Arms stiff and numb, and soaked in the spray of waves he touched down on the sandy beach. Icy waves swirled round his ankles. The princes had moved up the shore, above the line of waves and stood waiting, clutching their fur cloaks tight against the wind. Their faces were near as pale as Innogen’s.
“Mother,” one boy cried, as Cab came closer with her still in his arms. He reached out to touch her, shook her arm.
“She’s gone,” Cab said softly.
“What do you mean gone?” The other boy cried. “Where has she gone to?”
“Mama,” the first boy whined and then turned to his brother. “She can’t really be, can she?”
His brother only glared at Cab, waiting for a response. Tears dripped down the first boy’s cheeks.
“You well know where she’s gone,” Cab snapped. “And we’ll be following her if we don’t-,”
An arrow struck the water ten paces away.
“Run,” Cab finished.
A league of beach reached away from the rocky base of the castle to touch the feet of another sheer cliff, this one extending up, higher than the castle itself, perhaps another four leagues or so. Carved into that cliff face was another stair, in worse condition, crumbling and crowded with the nests of seabirds. But there was no other option, for cliffs rose up all around them, where the icy ocean did not block their escape, and there were but two sets of stairs.
“Where?” the crying boy wailed. “There’s no where to go!”
“That way,” Cab motioned with his head. “There’s another stair.”
Ethamyn took hold of his brother and dragged him away. They stumbled a little at first, but once Cairbre had wiped the tears from his eyes they were quick enough. They raced from the lee of the cliff, from the shadow of the rock that hid them from the archers, still well up the cliff side, and as they did so arrows rained down upon them, piercing the waves and sand. Cab prayed to the Lord of Winds to keep the arrows from them, for He had carved this tiny inlet with His winds and waves, and if any power there could save them, it must surely be Him.
But the night had been long already and Cab was wearying, greenwood and wine still fluttering through him. Arrows struck the beach around him with a quick whistle and thwack and with every arrow in the surf the waves seemed to grow stronger, reaching up the beach to suck at his feet and make the going harder. Already his muscles burned, seemed ready to ignite. They did and he hit the sand, losing Innogen and gaining a mouthful of sandy saltwater. Spitting and cursing he wiped his face clear to see the queen’s corpse, limp and pale with but one spot of bright colour, encircled by the oncoming waves.
“Mother!” the crying boy screamed. Cab turned at his cry to see him trying to run to her, held back by his brother, whose eyes were upon the cliff side from whence they had come, wide with the knowledge of that which pursued them. Cab hollered for them to keep running, wondering if they were out of range of the arrows, knowing that he was not. To remind him another volley of arrows pattered around him, one struck him in the middle of the back, stopped by the brigandine, fell uselessly aside, but still knocked the breath from him. He gasped, choked on salt water and dragged himself up, though there was a fire raging in his left calf. He glanced down to see the end of an arrow protruding from the muscle there, it had not hit bone or he would be howling, but hurt well enough, as only an inch thick shaft protruding from the body can. He snapped the shaft off with a growl, leaving only a few inches protruding. Getting to his feet was harder than he had hoped. Soaked in cold salt water, covered in sand, muscles screaming, head aching and still trying to get the last of the salt water from his lungs, he limped after the children, glancing back to survey their attackers. He nearly laughed with relief. Twenty paces or so from the bottom of the stair stood five archers. Three stood dumbly and stared, having no arrows left in their quivers. The other two were quicker of wit, they had discarded bows and were drawing swords, leaping down the last of the narrow steps.
He stopped to breathe and remembered Innogen. She lay there in the surf, water washing over her limp form, surrounding her in it’s icy embrace.
Lay me in Her arms, she had said, which went against everything either of them had ever been taught. All Dreamer’s noble children are laid to rest in a cairn, it had been this way for all the men and women of Ur. There they lie in wait, dreaming of the next life, joined by those who have gone before them and waiting for those who come after. The followers of Mag Rand Am are never reborn, forever trapped in her watery domain with the souls of sailors lost at sea and women dead in childbirth. It was the greatest blasphemy she could have dreamed of. But how can a queen love the goddess of slaves and madmen? For those were who the White Lady loved the best.
He fell in the surf beside her, attempted to lift her up but he was not strong enough. He leaned over her, brushed wet sand and loose strands of fiery hair from a face made of porcelain. He kissed her icy lips and pushed back the sorrow and rage that he felt within him. It was over for her. It had been over at the top of the stair and she had known it. She had embraced her death, had feared only for the lives of her children. Those lives were in his hands now.
The children were no longer running. They stood staring, black eyes wide, one clutching the arm of the other, letting the rising waves wash over their boots, drag on the ends of their cloaks.
“Run!” he roared, putting all the pain of her death into it. He pulled himself to his feet, unsteady, favouring his right side. The claymore was too heavy for him to wield with the arrow in his leg so he stood, watching the archers-turned-swordsmen approach, with his hands out to his sides in surrender.
But the man that came first did not even think of surrender, he came with the wild gleam of murder in his eyes. Cab snatched up his dagger, leaped within the man’s poorly kept guard and stabbed him in the armpit, slicing through muscle and tendon. But his leap had been off balance, the man grabbed at him with his good arm and together they fell into the surf. Cab roared as the man’s legs and the ground proceeded to batter the arrow piece protruding from his calf and he raged, blinded by pain, striking out in whatever manner he could until the man was still.
He was dragging himself up, but still on hands and knees when the second man approached, a little more cautiously, and laid the tip of his sword upon the back of Cab’s neck.
“Surrender,” the man said. “And you may be spared. The Captain only wants the children.”
Cab laughed hoarsely and looked up at the man.
“You do not know the Captain well enough,” he said, observing the man’s stance. He was afraid, that much was clear upon his face, the question was why? The answer lay in the way he held himself, held his weapon. Either he had never killed a man before at such close quarters or he was not accustomed to fighting with a sword.
“Gods give me strength,” Cab whispered as he dropped his head. Dredging up the last of his speed and power, he whipped a hand up, knocked the sword aside with his dagger and threw himself at the man, driving the dagger up into his groin. The man fell upon his back, screaming, and Cab pulled out the dagger to slice his throat. His blood flowed thick, drank up by the Lady of the Water. Three souls she would have today, but not Cab’s and not the princes of Ur.
The tide was coming in fast now, water swirling around the bodies. Cab, back on hands and knees managed to lift his heavy head up to survey the remaining archers. They stood still upon the stair, clutching their bows, dumbstruck and afraid. His head dropped again, too heavy. Innogen’s body was being played with by the waves, one minute obscured the next dragged out toward the ocean.
Cab found he could not move. His arms shook trying to hold him up, his leg, still afire with pain, was dulling now from the icy cold water. His teeth chattered, his face covered in sand and blood. It seemed as though the chain shirt and brigandine had gained the weight of a small child upon his back and his head spun.
A small hand fell upon his shoulder. “Get up,” one of the prince’s commanded. Cab took a few deep breaths, hardly able to look up into the child’s face.
“You’re supposed to follow mother’s commands,” the boy snarled. “Well she’s dead. So you listen to me now and I say get up.” He took up a handful of Cab’s shorn hair and lifted his heavy head. Black eyes stared into unmistakably black eyes and then the boy slapped him.
“Get up!” he practically screamed.
It seemed to take every last ounce of strength he had hidden within him in order to get up, but he was able to stand. He wiped the dagger off on his britches and sheathed it. The boys stood side by side. The one who had commanded him to stand must have been the elder, Ethamyn, for he stood resolute, proud and haughty, as a king might. His brother, on the other hand, chewed on his fingers and stared at his mother’s corpse. He said a few words, muffled by his hand and unheard by Cab.
“We have to go, before those men decide to come after us,” Ethamyn explained. Fresh tears shone in Cairbre’s eyes but they did not fall.
The wind did not cease nor the rising of the waves so that by the time the prince’s and their warden had struggled to the opposite cliff edge the water was high and hindering. Ethamyn motioned his brother up before him and they climbed, using hands as well as feet, up the path that could hardly be called a stair. Cab’s leg throbbed and he had to stop to rest frequently. It was a long, hard struggle to the top, and the early winter sun was high overhead by the time they reached it. They collapsed upon the grass there.
Cab took deep long breaths, lying upon his stomach. He had worked up a sweat, despite his soaked clothes and now that he was no longer moving it cooled and he began to shiver. Or perhaps the shivering was from his wound, he could not be sure. His head still spun. Ethamyn looked out over the edge of the cliff they had just climbed, watched the tiny distant figures of the remaining archers attempting to gather up their dead comrades and his mother. She would not dance with the Lady of the Waters. They would lay her to rest properly, and that, at least, gave him some peace. Cairbre sat staring out to the west, over the ocean that seemed to stretched forever into Mortholm. When the sun set that evening it would create a road of golden light that stretched from the land of the dead to that lonely inlet. His mother would walk that road into the darkness, and she would have the two archers as an honour guard. Cairbre thought she deserved so much more. For despite the distance that lies between a queen and her children, she was all the mother they had ever had and she had loved them. She had come to them when trouble had arose and in the moment when Cantan’s blade came forward she pushed her children behind her when she could have leaped out of the way.
Cairbre would relive that moment every time he thought of his mother now. The darkness, the gleaming blade, and her hand upon his chest, pushing him back, pushing him out of harms way. And her cry in that darkness, as blade broke flesh and pierced through muscle and organ, pulled blood from its home, that cry would echo in his dreams and he would never forget.
It would echo in Ethamyn’s dreams as well, but he would never be as grateful for the memory as his brother. For his mother’s death had always meant the crown for him. But where was the crown? Had she left it behind? And the sceptre? She had dropped it when that bastard had stabbed her and no one had picked it up. His head had been clouded by her cry, by her blood pouring from the wound, pattering upon the floor, a sound loud enough to hear over the clashing of swords. The world was not as it should be. She should be alive. He should not yet be king. But he was, or should be. Cantan had taken that from him, as well as his mother. All the sorrow within him turned to a burning rage and hatred and he did not shed a tear.
Cab said nothing to the children, for what was there to say, what comfort could he possibly provide? They did not know him and he did not know children. All he could do was try to remember how he felt when his mother died. But he was far younger than they were, he remembered only a fall of black hair, and then nursemaids. Better for them to provide comfort for each other. Better for him to worry about what to do next. But how could he know what to do if he was still not even certain what had happened? Was it simply revenge on the part of Cantan? Did he aim merely to kill the queen or was he attempting to take over the entire kingdom? To depose the family of Ur and rule in their stead?
Whatever the case the prince’s were in danger. They would have to run. They would have to hide. Until the truth could be determined no one could be trusted. Except perhaps....
The Eye sigil hung upon his chest, the light reflecting off of it. It had been given him by the monks of the Nameless One, in their monastery far to the East in the mountains of Nile. They might be safe there, but the journey was long and they could only be safe if they moved through the mountains. Avoid the roads, move alongside the border to Laukklann, territory of barbarians.
Decided, he attempted to stand and his leg gave out, the pain fresh and sharp. His second attempt was more careful and soon he was standing. He had to find some way to get the arrow out, but first they needed to get out of the open, into the trees. They needed a fire, fast, to warm and dry them before the darkness and the cold fell upon them.
“We can’t stay here,” he said. “Come.” He waited only a moment to be sure they followed and then limped off into the forest.
The wind off the ocean died down as they moved in among the trees. Cab tried to keep a steady pace but it wasn’t long before the pain in his leg had travelled up to his knee and down to his ankle. He found himself a walking stick on which to lean, but the way was not smooth and simple. There was brush and undergrowth and other such to navigate through and the farther from the ocean they went the colder it became, until they started to see snow. Winter came quicker in the mountains. He pushed himself as far as he could, the movement at least would keep them warm, but he could not keep it up. He was sweating and shaking and his knee was stiff before he finally called a halt beside a fallen log.
They cleared the area, built a fire and dried themselves. If they were being tracked they would be found, but they could not afford to go on without drying themselves first. He set up a sort of rack upon which to dry their clothes and the boys hung up their moist garments and he his brigandine and tunic, and he set the chain shirt on the ground. Three sets of boots surrounded the fire as Cab settled himself into a position where he was able to roll up the leg of his britches and have a good look at his wound.
Some of the blood had dried but the constant movement had not allowed for much. It oozed blood and wept a slightly yellow liquid, the skin around it bruised and purple. There was but a small tip of the arrow shaft still protruding from his leg and when he clasped it and tried to pull he nearly blacked out from the pain. Damned barbed arrows. The other thought was to push the arrow out, and that would be just as difficult.
He found a piece of wood to bite down on. Took many deep breaths and thought on the beauty and splendour that was the monastery of the Nameless One and then when he felt he might be close to peace, he steeled himself and pushed the arrow through. It was not wont to go so easily and he bit down upon the stick and growled as he did so, trying to banish the pain to another part of the world.
He stopped, breathing heavily, trying to ignore the stares of the children. Tears were in his eyes and his jaw and teeth hurt but not nearly so much as his calf. The arrowhead pushed against the flesh and with one last great motion it pierced and came out the other side. He took up the bloody tip and eased the broken shaft all the way out, dropping it and nearly falling himself. He eased the stick from his locked jaw, an imprint of his teeth upon it clearly and took great heaving breaths. Then he cut away a portion of his tunic and wrapped up the wound, but it did not feel good and he worried that it would be the death of him. How was he going to get them to the monastery? It was hundreds of leagues taking the main roads, and they could not risk being seen, though few would likely recognize the prince’s of Ur. He was really in no condition to keep them safe, not with the injury.
His stomach growled and he realized that they had not eaten yet. That was another problem.
“What have you in those packs?” he asked, easing himself to lean against the fallen log.
Ethamyn opened his pack and there upon the top sat the crown of wings. He pulled it out, biting his lower lip to keep from crying. She had left it for him after all. Though he did not have the sceptre, which was the true power of Ur, he had this token and those who had taken his rightful place in the palace of Andrese would never be able to rule without knowing that they were falsely placed.