Damsel in Wartime - Chapter 7

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"You are not supposed to be here" The man pressed on.

"Sorry, I-" Elara paused and took another step away from her inquisitor "I'm sorry, I'll go back"

"Answer me" The man spoke sternly.

"I just needed some fresh air, I thought this was the way out of the castle" Elara's words jumbled together. She felt she had to get her defense out quickly before he lost his patience. "I am very sorry, I see now that this is the wrong way. I'll return to the feast"

Without waiting for a response, she turned to leave, desperate to put some distance between herself and him.

"Wait" he ordered stopping her in her tracks.

She felt he was entering the realm of unreasonable seeing as he didn't know the reason why she was there in the first place and she'd done nothing wrong, yet.

What did they have to hide that required such vigilance, she wondered?

"Listen here," she turned to face him with a poker-faced expression, "I already apologized sir and I do not appreciate-"

"I'll show you the way" he interrupted. His expression had softened from the one he'd sported only a moment ago, "I was just going to offer to show you the way"

Elara's expression softened as well. In her mind, she rejoiced for having found her way out of what could have turned out a sticky situation.

"Very well, sir" she relented despite keeping an expression of caution, "Lead the way".

=^..^=

As the pair walked back the way she'd come, she slowly realized just how far she'd traveled in such a short time. She'd been so focused on keeping up with the trailing voices, she'd failed to pay attention to the twists and turns and quickly realized she might have had as much trouble finding her way out.

Eventually, Elara and her new companion made a reappearance in the Great Hall. As it turned out, the gardens were past the Great Hall and through another set of doors.

Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw the trio of ladies watching her make her appearance and subsequent exit alongside the male companion. She was going to have a lot of explaining to do later on.

Chills ran up Elara's spine immediately after she stepped into the night breeze. With her dress sleeves draped off her shoulder in addition to its very light fabric, she had very little protection from the cold.

Still, the view in front of her was well worth the discomfort. The garden was made up of perfectly manicured hedges and illuminated by lanterns, the fires of which glittered through their glass protection.

"It's very beautiful here" she commented.

"I suppose you could say that" The man replied which reminded her that she was still in the presence of her inquisitor and should remain careful of the words she uttered.

"I would like to apologize for my behavior earlier" Elara heard him say causing her to turn her attention back towards him. She couldn't make out all of his face in the night but just enough to tell that he was blessed with very good looks. A dangerous combination when you consider his elevated station.

"It's fine" she replied.

"My job causes me to see enemies everywhere, and few friends" he confessed.

"I understand" Elara blurted out without thinking.

He laughed, "What would a lady-in-waiting know of it?" he asked rather condescendingly.

"It would surprise you to learn that my world can be just as cutthroat as yours" She frowned at his statement, "What are you anyway, a soldier?"

The man looked amused if nothing else, "Yes, you could say that" he replied.

There was a brief pause between them where they both simply watched one another. From his point of view, the girl in front of him was silly, and with few redeeming qualities, but for reasons unknown, she intrigued him.

"You seem cold, you should go back inside" he commented.

"I'm fine" She replied.

He chuckled at the absurdity of her stubbornness. The night was cold and would only become even more so as time passed.

"I will now take my leave, my lady," he said finally as he turned to leave. Her health was hardly his problem.

"Wait" It was her turn to call out to him. He stopped. "What's your name?" she asked.

"My name is Beorn" he answered "But I need not ask yours, Lady Elara"

"Thank you-" she paused and turned back towards the garden "for showing me the way here"

"It was my pleasure" Elara heard him say before the receding footsteps that followed confirmed to her that he was gone.

She quickly recognized the name.

=^..^=

"Why were you walking with Lord Beorn?" Sybil asked as soon as she returned to the table.

"Who?" Elara asked while breathing hot air into her palm. She'd had enough of the chilly outdoors for quite some time but had remained in an effort to avoid this conversation. "That guy?" She continued feigning ignorance.

"Lord Beorn," Sybil asked again, "what were you doing with him?"

Elara shrugged, "He was just showing me the way to the garden"

"Oh really?" Sybil's expression showed clearly that she had been dissatisfied with the answer. "He only just arrived for the feast and you're already talking to him?"

"I don't know who he is" Elara insisted. "I got lost and he offered to show me the way, that's all"

"Where did you even go?" Alicent chimed in, "Even a dolt like you should have been able to tell that wasn't the way outside"

It was bad, the last thing Elara wanted was to get on the girls' worse side.

"She made a mistake" Aoife spoke up, "I'm sure she didn't mean any harm"

As always, Elara was thankful for Aoife's help. Their friendship was proving to be incredibly valuable.

"And yes, she could have asked us if she didn't know the way" Aoife spoke directly to her.

"I'm sorry, I really didn't mean any harm" Elara apologized. It was unclear whether Sybil who felt slighted believed her or not but she said nothing more about it.

"Sybil, I didn't know you felt so strongly about Lord Beorn" Aoife turned to the other girl, "You have heard the rumors haven't you?"

"They're not true" Sybil insisted.

"What rumors?" Elara asked.

None of the girls responded.

=^..^=

The night had ended for the Elara when the princess retired to her room with the three other girls. This had resulted in smug looks from Alicent and Sybil and a concerned one from Aoife.

At least, it allowed her to have the whole room to herself and thus, the opportunity to prepare for bed in perfect privacy.

She'd already been lying in bed wearing her nightgown when she heard Aoife return. Quickly she turned away from the door and pretended to be asleep.

She listened to the sounds as her friend fumbled with her shoes. Upon completion, Aoife took a seat by the edge of the bed exhausted.

"Are you upset?" Aoife asked, "I know you're awake. You never sleep so peacefully"

Slowly, Elara turned to look at her friend who was looking at her with eyes filled with pity.

"I'm sorry," Aoife said to her.

"For what?"

"I don't know why her Highness keeps excluding you," She answered.

"It's okay" Elara replied. What else could she say?

"Should I speak to her? She may listen to me" Aoife asked. It was clear that she wanted to help but didn't know how.

"No, it's fine. Really"

'Maybe she just needs time to warm up to you"

"Yes, maybe"

"Are you okay?" Aoife asked a final time.

While the Princess' cold shoulder might have made things more difficult, she couldn't worry about that. She just had to remain focused, she was bound to unveil something valuable to Cedric eventually.

Elara forced a smile, "I am".

"Okay," Aoife smiled as well. "Now, can you help me get this dress off? I need a good night's sleep, and so do you".

Elara crawled across the large bed after Aoife turned her back, giving her access to the hooks behind her friend's dress. One by one, she chipped away at them until Aoife could pull the dress off her shoulder and pull her arms from the sleeves.

"Thank you"

With that, Elara returned to her sleeping position and turned away once more to give her friend some privacy.

=^..^=

The next morning, Elara stood alongside members of the hunting party that were gathered behind the castle. She was dressed in similar attire to the rest of the ladies-in-waiting, a comfortable long dark-colored dress that offered a full range of motion and similarly comfortable boots.

While the king impatiently hurried along the hunt preparations, his sister focused on her task of pretending to be excited about the hunt in the first place.

If you'd asked anyone standing there at the entrance to the royal forest, they'd have said they were all there to honor Princess Aurelia's return. In truth, this was simply the King's excuse to sate his own appetite. There were those in court who knew of his morbid interest in the power to end a life.

Little Olmund's obsession had begun with insects, but as he grew, so did his hunger for bigger prey. The rats of Sigurd's castle knew no worse fate than to be captured by the young prince.

Members of Sigurd's court had thought it harmless at first, after all, he was only clearing vermin but with each passing age, his prey grew bigger still until it crescendoed with one horrific incident with a horse.

When he learned that killing for food was not as frowned upon as killing for no reason, he took to hunting to sate his obsession.

That morning, Elara exchanged more glances with the King like they had done the day before. She would turn away and when her eyes returned, he would still be looking.

Could he know that she had followed him last night? Could Beorn have said something to him?

Olmund's gaze remained on her until he noticed his sister watching the interaction at which point he quickly turned away.

"Podan!" King Olmund yelled which caused Elara to jump "Are we ready?" The king demanded an answer.

The tension that Elara felt was palpable. She too had noticed the Princess watching the exchanged looks between herself and the King.

"Yes, sire. Preparations are complete" A short, bald man proclaimed.

"Excellent" Olmund exclaimed "Let us make a game of it. Whoever shoots the most game wins"

Princess Aurelia approached the King, "I worry for the safety of my ladies. We are not hunters, Olmund. Must we participate?"

"The forest is safe, my dear sister. Deer, rabbits, small game-" Olmund couldn't hide his displeasure "It's quite pathetic really"

"But they don't even know how to wield a bow" Princess Aurelia argued "How can they be expected to-"

"But it's easy, I'll show you" Olmund began repeatedly snapping his fingers in the direction of the girls, "You, come, I will teach you"

Elara hadn't noticed it at first but the King meant her. He was ordering her approach. She looked to the princess for help but she was silent.

She took one unsteady step after another towards the King who was already retrieving his bow from the man named Podan.

King Olmund quickly handed the bow to her, "Here, don't be afraid".

Her shaky hands gripped the ornamented wooden bow. She was afraid of what he might do if she made a mistake.

Without warning, Olmund wrapped himself behind her, placing his left hand over hers on the bow's grip, and using his right hand, he showed her how to nock the arrow.

She could feel him behind her, close. Closer than necessary, close enough to feel her backside pressed against him, close enough to hear him sniff her hair.

She wanted to move away but knew she couldn't. She dared not defy the most powerful man on this side of the country. Besides, this was the mission she signed up for. Elara braced herself and didn't react even as his hand found its way to her waist.

"Find your balance" he'd said as his hand fell briefly to her hips.

Elara glanced at the Princess, she too watched them closely.

"Take aim, don't close your eyes" King Olmund instructed. She obeyed.

"Now, " he guided her right hand. "pull"

She pulled back feeling every bit of the resistance. She could have sworn that she felt him grow and become harder as she pulled at the string. All she could do was try not to think about it.

She held the bow in a full draw and awaited his command until her arms started to buckle. Eventually, the command came in the form of the tiniest whisper that only she heard.

"Release"

She felt him jerk behind her as the arrow went flying. It impacted the floor only a few feet away, an utter failure.

"Again," The king said eagerly.

"Your Majesty, if I may-" Podan called out "We are already far behind schedule, we should begin the hunt"

Elara seized the opportunity, stepped away and bowed to the King before returning the bow.

"Very well" he answered reluctantly "Let us set out"

"There is still the matter of the groups, sire" Podan called out once again.

"Yes of course. My sister and I will hunt together like in old times. The rest of you can pit yourselves together"

"I need my ladies" Princess Aurelia informed him in a hushed tone.

"I want us to have some time alone" he replied in a similar tone. Without waiting for a response, he offered a compromise, "You may bring one of them"

"Fine" the Princess agreed.

"Bring that one" Olmund added. Once again, he was looking at Elara.

"Not her. Aoife, come"

Olmund looked disappointed but said nothing else. The 17 other nobles that had arrived to take part in the celebratory hunt sorted themselves into teams and set out.

Once more, Elara found herself stuck with Alicent and Sybil.

=^..^=

For once, the three girls had one thing in common. They had no intentions of taking part in the hunt.

Alicent had even less experience than Elara did and Elara had only just had her first lesson.

Many noble houses chose to train their daughters in the ways of archery, although mostly for recreational purposes. Sybil's house was one such and so unlike the other two girls, she had received formal training with the bow since she was a young girl.

Despite that, she wasn't interested in shooting any poor animals so the girls simply walked the trails of the peaceful forest.

Alicent and Sybil walked several paces ahead engulfed in a lively conversation leaving Elara to enjoy her own company. She didn't mind however, she hardly craved the girls' attention.

Instead, she admired what was a very beautiful morning.

The sun's rays streamed through the cracks in the trees and Elara could ever hear birds singing all around her. It was almost enough to forget all that had transpired between her and the King.

Why was he paying so much attention to her and what did it mean for her mission?

Before she could contemplate any further, she felt a large, strong hand cover her mouth and pull her into the trees. She tried to scream for help but no sound escaped the grip that held her mouth closed.

She thought of Alicent and Sybil who had walked far ahead and paid no attention to her.

She wondered whether any one of her many secrets had been discovered and if this was her end.

She heard repeated shushing sounds as her assailant brought his face in view of hers.

It was Gawen.

Despite registering his face, her heart remained beating quickly and she found it hard to breathe.

"It's okay" her former protector tried and failed to calm her down.

Her breathing grew faster still. She had just realised how quickly she could be killed and how little she could do about it and it scared her to no end.

"It's me, Gawen" he tried again "You're safe".

When he noticed the tears rolling down her cheeks, he apologized profusely for scaring her. This carried on for a minute more until she began winding down. Her cheeks were wet with tears.

"I'm sorry," he said again, "I just had to stop you from screaming" he explained.

When she was calm enough, she apologized for overreacting.

"Are you okay? You're very tense" he observed.

"I'm fine. How are you here?" She asked while wiping tears away from her face. The sudden crying had caught her off guard and was something she'd have to come to terms with sooner or later.

"Never mind that. We don't have much time. Do you have anything to report yet?"

She shook her head. Nothing had happened yet, she hadn't heard anything.

"Anything at all, no matter how little. Have you observed anything?" Gawen's eyes constantly darted around the forest in search of any sign that may indicate that their position had been compromised.

"I think the King received bad news during the feast last night. He left early. I tried to follow him but-"

"No, don't follow. I told you not to take any risks" he rebuked. "Anything that is beyond your reach, you ignore"

"I won't ever learn anything if I do that" Elara argued.

"Then you don't learn anything," he said. "focus on building relationships, talk to people, make friends, and listen. Do you understand?"

She nodded.

"Good. Have you had a chance to deliver the letter?" he asked.

"No, there hasn't been a good opportunity" She lied. In reality, she'd been so overwhelmed that she'd entirely forgotten about the letter she'd hidden in her trunk.

"That's okay, just be careful" he finished "I need to leave here. It is not safe. If you learn anything important, place a lantern by your window at night, and I will find a way to get to you"

"How do you know-"

"Focus on what matters," he interrupted her "Remember what I told you."

He said his goodbye and disappeared into the trees just as quickly as he had come.

Elara took a deep breath in. She wiped the dirt off her dress and when she thought she was ready, she continued down the path. The girls had never stopped or come back for her.

=^..^=

She'd rushed forward intending to catch up with the two girls but after several minutes of walking, she instead found herself face to face with half a dozen soldiers led by the man from yesterday. Lord Beorn.

"Lady Elara" he called out to her.

"Lord Beorn" she responded. She quickly remembered that she hadn't seen him at the gathering earlier and he wasn't supposed to be part of the hunting party so what was he doing here?

"Why are you on your own, my lady?" he asked after bringing the soldiers behind him to a halt.

"My fault entirely. I got separated from the others. What are you doing here?" she asked.

He thought to keep his assignment a secret but decided it might be beneficial to ask her as well.

"There was a report of an intruder. Have you come across any suspicious individuals?"

"No," Elara said while shaking her head "What does he look like?"

"Lady Elara," Lord Beorn looked intently at her, "have you seen any men here?"

"I haven't. I could help you look" she offered "It would be the least I can do after you helped me yesterday"

"No, it's probably nothing. May I walk you back to the castle?" he asked.

"Please"

=^..^=
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Thank you for taking the time to read this. I'd love to hear your thoughts

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Comments

Interesting……..

D. Eden's picture

It appears that both the “King” and Lord Beorn are attracted to Elara - apparently for different reasons.

Lord Beorn is attracted to her perhaps because she is somehow transmitting her true gender. After all, apparently the rumor is that he likes boys.

As to the King, he gives all indications that he is psychopath. In modern times, he would be a perfect candidate to become a serial killer. He gets off on needlessly killing animals, and as time passes he needs larger animals to sate his sick desires. Is his next step to torture and kill a human? Is he looking to Elara as his victim?

Perhaps Lord Beorn will be her knight in shining armor? Obviously, her relationship with Sybil will not be helped by his attentions.

D. Eden

Dum Vivimus, Vivamus

Curiouser and curiouser

Emma Anne Tate's picture

So Olmund is a popular sociopath, while his usurping uncle is deeply unpopular. A weird world that . . . Yeah. Absolutely could happen. Because people are damned strange creatures.

Elara gets some good advice from Gawen. Hopefully she’ll take it to heart!

Emma

Sociopaths

joannebarbarella's picture

Seem to be all the rage at the moment, particularly in politics.

What is the mystery between Elara and the Princess's estrangement? And maybe Lord Beorn isn't totally attracted to boys?

Like all good spy stories we have to keep reading!