The Bird and the Beast: XVIII
Juniper had tried everything. She had banged on the door until her hands we bruised, she had screamed for help until her voice was lost, and she had even tried to overpower the servants as they came with her supper or when they came to empty her chamber pot.
One poor woman was even seriously injured as Juniper escaped the room, but as she ran through the halls, she was apprehended by Dukesguards and returned to her prison cell. After that event, guards always accompanied the servants when they went to her room.
There was no way for her to know what time of day it was, or how many days had passed. She tried to count how many times food was brought in, but in her distress, she easily lost count of it. Was it the third or the fifth? Was it breakfast or was it lunch?
She was going mad from the silence, the solitude, and the fear. The Vasaath was coming for her, with all his fury.
She didn’t fear him. She didn’t fear his temper or his disappointment; she knew he would never hurt her. He would never raise his hand to a woman, least of all to her. But she also knew that if the law required her to be executed, the duty would fall heavy upon his shoulders—and he would do it.
That was a part of him that was void of love and affection, a part that had been so firmly sculptured already from his childhood years. It didn’t matter if or how much he loved her—a traitor was a traitor, and it was the Vasaath’s duty to protect his people from traitors.
She wept and she laughed and she cursed and she wept, again and again, while pacing the small room day in and day out. At times, she looked forwards to seeing her lover again; she would throw herself around his neck and take him to her bed. There, she would ask him to claim her as he used to and to show her that he still wanted her, that he still lusted for her with the same ferocity and urgency as before.
Other times, she was furious at him; why would he have to be such a stoic military man? Why did he have to have a heart of stone to all of her people but her? It wasn’t right!
Sometimes, however, she was terrified; what if she didn’t know him at all? What if his first instinct would be to punish her himself—to beat her, like men often did to disobedient women? She thought about his mountainous body, his rippling muscles, knowing that one strike from him would be enough to kill her.
Those times, she had to gather herself and remember that the Vasmenaan would forever shun him if he ever did such a thing. In that, it didn’t matter that she was a traitor. It gave her some comfort, but seldom enough to ward the shadows away.
Perhaps, that was the worst of it all; the crippling doubt. She knew he would never lay a hurtful hand on her—she knew it in her core. It was the stone walls around her that forced the dark thoughts into her head. She would not be in any danger with the Vasaath himself. If she had to die, it would kill him as well.
But worse yet was the doubt she had in herself. She had been so naive, so blinded by her love and her will to only think well of him, she had neglected her own instincts. Too long had she been compliant—too long had she believed that she could sway him with soft words and gentle smiles, but he was not a man of Nornest.
It seemed as though she couldn’t do anything right. She couldn’t be woman enough for Nornest, and she couldn’t be woman enough for Kasarath. No matter what she did, she either betrayed her people, or she betrayed her one true love—and loving him meant that she had to give up so much of what she had always wanted. It was a painful realisation, and now she would be sent back to the Kas to face their cold justice.
When the day finally came, when the Vasaath and his men were expected to arrive, Juniper was fetched by a servant girl and two burly guards. She was to be bathed and clothed, all to look proper and presentable to the Grey Warlord.
When she was brought to her bath, the two men remained. As she looked upon them, saw their gleeful, hungry eyes, she found it ironic that they were called Blackguards by the servants. Formally, they were known as the Men of the Black, Dukeguards, but their reputation proceeded them. Scoundrels. Blackguards.
In anger and disdain, she undressed and sat down in the lukewarm water, ignoring the improper stares she received from the men. She would tell the Vasaath of their insolence, and he would have their heads for it. That gave her peace of mind.
She was washed, clothed, and painted as if she was being given away as a bride to a King. She was then brought to the throne room where Sir Callahan was waiting for her. He seemed as wary as she felt, and the Blackguards mocked him for being the one to hand her over to the Grey Ones.
“You had one job,” said one of the guards. “Avenge your Duke and bring his murderer to justice—and here you are, giving that justice aways as a gift to the Demons who really killed your Duke.”
The knight was stoic, calm, and said nothing in his defence. He just placed himself next to her, his hand firmly on the hilt of his sword as the Dukesguards left the throne room.
As time went by, she grew nervous. The mere thought of seeing the mighty grey warrior with his burning, golden eyes and his long, thick, black braid stride through those doors made her knees tremble in trepidation. She had only known the Kas generosity—but never their fury, not personally. Not even as she involved herself with the rebels in Noxborough had she faced their wrath, but this was different.
She barely knew she had started trembling before a gentle hand landed on her shoulder and the knight said, “Calm yourself, my lady. Do not show them your fear.”
Carefully, she glanced up at him. “You have been hunting my brother,” she whispered.
Sir Callahan clenched his jaw and kept his eyes straight forwards. “Yes.”
Juniper nodded. “To bring him to justice for our father’s crimes.”
The knight sighed. “Yes.”
“He’s in Illyria now,” said Juniper. “Under the protection of Emperor Cereo. The Duke of Eastshore told me as much.”
The man said nothing, but his jaw twitched violently.
“I saw you fighting in the Norn a few years ago,” said she. “You fought well, sir. Valiantly.”
“Thank you, my lady.”
Juniper took a deep, unsteady breath, and as she exhaled, she couldn’t stop the sobs that escaped her. She quickly wiped away her tears, her eyes fastened at the doors, but the tears just kept falling.
“My lady,” said Sir Callahan, his voice strained. “What will he do to you, the warlord?”
“What any leader would do to a traitor,” whispered Juniper and kept her head held high.
The knight took a deep breath, cleared his throat and straightened.
Juniper glanced up at him, saw the ponder on his brow. “What will you do when they come?”
“I was never going to stay here. I just needed some sovereigns. As soon as I have enough, I will buy passage across the river.”
Juniper clenched her jaw. “Do you dare to wait?”
The knight grunted, glanced at her, and muttered, “I don’t know. I’ll see.”
Glancing at the doors, Juniper felt as though the time stood still. At any moment, the Vasaath would come in through those doors and that would mark the beginning of the end for her.
“Take me with you,” Juniper suddenly whispered.
Sir Callahan frowned. “What?”
She gazed at him. “Take me with you across the river! If I stay here, I’ll surely die. You will too, if you stay. Either that, or you’ll be drafted to the Vasaath’s army. Defect from it, and you’ll die.”
The knight seemed uncertain and grunted in anguish. “My lady, I—”
“Help me reach Valaris,” said Juniper. “Help me find my brother. Do that, and I promise you that I will help you regain your honour.” She stared at him, her breath shallow. The hairs stood on the back of her neck. The Vasaath was near, she would sense it. Setting her jaws tight, she said, “We don’t have much time.”
Sir Callahan gazed at her, his jaw tight. As the clattering of horses’ hooves was heard from the bailey all the way into the throne room, the knight gazed warily at the door and then back at Juniper. “Are you sure, my lady?”
Juniper felt her heart flutter and she was hot and cold, all at once. The time was nigh—so she nodded. “I’m ready.”
At once, the knight gripped her arm and dragged her along. “Then we must hurry. There are boats down by the docks that will take us across the river, but I must warn you. We will enter into Bandit Lands, and I might not be able to keep you safe.”
“I know how to take care of myself,” muttered she. “Give me a sword, and I’ll protect myself.”
Sir Callahan chuckled in surprise as they ran through the halls. Two Blackguards, however, blocked their way—the same that had watched her bathe and had mocked the knight for his misfortunes.
“Where do you think you’re going?” said one of them as they pulled their swords. “You’re supposed to be in the throne room!”
Sir Callahan swiftly pushed Juniper behind him as he rushed to face them. He was a very adept fighter, much more seasoned than the guards, but there were two of them and only one of him.
As if the Builder himself hand intervened, one of the Blackguards dropped his sword not too far away from Juniper. She did not hesitate as she lunged at it. Fumbling a bit, she managed to grab hold of it before the guard did and held it towards him.
He sneered, huffed, and swaggered as he approached her—what could a woman possibly do to him? But he was gravely mistaken, because this woman had trained with the grey warriors. She had trained with the Grey Warlord himself. True enough, she had only ever fought once before, but she had trained enough times with Eno and the Vasaath to know how to handle herself in such a situation.
As the man attacked her, she used her own agility to dodge him, the wall of the narrow hallway to give her support, and the man’s own weight to plunge the sword underneath his arm.
He fell to the floor, croaking and coughing, and Juniper pushed the blade further in. He grabbed at her—suddenly, his face warped. The Stone Wolf appeared as he reached for her, and Juniper backed away in panic.
“You must kill him!” shouted Sir Callahan from behind just before he managed to bury his sword into his opponent’s neck.
With a furious roar, she hurled forwards and drove the blade further into the man. The Stone Wolf croaked, wheezed, and only the face of the Blackguard remained. She breathed heavily, not noticing her tears until afterwards, and staggered backwards. She looked down on her bloodied, trembling hands. She had done it again.
“Come, my lady!” called Sir Callahan. “We must go on!”
Quickly, Juniper dispelled the thoughts and grabbed the hilt again to pull the sword out of the man, but it was buried too deeply. She pulled with both her hands, but the blade wouldn’t budge.
Voices were heard down the hall, and there was one in particular that she would recognise anywhere. The deepness of his voice vibrated through her body, almost putting her under his spell. In a panic, she tore at the sword.
“Leave it, my lady!” growled Sir Callahan as he grabbed her and pulled her along.
Rushing through the halls of the castle, it was unclear if the knight knew where they were going. At times, he pushed her into a dark room and told her to keep quiet as troops of Blackguards rushed past them in the hall, and then they continued through the vast castle.
Finally, they found themselves inside the outer walls and Sir Callahan made sure the coast was clear before they headed out into the dark streets. Blackguards were shouting commands everywhere and Juniper could distinguish Kasoch being barked in the night. Her heart was in her throat, almost on its way out.
They hurried through dark alleyways, past beggars and drunkards, and down towards the dark waters of the Dawning River. There, by the docks, several boats rested peacefully in the thick fog.
Juniper tugged at Sir Callahan’s cloak. “Are you certain they will take us?”
“I did not plan on asking,” muttered the knight as he spied around the corner.
Blackguards were scouting the riverside with torches, their swords drawn. The moon stood full in the dark sky, illuminating the scene with its ghostly light.
From behind her, she heard the echoes of a thunderous, deep voice as the Vasaath barked orders at his men. She realised that he was telling them to look near the water.
She gasped. “We have to go! We have to go, now! He’s coming!”
Sir Callahan grunted, looked about, and grabbed hold of her arm. “Keep low,” he ordered her and signalled with his hands to carefully follow the tall grass down to the river. He gazed up and then he looked at her. “Can you swim, my lady?”
Confused, she nodded.
The knight tightened his jaw. “Good. We will have to go into the water and slowly make our way to the boat over there. Do you see it?” In the pale moonlight, he pointed at a sailboat that lay docked by the pier only a few yards away. “It’s a gamble, but if we put one foot on that pier, they will see us.”
Juniper took a deep breath and nodded. She knew it would be freezing cold, but she had no other choice. Slowly, they snuck through the tall grass to the riverside.
There, Sir Callahan began removing his armour as silently as he possibly could. Carefully, he waded into the water. He reached out a hand to Juniper and she also took the plunge.
The cold water took a firm grasp of her, causing her to tense—she was close to shrieking, but she managed to stop herself just enough to only let out a tiny yelp.
Moving ever so slowly, the pair swam into the misty river. Juniper could hardly breathe in the cold water and her dress was weighing her down, but she knew she had to keep swimming best she could.
When they finally reached the boat, Juniper was depleted. Her lungs burned, as did her arms, and she could barely keep herself above the surface anymore.
“Come, my lady,” said Sir Callahan and reached out to pull her to him. “Here, hold on to the rail, and I will lift you as well as I can. Lie down in the boat, keep your head below the rail.” His lips were blue in the moonlight, but his grip was strong.
Juniper did as told and grabbed onto the rail. With her last strength, she pulled herself up the rail as he pushed her, and she fell briskly over it and to the bottom. The splash and the thud were loud, and in the silent night, it must have been loud enough for the guards and the Kas on the riverside to hear. S
he lay as still as she possibly could, despite her chattering teeth, as she heard the soft movements of Sir Callahan in the water as he swam to untie the boat from the docks. The fog was so thick that she couldn’t see them moving, but the sound and the motion of the boat told her otherwise.
After a short while, Sir Callahan plunged from the icy water and pulled himself onboard, his breaths heavy.
“All right,” he said with a trembling voice. “All we have to do now is to wait for the current to take us further out before we raise the sail.”
Juniper pulled her arms around herself and nodded, her teeth chattering violently. The air was much colder now, colder than on the White Mountains, and colder than on the moors in the storm. Looking out towards the shore, she only saw faint lights from the torches through the fog.
She was relieved—but she also felt a profound sadness wash over her. She wished she could have seen his face, one last time.
As if her wish had been heard, the fog suddenly dispersed, like a veil parting; there on the shore, with his burning, golden eyes and his long, thick, black braid, stood the Vasaath and gazed straight at her.
All air escaped her lungs, her heart stilled, and the world around her disappeared—all there was were him and her, and his eyes that burned through her like the forges of the Netherworld.
Every hair on her body stood on its end, and it was as though he was gripping hold of her spirit, shackling her from afar, and demanding her to return to him. She could almost feel his large, strong hand grip around her, his claws sharp against her cold skin, as he moved slowly towards the water.
She saw his face twist—as if time stood still—into a vicious scowl and his guttural roar pierced through the night like thunder rolling over the moors as he shouted her name.
And then the veil closed once more as the current gripped hold of their vessel and swiftly pulled them out into the wide and winding Dawning River.
* * *
END OF BOOK 2