Mother’s Curse Excerpt

Chapter 1

Stephenie closed the cover of the old book that was on her lap and leaned against the cold stone of the crenelation behind her. It was long past being too dark to read, even for her excellent sight, yet she had been unwilling to return to her rooms. It had taken her some effort to misdirect and finally lose Jenk and Samuel, determined as they were to protect her. That had been just before the midday meal and many hours had passed since she had last seen them. She knew they were punishing her for simply trying to get a bit of time by herself. However, she had been on top of the tower since before evening meal, a common place for her to try to escape her troubles, so there was no excuse for either of them not locating her.

“Well, I’m not going to be the one to give in. They simply need to admit I outwitted them and come collect me.”

After a moment, she sighed, feeling more guilt than anger. She consciously stopped biting her thumbnail and placed her hands on the book. If her brother found out they had lost her, Jenk and Samuel would be in a significant amount of trouble and despite how annoying they could be, Stephenie liked both of them. She knew they had enough to worry about without having her add more to their burdens. It’s just I can’t always have them staring over my shoulder.

Glancing down the side of the tower, she could see the peaked roof of the old great hall below her. A faint glimmer of metal reflected where hail had chipped away at the thick green patina of the copper ornamentation decorating the roof’s ridge. In the darkness, not much of the old slate roof forty feet below her could be discerned. The roof simply blended into the night, but she knew that if someone brought light into the decaying hall, dozens of small glowing points would be visible like stars in the night sky.

Frowning at the lack of maintenance, she looked away, not wanting to think about just how deteriorated things were becoming. Instead, she glanced over her left shoulder and out to the sea. A layer of rolling clouds obscured the stars and moons, but she could see hints of the waves rolling toward the cliff a couple of hundred yards to the east. To the north, lights flickered throughout Antar city, showing an unusual amount of activity for recent weeks. She watched for a few minutes as some of the points of light gradually moved toward the cliffs and switchbacks leading to the few ships anchored in the deep harbor. The distance, the droning wind, and the waves crashing upon the steep cliffs below the castle covered the din of angry people arguing over position and rights to board the ships. Earlier in the day, she overheard a couple of young guards talking about the need for every available soldier to be at the docks tonight to prevent a riot and to ensure that supplies were unloaded and brought to the castle before people tried to board.

Even though it was too far away to see the details, she could tell by the angry movement of the lights that the docks were undoubtedly a scene of chaos and violence. No person of wealth wanted to remain in Antar and they were paying a fortune to be given passage on the two ships that arrived late in the day. The trouble was, there were too many who wanted to leave and most of those did not have the ransom prices the ships would be charging.

Stephenie fought back the tears that were building behind her eyes and looked down at the great hall that she favored far more than the other halls built in the last two hundred years. The old building had far more character and charm. The newer buildings had been larger and grander, gilded on almost every surface, but they seemed far colder and less personal than the drafty great hall that was part of the oldest section of the castle.

“If Josh or father were here the roof would have been fixed.” Biting her upper lip and shutting her eyes against the pain of loss coursing though her veins, she wished again they had taken her with them. Left behind, she was a prisoner of her mother. Only Jenk, Samuel, and Doug treated her with respect, if not stiflingly overprotective. She didn’t belong here in the castle.

A laugh broke the quiet of the night, drawing Stephenie’s attention to the outer wall and the silhouette of a pair of soldiers. A muffled sound indicated someone probably had said something to chastise the inappropriate noise, but a moment later the laughter came again.

Stephenie closed her eyes and took a deep breath to refrain from cursing. The soldiers were green, hardly having had any training. Many might even have been conscripted in the last week or two. Her mother had ordered a shifting of the soldiers and those who had worked hard and managed to attain positions in the castle had been unceremoniously sent out into the city and surrounding country side, and the new recruits given the normally respected positions in the castle. Her personal guards were the only ones she knew who had not been shuffled out of their normal roles.

The troops from her mother’s homeland were now in charge of the castle defenses as well as the city. The change had angered and alienated all those she had at one time called friend and the result was a city in chaos.

Stephenie opened her eyes and looked west into the dark country side. Joshua and her father were out there somewhere, but she had no idea where they were or what was happening. Although she had written to them several times, neither had responded in the last twenty days.

Turning away from their silence, she looked down the side of the tower at the great hall, leaning out further over the edge. The wind picked up, blowing her long red hair into her face. She normally kept it braided, but Joshua always liked it loose. She leaned out a little further, testing to see how far over the edge she could lean before she fell.

Breathing deeply, she looked again at the sharp ornamentation on top of the ridge. At one time, they were beautiful copper dragons and horses. She tried to imagine what it would feel like to fall on top of them, the metal beasts tearing and cutting her flesh. Perhaps they would cut me in two. Maybe a point would lodge in my skull. She knew the roof would not withstand the impact of her body falling the forty feet and wondered what it would feel like to burst through the time-worn rafters. She relished the thought of the fractured slate ripping through her body, leaving chunks of skin and entrails hanging in the hole she would create. If I do it right, I’d land on the old high table. She grinned at the thought of a servant coming in to check on the noise and seeing what was left of her. She would not call out from the pain, she would not give them the satisfaction. Her mother deserved to take on her curse.

The salty breeze picked up again and pushed her just a little further and she could feel herself tipping. Turning away she regained her balance and avoided a messy demise. She swore just under her breath. Though it would serve Josh and father right for ignoring me, I won’t punish Jenk and Samuel.

She looked to the small structure on the south of the tower roof that held the door and spiral stairs coming up to the roof. “Where are they?” She demanded, jumping to her feet, no longer content to wait. She took her book and went to the other stairs on the north side, which were used to go down.

The stairwell was dark and the stone steps old and worn, but she had navigated the narrow stairwell for the last ten years, ever since her father had spited her mother and allowed her to move into the old tower. She passed the top level, which was an old weapon storage room that was no longer used. The old tower was near the center of the castle complex and no longer useful for protecting the outer walls.

At the next level down, she began to sense someone was in her room. She had always been able to feel when someone was near, even if they were separated by stone walls and a floor in this case. It was something she had kept secret her whole life. Only her mother knew she was unnatural and her mother would tell no one. Her mother knew she was born that way and if it was discovered, everyone would know her mother must have committed some act against the gods. It was the only reason a daughter would be born a cursed witch.

Stephenie paused on the landing before descending the stairs to the level of her rooms. She closed her eyes and tried to determine who might have invaded her privacy, but after several moments gave up the effort. I might be cursed with Elrin’s taint, but I could hardly learn any spells in this place. Sighing, she continued down more quietly, not that she had made much noise before that, but she hoped to catch the intruder by surprise.

On her floor, which was the fifth one from the ground, there was a large landing, where the narrow spiral staircase she was using, led to a larger set of stairs that followed the outer wall. The southern staircase going up to the roof exited on the floor above her. The larger stairs had permitted furniture and equipment to be carried up to her floor, which was about fifty feet in diameter. Aside from her parents, the tower had given Stephenie a bigger set of rooms than anyone else in the castle.

Drawing her dagger, Stephenie carefully pushed open her door, which sent the metal hinges creaking. At that moment, she regretted never oiling them. Her reasoning had always been that she did not want someone sneaking into her room; she never expected the need to do it herself.

Giving up on stealth, she slid to the side, keeping the door between her and the majority of the room. “Who’s there?”

“Your Highness, it is Doug.”

Stephenie pushed the door all the way open. She could see the shadow of her third bodyguard standing near her bed. “What are you doing in the dark? And more importantly, how dare you enter my room? These are off limits. Josh will hear about this.”

Doug raised his hands. “Please your Highness, keep your voice low and do not light a lamp. I have been sick with fear for what might have happened.”

Stephenie could sense the fear on Doug. Her ability to sense people’s feelings was minimal, just strong emotions generally. The level of fear he emitted made her very nervous. Keeping her voice low, she asked the question that had been nagging her most of the evening. “Where have Jenk and Samuel been hiding?” She came into the room and shut the door behind her. She did not think Doug, Jenk, or Samuel would ever try to take advantage of her and the three of them had many opportunities over the last three years. However, she felt very territorial about her rooms.

“My Lady, that is the problem. I have not been able to find them anywhere. I went looking for them when I came back from visiting my parents. One of those damn Kyntian soldiers said they had left the castle earlier. He claimed they were carrying a couple of bags between them and when he asked, they told him to mind his own business.”

“They abandoned me?” Stephenie clenched her fists, irritated at having felt concern about their not being able to keep up with her when they had really deserted her.

“My Lady, that is what someone wants us to believe. I know Jenk and Samuel. They would never abandon you. They are loyal to Prince Josh and your father. Even if your mother, the Queen,” he added with some distaste, “ordered them directly, they would refuse, as would I.” Doug moved carefully away from her bed and groped around for a chair.

While her room was dark, enough light came in through the narrow windows that she could easily see the shapes of the furniture in her room. She did not know if her night vision was just better than everyone else or if it was related to her being a witch. However, she had always been able to function well in very low light and it was not something she could ever ask anyone, not unless she was ready to burn. After Doug sat in the chair near her desk, she moved to the bed and sat facing the large man.

“You see my Lady, the three of us have been saving part of our pay. There is a loose stone in the barrack near my bunk. We have a fair savings established so perhaps when the war is won and things go back to normal, the three of us might one day be able to buy a public house and retire. If they were going to do something dishonest and abandon you, they wouldn’t leave all that money. They would have at least taken their share even if they left mine.”

“And the money isn’t gone?”

“We are the only three that know about it. So I think something has happened to them. I was afraid something had happened to you as well and was torn between waiting here for you or searching. I had hoped that you had gone on one of your little rants and decided to hide.”

“My little rants.” Stephenie took a deep breath. She could hear Doug’s reproach, but considering what he was saying, he might be justified. “I just wanted a little time on my own. The three of you know I would never leave the castle, not since the last time. What could have happened to them?”

Stephenie noticed Doug nod his head, then perhaps thinking she would not be able to see him, he spoke. “Yes. We had your promise and I for one would not have thought you’d have left the castle. The only thing I can think of is that some of your mother’s soldiers took them when they were looking for you or perhaps one of them lied and said you were seen leaving the castle. They might have gone looking for you. If that happened, then they could be anywhere.

“The thing is, I asked around quietly and no one I would trust to tell me the truth saw anything. Then I got a real bad feeling and snuck off through some of the old passages and came here. To be honest, I would have gone out looking for you if you had not turned up soon. Perhaps in the dungeon. I fear they took Jenk and Samuel there.”

Stephenie felt her arms tremble. Somehow she needed to get word to Joshua and her father. “You can stay here tonight. In the morning we’ll send a message to Josh.”

Doug stood up. “I don’t want to risk it. You are just turned seventeen and all we would need is someone to come up with your breakfast and find me here. They would assume the worst and then they’d force me away. I’m just one person. I can’t watch you all the time; I have to sleep. I know some people whom we can trust, some of the old castle guards. I want to bring in at least eight of them. I can use Prince Josh’s name and the authority he gave us to pull them in and assign them as your guards.”

“I’ve got some things we can use to pay them if needed.”

Doug smiled. “Thanks. I don’t think that will be a big issue, these men would do what was needed even if they were not paid right away. They would do it for Prince Josh.”

“Okay. In the morning, we’ll go out into the city and find them.”

“Ma’am, no, I fear I need to do this now. I can’t protect you alone in the city. Lock and bar the door. Don’t open it until I get back. I will sneak out without your mother’s soldiers knowing and be back before morning.” He stood up and moved to the door.

“Doug.”

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry for causing so much trouble.”

“My Lady, you wouldn’t be Prince Josh’s little sister we’ve all grown to curse about if you didn’t.” He sighed, “none of us ever thought you to be too much trouble. Just frustrating sometimes. I’ll be back. Lock and bar the door.” Without saying anything else, he left the room.

Stephenie felt him quickly descend the stairs and when he was out of her range, she turned the lock and then picked up the heavy wooden bar and placed it into the iron brackets. She wondered for a moment that none of her guards ever commented on her using the bar. It was heavy, even for them, but she had always been strong and quick. It had made her excellent at sword combat. A moment of concern froze her in place, could they suspect I’m a witch? The fear faded quickly as she realized Doug would not have come to warn her about the others being missing if they had. Instead, they would have turned her over to the priests to burn.

She looked about her room. It held very little resemblance to the rooms her four older sisters had when they lived in the castle; little ornamentation and few frills typical of a princess decorated her walls. The circular floor had been divided down the middle with a wall that separated the area into two nearly equal halves. The outer room here, with her bed and desk was mostly utilitarian. The stone walls of the tower were covered in thick, but not overly decorated tapestries. A fire place on the west side provided warmth when needed, but that was something else she did not often need, for she was seldom cold.

The back room held clothing, both the dresses her mother required and the more masculine clothing her father had permitted, probably in an effort to spite her mother. It had never been a secret her mother did not care for her youngest daughter, only the reasons remained between them. Inexplicably, that hate caused her older brother and father to indulge her and instead of doing all the traditional things a princess was required to do and be, she became Joshua’s honorary younger brother.

“Except they would not take me with them to the war.” Putting aside her anger at them, she focused on her more immediate concerns for safety. She did have all her belongings on this floor and someone would have an easier time ripping up the floor in the room above her than hacking through the reinforced door, but her supplies were limited. She checked the back room and found a jug of water left over from her breakfast, enough for perhaps a couple of days if she drank only a little. Food was more of a problem. Most of the meals that were brought to her would not keep, so there were no useful leftovers and she had not thought to maintain a supply of soldier’s rations.

For equipment, she was, if anything, oversupplied. Joshua had taught her to use various weapons and although she favored the rapier and long dagger her father had given her, she would not hesitate to take one of the many swords, bows, spears, or staves that were neatly stored in her back room. Her skill and commitment had won over the guards, who soon learned on the practice field, that if they went easy on her, she would leave them as bruised and sore as if the weapon master had it in for them.

Quickly and without additional light, she assembled a collection of throwing knives, leather armor, clothing, and a handful of spare coins she had amassed. Stuffing the extra clothing, fire kit, whet stone, money, and miscellaneous gear into a small leather backpack, she put her gear just inside the door of her back room where it could be quickly retrieved, but would not be obvious to casual inspection.

Working by feel, she sat down and braided her long hair and tied off the ends. She changed out of her more comfortable breaches and blouse and into the leather reinforced pants and armor she used for training.

When she was done, she slumped back in her chair. There was nothing for her to do now but wait for Doug and to worry about Jenk and Samuel.

Chapter 2

Stephenie awoke. The morning light still held its dim golden hue while waiting for the sun to crest the horizon. She shifted her head, trying to work out the kinks that had built up overnight. Rubbing her eyes, she rolled out of bed, still dressed in her leather armor and boots. She wasn’t sure when she had fallen asleep, but she did remember breaking down and crying for fear of what might have happened to Samuel and Jenk.

She retrieved the jug of water and drank only a small amount. She peeked out of the window on the west side of the tower, remaining far enough away from the glass that most people would not be able to see her looking out. The inner court yard was filled with wagons, as it had been for the last couple of weeks. A few servants were milling about; carrying supplies and hurrying on errands. She noticed a couple of soldiers on the western curtain wall, but nothing that looked unusual.

It was far too early to expect her breakfast, but she had hoped Doug would have returned before morning. There were places to sneak in and out of the castle if you knew what you were doing. The old castle guards knew of them, but that information had not been passed on to her uncle’s men that now served her mother. It was a risk to leave the castle’s weak spots unprotected, but the ousted soldiers had little time or inclination to pass on their knowledge and Stephenie had not wanted to give up her potential escape options.

But even with these weak spots, sneaking in during the light of day would be difficult at best. She balled up her fists and paced about her room. Doug could always come in through the front gate, but if mother is behind this, she’d bar them entry or make them disappear as well.

After another circuit around her rooms, she sat down on her bed. If her mother had taken her guards, there were two possibilities Stephenie could fathom, they had been forced from the castle or been locked up in the dungeon. She closed her eyes, unable to figure out what purpose taking her guards would serve and so unable to decide what was more likely.

“There is no chance of me getting into the dungeon unseen.” Stephenie knew most of the secret and back passages around and through the castle, but the dungeon was, for good reason, devoid of secret entrances. Her mother’s soldiers now controlled that dark and unpleasant part of the castle under the main keep and would bar her access. “Especially if they had something to hide.”

Stephenie moved to her desk and quickly wrote a letter to Joshua, explaining that her guards had gone missing and she either needed to come to him or he needed to send word to some trusted soldiers to come to her aid. She admonished him briefly for not writing to her, then wished him and father her love. She sanded the ink and while waiting for it to dry, lit a candle so she could seal the letter.

Once the letter was complete, she pulled off the leather jerkin and put on one of her dresses. It would cover her leather clad and booted legs while not being overly restrictive. The boned bodice tied in the front so she did not need a lady in waiting, yet the ties were hidden for propriety by a sash that tied to her left side with a small bow. It was an outdated fashion and looked rather silly, but it was a compromise she made to get her way.

With her father and brother gone, her mother refused to allow her into the main keep in anything other than a dress. Fortunately, she had a number of dresses that fit her disobedient and rebellious nature.

She pulled up her skirt and tied a long dagger to her left thigh and two throwing knives on her right thigh. Standing in front of the silver mirror, she adjusted the ends of the bow on the dress to mostly cover the dagger she had attached to a belt around her waist. Not being allowed to carry a sword was another requirement and something she had not yet been able to manage a way to conceal.

She grabbed a large leather shoulder bag couriers used and placed it over her shoulder, further concealing the dagger. Putting her letter into the bag, she closed her eyes and tried to reach out with her witchcraft to see if anyone else was in the tower with her. Sensing no one, she removed the bar, unlocked the door, and carefully slid into the circular stairs that rounded the outer wall of the tower. She quietly descended, trying to minimize the sounds of her hard soled boots. She felt no one else on any other part of the tower as she passed by the lower floors. When she drew near the ground floor, she could sense to the northwest a few men in the guards barracks, but the old doorway between the tower and the barracks had been sealed long ago.

At the ground floor, she turned off through the large oak door into the old great hall. Again, she sensed no one nearby and quickly moved around the old tables and past the many fire places to the outer door at the far end of the hall. At the outer door, she paused again, opening her mind to see if anyone might be waiting for her, but so far, it remained free of people.

She opened the door and looked immediately ahead and to her left. A large square building, that was just about as long as the old great hall and more than twice as wide, stood in ugly contrast to the delicate stone work of the old castle. Built more than two hundred years ago, the new keep was not very new. However, the tightly dressed stone had weathered well and was still a much lighter tan than the old gray stone of the original castle, which was many hundreds of years older in construction.

Standing four stories high, the new keep was a massive block of unadorned stone; an imposing figure that dominated the center of the southern third of the castle grounds. It sat apart from the outer walls, save for a second story walkway that allowed the servants access to the keep from their quarters. The building was designed to hold out should the outer wall fail. That was the theory at least. Stephenie knew of the tunnels that burrowed through the bluffs under the castle, linking many of the buildings and providing secret access to many of the rooms inside the main keep. The massive stone walls provided the means necessary to hide passages and openings. If invaders ever did breach the outer wall, it would be far too easy to gain entrance to any building.

Not seeing any guards waiting for her, Stephenie descended the old steps, turned left, and headed past the old kitchens. Ahead of her was the new great hall, which made up part of the southern curtain wall. Four guard towers protruded above the chimneys and peaked roof, providing arrow cover.

The new hall was an after thought to the design of the castle. It was added by one of her ancestors about one hundred and fifty years ago. He wanted extra space, and despite the expense and reduction of protection, placed the new hall in the only location available at the time, attached to the outside of what had been the southern curtain wall. Being detached from the main keep, it required guests to walk outside and around the back to gain access to the hall. It’s massive size and gilded interior was diminished by the less than spectacular approach.

Moving quickly, but without obvious haste, Stephenie rounded the back of the keep and headed to the larger of two kitchens in the castle. This one sat between the new hall and the two story high servant quarters, which unlike the hall, was attached to the inside of the western curtain wall. This kitchen was supposed to serve both the royal family and guests in the keep as well as the hall when it was used.

The new kitchen smelled of baking bread and roasting boar. The morning meal for the servants would have already been served and cleaned away. However, the meal for herself and the other nobles in the castle would not be served for a while yet.

She walked through the large door that was opened to the chill morning air, releasing the heat coming from the fire pits and ovens. A servant, startled by Stephenie’s presence, bowed and gave a hasty apology that Stephenie accepted so she would not offend the young girl.

“Where is Cook Raven?”

“Your Highness, Cook Raven is in the back kitchen. Please allow me to fetch her.”

Stephenie smiled at the scullion maid and shook her head. “Please, carry on with your tasks, I will find her. Thank you.”

“Yes Ma’am.” Bowing away, the young girl retreated from the kitchen on her errand.

Picking the route through the kitchen that required the least number of people to bow to her, Stephenie managed to reach the back kitchen with only four groups of people offering to fetch Cook Raven for her. However, Cook Raven had caught wind of her approach before she reached the smaller room near the outer wall where sweets and cakes were often dressed and readied for presentation.

“Your Highness.”

“Hi Raven, I need to ask you a question.” Stephenie kept her voice low even though she sensed no one close enough to overhear her.

“Of course Ma’am. I am at your disposal.”

Seeing a bit of ginger root on a tray, Stephenie’s hungry stomach growled just enough to be heard.

“Please, Ma’am, help yourself.”

“Thank you.” Stephenie grabbed a couple of pieces and quickly ate the first. Once she had swallowed enough to avoid chewing while talking, she drew Raven out of view in case the older cook reacted in such a way as to draw attention. “Can you tell me if they have new prisoners in the dungeon?”

As expected, Raven’s face showed a great deal of surprise from the question and then a frightened countenance filled her face before she schooled her expression. “Ma’am, I would not be made aware of any dealings that take place in the dungeon. My skin crawls to think of that place, though I have never myself set foot in there.” She drew the mark of Felis across her left arm. “Ma’am, what cause would you have to ask me of such thing?”

Stephenie kept her expression neutral. “Raven, how many meals were you asked to prepare for the prisoners this morning?”

Cook Raven’s face cleared with a bit of understanding. “Ah, the same as the last three weeks, twenty five.” She swallowed and then glanced past Stephenie to confirm they were alone, continued more quietly. “Ma’am, what is your concern? Do you fear for someone?”

Stephenie shook her head, fear filling her heart despite her calm demeanor. “Raven, please forget that I ever asked you the question. I am not popular at the moment. Instead, let me take this tray and a few other sweets and you can claim I hounded you about getting more than my fair share.”

“Ma’am?”

Stephenie shook her head, picked up the tray and grabbed some random candies from the shelves and added them to the sweet meats. Once she had more than she could eat, she nodded her head to Cook Raven and left through the kitchen proper, grabbing a couple of loaves of bread and a partial round of hard cheese, still wrapped in cheese cloth. Outside the kitchen, she put the bread and cheese in the satchel while munching on the candies. It felt wrong to eat sweets when Samuel, Jenk, and Doug might be dead or at least being starved, but she could not toss aside the food while someone from the kitchen might notice.

Walking under the stone walkway that bridged the servant quarters to the second floor of the main keep, she passed a group of three soldiers that gave her their normal disapproving look before continuing on without comment. Her mother insisted that if she wanted to act as a common soldier and play with weapons, she no longer deserved to be given any special attention from the soldiers. It had actually caused the native soldiers to bow and scrape more than they had done, owing in no small part to the fact that Stephenie had proven herself more than capable with any weapon she had trained to use and had always treated the soldiers with the respect they had deserved.

From her mother’s soldiers, sent from Kynto by her uncle, King Willard, the lack of respect was palatable and clearly intended as an insult. Stephenie did not let their cold disdain draw her into conflict with them. That would only feed their sense of righteousness. The Kynto soldiers, while they might act better than everyone else, were not fundamentally better than her father’s soldiers. She would never underestimate them, for they were no easy force to overcome, but they did not intimidate her. What grated on her more was that her mother would do such a petty thing.

The morning was still quite young, but she knew that Seneschal Renild would be awake and working. Her mother had not replaced him for the same reason she had not replaced the lower servants, there was no one from her Uncle’s men here who could actually “replace” him. Seneschal Renild was not the oldest man in the castle, her father’s Keeper of the Wardrobe was at least a decade older. However, Seneschal Renild’s family had served that post for generations and it seemed all that breeding and heritage had culminated into a man who was exceedingly skilled at organizing and managing the castle’s daily needs. Stephenie’s grandfather, before he died, often declared that the man was able to get twice the work out of the laziest person while making the person feel good about the work.

While Stephenie did not have any basis for comparison, she knew that the servants respected and trusted the old Seneschal and that respect and trust were a powerful force. What was more, Stephenie liked the old man, despite the fact that he sometimes looked at her with a longing that was absurd for a man of his age. She knew he would never act on such a thought with any girl her age and so she was silently pleased with the implied compliment.

She rounded the northwest corner of the new keep and looked over to the collection of supply wagons, stacked high with crates. They had been sitting in the courtyard for more time than seemed appropriate. Her Uncle’s troops were supposed to escort the food, blankets, and other goods her father needed to continue fighting. For the goods to languish here for nearly two weeks seemed unacceptable. Doug had told her the Kyntian soldiers had given some excuse that it would be better to wait for additional supplies and troops to arrive instead of making multiple trips to the front. Stephenie’s problem with this logic was that while it might be more efficient to make a single trip, if the supplies were needed now, running out would not be just an inconvenience, but could easily mean the deaths of many hundreds or thousands of men and that could mean losing the war.

She pushed down her anger, there was nothing she could do about the supplies at the moment; the fate of Doug, Jenk, and Samuel was where she needed to focus. She felt her eyes watering and the thought of how cruelly she had treated Jenk and Samuel by managing to escape their protection. They had only her best interest at heart. Please don’t let them be dead.

She wiped away the tears that had formed and steeled herself to be calm. Giving into the fear and anger would not help. She turned and easily climbed the steep steps to the keep’s main entrance. Her daily trips up and down the numerous steps of the large tower to her rooms had given her stamina unmatched by most people in the castle.

At the top of the stairs was a large set of double doors that met in a point ten feet above her head. She unlatched and pushed open the normal sized door set into the left of the larger doors. A guard moved out of one of the alcoves on the sides of the dark entrance chamber. “What’s your name and business?” he asked in very accented Cothish.

Stephenie met the guard’s eyes and resisted shuddering. Now that her father was away, she always felt the sensation of bugs crawling over her skin when in the keep. Entering her mother’s domain drew up thoughts of stories where adventurers enter dark lairs of some horrible creature, like a nest of giant spiders. It was something that seemed to cling to her skin like a bad smell and she wondered if her mother had arranged to have the priests of Felis spell the keep.

“I am here to see Seneschal Renild and you know who I am.”

The guard curled his lip ever so slightly and mumbled in Kyntian that she was a dumb bitch. Stephenie ignored the comment, continuing to pretend that she had never learned her mother’s language. She simply waited until the guard moved to the slightly larger inner doors and knocked to signal those inside the keep someone wanted to enter.

“The dumb bitch wants to see the Seneschal again.”

Stephenie frowned in spite of herself; it was one thing for the guard to mutter the slur under his breath, but another thing when they used it as a common reference to her. She schooled her expression as the smaller door inside the large inner door was unbarred and opened. The young guard inside the entrance hall looked at her with an almost apologetic expression.

“Your Highness,” he said in stilted Cothish, holding the door open for her.

Stephenie bowed her head slightly and walked quickly through the door into the dimly light entrance hall. Normally dozens of lamps would illuminate the three story high hall, providing enough light that the statues, art, and tapestries could be appreciated. However, since all that remained were bare walls and floors, there was little point to wasting the oil.

The entrance hall still contained a pair of stone staircases on either side of the room leading up to the second floor and a wide balcony that allowed those above to lord down on people entering the keep. The stone balusters were carved with intricate detail and skill. They were art in and of themselves and remained only because they were built in and could not easily be removed.

Stephenie exhaled, trying to clear her mind of the unpleasant feel of the air and the sadness for memories that almost seemed impossible to regain. She had played chase with Joshua and his friends on those stairs. She had gazed many hours at the woven images of Lord Devon riding a dragon to battle. She had rolled down the carpeted steps, in a rather painful and not so thought out dare. Now a guard stood with a detached menace at the foot of each staircase.

Having no intention of seeing anyone in the royal household, she pushed aside the building sense of loss, ignored the less than attentive guards, and headed under the balcony into the open hallway that led through the heart of the keep on the first floor. In the dim light, she could see the reinforced door at the far end of the hall and wished again for a way to get past the three guards that would be standing on the other side. It was the only access into the dungeon, and like the front doors and the stair wells, it was guarded constantly.

She stopped halfway down the hall, at the third and last door on her left. She knocked and when she heard the clerk inside give her permission to enter, she pushed open the door.

Inside, the room was almost twice as long as it was wide. Several desks were scattered about and many shelves and cabinets lined the walls. Stacks of parchment, books, and papers filled most open spaces. Despite the amount of documents, the room appeared neat and organized. There were two doors on the long walls near the back of the room, one on either side. Stephenie knew the back wall was hollow and contained a secret passage that she had used occasionally to move about the keep unnoticed. There was no entrance to that passage on this floor, but it was a convenient secret that few shared.

Only one clerk was in the room, a young man named Cedric who tended to work more hours than the other five clerks who used this office. It took him a moment to look up from his hurried writing in the ledger before him. When he did, he immediately rose to his feet and gave Stephenie a gracious bow. “Your highness. How may I serve you?”

Stephenie was too anxious to smile. “I need to see the Seneschal.”

“Of course.” Cedric eyed the tray of confections still in her hand and began to turn toward the door on the right hand wall.

“Please, help yourself,” she said holding out the tray. Cedric hesitated a moment, but then chose a small piece of candy. He did not eat it immediately, but resumed his movement to the door. Stephenie followed, winding through the desks and cabinets. Cedric knocked on the door, went in to announce her, and then held the door for her. He retreated quickly once she was in the office that was about half as large as the outer one. This room held a single desk and as many neatly organized book laden shelves as the outer office. A door behind the desk led to a storage room, which in turn led to yet another room in the always maddening maze that was the keep.

Seneschal Renild was standing and came around his desk to meet her. “Your Highness. What may I do for you?”

“Seneschal,” Stephenie said, pain and fear leaking into her voice. Seeing his concerned expression, she schooled her emotions as best she could. “I need to have a letter sent to my brother most urgently.” Setting down the tray of candy on a nearby stack of papers, she fished the letter she had written out of her satchel.

“Ma’am?”

The odd expression on the Seneschal’s old face caught her off guard. “What?”

“Well, I thought you had lost faith in me and had one of your guards find someone else to send your letters.” Seeing her confused expression, Renild continued. “I had heard an off hand comment that your man Doug was seen carrying a letter out of the castle the evening before last.”

Stephenie’s mind raced. “He went to help his parents. They had sent word that they needed his assistance dealing with some trouble. The letter was one he received. Why would I lose trust in you? Of all the people left in the castle, you are the one I would trust the most.”

“Oh. My apologies Ma’am.”

Stephenie realized she was sensing a great deal of anxiety from the old Seneschal. “What is going on?”

The gray haired man glanced about the room uncomfortably. “Ma’am. I love his Majesty and my country, but I am left out of many things since the war has started and he left.”

Stephenie’s eyes narrowed. “What is going on?” she repeated.

“Ma’am. I have a wife and children and grandchildren.”

Closing her eyes, she pushed down the anger at her naivety. How could I have not simply assumed? She chided herself for not realizing her mother would exert control on everyone she could. She opened her eyes and looked into the remorseful and frightened eyes of a man who now appeared as old as he was. “Here,” she said holding out the letter for him to take.

“Ma’am?”

Stephenie shook her head and turned away. “If I came and you didn’t have a letter from me, she might think I got the truth from you.”

“Though you may not know it, His Majesty and his Highness Prince Joshua still think about you.”

Stephenie paused in her step, forcing back tears that were threatening to burst forth. “Thank you.” She took another step and then turned back to the Seneschal. “You don’t know what happened to Doug, Jenk, and Samuel do you?”

“Has something happened?”

The startled look on his lined face let Stephenie know he was telling the truth. “They have all disappeared.” Without another word, she turned back to the door and left quickly. She nodded to Cedric’s appreciative comment about the candy, but avoided his gaze.

Once she was back in the central hall, she closed the door to the clerk’s office and sank back against it. She could sense the guards on the other side of the door to the dungeon and the guards in the entrance hall. At the moment, no one was able to see her and she wanted nothing more than to fall into despair. She never really had a doubt that her mother was behind the disappearance of the last people she considered friends. But that the cause might be that she thought I was sending a letter without her knowledge.

Wiping away the tears that had worked their way through her hardened exterior facade, she looked again at the dungeon door. She could not be certain how many guards were stationed down there. In her father’s care, the dungeon always had at least ten men on duty. But her mother was even more paranoid and could potentially have twice that number. Additionally, while she had stole away a few times to see the dungeon, it was one place her father and brother had never truly given her freedom to roam. Which meant she was far less familiar with the layout and would not know where her guards might be held.

Anger burning away the tears in her eyes, she turned and took off down the hall. The guards on the stairs noticed her hostile posture and woke to attention at her approach.

“Floor above prohibited.”

“Out of my way, I am a member of this family and can go where I want.”

The guard, perhaps sensing the danger radiating from her eyes leaned back, but did not completely give way. “You, no weapon up stairs,” he said, pointing at her dagger, clearly visible with her satchel having bounced off her hip in her haste.

Fueled by a need to confront her mother that had been building for the last couple of weeks, she drew her dagger, flipped the blade around, and jabbed the pommel into the soldier’s gut. She pushed past the startled young man and hurried up the stairs, ignoring the empty walls and missing statues. At the top, she turned left toward the stairs leading to the third level, but slowed to a stop as she noticed Regina coming down those stairs.

Her older sister’s face, framed in long brown hair, darkened when their eyes met. “What are you doing here, you spoiled little chit?”

Stephenie glared into Regina’s brown eyes as her sister continued to descend the stairs. Regina was slightly shorter and considerably heavier, so Stephenie was not surprised when she remained on the second to last step to maintain the illusion of advantage.

“You are dressed as a common pig in some hideous monstrosity. What is your purpose in being here?”

Stephenie forcefully swallowed an angry retort. Of her three older sisters, Regina was the one she disliked the most. Three years older, Regina was three times as cruel as anyone else in her family except for her mother.

“Well? You daft as well as disgraceful in every possible manner?”

“I am here to see mother.”

“At this hour? You should go back to playing soldier in your stupid tower. You can leave mother alone, she has more important things to do than listen to your whiny little complaints.”

Stephenie’s jaw tightened. “Why are you here again? Too frightened to remain with your husband, or did he finally toss the cow out of his house?”

Regina rushed down the last couple of steps and swung her hand to slap Stephenie across the face, but Stephenie easily caught her sister’s wrist and having straightened, was now a head taller.

“Father and Josh have taught me. I’m no stupid little girl. I could help them instead of wasting time here.”

Regina pulled her arm free and turned slightly away. “Father should not be fighting this war. He should be getting Islet back. They will kill her if he persists. Mother tried to get him to listen to reason, but the bull-headed idiot is going to get our sister killed.”

“Islet was taken by the Senzar. You think they would free her if we stopped fighting? What if they demanded we hand you over in her place, you think we should do that as well?”

“We’d sure hand you over.”

“If father was to stop fighting, the other countries would not be able to continue the fight and the invaders would get whatever it is they are after and once they do, they’ll come after us. They won’t free her, no matter what we do.”

“You don’t know that! She was a better younger sister than you ever were. It should have been you that was captured or better yet, killed as Kara was. Islet behaved. She was a proper lady and princess.”

Stephenie watched Regina’s eyes roll over her with contempt. She forced herself to relax. Arguing with a fool only makes me one. Without another word, she turned back to the stairs and walked past her sister.

“Bitch,” Regina sneered.

At the top of the stairs, their argument had already drawn the attention of two of her mother’s guards. They were both grinning and looking rather pleased. “My mother,” Stephenie demanded as if they were three years old. Their eyes drew together with a slightly greater than normal amount of contempt. However, one of the soldiers turned and led the way to her mother’s private chambers.

Outside the gilded doors stood four more guards, one of which opened the door a crack and slid inside at her approach. Everyone stood in a stony silence until the guard returned.

“She will see you.”

Stephenie said nothing and walked past the guard that was holding the door open with just barely enough room for her to pass. The discipline Joshua had instilled in her kept her from shouldering the guard on her way past, but just barely. She needed to conserve her energy and focus for her real enemy and avoid being drawn into petty issues that were only done with the intent to intimidate her.

Her mother’s outer office was nothing more than a waiting area. A single lamp did a poor job of illuminating the tiled floor. A couple of uncomfortable chairs sat against the stone wall and next to the fireplace that was never lit. The intent was to make anyone who actually came here to call on her mother as uncomfortable as possible.

Stephenie ignored the outer chamber and went through another set of doors into her mother’s actual office. This room was larger and unlike most of the other rooms in the castle, had not been stripped bare of its furnishing. A thick carpet covered most of the floor. The fireplace on the left wall was blazing and filled the room with a comfortable radiance. Pictures of her mother’s family and scenes from Kynto covered the walls. A large oak desk was near the far wall. Statues and other works of art were scattered about the room. Above the fire place were four portraits of brown haired ladies, her mother, Regina, Kara, and Islet. Her father, Joshua, and herself did not rate portraits in her mother’s study.

“Mother,” Stephenie said calmly as she curtsied in the middle of the room.

Her mother said nothing, her schooled expression could have been used to listen to the chambermaid discussing the folding of blankets. However, Stephenie could sense the waves of anger and some anxiety coming from her mother. Forcing herself to be calm, she tried to open herself further to see if there was anyone else within hearing distance. She felt the distant presence of the guards outside the outer chamber behind her, but her greater concern was for the secret passage concealed in the wall directly behind her mother. Fortunately, it was empty as always, and Stephenie was fairly certain her mother still did not know about the passage.

“What is it you want?”

“Mother,” Stephenie forced a differential tone as she straightened and approached the front of the large desk. “Something has happened to Doug, Samuel, and Jenk. I do not know where they have gone.” Her mother’s face held firm its cool impassiveness, but Stephenie sensed a changing of emotions in her mother.

“Are these men your lovers that you refer to them so casually? Of course your honor is long since destroyed, so really it makes no difference.”

Forcing herself to remain calm, Stephenie replied just as coldly. “You know full well I have not been with anyone. They are my personal guards. If you were to make such accusations of ladies who now are escorted and protected by soldiers, no woman in this household would-”

“No woman of this house carries on as though she was a boy playing at war. But perhaps you are right. I should probably worry more that you’d draw a woman to your bed than a man.”

“Father and Joshua do not treat me like this.”

“Only because you are worthless and unneeded. We had daughters enough for the important kingdoms, all of which were nicely married and settled. The King allows your absurd behavior because there is no one to marry you off to. You should have died in your cradle.”

Stephenie forced a laugh and shook her head. “Now, now mother. Would you really wish such a thing? What was it you did again? The gods don’t curse the daughter unless the mother does something very bad. We both know I was born this way, so it was something you did.”

Her mother rose to her feet. “You evil beast. Out of my sight.”

“What are you going to do about it? You kill me and the curse falls on you. I know that’s the only thing that’s kept me alive so far.”

“Do not flatter yourself so. Plenty can be done to you without killing you.” Her mother calmed, straightened out her dress, and resumed her seat. “So for what purpose do you waste my time?”

“We both hate each other and would rather not have to deal with one another. So let’s fix the problem. Send me to father and you won’t have me around and that will mean I am out of your hair and sight.” Her mother smiled and Stephenie knew the answer she would hear.

“Dear girl. Your father left you here to protect you. Fighting two countries away against an army of heathen Elrin worshipers is no place for someone like you. You might switch sides.”

“How dare you!”

“I dare what I please! I am the Queen and I control your life. You will obey me!” The Queen pushed her shoulders back and calmed her face. “Now the issue of your guards, we-”

“What did you do to them?”

“Me?” The queen shook her head. “I did nothing to them. I heard from the captain of the watch that they were all seen at various times leaving the castle. It seems they must have become fed up with your inconsiderate behavior, which would get them into trouble. If you cared so much for them, then perhaps you should have treated them better.”

“They-”

“Enough. I am sick of listening to you complain. Since we don’t want any fatal harm to come to you, I have already arranged to have guards, that are a bit more loyal and not so disrespectful as to abandon their posts, watch over you.”

“I don’t want your mindless idiots. I’ll have some of the old guards come back from the city.” Stephenie shifted to the right and instinctively waved her left hand before her as the inkwell left her mother’s hand. The crystal container and loose ink shifted right in its flight and just missed her head. She heard the crystal thud into the thick carpet and roll before coming to a stop.

Her mother was again on her feet. “You will show your Uncle’s soldiers respect!” Taking a breath, the Queen continued more calmly. “You are to be locked into your precious tower and will remain there! Now get out.”

Stephenie could feel the hate and anger radiating from her mother. Feeling stupid and realizing too late her mistake in confronting her mother, Stephenie turned around and left the room. She felt too sick to even be silently happy that her mother’s precious carpet now had a large black stain.

In the outer chamber, she felt the group of soldiers just on the other side of the door had grown to at least ten. It was certain the order for her confinement had been given when the others had been taken. If she had thought it through earlier, she knew she should have tried to leave the castle when Doug had not returned by the morning. Now all she could do for them was hope that they were not dead and that once her father returned, they would be freed. The trouble was, her mother’s behavior was so far beyond excusable that Stephenie could not see how her mother would be able to remain Queen when her father did return.

Chapter 3

Sergeant Henton tugged at the lead rope again. The horse was tired, but not as tired and irritated as he was. Ahead of him stood Antar Castle. Its thirty foot high walls on a mountain of stone and bedrock lorded over Antar city. The road up to the gate house was long and steep, a precaution against attack, but annoyingly long and pointless to a man who had not slept for a day and a half. He could understand why the others had required he deal with the problem, but it did not make him enjoy it.

“Sarge, they going to give us some rack time after all this?”

Sergeant Henton turned to private Ramous and motioned with his head for the young man to move closer. When the blond boy came close enough, Henton handed him the lead rope. “Don’t ask stupid questions.”

Pulling ahead of the wagon, Henton wished once again that he was back on The Scarlet and at sea instead of being relegated to being a land-bound grunt. As a marine, he had led his squad against pirates and other ships. The area of coverage was smaller and something he could visualize. While fighting on land was not more physically challenging, the tactics were different and he did not like being outside of his element. He had protested that his men would be slaughtered if required to fight in a standard shield wall formation, but the King did have need of skilled fighters and had the right to order all the troops off the ships.

He glanced once at the port. He could hardly believe two weeks had passed since he felt the rolling deck beneath his feet. He could see there was a single ship in the harbor, but anything sea worthy had gone elsewhere, taking only the people who could afford the ransom prices.

“Sarge.”

At Corporal Will’s voice, Henton looked back toward the massive gate house. A group of five soldiers were walking in their direction and he could see several men watching from behind crenelations on the walls. “Greetings,” he called out, raising his left hand to the Kyntian soldiers and quietly signaled the wagon to stop with a quick gesture of his right. “I was ordered to bring a couple of prisoners to the castle.”

The five soldiers stopped a dozen feet away and briefly talked amongst themselves in Kyntian. Despite his Queen coming from Kynto, Henton had never thought there would be a need for him to learn the language of a country so far to the north and bordering the Endless Sea, not the Sea of Tet, which he had sailed. I guess that is just something else I was wrong about.

“Prisoners are kept at the garrison. The castle is not the place for common criminals,” a guard finally said in Cothish.

Henton eyed the Corporal who had spoken. The man had big arms under his tunic, but his neck seemed a little flabby and he could see the straining material around his waist. The man’s bulk was at least somewhat from fat. He had already subconsciously evaluated the men as they had approached and the Corporal’s condition fit his opinion.

“Look, I took my orders from the Captain of the Garrison and based on who we have, I happen to agree these men should probably be dealt with by your Captain of the Watch.” Henton hoped Ramous would keep his mouth shut about having been up all night, that would only ensure they waited hours before these men summoned anyone.

“And why would you think that?”

“Well, that is something that should probably be discussed between me and your captain.”

The Corporal smiled. “He’s busy, why don’t you wait here.”

Henton, nodded his head. He was tired of the severe issue of dissension between the forces. On board ship, he dealt with people from many different nationalities who had different skills and they all got along. The Kyntians did not seem to want to even try. “Not a problem. Will and Zac, get up in that wagon and dump our cargo. They’re rapists and murderers, so let’s cut off their balls and if they die at the castle gates from blood loss, well, not my problem.”

“Wait, you can’t leave men on the ground out here.”

Henton ignored the soldier behind him and nodded his head to Corporal Will and Private Zac to continue. Private Ramous had not been one of his marines, but someone who had recently been conscripted and handed to him. So he kept his focus on the blond, hoping he would not break.

“I said stop!”

Will and Zac had their daggers out and the tearing of cloth could be heard as they sliced down the pants of the three men in the back of the small flatbed wagon.

“Fetch the Captain to deal with these men!”

Henton glanced once at his Corporal, who calmly returned his dagger to it’s sheath. Henton slowly turned around to face the five Kyntian soldiers and stood with his arms crossed and waited. After a very short period of time Henton saw the gate lift and a tall, trim man in a Captain’s uniform moving toward them in a quick, but not hasty manner. Henton came to attention and saluted the officer.

“What is the meaning of this Sergeant? You will be lucky to not end up in the dungeon yourself. Prisoners are kept in Antar, not the castle.”

“Captain.” Henton responded crisply, still in salute as the Captain had not saluted in return. “Captain Charles ordered me to deliver these men to the castle. They were caught overnight in the progress of raping and killing people on outlying farms. We had been tracking them for several days and caught a break.”

“And why should I care?”

“Well, there were eleven men in the group, three were local undesirables who managed to avoid being conscripted for one reason or another. Those three are being held at the garrison. The band was involved with many murders. We caught them enjoying themselves after murdering the three men of a family and a ten year old girl, who was strangled while being raped. The mother and three other girls, between twelve and sixteen, were what they considered to be their reward.”

“And why bring the other men here?”

“Of the other eight men, five of which died in the fighting to free the family, those that lived claimed they were under your protection, as they are Kyntian soldiers. They seem to have kept the locals around solely for the purpose of being able to know which families to attack.”

The Captain returned Henton’s salute and moved around to the back of the wagon to look at the three men who were bound so tightly that their hands and bare feet had turned slightly blue. A look of disgust passed over the Captain’s face before he turned back to Sergeant Henton. “Sergeant, bring the prisoners into the castle. I will need you to make a report. Can you write?”

“Yes sir.”

“Then come with me.”

Henton signaled Corporal Will to take lead of the wagon as he followed a step behind the Captain, who was again walking briskly. He heard the wagon start to move forward and peripherally noted the five gate guards spread out to make room.

Henton looked up as he passed the outer gate of the massive gate house. There was a second set of gates on the far side of the structure. Above him and to the sides were massive blocks of stone with murder holes and arrow loops. A force trying to come through the main entrance would find it a bloody battle.

As he neared the end of the gate house, a view inside the curtain wall was possible. Henton had never been in this castle and had only been inside one other castle while working guard duty for an ambassador. He felt the scale of the castle complex weigh on him.

Directly between Henton and the keep, as well as between the tower and the outer walls to the east, were countless wagons loaded with supplies. They appeared to be ready to be deployed, presumably to the front lines and he felt a sudden concern that his next assignment would likely be escorting a supply caravan. He had seen how many soldiers were left in Antar and heard rumors about the castle staffing and knew they would have to deplete the numbers significantly to protect this many wagons.

Henton turned at the sound of a man calling out something in Kyntian, which he was fairly certain was “Captain.” The Captain had stopped and was now waiting for a man approaching from the west. They started talking in Kyntian and while he could not understand what was said, Henton always felt it was rude to simply stand and watch a conversation, so he turned back to looking at the wagons.

He had quickly added up a count of thirty wagons just to his south and had started counting the rows and columns to the east when he saw movement. He looked away from where the movement had been in order to try and catch it again with his peripheral vision.

It came again quickly and Henton homed in on a cloaked person ducking between the wagons. Henton took a step away from the Captain and the movement, feigning interest in the tower. The person among the wagons moved again, ducking under another wagon. Henton noticed the shape of a sword and a pack or bag on the person’s back.

Turning to move into the field of wagons himself, Henton headed into a different row and behind the person. He tried to approach as quietly as possible, using just the toes of his hard soled boots. He lost sight of the person, but based on their prior direction and pattern of watching and then moving, he knew he would be gaining on them and should be able to catch them just as they reached the edge of the wagons.

He reached the last wagon and stopped. Peeking around the wagon, Henton noticed the person squatting by a wheel a dozen feet away. Suddenly the person’s hooded face turned slightly in his direction and then took off at a dead run toward the outer wall and one of the towers. Henton exploded into a sprint and only because of his longer strides was he able to close the gap.

The cloaked figure suddenly skidded to a stop and turned with the intent to draw a sword. Henton did not slow, instead, he dropped low and kicked out his left foot, hitting the foot of his attacker, knocking them both to the ground. The sword scattered away and Henton used his momentum to roll on top of his opponent.

A strong fist met his chin, but having been caught in more than one bar fight, Henton easily shook off the blow. Unable to get a good hold on the squirming man below him, Henton slammed his forehead into the person’s face and could feel the impact of the man’s head hitting the flagstones of the courtyard.

Having knocked the fight out of the smaller man, Henton rolled him onto his stomach and twisted the man’s arm behind his back.

“Get off of me!”

Henton paused slightly, the person was too large to be a small boy, but the voice was not that of a man. He heard booted feet approaching behind him. The person below him shifted and he took a foot to his back. He struggled to maintain his grip on the person’s arm, but the person rolled over and with surprising strength, kicked up, rising slightly into the air. Henton only just maintained his grip. Looking into the hooded face, he could see a pair of green eyes burning with hatred and anger. Blood was running from the girl’s nose and mouth.

She seemed about to try one last attempt to get free, but with the other soldiers and the Captain surrounding her, she simply ceased resiting.

“Well, if it isn’t the Princess. Your Highness, whatever are you doing out here.”

Henton froze when he heard “Princess.” It would be one thing to tackle a scullery maid stealing, but something else entirely to assault a member of the royal family. Before he could start thinking of what punishment he might receive, the Captain smiled and patted his shoulder.

“Sergeant. I must thank you. What is your name?”

“Henton sir.”

“Well, this one has been nothing but trouble. You have done me a service today.”

Henton accepted his hand up and rose off the Princess who was holding her nose to try to stop the bleeding. The soldiers standing around her had expressions ranging from smug pleasure to an obvious eagerness to inflict a little pain of their own.

“You men, return her to her room and find out who was watching her and how she got out. I expect the information before I have a chance to finish a cup of coffee.” He turned back to Henton, “please follow me.”

Henton had been escorted into the keep and was sitting in the Captain’s outer office with a clerk that had a scar running from his chin up to his right ear. Henton had been asked to fill out a report on his three prisoners, but since he could only write Cothish, that clerk had been assigned to slowly record the report. Trying not to yawn too much, Henton gave up on the idea that the report would be complete. Either Kyntian words were much shorter than Cothish was, or the clerk was only recording the highlights. In his mind, it really did not matter, since a full report was already recorded at the garrison. Now he was simply waiting on the Captain to dismiss him and allow him to return to his men and hopefully get some sleep. Eventually, the Captain summoned him into the inner office.

“Sergeant Henton. I understand you were on a ship up until two weeks ago.”

“That is correct sir. The Scarlet.”

“That would explain why I am able to find a competent man in Antar.”

Henton ignored the insult of his fellow men.

“Well, we have a slight problem with the Princess. She is a spoiled child with delusions of grandeur. She wants to run off to find her daddy, which would be terrible for morale and hard for his Majesty to focus on the war if he is worried about his daughter.”

“Was that what she was doing? Trying to go to the front?”

“Yes, I am afraid it was. She does have some skill at fighting, I won’t lie about that, but she is nothing but trouble. She drove off her personal guards two days ago and it seems she convinced the ones I had assigned to protect her to allow her out of her room to bathe. Well, she overcame the two men, likely by surprise. They claim she tried to lure them by showing flesh, but I doubt that was the case. As I said, she does have some skill.”

Thinking back to the brief struggle earlier, Henton nodded. “I would agree with that assessment.”

“Good. She is trouble and has an irrational hatred of those from Kynto. Since you have proven able to at least stop her in a fight, I am putting you in charge of her confinement. It is for her own good.”

“Captain, I am honored, but-”

“I have already sent dispatches to your Captain Charles. Consider it a promotion and your pay will increase to that of personal guard.”

“Captain, I really must refuse. I have men-”

“Sergeant, orders are not refused. I don’t know what you are used to on a ship, but on land, your Captain’s command is followed.”

“Yes sir. I understand, but I am worried about my-”

“Your men will be assigned as needed by Captain Charles.” The Captain rose to his feet and Henton did the same. “I had thought you would be a bit more appreciative. Let me warn you that intentionally failing to keep her under control will result in punishment, not a return to your prior assignment.”

“Yes sir.”

The Captain eyed him one more time. “Report to the barracks next to the old tower. Lieutenant Gothi will be able to provide you with a place to sleep and introduce you to the men who will be under your command. They should be very motivated, since if they fail a second time, I will be less than pleased. Your new command starts at first light. Dismissed.”

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