APPRENTICE KING

APPRENTICE KING

Saera let down her weapon, laying both hands on the pommel. The golden eagle cowered beneath the weight of her palms, and she eyed the turret closely. She knew he would be there, hiding, as he always did. She could see his eyes piercing the shadows.

She hoped he was afraid. She wished the counsel of his peers and the guardians of his realm were whispering, telling him lies, filling his mind with false hopes. For only their filthy words would be enough to have him step outside. And the moment he would, he would be hers.

Wind from the Ice Mountains came crashing against the fur of her cloak. She felt a tinge, something of a wince, hair rising against her back. It wasn’t out of fear or contrition, it was knowledge – the certainty that she was stronger now than three months ago; a titan, compared to the frail lamb she had been not even a year before. She had been naïve and she had been weak – he had made it all disappear.

Her lips twitched, forced beyond help to reminisce – the touch of his fingers, the warmth of his hand against her cheek, the promises of fools. A shadow crept into her mind; she recalled the room only with blurred edges. The firelight was vivid though, as fierce as her mind was now. There will be no more skin against skin, no more warmth, and no heartache. This, he had chosen, would end today.

‘We’re ready,’ Munval whispered in her ear. The old man pressed a reassuring hand on her arm, and moved away. The Seventh War hadn’t dented his faith in men, nor did the Battle of the Greats that cost him an eye and two fingers, but the last few months had turned him against everything he had once held dear.

Spears bolted into place at Munval’s command, a sharp yet sullen noise, echoing briefly throughout the lands surrounding Castle Marys. It was time. Her brains motioned her forward but there was some hesitation she hadn’t expected, something sudden and quickly gone. It was too furtive for anyone to have noticed; yet she would know. Her greatest weapon was her mind, and it was now being poisoned by the longings of her heart.

A flash of light, a memory, jerked from her brains to her eyes in an instant. Images like these, she would never forget; behaviours like his, she could never forgive. The blood has never left her hands, no matter how hard she washed, there was no cleansing of one’s soul from the evil of this world. And he, once so small and gentle, was the reason for all this.

She strode forth, her gait assured. At each step she swept away an image. Him, barely nine years old, rescuing her from the Ironsmith’s sons. Him, his locks yellow and bright, swaying as he trained her with swords and daggers, out of his master at arms’ watch. Him, laying a changed look on her, lowering his lips to hers, whispering in her ears, sharing his fears of ever becoming king.

She chased everything away, and stood at the foot of the iron gates. She eyed the turret’s slit window one more time. It was on the fourth floor. The little one before the alcove at the top, where they had rescued doves and hid them from the cook who would lay his hands on just about anything.

She saw it. The glint in the darkness. He was there.

‘Ryen!’ her voice bellowed farther than her might, carried by some hatred too powerful to contain. She had had enough of this. The lands had wept and bled enough, and if he had any sense of dignity, he ought to step out of the shadows at last.

Her footing firm and flat, she moved to the first guard she saw and took him out with a flash of her dagger, leaving his body by her feet. Two others came to her quick, and seven bowmen appeared at the top of the gates.

We will have them killed before they can even draw their next breath… she thought, and waited. But nothing happened. All right, suit yourself. She moved to raise a hand to Munval when command was shouted from behind the wall.

Enough, he thought to her.

She remembered when she was a child, thinking there were no greater bonds than this. The Twin Spirits of Andar was just a tale, and yet their minds were tied, close or far. How peculiar, she used to wonder, that a prince and a wet nurse’s daughter would share such an incredible gift. Not before, nor after, had they met anyone else capable of entering their thoughts, and be one beyond the tangible.

I don’t want any more bloodshed on my lands.

She scoffed. These are not your lands, Apprentice King.

Where? His thought was low, like a faint memory of some words he had kept from her.

Black Mountain. The Dormant Sun.

He didn’t think it, but she knew him well. Every fibre of his being winced as he heard her. She gazed one last time upon the dark window of the turret, echoes of her children’s shoes resurfacing in vain, playing memories again, but only their ghosts were now running up and down those stairs.

She turned her back on his castle of lies. A moment of weakness perhaps. Another one she couldn’t afford and should have been mindful of. The blade reached through every layer of her flesh. The pain was sharp and sudden, something she knew all too well. In a moment of fright, pushed by the ache in her shoulder, her knees caved slightly. Her ears rigging, she saw with agony, thousands of men and women sliding downhill, bolting towards the castle gates. The archers took place on the ramparts. It all came too quickly. A flurry of arrows jerked up and arched overhead, as she watched, powerless, her friends and brothers-at-arms struck by this rain of death.

Bodies fell in sullen cries, but Munval stood. He and his two sons lead the army forth, but not until he ordered five of his soldiers to take Saera into safety. They seemed like shadows as they ran towards her, lifting her up and moving her deep behind the first lines. She resisted, wriggling with all her might within their grips. They held her strongly: legs, arms and chest were protected by their mailed armours and the shields they raised all around them.

“Take it off!” she cried, struggling with one last effort out of their hold. They halted, shouted out for more men to surround them with shields up. They plunged her in darkness, alternating faintly with peaks of light. It was a dagger someone had thrown to her shoulder. A good aim, she had to admit.

“Stay still”, Herard ordered, his voice muffled by his helmet. The lion’s head carved into the iron shown strangely under this lack of light. It reminded her of an old seer her mother had once seen. Her words were for the most part fantasies for the broken hearted, she had thought, but she had said something with a different ring. Something that made that old wrinkled lady, smelling of bad liquor and cigars, eye her deeply and stare a while. The Dove and the Lion are lost.

The Lion’s head had been the realm’s emblem for at least a century. But the dove didn’t make any sense to her. There was a twitch, the sound of something breaking, then Herard pulled the arrow out of the wound. A flash of pain blinded her for a moment, her chest lowered, following the weapon being torn out of her. Two arms caught her as her eyes adjusted to tears she was too proud to let go, she heard battle cries erupting closer.

Some hurried hand applied sacred ointment to the wound, and soon her body was lifted into the air again. “Let’s move her now!” she heard Herard say. At least she believed it was him, she couldn’t say for sure, for an instant later, she fainted.

Wooden swords clashed with each other repeatedly, steering her attention away from her body. Ryen was skilled, agile and quick on foot. But she was cunning, mindful of his blind spot. He was deaf in one ear. He had never told anyone, neither did his parents, or his priest and wet nurse. Agility and rapidity made him gain control in most fights. Adversaries, usually deterred, tended to fail for two reasons – either by the surprising blow of his sword, or by the fear of royal repercussion.

Saera never made things easy for him. She sensed his concern for his ear, though he never said a thing, and she used it, playfully at first but then to overturn the outcome of a fight. She never said she knew. And she never would.

Someone brought soup to her tent. The smell caught her nose before her mind adjusted to where she was. The wind outside was blowing hard against the fabric, having it billowing inwards. The posts groaned and loomed dangerously towards the ground. She winced as she straightened up, sitting on a bed of fortune lying on the dirt floor. “Is it going to hold up?” she asked the shadow in the room. She had assumed it would be Herard, but as her eyes adjusted, she recognised Munval’s tired gait.

Her heartbeat grew quicker. “What are you doing here? What about the castle? And Ryen?”

“The battle ended quickly, Saera. A day and a night have come to pass since you loss consciousness.”

“Who won?” It was a murmur, a question asked for which she feared the answer.

Munval’s face grew stern. He rubbed his short beard before sitting down next to her. “No one,” he said, “yet anyway.” She frowned as he continued. “It lasted a few hours…we, lasted,” he rectified. “But we’d lost many soldiers. Mostly those with the least experience of a battlefield. Though they fought with all their might.”

“Tell me.”

“Ryen says you required this war to be settled by combat between the two of you,” his eyes paused on her, observing and quiet. “He wants to honour this agreement. And he is waiting for you to wake up, and meet him where you had plan to fight.”

Saera stood up with unexpected momentum, heart beating and head in a blur. “I’ll go.”

Munval got to his feet as well, raising his hands with a weariness that made her realise he had now given up on hope entirely. “You know combat between the two of you means one of you is going to die.” Before she could speak, he continued. “If he dies, you will be accused by the Sister’s Faith of ending the Lion’s bloodline, starting up a war much bigger than this, turning against us the Realms of Fallhaven.” His eyes turned red now, as though fire had been reignited. “And if you die, we will lose our leader, our only hope.”

“You’re our leader, I am nothing but a figurehead. Woodwork is replaceable, but your vision isn’t.”

A weary smile accompanied his shaking head. “You stood up against him when no one felt capable. You rallied forces in all surrounding villages to end this world of privation and abuse. They see you as their last chance for a better life. If you die, the flame in them dies with you.”

She sat back down, slowly. Eyes misty beyond help. “We’ve lost so much; I can’t bear to see anyone else die because of him.”

“We’ll find another way.”

“No. There is no other way. I have to end this now. The last blood to seep through the lands of our fathers will be his. I pledge my honour on it.”

“You can’t seek strength in honour, only fools do. Honour makes you blind.”

Saera didn’t hold his stare. He might have been right, but she couldn’t let doubt waver her strengths now. Her mind was clouded, her spirit tired. She couldn’t live with herself anymore. More than anything, she needed to see him. To have him talk without his advisers twisting her words and his. She needed to understand, how a sweet boy could turn into a mad king. How the love of her life could wound her so.

Saera had Munval send word to the King that she was heading to Black Mountain. She left alone, refusing that either Munval or his men follow her. If their King had been treacherous, she was keen to keep her word. She had challenged him for a one-to-one combat, and this was what needed to be done. Them, and them alone.

She walked up the dirt lane tracing its way to the top of the mountain, a path they both knew well. She recalled their strolls through springs and winters. A memory came back hurting, of her twisting her ankle and him carrying her down for miles. It had been a long and tough winter, she had developed a bad cough following that fall and he stayed by her side, insisting she slept in his chambers: his servants placing her in his bed while he slept on a cover by the fire. His father had disapproved, but his mother pitied her. When the illness grew stronger, and physicians wondered if she would live, they held each other’s hands for hours, from the blackest moments of that night until the first light of day. Eventually she healed. And that morning, he lay his first kiss upon her lips.

She paused. She refused to be weakened by the past. That boy no longer existed. It was a ghost, haunting her still. To end this nightmare of a war, she needed to accept that. She was telling herself over and over that she had, but her heart hadn’t yet made peace with that choice. The higher she climbed, the steeper the lane became. Wet leaves strewn the ground, she leaned on protruding branches, on dampened rocks. She smelled the sour scent of sulphur. The crater was close.

The Dormant Sun was a volcano, tales of their grandparents told of an eruption that nearly wiped out the entirety of their realm. Fire flowed down the mountain like a river of flames, thick and merciless. Destroying everything in its wake. The villagers had spent decades rebuilding houses and bridges. The castle had stood though. Only its outermost ramparts had suffered, and were rebuilt. The villagers believed it was spellbound. That Ryen’s grandfather had been blessed with favours from the Gods. Saera knew that wasn’t the case. The fact that the castle had stood was a mystery to his grandfather too, but though not a very pious man, he started praying every day, reinforcing the beliefs in the old Gods. They needed it. In their weakest moments, they needed something to believe in.

Her boots crunched the little rocks at the top of the mountain. The ground was dark and grey, little crevasses running wild here and there. She thought she would have to wait for him a while, for him to decide whether or not to go through with it. She guessed he would be ashamed to look at her, let alone stand before her. Not after all he had done. But when she arrived, he was already there. Standing tall on the barren ground, eyes staring at the void of the crater. Warmth was springing out; an orange glow was covering the inside of the deep wide hole.

He turned an eye as she stopped. They stood still and quiet. She had forgotten his eyes. Somehow, they still looked the same – kind and fair. Her heart broke into a thousand pieces. Tears walled behind her eyes, and she stared away. Her chest tightened, her whole body fighting the urge to throw herself at him. She couldn’t. She had to remember who she was fighting for. She needed to honour the memories of those they had lost. As she concentrated on that, she didn’t see his shadow quickly approaching. By the time she understood, he was standing within inches of her. He seized her arms and kissed her.

She thought she remembered it all, but she had forgotten. The softness of his lips, the warmth of his mouth…He held her face in his hands. She didn’t step away. But she couldn’t hold him in return. The more she stayed within his embrace, the more she insulted the deaths of her peers. She pushed him away, tears streaming down her cheeks now.

“You think it will all make it go away?” she cried, wiping her mouth.

I love you, he thought to her.

“Not enough to say it out loud,” she retorted.

“You know I love you,” he insisted, grabbing her arms. “Let’s end this madness now. Come back with me. We’ll make peace. We’ll have a treaty drawn and ensure the realm is safe.”

“Will your advisers allow it?” She asked, her tone cheeky. She knew the answer. She removed herself from his grip swiftly, hurting her wounded shoulder as she did.

He noticed it and stroke her arm. “How’s your shoulder?”

She was surprised at that. She was hoping he didn’t know. She didn’t say a word. She couldn’t admit to such weakness when they were just about to fight.

“I’m not going to fight against you.” He said, flatly.

“You have to. I promised my people.”

“So, it’s your people now?” He grinned. He wasn’t taking her seriously. She drew out her dagger. “No.” He said, firmly, pressing his palm against the pommel of her dagger so she would hold it down. “I will not fight you!”

“I’m not giving you a choice.”

“Do you hear yourself?” He exclaimed in disbelief. What happened to you?

You.

She thought back on the hardest moment of her life. She did it on purpose, hoping he would feel her pain. She couldn’t make him see the images, but she could send away waves of pain. And he would know the reason. His cheeks flushed, he clenched his fists and stared down.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered.

“You’re sorry?” She laughed nervously. “Is that enough?”

“I never meant for him to die.”

“I was there! I saw you give the orders!”

“He was running a mutiny against me! Was I supposed to let him ruin the safety of our realm?”

“He was trying to help you understand! He never would have done anything against you…”

“Your father wanted Munval to become King in my stead!”

She let out a shallow breath. “Never. It was never the case.”

Something quickly ran through his gaze, anger turned to worry. “You can’t know for sure.”

“I knew my father. He loved you like a son.” Her voice became almost a whisper. Losing its intensity, surrendering.

Ryen swallowed hard. His eyes turning red. “What else could I have done?” they paused, looking at each other. “Fallhaven has increased its demands on us. I need to honour my father’s legacy, and my grandfather before him. This alliance’s helped us rebuild the kingdom. We’re still in debts, more than we could repay in a lifetime. We need more…more of everything!”

“But you’re taxing people beyond their means. They sell away everything they make or farm, only to be left with nothing once they’ve paid you what you ask. Children are dying each winter for lack of food and medicine. Parents kill themselves from overworking night and day. You’re not healing the realm, you’re breaking it!”

“What would you have me do?” he waved his palms in the air, defeated. His cheeks still red and his eyes watery.

“You shouldn’t have killed my father…”

“They said…” his voice trailed off. “They said if I did, the rebellion would stop.”

They, are a bunch of fools. Heartless fools.”

“They were my father’s advisers. They know more about the realm than I do.”

“If you say so.” She raised her dagger. “I came here for one thing, and one thing only.”

“And then what?” He shouted. “Are you going to kill me? Can you do that?”

“You’d be surprised at what I can do now.” Her tone was firm and left no room for questioning. His shoulders cave.

“I see that…” He drew his sword and her throat swelled up. Her palms became sweaty. She prayed her father she would be worthy of the task. She wasn’t sure she would. As she braced herself, watching the double-edged blade glint in the soft day light, Ryen chose to throw it down. It landed in a sullen thud by her feet. “You can kill me then.” He clenched his jaw, holding his fists close to him.

“Pick it up!” She ordered, raising her weapon at him.

“No. You want to end things that way, then do it.”

Do you remember, he thought to her, when I carried you down the mountain?

“Pick it up!” she repeated. As he did nothing, she took the sword and threw it at him.

Do you remember what I said, when you fell down that slope? And you told me not to come get you? You thought you were going to die, that I would die too if I came to you and we were stuck together in that hole.

“You can’t trick me into believing you’re still the same…” she cried. “You’re not the boy I fell in love with…he died the day you killed my father.”

I said I’d rather die with you, than live in this world alone.

She shook her head, hoping the memory would go away, praying the voices would stop.

“If you can live without me, then do it. Because I can’t.”

“Liar…” she muttered. “It’s only words…they mean nothing. You’re just too much of a coward to fight back!”

His nostrils flared and he strode firmly to the edge of the crater. “You want this to end with one of us dying then I will make this easier for you!”

“You’re pathetic…” He moved a foot forward and rocks crumbled beneath, falling into the fiery heart of the volcano. “Don’t!”

She started feeling smothered. The air was too warm, too dry, she couldn’t breathe.

He looked at her with eyes of victory. As if he had been right and knew she would never be able to kill him. Or live a life he wasn’t a part of. “Let’s find another way…” he whispered.

“There is no other way…I promised them I would end this today.” She made a few steps forward. “You made them feel unsafe. As long as you live, they will always feel that way. You can’t erase their memories. The dead haunt us in ways you can never imagine.”

“You think it’s easy for me? You think I can forget? Every night the last image in my mind is your father hanging lifeless.”

She winced at the thought and made a step back. “You made a choice. It’s not our fault if you can’t live with it.”

“What will happen, once I’m dead?”

She fell silent.

“Who will rule? Do you think Fallhaven will accept this? They will seize the lands before I’m even cold in the grounds. And you will all be pledged with so much more debts. They have prison mines in the South. The minds behind this rebellion will be sent there. Trust me.”

She pondered on that for a moment, her fingers still seething, longing for revenge. “What do you suggest then?”

“Give me some time. I’ll talk to my advisers and –”

“No! You’ve had enough time to talk to them.” She waited, hoping he would speak. “What do you suggest?” she repeated, angrily. She moved her dagger up to his throat.

“I’ve sent some scouts in the lands of Rhèl. I heard of…I heard of an iron mine. I think I can take the lands. We could use it, sell it and pay our debts to Fallhaven.”

“What will you do with the people already living there?”

He paused for a moment, a moment too long. “It’s just some cult…we can move them.”

“You’re unbelievable,” she sighed, turning her back on him.

“Wait!” he grabbed her, but as he did his left foot slipped on the crumbling edge, bringing most of his body down. He let out a cry, removing his hand from her the moment he fell. His fingers scrapped the rocks for support, but he kept sliding, feet dangling in the hot void.

Saera plunged to his rescue. Grabbing his hands, tugging at his sleeves to bring him back up. “Don’t!” he muffled. “You’re going to fall with me.”

“Don’t be stupid,” she leaned and tried to heave him up from under his armpits, but the leather of his breastplates made her hands slip. The weight of his body was still dragging him down. The more he tried to lift himself up, the more the ground beneath was caving in.

“Go away!” he yelled, grunting as he tried yet again to get himself out. “Go away now!”

“Will you stop fretting like a baby, I’m not leaving!” She sat, still holding him strong, and tried pulling him out, but his body was too far gone now.

Sweat was dripping down his forehead, the heat escalating the rocks to them had become unbearable. His breathing became shallow, wheezy. Some more rocks tumbled down beneath him. He watched as they fell hundreds of feet and disappeared into a thick haze of smoke. “Let go of me…” he muttered, his body slipping inches more.

Never…

They locked eyes. She scrambled to him, not releasing her grip on his sleeves for one moment. She started feeling dizzy. Her vision blurred. But she saw what he was about to do, even though he was trying hard not to think it. He gazed down, resolved. Then back up, laying one last look. He heaved himself up to reach her lips. Their mouths barely touched, trembling and damp.

It’s better this way, he thought before removing her hands from him.

“No!” In a last desperate attempt, she reached for his collar. The momentum and the weight of his body made them both plummet through the Dormant Sun. He held her tightly, in a fall that lasted the blink of an eye, as they drowned through the thick haze.

Never to return.

The last words that crossed her mind, were those of that foolish seer.

Perhaps not foolish after all. The Dove and the Lion are lost.                

 

 copyright©2018 by Jane W. King

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