Chapter 6. Unsheathed
Great Dining Hall
Back at the castle, in the great dining hall, Alanis finally met with King Stronghold. He was kinder than she imagined—the exact opposite of the prince. They looked nothing alike, where the prince was tall and handsome, the king was short and pudgy. Of course she knew they weren't tied by blood, she just expected the king to be easier on the eyes.
The man was humble, wearing only a basic set of dark armor and a dusty, black cloak, same as his men. He looked to be well-rooted into his golden years. His once golden mane was frosted silver along with the coarse, braided beard that was slung over his right shoulder as he supped.
His eyes were no stranger to the passage of time either. They were dulled, carrying with them the years of wisdom they had captured. She could feel those years whenever he would look her in the eye, which was every time he spoke to her.
They sat around a large stone-top table. Alanis was seated to the king's left, along with Harold. Stronghold's Council, Lord Fulton, and several higher ranking guards filled the remaining seats. There were plenty of introductions, and friendly conversations amongst the party.
Stronghold's servants were busy serving food and pouring wine into empty goblets, Alanis' included. It was midway through her second plate that the familiar pain in her cheek waned. She had to stop her server from pouring another glass of Hiore'sen, the last thing she wanted was to get tipsy, and make a terrible first impression with the king.
The prince joined them later, he told her it would be better if they came in separately, that the others would give her a hard time if they knew she was associating with him. He took seat, alone at the far end of the table, away from the chatter that rumbled at the king's end. She gave him a welcoming glance as he took his seat, but he wasn't as courteous. He bowed his head, ignoring her gesture altogether as he called over one of the servants.
She didn't have time to wallow over his lack of manners, or wonder what he was discussing as he flirted with the beautiful woman. She was busy herself. The king was asking her many questions, and luckily for her none were about her recent trip to Furisre Sreuni.
It was clear he was interested in learning more about her task. He would throw in subtle questions, here and there, regarding her powers, or mission during their conversation. She would kindly reply that she wasn't sure what the gods intentions were just yet, it was an answer Harold had coached her on during their journey to Ati—and it seemed to work.
Before she could excuse herself from the table, the king apologized for their current living conditions. He ordered his men to collect her belongings, as well as her chaperone's, assuring them that they would be more comfortable in the castle during the duration of their stay. Of course Fulton was the first to offer his services, it made for an awkward parting as everyone took notice of his favoritism for her.
They walked back to the keep and collected her things. Fulton was quiet for a change as they walked back to the castle, she was thankful for the silence it made the events of the day easier to digest. They continued their silent stroll until they reached her room.
Fulton unlocked the door with a pair of bronzed keys, as he twisted the key the metal knob clicked and he stepped back.
"After you," he said, allowing her the honor of opening the door.
She pushed the door open, but stopped dead in her tracks. As fate would have it the prince walked through a pair of doors that neighbored hers. He lifted his head in time to witness her frozen stare. The rooms the king had offered them were part of the royal suites and he had come from the room next to hers.
Was that his room? No it couldn't be, his bedchamber isn't... next to mine, she worried, but his smiling eyes confirmed her worst fears as he strolled past her and Fulton.
"I wouldn't worry about the company on the other side of this wall. I can assure you that you'll be pleased with this room, it's fit for a princess," Fulton said as he shouldered past her with her belongings. He walked into the dimly lit room and sat her stuff near the fireplace. He threw in a new log and looked back at her as she took in the large, lavish space with large eyes.
She glided into the room with her head tilted back and took in the gorgeous architect of the arched ceiling. There was a stunning mural that sprawled across the face of the ceiling, a bevy of colorful birds in flight. They're wings seemed to move under the lively light, bouncing in the swelling fire.
"You like it. I can tell," he said, her eyes were still above them, admiring the carvings on the wooden beams that crisscrossed the roof.
What was not to like, this room is amazing.
"Is this Charon's room?" she asked, her legs led her to a wall filled with tall standing windows, some were two levels tall, reaching to the peaked arch of the ceiling.
"It was. Now that she's married, Stronghold has quarters for the pair in a larger, more private room, should they visit."
Her hand lifted to the frosted glass, she sighed as her fingers met with the cold surface. On the other side of this glass was a land she was not yet familiar with. But for a moment, as she gazed upon her new room, she was taken back to Berthold, to a place she'd rather be. Her eyes closed and she took in the warmth of the room, forgetting for a moment she had company until he took her by the hand.
She broke away before his fingers could twine between hers and lock her in. He stepped back yielding to her silent stare, a growing look of disapproval smeared across her face as she looked to him for explanation.
"Pardon my behavior," he spoke softly, gliding his fingers through his hair. "You just looked like you could use a friendly ear."
A friendly ear maybe, but what he had offered felt more intimate to her. She had heard through the grapevine that Fulton was very particular about the women he pursued, and that it was rare he found any that drew his interest. She would have been flattered if he wasn't so bold and quick with his advances.
"I've known better days," she replied lowering her eyes from his.
He walked towards the door, taking her cold answer as a silent request for him to leave—which it was.
"If it's any consolation, the prince was reamed by the king on his arrival," he added and she followed behind him, curiosity got the better of her again, "So I wouldn't let his earlier tirade affect you."
She stopped. Did she hear him right, she balked, rubbing her wrists worriedly. Did he merely rush into my room to please his father, and nothing more.
"Let me know if he tries anything funny. I'll straighten him out," Fulton offered, drawing her attention back to his eyes, to a soft gaze she was familiar with. If he wasn't such a gentleman she could sense the goodnight kiss he wanted to give her before his parting. Instead, he gifted her with the bronze pair of keys that went to her door.
She closed the door behind him and sunk against it in defeat. She could kiss those training lessons goodbye, after what Fulton said. The prince was merely pacifying her, and she had bought it, what a fool she was.
Several minutes into her self-loathing session the door rattled with a knock, freeing her thoughts. She opened it meeting with a pair of emerald eyes the. whipped the door open when she realized it was the prince, and pulled him in by his red cloak.
"We going steady now, what I miss?" he joked, but she could sense his nervousness, it saturated his scanning eyes as she pulled him into the room.
"You're incorrigible, you know that?" she said face-to-face then released him. He stumbled back and took the liberty of closing the door, sealing their conversation from outside ears.
"What's got you in such a tizzy?" he asked as he smoothed his ruffled cloak.
"You were being nice to me for your own gain, whatever that is." She crossed her arms and walked away from him. "Here I thought you had a shred of decency about you."
"Calm yourself." He flicked her shoulder as he walked past her to the windows. "Yes, I was asked to make an effort regarding my manners. But my earlier offer was truly for your benefit. My father had nothing to do with it. In fact, if he knew of our plans he'd be very angry with me."
"Okay, just to be clear, you're saying that your early change of attitude and the stories that went along with it weren't all bullshit?"
"Yes—" he paused catching her bulging stare. "Well, somewhat... I most likely would have continued to ignore you if Stronghold didn't make such a stink about it."
"Gods, you're impossible," she groaned while rubbing her temples, her eyes scrunched in reflex to her throbbing headache. "I'm going to forget what you said, because... I really need those training lessons." She sighed and inhaled a shallow breath; the sweet smell of lavender that drifted throughout the room eased her anxiety.
"Glad to see you've come to your senses. I'll knock at sunup, be ready or I'll leave without you."
"I'll be ready," she replied, hearing his march to the door.
"I'll see you then," he said in combination with the closing door.
Her eyes opened and he was gone, leaving her free to explore her new living quarters.
She unpacked most of her belongings, but hid her gifted music box under the giant four-poster bed-for safe keeping.
Later she readied a bath in an outlandishly sized tub, the round sunken in tub could have comfortably fit a four or more, she almost felt bad filling it, almost. Her guilt washed away as she slipped into the hot, calming water, she laid back meeting with the decorative tile that lined the edge. It was cold, but felt great on her back once she got used to it.
She laid there silently with a warm rag draped over her face, listening to the crackling fire and a soft song that whispered between the slate walls. At first she thought the sound was coming from the walls settling or the combination of voices that echoed the hallways, but she was able to grasp the sound, leaving all other noises to vanish within it.
It was music, the sound of a piano. The melody was gentle and slow at first, like the twirling dance of a falling snowflake. She could picture herself dancing, alone, surrounded by the nothing. The weight of her burdens faded into that cloak of nothingness, and she was happy again.
Her happy dance ended.
The howling winds of the snowstorm drowned the melody. When they finally let up, the room was left with the deafening sound of silence again.
Her mind wandered and relaxed like the dying winds, parts of her were feeling good again, it was all she could hope for.
"He's playing again," a whisper from a woman carried across the marbled floor, echoing into her ears. It sounded like the Sorrow, her sweet, calling voice.
Alanis sat up, the rag fell from her face as she turned to where the voice emanated. There was nothing there, but she definitely heard someone speak moments before, where'd they go?
He's playing again... she thought, sinking into the water, the thought of unseen eyes on her made her uneasy. What in the world could that mean, was it a sign that the prince was moving forward and willing to cooperate?
The night took her in and she slept soundly in her new bed. She was lucky she woke when she did. The prince was an early riser, he knocked at her door just before first light giving her little time to dress and ready herself.
"Did you think we'd be supping with the king?" the prince greeted crudely as his eyes searched her cloaks.
She looked down at her clothes, which she felt were suitable for training. She wore a thick linen tunic with boiled shoulder armor and a nice pair of leather pants. Though, perhaps, her gifted cloak from Alexander added a tinge of elegance to her ensemble.
She looked him over. He wore a foul smirk that was dirtier than his beat-up tunic and worn breeches. Suddenly, she felt overdressed for a change. Not wanting to offend the prince, she exchanged her gifted cloak for one of her more battered ones, and they were on their way.
They traveled south of Ati, to petrified trees of Furisre Sreuni. He took notice of her cautious glances, how her eyes studied every nook and cranny the forest had to offer. The prince didn't let her suffer long, including her on a secret about the area they were traveling to.
In days past, the area was used by the Black Cloaks as training grounds for new recruits. Although the area was abandoned, the threat of being caught by an Ati Knight kept the criminals at bay.
They stopped at an old tower. It looked abandoned, like nobody had used it for anything in a long while. She looked around, in thought, as the prince readied her weapon. She half-suspected the prince had lied about these being training grounds for the guard, but was pleased he was telling the truth.
He handed her a simple sword. She huffed as she balanced across her arm. This sword was heavy, it was meant for a man to carry. If he expected her to train with it, she was going to end up twisting her arm by mid-afternoon.
She lifted her arm, again, against the heavy steel. "Do you have anything lighter?"
"You're going to bitch about its weight?" he scoffed, eyeing her perturbed stare down with the sword.
Her eyes jumped to his stare with his comment. The beastly prince was rearing his ugly head again, she lowered her sword with her thoughts, holding the sword in a balancing pose Roland taught.
He sighed, likely remembering his lost manners for a moment. "Trust my judgment. You'll be thankful you did when you see how strong your arms become."
He lifted his hand and pushed on her rigid shoulders until they loosened. Her pose was very amateur, something a novice would exhibit their first day of training.
"You're too tense," he said while circling to her back.
"If I were to strike you, right now—" He stopped and lunged forward, striking her back with his forearm in an upward shove. She jerked forward and her sword flew out of her clutching hand, flying several feet before it pierced the ground in front of them. "Your sword would leap from your hand."
"I wasn't standing in a striking pose," she shouted as she scrambled to retrieve her blade. "I was getting the feel of the blade, a balancing skill I was taught by Berthold's swordmaster."
"Balancing skills." He laughed. "You didn't come here to balance weapons, did you?"
"No," she answered with the howling winds, then looked to the sky, expecting to see snow clouds but there were none.
"Good, you'll find that your arms and legs will strengthen as you practice," he said pulling free his sheathed blade. "We're not here to waste time balancing weapons."
The edge of the blade gleamed, cutting through her gape. That sight, as small as it was, made her sweat, even in the bleak weather. He lifted his sword and gave a friendly smile, but she was too nervous to return one of her own. She couldn't believe he was going to train her against his best sword, with a blade so sharp she feared would cut through stone—if it had the chance.
"Don't worry about your opponents weapon, on the battlefield guile is the strongest weapon one can possess. Have you fought against a partner?" he asked, loosening his wrist with a flick.
She gripped the bulky hilt of her sword and nodded. "Yes."
"Come at me, I'll follow your lead."
She stepped forward, her arm, though hesitant to rise at first, lifted with blade in hand. The memories of her practice sessions in Berthold bloomed as the sunlight caught the spine of her weapon, her lost confidence rose, and she realized she could do this, for Letando had chosen her.
They swapped several blows. There were one or two swings that would have won her contact with his arm if they'd been in a real duel, but she was careful and kept her head, not allowing the heat of the moment to get the best of her. In time, he increased the strength of his blows, keeping up with her oncoming assault.
Now, she had him cornered, pinned against one of the stone trees. His eyes looked up at her to deliver a blow, a real blow. She jerked back, there was no way she was going to perform an action that could possibly harm him. He took her hesitation and used it against her. Without warning, he hustled towards her, and thrusted down, hard with his sword. The cool metal fell past her guard, cutting through her clothes down to her bicep.
She dropped her blade, it clattered somewhere against a nearby tree. There was little time for her to ponder whether she should find her sword or check her wound. The choice was clear as her arm seared in pain, the wound had won. She tore away her cloaks, throwing them to the ground in a panicky fit that looked like some sort of ceremonial tribal dance.
Her eyes widened at the patch of red that was growing across the surface of her sleeve, she rolled it up and looked at the fine gash. The cut burned more fiercely than the lick of a flame in the pressing winds.
She lifted her stare while cradling her arm to her chest.
"Are you crazy, what's your problem?" she hissed as her hand hugged the wound, sheltering it from the stinging cold.
"What are you doing?" he asked flatly, there was no concern in his question, not even a hint of guilt lingered in his words. His sword was clutched firmly in his hand and his deep green eyes peered down at her from his ready pose, waiting for her next move. He didn't really expect her to jump up and continue with her attack, did he?
"You struck me, are you blind...?" She looked down at her arm with her muddled answer, watching the blood as it pooled between her fingers, which flared her labored breathing to quicken. He would have to be blind if he missed the crimson blood that drizzled into the powdered snow below her.
"If you let pain get to you on the battlefield it will cost you your life. You must learn to push through it. Pain isn't final—but death certainly is."
Her body shook while she watched him clean her blood his blade. She was on the verge of losing her cool as she realized this was all some sort of stupid lesson he concocted to open her eyes, it had worked, but it still made her angry nonetheless.
"You know—you didn't have to go that far to prove your point," she replied.
"Oh really?" he countered as he sheathed his blade at his hip. "I think I had to, and you know it. You're not the type to learn by stories. You like a hands-on approach. You learn from it—like me." he said while he walked to his mount. He stopped and yanked the pack from his saddle and dug through it.
She was most certainly not like him—in any sense, she frowned, watching as he pulled a small bundle of homemade bandages and a bottle of ointment from his bag. He strolled to a fallen tree and patted gently on the trunk with eyes on her.
She shook her head, "I'll do it myself, there's no way I'm letting you touch me again."
"It's either that or I let you bleed. You won't be able to wrap that wound on your own, so swallow your pride and spare yourself the humiliation."
She sat beside him on the fallen tree trunk and reluctantly let him tend to her wound. Her lips pursed and her eyes focused with forced enthusiasm to the tower beside them as he cleaned and prepped the area.
"You should say what's on your mind instead of letting it fester," he said as he tightly wound the cloth around her arm. She jerked and gasped on his third pass. The prince stopped and lowered his face from view, but she could hear the soft chuckle he was trying to hide. It then grew into a train of laughter that had him snorting beside her like some unruly child.
"You're an asshole," she barked while pulling her arm away.
"It took you long enough to say so," he said between his wavering chuckle.
He wasn't angered by her confession, in fact as he leaned in to reclaim her arm he looked pleased, he even hummed a melody as he continued with her bandages.
"How does it feel?" he asked tying off the cloth.
"It stings, but I'll live," she replied lowly as she walked away from him.
She flexed her arm feeling the extent of the pain which waned rapidly with each step she took.
"You did well considering." He watched as she lumbered to her sword. "I was surprised. I didn't think you knew as much as you did. You could actually be good if you practiced more."
She picked it up, examining the edge for any notches or dents.
"I'll do better next time."
"I was worried there wouldn't be a next time."
She turned to him and smiled, he had his canteen pressed to his lips as he reclined against the tree. It was such an unguarded pose, the wicked prince almost looked innocent.
"Worried or hopeful?" she asked, hoping to turn the mood around, there wasn't much use keeping a grudge, they were playing with swords so it was bound to happen.
"I'm not a complete bastard, you'll learn that." His sneer turned upward, into a charming smile as he watched her ready her blade. "You're ready to go at it again?" he asked skeptically and took another drink.
"I'm willing—if you are," she said, returning his smile for the first time.
• Thanks for reading. If you'd like to support me please remember to like the book. Comments and questions are welcomed, and don't forget to follow me for updates.
Author's Note: Hope you enjoyed the chapter, hope it didn't bore you too much. :/ Please leave any questions you may have regarding the story, or comments.
**So what is everyone's feelings on Faris?
**The meaning behind what the Sorrow said to Alanis should be fairly obvious, although she didn't quite 'catch' it.
Old God Language:
Hiore'sen = Summer Wine