Chapter Twenty- VERA
The next day we ride with urgency to stay warm. Icy air comes off the snow that fell overnight. The cold clings to everything, wrapping around our cloaks, trying to find a way inside to suck out our warmth.
The country is gradually flattening, the woods growing sparser each hour. In a day’s time, we will be close enough to Pynth to make our final camp. The arrival will be good for the subdued assassins, who are used to training day in and day out. I sense their restlessness.
Occasionally, I bark an order, and the entire company makes a gradual change in direction. It isn’t much, considering our route is straight southwest. With thousands of men, it’s barely noticeable anyways, but it keeps them alert.
Since this morning, I’ve remained in my own mind, riding ahead of the captains just to keep my thoughts to myself. I can’t stop thinking about the mystery girl on the other side of the golden mirror. It’s as if she is trying to ensnare me in a trap.
No matter how many times I try to convince myself she is some fabrication of a childhood dream, I can’t help but think she is real. While she looks identical to me, her expressions and tone of voice are someone else entirely.
A Kepper screeches somewhere behind us, and its call sends a chill down my spine. It seems the soldiers are not the only ones restless. I turn to Leech. “Can you not keep those beasts quiet, captain?”
He brings his light-coated horse up next to mine, smiling apologetically. “I’m afraid not, Commander. You look tired; do you need to get some rest?”
“Rest? Ha! What’s that?”
Leech chuckles. “This will be a battle of the elite, Commander. Our chances are quite good. And our men know better than to show any weakness even if they should feel your doubt. You have a force behind you that’s not afraid to fight to the very end.”
I nod in response.
When the sun begins sinking rapidly below the horizon, I call the assassins to a halt. We settle down seconds before being shrouded in night. Soon those not on watch are around the campfires drinking warm ale.
I’m surprised when Captain Ryker brings me a mug. I take it gladly, and wash it down quick.
Soon we both are red-faced from drink, and our sides hurt from laughter--a rare moment for both of us.
“You need to drink more often, Commander. You are much better to be around when you’re not a tight-faced bitch!” Ryker confesses humorously.
I ignore Leech’s scowl. Leech has decided to remain sober.
“Lose the pair between your legs, Captain, and you will find being a female among these men isn’t a simple stroll through the pines,” I retort.
Ryker laughs, lifting up his mug. “Here, here!” He slaps Leech on the back, making his scowl deepen. “What’s wrong with you, Captain? A Kepper got a slice of your tongue?”
“Of course not, you drunken fool. My only concern is their guard could be surrounding us at this very moment, ready to take care of all of you, in your soon-to-be drunken slumber.”
“Shit, Leech. With your sharp mind, I’m sure we’ll be fine on your sober watch. Leave the Commander and me alone. For once we can stand each other’s company longer than a minute.”
I bob my head in agreement. “That’s the truth. Here, have a drink Captain.” I sweep out my mug, spilling half of it in Leech’s lap. “Shit! Sorry Leech!”
Leech jumps up, takes my mug, and throws the remaining ale in the fire.
“Hey!” I shout.
“I am calling it a night, Commander. And maybe you should too.”
He observes me with the gaze of a stranger, and I’m sure he has some kind of opinion of me in this state. But if he does, he keeps it to himself as he turns and leaves.
For once I don’t care. I allow myself to embrace this new feeling of freedom, and disregard Leech’s suggestion. I’m tired of the tension of my newfound responsibility, and the confusion of my dreams.
A few mugs of ale later, I can barely stand. The next thing I know, everything is fuzzy and someone is guiding me away from the warmth of the fire. I struggle to keep my balance, trying to find my bearings.
“Where’em going?” I slur to no one in particular. I’m still unsure who is dragging me away.
“I’m putting you to bed, Commander.”
I recognize the voice as Ryker’s, and somewhere deep inside I know my brain is sending signals telling me something isn’t right. It’s like some sort of out-of-body experience. My legs don’t do what I tell them to. Neither do my hands. Or my fingers.
Though my vision wavers, I know when we enter my tent. Ryker leads me to my bedroll, and releases me. I stumble over and fall on my back. Then his weight crashes down on top of me, his breath reeking of ale. He forces his tongue inside my mouth. I attempt to push him away.
“Gerr off me!” I yell roughly. I try to concentrate, and a flash of panic rushes over me.
Ryker sees the shift of fear rising, and he smiles deviously.
“Just hold still, Commander. It’ll be over before you know it.”
His hand fumbles down his trousers, and I desperately try to bring my gift to surface. I have to stop him. When I feel the familiar thrum of my gift, I smile in triumph, but when I go to use it, nothing happens.
“Having trouble?” He pulls out the bluish red stone that Bruce had with him earlier.
My breathing turns from quiet and regular to a panting gasp knowing my gift is now blocked. The air becomes thick as I bring forth all the strength I can muster to get out from under the captain.
I gasp when his cold hand finds its way down inside of my uniform. I hold back the bile that has formed in the back of my throat. His lips crush against mine and I bite his bottom lip hard. Ryker screams out angrily, and slaps me across the face, while his other hand continues to fondle me.
“Stupid bitch! Now I’m really going to let you have it. I can only imagine what the king does to you when you piss him off. It’s still amazes me what he can get you to do. Even convincing you to bring an assassin force over to your home kingdom, just to bring back your own flesh and blood. Maybe he will let us men share your sister, at least.”
Internally I scream; I’m not quite grasping what he’s saying--I’m just trying to find of a way out of his grasp. I hate myself for not being able to control this situation. I should never have trusted myself to drink with a man who has always despised me.
He pulls my pants down and I feel the exposure of the chill air. “I, for one, will go ahead and take my payment while your body is still warm.”
As he’s about to enter inside me, the flap of the tent bursts open, and I hear a sword drawn. The weight of Ryker abruptly leaves me, and he cries out in pain. In moments the tent goes still.
I squint against a sudden glow inside the tent. The face holding up a lantern is none other than Nate. Looking down at my predicament, he quickly covers me up.
“Thank you.” I choke as tears betray me. Karl and Murrow stumble in behind him. They take one glance at Ryker’s lifeless body, then turn their attention to me.
“Is she okay, Nate?” Karl asks.
“She’s fine. How is everything outside?”
“He’s dead,” Murrow answers.
Confusion sweeps over me. Who is dead? I push back the sharp pain that’s trying to take shape behind my eyes. “What are you guys talking about?”
“We saw Ryker dragging you into your tent. Nothing looked good about it. When Kah followed to stand guard outside, we knew something was definitely wrong. So we came and checked it out. It seems we made it just in time.” Nate looks tired, his eyes ringed with hollows that suggest he hasn’t slept in a few days. Somehow, these touches of exhaustion only make him better looking. In fact, all of them looked exhausted. How much have they been watching over me and how have I not noticed before?
I quickly pull up my pants, and they all look away, allowing me to have a moment. When I look over and see Ryker exposed and dead, the bile can no longer stay inside. I rush out of the tent, and heave up everything from the evening.
Another lifeless body lies not too far away--Kah. Again, my stomach lurches, and it doesn’t stop until there is an empty pit inside my gut. I’m thankful for the freezing temperature, as it chills the sweat that beads on my brow.
When I’m through, I go back inside, walk over to Ryker’s body, and pull off the stone necklace.
“What is that?” Karl asks curiously.
I smile, a brittle smile that costs some effort. “My vulnerability. It’s a stone like Bruce’s.”
I place the stone in my hand, and immediately drop it. “Shit! It’s hot!” Picking it back up by the chain, I study it closely. There is nothing unique about it; it’s just a dull-colored stone.
“What are you going to do with it?” Murrow asks.
I give it to Nate. “You take it. Keep it away from anyone who might use it against me.” I stumble back down to my bedroll, a wave of exhaustion sweeping over me. Nate grabs my arm to keep me stable.
“Get some rest, Vera. Me and the guys will take care of the bodies.”
I jerk back up. “No tradition!”
I explain to them what I want done with the bodies, and tell them to fetch Leech after I’ve slept a few hours. There are questions I need answered. Especially that clouded mention of my own flesh and blood.
It’s just past midnight when Leech is brought to my tent. I’m standing, arms crossed, my face grim. Leech pauses as he looks to my friends, then back to me.
“What’s going on?”
“Who sits on the throne in the West?”
“Who’s the true heir to the throne?”
“I don’t know what this is about Comman--”
“I want answers, Captain. I want the truth.”
Not satisfied with my reasons, he remains mute and unwilling.
“Fine,” I say. “Let me tell you a story.”
I fill him in on the events that unfolded after he left me alone with Ryker. He reacts exactly as I thought he would.
“That son of a bitch! I knew he was a stupid man, but I never though him capable of following through with those fantastical thoughts of his. Shit!” Then his eyes really look into mine, and I clearly see the regret in his expression. “Are you okay, Commander?”
I swallow down the disgust that I can still feel all over my body.
“Who is the heir to the throne, Captain?”
His shoulders collapse, defeated. “Your sister.”
I keep from showing the hundreds of emotions that blow straight through me.
“King Kgar has one mission. To rule all four kingdoms. When he heard the prophecy, he knew he had to have one of the heirs, and use the heir’s magic to take everything for himself. When he found out that the Western King had fathered identical twin sisters, a covert mission was put into place. However, as you know, only you were taken. Your sister was taken into hiding, and only now has been brought back to take up her kingdom.”
“So it’s her kingdom?” I continue to bite back the boiling heat rising under my skin.
“Yes. The reason no one came for you was because they knew she was still alive. They didn’t want to sacrifice any more of their men for you. In fact, rumor has it that your sister feels threatened that you will come to usurp her throne. She knows you are coming, and she plans to kill you on sight.”
“A message for Commander Vera!”
My eyes stay on Leech. “Enter!”
A guard enters, breathing heavily. His attire is not of our uniform but of bright colors.
“I’ve just came from inside Pynth walls. I was one of the assassins on King Kgar’s covert mission.”
“Is Bellek with you?” I ask hopefully.
“He was captured two days ago.”
I rub my forehead with firm pressure. What else would I uncover this day? A sister and the capture of Bellek, all in a day? If the girl in the golden mirror is truly my sister, she has failed to mention this tidbit of information. Maybe Leech is right; maybe she only appears to care so I will fall into her trap. She has another thing coming if she thinks I’m that easy to manipulate.
“Anything else?” I ask.
“Yes, Commander. I know the whole layout of the city and castle.”
Finally, something good.
“Tell me everything.”