Two men. One kingdom. A secret that could cost them everything…
Gareth has been bringing home strays to his thatch-roofed cabin since he was a young boy with his head in the clouds. Helping others is more than a hobby to him—the need to heal flows through his veins. Ellis is far from a helpless stray. His shoulders are broad enough to hold the weight of the kingdom that rests upon them. But when he’s captured by slave traders, he finds himself in need of help from an unlikely ally, loath though he is to accept it.
Neither of them expected to find the other, and neither of them meant to fall in love. It won’t just change their lives—it could change the fate of an entire kingdom. And each will be forced to choose: gain everything he wants, or lose what the heart holds dearest…
Summer lingered that year in the valley of Tamden. Even as the shadows began to slope and the nights grew longer, the days were warm enough to be uncomfortable, and Gareth took to dipping a small cloth in the cool stream behind his thatch-roofed cabin and wearing it around his neck as he roamed the wood, gathering what herbs he could find. There had been an outbreak of unexplained fever throughout the Tenby, the small, sleepy village where Gareth had lived all his life, and his stocks of ginger root were severely diminished. There were other things he needed as well, mint and yarrow, and though the valley was lush, they were scarce this late in the season.
Gareth knelt in the underbrush and ran a hand over his sweaty brow, squinting up at the sun. The canopy of trees overhead was thick. Gareth could hardly see the sun through it, even though it was past midday. The wood was quiet, filled only with the chirping of birds overhead and the scurrying of a few critters underfoot. They crashed through the dry grass, no doubt in search of food or water.
It had been a long, hot summer. Gareth was ready for the relief of autumn, for the cool nights and the crisp mornings. Summer made him feel vaguely ill and restless. Soon, he thought, humming to himself. His rough tunic stuck to the small of his back, and his dark hair was damp against his neck. There was a small hunk of hard cheese and half a loaf of brown bread in his satchel, but his wineskin was long empty. Perhaps it was time he turned back and made his way home. The wood would be there on the morrow.
Mind made up, Gareth pushed himself to his feet. His back cracked, stiff from having been hunched over for so long, and he groaned and put a hand to it, stretching and tilting his face up to the sun’s warmth. He took in a deep lungful of the sweet fragrance of the edge of summer. If he stretched up, he felt he could reach the tops of the trees and brush his hands over the first of the coloring leaves.
Gareth shook his head at himself and grinned. Such flights of fancy. His mother had always chided him for them, even as she smiled indulgently and allowed him another half hour to climb trees under her fond, watchful eye.
His worn leather satchel was resting against a tree, and he picked it up, swung it over his shoulder, and then turned back in the direction of home. He had hardly gone three steps when a man came stumbling out of a nearby thicket of brush, hands clutching the blunt end of a fallen branch. He was tall, well over six feet and very broad shouldered, and he was filthy. His hair was matted to his forehead and brambles were stuck to his torn clothing, if what he wore could even be called clothing. He wore little more than a rough tunic the color of dirt and thin breeches that were ripped off at the knees. Upon one cheek was a long gash and dried blood was smeared darkly beneath it.
“Oh,” Gareth said, falling back a step.
The man narrowed his eyes and lifted the branch—an action that appeared to require all of his effort—and then he went down like a felled tree. He hit knees first and then crumpled forward—hips, shoulders, head. He made no noise when he hit the ground, save the crunches of dried leaves beneath his body.
“Oh,” Gareth said again. He stared dumbly at the man for a moment, then lurched forward, heart pounding, and fell to his knees. Fallen branches poked his knees through his thin cotton breeches, but Gareth paid it no mind. With no small amount of effort Gareth rolled the man over onto his back. He leaned down, pressing his ear to the man’s chest. His heart lurched sickly in the moment before he heard the slow drag of a heartbeat.
“All right,” Gareth said, sitting back on his heels. He reached for his satchel and wrenched the latch open. He dumped everything out, upending it upon the forest floor. Tiny jars and pots spilled out with a tinkling sound, catching the golden shafts of light that cut through the wood, and Gareth shoved them aside, looking for his wineskin. He had it half-open before he remembered it was empty. He swore and opened it anyway.
The man’s mouth was slightly open, and Gareth fitted the rim of the bota bag to it and tilted it up. A scant few drops tricked out. Some slipped inside the man’s mouth, but most simply ran down his face, streaking the mud that was caked there. Gareth pushed the lid back on and fumbled it back into his satchel. His hands shook—he couldn’t quite get them to do what he wanted. He needed…well, he needed many things, but the first was for his heart to stop racing so that he could think clearly.
Gareth closed his eyes and took in a deep, steadying breath. The sound of it was loud in the stillness that enveloped them. He’d never been good under pressure, but now was not the time to fall apart. The man’s heartbeat was steady, if a little weak, and his breath seemed unlabored. He would be fine if Gareth could just get it together enough to figure out what to do with him.
“Some physician you are,” Gareth mumbled to himself, looking down at the man’s upturned face. He needed more water, certainly. His lips were dry and cracked, crusted at the corners with dried blood. A needle and thread as well, for when the man had fallen he’d split the gash on his face open again. Gareth hadn’t stitched that many cuts, but he had stitched enough to know when a cut needed more than salve and bandages to heal. Beyond that, Gareth wasn’t sure, and he certainly wasn’t about to go looking without the man’s consent, not when, in the split second before he’d gone down, he’d looked at Gareth as if he would gladly take him apart limb by limb.
Gareth sighed and looked around; finding that they were alone, he reached out and slapped the man across the face. “Wake,” he said loudly, but the man did not answer and he certainly did not wake. “Damn.”
Gareth leaned over and scooped up his jars and pots, catching bits of grass and leaves with them. He shoved all of it into his bag and then caught the latch. For a moment, he considered leaving the man where he lay, but he discarded the idea as quickly as it came to him. Even though it was very unlikely that there were bandits this far from the city, Gareth couldn’t very well leave someone unconscious and defenseless like this. And even if there were no bandits, a few of the village children had sworn that they’d seen bear tracks on this side of the ridge, and Gareth wasn’t going to leave the man to be eaten by a bear, even if he had brandished a tree branch so menacingly.
“Well.” Gareth stood and brushed the dirt from his breeches. “I suppose there’s nothing else for it, is there?”
Still the man remained silent and unmoving, and Gareth was left with little choice but to stoop, haul the man onto his back, and begin the seemingly endless journey home.
The light was golden by the time Gareth made it, panting and sweating, back to his cabin. He had stopped at least half a dozen times along the way, relieving himself of his burden and resting against the scratchy bark of the nearest tree, then hauling the man back up and setting off again. Every bit of his body ached, and he longed to strip down and plunge face-first into the cool stream, but before he could do that, he had to tend to the stranger he had hauled back with him.
Gareth kicked open the roughly hewn door to his cabin, staggered inside, and dropped the man on the nearest horizontal surface, which happened to be the floor. He felt a momentary twinge of guilt, which passed as he tried to straighten up. The muscles in his back seized and Gareth groaned, putting his hands to them.
“Just so you know,” he said, looking down at the unmoving figure. “If you’ve been faking that in order to not have to travel on foot, I will actually kill you.”
The man made no reply. Gareth nudged him with a muddy boot.
“I mean, I won’t actually kill you, of course. I’m a physician. It’s against our nature to kill anyone. Well, not anyone, of course. If someone were coming at me with a sword, for instance—well, I’m not quite sure what I’d do, but I wouldn’t just stand there and let myself get run through, you understand.”
If not for the steady rise and fall of the man’s chest, Gareth would have thought he’d dragged a dead man across the wood.
“Of course, I’m not a true physician, so I suppose it’s rather a moot point, isn’t it? You know, if you’re planning to kill me upon waking, now would be a good time to let me know.”
Still nothing. Gareth turned his back on the man and moved toward the fireplace. The cabin was quiet and clean, just as he’d left it hours before. The fire was banked low in the hearth, and the vegetable soup he’d set that morning had long turned to mush, but it was still edible. Gareth spooned a portion into a wooden bowl and set it aside on the table to cool.
“I’m going to go fetch some fresh water. If you wake up before I get back, do try not to come out and kill me, won’t you?”
A water bucket rested beside the door. Gareth retrieved it and then, with a quick look over his shoulder, left the cabin and made his way down to the stream, to the place where the banks curved back on themselves and the flow of water was slow and deep. He left the bucket on the grass and then stripped off his tunic and breeches and slipped into the water.
Gareth gasped as he sunk in up to his shoulders. The water felt exquisite—cold and refreshing, quickly rinsing away the sweat and dirt of the day. Gareth was tempted to stay there for the rest of the evening, floating just under the surface and watching the sun slip behind the western mountains, but the grumble of his stomach spurred him into action. He washed quickly, ducking his head and scrubbing his scalp with rough fingers, then climbed out and tugged his clothes back on over his damp skin. He’d worry about something clean to wear once he’d eaten.
And seen to the man on his floor.
“Madness,” Gareth murmured. His mother had always teased him about bringing home every wounded animal that passed within a mile of their cottage. Gareth supposed this was just natural progression. He grabbed the bucket, filled it, and carried it back inside.
The man was still lying in a heap on the floor, but he had rolled over onto his back, which Gareth decided was encouraging. Still not dead. He set the bucket down beside him and retrieved a clean cloth from the wooden cupboard beside the bed, which he soaked in the cool water. Gareth knelt and placed a careful hand under the man’s chin and tipped it up so that he could clean his face and throat. He worked gently, taking care not to drag over the gash that ran from his ear to his jaw. With the skin clean, Gareth could tell that the cut had come from something narrow and sharp—a knife blade, perhaps, or a dagger.
“Who did this to you?” Gareth said, touching his fingertips to the puckered skin below the cut. He wanted to stitch it as soon as possible to stave off any further risk of infection, but Gareth wasn’t stupid enough to try and stitch up an unconscious man, so he simply retrieved a salve, which he smeared thickly over the cut and then reached for a cup. He filled it with the fresh water.
“This is just water,” he said, sliding his hand beneath the man’s neck and tilting his chin up. “Can you drink? I’m going to pour it into your mouth now, all right? Just a little, try and swallow for me.”
He tipped the cup up, letting the water trickle into the man’s mouth. The first splash trickled down in between his open lips and out over the corners of his mouth. It ran down his neck, wetting the tangle of hair caught beneath Gareth’s fingers. He tried again, pouring out a little more, wishing he had a free hand to rub the man’s throat to encourage him to swallow.
“Come on,” Gareth said. “It’s only water. I promise you’ll feel so much better if you just—”
The man sucked in a sudden breath and then coughed violently, gagging and spitting water everywhere. He flailed and wrenched himself free of Gareth’s arms, knocking the cup out of his hands and kicking the bucket over. Water splashed everywhere, soaking the floor.
“Get off me,” the man roared, clawing at his throat with dirty fingernails. His arm shot out and he caught Gareth across his cheek with a fist. It wasn’t much of a blow—Gareth had certainly received worse—but it was surprising enough that Gareth tumbled backward, clutching his jaw.
The man slumped on the floor, chest heaving, the back of his shirt in tatters. He held a hand tightly against his side. “I said don’t touch me,” he gasped.
Gareth’s heart was pounding. He pressed a hand to his chest and tried to catch his breath. “I was just trying—” he began, but the man’s glare went icy and Gareth snapped his mouth shut.
“Who are you?” the man demanded. “Where am I? What have you—why did you bring me here?”
“I have no idea.” Gareth struggled to his feet and reached for the water bucket. The man watched him warily, looking as if he’d hop up and bash Gareth to death with his own fists if he felt the need for it, which was a fine way to treat someone who had saved your life. “I should have left you in the wood.”
“Yes, you should have.”
Gareth fought the urge to roll his eyes. Only the shock of the blow saved him from it. He didn’t want to provoke the man but couldn’t stop himself from snapping, “Brilliant. That’s really brilliant. That would have been a lovely way to go—bleed to death or be eaten by a bear. Next time I’ll—”
The man’s eyes went wide and he raised a hand to his face, wincing when it came away bloody. “Oh.”
“Right,” Gareth said, feeling perhaps a little vindicated. It would have been more satisfying without the ache in his jaw. “Oh.”
“I—” The man shook his head, curling one hand around his bloody palm, as though that was where his injury was, and cradled it to his chest. “Bears? Exactly how far north are we?”
Gareth wasn’t inclined to be generous. “Quite far,” he said, carrying the bucket over and putting it by the door. “The village of Tenby.”
The man straightened up, wincing. “Tenby? In the valley? As far as that? How did I even…” He trailed off and looked around helplessly, and had it not been for the throb in his cheek, Gareth would have felt sorry for him. All the fight seemed to have gone out of him.
“I carried you.”