“Thank you so much for finding it for us, milady!” taunted a heavily accented voice.
There was a flurry of confusion and Isabel found herself surrounded by a group of heavily muscled men clad in leather belts crossing their chests, fur breeches and heavy fur boots.
“What’s going on? Who are you?” Isabel demanded. “What do you want?”
The largest of the men stepped forward and seemed to block out the sun. “We are Shumi! I am their king and you are my prisoner!” The man boomed with a resounding grunt of replies from his troops. “We have been sent by the sorceress, Phaedra, to capture you and take the ships.”
Dammit, betrayed by my father again!
“Now you will hand over the amulet to me, yes?” said the Shumi leader.
“No!” Isabel snorted, tucking it back into her dress.
“That will not deter me in the least, wench.” He laughed, his eyes running over her ample body.
He was upon her in just a few strides, already reaching for her. Isabel turned the man’s momentum against him as she instinctively grabbed his arm, turned, dropped to one knee and flipped him over her shoulder. The surprised man yelled as went airborne and crashed into several others. Isabel leapt to her feet, expecting an attack by his men but surprisingly they stood fast. They laughed and pounded their swords repeatedly against their chests, in what Isabel could only interpret as applause, before the Shumi King silenced them with a look. In the distance she could hear crashing in the woods and hoped against hope that the guards of the Crystal Palace had somehow managed to find her.
“Alaric! Lennox!” She shouted. “Help!”
Rising again, the Shumi King warily started towards Isabel. Her heart pounded in her ears and she struggled to control her breath as she took a defensive stance. The element of surprise had been her friend but now the barbarian would not underestimate her again and she wasn’t quite sure how much damage she could do to him before he killed her. No, he wouldn’t kill her, she was supposed to be delivered to the sorceress he had said. Of course, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t first beat the hell out of her, or worse, after his humiliation in front of his men. Oh how she wished she knew how to harness the power of the amulet! The Oracle had said it would give her strength when she had none. Well, I sure could use an extra burst of strength right about now.
When the King got close enough he threw one punch and then another which Isabel easily dodged and weaved. He was strong but he wasn’t very fast, or so she thought. When Isabel threw a punch he caught one arm and then the other. Laughing, he pulled her close but she brought her knee up sharply into his crotch. The man screamed and folded before Isabel grasped his hair with both hands and brought up her knee against his nose with a sickening crunch.
He lay motionless on the ground, twitching as a pool of blood formed around his head, and Isabel knew then that she had killed him. The men were stunned silent and, gripped by a terrible fear, Isabel wondered if she could reach the ships before the Shumi reached her. Suddenly, the men stuck their swords into the ground and dropped to one knee. They leaned their heads against the hilt of their swords and started chanting.
“Ay Dios, what’s happening now?” Isabel moaned.
“It seems ye have defeated their leader.” Lennox replied as he and his men entered the clearing behind her. “Ye are now Queen of the Shumikarja Warriors!”
Prince Alaric dove to the ground and rolled to his feet as Caeronvar lunged for him, chuckling.
“Oh, what a night this shall be! After feasting upon the succulent flesh of royalty, I have that ripe young maiden you have brought me to satisfy other appetites.” The demigod said as he glided through the air and headed towards the prince again.
“Stay away from her, you louse ridden harpy!” Alaric spat. “Come down and fight like a man!”
The Eagle Lord chuckled. “But I am not a man, boy, I am a god! Something your pretty little chick will understand soon enough. Tell me, which do you prefer most, the way her warm body moves beneath your own, the sound of her voice crying your name, or simply the taste of her?”
With flashing eyes, the Eagle Lord lunged again, his talons flexed. Alaric ducked and swung his sword, slicing into one of Caeronvar’s legs. The enemy shrieked in pain as he wobbled, glancing into a wall before rising again. He was enraged but now so was the prince. Alaric didn’t like this scum talking about Isabel like she was a common whore. He had found her to be a good, kind woman with more courage than many he had fought with on the battlefield. No, he had no claim to her but that didn’t mean he didn’t want to. He had been with the loveliest, most seductive women in the world, yet he agreed with his enemy, their beauty paled in comparison to hers.
Isabel was truly a vision when her eyes flashed and her cheeks pinked in anger. When she smiled his heart did a funny little skip and his stomach tightened, and while she looked charming in her mother’s Mirror Mage robe, the form-fitting gown she had worn to the ball had made other things tighten on him as well. The allure of her body had robbed him of sleep many nights since their first meeting.
Despite her strength and stubbornness, Isabel also displayed moments of vulnerability that further fueled his need to protect her. Right now he was wasting time battling this three inch fool when Isabel could be in even more danger, possibly captured by Caeronvar’s minions before she could return to the protection of his own guards.
“God?” Alaric scoffed, watching the Eagle Lord wobble around the temple, dripping blood on to the stones below. “Your greatest powers seem to be limited to shooting your mouth off and flitting about like a pigeon!”
“I am God!” he screeched, diving again and again as Alaric slashed at him.
“Yet you bleed like a mortal!”
The Eagle Lord looked down, mesmerized by the wounds weeping mortal blood from his body. Alaric thrust his sword into the belly of his enemy and was knocked to the floor as Caeronvar whisked past him, crashing into the dais. His Priestesses rushed in from their hiding places and covered their master’s body with theirs.
Alaric walked over to where the demigod lay dying and the women trembled but refused to move. The prince heard his enemy gasp something before the women reluctantly moved away again, sobbing. Caeronvar looked up at Alaric, blood spilling from his mouth as he gasped, “Finish me!”
Alaric grimaced but reached forward and gave his sword a twist, making him cry out again, before pulling it from the man’s body. As he stepped away, he felt a hand grab his foot. He turned to find the blaze had gone from the Eagle Lord’s eyes even as he smiled.
“At last, I am free. Thank you!” He said, and then died.
Alaric raced through the forest, trying to figure out where Isabel had gone, when he heard a great crash and the ground began to rumble. He turned towards the direction of the crash and kept running, slowing momentarily to get his bearings.
“Alaric, Lennox, help!”
The terror in Isabel’s cry wrenched his heart and spurred him forward again. Finally, he caught up to the last of his men as they slashed their way through the trees. His heart leapt into his mouth when he found the clearing crawling with the barbaric Shumkarja. In a cave across the way stood a flotilla of brilliant sterling ships. Why were they not attacking? Where were Isabel and Lennox?
Aware of his presence, the prince’s guards cleared a path for him to enter the clearing and he saw Lennox giving instructions to Lothiarian guard and Shumi alike. Lennox saw the prince and delegated the guards to a small Shumi Warrior before joining him.
“Lennox, what in blazes is happening here? Where is Isabel?”
The Man at Arms chuckled. “Her majesty is doing quite well, sire. She’s in the cave inspecting the ships with her entourage.”
Alaric gaped. “Her majesty? Entourage? What!”
“I wouldna believed it if I hadna seen it with my own eyes, highness.” He replied, his face held an expression of awe Alaric had never seen before from his friend. “We heard milady’s cry for help and rushed to her aid, but we arrived in time to see her kill the Shumi King with her bare hands!”
Lennox nodded. “Apparently the Shumi have a prophecy that named Lady Isabel their new queen.”
Alaric chuckled and ran a hand over his face. Here he was concerned for Isabel’s welfare when she was more than capable of taking care of herself. With a twinge of emotion he didn’t recognize or like, the prince wondered what exactly Isabel would ever need him for.
The two men boarded the largest ship when Alaric shuddered, a wave of pain and weakness rocketing through his body, and leaned back against the pilothouse with a groan. Isabel appeared at his side in an instant.
“Alaric, what’s wrong?” She looked him over quickly and noticed a gash in his shirt from his fight with Caeronvar was covered in blood. “Come on.”
She slipped an arm around him and put his arm around her shoulder while Lennox took the other and helped him into the captain’s chair.
“You stay put, you’ve done enough!” Isabel scolded the prince. “I’ll be right back.”
She climbed off the boat and hurried into the clearing where the Shumi had already made fires and were preparing to bed down for the night.
“Hey, can anyone understand me?” she called. “I need help.”
The men leapt to their feet, hearing the urgency in her voice but looked at each other and mumbled in their language. Finally, one of the smaller warriors stepped forward.
“I understand you.” He said.
“Great,” Isabel sighed. “The Prince of Lothiari needs medical attention. I also need everybody to board the ships with a set of rotating guards to watch the entrance until dawn. Can you arrange that for me?”
The warrior did an elaborate bow replying, “I will do anything for you, my queen.”
“Thank you.” She replied, turning to leave but stopped and faced him again. “What’s your name?”
He straightened and clapped a fist to his breast. “I am Nadhir, your highness.”
She nodded to him. “Thank you, Nadhir.”
Nadhir was a godsend. The Shumkarja reassembled in their own hierarchy throughout the fleet with a leader on each ship. Nadhir appeared with a medicine man who tended to Alaric’s wounds and put him to bed below deck with Lennox’s assistance. The Man at Arms didn’t trust the Shumi and posted his own guards outside the prince’s door.
Isabel sat deep in thought as everyone bustled around her. How would they get the ships moving? No doubt the sunlight would activate the fleet but who would fly them? She didn’t know how to fly or steer a ship and she wasn’t sure any of the Shumi knew either. She also couldn’t believe she had not only survived her encounter with the Shumi warriors but she had actually killed their king! The whole thing happened in a blur and she felt almost like a spectator herself, watching as her body moved instinctively with a speed and strength she didn’t think was possible and she felt certain the amulet was responsible. She deposed their leader and now would be their queen. What did that even mean? She didn’t know how to lead anyone. She ran kitchens not countries. She couldn’t believe she was still even there. What business did she have riding dragons, hobnobbing with royalty, fighting deities and sorceresses, and now leading a nation? Isabel Kendra was a chef who battled budgets and soufflés to make payments on a house she never saw. She wasn’t a warrior. She was definitely not a queen. What the hell did she get herself into?
“Your highness?” Isabel heard Nadhir call and shook herself out of her stupor.
“I’m sorry, yes can I help you?”
“Apologies for disturbing your highness but perhaps you should get some rest. You look tired.”
Isabel smiled and sighed, realizing the late hour. “You’re right, Nadhir, thank you for looking after me.”
Nadhir’s face lit up with a smile and he bowed deeply as she rose and went below deck. On the way to her room, she stopped outside Prince Alaric’s door.
“How is the prince?” She asked the guards.
“Been sawing logs all night, milady, but quite well.” One of them answered.
“Has anyone gone in to check on him?”
The guards shook their heads so Isabel knocked softly before opening the door a crack to peek in. The prince lay on his back snoring softly, but his twisted covers told Isabel he hadn’t been sleeping well. He was bare-chested, save for the bandage that had been wrapped around his midriff, and the hairy leg that hung beside the bed made Isabel suddenly aware that the man was completely naked. She knew it probably wasn’t the thing to do, but the air below decks was chillier than above and she didn’t want him to catch cold on top of being injured. She slipped into the room, carefully unraveled the covers and drew them up to his throat.
God, the man was beautiful! His dark hair grazed his forehead and his features looked as if they had been chiseled in stone. Isabel brushed the hair from his eyes and found his forehead a bit too warm and damp. She sat on the edge of the bed beside him and wrung out the washcloth that lay in a clay bowl filled with cool water. She placed the cloth upon his head and noticed he had opened his eyes and was watching her.
“I’m sorry, I’ll go.” She gasped, rising to leave, but he grabbed her arms and pulled her to him.
“Isabel.” He murmured, burying his hand in her hair and suddenly she found he was kissing her.
His lips were unbelievably warm and soft, and she felt herself melting as his tongue caressed the inside of her mouth. Just as suddenly as it had started, Isabel felt Alaric’s grip loosen. When she pushed herself up she found he was asleep again. Her body trembled as her heart thrummed beneath her breast. She hurried from the room and entered her own, flopping down on her bed to calm herself. She had kissed guys before and she was definitely no virgin, yet no man had ever caused such a strong reaction within her, and she was terrified.
Alaric awoke just as the sun’s rays began to brighten the sky. He rose to his feet slowly, his movements shouting with every cut and bruise from the battle. As he made his way above deck he could hear feet clomping around and saw the Shumi were busy readying the ships to sail. Isabel stood behind the wheel wearing a tense expression as she stared out of the cave. She caught her bottom lip between her teeth and a wave of lust rocked the prince’s body. Memory of last night’s dream suddenly shook him. She had come to him in the night, clad in a sheer gown that left nothing to the imagination. She sat on his bed, leaned forward and placed a kiss on his forehead. Her eyes burned with desire, her lips parted and full. He reached for her and pressed her against him, capturing her lips in a sensuous kiss that made his blood surge. He could still remember the feel of her lush body against his. He shook the memory from his mind as he could feel his trousers tightening. No, that would do neither of them any good.
A small Shumi hurried to Isabel’s side and they exchanged words before he sped off again. She turned to Alaric as he approached and he thought he’d caught an expression briefly flick across her face followed by a soft blush.
“Good morning, highness,” Isabel greeted him as he approached, “should you be out of bed so soon?”
“And here I thought I had left my mother at home.” He teased.
“You were badly injured last night, Prince.” Isabel replied firmly, her face showing concern.
“Tis but a scratch, milady.” He reached out and stroked a finger against her cheek. The softness of her skin sent a shiver through his body and made his heart leap.
“Thank you for your concern.” He whispered, suddenly hoarse.
Isabel blushed deeply, a heat emanated from her eyes that sorely tempted him to make that delicious dream from last night a reality. Had it been a dream?
“Just don’t be a hero.” She breathed and broke the spell.
Of course, she didn’t need a hero. She didn’t need him at all really. This was no dainty damsel in distress. Isabel swooned for no man, not for him nor for Caeronvar’s seduction. She was too strong, becoming too powerful for that sort of thing. Again the prince wondered why she would even consider him.
Isabel was puzzled by the wave of emotion that crossed the prince’s face. She knew he wasn’t completely well, not yet, and would keep an eye on him.
“We’re about ready to try out my theory.” She told him, changing the subject.
There was some shouting outside the cave, followed by two guards running inside and boarding one of the ships.
“What is it?” Alaric asked, drawing his sword.
“Relax,” Isabel laughed, “it’s time.”
A beam of sunlight poured into the cave and hit the top of the largest ship’s mast. As it traveled down Isabel raised the amulet above her head. As the light passed through the mast high above, Alaric looked up and saw something he hadn’t noticed the night before; a large ruby embedded in the mast. The beam traveled through the ruby and hit the amulet. He thought he heard a ghostly roar as the amulet lit up and spread more beams of light to hit rubies that were lodged in the masts of the rest of the fleet. Each ship began to glow and there was rumbling as the fleet turned to face the back of the cave, which crumbled into dust revealing the vast valley below and the ocean beyond. A terrific breeze kicked up and the sails on each ship unfurled, filling with air.
“Alaric, look!” Isabel cried, feeling positively giddy. “It’s working!”
The ships lurched forward and proceeded out of the cave. Isabel wondered at the sight of clouds forming beneath the ships, like waves cresting in the sea. They sailed silently through the air, escorted by Lothiari’s dragon squadron and, periodically, by flocks of birds of various colors who sang praises of the legendary fleet. Nadhir sang out commands relayed from Isabel to the other ships that sang back receipt of the order as he navigated the ships toward the Shumkarja Outlands.
It would be several days before they reached their destination, but Isabel was sure that by the time they got there the entire world would be buzzing with news of the fleet. She was worried that they would lose the element of surprise over their enemies but Lennox reassured her.
“With word spreading about the Silver Fleet taking flight again, we may find ourselves with more allies than we had yesterday!”
Isabel, Alaric, Lennox, and Nadhir took turns at the helm and soon discovered that, once activated, the ships didn’t need the sun to keep moving. One of the Shumi had found a map room and although some elements had changed over the centuries, much of the general topography on the maps remained the same. Coupled with the knowledge various members of the crew had of the region, they were able to safely navigate the sky at night.
After being relieved from the helm, Isabel rested, ate and passed the time watching the world go by from the side of the ship. She loved feeling the rush of wind through her hair, the crisp smell on the breeze, and being able to reach out and brush her hands through the misty clouds that passed by.
“Enjoying yourself?” Alaric asked, coming up beside her.
The twinkle in his eye and amused expression gave her a funny feeling in her stomach. “Just getting a little rest before I take the helm again.”
“Did you do much sailing in your world?”
Isabel chuckled. “None actually.”
“Really?” His smiled deepened. “You are a natural!”
Isabel smiled, blushing in spite of herself. What was it about this guy that made her feel like a teenage girl?
“So what do you think of Baelcrest? I imagine it must be very different from your own world.”
“Oh yes, very different, but I like it. Aside from all the people trying to kill me, of course.”
“That does take getting used to.” Alaric joked. “Do you miss The Mundane?”
“I haven’t really had much time to miss home, everything’s just been happening so fast!” She replied, cringing at the Baelcrest moniker for Earth. “I do miss my mom though, and cooking. I hate my job, but I love to cook!”
“I take it you are a good cook?”
“The best!” Isabel replied, playfully puffing herself up. “I am a trained chef!”
“You mention your mother and your vocation, but no suitor. Is there no man in your life to take care of you?”
Isabel shook her head. “I need no man to take care of me, highness.”
Alaric smiled softly, leaning in a little. “You may not need a man to take care of you, but would you like one?”
Despite the chill in the air, Isabel suddenly felt very warm. She cleared the lump from her throat and laughed somberly, “Well, that’s a loaded question.”
She turned away and stared silently out into the night for a moment. Just when Alaric was about to speak, Isabel said, “Men have been a curse to me my whole life. I have yet to meet one that can be relied upon.”
“We are not all of us rogues, milady.”
Isabel sighed. “I know there are good men in the world but, like the elusive unicorn, they seem to be a thing of myths and legends.”
Alaric smiled. “Remind me when all this is over to take you to a field I know that is teeming with unicorn.”
“And maybe we’ll find a good man on the way?” Isabel smiled.
“Maybe even before.”