Clutching her father's hand in two of hers, Emmeline closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall. His fingers were cold against her skin, but the gentle rasping breaths assured her that he was stable. At least for now.
Pushing away the fear she felt at his condition, she gripped tighter at his hands. She thought suddenly of her mother then, of her small hands caught between her mother's clammy ones. It had been a fever that had taken her too, a lengthy illness that had weakened and drained her until there was nothing left of the spirited woman Emmeline tried so hard to remember. Opening her eyes, she found her gaze drawn back to her father's worn face.
Beneath his beard, his cheeks looked hollower than usual, and the skin that tanned each year from working outdoors was paler than she would have liked to see it. Though she had sat with him throughout the night, he had not woken. She, on the other hand, had not slept.
There was a stirring against her knee as Neal roused from where he'd fallen asleep leaning against her leg. The boy had refused to leave Geord's side either, remaining throughout the night to help Emmeline mix up drafts of fever relief and administer them. She was thankful for it in a way, for his presence was a quiet comfort to her. And a reason not to let myself cry.
"Ain't you gonna sleep, Em?" Neal asked, blinking blearily as he pulled himself to his feet.
She allowed him a tight smile. "I'm fine, Neal."
A loud coughing drew her back to the bed. Geord Whyte struggled to sit up, his cheeks reddening as he fought for breath. Grabbing his shoulders, Emmeline thumped his back and helped him lie back into his pillows as the cough subsided. He looked around the room, not seeming to take any of it in.
"Father?" she said quietly.
His pained gaze turned to her. She smiled gently, their argument seeming so long ago that it did not matter. He sighed and reached for her hands, his arms a little shaky.
"Oh, Em," he rasped. "My Em."
She did not let her smile drop even as she saw the shake in his hands, heard the pain in his voice. She moved her hand to his forehead and felt the clammy skin there. He was still fevered, then.
"I'm here, father." Reaching into her bag, she produced a small flask and held it to his lips. "Drink this for me. For the fever."
"I'm not fevered," he protested, sounding more like his old self than he should. There was colour back in his cheeks and his eyes looked more focused, but there was still an air of invalidity about his person.
She shook her head, amazed by his stubbornness. Silently she helped him drink down the mixture, not quite meeting his eyes. He yawned when he'd finished, sinking back into his pillows. Eyelids drooping slowly, he feel back asleep.
Neal came closer to the bed, his face worried. He sat down on the edge of Geord's bed. "Is he okay, then?"
"He's awake," said Emmeline slowly. "Which is..." More than I thought he'd be? She closed her eyes. "... Promising." She opened her eyes and looked to Neal, allowing herself a small smile for the boy's sake. "As is his arguing. I don't like the sound of that cough, though." She did not mention the memories of her ailing mother it had brought with it.
"He was coughin' last night too," Neal said quietly, his eyes on Geord's drawn face. "Sounded bad, it did."
Emmeline frowned, glancing at the boy. "Before he collapsed?"
Neal, who had been helping in the stables at the time of Geord being taken ill, had informed Emmeline of what had happened as soon as she'd arrived back. Late in the evening, her father had been attending to one of the carriages when he'd complained of feeling dizzy. When Neal had tried to take him to sit down his legs had given out beneath him and he'd fallen. One of the older stable hands had carried him to his room but hadn't been able to wake him. Neal had been frantic, looking everywhere for Emmeline, who estimated that at the time of her father's collapse she would have been at Nettle Hill.
With no idea of how much I was needed here.
"Most of the evenin'," confirmed Neal.
That would explain the raspiness of his breathing, at least. Getting to her feet, Emmeline bent to rest her head against her father's chest. His breath was laboured, rough, and she didn't like the congested sound she heard. Moving back to her chair, she pulled her bag onto her knees and began rooting through it. Neal looked on worriedly.
"What're you lookin' for?"
Emmeline undid the drawstrings of a small pouch and shook the contents out. A few dried up brown stalks tumbled into her outstretched hand. She frowned at them. "Farmer's reed," she muttered in reply. "It's a herb." She shook the bag again. "But I think I'm out."
Neal jumped to his feet and regarded the stalks critically. "Will it help him?"
She shrugged. "A fresh cut might ease any block in his throat."
"Where can I get it?"
Raising her head, Emmeline met Neal's earnest stare. She smiled gently and laid a hand on his shoulder as she stood. "No, Neal. You've done enough. I can get some from the palace gardens. You watch him, now. When he wakes again he should be a bit more orientated. Give him that..." She pointed towards a bottle that sat on the side table. "And send someone for me. I shouldn't be long."
Neal nodded seriously and took up position in Emmeline's vacated chair as the door closed softly behind her.
Reaching the stables, Septimus made his way through the stalls. He'd been slightly late for their meeting at the clearing, having received a firm reprimand for his desertion of the ball last night from his again bed-ridden father. But he'd finally arrived at the clearing as they had arranged and waited, though there had been no sign of Emmeline. A smile curled his lips to think of her, but it quickly faded. Surely she couldn't have forgotten? A young man carrying a bucket in each hand jumped to see him as he rounded a corner, and Septimus strode to him quickly.
"You there," he hailed him. "Where will I find Whyte?"
The man glanced about him as if for support, but the stables were empty but for the two of them. "Whyte, my lord?" he questioned nervously. "He was taken ill last night."
"No," snapped Septimus impatiently. "The girl." He frowned as he realised what the man had said. "Wait, what?"
"Geord Whyte, my lord, the groom. He was taken ill last night tending to the carriages."
He was ill? Then that was why Emmeline hadn't shown. He relaxed slightly, before snapping back to the man before him. "And the girl?"
The man's brow creased in confusion."Em? I think she's in the palace gardens, my lord. Something about herbs, she said."
No doubt she was gathering something to aid her father's recovery. So she was safe enough, at least for now. Septimus considered the man before him and came to a decision. There was something he had to do.
"Take me to Whyte, then," he ordered the stable hand. "I would see him."
Nodding, the man led him to the far end of the stables, where he pointed him towards the stairs leading to the Whytes' lodgings.
"He's resting, my lord. His is the second room to your right."
A terse nod sufficed as both thanks and dismissal as Septimus turned from the man and made his way toward the room. Opening it, he was surprised by the dullness of the small space, so different to how he imagined Emmeline would keep a sickroom.
"My lord?" Neal looked up in surprise from his position at the foot of the bed. He looked tired, as if he had been sitting through the night. Geord Whyte struggled to sit up, fear and a little anger mingling with the surprise in his lined face.
It was obvious to Septimus that he had interrupted a conversation, but he looked only to the boy. "Will you leave us, please, Neal?"
He must have caught the seriousness in his tone, for he nodded immediately and darted from the room.
Septimus let his gaze return to Emmeline's father. There was something in the man's now tensed posture that reminded him of Emmeline's fighting stance, but otherwise there was not much resemblance. From what he knew of Whyte's care in the stables, he suspected that she had inherited his kind nature more than any physical resemblance. Now, though, there was little kindness in the man's bearded face as he regarded the prince, his tired eyes narrow.
Septimus moved toward the bed. He clenched his hand at his side, unsure if he should offer it in handshake. Deciding against it, he merely bowed his head sharply. "Mr Whyte, I am Septimus."
If Geord noticed that he did not introduce himself with his title, he did not remark upon that respect. Instead he shouldered himself up to rest straight-backed against the wall, cushioned by a pillow behind him. He looked wary.
"I'm not yet so addled that I don't recognise you, my lord," he replied tersely.
There was anger in the man's tone, but Septimus did not rise to it. He merely remained silent as Geord regarded him uneasily.
"I know why you've come, anyway," muttered Geord, looking away from the prince then. There was a small tremor in the hand that lay on the sheets before him. Meeting the prince's gaze bravely, Geord's voice was barely above a whisper when he next spoke. "Emmeline." The one word seemed to convey everything that worried him; the fear that plagued him over his daughter's recently admitted affections.
Septimus nodded slowly. Seeing the man now, he found himself worrying for Emmeline's state of emotions. He looked so ill, so old. At least this visit might ease some of her worry. He took a deep breath, unused to the discomfort of the situation he now found himself in.
"I am well aware that you do not approve of my... my intentions, Mr Whyte." He kept his voice respectful, mindful of Emmeline's devotion to the old man.
Surprise again in the old man's face, this time in reaction to Septimus's calm words. Then his face twisted. "That's not all I don't approve of, my lord."
Well, of course. Septimus blinked steadily. "Quite," he replied evenly.
"'Quite'?" repeated Geord. "That's all you have to say?"
Septimus moved to sit in the chair set at the end of the bed. He crossed one long leg over the other and shook his head slowly. "I did not come to deny my past nor win your trust, Mr Whyte. Both could be considered insurmountable feats."
"But I will be frank, Mr Whyte." He leaned closer, hands resting on his knees. "Emmeline holds a great deal by your opinion. Your disapproval makes her unhappy." His words were clumsy, unpractised. "I... I do not like to place that upon her."
"So you've come to remove my disapproval? What are you going to do, kill me?" Geord, backed as far against the wall as possible, was glaring at the prince but a little fear slipped through in his shaky words.
"No," Septimus assured him testily, very aware of his irritation rising. "I only wish to speak. I may not have your trust, but I would be grateful for the benefit of your doubt." He softened his tone, thinking of Emmeline. Of the old man's clear protection of her, the worry that the fool Dall had placed there. "I will not harm your daughter, Mr Whyte. I swear it."
The look Geord gave him was one of disbelief, and Septimus could only hope he heard the sincerity in his tone. But the hope was quickly dashed with his next words.
"I don't know what you're playing at with my daughter," Geord said carefully, "But I won't condone it. I don't trust you." A new force entered his words as he leaned forward. "Answer me something, my lord. How many years since Lady Una went missing?"
Una? Septimus frowned at the sudden change of topic. He answered anyway. "Seventeen. Seventeen years."
Geord nodded as if he had proved his point. "And no-one's seen her. No-one knows if she's alive or dead. My wife..." he paused, took a deep breath. "Emmeline's mother... She was Lady Una's handmaiden. She used to tell me how close the two of you were." Face twisting, Geord met the prince's gaze accusingly. "Seventeen years she's been gone, my lord. Did you keep her safe?"
Standing, Septimus felt his fists clench at his sides. So that was the aversion towards him, the mystery of his sister's disappearance. It made sense now, even if it angered him. "I didn't touch her," he said roughly. "I've spent seventeen years looking for her." Taking a deep breath, he attempted to calm his tone. "I understand your worry, but I will not harm your daughter. However, I will not pretend that Emmeline is safe with me, at least not while my brothers still stand. But I have made that clear to her. She understands it."
"Does she really?" The man's voice was mocking.
Patiently, Septimus moved back towards the chair. He lowered himself into it with a sigh. "Yes. She understands what I will have to do." He fixed the man with a strong gaze. "I will fight, Mr Whyte. It is my birthright, and I will not shy from it." His voice softened slightly then, and he kept the man's gaze. "Emmeline knows that."
There was a brief silence then, as Geord stared at the prince. Then he sighed.
"She trusts you, you know," said Geord stiffly, his voice making it clear he did not share his daughter's confidence. "She really does. And she's not one to give her trust easy, is my Em."
"She is an astute woman," agreed Septimus quietly.
Geord regarded him silently for a moment, then shook his head as if defeated. "And stubborn, too."
Remembering his own words from last night, Septimus could not help but concur. A small smile curled his lips. "Yes. Stubborn, too."
Holding back a smile of his own, Geord snorted. His breath caught in his throat, however, and he began coughing harshly, the sound pained and guttural. Septimus stood to help but he waved him away. When the coughing had abated, there was a frown between Geord's brows as he regarded the prince again. He turned his head to the window. The shutters were drawn across it but he stared intently as if he was focusing on something happening outside. Finally, he spoke, his voice a little raspy.
"Neal said you found her last night. Thank you for that."
Septimus nodded curtly. Geord continued to stare away from him at the drawn shutters.
"You didn't have to come here, my lord."
Septimus thought of Emmeline, of the brief worry in her face when she mentioned her father. "I think I did."
Geord Whyte turned to Septimus then, nothing more in his face than a jaded sadness and regret. "You really care for her."
Septimus was unsure if the man was asking a question, but he answered it nonetheless. "I do, Mr Whyte."
Another sigh. Geord shook his head, ran a hand over his chin. "I'm an old man, my lord." He coughed slightly. "An old man and a sick man, despite whatever Em puts in her mixtures." His voice became tender as he spoke of his daughter, and he looked entreatingly to Septimus. "I want her to be happy. She thinks you can give her that."
"I will try," promised Septimus.
"And she knows her own mind." His voice was tired. "Allow her that."
How could he not? "Always."
"But for me, keep her safe." He coughed again, then cleared his throat with some difficulty. Meeting the prince's gaze again, his voice was wry. "Or I'll come back to haunt you."
Septimus, meeting the tired eyes of Emmeline's father, thought then that maybe he had enough ghosts of his own making. He nodded seriously. "I swear, by the throne of Stormhold, I will keep her safe for as long as she lets me."
Satisfied, Geord Whyte dropped back into his pillows. His eyelids fluttered and he gave a quick yawn. "Thank you. Consider yourself a beneficiary of my doubt. Now let me sleep, my lord."
With another nod, Septimus stood to leave. Emmeline would be pleased. The thought made him smile as he closed the door softly behind him. Neal jumped up from his perch on the top stair and gave an awkward bow.
"Shall I fetch Em now, my lord?" he asked quickly. "She wanted to know when Geord woke up but he told me not to get her until he'd had time to think."
Septimus put a hand on the boy's shoulder and steered him back to the door. "I'll find her. You stay here."
Taking two steps at a time, Septimus hurried down the stairs and made his way to the palace gardens. He hoped that the removal of her father's disapproval might ease her worry in this difficult time. He resolved to find her as quickly as he could with the news of her father's awakening. Lengthening his strides, he had barely passed the courtyard when he heard sudden movement behind him. A snide, familiar voice demanded his attention.
"Looking for this, brother? I told you I would find out where you were going."
Turning on his heel and drawing his sword in one practised movement, Septimus was utterly unprepared for the scene that faced him.
Secundus stood before him, one hand over Emmeline's mouth and the other holding a sword to her neck. Septimus' stomach jolted as he recognised the sword as the one he'd presented her with. Emmeline's eyes were wide and frightened, the pupils darting wildly as if trying to convey a silent message to him. He dragged his eyes from her to meet the gleeful face of his elder brother.
"Who is she, then, this girl who draws your sword as her own?"
Anger and loathing jostled for control in Septimus but he knew he had to stay calm. A reaction was what Secundus wanted. He felt Emmeline's eyes on him but would not look, could not look, and give away all he felt for her in one tortured gaze. He could not let Secundus see how much she meant to him.
"Leave her," Septimus commanded with a stronger voice than he'd thought possible. His eyes flickered to the point of the sword resting against Emmeline's pale skin, skin he'd touched only hours before, and sworn to protect. He cursed internally, trying not to let his fear show. Hand tightening around the pommel of his sword, Septimus glared at his brother, who merely continued to smirk. "Leave her."
"Leave her?" repeated Secundus. "Why, I don't think I will. I'm having far too much fun as it is..."
Septimus took a step closer, raising his sword, but Secundus simply stepped back, his sword arm moving jerkily and eliciting a wince from Emmeline. "Drop it," snapped Secundus, his demeanour rapidly changing. "Or I'll cut my fun short just to spite you."
Gritting his teeth, Septimus could see no other option but to obey. Wordlessly, he lowered his sword to the ground. Smiling nastily, Secundus nodded and made sure his younger brother saw how his eyes roved over Emmeline's body, lingering over her heaving chest. Secundus slowly lowered his mouth to her ear, his eyes fixed on Septimus as he spoke to Emmeline.
"I'm going to remove my hand now," he said softly, almost sweetly. "Do promise not to scream, my dear."
As the hand was removed from her mouth, Emmeline choked back a sob and her eyes, bright with unshed tears, blinked pleadingly at Septimus. He saw the apology in her eyes and hated himself for it. As if it was her fault. He should have seen this coming, should have never let her out of his sight. Only Secundus' gloating pulled him away from her gaze.
"... I was simply taking a stroll through the gardens when I stumbled upon this lovely young lady. I noticed she was wearing a sword and my interest was piqued. It wasn't until I got closer that I realised what a very... interesting sword it was for her to have in her possession." His smirk became sly, filled with malice. "And you berated me on my use of the servant girls, Septimus... At least I don't keep mine as pets."
Septimus almost winced as he saw Emmeline's reaction to Secundus' phrasing of their relationship. Like there were any similarities between what Secundus did with those teenage girls and what Septimus felt for Emmeline.
"Leave her," Septimus repeated, not wanting to give his brother the satisfaction of arguing against his accusations. His mouth felt dry and he could hear his own heartbeat pounding loud in his ears. Stay calm, he told himself. Stay calm and think clearly.
Making sure his brother was watching, Secundus moved a strand of her dark hair from Emmeline's face, tucking it deftly behind her ear. Septimus watched her shudder as he did so. "She is pretty, though, I'll give you that," said Secundus, ignoring Septimus' order. "And not too bad with a sword. Did you teach her yourself? That might explain why she was unable to best me."
Ignoring the taunts, Septimus did not take his eyes from his brother's free hand, currently lingering at Emmeline's neck. Noticing the direction of his gaze, Secundus moved his hand in gentle strokes across the pale skin. Emmeline turned her head away but he grabbed for her chin, forcing her back.
"You shy from my hand but welcome his?" He laughed, looked back to his brother. "Well, I can compliment her looks but her taste escapes me. How can she stand hands upon her that are as bloody as yours, brother? Or..." A grin lit up Secundus' face but it was more dangerous than handsome. "Does she know of the blood?"
Grasping Emmeline's chin again, he twisted her face to meet his gaze. Septimus could not help but feel a sudden burst of pride as her tears remained unshed, and her body stayed tense and alert. But his pride was overcome with shame and anger as he realised where Secundus was going with this line of conversation. "Do you speak of family, much, girl? Septimus must have plenty to share." Without waiting for a reply, he glanced back to his brother.
Septimus stood motionless as Secundus grinned at him. Attempting to detach from the emotion of the situation, his sharp eyes noticed how the man's grip had relaxed on the sword, too caught up in his gloating. He saw Emmeline's posture stiffen with purpose, something that was totally lost on Secundus. But Septimus, who had grown to know the nuances of her body so well through their spars, recognised her tensing as a prelude to an attack. His heart almost stopped. No, Emmeline...
"Shall we see if she has a strong stomach, Septimus, to go with her strong will?" baited Secundus. "Shall I tell her of Quintus, and the axe you put in his skull as he slept? Shall I tell her about the lamp oil in Sextus' quarters, how you threw in the match and locked the doors?" He looked down at Emmeline, whose eyes were closed. He smirked to see it.
"Quartus was mine, and I'll admit that." His voice was light as he continued, bordering on conversational. He glanced back up to Septimus. "But I was merciful compared to you, brother." Looking back to Emmeline, he put a hand under her chin to lift her gaze. "It was the ice room I locked him in. He froze. They say that's like going to sleep, because your body just shuts down... Why, I almost feel like a saint beside you, Septimus. I gave our brother a merciful death, a peaceful one... Not like burning to death, feeling your skin on fire, feeling it peel and burn, feeling your own flesh shatter like glass and that unbearable heat—"
On this last word, Septimus saw Emmeline's hand move and roared "No!" as he realised her intention. Her palm grasped around the sword blade and forced it away from her neck, pain lancing across her face as she did so. Turning, she lifted her knee, hard, into Secundus' groin and quickly ducked, pulling herself away from his grip.
Septimus reached Secundus a split second after, by which time his elder brother had recovered himself enough to raise his sword toward Emmeline, fallen on the cold stone ground and clutching her injured hand.
"No!" Septimus shouted again, forcing the man's hand backward with all the strength he could muster. Secundus stumbled and Septimus tore the sword from his grip, to aim it at his elder brother's chest. Panting, he stood between Emmeline and Secundus, the former breathing heavily from the ground behind him and the latter glaring hatefully at him over the sword blade he was now faced with.
"Go, Secundus," he said tautly, just barely managing to restrain himself from running the man through. "Go before I change my mind."
Still sneering, Secundus took a few steps back. Septimus watched him warily. "Your pet has made you weak, little brother. A true son of Stormhold would not hesitate. I'll leave you for now, but only because I know how easy it will be to destroy you." His eyes flickered back to Emmeline, behind Septimus, before he turned on his heel and left.
As soon as he was gone, Septimus turned to Emmeline. He regarded her silently for a moment, unsure if his relief should temper out his anger. Then meeting her blue eyes, he felt nothing but concern. He went to her and knelt, dropping the sword at his feet as he took her injured hand in both of his.
"That was foolish, Emmeline," he said gently. She did not respond. He tried to meet her gaze before he realised she was crying. "Emmeline..." Pulling her against his chest, he moved one hand up to clutch at her hair, keeping her close to him. She did not resist, her body shaking as she sobbed quietly into his shirt. He let her cry, merely holding her until the weeping had subsided and it had softened to choked whimpers.
"I'm sorry," she whispered finally, when she felt strong enough to speak. "I didn't even hear him coming... He disarmed me before I'd even..."
Septimus pulled her back into his chest, his arms tight around her shoulders. "No, Emmeline. You did well. I should have known better. I'm sorry." He lifted her head enough for him to see the redness at her neck, the fine beads of blood. He cursed quietly and sighed, taking her hand and turning it to see the incision she'd allowed herself to acquire.
"Septimus?" Her voice was quiet, but he kept his gaze on her hand. "Was it true?" Septimus looked up at her uncertain question. "The things... The things he said about your brothers. Was that how it happened?"
The Prince searched her eyes but did not look away. "Yes," he answered simply.
Emmeline, to her credit, did not drop her gaze. "Oh," she said.
There was a few moments of silence. Septimus took a handkerchief from his jerkin and laid it across her hand, tying it as securely as he dared. Emmeline rested her head against his shoulder.
"My father is sick again."
"I know. But he's awake now," Septimus informed her. "I've spoken to him."
A frown creased Emmeline's brow when she turned her head to him, eyes full of questions. Relief was clear in her expression too, but he could see she was trying to figure out what to ask first.
"Come on," said Septimus, getting to his feet. "I'm sure he'll want to tell you himself." He picked up the sword and slipped it into her scabbard before helping her stand. He took in her dishevelled state and shook his head. "Although I'm sure he'll have something to say about my apparent inability to keep you out of trouble."
He saw Emmeline's lips curve in a small smile at that, and he stepped forward to press a gentle kiss to her temple, moving her hair out of her face as he did so. "I'm sorry, Emmeline."
She regarded him silently for a moment, her blue eyes on his dark green. He noted the swollen bags under her eyes, red with shed tears, and he vowed silently to avenge each individual tear spilt on Secundus' behalf. But he knew that Emmeline was not looking for fierce proclamations of revenge, or bloody vengeance to be wreaked on her account, so he merely took her uninjured hand and walked her back to the stables.
Her hand felt so small in his, and he found himself thinking back on what he'd promised her father — to keep her safe. Idly, he found himself wondering if would ever actually be able to keep his promise.
A/N: Bad author! Bad author! *slaps wrist and has the good grace to look ashamed*
First of all, many, many apologies for the ridiculous update time. I'm hopeless, I know. But lookee here! A big bumper chapter full of suspense and a bit of fluff-ish stuff thrown in for good measure. I'm trying to keep up with fanfiction but if I'm sidetracked again hopefully this'll tide you over.
The demises of the brothers are what I could gather from the movie — Quartus appears as icy and frozen and Sextus is burnt. So I took a few liberties with that. Except Quintus, who has an axe sticking out of his skull and nightclothes on so I surmised from that that someone had put an axe in his head when he was sleeping. Probably Septimus.
Thanks so much to everyone who's continued to alert, favourite and review despite my lack of updates. It means the world. I think I've thanked most of the signed reviews personally through PMs, but if you were an anonymous review or woefully overlooked then please accept my heartfelt thanks for sharing a few words with me.