Chapter One: Prispal
Lynn believed that memories shaped an individual. They molded and manipulated and ultimately forged the final product of who and what one was. It was a belief that she had held since the last years of her youth.
Now, as an adult, she had come to realize the devastating nature of memories. They could haunt and terrorize just as easily as they could soothe and comfort. A blessing and a curse that stayed with one until age took its toll upon the mind.
In a vain effort to clear her head, she sped the horse faster. The stallion cheerfully flew forward, sensing that his mistress wanted speed. The men behind her shook their heads and followed into the clearing.
Wind blew through her hair, causing the occasional strand to come lose from the braid that flew out behind her. The speed was exhilarating, one of the few pleasures she allowed herself these days. The clearing passed by in a blur and too soon she was reigning in as the tree line neared. Chess snorted his disappointment, and she leaned down to pat his neck.
Looking behind her she saw that her men were catching up. The Guard, as she called them, was a collection of six men who had been travelling with her for the past two years. A hodge-podge of individuals whose sole duty was to protect the princess of Dornoux. A duty which they took to heart.
Indeed, Williams, who was the eldest of the six, gave her a disapproving look as he rode up beside her. It didn't bother her in the least. Williams disapproved of everything from her lack of propriety to the sun shining too brightly in the morning. Despite his perpetual complaining he was a skilled and efficient leader.
"You take too many chances," he said as the others fell in behind them.
"You think I can't take care of myself," she replied.
"In order to do our jobs, you cannot keep racing off."
Lynn sighed, and ignored him.
Her father had insisted on The Guard; it had been a condition of her traveling. If the men knew that she did not have the power to dismiss them they would be impossible to manage. As it was, it had taken nearly a year for her to win most of them over. Now only Williams retained his grouchy demeanor, which she had learned was his default attitude rather than personal dislike.
The light dimmed slightly as a cloud rolled over the sun. The spring air was refreshing after the weeks she had spent in the capital city. Mersis was beautiful, and was the home of her youth, but lately the city and palace had left her feeling restless and caged. It had been with great relief that she had accepted her father's orders to ride north, far from the social whirl of the court.
The opportunity to travel was the major perk of her job. In the past years she had traveled much of the kingdom, and this would be the first time she would venture beyond the borders of Dornoux to represent the royal family. It was a step up, she knew, and if she was successful it would go a long way towards proving herself to the remaining skeptics in the court, those who doubted her father's judgment.
The seven continued on, the scenery a blur of farmland that eventually merged into forest. There would be no more towns until they came to the border. A small village was located in the heart of the Prispal Forest, nestled alongside the border of Kordein. That was their destination for the evening, and Lynn was hopeful that they would arrive shortly after nightfall. Though the forest was far from civilization, Lynn would rather spend the evenings safely encamped or in the shelter of town.
Casting a glance over her shoulder she took stock of her men. They were holding up well. She had kept a fast pace throughout their journey, and most would be near exhaustion. If they were near that point they did not let it show. But she had known them long enough to know that they would never let her see them as less than stoic figures, no matter how hard she pushed them.
Nightfall came and went, and had there not been a full moon to guide them Lynn would have called a halt for the evening. Travelling on horseback at night with no light was foolhardy in the extreme. They continued on at a slower pace, and were rewarded when lights appeared in the distance.
Unlike most villages, which were deemed too insignificant to bother, this one was surrounded with a defensive wall. The village had once been a prosperous town, back in the days when the border had been well travelled. Due to the civil war that had plagued Kordein for centuries few people crossed the border, and the town had diminished to the isolated village it was today.
"State your business," called out one of two guards that manned the wall.
"Yes, sir, your business you'd best be statin'," the other said in a higher tone.
Lynn looked down and saw that the second man was old, and had probably been drinking. "We wish to find lodgings for the night," she said. "At the inn."
"Well where else would you be findin' lodgin's eh?" the second man piped up.
"Be quiet, old man," the large one said. "What brings you to Prispal, travelers?"
Williams replied in a voice that dared the guard to argue further. "We are traveling to Kordein and require lodgings at your inn. Is that sufficient or would you like to keep us here all night?"
The guard immediately stepped to the side, pulling the older man along with him. "Welcome to Prispal. The inn is near the village center."
"Thank you," Lynn said as she led her horse through the gate. She heard Williams sigh as he caught up with her. He hated when she went first, so of course she did so as often as possible.
Moments later they arrived at the inn and she dismounted. Justin, the youngest of the Guard, took the reins. He and Phalos set about finding the stables. Williams had already gone inside to see about rooms. The remainder of the Guard accompanied her inside and began to discretely analyze the setup of the building. Once the keys to their rooms had been procured the men checked out the second floor, and only once they had deemed it safe was Lynn allowed into her room.
If there was one glaring downside to her status as a princess, Lynn would definitely say that it was putting up with security minded men. All of her life she had had to deal with guards everywhere. Whether it was a family outing into the city or a village in the middle of nowhere there was always a guard there to hover. It grated on her nerves, but she put up with it from lack of choice.
With a decided lack of subtlety she shooed the men out of her room and then went over it herself. It was simple, with only a bed and set of dressers for furniture. On the dresser were a large washing basin, soap, and a pitcher. Looking inside the dressers gained her a towel. After some debate, she decided to have a quick wash.
In luck, she found that the pitcher contained hot water, which she poured into the basin as she kicked off her boots. She stripped out of her dusty clothes. First was the fitted black tunic, followed by the black skirt. Then her black leggings and the black chemise she wore under her tunic.
Using a cloth she had found in the dresser she washed off the travel dirt and grime, and felt immediately better. Her hair, the golden mass bound back in a braid that fell to her waist, was a lost cause, and she decided to pin up the braid for the night. She could not do anything with it until she had a chance for a proper bath at any rate, she thought to herself.
Finished, she wrapped herself in the towel and settled down on the bed. There was little to do except sleep, but she found herself gazing out the window down upon the sleeping village.
A movement caught her eye and Lynn found herself peering towards the gate in which she had come through not long before. From that distance she could not tell for certain how many, but there was a small group entering the village. Busy night, she thought to herself, only mildly curious.
Still, she rose and donned a clean chemise to sleep in and checked the locks on the door. An ounce of prevention, she thought to herself. Stooping to where she had tossed her clothes, she found her belt and ran her hands over the black leather until her fingers found the loop on which her sword hung. It was an easy matter to extricate it, and Lynn finally got into bed, sword at her side.
There were certain things in life that were absolutely certain. The fact was that the sun would rise in the east each morning, and at the end of the day would sink in the west. The moon would wax and wane and summer would pass into fall every year just as winter would follow suit. These were the little things in life that pleased James Orion.
And on a particularly fine spring morning, he found great pleasure in another enduring fact.
Lynn was livid.
And to her credit was doing an admirable job of concealing that fact. But if one knew where to look, and he most definitely did, then it was clear as day. Her grey eyes flashed in annoyance, the hand on the door convulsed violently, and she inhaled sharply.
Not that he himself was overjoyed with the situation either. He had spent several years avoiding her company and had hoped to continue on in that vein. Making an unplanned trip to Prispal at this time of year had not been on the agenda. Yet here he was, and the only thing making it slightly less unpleasant was the fact that she was still entirely too predictable when it came to his sudden appearance.
Because he knew that it would annoy her, he grinned and said, "Nice to see you, Lynn."
"What the hell are you doing here?"
She crossed her arms, not buying it for a moment.
"No? How about I was in the neighborhood, wanted to stop in and say hi?" He smiled when her fingers began to tap against her arm.
"We have both spent the last few years avoiding one another, James Orion. The first thing you would do if I were near would be to go in the opposite direction. I certainly would have if I'd known you were here."
James merely shrugged and offered her a smirk. "You wouldn't have. Whatever it is that's brought you here wouldn't have let you leave just because of my delightful company."
"You flatter yourself." It was said through clenched teeth.
"Someone's got to," he shot back.
Lynn's fingers moved to idly toy with the hilt of her sword.
The gesture wasn't lost on him. "If you want an explanation, remember that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar."
"Oh but I'd much rather squash it," she said sweetly. But she stepped back, and allowed him to enter the room.
He took in the modest surroundings, which were a step up from the ones he and his men had received the night before. The leather bag she'd taken to carrying years before lay on the floor, where a handful of clothes could be seen inside. Her saw her leather boots by the bed and only then noticed that she was wearing her black stockings.
She still wore black, he noted. And though the look in her eye was no longer numbed grief, her eyes still bore evidence of a lingering sorrow.
It had been a year since he'd last seen her, and that had not been under best of circumstances. The death of Prince Damon had been a great loss for the kingdom, one he had deeply felt. James had been meant to join the prince's personal guard, but Damon had known that it was not the right path and had instead arranged for James to work under a prominent general. He had been a confidant, and a good friend.
Which was why James had allowed himself to be swayed into making this trip. Damon had known many things, had been wise beyond his years in many ways, and so had made provisions in case the worst should happen. James was honor bound to carry out his friend's wishes. He just couldn't believe that it had brought him here.
"So what brings you to Prispal?" James asked casually. "It's a rather odd location for one such as you to venture."
Lynn watched warily as he moved to the window, flicking a hand at the heavy linen curtains. "One such as me?" she echoed. The statement was accompanied by a hollow laugh. "What brings you here, James?"
"I believe I asked first."
Her mouth thinned, turning her expression towards the severe. "I am on a diplomatic visit to the king of Kordein."
If he thought she would expand upon that he was disappointed. Lynn and he had never gotten on well, and he knew from experience that getting information from her was a tedious process. "Really?" He left it at that, knowing she would not be able to resist commenting.
The man's mere presence was enough to drive her insane, Lynn thought to herself. Here she was, in the middle of nowhere, on her most important assignment to date, and he had to show up unannounced to spoil her good mood.
She could just kill him.
At least fate had been kind enough to stave him off until she'd dressed. As it was, she was keenly aware that she was shoeless, which for some reason made her feel vulnerable.
He, on the other hand, was dressed to perfection in his soldier's uniform of a dark blue jacket, black breeches, and shined leather boots. His dirty blonde hair had grown long enough to be pulled back and was secured at his neck with a strip of black cloth. There was not a speck of dust or dirt to be found on him.
She knew what he was doing. Riling her had always been one of his favorite tactics. It was also probably the most effective. Her temper was well known, though she had learned to keep it tightly under wraps. Few were allowed to see it.
James, however, had been privy to it for years, and the habit was a hard one to break. He knew what buttons to push and he did so as often as possible.
"Yes, really," she bit out. "You find it so difficult to believe?"
The grin he flashed her was quick, and just as quickly gone. "Always putting words in my mouth," he said. "I never said anything of the sort."
"But you thought it. Think it."
He shrugged and kept his eyes on the happenings out the window. "What does our king want in Kordein?"
"If my father wanted you apprised, he would have told you," she replied coolly. "Now if you would be so kind as to tell me what you are up to?"
"Really?" she said, in a good imitation of his dry tone.
"Yes, really. You find it so difficult to believe?" he said, echoing her words. His eyes, a shockingly bright blue, peered at her intently.
Lynn moved closer to the window. "Following orders was one thing you did somewhat manage, as I recall. What are you looking at?" she added when she saw that he was paying more attention to the view than to their conversation.
James turned his head and looked down at her. Their eyes met for a few seconds before he turned his attention to the window. "A fellow down there, charming his sweetheart. She looks a little put out with him at the moment though."
Sure enough there was a young man and woman in the street below. The maiden could be no more than sixteen or seventeen, her beau not much older. She held a flower in one hand, but the other was poking into the young man's chest. Suddenly he grasped the maiden's hand and brought it to his lips. The scene turned from one of argument to romance.
Lynn looked away from the young couple. "Whose orders, James?"
For a moment James continued to watch the scene below. With a sigh he turned back towards Lynn. "That's confidential."
That it was said without his usual arrogance or gleeful gloating gave Lynn pause. In the past James would not have hesitated to rub in his higher military status. Not so this time. "You expect me," she began carefully, "to allow you and your retinue to accompany me to Kordein based solely on that?"
He shrugged again as he absentmindedly toyed with the curtains. "Believe what you will but I will be going to Kordein, with or without your blessing." His voice was weary when he continued. "I don't care for the situation any more than you do, Lynn."
The weariness in his voice caught her attention. While she and James had despised each other for years, in their long acquaintance they had learned much of the other. She might have little regard for the man himself, but Lynn knew that if ordered he would accompany her wherever commanded. If there was any way to avoid this assignment, he would not have been standing in front of her.
"No getting out of this?" she asked with a weak smile.
"None," he said solemnly.
"Well then," she said and exhaled. "Let's get on with it."