Claude ground his teeth and gripped the reins of his horse. Days of traveling with Hilda, days of sharing a bed, and yet due to her injuries, he didn’t dare do more than kiss her. Desire danced in her eyes as well, which only made it harder to maintain his discipline. Yet that wasn’t the worst of it. He was tired of hauling around all his secrets. The moments they spent talking before sleep, heads together on their pillow, filled a void in him that he hadn’t known existed. But if he told Hilda everything, she might leave him, and she was integral to his plan.
Fortunately, she was healing quickly. He’d picked up another bunch of vulneraries at the last village. Good thing, too, because the roads were growing more dangerous the farther south they got. They had to take side roads or cut across fields in order to avoid soldiers from both the Empire and Alliance. He’d risked Hilda’s life in battle too many times already. He wouldn’t do it again.
They picked their way along the narrow path through some woods. It was nearly evening, honeyed light filtering through the dense canopy above. Birds chirped, and the scent of cool soil and leaf litter surrounded them.
“Are we going to have to camp tonight?” Hilda asked. “It doesn’t look like there are any villages this way.”
Claude looked over his shoulder and shot her a grin. “You can use me as your mattress, if you like.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but someone had dropped out of the tree behind her. Claude’s hand went to his sword. By the time he drew it, more people had appeared. Claude dismounted and held his weapon at the ready. There were eight of them. Not good odds.
“Give us your money and your woman and we’ll let you live,” one of the men said.
Claude narrowed his eyes. Their weapons were high quality, and they wore bits and pieces of armor. Deserters, then. Damn. That sort tended to be even more desperate than run-of-the-mill thieves, not to mention more skilled.
“You can have the money, but leave my wife alone,” Claude said.
Hilda’s cheeks turned pink as she looked at him.
“Aw, ain’t that sweet,” the leader said, hefting his battle ax and putting it on his shoulder. “But no. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of deal.”
“No deal,” Claude said and rushed them.
The merchant ruse must have worked, because he managed to kill two of them before the others even moved. He circled, weapon raised, as they closed in. No matter how good they were, he had to be better.
The deserters kept their distance. Perhaps they’d noticed he knew how to use his weapon and wasn’t afraid to do so. Then Claude’s vision exploded with stars as something hit him in the back of the head. A rock? He staggered and fell to his knees.
“He’s worth more alive than dead,” Hilda said. Her tone seemed calm, but Claude knew her well enough to catch the tension beneath. “He’s the only son of a very rich trader.”
The leader seemed to consider her words. “All right, take them captive.”
Three men forced Claude to the ground. Dirt puffed up from the road and crunched between his molars as they put a knee against his spine and hog-tied him. Blood trickled down the back of his neck. Two others dragged Hilda from her horse and tied her up next to him. The deserters pulled sacks over their heads, and Claude’s senses were limited to hearing and the smell of onions.
“Offering your husband up for ransom, huh?” the leader said. “I can’t tell if that means you care about him or not.”
“Oh, I don’t,” Hilda replied. “Ours was an arranged marriage. I had very little say.”
Damn it, she was finding ways to get in digs in this situation? Claude had underestimated her. He tried the ropes, but they held tight.
“In fact,” Hilda continued, “you don’t even have to force me. It’ll be nice to be with some real men for once.”
Claude clenched his teeth. That was taking a bit far. She didn’t even know what he was like in bed. Besides, the risk—
“Honey, no,” he said, struggling, and got cuffed in the side of the head for his efforts. He coughed as road dust filtered through the fabric of the sack.
“It’s too bad I’m tied up.” Hilda’s voice had taken on a cadence Claude recognized. “Otherwise, I could show you a very good time.”
What was she up to? Claude turned his head, trying to hear better. Damn it, he had no idea what was going on. The deserters laughed, and the sound of rope hitting the ground reached his ears. Hilda’s giggle joined them.
“I can only handle you…hmm, two at a time. Unless some of you want solo runs.”
Claude strained at the ropes, heart thundering in his chest. Sweat worked its way down his temple. Was she crazy? They’d take advantage of her and kill her when they were done. The thought of them taking off her clothes, touching her, made him shake and want to vomit. If he had his sword, he’d gladly shove it through their faces.
Their voices grew more distant. Claude tried to follow, but his bonds didn’t allow him to do anything more than squirm in the dirt. So much for his brilliant plan to get her to House Goneril and propose.
Hilda screamed, and his blood ran cold. No, she had only just healed! If they hurt her, he didn’t care if he had to come back from the dead to make them pay.
Other screams joined hers, and only then did he realize Hilda’s scream had been a battle cry. Claude whipped his head around, trying to make sense of the sounds. The tang of blood cut through the musty onion smell in the sack. His pulse rushed in his ears. He renewed his efforts to break free as metal clanged on metal and the screams continued.
Claude winced, blinded, when the sack was ripped off his head. He blinked. Blood spattered the road and the corpses which lay upon it. Hilda stood in front of him, jacket open and shirt unbuttoned past her sternum, the leader’s battle axe slung over her shoulder. More blood splashed her face and clothing.
“Whew,” Hilda said, dropping the sack. “Now I’m all sweaty.”
Claude stared at her.
She tossed the battle axe aside. “What? Oh, rats. I got blood on my clothes. I must look a fright.”
Claude snorted. Right, as if it were her appearance that was frightening, not the fact she’d just taken on six soldiers single-handedly and didn’t have a scratch on her. By the look of it, the men hadn’t even taken down their trousers yet.
“You’re amazing,” Claude said. Strong, clever, beautiful, skilled…Hilda was the whole package.
Hilda picked up a knife and cut his bonds. She kissed his wrists where the ropes had chafed. “I suspect it’s getting harder and harder to keep your expectations low,” she said.
Claude grabbed the back of her head and pulled her in for a kiss. Their tongues twined. He wanted to be closer, so much closer than this. But it wasn’t the time or place.
“Don’t ever scare me like that again,” Claude said when they pulled apart. Hilda’s lips were red from kissing, and which just made him want to kiss her again.
Hilda smiled sheepishly. “I’m afraid the horses ran away during the fight.”
Claude kissed her once more for good measure and drank a vulnerary for his head injury before they went to find the animals. Two hours later, they were on their way again. They rode on until they found a stream. By then, it was nearly dark. They quickly made camp. Hilda insisted on setting up the tent so they didn’t get eaten alive by mosquitos while they slept.
Claude smiled to himself. Little did she know that mosquitos weren’t the only thing that would be trying to eat her tonight.
Hilda took a bath in the stream while Claude cleaned his wound and threw together dinner. He made some rice and lentils with carrots along with some greens he foraged in the woods. It was done by the time she’d dressed and joined him by the fire. She wore the underdress she’d favored from before the battle of Derdriu. It left very little to the imagination, and Claude’s imagination was already overactive.
“You don’t seem too keen on the idea of marrying me,” he said as he handed her a bowl. “Is it the ‘me’ part or the ‘marriage’ part?”
“I feel like telling you takes all the fun out of it.”
Claude snorted. “I can see I’m going to have to take a different approach.”
“Tell me more.”
“Later. Let’s eat dinner first.”
Hilda pouted, but she complied. They ate in silence. Claude’s earlier fear for her replayed in his head. He’d already waited too long.
Once he cleaned up dinner, they sat side by side next to the fire. Hilda had piled her damp hair on top of her head, exposing her neck. Claude pulled her into his lap. She looked up at him, cheeks matching her hair, and he was lost. He pressed his lips to hers and teased her mouth open, the closest he could get to her.
Hilda wrapped her arms around his neck. The dress exposed most of her back and sides, and he ran his fingers over her silky skin. She shivered, but she didn’t flinch with pain. Good, her wounds had finally healed.
But just a shiver wasn’t enough—he wanted her to writhe. He unfastened her collar and replaced the fabric with his mouth. She moaned and tilted her chin up, granting him easier access, and he ran his tongue down her throat. When he reached her collarbones, he tipped her back and nuzzled the space between the tops of her breasts. Her nipples tented the fabric. Claude smiled to himself and ran his lips across the cloth.
Hilda gasped and arched her back. He continued to nibble her through her clothes, watching her skin flush from her chest up to her cheeks. Her eyes slid closed, and her lips grew red. He grunted as her thigh rocked against his hardness.
“Should we retire to the tent?” Claude whispered against her breast.
“Yes, let’s.” Hilda’s voice was breathy.
Claude refastened her collar. Hilda closed her eyes and shuddered at even that simple touch. It was as if someone had doused him in lamp oil and tossed a match onto him. The way she looked in the firelight, with her pale skin and soft curves, and the desire in her expression made it difficult to not push her down in the grass and take her. But that would spoil the game, and Claude loved nothing more than winning.
He took her hand and led her to the tent. She hesitated at the flap, and he caressed her cheek.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I won’t do anything you don’t want me to.”
Hilda nodded and crawled into the tent. Claude banked the fire then hurried to join her. Please let her not be undressed yet. He wanted that pleasure for himself.
She was wrapped up in the blankets by the time he entered the tent. He discarded his headwrap and tunic, all the ways he was going to please her running through his mind. He throbbed with anticipation. Those breasts deserved proper worship—
Fingers slid over his ribs to his chest and toyed with his hair as a warm mouth nibbled his neck. He shuddered and closed his eyes as her hand explored the muscles of his stomach. His earring clicked against her teeth as she gently tugged on it. Her hand continued its journey south, brushing over his hardness through his trousers.
“You’re beautiful,” she whispered into his ear. “I adore your body.”
Claude chuckled. “You stole my line.”
Hilda’s tongue flicked his ear and traced the tendon in his neck. One of her hands teased his nipple as the other rubbed harder against his crotch. His breath hitched in his throat. There was no way he could reciprocate, not with her behind him. Oh, gods, were those her bare breasts pressing against his back? He moaned and rocked his hips against her palm.
Claude turned and caught her wrists. Every instinct screamed at him to shove her to the ground, pin her hands above her head, and bury himself in her. He held her, trembling, trying to regain control. Hilda didn’t want that, she’d said she was saving herself.
Then Hilda reversed their grips. Her hand was too small to hold both his wrists at once, but she clenched both his thumbs in one hand and pushed him to the blankets. The top half of her dress dangled, although the skirt was still fastened about her waist. Her nipples grazed his chest as she bent over him. It was too dark to see well, but he suspected there was a wicked gleam in her eye.
Her grip on his thumbs was so tight he’d dislocate his joints if he tried to free himself. The heat inside him built. She kept him pinned—damn, she was strong—and licked his throat. Soon he was the one moaning and writhing.
“Either ride me or let me go,” Claude finally rasped.
Hilda snorted. “I was planning on it anyway.”
A gasp left him as her hand slid down the front of his trousers. Her weight settled against him.
“Very nice,” she purred against his neck as she stroked him.
Claude struggled for air, for control. “How is it that you’re so perfect for me?” he finally managed.
His words must have caught her off-guard, for she stopped her ministrations. It was the opportunity he needed to roll her onto her back. She lost her grip on him, and now he had access to her breasts. He hefted one and closed his mouth over her nipple. The noises she made drove his desire to new heights. Her fingers twined in his hair, pressing him to her. He danced his fingers down her hard stomach, rucked up her skirt, and slid his fingers between her legs. Hilda gasped and rocked against his hand.
“Not fair,” she panted.
It took a little experimentation, but they found a position where they each could pleasure the other. The sound of their feverish breathing blocked out the night. Hilda thrust her tongue into Claude’s mouth, and he was lost.
Claude slipped his fingers between her labia. Hilda broke off kissing him and moaned, pressing into his hand. He panted against her cheek and concentrated on the feel of her. Warm, slick, amazing. Her muscles clenched, and she stopped stroking him.
“There,” Hilda gasped when he found the right rhythm and pressure. “Nnh. Yes.”
He scooted down, breaking her grip on his cock, and sucked her nipple. “I love you,” he murmured against her breast.
Hilda arched against him as he rubbed her faster. Her body grew tighter. She made a series of small half-gasping, half-whimpering sounds as she came, pulsing against his fingers.
“I didn’t get to make you come yet,” Hilda panted when she grew still.
Just hearing her say that almost made him orgasm. “Still can.”
It was too much. When she gripped him again, she only got in a couple of strokes before he finished. Hilda twitched in surprise as he spilled onto his stomach. Claude lay there for a few moments, basking in the glow, before he cleaned himself up and gathered Hilda into his arms. She melted against him with a sigh. It was almost perfect.
“Did you say something during?” Hilda asked.
Claude was barely conscious. “Me? Nah.”
“I’m not sure I believe you.”
“Marry me and I’ll tell you.”
“Ugh. Why are you so persistent about this whole marriage thing?”
“Why do you think?”
“I’m guessing you need my Crest or my Relic to help you back in Almyra?”
Cold cut through Claude’s euphoria. That’s what she thought? But he’d tried to be so attentive and kind. She already knew she was his best friend.
“Although you have your own,” she continued, “so maybe it’s cultural, or your hands are tied for some reason. I’m a little embarrassed to admit I don’t know much about Almyra.”
Claude pulled her closer and squeezed his eyes shut. “Is that why you risked your life to keep the Imperial army from getting to me? Why you fought those deserters off earlier?”
“No, silly. It’s because that’s what I’m supposed to do. Dimitri has Dedue, Edelgard has Hubert, and you have me. You’re my best friend. Besides, my brother would be disappointed in me if I didn’t do my duty, and you do not want to be around my brother when he’s disappointed.”
The cold speared him through the center of his chest. This was all wrong. How could he have misread the situation so badly? He pulled away and crawled to the tent flap, dragging what he hoped was his tunic. “I’ll take first watch.”
“Claude? Are you all right?”
“You should get some rest.”
The cool night air felt good against his skin. He waited a few minutes before pulling on his tunic. The fire remained banked, since he didn’t want to draw unwanted attention or sacrifice his night vision. He made sure his sword was nearby and settled down to keep watch.
Hilda’s words echoed in his head. She didn’t trust his motivations, eh? That was he got for being a schemer. If that was how she felt, if all of this was only physical, and their connection was based purely on her wanting to please her family, then fine. He’d roll with it. Besides, she wasn’t wrong. Having a queen from Fódlan would help his cause, and maybe her sense of duty would ensure they were married anyway.
Who was he kidding? He didn’t want it to be a one-sided love, or a purely physical one. Assuming he’d have no problems becoming king was also wishful thinking.
That said, maybe he could prove to her that he was in love with her. She likely wouldn’t believe him if he said it. No, he’d have to come up with a plan to get her to marry him anyhow.
He had his whole watch to figure it out.