The words pierced like ice into Evelon’s heart. Her hands crippled as they gripped the arms of the throne. Even in the bowers of her misery since the king passed, she never believed Devero, champion of Shimera, would turn. All the stories from her beloved about the man’s bravery, valiance, and honor crumbled like stalks in flame. In this one moment, she saw more truth of him than the king ever did. Fire stewed in her stomach, rising slowly, spreading to her entire body. She stood up and locked eyes with him, every ounce of her filled with hate.
The wolf at the gate, the usurper, Devero, smiled and turned to her four guards—the only ones left between them. “Come now, brothers. No need for more to die.” He handed his massive spiked helm to one of his men. “Drop your swords and you will be allowed to live. Refuse … and be flayed.”
Three of her guards looked back, their faces panged with guilt. She could tell they valued their own lives over hers. Turning back, they dropped their swords. Simen watched his fellow men relinquish their duty, his look, one of pain and anger.
“No!” Simen yelled, drawing his sword.
The other three backed away as Devero’s men advanced on them. Evelon grabbed Simen’s wrist.
“Please, Simen … do as they ask.”
“My queen? They’ll kill you.” Tears welled in his eyes.
She turned back to Devero. The bear of a man flashed a brilliant white smile, a stark contrast to his black beard. “Nothing can stop that now.” She lowered his arm and rubbed his hand.
He sighed and dropped his weapon.
“That’s a good lad. Bring them here.” Devero said as he motioned his men toward her four guards.
They brought them to the middle of the throne room, standing before Devero and all his men.
“You gave up your weapons rather quickly … well the three of you did. I’d have thought the royal guard would have more than goose necks for backbones.” Devero said, his men chuckling alongside their leader.
“Enough of this!” Evelon burst out. She felt her blood steam as she glared at the man her husband held in such high esteem. “You mock them? Those who stood for their queen, widow to the man you swore allegiance to? The gods will mock you in death for your crimes. Now take me and do what you intend, but leave everyone else alive.”
Devero’s grin dried up into a sour scowl, as did his men’s. “Looks like someone is done grieving.” Measured and callous words came from the great warrior. “I have something better in mind. Kill them!”
Three slashes of swords met the necks of three of her guards, spraying blood onto Simen, the only one left standing. Evelon and the others shrieked as their bodies dropped in unison. She wanted to drop to, but the anger from deep within gave her strength.
“Bastard! You heartless coward! When you die, I hope they leave your corpse for the maggots!”
Devero nodded with a grin. “I think what you meant to say was, thank you.”
The anger made her lose the power of speech. If she could wield a sword she would have lunged for his throat. Simen stood strong as the blood of his fellow guardsmen trickled down his armor.
“Go to your queen, young man. She needs you now more than ever.” Devero said to Simen.
He remained still, unwilling to participate in whatever game the great warrior wanted to play.
“Go. No harm will come to you.”
Simen backed away slowly, watching all of Devero’s men for any quick movements.
Devero looked around the room. “No harm will come to any of you.” He turned to the Evelon. “We’re here to defend this castle against any who would take it.”
Simen reached Evelon and retrieved his sword. “Get behind me, Your Grace. This trickster is toying with us.”
Devero shook his head. “No tricks. All that remain in the castle and its grounds are loyal to the crown … as am I.” He knelt before her, as did all his men. “I swear allegiance to my queen.”
Evelon looked to Seifous and Traipers, they appeared as bewildered as she was.
“If this is some sort of game it is unnecessary. You’ve already taken the castle and we surrendered.” Evelon replied.
The great warrior rose to his feet and walked toward the dais. “We have killed only those who were untrustworthy. Those would have turned the second things looked lost, including the three lying on the floor.” He pointed to her dispatched guards. “I had never met this one,” he pointed to Simen. “But his courage to remain defending you in the face of torture has confirmed his allegiance. I apologize that it had to be like this, but it was the only.” He unsheathed a newly forged claymore and laid it at her feet.
A collective breath of relief released from the others. The queen was still a bit uneasy, never witnessing such death before. She thought back to his gesture to her husband, similar to this one, a second time he’d given up his sword.
“I am yours to command.” His silver eyes looked softly into hers.
The burden of losing the king, the coup, and the attack, waned as the feeling that overcame her when she first saw Devero surged forth from an unknown place inside. Her body wanted to rush to him, but she caught it before it made a move. She took a deep breath to settle the emotions. Monk Traipers and High Councilor Seifous walked to her sides.
“No … we are yours to command. Lead the defense of this castle against those that would supplant me.”
He bowed and rose. “We’ve already begun. The rest of you double and triple check our fortifications. Get every able-bodied warrior to a post.” All of Devero’s men rushed out of the room to their assigned duties. “Your Grace, I would ask that your handmaidens gather all of the women and children and put them within the confines of the castle.”
The women did not wait to be asked by her. Instead they rushed off as well.
Seifous walked to Devero and held out a hand. “We are most grateful for your support. As you saw, we were not ready for any sort of attack.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself. I know more about this castle than any king that has lived here. Now my men know as much and will fortify it properly.”
“So you know who means to attack us?”
“Four of the highlords and their banners.”
“We had reason to believe there were only three; Mavorn Trevel, Driger Marxe, and Pael Fredes.”
“Ithor Bruntas is the fourth.”
Seifous considered this for a moment. Shaking his head, “That makes sense now that it is said aloud.”
“Have you heard anything of my father?” Evelon asked.
Devero sighed and looked to the side. “I am sorry, my queen. He is alive, but trapped in his castle. At first word of the king’s death, Mavorn Trevel and five hundred men barricaded him and the rest of your family within the rampart, disallowing any birds or messengers to escape. It appears these plans had existed for a long time.”
“Bastards!” Evelon cursed. Traipers and Seifous both raised an eyebrow.
Devero smiled, flashing the perfect white teeth again. “That they are.”
She turned to Traipers and Seifous. “Would you two see that the soldiers are fed and that all bodies are properly disposed of?”
“Make sure to collect all the swords and armor from the dead. We’ll need them.”
They both nodded and made their way out of the throne room.
Evelon studied Devero for a second as he turned back to her. The impulse to embrace him caused her to shiver. It felt as if a flame had reignited in her and all the sorrow of the past fortnight dissolved.
“I just remembered I hadn’t thanked you for this.”
He shook his head. “None is required.”
She stood, still a head shorter than him even though she was on the dais. “It is necessary. Some kings or queens might expect it, but I never did. I only hoped that you would come to our aid. I am surprised that you are here, helping us though.”
“Why is that?”
“At my husband’s funeral you looked as though you’d kill me.”
Devero sighed and ran a hand through his thick black mane. “I owe you an apology for that. I had to be sure.”
“Sure of what?”
“That you didn’t kill our king.”
Devero and his next in command sat to Evelon’s left in the council chambers, looking uncomfortable and out of place. The mood of the members had improved since their last meeting, but it remained somber. Even though the country’s greatest warrior gave them better odds, they still had four highlords advancing on the castle.
“They will command better than six thousand by the time they arrive.” Councilor Yed iterated.
“The estimates are closer to seven.” Seifous retorted. “More of the commoners are joining their cause as they pass through the countryside.”
Evelon shook her head. Eight thousand, possibly more, wanted the throne taken from her. She wondered for a second if they were right. “How many do we have?”
Yed turned to Devero. “Three thousand with lord Devero’s battalion.”
“We have the castle, the high ground, do these even the odds?”
“In a certain respect they improve them, but they still have the advantage.” Seifous replied. “Our scouts have confirmed they have ten siege destroyers and several dozen catapults.”
“It’s madness, Your Grace!” Councilor Vadra blurted out amongst the irritated groans of the others.
“We must send word to the other four highlords and beg for their support!” Councilor Yed added.
“I beg your pardon, councilors.” Devero’s voice carried above the fray. They settled after a moment. “Calling on more banners might be a good idea. It just might give them a reason to join our enemies.”
“We need more men, lord Devero.” Councilor Yed spoke up.
“As much as I respect your position on this council and this is not meant to offend, you don’t have the first clue as to what we need.”
If Councilor Yed was angered, he hid it well.
“Truth be told I can’t recall the last time I fought a battle where I wasn’t outnumbered. Numbers matter, I’m not here to preach that they don’t. I am saying that we do have enough if our plan executed and position remains firm. We have the advantage in both.”
“Why are you so certain of this?” Seifous interrupted, out of curiosity, not disbelief.
“We have something they want. They are coming to us, leaving their point of strength, and fighting for something that will only benefit a few. We … on the other hand … are fighting for our lives, and the monarchy that has stood in Shimera since the birth of civilization. We have the advantage because we are right, because we defend the truths of this country, and seek peace. These are great causes. Ones that require no rallying cry. All our men will fight to the bitter end because they will die if they surrender. Usurpers leave none alive. They will perish by the sword or be cast out into the world to fend for themselves without coin or shelter.” Devero turned to Evelon and their eyes met. “We have the advantage and everyone must believe it … or we will fail.”
None of the councilors stumbled over each other to respond or retort, like they usually did. Instead they sat back, considering Devero’s words.
The power of belief, Evelon thought. How does one come to an encompassing belief in something that a reasonable person would find foolish? Is it ignorance? Is it a misguided confidence? Or does the person know that if they have faith in their plight that it will come true? One of the old scholars in one of the old books said, “whether one believes an outcome is conceivable or inconceivable … they’re correct.” Evelon struggled with the idea that it was merely belief that could carry one against all odds. It had to be more than that. Belief is powerful, yes, but plans and preparation are essential as well. Perhaps certainty in an outcome guides the plans that ensure victory? Evelon could not be certain of that, but something stirred inside her as Devero spoke and it made her feel more confident.
“No one here doubts your military acumen, lord Devero.” High Councilor Seifous spoke up. “For us who are not so versed, could you expand upon your thinking—your plans for the defense of the castle?”
“Of course, High Councilor.”
The plans came together quicker than Evelon had expected, taking only four hours. In reality they only needed to defend the castle and make it impregnable. Her confidence grew with each step Devero and his captain laid out. She felt as useful as a fork in a bowl of soup with the planning, similar to her role in the battle—stay hidden behind a wall of guards in the throne room until the end. She wished she could offer more. It pained her to think of others risking their lives for her rule, her safety. She struggled with the idea that she deserved it. Kings and queens all over Prima Earth asked this of their constituents every day, but she grew up far from the crown. Yes, noble birth had its advantages and its degree of entitlement, yet the idea of someone else risking an excruciating death such as disembowelment or having their throat slashed, baffled her. The choice was made by those around her … and honoring her late husband. If she gave in to the guilt and forfeited the right of others to defend her crown, then his family name would be stricken from the line of kings henceforth. That would kill her quicker than any sword. His name and her memories were all that were left of the gentle man they called king—whom she called love.
The banquet hall seemed to glisten that night and the wine tasted at the peak of flavor. All were invited, including castle servants and guards, to partake in the feast; they worked and ate in shifts. Evelon saw to it that everyone had a chance to enjoy at least one last grand time. Their smiles and laughter were the most honest thing she’d seen in sometime. A serving of every animal the royal farms had to offer sat on each table. Beer and wines of every flavor imaginable was available. Thousands ate and enjoyed while she could only sit back and observe.
She turned to her right. Devero sat below the dais next to his captains and several council members. They all talked while he listened. He had an amused smile while offering no more than a chuckle or a head nod in acknowledgement of their stories. He caressed his pitch black beard. Scars from many battles graced the front and back of his hand; one coiled from the tip of his middle finger past his wrist like a snake. An image of her former husband’s hand flashed in her mind. The blood … the pain. His mangled whelps of anger and grief. All of it rushed back to her. The melancholy that had lifted a day ago returned and choked her. Quick gasps of air were all that she could manage. She put a hand to her chest and felt her heart running like a river. It threatened to overwhelm her as nothing she could do could stop the panic.
Devero turned and met her eyes. She must have looked like she felt because his expression changed from amused to concerned. It only worsened the pain.
“Gentlemen, please excuse me.” Evelon said to High Councilor Seifious and monk Traipers.
She swiftly made her way down the dais with Simen following and escaped to the staircase that led to her chambers.
“My Queen, are you alright?” Simen asked as he struggled to keep up with her.
She ignored the question and slid inside her chambers, shutting the door quickly. She pressed against it and took in a deep breath with closed eyes. A knock came from the other side.
“Please, Simen, I need some time to myself.”
“Your Grace …” The deep and sturdy voice of Devero came through the crease.
A swirling started in her chest, both pain and pleasure wrapped in a contest of wills. Everying told her to send him away. He was the cause of these feelings resurfacing. What good could come of it if she let him in. A shaking hand gripped the latch. Without her order it pushed down. She turned, their eyes met, his silver and her blue. Simen stood to the side and Devero towered over them both, with the same look of concern.
“May I come in, Your Grace?”
A subtle nod was all she could manage. She closed the door behind Devero as he entered.
“There were a dozen rumors of how you did it.” Devero started before she could explain anything that just happened.
“Rumors of what?”
“Rumors of how you killed Rickord …”
She shook her head, knowing that all could have been put to rest if she had told everyone the truth.
“I even believed one of them for a moment. For that split second when I touched the king’s arm, I felt a long cut, like someone had slit his wrist. I wanted to kill you at that moment, but when I saw the look of brokenness in your face, I knew you had loved him and never could’ve done anything to hurt him. I kept the pressure on you to see if you would show me something different … I’m grateful you never did. It was always the look of loss.”
Evelon put her hands on her stomach. That loss weighed on her now.
“That’s also when I knew he did it to himself. He told me of your pregnancy in a letter before anyone else knew. But when I saw you no longer carried, it became clear the grief overtook him.”
“It was an accident.” She blurted out. “He didn’t mean to … he had gotten drunk and became enraged. He took out his sword and cut down furniture, jewelry, paintings, anything within reach. In his stupor he lost his balance and sliced his hand and wrist.” Tears beckoned.
“I know, Your Grace. The king was never someone to take the cowards way out. I was sure it was a tragic accident. Exactly how … I didn’t know.”
“You are one of four who know. Please keep it to yourself. If all knew the manner of his death, they would mock him for a weeping fool and he was far greater than that.”
“Your secret will always be safe with me.” He laid his hand on hers.
It was warm and strong, twice the size of Evelon’s. She felt the first comfort since the last embrace with her husband. A calm ease that settled every angst. She felt the scars, like the king’s, and the strength she had to resist collapsed. She pulled him down by the tunic and kissed him. Running her hands through his hair, she let go of all thoughts, worries, and grief. His strong arms pulled them breast to breast. Still embracing, he guided them to her bed, streaks of white moonlight provided enough to see. He laid her down and rose up. The luminescence turned his silver eyes to steel. The strength of him awoke something in her. She needed it now, more than any other in her young life. An all-encompassing warmth like nakedness in summer reigned over her body. She pulled him down on top of her and the two of them turned into one.
A firm knock at the door roused Evelon. “Your Grace.” High Councilor Seifious announced.
She turned over in a panic to Devero. The early morning light shine on an empty sheet and a compressed pillow. She breathed a sigh of relief, no one could know what they had done.
“I’m coming,” she replied, throwing a robe over her nakedness.
Opening the door, she took a step back at Seifious’s appearance; a pale complexion drenched in sweat.
“You must get dressed, my queen. High lord Trevel and the other three armies will attack the castle within the hour.”
“What of Devero and our guards?”
“They were prepared and in position before dawn.”
Another relief washed over her. She feared that their involvement last night might have delayed him. It took her minutes to get dressed without any of her handmaidens. They made their way to the highest battlement of the castle to oversee their forces as well as their enemy … their former countrymen.
The wind bit her face as they stepped outside. Fall’s chill had finally turned to winter’s freeze. Row upon row of castle guards mixed with Devero’s men covered the battlements and all six of the flanking towers. A contingent of soldiers stood below in the courtyard at the castle gate, ready for a breach, if it came to that. Her heart shuddered as she spied Devero. He stood on a platform above the outer rampart, two of his captains stood next to him as they looked over the plains beyond.
“To the east!” A lookout on a spire above Evelon’s level yelled.
She along with everyone else turned and spotted it; a lurching mass of their own countrymen, marching up the hill in Shimeran forest green armor that used to spell devastation for their enemies—now it struck fear in her. Until that moment she realized she never believed this day would come, a civil war to decide the crown. The numbers appeared close to the estimates they had prepared for. They made no secret of the dozens of catapults and ten siege engines as they pushed them toward the front of the ranks. All of them had a fresh look, as if they were created for this single purpose.
“Ready defense!” Devero called out.
Sixteen men carrying eight barrels, four pitch and four oil, marched slowly and placed them at the edge of the parapets. Below in the courtyard, the men loaded three wooden barricades into metal holsters on the gate.
“Archers!” Devero raised a hand.
A single file line stepped up and raised their bows to the ready.
“Halt!” Highlord Trevel himself yelled at the front of the enemy rank, halting them on the edge of arrow-range.
The catapults rasped to a halt and the mush of boots making a final stomp on damp grass echoed in Evelon’s ears. She looked down to Devero, some hundred feet below her position and then down to Trevel, another hundred feet below him.
“Good luck, Your Grace.” Seifious said to her.
Devero turned up to her, staring at her in the same way he did last night. He gave a slow nod and waited for her command. She wished in that moment this burden of rule would avail her, that all could return to what it was and she could relive last night to the end of her days. A sweet dream, nothing more. Dreams are for children … the waking hours are for the strong.
She raised her right hand. “Highlords Trevel, Marxe, Fredes, and Bruntas,” she said as the other three joined their leader below, all on horseback. “It was not long ago that we greeted each other as comrades inside these very walls. We broke bread together, emptied wine barrels together, we cried together, all in honor of my late husband … your former king.”
Trevel scoffed. “Do not and try to appeal to our humanity now. Not when the crown was decided by your own actions. All of this is in defiance of your rule, one that was taken when you took the life of our king.”
His coarse words fell off her like water off a duck’s back. “You are misinformed, my lord. My husband died of no one’s will but that of fate and the gods’. You come here for your own grandeur and your own desires.”
“Lies! Cursed black widow!” Lord Marxe burst out.
Trevel halted him from another one and returned to Evelon. “Words cannot change anything. You’ve been exposed for the usurper you really are. Your father’s wolf in sheep’s clothing sent lay in wait until his orders to kill—.”
“It is you who have been exposed.” She cut him off. “Greed has deluded your mind and painted the picture you needed to raise this army against the crown. That is the reason there are four highlords missing and our greatest warrior stands against you. If my deception was so evident they would be within your ranks.”
The four lords glared up at her. She could not see their eyes, but sure enough they pointed like daggers.
“Lower your banners.” Devero called to them. “Drop your arms and lead your army, our countrymen, back to their homes. Abandon this cause before it’s too late … before it’s gone too far and we must relieve you of your lordships. Make the choice to save Shimera, not destroy it.” He pointed to them. “I have fought for each of you. You know me well. Would I stand with someone who could make our country weaker? Usurp the throne? The queen is innocent of any wrong doing. That is why I stand with her.”
Evelon’s heart swelled to the point of bursting as she beamed down at Devero. If only fate could intervene this one time and prevent further death.
“It’s a shame that you must be at the helm of a sinking ship, my friend.” Trevel spoke to Devero. “Alas, there always comes a time where the great warrior must fail. A pity it must come today.” He threw up his arm.
The gears of the closest catapult screeched as the arm ratcheted back.
“Archers load!” Devero hollered.
Feet shuffling, arrows notching and drawing, erupted along the battlement.
They let loose but the catapult flung its load already. A man-sized boulder surged through the air. The arrows descended onto the enemy—half hitting and half falling short.
“Brace yourselves!” Devero yelled as the boulder plowed through the left most parapet and no less than twenty soldiers.
“Catapults!” Trevel hollered as they loaded.
“Archers take out the catapults!” Devero yelled, his two captains dashed to opposite sides of the lower battlement to carry out his plan.
“Your Grace, we must get you inside.” Seifious pleaded as he grabbed Evelon’s wrist.
She pulled away. “I will not hide while our people die defending me.”
Another boulder hit, destroying another parapet, while most of the men moved out of the way.
“Please, my queen, they are not close now but they could be within striking distance soon.”
“I said no! If they die, I die!”
A wave of arrows crashed down, screams, blood, and the clinks of points on shields spouted out. Evelon’s eyes stayed open as rivers emptied onto her cheeks. The sight of her countrymen slaying one another unhinged a horror inside her that stung like poison. Crash after crash of the catapults’ loads and slice after slice of the arrows through flesh offered more Shimeran blood to death himself. Every time a group of brave souls sprinted with ladders to the rampart a barrow of searing oil rained down and boiled them to the bone. She slammed her eyes shut to the vileness. Cracking, crunching, screaming, shouting, and a hundred other sounds of torture bombarded Evelon’s ears without reprieve. Cover those and she could smell the putrid scent of wind on entrails and soiled armor. Plug her nose and the taste of her salty tears that dribbled into her mouth reminded her that there was no hiding from this.
Is this war? Is this where glory comes from? Where men are knighted and remembered for ages? This cannot continue for long. We must advance our plan!
“Deveroooooo!” Evelon screamed at the top of her lungs.
He swung around, his expression fierce but tamed.
“Do it now!” her voice carried over the chaos below.
He hesitated, judging the decision. It was his plan, but clearly this wasn’t his timing. He sought to win the battle outright, leave so little that they would be forced to surrender. In anything but civil war this strategy would prove sound. Evelon needed to preserve as much life as she could. He had to follow her order, but she could not force him. He met her eyes. Please, Devero.
He nodded. Evelon sighed in relief. Devero turned and held up a red banner. Evelon looked to the east. A moment passed and what she needed to see came; four hundred men on horseback thundered toward the enemy. Flat panels of steel held by three foot arms hung like curtains before the horses. With the enemy soldiers attention on the castle, the cavalry flanked them and started pushing them into a tight pack—the steel panels acting like plows. The horses neighed as their riders pressed them forward and the resistance of bodies grew. Still they compressed until the enemy was a tightly wound circle with the front line getting shoved from behind.
“Release!” Devero yelled as he waved a yellow banner.
The cavalry gave one final push and bolted away.
“Loose!” Devero commanded.
The sky lit up as every archer fired a flaming arrow. Landing around the company a ten foot tall by ten foot wide ring of fire ignited from the back and made its way to the front. Trevel and the others looked around in terror.
“Forward!” Trevel yelled as his horse darted toward the gate.
A pair of siege destroyers and at least five hundred men thrust forward just before the circle of flame enclosed. Better then three quarters of their force remained imprisoned yet unharmed, unable to escape the blaze. Evelon smiled. The pitch soaked ground had worked. Most of the enemy soldiers were trapped and would be unable to move for hours as the fire burned out. A raucous crash and the wail of both metal and oak broke her momentary happiness.
The siege destroyers struck again, sending chunks of the barricades exploding from the gate.
“Archers, take them down!” Devero barked an order as he ran down the steps to the courtyard below.
Another thrust from both rams and the gate burst open. Devero reached his men as the enemy barreled into them. A worse horror of wails jabbed Evelon’s ears as swords met swords. All their remaining soldiers snaked down the steps from the rampart into the courtyard as with the cavalry from behind, while the archers held the trapped enemy from braving the fire ring.
She followed only Devero. He dodged every thrust with a calm ease and took no more than two cuts to dispatch any foe. With every sword that came at him her heart shuddered. None of them hit their mark. No matter how unaware he seemed, how quick they were, Devero always turned in time. The others gained strength from his, they fought harder, struck fiercer blows. In that moment, she realized that he was everything the stories, that would become legends one day, made him out to be.
Trevel stepped up just as Devero cut down another by the knee. “She may win, but you’ll be dead!” the disgraced lord yelled at him.
Devero tromped over a patch of dead bodies toward Trevel, turning the massive claymore over in his hand. Trevel’s face quivered but he raised his sword nonetheless.
“No, my lord!” an enemy soldier yelled as he pulled the highlord back into their remaining rank, no more than hundred. “Retreat!”
Evelon breathed a sigh of relief. Devero darted after Trevel. “Life has no more use for you!” he yelled as he cut through the men between them.
“Devero, no! Evelon screamed with an outstretched hand.
The enemy mob swallowed him up and raced away from the castle with him somewhere in their midst. Their comrades in the ring of fire had no place to run to and watched helplessly as they retreated.
“After him, you fools!” Evelon yelled at her soldiers.
A pack of ten of them went after their commander while the others barricaded the gate shut.
“Don’t close the gate! You all must go after him!” She pleaded as her heart twisted and choked. I cannot lose you too!
High Councilor Seifious grabbed her as she leaned over the edge of the parapet. “Please, Your Grace, he’s gone!”
She struggled to get away from him. She wanted to jump down into the courtyard and sprint after Devero herself. Monk Traipers came and restrained her as well.
“It is not over, my queen. They may catch up with them yet,” the monk said in his tender voice.
She watched as the mass of the retreating enemy grew smaller the further down the hill they went. Her band of ten men seemed to lose pace with ever step. They’ll never catch them. One is running for freedom and the other … a lost cause …
The fortnight after the battle was much like after her husband’s funeral: a merry celebration, respects paid, hands kissed, tears of joy—except for hers. She slipped into the same melancholy, nothing could stir it. Only time, like most grievous events, could cure it. She moped and wept and slept the days away. Even a timely visit from her recently freed father couldn’t bring her to smile. She was happy for his safety and that he and the other four lords had taken over the now lord-less lands of Mavorn Trevel, Driger Marxe, Ithor Bruntas and Pael Fredes. In time their families could regain sects of the titles and properties, but for years they would remain in her father’s care. All seemed well with the country. They had withstood a rebellion and quelled it before turning into a full civil war. The historians would have no choice but to recognize the achievement as grand. Still she sobbed in her sleep for two men—one who was her life and the other who saved it. All she could do was wait for the cracked skinned, sour breathed, rotting toothed, yellow toenailed Time to wake up and relieve her.
The last image of a dream slipped away and sloshed into a blur of her quarters and a splinter of light coming in from the stained-glass window. She felt panicked and tried to remember the dream, it had disappeared as soon as she woke. Her hands ran across the sheets—soaked—like the past week. No need to touch her eyes as she felt they were wet. She sighed and slammed her fists down, furious at her fragile heart.
“Let me be done with this sadness. It is pointless cry over him.”
“Cry over who?” a deep voice came from the dark left corner of her room.
She thrust up and recognized the voice at once. “Devero!” she said in an exasperated whisper.
The pale light seemed to cascade across his body as he stepped into it. He wore the same armor he had the last day she saw him, except that it was cleaned and glistened with moon. A new scar adorned his right hand, a deep one that ran past his wrist.
“How did you?” Her voice trembled as warmth overpowered the cold misery of the past ten days.
He strode to her bed and cupped her hands. Rubbing them, he kissed each one. His silver eyes turned to steel as the moonlight cast down on them. She caressed his face as he smiled. Their hands found their way into each other’s.
“I fought my way through them after being dragged for a few miles. Didn’t leave one alive.”
She smirked and shook her head. “Not one?”
“Well … there might have been a few left.”
She laughed. “I’m just glad you’re alive. I almost died when you rushed after Trevel.”
He took a deep breath and smiled. “I wasn’t thinking clearly. All I wanted to do was end it right there.”
“There were more than a hundred men … and only you.”
“I know.” He squeezed her hands. “I didn’t want to give them a chance to regroup and come back. In all my years of fighting I’ve learned you must dispose of the enemy’s leader, leave no doubt that they lost. I’ve seen armies reform with less and continue fighting. I couldn’t risk that … not when you were the target.”
She planted a soft kiss on his cheek, just above the beard. “It will certainly earn you a few mentions in our history.”
“If I get any more they’ll think I started all the fights on purpose.”
They laughed and she laid her head on his shoulder. She felt his heartbeat through the armor. It struck hard and as fast as a horse’s gallop.
“I’m glad I got to see you one last time.”
She gripped his hands reflexively as if cold water ran down her back. “What do you mean?” She turned up to him. He had been staring out into the night and met her gaze. “Why wouldn’t you stay?”
He brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes. “I have my own lands to attend to.” He gave a guilty smile. “Besides word has it a long-lost cousin of the king, only living relative left, is on his way up from somewhere south to take his royal seat next to you.”
“This is the first I’m hearing of it.”
“I’m sure Seifious will inform you tomorrow.”
She turned and looked into the black of her room. “But you could still remain here.”
He shook his head. “I’m not meant for a life here. I need to be out there.” He pointed out the window. “Back home where I belong.”
She wanted to throw his hands back into him, she wanted to curse and send him away. Yet something in her stayed the outburst. She was a queen. He was a soldier. They had their duties, their callings and unfair as it may be, they had places and people that needed them. He broke their grip and lifted her chin. “Are you mad at me?”
She searched herself for the anger that should be there, that she should still feel—but it had gone. Shaking her head, she kissed him softly on the lips. “No. It’s like you said … we both have places we belong.”
He cradled her face. “This is not goodbye forever. There will be a time you’ll need me … and I’ll return.”
They embraced for hours without words, without tears … without regret.
She woke to the tune of the winter birds and a perfect golden sun on a frozen window. She smiled as the sheets beside her lay empty. Devero had gone … back to his home. Her eyes remained dry. Her heart reborn. She was ready for the day. She was ready to rule … ready to live long … as a queen.