Halling decided not to accompany him on the last leg of his journey towards the soldier’s station, but remained in the forest, and John had reluctantly gotten into his Royal garments to get the supplies he needed from the station. He met up with Halling at their campsite, with a cart filled with food, medicine and blankets. John had probably robbed the soldiers from their last meals until the next delivery, but he didn’t care. “What do you say, Halling? Shall we travel throughout the night?” He smiled widely as he hopped off the cart to change back into his pauper clothes.
The man was speechless at what John had come back with. “You are our savior,” he said, patting him on the back. “If Aracely only suspected your true self before, she will certainly be sure when we return. This is greatly more than we could ever pray to receive.”
“I’ve instructed the soldiers to give up a few of their livestock, as well. The commandant probably needs to do a bit of complaining first, but, in a week or two, you’ll have a handful of pigs and cows, as well. Let that be our secret as a surprise for your village.” He took the reigns of Halling’s horse and tied them up on the cart. “It’ll be an honor for me if you would ride with me on this cart, Halling.”
He waited to get on the cart so that Halling had to get up there first, and they started their journey back to San Franciskus. Tucked away underneath the cart were a few barrels with explosive powder that would certainly help them fight off the people of Chulakka.
During the night, when Halling was taking a nap, John could hear some horses coming from between the trees. He stopped the cart, which woke up Halling, and grabbed the torch so he could try to make out the people in the trees.
“Please, we wish you no harm. If you are hungry, we can give you food. If you’re in need of medicine, we can give you that, as well. There is no need to harm us,” John called out. Slowly, a handful of people started to emerge from the treeline. It was dark, but John could tell these were nomads. And they were armed.
Halling started to hand them food and blankets, until the people retreated back into the forest. “How did you know?” Halling asked him as he got back on the cart. “How did you know they would not hurt us?”
“I didn’t,” John said softly as he re-adjusted the torch and gave the two horses the command to continue their journey. At this pace, they would reach San Franciskus when the sun would rise.
Aracely had been deeply distracted as she thought about Halling and Johan. The season was soon approaching and it was not safe to leave the village for pleasure traveling. Coming out from the tavern, she watched as the people began their morning routines before turning to return to her own home, as her friend would know to find her there upon his safe return.
One of the village scouts rode in on his horse. “Lady Aracely! Lady Aracely!” he cried out. “Halling and the stranger are about to return!”
Turning quickly, she looked up at him in surprise. “Are you positive? They are uninjured?” she asked as she raised her dress to run up to the horse.
“Yes, Milady,” the scout replied. “And they are uninjured. You will not believe your eyes when you see them.” The scout pointed yonder and, in the distance, two horses could be seen, followed by two figures on top of a cart, followed by the cart itself.
Her mouth fell open slightly before nodding. “Thank you,” Aracely said as she began back down the main road. She could not help but run a few steps to bring herself closer. “Are my eyes deceiving me?” she asked as they slowed to a stop on her approach.
“No, Aracely. Johan managed to get all this on his own,” Halling said as he hopped off the cart to greet her.
She blinked, unable to find her words. Looking back up, she found the man watching her. “Once you two settle, we must talk.”
John looked at Halling and nodded. “Yes, we do… but I actually wanted to leave the cart and its contents up to you to divide amongst your people. I really want to start digging holes, now.”
Aracely’s chest heaved with the deep breath she took. She continued to look at him as she spoke to Halling. “Bring him to my table this evening. We shall share tonight’s meal as we discuss more.”
“Of course,” Halling nodded with the slightest bow before looking at John with a raised brow. “I will store our new riches in the tavern’s floor bed.”
“I suppose I can help you with that.” John nodded and followed Halling and the cart to the floor bed. “She’s not going to beat me with a heavy object tonight, is she?” he asked, as they started to unload the supplies and sort the food from the medicines and the blankets.
The man chuckled and shook his head as he watched Aracely walk away. “I do not believe so. However, you would be pleased to know for her to invite you to her table generally means that she has welcomed you to the village. You should find little trouble with our people.”
“Well… I suppose that is a good thing.” John nodded and looked at the barrels of explosive powder. “I think your alchemist would be very happy with those.”
“Yes,” Halling nodded. “We will bring them to her at an upcoming daylight, if she does not already know of our acquiring it. Come, I will help you with your – holes.”
By midday, they had dug one hole, about six feet deep and six feet wide. Both men were sweating like pigs and John had to pull off his shirt because the over-sized shirt had started to cling and wrap around his body. He and Halling had quite the gathering around them; the small children loved looking down on them and playing in the sand they were discarding.
“My, my, aren’t you a looker,” Vala greeted the men with a large grin as she brought them some beverage. “Such a shame I am already wed.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” John gratefully took the large pint of lemonade and started to drink from it. “Danyel must be a very lucky man.”
In a low voice, Halling carefully said, “Do not encourage her. She has a – voracious – appetite for men, despite being a happily married woman.”
He grinned. “Don’t worry, Halling, I have a virtue to protect.” John nearly dropped his mug of lemonade when Halling elbowed him in the side and started to laugh. “I swear! All those stories about me? Completely false!” he whispered in the man’s ear.
“Of course,” Halling replied, to appease the prince, still not believing a word. “You can clean yourself in my home before we go to Aracely. She may be a welcoming hostess, but she also enjoys cleanliness for supper.”
“I appreciate that, Halling, thank you. Let’s try to get another, smaller hole in, first.” John pointed towards a small twig. “There.”
Opening the large heavy door, Aracely’s friend and servant, Gabriella, smiled at the waiting men. “Please, come in. The Lady is waiting for you,” she said softly. She led them up the small stairs, from the doorway to the main sitting area and into the dinner room.
“Misters Halling and Johan have arrived,” she announced before returning to her duties.
John inwardly cursed. Of course, what else could she had been? Someone not of nobility pretending to be one? He was pleasantly surprised, but he certainly hadn’t expect that Aracely would have had servants.
Putting down her wine glass, she smiled before standing. “Please have a seat. Gabriella will be back shortly to join us,” she said, noticing the surprise on Johan’s face. “Is there something wrong?”
“Uhh…” he ran his hand through his hair. “No, milady,” he replied. “I just didn’t think that you would actually be of nobility, I’m afraid, and your house is bigger than my room.”
Aracely smiled and motioned for the men to have a seat. “Somehow, I doubt that. However, yes. My father was the Earl of Hoffe; my mother, Countess. I inherited the home on my parents’ passing. If you are questioning the integrity of my lineage with what I do, I can assure you that those who – work – for me are too dear friends and share in the simple pleasures I do take part in.”
“I’m not questioning anything. I, ah… didn’t mean to offend you.” John sat down in one of the chairs. His mother, a very free spirit compared to his father, had taught him to accept the servants as they were part of the Royal Family, in a way, and in tradition; and to tolerate them around him, because of their jobs. But, ever since he had reached puberty, John had grown to hate them. There were things he could easily do, such as bathing himself. Cooking, well that was a different matter. However, his servants knew that they had to keep their distance until John needed their assistance. It was something he was going to implement in the castle, should he be crowned King. Of course, he needed that wife, first.
Aracely decided to quickly use the opportunity to get down to business before Gabriella returned. “So, you succeeded in your quest,” she said. “What trickery or bribery did you use to obtain such quantity that you procured?”
John looked at Halling, who nodded. John then sighed. “I got into my fancy clothes.”
She looked between the two men, taking notice of Halling’s slightly bowed head. Her back straightened instinctively from her upbringing. “I was correct in my suspicions then, Sire,” she said carefully.
“I have to admit, your knowledge of people is amazing, so is Halling’s. Please, call me John.”
Her eyes quickly glanced to the door that led down to the kitchen. “For the duration of supper, if you wish to remain anonymous, it would be wise that I do not. People, my friends such as Gabriella, may not be of similar blood, but she is also a girl with interests,” she smiled carefully. “She is…quite the follower of yours. However, if you are truly searching for a bride, as the rumors say, I can say that she is quite interested.”
“I never meant to deceive you,” he said. “And… what?” John blinked at Aracely. “Oh, please… not you, too…”
“No. I have had a number of suitors that I dislike, so I can understand your predicament,” she smiled.
“As I told Halling, the reason for me to assume a different name and dress quite differently is that I do not want to find someone who wants to marry me for my title. If I can’t find someone who accepts me for who I am, then so be it, and I’ll wed my father’s choice, with reluctance. But, I can assure you, Lady Aracely, things will change for your village, either way.”
She studied him for a moment and nodded with a small smile. “Thank you,” was all she could say. When Gabriella returned with a platter ofassorted meats, she sat back in her chair. “Mister Johan, please share with us about your home village. I am eager to hear of it.”
“My village knows no poverty or threats, however, it’s very like your own village.” John decided to chose his words well, as Gabriella was still in the room. “The villagers behave as if they are a big family, and they help each other out any way they can.”
“It certainly sounds like a pleasant place. Is there much work?” Gabriella asked as she joined the group at the table.
Aracely looked back to John with amusement, and an expression that clearly indicated that she did warn the man. Now, only if her friend did not bring up the striking resemblance.
John looked at Gabriella. “Sadly, no. Our harvest is usually big enough to sustain the village, and small enough for our people to harvest it. It is hard for outsiders to come and live with us, as the ehm… council thinks that our village is about to over-populate.”
The girl was clearly saddened by hearing that. Aracely reached over and patted her hand, reassuringly. “You will always be a part of my home, here. Short of my passing, you have a home and meals, with no concern.”
“I can, however, offer parts of our harvest to your village in months to come. I am sure it will help you greatly, and my people do not mind charity.”
“Thank you Johan, however, I am confident there are other villages nearby that would benefit a great more from your extra harvests. We may not have much, but we do make certain that we make it last,” Aracely replied quickly. She knew that there were others in as much need, but did not want the Prince to focus solely on San Franciskus simply because he developed sympathy for them.
“Oh, I know that. I’ve traveled through a lot of those villages before my horse lost its shoe and made me end up here.” John smiled. “Seeing how things are done here, I think that my village can learn a lot from it, and help other villages out. However, as I said before, the council is very strict. Things will have to change with them, first.”
“Of course,” she said. The group continued to focus on enjoying their meal and shared some stories of their village with John. After their appetites were fulfilled, Gabriella departed to finish the usual chores that she performed as payment for her shelter with Aracely, as the woman offered her a great deal more than other employers would have.
Settling down in the sitting room, with post-meal drinks, Aracely looked at the prince, almost disappointed. “I must say that I had never entertained the thought that you would be in my home. While we may not have what you set out to seek, I do hope that you return to your home with knowledge gained.”
“Oh, most certainly,” John nodded and sipped his drink. He really liked Aracely. She was a strong woman; she knew what she wanted; was set in her ways and well respected. Also, she wasn’t afraid to tell him the truth, but that was when he was still ‘Johan’ and not John. “As I said before, whether or not I return with someone who wants to be with me for who I am, things will definitely change for Atlantica.”
She nodded respectfully. “I can truthfully say that you have swayed my previous opinion of your highness in your short time with us,” she replied with a small smile.
“Why is that? Did you think that just because I’m my father’s son that I should be the same as him?” John shook his head. “My mother raised me well, and made sure I had an open mind. My father, he is a good man, but due to his illness and his disinterest for his underlings, Atlantica isn’t as glorious as I was led to believe. I was always allowed to go outside the castle walls, especially when I was in my father’s army, but they never took us to villages such as your own.” He took another sip of his drink. “I am going to make it my priority to help the less fortunate villages when I am walking in my father’s footsteps. And I am going to make sure that you will be protected from the Chulakkans.”
“We are already grateful that you are helping us to defend ourselves in a better way, this season, Sire.” Halling said, respectfully, earning him an eye roll from John. “Who in their right mind is going to believe that the heir to the throne dug holes to surprise the savages with?”
John chuckled. “It’s only a short step away from gardening. Which, I find, is a pleasant way to spend time and it is a rewarding hobby.”
Aracely closed her eyes and struggled to not speak with more disrespect. “Your Highness, if I may? I would ask that you simply do not walk in your father’s shoes, but your own. If you follow his path, then, in the end, we will all come full circle to where we began.”
John looked at her for a moment, reveling in the idea of this woman standing up to him and counseling him for the rest of his life. She was smart and beautiful, and there was fire in her eyes, despite the hardships she endured with this village. “If I was anything like my father, I would have disrespected your free will,” he eventually said.
“Ourwillis all we have that drives us, here. Of course, you are welcome to disregard anything I, or my friends, have shared with you. That is your will,” she replied. “We have survived and endured a great deal and, should you choose to not assist us, because we speak our truths, then we will simply continue to live as you have found us. Essentially on our own.”
“That,” John pointed at her, “is exactly what I hate about my lineage; people expect me to be a vile being, who only thinks about himself, about his riches and his own protection. Someone my father, sadly, has turned in to. Hereby, I give you permission that, whenever you see this happening to me, you can strike me dead – if you can get past my guards, that is – or just come and hit me with a blunt object, as the palace walls will always be open to you and your people.”
Halling had remained quiet, sipping on his wine, watching the exchange between his long-time friend and his new. He could not help but smile, despite the clear tension in the air.
Aracely stared Prince John down. “I can assure you, Sire, that if I had wished you harm, you would have fallen ill a long time ago.”
“And stop calling me that,” he pouted.
“You are worse than a petulant child,” she remarked.
“Well, maybe I am.” John shrugged. “John is a good name. For the sake of repetition, if I wanted to be treated differently than anyone else, I would not have asked a befriended farmer for his garments and I would not have changed my name whilst traveling.”
Aracely only gave a hum in response before sipping her drink. Catching her friend’s eye, her own grew large. “No, Halling. Do not think of it,” she said firmly, before her cheeks flushed slightly.
“If it’s okay with you, I want to ask Radell tomorrow if he could make a lot of sharp, pointy things that we can fill the holes with,” John said. “I think that another hole or two should be enough to surprise the Chulakkans when they come here.”
She leveled her eyes on Halling before turning back to the prince. “I am certain he has some discarded pieces that he saves for other uses. Have you made arrangements for shelter for this evening, yet?”
“The hayloft of the tavern is quite comfortable, I will ask Danyel if I could use it again.”
“Nonsense,” Aracely said, standing. “I have an extra bed that you may use – now that I am certain you are not a threat to our safety. Gabriella? Could you please prepare our guest room for Mister Johan?”
“Of course, Lady Aracely. I will get right to it.” Gabriella’s voice sounded.
“You don’t have to go out of your way for me, Aracely,” John said, slowly. “As I said, the hayloft was quite the comfort last night.”
Halling winced. “Sir, I would recommend that you accept the Lady’s hospitality,” he said quietly.
“Are you saying you do not wish to acceptmy help for all that you have offered and done for the village?” she asked, turning slowly to look at him.
John smiled widely. Of course he would accept it, gladly, but he wasn’t lying either. “In what way have I helped your village? Sure, Halling and myself have brought in a cart, filled with supplies and medicine. We’ve been digging holes outside the village to help you out and I have shared with you who I am.” He set his drink down on the table and rose. “The cart was easy to get, as I am the heir to the throne. All I had to do was go to the soldiers, tell them to fill up a cart with food, medicine and a handful of blankets and ride out of there. It is only my hope that the holes that Halling and I have been digging will be of help. I have done nothingto earn your generosity of staying in your guest room, Lady Aracely.”
She only smiled at him. “The fact that you still did all that is honorable, my Lord,” she bowed slightly. “I will go find Gabriella. I won’t be more than a moment.” Aracely left the men to themselves to assist in preparing for the night guest.
Halling had been watching the young man and sighed. “You have found what you sought for,” he said simply.
John grinned as if he was a little child. “I have, but I am not going to take her away from you, Halling.”
“You would not be taking her from us, Sir. If, by joining you, means she could be certain for our thriving, she will go,” he said. “Do not discount her so quickly. The Lady may truly find fulfillment with you, even if she may not see it now.”
“Maybe,” John said absentmindedly as he sat back in the chair to sip his drink again. He wasn’t going anywhere, he was sure of it. “Still, I want it to be her choice, if she decides to join me. Not yours, not mine.”
Halling was thoughtful. “Have you considered how you would ask her? Or thought about courting as other young men might do? I understand that, in your family, it is often by arrangement, yes?”
“I have no idea how to court a woman,” John blushed. “Because, yes, my family likes arranged marriages. I am the first one in many years to break that tradition, simply because I do not like to be set up with someone such as the woman my father wants me to marry. They often lack the spirit that your Lady Aracely is definitely showing.”
“Hmm, speak to Danyel. He may have some advice for you in that. It has been many years since I was in your position. All I could think of is, perhaps, florals and walks.”
“Then I will, but, first, Halling, we have a few more holes to dig in the morning, and then we have to fill them all with Radell’s sharp, pointy things that aren’t really swords anymore,” John said. “The defense of your village is of more importance.”
Halling nodded and looked to see if Aracely was returning yet. “Perhaps, but what to do to fill your evening after sundown? You would be accompanying the Lady, would you not?”
“If she wishes to take a walk after sundown, then of course I will.”
“I am sorry, but none of our women go out after sundown around the season. Surely you understand. Do you have any skills of which to impress her?”
“I can wield swords, ride horses, I know about flowers.. I can’t cook, I honestly can’t sing…” John thought for a second. “I have no skills to impress her with.” He made a face. He was a horrible heir.
Halling laughed. “You have your compassion. Use that. She will take notice, even when you do not know she is watching.”
Aracely walked back in with a smile. “There now, your room is set. Have you left any belongings in Danyel’s loft that you require? I am sure that I have some clean clothing of my father’s, in storage, that I could not bear to part with, that you may fit into.”
“I have everything I need, milady,” John said, pointing at his satchel. “Thank you for your kind offer, but I am sure that if I wear clean clothing, tomorrow, I will just stain it again when digging holes.”
“Surely you would be more comfortable in fresh, clean garments, after you bathe?” she asked, going to the closet that happened to be in the same room, to rummage around in it. She had stored some of the simpler items for guests there, as a rainy day reserve, and was sure something would be useful.
“When I left my horse at the soldier’s camp, I abandoned my clothing… barring my somewhat fancy attire,” he said, walking to her and gently closing the door of the closet, suddenly standing very close to her. “I don’t require any clothing, Lady Aracely, thank you.” He spoke softly as he looked into her eyes.
She took pause and looked at him. A part of her begged Halling to just leave, another to come and take her away from there. She could feel the warmth his body emitted, and hers, leaning in ever so slightly out of sheer desire. Aracely, however, found herself at odds. Never before had she expressed the interest other young women of her age had in this man. However, having him here, in her home; having met him and received his help, still, after all she had previously said. “If you insist, my Lord,” she replied quietly, dropping her gaze from his as she tried to figure out the odd feelings that were filling her mind.
The little moment that he and Aracely shared was broken by Halling laughing heartily. “I shall take my leave for the night,” he said as he got up. “There is a full moon outside, tonight; it’s the perfect night for an accompanied stroll in the darkness.”
Aracely smiled her acknowledgment to her friend’s desire to leave. She feared that if she moved from the spot where she stood, supported by the door where her hand held tightly to the handle, she would fall to her knees in weakness. “Perhaps, my friend, I will see you in the dawn, yes?” she asked, wondering, too, why John had yet to move himself. Was he as weak as she?
“Of course, Lady Aracely.” Halling made a small bow to her. “Have a good night, too, Prince John.”
“Good night, Halling,” John replied, not wanting to take his eyes off of Aracely. For some reason, the candlelight in the room made her look almost magical. He waited until he heard the door close and tried to move. “I can’t help but feeling… tied to you, in some way, Lady Aracely, please forgive me.”
She nodded slowly, afraid to look directly up at him, straight away. “You have no reason to apologize, Your Highness,” she replied in a breath. When she did look up again, she found that he was still looking at her in the same manner as when he closed the closet door. It was then her attire was suddenly so tight around her bodice that it was like she could not breathe.
“Are you okay, milady?” John was worried. Aracely had started to look a little pink around her nose. “Are you ill?”
Unsure of whether to nod or shake her head, she tried to smile. “I – I am well. Please, do not worry yourself. Perhaps I am just in need of some fresh air.”
“Then let us get some fresh air.” He smiled warmly. “As I have been told, it’s the best night to walk outside, tonight, because of the moon.”
“It is. The Chulakkans don’t usually come, as the moon’s light does not mask their approach very well,” she explained. “I had observed a few from my window, in the past, patrolling our trees, but they would not approach as our stronger men stood guard with what weapons we had at the time.”
“Well then,” he smiled as he offered her his arm, “would you care to get some air, Lady Aracely?”
Aracely looked at his arm before his eyes again. Where they always that green? Nodding slowly, she gave him an uneasy smile as she reached up to accept his arm to hold. Maybe that was not the wisest choice she made since this man’s arrival, because that warmth that she sensed the other moment nearly burned her skin through the fabrics of their clothing. At the same time, she craved more of it and felt that it was wrong.
Halling had been right: the sky was beautiful, the way the moon lit the village was mesmerizing. The moonlight also made a beautiful glow appear on Aracely’s face, and the weakness in John’s knees, that he had felt during the evening, made him fear for his balance.
She had been quiet during the stroll, afraid to speak at first. Her mind had slipped into overdrive as she tried to piece together the events that led to that evening. Slowing in her steps, the clear expression of confusion filled her face and caused her to eventually stop completely before looking directly at the prince.
“What’s wrong?” He met her gaze with worry.
“What is this?” she asked, studying him. “Has Halling put you up to some silly idea of pursuing me?”
“I’m not pursuing you, not if you don’t want me to. To be frank, I have no idea how to pursue you.” John replied after a moment of silence. “Granted, during our trip to the station, Halling has shared some thoughts about you, and his wishes for you. However, staying true to my word, I am not pursuing you unless you wish me to.”
Aracely opened her mouth to speak, but failed to find any words. If Halling was not such a good friend, she would make him suffer dearly for this ploy. The Prince? Was the man not mad? “Are you saying that, in your search, you are selecting me? If I were to give you my hand by choice, as you say.”
“Why is it so hard to believe that since I have arrived in your village, after our first encounter, that I feel like the Fates are tying us together and that, yes, I really like you for the woman you are?”
She did not know which way to turn. What this man did offer was far more than she could ever obtain on her own for the village. Of course, it would require a great deal of consideration, as she had always felt that she did not need to have a man at her side. “I do not know what to say,” she admitted.
“Then don’t say anything and let us enjoy tonight’s stroll.” John smiled warmly. “I don’t wish to push you into a direction you don’t want yourself to go. As I said before, your village will be safe and well cared for, as will many of the other villages in need of aid, no matter who I ask to be my queen. However, I must mention that I feel that you and I would be a better fit than me and Princess Chaya, from Proculus.” He made a face when he spoke her name.
Even Aracely would not wish that woman on her enemy. “She is not a very kind woman,” she commented. Running her hands nervously over the cover of her dress, she took in a chest full of air. “It would not be my first choice, your Highness, but I will consider your request – your offer,” she corrected herself.
For some reason, John felt giddy. “Don’t listen to your head, it’s your heart I’m interested in.” He smiled. “Your own happiness is of more importance to me than my own.”
She looked at him, almost with irritation. “My heart is the one my head is at odds with. It is my mind that is telling me to say yes, but my heart still does not know.”
“Don’t you worry, Aracely, I can’t imagine how it must feel when someone like myself wishes to share the entire country, and change that country for the better. Also, this is your home; you have family and friends here, friends that have become your family.” He smiled and continued to walk with her through the quiet streets of the village.
Nodding, she began to walk again before stopping quickly a second time. “If I do not return with you, could you do me just one favor?” she asked.
“Of course,” John smiled. “I would do anything.”
“Please have one of your knights, Sir Lorne, stop his own pursuit of me,” she very nearly begged. Of course, she knew if she accepted the Prince’s proposal, he would not be a nuisance any further, but she did not want her relationship with anyone to be simply because she was running from another.
“Oh…” John chuckled. “Yes, I will make him stop. Evan is a good man, despite his stubbornness.” He then blinked. “Lorne has come in to this town and never relayed the information about your troubles to the head of the army, Ronon?”
Aracely shrugged a shoulder. “I do not know. I have requested that, if he wished to obtain my attention, that helping my friends was the way. It did not appear to appease him and he would leave shortly after each visit. If he did say anything, I suspect it would have been to the King, perhaps?”
“No… Lorne answers to Ronon, who answers to and advises the King,” John said in thought. “I will try to get things clear when I get back, but I will promise you, I will ask Evan to stop pursuing you.”
She nodded, thankfully. Sighing, she knew it would not be an easy night for rest, as a great deal had broken between them in learning the knowledge of the Prince’s identity, and that he wished for her to be his bride now. “Perhaps we should return?”