Chapter 7. Buried Beneath a Tree
Outskirts of Ati Harei
Alanis heeled her mount, keeping their pace matched to the prince's stallion. They galloped speedily through the pure, white plains that encircled Ati Harei. It was hard not to get caught up in the beauty of the moment. The cool wind in her hair and the afternoon sun kissing her cold cheeks, nearly made her feel reborn for an instant.
Faris smiled as they raced alongside each other. She had even caught the hidden fire that burned within his eyes as he rode, a look that she counted herself lucky to have seen. The next time he would call her by her title or make her feel like a fool, she would imagine him this way, with windswept hair and hands steady at the reins—his emerald eyes flaring as brightly as the summer sun.
By the time they reached the royal stables, Alanis was tired and ready for a hot bath and a change of clothes. She needed to ready herself for a planned meeting with the keeper of Ati Harei's prayer temple, Reoal'rin. The temple elder, Tyrell, had invited her the night before at the kings welcoming feast. He had asked her if she was interested in studying the philosophies of the north, she agreed, seeing it as a chance to broaden her horizon.
Alanis made her way through the great hall avoiding the captain's crew, knowing Fulton wouldn't be too far behind. She walked briskly towards the staircase, her battered cloak trailing behind her while she eyed her prize. But as she walked, she overheard Lord Rodrik, King Stronghold's eldest council, discussing the arrival of a raven that had flown from Berthold, and that it was in possession of several letters.
"It appears we have word from Berthold," the old council addressed Fulton's right-hand-man, Sir Aaron Sparrow.
Word from Berthold, Alanis wondered if there was a letter for her. She had written to James once, and that was a little over a week ago. The knight that helped her, told her the ravens were quick with their deliveries, averaging a week, give or take a day. She was hopeful enough time had passed and was eager to hear from home.
Faris walked through the congregation of men, with a pack slung over his shoulder. He made no effort to politely shoo the crowd, he simply shoved through them as he worked his way to Lord Rodrik's side. Sir Sparrow looked the prince over with great amusement as he joined them. The young knight's chin was held high, so he could look down upon him. Faris ignored his insult, as he did most attacks by Fulton's men.
"Anything from my sister?" Faris asked. His voice was strong, masking his concern.
"No, nothing from Berthold's Queen, your highness,"
Berthold's Queen. That sure stung, even worse than the cut Faris gave her. She sighed and looked up at the prince who had a disgusted look on his face. The thought of his sister's arranged marriage still ate at him as much as it did her, though they weren't grieving for the same person.
Alanis picked up her frown and walked past the group of knights, guard, and prince. A nice hot bath would lift her spirits and so would a change of clothes, something feminine, and comfortable, not that she didn't like her training clothes, she had her fill of enough excitement for one day.
"You have a letter, Lady Alanis," Rodrik called out to her, stopping her before she could finish her march up the staircase to her bedchamber, "From Berthold."
"For me?" she breathed turning to meet the council and the small paper that was rolled in his hand.
Faris pulled away from the group of men just as quickly as Alanis rushed to the old council. The parchment was embossed with a sigil she'd never seen before, a lone wolf. She tore through the grey seal and a smile lifted from her still lips, it was a letter from James.
The prince stooped over her shoulder, the labor of their training reeked on his clothing. "Who's it from?" he asked, his eyes scrolled the paper.
She looked up at him and jerked the letter from view and answered, "Sir James Allard."
His eyes rolled and he stepped away from her, leaving her enough privacy to read her letter. Alanis sat on the lower step of the staircase and took in the words, but she found her will to read waver as she read, there were things written on that paper she wasn't ready to hear. Things that made her heart ache for Alexander once more.
"You got a note," Fulton said pleasantly gaining no reply as she was too busy reading to acknowledge him, that and she wished to ignore him after his unwanted advance the night before. "Who's it from?" he finally asked.
She knew that was coming.
"Leave her alone, can't you see she's reading a letter from her lover." Faris intervened. It would have been welcomed if it didn't come with the horrible jest.
"Lover," Fulton repeated softly.
Falling right into his hand, Wes—
"That's right. He's one of Alexander's knights, isn't that right, Oraur Lahre?"
There he goes again, with the title, he knows damned well I have a name.
"Nobody asked you, young prince. I'd have to be a fool to believe anything you say. I dare dream you ever spoke a half-truth in your life." Then why did Faris' comment bother him so, if he truly believed that, that much didn't make any sense to her.
"I must be in the presence of a fool then, my captain." Faris grinned, then hoisted his pack to his shoulder.
Alanis looked up from the paper, to the squabbling men in from of her.
"The letter is from James. He is a good friend of mine— not my lover," she said, directing her comment to the prince alone, she didn't want to encourage the captain by seeming concerned by his disappointment.
Though he was encouraged all the same.
"What a shame." Fulton smiled charmingly, leaving with the passing men of his crew. Alanis glanced up at the captain long enough to catch his smile, and notice how dashing he looked. She hadn't paid him any mind earlier, but now she wondered why. He was wearing a rich, burgundy cloak, pressed and adorned with a gold lion brooch, two deep-red rubies doubled for the beast's eyes. He wore it pinned at his lapel.
She watched him until he disappeared with the rest of the Black Cloaks.
The man was arrogant, but he was built and handsome.
Alanis stood to her feet and continued her walk up the staircase while tucking her letter into her pocket.
"The captain likes you, you know," Faris said, pulling her attention back to him. Alanis blinked and gave him a blank look, like she was hearing this for the first time, but the prince was wise enough to see through her front, and added over her shoulder in a whisper, "That may spoil our relationship."
Spoil our relationship?
No, she wouldn't allow that to happen, not after the breakthrough she made with him today.
"Relationship." She tugged at his cloak, asserting they walk together. "I thought you didn't keep any friends."
"Many—friends," he corrected raspy, his eyes landed on her latching hand. She let go realizing his nervousness, the same uneasy glance he gave her on his sister's wedding day.
"I hope there's room for one more. I haven't many and—" She stopped as he walked ahead of her, with his head lowered, trying his best to look like they weren't walking together.
She would have been insulted by being brushed off so rudely, but caught the prince's smirk before he could hide it. He truly liked to play games, and she was beginning to understand how this game worked.
"Nobody chooses my friends for me," she quipped, quickening her pace. She passed him, and turned her head to gather his reaction and was pleased to see the smirk had returned. "You'll learn that about me," she said, mirroring his earlier statement. Her head turned and she continued her brisk walk alone.
As she walked, she dug through her pockets and hooked her fingers around the loop of her key ring, noticing the spare was missing as soon as she grasped it. No bother, she thought figuring the spare-key had slipped from her cloak while training.
Light streaked the dark corridor ahead of her; a single beam broke from her door and crawled along the marble tile to the slate wall across from it. She stopped at her door. It was closed, but not completely sealed. The door had been locked before she left, she made sure of it, testing the handle several times to see that it was. Had the missing key slipped off at her doorstep, and did someone find it, she wondered.
There was nothing of importance in her room, they would certainly find nothing in her belongings pertaining to why she was there, but she was curious all the same, wondering who snooped through her room while she was away.
Little did she know, her question would be answered with the push of her door. Sitting, crouched over the top of vanity was Harold. She could see his stare in the reflection of the oval mirror, his eyes were static and his lips parted, looking to be on the edge of a gasp.
She let out a gasp of her own when she realized what was sitting in front of him. Her gifted music box was opened under his stare.
"Excuse me," she said as she swung the door behind her. "What do you think you're doing?"
She marched to his side with fists balled at her sides. This was beyond ridiculous. The man had no right to go through her personal things. What was he looking for anyway, proof she was plotting against Berthold's king from afar?
His clenched hand lifted along with his stare. She couldn't make out the object he grasped, but whatever it was he had gathered from within the box.
"Well this solves one mystery," he said on a whisper that nearly died before it reached her ears.
The light flared against the object in his hand as he opened it, it was golden and bright.
"What the hell, Harold—" She stopped behind him, her eyes focused on what he was holding. "Gods, is that—a ring?" she stuttered as she studied the gorgeous piece of jewelry, a simple golden band crowned with a canary stone. Where in the world did that come from, she wondered, having never seen it before.
"It was a wedding day mystery that plagued me, and several members of the royal court. I found it odd that Alexander chose to gift his queen a piece of jewelry that held no tie to Berthold. And now, I find Blair's heirloom here, in your jewelry box." He turned to face her with his questioning eyes. "How odd..."
"I swear I didn't steal it, if that's what you're getting at," Alanis said sincerely. Her arms crossed and she cradled them to her chest, nervously. "This is the first time I've ever laid eyes on it."
"You expect me to believe that? You've been carrying this with you for a month and you haven't once opened it?"
"I don't expect you to, but it's true." She sighed, her eyes followed her shuffling feet as she walked to the bed. "I swear I didn't know," she choked, fighting back the dark emotions she failed to endure since she left Berthold. There was no doubt in her heart that Alexander had left her the ring, but if she told Harold the truth about her and the king it would sully his name.
She couldn't do that.
Harold gave her a measuring look as she sat on the end of her bed. His hard brow softened and he studied the ring once more. When he was finished he came to her side and placed the ring in the center of her palm. He knelt in front of her and kept his eyes lowered, in a surprising show of respect.
"He meant for you to have it, Alanis. I know—well, known there was something going on between you two. I wasn't sure how deep it went, not until this," he confessed dryly, his azure eyes were kind for once as he looked up at her. "But this piece of jewelry is dangerous. If any of these savages finds you with it they'll know who it came from. They'll have questions. And it won't end well, not for you or I."
She bowed her head. "I can't keep it—I know. But it's so beautiful. I've never seen a piece of jewelry as beautiful as this in all of my life," she said softly. Her words quailed from her lips as she slipped the ring on her finger, and placed her folded hand against her heart.
"It is beautiful," he agreed softly, regarding her tears as they fell to her ring. "And I'm truly sorry. Alexander has gone through many hardships because of his title, and now this."
He allowed a moment of silence before he spoke again.
"I'll dispose of it."
"No," she said defiantly. "I'll do it. It should be done by me." She needed to do this, Alexander had given her his ring, it was only right—in her heart, that she be the one to deal with it.
He handed her the key she had lost. "I'm sorry for stealing your trust once more. I needed to know. I had to make sure you didn't have anything that would give your quest away."
"No, I ought to thank the gods you did, or else we wouldn't be having this conversation," she said. "I will go now before it gets too late."
Alanis raced through the white plains once more, her bare knuckles white at Trista's reins. Again, the wind whipped through her hair and the sun beat down on her cheeks, but the earlier enchantment she felt was lost to her this trip. Her only focus was finding a spot to hide the ring. She planned to do so in Furisre Sreuni, near the deserted tower, the area was safe, so she knew there wouldn't be any watching eyes.
She hitched Trista and ran through the labyrinth of stone trees and stopped once the old tower was out of sight. Her breathing was heavy as she crumpled to her knees. She wasted no time, and dug her hands into the unpacked snow, scooping it away in handfuls until she reached the frozen earth beneath it.
Her fingers stung as they struck the hardened soil, burning from the cold. She lifted her hands to face and warmed them with her breath then started her dig through the ground. She dug into the earth, pulling clumps of frozen rock and dirt into her lap while she worked. The hole was no deeper than the length of her forearm when she stopped.
Alanis pulled the ring from her pocket and touched the citrine stone at its center. Her heart swelled in her chest as she slipped the ring on her finger one last time, she was both proud, and overcome to have been given this gift from him, but he was a fool to have left her something so dangerous.
Alexander knew that she wouldn't have accepted it in person, so he left it in the last place she would turn to, as sign he would always be watching over her.
I love you... I loved you...
No, she wouldn't hold it against him, she knew how important this ring was to him. It was a symbol, an unspoken vow that was passed down from Berthold's king to his queen. To see it on another woman's hand would have been more than he could bear.
Alanis dropped the ring into the shallow pit, taking one last glance at it before she packed the displaced soil and snow atop it. She made sure to sweep the snow before she stepped away. There were no telling signs the land was disturbed, no one would suspect something was hidden there, buried beneath the shadows of the old stone trees.
She closed her eyes and clasped her hands in front of her face and prayed silently.
Her name carried on the wind behind her and her heart fluttered, someone had followed her, but how, on her way in she made sure that no one had followed before she entered the forest. She opened her eyes and rushed towards the tower, with each step the name of her caller grew clear to her. The shouts stopped once she came to the back of the tower.
She poked her head around the tower's edge, catching the prince standing at Trista's side. He was busy gazing at the forest's edge, searching for her, she knew. How did he manage to tail her, there was no way she could have missed him on his black mount, she would have seen them coming from miles away.
He spotted her movement as she peeled away from the stone wall.
"Didn't you hear me shouting for you?" he asked, eyeing her as she walked to his side, to her horse.
There was nothing she could say to explain her actions, so her lie had to come quick.
"I did, but I needed time."
He laughed. "If it's time you're looking for then you're in the right place." He spoke of the frozen trees that never aged. "You shouldn't be out here alone. I know I said it was safe, but you could have gotten yourself lost along the way." What a jerk, did he really think she was so simple-minded that she'd forget the way after a few hours.
"But I didn't and I'm fine," she said bluntly, gaining an astounded gape from the prince.
"I needed air. I needed to get as far away from that place as I could." she stated, her eyes and words faced the kingdom grounds of Ati Harei. When her eyes returned to him he was busy scratching behind Trista's ear, her front legs shifted with every stroke.
He looked up and questioned, "Trouble with the chaperone...?"
"How'd you know?" she asked, intrigued if he had overheard any part of their discussion, they did share a wall, it was possible.
"I'd be angry too if someone was riffling through my things without permission," he answered heatedly. "After you stormed off Harold emerged from your bedchamber, so I asked him what happened. He told me you were upset with him for searching through your books." He gave a shrug and took a step towards her. "So I followed you, knowing you were up to something boneheaded."
"Oh," She sighed then silently thanked Harold a thousand times while she paced away from him to the nearest tree. She was confident he wouldn't press her for any other answers regarding her private trip, he sounded fully convinced of Harold's lie.
"You must think pretty lowly of me right now, running away from my problems. It's something I want to change, but my title always gets in the way," she said, realizing her words were truth, even though they were birthed from a falsehood. She looked back at him. "I'd understand if you discontinued training me."
"Is that what you want, or have you already given up on trying to befriend me?"
"No," she answered simply, watching as he strode to his horse's side.
"Then forget everything you think you know about me." He smiled and opened the long pack that hung from his saddle and continued, "I won't tell you what you should or shouldn't do, nor will I judge you on your decisions. You said that to me the night before, did you not?"
"I did," she agreed.
"You'll learn in time, like I have, that the only person you can count on is yourself, Oraur Lahre. If you're expecting some sort of miracle, or knight in shining armor to rescue you then you're doomed to fail," he said flatly. "You've got to trust in yourself, do what's in your heart, and never look back."
Alanis was surprised by his profound statement. Although it started off bitter and cynical, she couldn't deny the truth that was hidden within it.
"Those people who say you've been blessed—they're asking you to step into their fancy cage, but you have a choice."
"I do?" she asked, she knew what his answer would be, but the strength of his words compelled her to ask the question anyway.
"Of course you do, you can always say no, and refuse to be locked within your title."
She could say no to the people, but the gods were another matter, nobody knew the severity of the situation at hand, hell, even she couldn't fully grasp it.
"But I'm no fool," he said firmly, his green eyes lifted from the bag to her questioning stare. "I know why you came here."
"W-What," she rasped, swallowing the lump that stuck in her dry throat. Was it possible he knew the whole time and was observing her behavior out of curiosity? She lifted her hand and wiped her brow, she was sweating and her stomach felt like a knot as she waited for him to call her out on her lie.
Her heart quickened as he pulled a sheathed blade from his pack, the onyx casing was a mixture of black and shimmery charcoal.
"You didn't come here to run away from your problems. You came here to confront them, right?" he said while tossing the covered sword to the ground.
She slumped over, feeling sweet release. Gods, that was close, too close, she labored against the cold stump silently.
"Well, am I right?" he asked, his thump flicked at the hilt of the sword at his side and she smiled.
"I have plans for the evening," she said as she lumbered toward the sword. As she knelt to retrieve it she added, "But those plans can be changed."
"Stepping out of the gilded cage, I see."
She freed the sword and found it a better match for her arm, was he loosening up on her. He revealed his blade while watching her pleased gait towards him.
He swung down at her, missing the arm he had cut earlier. She veered to her left in a quick sidestep and met her blade with his next swing. The prince didn't like to waste time, she smiled.
"Did you teach your sister how to fight like this?" she asked, pushing into his blade.
He pushed her back forcefully, "My sister never had time, our father saw to that. She was away a lot, under the tutelage of master wielders. She bounced from abbey to abbey studying the old ways, learning all she could about the gods."
"Must have been rough, being apart from your sister for so long—" She struck his sword, the sudden contact of metal made her teeth clink. "And now this."
"At first it was, but I grew used to it. She seems happy now, so I don't let it bother me as much as it did when we were younger," he lied, she could tell it pained him. "Honestly, I'm fine." He stopped his attack and drew back his sword, feeling the concern in her eyes.
Alanis lowered her blade and searched her pockets.
"You should read this. I think it might make you feel better," she said while pulling the letter she received from James from her cloak.
The letter certainly didn't make her feel any better, but it could give him peace, and she was willing to share that with him after all he did for her. She extended her hand, the letter fluttered between her pinched fingertips as the wind picked up. He took it and gave her a concerned look as he handed her his sword to hold.
Faris stood silently, his breath still as he read the note over. After he got past James' thoughtless ramblings his perturbed scowl softened, and the breath he held in was freed on a sigh of relief.
In the letter, James had written that the king had been reclusive up until the day he called him and Cassandra to Berthold's Hall. He called them there to discuss their relationship and dissolve Cassandra of her oath to Berthold.
Later that night, the king and queen held a feast for Cassandra, in honor of her service, and to honor the house name of her father and brother. James said she complained most of the night, that she was upset she was chosen to leave and not him. But as the night grew, and she drank her fill of wine and spirits, she put on a smile and drunkenly confessed how proud she was of her golden knight.
James said the new queen was a blessing, that she had changed Alexander's heart and prayed his relationship with Cassandra would be as beautiful as the king and queens. He mentioned how brilliant, and happy they were that night, that the crowd was in awe of their love for each other as they danced. It was hard to read, but it gave her hope, hope that they could both heal, and move on.
"Thank you for this. I know I said it didn't matter, but it does," he said faintly then folded the letter, handing it to her when he was done.
"You're only human. I knew you were concerned when you didn't hear from your sister," she said while handing his sword back to him.
"Don't press your luck, Oraur Lahre. Let's continue with the training and leave this conversation for a later date," he said, reminding her she was trespassing hidden boundaries.
Faris wasn't the cold-hearted beast he portrayed to others, that much was apparent to her after everything. He had given her something valuable when he opened up to her, when he told her something so personal it gnawed at him to say aloud—his trust.
So now she was left with a new dilemma, how would she be able to open his eyes to change without forsaking that trust.
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Old God Language:
Reoal'rin = Green Tail, the name of the temple in homage of the water goddess Moras.