We bounced along the familiar dirt road, towed in an old cart that was pulled by an even older mule. The sun was hidden, thankfully, causing our trip to be somewhat more comfortable. Mel sat beside me, wearing a dress for the first time since I could remember. She complained constantly.
“How the hell are ye supposed to sit normal when there’s a breeze goin’ up yer arse?” She said. I rolled my eyes, shifting to ease the ache in my back. We traveled alone to Borthwick, Thaniel and Jon having gone ahead to prepare various back up plans, should things go awry. I tried to push the thoughts of the red haired woman away, though they were incessant, constantly pecking the back of my mind. I feared Jon knew who she was, and I feared she’d been the catalyst for our escape from Borthwick the first time. This was one riddle I could not solve on my own. I knew I needed to refocus my attention, for every jolt along the dusty road brought us closer to our fate.
“Yer mutterin’ to yerself again.” Mel said, annoyed.
“Sorry.” I said, trying to remember the riddle about the cat.
“What happens if ye lose?” Meleryn asked, twitching the reins to speed up our old companion. He was given to us by James and Annie, to borrow for the time being. In exchange, we’d left Bear behind, difficult as it was.
“I won’t lose.” I grumbled, though it convinced no one. I had Jon to focus on, for if I failed to save Charles, it meant I’d failed everyone.
Flashes of Viktor’s face danced in my mind. If his austere looks were any indication of his character, then I was likely doomed. And I knew, deep down, what he desired most of all—me. To take me from Jon, to crush him and bend him and break him. This man wanted games, treated people as though they were pawns. He was sadistic, I knew, and yet we were falling for it. What other choice did we have?
“I miss when life was easy,” Meleryn said, bent forward, focusing on the road ahead. I stilled as much as I could against the jostle of the creaking cart.
“I barely remember my parents. I was too busy chasing Jon and Thran around, wantin’ to be just like them. Thran would get so annoyed by me,” she snorted. “But Jon, he was annoyed but he’d take the time to train wi’ me. And then he left, and I coulna’ follow.” She said. I could hear the sadness in her tone. I knew she held a profound respect and love for Jon, as gruff as she could be. Because of his love for me, she extended me the same courtesy. Though, as of late, I’d proved to her my own worth.
“I miss my brother and sister,” I smiled, reminiscing along with her. The trees swayed gently, the clouds above cool and grey.
“We went to school in the Mountain, with other kids in the same Tier as us, but there were only two. And they were strange,” I said. Mel glanced at me and laughed.
“Of course they were strange, ye all lived inside a damn mountain.”
I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Aye, there were always the ones in our clan that we steered clear of. Bane was one o’ them, though he was a bit older than Jon and I.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.” I grinned.
“What are there names?”
“Who?” I asked.
“Yer dogs.” Mel rolled her eyes. “Yer siblings,” she said, leaning back.
“Anna and Benji.” I smiled, feeling my throat constrict with tears. “I told Jon of them once, though he saw it pained me and we never discussed it again.” I explained. I would never be able to forgive myself for leaving them in such a way, accident or not.
“I’m sorry,” Mel said, her face falling. I waved a hand.
“It’s alright now. I’ve come to terms with it.”
She smiled a small grimace. The mule slowed his pace, causing us to look forward once more. The familiar walls of Borthwick were visible. My hands began to shake. We’d decided not to come in disguise, as Viktor had invited us. We needn’t hide—yet. Meleryn and I fell into tense silence again. The riddles from my past played in my mind.
I was ushered into a room, already lost in the cavernous maze of their castle. Mel was forced to stay behind, as expected, though I knew she would find Jon and Thaniel. Before we’d rounded each corner, I’d dropped a small, smooth pebble from the river where we had stayed. The guards had purposefully taken me through a circuitous route, but were too dumb to pay attention to the plinking of the small rocks as they hit the stone floor.
I stared out the window, down into the courtyard where the gallows still sat. I knew I had been brought to this room on purpose. Everything Viktor did was intentional. Calculated. Much like my grandfather. There had been whispers amongst the townspeople as Meleryn and I had passed through. Quiet words of dissent, the people nicknaming him Viktor the Vile. His father had been cruel, but had never found as much pleasure in torture as his son. Some even surmised he had killed his father, the death untimely and unexpected. Whatever the case, the very thought of being near him chilled me.
I twisted my hands together, attempting to hide the shakiness as I waited. The space was large, decorated with fine rugs, leather chairs, impeccable wood furniture. The mess of scrolls across the desk, the spilled ink pot and dripping, hardened wax indicated this wasn’t Viktor’s space; a man this cunning would never be this untidy. The fire burned low, leaving the room cool.
I whirled around as the door pushed open. In walked a manservant with a full, sandy beard and a familiar air about him, towing someone behind him. He tugged the rough length of rope, causing a disheveled Charles to stumble into view. His wrists were bound, attached to a lead. He wore simple trousers and a long shirt, his long hair flowing free about his face. His eyes fell to me, lighting with recognition. He beamed, tears brimming his eyes, about to speak—before the reality of my reason for being here set in. His gorgeous blue eyes stormed over, his hands fell slack and he shook his head, his mouth opening and closing, searching for words just out of reach.
Before I could move to him, the hulking form of Viktor appeared in the doorway. Charles cast his eyes down and shuffled out of his way. Viktor smirked down his long nose at me, his light brown eyes measuring me up. I stood firm, though my heart hammered. Each beat held one simple yet complex thought; Jon, Jon, Jon. If my husband could endure endless torture, I could surely suffer through a simple game of wits.
Viktor was dressed in pure perfection, his chest covered in glinting silver armor, his sleeves made of crushed crimson velvet, his hair smoothed back across the arch of his skull. I stared at the giant before me, at his unearthly, menacing beauty. He gave me a curious look.
“Find me attractive?” He asked. I blushed but glared at his insult to my husband.
“I prefer men who have curly hair, actually.” I said. I hid my trembling hands behind my flowing, black skirts. I’d intentionally worn my darkest clothes, braiding and re-braiding my hair until not one single strand escaped.
Viktor smiled, gesturing to his sitting area. I glanced at Charles before I moved to take my seat. It had been a while since I’d adopted my royal attitude, though it had been bred into me. It was time it was put to use once more.
Viktor sat across from me, a short, round table between us. He leaned back, placing his left ankle across his right knee. He stared at me, his hand on his face, his finger on his temple. I smiled, though I knew he would see the fake-ness of it.
“Your husband, Jon, is it?” He said, as the game began.
“Yes,” I smiled, nodding politely.
“Wonderful fighter, brilliant really.” He said, a smile so genuine on his face it was near impossible to tell it wasn’t real.
“He really is.” I gushed, my nails digging into my palm.
“And he loves you, I mean,” he said, scoffing as he relaxed his legs and leaned back, all theatrics on display. He motioned me up and down. “I can see why now!”
I blushed again despite my growing hatred. I could barely fake my smile. He leaned forward, the shifting of his eyes indicating the evil behind his next words.
“It took me ages to find the right woman to break him. He doesn’t care for blonds,” he flicked his wrist as if casting away a fly. “Or brunettes. But as soon as he thought it was you I was…well, how do I say this delicately? I’m in the presence of a high born lady, after all!” He chuckled.
“As soon as he thought I was forcing his wife to have relations with me, well…he nearly tore through the iron bars.”
My stomach heaved. To know that other women were hurt, to know that Jon was forced to watch, it was more than I could bare. I breathed through my flared nostrils, my hatred hitting me square in the chest. I needed to focus, because I knew Viktor was trying to distract me.
“Shame, what happened to all your guards and townspeople, on the day of his execution.” I said, staring him down. He scoffed again, rolling his eyes.
“What a strange coincidence, that someone else would poison those people, and right before Jon was to die.”
I knew in my heart now who had done it, just not exactly who she was to Jon. Viktor’s eyes danced. He reached back, snapping his fingers.
“I’m quite famished. Shrimp?” He asked as a platter was ushered to him.
“No thank you.” I said, not knowing what shrimp were and not hungry in the slightest anyway.
“Mmm,” he said, pulling the tray from the servant’s hands and placing it on the table. Little pink creatures sat on a bed of lettuce. The sight was almost more than I could bear at the moment. He ate loudly, licking his fingers, taking his time, toying with me, with the bait right in front of us both. Charles stared at me, his eyes clearly showing me how dangerous this situation was.
“So delicious, you really ought to try sometime.” He said.
“I’ll make note of that.” I said, straightening my back.
“So, shall we get to our game of wits?” He asked, smiling. I nodded.
“Yes, if you’d be so kind.”
He held up a finger.
“Of course,” I said, motioning for him to continue.
“Rule one: we will state a riddle. The other will have one minute to answer precisely. First one to fail loses. Rule two: no riddles only pertaining to the mountain or Borthwick exclusively. Let’s keep it fair, shall we?” He asked, his thick eyebrows raising. I nodded my agreement.
“And last: winner walks free from harm with Charles here in tow. Shame, to think I may lose him. He’s been such great company.” Viktor’s eyes glinted maniacally. I swallowed the lump in my throat. The stakes were as high as I’d expected.
“Let’s get on with it, then.” I said, leaning forward with a grin on my face. He returned the smile.
“Ladies first,” he motioned to me. I pretended to think, though I already knew what my first riddle would be.
“What is made of wood but cannot be sawed?” I asked. His servant turned the tiny hourglass upside down. The sand began to trickle to its companion glass. Viktor strummed his fingers along his knee. His eyes danced about the room as he thought.
The last few seconds drew near, causing my heart to soar.
“Sawdust.” He answered as the last grains fell, along with my heart.
“Yes.” I said grimly.
“Hmm,” he stroked his chin in thought. “I am always hungry, I must be fed, whatever I touch will soon turn red.” His eyes glinted. He was thoroughly enjoying himself. I smirked, remembering this from my grandmother.
“Fire,” I said, before the servant even had time to turn the hourglass back over. Charles exhaled visibly in the dark corner of the room. Viktor raised his eyebrows, nodding in pleasant surprise. He motioned for me to have my turn, leaning forward and resting his arms on his knees.
“They come out at night without being called. They are lost in the day without being stolen.” I said.
Again, Viktor’s time nearly ran out before he answered. After the third riddle, I realized he knew the answers, and that he was simply playing with me in every way. The sun began to droop, causing the room to become cold, our faces glowing in candlelight. Jon was expecting us one hour after sunset. If we didn’t appear, I knew he would be brazen and try something rash. I wracked my brain for more difficult riddles, but nothing seemed to trip him up.
“You are far too smart and beautiful for a leader of such a brutish clan.” Viktor said, sipping his wine.
“Is that supposed to be a riddle?” I ground out, my head beginning to ache. He choked and sputtered with laughter.
“Yes, it is to me! One I cannot begin to fathom the answer to.” His eyes bored into mine. I could see his thoughts running wild. I squirmed, frightened of him.
“I’ll make you a proposition.” He said, swirling the wine in his ornate glass. My heart leapt, scared and hopeful at the same time. Charles shifted in the corner.
“What?” I asked slowly.
“I’ll give one more riddle. Seeing as we are both brilliant, we could be here all night! If you’re right, you leave now with young Charles.” He smiled as if he were giving me the world.
“And if I’m wrong?” I asked, cautious, nervous. He smiled maliciously.
“Then you stay with me. I’ll still let Charles go free, and promise not to pursue Jon. No harm will befall him. Do you agree to these terms?” His brown eyes searched mine. I felt my blood run cold at the stakes. I felt confident in my skills, but there was still that one seed of doubt, that one sliver that I may slip up and cause destruction of the greatest kind. In either case, Jon and my friends would remain free, unharmed.
“I’d even give you a chance to say your goodbyes to your curly haired savage.” Viktor said. What other choice did I have? The sun had set; Jon would be planning something crazy to rescue me, likely getting us all killed in the process. I chewed the inside of my cheek, running through my short list of options.
“Alright.” I said, my eyes flashing to Viktor’s eager ones. My skin crawled, knowing how he thought of me, how he wanted to claim me.
“On your word, you won’t harm them?” I asked. He placed his massive hand over his heart.
“On my word.” He said solemnly. I nodded once. Charles drew closer. I could see his eyes now. Even the servant was at full attention. Viktor looked as though he’d eaten the most delicious and decadent piece of cake in the entire world as he smiled at me.
“Who is your mother?”