Chapter Eight- LIVIA
We rode for hours until Amah decided there was enough distance between us and the threat. In our escape, Amah had thrown the boy on a horse of his own. He has now drifted away a short distance, keeping to himself.
His name is Oliver. The man fighting the assassin and who helped us escape was his brother.
“Livia, quit staring.”
“But I feel bad for him. He doesn’t even know if his brother is okay or not. I feel like there is something I should do for him.”
“Well, don’t. Leave him be.”
I pull my cloak tight around my shoulders. The ground is still covered with a thin layer of snow, tufts of grass poking out in random places. But the chill in the air warns us of more snow.
I glance over and Oliver is whispering to his horse.
“Aren’t we more interesting than a horse?”
Amah breathes out heavily from her nose. I can tell I’m testing her patience.
“He’s just lost his mother, and he has no idea what has happened to his brother. Let him find comfort in his horse. Besides, we don’t need him poking around and asking questions. The less he knows, the better.”
What is he going to do? Tell the trees? I keep the sarcastic comments to myself. They would only irritate her more.
“I want to point out the bad decision you made to leave your bed. You should’ve stayed there.”
“But I didn’t know where you were! And I saw the Silent Watcher. What was I supposed to do?” I shake my head. “You know I can’t just stand by, and do nothing. And when I came across Oliver, I couldn’t leave his fate to the assassin. I’m no monster.”
A silence stretches between us.
“I should never have left you,” she says.
“Why? Because you think me weak?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I told you, I’m not queen material.”
Amah pinches the bridge of her nose.
“Livia. Your actions alone make you queen material. Sacrificing yourself to protect others is the number one quality a successful ruler must have. I said I should never have left you, because what you lack is the skill to protect yourself.”
“I’m sorry for not being there. However, this whole situation shows me how brave you are. I’m proud of you--as would be your parents.”
“Thanks,” I say. “I like to think I would make them proud.”
“And En Oli?”
“You are definitely queen material.”
I smile awkwardly as a heavy weight of responsibility settles into my stomach. I still don’t understand why a kingdom would want a sixteen-year-old to rule over them.
“How old was Queen Bellflower when she first became queen?”
“I’m not sure. The Temple will have plenty of material for you to scour through. I’m sure you will find all your answers there.”
“Temple? Pynth’s Temple in Willow Round?”
“That’s the one.”
“Weren’t you raised there?”
“For a time.”
“Oh! Isn’t the undying Willow there, too.”
She rolls her eyes at my excitement. She knows I love to talk about anything to do with magic. The undying Willow has stood for thousands of years. It is no longer in bloom now that magic is gone, but surprisingly enough, it remains upright and has yet to wither away. The idea of seeing it in person is fascinating. We can’t get there fast enough.
We stop for a short break, and lead our horses over to a patch of grass near the edge of the pines. Amah sends Oliver and me out in a search for anything that we can eat. In our rush to escape, we were unable to grab any of our packs.
Now that I think of it, these next two days will be miserable without any of our supplies. We can only hope that Oliver’s brother will catch up to us shortly; or the Regent’s guard will find us soon.
Twigs and pine needles crunch loudly under Oliver’s boots. I can tell he’s never spent time in the woods. My feet know how to glide quietly over the forest floor. It took me years of practice not to raise an alarm to anything we might be hunting. Which reminds me of something else we left behind--my bow.
I follow after Oliver, hoping to give him some friendly advice on what to look for. As I approach, he wipes his face.
Sadness settles over me seeing the tears he sheds. I reach out and he flinches, surprised by my closeness. His red-rimmed eyes scrunch together and I do the only thing I can think of--I embrace him.
“I’m sorry about your mother.” I whisper softly in his ear.
His body slumps and he trembles in my arms. The hum of my gift comes to surface. This time, I know what to do.
I close my eyes.
He stands in front of a black background. Instead of a red hue, however, the color blue radiates off his body. I can’t stop myself from feeling the despair that plagues his heart.
I can’t just push this away. My gut feeling tells me to pull the blue into myself. I gently flow my gift out and let my comfort transfer over to him. At the same time, I pull the blue inside myself.
His inner strength becomes stronger.
I open my eyes.
“What did you just do to me?” he chokes out.
“Nothing,” I lie. “I just thought you might need a hug.”
“No, I felt what you did. I know you have the gift. It’s why your eyes are that way.”
So he does know. A brightness appears in his eyes and a smile spreads across his face. “I felt my sadness fade, and for once I could breathe. Thank you.”
I tuck my hair behind my ear. “I just wanted to help you.”
“Are you the princess our kingdom has been waiting for?”
Amah yells after us--her tone alarming. Not caring to keep quiet, we dash quickly back to where she and the horses were resting.
Amah is standing at the edge of the pines, pacing back and forth. When she sees us, she motions us to be quick.
A deep rumbling moves under our feet. Looking over her shoulder, three black cloaked riders are traveling fast and heading our way.
“Who are they?” I ask.
“Silent Watchers.” She hurries me over to Rosie, as Oliver steps back into the trees.
“I want you to listen to me very closely. When they get here, they will dismount. The moment I say go, you mount up and ride hard south. I’ll hold them off for as long as I can.” I shake my head. “Look, I know what you’re thinking. But we can’t let them have you. You are the rightful queen and our people need you. You can’t think of me.”
Amah reaches up and wipes a tear that escapes down my face. We both know she will not survive this attack.
“Can I take Oliver?”
Amah shakes her head. “He will only add weight to Rosie. We need her to fly like the wind. I’m sorry, En Oli.”
I glance to Oliver. “He could be a diversion. Put him on his own horse and have him go north.”
Amah agrees and tells Oliver the plan. To ensure they can’t surround us, we stand at the edge of the pines.
The assassins stop a few paces from us. As Amah predicted, they dismount and stalk our way.
Their red masks are frightening and I can’t stop the tremble in my legs. Any of the three of them could take us down without a thought. I can only imagine what they are thinking, seeing an old woman, a girl, and a young boy in front of them. I’m surprised they aren’t laughing.
Amah pulls her sword out. “Go!”
Many things happen at once. Oliver and I run to our horses and mount quickly. Amah rushes the three assassins with a war-like yell and I kick my heels in as she swings her blade.
Fear grips me as Rosie takes off. This could be the last time I ever see Amah. My stomach knots up as I sneak a quick look back. Instead of seeing Amah, I see an assassin on his horse following after me.
I dig in deeper with my heels. Rosie’s ears prick back, and she swiftly tears through the snow. My knuckles are white from clenching the reins tightly, fearing if I loosen my grip at all, I might fall.
Following along the narrow strip of trail, snow flings out behind me, and I know it won’t be long before the assassin catches up.
Taking another chance, I glance back again. The Silent Watcher is right on top of me. I jerk the reins to the left as he comes up close on my right. The motion doesn’t shake him and he reaches out and grabs hold of my reins. I hit his hands, trying to get him to loosen his grip, but he doesn’t budge.
He pulls up on my reins and brings us out from our full-on gallop. I’m still hitting at his hands when he grabs my hand and twists it. Pain shoots down my arm as he rips me from my horse and drags me over to his. I’m fighting with all the strength I can muster, when something heavy hits me over the head. Blackness takes hold of me.
Ugh. A wave of nausea rolls through my body. Already I feel the lump on my head. Groggily, I open my eyes and my world is flashing by. A deep throb pounds inside my head as I try to gather what’s left of my senses.
A gust of wind hits my face. As I attempt to push back my hair, I realize my hands are tied down to the horn of the saddle. Monstrous arms hold on to the reins on either side of me; I follow up them with my eyes. A red mask greets me and I quickly turn away. I twist my wrists, but there’s no give to allow me to loosen the knot.
With my body flush up against his chest, it leaves me no room to look around. I’m unsure if he’s continuing south. I would guess not, seeing as he’s from the East.
A low rumble comes from behind us and the assassin tenses. Suddenly, I’m pushed forward as the Silent Watcher digs into the horse’s side to push us faster. Wet snow flies in the air, and I find myself dodging a cold spray of ice.
I attempt to look behind, but the assassin’s too big. As the rumble grows louder it reminds me of a thunderstorm creeping up to our door. I can only hope that whoever is chasing us, is on my side.
The Silent Watcher jerks the horse to the right, sending us into dense trees. Small branches smack across my face, leaving cuts on my skin. The forest floor has patches of rocky terrain and the assassin maneuvers around them. One wrong move could be deadly.
I catch a movement to my right. I can barely make out a dozen cloaked riders. My chest expands, feeling a sense of relief. None of them are wearing red masks; it gives me the hope I need.
An arrow whizzes close by, zipping past my ear. Bless the Maker! Who are they shooting at! My heart thuds inside my chest, reacting to the sudden danger. More riders gallop past us, making escape impossible on our current path.
The Silent Watcher suddenly slams against me and tumbles off the horse. With only a second to look back, I see an arrow protruding from his neck. I try not to panic. With the assassin no longer guiding the horse, I’m now being carried by an out-of-control steed.
The horse tears through the woods, taking its own unreliable path. It doesn’t care where it takes me.
Twisting my wrists, I try to grab hold of the reins as if my life depends on it. The jostle from the horse keeps me from staying upright in the saddle and I slowly begin to slide sideways. At the rate we’re going, any type of contact could kill me.
A tree up ahead has a broken branch jutting out into our path. If my horse doesn’t adjust soon, it doesn’t look good for me. Riders ahead try to block the treacherous path. But my horse continues straight for the branch. I clench my eyes tight and await the impact. Suddenly, my horse jerks to the side.
My eyes flash open to see a rider grabbing hold of the horse’s reins. He slows us down until we stop. Instantly a burning pain erupts around my wrists.
The rider pulls back his hood, revealing a mess of tousled brown hair that curls out from under his ears. His strong rugged features are full of concern as he unsheathes his knife and begins cutting away the rope that binds my wrists.
I can’t help but notice how long his eyelashes are, reaching down to the arch of his cheek. A long thin scar runs along his left side of his jaw, and I find myself suddenly interested in how he got it.
When the last thread of rope is cut away, I begin massaging my wrists; soreness is already running deep.
He doesn’t respond, but sits there and stares at me with the most curious expression. There’s an intensity and a gentleness to be found in the depth of this rider’s blue eyes, and a warmth spreads through my chest as he continues to look at me. Is he observing me the same way I am him?
“Your Royal Highness, I am Reddik.”
I freeze. I recognize the sound of his voice.
“Do I know you?”
“We haven’t formally met. But yes, My Lady, I was the one back in Kale.”
“Oh!” An alarm rings in my head. “Oliver! He’s your brother! He was heading back to Kale to help with my escape. Did you see him?” Worry snakes through me, and I can’t control the drumming of my heart.
Reddik shut his eyes and breathes in deep.
“He was being chased by a Silent Watcher when I discovered him. He’s been badly injured.”
I shake my head, fighting back tears.
“But is he alive? Is he okay?”
Sadness clouds his features. “He’s alive, but only barely.”
Relief courses through me.
“Then we must hurry to him. There is no time to waste.”
“There’s no use, My Lady. Nothing can save him.”