Jamie hadn’t been on the farm in over two years, but the memories were as vivid as when he experienced them. From the fields where he and Ina spent hours beneath the hot sun assisting her parents with the crops, to the stables where the O’Doererys let him pet their horses after the day’s chores were done. He left Malcot in one of those stables as dusk settled overhead. The fields were nearly swallowed in darkness, but a dim, inviting light emanating from a small house guided their path.
He was happy the Princess conceded to spending the night here, as the road ahead would be far less treacherous during the day. She even deigned to continue their conversation on the trip over, and Jamie was amazed to find he could speak with her without losing his lunch.
“So,” She asked as they made their way to the main house. “How do you know these people?”
"They’re friends of my family. I’ve known them since I was very young and they’re very kind, but I should warn you they can be somewhat-” He paused. “I’m trying to put this nicely.”
“Eccentric?” Jamie wasn’t quite sure what the word meant, but it sounded appropriate. “I took that as a given, seeing as they’re friends with you,” She said with a small smirk. “I’ll pay them for sheltering us, but don’t expect any thanks from me simply because you happen to know them.”
Christiansen banged against the door three times, eliciting an angry voice from within: “ I’m comin’, yah’ ingrate, I’m comin’!”
A few moments later, the door creaked open and a short, older man stood before them. He seemed ready to use his surprisingly large body to throw out the intruders who made the mistake of ruining his evening. “What in the name ah’ all that’s sacred do yah’ want at this hour ya’ jackass? Don’tcha know some people gotta be up early and workin’ tom-” He paused when he saw Christiansen, springing forward and securing him in a tight hug. “Jamie! C’mere yah’ little buggah’! How’ve yah’ been?”
“I’m doing well, Mr. O’Doerery,” Chrisitainsen’s said in a strained voice.
“Aww, it’s so nice of you to drop by,” He said, his arms still crushing the armor. “How’ve Domnall and Bridget been?”
“They’re good. I was wondering if we could spend the night here.”
“O’course you can, mah’ boy. Our house is yer’ house,” Mr. O’Doerery finally released him. “But you said we, and I don’t see no one-oh, hello,” He said when he met Caitlin’s eyes. After taking a few moments to assess her, He leaned in to whisper to Christiansen. “Jamie, you didn’t tell me ya’ got yourself a girlfriend. And one that’s pretty as a sunset!”
"Uh, s-she’s not my girlfriend,” The comment instantly made him blush. “She is just, uh, muh-my-”
"Travelling companion,” Caitlin intervened. “And my name is Caitlin.”
The knowing smile never left Mr. O’Doerery’s face. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet yah’, Miss Caitlin, name’s Callum O’Doerery. Now, you two c’mon in, I’ll get me’ wife.”
They stepped into a room consisting of a rug and three doors. The couple clearly lived modestly, in a world far different from the elaborate and garish castles where Caitlin spent most of her days, but their home was cozy and snug. It was more than suitable for a night’s rest.
“Mairead! C’mon out, Jamie’s here and he’s got a lady friend!” Mr. O’Doerery called out to his wife “They were wonderin’ if they could spend the night!”
“Jamie’s ere’? N’he’s got a lady friend?” Her voice was muffled but very audible. “What’s er’ name? Is she pretty?”
“Her name is Caitlin an’ she’s adorable! Get out here and say hello!”
Caitlin looked over at Christiansen, who was mortified by the comment. To minimize his anguish, she sucked in her lips and tried not to laugh. Mocking his misfortune was a little bit cruel, but it was funny.
“If me’ eyes ain’t trickin’ me,” Mairead said, emerging from an adjacent room. She was short, shorter than Caitlin and Mr. O’Doerery, but not frail in the slightest. Just like her husband, she moved at a brisk pace and greeted the two like she just woke up from a good night’s rest “It’s Jamie! And his lady friend! Let me have a look at you, yah’ little darlin’,” She said, scrutinizing Caitlin’s features. “Gorgeous hair, gorgeous eyes, gorgeous teeth; good job, Jamie! You two are gonna have mighty handsome kids!” She exclaimed to Jamie before turning back to Caitlin with a broad smile. “We’ve met before, somewhere, yah’? I’ve seen you somewhere, Miss Caitlin, but I can’t quite place where.”
“Mrs. O’Doerery, this is Caitlin Faraday,” Christiansen managed to interrupt her. “Princess of Amorado.”
Husband and wife exchanged terrified glances before Callum dropped to one knee and gently took Caitlin’s hands. “I do indeed request yer’ forgiveness, Princess Faraday. I didn’t recognize you dressed like that with yer’ new hair. Not to say it looks bad, just different. And we didn’t mean nothin’ bout’ you and Jamie bein’ boyfriend and girlfriend and havin’ kids; Jamie’s not so great with the ladies and when I saw the two of you together I was hopin’ maybe he, ya’ know,” He shrugged. “Finally got one.”
“Callum!” Mairead snapped.
“Mrs. O’Doerery, it’s okay,” Caitlin said. Using her status to make people that annoyed her uncomfortable was entertaining but unintentionally inflicting that on her hosts made her feel embarrassed. “You don’t need to do that for me.”
“We don’t mean to be that way, Princess Faraday, we’re just not used to royalty. But if there’s anythin’ else you want, please let us know.” Mr. O’Doerery stood and said.
Caitlin couldn’t help but smile. She was used to people waiting on her hand and foot but coming from these two made it sweet as opposed to patronizing. “I did have a request. Two, actually.”
“Name em’, Princess, we will perform them as best we can.” Mairead said.
“Can my friend and I keep Malcot for a few more days?”
“Done, keep er’ as long as yah’ like. Didja know Jamie’s grandfather actually bought him way back when?”
“What’s the other thing?” Mairead said.
“I’d prefer if you called me Caitlin.” She said with a small smile to try and ease the tension.
That appeared to work, as Mairead gave her a tiny smile in kind. “Alright, then, Caitlin. Whats say we give you two ah’ change ah’ clothes for the night? Then tomorrow we cook up tew’ a nice meal,” She offered. “Callum, give Jamie some fresh clothes then show em’ to the room, I’ll do the same for Caitlin.”
Callum put a hand on Christiansen’s shoulder. “C’mon, Jamie.” The two disappeared to the back room.
“It’s all me’ daughter Ima’s clothes. She and her hubby’ live in the city, and she hasn’t worn anything here in ah’ long time, but they’re fresh as daisies. I know it’s nothin’ like the beautiful dresses yer’ used to, but I hope yer’ okay with wearin’ it fer’ the night. If I had known yew’ and Jamie we’re gonna be here, I woulda’ gone out and bought somethin’ fancy!” Mairead stepped inside a different door to retrieve the clothing, emerging a few moments later with a grey nightgown. “How’s this?”
“It’s perfect, Mrs. O’Doerery,” Caitlin said.
“Ah, you’re too kind, darlin’,” She responded. “Now you go inside and get changed, I’ll be out here. And how’s about I wash yer’ clothes for you two?”
“That sounds lovely.” Caitlin said as she stepped inside. There were candles sitting near each end of the bed and a tiny window looking out at the rest of the farm. Above the bed, she noted, was an oil painting. On one half stood a wizened, older man with burning gold hair whose ends faded into rays of light standing in front of the moon. He had a long, golden beard and bushy eyebrows. Opposite him was a younger, athletic man with white hair and a white beard standing in front of the morning sun. He wore a flowing silver gown and carried a sceptre bearing the image of the sun. It was a portrait depicting both forms of Arakhum the All-Seeing. As both the Dawn and Dusk of Time, He embodied both the ancient and sacred as well as the new and young.
“This is a lovely painting, Mrs. O’Doerery.” Caitlin said as she was nearly done changing.
“Oh, yeah, that little thing,” She said. “Me’ husband drew that. He’s a bit of a qualock, but he can paint an’ draw real well.”
Caitlin continued to examine the portrait. Arakhum’s duality never sat well with her. Granted, He was a deity who created the world, so He probably wasn’t bound to the same rules as humans, but how could one being exist in two distinct forms simultaneously?
“He’s very talented,” Caitlin said in earnest as she stepped outside. The work could easily fit in the halls of the Royal Castle. “If you don’t mind, may I ask how you and your husband know Sir Christiansen?”
“Me hubby and his grandaddeh’ been friends since they were the size of an apple stem. Sometimes we looked after the youngster when his family was a bit busy with the business. The gradaddeh' runs a bakery, mighty delicious pastries they made.”
“What was he like in his younger years?” Caitlin asked.
Mrs. O'Doerery's smile grew even larger. “A kinder lad never did exist in all the lands, I promise ya' that. Even as a youngster, sweet as chocolate cake. A little shy, ‘specially around pretty girls, but a real sweetheart once you get him to open up.”
“Is that so? Jamie’s reserved?”
“Yep. When me and me’ hubby first met em’, it took a while before the boy said anything to us before we said stuff to him, then he became real quiet after his parents passed. But he’ll come around if yah’ give em’ time.”
“May I ask what happened to his parents?” Caitlin asked.
“His pa’ was a knight who got killed on the job, then his ma’ got sick not long after that. Jamie don’t like to talk about it cuz he blames himself for not being able to protect them.”
“Why would he blame himself?”
“I don’t think I’ll ever know; he was just a boy, and there was nothin’ he could do for either of em’,” Mairead said. “Me’ husband thinks it’s cuz’ he was training to be a knight at the time and he thought he should be able to protect them from anything. I wouldn’t bring it up, still a real sore subject."
Before she could make any further inquiries, Callum returned. “Mairead, what’re you doin’? Let Caitlin rest, we can badger her tomorrow at breakfast.”
Part of her wanted to learn more about Christiansen’s past, but she felt strange discussing it with his friends and she didn’t want to keep her hosts up all night. “Thank you both very much, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Caitlin said.
“You have a good night a’ rest, Caitlin.” Mairead said, retreating to her room.
“Holler if you need anything.” Callum said, following his wife.
Caitlin was left alone in the main room to reflect on the newfound knowledge. The thought of her companion being awkward and hesitant around women was amusing. Could his annoying nature stem from an internal feeling of insecurity rather than doubting her ability as a warrior? Christiansen was still an oaf and a pest, but perhaps he wasn’t as obnoxious and ignorant as she first assumed. Perhaps he was an oaf and a pest because he didn’t know how to interact with the opposite sex. She also considered the revelation about his parents. His protectiveness of her likely stemmed from the feelings of rage and powerlessness he experienced during the tender years of his life. But he was only a teenager when his parents passed, how could he blame himself?
Irrational as it might seem to her, she could only imagine how she would feel if her parents died when she was young. No matter what happened, she felt it was her duty to protect them. If a warlord shredded Amorado to embers, Caitlin knew she would blame herself for failing to protect her family. And she would burn every kingdom to the ground if that’s what it took to avenge their deaths.
For some reason, she thought of her grandfather. After Caitlin’s grandmother passed away, the King spent hours and hours of every day privately praying to Arakhum in Harrison’s Cathedral. There was a chapel set up in the castle, but Queen Abigail always preferred that above all others. Closing oneself off from others and being an overprotective oaf wasn’t the worst coping mechanism in the world, but Caitlin now found herself harboring some sympathy for the young man.
Was she being too hard on him?
"You know, Christiansen,” Caitlin said as she opened the door to their room. “Perhaps you’re not as useless as I first thought-" Her words trailed off. She tried to speak, but her mouth refused to cooperate.
“What?” Christiansen asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Caitlin, what’s wrong?”
"You...you don’t have a shirt on! Why don’t you have a shirt on?” She struggled to keep the volume down, her eyes affixed to his bare stomach.
Christiansen’s stupid face once again lit up like a comet. “I-I'm sorry, Caitlin, I was getting out of my armor, and I thought you were still talking to Mrs. O’Doerery.”
Unwilling to allow the dunce to fluster her anymore, Caitlin slammed the door shut. Out of sight, the image of a shirtless Christiansen was seared into her mind's eye. Obviously, knighthood involved a lot of physical activity, but the knowledge Christiansen possessed a body like that was unsettling. The thought hadn’t even occurred to her that he might be so very lean and tight beneath the armor. She couldn’t stop thinking about his big, muscular arms and the way his stomach angled into a clean V...
Caitlin bit her bottom lip to prevent her making a frustrated gnash. She couldn’t admire his physicality like some giggling girl with a crush. He just engineered a scheme to try and woo her, to undermine her resolve. Taking his clothes off may work to charm less intelligent women, but she would have none of such foolishness.
Still, she remained outside the room, arms crossed. Didn’t want to risk encountering further bodily sorcery.
A minute later, the door opened, and a fully clothed Christiansen stood before her.
“I’m sorry, Caitlin. I promise I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable.”
Caitlin barged past him, forcing him back after their shoulders collided. Once her dominance was reasserted, she turned back, sticking an index finger in his face. “Try anything like that again, and I fill you with arrows.”
She turned back to assess their room. A small fireplace gave off a pleasant warmth and an adjacent window provided a view of the valley beyond. Much like the rest of the O’Doerery home, it wasn’t exactly elaborate, but it was snug and cozy. Her anger somewhat assuaged, she placed her boots and bow in a corner.
The feeling of contentment vanished as soon as she recognized the O’Doererys only provided one bed.
“I’ll never do anything lik-what’s wrong?” Christiansen asked.
"There’s only one bed. Will you next inquire as to the color of the sky, or can you figure that out for yourself?”
“There’s more than enough space for two, but we can use my sword as a buttress. I also offer to sleep on the floor.”
It was difficult to tell if Christiansen was being sarcastic, so just in case, Caitlin gripped the lone pillow, slammed it down on her side, and greedily wrapped herself in the quilt, leaving none for him. Facing away from the knight, she said: “Don’t even think about coming over to my side.”
“How am I supposed to know what’s part of your side?”
“You’ll figure it out.”
Jamie assumed it to be an 80-20 division in Caitlin’s favor, so he laid his body down as close to the edge of the bed as possible. It would’ve been nice to have at least a bit of the pillow or quilt, and there was a serious possibility the Princess might murder him at any moment, but tolerating hostile sleeping conditions was a skill learned early in his training.
As he got comfortable, he was still wondering whether he had incredibly good luck or legendarily poor luck. Being able to spend an extended period one-on-one with the woman you’ve had a crush on for five years was supposed to be a good thing, but Jamie knew from the start his tendency to stick his foot in his mouth would be his undoing. As badly as their initial encounter in the forest was, Caitlin at least deigned to tolerate him. Now, after the whole incident with her walking in on him changing, she was probably offended by the sight of him.
What was he thinking getting out of his armor that quickly? As embarrassing as it was for him, he could only imagine how Caitlin felt. He didn’t expect her to fall in love with him over the course of the journey, but her thinking he was a total buffon was beyond painful.
The opposite was true for him, however. While he never knew what to expect from her, Jamie only found his attraction to her growing deeper. Her feisty spunk, her courage...Caitlin was totally unlike anyone he’d ever met. Her fiery disposition only made her more attractive in his eyes, even if that fire was often directed at him. She looked utterly enchanting even in something as plain as the white nightdress that fit across her slender shoulders.
Arahkum on High, why couldn’t Claire happen upon the Princess in the forest? She’d know what to do. Beyond her lack of romantic affection for Caitlin, she was more intelligent and better with people, especially women. Why did fate conspire to humiliate him?
“I can’t think that way.” Jamie knew dwelling on the hypothetical didn’t help anyone. If she found him repulsive, they’d both learn to tolerate one another while she was under his protection. Her survival took precedence over all else. As daunting a task as it was, the responsibility fell to him, and he wasn't going to back down. Whenever Jamie felt unsure about the struggles presented by life, one method helped clear his mind of doubt. He closed his eyes and brought his hands together.
“Father, Mother, give me the strength to protect Caitlin, the wisdom to guide her home, and the courage to stand up for what I know is true. Watch over us in this time of danger. In Arakhum’s name, I pray to you.”
Jamie inhaled deeply and concluded the prayer with a stretch, careful not to overstep to Caitlin's side. After the unbelievably stressful day he experienced, he was going to need some-
“Hey.” A whisper from across the bed made his eyes fly open.
“Hey!” A finger tapping him several times on the shoulder followed. “I know you can hear me!”
Unable to ignore Caitlin, he slowly turned over to find her curled up in blankets. Despite her usual look of intensity, he found her rather cute like this. “Yes?”
“It’s bloody freezing in here.”
That was a curious complaint. She had the entire quilt, not to mention the fire. “You’re cold?”
“I don’t know why,” She hit back. “That’s just how things are.”
“What would you have me do?”
Caitlin looked as if she were about to have her teeth removed during the most horrible busking competition ever performed without the benefit of anesthetic. “I suppose it wouldn’t be so awful if we huddled up. For warmth. And absolutely nothing else.”
Jamie was certain he misheard. Did she want him to...?
“Y-you want to cuddle?”
She let out an annoyed grunt. “N-no, there will be no cuddling, I’d prefer to sleep on a bed of hot spikes than cuddle with you! I just think it would benefit both of us if we huddled up because it’s cold in here, you oaf!”
He closed his eyes for just a moment, if only to make sure to make sure this wasn’t some nightmare or horrifyingly vivid hallucination. If it were, he’d open his eyes and Caitlin might be gone.
No, she was still there, looking increasingly frustrated.
“Okay,” Jamie said, his voice not nearly as steady as he hoped. “We can cu-huddle up for warmth. Yes.”
After unraveling herself from the quilt, she gave him the pillow. “We can share the pillow, if you like-” Jamie’s body froze as Caitlin scooched over and brought herself closer to him. She draped her arms over his torso, resting her head near his shoulder. He then let out a very unmanly yelp when he felt a surge of freezing cold between his calves.
“What? What happened?” She asked.
“Nothing,” Jamie said. “It’s just your...feet.”
He rescinded his earlier question of how Caitlin could be cold; her feet were like blocks of ice! "Yes. They’re very cold. I’m sorry, you just surprised me.”
Instead of yet another derogatory comment about his being a total coward, the Princess retracted her feet and gave him a half-smirk, like she was trying to spare him further humiliation.
“You can put them back."
“Are you sure?”
They returned to their positions. When their lower halves were fully entangled, Caitlin let out a small burst of nervous laughter.
“Is everything okay?” He asked.
“Your hairy legs.”
Her laughter was so unexpectedly hilarious, he couldn't help but smile. “Caitlin, my Lady, are you actually ticklish?"
“It’s my only other weakness, if you must know,” This time her smirk was gentle and rye, like she was also amused. “But don’t even think about trying to tickle me, Christiansen. I promise you’ll regret it.”
On the one hand, that was adorable. Beneath all her combat prowess, snark, and bluster, Caitlin Faraday was ticklish . Yet another way she caught him off guard.
On the other hand, though, if he tickled her again at some point, she’d definitely murder him. Jamie felt awkward with his hands at his sides, but he wasn’t going to touch the Princess, right? What if that convinced her to finally murder him?
As poorly as their relationship started, Jamie knew she wasn’t capable of that kind of cruelty. At least, he hoped she wasn’t. He carefully moved his arms out from under her and lowered them onto her back, tracing his fingers up her spine.
“What did I just say?” She asked, trying to hide another bark of laughter.
Jamie’s heart came to a violent stop. “Huh?”
Caitlin rolled her eyes. “I give you permission to actually hold me, just don’t tickle me, Christiansen, I’m trying to get some sleep.”
Swallowing the apprehension in his throat, he did as commanded, wrapping his arms around her torso and pulling Caitlin closer to his body. She responded by nestling against him, securing her arms around his neck and resting her head near his shoulder. Caitlin’s dress was soft as silk, and her body was warm, soft, and squishy beneath its folds. Her breathing tickled his neck, but he was too terrified to curl away. Being this close to her made him note she also smelled intoxicating. Like fresh mountain air or lilacs. Things Jamie wanted in his life. He could only silently pray she couldn’t feel his erratic heartbeat. “Oh, Arahkum on High,” Jamie thought to himself. “Please don’t let this be a dream.” Caitlin’s fit against him so perfectly, like she belonged there, like they were designed to meld together. Like this feeling of coziness was a blessing, and not something that should inspire terror and fear.
They lay there in silence for a minute before she broke it. “I get the feeling you’re very tense.”
Jamie almost swore out loud. “I’m sorry, Caitlin. It’s nothing you did, it’s just that I-” He paused to consider some options. Have never been this close to a woman before? Have had a massive crush on you for the past five years? “I don’t mean to be so-”
“It’s okay,” She said, shifting herself to make herself more comfortable. “I apologize if you feel I’ve been hostile, but you didn’t make it easy to trust you.”
“That’s understandable, Princess.”
She rested her chin on his torso to look up at him. “So, you’re agreeing with me?”
“That I’ve been hostile.”
Terror returned as quickly as it dissipated. “Uh, I didn’t say that. I didn’t say you were hostile.”
“But you didn’t disagree with me.”
Another silence followed, during which Jamie prepared himself for a violent death.
Instead, Caitlin snickered. “I’m only teasing, Christiansen. I promise I’m not looking for a reason to kill you. Not that I need one, anyway.”
Uncertain if that was a joke, he shut his eyes and rested his head on the pillow.
Another minute passed before he dared to break new ground. “If you don’t mind my asking, Princess, did you change your hair?”
“Yes,” She said, her voice increasingly sleepy. “You’re very observant.”
“May I ask why?”
Caitlin inhaled deeply. “It’s more difficult to grab if it’s short. I never really liked long hair, I kept it mostly to appease my mother.”
Chopped short to her cheeks was the superior option when it came to wandering the forest in search of enemies to fight, but Jamie thought both made Caitlin absolutely gorgeous. Her current look and her previous styling, the long, flowing one that came down past her shoulders he first witnessed five years earlier in his grandparents' shop. She would doubtless look equally wondrous in any styling. Jamie thought she could be in a full set of armor replete with a blood-soaked helmet and still look beautiful. Telling her she’d look gorgeous in armor might earn him a stern look, as it could conceivably be taken as a compliment to her skill as a fighter, but telling a warrior princess she had pretty hair would certainly earn him a knife to the chest.
“You don’t need permission to speak to me,” Caitlin said, clearly on her way to the land of dreams. “And you don’t need to refer to me as Princess.”
“Oh. Okay. Whatever you desire,” He paused before continuing the thought. “I think you look beautiful either way, Caitlin.”
A chill worthy of Imanese Mountain's peak overtook Jamie’s body. His heart ceased to function in preparation for its being carved to pieces.
“I-I’m sorry, Caitlin,” He pleaded for mercy. “I don’t know why I said that. I mean, not to say you don’t look angeli-uh you could wear your hair any way you want, and my opinion shouldn't matter at all, I was only suggesting that you-uh, that you.” When no form of swift vengeance arrived, he shut up. He received no form of response beyond the gentle rhythm of her breathing and the movement of her chest against his. Jamie closed his eyes and let his head fall on the pillow, grateful his companion slept through the confession. Getting to sleep would be difficult, but he needed lots of rest after the day he went through.
Several minutes later, once she knew Jamie was no longer awake, Caitlin looked up at him, smiling.