Lord Greco pulled me aside abruptly, his eyes alert. I did not have to ask why he suddenly drew his sword and motioned for me to be quiet. I heard them, too. A band of Fiorentini soldiers appeared in the horizon. The bright red flags were unmistakable.
He dragged me to the woods and lifted me without effort into a tree branch.
"You can climb, Signorina?" he asked and I nodded. "Forgive me. But 'tis necessary."
All my life, I had no reason for fear Fiorentini soldiers. My family had served them for as long as I could remember. But our current situation was…complicated.
I was a guest of Firenze's sworn enemy, and Lord Greco, who was escorting me, has been deemed a traitor. To be caught in Sienese territory only spelled doom for either of us. I was but a farmer's daughter. But by being with Lord Greco, my fate was sealed.
We reached the taller branches and were out of their sight. The thick leaves covered us and I was more than grateful that the Forelli maids dressed me in a gown the shade of olives.
I nearly slipped, but Lord Greco caught my waist and held me firmly. My heart pounded like a war drum as the small band of soldiers, about five of them, neared. Why were they in Sienese territory?, I wondered to myself. Lord Greco must have read it on my face because he shrugged.
They stopped four feet away from us, concealed from the view of Castello Forelli. I swallowed nervously. Twilight was approaching and if they decided to camp for the night, we would be in this tree for a very long time.
I've climbed trees before, but I found myself losing hold. I was not used to lady's slippers and we were in a crevice too narrow for the both of us. While he was leaning against a thick branch, I was trying not to fall forward. Sensing my discomfort, Lord Greco pulled me to his chest and put his arm around me to steady me.
I trembled slightly as his lips came to my ear.
"'Tis no time for modesty, signorina. Should you fall, the consequences will be dire." I merely nodded. Did he think I would scream and betray him? I could not tell. His eyes bore no sign of his thoughts. But his sword was firmly in his right hand and I felt the hilt against my back.
He lightly pushed my head against his chest and I relaxed. His heart beat steadily and his breath, even. "Rest. "
The men below us began drinking from their water skins and talking quietly.
"Are you sure no one saw us?" the burliest of the lost asked.
"I am sure, captain. The Sienese patrol entered the castello's gates just as we approached."
Rodolfo stiffened. We were alone.
"That means they do not know we are here. What of the maid you saw with the traitor?"
I swallowed hard. They were seeking me? My eyes gave away my fear, as Greco gently touched my back to reassure me.
"I did not see them enter, my lord."
"I do not understand. Where could they be?" the burly knight paced.
"We cannot linger here for long, my lord. We are too close to the castello. Another patrol could come and find us. We will be greatly outnumbered."
"Very well. Eat quickly and fill your skins by the brook. Have the horses drink as well. We have a long night ahead."
I let out a short breath, as did Lord Greco, but he remained as still as the branch we were on. The men moved farther toward the brook and I could hear their muffled voices.
"We must remain still until they are gone. You must rest, signorina. As long as they do not know where we are, they will not bother us," he whispered.
Too terrified to speak lest they heard me, I merely nodded and concentrated on his breathing. For someone who spoke of the danger we were in, his breath was surprisingly regular, as was his heartbeat.
I was about to lose feeling in my arms, which were pressed between my body and his, when his left arm moved slowly to allow me to pull them to the side. Feeling awkward that my arms were just hanging at the side, I placed my palms on his chest to better balance myself.
His stillness reminded me of the statues my father spoke of in Roma. The disgraced lord was just as they had said-he resembled a Roman god. I had seen him training with the other knights and it appears he fights just as the gods do, as well. He was well-built and the form of his muscles was clear beneath his tunic.
Unlike the other cavaliere, I find him quite baffling. He barely utters a word yet he is quick to act, always a step ahead of everyone. And those eyes! It pierces the soul. I recalled the Lady Evangelia saying nothing escapes Lord Greco but no one knows a thing about him. Sometimes, the Ladies Betarrini speak oddly.
He angers me so, and yet, I find myself feeling sorry for him. I knew men. Full of pride. It cannot be easy to have lost so much and be hiding out in enemy territory. Not that I find living at the Castello Forelli so terrible. The company is quite pleasant, I almost forget they are enemies.
Left to my musings, I realized late that he had stopped breathing. I looked up only to find his eyes upon me. And only too late did I feel a rush of heat creep around my neck and into my cheeks. Oh, why must I fluster so?
I quickly dropped my gaze, but not without noticing the ghost of a smile from his lips. I felt his hot breath on my hair once again and I wanted to kick myself over and over. As Lady Evangelia said, nothing escaped the Lord Greco.
When I opened my eyes, night had fallen. The only sounds were of crickets and the rustle of leaves. I had forgotten where I was and tried to turn around when a pair of strong arms tightened around me, keeping me in place.
"Oh!" I exclaimed in surprise. I was lying flat on my stomach, pressed into Lord Greco's chest. I gasped again, thinking this was sure to roil my poor mother in her grave if she had seen me in such a compromising position. A surge of heat flowed from cheeks up to my neck.
"Good. You are awake. We are safe now," he said in a much louder voice.
"Then unhand me, my lord, for I refuse to stay on top of you any longer," I retorted with all the dignity I could muster. I heard a soft chuckle but he loosed his grip.
"You did not seem to mind hours before," he noted, watching me nearly tumble gracelessly onto the ground. He dropped next to me effortlessly and landed on his two feet.
"Why did you not wake me then? We could have been back sooner."
"I had not the heart to disturb your slumber. You seemed so…peaceful. 'Twas nice, for a change." I could only scowl in reply.
"Where did they go?" I asked, hoping to make him forget what we had been discussing.
"I don't think it is wise for me to tell you, lest you try and track them yourself," he replied, lowering his sword into its sheath. "In the meantime, we must head back to the castello. They will be looking for us,"
I huffed in a most unladylike manner and walked ahead of him. But those slippers kept falling off my feet and it took the knight less time to saunter toward me and pick them up.
To my utter amazement, he scooped me off the ground, balancing me on his left shoulder, my slippers on his right hand.
"My lord! This is most inappropriate," I protested.
"I shall set you down when we near the castello. Until then, we will reach our destination quicker without you having to stop every so often to fix these slippers."
I had no strength to fight him and I did see he was correct in saying that to walk in those lady's slippers would only delay us. "Forgive me, my lord. I have not worn such fine slippers in all my life. Why, I tread on my bare feet for the most part."
"There is nothing to forgive, signorina. But might I say these slippers complement your fair bare feet quite nicely."
I was glad evening had fallen and the moon was hidden behind the clouds and the thick leaves of the trees made everything around us dark. Had it been daytime, he would have clearly seen my face turn a shade of scarlet as has never been glimpsed before.
"You are too kind, my lord. I have a farm girl's feet. What could be so fair about them?"
"I have spent many a day in palazzos and castellos, signorina. Trust me when I say, thou art fairer than many a maid my eyes have seen."
He stopped and set me down gently. I stared at those unsightly feet he had just called fair, but before long, his hand was pushing my chin upward until I was looking into his eyes.
"Who are you, signorina?"