I was overjoyed and relieved, smiling up at Rhett, with nothing but shocked gratitude. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. The rays were shining directly in my line of sight, and I had to squint, placing a hand above my eyes, in order to see, Konrad, busying himself on the ship, ahead.
I felt my fondness grow for the young Lycan, who I could now, indeed, count as family, just as he had wanted.
They were really going to help me achieve what I'd set out to do. My heart swelled with newfound hope, that my promise would be fulfilled, and that my brother's life would be saved. I overcame some of my worst fears in the labyrinth, and I had faced imminent death—or so I'd thought.
My last hurdle being time. The reality of it was that I'd never take it for granted, ever again. It didn't stand still when you needed it to. There was no such thing as borrowing any, and you couldn't race against it. It nipped at your heels, and when it eventually catches up with you, and it will, it is merciless, leaving you with an empty feeling that you've never been given enough of it.
There was no point in feeling cheated, it waited for no one, especially me, and certainly not Petr. The more I learned to respect that, the more I learned to appreciate it. It was precious, and I intended to spend it wisely.
I just had to pray that I wasn't already too late. I held enough hope in my heart that Petr was still alive. I felt optimistic that we had every chance of succeeding, that Petr would be saved, life would continue, and things would be better for us. I wanted to give him the good news, that he was going to become an uncle.
"Come on then, I'll race you to the ship," I squealed, cheerfully, taking off at a run.
I was in such high spirits, that nothing but sea spray could dampen my mood.
I heard Rhett laughing behind me. He could have easily outrun me, but I think he was holding back purposefully. He wanted to let me have this moment. It felt like a small token of appreciation, from him to me, and I felt euphoric.
"j'ai gagné!" I shouted, triumphantly. (I won!)
Konrad stepped down the ramp, just enough to help me up with an outstretched hand. An enormous grin manifested across his face, the second he saw Rhett and me together.
"I knew it! I knew I sensed that she was meant for you, brother," he announced, with pride.
"When you said that she was beautiful, I honestly didn't believe just how much, until I saw her for myself. Her hair the colour of pure gold, sparkling eyes, like the bluest sapphires, and her skin as soft as silk. You were certainly accurate with the details." Rhett placed a hand over his heart, as he repeated the words that Konrad must've used to describe me.
He openly mocked his brother, who's cheeks flushed red with embarrassment. His eyes darted between myself and Rhett.
"Well, you insisted that I told you everything, and not leave anything out," Konrad mumbled, awkwardly, in response.
I couldn't help but chuckle, placing a hand over my mouth at the sight of the two brothers, squabbling playfully. They seemed to share a close bond. Their fondness for each other was evident.
"Enough with the details, Rhett. She is your bride, there is no need for such jealousy, even though I may be the better option. But what's done, is done. You're mated now, bonded by the Moon Goddess herself, so there's no going back," Konrad retorted, making his brother's eyebrows raise at the witty comment.
Rhett's eyes sparkled with humour, and an amused smirk graced his lips. He carried on walking up the ramp, sparing Konrad a single pat on the shoulder. "We should be making ourselves scarce. Fabian can only make excuses for our absence, for a short while, before Father notices that something is amiss." Rhett warned, in a more serious tone.
"Father won't immediately notice, whilst the festivities are taking place. It's Mother who you should be concerned with. Only then will Father be made aware, once she realizes we're both missing. She will want to welcome your bride. She's probably ordered a search party to scour the island, as we speak," Konrad replied.
He gave a look of apprehension, as he looked over his shoulder towards the castle as if to check that we weren't being followed.
"You met our mother, Amara. She was the one who escorted you from the castle, and brought you to the labyrinth," Rhett commented.
I held a look of sheer confusion. What he said didn't begin to make sense to me, in the slightest.
"That was your mother? But she looked so young! How is that possible?" I asked, in amazement. The female I met, barely looked over the age of twenty—if that.
Both Rhett and Konrad shared an amused look. "Mother was turned at the age of sixteen. We lycanthropes age slowly," Rhett replied, carefully. "Wait until you meet our grandparents. My grandfather is almost seventy years old, but you would swear he was in his early twenties," he smiled brightly, making light of the situation.
Shock must have been evident on my face at that point. There I was, mourning the loss of time when it seemed that I was to gain plenty of it. I only hoped my plan for Petr, would work. I hoped, beyond hope, that Rhett could heal whatever illness my brother had contracted. Giving him the opportunity to lead a full and happy life.
Both brothers ushered me along the deck of the ship and began to give out instructions on how we were going to sail to the mainland, with only a crew of three.
"Konrad, I will lift the anchor, you release the sails. The wind is on our side and along with the pull, we will be sure to gain speed in no time," Rhett announced, with enthusiasm.
I was under the impression that they were rather excited about breaking the rules. They both ran in separate directions, fuelled with adrenaline, leaving me standing alone on the deck, in wonder as to what I was supposed to do next.
I looked around awkwardly, not knowing what to ask, and not wanting to seem like a hindrance.
The large ship was intimidating. I watched as Rhett hauled the heavy anchor up, his biceps bulging with each heave of the thick chains. Konrad had already started to release the sails. The wind picked up the mainsail, and I felt the ship begin to jolt forwards.
It was working, we were moving. I placed my hands on the helm as if to steer the ship, despite not actually knowing what it was I was doing. I had succeeded in making myself look busy though, but I didn't want to stand around idle, whilst they were doing all the manual labour.
Rhett sprinted alongside me and took over. I stepped aside gratefully. I hadn't the faintest idea of how to manoeuvre the ship, and I was glad to have been relieved of the duty.
I spared a glance over my shoulder at the Lycan island, watching as it grew smaller the further we sailed away from it. Questions that I'd been meaning to ask Rhett, were now re-surfacing. The fact that we had already left the island, made me feel somewhat better about bringing these issues up.
"Won't the other Lycan's be angry that we've borrowed the ship?" I asked, fearfully, trying to put as much emphasis on 'borrowed' as I could.
My intention was never to steal it, although, if I would've tried to commandeer it myself, I wouldn't have had the slightest clue as to how I'd return it back.
That was the part of my original plan, that I hadn't actually thought through. Thankfully now, I wouldn't have to.
Rhett's face paled. "Amara, this is not the only ship." He swallowed hard, as he looked into my questioning eyes. What he said next, caused my mouth to run dry.
He pointed over to the far end of the island, to where I could only just make out large rock faces that stood proudly out of the water. Darkened caves could faintly be seen at the bases of each one.
"There is an armada of Lycan warships around the other side of the caves, that are kept hidden from view. Once they find out that we're missing, I expect that we will be pursued by half, if not the whole of the Lycan army. Grandfather is rather fond of the old ways, you see, and well, he is the Lycan King, so his final word tends to be law." Rhett finished.
Ah, I'd forgotten that he'd mentioned something about his grandfather's throne room. "Your grandfather is the King?" I felt a wave of nausea sweep over me, and my shoulders slumped. This was going to be more serious than I realized.
"Which obviously means that you're a prince?" I stated a fact.
"Correct! The crowned prince of Azkalar Zar, to be more precise. Which would then make you a—" He teased, playfully.
"Princess," I finished off for him, managing barely a whisper.
I then had a feeling of sudden dread in the pit of my stomach. "And that means the child I'm carrying, is also royalty. They're not going to let us go, are they?" I realized. My voice trembled, as I spoke the words aloud.
Rhett exhaled through his nose, and his eyes spared me a fleeting glance as he spoke. "I'm the eldest. My father is next in line to sit on the throne, and I'm next in line after him. Our son is the future crowned prince of the southern Lycan empire. One day, he too, will take his rightful place and be crowned King after I renounce my title. But do not let that trouble you, Amara, that will not be for at least another century."
"Rhett!" Konrad bellowed, from the crow's nest. We both looked up to see him waving his hands, then pointed back over towards the island.
My breath hitched in my throat, at the sight of Lycan warships emerging from behind the rocks. They were faint on the horizon. I could barely make them out, but there was no denying what they were. That could only mean one thing—they knew we were leaving!
Rhett's eyes widened. "This ship is the fastest in the fleet. They'll not catch us with the head start we have. The wind at the moment, is at our advantage, although, they are likely to gain on us. I cannot see them opening fire, but I'm not leaving anything to chance. Hold the wheel steady, Amara, just as I'm doing now," he instructed.
He left me manning the helm, whilst he raced off to get a better look at the whole situation.
I panicked. "No! wait! Where are you going?" I suddenly felt a mixture of emotions: fear, panic, trepidation, mixed in with a wave of nausea for good measure.
Konrad slid down the mast, effortlessly, and Rhett gave out the orders. "We need to disperse of any excess weight that we're carrying. We're travelling light already, but we would benefit from being even lighter," he advised, signalling to the cargo holders below deck.
My eyes followed them, as they made their way down the stairs behind me. I couldn't help but keep sparing glances over towards the fleet of ships, that were heavily gaining on us from behind.
I found it increasingly hard to swallow, as my throat felt dry and coarse. It felt as if I was swallowing something sharp and painful. I barely had enough moisture to soften my lips, because the harsh ocean wind was leaving them cracked and sore.
The ship jolted as it went over a rough part in the sea, causing me to lose balance with a sudden shriek in surprise. Rhett and Konrad both emerged from below, carrying cargo crates of some sort, that they felt it unnecessary to keep.
They each tossed the crates they were carrying over the side of the ship. They both hit the water with a splash before bobbing back up to the surface and floating along behind the ship in the rough ocean waves. The men ran back and forth, repeating the action until they were satisfied that we were no longer carrying any unnecessary weight.
Rhett came back to take over at the helm, whilst Konrad manned the sails. I was grateful to have two Lycan warriors helping me. There was nothing of ordinary size on this ship. I would not have stood a chance in lifting the anchor. If it was left to me alone, then I would never have made it off the beach.
With the ship now a whole lot lighter, it gathered speed. He was right, the ship was like lightning through the water, cutting through the rough waves like a knife through butter. Waves were crashing up at either side of the ship, sending gushes of salty water splashing over the top deck.
It wasn't long before we saw land ahead. Rhett called out to Konrad, informing him that he needed to get ready to reverse the sails. We were approaching land at some speed, and we would need to start slowing down, in order to stop safely at the port.
Although, the sudden drop in the wind was threatening to make that difficult.
"Konrad, get down from there!" Rhett shouted to him, from below.
I watched in awe, as he manoeuvred himself effortlessly, gliding back down, whilst holding onto a rope and landing with precision onto his feet.
"We're coming in, too fast, so there's only one thing for it. We have to drop the anchor," Rhett yelled.
Both brothers hauled the anchor over the side of the ship, letting it drop into the fast waters with a splash. The ship jerked to the left side, harshly, as well as being hit broadside by a large wave, the force sending me tumbling across the deck.
"Rhett!" I screamed.
Rhett slid across the tilted deck and caught my hand, just before I was about to fall overboard. With one hand he held onto the side of the ship, and his other hand desperately clasped firmly around mine, he held onto me, as I dangled helplessly in mid-air.
A wave engulfed me in freezing cold water. The rough sea was threatening to snatch me from Rhett's grasp. I coughed, having swallowed a mouth full of sea-water. I also inhaled some through my nose, feeling the harsh burning sensation in my airways. My wet hair clung to my face, obstructing my view. Rhett was determined not to let go and held onto my wrist in an iron-hard grip.
The ship pivoted dangerously to the side, almost causing it to capsize. The waves were crashing violently around us, and the force was almost catastrophic. The largest mast snapped in the middle and was swallowed by the ocean. The ship recovered and righted itself, with a series of turbulent bumps.
Rhett pulled me back over and onto the deck. I landed abruptly on top of him, both of us panting, eyes widened in fear.
"Are you alright?" Konrad shouted, his face pale and filled with concern.
I felt unable to speak, my lungs filled and expelled, repeating the same action.
"She's fine," Rhett answered for me. "But we won't be if we don't hang onto something." He warned, pulling me up on my feet and dragging me over to what was left of the mast. He wrapped the rope around me, tying me in place, then held onto the wooden post for dear life, caging me in against him.
We were heading straight for the port at an even and steady pace. It was inevitable that we would inflict damage, both to the docks, and to the ship, but at least it wasn't likely to be fatal.
I closed my eyes whilst I clung to Rhett. Konrad clung to the helm, bracing himself ready for impact.
We were jolted forwards, as the front of the ship crunched straight through a wooden platform along the docks, causing large splinters of wood soaring into the air around us. The low rumbling sound of wood colliding with wood was ear-splitting.
I managed to open my eyes once I was certain that we'd stopped. My breathing was ragged, as relief won me over, and unable to stop the sudden flow of tears. "Oh, thank goodness," I finally managed to form words.
Rhett untangled me from the ropes. Then the three of us ran along the side of the ship, looking for a way to get down. Konrad went first, finding a solid platform, that hadn't been completely destroyed by the crash. Rhett lifted me up, allowing Konrad to pull me safely beside him. I was then able to run safely along the docs.
I felt determined. It was exactly half a mile to the orphanage from the port. I was certain it was fast-approaching midday, and that everyone would be at mass.
That would be perfect. I'd be able to take Petr away, and nobody would ever know, nor would they care. They saw him as a burden—they always had.
The moment the convent was in sight, my emotions began to surface. Rhett and Konrad were there, right at either side of me. None of us spoke the whole way over here. We ran in silence.
They must have sensed that I was on the verge of losing myself to tears. Everything was balancing upon a knife edge. Petr's life, and the vastly approaching Lycan army.
I threw open the doors to the orphanage, without a moment's hesitation. I was greeted by the familiarity of the place: the smell of the wax candles burning along the corridors, the sight of the dank stone walls and floors, and of course, the sound of silence.
I must have been right about it being midday, meaning, they would all be at mass.
My heart leapt, hammering violently in my chest, as I flung open the door to Petr's room. Only, what I saw next almost caused me to scream at the top of my lungs.
Petr looked as if he was a few breaths away from death. His skin was as pale as parchment, his chest wasn't giving me any sign that he was breathing.
Standing over his bed reading him his last rights, was a man I recognized to be Father Pierre de Bérulle. My eyes landed on the pauper's coffin that was lying beside the bed. I blinked, spilling hot tears down both cheeks.
"Elle m'a menti," I seethed.
(She lied to me.)
I felt Rhett squeeze my hand, before brushing past me, stopping at the side of Petr's bedside.
The priest's eyes darted between us in shock and alarm. "You shouldn't be in here. This may be contagious. We do not know the cause of this man's death," he warned, gesturing towards the door for us to leave.
My legs gave way, and I was caught by Konrad. "I've got you, it's alright, shh!" He tried to soothe me, as I shook with grief.
Rhett's face looked ashen, as he leaned down towards Petr, and inhaled, ignoring the protests from Father Pierre de Bérulle. His brows furrowed, and I witnessed his eyes darken.
"I know the cause of this mans condition.....Arsenic....he's been poisoned, slowly, over a long period of time. My guess it was mixed into his food, a little at a time, as not to arouse suspicion," he spoke darkly, looking directly at the priest.
Father Pierre de Bérulle, narrowed his eyes as if sceptical of Rhett's accusations. "Poisoned...here? But who do you suppose would do such a thing?" He shook his head, in disbelief.
Rhett's, eyes softened. "There's honesty in your eyes, Father. I'm satisfied that you knew nothing of this atrocity. Perhaps you could think of someone else?" He asked the priest, who was shaking his head. He clearly didn't know and was struggling to come to terms with it.
"I have an idea," I blurted out before I'd even had a chance to think about it. "Sister Mary Agnes, always saw Petr as a burden," I seethed with anger.
"My dear, you cannot make wild allegations, without proof," he began.
"What more proof, than to exchange me for gold. She bargained with me, that if I went to the Lycan island, in exchange for gold, that she'd use some of the gold to pay for a doctor to treat my brother. And did she, father? Tell me, has my brother received any such treatment?" My words came out harsh and direct, but I didn't care. I was shaking with anger, and I felt as if I was about to come apart with rage.
"No," the priest replied. "He hasn't received any treatment, at all, and I've been by his side since first light."
"Amara, what is this? You would have been chosen anyway, the moment that I became worthy. She was paid an offering, like every Lycan brides family received," Rhett spoke in a lowered tone. The realization spread across his face and he swallowed. "She thought that we purchased random women, like slaves." The distaste was clear in his voice.
Konrad spoke up. "I sensed that you were to be chosen. I would've taken you, whether she agreed to let you go, or not. We can offer you a good life, Amara."
"But she didn't know that I'd be chosen, did she?" I muttered darkly. "She thought because no girls were coming of age, that she wouldn't receive any gold this year. She must have orchestrated the whole thing." I placed a trembling hand over my mouth.
"I fed him myself. I fed him his meals. If that's how the poison was transferred to him, then I'd helped to administer it. I've killed my own brother." I broke down, collapsing in Konrad's arms, as I sobbed uncontrollably.
"Amara, Petr isn't dead. He will be soon, maybe moments, so make a choice, but you must be certain." Rhett waited for my answer.
Father Pierre de Bérulle spoke. "This, I cannot condone as a man of God. So I will take my leave, here. Do as you feel is right." He placed a hand on my shoulder and managed a strained smile.
I called out to him. "Sister Mary Agnes, what shall become of her?" I asked, my eyes blazed as he met my gaze with empathy.
"I will relieve her of her duties, with immediate effect. The Monsignor will want to deal with this matter, personally," he replied, taking one last mournful look at Petr, before exiting the room.
"Do it," I looked at Rhett. "Save him," I pleaded.
Rhett nodded in understanding, and Konrad turned my face away, just as Rhett bit into the side of Petr's throat. I squeezed my eyes shut, too frightened to open them.
"And now we wait," Konrad's voice was barely a soft whisper.