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Prince of Thorns

 

 

RoyaltyPress

 

 

 

 

 

Prince of Thorns

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gemstone Royals

 

 

BOOK ONE

 

Based on the Royalty Press blog series “The Princess & The Soldier”

 

By

 

Kelly A. Purcell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favourite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

 

Prince of Thorns

Copyright © 2016 by Kelly-Ann Purcell

 

Cover design by C. Browne

 

All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Once upon a time in a land not quite like our own, there existed a great kingdom; the kingdom of All. The fortified city was built on the highest of heights, overlooking all the other kingdoms of the land. Within its walls lived a diligent and hardworking people, loyal only to the powerful and respected king of All. His name was known in all the lands, his friends and enemies respected him alike, knowing he was a man of his word and of great power.

There was only one whose loyalty he was unsure of, his rebellious wide eyed daughter, Ruby. All of his five daughters were named after precious stones, because as he often told them, they were precious in his sight and the heart of the kingdom. Pearl, Emerald, Ruby, Topaz and Diamond were beautiful princesses but very different from each other. Pearl and Emerald had already taken their place in the kingdom as ruler of the North and South territories, next in line to her inheritance was Ruby.

“I cannot believe he is still mad at me.”

Bianca watched as Ruby twirled this way and that before her full length gold-framed mirror. She parted her lips to respond, but Ruby continued to ramble on, recounting the events of last week’s meeting with her father yet again, to her understanding, but slowly tiring best friend.

“Can you believe it? It is my eighteenth birthday next week, I am the one coming of age, and I am the one who would have to live with the man I choose for a husband. I would rather I live with a mistake that I have made, than one made for me by my father. Do you not agree?”

“Well…” Bianca started.

“Exactly, I refuse to live like my sisters, Emerald and Pearl. Their lives are so boring, where is the adventure in having father choose the one you spend the rest of your life with.”

Bianca gaped again, but her tongue was yet again not swift enough for Ruby’s, she had the thought pattern of a waterfall, constant and loud.

“I mean why do I have to choose now, why can’t I travel the lands like my brother, or have a suitor in every land and visit each one in a different season, like the Duchess of Maryland,” she turned and wiggled her brow playfully at her astonished friend. She laughed.

“Would you Look at your face Bianca, you do not really think I would do such a thing?”

Bianca took her time in answering, giving Ruby ample time to cut her off if she wanted, “the more you go on, the more I doubt.”

Ruby grinned, she was the most beautiful of the king’s daughters, and that was saying much, because each one of the princesses of All were gloriously beautiful, yet so different from each other. Ruby had skin like the the chocolate filled truffles they often gave out at the harvest ball each year, with red curly hair, often untamed like the fire mares that dwelled in the mountains, quite the contrast against her dark skin.

“Look Ruby,” Bianca continued, “your father is a very wise man, I am sure he has a reason for the way he is with you.”

“A reason?” Ruby snapped, “for locking up this poor blue bird in this tower of stone!”

She flung herself on her bed and threw her arm over her eyes dramatically. Bianca rolled hers. Ruby propped herself up on her elbows and looked solemnly at her friend, “all I did Biana was suggest the Prince of the Kingdom of Fisswhirl for a suitor. That is all, and he got so angry, he locked me up with his goons at my door like I am some prisoner.”

“What did you expect, you threatened to go beyond the gates and find the prince yourself. We’ve been at war with that kingdom for ages why would you even suggest that…”

Tap, tap, tap. They both turned to the heavy wooden doors that held her captive.

“Must be dinner time,” Ruby said sarcastically, rising from her bed to get the door.

The tapping was getting incessant. She swung the door wide open, her royal pout in place and glared at the soldiers standing there. The one with his fist still raised, did not refrain from hiding his displeasure.

“Your royal highness, we are here to inform you that meal time will be at seven tonight. The king requests your presence.”

Ruby nodded, but her gaze was trained on the handsome young man still dressed in the metal breastplate uniform they wore for palace ceremonies. He stood in the backgroud, shadowing the disgruntled messenger, his dark eyes holding hers. She remembered him from this year’s Seed festival, when he was assigned to guard her youngest sister, he couldn’t keep his eyes off her then, just as he couldn’t now. He winked at her. Ruby blushed despite herself, he was way too handsome to be a soldier, he had the features of a prince, of a royal.

“Did you hear what I said?”

The soldier before her was glaring at her, his blue eyes searing through her unpleasantly.

“Of course,” she bristled. She lifted her chin and shut the door in his face.

Chapter 2

 

Meal time with her family dragged to an end, it consisted mostly of the sounds of chewing, metal utensils scrapping ceramic and her fathers disapproving glare in her direction. Her younger sisters had tried to lighten the air with funny stories from their day. Diamond, who was the youngest of them, was completely unaware of her older sister’s latest rebellion. She stared at them with her big dark eyes that were always full of wonder, expecting her father to entertain them as he usually did, with tales of his youth. But the king was in no mood tonight. So they all returned to their rooms, disappointed and staring daggers at Ruby, the only person capable of making their father quiet at dinner time.

As she rose to leave, the sour-faced soldier stepped forward to dutifully escort her to her room. She lifted her hand to stop him, her gaze travelling to his handsome shadow.

“If I must be treated like a prisoner, I would rather him as an escort. He is much more pleasant,” she said with a smirk. Robotically, the blue eyed sour-puss stepped back and motioned for his colleague to come forward. The young man stepped toward her with an eagerness that made Ruby smile widely, and swept his hand before her.

“After you, your highness.”

He walked beside her along the stone hallway, his smirk growing wider.

“What have you to say?” she asked, batting her long lashes the way she imagined the duchess of Maryland would.

“Oh nothing, just wondering what a beauty such as yourself could have done to make the king so upset.”

She smiled, she liked his voice, it was like a soothing water Brooke, “what is your name soldier?”

“Serin of the West Territory,” he replied, his brown eyes holding hers.

“Come look at the stars with me Serin.”

“Oh but my orders are…” he sputtered.

She lifted a hand, “you don’t seem like the kind to follow orders,” she said, a daring look in her dark brown pools.

He smirked, “how is it that you know me so well.”

She slipped her arm through his and leaned against his shoulder, “because you and I, we are not much different.”

At the very top of the castle was Ruby’s favourite place in the entire kingdom, but it wasn’t too sacred for company. From up there she could see the wide expanse of the Royal Territory. Her father’s kingdom extended to lands beyond the vantage point of the castle but she’d never been beyond the gates to see them.

“I have often dreamed of travelling the lands, visiting the kingdoms,” Serin was saying, he’d removed his beret, so his hair whipped about his forehead with the rhythm of the chilly night air. He was even more handsome.

Ruby looked over at him, eyes wide with intrigue, “and here I was thinking I was the only one who wanted to know what existed beyond the gates.”

He chuckled, “there are many who want to, they just fear your father too much.”

“Fear him? But why? My father is a fair man, he will never force anyone to stay if they wish not too.”

Serin turned to her, “and what about you?” His gaze held hers, like they had the powers of a magic wand.

“I am his daughter, heir to a territory in All, I am not as free as you to do what I desire.”

He stepped closer to her, “so you admit, I am free to do as I desire,” his gaze burned into hers.

She felt the blush rise to her cheeks, despite her feigned maturity she had never been so close to a man before, especially one so handsome, so strong.

“Well…” she started, for once in her life the waterfall of her mind had gone dry, “of course,” she whispered.

He leaned in suddenly and pressed his lips to hers, the sudden sweet invasion of her personal space caught her off guard, just as his lips denied her of the power to resist, though as she clung to his strong shoulders, she had no desire to.

He pulled away slowly, “I have wanted to do this for a very long time princess. Say that you will come away with me, and we will explore the wonders of the lands together, the kingdom of Fisswhirl with all it’s wonders,” his eyes burned with passion, even as her lips still tingled from his unexpected kiss.

“I…” she stared.

“Step away from the princess!” A voiced boomed.

Ruby jerked backward, putting a wide berth between them. She turned toward the source of the voice, just before noticing Serin’s look of terror.

It was the general in charge of young soldiers like Serin. He was stomping towards them now, his face like stone. The blue-eyed sour-puss followed him, only this time, he looked more distraught than disgruntled. His eyes darted to Serin and then to her. The general grabbed hold of Serin, and jerked him even farther away from Ruby.

“What were you thinking?” his colleague yelled at him.

Serin looked dismal, “a man does not think when he is in love,” he whispered huskily.

The grey-haired general, yanked his arm, “Officer,” he addressed the young man he’d brought with him, “take the princess back to her room. I trust that her virtue is safe with you,” the man warned.

The young soldier nodded, “yes sir,” he turned to Ruby, his gaze cold, “princess, shall we?”

He reached for her elbow to guide her away, but she jerked her arm away from him like his fingers had prickles.

“What is going to happen to him?” she demanded, gritting her teeth.

He lifted his chin, “you should have thought of that before you brought him up here… your highness,” he gestured to the steps.

Ruby huffed, lifted her dress and stomped toward the steps that would take her back to her prison, “I do not need an escort, I know my way around my father’s castle,” she spat.

Once again her father had dashed the slightest glimmer of hope that had dangled before her, he wasn’t even present and yet she wasn’t free from his grip. As she stomped down the stairs, her captor trailing quietly behind her, she began to think that maybe Serin was right after all, and maybe just maybe there was someone brave enough to stand up to her father’s dictatorship. Maybe that someone was her.

Chapter 3

 

One of the strengths of the great kingdom of All, was the speed with which word travelled. The king always believed that being open and transparent with his people would ensure that the people of the Kingdom of All would grow together like family; faithful to the kingdom and to the cause. So word spread quickly about the accidental exploit of the king’s daughter and with it was the news of the return of Jasper, prince of All. Jasper was the king’s oldest and the most valuable asset in the kingdom, so much so, that he was often called the heart of All. He was as kind as the king was mighty. Though he spent most of his time acquiring lands for the kingdom, his heart was always for the people. He had a great army with him which consisted of the kingdom’s best men, known throughout the land as the A-forces. They were strong and feared, made to fulfill the king’s wishes and no one else’s, their loyalty was to the kingdom and the kingdom only.

The city was bustling with preparations to welcome the prince and his men, although he would often return quietly if he could, the king would never have it. And so as the town was busy and taut with excitement, too eager to hear the stories of Jasper’s adventures to be concerned with the actions of the king’s most worrisome daughter, Ruby remained within the walls of her self proclaimed prison. She was still swooning from her first kiss and too perplexed by the possibility of falling in love to be concerned with other matters.

She was lying supine on her bed staring dreamily up at the ceiling, his name reverberated in her mind even as his kiss still lingered on her lips. She considered herself unworthy to experience the beauty of love so young, she hadn’t been prepared, it was all so sudden but she liked it and wasn’t this what she had asked for? Genuine love, not the stilted kind her father had prepared for her. She didn’t know much about Serin, but she desired to, so much. It could very well be that he was the one she’d waited for.

Her sister burst through her bedroom door, as though they were the portals to her thoughts, with Bianca not far behind her, they both blew into Ruby’s room like stray straw during the season of harvest.

Ruby shot upright, “has no one heard of knocking?” she asked, clearly annoyed. She fell back onto her bed with an exasperated sigh, imagining all the things she could do to make them disappear.

Topaz stood over her, her golden eyes hard, “why are you not dressed?” She asked, her brows drawn together in displeasure.

“Do not frown so much sister,” Ruby said, “you are way too young for wrinkles.”

Topaz glared at her as Bianca drew the window curtains so that the dazzling light that bounced off the precious stones on the castle walls broke into the room. Ruby winced.

“What is wrong with you?” Bianca asked, making her way to her friend’s side, “you are acting crazy.”

Ruby sighed dreamily, “oh my dear friend, I do believe I am in love.”

Topaz rolled her eyes and pushed off the bed. She too was a royal beauty, she had thick golden hair like corn husk, which she wore in slim braids, that trailed down her back. The beads she often wore at the tips of her braids clattered against each other as she tossed her head in displeasure. At sixteen soon to be seventeen, she was growing into a fine young woman, Ruby wondered if she would find true love as soon as she had, as she hoped she had. But Topaz was so rough around the edges, she was a like tower fortified with fire-archers, she imagined that the man who won her heart would have to be the bravest of them.

Bianca grabbed Ruby’s shoulders and yanked her up right, “get it together. Your brother is returning and your father expects you, all of you, to be there to welcome him.”

Ruby jumped off the bed and walked to the window, “how can I join in these happy celebrations, while the love of my life is locked up like a common criminal?”

Topaz bristled, “you have only known him for a few days, get a hold of yourself!”

“A few days maybe, but my heart, my heart has known him for ages.”

Bianca sat down in the wicker chair beside Ruby’s bed heavily, “this is not happening.”

Topaz looked at her sister intently “did you get captured by a wizard? Did you foolishly drink what he gave to you?” she mocked, clearly disgusted.

Ruby glared at her, “you are too young to understand.”

“Ruby,” Bianca started, she regarded her friend with sympathy in her huge brown eyes, “people are saying that Serin may get the gallows.”

“The gallows!” Ruby’s eyes were wide with terror, “but I do not understand, there has not been an execution since the battle of Caldwell.”

“There has not been a case like this since then either.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He was caught acting inappropriately with the king’s daughter, what did you think would happen? He is a soldier, he disobeyed orders to protect you, he broke the very vows he took, you know how seriously that is taken here. This act is punishable by death according to the law,” Bianca explained.

Ruby lowered herself onto her bed, “but father, he would not, would he? He would not deny me the joy of exploring this connection between Serin and I?”

The room grew silent, even Topaz did not trust herself to speak. Her sister’s hopeless romanticism and reckless disregard for the laws of the land often annoyed her, but even if Ruby was disillusioned, her hurt was genuine and even Topaz wasn’t that cruel.

She placed a gentle hand on her sister’s shoulder and tried to give her a hopeful smile, it was a poor attempt but Ruby appreciated the gesture.

“Father will do what he knows is best,” Topaz said.

Ruby huffed, her sister’s loyalty to her father and the kingdom was unmatched in all her sisters, she was more of a soldier than she was a princess. Although in All those where usually the same.

“Thank you Topaz,” Ruby replied, she lifted her eyes to her sister, “but I will not sit by and let him take the life of first man I have ever felt such a connection to.”

Chapter 4

 

The city was alive with the presence of the royal infantry. They entered through the lowered gates, clad in full royal armor, the flag of the kingdom flying high. The sound of celebratory drums echoed throughout the city, mingled with proud chanting and joyful cries of the people. Each time the prince returned it was with news of triumph. He conquered every battle, acquired every territory, and followed every one of his father’s orders.

Prince Jasper rode ahead of them, he looked in every way like a rugged warrior. His thick black locks, which he wore like his father’s, were held back with a string of gold and swung over his right shoulder, he wore no beard, and had the dazzling silver eyes that kingdoms had come to associate with the powerful kingdom of All. The scar trailing vertically through his brow and down to his cheek, was the mark of his loyalty, he wore it proudly like a badge of honour.

The procession came to a stop in the castle courts and Jasper alighted from his horse, his father went out to meet him, his three daughters following closely behind. Jasper greeted them all with a kiss and a trinket from his travels, his warm smile in place as always.

“I am glad you have returned safely my son and in time for your sister’s ball too,” the king gestured to Ruby, but did not look at her.

Jasper turned to the sulking girl, “adulthood is not as dastardly as it seems,” he said, winking at her, his good-natured smile softening his face, “do not look so down sister.”

Ruby smiled despite herself, no one could be angry at Jasper, except his enemies, and many of those he did have.

“Father, a word?”

“Yes, of course. After dinner,” the king replied as he guided his son into the castle hallways. The A-forces followed, along with the king’s three daughters, and the rest of the royal army into the grand dining room for an evening of celebration.

When the evening’s festivities were over, Jasper met his father in the throne room. The king was sitting regally upon his throne, a troubled frown on his bearded face.

Jasper made his way toward him and knelt reverently at his feet. “Permission to speak freely father?”

“Always my son,” the king replied, waving his scepter.

Jasper arose, “I have heard of a pending execution.”

His father averted his gaze, “is that what the people are saying? I have no such desire.”

Jasper shook his head, “was the battle of Caldwell in vain then. Have we truly reverted to this barbaric form of punishment, why would they want this? What of the boy?”

His father looked at him now, his eyes hard “the people are grumbling among themselves, because someone is stirring them up, and that boy, that boy almost jeopardized the virtue of my Ruby. How dare he lay his hands on what does not belong to him!” the king bellowed.

The doors of the throne room shook, and Jasper winced, “I understand father, he had no right. But we have decided upon a new way, the way of peace within these walls, mercy. We must ensure that the people understand this.”

His father nodded, his eyes thoughtful, “yes I know what we decided, and I stand by it. I will make the announcement at tomorrow’s gathering. Many will be expecting an execution, they will be met with a display of mercy” he arose from his throne, “the boy will be relieved of his duties and sent back to his territory to be employed in the trade of his father. He will be far away from Ruby and receive due punishment for his crime.”

Jasper nodded, “you are a fair man, my king,” he turned to leave.

“Jasper? Have you heard news of Fisswhirl’s plans?”

Jasper turned around, his expression somber, “I have heard that a great army is being readied. I do not believe they will be signing the peace treaty,” he shifted his weight, “what of our army, the general has informed me that we have an abundance of untrained youth.”

“You are well informed my son. What do you think?”

“I am hopeful, I have seen them on the training ground, they are strong, hungry.”

“Yes I have seen it also.”

The king nodded his eyes thoughtful, it was no surprise to him that Fisswhirld didn’t sign the treaty as a matter of fact he was counting on it. All did not make allegiances with darkness.

 

Ruby took a deep breath, her breathing coming in short huffs. She could taste the salty sweat flowing from her brow, threatening to burn her eyes, but she dared not lift a hand to wipe them away. She tightened her grip on her sword and mentally rechecked her stance. Her brother’s over-confident smirk mocked her. She could feel the eyes of Topaz and the grumpy soldier on her, they hadn’t taken him off her detail as she’d hoped; even now he carried a dark cloud with him.

She exhaled through her mouth, took a step forward and swung her blade expertly at her skilled opponent. Jasper evaded her every move, like he was in her head. It made her weary, but she would quicker run out of oxygen than show it. Their swords clanged loudly in the empty training room, mingled with the sounds of her grunts of frustration. She twirled in one last act of desperation, going for a roundhouse kick aimed at his face. His hand went up, he grabbed onto her booted foot and shoved her backward. As she tumbled to the floor, her weapon flew from her hand, falling mere inches away from her finger with a loud clatter. She opened her eyes to the tip of her brother’s blade and his amused smirk.

“Well done,” he said.

“Really? I am the one with the sword to my face,” she said breathlessly.

Jasper chuckled, as he sheathed his sword and extended his hand, “you actually had me on my toes sister. Next time though, focus on your opponent, not their sword.”

She took his hand and he pulled her to her feet. The ‘dark cloud’ sauntered over and handed her a flask of water.

“Thank you,” she replied absently, still seething over her loss.

“It is good to see you have come to understand the importance of control. Topaz here has yet to.”

Topaz rolled her eyes, “I get it Jasper, I am too interested in winning and winning is not as important as form,” she recited glibly as she scooped up her own training gear, “I have a date with etiquette,” she mumbled, stomping out of the room, she too was not dealing with her defeat very well.

Jasper regarded Ruby with his knowing silver eyes, eyes that always seemed to dance. It was hard to imagine them wrought with fury in the heart of battle, the loud scar on his face seemed so out of place. Who had dared to mar such kind eyes?

“Have you spoken to father?”

She smiled sadly, “I have.”

“And you understand?”

She nodded, “I do. It’s either that or Serin dies at the gallows.”

Jasper nodded, “good,” he smiled, “I have a meeting with the general,” he said, turning to leave. He looked over his shoulder, “and Ruby, it really is the best way.”

“So they say,” she muttered as the door closed behind him.

“It is you know,” the grumpy soldier said.

It was unexpected to hear him speak out of turn. Ruby turned to him, he sounded almost human when he wasn’t issuing her father’s directives like a robot. If she didn’t know any better she might have taken him for one of her father’s super soldiers.

“You should know Serin, he is your friend right?”

He nodded slightly, she almost missed it, “then you know living as a farmer will kill his spirit.”

He looked at her quizzically, there was a hint of intrigue in his sky blue eyes, “you are quite perceptive princess,” he said, his expression blank, but his eyes saying more than she was sure he wanted to show.

“Hmm hardly. I cannot seem to figure you out.”

Not even a crack appeared in his armored expression, “the king’s conditions may seem tough for Serin, but the King does not abhor second chances. If Serin shows the king he is remorseful, he may reinstate him.”

Ruby’s temper flared, unlike the man before her, she never concealed her emotions, “show he is remorseful?” she snapped.

“For caring for me?” she shook her head, glaring at him, “I think it is better that you remain silent,” she handed him her sword and turned on her heels.

“As you wish your majesty,” he muttered, following her out of the room.

 

Later that evening, she dressed in a simple dress and pulled her hair back into an unruly ponytail. She wanted to look beautiful for Serin but she didn’t want to mock him with excessive extravagance. And it was so she stood along the walls of the dark hallway, her heart pounding against her chest so hard, she feared it would burst through.

She watched them unlock the gates of his cell and remove his shackles, he looked so different without his uniform, wearing nothing but a leather vest held together at the front with laces, and baggy farmer’s trousers. The dark shadows around his lips and jaw could not disguise his stately looks, just as the dark circles around his eyes could not drown the passion in them. She was happy to know that his imprisonment had not broken his spirit, but she knew that her joy would be short lived, because as soon as they loaded him into the carrier bound for the East territory, life as he knew it would change.

She took a deep breath, he was drawing close to her now, those burning brown eyes piercing through her. She held his gaze, hoping she could communicate her remorse to him that way, hoping he would understand that she never intended for it to be this way.

“Wait!”

She winced inwardly, it was her voice that had broken into the silent procession. She took a deep breath and stepped forward, making her way to him, she could feel the eyes of the soldiers upon her, accusing eyes no doubt. It was after all her fault that one of their own had fallen from the pack. She was the spoiled princess who didn’t care about the result of her own selfish actions, though he was the one who had kissed her, she had given him the opportunity to.

She reached out and placed a hand over his heart, lifting her gaze to his, “I am sorry,” she said.

He smiled, despite himself, “I am not,” he said, leaning forward slightly, he whispered, “my offer still stands.”

She frowned at him, posing the question with her eyes. He smiled in response.

“See you around princess.”

She stepped aside and watched as they disappeared with him behind the dungeon walls, turning just in time to see the eyes of her grumpy body guard upon her. There was something behind them that she didn’t understand, no doubt he too, blamed her for this. She lowered her gaze and fled back to her bed chamber, he would not be far behind, he never was. But just this once she wished he would delay, so her tears could fall freely, so her wailing could go unnoticed.

Princess Ruby had done it again, she had put her own desires before the well being of another, but she would be damned before she let this be the last she saw of Serin. She would take him up on his offer, no matter what it took; he deserved that much.

Chapter 5

 

The sunset was one of the most beautiful sights in all the land, at least that’s what Deswald thought. He stooped down from where he stood at the highest point of the Royal City; the very top of the castle. It was one of those places where a man could be alone with his thoughts and not worry about any intrusion, not even duty could find him here, not even the princess with her fiery eyes and stubborn pout. He undid his belt, laid his sheathed sword beside him and leaned back against the steeple. All was beautiful, every territory boasted mesmerizing landscapes, as if sculpted by the most skilled painter, chanting loudly peace, safety and prosperity. There was a level of equality that reigned throughout the kingdom, Deswald imagined that that was what made the kingdom such a safe haven, bringing people from distant lands to seek refuge within its walls and to be loyal to it.

He was the first of his family to be born here and like the princess, like Serin, he’d never known any other place. Unlike them however, he didn’t mind. His loyalty was to the king, he wasn’t a soldier because of the prestige that came with it, he was a soldier because he believed in the ways of the kingdom. His parents had come here some time ago while he was still within his mother’s womb, they’d made it to the border with nothing but the clothes on their backs and his father’s book of inventions. They had often said it was because of him that they had taken the chance and escaped from the prison-like paradise that was the city of Fisswhirl. Their many stories successfully removed all desire from him to visit there, but clearly the princess and his friend Serin must have gotten another version. It bothered him that she had fallen into Serin’s web of fantasy, but he couldn’t blame her, the man had a silver tongue that even he struggled to resist.

The loud clanging of the city clock roused him from his mental commentary and he rose to his feet, careful to maintain his balance on the slippery slope. The last thing he wanted was to fall to his death from the top of the castle. He strapped on his sword once more and climbed down onto more leveled ground.

Deswald made his way to her door as he often did around this time and nodded to the soldier standing there, Serin’s replacement. He was new, not just to this assignment but to the military, he could tell this from the glimmer in his eyes and the way he regarded him with wary respect. It was customary for royalty to be shadowed by a soldier, not because there was anything unsafe about All, but the king had five beautiful daughters and nothing was more valuable than protecting their hearts. However, since Ruby’s latest stunt, her security had doubled and they were now required to stay at her side constantly.

“Is the princess awake?” He asked.

The young man nodded, his beret leaning to the side like it was about to topple over

“She was asking for you. They have been in and out of her room all morning, preparing her for the…”

Just then, the large wooden doors creaked open and the princess poked her head out, half of her thick tresses were braided, falling over her face clumsily.

She swept her long braids back, “Oh there you are,” she said, her gaze going directly to him.

She was hardly ever civil to him, he didn’t mind, he was hardly ever civil to her. It made him wonder why she was going to such great lengths to see him, he frowned at her cheery smile but quickly masked it.

He stepped forward, “yes your highness, how can I be of assistance?”

“Oh it is nothing really. Heard you were leaving me, had enough?”

He knew she was teasing and some part of him must’ve responded, but it wasn’t his face, he could see from her expression that she didn’t take his stoic gaze to heart.

“Yes, I am going home for a bit. Do not worry I will be back before you know it,” the playful hint in his voice surprised him and he wondered if she had noticed it. He had always tried his best to control his emotions on duty, especially when it came to the brown eyed beauty looking directly at him.

He cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders, “You will be in good hands for I have requested a worthy replacement,” he said in a tone that was more like him.

He couldn’t miss the hint of disappointment in her eyes, he couldn’t believe it was because she would miss him, although a part of him was tempted to hope.

“And of course, you will have…” He gestured to the man on the other side of the door.

“Arit sir,” the boy added.

Deswald nodded, “Arit here will take good care of you.”

She didn’t even look at the young man, “surely you will not be missing my ball?”

He frowned, internally of course, she hardly ever acknowledged his presence, why the sudden interest in his whereabouts, she was up to something, but what?

“I would not miss it for the world,” he replied, “I should be back tomorrow, before the evening’s celebration.”

She smiled stiffly, “splendid”, came the forced response, before she shut the door in his face, this he was accustomed to.

Arit leaned over, “is it true what they say? Is she the most fearsome of all the sisters?”

Deswald chuckled, “please, she merely has a sharp tongue and is blatantly defiant. Otherwise, she is a darling.”

Arit snorted at his sarcasm, “I hope your replacement is as good as you say.”

“She is the best.”

 

Ruby plopped down onto the stool in front of Bianca, who was patiently waiting to resume the work on her hair.

“I did not know you were so chummy with the ice soldier,” she teased.

Ruby rolled her eyes, “hardly,” she turned her head, so Bianca could start the twists on the left side of her hair.

“You will look absolutely stunning when I am finished with you,” Bianca said proudly, “we will just sweep this all up into a high bun, but don’t worry, it will go perfectly with your crown.”

“I hope so, it is my one and only eighteenth birthday,” her gaze went to the dress on the opposite wall, it was quite lavish, with its rich red, pure white sleeves and gold trim. She would look elaborately royal in it, and more princess-like than she’d ever looked before, it was the first time she would wear a crown as well, it was almost tempting.

“How old do you suppose he is?”

“Who?” she asked, snapping out of her reverie.

“Blue eyes, out there.”

Ruby scoffed, “he might be nearing a hundred, he is such a grouch. Do you fancy him Bianca?” She turned to look at her friend.

Bianca shoved her head back around, “oh please, you know my heart has been spoken for, I could hardly see anyone else. It is just that there is something about him. He is so strong and mature, and those eyes, you would think he held all the answers to every question asked.”

She chuckled, “the two of you would make such a pair, a flaming mare and a block of ice.”

Ruby slapped her hand playfully, “you will put that idea out of your head. The guy is incapable of smiling, I do not think loving someone is his style.”

“You might be surprised.”

Ruby leaned down to rest her head on her friend’s soft thigh and closed her eyes. It wasn’t uncommon for Ruby to fall asleep while Bianca worked her magic on her hair, so Ruby’s actions didn’t stop the rhythm of her friend’s skilled fingers. Bianca was beautiful and shapely, her curves and shimmering dark skin were often openly coveted by Ruby, as was her kindness. If there was one thing that had shaken Ruby’s resolve it was the reality of never seeing her friend again, Bianca was so loyal, so trustworthy and sacrificial. She was everything Ruby wasn’t. She often thought Bianca would make a much better princess, but it chilled her to think about where that would leave her.

Once she stepped behind those gates, there was no way her father would forgive her, much less let her back into the kingdom or claim her as his daughter once more. She sighed deeply, it was a hard decision to make but it was one she knew would haunt her for the rest of her life if she didn’t go through with it. As always curiosity was her weakness, she could only hope Serin was right and life beyond the gates, life with him, would be more than she could’ve ever imagined.

“Ruby?” The worry in Bianca’s voice surprised her, “are you crying?” She leaned over her, her brows drawn together in concern.

“Oh no,” Ruby replied huskily, she lifted her head from Bianca’s lap, quickly dashing her hand against her eyes, “my eyes are just a bit irritated,” she said.

“Oh,” came the disbelieving response, “well let me hurry up here, so you can rest. You need to look your best tomorrow.”

“Yes of course,” Bianca as always, knew when to play along.

Chapter 6

 

Deswald alighted from his horse and brought him around to the stable at the back of his mother’s house. As usual he wouldn’t risk tying him out front. Ryder was an Eastern Strider, a majestic breed known for its speed and loyalty but mostly for the rare gem embedded between its eyes, it was why Ryder was one of the few that were left and why Deswald kept it covered. Foolish collectors often hunted them for their gems, which they couldn’t survive without. Here in All though, they were protected, safe, of course that didn’t stop Deswald from being cautious.

He guided Ryder into a stall and unsaddled him, “is it not good to be home again boy?” he whispered, rubbing his neck.

They’d been together a long time, since his father had brought Ryder home as a weakened foal and placed him under Deswald’s care, they’d never left each other’s side. The horse snorted and jerked his head.

“What kind of son secures his horse before he greets his mother?”

He turned to his mother, she was standing behind him, a smile on her tired face. She was a small woman, lived most of her life in the shadows of tall men, her husband and her son. They were once like strong pillars beside her, until her husband bade her good bye forever three years ago.

“The kind that’s a soldier,” he replied.

He stepped out from the stall and with two easy strides was before her.

“Would these help my case?” he lifted a basket of fresh bread. It came straight from the palace bakery, she loved it.

Her smile widened, “quite a bit,” she replied, snatching it from his hand with a wide grin.

“I expected you hours ago,” she said, as they made their way toward the house. It was a simple brick cottage, like most of the houses in the Royal Territory, but it had the most colorful flower garden.

When his parents had moved to All, they had first been given a room in a small village just outside the Royal territory. It was where refugees such as they were, were kept before given citizenship and assigned to a territory based on their skill set. His father was a scientist and avid inventor in Fisswhirl and the king immediately saw his worth to the military, so they were moved to the Royal territory to this very house and together they made it a home for their son.

“I know, I got caught up at the castle.”

She opened the front door and they stepped into the warm cozy living room.

“Princess Ruby?”

“I wanted to make sure she was in good hands.”

His mother chuckled, “warming up to the job I see.”

He snorted, “barely, but the king respects me for it. It will not be long before he puts me in Prince Jasper’s regiment.”

He took a seat at the wooden table he’d helped his father build, and watched his mother prepare his dinner.

“Hmm word around here is that the king is getting soft,” his mother said shaking her head.

Deswald reigned in his frown, not only was it against his oath to speak against the king but against his better judgement.

“If you ask me, letting that boy walk is not helping his case either.”

 

His grip tightened on the wooden cup he was holding, “the king does what the king sees fit. I trust his judgement.”

She placed a plate before him, “so do I, but that third daughter of his, she is trouble. People are beginning to question his unwillingness to discipline her.”

“Mother,” he lifted his hand, “I really should not be talking about this.”

“Oh yes of course.”

They ate dinner in silence, as much as Deswald wanted to entertain his mother, he was tired and somewhat troubled. What his mother said weighed heavy on his heart, he wished people could see the Ruby he saw every day, the person she was when no one was watching. Yes, she was a mischievous attention seeker but she had a huge heart. Her thirst for adventure was her only flaw, if one could consider it a flaw at all.

“It amazes me,” his mother started, “how each time you come home you become more and more like your father. How handsome he was, and constantly brooding.”

He smiled weakly, “he often had a lot on his mind,” he said.

“As do you. What is bothering you?”

He sighed, “I cannot put my finger on it, something does not feel right.”

His mother sipped her tea, “that is what your father said the night before we left to come here. It seems like every time he has had that feeling he has saved our lives.”

“Except for the one time it did not,” Deswald added.

His mother lowered her gaze, the hurt of losing her husband still dwelled near the surface while Deswald wore his anger like armor.

“I should head to bed,” he said, rising to his feet, “I may need to make an early start tomorrow.”

“Is this about the princess?”

He turned to look at her, “it always is.”

 

Ruby drew the curtains aside and tossed her bags out the window, the knocking on her door was getting louder, she must be crazy to keep her father waiting. She drew the curtains together and hurried to open the door for him. His large muscular frame filled the doorway, suspicious silver eyes rested on her.

“Sorry father, I was not decent,” she pulled her robe together for emphasis.

“Sorry my dear if my visit is untimely, but I just wished to see my Ruby again before I present her to the kingdom as a woman, as a future leader here in All.”

Her smile was tight, she stepped back and gestured for him to come in.

“Ruby, I know things have not been well between us for the past few days. I know you think I am mad at you, but I am only trying to protect you.”

“I know,” she replied quickly, her gaze lowered.

He pulled his greying beard thoughtfully, “I wanted to show you this,” he stretched out his hand and in his palm was a shiny gold ring with a ruby set in its prong.

Her eyes grew wide, and she reached out to touch it but he drew back his hand and smiled, “I would rather you not touch it until I place it on your finger.”

She laughed, “of course.”

“Do you like it?”

“I love it,” she beamed.

“Good because I love you my Ruby, it is very important that you know that all I have done is because of that.”

She nodded, the ball in her throat threatening to choke her, “yes father.”

He smiled again, “I will see you at the ball later, shining like a precious jewel as always,” he said as he walked toward the door.

She smiled in response, her resolve wavering just as she heard a loud clang just outside her window. It was Serin. She hurried over and drew the curtains aside again, he was standing in the courtyard hidden behind the shrubbery. The sight of his eager face reminded her of why she was doing this, her father loved her and she loved him, but he couldn’t take the place of her one true love, neither will he understand.

She reached out and snatched the rope Serin tossed up to her, ran back into the room and fastened it against her sturdy bed. It was now or never.

Ryder’s hooves pounded the pathway back to the castle, leaving behind them a trail of dirt. Deswald held onto his reigns, riding high in the saddle. They’d been riding hard, non-stop since he’d left home. He woke up realizing why Ruby was being so civil to him, why she was so interested in knowing his whereabouts. He was close, he could see the celebratory flag waving at the gates, her sisters would be coming from their territories as would the governors, dukes and duchesses of the kingdom. Ruby wouldn’t dare do this to her father, would she? He’d seen the way she looked at Serin…

“Yah!” he shouted, he hoped he wasn’t too late.

Chapter 7

 

The Kingdom of All was alive with hushed conspiracies regarding the cancellation of the much anticipated birthday ball. It was an event to which all the youth of the kingdom looked with eager anticipation. The sights, the eats, the music, the dancing it was everything a young person could hope for, not to mention the opportunity to dress up and stay out late. This year they were particularly looking forward to this ball; Ruby’s birthday celebration. As she had quite a reputation for her exciting taste in music and her unpredictability and was often the subject of the conversations of wide-eyed youth. Yet again the princess had done something unpredictable, but that was all the royal city knew, for the details of what had happened had not yet been released.

“With all due respect my lord, this is a bad idea,” said the sandy haired general with the permanent scowl.

The king continued his restless pacing, they’d discovered Ruby was missing just before they were about to open the evening’s events. He could still remember the fear that had gripped his heart when her friend Bianca burst into his chambers, her cheeks wet with tears, her words wound up in her panic so that they came out with no meaning. He could tell even before Bianca was able to get a grip, that Ruby had done just what he had feared; she’d fled.

He shook his head, “General Mathis, I know that my daughter’s actions are her own and I would never send unwilling men after her, not beyond the boundaries of All. But this young soldier of yours, his offer has given me great hope.”

“But your majesty, this young man is impulsive, his temperament is uncertain in battle. Why do you think we assigned him to guard duty here in the kingdom, where it is serene. He is walking black powder.”

The king nodded, “he feels responsible for her…”

“He is emotional,” the general interjected, immediately wincing under the king’s hard glare.

The king took a deep breath and resumed his pacing, “I asked him to take a team of volunteers with him and Jasper will inform him of what to expect beyond the boundary.”

“A team of volunteers? Do you really believe other soldiers will sign up for this suicide mission. Why not send the A-forces?”

“You know why I cannot sent the A-forces. I would mean immediate war. And yes I am hopeful that there are others willing to go above and beyond their duties.”

The general nodded, “yes your majesty. In the meantime my king it would do you well to start thinking of a plan in the event that Ruby does not return. Her territory will still…”

“I am very aware of that Mathis!” the king growled, “you may leave.”

 

Deswald examined his sharpened sword and sheathed it, he was very aware of what he had done and that there was no going back from it now. When he’d returned from home this morning to find the castle in an uproar it took all of his will power not to launch out into the night after them, but he knew it would be reckless. He needed the king’s approval, and somewhere deep inside he was afraid, afraid to go beyond the boundary. But as the day wore on and tensions increased among the royal family his confidence in what he needed to do was renewed. He had a duty to protect the princess and he would do it to the best of his ability. How was it that the princess had gotten so under his skin that he thought it was his responsibility to save her from her own foolish actions? And Serin, when he found him he would…

“I heard you were looking for men?”

He turned around, dressed for duty as always was his friend Nyla. It was under her watch that Ruby had disappeared and he would’ve been mad at her if he didn’t know Ruby and even more if he didn’t know Nyla. She was one of the best in their class, quick on her feet, perceptive, an expert swords-woman; an excellent soldier.

“Are you volunteering?”

“This happened under my watch,” she said, her hazel eyes piercing, “besides you will need my help once we get to Fisswhirl.”

He nodded, Nyla wasn’t born in All like him, she didn’t come here on the back of her parents neither. Rather she’d escaped on her own, made the treacherous journey here when she was only seventeen. He couldn’t begin to imagine the horrors she’d faced, but anyone bold enough to look into her eyes would surely get an idea. Her taut brown skin always seemed to shimmer when she moved, as it did now. As she walked past him towards the counter of weapons he’d been given access to.

She picked up a retractable double bladed sword, pressed the switch to extend it and gave it a twirl.

“So when are we leaving?”

Deswald smirked a little, “before nightfall, we should have the cover of darkness once we cross the border.”

She sighed, “we will need more than the cover of darkness.”

“The lady’s right.”

They both turned to the newcomer, Deswald’s face lit up just as Nyla’s fell, one would think she couldn’t get more somber. Standing before them was the perpetually cheerful general’s son, his red hair burned your eyes and his personality burned your stomach.

“You will need an archer with charisma,” he said, twirling an arrow between his fingers, his goofy grin in place as always.

“I would be pleased to have you at my side,” Deswald said, “Nyla meet Benjeet.”

“I prefer Ben,” said the young man, reaching for her hand about to lift it to his lips.

Nyla jerked her hand from his and seamlessly brought the sword to his neck.

“Nice to meet you too,” he squeaked, eyes wide with panic.

Deswald chuckled, “I see we are off to a good start. As for your previous concern…”

He reached into a satchel on the table and removed a bulky item wrapped in cloth. He placed it on the table and uncovered it, revealing a strange looking metal object that had his friends staring at him quizzically.

“What is it?” Nyla asked.

“My father was an inventor at Fisswhirl, this is something he made. The A-forces are the only soldiers authorized to have one. However, this is the original, the very one my father used to get us here safely.”

“Hmm,” Ben poked it with a finger, “sounds interesting, but I will stick to my arrows, if you do not mind.”

“And I will stick with my swords,” Nyla added, agreeing with Ben on something for the first time.

“Of course,” Deswald replied, “This is only in case we need something extra.”

 

They rode out some time after midday, discretely of course and stripped of the kingdom’s colours, Jasper had advised them how important it was to keep attention off of themselves until they were safely in possession of the princess. The king had informed them that he would give the announcement regarding his daughter’s disappearance when he was sure they were a good distance away. It was just the three of them as no one else would join the mission, this was more than Deswald had expected.

“Sooo you know the way right?” Ben asked pulling up the rear.

Deswald and Nyla rode side by side, “we would not leave without knowing where we were heading to,” Deswald replied.

“Are you not a little excited though?”

Nyla turned and glared at him, “you obviously know nothing of Fisswhirl,” she growled.

Ben shrugged, “I know they have some of the most amazing sights, that their food is beyond anything we have ever tasted, oh and the way they have fun,” he shook his head, beaming, “I hear there is this tall mountain and people climb to it’s peak and then they slide over on a rope, could you imagine the feeling?”

Nyla rolled her eyes, as Deswald replied, “this is a rescue mission, not a field trip. If we hurry we might be able to get to them before they get into the city.”

He dug his heel into Ryder’s side, “ya!”

Chapter 8

 

Ruby opened her eyes to Serin’s handsome face, feeling the weight of his hand on her shoulder. He smiled as she pushed herself upright.

“Hello beautiful.”

Ruby blushed, as he reached out his hand to pluck a dry leaf from her hair, “did I mention that you have beautiful hair?”

She smiled, “yes, and elbows as well.”

He chuckled, and lifted a sack toward her, “hungry?”

“Famished,” she replied.

“We must eat quickly,” he said, hunkering down next to her, “we need to get moving, until we get behind the gates of Fisswhirl’s city we are not safe. Not from your father and not from the dangers lurking in the forest.

Despite Serin’s preoccupation with the dangers lurking in the forest they had not encountered any trouble since leaving the kingdom. Ruby wondered if that was something to be worried about. She look down at the apple she was about to lift to her lips and sighed, if she had stayed at home, this morning she would’ve awakened to the sound of the birds tweeting outside her window, the morning horn, and a call to first meal by that grumpy soldier. She would have a delectable spread of food to choose from and many gifts to look forward to opening. It was customary for kingdoms all over the land to send gifts when a princess comes of age, though All did not partake in intermarrying of kingdoms they did acknowledge the presentation of an heiress. Yet here she was, she choose love over the choice foods, countless gifts fit for a royal and her loving family.

“Is everything alright?” Serin asked, his dancing eyes holding hers.

He was so excited about going to Fisswhirl, he even seemed to have forgotten that yesterday was her birthday. Could he have already forgotten the sacrifice she was making for him?

She smiled despite herself, “yes I am fine.”

They ate quickly and started their journey again. Serin had gotten them both horses to make the journey easier, he had planned everything out, all Ruby had to do was escape. She looked over at him, as he rode beside her, his eyes scanning the area around them. So handsome, so strong and dependable, she thought, watching the way he kept his hand on his sword. She too had brought along her weapon, dressed practically in the leather suit she wore for training, with boots reaching just beneath her knees. Being with Serin dulled the guilt she felt over fleeing the castle, she could imagine her father’s grief, his anger and poor Bianca, she must feel utterly betrayed. She sighed, but she had to do what was necessary for Serin’s sake and for the kingdom’s sake, All would be much better without her.

“Look sharp my love,” Serin said, breaking into her silent reverie, “we have company.”

Two men were approaching them, and from the emblems on their breast plates Ruby could tell that they were not from All.

“Good day,” Serin greeted, “we are seeking…”

He stopped short, his face contorting into a look of shock. Ruby’s eyes grew wide, as she realized what had happened. A dart was stuck into his arm and she watched as he slumped forward on his horse. Instinctively she drew her sword, but it felt like lead in her hand, she groaned, feeling a pinch on her neck.

“Oh no,” she muttered as her sword fell from her hands, the men were walking toward them now, bending and dancing out of shape, she felt her eyelids grow heavy and her mouth felt like she’d swallowed cotton, then her world went black.

 

Deep into the forest far beyond the boundaries of the great kingdom of all, we find our heroes resting beneath the dark shade of the looming trees. They were about a day and a half into their journey and something sinister lingered in the air. So much so that they were unwilling to sleep a wink, not only that, but they’d gotten lost during the night and had spent most of the morning getting back on the path, having found no trace of the princess and Serin until now.

Deswald used his boot to scatter the poorly hidden remains of a campfire, his jaw set hard, he’d hoped to find them already but the task he’d so willingly signed up for was proving more difficult than he expected.

“They were here,” he said, leaning down to inspect the brown remains of a pear.

“Then we must not be very far,” said Nyla, “we should press on.”

Deswald shook his head, “they’re moving very fast,” he said, “and we are tired, let us take a break from our saddles.”

Nyla held his gaze for a moment, clearly she disagreed, but there was no denying who was the leader on this mission. Ben came over and hunkered down on a bulging root and proceeded to restring his bow.

“I have no problem with that,” he muttered.

 

The prince watched as the hunched over palace monk wheeled his seer’s ball before him, the monk avoided his heavily lined eyes as was customary and the prince averted his eyes from his grotesque frame as was his habit. He arose from his gold chair, pushing aside his velvet cloak and made his way to his subject’s side.

“What do you have for me?” He asked, barely looking at the bony man standing beside him, the prince thought the seer and his brothers were an eye sore in the palace, but because their services were always needed, it was something he had to endure.

“Look your high one,” came the raspy reply.

The prince leaned forward and peered at the ball, within its depths he could see the objects of the monk’s alarm. He straightened up, “they are from All,” he said, “I would know king Kalgary’s little foot soldiers anywhere, so much for his little peace treaty.”

“You do know that treaty will not include you my high one, especially if you corrupt his daughter.”

The handsome prince bared his teeth at him, “I did not permit you to speak. Remember, there are two more of you that would prove just as useful. And don’t worry about these… Children. The Feelers will take care of them, they’re dead men already,” he leaned forward again, with a hint of amusement on his pale face, “Oh my bad, that one’s a woman.”

He waved his hand before the ball and the image of our heroes faded into a white cloud to be replaced with another. The prince smiled widely, “would you look at that,” he crooned, “our guests are here. Prepare our accommodations,” he commanded turning on his heels.

 

Ben looked at Deswald above the tip of the arrow he was examining, “sooo, which one of the king’s daughter’s are we rescuing again.”

Nyla shook her head and muttered, “I would not call it rescuing, more like an opportunity to reason.”

Deswald stepped back from roasting the critter he’d caught, “I cannot believe you are on this journey without knowing who we are trying to find,” he said.

Nyla looked over at him, her disgusted frown aimed at the burnt animal he held out on a stick, “please don’t eat that.”

Ben shook his head, “what can I say, you had me at adventure.”

Deswald sniffed his dinner and scrunched up his nose before tossing it into the bushes beside him, “it was worth a try,” he mumbled.

He turned his attention to Ben now, who was focusing on his arrows again, and leaned forward, clasping his hands before him.

“Her name is Ruby,” he said, “the king’s third daughter with hair like fire and eyes like the rich mud of Alward Hills. They look like the sunset sometimes when the light bounces off her hair, a contrast to her brown skin and stubborn chin. She is like hot coals, she would singe the very hand that tries to hold her, but yet she is tenderhearted and kind but buries it under her temper, a worthy heir of All if you ask me.”

Ben and Nyla to stared at him, his tone belied his affectionate words, it was almost like he was giving directions to the market. Deswald was a difficult man to understand and that was probably why no one ever tried to.

“Okay then,” Ben finally said, “well let us find this red haired princess, that can singe one’s hand if touched… I will remember not to touch her,” he joked, earning him a cold glare from an annoyed Nyla.

“One question though, how is it that her red hair is like fire and mine is just obnoxious.”

Nyla shrugged, “because there’s no other word to describe…”

“Quiet!” Deswald whispered harshly, the other’s froze, “did you hear that?”

He reached for his sword and Nyla followed his lead. Ben slipped on his bracer, “I do not hear anything but I suddenly feel very uneasy,” he whispered, latching the straps of his quiver across his chest.

The low growling sound grew louder so that even Ben couldn’t deny it. Deswald started to rise to his feet slowly, his eyes darting about frantically, the sound was almost surrounding them. Nyla stood too, drawing one sword from her left hip and leaving the other sheathed on her right.

“This is…” Deswald started. Omph!

They both jumped as a figure materialized from the tree trunk and launched it’s hammer like fist at Deswald lower torso, sending him flying at least three feet from where they were standing. Nyla’s eyes grew wide as she swung her sword behind her where a similar creature had appeared, it’s hot breath warning her of it’s presence.

The creature cried out in what what she thought was pain, only to realize she’d only made it angrier as her sword had done no damage to it’s rough exterior.

“What in the…” she started just as she heard an arrow whiz past her ear.

Ben’s shot got the creature right in it’s chest and this time it’s cry was one of pain.

Nyla withdrew her other sword, “I got it!” she cried.

“Good, ’cause I’m busy,” Ben shouted back, they were outmatched but his arrows were adequately keeping the two scary monsters at bay.

Deswald staggered to his feet, still dazed from his sudden flight. He looked over at his friends going head to head with the strange creatures. It was quite a sight, it was almost as if the creatures were anticipating their every move, and even more they were vanishing and reappearing, he’d never seen anything like it. But he’d heard stories from his parents, about creatures that made leaving Fisswhirl difficult he’d never heard stories of anyone encountering them when trying to go in. His eyes went to Nyla, by the way she was handling them she must not have had first hand experience. Their horses were frantic, tugging at their ropes and neighing loudly. His eyes went to Ryder’s saddle bag, then back to the pointless scramble, he could stop this.

He dashed forward, into the fray. Heading straight for his horse, “distract them!” he yelled.

Nyla swung her swords and continued to evade their attackers. Ben got unto the backs of one them, only to fall to the ground when he stuck his arrow into it’s neck and it disappeared from beneath him.

“Nyla get down!” Deswald shouted, without a second to spare Nyla dropped and rolled, as a flash of light exploded over her head, she watched as the creature disintegrated before her, her eyes wide.

“Behind you!” Ben shouted, just as Deswald dropped to his knee, turned and released a burst of the flashing light again.

The silence that followed was eerie, the three of them were breathless. Ben dropped onto his posterior and shook his head.

“Please tell me they are dead.”

“I don’t think so,” Deswald replied, “I think this just slows them down,” he gestured to the strange looking weapon in his hand.

“Okay, I have changed my mind about your little toy,” Nyla said breathlessly as she picked up her sword from the dirt.

Deswald shook his head, “thank you, I think. But it is not a toy,” he shoved the object into his bag and slung it over his shoulder.

“We have to get out of here,” Nyla said, “I have heard of these things. They call them Feelers, no one admits it but I believe they are under the control of the prince.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Ben said as he dashed about collecting his arrows.

 

Ruby opened her eyes, she had a headache that drilled through her temples, she pushed herself up from the soft pillow and held her head, pausing for the wave of nausea to pass.

“Here, this should help.”

Serin was hovering over her, holding out a glass of water, she reached for it and drank thirstily.

“Where are we?” she asked, when she finally came up for air.

“We are in Fisswhirl,” he replied with a stiff smile.

She regarded him with wide eyes, “we were captured, are we in trouble?”

“Probably just a precaution,” he said, “look at this room,” he gestured to their surroundings.

They were in an ornately decorated bedroom, not very different from her own, Ruby frowned.

Just then, the doors swung open and an elaborately dressed young man entered. He was the most handsome man she’d ever laid eyes on, with icy blue eyes lined with dark pencil and skin like the the sun had never kissed it. His golden mane fell over his shoulders.

He entered the room, his gold trimmed velvet cloak trailing behind him. He walked right by a dumbfounded Serin and extended his hand to her.

“Princess,” he said, his voice was like honey, smooth and hypnotizing.

Ruby reached for his hand and he drew her to her feet, lowering his head to kiss her hand, “it is a pleasure to have you at my palace.”

Ruby swallowed hard, “if this is how you treat those you are pleased to have I would not like to see how you treat your enemies.”

He smiled and she narrowed her eyes, there was something about him that made her uneasy but excited at the same time. She was in the presence of the prince of Fisswhirl, how furious would her father be? Surprisingly, it didn’t give her the thrill she thought it would.

“Would you care to join me for dinner princess…”

“Ruby,” she added.

“Ahhh such a beautiful name for a beautiful lady,” he released her hand.

“My servants will attend to you,” he cast a look in Serin’s direction, “and your friend. Now if you would excuse me.”

He shoved his cloak back and turned on his heel, leaving his servants standing respectfully at the door.

Ruby exhaled deeply, it was like in his presence all warmth fled. Serin rushed to her side, his grin wide.

“Ruby do you know what this means?” he asked excitedly, reaching up to touch her cheek, “we made it!”

He leaned down to kiss her lips, but she turned her head quickly, her expression solemn her brown eyes hard, “I am still your princess,” she said firmly, “how dare you try to kiss me in the presence of servants.”

Serin let her cheek slip from his hands as she turned away from him, his face flushed with embarrassment.

“Okay,” was all he could manage in his embarrassment.

Chapter 9

 

The great kingdom of Fisswhirl was unlike anything Ruby had ever seen. She was right, there was more to be seen beyond the walls of her father’s kingdom. Yet, as she stood on the balcony of the palace, staring out at the tall mountains clothed in the pink flowers of the blooming trees, she wondered if it was worth it. If leaving her home, her father, her inheritance for a beautiful view and the attention of a leery eyed prince was what freedom meant.

“Enjoying the view?” the honey-tongued prince appeared behind her, elaborately dressed as usual. He placed a hand on the small of her back and leaned close.

Ruby took a deep breath, and clenched her fists, hidden behind the folds of the ornate dress she wore, hoping to steady her racing pulse. Every time he was near, discomfort assailed her and she couldn’t figure out what it was about him that bothered her so.

“It is quite mesmerizing,” she replied, her voice surprisingly steady.

He peered at her from beneath long lashes, his blue eyes searching, like he could see more than she showed. His blue eyes reminded him of her grumpy body guard, what was his name? Deswald. But the reminder was so only in contrast. Even though Deswald was openly ambivalent, the kindness in his eyes always seemed to assuage her. Ruby took a step away from the prince, turning her back to the dazzling scenery. She wanted to face him head on, also unlike Deswald, she didn’t feel safe with him.

“So are you princess, mesmerizing that is,” his gaze held hers with genuine intrigue in the depths of his eyes, but not fully masking his cruelty.

“Thank you,” she replied, lowering her gaze.

“I find it quite,” he paused, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together thoughtfully, “serendipitous that you should show up at my palace at such a time as this.”

Her eyes narrowed instantly, “and what time would this be exactly?” she queried.

He smirked, “a time when I am looking for a queen,” he replied almost matter-of-factly.

It was one of those rare moments where Ruby was lost for words, even though she had always thought she would know exactly what she would say to something like this. However, Serin didn’t even cross her mind, it was the look on her father’s face the last time she’d seen him, the ring he’d fashioned for her held out in his burly hand. She blinked rapidly, lifting a hand to calm the panicked fluttering in her stomach.

The prince walked around her like a vulture, once again adding to her unease, “we have an annual three day celebration coming up and my intention was to announce my desire to find a bride. But with you here, I am hoping to make a different announcement,” he smiled sweetly, “no need to give me a reply now,” he said, lifting a finger to tilt her chin upward.

“But I will say princess,” he crooned, “if you were to choose to stay here with me, as my bride. There will be no question as to where you belong, or what is rightfully yours.”

Ruby blinked, her mouth had gone dry, “what are you talking about?”

His cunning grin grew deeper, “I will see you at dinner… Ruby, princess of All.”

Ruby stepped back, reaching behind her to grip the stone wall for support. It was the darkness he carried that always seemed to choke her. How had she gotten herself into this, her chest rose and fell as she fought to control her panicked breathing. It was clear to her that there was no escape, the meaning of freedom here was unlike the one she’d grown up knowing. At every corner there was an armed soldier, it was so different from home, the way fear lingered in the air. She could see it in the eyes of the servants scurrying about the palace, heads low, eyes averted. At home everyone felt safe, felt welcomed, she imagined that if she were to return, her father would welcome her back, but never as a princess, never as his daughter.

Serin stepped out onto the balcony, a worried look on his chiseled face, “there you are. Are you alright?”

He closed the distance between them in seconds, reaching up to take hold of her shoulders, “you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

She lifted watery eyes to his, “Serin what have we done? This place… it’s… chilling. The prince, he frightens me!”

Serin nodded, “I get it, it is a new place. You just have to give yourself time to get used to it. That is all.”

“He asked me to marry him,” she blurted.

Serin’s eyes widened, “oh, but surely you told him about us.”

“I did not. He frightens me Serin and I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“He cannot hurt me. I am still a citizen of All, an officer of the court.”

“Serin you fool!” She turned away from him sharply, throwing up her hands in exasperation, “none of that matters here, not even the fact that I am king Kalgary’s daughter.”

Serin stepped behind her, placing his hand on her upper arm, “we will be fine. If you want to return to All. I will take you there,” he whispered soothingly, “the king will not punish you…”

She turned to him now, her brown eyes soft with affection. The reality of his statement lingered in the air, the king may not punish her, but Serin’s fate wouldn’t be as sure. He really did love her.

“I have something that I must tell you.”

 

Ben peered from behind the bushes where they’d been hiding for the last hour, “do you think she got caught?” he whispered frantically.

Deswald looked over at him wearily, he had not slept a wink in three days and it was beginning to take a toll on him, he leaned back against a rugged three trunk.

“She will be back, it has only been an hour,” he replied.

“How long does it take to get some clothes.”

They heard a twig snap, it was probably Nyla returning from the city, but they weren’t taking any chances, not since their encounter with the Feelers. Deswald placed a hand on his sword and Ben withdrew his dagger.

Nyla emerged from the shadows, “what are you going to do with that?” she mocked, gesturing to Ben’s small dagger, “prick me to death?”

Ben rolled his eyes, just as Deswald jumped to his feet and drew his sword, “Nyla there is someone behind you?” he shouted as a tall figure emerged from behind her.

She didn’t flinch though, instead she lifted a hand, “it is okay, he is with us.”

Deswald frowned, “with us?”

The figure stepped into the silver moonlight now, a tall rugged looking man, with locked hair much like Allian fashion, he walked toward them.

“I am Stiller,” he said, his voice was as deep as thunder, and the hand he extended was large enough to snap Deswald’s with little effort, “prince Jasper informed me of your coming.”

Deswald reached for his hand and shook it briefly, “how do you know the prince?”

“I was once a part of his regiment,” Stiller replied, his expression unreadable.

Ben stepped forward, “since the last war only A-forces march with prince Jasper!”

The man nodded, “I did not say it was when he was commander, we were fellow soldiers, colleagues. You can trust me, ask Nyla.”

Nyla nodded, “he helped me escape many years ago. I would trust him with my life.”

Deswald nodded, “then it is an honour sir.”

“You all are very brave for taking on such a mission,” Stiller said, “the forest is infested with Feelers and the soldiers who patrol are merciless. The sooner we get out of here the better, come on.”

Nyla tossed them their clothes and they took off after the stranger. Ben eased his way beside her as Deswald and the new comer walked ahead.

“Are you sure we can trust him? If he is loyal to the prince, what is he doing in these parts.”

Nyla shrugged, “you surprise me Ben. For a general’s son there is a lot you do not know about your own kingdom. You should ask him.”

Ben looked at her wide eyed, “me? Have you seen the guy, he could stomp me like a bug.”

“Maybe if you stopped acting like one, you would not have to be worried about being treated like one.”

“Cruel woman,” he muttered. Nyla chuckled.

“Do not mind me Ben,” she said, with strange warmth injected into her husky voice. Ben narrowed his eyes.

Nyla turned to look at him, and in the faint light of the moon he saw something he hadn’t noticed before; a look of respect.

“I have not thanked you for having my back with the Feelers. You are a good soldier and a loyal friend,” she tossed her head in the direction of Deswald.

Ben averted his eyes, suddenly interested in their surroundings, “ah well, let us not assume this is all about loyalty.”

Nyla frowned, “what do you mean?”

But before Ben could answer, Deswald turned and gestured for them to get down. They hunched down and scurried to meet Deswald and Stiller where they stooped behind a stone wall dressed in vines.

Deswald was frantically throwing on the strange looking tunic Nyla had brought for him. Ben hurriedly followed suit. Nyla had already changed and was looking less like a fierce soldier and more like a vulnerable girl.

Stiller turned to them, “now listen, if anyone asks you are merchants from the lower territory here for the quarterly celebrations. Things are different here, the king has eyes all over this city and any sign of disloyalty is punishable by death. Do not look the patrollers in the eyes, nor the royals, they will not be hard to identify. Also if you are offered any colorful sweets, take it, but whatever you do, do not eat it,” Stiller’s eyes went right to Ben, who nodded jerkily.

“Ready?”

“Lead the way Stiller,” Deswald replied.

 

Stiller led them through a narrow track in the royal city, this was after he’d pushed open a stone door hidden in the vine covered wall. The buildings were quite different to those at All, they hovered above them on rounded pillars like stilts, with decorative markings etched into the stone.

“Where do they keep their horses?” Ben asked, the intrigue in his voice was hard to miss. He looked about him with wide eyes like he was on a nature tour and not sneaking into an enemy city.

“Peasants horses are kept together in a general stable,” Stiller rumbled, “it is a good way to keep track of us.”

“Oh” Ben nodded, deciding against voicing his other questions. Stiller didn’t seem like the conversational type. They’d left their own horses hidden in the woods, having been assured by their tour guide that they would be safe.

As far as Ben was concerned, he’d given them no reason to trust him, and by the way Deswald kept fingering his sword he must’ve felt the same way.

“We are here,” said Stiller.

They followed him up the steep steps at the side of the building into the toasty lodging.

One lantern burned in the middle of the small room and as they entered, it moved toward them.

“What took you so long?”

The lantern cast its yellow light on the soft worried eyes of a woman. Stiller shut the odd door behind them and eased his way toward the woman with the lantern. They watched as he pulled her into an embrace, and exchanged uncomfortable glances.

Stiller turned to them now, his arm still draped across the woman’s shoulders “sorry for the low light, but we are trying to keep a low profile. I would like you all to meet my wife Stacia.”

Stacia extended a plump hand toward them and they each shook it, nodding amiably.

“Thank you for letting us into your home ma’am,” Deswald said.

The woman smiled widely, “it is always a pleasure, we don’t get people from All often,” she leaned toward them and winked.

“It gets quite lonely.”

They chuckled.

“Come, you all must be in need of a bath, food and a warm bed.”

Stiller’s eyes went to Deswald, seeming to sense his hesitation, “there is not much to be done tonight. Rest up and get refreshed. Tomorrow, the city will be hectic with the start of the three day celebration, perfect for what we intend to do.”

 

Ruby watched as Serin made another trip across the room, his fingers tapping his chin as he muttered to himself.

“I am sorry,” she said, she couldn’t seem to stop apologizing, “I should have told you sooner, before we got here. But I thought we had more time…”

Serin shook his head, “do not worry about it, if I were you I would not go about talking about that either. Do you think that others in the kingdom know about you and your sisters?”

Ruby lowered her gaze, the truth about the circumstances surrounding her birth was finally out in the open. All her life it had hovered over her and her sisters, neither of them had ever wished to speak of it. It was one of the kingdom’s well kept secrets and sensibly so.

“Yes, but only those on the royal committee, that is it. My father must have thought it best.”

“Ruby, you know what this means. If your relationship with the king was merely political, then there is nothing stopping him from getting someone else to take your place as heiress to the East territory.”

Ruby closed her eyes briefly, losing a father, a family should not be so easy, but it was all she could’ve thought about for a while now because her family wasn’t like others. Did she really belong in All? Was she really worthy to be called princess? She was the king’s daughter because he must’ve looked upon her in her infancy and pitied her, if pity had eventually turned into love, she wonder if it was enough now.

“I am counting on it,” she said finally, opening her eyes to Serin’s.

Serin took a step toward her, frowning, “this was your plan all along?”

“Not really….” She started.

“This was never about me was it, never about seeing the world?”

Ruby got to her feet, “yes it was. I never thought leaving All was a possibility, not until you showed me how possible it was,” she took a step toward him and reached out to grab his arms.

He was glaring at her now, “you used me, and now you’re going to switch me out for the prince of Fisswhirl!”

“No!” She snapped, “never, I would never choose that silver-tongued, entitled brute over you. I.. I am completely and totally enamored with you,”

She watched his brown eyes soften, and he reached up to cup her face with his hands.

“Can you still love me, even if I am no longer a princess?”

“I do not care whose daughter you are,” he growled with passion, “you will always be a princess to me,” and with that he lowered his lips to hers, taking her back to that first moment where he’d boldly kissed her atop the castle with the countless stars as witnesses.

“Well this is interesting,”

Both Ruby and Serin turned suddenly to the door, where the prince now stood, his trimmed brows raised in intrigue.

“I know this is your palace, but do you not knock?” Ruby said, masking her embarrassment with a glower.

The prince smirked, “I do love a fiery woman,” he said, “but it seems like this peasant has bested me.”

Serin glared at him and Ruby reached over and took his hand. This was another thing she disliked about this place, in All there were no peasants, just people. She narrowed her eyes at the prince’s self assured grin, he didn’t appear put out by the fact that Serin had Ruby’s heart and it bothered her, made the hair on her forearms stand on end.

The prince looked at Serin, his eyes gleaming with mischief, “Serin is it? A word please.”

As Serin stepped forward, Ruby tugged on his hand and he turned to smile at her, trying to reassuring her that he would be fine, but the chill Ruby felt down her spine made it hard to believe that. She released his hand and watched as the love of her life followed the cunning prince, shutting the heavy door behind him. She lowered herself to the cushioned seat and released a ragged breath, things were getting way out of hand and she was afraid she had no plan B.

Chapter 10

 

She tiptoed down the dark hall, dashed across the archway like a fleeting shadow, pressing her back against the stone wall, as she held her breath. The shuffling feet of tired soldiers dragged by her, grumbling to themselves about matters that were of no interest to the foreigner lurking in the shadows of the palace. She peered down the hallway, noting its isolation, then slithered along the wall to Serin’s bed chamber. This was hardly appropriate behavior for a princess, but since Serin left with the prince the night before she hadn’t seen him. Each time she tried to reassure herself that he was alright she would see the prince’s slimy smile, mischief dancing in his icy eyes.

She knocked lightly on the wooden door, pressing her ear to it. Deadening silence greeted her. She took a deep breath and tried the door knob, and felt the heavy door give way, she tossed a cautious glance across her shoulder and slipped in, easing the door shut.

“Feisty and inquisitive,” came the cunning croon she’d grown to dislike.

She took a deep breath and turned to face the prince. He sat on a wooden chair across the room, a black cat laid contently on his lap, looking directly at her like they were old acquaintances.

“I can explain,” she started.

He lifted his heavily ringed hand, “you hardly seem like the kind to seek after a late night rendezvous with a lover, but you need not explain anything to me. People come to Fisswhirl for many different reasons, as long as I offer those freedoms, it is fine by me.”

He rose from his seat, causing the cat to jump from his lap onto the window sill, from there it peered at Ruby with eyes so much like its master.

“I… Assure you…” Ruby stuttered, “I was only worried about Serin.”

The prince chuckled, “worried? What in the world do you think happened to him?”

Ruby held his piercing gaze, “I do not know, I do not know enough about you to ascertain exactly what you are capable of, but I have seen enough to know that it is nothing I am used to nor like.”

The prince cackled, the loud open mouthed guffaw didn’t suit his youthful face, but a lot of things didn’t. Ruby had an idea why, her thoughts returning to that moment earlier today when she’d accidentally stumbled upon the most grotesque looking version of a human she’d ever laid eyes on.

“Having a guest from All in my palace is proving to be quite a nuisance after all,” he said when he’d sobered, “you have not been here a good week and you are already passing judgment on the way I run my kingdom,” he drew uncomfortably close to her, his blue eyes like silver steel.

“Tell me princess have you reconsidered my offer, or are your loyalties still with the just and powerful king of All,” he spat.

Ruby took a step back, “I have never laid down my loyalties, especially to exchange them for the kind of evil that you are. Now I understand why my father would never join forces with the likes of you,” she hissed.

The prince’s eyes grew wide as his pale face flooded crimson, “your father?” he snapped, grinding his teeth. She could see him reigning in his anger.

“You have been poking your head where it does not belong Ruby of All,” he sneered, “of all the things you are, smart is not one of them. You do not disrespect the one who has the power to end your very existence,” he hissed.

“You have no such power!” she snapped.

He chuckled maniacally as he walked to the door and yanked it open.

“Lock her up!” he commanded, with fury in his eyes.

Ruby glared at him, but then her gaze shifted to the soldier now standing in the door way, and her countenance fell as her eyes took in his attire. Clad in the uniform of a Fisswhril officer, lifting apologetic eyes to her was Serin.

“I am sorry Ruby, but there is no place for me in All.”

He stepped toward her, Ruby didn’t miss the flash of pleasure in the cruel prince’s eyes as the man she loved locked shackles on her hands.

 

Deswald woke up to the sound of an awakened city and bright light streaming through a crack in the heavy curtains hanging in the window. He tossed the covers aside and got to his feet, it was so unlike him to oversleep.

“Ben get up,” he commanded, as he made his way to the window.

He peered out at the busy streets of the royal city of Fisswhirl, it wasn’t unlike All, except for the people clad in dirty worn clothing scurrying through the streets like ants. He pressed his lips together, his parents had grown up here and he would have too, if they hadn’t escaped while he’d rested in his mother’s womb, safe from all they had to endure, free from all the worry and fear they’d had to carry for his sake. He could have family here, cousins, uncles, aunts, maybe even grandparents, if he wasn’t so bound by his loyalty to the king and his concern for the princess he might’ve been tempted to seek them out. His father was an Arnell, of royal heritage, he’d worked as a scientist for the army, until he could no longer stomach the schemes of the prince, the prince who never grew old.

“Oh Ruby, I hope he has not laid a finger on you,” he whispered, resting his head against the window frame.

He turned to the immobile lump next to the cot he’d just vacated, “Ben come on man, we have got to get a move on!”

He rolled his eyes and went to the sleeping lump, but when he drew back the covers there was no one there. He might’ve concluded that Ben had awoken before him and was outside waiting for him if it wasn’t for the carefully placed pillows. Ben wanted him to believe he was beside him.

Deswald pulled on his merchant’s garb hurriedly and dashed out of the room, his heart pounding.

“Nyla!” He shouted as he entered the cozy living area of the Stiller’s home, still pulling on his tunic.

The older couple and a frowning Nyla looked up at him from the small dining table, brows raised quizzically at his boisterous interruption to their quiet first meal.

“Where is Ben?” he inquired, the urgency in his voice was enough to get their attention.

Nyla got up, her locked hair was piled high atop her head into a neat bun, giving her the appearance of a delicate damsel rather than a trained soldier.

“He is not still in bed?” she asked, concern etched into her face.

“He is gone,” Deswald announced.

Stiller slammed his fist against the table top, making the dishes do a little jump along with his amiable wife.

“I know I smelled weakness on that one,” he grumbled.

“What do you mean?” Nyla questioned.

Stiller got to his feet, “many who come to Fisswhirl are captured by its charms, it is like the music of a siren that draws sailors to their death. Not many have the strength to resist it, it is why we are here. We act as a liaison between those wanting to leave and the kingdom of All and we often lose many who are too enslaved by the dark magic of prince Haddin.”

His wife, Stacia lowered her head, “such a lovely young man,”

“No!” Deswald exclaimed, “we have to find him, convince him to return with us, just as we intend to do with Ruby!”

“Oh it is Ruby now?” Nyla regarded him with raised brows.

He waved her off, noting his own slip of the tongue with much chagrin, “Ben is the general’s son, we cannot return without him.”

Stiller regarded him sympathetically, “has it occurred to you that this was your friend’s plan all along, to use you as an excuse to run away from All. Many have done it, many find Fisswhirl more satisfying, but are too cowardly to admit it.”

Deswald turned to Nyla, “Nyla you know Ben, tell them he would not do such a thing. He probably just wondered off, he does things like that.”

Nyla sighed, her eyes saying that she too doubted Ben’s initial motives, yet when she spoke, her words betrayed the truth in her eyes, “Deswald is right. We should find him, there has to be an explanation. At least one we can bring back to his father.”

Stiller turned his back to them and hunched over the wooden counter, “this will set us back. The princess is our first priority and I have received word that she is a guest at the palace. There is no way we will have time to look for Ben after we get to her.”

“Then we get Ben first,”

Stiller turned to face him with raw aggravation in his dark eyes, “there is no time. The festival is already in full swing and the royals do not celebrate with peasants. We have one window to get in among them, we spoke about this. Who knows who your friend will spill his guts to about our plans. Staying beyond tonight could prove detrimental.”

Deswald drew his hand down the length of his face, “then we split up,” he said matter of factly, “you and Nyla will search for Ben and I will go in to find the princess.”

Stiller grumbled, he clearly did not like the idea, but it was obvious that there was no talking them out of this. He walked over to a wooden chest across the room, raised the heavy lid and withdrew a black mask with dark feathers and tossed it on the table.

“You will need this. Not only is it required for this festival but it will keep your identity safe and conceal your reactions to the sights you will encounter.”

Deswald picked up the mask, running his thumb across the velvety material, “my parents have told me stories,” he said.

Stiller smirked, “you are a brave lad, but you grew up within the walls of All, no amount of stories can prepare you for the level of evil that exists in this place.”

 

King Kalgary sat upon his throne, staring out into space. It felt like ages since he’d laid eyes on his daughter, and though he presented a front to his officers of the court, each day he woke up and she was not safely within the walls of his castle his heart broke afresh. News was circulating throughout the kingdom and people were adding their own theories regarding Ruby’s disappearance, some of them were so close to the truth that it had his officials grinding their teeth demanding that the king do something quickly. Unfortunately for them, all he could think of doing was getting his daughter back.

“Your majesty!” in came his chief official, walking stiffly toward the throne in his overly important demeanor. Just yesterday he was introduced to the mother of the brave soldier who had volunteered to go in after Ruby. If more of his soldiers were like this he would be a happy king. Yet he wasn’t particularly pleased to relay the news to the boy’s mother that he had gone willingly into the place she’d tried to save him from, but Deswald was strong willed and given what he knew about prince Haddin, that would be his greatest weapon and Ruby’s as well.

He blinked quickly, drawing himself out of his reverie, “yes Gladis,” he said to the thin man now kneeling before him.

“Your daughter is here,” the man announced.

The king shot to his feet, “Ruby?” he asked excitedly.

“I apologize your majesty…” the man sputtered, just as a woman entered through the side door.

“I know I am not the daughter you are expecting father, but I hope that I will do for now.”

King Kalgary’s eyes shone with pride as the tall light-blonde haired princess stepped before him, the concern in her green eyes betraying her smile.

“Pearl!” he exclaimed, “my beautiful child.”

She hurried into his outstretched arm and clung tightly to him, “Oh father, I came as soon as I heard,” she cried.

Stepping back to look at him, “you know what is the cause of all this,” she said with surety.

“Love apparently,” he said sarcastically, turning away from her.

Pearl looked sympathetically at him, “she doubts,” she said sadly.

The king nodded, “just like you did,” he said, turning to her once more.

“The people of her inherited territory are getting worried. They would like to know what do you have in place should she not return.”

The king nodded, “I know.”

“I too hold on to the hope that we she will return to us,” Pearl said solemnly.

The king smiled at her, she was always such a ray of light to him, much like her mother. Though his wife’s blood did not course through the veins of his daughters she had done an excellent job of pouring out the kindness of her heart into each one of them, even Ruby.

“How is your husband and son? And the territory?”

She smiled, “they are all well. Production have increased immensely under Reeve’s expertise, I could not have found a better partner,” in her eyes shone the gratitude she held for her father and the depth of her love for a man she’d once reviled and refused to wed.

“I am glad,” the king said, “I hope you have brought along my grand son. I long to see him.”

“I know, he waits for you,” she replied, looping her arms through his as they walked out of the throne room.

Ruby leaned back against the wall, keeping her gaze upward least her surroundings make her nauseous. She could hear the loud parade outside, apparently they couldn’t bury her too deep within the dungeons of the palace. She had chosen this, she had made this decision and as she sat in the grimy prison, she knew she could blame no one else but herself. Not even Serin who had betrayed her, she couldn’t understand how someone could betray the person they loved with so much affection in their eyes. But Serin was right, her actions cost him his home even if he’d made it clear that it wasn’t what he’d wanted in the first place.

She closed her eyes and for the umpteenth time since she’d been here, tried to fall asleep, hoping that even for a moment she could ignore the guilt that assailed her or the grim that surrounded her. But this was no where near the accommodation she was used to.

“I am sorry father, I miss you,” she whispered into the darkness.

Chapter 11

 

The boisterous crowd stampeded through the stone streets of the royal city of Fisswhirl like wild horses galloping across the plains of All. Deswald allowed himself to be swept along with them, chipping rhythmically to the rhythm of their celebratory chants in an effort to avoid drawing unwanted attention. Their celebration was different to All’s, it was loud and raucous and appeared to be aimless. The Fisswhirlians acted like caged wild beasts that had been released into the wild, knowing that it was only for a short time. Their celebratory rituals included cutting themselves and smearing the blood on each other, it turned his stomach. Deswald fought against the current of the dancing mob trying to pull him into the heart of the madnes and successfully evaded being slashed until his eyes fell upon the landmark Stiller had directed him to look out for.

He slipped out from the crowd and planted himself against the back entrance of the stone building with the kingdom’s flag dancing at it’s peak and as he was instructed by Stiller, waited. Keeping his eyes peeled on the crowd moving down the streets toward the city’s centre.

The door creaked open and a hurried whisper beckoned to him, casting one last look behind him he eased behind the opened door. He was met with the deepest light brown eyes he’d ever seen, placed perfectly upon a heart shaped face with visibly soft skin the colour of charcoal. The woman,who was dressed in the uniform of a Fisswhirl officer, looked him over briefly and without a shift in her solemn expression, gestured for him to follow her.

“This way,” she whispered.

Deswald followed her through the narrow passage way, his heart pounding in his chest so hard he was sure she could hear it in the dead silence that surrounded them. Stiller had assured him that he could trust her, apparently some loyalties could be bought, while others changed from one to the other. He wondered to which category did his escort belong.

The long winding moldy tunnel through which she led him continued for a while with Deswald staying close behind the woman that could easily be leading him to his death. She finally stopped, looking over her shoulder at him for the first time since they had first met.

“Wait here,” she commanded handing him her lantern.

She then reached up and yanked a chain latched unto an overhead door, low enough for her to reach up and pull her body up through it. Deswald stayed safely away from the light streaming in from where his escort had ascended, until her head appeared through the opening, “come,” she grunted, her voice sounded strained from her bat like position.

“Here we are,” she said as Deswald deftly lifted his body through the trap door and found that they were standing in a well lit storage room.

She motioned to the mask in his hand, “put that on,” she commanded.

There was something about her that made him comply to her every request and it wasn’t just because she was his only way in. She was the kind of woman that commanded respect and immediate action just by the way she stood. Deswald nodded and pulled the mask over his head, to complete his rich merchant’s dress.

“Can I ask you something?” he said, holding her gaze.

She looked at him with those unreadable eyes, “quickly,” she said sharply.

“Why are you doing this?”

She placed her hand on the door knob behind her, Deswald could hear that the commotion going on behind it was more than likely an extension of what he’d just left outside.

The woman grunted “because your king is a more worthy ruler,” she replied.

“Then why don’t you leave?” Deswald continued.

For the first time her stony expression cracked into what appeared to be a genuine smile.

“Then who is going to do this?” She countered.

Deswald nodded, “so you are one of us.”

“Time to go,” she said quickly, pulling the door toward her. Deswald was about to protest, but she ushered him quickly through the partially opened door,

“Try not to stare, son of Arnell.” she warned with a hint of humor in her musical voice as she shut the door between them.

 

Ruby was staring up at the ceiling listening to the rhythmic chant of the crowd outside, she was thankful for it, for she was afraid that if she was left in this darkness with only the sound of squeaking rats and her own breathing she would be mad before sunrise.

She heard the sound of shuffling feet and a light lit up the dark hallway and she quickly straightened her back and jutted out her stubborn chin. When the figure appeared before the gate of her cell, she turned slowly, partly expecting to see the cruel prince, instead it was Serin.

She released a ragged breath and clenched her fists, resisting the urge to run to him and demand an explanation and demand his embrace. She so wanted to hear him say he was forced, that his life was threatened, but she knew it was nothing of the sort and she didn’t want to set herself up for further disappointment.

“Ruby,” he said softly, the sympathy in his voice gnawed against her calm demeanor. She turned cold eyes on him, but said nothing, although the chances were that he could only see her rigid figure from where he stood with his dim light.

“I am sorry,” he started, “but I did not have a choice.”

She shot to her feet now and went to him, “you always have a choice,” she said through gritted teeth.

“Maybe in All but…”

“Oh stop it!” Se interrupted, “do not bring my kingdom into this. It is always about my father forcing your hand, my father being a hard man,” she drew herself close to the bars so he could see the fire in her eyes, “but I have met a cruel dictator and you are now working for him. You are nothing but an opportunist, a traitor!”

Serin lowered his gaze, “you are right,” he said, “and there is no coming back from that, not for me. But you can get out of here.”

Ruby’s glare softened, was it so easy for him to let her go?

“How Serin? Have you not noticed that I am locked up in a dungeon?”

“I know, but the prince has agreed to let you go if you can provide him with a certain item.”

She leaned her head to one side, “what is that?”

Serin shifted his weight from one leg to the next, “your ring.”

“My ring?” Ruby frowned, “what ring?”

“Did the king not give you a ring for your birthday, with the royal signet?”

Ruby turned away, chuckling, “my birthday?” She laughed, “you forgot I ran away with you on my birthday, did you forget that I missed my once in a lifetime coming of age celebration for you?”

Serin glared at her, “well like you said, you always have a choice.”

He stepped back from the bars of her prison cell, “I shall tell the prince that you do not have it. We shall see what will become of you then.” He turned and started to walk away.

“Serin!” Se called out after him, wincing at the desperation in her own voice. He stopped but didn’t turn around.

She drew a ragged breath, “just answer me this one question,” she pleaded.

“What is it Ruby?” She wasn’t sure if she’d imagined the impatience in his voice.

“Was any of it real?”

He turned his head slightly and she pressed her face even closer to the rusting bars. She could see the tightening of his jaw from the light cast on his face by his lantern and it filled her with a sense of dread.

“You tell me Ruby,” he replied coldly.

Ruby stood still, until the sound of his retreating footsteps could be heard no more, and the dim light faded from the dark dungeon. she then threw herself onto the stiff cot and cried.

“Father, I need you!” She sobbed, “I do not understand any of this.”

 

The king shot upright from his day bed, his afternoon rest interrupted by the sounds of his daughters cries. He swung his feet to the floor and stood upright, Ruby’s cries still echoing in his head as he raced out of his chamber in search of his son.

He found Jasper on the training ground as usual preparing his men for their next mission.

“Jasper!” The king called.

His son stopped what he was doing, hearing the urgency in his fathers voice, he hurried toward him.

“What is going on?” He inquired, “have you news?”

They were all on edge since Ruby’s disappearance, waiting for the slightest sliver of good news; that Ruby was okay and home once more.

The king reached up and gripped his shoulders, “your sister is in trouble.” He said.

Jasper nodded, “yes and that is why we sent men to get her,” he replied, frowning at his father’s panicked expression.

“No, she is in real trouble now.”

Jasper nodded, understanding, “what do you want me to do?”

“Ready the troops,” the king said, “we are going to Fisswhirl and if that monster touches even a hair on my daughter’s head I will personally destroy him.”

“But father you said we would not march against Fisswhirl until we have acquired the allegiance of the lands on the coast.”

The king nodded, “that I did, but with or without the coast on our side, Fisswhirl is no match for the kingdom of All. My daughter is ready to come home, I am getting her out of there. Warn Stiller and his people. Get them out. Fisswhirl has been a thorn in my side for too long.”

Jasper nodded slowly, looking thoughtful.

“Speak freely son,” the king said, noticing Jasper’s hesitation.

“An attack on Fiswhirl such as what you are suggesting will leave countless casualties. Casualties that there may be hope for yet.”

The kings eyes grew soft, he too shared his son’s concern for the people held captive by Prince Haddin’s schemes.

“What do you suggest?” He asked.

“Let me take some of my men, a small group of us not enough to cause an alarm but enough to defend ourselves and get Ruby and the others out of there safely.”

The king nodded, his desire to see the prince writhing at his feet was not quelled, but his son had appealed to the kindness of his heart. The king frowned, his grey eyes thoughtful.

“Fine,” he said finally, “but we will be marching against Fisswhirl, and we will bring its walls to rubble beneath our feet.”

Jasper nodded, “yes father.”

So Jasper set about making preparations right away, he’d been desperate to do so since the news of his sister’s disappearance had found him.

 

At first Deswald saw nothing out of the ordinary, save for the strange looking masks and odd attire of the patrons, but then the crowd thinned and the masks ceased to distract and he began to notice other things. Things that he’d never seen in his entire life at All. There were women dressed in almost nothing standing on display like ornaments, shifting this way and that, Deswald forced himself to not jerk his head away and lowered his eyes, he’d never seen a woman in such a position, he hoped the yellow light would conceal his flushed cheeks. In addition to that there were plush looking cots all around the room upon which the guests laid, engaging in activities that turned Deswald’s stomach. It was a party for the depraved and he was starting to look very out of place, it was time to get into the palace and search for Ruby because she clearly wasn’t here. He’d committed the directions Stiller had given him to memory and was moving sneakily toward the side door when an unusual looking bird appeared in front of him, standing unnervingly close.

The girl giggled, “where do I know you from handsome?” she crooned, pursing her reddened lips in an attempt at seduction.

Deswald reigned in his grimace and instead flashed a toothy smile, “I am afraid we have never met,” he replied, attempting to ease past her. She grabbed his arm and looked up into his eyes.

“Then let us get to know each other,” she smirked gesturing to the crowded dance floor.

Deswald chuckled dryly, weighing his options. If he refused to dance she might grow suspicious and that was the last thing he wanted. He reached down and touched his bare waist, he couldn’t carry his trusty sword with him and instead he was relying on the dagger in his boot.

“Sure,” he replied finally, extending his elbow.

The girl giggled, “ohh such a gentleman.”

Deswald danced skillfully with his feather faced companion all the while plotting how he was to get away from her without raising any alarms.

“Where are you from?” she asked as he twirled her.

“From the lands on the coast, I am a merchant’s son,” he replied, avoiding her beady eyes.

“Ahhh delicious,” she crooned, drawing closer to him and running her arms across his shoulders.

“Ohh and so strong too.”

Deswald stiffened, he’d never been so close to a woman before. He reached up and drew her hands from his shoulders, “thank you,” he said.

She chuckled, “why so uptight?” she inquired, “here,” she took his hand and pressed into the palm of his hand what looked like hard candy. Deswald remembered Stiller’s warning and forced a smile and he closed his hand over it.

“Thank you, I really do need to relax,” he said, pretending to toss the sweet into his mouth.

The girl grinned, “anytime handsome.”

Deswald resumed dancing, the music had become more upbeat and he was grateful for it, this way she would have no reason to sidle up to him as she was doing before.

“So tell me I hear the prince has had a guest, is that true?”

The girl shoved away from him and then twirled back into his arms, her hips sashaying with unladylike allure. Deswald averted his eyes, their way of dancing here was so distracting, he thought.

“Oh yes,” she said breathlessly, “I hear she is a princess, people are saying they are to be wed.”

“Oh really?”

“Aye,” she replied, turning this way and that, “it is not a new thing for the prince to take a wife during the annual feast.”

“Oh yes of course. I have been out of touch with things for quite a while. Whatever happened to the… last one?” he asked trying to appear casual.

She gave him a hard shove, Deswald’s eyes grew wide as he fell backwards onto a soft surface. The girl giggled, “you did not see that coming did you handsome?”

Deswald tried to smile, but it was clear to him that he was way out of his element now and it wouldn’t be long before his cover would be blown.

“Oh yes, his last wife. No one knows what happened to her, it is not our place you know what happens within the walls of the palace,” she said as she climbed unto his lap. Deswald’s eyes were round with panic as she lower her lips to his.

“Wait!” he shouted, lifting her easily off of him.

“I am sorry,” he said, “but I cannot.”

She looked at him quizzically, “excuse me?”

“Look, my heart, it is spoken for,” he said, “I thought I could come here and…” he choked on the words.

The girl’s eyes narrowed and she sat up, “you are not one of us, are you? You are one of them?”

“One of them?”

She shook her head, “I have heard talk of it, that the great kingdom of All seeks to bring prince Haddin to his knees. There have been many people like you coming in to our cities, spies sent by the king to scout out the land.”

“Look I assure you madam that…”

“Madam? Now you cannot deny it, no one calls me madam,” she leaned toward him and whispered, “the woman you ask after, she is why you are here?”

Deswald felt his heart drumming in his ear, his cover was blown by this shameless woman, he didn’t move a muscle but continued to stare at her.

She nodded, “I can help you,” she said.

His eyes widened, “you what?”

She drew closer to him and trailed a finger down the side of his face, “See those soldiers over there, they have been watching you all night,” she whispered, “it is hard to miss one of you in a place like this. The prince most likely already knows you are here, he knows many things.”

“Why will you help me?”

“Because I want you to help me. Help me escape the wrath that is to come and I will see to it that you get your princess, the one that holds your heart.”

Deswald hesitated, but from the corner of his eyes he could see two figures moving quickly toward him, he sighed.

“Yes I will help you escape the wrath to come.”

She smiled, “come with me,”

She pulled him to his feet and led him into the thick crowd and through the side door, no one seemed to notice them as they passed. It appeared that his companion had a reputation for disappearing with guests.

 

The prince turned toward his chamber window, looking out at the boisterous crowd making their way to the city centre, he was clad in his finest robe but wore a grim expression, forming thin lines around his mouth.

The door swung open and in walked the three creatures he detested, they rolled in their ball and stood reverently in the midst of his bed chamber.

“Is it true?” he inquired, his icy eyes piercing.

“Ah yes your high one,” said Onin, the eldest of the bony eye-sores, “King Kalgary is making preparations for an attack, a small band has been sent ahead, no doubt it is to ensure the safe retrieval of the princess.”

The prince ground his teeth, “more like the swift retrieval of the princess. They intend to make their move soon,” he muttered to himself.

He then lifted cold eyes to his servants, “send me the general, we need to ready our men and the princess as well. I dare not have her leave my side.”

“Yes your high one,” they replied as they bowed out of his presence.

The prince turned back to the window overlooking the city, the city he’d built on his own, and growled. Kalgary would stop at nothing until this city was in ruins, he was a fool to believe he could turn his daughter against him with simple means. He pulled the thread around his neck and withdrew the tiny vial he always carried with him, a potent cocktail that awakened all the suspicions, doubts and fears that a man held in his heart. It had worked excellently with Serin he could only imagine what dark imaginings laid in the heart of the young princess, waiting to be awakened.

Chapter 12

 

The number of King Kalgary’s army was great and their gathering on the training grounds of All was magnificent to behold in the fading light of dusk. By then Jasper and his small band of soldiers were racing fearlessly through the woods. The sounds of their hoof beats flooding the quiet night air, determined to reach the walls of Fisswhirl by morning.

The king stepped from the room where he was planning his attack with his grim faced officials and met his oldest daughter Pearl in the hallway, her expression unreadable.

“Are the girls ready?” He asked.

“Yes father, Emerald and Keith arrived late this evening, their troops have joined the general to be briefed.”

“Very good.”

The King’s other three daughters were waiting for him in the dining area, sitting stiffly before their dinner with plates untouched.

“My beautiful girls,” he greeted jovially, as he seated himself at the head of the table.

Pearl sat next to him beside her burly husband and lifted her eyes to Emerald sitting across from her. She could see the same apprehension reflected in the dark pools of the tall slender ebony princess. Keith, Emerald’s husband and co-ruler of the South Territory, wore his usual good-natured smile but it didn’t reach his soft brown eyes. The tension across the table was thick and tasteless.

The King cleared his throat, “it always brings joy to my heart to see you all gathered together but today our hearts are heavy because one of us is not here. And all of you know it is because of her own choosing.”

Topaz lowered her gaze to look at her twiddling thumbs on her lap.

“Regardless, Ruby is my daughter and I know that her actions stemmed from doubting that fact. So today I want to make something clear to each of you,” his eyes went from Topaz to fidgeting Diamond.

“You all know the circumstances of your birth, each of you were born of another mother and father from a different territory, you are all different but I want you all to know that you are my daughters. I love each of you as though my blood courses through your veins and I will do all in my power to ensure that none of you are lost.”

His eyes went to Pearl now, “your oldest sister can tell you of her own struggles with the truth of who she is and she can also tell you of her own journey to accept that she is a part of this royal family. Ruby is on a similar journey, a journey that has somehow made a wrong turn into danger. Now I am her father and it is my duty to ensure that she is safe. We set out to march against Fisswhirl at midnight, if your brother is successful there may be no battle and the people of Fisshwhirl will have some time to live with the reality that my patience runs thin. In the meantime the kingdom of All is in your capable hands…”

“Uh father,” Topaz leaned forward, the king raised a brow at her interruption.

“What is it Topaz?”

She glanced up at Emerald who gave her an encouraging smile, “I would like to march with you.”

The king leaned back slightly, “Topaz,” he started.

“Please, I am excellent at my sparring, ask Jasper!” She pleaded.

The King’s surprise melted into an understanding smile, “my child you are too young to go to battle.”

“I know but… I have to do something,” she looked about the table at the knowing gazes of her older sisters, “I could have stopped all of this. I saw what was going on with Ruby, I knew she was unhappy about something but I did nothing. I was selfish then but I want to do something now.”

“Topaz,” Pearl started, “you know Ruby, nothing you could have done would have changed her mind.”

Her husband, Reeve, reached over and placed a large hand on the young girl’s shoulder, like he was an extension of his wife. They looked like the most unlikely couple, he was big and tall with a face as plain as the surface of a stone and she was a petite and rare beauty. Somehow they’d managed to look beyond the initial faults in their relationship and had become a model couple, a ruling team of the second strongest territory of all.

Topaz bowed her head and her father smiled, “my brave girl,” he crooned, “we will ride out together and you will stay at camp with General Mathis.”

She looked up excitedly, “really father?”

The king nodded, pride shining in his eyes, “you will be the first to see your sister when she returns.”

 

Deswald followed his feathered escort to a heavy wooden door and she turned back to him and whispered, “this leads to the dungeon.”

Deswald nodded, and stepped forward to push open the heavy door, his new found partner dashed back to unhook a lantern that was lighting up the hallway and joined him with a curt nod.

“You do not have to go in,” he said.

She shrugged, “I have been held here before, it is hard to navigate. With my help you would find her much faster.”

Deswald nodded, he still did not trust her. He reached down and withdrew his dagger from his boot.

“What do you call yourself?” He asked as he stepped down behind her into the dark tunnel.

“Evra Arnell,” she replied.

Deswald froze, “Arnell?”

“Yes Arnell,” she said, “and I know what you are wondering. But no I am not rich, I do what I do because I need to. The Arnell’s have been outcasts for years now.”

“Really, I heard you were members of the royal court.”

She snorted, “at some point,” she replied, stopping to consider the two pathways before them.

“But my uncle betrayed the Prince, destroyed a years work of weapons, forcing Prince Haddin to put off an important attack and then he ran away to All with his wife to seek refuge.”

“Your uncle?”

“Aye, my father hated him for what he did, but I could understand. I only entertain rich men for money, I do not have to like them. My uncle had to rub shoulders with them and laugh at their jokes while witnessing the injustice of this kingdom, he did not have it in him.”

Deswald followed her down the tunnel, this area was light with dimming lanterns and the dank smell swirled around them like an invisible fog. He wiggled his nose to stop a pending sneeze.

“Why did you not leave too?” he persisted. It wasn’t every day that a guy got to connect with long lost family.

She chuckled, “me? You really are not from here. It is not as easy as you think. The guards might let you pass but only because they know that if the wild dogs do not get you the Feelers will. My uncle was lucky, it is doubly hard for people as valuable as he was to escape…” she stopped abruptly.

“Did you hear that?”

Deswald perked up, he was so absorbed in the story being told by a woman that was possibly his cousin, he’d forgotten where he was for a moment.

“Someone is knocking something,” he said.

“This way,” Evra whispered, dashing forward.

Ruby dragged the metal cup across the bars of the cell once more, blowing her cheeks out as she exhaled. The pinging sound echoing in the quiet dungeon had a kind of soothing effect, it also distracted her from her desire to to start crying again. Then she heard it, the sound of feet shuffling toward her cell.

She stepped back into the recesses of her holding cell, the urgency she heard in the footsteps frightened her. The Prince must have made up his mind about her fate. Then she heard it, a muffled grunt and a low thud like a body falling to the floor. She frowned.

“Princess!” came a hurried whisper, just as a familiar figure emerged before the rusty bars of her prison. He yanked the mask off of his face.

Her breath caught in her throat as she looked upon the illuminated face of her guard, the one with the kind eyes and gruff mannerisms. She rushed forward, pressing her face against the bars.

“It is you, you have come for me!” she exclaimed.

He smiled, it was the first time she’d ever seen him do it and it was like a burst of sunrise in her dark prison, “yes of course,” he dangled a ring of keys before her, “got it from the guard,” he said.

She continued to stare at him, a familiar and friendly face was the last thing she’d expected, least of all, the face of the sour soldier that often stood outside her door at home.

He wrestled with the door while his companion stood watch, she had pulled her mask atop her pile of sandy blonde hair much like… she frowned what was his name again?

“Grrr,” he grunted, “none of these work.”

His companion turned to him, then looked up at Ruby. Ruby didn’t recognize her.

“Of course,” she said through gritted teeth, “They would not make it so easy.”

The soldier turned to look at her, his heavily made up eyes amplifying the panic in his blue pools, “Princess, have you any idea where the keys might be.”

Ruby sighed, her eyes growing tearful, “Serin must have it,” she said breathlessly.

“Serin?” The soldier asked in disbelief.

“Deswald we must hurry,” his companion hissed.

Oh yes, Deswald. That was his name.

“What happened?” he asked gruffly.

She knew his anger was directed at Serin, if she remembered correctly they were once friends. It would seem that she wasn’t the only one betrayed by the handsome fool.

“Yes, he is working for the prince now. He locked me away…” she said, stopping abruptly as her voice caught in her throat.

Deswald nodded, his eyes sympathetic. Even the gruff soldier understood her turmoil.

“Hold on a moment,” he said turning to leave.

“Wait no please, do notleave me!” she cried, wincing inwardly at her own desperation.

He came back, holding her gaze so that she could see the determination in his bright eyes, and he reached up and placed a large warm hand over her white knuckles where it gripped the bar.

“I will not leave you Princess,” he said firmly, then he did something unexpected.

He reached through the bars with his free hand and drew his thumb across her cheeks where her tears soaked them, “I will come back for you.”

She nodded, something about his touch calmed her, “hurry,” she squeaked.

“I will stay,” said his companion, breaking their connection.

Deswald released her and turned to the woman, “no, if they find you…”

“I will be fine,” said the woman, “you heard the princess, hurry.”

He threw one final look her way then took the offered lantern from his friend and disappeared into the darkness.

 

Deswald hurried through the dank pathways with renewed purpose. He was right to come after the princess after all. He couldn’t get over how she looked behind those bars, her cheeks tear stained, her beautiful red hair falling flat on her head, her eyes sunken with distress. He couldn’t bear to see her like that and his fist itched to let Serin know this.

As he rounded the corner he heard the heavy door creak shut and unhurried footsteps descended the stairs. He slipped back, placed the lantern at his feet and waited.

As Serin came around the corner his eyes fell on the scowling face of his old colleague and friend, his gaze widened, then narrowed as his lips curled into a cruel smile.

“Well of course. It only makes sense.”

Deswald jammed his fist into his palm, “thanks for making this easy,” he growled.

Serin chuckled, “It took you long enough to be a man about it.”

Deswald frowned, still maintaining his fighting stance, “whatever do you speak of traitor?”

The dark haired young man threw his head back and cackled, “you could not bear it that she chose me could you? You were not angry because I was inappropriate with the princess, you were mad because I beat you to it.”

Deswald glared at him, “unlike you Serin,” he spat his name, “I understand that loyalty and love should not be separated.”

He launched toward him, forcing him to the ground by his waist. Serin lifted his knees in an attempt to push him off, but Deswald was too quick for him. His itching fist found it’s mark on the bridge of Serin’s nose. Serin grunted and his head lolled back as the blood gushed from his nostrils.

“You were always poor at hand to hand combat,” Deswald mocked, sweeping his hand down the length of his opponent’s trousers for the key.

“Only when we have to play by the rules,” Serin mumbled as he slipped his dagger from his boot and drove it into Deswald’s side.

With widened eyes, Deswald reached down and grabbed Serin’s hand where it held the dagger. He grunted, feeling the sticky warmth of his blood flow over both their hands. He fought against the sickening feeling in his stomach, and drew Serin’s hand back ejecting the blade then head butted him. This time Serin fell back; unconscious.

Deswald stumbled to his feet his head smarted where he’d knocked Serin and the wound to his abdomen did not help things. Taking the ring of keys off of Serin’s unconscious body, he turned scooped up the light with his hand pressed hard against his wound and staggered in the direction of his princess.

Chapter 13

 

They made their way out of the dank dungeon, with Evra leading the way and Deswald tumbling after them, his arm discreetly hiding his wound as he wielded Serin’s sword with the other. It was heavy and felt strange in his weakening hands. He released a large puff of air and leaned his shoulder against the the rough wall, dragging against it to keep up with the ladies ahead of him. His vision was growing dim and fear had taken a hold of his spine squeezing tightly; clearly this was no ordinary wound.

Evra stopped abruptly, causing Ruby to almost crash into her, “let us pause for a moment,” she turned to look at Ruby.

Ruby nodded in agreement, lowering her gaze from the stunning blue hues dancing before her. Hearing Deswald laborious breathing, she turned to look at him. A grimace rested on his ashen face.

“Are you alright,” she reached for him just as he shifted his weight away from her.

He nodded, visibly wincing, “I am alright.”

Evra was standing near her now, her expression showing that she too suspected that something was not right. Ruby’s eyes followed her, she was beautiful and quick witted, but Ruby had no reason to trust her, other than her accompanying Deswald to rescue her. If she’d learnt anything during her time here it was that people were hardly what they seemed. Her gaze traveled back to an uncomfortable looking Deswald, was there something between them? She thought, frowning at the direction of her thoughts, why did it matter?.

“Are you wounded?” Evra demanded, her tone so sharp it made Ruby jump.

Deswald rested his shoulder against the rough wall of the palace hallway, sweat poured from his brow down to the collars of his fancy tunic.

“There is a soldier here…” He took a deep breath, “she will meet us back at the storage room across the ballroom… Once we get there we will escape through the abandoned tunnels.”

Those words seemed to draw the life from him, Ruby narrowed her eyes, she knew he was trying to distract them from whatever was wrong with him. She also knew that if they persisted he would cave. It was after all not like the soldiers of All to be untruthful.

“Come on…” He said, “We have to…” Another deep breath, “we have to move quickly.”

The look Evra gave him reflected the way Ruby felt, she didn’t believe he was alright either, but he was right, they were like sheep waiting to be slaughtered standing in the open like that. Evra pulled the elaborate piece she had been wearing atop her head and without so much as a question reached for Ruby.

Ruby jerked away from her, her eyes wide, “the audacity,” she snapped, glaring at the woman who was now scowling at her.

“Pardon me your majesty” Evra said sarcastically, “but here, you are merely a prisoner in need of saving.”

She lifted the mask to Ruby again and the princess shrunk from her bold blue eyes, “fine, but what will you wear?” Ruby asked.

“Do not worry about me,” she yanked the mask over ruby’s head causing the stiff material to grate against her forehead, “no one ever thinks twice about the palace wench.”

Ruby’s eyes snapped up to look at her, how could she be so calm while degrading her own self. Ruby turned to look at Deswald but he too had also pulled on his mask. The black leather resting on his cheek bones, highlighting his strong jaw and sky blue eyes. Ruby kept her eyes on him for longer than was necessary and it was only when he graced her with a weak smile did she realize she had been caught staring.

“Oh,” she said snapping back to their current terrifying situation.

They floated back into the ball room where the celebrations were in full swing, with each woman perched on either side of Deswald. He was trying very hard to keep upright and look like a jubilant participant, but the heated pain emanating from his side was growing more intense and the closeness of the princess seemed to burn into his good side.

He looked down at her, her arms were looped into his and she was playing the part of the enamored companion well. On the other side Serin’s sword was lodged between him and Evra, hidden within the folds of her dress. The dim lights were a welcomed distraction from Ruby’s own stale dungeon attire but her beauty and elegance shone through all the grime. Deswald admired that about her, she was truly a princess.

Her brown eyes rose to his then as her grip on his arm tightened, “I never did say thank you,” she whispered.

“I was only doing what was required of me,” he replied.

“This was not required of you Deswald,” She said matter of factly.

The way his name sounded on her lips sent a current from where her hands clung to him up to his heart and he jerked his head toward her, willing her to say it again. With her gaze now lowered she didn’t comply to his silent request, instead she continued to match his steps through the boisterous crowd of dancers.

He grunted against Evra’s jostling and looked over at her briefly, she seemed to be scanning their surroundings while listening to their conversation. He dipped his head toward Ruby so she could hear him above the raucous environment.

“There are others,” he said, “others like me who believe in you, who have risked their lives for you,” he squinted against the pain he was trying to hide, “you fled your duties because you were afraid, we came after you because we believe you are capable of doing them.”

She lifted grateful brown eyes to his, and something within him soared, it would seem that he was right in his speculations. Her leaving All was not just about Serin but rather she was afraid of the responsibility that lay before her. Relief washed over him, maybe she was not as hopelessly in love with Serin as she’d appeared.

“Thank you,” she mumbled, “I needed to hear that.”

Just then, Evra elbowed him in the side causing him to jerk forward slightly, he felt his head go light as the pain shot through him.

“Look alive you two,” she hissed, she gestured to the dark corner from where Deswald had entered, “you two go ahead, I will join you later.”

 

Jasper sat astride his horse and squinted at the walls of the city, he could hear the faraway sounds of their celebrations.

“Your majesty!”

He looked up toward the direction of the strained voice, “yes Ellis, what is it?”

“Come see sire.”

Jasper guided his horse closer to the trunk of the tree from which Ellis was perched and hoisted himself into a branch. Then unto another until he was as high up as the other soldier.

“Look,” Ellis pointed toward the city in the direction of the castle.

Jasper noticed what looked like soldiers being readied for battle, it looked much like their kingdom when he’d left.

“They know we are coming,” he growled, “looks like it will be a battle after all.”

“There is more, I noticed a weapon, it was gigantic my prince. It could be nothing but..” the look in his eye finished the sentence for him.

Jasper hardened his jaw, he knew what Ellis was thinking and from what they’d heard his fears were legitimate.

“Hurry Deswald, get her out of there,” he murmured.

 

The moment Deswald and Ruby were safely behind the heavy wooden door they separated. He scrambled toward a trap door that looked like it hadn’t been used in ages. She noticed him struggle with the weight of it and dashed over to help him, it wasn’t difficult to lift at all, she glanced up at Deswald. He was avoiding her eyes, something was definitely wrong, he was a pale, perspiring mess.

“Deswald,” she started, just as a stern voice called out to them from below.

“Hurry up now!”

It must’ve been the soldier Deswald had spoken to of. She looked up at him and he gestured for her to go first, just as the door behind them opened but a crack and a frantic Evra slipped through.

“The guards are on high alert. They are on the look out for an escaped prisoner,” she announced.

Deswald motioned for Evra to hurry, “a promise is a promise, let us get you out of here.”

She gave a short nod, gathered the folds of her dress and dashed toward the open trap door through which Ruby had just climbed through.

Deswald eased himself down after her, feeling like he was using the final reserves of his strength. He dropped down into the dusty tunnels and the dark skinned soldier yanked the door shut above them.

“We must hurry,” she turned toward them, her eagerness to leave was clear.

To their surprise Deswald slumped to the ground and leaned back against the red mud wall of the tunnel, his eyelids drooping.

“It seems like… this is as far… as I go,” he stammered, swallowing hard.

The look of resignation on his face alarmed them all, even the stoic soldier looked concerned.

“You are wounded!” Evra exclaimed, “I knew it!”

With wide panicked eyes, Ruby rushed to his side, “nonsense,” she snapped, her panic making her breathing come in short huffs.

“We are not leaving you here.”

Deswald chuckled weakly as his hand fell away from his side, his bloody palm turned upward.

It was Evra who rushed to him now, the look of terror on her face forcing Ruby’s heart into over drive.

“What?” She asked frantically as Evra tore the front of clothing open. Ruby gasped as the dark tunic fell away to reveal his bloody abdomen, but it wasn’t the blood that scared her, it was the dark veins that seemed to stem from the small wound below his rib cage. The dark vines spreading toward his heart seemed to be sucking the life out of him. He peered at them from beneath his lashes.

“Leave me,” he muttered.

“What is it?” Ruby gesture to the ugly branches extending across his stomach.

Evra pursed her lips together, “soldiers often dip their blades in poison. It is a special blend made by the prince.” She shook her head, the hopelessness Ruby saw there devastated her.

“It comes from the Wretchim flower, a beautiful black rose that grows among thorns. The petals when mingled with the affections of a young maiden makes a potion that keeps the prince young, the thorns make a potent poison. I have heard stories, no one knows how but he has magic of some kind.”

She waited for Ruby to get it and as she did her eyes widened, “That explains some things,” she gasped, “and that is why he wanted to marry me.”

Evra nodded, her lips turned down at the corners as she looked upon the weakened man before them.

“Is there any way to reverse it?” Ruby asked, her eyes glowing blurred with unshed tears.

The soldier who had been quiet and brooding all along finally spoke, “I am afraid there is no way to reverse it. Whoever poisoned him, must be very close to the prince and very cold hearted. It is a cheap shot for cowards,” she spat, turning away.

Ruby drew closer to him cupping his face in her hands and tilting his head back so she could see a sliver of his blue eyes.

“Deswald look at me,” she said, “you have to fight it, I need you to fight it. You will tear my heart apart if you make me leave you here,” she cried.

Deswald mumbled incoherently and she shook him, “do you hear me?”

The soldier leaned forward, her eye apologetic, “young Arnell is right we must leave him. He will only slow us down and his fate is sealed.”

“No!” Ruby cried, leaning forward to cover his shaking body with her own as if to shield him from his cruel fate.

“Arnell?” Evra frowned at the woman, then returned her gaze to Deswald, who seemed to be smirking.

He mumbled something that sounded like “cousin” and Evra’s eyes grew wide, “oh” she cried, lifting a hand to her mouth.

That’s when they heard it. Hurried feet coming toward them from the dark end of the tunnel. The soldier instantly drew her sword, battle stance at the ready, “they found us,” she growled.

Ruby swiped her hands across her cheeks and reached for the sword Deswald had carried with him. She stood up and stepped in front of him, gritting her teeth, ready to protect him at all costs.

Evra was still staring at Deswald like she was seeing him for the first time, “a kind stranger is one thing,” she muttered, “but family is quite another.”

Chapter 14

 

“Everyone! Orderly lines please, remain calm and keep quiet,” Stiller towered above the long line of stooped people forcing their way through the opening in the city walls. His eyes surveyed the area, as he reigned in the tension vibrating through his being. He had men keeping watch but it didn’t stop him from being worried.

“Come along,” he shouted.

It was then that he noticed Nyla’s over confident gait, making her way toward him in the darkness. She wore a long cloak over her warriors garb, her hand resting on her sword. Her expression unreadable as always.

“Nyla!” He lifted his hand above his head and waved. Her curt nod was the only indication that she’d seen him.

“All is well?” He questioned.

She nodded, “All is well.”

It had been a while since he’d used the Allian greeting, it felt good to be going home again.

“What is happening?” She asked gesturing to the dreary procession.

“The King has ordered us to end our occupation of this kingdom.”

Something flashed in her eyes, but that was it, her stoic expression remained in place. The Nyla he’d had first meal with and had stayed up late telling tales about the olden days of All, had returned to the safe haven of this tough soldier’s exterior.

“War is on the horizon?”

“Maybe, either way if anyone wishes to find refuge in All after tonight it would prove quite difficult.

She nodded, “I understand.”

“The boy? Did you find him?”

She nodded, the corners of her lips curving slightly, “he is fine. He waits around the bend. He fears you.”

Stiller chuckled, “he should.”

“We are going to find Deswald,” she said matter of factly.

“We?”

“Ben and I,” she lifted a hand to halt his protest, “he is fine Stiller. He wandered off and could not find his way back. His only crime was curiosity and I believe he has learned his lesson very well.”

Stiller exhaled, his chest rising defiantly in response, “do what you must. But what ever you do, do not let the trump of the King’s army find you within these walls.”

She nodded and reached for his hand, he grabbed hold of her arm and squeezed, “return home soldier.”

He watched as she turned and pulled the hood of her cloak over her head and blended in with the darkness.

 

 

Nyla met Ben just where she’d left him, hunch over and peering at Stiller a good distance away, like a child caught in a rebellious act.

“No need to cower,” Nyla said, almost smiling.

Ben sighed, “you sure? The man could snap me in two with his bare hands.”

“But he would not.”

He frowned, “what is he to you?” he asked, as he walked beside her.

Nyla shrugged, something had shifted within her when it came to Ben, he was so open, wearing his emotions in the open for everyone to see, something she could never do. She could not get over the look of remorse on his face when she’d found him, or the joy in his eyes as he threw his arms around her. As far as she was concerned her debt had been paid to him, yet she could not restrain herself from telling him the truth, from trying opening up to him.

“Stiller is like the father I never had,” she replied, “The prince…” she sighed, “I saw my father beheaded right in front of me, all he did was try to steal a herb from the palace garden to save my mother. Then I lost my mother and I was all alone in this cruel place, living on the streets like a dog.”

Ben’s eyes grew wide with sympathy, watching as she fought to maintain her composure, “Stiller saved me. I ran away towards All, not exactly knowing the way. Stiller found me miles outside the boundary, hungry, wounded, inches from death. He was on watch duty that day and raced to my rescue, saved me.”

She stopped now and turned to Ben, her hazel eyes unreadable, “this kingdom takes the life out of you bit by bit.”

“And here I was acting like I had found paradise,” Ben said, lowering his eyes, “I am sorry.”

She nodded, “I know. Now make it up to Deswald.”

She lifted her cloak and withdrew his bow, the sight of it lighting up his eyes, “think you will have time to restring this?”

“Sure thing beautiful,” he said with a wink, his obnoxious grin back in place.

Nyla rolled her eyes, but her rare smile burst through.

 

“Be careful with him!” Ruby cried, as she watched Deswald dangle over the shoulder of one of their captors.

The soldier that held her, shoved her hard, “silence!” He growled.

She shot him a look of animosity, but clamped down on a witty comeback. As they neared the king’s lair, her heart did a dip and then a somersault and her gaze darted to Evra. The soldier that was with them didn’t stand a chance against their cruel attackers, her stomach churned as what happened in the tunnel flashed before her.

Before all the soldiers had come into view she’d known they were no match for them, but the soldier was brave and she fought well, taking two of them with her. She had fallen at Ruby’s feet, a sword lodged into her chest, blood streaming from her temples.

A lone tear escaped the corner of Ruby’s eyes and she swiped it away quickly. This was all her fault, all of it. This woman, this stranger, lost her life because of her rash choices. She lifted her eyes to Deswald’s lifeless body, she remembered what he’d said, about believing in her ability to do what she was called to. She doubted herself and look how many people were paying for it.

The prince’s chamber doors swung open and they were ushered in. The thin, scaly looking creatures stood holding the doors open, grinning maniacally.

Ruby averted her eyes, they were the creatures of nightmares. The soldier shoved her forward and stomped her in the back, so that she doubled forward unto her knees before the cruel prince.

“Well, well, well,” he crooned, and brought his hands together in slow taunting applause.

“I have underestimated you princess,” he chuckled.

Ruby lifted her eyes to his, the cruelty in them burning into her, but she refused to look away, she refused to back down, to let him believe that he’d won.

“What do you want from me?” She demanded through clenched teeth.

He chuckled, “what makes you think I want anything from you?”

Ruby glared at him, “because if you did not you would let me escape or had your men kill me. Yet here I am.”

The cruel smirk on his face disappeared and raw anger took it’s place, “you are right princess, there are many things I could use you for, but very little I want from you,” in his eyes flashed a skin crawling hunger.

He turned and walked to his golden throne and perched himself gracefully on it, “I could use you for leverage, revenge, information,” he leaned his head to the side, “entertainment. But I guess the better question to ask is, what do you want from me princess?”

Ruby followed his not so subtle gaze to her lifeless guard. She had not noticed when she’d entered but Serin was in the room, glowering at her. Deswald lay at his feet, his skin now an ashy hint of blue. This was her fault and so it needed to be her sacrifice, not Deswald’s.

She looked up at the prince now, “you are right. I want the antidote for your brand of poison.”

The prince smirked, then it evolved into a cackle that didn’t suit his youthful face, “oh my dear Ruby you are delicious.”

He arose from his throne and walked toward her, where she was still on her knees and offered her his hand. Ruby swallowed her disgust and took it, allowing him to lift her to her feet.

“Heart to hearts do not ever interest me, but I do love making deals,” he smiled.

Ruby’s heart thudded in her chest, “what do you want? I have no time for games,” she blurted, wincing at the desperation in her voice.

The prince, still holding her gaze, reached up and pulled a cord from around his neck, and dangled a tiny vial before her.

“Your antidote my princes,”

It took all of her restraint not to dive forward and snatch it from his hand, “how do I know it is what you say?” She asked.

She turned to look at Evra for confirmation, but by the way the woman was staring at it, she didn’t appear to have any idea if it was what he claimed it to be.

The prince chuckled, “because Serin can tell you.”

All eyes turned upon Serin, his expression was unreadable as he stepped over Deswald while rolling up his sleeves.

“That night the prince took me away,” he started, “he cut my arm and threw me into a dungeon. I thought it was nothing but a ploy to frighten me but by midnight I realized that there was more to this cut than I thought. Chills wracked my body, and pain unlike anything I have ever felt consumed me. Black veins crawled up my arms toward my heart and I knew that I was seconds from death.”

“So he made a deal,” the prince interjected, looking overly pleased with himself, he dangled the vial before her, “the antidote, in exchange for his loyal service.”

Ruby’s eyes went to Serin’s, why didn’t he tell her that. If this was all there was to it, then surely he could have found a way out of it.

“Only the scar remains,” Serin said, “as a reminder of the deal I made for my life. But I got more than I thought Ruby, I also got clarity and saw things for what they really are, I saw you for who you really are.”

Ruby felt a chill sidle up her spine, there was more to this than met the eyes but this was Deswald’s only option. As if in response to her thoughts he released an agonized groan and turned unto his back. Evra ran to him despite the soldiers attempt to restrain her.

“Leave her,” the prince commanded, “his life now rests in the hands of his dear princess.”

As he said this, Ruby remembered again how much Deswald believed in her, how there were others who believed in her as well. She so wanted to prove to them that they were right for doing so.

“What do you want in return?”

The prince smiled, cruel pleasure lighting up his face, “what I have always wanted, your hand.”

The room suddenly went quiet, Ruby lowered her gaze. There was nothing to consider, this was what she had chosen, Deswald didn’t deserve to die because of it, but as she parted her lips to reply a voice boomed in the silence.

 

“I have a better idea!”

An arrow whizzed past Ruby’s ear and into the prince’s palm, pinning him to the wall behind him, he roared in anguish.

Ruby twirled around in time to see the bowman launch a few more arrows toward the guards in the room, his red hair dazzled her. Just then someone burst through the palace window, spilling shards of glass everywhere. A tall dark woman with rage like fire in her eyes, she dashed toward the prince and cut the cord he held in his hand, catching the vial in her free hand. It all happened so quick Ruby felt breathless just watching it.

The dark skinned warrior was at Deswald’s side now, calling his name, “Dezzy,” she cried, “come one Dez,” she propped his head up against her and opened the vial.

Ruby rushed to his side, reaching up to press her palms against his cold face. The prince’s aggravated growl rose above the chaos as the archer continued to subdue their enemies.

They poured what was left of the vial into Deswald’s mouth and waited, desperation thick in the air around them.

“Stay there,” Ruby heard the archer say, and turned to see that he had secured the prince with more of his arrows, his lavish garments keeping him captive against the wall. The young man was making his way toward them now, worry in his kind eyes.

“He is not breathing!,” Evra cried, “we are too late!”

No one else spoke, but by the looks on all their faces they were thinking the same thing. Ruby leaned forward and held his face in both her hands.

“Deswald can you hear me? I need you to fight, I need you to wake up,” she sobbed, “I need you please,” her tears fell freely now, all she could think of was the fact that he believed in her when she didn’t think anyone else did, was that he showed up when she thought she was all alone and that he’d always been there whether she wanted him to be or not. She couldn’t live with herself if she knew he died saving her.

“Please,” she cried as she threw her arms around his neck and sobbed into his undone tunic.

Then she heard it, or felt it rather, a deep intake of breath and a low grumble in his chest as his voice broke through the timbres of his throat.

“This is something… you.. do not see… everyday,” he said breathlessly.

A great sigh of relief rose up from amidst them. Ruby beamed down at him through her tears.

“You cry for me princess?” He asked a rare smirk on his still pale face.

Evra reached up and pulled apart his garment to reveal his chest, the black veins were slowly fading, retreating from his heart.

The red haired archer stooped low and slid his arm around Deswald’s shoulder, “no time for small talk,” he said, lifting Deswald to his feet with the help of the woman soldier.

“The prince!” Evra exclaimed.

They all looked up, the wall that the prince had been affixed to now held only his elaborate cloak, the bloody arrow that had pierced him, tossed aside.

“Does not matter,” said the red-haired archer, “Jasper and his men have infiltrated the palace. If we are not at the meeting point with Ruby by midnight, the king will reign terror down on this kingdom and as much as the prince deserves it, there are still many here who still need a second chance.”

Deswald looked at him from beneath his lashes, “you have changed dear Ben.”

“For the better I hope,” Ben replied, grunting beneath the weight of his friend, his eyes going to Nyla whose rare smile was in place.

Ruby quickly scooped up the empty vial and hurried after them, more than ready to leave this place behind her.

 

Chapter 15

 

It was a tiring hike to the camp but once Ruby broke the hilltop and was met with the familiar sight of her kingdom’s crest flying high in the midst of the Allian troops, all exhaustion fled. She gathered the folds of her dress in her hands and ran toward what she knew was her father’s tent, her own anticipation threatening to throw her flat on her face, it was so overwhelming.

The soldiers turned to look at her, recognizing her immediately as her red hair flew in the wind. The door of the tent parted and out stepped her father, his large frame like a boulder in the midst of his men.

She stopped short, the reality of what she’d done suddenly making her legs heavy and immobile. She held his gaze, trying to read what she saw there, anger, hurt, indifference?

Then he opened his arms and a relieved smile broke across his often stern face, “my child,” he said.

Like he’d thrown a rope about her waist and was drawing her in, she rushed to him and threw herself into his waiting arms, knowing full well he could handle the weight of her. She closed her eyes and breathed in the smell of him, she never knew she could miss him so.

“My Ruby, you have returned to me,” he said, his low baritone like subdued thunder.

“If you would have me,” she said, lifting worried eyes to his.

What she saw there startled her, in the eyes of her austere father, shone unshod tears of joy and love “I will always take you back my girl,” he said hoarsely, “you are my daughter and this is your home.”

She smiled up at him, her own tears flowing freely down her cheeks, “I am sorry,” she whispered.

He smiled at her, “I know. There is someone here who misses you very much,” he said, stepping aside.

“Topaz!” Ruby exclaimed, rushing toward her younger sister

The girls clung to each other, sobbing and laughing, overwhelmed with joy at the sight of each other.

“I never thought I would be happy to see you,” Ruby teased, touching her face affectionately.

“Tell me about it.”

“General,” the king bellowed, “bring me my trumpet,” he commanded.

He then turned to the small band of soldiers and one strangely dressed woman, who was doing her best to avoid his eyes. They were all looking at the exchange between father and daughter. He stepped forward and extended a large hand to a still very weak Deswald and then to his friends standing at his side.

“You have done well soldiers,” he said proudly, the troops responded by standing at attention and striking the ground with their staffs.

“Thank you, your majesty,” Deswald replied, not missing the exchange between Nyla and Ben.

“Your majesty I would like to introduce you to my cousin, Evra” Deswald continued, holding the king’s gaze, “we could not have made it out without her.”

“It is true,” Ruby added, smiling at the uncomfortable woman, “she saved our lives.”

The king nodded, “I see,” he said, he extended a hand to Evra, “people find their way to All in different ways, this is the most courageous of them all. Would you like to seek refuge in the kingdom of All and make it your home, be an upholder of it’s law and loyal to it’s cause?”

Evra inhaled shakily and slipped her small hand into the king’s, “For me and my generations to come?” she asked, placing a hand on her abdomen.

Understanding flashed in the king’s perceptive eyes and he smiled, “all are welcomed,” he said.

She nodded quickly, tears falling from her eyes, “then yes, yes I will seek refuge.”

“Welcome,” he said.

The king stepped aside, clearing a path between the princess and her soldier. They held each other’s gaze as the trumpet of the king rose loud and clear, echoing through the woods. It was the trump of mercy, which meant that the people of Fisswhirl would see no destruction tonight.

 

Daylight found them preparing to move camp, Jasper joined his father in his tent. His attire was one of a man who had been on the move for days and had also seen combat. He sat down heavily, weariness hunching his shoulders.

“You have seen your sister?” the king inquired.

Jasper nodded, “she went walking with her soldier.”

“Her soldier?”

Jasper laughed, “Do not pretend you did not notice.”

The king chuckled, “I have learned my lesson with that one. I assure you, nothing has escaped my notice,” he sobered quickly, “Were you successful?”

Deswald nodded, his eyes tired, “we infiltrated the city, which was a bit easy to do with all the distractions going on. And we destroyed his weapon, he will not be able to use it whatever he was planning.”

The king nodded, pride shining in his eyes, “I knew you could do this. But this is my no means the end of Haddin’s reign of terror.”

He shook his head and extended his hand, in his palm was the vial from which Deswald’s health was restored.

Jasper rose to his feet quickly, his expression grim, “Father?” he started.

“Ruby gave it to me. They used it’s contents to relieve Deswald of the poison in his system.”

Jasper nodded slowly, “what are we going to do?” he asked.

The king sighed, “we wait,” he shook his head, “the boy is resilient and strong willed. That has always proved a worthy resistance against the prince’s schemes.”

“And what if it does not.”

The king lowered his gaze as he closed his fingers over the vial, “then we deal with it then.”

 

While the king and his son considered the ramifications of the night’s events, just a little way off beneath the shade of a tree sat the princess. Her elbows propped up on her knees as she looked into the distance in the direction of Fisswhirl. How had she ever thought she could find peace there? She sighed deeply.

Deswald regarded her for a moment from a little way off, taking in her features, the stubborn set of her chin, her beautiful red hair falling over her brown shimmering skin and he smiled to himself.

“If you are going to continue staring at me like that, you should at least pick me some flowers,” she said, lifting teasing brown eyes to his.

He chuckled and sauntered over, “I was merely admiring the beautiful landscape,” he replied.

She got to her feet, still smirking at him, “will you look at that, he smiles.”

He drew closer to her until there was mere inches between them, “only few things in this world can do that to me.”

She reached up and caressed his cheek, her ruby ring glinting on her finger as she looked deeply into his ocean blue eyes.

“I hope you do not mind princess. But I asked your father’s permission to pursue you…” he cleared his throat, “romantically.”

She laughed, lowering her gaze to hide her blush, “such a stickler for the rules,” she teased, “but I like that about you.”

He lifted her chin so she could see the love he had for her burning in his eyes, “that is what you get for falling for a soldier,” he whispered.

She smirked, “you know what you get for falling for this princess?”

He shrugged, “trouble,” he teased.

She laughed as she reached up and pulled him close, smirking at his wide eyed look as she planted a chaste kiss on his cheeks “that too of course,” she whispered.

He sighed in relief, clearly he was afraid that she would kiss his lips which would be improper, instead she chose the chaste kiss that was acceptable between courting couples.

“So you do know the rules,” he teased, reaching up to tug on a lock of her beautiful hair.

“Of course, I am after all the third princess of All.”

So peace was restored to the royal household of All, the plans of the evil prince were once again thwarted by the powerful kingdom and the unsettled princess found her true love. All was indeed well, its banner flying high as a beacon of hope to all who would seek refuge within its walls.

 

 

The End.

Next in the Series

 

The Dark Rider

 

The cities surrounding the great kingdoms of All and Fisswhirl, breathed a sigh of relief when King Kalgary withdrew his troops, leaving a fearful threat lingering in the air, but all isn’t well at the Kingdom of All between the heiress, princess Ruby, and the man she now loves. The fourth princess of All, Topaz, is heartbroken over her sister’s struggle to save the man she loves from himself and the only way she thinks she can help is by undertaking a mission that takes her on a journey to another territory of All.

 

Topaz will soon find out that a remedy so simple could be just what she needed as well, when she encounters a bubbly shepherd with a dream that extends beyond his lineage, a smile and a heart to melt for. Can Jahreed’s soothing melodies penetrate the heart of the tempestuous princess? Can this odd medicine break the spell of the wicked prince and restore joy to the royal household? Even more, what will the princess discover hidden behind the walls of her father’s kingdom?

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About the Author

 

 

 

Hey, thanks again for reading my very first attempt at this genre. I hope you would drop by again and check out my other books. So I’m supposed to say something about myself here so here goes… I am an MSc. Psychology student, I am from Grenada, I am a musician and I often share my thoughts in my little corner of the internet: kapurnum.wordpress.com. Which is where the current work of fiction came from. Most importantly, I am a Christian and I try my best to have that reflected in my work and life. I hope you have been blessed and that you will turn out to be a blessing as well. This book is free as I’m really just trying to see what you guys think about my work so far, so let me know what you think. You can surely look forward to more, I hope you take a look around on my blog, leave your thoughts, or maybe even follow me on Twitter.

 

KellyP

Other Books by this Author

 

 

 


Prince of Thorns

Ruby is a beautiful but stubborn princess desperate for adventure and genuine love, the daughter of the great king of All. When she gets swept up in a whirlwind romance with a handsome but disillusioned soldier who shares her passion for adventure Ruby makes a decision that will change her life and those around her forever. Will Ruby sacrifice everything her father has given and is yet to give, in order to pursue the desires of her heart? Will she come to know the true love she is so desperate to have? What is the family secret that pushes her to such lengths? A brave soldier turns out to be just what she needs, but he may not be the one she expects to come to her rescue.

  • ISBN: 9781310636295
  • Author: Kelly A. Purcell
  • Published: 2016-02-24 15:40:12
  • Words: 29398
Prince of Thorns Prince of Thorns