Roderick sat atop his horse, looking at Dracia on her own stallion ahead of him. They had ridden out early together as the prince had seen them off. Dracia had barely spoken on their ride thus far. Roderick wasn’t going to push her to talk to him. When she was ready, she would speak.
He urged his horse forward as he rode up to be next to Dracia. She had stopped on a high hill and was looking down over the High Palace.
“What motivates people, Roderick? What causes them to do the things they do?” she asked as she looked at the palace.
“Different things, depending on the person,” answered Roderick. “Some are motivated by power and money. Others are motivated by duty and love.”
“What would cause a man who has power and privilege to try to take something from a woman? Something he could get willingly from many beautiful women?”
“The problem with having power and privilege is you always think you are entitled to more and more. You come to a point when you think everything belongs to you, so you have a right to it.”
“I am not a thing,” said Dracia indignantly.
“No, you are not, but to him, you are. You are just something else he desires and thinks he has a right to. I can find no answer except the obvious one.”
“Which is?” asked Dracia.
“He is evil,” said Roderick.
“You can say that without knowing what happened?” asked Dracia.
“I don’t have to know. I saw how you were when I came to you, and I saw how much you suffered. I see how you are still suffering. Whatever he did was wrong. You don’t have to tell me what happened for me to know what he did was evil.”
“It did feel that way,” said Dracia. She paused for a moment and said, “What if I told you right now, I wanted to go down there, take out my sword, and slice him in two? Would you think I am evil?”
“No, I would say you are angry and have every right to be. He probably deserves it. This probably isn’t the first time he has done something like this, nor will it likely be his last. You would more than likely be doing the world a favor if you took him out, but you will not do it. Not today, anyway.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Dracia. “I feel very much like doing it.”
“You never think of only yourself. You are always thinking of the kingdom; it is who you are. If you harm him or kill him, you know what will happen.”
“I do, and we cannot afford a war with the Navalians at the moment. We have enough conflict coming our way already,” said Dracia. “But it does not change the fact; I would very much like to do something awful to Prince Fannar.”
“I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on him myself,” said Roderick. “Will your prince be able to hold back?”
“He says he will,” replied Dracia. “Lord Ethen has said he can handle it. He thinks he can get Fannar to head back to Navalia.”
“You and Lord Ethen have grown close,” said Roderick looking at Dracia with significance.
“We have,” said Dracia. “But it is not like you might think. He has a lover back home, and you know where my heart lies.”
“But I feel we are connected in some way. He has become a very good friend to me in a short time. Thank the king’s gods he was watching last night. I am not sure what would have happened.”
Roderick closed his eyes, trying not to think of what would have happened. To think of her being so violated made Roderick’s usually calm inner feelings boil over with rage.
“I should have been watching you more closely, High Captain,” said Roderick looking down. “I feel like I have failed you frequently lately.”
“You never fail me, Roderick,” said Dracia. “You put too much on yourself. I could not ask for a better second or friend than you.”
“No,” said Roderick. “I should have been watching last night. I was until I spoke with my mother and Galen. I should have noticed you had disappeared.”
“You weren’t on duty last night,” said Dracia.
“I am always on duty,” said Roderick. “I swore an oath to you that I would serve you and keep you safe.”
“Nothing about last night was your fault,” said Dracia forcefully. “I will not have you blame yourself for it, or wherever else you think you might have failed me.”
“Cadmial,” said Roderick. “I failed you in Cadmial.”
“You did not,” said Dracia.
“I did. You were hurt while I was yet again, distracted,” said Roderick.
“We were fighting hundreds of soldiers,” said Dracia loudly. “One lucky swing at one of us was bound to hit somewhere. You cannot control everything, Roderick. All my misfortunes are not down to you.”
Roderick shook his head.
“You may be my second, Roderick, but you are not charged with seeing to my protection every moment. I am very capable of taking care of myself. I am not helpless.”
“I know you are not. I know of no one stronger or more capable than you, but I still feel responsible for you.”
“And I feel responsible for you as well. I feel responsible for all my Elites and novices, but you are special to me, and you know it,” said Dracia.
He did know it. She had always made him feel set apart in a good way, ever since she had first spoken to him.
“Why?” he asked. “Why did you single me out so in the beginning? Why do you do so now?”
“If you knew the truth about why I singled you out when we first meet, you would call me silly,” said Dracia waving him away.
“Well, now I have to hear it,” said Roderick.
“You know, I thought you were quite pathetic, and that was true, but there was something else. As we gathered in the field that day, I saw you smile for one second before your face went back to its somber expression. I believe it was the most beautiful smile I had ever seen. I know it sounds foolish and like some wide-eyed romantic girl, which is not me, but it wasn’t like that.
“You seemed so sad and full of burdens, but when you smiled for one brief second, I could see who you really were. You weren’t meant to carry all those burdens. You weren’t meant for sadness, and I wanted to help you realize it. I wanted to see you smile again.”
Roderick gave a small chuckle, looked up at her and smiled.
“See, I told you, you would think I was silly. Of course, you are still burdened and sad, so I guess I have failed you as well.”
“My burdens and sadness go beyond anything you could heal, Dracia. When my father died, everything in my life changed. I was only ten, but my mother lost her ability to function for a while. My older brother was worthless, he always had been, and Galen was only three. I had to try to keep us all together.
“Eventually, my mother recovered enough to see to the household and Galen. I suppose Alaric has become a step above useless, but not by much. Still, I felt I needed to be strong for all of them at all times. My mother still cries when she thinks of my father. Alaric is able to do enough to be a lower lord, but he will never be anything more, and Galen, where do I even start?”
“I know you have been an exemplary brother and son, Roderick. I am sorry you had so much put on you when you were so young. I wonder that you left your family to join the Sentinel.”
“It seemed the best thing to do for all of them and me,” said Roderick. “I could serve the kingdom, have a purpose, and do so with little to no cost to my family. I would not be a burden on them.”
“I believe we are both broken in a way. You know too much about my upbringing to not realize it. Perhaps, we wanted to take care of each other because we both know what it is like to feel all alone?” asked Dracia.
“I think that might be it,” said Roderick.
“You aren’t alone now, Roderick. I hope you know it. Besides your family and the other Elites, you will always have my devotion. You have done so much for me, much more than you ever should have. I won’t have you ever say you have failed me because it is not true.”
“You aren’t alone either Dracia. I know it seems at times as if even your father has abandoned you, but you know Prince Leal never will. You can fret all you want about your future, but that man will never let you go. I think he would give up his place in the kingdom for you.”
“I don’t think I would let him do it, but I see your point,” said Dracia.
“I will never abandon you either, Dracia. No matter if you are my High Captain, my queen, or my friend, you will always have my support and friendship.”
Dracia reached over and took Roderick’s hand for a moment. She held it and smiled at him.
“Come on,” she said letting go of his hand. I could use a good gallop through this hills and know Aarit would appreciate it as well.”
She leaned down and whispered to Aarit, clicking her heels. Her horse took off, jumping slightly at his excitement of running. Roderick leaned down and whispered to his horse, Magni, and they shot off after Dracia and Aarit. They rode through the hills at a fast gallop until Dracia pulled Aarit to a stop on top of a high hill and looked at something below.
Roderick stopped Magni next to her and looked down as well. There was a small cottage sitting in the valley below them. It was old and looked as though it might fall in at any moment. There was a stream of smoke coming from the chimney and signs of life outside with a line of clothes hanging between two trees. Roderick saw a figure in a hooded cloak approach. It was much too warm for anyone to be wearing a cloak. The figure went to the cottage door and knocked.
The figure seemed to be speaking to someone through the door before he threw off his cloak, and his whole person changed immediately. Dracia gasped next to Roderick, and he felt his eyes grow large as he watched King Rommel walk into the small cottage.
Dracia quickly dismounted Aarit and took him by the reins to a couple of trees on one side of the hill. She whispered to him and then started walking down the hill. Roderick dismounted his own horse and bright him over close to Aarit. He hurried down the hill to catch up with Dracia.
“What are you going to do?” he asked in a whisper as they walked.
“I’m going to sneak down there and see what I can hear. Why is our king out here visiting this cottage?”
“Secret lover, perhaps?” asked Roderick.
“Trust me, the king has no reason to hide any lovers of his,” said Dracia shaking her head. “He has had a few regular visitors to the palace these past few years.”
They walked down the hill together, moving towards the back of the house where there were a group of trees they could use for cover. Dracia looked around before she entered the tree-covered area, Roderick following her. They moved quickly through the trees until they came to the edge of the tree line behind the cottage.
Roderick could see the cottage was small, probably just one or two rooms. On the side there was an open window. Dracia couched down and moved quickly out of the tree line and to the cottage’s side under the open window. She half laid down under the window, keeping well below it. Roderick followed her lead. He laid down with his head on his hand, next to her. They both tried to still their breath so they could listen.
“What do you want me to tell you, your majesty,” came a raspy voice.
“I want you to tell me if this princess is the one who will stop the curse,” said the king urgently. “I need to know for certain.”
“The princess from Navalia?” asked the raspy voice.
“Yes, what other princess could I possibly mean?” asked the king.
“You would be surprised what you do not know. I wanted to make sure we were speaking of the same woman,” said the voice.
“Yes, yes, the princess from Navalia, is she the one?”
“Well she certainly is of winter and a flower. She is a winter’s rose, I believe.”
“She is, but what of the rest of the curse. All this about spring and trees,” said the king.
“It is not clear, but it could mean many things. A spring wedding perhaps? A spring, Lanoxan wedding would satisfy two parts of the curse and prophecy, wouldn’t you say?” asked the voice.
“I suppose it would. Would you throw the runes, foreteller?” asked the king.
“I will, but I will need your sacrifice first,” said the foreteller. “I have a knife here; I can slice your hand.”
Dracia looked at Roderick for a moment, her eyes full of worry. They heard the king give a small cry and then the sound of the scuffling of something glass on a table.
“There, now let me just say the words, and I will see what comes up,” said the voice.
There was whispering for a moment in a language Roderick didn’t know, then the sound of wooden objects being thrown across a wooden table.
“Pick your past, your majesty,” said the foreteller.
There was silence for one moment.
“Ah, yes, the wind over water. A turbulent past full of deception and grief. Now pick your present.”
Again, another silence.
“Lines over a path, there seem to be many roads you could take now, with only one leading to prosperity and safety. The others lead to agony and death. Now, pick your future.”
Silence again; this one lasted longer.
“Well, what does it say?” asked the king with trepidation.
“X over an arrow,” said the foreteller.
“What does it mean?” asked the king.
“It can mean many things, strength and wisdom, healing over sickness, it can also mean true love,” said the foreteller.
“So, what does the full reading say?” asked the king.
“Your family has been poisoned in some way. The kingdom is turning against you. You have only one path forward; if you choose wisely there is hope. If you choose poorly, I do not see a way forward for you or your family,” said the foreteller.
“So, is this foreign princess, the way?” asked the king. “The oracle I saw in spring said she was.”
“What oracle?” asked the foreteller, her voice suddenly growing deeper and angry. “Who have you talked to?”
“One who has been coming to the palace for the last few years. She came first just after my wife’s illness started. She knew of the Cassendar curse. She said she could offer relief. She told me to send my wife to the summer palace, and the queen has lived. She gave me clearer answers than you ever have,” said the king. “Much better to look at as well.”
The foreteller gave a harsh laugh. “An easy solution wrapped in a pretty package. That does sound more your style.”
“She was very convincing. I felt she was speaking the truth to me. I believe my wife would have died without her advice.”
“How often do you go to your queen?” asked the foreteller.
“That is none of your concern,” said the king angrily. “Now, do you think this princess is the one?”
“If your oracle has told you so, why do you even ask me?” asked the foreteller calmly. “You seem to believe it is the way so have your son marry her.”
“My son refuses. He says he loves another,” said the king.
“Who?” asked the foreteller.
“The daughter of Arwel Yates and Owena Callum,” said the king.
“A peacock and a dove, I can see how that would worry you, but you must not take things so literally. If your boy has found love, you will not do him or your family a favor in ignoring it,” said the foreteller.
“I don’t believe it is love. The prince’s long time lust for the woman has confused him. He would get over her with the right distraction.”
“I have told you what I have seen, and I have nothing more to say. If you want to follow the advice of your oracle, do it. I am done with you,” said the foreteller.
The sound of a chair scooting back, followed by feet on the floor, made Roderick and Dracia moved to the back of the cottage. They both walked quickly to the safety of the trees. Dracia collapsed on the forest floor and sat with her back against a large tree. Roderick sat next to her and looked at her.
“What is the Cassendar curse?” he asked quietly.
“I don’t know. I’ve never heard of it,” said Dracia, breathing heavily.
“The king is relying on foretellers and oracles to decide the kingdom’s future. This is not good, Dracia,” said Roderick.
“I know,” she said. “I suppose I will have to let Leal know what is going on.”
“He might have to make a hard choice. If this is how the king is running the kingdom, he might need to be stopped. Dracia, Leal might need to overthrow his father.”
“I don’t want it to come to that. Maybe he can talk to his father, convince him somehow,” said Dracia.
They were quiet for a moment, with only the sound of their heavy breathing and a few birds singing in the distance.
“He is wrong about you and Prince Leal,” said Roderick. “It is not lust.”
“There is plenty of lust between us, Roderick. Do not fool yourself,” said Dracia with a small laugh.
“Maybe so, but I know there is love. Prince Leal could never just dismiss you, no matter the distraction.”
“We need to get back to the Fortress. Lunch will be soon,” said Dracia, standing up and starting to walk off.
Roderick stood up as well. He caught Dracia’s arm and stopped her. “Do not think you are something that should be dismissed by the king or the prince. No man who truly loves you could ever give you up easily.”
Dracia smiled at Roderick. “I will have to trust I am truly loved, then.”