Wednesday, August 25, 2010

First Chapter Wednesday--Queen in Exile



The thundering hoof beats of her two guards’ mounts grew steadily louder behind her while Jeniah, on her own duocorn, fled Arden City as if a pack of wyrwolves pursued her. Jeniah glanced over her shoulder and willed her guards away, knowing such a wish was foolish. How she longed to truly escape Arden, her stifling role, and the terrifying new future she must soon accept. Jeniah could no more escape her destiny than she could escape her personal guards, but for a few blissful moments, she would be Jeniah. Not a princess, not a scholar, not a bride of some far-off, faceless prince. Just Jeniah.

Her duocorn, Egan, settled into a comfortable canter, his double-horned head nodding with each stride. Her guards matched her pace behind her, and she tried to forget they were there. Birds roosting in the trees scattered at their approach, fluttering deeper into the woods. Embracing the exhilaration of riding, Jeniah flung her arms out to each side, imagining how it might feel to soar unfettered into the great unknown, without a care.

Cantering over the cobblestones, Egan rounded a bend in the highway. Without warning a side path appeared, calling to Jeniah with irresistible force. She reined sharply. Egan danced against the reins, turning a full circle, and shook his head, making the bridle jingle. Jeniah’s pulse galloped and her stomach quivered. She stared down the path, irresistibly drawn, feeling the stirring whispers of destiny.

Breneg and Ciath halted their duocorns on either side and drew their swords, searching for signs of danger.

“Your Highness?” Breneg said in alarm.

Her gaze fixed on the path, Jeniah held up her hand. “Nothing’s amiss, Breneg. I wish to be alone.” Her voice sounded oddly distant, oddly hoarse.

“Alone? Your Highness, we cannot guard you if—”

“Only for a few moments, Breneg.” Without looking at him, Jeniah knew her sternness had surprised him.

Jeniah could not explain the urgent compulsion to traverse the path alone, but the power beckoned to her very soul. Her heart skittered, and she could no longer resist the lure. Without waiting for further response, she urged Egan forward. The path seemed ordinary. It led from the highway to a shallow hollow that appeared equally mundane, yet a shiver of anticipation raised bumps on Jeniah’s arms.

She dismounted, leaving Egan to graze, and walked deeper into the woods. She paused behind a tree, and the moment she knew her guards could no longer see her, she blurred. The familiar warm, tickling sensation spread over her, blending her with her surroundings. If Breneg and Ciath were to spot her now, she’d appear as nothing more than a sapling or a shrub.

A part of her feared her strange magic. Magic had been the cause of the Great Wars. In Arden, magic was shunned, feared. Not even her faithful lady-in-waiting knew Jeniah’s power.
In moments of irony, Jeniah wondered why she bothered blurring. Her family acted as if she were already invisible, unless they remembered their need to forge allies.

Breneg and Ciath moved away, their duocorns’ hooves rustling the dried leaves. No doubt they were following their usual pattern to sweep the area for danger, spiraling outward in opposite directions, and then tightening the spiral until they returned within visual distance of her. She would have a few minutes of solitude before they returned. Eventually, she’d have to stop blurring and reveal herself, or they’d grow frantic.

Jeniah stepped over a log peppered with mushrooms and walked deeper into the woods, following the irresistible call. Fallen leaves crunched under her riding boots. She hurried along the sun-dappled path, eager to discover the source of the compelling summons. At the rise of a hollow, she stopped. Chills of excitement tingled her spine. She held her breath.

An enormous golden-brown animal stood on four legs at the far edge of the hollow. Sunlight slanted down through the woodland trees, giving his thick pelt and mane an iridescent shimmer. Jeniah gasped. Truly, it could not be! She stared in disbelief at a sacred chayim.

He was magnificent. She felt as if she were in the presence of deity, ancient and wise beyond human comprehension. Her mouth went dry and she fell to her knees.

She’d heard the stories, of course. She’d listened, enraptured, as minstrels related accounts—legends, some said—of a chayim choosing a maiden of surpassing purity and courage, bonding with her, and guiding her as she led her people to a bright new future. In private moments of hope, Jeniah had dared to dream a chayim would choose her.

Jeniah’s heart pounded as if trying to escape her chest, and her breath came in gasps. Nearly overcome, she waited for the chayim to determine her worthiness. She stood and lowered the hood of her cloak, careful to make no sudden movements lest she frighten him away.

Moving with regal grace, the chayim padded down the slope into the hollow and stopped barely out of reach. His shoulders were level with her head, and he was even longer than he was tall.
Quivering in excitement, she held out a hand. The beast took another step toward her. His long neck curved and his head dipped down while a pair of dark, intelligent eyes probed hers. She waited, trembling in anticipation, as if poised at the summit of a mountain. A step to one side would mean death. A step to the other would bring limitless freedom.

He blew gently into her face, a sign of acceptance. Her heart soared and tears of joy streamed down her cheeks. Driven by a compulsion to touch him, she raised her hand higher. When the beast opened his mouth, revealing two rows of sharp teeth, she felt no fear, only wonder, peace, and light. Her heartbeat slowed and she felt a smile curve her mouth as she spoke softly to him.
After a brief pause, the chayim answered with a low growl others might have found fearsome. Jeniah continued to extend her hand until it finally touched the long, square muzzle, finding the golden fur softer than she expected. The chayim closed his mouth and uttered a noise much like a purr.

Acceptance and an all-consuming love flowed into her as the chayim’s mind gently touched hers. Through the images he sent her, she witnessed changes to the land the chayim had seen during his long life. He mentally deepened their connection, wrapping her in warmth and safety and truth.

For the first time, she saw herself as more than an annoyance, more than a pretty distraction, more than her father’s pawn to forge a political alliance. She saw herself as a young woman of much greater worth. That knowledge filled her with indescribable joy and a renewed dedication to her duty. And it gave her hope.

Using her powers for others now became paramount, a realization both humbling and liberating.
Through emotion and image, the chayim assured her that her ability to blur was not a power to fear, but merely a small part of a greater magic that would serve her, and serve her people.
Without warning, the connection shattered.

Jeniah staggered back, disoriented and empty from the sudden severance of their bond. Drained of energy, she collapsed. She raised a hand toward the chayim, desperate to renew their mental bond, but she could not reach him. His head turned toward something behind her, his tail swishing angrily. He growled.

Hoof beats approached. As she lay on her back looking up at her chayim, Jeniah’s thoughts cleared, and she swallowed a growl of her own. Apparently her overprotective guards had finished their guarding pattern and returned. She could blur to prevent them from finding her, but if they had already visually marked her, blurring would not deceive them. And at the moment, she wasn’t sure she had the strength.

Hoping her chayim would remain, she struggled to her feet to warn away the guards. Her weakened limbs failed her again and she crumpled.

The hoof beats grew nearer still, and an enormous silver duocorn pounded into view with a man astride him. Jeniah’s chayim stood over her defensively and let out a roar that shook the ground. She pressed her hands over her ears. If she hadn’t already bonded with him, she would have been terrified.

“Get back!” she tried to warn the stranger, but it came out as a weak gasp.

With a battle cry, the rider and his mount charged down the slope from the highway toward them in the hollow. Though he wore the chain mail of a knight, the rider was clearly not one of her guards.

Her chayim let out a roar more threatening than the first. He dropped to a crouch facing the intruder, and stood over her, his breath warm and moist on her face, his haunches quivering.
Drawing a sword, the stranger charged.

Jeniah gasped. Not only was the armed rider about to destroy her destined bonding with a chayim, but he planned to battle this magical beast! What brainless madman would attack a holy chayim?

And where were Breneg and Ciath? They should be alerted to the presence of another rider. Jeniah’s chayim growled again, and her concern shifted to the rider. Her chayim would no doubt kill the foolish man before he could inflict any injury, yet she wished no harm upon any person. Even a fool.

“Stay away! You’re in danger!” Still weakened by the aborted connection, Jeniah tried to rise but failed again.

Teeth bared at the intruder, her chayim twitched as he prepared to spring. The rider continued his charge. As her chayim leaped, he extended claws the length of daggers from his paws. The armed man and her chayim came together in a terrible clash.

Horrified by the violence, Jeniah pushed her shaking limbs to a stand. “NO!” she shouted, finally recovering her voice.

Her chayim hesitated at the sound of her frantic cry. In that moment of distraction, the warrior attacked. His sword made a graceful arc and sliced into her chayim’s golden chest.

Jeniah screamed. Dread clutched at her heart, squeezing until she could barely draw a breath.
“No!” she sobbed. “No, don’t hurt him!”

Her chayim fell, rolled, and jumped to his feet. Amber blood streamed from the wound. Rearing up on his back two legs, he swiped at his opponent, his claws barely missing the man’s chest. The rider’s duocorn danced back and then lunged, bringing the warrior and his sword in close. Man and chayim lunged, struck and parried.

Desperate to stop them from killing one another, Jeniah picked up a rock to throw at them, but halted before she let it fly. The last time she’d interfered, she’d distracted her chayim and the man had wounded him. She ground her teeth in frustration at her helplessness.

Though bleeding from multiple wounds, her chayim raked the duocorn’s flank with his claws. The duocorn whinnied in pain and reared but continued circling the beast. Skillfully avoiding her chayim’s teeth and claws, the man struck again. Weakened, her chayim slowed until he could no longer evade the sword. The warrior thrust his blade deep. The chayim’s shriek filled Jeniah with cold dismay.

He flailed, howling in pain, his claws missing the duocorn by a breath. The swordsman severed one of her chayim’s massive paws, which only threw the beast into a greater frenzy. Roaring and thrashing, her chayim came at the swordsman. Again, the warrior’s blade found its mark.
Sickened and shaking, Jeniah sank to her knees.

This time, the magnificent animal collapsed. His breath labored twice, and after a spasm, he lay motionless. Amber blood flowed in a spreading stain on the leaves carpeting the woodland floor.
Silence rang out as if all nature’s creatures paused to mourn.

“No,” Jeniah whispered in disbelief. All strength left her limbs. Darkness drew around her, leaving her desolate and utterly lost. She felt as though she had lived all her life in darkness, then unexpectedly stepped out into the light to behold the beauty of the earth and sky, the majesty of color, the power and magnificence of the sea, only to be plunged back into darkness with naught but a taunting memory of what she had found and lost. All that remained was emptiness.

The warrior dismounted and approached the lifeless chayim. Jeniah gasped as he prodded the creature with the end of his sword. Then the swordsman turned toward Jeniah and ran to her without stirring a leaf, silent and graceful.

Through a haze of grief, it occurred to Jeniah that a man who would kill a revered creature might now harm her. At the moment, however, she was so overcome by loss that she hardly cared.
The warrior dropped to the ground in front of Jeniah. “Are you injured?”

He spoke in a foreign accent with rich, resonant tones belonging to a minstrel, not a warrior. But his violent act toward her chayim drove away any charm she might have found in his voice.
Bereft, unable to speak, she shook her head.

The warrior looked her directly in the eye as if searching for some truth he might only find there. His startlingly blue eyes burned with inner fire. Then, as if he found whatever he’d sought, he stood.

After he cleaned and put away his weapon, he removed a leather glove and held a hand toward her. “I’ll help you up.”

She eyed his hand, making no move. Despite his unkempt and unshaven appearance, something in his posture suggested authority. As her eyes traced his broad, muscular form, she realized no knight in the castle could match him in strength or size. While he dressed as a commoner, he had the confident, almost arrogant bearing that Jeniah associated with nobility. A simple cord held together his unadorned, travel-stained cloak instead of a metal clasp used by the wealthy. The breeches and heavily padded tunic visible underneath his chain mail had been cut from coarse fabric. That deadly sword, bane of her chayim, rested in a plain leather scabbard at his hip, almost touching worn boots caked with dirt.

His eyes fixed upon her with unnerving intensity. For an impoverished knight, this man possessed unabashed boldness. He waited, watching her, his hand extended.

“You have nothing to fear from me, my lady,” he said softly in his lilting foreign accent.

Her arm moved on its own volition. Against his large, calloused hand, hers looked small and fragile. He could easily crush her bones. Instead, as if he feared injuring her, he took her hand carefully. After pulling her to her feet, he remained motionless, his fingers closed around hers, his gaze disturbingly direct.

The stranger reached out with his other hand and gently brushed away a tear lingering on Jeniah’s cheek.

Shocked at the intimacy of his touch, and at the tingles that spiraled outward from it, she caught her breath. No man in Arden would touch her in such a manner. This man dared much. She snatched her hand back and stepped away to disguise the sudden awareness of her own vulnerability, and her elemental awareness of him as a man.

“You should not be out here all alone, my lady.”

As his words penetrated her stunned sorrow, she pressed her lips together. Amazed at the audacity of this killer to censure her, she found her tongue. “Your permission is not required.”
He blinked, clearly taken aback. His eyes narrowed. “There are many dangers to a lone girl. That beast alone—”

“I was perfectly safe. Didn’t you see that the chayim had accepted me?” Her eyes were drawn to the terrible sight of her chayim lying lifeless. She choked.

“Accepted you?”

“Yes, accepted—a symbiotic lifetime of protection, of friendship.” What oaf did not know the stories? “I’ve felt destined for this all my life.” Anger and sorrow roiled in her stomach.

The warrior eyed her as if he thought her a bit insane, and glanced back at the scene of the battle. “Your life was clearly in danger, my lady.”

Anger cut through her sadness. Only years of exercising forbearance prevented her from shouting at him. “I was in no danger. He saw you as a threat, not only to himself, but to me. He never would have attacked you if you hadn’t charged in brandishing your weapon. Perhaps I should be grateful you didn’t turn that sword upon me in your bloodlust.”

Her would-be rescuer clenched his jaw and pressed his lips into a thin line. “I would never slay an unarmed opponent, nor would I ever harm a lady. And if I had known—”

“It would behoove you to make certain of your enemies before you kill them.” Grief and fury competed for dominion over of her heart, and her self-restraint slipped. She dashed aside new tears, frustrated at her loss of control.

His hands fisted at his sides. “It would behoove you to take more caution in the forest. No lady should ever be without protection. And unless you are concealing a weapon, you appear ill-equipped to defend yourself against the many dangers out here.”

“How typical of a warrior, seeing danger where none exists, and leaping at any opportunity to kill.”

His words came out clipped. “I do not leap at opportunities to kill.”

“You did today!” She snapped her mouth closed and wiped her tears.

“By the moons,” he muttered, looking upward. He raked his fingers through his dark hair, slowly let out his breath, and visibly smothered an angry retort.

Incredible. A warrior with self-control.

“If I caused you grief or placed you in danger, I apologize, my lady.” His stiffly spoken words failed to bring her comfort. Then his expression softened, became earnest. “Truly, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you or cause undo harm.”

For some unaccountable reason, she found that she believed him. As her eyes locked with his, she realized that as a foreigner, he probably would not know of a sacred beast unique to Arden. Her tumult faded as a new understanding came over her. He must have happened along by accident, and when he saw her lying on the ground with the large and dangerous-looking animal standing over her, naturally assumed she’d been about to be devoured. Spurred by a sense of chivalry, he’d charged in to slay the beast and rescue the maiden.

Grappling with her desire to hate him for his unforgivable actions, and her realization that she couldn’t really blame him, she stared, unable to formulate a reply. Her shoulders slumped in resignation.

He grasped a crumpled leaf caught in her hair, his hands sliding down a long, dark ringlet before the leaf fell into his hand.

Startled by his familiarity, Jeniah took another step back from the stranger. Even more startling, she did not find the contact distasteful. More unsettled by her reaction to his touch than the touch itself, she began brushing leaves and bits of twigs off her gown and cloak, her actions stiff and jerky, and tried to fortify her self-control.

“Egan!”

Her duocorn came through the trees, but shied from the maimed body on the ground. The warrior’s silver duocorn nickered. To her surprise, Egan answered, approaching the unknown steed. After a few huffs and flicks of their tails, they touched noses in greeting as if old friends.
The war duocorn, as heavily muscled as his master, stood several hand spans taller than Egan, and his horns had been sharpened for use as weapons. Egan’s mane and featherings grew long and shinning from careful brushing, but the silver stallion’s hair was clipped ruthlessly short.
The stranger extended a hand to Egan and crooned softly. Her normally shy mount came to him and nuzzled his palm.

“Traitor,” Jeniah muttered.

After he stroked Egan’s head, the warrior moved soundlessly upon the dried leaves to his own beast. The swordsman examined his duocorn for injuries, but to Jeniah, the wound on his flank looked superficial. The warrior appeared to agree, and he patted his duocorn and turned back to her.

“Egan, come.” Jeniah glanced back at her chayim’s motionless body. She hated to leave him there as food for carrion. It seemed too ignoble an end.

Approaching tentatively, she went to him, fearful of the sight. Even battered and lifeless, he exuded beauty, greatness, magic. Magic couldn’t all be bad if her chayim possessed it, could it?
Kneeling next to him, Jeniah stroked his fur and whispered, “Home and sweet meat to you, my friend.” She pulled a few hairs from the crown of her head, wincing slightly from the sting, and laid them over her chayim’s chest. “May the god of the moons welcome you.”

She ran her fingers through his mane until a few loose hairs fell into her hand. After twisting the hair into a knot, she tucked it into her bodice next to her heart. “May the god of the moons give me peace without you.” She bowed her head, her heart cold and empty.

The wind gusted, bringing in the late afternoon fog. Her guards would be returning any moment. Swallowing hard, she stood. Purposely refraining from looking at the warrior standing motionless next to his duocorn, she used a rock as a step to mount Egan and settled in the saddle.

“My lady, I must insist upon accompanying you to ensure your safety.” Somehow he managed to sound both deferential and condescending.

Despite his earlier plea for forgiveness and her insight into his motives, Jeniah’s anger returned and gave venom to her words. She lifted her head with all the regal haughtiness of the queen mother and looked down upon him. The effect was not as dramatic as she had hoped, since, even in the saddle, she sat only slightly above eye level with him.

“You are a stranger, and you have killed a revered animal. Two very good reasons not to trust you with both my virtue and my life.”

He winced. “My lady, I give you my word as a knight, I mean you no harm. I’m honor-bound to protect and defend the innocent.”

“Unless they come in the form of chayims, apparently.” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. Shame sent warmth up her neck to her face. Such petty viciousness should be beneath her, but she seemed to have lost control over her emotions.

His face grew tight and unyielding. “Be grateful I’m a man of honor, or you would already be my victim.”

Jeniah’s mouth dropped. “A true man of honor would not say such a thing.”

“I’m trying to protect you,” he ground out.

“I’ve but to return to the road where I left my guards and they will see me home, as they would have protected me had I been in any real danger.”

He glanced about, and she could almost hear him wondering where her guards were, and why they had not intervened.

Unwilling to enlighten him, Jeniah flicked the reins and headed toward the highway.

“My lady.”

Impatiently, she reined and glanced over her shoulder.

“Please, tell me your name.”

She clenched her teeth, loath to give him any favor he sought, and prayed she’d never be forced to see him again. Without replying, she urged Egan into a canter.

As she rode, the wind whipped her hair and brought the scent of growing things mingled with the smells of the ocean. The woodland trees thickened, reducing the sunlight to glimmering shafts streaming through the leaves, while the duocorn deftly bounded his way around trees, mossy rocks, and fallen logs.

Her mother did not approve of her riding at such a pace. She often said it wasn’t befitting a princess, especially since Jeniah would soon be of age and could no longer use youth as an excuse for a lack of decorum.

Heartache urged Jeniah to a reckless speed. She tightened her legs around Egan’s sleek body and bent over his neck. She felt rather than heard Breneg and Ciath fall in with her, but they remained respectfully behind. She wanted to rail against them for failing her when she needed them, but they were blameless, since she had blurred purposely to hide from them. No doubt they wanted to chastise her for losing them. Again.

After ducking under a branch that came threateningly close to her face, she broke through the trees and out onto the wide, sandy beach. She cantered along the shore, heading farther away from the castle of Arden. At a rock formation blocking her path on the beach, she reined and absently rubbed Egan’s long, curved horns. Her emotions alternated between sorrow, anger, and despair. No tutor had instructed her on how to deal with realizing, and then losing, a hope she’d nurtured all her days, or a friend she’d instantly loved above her own life. Desolation crept across her heart and settled in.

“Your Highness.”

Jeniah jumped. She’d been so tightly wrapped in her cocoon of grief that she hadn’t heard Breneg approach.

“Forgive me, Your Highness, but it grows late.”

Jeniah drew a deep breath and wiped tears she hadn’t realized she’d shed. The shadows had grown long, and darkness loomed. She pulled her cloak more tightly around her. One moon hung suspended, already high in the sky, its silvery glow dim next to the drowsy sun. The second moon hovered large and orange at the horizon.

Breneg sidled up to her, his face lined in concern as he took a long look at her. “Are you all right?”

Jeniah nodded, touched that he cared beyond his duty as her guard, and relieved that he did not demand an explanation for her absence. “Just thinking.”

He didn’t press her for answers, though he clearly knew she was troubled. She rode beside him, leaving the shore and climbing the rise to the highway. As they guided their mounts toward the castle, Ciath rode further ahead.

Jeniah breathed in the damp, salty air. In a long exhale, she released her turmoil, her anger, and her sadness. Fog drifted in slowly and sometimes in bursts as the wind gusted. Her heart resumed its normal rhythm and the tension in her shoulders eased. Her senses filled with the motion of riding, with Egan’s warm body, the rhythm of his hooves, the crashing of the waves, the chill wind, and the smells of the ocean.

As she walked Egan, with Breneg riding next to her, she again thought of the stranger. His clothing and his accent proved he was not Ardeene, and she suspected he’d come from Govia or Darbor.

If the man were the knight of honor he claimed to be, he surely would not have killed a revered animal if he had understood the chayim’s significance—unless she underestimated a warrior’s need to kill. She could not hope to understand the mind of a man who trained for the express purpose of making war.

She felt Breneg’s curious gaze upon her but did not meet it. With all her dreams shattered, she’d have to face her destiny. It was time to hold up her head and accept her fate. In two moon cycles, she’d be nineteen, and then she’d marry the man of her father’s choosing to forge an alliance for the benefit of Arden. Duty could be a heavy burden.

Perhaps she should stop using her magic. Her ability to blur had been her secret since she discovered the ability as a young adolescent. Her chayim had assured her that she would one day reveal her power, but now that she’d lost her chayim, that time might never come.

“We must make haste, Your Highness.”

Breneg was right, of course. Darkness brought danger.

They urged their mounts to a canter. The road darkened as it wound through the forest. Trees leaned across the road toward its opposite side like lovers longing for a forbidden touch. Insects sang as darkness grew. Night had nearly spread over the land when Jeniah heard a mournful howl that chilled her blood. Wyrwolves.

She had complete faith in Breneg and Ciath, but two knights against a full pack of wyrwolves would not be sufficient. If the wyrwolves attacked, blurring would only protect her from being seen; she doubted it would hide her scent from the carnivores.

Worse, her guards would pay for her carelessness. Fear coiled in her stomach. The three riders urged their mounts to a full run, their hooves clattering on the road in a cadence that kept time with Jeniah’s heartbeat. As they rounded the bend in the road, Arden City and the safety of its walls came into view.

Egan’s neck stretched out as he ran with all his strength. Her heart thundering in her ears, Jeniah glanced behind her. The shadowed road lay empty. Wyrwolves called again, so close that she expected to see them beside her.

Perspiration froze like droplets of ice on her face in the bitter wind. She leaned forward over Egan’s neck as he somehow ran even faster. Breneg remained close and Ciath fell back to ride protectively on her other side.

With the crashing of brush, the wyrwolves came at them from the trees. She dared a glance backward.

On the road behind them, terrifyingly close, raced the nightmarish carnivores. Their oddly humanlike faces turned toward her with hideous, hungry grins. Nearly as tall as a duocorn, their shaggy bodies loped toward her with alarming speed. Leaning low over Egan’s neck, Jeniah focused on Arden Castle ahead, but she feared they might not reach it in time.

Her breath came in sharp gasps. With throbbing pulse, she spoke to Egan, urging him to keep going, but he needed no more encouragement than the beasts at his heels. With the howling creatures only inches away, Egan and the other duocorns fairly flew toward the outer city gates.
The city gates opened, spitting out a full regiment of armed guards. Carrying torches, yelling and brandishing their weapons, the men charged at the hungry pursuers. A brief melee ensued while men’s steel clashed with beasts’ teeth. Three wyrwolves fell dead on the road. Snarling, the few remaining wyrwolves turned and slunk back into the darkness.

Safely inside the city walls with the gate firmly closed behind her, Jeniah sat frozen on her heaving duocorn. She struggled to breathe and to battle her tears. By staying out too late, she’d endangered her own life. Worse, she had endangered the lives of not only Breneg and Ciath, but the men who rushed to save her. Shame, sharper than fear, knifed through her. Afraid she might see wounded among the soldiers, she eyed them, but none appeared to be injured.

Breneg leaned over and pried her shaking hands from the reins. “Your Highness.”

She dared a look at him, expecting reproach on his face, but saw only concern.

“We’re safe now, Princess.”

She nodded, fighting her tears. “Thank you,” she said to all within hearing. “I’m sorry I put you all in danger.”

Murmurs of acknowledgement, and even words brushing off her self-recrimination, came in reply. The sentries put away their weapons and melted back into the shadows.

Taking her emotions in hand, she locked them away and raised her chin. Flanked by Breneg and Ciath, she rode through Arden City toward the castle, her relief mingled with melancholy. Filled with the new self-awareness her chayim had given her, she drove away her hopelessness. She straightened her posture, lifted her chin, and rode forward to meet her destiny.

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