A Tale of Crowns and Stars

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Naked & Afraid

A raven cawed again overhead as Armantha stood over Cyra, blinking in the dim light of the woods.

“Can you close your mouth and come on before someone figures out that their little friend isn’t coming back?” Cyra smacked the woman’s outstretched hand away and struggled to her feet, grunting as she leaned on her injured leg. “You’re going to have to explain this to Halewijn on your own, you know. I can’t be seen with you.” The sentence snapped Cyra out of her shock.

“Then what are you doing here?” Cyra grumbled, trudging over to Armantha’s horse absentmindedly.

“Saving your hide, obviously.”

“You followed me out here?” Cyra stopped, confused.

“No, I actually followed your little friend out here. He’s been stalking around the keep, and I wanted to know what he was up to. Luckily, I was here when he decided to make his move.” The woman tossed her quiver over her shoulder before mounting her horse. “My nosey-ness finally paid off.” The women were opposite each other, staring but not speaking any further. “Hop on.”

“No,” Cyra remembered her feud with the woman and stood her ground, despite her left leg aching terribly. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“Listen, I know you’re mad at me - don’t know why - but you’re not going to make it out of here before evening with that gash in your leg.” The woman pointed at the open wound with a small hand. Cyra looked down at the bloody gash, registering the prickling pain she suddenly felt in the cut area.

“I’ll walk on foot before I leave here on your horse, traitor.” Armantha’s eyes darkened at the insult, and she dismounted her horse in one swift movement.

“What did you call me?”

“Traitor. You heard me the first time.” Armantha raised her hand and slapped Cyra so hard her jaw sang out in pain, the metallic taste of the blood in her mouth thickening on her tongue.

“Say anything like that again, and you’ll wish you’d never spoken to me in that tone.” Cyra slapped Armantha back - tit for tat - and growled,

“Try me.” The two women had a short standoff, each sizing the other up before Armantha took a step back.

“I don’t have time for petty fights with you, Cyra. What’s your issue with me?” Cyra turned around, looking for her dagger as she considered the question.

“You know what you did to Markus.” She grumbled. “Don’t act innocent. You ran away to the North to avoid being extradited and put on trial. We all know you told Omar where he could find Markus.”

“Excuse me? You obviously don’t know the truth of that story.” Armantha scoffed, pushing her auburn hair back with her dark brown hand. “Is that what Smyrna and Aethelwulf had you believe?”

“It’s what Gunnar told me.” Armantha laughed mirthlessly, the sound echoing in the woods.

Gunnar?” Another laugh. “He knew nothing about what happened; may the gods rest his soul.”

“Then explain, and do so quickly. Or else I’m not going anywhere with you.” Chaossong glinted in the sunlight under a large fern, and Cyra snatched it up before replacing it in her thigh holster.

“I owe you nothing.” Armantha tossed over her shoulder, walking back to her horse. “You either get on the horse, or I leave you here to rot. Your choice.” When Cyra didn’t make any move to get on the horse, Armantha shrugged and dug her heels into the horse’s side, leading it onward. Cyra considered her options: she could try to make it out of the woods with little to no resources except the nearby stream, or get on the horse with Armantha and make it out without struggling. Sighing, Cyra made a choice for self-preservation and walked up to Armantha.

Silently, she swung herself onto the horse, and the woman led them off into a trot. The slow pace gave Cyra time to think as she scanned the woods one last time. Armantha spoke first, not facing her as she whispered,

“I’m sorry for what happened to Gunnar. I know losing him wasn’t easy.” Cyra didn’t reply but found small comfort in the woman’s words. “We lost all of them in three years. It’s not fair.”

“You betrayed your fiance; I didn’t.”

“I didn’t either, Cyra.” The lie fell quickly from her lips, Cyra noted, but she refused to acknowledge it. “Honest to Ghiana, I would’ve never given Gunnar up to anyone.”

“So how did he end up dead when you were the only one outside of his detail who knew where he was on the coast?” Cyra spat, looking over to the dark-skinned woman. “And don’t swear on your patron goddess; it’s tacky.”

“I wasn’t the only one who knew where he was. How did Gunnar end up dead? Who killed him?” The obvious answer to that question was Omar, but the details were murky. “The High King has spies everywhere. He’s just like Rhadros: he has little rats that report everything back to him at the end of the day. And those rats are everywhere.”

“You’re one of them.”

“No, I’m not. I’m here to help you, Cyra, don’t you get it?”

“But why?” Armantha fell silent, and she could see the woman lapse into a memory.

“Omar took almost everything from me. My husband, my future, my respectability… I’ll be damned if he does it to anyone else.” As they cleared the woods, Armantha turned to face her. “Omar was capable of killing both of our fiances. I ran so I could find protection from the only kingdom he won’t fuck with. Unlike you, I wasn’t royalty when I met Markus. I don’t get the same privileges you do. To keep my head, I made myself lower than a servant girl and became the Northern King’s mistress. That’s the only way I could keep my promise to Markus.”

“Why didn’t you tell this to Smyrna or Aethelwulf? Or even me?

“You don’t understand… Markus died because Omar tried to… tried to hurt me. I was too ashamed to tell anyone.” Cyra recoiled, feeling her blood drain from her face. Who had Omar not stepped on in his unquenchable quest for power?

“No, I understand. I understand what you mean.” Armantha didn’t have to ask, but she knew what the admission meant.

“Anyways, when we get halfway to the gate, you’ll have to walk on your own. I can’t be seen with you.” She reiterated, changing the subject. “Just know I’m looking out for you; you’re not alone.” The rest of the ride was quiet as the two women processed all of the information they had discovered.

Once they reached the halfway mark to the gate, Cyra slid off the horse and gently stood on the injured leg, the blood clotting already. Armantha tossed her a water satchel as her final act of goodwill.

“Drink that sparingly. It should last you until you get to the gate. Oh, and Cyra?” The Princess looked up from the half-full water satchel and into the dark brown eyes of her companion. “The next time I hand you a damn goose egg, take it.” Cyra cracked a smile, and Armantha nodded once at her before taking off.

The last dregs of water graced Cyra’s tongue as she stumbled toward the gate, covered in grime and dirt from the trek. A guard hollered some commander, and the gate rolled up, producing a frantic Alorha and Wyndemere. At the sight of her wounds, Alorha gasped.

“Ready a doctor!” Wyndemere called out, rushing to grip Cyra’s arms and place them around his shoulder while Alorha bolstered her other side. They drug Cyra past the gate threshold, and she dropped the water satchel, panting in the heat of the mid-day, her wound slightly reopening due to her long trek. The wound on her wrist fared no better, and the blood still ran, albeit a little slower than when she was first injured.

“What the hell were you doing out there?” Wyndemere grunted, looking over to his right as Mirabel came flying across the courtyard. Cyra wearily looked at the lady-in-waiting before turning her head to see the open doors of the palace.

“I… I wanted to clear my head.”

“And you nearly ended up dead!” Alorha cried out. “You can’t just waltz off the keep without a companion, Cyra. You know that!”

Actually, I didn’t leave alone. Cyra wanted to retort, but she held her tongue. She made a promise to Armantha that would be kept, no matter the circumstances. Halewijn, his short grey kaftan askew, came storming out of the palace, fuming.

“Oh, shit,” Wyndemere mumbled, and Cyra flinched when she heard Hal call her name. Please, don’t yell-

“Is she-” As they neared the palace portico, Hal could clearly view the wounds she incurred from the altercation in the woods, and his mouth tightened. “Alorha, Mirabel: take her to the doctor immediately. And as for you,” He growled, turning to Wyndemere with a pointed finger. “You come with me now.” Cyra stifled a cry during the exchange as Alorha bumped her still-throbbing leg, hissing on a long inhale, hoping Halewijn wouldn’t hear her and become further incensed. He didn’t, turning away and striding inside without speaking any further.

As they dragged her to the healing room, Cyra considered her options again. She could reveal the details of her encounter with Armantha, thus revealing her real purpose in the High Court, or she could keep quiet and take the brunt of the blame. The latter option seemed to be the best one until she could suss out Armantha’s true intentions. For all she knew, the assault could’ve been a planned occasion to re-build trust in Armantha, who would give Omar information about their real aims. If she told Halewijn… he would be inclined to see the best in Armantha - as he did with almost everyone - and might be too willing to trust her. Cyra couldn’t let that happen.

Trust no one. Everyone has an agenda.

When they laid her on the bed in the dimly lit room, Cyra inhaled the smell of the fire and burning sage wafting around her head. The immediate calming effect the sage had on her mind eased the pain slightly, but not enough to completely negate the feeling of tightness around the wounds. The female doctor did her work silently, her face hidden by the long curtain of black hair. The doctor didn’t speak a word to Cyra as she cleaned the wounds with water, then dropped the bloody cloths to the floor, where Alorha and Mirabel scrambled to gather and toss them away. And when Cyra jerked from the pain of the antiseptic placed on her leg and wrist, the doctor made no rebukes or recommendations. She continued on with her work, barely looking at Cyra’s teary face as she stitched her up nor acknowledging her groans of pain.

Finally, when she was done, the doctor placed two bandages on her leg and one on her wrist. She turned to Alorha and held up six fingers.

“Days? Weeks?” Alorha inquired, and the doctor nodded when he said “days” again. The woman ushered them out, her hazel eyes following them down the hall before she shut the door to the room again. Mirabel and Alorha carried Cyra back to her room, taking the steps upward one at a time in an attempt to avoid jostling her bad leg. As they passed by Halewijn’s room, they could hear him yelling at Wyndemere, the words unrecognizable, but the anger in his tone unmistakable. Cyra hoped Wyndemere would dare to roar back, but another part of her hoped that Halewijn would give up before he incensed Wyndemere to that point. An explosive argument would be the last thing she needed at that moment.

“I’ll run some warm water so you can clean up,” Mirabel mentioned when they all arrived in her room. Cyra took her time stripping out of her riding clothes, leaving them in a pile in front of the wardrobe and silently stepping into the bathroom. Alorha followed in behind her, daring to ask her the question on everyone’s minds.

“What the hell happened out there?”

“I rode into the woods - my intention was to just go to the river and back. But I got lost, and someone attacked me. I don’t know who it was.”

“What happened to them?” Alorha wondered, frowning deeply.

“They’re dead. I…” The blood on Cyra’s hands reminded her of the arrow lodged in the person’s head. “…had to kill them.” The lie was convincing enough that Alorha stopped asking questions and left Mirabel and Cyra alone in the bathroom, rubbing his face as he went.

Cyra dipped her right arm in the warm water, inspecting it before letting it fall down her wrist and fingers while Mirabel worked a comb into her tangled hair, removing the tangles and knots incurred from the wind. The Princess washed her hands, removing the blood from her fingertips and under her fingernails before washing her face.

“When your horse came back alone, Halewijn lost it,” Cyra observed her lady-in-waiting in the mirror, watching her spindly fingers work through the curly mass of hair. “I’ve never seen a man so upset before.” She continued, and Cyra hummed thoughtfully, drying her face. It was only a matter of time before Halewijn came to address her about the situation, but she hoped he wouldn’t be too harsh in his rebukes. Her hopes were dashed as soon as Halewijn walked through the bathroom door.

“The room, Mirabel,” Halewijn stated simply, but Cyra grabbed the lady-in-waiting’s hand.

“Stay here, Mirabel. I need help dressing.” Cyra didn’t need help dressing, really.

“Cyra, I need to speak with you in private.” Mirabel took the liberty to leave, pausing to place the comb in Cyra’s hand. When Mirabel closed the bathroom door, Halewijn inhaled deeply, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “I already took the liberty to tell Wyndemere my feelings on this situation, but I articulated earlier that you need to take extra care of yourself while we are here.” He enunciated each syllable of those last words, closing his eyes as he spoke.

“I needed to clear my hea-” Cyra began, but Hal cut her off quickly.

“You could have come and found me, and we could’ve taken a ride together.” He interjected angrily.

“I don’t want to go everywhere with you! I need some time to myself, especially when I’m heated and need to reflect.” She breathed, but Halewijn groaned, leaning his head back.

“Then take Alorha or Wyndemere or even Mirabel with you! You are not supposed to go alone anywhere in the High Court; our lives are at risk while we are here. Have you forgotten so soon?” Cyra’s face screwed up in confusion, and she stood slowly, taking care to avoid jabbing her leg.

“I never forget where I am Halewijn. I am terrified, but I needed some air to breathe, to think! Am I not allowed to do those things?”

“You are, but safely! The more you throw caution to the wind, the more chances Omar has to hurt either one of us. That stunt you pulled today was nothing short of stupid, Cyra!” Cyra flinched at his comment and stepped back, the wound Halewijn made with his words cutting deeper than the visible ones on her body. “Stop doing foolish things, I’m begging you. Your feud with Armantha? It needs to end. Now. The way you acted at breakfast was nothing short of childish.”

“But you don’t understan-”

“I know this,” Halewijn paused, holding his hands up between them. “If you don’t stop making things hard for us, there might not be a wedding.” With those words, he left Cyra in the bathroom, naked and afraid.

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