Richard waited as Julian washed up and returned from the stream. Handing Julian his sword, Richard turned in the direction of their captives. They were very docile and hardly even spoke amongst themselves.
“What think you of them?” he asked, his eyes turning to his lord.
“Admirably loyal. I did not expect it,” came Julian’s reply, his lips then setting in a thin line.
Richard did not reply awhile bowing his head instead. “’Tis a far cry from King Badrick,” he eventually said, looking up at Julian intently, “They would protect her with their lives. I wonder why she stopped them.”
As expected, Julian’s thinly set lips had expanded to a scowl, and Richard saw a burning flare light up his lord’s eyes. It was a familiar expression and one for which Richard could bear no grudge against his lord. Even now, the cries and screams echoed freshly in his own head, if he let down his guard to remember that fateful night. Woman, children and even babies had not been spared. King Baldrick had unleashed his men upon them and all that had remained were bloodied bodies, butchered and strewn. Richard himself had been hidden with Julian in barrels in the pig sty. And Julian’s sister, Amanda, amongst the hay stacks. How she had been discovered was still a mystery to this day.
Richard gave an involuntary shake as a tremor drove through him and was glad when Julian started talking again.
“It does not matter why she stopped them. She has given her word. Ten free men and a slave. We will honour that agreement.”
The hatred in Julian’s voice had Richard biting his lips. He knew that the past had left a wound in his friend’s soul, one that grew slowly, festering from within the dark depths, licking, teasing and worst of all, challenging. Would that challenge lead his lord to do as Baldrick had? Hurt the innocent? Richard quelled the sudden panic that surged within him. Julian had proved to be an able and compassionate leader to his people.
In fact, the people of Montsworth owed their current peace and happiness to Julian and his father. They had played their game well with Calista after she had killed Julian’s uncle, the childless Lord Montsworth. Unlike his uncle who had been courageous but lacked political acumen, Julian’s father had plotted his actions. Feigning to be as lazy and sordid as her other cronies, it had not taken long to win Calista’s trust and thus be left alone. For years, his father had spent his energy building up Montsworth. Their resources, army, forts and coffers. They were well-hidden from the rest of Lorindell by the swamp and thick forest. As years had passed, many had believed Montsworth to be wasteland. It was Julian’s order that the image be well-maintained even when his men went out for trade. He still needed time.
Time for what?
That was the one thing that Richard had never asked Julian openly. What was his idea of revenge? When Richard had brought up the idea of capturing the royals, Julian had been neither apprehensive nor enthusiastic. Richard had carefully laid out the merits of having Ciliel as a bride and when, Julian had eventually agreed, Richard had to admit that he did not fully understand the rationale behind Julian’s agreement. And now hearing Julian’s cold voice and his cynical eyes, Richard knew that a nagging doubt had snaked its way into his own head. Julian had a plan that even he was not privy to.
A compassionate leader. Julian could be trusted to show that compassion to his own wife, could he not?
Richard looked Julian in the eyes. “Ye are ready to take a wife? It comes with responsibilities. You will honour your vows?”
Seeing the mug of ale that Julian had been about to lift to his lips stopping midway, Richard had his answer, and Julian’s icy voice confirmed his fears.
“I will honour the agreement, Richard. The men are to be treated with dignity. Princess Ciliel will be Lady Montsworth and all will honour her as such. But surely, she will be expected to earn her keep. I am sure she will be busy. Montsworth hasn’t had a lady for a long while now.”
Nodding slowly, Richard made no reply.
“Ye appear doubtful?” He saw Julian look at him questioningly.
Bending down to pick up Julian’s half-empty mug, Richard downed the remainder of his lord’s leftover ale.
“Whatever be my doubts, I will clear them with you. I will make arrangements for the wedding.”
With those words, Richard turned and left, leaving his lord with his thoughts. Julian was a hurt man, an angry man, but he trusted that his lord would make the right decisions. Sometimes, in life, one had to trust. Especially when there was little else to go forward on.
Turning his attention to their men and their captives, Richard saw that Ciliel’s men had left her side and joined the ranks of his men. Only two flanked her sides now. Ignoring them, Richard inspected his own men and their horses, ensuring that all was safe for travel. He was about to mount his own horse when Julian came up behind him.
“The two of them don’t seem interested in leaving her side,” he observed.
“They are her kin, I believe,” Richard replied cautiously, “If my information is correct, that is Aedean and his younger brother, Flavian.”
“He is little more than a wee child. And seems to need her assurance. Aedean…”
Hearing Julian’s telling drag of the name, Richard volunteered the thoughts that he knew were running through Julian’s head as well.
“He will kill for her.”
Both men then looked at each other and Richard knew that the same question was running through their heads.
What were they doing? What if everything went wrong?
Shaking himself to fend off the mocking doubts again, Richard called out from where he stood, “Your names?”
His haughtily demanded question was answered by Aedean, who identified himself and the other men and their skills. Richard listened, knowing that Julian was doing the same and observing Aedean closely as well.
When Aedean had finished, Richard remained silent as Julian looked at Aedean, his face set in an arrogant pose.
“She is mine, and I will see to her. Join the others now.”
Richard was not surprised to see Julian’s order met with immediate compliance. Neither did he miss the swift almost imperceptible tilt of Ciliel’s head even as her eyes remained on the ground in response to Aedean’s short bow.
“Yer right,” Julian replied shortly, “No doubt there be that should she give her signal now, Aedean will command the men to draw their weapons, regardless of the outcome.”
“But she won’t. We know it and he knows it,” he told Julian, who looked back at him with a tilt of his head and a raise of his brow. “There are odds that he might lose the fight and risk the princess’ life completely. He is an intelligent man.”
“And more,” Julian added in agreement, “A skilled warrior. And a loyal friend. We would have lost more than a few men by his sword had we actually fought.”
“Had we fought, I would have been forced to take a knife to young Flavian’s neck,” Richard laughed grimly.
“And that would have brought the Princess to her knees. Ten good men and a slave. Both roads would have led to Rome. You planned this well, Richard,” Julian said, as he made his way towards Ciliel.
“I hope so, Julian. I certainly do,” Richard whispered as he watched his friends walk off.