When Caitlin woke up the following morning, she immediately felt something was very, very wrong.
She was warm.
As much grief as the Queen gave her, Caitlin was grateful for inheriting several positive traits from her parents; incredible athleticism, an unflinching will and belief in justice, a brilliant sense of humor, but she cursed her vulnerability to the cold. Thick pajamas were the bare minimum for a quality night’s rest in mild climates, and she was certain the chill of winter would prove fatal if she wasn’t bundled in the wearable equivalent of Lilith’s wardrobe.
Last night’s fire helped but being snuggled against Christiansen was heavenly. He generated a frankly ridiculous amount of body heat. Likely because of how big and muscular he was under all that armor. Pressed up against his broad chest, her feet between his calves and his hands gently resting on her back, Caitlin enjoyed maximum coziness. Being wrapped up in his arms made her feel...content. Protected from the cold.
Not that she needed any sort of protection, especially from Christiansen, but having someone to help combat her greatest enemy was comforting.
She knew it was an unnecessary risk, but Caitlin couldn’t help herself from gazing up at him. Even compared to the legion of dukes and princes she encountered throughout the years, he was handsome. In a youthful, boyish sort of way, but dashingly handsome nevertheless. Combine dancing blue eyes, a charmingly messy head of hair, a chin like a slab of granite, and a body resembling a statue of a mythical hero, she felt comfortable concluding there was a hoard of females willing to fight each other to the death for a chance with him.
Based on his behavior last night, though, he’d be too afraid to give the winner a kiss on the cheek. The way he held and touched her like she was a glass statue, like the slightest misstep would break her, she wondered if he so much as hugged a woman prior to today. Guys like Christiansen were usually egomaniacs with how women slobbered over them, so Caitlin was surprised by his almost timid behavior. There was also Mairead’s comment about his chronic shyness around the opposite sex. Could she have misjudged him?
She shifted her body and snuggled against him, basking in the delight of his warmth. When the journey concluded, Christiansen might prove useful as her personal heater. Give him food, shelter, clothing, and the freedom to do as he pleases during the day, then at night he could assume his duties as Caitlin’s heat generating pillow-blanket. The teasing from Lilith and Mother would be painful, but if that’s what had to be paid to endure the Winter and Fall months? A worthy price, especially with just how warm Christiansen kept her in this toasty cocoon. Moving towards the Imanese Mountain meant the temperature would only drop from this point forward, so Caitlin needed to soak up as much warmth as possible. Was wanting a quick cat nap so unreasonable, especially with how chilly it might get without her servant keeping her toasty?
Speaking of which, Caitlin couldn’t stop laughing to herself about how she shocked him with her cold feet. There weren’t many scenarios where it’d be prudent to neutralize him with her bare feet instead of a sharp object, but Caitlin found it useful to know an opponent's weakness. The idea of a big, brave knight like Christiansen being brought down so easily was very amusing. She found that...endearing. Cute.
"Oh, Arahkum on High,” Caitlin thought to herself. “I’m starting to sound like Lilith.” Not a day ago, she was on a single-minded journey to prove herself as a warrior worthy of the Faraday name, only to find herself in bed, prattling on about the hunky and handsome Christiansen. She needed to get out of this bed, out of this house, before her thoughts further betrayed her. Caitlin slipped out of his arms and off the bed, finding her boots and bow in the corner.
"Clothes,” She said. “Need my clothes.” She couldn’t exactly conquer evil in a nightgown. Comfy as it was, her gear provided far more protection, but the O’Doererys were washing her clothes. She could get out undetected easily enough, but changing back into her combat gear without alerting her hosts was far more difficult. She carefully opened the door.
Only to find her clothes, washed and neatly folded, in a basket outside their room. She quickly changed, keeping an eye on Christiansen the whole time to make sure he didn’t wake up, and grabbed her bow. Looking back at the sleeping Christiansen stirred something curious sitting in the base of her stomach, a nagging little doubt that prevented her from dashing down the stairs. Perhaps it had to do with the O’Doererys, but she also felt a pang of guilt about abandoning the knight without a word. He’d never agree to let her go alone, especially with her borrowing his horse, but she wondered if she might miss the buffoon.
If only for his ability to distract her enemies, obviously.
Caitlin let out a small sigh before returning to the main room. Beyond the calls and songs of birds, the house was silent, meaning their hosts were likely asleep. She carefully crept towards the entrance to not disrupt the equilibrium. As she gripped the doorknob to the exit, the aroma of freshly cooked food halted her. Delicious as it smelled, it also made her stomach rumble, an unpleasant reminder that the last time she had a proper meal was yesterday morning at the castle. An empty stomach hampered her focus and ability to fight, and a hearty breakfast never went amiss in her eyes, but her years of training were for nothing if she allowed that to slow her down. She opened the door to the farm proper, only to find herself standing before the O’Doererys.
"Caitlin!” Mairead said. “What’re you doin’ up so early?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” Caitlin said. “I don’t know. What are you two doing up so early?”
"Me’ hips and back are real bad, so I like to make a couple laps around the farm every day, and the misses likes to join me.” Callum said.
“Caitlin, were you tryin’ to leave?” She asked. “Without anythin’ to eat?”
Her husband looked appalled by the notion. “Going somewhere without breakfast? Don’t be thinkin’ such thoughts! We cooked up a whole buncha’ good stuff for you and Jamie.”
“That’s okay, really, you don’t have to-
“Aw, you don’t gotta’ be so modest all the time, Caitlin!” Mairead interrupted her. “Any friend ah’ Jamie’s a friend of us, and what kinda hosts would we be if we let you go hungry?”
Caitlin stepped back to allow the two to come inside. How could she have been so stupid, so inattentive? If this were an attempt to escape an enemy encampment, she’d be dead. Thankfully, the O’Doererys offered a meal instead of a quick death, but the point remained. And how could she leave now? She already humiliated herself, and leaving after they cooked for her would only make things more painful.
She heard a murmur, low and drowsy. Seeing as the world wanted to see her brought low, a big, stupid bear lumbered out of bed and managed to sneak up on her. She turned to find Christiansen, the big, stupid bear, standing in front of the bedroom. He looked sleepy and a little disheveled, but still, for some cursed reason, dashingly handsome.
“No, that’s stupid; Malcot doesn’t like strangers.”
“I was going to ask if everything was okay.” He said, his voice rough and deep in a way that made her stomach dance.
“I’m fine.” Caitlin said, almost bursting through the adjacent door to try and locate the enticing smell of breakfast. She would’ve dashed off a cliff onto a bed of flaming, rusty nails covered in salt if it meant getting away from Christiansen, but her mood significantly improved when she found the O’Doererys had made a small buffet. Plates full of toast, eggs, sausages, potato waffles and pancakes littered the table. They cooked a far less elaborate meal relative to what they ate every day in the castle, but Caitlin’s mouth watered watering with anticipation. The two must’ve been up for hours preparing everything.
“You don’t eat before the guest of honor eats, yah’ bloody schalwack!” Mairead snapped at her husband, who was presently digging through a pile of hash browns. “It’s royal tradition!”
“She’sa schweet’ gurl, she won’t care none if I-” Callum waved to Caitlin. “Caitlin! C’mon in! You tew’ better start eatin’ or I’m gonna finish everything!” He said with a hearty chuckle and a mouth full of food.
Caitlin took a seat across from Mairead, eager to dig in but unwilling to forget years of training in manners. They probably wouldn’t mind if she did, but she didn’t want to be rude.
“Starting without me?” Christiansen commented as he took the seat next to her.
“That bloodeh’ mountain could topple,” Callum said with a mouthful of pancakes and pointed at the knight with a fork. “And this one wouldn’t miss ah’ blinka’ sleep. Unless there was food cookin’.” He burst out laughing and earned a roll of the eyes from his wife.
“As long as you aren’t cooking, I’ll come running every time.” Christiansen with a sly smirk.
“Caitlin, whadya need? I’ll make you a plate, and daya’ want some water? Wine? Rose soda? Lemon drink?” Mairead stood up, offering her a free plate.
“Oh, don’t worry, Mrs. O’Doerery, I’ll make it myself.” Caitlin attempted to take it, but her host snatched it away with unusually quick reflexes.
“Ah-ah, no workin’ fer you, Miss Faraday. You’re a guest and we dew’ everything for our guests.”
Christiansen jumped in to resolve the issue. “I’ll do it, Caitlin, what do you need?”
Once again, he soured her mood with just a few words. The O’Doererys offering to serve her was innocuous, as they were simply being gracious, caring hosts, but Christiansen making the same offer was irritating. Did he think she was some pampered brat incapable assembling a meal?
Still, she didn’t want to disrespect him, especially in front of his family’s friends. “Thank you, Sir Christiansen. A smattering of everything will do.”
Her servant did as commanded and set the plate. Hunger overtaking her senses, Caitlin gave him an offhand ‘thanks’ and dug in. After cleaning off half of the plate, her peripheral vision caught sight of Christiansen tearing through his food with ravenous abandon, only pausing to take a sip of his drink. It was enough to make her stop eating and watch. When he met her gaze, he paused too, a light dusting of red painting his cheeks. “What?” He asked nervously.
Caitlin gave him an amused smile. “Nothing.”
After several minutes of the four cleaning off their plates, Callum spoke. “So, there’s somethin’ I’ve been wonderin’: how’d you two meet?” He bounced the front of his fork between Caitlin and Christiansen.
“Oh,” He said. “Uh, we met in the, uh, forest.”
“He’s my personal bodyguard,” Caitlin said. “I’m visiting a friend in Efline and Jamie is accompanying me.”
The two instantly brightened. “Well, look at that! Two years on the job and he’s already movin’ up! When were you gonna tell us?” Mairead asked.
“That don’t matter, Jamie’s guardin’ his favorite princess! Just like he always wanted!” Callum said.
That was a strange comment, especially considering its effect on Christiansen. He suddenly looked like he wanted to sink into the floor.
“So, Sir Christiansen,” Caitlin said, all innocence. “I’m your favorite princess?” The knowledge that Christiansen admired her prior to their first meeting wasn’t surprising. It was only natural for someone so oafish to admire someone brave and brilliant, but what specifically led to such reverence? When did it develop?
His eyes went wide like she just sprouted wings. “Uhh, yes. I suppose it’s only because there are two. Well, two in Amorado, I’m sure there are more elsewhere. And no offense to Princess Lilith, I think she’s fantastic. Not as fantastic as-uh you. But, uh-you are both fantastic. In your own ways, of course.”
“Aw, he’s just bein’ modest, Caitlin,” Callum said. “Truth is, he’s always had a real big crush on-”
“Callum!” Mairead snapped.
He looked at his wife, confused. “What? It’s like you always said; the boy’s always been a bit shy, specially’ around pretty girls. And he’s been smitten with-er,” His wife’s intensifying scowl made him consider his words. “You-know-who ever since they was kids. He’s always been terrified of talking to her!”
“If you don’t stuff your bloodeh’ cakehole right now, I’ll do it for ya’.” Mairead growled.
So, Christiansen was in love with some young lady, but was too terrified to talk to her. It wasn’t surprising considering what she learned about him the previous night. His affliction of puppy love was pathetic yet endearing. Having admired this mystery woman from afar for so long, Caitlin surmised she’d have an easier time convincing him to leap into a ring of fire than getting him to engage her in conversation. Fearless in combat yet terrified by the prospect of conversing with his lady love. Quite the paradox...
In all probability, Caitlin could cajole the woman’s identity out of Callum, but where was the fun in that?