“It’s settled then. Ten free men and a slave. A rather good bargain, I must say.” Julian turned and bade his men to surround them as they began to walk back.
“It’s a good two day walk to the dominion of Montsworth. Pray do not expect any horses.” he continued haughtily as he ran up the slopes. Ciliel and her men followed in silence. Her men’s heads were bowed and she could see that most were covering their tears. It would not do. They would have to calm down, live up to the change in circumstances. Was death really a better alternative?
It was only nearly four hours later when darkness had completely cloaked the woods that Lord Julian called a halt. Ciliel could hardly make out her surroundings until Richard came over with a torch for her. The fire illuminated the woods and Ciliel could see the magnificent oaks and birches. But it was difficult to admire her surroundings. The undergrowth was thick though and with the burning scratch on her chin from Julian’s sword and the scratches from the brambles on the exposed part of her hands, Ciliel was glad for her fully covered gown, uncomfortable as it was for walking.
Lord Julian and his men had begun to set up camp and eat. Left to stand on their own without any instructions, Ciliel looked at Aedean, who looked equally lost. Were they allowed to eat or rest?
Ciliel was starving and she knew that he men probably felt worse. They had left after a meagre meal of water and stale bread. For Flavian’s sake at least, Ciliel had to try. At thirteen, Flavian was yet a man and had already shouldered much pain in his young life. She was about to do so when Lord Julian looked up in her direction, swept a harsh glance and turned back, resting his back against a tree. Idly, he took a long drink from his water skin and leaned back, his eyes not breaking contact. Steadying herself, Ciliel let go of her last vestiges of respect and was about to beg Julian when she saw him turning to Richard.
The latter was handing a mug of ale, a chunk of honey oat cake and some ham to his lord. Ciliel sat down and looked away, hoping to approach Julian once he had finished eating. Julian taken the ale from Richard and the latter had glanced in her direction. Sighing softly, Ciliel looked down hopelessly when Richard called over his shoulder. “Don’t tell me the high lords and ladies of mighty Lorindell did not have the sense to pack food for travel?”
Ciliel bit her lips. They were allowed to eat. Thankful, Ciliel sat down with her men. As the others put out the food, without taking out the sacks, she saw Aedean take out an old but clean rag and dabbed it with some water from his water skin. Without a word, he handed it to her. Equally mute, she took it from him proceeding to wipe the blood off her chin and neck.
“’Tis a mere scratch, Aedean. You eat now,” she murmured as she took out her water skin for a swallow of water and closed her eyes, fatigue threatening to take her soon. Fighting it, Ciliel looked up thoughtfully at nothing in particular and chided herself as she had the ill-luck of meeting Julian’s eyes. Cold. Unfriendly. Angry. She would get no warmth or sympathy from him. Why, he would not hesitate to kill. Ciliel swallowed, wondering what she had bargained herself into.
As if in answer to her thoughts, Lord Julian out, “Does the scratch hurt much, Princess? Plot your revenge and do all that you wish. It will just give me a good reason to hang your men one by one.” He turned, a cold warning in his eyes, and Ciliel wished her fear had not been so evident for she felt her lips dry instantly upon her pale face. Trembling, she reached out a frail hand to steady herself and felt it being caught by thick steady arms. Aedean had reached out to support her and helped her sit properly, giving her the comfort of a rock to lean against.
“Eat, my lady. Fear is useless,” he whispered softly as he broke a piece of the stale bread and gave it to her. Ciliel took the bread wordlessly and bit into it, glad that Flavian started eating next. Aedean merely took a swallow of water, complaining of a bad stomach and handed his small slice to Flavian who had finished his. Her other men were also taking small sips like Aedean. Children and women to be fed first. Michael’s army. Michael’s edicts.
Stubbornly burying the memory, Ciliel turned her attention to a blade of grass when she realised that Richard and the other men of Montsworth were looking at them in surprise. Was something wrong?
Again, Ciliel looked to Aedean, who shrugged. “’Tis hardly the kind of food one packs for a long journey. It would not keep our energy up. They must be surprised that the royals of Lorindell travel like fools.”
Ciliel felt foolish. She knew so little, whether as a slave or a wife, she would not be able to contribute much. Her education had been sparse and whatever little she knew, she had learned from Cook. She did not offer her bread to her men. If she did not eat, she would merely make them feel worse. If she went ahead and just ate, her men would just go hungry and there was no guarantee of a next meal. What had she gotten everyone into?
Bowing her head, Ciliel hunched her knees together hugging herself tightly. “I was wrong to have sold your services without your permission. We do not know what is in store for us.”
Flavian looked up. “Do not say that, Ciliel. We are yours to command. What you decide is final.”
Ciliel looked up, her eyes blurring with tears to see all the men nodding. Aedean, Flavian, Wesley, Ridley, Jeffrey, Edgar, Calhoun, Brandon, Aldrich and Jarvis. All were less than twenty-five summers. Aedean and Flavian were royals or had been until her stepmother had stripped them of power. Wesley, Ridley and Jeffrey came from noble families with proud military training and prowess which had been passed on to them. The rest were not nobles but skilled artisans. Edgar and Calhoun were fine blacksmiths, having learnt the art of making armoury. Brandon and Aldrich were healers and Jarvis had learned the art of building from his father and grandfather. Most kings would have been glad for such men in their kingdom but not her father who had shown little respect for them. Her stepmother would have killed them had she not had the idea of bringing them along with her. Ciliel slumped her head in defeat. Her people were suffering and she had naught with which to aid them.
Knowing that she could lose her composure, Ciliel turned her attention to her bread, nibbling on it listlessly when she caught Aedean’s eye and realised that Richard was coming towards them. She stilled and waited cautiously wondering what dreaded news he would be bringing. He threw three bundles of cloth on the ground and signalled Flavian to open them. Pickled ham, fresh bread, some cake and fruits. “Cannot afford to care for any weary travellers. Best keep your energy up. We have some distance to go. Anyone who falls will be left to die.”
Ciliel looked at Aedean, who gave a slight nod and turned to Richard to thank him. Not that he cared for it. He had already sauntered off haughtily.