Gonivein leaned over the balcony and smiled as the cool air breathed on her face and blew her straight blond hair behind her shoulders. The hot summer days were finally coming to an end, and she welcomed the subtle chill she felt in the breeze. The drought had made the heat more miserable than ever this summer. Dead grass and dirt stretched out before her as far as she could see. The courtyard below her, once full of vibrant colors and fragrance, now wafted only dust and debris from the decaying foliage. Dark clouds settled over the plains, but Gonivein knew better than to hope for rain.
She turned to look up at the handsome face of her brother, Dargon.
“Do you think we’ll have a rainy season this year?” she asked him, already knowing the answer, but perhaps they could find comfort in hoping together.
The fine lines around his brown eyes deepened as he squinted at the thunder clouds. She held her breath, but the gentle shake of his head confirmed her doubts. “We haven’t had rain in eight years,” he remarked. “No reason for Zeus to send it again now, not yet.”
“Do you think what we are doing will change anything?” she asked. “Our scout yesterday reported that the Dela has run dry now, and they’ve lengthened the ropes on our own wells again. Who knows how long we have until it is completely dry, and there is no lag in the death toll.”
Dargon looked down at her. “I think if we do nothing then nothing will change.”
She refrained from rolling her eyes. She should have known he wouldn’t give her a straight answer. He seemed to sense her annoyance and said, “Yes, Gonie. I believe we can win Elandia’s favor again.”
Gonivein felt a little better, but she wasn’t wholly convinced. A dust cloud on the horizon captured her attention, and her heart began to beat faster. “They’re coming,” she said, trying to hide her excitement from her brother, but from his smirk she could tell she was failing.
“I’ll make sure their rooms are ready,” Dargon announced, leaving her alone on the barbican.
She watched the dust cloud a moment longer, suddenly aware of the warm blood in her veins as her heart raced wildly in her chest. She closed her eyes, envisioning his face as he sped toward her on his swift steed, Damsel. Was he urging her on faster now that the castle was in sight, as eager to see her as she was him? Her fingers brushed her neck as she imagined his soft lips kissing her, and her other hand swirled around to embrace her waist the way he had at their last meeting. She no longer felt the chill of the breeze as she remembered the warmth of his body against her back and the scruff on his chin tickling her shoulder.
Her eyes shot open. He was almost here! She hurried from the barbican, down the ramparts, and across the courtyard to the keep. The large doors were open to allow some of the breeze to cool the great hall where dinner would be served later that evening. She entered a small corridor to the right and hurried up a winding staircase, then down the long hall and stepped into her bedchamber. The reflection in the vanity mirror immediately caught her attention. She brushed her hair smooth, pinched her cheeks, and sucked on her lips to boost their redness, then checked her teeth and practiced her smile a couple times. Happy greeting. Demure eyes. Seductive side glance. Mysterious smirk. Happy greeting again. How can he resist? she asked herself, smoothing her dress over her bosom.
“Gonivein!” Dargon called from outside. “They’re here.”
She stepped back into the hallway, more breathless than she would have liked. Dargon raised a curious brow at her as he offered her his arm. “You look different from a few minutes ago,” he said.
“There was a fly stuck in my hair,” she deflected. “I had to brush it out.”
She felt knowing eyes on her but refused to acknowledge his suspician as they made their way to the front steps of the keep to greet their guests. Four horsemen wearing kerchiefs over their mouths and noses entered the courtyard under the portcullis, bringing a billowing cloud of dust with them. Gonivein recognized two of the riders immediately despite the masks. The other two she did not yet have the pleasure of knowing, but their arrival gave her hope, for it meant that a few more had pledged their loyalty to the cause.
“I feel disgusting,” the one locked in Gonivein’s gaze muttered as he shook dirt from his dark brown hair and pulled the mask down to his neck, revealing a dust caked face in contrast to a clean beard that Gonivein found comical. He approached the stone steps and clasped Dargon’s hand in greeting.
“Welcome to Shallinath Hall, Kelric,” Dargon said warmly.
“Thank you.” Kelric’s piercing gray eyes turned to Gonivein, and she felt her face warm.
She reached to embrace him in welcome, but he shied away with an apologetic bow.
“I don’t want to get your dress dirty,” he excused, reassuring her with a subtle wink.
She hid her disappointment behind a smile and head nod. “Thank you.”
The other man she recognized finished shaking out his blond hair and cloak and approached with the other two guests.
“Welcome, Gadnor!” Dargon greeted, his grin growing. “Look at you with a man’s beard!”
The younger man beamed. “Almost,” he said proudly, subconsciously stroking his soft blond face fluff. He followed Kelric’s lead and bowed to Gonivein. “My Lady.”
“Alas, he won’t be mistaken for my little sister anymore,” Kelric lamented, and Gadnor’s cheeks reddened as everyone laughed.
Kelric motioned to the two men. “Let me introduce Lord Buthan, governor of Varna province; and Lord Faldir, son of Lord Caden, governor of Dethos province. They agreed to come in show of their full support.”
Gonivein couldn’t help but notice Kelric’s satisfied smirk as Buthan and Faldir also bowed in greeting instead of offering the traditional embrace and kiss for introductions. She felt her own smile tug at her lips as she caught on to his little game.
The loud bell rang from the great hall to signal that dinner would be served within the next half hour, interrupting their greetings.
“Please, allow me to show you to your rooms to freshen up,” Dargon offered, ushering them inside.
The evening meal had been moved to the solar for more privacy. They were joined by Sholen, Sheriff of the realm, and three men who had arrived yesterday: Lords Rallon, Pales, and Tendir.
Gonivein examined the faces around the table as she ate her dinner. She worried that the small wild goose, sweet potatoes, summer squash, and flatbread would not be enough to satisfy their hunger. Since Shallinath Hall was accustomed to operating at half rations Gonivein was used to leaving the table hungry, but she felt her duty as hostess was to ensure that her guests did not. To her relief, there were only chomping noises and contented grunts echoing in the small chamber. If they were left wanting more, they certainly didn’t show it.
“Once again, your cooks have outdone themselves,” said Tendir after gnawing the last bit of meat from his goose leg. “I’m glad my brother persuaded me to join your little quest. We don’t have geese like this in Dor Ronen.”
“Nor in Golpathia,” Rallon interjected, setting down his fork. “We have plenty of crows though.”
“I don’t wish to sound impolite,” Buthan said, leaning his elbows on the table, “but may we discuss the reason we are all here?”
“Ah yes, the grand engagement feast of Thellshun,” Kelric mocked.
“Did your invitation say who Lord Daroc is marrying?” inquired Faldir, sopping up the last bit of broth with his bread.
Dargon shook his head. “No, but she isn’t from Shallinath, and if she isn’t from Sephaleth as you say then she must be from Thellshun or Ninenarn.”
“From a wealthy family no doubt,” chimed Tendir.
“No doubt,” echoed Faldir.
“She isn’t from Sephaleth,” Kelric confirmed, shovelling squash into his mouth.
“If she’s from Ninenarn, does that mean that Lord Daroc will side with the king?” Gadnor asked.
Dargon ran a hand anxiously through his long dark hair. “Most likely. But an engagement feast is still the perfect opportunity to feel out the sentiments of the other provinces in Elandia. Perhaps Daroc is marrying one of his own and his political loyalties can still be negotiated. If so, then there’s a good chance we can persuade his other guests to rally to us as well. This drought has effected everyone after all.” He settled back into his chair. “Likewise, if he is marrying a Ninenarn woman there are bound to be numerous Lords from Ninenarn attending, so at least we will have a better understanding of what we’re up against.”
“I don’t like this,” Sholen interjected, setting down his fork rather loudly. Until now he had been quiet, and his sudden outburst surprised everyone. “You talk about politics as though they change from day to day, as though we choose whom we serve. We are all subjects of the king.” He paused for a moment, and Gonivein saw several jaws harden around the table as he continued. “Even if Daroc is marrying a Thellshunian girl he will still be loyal to the king. If you try to convince him or his guests that King Delig should step down it will be seen as treason. That will be disastrous for both of our realms. Ninenarn is situated at the foot of the mountains, they still have plenty of water for themselves and their crops. Their army will be fitter, healthier, better supplied, and we will be crushed.”
Gonivein shared a worried glance with Gadnor as a deathly silence settled on the hall. She could hear her blood pumping in her ears as she studied the faces at the table. No one appeared amiable to his sentiments.
“I think everyone here understands the stakes,” Dargon began slowly, receiving several nods of agreement. “We are hungry, thirsty, and sick. The gods have not allowed it to rain for 8 years…”
“Delig has been king now for nearly 18 years,” Sholen interrupted. “How can we blame his rule for this drought?”
“You know what the throne of Ninenarn means,” Dargon’s voice donned an edge as he leaned forward and pressed his finger to the table. “Only one with divine blood may rule.”
“Who would you replace him with?” Sholen quipped. “Iptys is dead. Leto’s line has ended. There is no one who fits that qualification.”
“Perhaps not,” Dargon consented, “but at least we can try to win back the goddess’ favor by putting someone there who isn’t responsible for the death of her line.”
Sholen slumped back into his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “This is madness.”
“Perhaps the rain did not immediately stop when he became king,” Dargon went on. “But every rain since has been slighter than the last, the same is true with harvests. There is a curse on this island, and it began when he took the throne. Elandia is not content. Perhaps Delig is not suffering her affects yet like the rest of us are, but he will if it doesn’t rain again. The mountain snows do not gather the way they used to. Their streams will run dry soon enough.”
“Do you have another suggestion to placate the gods?” Buthan asked Sholen. “I’m open to exploring other options, but remaining idle while our children go hungry and become sick with disease and rickets is not one of them.”
Sholen shook his head. “I don’t know, but this risks a war that we are unprepared for.”
“Men fight fiercer when they have something to lose,” Pales offered. “Delig’s army may very well be healthier and better supplied, but his men won’t be fighting for their lands or for their families like we will be. That alone may equal the field.”
“Perhaps,” Sholen muttered.
Gonivein could tell that he was done arguing, but he was clearly unconvinced. She settled back into her chair to mull it all over, wondering if there was merit to his concerns.
“Do you think Daroc will be upset that you invited extra guests?” Gadnor asked, changing the subject. Between the two invitations received by the Lord of Shallinath and the Lord of Sephaleth, neither had extended the offer to anyone else, yet there were now eight men attending the festivities.
Kelric grinned delightfully. “I would be if it were my feast. But at least he’ll know we mean serious business when we crash his party.”
Dargon was unamused. “I do not take pleasure in making things awkward for him. Weddings are meant to be happy occasions and the signal of brighter futures, but I don’t see another chance like this one to make our intentions known.”
“Father agreed,” Gadnor remarked. “He would have come himself but he has been feeling ill of late.”
“Hopefully Lord Daroc will not be offended that Lord Ragond’s sons are coming in his stead,” Rallon jeered.
Kelric scowled. “He’s lucky anyone is coming to his little celebration. He certainly hasn’t made much effort before now to maintain friendship.”
“That bodes ill in and of itself,” Sholen pointed out.
Gonivein tried to swallow the growing lump in her throat and stood, eager to put an end to the conversation and the dampening effect it was having on her spirits. The men around the table rose respectfully as she nodded to them and excused herself. “Good evening, gentlemen. I will see you all in the morning.”
Echos of “good night” followed her as she left the hall for her room. She had a feeling that she would not sleep well after this.
The only figures Kelric saw were the woven gods and heroes in the dusty tapestries lining the second floor hallway. A slight draft in the corridor made them move just enough to cast eery shadows on the stone walls and give him the creeps. He quietly rapped his knuckles on the wooden door before him, glancing about to see if anyone had heard. Several moments went by and the sound of footsteps in the stairwell alerted him to approaching danger. He cursed under his breath and tested the handle. To his delight, it lifted, and he slipped noiselessly inside the dark room, praising Hermes for narrowly avoiding detection.
“Gonivein?” he whispered, straining his eyes in the dark room. Light from a sliver of a moon filtered in through the window, and after a moment, his eyes adjusted and he could make out the furniture. There was movement on the bed, and he felt a smile tugging at his mouth as he moved carefully across the dark room. “Gonivein?” he whispered again, leaning over her. Her lovely bosom rose and fell as she slept, drawing his attention to the untied laces of her nightgown that revealed the curves of her breasts. The moonlight glinted off of her blond tresses splayed across the pillow, and he wondered how they would feel against his bare chest if she was to straddle him. He leaned over to kiss her but a sudden slap sent him reeling back.
“Gods damn!” he cursed, tasting blood from his bottom lip.
Gonivein moaned as she rolled, her limbs jerking oddly at first, and then more wildly. She moaned again, a frantic muffled scream. She clutched at the air, the pillow, the blankets, anything within reach, but nothing seemed to end her struggle.
Another nightmare, he sighed, poising himself to wake her and avoid getting hit again. Amidst the thrashing about he saw an opening and grabbed her, securing her arms and using his weight to stop her wriggling. “Gonivein, wake up,” he ordered. “Gonivein!”
Her eyes opened and her breath caught. Kelric was afraid she would scream.
“It’s Kelric, Gonie,” he whispered quickly.
Gonivein released her breath. “Kelric… thank gods.”
He let her go and sat up. “Another nightmare?” At her nod he asked, “What was it about this time?”
“There was a fire,” she said, her beautiful lips quivering. “It covered the horizon from every direction, and was destroying everything in its path. Within Shallinath Hall it was burning too, and there was nothing I could do to stop it, so I started running, but it was catching up to me, burning all the villages and provinces as I ran, trying to get to me. Everyone was burning, and screaming…”
Kelric brushed his fingers through her hair, regaining her attention before she became hysterical. “It was just a dream, Gonivein.”
“It didn’t feel like a dream,” she stated pitifully. “It felt real. They always feel real.”
Kelric strummed his fingers against his thigh impatiently, searching for words to convince her she was overreacting while still relaying a vibe of support. “But it wasn’t real, look out the window. There’s nothing but crickets and waste out there,” he assured.
“Do you remember the time I dreamed about Gadnor being eaten alive by the earth? And after when we couldn’t find him for three days?”
“Yes, and we finally found him where he’d fallen into that old temple ruin,” he admonished reluctantly.
“It was the same feeling now,” she said. “Almost like… a prophecy, or something…” Her voice trailed off, and he wondered if she realized how ridiculous she sounded.
“Are you suggesting that you are having visions of the future?”
Gonivein lowered her eyes, and even in the pale moonlight he could see the embarrassment on her cheeks. “You think it’s just coincidence?” she asked quietly.
“I think Sholen scared you,” he returned, squeezing her hand. “Your sleeping mind just imagined your fears. Besides, Gadnor fell into that pit, the earth didn’t grab him, and if war should come to Shallinath it will be by horses and men, not fireballs.”
She smiled at him but avoided his gaze. “I suppose you’re right.”
Kelric had the feeling that he was in danger of losing her interest tonight if he didn’t change the subject. He repositioned himself more comfortably on the bed in front of her and nuzzled his cheek against her warm palm. “I missed you.”
Her eyes immediately lit up, and he felt his heart soar in his chest at his success.
“I missed you too, Kel. I thought you would never get here.”
Her lips were dark against her pale skin, and he craved their taste. He tugged gently on her hand, coaxing her closer for a kiss. Gonivein’s soft breath on his face made him want more, and he moved his hands to her back to squeeze her body against his. She smiled, allowing him to slide his tongue inside her sweet mouth. It was hard to ignore how uncomfortable his pants were becoming as his desire for her grew, and he wondered if she would let him have her this time.
As if reading his mind she pulled away. “Nothing has changed, Kelric,” she whispered, glancing at him shyly under long lashes. Mildly offended at her rejection, he reminded himself to be patient with her. She wasn’t like the other women he was used to. Gonivein was special: higher in station, better educated, and more beautiful. Every inch of him wanted her, and he knew he would want her again and again, maybe even forever. He felt a sudden urge to be rash, and his arousal pushed him to be bolder than normal. “What if things have changed?” he asked, and her brows rose.
“What do you mean?”
“Daroc’s engagement feast has me thinking,” he explained, studying her expression. “All this talk of death and hunger and disease… why should that pompous ass be the only one to have something to look forward to?”
He could tell from her intense gaze that she was anxious about his next words, making him hesitant to continue. In too deep now… he thought, swallowing the lump forming in his throat.
“What if you and I announced an engagement feast and invited all the important lords of Elandia?”
She blinked at him, her face an expressionless mask as the silence began to linger on. Finally she said, “You mean… marriage? Us?”
Kelric smiled cautiously. Her reaction wasn’t exactly what he expected. “Yes. Wouldn’t that make you happy?”
Her throaty laugh told him that she was thrilled at the suggestion, putting him back at ease. “Of course! But you must be jesting. Dargon would kill you! He already told you to stay away from me.”
“Dargon doesn’t understand how serious I am about you,” he reasoned, kissing her knuckles sensuously. “He thinks I just want to have fun and will get bored with you. But he’s wrong, and I will tell him so.”
“You will?” she asked, her tone skeptical.
“Yes,” he promised. “Tomorrow, on our way to Thellshun.”
She giggled, her white teeth glittering through her wide grin. She pounced on him and they both fell back on the pillows. “Imagine his surprised look when he realizes that you intend to take me to bed properly.”
Kelric kissed her forehead as she settled it against his shoulder to sleep, her comment dissolving all hopes he had about sex. “He will be shocked,” he agreed.