A/N: So, this was originally written for a prompt given by the group #Live-Love-Write on deviantart. As usual, I didn't finish it in time to submit for that. It's not really a stand alone story, more an introduction to a couple of characters I've been working on recently and how they meet. As always, reviews will be returned, and it would be great to get some feedback on this for when I do flesh it out and write more. Cheers and enjoy.
The cloak rustled as wind brushed by it, causing the man wrapped inside to pull it tighter around himself. He wiped sweat off his brow as he looked up at the night sky. Stars twinkled down at him from between the two moons. He knew that somewhere, someone was looking up at the third moon, and he wondered if it would be her, waiting for his return.
He took a deep breath and put his foot on the first of many marble stairs. He began the climb, arms wrapped tightly in the cloak, trying to keep the cold air at bay. His eyes lifted and fixed his gaze on the building at the top of the hill. It was beautiful; pure white, shining out like a beacon in the night. His beacon. He bit down on his bottom lip as sudden fear filled him.
What if he was turned away?
What if they told him to go home, his journey had been a waste?
There was no way he could go back if they did turn him away. The city would destroy him; mobs of people would flock to him and mow him down, wondering why they had wasted their time on such a stupid boy.
He reached the top of the stairs, and spotted the guards near the doorway. They were standing in the shadows, wearing nothing but black. One lifted his head and stepped forward, remaining silent as he approached.
"Name?" he demanded.
"Jackson of Tarka."
The guard nodded, glancing towards the other one who slipped into the doorway. Moments later he reappeared and gave a curt nod to his companion.
"She will see you, Jackson," the first guard said. "Though why she would see a skinny, no good kid like you, I have no idea," he hissed, stepping back and brushing his arm through the hair. Jackson resisted the goading, knowing that if he snapped back or followed his instinctive reaction to hit the guard, he would have failed.
He had been warned.
Instead, he simply lifted his head and walked past the guards, slipping his cloak off as he reached the door. He left it outside, opened the door and stepped inside.
The room was smoky, and he felt it fill his lungs before he let out a cough. He brushed his hand in front of his face, gazing into the darkness.
"Welcome, Jackson of Tarka."
The voice was beauty personified. Smooth, sensual, calming. Jackson felt himself move forward, drawn towards the sound. Suddenly it hit him; he was going to see the woman he had heard so much about, the woman whose beauty was renowned across the land, who, it was said, had driven men crazy with her looks alone.
Through the smoke, he could just about see a marble staircase leading upwards to a marble chair. On it was a feminine shape, sitting elegantly. She stood up, moved down the stairs and, before her, the smoke parted.
Long, blonde hair fell down to her waist, and her skin was clear of all marks. It was pale, especially compared to the dark blue robe she wore. The robe itself was tight fitting, clinging to her body and emphasising her shape. Jackson gulped, focusing his eyes on hers. They were the deepest, brightest blue she had ever seen.
She stepped towards him, lifting her arm and put it under his chin.
"Jackson of Tarka," she whispered, the words flying out of her mouth and wrapping themselves around him. He trembled at the sound of his own name, at the way she said it. "You have travelled far, Jackson. What do you ask as your reward?"
Jackson took a deep breath, before he knelt down before her and bowed his head. "I ask to hear my destiny, Your Holiness."
He kept his gaze fixed on the floor, staring at her feet. They were perfect, just like the rest of her; the white strap of her sandals crossed over her feet, disappearing between her big toe and the one beside it. The toes were painted white, a sign of purity.
He felt her hands against his cheeks, and she lifted his face.
"Very few men face me and ask what they came to ask. You are strong, Jackson, and pure. Tell me, do you have a lover at home?"
"She is lucky to have one as true as you. What makes you think fate has anything in store for you?"
"The Princess of Tarka requested I come. She had a dream, Your Holiness. She said I was involved, and she thought you might be able to decipher it more clearly than she was able to."
"The Princess, is she your lover?"
Jackson was unable to resist the smile that crossed his face. "No."
She laughed, nodded and stepped back.
"Stand, Jackson of Tarka."
He did as he was told, lifting his head to look into her eyes. Suddenly, she glanced over her shoulder, towards one of the many chambers at the back of the hall, and he wondered what it was that brought the look of fear into her eyes.
"It is written, Jackson, in the stars. Your destiny, I mean."
Her voice trembled and instinct brought his hand up to rest on her shoulder. He realised what he was doing and dropped the hand, feeling a hot flush across his face.
"I...your fate...you must escort me to the city of Dyls, in the Western realm. Are you up for the task, Jackson of Tarka?"
He nodded, slowly. "Of course. Are you sure you are all right though, Your Holiness? You seem...frightened."
She smiled at him, a gentle smile before she sighed. "Do not concern yourself, Jackson. We have a long journey ahead of us. Dyls is a three day ride from here, and we should leave as soon as possible."
"Did you bring a horse?"
"Yes. It is as the foot of the hill."
"In the stable?"
"Good, then we should head there."
Together, they walked towards the doors. She gestured for Jackson to go first, and once he was outside, his gaze fixed itself on the horizon. Three days ride until they reached their destination; it would take him even further from his home. He looked over his shoulder towards the priestess, as she drew her white hood up and covered her face. Standing between the two guards, she spoke slowly.
"Wait an hour for us to be gone," she whispered, the words wrapping themselves around the three men present. After that, enter the temple – go to the right hand chamber, there is something there you need to see." She paused, and Jackson saw her close her eyes for just a second. "Like I said, only enter after an hour."
"Yes, Your Holiness," the first guard cried, bowing his head. She smiled, before moving forward and putting a hand on Jackson's shoulder, squeezing it.
"Come, Jackson, we should move."
As the sun began to set, Jackson suggested they set up camp. The priestess agreed, and Jackson climbed down from his gelding, taking off one of the bags he'd brought and setting up somewhere for them to sleep. She glanced around, as if uncertain of what she should do.
"Shall I help?" she offered.
"No, I've got this," he replied, smiling gently at her before carrying on. His eyes kept straying to the large bag attached to her cream coloured mare. What, he thought, could a priestess possibly need in a bag so big? He had offered to carry it on his own horse, but she had refused, protective over it and, he assumed, its contents.
Soon, he had a small shelter hanging from the branches of a nearby tree, and a fire going. The priestess sat near the flames, holding her hands towards it. She stared into the fire, her hand reaching up and gently touching the blood red pendent that hung from her neck.
The pendent, he knew, was a symbol of her status and religion. Something only the priestess' of her rank could wear.
Eventually, he suggested she go to sleep.
"What about you?"
"I will keep watch," he explained, his hand wrapping around the handle of the sword at his side. "It's fine; I can go on little sleep."
She nodded, giving him a grateful smile before she retreated into the tent.
She stripped off her clothes and crawled under the blankets Jackson had provided, staring up the ceiling of the tent. Through the thin material, she could see the flicker of the fire. Her fingers gently stroked her pendent, as she bit down on her lip, hoping she would make it through the journey without having to tell Jackson the truth.
Half-asleep, she heard the voices outside.
"...disguise of the priestess."
"Disguise?" Jackson scoffed, and she could hear the quiver in his voice. "Well, I'm sure she'll stand out then."
"So you haven't seen her?"
"Why do you have two horses?"
She scrambled out of the blankets, inching towards the back of the tent as she pulled on her clothes, remaining as quiet as possible. Fear flooded through her. Jackson, from what she had seen, was a good, honest man, and it wouldn't take him long to work out the truth. He'd hand her over, for sure, and then it would all be over.
"I found this one, thought I'd take it to the next town and see if I could sell it."
"And you're sure you didn't see anything suspicious on the way?"
"No, I didn't."
"The guards said she left with a man, similar to your description."
He scoffed. "I haven't been near the temple. I am, however, heading that direction now. If this woman had gone towards Dyls, then I would have seen her. Perhaps she headed for Tarka?"
Silence for a few seconds, before the man cried, "She didn't come this way, men. Head back to the temple."
She waited until the sound of hooves died away before leaving the tent. Standing in its shadow, staring at Jackson's back, she marvelled at how easily he had protected her. He let out a sigh and stood up, stretching his arms above his head.
"I think you owe me an explanation," he growled, though the words weren't as malicious as he had intended. She nodded, and walked towards him, sitting beside the fire. Her eyes fixed themselves in the middle, where the wood was black. Slowly, she lifted her hand and put the palm towards it, focusing.
A flame darted from the fire and into her hand. She wrapped her fingers around it before opening her palm and showing Jackson the ball.
"I'm a thief, with latent magical powers, apparently."
Jackson sat down, staring at her. "Start from the beginning. You got a name, seeing as I can no longer call you Your Holiness?"
"Rayne," she muttered. "I'm from one of the Southern tribes, the nomads. Left them to seek my fortune in the world, pretty typical story."
"So how did you end up pretending to be a Shaylae priestess?"
"I did the same as you, I guess. Got fed up of wondering aimlessly around so thought I'd make a pilgrimage to the temple, see what she had to say about my destiny. I knew there was some magic, hidden somewhere because of my ancestors, but I didn't think I was going to be able to release it." She paused, eyes still fixed on the flames. Rayne took a deep breath, her fingers stroking the pendent. "The priestess informed me that my powers were just waiting to be released – I'd need certain elemental objects to unleash my powers."
"The pendent, did you steal it from her?"
"No. Yes. Well, sort of. She kind of gave it to me. She said it was the fire object I'd need, but that I'd have to search out the others for myself. She also said I'd need to get to Dyls, and that..." She groaned, shaking her head. "It sounds really bad, Jackson, when I repeat it."
"Let me be the judge of that," he muttered. "We've been travelling for a day now, Rayne, and for some reason I don't get the impression that you're a bad person. Just explain it to me, help me understand."
"Your girl, back home, she really is lucky, you know that?"
He chuckled, shaking his head. "She could have picked anyone in the city. She picked me. I am the lucky one."
Rayne smiled at him, before her eyes fell back to the fire. "The priestess told me that I would have to pretend to be here, and convince the next traveller to escort me to Dyls. She said I wouldn't make it on my own, not if I had to steal the pendent. She let me take it, then let me tie her up and leave her in the right hand chamber."
"That's why you told the guards to go there."
She nodded. "The priestess said she would have to send the guards after me, but that I should be fine with...with the traveller. I guess she was right."
Jackson stood up, eyes darting to the tent. "What's in the bag?"
"Weapons," she explained. "A couple of swords, bow and arrows. That sort of thing. Why?"
"Just wondered. We should leave. If the guards come back...well, we'll have a good head start if we travel through the night."
She stood up, too, surprised to find her body was shaking. "All right then, Jackson of Tarka. Let's go."