Chapter One: Promises Made
A/N: So welcome to (yet another) rewrite of this story! A word of warning from the beginning: this story deals with some confronting issues, including marital abuse as women did experience in medieval time periods. Warnings will be listed at the start of each chapter, but please remember this story is not a fluffy romance.
Muddy boots squelched down the corridors, leaving imprints behind on the stone floor to mark the path that the soldiers took through the castle. Lightning ripped between the stars and thunder rumbled ominously overhead as the soldiers made their escape from the rain's wrath, dragging their terrified prisoner along with them. There were four of them in total, all clad in the emerald green livery that declared them as loyal to the royal house of Dolorin.
The man sagging in their grasp was shaking, either out of fear or cold. His limbs were heavy and his feet dragged as though he no longer had the ability to walk. He knew where he was being led, so the steady pattern of his heartbeat accelerated frantically. A scream rose in his throat as he was marched down a dim stairwell into the dark underbelly of the castle – the dungeons.
A man sat at the end of the corridor, and he rose gracefully as the soldiers unceremoniously threw their prisoner at his feet. A cold smile touched the corners of his lips. The prisoner recognised him instantly. Crown Prince Chalix Dolorin was a young man of twenty years, with the emerald green eyes of his siblings and caramel brown hair. He was stocky in build, yet handsome despite the iciness that seemed to touch his very soul.
"This is the traitor Medwin?" Chalix asked of the soldiers, before his attention turned upon the man at his feet. No longer did his face seem cold as marble, but now his eyes were alight like coals, a vicious glee lighting up within him.
"I'm not a traitor, your Highness." Medwin pleaded, resisting the urge to throw himself at the Crown Prince's feet and beg for forgiveness. Chalix was not a man renowned for mercy, or for kindness. There would be no point in pleading, for it would only earn the Crown Prince's contempt. "There has been some kind of mistake. We all agree that the Gifted Ones are vermin, why would I associate with them?"
"We did all agree." There was some dark amusement in Chalix's tone as he stared down at the saturated man kneeling before him. "But men say what they are told to, and think something different entirely. Only most are smart enough to follow their orders. You betrayed your fellow soldiers, and you have betrayed my family."
"Let me speak to the King," Medwin gasped out desperately. Farlan Dolorin, Chalix's older brother and the rightful monarch of Sidrum, was known for showing more clemency than the Crown Prince. Many in the capital of Delcosta were also aware that he was little more than an ignorant fool.
"You are not speaking to my brother." Chalix's voice lost any hint of mirth, becoming cold as the walls of the dungeons. "You are speaking to me. Whatever plea you might make, it is I who will listen. Tell me, traitor, what do you know of the Fall?"
What did he not know of the Fall? Who did not know the tales of the days when war raged from one border to another, and the land ran red with the blood of the Gifted Ones? It had been only three years past – enough time that most had moved on, but remembered the events with all too much clarity. Medwin had been one of the soldiers who had finally taken the Temple, and the memories even now haunted his dreams.
"Everything," Medwin whispered, the words hoarse through dry lips.
"The Sceptre." Chalix's lips pulled back into a feral snarl. "Where is it?"
Medwin couldn't help but feel cold, colder even than the saturated clothes that clung to his body. No one knew who had authorised the attack on the Temple. The command had been from someone high up, a faceless power who had been able to terrify his soldiers into silence. If any had known their leader's identity, they must have died in battle. But the Sceptre…the Sceptre was another matter entirely.
"I don't know."
"Do you know what?" Chalix folded his arms over his chest, looking thoroughly unimpressed. "Whenever someone is brought down into these dungeons, they always utter those same words. As though being a brave liar is better than being a cowardly honest person. Yet it never matters, because in the end, they all break."
"Do you think to frighten me, your Highness?" Medwin asked, trying to suppress the fact that he was already afraid. He had never been a man who could easily shake off wounds of the flesh, much less wounds of the soul.
"Of course not, Medwin." Chalix's tone was light, but there was no mistaking the darkness in his green eyes. "I merely wish your cooperation."
As he spoke, the Crown Prince strode over to a wooden rack with many metal implements. Medwin felt nausea rising in his stomach, as they were obviously weapons with one purpose: to inflict pain. Chalix chose a long knife with a slightly curved blade, before he sauntered back over to Medwin, running a finger along the edge. His finger came away oozing red.
"Now, Medwin. Are you willing to tell me what you know?"
When the prisoner remained silent, Chalix pressed the knife to his abdomen, pressing slightly and dragging upwards, causing the blade to tear through cloth and flesh alike. Medwin cried out in pain, hands fumbling for the wound and coming away stained with red. When he looked up at the Crown Prince, the man's eyes were shining with triumph. Blood dripped onto the stone floor, leaving a puddle of crimson at his feet.
"I…I know who it was," Medwin sputtered out the words, eyeing the knife fearfully. "So do you. A member of the court, remaining hidden all this time…someone that we never suspected, but should have…"
Chalix's face seemed to tighten, sharp angles and hard lines standing out in the dim torchlight. He spun the knife between his fingers with the air of an expert, staring down at Medwin with icy eyes. The Crown Prince's hand had clenched around the hilt of the knife so tightly that his knuckles had turned milky white.
"Do you have a family, Medwin?"
The prisoner was somewhat surprised by the question. "I…no, your Highness."
"Then you wouldn't understand." Chalix turned on his heel and began to stride back and form across the width of the dungeons like an agitated beast. "When you have loved ones, you go to certain lengths to protect them. There are measures that you must take, however drastic, to ensure their survival."
Medwin started to shake as Chalix's words impacted upon him heavily. He knew what the Crown Prince meant and he was beginning to wish that he had never said anything. Chalix spun back to face him, tilting his head to the side and examining his prisoner without the slightest trace of clemency.
"Your Highness, please, I beg of you…"
"Beg away," Chalix stated callously, stepping forward and dragging the knife across the Medwin's throat. Blood sprayed out like a fountain, spattering across the Crown Prince's face. The prisoner gurgled and choked, desperately trying to staunch the flow of blood from his torn throat. It lasted less than a minute, as Chalix watched dispassionately, reaching up to wipe at his face, smearing crimson across his cheek.
"Clean up this mess," Chalix stated disdainfully, nudging Medwin's body with his boot. His green eyes pierced the guards. "Tell no one of this."
The dress of emerald silk swirled around Princess Merridy Dolorin's feet as she turned in front of the mirror. She had been informed that the dress was of the finest make, from a merchant town near the border of Lukreyna. In truth, Merridy did not care at all for the dress or where it was from. Tonight the banquet hall would be teeming with simpering courtiers intent on catching her attention and earning her favour. They were like moths to the flame, and she despised a good majority of them.
Tonight, they would celebrate Merridy's impending marriage to Lord Dommiel Rhindal. Her reflection frowned deeply, hands fisting in the smooth material of the dress. She just wanted the night to be over. The moment she looked forward to tonight, painfully distant, was when she would be able to retire to her rooms. Tonight she was not a Princess, but one man's possession. The thought made her stomach churn in disgust.
"You do look lovely."
Merridy spun to see her brother Chalix leaning in the doorway. Right on cue, the maids who had been busying themselves with fixing the Princess's hair and dress hastily scuttled out through the door. The Crown Prince was not a powerful man in terms of appearance, but his reputation – particularly with women of the court – preceded him. Merridy blinked in surprise at her older brother's compliment, for in usual circumstances, Chalix was loath to admit that there was anything worth praising about her.
"You know what tonight means, to all of us." Chalix strode towards her. Merridy heard every click of his boots meeting the stone tiles, but she levelled her gaze with his. Unlike most other women, she sought to prove that Chalix did not intimidate her. He was a bully, nothing more. "All eyes will be on you."
"Dommiel too," Merridy added dryly. Chalix caught her by the wrist and tugged her close, the sudden movement making his younger sister tense. She knew that unwelcome words were often met with a fist to the face. Although Chalix would not dare mar her appearance for the celebration, the threat always lingered. She pressed her lips together in a thin line, and knew that no joy would shine out from her face. Tonight was not something she was excited about in the least.
"If you cry, you will make me very unhappy." The threat was clear even as a terse frown clouded Chalix's face. "You don't want to do that."
Merridy fiddled with the ribbons on her green dress. She knew the consequences of making her older brother unhappy. Chalix linked his arm tightly through hers, vanquishing any childish notions of escape as he led her out of her room and into the corridor. Already from this distance, Merridy could hear the laughter and the music. She surmised that wine would become her friend tonight, and the darkness of the balconies her cloak. All she needed to do was suffer a tedious half hour or so of the feast.
They stopped at the top of the stone steps, narrow on this level but yawning out wider as it branched into the banquet hall. She took it all in, the courtiers she barely knew, the chandeliers sparkling with the reflection of firelight. She glanced to the hearth, wishing that the roaring flames could somehow burn her engagement to ashes, as if it was a tangible thing rather than an agreement between families.
She had been betrothed to Dommiel since she had been a mere twelve years old, and he seventeen. Perhaps things might have been different if her father had not died three years past, her oldest brother Farlan succeeding him as King. She had prayed fiercely that Farlan would undo the betrothal, but unfortunately prayers were not always answered. Now Merridy was of an age to marry Dommiel…and she would, in two weeks' time. This was something that gave her cause to despair rather than celebrate.
Merridy's eyes desperately sought out her best friend or older brother, either of whom could make this night more tolerable. Fortunately, there was no sign yet of her betrothed. She hoped that he was late enough that she might already have ventured away from the feast and the flatterers. Merridy saw movement within the crowd, and she allowed herself a fleeting smile. Her oldest brother was here.
King Farlan Dolorin walked over to the pair with a benevolent smile across his face and a golden crown adorning his black hair. He looked just like his siblings, with their green eyes and striking features, apart from the fact that Merridy and Chalix both caramel brown hair rather than Farlan's black. His eyes fell upon Merridy and she knew what he was thinking – his little sister, soon to be married. Farlan had always been the one to spoil her and coddle her, while Chalix kept his distance.
Yet in recent times he had confessed to Merridy he knew she was no child anymore. He assured her that she had grown into a beauty, with a pretty face and womanly curves, but that she would always be his baby sister. Merridy did not find fault with Farlan – he had simply been carrying on their father's legacy when he had chosen to keep the betrothal to Dommiel. The Princess had been immensely disappointed, but she could not have expected him to put aside the betrothal and cause hostility between their two families.
"Sister, you look beautiful."
She managed a small smile. Perhaps it was just Merridy's own dislike of Dommiel that made the celebrations seem so dismal. From a young age she had been perceptive, although she had often kept it to herself. She had quickly seen past Dommiel's golden-boy features – those bright blue eyes, his charming smile – and seen that it was all a lie. There was also the matter that since she had developed a woman's body, he had become interested in making suggestive remarks about their future together, even daring to kiss or touch her at times.
"Thank you, your Majesty." Merridy inclined her head to her oldest brother. It was just like Farlan to make her feel slightly happier despite her impending wedding. The King had always been like a beacon of light in the darkness, to his people as well as his own family. "You look dashing as always."
She noticed their cousin, Jupiter, already sitting down, swilling a cup of wine in one hand and watching the proceedings. He looked nothing like the royal cousins, having copper hair and hazel eyes instead. They had been close in Merridy's younger years, but there had been many events that had since changed that. A year younger than Chalix's twenty years, Jupiter was therefore quite close with the middle cousin.
Farlan laughed easily at his sister's compliment. "Beautiful and kind. You're so like Mother."
Chalix stilled a little at the mention of their mother, as the Princess had expected he might. She observed this silently and took a seat, averting her gaze and wishing that Farlan had not mentioned their late mother. Chalix had only been three when she had died, and he had always made sure Merridy realised that her life had meant the Queen's death.
Arilyn Rhindal laughed a little as she entered the hall with her brother, gazing around in astonishment. The banquet hall was huge in any case, but now it was packed to the brim with nobles from near and far, some which she didn't even recognise. Arilyn and Merridy had been friends since childhood, yet she knew better than to wish the Princess well. She glanced at her brother Dommiel, knowing that this was all about him and his impending marriage. They shared the same golden good looks – fair hair, angelic features and blue eyes. In Arilyn's opinion, that was where all similarity between them ended.
"This is the biggest feast of the year," she remarked, glancing around with wide eyes. She had been to many grand feasts, considering she had been attending court since she had been a mere child – but Farlan's council and whoever else had meticulously planned this event had outdone themselves.
"Yes, well, Merridy and I are celebrating the shortening length of time to our union," Dommiel replied dryly, although Arilyn highly doubted that the event brought any happiness to the Princess. Merridy knew it was her duty to marry Dommiel, she had since she was twelve years old – yet Arilyn knew the notion brought her no pleasure.
Of course, Dommiel saw it as practically his right, as he saw most things really. He had been a close friend to the royal brothers since childhood, so it was only fitting that he should be offered their sister. Although the prospect had pleased him at the time in terms of the power he would gain, it pleased him in different ways as well now that Merridy had blossomed into a beautiful young woman. Arilyn had noticed her brother's eyes following the Princess with a glint of lust, and it made her shudder.
"It certainly is drawing close," Arilyn murmured. Her brother cast his gaze around the hall for the royal family. Dommiel was nothing if not a man who craved power – and his marriage to Merridy would ensure he was the third most powerful man in the realm of Sidrum. Arilyn wondered if the man she eventually married would be powerful at all.
"If it isn't the husband-to-be and his lovely sister!" Jupiter crossed over to them with a broad smile adorning his features and a goblet of wine already in his hand. Like the Crown Prince, he was known to be enthusiastic about his drink.
"Hello, Jupiter," Arilyn replied with a smile, oblivious to the secretive smile and meaningful eye contact that her brother sent Jupiter as he inclined his head. She had never spent much time around the royal cousin, but it appeared that now their families were to be joined, she would be seeing far more of him. Arilyn was not quite certain how this made her feel, although she had heard Jupiter was intelligent and studious.
Jupiter took Arilyn's hand and kissed the back of it. "You are looking radiant tonight, Lady Arilyn."
She flushed slightly at the compliment. Jupiter was well-known for being charming towards many young women of the court, but only recently had he began to show Arilyn attention, something she found puzzling. Perhaps she had been too young for him before. Nonetheless, it was nice to have attention from someone – considering that when Arilyn was around Merridy, it was usually the Princess who was showered with high praise.
"Thank you." Arilyn sat down, and was surprised that Jupiter took a seat beside her. She looked around for her Dommiel, but her brother had already sauntered off, no doubt to torment the Princess. Arilyn was secretly pleased at Jupiter's words, however. She had been raised to return any compliments she received, so she made practise of that now. "You look very handsome yourself."
"Why thank you. I do try." Jupiter grinned, watching as Arilyn laughed and reached across the thick wooden table for the jug of wine to pour herself some. He leaned forward and took up the jug himself upon seeing her straining for it. "Allow me."
"Thank you," Arilyn said with a little smile as he poured the deep red liquid into her goblet. She lifted it to her lips and took a small sip, pondering on the meaning of Jupiter's sudden attention and what it meant for her.
"Chalix!" Farlan turned his jovial attention upon his brother, clasping his arm. The two brothers had many differences, but despite them, they had always been close. Their father's death had been a particular circumstance that had made them more reliant upon each other. "Going to find yourself a wife at one of these feasts someday?"
"A wife?" Chalix rolled his eyes at the thought of marriage. Women were nothing more than objects, to be bargained for. That was why Merridy was being given away, because Dommiel's father must have paid the right price. However, Chalix had no need for a wife. She would be nothing but a thorn in his side in any case. "You know I am hardly the sort to marry."
Farlan took his seat with the sort of regal grace that was expected of a King, grinning at his younger brother. "Some day."
"What of yourself?" Chalix sat with a slight smile curling the corners of his lips. At twenty-four years of age, Farlan was yet to marry – not that Chalix was complaining. Without children, without sons, Chalix would remain Farlan's heir. "Still to take a wife and you are four years older!"
"I'm…busy." Farlan's tone became serious and picked up his cup and quickly took a drink, something Chalix did not fail to notice. He had been crowned at the relatively young age of twenty-one. Only a year before that, they had lost Cobryn, the King's adviser and father to Dommiel and Arilyn. Although a new adviser had taken his place, it might as well have been Dommiel for all the whispered advice that Farlan took to heart.
"Oh?" He raised an eyebrow questioningly. "Busy in what manner?"
Farlan gestured over the hall. It was pathetic really, Chalix surmised, all the people that came to fawn over Merridy simply because they thought it would put them in the King's good graces. Unfortunately, Farlan had always possessed a soft spot for his little sister…however, he did happen to turn a blind eye to Chalix's often violent behaviour towards her.
"Ruling. It's taxing stuff."
"Ah, but of course," Chalix agreed, remembering council meetings with little fondness. When he was younger he was just there for the purpose of support, however now Farlan and his men expected some input from the Crown Prince. "No doubt you enjoy it nonetheless."
"It's tiring at times, but I must confess it's fulfilling," Farlan admitted, before he heaved a sigh. "Mostly."
Chalix stretched himself out. Luckily he did not possess Farlan's lanky limbs, but rather a stocky build, and as he was not even quite six feet tall, it meant he could lounge about a little without accidentally kicking the person across from him.
"I just have a much better understanding now of how drained Father would be sometimes," Farlan confessed. Their father was not often a topic of discussion, as his death had been a very controversial matter. Had it been simply a spy in the palace who had poisoned him, or a Gifted One seeking power? No one knew, and it was doubted that anyone would ever know.
"Ah, yes. Still, you have me to help you."
Farlan grinned at that, his jovial mood returning. "That I do, and you keep me sane, dear brother!"
Chalix laughed. "I should hope so."
"Truly," Farlan lifted his cup and took another sip of his wine. He was not an avid drinker like his brother and cousin, but wine did tend to lighten his mood somewhat. "Having you and Merridy close is a great help to me."
"Merridy?" Chalix scoffed her name, that of the sister he had never been able to bring himself to love. "She is but a girl."
"So she is, but still our sister," Farlan reminded him carefully, too used to Chalix's intense dislike of their youngest sibling. Normally it was something he could overlook, however tonight's celebration was about Merridy.
"Yes, but she will soon be married," Chalix waved a careless hand.
Farlan inclined his head. Dommiel's father had been adviser to their own, and indeed since his death, Dommiel had ascended to become part of Farlan's council. He was a powerful man, renowned for holding the largest lands in the entire realm. Although there had been some suggestion of having Merridy marry into a foreign family, to strength ties, her brothers would have none of it. They did not trust their closest neighbour Lukreyna and besides, it was always wise to keep your friends close, lest they turn into enemies.
Across the table, Merridy had already set about pouring herself some wine. Dommiel stepped up behind her chair, watching her intently. She had been a mere child when their fathers had negotiated the betrothal, but she had since grown into a woman with curves in all the right places and a pretty face.
"Merridy, you look a vision tonight."
"Thank you, Dommiel," Merridy replied rather stiffly, sipping at her wine. Of course, she had known that he would be close to her for most of the night – after all, this was about their impending marriage – but she had still hoped rather foolishly that she would not have to speak with him too much.
"Looking forward to the impending day?" Dommiel inquired, sitting down beside her and placing a hand atop hers. Merridy immediately snatched her hand back at the feeling of his cool skin, causing him to raise his eyebrows. "Careful now."
"Whatever is there to be careful of?" Merridy asked in a measured tone.
He frowned at her words. Dommiel had never enjoyed her playing games, and two weeks before their wedding, that dislike was as clear as ever. He believed a woman should know her place, especially a woman that would soon be his wife. It did not matter that Merridy's position was still above his, for when they were wed, she would become the lesser.
"We are getting married soon. You may have a care to act like it."
Merridy's lips tweaked into a slight smile. "But we are not married yet."
"Soon enough." Dommiel smirked and leaned across to kiss her cheek, watching as she turned her face to the gesture. "Come now, tonight is for us."
Merridy took another sip of wine, glancing over at where several couples were already dancing. She wished that she could be so free. She would not mind having a husband who was ugly but kind. Dommiel put on that charming smile, thought his handsome face could compensate for the darkness she knew was inside his heart. He followed the line of her gaze.
"Care to dance, my dear?"
She could see no polite way to object. She bit her lip. "If we must."
"One moment." Dommiel stood, glancing over at his sister and Jupiter. Merridy cut slowly at her meat, sensing an ulterior motive. "Lords and ladies of the court. King Farlan, might I have the permission to make an announcement?"
Farlan arched an eyebrow curiously, but waved his assent. "By all means, proceed."
All eyes were on Dommiel now, which was exactly how he had intended it to be. Merridy glanced up from her plate, noticing Jupiter smiling in a pleased way. There was no doubt in her mind that both he and Dommiel had planned something. Arilyn looked carefully at her brother, wondering what he was going to say.
"I am pleased to announce to you all the engagement of my sister, Arilyn Rhindal, to Jupiter Dolorin. As of tonight, the pair is formally betrothed."
Chalix leaned back in his seat, a smirk playing about the corners of his lips. "Well said, Lord Dommiel."
Merridy glanced between Jupiter and Arilyn. Her cousin appeared content, but although Arilyn's expression didn't change, when she looked over at Merridy there was slight shock visible in her blue eyes. Dommiel smiled and picked up his goblet, raising it in a toast.
"My best to the new pair."
Farlan blinked a few times, as if still comprehending, then raised his own goblet. "Congratulations, Jupiter and Arilyn."
"Yes, indeed, congratulations!" Chalix exclaimed from his place, with the air of someone who had already consumed too much wine.
"Oh please." Jupiter laughed and modestly waved a hand. "Let another night be about Arilyn and I, this is for my dear cousin and Lord Dommiel."
Dommiel chuckled and then turned his attention back on his betrothed, reaching a hand out to her.
"Now, that dance?"
Merridy reluctantly took Dommiel's hand, seeing no other choice. She had resigned herself to the fact that it grew hard to resist him. He pulled her to her feet and led her out to where the others were dancing in front of the hearth, roaring with a blazing fire. She followed hesitantly, aware that a dance would give him an excuse to be free with his hands.
"Aren't you happy for my sister?" Dommiel asked, putting an arm around her waist to draw her close, "And for us?"
"I am very happy for Arilyn and Jupiter," Merridy replied, carefully avoiding the second question as she reluctantly put her arms around Dommiel's neck. She didn't meet his gaze when he smirked down at her.
"What of us?"
Merridy thought carefully on her words. A young woman she recognized vaguely was whispering to her partner and glancing across at them, no doubt voicing her opinions on the soon-to-be-married couple.
"I don't really care much for my own duty."
"A duty?" Dommiel inquired, mocking disbelief, "Is that all you see me as being?"
"Well…" Merridy knew it would be no good to lie. "Yes."
"I'm hurt." Dommiel pulled her closer, so that she was pressed tighter against him, much to her discomfort. "You might be more open to the idea."
The words came flooding out before Merridy could stop them. "You know what I think of you."
Anger flashed momentarily across Dommiel's gaze. It was gone before she could even think to comment on it. Merridy knew that he would not dare strike her in public, yet with Dommiel, there was never any telling what he would do.
"Word yourself carefully," he warned.
She gazed brazenly up at him, being completely indifferent to the fact that she was only five foot seven to his six foot three.
"I am not afraid of you."
"Perhaps you should learn to be," Dommiel leaned in close to whisper, his lips nearly touching her ear.
Merridy tensed up and tried to draw back a little, disliking his close proximity, but Dommiel merely tightened his grip so that she couldn't slip out. She glared up at him, loathing his arrogance and the fact that she could do nothing about it. She was the Princess, yet really, she held so little power.
"What do you want?"
"A dance with my lovely bride-to-be?" Dommiel feigned an air of innocence.
"I didn't mean that." She shook her head. "I mean, why are you intent on marrying me?"
He looked down at her, and she felt like he could see right through her. It sent unpleasant shivers running down her spine.
"Well, why wouldn't I be, sweet Merridy?"
Her anger flared. She had no doubts in her mind – and even if she did, Chalix would have corrected them – that once she married Dommiel, she would be his entirely. Almost akin to a possession. There would be nothing she could do then to defy him.
"Princess to you."
He smiled tolerantly. "Princess."
Merridy wrenched free of his grasp. She didn't care what anyone else might think. She already felt that Dommiel was suffocating her. He frowned and reached out to pull her back. Farlan seemed to have noticed the commotion, for he stood with a baffled expression on his face, clearly beyond comprehending what was going on.
"Merridy? Are you quite alright?"
"I thank you for your concern, your Majesty," Merridy replied, quickly regaining her composure as she turned to face her oldest brother. She didn't want to make a scene and embarrass both herself and the King. "I just need some fresh air. If you'll excuse me."
She turned on her heel and walked outside into the courtyard gardens. Dommiel stood where he was for a few moments as Merridy forsook the warmth and light of the banquet hall for the near darkness outside. Once several seconds had passed, he weaved his way through the crowd and followed her.