|Cover art (c) MarjoleinART |
Fabinus08, Asiavasmun, Julia Kharlamova, Sgc,
Reno12, Dreamstime.com |
Hadley Rille Books
|Map of Sildehna Copyright (c) Ginger Prewitt
THE DRUM OF HOOVES BROKE THE NIGHT. At a curve in the
road, the lone rider jerked her horse to a halt and edged toward the
"Where are you?" Ki'leah whispered, glancing back down the road.
She was late; he should have been there already, waiting.
She slipped her hand into the pocket of her breeches and wrapped
her fingers around Daelen's note, comforted to find it still there.
Midnight. The road east. I will be there, he had written in his neat,
sloping hand. She pictured him seated at the narrow, ink-stained
desk in his quarters, sleeves rolled to the elbows and his black hair
curling over the back of his collar. The tension in her shoulders
eased. He would come. He had promised.
But where was he? She shifted in the saddle, gathering her cloak
around her. Daelen was never late. He was detained, that was all.
She thrust aside grim images of Daelen thrown from his horse in his
haste to reach her, of the Guards taking him prisoner and dragging
him, shamed and broken-hearted, through the city streets. No. He
was too smart, too swift.
"He will come," she said aloud.
The leaves littering the road stirred and took flight. Branches
cracked and swayed. Ki'leah pulled her hood forward, trying to shut
out both the chill and her growing apprehension. Perhaps she had
ridden too far; turning, she nudged her horse back the way she had
come, all the way back to where the main road from the city had
forked east and west.
In retrospect, the road east had not made for a good meeting place,
but their options had been limited. Setting up a rendezvous with her
lover too near the palace would have been disastrous, and she knew
of no place inside the royal city of Khaeil Andarrah where she could
avoid recognition. The road had proved the best of many bad
options. Even so, the Palace Guards were sure to ride out as soon as
her ladies-in-waiting reported her missing. She had half-expected
Si'vad's elite military order to have caught up with her before now.
And if they did. . . .
She shuddered and pulled her horse up short at the thought. She
dared ride no closer to the city. Perhaps he had gone farther on? She
swerved her mount away and retraced her path down the road.
Ki'leah paced from the eastern fork to as far as she dared go alone
until she lost all sense of direction, jumping at the slightest noise,
praying that the Guards would not catch up to her before Daelen
found her. But there was no sign of her lover. No travelers at all
along that long stretch of road. Only I am fool enough to travel the
roads tonight, she thought bitterly. Not even Daelen had braved this
The thought struck her like a blow. She shook her head, fighting
against the truth she could not accept. As much as she wanted—
nay, needed—to believe some serious misfortune had delayed
Daelen's arrival, the reality was that she had trusted him to meet her
in the dead of night in what threatened to be a fierce storm, and he
had not come.
Grief churned into anger. She swept tears away with the heel of her
hand and crushed his note in her palm, its presence no longer a
comfort. Was it a lie? A trick? Had he sent his reply, then alerted
the Guards to her plan? To what end? After all, Daelen had
encouraged her to rebel against the marriage her parents had
arranged. Daelen had professed his words of love and fanned her
Now Daelen had abandoned her on the road.
She pulled the note out of her pocket and held it up to the shrouded
I will be there, he had written. The ink bled, staining the page,
blurring the letters into meaningless black. Weeping, she recounted
stolen kisses, ink-stained hands rough against her skin, seductive
laughter warm in her ear, the steady beat of a true heart matching
She would wait no longer. She held up the ruined parchment and let
the wind take it.
Lightning knifed the sky and thunder cracked, startling her. The
storm broke in a wall of rain that sheeted down, roiling the road into
a sticky morass of black mud.
He had not come. So be it. As her last hope fled, cold fear settled
in. She was lost, abandoned with no knowledge of the world outside
of the royal city, and she could not go back.
Ki'leah struggled with the most important decision she had ever had
to make. She could continue on the road, seeking safety in speed, or
head into the forest and its unknown dangers, perhaps finding a dry
place to weather the storm and elude the Guards. With luck, she
might even stumble upon the hidden forest city of Cel'velahd; word
of her flight would not yet have reached Lord Erich, and he would
not dare refuse sanctuary to the king's only daughter and heir.
As a roll of thunder receded, Ki'leah caught the drumbeats of horses
on the road. Not Daelen. Too many for that. Without a second
thought, she yanked the reins and made for the woods.
A short distance in, the forest thickened. Towering trees muted the
storm, but even they could not shield her from the water that
streamed from every branch, pooled into the underbrush, and soaked
through her thin cloak and commoner's clothes. Fighting panic, she
guided her horse through the tangled branches, praying that the
storm and darkness would cover her tracks well enough to
compensate for her lack of speed.
"Easy," she crooned, smoothing her hand along the neck of her timid
mount. "It is naught but the storm."
Her horse stopped abruptly, flicking his ears forward. She bent
close, soothing him with a calm she did not feel, but the horse would
Then she heard them. Voices, mingling so well with the sounds of
the storm that she had mistaken them for the rush of wind.
She reached for her dagger.
"Show yourselves!" she shouted, hoping she sounded braver than she
Her breath came in ragged gasps as she edged the skittish horse
forward. Branches cracked and snapped on every side, whether
under the weight of water or man she could not tell. The rain and
wind blinded her. Lightning flashed, illuminating the faces of men
crouched directly ahead. Ki'leah's horse reared; she screamed and
tumbled into darkness.
* * *
Ki'leah awoke with a start, her head pounding. She touched a newly-
stitched gash over her left ear, her breath escaping in a soft hiss as
the cut throbbed. Fighting panic, she sat up on the straw mattress
and struggled to recall how she had ended up here, in a tiny wooden
room with only one door and an inadequate window, through which
the afternoon sun slanted onto the tidy planks of a clean-swept floor.
She remembered waiting for Daelen on the road, the storm, and
falling, then nothing.
Was she guest, or prisoner? A glance around the sparsely-appointed
room offered no answers. A plain wood chest, a table and two
chairs, and her bed were the only furnishings, but the room felt
comfortable enough—and dry.
She started as the door creaked open and a heavy step announced a
visitor. Ki'leah sighed with relief when she recognized the tall man
who ducked through the door frame. Although they had never met,
she had seen Lord Erich of Cel'velahd at court on business with her
father. An attractive man, his isolation in the secretive forest city of
Cel'velahd lent him more than his share of mystery and female
His hair reminded her of Daelen's, thick, black, and long enough to
nestle at the nape of his neck, while his noble features and careworn
brow marked him as a man who bore the weight of responsibility and
good judgment. His plain clothing fitted to his broad shoulders and
lean frame. His deep grey eyes were his most remarkable feature, as
difficult to look into as they were to look away from.
"Princess Ki'leah." He bowed. "Your presence in Cel'velahd is an
unexpected honor." His expression, though polite, implied
"Lord Erich." Wincing as the effort tugged at her wound, she set her
back against the wall. "I assure you, I had no intention of coming
here." Not entirely the truth. Cel'velahd owed fealty to the crown in
times of war; nothing more. She was well aware that Lord Erich
was the only man in her own country who could successfully shelter
her from the wrath of her father.
"You took a nasty fall. You are fortunate my scouts found you."
"‘Fortunate?'" she repeated, touching her bandage for emphasis.
"They frightened my horse so badly I am ‘fortunate' to have
survived." She paused, slipping the pieces into place. "They were
searching for me?"
"They watch all those who cross our borders." Erich dragged a
chair to her bedside and sat down. "Why was the High Princess of
Si'vad wandering the forest during such a storm?"
Ki'leah searched for a plausible answer. She settled upon the truth.
"I was to be married off in less than a fortnight to the King of
Sahtamor. Last night, I fled. I had hoped. . ." she stopped short of
telling him about Daelen. "I got lost," she finished. "You know the
rest. But I have betrayed my family, my country. I cannot go back."
Ki'leah considered her next move. The Palace Guards would have
lost her trail on the road by now, and even if they suspected she had
headed into the wood, they would not dare cross Lord Erich's
borders without his leave. Perhaps she need not run, at least not
right away. If there was a chance of sanctuary. . . .
"The people of Cel'velahd wish no quarrel with the king."
She cast him a mutinous look. "My father need not know I am here."
"You cannot stay, Princess. You may rest here until you are well
enough to be on your way, then I will have my men escort you home
and we will trouble each other no more."
Her shoulders dropped. Had she expected a warm welcome? A life
of exile and reliance upon Lord Erich's hospitality and secrecy to the
end of her days?
"Very well." For now, she added silently.
Erich nodded and rose. "There is water here for washing. When
you are ready to eat, come to the door. Someone will guide you
"Wait—" Being left alone suddenly terrified her. "No need to trouble
your people further. I will come now." Refusing his assistance, she
stood, grimacing as the world lurched before settling back to
normal. Stupid horse, she thought, wishing she had stolen her
father's fearless warhorse instead of taking her own pampered bay.
For the first time in her life, she wished she had chosen usefulness
She straightened her shoulders and turned to the bowl and pitcher.
"I will wait outside." Erich closed the door behind him to afford her
a few moments' privacy.
The water helped. Her clothes, which had been soaked through,
were stiff and uncomfortable, but at least she felt less grimy.
This is not how I had planned this day, she thought, fighting back
tears. She had imagined waking in Daelen's arms, not filthy in the
Forest City with nary a friend in the world. A hope that Daelen yet
searched for and would find her whispered. She shoved it aside.
Either the Guards had taken him, or he had abandoned her to the
night and the storm. If he had not come before, he would not do so
Lifting her chin, she strode through the door, only to be thrust back
by Erich's outstretched arm.
She questioned him with a look, then gazed out from a flat, wooden
balcony nestled high in the trees, part of an elaborate system of
platforms, walks and stairways linking countless small houses, all
built into and around the massive trunks and branches of trees. Each
construction was unique, as the structures were designed around the
natural irregularities of the trees. Some houses were long and
rectangular, some square and small; still others were made up of
many-angled walls. All appeared well-crafted and sturdy. In many
cases, houses were built onto several branches at different levels.
Across the elaborate bridges, stairs, and platforms moved people
dressed in shades of brown and green, carrying on the business of
ordinary life in their extraordinary setting.
Ki'leah swayed with a touch of vertigo and was thankful that Erich
had prevented her from charging forward. Otherwise, her plans for
a new life would have been short-lived. She turned to tell him so, but
he had already started the steep walk down.
"Where are we going?" Ki'leah asked breathlessly, working to catch
up. Though she was tall for a woman, he was at least a head taller
with a stride to match.
"You are fortunate to have arrived on a feasting-day," he shouted
back, by now a good distance ahead of her. "Nothing compared to
what you are used to, I expect, but my people will welcome you, all
Ki'leah brushed at her ruined breeches and tucked in her rumpled
shirt in a futile attempt to make herself presentable. After running a
quick hand through her tangled hair, she declared it a total loss.
Despite her bedraggled appearance, she was eager to see what a
feasting-day in this legendary city entailed.
They made their way down the steep spiraling paths through the
trees until at last they arrived in a wide open square edged with
several long wooden tables. In the center stood a fire pit where two
giant boars roasted. Several men and women tended these or made
other preparations nearby. Men, women and children bustled about,
cheerful that the rain had stopped and eager for the evening's
festivities to begin.
The people of Cel'velahd constituted quite a disparate group. Many
women wore long woolen skirts and vests, with brightly colored
ribbons that sashed their waists and fluttered in their hair to mark this
day as extraordinary. Other women dressed like men in breeches,
wide-sleeved shirts, and vests, with swords at their hip or quivers of
arrows on their back. Children of every age dashed about. Ki'leah
watched them all, conscious of her status as a stranger. They
returned her scrutiny with interest. She flushed as some of the
younger women took stock of her ruined clothes and dirty hair and
twittered to one another behind their hands. A few of the men
coughed, too gentlemanly to mock a woman. Others watched her
with a mixture of sympathy, envy, curiosity, and admiration, for
even bedraggled, Ki'leah was a striking woman. She briefly
wondered if any of them recognized her, then dismissed the idea.
Unless these men and women had ventured to the palace, which she
doubted, they would have had no occasion
to see her. Ki'leah rarely traveled as far as Khaeil Andarrah, and then
she had done so dressed and retinued as befitted her royal status, not
garbed in filthy commoner's clothes.
Despite their dubious welcome, Ki'leah felt drawn to these people, so
different from her, to whom merriment came so easily.
Erich led her to a serving table near the fire pit, where a line had
formed. He guided Ki'leah directly to the front. With a murmur of
thanks, she took the plate Erich handed her and followed him to one
of the long tables, where she hesitated.
"We have no head table here, Princess," Erich said in a low voice,
mistaking her pause for disdain. "Eating with the common folk will
have to do."
Ki'leah flushed. "If I had wanted to eat at the head table tonight, I
would not be here. That life is behind me now."
She opened her mouth to offer him a tart reply, but he had turned to
speak with two huntsmen who had been awaiting an opportunity to
approach. They spoke in urgent tones too low to betray their
conversation. At length one of his companions nodded in her
direction. Remembering Ki'leah, Erich returned to her side.
"Please, eat." He motioned for her to take a seat at the table. "There
is a matter I must attend, but I will return shortly."
"Of course," she replied with a stiff smile.
He left with his men. You are no longer royalty, Ki'leah reminded
herself, striving not to feel offended—or afraid.
She set her plate on the table and sat down. Gradually the seats
around her filled until Ki'leah found herself packed elbow to hip with
complete strangers. She examined her plate of food and resisted the
urge to gag at its mushy appearance and unidentifiable smell. The
bread off to the side she recognized, but she balked at the whitish-
grey lump that lurked in the center of the dish. She examined it more
closely to discern its nature. Plant or animal? Was it safe to eat?
Nothing in her nineteen years of cultured culinary experiences had
prepared her for this. Never had she seen something so thick, pasty
and disgusting attempt to pass itself off as food. She turned to the
larger grey lump nearer the middle of the dish. Possibly meat of
some kind. Bits of the boar roasting over the fire pit, she decided. A
creamy white sauce flooded the plate. She screwed up her courage
and poked the sauce with her forefinger. Nothing moved. She
braced herself and jammed the finger in her mouth.
Perhaps because she had been so apprehensive of the taste, she was
pleased to discover that the food was not half bad. Suddenly very
hungry, she turned her full attention to the business of eating. She
reached automatically for utensils and discovered with a shock that
there were none. She glanced at the other tables—no utensils there
either. She looked to her table mates, and discovered with horror
that they ate with their hands and pocket knives.
Ki'leah did not realize she had been staring until the burly man to her
left addressed her.
"Hullo, Miss. I've not seen you 'round. Name's Bork." He grinned,
exposing three missing teeth. He had bushy dark hair that straggled
well past his shoulders, shaggy eyebrows that met in the middle, and
a wild beard that tumbled down his chest and ended perilously close
to his plate. Her stomach lurched at the sight of a few flecks of food
trapped in it. Despite his daunting appearance, his eyes were
Ki'leah smiled diplomatically. "I am—" she paused. It was a bad idea
to reveal her true identity. "I am Ki." It was a safe alias. Ki was, in
addition to a royal prefix, a common feminine name among the
This fact was not lost on her new friend, who leaned closer and
whispered conspiratorially, "Right. Lots of the lasses here are." He
sat upright and clapped her on the back. "Welcome! Now eat up!
You'll be needin' your strength for the dancin'." With that, he turned
back to his own lumpy food and seemed to forget altogether that
With a thin smile she returned to her meal and the problem of how to
eat it. She did not own a pocket knife and her dagger had been
taken, so stabbing the meat was out of the question. She dared not
pick it up with both hands; the mere idea violated years of instruction
to the contrary. Again she glanced at the men and women around
her, who seemed unconcerned with etiquette in general. They ate
and laughed, enjoying the company of their tablemates, caring not
whether food dripped onto their clothes, landed in their beards, or
even—to her horror—flicked onto the frocks of others.
Her stomach loudly reminded her that she had not eaten since the
night before. Bravely she seized the piece of meat in both hands and
took a bite. One led to another and she quickly finished, which led to
a new dilemma. Her hands were sticky, and no wiping cloths were
available. Liberated from the restraints of court etiquette, she wiped
her hands on her breeches and smiled. Such a small thing would
have scandalized the court. For the first time since her flight from
the Palace, she felt free.
The feeling lasted only until she spotted a pretty blonde woman
carrying a washing bowl and drying cloth down the line of men and
women at the table. Ki'leah glanced down at her only pair of
breeches, now stained, and her face warmed with shame. All the
same she washed gratefully when her turn came, ignoring the fact
that the sheer number of people seated on the bench had taken its toll
on the cleanliness of the water.
Close on the heels of the washing girl came serving men and women
with large steins of Sivan Ale. Deafening cheers greeted the servers'
arrival. When a mug was set before her, Ki'leah peered suspiciously
at the drink. She had heard of Siva. The "poison of the peasantry,"
her mother called it. However, that was not enough to stop Ki'leah
from trying the drink. A little like golden mud, she decided,
wrinkling her nose as she braved a sip. It tasted much better than
she had expected; the Siva was smooth on the tongue and warmed
her from throat to toes.
When the meal ended Ki'leah rose, mug in hand, to locate the only
person she knew. With a sinking heart, she realized that she had not
paid attention to where Lord Erich had gone. To complicate matters
further, the men, women and children of Cel'velahd had begun to rise
and mill around. At the far side of the clearing, people hastily cleared
scraps and pots from a permanent raised platform to make way for
four musicians to set up their instruments. Others threw more wood
on the fire pit until a bonfire flared, chasing a few squealing children
out of reach and making shadows of the figures farthest from the
She had little chance of finding Erich now, so Ki'leah drained her
mug and edged away from the festivities.
"More Siva?" a passing serving girl asked brightly.
Ki'leah held out her mug and managed a weak smile of thanks before
the girl moved on.
A long swallow later, Ki'leah felt a little better, if still out of place.
She suspected there were better ways to pass the time than waiting
for Erich to find her. The musicians struck up a lively tune and the
dancing began, but they were not court dances and she did not know
the steps. She could not join in the conversations around her;
although these people were her subjects, she knew nothing of their
lives, worries, or interests. Her parents had seen to that. Where is
Erich? she wondered with a flare of irritation.
She felt keenly her separation from these people. The differences
that divided her from them were too great. The nagging feeling that
she did not—could not—fit in swelled to certainty, and she wanted
nothing more than to escape, to ride hard away without looking back.
But they had her horse. And her few belongings. There was also the
matter of where exactly she would run to. She would not recognize
the way out of the clearing, never mind the stables or the road.
With a heavy sigh, she held her mug out for another fill.
* * *
"Enough, Jahven!" Ki'leah laughed, reeling away from the circle of
dancers for the tables lining the clearing. Thankful for the steady
hand at her elbow, she flashed her attractive blond partner a smile. "I
fear I have no talent for this dance. I may have to sit out the next set
or your feet will suffer a dire fate indeed!"
Jahven chuckled. "My feet have earned their just reward, my lady. I
am a poor teacher."
He led her to an empty bench and settled beside her. With shouts of
greeting, their new neighbors pressed mugs of Siva into their hands.
"Tomorrow!" called out the man to Ki'leah's left, holding up his mug
"Aye, tomorrow!" echoed the men and women crowding the table as
they toasted and drank deeply.
Ki'leah and Jahven followed suit, although both the custom and the
purpose eluded her. She had assumed, from the frequent toasts, that
the evening's festivities were held in honor of her impending nuptials
to the King of Sahtamor. However, what "tomorrow" had to do with
an event set to take place almost a fortnight hence remained a
"What happens tomorrow?" she asked in a low voice when the others
had resumed their conversations.
Jahven's look of surprise quickly blurred into comprehension. "I
forgot—you are not from our city. Lord Erich and a chosen few
leave at dawn for a journey of great significance to us, perhaps even
to all of Si'vad. It is customary to feast the travelers well before they
Ki'leah flushed hot at her error. Of course they would not feast a
wedding that had not yet taken place. "Where are they going?"
He shrugged. "That is known to only a few."
She frowned. "Does the Lord of Cel'velahd commonly leave his city
unattended for such journeys to unknown destinations?"
"I leave my city in capable hands, my lady," a familiar voice assured
Flustered, she turned. There stood Lord Erich, a look of amusement
in his grey eyes. Her flush deepened.
The men and women around her noticed him. Another, more
vigorous round of toasts ensued. When the "Tomorrows" and "To
Lord Erichs" ceased, Ki'leah replied quietly, "Of course, my lord. I
"No matter." He dismissed her explanation with a wave. "My
thanks, Jahven, for keeping our guest company this evening."
"It was my honor," Jahven replied, bringing Ki'leah's fingers to his
Ki'leah smiled. "I am certain your feet do not agree."
Jahven laughed. "An honor, my lady," he repeated firmly, then
departed, leaving Ki'leah to Erich's company.
"Well?" Erich prompted. When she made no move to rise, he offered
a hand. She accepted gratefully; the vigorous dancing and too many
mugs of Siva had left her a little dizzy. He led her away from the
table just in time to avoid another round of toasts. They started
across the clearing, weaving their way between groups of men and
women clustered together in boisterous conversation and loud cheers.
"I owe you an apology, Princess. I meant to dine with you, but
urgent matters took me away from the feasting for longer than I had
anticipated." He paused and glanced at her with undisguised
amusement. "Apparently you have fared well enough without me,
although I suspect our supply of Siva is a little the worse for it."
"Your people are good at keeping their mugs full and their toasts
frequent. I cannot imagine there is enough Siva in all of Si'vad to last
this one night."
"Never fear," he countered, smiling. "We have enough Siva even for
"My heart is eased."
Erich's laugh both surprised and pleased her. He seemed more
relaxed than he had earlier. A small thread of hope stirred within
her. Perhaps she could make a life here. And then another, bolder
thought occurred to her. She steadied her hold on his arm and
prepared to take charge of her own fate.
"Lord Erich, what is the occasion for this important journey of
His smile faded; her heart sank. She did not dare hope that he would
give her an honest answer. Her disappointment only grew as they
walked on in silence.
But again he surprised her. Just inside the cover of trees encircling
the clearing, he stopped. "How much do you know of the politics of
your land, Princess?"
"Nothing," she answered bitterly. The fact that she knew nothing of
Si'vad, its people, and the countries that surrounded it had been
another factor in her decision to leave her royal life behind. "My
parents have kept me sufficiently ignorant of anything that might
actually be of use."
He sighed heavily and raked a hand through his hair. "That has been
a matter of great concern to us of late," he muttered under his breath.
"Never mind." He brushed aside the question with an impatient
wave. "What you wish to know—need to know—is this: a threat
against the crown grows to the southwest, somewhere in Norr. I
and a few of my people leave at dawn to seek out and destroy this
threat before it threatens our borders."
Ki'leah was skeptical. If something presented a grave danger to
Si'vad, surely she would have heard rumor of it. "What sort of threat
is this that the people of Cel'velahd ride out when the Palace Guards
Erich hesitated. "The king has done what he must to aid our quest,
but this matter is best handled in secrecy, not open warfare." He
gripped her elbow in an attempt to guide her forward. "Come
Princess, you must rest—"
"Take me with you." The suddenness of her request stunned them
both. When Erich did not immediately reply, she rushed on. "Take
me. I have fled the palace and abdicated my responsibility as High
Princess and heir to the throne. The Palace Guards will ride across
Si'vad in their attempt to drag me home and force me into marriage
with the barbarian King of Sahtamor. I have no place to hide where
they will not wreak their wrath upon my protectors."
She met his gaze and held it. "If I am with you, I can travel far from
here. I will go where they dare not look. Let me travel even as far
as the borderlands and I will trouble you no further, only take me
with you tomorrow." She swallowed hard against the tears welling
in her eyes. She thought of Daelen and her heart ached. "Please,"
she finished in a whisper.
He was silent a long time, considering her request. "Whether you
would forfeit your own life to live free of your birthright is up to
you, but I cannot allow you to risk yourself in service of my quest.
Nor can I risk the lives of my people to protect you."
"I would ask nothing more of you and your people than you would
do for each other."
"All the same, I will not stand before the king and explain why his
daughter will never become Queen in his stead."
"I have already made that choice," she replied firmly. "Even if I were
to return home, my father would no longer recognize me as heir. I
am no longer High Princess, Lord Erich. I am only Ki'leah. Just let
me ride with you for a little while, until I find a new life for myself."
Her final plea lingered in the air between them. She studied him.
What lay beneath his firm veneer of authority and determination?
What was he thinking? Would he take seriously her impulsive
decision to travel with him? Should he? After all, he knew no more
of her than she of him.
"What life, Ki'leah?" he murmured at last.
She glanced away; a flush crept up her neck and colored her
cheeks. What life? His question held no trace of malice or mockery,
and yet the truth of it stung. What life, indeed? The sounds of
laughter, music, and jovial toasts intruded upon her thoughts, serving
as a fresh reminder that she, though once destined to be their Queen,
would always remain an outsider to her people. What life?
"My own," she replied quietly. Straightening her shoulders, she
added with more strength than she felt, "My own life, patterned by
my own design and woven with my own choices and mistakes."
"You would trade your life of privilege and the responsibility of your
birthright, everything you know, for only this?"
"I would." No sooner had she said the words than she knew them to
be true. She would trade everything for the opportunity to live free
from the bonds of tradition and the burden of her inheritance.
"Regardless of my decision, you will not return home?"
Erich nodded slowly. He offered her his arm.
"Come, Ki'leah. The hour grows late. I would be remiss in my
duties as host if I did not see you to your quarters."
She glanced at his arm, but did not take it. "You have not answered
"I know," he replied simply, and waited.
They stood locked in this silent tableau, he with arm offered and she
with her arms crossed tightly over her chest, until at last, with a
small noise of frustration, she gave in and slipped her hand into the
crook of his elbow. He chuckled softly.
They did not speak again until he had led her up through the maze of
lighted catwalks and bridges to the little room where she had
awakened that morning. At the door, he tilted her chin to face him.
"I will consider your request, Princess, although I warn you that the
life you are so eager to leave behind has not prepared you well for the
life you would face in the borderlands. You may find the world
outside the palace walls far less attractive from this side of them."
The gravity of his tone sent a shiver of fear down her spine, but she
"I cannot undo what I have done."
He nodded curtly and released her. "So be it. You shall have my
decision in the morning. Until then, sleep well, Princess."
With a smooth bow, he left her. She watched until he blended into
the darkness of the forest. Then, hands shaking, she closed the door
and sank against it, already fearing his answer.
Patterned by my own design. Alone in her room, the words came
back, mocking her resolve. Already her fate rested not in her hands,
but in another's. But not for long, she promised as she lay down on
the straw mattress. She would make her own way in the world,
with or without Erich's assistance.
|~ Chapter One ~
|Fantasy * Science Fiction * Archaeological * Historical