(Well, it has been a while. And honestly I don't know how many people will care about an update, but here it is. I'm working on the next chapter as well, which is almost done and much better than this one, but beyond that I'm actually going to be starting up a practically full schedule in a couple weeks so uh not the best comeback here. But I really really love my Rayne and Haley and I want to finish this story. I don't know how long it will take but I honestly do want to see this through to the end, whenever that will be. So here's hoping it'll be very soon. Enjoy this chapter because damn if writer's block wasn't a bitch for way too long during this.
And seriously I really can't wait to post the next chapter because THERE'S THIS SCENE AND I LOVE IT AND I DON'T CARE IF I'M SUPPOSED TO BE MODEST IT'S REALLY GOOD OK. SUSPENSE SUSPENSE x)
‒ 21 ‒
I watch him leave, the door in the wall swinging shut with a click of finality behind him. The wall is whole once more. My guard is gone.
"My dear… Don't cry." Lance pats my arm.
I'm trying not to. God knows now is hardly the time to add irrepressibly streaming eyes to what's already easily become one of a slew of the most horrible days of my life that seem to have been accumulating at an alarming rate recently.
Why did he want to go? I know I'd run off at the first mention of Dell's life being in danger, but what was he thinking before he knew? He'd seemed so close lately. So kind, so…Haley. What about his promise about my memories? Why would he go, when we…
"Rayne ‒ listen to me." Lance is shaking me, trying to get my attention. "That boy ‒ do you know why he was leaving?"
"No," I murmur dully. How I wish I did.
"He's realized he can't take advantage of you."
"No!" I yank away from him, jarring into the present with my certainty. "Haley doesn't think like that, Lance. I've spent months with him, months you haven't. I know him. He can't take advantage of me because he won't."
Lance sighs. "I apologize, Rayne, but I do know the guard has stayed with you this long in hopes of gaining something from you. Money, a title."
"But my guess is he simply wanted to bed you. Anyone with eyes can see that. In any case," he continues, grabbing my wrists to prevent me from shoving him backward, the way I'd been about to before he uttered that horrible accusation, "he's gone now, and I don't believe he'll be coming back."
I jerk away, shocked into silence now as I stare once more at the unmoving hidden door. Haley is gone. I've lost him again, for reasons unknown.
But this time I can't go after him.
The rest of the party is a blur of people speaking to me and Lance excusing my silence with various ailments: a stomachache, a headache, sore throat. I think he spends most of the time when important people leave glaring at me.
I drink too much of the spiced wine they're serving and the room truly begins to spin about halfway through, but after guiding me to a chair as out of the way as possible, Lance disappears. I slump against the hard seated chair's slender arms, trying to ignore it as they dig into my ribs. I don't really care about the bruises I can feel forming.
The winding down of the party seems to happen all at once, but it actually must have taken a couple hours. The stumbling trip upstairs seems to drag onwards into eternity as my feet catch on the steps. The doors to my rooms are giant and forbidding. There's no one inside to forget the disaster of a party with and the vague pounding in my head that's beginning is jerking my attention from the real world.
Fumbling to stagger into my bedroom, I collapse onto my bed and allow the slowly forming lump and the growing burning behind my eyes throughout the party to overwhelm me.
There are no warm arms to calm my loud, hiccupping sobs. Which somehow seems to only make me cry harder.
The only thing that can quiet me is sleep, which gradually appears to be impossible to reach as the night wears on and my temples scream.
All the memory-filled pieces of what little life I have left have to be packed tomorrow, the clothes and the belongings and anything he has left behind. I don't want to pack. I don't want to do anything. I want to lie here, my eyes the too-dry of having bawled every drop of liquid I had out until maybe he comes back. But that's selfish because he can't come back, not when people he cares so much about are in danger. After all, they're his family, and he's known me for what? A few months?
But finally, as the dark begins to recede with the dawn, I reach blessed unconsciousness as my raw eyes close.
FOUR MONTHS LATER
I open my eyes.
It's dawn, I can tell by the faint light straining through the top of the tent. I rub my eyes and yawn lightly.
My stomach is begging for sustenance, as usual, and, as usual, there's little to give it.
Four months wasn't the length of time I'd originally believed this trip would take.
When I first set out to find the king, the destination given was Reiland. I hadn't known the place offhand, but I'd assumed it was fairly close by. I hadn't realized I might have to travel halfway around the world to reach it ‒ across enough kingdoms traveling with not enough food to make these months feel like a starving lifetime.
I roll over to tap the shoulder of the sleeping form beside me. Lance startles up, blinking, looking groggy. "Whattzit?"
"If we're going to take a boat today, shouldn't we get down to the docks?"
He falls back against his bedroll, throwing his arm over his eyes. "I suppose…"
I suppress a sigh. I've learned not to expect much from the crown prince of Rabbton. He's been catered to his whole life, and he's not going to stop requiring servants now.
I roll out of the tent and stretch, ignoring the loud grumble and accompanying ache in my stomach, starting to clean up the campfire I made last night.
The skinny mounts I've tried and failed at keeping fat nicker at me softly as I step into their meager grazing spaces. If we take the boats, we'll have to leave them behind.
I scratch my gelding's forehead and whistle to Lance's dull eyed mare.
She flicks her tail at me as I start to pack them both up. My horse snuffles at me as I finish. "What is it, boy?" I whisper, yawning.
He pulls at the lead I'm holding him on gently and wearily I loosen my grip, letting him reach the edge of the clearing where a dark green bush holds…berries?
He starts to lip them up as I stare at the pink splotches dumbly.
I know these berries. I knew them from a time in a clearing late at night where a boy placed a tent, made a fire, and picked them for me while I ridiculed him.
"Rayne. Wake up. I know a shortcut down to the harbor."
"W-we can eat those berries," I mumble, then shake myself out of it and repeat myself more clearly when he looks at me oddly.
"Then why are you letting the horse eat them?" He jerks the loose lead from my hand and pulls the horse away from the bush.
Slowly, I reach to pull one of the ripe berries from its stem. It falls into my hand, leaving faintly staining juice on my fingertips. Gingerly, I tip it into my mouth. It's the same, a tangy burst of juice with a vague sweet perfume of an aftertaste.
I step back, letting my hair fall to cover my face as Lance returns. With his back turned as he begins to pick a handful of his own berries, I quickly scrub my arm over my eyes and carefully replace my mask of calm indifference to begin harvesting the berries beside him before the sun finishes its peeking over the horizon.
We gently wrap every uneaten, carefully saved tart little treasure into a stained old napkin to be placed into the top of a worn saddlebag, wanting to eat them all, but knowing better, from our months of experience.
The shortcut we forge is through some thicker woods than our horses have handled in a while, but the path Lance keeps insisting is beneath the pricking bushes we wade through is surely there, the suspicious traveling merchant Lance had spoken to couldn't have lied, not when Lance had given him a full gold coin for the information.
When we finally emerge from the woods, scratched and bleeding, I resist the urge to snap at Lance that it was a hard earned coin foolishly spent. God knows he's yelled enough at me for spending on less trivial things.
As the thuds of feet that aren't ours suddenly reaches my ears, I feel for one of my more expensive purchases ‒ a sharp, jaggedly bladed knife. Lance had demanded to know why I'd want such a thing, and tried to take it from me. But what he didn't know every time I stole it back from him was how much I had practiced with the small blade. How when I'd accidentally sent it flying during a particularly violent session it had reminded me of another knife, embedded in a murderer's back. How I had actually needed to do this, to be more than the helpless, all bark and no bite pretty princess, despite the slowly growing gnawing in my stomach. And indeed, the pretty princess had faded. My hands were chapped now, calloused from doing any job I could find during our travels.
Now the knife belongs in my worn hand.
Thankfully, the feet belong to a respectable looking party of big, armed men and women, whose weathered, dependable looking faces make them look more trustworthy than we do ‒ a bedraggled, sad pair.
That's right. This region likes its traveling merchants. If only we had something to sell.
As they pass, we warily watch, half hidden in the undergrowth of the woods falling away as they meet the path. I chew my lip wistfully at one woman's thick cloak, for though the winter's long frozen fingers have retreated, this cold spring's often falling freezing rain and strong breezes still chill you to the bone without proper new clothing, not patched and thin like ours have worn down to.
Aside from a few curious but cool glances, they ignore us, and the large, colorful and clanging packs clung across their backs slowly recede down the path.
I stare after them for a few moments before I realize Lance is no longer beside me.
He turns back from the other side of the path impatiently. "Come. For God's sake, you were the one in a rush this morning."
It's true, but he needn't speak like ‒
I've been so focused on the merchants that I've failed to notice the true wonder. At the other side of the path, ground drops away, a hill falling to open into a giant truly blue mass of gentle crashing and wooden and canvas giants.
The harbor is a sight to behold.
Lance glares at me and rolls his eyes as he starts down the hill with his horse trailing behind skittishly, disliking her footing.
I follow slowly, staring at the giant beast that must be the sea.
"Have you never traveled by water?"
Perhaps a few months earlier, Lance's voice would have been amused, but now it only sounds condescending.
A few months earlier…it sparks my lately agreeable and fairly tolerating nature to stand aside for a few moments to make way for snappish snark ‒ like I'd been the many centuries ago I was the pretty princess.
"No, Your Royal Highness," I snip. "Unfortunately we princesses were expected to stay home and embroider instead of having swashbuckling adventures in seafaring."
"What's the matter?" He turns to stare at me as we step down onto the market road.
I clamp my jaw shut. Now isn't the time to be disagreeable. Besides, I'm too tired, as always nowadays, to complain at him.
Lance bargains with a horse dealer for a good sum of money for our two mounts, and I say my goodbyes to them as we move on to the shipyard.
The ship we wheedle our way onto is a shoddy mess, but no one else will take us, dirty and anything but reputable looking as we are.
The trip is supposed to take a week or two, now a meaningless measure of time.
It takes longer, our meals barely paid for, jeered at by the crew and few other passengers for our youth and general unkempt appearances.
I've learned to move beyond reacting to strangers, unaware of my situation, to provoke them enough for them to take notice of me, to realize beneath the layers of grime and filth there was a wanted royal.
It went unspoken, I had realized in these four months, that any hiding Bollingfords found that were turned in would be met with a generous reward from Catkell, back in my still occupied kingdom.
News could only be obtained from the general public's gossip, and their knowledge was limited.
Larell has been confirmed as dead, tortured, rumor has it, to death ‒ for the other royal children's locations.
The few tears I've shed have numbed me, and the news that Jayel and Zae might have been killed as well has only brought dry eyes. I'm not grateful the remaining siblings are alive, not uncaring, but feelings have become too much of a luxury now.
It's been seven months since Bollingford passed into the hands of the Catkellians, the fact that they've only captures three of us is nothing short of a bittersweet miracle. Somehow, we've all managed to adapt, to survive.
But the day before we're told we'll land, I slip up. Lance is still sleeping when I come up the creaking, rickety staircase from below deck to weasel my way into the food line. The giants that make up the ship's crew seem to have their eyes on me more than usual as I fight yawning, waiting in the back of the line for my tasteless bowl of dried traveling food.
Another crew member steps in front of me, cutting me off. I start to protest, indignant, and he turns around, grinning down at me. "Well hey, girlie. Where's your husband?"
"He isn't my husband and I was in line!" I push past him and try to re-take my place, but all of a sudden my wrist is held in an iron vice.
"Not your husband, eh? Then he won't mind if I do this?" He grabs at my skirt and I shy away, feeling a mixture of rage and panic bubble to the surface, and it only burns hotter as a murmur of laughter ripples through the rest of the nearby people, and they start to watch, looking entertained instead of stepping in.
I pull back to head-butt my attacker, but he, too, laughs and grabs my chin, pulling me in to his sweaty body.
"If you cleaned up a bit, you'd be a damn pretty thing." He moves in to kiss me, but instead he stumbles back, gasping and reaching for his side. When he brings his callused hand up for inspection, drops of blood are coating his fingers.
All of the silent assembly is now staring at me, standing tall, my bloody knife in my hand, my expression imperiously disdainful.
"You shall never lay a hand on me again," I declare in a quietly dangerous voice.
I stare around at the shivering bystanders and suddenly everyone seems to be making themselves busy doing something.
Two men haul my attacker off, keeping their eyes from mine as they pass.
It isn't until after I've received and eaten my food that I realize ‒ watching everyone avoiding my gaze ‒ they all saw the way I behaved myself. I stabbed someone, yes, that was rough-and-tumble enough, but that hadn't been my normal voice I had used. It had been my royal voice.
I don't tell Lance what I've done, although I guess he'll probably realize something's going on when everyone does their best to ignore us. I needn't worry, however, because he remains just as cross and unaware as usual the last two days we have of traveling.
The sight of land sends a wave of relief through me, and though my legs are wobbly as I step down onto the cobblestone road, I want to kiss the ground.
Leaving the ship behind, I glance back and see a mass of unfriendly faces watching our retreating backs.
Suppressing a shiver, I hurry up to match Lance's impatiently quick footsteps.
We stop in the harbor's marketplace.
"So we're finally here," I murmur, staring around at the odd, foreign colors and shapes surrounding us. I haven't been out of Bollingford much, but the few kingdoms I have traveled to across land had much of the same traditions, ways of dress and such. Reiland is the brightest culture I've ever seen. The locals that pass by are dressed in loose, long clothing almost painful to look at.
Most of the women wear gauzy scarves, around their heads, across their shoulders, on their arms. More interesting and slightly disconcerting are the dark, intricate designs that seem to be permanently etched into the skin of the people. Bare arms display curling, vine-like art.
Shoeless feet ‒ for the feet of the locals that peep from beneath their odd, long tunics seem to be almost always bare ‒ are covered in spots arranged in shapes.
Even some faces are covered in feathery patterns, or interlocking lines, or other such things.
I can't prevent my staring. "How are we supposed to fit in?" I whisper.
"It doesn't matter," Lance snaps, taking his purchase of curiously colored local cheese and the teeth-chipping cheap bread from a merchant. "Enough foreigners come that we won't be noticed. We have more important things to do, anyhow."
"Where do we go?" I turn to him. Now that we're here, I realize we've never discussed how to find the king. Does Lance know the hiding place?
"Shh. We just got here. We'll figure it out later." He brushes past me, and I feel a wave of angry worry. "Figure it out later"? Have we come all this way only to be stumped by the fact that the king's hiding place is unknown? Left my home, left ‒
I grab his arm. "But you ‒"
"For God's sake, will you shut up?"
He whirls on me, his hand twisting to grip my wrist and I overflow, boiling. "No! I'm tired of always doing what you say, Lance!" I twist out of his grasp, shoving him backwards, suddenly completely and utterly done with it all ‒ him, the incident on the ship, traveling, the whole situation. His eyes are wide, brimming with anger, but a sliver of fear is in them too, suddenly.
"We're going to sit somewhere and eat and discuss this," I announce, as furious as he is. "Come."
And he does.
"I have an idea where he is, all right?" Lance chews his bread angrily.
We've found a brown-grassed area that seems abandoned and now sit, devouring the first real food we've had in a while.
"Where?" I demand. "And how on earth do you know?"
"You don't need to know that." He dismisses me with a simple wave of his hand. But I won't be denied on the grounds that I don't need the knowledge.
"No," I say dangerously, strongly, standing. He glances up.
"You're not going to tell me? Fine," I spit. "But we are leaving. Now."
"What?" He too stands, incredulous. "It's three days' hard ride from here, and we don't even have the money for horses. Besides, it's through thick trees. We can't go yet, we have to prepare."
"I've been waiting for months to find the king, and you won't even tell me where he is. I'm not waiting any longer. We're leaving this minute." I've forgotten the high of being in charge. It's been a while.
Far too long, but the warm feeling in my chest as Lance doesn't speak tells me I'm completely ready to step back into the position.
"Is it nearby?"
"For God's sake, stop nagging. This is your fault."
"My fault?" I stop dead, my aching feet protesting at still having to support my weight. "It's been a week, I'm asking if we're close, not complaining or blaming you for anything, yet you do both when you accuse me of these things I have every right to do!"
He snorts, continuing his slow plodding onward. "This is ridiculous. Just don't speak, all right?"
"I will not ‒" I start to snap loudly as I stumble forward and ‒
The crunch of the forest floor behind me turns me just in time to duck the rough sword swung at my face.
I scream, half out of fear and half a war cry as I fumble for and yank out my knife. I deflect my attacker's sword the best I can with the smaller weapon.
I can hear Lance running behind me, his footsteps rushing out of hearing distance. To get help, perhaps? Hopefully. He wouldn't just abandon me to save his own skin, would he? The noise seemed to indicate he was running toward wherever the king was supposed to be hiding.
But it's Lance. If there's anything I've learned from these months with him, it's that when it comes down to it, there's only so much I can expect from him.
It looks like I'm on my own for the moment.
My attacker and I circle each other. The late day light filters only weakly to the forest floor ‒ despite the sun deciding to show its face today ‒ so I can't see much of the man, even if his cloak didn't hide him in its worn folds.
"I don't have anything!" I shout at him. "Leave me alone, or I'll ‒"
He slashes again, and I sidestep, finding myself within arm's reach of the stranger, and jump inward.
He staggers back as I rip open his arm with my knife and reaches up for it as his hood falls away in his loss of balance, his expression disbelieving as he clutches at the wound and falls to his knees. His sword skitters away, out of reach. He'd underestimated me and it would cost him. I draw in, ready for the finishing blow, and stop.
No. No, it couldn't be.
I can barely hear my own voice, half a whisper and hoarse as it suddenly is. "Is it…is it you?"
"Hey!" The rush of a group of people breaks through my shock and I turn to see five or six men, puffing, out of breath, coming to a cautious halt some feet away, but straightening themselves into stiff, upright stances, their bearing reminding me of our…
"Princess?" One of the rank steps forward, peering at me. "Princess Rayne?"
"Yes," I whisper. "Yes, I'm ‒"
He grabs my arm, pulling me behind him and unsheathing a sword of his own at my still kneeling and silent, unmoving attacker. "Step away from this man, Your Highness."
Suddenly a tired looking Lance is at my elbow. "Kill him. He was attempting to do harm to us."
"No!" I pull away from them, to him again. I don't know how, or why, here, of all places, but…
I crouch over him, hesitantly tilting his head up.
His eyes come up, cold, as quiet as he is, defiant. They meet mine.
I can't move, can't breathe, can't do anything but speak his name.