Dracia sat on the stone bench next to the small pond in the wooded area behind the Fortress. She had to get away for a moment. She just needed to be by herself and think. So much had happened so quickly, and she found herself feeling overwhelmed. First, the High Summer festival had produced more than a little worry for Dracia. She had learned her father had been contacted about an uprising in the kingdom, and of course, the business with Prince Fannar. Dracia was trying to move on, but it was so fresh in her mind. She could still feel Prince Fannar’s hands on her and his cold lips as they moved against her own.
She had a hard time sleeping the past two nights. She had not been alone, but Leal seemed afraid to touch her in bed. She understood he was being courteous after her experience, but she wondered if being loved by him might put Prince Fannar out of her mind at least for a while. Any relief would be very welcomed. She sat there on the bench and once again thought of his mouth on hers, and she shivered as she could almost feel the cold that penetrated her deeply that night.
She could not let it control her. She could not let him keep affecting her so; she would not allow it. She was strong, and she would get through this. It was bad enough what Fannar had done. She would not let him continue to control her life.
Besides her remembrances of her experience with Fannar, she also thought about what she had learned about the king. Leal had said he would meet with his father today and then come see her. She wondered what kind of reception Leal would receive from the king. She wanted there to be hope for the king, at least for Leal’s sake. She wanted Leal to work everything out with his father, but she had a feeling it would not be so.
On top of all this, all but one of her scouting parties had come back to the Sentinel. They all had spotted enemy forces gathering at the edges of each side of the kingdom. The largest having over five hundred soldiers in their party. The smaller forces having less than fifty. All were dressed as Gedonial soldiers, but Dracia didn’t see how they could all be from Gedonia. It was a small, unorganized kingdom. They had to be getting help and soldiers from other kingdoms. Dracia wished they could figure out who. Her spies had said the forces had not made any moves inward as of yet. She hoped she had some time to prepare.
She worried about her one group that had not come back. If they didn’t return today, and they didn’t receive any word, Dracia would have to go into the kingdom tomorrow to look for them. She would not abandon her Elites. She would find them and see them home safe if she could.
“Dracia, thank the king’s gods you are out here. Are you alone?” asked Lexine.
“I am,” said Dracia. “Did you need to speak with me?”
“Oh, for kingdom’s sake, yes,” said Lexine sitting down next to Dracia. “First, you don’t need to worry about anyone knowing your secret. Poor Galen had bad information. He seemed to think you and Roderick were having some romantic affair.”
“Are you serious, Lexine?” asked Dracia shocked.
“He told me this morning of his mistake,” said Lexine smiling. “I’m sorry to say we saw you yesterday in the forest with Leal. If Galen didn’t know before, he does now.”
“You saw us yesterday?” asked Dracia with a sudden realization coming over her. “That means you know about…”
“My father, yes, I heard you two talking about it. I have spoken to Leal about it already. He says he is taking care of it, but I’m not sure what will actually happen. I believe he is speaking with the king today.”
“He is,” said Dracia. “I hope your father will listen to Leal. I hope they can come up with a solution together.”
“And if they don’t, Leal will have to find a way to take the throne,” said Lexine quietly.
“He doesn’t want it to come to that,” said Dracia soothingly.
“Perhaps he should, Dracia. My father has not been right for a while; you know this. Leal is young, but he is not without skills or knowledge. You could be by his side as his queen, and I know you would be wonderful. I believe you and Leal could heal the kingdom.”
“Be quiet, Lex,” said Dracia looking around. “You are speaking openly of treason. We need to pray and hope things can work out with your father before we take other routes.”
“Now tell me how Galen got it in his head that Roderick and I were romantically involved,” said Dracia.
“Darron told him during a session one day. He said that you and Roderick were caught in compromising positions during the Disciplines. and that Roderick came to your room often.” Lexine’s cheeks had grown red. “Darron said… oh, I can’t say it, it’s too awful…”
“No, tell me what Darron said,” said Dracia shaking her head and sighing. “I need to hear it all.”
“Darron told Galen the only reason you chose Roderick as your second was because you wanted to keep him close to you so he could you know… serve you,” said Lexie very fast and looking away from Dracia.
“Oh, good gods!” Dracia covered her face with her hands. “What on earth possessed him to say that to Galen? What Galen must have thought of his brother and me. What a cruel and thoughtless thing to do. I knew Darron was giving Galen a hard time, but this is too far.”
“What will you do, Dracia?” asked Lexine.
“I will go give Darron a piece of my mind when you and I are done talking. I feel like un-naming him as my second, but I don’t know if that is wise.”
“But if you tell him, he will know Galen told someone. He will make it worse for Galen. I can’t stand knowing I could cause him pain or agitation. Please, Dracia, do not say anything to Darron.”
“I can’t let him get away with this, Lexine. What he did was vile and meant to be hurtful. I cannot have it in my Elites, especially my second.”
“Can you at least think on it first, come up with some way to protect Galen maybe. Please Dracia, I can’t stand to think of him coming to harm in some way,” pleaded Lexine.
Dracia smiled a little. “I will think on it for a day or two before I reach a decision, for you, Lex.”
“Thank you,” said Lexine with a breath of relief
“You really care for him, don’t you?” asked Dracia.
“I want to tell you something, but I want to tell you, my friend Dracia, not Galen’s High Captain. Can you just be my friend for one moment?”
“I suppose, but you have to remember I am always Galen’s High Captain if he did anything he shouldn’t have,” said Dracia carefully.
“It’s nothing like that,” said Lexine looking down. “I kissed him.”
“You did?” asked Dracia with a raised eyebrow and small smile.
“It was just a short, quick kiss, but it made me want to kiss him again.”
“And did you?” asked Dracia, fully smiling now.
“No, I did not,” said Lexine.
“So, you do have feelings for him. You are done with this friend’s only business you’ve been trying to tell me.”
“I do have feelings for him,” confirmed Lexine. “I think I might be starting to love him. He is so wonderful and clever, and he treats me like no man has ever treated me before. He treats me like an equal. I don’t think I will ever find another man like him. He also has the best smile.”
“Ah, the Ellis smile, yes I know it well. His brother has the same smile. It kind of takes your breath away, doesn’t it?”
“What? I am very much in love with your brother, but I can see clearly that Roderick is very handsome, and he has the most wonderful smile. It’s a hard smile to resist. I believe Galen has the same one. I wonder if they got it from their father.”
“It is a nice smile. I find myself trying to think of ways to make him smile all the time.”
“So, what is your plan with Galen?” asked Dracia.
“I don’t have one. It is hopeless, isn’t it? He seems to think so. I think he does care for me, but he is so stuck on who his father was.”
“He is being realistic, Lexine. You are the daughter of the king. How could he ever think he could love you, the Princess Lexine?”
“What should I do?” asked Lexine.
“The smart thing to do would be to stay away from him. Let him know now that it is for the best if you two stay apart before you fall more in love with each other.”
“You are right. I know you are.”
“Of course, there is always the foolish thing to do ,” said Dracia sighing. “It seems to be the way I have taken in life, after all.”
“Are you saying I should forget who my father is and just let myself love him?” asked Lexine.
“I can’t tell you what to do, Lex. I can’t tell you what will make you happy. If you choose Galen, you will face many obstacles to being with him. Those obstacles are practically insurmountable. You can protect your heart now unless you think it is too late.”
“I think it might be, Dracia,” said Lexine sadly.
“I’m sorry. I wish I had better advice, but as you know, I haven’t done well in my own love life.”
“But it will work out for you and Leal. I know it will. It has too at this point. You and my brother will both be miserable and alone if you aren’t with each other.”
Dracia laughed. “I’m not sure you should have put it that way, but I agree. I cannot lose your brother.”
“I guess I’ll just let whatever happens happen with Galen,” said Lexine. “I don’t want to stop being his friend. I am not sure I could stay away from him, anyway.”
“I suppose that is a good as plan as any.” Dracia stood up. “I have to get back to the Fortress. I may have to go out into the kingdom tomorrow.”
“Will you really? I hope you will be safe, Dracia. With everything going on, I don’t think I could take losing you,” said Lexine standing up.
“I won’t be long if I go out. I can’t leave Winsdell for any lengthy amount of time. I believe trouble could be coming here, very soon. I just need to look for a few of my Elites. I might not even have to spend a night outside of the Fortress.”
“I better go get ready for lessons,” said Lexine.
“And you will see your young man soon,” said Dracia laughing.
“If only he was, Dracia. Goodbye, if you do go out, please come back safe.”
Dracia nodded as Lexine walked away. She made her way back to the Fortress grounds to see Galen exiting the Fortress, heading to the Royal Academy. Galen stopped and bowed as he came upon her.
“Novice Galen,” said Dracia nodding to him. “Is everything going smoothly for you with the Disciplines and the Royal Academy?”
“Yes, High Captain, they are both going very well,” replied Galen.
“Good. And no one is giving you too much trouble, are they? I know many things about you put a larger target on your back than most novices.”
“Nothing I cannot handle,” said Galen carefully. “I can usually ignore any talk that comes my way. I find that words from most mean little to me.”
Dracia paused for a moment, wanting to say more. “I hope you know how much I value your brother as my second, Galen. You should be proud to have such a brother.”
Galen looked down for a moment before giving Dracia a small smile. “I am not one who is prone to pride, but I do admit having some in being Roderick’s brother.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I don’t want to delay you and make you late,” said Dracia. “I hope you have a fruitful time at the Academy today.”
“High Captain, I may be out of line, but I want you to know that if I do make it as an Elite, I will take much pride in serving you. I do trust you and all your decisions.”
Dracia looked at Galen closely for a moment, and she nodded her thanks. He turned to go when there was a commotion coming from the fields. They both turned to see someone walking quickly across the fields, helping another person by holding them to their side.
“Tomas?” said Galen starting to walk into the field. Dracia followed behind him as they both broke off into a run.
As they got close, she could see that Novice Cara was holding up Novice Tomas. Dracia looked up and down at Tomas and saw that he was holding his left leg. She could see his pants were torn and blood was running down, making the black material look wet.
“What happened?” asked Dracia as they came up to Tomas and Cara.
“We were sparring at the end of the session, and Tomas turned wrong when I went to strike. I don’t know how, but I guess he caught the tip of my dull sword just right, and I cut his leg pretty badly,” said Cara as they stopped in front of Dracia and Galen.
“We need to get him inside and see what we can do while we call for a healer,” instructed Dracia.
“I need to rest for a moment.” Tomas sunk to the ground. Dracia didn’t like how pale he looked, or how much blood seemed to be coming out of the cut on his leg.
“Tomas, we have to get you help, now,” said Cara frantically. “I don’t think you realize how serious this injury probably is.”
“I’m fine, just let me sit for one moment,” said Tomas as he laid back and put his let out. Dracia could see blood was still flowing from the cut.
“Let me see it, Tomas.” Galen kneeled down next to Tomas. He tore the hole in the pants to make it larger.
“Novice Galen, I’m not sure this is wise. We should get him inside. I can send a rider to bring a healer back from the Academy,” said Dracia kneeling down next to Galen.
“I’m not sure we have time for it,” said Galen seriously as he examined the cut. He touched it carefully and fresh blood oozed out of it as Tomas sat up a bit and hissed. Cara cried out and grabbed Tomas’s hand.
“Galen, do you even know what you are doing?” asked Tomas as he laid back down.
“I guess we will find out,” said Galen.
Galen closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. He then placed both of his hands over Tomas’s injury. He muttered some words, Dracia recognized as belonging to the old magic tongue. She knew little herself, but she had only studied limited healing, nothing that would help with an injury like this.
Galen kept his hands over the wound, and she noticed that slowly the wound started to close up from both the top and bottom. Tomas grunted a few times as the flesh from each side came together. Galen opened his eyes when the wound was almost completely closed and sat back on the ground, breathing heavily.
Dracia looked over the wound as Tomas sat up. She could see it was almost completely closed with no blood flowing from it.
“Do you think you can stand, novice?” asked Dracia looking at Tomas. “You will need to get inside and have this treated. Go see Elite Damara. She can see to simple injuries. After that, you should take the rest of the afternoon off and rest your leg. Novice, Cara, see that he gets the help he needs.”
“Yes, High Captain,” said Cara as she stood up. She looked down at Galen. “Galen, are you alright?”
Galen nodded his head slowly.
“I will see to him,” assured Dracia. “Go get Tomas inside so he can get some help.”
Cara helped Tomas get up off the ground. She supported him as they started slowly walking towards the Fortress. Before they left, Tomas put his hand on Galen’s shoulder and looked down at him. Galen touched his hand for a brief moment and smiled slightly.
“Galen, are you well?” asked Dracia quietly as Tomas and Cara moved on from them.
“I am. I just felt a little weak for a moment, but I am recovering.”
Galen stood up slowly and dusted off his pants, as Dracia stood as well.
“Perhaps you should rest this afternoon,” said Dracia kindly. “I can send a note to the Academy explaining your absence.”
“No, I need to go to sessions. We will have an exercise in healing class, and I don’t want to leave my partner alone.”
“She would understand,” said Dracia quietly. “She would not want you to go if you are unwell.”
Galen took a breath and looked at Dracia. “I am already feeling better, and I think being in class will help me continue to recover. Good conversation and a friendly face always help with good cheer.”
“Indeed. You should stay in and rest tonight. If you had any plans, I would cancel them.”
“My plans were with Tomas, so I think it is best if we both stay in,” said Galen as he stood up straight and rolled his neck as if to loosen it. “I need to be going.”
“You did well, novice. You are now officially a level four. I have been thinking you deserved it for a while, but today you proved you are ready to move up.” said Dracia, putting her hand on Galen’s shoulder. “I think I see a bright future for you here if you do choose to join us as an Elite.”
“Thank you, High Captain. I look forward to serving.” Galen bowed slightly and walked towards the trees to head to the Academy.
Dracia watched him walk away for a moment, marveling at his skills that she had just witnessed. To have a full healer as an Elite would be a wonderful thing for the Sentinel, but she wondered if perhaps Galen might better choose a different path. If this was as skilled as he was after two months at the Academy, she couldn’t imagine what he could do after a full two years, learning his craft. He could be the greatest healer the kingdom had ever seen. He could gain power and wealth so easily. He might be able to even gain a princess.
Dracia turned to head to the Fortress when she spotted Darron walking hurriedly across the field. She walked to meet him on his path.
“I heard there was an injury at the end of sessions,” said Darron as he came up to Dracia.
“There was. How are you so behind? Where you not there when it happened?”
“I was distracted for a moment. I was talking to an Elite away from the novices for a few minutes. When I got back, I heard that Novice Tomas had been cut. I guess it wasn’t too bad?”
“It was,” said Dracia feeling very annoyed. “I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to get help in time.”
“But you were able to?” asked Darron with confusion. “Was a healer visiting?”
“No, but it seems we have a healer in our midst already. Novice Galen was able to close the wound almost completely using his skills with Mystics. It was very impressive.”
Darron looked at Dracia with wide eyes. “He has been learning about healing, hasn’t he?”
“He has, but for only two months. He is a quick learner, I think. I can see it here amongst the Disciplines as well. I hope you see that Galen will be a very welcomed addition to the Sentinel if he chooses it.”
Darron nodded slightly with a frown on his lips.
“I know you have issues with him. I’m not sure if it is because you are jealous of him or his brother, or both of them, but I do believe it has to do with envy.” Dracia stared up at Darron. “You will stop whatever this vendetta is you have against him and Roderick and act like the Elite you are supposed to be. I have named you as my second, but I could un-name you at any time, and I will if I think you are not worthy.”
Darron opened his mouth, but Dracia cut him off. “If the next words out of your mouth aren’t, ‘Yes, High Captain,’ I do not want to hear them.”
Darron moved closer to her and stared down at her with eyes full of malice. Dracia almost took a step back, but she held her ground and met his stare. He looked as if he might say something when his eyes flicked to look just behind her. He looked at her again and nodded slightly before moving past her and walking away.
Dracia let out a breath and realized she was trembling in anger with her fist clenched at her side.
“Problems in the ranks, Captain?” asked Lord Ethen as he came up behind her.
Dracia turned to see Lord Ethen and Prince Leal both walking towards her.
“Just an arrogant Elite, I have put up with for too long as my second,” said Dracia as she unclenched her fist and worked to still her breath, letting the anger she felt go for the moment.
“I don’t know why you ever named that man your second,” said Leal. “He has always looked at you like he would rather be done with you permanently.”
“I had hoped to keep him in check, but perhaps I was foolish to think it was possible. I will have to deal with it at some point, but there is too much going on at the moment.”
Leal moved closer to her and spoke quietly “We need to talk. Somewhere we won’t be overheard.”
Dracia nodded. “We will go to my rooms. I assume Lord Ethen will be joining us since you brought him with you.”
“Yes, I have updated him on everything that has happened on our walk over here. We will need his family’s support in the days to come if things do not change.”
Dracia sighed. “Very well, both of you follow me.”
As they walked to the Fortress, Dracia heard the sound of horses running across the field. She turned to see two Elites on their black horses racing towards the Fortress. As they pulled up in front of Dracia, she could see they were two Elites of the missing party of scouts. She felt dismay wash over her as she had sent out a party of five Elites.
“Where is the rest of your group?” Dracia asked as she walked up to meet the Elites who had just jumped off their horses. She could see one Elite’s shirt was torn on the arm with a cut. The other seemed weary and bruised.
“We ran into trouble,” said Elite Cian, the one with the cut on his arm.
“What kind of trouble?” asked Dracia.
Elite Cian and the other Elite named Rory traded looks.
“We ran into some old friends who seemed to have new ideas,” said Rory as he wiped his forehead.
“It was some of the retired Elites, Captain,” said Cian. “A group of seven who overtook us. They tried to talk to us of changing our ways and joining them in overthrowing the royal family.”
“And the others in your party?” asked Dracia. “Did they agree to stay with them?”
Rory shook his head. “No, they are being held. We were let go to give you a message, High Captain.”
“What is the message?” asked Dracia.
“If you want them, you will have to come and get them yourself,” said Rory. “They wanted you to come with no one else from the Sentinel, but the leader said you should bring a second with you as it is only proper a High Captain travel with a second. They said when we left, you have five days until they are killed. That was two days ago.”
Dracia closed her eyes for a moment. “And who is their leader?”
“Brock Melling” answered Cian.
Dracia huffed. Of course, it would be him. He was very vocal in his disbelief that Dracia would be named High Captain. He was barely in his fourth decade when he retired. She should have known he would do something to fight back against the Sentinel.
“Why are they doing this?”
“We tried to ask, but they said they would only talk to you,” said Cian.
“Where are they holding the others?”
“Boreial,” said Cian. “Just outside the town in some old shack in the woods just to the south. We left a cloth tied to the trees so you could find it.”
Boreial was at least a two day’s ride from here. She would need to leave within the hour.
“Your highness, Lord Ethen,” Dracia turned around to look at them. “I’m afraid our meeting will have to wait. I will need to find Roderick and leave directly.” She looked back at Cian and Rory. “See that you get cleaned up, something to eat, and some rest. Do not worry about your fellow Elites. I will bring them back safely.”
Dracia walked into the Fortress. She could hear Leal and Lord Ethen following her as she entered the north entry hall.
“Dracia,” said Leal quietly, coming up to walk beside her. “You can’t think it is a good idea for you and Roderick to go out alone and face seven retired Elites of the Sentinel.”
“It doesn’t matter how bad or good the idea is, I cannot ignore this. I must retrieve my Elites, and I cannot let a direct challenge to my leadership go unanswered.”
She walked through the halls towards the West end of the Fortress. She stopped an Elite who was passing her and asked that he go find Roderick and send him up to her rooms. She continued with Leal and Lord Ethen following her up the west stairs and down the hall to her door. She placed her hand on the door and then opened it, letting Lord Ethen and Leal enter with her.
“Dracia, please,” said Leal as Lord Ethen closed the door. “I understand you don’t want to lose your Elites, but how can you and Roderick face seven trained Elites by yourself.”
Dracia wanted to turn to Leal and lie. She wanted to tell him not to worry, that she was confident she could do this, but she could not do it. She wasn’t sure what would happen, but she would have to try. She could not leave her current Elites at the mercy of the traitors. She could not let those who had been of the Sentinel commit such a crime without punishment.
“It won’t be easy, but I believe we can be successful.”. She started thinking aloud as she walked around her rooms picking up things and putting them in a small bag. “We will have to be clever. Perhaps I can release my Elites first, and they can help.”
Leal grabbed Dracia and brought her close to him. “I cannot let you do this, Dracia,” he said desperately. “I can and will command you to stay in the Fortress.”
Dracia shook her head. “You can command all you want, but you are not the king, not yet. I do not have to listen to your commands. Besides, even the king can’t command what I do and don’t do with the Sentinel. My actions are up to me.”. She sighed and took his hand. “I have to do this as the High Captain of the Sentinel.”
“They said you couldn’t bring anyone else of the Sentinel, correct?” asked Lord Ethen.
“Yes,” Dracia letting Leal’s hand go as he turned and walked around the room, muttering slightly.
“I am not of the Sentinel, Captain. I will go with you as well,” said Lord Ethen with a smile. “I am a good fighter. I will just need to borrow a horse and a sword.”
Dracia stopped walking and shook her head. “I cannot let you do it. How would I face your father and grandmother if something happened to you? You are the future leader of your people.”
“I am, and I should act like one. Siccaria and Lanoxan are allies. I hope to strengthen that bond very soon with the future king. I cannot let a threat to Lanoxan go without the help of Siccaria. Besides, you are my friend, Captain. You need help, and I am in the position to give it to you. My father and grandmother will understand.”
“I will go as well,” said Leal, turning to look at Dracia.
“Absolutely not. You will go straight from here to the palace and stay within its walls.”
“You think I am going to let you go out into the kingdom to face certain danger while I’m hiding behind the palace walls? I have done it too many times, and I cannot do it anymore,” said Leal heatedly. “I belong by your side wherever you are. I should be protecting you, not you protecting me.”
“With everything going on, you are the best hope for our kingdom’s future,” said Dracia calmly. “You must be protected at all cost. I know you don’t like it, but I am the High Captain of the Sentinel, and my only task is to protect your family and this kingdom.”
“You must know you are the future of my family and kingdom as well.” Leal walked closer to her and took her hand. “You know who you are to me. You know what would happen if I lost you.”
“I know very well who I am to you, but I also know who you are. No matter what happens, you will go on for your kingdom and your people, even without me. I want to be included in your family’s future, but I am not necessary when it comes down to it. Only you and your sister are necessary.
“If I don’t come back from this, I need you to be ready to come and reorganized the Sentinel to prepare for the attack I know is coming. You have the means necessary to protect Winsdell. You have to stay here. You know you do.”
“You are necessary to me, Dracia. I don’t think you know how necessary you are, even though I’ve tried to tell you over and over.”
“I will do everything I can to come back to you,” said Dracia as she looked up at him.
He reached behind her neck and hooked a finger around the thin gold chain she wore under her silver one. He ran his finger under it and pulled until the locket it held came out from its hiding spot under Dracia dress. He picked up the locket and held it in his hand, funning his fingers over it and closing his eyes. He opened them and they were bright green.
“I would wait for you for eternity,” he said in his old family tongue that the Cassendar’s spoke even before the kingdom was formed.
Dracia gazed into his eyes, unable to look away. She heard herself respond to him in the same ancient tongue, “I will always come back to you.”
Leal bent down and kissed her, Dracia feeling as though nothing was as necessary to her as him.
They pulled apart as they heard a knock at the door. Leal’s eyes were back to their normal hazel. Lord Ethen answered the door looking at both of them with a very curious look on his face. Roderick walked into the room and looked around at all three of them who were gathered.
Dracia stepped away from Leal and grabbed her small bag. “Roderick, we have to go now. I will explain on our way to get our horses.” Roderick nodded as Dracia looked at Lord Ethen. “Are you still coming with us?”
“Yes,” replied Lord Ethen. He turned and put his hand on Leal’s shoulder. “I will see that she comes back to you.”