Julian had simply left the castle and she had never seen him again till today. But if Aedean’s observations were accurate, time had not been kind to Julian, presently Lord of Montsworth, once the most prosperous fiefdoms of Lorindell. Ciliel bowed her head, she did not even have to ask. The misery of the people of Montsworth could probably be traced to her father and her stepmother and their inane, self-serving laws.
Ciliel looked up at Julian. His looks had not betrayed him though. He reminded her of her brother. Tall and lean, he had an angular face enhanced by sharp features. Like most people of Montsworth, Julian had light brown eyes that stood out against his dark, brown hair, a colour that reminded Ciliel of the cinnamon pudding that Cook, the closest she ever had to a mother, used to make for her. His tanned skin, healthy and glowing, attested to his health and strength. Ciliel looked at Julian’s soldiers. Most looked as healthy and strong as him. She did not have to look at her men again to gauge them against the newcomers. Her men were skilful fighters, aye. But they were not fed the diet of soldiers and were travelling on a near hungry stomach. In fact, Ciliel knew that Calista had taken crude pleasure in denying Aedean and Flavian food. Both only ate to half or quarter stomach daily. Aye, any fight would only see them as the losers, going by strength. And Ciliel was too prudent to over judge her men on their skill.
“I believe I am no stranger, my lady!” Julian bowed haughtily to her, startling her out of her thoughts. “Now that introductions are aside, I would that you not plan any escape. For I disdain the use of violence on the innocent. However, when provoked, I will be forced to assume that you are less than innocent.”
Julian did not await a reply from her as he ordered his men to confiscate their weapons. Aedean was looking undecided and Ciliel knew that if she ordered it, all their men would fight to their deaths. These were some of the last of her brother’s loyal guards and they had come for her. For they knew that life at Lord Bain’s would be no better for them. Now, their capture by Lord Julian was inevitable. What was Julian’s intent though? What plans had he for her men? What if...What if….even the thought filled her with dread but she knew that the people of Montsworth had been ill-treated by her father. Did Lord Julian now crave an eye for an eye? And if he did, could his fiefdom withstand any backlash from Lorindell?
Ciliel nearly snorted out loud. Her loss or that of her men, her brother’s men, would hardly get any reaction from her stepmother. Why, she would likely celebrate with wine. Swallowing an angry sob that threatened to bubble out, Ciliel looked up only to feel her stomach sinking. Julian’s men were taking out ropes.
Aedean, once Sir Aedean, second-in-command to Lord Alastair, to be tied in ropes as a common thief or one who had committed treason?
Snapping to a decision, Ciliel pushed through Aedean and walked up to Julian. She was aware of Aedean’s surprise and disapproval but knew that her cousin would never act against her especially in front of a stranger. Stopping in front of Julian, she dropped to her knees, ignoring her men’s look of surprise and shock. Ciliel saw that Julian himself had taken a step back and brought down his sword, poised to strike. Ciliel was almost sure of death until she cast a quick sideways glance in her assailant’s direction. There was another man standing there, in his lord’s shadows… and yet his shrewd cautious eyes could not be ignored. Who was he? He certainly was not expecting a fight. Nay, he was confident of a bargain.
Entirely unsure of the soundness of her plans, Ciliel swallowed, took a deep breath and continued, tilting her head towards Aedean as she spoke, “My lord Julian, please. My men will lower their weapons.”
She caught the look of surprise on Julian’s face as all her men complied immediately, and felt slightly less panicky. Behind Julian, his men had started shifting subtly and she knew they would be encircled soon. She had to act soon. Ciliel looked up at Julian’s eyes. They were cold and hardened and even Ciliel wondered if her pleas would be for naught. Yet, she had to try. Her father might have forgotten what it meant to be a ruler but she knew that she was responsible for her men’s lives.
“My lord, why…may I ask, my lord, what your motives are?” Ciliel trembled as she forced herself to hold Julian’s gaze. If he sensed her fear, he might consider talking to her worthless.
The question had Julian’s frown turn to a sardonic smile as he raised a brow. “The Princess seeks my motives. Spoken as a princess, ain’t it, Richard?”
Richard. So, that was his name. Standing in his lord’s shadows. Sharp and confident. Julian’s second-in-command. Of that, she was certain. He was to Julian what Aedean, was, had been to Michael. He definitely, looked in command. Almost as tall as Julian, he was even more comely than his lord, though they shared the same sharp and dark features, his face was as if it had been sculpted with patience, devoid of any scar or scratch. Whereas, the first thing that one would have noticed about Julian was the scar across his nose and cheeks, an inerasable blemish on an otherwise perfect specimen.
Richard’s voice was soft and Ciliel had to strain to hear his reply as he said, “Definitely a princess.” His next words made Ciliel wet her lips, “Just what do we seek. You would explain your motives to her, my lord?”
“Why, of course?” As the two men bantered, Ciliel knew that they were planning on making her cower, fearful and nervous. Not that she wasn’t but she struggled to maintain her composure as she looked expectantly at them.
“May I begin, my lord?” It was Richard, who spoke and continued as Julian nodded, “Our motive, Princess Ciliel, is of a most romantic nature. It had long been held, much to our grief, that the people of Montsworth are of less worth than their overlords at Lorindell. We seek to address that, ah, shortcoming on our end by seeking a worthy bride for our lord.”
Ciliel swallowed as she realised where this was going. “Richard is being most kind with his words. Not a bride do we seek, a slave. I am sure you have heard of them. I head Lorindell was overrun with them under dear King Baldrick.” Julian’s drawl was mocking, not without a just cause.
Ciliel looked away, “There are none, now. Officially, at least. King Michael freed them all.”
“Oh, but King Michael is dead. Of no use is a dead King, is he?” Ciliel looked down to hide her hurt as she did not reply further to Julian’s mocking words, intended to cause pain. And succeeded as Ciliel felt the lump rise in her throat. She swallowed it angrily, turning her attention instead to her surroundings as she waited for him to finish.
The sky was darkening. Ciliel observed with hope and was rewarded as Julian spoke again, this time impatiently.
“Let us not waste any further time. You will be my bride. And your men my slaves. Tie them now.” Aye, Julian wanted to reach the safety of his home. Soon. It was sensible desire. These were not his lands and he feared danger. Haste was his aim. Ciliel forced herself to think.
“My lord,” she spoke out loud, making a show of clumsily drawing herself up, and sinking on her knees again in front of Julian. Pride stopped her from reaching for his legs but Ciliel knew she would resort to that too, if it meant the safety of her men. Once again, she forced herself to look into his eyes, even as his sword grazed her chin. Behind her, Aedean startled, but stepped down as Ciliel squared her shoulders in warning and faced Julian defiantly. “My lord, I beg you to hear me out. Mayhap my words might make sense to you,” she started, hoping that she did not sound desperate. An arrogant glint had lit up Julian’s eyes as he now played with his sword swaying it gently all but touching her neck which now a trickle of blood running down. Sensing that Aedean would not hold back for long, she continued urgently, “Whether it be a bride or a slave you seek, I accept. Wouldn’t you rather one who served willingly?”
“And what do you seek in return?” Julian’s face did not betray any emotions and Ciliel wondered if he would accept as she saw him exchanging a glance with Richard. Richard. Ciliel caught the slight hint of anxiety in the latter’s eyes. Whatever had caused it, Ciliel felt of glimmer of hope. If Richard did not want a fight… It was not lost on Ciliel that Richard could make Julian change his mind.
“The safety of my men,” she almost blurted out, before reclaiming her composure, “They are some of the finest soldiers, noble and brave. They would be of help to you but I implore you to treat them with the dignity they deserve. I give you my word, my lord. I take you as my lord, to obey, to respect and to serve whatever be your wish.”
Her words raised an anguished cry behind her and had drawn a look of genuine surprise from her lord assailant. “My lady...wh…” Ciliel did not have to turn around to know that Aedean was crying. “Our lives are not worth that much, my lady,” he muttered.
Much as she chose to ignore it, Aedean’s anguish was not lost on Julian who looked from Ciliel to her men, his lips now pressed thinly.
“Your men do not seem interested to comply, Princess,” he sneered softly, “and I wonder if Baldrick’s useless soldiers deserve such consideration.”
Ciliel jerked her head up, feeling genuinely offended. “I am not speaking of King Baldrick’s soldiers, my lord Julian,” she replied, her voice, soft, steady and strong, “I speak of King Michael’s men. Treat them as free men with the dignity they deserve. I take you as my lord, to obey, to respect and to serve, whatever be your wish. This, I vow, In the name of King Michael,” Ciliel finished, this time a notch louder. With those words, she knew that Aedean and the rest had lowered their swords completely and knelt behind her.
She held Julian’s gaze as he looked at her and then towards her men and back to her again, for the first time without the scornful smile. Ciliel knew that she had her bargain.