Our procession moves in silence. Everyone seems to understand that a wedding during war is a joyless affair. Although the war has raged for generations, the new king of our enemy has made it worse.
To be the darkest of those already living in the shadows, it made my skin crawl to think of the blood on his hands. Deep in the north, the shadow elves plotted against my father’s kingdom. And after the death of their last monarch on the battlefield, his heir was carving a path of carnage through the land.
Even now we were far too close to the border with the north than I had ever been in my entire life. As a princess of Mithra, I had spent my entire life in the kingdom of Sunlight, Galad. But now that things were desperate, my father was sending me to marry a Mithran Duke whose army we desperately needed to turn the tides of war.
Here I was riding in a gilded carriage that might as well have been a pretty cage, sitting in silence with two handmaidens who spent the time on needlework. The yellow curtains were shut, hiding the dark forest outside.
My head rested on the wood next to the window and I desperately wished I was back home soaking up the sunlight with my sisters.
“Bit too close to the border, if you ask me,” the older handmaiden with golden hair curling around her face piped up. I ignored her, knowing she was speaking to the other handmaiden who usually me accompanied these days, Xiomara.
Xiomara sat up from her needlework to look at the older woman, Nadene. “Indeed, it’s much colder the further away we get from the border, capital. The season doesn’t help it either.”
“It’s a shame not to have a wedding back home, your royal highness,” Xiomara clucked in my direction, which finally brought me out of my daze enough to look in their direction. “It must be hard on you to leave your family behind. The other princesses were all married in the palace.”
“This is no time for a proper wedding and to have no family in attendance? It’s not right, I say,” Nadene chided as though her opinion could have swayed king Helios in his decision. A small smile graced my lips for her as she’d been at my side for a few months now, and I was finally becoming comfortable with the sharp tongue I knew her capable of. It’s the only reason she’d lasted with me as long as she had now.
“It’s fine. I’m sure this to be only a temporary setback. Once I’m married to Ayden, we’ll probably be back in the capital while he cooperates with father to get his forces up to the same standards as the rest of the army.” Although I agreed it didn’t feel fair none of my sisters were in attendance when they all had glorious summer weddings surrounded by our remaining family.
A sigh left me, and I slumped back in my cushioned seat that did little to help in the ways of comfort when the carriage ride was so bumpy. But it was late, well into the darkness. Perhaps the soldiers would stop soon to allow us to sleep for the night.
Being so close to the border, they vowed to spend as much time on the move as they could. They were under orders to see me delivered to Ayden’s fortress and get the wedding underway.
“Your father should have simply ordered the Duke to marry you in the palace and be done with it. Royal politics really make no sense sometimes. Duke Sulien’s men technically belong to the king anyway, why does Helios have to marry his youngest daughter to the man to have them cooperate in the war?” Xiomara dared to say with the king now days away from hearing her dare to question his decisions.
“I heard that Ayden Sulien has been hoarding his resources since his court is so close to the north and the new Thanaten king has been frequently pushing over the border,” Nadene chirped. “My cousin lives in a small village near here and she’s wrote to tell us that the Thanatens have been attacking Mithran villages under the cover of darkness when their shadows are at their strongest. She’s considering moving back to the capital. You know, naturally, I told her it was a wise decision.”
My head thumped back against the wooden wall as the handmaidens gossiped between themselves about my betrothed and the war. It was nothing I hadn’t heard before. Yet it still brought a shiver along my spine to remember the stories brought to Galad about our people who lived too near the border with the Thanatens. My heart ached for them.
Even now it felt dangerous to be as close as we were for the sake of a wedding. But I knew I had to do my part. And if my father told me he needed Ayden’s soldiers to help actively fight against the shadow elves instead of hiding themselves away, well, I would do my part in this war. Marrying a man that I’d never met properly seemed a small sacrifice.
Without warning, my head thumped painfully against the window frame as the carriage made a sudden stop. I heard the horses nickered and brayed wildly and soldiers were shouting.
“What in heaven’s name is going on out there?” Xiomara huffed and set down her needlework between her and Nadene, who also looked up and to the closed windows. “I’m going to see if we’re stopping for the night.”
Xiomara hesitated for a moment with her fingers on the handle as the sounds outside didn’t sound like a normal stop for the procession. But the older handmaiden took a deep breath and opened the door where she disappeared into the darkness of the night outside.
Nadene’s eyes locked on mine across the space of the carriage. It appeared there were miles between as silence engulfed us for the briefest heartbeat. Another beat passed before I was hit with a sound that made my breath stick in my throat.
A blood-curdling scream shocked us moments before the carriage rocked violently. My hands splayed out against the wall and seat to keep me in place. Nadene whimpered and cowered into herself across from me.
While I had never heard the sounds of war before, there was no mistaking the sounds of the battle now taking place outside the confines of the carriage. Metal clashing against metal stung my ears and the sounds of soldiers grunting and cursing became more obvious, as if the sounds were getting closer to the carriage as each second passed.
“Nadene,” I took a deep breath and reached across the cabin to take her trembling hands in my own. “I believe we are under attack. I need you to get out of this carriage with me and run at the first opportunity.” Her silver eyes flitted around the space as she shook, and it felt like too much time passed before she finally nodded her head.
I nearly wanted to chide her for acting like a coward when her usual sharp tongue would have led me to believe she had more courage. But now it didn’t matter.
“I knew were too close to the border. I knew we were, and now we’re going to die for it!” she wailed right when I had my hand on the handle about to open the door.
I grit my teeth. If we were going to stand a chance of getting through whatever was going on, we had to keep silent and keep our wits about us.
“Nadene, you don’t know that we’re under attack from Thanatens. It could just be bandits looking for goods to steal. Whatever the case may be, we need to get out of here. Quietly and quickly.” My words came out harsher than I had intended them to, but it appeared they had the desired effect on the handmaiden as she didn’t shake so much anymore.
After a moment of listening outside, I pulled at the handle and peaked through the crack that I created with the door. Light from the lamps around the carriage flickered on a horrifying scene, and it made my blood go cold.
Many of the soldiers were laying in pools of blood in the dirt road. Their eyes were wide open and still reflecting the fear they’d felt in their last moments. I gulped hard and tried to breathe slowly through my nose.
The sounds of the fighting now seemed to come from the opposite side of the carriage and somewhat into the surrounding woods. This might be our only chance to run while the battle was out of sight.
“We must go now, Nadene.” I whipped around to see her still cowed into herself on the carriage cushions. “That is an order form your princess! We must go now!” Although her eyes were staring blankly back at me, she nodded enough in agreement. I snatched her hand from her lap and pulled her behind me as I descended the steps.
My slipper squelched in a pool of blood and bile rose to my throat as the scent of death filled my nose. Nadene began crying behind me as we slowly stepped around the bodies of our soldiers, we had been traveling with for days now. Tears filled my eyes for them and their families, but my body was moving on adrenaline now.
I would have to mourn them later.
Looking around, it appeared we had a clear shot into the woods as long as no one spotted us. The shouts of men dying and steel against steel were at our backs, and I knew we couldn’t look back now. So many of the guards assigned to protect my journey were already dead and Xiomara was missing.
As we skirted around the bodies, I had to hold in a scream as a wet hand snaked out and wrapped around my ankle. I looked down to the bloodied bodies in horror as I realized it was Xiomara that was holding onto me.
She was covered in gore and barely recognizable anymore. Blood trickled from her parted lips as she turned up from the soaked ground to look at me. Her eyes were empty, and I didn’t think she would actually recognize who it was she had a hold of until she whispered her last words to me.
“Hide princess. The hunt has begun.” And then the light in her eyes flickered out before her feeble grasp on my ankle fell away.
“Oh, gods save us!” Nadene cried at my side. I had never witnessed someone die before, and I wondered if this was the first time for her as well. Xiomara’s last words clung to me like a cold shroud, and the chill of the night air didn’t help as shivers caused my body to tremble.
“We have to run, Nadene. Let’s go!” I tightened my grip on her hand and moved faster over the dirt road until we reached the trampled grass leading into the cover of the surrounding woods. I could hear the handmaidens hard breathing behind me as I dragged her through the trees in the cover of darkness.
The sound of fighting faded, and I wasn’t sure how long or how far into the woods we had run before the sound stopped completely. By then my legs were aching from running and my lungs were burning from gasping in the night air.
We paused to breathe under the assumption that we were far enough away from the fighting that it was safe to do so. Nadene hunched over with her palms on her knees as she inhaled deep breaths.
I looked up to the trees and met nothing but black and small glimpses of starlight through the foliage. We did not know how far we were from Ayden’s fortress or any village at this point in our journey, not without the driver who had been steering the carriage.
A thunk resonated through my ears, immediately followed by the sounds of strangled breathing. My eyes whipped over to Nadene and I couldn’t stop the strangled scream that ripped through me as I saw the black arrow sticking through her chest and coating her white dress in bright red.
“Nadene!” I lurched forward to catch her and didn’t even notice the hot tears that were now freely flowing down my cheeks. She was heavy in my arms and I nearly fell to the ground clutching her in my arms. I sank to my knees with her body shuddering in my arms and the last of her choked breaths leaving her.
By the time I laid her on the soft grass, she was still.
“Oh gods, no, please no,” I whispered to no one. I knew now that the gods were not with me at this moment. I was on my own and death was near.
Voices in the distance from behind me reached my ears, and I knew that whoever shot the arrow into Nadene wasn’t too far away to shoot another. The longer I sat here, the easier of a target I became.
Clenching my teeth and balling my fists, I rose from Nadene’s body and sprinted over the forest underbrush. The thin layer of my dress tangled about my legs, and I had to lift my skirts to run faster.
Something whizzed past my ear and I whimpered at the proximity of that arrow that had narrowly missed my head. I didn’t know how far away these bandits were or how good they were with those arrows, but my heart was bumping adrenaline through me and I flew over the ground faster than I had ever run before.
It wasn’t enough. Growing up in the kingdom of light, I didn’t make a habit of running around in the darkness. This wasn’t my home, and it was unfamiliar terrain. My foot caught on something.
In the blink of an eye, I was crashing painfully onto the hard forest floor. My nose stung with the pain from the impact and my wrists ached at the force from attempting to catch myself. An unbidden groan left my lips as I rolled myself over in the cold grass, trying to blink away the lights behind my eyes.
At the sound of heavy footsteps crunching near me, I held my breath until the sound of my thundering heart almost overtook the sound of someone stomping closer. Enough starlit shone through a break in the trees to show me my attacker.
He was a shadow among shadows.
The darkness appeared to follow him. Tendrils of shadows were reaching out in his direction, as though they yearned to be a part of him. The shades extending with each step closer he took.
All the air left my body once he stood directly beneath the beam of light from those stars above. My blood was pumping fast, and I felt as though I was buzzing with the need to flee.
A mountain of a man in shimmering black armor towered over where I lay prone on the ground. Sharp spikes curled up from his shoulders and there was a dark crown that looked like tall spears welded into his helmet. The face of the helmet gave me the sense I was soon to be preyed on by a faceless demon.
But in the dark slits for his eyes, it was raging amber eyes that shook me to my core with fear. The black armor told me our enemy had indeed attacked us. The shadow elves had found me.
Yet it was the grotesque crown on the top of his helmet that truly told me who I had the unfortunate pleasure of being in the presence of. There were enough stories about the blood on his hands that I didn’t need to guess.
The ruler of the shadow elves, King of the Thanatens, Caliban Mor’gen was hovering over me with a blood-soaked sword in his hands.
My enemy was going to kill me.