Burtrend and Darline split ways. Jenniah learns of her father's death and is summoned home
They had followed the coastline, resupplying food and water at the small fishing villages that dotted the coast. He had even managed to find some traveling merchants that had been willing to sell them a hunting rifle, some bullets, and a couple of horses in exchange for the steam wagon and Chumley's pistol. He never did tell Darline the full story of how he gained the steam wagon, blanket, and pistols.
The coastal plains made way to hot sand and sparse clumps of grasses. Three weeks further along in his journey and he felt there was little to show for what he had been through already. He refused to give up on the idea that this had all been for nothing. The further northeast they traveled, the hotter it became until they finally stopped here, where even the grasses didn't want to grow. It was here they were to part ways. The Fayneland borders only extended as far as the Bearrin Desert and they had finally reached it.
"I guess this is it..." Darline sounded sad at their parting. The saddled horses were ready to go. The campfire had burned out during the night, since there was so little driftwood to use as fuel. The sun hadn't risen high enough to become sweltering.
Not being one for long goodbyes, Burtrend nodded solemnly and mounted his horse. Darline had given him the stronger horse, both water skins, and the rest of the food. The rifle would come in handy for hunting after a little practice was how he was going to get more food.
"Wait!" Darline called out as he started on his way. "Will I ever see you again?!"
"I don't think so!" he called back. "How about we leave that for the gods to decide!" He flashed her a smile then spurred his steed to a gallop until she was out of sight.
Sand dune after sand dune, the golden sea of the Bearrin Desert seemed to stretch on forever. It didn't take long for Burtrend to realize he would make better time if he traveled during the night and early morning. Actually, it was cold at night, very cold. How can a desert have two temperature extremes? He would rather run the horse during the cold than swelter in the heat.
Somehow, in the darkness of the night, before the moon had risen, he had lost sight of the ocean and had wandered inland. He had traveled over a dune, breaking his line of sight with the ocean, but he could hear the waves echoing off the other dunes, causing him to travel further inland. By morning, the sound of the ocean lapping on the shore was only a memory. After that, he traveled in the morning and late evening, leaving both the cold of the night and heat of the day for rest and was able to use the rising and setting sun for reference.
A few more days of sand dunes that burned in the heat of the sun. Burtrend's lips had become so chapped that they bled. He was just about to stop for the day when his steed collapsed from under him. Thick lather had built on its neck, it labored to breath, and its eyes started to roll back. At first, Burtrend wasn't sure what to do, but then he realized the horse could go no further and would die anyway. Darline had given him a dagger and now he used it on the horse's throat to give it a merciful death.
After watching the crimson blood saturate the thirsty desert sand, hopelessness consumed him. When the sun reached its zenith, the tears had finished burning his cracked lips and he opened his eyes. He needed to get away from the sight and smell of the bloated horse. It sickened him. If there had been anything in his stomach, he was sure that it would be soaking into the thirsty sand just like the blood.
He stood and struggled to walk to the top of a dune, feeling like he was sliding down more than he was. Finally, he reached the top, exhausted and ready to give up. Collapsing he sat for a while to catch his breath, letting the hot wind whip his thin frame. Not with the perseverance and fortitude that he started his journey with, but utterly desolate and broken, he looked up from his lap where his chapped hands lay. From his height, he could easily see only a few dunes away stood two mountains with a steep valley between. Mountains meant shade and maybe, with Korhan's blessing, water. Picking himself up, he trudged forward with newfound hope.
Shadows had grown long over the dunes when he finally reached the valley. That's when he saw them, two rows of giant pillars weathered by time. Walking through them felt so surreal that Burtrend wondered if he was hallucinating. Each pillar was carved with intricate patterns that had worn away in many places, showing the age of the constructs. At the end of the row there were giant stone slabs making a ceiling on top of the pillars. They all joined to the mountain cliff. Beneath it, like a giant gaping maw was an entrance that beckoned him inside.
*** *** *** *** ***
A Cool breeze made Jenniah curl tighter under her wool blankets. She tried to ignore the sounds of the hall coming back to life from the quiet of the night. Sleep had just started to reclaim her when a soft knock on the doorframe startled her awake.
"Princess," she heard called out from the other side of the animal skin door flap, "are you awake?"
"One moment!" she yelled back. Quickly she made herself presentable, wishing that they had bothered to make doors on the inside of the buildings and not just the main entryways. Standing there slightly out of breath and with a worried look was Daren. "What is it?" It had been several weeks, and she had just started talking to him again.
"There's a messenger," he let out in a rush, "that came riding in earlier this morning. He has been riding hard the whole way with an important message from your mother."
"What is the message?" A wave of worry washed over her.
"I don't know. He refused to speak with me and said that his message was for you and you alone. There is a message for me as well, but only after you have received yours." She stood for a moment, wondering what it could possibly be until he brought her attention back. "Princess, we should go. It would not be good to leave him waiting."
Daren led her to the main hall, hurrying through the corridors that were lit by the setting sun. A small group of people gathered in the main foyer. Morak looked annoyed sitting at his throne, Avron stood off to the side while a seat had been brought in for a skinny young man in the royal herald uniform. A single Faynecian royal guard had traveled with the messenger. H looked just as exhausted but was forced to stand under the penetrating gaze of Morak.
Everyone looked up when she and Daren entered. The young herald stood quickly with visible fear in his eyes that he quickly lowered to the floor. He walked toward her and kneeled at her feet.
"Princess Jenniah," his voice was barely a whisper, "I... I have a message from the Queen."
"Out with it then." Everything from the way he spoke to the fear in his eyes and the rigidity of his movements told her that something was very, very wrong.
"I would like to speak with you privately."
"Daren is my mentor and advisor, everything you tell me he will hear. The Lord Morak and his son do not speak Faynecian, so you have my ear where I stand."
"Princess, this message is personal." He began to sound whiney and irate.
"As I would expect, or I would not be standing here. Now speak your message." Her nerves were on edge and her patience was wearing thin.
"Very well," he sounded like a broken man making her wonder if she was doing the right thing by making him speak openly, but Daren had promised to hold no more secrets and she felt it only fair to hold the same respect. He continued, "It's about King Adrian."
"My father..." Suddenly she wasn't sure if she wanted to hear the message at all.
"Yes, General Reeves left Seahd to bring the Queen his crown and news of his death." It felt as though she had just been punched in the stomach. She felt faint and slightly dizzy. Her mind reeled with the news that her father was dead. "I'm sorry."
"How... how did it happen?"
"The Vitarri army had circled around Thirsten, avoiding the majority of King Adrian's force to attack Warrindal. The king had left the army to attend to civil matters in court at Warrindal, so he led the main defense. As soon as General Reeves heard word of the Vitarri attack, he took the army to flank them and attack their rear. Several of the Vitarri were able to breach the walls of the city but they eventually pulled out. During the battle one of them managed to murder the King. General Reeves, not knowing of King Adrian's death, was able to scatter the enemy forces and drive them back to Vitar." There was a long moment of silence as Jenniah thought.
"You said that the crown has been returned to my mother, Queen Rheanna. What about the body?"
"The General made sure that the proper respects were made and that it rests peacefully in the royal tomb before he made his journey across the ocean."
"Unless there is anything else, you may rise and give your message to Daren."
"There is one last thing, my lady. I was to inform you that the Queen requests your presence at home. You are to return with the entirety of your entourage as quickly as possible." With that, he stood and addressed Daren.
"This is all she had for you." He said with a bow, handing over a sealed letter. Daren thanked and dismissed the herald who seemed grateful for the rest. After breaking open the wax seal and ripping open the letter to read it, Daren's face contorted in disgust. Without ceremony, he thrust it at Jenniah who took it gently from his outthrust hand. Unfolding it, she read:
To Daren: Acolyte of Borus, Priest of Areyanna,
I regret to inform you his Highness the Majesty King Adrian is dead. Your services to the crown are still needed. I require the safe return of my daughter to the castle in Kingsbury immediately. Any negotiations you might have made for her marriage are to be put on hold and progress no further until after a new king is crowned, even in the event that such action delays the peace agreement. An official treaty does need be made with the Warlord Morak and negotiations will resume after the coronation.
"She writes as though the King was only a pet and now she needs to go find a new one." Daren said, explaining his disgust.
"I'm sure she doesn't feel that way. It's a time of war and the people wouldn't feel right if there wasn't a king on the throne. My mother is a strong-willed woman and a great leader, but the people still expect a man to conduct the business of war. Besides, she might have been speaking of my marrying, for whoever I marry should become King, since I am heir."
"Do you believe your uncle, Lord Bartholomew Horanth would try to claim to throne?" Daren asked.
"I don't know. If he or any of the Dukes try to gain the throne, what's going to stop all of them from fighting over it? Splitting this country is the worst possible thing that could happen right now. I'm too young to become queen and Mother has enough political influence to keep the throne until then. I don't know what would happen if she remarries, as that has never happened before. Such action could split the nation. It just depends on who she marries and if he is influential enough with the masses." Looking over at Morak and Avron and taking in the rugged beauty of the Great Hall a sudden thought came upon her, "I wish I could just stay here."
"Defying a direct order from The Queen is treasonous for both of us, even though you are her daughter." Daren reminded her.
"It's just so peaceful here. Almost like none of this message or the chaos it heralds is real." She handed the letter back to him. "I need to inform Lord Morak and then I need to go pack."
"Wait," Daren gently held her arm, "I want to say that I'm sorry about your father." The deep sadness in his eyes shocked her.
"Thank you." She gave him a soft smile before she turned and walked over to Morak and Avron, telling them the terrible news. They smiled when she told them that King Adrian had died in battle and called it a 'good death'. She couldn't understand, all it did was prove he wasn't a coward because he hadn't died hiding under his bed or running away, but that didn't make his death a good thing. They seemed understanding when she told them she needed to go home and smiled when she told them she hoped to return to continue negotiations. She was almost finished packing when Avron found her in her room.
"Were you honest with what you said earlier?" His voice startled her from reminiscing about her father. "Do you really want to come back?" She turned to address Avron.
"Yes, I do, though I'm not sure that I can. I like it here. The peacefulness is intoxicating." Avron smiled handsomely when she said that.
"It is not always so peaceful." He slowly walked closer to her. "The boys practice fighting for a reason, it is not just for fun."
"I know, but your war isn't about power or completely destroying each other, it's about survival and honor. Sometimes it's about land but your wars are always fought honorably, and you never take what the other clans need. As much as your people fight, you also look out for each other. It's almost as if your clans are a giant brotherhood. Am I wrong?" He smiled at her answer again.
"I've never heard it put like that, but you are right." He stepped closer until they were almost eye-to-eye. He gently grabbed her soft hand into his calloused ones, "You don't have to leave. You could stay and let the Queen figure out her problems."
"I can't." Her heart hurt, being torn between what she wanted and what she needed to do. Avron gently rubbed her cheek with a rough finger. She had never been touched so tenderly by anyone before.
"Why not?" With a troubled look, he rubbed away a tear that had slid down her cheek.
"The Queen commands that I return home. If I don't go an army will be sent to bring me back."
"We could drive them off and keep you safe." His golden eyes reflected an excitement and confidence she did not feel.
"I will not allow hundreds of people to die because of me."
"I would die for you." Without hesitation, he slid his hand behind her head and kissed her. At first, it was too strange of a sensation, his wet mouth slipping over hers and his thin moustache and beard tickling her. Then she let herself be swept into it, inducing an intensity she had never felt ripple through her before. His free hand gently grabbed her side and rubbed up her back, softly massaging her shoulders. Suddenly his kisses became more urgent and his fingers dug into her flesh as he pulled her close. She felt a loss of control and fear as she realized what she was allowing to happen.
"Stop," she managed to breathe out between his ravenous kisses. He stopped. A part of her mourned the loss of his touch as he slowly dropped his hands, but mostly she was relieved that he had listened. His eye glittered, staring into hers while his heavy breathing felt hot on her skin. "I can't do this, not now."
"Don't your people get married?" she asked. He surprised her with a smile.
"They do. Are you asking me?" His eyes glittered playfully. She couldn't help smiling at his response. What a strange way to begin marital negotiations. She stepped away from him to try clearing her head.
"I don't understand why you would want to marry me. I was rude and conceited when I arrived. Also, there are several beautiful women of your own people that vie for your attention."
"You were those things, but you are also much more. You are beautiful, smart, and honorable. You were willing to take the blame for your own actions instead of letting others get hurt from your poor decisions. You have earned our respect despite how you acted when you first came here."
"Respect, that's the key isn't it?" He nodded in answer to her question. Respect... that's the key. Suddenly she knew what to say to Morak for him to agree to the treaty and it had nothing to do with marriage. Pulling away from Avron and his confused look, she headed for the door. "I need to speak with Morak." Back to the antechamber she rushed, dress and hair streaming behind her as she tried hard not to run. She finally stopped in front of a bored and thoughtful Morak. "Lord Morak, I wish to speak with you." He gestured to continue. "I wish to bring up the treaty one last time and if I fail to persuade you this time I will never speak of it again."
"Are you sure about this?"
"Yes," she said with confidence.
"Then out with it. What would convince me to your cause?"
"Respect." He looked confused but waited for her to explain, "You respect me. You do not respect my mother, Queen Rheanna. You would never go to war in her name, so go to war in mine. You believe that my father, King Adrian, and I are honorable people. The Vitarri, as you know, refuse to stop killing my people. They're mercilessly trying to destroy my kingdom. The people they capture become slaves that are abused or worked to death at mines and factories.
"It was not the leaders of Vitar that killed my father, but common soldiers. The full honor for his death will go to the leaders of Vitar who weren't even there. At least my father has the honor to lead his men in battle, unlike the leaders of Vitar. By this they show me, the king, my people, and even their own soldiers great dishonor. Please, consider this treaty, if not for me, then for my people." His eyes seemed to turn dark as he thought deeply.
"If they seek to destroy your people and they have no honor as you claim," he said at last, "then I will agree to war in your behalf. But they must land here. We will not travel over the Great Water to fight for you."
"That's all I'm asking for." She wanted to give him her deepest curtsy in gratitude, and almost did, but Morak had forbidden her when she had first arrived. He didn't care that in her culture a curtsy was a sign of respect, he didn't even allow common people to kneel or bow before him. So, she proudly stood there, smiling stupidly. "Thank you. Daren has everything ready to sign. Unless you have disagreements, then I'm sure a compromise could be had." With that, she excused herself, feeling proud and accomplished, despite the circumstances. When she got back to her room, she found Avron gone. Daren was waiting for her instead.
"I did it! Morak agreed to the treaty!" He had a solemn look, as though something troubled him deeply. "Daren, is something troubling you?" He looked up, startled.
"Daren, is something troubling you?" the sound of her soft voice woke him from his memories.
"N-no, I was just thinking about you, about how spoiled you were when we first left the castle to come here." He saw her worried look become confused, but still lighthearted.
"Well, what would you expect from a princess?" Jenniah teased.
"It was an expectation. I was just surprised at how open-minded you've become." Her smile brought out her beauty with dark eyes twinkling. "You aren't a child anymore. You have become a woman, transformed before my very eyes." Her tanned skin flushed from his compliment, making his heart ache and his throat constrict. How can I tell her how I feel? Are the words 'I love you' going to be enough? What about how she feels regarding Avron? Thoughts continued to race through his mind spreading doubt and fear. He couldn't face her and let his emotions show so he turned away, looking desperately for a point of interest. That's when he noticed how her unpacked garments were in such disarray on her cot and in her luggage. "How is your packing? Is Breann helping you?"
"No. I thought I would try it on my own before I get her help. Besides, if I'm going to be dressing myself on the way back I should know how my things are arranged so that I'm not unpacking my entire wardrobe looking for one item."
"You must know I am very sorry to hear about King Adrian. He was a good king and a good man."
"Thank you, but I hardly knew him. I often wished that the war would end so that he could come home for longer than a moon or two. But then, I also feared that I would be disappointed in the man he was, or that he would be disappointed in me. His death scares me because he was what kept the war on Seahd. He stood between me and the Vitarri like a giant wall."
"That is a great way to remember him. Keep that in your heart." He finally turned back to a smile on her lips but sadness in her eyes.
"Yes, I will. As far as having someone stand between me and the Vitarri, Avron wants to take up the challenge." The implications of what she had just said sent a stab to his heart.
"What?" he squeaked out.
"Avron... he proposed." Her voice was filled with girlish excitement. "At least I think he proposed. He..."
"Princess don't," Daren interrupted, suddenly overwhelmed, "Please, don't marry him."
"Why not?" She asked confused, instead of angry as he'd expected.
"I know I overreacted that one night but trust me when I tell you that he will not make you happy."
"How can you say that? You don't know him that well," she retorted.
"You don't know him that well either. His life is surrounded by war and he would surround your life with it. He will be off fighting battles, just like your father. What if he dies or never comes back? What happens when his father dies? A challenger could kill him. If Avron dies, then you and your future children would be murdered. Do you want to live in fear of that for the rest of your life?"
"I would be less fearful than if I married some fat Duke that has never even worn armor before, much less shot a gun, mastered the sword, or seen what war is like. Now that my father is gone war is going to come, no matter who I'm married to."