It had taken two days for Gallus, Selmain, Avery and Thalius to be escorted to the majestic sweeping city of Tirith Ahden at the centre of the small country Lapai-Dabu. A small unit had broken away from the main legion to lead the prisoners toward the military barracks in the capital city. The four Denarien men could have broken away with relative ease had they been allowed to do so by Gallus. The king of Denari was as displeased as his men at the treatment they had received from their neighbours, but he also knew they had been given little choice. If they fought the Lapaian soldiers, the political fallout would be just another headache in a long line of migraines Gallus had to deal with on a daily basis.
Gallus could spare four days travel to save himself the troubles a political mess would bring later on. Besides, he wanted to meet with his cousin Queen Anishka of Lapai-Dabu. It had been many months since they had last corresponded and he wished to ask her what had happened to put the country on such a high state of military alert. Everywhere the men looked there was a heavy army presence dotting the countryside. The guilt Gallus felt when he realised he had no idea as to why this might be humbled him. Had he become so engrossed in his own worries that he had stopped paying attention to the world around him?
The road to the Tirith Ahden was a road well trodden by the Denarien king. In his youth he had visited the fortified city several times every season with his younger brother Eunus and their mother. Queen Theano of Denari loved returning to the country of her birth. She had left the luscious green plains of Lapai-Dabu when she was only sixteen years old and had missed it every day since. Her older brother Craos had ascended the throne of Lapai-Dabu when she had been but a little girl. He had been like a father to her after their own dear papa had died early in his career on the throne. Theano tried to bring her young sons to her childhood city as often as she could when they weren’t attending the Camp. Gallus and Eunus had loved exploring the ancient cobbled streets with their cousins Anishka and Sappho.
Looking now upon the grand Western Gate Gallus smiled, happily reliving a childhood full of memories. Yes, he remembered the gleaming marble towers and the twin flags of Lapai-Dabu and the Eden Alliance flying proudly atop them. Anishka had once dared him to climb to the very top of one of towers and steal from it the flag of the Eden Alliance. Unwittingly the bold young Gallus had hurried to the task, nearly losing his life in the process, but he had succeeded and had returned to the ground with the flag between his teeth. The trouble he found upon returning to the ground failed to make a difference to the young man’s jubilation: brave, fiery Anishka had been beaten. Eunus and young Sappho had looked up to the boy as though he had been a hero, while the crown princess of Lapai-Dabu had merely glowered at the crown prince of Denari. Later that night, when he had been confined to his chambers by a highly embarrassed Theano, Gallus had been woken up in the middle of the night by a triumphant princess Anishka, who presented her cousin with the matching flag of Lapai-Dabu snatched from the other tower.
Yes, she had been an intimidating sort of girl and an even more intimidating sort of queen when she ascended the throne barely a few years after Gallus. King Craos had fallen in battle leaving Anishka to salvage what she could of her war-ridden nation. She had been one of Gallus’ most important allies during those early years and together they had successfully defended the Eden Alliance nations from the Southern Powers. Many years had passed since the end of the war, but even now Lapai-Dabu was Denari’s closest ally in arms.
The men were led down the cobbled Main Street towards the eastern quarter of the city where the military buildings lay. Tirith Ahden was a city with a history as rich as that of Titua, but it had not flourished in equal measure. Where Titua was a beautiful patchwork of towering richly decorated buildings, Tirith Ahden was a low-rise rustic sort of place. The style of the buildings hadn’t changed in several centuries and the streets still retained their ancient pathways across the city. It was a relic and one that made the visitors from Denari happy for the developments that had changed Titua into the metropolis it had become.
Curious faces turned to stare at the men being led through the streets. Though they weren’t shackled, everyone knew these were not free men and soon the alleyways were alive with the rumour of another group of men captured from the wilds. Were these the men the army sought so ruthlessly? Could they all go back to their old ways now?
“They do not seem happy to see us,” Avery uttered to Gallus under his breath when he caught sight of an old grandmother shaking her fist at them. The king nodded grimly.
“No, so it would seem.”
“How are you going to let your cousin know that we have arrived?” Gallus smiled wryly and shook his head.
“That will not be necessary. She is already aware that I am within the city walls. She is a powerful sensitive the queen of Lapai-Dabu.”
Avery smiled and nodded. Yes, he remembered Selmain telling him once how surprisingly powerful Gallus’ older cousin had become. In fact, she was so powerful she didn’t employ the services of a royal mage. Though Selmain did add that this was perhaps more so due to the queen’s pride than her not needing said mage.
“And will she come and rescue us Gallus?” Thalius asked. He had been carefully listening to the conversation between the other two. The king smiled dryly.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Well, the last time you were here did you not vex her in such a manner that she refused to ever allow you to return?” Selmain now spoke up. Gallus chuckled and shook his head.
“I beat her at a game of crocket if that is what you speak of…”
“Is it my memory,” Thalius mused aloud. “Or did you not cheat despicably and get found out by your lovely cousin?”
“I might have done that, yes,” Gallus sighed.
“And then to add insult to injury did you not refer to it in a public speech at the palace the next day? Something along the lines of Denari’s superior hand at…”
“Yes, thank you, that is quite enough. As you have pointed out, my cousin the queen might just leave us to rot in our cells. Let us hope for all our sakes that she is a more forgiving creature than most.”
Thais lay beneath a thick layer of blankets shielding her from the winter morning. The cold snows could not penetrate the forest; the Kaba trees were too efficient a barrier to the outside world. After passing into the woodlands, everything that happened outside the trees mattered little. The forest roof served not only to keep out the cold snows, but it also kept in what little marshy warmth there lay in the forest and though Thais shivered slightly under her furs, she knew she ought to be glad of the forest. When she emerged from the greenery the winter would truly surround her.
The girl steadied her breathing, taking measured breaths and feigning sleep. At her side she could hear Phable was deeply enveloped in dreams, but to her other side Gray was a curiosity. Was he asleep? With her keen ears Thais could hear the boy’s breaths, which came fast and irregularly, but why would he be feigning sleep as she was?
Two nights had passed and Thais was yet to escape the company of Taelius Harbinger’s sons. Every determined pace west was lengthening the girl’s journey north. Her patience was wearing thin. It had been with a relieved smile that she awoke on her third day as an outlaw from the palace to discover that her leg seemed completely healed. She had been waiting for this moment, as she would have found it difficult to outrun a pair of fit young men on a recovering limb, but now the time had come. Finally she would part from her argumentative guardians.
Just why the brothers had turned so decidedly frosty towards one another since their leaving the woodland city Thais was unaware. Regularly she would watch them stalking into the undergrowth to have a hushed row before returning, only to cast one another foul glances. For the most part the girl tried to distance herself from them, taking routes further and further afield from their thunderous expressions. Each time they would swoop out to meet her and herd her gently back to the track and under their watchful gazes. They watched her a lot Thais had noticed, trying to remain unnerved. Certainly something was amiss. Had their father told them of her position? Did they know who she was?
From the moment she had discovered that she could stretch her leg out without even so much as a twinge of pain Thais had been determined to take her leave silently before either of the brothers woke up, but hearing now Gray’s peculiar breathing she was sure she would have to come up with another plan. Nothing could be resolved hiding under her blankets and after a deep breath to brace against the cold the girl pulled the furs away. Instantly her eyes found Gray’s, who had watched her pull the blankets away.
“Good morning,” he croaked, his throat succumbing to a cold brought on by nights spent in the winter chill.
“Couldn’t you sleep?” Thais asked noting the boy’s eyes had been awake for some time. Gray shook his head.
“Too cold.” Thais nearly believed him.
“You should have started the fire,” she told him and though it pained her she pushed her blankets away exposing herself fully to the cold in order to approach the cooling embers from last night’s fire. Expertly she brought a small flame into existence, licking at the kindling she had piled into a pyramid. Gray watched her from his blankets, his eyes sad.
“You know a lot about surviving in the wild,” he remarked.
“I spend a lot of time outdoors,” came the curt reply from a girl frustrated by the lies enveloping the trio and their journey. Once she might have liked Gray, he was after all a likeable young man, but his keeping secrets from her, which undoubtedly jeopardised her safety left no room for compassion in Thais’ eyes.
“Why?” Since Gray had clapped eyes on the enigmatic youngster from the city he had felt curiosity about every aspect of her life. Why, when she had the city at her disposal, did this wild young girl choose the harshness of the wilderness? Thais stopped stoking the fire and turned to stare at her travelling companion, who had now sat up in his sleeping roll.
“You shouldn’t have such high expectations of Titua,” she finally explained. “’Tis a boring city.”
“Boring?” Gray was amazed. “But what of the fighting in Varanasi? The street performances on the Great South Road? The markets? The chance to see the royal family…”
“Pardon?” Thais laughed. “The royal family? What makes you so certain you can see them? They don’t make it their business to visit everyone in the city you know.” Now it was Gray’s turn to frown.
“But their reputation reaches even our ears. I’ve heard Princess Thais plays with children in Acrabar and even in Varanasi despite the dangers. And that the king’s favourite tavern lies in Varanasi opposite the temple and that he goes there when he is in town. A woodcutter once told me he shared a drink with him. He said King Gallus was nothing like he expected.”
“Well he said he was shorter than he thought for starters. I suppose you expect a man like that to be taller than the Angels, but the woodcutter swore he was not so tall.”
“A lie. He is tall. The tallest man I have ever seen and you I wager,” Thais countered proudly, but soon regretted it when Gray’s eyebrows raised curiously.
“Oh, so you have seen him?” Thais thought quickly, her expression unchanging while a lie formed in her mouth.
“We’ve all seen him,” she replied easily. “You’re right, he’s often in town. I saw him at the Yuletide parade. You know, when the maidens of the Royal parade down the Denai in white robes and green laurel leaves.”
“The Royal, that’s the largest university in Titua isn’t it?” Gray asked eagerly, his eyes wide and jealous. Thais felt her compassion threatening to overturn her anger at being held secretly captive. What this boy wanted he would never find. He would never be accepted in the city. Woodlanders were rarely able to remove themselves from heir criminal upbringings and certainly should Gray try he would inevitably find himself before a court panel. She pitied him.
“Yes it is,” she finally replied gently.
“Tell me more of this parade. I’ve never heard of it.”
Gray and Thais turned to stare at the long thin body lying beneath the blankets furthest from the fire. Phable had been awake, but for how long?
“Enough of your drivel,” the bad-tempered youth grumbled furiously, throwing his blanket from his face revealing blood-shot eyes. “I have had enough of your whining on about that bloody city Gray. It’s time you woke up to the cruel honest truth that you will never ever be one of them.” Here a furious hand was thrust at Thais. “See her innocent face, her warm smiles, they are all lies! She hates you, just as they all hate us.”
As though the hatred of the Two Furies had awoken within the tall young man he climbed to his feet and kicked the earth into the two younger ones’ faces. Thais, who had been staring wild-eyed at his attack jumped to her feet within moments, rubbing at her sore eyes.
“You are the one who lies Phable,” the girl growled, her dark eyes narrowed in anger, her expression surprisingly menacing for so fair a face. “You know nothing of me or my city. I don’t hate your brother, but I do hate you. You’re cruel; cruel and weak and frightened of life outside your small forest. There’s a world out there Phable and even though in Titua Gray might not find the life he’s seeking that doesn’t mean he won’t find it somewhere else. If he wanted to he could easily leave you all behind and find a better life for himself. That’s what really frightens you isn’t it? That he’s brave enough to want more while you cower in what little you have.”
“What do you know little girl?” the tall youth shouted and he took a few staggered steps toward Thais, but soon stopped in his tracks when Gray jumped from his sleeping roll and stood between his brother and their charge.
“Stop brother,” Gray ordered, his kind eyes creased. “Please.”
Phable turned from the younger two and pulled his cloak about his shaking shoulders. Without a word he strode into the branches, tracing the path west. Gray and Thais watched him go, before their wide eyes met.
“Why do you let him talk to you like that?” Thais finally asked.
“You don’t know my brother.”
“I know he bullies you and you simply accept it.”
“Don’t Helen,” Gray growled, showing his rare temper in response to her tampering in his affairs. “I’ll say this once and once only. Don’t judge Phable, you don’t know him.”
“But he’s allowed to judge me?” the stubborn young girl countered, her own fiery temper flaring up as it was want to do at the slightest prod.
“You’re twisting my words,” Gray grumbled while he climbed to his feet and started to pack away his sleeping roll. “Maybe Phable’s right. I dream of the city as though one day I might see it with my own eyes, but what’s the use? Your kind will never welcome me.”
“You’re wrong,” Thais complained, passion making her voice sound petulant and child-like. “I’d welcome you.”
While Gray watched with hurt eyes Thais packed her own sleeping roll, kicked out the small fire she had built and passed through the trees onto the westward path. Tears gathered in her eyes while she went, though furiously she attributed this to the salt she had sprinkled in her hair falling down her face. Salt was one of the only ways to keep the greymen away, an essential shield for a peaceful night’s rest.
A dark silence had descended on the three youngsters on their second morning together. They walked single file until Thais excused herself to find a private spot of the forest to relieve herself. The angry young brothers did not sense her lie and averted their gazes from their companion’s route. Once she had passed out of their hearing range Thais started to run. She had had enough of the lies and the secrecy and wanted to be away from Taelius’ sons so that she might start north once more.
The days were precious, as the girl was sure that before too long Gallus himself would join the hunt for the royal runaway. Rarely had she ever succeeded in hiding from the palace for more than two weeks, as once her father tore himself from the running of the country to track her down he was frighteningly good at it.
While she ran Thais knew this plan could not secure her escape. The young men would simply follow her tracks and surely she would not be able to outrun them indefinitely? Her recently recovered body would certainly raise its concerns once she had covered a mile or so. In the distance a bank of enormous Kaba trees was nearing. She needed time to think and these giants could offer her that. Several times the girl ran in circles and doubled back on herself, running this way and then that, before she jumped at a tree and easily scaled its branches. From this tree she leapt to the next and then the next before she reached a giant in her path. The only branches Kaba trees bore lay at the top in the canopy and so with a great deal of difficulty she jumped down from her current perch and landed at he base of a Kaba giant. Hugging the enormous trunk she scaled round the tree until she found a deep cavernous knot. She had singled out this tree for this purpose and after taking one last glance at the green canopy she crept inside the tree and pulled herself deep into he depths of darkness.
“Helen! Helen Shortwood! Helen where are you?”
“Come out wherever you are girl! You’ll regret this!”
Their voices were near her tree, stagnating where her tracks came to a ponderous end. Thais pulled back as far as she could into the gloom, her keen ears listening for the brothers’ movements.
“Marvellous brother, simply marvellous. I’m sure she’ll come to us now,” Gray was speaking, anger lacing his gentle voice.
“Shut up Gray, this is all your fault anyway.”
“My fault? How is this my fault?”
“You shouldn’t have let her go.”
Laughter, cold and quick, seeming out of place having come from the kinder of the two brothers.
“I shouldn’t have let her go to the toilet? Certainly! Because that would have eased her suspicions of us.”
“You like this city girl don’t you?” For the first time Phable didn’t seem cruel towards his younger brother. Indeed, he almost sounded concerned for Gray’s well-being.
“I feel she’s a good person brother. I feel bad for leading her into a trap.”
“It’s not your place to feel bad Gray. It’s your place to follow father’s orders.”
“But do you never question his orders?”
Silence, while Thais closed her eyes, trying to quiet her wild breathing lest the brothers hear her through the trees.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the taller brother finally grumbled.
“Yes you do. You pretend, but even you feel compassion. You don’t agree with selling her to the Scalpers to settle father’s debt either. I know you don’t.”
“It’s not our place to question him Gray.”
“Of course it is! He’s so sure she is important enough to stop them hounding him for the money he rightly owes them and yet what if she’s just a normal girl? Her life is over the moment the Scalpers get her Phable.”
“Enough! Enough now Gray! Damn you and your heart. We have to find her. The ambush is planned for this afternoon and if we don’t have this girl at the waterfall then we may as well offer ourselves in her place, because father won’t take us back.”
Thais realised she was panting and quickly climbed into a crouch, one hand pulling her bow from her shoulders, the other pulling an arrow from her quiver. It was time to act. She would not let a crooked warlord use her as a bartering chip to settle his debts.
“I always settle my debts.” The memory of Harbinger’s words floated mockingly into Thais’ mind.
‘Certainly,’ she thought furiously. ‘But you don’t consider your daughter’s life worthy of repaying a debt do you? You fiend!’
A stream of expletives flowed through Thais’ mind while she contemplated what she was about to do. To give herself up to the Scalpers would be suicide and rather her life than these two. Closing her eyes in brief heartache the princess moved to the opening of the tree and glanced out to see the brothers standing several feet away, their backs to her. She took aim, her bow arm shaking slightly at the thought of taking a human life. Never had she perpetrated such an act of barbarism. Never had she needed to defend herself against the acts of another person.
Thais cocked an arrow and pulled back hard, staring at the back of Phable’s head, willing herself to have the courage and the strength to take his life to save her own. Sweat was pouring more salt into her sore eyes and while she teetered on the edge, Phable’s life in her hands, the brothers argued on.
“Aius give me strength,” Thais whispered, before quite suddenly she released her hand and her arrow let fly. After years of training Thais was an accurate shooter. Her arrow was on target, but with astonishment the girl saw that it did not connect with Phable’s back. It did not connect with any part of that moody young man’s body in fact, for Phable and his brother had both fallen to the floor unconscious. After releasing her arrow Thais had watched in astonishment as the stones pelted through the air, cast from unseen attackers, and connected with the feuding brothers’ heads.
“Who must I fight now?” the girl groaned and feeling fraught from the decision she had just taken she slung her bow onto her shoulder and ripped her blades from her sheaths in one fluid motion. Furious, she darted from her tree and into the clearing. The sound of footsteps behind her told of an ambush and within seconds the girl turned wielding her blades in front of her. They met with a clash the blades of someone Thais had never expected to find. With wild eyed she stared at her rescuer, unsure whether relief or anger should flood her thoughts. In the distance thunder rumbled.