Lena felt her heart racing, keeping her back pressed tightly to the tree. If they simply moved in either direction and she was not fast enough they would see her beyond the tree. The tree was not thick and luckily her dark hair and brown dress blended enough she looked more like a tree from behind than a princess.
Adare was across the path, hidden amongst the tall grass that had grown wildly through the summer. She hated him being so far away as the two barbarians walked down the path, taking their time as they moved. It as almost as if they could sense Lena was near. When Adare had noticed them, had heard them coming down the path, they had been moving quickly. Before the two could separate and hide the barbarians had slowed and began searching more diligently.
Lena had been less afraid in the castle when they had been attacking. At least then she knew there was a fight, she knew that she would be found. She had been scared, but not nearly this heart-poundingly frightened. Perhaps it was the slow wait. The attack simply a step away.
Adare did not want to leave bodies behind, that much Lena knew. It would alert someone to their direction. There was the possibility that someone on their side would find it, that no one would be alerted and no one would care beyond the fact that two of the barbarians were dead, but it wasn’t a chance they were willing to take.
The barbarians stepped off the path and walked towards the area Lena was standing. If they came too much closer they would see her. She squeezed her eyes shut and palmed the dagger that was hidden in her sleeve. She tried to control her breathing and remember everything that Adare had taught her over the years when fighting hand-to-hand. He said he believed in her, but she knew that she would likely be overpowered. She was small and they were large. No matter the training she had in protecting herself she would never ben an excellent fighter, it was not in her genetics.
She had accepted that, but today she wished it was not true. She would have one chance to drop them, and there were two to her one. She would have to pray to the gods that Adare would make it to her on time to keep her from being murdered.
Adare made enough commotion on the other side that the barbarians stopped before they truly saw her. They turned and looked to the knight who was now standing in the middle of the tall grass, hands on hips. “Hey there,” he said casually.
The barbarians exchanged looks before turning to Adare. “We have no qualms with you and no need to attack,” one of them said. “We simply need the princess you have behind the tree here and we’ll be on our way.”
“I’m afraid I can’t allow that,” Adare said. “You see, she’s my responsibility and I do have qualms with you trying to take her. I will allow you to walk away. If you take a screaming princess with you then you are bound to attract more attention than you want and someone else will stop you, even if you think you could take me down here. You’ll never make it back to the castle with just the two of you to take her.”
“That’s why there is more than just two of us,” one of the barbarians called.
That was why they had slowed. They had been sure. Two other barbarians stood from the fields, better concealed than either Adare or Lena had been. One of them stood practically in Lena’s face with a grin that read he had simply been waiting for her to move.
Lena inhaled a deep breath and knew what to do. He had not been watching her closely enough. She had the advantage over this one and she was going to take it. She slashed out, catching him in the thigh, enough to debilitate him as he had not been expecting the razor sharp edge to dig in so deeply. He went down crying out and Lena took off into the fields.
One of the barbarians called out, but Adare was fast. Out in the open Adare was faster, stronger, and had the advantage. Adare could not have fought off three of them in close quarters, that was their strength. Adare’s long sword, even with his shorter reach, was made for fighting in the fields. It had been one he had been trained in.
He didn’t want to have to kill these men, but in no way would he allow them to take the escaping Lena.
“Stand down,” Adare called out to them as he felled the first man. The two barbarians refused, if by pride or over-confidence. Adare nodded his head and went to war against their blades. This was not a fight where five moves would simply take out these men. They were strong, they were well skilled, and one false step would cost Adare his life. But he had something more important to fight for.
As the three men fell he trudged over to the fallen barbarian still grasping at his chest and gasping for air. Lena had struck him deeper than she probably knew, puncturing his lung in one quick swipe. Her fear alone had her working deeper and quicker than she ever had in practice.
“Why are you attacking us?” Adare asked of the dying man.
“We’d like to know the same thing,” the man gasped.
“I couldn’t let you kill her.” It was not in answer to the barbarian’s question. The barbarian knew it, but it was all Adare had to offer. The man made no sense to Adare. They had never attacked the barbarians. It was a dying man spouting nonsense.
“There is no way to save you,” Adare said. “Even if I had the best medical equipment, she punctured your lung. You are living off of nothing more than your will right now.”
The barbarian nodded his head and leaned back agaisnt the grass. “You taught her well.”
Adare took his sword and moved it to the man’s throat. In one thrust he took the man out of this world and offered him to Libitina, Goddess of the Dead. Adare whispered a small prayer for all four of them before he sheathed his sword and began charging in the direction that Lena went.
If he had taught her anything she would be zig-zagging through the field. She would find cover, stopping to see who was following and in what direction before she moved again. It wouldn’t be a speedy process, but she had certainly had enough time that it would be tough to find her.
Tough, at least, if he had not been the one who had trained her since she was under his care. Before he had ever been knighted.
It took longer than he expected, but he found her, standing again behind a tree, watching him come. He didn’t know when she realized it was him coming for her, but he suspected it had been longer than just this last tree. He crossed his arms against his chest, though inside he might have been smiling. She was in good enough spirits if she thought she could play games.
“I am assuming we are no longer going in that direction?” she asked, stepping from around the tree and playing with the brown borrowed skirt.
Adare looked her over and said, “We have to. We are sticking to the plan. We are just taking the longer way in that direction.”
Lena nodded and said, “I miss the horses.”
“They would have been too obvious.”
Adare would concede that. They might have beaten the barbarians completely if they had used the horses, but at the same time, since two had been ahead of them, waiting, they might have been caught and attacked sooner. It was harder to be watchful from a horse.
“Forgive me?” he asked.
Lena looked over his bloodied clothes and took a deep breath. She allowed herself one moment to mourn death, as she mourned all death, and then she nodded her head. “Can we find something to eat soon? I’m starving.”
“That’s a good princess,” Adare chided.
She smirked and followed where he led.
“Are you going to miss the dresses?” Oralee asked, her tiny hands gripping onto the fabric and pulling with a strength that showed her desperation.
Alana, weaving the dresses together, tying them tightly from end to end, and looking out the window at the same time, said simply, “I’d miss my life more.”
Alana looked around the window at the barbarians placed along the high windows. She had opened the window of her bedroom on the first hour and had an arrow impaled into the wood as a reminder she was a captive in her own home. When this was finished she would simply have to wait for the archer’s attention to turn elsewhere.
Alana was mostly positive this chance of escape was going to result in her death or Oralee’s death. She was willing to risk it. She would rather die trying to escape and save the kingdom than die by starvation locked in her room. Or worse.
She hated to think of worse.
Her eyes glanced to Oralee, who resembled her father’s side of the genetics more than she or Lena had. Oralee was slender but short of stature, her face more angular, her hair straighter. It did not take away from the beauty. Alana hoped she survived long enough to realize how beautiful she was.
Alana’s attention was caught and her head jerked up. She quickly moved from the window and started shoving fabric beneath her bed. Oralee followed suit, scooting across the floor and quickly hiding the ragged fabric. Oralee moved to sit on the bed and Alana hurriedly took her place back at the window, not wanting the archer squealing that she had hurried to change positions. She did not know how much the archer could see, or was reporting, from him unknown space, but as long as she was allowed to continued the weaving she would do just that.
The door of the bedroom opened and the leader along with two of his large companions came into the room, filling it easily with their size. They could easily make a room feel large or small with just their presence and mood, and this time it felt positively claustrophobic.
The leader, Wyborn, pointed to Oralee and said, “Bring her.”
“No!” Alana screamed and shoved away from the window. She threw herself in front of her sister and flung her arms out as Halvor and Hamar made to take away the girl. “Do you really need three large men to take a small girl?”
“Small girl?” Wyborn asked, glancing at Oralee cowering on the bed behind Alana. “Did she not just come of age? Was that not what that whole tournament was about? I think I will be safe and use the three large men to take her away.”
“You won’t,” Alana said, holding her head higher.
“Stop it, Oralee,” Alana said. “You don’t need her. If you want something, you come at me.”
Wyborn blinked and stared at her before it dawned on him what the princess was thinking. He cleared his throat and said, “Don’t be a daft child. We have no interest in you ladies. We just want answers. Answers come better when you are separate. Now move aside or I will make my way past you on my own.”
Alana stood her ground. She kept her arms out and kept her stare on Wyborn. “I will not.”
“Have it your way.” Wyborn moved to her and was in her face before she could blink. He smiled a bestial grin and said, “Boo,” before grabbing her arms and turning her body. Her back was pulled up against his chest and he let a free hand travel her side while his other gripped her wrists and held her firmly in place. “Though maybe you had the right idea.”
Alana’s foot came up and struck him in the shin. He knew it was coming and braced himself. He laughed, though he felt the sting, and threw her down on the bed beside her sister. “You have my word that your sister will not be ravaged and murdered while she is out of your sight.”
Alana spat at him, trying to drag Oralee close to her while Hamar gripped her and pulled her away, dragging her from the bed. “How can I trust your word? You’ve left us locked in here with nothing for two days. We could have died just from sitting here.”
“And you will be fed in short time,” Wyborn said. Another promise. “Now kindly remove your claws from your sister before you do her more damage than we would ever do.”
Alana debated, holding her sister’s arm while Hamar was pulling her from the other side. Unable to stand seeing the grimace of pain on Oralee’s face Alana released her. She straightened her back and looked to Wyborn. “I’m holding you to your promise, but I promise you if any harm comes to her I will find a way to destroy you if it is the last thing I do.”
“I believe you will try,” Wyborn said and stepped away from the princess. “But try is about all you have going for you.” Wyborn, Hamar, and Halvor left the room with little Oralee between them.
They led Oralee through the hallway, which had been cleared of bodies and people, and down to the dining area. Oralee quietly took in her surroundings and tried to hold back screams of sorrow and rage. She knew where blood had been spilled and she knew where someone had likely died. The barbarians might have removed the bodies, but they had not removed the evidence of the deaths that surrounded the spots.
In the dining area sat a veritable feast. Much of the meat and delicacies had been made and laid out, the aroma of food catching Oralee’s nose and making her empty stomach rumble in pain. Halvor forcd her down into a chair and Oralee felt it grow harder and harder to show any restraint. She wanted to reach out and tear into a drumstick off of the bird in front of her, to feed her face until she was sick and then possibly do it again.
“Give the girl some water,” Wyborn suggested.
Oralee happily and greedily took the cup she was offered and drank the water. She was surprised at the feeling it gave her, filling her enough she was no longer sick with the need for food, though she couldn’t deny the hungry rumble still happening.
“Would you like to eat, princess?” Wyborn asked. Oralee could only nod, it was hard to deny what was obviously being heard from all of them. “Then you need to tell me what you know.”
“What I know?” Oralee asked, dumbfounded.
“This is stupid,” Halvor remarked. “There is no way this little girl knows anything.”
Oralee sat up straight and crossed her arms in a huff. “Excuse me, but I’m an adult now.”
“Yes, but an adult for how long? Two days?” Halvor offered. “You have no need to pretend that on your birthday you were suddenly alighted to all of the ways of adults.”
Oralee was embarrassed to admit, even to herself, that she did not know what the word “alighted” meant. She sat prettily and just tried to make sense of the sentence and simply said, “You have not actually asked me what it is you want to know.”
Wyborn pulled up a chair beside her, leaning in to gaze into her face. He saw a child there, a child playing at the facade of a grown woman. That was the way of the world, though. He needed answers, and she and her sister might be the only ones who could give the to him.
“Why do we need answers?” Saldis had tried to argue when she had Wyborn alone. “What good will it do now? You’ve succeeded in killing the king and queen. We’ve taken out their rules.”
“There are more rulers to a kingdom than a king and queen,” Wyborn had told her. “You have the nobles who work with them, manipulating them. You have the religious figures they turn to. The reason we need to know why exactly we were attacked is because we do not know how far their plan goes and to whom.”
“You aren’t getting answers from those two.”
Saldis might very well be right, but at this point he didn’t know who else to find answers from. There were knights in the dungeons who were raising a stink and trying their hardest to escape, but Wyborn did not know which ones he could trust. He only knew the knights who had promised him easy entry into the castle, and they seemed unaware of exactly why the barbarians had been attacked. They only promised that it would be easy to take out the king, and it had been.
Wyborn knew he was set up for a trap, he just did not understand where the trap was coming from. In his rush for revenge he had accepted the bait.
Wyborn caught Oralee eyeing the food as she tried to remain haughty. Her hunger was winning against her. She was used to being pampered and she was a tad spoiled. Wyborn thought it would work.
“Tell me about your father’s war plans,” Wyborn said, cutting into a brick of cheese. He sliced into it with ease, taking a small chunk between his fingers. Oralee watched it and licked her lips as he stuck the chunk in his mouth and slowly chewed on it.
“There were no war plans,” Oralee said, her back stiffening. For a moment the need for a bite of food was forgotten and all she could think of was the insult to her father. “You are mistaking. Why-ever you are here, you are mistaking. My father may not have been perfect, but he would not have thrown his country into war. You are monsters for attacking us.” Now the girl was remembering that she had not seen her parents, that she was unaware of where they had disappeared to, or if they were even alive. Tears began to burn her eyes.
Hamar had been expecting the reaction and he reached forward and took the next chunk of cheese from Wyborn’s fingers and handed it to Oralee. She took it gratefully, having seen Wyborn eat it, knowing it was not poisoned, and placing it to her lips, savoring the taste as if it was a delicacy and not just a simple block of cheese.
“Your father was not the good man you thought he was,” Hamar said, plucking fruits from the table and filling a plate slowly.
The past tense was not lost on Oralee. She swalled that bite of cheese as if it had molded over and gone rotten in her mouth as she was chewing. Silence filled the room, Oralee’s heartbeat the loudest sound. Hamar realized where he had gone wrong and turned away to grimace.
Oralee’s voice was quiet and slow, “I want to see my parents.”
“I’m sorry, Princess, that is not possible,” Wyborn said.
Oralee knocked the heavy chair back as she stood, ready to run. The men would move faster than her if it was needed, but for now they allowed the the movement to back away from them. “No. I want to see them.”
“You already know that is not possible,” Wyborn told her sitting back in his chair. He did not want to move too quickly and scare her. If they did not have to chase her it would be better. For her. They were determined to pull their answers from her one way or the other. If she knew anything. Wyborn highly suspected she did not, but there was a reason he grabbed the youngest before he grabbed the oldest.
Oralee’s eyes were running with tears but she impressed the men by not breaking into a sobbing ball of misery. She simply stood there, allowing the tears to fall, not wiping them away, but not hiding her pain. “Their bodies have to be somewhere.”
“They are,” Wyborn said, “but their bodies are in a mass with all of the other bodies. They were taken down in fight, they were shown no more respect than anyone else who died, and no less.”
“Wyborn, was that necessary?” Halvor growled as Oralee let out her first sobs. She began to shudder and fall to her knees before them. Hamar was the first to reach her, gripping her arms and keeping her from laying out on the floor. He moved her back to her chair and placed her down. She sat, wrapping her arms around her face and leaning against the table to keep her keening quiet.
“This is reality,” Wyborn snapped.
“Those were her parents,” Halvor snapped, reminding Wyborn of his own father’s death. Wyborn shrugged it off. He did not cry like a child when his father died, and he had been younger than this girl when it had happened. His father had been bitten and poisoned by a snake in the swamps surrounding the temple where the priestess stayed hidden. She refused to treat his father’s wound and he had died, protecting Wyborn from the very snake.
“Your husband or your son,” Zarya had said to Wyborn’s mother.
His mother had looked back and forth. She had seen her husband dying in an immense amount of pain, screaming out as the poison worked through his veins. She glanced to her son, who stood strong, holding his head up, giving every indication of strength and a full life ahead of him.
“Leave my son alone,” his mother had said, wrapping her hands around Wyborn’s shoulders.
“Very well,” Zarya said. She shrugged her shoulders and stood, a sensual being in a diaphanous gown of red and gold. She walked to Wyborn’s father and simply drover her dagger through his heart. He let out one last gasping breath before dying.
“What are you doing?” his mother had screamed.
“Taking him out of his misery. It was going to be hours before he would die. Now, I am assuming you came here about your boy…”
“Princess,” Wyborn said, taking the plate of fruits from Hamar and placing them next to her head, “eat something. You are dehydrated and exhausted. Your parents are gone, but you still have a sister to think of. Two, actually, since your other sister is out there somewhere.”
Only turning her head enough so her voice was not muffled by her arms she ased, “Aren’t you going to tease me with food until I answer questions?”
Clever girl. “No,” Wyborn said. “I want you to eat. I want you to feel good. But remember that every moment you waste my time down here is another moment your sister is not eating. It’s another moment Alana starves.”
Oralee reached out and plucked a grape off of the vine. She moved it to her mouth, but it went into her sleeve, not into her mouth. Hamar caught it, but Wyborn and Halvor missed it. Instead of saying something he simply sat back, watching her carefully. She was more clever than she was pretending to be.
“You are asking me about something I don’t know the answer to,” Oralee explained. Straightening her back in the chair she reached for another grape. This grape she did slip into her mouth, and just like before she chewed slowly, and there was no difference in her chewing. If Hamar had not seen her slip the grape in her sleeve he never would have been able to tell that she had been faking the entire thing.
“I feel you are mistaken, though,” Oralee continued. “My father would not have started a war. His council would have known.”
“And how do you know the council didn’t know?” Wyborn asked.
Oralee’s eyes shifted, then she reached out for the grapes again. She took a handful and Hamar watched as several more disappeared into her sleeve. Her other hand was hidden from view and he had a feeling she was guiding these grapes to a pocket hidden in the dress.
Wyborn yanked the grapes from her hand, throwing them across the room. Oralee did not lose her calm, she simply leaned back and waited for Wyborn’s tantrum to continue, but he halted. He watched the exterior of this girl, one that had changed drastically several times since she had been brought downstairs, and he realized she was playing a game with him as much as he wanted to play a game with her. There was innocence there, that she could not fake, but she was not as naïve as she pretended to be. Pretended to be so much that those in the castle believed she was nothing more than a pretty face, and a weak link. Go after her and th others would fall.
“I asked you a question,” Wyborn said, gaining some semblance of his calm again instead of growling at the girl.
Oralee leaned back and said, “The council didn’t know, isn’t that enough?”
“No,” Wyborn said, “because it makes it seem like you do know something that you shouldn’t know.”
Oralee chewed her lip, deliberating, and for once Wyborn knew better than to push. He simply pushed the plate of fruits back forward and slowly stood. He moved away from the table and over to Halvor and the two stood facing away from Oralee. Hamar busied himself with cheeses and meats, which Oralee watched the entire time.
Hamar held up a plate for himself and sat back. “I might as well enjoy it while we’re here,” he said. “We don’t eat like this at home.”
“What do you eat, then?” Oralee asked.
“We might eat the same meats, but they aren’t seasoned as well. We are a community that tends to cook things together. A few women cook it all and we all eat at a mutual table.”
“We do the same here, and we have seasoning,” Oralee sniffed.
“Do the women who cook your food share your table?”
Oralee grimaced. “That’s an unfair comparison. Besides, you were talking about seasoning, not the degragration–”
Oralee flushed. “Right. Degredation of people. They are maids, they are hired to cook for us. They are paid for it. But they go home at the end of the day and can cook how they want.”
“And do you think after a day of cooking meals for you and your family they want to go home and cook with the same flare, or will they just throw things in a pot and call it a meal? That is what I am saying. Our women work all day and then just want to make sure we all eat. I am not insulting your ways in any way, just telling you I enjoy the seasoning. Sometimes it would be nice to do things more in your way, where a woman doesn’t go hunting with the men, or fight in the armies, or have to work the same hours in a field. Where she can take care of her family first.”
Oralee picked at her food. The conversation was making her uncomfortable. Hamar saw the compassion in her eyes and the grimace on her face answered his question. She did not know of a plot against them. Whatever she was keeping from them it was not an answer to a plot.
“Lena knew things,” Oralee whispered. “She always knew what the council knew. She and Alana took turns listening in when they weren’t invited, though Alana was often invited. But Lena actually talked to me about it. If something like that had been discussed Lena would never have been able to keep quiet about it. Not from me.”
“Unless she was protecting you.”
Oralee’s head jerked when Wyborn’s voice interrupted. She looked back at the leader and again she went cold. Wyborn returned to his seat and said, “She was your older sister, and the other one seems protective of you. Would Lena not be the same way?”
“No,” Oralee said. “She and Adare were open about what they knew with me. They always said… what if…”
“Don’t start crying again.”
Oralee sniffed and had her emotions back in control. Running her hand over the fruits and picking at a round and red succulent morsel she said, “Lena is not the protective type. Alana is. Alana would not have told me.”
“Could Alana not have told Lena?” Wyborn suggested.
It was enough for Wyborn. He had known all along that this girl wouldn’t have the answers he wanted about why the attack had happened, but it was enough to know that Alana was his best chance. The heir to the throne was the likely one to have the answers, and meanwhile he was able to drive her crazy by “torturing” her sister.
“Come on, Princess, let’s bring you back to your sister.” Wyborn stood and allowed her to stand on her own. No one touched her, they only crowded her and lead her through the halls. Upon opening the door the princess that greeted him was a completely different version than the one he had seen before.
This one had wisened up.
He barely dodged the blade of the arrow. She swung it at him and screamed out a feral cry he never would have expected from the pretty little figure. She was too slow and he easily yanked it from her hands, but for a moment she was nearly able to take him down. If her aim had been better he would have been bleeding at the very least.
Wyborn grabbed her wrist and dragged her back into the room, Oralee following behind begging him not to hurt her sister. They were completely different princesses around one another. Alana, seeing her sister, calmed and wrapped her arms around her. The two cuddled back together on the edge of the bed, shooting daggers from their eyes in their glares.
“Where did you get an arrow any–” Wyborn looked to the window and noticed the notch of arrows at the wood. He cursed and turnd to Halvor. “Remove those. Tell the archer to stop giving her warnings. If he sees her head stick out of there again, he’s to shoot her.”
Halvor did not question Wyborn’s orders. He only nodded and moved across the room. As the largest and strongest he was able to remove the arrows cleanly. Wyborn stormed from the room with Halvor and Hamar behind him.
“The young princess stole fruit and secreted it away in her dress,” Hamar said.
“What? That doesn’t help my plans any,” Wyborn sneered, his ire growing. “Why would you allow that?”
“Because it gives you more time to look as if you are trying to starve the princess out while you know that she will not be starving.”
Wyborn rocked back and then smiled. “I like it.”
“Did you really want me to tell the archer to shoot her?” Halvor asked uncomfortably.
Wyborn snored and shook his head. “No. But can we not leave arrows there for her to use as weapons? We’ll figure something else out.”
“Lena, this is Adare Boyce.”
An eight year old Lena, with eyes too big for her face and hair in dark wild curls too unruly to manage, glanced up at the teenaged Adare, who was soft in facial features and stoic. His eyes and face remained completely unmoving as he was introduced to the small princess.
“A pleasure to meet you, Sir Boyce,” Lena said, holding out her skirt and curtseying like a proper princess, her voice the only thing tame about her. “We welcome you humbly to our home.”
Rayne stood over them both, though Adare would soon catch up and pass her in height. She smiled and said, “He’s a good man but needs to be taught something in patience. He is too hurried yet to finish any training as a knight. For now he is to be your companion.”
Lena made a face that was quick before she perfected it. She did not want a companion like him. She was fascinated by boys, but he was nearly a man and had such cold features. Why would she wanted to spend her time with him? He would likely talk about boring things such as swords and fighting. She had little interest in either and wanted to go back and lose herself among the flowers.
Adare only nodded his head and allowed Rayne to leave the two of them alone in the gardens. Neither knew what to say or do. Lena turned from him and walked down into the heart of the gardens. More curious about the child than wanting to spend time with her, Adare followed her to the heart of things.
In the center she plucked a peculiar violet flower and Adare’s heart raced. He watched her placed it in her hair and say, “I will keep this, and if you ever get out of line I will force it down your throat and make you eat it.”
“You’d kill me so easily?” he asked.
It was a test. Lena had wanted to know if he knew what it was. She turned her head to the side and she offered a kind smile. “I think for now, though, w can be friends.”
Adare felt oddly comforted by the words. He sat down on one of the benches and said, “What do you know of that flower?” He pointed to a scraggly red thing that looked as if it was falling in on itself with the weight.
Lena pouted and said, “I can’t find anything on that flower.” She looked ashamed at her lack of knowledge after coming off haughty and smart only moments before.
Instead of Adare growing bored with her already he said, “I will teach you about that flower if you take the flower out of your hair.”
Lena gently took the flower out of her hair and placed it on the ground before kicking dirt over it and burying it. Adare raised an eyebrow and she tried to look casual with her, “I don’t want an animal to eat it.”
Lena curled up on the bench next to Adare and allowed him to talk to her about a flower. She couldn’t remember when conversations did change from flowers to sword fighting to politics to cultures, but over the years Lena and Adare spoke of everything. There is only one thing he had never said to her.
Lena shifted in the blackness and cleared her throat, her only indication to him that she was awake and listening.
“Are you all right? You were talking in your sleep.”
“What did I say?” Lena asked in a panic, reaching for her heart and feeling it begin to pound in fear.
“Nothing I understood,” Adare assured her. She wished she could see his face, though she was sure it would not offer her much understanding. His face rarely changed from his stoic expression, how could she think seeing him now would let her know if he lied?
Because that was not the reason she wanted to see his face.
“It shouldn’t be too much–”
“–further, I know,” Lena said. “You’ve been saying that for a day now. What if we took a wrong turn somewhere?”
“There are no wrong turns,” Adare assured her. He reached into the darkness and gripped her hand, pulling her to her feet. “I know you are tired and hungry, but we are almost there. We need to get out of here, sooner rather than later.”
Lena followed where Adare led, his hand never leaving hers. “Because we are running out of air, or because I dehydrated myself too much when I cried for my family who very well could be dead now? Because there are creatures in here waiting for us in this darkness so they can nibble on us while we sleep? What reason, Adare?”
“Because I am growing weary of the blackness, your highness,” he said.
Lena respected that answer. She was often afraid when they stopped for a few minutes they would somehow turn themselves around and start heading back towards the castle again. She at one point had panicked, mildly, over the fear the had just been walking back and forth between the same path for the entire day, not actually making any progress. Adare had calmed her down by simply lifting her again in his arms and said, “Then I will carry you through the circles so you will be less weary.”
They walked in silence, though neither released the hand of the other. It felt like days to Lena, though Adare assured her it was only hours. It did not change her exhaustion. She followed him, anxious for relief from the blackness. When they finally came upon a barrier Lena almost gasped with relief. They dropped hands and began to push. Then they pulled. Then they pushed.
Lena opened her mouth to scream before she hesitated and clamped her mouth shut. She only let out one shuddering sob and slid down to her knees. She knew not to make too much noise. They never knew what would be on the other side.
Adare shifted his stance and instead of pushing forward reached to the low hanging roof over them. He pushed his hands against it and both watched with fascination as small cracks of light came through with every push. Lena stood again, forgetting her momentary sobbing, and helped Adare push. She may not have been as strong as him, but she was willing to give her all to escape the blackness of the passage.
“There’s something on top of it,” Adare said.
“No, no, no, no,” Lena huffed. She pushed at it again, slapping the wood over her head. “Let me out of here!” Her voice was raising in near hysteria. Adare grabbed her and placed a hand over her mouth, hearing the scraping that was coming from the wood over their heads.
Adare pushed Lena back, drawing his sword in the small space, ready to attack whatever came at them. The people on the other side were just as ready with pitchforks and red hot branders pointing down as soon as the cover was flipped back. The four people on the other side would never have survived Adare’s attack, but he held back and lowered his sword. These were not warriors, these were common people of Chatham.
“Sir Boyce?” one of the men asked. He lowered the branding iron and looked down into the pit. “What are you doing beneath the floorboards of my house?”
“Escaping,” Adare said honestly. “How far out are we?”
“Not far enough,” the man said. He reached his hand down and helped Adare out of the hole before Lena stepped forward. The men looked down and quickly bowed their heads, one simply falling to his knees. “Your highness.”
“Please help me out of here,” Lena said, never betraying her panic. The men reached down and pulled her free and she dusted herself off as prettily as she could. She knew she had to look a fright, but she would not go racing towards a mirror first thing.
“Your highness,” one of the men said, “knowing you are safe helps my heart. We already have a group lead by Harding and Fergal planning on attacking the castle.”
“Do not,” Lena said hurriedly. She cleared her throat at their looks of surprise. “Do not attack the castle. They are well armed and have strong warriors. Hold back, but gather as many of your men as you can who will attack.”
“Seeing you would sure help things, your highness,” another man suggested.
“She can not,” Adare said, stepping forward. “You four will have to be the word that she is alive. I need to get her as far away from Chatham as possible right now. We will go to Ackerlea, my family will take care of her. From there we can send word at what the next step is, but until I have her secreted away she is a liability. They will be searching for her and if she stays and word gets around to them then our leader is destroyed. We will rise up, but it will not be until we have time.”
“What about your family?” another man asked.
“Why Ackerlea? There is hardly a fortress for her to hide behind.”
“I have horses to help you travel faster.”
Adare held on to that last line. He turned to the man and said, “How fast can you get me the horses?”
“I will run now, I should be back by nightfall.”
Adare nodded his head. “That is perfect. We will travel in the dark, it will give us the advantage. Do you have a bath here in your shop where her highness may clean up before we travel?”
“I do,” the man who seemed to be the owner of the place said. “I also have a few of my wife’s clothes that might fit her, if she wants to change from a royal gown.”
“Perfect,” Adare said. “Your highness, let us follow this man. Any questions the rest of you have I will answer while she is away.”
Lena followed, knowing Adare had just lied to these men, many times.
Neither had said the words to one another, but Lena and Adare both knew they had been betrayed. By who, they were not sure of, but until they had any answers only the two of them would know where they were going. Her eyes filled with tears that would not fall. He might have just condemned his family to protect her.
Dawn broke over the horizon and left the warriors awashed in sunlight in the breakfast room of the castle. They had destroyed most of the doors on the castle, and the doors that were not destroyed were holding people behind them. Like the closet door in the kitchen where three maids who had been found huddling together in fear had been shoved to keep them out of the way.
Halvor had kept them from screaming by threatening to gag them and tie them down. They agreed that simply huddling in the closet as opposed to under a table was better and had kept their mouths shut.
Wyborn lounged back, his feet on the table, a mug of ale in his hands. He had no problem stealing come of their supplies before they left. He drank from the mug and grimaced before looking down at it. “What weak water this is,” he commented. “Much like everyone else in this kingdom.”
Three cheers from the warriors surrounding him, a select group of his finest. At least he called them his finest when in fact they were nothing more than the bedraggled group of friends he had grown up with. They were tough, the lot of them, but they were still no more than fresh faced adults, just having come of age the majority of them.
“This was too easy,” Halvor groaned again. It was not the first time he had bemoaned how easy it was.
“Were you hoping for more of a fight?” Saldis asked, leaning her elbows on the table and gazing over at him with a calculation that he hated seeing.
“I was hoping we would know why it was so easy,” Halvor continued. “After a night of sleep you do plan on us heading back, correct?”
“Of course not,” Wyborn said. “I have warriors out there searching for a lost princess. We can’t just abandon our post and leave them to return with her, tied up in a bow, and then have him be captured. Besides, can we simply leave after this?”
“What do you mean?” Trigg asked. Trigg was identical to his sister, Tove, in nearly every way. They were both slender of build, of face, of structure, and he kept his hair close cropped to his head to differentiate himself while she kept her hair long and pulled back in a ponytail to keep some feminine attributes.
“They will simply retaliate.”
“Way to think of that now,” grumbled Hamar.
“I thought of it,” Wyborn said. “It means we have to stay longer. They will rebel against us. Those who were not at the castle last night and those who are further out in the territory will try to fight against us, but we’ll be prepared for it.”
“You make it sound like you plan on staying,” Saldis commented. Her voice was casual, but her jaw was tense.
“Why not expand our territory?” Wyborn asked with a shrug of his large shoulders. “Too long to them we have been nothing but barbarians. It was time for Chatham to fall. We have the rights to being the kingdom of Schachar. We have the priestess, we have the religious rights, why are we not the ones in power? Why is it that Kendrick and his family are the ones marrying a daughter off to the ruler of the country?”
“This was your plan?” Saldis screamed. Her façade of cool and calm was broken and she was tilting her chair as she stood and slammed both fists against the wood of the table. “Your plan was to take over the kingdom and become, what? A king? A chieftain is not good enough for you? You were voted in, over Vili who was ahead of you for every possible reason, and you are saying we are not good enough.”
“I’m saying nothing of the sort,” Wyborn said, not losing his temper as she did. “I am saying I want our country, our people, to be more powerful. I still believe in our system, I just think we could have more to rule if we had someone here.”
“This is daft,” Halvor huffed. “We don’t have the resources to take over the kingdom, much less house someone here all of the time to rule it. We’d need two chieftains, working together, and you can barely work together with the elders and council.”
“Wyborn has a point,” Hamar stated, ever the voice of reason. He remained calm as everyone’s voice rose and remained silent until they all understood and fell silent as well. “We all agreed to this retaliatory attack. What was the point of it all? We knew that this would become a back and forth revenge plot if we did this. What were the rest of you thinking would happen? We would go home and this would all be over?”
“No, they are going to attack,” Saldis sneered. “First they will try to take back their castle, and when that fails, they will go after our homes.”
“And we have a well trained army back home,” Wyborn brushed off. “They will protect home while we takeover here.”
“It’s not that simple!” Saldis screeched. “You can’t just takeover a kingdom because you wanted to on a whim.”
“This is no whim.”
“Really? Because I heard nothing about it until now. If we are staying, then you should kill the princesses now. You don’t want to leave any connection to the throne.”
“Why does this have to be that hostile?” Wyborn asked. “Besides, a connection to the castle might prove an easier takeover.”
Saldis’ mouth dropped and her ire rose. “You had better not be thinking what I think is going through your mind right now, or so help me, Wyborn, I’m leaving. Right now. Tell me.”
Wyborn simply shrugged his shoulders and was answered for by Hamar. “He’s looking at reason before making a rash decision. The smoother, the more peaceful, you can make this the more of a chance of having less of a fight. There will be a skirmish or two, but even with the princesses simply relinquishing-“
“Since when do high born nobles ever simply relinquish? They can’t get along amongst themselves, why would they want to hand over a kingdom to us? They look at us as if we are savages and not someone on equal grounds, simply because we, what, don’t believe that baubles are worth as much and that religion is more important than duty? That strength of mind is a better attribute than a bloodline?”
“Don’t you see?” Wyborn asked. “That is just it. The nobles can not even get along, if we can win over a few children that are now the heirs to the throne we have made some headway.”
“Can you please make some sense of this?” Saldis demanded.
“Wyborn, we are with you no matter what you decide,” Halvor said calmly, “but you do realize you have no middle ground. If we leave, we prepare for them to retaliate, though it could take years. You’ve left them unprepared for an attack and with children as their leaders. Though there is likely a council to guide them, and a higher king that stands behind one of those children. Though by killing the contract holder you might have destroyed any chance they had of marrying a daughter to that man. They may have lost all defense.
“On the other hand, if you want to claim this kingdom as your own, you are leaving yourself weakened by having the heirs left alive. There are too many stories of banishment where they return and destroy everyone because they are able to gather a stronger rebellion, even if it is decades from now.”
“To that regards,” Hamar said thoughtfully, “we could very well have it take decades before a true attack comes at us from this side. Wars do not always take place within a timely matter as we would prefer.”
“We are not barbarians,” Tove said, speaking up for the first time. “We did not come here to mercilessly kill. We already killed the queen and she had nothing to do with the king’s decision to attack us.”
“Because a dying man told us that?” her brother scoffed. “How can you trust his words. He wanted to save his queen, nothing more.”
“Do you believe the princesses have something on this plot?” Tove asked.
“There are innocent lives lost every day,” Saldis shrugged it off. “Three princesses gone is hardly worth the complaining.”
“It might be worth it if it means more men are lost on our end for it,” Tove whispered. “We might only scare them into planning it out better.”
“There are many what-if scenarios,” Wyborn took control again. “It is why I do not want to make a rash decision.”
Saldis finally threw herself back into her chair, crossing her arms over her chest and planting her feet firmly on the floor, ready to rise again at any moment. “The whole decision to come here was rash. You went from leader to war-maker in a matter of days. You are chieftain, and sometimes decisions must be immediate, especially if you are making them with only your own council to go by. The elders didn’t agree and stayed behind, the council didn’t agree and stayed behind, yet you did this anyway. You made a decision, without thinking it through, and it was the right one.”
Wyborn fingered the piece of metal on the chord hanging from his neck. “I will make a quick decision, but it will not be immediate. A day to think is not a bad thing after a night of battle.”
A throat cleared and everyone looked to Vili in the corner, the dark figure who had stayed silent throughout the debating. “What not one of you has stopped to consider is that we might, if anything, be able to get answers from one of the princesses. And, instead of killing them, or banishing them, we can simply send them back to our home as trophies.”
Saldis let out a growl that had some of the men chuckling. Wyborn did the right thing and kept a straight face before drinking the watered-down alcohol and putting the mug down. “I need sleep. I’ll think more about it when I get sleep. Until then no one is to make a decision about the fate of the princesses. Saldis.” It was a clear warning to her. It was not recognition of her feisty temper. She was being ordered. It was not often Wyborn took his path as leader seriously enough to bring it down on Saldis, and he had been leader of this bunch longer than he had been leader of a nation. Saldis bowed her head in submission and allowed her chieftain to walk away from her.
Confusion broke out through the castle, which only made the ensuing attack that much worse. No one was prepared for the onslaught. The best army in all of Schachar was being bested, and quickly, out of the simple fact that they were not prepared.
As with any battle, no one expects they were betrayed by one of their own.
“I see it.” Rayne was standing at her window gazing out upon the gardens that were already burning. All of the care and love she had given those flowers over the year, all of the days she had spent in there, watching her daughters grow amongst brightly placed flowers, it was all gone in a flash. Her daughters had blossomed with those flowers and it meant little now. All that mattered was saving the lives of her daughters.
Selwyn joined her by the window. Both were surprisingly calm as the invaders came over the gates and through the holes that were broken through brick. Every weak spot in the aging castle had been found and they were taking down the gates surrounding it with ease. There was no stopping the onslaught, only minimizing the damage.
And saving her daughters.
Rayne’s biggest fear was that she would not be able to save them all. She glanced at Selwyn and said, “You know what to do. I will go to Alana’s room.”
Selwyn gave a short nod, his heart aching for her decision. He moved from the room and turned the corner. He passed the king’s room and went to the next door. Adare was already standing in the doorway.
“She’s getting dressed,” he assured Selwyn. “She won’t be a m–”
“I’m here,” Lena said, appearing in the doorway. “What’s happening?”
“To the spare bedroom,” Selwyn ordered.
Adare did not question the captain. He simply gripped Lena’s arm and began leading her down the hall. There were many spare bedrooms in the castle, but adare knew what Selwyn was demanding. Lena looked confused, but like the docile princess she was she followed the orders of those who knew more than her.
Down the hall Rayne could hear the invaders coming up the stairs. She looked between her eldest and youngest daughter’s doors, one across from the other. For one moment she hesitated, not because she did not know who she was meant to retrieve first, and who she would, but because she was saying a silent goodbye to the one if she had no time.
Rayne turned to Alana’s door and pushed it open. Maynard had his sword to Rayne’s throat in a moment. He had been prepared. He lowered it as soon as he realized it was the queen and he bowed his head. “Apologies, your majesty.”
“It is fine,” she said. “To the spare room.”
Maynard nodded and gripped Alana’s arm. Rayne followed them out of the room but as she suspected time was already running short. Kinsey was in the hallway with Edric, the royal sword. He was ready to fight the warriors coming up the stairs and invading the hallway, but when he saw Rayne with Alana and Maynard and without Selwyn he realized what she was doing.
“Alana, back in your room!” Maynard cried, realizing it was too late at the first sight of the blond heads filling the hallway.
“Barbarians,” Alana had time to hiss before she was pushed into her room.
“Your majesty,” Maynard said, glancing back at her, “go into the room with Alana.”
“I can not,” she whispered and fled towards Oralee’s door. Oralee would be alone. Ethen had not taken up his duties yet. She was probably alone and scared and Rayne would not leave her youngest daughter to fend for herself.
Kinsey stopped her, grabbing her shoulder. “Where is Selwyn?”
“We don’t have time for this!” Rayne cried, the few knights in the hallways keeping the warriors at bay, but the quarters were cramped and even small injuries could prove detrimental.
The warriors broke through, men painted in red, but it was not an insurmountable amount of blood, it was the face paint of their people. They were backward, often referred to as barbarians by those in the kingdom, but they were strong and swift. The one in the lead grabbed a hold of Rayne’s arm and forced her to the floor. She screeched out in pain while he towered over her, raising his sword.
Kinsey stood, simply watching his wife get taken down. Then, like a true coward, he turned to run. Kinsey was headed off by warriors coming up the other set of stairs, closing in on the hallway. The knights had barely recovered from the drunken revelry they would have had that evening in celebration of defeat in the tournament. Even with fewer numbers the warriors had a better chance.
“Some king,” the man above Rayne hissed. He bent down and gazed at her for a moment and said, “Don’t worry, I have no need of shedding your blood. Stay down.”
The warrior stood and Rayne rolled out of his way. A woman followed him, tall in stature with hair that was shaved close to her head. She carried a staff and looked down at Rayne with a look of pure hatred. She kept moving, leaving Rayne to lay on her side. As long as they were more distracted by her laying there they would pass Alana and Oralee’s doors
Down the hall Selwyn and Adare were dragging Lena into a doorway that was hidden in the closet. Lena was fighting tooth and nail now, no longer the docile princess. “I won’t leave without them!”
“They will follow us shortly,” Adare told her. “There is just no reason for us to wait behind. We can open the door on the other side and be prepared for them.”
Lena stopped struggling, looking into Adare’s gray eyes. “Do you promise?”
Adare nodded his head. “I promise, your highness, that your sisters will not be far behind.”
Lena looked to Selwyn who had a cold face on, which was his usual look. She could read nothing from it. She turned to Adare and took his hand. He began running with her down the corridors that lead them under the castle and out to the other sides of the gate. It was a hidden passage that had not been used in their lifetime. It leaked and there were creatures that were unpleasant to find, but it would save their lives if they made it to the other side.
The rumbling that followed had Lena in a panic. She dug her heels into the floor beneath her and looked back. The light that had been offered was dying out. The doorway as closing.
“You lied to me!” Lena screeched. She turned to Adare and screamed at him at the top of her lungs. “You promised me they would be right behind! We can’t leave them!”
“I’m sorry, your highness,” Adare said, meaning every word. “It was the queen’s orders that you would be saved. If the castle is to be taken down, one must be there to take the throne.”
“That’s Alana!” Lena yelled, pounding on his chest with small fists. “I’m not supposed to take the throne.”
Adare reached for Lena’s body and pulled her up, throwing her unceremoniously over his shoulder. “I’m sorry, your highness.”
With Lena still screaming he took her down the passage, disappearing deeper into the darkness with her.
“What have you done?” Kinsey yelled as he stepped into the room, seeing the destroyed closet. Selwyn stood over it looking satisfied, a different look than his cold calculations.
“I saved the heir, you should be thanking me,” Selwyn said.
“You fool, we all could have lived.” Kinsey stepped further into the room, Edric raised and pointed at Selwyn’s neck. “You’ve condemened the rest of us.”
“Where’s your wife?” Selwyn asked calmly.
“She’s on her way.”
Selwyn knew a lie when he saw one. “Your majesty, you do not want to raise your sword to me. I will take you down. Where is Rayne?”
Warriors filled the hallway behind Kinsey and pushed through the door, finding the king, their true destination. They wrapped their arms around his limbs and dragged him down to his knees while Selwyn stood still, his sword still at his side, never having been drawn. The warriors looked to him and seemed to have no fight with someone with their weapon not drawn.
Oddly respectful of a race that they referred to as barbarians.
A big bulking man stepped through the door and glanced down at the king, a sneer on his face. “You took our leader from us. It’s only fair we leave your people without a leader as well.”
Selwyn blinked. “You must be mistaken,” the older knight said. “We have never-”
“I know when a war has been waged, old man,” the warrior spat.
Selwyn reached to his sword, his wrinkled fingers playing along the end. The warrior who seemed to be in charge gave him a look that clearly said he would regret pulling the sword. Selwyn felt that was true, if only because he was vastly outnumbered. No amount of sword skill would keep him alive cornered in this small room where the only opening had been taken out in order to save Lena and Adare.
The warrior, seeming satisfied that Selwyn needed the comfort of the sword opposed to the fight itself, glanced back down at the king who had submitted easily. “Not so strong yourself without others doing your dirty work. When all we wanted was a treaty you gave us death. Are you going to beg for your life or are you going to submit to death like a real man?”
“I will not beg, but you will not kill me.” Kinsey’s eyes fell to Selwyn, sure the knight would save his life.
Selwyn had no inclination to do so.
The warrior looked satisfied and raised his sword.
“Oralee!” the scream was clear enough through the commotion that all of those standing in the room turned to look out the door. Kinsey took this as an opportunity to pull free from his captors and reach for Edric. Ethen rushed into the room, driving his sword at the first of the warriors he saw. The group separated and divided and made the small room seem larger than it was. They were well oiled and worked together well, but they were not a match for Ethen and his rage. Ethen went at the warriors with blind rage, glancing through the room and taking three down to their knees.
“Ethen!” Selwyn cried, one of the warriors behind him. Ethen stopped swinging and the warrior slammed his fist into the man’s skull. Ethen fell to his knees and pulled his sword again. He rolled out of the way and to his feet, despite an obvious dizziness. He faced the warrior that was in charge, who sneered down at him.
“You were too ambitious.” He raised the sword and started to bring it down. Selwyn barely moved fast enough, taking the blow to his side instead of allowing Ethen to take it to his head.
Selwyn fell to his knees and said, “The princess, he only wants to protect his charge…”
The warrior stepped back and turned, finding the king charging down the hall, away from the warriors who clearly had the advantage. The man flipped blond hair over his shoulder with a roll of his eye and turned to a woman who stood in the hallway. “Tove, take him down.”
“Yes, sir,” she said. She pulled her bow up, an arrow already knotched, and released the arrow. The hallways, mostly empty, left a clear shot for her. The arrow found its mark and he went down.
“Seems an unfitting end to a king,” the warrior stated.
Down the hall Rayne, who had stayed pressed against the wall, watched her husband fall, an arrow sticking out of his skull. His eyes were glazing over, even as he searched around, wondering what happened. She held back a horrified scream while the warriors who kept knights down in the hallway seemed satisfied with the results. They leaned back on their heels and waited.
The lead warrior stepped out, dragging Ethen and Selwyn behind. He threw them both to the floor and laughed, “This seemed to be the best they had.”
“Selwyn!” Rayne could not keep her scream to herself this time. She rosed to her feet and found an arm to her throat, pinning her to the wall.
“Take her out,” the woman with the staff said. “Leave them without a king or queen. Leave the kingdom to their rotten daughters. It would be similar to how they left us that way.”
“The queen is no leader,” the man said.
The woman sneered and whispered for only his ears, “Do you want to look weak already?”
“I just brought a castle to its knees,” he snapped, pushing her back. “You can stop questioning my every move.” He stepped forward, leaving Selwyn to bleed and Ethen to stretch and try to lift. Ethen had fight left in him and two of the warriors were standing over him ready for him to make a mistake that would cost him his life.
The woman raised her staff high. “They took out our chieftain and three of our senior council. Yay or nay to allowing the queen to live?”
Hands went up, either with a full fist or with a pinky. She seemed satisfied as the fist outweighed the touch of pinkies in the sky. She glanced over at the warrior in charge, who turned his head and stared into Rayne’s eyes. Even with an arm at her throat she stood with her back straight and an accepting look on her face.
“I will make it quick,” he promised her.
The warrior holding her back pulled away and left her to stand, waiting for her death.
In her bedroom Alana was searching desperately for something to use as a weapon. Maynard had not returned and she had heard her mother scream Selwyn’s name. If the knight had fallen then she would not, could not, believe that Maynard had survived. If she was going to die she was going to go down with a fight.
She reached for the candelabra and tried to heft it into her hands. She never had tried to pick up the thick silver before and did not realize how heavy it was. This was the scene that the warrior walked in on as Alana was falling to her back, the candelabra falling beside her and a small fire catching to the curtain beside her. Alana rushed to pat out the fire and only a smoke trail was left.
The warrior crossed his arms and said, “I’ve found one of them.”
“I found another.” Oralee was thrown into the room beside Alana by a man who was bigger than the leader in every way. He was nearly a giant to the small girl and when he threw her she practically skidded.
“Saldis,” the leader called out, “where’s the third?”
Saldis came in shaking her head. “No one has seen her. I believe that room with the fallen in closet had an escape route. She’s hiding under the castle somewhere.”
“Send four men after them with orders not to kill her.”
“Are you sure?” Saldis asked. “We should destroy them all-”
“I know you are angry,” snapped the leader, “but we are not murderers. War and murdering is different. We do not kill an entire nation because they took out our leaders. There is a plan and we are sticking to it, do you understand me?”
Saldis bowed her head and turned to the hallway, searching for warriors. She gave them their marching orders while the leader stepped further into the room, crowding the two princesses. “It’ll be easier,” he told them, “if you tell me where the passage leads out to so we aren’t hunting down your sister. No more people need to get hurt.”
Alana’s blank expression must have told him something. He shook his head and said, “In due time, then.”
Her eyes roamed over his body and to the blood that stained the already red warrior paint. She grimaced and looked away, unaware that the blood on his hands was her mother’s. She pulled Oralee to her and they wrapped their arms around one another. Alana was glancing around for another weapon, wishing she had not been so quick to put out the fire.
“Wyborn?” a man asked from the door, a soft spoken man who stood tall despite an obvious quiet nature. The leader looked back at him before the man continued, “What should we do with the knights who are not injured?”
“There has to be a dungeon around here,” Wyborn suggested. “Throw them all into their own dungeon.”
“Shouldn’t we just leave?” the largest man suggested. “We’ve done what we came to.”
“I’ll say when I’ve decided we are leaving,” Wyborn growled, though his eyes stayed on Alana and Oralee. “And right now, we aren’t leaving yet.” He sent his men out of the room and slammed the door. Alana was smart enough to know there was someone on the outside making sure they stayed in.
“What just happened?” Oralee asked.
“I’m not sure,” Alana admitted, “but I think we’ve been invaded.”
From afar it looked like a regal affair as the royal family took their place on the higher seating reserved for themselves and the knights that rarely left their sides. The three daughters gracefully took their seat, two men slightly behind them, always the watchful eye on them. The king and queen took to their high backed thrones and looked out with generous smiles on their faces. This entrance had a calming effect on the crowds around the stadium that were awaiting the tournament to begin.
What they did not see was that the two younger of the sisters were passing a stone between the two of them that they could write notes on with their nails. It was a magnetic stone, perfect for leaving small characters from an archaic language on, knowing full well that no one who found it, but perhaps their parents, would know what they were telling one another. The crowd did not see that the king and queen hated one another and the mere touch of one another had the other’s skin crawl. No one could see that the eldest of the three was barely paying attention, too trapped in her first kiss that had happened just moments before they had been called away to make their entrance.
“Oralee, you should feel honored that all of these people are gathered for your birthday,” said Maynard, being the first to speak, to offer some sort of reprieve from the tension gathered from the king and queen.
Oralee, the youngest of the sisters, and the one the tournament was in “celebration” of turned to her eldest sister’s knight and said in a matter-of-fact tone, “It is a beautiful gesture, one I will always cherish.”
Alana, who had been caught up in the swell of her lips from her earlier kiss, and Lena, who was usually reserved and quiet, both turned green eyes on one another and burst into laughter. If it there had not been a cool look from their mother they would have garnered even more attention, but it had been enough to quiet them. Even Maynard, who was usually reserved, managed to crack a smile.
“In truth, Oralee,” Adare, the man who was Lena’s knight, said, “we do hope you have a wonderful birthday. Perhaps you will even be burdened with a knight you won’t hate.”
Adare’s eyes moved to Lena, briefly. Briefly enough that by the time her eyes moved to him his eyes were already glancing back out at the knights gathered for the chance to fight for Oralee’s honor.
As the youngest sister Oralee was the last to be given her own private guard. It was an honor, and a curse. There was only one man who was the private guard of each princess, one man to look over her night and day. It gave little chance of reprieve from duty, and when there was one it was usually a chance to miss out on a big event.
“I do hope it is Harding,” Oralee said, this time her voice resounding with emotion and excitement. Her sweet lilt was infectious and it was hard not to smile at her innocence. “He has always been the sweetest to me and I hear he just barely lost out on the chance to be Lena’s. I do not remember that much, for there wasn’t a big tournament like this.”
“There wasn’t for mine either,” Alana pointed out. “I guess as the youngest you get to be the most spoiled among us.”
“This is the apology for not having found you a husband already,” Lena said.
Alana glared at her younger sister and said, “Yes, it’s a shame, we can not all be betrothed to a God.”
Lena cleared her throat and for a long moment the silence once again became uncomfortable. Alana, as the eldest daughter of the Kendrick family, expected to be the first to be married. Not only was she meant to be the first, she was meant to be the one who had the better husband, as the heir to the throne. Her father had the excuse that there was no reason to marry his heir to Balder, the son of Dedrick. Dedrick was said to be the son of a god and there was nothing to stipulate against the claims. Dedrick was so long lived that the king and queen could remember him as ruler when they were children, and he had not aged a day.
Balder, having lived nearly as long as the queen’s parents, had finally hit a point where Dedrick found he needed a wife, if only so there would be another royal heir if something were to happen. It was better to give a younger daughter, and to be honest, the entire family had found Lena to be the more agreeable of the daughters.
“Where’s my apology for lack of husband?” Alana huffed. Perhaps she was not in such a hurry as she thought, the tips of her fingers barely grazing over her lips to feel the pressure of the kiss once more.
“You are still being baretered around,” Maynard said, his voice hushed to be sure the king and queen would not hear him. “You will have the perfect husband one day.”
“No one is perfect,” Adare countered.
Queen Rayne cleared her throat, loud enough the five of them were raising their shoulders back and looking straight ahead, putting a stop to all conversation. It took very little for Rayne to garner the respect she wanted.
Out on the field two swordsmen took to the north side while two other swordsmen took to the south side. Harding and Fergal would face one another on one side. Both were excellent sword fighters with hard backgrounds. They were also best friends and most people within the surrounding area knew they would always find those two out and about together. They took duty together, they took days off together. It was odd to see them facing off against one another now, but it added to the air of excitement.
On the opposite side of the field were two relative unknowns. A man name Dempsey Sedgley, a pretty-boy knight that had many girls swooning with nearly white-gold locks of hair and blue eyes that matched the color of the Kendrick’s family crest, and Ethen Sterling, who was medium-height, lanky man with no real bearing to him. The only reason there was interest in that match was to watch the prettiest man in the knights take down the unknown.
“Adare, you know everyone,” Lena said, leaning back slightly to talk to her knight. “Tell me about Sir Sterling.”
“I do not know him well,” Adare admitted. “I apologize, your highness. He is relatively new and does not seem to be from a high bred family. He must be good, though, if Selwyn allowed him into the fold of knights.”
Lena pursed her lips, more interested in the unknown. Adare followed her gaze to him and then leaned down to one of the knights that was standing near the stand. They whispered a few words, catching the girls’ attention. They turned their heads up and waited until Adare was standing. He stood back on his heels and offered a cool, calculating smile that offered and said nothing. “I placed a bed that Sterling would win.”
“Off of a question?” Lena asked, almost appalled.
“You took interest. You’ve never lead me astray, your highness.”
“I am not sure how I feel about that.” Lena thinned her lips and looked back to the field. Harding and Fergal had fallen into full tilt and were at one another as if they were worst enemies, not best friends. “They do use the dulled blades for these tournaments, correct?”
“Yes, your highness,” Adare said.
“But someone can still get hurt, right?” Oralee asked, and it was not missed that Oralee sounded more excited for the chance that someone would be. Oralee, despite a wide-eyed innocence, also enjoyed any excitement. She was adventurous in her innocence, which made for a terrible combination.
Adare worded his answer carefully. “There’s always a chance someone will get hurt, Oralee. There’s a chance you’ll get hurt when you walk down the stairs or when you breathe in the air.”
Oralee rolled her eyes and looked back out at the field. “You’re a better diplomat than my sisters.”
Lena chuckled while Alana glared. Alana did not like her abilities being called into question where Lena knew she was hardly an established leader. Oralee had never had an interest in being a diplomat herself, knowing she would be married off to someone of a lower birth to keep a surrounding land happy. Being raised knowing their places in life gave them a certain outlook on life.
“I don’t know which to watch,” Lena said, her eyes drifting from the heavy fighting of Harding and Fergal to the lighter tease of Ethen and Dempsey.
“Harding and Fergal will end soon,” Adare said. “They are winded and running themselves down. Dempsey and Ethen… one of them is waiting for full attention.”
“That Sedgley does seem the pompous prat,” Maynard commented, his eyes falling to the light sword play. “Both of them will be eliminated soon enough. I am surprised you wasted your money.”
“You wait,” Adare said.
Harding and Fergal began to strip down from their armor. It was growing heavy on them and the two men were already shaking holding their swords. They knew one another in and out. It was going to be up to a misstep in calculation.
And Harding had it. Fergal slid in the wet grass, covered in their sweat that dribbled down them in the heat of the midday. Harding gained his own footing and slashed out at Fergal, his sword running across Fergal’s gut.
Alana and Oralee were both on their feet crying out in excitement. Fergal went to his knees and brought up his hand. “Yield!”
“It is nice of you two to show so much interest,” Rayne remarked to her daughters.
“Go easy on them,” Selwyn, the captain of the knights and Rayne’s personal knight, remarked quietly. “They are excited for today. You do want them to show some enthusiasm.”
“I am afraid they are showing enthusiasm for the wrong reasons,” Rayne whispered.
Kinsey glared over at his wife and her knight and said, “This would not be a tradition in the first place if you had not come with your own personal knight and the tale that in your little neck of the woods noblewomen all had on had this age. I lose some of my best knights to protect our daughters.”
“Are you saying you would prefer them to go unprotected?” Rayne countered.
“I am saying we have knights around the castle at all hours of the day. These girls are in no danger, and if we do go to war I have my best men watching our daughters instead of fighting to make sure the danger doesn’t ever make it to the castle.”
“You are nitpicking,” Rayne said. “You are renowned for your knights. Look at the men on the field now. Fergal has gone down to Harding, and he is easily one of your best. You are putting the best against the best, one will always be better, but you still have an undefeatable army.”
Lena bowed her head. Her mother knew how to stroke an ego while making her point quite clear. Her eyes turned back to Ethen and Dempsey, who still seemed to be pussy-footing their way around one another. They had no interest in going closer. Not until Harding helped his friend off of the field, accepting the congratulations but not leaving his friend in the lurch.
The story changed when the men were gone. Ethen’s bored look turned to something darker and he slid his foot back. He raised his sword and then lunged. One, a blow to the arm. Two, three, four, blows to the sides. Five, six, seven, blows to the knees. Eight and nine, the final blows to the chest. Dempsey never knew what hit him or when. He almost stood perfectly still dring it all before he fell back onto the ground and gasped for air. Ethen walked over to him and raised his hand for him and cried out, “Yield!”
Jaws dropped. The tournament field was surrounded by a hushed quiet. There were still voices, but they were whispering to one another hurriedly.
Lena turned to Adare and asked, “How many blows are your record for taking someone down in that quick of a succession?”
“Five, Princess,” he declared. “Have no worries, my own record is still in place.”
Lena offered him her best ability at a sly smile. “I think you have competition.
Adare stared into her emerald eyes and said, “In what way, your highness?”
Ethen walked off the field, leaving other knights to come and retrieve Dempsey. Oralee’s eyes alighted and left Dempsey’s pained, and likely bruised, body to follow Ethen. “You might have made the right choice, Adare.”
“I will be rich by the end of the day. Or at least able to buy you a drink for your birthday, Oralee.”
“Yes, because the Ackerlea family is certainly hurting for money,” Lena said sarcastically, turning her head away and staring back out at the field.
From there the tone was set. The audience was invested in Harding and Ethen. Harding was the man that everyone knew, the man they had always relied on. Ethen was the newcomer who had put down a knight in nine moves. Ethen did not repeat the nine moves, but he made short work of his opponents.
And as it was assumed, it was Ethen and Harding in the final battle of the tournament. Both came up to the stand where the royal family sat and kneeled before Oralee’s place, both of them asking for her favor, though she could only give it to one.
The excited little adventuror disappeared and was replaced by the shy princess most people knew. Her cheeks were bright red when she stood and walked to the railing. She slowly pulled the silk from her sleeve, a deep blue dressed in silver threads. Sewn into it was a bear amulet that would be a small weight, hardly noticeable, but meant to mean she believed in him. She could give it to Harding, whom she knew and believed in, or she could give it to Ethen, who was unwinded and sure of himself.
Oralee knew who Adare was betting on. Oralee knew who Alana wanted the favor to go to. Oralee turned to Lena and raised her eyebrows. Lena took the stone and ran her nail over it, digging an engraving into it as quickly as she could while they were standing there. Lena passed the stone to Oralee as discreetly as she could, though they were both well aware that everyone saw it happen. Oralee ran her thumb over the stone and nodded her head.
“My favor to you, Harding,” she smiled at him and said in a squeaky voice. She leaned down while he raised his sword. She tied the silk around the hilt and then gave him a quick peck on the cheek. There was the obligatory rise in calls at her show of affection, and while she blushed, she carried that part well.
Harding bowed his head and said, “I will not let you down, your highness.” He stepped away towards the center of the field, ready for the final battle.
Ethen turned to the princess and calculatingly took her in before nodding his head and smiling. “I will prove you wrong.” He ran to the center of the field and took up his arm.
Rayne and Kinsey stepped down from their seats, finally showing more interest in the tournament. They stood and waved for the battle to begin.
“I knew you believed in Harding,” Alana said, leaning on her sister.
Lena only smiled. She would never tell her eldest sister she had just bet on Harding to lose to Ethen. That was between her and Oralee. Harding was a good man, but he had given his all during this tournament. He was tired and was shaking with every movement. Ethen had proven he could fight without breaking a sweat. She had been right at the beginning, that this would go to Ethen. But now Harding would have the princess’s favor. When he did inevitably lose he would still have a bear amulet and a silk to show that he was favored by the princess. That Oralee had chosen him, whether she had walked away from the tournament with Ethen as her knight or not.
Ethen allowed Harding a good show. Adare and Maynard both could see Harding was weak and that Ethen was dragging out the fight, but neither would comment on it. Ethen took Harding out in a respectful way, but take Harding out he did. When he dropped Harding to his knees he was a gentleman unlike in his other fights. He offered his hand and helped the man up. Harding yielded on his own and bowed his head.
Kinsey stepped off of the seating and went to the field. Oralee was meant to follow but she was embarrassed. Lena and Alana practically had to peel her out of her seat and lead her towards the door. Lena and Alana stood with their mother, Alana a nearly identical image of fiery red hair an green eyes while Lena had her mother’s face, but the dark hair of her younger sister and father.
Oralee went out with her father to the center of the field and took the ribbon from her father that would go around Ethen’s neck. It was a temporary prize, as he was sure to be lavished with gifts and top-of-the-line weapons once he was in place in his position. Ethen bowed his head so the short girl could place the ribbon around his neck and give him a fleeting kiss on the cheek.
“I told you I would prove you wrong,” he said to her.
Oralee, in a moment of coquettish flirtation, said, “You have yet to do so, Sir Sterling.”
Like I said, if there were quite a few of you who won I was going to split up the great prizes. There were NINETEEN people who came up 5/5 (for the record, they all had the same prediction for the canceled pre-show match as well). But I’ll get to that last.
First, our JOBBER! There were two great people who came in last, @karnuj and @FandangoMark, but only one of them did exceedingly horrible in their tie-breakers. For that, @FandangoMark, you are the proud owner of a Hornswoggle action figure! Please contact @bwilli27 with your information so you may claim your prize!
Next, for the jackpot, which was only $5 this month, but that was $4 that someone didn’t have before, the prize goes to @allnewtpir! Good job!
Last, out of nineteen people I was most impressed with @notoriouseddie, who was only 4 seconds off from the match time of the Orton/Bryan match. 4 seconds! For that you get the first prize from @BrothaCheese, the very nifty engraved ring! Please DM him your information!
Following him, and only off by about 10 seconds from that, were both @RegalSays and @TheSupremeForce. Splitting it up, @RegalSays you get the awesome shirt from @Podswoggle, please dm them your information and choice, and @TheSupremeForce wins the prize from @ImAMelFo!
Great job everyone, and see you next month for Survivor Series!
Sorry this took me so long to get up. I’ve been sick and my schedule is weird, but here are your predictions! I am still including your Langston/Axel predictions so you can see how you predicted against one another, though the match is off because of an injury. That’s 5 matches. Guess we’re going to need those tie-breakers!
How to win: Simple, have the best guesses of the night. If you tie with someone we go to the tie-breakers. The tie-breakers work with using the first tie-breaker, if there is still a tie, we move on, still a tie, move on, until we run out of tie-breakers. If there is not a tie after the first tie-breaker then that person is declared the winner. If there is still a tie after the fourth tie-breaker I will literally roll a dice and call the winner from the remaining few.
Since there are so many prizes to give away there is potential for a few people to get a prize, or one person to get all of the prizes. This depends on what the winning match combination is. If 85 of you guessed it, then I’ll pick a few. If one person had it, one person gets it all! We’ll see the mood I’m in.
As always, I’ll be doing my best to keep score with the PPV, so come back here to see how you are doing compared to the others! Good luck everyone, and have fun!
Welcome back to predictions! Even if you’ve done this before, make sure to read the rules. I have the right to change them at any time!
The Contest: If you don’t know, this is all about predicting the PPV! The person who best guesses the matches and then possibly the tie-breakers ends up winning the prize!
The Prize: This month, thanks to several good friends, we have a few prizes to giveaway! And one person gets the whole lot! There’s a reason I’m going big in these last few months, and I want you all to enjoy the prizes. First prize is brought to us by @Podswoggle and will be another T-shirt from your choice of the usual spots (I’ll give the winner a complete list upon winning). Next prize is a Triple H autograph from @ImAMelFo. He decided to up the ante a bit and add ANOTHER prize, but this one is a secret! Third prize is an 8.5 brass ring with HIAC 2013 Winner engraved on the inside, this one thanks to @BrothaCheese. As always you MUST be following them or you can not win the prize. (You are free to enter, but you forfeit the prize).
The Secondary Prize: This particular part of the contest requires an $1 entry and requires a follow to my @SolaceAutumn account. What’s the prize? You’ll find out if you are following that particular account. You are not required to play for this prize, and you can still, for free, enter the other part of the contest as you always have been able to. $1 entries should be sent to Paypal (only way, sorry guys). SolaceWinter@yahoo.com – Last month was a $7 jackpot.
The Jabroni Jobber Prize: For the person who does the WORST at predicting, you get a Hornswoggle action figure thanks to @bwilli27! You must also follow her to be eligible for the prize.
- You MUST have a Twitter account. If I don’t get a twitter handle from you I will not go searching for you to find you and you will not be entered. Please include it when you send in your predictions.
- You MUST be following me (obviously), and @bwilli27, @ImAMelFo, @Podswoggle, and @BrothaCheese. I will verify with them that you are following the accounts before I announce the winner. There will be no reminders. If you are not following the account you will not get the prize and I move on to the next person. You may enter the contest without following them, not following them only disqualifies you from the prize.
- I just want names for who wins. I don’t care who retains. I don’t care how they win. I want to know who in each match is declared the winner. No Contest is an acceptable answer, but it’s the only answer that is allowed besides names.
- You MAY name names that aren’t in the match if you think they are going to swerve us. HOWEVER, if you are purposefully going for the Jabroni Jobber prize, and I can tell, you will be disqualified. (ie: answering Batista for 3 of the matches will get you DQ’d. If you purposefully predict the opposite of who you think will win, I let it slide).
- You may NOT change your predictions once they are entered. Period.
- The predictions are open from now until Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 11:59pm EST. Once closed, they are CLOSED. The only exceptions are those who ask for it before hand and it’s within reason. 2:00 pm Sunday afternoon is NOT within reason.
- I will announce when I have entered you into the contest. You will get a number and a welcome on Twitter. Give me 48 hours before asking if I got your predictions, I’m one person taking care of this, and I currently have three jobs! If you ask me before it’s been 48 hours, prepare to be ignored. (The exceptions to this is if I have announced I am through all of the predictions I have, if you haven’t been announced then you should ask me).
- You may enter your predictions by dming me on @SolaceWinter, by emailing me SolaceWinter@yahoo.com or by leaving a comment below. If it is your first time leaving a comment it will not show up until I’ve approved it.
- Good luck!
THE MATCHES TO PREDICT:
- Curtis Axel vs. Big E Langston
- Alberto Del Rio vs. John Cena
- Randy Orton vs. Daniel Bryan
- CM Punk vs. Ryback and Paul Heyman
- AJ Lee vs. Brie Bella
- Tag Team Triple Threat (Rhodes vs. Usos vs. Shield)
- Tie-Breaker 1: Length of the Randy Orton/Daniel Bryan match
- Tie-Breaker 2: Will there be a Sweet Chin Music laid out on someone? Who?
- Tie-Breaker 3: How many announce table spots will there be? (This is anything from smacking against it to getting on top of it)
- Tie-Breaker 4: How many title changes will there be?
Thanks everyone for playing, again! I’m doing this quick because I’m tired.
Congratulations to the jackpot winner! You won $7. @DarkFalz83
Congratulations to the Podswoggle T-shirt winner! JMSkipper! It was between you and BizarroDoom and your tie-breakers won out!
And to our Jabroni, the man who has been after it since day one, and finally wins it, @Andrewthemark!
DarkFalz dm me your email so I can send the money to the right person, everyone else DM Podswoggle with your orders!
Thanks for playing! See you for Hell in a Cell where I WILL be here to keep scores once again!