By Lote <email@example.com>
Submitted: February 2003
Summary: In this Medieval Elseworld story, Lois rescues a stranger who has collapsed at her doorstep, an event that leads her to the discovery of love, lies, betrayals, and ultimately, her identity.
*It's the heart afraid of breaking
that never learns to dance
It's the dream afraid of waking
That never takes the chance
It's one who won't be taken
Who cannot seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying
That never learns to live*
—The Rose by Bette Midler
"Snow's falling. Snow's falling?" Lois wondered. "When did it happen? Just yesterday, it seemed like summer and now snow's falling?"
She looked out of the glass wall of her little house at the soft flakes falling gently to the ground. The little pine tree on one side of the house was being covered ever so rapidly with snow. She could hear the snow hitting her roof.
She turned to the corner of her cottage, where her sleeping pallet was. Her strange visitor was still asleep, undisturbed and perhaps even lulled by the rhythmic sound of snow hitting the roof. Her mind returned back to that morning when she opened the door to her cottage to find the stranger laying flat on his face in front of her door.
"Lois, you're oh so late," Lois admonished herself, hurrying to pack her basket. She had gotten up late that morning, not at all like her usual routine. But she had an excuse since the night before she was helping Farmer Wayne with the birth of his new calf. In the small village of Trent, she was known as a wise woman, well-versed in herbs and other natural medicine. She was well-respected by other members of the community except for Father Tempus. He seemed to hate her. He wouldn't allow her to enter the church except to pay her tithe, and he would have done more if he wasn't afraid of offending her protectors — Squire Perry White and Lady Alice White.
She shook her head to try and forget about Father Tempus and the Whites, even though she had much to thank them for, the Whites, that is. After all, they had raised her after her parents died when she was two. She had to hurry or someone else would take her spot in the market-place. She wished she had enough money to purchase a shop to sell her herbs and spices. The Whites had volunteered to lend some to her, but she didn't wish to burden them anymore than necessary.
Soon, the herbs and spices were all packed and she had her coat on. She opened the door and started to step outside. Blackie, her cat, yowled, startling her, and she promptly looked down, afraid that she might have stepped on Blackie. Instead she found her cat sitting on the back of a man laying flat on his face just in front of her doorway, blinking at her. She gasped and dropped her basket. Kneeling down, she tentatively touched the man. No movement. She looked up at her cat as if to question Blackie on what she should do.
What she had eventually done was to check whether he was alive. After ascertaining that he was, she had brought him inside and cared for his wounds. His wounds were quite extensive and severe. She was surprised that he even made it through the few hours he must have collapsed outside her cottage — he had a strong will to live, it would seem.
She wondered where he was from; his clothes, plain as they were, were made from fine cloth, much finer than she'd ever seen in the little village she lived in. Of course, she'd like to know who he was and what actually happened. However, she was unlikely to get any answers in the next few days. Her patient was likely to be in a healing sleep for that time span — she would insist on it. He had lost too much blood as it was.
She turned her attention to the falling snow once more. Such beauty and yet, it can be so deadly. She watched the snow gathering on her glass-paned roof. Perry and Alice had told her the story of the cottage which she had inherited from her deceased parents and Lois had fallen in love with both the house and the story.
It was built by her father, the younger son of a nobleman, for her mother, who had been a wisewoman like Lois. Built against a small hill, the part of it that was glass faced the woods. The entire wall and part of the roof were made of glass. The other three walls were made of logs, and the other half of the roof, of shingles. In the middle of the cottage was the fireplace, leading up to the chimney. It was unique in that it was opened on both sides; the one facing the glass wall and the one facing the front door.
Banked by a layer of brick on either side, the fire Lois had set up earlier quietly burned its way through the pile of wood in the fireplace. It radiated warmth throughout the little cottage. Lois imagined her parents nestling close near the fire, arms around each other and speaking quietly of their dreams and aspirations. She couldn't remember them; they died when she was only two.
Her mother had been accused by Father Tempus of being a witch, and at the time, there wasn't anyone powerful enough to gainsay him. Her father had tried to save her only to be accused of being a heretic instead. They were both tried, found guilty, and burnt at the stake. Without being aware of it, Lois's hands clenched and a haunted look came over her expression. Whenever she thought of them, one question came up. "Why hadn't anyone been brave enough to stand up to Father Tempus?" From what she knew, no one had ever thought that her parents were guilty of what they were being accused. A loud crackle from the fire brought her back to the present.
She slowly unclenched her hands and shook herself out of the mood she had fallen into. Outside, she could see the sun setting in the distance and the squirrels scampering back to their nests. The snow had blanketed the entire ground and the branches. Her growling stomach reminded her that supper had to be cooked and that her patient needed to be fed too. Since he was unconscious, she was going to have to trickle some watery broth down his throat. Lois turned to the brick oven over in the opposite corner from where he was sleeping and went about fixing a light supper.
After having her supper and feeding him his, Lois checked the poultice on his wound. She bandaged the wound once again and felt his temperature. He was running a fever. She sighed, knowing that there was no rest for her till his fever broke. She didn't dare leave him alone for even a minute. She would just have to sacrifice her place at the market while her patient was recovering.
Kal stirred, wondering where he was. All he could remember was the ambush. James, his squire, had been with him then. They were traveling through a stretch of woods when arrows rained down on them. Thank god for Valiant, his war horse. Valiant, having been trained for war, had the presence of mind to dodge the arrows and swiftly carried him away. That separated him from James. He hoped that his squire hadn't succumbed to the attack.
Meanwhile, before he could escape very far, several knights with unknown markings on them appeared from behind the trees. He was surrounded. He drew his sword and primed Valiant for a fight as the knights drew him into a tight circle. Both of them, he and Valiant, had fought bravely against the knights, but eventually he tired and made a mistake by over extending his sword blocking off a blow. One of the knights took advantage of the mistake and ran his sword through the light chain mail protecting Kal and into his side. Valiant bucked and kicked the knight's extended hand, managing to break the circle. That was all that Kal could remember before he slipped into unconsciousness.
Now, as his consciousness returned, he puzzled over the reason for the attack. It was definitely not a band of outlaws trying to rob travelers. It smelled of conspiracy to kill him. But who had known that he was out of the palace? Perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to leave the palace incognito. But at the time, it seemed like the best way to protect him.
He had gotten permission from his father, King Jor of El, to go out and see the world, and experience life beyond the palace walls. It had not been an easy task, convincing his father to let him go. It had been tradition that the heir apparent to the throne must remain within the palace walls to be protected at all cost, unless it was to carry out his duty as the commander of the army. But Kal had a thirst to know more about the kingdom he was to inherit one day than what was presented to him in books and reports from the council meetings. Even as a child, he had broken tradition and made friends with the servants whose freedom of movement was something he envied.
Later, when he took up his role as commander of the army, he tried to learn as much about the people under him as he could. He managed to establish a few friendships with some of the officers in both the infantry and cavalry units. It was from these sources that he managed to learn about the outside world and used this knowledge to persuade King Jor.
He argued that he would be a better ruler if he knew the minds of the people directly and not through reports that were biased towards the nobles. With the help of his brother, he managed to convince his father the wisdom of such an act. Between the three of them, they concocted a plan where he would travel incognito with only James as his companion. To the court, Prince Kal was supposedly indisposed as the king had sent him to one of the neighboring kingdoms to parley a treaty. That was why he was puzzled how someone managed to know his disguise and his travel plans. Aside from his father and brother, James was the only one who knew about it and Kal trusted him implicitly. The boy was loyal to Kal, that he had no doubt. So, who betrayed him?
A creak signaling the door being opened brought him out of his introspection. He turned towards the door, only then realizing his surroundings. "Where am I?" he thought briefly before gaping at the vision entering the now open door. The sun shone through, silhouetting the figure in the doorway, a very flattering female figure. The simple dress she wore didn't hide it at all. The sun also made a halo around her head. But perhaps it was just his imagination. Still, her hair seemed to be colored amber by the sun, a deep, dark amber. He couldn't see her facial features but his instincts told him that they wouldn't disappoint him.
"Oh, you're awake!" she exclaimed, her voice like the nightingale he once had when he was a little boy. "No, don't move," she said in alarm when he tried to push himself into a sitting position. She hurried to close the door and go over to him.
"No," he thought idly as he drank in the beautiful face frowning in concern at him. "She hadn't disappointed me, at all." He dropped back onto the meager pallet as the lady fussed over him. He wondered what her name was. Her manners hailed her as a noblewoman but the trappings she had on contradicted that assumption.
"Lady," he ventured to ask. "Pray tell me where I am?"
Lois frowned at her charge; that was what she had come to view him as. Him and his powerful charger. She had found the poor thing hanging around outside her cottage door the morning after the snowstorm. Having no horses of her own, she had to resort to stabling him in the barn with the cow. The charger was well-behaved and didn't complain about the indignity of a warhorse sharing a roof with a lowly cow. Lois hoped that his owner was as well-behaved.
She had just returned from feeding the charger when she realized that her patient was now awake. She became alarmed when he struggled to sit. His stitches were not healed yet and might be torn. If that happened, he could lose more blood, something he could not afford. Rushing to him, she checked her bandages to ensure no stitches were torn. She could feel his gaze as she went about her work, making her feel very self-conscious. What could he be thinking? Was he thinking her too bold as to shamelessly attend to him when he was naked except for his loin-cloth? She tried to distract herself by focusing on the wound in front of her.
Concentrating hard, she almost jumped when he spoke. She turned to frown at him. He hadn't injured his head so he couldn't have lost his memory. "No, it's a perfectly reasonable question. He probably had no idea where he is," she thought. "You're in my house on the outskirts of the village of Trent," she answered him.
"Do you know how I got here?" Kal asked further.
"Not really." Lois shook her head as she stood up, deciding that it wasn't proper for her to talk to him while sitting by his side on the pallet. "I found you unconscious two mornings ago in front of my house. Since then, your charger appeared. If I were to hazard a guess, perhaps your charger brought you here. He seems an intelligent fellow."
Kal nodded as he considered her words. "Lady, I thank you. My charger and I are in your debt. My name is Sir Clark of Kent," Kal volunteered. That was the name he had decided on during the brief journey with James. A knight of the ducal seat of Kent would be less obvious than a mere merchant, especially when he was riding Valiant.
Lois had heard of Kent, the traditional estate of the heir apparent to the throne. Its wealth and prestige was only rivaled by the ducal estate of Luthor, to which Trent belonged. Prince Lex, the younger brother of Prince Kal, inherited the dukedom of Luthor from his maternal grandfather. Since then, he had made it even more prosperous than it ever was. Many nobles and merchants had nothing but praises for the younger prince. Of course, Kent was a little grander than Luthor, but not by much. So, her patient was a knight in the service of the crown prince. She wondered why he had crossed into lands belonging to Prince Lex. Had he been on a mission?
She saw Kal waiting patiently for her response and realized that she hadn't introduced herself. "Sir Clark, I would have liked to meet you under better circumstances, but then, some things are not within our control. I'm Lois, a healer. Some call me a wisewoman, but I don't believe I'm fit to be one."
"Wisewoman or healer, Lady Lois, you saved my life. For that, you've earned my eternal gratitude," Kal responded.
Lois blushed at the courtly words before shaking her head in denial. "Not at all, kind sir. Firstly, as a healer, it was incumbent upon me to help you. Secondly, I'm no lady. Just call me Lois. Everyone does," she said shyly.
Kal wondered if she knew how beautiful she was when she blushed so prettily. "Probably not," he thought, comparing her innocent denial to the artful, if utterly contrived, sophistry of the ladies of the court. It was a welcome change. "Very well, if you would call me Clark." He was delighted when she smiled at him in response. He would have said more but his body wasn't cooperating. He found himself falling back to sleep.
Over the next few days, Kal and Lois got to know each other better as life fell into a routine. Now that Kal was awake, Lois had once again gone back to the market-place to sell her herbs and spices in the mornings after feeding Valiant. She had asked Kal about it since she didn't want to continue calling the charger "m'lord" all the time.
Lois would return in the afternoon to make lunch and change the poultice and bandages. She and Kal would eat together, exchanging her news of the world outside the cottage for his stories of what court life was like. She would then go out to gather her herbs and spices and tend her small garden, leaving him with her meager collection of books and her cat, Blackie, for company. Coming back at sunset, she would cook dinner and once again, they would talk. This time, the talks would revolve around different topics like philosophy, religion, politics, science, and other numerous areas.
Kal was amazed at the depth of Lois's knowledge. He hadn't expected that a simple village healer could be so well-read when more than half of the noblemen couldn't even spell their names, what more the ladies. He queried her on this before finding out that her foster father had once been a scribe to the viscount who held the deed to the village. Her foster father was the one who taught her to read and write, and had generously made his books available to her. He was curious about her past but did not delve further. He knew that if he questioned her about her past, she would expect the same from him. To lie to her about his past made him feel guilty. Of course, letting her think that he was a mere knight was also a lie. But he reasoned that it was a necessary lie. The subject of his past wasn't.
Slowly as days passed, Kal's injury healed and he was able to move around a little. He volunteered to sleep on the floor, feeling guilty for taking up the only comfortable sleeping place in the cottage. Lois adamantly refused, knowing that he was in no condition to sleep on the hard ground. As for her, she was used to it. Having another person around felt strange at first, but she soon learned to appreciate his company and his conversations and forget the difference in their ranks.
She tried a few times to ask the circumstances of his wound but he shied away, saying that he was set upon by a group of outlaws. Lois was surprised that there were outlaws in the woods around Trent since she knew the viscount was very strict about keeping the law and had men patrolling his demesne. Still, there wasn't any other explanation for his wound. "Besides, Lois, what makes you so sure that the man was set upon by outlaws near Trent? Valiant could have carried him far away from the site of his attack. Yes, that would also account for why he was here instead of in Kent," she thought to herself.
One night, almost a fortnight since Kal regained consciousness, Kal ventured to ask her, "Lois, I'm going stir crazy from staying indoors all the time. Now that I can move around, is it possible for me to go outside? Valiant needs exercising too." He looked pleadingly at her with his puppy brown eyes.
Lois weighed his request. One of the reasons why she wanted him indoors was to avoid being seen by the people of Trent. She didn't want any problems to arise from him staying with her. But as she looked into those brown eyes, she hadn't the heart to refuse him. "All right, you can. But no riding. Period. You'll only tear the stitches that way," she told him sternly.
Kal grinned at the concession. "Yes, ma'am."
"Clark, another thing. Don't venture too far away from the cottage," Lois said reddening a little. "Er…while not many people come out here, it's still not seemly for me to entertain a man all alone…"
Kal stopped her when he saw how the topic was embarrassing her. "Don't worry, Lois. I'll not smear your reputation…"
"No!" Lois interjected strongly. "It's not me I'm thinking about. It's you. The priest around here, Father Tempus, thinks that I'm a witch. He's been trying to prove it ever since I grew up. Because my foster father is the village squire, he's been thwarted time and again. I've tried my best to avoid him. But if he found out that you're here and that I had used my knowledge to heal you, he'd not hesitate to bring both of us to court and have you convicted of being bewitched."
Kal was surprised that a mere village priest could wield so much power. "Aren't you exaggerating? How can a priest do such a thing?"
Lois turned away and said quietly but bitterly, "No, I'm not exaggerating. He did it before." She paused to consider her words before continuing, "He ordered for my parents to be killed after accusing my mother of being a witch. He would have killed me too if not for the interference of my foster parents and the viscount."
Kal sat back, horrified by what he had heard. Looking at Lois's profile as she was silhouetted by the fire, he couldn't picture what her life might have been like to bear such a burden. He was also indignant on her behalf at this Father Tempus. How could a priest violate his oaths and misuse his powers like that? It was unthinkable. On impulse, he took her hand in his and tugged at it, catching her attention. He then captured her gaze before saying, "Lois, you've saved my life and cared for me and Valiant. Even now, you're thinking about me rather than yourself in this situation. I give you my word as a knight that I will do my best to protect you and to see that justice is done in the case of your parents."
Lois tried to protest but was silenced by a look from him.
"Don't, please don't reject this little that I can do for you. I owe you more than you could possibly imagine," he finished, staring into her doe-like eyes before dropping his gaze to her hand still in his, breaking the contact. He was a little shaken by the connection he felt with her. While they had had physical contact before, this was different. Somehow he felt that they had delved into each other's soul and that he had left a piece of him behind when he resurfaced. The trembling hand that gripped his indicated to Kal that Lois had also experienced a similar feeling. He wasn't wrong.
Lois couldn't remember a time when she actually been able to connect with anyone like she had with this relative stranger beside her. As she gazed deep into his eyes, Lois knew this must have been how her mother felt when she first connected with her one true love. But could she, Lois, afford to give in to this feeling? She knew next to nothing about the man, except that he was sincere in his vow to protect her and to see justice done. Clark had been too closed mouth about himself. Lois knew instinctively that he had a secret that he wasn't able to confide in her. Could they have a future together if that was the case?
She reluctantly withdrew her hand from Kal's and smiled tremulously. "Thank you, Clark. I trust you would do it, but I won't hold you to the promise. This is not your fight."
Once again, Kal was struck by how ladylike her behavior was. Much more than some of the noble ladies he had known. To compare them was to compare the light of the sun to the candle flame. "If only…" he quickly banished the treacherous thought before drawing himself together. "Lois, I've made it my fight," he quietly responded. "And nothing you say will make me change my mind."
Their gaze clashed once more before both turned away and Lois gave a small nod in acceptance of his declaration. They cleaned up the remnants of supper in silence, each a little shaken by what had happened.
The next morning brought the sunlight flooding through the glass walls, waking Kal up. Looking around, he noticed that Lois was gone, probably to the market. She usually got up well before dawn to do her various chores. He, on the other hand, rarely rose from his bed before the sun was fully up.
Stretching, he finally remembered that Lois had given her permission to leave the cottage and what had then transpired between them. He sighed, wondering how complicated life was. Whatever his feelings for her were, he had to remember that he was the heir and must marry for the good of the kingdom. That was the reason he could only promise her his protection; that was the only thing that he could offer her.
After doing his morning ablutions, he stepped out of the door into the warm winter morning. As he breathed the fresh crisp air, he wondered as he had wondered for the past two weeks what had happened to James. Had his attackers harmed the boy? His mind recalled the ambush. Could he have saved James? Analyzing his memory, he doubted he could. He had barely survived the encounter. He hoped that James managed to escape. After all, the target of the attack had been him and not James.
For now, he was committed to ensure Lois's safety. Until he was sure that this Father Tempus could no longer hurt her, he had to stay here. That thought didn't really bother him all that much as he whistled his way to the barn to get Valiant out. After all, by staying here, he was also accomplishing one of his motives for leaving the palace, that is, to learn more about his subjects. He just had to convince Lois to allow him to show his face in the village. "That," he thought wryly, "will be more difficult to do than changing father's mind about allowing me to leave the palace. Of course, if Lex was around, he could do it. He's very good at convincing people to do things."
He smiled at the thought of his younger brother. Lex was his twin, born mere minutes after him. But they weren't identical twins. Not in physical features, nor in temperament either. Yet for all those differences, they shared a connection as only twins could. Lex was his other half as he was Lex's. When either was hurt, the other always knew. Kal wondered if his brother was going crazy from worry since he must have felt Kal's attack. Hopefully, he wouldn't go to their father with his worry. That would defeat the real purpose of Kal's journey; to discover the threat to El.
"Lois, there you are."
Lois turned in the direction of the familiar voice. It took a while for her to spot Alice White since the market-place was crowded at that time of the morning. "Mother," Lois greeted her cheerfully when Alice approached the small stall Lois had set up by the corner of the square. "What brings you here?" she asked.
"Your father and I missed you, dearest," Alice replied, giving her a warm hug. "You've not been to see us for over a week and Lana was telling me that you didn't open your stall for a few days. We were worried. If Perry and I hadn't been out of town the past week, we'd have gone over to your place."
Lois blushed, embarrassed that she had been so remiss at visiting her foster parents. Taking care of Clark and Valiant took up so much of her time and energy that she hadn't had the opportunity to socialize. Her best friends, Lana and Rachel, must have been very worried about her to report her comings and goings to the one person who had any influence over her. Sheepishly, she explained, "I was busy this past week. I had some things to tend to for a few days, which was why I didn't come to the market. But, don't worry, you'll see me over at the house tonight."
"I hope so, since I've arranged for a dinner party tonight. The viscount is visiting us with his son, Sir Daniel."
Lois groaned inwardly as she recognized the matchmaking undertones. "Who else are you inviting, Mother?"
Alice frowned when she remembered one of the other guests. "Father Tempus would, of course, be there," she told her foster daughter who also frowned at the name. "Master Harris of the Merchant's Guild, Rachel, and her fianc‚, Bard Roberts. Now, I know you don't like Tempus, but it can't be helped. He can't do much to you in the setting. He wouldn't dare," Alice declared fiercely.
Lois sighed, knowing that she'd have to attend. There was no excuse for her. "I'll be there this afternoon to help you, mother," she promised.
"Good," Alice said.
Lois dutifully placed a kiss on her cheek, before giving in to her impulse and hugging her. Alice left after winking at her. Lois shook her head at her foster mother and turned back to a customer who had been waiting patiently while Alice was talking. The morning wore on with more customers visiting her stall. However, her mind wasn't on her business. Instead, it wandered to the upcoming dinner and the confrontation that she knew would occur when Father Tempus saw her. She dreaded that confrontation and wished that Clark was going to be there with her.
"Where did that come from?" she questioned herself, surprised. But she couldn't deny the truth of it. She felt safe when he was near. It was illogical, especially since she knew next to nothing about Sir Clark of Kent. Lois sighed, knowing that she was falling for a stranger who might not even be remotely attracted to her, but she had no way of stopping herself. "He's not for you, Lois. Better keep your feelings to yourself. Bury them deep or otherwise they'll only serve to hurt you more."
She knew her inner voice was right but a stubborn part of her questioned its validity. What made her so sure that he wasn't for her? Was it because of the difference in their ranks? If that was it, couldn't they overcome it somehow? Of course, she was assuming that Clark could fall for her, which she doubted. "Oh, stop it. Enough speculation. The evening ahead is already stressful enough without this issue being added to the pile," she told herself firmly. Packing up, she soon had everything loaded onto her cart and headed home.
Kal knew that Lois had to come by the road leading to town. Feeling mischievous, he hid behind a tree, waiting for Lois to pass by in her pony cart. He thought to surprise her, giving in to a childish impulse.
He had a wonderful day, out in the sun and frolicking with Valiant. It was something of a novelty for him since he had never known a day when he had felt freer. Since he had been stranded in Trent, he hadn't had people demanding his time, meetings to attend, disputes to settle, and best of all, he needn't sit through boring musical recitations from squawking court ladies. He did wish that he could ride again, but Lois was very explicit in her instructions.
As if thinking about her had made her materialize, he heard a cart approaching. He signaled to Valiant to keep quiet while he climbed up to the lowest branch and readied himself to surprise her. Soon, he could see the little cart which was being pulled by her old donkey.
"What the…" Lois nearly jumped out of her skin when Kal dropped on the cart, seemingly out of thin air. She glared at him, her lips thinning in displeasure.
Kal grinned sheepishly at her. "Surprise?" he said weakly.
"Clark! What did I say? You weren't supposed to strain yourself!" she scolded him.
Kal's grin faltered and he gave her a puppy-dog look, as if to plead for her clemency. Sighing, she gave it. "All right, stop looking so pathetic. Just don't do it next time," she warned him. "Boys," she muttered under her breath.
"I was just trying to surprise you. Wasn't straining myself at all," Kal tried to argue his case.
"Clark, give up. You're not going to convince me," Lois told him. "Besides, I'm busy right now."
"Doing what?" he asked curiously as he looked around, trying to figure what she could be busy with.
"My foster mother came by and she wanted me to help her with this dinner party she's having tonight," Lois explained, her tone level.
That didn't stop Kal from detecting that there was something wrong with the picture she was painting. "Who's attending this dinner?"
"The viscount and his son; one of my best friends, her father, and her fianc‚; and …" Lois hesitated.
"Who else?" Kal pressed for the answer.
"Father Tempus," she finally spat out the name.
Kal frowned. Why would her foster parents invite him if they knew what trouble he was making for their daughter? "Duh, are you galactically stupid, Kal?" he asked himself. "Of course, they have to invite him. In the village, he is a key political figure. It wouldn't do to snub him as they would if they hadn't invited him."
"Perhaps I should go along," he volunteered.
She didn't answer him. Instead, she busied herself with unloading her herbs and spices and unhitching Old Greta, the donkey, from the cart. Kal helped her with the various chores, all the while waiting for her verdict. When she still refused to answer after all the chores were done, he insisted, "I should come along. I had promised to help you…"
"Stop," Lois commanded. "Clark, there is no way that I can bring you to the dinner with me unless we explain the reason you're here. That would lead to even more problems. Besides, I can handle Father Tempus."
Kal looked at her, concerned. He knew she was right that his accompanying her would just lead to a lot of questions. It would be like opening Pandora's box. But that didn't mean that he was happy about it. "Lois, I think it's time for me to move out of your house," he suddenly announced.
"What!" Lois turned around to look at him. "Why? You're not fully recovered, yet. You won't be able to go far." She was sincerely worried about his condition if he left. On top of that, she was also hurt that he wanted to leave. After the conversation the night before, she felt there was a bond between them. Obviously, he didn't think so. That was probably why he was chafing to leave her. His promises were just a way for him to feel better that he had given her some support as payment for her saving his life.
While all those thoughts were running through Lois's mind, Kal was thinking that moving out was the only solution to the dilemma they were in. He could not be her protector if he wasn't able to be seen with her. By moving out of her house and into the village inn, he could reintroduce himself to her socially without her being cast into the role of a witch. "I won't be going far. Just the inn."
She frowned and protested. "You can recover better here than at the inn."
"While that is true, I can't be selfish. Lois, you need help against Father Tempus, and I can't help you if I can't be seen at all. We need to establish my identity here in Trent so that I can protect you better," he tried to explain.
"Clark, you don't need to protect me. I'm doing fine on my own. Why do you all think that I can't protect myself? Everyone thinks that I'm this fragile flower that needs to be sheltered from the storm. Well, I'm not. I've done well to create a life for myself. I've not asked my parents for their financial support in years. As for Father Tempus, he doesn't have anything on me. I won't let him best me, not as long as I'm still breathing," Lois ranted.
Kal took her wildly waving hands into his to calm her down. He pulled her to sit beside him on the log bench outside the barn. "Shh…Lois, I know, and I'm sure your parents and friends know too, how independent you are. Our wanting to protect you comes from our love for you, and not because of any weakness on your part," he said, coloring a little when he realized what he had just revealed to her.
Lois understood the implications of his last words immediately. Still, she knew that they weren't allowed to act upon those feelings. She sighed and thought, "At least, now you know that you can be loved by a man. That you aren't society's outcast, a plague that men should avoid at all costs."
"Thank you, Clark. Sweet of you to reassure me but I believe there is no need for you to move out of here," she finally said.
"You're stubborn, Lois. But I can be just as stubborn. So let us compromise: I'll leave as soon as I can ride Valiant. How about that?"
Lois closed her eyes, knowing that the day he could once again ride wasn't too far off however much she wished otherwise. "All right. If you so wish," she relented. "Now, I must prepare to go to my parents' place. My mother will need help organizing the dinner."
Kal reluctantly let her hands go. "Enjoy your dinner and don't let Father Tempus goad you," he advised.
She only nodded and went into the cottage to change.
"Rachel!" Lois moved to embrace her childhood friend.
Rachel returned the embrace warmly. "I missed you. Where in the world did you disappear to, friend?" she chided.
Lois laughed. Just like Rachel to be direct. "I was busy at home," she answered vaguely. "I missed you too. So how's engaged life?"
Rachel grinned, pulling her fianc‚ to her side. "Roberts, I want you to meet my oldest and dearest friend, Lois. Lois, this is Roberts. He's a bard by profession and is currently the head of the Bardic Guild of Lowell, Trent, and Salem," she introduced proudly.
Lois knew that Trent was too small to have a guild of its own, so it made sense that they shared the Bardic Guild with two other towns. She was impressed when Roberts took her hand and kissed it. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Bard Roberts. Rachel has told me a lot about you."
"Likewise, Mistress Lois. I wish that my duties hadn't kept me away from getting to know Rachel's family and friends as much as I'd like to," he said, looking at his fianc‚e fondly. "And when I do get the time, I'd rather spend it with her."
Rachel colored at the compliment while Lois grinned. "I understand, sir," Lois stated before turning to the older man who was waiting patiently beside the couple. "Master Harris, how remiss of me not to greet you and invite you in."
The man smiled fondly at her. "I know how it is when you two," he indicated both his daughter and Lois, "are trying to catch up. Where are your parents?"
"Inside, entertaining the viscount and his son. Come in," Lois replied, leading the way to the parlor where the viscount and his son were sitting, chatting with Perry and Alice White.
After a round of greetings and introductions, they settled into an amiable chat while waiting for Father Tempus to arrive. He had sent a message that he would be late due to a surprise messenger from Archbishop William who arrived at the church just as he was leaving.
"So, Sir Daniel, will you be recruited into the service of His Grace, Duke of Luthor?" Perry asked Sir Daniel who had been trying to catch Lois's eyes since he arrived without much success. It seemed that he had taken one look at her and cupid's arrow had struck his heart. He hadn't seen her since he left home to be fostered with the Duke of Luthor. At the time, Lois had been just a little girl in ponytails. Now, he couldn't help but admire her beauty.
For her part, Lois had avoided him like a plague and stuck close to Rachel and Roberts. She knew he was casting amorous looks her way but she had no urge to encourage him. She remembered the spoiled little brat that he was, and how he tormented her when they were young. She doubted if he had changed all that much.
Daniel now turned to Perry. The subject was one close to his heart, and he answered with a fervent light in his eyes, "That's a good probability, Perry. Prince Lex will be holding a tournament soon where he will pick the best knights in the land to form his personal guards. I intend to be there and win his approval. It is a great honor to be part of his entourage."
"Aye," Roberts agreed cautiously. "It's an honor. But to be one of Prince Kal's guards is even more so. I have a friend, Sir Peter, who is in the Heir's service. He said that the Prince was one of the best to serve under, better than Prince Lex."
The viscount looked shrewdly at the bard. "Did he say why?"
Roberts smiled, not rising to the bait. "While Prince Lex is an exceptionally motivating leader and superb organizer, Prince Kal has a deep understanding of the people around him. It is this quality that makes him able to utilize and mobilize them in the best way possible. That's the reason why our army is as strong as it is. He also garners respect and loyalty of his men, something very few other lords are able to do."
"Eloquently said, Bard Roberts," the viscount complimented him. "I've met both young men and I agree with your assessment. But you make them sound as if they're competing against each other. That is not the case, in truth. I've not met two brothers who work so well together as do the two princes. You will find that they are each other's champions."
Master Harris nodded. "Aye, my lord. I've heard that. But there are disturbing rumors that all may not be what they seem. Prince Lex is ambitious and Prince Kal is very easy- going. I wonder if there are those who would want to divide them."
"Perry, what say you in this matter?" the viscount asked.
"Me, my lord?" Perry queried. "I'm just a lowly squire who knows little of such political implications," he demurred.
"Ah, my friend. You can't escape so easily; you're a keen observer, Perry. We all know that," the viscount acknowledged his friend's strength.
"Yes, Perry, do say what you think," Master Harris backed the viscount up.
Perry looked around. Everyone was attentive to what he was about to say. "Well…" he started. "We're all friends here and I trust all of you. So I will say what I have observed and what I think may yet come. Aye, my lord. Your assessment of the princes is accurate. But Harris is right as well. There are those who are not happy with their strong bond. With the two of them working together, they would be a force to reckon with. There are ambitious people out there who would stand to gain if the princes were at loggerhead. I've felt the undercurrents of a movement to increase the power of the Church, while undermining the power of the king."
Bard Roberts frowned when he heard the word "church." As the head of the local Bardic Guild, he had dealings with the church. It was inevitable since the bards were supposed to be under its jurisdiction. Slowly, he leaned forward and said in a low voice, "You may be right, Squire Perry. I've not thought it before, but now that you've planted the seed in my head, I can see where things are heading." He looked around to the others. "Archbishop William is a close advisor of the king and he has the ear of Prince Lex. In fact, at one time, he was the princes' tutor. So I see where he might have enormous influence on them. Furthermore, as you all can see, he has gotten the king to approve the witch-hunt, in the guise of stopping the heretics. The people are very frightened of the inquisitors."
Lois who had been listening couldn't hold her tongue anymore. "I agree. There have been many who are accused of witchcraft when their only sin was that they went against the inquisitors. Then, there is the breed of people who are like dogs, bowing and scraping to these people in order to get some scraps. Why isn't the king doing something?"
"Because, like any other king before him, he's bound by tradition to sit in the Palace and not venture out," Sir Daniel answered her, hoping that she would approve of his knowledge. "That's why we need the lords and knights to be the people's voice to report to him."
Lois made a face to show what she thought of the system. "Begging your pardon, my lord," she addressed the viscount. "But I feel that most of the time, the lords and knights do not represent the people. Instead they protect their own interests. Who is then to champion the people before the king?"
The viscount smiled cynically. "I know what you mean, Lois. The system is not perfect. That is why they're trying to undermine the bond between the two princes. By tradition, Prince Kal has to stay in the Palace, but not so for Prince Lex. Given their bond, Prince Lex is likely to act as Prince Kal's eyes and ears in the kingdom. But if they can undermine them…" He didn't finish but they all knew the implications.
"Father Tempus has arrived, Master Perry," called out the butler, who was swept aside by Tempus. He arrogantly greeted them, all the while casting suspicious looks at Lois. If Lois was trying to avoid Sir Daniel like a plague, she had been trying to avoid Father Tempus like she would death itself. Unfortunately, like death, he was unavoidable.
"So, Mistress Lois," he said in the way of greeting, arching his eyebrow. "You've not been paying your tithe to the church the past two weeks."
She unclenched her fists and teeth before replying with saccharine sweetness, "I've only recently started selling herbs and spice in the market again. I've little coins to pay the tithe, Father."
"Without the tithe, how is the church to function, my daughter?" Tempus asked with equal sweetness. "I'm sure you're a dutiful daughter of the church and would not want to see it fall to ruins. So I'll look forward to seeing you tomorrow at the church to pay your tithe and fines." He abruptly turned away from her and ignored her for the rest of the dinner.
Lois was only too glad to be ignored. She spent her time trying to catch up with Rachel and get to know Roberts. She found him to be well informed and intelligent, very suitable for Rachel. She also pried information about his friend Peter from him. Rachel had mentioned Peter before and they had agreed that he sounded just the man for Lana. She was a little saddened to think that both her friends had, or might have found, their perfect other halves, while she was still struggling to be on her own. She knew that she had no future with Clark. He was a knight at the very least. But her heart told her that there was more to him than just a mere knight. He was probably a powerful lord in his own right. On the other hand, she was but a lowly wisewoman. The gap between them was just too great to bridge.
"Even if he does feel something for me other than gratitude," she thought. "Perhaps last night was just my imagination."
"Lost in thoughts, Lois?" Sir Daniel queried from beside her. Alice had arranged for them to sit together in order to further her matchmaking efforts.
She blinked, gathering her scattered thoughts. "Not at all. I was just thinking of my duties which I had left at home."
"You do not stay with your parents?" Daniel asked, surprised.
"No, I have a small cottage near the woods. It is easier there since I have better access to the wild herbs and spices I collect," she explained.
"Of course," he said, even though he didn't really understand it. How could a proper lady live on her own when her parents were around to take care of her? To think that she even had a profession, it was unimaginable. But that was just like the Lois he had known as a child. It seemed that she hadn't changed at all.
Lois just nodded at him, knowing that he didn't really approve of her. Not that she cared. It was her life; she had a right to live it as she deemed fit. Soon, the dinner came to a close. After the guests had all left and the viscount and Daniel had gone to bed, Lois took leave of her parents and went home. Perry had wanted to send someone with her but she refused. What if the person saw Clark, how would she explain?
A little ways from her parents' place, she saw Kal sitting on a bench waiting for her. He was cloaked and the hood drawn over his face but she knew it was him. She would be able to recognize him anywhere. "Clark! What are you doing here?"
He quickly stood up and strode to her side. "Waiting for you, of course. It is not safe to walk alone at night. I know you would refuse an escort from your father. Thus the only logical thing was for me to fetch you home, my lady."
Without really wanting to be, she was touched by his gesture. "Thank you, kind sir. You're a gallant knight," she teased, in order to cover up the choking feel in her throat. "I would be honored to be escorted back to my home."
"My pleasure, my lady," Kal answered, bowing.
They walked in companionable silence through the quiet streets.
Morning came once more. Kal stirred awake at the merry chirping of birds outside the cottage. The sun had long risen. He glanced around and saw that Lois was no longer there. That wasn't strange, of course. She would have gone to the market-place by now. Then he frowned, spotting the herbs and spices that she would usually bring along with her.
He hastened outside, worried that she might have tripped and fallen. Once more, he wondered why she didn't stay with her foster parents. Of course, he knew how independent she was. Living with her the past week or so had taught him this. But he still worried that something might happen to her, without the protection of her family.
Looking around outside, he saw that the cart and old Greta were still in the barn, but there was no sign of Lois. He wondered where she had gone. "Has she gone into the forest?" he thought. Whistling for Valiant, he made his way to the edge of the forest. "Come on, Valiant. She might be in trouble. In fact, my senses tell me that she's in real trouble," he spoke softly to his loyal steed.
Before they could go further than a few steps into the forest, they heard a crash. His apprehension rose as Kal sped towards the noise. He broke through the bushes, only to find his arms filled with a familiar figure.
"James!" Kal couldn't believe his eyes. There, in his arms, was his missing squire, unconscious. The poor fellow looked like he had been through hell and back. However, there wasn't much time to muse over his appearance as Kal heard a loud snort coming from one side of the clearing. A huge boar was preparing to charge both men. Instincts took over; Kal whistled Valiant, and as the horse broke through the foliage, he hauled James over his shoulder and leaped onto Valiant's back. Valiant flew like the wind, leaving the enraged boar far behind.
It was only after the danger was over and the adrenalin effects had faded away that Kal realized he had torn his stitches. "Lois is going to kill me," he muttered to himself, shifting his unconscious squire to his front. Once they reached the cottage, he slid down. He didn't manage to do more when an angry voice caught his attention. Putting one hand on his wound to stop the bleeding and the other holding Valiant's reins, he moved to the front of the cottage cautiously.
Once there, Kal found a tall, heavy-set man threatening to hit Lois. Instantly, he saw red but his training kept him from reacting blindly. Instead of following his impulse to run the man through with a sword, he decided to use a different tactic; he cleared his throat. "Pardon me," he spoke loudly, catching the man's attention.
The man turned his head, chagrined. He, Nero, had been sent by Tempus to collect the tithe and fines from Lois when Tempus realized that Lois wasn't going to appear. However when he arrived at her cottage and informed her of his intention, the crazy woman had taken a pitchfork and threatened him with it. Of course, he had no choice but to grab it from her and show her her proper place. It was his sacred duty, after all. Nero was sure that the stranger, a knight, would agree with him once he explained the matter.
Lois gasped when she saw Clark's bloody tunic. She bit her lips in order to stop herself from running to him. While all she wanted to do was to ensure he was all right, she couldn't afford to let Nero know about Clark and her. She hoped that Clark wouldn't do anything to alert Nero about their relationship.
Kal, seeing Lois's concerned look, wished that he could reassure her that everything was going to be fine. Instead, he focused his attention on the man. "Kind sir, madam, I'm in need of help. My squire and I were attacked by bandits and this is the first house we have chanced upon in hours," he addressed both Nero and Lois as if they were strangers.
Nero was at once solicitous. "Sir Knight, I'm shocked. Our lord has always been dutiful in his protection of his property. To have bandits nearby is scandalous. Why, you're injured!" Nero exclaimed. "Come, the town is just a few more miles down this road. I'll take you straight to the physician."
"I could see to him," Lois spoke up.
Nero narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips. "Woman, Father Tempus has forbidden you to practice your craft unless you want to be charged with witchcraft. Do you?" His voice was harsh and the look in his eyes showed the pleasure he was taking from threatening her.
Lois would have retorted but Kal beat her to it. "My squire and I are badly in need of attention, and I'm bleeding. I don't think we can go on much further. Perhaps, if you would oblige me in fetching the physician while we rest here, I would appreciate it and reward you handsomely," Kal pleaded, throwing in the lure of money to entice the fellow.
"Of course, there is no such need, my lord. Indeed, it's my pleasure," said Nero with a greedy gleam in his eyes. "Woman, open your door and prepare a resting place for this gallant knight," he ordered Lois. He then turned to Kal and said politely, "I'll go fetch the physician at once, my lord."
Lois bristled against the imperious tones but left to carry out the orders. She heard someone coming in after her, and on turning her head, saw Clark carrying an unconscious young man. When Nero didn't follow him in, she relaxed her guard and closed the door. "Put him on the pallet," she instructed Clark and assisted him at the same time. After James had been settled in, she reached for Clark. "Let me see the wound. What did you do to tear the stitches?" she admonished with a frown.
Kal stopped her hands and pulled her down beside him. "It's all right, Lois. The bleeding has stopped. Before that man returns with the physician, we should talk."
Seeing Lois's reluctance to talk, he got up to pace, unmindful of his wound. His pent up anger showed when he spat out, "I wished I could do some bodily harm to the guy. Why was he trying to harm you?"
Lois sighed. "He is Nero, Father Tempus's lackey. He was here to collect the tithe and fines."
"Why? Is it normal practice to send someone to rough you up for them?"
"No it's not. But I've not paid my dues in weeks. It's a silver piece for each week, and two coppers for each time you miss paying a tithe. I don't have that much money, especially when I missed a few days of selling my herbs," she explained impatiently, her attention straying to the figure on the pallet.
Kal flushed when he realized he was the cause of her money shortage and ultimately her confrontation with Nero. He was about to speak when Lois interrupted him.
"Clark, is that really your squire?"
"I'm glad he's not dead as you feared," Lois interrupted him once more. "Where did you find him? Was he conscious? How did he get here? His wounds are not as severe as yours but it seemed that someone had used him as a punching bag. Poor fellow. I hope Master Klein will be able to help him. Master Klein is the physician, of course."
She didn't notice his interruption as she once again went off on another tangent. "Talking about Master Klein, you know, we have to come up with a story to tell him. He'll know that you didn't receive this wound a few hours ago. Perhaps we can tell him that you…" She was stopped from speaking when a gentle mouth descended on hers.
Kal had given up trying to apologize to her. Instead, he impulsively leaned forward to kiss her irresistible lips. When the kiss ended, he whispered that she shouldn't worry about things.
Lois, dazed by the gentle yet passionate kiss, could only nod her head without really knowing what she was agreeing to. Looking at her, Kal had to laugh. In the week he had been with her he had never seen her at a loss for words before. The laugh made her come to her senses and she glared at him. The glare soon changed to a look of confusion.
"Clark?" she asked tentatively.
"I'm sorry, Lois," Kal said softly, his hand caressing her face. "It's not my wish to cause you hurt, physical or emotional. I do have feelings for you, but…"
"But we're in a situation where we've too many barriers between us. So we can't act on these feelings, can we?" Lois finished for him.
She gently placed her finger over his lips to stop him from saying anything more before putting her hand over his and leaning into his palm. "If wishes were horses, I'd be rich. It's all right, Clark. I understand. The time I've had come to know you and gain your friendship is enough for me." She paused, trying to find the words to express her feelings. It was so difficult for her to discuss about the matters of the heart. "You…you've woken something within me which I had never imagined I could ever feel. For that, I'm eternally grateful," Lois shared with him. "We'll both be fine. We'll get on with our lives and one day, be distant memories for each other." She paused again, struggling to contain the tears. Softly, she added, "There is a part of me that will always remember you."
They stayed thus for an indefinite amount of time till a knock on the door brought them back to reality. Lois got up and opened the door, letting Nero and Master Klein in.
"Mistress Lois," greeted the physician. Being the viscount's personal physician, he had come to Trent with the viscount. He was, however, quite familiar with the people of Trent and the surrounding villages. This was due to the generosity of the viscount who had permitted Master Klein to administer to his people without stint. In an age where physicians were rarely found except in the cities or the noble houses, they had been very lucky to have Master Klein with them.
"Master Klein. How are you?"
"I'm well, thank you. Though I wish that we were meeting for a different reason," he answered pleasantly. "Where are my prospective patients?"
"Come this way."
Nero, out of respect for the physician, didn't create any trouble. He stayed near the door, as if he couldn't stand being in the house of a fallen woman, as he thought of Lois. However, from his vantage point, he was able to observe everything and would include it in his report to Father Tempus later. Father Tempus would be delighted to hear of the appearance of the knight and his squire, he was sure.
Lois introduced Master Klein to Clark who was very surprised to see a real physician. He had thought that Nero had probably gotten a barber to try and patch him up. "Master Klein, it is a pleasure to meet you. I'm Sir Clark of Kent," he introduced himself, bowing slightly.
Klein looked at the familiar face and wondered what game was being played. He had seen the heir to the throne of El before, though it was at a distance, when the viscount had visited the Palace. Still, if Prince Kal didn't want his identity to be known, he wasn't about to disobey. "Likewise, Sir Clark. Perhaps you should lie down and I'll check you?" he suggested.
"No. Please see to my squire first. He has been unconscious for the longest time. I'm worried about him," Clark protested. "As for me, the wound isn't serious."
Klein was taken aback. That this man would put his servant's welfare before his was a remarkable thing to see. His respect for the Prince raised a notch. "Of course, Sir Clark," he agreed, going up to James. He examined James thoroughly before turning to Kal and Lois, patiently waiting for his verdict. "It would seem that he is just dehydrated. He appears to have been sorely beaten too and has sustained a head injury. I'll prescribe some poultice for his bruises. It is best not to move him much, in case you aggravate the head injury. Give him broth, trickle it down his throat if you have to, and wait for him to wake up. That's all that we can do at this moment. I will tell Mistress Lois how to prepare the poultice after I've seen to you."
He led Clark to lie by the fireplace and examined the reopened wound. He looked at Kal sharply, a question in his gaze.
"I sustained an injury a little more than a week back," Kal explained on seeing the look.
Master Klein wondered who had dared attack the heir of El and the reason that he was traveling incognito. However, this wasn't the time to speculate matters. "The wound seemed to be very extensive. Who gave you permission to ride again before you're truly healed?" Klein scolded.
Kal grinned sheepishly. "No one did. However, extraneous circumstances forced my hand in this matter."
"Well, extraneous circumstances or otherwise, I expect you not to repeat this again. Do I make myself clear?" Klein said, taking the basin of hot water from Lois and washing the wound. He then restitched the wound and gave Kal strict instructions not to aggravate his condition. "It seems that you and your squire will be Mistress Lois's guests for some time to come," he finally commented. It was best that the prince and his squire stayed out of sight. While Father Tempus might be only a village priest, he had enough connections within the church hierarchy to be able to recognize the heir of El. Given that Prince Kal had gone to the trouble of donning a disguise, Klein wasn't about to be the person to blow the whistle.
"But Master Klein, it isn't proper for her to be here alone with two men," Nero whined from his post beside the door.
Master Klein looked at him as if he had grown two heads. "Mistress Lois is one of the most chaste women I've ever met. She is unlikely to do anything improper even if Sir Clark or his squire is up to it, which might I remind you, they're not. I believe Sir Clark, being a knight of El, will not besmirch the honor of the young lady who has kindly given him shelter." This was aimed at Kal who colored slightly.
"No, Master Klein. I would never do that. Mistress Lois, you're very kind to help us," Kal quickly spoke up in order to reassure the older man.
"Then, there is nothing else to be said. I'll be back tomorrow to check up on your squire." Master Klein nodded his dismissal to both Lois and Kal, gathering his instruments, and prepared to leave.
"Here, sir. This is for your kind efforts," Kal pressed a gold coin into Klein's hand. He wouldn't accept the good physician's protests. He then turned to Nero to give him the reward he promised. Soon the two men left, Nero being the more reluctant one.
After the two men disappeared from view, Kal turned to Lois, who was fussing over James. A pang of jealousy coursed through him, discomfiting him due to the newness of the feeling. He had never been jealous before, and certainly not of his squire. What was happening between Lois and him? Inwardly he sighed. He knew what was happening; they were falling in love, impossible as it might seem.
Lois felt Clark's gaze on her as she went about making James more comfortable. She wondered if she should tell him to stop, that it was making her uncomfortable. She wished she had the strength to do that but she was weak. She needed him as she never thought she could need someone before. He would walk away one day and she would be left alone, but till that day comes she would revel in his company and store up the memories. That was the reason why she didn't protest when Master Klein literally handed Clark and James over to her. Finished with James, she gathered enough rugs to create beddings for both of them.
"Here, let me help you," Kal volunteered, taking some of the rugs off her hands and laying them near the fireplace. Silently, they worked together to make the bedding. It was only when they finished did either of them realize that there was only one bed even though it was big enough for two. Lois blushed while Kal stammered, "It's…it's all right. We'll…we'll just do it again."
As he reached out to rearrange the rugs, she took hold of his hands. He looked at her questioningly. In response she shook her head and lowered her gaze. "Clark, I know what you told Master Klein was true. I also know that we do not have a future together, but we do have this little time to call our own. Let me have this, please?"
Tears brimmed in her eyes as she spoke through the lump in her throat. She had never begged before; his arrival in her life had changed her more than she wanted to know, more than she was prepared to cope. "How low can I go? I sounded like a…"
His harsh voice interrupted her. She turned pain-filled eyes at him, expecting a look of disgust from him. Instead she found a similar pain reflected back at her.
Clark wondered if he was doing the right thing. No, he was doing the right thing. So why did he feel as if he was being torn into two? Could he really refuse her when all of his being wanted the same thing? "On my oath to protect her, I've to do this," he steeled his resolve.
"Don't castigate yourself for asking," Clark explained gently, his voice softened as he gathered her into his arms. "You're only human, as am I. Sweetheart, I gave you a promise to protect you. That includes protection from me, and even your own self. Lois, we cannot give in to our feelings."
The tears could no longer be held back, and she cried into his tunic. He tightened his hold on her and stroked her hair in a gesture of comfort. At last she sniffed and pushed away from him. He knew better than to stop her and so watched silently as she bent and separated the rugs into two distinct beddings.
"Lois…" he started but was ignored.
Lois had silently taken her herbs and spices and walked out the door. The soft click of the door swinging shut was more telling than if she had banged the door. Left alone, not counting the unconscious James, Kal wondered where things had gone so wrong. He hadn't meant to hurt her, and in so trying, he had inadvertently hurt her more. Something touched his right leg. Looking down, he saw Blackie rubbing her body against his leg, purring. He was struck by her intelligence when she looked up at him as if to plead on her mistress's behalf.
"You don't have to apologize, Blackie. Neither does she. It is my fault for hurting her so," he told the cat. Was it his imagination or did Blackie smile and nod? He didn't have a chance to find out before she bounded away in search of a mouse.
"How shameless can I be? Why am I behaving in this manner? It's as if I've lost control of my feelings. I got to pull myself together." She drew a deep breath and walked resolutely to the barn to fetch Greta. "Why can't I think straight around Clark? What is it about him that clouds my judgment so?" Lois mused as she hitched Greta to the cart. Her thoughts drifted to Clark and her suspicions of his high status.
"Of course he wouldn't want to bed me. Why would he when he could have more beautiful ladies with noble houses to ally with?" She placed her wares in the back of the cart and jumped in. "I'm just a lowly wisewoman who has nothing to offer him. True, I saved his life, but that doesn't mean anything in the greater scheme of things. Wake up, Lois, he's not for you." She dashed away her tears, resolving not to think of Clark anymore.
As old Greta moved slowly along the road, Lois turned her thoughts to the trouble she could foresee happening when she arrived at the market. This morning she had returned from her herb collection to find Nero camping out in her front yard. Her heart had skipped, thinking that he might have discovered Clark. But a scan showed that neither Clark nor Valiant was around. Nero soon revealed the reason for his presence: to collect the tithe and fines. He had threatened to revoke her license to open a stall in the market-place when she refused to pay. Returning to the present, she wondered if Father Tempus was going to be there with the town guards to bar her way.
On her arrival at the market, she saw Father Tempus lingering around. A tiny sigh of relief escaped her when she noticed the absence of town guards. "Good day, Father Tempus," she greeted him courteously.
"Good day to you, my daughter," he responded insincerely. "It seems that you're late in setting up your stall. I've reserved your spot for you."
"Did you?" she questioned in her heart, wondering why he was being so pleasant. Outwardly, she only smiled and graciously thanked him before going about arranging her herbs and spices. Already, the market was crowded and she expected many would approach her as soon as the priest left the vicinity.
"Nero told me that you have two unexpected visitors this morning," Tempus finally revealed the reason he was there.
"Yes," Lois confirmed without yielding more information.
"Mistress Lois," Tempus advised, "you should care for them as if they were your own children. The knight is a very important person. Not someone we should offend at all. If you need anything for their comfort, just come to the church and I will try to provide it for you."
Lois looked up, surprised. This was something she hadn't expected at all. Tempus knew who Clark really was, there was no doubt in her mind. "It's not fair," she thought. "Strangers know who he is and yet he won't tell me his real identity. But then again, Tempus could just be fishing for information. It's best if I play dumb."
While Lois was gathering her thoughts, Tempus was trying to organize his and stay one step ahead. He knew that Lois was a very smart woman and would not bend so easily. If Nero was right, the crown prince and his squire were the two strangers resting in Lois's little cottage. The missive from the Archbishop had been very clear. He was to keep an eye out for an injured knight and his squire, and when he found them, to detain them as long as he could. He had heard rumors that the knight was actually Prince Kal in disguise. The concept of wanting to go out and mingle with commoners was mind boggling. What noble would even care about their servants, much less the peasants who had little worth except as laborers? The prince was a strange fellow.
"Thank you, Father. That's very kind of you," Lois spoke, bringing Tempus out of his thoughts. "But I'm sure I have everything I need to provide for my guests."
He smiled, an insincere smile Lois thought. "Well, then. I was just volunteering in case you need anything. You never know what the future may bring."
"Perhaps," Lois answered, wondering how she could get rid of him and get down to doing business. Luckily for her, or was that unluckily, Sir Daniel rode up. She saw him heading straight towards her. Her mind furiously weighed which two of them could be considered the lesser evil.
"Mistress Lois, your mother told me that I would find you here. Good morn, Father," Daniel greeted with his usual enthusiasm, if a little formal, oblivious to the tension between Lois and Tempus.
"Good morn, Sir Daniel," Father Tempus greeted before turning to Lois. "Do not hesitate to approach me when you need help, Mistress Lois." He then left.
Daniel raised his eyebrows. "He's a sourpuss, isn't he? What does he want?"
"He was volunteering to help with my guests," Lois replied, inwardly groaning that she was going to be stuck with another person she disliked. Of course, Daniel wasn't as bad as Father Tempus. It wasn't his fault for being a spoiled child. Lois remembered how the viscount's wife, Lady Violet, doted on her only child and couldn't bear to disappoint him.
Daniel relaxed and grinned. "Oh. Master Klein told my father that you're housing a knight of Kent and his squire. What's he like?"
"I don't know, Daniel. I left him and his squire resting to set up my stall and conduct my business," she answered, subtly hinting at her need to go about selling her wares.
Unfortunately, Sir Daniel wasn't one to understand subtlety. "I've always wanted to meet a knight of Kent. People say that the knights of Kents are the best in the land. To think that one of them could be bested by mere bandits," he mused loudly.
Lois bristled at the apparent insult. "I'm sure if you were set upon by bandits, you'd have killed all of them," she said sarcastically.
"Of course," Daniel bragged. "No knight should fear ill- equipped, ill-trained bandits."
Lois rolled her eyes. "Since the bandits appear to be on your lands, perhaps you should ride out to oust them away from here. Why don't you do that, right now?"
Daniel finally got her point and his grin got bigger. "I could, Lois, but since father has so many knights in his pay I don't see why I should risk my life for it."
"Sure," Lois drawled, turning away to take care of a customer who was seeking her attention.
Daniel waited but Lois didn't turn back as she continued to cater to her customers' demands. After an hour of hanging around, he decided it wasn't profitable to try and get her to talk to him. In fact, people were giving him weird looks.
"I'll go now, Lois. Will I see you tonight?" he finally asked.
Lois turned, surprised that he was still around. "No, I need to make supper for my guests."
"Perhaps I'll come by for a visit then."
Lois wanted to say no, but revised her decision. It was going to be awkward to be alone with Clark tonight. Daniel would serve as a good buffer. "Please do. I'm sure Sir Clark would welcome male company."
That cheered Daniel up so much that he beamed at her. "I'll be there," he shouted, galloping away.
Lois approached her little cottage with apprehension. The last few hours at the market had kept her busy and distracted. But as her house loomed larger in the horizon, she had to face the reality in the shape of Clark. How could she have been so stupid as to have bared her soul to a near stranger like she did? What was she suppose to say to Clark? How would he react? All the doubts assailed her making her want to turn around and just walk away till he was gone. But something kept her hand on the reins; she wasn't going to be a coward.
From the little window in the door, Kal watched Lois jump out of the cart and unhitch Greta, stowing away the cart. He couldn't read her mood; her face was guarded. As she neared the door, he swung it open. "Hi," he greeted hesitantly. It felt so awkward, a situation he hadn't experienced with her before. The instant connection they had had helped allay any awkwardness between strangers meeting before. Now, however, it seemed to have vanished and left them hanging; neither strangers nor friends.
"Hi," she answered shyly. Like him, she too felt the awkwardness and tried to grasp something which would help bridge the gap that seemed to grow larger as the time passed. "How's your squire?" she asked, making small talk.
"James's still not awake. I've been feeding him broth," he informed her, relieved that she sounded almost normal.
"Did you make the broth?"
"I tried, but it is very watery," he admitted his lack of kitchen skills.
She just nodded. Then, they stood there outside the little cottage, staring at each other. Neither knew what else to say. "Can I come in?" she finally asked, shivering slightly when a gust of cold wind blew through.
Kal grinned sheepishly. "Oops, sorry." He moved away from the door to let her in.
Once they were both in, she busied herself preparing for dinner while Kal looked on. "Can I help?" he asked politely.
"It's all right. I can manage," she answered with equal politeness. "Besides, you need rest."
So he reluctantly went to sit on one of the beds, the cause of their awkwardness, still observing her. He wished there was a way he could put a stop to all the politeness and embarrassment and get back to where they were before that morning. In his musings, he didn't notice that Lois had set another placement for dinner. When he did, he blurted out the first thought that came to his mind, "Lois, are you all right?"
She turned to him, wondering at the concern in his voice. She had avoided his gaze the whole time she was preparing the meal. In fact, she tried her best to pretend that he wasn't there. Of course, it was futile for she could feel his eyes trained on her the entire time. "Why do you ask?"
"You're putting three placements for dinner. James isn't about to suddenly wake and join us, is he?" Kal asked, puzzled.
"The extra setting is for Sir Daniel, the viscount's son. I invited him to dinner earlier," Lois clarified hesitantly. She suddenly realized what a stupid move that was and regretted it. The situation between Clark and her was bad enough without being complicated by the presence of Sir Daniel.
At the mention of the viscount's son, Kal felt a sharp pain coursing through him. Compared to the pang of jealousy he felt earlier on seeing Lois fuss over James, this was much worse. Daniel was obviously a rival for Lois's affections. Furthermore, it would seem like she wasted no time to change her affections. Only this morning, she had offered herself to him, and now she was seeing Daniel instead.
"That's not a fair assessment, Kal," scolded his conscience. "You hurt her by your rejection. This is her retaliation, her way of proving to you that there are others who find her attractive and wouldn't reject her out of hand."
Lois observed the various expressions on his face and knew that she had made a big mistake, probably bigger than what happened that morning. In order to set things right, she tried to explain, "He came over this afternoon to the stall and asked about you. He heard about you from Master Klein and was curious. I thought you might like some other company besides mine and so invited him over."
Kal sighed, bowing to the inevitable. "Tell me about him," he requested.
Lois made a face, thawing the tension a little. "What's there to tell? He's a spoiled brat with big ambitions and little common sense."
Kal laughed. "You don't like him, do you?"
Lois grinned ruefully. "Is it that obvious? Truthfully, he used to be a bigger pain in the neck when we were younger. He's much mellower now."
"Hmm…" Kal made a face, showing her what he thought of her remark.
Lois was about to retort when she remembered something. "Clark, Father Tempus was also at my stall earlier. He wanted me to take good care of both of you, saying that you were an important personage. I don't trust his motives," she warned him.
Kal frowned. "What else did he say?"
"He said that if I needed anything to ensure your comfort, I should approach him. That rang my alarms. He'd never volunteer to use church funds for anything, much less for helping me out. I'm not even welcomed in church. Do you have any inkling for his change of hearts?" Lois asked, curious as to the answer.
A sense of dread passed over Kal. Father Tempus would never have singled Lois out and emphasized Sir Clark's importance if he didn't know who he really was. So who told him? The only two people besides James who knew of Kal's disguise were his father and brother. He couldn't imagine either of them ever betraying him knowingly. But could Lex have unwittingly confided in Archbishop William, or Father Bill as both boys affectionately called him when they were young?
Kal didn't trust Father Bill though he knew his twin did. Lex had defended him quite adamantly when Kal brought up the issue of the church abusing its power. They argued heatedly over the issue till their father had to step in and settle the matter by initiating an investigation on the corruption within the church. Unfortunately the investigation didn't yield anything major. The investigators could only uncover some abuses by minor members of the clergy. There was nothing to trace back to Father Bill.
Given the findings, Kal had to back off and apologized to Lex for his earlier accusations. However, Kal had never recovered his trust of Father Bill. His suspicions increased when one of Father Bill's most vocal opponents, Father Andrew of the Order of the Rose, died quite suddenly. While investigation couldn't prove foul play, Kal was informed by Brother Jonathan, Father Andrew's second- in-command that he believed Father Andrew had been poisoned. For the moment, Brother Jonathon was the acting head of the Order, and he was treading very carefully so as not to cross the Archbishop while he secretly pursued his own investigation into Father Andrew's death.
Now that he thought about it, Lex could have confided in Father Bill about Kal's disguise. That would explain how his enemies knew where to ambush him. That would also indicate that he had to be very careful with Father Tempus.
Lois's voice brought him out of his musings. "Sorry," he apologized. "I was just thinking about something. But yes, you're right. I wouldn't trust Father Tempus, if I were you. I don't believe his intention was purely altruistic."
"Are you in any danger?" Lois asked perceptively.
Kal smiled at her reassuringly. "I'll survive. There's nothing we can do at this moment anyway until James and I recover."
The conversation had finally broken the earlier tension and they found themselves, if not as close as before, working comfortably to finish preparing dinner.
Daniel looked askance at the little cottage. He hadn't expected Lois to be staying in such a small and shabby place. "When we get married, I'll have to burn this down," he planned. "Can't have Lois connected to such a rundown little cottage. Besides, she'll have too many new residences to even care about it."
As he paused outside the door, he heard laughter and intimate voices drifting through the open window. He hesitated; they didn't sound like two strangers talking.
"Not there, Clark. You wouldn't want to give him ideas, do you?" Daniel heard Lois say with laughter in her voice.
"Would that be bad?" A man's voice asked, a little plaintively. Daniel assumed it must belong to Sir Clark.
"No, but let's not invite trouble," Lois was heard to council.
"Spoilsport." Daniel could imagine the man pouting even though he had never met him.
Daniel was curious; how could two strangers who just met this morning develop a friendship that fast? "Clark, I heard a horse neighing and it doesn't sound like Valiant. I'll check if Daniel has arrived." Upon hearing the comment from Lois, Daniel scrambled back to his horse and pretended to fuss with the saddle.
Soon enough the door opened and Lois poked her head out. When she saw Daniel, her demeanor changed to be more formal, if still pleasant. "Daniel, did you have much difficulty trying to get here?" she greeted him as she stepped outside.
Daniel studied her for a few moments, quite aware that she only tolerated him. But the teasing voice she had used earlier with Sir Clark, a stranger, was in stark contrast with the formal tones she used in her speeches with him who had known her during her childhood. A small part of him felt hurt but he refused to show it. "Not at all, Lois. I hope I've not kept you waiting?"
"No, we just finished dinner preparations."
Daniel raised an eyebrow at the "we."
"Shall we go in?" Lois quickly stepped back inside and out of the cold winter night.
As he trailed after her, he thought, "So Sir Clark's quite a domesticated knight; no wonder he can't fight properly."
Inside, Kal steeled himself to meet Sir Daniel. While the tension between Lois and him had thawed a little, and Lois had reassured him on how she felt about Daniel, he still felt a little apprehensive. He observed a medium height man with unruly black hair step through the door and look around with undisguised curiosity and a tiny dose of disdain. The look of disdain helped make his mind up about Sir Daniel: Kal wouldn't want him for a friend. Still, he came forward to greet the fellow. "You must be Sir Daniel. I'm Sir Clark of Kent."
Daniel hesitated for a second before shaking hands with Clark. Sir Clark was a handsome devil, and if he wasn't sure before, he was positive now that this man was his competitor for Lois. Furthermore, unlike him, Clark had no negative history with Lois. But he wasn't about to give up so easily. He squeezed Clark's hand a tad longer and harder than necessary. "A pleasure to meet you, Sir Clark."
Kal raised his eyebrow slightly at the pressure but decided to leave it alone. A glance at Lois told him that she didn't appreciate being the prize of their little contest. Releasing Daniel's hand, he invited him to sit at the little table laden with food.
"Is that your squire?" Daniel asked, having caught a glimpse of the figure in bed.
"Yes, he is still unconscious. Lois told me that Master Klein works for your father. I'd like to thank you for letting him see to us."
"Not at all. My father's the one you should be thanking. He has sent some of his men to hunt down the bandits. Nasty vermin, those bandits," Daniel said, sitting himself at the head of the table.
Lois and Kal exchanged looks but didn't comment as they each took a seat on either side of Daniel.
"That's very kind of your father, Sir Daniel," Kal praised. He remembered seeing the viscount once or twice at court and heard of his reputation for fairness from the king. "Lois tells me you're on your way to a tournament?"
"Oh, yes," Daniel confirmed enthusiastically. So dinner began with small talk revolving around knights and tournaments, with Lois listening attentively while the two knights discussed the finer points of jousting, the art of sword fighting, and more. Mostly, it was Daniel who talked and Kal who contributed slightly by subtly correcting him or agreeing with him. "Well, I believe I can win the championship and be selected by Prince Lex to be part of his honor guard," Daniel concluded.
"Why would you want to be part of his honor guard?" Kal asked curiously.
"You're one of Prince Kal's men. Don't tell me it isn't an honor to serve under him?" Daniel asked back, surprised at the question.
Kal sat back, trying to imagine what it must be like to be one of his men. Slowly, he answered Daniel, "It is but it is also a heavy burden, a responsibility. Prince Kal expects his men to uphold not only the code of chivalry, but the code of conduct becoming of a military officer. We are part of the cavalry contingent of El. At any given moment, if El is engaged in war, we are likely to be called into service."
"And Prince Lex's men won't?" Lois asked, struck by the unfairness of the system.
"The way the system works is that, traditionally, Kent belongs to the heir, or to the King if there's no heir. The heir, or the King, is also in charge of the army. To ensure that there isn't conflicting interest between the responsibility to the dukedom and to the kingdom, all of Kent's fighting forces are part of the regular army. In times of war, only minimal force is kept at Kent while all the rest are expected to join the battle. The other demesnes are not required to contribute men to the war effort. Thus Kent has the largest number of fighting men in the kingdom."
Daniel who had been quiet while Clark was talking now leaned forward. "If I may ask, Sir Clark, what are you doing outside of Kent?"
Kal tensed; he should have expected the question. "I…I was traveling to visit some friends up in the Marches. Earl Randolph is getting married in early spring and I felt the winter was mild enough to venture forth through Luthor and into the Marches to attend his wedding. However, I didn't anticipate bandits," he explained ruefully.
"You're friends with the Earl of Marches?" Daniel asked, astonished by the connection. The Earl was one of the most influential nobles at court, and was the Provost Marshal of El. He helped the heir of El in times of war in strategy planning and doubled up as field marshal during major battles.
"We've worked together once or twice," Kal answered nonchalantly, trying to dismiss the importance of their friendship.
Lois felt a little lost. She had heard of the Marches, a mountainous region which borders with the kingdom of Nor, the traditional enemy of El. The Earl of Marches had traditionally been the Provost Marshal due to his demesne's proximity to Nor and the need to maintain a stronghold there to prevent any invasion. But the fact Clark had hesitated slightly in giving the story, and had never told her about it before, alerted her that things might not be what they seemed. There was more going on here, and she felt ill-equipped to deal with it. After all, a mere wisewoman who was in trouble with the church had little to do with political intrigues or military missions.
Daniel was also thinking along similar lines; he had detected the slight stutter before Clark's explanation. "Sir Clark bears more watching," he noted to himself. Outwardly, he pushed away from the table and turned to Lois. "Lois, thank you very much for the bountiful dinner. Your cooking is unrivalled," he praised lavishly, taking her hand and bowing over it. "Thank you for inviting me. Sir Clark, it was a pleasure to have met you. Perhaps you will still be here before I leave for the tournament and we could visit again?" he addressed Clark.
Kal smiled thinly. "Perhaps, Sir Daniel. All the best for the tournament," he told him.
Both Lois and Kal saw Daniel to the door before sighing in relief after he was gone.
"Phew, so was I right?" Lois asked Clark, grinning.
"You were." He grinned back. "I'm not sure that he'd fit in with Prince Lex's men."
"Not serious enough," he explained. "Want me to help you with the cleaning?"
"No, you better get some rest," Lois said, shaking her head. Her eyes followed him as he prepared for bed even as her hands worked to clean the table. He was a mystery to her; the last few hours had reminded her of the fact that they came from two different worlds. She resolved to give him the space he needed to heal. He would be gone from her life soon enough; she could stand to play the role of an impartial healer for that brief period, never to let him know how much he had gotten under her skin. There would be time later, after he was gone, to feel the pang of loss.
"Meow," Blackie announced her presence, jumping onto the tabletop, and rubbing her body against Lois's arm.
"Oh, you," Lois said with mock exasperation. "Come here, Blackie." She picked the tabby up and nuzzled her nose into Blackie's fur. "Want some food? Let's see what's there for you," she chatted softly with the cat who started purring in anticipation of the food.
By the time Lois had served Blackie her food and finished cleaning, Clark was asleep in his assigned bed. Lois took the other bed and tried to sleep, without much success. After a while, she turned to face Clark and studied his features in the moonlight shining through the glass wall.
He was handsome, with a body to kill for. She expected that it was the byproduct of his training. More than the physical, he was kind, thoughtful, intelligent, caring, and loyal. He had proved his character to her more than once since she met him. It was his character that attracted her to him, not the physical. She knew from what he had said before that he cared for her, was attracted to her, and perhaps even loved her to some extent. But something prevented him from acting upon those feelings; something to do with his mission perhaps, for she had no doubt that he was on a mission. Whatever it was, it not only prevented him but also prevented her from expressing herself. The last time she did try, it only worsened their relationship. So she would stop. Friendship had to be enough for her.
Kal decided to walk Valiant after Lois left for the market and Master Klein checked his wound and James's injuries. He was puzzled by Lois's behavior that morning. She seemed like a totally different person. A distance between them had sprung up so suddenly. "What had changed in the span of a night," he wondered, but couldn't figure it out. At last, he gave up analyzing the situation, chalking it up to the mysterious ways women tended to think and work.
He entered the house after stabling Valiant, wandering around the confined space, looking for something to take his mind of his mission. Daniel's questioning his purpose here gnawed at him, making him feel a little trapped in Trent. The clock was ticking, he felt. Soon he would run out of time to discover the enemy threatening El. The question of whether it was an internal or external enemy needed to be answered soon before they struck.
"Ouch." James was struggling to sit up.
Rushing to his side, Kal helped him gently. "Are you all right?"
"Your Highness? Your Highness! Thank god that I found you," James exclaimed, his voice rusty from the lack of use. "I had almost given up hope, thinking that you might have been dead," he cried, tears streaming down his face.
Kal looked on awkwardly; what was the etiquette for comforting one's squire? "As you can see, I'm fine. You, on the other hand, look as if you've gone through hell and back," he tried to tease him.
It worked as James put on a watery smile. "Yeah, I did go through hell and back. I've much to tell you, Your Highness."
"Stop that, James. Remember that we're supposed to be incognito. Address me as my lord, or Sir Clark," Kal chided.
James blushed. "Oops. Sorry, my lord."
"That's better. Now what was it that you wanted to tell me."
"When I was separated from you, they captured me, my lord. They were mad that you got away and tried to make me talk."
Kal narrowed his eyes. "Did they torture you?" There was steel in his voice.
"They beat me up and starved me, but I kept my own council. Instead I found out things about them and the people they report to."
"What would that be?" Kal took a seat, giving his whole attention to James.
"They're foreign knights, most of them. The ones from El seemed to be hired swords. I noted that two of the knights spoke the Nordic language…"
"Which means they could have hailed from Nor," Kal speculated.
"Yep. I don't think they were pretending since I was supposed to be down for the count after one of those grilling sessions. Anyway, they referred to this "m'lord" who had instructed them not to kill me no matter what."
"Why was that?"
"M'lord believed that you were alive, and even if I weren't able to tell them anything, I might be able to lead them to you…" James suddenly paled. "Oh no," he exclaimed in dismay. "I did do it. My lord, you need to leave at once. If they come after you, how am I to answer to your father?"
Kal didn't answer him. Instead he got up to pace. From remarks made by Lois last night, it would seem that Father Tempus was part of this. "Now, how can I use Father Tempus to uncover who these turncoats are?" he mused. Inspecting the evidence from various sources, it would seem that the enemy might be both internal as well as external. The external was probably easier to defend against than the internal. Father Tempus seemed to be the solid link to these people. While he might be in danger, and was putting Lois in danger too, there was little choice in this case. He had to stay.
"Sir Clark?" James asked tentatively.
"What? Oh yes. Don't worry, James. We'll both be all right. Now why don't you get some rest?" Kal suggested.
James opened his mouth as if to argue but decided against it. He struggled to lie back down and only then realized his surroundings. "Sir Clark, where are we? How did you manage to find me? You were injured; are you all right?"
Kal smiled at the questions. At least, those questions he could answer. So he settled down to regale James with all that had happened since they were separated. Soon, James slipped back into a healing sleep, leaving Kal alone to chew on the news he had brought.
Kal woke up and looked around. He hadn't realized that he had fallen asleep. "Rap! Rap!" He glanced at the door. Someone was knocking, and from the sound of it, had been knocking for quite some time. Remembering what he had learned from James, he drew his sword from its scabbard and cautiously approached the door. He doubted that his enemies had come for him, but nevertheless it paid to be cautious.
Standing to one side, he opened the door. Immediately an older gentleman came in, without so much as a by-your- leave. Kal hesitated to take a course of action since the man clearly wasn't armed. "What may I do for you, sir?" Kal asked, startling the poor man.
The man turned to him, surprise written on his face. "What are you doing back there?" the man asked gruffly. "Next time, answer the door properly, will you?" he grumbled. "You almost made my heart stop."
Kal was amused. "Of course, if you're intending to come back, that is."
"Of course I intend to come back. I happen to be Lois's father." Perry frowned at the drawn sword. "Mind if I ask why you're carrying that sword? I suppose you're Sir Clark."
Kal blinked, trying to process his thoughts under the rapid fire of questions. "Er…you must be Squire White. Pleased to meet you, sir." Kal offered his hand while putting his sword behind his back to show that he meant no harm.
Perry stared at him for a while before accepting the gesture of peace. He had wanted to come over yesterday but Alice had prevented him. "Think about Lois's feelings," she told him. "Lois isn't going to appreciate your protective gesture. Sir Daniel is here; she wouldn't mind his presence as much as she would yours." So they had asked Sir Daniel to be the scout and find out what manner of a man was sharing their daughter's home. Sir Daniel had come back with mixed report, prompting Perry's presence this morning.
As Kal showed him to a seat near the fireplace, Perry observed the two makeshift beds after glancing at the sleeping figure on the pallet. Without conscious thought, he finally relaxed. His daughter wasn't in danger of being ruined by this stranger.
Kal saw the direction of Perry's glance and thanked his lucky stars that he hadn't succumbed to temptation and given in to Lois's plea the morning before. He doubted he'd lived to see another day if that were the case. Quietly, he sheathed his sword and took a seat opposite Perry.
The two men stared at each other for some time, neither wanting to break the silence and concede the unintended match. At last, Perry stirred and gave up. "So tell me, Sir Clark, how long are you going to be around?"
"My squire is still quite ill, Squire White, and Master Klein has forbidden us from moving him just yet. Once he has given his permission, we'll adjourn to the inn while we recover from our injuries. For now, your daughter has been kind enough to give us shelter," Kal explained the situation.
"So you're going to be in town for some time?" Perry asked.
"It'll be at least a week before either of us recovers enough to endure the journey to the Marches," Kal answered.
"But you won't be staying here the whole time," Perry stated rather than asked, his eyes trained on Sir Clark's face, trying to detect any insincerity on the part of the knight.
"I'm sure the inn will have lodgings for us," Kal assured him. "Let us not mince words, sir. I know that you're worried about your daughter's safety and reputation. I've given my promise to her and Master Klein that I would do my best to protect her and her reputation, and I will give you the same promise."
Perry weighed the words against the countenance of the man before him and found himself convinced of the man's sincerity. "I believe you, Sir Clark. However, there are those who would judge by appearance alone. That both of you are living under one roof without any chaperone is already fodder for gossip. I cannot allow that to happen to Lois."
"I understand, sir. What would you have me do?" Kal conceded.
"Convince Lois to allow her mother to be here for the duration of your stay." Perry put his hand up to stall any arguments. "Lois will never accept it, coming from Alice. But I'm sure she'd listen to you."
"Hmm, why would you think *that*?" Kal was sure Lois wouldn't listen to him anymore than she would listen to her mother. She was just too independent and stubborn to care what gossip she'd generate.
"She is more sensitive to the needs of guests; being a guest, you're able to guilt her into having a chaperon."
Kal sighed, knowing that having a chaperon was the right thing to do. "I can try, sir. But no guarantees."
"That's all I'm asking, Sir Clark," Perry told him before getting up. "Oh, yes. Alice is inviting you for dinner at our house tonight if you're up to it. Your squire too."
"James may not be able to come, but I will be there."
"Good, I'll have a carriage brought around to pick you and Lois up," Perry said as he moved to the door. "See you tonight."
It had been a while since Lois had allowed him to do anything more strenuous than doing light chores around the cottage, and Master Klein had agreed with her. However this morning, Master Klein finally declared him to be hale once more. Upon hearing the 'decree", Kal seized the chance to explore Trent more and to satisfy his curiosity about Father Tempus.
The town of Trent looked very different in daylight. The houses formed concentric rings around the town center which was divided into three different sections: business, religious, and government districts. The town square housed the marketplace where Lois sold her herbs and spices, as well as the various offices of the Merchant Guild, Weaver Guild, and other smaller guilds. Next to it, down one alley was the government district where the town hall was. There, Squire Perry White held office and administered judgment on behalf of the viscount. Merchants, who were not part of the Guild, had to apply for a license from the town hall in order to be able to trade in Trent, even though the Church controlled the license for the marketplace.
Kal was a little confused at the divisions when he heard about them from Lois, but she eventually explained that the marketplace used to be part of the Church's property. In order to raise funds, the Church had allowed small-time businessmen and out-of-town traders to sell their goods there in exchange for a weekly or once off tithe depending on whether they were permanently based in the square or were just passing through. It was no surprise then that the church was located adjacent to the square and overlooked it. The consecrated burial grounds were behind the church, something that Kal found interesting. In most towns he knew of, the burial grounds were outside the immediate town vicinity.
As he walked into the town proper, Kal noticed a few beggars lounging along the street. The fact that there weren't more attested to the good administration of the viscount, or in this case his representative, Squire White. The houses and buildings that he passed were also in good repair and there was a sense of security for a person walking the streets. He was truly impressed with Perry.
He had enjoyed Perry's company the last few days, finding him to be an astute man. Even Alice, who he had managed to convince Lois to stay with them at least at nights, was a delightful lady. He liked the easy relationship between the three. It helped make up for the distance Lois had put between them.
Tempus sat silently in the front pew, as if in deep contemplation of the mysteries of man's relationship with his Creator. In actuality, he was trying to control his temper at the high-handed way the two visiting church knights had conveyed the newest message from the Archbishop. Evidently, they saw him as nothing but a lackey. He'd show them. They'd rue the day they insulted him. So deep was his concentration that he didn't notice the figure slipping through the doors and walking softly towards him.
"Father Tempus?" Kal asked, quite sure that the man in the black priest robes was Tempus.
Tempus looked up, startled. He took in the handsome visage, the fine tunic, and the beautifully crafted short sword. Whoever he was, the man before him was evidently a well-to- do knight. He carried himself with the simple grace and assurance associated with nobility. "Yes, my son?" Tempus replied, standing up. His bones protested slightly at the movement, but Tempus was getting used to ignoring them. He disliked to think of himself as old.
"I'm Sir Clark…"
Tempus's eyes widened at the name.
"…and I was touched by your concern when Mistress Lois told me how you volunteered to assist her financially with my accommodations and other expenses." Kal noted Tempus's reactions with interest.
"Lois spoke to you about me?" Tempus asked, his eyes narrowed.
"She was trying to allay my worry. I didn't wish to impose on her any longer than necessary."
"Of course. But tell me, Sir Clark, why are you here?"
What was it with Daniel and Tempus? Both asked him similar questions. "I don't understand, Father," he temporized.
"I mean, shouldn't you be in bed recuperating, instead of coming all the way here?" Tempus looked concerned. "You didn't ride, did you?"
"I'm all right, Father. It feels good to stretch the legs," Kal answered sheepishly. He knew what Lois would say to that.
"Perhaps you should take a rest before you return to Mistress Lois's place. There is a small room behind the church that you can use."
Kal was suspicious as to why Tempus seemed eager to make him stay, and he had no intention of taking up Tempus's offer to rest. Somehow, this particular church didn't seem all that welcoming. "I'm fine, Father. I won't be walking back anyway. Mistress Lois will give me a ride back in her cart. I just wanted to thank you for your kindness and concern." With that, Kal turned and made his way out of the church.
Tempus looked at Kal's retreating form with open consternation. He had to alert the two church knights before "Sir Clark" could slip away. "But how?" he asked himself. "Forget it, Tempus. Let them fend for themselves. Each man for himself."
Kal felt much better, stepping into the sunlight. There was something very unsettling about the church. Dark and foreboding. Forbidding too. He found himself breathing easier as he soaked in the warmth of the sun. He looked around the marketplace, trying to find Lois amidst the chaos. Soon, he spotted her; she was talking animatedly to two ladies while sharing cakes and tea near her stall. Obviously, she had finished for the day since all her goods were packed away.
As he approached them, he noticed a man lingering nearby. Dressed in maroon, he carried the insignia of the Bardic Guild. Kal became curious and a little cautious; what was a bard doing in Trent? Was he somehow connected to Tempus? Why was he interested in Lois and her friends?
Lois didn't know how, but she sensed that Clark was near. It was absurd, of course. He was at home, resting. But she couldn't shake the feeling.
Lana noticed her distraction and called her on it, "What's wrong, Lois?"
But Lois was looking around in search of Clark and didn't hear her friend's question. "What is that stupid man doing?" she muttered under her breath when she spotted him.
Lana and Rachel followed her line of sight and soon saw the object of her comment. Lana couldn't help ogling the handsome man whose attention was focused solely on Lois while Rachel noted that Lois's attention was likewise occupied by said fellow. "Wonder if she's going to introduce him any time this decade?" she mock-whispered to Lana.
Lois blushed slightly as she glared at her friends. She then turned back to Clark and scolded him, "Which part of the word 'recuperation' don't you understand?"
Kal grinned, expecting the admonition. "Really, I'm fine, Lois. I needed to stretch my legs more than I need rest." He waited for her response in glee; at least this Lois was familiar.
"All the way to the town center?" Her voice was dripping with sarcasm.
"It's impolite not to answer your friends, you know," he reminded her, sidestepping the question.
Lois would have uttered a scathing comment if Lana and Rachel hadn't broken down and started laughing. "What are you laughing about?" she asked them, exasperated.
"If I didn't know better, I'd have thought you two were married with children," Rachel commented, trying to control her laughter.
"Hrmph. Well, if introductions are what you want, you've got them. Clark, my friends, Rachel and Lana. The grinning gentleman behind Rachel is her fianc‚, Bard Roberts. Ladies, this is Sir Clark of Kent," Lois casually motioned to the various people.
Lana gawked at Clark, a little envious of Lois's good fortune of having such a knight sheltering under her roof. From the looks of things, their relationship might even be more than just mere guest and hostess. "You don't look as if you're injured." She colored at her forwardness as soon as the words were out of her mouth.
Kal was a little amused by Lois's friends and more than slightly relieved at the identity of the bard. "My injury is on the mend, Mistress Lana. And you might be interested to know that James has been allowed to move, Lois," he turned to address her.
Lois couldn't help but smile at the good news. She knew that Clark was worried about his squire. "That's good, Clark."
"So now you needn't contend with us being underfoot all the time," Kal went on, though he was keenly observing her reaction.
Lois kept up the smile, even though inside she felt torn. She decided to change the subject. "Now that you're here, you might like to help me finish packing and we can go home."
"That sounds suspiciously like an order," Rachel remarked, winking at Clark.
Kal grinned in response and moved to help Lois while the others took that as a sign for them to leave. Rachel and Lana gave Lois farewell hugs and exchanged promises to catch up again in a few days. Kal observed the interaction between the three with keen interest. He wished he had that kind of friendship; being the heir was a lonely business as there was a barrier between him and everyone else that seemed insurmountable. That was the reason why he appreciated his brother so much. Lex was the only one who he could be close to without being suspicious of his motives.
"You should treasure such friendships, Lois," he remarked softly to her when her friends had left.
Lois turned to study his expression. She felt a soft tug at her heart string for this man. His eyes indicated not only his sincerity but certain loneliness. She couldn't imagine Clark being lonely. He had such a warm personality that it should have been easy for him to make friends. What deterred him from having friends? What about the Earl of Marches? Wasn't he a friend? Once again, Lois was reminded that Clark was very much a stranger to her and one who was soon out of her life.
In the end, she stated quite simply, "I do, Clark."
They rode home in companionable silence, each absorbed in his or her own thoughts. The scenery passed by peacefully. Kal could hear birds chirping overhead in the trees, the creaking of the wheels as it rotated, Greta's soft sigh as she pulled the cart along, and winds rustling the leaves. There was a certain hypnotic touch to the tune of nature that seemed to lull him even as they moved along. He wondered if Lois felt it too.
Of course, the negative part of being lulled was that the mind drifted to things that were better left alone. Things like why Lois was so distant the last few days. He had thought the dinner with her parents would thaw her, but instead it made her even more remote. Neither of her parents ever detected any familiarity between them other than the politeness of strangers forced to share a roof. Unconsciously he sighed.
Lois sat in the cart, melancholically thinking of the inevitable separation. While she had tried to distance herself from him, the effort wasn't very successful. There were times, even with her mother around, when she caught herself staring at him, trying to gather as many memories of him as she could. She had agreed to her mother staying so that she'd be a buffer between them, but instead her mother had once again tried to be a matchmaker. She created so many opportunities for them to be together that Lois had taken to going out earlier and coming home later than ever.
Hearing him sigh, Lois turned to question him. Before she could utter a word, they heard harsh voices raised in cruel laughter from the direction of her house. Kal immediately jumped out of the cart and raced on while Lois pressed Greta to move faster, not that old Greta could do so.
The two knights weren't aware of the presence of the man, who stood before them, legs apart and sword drawn, as they continued to take pleasure in kicking the young squire who was whimpering in pain. "Have you gentlemen had enough?" A cold voice rang out in the small front yard of the cottage. They jerked up their heads to meet the steely gaze of a furious warrior.
Kal took a step forward, never breaking the eye contact. His entire being was in the state of readiness, turning into a fighting machine as per his training. He assessed his opponents with quiet precision; two church knights, indicated by their tunics, wearing mail shirts. However their chain mails didn't cover their necks and arm pits. He noted the particular weaknesses of his adversaries. Their swords were the usual long swords favored by most knights. That gave them more reach than his shorter sword could. But he wasn't too worried; there were ways to get under their guards such that they would be ineffective to block him.
The two knights left James to his own device as they fully faced the new threat. Seeing that he had no armor, and was armed with only a short sword and a small hunting knife, they thought it was a joke for him to be issuing threats. "What if we're not finished? What are you going to do about it?" one of them taunted.
"You look like knights, but you don't behave like one," Kal taunted back. "Or is it knightly behavior to kick around innocent boys? Perhaps you're afraid to take on someone your own size?"
One of the knights would have stepped forward, but was stopped by his friend. "Hold on. Prince Kal, isn't it?" he asked Kal, bowing mockingly. "You don't look all that dangerous. They warned us about you, but seeing you, I think your reputation is greatly exaggerated."
"Would you care to test my skills?" Kal placed his hand on the pommel.
The knight pretended to consider, and then stepped up to face Kal. "This assignment is turning out to be a pleasure," he said, laughing.
So Kal found himself facing a knight of heavier built, with a bleeding scar on his face that looked like claw marks. As they circled one another, Kal didn't let his guard down against the other knight watching to the side. He suspected that he would be facing two opponents before long, one coming from behind when he least expected it. He waited in a low guard position with his sword pointing at 45 degrees to the ground, willing "Scarface," as he thought of him, to come to him. While most people think that the best defense is an offense, Kal knew differently. In this particular case, with his short sword, it was best to be in the defense until the appropriate moment.
He didn't have to wait long. With a shout meant to drive terror into the heart of his opponent, "Scarface" charged, swinging his sword in a downward arc. Keeping his eyes trained on the hilt of his opponent's sword, Kal dodged nimbly to the side, lifting his sword to ward off the blow. He immediately followed his parry with a slice at his adversary's unprotected neck. "Scarface" reeled just in time to block the blow. The blades met and a clear sound rang out. The other knight could see the blades shudder on impact before "Scarface" forced them downwards. "Scarface's" bulk allowed him to hold the swords down, effectively trapping Kal. Before Kal could disengage, "Scarface" moved forward to shove Kal with his shoulder.
But Kal had anticipated the move. With quick legwork, he slipped his sword from under his opponent's and stepped away, upsetting "Scarface's" balance. Momentum carried him forward past Kal, stumbling. Fortunately, he recovered fast. He turned, only to find Kal smiling contemptuously at him. Anger took over and he lunged wildly at Kal. Seemingly without effort, Kal brought his sword up to parry the blow. This time, as the blades engaged, Kal's wrist twisted, and "Scarface's" sword arced across the yard, even as he screamed and clapped a hand to the cut in his sword arm.
The other knight, shocked at the ease with which his friend was disarmed, charged at Kal who had his back turned and was occupied with "Scarface." Kal turned to see the sword swinging down at him, but it was too late.
Lois gritted her teeth at the pace the cart was moving. She wished she could abandon the cart, but given Greta's propensity to wander off if not guided, she worried that Greta might get lost. It seemed like eternity to her before they reached the cottage, only to find Kal's life in danger as one knight charged at him with his sword. Lois didn't know what pushed her to leap out of the cart, pick the pitchfork propped on the side of the barn, and throw it at the knight with all her might.
It was only when the pitchfork left her hand that Lois realized her actions. She watched in horror as the pitchfork reached its intended target, the momentum and force of the throw allowing it to pierce the church knight's armor. The knight jerked, his face a mask of shock as his heart stopped. Kal barely managed to swing his blade up to ward off the falling sword as the knight pitched forward, dead. He wasn't so lucky in avoiding the body and staggered under the dead weight. Seeing his opportunity to escape, "Scarface" scrambled for his horse, riding off without a backward glance to his companion.
Kal would have chased after him if he hadn't noticed Lois starting to shake. With almost lightning speed, he was at her side, drawing her into his embrace. He held her tightly and willed warmth into her as she continued to shake as the consequence of her deed dawned on her.
"I killed a man. I killed a man," she repeated in a hoarse whisper, as she rocked back and forth in Clark's arms.
"Shh, Lois. It's not your fault. You had to," Kal tried to say, hoping that the words would register with her. He understood what she was feeling. The first time he had to kill, he wretched out the contents of his stomach, and he was a trained knight at that. For her, it was worse since she thought of herself as a healer.
He continued to stroke her back, letting her cry as much as she wished. They stayed thus until she calmed down. "Better?" he asked tentatively when she finally stopped rocking.
"How do you do it, Clark? How can you bear to kill another person?" She looked up into his eyes to try and gain some perspective on the enormity of her deed.
Kal tightened his embrace. "Not easily. Not without paying for it with your own soul, Lois," he admitted. "Even when it's justified, you think twice, thrice before going into a fight. But once you enter, there's only one goal; to get out of it alive. In order to do that, you may have to hurt your opponent, even kill him. For every such action, you lose a little of your humanity. It taints your soul. But at times, there is no other way, no other choice."
She heard the pain in his voice and saw the same pain reflected in his eyes. "So what do you do to regain that humanity, Clark?" She knew that he couldn't have lost his humanity if he still felt the pain of his actions.
He smiled softly. "You can't. But you can make up for it. By saving other lives — saving a life is as if you've saved the whole of humanity, just like the taking of a life is as if you've killed the entire human race. That's what you did today, Lois. You may have taken a life, but in doing so, you managed to save two others."
Her eyes glistened with tears as she listened to him. She finally realized that he would have died if she hadn't killed the knight, her arms going round his waist and squeezing it in a show of support. And if he had died, both her life and James's would be in jeopardy by now. It was a matter of survival. Thinking of James, she quickly stepped out of Clark's arms and moved towards the groaning squire.
Kal had almost forgotten about his squire in his worry for Lois, but now he quickly followed Lois to help James up. He sported a bloody, split lip, and black eyes, reminding Kal of a raccoon. Lois found no broken ribs, but James's right arm needed to be set right away. "Clark, help me bring him in."
James struggled to speak. "No!" he rasped out. "Please, Mistress. Don't go in there. Please."
Kal and Lois were baffled by the distressed squire. "But James, we need to set your arm."
"Mistress Lois, no," James held her wrist tightly in his good hand. "My lord…" he pleaded.
Not truly understanding, Kal decided it was best that he went in first. "I'll go and check if it's safe, Lois," he offered, glancing at James who seemed pacified by the offer.
"I'll stay here with James," she replied to reassure the squire. However, her curiosity was pricked, and she wondered what exactly had happened to the cottage.
She glanced to the body in her front yard and winced, once again reminded of her previous actions. The knight was obviously a Church Knight, and with his companion escaping to report back to their superior, she was in huge trouble. She doubted her parents could bail her out of this situation. On introspection, she both regretted and didn't regret what she did. On the one hand, she regretted having to kill. It went against her natural instinct. But she knew she would have killed him again if she had to, to save Clark and James.
Kal opened the door slowly, not knowing what to expect. As he stepped in, his senses recoiled from the wreckage that once was Lois's beautiful home. Furniture smashed, the glass wall shattered, and clothes torn. He turned to call out to Lois that everything was safe when he caught sight of the door; pinned to the door was lovable Blackie. Kal stared in horror at the blood darkening the wooden door and pooling on the ground beneath. Kal closed his eyes in pain, remembering the lithe little cat that seemed so human. It was no wonder that James hadn't wanted Lois to come in.
A sound distracted him. He turned to see something moving from under the furs and clothes. He withdrew his blade and approached cautiously. "My god!" he exclaimed when he saw who was buried under the pile. "Alice!" He knelt to take her into his arms. Immediately, he saw that she was unsuccessfully trying to stem the blood from her mortal wound. There was a pool of blood where she lay. "What happened?" he asked, knowing that there wasn't anything anyone could do for her.
"Sir Clark?" Alice whispered hoarsely. "Lois? Don't let her see me…" She drew a gasping breath. "…Please."
"She's outside. Alice, how did this happen? You weren't here when I left to go to town." Rage seized him.
"Good…tell her I love her…Perry, too."
"Shh, Alice. Save your breath," Kal tried to comfort her.
"Not much time…promise!" Alice grasped his hand. "Promise…protect her. They…come back for her…must keep her safe." Her breath became more ragged as pain shot through her.
Kal held her hand tightly. "I promise. She'll not come to any harm as long as I live."
"…Wanted to find a good man for her…her father…nobility…her mother…true lady. You…be good to her."
Kal understood what she was trying to say. "Alice…" How could he deny a dying woman's wishes? But how could he promise her something which he couldn't guarantee?
Alice didn't notice his hesitation. Her eyes were no longer seeing what was in front of her. "Love her…Perry…" Her voice was so soft that Kal strained to hear the words.
Kal's arms tightened their grip as her body was wreaked in pain and she drew her last breath. He wasn't aware of the tears that fell, as he gathered to carry her out of the house. Lois must not enter it; it would be asking too much of her. He didn't care that his tunic was soaked with Alice's blood as he strode out of the cottage.
Lois, who was fussing over James, glanced up when she heard the door open. She didn't notice when she actually fainted, but she was slowly roused by Clark's voice calling to her. "Lois, Lois?"
Kal and James could only watch in horror as Lois collapsed bonelessly to the ground. Kal laid Alice gently to the ground and bounded to Lois, scooping her into his lap and cradling her. "Lois, Lois?"
Her consciousness slowly returned. "Clark? What happened?" Her memory of her mother limp in Clark's arms returned and she gasped. "Mother! Where is she?" Lois strained against Clark's embrace as he pressed her face into his shoulder.
"Shh. Lois, it's all right." Kal tried unsuccessfully to comfort her.
"Let me go, Clark. I know it's *not* all right!" Her voice became louder with every word spoken. She struggled to free herself.
Knowing it was futile to stop her, Kal released her slowly. "Lois…"
Lois wasn't listening as she flew to her mother's side. With tears blinding her, she gently lifted Alice's head onto her lap. She couldn't believe that her energetic mother would never bother her with her matchmaking plans again. No, it just wasn't right! "Why?" she sobbed out. "Why her?"
James looked on, gathering his courage to explain what had happened. "It's my fault," he apologized softly. "Mistress Alice would still be alive if it wasn't for me."
Lois turned to the young man, her expression fierce. "Don't say that! Did you run her with a sword? Were you the one who killed her?"
James shook his head.
"No? Then why should it be your fault?" Lois tried to convince him, her hand unconsciously stroking Alice's hair as if to comfort her. In actuality, it was Lois who was comforted by the action.
"But…but she died to save my life. The two knights broke into the cottage while I was sleeping and seized me. They wanted to know where you were, my lord," James address Kal. "When I told them I didn't know, they started beating me. Blackie…" He paused, remembering how the brave cat had tried to help him. "Blackie jumped and clawed one of them when they started attacking me. The man managed to catch her and…" his voice broke as he remembered the cruel actions of the knight, "…he killed her."
Kal moved to sit by Lois and put his arms around her as she broke down into fresh tears. She laid her head on his shoulder, grateful for his support. Her little cat, dead. What kind of monsters would kill a small, innocent animal? What kind of monsters would kill an innocent woman? As seconds passed by, her anger mounted; she would make sure they pay for their actions!
James, not knowing the thoughts passing through Lois's mind, continued. "Your mother came in on them searching the place. They were discussing loudly how they'd bring the witch who lived here to justice, citing how her familiar was a demon who attacked one of them. Your mother gasped, alerting them to her presence." James grimaced, cradling his broken arm as pain shot through his body. "I think…I believe they assumed that she was you and…and…"
He flailed about to describe what had happened, before Lois took pity on him. She lovingly placed Alice back on the ground and went to him. "James, it's ok. We need to set your arm first. After that, both of you must leave. If these people are looking for you, the knight who left will be back with reinforcements," Lois stated matter-of-factly, rational thought finally returning to her.
"Lois, you cannot stay here either. Alice charged me with your safety. You heard James: they are going to come back and force you to reveal my destination, if not they'd accuse you of being a witch. I cannot protect you if you stay here."
Lois opened her mouth to object but James interjected, "Yes, Mistress. You have to come. You're not safe here either. My Lord K..Clark will protect us."
"It's settled then," Kal said, overriding any objections from Lois as he strode into the house again to fetch the materials needed to set James's arm.
Lois fumed at the way her arguments were brushed aside, unheard. But as she waited for him to come back, a little voice continued Kal's line of argument, "Lois, you know he's right. If you stay, you'll only bring more trouble to those who love you. Your father would not take it lying down when they arrest you and you know what happened to your real parents. Perry would be dragged along with you. Besides, there is no way for you to fight against these people. They're too powerful. Anything you can do against them would be ineffectual. Clark's your best bet. After all, he's the one they're looking for."
"But why are they looking for him? What is he running from? Are these the people trying to kill him before and the ones who kidnapped James? Can I trust him?"
"Of course you can."
"But he has never been honest about his identity. What does it say about a man if he cannot be completely honest with me?"
"Still, in the weeks he's been around, has he ever hurt you?"
"No, but these people came because of him."
"That doesn't make it his fault."
Lois shook her head to clear her head of the babble. All said and done, she could either stay and get people she loved into trouble, or she could go with Clark into the unknown, and perhaps find another chance to seek justice for her mother. Weighing the pros and cons, she knew that the wisest course of action was to follow Clark. But she wondered what would happen to her father. With his wife's death, he'd be all alone. Could she bear to leave him? How would he cope with losing both Alice and her?
Alice, her foster mother who, even in her dying hour, loved her so much that she extracted a promise from Clark. The shock, that gave way to anger, now turned into an accepting sorrow. Tears brimmed and fell as she remembered her mother. The times when she would tuck Lois in and read to her. The times when Daniel bullied her so much that Lois came running to hide behind Alice's skirt. The times when she showed Lois her secret cooking skills. The first time Lois got her menses and panicked, before her mother calmly sat with her and explained to her about the birds and the bees. The time when she sat Lois down and told her about her real mother, passing her the notebook which she had kept safe for her all those years. The fun times, the challenging times, and more passed through Lois's mind as tears flowed freely. She was honored to have Alice for a mother.
Kal came back and silently handed her the splinters and bandages. Brushing aside her tears, Lois observed that he had changed his tunic. Before she could say anything, he whistled softly for Valiant. "I'll fetch Perry here. We need to be off soon, but he needs to know what happened and that you're coming with us." Something in his voice brooked no argument.
Lois had the impression that this was the real Clark. The affable man she had come to know in the last fortnight was but a disguise. This man before her, controlled, filled with purpose, and imbued with a commanding presence, was the real person. This was the knight who had set out of Kent with a mission to fulfill. The days he had been forced to take shelter under her roof must have chafed him with their idleness, obstructing his mission. For a moment, she felt a keen grief for the passing of a friend. "Clark," her companion, was no more. Sir Clark had now emerged like a bear from its hibernation, ready to tackle the world.
She watched as he rode away, not realizing that James was, in turn, observing her.
"You love him, don't you?"
Her head whipped around to face James. "Wh…What did you say?"
"You love him. I can see it in your eyes. Mistress, I wish you no harm. In fact, I'm most grateful for your help. But he is not for you." James looked away, ashamed to be telling her this when he knew his master loved her too. But he also knew that his master would have no choice in the matter of marriage. Already, there were talks of him being betrothed to Princess Diana, the daughter of a neighboring queen. He only wanted to warn Lois of an impending heartbreak if she continued loving Kal.
Lois stared at him for a while. He needn't tell her; she had known that fact for a long time even though her treacherous heart refused to cooperate. With a defeated tone, she said, "I know, James. I know."
Kal avoided the major road leading to town. Instead he stuck to the back alleys till he arrived at the town hall. Quietly, he slipped past the scribes and other town folks, and into Perry's office.
"Clark?" Perry was astonished to see the young knight in his office unannounced. Astute, he quickly gathered that Sir Clark wasn't here for leisure.
"Perry, can you slip out right now?"
"Where are we going?"
Perry grabbed his hand. "What happened, Clark?"
"Perry, trust me. We don't have time right now, but I'll explain when we get there."
They rode in silence all the way, Perry's mare having a difficult time catching up with Valiant. Perry's imagination ran wild as he thought of reasons for Clark's alarming behavior. His main fear was that something had happened to Lois. But what was it? Alice had returned to their house for a change of clothes before he left for the office, hitching a ride from Lois. So Lois would have been in the market, yet they were traveling to the cottage instead. It was truly puzzling.
Ahead of him, Kal was debating with himself. He knew that Lois had to go with him; the trouble was, should he tell her his true identity? On the one hand, by her not knowing, she'd be more protected. After all, she couldn't reveal what she knew not. Hopefully, his enemies would be more lenient with her because of that. But on the other hand, current events had showed that they would spare no one, not even an innocent. So the argument that she'd be safer not knowing wasn't right. In fact by her knowing, she would be able to understand better and perhaps have some ideas on what should be done. Yes, he had to tell her the truth.
Lois and James looked up upon hearing the thundering sound of galloping horses. James painfully got up in an attempt to protect her, just in case. Lois, taking pity upon him, didn't object, but surreptitiously took out the knife from her boot. She wasn't about to be a helpless female figure. They both let out a sigh of relief when Valiant came into view. Lois also recognized her father's mare.
Both horses drew to a stop near the barn and their riders dismounted. Lois immediately moved to her father's side, valiantly trying to block the carnage from his view.
Relief flooded Perry when he saw his foster daughter moving towards him, looking as hale as could be, if a little pale. But his mind soon questioned the reason he was brought here. "Father," he heard her greeting as she tiptoed to kiss his cheeks.
"Lois, I'm glad you're all right. But what is going on. What was so urgent?" he asked as he returned her kiss.
Kal, who had been seeing to the mounts, turned to gauge Lois's reaction. He was prepared to explain everything to Perry, but felt that it was better for Lois to break the news. Pale though she was, and puffy-eyed too, she seemed calm as she faced her father.
"Father, come and sit down." Gently, Lois led Perry to a nearby stump which she normally used for chopping firewood. By doing so, she was leading him away from the bodies.
Perry became alarmed. There was something going on, something very serious. He could see the tear stains on her cheek and the blood on her clothes. "What's happened?" he demanded as he sat down.
She crouched before him, debating on the best way to approach the subject. Taking his hands in hers, she looked up at him, the sadness in her eyes blatantly obvious. "You know how grateful I am for all that you've done for me, right?"
When he acknowledged it, she continued, "You are the only parents I've known, the ones who showered me with love, kindness, and generosity without measure. Unfortunately, I can never repay you."
Perry would have said something, but Lois shook her head, asking silently that she be allowed to continue. "Father, today, I…I did something worse than being an ungrateful daughter. I have brought danger and harm to your doorstep." She stopped and examined their joint hands, remembering all the times Perry had taken her hand in his to guide her all through her childhood. "But I do not regret the act, Father. You were the one who taught me right from wrong, and to act upon my convictions even if the world is against it. You'd be proud to know, that today, I did."
Perry squeezed her hands, indicating she should continue. He had a glimmer of understanding as he observed James whose arm was in a splint, and saw a horse in church regalia, and not seeing the person he expected to see.
Lois took a deep breath, and then plunged into her confession, "I killed a man today. A Church Knight. He would have killed Clark, if I hadn't. More than that, he had already killed two of my loved ones. Father, he killed Blackie and…" Her voice broke. She struggled to stop her tears from falling.
"And who?" Perry became even more alarmed. A shiver ran down his spine as suspicion crept into his heart.
"It's Alice, Perry," Kal revealed gently, coming forward to put his hands on both their shoulders. "I found her in the cottage after the fight. She died in my arms, and your name on her lips. She said to tell you that she loved you."
Perry's heart stopped for a moment, his mind going blank. His wife of thirty years was gone. How could that be? Only this morning she had teased him for working too hard. "At the rate you're working, Perry, one day your heart is going to stop working and go on strike," she told him, leaning in for a kiss before leaving for Lois's cottage. She had wanted to keep James company, she said.
"Father?" Lois asked tremulously, bringing him out of the shock. Without a word, he enfolded her in his embrace, both of them grieving for the woman who had played a pivotal role in their lives. After a while, Lois extricated herself from his arms. "Father, do you want to see Mother?" Seeing his nod, she led him to where Alice laid, a serene figure in death as she was dynamic in life.
Kal, James and Lois watched as Perry said goodbye to his beloved wife. Finally he looked up. "You cannot stay here, Lois. It won't be safe. Father Tempus will make sure you are convicted for killing the knight, and he'll try to stick the charge of witchcraft on you too."
Kal and James nodded, but Lois seemed undecided. "But what about you? How will this affect you? Father…"
"I'll be fine," he assured her. "But sweetheart, I'll have to disassociate myself from you." Pain filled his voice at this. "I'll have to support Father Tempus…"
"I understand," Lois interjected. "You must, lest you be dragged along into this. But who's going to look after you?"
"I can look after myself, Lois. Don't you worry," he said, a small sad smile lighting his face. He brushed her hair aside. "I worry about you. My lord, will you look after her?" he addressed Kal.
"Your wife extracted a promise from me and I will pledge it once more, Perry. As long as I live, I will not let her come to any harm."
Perry was reassured by the pledge. "Then, you have the care of my daughter, Sir Clark."
Kal hesitated, knowing that this was the chance for him to reveal himself. After all, these people paid a high price when they took him in and saved his life, over and over again. "It's not Clark, Perry. It's Kal…of El."
All three stared at him, shocked but for different reasons. James was startled that his master would reveal his true identity when he had been adamant to keep it secret. On reflection, he could understand the necessity of revealing it now. Perry had suspected from Master Klein's veiled comments that Sir Clark was a disguise, but he was having a difficult time grasping the fact that his daughter's house guest was the heir of El himself.
Lois's eyes narrowed, her mind quickly coming to terms with Clark's new identity, or rather his real identity. "So that's your secret," she blurted out. "I knew you couldn't be a mere knight!" Then the implication of who he was hit her hard. "So that's why you can't…" She stopped herself as Kal stared at her wistfully. Both their eyes connected with shared pain; now both of them knew the reason they couldn't have a relationship, at least not one where she would be treated as an equal.
She put the knowledge aside for now. Current matters had to take precedence. Questions like why he was traveling incognito and why there had been two attempts to kill him had to be asked. Without pause she fired the questions, "But why is the church trying to kill you? Or is there more than meet the eyes? Is that why you're traveling incognito? Is the Earl of Marches involved? Does this mean there might be an invasion by Nor?" When she finally ended her interrogation, realization dawned that she was addressing a prince. Belatedly she blushed and added the honorific title, "…er, Your Highness."
Kal sighed, smiling weakly as he tried to keep up with her questions. "I don't know, Lois, though I intend to find out." His jaws tightened imperceptibly. "I intend to get to the bottom of this if it's the last thing I do. Perry, we need to be off very soon, but I need your help before we leave."
Perry nodded, straightening his posture. Pride filled him as he pondered how many men could say that they had been called to the service of the crown prince. "What would you have me do, Your Highness?"
"The three of us have to go in another guise. Being a knight will attract too much attention. Can you look after Valiant for me? More seriously, I need you to keep an eye on Father Tempus. From his conversation with Lois a few days back, it would seem that he was the informant who betrayed my whereabouts. I had hoped to be able to stay here longer and learn who he's reporting to, but…"
"You don't have to say more, Your Highness," Perry picked up the thread of conversation. "I'll keep my eyes open. But how do I get news back to you if anything happens?"
"You can't. But you can send the information to my brother, Lex," Kal told him, handing him a ring. "Use this when you go to him. Lex will know that you're my messenger, and will heed your words."
Perry put the ring into his pouch and tied the pouch tightly. "Aye,that I can do. That I can certainly do, Your Highness." He turned to Lois. "Be careful, Lois. You've never been out of Trent since you've grown to womanhood. It's a dangerous world out there," he advised her gruffly.
"Father…" Lois couldn't trust her voice. Instead she hugged her foster father hard.
Perry drew her closer to him, as if he didn't want to let her go. "Shh, darlin". You're going to be all right. Remember, you descend from noble blood, a very noble lineage," he whispered in her ears.
Lois stiffened. While she knew that her father had been a younger son of a noble, no one ever told her of her father's real identity. She assumed no one knew, that he had kept quiet about it because of some rift between him and his family. After all, not one person from her father's side had ever come to claim her. Now, Perry was hinting that he knew more. She was about to open her mouth to ask when Kal spoke.
"We've got to go, Lois. We can take your cart and old Greta," Kal suggested gently.
Perry shook his head as he let Lois go ever so reluctantly. "You need to get out of town fast and Greta is not fast enough. Take my mare. She's used to drawing a carriage as well as being ridden."
'very well, Perry," Kal agreed. "James…"
"I'll go pack, Your Highness." James immediately went into the house to pack whatever he could, while the other three went to retrieve the cart and unhitched Greta.
"Prince Kal, where are you heading?" Perry asked, as he hitched his mare to the cart.
"It's best that you don't know, Perry," Kal answered.
"You're right, but I may have a suggestion. Your enemies would likely be searching for three people; two men and a woman. They'd be less suspicious if you're traveling with a group."
Lois's face lit up as she saw where Perry was heading. "That's right. We could join the gypsies for part of the way. Father, isn't Chief Hawkin departing from Trent this evening?"
"Yes, and he owes me a couple of favors. I believe he'll take all three of you into his group," Perry speculated.
Kal frowned, wondering if the gypsies could be trusted. Lois, upon noticing his frown, knew what was going through his mind and quickly tried to reassure him. "Cl…Your Highness, these gypsies can be trusted. My mother's mother was one of them before she settled down to marry my grandfather. In fact, Chief Hawkin is her nephew."
"Yes, there is that familial bond too. I'm glad that his caravans are still around. Why don't we go over there right now?" Perry suggested, glancing back at his wife's body. He knew that he couldn't claim her at the moment; he would have to act shocked when her body was 'discovered." For now, he couldn't let his grief take control. His daughter needed him to be strong.
After James came out with their necessary belongings, they headed out to the gypsy camp. Perry took Hawkin aside and told him what had transpired, withholding only Kal's identity from him. Generous as gypsies are with their blood relatives, and recollecting the favors he owed Perry, Hawkin was more than willing to take in Lois and her companions in exchange for a few coins.
"So, Perry, who're ye friends?" Hawkin asked expansively, after a few minutes of negotiation.
"I'm Carl, and this is my friend, Jack," Kal improvised.
"Hmm," Hawkin scrutinized the younger man at length. "What can ye do?"
"I don't understand?" Kal asked, puzzled.
"It's tradition that once you're part of the group, you must serve a function. For example, I'll be the healer," Lois explained.
Kal exchanged looks with James before speaking up, "Well, I'm good at hunting and I've some skills with the sword."
"And ye?" Hawkin focused his attention to James.
"Er…I can clean?"
"Actually, he's good at gathering information," Kal declared proudly.
Hawkin smiled at the pride the one called Carl had for his younger friend. He had no doubt that the names given to him were false, but it wasn't the gypsy way to pry. "Well then, we got two hunters in the bargain; a hunter for food and another for information, things which we always need. Welcome," he said, embracing both of them in a bear hug. "Perry, doncha worry. These three'll blend right in. Besides, Lois's already part of the family." He winked at his niece or second cousin, depending on how one saw it.
True to his word, Hawkin had assigned them jobs which enforced them to be in close contact with the others in the family, as the gypsies saw themselves to be. Kal and James found them to be quite open and friendly, and soon made new friends as the days passed by. James, being younger, fitted right in with the gypsy youths who drew him into their circle and taught him their language and culture.
Kal befriended many of the hunters, and was sought after by most of the gypsy women. He found them to be bold, without being coy. Still, he resisted their advances. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy the attention, but the one person who he longed for was avoiding him. He hadn't seen Lois since they were assigned caravans. She had moved in with Chief Hawkin and his wife, while Kal and James were assigned the gypsy's equivalence of the "bachelor's quarters." His duties as hunter didn't help matters either since he would be gone for most of the day, only to return towards dusk.
It was only during the nights when the family got together for dinner, song and dance that he would catch glimpses of her. Even then, she would be too far away from him, surrounded by men who paid court to her. He would watch her as she danced the traditional gypsy dance. He knew that he shouldn't be jealous of the men, or feel hurt by her distance, but he couldn't help himself.
He had tried to convince himself that if she found someone from the gypsy family, she would be safe, and he could leave her there while he tracked down his enemies. He had even convinced Chief Hawkin to give a nudge to the young, virile gypsy men to court her. It hadn't worked, however, for whenever he saw her, or even thought of her in another man's arms, a pain seared through his heart.
It was a week after they had been traveling eastward before he managed to get a chance to really talk to her. He had taken Chief Hawkin out of the camp perimeter to discuss the route they were taking and his plans to leave the group when they got to the Rose Monastery.
"Do ye wan' us to wait for ye?" Chief Hawkin asked.
"No, Chief. You've been a great help this past week, making this detour to the monastery for us."
"Posh! Ye're family now," Hawkin protested.
"Just one thing, Chief. About Lois…"
"What about me?" Her voice, soft but repressed with anger, came as a shock to Kal.
The two men turned to face her, Hawkin seeing her mother's strength in her. He had once been in love with Ellen, Lois's mother. But he couldn't give up the gypsy lifestyle for her, and besides, she had eyes for no one but her husband, then suitor. Still he admired the strength that Ellen had, one which she had evidently passed to her daughter. Hawkin had been told by Perry about Alice's death, and would have gladly comforted his niece, if she were to let him. But she hadn't. She had put on a cheerful mask and had gone about her duties in the camp with fortitude.
Right now, though, she was bristling with anger, and he knew better than to stay around for the fireworks. "I go and check on…uh…the boys." Without waiting for a response, Hawkin gladly retreated to bellow at a couple of kids trying their hands at mischief-making.
The two combatants continued to stare, neither willing to be the first one to concede defeat. Kal's first thought upon seeing her was "Can she ever be more beautiful?!" He knew that she was extremely mad, but the saying "you're beautiful when you're angry" certainly applied to the lady in front of him.
"Well?" Her arms were folded across her chest, her head tilted slightly to the side, as she waited for Kal to speak. The last week had been very difficult for her, what with grieving her mother's death, worrying about her father, and trying to avoid Kal at the same time. She knew that he and Chief Hawkin had met several times to discuss the route they were taking. She also had the suspicion that they had discussed her too. The suspicion was confirmed when the men started showing interest in her. One of her potential suitors blurted out last night that the Chief was looking for a husband for his niece. Of course, most of the men jumped at the chance to ally themselves with the Chief's household. That angered her so much that she braced herself this morning and set out to find the real culprit.
"Well what?" Kal decided to go for an innocent look.
"What did you want to discuss with my uncle about me? *What* could you possibly discuss with him about me that doesn't require my presence?"
Kal reddened at the jibe. "Lois…"
"We were…well, we…"
"*You* were trying to get me engaged and married so that *you* don't have to take me with you when you leave. *You* want to salve your conscience by making sure I'm left in the relative safety of said husband, so that your promises to my parents would be fulfilled. Right?"
Once again, Kal winced at her tone. "Lois…I…"
She didn't let him continue, as she went on. "Well, bully you! I've lived all my life without needing your protection, and I certainly don't need it now. Who're you to try and plan my life for me? Oh, *yes*. I forget. You're Prince Kal, the *heir* of El. The high and mighty prince who thinks he can order everyone's life to his heart content. Well, think again. I'm part gypsy, and we don't recognize anyone's rule over us. If you don't want to be burdened with my presence, just say so." Her fire in her eyes snapped and crackled with the rising blaze of anger in her at the high-handed way Kal was treating her.
Kal combed his hand through his hair, his frustration apparent. "Lois, of course not! I wasn't trying…"
"You weren't?" She raised her eyebrow in disbelieve. "Pray tell me why all the men said otherwise?"
Kal felt like shaking her till her teeth rattled. Why couldn't she let him have a word in edgewise to explain? She was being unreasonable. "Lois, if you just let me explain!"
Her eyebrow arched even further. Who was he to demand such thing? "Go on." The challenge was evident.
Kal sighed. "I just want you to be happy and safe, Lois. Part of what you're saying is justified, but more than that, I felt that you belonged here. How can I possibly take you away from where you belong and put your life in danger at the same time? Furthermore, if you follow me, I can't guarantee what your future will be. There are powerful people after me, and they're not going to stop until I'm dead."
He took a step towards her. "I won't make any excuses, but I felt that you were avoiding me. If we're to continue on together, contact will be unavoidable. Since you showed a distinct lack of interest in maintaining our friendship, I thought it was best that…"
Before he could go on, one of the little ones came running, shouting for them. "Lois, Carl! Chief Hawkin wancha," she huffed, her breathing ragged from her run.
Both Kal and Lois frowned, wondering why Hawkin would want them. "Did he say why, Lydia?" Lois asked.
"Nah, but I saw a couple of knights approachin' the camp from that hill," Lydia explained, pointing to a distant hill opposite from them. "Chief probably wanna everyone in the camp."
Kal nodded, extending his hand to ruffle the little girl's hair. "Thanks, Lydia. We'd better go then." He looked at Lois who shrugged. It seemed that a truce was declared until they could discuss things further.
When they got back to the camp, they spotted Chief Hawkin and some of the family elders talking to a couple of knights. Fortunately, they weren't any one Kal recognized. Still, they approached the group cautiously.
"So you're sure you've not seen any knight with an injured man and a woman riding past you?" asked one of the knights.
Hawkin shrugged in all innocence. "Ye're welcome to ask anyone but I don' 'member anyone passin' us since Trent. What's this about?"
The knights exchanged cautious looks before the appointed spokesman replied, "There was a case in Trent where a woman managed to bewitch a knight into killing her foster mother and a church knight who had been charged to question her about her involvement with the black arts. The knight and his squire had taken shelter in her house and had obviously fallen into her spell."
"Shockin'! What'd the good squire say?" one of the elders pretended to cringe in horror.
"It was his foster daughter who stood accused," the knight said grimly. "He was a fair man who was devastated at the wench's betrayal of his trust. Are you sure there have been no strangers around? Has anyone approached you to join your band?"
Hawkin smiled ever so sincerely. "We're a close knit group. Especially in this band. We're a family."
"O yeah? What about him?" The silent knight spoke up, pointing to Kal. "He doesn't look gypsy to me." He glared accusingly at Hawkin.
Hawkin glanced at Kal and turned back to the knights. "That's Carl, my niece's new husband. Ye're right; not gypsy born but he's got the gypsy soul. Lola, Carl, come 'ere." He motioned for Lois and Kal to step forward. "My niece, Lola an' her husband Carl," he introduced them. "Carl's a hunter, an' Lola's a divine cook. Perhaps ye'll stay an' enjoy our hospitality?" His smiled widened and turned slightly wicked.
The knights glanced around at the onlookers. The men were all wielding sharp objects as they lounged around various parts of the campsite, and the women were grinning as they sat on the steps of their caravans, cutting at the vegetables and skinning the rabbits and doves that the hunters had brought home for the day. The knights sensed that they were welcomed even though the Chief had extended the invitation. Haughtily, the knights declined and left.
"Good riddance," spat out one of the elders. "They come bargin' in, as if we got no rights. Then they start accusin' us."
"Now, now," placated Hawkin, "at least they didn' force their way."
Another family elder laughed sarcastically. "From the way they left, I don' think they'd dare take on all of us."
Hawkin nodded and turned to Lois and Kal. "At least ye're safe. From the sound of it, Perry's got things under control. At least somethin' good came out of this visit."
"Thanks, Uncle. Your quick thinking saved the day." Lois tiptoed to give him a peck on the cheek.
Hawkin's eyes twinkled merrily as he swept her up and squeezed her, giving her a smacking kiss on the mouth. "Now, there. That's the way to show ye appreciation, little one," he told her when he finally released her. He then became serious as he stared at the dots that were the retreating knights. "Still, it is best to be cautious. They might sneak back."
"Aye, that's right," a third elder agreed. "Which means, Lois, Carl, ye 'ave to play the married couple. Ye're gonna 'ave to sleep in the same caravan, me think."
"Yep, there's old Marnie's caravan that ye can claim, at least till we're sure they're not spyin' on us. Marnie can stay with me," volunteered Hawkin, his eyes twinkling like crazy. His amusement at his niece's predicament was apparent.
Lois rolled her eyes while Kal grinned. It was just what he needed to have her attention all to himself. The last week had firmed his resolve; protocol and tradition bedamned, it was Lois who held his heart.
Lois fumed silently as she sat beside Kal at dinner. Earlier, they had moved their meager belongings to Marnie's caravan. Kal had graciously apologized to Marnie who waved it aside, saying that she was pleased to help out. Ancient though she was, Marnie had ogled him and whispered to Lois suggestions on what she should do to that muscular body that night. Lois blushed furiously, but kept her peace. Later, when they had finished unpacking and had gone outside, wolf whistles followed them, the men shouting suggestive comments to Kal. The women had taken Lois aside and did likewise offer suggestions. Lois couldn't get mad at them, for they were just teasing.
Instead she was mad at Kal, who had swaggered as if he had made a brilliant conquest. Kal who had grinned like the Cheshire cat as he listened to the men's ribald jokes about wedding nights. Kal who had stayed close to her all day even though he didn't try addressing her. Kal who was getting too much on her nerves as he paid close attention to her and seemed almost possessive.
But most of all, she was angry with herself for being flattered by the attentiveness, the possessiveness. She hated herself for wanting — no, craving — his presence and attention. She hated herself for being jealous of the women who threw themselves at him without reserve. The past week had been a living hell for her; she would follow him with her eyes when he strolled into the camp with his catch. She'd watch him surreptitiously when he laughed and joked with the men, and flirted with the women. She felt like clawing out the eyes of the women who batted their lashes at him. She seriously wanted to break the limbs of the women who dared to dance with him. All because she couldn't allow herself to do those things.
Because if she allowed herself to do those things, she knew she would fall in love with him deeper than ever. She couldn't allow herself to get hurt when he walked away, as he would one day. He was the prince and she was the pauper. Fairy tales endings were all fine and dandy, but they didn't apply in the real world. She gave a silent, bitter laugh as she stared into the flames. No, there wasn't going to be any other ending for her and Kal except one whereby he'd ride out of her life forever and never look back, marrying his princess and living happily ever after while she remained behind with a broken heart.
She had tried to stay away from him, tried to put him out of her mind, and tried to learn to enjoy the company of other men. But the effort bore little success; she had surrendered her heart to him and had yet to retrieve it. Perhaps she never would. Unconsciously, she sniffled at the pathetic thought.
Kal's alert ears immediately picked up the sound even above the loud gypsy music being played. He turned to watch her profile silhouetted by the campfire, highlighting her soft, brown hair, currently braided to signify that she was a virgin, her beautiful, aristocratic face, and her slim, but curvaceous figure; she looked miserable. His heart constricted; was pretending they were married so intolerable? Had he judged her feelings for him wrongly? He had thought that she loved him, but why had she been distant before they left Trent and had avoided him this past week? His heart broke as he saw a single tear made its lonely way down her cheek before she roughly wiped it away.
He wished he could comfort her, that he had the right to gather her in his arms and helped her work out her grief over losing her family in the old and well-tested way — by making love to her. The past week had been hell for him as he battled his green-eyed monster whenever he saw her with one of those virile gypsy men. He knew he had a decision to make, even as he sought out Chief Hawkin to find someone for her. He knew in his heart that he couldn't and wouldn't let her go. She belonged with him. It wasn't an easy decision to buck tradition and follow his heart, but he knew tonight that he had made the right decision. All that was left was to convince Lois of it.
Lois became aware of Kal's scrutiny when he moved almost imperceptibly toward her. Her traitorous heart yearned for his embrace though she forced herself to move away from his touch. "What?" she hissed at him.
Kal winced at her angry tone. "I don't think either of us is in the mood for dancing, perhaps we should retire?" he suggested gently.
"Go if you want. I'm staying here," Lois insisted stubbornly, her voice rising.
Kal looked around, but apparently no one was paying them any attention. "Lois, we need to talk," he tried to reason.
"No, we don't. Apparently you've already decided. What do we have to talk about?" Her raised voice made people around them turn.
He gaped at her when she shot up and stalked away. A voice next to him whispered, "The best way to handle 'er is to take 'er firmly by the 'and." His eyes dancing in devilment, Kal turned to his neighbor and flashed him a grin. Briskly, but quietly, he chased after Lois.
Before she could even respond, he hauled her up onto his shoulder and strode to their temporary caravan, leaving the men and women catcalling and cheering on. Of course, Lois wasn't a passive captive in the least; she pummeled his back, demanding to be put down. She also tried to kick him, but without much success, for he had clamped her legs together and held them securely to his chest.
He shoved the caravan's door open and deposited her on the bunk while he stood in front of the door, legs apart and arms folded across his chest, effectively cutting off her escape route. Knowing she would never get pass him, Lois glared impotently at Kal. Irritation at his high-handed way warred with humiliation at being publicly manhandled, and rather perversely, attraction for his masculinity. But those emotions only served to fuel her anger further. In a voice that could freeze water, she asked, "What do you want?"
"To talk, Lois. Only to talk," Kal sighed.
"Well, then, talk," she threw out the challenge.
"Talk, as in a two-way communication. I can't do that if you're not willing to cooperate." His exasperation was apparent.
Lois looked away, sighing. "What is there to talk about?" she finally asked. There was weariness in her voice that made Kal ached for her.
"Lois, we need to talk about us, about…"
"Us?" Her head whipped around to stare at him, her voice puzzled. "Is there an 'us'?"
"I'd like for there to be one," Kal admitted shyly.
She sighed. "Cl…Kal, you're a prince, the crown prince. How can there be an 'us'? I will not be your mistress. I may be a peasant, but I have my pride."
Kal left his post at the door and sat beside her. He gently took her right hand in his, and with his free one, tipped her face to his. "Do you love me, Lois?" he asked softly.
Unable to look away, she nodded.
"I love you, too. And yes, I'm the crown prince. Yes, I'm to marry for the good of the kingdom. But I'm also human, same as you." He smiled softly. "No, I'm not offering for you to be my mistress, I'm asking you to be my wife."
Her eyes widened in surprise. "But…"
"All these years I have sacrificed a lot for the kingdom. It is time for me to be a little selfish. Lois, I have tried to give you up but it backfired," he grinned sheepishly, "on me. Seeing you in the arms of those men outside drove me crazy with jealousy."
"And you don't think that seeing you with those women didn't do the same thing to me?" Her eyebrow arched.
His grin turned cocky and his eyes twinkled. "Well…so I succeeded, eh?"
She hit his arm. "You bastard." There was no heat in the statement, just a wry, teasing tone.
"Seriously, Lois. Will you marry me?" There was an intensity in his eyes that left her breathless.
Seeing her speechless, he took the opportunity to steal a kiss. As their lips met, Lois melted against him, bringing her arms round his neck, to pull him closer. It was a long time before they parted. Putting his forehead against hers, he asked once more, "Will you marry me?"
"Yes." She didn't know what made her say it. She could only blame the sweet, drugging kiss for muddling her brain.
He didn't let her doubts resurface as he threw open the window and bellowed for Chief Hawkin. Lois could only stare, her puzzlement and surprise apparent on her face. When the chief arrived, Kal hurriedly explained their decision. Hawkin questioned Lois, "Ye agree?" to which she only managed to nod as she still had not recovered from the extremely rapid pace of events.
"Chief, we would be honored for you to perform the wedding ceremony for us. Lois is part gypsy, and therefore it is right that our marriage is recognized by the gypsy community," Kal explained.
Hawkin frowned. "Ye know the outside world don' recognize a gypsy marriage? To the rest of the world, Lois's just your mistress?" he asked, his voice harsh with concern.
Lois's eyes narrowed as she started pulling away from Kal. He only gripped her arm more firmly and smiled reassuringly. "I know, which is why we will perform another ceremony when we get to the monastery. Brother Jonathan will be pleased to perform it, I'm sure."
"Lois?" Hawkin asked again.
Both men waited, Kal with bated breath, for her final decision. Lois bit her lips, her mind finally catching up to the discussion. Should she or shouldn't she?
"Lois?" Kal pleaded softly.
As she gazed into the puppy brown eyes, she knew what her decision would be, even though it was the wrong one. "Yes," she answered just as softly.
Hawkin nodded. "Very well. Come outside an' we'll get this goin'."
Outside, James was waiting. He had been mortified when Prince Kal hauled Mistress Lois as if he was base-born rather than of royal blood. So he had hurried to the caravan in order to prevent any embarrassing incidents from happening. Instead he was shocked to hear his master bellowing for the chief and declaring their wish to marry.
He had been watching his master as he struggled to let Mistress Lois go and knew that a decision had been made when the prince had once again regained his calm. He hadn't expected the decision to be marriage though. It was foolishness — while he liked Mistress Lois, he couldn't picture her as a princess.
When the three emerged from the caravan's interior, he hurried to take Kal by the arm and pulled him to the side, while Lois went on to follow Hawkin. "My Lord, what are you doing?" he whispered urgently.
Kal turned to him and grinned. "Wish me luck, James. I'm getting married."
"Your Highness, are you sure you know what you're doing?" James asked, clutching the arm in distress. He debated whether to protest but upon looking at the happiness on Kal's face, he hadn't the heart to spoil his master's joy.
Kal gently pried off James's hand and tried to reassure him, "I know what I'm doing, James. I haven't lost my senses, I assure you. Lois is exactly what I need, and perhaps what this kingdom needs too. Now, go and pack your things."
"Pack my things?"
"Yes, I will let you know your assignment once the ceremony is over."
Surprised at the turn of events, James didn't look happy, but he acquiesced with Kal's instructions.
Kal watched him go, before turning to where Lois and Hawkin were waiting. The whole clan had gathered around to witness the marriage. When Kal had seated himself facing Lois, who had on her knee a loaf of bread and a dish of salt, Hawkin stepped forward and intoned, "We don' believe in elaborate ceremonies, but we take marriage very seriously. Ye consented to be married tonight. The union of the salt and bread before ye is a symbol of 'armony for ye future. Now Carl, take the bread an' spread the salt over it. Lois, ye do the same."
Kal and Lois looked deep into each other's eyes. They hadn't consciously heard Hawkin as their world narrowed down to only two people — him and her. People said that the eyes were the windows to one's soul, and they were right. Each saw the soul of the other and found it to be their own soul's missing half. Without breaking the connection, they reached for the loaf and broke it.
After both had broken the bread and spread the salt, Hawkin instructed them to eat it. Kal was about to put his into his mouth when he changed his mind. Catching Lois's hand before she could eat her bread, he offered her his piece instead. Without break their eye contact, Lois leaned over and took a small bite before slowly chewing it. Kal swallowed as he realized how intimate that gesture was. Lois noticed his reaction and smiled sensuously, making him even more flustered. In turn, she offered hers to him. Thinking that two could play this game, he held her wrist as he swallowed the whole piece. Not letting go, he proceeded to lick her fingers clean. Her face turned a bright shade of red which delighted their onlookers immensely.
Upon finishing, the crowd erupted in a cheer and the couple was pulled into an impromptu dance. Music started up, wine poured forth, and fire was stoked up as great amount of the earlier game were brought forth and roasted over the fire.
When they were finally reunited for a dance, they had danced with nearly all the people there. "My Lady," Kal whispered to her as he pulled her close, and they swayed with the music. She snuggled up close to him and placed her head on his chest. His arms tightened around her waist before slowly stroking her back soothingly. Her scent reminded him of lavender, cool and calm, a balm to the soul. He couldn't believe it; they were truly married. Suddenly, he was impatient for them to get away from the crowd, to start their marital life. "Come on," he tugged her hand, dragging her through the dancers.
"Kal?" Lois couldn't understand what he was doing, but she kept up with him till she finally realized where he was heading. "Kal! Stop!"
"I don't want to," he replied.
She dug at her heels, stopping him. "Kal, stop. We cannot leave, not yet."
"Why not?" he shot back.
"Cause, dear boy, there's somethin' my wife 'ave to do first," Hawkin interrupted their conversation, grinning hugely. "I know ye're impatient but 'old on a minute. This is part of the ritual."
The music had stopped and everyone's attention was now focused on the couple. The chief's wife came forward with tears in her eyes, hugging Lois. She then turned her around and worked to unbraid her hair before helping her with her head scarf, a nod to her married status, tying the knot for her.
Lois once again hugged her aunt, whispering thanks as she did. She then turned to her new husband and smiled. "Now we can go."
With great reverence, Kal touched the unbraided hair, his eyes never leaving hers. "I love you," he declared for all to hear.
"I love you too." Lois blinked back tears as she followed him back to their caravan.
When they arrived at the caravan, James was waiting outside with his bundle and Perry's mare. Lois frowned, puzzled. "James? Why are you packed?"
"Your Highness," he greeted her softly, bowing to show his respect. "I wish you both a long and happy marriage."
Lois gasped as the implication of her marriage was driven home. Kal stepped forward, pulling her into his embrace. "Thank you, James. Come inside for a while. Lois?"
"Yes, come in." She moved to open the caravan.
Both of them waited awkwardly as they waited for Kal to finish writing his missive. James tried to break the silence by once again congratulating her. "Your Highness, please look after him. I wish I could be around to watch his back. It's up to you now to do that."
Lois smiled at the poor, unhappy squire. "Do you really give us your blessings?"
"Of course," James said sincerely. "He loves you. It's just…it is not going to be easy being married to him, you know."
"I know, James. I know. Don't worry, we'll guard each other's back. I think…I believe that the two of us together is stronger than either of us alone. I just hope that that strength will be enough to fight against our enemies."
"It will be, honey. It will be," Kal assured her as he stood beside her, one arm around her waist. Unknown to both of them, he had been listening to their conversation. "Here, James. I want you to ride back to the palace with all haste and deliver this to my father. I don't have to tell you that it is of the utmost importance that you hand it to him yourself." He handed James a small parchment.
James took it and placed it in the hollow of a decoy arrow. "Aye, my Lord. I will see to it." He bowed once again and left.
"What did you write?" Lois asked her husband.
"I informed my father of our marriage, and told him to put a stop to the marriage negotiations with Princess Diana of the Amazons. I also wrote about the attacks, cautioning him to watch his steps," Kal explained.
"What if James gets caught?" Lois asked, worried.
Kal shook his head. "Don't worry. He won't; he's very good at evading trackers. Even if that scenario is to happen, they wouldn't be able to decipher the code. Only my father and the Provost Marshal know the code. It was developed years ago back by Randolph's father when Nor tried to invade us."
"I hope so. Kal?" She paused, hesitating to ask. "Are you sure about this marriage? I…"
"Lois, I wouldn't have married you if I wasn't sure. As I've said, I love you."
Their gaze met and held. Obtaining her silent consent, he swept her up and proceeded to start their honeymoon.
The next morning, Lois stirred awake. There was something different about waking up that morning. Something was strange about her pillow. It was moving, and as she nuzzled her face into it, it smelled like Kal. "Kal?" Her mind finally connected the dots when she heard his amused voice saying, "Good morn."
Lifting her head from Kal's chest, she shyly encountered his admiring gaze. "Good morn," she replied, rewarding him with a smile that lit up her eyes.
"You're beautiful, you know." He kissed the tip of her nose. "How did you sleep?"
Flustered by the compliment, she didn't know what to say. "Hmm…"
He laughed with a hint of pride coloring it, shaking both of them. "Oh honey," he said, hugging her. "You're good for a man's ego."
She pretended to pout. "What do you mean? Oh…you mean your actions in bed last night? That wasn't too bad, but it could be improved," she teased him, her smile seductive and alluring.
"No way!" He protested, and started tickling her. Soon they abandoned the teasing and were once again lip-locked as passion flared.
At last, they managed to drag themselves out of bed and went about their morning chores. Kal had been given permission to stay home that morning as his wedding gift. While they sat down to partake their breakfast, Lois asked to satisfy her curiosity, "Kal, you mentioned going to the monastery. What monastery? And why are we heading that way?"
Kal sighed. He hadn't wanted to start his first day as a married man tackling such heavy topics but it seemed that his bride had other ideas. "That's our first stop, Lois. I trust Brother Jonathan, the Patriarch of the Order. Perhaps we can find out why the church knights were sent to kill me, and who they were reporting to. There is also another case that I need to consult with him. From there, we can get mounts to ride to the Marches."
"I see." Lois mulled over what he had said. "Is the case related to the church knights?"
Kal shrugged. "I have a feeling that it might be, if my suspicions are correct."
"What might that be?"
"Brother Jonathan is the acting head. The actual Patriarch of the Order died of poison. My suspicion is that he might have offended someone extremely very powerful within the church hierarchy."
"And this personage feels that you might be a threat to him because of your suspicion? How would he know of your suspicion? Do you know who this personage is? And what's the connection with Nor? I'm fishing here, as you can see. You did mention we're heading to the Marches, after all." She grinned sheepishly.
Kal grinned back. He was impressed with the rapid fire of questions. He knew that they'd make a good team, and that Lois would be an asset in the investigation. "Don't worry. You're on the right track. Yes, I know who the person is. I was one of his students after all." He shrugged. "As for his link with the threat from Nor, well that's what we aim to find out. They could be two separate issues. But then again, they might not."
Lois nodded, satisfied with the answer. "What about Brother Jonathan? You seemed so confident of him. Are you sure he might not be involved?"
Kal grinned. He knew she would ask the question. For a naive villager, "hack from nowheresville" as Lex would put it, she wasn't very trusting. He was surprised that she trusted him as easily as she did. "Sweetheart, Brother Jonathan can be trusted. He was Father Andrew's adopted son. I doubt that he would kill his own father. Besides, I've met him several times and was impressed with his integrity."
"Hmm. I guess I should defer to your better judgment in this case. All right, then, what can I do to help?"
"You're already helping, honey. Another mind to work on this puzzle is definitely welcomed." Kal assured her with a smile.
"All right. Now for the other issue."
Kal cringed at her tone. He didn't think he'd like to know what the issue was. He was hesitant to ask. "What other issue?"
"What were you *thinking* by trying to matchmake me with one of the men?"
"Er…" he grinned sheepishly. "Well…it was one of my idiotic moments. You've been distant for a long time, and when we arrived here, you avoided me like the plague. I thought your feelings had changed and that perhaps it was better for you to find someone whom you would care for among your own people." He glanced at her, only to find a mixture of amusement and exasperation gracing her face. "All right, I wasn't in my right mind when I decided that."
"I guess you were trying to be noble." Lois sighed. "If you'd like to know, I was trying to stop loving you. Not that I was successful." She sighed again. "If you knew how much I wanted to give in to my heart and throw myself at you…I already did that and was rejected, after all."
Kal flinched at that. "Lois…"
She touched his hand to reassure him. He would've leaned over to kiss her but she put up her hand to stop him. "Oh, no. We're not kissing or making love until we finish talking. Kal, I want to start this marriage right. I don't want doubts and misunderstandings to continue. Can you understand that?"
"Come here." He pushed away his breakfast and took her into his arms. "I understand completely, sweetheart. As for the rejection, it was my misguided attempt to protect you from being hurt. We weren't married and your reputation would be shot if word had gotten round."
"Why the marriage, Kal? Why now? What changed?" She looked up into his face to search for the truth.
Tightening his hold, he dropped a kiss on her forehead. "I have always been a dutiful son, a proper heir. Until recently. Lex and I found out that there's a threat to El but we didn't know where it's coming from. Lex wanted to conduct the investigation, leaving me to hold the reins at the palace as usual. This time I put my foot down and insisted that I went out to investigate. We came up with a plan to convince my father that we needed to start changing the tradition. We pointed out that the heir shouldn't be kept a prisoner, albeit a happy prisoner, within the palace. That it was necessary for the heir to learn about his people in order to govern better.
"So we managed to get me out of the palace and I was on my way to the Marches to consult with Randolph when James and I were attacked. The next thing I knew I was gazing at a beautiful angel, one who had rescued me from certain death. I fell for her, hard. But there was a part of me that was still bounded to tradition and duty. Until the day when she saved my life again by killing even though she was a healer; when her life was changed forever as she was forced to leave her family and friends behind for me."
Lois kissed his chest to comfort him. He looked down at his wife, admiring her resilience and courage. He was touched that she was comforting him when it was she who had lost so much. "She sacrificed everything for me. What better wife is there than one who loved me enough to do that? One that I learnt I love with my heart and soul. Without whom my life wouldn't be complete. Lois, know that I'd abdicate before I give you up. Title and power don't mean a thing if you're not there beside me."
"Oh Kal." If she hadn't loved him with all her being, she would have after that declaration. Pulling his head down, she initiated the first kiss. One thing led to another and those were the last few words they exchanged for the rest of the morning.
A gray-robed monk in the old tower noticed the two figures on a rickety cart slowly approaching the monastery's gate. The old cart seemed to groan and moan as the wheels turned over the graveled road. At a glance, they seemed to be a mere peasant couple looking for shelter. The woman lay on her husband's lap, shivering. She seemed very ill.
When they finally arrived, the husband jumped from the cart and pounded the door. "Please, please let us in! For God's sake, my wife is ill and we have no provisions. Please give us shelter, at least for the night," he begged whoever was listening on the other side.
The massive door opened smoothly as an old monk peered out into the darkness, his lantern the only source of light. He searched the man's face and looked beyond him to the figure bundled warmly on the cart. "Aye, come in, travelers."
The old monk led the man to the stable where young boys took charge of the cart while the man carried his wife into the main building. The monk installed them in a private cell, assuring the man that the herbalist would soon attend to his wife and that someone would be bringing them food.
A knock at the tower's door brought the monk out of his contemplations. "Yes, Brother Martin?" he called out.
"Brother Jonathan, good eve. There is need of your services tonight. A couple had been granted shelter but the wife is extremely ill," Brother Martin, the old monk who had helped the couple, greeted him.
"Of course. You know, perhaps it is time for me to train one of our younger brothers in the art," Brother Jonathan mused, glancing at his "office." "I hadn't expected to be saddled with Father Andrew's duties," he admitted ruefully.
Brother Martin only grinned. Like most of the brothers in the Order of the Rose, he knew that Brother Jonathan was the best person to assume the position of Patriarch of the Order after Father Andrew's untimely demise and accepted him as such.
"Where did you put them?" Brother Jonathan asked as they walked slowly down the tower's steps.
"The east wing. I've asked Brother Paul to send one of the novices to bring them some food."
"Hmm…all right, Brother Martin, I'd better collect the medicine chest and look at the woman."
Brother Martin bowed a little and left. Brother Jonathan watched him walk away before turning to his old office where the medicine chest was kept. He was a little concerned at the sudden arrival of the travelers. He could think of very few places they could be heading to that necessitated them to pass by the monastery, and none of those places seemed likely to attract a couple. For example, beyond the monastery is the Great Eastern Desert where no living soul had ever returned alive to tell their story.
He knocked at the door of the cell and entered when the wooden door creaked opened. "I was told that…" He couldn't continue as he stared into the face of Prince Kal of El.
"Brother Jonathan," Kal greeted him, a mischievous grin adorning his face, "you don't have to look so shocked."
"Your Highness? I don't understand. Why are you here?"
Kal was about to answer when Lois stopped him, "Kal, you should at least offer Brother Jonathan a seat before you interrogate him."
Brother Jonathan tore his eyes away from the prince to the lady proffering him the single seat in the cell. Even in her peasant clothes, her bearing was noble and there was an aristocratic touch to her features. She didn't look ill though. "This is a cover?" he asked as he sank into the chair.
"Yes." Lois took pity on the poor brother and handed him a glass of water. He looked as if he was having trouble jumpstarting his heart. "Kal needed to see you but we didn't want to alert our enemies. We came up with this cover."
"Thank you." Brother Jonathan took a sip from the glass, glad to be able to focus on something mundane instead of the implications of His Highness's presence here, especially with the unknown lady at his side.
Kal sat down on the bed, pulling Lois down with him, their fingers entwined in an understated intimacy. "Brother Jonathan, before we go on, we'd like to ask you for a favor," he started. "Let me introduce you to my wife, Lois." He noted the monk's widened eyes with a small smile. "We were married a few days ago in a gypsy ceremony. But we want to make it legitimate in the eyes of the law. Could you conduct a brief ceremony for us?"
"Your Highness, this is highly irregular. I've heard that your parents are negotiating a marriage contract for you with the Amazons. How can I defy my liege lord in this matter? And even if I can, we need at least a week to post banns," Brother Jonathan protested weakly.
Kal frowned, tightening his hold on Lois. He could feel her withdrawing and had no plans to let Brother Jonathan destroy their hopes and dreams. "The banns can be put aside if there are mitigating circumstances, as you very well know. As for the marriage contract, my parents will never force me to marry someone I don't wish to. I have already put a stop to it. Lois is the only one who I'll marry." His tone brooked no argument as he stated his case.
"And Lady Lois, is this your wish too?" Brother Jonathan asked gently. "Do you know what you're marrying into? As a princess, and later as a queen, you'll have responsibilities that you're not trained to handle."
"How do you know that?" Lois felt offended that the brother had assumed her position and found her wanting.
Brother Jonathan wiped his face, feeling like he was in a boat where the oars are missing. How did he get into this situation? "You're obviously of nobility, but given that His Highness hadn't given your title tells me that either it is something to be hidden, or…" He paused, trying to find the words without putting his foot further into his mouth. "…you might have been born on the other side of the blanket." He put up his hand at the protests his words brought forth from the two other occupants of the cell, and explained gently, "I'm not judging you or condemning you, my dear. I'm just asking if you think you can handle the responsibilities that will be entrusted to you."
Lois drew a deep breath and considered the question. Her eyes settled on Kal's face even as she answered Brother Jonathan's question, "Yes, I believe I can. I know I don't have the training, but I can learn. I know that Kal will help me if ever I need him. Together we can do anything."
Kal smiled at her proudly. "Brother Jonathan?" he queried.
Brother Jonathan sighed. There was no doubt that these two before him were very much in love, and if he wasn't wrong, were also partners in whatever quest they were on. He could only hope that the partnership would continue throughout their life together. "Yes, very well then. I don't suppose you want to do this in the chapel?" he asked hesitantly, knowing it wasn't a good idea.
"No, we can't risk exposing our identities. Do you mind doing it here?" Kal suggested.
"Aye, come and kneel." After both of them were in position, he asked for their vows and invoked blessings on their union. He promised that he would put their marriage into the monastery's registry and send a copy to the palace in due time, thus making it official.
Lois personally thought that the ceremony was uninspiring and definitely not romantic. Kal didn't care for the short ceremony either but there wasn't much time for anything else. He promised himself that once they got back to the palace and his enemies had been dealt with, Lois would have the wedding that she deserved. Meanwhile they were now truly married. One thing he could do at the moment was…facing her, his palm came up to caress her cheek as he pulled her toward him. Their lips met and they took their time to taste the sweetness of the kiss.
"So what drove you out of the palace grounds?" the monk asked after settling himself down on the chair.
Kal gave a short version of his adventures thus far, leaving out Lois's part in the skirmish with the church knights, and asked a question of his own, "So what has your investigation yielded?"
Brother Jonathan leaned backward, his mind trying to grasp the audacity of the church knights in attacking the heir of El. The implications were clear; his enemies were trying to use the fact that Kal was traveling incognito to kill him. But the person who gave the orders to the church knights had overplayed his hand. He thought that coming up with trumped up charges against an unknown knight would facilitate the removal of the prince from this earthly life, but he miscalculated. Now there was definite proof that someone powerful within the church hierarchy was part of the conspiracy against El. Someone who had the ears of the Archbishop. Did he dare even imagine that it could be the Archbishop himself? After all, the command of the church knights fell under his jurisdiction. "About Father Andrew?"
When Kal nodded, he continued, "I managed to establish that he was killed by the arachid poison." He broke off when Lois gasped, her eyes widened in shocked. "Do you know about the arachid poison, Your Highness?" he addressed her.
"Yes," she affirmed. "It's an extract from the arachid plant found in the jungles of Nor. It's lethal; you only need a drop of the poison to kill the person within a single day unless the antidote is applied," Lois explained to Kal.
The acting Patriarch's eyes widened and he would've spoken but Kal's reaction to her statement stopped him.
"Nor again?" Kal's jaw tightened at the thought.
Brother Jonathan felt it was best to continue his report before he asked questions. "From my investigation, which I submitted to the Archbishop, Father Andrew had been given the poison through his cough medicine while he was at court. The prescription was issued out by Master Maxwell Deter." Brother Jonathan monitored Kal's reaction to the name. He wasn't disappointed when the younger man jumped up in agitation.
"Deter? How did Lex's personal physician get involved?" Kal's eyes narrowed as he focused his attention on the monk.
"Father Andrew ran out of his regular medicine at the time, though that in itself was very peculiar since I had personally packed enough medicine for his entire stay at court. When the Archbishop heard of the problem, he asked Prince Lex to allow his physician to prescribe a draught for Father Andrew."
"Are you saying that Deter murdered Father Andrew? But what were his motives?" Kal asked puzzled.
Brother Jonathan sighed. "I'm not saying that he murdered Father Andrew, just that the poison was found to be administered through the draught. Anyone could have tampered with it, since a page delivered the medicine to Father Andrew. In other words, the investigation is inconclusive."
"Damn!" Kal felt like hitting something, instead he gritted his teeth and clenched his fists.
Lois got up to soothe her husband, rubbing his back. "I don't think the investigation failed. Now we've identified the poison, we can find out who had access to it."
"How do you do that? If Nor is involved…"
"Not everyone in Nor is able to obtain it," explained Lois. "The arachid is a rare plant which grows in only one part of the jungle. Not only that, in order to obtain the poison, the arachid has to go through a certain process. A secret process which is guarded jealously by the royal family of Nor."
"So what you're saying is that the royal family of Nor is involved in this conspiracy? That this could be an invasion tactic?" Kal questioned her.
"I don't think it's an invasion tactic. Why would they need to collaborate with your enemies here otherwise? No, this proves that you've got traitors within El, people who want to topple the current rulers, and that the rulers of Nor are assisting them."
"My family!" A look of panic came over Kal as the implications sank in.
Lois reached out to him, encircling his waist and holding him close, both to give and draw comfort. "Kal, we must trust that your enemies are not targeting your family yet. At the moment, they're focusing on you. Between us, we can evade them, and buy time to gather information," she tried to reason with him.
"Lois," he wrapped his arms around her and crushed her to him, "how is it that you know what to say to comfort me? Honey, you've saved me over and over again. How can I ever…"
"Shh…you're my husband and my liege lord. How can I not do everything within my power to help you?"
Overcome by his emotions, Kal would have kissed her, but Brother Jonathan cleared his throat, recalling the two lovers to their senses. "Your Highness, may I ask you a question?" he addressed Lois.
Lois was a little discomfited at the title but let it go. "Of course."
"How do you know that only the royal family of Nor knew the secret process of extracting the poison, or that there is an antidote for it?"
"What do you mean?" she answered him with a question.
"No one knows of this. Even I didn't know about this till you revealed it. And I'm one of the foremost poison experts in our kingdom. I can assure you that no one else in El would have this knowledge. We only know that it is almost impossible to obtain via the usual black-market, making it a very rare poison. What makes it lethal is that there is no antidote. None that anyone, anyone at all, is aware of." Brother Jonathan's eyes didn't leave her face as he explained.
Lois frowned. The information was new to her. "But my mother knew about it."
"Alice knew?" Kal queried, puzzled why Alice would know about poisons.
"No, my real mother. When I turned thirteen, Alice gave me my mother's notebook, her journal. It was full of herbal lore and other more personal stuff. There was a section on poisons, where this information was written, both about the guarded secret and the recipe for the antidote."
"How would she know?" Brother Jonathan asked.
"I don't know. The herbal lore is passed down from generation to generation. My mother copied it from her father, her father from his father, and so on. They would add their own findings to their copies as and when it was necessary. If she hadn't died, I'd have copied it from her instead of inheriting the notebook."
Kal wondered at this piece of information. He had a theory but didn't think it was the right time to share it with her, glad of her naivety in this instance.
"Is there anything else you can tell us, Brother Jonathan?" he asked the acting Patriarch who was puzzling over the information Lois had revealed.
Brother Jonathan looked at him and said softly, "These are just suspicions, but be careful of the Archbishop. I don't believe he is as innocent as he seems to be. I know that you have a long history with Archbishop William and you think of him as an adopted uncle, but given the fact that Father Andrew was killed because of his "request" to Prince Lex, and the orders given to the church knights…"
"You don't have to go on. I understand. Are you going to be safe here?"
"Don't worry about me." Brother Jonathan assured them before leaving.
Kal joined his wife as she gazed out of the tiny window. "What are you looking at?" he whispered into her ear, his arms snaked around her waist from behind and planting a kiss on her shoulder.
Lois arched her neck to allow him better access as her husband slowly trailed kisses from her earlobe to the graceful shoulder. "Hmm, nice…" After he stopped, she leaned back against him and pointed out, "I was admiring the moon. Look, it's so huge that you could almost imagine yourself being able to touch it."
"Aye, it's beautiful. Almost as beautiful as the woman in my arms," Kal whispered, his gaze never leaving her.
She glanced up at him and smiled. "Flatterer. Seriously though, Kal…"
He sighed, "Why do I have this sneaking feeling that throughout our married life, I'll be hearing that word an awful lot?"
She giggled but turned serious again. "There is a sense of peace when you look at it. As if the whole world is also watching with you and time stands still. No strife, no intrigue, no war…"
He gathered her close, tucking her head under his chin as he gazed at the half moon shining brightly, almost as brightly as a full moon. Aye, he could feel the sense of peace that Lois was referring to. It was a welcomed feeling after the events of the last few weeks. Knowing that your enemies were searching for you made it difficult to relax and let your guard down. For this one particular moment, he wanted to enjoy himself without the burden of being ever watchful.
As the candle burnt, the couple swayed softly to music only they could hear and continued to gaze out the window.
The next morning, a knock on the door awakened Kal. He gently untangled himself from Lois, who had her right arm over his chest and her right leg over his left, drew the meager blanket over her, and kissed her sleeping lips. He opened the door slightly to find a novice trying out a balancing act with the breakfast tray. "Good morn," he greeted the boy, rescuing the tray at the same time.
"G' morn," greeted the boy cheerfully, relieved to be rid of his charge. "Brother Jonathan requested t' see ye after ye 'ave broken ye fast."
"It's all right. The food can wait. Let me put this inside and we can go," Kal told him. He went back in and placed the tray on the desk before checking on Lois. Assured that she was still sleeping, he couldn't help but grin at the beautiful sight of her in his bed. He didn't think he'd ever get used to seeing her there, and wished he had more time to stay and observe her as she slept. Sighing, he dropped a kiss on her bare shoulder and left the room.
The novice led him through the monastery and up the stairs to the turret. They soon arrived at the tower door and Kal proceeded in after being given permission. He noted the spacious turret room with books and scrolls lining the shelves and the floor, and the desk as the centerpiece. Oil lamps were hung strategically along the wall, probably enough to illuminate the room at night. This was morning, however, and the sunshine pouring into the room via the open doorways leading to the walkway outside was enough to ensure a cheerful and cozy atmosphere.
Brother Jonathan watched Kal as he inspected the room. He had given much thought to what the prince and his wife had revealed the previous night, and was quite alarmed. Father Andrew's death had made him more cautious; before, he was just a simple monk who didn't really care about playing the Church's politics — he left that to Father Andrew as the head of the Order — but since taking up the mantle of Patriarch, he couldn't avoid the game. It made him realize the intricate relationship between the Church and the State, the balance of power between the two. The founders of El had tried their best not to repeat the mistake from which they had fled — the State got too much power and managed to corrupt the Church to its point of view. They had set up a check and balance system which enabled the people to enjoy a smooth system of governance.
Now, that system was in trouble, being undermined by those who were power crazy. And these same people saw Kal as a threat to achieving their goals. He, more than King Jor, represented the system because of his love and understanding for the ordinary people. Brother Jonathan wasn't trying to criticize the king. After all, King Jor had ruled wisely for the past few decades, but he didn't know his people like Kal did. He was trapped in the old traditions that he could only see the views of the nobles whereas Kal was young enough, and perhaps stubborn enough to buck tradition and work for the good of the people.
Finally Kal satisfied his curiosity and let his eyes meet Brother Jonathan's gaze. "Good morn, Brother Jonathan," he greeted him belatedly, flushing a little for the breach in protocol.
"Good morn, Your Highness. Please have a seat."
After they had seated comfortably, Brother Jonathan went straight to the point. "I wish I could let you stay on here for another day but that might alert your pursuers. While I trust most of the brothers here, I do suspect there to be some spies around. So, I've arranged for a change in transport. I've gotten hold of a more decent, well-covered cart for you and better horses too — in fact they're actually for riding, in case you need to abandon the cart in a hurry. I've also dipped into our coffers to provide you with additional funds even though I'm sure you have enough of your own. Oh yes, the princess needs to resume her cover as your sick wife."
Kal couldn't believe his ears. Brother Jonathan had come through spectacularly. "Thanks for your help, Brother Jonathan."
Brother Jonathan shook his head. "No thanks necessary. I wish I could do more, but my hands are tied. I'm sure my actions are being observed very carefully. Just be careful, Your Highness and take care of your lady wife. She seems to be a remarkable lady."
Kal grinned. "She is. I just hope that she won't let the attitude of the court get to her when we return."
"I'm sure she can hold her own against them," Brother Jonathan assured him and then leaned forward. "But tell me, what do you know about her heritage?"
Kal frowned. "Her grandmother was a gypsy who married her grandfather and settled down in Trent. Their daughter, her mother, married a younger son of a noble, though I do not know which noble family he heralded from. Neither does Lois. Her parents died when she was two. Why do you ask?"
"The information in her mother's notebook is very valuable, and many would kill to obtain it. Just as the royal family of Nor would kill to stop the knowledge from ever seeing the light of the day. I wonder if her family had any connections with Nor?"
Kal sighed. He had his suspicions too. "It might be possible, Brother Jonathan. Her mother was accused of witchcraft, but what I heard from her foster parents, there was no substantial evidence for it. The Church confiscated all her belongings, except the notebook, which she managed to entrust to Lois's foster mother. Given what we suspect of the Church's tentative connection with Nor, it might be that this alliance has been there for a long time."
Brother Jonathan nodded. He had come to the same conclusion himself. He got up and extended his hand to Kal. "Good luck, Your Highness. I wish you safe journey."
"Thank you. And all the best to you,too. Watch your back," Kal advised him.
Back in their room, Lois had awoken to an empty bed. Glancing around, she spotted the breakfast tray. It was still warm which meant that Kal hadn't been gone too long. She wondered where he had gone. Unfortunately she was unable to poke her head out and ask someone. She was, after all, supposed to be ill.
Last night's memories came back to her as she carried out her morning ablutions and dressed. She hugged herself, happiness pouring forth as the full realization that she was married to Kal in the eyes of everyone hit her. Then as happiness tapered off, doubts started to crowd her.
Aye, there wasn't any doubt about her and Kal being in love with one another. But she wondered if their impulsive marriage was the right choice. She didn't blame Kal for it -she made her own choices — but on hindsight, were they being idealistic? Were they just so swept up by emotions that they didn't really consider the consequences. These feelings for Kal were very new to her; she was in love for the first time. Could these feelings last? Could they bear the pressures that would come with the responsibilities that Brother Jonathan had warned?
True, she had answered that as long as Kal was there beside her, she could do it. But she wasn't sure whether Kal would always be there beside her. For all that he spoke of vows of love and the oneness of soul, what if it was all an illusion that he thought he had to feel after being rescued by her time and again?
"Lois, stop it!" she spoke aloud, advising herself. "Stop these doubts. Kal has never been anything but honest about his feelings. Even if he bumbled a lot. Take things as they come. You know your feelings are true. As long as he wants you there, you know you're not going to refuse. As for the future without him, well, if and when it happens, you'll cross that bridge."
She sighed. Being in love was confusing. She had always thought that being in love was supposed to be perfect, the kind of courtship exemplified by Rachel and Roberts. But no, it wasn't meant to be for her. She had to take the more difficult road; she had to fall for someone who was unsuitable for her. She knew that fate brought them together, but only so that she could help heal his wounds. To find herself building a kind of friendship with him, and later having inappropriate feelings for him, even though they were returned, wasn't part of that plan.
Getting married amidst all the intrigue and adventure wasn't part of the plan either. Lois issued out a rueful laugh. "Lois, for a control freak, you don't seem to have much control over your life, do you?"
"Why do you call yourself a control freak?"
His voice jolted her out of her musings. She hadn't been aware of the door being opened. As she looked at him, she couldn't help admiring the figure he cut even in the peasant clothes he was wearing. "Where have you been?" she asked, not bothering to answer his question.
"Brother Jonathan asked me to stop by his office. We need to leave and you need to play your part, honey."
"All right, let's have our breakfast and then we can leave. I'm hungry."
A little more than an hour later, a much more decent looking cart rolled out from the monastery doors with a lone man at the reins.
By nightfall, they had covered a fair distance. The new cart and horses were much better than the old nags that the gypsies could spare and Lois's old cart. After some discussion, they decided to camp out in the open. It was once again a clear and beautiful night. The sky was filled with twinkling stars and a bright moon. Spring was beginning to take hold, at least in this part of the country.
Lois knew there weren't many more "free" nights before they reached the Marches and so had suggested strongly that they made use of this time wisely. Even if she tried not to acknowledge it consciously, she had doubts that their marriage would last once Kal returned to the court. She doubted that she would love anyone else as much as she loved Kal, and it wouldn't be fair to marry a person she didn't love. So before they parted, she wanted to store as many memories as she could for she knew they had to last a lifetime. These few days and nights were the best chance she had to generate those memories.
They had gathered firewood and Kal had managed to trap a rabbit during their lunch break, enough to make a decent meal for the night. Kal watched his wife avidly as she emerged from the river, her undergarments plastered to her body. Against the backdrop of the bright moon, she looked so ethereal, as if she were a fairy just descended from heaven. His eyes never left hers as he silently approached her. Her hands stilled from drying her hair as she stood, transfixed. Out of the blue, she recalled a summer when she saw a weasel dancing to entrance a couple of birds and ever so slowly drawing closer to its potential victims. Now she understood what the birds might have felt as she found herself unable to look away or even move as her husband drew nearer, stalking her just as the weasel stalked the birds. Soon, they stood barely an inch from each other, neither touching, their breath mingling. Lois idly wondered if the enchantment might break and she would find herself alone in bed in her cottage.
She didn't know that she had spoken aloud until Kal answered her in an aching whisper, "You're the one who looks like a dream. If I were to touch you, would you disappear?"
The longing in his voice broke her paralysis. She locked her arms around his neck and drew him to her for an intoxicating kiss. "Have I disappeared?" she teased.
Kal's only answer was a growl before he picked her up into his arms, unmindful of her wet clothes, kissed her senseless, and gently deposited her on the makeshift bedding, never once breaking their kiss.
They were laughing at a story Lois was telling when their attention was drawn to the three knights blocking the way. Lois was grateful for the disguises they were wearing. Once again they were dressed in their gypsy garb and Kal had grown a beard and moustache. He also wore a patch over his right eye for better effect, or so he claimed. Lois just thought he was trying to make himself look like a dashing pirate. "Lois, let me handle this," Kal cautioned her. Lois gave him an imperceptible nod, knowing that she was relatively useless in this situation, and withdrew to the back of the wagon.
As they drew to a stop, one of the knights nudged his mount forward. "Whoa, there. Where are you heading?" the knight asked him.
"Luthor Castle, me Lord." He put on a thick accent and butchered his grammar in order to give the appearance of an uneducated peasant.
The knight peered into the wagon, checking. "What are you going there for?" he asked with a frown.
"Me wife 'eard there gonna be a tournament. We thought we'd peddle some of our wares 'ere."
"You do know that you need permission to conduct business in Luthor, don't you?" There was a hint in the knight's voice.
"Aye, me Lord. 'tis standard practice in most places. We came prepared." Kal jiggled his money pouch to show what he meant.
A small smile appeared on the knight's face and a greedy gleam shone in his eyes. "Oh?"
"Lola, come 'ere and brin' that jug of wine with ye."
When Lois popped her head out of the little door of the wagon, she slipped the jug and cups to Kal. The knight narrowed his eyes in appreciation of the beautiful woman. Kal noted the look but said nothing. "Here, ye graces. 'tis 'ard work guardin' the roads. Ye deserve some good wine, and nothin' beat wine from Anatusia, the wine city of El." Kal poured a cup and handed it to the knight. Pouring another cup, he took a swallow himself before grinning.
The frown on the knight eased and he sipped at the wine. "Mmm…you're right. This is a good wine," he remarked appreciatively.
"Well, then. Perhaps ye and your companions like t'ave the whole jug?" Kal offered, also discreetly indicating his purse.
The knight glanced back at the others and agreed. "Tell the guards at the gate of the castle that Sir Arnold gave you permission for entrance," he said, tossing a token at Kal.
"Thankee, me Lord." Kal scooped the token and passed Sir Arnold the jug and the pouch. "'Tis our good luck meetin' ye."
After they had passed the knights, Lois came out. "Did they suspect anything?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Explain to me again why we're heading to Luthor Castle instead of going straight to the Marches?" Lois asked.
Kal grinned. Lois had been very vocal against going to the tournament. She was afraid that the viscount and Sir Daniel might be around to identify them. "Lois, I need to talk to Lex. He needs to know the extent of the conspiracy and be introduced to his new sister-in-law. It'll only be for a little while, honey."
"I have a bad feeling about this, Kal. What if one of our enemies is around, trying to catch you in the act of contacting your brother?"
"Lois, don't worry." Kal pecked her pouting lips and continued, "No one's going to suspect us. They'll be guarding the way to the Marches right this moment, thinking that we'd head there. They won't have guessed that we'd be here at Luthor Castle instead."
"All right, we'll have to be very careful…"
Kal saw her hesitation and couldn't help but ask, "What is it, honey?"
"Are…are you sure your brother is going to accept me?" Lois studied Kal's reaction carefully.
There was a slight hesitation before he answered, "Lois, Lex may be a little arrogant and doesn't deal well with the ordinary folks, but he's not a bad person. He has always been very supportive of whatever I do, and I don't expect this time will be any different. It'll take some time for him to adjust to you, but he will." In his heart, he hoped it was true. If Lois were to ask him the same question before he left the palace, he wouldn't hesitate to answer as he had. But doubts were beginning to plague him.
"You love him very much, don't you?" Lois asked, curious at the relationship between the two brothers.
"Yes, I do. He's my twin, Lois. We've been a part of each other for longer than either of us can remember. We've shared and shared alike, never keeping any secrets from the other. That is why I want him to know of our marriage." Kal hoped he was convincing enough. There were a couple of other reasons for him to see his brother, but Lois need not know that.
Lois put her hand on his arm in a comforting gesture. "Then I hope I don't disappoint him."
"You won't." He flashed her one of those reassuring grins that made her feel that there was nothing in the world that her husband couldn't accomplish.
"After this, we're still heading to the Marches?"
"Yes, this is a detour to avoid our pursuers."
"A risky detour." She smiled to take the sting out of the rejoinder.
"But worth it."
They kept up the small talk till they nearly reached the castle gates. When Kal said castle, Lois had imagined a castle similar to the one she had lived in when Perry was still the viscount's scribe. His had been a castle with some outlying buildings for the servants' quarters, the guards' barracks, stables, armory, and other essential buildings for life within the castle walls. The castle before her, however, was nothing like what she had imagined.
This castle was a city of its own. The real castle was on top of the hill, surrounded by an inner wall. Immediately below the castle were manor houses which no doubt belonged to the various lords serving the Duke of Luthor. Then came the city proper where shops, inns and various other buildings co-existed with small houses of the townsfolk. The "castle" gates were actually the entrance to the city. She noted that the gates and wall were guarded with care and was impressed with Luthor's concern for his people that he would ensure that his protection would encompass all who lived under his "roof" so to speak.
Kal watched her reaction in amusement. There was something beautiful in the fresh way in which she looked at things. "Lex loves looking down from the top of the castle, surveying all that is his," Kal finally broke the awed silence.
Lois frowned, thinking that the prince sounded arrogant and a little power crazy, but she didn't say anything to Kal. "Tell me what he's like," she requested.
Before Kal could answer her, one of the entrance guards approached them. "Where are you folks heading?" he asked, his voice friendly though a little distanced.
"Me and me wife 'ere to do some peddling in the bazaar, kind sir. 'Tis good prospects while the tournament's on." Kal grinned at the guard.
"You need permission in order to even enter, Master…"
"Carl, sir. Me wife, Lola. We 'ave permission from Sir Arnold." Kal took out the token and handed it to the guard.
Upon hearing the name and seeing the token, the guard nodded. "Come this way, Master Carl. We'll register you and your wife, and give you the chit necessary to set up your stall."
"Thankee. Lola, take the reins." Kal handed the reins to Lois while he followed the guard to take care of the paperwork.
Soon they were inside the town and headed towards the inn which the guard recommended. At the inn, they negotiated with the innkeeper as to the price of the room and stable, before retiring to their room. Changing their dusty clothes, Kal took Lois around town. "When I was little, my parents used to bring us here for vacations. Grandfather loved to have his only grandchildren around," he reminisced.
Lois smiled at his wistful tone. He had told her how he had been stifled by the tradition that he wasn't allowed out of the palace unless to see to his duties. She couldn't understand that kind of life. Even as a child she had been given a lot of freedom of movement. To be restricted by tradition was unimaginable. To dispel the melancholy thoughts, she threaded her arm through his and began querying him on the various buildings and places.
The tournament inside the castle proper was about to start. As one of those merchants allowed to sell their wares, Lois and Kal were directed to the bailey where all the other merchants were setting up their stalls. Lois, having more experience in this, chose a discreet corner, near an entrance into the main building. They quickly arranged their wares, cloths of various textures and colors, before the crowd arrived. They had made a detour earlier to pick up some of highest quality cloths as part of their cover as cloth merchants.
As anticipated they were soon to be flooded with ladies of Luthor's court, demanding to be served. During a lull in the stream of customers, Kal slipped in to scout around. He soon returned, upset, but Lois hadn't any chance to ask him what he had found.
Back in their room at the inn, Lois finally confronted him. "All right, Kal, what's wrong?"
He sat heavily on the bed, his head bowed. "Archbishop William was there, in Lex's suite when I crept in. He was talking to Master Deter and…"
"Your brother?" Lois guessed.
"No, Lex wasn't around. He was presiding over the tournament. No, the other person is Father Tempus," Kal said, looking directly at Lois.
Lois flinched at the name. "What was he doing there?"
"Reporting to Father Bill. Lois…"
"What is it?"
"I heard what they were discussing and it wasn't pleasant." Kal grimaced. "They were discussing…"
"Kal? What is it?" She asked again.
"Father Bill was mad at Father Tempus for losing both of us, especially you."
"Me? I don't understand." Lois was perplexed. She would have thought that Kal was the target, not her.
"It seemed that Father Tempus was assigned to keep an eye on your family, on you. You weren't supposed to become a wisewoman as your mother did. You weren't supposed to know herbal lore."
"Why?" Lois's eyes narrowed. "Does this have to do with the arachid poison?"
"I don't know, but Father Tempus was chastised for letting you proceed as you did, and for losing you. They seemed to fear you helping me."
"What about my father? Did Father Tempus mention him?"
"No, Perry wasn't discussed at all."
"So now we know that the Archbishop is involved in this conspiracy. But what is this conspiracy about? If Father Tempus was assigned to keep an eye on my family, it would mean that this conspiracy has existed for quite some time. When did it start to involve your family? Why are you a target?" Lois paced around the room as she spewed forth the questions.
Kal figured it was time for him to put forth his theory on her family. "Do you think it is possible that your grandfather had been a noble from Nor?"
"Hold on, let me explain. First of all, your grandfather possessed the knowledge of the arachid poison which originated from Nor. He was also a newcomer to Trent, settling down there with your grandmother who was a gypsy. Given that most peasants cannot read nor write, your grandfather must have at least been gentry born. Now back to the poison — the fact that only the royal family knew its secrets, your grandfather must have been close enough to one of them to have figured it out."
Lois listened in amazement at Kal's theory. "But why would my grandfather leave Nor if he had been closely related to the royal family?"
"I don't know. This is purely speculation. But I would guess that the royal family of Nor sees you as a threat. As long as you were not practicing your knowledge and you're isolated from those who understood the power behind your knowledge, you were fine. But…" Kal suddenly paled as the implications of her parents' deaths sank in.
"What's wrong, Kal?" Lois asked alarmed.
He shook his head, motioning her to stay. "Do you know how long your mother practiced her craft before she was accused?"
Lois frowned, not quite understanding where this train of thought was leading. "Well, she had been practicing since she came of age. When her father died, she took over. She started having problems with the church when she and my father fell in love and married."
Kal nodded; her answer verified his fears. "I believe it was your parents' marriage that brought about their deaths."
Lois gasped, shocked at the revelation. Her tears started falling as Kal gathered her into his arms, stroking her back in comfort.
"Shh, Lois. It's all right to cry."
In reaction to the statement, she roughly wiped away her tears and looked up at her husband resolutely. "Tell me," she commanded in a quiet, controlled tone.
Kal gazed into her eyes, admiring the woman in his arms. "Your grandfather was allowed to practice his craft as long as he remained in Trent and didn't seek anyone significantly important. Your mother too, until she met your father. Didn't Perry say he was a noble? They were probably afraid of his connections at court, afraid that the secret might be revealed…"
"And so my parents' death was signed, sealed, and delivered in the guise of a witch hunt," Lois connected the dots. "So when you stumbled into my life, they panicked too. Especially considering how important you are."
"I believe so. Lois…"
"No, don't apologize. Don't say anything. Just hold me, Kal. I need you to hold me."
For the rest of the night, Kal kept his arms around her, not once letting go.
Kal once again slipped into the castle, this time with the aim to talk to Lex. He knew that Lex wouldn't be presiding that day, so he would have to be somewhere in the castle. Knowing his brother, he'd be in the tower, admiring the view.
Slipping past the guards unnoticed, he climbed up the steps. He paused behind the door to the tower room, remembering the last time he'd been here.
"Come on, Kal. What are you afraid of?" Lex challenged him.
Kal glared at his brother. "Grandpa told us not to go in there, Lex. It's dangerous."
"You're a coward. There's nothing there. Come on. The view's great. I want to take a look at what I stand to inherit." Lex pushed open the door. The small room wasn't much to look at, but the open windows allowed the occupants to see as far as the hills beyond. "Come, Kal. Look at it," Lex called out to his brother in awe as he leaned over the window. "It'll all be mine one day."
Kal never did go in, but left soon after. Rousing himself out of the flashback, he took hold of the handle and pushed the door open slowly. The door swung open to reveal a dark haired man leaning casually over the window, his arms braced against the edge.
"Beautiful, isn't it? And it's all mine, as I knew it would be." The man turned to face Kal.
Their eyes met, as they drank in the presence of the other. "Aren't you inviting me in?" Kal teased.
"If I recall correctly, I did issue the invitation a long time ago," the man replied, grinning.
As Kal stepped forward, he found himself engulfed in a tight embrace, which he returned gladly. "It's good to see you again, Lex."
Prince Lex, Duke of Luthor, released his brother and stepped back. "I can't say the same to you."
Lois was helping some of her customers when she spotted a familiar figure approaching the stall. "Oh no, what is he doing here? I hope he doesn't recognize me," she thought, trying to look inconspicuous. Like Kal, she was wearing gypsy garb, had her hair dyed red and cut short. She hoped it was enough to fool the man in front of her.
As he approached the stall with a beautiful, exotic lady beside him, all the other ladies made way for them. Lois heard some whispering that the lady was Prince Lex's chatelaine and current mistress. From where Lois stood, the lady seemed aloof and cold, even if she was beautiful. Lois wondered what men saw in her. Probably lusting after her beautiful body. "Men," she thought, disgusted.
Sneaking a look at the man escorting the lady, she breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn't recognized her. "May I 'elp ye, m'Lady?" she asked, thickening her accent so as to disguise her voice.
The lady looked at her in disdain before perusing the display of fabric. "Well, Sir Daniel? What was it that you wanted to show me?" She turned an arrogant eye on the poor knight.
"Well…well…Lady Cox," Sir Daniel fumbled under the glare. "Some of the ladies had recommended this stall for its beautiful and excellent quality cloths."
She arched an eyebrow before turning back to touch a few of the fabrics. "How much are you selling these for?" Lady Cox asked Lois, staring down her nose at her.
Lois named a sum and they started to haggle about the price. After agreeing on the price and bundling the choices Lady Cox had made, Lois stole another glance at Daniel who handed her a pouch of coins for the purchase. As they walked off, she sighed her relief that Daniel had not recognized her. She didn't want to think what would happen if he did.
She opened the pouch to count the money when a note fell from it.
"I can't say the same to you."
Kal was taken aback by the comment and the serious tone accompanying it. "Lex?" Hurt was evident in his voice.
"Do you know what you've put us through?" Lex growled, angry with his brother. "James came back and told us your "adventures." They nearly killed our parents. I had a difficult time convincing Father not to send the army after you, and Mother immediately fainted upon hearing of the attack on your life."
Kal winced, but didn't budge. "It's not my fault that I was ambushed. Lex, only three of us knew my route. I still can't understand how these men were able to find out my plans."
Lex stood back, frowning. "All right, maybe you weren't at fault. But we were very worried. When James told me about the ambush, I was shocked as well. So I began carrying out my own investigation." He looked at his twin to see if he was following him.
Kal nodded to encourage him. "I thought you might. Can we sit down though?"
"Oh, sorry. Go ahead," Lex said, sitting himself down on one of the wingback chairs. "Well, as you said, only Father, you and I knew your initial route. But it wasn't impossible that we had a spy in our midst."
"Was that the case? Did you find the spy and who he was reporting to?" Kal leaned forward, his gaze directed at Lex, making him a little uncomfortable.
Nervously Lex stared back. He didn't know how much to reveal to Kal. "No, I didn't manage to find the spy," he spoke at last. "I did find the cubby hole he used to listen to our conversations. I've some ideas who's behind it, but it's better to keep it quiet for now till we can prove it."
Kal sighed. "Come on, Lex. There's just two of us, who do you think is behind this?"
Lex got up and paced as Kal looked on patiently. "It may not be him, you know. I might be wrong."
"Lex…" There was a warning in Kal's voice.
"Oh, all right. I believe Father Bill might be involved. Are you happy? You were suspicious of him before this, after all." Lex's eyes hardened at the thought of being played the fool.
"Then why is he here?"
"How did you know he's here?" Lex looked at him sharply.
"I saw him yesterday," Kal explained.
Lex snorted at the explanation. "Don't you know the saying "keep your friends close and your enemies closer"? That's exactly what I'm doing. He's here so that I can keep an eye on him."
Though he didn't show any outward sign, Kal didn't quite believe his twin. He didn't know why since they had never kept any secrets between them. Maybe he was being too cautious but in the days following the trip to the monastery, Kal had been going over the information he had had. The connection of several suspected players with his brother was rather disturbing, prompting him to change his travel plans to include Luthor Castle along the way. He had wanted to deny his suspicions, hadn't wanted to believe that his own twin could betray him. That was the main reason he came here, to get reassurance that Lex was still trustworthy.
But given what he saw yesterday, he knew that he couldn't be sure about his twin's loyalty at this point. It was breaking his heart to suspect his brother, his closest and best friend, but all the evidence pointed to him. At last, all he said was, "I hope you know what you're doing, Lex."
"Don't worry about me, Kal. But why are you here?"
Kal leaned back, smiling a little, his eyes unreadable. "Just checking in. I can't go back to the palace, can I? Besides, I knew you were having the tournament here. I wanted you to meet my wife."
"What is this nonsense with marrying a peasant, anyway?" There was a snide tone in Lex's voice which raised Kal's hackles. "In fact, that's one of the things I wanted to bring up before we got sidetracked by the spy issue. How could you do it? What did she do to make you marry her?" Lex scolded at him, remembering the missive James had handed to King Jor.
Kal stood up slowly, anger shooting through his body. It was all he could do not to throw a right hook at his brother. "I expect you to show some respect to your sister- in-law," he said, his voice shaking slightly due to the repressed anger.
Lex hung his head. "Sorry. You know I didn't mean to insult her. I was…Kal, they saddled me with Diana instead!"
He looked so pitiful that Kal had to forgive him. "All right. I'm sorry you got short-changed. But look at it this way, you're marrying the heir to Amazon." Kal grinned.
"Hrmph. So do I get to meet my new sister-in-law?"
"Perhaps. I'll contact you again." Kal made to leave.
Kal turned to see a look of concern on his brother's face. "Lex?"
"Be careful, Kal." Lex's voice was soft, but Kal could hear the plea.
"Careful's my middle name," Kal said just as softly, touched by the apparent concern. He then turned to leave with mixed feelings about his brother.
He waited for her to finish her toiletries before scooping her up and depositing her on the bed. They snuggled together, comfortable in their silence even though Lois was bursting to tell Kal of her news. Finally Lois couldn't contain herself anymore.
"Kal, I saw Daniel today?"
"Daniel? Sir Daniel who was trying to court you?" Kal twisted his head so that he could see her face.
"Yes. Remember that he was coming here to participate in the tournament?"
Sighing, he nodded. "Did he recognize you?"
Lois hesitated long enough for Kal to pick up on it. He tightened his arms around her. "Did he?"
"At first I thought that he didn't." She then told him of the incident with Lady Cox and Sir Daniel and finally came to the part of the note. "That's when I realized that he recognized me."
"What did the note say?"
Lois squirmed out of his embrace and went to retrieve the note. "Here, it's addressed to both of us."
Kal looked at her, reaching for the note. He slowly unfolded it and scanned its content. Finally he raised his eyes to meet Lois's clear gaze. "Why is he doing this?" He was definitely perplexed.
Lois sat down beside him, her hand on his as she gazed at the note. She remembered the little bully who terrorized her childhood. She also remembered the same bully defending her against the taunting of the other children about her heritage. Daniel was a longtime friend, whether she really liked him or not. They grew up together. "I believe he's trying to help us out."
Kal didn't look as if he believed that reasoning. "Kal, what's there to lose?"
"This could be a set up, Lois. He could be arranging for an ambush."
"Not possible. Kal, if he wanted to hurt either of us, he could've blown the whistle on us. Tempus is around after all, and I'm wanted by the Church on account of murder and witchcraft."
"You trust him?" Kal asked, disbelief apparent in his voice. "You didn't act as if you liked him."
"This has nothing to do with liking. I guess, like you and Lex, Daniel and I shared a childhood experience which bonded us."
At the mention of Lex, Kal flinched. Lois noticed it and looked up at his face in query. "Kal? What's wrong?"
It was his turn to stand up. He did more than stand up, he paced. Lois grew alarmed at his behavior. "What's wrong?" she repeated.
"It's Lex. I'm not sure I can trust him, Lois."
Lois couldn't bear to see the pain in his eyes. She got up and put her arms around him. "Kal, it's going to be all right."
Kal's arms snaked around her waist as he pulled her close and rested his chin on her head. Looking out of the window unseeing, he whispered, "Are you sure? He's my only brother, my twin. And here I am, doubting him. But what else can I do when everything points to him?" The heartbreak was apparent in his voice.
Lois tightened her hold and whispered into his shoulder in an effort to comfort him, "Kal, evidence is good and well, but it can sometimes be misleading. He might not be involved."
"But you don't think so, do you?"
She closed her eyes, not knowing what to say. Should she lie and so comfort him, or should she tell the truth even if it hurt? In the end, she knew she had to tell the truth. He would expect it of her. "No, I don't think so," she answered quietly.
"We're in danger, then. Oh God, Lois, I should not have brought you here," Kal groaned.
"Kal, you do what you must. I don't think that we're in any more danger than we were previously. Did you meet him today?" She looked up at him.
Kal nodded. "There was no overtly suspicious behavior. Just that when I asked him why Father Bill was around he gave me some unconvincing answer of wanting to keep an eye on him."
"It could be true," Lois suggested.
"Father Bill's been given too much freedom for Lex to believably keep an eye on him," Kal said, a little bitter.
"Perhaps Lex is giving him as much rope as possible to hang himself?"
Kal looked at Lois. "You think?" he finally asked, wanting so much to believe.
"I don't know, Kal. But it is a possibility," she answered him honestly.
He sighed, before kissing her softly. "All right, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. But I think we should take precaution anyway."
"Wise move, sweetheart. Now about Daniel, shall we go and meet him?"
Kal pretended to consider until Lois poked him in the ribs. "Ouch! All right, all right, you don't have to get physical…on the other hand…" he leered at her.
Lois laughed, "Come on, we'll be late."
They entered the tavern cautiously, their gypsy guise intact. As a precaution, they had brought all their important belongings with them. Clothes and other bulky stuff were not important. Kal scanned the area, noting that most of the people were locals. There were a few guards sitting in a corner, already quite drunk and singing loudly. Kal dismissed them since he was sure that they weren't spies. Glancing at his wife, he realized that Lois was staring at a nearby table, where a bearded gypsy sat, nursing his mug of ale. Upon closer look, Kal recognized Daniel under the disguise.
"Yo, Lola," Daniel stood up and beckoned them.
Lois grinned. "That's Daniel, all right," she whispered to Kal. "Dino!" She shrieked and hugged him as if she hadn't seen him in a long time.
Kal raised an eyebrow at her actions, but followed her anyway. "Hey, Dino," he greeted him.
"Carl," Daniel pumped his hand once. "Sit, sit. Katie, darlin", a couple of ale for me cousins, will ye?"
Kal pulled out a stool, resisting the urge to help Lois with hers. To make things look normal, they started up some inane conversation about some fictitious relatives till Katie brought over their ale. Then under the cover of the buzzing conversation around them, they dove into the reason they were there. "Daniel, why did you invite us over?" Lois started, her voice barely above a whisper.
"Hmm…don't you know that there is a manhunt for you? And that Father Tempus is here?" Daniel scowled at her. He had been worried when he first recognized her. He then turned to Kal. "Why did you bring her here? This is a dangerous place for her. I thought you were supposed to be with Chief Hawkin."
Kal was about to say something when Lois interjected. From the look of him, she realized that Kal was feeling guilty again. "We were with the chief, but we parted ways. K…Clark and I needed to come here for some information. We had no idea that Father Tempus was here."
Daniel sighed. "Perry told me what really happened and I promised him to keep an eye on the *good* father." The sarcasm couldn't be mistaken. "Apparently, the Church is after you for something, and it's not for the killing of the Church Knight."
"We know, and we managed to figure out what it is they're looking for," Kal told him quietly.
"Where do you come into the picture, Clark?" Daniel asked. There was something akin to jealousy in his voice. He had asked Perry why he had let Lois go with a stranger. All Perry told him was that he trusted Sir Clark. That wasn't enough for Daniel, but Perry refused to go into details.
Kal looked at Lois. Seeing the consent in her eyes, he finally met Daniel's penetrating gaze. "I'm her husband. We were officially married less than a fortnight ago."
Daniel was taken aback. To help himself recover, he took a draught of his ale. Lois took pity on him. While she didn't like him very much, she still felt some loyalty to him as she knew he felt the same. "Daniel," she said, lowering her voice, "I know my mother tried to match-make us, but it wasn't meant to be. However, we share a past that binds us together. K…Clark, he's the one for me, please understand."
Daniel closed his eyes when he heard the pleading in her voice. Lois had always been proud; to plead must be costing her a lot. "I know. I guess I wasn't being realistic, was I?" He smiled at her, and then soberly turned to address Kal, "If you hurt her, you'll answer to me."
Kal nodded. "You don't have to worry about that. That's the last thing I would do."
Daniel leaned back, assured that Kal was serious. "You can't stay in town much longer. Father Tempus will recognize you even in that disguise, Lois. Whatever they're looking for, don't let them get a hold of it," he advised. "If you have everything important with you now, I strongly recommend not to go back to your room at the inn. I overheard some church guards discussing about a mission in town. While they might have meant something else, there's no harm in being cautious."
"We've got all that we need with us," Lois assured him.
Kal looked at Sir Daniel with new eyes. First time he met him, he had thought him to be snobbish and quite foppish, as well. He narrowed his eyes. "Tell me, Sir Daniel, do you often try to create the impression of a dandy?"
Lois turned to Kal, shocked. It was not like him to be rude. But Daniel didn't seem to take offense. Instead he smiled. "Sir Clark, you've got keen sense of observation. Yes, I do try to cultivate that impression."
"Why?" Kal asked, curious.
"A spy has to survive. No one takes a dandy seriously," Daniel explained.
"A spy?" It was Lois's turn to ask.
"Yes, Lois. A spy. As for my employer, well, let's just say he's been very helpful in providing fresh mounts and provisions for you just outside of town. He's arranged for someone to meet us there. We'd better get going."
He was about to stand when Kal reached out to grip his hand. "How do we know this isn't a trap?"
Daniel looked at him and then Lois before turning back to him. "You don't. But you trusted me enough to come here, didn't you?"
Lois put her hand over Kal's. "Kal?"
He finally relaxed his hold. "All right. Come on."
The three soon made their way out of the tavern and into the streets. Daniel led them through a couple of back alleys till they came to a concealed side entrance of the main wall. There weren't any guards, but Daniel didn't seem bothered by the fact. Opening the gate, he motioned them through. After stepping through himself, he locked the gate and pocketed the key. "This way," he quietly informed them.
Silence prevailed as they walked a little way into the woods. Before long, they saw a light flickering in a distance. "There, there he is," Daniel exclaimed softly, hurrying them toward the light. However, before they reached the glade where the light was, pandemonium broke out.
One minute, they were making their way quietly to the glade and the next, Lois was separated from Kal as horsemen raced past them, one of them picking her up and pulling her onto his horse. She tried to struggle, but was pinned by strong arms. All around her chaos reigned; horses neighed, swords clashed and shouts abound. An arrow whizzed past her captor's horse, startling the poor beast into plunging ahead. Her captor tried to regain control but wasn't successful with only one hand. Letting her go for a moment, he took hold of the reins with both hands, pulling his mount to a stop. Lois used the momentary freedom to slip out of his "embrace" and fall to the ground, rolling in order to minimize the impact. The knight cursed and tried to grab her, but she quickly recovered, dodged his grasping hands, and ran into the bramble where she knew he wouldn't be able to follow.
Kal almost panicked when he saw Lois plucked away by one of the horsemen. He unsuccessfully lunged after her before being blocked by another horse. Steel flashed before his eyes. Time slowed down in his mind as he watched the sword swinging its way down to meet his body. A part of him knew there wasn't enough time for him to stop the blade even if he had his sword with him. "Lois, forgive me," he called out to her silently, bravely facing his death. But the blow never came. Instead his ears were almost deafened by the ringing sound of metal clashing.
"What are you doing?" Daniel hissed at him when he had finished off his opponent. "Here," he passed the abandoned sword to Kal. "Do you know how to use it?" The sarcasm in his voice was apparent.
Kal ignored his comments and took the proffered sword. Soon, neither of them had much energy to spare in idle talk as their enemies pressed them into a corner. Fighting back to back, they fended off the thrusting swords and dodged the flaying hoofs. The situation looked grim; there were too many attackers and only two of them but neither thought to put down their weapons and surrender. That word wasn't part of either's vocabulary.
Suddenly, Kal heard 'twang" and the man fighting him toppled over, dead. The others started dropping like flies. Before he could react, a horn sounded signaling their attackers to disappear like the evening mist. Kal and Daniel exchanged looks, not understanding who had come to their rescue. Then their eyes were blinded by sudden light.
Kal realized that a lantern had been lit, bathing its owner's face with its warm glow. "Bard Roberts?" Kal was surprised at the presence of a man he had met only once, at the marketplace in Trent. Why was he here? What made him rescue them?
"I'm sorry for the trouble, Your Highness," Roberts answered. "We didn't anticipate the ambush."
"Highness? What are you talking about? What's going on here?" Daniel blustered.
Kal's thoughts were wheeling, there were too many questions, but the most important one was Lois's safety. "Did you see Lois? Where is she? One of the men took her away. She's in danger! We've got to…"
"It's all right. Here I am," Lois emerged from the darkness, her clothes torn and bloody. She hurled herself into Kal's welcoming arms. "Oh, Kal. I thought you had died. I heard people shouting. I tried to get away but the man's grip was too powerful. I'm sorry. Are you all right? You're not hurt, are you?" She checked his torso for wounds, finding only minor cuts. "I'm so glad you're all right. I saw arrows flying around, one nearly hitting the horse carrying me. Boy, was I glad it startled the poor thing, since his rider loosened his grip on me and I managed to get away." She continued to babble. "Don't worry, none of the blood is mine, well only a little. I hid in the brambles until Roberts came and got me."
Kal listened to her, amused. He knew that it was the adrenalin talking. Like her, he was more than glad to be able to put his arms around her. He didn't want to think what would have happened if she hadn't managed to get away and Daniel hadn't saved him. Hugging her as if he couldn't bear to let go, he soothed her agitated nerves. "It's all right, sweetheart. Everything is fine, thanks to our friends."
Finally Lois calmed down enough, and Kal reluctantly released her, still maintaining one arm about her waist. He then turned to Daniel, Roberts, and his men, those who weren't busy taking care of the bodies. "Someone want to explain to me what happened?"
"Your Highness, if I may?" Bard Roberts stepped forward. When Kal gave his consent, he started his explanations, "As per tradition, the tournament always coincides with the bardic contest where bards from all over El converge here. As the Head of the local Bardic Guild, I usually play host to my counterparts." He indicated the men behind him. "Tonight I received an anonymous note saying that our help is needed to rescue you and your wife, sire. We dared not dismiss the idea since there were rumors that you were actually traveling incognito. I only wished we had managed to arrive earlier."
"So you have no idea who might have sent the note?" Lois asked.
"No. Not a clue." Roberts shook his head.
"You're Prince Kal?" Daniel then asked Kal, stumped. He hadn't even considered that possibility; for a spy, he was definitely losing his edge. "How could I have missed all the clues?"
"If the note didn't mention that it was Prince Kal who needed rescuing, I wouldn't have known either," Roberts admitted sheepishly. "We met a little more than a month ago at the market in Trent and I hadn't a clue as to who you were, sire."
"That's the way it should be. Thank you, gentlemen, for coming to our rescue."
"Who would be attacking you, Your Highness?" asked one of the bards. "Perhaps we should escort you to your next destination."
"What is your name, my good man?" Kal addressed him.
"Bard Carter, thank you for the offer, but it is safer that my wife and I travel on alone. The more people with us, the easier target we become. As for who is doing the attacking, perhaps Sir Daniel can shed some light?"
Daniel looked at his boots and mumbled, "Believe me, I didn't know anything about the attack, Your Highness. I wouldn't put Lois's life in danger."
"Kal knows that, Daniel," Lois assured him.
"Yes, and you wouldn't have saved my life just now either if you had planned the attack," Kal agreed. "But still, someone must have organized the ambush."
"Who is this mysterious employer you were mentioning? Could he have done it?" Lois asked Daniel.
Daniel frowned, shaking his head. "It isn't possible. He wouldn't do that." He looked at Kal, catching his attention. "Prince Lex would never betray you, sire. In fact, he didn't know you were here. I approached him about Lois…"
He struggled to explain how Perry had approached him to set up an audience with Prince Lex, and how he was there when Perry presented Lois's case to the Duke of Luthor, asking him for help against Father Tempus and the Church. "His Grace had pledged to do what he could to ensure the truth would come to light. After he conferred with me, we decided it was best to invite the Church to have its annual conference at the same time as the tournament. We would then be able to keep an eye on the main players in the Church Hierarchy. When I spotted you yesterday, Lois, I approached Prince Lex for help to get you out before Father Tempus recognized you. That was why he sent Lady Cox with me as part of the cover this morning."
No one disputed him, but the silence was deafening. At last Kal cleared his throat. "Lex is Squire White's liege lord. It is right for him to extend his protection to Perry. Right now, we cannot stay here. They may come after us. Thank you all for your help. My wife and I would have been killed if not for you."
"But, Your Highness, where will you go next?" Roberts asked.
"Our original destination," Lois answered, after glancing at her husband. "Bard Roberts, will you tell my father, Rachel, and Lana that I miss them?"
"Of course," Roberts agreed.
They took their leave from Daniel, gathering the horses and provisions laid out in the glade. Daniel was reluctant to let them go by themselves, but Kal and Lois managed to convince him that he would serve them best if he stayed behind to keep an eye on Father Tempus and the Church at large.
They rode hard that night and throughout the next day in order to put much needed distance between them and their pursuers which Kal was sure there would be some. Lois reasoned out that was why they weren't heading to the Marches. Unfortunately she didn't dare to confirm it with Kal since he had fallen to a tension-filled silence, a dark mood that she found difficult to decipher. Instead, she kept up with him as he guided their journey onto a route only he knew. It was a novelty for Lois to follow without questioning. Even as a child she had trouble following "orders" without wanting to understand the reason behind the given instructions. Perhaps it wasn't that much different now since she was still curious. The main difference was that she had the guts to ask when she was younger.
On the third evening, just before sunset, they halted their horses, admiring the beautiful, awe-inspiring view of the mountain range. As darkness crept up the horizon, the sun made its last stand, bathing the mountains in fiery red glow, as if the whole range was on fire. Soon the sun slipped away, over the other side of the range, leaving the two puny, insignificant mortals in the darkening shadow of the mountains.
With the ease of practice, they managed to set up their campsite within minutes. Silence pervaded their dinner, leaving Lois feeling uncomfortable as did the other two dinners before this. She wished that Kal would share his thoughts with her, but she didn't quite know how to broach the subject.
While she was coming up with strategies to get her husband to open up, Kal had been glancing at her from time to time. Over the last few days, he had been wallowing in guilt. Lois had nearly been kidnapped because of him. The Church knights killed Alice because they were actually searching for him when she encountered them. Because of that, Lois was forced to leave her home and journey all over El with him, putting up with all kinds of weather and living conditions. And in the next few days, it would only get worse for her. The path they would be taking would test even the most season of travelers, how could he make her go through it? But he couldn't leave her behind either. Where would she go? They could have gone to the Marches and crossed the border into Nor there, but he was sure that their enemies would be waiting for them along the route to the Marches. After all, Marches was in his original plan. So he had decided to cross into Nor via a less known and more dangerous route. Now that the route was nearly upon them, he wondered if he was making the right decision.
"Kal?" Lois finally broke the silence. She couldn't stand not knowing what was in Kal's mind. "Will you talk to me? Please? You're scaring me with your silence."
Kal winced at her tone. It only made him feel guiltier. "I'm sorry to put you through this, Lois. If only you hadn't met me, your life would have been less complicated…"
"Don't say that, Kal. Don't blame yourself. Not for this, not for our relationship," she admonished.
"I'm not apologizing for our relationship but the things you've had to endure because of it. Lois, the next few days are going to be even worse. We would be going over the mountains, along a treacherous path, and into enemy territory. I can't guarantee your safety, sweetheart," Kal confessed desperately.
"Oh, Kal…" Lois sighed, pulling him into her arms. "You're my husband. Don't you know that I would follow you anywhere, even to hell if that is where you're going. We're a team, and together we can overcome the obstacles in our path. This, I believe with all my heart."
"Lois…" Gazing into her eyes, he thanked his lucky stars for sending her his way. She saved him time and time again, coming to rescue even now. No words were needed as the two lovers renewed the bonds that held them together from the very first time their eyes met.
Some time later, they laid on the makeshift bed together, enjoying the now peaceful silence. Kal propped his head on his palm, and with his free hand, played with his wife's short, but still silky soft hair. "Tell me something about your childhood." His voice soft, filled with curiosity.
Lois turned her head to look at him. "What do you want to know?"
He considered before saying, "An important event. Something that you think shaped your life as it is."
"Hmm…you're not asking for much, are you?" she teased.
Grinning, he answered her tenderly, "Well, I'd like to know what made you into the woman I love."
Touched, her eyes watered at the statement. Cradling his face and caressing his lips, she nodded. Softly she spoke of her twelfth birthday when she first found a baby squirrel almost dying of hunger. "I ran up to Mother, asking her what to do," she said. And Alice had helped. In the next two months, the young Lois had a "hospital" full of injured animals needing her care, and her career path was found. She was interested in the healing arts, reading as much as she could on herbal lore and other ways of medicine. She started pestering Master Klein, the long time physician of the viscount to teach her about healing.
"What sealed my fate was a little book my mother gave me." She recalled the day when Alice sat her down after one of her "patients" died and she had been very upset. They had a long talk about life and death before Alice suddenly got up and ruffled through a chest, finally producing a small, leather bound book. Lois remembered the emotions that ran through her when she heard the story of her real mother. She had always known that the Whites weren't her real parents, but that was the first time she had heard about her mother.
"My mother had secretly kept the journal in a cave where she and Alice used to play. Her last words to Alice were for her to retrieve the journal after her death and to keep it safe for me. That journal opened a whole new world for me…it made me aware of my heritage as a healer…it set me on the path which led me to you," she ended quietly as she gazed into his eyes, willing him to understand.
"You're an amazing woman. I cannot but be thankful to all who have shaped your life before us." Kal couldn't resist lowering his head to hers and starting them on another round of lovemaking.
It was brutal. Lois found it difficult to believe that such a beautiful mountain range could make her life a living hell. The path Kal had mentioned was not the path Lois had imagined. In fact there wasn't a path, just a barely broken trail infrequently used by daring, desperate souls. The description about desperate souls fit them to a "t." Even though she was familiar with the outdoors, it didn't prepare her for the rugged terrain. Her feet blistered, her body riddled with scratches from the sharp rocks jutting out of the narrow passage. They couldn't ride, not if they wanted to avoid creating an avalanche. Instead they led the horses slowly and gently down the path.
At night, there wasn't enough wood to make fire. Bundling in their thickest woolen clothing, they huddled close to conserve heat. Lois was glad for the horses then, as their proximity helped generate more heat. Still for all the hardship, when Kal asked her the first night whether she regretted it, she sincerely denied having any. No, she would go through hell and back with Kal, and still she wouldn't regret it.
They also discussed the reason they had to travel to the capital of Nor, Lois being the reluctant one. "Why?" she asked Kal. "Why are we trying to find out about my grandfather?"
"Don't you want to know why he left Nor? Aren't you curious about your heritage?"
"No, not particularly," she replied.
"Lois, there are people back there who tried to kidnap you because of your heritage. Don't you think we should find out exactly why your heritage is of such interest to them?" Kal didn't understand why she would be so unconcerned.
"I'm not sure that knowing would help. Wouldn't it be better if we try to find out why they're trying to kill you instead?"
"I'm pursuing this because I believe there is a connection. We need to find out the link between the Church and Nor, and your family seems to be tied up with it somehow. Since I doubt we can find out anything from the Church, we need to go to Nor."
Lois didn't argue; she knew that Kal wouldn't be put off from his quest. Besides, there was this little part of her that was curious about her heritage even though she tried to squash it. It was a little disturbing to think that her grandfather might have been a noble of Nor.
Nor wasn't too much different from El, at least not its countryside. The people were friendly but a little wary of strangers, much like the country folks of El. Lois had always thought of Nor as the enemy and by association its people. They were nameless and faceless, to be hated just because they were the enemies. After all, El was invaded time and time again by Nor until her father's time. Only the past two generations had seen a relative, uneasy peace with their traditional enemy.
Yet, here she was, sitting down to a hearty breakfast provided by her hosts, an elderly farmer and his wife. Kal and Lois had stopped by their farm to purchase some provisions last evening when the good farmer's mare had a breached birth. Lois ended up helping the farmer save both the mother and the colt. By that time, it was nearly dawn and so the farmer invited them to stay the night.
So here they were, having a great meal and being regaled with stories by their hosts. "How do you reconcile smiling, friendly faces with the image of terror being ingrained in you since youth?" Lois wondered silently as she listened to a cute story about a piglet adopted by the farmer's sheep dog. "Were my parents wrong to have told me those horror stories about Nordic invasions of El? Did they mean to demonize the people of Nor? No, I can't believe that of my parents. But their perceptions could be colored by their parents' experiences. But does it make it right for us to demonize our enemies? These people who have given us shelter are no more, and no less, human than the people of El. They lived and toiled the land just like Farmer Wayne did. Is it their fault that their rulers wished to invade El? Just like is it Farmer Wayne's fault if King Jor decided to attack Nor?"
Question after question popped in her head, ensuring her silence during the breakfast. She didn't voice them to Kal for she knew it was an issue for her to grapple with alone. What if it turned out that her grandfather had truly been a nobleman of Nor. Wouldn't that mean she too was an enemy of El? But was she truly? "Of course not," admonished her sensible side.
"So how could I have thought these good people as enemies?"
"Perhaps that's because you're not supposed to. A lesson to be learned…"
Lois sighed; her conscience was right. It was time she learned a very important lesson; your enemy are human too.
"You've been very quiet. Are you feeling all right?" Kal asked his wife, concern showing on his face.
"Hmm…" Lois tried to drag her mind from her contemplation.
"Lois? What's on your mind? You seem rather distracted since we left the farm," Kal told her.
"I…I was just thinking, Kal."
"What were you thinking? Do I want to know?" he half-teased and was happy to be rewarded by a tiny smile.
"Come on. Do tell."
"What do you think of the people of Nor?"
Kal looked perplexed. He hadn't expected the question. "Why do you ask?"
"Well…I've always thought of them as the "enemy" without really knowing what the word means. All the negative feelings that you attached to the word applied in this case. Until recently I have never thought of them as individuals or families with ordinary lives just as any of the people I know. Until last night, I never even considered ever liking them."
"But last night, I was helping out Master Gar and I was touched by the concern he had for his mare and her colt. I like him and his family. I find it hard to reconcile that fact with the image of the "enemy" I've imposed on these people."
Kal smiled gently at his wife, not for the first time admiring the way she managed to direct him to look at the larger picture. "Lois, you are precious," he said, hugging her as best he could with both of them riding. "Now, we'd better make a move if we want to reach the capital by nightfall."
Riding hard, they did reach the capital city of Nor by nightfall and got a room in one of the better inns. Earlier Lois had asked their plan of action, but Kal couldn't really answer her. He had a contact here in Nor but he wasn't sure the person would be useful in tracing her grandfather's history. What he needed would be someone who had been around when Lois's grandfather was in Nor. At least his contact was a starting point in this strange place. They were in enemy territory; while they weren't expected to be there, it was prudent to stay low.
"So we're meeting your contact here?" Lois asked him softly as they made their way up the stairs to the imposing mansion. They had earlier assumed the identity of Sir Caleb and Lady Lucy of Ra, a northern province of Nor. Kal's contact, Major Ching, had managed to get him invited to Lord Trey's party. The good major had found out that Lord Trey was one of the few living lords who had served at court during the period Lois's grandfather could have been there. He was willing to help introduce the couple to Lord Trey, assuring them that the old lord was a trustworthy man.
"Yes, don't worry. Ching's an honorable man," Kal reassured her.
Her eyebrow lifted as she remarked, "An honorable spy. Isn't that a contradiction of terms?"
Kal grinned. "Ching's not your usual operative."
"Ching's mother was my father's cousin who was kidnapped by the current king, King Gar, during the war with Nor and forced to be his concubine. He saw his mother killed when she tried to escape with him over the border. Since then, he hated his mother's murderer."
"His own father?"
"No, his real father was a knight of Kent. His mother was kidnapped shortly after their marriage. Of course Gar never knew about it. He thought that Ching was his son, which was why he got angry when Ching's mother tried to escape with him."
"Does Ching know about this?"
"It's the reason why he is willing to spy for El."
Lois would have continued the conversation if a dark stranger hadn't appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Studying him carefully, she noticed the slight resemblance between her husband and this stranger.
"Kal, you made it," the stranger greeted with a small smile. "I was afraid that you might have gotten lost."
"One thing was sure," Lois thought, "he rarely smiles."
"Well met, Ching. It has been a while. Darling, this is Major Ching. Ching, my wife Lois," Kal made the introductions.
"A pleasure, my Lady," Major Ching said as he bowed and kissed her hand. "Congratulations on your recent marriage."
"Thank you, Major," Lois said simply. There was something about the man that tugged at her heart. He was a solemn man, quite serious and the military bearing was very discernable. There was also an air of quiet sadness about him. She wondered if it had anything to do with the tragic death of his mother.
"Come, let us go in. The weather here in the capital isn't as pleasant as in Ra," Major Ching urged them. After having been announced at the door by the majordomo, Ching led them straight to their host. "My Lord Trey," he greeted the old man.
His lordship turned and a genuine smile graced his face when he saw the person greeting him. "Major, I'm glad you could make it for my party."
Ching just smiled and then presented his guests to Lord Trey. "My Lord, I'd like to present an old friend and his wife to you. This is Sir Caleb and his wife Lady Lucy of Ra. They came into town recently as part of their honeymoon. Being an old friend, I volunteered to guide them around the murky waters of the court. Caleb, Lucy, Lord Trey is one of King Gar's most valued advisors. He used to advise His Majesty's father, King Dor, during his reign as well."
"Ra?" Lord Trey queried. "You're a long way from home, Sir Caleb, Lady Lucy."
"Aye, my Lord. We are, but I felt the need to educate my wife about the intricacies of the court," Kal answered.
Lord Trey didn't blink an eye at the statement but studied Lois more closely. "My dear, you look a lot like someone I used to know. Have you any family from around here?"
"No, my Lord. Actually, I'm not even noble born. My family comes from the gypsy stock. I'm amazed that my husband could fall in love and is willing to marry me," Lois said, giving her husband a sincere look of amazement.
Kal smiled as his face softened at her words. But before he could refute her statement, Lord Trey spoke up, "Nonsense, my dear. Love doesn't recognize the difference in status, not at all. The friend I mentioned was a high ranking official at court and was as close to royalty as one can be without being part of the royal family. Yet, he fell in love with a gypsy, and against all odds married her, abandoning all the trappings of riches that he was used to. I'm sure your husband would willingly do the same for you. That's what makes love so powerful." There was a wistful air to his musings, which Lois detected, but he recovered graciously and smiled at them, "Don't mind the musings of an old man. Please, mingle around. Ching knows most of the people here." He then turned to greet some other guests and left them on their own.
Ching presented them to various other people, all remarking how far they had traveled to the capital. The distance between Ra and the capital was one of the reasons Kal had chosen the remote province. It was unlikely that anyone would be able to know that they weren't native to Ra. Kal watched as Lois interacted with the nobles, much at ease with the various topics at hand. She was a natural, fitting perfectly in the setting. He knew without a doubt that she would fit just as well at El's court. The only hurdle he had to face was to convince her of it.
While watching her, he also thought back to what Lord Trey had revealed. The story of his friend seemed remarkably close to that of Lois's grandfather. However they speculated that her grandfather had left because of other reasons, not because of his marriage. Could their speculations be wrong? Could the reason be so simple? He wondered who this friend of Lord Trey was. How was he related to the royal family of Nor?
"You seemed to be lost in thought, Sir Caleb?" Lord Trey appeared beside him, looking in the direction where he was staring. "If she hadn't told me, I would have suspected your wife to be noble born. She is a natural."
"Aye, she is. My Lord, may I speak to you frankly?"
"Part of the reason why we're here is to find out her roots. You see, her grandfather wasn't a gypsy. He had married her grandmother, a gypsy, and adopted their clan as his own. She had been unwilling to marry me because of what she perceived as class difference between us. I'm here to find out about her grandfather so that she'd be assured that she does belong by my side," Kal explained, hoping that he hadn't overplayed his hand and exposed both Lois and himself as the enemy.
Lord Trey observed Lois silently for a long while, before breaking the silence, "And you think that my friend might just be her grandfather?"
"I don't know, my Lord. But her grandfather was active at King Dor's court. All we knew was that he was a healer by profession, for that was his legacy to his daughter and granddaughter."
Trey's eyes widened and he bit his lips. "Aye, that does sound like my friend. Do you really want to know about him?"
"Yes," was the resolute answer.
"Very well, then. This is not the place to discuss such things though. Come by tomorrow and we can have lunch together." Trey melted quietly away into the crowd.
In their room in the inn, Lois sat down, thinking about the invitation. Kal had informed her before leaving with Ching to discuss matters pertaining to state secrets. It looked as if her fears that her grandfather was one of the enemies were true. It sounded as if he wasn't just a peasant from Nor either. If he was a friend of Lord Trey, he must have been from one of the noble Houses of Nor.
She wanted to know more about this man who married a gypsy and left his life of luxury for her. Lois wanted to know if he ever regretted his choice, if he had been happy. From what the people of Trent had to say, her grandparents were a loving couple. But that could be an illusion. She hoped that it was true, for it gave her hope that her marriage to Kal could also last.
While waiting for Kal, she found herself dozing off.
The next day found them arriving once again at the doorsteps of Lord Trey's mansion. Ching had obligingly followed them. Lois had liked the major instantly, and after getting to know him better last night, had invited him to come with them for the lunch. Kal had been amused at the instant bond his wife had with his cousin.
"Ah, there you are," Trey said when his majordomo led them into the study. "Did you enjoy yourself last night, my dear?" he asked Lois.
Lois blushed slightly. "Aye, my Lord."
"Good. You're well suited for it. Now, come, let us partake our lunch and then we can get down to business."
The lunch went smoothly by as they chatted about various topics. One of the main topics was the imminent war with El. Trey voiced his regrets that King Gar hadn't heeded his advisors' words by pursuing this plan of action. "I can't imagine why His Majesty is committed to this war. It isn't beneficial to Nor at all. In fact, it is going to be a drain on our resources. I'm not sure who the king is going to put on the throne of El, but I'm sure the person isn't going to want to be Nor's puppet."
Ching and Kal exchanged looks, but kept their peace. Soon lunch was over and Trey had led them out into the garden. Making themselves comfortable in the gazebo, they waited for him to begin his story…
Lars was a scion of the House of Zen, one of the two premier Houses in Nor, the other being the House of Thor. Both these Houses had been traditional allies, and at the same time, competitors for the throne of Nor. As fortune would have it, the current House on the throne was the House of Thor, and the House of Zen had fallen on hard times. While it was still a powerful House, there were many other Houses vying for the power which it traditionally wielded. All the hopes of Zen rested upon Lars, the last and only male heir, to ensure the House would live on, and one day, be restored to the throne.
Zen was a valuable ally of Thor, and the children of both Houses grew up together. Lars and his sister were firm friends with then Prince Dor and his siblings. It wasn't surprising then when the betrothal of Prince Dor and Lady Dia was announced. It helped cement the alliance between the two Houses and paved the way for the future. One such future was the marriage between Lord Lars and Princess Vera. Or so their parents hoped.
However, Lars hadn't the temperament for politics. He was a simple man, better suited to the pursuit of learning. Since young, he had the appetite for books and adventures. He would seek out various teachers to help him in his quest for knowledge. One of the fields he was particularly fascinated with was the art of healing, an interest inherited from his father. In time he became renowned for his skills and was appointed Chief Healer to the royal family. That was how he met Trey, who at the time was a page at court. He had taken young Trey under his wings and taught him the skills to survive at court. While Lars didn't have the patience for court intrigue, by virtue of his birth, he was well equipped to navigate the dangerous waters. And he had helped Trey to do so as well.
It was a few years later, when Trey had been chosen as Dor's squire, that Lars stumbled upon something that changed his life totally. He had been pressured by his parents to ask for Vera's hand in marriage. As per his usual practice, he escaped the insistent nagging by going on an expedition, an expedition to the remote jungles of Ra. There, he found an extremely rare plant, called the arachid plant. Unknowingly, he poisoned himself and would have died if not for Reba, one of the gypsies accompanying him. She managed to find the antidote to the poison and administer it to Lars as quickly as she could. It wasn't surprising that they fell in love during his convalescence.
Their romance met with fierce objections from both the House of Zen and the royal family. Oddly enough, the only one who didn't object was Princess Vera, who was secretly in love with another man. However as the only daughter of the House, it fell on her to marry as her father bade her. She approached Lars quietly on this matter, hoping that he would find a way to solve both their problems. Lars agreed for he loved her as he would a sister and had no wish to see her sad.
So he chanced upon a scheme to allow her suitor to win her hand in marriage and absolve him of any further duties to the royal family and his own House. He would teach her suitor all that he knew and then make a trade with the royal family for protection on his House. By this time, he had learned the secrets of the arachid plant and understood its full potential. He taught all its secrets, but one, to his apprentice, and then approached Prince Dor. To his old friend and brother-in-law, he mapped out the deal. For the secrets of the arachid plant, Princess Vera was free to marry his apprentice, who had been adopted into the House of Zen. Royal protection over the House of Zen and his descendents was another condition added, and lastly, his freedom to marry and settle where he wished. After hammering out the details of the deal, Lars had left town with Reba and her clan, never to be heard of again.
"That young apprentice was me," Trey finished his story. "I owed my position and my happiness to Lars. Vera and I had a great many years together before her death a few years ago, and our sons and daughters currently populate the House of Zen."
He looked at Lois, his eyes softening. "You have his eyes, and from what I observed last night, his way with people. My dear, you're a scion of the House of Zen. Of that, there isn't any doubt. I wonder why he never spoke of your heritage."
Lois bit her lips, wondering what to say. At last, she chose the truth. "I never knew my parents. My grandparents died when my mother was in her teens; from what my family told me, she was a miracle child. They had almost given up on having a child when she came along. And she and my father died when I was a toddler. So I had very little idea of my heritage."
Trey swiftly took her into his arms and hugged her as if he didn't wish to let her go. "Well, now you know your heritage and your family ties. I am sure that the family would wish to greet you properly. King Gar is your cousin, your grandfather's sister's son. And there are his siblings, my children and grandchildren. Prepare to be swarmed by relatives, Lucy."
Over his shoulders, Lois caught Kal's eyes. This was an unexpected turn of events. They couldn't afford to catch the king's attention like this. They would be exposed instantly.
"Thank you, my Lord. But I don't think it's necessary. I've no wish to claim anything. I just wanted to know my grandfather."
"Nonsense. You're family; it is your right to impose on us, not that I would deem it to be an imposition. Not at all. Where are you both staying?" Trey asked Kal.
"At Trudor's Inn, my Lord."
"I'll have someone bring over your belongings. You will stay with me." His tone of voice brooked no arguments. "Come, I'll show you to your quarters. Later, I'll bring you round the estate. This mansion belongs to the House of Zen. The family uses it anytime any of us are at court. In fact there's a painting of your grandfather in the gallery which we'll be passing." He got up with Ching's assistance. "Thank you, Major."
Unwillingly, but unable to refuse, Kal and Lois followed their host. Leaning, Kal asked her quietly, "Is the journal with you, right now?"
"Of course, I carry it with me wherever I go," she whispered back.
"Good," Kal replied. He would have said more but Lord Trey was urging them to keep up with him.
They soon settled into the suite of rooms given to them and Ching took his leave after making arrangements to bring them around town the next day after their audience with the king.
In the privacy of their own suite, Lois turned to Kal for reassurance. "Are we in trouble?" she asked, her head tucked against Kal's chest.
"What makes you say that?"
"If King Gar is behind my parents' death and recent events, he would know who I am, and by implication, who you are. We might be walking into a trap."
"Aye, we might. That's why I'm going to slip out tonight to meet Ching and find out the actual situation. We may need to plan our escape sooner than we think. But, Lois, I'm glad to have found out about your grandfather. He sounded like someone I'd love to meet."
"Lars of Zen," she said, savoring the name. "To think that he was the one who discovered the arachid plant. I wonder what he kept secret and what he revealed."
"Good idea," said Kal.
"You could ask Lord Trey about your grandfather and the arachid plant. Find out what he knows and then we can compare it to what is in the journal. Besides it'll also distract him while I slip away tonight."
She grinned. "Aye, good idea. You'll be careful though, won't you?"
He kissed her lips lightly. "Don't worry. I'll be back before you know it."
After supper, Kal begged exhaustion and made as if to retire, while Lois distracted Trey with questions about her grandfather. Making sure that he wasn't spotted by any of the servants, Kal made his way to the rendezvous point. As soon as he arrived, he was greeted with, "About time you got here."
"Ching, I would've been here earlier if you'd drawn better maps," Kal replied.
"Yeah? Perhaps you just don't know how to read them?" teased Ching. He then turned serious. "How is Lois taking it?"
"She's worried that our cover might be blown and we'll be captured."
"She has a legitimate concern. I checked it out; Gar doesn't seem to know about her or about her parents. The deal Trey spoke about is binding to all monarchs of Nor after King Dor. To cause harm to either Lois or her parents would be to break the sacred words of the king of Nor. King Dor vowed that the monarchs of Nor would ensure the safety and well-being of those of the House of Zen, which includes Lars and his descendents."
"But would Gar honor his father's vows?"
"The honorable King Gar?" Ching quipped sarcastically. "Look, Kal, I've got an emergency escape plan in case Gar is behind this and you need to get out fast."
"Like what exactly?"
Ching brought out a map of some kind. "This is the layout of the throne room. This is the dais and you'll be making your bows here," he pointed out the various spots. "Now, to the right of the dais, there is a hidden trap door which leads to the catacombs underneath the palace. No one knows about the door or the catacombs besides me. I only discovered them when I stumbled on the catacombs from the outside entrance, and made my way to the throne room. The catacombs are decaying in places, and there are places which are completely blocked. You might say that it's one giant maze." There was an amused smile on his face.
"So what's the plan?"
"If there is any indication that your lives are in danger, I'll create a disturbance and you hurry towards the trap door. I'll have someone waiting for you on the outside entrance to lead you to safety. Here, this is the map of the catacombs and the directions you need to take to get out. Hopefully, you'll fare better reading this map than you seemed to have earlier tonight," Ching teased.
Kal only snorted in response as he looked at the maps and pondered on the plan. It wasn't the best but it would have to do. "Thanks, Ching."
"You're welcome. Now for the other news; Trey was telling the truth when he mentioned that Gar is backing someone to sit on the throne of El. I believe he started this plan since after the war when your father beat him soundly. He contacted someone close to your father, someone whom your father trusted, and probably continues to trust."
"So this is not something new?"
Ching shook his head.
"How did you find out?"
"I intercepted a missive from his contact right before they tried to kill you. I wasn't able to warn you in time though. Anyway, it detailed the plan to ambush you and also queried our army's readiness to invade El once you're dead. Your refusal to die put a wrench in their plans." Ching grinned mischievously. "Once I read the missive, I was curious about this contact. So I went digging. That was when I discovered who the contact was and how long this has been going on."
"Who is it?" Kal asked softly, still absorbing what Ching had revealed.
"Archbishop William. At the time he was only a bishop, the Bishop of Luthor. He administered to your maternal grandfather and the dukedom. He was also a distant cousin of your grandfather, and there were talks of his younger brother, Sir Samuel, marrying your mother, and thus, inheriting the powerful dukedom of Luthor. I'm guessing here, but I'd say that he wanted to be the puppet master."
"So what happened to the plans? Was it just talks or did something happen?"
"I'm not sure. But given his ambitions, he was the natural person for Gar to contact."
"They're planning on an invasion soon. I've been in various council meetings to discuss these matters."
"Can you provide us with the plans?"
"I'll try, but I can't promise much, Kal."
"Whatever you can will have to do. While Randolph suspected, he hasn't been able to convince my father of it. So El isn't as prepared as we'd like her to be."
Ching sighed. "I'll do what I can and send it through the usual channels."
The two men then parted, Kal slipping back into the mansion. He wasn't surprised to find Lois waiting impatiently for him. "So, what did he have to say?" were the first words out of her mouth.
Grinning, he teased, "What? No goodnight kiss?"
"Kal! Be serious. What did he tell you? Is the king on to us? Did Ching manage to come up with a plan for us to escape? Perhaps we shouldn't rely too much on him. I've been thinking about escape plans and I believe we can do it on our own. We can…"
"Whoa! Stop, Lois." Kal was amused at his wife's babble. "Come, sit down and I'll tell you what Ching revealed." He pulled her down into his lap as he settled on the settee. Snuggling, Lois's arms snaked around his waist as she rested her head on his shoulders. Kal encircled her with one arm, using his free hand to stroke her back. He was once again struck by how fortunate he was to have her in his life.
Kal wondered if that was how Lars felt about Reba. He could see the similarities between her grandparents' story and their own. For all his words to Lois, he hoped that, when push comes to shove, he would be able to do as Lars did, and give up everything for his love. Unlike Lars, he had a responsibility not only to his family but also to the people of El. At one time, he would willingly set aside his claim to the throne to make way for Lex. Now, he wasn't so sure. If asked to choose between the good of the people and his soul, as Lois had become, which would he choose? Sighing inwardly, Kal set aside the question for another time and refocused on the current situation.
He recounted his discussion with Ching; of the emergency plans, of Archbishop William's treacherous relationship with King Gar, and of the imminent invasion.
Lois kept quiet as she listened. When he ended, she looked up into his eyes, and asked, "What are your plans?"
"We need to make our way to the Marches and alert Randolph. If Ching can pass us the plans for the invasion, it'll be a boon. As for Father Bill, I can't do anything until I've solid evidence. Ching couldn't hold on to the missive he intercepted. A pity since it might be the only clear evidence of his duplicity."
Continuing to rest her head on his shoulder, Lois's mind raced to find a solution. For the moment nothing came to mind but she knew she'd keep working on it till she found a way to help Kal prove the Archbishop to be a traitor to El.
Not knowing what was running through her head, Kal asked her, "So did you get anything out of Trey?"
"Hmm?" she said distractedly. "Oh, right, the ruse to distract him. Yes, in fact I've learnt a lot about my grandfather in the past few hours."
"Care to share?" Kal kissed the top of her head, amused by her tone of voice.
"A lot of it was just Lord Trey's reminiscence and I enjoyed it. But there were some pertinent points. First, my grandfather was almost a genius who, besides developing the arachid poison, managed to find cure for a lot of illnesses previously thought incurable. The arachid plant was his breakthrough. He managed to isolate the juices which could cure almost all the major illnesses like the yellow fever and even leprosy. Unfortunately, the juices also contain a deadly poison. That was part of his major work with his wife; to come up with a working antidote that would cure the poison fully. They did manage to improve upon the crude antidote that she administered to him, from what Lord Trey told me.
"Second, he was secretive about his work, allowing Lord Trey to learn only things that he wished him to. For example, the cure for the arachid poison that he taught to Trey is missing one important ingredient. Without it, the cure doesn't work fully. The person would still be dying from the poison, only slowly. He may have a year or a little more to live, but in the end, the poison in his system would kill him."
"I guess you have the answer to the missing ingredient," Kal fished.
"Aye, it's in the journal. But I wonder why my grandfather didn't teach it to Trey. Why would he want people to die when he was a healer? Shouldn't he be healing people instead?"
Kal could see that Lois was quite upset by the knowledge. "I don't know Lois. Maybe there was something going on at the time that we don't really know. Maybe he wanted to ensure that his House would always be useful. Look at the economic value of the arachid poison. Nor will be rich and powerful if the cure is known. It would no longer be a poison; instead it would be a medicine. Perhaps Lars knew that it was dangerous for Nor's neighbors if Nor were to be powerful. As it is, Nor is planning to invade El."
She sighed. "Aye, perhaps you're right. We have to look at the journal some time or other."
After a little more discussion and a resolve to look at the journal more closely, they retired to bed, dreading what the next day would bring. Just before Lois fell asleep, she whispered to Kal, "Kal, do you suppose if nothing happens tomorrow, we ought to be honest with Lord Trey, at least about me? He's a dear old man and I hate using him like this."
Kal tightened his hold on her, once again thinking how precious she was to think of Trey's welfare.
The next morning, Lois and Kal found themselves sitting beside Lord Trey and Major Ching in the carriage as they left for the palace. Lord Trey was happily describing the various family members who would be there at court. He wasn't aware of the tension in the air as Lois and Kal psyched themselves up to any possible scenarios that could happen. They had brought with them all that they needed. Anything left at Lord Trey's weren't necessary for their survival.
The carriage stopped and a footman opened the door. Ching alighted first and then Trey. "Come, my dear," Trey said, holding out his hand to assist Lois.
Placing her hand in his, she delicately stepped out of the carriage. She quickly stepped away to allow Kal to alight, casting her glance up the great marble steps and the huge open doorway leading into the palace. On either side of the steps were the palace guards with their red-gold uniforms, smartly standing at attention.
Lord Trey led them up the steps and through the doorway. He returned the salute of the guards at the doorway before urging his party on. "I'd rather not keep the king waiting," he told them.
"Did you tell him the reason why you requested an audience?" Kal asked, praying for the right answer.
"No, I thought it would be better if it's a surprise," Trey answered, making all three of his companions more relaxed.
Lois hoped that their escape might work since they had the element of surprise working for them. Similar thoughts crossed Kal's and Ching's minds.
They soon arrived at the entrance to the throne room and were announced to King Gar. Ching slipped away to position himself and prepare in case there was a need for the emergency plan. As they moved forward, Kal took a good look at the man who was behind the last invasion of El and the current plans for a new invasion. As a king, he wasn't very impressive; nothing physically outstanding about the man. But Kal knew from the various reports on Gar that he was a brilliant strategist. His mind certainly outclassed his physical appearance. That was why Kal felt they should tread carefully with this man.
"Your Majesty," Trey greeted Gar, bowing deeply.
"Lord Trey." Gar gave Trey a piercing look. "Why have you requested an audience? Who are these people?"
"Your Majesty, these are Sir Caleb of Ra and his wife, Lady Lucy. They're my guests."
Kal and Lois bowed to King Gar who acknowledged them with a nod. He then turned back to Trey. "You don't normally request an audience for your guests." There was a note of censor in his voice.
"Normally, no, your Majesty. But in this case, the circumstances called for it."
"And what would the circumstances be?"
"Lady Lucy is the granddaughter of Lord Lars, your Majesty," Trey answered to the astonishment of those at court. Lord Lars was a legend in Nor; his tale being one of the most heroic and romantic tales ever known. Some of the court who had met the lovely young couple didn't expect them to be related to a legend. But they agreed behind their fans and handkerchiefs that Lady Lucy conducted herself quite like the noble lady she was.
But for Kal and Lois, it was the king's response that they were anxious to find out. They didn't have to wait long. Gar's eyes rounded in surprise before they narrowed. "I see." His tone of voice and his reactions alarmed both Kal and Lois. "Lady Lucy and Sir Caleb, is it?" he asked them. Before they could answer, he rose. "Or is it Prince Kal and Mistress Lois of Trent? Guards, arrest them!"
The guards came rushing forward only to be distracted. "Fire! Fire!" The banners and tapestry on the left side of the throne room were on fire and people were rushing away from there, impeding the guards' movements. Exchanging looks, Kal and Lois knew that Ching had come through for them. The guards on either side of the king had changed their course from arresting them to ushering the king to safety. The whole room was in chaos, which was exactly what Ching expected.
Kal took the opportunity to pull Lois to the hidden door. She struggled against him. "What about Lord Trey?"
"We can't do anything right now, Lois. We've got to get out of here. Maybe later," he said when he saw his wife frowning.
Lois looked around. The fire was being controlled and the chaos was lessening. They had to leave soon. She nodded and they slipped through the door, closing themselves in the dark, damp passageway. Kal groped for the torch, which Ching mentioned was on the left wall, and lighted it.
Lois looked around at the place, now that it was lighted, and shuddered. The passage was very narrow; there was only enough space for one person at a time. Beyond the lighted area, the dark seemed almost impenetrable, a solid forbidding presence. The musty, damp air didn't help to make the place more welcoming either. Without conscious thought, she stepped closer to Kal.
"Are you all right?" Kal asked, noticing her unease.
She smiled bravely. "I hate dark and cramped places," she confessed. "But I'll be all right. Can we move from here though?"
"Right. I'm trying to read the map, but it's difficult to decipher," Kal admitted sheepishly.
At that, Lois grinned. "Here, let me take a look." After studying the map for a while, she nodded absently. "We have to turn right at the next junction. Why don't I lead and you hold the torch?" she suggested.
"All right," Kal said, relieved. He hated to read maps because he could never make heads or tails of them.
Reading the map helped Lois take her mind off the dark, confining passageways. Soon they were in the catacombs proper, and with Lois's expertise, managed to negotiate the catacombs with some ease. There were a couple of false turns, but they were able to back track and proceeded on. Finally they found themselves in front of the door leading to the outside. Ching had said that it led directly to outside the city proper. Hopefully, the guide he promised them would be waiting there.
Kal put his hands on the mechanism to open the door and twisted the way Ching instructed him, but to no avail. He tried again and again, but the door didn't respond. Lois gave a try and still, no response.
"Lois, we're stuck." At that instant, the torch sputtered and died, plunging both of them into darkness.
Lois struggled to keep from screaming. "Kal?" she whimpered.
"Right here, Lois," he said, his arms going around her reassuringly. "I'm right here." He held on to her trembling body, wishing there was something else he could do.
As the panic passed, Lois felt a little embarrassed for losing her composure. Thank goodness it was dark, or Kal would have seen her blush. "What do we do now?"
Kal was grateful that Lois was no longer shaking and was calmer. "If we had the torch, we could backtrack. But I'm not willing to risk getting lost in this maze."
"Did Ching say that he'd meet us? Perhaps he'll be worried and come search for us," Lois said even though she wasn't really convinced.
"I don't think he'll try to find us. He was supposed to be assigned to the border this afternoon. Most likely he would have left by now."
"We can't last long here. We've no food nor clothing suitable for this cold and damp place." Lois got up and groped for the mechanism again. "Kal, are you sure you got the instructions right?"
Kal tried to remember what Ching told him. "Well, he said that when I'm at the door, I should reach to my left. There'll be a carved stone knob. Turn…"
"Hold on a minute. There are two knobs here. One is not quite as obvious as the other. I can feel it though."
Kal grinned at her even though she couldn't see it in the darkness. "Does the 'hidden' knob have some kind of grooves that fit your fingers?"
"The grooves are larger than my fingers, but yes," Lois confirmed after exploring the surface with her hand.
"That's the one then!" Kal exclaimed. "Boy, am I stupid!"
"Don't say that! You just didn't notice it. It was probably concealed from view by the other knob. Let me try it." Lois carried out the instructions as Kal recited them, and before long, they could hear a groan and a spot of sunlight broke through the doorway. Lois had never been gladder to see the sunlight as she was then. Soon, they slipped out of the dark tunnel and into the open hills behind the capital city of Nor.
"I don't suppose our guide left without us?" Lois asked, looking around.
"He or she should be around here somewhere," Kal answered. "Let's go look."
Before they could do so, Kal spotted a cloud of dust coming their way. "D
," he cursed.
"What?" Lois asked, shocked. She followed his gaze and saw the cloud of dust approaching at a rapid pace. "Horsemen? Coming after us?"
"I'd say so," Kal responded, looking around and trying to see where they could take shelter. "Head for that cliff," he commanded. "They will have to climb after us, and hopefully that will slow them down." He glanced at her clothing, hesitating for a second. "Can you make it?"
In answer, she tore off her skirt. It was a good thing that she wore riding breeches underneath. "Come on," she said, running for the cliff.
They were half way up the cliffs when their pursuers reached its bottom. What Kal didn't expect was that they would shoot arrows at them. It was difficult to dodge the arrows and still maintain his hold on the rocks. But he had to. Glancing below, he saw that a few of the knights had begun climbing the cliffs while their companions continued the onslaught of arrows.
"Argh!" Lois screamed in pain.
Kal struggled to get to Lois who was dangling by one hand, an arrow piercing her other arm. His heart lurched! "Hold on, Lois! I'm coming!" He surveyed the cliff before him to find the fastest way to get to her. Sparing a look down below, he saw that the knights were gaining on them. In a small corner of his mind, he wondered if they would be captured after coming so far. Yet, given the choices, he would rather face capture than lose Lois. However, there was something he could do to delay their pursuers. As he scrambled to Lois, he kicked some of the loose rocks beneath his feet. That gained him a little time as the knights tried to dodge the rain of debris.
Lois gritted her teeth at the searing pain. She was holding on to the jutting rock by sheer willpower but she knew that wasn't to be for long. She was losing her grip as perspiration made her hands slippery. She watched Kal making his way to her, but she didn't think he would make it in time. She didn't dare look down, thinking that she would be plummeting to the ground soon enough.
As her last strength waned, she felt herself plunging into free fall for a moment before her movement was arrested. Opening her eyes, she looked into the deep brown eyes of her hero. "Hey, there," Kal greeted her with a grin, relief evident in his eyes.
"Kal?" She looked to see that he was precariously holding on to the jutting piece she had been holding earlier, his other arm around her waist.
"We need to get up there now, sweetheart. Can you…"
She shook her head as an arrow whizzed past their heads, surprisingly in the opposite direction. Looking up, they both saw a welcomed sight. A few of her gypsy cousins were returning fire at the knights below and two of them were sliding down the ropes heading towards Kal and Lois. Lois and Kal exchanged looks and mouthed, grinning, "We're saved."
"Ho, there," One of them said with a grin when they reached the couple. "Need a lift?"
Delicately, Kal passed Lois to him. He latched onto the other rope and soon they were both safely on top of the cliff. Their rescuers ushered them onto a horse and they were off. Kal noticed that Lois was losing blood rather rapidly, and was slipping in and out of consciousness during their ride.
"Lois! What 'appened?" Chief Hawkin hurried forward when he saw the arrow on her forearm. "Call the 'ealer, 'urry," he shouted, grasping his hands on either side of Lois's waist and lifting her down. "Ye all right?"
Before Lois could answer, Kal spoke up, "She got hit by the knights pursuing us. Chief, we need to get out of here fast before the king's men arrive." Then concerned with Lois's state, he gritted out, "Where's the d
healer? She's losing a lot of blood."
"But…" Lois tried to interject but was ignored by Kal.
"Chief, we need to put Lois somewhere comfortable…as for our pursuers, I'll explain to you and the elders later, just get out of here now!"
Hawkin looked around and noted that his men who had ridden in with them were nodding even as Lois gritted her teeth at the protectiveness of the men. "All right. Carl, take 'er to the caravan."
Swinging a rather unwilling Lois into his arms, Kal carried her to Hawkin's caravan, as around them, the gypsies were busy dismantling their campsite. He had no doubt that they would have moved out of the area long before the knights could get there. After all they were gypsies. And he wasn't wrong. By the time Hawkin's wife greeted them and made Lois sit beside the healer, the caravan was on the move, as were all the other caravans.
Kal held Lois in his arms as the healer pulled the arrow out. To Lois's credit, she didn't scream. Instead she almost broke Kal's fingers in her grip and blood oozed from her lower lip where she had bitten hard. She was shaking badly, trying to withstand the pain. Kal's heart almost broke at her courage even as he tried to comfort her. The healer applied a poultice and bandaged her side, before instructing her to rest. Lois tried to protest but was overridden by her aunt who led her to one of the bunks in the other room to rest.
Hawkin watched patiently as the women of his household fussed around Lois. He then turned to Kal and demanded, "What 'appened?"
So Kal told him about the incident at court and how they escaped, leaving out only his identity.
After he fell silent, Hawkin regarded him curiously. "So, ye the ones Major Ching sent our way."
"You know Ching?" Kal asked, startled.
"Aye, been doin' business together; passed information to Lord Randolph. I bet ye know 'im." There was a challenge in Hawkin's voice; a challenge for him to tell the truth. "This 'ere is our regular route though this year; we veered off course a little when we brought ye to the eastern front of El. Anyway, Ching asked us take some people back to the borders. Ne'er suspected ye two." He frowned, thinking of his niece who was wounded. "Why ye risk 'er life like that? King Gar's not like 'is father. Lois been in danger since birth. That's the reason we left 'er with the Whites and made sure she knew nothing of 'er 'eritage. 'Er ignorance was 'er protection."
Kal winced at the admonishment. He understood where Hawkin was coming from but what the man didn't understand was that his niece wasn't the kind to remain ignorant for long. Besides, her ignorance wasn't enough protection against her enemies. This he told Hawkin, "Lois's ignorance wasn't of much help. The knights sent to ransack her place were Church knights working for the Archbishop. And from what we found out recently, the Archbishop is working with King Gar to topple the current royal family of El. I believe they suspected that Lois had her mother's journal or perhaps knowledge of the arachid poison. It's a given that they wouldn't believe Lois if she told them she knew nothing of what they were saying."
"Ellen's journal? Ye mean it wasn' destroyed? I 'ought they made sure all 'er books were destroyed."
"No, it wasn't."
Both men looked up to see Lois standing there in the doorway, pale but determined not to be left out of the discussion. Kal got up immediately and hurried to her side. "Lois, you ought to be in bed," he protested.
"I need to be here for this discussion," she insisted, her eyes pleading him.
Sighing, Kal relented and led her to sit beside him, resting her head on his shoulders.
Hawkin watched her worriedly and waited till she was settled before asking, "Where is it? 'ow it survived?"
"I have it. My mother left it with Alice to give it to me. Uncle, you seem to know more than you let on. If we promise to tell you what's going on, will you tell us what you know? The key to resolving part of this seems to be in my heritage, and I believe I have a right to know." Her chin rose subtly and her eyes grew hard.
Hawkin knew that Lois wouldn't be put off from getting the information she wanted. "All right. I'll tell ye," he sighed. "Ye grandparents traveled with us for a few years. Whene'er they were near the capital, they'd secretly visit King Dor. Ten years after ye grandfather joined us, Lars went to visit the king. He found out 'at Gar 'ad poisoned 'is father and gave 'im the incomplete antidote. No one suspected 'cause there were no sign.
"Dor told Lars that 'e suspect 'is oldest son, then barely seventeen, 'ad become impatient for the throne. That suspicion and Dor's rapidly deterioratin' 'ealth prompted ye grandfather to give Dor the true cure.
"They knew it was no good to fight Gar; 'e 'ad the court eatin' out of 'is hands and they 'ad no evidence against him. 'sides, Dor was too softhearted to 'urt his son. In the end, they staged Dor's death and smuggled him out of Nor and into El. Years later, I found out that Dor 'ad turned to the Church and became a monk. Changed 'is name to Andrew. Last I 'eard 'e joined the Order of the Rose."
Kal and Lois exchanged surprised looks. "Father Andrews, the late Patriarch of the Order of the Rose, was in actuality the late King Dor?" Kal exclaimed.
"Late? 'e's dead?" Hawkin asked, shocked.
"Aye, he died of arachid poisoning. In fact, that was why I wanted to visit the Order earlier. I was trying to find out who had killed him," Kal said. "Did anyone else know who he was?"
"Nope. But if Gar is workin' with the Archbishop, 'e may 'ave found out."
"Perhaps, but perhaps it could also be Father Bill's own idea to eliminate a thorn at his side." When he saw Hawkin's questioning look, he explained, "Father Andrew was one of the most vocal opponents of the Archbishop's policies. He had been fighting against the corruption in the Church's hierarchy which he felt stemmed from the Archbishop himself. He was also adamant to stop the Church's abuse of power."
"Sounds like Dor. Pity that 'is son, Gar, didn' inherit that quality from 'im."
"Yeah, pity." Lois then asked, "Uncle Hawkin, what happened to my grandparents?"
"After escortin' Dor into El, Lars felt that it was time to settle down. 'E bought a piece of land in Trent from the old Duke of Luthor. The Duke was an ol' friend despite the enmity 'tween Nor and El. 'E and Aunt Reba decided to stay and bring up their little daughter, Ellen. It was then that our clan changed our route to include Trent. They had quite a number of peaceful years and Ellen grew up learnin' from her parents, goin' to the occasional ball thrown by her godfather, the Duke, and for most parts, made friends with the local village girls. One of those was Alice White nee Lynn.
"But disaster struck one night when Ellen was fifteen. 'Er parents were shoppin' when a berserker escaped from 'is confinement and massacred nearly half of the people in the square. Among them were 'er parents."
Lois covered her mouth, nauseous. How could her grandparents have died like that? How did her mother endure the loss? Kal, seeing her distress, put his arm around her in a gesture of comfort. His mind was reeling with questions and implications. His grandfather was also her mother's godfather? Why wasn't the name ever mentioned in the family? A goddaughter or godson was almost as important as your own natural children. It was well known that it was the task of the godparents to take care of the child if anything happened to the natural parents, and it was a duty that people took seriously for it ensured the well-being of the child involved, and ultimately of the society.
Hawkin continued, "The Duke took "er in and brought "er up till she was eighteen. Ye see, the Duke had a daughter, Lady Lara, about the same age as well. Bein' the responsible person 'e was, 'e looked for suitable husbands for both girls. 'E had in mind for ye mother a young viscount who was his liegeman, and a distant cousin, Sir Samuel, for his daughter."
Kal started at the name. Sir Samuel was Father Bill's younger brother. He suspected what happened to the courtship, something that was proven true by Hawkin's next words.
"What happened was a classic tale of misunderstandin'. Ellen fell in love with Sir Samuel and vice versa while Lady Lara found 'erself charmed by a man goin' incognito to the ball meant for them. The Duke discovered Ellen and Samuel together and was so ashamed that 'e 'ad them married and threw them out of Luthor Castle. Though Lara should be probably grateful since she married King Jor shortly afterwards. Ironic that the Duke 'ad 'imself a king for a son-in-law 'cause of ye parents," he snorted.
"So my parents came back to Trent?"
"Aye. Samuel's family disowned 'im. But your mother still 'ad the deed to ye grandparents' land an' there Samuel built 'er the cottage. They lived there a number of years, Ellen takin' over 'er father's place as the village 'ealer. She 'ad ye when she was twenty-three." He fell silent after that.
"What happened to them, Uncle? Do you know?" Lois knew this was important.
"Two years after they settled in Trent, a new priest came."
"Aye. At first,'e seemed to be ye usual village priest, if a tad ambitious. But the witch hunt fever started, and 'e seemed to 'ave been bitten by it. Probably 'cause ye parents were considered gentry and wielded some sort of respect, "e started goin' on and on about women. 'E 'eld the view that women shouldn' be allowed to learn, that it was unnatural. So women who were learned must be in league with the Devil and practiced witchcraft. Then 'e accused ye mother of practicin' witchcraft to heal. 'E called the inquisitors to bring 'er to trial. A mockery of justice, if ye ask me," he snorted. "Anyway, she was found guilty and 'er books and things were taken away. She was to burn and so were ye, since they accused ye were born from a union of 'er and the Devil. Ye father put up a fight, so they declared 'im possessed. The only way to get rid of the possession was to drown 'im so that the Devil would escape and 'e'd be cleansed." Another snort.
"How was Lois saved?"
"The viscount 'ad somethin' to do with it. 'E appealed to the Duke to inter'ene. Ye see, the viscount was the one intended for Ellen. I believe 'e still carried a torch for 'er. Unfortunately, 'e came too late to save ye parents. They were about to kill ye but 'e stopped them with the help of the Whites. Gave ye to the Whites since Alice was ye godmother. To ensure your safety, 'e pledged that 'e'd see to it that ye wouldn't practice the healing arts on any human soul.
"The viscount, Perry and me 'ad a meetin' where we decided best ye not know about ye parents. But now, seems that our plans failed," Hawkin said heavily. There was an air of defeat in his demeanor.
"Don't worry about me, Uncle. I'm a survivor. My family members are survivors," Lois assured him. She had never seen her jolly old uncle so heavy hearted.
"Go to bed, both of ye. Tomorrow, ye can tell me ye story," Hawkin finally said.
The couple left him on his chair, staring out of the window and looking at the moving scenery. Quietly, they turned in, Lois spooning against Kal. She was glad for Kal's arms around her. These past few days had taken their toll on her emotions. It seemed that she was related to King Gar on her mother's side, and on her father's side, she was related to the Archbishop, and also distantly to Kal. What a heritage!
She was better off thinking she was a peasant. In fact, she longed for her uncomplicated life back in Trent, with her friends Rachel and Lana. But of course, that was only an illusion. Her life had never been uncomplicated, her heritage made sure of that. She wondered what Kal thought about it, but didn't want to break the silence. She needed time to absorb everything and so did he. At last, she fell asleep.
The next morning, they requested for Hawkin to walk with them, and then told him of Kal's identity and the events that brought them to the current situation. For a long time after, Hawkin said nothing, just sitting there and staring into the distance. Finally he roused and pledged, "The gypsies are behind ye, my Prince. This I'll pledge not only for me clan but for the rest. If what ye say is true, it'd affect the gypsies as well. The Church's gettin' less and less tolerant of dissenting views, includin' our viewpoint and way of life. We won't allow the Church to gain anymore power. 'haps a change in leadership within the Church hierarchy'd be good." He grinned.
"Thank you, Chief Hawkin. I'm honored for the gypsy's help. You're as much a part of El as its own people," Kal said, beaming. With the gypsies on his side, he had more allies now then when he first started. Their network would be invaluable in the coming days of the conflict.
It was amazing to watch how the gypsy network worked. Given that the knights of Nor suspected his clan to have aided Kal and Lois to escape, Chief Hawkin enlisted the other clans to help pass the information to Lord Randolph. The other clans' chiefs had been summoned and briefed on the current situation on the ground. The imminent war between El and Nor didn't shake them as much as the news that the Church was involved in one way or another. In the past years, the gypsies had a lot of trouble with the Church, the Church considering them pagans. While there were members of the Church in El that sympathized with them and assisted them, more often than not, they found themselves to be persecuted at the hands of the Church.
If the next ruler of El were to favor the Church and its current policies, there would be no room for the gypsies in El. They would suffer since El was situated along one of their major trade routes. In fact, if El closed its door to them, they would have lost valuable time in transporting their goods, most of which were perishables. The golden apples of Nor were much favored by the Amazons who relied on the gypsies to transport them. But if El were closed, they would have to travel through the Forrest of Fire and Giant Mountains on the western side of Nor, a perilous route that was at least a month longer than their usual route through El. By then, the apples would have perished before they got to the Amazons. There were other similar economic considerations.
But what made them throw their lots behind Kal was their admiration for the Crown Prince of El. It was well known that Prince Kal was concerned with the welfare of his people and was judged by many to be a fair man. His men who guarded the highways in El and along the borders reflected their leader's excellent example. The gypsies had always found that it was safer and better to stick to the highways of El than be mired in the petty politics of the various lords. At least, they knew they were less likely to be harassed and could obtain assistance when necessary along the highways.
Now, he had once again proven himself by coming to them for help and showing his concern regarding the welfare of the various clans. What more, he had married one of them in a gypsy ceremony. He was kin. There was no doubt who they'd support.
Kal and Lois left Hawkin's clan after she had sufficiently recovered and were now traveling with another clan to the border of El and Nor. From there, they would part ways with their benefactors and travel to the Fortress of Solitude where the Earl of Marches made his home. They hoped that the information that Ching had passed Hawkin would have reached Lord Randolph before their arrival.
Lois asked Kal why the fortress was called Solitude and Kal told her the story of the last war against Nor. El's limited forces had been able to push the Norse back to the present border when unexpected reinforcements from Nor arrived. The small army would have been overwhelmed if not for a lucky discovery. They found an ancient citadel carved into the mountains. Once inside and barricaded, the place was almost impregnable to outside forces. There they remained under siege while their supplies dwindled. Surrender was imminent when a freak sandstorm blew out of nowhere. The little army was safe in the citadel while the elements raged against Nor's forces. For three whole days, the army was blocked from any communications with the outside world, only to emerge to an almost different world. Nor's forces were decimated, leaving only stragglers who ran back to Nor. On that day, King Jor decided to name the place the Fortress of Solitude in memory of the three days of confinement when the sandstorm hit.
The smaller clan managed to dodge any attempts to stop it from making its way to the border. Before long, Kal and Lois found themselves on the other side of the border and near the Fortress of Solitude. They rode hard in order to get to the citadel before darkness fell. Upon her first sight of the Fortress of Solitude, Lois became speechless. While Luthor Castle had been breathtaking and the palace in Nor had been grand and opulent, this structure carved out of the mountains was simply a miracle. She wondered out loud about who might have done this.
Kal smiled at her reactions, remembering his own reactions when his father took him to the citadel the first time. "It was made by the ancient ones. The knowledge of who they were and how they did it is lost to us. But what they made stands till today, showing us that no matter how advanced we think we are, they were in some ways more advanced. After all, can you think of any knowledge of ours that can carve cities out of the mountains?"
Lois pondered over his question and had to admit that there was nothing in their current knowledge that could achieve something as grand as this. "I wish we knew what happened to them," she lamented. "How could a race as advanced as theirs perish leaving behind nothing other than this citadel and others like it? Why weren't there any clues?"
Kal eyed his wife fondly. "I would love to know the answer as well. That's part of the reason that I want our people to be educated, not just a select few but everyone. Then maybe one day, someone out there would be able to discover the answers to these questions and more."
Lois looked at Kal in surprise. This was the first time he was sharing his visions of the future with her. It touched her like none of his declarations of love could, for it showed that he cared enough to bare his dreams, his soul to her and seek her thoughts on them. "A noble vision indeed, Kal. It'll take time and a lot of work but one day your dream will be realized."
Kal smiled at her words of encouragement. He had been nervous sharing it with her. The only other person he had shared it with was Lex who had laughed and told him that none of the lords would care for it. They would lose their serfs if everyone was educated. "Come on, we'd better let Randolph know that we're here."
Lois had been apprehensive to meet Lord Randolph. It wasn't because of the man himself, but rather the post he represented. He was an aristocrat, a powerful figure at court. And for all her knowledge of her lineage, she still felt inadequate amongst the nobles. She might have been able to playact that one night at Lord Trey's function but that didn't mean that she would be able to do it all the time.
She hovered at the door as Kal strode in and embraced the man who rose to greet him. Lord Randolph, the Earl of Marches, was a man in his early forties, well built, and moved with a catlike grace. He seemed surprised to see Kal even as he embraced him heartily. Lois liked the warm eyes that seemed to welcome her husband and decided that she liked Lord Randolph.
'My Prince, how did you get here? I thought you were in Tunaina, negotiating a trade agreement with them?" Randolph asked, perplexed at the appearance of Prince Kal in his drawing room. The prince was strangely garbed too, and he noticed the woman lingering by the door. Somehow, Randolph had the impression that the woman was connected to the prince.
"It's good to see you too, Randolph," Kal said with a slight smirk. Then he turned serious. "Did you get the package from Ching?"
Randolph started. "How did you know about that, Your Highness?" Before Kal could explain, he continued, "Aye, I did, my Lord. And none too soon. Their army is nearly at our doorstep. I was able to make use of Ching's information to keep them from breaking through our defenses, but not for long. We need reinforcements." He looked hopefully at his liege lord, wondering if he had brought reinforcements with him.
Kal bit his lips before questioning again, "Have you sent for them?"
"Aye. I sent a courier to your father this past week. However he has yet to return, and there has been no news of any mustering of forces that I've heard. I was worried that my man never made it to the palace," Randolph answered, a frown on his face. "I gather from your question, Your Highness, that you're not here in response to my message, are you?"
Kal shook his head. "I was in Nor when I met Ching."
Randolph's eyes grew large and darted to the woman in the doorway. She must somehow be involved. "What were you doing in Nor?"
"It's not so important at the moment. For now, the priority is to ensure that Nor's army doesn't get pass the Marches," Kal said. "The gypsies are coming to help. You have one clan housed here already, haven't you?"
"Aye, they delivered the information from Ching," Randolph confirmed.
"There'll be more coming. I've recruited them in this fight against Nor. Don't look so skeptical, Randolph," he chided when Randolph frowned. "They have great horses and…"
"Their fighting techniques are more suitable in this war, my Lord," Lois finally spoke up. "Unlike the way your knights are trained to fight, the gypsies adopt a "hit and run" approach which works well in this case."
Randolph eyed her warily. He had taken note that both the prince and this woman were wearing gypsy garbs. "Are you Prince Kal's guide home?"
Kal grinned. "No, Randolph. If you will permit me and forgive my tardiness, let me introduce you to Princess Lois, my wife."
Randolph's eyes nearly popped out in shock and he looked from one to the other before asking, "When?"
"Roughly two months ago. Brother Jonathan married us when we visited him at his order," Kal answered.
"So, I guess I should extend my congratulations," Randolph said, and turned to Lois. "Your Highness, please forgive my own tardiness. I'll have someone escort you to your rooms."
"Thank you, my Lord," Lois replied. "But it isn't necessary. If you and Kal are going to discuss tactics of war, I might be able to contribute based on my knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the gypsy fighting techniques."
Randolph was taken aback. In his world, ladies didn't bother themselves with such matters, well not publicly anyway. He was sure that some of the lords were *assisted*, so to speak, by their wives in their day-to-day running of their duties. And he had to admire Queen Lara for being her husband's pillar of strength. But none of those ladies had ever been so forward. Looking to Kal for direction, he found him grinning, besotted, at his wife. Seeing no reprieve, he ushered the two royalties into his council room.
It was a long ten hours discussion and planning. Lord Randolph called in his lieutenants and even Chief Tariq whose clan brought the information needed. It was the first time Lois ever sat in a council of war and she found it very educational and enlightening. She surprised herself and others by making several good contributions. At first, the men were quite resistant in accepting her ideas, but with help from Kal, she was able to convince them that a woman can have some good ideas too. All in all, she felt that it was a day well spent.
She turned to face her husband who had fallen asleep the moment his head touched the pillows. Lightly touching his face, she struggled with herself. A part of her still couldn't believe her luck. As he said, they had been married for more than a month and every single day of their married life, Kal had showed her just how important she was to him. Today topped all that he had done in the past; he had shared one of his dreams with her and also helped her gain respect among his peers. She no longer doubted as she had at the beginning of their marriage or even a few weeks ago before they crossed the border into Nor that they were meant to be together. Now the challenge facing her was the acceptance of his family and the court. Of course, they still had to talk about what they learned during their sojourn to Nor.
Kal stirred at her touch, slowly opening his eyes. As he gazed into the deep brown eyes of an angel, his angel, glowing softly in the candlelight, he thanked whoever brought her into his life. Time and time again she saved him and guided him even when he didn't wish to be saved or guided. She opened his eyes to things he had always took for granted before. More than once she surprised him just as she did this afternoon by showing off her brilliant mind in coming up with very strategic ideas in the upcoming battle. "Not asleep?" he asked softly, his forehead touching hers.
She answered with a gentle smile and a shake of her head, still continuing to trace his face with her fingers. Catching them lightly, he brought them to his lips and started kissing their tips. One thing led to another and they ended going to sleep just before dawn.
Lord Randolph and his wife, Lady Talia, greeted them when they came down for breakfast. Kal congratulated his friend and complimented his new bride on their recent marriage before presenting Lois to them formally. As Randolph bowed and Talia curtsied to her, Lois felt a little out of place. She had expected disapproval at least from Lady Talia on the inappropriateness of their marriage but received instead a friendly congratulation from the Countess of Marches. Talia, being a new bride herself, pestered Lois with questions about her wedding. Having had two weddings, the second of which lacked any romantic quality, Lois decided to scandalize Talia with her gypsy wedding. Of course, Talia wasn't at all scandalized. Instead, she was enamored with the idea of such intimate sharing of bread. Simple and yet so symbolic was her comment. Laughing, Lois found that she liked Lady Talia as much as she did her husband.
However, the friendly atmosphere changed when the men prepared themselves for battle. Chief Tariq had brought the news that the clans were in position. It was time for Kal and Randolph to set out with their men in order to set the trap. While Lois was worried about Kal's safety, she knew he had to go. It was part of his duty; part of what defined him. As she assisted him with his armor and sword, she leaned forward to whisper forcefully to him, "Please Kal, promise me this. Promise me that you'll try your best to stay alive and safe. Promise me that you'll do your utmost to come home to me!"
Upon hearing her request, Kal pulled her into his embrace, his arms tightening around her waist. "Lo…Lois," he said, his voice breaking. This was the first time since they were married that they going to be separated for longer than a few hours. He knew that this campaign was dangerous and while he would try his hardest to return to her, there was still so much uncertainty that he couldn't bear to promise her.
"Kal, I'm not asking for your promise to return," Lois explained, her head resting one last time on her husband's chest. "I know that won't be realistic. But you can promise to do your best to come back, can't you?" Her voice trembled as she tried to hold back her tears.
He closed his eyes for a second before nodding. "Aye, that I can promise you, sweetheart. My angel, my sweet angel," he murmured before lowering his lips to hers for soft farewell kiss.
As their lips met, Lois felt her heart breaking. How she wished she could hold this moment forever. Instead in a few minutes she was about to send off her beloved into battle. She hated the feeling; being so helpless. But how can she rail against his going when it was his duty to go, when the kingdom needed his strength in order to stop countless of deaths and destruction from happening? She couldn't be so selfish.
So when he raised his head once more, he saw his wife smiling bravely, her eyes bright with unshed tears, and words of encouragement on her lips. "Thank you, Kal. I know you will be victorious. Our people depend on you."
Soon Kal, Randolph and his men were all saddled and ready to go as the women crowded around the courtyard saying last minute goodbyes to their husbands, sons and brothers. Kal had been given a new charger highly recommended by Randolph. Still he wished that he had Valiant with him. His brilliant warhorse had been with him in various skirmishes before and had saved his life more than a few times, one of those being the time when Valiant delivered him into the arms of his wife. Looking into her eyes, he knew she was remembering the same incident for she murmured, "I wish Valiant was accompanying you. I'd feel better that way."
He leaned down to brush his lips against hers and whispered with a little forced cheer in order to cheer her up, "Don't worry. Randolph said that Hunter here," he patted the horse, "is very reliable."
"I hope so, my Lord. I wouldn't want anything to happen to you." Her speech was more formal as they were surrounded by knights and their loved ones. "I will not say goodbye, but my Lord, you have my prayers accompanying you on this campaign." With that, she kissed him once more and walked calmly back into the castle. Kal watched her go without any protest for he knew that she was trying her best not to give in to the tears that were threatening to fall. He knew that she didn't want his last vision of her to be of her crying. For that control, he felt inordinately proud.
It had been almost three weeks since the campaign had begun. Kal wished the war were over. He remembered comforting Lois once when she killed the Church knight by admitting that killing detracts something from one's soul. Here he was, killing more men than he knew, not just by direct contact on the battlefield, but also by virtue of him being the commander, and it was at his order that the men were fighting. Still, he couldn't lose focus. If his forces weren't here to meet the invaders, all lives in El would be threatened. That he couldn't afford to allow.
At least, they were slowly pushing back the invading army of Nor with the help of the gypsies. But from the intelligence he received, Kal knew that there were reinforcements coming from Nor. He had discussed with Randolph earlier in the campaign that they should send for reinforcements, not to the palace but directly to Sir Peter, his steward in Kent. The best way to get the missive out was via the gypsy network. Hopefully, Peter would arrive soon before they were overwhelmed by Nor's forces.
"Penny for your thoughts," Randolph asked the younger man, as they surveyed the results of the latest battle from their horses on one of the hills. There were a number of casualties on both sides, casualties they couldn't afford. Not if they wanted to drive the enemies back.
"I was wondering if Peter is on his way. Hopefully he doesn't encounter any hindrance in getting here."
Randolph nodded. Kal had caught him up on his adventures, especially on the Church's involvement as well as his doubts about his brother. It seemed that they were fighting on two fronts, and any commander would say that it wasn't the wisest move to fight on more than one front, especially when you were outnumbered. That was why they needed to win this campaign badly so that their enemies wouldn't be able to sneak up on them from behind. "Kal, we still need a contingency plan in case Peter doesn't get here in time."
Kal sighed. "Let's get back to the tent," he finally suggested. They nudged their horses back to the encampment. The sentry outside the tent saluted them and opened the tent flaps for them to enter before leaving to call Randolph's lieutenants and their other allies for another round of war council. It was in the midst of the meeting that Kal looked up from studying the map and encountering a pair of eyes he never thought to encounter out here. The others realizing that their commander was no longer focusing on the discussion looked up as well. When Randolph realized the identity of the person in front of him, he blanched.
Lex watched his twin gaping at him with amusement. "What? No greeting for your savior? I brought your reinforcements, gentlemen."
Kal recovered himself and quickly drew Lex into an embrace. "Welcome. How did you know about our predicament?" he asked after releasing him.
"I met Sir Peter and his knights. Given that it wasn't a royal decree, he wasn't able to muster the full amount of knights you requested. Upon passing Luthor, he confided in me, asking me to provide the balance. Kal, why didn't you let anyone know about the seriousness of this invasion?"
"You mean why didn't I tell you?" Kal shot back.
Lex answered softly, "Aye."
Randolph looked at the two brothers and decided it was best that they settle whatever they needed to settle without witnesses. Gaining permission from Kal, he ushered the others out and ordered that food was to be sent into the tent. He then left the two brothers facing each other alone.
After they were left alone, Lex lifted his eyebrow and said, "Well?"
"Where is Father Bill now?" Kal asked a seemingly unrelated question.
"Please answer me this one question and I'll tell you what this is about."
"He's at the Palace at the moment. He's been there since the tournament ended. Why?"
Kal hesitated, wondering if he should trust his brother. There was a part of him that wished he didn't have to doubt his own twin. He hated this nagging doubt because it wasn't natural to him at all. Yet, for El's sake, he needed to be cautious. "One of Randolph's spies in Nor confirmed our suspicions about Archbishop William. He's one of King Gar's contacts in El. If he were at Luthor, he would have known the number of forces you've brought with you and we would be at a disadvantage again."
"But that doesn't answer why you've not tried to reach me in the past month or so," Lex protested.
Kal paced as he picked out some garbled shouts outside of the tent. The men were trying to reorganize the camp to make room for the newcomers. "I didn't know if he was still at Luthor. Did you know that we were ambushed that night we tried to leave Luthor?"
Lex grimaced at the memory. "Yes, Sir Daniel told me. I'm sorry, Kal. I had never thought that they would plan to ambush you. When I got wind of the plan, I had someone deliver a message to the bardic guild. Unfortunately Father Bill covered his tracks well. I couldn't find any hard evidence against him."
"Was he suspicious of you? What was his reaction to the aborted ambush?"
"I covered up the whole incident. If he heard it from those who ambushed you, he hid it well."
"So no one knew that I was even there?"
"None," Lex affirmed. "Where is your wife? Lois, isn't it?"
Kal's hair at the back of his neck rose at the question. Perhaps having her stay at the Fortress of Solitude wasn't a good idea. While there was at least a squadron left to guard the citadel, they would be vulnerable to treacherous forces. "I left her with her kinsfolk," he lied. "This is no place for a woman and I didn't want to endanger her."
"That's a wise decision," Lex said, rising. "Perhaps tomorrow morning you can bring us up to speed on the current situation, and if we have time, on your adventure thus far?"
"Perhaps. Good night, Lex."
Lex was about to turn when he spun back and pulled Kal into a fierce embrace. "It's really good to see you. I've been hearing all sorts of wild tales and I know that you were in danger more than once these couple of months. Kal, you don't know how worried I am."
Kal's heart softened at the heartfelt words. "Lex…"
"Now, don't go soft on me, brother of mine," Lex teased.
"Ha! Go on with you." Kal watched his twin exit the tent, his heart divided. He wished that Lois was around to talk to. He needed her advice on how to deal with Lex.
"Your Highness, wake up."
Kal opened his eyes at the familiar voice. "James?"
The young man grinned at his master. "Aye, Your Highness. Me and Valiant."
"Valiant? How did the two of you…"
"I begged Sir Peter to let me come. And I knew you needed Valiant, so when we passed through Trent, I fetched Valiant from Squire White," James explained.
"How was he?" Kal asked, as he got up and did his morning ablutions.
"He missed the princess and asked me to give this to her if I were to meet her," James said, showing Kal the sealed scroll. "He figured that she would be with you."
Kal stood still for a second, an idea dawning on him. James was startled at his huge grin. "James, I want you to go to the Fortress right away. Don't tell anyone your destination. I'll make your excuses for you, so not to worry. Give the message to Lois and stay by her side. Don't let her out of your sight, is that understood?"
James frowned. "Why?"
"She's in a lot of danger. I hadn't wished to leave her there but I couldn't bring her with me either. Now that you're here and you've an excuse to meet her, this is a great opportunity for you to ensure her safety. Can you do this?" Kal stared James in the eye, assessing the young man's readiness to serve him.
James stood taller, meeting Kal's eyes squarely. "Aye, Your Highness. I'll guard her with my life."
Kal broke into another grin. "Good. Ride straight to the Fortress and try not to let anyone follow you."
"Where is James going, Your Highness?" Sir Peter appeared beside Kal as they both watched the cloud of dust following James's exit rapidly disappearing in the morning light.
Kal turned to greet his old friend, teasing lightly, "What's this, Peter? No 'good morn' or 'well met' for me?"
"Should I bow low and grovel at your feet, my Lord?" Peter teased back.
Laughing, Kal embraced Peter. "It's good to have you here, old friend. We will need your expertise before the day ends."
"Aye, I'm here to serve at the prince's pleasure. Now, my Lord, you still haven't explained where James was going."
Kal lifted his eyebrow. "Do you need to know, Peter?"
There was an edge to his question that made Peter wince. "I thought we needed every able body for this war, Your Highness. While I'm not questioning your orders for him, I would like to know what was urgent that you would excuse him from this war," he said, his voice steady. He knew that Kal wouldn't be offended by frank talk. In fact, the prince encouraged it among his men.
Kal regarded his seneschal for a long while, making Peter perspire in the cool morning air. At last he spoke, "One less person fighting isn't going to affect much. Besides, James wouldn't be of much use in the battlefield. I've sent him to deliver an important message for me. Come, let us go to the command tent and plan today's battle. I want your report on our strength."
"Aye, my Lord," Peter said, bowing formally. He knew that Kal would brook no further inquiry on James's assignment.
They were soon joined by Randolph, his lieutenants and Prince Lex. The planning session went well as the men discussed the strategies to be used against their enemy. Kal watched Lex surreptitiously during the session but there weren't any suspicious suggestions by him. But then, Kal didn't expect there to be any. If Lex was involved, he wasn't so stupid as to be so obvious.
The battle was well and truly engaged, and from his vantage point on one of the hills, Kal thought that El's forces were doing quite well. The gypsies weren't involved in this battle, but were given the task of sneaking behind the enemy lines and raiding their camp. Kal wished for this battle to be the end of the whole campaign. By raiding their camp, Nor's forces would be unable to recoup and would be forced to surrender if El's men were able to carry the day.
His musing was soon interrupted by the signal he was waiting for. Randolph, as the provost marshal, had indicated that his forces were to engage the enemy soon. Kal signaled his men to be ready. Soon the enemy was being driven into the mountain pass beneath him, and El's archers began their attack. Volley after volley of arrows rained down upon the Norse army. Shouts of panic arose from the Norse army as they scrambled to dodge the rain of arrows. Unable to take cover or break through the attacking force led by Sir Peter, they retreated even further down the pass into the waiting arms of Kal's men.
Kal led his men into the foray, the heady feeling engendered the battle gripping him hard. He had abandoned Valiant's reins, using only his calves and knees to direct the warhorse, leaving his arms free to wield his sword and shield. He was glad for James's initiative to fetch Valiant for no other horse would have been intelligent enough to understand his commands. He was soon engaged in battle as the enemy, desperate to escape their fate, fought fiercely to free themselves from the trap.
Infantry as well as cavalry came up against him and were laid to waste as he transformed himself into the ultimate warrior that he was trained to become. Yet, even in the midst of the battle, he kept track of his men and the situation. He knew if the tide were turned, his men needed to retreat fast. An arrow whizzed past him as he dodged a sword thrust from one of Nor's knights. His sword flew to disarm the fellow and thrust forward into the knight's side. He then wheeled Valiant around to meet another blow from behind. A cut there, a thrust here, he granted no mercy to those who came up against him. His regrets and guilt would come later, after the battle, when he could afford the time and distraction. For now, his attention was fully engaged to the fight confronting him.
His ears pricked as he heard horns being sounded, an indication for Nor's forces to regroup. It also indicated the relative position of Nor's field marshal. Nudging Valiant, he slowly made his way towards the sound. The capture of Nor's field marshal would be crucial to win this battle, if not this war. Spying Lex working his way there as well, Kal knew that his twin had the same idea. Signaling Lex, the two brothers soon met up, flanking each other.
"Kal, go back to your troops. I'll get him for you." Seeing an incoming blow, Lex raised his shield before swinging his sword at the knight.
Kal held on as Valiant reared to strike against a foot soldier who attempted to thrust his spear at Kal. Kal quickly dispatched the fellow and turned back to Lex, saying, "Not on your life! You won't go there alone. He'd be well protected. I'll guard your back."
Lex didn't answer right away, being busy slashing at his enemy's horse, killing it instantly. "Kal, you're the crown prince. You will not endanger yourself unnecessarily."
"It's my duty as the Commander of El's army…"
"…to stay alive to fight this war. So go and fight. I'm not wasting more time," Lex interrupted him, before galloping away.
Kal watched his brother plunging into the nest of Nor's men, wishing that Lex didn't make sense. But Lex was right. It was too risky for him to capture Nor's field marshal. Silently wishing Lex luck, he turned his attention to the battle on hand. He was about to hit the person in front of him when he recognized who it was. "Ching?"
"Kal!" Ching lowered his sword.
"How are you doing?" Kal asked with a grin.
"Not too bad," Ching drawled. "But I hoped you'd have finished the war by now."
"Well why don't you tell your commander that?" Kal shot back.
"Unfortunately, he doesn't listen to me. Oh no. Incoming! I'd better head out. See you," Ching said, moving to meet his adversary.
Kal shook his head and made his way back to his men all the while engaging in more fights or assisting some of El's forces.
Lex was successful in capturing the field marshal and thus ending the battle early. With their marshal in El's hand, Nor's forces were in disarray and had little guidance. It didn't take them long to flee the scene, only to find their camp little more than charred ground, the gypsies having done their part in the war effort. With their morale already low from the severe blow they received during the battle, the loss of their camp prompted them to surrender to El's forces.
As the Commander of El's army, Kal accepted the surrender from the Norse commander and the disarmament of the Norse army. According to the terms of the surrender, Nor was to cover the cost of the war on both sides, and the Norse army was to leave the immediate area by daybreak the next day. Meanwhile, their commanders were to be "guests" in El's camp.
Letting Randolph and Peter settle their "guests" into the proper quarters, Kal and Lex made their way to Kal's tent. As they passed the soldiers, Kal could hear the celebration all around him at their victory. Lex's name was touted as the hero of the battle. They were stopped now and then as some of the braver men wished to toast Lex. Looking at his brother, Kal saw that he was enjoying the attention and the fame. This was after all Lex's first battle, Kal thought smiling with pleasure. His twin had conducted himself very well in battle.
Kal was about to retreat into his tent with Lex when a rider thundered to a stop in front of them. The rider dismounted with apparent haste and snapped to attention. "Your Highnesses! Mistress Lois is in grave danger!"
Kal looked at the rider, Sir Daniel, with narrowed eyes. If the poor man wasn't so exhausted, he would've likely shaken him to get him to spill his guts. If only he could jump onto Valiant and ride to Lois's side. But he needed to know where this danger was coming from before he could do anything. "Explain, Sir Daniel, and don't leave a single thing out," he instructed through gritted teeth.
Kal paced up and down the tent as Sir Daniel spilled all the information he had, "…and I believe, Your Highness, that the Archbishop is now on his way to arrest Lois."
Lex watched his brother, seeing the movement of the muscle near his jaws indicating he was gritting his teeth. He could almost see the steam streaming out of Kal's ears at Daniel's news. "Calm down, Kal," he advised.
"I am calm. As calm as anyone can be when his wife is being charged with treason." Kal took a deep breath before addressing Daniel, "How did the Archbishop manage to convince the king that my wife is working for Nor?"
"He had proof that she is King Gar's close cousin and that they had been in communication all this time. There was a letter describing how you were supposed to be ambushed and then brought to her so that she could nurse you back to health and seduce you into marrying her. Another letter detailed the plot to poison your parents so that you would inherit the throne sooner than expected."
Kal's eyebrows snapped together. "How did he find the letters?"
"The Church confiscated all her things when she was found guilty killing her foster mother and the Church knight. The letters were amongst her belongings," Daniel explained.
Lex frowned. "That excuse is very thin. If Lois was supposed to plan out all these things, she wouldn't leave incriminating evidence like that."
Kal nodded and started pacing again. "She's innocent. This is a ploy by Father Bill to get his hands on her. But how did he know where she is?" he asked, frustrated.
"I might have had something to do with that." Randolph walked into the tent.
Kal whirled around to face Randolph. "What do you mean? How could you betray my trust?" Kal growled at him.
"I didn't betray your trust knowingly, sire. It was unintentional, believe me. I sent a messenger to my father- in-law who's at court to let him know of what we're facing here and that Talia isn't as well protected as I would have liked her to be. Somewhere in the message was a mention of you and the princess. I think that's how they knew where the princess is."
Kal rubbed the back of his neck in consternation. He wished he was just a simple farmer and Lois, a simple wisewoman. Then life wouldn't be this complicated. "We need to rescue her. Randolph, call Peter in."
Randolph was about to leave when Lex put his hand out to stop him. Turning to Kal, he said, 'mounting some men to rescue Lois makes you a traitor, Kal. The arrest was issued by Father and if you carry out the rescue, you are going against your liege lord."
"Are you suggesting that I leave Lois to her fate?" Kal bristled.
"No, I'm not suggesting that. All I'm saying is that the rescue shouldn't be made public. We can trust the people in this tent not to say anything, but if we involve some of the knights, you're making them choose between their oaths to the king and their loyalty to you."
Kal looked around as the others nodded their agreement to Lex's assessment of the matter. "So what do you suggest?" he finally asked.
"Between Daniel, you and me, we can sneak into the citadel and stop Father Bill."
"You'll need me along," Randolph spoke up. "I know the various secret passages to the citadel. You won't get in without my help."
Kal looked at each man before nodding. "All right. Randolph, call Peter. He needs to be in charge here while we're gone."
Two nights later, Lois stood at the parapet, looking out at the mountains in front of her. She missed her husband a lot more than she thought she would. It had been three weeks since he had set out to meet the enemy forces and she had heard nothing from him. Talia had tried to engage her in the day to day running of the citadel but Lois knew that she was worried for her husband too.
Learning the ropes to run the citadel had occupied Lois somewhat, at least during the day. At night, however, was a different matter. She couldn't believe how she had gotten used to sleeping with a companion. Of course, Kal was a perfect companion for her. Unconsciously she sighed.
"They'll be back soon. Don't worry," Talia said, emerging from the shadows. She turned to watch the sunset over the mountains, still feeling that sense of awe as when she first set foot within the citadel. She knew she would never learn to be blas‚ over the beauty surrounding her home. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"
Lois nodded. For the past three weeks, she had come up here to watch the sunset, the time both she and Kal loved the most. Talia was right; the sunsets in the Marches were spectacular, taking her breath away every time she saw them. "Kal and I used to stop whatever we were doing just to watch the setting of the sun when we were camping in the wilderness. We'd marvel over the different hues of pink over the horizon until you could see the darkness slowly creeping in and the stars starting to appear in the sky. Sunsets seemed to be a magical time when everything on earth seemed to stop for an instant; when silence reigns and you feel as if you're alone and yet there's that sense of being part of a whole. I wonder if he has time to ponder the setting sun right now. Probably not," Lois rambled, not really addressing Talia.
Fortunately, the Countess of Marches understood her perfectly. In fact she was pleasantly surprised that the crown prince of El took time to admire the world around him. From her experience with the Court, she had known too many who were self-absorbed and cared little for others, what more for the natural world. "There is someone here to see you," she finally said.
Lois's eyebrows shot up. "Who is it?"
"He bears Kent's emblem so he might be a messenger from the prince," Talia said. "However he didn't choose to let me know, saying that his business is with you and you alone."
"That is strange. Would Kal send a message to me and not have Randolph send you something?" Lois asked cautiously. Something was wrong with the picture.
"I don't know but will you meet him?"
Lois's curiosity got the better of her and she agreed. They left the parapet and made their way down to the library where Talia had left her guest. Inside, an elderly man sat in one of the chairs, waiting for Lois patiently. He stood courteously when the ladies walked in. Lois was struck by a sense of familiarity as she gazed into eyes similar to her own.
"Your Highness," the man greeted, bowing respectfully to her.
"You mentioned that you've a message from my husband?" Lois went straight to the heart of the matter, seeing there wasn't a need to beat about the bush.
"No, not really. What I said was that I had business with you," the man patiently corrected her.
Lois narrowed her eyes. "I don't know you. How is it that you would have business with me?"
"My dear, while you may not know me, I know you quite well. After all, I've been keeping an eye on you since you were born, especially after your parents' death," said the old man, quite amused. "You might say that we're close, very closely related. After all, your father was my brother."
Lois gasped, "Archbishop William!"
"Must you be so formal? Shouldn't you greet your long lost uncle with a heartfelt hug?"
"I'd sooner hug a snake," Lois spat out, shocking Talia.
Talia had been quite lost at the conversation, but was sensitive to the tension in the room. Somehow she got the feeling that she had made a mistake in allowing the man into the Fortress. Taking initiative as the lady of the manor, she stepped forward and addressed the Archbishop, "Your Grace, I believe that the princess does not wish to continue this discussion. Perhaps you should leave."
Father Bill cast a glance at Talia before focusing his eyes back on Lois. Still when he spoke, it was Talia whom he addressed, "My lady, I'm afraid that isn't possible. In fact, you will find that you're now under house arrest."
Talia sputtered, outraged. "What do you mean, Your Grace? How dare you take advantage of my hospitality like this while my liege husband is away fighting on El's behalf!"
"Forgive me, my lady. It's nothing to do with you or your husband. I came for Mistress Lois."
"Came for Mistress…how dare you address her so lightly? She is Prince Kal's wife," Talia objected on behalf of her silent friend.
"Unfortunately the marriage is in question. It has not met the King's approval. In fact, I'm here on His Majesty's behalf."
"Oh? Which king is this, King Jor or King Gar?" Lois asked, sarcasm dripping from every word.
"Interesting accusation for a traitor," Father Bill said as if amused at Lois's comment.
"Traitor?" Lois was shocked to be accused. "What do you mean?"
"Unfortunately, we found your correspondence with your cousin, King Gar of Nor. King Jor knows how you plotted to seduce the prince into marrying you and your plans to use the arachid poison to kill their Majesties so that Prince Kal would be crowned king and you, his queen. We have the poison that was in your possession."
"I don't have any arachid poison. You manufactured all these "proofs" to cover your own complicity," Lois accused.
Father Bill's eyebrow lifted. "Are you denying that you're not related to King Gar? Or that you don't know anything about the arachid poison?"
Lois bit her lower lips. How did he know that she knew about her blood ties with the royal house of Nor? "King Gar must have alerted him about it, that's how," her inner voice said. "Now, don't give away anything."
"Are you here to arrest me then?" she asked without answering Father Bill's question.
"Seeing that you're my niece, I've asked the king to be the one in charge of arresting you and questioning you. If you admit to your treasonous acts, I'll do what I can to plead your case with the king."
Lois flinched at the sincerity in his voice. If she didn't know better, she would have taken him for a sympathizer and would have trusted him. Sneaking a glance at Talia, she saw that her new friend was torn between her newfound loyalty to Lois and the accusation leveled at her. "I'm innocent, unlike you, Your Grace. If there's someone who's been corresponding with King Gar, it would be you." Lois tried to bluff, "In fact, Kal has evidence that you've been corresponding with King Gar long before I was born. That you're behind the attack on Kal."
Unfortunately, Father Bill had a poker face and didn't change his expression while looking at her. Lois wished she could do something to change that pitying look on his face, so she continued, "I do believe you're the one behind my parents' murder. Father Tempus was just carrying out your command. I wonder what sort of person would order his brother's own death. What made you do it? Was it my mother's refusal to share the secrets of the arachid plant with you? Or were you angry that my father decided to go with his heart and married my mother instead of Queen Lara as you planned? Or is it just something you decided on the spur of the moment? You know, like 'I'm bored today. I think I'll have someone kill my brother and his wife.' Or perhaps, you lusted after your brother's wife and she refused you? Well, which one was it?"
Before she could dodge, she found herself on the floor, her left ear ringing, her head pounding, and the left side of her face totally numb. But she took comfort that Father Bill was no longer so smug. In fact, he looked furious, almost murderous.
Talia was shocked at the unfolding event, rushing to Lois's side. "Are you all right?" she asked, helping Lois to her feet.
"I'm fine," Lois assured her even though she didn't feel fine. But she didn't want to give her uncle the satisfaction of knowing how badly he hurt her.
Talia glared at the archbishop. She couldn't believe how he was behaving. "Your Grace, this is not the way to treat Her Highness. Even if the charges against her are true, she should be given proper representation. Not to be slapped around."
Father Bill returned her glare with a dismissing look. "My lady, please retire to your rooms. Your presence here isn't needed."
"I don't think so," Talia said, defying him. "Not after what you did."
"Do not force my hands," Father Bill warned her. "You're an innocent party but if you continue to insist on defending Mistress Lois, your act will be deemed as treacherous. That would wound your father who has devoted his life as El's Chancellor and even your husband. Think first, my lady."
Talia's chin rose. "My father would be the first to ensure that justice is served. There is no justice here."
Before the archbishop could say anything, Lois placed her hand on Talia's arm. "Talia, don't worry. I'll be fine. Go on."
"I can take care of myself. His Grace will not harm me," Lois reassured her friend. She didn't want Talia caught in the crossfire. Besides, Father Bill was more likely to reveal his motives without Talia around.
Talia looked into Lois's eyes, searching for something. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, go on."
Biting her lips, Talia nodded and left. Both the archbishop and Lois watched her leave in silence which was only broken by the soft click of the closing door. Lois turned her attention back to her uncle who had settled back down into the chair. "She's gone and we're alone. There's no need for pretence. At least give me the courtesy of the truth about my parents," she told him, her voice strong.
"What do you want me to say?" he asked her.
For a long while he kept silent as he weighed the repercussions if he were to talk. Finally he spoke, "Yes ultimately I ordered their execution. It wasn't an easy decision. But it had to be done."
"What wrong did they commit that you…"
He interrupted her with a hand held up. "Fate seems to play an important part in things. If only Samuel hadn't fallen for Ellen and eloped with her, he could have been the second most powerful duke in the kingdom. But he did and that led me to learn about the existence of your mother. When Gar contacted me, he knew that Ellen was my sister-in- law. He persuaded me to contact them to find out two things from her: the secret of the arachid and the whereabouts of his father. Imagine my surprise that the late King Dor wasn't dead as everyone supposed," he said sarcastically.
He then continued, "Until King Dor is truly dead, Gar's position on the throne of Nor wasn't secure. But your mother refused to tell me and your parents found out about my connections to Nor. Since they were unwilling to be accomplices and they had the royal connections, no matter how strained it was, I had to ensure their silence. Tempus was the perfect person to carry out the plan; it didn't take long to convince him that your mother was a witch and ought to be "cleansed." He is rather rabid about witchcraft, and I really need someone like that to misdirect my enemies."
"What do you want with me then? The arachid secret? I don't know anything. I didn't even know about my parents or grandparents till recently," Lois told him, hoping he would believe the half-truths.
The archbishop leaned forward to study her closely. "Yes, I know. I made sure that you knew nothing of your heritage."
"You did? Why?" Lois asked, curious. "Why did you spare me?"
"You're after all my niece, and besides I had plans for you."
"Just like you did my father?"
"Aye, I thought that when the time was right I would come to claim you, perhaps arranging your marriage to the king."
"The king is already married," Lois said disdainfully even though she understood what Father Bill was saying.
"Don't be coy, Lois. I'm sure you know the plan to replace King Jor with a candidate of my choice."
"So I gather. Since it's not Kal, I suppose it's Lex?" she baited.
Father Bill smiled enigmatically and leaned back. "Now, that would be telling. I never reveal my secrets until the time comes."
"So, what now? You're not going to risk bringing me back to court to reveal all your dirty secrets," Lois guessed accurately.
"No, you're right. Right now, you're bait."
Lois's eyes widened. "No! Not Kal!"
"Impressive my dear," her uncle commented. "I wish I didn't have to sacrifice you. Your talents would have been a great use to me. But I can't let you live after knowing my secrets."
He would have said more when there was a knock on the door. "Enter."
Tempus came in with a Church Knight carrying a struggling figure. Lois gasped as she recognized the figure. "James!"
Tempus flashed her a contemptuous look as he bowed to the archbishop. "Your Grace, we caught this young man trying to force his way in."
Father Bill smirked, motioning the knight to release the squire. James glared at the knight, righting his tunic and bowed to both Lois and the archbishop. "Your Highness, Your Grace," he greeted.
"Young Master James," Father Bill acknowledged. "What are you doing here?"
"I was sent here, Your Grace, to give Her Highness her letter from her father," James explained, his eyes taking in the tableau in front of him. There was no doubt that something was wrong. What was the archbishop, the person Prince Kal was convinced was a traitor, doing here? Why was he alone with the princess? Given that the Church knights were everywhere in the citadel, it was more than likely that the archbishop had full control here.
"My father? You've seen my father, James?" Lois enquired.
"Yes, Your Highness. He's well and hoped that I could pass this to you," James said, holding out the sealed scroll.
Lois glanced at Father Bill before accepting the scroll. She was glad that he didn't make an issue of her reading the scroll without him scanning the contents beforehand. Breaking the seal, she took in Perry's distinct handwriting. All of a sudden, she felt a pang of homesickness, wishing that she were home with her parents. That led her to remember her mother's death at the hands of the Church knights. Ultimately, the man responsible for her death, and also of her real parents' death, was right in front of her. She narrowed her eyes, controlling her anger. It wouldn't do to lose her temper at this time.
As if he knew what she was thinking, Father Bill smirked at her, stoking her anger even further. To distract herself, she went back to the letter. Most of it were just news of the village and of himself. There was a small paragraph about Alice's funeral. On the whole it was impersonal and she didn't quite know what to make of it. But she put it aside for her main concern now was on saving herself and James.
"How is Squire White?" Father Tempus asked snidely.
She turned cold eyes on him. "Very well, thank you, considering how his wife died."
"Yes, it's a shame that she had to bring up a witch who brought about her death."
Lois's temper snapped and she was about to claw his eyes out when James swung out a surprise punch to his stomach. Tempus doubled over while the Church knight restrained James.
"Enough!" Father Bill snapped. "You have delivered your message, Master James. Now you can leave."
"I have instructions to stay with Her Highness, Your Grace. I cannot leave," James insisted, struggling against the knight.
"Mistress Lois is under house arrest, at His Majesty's order. I will not permit anyone near her. Go back to your master, James," Father Bill told him coldly.
James's jaws dropped at the news. How was it possible that she was under arrest? He had to let Prince Kal know, but on the other hand, he was tasked to keep the princess safe. How was he going to do that if he wasn't around? Soon the decision was taken out of his hand when the knight hauled him out of the room and the citadel altogether. Taking a last look at the Fortress of Solitude, he left to get Kal.
After leaving instructions with Sir Peter, the small band made its way out of the camp, back to the citadel. Riding hard it had taken them almost two days to reach the citadel. Kal wished it hadn't taken so long to reach the Fortress of Solitude. In fact, he wished he could fly. A stray thought about the choice between being invisible and flying came to mind. Of course, being invisible would definitely aid him slipping into the citadel. He shook his head to clear it of the fanciful thoughts. He could neither fly nor make himself invisible. So he had to make do with whatever resources he had. He just hoped that they were not too late.
He wondered if he was right to trust Lex and include him in the band. He knew that he could trust Randolph and, to some extent, Daniel, for he had proven himself before. But his doubts about Lex were weighing heavily on his mind. Given what he knew, Kal hoped that Lex wasn't the one King Gar wanted on El's throne. After all, Lex wasn't one to be someone's puppet and that was what Gar intended. However he couldn't figure out who the candidate might be.
It was just beyond one of the Citadel's hills that they ran into a frenzied James. "Your Highness! I'm glad that you're here. Her Highness is being arrested by Archbishop William. He threw me out of the citadel like I was trash. I'm sorry! I really am. I wished I was able to carry out your orders to stay…"
"James, James, it's all right. Calm down," ordered Kal. Once his squire was calm enough, he then commanded, "Now tell me what happened from the beginning."
James told them about arriving at the citadel, only to find the place swarming with Church knights. He had requested to see Lois but was refused. So he resorted to try sneaking in, an attempt which sadly failed. The Church knight who captured him brought him to Father Tempus who in turn brought him to see the archbishop. He was surprised to find Lois with the archbishop but managed to deliver the message from her father, before being booted out of the citadel and told to return to Kal.
"How was she?" Kal asked anxiously.
"She looked fine, if a trifle pale, Your Highness. There was a definite tension between the archbishop and her, but he hadn't harmed her in anyway physical way," James told him.
"Where were they when you were brought to them?" Lex asked.
"In a study, somewhere near the west wing."
"Did you see my wife or any of my household?" Randolph enquired.
"No, my Lord. Not your wife. But I did spy some servants lurking around, serving the Church knights."
"Randolph, I doubt Father Bill is going to harm your wife. Given who her father is and the clout he has, Talia should be safe," Lex tried to assure the agitated man.
"If he could do it to the crown prince's wife, he could certainly do it to mine," Randolph pointed out.
"He has motive to do it to Lois but not to Talia," Lex reasoned out.
"Who knows what he thinks," Randolph said bitterly.
Lex would have commented further but was silenced by a look from Kal. Kal took in his companions for this particular caper. They were such a mix group and none of them had much practice in rescue operations. Till now he hadn't thought anything beyond the need to get to Lois, but James's story forced him to confront the inadequacies of their plan. It was time for another approach. "Why don't we rest for now? Get some sleep," he suggested.
The rest looked at him as if he had gone mad. "We'd lose the advantage of the night cover if we do that," Daniel argued. The others murmured their agreement.
"We're not going in without any preparation. To do that is worse than to lose the night advantage. From the way things sound, no one is in particular danger. So we can use the rest. After fighting the battle and the hard ride, we're not in any condition to mount a rescue. Tomorrow we can plan properly."
While the others weren't too keen to accept, none could refute the logical argument and so they made camp just a stone throw away from the citadel, without the benefit of fire so as not to alert the guards to their presence. Kal watched till everyone else was asleep before quietly rising and mounting Valiant. Moving so quietly as if they were shadows, Kal and Valiant disappeared from the camp within minutes.
Lois was locked in a staring match with Father Tempus when the Church knight excused himself with his loud protesting burden. She knew that James would be all right but she was worried that Kal would fall into the trap. She wished there was some way for her to alert him, but since James was already gone, there was no way for her to secretly pass him a message.
Father Tempus smirked. "You don't seem particularly worried for your friend, Mistress Lois. I knew that you weren't the do-gooder that the villagers hail you as," he taunted her.
Father Bill observed Lois's heightened color and knew that she was very angry. He didn't warn Tempus of it just so that he could enjoy the fight he knew was coming.
"I never touted myself as a do-gooder. If there's anyone who blew his own horn, it's you. Unfortunately no one knows what you really did; accusing an innocent woman of witchcraft, sentencing her to death, collaborating in the death of another innocent woman, and finally siding with a traitor, all for your own benefit and greed. If there's anyone who's not what he seems to be, it's definitely the both of you," she said coldly, including both Tempus and her uncle in her statement. "Now, if neither of you have anything more to say, I'm going to bed."
She made for the door, only to be stopped by Tempus. Glaring at him, she bit back her protests. She then turned to Father Bill who stared back at her. "Well?" The icy tone would have rivaled any royalty in its disdain.
"Let her go," Father Bill finally said.
Not acknowledging him, Lois swept out of the room, followed closely by two Church knights who had orders to ensure that there was nothing in her room that would aid in her escape and to guard her well. She allowed herself the humiliation of strangers pawing at her possessions, the little there was, glad that at least they didn't strip search her. For now the journal was safe, but she didn't know for how long. She needed to escape fast.
Kal looked up at the impressive walls of the citadel. Once again he couldn't help but be awed at the skills and genius of the people long dead. But still, they were only human, and so there were weaknesses in their creation. Long ago, his father imparted to him the secrets to entering the citadel without alerting any of the guards. The secret passage into the citadel was only known to King Jor who stumbled across it during one of his sojourns to the citadel. There were other ways of breaching the Fortress of Solitude, of which Randolph knew much more than he, but this was one way which none else knew.
He knew that he was taking a big risk coming here alone, but it was less risky than to come here with the others, one of them being Father Bill's spy. In his gut, he knew that by rescuing Lois he was walking into a trap. But there was no way that he was willing to leave Lois to the mercy of Father Bill and his cronies. This was the best way, to his mind. Emerging from the tunnel into one of the many corridors in the citadel, he took a few moments to orientate himself. Once he was certain of his position, he moved swiftly but silently toward the royal suite. He hoped that Lois was there.
Lois frowned at the two smirking guards as she poked her head out the door. "Will one of you please ask Gertha, the maid, to come and draw me a bath?" she ordered imperiously before closing the door again.
Her mind whirled trying to put an escape plan into action. She just hoped that Gertha was willing to help. The girl had been assigned to help her since she arrived and had shown a certain spunk which Lois found endearing. Besides the girl could almost be her double in size and coloring. Soon she heard a knock on the door. Giving her permission to enter, Lois watched two male servants coming in to place the tub full of steaming water near the fireplace and Gertha bustling behind them. They all looked rather strained and nervous. The two men bowed and left while Gertha stayed behind, busying herself with arranging the towels and soap for the bath.
Once Lois was assured that the door was closed and that no ears could be listening, she pulled Gertha to the further end of the room. Quickly she explained what she had in mind, hoping that the girl wouldn't betray her. Gertha's eyes grew large as she heard the plan but was amenable to helping Lois out. Erecting up the bathing screen, they changed clothes and Gertha slipped into the deliciously warm bath. Lois had permitted her to make full use of the bath to her delight.
Lois put on Gertha's clothes and serving cap, obscuring her features. Hopefully the guards wouldn't observe her to closely to notice that the serving maid that went in wasn't the one who was slipping out. To her immense relief, they didn't. She swiftly made her way to the servant quarters, hoping to sneak out in one of the supply wagons coming into the citadel in the morning. Unfortunately, in her haste, she collided with someone. Her heart tripped as she regained her balance. "Let it not be someone who knows me," she prayed.
"Lois?" the person gasped.
Her head snapped as she recognized the voice. "Kal?" Her heart skipped a couple of beats as she drank in the sight of her beloved husband. He had grown thinner in the time they had been apart, and he looked rather haggard. "What are you doing here?" she hissed as the situation intruded on her thoughts. "Don't you know that this is a trap? They wanted you to come here so that they could do away with you."
"I know. But no one knows that I'm here right now. Though we better not take the chance and get out of here fast. Nice costume, by the way," he teased, smiling broadly even as he tugged her into following him.
Lois wished she could do more than just follow him. But she knew that there wasn't time for them to exchange a kiss, much less catch up on the weeks of separation. Their lives depended on whether they could get out of the citadel unnoticed, which brought up an interesting point; how did Kal get in? She was about to ask him when she realized that he was taking her out the same way he came in. She would learn the secret shortly.
They stayed in the shadows as they moved toward the secret entrance. Twice they had to stop and hold their breath when they heard voices around the corner. Luckily the voices soon died away as the knights moved away on both occasions. Lois could feel cold sweat running down her back as she waited, the second time worse than the first. Kal squeezed her hand reassuringly even though he was just as anxious. Thank goodness there weren't any other heart-stopping incidents after that, and soon they came to the entrance. "Wait here," Kal instructed, trying to find the secret mechanism to open it. Just as he managed to get it open, a voice rang out, "Stop!"
Before they could do anything, they were seized by rough hands and hauled to the study where Lois met Father Bill. Kal valiantly put up a struggle, but to no avail. His captor was a big, burly Church knight who resembled a gorilla and had no qualms at roughing up the heir to the throne of El. He stripped away all of Kal's weapons before tossing him onto his shoulder like a sack. Lois's captor was no better but Lois didn't struggle as much, seeing that there wasn't any way for them to escape just yet.
Their captors shoved them into the room and locked the door. Lois would have fallen if not for Kal's timely save. He put his arms around her waist to steady her, pulling her close in an embrace. "I'm sorry, Lois."
"Shh…" she put her finger on his lips, "it's not your fault. If you want to blame someone, blame my uncle. He is the mastermind behind all this, long before either of us was born."
He kissed her finger, before tightening his hold, pulling her closer. She closed her eyes as he lowered his lips to hers. The ensuing kiss was tender and almost heartbreaking as they renewed their connection after being apart for so long, drinking in each other's presence and desperately prolonging it, for they had no idea what would happen next. Lois clutched at Kal's tunic, deepening the kiss, their world narrowing to envelop only the two of them and none else. All thoughts of escape, in fact, all other thoughts flew out of their minds.
It was therefore not surprising that neither of them was aware of the door being unlocked, nor of the three men stepping in. It was only the loud bang of the closing door that drew their attention back to their surrounding. Reality returned with a vengeance when Kal saw who their "guests" were. Lois felt him stiffen and looked up to take in the identities of their visitors. Father Bill and Tempus she recognized but not the third man. From Kal's reaction, he knew very well who he was.
"What a touching reunion," Tempus mocked.
Lois dug her fingers into her palms in order to resist slapping his face, not that he didn't deserve it. However the situation was bad enough without her making it worse.
Beside her, Kal addressed the third man, "How did you get here so fast? I thought I left you sleeping?"
"I knew you would pull such a stunt. I waited till you were far enough before following you here," Lex explained calmly as if this was one of their usual conversations. "So this is my sister-in-law? I'm very pleased to meet you, my dear. I've heard so much about you, you know. Now I see why men are crazy about you."
Even though she had some suspicions, it was still a shock to find out the identity of the archbishop's candidate for the throne. Stiffly she just nodded her acknowledgement.
"What do you want, William?" Kal asked Father Bill, purposely omitting his title.
"That, my dear boy, is a loaded question. I want many things but we can't always get what we want, can we?"
Kal looked at him coldly, ignoring his question. "Well?"
"Perhaps you should ask your brother that instead? Lex?"
Lex's eyes narrowed for a brief moment, a crack in the urbane mask he wore. In the next instant he was once more the cool and collected man he showed to the world. A keen observer of human nature, Lois noted that he seemed to be very angry about something. She wondered the reason for his anger.
Ambling to one of the chairs, he started explaining, "Kal, you know very well what this is about; power. But for fate, I would have been born first and would stand to inherit this kingdom. We both know that of the two of us, I'm more suited to rule El. All you want is to coddle the peasants. Empower them, indeed. Don't you know that by doing so you will only bring chaos into the kingdom. We will lose power and one day they will do away with monarchy, and where will we be? When Father Bill proposed to me that he could make me king, I jumped at the chance. There was no other way that I would be able to inherit the throne unless you die."
"Was that the reason you supported my decision to leave the palace to investigate the suspicions of an invasion? You planned that attack," Kal accused.
Father Bill looked amused as he sat down near Lex. "You must say that it was too good an opportunity to let go. Of course we didn't expect that you would survive or stumble into the loving embrace of my niece. No, we had another fate planned for her."
Lois grimaced when she remembered her earlier conversation with Father Bill. "He planned for me to marry your twin," she told Kal.
His face clouded and there was a dangerous glint in his eyes. Lex noticed it and tried to head off the outburst. "I knew nothing of this plan, I assure you, Lois. If Father Bill truly planned such a thing, he didn't care to share it with me," he said, glancing at his old tutor.
"You want to steal his throne. Why shouldn't you try to steal his wife too?" Lois snapped at him.
"Because he would never forgive me?" Lex half-jested.
"You're right. Touch a hair on her head and you're a dead man." Clark's voice was calm but deadly.
Tempus who was still hovering near the door snorted. "How arrogant can you be? Here you are, our captive, your fate in our hands, and you would issue out threats?"
Once again, Lois noticed a slip in Lex's demeanor. He recovered well before anyone else noticed as he turned to address the priest, "You underestimate my brother, Tempus. I assure you that he is capable of carrying out his threat."
Father Bill lifted an eyebrow at his words but didn't comment.
"We are wasting time," Tempus growled. "Can we get on with our plans?"
"Patience, my friend," Lex said unruffled. "Remember that patience is a virtue." He turned back to Kal. Looking apologetic, he said, "As you can see Tempus is rather impatient to finish our business. However I believe you have the right to get some answers to the questions I know you're dying to ask. So ask and we'll try our best to answer them."
Lois couldn't understand what Kal's twin was playing at. Why was he delaying things? Kal seemed to relax the moment Lex turned back toward him. What did he know that she didn't? It was like there were two concurrent conversations going on; one she can hear quite well and the other a silent conversation between the brothers. Glancing around, she was surprised that neither Father Bill nor Tempus seemed to be aware of the other conversation. Was her mind playing tricks on her?
"A carte blanche, brother?" Kal asked mockingly. "Well, I must definitely take this opportunity. Perhaps someone can answer me one nagging question; who killed Father Andrew and why?"
Lex leaned back and looked at Father Bill whose countenance started to cloud at the name. "Father Bill?"
"I found out that Father Andrew, the thorn in my side for years with his scruples and idealism, was the deceased King Dor. King Gar was very interested to know that his supposedly dead father was very much alive. Of course, he wanted to rectify the situation. Having the arachid poison, it was easy to arrange Andrew's death. No one suspected anything until Brother Jonathan raised his suspicions and insisted to conduct his investigation. We may need to deal with the good brother soon. After all, didn't he marry you? He is definitely suspicious of me and that cannot go on unchecked."
Lois thought about her great uncle and wondered what kind of a man he was. She would have liked to have met him, but that opportunity was robbed by the same man who robbed her of her parents. She didn't know how she was going to do it but one day she would serve him the justice he deserved.
"What was your physician's role in this? Master Deter, wasn't it?" Kal asked Lex.
It was Father Bill who answered with a smirk, "Max was very cooperative and helpful. He lulled Father Andrew enough for the old man to drink the doctored medicine." He got up to pour himself a drink.
Kal asked another question, "How are you going to justify my death to Father? James and Randolph know the situation and will testify against you."
"They can level any amount of accusation they want but they have no proof of anything," Father Bill said triumphantly as he sipped his drink. "Now if you're done with the question, we better proceed with our agenda."
Father Bill looked at Lex in surprise. "Wait?"
"I will speak to Kal alone first," Lex rose as he spoke. The urbane mask he wore was replaced by a commanding presence that brooked no argument.
Father Tempus's eyes narrowed while Father Bill considered the "request." Lois wondered why Lex wanted to speak to Kal. Glancing at her husband she found him utterly at ease for someone who was about to die.
At last Father Bill relented. "Of course, Your Grace. A last goodbye." He bowed to both Kal and Lex before sweeping out the door.
Tempus seemed reluctant to follow but he did. After Kal gestured for her to leave, Lois gave his hand a squeeze before stepping out.
Tempus stood guard beside Lois as he held on to her arm. She glared at him and tugged away but couldn't shake off his hand. Father Bill had taken a seat on one of the cushioned benches along the corridor as they waited for Kal and Lex to finish their business. Lois's curiosity escalated as time flew by. The doors were too thick for any sound to penetrate. She hoped that Lex didn't try to kill Kal himself, but that wasn't likely.
"What's taking them so long?" Tempus grumbled beside her. "Your Grace, perhaps we should check on them."
Father Bill didn't respond as he stared unseeingly at the wall.
"Your Grace? Are you all right?" Tempus let Lois go as he stepped forward to check on Father Bill. He recoiled as soon as he touched the archbishop, his face twisted in horror.
Lois didn't get a chance to ask what was wrong when Kal and Lex stepped out, both armed with swords. Kal pushed her behind him as Lex greeted Tempus's rush with his sword. Hearing the sounds of clashing swords, several Church Knights appeared and soon Kal had his hands full fighting them.
In a momentary lull, Kal told her to make her way to Talia to ensure that she hadn't been harmed. Lois knew it was a ruse to get her out of harm's way but she was worried enough for her friend that she left Kal to finish the fight. Dodging several attempts to grab her, she raced to Talia's rooms. She stopped when she saw two Church Knights guarding the door. Her pursuers were nearing and she wasn't able to go forward. For a moment her panic rose and all rational thoughts left her. The one question in her mind was "why?" Why did fate conspire against her? Why was she dragged into a situation which was none of her making? Why was she denied of her parents' presence in her life? Why? Why? Why?
There was no answer and she felt the choking presence of fate whose hands seemed to be closing around her neck, squeezing her life out of her. For the first time in her life, she was paralyzed with fear. A shout rang from behind her; one of the Church Knights had spotted her. As if in slow motion she saw the guards at the door react to the shout and converged on her. Her mind, usually quick to think up an escape plan, wouldn't cooperate. Her body wasn't much better as it froze up like a statue even though her life was in peril.
Just as they reached her, the paralysis that kept her in place snapped and she was free. She darted out of the reach of the first Church knight only to find herself grabbed by another. Struggling furiously, she landed a couple of hard kicks on her captor's shin but it was futile. The other Church knights surrounded them, grabbing her legs till she was nearly in a horizontal position. But before they could do much worse, twangs were heard and her captors fell in a heap over her. Lois's panic returned as she struggled to get out from underneath the bodies. Luckily several hands reached out to help her.
"Your Highness," Randolph greeted with a smile. She looked around at the other men, most of them gypsies.
"How did you get in?" she demanded.
"I know of couple of entrances which are kept very confidential," he answered grinning. "Sorry that we were late. We were waiting for the backup." He gestured at the men who were dispersing to deal with the other Church knights who had surrendered.
"We?" Belatedly, she was reminded of Kal and Lex who were still fighting with Tempus and the other knights. Gesturing to several of the gypsies still milling around, she ordered, "Come with me."
Kal managed to subdue his last opponent and turned around to assist Lex only to find him crumpled in a pool of blood, Tempus no where to be seen. "Lex!" He gathered his twin into his arms.
"F…Forgive me, K…Kal," Lex struggled to overcome his pain to whisper.
"Shh…you're going to be all right," Kal tried to comfort him.
"No…no, d…don't lie. I know…forgive me." Lex clutched Kal's hand.
"I already did. You're my twin, how can I not." Kal gripped him hard as Lex shook, racked by pain. He could almost feel Lex's life ebbing from him and a haunting sense of loss seeped into his soul, leaving him cold. "Hold on, Lex. Hold on."
"It's cold, Kal. So very cold. Getting darker…c…can't hold on."
Kal saw that Lex's eyes were losing their focus and a sense of dread settled on him. "Come on, brother. Fight! Don't leave me alone!"
"Shh…" Lex squeezed his hands, coughing out blood. "I…leave you in good hands. She's something, your wife." A weak smile graced his face and never left it as the last of his breath escaped him.
The sense of loss was complete. Bereft, Kal was truly alone for the first time in his life. There was a gaping nothingness where once Lex occupied in his consciousness. The bond that had existed since birth was now completely severed. Kal didn't know whether his tears were the tears of sorrow or those of self pity.
That was how Lois found him. He wasn't aware of her presence until she laid a hand on his shoulder. "Kal…"
He looked up at her with unseeing eyes, tears still running freely down his cheeks. "He was a part of me. And even to the very last, he was protecting me," he said hollowly.
Lois crouched beside him, taking his hands into hers. She didn't notice the blood that covered them. She looked down at Lex's face and wondered at the peace evident there. "Kal, look at him. Lex is at peace. Let him go, sweetheart." She took a breath before continuing, "I know it must be difficult to do that, especially since you're twins. But your people need you, now more than ever. You cannot let your grief overcome you. He wouldn't want that; Lex was too good a ruler to let his people suffer."
"Hold me, Lois. Don't let me go."
Her heart broke at the heartfelt plea and she threw her arms around him, letting him cry on her shoulder. "I'm here. You can never lose me. Just as you won't lose him. No matter what, Lex is a part of you. He always will be."
The couple stayed thus for a long time till Kal's grief ran its course. "Thank you, Lois." The look in his eyes made her blush.
They both turned when they heard a discrete cough behind them.
"Your Highness, we were able to secure the citadel. The Church Knights have surrendered," Randolph reported.
"However, Tempus escaped." This was from Daniel who stood beside Randolph. "I've asked the gypsies to search the area. He couldn't have gotten far without a horse."
Kal straightened before helping Lois up. "Find him. I want my brother's murderer found!"
Daniel nodded and left.
"Randolph, get someone to take care of my brother's body. We will be escorting his body to the palace where his funeral will take place. James," Kal looked at his squire who had materialized by his side, "I need you to ride to the palace to apprise my parents of what has happened. Prepare your horse while I write the letter. Randolph, I need another man to deliver a message to Brother Jonathan of the Order of the Rose."
The two men immediately obeyed and left to see to their various tasks, leaving Kal with Lois. "Lois…"
"Go, Kal. Do what you must. When you've finished, I'll be in our chambers. Besides, I think there are some things I need to take care of myself."
Kal's gaze softened. He knew he had married the right woman; Lois accepted him for what and who he was. "Very well."
She turned to leave but was stopped by his hand on hers. "Lois, I love you," he said softly. She cupped his cheek in her hand and stroked it, returning Kal's smile. There wasn't any need to reply for the answer shone brightly in her eyes.
Reluctantly the lovers parted; Kal could still feel the caress on his cheek as he went into the study and drafted his letters to his parents and Brother Jonathan. The information Lex had imparted to him scant hours ago burnt in his mind as he penned down the request to his parents.
He had scarcely finished the letters when there came a knock on the door. "Come in."
James and another man came in and stood at attention.
Kal regarded both of them before turning back to apply his seal to the letters. He carefully melted the wax and let it drip onto the parchment. Then with great care, he pressed his signet to the wax. At last he turned back to them and beckoned the knight over. "What is your name?"
"Michael, Your Highness."
"Michael, I need you to take this to Brother Jonathan at the Rose Monastery. Make sure that you deliver it personally to him. Then wait for him, and escort him to the palace. I charge you with his safety. Is that clear?"
Sir Michael swallowed hard at the tone. "Yes, sire."
"Good. Here is the letter that you must pass to him."
Kal watched Michael as he left the room.
"Sire?" James ventured to ask.
Kal turned back to his servant. "You've been a loyal friend, James. Your parents would have been proud of you." Kal thought about James's father, a knight who had lost his life while trying to save Kal's. "I think you've more than earned your spurs."
James colored at the praise. "What do you need me to do, my Lord?"
"Get this letter to my father. I need you to be there for him when he finishes reading it. The content of this letter will be a hard blow to him. Answer any question that he has to the best of your abilities. When Michael returns with Brother Jonathan, I need you to ensure Brother Jonathan's safety. Limit his contact to only my parents and the seneschal. Right now, he will have many enemies within the Church as everyone will be scrambling for power."
"Will you be returning soon?"
"As soon as I finish here, James. You can be sure of that."
Kal was surprised to see Lois in the arms of another man when he returned to their chambers. But before he could react, she disentangled herself from the man and launched herself at Kal. "Are you all right?" she asked.
Kal couldn't answer because of the vise grip she had on his neck. Silently his eyes encountered the laughing eyes of Squire Perry White.
"Easy, Lois. Or you'll choke your husband to death."
"Oh." Embarrassed, Lois eased up and let Kal put his arms around her waist.
Kal grinned and offered his hand to his father-in-law. "Not that I don't welcome your presence, Squire White, but how is it that you're here?"
Perry shook his hand. "I came with Hawkin. Told me that you were in trouble. I couldn't just stand by without helping. And besides I miss my daughter," he said, smiling at Lois.
"Aye, it's good that you are here. There is something I need you to help me with." Kal indicated for Perry to sit, while guiding Lois to the loveseat.
"What can I do? It seems that you have everything under control here."
"Not here. In Trent."
"What's in Trent?" Lois asked, her curiosity finally overcoming her joy at being with the two men she loved the most.
"What documents?" Lois insisted.
Kal sighed. "When Lex was alone with me, he told me that there were documents hidden in the church in Trent proving that the Archbishop was working with Nor."
"How did he know this? And why Trent of all places?"
"Before Father Tempus took over, the priest who administered to Trent's needs was of the Order of the Rose. He was also an old friend of Father Andrew. It would seem that Father Andrew had him investigate Father Bill who at the time was the Bishop of Luthor. Unfortunately, his efforts were found out and Father Bill had him eliminated. However, the documents detailing his investigations were never found. The night he died, Father Andrew was trying to warn Lex about Father Bill and revealed to him where he might find those documents."
"But if Father Andrew knew where they were, why didn't he retrieve it himself?" Lois asked further.
"He couldn't because Father Tempus took over immediately, and Father Bill had Father Andrew under surveillance all the time."
"Why did Lex tell you this? Why hadn't he told Father Bill about it?"
Kal painfully recalled his last conversation with his twin. His voice shook as he answered her, "Lois, not tonight, please. I…"
Perry decided to step in before Kal lost his control. "Tell me where I can find the documents. The church is pretty big and there are a lot of concealed places."
Kal smiled gratefully and told his father-in-law. He was glad when Perry decided to leave immediately to retrieve the documents. They agreed that he would ask Chief Hawkin along with him and they would all meet at the palace to settle everything, once and for all.
After Perry left, Kal and Lois lay together in silence for a long time, each taking comfort from the other's presence. The day's events were taking their toll as sleep overtook them.
Lois woke up to the sound of her husband's gentle snoring. If he were awake, he would have denied that he snored. She smiled at the thought and continued to observe him. In repose, his features softened to a youthful, innocent look. She was glad that his sleep wasn't disturbed by the obvious grief for his brother. She didn't know what to make of Lex. He had obviously been involved with her uncle, and yet he had betrayed him to protect Kal. She couldn't fathom the reason, and so hadn't been able to make up her mind as to his character. But obviously, Kal was very much affected by his death. She wished there was a way for her to help him through the grieving process, for she knew from first hand experience that it had only begun. She feared that he might shut her out as he did last night when she pressed him about Lex.
She must have communicated some of her distress to him for Kal's eyes began to flutter and soon opened. "Good morn, sweet prince," she greeted him, placing a kiss on his lips.
"Now, this is a pleasant way to wake up. Good morn, lovely princess," he greeted back, a smile brightening his face.
"Hmm…it is." Lois snuggled into his arms. "How was your sleep?"
Kal's eyes twinkled as he answered, "I dreamt of a fair land with the most beautiful princess there ever was, and she was in love with me."
"Am I supposed to be jealous of this princess?"
"Only if you're jealous of yourself."
They lingered in bed, savoring each other's comforting presence. At last, Lois gathered her courage to broach the subject of Lex. "Kal, tell me about Lex."
Kal stiffened in her arms, as he was reminded of his loss. Lois stroked his hair slowly to remind him that he wasn't alone. Soon he relaxed enough to answer, "It's not easy, Lois."
"I know but I'm not going anywhere."
She bit back the hurt when he left her arms, put on his robe, and crossed over to the fireplace. He took his time to stoke the fire while she watched his back. She longed to go to him but knew that he needed the space. "Kal?" she whispered softly.
"We were very close. Before this, I would have sworn that there weren't anyone closer." There was a tremor in his voice that hinted at unshed tears. "But to be honest, there was always a sense of competition between us. Once when we had a great fight, he told me that I didn't deserve to be firstborn. I guess he had always wished that he was the heir instead of me."
Even though he couldn't see it, Lois nodded her understanding. "Was that why he decided to work with the Archbishop?"
"Father Bill was our tutor, but he was closer to Lex than me. I guess he knew of Lex's ambitions and saw the opportunity to rid himself of the royal family of El. Lex told me that he found out about Bill's plans to kill my parents, me, and lastly him, before installing Ching as the new King of El." Kal finally finished stoking the fire and turned back to her.
"Ching! But how's that possible?" Lois was shocked. She hadn't realized that Ching was the real candidate Bill was referring to.
"Remember that Ching's mother was my father's cousin? As the only other male issue of the royal house, he is the third in line to the throne after me and Lex," he replied, taking off his robe and slipping back into bed.
She scooted back to give him room. "How did Lex find out?"
Kal grinned as he remembered asking the same question to Lex. "Lady Cox happens to be a very talented woman, or so Lex tells me."
Lois blushed when she realized the implications. "Oh."
Gathering her in his arms once more, Kal smirked. "That's right. Well, one thing in her favor was her loyalty to Lex. Anyway, Lex found out about Bill's connection to Nor and sought to use him to ferret out the network of traitors Bill had been building through the years."
"Why hadn't he alerted you to it?"
Kal was silent for a long time till Lois feared that she might have said something wrong. She was on the verge of apologizing when he responded. "Lex was brutally honest when he told me that he seriously considered to let Bill have his way with me. But I guessed he changed his mind."
"Did he say why?" Lois was curious.
"When I was wounded, he felt the pain and the loss. It shook him and made him realize finally that we were part of each other; that we weren't whole without…" his voice died away.
Lois looked up to see the tears coursing down his cheeks. Gently she wiped them away. "I'm sorry, Kal. I wish…"
"You know his lasts words were of you."
Lois lifted an eyebrow, startled.
"He wasn't worried about leaving me, for he knew that I was in good hands. Lois, Lex was a part of me, and there'll always be a hole where he once was. But it's not as big a hole that it would cripple me for life. And that's thanks to you. Until you, I never knew that I was incomplete. You completed me. He was right; unlike him, I can survive because I have you."
Her breath caught as she saw the love and sincerity shining in his eyes. "Oh Kal," she sighed as he leaned forward for a kiss.
Much later, they emerged from their chambers to find Randolph, Peter, and Daniel waiting for them. Kal introduced Peter to her and saw to her comfort before facing the men. "Have you found Tempus?" he asked Daniel.
"No, unfortunately our search turned up nothing. He seemed to have vanished into thin air."
"How's that possible?" Kal demanded.
"I'm not sure, Your Highness." Daniel glanced at Randolph, hoping that he could help.
Kal saw the glance and turned his attention to the Earl. "Randolph?"
"My men have searched the parameter and all the secret passages we know of. There was no sight of him."
Kal gritted his teeth in an attempt to keep his temper. It was neither Daniel's nor Randolph's fault that Tempus had escaped. "I want him found. No matter the cost. Mobilize the men to search high and low; post reward for his arrest."
"He might seek asylum with the Church, Kal," Lois pointed out gently.
"Right," he agreed. "Notify the Church and the people in general that if they harbor him or aid him in any way, they will be taken as accomplices to the murder of Prince Lex of El.
"Peter, what's the status on the Norse army?" he asked Peter as Randolph excused himself to relay the earlier order.
"We're about to escort them back to the border. Sir Charles is commanding the escort team. Sire, there was a Major from the Norse army who asked me to give this to you," Peter reported as he produced a sealed parchment.
Kal broke off the seal and scanned its content. He then passed it to Lois before bringing back his attention to Peter. "Thank you. Once Sir Charles and his team return, I want you to divide the men into two forces. Include Lex's men in the second force and select someone you trust to command it. They're to keep a lookout for any mischief from Nor."
"What about the first force?"
"I want you to lead an arrest team." He passed Peter a list. "These are nobles and members of the Church who were involved in King Gar's plot."
"Sire?" Peter glanced through the list. "We can't just arrest them without any proof."
"Just get them to the palace, Peter," Kal said, irritated that Peter was questioning him.
"We have proof!" Kal gritted out. "My brother took great pains to document proof of their duplicity. Now go."
Peter, shocked at Kal's outburst, decided that retreat wasn't a bad idea. Kal just watched him leave. Turning to Daniel, Kal was surprised to see a smirk on his face. "Why are you smirking?" he asked irritably.
"Sorry. It's just that I never thought I'd ever like you, not to mention having to answer to you…well, to Sir Clark, I mean."
Kal and Lois exchanged glances. "Well, I didn't expect to like you either."
"Yes, it seems like ages ago that the three of us had that dinner at my cottage," Lois joined the conversation. Kal noticed her wistful look and squeezed her hand. For his effort, he was bestowed a slight smile.
Daniel watched the exchange between the couple and reflected back to the time of the dinner. He recalled hearing them talk from the outside and thinking that they seemed very much a couple instead of two strangers thrown into a situation together. Even then, the bond between them was tangible. Now, it was sparkling clear as they gazed into each other's eyes. No doubt, he never stood a chance with Lois. He cleared his throat.
"Don't worry, we didn't forget you." He could hear the amusement in Kal's voice. "Actually I need you to do something for me."
Daniel reacted to the serious tone and unconsciously stood at attention. "What needs be done?"
"I need you to fetch Lady Cox to the palace for me. Tell her to bring along the documents that Lex entrusted to her."
Daniel grinned and saluted Kal. "An interesting performance that you're putting together, sire. I guess I should leave soon so that all the players will be there for the opening act." He bent to kiss Lois's hand, winking at her, and turned on his heels, leaving the royal couple alone at last.
Lois scanned the parchment in her hand once more as Kal settled down in the opposite winged chair. "Do you think he will be successful?" she asked Kal.
Kal regarded the letter in silent. "I hope so. I've no jurisdiction over Nor, but Ching has. If he can overthrow Gar, we'll have one less thing to worry about."
"King Gar has many supporters at court. I hope Ching knows what he's doing."
"Don't worry. I know Ching. He can handle the situation."
She hesitated before plunging on, "But given what Lex told you, can he be trusted?"
"If he was involved in the plot, he wouldn't have aided us. So yes, I'm fairly certain that he can be." He then changed the topic. "We need to leave soon."
"Are we heading to the palace?"
"Yes. So can you be ready by midday?"
"There's nothing much to pack. All I have to do is say good bye to Talia."
"Good." He got up and placed a kiss on her forehead. "I'll see you in a while."
She watched him stroll out the door, and sighed. Daniel's remarks made her long for the quiet, uncomplicated days when she only knew her husband as Sir Clark. She just hoped that whatever he was planning would soon be over and her life could return to normal. Well, as normal as it would be, married to the heir of El. She wondered what her in- laws were like. Even though they've never met, it would seem that they had gone off on the wrong foot. Would they be glad to see her when matters were cleared up? Or would they request that Kal divorce her?
Sighing, she told herself that it didn't matter. As long as Kal loved her, she didn't need anyone else's approval. "But who am I kidding?" She sighed again and left the room to say her goodbyes.
Once again Lois was on the road. This time, however, she was traveling in style with a company of the most gallant knights in El, and in a luxurious coach, compliments of the Earl and Countess of Marches. But it didn't help one bit with her nervousness. Kal had tried to reassure her that she had nothing to worry about; that once the misunderstanding was cleared, his parents would welcome her with open arms. But she wasn't reassured: the misunderstanding was a huge issue by itself. How could they accuse her of treason on the one hand and accept her as their daughter-in-law on the other? She dreaded each minute as she was brought closer to the hour of reckoning as she thought of it.
The days seemed to fly by and before she knew it, they were at the Palace's doorstep. Kal helped her to dismount from the coach, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. She smiled up at him gratefully, her heart beating very hard in anticipation.
"Your Highness," greeted the Seneschal who was waiting for them at the bottom of the steps. "Their Majesties await your presence in the audience chamber."
"Thank you, my lord," Kal said, waiting for his knights to form an honor guard behind them. "Please lead the way."
Just before they reached the audience chamber, Kal requested the Seneschal to give them a few moments alone. His own knights stayed back to give Kal and Lois some privacy. "Are you all right?" he asked her.
"Your parents are not…"
"Lois, let me handle my parents. At the moment, they have been influenced by the Archbishop. Once they have the right facts, they won't have a problem with our marriage."
"What about the bad blood between our families? And the fact that I'm related to Nor?"
"Lois, I will promise you this: we will never part. Even if it means that I relinquish my position as the heir."
"You know I won't let you do that. You are meant to be the heir. You…"
He stopped her protests with a hard kiss, ignoring the impropriety. "I don't care about any of it if you're not beside me; we are a team. Now, come on. We have a show to put on."
Together they stepped into the audience chamber and walked down the length of the room to kneel before the throne. When they were bidden to arise, Kal spoke, "Your Majesty, let me present my wife to you, Lady Lois of Nor."
Gasps could be heard around the room as the courtiers reacted to the news. Lois did not need to look around to know that the ladies were whispering about her behind their fans. "What is going on, Kal?" King Jor demanded. "The missives I have been receiving are all conflicting. What is this about an invasion from Nor? How was your brother killed? And Archbishop William? You claim that he was a traitor working for Nor — how can that be?"
"Father, if you will give me time to explain, everything will be cleared up." Kal looked around. Spotting Brother Jonathan, he motioned him forward. "First of all, let me clarify about Father Andrew's death. Brother Jonathan was kind enough to come all the way here to present his findings. Brother Jonathan?"
King Jor watched as Brother Jonathan bowed to him. "You are Father Andrew's replacement?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"And you also carried out an investigation of his death? Even though there was a formal inquiry into his death and *we* have found it satisfactory?"
"Begging Your Majesty's indulgence, Father Andrew had many enemies and the situation surrounding his death was rather suspicious. At Prince Kal's behest, I carried out my own investigation."
Jor threw a glance at his eldest son. "And what have you found?"
"On the night of his death, he was assassinated."
"He had a heart condition, sire. Someone ensured that he would lose his heart medicine. In doing so, he had to resort to the medication given to him by Master Deter. Unfortunately, along the way, someone had tampered with the medication."
"Someone slipped in arachid poison into the medication, sire."
"You have proof?"
"Aye, his body was brought back to the monastery for his funeral. Before we buried him, we did an autopsy. They also brought back his belongings, including the bottle of medication."
"How is this related to the current situation?"
"James, bring him here!" Kal ordered him.
In response, James and two of Kal's knights dragged Master Deter and threw him in front of the throne. Maxwell Deter cowered from Kal's glare. "Maxwell Deter, what say you to the charges of the murder of Father Andrew?"
The man in question narrowed his eyes, before turning away. "What do you want me to say?" he asked bitterly. "That I murdered Father Andrew?"
"Did you?" King Jor asked.
Deter lowered his eyes. "I was paid to make a draught for Father Andrew. In the mixture, I was told to add the arachid poison. I then sent it to Father Andrew via a page known to be rather untrustworthy so that suspicions wouldn't be cast on me."
"Who paid you?"
Another ripple of murmurs went through the crowd. King Jor held up his hand. "Silence!" he thundered and turned to Deter. "Did you know why he wanted Father Andrew dead?"
"No, Your Majesty. I don't."
"I know why, Father," Kal spoke up. "Years ago, King Gar tried to poison his father, King Dor, with the arachid poison in a bid for the throne. He wasn't successful because King Dor was rescued."
"I thought the old king died of natural causes? And how could he survive the poison?"
"He didn't die because there is a cure for the poison. The person who developed the poison had the antidote, and gave it to him. He then smuggled King Dor into El where the king adopted a new name, Andrew."
"Father Andrew?" Jor asked, incredulous.
"Yes. Father Williams found out his true identity and was ordered by King Gar to kill him."
"And how do you know all this?"
"The man who smuggled King Dor into El was Grandfather's best friend. His nephew told me the story."
"Father's best friend? Wasn't he your grandfather, Lady Lois?" Queen Lara finally participated in the discussion."
"So I was informed, Your Majesty," Lois answered.
"You were informed? I don't understand."
"I grew up in ignorance of my heritage, Your Majesty. My parents were killed when I was two, and I was brought up by Squire White and his wife who never spoke of my parents much. All I knew was that my father was a younger son of a nobleman and my mother was a wisewoman."
"Killed?" Lara whispered in horror.
"Yes, Mother. We found out that Lois's mother knew about the antidote and King Dor's secret identity. Father William approached his brother and sister-in-law to get them to reveal those secrets to him, but they wouldn't cooperate. Therefore, he sent Father Tempus to accuse them of sorcery, and had them killed."
"Tempus? The one who killed Lex?" Jor asked angrily.
"Yes, Father. The very one."
"Have you found this man?"
"We are looking. He can't stay in hiding for long."
Jor nodded. "How did Alexender get involved in all this?"
"I might shed a light on the matter, sire." The crowd parted to give way to Lady Cox and Sir Daniel. "Prince Lex had left these documents into my hands should anything happen to him. He charged me with bringing them to you post haste if that day were to arrive."
Jor accepted the documents from her, and scanned through them. "Oh Lex," he sighed, passing them to his wife. He then turned to Kal. "I trust you have arrested the people implicated in this…this…" He ran out of words to describe the entire affair.
"Yes, Peter is working on it as we speak."
"Good. What about the threat from Nor?"
"As per Randolph's reports, and mine, my brother was the hero of the moment. Lex captured their commander and ended the battle. My contact in Nor assured me that the threat is about to be nullified," Kal answered.
"We will speak of this in private," Jor told him. "I think this audience…"
"Father, a moment, if you please."
Jor looked at Kal, wondering what he wanted. "Father William came to arrest Lois for treason on your behalf. I would like to ensure that the charges against my *wife* be dropped."
"I…" Jor looked at Lois and back at Kal, at a loss for words.
"Lois is innocent of all the charges. In fact, if not for her, I would not be standing here safe and sound. She has rescued me, time and time again, despite her foster mother's murder, the destruction to her home, and even the threat to her life. She is no traitor!"
"Your Majesty, if I may?" The Lord Chancellor, Talia's father, stepped up to the throne.
"What is it?"
"Her Highness has not only saved His Highness's life, but protected my own daughter when Archbishop William deceitfully took over the citadel. Here is a letter from my daughter to plead for Her Highness's case, Your Majesty." He handed the king Talia's letter.
"And if I may, Your Majesty?" Daniel stepped up as well.
"Who are you?"
"Sir Daniel of Luthor, Sire. I grew up with Her Highness when her parents were working for my father."
"Very well. Proceed."
Daniel revealed what he knew about the time in Trent when Kal was still masquerading as Sir Clark. "You see, Sire. It was the Church Knights who killed Lady Alice, and from what Squire White told me, they tried to kill His Highness as well."
"Is this true?" Jor asked Kal.
"Yes, sire. I was there. Her Highness came in time to save Prince Kal's life. She threw a pitchfork at the knight who tried to attack him from behind," James answered for his master. "They were sent there to kill him, and nearly killed me too. I owe her my life as well."
Lois tried to protest, but Kal stopped her with a glance. He then asked once again, "Will you drop the charges against her?"
Jor regarded Lois for a long time. "You are a brave woman. Not many would have survived what you went through, from the bits and pieces I have heard so far."
"Thank you, sire."
"All these people have defended you. But I would like to hear what you have to say, yourself."
"I have nothing to say for myself, sire."
"I believe you are a just king. Or else you wouldn't have produced such sons as Kal…" she hesitated for a moment before deciding not to smear Lex's name, "…and Lex. You have been given all the necessary information, and are therefore able to decide the right course of action. I will not gainsay that action."
Jor smiled for the first time since she met him. In that moment, she realized how much like Kal he was. "Well said. Well said, indeed. Very well, Kal, all charges against your *wife* are now dropped. And Lois, welcome to the family." He got up and put out a hand for his wife. Everyone cleared the space for them to leave the room.
"See. I told you they would accept you," Kal told Lois, a wide grin adorning his face. "Come on, I'll bring you to my quarters to get some rest before the private audience."
"Private audience?" Lois asked in dismay.
"Don't worry. It will just be to update my parents on the details," he reassured her.
A man in a monk's cowl watched as Kal stopped to point out interesting features of the Palace to Lois. Feeling that his guards weren't necessary while they were in the Palace, Kal had dismissed them earlier. The man rubbed his hand gleefully at the chance to take the couple unawares. They had caused his downfall; they deserved whatever fate had in store for them. Creeping quietly, the man followed the unsuspecting couple until they turned a corner into an uninhabited part of the Palace.
Kal and Lois had less than a second to react when their attacker tried to run his sword into Lois. Kal managed to push Lois, the sword biting her arm instead. Kal whipped out his sword and whirled around to face the attacker. "You!"
"Hello, Your Highness. I heard you were looking for me," Tempus said sarcastically, pushing his cowl back, his sword at ready.
"How did you get in?" Kal wondered, as they circled one another.
"Oh, I have my ways," Tempus relayed with a secretive smile. "It is ironic, isn't it? The man you've been hunting is right under your very nose."
"Not for long."
"Bravo, sire. Spoken like a true knight. Now, perhaps we'll see if you can fight like one." With that, he lunged forward.
Kal parried his attack, sidestepped, and twirled around to slash at Tempus. But Tempus was ready and met his stroke with one of his own. Sparks flew as the blades met and locked. Kal struggled to free his blade when Lois shouted a warning. He narrowly missed the sharp knife aimed at his side as he released his hold on his sword and jumped back.
"Oh, you poor little prince. Lost your sword?" Tempus mocked as he held both swords in his hands.
"That was a dirty trick," Lois accused, holding her injured arm.
"Duh! I'm the villain. I don't need to fight fair. So now, what are you going to do, my prince?"
"You won't win, Tempus."
"Brave words, but can you enforce it?" he asked, twirling the swords to mock Kal.
Kal only smiled as they continued to circle, looking for an opportunity to attack. Lois, not as patient, decided to look around for an alternative weapon. Her eyes alighted on a staff that was probably left by the majordomo some time in the past. Slowly, so as not to alert Tempus, she crept closer to the staff. When she got a good grasp on it, she shouted a warning and threw it to Kal, who caught it quite easily.
Tempus narrowed his eyes, but didn't turn his attention away from his main opponent. "A staff? That is all you can do?"
Kal didn't deign to answer. Instead, he rushed forward to engage Tempus once more. His staff met Tempus's sword and brushed it aside, rapping on Tempus's knuckles. The priest dropped his sword but managed to dodge another incoming blow. Tempus drew back a little and decided to go on the offensive, swinging the sword in a wide arc towards Kal's torso. Kal quickly blocked Tempus's sword stroke, and with the other end, swept his feet off the ground. However Tempus rolled harmlessly away. Quick to recover, he charged at Kal who was waiting. Gripping the staff hard, he pushed aside Tempus's sword, rendering the man off-balance. Seizing his advantage, he followed the stroke with a blow to Tempus's temple, putting the priest out of commission.
"Kal!" Lois rushed forward to wrap her arms around him.
"It's over, Lois. It is finally over," he murmured, holding her close, never wanting to let her go.
"Snow's falling. Snow's falling?" Lois wondered. "When did it happen? Just yesterday, it seemed like summer and now snow's falling?"
She looked out of the window at the soft flakes falling gently to the ground. The little pine tree just below her window was rapidly being covered with snow and she could hear the snow hitting the roof.
She glanced back at the bed and smiled at the sight. The stranger was sleeping there peacefully. It was barely a day since she first laid eyes on him and fell deeply in love. She never thought she could fall in love with someone she barely knew, but that was what happened.
"Penny for your thoughts." Familiar arms enfolded her whole being. The familiar feeling of home engulfed her as she leaned back into her husband's chest.
"I was just thinking of how the days go by so rapidly," she told him, her eyes still trained on the sleeping figure.
"Hmm…aye, I understand. It won't be long before he grows up and start making our lives a living hell," Kal joked when he saw where her eyes were gazing.
She smacked his arms. "That's not what you should wish for your firstborn."
He laughed out loud, and then more softly when he remembered the little bundle of joy sleeping in their bed. "You know I love you, don't you?"
"Yes, Kal. You show it everyday, even if you don't say it. And I love you."
He tightened his embrace, his heart full. "Perry, Chief Hawkin, Daniel and his father will be arriving for the christening soon."
"Is Father Jonathan going to make it?"
"Our dearest Archbishop wouldn't miss conducting the service himself."
"And Ching sent a christening gift through his ambassador."
"How is he? Has he settled into his kingship, yet?"
"Seems like it. His marriage to his cousin Zara helped a lot."
"From the letters he sent, she seemed very nice. Perhaps, once spring is here, we can go visit."
"Perhaps. I'll have to talk to Father, but I don't think it will be a problem."
Before they could continue, a loud wail came from the bed. Both doting parents rushed to fuss over Prince Alexander Samuel of Kent. The moon's ray was the only witness to the little family as they reveled in their love.
I've always loved a good fantasy story, with knights, princes, peasants, castles and a whole lot more. I also love Lois and Clark. So when Shadowfax wrote her story "The Once and Future King," I realized that it was possible to combine the two elements of what I love into a story. Then one night, I was at my advisor's place for a housewarming party when I saw my first snowfall. I was groping for words to describe the feeling of wonder, especially since my advisor's place seemed like an enchanted cottage. Thus Lois's cottage and the first scene were born.
The characters are not really very much in "character" due to the setting and the plot. So for those who are offended by the liberties I've taken with the characters, please accept my apologies. Next, there are a few people I would like to take the time to thank. I couldn't have written this without the help of my beta readers; Merry, Tricia, and Kaylle who had given great feedback and contributed ideas that helped to improve the story from the original version. I also appreciate Meredith's help with one particularly difficult fighting scene. Thanks also to J.C. for his encouragement and ideas for the story, and most of all for being my inspiration, my own personal knight in shining armour. Thanks to everyone who helped in some ways or others, especially those on the boards.