Chapter 19: Family Ties

The first thing to come to Rowe's notice was that he was cold. He was lying on the chilled stone floor, listening to Fred argue with Councilman LeGrow in the next room. No, that wasn't right. He heard voices, but none of them belonged to Fred. He would know Fred's voice anywhere, he thought bitterly.

Rowe tried to open his eyes, but with the effort he became aware of a second sensation besides the cold—pain. It was a sharp throbbing pain that seemed to climb out of his skull and creep down to envelop his entire body. He groaned, wishing he could to return to the numb and mindless sleep he must have been enjoying before.

Instead, he listened more carefully to the voices. They were sharp, angry sounds, and he was close to deciding that he would rather not know what they were saying. Yet, one of the voices belonged to his mother. Putting forth an even greater effort to open his eyes, he only fell once again into the dark world of unconsciousness.

This time he was plagued with dreams. The same type of dreams he had been suffering from the last few weeks. Each was a little different, but they all ended the same way—with Edwin dying in the desert. Sometimes he was being chased by wild kolgas, other times waylaid by bandits, but more often than not he watched Edwin face death in the form of his own older brother. In his current dream, Rowe was trapped waist-deep in sinking sand, watching Ed and Fred fight. Rowe struggled to get out of the sand to help his younger brother, but the more he struggled, the deeper he sunk into the sand pit. He watched in horror as Fred drove a dagger into Ed's body, and while he watched Ed crumple to the ground, clutching at his wound, Rowe felt himself sinking further into the hot, gritty sand until only his face, tilted up to the sky, was above the sand. Gasping for air through his tears, he felt the course sand particles swarm into his eyes, nose and mouth, and there was darkness as Rowe was pulled completely under the ground.

He awoke with a start, gasping for air as if he really had been suffocating in a sand pit. This time he was able to crack open his eyes, but they felt gravelly and were practically glued shut, as if they really had been filled with sand. Pushing away the panic that he had been filled with by his dream, he forced himself to slow his breathing. The place he was in was dark, and he waited for his eyes to adjust. He gradually became aware of the dull, constant pain that shot through his head. Slowly lifting an arm to inspect his injuries, he realized that his body was very stiff and sore. He was on the same cold, hard floor he had been laying on the last time he briefly awoke. Carefully, he prodded his nose. He felt the dried blood around it, covering a good deal of his face. Barely brushing the nose itself, he recoiled from the fresh jolt of pain the touch awarded him. The nose was probably broken. Lifting his hand higher, he prodded the spot on his head where the bodyguard had clubbed him with the hilt of his sword. A large, swollen bump protruded underneath his hair, which was also matted with blood. By now his eyes had mostly adjusted, and he saw the dark shadows of four stone walls closely arranged around him, one with a flicker of light coming through a barred door. He was in the dungeon.

With some difficulty, he managed to bring himself to a sitting position. He sat still and closed his eyes as soon as he was up, waiting for the world to stop spinning and a wave of nausea to pass. He was so focused on his own ailments that at first he did not register the quiet, timid voice.

"Did someone say something?" His voice came out as a croak and he became very aware of having an extremely dry mouth. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Hello? Is someone there?"

"Prince Roweland?" The voice was coming from the wall on the west side of his cell. Fighting his dizziness, Rowe scooted nearer to the wall, hoping to hear more clearly. He wasn't certain, but the voice sounded familiar.

"Yes? Who are you?" His voice was still raspy, but the volume was better.

"Are you alright? It's me, Willow."

Rowe coughed as he inhaled some dust that he had disturbed when dragging himself across the cell. The sound echoed around the bare stone walls, a cold and hollow sound for a cold and hollow place, he reflected. "Well enough," he managed when the coughing subsided.

Willow made a disbelieving sound, but didn't question him further. Instead, she casually remarked, "The Queen was here before. Raised quite a fuss, too."

"Yes, I thought I heard her voice. Have you heard anything about Fred?"

"Just that he's taken to his chamber. From what the Queen was saying, though, I think he's badly hurt." Willow's whisper held a strange note, and Rowe wondered what exactly she had overheard.

"Badly hurt, but still alive," Rowe mused, unsure what to make of the strange mixture of feelings that twisted around his heart. It was a deeper pain than the dull throb of his head and sharper than the stabbing pang of his nose. He had fully intended to kill Fred, and he still felt a surge of hatred at the mention of his name. So why was some small part of him glad to hear that his brother still lived?

"Prince Roweland," Willow said, hesitating slightly. "Did you hear what the queen was saying before? She was very upset."

"Yes, you said that." Rowe had a pretty good idea of the mess he had gotten himself into, and was far from in the mood to discuss it, or the repercussions his actions might be having on the rest of his family. "You mentioned your family before," he said instead, settling himself more comfortably against the wall. "Tell me about them. Were you close with your sisters?"

"Oh yes, very close," Willow's voice took on a far-off, dreamy quality. "I idolized Iris. She was always so strong and gentle, she could always calm me down when I came home fuming because of something that stupid Tom Whitney said. But she had a temper to her too, of course. I'll never forget the time she heard old busybody Mrs. Conway belittling mother. She marched right up and gave her a piece of her mind—gave everyone a shock!" Willow laughed, and Rowe smiled and closed his eyes, listening as the girl recounted stories from her childhood home. The steady rhythm of her words soothed his heavy head and distracted him from his dark thoughts.

He didn't remember falling asleep again, but soon a loud rattling and scraping noise jarred him awake. After several blinks, he saw a face hovering above him and felt a warm hand gingerly touch his temple. As much as a tried to focus on the face, the features ran together like wet paint in the dim light. "Who is it?" Rowe croaked, his mouth and throat even more dry and sore than they had been before.

"It is Gunther, my lord." The gentle hand left his temple and sturdily gripped his arm. "Here, Prince Rowland, I'll help you stand."

Standing took more effort than Rowe had thought possible, and after he was finally on his feet he needed to allow the servant to support a great deal of weight as he waited for a sudden surge of vertigo and nausea to pass.

"Steady now," Gunther murmured reassuringly. "I'm sorry, my lord, but we don't have much time. Can you stand on your own?"

"Of course," Rowe took a step away and promptly shot his hand out to steady himself against the wall.

"Right." Gunther briskly stepped out of the cell and Rowe closed his eyes and leaned heavily on the wall, willing the sickeningly dizzy feeling to leave his head. He heard similar rattles and clanks to the one's that had woken him up, followed by hushed voices.

Moments later he opened his eyes to the sound of Gunther reentering, followed by a smaller blurry figure. Rowe did his best to straighten up, squinting his eyes to see if that would help.

"I'm going to help you escape," Willow announced. "Since I missed out on testifying before, this seems to be the best way I can help now."

"Escape? But—" Rowe struggled for words, as Willow took a large satchel from Gunther and moved to support Rowe's other side.

"You'll need to move as quickly as you can," Gunther was saying, "Willow knows the way." He moved to help them out of the cell, and the brighter torch-lights n the corridor only made Rowe's head throb all the more.

Gunther paused to adjust something on Rowe's temple. "You'll need to change the bandages first chance you get," his quiet voice was deafening in Rowe's fragile head.

"In the satchel?" Willow responded.

"Yes, and more will be in the saddlebags, I hope. Wait till you get a good distance away though. Don't stop until you absolutely need to."

Rowe fought to follow the conversation. "Aren't you coming with us, Gunther?" His words came out slurred, and Gunther's face slipped and swirled in front of him before settling into place. He looks so old, Rowe thought sadly, as Gunther gently patted his shoulder with a thin hand.

"Don't worry about," he said. "I'll be perfectly fine." Gunther helped Willow manage Rowe's weight past the guards, who were sleeping over plates of a half-eaten dinner.

The rest of the journey was a blur to Rowe, as he fought his vertigo and strove to carry as much of his own weight as he could. As focused as he was on simply moving forward, a small part of his mind registered the servant's stairway, at the top of which Gunther patted his shoulder and melted away into the shadows. From that point on, Willow half dragged him through another narrow passage-way which led to stables.

The stables registered as the strong, musty smell of straw, leather and horses. Then, a bright light loomed in front of them, making Rowe cringe backward and causing Willow to stumble as well. He was more than thankful for the strong pair of hands that quickly set down a lantern and rushed to help support him.

"Thank you," he heard Willow gasp from behind him.

His vision was giving him trouble again, but he definitely recognized the deep voice that replied, "Of course. Quickly now, let's get him on the horse."

"I'm fine, Uncle," Rowe interjected, although he was at that moment willing the sparse contents of his stomach to stay where they were.

"You don't look it," Brendan's voice was grim. Firmly grasping Rowe's arm, he led him to his horse. "I'll give you a boost. Don't argue."

Rowe let himself be helped into the familiar saddle, pleased to find that his uncle had saddled Rowe's own horse.

"You'll have to ride quickly, but don't push yourselves too hard. Things will be worse if you collapse, Rowe. Watch him, girl," Brendan led the two horses out of the stable, as Willow stammered her understanding.

"Take the West Gate, I've arranged for my own guards to be posted there for the next half our," Brendan continued. "And as soon as you can, get off the main roads—take the smaller, lesser known ones if you can. But whatever you do, do not take to the open desert," he looked sharply at Willow, checking for her understanding. Rowe leaned forward to rest his head briefly on his horse's warm neck, breathing in the familiar smell of its mane. Brendan touched the back of his head and sighed. "I promised your mother I would do what I could for you, Rowe. She couldn't bear to lose another son. When everything here has settled down, we'll be watching for your return."

Rowe nodded, not trusting himself to speak, as Brendan urged both of their horses into a brisk trot toward the Western gates. The guards there didn't even acknowledge their passing, and soon all they could see was the pale ribbon of road stretching ahead of them, illuminated in the silvery sand by a bright, half-moon. It was a beautiful view that he normally would have enjoyed, but tonight he barely noticed it, dedicating all of his energy to keeping him conscious and upright in his saddle.