As promised - an extra long installment. It is twice as long as my previously longest installment and 3-4 times as long as the average installment so enjoy!
We passed the stable boy on our way to the saddled horses and Ris told him to prepare horses for the guards to follow us as soon as they arrived. Then, with barely a moment to breathe deeply, we were racing out the side gate near the stables and into the dark night. It seemed that the darkness was a physical weight on my shoulders. The clear night sky showed the barest sliver of a crescent moon and the stars seemed too far away to brighten our path.
Nevertheless, Ris led us into the woods with unwavering confidence. Occasionally our horses would veer close enough to each other that I could hear him muttering what seemed like nonsense words under his breath. I realized he must be using his magic to guide us and speed us on our way. If I had been paying attention I would have noticed that the twisted branches of the trees all around us were passing at a rate I would have previously thought impossible.
Time seemed to stretch and turn as we raced through the forest sped on by magic like none I had ever experienced. Some unknown time later I felt us slowing down.
Ris allowed us to come even to each other as our horses reached a natural speed.
“There’s a clearing up ahead, bounded on one side by the cliffs. Hopefully we’ll catch up with Silenkian right as he reaches that clearing. I am going to loop around so we can cut him off. Just keep riding straight ahead as fast as you can.”
I nodded, too focused on what was to come to form any proper words. I watched with no small amount of trepidation and wonder as Ris began speaking under his breath again. He shot off into the darkness with a magic fueled speed.
I didn’t allow my horse to slow down as I did my best to ride towards the clearning without getting brained by a low hanging branch or scratched overly much by the sharp arms of the trees reaching out to snag me.
Ahead as the trees started to thin a bit, distant crashing noises grew closer. I clumsily moved both reins into one hand as I did my best to free one of my hammers from my belt. There was a moment when I thought my balance would fail me and I would end up in a heap on the ground trampled by my horse. However, through sheer will, I managed to maintain my seat.
I scarcely had a moment to acknowledge the fear that was blooming in my chest before I burst into the clearing. It was larger than I had anticapated – about five hundred paces across. Silenkian was about halfway to the other side when I caught sight of him. Without the surrounding trees it was slightly easier to see but he was still more of a dark smudge than a man in my vision.
I urged my horse to a faster, almost frenzied pace as Silenkian glanced over his shoulder and saw me pursuing him. I was gaining on him and just before we both reached the far side of the clearing, I gripped the reins tightly in my left hand, settled my weight low and swung the hammer in my right hand at Silenkian’s head.
He ducked at the very last moment so my blow landed awkwardly on his shoulder instead of his head. It was not hard enough to seriously wound him. However, at the speeds we were riding, it affected his balance enough to knock him off his horse.
As I swung my horse around, I saw Silenkian stumble to his knees and knew I had to get off my horse in order to contain him before he regained his wits. In a move I had no conception I was capable of, I swung myself off my horse while it was still moving and tucked into a roll as I hit the ground. I came up on my feet, hammer still in my right hand, and managed to get the fingers of my left hand around my other hammer.
It wasn’t enough. Silenkian stood up, drew his sword and swung at me all in one graceful motion. If he hadn’t been trying to kill me I would have taken a moment to admire his skill. I lifted my left hand, hammer still gripped precariously and managed to deflect the blow. It shook me to my joints and the hammer spun out of my hand, tumbling uselessly away towards the center of the clearing.
That shock helped to wake me up and remember my training. I was still new but I was not completely incompetent. We traded a few more blows but his overwhelming skill was showing through and I knew I wouldn’t last much longer. I sent a brief thought towards the heavens that Ris would show up soon.
I managed to parry another of Silenkian’s swift strikes with my right hand but as I used my hammer to force his sword up and to the side, he came at me with a dagger in his other hand. I bent my torso away from him as quickly as possible but did not manage to avoid it completely. Fire erupted across my abdomen as I felt his dagger score down my left side through my shirt.
Stumbling backwards, I fell to the ground. I closed my eyes and instictively protected my head by curling into a ball with my arms curled around my ears. However, before I had a chance to take another breath, I heard a deep grunt and felt something warm and wet hit the bare skin of my forearms.
I glanced up and saw that Ris had finally made it to the clearing and he had thrown one of his many knives at Silenkian, hitting him in the shoulder. The force of the blow twisted Silenkian around and caused his blood to splatter over my curled form.
As I got up off the ground to the stacatto beats of sword hitting sword faster than I had ever witnessed rang out through the clearing. For a moment I was lost in the beauty that was a true fight between masters of the art. Only a moment later, Ris faltered as Silenkian got a blow through his defenses and I snapped out of my reverie.
One of my fallen hammers caught my eye just beyond where Ris and Silenkian were still battling. I jumped up and ran for it. Once I had it firmly in my grip, I watched and waited for an opening. Ris caught my eye briefly and nodded almost imperceptibly with his eyes more than his head. The next time Silenkian swung wide for an attack on Ris I was ready. Ris ducked quickly and I slammed my hammer down on Silenkian’s arm. His sword skittered from his grip and fell just out of reach.
At this point, Silenkian’s back was to the cliff. Ris lifted his sword in readiness. I grabbed my other hammer off the ground and readied myself as well. Silenkian had no escape.
“Surrender yourself and I will make sure that your death is quick.” Ris growled with a menace I had never heard from him before.
Something fierce and more than a little insane flashed through Silenkian’s eyes as he started to laugh. It was a dark and sinister sound that could only have come from a depraved soul. There was no joy or lightness in that noise.
Then, at the top of his voice, Silenkian yelled, “I freely leap into the arms of my goddess!” Before Ris or I could even make a step towards him, he turned and threw himself off the cliff.
Ris and I raced to the edge of the cliff and looked down disbelievingly. At the bottom of the cliff Silenkian lay, broken and visibly dead even at this distance. For a subjective eternity we just stared, unseeing, at the suddenly dead form of our enemy.
As if we had both received some signal, we turned to each other. Ris was covered in blood from various small wounds and one larger cut across the top of his left bicep. His eyes were bright with held back panic as he reached for me. At first I thought he was going to hug me but he quickly felt up and down my arms and torso, looking for injury. As his hands clutched at my left side I winced in pain and grabbed his wrists.
“Ris. I’m fine.” The tiny unconscious smile that always spread across Ris’ face when I used his nickname made a brief appearance before weariness set in again. “How badly are you hurt?” I asked him.
“Nothing major. I should be fine.”
I realized I was still gripping his wrists and in that moment I needed to feel more of him. I drew him close and wrapped my arms around his neck. His arms clung to my back tight as a vice. In any other situation I would have complained about not being able to breath. But just then, feeling him and knowing he was alive was more important than breathing.
Our hearts beat a rapid march against each others’ chest and a wave of utter relief washed over me as I realized we had made it through alive and the assassin was dead. After a few more moments of holding each other tight, we separated as if, again, we had each received the same cue to do so.
Only a moment later, we both whipped around as a group of palace guards noisily entered the clearing. The drew their horses to a halt, dismounted and approached us on foot.
“Are you well, your Majesty?”
“Fine. Silenkian, however, is a bit worse for wear,” Ris replied wryly. Confusion flashed over their faces briefly before Ris explained further. “He’s at the bottom of the cliff. We need to go and fetch his body.”
Ris waved an arm for us to follow him and he lead the way towards a path down the cliffs which was hidden in the undergrowth. I dreaded trying to make my way the narrow rocky path in the dark.
However, as I made the first steps of my journey down the cliff, I noticed the flickering glow of firelight shining over my shoulder. Apparently the guards had brought torches. I breathed a sigh of thanks for their forethought.
Even with the torch light to guide our steps, the path was treacherous. Smalls stoned skittered out from beneath our feet and the steep incline made keeping our balance precarious. We managed to escape with only bruised knees and scraped shins but there were a few close calls.
By the time we reached the base of the cliffs my shirt was soaked through and blood caked my hands. Despite all the training I had been doing with Cresp, I was finding it difficult to keep my breathing even. After we all tumbled into the open space at the end of the so called trail, we stood around leaning our hands against our knees and catching our breath for a few moments before we turned to the task at hand.
Only a few yards away lay the broken body of Silenkian. His head had hit against the rocks several times on the way down and if I had not known it was him I would not have recognized him. His clothes were tattered and covered in blood as well. Through the shredded remains of his shirt I noticed that there were markings on his chest.
I followed Ris as he walked towards the body. As he was barking instructions to the guards about how we were going to get him back up the hazardous trail, I leaned over to get a closer look at the markings. They appeared to be tattoos of some sort.
I took a deep breath and steeled myself as I reached a hand out to peel away the remains of Silenkian’s shirt. It was more difficult that I thought it would be to get his shirt to come off his chest because, in the time it had taken us to climb down the cliffs, some of the blood had dried, locking shreds of fabric in the cuts on his chest.
Eventually, I cleared away enough shirt and blood to get a good look at Silenkian’s tattoo. It appeared to be done with dark blue ink and spanned his chest from shoulder to shoulder, collar bone to floating ribs. Intricate whorls created a pattern that did not, at first glance, seem to depict anything but, nonetheless felt sinister to look at. And, in the center, above his heart, was emptiness. Everything lead there, pointed there, but nothing passed the unseen barrier and actually covered his heart. All in all, just looking at it sent shivers down my spine – and not in a good way.
What must have been hours later, I stared at Ris’ bare chest as he used heated water from a bucket to wash the dirt , grime and blood off himself. I was amost done with my own bucket and just being clean again returned a measure of energy to me. The dim candle light and quiet of the middle of the night made it feel like we were in our own little bubble, apart from the rest of the world.
As he dropped the soiled rag into his bucket, Ris glanced up. My heart felt like it stopped in my chest when his eyes met mine. My mind sent excuses through my head one after the other – he’s the king, we barely know each other, true love is crap – but one after the other the tightening in my chest sent them on their way.
Heat blazed between us as we stalked towards each other. It seemed like the temperature in the room rose a good ten degrees by the time we met. One of his hands threaded through my damp hair as the other slid across my back and pulled me against him. At his first touch my hands were aleady reaching out for him and by the time our chests had met my arms were around him as well.
The last thing to meet was our lips. He paused for a brief moment and then dove in captured my mouth. The feel of his lips on mine, his arms around me and mine around him tore through my like a flash fire. We were instantly ravenous, grinding hips, clutching skin and battling tongues. My whole body sang with touching him. It felt like I was about to burst out of my skin.
Distantly, I head doors being thrown open and speedy steps clanking down the hallway. But it didn’t really register until the inner doors to this room were thrown open and none other than Mils burst in.
“Oh my goodness, Be! I am so glad you are all right….” She seemed to trail off on that last word as she noticed what she had walked in on. I am not sure which of us blushed darker. “Oops! I’m sorry. I can, ummm…come back later,” she sputtered and began to turn back towards the door.
Ris managed gain his composure more quickly than I could manage – perhaps royals are trained for that sort of thing. He was able to say, “No. Wait,” before I was able to even open my mouth.
He hadn’t completely let go of me when Mils burst in so he was able to lean over just a bit and whisper in my ear, “Let her take care of you, treat your wound. It’ll make her feel better and we can talk tomorrow.” His eyes twinkled a bit when he said that and I knew he had more than just talking in mind.
I nodded at him and smiled a bit shyly - which seemed a bit too little too late – before I replied, “Okay. I don’t know where this is going but I do see it going somewhere. We’ll talk tomorrow.” I emphasized the talk. No matter how into his kisses I was, when Mils burst in it reminded me that this was not just about stealing kisses in the dark. This was a matter of life and death for Ris.
He nodded back at me, acknowledging that serious note I had just added. Then he smiled and kissed me gently on the cheek. “Good night Be. Good night Mils. I shall see you both in the morning.” He paused. “The late morning.”
I could still here his slight chuckle as Mils and I made our way down the corridor to the outer door that would take us back into the main part of the palace and then on to our beds.
Thoughts of a calm nights sleep in comfortable blankets surrounded by plush pillows were shattered when I opened the door to our chambers.
Within, it seemed that most of our belongings had been dumped on the bed and someone was throwing them haphazardly into saddle packs. As he turned around, I was shocked to recognize him. It was Jarkl, a local messenger from Sasharin, among other things I thought bitterly.
“Jarkl, what are you doing here?”
“Milarna is needed. Plague has hit Sasharin. Many have died, including Old Harna.” Old Harna was the healer, Mils was training under at home.
Mils and I stood stunned for a moment before she leapt into action. She pulled the bell to summon a servant and when she arrived Mils sent her to get her healing supplies from the Palace Healer’s rooms. She barely took a breath between firing questions about the plague and the deaths and everything else in town at Jarkl.
In a moment when she got distracted with picking up stockings that had fallen on the floor, I managed to get one question in, “I understand that we need to leave, but must it be this very moment? We have not yet had a chance to sleep.”
A pained look crossed Jarkl’s face before he spoke. “The illness takes five days to kill most of those who are infected. The journey here is two days and back is two days. The day I left, your father fell ill, as well as the town magistrate.
I nodded, numbly agreeing. I hadn’t thought much about our parents since we had arrived. I just seemed like they would always be there, waiting for our return. I moved to help finish the packing. As we were about to leave, I stopped for a moment at the desk and penned a note for Ris, apologizing and telling him where we were going and why. I folded it closed, sealed and penned Ris’ name on the outside.
As I placed it on the desk a wave of despair rolled over me. I had to get Mils back to save our Father but I hated leaving Ris behind. A small piece of my heart whispered the hope that Ris would find my note and immediately follow, after he had rested some.
Jarkl must have seen some of what I was feeling on my face because he came over and wrapped me in a hug. Before he let go, he whispered briefly in my ear, “It will be alright.”
I tried to nod my head in answer but I think all I did was clench my jaw and allow water to gather in my eyes. However, I did not have to time to dwell on myself. We gathered our things and hurried out of the room just as one of the other servants passed by.
I stopped him for a moment and said, “We have to leave immediately. Make sure Ris gets the letter on the desk.”
“Yessir” he said with a bewildered look on his face but Jarkl and Mils were already far ahead of me so I had no time to contemplate it as I raced to catch up with them.
Two days of hard rain, sleeping in the saddle and utter exhaustion later we rode into our hometown to the bittersweet welcome of temple bells sounding the death toll. Five more had died in the night, including our Father.
END BOOK 1
And just cause I am nice, here is a wee preview from Book 2.
Book 2 – Kalristian
My pain had turned to anger in the last three days as each day I hoped I was wrong. I hoped he would ride back into my life and say he was just kidding. He didn’t really want to leave.
Three days ago I had woken feeling like I could walk on clouds. My heart was so full of joy and hope. As my valet lay out my clothes and poured my tea he commented in passing, as if it didn’t much matter that a man had come and fetched Master Bierni and Mistress Milorna home.
After interrogating him, I got the whole story. A man from their village had come storming into the palace demanding to be taken to them while Be was still with him and Mils was on her way to us. Once they returned to their rooms, they had agreed to return home.
Worst of all was the kiss. One servant had seen this man hug Be and then kiss him gently on the side of his face.
Pain had flared across my chest as my valet relayed me this. For three days, I had wallowed in the pain, until, at some invisible, intangible signal the pain had morphed and changed, been forged into a new thing: anger. I threw cups and pitchers and dishes and any thing that would break against my bedroom wall. Each shatter represented the hope I had that maybe I had found my one, someone I could love my whole life. Each pile of shards, the fear I had of being put back to sleep. Even dying would be better than that.
I leaned against the wall and sank to the floor after I threw the last saucer from the tea service by my bed. I do not know how long I had sat there when I made the decision. I was going to go after him to demand an explanation.
However, before I could even begin to get my things in order, a tentative sounding knock echoed from my door.
“Come in,” I barked, trying to sound as regal and commanding as possible. I did my best to wipe my tumultuous emotions off my face before whoever was at the door saw me.
A trembling servant crept around the partially opened door. He looked scared out of him mind.
I consciously tried to unbend a bit. It wasn’t his fault Be had been a bastard. His reaction when I said, “Just tell me.” Indicated that I did not entirely succeed.
“I’m sorry Your high – I mean Your Majesty. Its just I didn’t know it was you. I looked and looked and no one in the servants’ house knew either. It weren’t til the head cook mentioned it to Silurianus that we knew...”
“Spit it out. What didn’t you know?”
“That you’re Ris, Your Majesty.”
I startled at hearing Be’s name for me from this random servant’s mouth. “Where did you hear that name?”
“It was on the letter, sir.” As he said this, he held out a dirty wrinkled packet of paper. On the flat side in a strong but hurried script were three letters that let hope seep back into my soul. Ris.
I tore it open and began reading.
We've just found out that a plague has hit Sasharin and our father is taken ill. Mils is needed as well because our healer was taken by the plague four days ago. I am sorry but we must go with all speed. I do not wish to break my promise to you but I fear I must. Please keep me in your heart as I will keep you in mine. I will miss you.
Until we meet again,
Swift determination spread through as I began issuing orders to prepare to travel. If Be needed to be in his home, then I would be there with him. No amount of arguing from my advisers and other members of the court swayed my mind.
The three miserable days on the road were all made worth it when I saw Be again for the first time.
We had just settled into the inn and I was preparing to inquire as to his whereabouts when the door to the common area burst open. Outlined in the dim sunlight of the late afternoon stood Be. His face was ashen and his eye sunken with exhaustion. His skin was covered in thin patina of dirt that was broken only by old tear tracks on his cheeks. His clothes looked like he hadn’t changed or washed them since he left the palace. But worst of all was sorrow in his eyes.
As soon as he caught sight of my he lurched forward towards me and seemed to crumple a bit. Before he could get very far using his broken gait, I had crossed the room and gathered him in my arms. As soon as he was wrapped in my embrace wracking sobs took over his body.
I could barely understand what he was saying but since he kept repeating it I was able to piece it together. “I knew you would come. It took longer than I thought it would but I knew you would come.” Over and over as I rubbed his back.
Eventually, Be stopped crying and seemed to fall asleep against me. As gently as I could I lifted him up and carried him upstairs to my room. I laid him down to sleep in my bed and kissed his forehead before I returned to the main common room to figure out what the hell was going on.
Stayed Tuned for Chapter 9!