Ansel woke up as the sun came through the curtains of the bedroom. He looked over at the empty side of the bed next to him and sighed. It was so painful to wake up each morning and realize the past two months had not been a nightmare. Each morning he work up hoping to turn over and find Griffa smiling at him, but each morning he just faced an empty space.
Ansel’s hand went to the pendant on his chest, and he pressed it to his skin. He waited, holding his breath for a few moments before he felt his pendant warm. He let out his breath.
“Good morning, Griffa,” he whispered to himself.
He got up from the bed and dressed for the day. It would be a hard day. It was the first day of spring which meant it was Griffa’s birthday. Ansel walked downstairs to the dining room. Talon, Kedan, and Issa were at the table quietly eating.
“Good morning, Ansel,” said Issa smiling slightly at Ansel.
Ansel nodded to her.
“How are you this morning?” asked Talon after taking a sip of tea.
“I’m fine,” answered Ansel taking some toast.
“I know this can’t be an easy day for you,” said Talon. “I’m rather low myself.”
Kedan looked at Talon with a puzzled look.
“It’s Griffa’s birthday,” explained Talon.
Ansel looked at Talon. “You remembered today was Griffa’s birthday?”
“Yes, I have known Griffa for a very long time. She actually spent her twentieth birthday we me in the Valley. It was a memorable time,” said Talon with a smirk.
Issa stop lifting her fork halfway to her mouth. Kedan looked between Ansel and Talon. Ansel gave Talon a little smug grin. He knew Talon like to bait him for fun at times. He also knew Talon and Griffa had a history. It didn’t bother him, much.
“She is a very memorable woman,” said Ansel casually.
“She is,” agreed Talon. “We will have to celebrate in a few weeks when she is with us, both her and Max.”
Ansel nodded and ate his toast. That is what kept Ansel going. Every day was one day closer to the Spring Festival in Aurumist. Kedan had told them it would be the perfect day to sneak into the castle and grab Max and Griffa without much interference. It would be the best chance they had to get them out safely.
“We have a Ring meeting in a few days,” said Ansel. “I would like you to go with us, Kedan. You can help us lay out our plan for the rescue.”
“I will be happy to attend,” replied Kedan. “Before we go, I would like to look at the map you have here again, if one of you could help me. I would like to be able to go over plan visually before I explain it to your Ring.”
“I will be happy to show you tonight,” said Ansel. “I had planned to check in with my guards today, but after dinner we could take a look at it.”
“I will join you as well,” said Talon. “I don’t have to go back to the Valley until tomorrow.”
They all finished breakfast in silence. Ansel noticed things were much more tense and quiet these days. He missed hearing Griffa banter with them all. He missed Max making silly comments. Ansel felt incomplete without both of them. He knew part of it was his bond with Griffa. His magic continually reminded him she was away from him and in danger. It was bigger that, though. He missed both Max and Griffa because of who they were.
He missed training with Max, and he missed his conversations with him. Ansel didn’t realize what good friends they had actually become. He wasn’t Max protector, but he still felt responsible for him. He had brought him into this world of danger and magic. He had watched Max grow and change. Max was almost of age, and he had turned into a wise and capable sorcerer. He would one day be the diviner on the Ring, and Ansel found he was very proud of Max.
Ansel tried hard not to think of Griffa constantly, but he failed most of the time. She was everywhere in Keene Manor. He had watched her grow up here. He had fallen in love with her under this roof. He had shared her bed every night since last summer. He missed her so bad, it hurt. It wasn’t the protector magic within him, it was a different ache. It was the ache of missing the best part of himself.
Griffa brought out a different side in Ansel. She could make him laugh like no other. She could make him feel lighthearted when he was usually grounded in worry. She made him feel strong and loved. He felt more loved by Griffa than he had ever felt before.
He had spent many nights reading on protector’s magic the past two months. He knew there should be no way he could be in love with Griffa. It was unheard of for a protector to love his sovereign. When the magical bond was made, it was made so that love would not get in the way of duty. A protector was devoted to his sovereign because it was his duty. There was no way Ansel should love Griffa, but he did.
He sometimes wondered if Griffa’s feeling for him had changed. Did she know who she was? Did she understand that she was his queen? If so, had she felt a change in their relationship? Did she still love Ansel as she did before? Ansel didn’t know, but it didn’t matter to him. He would love Griffa until the day he died. He would have no other.
If she didn’t love him after this, he would serve her well. He would devote his whole life to her and not just with his protector’s magic. He would do everything to keep her safe and happy. Even if that meant seeing her with someone else. The thought gave him great pain, but Griffa’s happiness and well-being would always come first.
Ansel finished breakfast and went to train with his guards. He had some new recruits from the Valley who had come to train in Abscon. He wanted his guards, Griffa’s guards, to be in top shape for what was to come. He would do everything he could to make sure Griffa sat on the throne.
After a long day, Ansel came home, cleaned up, and ate dinner with the rest of the house. Maybell seemed to be having a very difficult time with the day. She made all of Griffa’s favorite dishes like she always did when Griffa was home on her birthday. She looked on the verge of tears as she sat down.
“Maybell,” said Ansel looking at her. “Do you remember Griffa’s tenth birthday? Renweard had planned a nice dinner with friends to celebrate her. Several Ring members were there. It was time for dinner, and Griffa was nowhere to be found. Renweard sent me to go find her. He was worried sick.
“I found her in a barn at the edge of town. She had been out walking, and she heard a farmer calling for help. All of his pigs had gotten out. Griffa helped him catch them with magic and with her bare hands. She was sitting in the middle of the pig pen when I found her, covered in mud, and petting a young pig. I took her home. She was so dirty, I had to help her sneak up the stairs and go get you so you could clean her up. I think she might have still had a little mud in her hair when she finally came down for dinner.”
“That girl always seemed to come home covered in dirt,” said Maybell laughing. “She ruined so many dresses, I thought Renweard was just going to start putting her in pants.”
Ansel smiled as Maybell shared more stories about Griffa. Talon even had a few interesting stories from when she would visit the Valley as a child. By the end of the meal everyone was laughing. It was a nice change from the regular quiet, solemn mealtimes.
Even when you aren’t here, you make everything livelier, Griff, thought Ansel to himself.
After dinner, Ansel went with Kedan and Talon to the strategy room to look over the large map that was there on the table. Ansel stood on the side closest to the palace, ready to show Kedan whatever he might want to see.
“The entrance to the tunnels for the castle is right about here,” said Kedan pointing to a place on the river near the palace. “We will need to travel there.”
Ansel raised his hands, and the riverbank came to life. They could see reeds and grass growing on the bank. Trees spring up along the edge of the river. There were small mounds of dirt in different places a little ways up from the water’s edge.
“Here, I believe the entrance is here by this dirt mound.” Kedan pointed to the map. “I remember seeing that trio of trees by it. That is where we will go to enter the palace.”
“And this tunnel goes where?” asked Ansel.
“To my old rooms,” said Kedan. “It comes out in my old bedroom.”
“You are sure it will be empty the day we go?” Ansel looked closer at the map.
“It should be. If my wife is still living in these rooms, she will not be in during the festival. The queen will be expected to make an appearance,” said Kedan.
Ansel looked at him. Kedan had only mentioned his wife a couple of times since joining them. He had said she was with child, and he regretted leaving the child behind, but he showed no signs of fondness for his wife.
“If she is there, will there be trouble?” asked Talon as he bent down and looked over the map.
Kedan hesitated. “I’m not sure. She did help me escape the palace, but I don’t know where l stand in her esteem since I abandoned her.”
“Was this an arranged marriage?” Talon straightened up and looked at Kedan. “I hate to pry, but I would just like all the facts. Was there no love?”
Kedan looked back Talon. “It’s a long story.”
“Well, we have time. Let’s go into the study and have a drink. You and Ansel can look at this map some more later.”
Kedan looked at Ansel who shrugged. “Alright,” agreed Kedan.
They walked into the study. Talon ran out to the parlor to grab some wine and glasses. Ansel sat down in one of the large chairs by the fireplace, Kedan sitting down next to him. Ansel waved his hand and a fire lit up, warming the room.
“I have a hard time getting used to that, still,” said Kedan looking at the fire. “Everyone here just using magic so casually.”
“It’s a part of everyday life here. I suppose we might take it for granted,” replied Ansel.
Talon entered the room. He sat two large pitchers of wine on the desk and poured three glasses. He gave a glass to Ansel and Kedan, and grabbed his own glass and a chair by the desk. He brought it over to sit by the fire.
“So, tell us about your wife,” said Talon, getting to the point. “What was she like?”
“I met Teryn when I moved into the palace at twelve. I was training to be the Lord of the Kingdom, and she was training to serve the future Lady of the kingdom, my future wife. We had lessons together. She was adventurous and mischievous. She would skip lessons and get out of being in trouble every time.
“She figured out most of the secret passageways in the palace, and she started coming into my rooms at night. We just stayed up talking at first, but as we grew up, so did our feelings. After we both reached the age of maturity, we became more intimate with one another.”
“So, you did marry for love?” asked Talon.
“I’m not sure.” Kedan took a drink of his wine. “I never thought I would marry Teryn. I was expected to choose a wife from the most prestigious families of the first ring of Aurumist. Teryn was from the first ring, but her family was very much below my own. I enjoyed her company, but I knew I could never marry her.”
“But you did,” pointed out Talon.
“I did. Golnar, the one I told you about earlier, found a way to release magic in people with magical blood who couldn’t use their magic before. He started with himself. I believe he used Teryn’s blood for the first batch of the elixir. He released his own magic, Teryn’s, and my mother’s. I don’t remember much about the time after that. They next thing I knew was I was married. I remember being happy, but it was all a blur.”
“Why, what happened?” asked Talon, drinking his wine.
“He was enthralled,” said Ansel. “His wife is an enchantress.”
“Kedan turned and looked at Ansel. “Yes. My mother as well. How did you know?”
“I’ve had my own experiences with an enchantress. I don’t wish to repeat them.” Ansel drained his glass, and Talon refilled it for him promptly.
“There were some moments of clarity. We went to the river together last summer, and my head felt so clear. I started to look at my life and realize I was not a good person. I was certainly a horrible leader. I wanted to do more. Teryn was too sick from carrying our child to have the energy to enthrall me. I learned much about the kingdom and what was going on.
“When we got back to Aurumist, they crowned me a king, and Teryn and mother went right back to enthralling me when I became too much trouble. When I visited Daracha, your spy, my eyes were opened. I went back to the palace to try to get Teryn to come with me because of our child, but she wouldn’t go.” Kedan paused and took a large swig of wine.
“How do you feel about her now?” asked Talon.
“I don’t know. How do I know if my feelings of love were real? How do I know if she felt anything for me? She could have been using me to get what she wanted.”
“Never get involved with an enchantress,” said Ansel. “They can’t be trusted. I’ve only met one I like, and she doesn’t have full use of her powers.”
“Will you tell us about your enchantress, Ansel?” Talon smiled and raised his eyebrows.
“She was never my enchantress, and I will not tell you a thing.” Ansel took a long drink of wine. “She’s an awful woman that I have no use for. I wished I had never crossed paths with her.”
Kedan raised his glass at Ansel. “I understand.” He drained his glass. As Talon refilled Kedan’s glass, Kedan’s eyes went to the mantle over the fireplace. Something caught his eye, and he got up and grabbed a portrait there.
“So, this is Griffa?” asked Kedan showing the portrait to Ansel.
Ansel looked at it. “It is. It was taken for her sixteenth birthday. I believe it’s the last portrait taken of her. She hasn’t had one taken since her father died. She doesn’t think much of her own appearance.”
“Why not?” asked Kedan drinking from his glass looking at the portrait. “She is lovely.”
“She also isn’t good at sitting still for a portrait,” said Ansel thinking he wished she had sat for a more current painting.
Talon leaned over to take a look at the portrait. “It’s nicely done, but her eyes are a darker blue than that. Her hair is redder. She has grown since then.”
“What is she like?” asked Kedan as he asked for a refill of his glass. Talon poured the last of the wine into his glass. He raised his hand and another pitcher of wine zoomed to him from somewhere in the house.
“Hmmm,” said Talon refilling his own glass. “She’s beautiful as you can see. She’s very brave and outspoken.”
“She’s kind and generous, but also infuriating at times. She doesn’t like being told what to do.” Ansel took the pitcher from Talon to refill his own glass.
“No, but she likes to tell others what to do. Everyone usually does as she says, too. I know I always have, and I’m not complaining about it.” Talon laughed.
“She sounds like she will be a good queen,” said Kedan. He got up shakily and put the portrait back on the mantle.
“She will be,” said Ansel with certainty. “Once she gets used to the idea.”
“How will it work with you being her protector?” asked Talon. “Can you be her consort and her protector?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Ansel. “It shouldn’t be possible that I would event want to be with her.”
“But you do,” said Talon. “You still love her.”
“Yes.” Ansel finished his glass of wine. “I thought I might feel different about her once I realized who she was, but I don’t. I just wonder if she will feel the same about me. Perhaps you can be her consort, Talon.”
Talon gave Ansel a small smile “I wouldn’t be opposed. I am very fond of Griffa as you know. Marriage to her would come with many benefits, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about, Ansel. Griffa is stubborn and once her mind is made up, she doesn’t change it. I imagine her heart is the same.”
“I would ask one of you to explain this protector thing to me, but I don’t think I would understand much of it tonight. Perhaps another time. Maybe we should go to bed,” said Kedan with his hand over his eyes.
“No, it’s early yet,” answered Talon refilling Kedan and Ansel’s glasses. “It’s a special night. Just because she isn’t here, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate Griffa’s birthday. She would want us to celebrate.”
“If Griffa were here, I don’t think this is how I would be celebrating,” said Ansel with a grin. He drank from his glass.
“Do you want to tell us how you would celebrate?” asked Talon. Kedan took his hand off his eyes and looked at Ansel.
Ansel said nothing but gave Talon a stern look.
“Perhaps after some more wine, Ansel?” asked Talon holding up the pitcher of wine.
“No, there isn’t enough wine in the kingdom for me to tell you that, Talon.”
“Well, then maybe I should tell you how she and I celebrated her twentieth birthday,” said Talon as Kedan laughed.
“There is definitely not enough wine in the kingdom and beyond for me to endure that story,” said Ansel looking harshly at Talon. Kedan laughed harder and was joined by Talon.
“Fine, a toast then. We should have a toast to Griffa,” said Talon enthusiastically. “To Griffa, never has there been a woman more kind, brave, and infuriatingly enticing.”
“To the queen,” said Kedan slurring and raising his glass.
Ansel raised his glass and quietly said, “Happy birthday, my love.” He drank and then pressed his pendant against his chest. A few moments later he felt his own pendant grow warm.