Darkness and Beauty

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Chapter 39 - Darius

Day two of training was pathetic. Utterly...pathetic.

Ella – who I'm still having a hard time trusting – has us trying to summon the elements. You'd think that since I managed to summon a wall of flame when Garrison tried to take my book away, I'd be able to summon a small little flicker of it. Yeah, no. Getting the elements to appear and disappear on my arms has become easier, and maybe with a few more days, it'll be second nature. Getting a spark to light in one hand, and a tiny whirl of wind in the other...we're both struggling.

We start day three of training in six hours, and right now we're laying in the grass by the moat. The sun is shining and keeping us from freezing, and a soft breeze cools us off when the sun's too hot. Perfect weather. Siscilla claimed that it's because of me and Clarice, but I honestly don't think that we have that sort of control to make the weather so nice. I did, however, rethink it when I saw Adeline's willow. Last I recall, it was losing its leaves and becoming bare. Now the leaves look like it should be springtime with their rich green shade. Clarice totally flipped when she saw it, started yelling at the Gods asking if it was some sort of sick trick the Gods were trying to pull. You should've heard the words she used to scourge them.

Now she's perfectly calm and making ripples in the moa. She's lying on her stomach, her chin perched on her other hand and yellow mask shining. The marigold gown she's wearing is made of velvet, and I have to put my hands beneath my head to keep me from reaching over to feel the fabric. Velvet has always been my favorite, along with silk. I don't know why, just that I love feeling the fabric against my palm. Most of my things are velvet and silk. The only clothing that is ever different is my formal attire. Normally, all my jackets are lined with silk on the inside, and the outside whatever fabric Lilian decided to use. Velvet is too thick for the summer heat piled within my other layers, so it lines all my winter clothing.

The Dozen and Thomas are sitting around us, all their heads on a swivel. I tried getting them to relax and lay down too, but since the whole superpower reveal, they haven't lost their tension. They still joke and fool around as always, but they have one ear in the conversation, and the other listening for someone around the corner. They're doing it now, and I'm starting to find the quiet agitating.

Thankfully, Clarice breaks it. "You know, I never gave you guys a name."

"I'm pretty sure mine's Gabriel."

"And mine's Alexander, but you can call me Alex."

"That's not what I meant, smartass." She says, flipping onto her back. "I meant that I need to give the twelve of you a group name. You know, like the Hávarđur, or something."

"Hava-what?"

"It means high guard."

"Well, maybe you could find something...more pronounceable."

"What about...the Dušan."

"That sounds awful like douche," I say narrowing my gaze on her

She turns to me, wickedly smiling as she says, "So it's perfect then."

"I think so."

"No," Benny says flatly.

"Fine. Then how about Ǽschylus."

"Didn't I say pronounceable?"

"You guys are no fun."

"What does it mean?" Vlad asks.

As if her answering smile wasn't enough, she mumbles, "Shame."

"Oh for Saint's sake."

"Alright, alright. All seriousness, I think you should be called...the Bhaltayr."

Everyone drifts into silence. I personally like it.

"What's the meaning?" Winston asks.

"The Bearers of Espoir."

"Espoir?" Thomas asks.

"Hope." She says, and I feel myself smile.

It's perfect.

My friends have been many things for me, they've done many things to keep me sane, and giving me hope is one of them. The Bhaltayr doesn't just sound like a badass group of men, but it describes what I know they stand for. When people see them, they'll whisper their names in both awe and hope. They'll be the symbol of the new world. A world where peace isn't a question, but an answer. I'll just be a King – an elemental King, maybe – but they'll be the men that kids will grow up impersonating. The name won't just be a name, but a prayer, and I honestly don't know how Clarice did it, but she just stroke hope through all of us by giving them their legacy.

"But I liked being called The Dozen." I glare deeply at Alister. Where's his common sense?

"You're unbelievable." Clare sighs. "Fine. Those closest to you will still refer to you as The Dozen, but everyone else will know you as The Bhaltyr. Stories of The Bhaltayr's idiocy and ludicrousness-"

"Hey-"

"Will be told around the world, and retold for generations."

"An alluring sentiment, waterlily."

"The Bhaltayr." Garrison muses, and lays down on the grass, watching the clouds slowly pass over us.

*****

"You haven't met Melody yet, have you?" I ask Clarice an hour later. We're still laying down in the grass, and we've all been quiet after Clarice dubbed The Dozen, the Bhaltayr.

"If she's anything like Eleanor, I'd rather not."

"Trust me, she's nothing like Eleanor," I say standing up. The Dozen doing so as well.

"How so?"

"She's a mare. A Huisne mare."

In a blink, she's on her feet and pushes past me. "Where are you going?"

She doesn't answer, leaving us to follow. I try to catch up, but she's setting an ungodly pace, and I end up having to jump a few steps. It's not until we turn the corner that I understand she's headed straight for the stables. A Huisne horse isn't exactly a rare breed, but they're born and raised in the eastern continent and hard to get overseas. My grandmother was the one to bring Melody here for my sixth birthday. She's an orphan, her mother killed by an arrow as her rider tried to flee after being caught trying to kill a Lord or something. Melody was a year when she came here, and now she's fully grown at a height of six foot three inches. She's a black Huisne, which is rare compared to the grey coat they're breed to bear. She's absolutely magnificent, and I'm sure she's likely mad at me for not having come to brush her in the past weeks. Melody is the friendliest mare I've met, but she tends to hold grudges.

We reach the stables, and Clarice doesn't hesitate to throw open the doors. She hits them so hard that they come swinging back, almost hitting me in the face before Mal and Ozzie stop them. Melody is standing in the aisle, a stable boy standing on a step stool so that he can brush her back. Clarice stops dead when she sees her, and I step around her and smile at my prized possession. Melody's head turns, and when she sees me, she lets out a loud neigh before trotting over happily. The stable boy gets spooked and falls off the stool. At least she's not mad at me for –

I spoke too soon.

Instead of stopping when she reaches me, she goes right past me and straight to Clarice. I want to feel betrayed, but I laugh instead. Clarice has the biggest smile on her face as she runs her hands over Melody's nose. Melody is trotting in a circle, making Clarice turn around along with her.

"Wow. She ditched you for another woman. What does that feel like?" I shove Ethan's face before walking to them.

"Gods and their Saints, she's beautiful." Clarice breaths.

"Nice to see you too, Melody." She stops directly in front of me, her tail hitting my face. "I suppose I deserved that."

"How on earth did you get her?"

"My grandmother."

"She always knew just what to do to make people smile."

"Yes, she did."

I walk around Melody, sending a silent prayer that she doesn't try and kick me. I get to her head, and the second she sees me, she turns away and buries her face in Clarice's chest.

"What the hell did you do to her?"

"I haven't been in here to brush her for the three weeks that we've been busy. She's mad about it."

"He left you here all alone?" She says in a high voice. "What's wrong with him?"

"Need I remind you what has been happening recently?"

"Did the big bad Prince leave you out here in the cold all alone?" Melody nods in response. Usually, when I talk to her, she just watches me, and I feel weird for talking to a horse.

"He's an idiot, isn't he?" This time she neighs and everyone including the stable boy laughs.

"Fine, I'll admit it. I'm an idiot, and I'm sorry." Melody doesn't turn right away, and I get the sense that I really do look like an idiot who's trying to apologize to a horse. She's a mare, but she's also the only thing aside from the tree that I have from my grandmother, so I'll do whatever I need to in order to keep her happy.

She puts her head back against Clarice's shoulder when I try to swerve my own head so that she'll look at me. Clarice pushes her bottom lip out and gives me an "aww" look. How is it that I lost my mare to her? Sticking out my tongue at her, I walk behind her and lower my chin on her shoulder so that my forehead is pressed against Melody's. "I'm sorry," I say again.

It takes a second, but then she's trotting in place and tossing her head. "There she is!" I yell, opening my arms wide. Clarice barely moves in time before Melody charges at me, and I wrap my arms around her neck. I feel her chin press up against my back, and I know I'm home. Melody has taken me on more adventures than I can count. Even when she four years old and still wild, she would let me on her back, and she'd race around the castle. At age seven, I at twelve, she'd trot elegantly behind me as I walked through the castle halls. She never needed reins on her unless we went out for a hunt, and even then she'd already know where to go, when to slow down, or speed up. She may not be the fastest, but she's definitely the strongest. I used to always have her trailing me throughout the halls. I loved the sound of her hooves on the stone.

Everyone loved my Melody, and my father was too busy not caring to notice when she was wandering by herself around the grounds. Once she reached her full height and weight, it was hard for her to fit through the doors, so we had to keep her in the stables. Sometimes she'll be allowed to walk in the King's Garden, but she mainly stays in here getting brushed. She loves having her mane and tail brushed. I learned to braid and fashion hair by practicing on her. My mother thought it was odd, but Melody loved getting her hair done just as much as I liked trying to figure out which strand went over and which under.

"I missed you too," I say, taking a step back so that I can see her. "You want to take a walk?" She doesn't respond, just walks back over to Clarice, and nudges her nose into her back, forcing her to walk back toward the doors. "I'll take that as a yes."

We follow them out the doors, and I call the stable boy over. "Have you been the one looking after Melody?"

"I am, sire."

"Good. Ethan will take you to my rooms so that you may eat."

"Many thanks, Prince, but I don't think-"

"You've done me a great deed, and for that, I request that you allow me to repay you. Ethan, if you would?" Ethan leads him away, and I give him a reassuring smile. After seeing what the orphans lived through, I've rethought everything. The world I imagine creating isn't going to just make itself, and the best place to start is with situations like these. He's only about thirteen, and already he sounded like he should be as old as Garrison. He deserves to have a break, and I'm willing to give him one.

"Uh, Darius." I look at Alex but find he's not looking at me. I follow his gaze and gawk. Melody is now laying on the ground, her legs beneath her, and lets Clarice climbs on her back. She stands easily, and then walks off, neither of them looking back. Well...

"I've never seen Melody do that trick before," Vlad says.

"Me neither," I admit, still at a loss.

We all share a curious look before following after them. Today is just full of unknown surprises. "How did you do that?" I ask Clarice as we come up behind them.

"What do you mean?"

"Melody has never done that."

"Have you ever asked her to."

I don't answer.

I honestly never really needed to. Either I would put my foot in the stirrup, take a running start, and fail, or just use the stool to mount her. I never once thought that she'd lay down and then stand back up.

I quicken my pace enough so that I can scratch the underside of Melody's neck as we walk. It's been so long since I've seen her, and I feel like an asshole for forgetting all about her until today. I really should do more for the stable boy for looking out for her. Maybe I'll be smarter next time and ask for his name first. Melody is quite the handful when it comes to maintenance, and I have no doubt that he was in there every day to tend to her while I was elsewhere.

We're walking past the big double door entrance of the castle when Clarice jabs me with her foot. "Hold these. I want to try something." She slips off her shoes and hands them to me. I'm not sure what she's about to do, but I don't think I want to know.

"Lente et régulière, Melody."

"What-" Before I can finish, Melody slows her pace.

I watch as Clarice takes a deep breath, then places her hands in front of her and pulls her legs up. Slowly, she leans forward slightly and then stands. She stands on Melody, while Melody is walking. How in-

"Shit Clarice," Mal says stepping closer and watching her carefully.

"Where the hell do you learn all of this."

"My father," she raises her arms at her side, her tongue slightly sticking out between her teeth as she focuses. "had me and my brother train with the Balfron riders in Kaweth. They taught us a few tricks on their Friesian horses."

"What else did they teach you?" Henry asks.

"How to ride bareback, how to shoot by bending backward or hanging off the side of the saddle. They also taught us how to ride with one foot on one horse and another on a second, or how to jump from one running horse to another, but they mainly taught us how to shoot on top of one or swing a sword without hitting the horse."

"Why on earth would you need to know all of this?" Garrison says not even looking back at her.

"You never know what could be useful until you find yourself wishing you had learned it. Plus, I get to show off at times like these."

"Cheers to that," Gabe yells, raising an invisible glass.

She makes no move to get down, and I'm starting to wonder if she even knows how. It's giving me anxiety. She doesn't necessarily help my stress when I turn away for a few seconds, and then look back to find her now standing in the other direction. Mal looks just as concerned as me on the other side of Melody. I swear that she's trying to make our hearts stop dead, because then she turns back around and says something in that weird language she spoke, and Melody goes into a trot. We all cursed before jogging after them, only to have Melody run faster and Clarice throw her fists up in the air.

Saints keep me from strangling her when she gets down.

I bet we all look like lunatics. The Prince and his guard chasing after a woman in a dress whose standing atop a running horse. It doesn't look any better when we all start laughing.

We ran all the way around the castle chasing Melody. Me, Alex, Henry, Vlad, Al, and Winston followed, but the others ran back inside the stables, grabbing their own mares and stallions. When they caught up, they didn't pull on their reins to slow and grabbed our arms, our feet sliding into the stirrup, and swung us up and onto their horse's backs. With the speed of the Appaloosa breed, we caught up to them in a few strides. I knew Melody could go faster, but she was choosing to hold back until we came up to her side. A tight whistle from me, and she slowed back into a walk.

Clarice slid back down onto Melody's back, cursing names at me for ruining her fun, but I just hopped from Gabe's horse, Balki, and right up behind Clarice. She started to make a snarky comment, but I didn't give her the chance to finish before whistling again, and Melody took off. I braced my thighs and leaned forward, that way Clarice – who wasn't prepared at all – didn't get us both off balance and we flew off Melody's back. I laughed when Clarice gripped both my knee and the arm I had around her waist, tight enough to bruise. Once Melody got up to speed, she relaxed. Her laugh filled my ears, along with those of The Bhaltayr around us, and I knew that whatever was to come couldn't take this away. Clarice threw her arms wide, and when I looked over her shoulder to see her eyes closed and face turned toward the sun, I slid my arm tighter around her.

We circled the castle one last time before heading back. I helped Clarice down, then watched her and Melody walk inside. I told the others to go tend to their own horses and meet me in Melody's when they were finished. They looked like they wanted to argue, but I knew that they were just as eager to see their own horses as I was. If you're appointed sentinel, officer, or a part of the royal guard, you take a trip to Nevlander where all the Appaloosa are breed. You choose a young mare or stallion to then take care of. Those who aren't chosen are kept to be breeders for future generations. Their horses have become a part of their family, and as such, they have a deep bond. So they all go to their stalls, and I follow after Clarice.

Melody drinks water before laying down against the wall. Clarice lean against the opposite wall, but I sit down right beside my mare. She rests her head on my lap, and my hand instantly reaches around her head to the edge of her jaw bone.

"She's got the heart of a lion." Clarice says.

"I think it's more dragon than lion. She's not afraid of anything or anyone."

"And she shouldn't be."

"No?" I see her brows furrow beneath the mask, and motion for her to come over. "Sit."

She does, her shoulder brushing up against mine. I take her left hand with my own, and guide it towards the side of Melody's head. I find the dent in Melody's jaw with my finger, before carefully pushing Clarice's into it.

"One night, a year or so after Melody was gifted to me, she got this."

"How?"

"Well, I was young, and I didn't want to go to sleep. So I came down here to brush her until my eyes grew heavy. I was so tired by the time I finished, that I didn't realize that the door didn't close properly. She got out, and somehow wandered into the stall of an older stallion. I didn't find out until morning when I ran down here, that she spooked the horse, and he ended up kicking her hard enough that it broke a piece of her jaw right off. The skin was still intact, but you could see the small shard jutting out from the rest of the bone. I was so scared that I threw up in the corner of the stall. Siscilla had to put her to sleep before making an incision and pulling out the white bone. Seeing all the blood and other small pieces Siscilla pulled out had me hurling again. When she went to go mend the bone so that it looked like nothing ever happened, I told her not to. I told her to heal everything else, but to leave the bone alone."

"Why?"

"Because it served as a reminder of what my carelessness would cause. It showed me how I could be just like my father."

"You're nothing like your father Darius."

"I know, but it's still good to remember that night. Once Melody woke up from the elixir Siscilla gave her to sleep, the injury had a different meaning. When she woke up, nothing but raw strength and determination shined in them. She was only two years of age, and yet her eyes looked fully matured. That stallion didn't turn her into a shy and frightened horse, but into something far stronger. From then on, she's been this force of pure ferociousness that the other mares and stallions shrink away from. She's the dam sweetest animal I've met who will bite off your head if you smell even a little bit off. Every other horse would've been shying away in a corner, but not her. Now the dent serves as a reminder that even when we're kicked and beaten, there's one thing they can't break, and that's the strength of your heart. She wouldn't need to be the biggest mare here to have the heart that she has now. That's why my grandmother picked her, and that's why I've treasured her since."

"You really love her." She says running her thumb over the cavity.

"Yeah, I do. I really do." Twirling a strand of Melody's mane in my finger, I feel the force of that love running from me to her.

Clarice lays her head on my shoulder, and I feel that force shift. Where or why I don't know, only that it moves. "You know you just made my life ten times harder."

"How?"

"Because I now not only have to save your ass and fourteen others, but now I have to somehow keep a twenty five hundred pound horse from being harmed. I know that she could probably survive well enough on her own, but I'm still going to worry unless I see her get free."

"Don't tell me you're beginning to care for all us bastards of the castle, Clare."

She doesn't answer, just runs her hand along the bridge of Melody's nose. A spark lights in my chest, and I try to keep my heart from hammering so that she doesn't hear it. It's only been little under a month, and if I'm being honest, we don't really entirely know each other to be something more, but with everything that we've had to deal with in those four weeks and two days, I somehow feel closer to her. I don't know the complete story of her past – not that I need to – nor do I know the simple things like her favorite color or lucky number, but that can all be found given time. We may be running low on that too, but with it being a shitty month, I am honestly just glad that her silence holds the same answers I've known for a while now.

Still, I'm happy when she puts her arm in my hand, letting me feel the velvet I've been not so subtly reaching for, and says, "I can't."

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