The black rider had tasted smoke for so long that the absence of it left a sweetness in his mouth as he gulped the fresh sea air in hungry breaths. Waves crashed against the abrupt shoreline far below where he stood, but the cool spray never made it past the layers of fabric and armor to find his flesh. Moments came to him more frequently with each passing year, moments of a desperate desire to tear and claw at the mask which bound his secret shame to his skin, but the risk was too great. Already they questioned his intentions, his loyalties. Loyalties, he laughed internally. Save one life and you are branded a hero. Sacrifice another and you are a devil. But a man with no face cannot be looked in the eye, and therefore cannot be trusted.
A horse and rider stopped behind him. He turned and faced his companion. Aelish, he considered. He has never seen my eyes, and yet... The thought went unfinished. The two men had traveled together for the past three years. Aelish had never asked why his companion hid behind a mask. Broken and devastated at the loss of his home, he had followed the black rider for weeks until it was clear he would not part company with him. The Royal Guard had marched into Longmire, acting under the authority of the Queen. They killed anyone suspected of witchcraft, burned barns and trading posts to the ground, then summoned the scaly beasts to finish what they had begun.
"Why are we here?" the tall man asked as he approached. Together they stood and took in the fog and mist of a late summer morning at the edge of the world. Blue, grey and green faded into one on the horizon, concealing what secrets the depth of pure water contained. Aelish stood half a head taller than the black rider. He enjoyed the cool spray on his unshaven, unmasked face. Long, brown hair brushed his shoulders as he turned his attention back to the other man.
"An ill wind blows through Hillmarch," the rider's voice spoke in Aelish's mind. It bore a deep, resonating sound which hinted at his strength and power. His shrouded face was never disturbed by the movement of ordinary speech. "We have been watched, and they intend to trace our steps."
"The Royal Guard?"
"Their Captain's name is Vrint. He sent word of our deeds to the Queen. I think her actions would be obvious."
Aelish took in his friend with wonder. "That is where you spent the last two nights," he surmised. The Royal Guard's encampment was enormous and well protected. The black rider had a tendency to wander from his company on occasion, so Aelish never questioned his intentions. Spying under those circumstances, however, was an awe-inspiring feat. "Then you know they will strike Hillmarch next."
"Yes. It cannot be stopped. And our plans must change."
Aelish sighed deeply, his leather vest creaking with the effort of containing his broad chest. "How many will die tonight?"
"Fewer than will perish if we do not meet our foe head-on," the quiet man countered. "We ride to the castle."
Both men turned to the horses and left the ocean behind. "You know," Aelish smiled grimly, "I may find myself riding right up to the gates of the underworld with you someday, Raven."
"... and then he sliced off its ugly head," Jinna mimicked the daring move with the serving spoon in her hand. Her audience applauded wildly, cheering when the proud actor bowed.
"Bravo!" the Princess shouted and clapped. Her cheeks were rosy from the laughter and excitement of the serving maid's presentation.
"Do you truly believe he's as brave and strong as all that?" Willow smiled at her little friend.
"Of course he is!" Jinna snapped back. She adored stories of the Black Knight and would tolerate no ill word of him. "Think of all the people he's saved."
"Perhaps," River stood to walk to her balcony, "he is entirely misunderstood." She closed the doors at the sudden onslaught of windy autumn weather. "After all, how does one become a hero if not by chance?"
"It's fate, is what," the serving maid answered with confidence. "It's him the legend is written about." She replaced the wooden spoon and went about her work quickly. The cook would notice her absence if she remained much longer.
Willow moved to the sideboard to help clear the plates and saucers from lunch. "What legend, Jinna?"
The little girl nearly dropped the bowl she held as her eyes stared wildly at the redhead. "Don't you know the Legend of the Ancients?" Willow's stomach spun in response, but her trained complexion remained pale and calm. She shook her head no. Jinna breathed deeply, expanding her tiny chest with the effort. "Were you born in a dungeon? Everyone hears that story. It's the one about how the Ancients made the Known Lands and everything in it. But," her hands ran absently over the serving tray, temporarily leaving her cleaning duties by the wayside, "they lost their magic and died."
"They didn't die, they only sleep," River interjected. "They're waiting to be awoken by the True Champion." Willow and Jinna watched in awe as the Princess regaled them with the tale. "He will ride from the South, a prince named in the snow. Broken and lost, his family cannot lead him, but through him they will live once more. The Ancients will rise up at his call, returning to claim the Known Lands and all that dwell within."
Willow's head spun and buzzed with the memories which surged through her. Jesse's story lived in her mind, sharp and true as they day he first spoke it to her. With it came other memories, times and places lost, people forgotten, and things the young woman could not place or account for in her own history.
A loud crack sounded, ripping through the redhead's mind and ringing in her ears. The earth shifted below Willow's legs, pulling her across immeasurable time and distance. Up and out of the castle she ascended, breath and balance left behind. Before her eyes, rivers and streams flooded their banks, and armies carved their way through the landscape and scarred the dirt with the blood of their enemies. She blinked at the bright image of Torrent, unbroken and shining by the sea. Firm hands gripped her wrists, dragging the young woman back to the ground, and Willow found herself face to face with Hepsebah. The connection between her mouth and her brain was lost, leaving her speechless and dumbfounded in the arms of the only mother she had ever known. "Tell me," the old woman mouthed, but the words fell short of Willow's ears. Her touch was real and yet not, a tingling, hollow imitation of the old woman's grip.
"How..." Willow tried to speak, but her voice sounded distant, disconnected from her throat.
"This won't last long. You haven't practiced traveling like this, little one," Hepsebah soothed. "Focus. Tell me what has happened."
"Sippa?" Willow wanted to cry, but her elder's words were clear. Whether this was a vision or a genuine event, time was short. "They killed you. Mercenaries.... the Queen's Men.... They came, almost everyone died."
Hepsebah glanced around the wagon in which they sat. Willow suddenly realized it was dark. More than just the old home she knew as a child rang familiar in her eyes and ears. She had been in this moment before. "Listen to me, Willow. There was never enough time to tell you everything. Rowan wouldn't allow it. But you must know. Go to Torrent. No matter what happens, do not let Tara go with you."
"Tara?" The name sounded foreign on her tongue. It had been so long since she'd spoken it aloud. "What's happening, Sippa?"
The old healer breathed deeply, obviously taking in the incorporeal visit better than the young woman at her side. "You're waking up."
"Willow," River spoke softly, abruptly bringing the gypsy back to the Princess' chambers. She struggled to remain standing, dizzied by the vision she had just endured. A tingling pressure in her feet told her she was back to where her journey had begun, standing between a princess and a serving maid. Hepsebah had only been a memory. The journey could not have been real. She chased away the odd visions and looked up into the Princess' face. River's eyes were wide with fright. "You're... there's..." The red-haired girl looked down at herself, fearing the unknown reason for the Princess' inability to speak. Between the fabric and lace of her gown, a warm glow emanated. The light was brighter still on her bare arms and hands, which she turned over in front of her eyes in wonder and amazement. Had she cast a spell without realizing it? What is happening to me? Her mind raced through the possible explanations, hoping to find something she could tell River, but no reason could wipe away the powerful light her skin exuded.
Willow turned to find Jinna, and shock grabbed her when she spied the girl lying on the floor, her left hand cut and bleeding copiously onto the thick rugs. "Jinna!" she shouted, diving to her knees. River was beside her immediately, rushing to take the little girl into her arms. Dark red blood poured from the open wound and over the Princess' knee. The carving knife she had used for lunch sat in its own bloody pool.
"She must have cut herself when you-" River stopped abruptly and looked up at her friend. Willow desperately wished she could gauge the Princess' reaction, but her face was unreadable. "Go find a guard." The handmaiden froze, terrified that her fate was sealed. Without planning the move, she reached out and took Jinna's thin hand in her own, clutching it to her chest. Blood smeared over her bodice and ran down her own arms. "I said-" River tried to shout, but she stopped when the glowing from Willow's flesh intensified.
The golden light flowed from the gypsy's hands and body onto Jinna, whose eyes fluttered and opened slowly. She gazed up at Willow, dazed and warm from the magic that flowed into her body from the witch. The cut on her hand stitched itself together, bound by the mysterious spell which enveloped them. Willow parted their eyes just long enough to see River staring at her in amazement.
"Run." Willow blinked. Had the Princess spoken? "I said run." There it was again. Her mouth opened, words flowed, but Willow's mind was blank. The instruction was meaningless. "Willow!" the girl shouted. "Run, damn you!"
Her feet answered the royal order, moving slowly at first until she felt her full weight upon them, and then Willow dashed through the chamber to the back door which led to a private hall. The walls knocked her from one side to another as she ran, tossing her violently and making her stumble. A sinister laugh boiled beneath her feet, twisting the wine-red carpets and grabbing at her shoes. A vision of teeth flashed through her mind as she pushed on. "Don't stop," she whispered with dry lips. "Don't stop." The vertigo intensified. Her legs ached and pounded the stone floor, but the end of the hall never came nearer. Something was dragging her down, pulling her in on herself. The sensation washed over her like nausea. Rough carpets slammed into her knees, bruising her skin and knocking the breath from her chest. Willow reached for the floor with both hands to stay in the kneeling position where she had landed. Her eyes rolled back as a force more powerful than anything she had ever encountered drained the energy and magic from her body through her arms and legs and down into the floor. "Stop," she whined, the pain overwhelming her senses.
"I hunger," the teeth parted and spoke.
Willow forced her eyes open and stared down at the rug. In its patterns, a swirling, twisting face morphed into being, teeth and lips gnashing and biting at her limbs. "No," she wailed, her voice thin and weak. "You cannot."
"I hunger," it spoke again.
Her lungs filled with air, driving the searing pain in her shoulder and arm into a new fury. Willow's brow knitted itself into a fearsome frown, and an unnatural strength surged into her forearms. "You will not," she commanded. The face before her twisted and licked its lips. "Endantea," she spoke quietly at first. The fanged beast howled at her words, its ghastly sound vibrating her bones as she reclaimed her magic. "Endantea," she said louder, clenching her teeth and making her hands into fists.
The monster wailed and writhed. Its teeth flashed as it spoke words unheard by mankind since the fires of the sun were lit. The sounds drifted over Willow's skin, tingling in her pores and standing the fine hairs of her arms on end. Furious with her enemy's relentless attack, she raised her hands above her head and shouted into the warped corridor in a voice that was thick with power and rage. "End it now!" She plunged her fists through the swirling air and rising wind to land with a resounding thud on the stone floor. Her strike echoed through the keep, rattling glass windows and shaking ancient mortar.
Immediate silence enveloped her as she knelt in a river of sweat on the motionless carpet. The beast had retreated, whence she knew not. Her eyes searched for any trace of the fangs in the patterned rug, but the only thing to catch her attention were numerous brown tree trunks springing from the very foundation of the floor all around her. Willow tilted her head back, feeling her damp hair on the nape of her neck. A tiny forest of fir trees surrounded her. She stretched out the fingers of her right hand, making contact with the rough bark. Her touch began lightly, but soon became a desperate grasping and clutching of the summoned companions. They were firmly rooted in the stone, their trunks heavy and solid, just as they would have been in a natural forest. "My magic did this," she whispered. Her voice was absorbed by the quiet branches. They sighed and waved as if in greeting to the young woman. The tops of the firs pushed at the ceiling, bending and reaching into the squared cornices and carved sconces along both walls.
The early autumn winds chased flower petals and leaves around Prince Tinari's supplicant form as he knelt in a low bow in the royal courtyard. His lips moved with the trained words of prayer he had learned from his earliest days. All within the kingdom knew to leave him to his worship when he felt the call of the gods. His religious perversions were honored with trepidation and respect by the staff and royalty of the keep. In truth, though they did not understand his ways, they feared him so greatly very few ever went near him.
As fortune would have it, no one attended him at the very moment a surge of energy coursed through his body, leaving him with a sweet, smoky taste in his mouth. Tinari stood and spat on the perfectly interlocking flagstones. Anger flashed in his black eyes. "Magic," he muttered. He whistled sharply, calling forth his own private guard. Four enormous wolves leapt from the shadows of trees and shrubs, baying and drooling at their master's feet. Their brindle coats were shaggy and long, bristling down their spines and twisting around their long tails. Yellow eyes and bloodstained fangs flashed in the waning afternoon light. The Prince made a simple gesture with his hand, releasing them to hunt down the source of the spell recently cast. Their sensitive noses would trace it over any distance within the castle walls, up to the very gates of the city. Tinari smiled with his own fangs. "It has been a long time since I had such pleasure."
Howling and running at a hunger-induced pace, the wolves charged up flights of stairs and down narrow passageways, throwing unsuspecting serving maids and messengers aside in their haste. Those who saw them coming fled in panic. Their reputation was as well known as Tinari's. They were brutal killers, their only master a madman brought into the castle by the Queen. Once wild hunters and scavengers of the forests to the east of the Drylands, the giant wolves had terrified and slaughtered countless livestock and shepherds until the people of Avinash captured and tamed them. Tame, however, was hardly the word most would use to describe the oversized dogs now. Standing nearly as tall as a full-grown man at their shoulders, they were capable of bringing down horses and cattle with deadly precision. As pack hunters, they were nearly unstoppable.
Serving carts, oil paintings, and pedestals exalting royal artifacts dating back to the great floods flew by in the wolves' pursuit of the scent of magic. Tinari followed at a modest pace, though he, too, felt the excitement of the hunt. Rare was the use of magic in the kingdom these days. His delicate senses were highly attuned to the frequency of spells, making him the perfect hunter for such illegal acts. A problem arose, however, when he realized the direction in which they headed. The Princess' private wing was nearing. Prince Tinari broke into a run.
"Listen to me," River shook Jinna by her shoulders. "Stop arguing. Now is not the time. Take the back passage and run down to the kitchens. Leave the tray." Jinna tried to speak, but was shaken harshly. "No! Just do what I say." She pushed the tiny maid toward the back rooms and stared after her with a ferocity that made Jinna's heart pound. She knew better than to disobey royalty, so she ran. River had instructed her not to speak to anyone of the events in the Princess' chambers. "Find Willow and hide her if you must," she had told the girl. Jinna knew exactly where to take the handmaiden. "Tell her to return at sunset."
Behind her, the Princess spun in place, looking for something. Blood was drying on her gown. Ideas and conflicts raged in her mind, but one thought stood out amidst the clutter. Tinari is coming. She knew the penalty for casting spells in the castle, and there was only one way to obscure the events which had transpired only moments before. River leapt to her bedchamber and dove under the immense bed centered in the room. Underneath laid a terror-stricken cat. White and grey striped fur bristled as his owner approached. He tried to grip onto the thick rug with his claws, but the Princess won out and snatched him from his hiding place with a practiced arm. "I'm sorry," she whispered to him, tears beginning to run down her perfect face. "I'm so sorry, but there is no other way." She carried him harshly back into the sitting room and collapsed onto the floor where Jinna had bled. The knife still rested in the heavy pile of the carpet. Steadying her hand with deep breathing, River took the knife and held her cat in the other hand. Before she could stop herself from the awful deed she was about to commit, she stabbed the feline in the chest. It struggled and howled in pain for a moment, and she was certain she felt the floor of the castle tremble as life slipped from the small body she had loved and petted and held since it was a tiny kitten. Unbounded tears gushed from her eyes, blinding her to the agony of death in her hands.
"Open the door!" the Prince bellowed as he bore down on the guardsman at Princess River's chamber entrance. His white cape flowed majestically behind him as he stepped between the drooling hounds. The largest of them held the guard against a nearby wall with a giant paw pinned to the man's heaving chest. Tinari snapped his fingers and the wolf sat back on its haunches, releasing its prey. "Open it now."
The guardsman fumbled to find the key with nervous, gloved fingers. Protocol stated that no man was allowed into the Princess' private chambers without the explicit permission of the Queen. Protocol, however, did not account for the Prince and his wolves. Either way, the guard knew he would not fare well. He slipped the rarely used key into the lock and twisted. The wide door swung open to reveal a frightening scene. River sat on the blood-stained carpet, gently cradling and rocking her pet. The cat lay limp in her arms, its head rolling unnaturally as she moved. The steady outpour of her tears had soaked what little of his fur that was not heavy with blood.
"My Lady," Tinari stepped forward protectively, his feet crossing the threshold.
River turned sharply and screamed at the men, "Out! Both of you, out!"
"But, Princess," Tinari recoiled at her command, "surely-"
"Give me a reason," she fumed, fire dancing behind her puffy, swollen eyes. Neither man dared challenge her. They both retreated, bowing low to her. The dogs at their backs whined and crept backwards, still licking their lips at the taste of magic in the air.
"My apologies, Highness," the Prince nearly touched his head to the floor. "We only wish to protect you."
"Then call for a maid to clean my chamber. I will remain here."
"If I may be so bold as to inquire," Tinari glanced up at the bloody setting, taking in the spilt serving tray and the knife at River's feet.
"You may not," she seethed, hatred boiling over in her words. "Leave me." Eager to respect her wishes and escape her presence, the guardsman quickly closed and locked her chamber door. Prince Tinari drew himself up to his full height, anger flitting over his calm face. He had much to discuss with the Queen.