Disclaimer See Part 1
The characters in the story are a product of my own imagination and hopefully have no resemblance to any living persons.
Sex: This piece is rated 18 and contains sex. Please, if you are not old enough to read this, move on to something more appropriate.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to my overworked beta rleef. Thank you for making the time, Bright One. A special thank you to my Muse too. I just wish she would let me in on where we're going with this story.
I would also like to apologize for the long pauses between postings.
Constructive criticism is greatly appreciated, so feel free to drop me a line or two at firstname.lastname@example.org or chat with me on Facebook.
Miriam cautiously stuck her head into the tent. Sterling was still snoring softly. The past week had been very trying for them all. Sterling had personally led a battalion into the desert, chasing the Hurians as far back as they could. As much as it was a victory of the Royal Army, it had also been great loss for them. Exposure to the harsh, arid environment had taken its toll on their forces. They lost close to hundred men from exhaustion and sunstroke, and ambush by the fleeing Hurians. It had taken the intervention of a second battalion to rescue the survivors, including the Princess, who was close to death.
Miriam walked to the bed where Sterling was sleeping deeply. The men had told of how Sterling had refused any nourishment, making sure that was little was left was shared amongst the men first, settling for the scraps instead. If she'd been a hero before, she was a legend now. Even in her weakened state, she is said to have mortally wounded the Hurian Commander, sending the remaining enemy soldiers fleeing in all directions.
She gently pushed a tendril of red hair from Sterling's pale face. It had taken her two days to replace the water and nutrients in Sterling. Her external wounds would take a little longer, but she had managed to relieve her skin from the pain of heatstroke, but she was still painful for her to wear anything against her skin.
Miriam's eyes shot full of tears at hearing the soft pleading in her friend's voice. Since her rescue a week ago, Sterling had been in an out of consciousness. She would call her wife's name every time she regained consciousness, but when she noticed Orla's absence she would fade out again.
A missive has arrived this morning bearing the personal seal of the Queen, which made it clear that no one but Sterling was to know its contents. She noticed that Sterling's breathing changed. Sterling was becoming restless. Miriam gently stroked her hair. Her eyes shifted to the scroll in her hand and back at Sterling's pale face.
“You will have to wake up, my friend. I have something for you,” she murmured. Her eyebrows raised in surprise when the silver eyes flickered open and looked at her.
“She is not here, Sterling. Welcome back to land of the living, my friend.”
Sterling's eyes fluttered close again. “How…how long has it been?”
“A week. You regained consciousness a few times, but only for a few seconds at a time.” Miriam moved away to fill a glass with water. “Are you thirsty,” she asked over her shoulder. When Sterling answered in the affirmative, she brought the glass over and helped Sterling up so she could drink. “Not too much at once.”
After a few sips Sterling laid back. “What happened in my absence?”
Miriam shook her head slowly. “Not much. The men are busy packing up and the Generals have decided to leave a small troop here to guard the border.”
Sterling tried to sit up, but Miriam pushed her down gently. “Everything is taken care of. We were waiting for you to regain full consciousness so we could start the journey back.” Miriam saw Sterling's face hardened, her eyes blazing with frustration. “You are not yet strong enough, Sterling.”
“I do not care, Miriam. I want to get home. Tell the men I am fine and that we will leave tomorrow at noon.”
“I do not—” Miriam began, but was quickly interrupted.
“That is an order, Miriam. If you do not want to tell them then I will.”
Miriam looked at Sterling with a heavy frown. Sterling's lips were still chapped and below the thin sheet, her body still held injuries from her last battle with the Hurian Commander. Moving her now could open the wounds; she so carefully stitched a few days ago. But refusing an order from her sovereign was tantamount to the death penalty. She held out the scroll to Sterling instead.
“This came for you this morning,” she said evenly and left the tent without a backward glance.
Mesmeria sighed softly as she carefully made her way over to the chair in front on the fireplace. Cybralle sat as still as a statue, her eyes fixed on the glowing embers. The Queen's heart shattered every time at the sight of her strong mate, looking so defeated. She gently brushed over the tousled dark hair which seem to sport more grey now since her return from Arnat.
“I have asked the kitchen to send up a tray for you.”
The dark head lifted slightly. “I am not hungry.”
Mesmeria's eyes fluttered close for a moment. Cybralle was wasting away. The once robust warrior was a mere shadow of her former self. As desperate as she was to get Cybralle out of the deep depression she had sunken into, she also know that she had to gently coax her mate back to her.
“I know, my love. But you have not eaten since yesterday morning and I do not want you to fall ill.”
Cybralle shrugged. “In that case I will try to eat something.”
Mesmeria planted a soft kiss on the dark head. “I would like more than anything to have dinner with you, but with the visiting delegation from Tsubis, I am expected to entertain them tonight.”
Mesmeria stood there for a moment longer, looking at Cybralle. It has been two weeks now and every morning; Cybralle rose from their bed and stationed herself before the fireplace. That seemed to be the only place where she found peace. Cybralle's sleep was infested by demon nightmares which caused the big warrior to roll off the bed and cower on the floor. Mesmeria had spent more nights on the floor, cradling her mate to her chest than she could remember. She too felt the pain and sadness at Orla's death and many times as she held her lover, did she too shed tears of regret at the demise of the young blacksmith.
She quickly shook off the sad thoughts. She had a roomful of politicians downstairs waiting for her. With a final stroke over Cybralle's hair, she made for the door.
“Have you sent word to Sterling?”
Mesmeria turned at the door to find stormy grey eyes looking at her. “I sent a messenger a week ago.”
Cybralle turned away. “Good.”
Mesmeria stepped through the door and closed it softly behind her. She leaned against the door for a moment, but at the soft sound of footsteps approaching down the candle-lit hallway, she pushed away and planted a fake smile on her face. She will get through this night.
Cybralle's hand was shaking as she reached for the wine flask. She brought it to her lips and drank deep from it. She didn't take the flask away until she felt it was much lighter in weight than when she first took it. The potent brew immediately went to work and Cybralle sighed as a slow heat filled her body. Soon…very soon…the pain and guilt which had kept her up for most of the past month will recede, giving away to blessed numbness. It will also help a lot when she had to face Sterling, who was due any day now.
From the private lounge she heard the chamber door open. The citrusy smell, which was so part of Mesmeria filled the chamber and Cybralle, sighed. Not a day or night goes by without Mesmeria berating her gently for her refusal to leave the chambers. Cybralle didn't know if she would ever be able to tell Mesmeria what she saw when she tried to close her eyes at night. Mesmeria will probably never understand why she couldn't go out here and face her men. She lifted the flask and groaned in frustration when a strong hand took it from her grasp.
“You need to eat. The kitchen informed me that all your meals for the day have been returned untouched.”
“I am not hungry,” Cybralle said as she turned her head away, refusing to look at Mesmeria.
“In that case than I would suggest no more wine should be sent up to the room then,” Mesmeria said sharply.
Cybralle's head jerked up. “I am not a child and I will not let you take that tone with me.” Cybralle felt her inside swell with the helpless rage she'd been keeping inside for so long. “Go intimidate your subjects instead.”
She saw the green eyes darken, before Mesmeria swung.
The slap jerked Cybralle's face to the side. Cybralle surged out of the chair, her large hands balled in fists. Mesmeria's eyes glittered with anger as she stood there looking up at Cybralle towering over her.
“If you ever again lift your hand for me you again will regret it,” Cybralle hissed as her hands clenched and unclenched.
“What will you do?” Mesmeria asked calmly. She lifted her hand again, but this time Cybralle grabbed her hand before it touched her cheek. “If beating me will pull you out of this cloud of self-pity you have been dwelling in then I am willing to allow you to beat me until I lay bleeding on the floor.” This time a single tear slipped from the green eyes and ran down a flustered cheek. “You have deserted me.”
Cybralle felt her heart jerk at the words. She has never deserted Mesmeria? Not once in all these years of marriage. She quickly dropped Mesmeria's hand and took a step back, her anger deflated.
“How can you say that? I…I have been there for you always,” she choked out. Her eyes roamed over Mesmeria's face which was glistening with more tears now. She hated to see Mesmeria cry. It made her feel so helpless.
Mesmeria's arms locked around her abdomen as if she was trying to keep herself from falling apart. Cybralle swallowed at the sight for this was the first time she had ever seen her wife like this.
“Our daughter is on her way back to hear the most devastating news ever and…and like a coward you are hiding your face behind a wine flask leaving me to do this alone.” Mesmeria lowered her head slowly. “I have already lost you to grief; I cannot see the same happening to our daughter, Cybralle. I need you.” The blonde head lifted. Watery green eyes met hers. “I am barely strong enough to hold you and Lima together. I need to be stronger if I have to save Sterling from spiralling into the dark abyss of bereavement. Without you I am so weak.”
Cybralle stood ramrod stiff as she witnessed her wife's anguish. Since Orla's death Mesmeria had been so strong. She was aware that Mesmeria too mourned the untimely death of Orla. Some nights, when Mesmeria thought she was asleep, Cybralle would feel her wife slip from their bed and come and sit in front of the fire as soft sobs racked her body. The next morning the green eyes would be bright and lively again as she again availed herself to Lima. Cybralle feel the tears well up in her own eyes. Mesmeria was right. She had deserted her. In her grief, shame and guilt, she had not only deserted her wife, but Lima too. They were after all grieving for both their daughters. She felt tears ran down her cheeks. But she had failed the most important person in her life.
“I…I…am so…” The words got stuck in her throat as she a sob tore through her body. “Mesmeria…Mesmeria…Mesmeria…” She chanted the name over and over as she reached for her wife. With infinite tenderness she cradled Mesmeria to her chest. More tears slid down her cheeks as she felt her wife clung to her with desperation. How could she have been so selfish? All this time all Mesmeria wanted was to be held too. Instead Cybralle sapped everything her wife had to offer from her and not once given back. “Please forgive me, beloved. Please forgive me for being so weak and selfish.”
Soft lips pressed against her neck. “Just promise me that you will never push me away like this again.” Mesmeria leaned her head back so their eyes could meet. “I was so lonely and so very scared.”
With a groan Cybralle cradled Mesmeria's head against her chest. “It will never ever happen again. I promise you.” She brushed her lips over the fragrant hair. “I pray that one day I can redeem myself in your eyes again.” Mesmeria gently pushed out the embrace and Cybralle fearfully met her eyes. She searched the green eyes as she waited in anticipation for Mesmeria's next words. “Please do not tell me that I will never be able to, beloved.”
Mesmeria smiled weakly. “You will always be my protector and the most important person in my life, Cybralle. There is no need to redeem yourself in my eyes. We all felt the loss, some more than the other, but we all felt it regardless.” Mesmeria placed her palm against Cybralle's cheek and the warrior leaned into the caress. “I would, however, like to know what happened. Will you tell me? No one knew what happened exactly, but I think you do.”
Cybralle felt her stomach churn at the mere thought that she would have to relive the scene. She looked down into the moist green eyes, pleading with her. Cybralle took a shaky breath. “I want Lima to hear this too.”
She saw the relief in her wife's eyes. “That would be very helpful for Lima.”
Sterling threw her head back and laughed, her silver eyes twinkling as she looked at the blushing soldier. After a long day in the saddle she'd look forward to stretching her legs and so, after supper, she wandered off into the woods for a brisk walk. Upon her return to the camp, she'd found the men around a fire, talking. She was about to skirt around them not wanting to intrude and dampen their exuberant conversation, when they start talking about their loved ones. Standing in the shadows she too began to reminisce. After eight months away from Orla, she was looking forward for some vigorous bed sports too. One of her archers began to relay a story of his wife and her fiery temper, causing Sterling to smile.
“Why would an overgrown oaf like you be scared of your wife's lectures? She chuckled when the large man's eyes widened as she stepped out of the shadows.
“I did not see you there, milady. Please forgive me my careless words.”
Sterling waved the apology away. “No need for that, Irgham. No tell me why Lavia's tongue would scare such a brave soldier as yourself?”
After the initial shock of her sudden appearance had gone, the men laughed at the discomfort of the blushing soldier.
“I…I find her to be to quick-witted for me, milady,” Irgham stumbled, causing the men to laugh even harder.
“Ah, do we not all fall victim to the quick minds of our other halves,” Sterling accepted a goblet of wine from one of the men. “But still we feel home when they cradle us against their soft bosoms.” A soft murmur of agreement sounded and Sterling watched as foolish grins formed on the faces of the men. She couldn't see it herself, but she was sure her face mirrored those of her men. She couldn't wait to be back in her blacksmith's arms. A tremor coursed through her body as she relived the last moment she was held in those strong arms. Those pale eyes were devouring her at a much faster pace than those large hands could. She took a deep draught of the wine. As soon as the sky lightened they would be underway and long before the sun sets for the day, she would be basking in the loving arms of her wife. There was only one way of ushering on the new day and she quickly drained her cup.
“By the looks of you all I can assume that you are all just as eager to be with your loved ones as I am. Thank you for the wine, but I think I would rather sleep through the next few hours than sit here wishing I was somewhere else.”
Some of the men agreed whilst others simply shrugged and reached for the wineskins. Sterling waved at them as she made her way to her tent. She disrobed quickly and sponged down her body before she fell onto the bed.
Two hours later she found herself with the bedding coiled around her and her mind obliterated by memories of a tall, dark woman with the most exquisite blue eyes.
“Oh my love…” she murmured softly as her hand dipped lower. She gasped at the first touch, as her thighs moved inwards, holding her hands captive. Just as quickly she withdrew her hand. She was so close to the real thing to spoil her hunger now. Pummelling her pillow she rolled onto her stomach and groaned as her hips pressed into the soft bedding. With a soft curse she sat up. She had to find something to keep her mind busy. Her eyes fell on the leather bound tome. Yes, maybe she could keep herself busy by updating her recordings. It has been a few days since she'd recorded anything new.
Her body was still throbbing with passion as she went to sit at the small table. Tomorrow, she promised her angry body, tomorrow I will appease you. Picking up the quill, she quickly organized her thoughts and began to write. Soon she was so caught up in pouring out her thoughts and memories, the scratching of the quill on the scroll the only sound in the tent.
The chapel was empty except for the one occupant in the front pew. Cybralle swallowed hard as a soft sniff sounded. She threw back her shoulders and slowly made her way to where the woman sat. She knew her presence had been detected when the woman's shoulders stiffened.
The greying blonde head lifted slowly, but still no eye contact was made. “Milady?”
“Do you mind if I just sit here with you?”
“Not at all, milady,” came the soft reply.
Cybralle's heart hurt as she watched the woman. Since her disclosure last night of what had really happened during the attack, Lima had been withdrawn. Even this morning at breakfast the woman had listlessly picked at her food. More than half of her plate was left untouched as she excused herself from the table. Cybralle wanted to follow her, but Mesmeria's soft hand had held her back. For a few seconds she had considered returning to the Royal chamber and to the chair before the fireplace, but instead she had leaned into Mesmeria, bathing in her strength and love. When Lima didn't show for lunch, Cybralle had personally requested the kitchen to keep a plate warm for the woman.
She looked at the bowed head of Lima. Even without Orla, Lima will always be part of the Royal family. I do not desert family. That was what Orla had said to her. Cybralle felt tears well up in her eyes.
“I have cried a lot since my return,” Cybralle began. She saw the blonde head lift a little bit more. “I cried for your loss and for that of my daughter. Never have I cried for the loss to myself.” Tears trickled down her cheeks now. “We argued earlier that night. Orla and me.” The blonde head lifted and wide red-rimmed eyes met hers. “I wanted her to stay behind, far away from the frontline. She refused.” Cybralle looked away. “She said that we were family and she would never desert family.” Cybralle felt her heart shudder as a large sob tore through her body. “She said that the Kingdom would bear her death better than mine because Mesmeria would die if I was not to return. The Kingdom…according to her would not bear the loss of Mesmeria. ”
She turned back to look at Lima and was stunned to find the woman smiling through her own tears.
“And she was right. As a child I always reminded her that every powerful person cast an even more powerful shadow. The Queen needs you like the air that she breathes. Orla understood and respected that.” Lima rubbed at her tears. “I mourned my daughter for the fact that she was my heart and soul, my pride, and the last piece I had of the only man I have ever loved. Your words made me realise that I diminished her memory. I forgot to mourn the hero she was to our Kingdom…” A soft sob broke from the grieving mother. “… my own hero.”
They shifted closer to each other and Cybralle pulled the slender woman into her arms as they cried together. When they have calmed down a little Cybralle rested her cheek on the smaller woman's head.
“I am so sorry for not bringing back your daughter, Lima, and I am so sorry for costing this great Kingdom the greatest Consort ever in all its history.”
Lima stirred and looked up. “It is not your fault, Cybralle. Remember you warned me when you came to talk to me before you left for Arnat.”
“But still. I promised you that I would look after her, protect her, and bring her back safely.”
Lima gently pushed out of Cybralle's embrace. “Orla's father was a brave and noble man. He sacrificed his life for this Kingdom and my daughter grew up honouring the legacy her father left behind.” Lima smiled. “She always wanted to emulate her father even though she had never met the man. By dying the way she did, she ensured her memory will always live on.” She touched Cybralle's cheek. “What is left now, is to make Sterling understand that too. We need to be strong for her.”
Cybralle's swallowed back fresh tears. She prayed that one day she would be as forgiving as Lima when it comes to her daughter. Before her was a woman who had lost everything and still she looked beyond her own loss to that of another.
“You are a great woman, Lima,” Cybralle murmured. “For as long as I live, I will never regret making you part of my family. I fail to find words, worthy enough, to describe your selflessness.”
A lone tear trickle down Lima's cheek and Cybralle gently wiped it away. “Your acceptance of my daughter, a mere blacksmith, gladdened my heart and brought Orla so much happiness. She lived a short life, but it was a very happy one, thanks to you all.”
Cybralle once again pulled the woman in her arms and held her tightly. Even if she tried, she could find nothing more to say to this wonderful woman. If a mother could forgive like this, she prayed a daughter could also return such a favour. She will be strong when she faced Sterling.
Ridat shook with anger as he looked down at the bloody mass at his feet. Before his rage exploded, it had resembled his most trusted general. He kicked at the body and walked to the entrance of the cave. A lone guard stood outside the cave. He must've heard what had transpired inside, because he was pale and shaking as he looked fearfully at him.
“Get this rubbish out of here.”
He stepped past the man as the guard rushed into the cave to do his bidding. On any other day, he would've found the clear skies beautiful. He might have even tracked down a female and lured her into the forest where he would couple with her until she collapsed from sheer exhaustion. But today was not such a day. A fortnight ago he was dealt another setback.
Why was it so difficult for people to follow his orders, but so easy for them to disappoint him? Since coming to this godforsaken place, he had only had misfortunes paving his way. No, he was wrong. It all started with his birth and with one man in particular.
The man had it all. Status and riches as well as the uncanny skill to always stay one step ahead of him. Ridat's face contorted in a mask of cold hatred. He closed his eyes to block out everything else, but the bitter loathing he felt for his nemesis still lingered. Oh, how he fantasized of standing over the man's dying body one day. He would make him beg as he tore out his heart.
Ridat jerked his head in the direction of the voice. He grinned when the man took a hasty step back. With his rage still simmering, Ridat knew that his eyes were a solid, eerie black—Devil's eyes. It was called that before he and his mother were cast out from their home. The memory spiked his anger and he had to keep himself from pouncing on the man and tore him to shreds.
“Is it done?”
“Yes, milord. Is there anything else you require?”
Ridat nodded. “I need a replacement for Brodin. Find one amongst yourselves who can fill the position. Be warned though, that I do not take kindly to failure, lest the new general want to follow down Brodin's path.”
The man swallowed, his Adams apple bouncing nervously. “Yes, milord.”
“When the new general reports to me, I want to know how many of the recruits have arrived.”
Without a backward glance he entered the cave, his gaze moving to where the body had lain. The body was gone and there was not even a sign that a man had brutally died in that very spot less than ten minutes ago. Ridat looked around his abode. A bitterness rose within him again. Here he was living like an animal in a cave, whilst royal blood pumped through his veins. He was tired of playing the role of the downtrodden mongrel.
Ridat reached for the wineskin and drank deeply. For his plans to be realized, he needed to find the Peron's spy within his army. Then and only then will he be able to best his nemesis. He threw himself into a chair. His sharp sense of smell could still pick up traces of blood in the air. In hindsight, it was probably not such a good idea to have killed Brodin. The man was an imbecile, but he lasted longer than the ones before him. He quickly discarded the sentiment. Brodin disappointed him. He lost a good number of men when they attacked the Arnati camp.
Peron was waiting for them and slaughtered his pack mercilessly. Realizing his mistake, Brodin decided to undo his poor judgement and decided to attack the Karasi troops. If he'd hoped for a pat on the back from Ridat for his uncharacteristic ingenuity, he was sorely mistaken. Not only had he returned to camp with a few survivors trailing behind him, but Peron had taken some of his men captive. Captives, he had no doubt, who would squeal at the first prick of pain.
Even with all these odds against him, Ridat wouldn't give up. His destiny had been laid out for him at birth. The celestial presence that night of his birth convinced his mother and all those present that his father's seed had passed the Greatness onto him. His mother had done right by him. Just as the blind sorceress predicted that night, life would first push him to the outer edges of the social order, before it embraced him again. As the bastard whelp of a very powerful Prince it was just a matter of time before he inherited the power and status his father withheld from him. History has been kind to bastard rulers as far back as he can remember. Jurias, the bastard son of King Herop of Omega, had overthrown his father's rule a few years back and was now a celebrated monarch. History indeed favoured the bastards. Jurias' example has made the subjects more sympathetic to the plight of the abandoned seedlings of Royal Houses.
Everything was going according to plan, except for Peron.
“Your time will come very soon, cousin,” he sneered before lifting the wineskin to his lips.
Mesmeria gave Cybralle's hand a firm squeeze as they sat in silence, waiting. Loud thumping footsteps sounded and then there was a soft knock on the door. A servant girl quickly opened the door.
“Your Highness,” Mesmeria heard the girl's soft greeting and Cybralle stiffened again next to her. Mesmeria rose to her feet as she turned to greet her daughter. Her heart swelled with pride at the sight of her daughter. Sterling looked like the ultimate soldier. A fine film of dust covered her tall slender frame. Her silver eyes shone with pleasure as she looked at her and then at Cybralle who had risen to her feet too.
“My love,” Mesmeria held out her arms and wide and groaned with pleasure when she was caught in a hard embrace. Tears welled in her arms as she rested her ear over her daughter's heart. Lima would never feel this exquisite pleasure of holding her baby against her breast like this again. Nor would her daughter's heart ever be the same again after she heard the news. She was gently held back and smiling silver eyes pierced hers.
“I am honoured that the Great Queen revels at my presence. I love you, mother.”
Mesmeria clung desperately to Sterling's arms as the redhead pressed a tender kiss on her cheek. “I love you with all my heart,” she croaked. She shuddered at the loss of Sterling's touch when the younger woman moved over to where Cybralle stood. Cybralle's face was wet with tears.
“Ah, the Queen shedding tears, I can understand, but the most revered warrior in the realm doing so, baffles me a little,” Sterling teased as she was caught in Cybralle's strong arms. “I missed you, Umah.”
Cybralle cleared her throat softly. “It is great to hold my darling in my arms again.”
Sterling kissed Cybralle too before she stepped back. “I have someone else waiting for me, but I will have dinner with you later.”
“Sterling, there is something we have to tell you.” Mesmeria said softly. Her tone must have given her anxiety away because Sterling's eyes sharpened quickly. “Please sit, daughter.”
Mesmeria looked to Cybralle, praying that her wife would not break down. She took a seat next to her daughter whose body was suddenly stiff with tension.
“I met a Royal messenger earlier this morning, but because I was so close to home I did not read the message.” Sterling looked at Cybralle and then back at Mesmeria. “Should I have?”
Cybralle sank into a chair opposite Sterling and Mesmeria could see the pain radiating from her wife. The silver eyes so like Sterling's were almost pale with emotion. “Orla is gone.”
Mesmeria didn't think it was possible, but Sterling's body stiffened even further. “Gone? What does that mean?” This time Mesmeria could hear the fear in her daughter's voice.
Mesmeria placed a hand on Sterling's arm and felt the younger woman jump in nervous surprise.
“She died, my love.”
The words hung heavy in the silence as Sterling stared at her. First there was disbelief and then a look of horror crossed over Sterling's face and stayed there like a death mask. The silver eyes swirled with a myriad of emotions. Shock, pain, fear, and finally determination warred for supremacy in her daughter's gaze. Mesmeria shuddered as a hard, cruel light came to her daughter's eyes.
“What happened?” Sterling's voice was cold. “Who is responsible for this?”
Mesmeria saw Cybralle swallowed nervously. “I am, Sterling.”
“It is not true, Cybralle.” Mesmeria cut in quickly. She looked at Sterling to find the silver eyes watching Cybralle with stunned horror. “No, child, it was not your mother's fault.” She reached for Sterling's arm, but Sterling surged to her feet.
“What happened, Umah?” The silver eyes pleaded with Cybralle.
Cybralle slowly came to her feet. “I allowed her to accompany on a very dangerous mission. I…I tried to…I failed to protect her.” Cybralle lowered her eyes. “I… Please forgive me.”
There was long silence.
Mesmeria walked over to stand next to her wife. “Your mother has been suffering over this for so long.”
Sterling turned away, keeping her back to them. “How did it happen?”
“She was killed by a wolf.”
Mesmeria gasped as Sterling spun around, the silver eyes were blinking in surprise. “A wolf?”
Cybralle nodded. “Yes. She killed one, but the other got her and dragged her away.”
Sterling shook her head. “That is impossible. Orla was strong enough to snap the neck of a full-grown ox.”
“These wolves were different. They stood as high as oxen and were twice as vicious.”
Sterling took a deep breath. “Then it is nobody's fault. I need some privacy.”
Mesmeria's heart hurt something fierce as she watched her daughter quietly walk away. She turned to Cybralle and found the silver eyes filled with tears. Later she would look in on Sterling, but for now her wife needed her.
She took Cybralle's hand and drew her to the bed where she laid down, opening her arms for her Consort. They lay like that in long silence before Cybralle spoke again.
“She was too reserved.”
Mesmeria stroked over Cybralle's greying dark hair. “She is in shock.” Cybralle nestled deeper in her arms and Mesmeria tightened her hold.
“I fear the worst is still to come.”
The moment the chamber door closed behind her, Sterling's legs gave in and she slid down the door to the floor. A deep keening sound filled the room as her eyes wildly searched the room. She wasn't here. Orla would never be here again.
A sob tore from her mouth and soon the room was filled with the sound of deep wrenching sobs. She brought her hand to her mouth to stifle the sound.
“I came back…I came back, but you left.”
She lowered her head until her chin fell on her chest. “You promised you would wait for me.”
There was a soft knock on the door. Sterling quickly dried her tears, but didn't move. Whoever was out there will move on once they realise that she didn't want company. The knock sounded again.
This time Sterling surged to her feet and wrenched the door open. The sight of the woman caused a lone tear to spill over and trickle down her face.
She didn't know who moved, but the next moment she was caught in the desperate embrace of the woman. This was the closest she was ever going to be to Orla again—the woman who had borne her. The tears started again and even with Lima's gentle shushing they refused to let up.
Sterling didn't know how long she had stood there, crying as if her heart was breaking, but when the tears finally let up, her throat was raw and her eyes almost swollen shut. She felt a soft kiss on her cheek and tried to focus her gaze on Lima. The woman's face was also wet with tears, but a loving smile on her lips.
“Why do you not rest for a while?”
Sterling quickly shook her head. Sleeping meant closing her eyes and she doubt she would be able to handle the dream images of Orla which had visited her every night for the seven months she was away from her.
Lima reached up and brushed a red lock away. “You have to at least try, Sterling. Your body needs the rest,”
Sterling clung to Lima as the woman slowly began to steer her in the direction of the bed. “I am scared.”
She was gently settled on the bed. “I will not leave you.”
“She is in my dreams. Whenever I close my eyes she comes to me.,” Sterling said in a chocked voice. “I cannot see her now, knowing that she is forever gone.” Lima pushed her back on the bed, but Sterling sat up again. “I do not want to be here.”
Lima stood back. “Where do you want to be?”
“Just not in this room.”
Lima was quiet for a moment. “Where do you want to go?”
Sterling swallowed as memories rushed through her mind. “The small bench outside your house.”
Lima blinked in surprise, but Sterling held her gaze to convey how serious she was. “I want to go there.”
After a few moments of silence in which Lima looked at her, Sterling saw the woman nod. “Then I will take you there.”
Cybralle gently disentangled herself from Mesmeria's arms. She dressed quietly and started for the door.
“Where are you going, my love?” came the sleepy voice from the bed. She quickly doubled back to the bed and placed a gentle kiss on her wife's lips.
“I was just going to see how Sterling is doing. I know you said I should give her time and space to grieve.” Cybralle kissed Mesmeria again. “I am worried about her and I want to see her.”
Mesmeria lifted herself onto her elbow. In the soft lift from the fire, Cybralle could see the worried look on her wife's face.
“She did not join us for supper. Maybe you should take her something to eat.”
Mesmeria laid back and snuggled into the warm bedding. “Hurry back.”
“If she does not want me there I will be back speedily.”
With a large yawn, Mesmeria waved Cybralle away. The hallway was deserted with only a few lanterns casting away the shadows. It was well into night and the castle was quiet. Cybralle made her way over the other side of the wing of the castle where Sterling's rooms were. She knocked softly and waited for a reply. When her second knock wasn't answered, she carefully tested the door handle. The door swung open and Cybralle waited for her eyes to get used to the darkness before she moved deeper into the room.
Her eyes fell on the bed and she frowned. It was empty. She scanned the rest of the rooms, but to no avail.
“Where could she be?” Cybralle muttered to herself as she left the room. A good place to begin her search would be the stables. She quickly made her way down the hallway, down the stairs and through the side door. She nodded at the guard on duty as she crossed the flower court on her way to the stables.
Sterling was terrified.
Since her arrival she'd been mourning constantly, missing Orla so much that she felt her heart was leaking, filling her chest cavity with blood. Now that night has fallen she was absolutely terrified of what the night would bring. Being awake was like being caught in a nightmare, but going to sleep would be even worse. Orla would be waiting for her in her dreams. Her fear stems from the fact that she would have to wake up again and it would kill her to say goodbye to Orla again.
She rested her head on her knees and shuddered. Sleeping was inevitable, but at least she had control over when she wanted to go to sleep and she was going to cling to that. Lima had accompanied her to the small house she and Orla had shared before. There they had sat together in silence each busy with their own thoughts, each mourning their personal loss. After a while the cold had chased Lima inside but Sterling remained. The cold was nothing compared to the stark desolateness inside her heart.
“She misses you too, you know?”
Sterling's head snapped up at the unexpected voice. Scanning that darkness around her, she sat up straight when she couldn't see the other person.
“Who is there?” She reached for her dagger, having left her sword in the room earlier, and slowly climbed to her feet.
A man stepped from the shadows behind the small hut. Sterling quickly sized him up. He was tall and well-muscled from what she could see in the faint light filtering through from the widows where Lima had stared at fire.
“It is just me, Your Highness,” he said softly as he took a step closer until the light fell on his face. Sterling's hand tightened on the handle of her dagger. She had never seen this man before and even in his motionlessness he radiated a strange feral aura.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?”
The man executed a graceful bow which would make any of the nobles at Court jealous. Sterling's interest was now truly piqued.
“Romulus Harpon at your service, Your Highness.”
Sterling frowned. The name meant nothing to her. “And what brings you here?”
The man straightened. His eyes were intense as they looked at her. “I heard what happened to your Consort.”
The silver eyes hardened. She didn't want anyone talking about Orla—least of all this stranger. She turned and walked to the door, but just as her hand touched the door handle the man spoke again.
“She misses you.”
The breath exploded from Sterling's chest as her legs suddenly gave way and she crashed to her knees. Was it not enough that her heart was slowly splintering up inside in chest, just waiting to shatter and kill her. Now this man comes from nowhere and hurt her even worse than even the news of Orla's death did. He was giving her hope when there was none.
She took a shaky breath, her chin resting on her chest as silent tears trickled down her face. “I have made many enemies in my quest to defend my kingdom its people. I have made widows out of more women than I can count or remember.” Sterling bit back a sob. “If I have in any way caused you harm through my actions, I apologise, but…” The sob escaped. “…but for you to hurt me like this?” Sterling lifted her head slowly. “Rather draw your sword and run me through, but do not try to give me hope where there is none. Orla is gone. Be human and let me try to live through that.”
Cybralle had looked everywhere—the stalls, the garden and finally the blacksmith's shop. But Sterling was nowhere to be found. With purposeful strides she walked back to the Palace. She startled the guard when she came to a stop before him.
“Have you seen the Princess?”
“She left the Palace almost four candle marks past, Commander.”
“Was she alone?”
“No, Commander. She was in the company of the Royal Guide.”
Lima! Cybralle knew immediately where to go. She was just about to turn the corner of Lima's erstwhile home, when she heard her daughter's voice. Sterling's voice was raw with pain as she pleaded with her unknown companion. Her mother instinct kicked in as she reached for her sword, ready to storm in and defend her daughter, when a man's voice stopped her.
“I swear I am not here to torture you, Your Highness.”
“Then leave me the dignity to mourn in peace, Romulus Harpon.”
Cybralle's eye widened at hearing the faceless man's name. It could not be impossible! Romulus Harpon died almost twenty years ago. She knew because he took an arrow to the chest only to die later. He was one of her best warriors and she was saddened by his death and the loss of his expertise. She drew her sword. The other alternative was that this man could be impersonating the long dead warrior. What would he gain from using a dead man's identity? Cybralle abhorred treachery and she liked it even less that this imposter was in the presence of her daughter.
She stepped around the house, her sword drawn. “Romulus Harpon died in battle twenty years ago. Who are you and what do you want with my daughter?”
Sterling turned to look at her. The man, however just stood there, his back still turned to her. Cybralle slowly skirted the man, her sword in the ready. Suddenly alarmed, Sterling climbed to her feet, her dagger also drawn.
“Is it true what my mother says,” Sterling asked, her voice was sharp. Cybralle had almost moved around the man when he spoke again.
“The Commander is correct.”
Cybralle felt her senses buzz, reading her body for the anticipated battle. The man turned his head in her direction and Cybralle faltered. She blinked at the man as she lowered her sword.
Stunned beyond words, Cybralle could only stare at the man, taking in the familiar features. Romulus was indeed alive! He didn't even look as if he had aged that much either. What was she missing?
“What sorcery is this, Rom? I saw you take an arrow to the chest. No one could survive such an injury.” She studied the man closely, sensing the strange aura surrounding the man.
“We cannot talk here. I do not want to meet with Lima.” Romulus said. He sounded also resigned.
Cybralle's eyes narrowed. “Why should I trust you, Rom?”
The man took a step closer and Cybralle quickly lifted her sword. “Because I am not the enemy. Besides, I am on an errand.”
“Where can we go where we will not be disturbed?” Romulus' eyes glittered now with impatience.
Cybralle prayed she wasn't ever going to regret her decision. She sheathed her sword. “Follow me.”
She led them through a few backstreets, passed noisy inns and drunken soldiers loitering in the streets. They came to a stop before a sturdy door. Cybralle knocked three times. The door opened into a small room that looked like the office of a Scribe. There was a desk which was littered with scrolls and ink pots. Except for the desk, the only other piece of furniture was a large cupboard. Giving the man at the door a curt nod she led her companions deeper in to the room.
“What is this place?”
Cybralle grinned at the blatant curiosity in her daughter's voice. “The kingdom's best kept secret.” She walked over to the cupboard and looked at Rom and Sterling. “Watch your heads.”
She grinned at the identical confused looks which came over the other two's faces. Opening the cupboard doors, she led them down a set of stairs until they reached a door. She gave them a quick look over her shoulder before she opened the door.
Both Sterling and Rom gasped in shock as their eyes took in the room. Cybralle could definitely imagine their surprise. She remembered when she was brought here by one of her men almost ten years ago. She was completely stunned that such a place even existed least of all in the Royal City. The owner was a noble man who, after having travelled extensively throughout the known world, had brought back the idea of an exclusive entertainment establishment for the nobility. No questions were asked and no answers were offered.
Her eyes took in the scene before her. She hadn't been here in years, but not much have changed. The place was still decorated in the lush Persian style of rich flowing silks, flowers and scented candles. The floors were covered with thick Oriental carpets which were strewn with flower pedals. On an elevated platform were three scantily clad girls of Oriental origin doing a slow sensuous dance to a foreign sounding melody coming from a group of musicians in the corner of the hall.
A serving girl quickly made her way over to them. “Your table awaits you, milady.” Cybralle threw a quick glance at Sterling, not in the least surprised by the myriad of emotions flashing over her daughter's face. First there was confusion, then disappointment and then anger.
“Does mother know?” The question was hissed through clenched teeth.
“Who do you think I bring here?” Cybralle almost laughed out loud at the astonished look on Sterling's face.
Cybralle nodded before leading them to a table in the corner of the hall. The serving girl came over with a platter filled with cold meat cuts and pastries. Another girl placed two flasks of wine on the table. She turned to look at Rom, who'd been quiet all this time, his eyes flickering over the room. He must've felt her eyes on him, because he turned to look at her.
“Any inn would have sufficed.”
Cybralle shook her head. “You would have been recognized. I did not fancy myself answering questions to which I also do not know the answers.” She filled three goblets with wine and waited until they each had taken a sip. “What is it you wanted to tell us?”
The man emptied his goblet and quickly served himself again. Feeling generous tonight, she gave Rom a few seconds to boost his courage. In the meantime, she studied Sterling. The girl looked drawn and pale. Her slumped posture radiated defeat and her eyes, the few times they had met hers, were dark with sorrow. She desperately wished she could take the crippling pain from her daughter, but there was no possible way to that. She jumped slightly when Rom slammed his goblet on the table, an air of determination about him.
“I know where the Princess' spouse is.”
Sterling, who had been taking a sip from her wine, spat it across the table, spraying Cybralle who sat there blinking at Rom. Cybralle vaguely remembered seeing Sterling move, but when the table flipped over onto its side, she quickly surged to her feet. Sterling had her dagger pressed against Rom's neck.
“I have warned you before,” Sterling said in a lethal voice, even as fresh tears began to seep out of the corner of her eyes and coursed down her cheeks.
Moved by her daughter's tears, Cybralle gave the man an accusing glare. She noticed that even with the sharp, dangerous-looking dagger pressed against his neck, Rom appeared unflappable. His eyes were dark as they held Sterling's. “Why are you doing this, Rom? Why are you hurting my child?”
The man's dark blue eyes were open and honest as he carefully angled his head to look at her. The action caused the knife to move, earning him a razor thin cut to his neck which immediately began to bleed.
“She keeps on mumbling the Royals Princess' name from sun up to sun down.” Rom swallowed. “Some days she mumbles something about…about…I think it sounds like ‘keeping the faith'.”
Cybralle saw a look of such pain cross over Sterling's face, before she pulled away from Rom and sunk onto the chair. Cybralle quickly went to kneel at Sterling's chair. “Are you alright?”
She watched closely as Sterling shut her eyes and lowered her head. “She made me promise to keep the faith before I left for the Wastelands.”
Cybralle clutched Sterling's knee. “Do…do you think it is her?”
“I want to try anything before I just give up on her,” Sterling mumbled. When she lifted her head, Cybralle felt her heart lift at the look of purpose on Sterling's face. Sterling turned to Rom. “If she is alive, why did she not come back to me?”
Rom, using a small piece of cloth, dabbed at the cut in her neck. “That, you will probably have to ask her yourself. She has been very sick and is still recovering.”
“Where is she and when can we leave?”
Cybralle saw a shadow came over Rom's face as he looked at her. “Unfortunately I can only take one person with me. Taking more than one can become too dangerous.”
She shook her head. “You must be addle-brained if you think I will let my daughter and heir to the throne travel unaccompanied with a man who miraculously returned from the dead.”
Rom shrugged. “There is nothing more I can do, Commander. Either I take the Princess with me or I take you with me.”
Cybralle skewered Rom with a hard stare, before she turned away to look at Sterling. She could read the answer in the Sterling's eyes even before she voiced it.
“I need to find out if it is her, Umah. If she is injured she needs me.”
Looking at her daughter, Cybralle felt fear winding down her spine. She wasn't like Lima. She doubted she would be strong enough if she was to lose her daughter. Sterling was the best part of her. She had helped conceive her on a star-filled night in a small hut in the forest. The ritual had taken a lot from her, but she had gained something priceless in return. She wasn't ready to lose that…not yet.
“Make sure you return in one piece. If not I will take every able-bodied man in this kingdom and come looking for you.” She turned to Rom. “She better come back or this time I will make sure that you stay dead.”
The night was moonless night, giving an ominous feel to it. Shaking his huge shoulders the man took a deep breath and walked to the entrance of the cave. Six shadows appeared out of nowhere, causing his stride to falter. He was no stranger to this hidden part of the castle. This was where he came to find solace from the loneliness which dogged him relentlessly. The cave was more like a secret dungeon under the palace with an exit leading towards the woods. Over the past six weeks he'd been here more often than not. The reason for that was behind the study door which was guarded by six of his best men. Every time he stopped before the door, listening to what was happening on the other side. And every time it was silent like a grave.
“Milord,” one of the men stepped closer and bowed deeply. He knew they were startled by his presence. He rarely used the entrance leading from the woods. Tonight however he needed fresh air and welcomed the long winding walk around the palace walls.
Gentro gave a curt nod of acknowledgement and made his way over to the door. “Open it.”
A soft gasp came from where the leader of the guards stood. Gentro turned to look at the man. “Do I have to repeat myself, Clemes?”
The man swallowed hard before he lifted the key from his jacket. He hesitated for a moment, and then turned to look at Gentro. “Milord, I would fail greatly in my task of keeping you safe if I did not warn you. This one is very dangerous, milord.”
Gentro was warmed by the man's concern. Everyone was aware of his terrible temper. Clemes was taking a big gamble here, but even then he deemed his master's safety more important than his own safety. He placed his hand on the soldier's shoulder. “I appreciate your concern, my man.”
Clemes turned and pushed the key into the lock. Immediately a loud growl sounded which made the men stiffened. Gentro will never admit it out loud, but he too felt a slight shiver of unease trickle down his spine at the ominous sound coming from behind the door. He reached out and turned the key.
“Wait for me outside.”
Clemes' jaw dropped. “But…but…” he stammered.
“I will be fine. I promise.”
Gentro pushed the heavy door open and stepped through. It was pitch-black inside, but with his enhanced wolf senses, it was easy to see. The room was infused with so many emotions. He felt his senses being bombarded by the pain and anger the dark shape in the corner radiated. The room was well-furnished…rather it must've been to start with. He had given strict orders to that effect. Now only the bed stood. The rest of the room had been trashed. The chairs, desk and cupboard were pulverised and in some places marred by deep claw marks. He blanched at the sight.
She had undergone her first change already!
It was the most painful shift as it would get better as the changes become effortless and almost instantaneous.
He quickly returned his eyes to the dark shadow. He stiffened when eyes so like his own looked back at him. He felt her rage and hatred, but he could also sense her confusion and curiosity.
As long as she wanted answers he guessed he was safe. He stepped deeper into the room but came to an abrupt halt when a shock of black hair broke out on the woman's arms. He blinked at that. For someone who had only had one change she was changing rather rapidly. He remembered it had taken him a few months before he could change so swiftly. He studied the angry eyes carefully. She must've been forcing more changes over the past six weeks. That was the only other explanation and a very dangerous practice. He knew of many close family members who had been driven to the brink of madness by the horrific pain they had subjected their bodies to so they could be battle-ready earlier. Some were so traumatized that they had refused to change ever again, others had recovered but they carried the trauma of the experience forever.
Now she had done the same. He took a careful step closer, watching in fascination as the hair grew longer. The woman took in a threatening stance.
The woman just stared at him with her angry eyes.
“You could have hurt yourself by forcing more changes than your body could take.”
Gentro took another step closer, but a soft warning growl made him cease all movements. Her agitation had increased and Gentro wondered vaguely if he should've allowed the men to enter with him. Maybe he should come back some other time.
“I wanted to see for myself that you are doing fine.”
When silence still prevailed, he turned and made for the door. Just as he reached the door, the hair at the back of his neck rose, causing him to duck, shifting simultaneously. A loud whoosh sounded as a hard object slammed into him, knocking the air from his lungs. The momentum caused them to roll out the door and into the crisp night air. Gentro was surprised by the size and power of the large dark wolf holding him down with its weight. Having seen his own reflection in a clear pool of water once, Gentro was amazed by the eerie resemblance they shared. It felt like he was fighting himself.
He quickly pulled his head away when sharp teeth came close to snapping at his throat. Curling up his hind legs, he gave a massive push causing the female wolf to fly through the air, landing a few feet away. He quickly changed back to his human form, the transformation completed just as the wolf attacked again. Gentro quickly sidestepped the attack, but the wolf turned back to stage another attack. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw Clemes lifting his crossbow. Even in the moonless night, Gentro could make out the deadly silver head of the arrow.
“Do not shoot her!” He propelled himself in the air, escaping the wolf leap by only a few inches. He landed in front of Clemes, slapping the crossbow out of the startled man's hand.
“But it attacked you, milord.” Clemes unsheathed his sword. “It needs to be destroyed, milord.”
The wolf walked in a half-circle its head held low and its nostrils flapping as it studied them, patiently looking for a gap to attack. Gentro took a step towards the now growling wolf.
“Anyone who tries to hurt her will have to answer to me.”
“I am scared that leaving it alive would prove to be a grave mistake, milord.” Clemes protested.
“She is not to be harmed,” Gentro said firmly, his body stiffening as he saw the wolf's body language change. Another attack was imminent.
“But why, milord? Why keep such a wild creature alive when it could very well be a danger to everyone?”
Thoroughly irritated by Clemes' obstinacy, Gentro swung around to face the man. “Because she is my daughter!”
She saw the shocked look on the soldier's face which immediately changed to horror. Gentro turned, but it was too late to evade the attack. The wolf landed on him its sharp claw pierced his shoulder, making the Wolf Prince gasped at the sudden pain. The wolf's head lowered, as its pale eyes met his. He could see the intelligence in the ice blue eyes as they held his for a long moment. Then the wolf slowly backed off from him, their eyes still locked. It lifted its head and a mournful howl split the quiet of the night. The wolf gave him one last glance, before it trotted off.
Clemes was it his side immediately. “You are hurt, milord.”
Gentro pushed the man's hands away. “It is just a scratch. Now go and warn everyone that if they so much as put a scratch on her they will have to answer to me.”
The man nodded at his man and they hastened away. “Do you want us to look for her and bring her back?”
He knew he hadn't been a father to her over the past 19 years, but Gentro was overcome by concern for his only child. Was she going to be alright out there all by herself? As he slowly pushed himself to his feet he groaned in pain. Maybe he was worried over nothing. He was one of the best fighters in the whole Ulv clan and the girl had fearlessly taken him on. A proud smile lightened his swarthy features. She was everything he had hoped her to be—maybe even more.
The wolf's tongue lolled in its mouth as its powerful legs ate the space between where it was and where it wanted to be. It had nowhere else to go, but it knew that it didn't want to be where it was. It came to a screeching halt, shooting up dust, the paws on his hind legs gripping the earth for traction. With its nostrils flaring the wolf lifted its head and slowly backed away.
A few centimetres from her the earth had ran out of space. Distracted by the turmoil of her earlier meeting with the man presumed her father, she'd forgotten to pay attention. Being in the wild was new to her and thus very dangerous. Lifting its bulk off the ground from where it had come to a stop on its belly, the wolf carefully approached the looming cliff.
Even from up here its enhanced sight could make out the teeming wildlife in the valley below. For the time being that would serve as its home. There was no sign of humanity down there for as far as the eye could see.
No human presence to tease the wolf's memories.
No one to remind her of the silver eyed phantom she carried in her heart.
To be continued...
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