This is a short story I wrote a few months ago. I originally had parts of it written for another creative writing class but I lost it, so this is completely new. This is a glimpse into some of my writing outside of my usual New Adult comfort zone, so enjoy!
Small sidenote: There may be some typos I need to fix. This is a rough draft and might go into a novel.
THE STENCH OF LIVESTOCK AND UNWASHED MEN became fouler the last hour of travel. Prince Artenance had a day left before reaching the village of Pryka with his caravan. His stallion, Shadow, had seen the Fairy River and launched a rebellion amongst the sheep, goats, and cows by nearly throwing Artenance for a traitorous sip of cool water.
“Are you considering pushing through the night, Art?” Said his second, Evander Heron.
Artenance crumpled the letter Evander had stolen from the King’s messenger crow. “I haven’t decided yet.”
“We should heed the Elder’s warnings about traveling in these parts.”
“Evander, the only reason your grandmother’s lunatic ramblings made it into this letter” — Artenance squeezed his hand over the offending document — “is because our families go back six generations.”
Artenance flung the letter as far down the Fairy River as possible. The letter from King Damon DeNanne of the Bilran Empire and his father had little to report in the way of good news. He wrote the letter to gloat. Artenance had no use for it. Hot and sweaty, Artenance wiped his brow, then bent low to fill his leather pouch full of fresh water.
“The King is taking your men, Artenance—good men. We can stop him if we go back.”
Artenance let Evander speak as he drank deeply from his pouch. He cared nothing that his friend said, instead of focusing on the coolness of the water against his throat to quell his temper.
Prince Artenance Daemon DeNanne—heir to the throne of Bilran.
Artenance loathed his title.
Artenance slammed his pouch down on a rock. “I fail to see how any choice I make can be considered wise. I am a Prince that commands thousands, yet I can’t keep the woman I love safe from my father. Adara and her family are in trouble and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“And what got you into this situation—no, got us into this situation? You demanded my sister, Ciya’s, hand in marriage over Adara’s like a rash fool!”
Artenance gritted his teeth. He debated what angered him more—Evander’s truth or his amusement over the proposal to his sister.
Artenance was prepared to fight on the front lines of a senseless war—for both Adara and Callahadrice—risking death for betraying his father because he loved the Princess. King Daemon had insulted Queen Keaira of the island three summers before at a court gathering, so she insulted the King gravely by rejecting Artenance’s proposal to her daughter that same week. Artenance intended to end his father’s political vendetta by offering to take Ciya Heron’s hand in marriage two weeks ago. Ciya was a dear friend to Artenance like her brother and a well-bred Lady of high standing. Ciya ruined all chances for herself and their countries when she kicked Artenance in the groin and fled the castle.
Artenance wasn’t sure where she fled. Home to the Heron estate, he supposed. His father’s backhand to his cheek had left a faint bruise and Artenance forgot all concerns he might have had about Ciya when he was ordered to take a caravan to collect taxes from the villagers. Traveling on horseback hadn’t yet done much in the way of allowing his groin to heal.
Only marriage or death would end the war.
Even if Ciya had accepted the proposal, King Daemon would have sent Artenance on the damned quest to collect taxes. Artenance should have never opened his mouth—not to propose to either woman and especially not to claim his love for Princess Adara Kain.
Evander cleared his threat. “You look like you could use a drink. Perhaps that will end this frightening silence.”
Artenance snapped back into himself and nodded to his Second. Scooping water into his hands, Artenance splashed it onto his face. Resting for the night would be best, he decided. His caravan was hunting a meal and getting ready for the night on a hill. It was useless to make them pack everything just to travel at night when it was most dangerous.
Evander walked over to Buttercup, Ciya’s horse. The irony that he stole his sister’s mare to track down his caravan did not escape Artenance. That he took Buttercup after he illegally intercepted the King’s messenger crow made it funnier.
“Shut your gob,” said Evander, reaching into his saddlebag.
“I said nothing,” Artenance snorted.
Evander pulled something from the saddlebag and tossed it to him. Shadow took a playful nip at the mare before Artenance tugged on his reins. Unscrewing the flask’s cap, he breathed in the aroma of the ale before he took a swig. Honey and hops caressed his tongue, and Artenance savored the familiarity of the drink before he swallowed it.
“Is this your mother’s ale?” Artenance asked.
“My sister takes care of us even when she is furious.” Evander took a seat next to Artenance, who offered the flask to his friend. Evander took a drink then passed it back. “I find it a shame she’ll only ever be your assailant and friend. You would make an excellent brother.”
Artenance smacked the giggling fool on the head then passed the flask back to him.
“Make all the jokes you like. It doesn’t change anything now. It’s impossible. It’s a miracle Lord Yatah has given us privacy this long.”
“Lord Yatah can eat cow dung. I’m more worried about the King sentencing me to death for abandoning my post as commander on his ship.”
Artenance snorted and gulped more ale. “Don’t worry about my father. I’ll handle him. And as amusing as it would be to see Yatah eat cow dung; Father is determined to end the war. Adara and her family will submit to the empire or face death.”
“Has exhaustion from the two suns made you mad, Art?” Evander released an angry snort before standing. “Callahadrice is done for—is that what you think? How could you? Do you know other people—your people—cheered for the rape of Adara’s sister? For the murder of her young brother—”
“I’ll petition your mother to reclaim you as Princess Artenette since Lord Yatah has an iron grip on your balls!”
Artenance clenched his right fist and turned to swing at Evander, but his second moved too fast. Water sloshed against his ankles and soaked his trousers. Evander didn’t wait for the horse to calm before he mounted and splashed out of the river.
“Evander, I have no choice!”
Evander pulled hard on Buttercup’s reins and turned her around to face Artenance.
“Twenty-seven hundred men, Artenance! AT least five-hundred men are crossing the Costovan Sea, ready for us to claim our allegiance to Callahadrice!”
“Stop this foolishness,” Artenance demanded. “What if someone—”
“Oh, like Yatah?” Evander clenched his jaw. “To hell with these taxes and this caravan! I’m talking about something real—something that threatens the woman you love! Instead, you worry what thieves think of you! It’s time you start thinking like a king rather than a tyrant’s lapdog!”
Blood rushed to Artenance’s ears and every muscle in his arms tensed as his anger rose. “That’s not fair!” Artenance said, pointing at Evander.
“Neither is your father’s invasion of an entire country because a headstrong Queen refuses to be intimidated by his politics!”
Evander took off before Artenance could get in another word.
He kicked rocks and allowed his anger to wash over him. Evander was his friend and his Second, but he didn’t understand the situation. He could never understand the situation because he wasn’t a prince of the empire under which a tyrannical king ruled. Evander was careless, and strong-willed, and didn’t need to allow himself to be tied to Bilran and it’s politics if he had such a problem with it.
ARTENANCE SPENT THE REST OF THE avoiding questions from Lord Yatah and the other men in his caravan regarding Evander’s whereabouts. They had been ready to pack up camp when he came back. Evander refused to speak to Artenance yet he spoke to correct an offending soldier when the man suggested the possibility of taking advantage of a willing lass in Pryka.
Women in Bilran had no rights, and to bed, an unwed woman would be her banishment or death. Artenance bit his tongue when Lord Yatah stepped in to defend the soldier’s right to have a conversation about whatever he wished to speak of, even though Evander outranked man except for the Prince in the caravan.
Traveling with a chamber pot-kissing knave and unskilled brutes were King Daemon’s way of teaching Artenance the true politics of the empire. That he was not to ever suggest an alternative to ending a war again unless it was to the King’s explicit approval unless Artenance was king himself. Only then would Artenance have true say in any heavy political situation.
Evander was right, Artenance thought. They could slip away easily enough at night to raise enough men to take an army to Callahadrice to stop his father. Artenance only wondered if Lord Yatah would allow the men traveling in the caravan to hurt innocents. He already didn’t respect ARtenance as Prince. The men acted like rogue pirates if given the opportunity.
No, Art decided. For now, he would continue to travel with his caravan.
Artenance realized he had never traveled so far in this part of his father’s empire. Pryka was smaller than the other villages they had visited. Not in size; in population. This puzzled art and Lord Yatah, as he claimed Pryka had not had a villager miss a payment of taxes in well over five years.
Art had no patience to inquire as to why. With Evander’s words echoing in his mind, he was compelled to forgive the blonde in front of him with a young boy attached to her dirty sits. Tears ran down her face when she thrust her cow’s lead rope toward his clenched fists.
“Forgive me, Lord Prince. Me husband passed away some time ago. Havin’ a wee one on the way has been hard on me an’ me boy. He’s not yet strong enough to work me farm. There’s only me, me milking cow, and me boy. I offer me cow as payment.”
Lord Yatah opened his mouth to speak but Artenance made a sharp war with his hand to silence him. Taking notice of the young widow’s protruding stomach, Artenance wondered if her small family would survive the winter without their cow. The weather had promised to be harsher, as it was only the middle of fall and Artenance had needed to wear his thicker clothes as he and his caravan traveled the countryside village to village. The young boy stared up at him with wide, curious eyes before he ducked under his mother’s skirts in fear.
“Well, are ye takin’, her not? She’s a good cow. I’ve not got anything for ye that’ll do in the heifer’s place.”
Her level of panic rose the longer Artenance allowed her to ramble.
He cleared his throat. “No, I—”
Lord Yatah stepped forward to take the cow’s lead. He leaned in close enough for Artenance to feel Yatah’s breath against his ear. Evander glare at them both from his seat in the back of the wagon—of course, he wouldn’t agree, Artenance thought. Evander was on a mission to drive him to insanity through silence and harsh judgment.
“Shall we take the child, Prince? If the cow does not please you,” said Lord Yatah.
The woman gasped and picks up her boy from underneath her skirts. She muttered a prayer under her breath then turned to wipe the mud off her child’s face.
Artenance narrowed his eyes before he yanked the cow’s lead out of Lord Yatah’s hands.
“Evander?” Artenance called.
Evander took the cow with nothing to say, even though the hateful gaze he gave Artenance said everything. The cow swished her tail as she followed Evander and the boy whimpered in his mother’s arms. Artenance turned toward the frightened mother, trying his best to smile at her, hoping she would relax. Fear amongst the people in the land may have been his father’s tactic, but Artenance had never cared for it.
“The empire of Bilran thanks you for your payment. Blessings on you and your boy.” Artenance offered his hand for the villager to kiss it. The woman bounced her boy up higher and took it to kiss his rings.
She sighed. “Oh, I could kiss ye on ye mouth, Highness.” She bowed low even with her very pregnant belly and a clinging child. Lord Yatah reached over to help her stand by gripping her elbow. She gave him a small curtsy. “Thank ye, milord.”
Lord Yatah tipped his hat. “My pleasure, madam.”
She turned to leave, but Yatah called out, “oh, but one moment, miss…”
Evander and Artenance glanced at each other. If Yatah claimed the cow wasn’t sufficient enough, Artenance would run him through with his sword. He had watched him do it twice before in other villages—twice too many—and he had meddled enough in the prince’s affairs with the caravan. If Artenance killed him, he could go to Callahadrice, damn his father and his empire.
“Do you know the family that lives on the hill at the edge of the village? They have not come to pay their respects to His Highness.”
Artenance narrowed his eyes as he watched Yatah, but he took his hand off the hilt of his blade. It was unlikely that the man gave a damn about anyone paying respects to him. If he could cause trouble, he would, and Evander’s words about working for a tyrant once again reminded Artenance of why he needed to consider abandoning the caravan to leave for Callahadrice. He almost didn’t want to admit it, but it was like these people were beyond his help. His father had hired men to terrorize villagers, and even if Artenance had not gotten in trouble for proposing to Ciya, taxes still needed to be collected. Yatah and his men would have still terrorized whoever they piqued their interest. It was not uncommon for a dozen or so slaves to be taken during tax season.
“Oh,” the villager said. “Them are the smithy an’ ‘is family…They’re an odd sort.”
“Yes, but are they aware they must pay taxes?”
Evander rolled his neck after he finished securing the cow to the wagon. He had at least deigned to listen to Artenance about Yatah’s behavior before they had their argument at the Fairy River. He didn’t seem to enjoy the tone Yatah had taken with the widow. For the brief moment they made eye contact, Artenance shook his head and crossed his arms. He hoped that would signify enough to Evander—they didn’t need to cause trouble in the middle of a village, as much as they itched to do so.
The widow nodded. “Aye, I’m no’ so sure why they havena come with they taxes.”
Artenance pursed his lips. He didn’t have to wonder if the family wouldn’t have a way to make their payment—most villagers crowded in the square to get it over with quickly out of fear.
“Evander, come with me! We’re going to the smithy’s home,” Artenance demanded.
Evander opened his mouth, to tell him where to put his order, Artenance was certain, but he didn’t wait for him. Artenance heard two sets of footsteps behind him and turned to make sure Evander was following. He was, as was Yatah, after he yelled a command to the men to keep collecting payments and not to stray far from their loot.
Pryka had almost no trees although it was surrounded by forest. The two suns bared down on Artenance’s skin yet a chill ran up his leg. Pools of sweat ran down his neck as they trekked up the hill.
“It smells like death,” Lord Yatah sneered. “Perhaps they are dead. We should not waste the time.”
Artenance turned toward Evander, who feigned shock.
“Afraid of a little stale goat’s blood, Yatah?” Evander said, passing Artenance.
They passed a goat that had been slaughtered. It still hung to a post with its neck slit open, legs twisted around the pole with a rope. A bowl lay underneath the dead goat’s neck to collect its blood. Artenance ducked his head against his forearm and covered his nose in an attempt to drown out the smell.
“We have no time for foolishness,” Artenance said through his sleeve, his voice muffled. “I want this finished. They must be draining the animal to prepare it for a meal.”
Lord Yatah pulled a cloth from his trousers to cover his nose. “I think that animal is beyond consumption.”
Evander turned to wink at them, a bit of mirth in his eyes when he moved forward to knock on the door.
“The Prince of Bilran demands your presence!” Evander said.
Yatah bellowed, “Fool! You do not barge on doorsteps like that!”
Evander took a step back with a fake bow. “Sorry, milord, forgive me for thinking that is how we conduct business. If you can stand the stench of goat’s blood, perhaps you can coax a frightened family from their home.”
“Enough,” Artenance demanded, even though it was the most Evander had spoken since their fight.
The door cracked open an inch.
“Sorry, Highness,” said a man. Artenance motioned for Evander to step to the side. “We’ve got nothing for you. Me wife an’ me boy died last full moon.”
Artenance tightened his jaw and his teeth ached in protest. His patience was wearing thin with the villagers. Yatah’s eyes widened in delight. Evander cleared his throat, ever cautious.
“Nonsense,” Evander said. “Surely you have more goats.”
“The Goddess Xylorcia is a vengeful one, my Lords.” Behind the smithy, a slip of a girl gasped at the mention of the goddess King Daemon had long since banished. “I sacrificed me last goat. Yeh’d be wise to stop traveling at night. I know ye are.”
Yatah moved forward and forced himself through the door before Artenance could stop him. The smithy stumbled back on a limp leg and clutched his cane, but he still fell backward to the floor. The girl—Artenance assumed she must be the smithy’s daughter—rushed to him to help him up.
“What is this? A mockery of the royal family? You are the smithy. You are the wealthiest man amongst citizens in Pryka.”
“No more, Lord,” said the girl.
Yatah started to draw the sword from his side, but Artenance grabbed his wrist. “No.” Then he turned toward the man. “Perhaps we can take something else as payment? I am willing to show sympathy since you have just had a loss in the family.”
“That’s because he—”
The smithy slapped the girl. “Quiet!”
She ducked her head and covered her face with her hands. She muttered something Artenance couldn’t decipher. The smithy shoved her forward.
“Take her,” he said.
“Do as I say, Airlea! A warning if I may, Prince. The goddess is on a warpath, angry we have forgotten her. Best ye keep out of the shadows and in the light of the twin suns lest ye gain her interest.”
Yatah sneered. “Pay no mind to an ancient heathen’s beliefs.” He spat at the smithy. “If you hadn’t wasted a good animal’s life, we wouldn’t be taking your daughter.”
Yatah had gone ahead of them. Neither man paid mind to the girl as they talked. She tried to keep pace with them, but Artenance huffed every time they had to slow down because she lost her footing.
“I’ll be glad to leave,” Artenance said to Evander on the way back to the village center. “You may be as angry with me as you wish, but I’m finished here. Perhaps I should kill Yatah and be done with it.”
Evander nodded and cleared his throat. “There may be no need for that. We can leave and no one has to die…but I feel we should stay with your caravan longer. Goat sacrifices and warnings of dead goddesses—you may not believe my grandmother’s old ramblings, but I do, Art. We should be careful.”
Artenance frowned, considering his friend’s words. He may have given him trouble for his heathen roots on various occasions, especially since his mother’s side was from Callahadrice. But no matter which way Artenance looked at it, the Elder Woman’s knowledge of the world on matters of the supernatural went beyond his understanding. Their families had not been interconnected for generations without reason. In fact, the Elder had claimed many times that her gifts were heightened when a pagan priestess married her son.
“Yes… Ready the men to leave. We won’t overstay our welcome.”
They continued to speak, deciding on when they needed to leave in hushed voices. The girl trembled yet remained quiet the rest of the walk. She only tripped once, and Evander apologized for walking quickly.
Yatah paid them no mind. Artenance debated killing him again. Something in the back of his mind whispered to do it, yet he forced the thought back. Killing Yatah now would get him nowhere. He was one of the closest men to his father—perhaps Artenance needed to question him about what he knew about the attack his father had been planning for Callahadrice.
Yet, Artenance wanted Yatah’s blood.
The girl kept her head down and cried, silent, while they led her to the wagon. She was the first human they had to take for payment as taxes. Evander demanded someone to fetch him a rope, and a villager offered one before moving forward to pay his taxes to Artenance. He paid no attention to the man, instead transfixed with the girl’s face while Evander murmured a soft apology while he tied her wrists. She had the lightest skin Artenance had ever seen, unlike Princess Adara’s sun-kissed flesh. Pale lines of blue danced along the girl’s neckline, trapping his eyes, and made Artenance wonder what might happen if he were to kiss her there.
Evander cleared his throat.
Artenance shook his head to loosen his mind from his fascination with the girl. He offered her his hand to help her in the back of the wagon and ignored his initial craving for her. He loved Adara, and while the girl was a rare beauty, she was now a slave for his empire. Her soft black hair grazed his hand while he placed his own underneath her armpits and lifted her up. He couldn’t help but think of Adara’s honey hair when it happened. The princess had some of the lightest hair Artenance had ever seen, and it had been one of the reasons he fell in love with her.
It happened so fast, Artenance only reacted.
A teenage lad with an ax moved toward Artenance, arm raised high, with the intention of striking. Evander forced Airlea back and climbed into the wagon after her. Yatah and Artenance pinned the lad to the ground with their swords.
“Peter, is it?” Yatah asked, digging his heel into the boy’s back, his blade pressed against the hand that held the ax.
Artenance caught Evander’s wince yet kept his blade on the boy’s neck. Airelea’s sobs pierced the air. She begged and pleaded with them to let him go, but that seemed to excite Yatah. The boy gasped, sobbed, and tried to free his hand from Yatah’s blade. That only made Yatah dig the blade deep enough to draw little streams of blood from the lad’s wrist.
“Shut up the girl,” Artenance demanded.
“Now, let’s not be hasty, Prince,” Yatah said.
“Don’t you hurt him!” Airlea shrieked.
“Oh, but attacking the Prince is punishable—”
“You’ve stopped him,” Evander said. The boy stilled under their blades and continued to sob against the dirt. Artenance ignored the girls’ fight against Evander although he heard it. “Have a bit of understanding, Yatah. Is this boy a friend, miss?”
“H-he’s to be my husband…”
“I see,” Yatah said.
“Kill me, Bilran scum,” the boy gasped, “and the Goddess will reign—”
“Oh, well, why did you have to do that?”
Artenance clenched his jaw and looked at the wagon. Evander saw it coming before it happened, and covered Airlea’s eyes. The boy screamed in pain when Yatah struck, severing his foot from the ankle with the same ax he threatened Artenance with moments ago.
“Enough, Yatah,” Artenance demanded. He drew his blade from the injured boy’s neck. It sliced his flesh and blood speed from the wound. He gripped the hilt tight, but didn’t allow himself to show remorse. “We came here to collect taxes, not to hurt people.”
“Oh, but your Highness, surely you wouldn’t want me to inform the King his Prince disagrees with his laws. In fact, I believe our punishment of the lad isn’t complete. Death, wasn’t it, for threatening a royal family member?” Yatah gave the gasping boy a look of pity. “Shall I let you do the honors, or shall we torture him further?”
“Art, listen to me,” Evander said, “damn your father’s laws!”
Yatah chuckled. “Careful, Evander, for you do not want to commit treason further.”
“Shut your gob,” Artenance said. He glanced at two other men. “Grab the boy. Let’s get this over with.”
“No!” Airlea and a woman who must have been the boy’s mother screamed.
The men stepped forward and forced the boy to his knees. Artenance paced in front of him, asking himself if he needed to do it. The boy had suffered the loss of a limb, but Yatah was right. He threatened Artenance, a Prince, and death was the only option.
The boy pleaded, he told Artenance that he was sorry, and begged for his life. He ranted something about loving Airlea, and begged anyone who would listen to have mercy. He promised to work in the castle if he survived his wound.
Artenance swung his blade in his hand for a better grip and ignored the sweat that built in his palm.
He had no time for doubts. His sword sliced through the lad’s neck. Ugly, stunned sobs from villagers made every muscle in his body tense.
“Death, as promised,” Yatah said, turning to the sobbing villagers. “Shall we move on, Prince?”
Artenance wiped the blood from his blade. “We should move before nightfall,” he said. “Men, get ready.”
Airlea’s sobs slowed to a giggle, then a bone-chilling cackle once they left the village.
No one in the caravan except for Artenance seemed to notice.
DUSK SETTLED OVER THE CARAVAN OUTSIDE of Pryka.
The girl kept quiet while Artenance ordered his men to make camp. She refused to leave the wagon even when Yatah tried forcing her from it. Evander stepped in to make him leave her alone more than once, and Artenance grew tired of Yatah’s obvious contempt for his authority. King Daemon had given him too much power, and Artenance wanted to end it.
Artenance sat next to Evander a few feet away from the fire. Guarded by the secluded area, they finally had the privacy they had not been given for an entire day. Yatah had been sent with two men to fetch dinner and Airlea hadn’t budged from her spot in the wagon.
“Are you still angry with me?” Artenance asked, offering Evander a bit of bread a villager from Donik had given them. It had started to stale yet it would still hold them over until the men caught something for a meal.
His friend remained quiet, glancing in Airlea’s direction. She hugged her knees to her chest and had not touched the flask of water they left for her at the edge of the wagon. Not a sound had come from her since her unnerving cackle after Artenance killed the Peter boy.
Artenance would never forget his name, nor the women’s cries as he pierced the lad’s neck with his blade. He had grown restless of his father’s brutish laws, yet Artenance had killed men before—vile men, those who wanted to see the end of his family’s empire. Those that wanted to hurt his mother and kill him when he was a lad himself. Long ago, Artenance had promised himself he would never hurt an innocent man.
Artenance swallowed the air that stuck in the back of his throat at the thought.
“About the boy…” Evander said.
“No,” Artenance said. “We will not speak of it.”
Evander nodded and took a bite of his own bread. He must have wanted to say something else to Artenance, but at least he respected his wishes. “Do you regret not leaving with me to go to Callahadrice?”
“I regret many things. I think we should leave this caravan and sail for the island.”
“We would have to return to Bilran and gather our other men.”
“You read the letter. Father expects they’ll cross the Costovan Sea in a week. Three days, if they are taking the new ships…”
Artenance threw his leftover bread to the ground with a curse under his breath. “Then we haven’t the time.”
“There are two problems I see with your plan,” Evander said.
Artenance frowned. “What?”
“Airlea will be at the mercy of these pigs if we don’t bring her.”
“Then, we’ll bring her. She’ll be safer in Callahadrice…In a land where women have more authority than men.”
“I don’t see that going well, Art. We should leave her in Bilran before we set sail. Maybe one of the men’s families will take her in.”
“You can’t be serious? It would be reckless to leave her helpless when we haven’t the time to travel back to the city—with a family she doesn’t know. Who’s to say they won’t sell her to the nearest market rather than take on another mouth to feed?”
“I am serious,” Evander said.
“We aren’t leaving her in Bilran. Have you spoken to any of the men in the caravan?”
“Fools, the lot of them. You won’t find one man who will be sympathetic to our cause. If you do, I’ll bend low and offer myself to the dead goddesses.”
“Don’t let Yatah hear you speak that way.”
Evander snorted. “I still wonder if I should have you reclaimed as Princess Artenette. You speak of leaving the caravan, yet you still kiss Yatah’s ass.”
They spoke for a few more moments. During their conversation, Airelea’s interest in them didn’t pass unnoticed. It was the first time she sat up in hours. She stared at Artenance yet he did not pause to interrupt his plans with Evander.
ARTENANCE WAS STARTLED FROM SLEEP.
His sat up, his feet hot. The fire pit the men had started was now larger. Confused, Artenance stumbled into the clearing of what had been covered in forest mere hours ago. The fire blazed into the sky, and around it, a woman danced with her hands high in the sky.
It was the girl.
But she no longer seemed scared, or timid. She completely shed her clothing and now danced around the fire, naked. Her ebony hair swayed near her hips in a breeze that hilled Artenance’s ears. He stumbled back and tripped over a log. Landing hard, Artenance broke the fall with his wrist. Pain shot up his arm and he cried out.
She swung around with a grin on her face.
Artenance gasped in shock.
Her face was covered in blood. The fire had not grown because of more firewood, but by the bodies of the men in Artenance’s men in his caravan. Lord Yatah laid at Airlea’s feet, his throat and chest split open as flames licked his flesh.
“Finally, you wake.”
She didn’t sound like the scared girl she had been hours ago, but a confident, cold, otherworldly being…
Artenance’s jaw slackened and he gaped at her.
She cocked her head to the side, then laughed. “Oh, please, do not let my appearance startle you, Prince. I have been trapped in the bones and rags of this mortal for years now. I finally had the opportunity to show my real self and took it.” She reached out with her right hand, folded it into a fist, and then pulled it over her heart.
If the creature even had a heart, that is, Artenance thought to himself. He suddenly wished they had taken better heed of the warnings of the Elder Woman and the smithy. The way the people in Pryka had had such a difficult time paying taxes—why hadn’t it occurred to him that there might be something greater going on than misfortune or a hard growing year?
The boy—Peter—before Artenance killed him.
He had tried to warn them as well.
“Who are you?”
She certainly wasn’t Airlea. Artenance had noticed something strange about the girl as soon as she cackled after Peter’s death, and after no one else seemed to notice that she had acted so oddly. While they traveled, she had been scared and unsure one moment, and far too curious the next. Thoughts of Yatah’s death heightened when he stayed near her. Artenance thought that perhaps his mind had been playing tricks on him. He was tired from the day and needed rest—until her eyes stayed on him the entire time he spoke to Evander about going to Callahadrice.
“Did you not hear?” A giggle. “’Tis not wise to travel at night, some of the villagers preach. Even your friend’s grandmother warned against it…but I shall let you in on a secret.” The demon licked the blood from her fingers. Every inch of her was soaked in blood, even bits of strands from her hair clung to her body. “It’s not safe to travel here at all!”
She threw her head back and cackled.
Artenance backed away. A demon, his mind screamed. She must be a demon! An ancient, foul being who supped on the blood of men. He had heard of the kind before. They had nearly destroyed all of the Fae, Dwarves, and Elves eons ago. Their kind was why his father had outlawed the worship of the goddesses Xylorcia, Herona, and Adradia.
“Why so quiet?” She asked in a mocking tone. “Your mind…I find it fascinating. You think my name. You feel fear. You plot the death of your father yet feel sorrow for his terrible decisions as ruler—and ah, yes. You seek to be with the one you love.” More cackling that made his stomach churn. “Why, you even thought me more enticing than your Princess!”
“What do you want, demon?”
She stood straighter, insulted.
“Let us not pretend that you do not know I am the Goddess Xylorcia.”
Goddess worship had been outlawed, but that didn’t mean Artenance hadn’t heard of them. Adara once told him of the goddesses before her mother rejected his proposal and forced her to leave court early.
Xylorcia was the Goddess of Blood and Winter, and all things unpleasant. The Fae had written about their fear of her. A lad had lost his life because he tried to warn the caravan of her presence in the mortal lands. She was the scorned Goddess of the Netherworld, and she plagued the priestesses of Callahadrice for decades before they prayed hard enough to Herona, Goddess of the Hearth, for Xylorcia’s banishment from the island.
She sighed dramatically and rolled her hands, and spoke, “Yes, yes. I was banished from the Netherworld. I sup on the blood of mortals and make the summer moths ago away. Has your mythology been so corrupted by your father that you cannot remember everything? I was not banished from Callahadrice. I prefer these lands. Pryka lies on the mouth of the Netherworld. I have been trying to get back in, but cannot, because your father has outlawed worship. Getting home is impossible.”
“Then why don’t you leave, demon?”
Another unnerving giggle. “How have you not realized you fell over your friend?”
“What—?” Artenance looked down, and scrambled back. He swallowed the building scream in the back of his throat. Evander laid on the ground. He sucked in short, shallow breathes, his neck torn from the tip of his ear to the end of his shoulder. Artenance looked at the goddess in horror. “What have you done?!”
“I have decided to give you a choice…” Xylorcia paced in front of Artenance, hands behind her back. She arched her back provocatively. “You can let your friend die or let me give you the power to save your Princess.”
Artenance leaped to his feet. She spoke of madness. There was no way to save his friend. Evander was as good as dead, just like the rest of the men who had been in his caravan.
“You can go back to the hole you crawled from,” he spat.
Xylorcia rolled her eyes. “Typical man. A woman offers you a gift and you reject her—oh.” She giggled. “I forgot. Isn’t it the other way around? You offer a woman your hand and she laughs in your face!”
Artenance reached for his sword. He would not listen to the siren’s wail any longer. He would cut her down, and then drag her head back to—
“You cannot kill a Goddess, Artenance. It would be foolish to try. Yet, I must give you credit where it is due. I find your bloodlust delightful.”
“I want you gone!”
“Very well. I shall leave. And then your friend will die and your lover will be forced to clean your kitchens after your father wipes her island from the planet.”
That made Artenance pause—the mention of Adara. The girl he loved but had not seen in three years. He had been willing to abandon his country mere hours ago but had let his doubts cloud his judgment. He should have listened to Evander and taken off with him the night he delivered the letter from King Daemon, announcing the decision to cross the sea to attack Callahadrice.
“If you had gone you would have been dead,” Xylorcia said.
“Get out of my head, demon!”
“You must realize I am not a demon, but a Goddess—a Being that is willing to give you what you need, if only you deign to lower your pride long enough to ask.” She brushed past Artenance. He gulped then jumped back. How did she move so fast? She knelt next to Evander, sticking her finger into his wound. He gasped in pain, his breaths weak. “I would decide to take the offer of my Gift,” Xylorcia advised. Your friend does not have much longer…Your punishment in the Netherworld for letting Peter die is a ghastly fate.”
Artenance threw his hands over his ears. Maybe if he blocked out the sound of her voice, he would be able to think.
“Time is of the essence, Lord Prince.”
“Get out of my head!”
He felt her in front of him, her hands ice-cold where her palm met his skin. It was a vast difference from when Artenance had helped Airlea into the wagon. His heart pounded in his ears.
“Save your friend…your lover…or let them both die terrible deaths?”
Artenance ripped his hands from his ears and screamed, “Then cease your taunting and do it!” Wet tears slid down his face. “If I can save Evander and Adara, do it!”
The demon Goddess halted in her spiteful jeering. She grinned wider, her two sharp canines prominent as she stepped even closer than before. The edge of her breasts grazed his bicep.
“Do you mean it? Will you let me help you? To Gift you…with powers, you cannot imagine? The power to take a life… to control and bend nations to your will? To save the lives of those you love?”
The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. The Goddess smelt like death.
“May I have your wrist?”
Artenance wanted to tell her, no, but her eyes captivated him. They were as blue as the Costovan Sea. He offered his hand to her without a word.
“Artenance, don’t ever pass on my Gift.”
Pain wracked his entire arm as she sank her teeth into the flesh over his jugular.
HIS HEAD POUNDED LIKE A THOUSAND horses stampeded over it. His mouth was dry, and his skin burned if as if it had been placed inside of a fire pit.
The two suns bared down on him. Hissing, he scrambled underneath a tree that provided shelter from the burning rays of light. Dried blood clung to his wrist and mouth. Confused, Artenance searched his memory for what happened the night before.
“You made a deal with the Goddess…you damn fool.”
Artenance felt a thirst like he had never felt before, yet he stood on steady legs. Evander stood hunched underneath the protection of a large palm tree from the rays of the suns, fine except for caked blood on his neck.
Evander inched forward to place his hands underneath the light. His skin fizzled and cracked. Wincing, he removed it from the light. “The Goddess of Blood and Winter gave you her Gift. I knew we should have listened to the Elder… Don’t you remember?”
Artenance shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Turn around, Art. Where are we?”
Something roiled in his veins at the sight of a thousand ships on the shoreline. But it was not the Costovan shores of Bilran. The Priestess towers loomed on the far left of the land, where both men had a perfect view of what was happening.
“We’re on the island.”
“We’ll wait until nightfall,” Evander said. “Then perhaps we can reason with your foolish father. I’m famished.”
“No, we will reason with no one.”
Artenance was hungry for the blood of traitors.