The lands of Eglantine were aflame with tall fires, and the skies were blackened with dense smoke, littered with flakes of ash that fell down to the ground. It smelt of charred wood and burnt rubble, while white fumes puffed up and off of doused fires in the courtyard. I watched everything from above, atop a wall-walk that overlooked the courtyard.
I chattered when a shrill wind blew by, whipping up ash into my hair and onto my fur cloak. I bundled myself tighter in it and huddled up close to the edge of the wall-walk, staring with wide eyes at the black-armored soldiers that poured into our courtyard. They taunted our soldiers and sneered at others, their presence striking fear into my heart.
Their murderous intent had been fast and cunning, taking us by sudden surprise. The Tarynians were said to not come down their mountain during the cold months, yet it appeared they had and to seize our small kingdom.
With a trembling hand, I placed it on the parapet, the stone nipping at my palm and fingers while I leaned in it, to see more of the proceedings below. Atop the stairs stood my stepmother, Queen Hyacinth, and beside her were my half-siblings, Eleanora, and Hector. I and my father were missing among our royal family, but unlike my father, I was still alive, just not permitted to stand beside everyone.
At the forefront of the gathering of Tarynian soldiers stood the two kings, Hrafn and Sindri. From where I was, I vaguely made out darkened blotches of crimson on Sindri’s hands and a splatter of it across his face, enough to make me believe that death surely spilled from his soul. He stood head and shoulders above everyone, even Hrafn, who I couldn’t take my eyes off.
He had hair that was white as snow, just as the stories had said, and he stayed close to Sindri, attentive yet almost a background figure as he was overshadowed by Sindri. Despite how every eye was on Sindri, I never once let my gaze leave Hrafn, drawn to watch him intently for an unknown reason.
Leaning against the parapet, I followed his movements with my eyes then flicked my gaze to Sindri when he stepped forward, his fists curling at his sides. I couldn’t make out the intricate details of his expression, but by how quickly he spat his words, I deciphered my stepmother had said something to warrant his anger, though, I couldn’t hear a word, no matter how hard I strained my ears.
I thought for a second to go down, to be closer, but the idea fled me when I met Hrafn’s gaze. We stared at each other, unmoving and unwavering, his cold eyes clashing with my frightened ones, until I ducked behind the parapets, crouching out of his sight. I sucked in sharp breaths as my heart thudded out of my chest before I gained a slight nerve and peeked out between the slit of the two parapets, to see him looking forward now, instead of over to me.
He’d taken notice of me, which was odd because I was high up, far back from the stairs and front doors of the castle. I had to be imagining that I’d just held his gaze as I was terribly insignificant, but to prove my assumption, I peered over at him again, through the slit. He glanced to where I was once more, his eyes never settling on one point as they searched the top of the wall, seemingly looking for me, until he was distracted.
Looking disgruntled, Sindri abruptly turned and walked away, heading across our courtyard. With my eyes, I followed him and Hrafn for as long as I could, until they disappeared behind the guardhouse, but they left something in their wake. The stench hit me first, making me gag and put my hand over my nose and mouth, to try to block the reeking odor. I heard the mourning cries before I saw what had caused an up rise of anguish.
There, upon the edge of our fountain, sat severed heads, perched for all who came through to see. I stared emptily at them, or more so the one in the center of them, as it was my father’s. He was unmistakable as his crown was placed atop his head but slightly off center, tilting at one corner. It looked as if someone had stuck it back on after they’d beheaded him, mocking our failed attempt to defend ourselves.
I turned around in my crouched position then sat down, placing my back against the parapet. I huddled my knees to my chest and wrapped my arms around them tightly, trying to stop the shudders that worked through me, but they only grew worse as my cheeks became wet from my tears that dripped out of my eyes.
Through blurry vision, I watched the specks of grey ash continue to fall all around me while the loud wails echoed from the courtyard. It was like a nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from, but I could’ve chosen to avoid seeing and hearing everything, only I hadn’t. Except now, I regretted having eluded my guard, Jax, to come out here.
It was all too much for me, but it was the inhumanity of them leaving behind those heads that had been my last straw. The Tarynians had already won, ravaged our kingdom, and killed our soldiers, and yet they still wanted to make a mockery of us. It made me believe that there truly was no light in these men’s hearts. That they were so heartless that they had decidedly put the dead on display, as if they were trophies.
Their perceived ruthlessness aligned with all the tales of their brutality, which became more than just stories to me. Now I had seen the callous and cruel men, the ones who had been said to burn and steal, murder, and rape. They’d come here and done the same, and now they had left, leaving behind their demands and an everlasting imprint.
Their imprint would be felt throughout Eglantine for the weeks to come while we rebuilt from our devastating loss and healed from the ones who’d died upon the battlefield.
However, if the tales held any water, then they would return for their token of loyalty, whatever it might be.