"Are we safe here?"
Instead of answering, Balian gazed around him. In the two days since the rescue, the party had crept on foot through the forests, avoiding Uthrancian patrols. Only a few hours had passed since they had crossed the border into wild, unsettled northern Iznia. Throughout, Balian had kept his men on the alert, refusing to relax his guard even once they'd crossed the border. Now, after a careful examination of the area, he finally turned his attention to Sabelina's question.
"For now," he replied shortly. "At least, as safe as we can hope for. At any rate, it will soon be too dark to continue, so we may as well camp here."
Sabelina nodded slowly. Gone was the blanket that had been her sole adornment after her rescue. In its place, she now wore clothing taken from the pack of one of her captors. The rough cotton, hastily altered by one of Balian's men, still managed to compliment the Princess' muscular yet feminine frame.
Isolda, her slender body now covered by similarly altered clothing, moved to stand beside Sabelina. "How much longer?"
Balian shrugged. "Depends," he replied, "on where we go from here. Landsedge Farm, where we were originally headed when you were taken, is maybe two more days. We could make the nearest border post in just over a day."
Sabelina nodded. "Which do you suggest?"
"The farm. It's a bit further away, but we'd be moving away from the border, rather than along it. And the further we get away from the border, the less likely a patrol from Uthrance is to find us, even in this area."
"The farm it is, then," Sabelina agreed. "You have protected us well thus far, and I see no reason not to trust your judgment in this."
"You honor me, Your Highness. Now, if you will excuse me, I will see to making camp."
"Can we have a fire tonight?" Even as she asked, Isolda shivered slightly, as if in anticipation of the night's chill.
Balian smiled. "I'm afraid not, pretty one. We're still too close to the border to risk it. But don't worry. You'll be safe and warm soon enough."
Later, sitting with his back against a tree, Balian watched as a dark figure moved across the silent camp. Reaching him, Isolda sank to the ground, curling herself against him, her blanket drawn tightly around her.
Smiling, Balian wrapped his arm around Isolda, drawing her more tightly against him. For a moment, the two sat silently, her head resting against his chest. Finally, she stirred, glancing up at his face.
"Why are you here?"
Balian nodded toward the camp. "This spot gives me the best view of the camp, such as it is. And I can see if one of the sentries signals."
"No." Isolda shook her head. "I mean, why are you here with us? Why were you sent?"
"I was told it was because of the importance of the task," Balian replied. "Protecting the Princess and seeing her safely to her new home."
"Who told you that?"
Balian smiled. "Curious as well as pretty, aren't you? Well, if you must know, Hardwin told me."
"Hardwin? You mean the King? But why you? Did it have anything to do with Threlkeld?"
Balian stiffened slightly. "What do you know of that?"
Isolda shrugged. "Only what Emeric told Sabelina. She said he told her you led over a hundred men that day, but only three returned with you. Was it that bad? What happened?"
After a long moment, Balian's body relaxed slightly. "The siege," he said slowly, "had already lasted nearly a week. Hardwin's men surrounded Threlkeld, cutting off all aid, and the men of Iznia had begun to tighten their grip.
"At the time, I was a mercenary, one of the Free Companies. My men and I were positioned outside the eastern gate, well away from the main battle." He smiled coldly. "Wouldn't want common mercenaries getting the glory, after all".
"At any rate, one night, I was summoned to the King's tent. He sent his advisers away, then told me he'd had an idea. It was a dangerous plan he proposed; to attack the eastern gate, drawing strength away from other parts of the defense. I was younger then, about your age, but already an officer. I was brave, bold, and more than a little foolish. Maybe that's why I said I would attempt it."
Balian paused. "We went in just before dawn," he finally said. "We crept silently to a smaller postern to one side of the eastern gate. Then, when I gave the signal, my men attacked, using a small ram we'd carried with us".
"The hail of arrows that came down from the walls took half of us before we could batter the small gate open. The rest of us rushed through and began fighting our way toward the palace. The defenders surrounded us, striking more down, until we took shelter in one of the houses. Even then, they continued to pick us off, one by one. In the end, only three of my men remained with me, sheltered behind a makeshift barrier in an upper room.
"But it worked. Our attack was so fierce and so unexpected, it threw the Uthrancians into a panic. They began pulling men back from the walls to face us. It weakened them enough that our soldiers were able to force the main gate. After that, it was only a matter of time until the palace was taken and the war ended."
Isolda's arms snaked around Balian, holding him tight. "You were very brave," she whispered.
Balian smiled. "I was very lucky," he replied. "Then and afterwards. For my service, for the deaths of my men, there was no official recognition. The Lord Generals claimed all of the glory. Hardwin, though, knew exactly who had won that battle, and he rewarded me well".
"I was given my pick of men, and commanded to create a small force of tough, dependable fighters. I answer to no General; only the King himself can command me."
"And you serve him well."
"As well as I'm able. He is my King, my commander, and also my friend. I would willingly die for him." Balian smiled. "Just as you, pretty one, would die for the Princess."
Raising her head, Isolda glanced toward where Sabelina lay sleeping. "I will die when she does," she said slowly. "We were born together, very nearly, we have lived together, and we will die together." Slowly, her head dropped to rest once more on his shoulder. "We might already be dead if not for you."
Smiling, Balian softly kissed the top of her head. "Sleep, pretty one. We still have far to go before you are safe."
The small group dropped to the ground as the sound of horses approached. Only Emeric remained standing, frozen in place as he stared toward the sound.
"He said down." Reaching up, Sabelina grasped Emeric's arm, yanking him down. He landed nearly atop her, clutching at her. Without a word, the group watched as a patrol of Uthrancians rode past. After they'd vanished from sight, the group remained in place for several minutes.
"Emeric," Sabelina finally whispered, "they're gone. You can let go of my breast now."
"Your....?" Emeric stared down at her, only then realizing that, in his panic, his hand had slipped between two buttons of her shirt, fingers curled around one bare breast. Face flaming, he pulled away. "Your Highness," he stammered, "forgive me. I didn't mean to...."
"I know," she assured him, then smiled. "You have a firm grip, for such soft hands." At this, Emeric's face reddened even more.
Balian rose slowly to his feet. "Next time I say down, you get down," he said sternly. "My men are all around us, watching, but they can't be everywhere at once. Patrols can and will get by, and I will not allow you to endanger us with your stupidity."
Emeric stiffened. "I," he declared angrily, "am first son of the Lord of Wayholt, and an officer of Her Majesty's Royal Honor Guard. I will not be insulted or commanded by...." Sabelina's fist, striking him squarely on the throat, cut his words short.
"You will be commanded by me," she said softly, "and I say be still." Eyes wide, Emeric stared at her, his mouth moving but only rasping sounds emerging.
Balian laughed. "Well struck, Your Highness."
Sabelina shrugged, glancing toward Isolda. "I hit her like that once, accidentally."
"And I wasn't able to talk properly for hours," Isolda observed.
"Since then, you could say I've practiced some." Sabelina shrugged again. "I thought it might come in handy some day."
"Handy, indeed." Balian glanced around. "At any rate, I suggest we continue. One more cold camp, and we'll be at Landsedge tomorrow."
"How's your voice?"
Emeric glanced up. "Better," he replied, his voice still a bit raspy. "I don't understand, though. Why did you hit me, Your Highness?"
Sabelina frowned. "Because," she replied, "you were about to make a fool of yourself. Again."
"Is it foolish to defend the honor of my family, my blood?"
"Your blood is the same as his," Sabelina said firmly, "and the sooner you realize that, the better. Balian is a good man. He's risked his life for us. Why do you hate him?"
Emeric's eyes dropped. "I don't hate him. He's a warrior. He's seen the glory of battle. I cannot hate that."
"So you envy him." Slowly, Emeric nodded. "Then stop fighting him and start learning from him. And remember, he's also seen the horror of battle, the pain of losing friends. The simple fact of his birth does not change the man he is, any more than it changes the man you are."
"Or the man I could be?"
Sabelina smiled. "Perhaps. If you allow it to happen."
Nodding, Emeric rose to his feet. Slowly, he crossed the camp, halting before Balian.
"I believe," he said slowly, "that I owe you an apology. I have treated you far worse than you deserve. Please forgive me."
"Nothing to forgive," Balian replied. "You do as you think best. The important thing is learning from your mistakes, so you don't repeat them."
"I would be honored," Emeric said, his voice surprisingly soft, "if you would help me to learn."
Balian grinned. "Careful, young Lord. That almost sounded like you were addressing me as an equal."
Emeric stiffened, then visibly forced himself to relax. "I address you," he replied, "as one man to another."
Balian laughed. "You know," he observed, "there may be hope for you yet."
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story continues in Homecoming 5