Authors: KateMarie Collins
Trying to move naturally, he sauntered the few feet to the horses. He’d left his quiver strapped to the saddle. Given the tenor of Emile’s instructions, he pulled out just a few arrows. If they had to run for it, he’d need most to discourage pursuit.
Without warning, Trystian came charging out of the darkness of the tent, screaming. Gwen followed, bellowing a war cry that would scare the very rocks. Alaric barely spotted Emile slipping around the edges of the outcropping.
Alaric moved toward the opening of the tent. He stabbed five arrows into the ground so he could easily grab them, and notched a sixth. Their attackers were in range, but the shadows were still too deep to recognize friend from foe.
He heard Fin moving up behind him. “Stay back. I don’t want to shoot you by accident.”
Her exhale was more of a hiss than anything. “I can defend myself, even if he doesn’t think so!”
Alaric thrust out his arm, blocking her stride. “Doesn’t matter. And I never said you couldn’t. But I’d rather piss you off than Emile. Something tells me he’s deadlier than you.”
He took his eyes off the combat to look at her. The red hair glowed in the faint light, framing her narrow face. Her green eyes glared at him, ready for a fight. He swallowed. Perhaps she was the deadlier of the two.
He nodded once as she stepped back, eyes still blazing with anger. The light was enough now to determine the combatants. He raised the bow, slowly drawing the string back to his ear. Taking aim, he released the arrow at precisely the right time, piercing one of the raiders through the neck as he moved in behind Gwen.
Snatching an arrow from the ground in front of him, he drew back again and let it fly. This one caught the raider mid-thigh, distracting him enough for Trystian’s sword to get through his defenses.
A heavy thud reverberated through the ground behind him, followed by Fin’s startled gasp. He grabbed another arrow as he pivoted, letting it fly as soon as he saw the back of the raider. The man screamed, letting loose his hold on Fin. A sword slashed toward Alaric’s midsection, barely missing his tunic. He dropped the bow and drew out a dagger. “Fin! Get on my horse. Now!” he ordered, dodging another attack.
He kicked the bow toward her. His attention went off his opponent for a moment as he watched her grab it as she ran past. A searing pain bit into his left shoulder as the sword found a mark. Without thought, he drove forward and plunged his dagger into the raider’s chest. His foe dropped to the ground, dead. Alaric grabbed the remaining arrows and headed to the horses. His vision blurred. The world spun, and then darkness overtook him.
He didn’t remember much. A fever, perhaps? Nightmares that made him sweat? He only knew pain that wouldn’t end. And a voice that talked him through the black abyss.
The first few times he heard it, he couldn’t place it. It was a woman’s voice. Holly? Erien? Whoever it was, they told him to fight. Not to give in.
The darkness was so comfortable, though. It surrounded him like a blanket, cocooning him in warmth and security. He didn’t have any worries here. No pain, no fears. Kaerdan wouldn’t find him, ever. And it tempted him with that promise.
But still that soft voice persuaded him, coaxed him to shed the bindings around him. It was that voice that peeled away the layers of darkness.
As they left, the pain returned. Searing through his muscles, making him scream. It burned throughout his blood, tearing through his organs with jagged teeth. The woman’s voice remained steady as his back arched and the sweat streamed down his face. Hours went by before sleep offered him an escape from the delirium.
How long he slept, he didn’t know. Emile’s voice was the first one to pierce the recesses of his brain, though.
“You’re sure he’s going to be able to travel soon? We can’t stay here much longer, Fin. Gwen and Trystian aren’t going to be able to keep everything away.”
A woman answered, the same voice that had coaxed him back from death. “I’m sure. His wound’s healed. If he was going to succumb to the venom, he would’ve done so by now.” Fin replied. Weariness tinged her words.
“And what about you?” Emile’s voice was softer now, concerned. “Are you recovered enough to travel safely?”
“I’ll be fine, Emile. I trust you won’t let me slide off the horse if I fall asleep while we ride.” She chuckled. There was something in the laugh that gave Alaric strength. She didn’t laugh nearly as much as she should, he realized. An idea began to form in his head, pieces of a puzzle falling into place.
“And Alaric? Do you trust him now?”
He heard someone shift. “Yes. I don’t know what he remembers, but I saw enough to trust him. Few would do what he did. Even fewer would live through it.”
Her words reverberated through his skull, unlocking that which the pain had blocked out. How he’d killed the fighter and ran toward her, intent on getting her to safety like Emile made him swear to do. Seeing the scorpion crawling up the back of the horse. And not caring how many times it jabbed him as he pulled it off and crushed it. The horror on her face as he blacked out. The last thing he saw was her kneeling at his side, the green eyes shifting into gold.
She was Amari.
“Planning on eavesdropping some more, Islander? Or are you ready to admit you’re awake?” Emile wasn’t quite joking.
Carefully, Alaric sat up. The right arm of his tunic was ripped away at the shoulder, a line of stitches decorated his skin.
“We had Gwen do that. Visual clues of healing are better received by wandering groups over…”
“Over knowing we have an Amari with us? One that’s unchained?” Alaric finished Emile’s sentence for him.
Fin snorted, “See, Emile? I told you he wasn’t stupid.”
Emile stared at him, and chose his words carefully. “Now you know. And I know about you, Islander. I don’t hire anyone without checking out their background. You need to stay on the move, remain hidden, as much as Fin does. Stay on with us, if you want. We’ll protect your secrets as long as you protect her. The minute you betray that, I have no reason not to hand you over to your brother. Or what’s left of you.”
Alaric nodded, “And what if we mutually decide to part ways?” He knew, the moment he said the words he would never leave Fin’s side. But he still had to ask.
Shrugging, Emile responded, “Then we still agree to keep each other’s secrets. Fin’s lived a life free, Alaric. Much like you have. She’s never been anyone’s pet, never felt the band of metal enslave her. Make sure it continues, even if our paths move apart, and I promise you’ll never have to face your brother unless you choose to.”
He looked over at Fin. “Are you agreeable to this?”
She raised her head to meet his gaze. The green coloring was back. “I’ve trusted Emile for as long as I can remember. He’s kept me safe, unchained, this long. If he trusts you, so do I.” Turning, her red braid swinging with the movement, Fin started to shove a few things into a pack.
Alaric started to go help her, but a hand on his arm stopped him. Emile smiled, “That’s not the way, Islander. She can care for herself in most ways. She’s strong, tough. Has needed to be. Don’t ever let her think you don’t know that.” He thrust a chin toward the pallet Alaric had been sleeping on. “Just pack up your bedding and get your gear together. I’ll let the others know we’re ready to head out.”
“Hey, Emile, how long was I out?”
“Three days.” Emile disappeared around the open end of the tent.
Alaric blinked, trying to reconnect his thoughts to the lost days. Nothing but pain filled his mind. Shaking his head to clear the thought, he gave up. It wasn’t like he could go back and change what happened. Indeed, he probably wouldn’t. Three days at the outcropping, though. Emile was right. They had to move onward. Even if they’d kept raiders at bay, there would’ve been curious travelers.
“Not many, really. One or two, yes. But Gwen would talk to them, get them to move along. No one outside of that first group that gave us any trouble.” Fin said.
“Reading my mind?” He joked. And instantly regretted it as her jaw set in a rigid line.
“No, Islander. I don’t read minds. I’m not a seer.” She didn’t even bother to try and hide her irritation.
“Fin, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply anything.”
She brushed past him, her tightly wrapped bedroll in her arms. “If you don’t mean it, don’t say it, Islander.”
“My name’s Alaric.” He knotted up the rope, securing his bedding, and rose from the ground.
She was with the pack horse. “Not for a while it’s not. Alaric has to disappear for a time. Give your brother time to forget any possible connections between you and Kai. Build up the reputation of an Islander that’s good with a bow for now. In a year or so, the connection with your name will be a bowman, not a fugitive.”
He nodded. “So, the names you all have. Those are aliases as well?”
She moved back and forth from the tent, bringing out packs and other items and placing them in a pile near the horses. “Bring everything out first, then we load while Trystian and Gwen take down the tent,” she instructed.
They worked in silence for a few minutes. Alaric was still curious, but wasn’t willing to push the issue. Finally, when everything was out, she began to instruct him on what to bring to her as she loaded up the animal. “Yes and no. Some of us shortened our names out of necessity. Others changed it because we’re escaping a life we knew was wrong for us.” She strapped a pack into place. “You’ll learn what you need to know as we travel, I’m sure. We’re all trying to escape something, Islander. In that, the five of us have a common goal.”
“More than keeping you free, you mean.” He didn’t shy away
from the statement. Fin’s entire speech had been very factual, straightforward. She
wasn’t one to ignore reality.
She looked over the saddle at him, “Exactly. I don’t know all of the stories. Emile does the research, found Gwen and Trystian much as he did you. He makes the decisions. I just follow them. It’s easier that way.”
He waited until the last item was off the ground, then reached a hand out to touch hers. “If I caused you pain, I apologize. What you did for me…well, I’m grateful.”
She slid her hand out from under his and avoided his gaze. “It wasn’t bad. It was healing I performed, not harm. My head felt like it was about to split open for a few hours, but no scarring. That only happens when we hurt another.”
“Trystian, don’t stand under the tent when we’re taking it down!” Gwen’s exasperated voice called out, jarring Alaric for a moment. He’d forgotten they weren’t alone.
No one spoke much while the rest of the camp was torn down. Alaric stayed out of the way, waiting and watching. Everyone knew what to do, trying to help would only result in him getting in the way. So, he kept his eyes open, and dagger out, for more scorpions. They rarely came out during the day, though. But he was wary all the same.
“Islander, what’s the chance we meet up with more of the bugs you squashed when we stop tonight?” Trystian called out as the last pole was secured to the pack horse.
Alaric swung up into his saddle. Grasping the reins, he replied, “Slim to none. There’s either an oasis or outpost we can stop at each night the rest of the way to the border. We left too late earlier to make it safely or we wouldn’t have needed to stop here.”
Gwen settled her horse as it pranced, anxious to get moving after the days of inactivity. “What’s the situation like at these places?”
Emile answered before Alaric could. “Nothing we haven’t encountered before, Gwen. He already told us. Coins in the right hands and no one will know we’ve passed by.”
She snorted, “Not until someone pays more, you mean.” She pressed her heels into the animal’s flanks and headed toward the road.
Alaric looked toward Emile, who waved him forward. He wanted to talk with Fin more, but it wasn’t going to happen as long as she rode with Emile.
Dawn broke at some point, but it only changed the shade of grey in the clouds. The rainy season had hit Dunegan’s western lands hard. Four months of steady rain, varied only by severity and wind. They’d spent three years in this country, moving every six months or so. Never spending too much time in one village to raise suspicion about Fin. Or any of them for that matter.
Alaric still wasn’t thrilled with where Emile wanted them to go next. Lorien. But he hadn’t steered them wrong yet. Held up his end of their bargain
. It had taken a
year to bury the rumor of the lost prince of the Islands. Another for “Islander” to become synonymous with his new name, and skill with a bow. This last year, they’d finally gotten settled in. Trystian had taken up with a young woman in Evenshire, their latest home. Things were encouraging. There were no Amari to be seen. And that meant no slavers waiting to turn Fin into a pet. Or chain Alaric and send him back to face his brother.
Outside of Fin and Emile, no one knew his parentage. He had no clue if Trystian and Gwen knew. If they did, nothing was said. He didn’t have the outward signs, did no magic.
Unless you counted his aim. He had grown deadly with his bow, using his marksmanship to both keep them fed and earn their keep as they moved around. The beard was gone, his brown hair longer. Six years on the run now, and his body had changed. He was no longer some soft prince, used to feather beds and savory meals. He was leaner now, more muscle than fat. Wary and suspicious of everyone they met. And, as always, watching out for Fin’s safety.
He leaned against the window frame now, alert. Wishing the rain would let up enough they could get back on the road. The others slept on cots behind him. They’d left Evenshire a week ago, after Trystian’s lady had begun asking questions. About Fin, Emile. Why he traveled with such companions, took on such danger to protect one person. Emile was fairly certain it was jealousy, but didn’t want to wait to have that confirmed. Trystian could’ve stayed if he wanted to. Instead, he bid his lady good-bye. Told her he’d be back one day, when his task was complete. Alaric knew his companion would keep that vow. He wasn’t so certain about the lady.
They got as far as the inn, the last bit of Dunegan hospitality before crossing over to Lorien. The capital was a good month or more west. He prayed Emile would choose to go around the city. Somehow, he doubted it.
“Is it dawn yet?” Fin called out softly from behind him.
Turning, Alaric glanced at her. Her red hair half unbraided, she lay on her cot. Not ready to get up, really, but done sleeping.
“I think so. The clouds are lighter.” He kept his voice low so he didn’t wake the others.
She threw aside the blanket and sat up, stretching. Her tunic, wrinkled by sleep, hid her slender form. Alaric quickly looked back outside. Thoughts of what might be under that tunic still in his mind.
He heard her moving about, pulling on a pair of trousers. Their life didn’t allow for fancy dresses she once told him. It was far more practical to ride in breeches. There was one night, a year ago. A celebration in a town square. She and Gwen had both agreed to dress in borrowed gowns for the event, as they didn’t want to anger the man who was letting them stay in the barn and work for a few coins. It was the first time, the only time, he’d seen her dressed up.
The sight of her in the blue dress burned in his mind. A woman’s body rested under the corseted top, one that took his breath away.
She leaned against the wall across from him, her fingers deftly undoing the braid. “It’s been doing this for days. We’re not going to get to Lorien in time if we don’t leave soon.”
“In time?” he asked. “I didn’t know we had a deadline.”
Fin shrugged, “It’s an anniversary of sorts. Emile and I go back there every ten years. He found me there. I don’t know if he’s hoping he’ll find another to keep free or what, but he’s insisted we go back.” She finished undoing her hair and shook it loose. “Not that it’s a huge thing. This is only the second trip.”
“You and Emile have been together since you were three?”
She smiled. “You sound surprised. I think he was about 16 or so. Found me in the sewers. I’d convinced myself that hiding in all the muck would keep me safe.”
There was an unspoken rule among the group. No one asked about their lives before they came together. It was as if the past didn’t exist before they promised to keep Fin safe. In the quiet of the morning, though, it seemed right.
“Do you remember anything before then? About your parents? Where you lived?”
“No, not really.” Her fingers began to braid her hair again. “Vague images of being in a small boat and being very afraid that someone would find me. All my energy went to changing my eyes green for the first few years. Hiding who I am, what I am. So much so that it’s instinctive now.”
“It’s not right, you know. Amari shouldn’t have to hide who they are. They should be free like everyone else.”
“It’s easier for you. I’ve run into other half Amari. Every one of them had the gold eyes, even if they didn’t have the access to magic. You got your father’s eyes instead.” There was a bitterness to her voice.
“I still feel the same way, Fin. No one should ever be a pet, a slave, to another. The way some force the Amari to use their magic. It’s barbaric.”
“Like your brother?”
He stared out into the gloomy morning, his jaw clenched. Rumors had reached them over the last few years. Wars fought by Kaerdan and Ajanor, where the Amari dead rivaled the foot soldiers. More and more of the surrounding kingdoms were falling to their forces. And tensions within the alliance grew as well.
Then the news came that Kaerdan’s grandfather, the ruler of Lorien, had died after a prolonged illness. His brother now had a major foothold on the mainland that was under his direct control. No more rallying troops under his grandfather’s banner. It was his now. And that was a cold reality for Alaric.
“Kaerdan was never one to think of the Amari as anything but a means to an end. For him, that was power.” He looked at Fin, “I’m not like him. Even when I didn’t know about my real mother. And it’s not what he learned from our father.”
Her green eyes met his gaze. He still yearned for another glance of the gold. “If Emile ever thought you were, he would’ve slit your throat while you slept.” The steel of her words spoke volumes. Even after these years, the trust wasn’t there.
“Don’t scare him, Fin.” Emile’s voice carried from his cot. “He’s not stupid. He knows what he signed up for.”
A small smile played across Fin’s face, the quickest upturn of the lips that Alaric barely caught. Had she been teasing him?
“Emile, there’s a shop in town with some archery supplies. I need to restock what I have. What do you think of picking up a bow for Fin?”
She started, interest and fear warring on her face. He turned his head toward the center of the room. “It’s a bit too obvious for her to be with us and not have any fighting skills. Anyone would be able to pick her out as the one being protected if we’re all combatants and she’s not. We get her outfitted with a bow, some flint tipped arrows. I can give her lessons at night during the watch. She may not hit much, but she’ll at least look the part.”
Emile nodded. “Good idea. I should’ve thought of that myself.” He held up a hand, “Don’t argue, Fin. It’s decided. The three of us will go right after breakfast. Trystian and Gwen can pack up. Rain or no rain, we head out today.”
Alaric watched as Fin eased out of her position on the windowsill. He knew his interest in her was starting to go beyond any sort of promise he made Emile. He wanted to keep her safe now for his own reasons.
Not that she couldn't protect herself. The few times he'd seen her tap into her magic went beyond extraordinary. That he lived through the scorpion's sting still left him in awe. He shuddered to think what Kaerdan would do with her. He'd use her to level entire kingdoms, never caring about the scars or pain it caused her. If his brother ever made a pet of Fin, she'd be dead within a year. Probably less.
And Alaric knew he'd kneel in front of his brother in a heartbeat if it kept her free.
Rising, he casually made his way to his pack. Trystian and Gwen were waking up at Emile's urging. They'd go down as a group, eat. Then he'd lead Emile and Fin the short distance to the shop he'd been told about. He rummaged through his kit, making mental notes about what
he needed for himself. Good quality catgut or bowstrings were hard to come by, and expensive, but worth the price. Buy cheap, regret it later when the string breaks when your life depends on it.
"You really think I
can shoot a bow?" Fin's voice drifted past his ear.
He turned his head and smiled at her. "Absolutely. It's not that hard. You could even learn how to miss on purpose if you wanted to."
She shrugged, the red hair moving in a way that made him want to reach out and stroke it. "I think I'll be plenty good at missing my target. But you and Emile are right. I need to learn, if for no other reason than to take the attention off of myself." She looked down at her hands. "Any chance I can get some gloves? I've seen the callouses on your hands. They won't happen overnight, and I won't heal myself."
"Why not?" he asked, puzzled. "If I could do what you can, it would make sense to me to do it."
Her mouth turned up slightly, a wistfulness crossing her face. "We can't, Alaric. Amari can do magic, yes. But only to others. Trying to heal myself would be as impossible as it would be for you to shoot yourself in the back. It just can't happen." A small twinkle danced in her green eyes. "And who says you can't do a kind of magic? You may not look like your mother, but your aim is almost inhuman. Surely there's something beyond skill in that."
It was Alaric's turn to shrug. "Who can say, really?
Even if there's a bit more to it than skill, I don't have any of your disadvantages. I can kill without scars."
"You aren't doing the killing. The arrow is. There's a difference." Her tone echoed a despair he couldn't really fathom.
"Fin, you don't have to answer this. But...have you?"
"Have I ever killed someone? No. Not yet. I've come close, but Emile stepped in first. But I do have scars. Some hurt more than others when I got them."
He knew better than to pursue the topic. A sadness radiated from her now, making his heart ache. The last thing he wanted was to hurt her.
The rest of the morning passed in silence. Everyone knew what had to be done before starting to travel again, and each had their own duties. Right after breakfast, Emile nodded to Fin and him and the three headed to the archery place. Trystian and Gwen would either meet them outside, or back here if the pack horse was still being loaded.
The wooden overhang gave them the chance to shake some rain off their cloaks before entering the shop. A steady stream of pale smoke rose from the brick chimney, giving Alaric notice that the shop would be warm. A good sign for a bowmaker. Constant damp and cool while shaping the wood would warp it past use.
A small bell rang out as Emile opened the door. A fireplace took up most of one wall, heating the shop effectively. A tall man, blue eyes peering out from beneath shaggy grey eyebrows, watched them enter. Emile leaned against the doorway. Alaric knew the man well enough to see the stance wasn’t nearly as relaxed as he looked.
“My friend here,” he placed a hand on Fin’s shoulder, “wants to take up the bow.”
The shop owner looked her up and down. “Don’t know that I’d start you off with a longbow like your friend, miss. Recommend something a bit shorter. Get used to the flow of the weapon before you move into something with more punch.”
He moved around the workbench, waving a hand over toward a small assortment of bows leaning against the far wall. The artisan didn’t ask questions, simply began to show her various things. In less than an hour, they were back out into the rain. Alaric had the supplies he needed. And Fin was ready to learn what a bow could do.
Trystian and Gwen sat on their horses, waiting. “Get everything?” Trystian asked.
Emile nodded as he mounted his horse. “And Alaric didn’t even spend all my gold.” Reaching down, he lifted Fin up into the saddle in front of him. “Rain or no rain, we head to Lorien. I’ve got an appointment to keep.”
Alaric touched his heels to his horse’s flanks, urging it to follow his companions.