Chapter Twelve- VERA
The light from the lantern helps guide me down into the forgotten chamber. I was allowed to leave my party over an hour ago and I’m now on my way to meet my friends. After the show I put on, the king insisted I stay awhile, ignoring the fact that I’d just killed a man known by many who were there.
Any opportunity the king has to expose my distress, he takes every time. I remember seeing Bellek’s distaste. But what did he expect me to do in that situation? My hands were tied.
Reaching the damp corridor, I enter into a side chamber and set the lantern down on a broken table. No matter how hard I try to make this dank room into anything, it is useless. There are far too many cracks that let in moisture and there is nothing to hide the strong smell of mildew.
Finding a salvageable chair, I carefully sit and wait. My thoughts go to Zyrik. The king had him taken away after the killing. I hope he doesn’t understand what I did, but the thought of him seeing me create chaos churns my stomach.
Tonight was just a taste of the control the king has over me. I worry what he’ll have me do next. The last thing I want is to become a monster. Which is why I want to meet with my friends--I need advice.
My ears perk to the sounds of their voices. Nate, Karl, and Murrow push through the door mid conversation. Their voices fade when they see me.
Murrow whistles. “Hell, Vera, you didn’t have to dress so nice just for us.”
His smile melts away when he sees my stone face.
“What is it?” Nate says.
“The king had me use my gift to kill someone tonight.” Their expressions darken. “Once again he used Zyrik to force me to do his bidding. I’m worried what other things he will have me do, now that my gift has manifested.”
Murrow looks to the others, then to me. “What is your gift?”
“Didn’t you hear what happened to Slyk?”
“Someone said one of your knives went through his eye, and his arm was broken. No one knows exactly how it happened. Kah announced how you deserved all ten lashes though--asshole.”
“Oh. Would you like me to show you how I did it?” I wiggle my fingers at them.
Karl shakes his head. “How about you just tell us first. You did just say you killed someone.”
I roll my eyes.
“Use it on me,” Nate volunteers.
Murrow and Karl shake their heads and mutter “crazy” under their breath. I know Nate trusts me and I’m not surprised he’d be the one to step up to be tested.
I try to bring forth my gift, but nothing happens. I try again. Nothing.
Murrow looks over to Nate, and grins. “Looks like she has the gift of concentration.”
My annoyance flares, and my gift surfaces. Nate turns and slaps Murrow across the face.
“Hey!” Murrow shouts.
I close off Nate’s throat, and he frantically grabs at his neck. Karl and Murrow’s eyes dart between us, and I can see they are full of confusion. When Nate begins to turn red, I release him.
He hunches over and coughs, trying to regain air back into his lungs. “Shit, Vera. What the hell did you just do to me?”
“I can control you.”
“That was what you did to him?” Murrow gulps.
“Can you imagine all that I’m capable of now?”
Understanding passes over their faces.
“What are you going to do?” Karl asks, as he runs a hand over his mouth.
“She’ll do what she’s told, Karl. What other choice does she have?” Nate snaps. I sense his frustration; he always grasps things quicker than the others.
“Nate is right, I have no other choice. I fear the king has a plan for me, and it scares me to think what it could be. But I’m more scared for Zyrik. What if the king keeps his son at his side even more, just to make a point of how powerless I truly am?”
“You have to make the king believe his demands are what you want, too,” Nate says. “If he sees you cooperate willingly, then he won’t need to use Zyrik. The question is, can you do it?”
I chew over his suggestion, trying to analyze its practicality. What he says makes sense, but it means I’ll have to think dark thoughts, and become someone I’m not. But for Zyrik’s sake? I have no choice.
Morning comes, as does a message from the king requesting my attendance on him. I still have the image of the golden mirror and the strange girl from my dreams in my thoughts. The only thing that makes any sense to me is to believe the magic is showing me another side of myself. I wish there were someone I could ask. Maybe Bellek would know.
I tighten my leather bodice over my threads and look at my reflection. The tough outer shell I constantly display will be what I’ll rely on to convince the king that I am his. Just as Nate said, if I can go along with the king’s plans, Zyrik will be safe. I take a deep breath. I’ll let that be my comfort.
I go to Zyrik’s room and find him playing in the corner. A puppet is on each of his hands. I admire his innocence as he makes them dance in the air. How can a tortured boy like him bounce back from the nightmare of last night?
He turns and sees me, and promptly drops his puppets. He runs straight into my legs and holds on tightly.
“Oh, my! When did you get so strong?”
Zyrik shrugs his shoulders. I gently pull him free and pick him up, resting his head against my shoulder. He snuggles against my neck, and I laugh.
“Are you trying to tickle me?”
“Well, I think it’s you that should be tickled.”
I place him down and he runs shrieking. I chase him around for a while, then play with him and his puppets. I don’t mention anything of last night and he doesn’t seem to mind forgetting. When it is time for me to leave, he holds on even tighter. Leaving him is difficult and it takes me a few minutes to convince him of my return. Then I have to convince myself.
Walking into the war room, I see a massive oak table taking up its center. The king is not yet here and the other chairs around the table are mostly occupied. I recognize only some of the men.
Captain Ryker sits at one end. His arms are crossed and a smirk is plastered across his face. Does he know what the meeting’s about? By his relaxed state, I would say he does.
Captain Leech sits at the opposite end. His expression is grim. He manages to give me a small smile as I go to sit by him.
There are other officials around the table, but I don’t know them. They sit quietly, staring down at their laps, avoiding eye contact with everyone else at the table. I look around and take note of Bellek’s absence.
A side door opens, and in walks the king, followed closely by Bruce and the Scree. Everyone stands until King Kgar motions for us to sit. Bruce remains standing, his eyes devoid of emotion.
King Kgar sits back and steeples his forefinger and thumb together as he looks to each of us. His gaze pauses upon me, and I notice the side of his mouth twitch. He snaps his fingers. “Map!”
One of the unknown officers flips out a map, and unrolls it. It extends the entire length of the table. I straighten in my chair and gaze at a detailed map of all four kingdoms. Every town, road, and river is marked clearly. Even The Wall is shown in perfect detail.
Another officer begins placing red and white tokens on different areas of the map, while the king patiently waits. Biting the inside of my cheek, my eyes roam over the others at the table. Leech is still wearing his grim expression, but Ryker is leaning forward eagerly.
When the two officers are finished, they promptly leave the room.
“Silent Watchers are trained for one purpose: to prepare for war,” the king begins. “It’s time we begin our quest for ultimate domination. The rules have now changed. We no longer need to rely on numbers.” He glances over to me. “Not when a single thought can get the job done.” My brow furrows. “I am promoting Vera to Commander.”
My insides freeze. What did he just say?
Ryker clears his throat. “Your Majesty, if I may?”
“Oh, you may Ryker, but you will not change my mind. Vera will be the Commander of my assassins, and I don’t believe there is anyone who can stop her.”
Ryker sits back, seething with anger.
“I appreciate the honor, Your Majesty. I look forward to leading your men to victory,” I reply.
“You have until the end of the week to prepare.”
Leech and Ryker jump up. “That’s impossible, Your Majesty!”
Kgar ignores their protest. His eyes lock on mine, waiting for me to challenge him. But I’m to take Nate’s suggestion. Whatever the king wants, he gets. All for Zyrik.
“As you wish, sir.”
The captains share an incredulous look.
“Great! I am glad someone here understands my agenda.” Kgar rests his hands on the table. “Now, what is your plan?”
I panic. “Plan?”
“To get my assassins to Pynth.”
I rack my brain and try to recall all the times I have overheard Bellek.
“We will go through the northern section of The Wall. It’s guarded least well.”
“What makes you think that?” Ryker interrupts. “It would be better to just storm through the main gate. They won’t be expecting us to storm it.”
“If we use the main gate, we won’t have the element of surprise,” I reply cooly. “And isn’t that what we pride ourselves on, Captain?” Ryker’s lips purse. “Anyway, as I was saying, I’ll take their minds, and then we’ll tear down a section of The Wall. We get through, then we journey under cover of the pines. It will be something they won’t expect--thousands of assassins suddenly on their doorstep.
“Captains, dismissed!” The king barks.
Ryker leaves with a scowl, but Leech grins, and pauses before leaving. “Commander, I’ve been working on a project. I believe it will help us in the war.”
“I will meet with you this afternoon. Thanks, Captain,” I answer.
Leech nods firmly, and exits the room.
“I must say, Vera, I’m surprised by your change of attitude. Your willingness is exactly what I need. This promotion of yours will test your loyalty to me. Soon you will have to make a decision. Don’t disappoint me.”
I know better than to ask. “Yes, sir.”
“However, you have already disappointed me in another matter.” He claps twice. The doors open back up and two Silent Watchers drag in a beaten assassin; his head is covered. “I make rules, and I expect those rules to be followed. If not, punishment will be enforced. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I don’t think you do.” He walks around the table. “You see, Vera, while I am a tolerant king I expect obedience. For example, when I order that no one is to touch something that is mine, I expect that rule to be followed.”
My muscles tense. Kgar rips off the cover off the assassin’s head. Pain bursts through my chest, lungs, and throat. I don’t even recognize Marcus. Both his eyes are swollen shut.
“Well, do you have anything to say?”
I can’t breathe.
“Come. I want you to witness what happens to those who touch what is mine.” I stand as he signals Bruce over.
The two Silent Watchers force Marcus’s head down while Bruce unsheathes his sword. My heart beats fast. Bellek warned me about playing with fire. Now, I am to be burned.
Bruce raises his sword and it comes down swiftly.
“No!” I scream.
His arm freezes, the blade stops against Marcus’s neck.
King Kgar snarls and smacks me across my face. “You dare use your gift against my command?”
The Scree hurries to the king’s side. She whispers words I can’t hear. After a few long minutes, King Kgar shouts, “Enough!” Without looking at me he leaves the room. I force Bruce to follow, worried he might attempt to finish the job on Marcus.
“Take him to my chambers,” the Scree demands. Marcus turns his head in my direction. His face might be unrecognizable but there is no denying how grateful he looks for being alive. The guards drag him away.
“What will become of him?” I blurt out.
“Whatever I want.” The side of her mouth curls up. “He’s mine now.” She turns and leaves.
I breathe a sigh of relief. At least he’s still alive.
Threatening grey clouds overhead give off the scent of rain. The horse beneath me doesn’t seem to mind. Provena is one of the largest stallions in stock. His training has taken him through every brutal scenario, including harsh weather conditions. Provena is sturdy, taking the uneven terrain sure-footedly as I lead him behind the Silent Tomb.
The Silent Tomb has been around since the beginning. It was built to house dead warriors. When a Silent Watcher dies, his body is burned in a ceremony. His ashes are then collected, and placed inside the tomb.
It’s an honor to be buried here. And those Watchers denied the honor are forever disgraced in the afterlife. Their souls are trapped in our world, wandering aimlessly--never resting.
Off in the distance, thunder rolls. It interests me why Captain Leech wants to meet me here. Men are tying down heavy canvases over what seem to be very large cages. A screeching sound pierces from one of them.
Captain Leech comes out of a tent and jogs to my side. “Commander Vera!”
I frown. “Captain.”
“I just got them covered and ready to go.”
“Keppers? You’ve been collecting Keppers?”
“Training, I’ve been training Keppers,” he grins widely.
I shake my head. I thought Leech was a normal, level-headed captain. Now I see that can’t be further from the truth.
“How in the world did you manage to train these beasts?”
Not only can Keppers rip you to shreds, they are the only beasts in the vast mountain range that managed to survive the loss of magic. These birds are the size of Bruce, their talons unforgiving. They rip apart anything that comes their way. If Leech really did train these birds, they will wreak havoc on the enemy.
I can’t help but smile. Captain Leech has shown me the impossible is possible. Our enemies will never see this coming.
“Patience,” he answers.
“How many?” I ask.
“I have five that are fully trained, and another three that are not far behind.”
“I expect you to have them all under control by the time we reach Pynth.”
His jaw tightens. “Understood, Commander.”
I ride over to Graves Hill to meet with the men. It’s time they hear the news and begin to prepare. I reach the center of the arena, and signal for a banging on the drum.
I look to the murky clouds above me, and hope the rain stays away just a while longer; I need the men to hear me. I patiently wait until the arena is a black sea of assassins. Nate, Karl, and Murrow stand off to the side, confusion etched on their faces.
The beat of the drum stops when Ryker and Leech join me up on the stage, putting the arena into complete silence.
“I’m to inform you of recent changes issued by King Kgar. Commander Bellek has been sent on a mission, and I am promoted in his place.”
They look to one another, doubt clear on all their faces.
“I have trained with all of you. You never saw me as a girl, or a prisoner, but as a fellow fighter. Some of you even hate me, but still you treat me as one of your own. I’ve stood up to every single one of you, and even though I was kicked on my ass, your asses were kicked, too.”
Men nod, their lips twitch with humor.
“I know this all might not make sense to you, but I promise I will do what I can to secure us a victory. You are the ones I want at my back, you are the ones I trust. I know that no matter what, you will fight until you can no longer.”
I attempt to put much fierceness behind my words. I want them to know I mean what I say.
“I have a gift that will aid us. I’m able to reach inside minds and manipulate their bodies, forcing those bodies to do what I want them to. I plan to use this ability to help take down the enemy. I swear I will never use my gift on you without your knowledge, unless it’s for self-defense, or to prevent your death. You are mine and I am yours!”
From those in front to all the men in the back, they throw their fists in the air and shout, “Watch!” The faces of my friends are full of pride.
The king has never understood that loyalty is earned, not bought or demanded. But Bellek understands, and so do I.
Rain finally breaks through the dark clouds and I end our meeting. Now we prepare.
I reach Black Ridge Castle by nightfall, having helped organize what supplies are needed. I run up the stairs, a sense of excitement coursing through me. I’ll finally be leaving this place--even if it’s only for a time.
I notice a shadow following close behind. I pull my gift to the surface and turn quickly.
I suck air through my teeth. “Marcus!” His face is no longer swollen and the blood is gone. No healing herbs known to men could have healed him so quickly. This is the work of the Scree.
He moves close to me and lowers his voice. “Thanks for saving me.”
My heart thumps hard inside my chest. It seems forever since I’ve been with him, and I’m thankful he is alive.
“I thought the Scree owned you now?”
His dark blue eyes have an intensity about them, and I feel a sudden ache inside my body.
“She doesn’t own me; she only saved me from King Kgar’s wrath. After she healed me, she said I could leave. So I did.” His hand brushes my arm and my flesh tingles.
“Aren’t you worried about being caught by the king again? The Scree won’t be able to talk him out of killing you a second time.”
“I heard you would be leaving soon. I just wanted to see you.”
I realize now how lonely I’ve been feeling. I know this relationship can get him killed, but here he is, still wanting me. How can I deny him?
We hurry to my chamber. We can’t chance being caught. Once my chamber door closes, we entangle one another. Marcus lifts up my chin exposing my neck. I hold my breath as his lips press against its base, then slowly work their way up to my face. A strong awareness of my own heartbeat echoes in my ears.
He lifts me up and I wrap my legs around him as he carries me to my bed. He lowers me carefully down, and begins to remove my leathers. My nerve endings tingle as they are exposed to the cool air.
After he takes his garments off he joins me. My lips part as he stares at me. I’ve never seen him so hungry for me before. Finally he takes me, and I tremble. We get lost in time as we enjoy each other’s company. I know I have things to do, but my duties as Commander can wait.