Authors: David Wells
Tags: #Epic, #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction
Eventually he found himself standing in a circle of nobles. Alexander felt somehow uncomfortable with them and it was obvious that after the events of the evening they were intimidated by him, but he knew he needed them so he made his best effort to be friendly. Conversation revolved around the types of goods each noble could offer to the war effort. Some had food while others had timber and still others steel. It was clear that they had come around to supporting Alexander as each tried to best the others in terms of the value of his contribution. Eventually talk came around to Alexander.
Lord Covington broached the subject. “Lord Alexander, if I may ask, how do you plan to proceed now that you have the support of the council, and Glen Morillian is set to formally recognize your claim to the throne?”
Alexander thought for only a moment. He had a pretty good idea what he was going to do, but he really didn’t trust the members of the council enough to reveal the full extent of his plans. “I intend to build an army but I expect most of that will be done by Warden Alaric and his Rangers. As for me, I have some work to do with Wizard Kallentera and then I’ll be leaving.”
Isabel’s hand tightened on his arm and she gave him a slightly worried look. Duke Shively asked, “Where will you go? You’re safe here. Surely it would be wiser to remain here until the army is ready to move with you.” There was a murmur of assent from the ring of nobles.
“It may well be safer here but I can’t gain the support of the other territories from here. I need to get to New Ruatha and claim the throne so I can summon the territorial governors and demand their allegiance.”
Alexander tried to sound calm even though he had no idea how he was going to accomplish such a thing. He didn’t tell them about Blackstone Keep, which was his real destination. Nor did he tell them about the mana fast that he intended to undertake.
In the stunned silence that followed, Isabel’s grip on his arm tightened a little more. Lord Covington broke the quiet. “That’s quite a bold plan but it does put your safety in grave jeopardy. Surely you will take a sizeable force of Rangers as a royal guard.”
Alexander shook his head, “The Rangers will be needed here to help Warden Alaric build and train the army. Besides, I have to move faster than a large unit can travel.”
They all started speaking at once, mostly in protest.
Alexander held up his hand to silence them. “Ruatha must be reunited under one flag if we are to build the kind of army we need. Phane is gathering forces to himself at this very moment. Glen Morillian is a safe haven that can be easily defended, but we will not win this war by defense. I must find a way to strike at Phane, to put him on the defensive, to disrupt his plans, and undermine his allies. I can’t do that behind the safety of these mountains. I must be visible if I am to draw the territories of Ruatha together again into one nation.”
Duke Covington smiled approvingly, “I see your point and admire your courage. A lesser man would remain in the safety of our barrier mountains as long as possible. I do hope you will make adequate preparations for your safety.”
“I certainly intend to. Now, gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me, it’s been a long day.” Alexander bid them all a good evening and extracted himself with Isabel still on his arm from the circle of nobles, leaving them to discuss amongst themselves how to best build an army.
The banquet was winding down. The guests were starting to thin and the servants were clearing dishes and glasses from the tables. Alexander realized he was tired.
Once they were out of earshot, Isabel stopped and looked up at him with her piercing green eyes. She was so beautiful it made his heart ache. “You know I’m coming with you, right?” He could see she was ready to overpower any objection he might offer. “You’re going to need a guide who knows the forest and Slyder gives me the ability to see the enemy coming a long way off. Face it, Alexander, you need me,” she said with mock haughtiness and a defiant smile, daring him to refuse her.
Instead he gently brushed her hair back over her ear. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he whispered.
Her face flushed slightly at his touch. She blinked a few times as if she hadn’t fully expected his response before smiling radiantly. They walked wordlessly from the banquet room and through the halls of the palace to Alexander’s suite. There didn’t seem to be any need for words. They each simply took comfort in the presence of the other.
He didn’t say anything when they arrived at his door. Instead he simply took her in with his eyes before gently pulling her into his arms and kissing her softly yet passionately. She leaned into him and returned his kiss with abandon.
“Good night, Isabel. Sleep well,” he whispered.
She sighed before giving him a look that made his heart race. “I doubt I’ll sleep at all after that.”
She left him standing outside his room with his heart pounding, his mind filled with possibility, and his soul soaring. It had been a much better night than he would have ever expected.
Alexander slept like a baby. He woke early the next morning to the sound of loud banging on his outer door. He threw on a robe and opened the door to find Erik.
“Is she here?” It seemed as though Erik couldn’t decide if he was angry or worried.
Alexander was still a bit groggy. “Who?”
“Isabel. Is she here? You left the banquet with her last night.” He brushed past Alexander and went to the bedroom.
Alexander stood at the door and watched him while scratching his head and trying to stifle a yawn. Erik no sooner stepped into Alexander’s bedchamber before he came out looking even more worried. Alexander started to feel a tingle of dread work its way up his spine.
“Erik, what’s going on?” Alexander asked.
“Isabel is missing. She never came back to the family living quarters last night. Her room is empty, her bed hasn’t been slept in, and the gown she wore last night isn’t in her armoire. Slyder is gone, too. Isabel doesn’t do this kind of thing. She always makes sure to tell someone where she’s going.” The words tumbled out of Erik’s mouth as if he couldn’t get them out fast enough.
Alexander was fully awake now. “Let me get dressed and I’ll help you look for her.” Alexander didn’t take long. He strapped on his sword and long knife on his way out of his bedchamber.
Erik was pacing.
“I’m sorry, I thought, I mean I was just hoping…” Erik sputtered.
Alexander held up a hand to stop him.
“That’s not important, Erik. Let’s go find Isabel.” He stepped into the hall. “The last I saw her she walked to the end of this hall and turned that corner.”
Erik nodded, “That leads to the family living quarters.”
“All right, let’s trace her most likely path,” Alexander said.
Erik was clearly agitated but seemed to be somewhat settled by Alexander’s calm approach to the problem. He led the way down the hall and around the corner. The long hall that followed was interrupted here and there by doors to several other guestrooms.
Alexander stopped and relaxed his vision in the hopes that his second sight might reveal something, but it didn’t. “Where do these doors lead?”
“Most are guestrooms, one is a cleaning closet, and that one at the end leads to a servants’ access passage,” Erik answered.
“Is anyone staying in any of these rooms?”
Erik thought for a moment before shaking his head. “The rest of your companions are on the other side of your room. These are all empty.”
Alexander marched to the first door and threw it open. It was much smaller than his suite and only offered one room rather than a sitting room and a bedchamber. The curtains were drawn back and tied open, the floors were clean, the fireplace was cold, and the linens were neatly folded on the foot of the bed. Alexander closed the door and went to the next while Erik opened the door across the hall.
They worked their way down the hall going door to door. Each room was clean, cold, and ready to be made up for the next guest.
The service corridor at the end of the hall opened onto the landing of a long staircase that led down several flights, broken by landings every twelve or fifteen steps. It was dimly lit with low-burning oil lamps at each landing, and it looked clean and well kept.
“Where does this lead?” Alexander asked.
“Down to the kitchen, prep rooms, and service quarters,” Erik answered, looking past Alexander down the stairs.
Alexander was about to close the door when something caught his eye. He froze as he tried to peer through the gloomy light. When he bolted down the stairs, Erik followed right on his heels and nearly knocked him down the final flight of stairs when Alexander came to an abrupt halt on the second landing.
There, on the next step down, was Isabel’s white fur shawl. He picked it up carefully, almost tenderly. When he turned it over and saw the lurid splotch of bright red blood, his legs nearly buckled. He steadied himself against the wall and handed Erik the shawl while fighting to keep the icy dread of the unthinkable from flooding into his mind and rendering him helpless.
He heard a low groan escape from Erik before he bounded down the remaining flight of stairs and raced down the hall. He stopped where the hall came to a tee and frantically looked back and forth down the hall for any further sign of Isabel. To his right, the corridor led to an outside exit. To his left, it led deeper into the palace. When he saw the puddle of red coming out from under the door, he felt the unthinkable push against his defenses. He dashed for the door and yanked it open.
There in the middle of the little storeroom lay a young man in a pool of cold and sticky blood. He had a wound in his gut from a single thrust of a blade that had apparently run him completely through. Next to the man, Alexander saw a footprint in the blood. He looked down the hall in the dim light and found what he expected. There was a blood trail leading from the outside door at the end of the corridor and a boot print in increasingly faded blood leading back to the door. When he opened the door to the service courtyard on the side of the palace, he saw where the young man had been killed. Blood mixed with dirt to form an ugly brown mud. Then he saw one of Isabel’s shoes. As he picked it up, he swallowed hard.
“Take me to the nearest Ranger barracks,” he commanded Erik, who nodded woodenly, his face ashen white.
Erik led him at a dead run around the courtyard and into a nondescript entrance to the low barracks room. The light of day was just overcoming the darkness and the Rangers were still sleeping. Alexander came to a halt just inside the door. There were rows of ten bunks on each side of the long room, each with a locker at the foot, and each with a man snoring under the covers.
“Everybody up!” Alexander boomed. A few came out of their bunks quickly, while a few rolled over and pulled their pillows over their heads. “Everybody up, now!” he bellowed. “I am Lord Alexander and I expect every one of you dressed and ready to ride in five minutes. I will wait outside. Do not make me wait long.”
Alexander felt a rising sense of sick panic in his belly and struggled to transform it into anger. He stalked from the barracks, allowing his anger to fester and boil.
“Erik, go tell your parents what’s happened. Get Anatoly and Mason as well. I’m going to ride with the Rangers as soon as they’re ready.”
Erik nodded and dashed off.
Only a minute or two passed before the platoon leader emerged fully dressed. He was older than Alexander by several years and looked experienced by his bearing. His eyes were a deep brown and his hair was jet black and cropped short. He stood about Alexander’s height and was only slightly heavier. Alexander could see the anger under his schooled demeanor. He strode up to Alexander, came smartly to attention and snapped a salute against his chest.
“Lord Alexander, I am Lieutenant Cross, leader of this platoon. If I may ask, what are our orders this fine morning?”
Alexander regarded the lieutenant calmly, deliberately nurturing his anger. “I will brief all of you at once, Lieutenant.”
The Ranger regarded him somewhat more coolly and nodded once, “As you wish, My Lord.”
Others were beginning to emerge from the barracks, first in a trickle, then in a steady stream until they all stood in formation behind their lieutenant.
“All present and accounted for, My Lord.” Cross had reined in his anger and replaced it with the studied, detached professionalism of a soldier.
Alexander took a deep breath and held up Isabel’s shoe. “Lady Isabel has been abducted.” The lieutenant stiffened and his anger came back in a flash, only more fiercely. “I was the last to see her after the banquet last night. She was brought down the service passage from the guest quarters and out the door into the service courtyard around the corner there.” Alexander pointed in the direction he and Erik had come from. “Erik and I also found a dead man in a small supply room just inside the outer door.”
The entire platoon was standing at attention and looked ready for blood. Isabel was one of their own. Alexander could see the fierce loyalty they had for her and for her family.