Rooen Ennyte was a young bride brought to a nation she knew nothing of. Aside from maps and rumors, Cade was completely foreign to the sixteen year old noble.
Kazic, the leader of Ro's home nation and her father, had bartered her off as a trading chip.
Ro hadn't been surprised when her heartless brother had told her of her fate. Even before she had come of age her family had been hinting at an arranged marriage of some sort that would "benefit" the country. She was mostly angry that she would have to leave her nation, and her people. She would be leaving her home.
"It's for the good of the nation!" Kar, her obnoxious elder brother, had insisted when she had refused to go along with their father's plans. She didn't want to believe him. Her father would never do anything like that. At least, that was what she had thought.
The cargo ship her brother had put her on dropped her off on the foreign shore. Ro thought it floated away with more of a bounce in its hulls, as though it was glad to be rid of the heavy burden of Rooen's dour mood.
She wasn't marvelous. Wavy black hair hid a pale, frowning face. In bulky leather boots she was the epitome of a boyish youth, and her brown tunic and trousers did nothing for her lack of a figure. Emerald green eyes stared up the dunes at the group that had gathered for her arrival. Armored soldiers waited on patient mounts, staring at her with a curious intensity that unnerved her.
Her father hadn't thought to send any form of a dowry with her. No gifts, no thanks. Nothing. Just plain little Ro.
She trudged up the shore towards a man who wore a flippant expression. He stood as though she was the inconvenience to him. That it was her fault that she had gotten stuck here in this gods forsaken country.
"Welcome to Cade," he growled through clenched teeth.
His accent was deep and rich, a lilting sound in Ro's ears.
He was taller than she; towering over her by at least eighteen hands tall. He wore a black tunic which brushed the tops of his thighs. The tunic was made of a fine material, embroidered in silver and red. A crimson sash was tied round his waist, the loose end trailing down to his knees, where dark leather boots were strapped securely to his calves.
His trousers were black and also embroidered along the seams, but weren't nearly as elaborate as its tunic counterpart.
Ro crossed the sand dune to get to him, kicking at the sand with her bulky leather boots, spraying it everywhere as a matter of contrition.
"Can you ride a horse?" He asked as he eyed her with obvious distaste.
Ro nodded, matching his glare defiantly.
"Yes…I can ride alright," she lied.
"Good," the man muttered then led her to a sunny alcove further inland.
Two horses awaited them, pawing at the ground in anticipation. Sytha's mount was a massive black stallion, the saddle made of gleaming black leather, also embroidered in silver and red. He pulled himself into the saddle with ease, and grabbed the reins of the second horse, a dapple gray with gentle eyes and a kind face.
"Her name is Lynh," the man said as Ro approached the mare.
Ro stroked the horse's nose, looking into her eyes. "She's kind," the girl whispered as she got into the saddle.
"She's a good horse," the man said, his tone more gentle than before as he recognized a fellow appreciation of horseflesh in the girl.
He gave Ro the reins, and she realized they were thin, almost like bits of cloth. She also realized the horse had no bit in her mouth, and that the reins merely connected to a halter made out of similar cloth.
"Just keep your feet in the stirrups and you'll do fine," the man muttered then clucked to his stallion, who burst into a brisk canter.
Lynh followed without question, but Ro clucked to her as well, and brought the mare's stride equal with the stallion's
"Do you have a name?" Ro asked, not bothering with courtesy. "And where, exactly, are we going?"
The man glanced at her, then turned his eyes back to the trail. "My name is Sytha. I am an ambassador for King Archer of Mikarh. We are riding to Streucos, where we will be joining a caravan of the Hale Riders on their journey to Mikarh.
Ro had reviewed her geography before she was shipped off to Cade, and she knew that Mikarh was the capital city. Streucos was the only sea port the nation had, and was a vital trade center.
I suppose it's good for trading people, too, Ro thought dryly.
In addition to her geography lessons, Rooen had studied up on the royalty of her new home. Jakh Hale, her unknown fiancé, was the oldest of the three Cadan princes. He had given up his right to the throne for a more subdued lifestyle.
Archer Hale was the middle brother, and was the current king and ruler. An enigma to her father and people, Archer represented a subtle threat to the surrounding countries.
Prince Danin was the youngest and resided in Neuvala, the information headquarters of Cade.
None were yet married, but that was soon to change.
Sytha glanced back at his young captive, who was staring at Lynh's mane, deep in thought.
Jakh knew nothing of the girl, as far as Sytha was aware of. The need for secrecy made no sense to him, but he had assumed that it was her spoiled nature that kept her arrival a little known fact to the Cadans.
"Why did you choose Jakh?" Sytha asked in an attempt to make conversation.
"Choose?" Ro responded dumbly, snapping out of her stupor with a start.
"Yes, choose. I was told you specifically requested forJakh. Why not choose the king? A daughter of Zatch would marry well into the Hale line."
Ro jerked on Lynh's reins sharply, the mare rearing in surprise.
The girl held on and brought the horse down, who danced a few steps, nervous of her rider's intent.
Ro's voice was a growl as she sent Lynh farther up to walk equal next to Sytha's stallion.
"Let's get this straight: I did not CHOOSE to come here. I did not CHOOSE Jakh, or Cade, or ANY of this. I was bartered for goods by my father!" She shouted as a sob threatened to escape her throat.
"Ah…" Was all Sytha could manage. He hung his head in shame. He had assumed that she was after the crown but looking back upon her arrival in the country, he realized that she had come without an entourage, chaperone, or even the livery associated with her status. Something was amiss, and it certainly did not seem to him that Rooen was happy to be there.
Lynh stamped nervously and shook her head, but Ro kept her cool in the saddle, bringing the mare to a halt.
"Just…don't make it sound like I want to be here…I had no choice," she murmured then sent Lynh into a brisk trot.
Sytha watched her back as she pulled ahead, and realized that she wasn't the bratty princess he had been told to expect. She had merely been a bargaining chip. He knew Jakh wasn't the type to dabble in the human trafficking business, leaving Archer to be the trader who made it all happen.
He clucked to his stallion, the horse easily matching Lynh's shorter gait. They rode on in silence.
The next day dawned bright and clear. After a brief breakfast of porridge and stale trail biscuits, they met up with the full company of riders that Sytha had mentioned.
The Hale Riders were elite men and women of the Cadan tribes, each with their own gifts and talents. They traveled in company, and all had pledged their allegiance to Archer, their beloved king. They were his elite, and the only riders he trusted to take with him when he had to travel about the country.
Ro received curious glances as she rode Lynh through the caravan. The Riders never made any kind of comment, only stared at her in quiet contemplation.
The Cadan natives were a bright comparison to Ro. All were bronzed by the sun, and their hair was never darker than a light brown. Ro, her skin pale and her hair dark, stuck out like a lame horse in a healthy herd.
"Why are they staring at me?" Ro asked after nearly a week of suffering through the stares.
Sytha chuckled. Ro asked lots of questions, and it was a pleasant change for Sytha to have someone to talk to, as opposed to the haughty silence he met when confronted by his king.
"Black hair is a trait only found in the Nobility," he explained. "Everyone else has either blonde or brown hair, and only the noble families have black hair. So needless to say they're wondering who this noble is in their midst, and why haven't they seen her before?"
Ro blinked, then shook her head. "Black hair is rare in my country too…but that doesn't mean royalty…" She said quietly, then shrugged and continued on.
Sytha gave his young charge a curious sidelong glance, but said nothing more on the matter.
Ro and Sytha became fast friends over the weeks that followed their arrival at the Hale Rider camp. Ro found that Sytha was actually a very important ambassador and advisor to Archer, the King. The older man had raised the three princes as if they were his own, and had taught them the arts of court intrigue and swordsmanship alike. It was obvious to the Hale Riders that Sytha was taking yet another stray under his wing, albeit an important stray this time.