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This is the first part of a 34,500 word piece that I am hoping to expand into book-length for publishing. I am open to any comments or suggestions. Thank you for taking the time to read my work. May God bless you.
'~' are used to indication thoughts in italics.
"There is nothing on this one."
Darius purposely turned his face away from the man who spoke. He hated the necessary collecting of the spoils after every battle. As he rose from his crouch, he scanned the room. Spotting the king, he started toward him.
"Have they searched every room?" King Simon Jenran of Braulyn asked as Darius approached. The question was directed to the two soldiers who had just arrived.
"No," the older of the two answered wearily, "Just the women's apartments."
"Then keep looking, we must find her," the king instructed. Dismissing the pair with a wave, he turned to face Darius.
"Nothing?" Darius asked as soon as the king's attention was focused on him. As he watched his liege’s face, Darius noted the lines deepening around his master's mouth. King Jenran had aged ten years in the past eight months.
"Nothing.” The king frowned. "They have not finished looking, but my guess is they will continue to find nothing." He walked to a nearby chair and sank into it. "Has justice been served?" He nodded toward the corpse Darius had been examining.
"Dead," Darius informed him. ~And dead too soon,~ he added silently. Darius knew the outcome of this siege had been disappointing. Two months spent traveling north and then six months of sitting on their hands. The experience would drag on any warrior. All the time spent in attaining a goal, only to be routed at the last moment. "He died instantly," he added after a pause and the king nodded. Darius did not have to add the rest. They both knew who had released the arrow that killed the man.
Darius waited as his master thought. The king's bloodshot brown eyes stared into space. Darius was beginning to think the king had fallen asleep with his eyes open, when he suddenly spoke in a low voice so only Darius could hear. "She was still here this morning." Straightening in his chair, the king continued. "Gwendolyn and her women left a trail only a few hours old.” The king met Darius' eyes.
A movement caught the edge of Darius' vision, but he did not acknowledge it. Jenran continued, “If we can determine which direction they took, we might be able to overtake them."
Casually nodding his agreement, Darius swept his gaze across the room. Speaking so only his master could hear, he added, "We have an observer." The man was crouched behind one of the tapestries along the walls. Both exits were two or three hiding places from the hidden man’s position.
"Where is he?" The king did not move except to look up and catch Darius's eye as if they were in conversation.
Just then, the figure darted between shelters. Darius felt his mouth drop; he quickly disguised it by saying, "A girl."
"Did you just say it was a girl?" Jenran's weary eyes sharpened and focused more carefully on Darius.
"Yes," Darius carefully turned so he could watch both his master and the girl. "Small build, dark hair, she is definitely not Gwendolyn or one of her frequent companions." The girl darted to the next hiding place. She was one sprint away from freedom; Darius knew how she felt. The tempo of the heart pounding in his chest and the taste of freedom on his tongue were both familiar sensations. "She is mine," he said. He glimpsed the king’s smile.
"If you catch her," he agreed.
The girl darted and Darius followed. She disappeared out the door as he silently hurtled the last bench between them.
Brice ran for her life. The empty halls closed in around her and she was certain every sound echoed louder than the last. She had to get away before someone saw her. Since birth, she heard stories about how mercenaries treated the women captives after a battle. She could not be discovered. Eventually, she found herself in the promenade opening into the inner gardens. The moment her eyes fell on the lush underbrush bordering and overgrowing the paths, she had an idea.
As she turned down the nearest avenue among the trees, Brice caught sight of movement behind her. Was someone following her?
Darius watched the girl run. Automatically stepping with care in his soft leather boots, he had no trouble following the fleeing figure silently. She was quick and a good shadow dancer, but he was better. The training beaten into him since his youth made him superior to almost every man he had ever hunted or faced in battle. Keeping close enough to easily follow her progress, but not close enough to be spotted, Darius studied his choice.
In all the years Darius served Simon Jenran, King of Braulyn, he only asked for two things. He had earned the requests many times over. As a foot soldier, personal guard and now, bodyguard and head of his majesty's personal security force, Darius gave outstanding service and singular dedication. Three years ago, there had been an elaborate plot to take the king's life and then his throne. Darius discovered and foiled the plot at the last minute. In the process, he had nearly died.
After he had healed from the injuries and returned to service, Jenran promoted him and granted him two requests. For the first, Darius requested freedom. It was granted immediately. Jenran freed Darius and paid him for all his years of service making him a very rich man. The second request Darius made was that he would be able to claim something from the spoils of every operation he worked. Jenran granted the request, but Darius had never exercised the privilege until today.
Darius was only three feet away the moment the girl spotted the gardens. He had been slowly closing the gap, but not allowing himself to be seen. Watching her profile as she turned to look behind her, he knew the moment the idea came to her. She was going to escape. Springing forward as she did, he followed her practically on her heels as she cleared the doorsill and touched down on the moist moss covered path. He knew her destination, the door on the opposite side of the garden. It was the same one he had used only hours before to infiltrate the stronghold. He was not going to let her reach it though. Looking beyond her bobbing head, he searched for the clearing he knew was coming and waited until the right moment to pounce.
Brice could see the door; it even was standing open. Quickening her speed, she tried to sprint harder. Her muscles protested, but obeyed.
Now she was positive she was being pursued; she just did not know how closely. For one crazy second, she believed if she could just make it through the door, she would be free and safe. But the feeling lasted only for that second, for in the next, her foot landed wrong.
Something hard, heavy and huge struck her from behind. The ground rose up to meet her at a dangerous rate. She tried to put out her hands and catch herself, but they were pinned to her sides. All she could do was close her eyes and brace herself for the impact. Something large, warm and living wrapped itself around her at the last moment. With a deft twist in mid air and a hard jolt, Brice came to an abrupt, but surprisingly gentle stop.
Fearing who might have caught her, Brice pushed against whatever it was confining her only to find it unrelenting.
"Don't I at least get a thank you?" A deep voice asked from behind her left ear. "It is the least a rescuer should receive for saving a lady's pretty neck."
"I am not a lady," Brice pushed again against the stranger's arms. This time they released her, reluctantly. Quickly scrambling for her feet, she stepped away from the man only to find him already on his own feet and watching her warily. ~Great!~ Inwardly grimacing, Brice noticed the small gate behind the strange man's right shoulder. ~He can out run me and he is blocking my path.~
"It is safer in here," the man's voice brought her eyes and thoughts back to him. He was huge and dark. Brice struggled not to shiver or give in to the cold tingle at the base of her spine.
"I doubt it," she finally managed while she tried to judge how much of a head start she was going to need to make it to freedom and close the gate behind her. The sturdy wooden door with its iron hinges would hold him for a few minutes. Time enough for her to get away.
"I would remove the hinges." This time his voice was tinged with a hint of an accent. Brice brought her eyes back to his face and was annoyed to find a pair of dark gray eyes laughing at her. This was all a game for him she realized. A game he was confident he would win. "There are also men out there looking for your mistress, Lady Gwendolyn. They would not be as patient with you as I am being."
Brice studied him for a moment. He was very tall, over six feet. In her experience tall men usually depended on their size to compensate for speed and agility, but this man obviously had both. From the way he was balancing on the front part of his feet, he believed she was going to run. When she raised her eyes to study his face, she found those strange gray eyes studying her in return.
"Do you like what you see?" His accent was gone, but his eyes were still smiling in spite of an impassive face.
Choosing not to answer the question, Brice asked, "What do you want with me?"
His eyes suddenly sobered. "It depends."
After a few moments of uneasy silence, Brice finally asked, "On what?"
"Whether or not you cooperate," he replied. Sounds started coming from the direction of the castle. The man did not break his eye contact with her.
"And if I don't?" Brice asked. The noise became the sound of many armored feet striking stone at a measured trot.
"I will have to take you by force and convince the men that you belong to me." He frowned. "I do not think you would enjoy it."
The coming group was going to spot them standing in the center of the garden at any moment. "And the alternative…" Brice readied to make a dash for it. She would go down fighting if necessary.
"You trust me to protect you now and explain later." He slowly offered her his hand, extending it palm up between them. "Come silently and I promise not to hurt you."
Brice heard the cries as one of the men spotted them. She was running out of time, and he knew it. Still she could not decide. ~If he had wanted to hurt me, he would have made a move before now.~ Dropping her eyes to the man's hand, Brice desperately thought. ~Who do I fear more? This man is at least giving me a choice. The men coming will not.~ With the decision made, she stepped forward and reached toward his fingers.
Darius did not wait for their hands to touch. He did not have time. Mentally wincing at the fear he saw written across the girl's face the moment before he caught her up, he jumped into action. In order for him to pull off not having to demonstrate his possession of the only female plunder; they had to disappear immediately. Catching the girl around the waist, Darius dove for the nearest cover, an ancient pine with ground sweeping branches. By ducking beneath the cover and putting the trunk between the two of them and their previous position, they disappeared from view. Positioning the girl against the opposite side of the trunk, he effectively blocked anyone from seeing her if they did not look closely.
Wisely the female had not screamed. Darius looked down at her the moment they were hidden. She was grabbing the trunk behind her as if it was the only anchor in the world. She had leaned her head back against the bark, giving Darius a full view of tightly closed eyes framed by a mass of dark brown curls. The binding she had used to tame them had come loose during the previous struggle. The harsh angles of her face hinted that she had been without adequate food for a while. As he had ascertained before, she was smaller than most women but she obviously had the spirit to make up for her size.
"Hey where did he go?" Voices rose as the men came to an abrupt stop where they two of them had been standing moments before.
"What are you men doing out there?" A voice called out from the parapets over looking the enclosed garden. Immediately every man in the group tensed and their apparent leader saluted to someone out of Darius' sight.
"We thought we saw someone out here, sir." The leader below called.
"The gardens have already been searched," the unseen man informed them. "Take your detail into the dungeons. They have not been searched yet. Keep your eyes open for secret passages or rooms."
Obediently, the group reformed their ranks and trot-marched in the direction of the nearest entrance. Darius watched and listened until all the echoes had dwindled away to nothing. The small girl he was trapping against the tree had stopped trembling. Looking down to make sure she had not chosen the escape of the pampered lady and fainted on him, he encountered her grave green eyes examining his face.
He did not look cruel. Brice came to this conclusion in spite of the minor scars marring the smoothness of his face. Maybe it was because his eyes were so expressive. She was wondering how the largest and deepest of his scars affected his smile. It started near his temple and made an almost smooth path to about an inch above his jaw line. It was old and had long healed to the darkness of damaged skin. Then he turned from his scrutiny of the building and looked at her. All thoughts of his face immediately vanished from her mind.
"We are going back in." He must have seen the surprise and fear that crossed her mind for he continued. "Stay with me and you will be safe. The men will not bother you now I have claimed you as mine."
"Will you have to…” she had forgotten the words he had used. She looked away. It was hard to think with those eyes watching.
"Convince them," he supplied for her. She looked up to find his eyes laughing again. The laughter did not reach his the rest of his face though.
"Will you?" She asked.
"For your sake, let us hope not." He stepped away and offered her his hand. "Come, now is our best chance." Hesitant, but uncertain she had any alternative; Brice took it. Immediately his large warm hand gripped hers and he headed to the entrance opposite the way the men had taken.
She was small and her legs so much shorter than his, Darius found himself shortening his stride so he was not dragging her along behind him. He needed to get back to the king. The girl might know something useful. She stopped and dug in her heels the moment the entrance to the hall was in sight. He delayed his reaction until he had pulled her behind the heavy column next to the door. Turning, he backed her up by her shoulders into the shadow of the wooden pillar and blocked the only escape. He towered over her in a way that anyone who saw him would not be able to see her, though they would definitely wonder what he was doing facing a wall.
“I need to report to the King,” he told her. She was shaking so badly he could hear her teeth chattering. Most likely the memories of the massacre that had taken place in the room were now filling her mind. He had not removed his hands yet and he was afraid if he did now, she would collapse. “He is going to have a few questions for you, but after that, I might be leaving you with him.” Moving his hands from her shoulders to each side of her head, he lifted her down turned face so she was forced to meet his eyes. Their green depths were glinting with unshed tears and her bottom lip trembled despite her obvious fiery resolve that it not. “If you wish to be safe, stay with the King if I leave. He will enforce my claim on you, but if you leave his presence, I cannot vouch for what will happen. Do you understand?”
She nodded slightly before pulling her head from his hands to again study the hard tile floor.
“Ay Darius,” a voice called from behind Darius. He turned away from the girl to greet Ewian. “I have been looking for you all over. What did you find in the garden that the others were so….” The man stopped abruptly when he caught sight of the girl. “Ah, a little brown bird,” the smaller man smiled slowly. “I would not wish to share her either.” Darius did not allow his annoyance to show; countryman or not, Ewian had better keep his distance from this little brown bird.
“I was about to report to King Jenran,” Darius said. “Are you doing the same?”
“Oh, no,” Ewian took a step in the opposite direction. “I was just looking for you. I will be going now.” He quickly disappeared the way he had come.
“The King will only want to ask some questions,” the man said again when the other had disappeared. The other had looked similar in coloring, but his eyes had been brown and his build not as tall. Bracing his arm against the column to her left, the one called Darius leaned down closer to her face. “Remember you are not out of danger yet.” Brice found her eyes looking into his. “The king will honor my claim. Near him, or me you will be safe; but anywhere else until the word has spread you are in grave danger. See you do not leave my side.”
Abruptly he drew back and took her hand again. Turning, he thrust open the door and strode back into the very room she had fled only moments before. Brice willed herself not to panic as she was pulled with him.
She swallowed carefully and looked around. The room was much the same as she had last seen it. There were fewer men moving about and her master's body had been covered with the hearthrug, but the tables were still overturned and the red-haired man still sat in the master's carved chair. Her captor made his way directly to this man. Pausing in his approach, a few feet from the man, he bowed and shot her a glare. Getting the idea she was supposed to show respect, Brice managed a weak curtsy. She would have fallen over if he had released her hand.
“Ah Darius, a successful pursuit, I see,” the red haired man said. “Rise and approach, I wish to question the girl.” Lifting her head, Brice found the new man's eyes on her face. They were dark brown. After a gentle prod from her companion, Brice stepped closer as the man looked her over.
“What is your name?” He was looking with interest at her bare feet. She felt her ears warm. They were probably muddy after the trip through the garden.
“Brice, sir,” she answered.
“Sire or your majesty,” her captor informed her.
Brice's eyes flew to the red-haired man's head, only then did she see the gold circlet among the dark curls. She immediately dropped her eyes and wished the ground would swallow her. “Pardon me,” she had no doubt her ears were red. Thankful they were beneath her hair, she corrected herself, “Your Majesty.”
“'Sire' is fine child,” the king actually smiled. He then addressed the man behind her. “Where did you catch her?”
“The garden, Sire,” the man answered. “She was making for the back gate.”
The king nodded and then asked, “Slave or free?”
“Slave,” the man said. Brice almost touched the heavy leather collar around her neck, but managed the last minute to restrain herself. ~How had he known?~ The collar was well hidden beneath her clothing.
“Who's?” The king returned to looking her over.
“I would guess she was a lady's maid from her hands. The calluses are not hard enough for a kitchen wench.” Brice felt the man shift. “But she runs like one accustomed to running.” The mercenary's thoughtful tone sent shivers up her back. ~What else did he know?~
“What do you mean, Darius?” The king asked. Brice felt his eyes leave their survey of her and meet the man's over her head.
“She was not always a lady's maid.”
“Well, then, lady's maid,” the king said engaging Brice's eyes. “Were you in contact with the lord's daughter, Gwendolyn?”
“Was she well?”
“Yes, sire.” That was an odd question to ask her.
“And the babe?”
This time there was no mistaking the oddness. Brice was confused. “What babe, sire?”
“Has not Gwendolyn recently given birth to a child?” The king's face was at total odds with his tone. His voice was inquisitive, but his eyes were calm, cold, and calculating. “Or perhaps she has suffered a miscarriage within the past few months?”
“Is she large with child?” the man behind her asked.
“None of these things are true,” Brice found herself saying. Had these men gone mad?
Surprise crossed the king's face as he dropped his eyes. After a moment, he rose from his chair in one smooth movement and crossed to the covered body only a few feet away. “Micrey,” the king said to the corpse, “You were too crafty for your own good.”
“There was no child,” the voice behind her was weary sounding. Brice turned to look at the man the King had called Darius. When he met her eyes, she was surprised to find them to be sorrowful.
Just then, the main doors opened with a crash and the other Ratharian and a large group of men entered dragging a young farmer.
“Sire, we found this man hiding in the wine cellar.”
The king nodded and waved them away. “Have my horse brought up to the entrance. We are returning to camp.”
The men retreated and the Ratharian paused long enough to bow and say, “Yes sire,” before disappearing after them.
“We break camp tonight.” The red-haired ruler abruptly declared. “Darius, see that the orders are spread.” Turning to leave, the king would have left the room, except Darius, her captor spoke.
“I wish to have my claim be made legal.”
The king stopped and turned to regard Darius. “Why? The other men…” he broke off. “Alright,” he said as he turned back toward the door. “When we reach camp, I will see what I can manage.” He disappeared through the open door.
“Come,” Darius directed the order toward the girl. She turned a puzzled face toward him.
“Why did you attack us?”
Darius blinked. It took him a moment to realize that she wanted to know the purpose of the siege and the attack. Obviously she would be aware of the drama playing out around her and would have questions.
“Later,” he started toward the door the king had just used. Turning back to see if she was following, he found she had not moved. He clarified, “I will answer your questions later, I promise.”
For a moment, Darius wondered if he was going to need to use force again to bring her along. Wishing with all his heart there was more time to reassure her, he took a step back in her direction. “I will come,” she said. He looked up to see her eyes watching him with a mixture of fear and confusion.
“Then, come,” He replied. He crossed to the door and swung it open as she approached. Obediently, she followed.
Darius put his arm protectively around her shoulders the moment they had stepped into the hall. He drew her along with him as he made his way to the main courtyard, where the king would be preparing to ride out to their camp outside the curtain walls.
(c)2005 Rachel Rossano
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