Prince Alaric sat pondering the news he had received from the home front the night before as the Outlands sprung to life under the rising sun.
“Despite all that has happened, the Alliance was pleased to learn of Lady Isabel’s acquisition of the Silver Fleet and her conquest over the barbarians.” His mother told him. “Their numbers will make the difference in this war.”
“Is the situation so dire?”
“Worse. The Lord of the Underworld has now taken to raising the dead from ancient battlefields and village cemeteries to replenish his numbers. Our people have become spooked by the notion of having to fight their own ancestors. The enemy has retained their hold on Rune but Shayn’del remains strong.”
Alaric watched as the Shumi prepared to board the ships again and nodded to himself. It was just as well that his mother and the rest of the Alliance realized the benefit of having such a vast and powerful force as the Shumi on their side. The prince knew that while many of Baelcrest’s populace would be terrified by the idea of fighting the undead, the Shumi warriors relished a good battle and would most likely welcome the challenge.
The bustling of the Shumi, rushing back and forth preparing for battle, proved too distracting for Iskander.
“I need to go somewhere quiet for a few minutes to get my bearings.” He said.
Looking around, Nancy discovered an area sitting undisturbed in the shade of the cliff and guided him over.
“Thank you.” He said, leaning against the cool rock. He closed his eyes and rested his head. “You may leave me.”
“I have nowhere to be.” Nancy shrugged.
“I would prefer it if you did not cosset me.”
Nancy rolled her eyes. “I’m not cosseting you. Besides, what else would I do besides watch Princess Fantastic perform a miracle?”
Iskander laughed. “Are you jealous, my Queen?”
Nancy blushed, grateful he couldn’t see her.
“No, it just seems a bit much. You should’ve seen the show she put on since we got here!” She stopped, blushing deeper. “Well anyway, back home everyone would’ve said she was putting on airs.”
“Isabel is queen in the Outlands and does what she deems necessary.” Iskander retorted. “You would do well to watch her and follow her example.”
Nancy opened and closed her mouth like a fish before flopping against the wall and crossing her arms, fuming. Why should she be so annoyed by the fact he admired the woman so? Part of her did feel that the Yankee was showing off. That’s what they did wasn’t it, strut around shooting their mouths off rather than be modest and low key? Hadn’t her mother told her time and again that men didn’t take to ladies who were so brazen?
“After all, what would a man be without the admiration of his lady?” She would say.
Did her father not say to leave swaggering to the men? The truth of it was though, Isabel didn’t brag or swagger, she didn’t have to. Every action seemed to command the respect and admiration of an audience whether she intended it to or not. Mother would be scandalized, thought Nancy. But what would her birth mother, the former queen of Rune, have said? None of Isabel’s words or deeds seemed to rattle anyone really. The Dowager Empress herself was a woman of high renown who commanded audiences as well as armies.
Nancy’s passion for life had gotten her into trouble in the past and she wondered if she had what it took to be queen. Was she really the strong independent woman she considered herself to be?
The Shumi women prepared a feast as the warriors made ready for departure. One priestess, who dwelled near the shaded area where Nancy and Iskander stood, beckoned them inside. The priestess spoke to them while two young girls mixed packets of herbs to a bowl of water, making a paste. Nancy had no idea what the woman was saying, but Iskander understood some. They were bid to sit and the priestess unraveled his bandages. Nancy started to protest but Iskander waved her off, assuring her it was all right. The priestess was very beautiful and Nancy was again glad for his loss of vision.
Come on girl, you’re not about to get all bent out of shape every time a beautiful woman shows him some attention. You’re not marrying the guy and you have no claim on him.
With the bandages off, the priestess cleaned the dried blood from the king’s skin before applying the paste to his wounds. Nancy noticed, while they still looked severe, his wounds had closed. One of the little girls presented Nancy with a pouch containing a pot of salve and strips of cloth.
All at once the ground began to shake and the air filled with screams, howls and a multitude of horns signaling the alarm. The children screamed and disappeared behind a curtain. Nancy rushed to the doorway with the priestess who shrieked in terror. Giants were attacking the fleet! Prince Alaric’s dragon squadron buzzed around them, and Nancy didn’t know whether they were supposed to be a distraction or a line of defense but they appeared to be failing at both. The Shumi were locked in a fierce battle with the goblin horde as more poured down the cliff like a grey waterfall.
“Oh God, no!” Nancy cried. “Iskander we’re under attack! How did they find us?”
I know not but we must flee!”
“What?” Nancy gaped at him. “I never took you to be a coward!”
“Tis not cowardice to know when to retreat to live and fight another day.”
She looked back at the scene of battle. Most of the dragons were on the ground and the ships blinked beneath a field of grey.
“What about the others? We can’t just leave them!”
“Nor can we help them by being captured ourselves. We must away to gather reinforcements.”
Nancy’s heart sank but she knew he was right. How could they escape and where would they go? They couldn’t run, not with Iskander being blind, and their dragon was already caught up in the battle. If only… Nancy didn’t dare hope.
“Do these people ride horses?” she asked. “Is there a way we can get to a horse?”
Iskander asked the priestess and translated that yes, there were. They hastened after the woman who disappeared behind a curtain. They traveled down a dimly lit stone corridor and the priestess rattled at Iskander before disappearing into the wall.
“Where’d she go?” Nancy asked, patting the space she had vanished through and finding nothing special. “What’s going on?”
“I believe she said if we continue down this corridor we will find the horses.”
In the distance they could hear the echo of the goblins’ chatter, and Nancy’s heart leapt into her throat as she gasped. Taking her hand Iskander hurried down the corridor, his hand pressed against the wall. They came to a clearing and sure enough they found a herd of chestnut horses grazing. They could hear the goblins drawing nearer as they hurried toward the herd. The horses looked up, their ears twitching as they began to nicker and whinny nervously. Nancy released Iskander’s hand and slowly approached the nearest horse, talking softly to it. Despite the growing danger, Nancy willed herself to be calm. If the horses perceived them to be a threat or picked up on their fear they would take off and she and Iskander would be screwed.
She was able to place one hand on a horse’s muzzle, which she patted for a few moments before moving on to his neck as she continued speaking in low soothing tones. The stallion flicked his ears, watching her, and swept his tail to the side once but otherwise remained still. Nancy grabbed a handful of his mane and when he didn’t protest, she hoisted herself up on to his back. Hoping the Shumi used the same signals she knew, Nancy clicked her tongue and kicked the sides of the stallion while directing him toward Iskander. The sounds of the goblin horde grew closer causing some of the horses to whinny. Her horse danced nervously, but she patted him, using her body to maintain command and steer him closer to Iskander. She reached down, grasped the king’s hand and pulled him up behind her. Without a word Iskander wrapped his arms around her waist. Nancy didn’t have a chance to savor the thrill that flashed through her as the goblins burst forth from the tunnel, sending the herd into a panic. The animals screamed, wheeled around, and took off running.
“Hang on!” Nancy called to Iskander, as she whipped their horse around and charged after the others.
She felt more than heard a roar from above and the ground began to shake. Nancy glanced over her shoulder and screamed as a giant clambered after them. He reached forward but Nancy shifted the horse out of the way so that he grabbed a different horse. In the distance she could see a tall dense forest and as the herd divided, followed the pack galloping for the woods. She bent forward, almost pressing her body against the stallion’s crest, as Iskander crushed his body against hers, and urged the animal on. Despite his passenger load, the stallion blazed forth past the others. Nancy could practically feel the giant’s breath, like the heat of a furnace, as he closed in. She heard the laughter and guttural taunts of the goblins as they followed, but she focused only on the horse and the trees they were closing in on.
She willed the horse to go faster and as the giant swooped his hand before them, the horse leaped in a jump that would have made her father whoop with joy as they powered into the forest. Nancy gave a little whoop of her own when she heard the giant roar with fury at losing his prey. Ahead, Nancy saw a slanted tunnel made from a fallen petrified tree and tried to maneuver the horse away but his hooves slipped in the soft moss.
“Iskander, duck!” Nancy cried before the trio slide down into the tunnel.
Just as quickly, the horse regained his footing as they hit bottom and continued his charge. The riders were covered in cold, wet muck but were otherwise unscathed. The goblins continued their pursuit through the forest and Nancy switched tactics to counter the many obstacles that loomed ahead, using every trick she knew to outrun and outmaneuver their pursuers. Little by little the goblins dropped back, but Nancy would not slow her pace until she knew they were deep in the forest.
Night had begun to fall and the trees were silent, save for the night creatures that rose from their slumber. The goblins were nowhere to be found. Rider and animal both panting and sweaty, they stopped at a clearing beside a river. Across the river was a little enclave where they could rest in peace and safety. They dismounted and the horse drank deeply from the river. Nancy dropped to her knees beside him and drank, utterly exhausted.
“Well done, A’Janae.” Iskander smiled, his face and voice exhibiting quiet awe. “Truly a remarkable feat!”
Nancy smiled as her stomach did a little flip. There was that word again. “Thank you, Iskander.”
They agreed creating a fire would be a bad idea with the enemy possibly still in the area, so they huddled together against the wall. It wasn’t a particularly cold night, but watching the enemy swarm over their friends and knowing their last line of defense had been taken shook them both. After a long while of sitting in silence Nancy turned to Iskander.
“So what now?”
“We will need to get to a town and find a Mirror Mage. The Alliance must be notified.”
Nancy leaned her head against the wall shutting her eyes. “We lost the war, didn’t we?”
“We do not know that yet.”
“Iskander, they have the fleet. Alaric and Isabel may be dead and the traitor in Abiloth may have killed Nerissa and Lennox. The Crystal Palace itself could be falling as we speak!” Nancy yelled, tears springing to her eyes.
Iskander took her hand in his and faced her. “We cannot panic over uncertainties, A’Janae. Calm yourself and think. We know the traitor is in Abiloth but the Dowager Empress knows this too. We know the goblins have captured the Silver Fleet, however, we also know the fleet cannot be activated without Lady Isabel. As far as they know she is the power behind the fleet and they need her to sail it so they will not kill her, not yet.”
“So maybe Princess Fantastic was able to perform another miracle that saved them and thwarted the enemy?”
Iskander smiled. “Goblins are stupid creatures so it is entirely possible. However, we need to focus on getting ourselves to safety and finding out what the Alliance means to do next.”
“If there’s still an Alliance left.” Nancy sighed. “Everyone was already on razor’s edge before this happened. What if it’s as Alaric said? What if the crystal cracked and the Alliance is broken?”
Concern crossed Iskander’s face and he reached out, caressing her cheek. Nancy closed her eyes as her body flooded with warmth that made her heart flutter.
“A’Janae, the Crystal Palace Alliance is a brotherhood formed long ago against a very powerful and dangerous enemy.” He said gently. “We are a brotherhood in every sense, a family, and as with any family we may fight from time to time but our finest hour has always been when our backs are to the wall.”
Though Iskander’s words did make her feel a bit better Nancy was still frightened. She couldn’t ever remember feeling so afraid in her entire life. She hated uncertainty. The one saving grace of having your life mapped out for you was there were no surprises. You always knew what to expect and what was expected of you.
The only life the pretty redhead knew was on Harrington Ranch in West Texas raised by a beautiful debutante who never put a foot wrong. Nancy’s father, a powerhouse with eyes of steel, was also held in high regard. He taught her to be a horsewoman, taking pride in her many wins at riding competitions. In fact, Nancy was the best in her category, not just in the county but in the state. Yet, he was always careful that his daughter remained humble.
“Your performance may be fine as cream gravy but it’s just not fittin’ for a young lady to act proud. You leave the struttin’ to me, girl.” He used to say.
Despite her parents’ best efforts, Nancy had issues controlling her temper, which often blazed hot as a billy goat in a pepper patch.
“Easy!” Her mother admonished her. “Men don’t like ladies who are outspoken and shrill!”
But being demure and “ladylike” often made Nancy cross and gave her a headache. She felt like a fish out of water at the many country club luncheons and charity events she attended beside her elegant mother. When she wasn’t bored out of her skull and cracking her teeth in a smile over some insipid anecdote, she often lost her temper over an absurd comment or conversation. The ruckus this caused resulted in Nancy’s banishment to her bedroom for the night while her delicate mother railed to her father about the disappointment and disgrace of it all before retiring to nurse a migraine. Nancy much preferred to spend time with cowhands and ranchers than the polished dandies her mother tended to choose for her.
“But Daddy’s a rancher!” Nancy protested after her most recent broken engagement.
“Your father is a gentleman who has taken up ranching and horsemanship.” Her mother sniffed. “He is not now, nor has he ever been, a rancher!”
Nancy never could see the difference and it was exchanges like this that often got Nancy into trouble. As she got older she felt strangled by her mother’s expectations and saw the woman as petty and vain. She was a porcelain doll who didn’t so much care about causes as she was being seen to care. Even though Nancy and her father had grown closer, she and her mother were miles apart. Still, the news of her parents’ death had devastated her. Her brain had stopped working altogether and she didn’t think to question the details. The oddity of a mudslide happening during dry season simply hadn’t occurred to her. The thought that her parents might have been murdered was simply unfathomable. Mr. and Mrs. Harrington were pillars of the community and now they were dead and Nancy was alone. Yet she had no idea at that very moment that her soft, uncomplicated life was at an end.
Nancy realized now that the one aspect of her life she’d always hated had been a security blanket for her. She had never truly been in danger before all this started, so she didn’t know how to handle chaos. It was both a blessing and a curse.
“Once we find the Mirror Mage we will send you home.” Iskander said.
Nancy’s head snapped up. A mix of fear and anger swirled within her. “What? What are you talking about? I’m not going anywhere!”
“This is not your fight, Nancy. In fact the only reason you are even here is because the operatives guarding you had been killed. Once we find a Mirror Mage you can go back into hiding until all this is over. Should we defeat the enemy you may return to sit the throne of Rune. Should we fail, you will be safely hidden where they cannot ever find you.”
Nancy was livid. “Why do people insist on running my life!” she shrieked, snatching her hand away. “This is as much my fight as it is yours. I refuse to run away and hide like a coward, waiting another twenty years for Torquil to catch up to me. I’m not a child anymore, Iskander, I’m not about to sit out the fight only to stroll back in after you all risked your lives and did all the work!”
“No! I don’t know what it is I can do but I’m not completely useless. I want to help. You especially need my help.”
Iskander looked surprised. “I?”
“Damn right, your people are gonna give you flack for being blind, right?”
Iskander shook his head. “It will not come to that. When I return to Shayn’del I shall name a successor and abdicate.”
“You will do no such thing!”
“Nancy, I can no longer effectively lead in my condition.”
“Like Hell! Have your brains fallen out of your head? Do you still have the same integrity and drive? You can still make laws and judgments and be an effective leader. You don’t need eyesight to run a country.”
Iskander’s mouth fell open. It was apparent the thought had never occurred to him and the sight of the realization that dawned on his face made Nancy want to smother him in kisses. He really did think blindness disqualified him from being king! With war raging for decades Nancy wondered how many otherwise functioning dignitaries had stepped down or been brushed aside because of their disabilities. Despite all the whimsy and sorcery, it occurred to Nancy the people of Baelcrest were incredibly backward. While there were some back home who still regarded the disabled as something to be pitied or even feared, she had heard and seen people overcoming their injuries and infirmities to lead normal lives.
She had been intrigued, and especially proud, when her father had signed up Harrington Ranch to participate in programs that assisted soldiers dealing with physical and mental issues. She had been thoroughly impressed by the attitudes these men and women had when she spoke to them and watched them interact with the horses and each other. Mother, of course, had been scandalized and either stayed in the house or left the property altogether whenever they came for the program. It was the subject of the longest and loudest arguments between her parents Nancy could remember.