Chapter 1. Over the Hills and Far Away
Alanis' head hung low. She counted bitterly to herself as the wind stung at her watering eyes. She found that the simple act of counting, to any number, be it a hundred or a thousand, helped keep her mind off the gripping cold. She had counted to four hundred, and sixty six before she was interrupted by the familiar groan of their leader, Prince Faris.
He reined his steed and it slowed its pace until they both rode alongside each other.
"How are you holding up?" he asked. There wasn't a shred of concern in his voice, that much was clear to her.
Alanis lifted her hands to the thick fabric that bundled around her face. She tugged at the scarf with her numbed fingers, and dropped the fabric to free her covered mouth.
"I'm fine," she replied while wetting her chapped lips with her tongue.
The prince smiled then brought his magnificent midnight steed close. Alanis sat forward and the prince joined her motion. He looked up at her from beneath his lowered hood, his deep-green eyes cut through the whirlwind of flurries that danced between them.
"Good." His warm reply wafted in the winds ahead from his lips. "Then I suggest you pick up your pace, or we'll be at it for days. Unless that's what you wish, my lady?" He looked her over for a reply, and perhaps an opportunity to attack with harsher words.
Her brow stiffened, along with her back as she recoiled from him. She learned from the first day of travel to back down from any of Faris' challenges. He was ruder and more obnoxious on the road. She also noticed that those terrible qualities were primarily directed towards her when he was in one of his ornery moods. The best thing to do was ignore him while giving him what he wanted, he was more inclined to leave her alone when she did that.
She lifted the warm fabric above her lip then adjusted it to hug the bridge of her nose. When settled, she adverted her eyes and lifted Trista's reins, snapping them so fiercely that the crack echoed in the swirling winds surrounding them. She could hear Faris' cackle as Trista dove ahead with renewed pace.
Alanis' head ducked into the pummeling winds as she spoke muffled swear words to herself.
The Gods were mad, having me follow this jerk to the god forsaken north. That prick had better watch his back, her curses were lost to the prince's ears, hers included. She could barely hear herself think in the incessant, whooshing winds, but felt a little better releasing her pent-up anger.
Her hands clenched at the reins, each of her fingers ached from the cold, but she was too tired to pay them any mind. All she wanted to do was make camp and stretch her legs, and she knew the quicker she traveled the quicker she'd see that wish come true.
The journey went on like that for two more days. They'd rise at first light and ride until the cusp of night, traveling through the grueling weather as speedily as possible, having only two small breaks in-between wake and sleep. Faris was certain that their persistent pace would shave several days from their journey.
Though the thought that he was a cold hearted prick crossed Alanis' mind a thousand times, as he pushed her to move her 'slow ass', she was more than pleased when they reached the Northern Territory. They had reached it three days early, just like Faris said they would.
The winds stopped and suddenly the cold didn't seem so bad after all.
The journey would be easy going from this point on. They still had a week of travel ahead of them, but gods be good, the worst was behind them.
Things were running smoothly again and everyone's spirits were high. It was then Alanis could appreciate her vast, new surroundings. As they traveled that appreciation transformed into marvel when her eyes caught the crest of the Mosre'Lori Range, she had never seen mountains so tall and some of their peaks even erupted into the clouds above. They were breathtaking to her, just the sight she needed to see to ease her troubled thoughts.
They made camp late one night, they'd see two more days of travel before they reached Ati Harei.
Alanis waited alone, like she had most nights while Harold threw together their makeshift shelter for the night. She didn't mind the solitude so much anymore, it gave her time to think about the simple things, like how beautiful the night sky was. The sky was the clearest it had been since they left, in fact, Alanis wondered if the heavens were somehow closer.
She lifted her gloved hands, wondering if she could touch one of the many stars that glittered above her head. They looked so close it almost seemed possible to her.
Her stare was lowered with the sounds of crunching snow. She crossed her arms to her chest when she caught a glimpse of the source of the sound.
"Beautiful night, eh?" Faris smiled from above, taking little time planting his backside in the space in front of her. He always made her nervous, not because he was a constant ass, but because he had no sense of personal space. The man would sit uncomfortably close to her, even when she gave visible signs that she detested him.
"Yeah," she said coolly, her arms shook against her bust as she fought to keep her shivers silent. The last thing she needed was another lecture about the cold from him.
He nudged her with his drink, offering whatever swill he was consuming to tame his mood. He then took a gulp of it after she shot him a disapproving look.
"You think the stars are something now, just wait till we get to Ati Tundra." His bare fingers tapped on the mug at hand as he watched for her reaction. "Just north of Ati Harei, the sky is filled with Lahre Donti."
"Dancing Light?" Alanis asked, curious of the meaning.
"Hmmm, so that's what it means. Makes sense." He smiled thinly and lifted his hand to the sky above them. Alanis' eyes followed it as it rose and fell in a slow rocking pattern that reminded her of the wavy sea they had passed days earlier. "It's hard to explain. It's like this, but with lights. And more extraordinary." He chuckled dropping his hand to his lap.
"Ahhh, sounds—pretty," Alanis replied politely.
"That it is..."
The wind howled between them. Alanis' eyes welled with tears as the cold tickled her nose.
He let his eyes roam her, his soft expression hardened, then he spoke, "You know, you'd be warmer if you untied your hair and left it down."
She rolled her eyes and brought them back to the landscape above them. Here we go again, she thought wildly, while latching on to the beautiful stars for support. She wasn't the least bit interested in starting up with him tonight.
"Every woman in Ati Harei wears theirs down. Well—unless it's a special occasion, or something of that nature," he continued, "So there's no reason for you to follow that stupid tradition any longer. Unless you're afraid the great God King is going to come for you... Is that it, are you afraid, Oraur Lahre?" he teased then finished his drink.
"Lady Alanis respects the tales of our gods, Prince Faris," Harold quipped from behind the prince, "The stupid tradition you speak of has been practiced for hundreds of years, perhaps even longer."
He broke past Faris, stepping over his red cloak and took his seat next to Alanis. His azure eyes studied the prince silently. Usually Harold's company was just as bad as the prince's, but his quick save won him several points.
"Perhaps, you're afraid of the gods, maybe it's why you make light of it whenever you can," Harold declared while adjusting his robes then sat back when he was comfortable.
"Now why would you say that, why should I be afraid of some stupid story?"
"Because you don't understand them. You fear and resent those stories because you are not of their blood, our blood—" Harold answered while his hands worked at the decorative armor that covered his breast. "So you fear us, and our gods because you feel powerless."
Alanis couldn't help but stare at the odd expression Faris wore, like he had been struck by Harold's hand in that instant, and not his words. Did Harold unearth something that troubled the young prince? It certainly seemed so, this was the first time since the wedding that she had seen a trace of pain in his eyes. He caught her stare and forced her to advert it with a threatening scowl.
"Powerless..." Faris smiled, though the light of the fire highlighted the hidden emotion in his face. "It's a good thing I don't believe in them..."
"The gods are real whether you believe them to be or not. That lovely nickname you've been throwing at, Lady Alanis, isn't some made up title, she's been marked by the light goddess, Letando."
"I know the story, Lord Goodwin, you'd be wasting your time explaining it to me again," Faris replied. "What I'd like to know is if, Lady Alanis, believes in any of this rubbish."
Faris' green eyes scurried to her face and she sat back against her crumpled pack.
"She's being awfully quiet," Faris commented, leaning further into her space, the smell of hard liquor filled her nostrils.
Alanis dropped her stare to the bottom of his emptied mug.
Why couldn't he be drunk somewhere else, far, far away from me, she wondered. Why couldn't he be like Lord Fulton, the captain of the Black Coats of Ati Harei, he was at least civilized and made attempts at friendly conversation.
She sighed for Faris' kingdom, for whatever advances they made to groom him for the throne were lost on him.
"So—" he droned.
"I do," Alanis replied reluctantly, praying that answer would be enough.
Faris swung back and smiled cockily at Harold. "Oh-oh, looks like she's going to need some convincing too, Harold."
"I have no doubt that she believes. She wouldn't be here if she didn't."
"What's that suppose to mean?"
"Those who are blessed by the gods are meant to walk a destined path. She can't speak about her visions, but I can only suspect that her journeying north is part of her quest," Harold replied, his eyes roamed the face of the prince.
"She came because I—Lord Stronghold, wanted her to come," Faris slurred against his sluggish tongue.
Alanis fell forward to the palms of her hands, her face swooped up under the young prince's gaze. "Your father wanted me to come to Ati Harei, it wasn't—" She hesitated, tripping on her thoughts, they were on the last vision she was given. The gods didn't mention the King, only the Crimson Cloak, and now he was saying none of this was his idea.
"What difference does it make anyways? You were asked to journey to Ati and you agreed. There were no gods involved, I can assure you that much," Faris replied his face drew close to hers, to the point she could feel the heat of his questioning comment.
Alanis pushed herself back and clapped the snow from her gloved hands. All the while, she kept track of Harold, his watch continued, but it was now directed solely at her. What the naïve prince could not see, the seasoned Council could, she feared.
"You're right," Alanis agreed. "I was merely surprised to hear that King Stronghold had interest in my traveling to Ati. It's actually a relief to hear that it was his idea..." She sighed, hoping her collected statement would trick both men from prying any further.
"Relief," Faris snickered into his hands, "The only interest the king has, is in your abilities. My guess is he is as interested in exploiting your gift, as everyone else is."
Alanis looked to Harold to see if he had any supportive words, but he was just as stone-faced as Faris. She would be left to fend for herself against the prince again.
"I'm sorry if I've insulted you somehow... I'm tired and I misspoke," she apologized, hoping he'd lay off his pursuit.
The prince chuckled, amused with her flat apology. His fingers played in his dark cropped hair, combing the unkempt waves behind his ears.
"You'll have to try harder than that if you truly wish to insult me," he quipped while locking eyes with her. She kept her mouth shut, hoping that would be that, and he'd leave her alone. He seemed done, as done as he could be. But his eyes didn't let go, they held on to hers, and something told her that he had many more things to say by the weight of his gaze.
He gave the subtlest of smiles before he shifted to stand.
"I'll save you a seat at the meeting," he said to Harold and released a heavy belch before walking away.
Disgusting, Alanis thought shedding all of her earlier thoughts of him and his deep stare. There was nothing more to him as she had previously thought—nothing of merit anyway.
She walked back to their tent alone, passing the other knights who sat around the larger fire pit. Some nodded and one even wished her a good night before she opened the flap of her tent.
Unfortunately, she didn't see Lord Fulton among them and wondered where he was, he'd usually offer her a friendly ear before turning in. She rather liked talking to him, he had yet to disappoint her by saying something utterly frightful, or disgusting. In truth, she was glad to have made one friend during their trying journey, and thought it a bonus that this friend was a formidable knight.
She spread out her bedding and fell face first into it. She was exhausted and could have easily fallen asleep if her mind wasn't reeling from Faris' confession. She rolled over. Her nose scrunched when it met with the shaggy fur of her blanket. She shivered and brushed the hair, flattening it away from her face.
She lied there for awhile, deep in thought.
The cold rushed in and the lantern flared with the shifting breeze. It was Harold, returning from the meeting. Alanis closed her eyes and pretended to sleep as he stepped over her to find his bundled bedding.
"I know you're awake," he said then added while unrolling a thick blanket, "You're too quiet to be in actual sleep."
"The cold woke me—when you came in."
"Is that a fact...?"
"No," she breathed the truth into her bedding. "Is there something you wanted to tell me?" she asked and turned over to see Harold's frightful stare. She jerked back. His blue eyes seemed to jump with the flames, as did her heart.
"Jumpy," Harold commented. "Does it have anything to do with the conversation we were having with Faris earlier?"
She lifted from her sheets and sat up, her long, unbound hair fell past her shoulders to the bedding below.
"I figured you'd ask about that sooner or later."
"Your question to the prince gave away your hand," he answered. "When we learned of your sudden decision to travel north, we knew it was god willed... But what peaked my interest was your strange reaction to Prince Faris."
"What reaction are you getting at?"
"You looked troubled by his confession. That it was the king's will that brought you here and not his."
She lowered her head, hiding her face from the dancing light. "I was told to keep my visions guarded."
"And I agree," he countered sternly. "People are going to be curious about your intentions, King Stronghold especially. You're lucky the Prince isn't as observant as I am or he'd be wondering what the gods have planned for him."
She bent her knees and pulled them to her chest. Harold was right, she needed to better guard her hand, lest the wrong eyes caught sight of it.
Harold's lips tightened into a smile.
"I'm not here to lecture you," he said while offering her his pillow, she nodded and he sat it at her feet. "My duty is to watch over you. So forgive me if I've over stepped my boundaries, my lady. I was only looking out for your wellbeing, is all."
Alanis loosened her arms and picked up the pillow, laying it behind her.
"You're right," she said. "There's always going to be someone watching. I know... I'm just confused and scared because I don't know what to expect. I'm afraid I'll slip up again—it's only a matter of time that I do," she whispered delicately, her fingers slipped over the edges of the beaded, silken pillow cover.
"You'll do fine," he said with a chuckle that surprised Alanis more than his kind actions. "Like I said, the prince knows nothing, and chances are he won't remember anything that happened tonight."
His hand lifted to the lantern that hung above them then added snidely, "He was so drunk at our meeting that I'm surprised the fool didn't piss himself."
She caught her smile, knowing not to let it show, she'd keep her resentment for the prince as quiet as possible.
She was both, relieved and troubled. Relieved that the prince was an idiot, but troubled that she had followed an idiot to the north, and nothing more.
The gods willed this, she reminded herself, she needed to believe that or else she had made a terrible mistake. She would put his confession out of her mind, it would only make her stray from the path. This man was the Crimson Cloak whether she liked it or not.
She lied back, her head sunk into the borrowed pillow and she let go of a pleased sigh.
Harold laughed again while dimming the lantern.
"The simple things," he said, she could hear him shuffling into his bedding. "Don't worry yourself, Alanis. If something bad were to happen, the gods would alter your path to protect the quest."
She folded her blanket back.
"Thank you, for being so kind to me. After everything we've been through, I never thought I'd hear comforting words from you."
Alanis' eyes adjusted to the faint light, she could see the curve of his face as he rolled over to face her.
"You still don't understand," he sighed.
"When it comes to you I doubt I'll ever will," she replied. "I thought we were on good terms once, but then you accused me of plotting to kill the king. You thought I was a spy. And to top it off, you implied that I slept with one of Alexander's men to gain information about him, in front of everyone."
"The things I accused you of were harsh, but I had valid reasons. Serving the king was my duty. I wouldn't have been doing my job if I sat on any of those suspicions. Kings die that way."
She took a moment to consider what he said. He was right in what he did—but would he act that way again? Her thoughts stopped as she further mulled over what he said.
"Harold," she sat up, feeling the urgency to ask him something that had bothered her since he joined her journey. Her hand lifted to the lantern and freed the flame.
"What is it?"
"Why were you sent to watch over me?"
He lifted from his blankets, they crumpled to his lap revealing his bare chest. Alanis adverted her eyes quickly, blush spread across her pale cheeks igniting them into a rosy glow underneath the buttery light. All she could think of was the surprising tattoo that sprawled across his sculpted chest, a detailed bird of prey in flight.
He must have disrobed in the dark, she thought foolishly.
"My apologies," he said while sliding his arms through the sleeves of his robe. "You're probably not going to be thrilled with my answer either."
Alanis brought her gaze back to him, watching as he dressed.
"It was my idea to send an escort with you," he confessed dryly. "When the king agreed and asked who would travel north with you... it was I who stepped forward."
• Thanks for reading. If you'd like to support me please remember like and follow me.
Yes, the title of this chapter pays homage to one of my most favorite Zeppelin songs, Over the Hills and Far Away. Every time it gets to the ending, I always get this rush of nostalgia... *sigh*