The end of the month came quickly, and with that Bram also returned. This time, he brought more men with him. He thought it would make the hunt more interesting if they went out into the woods as separate groups. King Kannal thought this to be a stimulating idea and decided to make a game out of it. Whichever group won the game would receive a prize that was still to be determined. The opted not to take place in the game; however, they would sit in the forest pavilion to watch from a distance.
The king and queen’s youngest son, Triston—only six years old—had to stay inside the castle for his daily lessons, and could not participate in the day’s events, much to his dismay.
The group of men gathered in the middle of the courtyard with spears, and bows and arrows in hand, the dogs at the ready, and their steeds brushed and bridled.
“You know, Bram,” Kannal started as he mounted his white mare, “I almost thought you wouldn’t make it back in time for our hunt.”
“My traveling companion was injured along the road and needed some time to recover,” Bram replied.
“Nothing serious, I hope?”
“Just a twisted ankle.”
“I look forward to catching the winning meal!” the king exclaimed.
Bram grinned. “We shall see, your majesty. Hunting has always been a favorite pastime for my men and me.”
The king roared with laughter. “Ah-hah! A challenge!” He turned to his wife. “We might finally have a worthy opponent, my dear!”
Wilisca simply laughed. “Just be careful out there. Not even you can control the wildlife in your own kingdom.” She then motioned to Egrin as she walked down the stairs into the courtyard. “You will stay with us as we go to the pavilion.”
He nodded. “Of course, my queen.” He took a glance and noticed Lenna standing at her horse’s side, unmoving. “Is everything all right?” he asked as he walked up to her.
She turned to him. “The last time I rode, it was during an important day my people had.”
“I think I know what you are talking about. I heard about the Ride when I first arrived here as a boy, and I was able to watch it soon after, but only the one time. I had never seen a unicorn before that. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life.”
Lenna smiled. “It was even more beautiful being a part of it. Riding Silyer was like riding the air itself.”
“Oh, that was the name I have my unicorn.”
“I did not know your people were able to own unicorns.”
“We never owned them. Before the Ride, each leïfae who was old enough would form a bond with a certain unicorn, and that unicorn would then carry that certain person forever.”
Egrin was wholly fascinated as Lenna went on to describe the Ride. It also made Lenna very happy to share such an important tradition of her people with someone. “Wow, it all sounds so wonderful. It would be amazing if your people were able to continue such a tradition.”
Lenna smiled sadly and looked away before he could see the tears beginning to rise in her eyes. “Yes, it would be.”
“I’m sorry if I offended you.”
She shook her head. “You didn’t. It’s still hard to know that they’re gone. I know it’s been a while since then, but… It was my whole life.”
“It would be impossible to continue that tradition, anyway. All of the unicorns were killed in the attack.”
“It is a shame that such beautiful creatures were destroyed.”
“Time to go!” Kannal shouted.
Everyone followed his lead and rode out of the courtyard through a side gate leading out to the royal forest behind the gardens. The tall trees formed a colorful canopy overhead, creating a cooling shade below to protect everyone from the sun’s rays. It took Lenna a little while to adjust. She was not used to riding such a large animal compared to her Silyer. After a few minutes, she found her balance and began to ride with ease, able to keep up with Egrin.
They talked as the hunting group ahead of them began searching for their prize. Antalos—although he was a part of the hunting party—had to ride by Marian’s side at the request of their mothers, wanting them to spend more time with each other before the excitement of the hunt began. So far, they had only seen each other during meals or some other gathering of their families. They were often asked to take walks with each other. It was considered necessary in order for them to grow close before their marriage.
Lenna, however, noticed the look in Antalos’ eyes. “Egrin?”
“I may be imagining this, but I am not sure Antalos is as fond of this marriage arrangement as his parents.”
“You would be correct,” he replied softly so only Lenna could hear. “Don’t let anyone know I told you this, but Antalos has never really wanted to Marian. In all of the time I’ve known him, I don’t think he’s even come close to liking her in a romantic way, but he has to follow through with it in order to merge the two kingdoms together in a strong alliance. Parthor’s king does not have an heirs of his own, so Lady Catherin’s children—his nieces and nephews—are the only ones he can consider to inherit his kingdom in the event of his death.”
“Oh.” It didn’t sound very fair to her. She couldn’t imagine how hard it must have felt to Antalos or Marian. How did Marian feel about this? Did she have the same thoughts as Antalos, or was she fully supportive of this plan?
“Speaking of which, how did your people handle who became the leaders if you do not have a king or queen?”
“There was a long line of men and women who were matched together to become the chief and chieftess.”
“Was there ever anyone who was not happy with their match?”
Lenna shook her head. “Not at all. We all shared close bonds with each other and loved each other very dearly. To refuse marriage to another was to announce hatred for that person. It was considered the worst thing one could do.”
“Were you ever matched to someone?”
“No, I wasn’t, however my brother and sister were.”
“Why were you not matched? I’m sorry if I’m asking too many questions of you.”
“It’s all right. We always know who will be matched with each other at some point, but my match did not live in the village. I will find him someday. I know I will.”
Egrin smiled. “I hope you do.”
“The dogs have caught a scent!” a man shouted from the group before Lenna could say anything else.
The chase had now begun. Bram was well in the lead already with Kannal close behind while the women, the servants, Egrin, and another guard kept their normal pace. The man had all vanished from sight; however, the ground still thundered under the horses’ hoof beats.
When they arrived at the pavilion, the servants immediately set to sweeping away the leaves outside of the structure and arranging the tea set. Egrin and the other guard stood before the steps while Queen Wilisca, Lenna, Lady Catherine, and her daughters enjoyed their tea and conversation. It was mostly the others who enjoyed the conversation. Lenna kept to herself as she sipped her tea and observed her surroundings. It felt so good to be outside and not trapped inside the castle all day. Being stuck inside the castle was almost like not being able to breath.
She took another sip of her tea, when her ears twitched anxiously. From a distance, she could hear the thunder of horses galloping through the forest. The men were probably chasing their prey in the direction of the pavilion. It would probably make quite the passing show.
Suddenly, a herd of horses charged forward, surrounding the pavilion in a quaking presence. Egrin and the other guard jumped to the top of the stairs just as the horses ran by.
“Where did those horses come from?” Wilisca questioned as she watched the stampede in confusion.
“They must have escaped from the stables somehow, your majesty,” the second guard answered.
Marian let out a startled cry.
A man emerged on one of the horses and jumped into the pavilion with fierce agility. He pulled out a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other. His eyes were full of bloodlust as he came after the closest person. Marian.
The guard drew out his sword and charged, however the stranger was much quicker. He pulled back his attack just as the guard swung his sword, and Lenna knew immediately that it would not end well. He then lifted his dagger and plunged the blade into the guard’s neck. The guard staggered and fell to the floor as the man pulled out his bloodied dagger. Blood began to pool around the dead guard’s head.
Marian shrieked in horror.
Egrin jumped in front of her and brought his sword up to block the assassin’s attack. “Get out of here!” he ordered, ducking just as the sword swung overhead. “I will take care of him.” He then began to block each swing the assassin brought out. He blocked every one, but he was being pushed back. The assassin delivered a series of rapid blows. It was becoming close to impossible for Egrin to block them all, when he unexpectedly fell down the pavilion steps. He tumbled in the grass with a grunt.
Lenna managed to get everyone out of the pavilions, away from the danger and looked back to see Egrin’s quandary. She had to help him. She couldn’t watch him die, too. “Egrin!” She immediately ran to the other side of the pavilion and climbed over the railing. Her foot got caught and she fell hard on her knees, just inches away from the crimson pool. The dead guard’s eyes were wide open, cold and lifeless. Lenna paused at the sight, images of her people flashing before her mind. She could almost hear their shouts and cries in the distance. The familiar feel of the flame’s heat…
The sound of metal hitting metal broke her trance. She grabbed the guard’s sword now splattered in his own blood, struggling to keep a hold on the slippery hilt. It was a very unpleasant feeling. She hoped she never had to go through something like this ever again. She then ran to the front of the pavilion and…
She managed to knock the sword out of the man’s hand.
The assassin turned, his dagger still in hand. He lunged at her. Lenna tried to move out of the way, but tripped and fell onto the pavilion’s stone floor once again. She felt something warm seeping through the fabric of her dress.
How did she find herself in this situation? She used to be so good at hunting with her people. Did living in the castle this whole time really have that kind of affect on her?
She was turned on her back to find the assassin’s enraged face above her. His knee pressed into her stomach and his free hand wrapped around her throat. Her lungs burned for air as dark spots crept around the edge of her vision.
“I shall show you what happens when you get in my way!” He raised his dagger, ready to plunge it into her heart.
Just as he was about to deliver the final blow, a dark blur knocked the man over. Lenna gasped and coughed allowing the fresh air to enter her lungs. She could hear the struggle somewhere beyond her vision, but she couldn’t bring herself to move from the spot.
Hoof beats thundered into the clearing and for a moment, Lenna thought the herd of escaped horses had returned.
“What is the meaning of this?” Kannal’s voice demanded as two men rushed to Egrin’s aid.
The next moment, Lenna found Antalos by her side. His eyes were wild with concern. “Are you all right? You are covered in blood!”
Lenna slowly sat up, still breathing heavily and looked down. Surely enough, her dress was stained crimson. The sticky substance was dark on her hands and a metallic scent filled her nose as a wave of nausea swept over her. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to calm her nerves. “I’m fine. This isn’t my blood,” she said hoarsely. “Egrin saved my life.”
“Not before she saved mine,” she heard him reply.
The women hurried to Kannal as he dismounted his horse. “We were attacked by this man!” Wilisca exclaimed. “He came from out of nowhere.”
“She is right, your majesty,” Lady Catherine added. “If it was not for the bravery of Egrin, who knows what would have happened to my beloved Marian!”
Kannal went over to Egrin and glanced over his shoulder as two of his men held the despondent assassin between them. “Is this true?”
He nodded. “It was not just me, your majesty. I would have been killed if not for Lenna. She helped the other escape and chose to return for me.”
The king turned to Lenna, who was rubbing the pain out of her neck. “We owe you a debt of gratitude.”
“I couldn’t just let him fight alone. Unfortunately, the other man guarding us was killed. The assassin knew how to use the terrain in his favor, like he was prepared for us.”
He considered her words for a moment. “Even so, it was very brave of you.” He turned to the restricted man. “Take him to the dungeons. We shall question him in the morning. Tonight, we celebrate!”
The assassin struggled as the guards dragged him away, but they kept a firm grip on him.
Antalos held Lenna’s shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Are you sure you are all right? He could have killed you.”
She nodded. “I’m sure, thank you. You should be thankful for Egrin. Who knows what might have happened if he wasn’t here?”
“I hate to even think about it.” He smiled softly.
From the corner of her eye, Lenna spotted Marian also smiling. What was she smiling for? The events of the day left Lenna feeling tired.
They all returned to the castle where they enjoyed a wonderful feast late into the night. Upon the large table were three wild boars the men had caught during the hunt. An assortment of vegetables and fruits were also served, providing a colorful and appetizing meal.
Lenna was glad to be able to wash herself of the blood, not wanting it on her a moment longer.
All she could think of during the feast was how Antalos had run to her first instead of Marian. Sure, she had just been attacked, but Marian was his betrothed. Even if he did not love her, surely he would still make sure she was unharmed first, right? It might have looked odd to everyone else, even if they didn’t say anything about it. She decided not to worry about such things.