02-The Ride through Sherwood

Julian turned to Aurora when he was done. "As lovely as the moment I found you." he offered his arm, "Shall we lead her to the forest and ride from there?"

"If you like," she demurred and rested her hand again on his bracer. She smelled lightly of roses and vanilla now. With her free hand she gave her horse an affectionate pat. "Her name is Belle. I had two when I arrived, but I knew I could not care for them both properly on my own, so I sold Sebastian."

Julian led Aurora, her horse, and her hound away from the cottage and towards Sherwood. He looked up into the sky and pointed at a circling speck. "There's Paulette." As they drew closer to the forest, he passed the reins to Aurora, and produced what looked like a wooden whistle. He blew upon the caller, and put it away, lifting his arm. The hawk circled lower and lower, and what had once seemed small eventually lit upon Julian's arm, talons gripping the bracer that protected his forearm. Paulette was a four pound goshawk, with fierce eyes. She was slate grey on top, and lighter grey beneath. "Paulette, this is Aurora." He attached a small metal cylinder to her leg, and then slipped her a bit of the jerky he had been feeding Cyrano. The goshawk gulped the treat down, and Julian tossed her into the air with a flutter and flap of wings. "There she goes."

"She is quite lovely," Aurora says as her eyes follow the bird.

"Thank you." Julian replied proudly, "I raised her from a fledgling. Not an easy task, but well worth the doing."

The goshawk winged her way east, and Julian continued to lead Aurora towards the Forest. "I suppose we can forgo the traditional throwing you over my shoulder part of things."

Aurora turned from watching the hawk catch the air and smiled coyly. "Perhaps later."

He turned to her, catching her coy smile. "When the proper time arrives, there may be no warning. There should be some surprises in a good abduction." Julian stopped at the edge of the woods, and walked them east along it. "You can mount up here, I'll led us to where this game trail widens, and then I will join you on Belle." He met her eyes, stepped closer, and placed his hands on her hips. Softly, he asked, "Ready?"

She stilled utterly and sucked in a breath when he touched her. This close, his presence, his maleness, was almost overwhelming as he towered over her. She lifted her eyes to his and nodded while reaching for the saddlehorn.

When her eyes met his, he hesitated for the barest moment, as his mind went into an instant internal debate. Julian wanted to hold her, kiss her, there beside her horse, sink his hand into her loosened red-gold hair, press her against a tree, or anywhere that took their fancy, and be truly indecent. He wanted to claim her then and there, knowing that all the arrows he had fired had found their mark, and that it was only propriety that kept him (and her) from ending the hunt and claiming what was sure to be a passionate prize. Instead, he flexed his knees to lift her up, his eyes never leaving hers.

For a man of Julian's strength, Aurora's petite form was light and he easily set her atop the horse. Feeling the heat in her cheeks, and feeling a bit lightheaded, Aurora busied herself with getting situated in the saddle, adjusting her skirts, and gathering the reins. She did an admirable job of pulling herself together before she looked down at him. "Whenever you are ready…"

Julian did not bother to sublimate his growl, as he unslung his bow to hold it in his left, and took the reins with his right. As he turned to lead her into Sherwood, she heard him declare, "I have been ready since after we broke our fast." There was nothing she could possibly say to that. Aurora lowered her gaze to the pattern in the horse's mane and smiled faintly.

As they penetrated more deeply into the Forest, a subtle change seemed to come over the Earl of Huntingdon. His tread became lighter, until it was all but silent. Every time he crouched to look at a bit of trail sign, every time he paused to hold a branch aside for her passage, or gestured to warn her of a low bough, his every motion was economic, elegant, even powerful. Julian had a grace that was unaffected, casual, like the other predators with which he shared a kinship. If he seemed self-assured and alert before, he was even more so there in the Forest; His hawk-like gaze scanned their surroundings, and his confident demeanor broadcast his dominance. Julian was a predator, and Sherwood was his domain.

The game trail eventually brought them to a naturally occurring crossroads of other trails, sure signs that this area was rich in game, and that even the poorest hunter was likely to meet with some small amount of success. One of the trails widened, and it was clear that it was regularly trod upon by more than just deer and other woodland beasts. There were signs, though old, of the passage of horses and men. Julian scowled at the most wasteful of these, when they came upon the sight of a sloppily done field dressing. He had to keep Cyrano from gobbling down animal remains that would surely have made the hound ill, and took the time to bury the mess himself, using a stick and a flat stone as a shovel. He washed his hands when they came near a babbling brook, and led her onward for a bit, before he stopped and turned to her.

"I can mount up now, if you would not mind." Julian looked up at her, "I will have to ask you to hold my bow. Just keep it down alongside Belle."

Aurora's conscious waged a fierce debate in her head as she stared straight ahead for a moment. Nothing thus far had served to quell the storm already waging within her. Not even the peace of the forest. This alpha male at her side could very well be her undoing if she wasn't careful. All she had after all were the visions that had brought her to this place to assure her that things would work out in the end. But, by all that was dear to her, she wanted to be with him in the most primal of ways, which would surely destroy all she had carefully built in Nottingham-and possibly her very life.

But she was also very much her mother's daughter. Aurora shifted forward in the saddle and held a hand out for his bow.

Julian handed her his bow. The wood was warm, where he had held it, and it had a greater heft than one might have expected. He mounted the horse easily, slipping in behind Aurora. There was no way not to be close together, and his warmth was as obvious as her own. There was a rumble in his chest, as his arms went around her to take the reins. A wisp of his breath barely tickled the skin of her neck, and it seemed he had the foresight to chew on a mint leaf after his meal. With a flick of the reins, and a tensing in his legs, he had Belle moving along. Julian spoke near her ear, his voice a soft, low, roll of thunder. "Your scent is soothing."

She bit the inside of her cheek to quell the whimper that threatened to well up as his arms entrapped her. There was nothing she could do to suppress the shiver, the rise of the goosebumps over her as his heated breath moved across her skin. "Merci, votre seigneurie," she replied a little breathlessly. "Excusez-moi; Julian." His name became something altogether different when said in breathless, husky French.

Julian's nostrils flared as she shivered against him, and replied to his words in French. He knew the language, though he preferred Latin or even Arabic and Spanish, but the way she made it sound in that moment; he was beginning to think he had a new preference. It was the way she said his name, and the way she had deferred to him for a heartbeat, calling him 'Your Lordship' for a breath. Julian could almost taste her skin, the urge to kiss the side of her neck was so strong. Julian leaned forward slightly, only Aurora's proximity allowed her to discern the motion at all, as she could feel his chest against her back. Julian's voice was almost a soft growl, "We will have much to discuss when we arrive at my home."

Aurora did not trust herself to speak, and fortunately he was behind her and couldn't see the expression on her face. The feel of hard muscle at her back; the warmth of his breath; the tone of his voice; the very male scent of him. It was making her light headed.

They continued on into the dimness of the forest, with the light of the sun beginning to wan as the afternoon wore on. Sunlight slanted through green leaves at a steep angle, highlighting the idyllic features of the deep woods, sparkling silver of small splashing creeks or spotlighting the furtive movements of a squirrel moving through an open space. An owl fluffed its feathers in a sunbeam, enjoying the warmth. "The settlement is just ahead." Julian almost whispered, "Shall I borrow a horse, or would you like to continue as we are?"

She felt a moment of panic at the question. Even though she hadn't relaxed since he took his place behind her, she couldn't honestly say she wanted him gone. As flustered as his nearness made her, there was an odd sense of security having his presence so wrapped around her slight form.

"Please do not make me answer that," came her tightly whispered reply.

"We will continue as we are, and forget that the question was asked." Julian quietly offered, "So that we both might maintain our dignities."

He flicked the reins, and guided them through the cluster of a handful of homes. Everyone knew him, and either called out their greetings, or bowed in respect. He tossed a couple of gold coins to the children that paced them as they rode through. Aurora could see the horse that he had spoken of, a study animal that was suited to heavy work that was stabled beside the small field that it helped to plow. The settlement was little more than a small group of families seeking to live away from the sometimes heavy and grasping hands of their local Lords, and while they likely barely scraped out a subsistence living, they seemed honestly pleased to see the Earl of Huntingdon riding through.

"Hail Huntingdon!"

"God Bless Lord Longbow!"

Julian seemed almost embarrassed by their gratitude and adulation, though he waved and smiled at the well wishers. Soon it was just he and Aurora again, his grip on the reins having relaxed, with one of his hands resting high on her belly. The sun continued its journey, and the light began to wane. "We will be out of the Forest soon. We may have time to see the sunset from the tower."

Aurora just nodded silently. She was too busy trying to not notice how the heat of his hand on her seemed to be spreading outward through the rest of her, tugging at her secret places and leaving her wound impossibly tight. Had she had more of her wits about her, she would have been close to mortified that she was seen sharing a horse in public with a man she hadn't even known a day. It would only be later, when she had a moment of quiet, that she would fully appreciate what had happened in the settlement.

They rode on in silence, with Julian feeling only marginally better than Aurora did. He was far better at concealing it perhaps, and while he had no concerns about the peasants thinking it odd for him to be sharing a horse with a finely dressed woman, he was testing his own resolve by having her so temptingly close. He had caught himself more than once thinking to take liberties that would likely have been welcomed, but would have changed the chase completely. Julian reined Belle in at the edge of Sherwood, and slid from the saddle, with clear reluctance displayed by a moment of stillness before he did so. He sighed, patted Cyrano's head, and took both the reins and his bow back from Aurora.

She shivered again, but this time it was at the loss of his warmth at her back. She felt suddenly alone, small, far more vulnerable then she had when he had held her.

"Welcome to Huntingdon, Aurora."

Welcome to Huntingdon

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