Sorry for the lack of updates, as mentioned before, things are getting somewhat hectic now, but I will keep them coming when I can! I know that I need to update other stories as well, but this chapter was in my mind and I had to get it down, so I hope you enjoy! Thanks again for all the reviews and feedback! It's much appreciated!
Summary: Unexpected events cause both Erik and Christine to crash into each other...literally.
The Mask and the Slipper
The Hero and the Damsel
"GET HIM! STRING HIM UP! HE'S RIGHT OVER THERE!"
Erik awoke with a jolt, gasping as the voices of Conrad's men continued to echo throughout his head. His bare chest was covered with sweat, and the blanket that he wore clung to his wet skin. His hands moved to his face, letting out a long sigh of relief as he realized that the black mask that he had put on several days ago, was still there, hiding his dreadful secret. He looked around, taking note that it was still dark, although the first rays of the sun could be seen, just barely, poking through the leafs and branches that lined the horizon. A few birds sang their early morning song, flying from tree to tree, or perching on some of the crumbling walls of the old church, that he was now calling home.
A dream. He had been dreaming again, dreaming that they had found him, that they were going to extract their revenge upon him for killing their boss. He only prayed that if they did find him, they killed him; he would rather die than spend another fifteen years in slavery.
With a groan, Erik lowered himself once more to his makeshift bed, wincing as his muscles screamed for having to lie on cold stone. He was grateful for the secrecy and sanctuary of the old church…but other than that, there was very little to be grateful for. It was quite cold, and he had to be careful if he made a fire, so as not to attract attention from others because of the smoke. All the pews had been destroyed over the years, and while some moss and ivy had grown inside, there wasn't enough to cushion his stony mattress. Erik grunted and pulled the blanket up around his shoulders, his eyes gazing at the dying stars overhead.
Soon…very soon, Ravenskeep would be his again, and he would have his revenge upon Dominique and Thomas.
These vengeful thoughts were what kept him warm at night, were what fueled him all those years in Conrad's pit. He would have his revenge, he would have his title restored, and he would restore Ravenskeep to the glory his father had worked so hard to bring it to. Nothing else mattered, nothing!
But a shiver coursed through his body as he closed his eyes, and it wasn't due to the cold morning.
For now and then, when he closed his eyes…a new face, and a new voice greeted him.
Long, curly, chocolate brown hair…unraveling from beneath a boy's cap; wide, shimmering blue eyes…locking and holding his own gaze; and her small body…being held down by his own hands when he thought her a thief, and later standing before him, looking up at him, despite her small size when compared to his large frame.
He groaned and turned on his side, trying to wipe the memories of the Princess away. She was his mind's way of distracting him from the task at hand, and he needed to stay focused if he was to achieve his revenge!
Yet as sleep took hold of him once more…he could not help but admit…she was a very welcoming distraction…
"Erik? Erik? Are you in there?"
Erik groaned, his body aching from the hard ground, as Duncan's voice filled his ears. He did not dream again since he first awoke, but despite this blessing, his mood was still foul. "Here," he grumbled, grabbing hold of one of Thomas' tunics and pulling it over his head.
Duncan appeared then, entering through one of the church's many crumbling doors, holding a small bundle in his hands. "Ah! I'm glad I found you," he sighed with relief, although his smile was quickly replaced with a frown. "Good Lord, Erik, you mean to tell me you've been sleeping all this time?"
Erik momentarily pulled his mask away to rub the sleep from his eyes. He glanced up at the sky, noting how high the sun was, and groaned once more, still feeling as if he could sleep for many more hours.
"It's the afternoon! I thought surely you would be up and about—"
"Doing what, pray tell?" Erik muttered, rising to his feet and groaning as the stiff muscles in his back and legs screamed in painful protest. "Running my manor? Seeing to my land? Doing business with other gentlemen?" he spat on the ground before him, his anger kindling once more as he thought about his stepbrother, prancing around with his title.
Duncan sighed and shook his head. It had been three days since Erik had retreated to the old church, yet every day that Duncan had seen him, his young master's mood kept growing fouler and fouler. Erik was eager to return home, and Duncan could not blame him, they were all eager to have him back and see the Countess and Thomas gone for good. Yet now was the time to be patient, patient and careful, especially after learning that Conrad was dead, and his men could possibly be looking for him.
"I brought you some more food," Duncan murmured, placing the bundle he held down near Erik's makeshift bed.
Erik sighed wearily, but thanked Duncan for the gift. If Celeste wasn't careful, the Countess may notice that more food was missing from the pantry, however a woman like her would never venture into the kitchens if she could avoid it, therefore he prayed her snobbery would keep her from investigating.
"What is the news back at the manor?" Erik asked, opening the bundle and taking a bite out of the loaf of bread that Celeste had baked.
"The Countess is in all a tizzy," Duncan groaned. "She's so engrossed, she has barely questioned my reasons for returning to Ravenskeep."
Erik frowned slightly. "What has caught her attention so?"
Duncan glanced around him, as if expecting spies to appear. He then leaned forward and whispered, "The Princess is coming to Ravenskeep."
Erik was chewing on a piece of cheese at that moment, and nearly choked at the mention of the Princess. Duncan slapped Erik's back several times, until the younger man's coughing had calmed. "T-t-t-the Princess?" he gasped, his breathing returning to normal.
Duncan nodded his head. "The Countess invited Princess Christine to join her for tea. And if that weren't enough, it appears that Prince Fredrick will be joining her as well!"
Prince? Erik felt his stomach sink at the mention of a prince. At least he believed it were his stomach…
"She has us all working very hard to make sure the château is spotless for their arrival. I don't believe any of us have slept in the last day!"
Erik swallowed the last bit of cheese and narrowed his eyes in the direction of Ravenskeep. Dominique expected three servants to do the work of a thousand; she cared not for their well being, but for how she was observed by her royal guests. He thought of his friends, bent over and looking weary, just as Duncan looked right now, trying their hardest to prepare the manor for the Countess' guests, and a part of him wanted to blame their toil on the Princess, that it was her fault for their long laboring hours and lack of sleep.
But he had to remind himself that Princess Christine was not how he imagined a princess to be; she was not snobby, nor did she seem spoiled. She knew Duncan by name, she helped him achieve his freedom, and she did it all without asking for anything in return. And according to Duncan, who had spoken with her when he was at the palace, she seemed to be very caring and warm, not at all like the Countess…
Of course, then he remembered the fiery girl he had met in the forest, the one dressed in boy's clothes. Why had she been dressed in such a way? What was she running away from? And why did he care?! That was the greatest question he could not understand…
"Well, you will be glad to see her again, I'm sure," Erik grumbled, chewing on another piece of bread and looking away from the old man.
Duncan bit his lip to keep himself from grinning. "On the contrary, I must keep myself hidden as well. After all, she believes I am your servant, not the Countess'."
The Duke of Stonehearth. Erik was beginning to regret the white lie he had told the Princess.
"Other than that, I have no news from Ravenskeep. No one has mentioned anything about a mob of men searching for an escaped prisoner, so I believe you are safe…for the time being."
"For the time being," Erik repeated, his voice soft but his eyes narrowed and focused on an unseen goal.
Duncan sighed, and glanced up at the sun once more. "I should return before the Countess grows suspicious." He turned to leave, but paused, and looked back at Erik. "Shall I return later this evening? To tell you how it went?"
Erik's brow furrowed with confusion at Duncan's question. "How it went?"
"Yes," Duncan smiled, unable to help himself. "I just…assumed you would be…interested…in learning more about the Princess…"
Erik had already placed his mask back on his face, and was grateful for it, as he could feel his cheeks burn beneath it. "You assumed wrong," he muttered, although he was unable to meet the old man's eyes.
Duncan only smiled. "Well, just be careful…you know, in case you decide to go for a ride near the manor…I just don't want you to be seen…" he chuckled, turning and walking away as Erik stared after him, his mouth hanging open at the old man's meaning.
Christine sighed and leaned her cheek more into the palm of her hand as she stared out the carriage window. It was a beautiful spring day; the trees were budding, flowers were blooming, and a warm breeze blew all around them, perfuming the air with spring's sweet fragrance. Yet despite all these things, Christine was anything but happy.
It was Thursday, and it had only been two days ago that her father announced that her engagement to Prince Raoul of Roanland was canceled. The old king had taken pity on his daughter, granting her request to find love and marry a man of her choosing. However, he did have his own terms in which she had to follow. The wedding was still scheduled for the eve of her twentieth birthday! And by the night of the masquerade ball, she had to make the announcement as to who her new fiancée was! And she did not have a great amount of time between both events to find true love. In the end, she was grateful for her father's decision, but the reality of it all was extremely daunting, and Christine had no idea how to go about finding herself a husband.
A sigh escaped her lips and she allowed her eyes to close just for a moment. Suddenly, before her closed lids, an image flashed before her eyes, an image so startling it caused Christine's eyes to fly open and widen in surprise.
The image had been a face…a face hidden behind a mask.
The Duke of Stonehearth…
She could not stop thinking about the dark giant that she had briefly met that one day outside the palace, and for reasons she could not explain, it deeply troubled her that no one knew anything about him. Christine sighed again and turned her face away from the window, trying to once more prepare herself for the visit she would soon be making.
"Are you alright, my dear?" Meg asked, looking upon her sister-in-law with sympathy from across the carriage.
Christine forced a smile and nodded her head. "I'm fine, truly, I was…I just didn't sleep very well last night, that's all." It wasn't a total lie, after all, every time she closed her eyes, she kept seeing the Duke of Stonehearth's dark, masked face, and every time she trembled beneath her blankets.
Meg could detect a hint of nervousness in her friend, and simply leaned across the carriage to pat Christine's hand. "The Countess, from what I hear, is a most gracious hostess. She will do everything in her power to make sure that you are comfortable."
Christine gave a small smile, but her father's words began to echo throughout her head."The Earl of Ravenskeep is a single gentleman…"
Was that the point of the Countess' invitation? Was she hoping to align herself with the royal family by having her son marry a princess? Her father certainly made it sound as if that were the only reason…
Christine shook her head, trying to force such troubling thoughts from her mind. She knew nothing about the Earl of Ravenskeep, he may be a very delightful, charming man who shared many similar interests with her! Wasn't this what she wanted, to find a husband for herself, to find love and to experience love in a way similar to Fredrick and Meg?
"What else do you know about the Countess?" Christine asked, forcing this feeling of resolve into her heart and mind, despite the misgivings that her conscious was telling her.
"Well, I am afraid I don't know a great deal, as she has not been seen at court for nearly a year now, but she is a wealthy woman, with a large estate that is renowned throughout the province as being one of the best pieces of land. Ravenskeep, the house and the land on which it resides, is very beautiful from what I understand," Meg answered, with a sweet smile.
Christine forced the next question out, causing her pleasant smile to strain, slightly. "And…his lordship, the Earl?"
Meg's pleasant smile faded, and her brow creased with confusion. "I'm afraid I don't know much about the Earl…"
"Many women believe him to be handsome, from what I hear," Fredrick answered, his horse striding up to the window of the carriage. Christine looked up at her brother, sitting tall and handsome atop his stallion, the horse dressed in the traditional Eastergard colors of gold and blue, while Fredrick wore his decorated military uniform from his days when he served as a soldier for the King's army.
"Did the Earl serve with you and the other nobles?" Christine asked, hoping her brother could be somewhat more helpful with telling her about the Earl of Ravenskeep, when he knew nothing about the Duke of Stonehearth.
Fredrick had been thrown by his sister's question and he stared at her as if she had lost her mind. "Serve with me…? Good God, no, I—" Fredrick immediately bit his tongue to keep from saying anything more. It wasn't right for him to make judgments about a man to whom he had never spoken with directly. Yet, based on things Fredrick had heard about the present Earl, he could not deny that he wasn't eager to meet the man…or allow his sister to be alone with him.
Christine was startled by her brother's strong reaction, and she was about to question him further, when suddenly the carriage came to a crashing stop, only to make a sudden lurch forward, causing both the princesses who sat inside it to crash into themselves, before stopping once more.
"Meg!" Fredrick leapt down his horse and threw open the door, his blue eyes wide and frantic. "Are you alright? Both of you?"
"Yes, yes, we're fine, my love," Meg groaned, her hands protectively holding her large belly.
Christine groaned her agreement, before turning her head towards the window that led to the driver's seat. "What happened? What's amiss?"
Fredrick was already helping Meg out of the carriage. "Seems that the carriage wheel got stuck…"
Christine helped herself out and looked down at the carriage wheel in question. True enough; one large wheel was deeply imbedded in a large, murky puddle of mud. The driver kept cracking his whip, and the horses kept crying their protest, but it was no use. The carriage wouldn't budge.
"Stop that, that won't do any good," Christine grumbled, as the driver once more lifted his whip. The driver looked down at the Princess with wide eyes, and quickly lowered his whip, not wanting to anger the King's daughter.
"Christine…" Fredrick frowned as he watched his sister mount one of the horses, her skirts bunched up around her elbows as she climbed without the help of an escort. "Christine, what on earth do you think you're doing!?"
"I know what I'm doing," Christine grumbled, fixing her skirts as she finally settled herself down atop the large, and somewhat agitated beast. "He just needs encouragement from a rider, not a driver's whip. I'll dig my heels into his flanks, while you—" she looked directly at the carriage driver. "And the footman, push against the carriage. Together, we'll be able to get this thing out of the mud."
"Christine…" Fredrick said in a warning voice. "This is not a good idea…"
"Oh don't be silly, Fredrick! I've seen this happen a dozen times, it's simple!"
The Prince frowned. "When did you see this happen a dozen times?"
Christine chose not to answer that question, as it would reveal some of the many times when she had run away. "If you wish to see this carriage move again, dear brother, I suggest you help with pushing."
Meg bit her lip, her face etched with worry. "Christine, I think Fredrick is right, come down from there before you hurt yourself."
"I'm not going to hurt myself," Christine groaned with a slight roll of her eyes. "Now on three, you all push, while I dig my heels in. One…"
"Christine…" both Fredrick and Meg said at the same time, not liking this at all.
"Christine, don't do this! It's foolish!" Fredrick shouted, releasing his wife and moving towards his sister to pull her down.
Before Fredrick could reach her, Christine had dug her heels into the animal's flanks, and with a mighty shout, the horse reared up on his hind legs, causing the other horses to do the same, and with a bolt, the one she rode jolted forwarded, causing all the others to follow.
The driver and the footman didn't need to push against the carriage; it was free from its muddy prison within a matter of seconds.
However, Princess Christine was not free from the horses.
"OH GOD!" Christine screamed, her arms grasping and clinging around the mighty creature's neck, as it and the other horses raced across the countryside, leaving all the others in a cloud of dust, pulling the unoccupied carriage behind them. "WOAH! WOAH!" Christine attempted to shout, but the horses were not listening, they were racing! And their speed was only increasing more and more…
The shouts of her loved ones were fading fast, and Christine dared not attempt to turn her head around, for fear of being thrown off the beast's back, and run over by the carriage, which was madly swinging from side to side behind her. She wildly attempted to grab the reins, but they quickly fell to the ground, and were being dragged behind the galloping creatures and the out of control carriage. Christine then did the only thing she could; she gripped the beast's mane and tugged as hard as she could while shouting "WOAH!"
The horse threw his head back at her tugging, startling Christine and causing her to lose her grip upon the animal! A scream filled the air around her, as she felt her body being thrown from the horse's back…only to stop mid fall by her foot tangling in the horse's decorative stirrups. However, her body was hanging from the beast's back, upside down, and all her face could see was dust and speeding carriage wheels. Another scream ripped through the air as she suddenly felt her foot begin to slip from the stirrup.
Erik had been riding atop his own horse through the countryside when he heard the Princess' screams. He was restless at the church, and longed to explore the countryside that he had played in when he was a boy. And although he denied it many times, he could not stop thinking about the chance of spotting the Eastergard royal carriage, on its way to Ravenskeep.
However, the peacefulness of his calm ride was interrupted when a woman's scream ripped through the air. He turned his head and felt his breath catch in his throat as he saw four mad horses galloping at top speed, pulling what looked to be an empty carriage behind them, which dangerously was swinging from right to left like a stringed puppet.
But it was the sight of the young woman who was hanging upside down from atop one of the beast's backs and screaming for help that truly made his heart leap in his chest. Without another thought, Erik dug his own heels into the flanks of his own horse, and sped after the screaming princess.
Christine was trying her hardest to somehow lift herself back up, but every time she attempted to make such a move, her foot slipped a little further in the stirrup, and she screamed as once more, she was dangerously lowered closer to the ground. If she tried to move one more time, she would slip completely, and be trampled over by rear horses and a runaway carriage. She was going to die! A horrible, painful death, brought on by her own stupidity. She closed her eyes and felt her tears sting the lids. She was going to die before knowing love, before feeling love's touch, before…before ever seeing the Duke of Stonehearth again…
A new sound flooded her ears, and Christine opened her eyes, gasping as through the tears, she saw another horse, galloping towards her at a wild pace. Fredrick? No, it wasn't her brother's horse; his was white, and decorated in royal robes. It didn't matter who the rider was, just so long as they could reach her before her foot slipped completely from the stirrup. "HELP! PLEASE!" she cried, holding her arms out to the stranger, and screaming as once more, she slipped down from the stirrup.
Erik growled and dug his heels deeply into the horse's flanks, speeding the beast ahead. The other horses no doubt felt the presence of his, if they had not seen it, and galloped only faster, but Erik spurred the beast on, until he was riding up next to the carriage…swearing as it nearly collided with him. He roared a mighty "YAW!" to his animal, which raced past the uncontrollable carriage, riding up alongside the other horses…closer and closer…he could nearly reach her…
Christine's eyes were blinded by tears. She could feel her foot slipping more and more. Oh God, the rider wasn't going to reach her in time! She clamped her eyes shut as she felt the hem of her skirt rip slightly, and her foot give way completely.
She had not hit the ground, although she was crushed against something very solid. Whatever it was, she clung to it, digging her fingers into what felt like…a tunic? She opened her eyes then, and gasped as she realized she was sitting atop a horse! She tried to move her head, but couldn't; a strong, powerful arm kept her tightly in place, and her own fear from what had just happened prevented her from doing anything, other than cling to the stranger's tunic and bury her face against his chest.
The rider didn't slow down. He continued to race alongside the horses, and Christine let out a yelp when she realized he was going to reach out and grab the bit in the front horse's mouth. But he was just one man! There was no way that all the horses would stop if he tugged on just one, even if it were the lead horse! She squeezed her eyes shut again and moved her arms until they were wrapped tightly around the rider's broad, muscular body, as he leaned out and grasped the bit.
"WOAH!" he roared, tugging even harder on the horse. "WOAH!"
The horse let out a cry of protest; however the animal was forced to slow his pace, which did cause the other horses to slow theirs. Erik did not release the animal until the creature slowed from a gallop, to a trot, to a walk, and finally, to a stop. It had been a risky move, both he and Christine could have been flung from his own animal and hit by the speeding carriage, but thankfully the horses had slowed, and as for the carriage…
A loud crashing sound was heard, as the carriage fell over onto its side, its wheels still spinning in midair. A loud, long, sigh of relief escaped Erik's lungs, and he released the horse he had grabbed, the muscles in his arm screaming with pain from the strain they had experienced, but he ignored it. He had felt far worse pain in his life…and none of that truly mattered, or so he believed as he looked down at the quivering woman who was pressed tightly against him.
Erik's arms instinctively tightened around her as he felt her shivering against him. His throat went dry as felt her small fingers loosen about his tunic, and he watched as she slowly lifted her face, her cheeks wet with tears, and her eyes…her startling blue eyes, shimmering with surprise and gratitude…as she looked up at him, catching his own gaze.
Christine's breath caught in her throat as she realized she was staring up into the masked face of the Duke of Stonehearth! The very man who had been filling her thoughts since she had met him, was here! He had rescued her! She opened her mouth to speak, to at the very least give him her thanks, but her throat had gone completely dry, she couldn't speak at all!
Erik's own eyes fell from hers to her lips, noticing how they had parted, as if to speak, but stopping and remaining silent. A strange feeling flowed over his body, and he felt a mysterious urge, something that he couldn't name, but something that he had never felt before in his life!
And then, his senses returned to him…and the words finally came out.
"What the devil did you think you were doing!?" he growled, glaring down at her, his dark eyes hardening, matching the hard lines of his mask. "You little fool, you could have been killed!"
The spell was broken, and Christine's face flooded with color as the Duke glared down at her and growled. Her hands then moved to push against his chest and create some space between them, however his own arms were locked around her, like a powerful vice, keeping her trapped against him. "Release me!" she hissed, her cheeks only growing hotter and hotter.
"Oh no, princess," Erik grumbled. "Not until you answer my question!"
Christine glared at him. "You have no right to speak to me in such a way!"
"I think I have EVERY right, seeing as I risked my own life to save yours!"
"No one asked you to do so!" she retorted, wishing that he would not hold her so, wishing that they were not a breath apart, wishing he did not cause her heart to skip multiple beats! "I had everything perfectly under control—"
A loud, sarcastic laugh cut off her words, and Christine gasped as the deep sound caused her entire body to tremble. "Yes, anyone could see that," he groaned with a roll of his eyes. "Perhaps you were starting a new trend? Riding upside down without a saddle?"
Christine narrowed her eyes. "I do not care for your sarcasm. Kindly release me now, Your Grace, and allow us both the freedom to be rid of ourselves!"
Her words cut deeply, and while Erik was seething, in truth he did not want to release her. Shake her silly, yes, but release her? He was suddenly aware at how close the two of them were, and Erik found himself looking at her once more, taking in all the details that he had missed during their first encounter…although that was nearly impossible, as he had missed very little.
She was petite, perfectly small when compared to his massive frame, yet she was no delicate flower, that he could tell. Yet it amazed him how…well, it seemed, that she fit against his chest…as if she were meant to be fitted against him. Her hair, which no doubt had been contained within some sort of headdress, had fallen freely down her back and shoulders, looking wild and unkempt from her recent "ride". He tried to avoid his eyes from looking, he could not help but catch a glimpse at her breasts, which were rising and falling from every labored breath she took. The neckline was modest, but also low, causing his blood to heat at the knowledge of what lay beneath. And his eyes were also drawn to one leg…which was showing a great deal more skin than normal, as her skirt had ridden up slightly when he had pulled her off the horse. Erik swallowed and lifted his eyes away, choosing to focus them upon her face, however, that only made him stare at her lips.
Perhaps he should release her? After all, the last thing he wanted her to feel was…well…
Christine's protests died in her throat and she swallowed the nervous lump, as she felt his eyes move across her…and found her own eyes drinking him in. He was massive, that she remembered, but now, being pressed so close to him, she realized she had no idea how large he truly was. He was very broad shouldered, with long, powerful arms. Her hands were pressed against his chest, and she could feel the muscles beneath her fingers, moving and rippling with every breath he took. Christine was not the swooning type, she had never swooned in her entire life and she was very proud of that fact…
However, when in the presence of the Duke of Stonehearth, anything was possible, it seemed…
She sucked in a breath when she lifted her eyes once more to his face, and gasped when she realized he was staring right back at her. His eyes were dark, a rich brown color, yet…she could see flecks of gold within them, reminding her of warm honey. The mask created contours upon his face; sharp, hard angles that caused her to wonder if they were truly real, of if it were simply a trick of the mask. Yet it created an air of mystery about him, one that made her skin tingle and her blood grow warm. He was wearing the dark cloak she had seen him wear that day at the palace, yet the hood had fallen back, revealing a wild mass of unkempt black hair, and Christine had to force herself from not reaching up and running her hands through it.
And his mouth…her eyes were drawn to his mouth, just as his seemed to be drawn to hers…
Both Erik and Christine stiffened at the voice that called out from just behind them. Erik's back went straight, and Christine desperately tried to right her skirts. Erik's jaw tightened as a handsome young man galloped towards them, his eyes wide and full of concern as they stared back at the princess.
"Oh Christine, oh thank God you are safe!" the man gasped as his horse came right up beside Erik's. The man then looked up at Erik, although the sight of the mask momentarily startled him. "I…t-t-thank you, sir!" he finally managed to get out, after conquering his surprise. "Thank God you were close and able to—"
"I am no hero," Erik interrupted, before bowing his head. No doubt this was the prince that Duncan had mentioned. "I only did what any man in my position would do."
Christine felt a chill run across her skin at the Duke's words. Despite the argument they had just been having, she could not deny that yes; the Duke of Stonehearth was indeed, a hero. Her hero…
"I am just grateful your wife did not come to any harm," Erik muttered, not looking at either the Prince or Christine, fully prepared to pick her up and hand her over to him…
"My wife…?" Fredrick glanced at Erik and then at Christine and then back at Erik. "Oh! Oh, no sir, you are mistaken, Princess Christine is my sister."
Erik froze at the words. "Your…your sister?"
Fredrick smiled. "Yes, my wife is Princess Marguerite…" he turned his horse slightly and from behind his own large, strong frame, both Erik and Christine could see a lovely blonde woman, holding tight to the Prince.
"Oh Christine!" Meg grinned, happy to see her friend unharmed. "Oh thank you, sir!" she smiled, beaming up at Erik with thankful eyes. "Thank you for saving her, oh Christine, I was so worried! I insisted that Fredrick carry me—"
"Yes, but I could not go very fast without bringing harm to the child," Fredrick groaned, before quickly dismounting his horse and helping his very pregnant wife down.
Erik glanced back and forth between the blonde woman and the Prince. "She…" he murmured, pointing at Meg. "She is your wife?"
Fredrick couldn't help but smile, and wrapped his arm around Meg's small shoulders. "Yes, and the mother of Eastergard's next king," he grinned, before turning his eyes back to Erik. "And as I said, Princess Christine is my sister."
Erik turned and caught Christine's blue gaze once more, and before he could even breathe, three soft words escaped the Princess' mouth.
"I'm not married…"
A deep scarlet color flooded Christine's face. Why had she said that!? What on earth had possessed her to give that information to him!? As if he cared about her marital status…
Erik felt his own face flush with color at the Princess' words, and he quickly turned his eyes away from hers. Without another word, he lifted the Princess up, causing Christine to gasp, and placed her firmly on the ground. Fredrick was there to receive her, however neither he nor Meg seemed to have been aware of the awkward exchange between the other two.
"Are you a stranger to Eastergard, sir?" Fredrick asked.
Erik swallowed the lump in his throat, trying to ignore the hollowness he now felt that Christine was out of his arms. "No, I…I have been abroad for…for a long time, and have only just returned."
Meg smiled and laced her arm through Christine's. The blonde princess was surprised to find her sister-in-law trembling, and assumed it was because of a chill air. "If I may inquire your name, sir? So that we may know who the noble gentleman was that rescued our dear Christine?"
Both Erik and Christine blushed brightly, however it was Christine who answered before Erik could even think of what to say.
"He is the Duke of Stonehearth…" she murmured, glancing up at him briefly, before quickly lowering her eyes once more.
"The Duke of Stonehearth?" Meg gasped, looking at Christine for confirmation and then looking back up at Erik. "You are he?"
Erik wasn't sure how to respond. What on earth had she told them!? He had given her a false name, but it appeared that she had chosen to share his secret identity with the entire kingdom!
Prince Fredrick's brow furrowed at his wife's question. "The Duke of Stonehearth?" he glanced at his sister, who was biting her lip and locking her eyes with the ground, trying her hardest to shield her red cheeks. Realization dawned on the Prince. "This was the man to whom you asked me about, Meg? The man that Christine had asked if either of us knew?"
Oh God in heaven, Christine groaned to herself. She wanted to die then and there. She didn't dare lift her eyes to the Duke, no doubt she would find them either laughing at her, or looking at her with great disdain. "Y-y-yes, Fredrick," she muttered, her face burning more and more. What was the Duke thinking!? The man had just saved her life, and she was caught between thankfulness and fury. The last thing she wanted was to make him think that she had done nothing but talk about him and think about him since their brief meeting in the castle courtyard…although, in truth, that was what she had been doing, but still! She didn't want him thinking that!
Erik clenched his teeth to stifle the groan that was rising up in his throat. It was too late now to deny the lies he had already spun; apparently Princess Christine had a rather large mouth and had told the whole of the palace! How many servants knew about him? Oh God, how many courtiers! That was the last thing he needed, people talking throughout the province, getting the message back to the Countess' ears and causing suspicion. But what could he do? Nothing…
"Yes," Erik finally answered. "I…I was at the palace just a few days ago…buying back a servant who had been sold to the palace to cover…an old debt."
"Oh…I see," Fredrick murmured, although this was news to him. He shook his head, choosing not to dwell on such questions. The point of the matter was that his sister had been in great peril, but thanks to the Duke, she was safe and very much alive. Sadly, the same could not be said for the carriage, which now lay on its side a few feet away, in complete shambles. "Knew what you were doing, eh?" Fredrick muttered, glaring back at his sister.
Christine glared right back at her brother, but Meg interceded before an argument could break out. "It appears that we shall have to go the rest of our way on horseback. Joshua?"
The footman who had been traveling with them, and who had just made it to where they were now standing, nodded his head, and with the help of the carriage driver, went to work of releasing the horses from one another, who at the moment were busy munching on the grass at their hooves.
"Meg, you can't be serious," Fredrick hissed at his wife. "You and Christine have no saddles!"
"We can make due, can't we my dear?" Meg asked, smiling at Christine, her green eyes twinkling with a hidden knowledge. "Besides, we won't gallop; it's not very far from here."
Fredrick rolled his eyes, but chose not to argue. Instead, he helped his wife mount one of the released horses, before moving to help his sister. However, Christine was way ahead of him. "I can manage on my own," she muttered, wanting to prove before her brother…and the Duke, that she didn't need help, that she truly did have things under control.
She gripped the horse's mane, and with a deep breath, leapt up to swing her foot around the mighty animal's back. However, it was a little more difficult without proper stirrups, and Christine found herself scrambling slightly to stay atop the beast.
Her ears caught a sound just off to her left, and Christine quickly glanced in the direction of the Duke. Was it her imagination? Or was the Duke of Stonehearth…chuckling at her!?
"I'm fine, Fredrick!" she hissed, pushing his hands away and righting herself atop the creature, who was still contentedly eating grass. She quickly fixed her skirts and patted her hair down, trying to restore some sanity to the chaos of her brown curls, and lifted her chin and held it high, her eyes catching those of the Duke's as she did so.
Erik bit his lip, trying very hard not to chuckle further as he watched the Princess adapt a cool and haughty posture, after just scrambling up atop a horse like a child climbing a wall. He had to admit…there was something admirable about the girl…
Don't think of her like that; she's not a girl, she's a princess, and you keep reminding yourself that, Your Grace.
Erik was startled, realizing that Princess Marguerite was addressing him.
Meg smiled. "Will you not join us?"
Erik paled at the woman's words. "I…I b-beg your pardon?"
"Will you not join us?" she repeated, her smile warm and kind. "We know very little about you, and would very much like to learn more. Will you not join us on our journey?"
Christine stared at Meg, her eyes wide and her mouth hanging open. However as soon as the Duke glanced towards her, she quickly shut her mouth and lifted her chin, looking away…save out of the corner of her eye.
"Splendid idea, my love," Fredrick smiled, before turning his attentions once more on Erik. "I am very curious to learn where Stonehearth is…I'm afraid I am unfamiliar with the name."
Erik's head was swimming with excuses for not joining them, as well as with potential answers to all the questions they no doubt had about his fictional title. However, the answer he gave surprised him more than any other word…and he only gave it after glancing one more time at the brown-haired princess. "It would be an honor…"
"Wonderful!" Meg grinned. Christine only blushed, but continued to look away. Inside, Erik was groaning; what had he just gotten himself into? Meg then ordered the driver to take one of the remaining horses back to the palace and explain what had happened to the carriage, while the rest of them continued onward. "Fredrick, my love? Will you ride beside me?"
Christine blushed even more as she realized that she and the Duke of Stonehearth would be riding side by side…alone. Indeed, her suspicions were confirmed when Meg urged her own horse a little further away from her own, causing Fredrick to follow. Their footman also distanced himself some way behind them, and Christine's face burned brightly as she realized that she and the Duke were, for the most part, alone.
Erik had also noticed this. Even though it was the idea of the other princess that he travel with them so that they could get to know him better…it seemed that the only person who would be present to ask him any questions, or speak with him at all…was Princess Christine.
Silence fell upon them, while Meg and Fredrick spoke with one another up ahead. Both Erik and Christine were very much aware of the awkward silence between the two of them, and neither one of them truly knew how to break it.
They both shut their mouths when their words collided with one another. Christine bit her lip and glanced out of the corner of her eye up at the large man who rode beside her. Despite the mask, there was no mistaking how harsh his features were…and yet, there also seemed to be something rather…handsome about him as well. Perhaps more rugged than handsome? Christine's eyes lowered from his face to his shoulders, and she felt her breath catch as she watched the muscles beneath his tunic sleeves move as his hands gripped the reins of his horse. She swallowed a large lump in her throat as she focused on his long, dark fingers. Beautiful was not the best word to describe them, and yet Christine could not think of another; beautiful…truly, his hands were beautiful.
Erik turned his eyes just briefly towards her, and Christine gasped and quickly turned her head away. No doubt she was staring at his mask, he thought to himself. Perhaps she was wondering why he wore it. Well, that was one question he would never answer, royalty or not.
"I…" Christine began again, blushing deeply and trying her hardest to keep a cool composure. "So, what brings you to these woods, Your Grace?"
Erik turned and looked at her, surprised that this time she did not look away, although he could tell that the smile she wore was forced. "I felt like riding…" he simply answered, staring straight ahead.
"Oh…" Christine murmured, her smile fading, unsure exactly what to say to that. She was trying to make polite conversation, but he wasn't exactly the easiest person to talk to. "So…so you enjoy riding?"
Erik looked at her and nodded his head. "When I have the opportunity, I find it most enjoyable, yes."
Christine lifted a dark brow at his words. "Do you not often get the opportunity then?"
A heavy sigh escaped Erik's lips. She was the most inquisitive person he had ever met! The people that he cared about had known him since he was a small child, therefore they never asked him questions about his life, because they knew it all! And the other people he had encountered cared only about the money his strength and disfigured flesh could make for them. No one had ever wanted to learn anything about him!
"I beg your pardon."
Erik was jolted by her words and looked at her strangely. "What?"
Christine nibbled her bottom lip before lifting her eyes once more to his. "I just…I realized that my question may have seemed too…personal, and I did not wish to make you uncomfortable."
Asking whether he did not often have the opportunity to ride was a personal question? Yet in some ways, for him, it was personal; he loved riding horses when he was a boy, and now, for the first time since he escaped Conrad's imprisonment, he was riding again. However, personal or not, it was a simple question, one that he could answer, and not give her cause to feel embarrassed. "It has been some time since I could enjoy riding, Your Highness," Erik answered, truthfully. "But now I find that I do have the time and the opportunity to enjoy it once more."
Christine smiled at this, glad that she hadn't offended him. "I enjoy it too."
Erik looked at her and could not help but smile at her words. "I imagined you would."
Another blush colored Christine's cheeks, and she looked down at her hands, laced through the horse's mane. "So…you are from Eastergard, but have been abroad?"
Erik's smile faded slightly at her question. He only hoped that in the mix of all his lies, he did not make a mistake. "Yes…" he answered, somewhat tentatively.
"Where did you travel?" Christine asked immediately following his answer. Erik glanced at her and was surprised by the look of fascination and wonder in her wide, blue eyes.
Christine gasped. "You have been to India!?"
No, Erik replied in his mind. However, many of the goods that Conrad forced him to unload from his ships were from those places.
"I long to travel…" Christine sighed, her eyes looking off into the horizon. "To see those places, those cities…to ride a camel through the desert, to see the ancient pyramids, to walk through Roman ruins, to even sail across the ocean!"
Erik was caught up in her passionate dream that he too, found himself longing to see those very things.
"Oh please, tell me about India? Is it true that it gets so hot, that it feels like the air around you has turned into water?"
Erik longed to answer her question, to help fuel her dreams, but that was one thing he could not lie about. However, he did have one answer. "The spices perfume the air like nothing you could ever imagine…and it feels…like a heavy blanket, surrounding and engulfing you completely." Indeed, that was how it felt when he first sniffed Indian spices from one of Conrad's many crates.
Christine closed her eyes and smiled. "It sounds wonderful…" she whispered.
Erik gazed upon her for a moment, admiring her profile, her skin, her lips. She was not a dazzling beauty, not in the same way her sister-in-law was…but she was beautiful, in a very natural and somewhat mystical way…
"I would have thought…that a princess would be well versed in traveling," he admitted.
Christine opened her eyes and looked down at her hands, before lifting them once more to look at him. "Sadly, no. I have been to Roanland, where I have family, but...that is all."
Erik held her gaze, his eyes drawn deeply into her own. He saw longing in their depths, a longing that reflected similar feelings within himself. "You will see them one day, I promise."
Christine's brow furrowed at his words, and Erik felt his own cheeks burn beneath his mask. Why had he said that? How could he make such a promise to her? It wasn't as if it were in his power to grant her such wishes…
Silence fell between them again. Christine glanced out of the corner of her eye at him, once again admiring his strong, harsh features. Erik felt her eyes and turned to look at her, to which she quickly covered her embarrassment with another question. "How is Duncan?" she asked, her voice squeaking slightly.
"He…he is well, thank you," Erik replied.
Christine smiled, trying to hide her blush. "I…I assumed he would be with you…"
"I chose to give him the day off," Erik lied. "He…he has been away from his family, so…"
"Of course," Christine murmured, looking down and nodding her head. "I'm sure they all missed him dreadfully, and are very happy to have him back…"
"They are," Erik confirmed, happy to be able to speak the truth, once more.
Christine's brow furrowed again, as a new realization dawned on her. "Your Grace, where is Stonehearth?"
Erik paled at her question, his eyes going wide. This was the one question he had been dreading over all others…
"Is it close? I only ask since you are still here in the province, and Duncan, as you mentioned, is home with his family—"
"On the contrary," Erik interrupted. "It's…it's rather far from here. I…" Think, man, think! "I am visiting relatives, actually."
"Oh!" Christine smiled at this, hoping that perhaps whoever the Duke's relatives were, she would know their names. "Who are they?"
"My relatives," Erik answered, keeping his eyes straight ahead.
Christine's smile fell, and her brow creased with confusion. "Yes…I understand that, but who are they?"
"The only relatives I have," he answered, mentally kicking himself over and over. Was this the best he could do!?
Christine lifted a dark brow at this answer. "Your Grace…forgive my bluntness, but are you purposefully avoiding my question?"
"No…" he lied, before glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. "And yes," he muttered under his breath.
Christine frowned and opened her mouth to ask yet again, but stopped herself when she noticed how the Duke's horse came to an abrupt stop. He was staring straight ahead, and it looked as though all the breath had gone out of him. "Your Grace?" Christine asked, concern filling her heart at the frozen way he stared straight ahead.
"Ah! Here we are!" Meg called out from up ahead. Christine looked up and realized that they were standing upon the road that led to a large, and beautiful, stone château. "Ravenskeep," Meg announced, turning her head and smiling at Erik and Christine. "I do hope you can join us for tea, Your Grace? I'm sure that the Countess Delahoussaye will not mind—"
"Forgive me, Your Highnesses, but I must be going," Erik interrupted, his eyes never leaving the château.
"Must you?" Meg asked, her eyes falling upon Christine, her lovely face filled with concern.
"I'm afraid I must," Erik lied. "I have urgent business to attend to, and have put it off far too long. Please forgive me, Your Highness." His eyes locked with Christine's as he finished his words, and without another look, he turned his horse and quickly urged it away.
Both Meg and Fredrick frowned, but seemed to have a look of gentle understanding upon their faces. Christine, however, was watching him leave with wide, confused, and somewhat terrified eyes.
Terrified that perhaps, this was the last she would see of him.
Erik pulled on the reins and turned towards the Princess, his breath still as he awaited her words.
"I…may I…" she knew he was the Duke of Stonehearth, but that was simply his title; she longed to know his name. However, she feared that perhaps that was too intimate a question, especially with her brother and sister-in-law present. "I…I do hope that we will meet again," she murmured, her eyes filled with hope.
"Indeed, yes," Fredrick added, riding his horse towards that of his sister's. "Perhaps during the Birthday Festival? There will be a jousting tournament this Saturday; all nobles are encouraged to enter. There will be a handsome prize, from what I understand."
Erik bowed his head towards the prince. "We shall see," was all he said. He caught Christine's gaze one more time, before digging his heels into the horse's flanks and taking off at a fast-paced gallop down the lane.
"Mysterious…but he does seem like a decent fellow," Fredrick murmured. "Of course, he did save your life, Christine, therefore I am eternally grateful to the gentleman."
Christine only nodded her head and watched with a heavy heart, as the Duke disappeared from sight. She only prayed that it would not be forever…