Blind girl holds the key to re-unite a kingdom if she can survive those out to kill her
Katawyn looked up as the door opened, her heightened senses informed her long before the door opened that someone approached. Her sightless eyes fixed in the general direction of the door. Though blind since early infancy, she was not entirely blind. Everything in her vision appeared as a vague shadowy outline. In a world filled with darkness and shadow, she had long grown accustomed to and accepted her lot in life. Her father the King had all the best physicians in Tarel attend her and even some from distant lands. All had failed to find a cure for the malady that caused her blindness. There seemed no logical explanation for it. Though many believed that it was the result of a curse for the Kings past transgressions; Katawyn being an illegitimate child born out of the king's liaison with a Caniyn servant woman. Her nurse who was also Caniyn, told her when she asked about her birth mother that she was a beautiful dark haired maiden of the Caniynesse, and descendant of royal Caniyn blood. It was her mother that named her Katawyn with her last breath as she died giving birth to her. It meant of the cat in her people's language. Katawyn sighed recognising the smell and footsteps of Malaky the court jester one of her few friends at the palace.
“Hello, Malaky how’s father today, will he be coming to see me later.” Her eyes roved briefly in front before finally coming to rest on the dark shadow she knew to be the jester. “It is my birthday after all,” her voice trailed off as she finished speaking. Something was amiss Malaky was too quiet; her bottom lip trembled as she waited anxiously for the jester to speak.
Malaky coughed nervously and fidgeted on his feet strangely at a loss for words for one usually so talkative. A feeling not unlike drowning in icy water crept over her; she shuddered not daring to speak lest she put a voice to her worst fears. Her father had not been well for some time and had come to see her less and less lately. His last visit had been over a week ago, and it was not like him to stay away so long; as he loved her dearly as she loved him. She remembered he had seemed distant his voice strained and fraught with worry and before he left he had hugged her tightly before leaving and said goodbye. She had thought it strange for he had never mentioned goodbye to her before when he came to visit, merely wished her goodnight but she had shrugged it off as her overactive imagination. Now it seemed as she waited for the jester to speak that her fears may have been well-founded. She took a deep breath composing herself as she heard the jester’s soft footfalls as he drew near.
“Katy I... I’m sorry it’s your father..,’ the jester spoke hesitantly reaching out to clasp Katawyn gently by the shoulders, he took a shuddering breath.
“He’s dead isn’t he,” she heard herself say her voice sounding distant to her ears.
Malaky nodded, then realising his mistake spoke, “yes this very hour. Katy, it is no longer safe for you here you must prepare to leave as soon as possible.” Katawyn shook her head wiping tears from her eyes, Malaky gripped the slight girl tightly looking into her sightless eyes he studied Katawyn closely, trying somehow to weigh how much her grief would weaken her resolve. He let his tears go unchecked as they rolled down his cheeks, smearing the chalk off his painted features and making a parody of his comic mask. The soft bells of his jester's hat jingled mockingly as he leaned over the distraught girl holding her tight. Only this day she had become seventeen and of an age to marry, what should have been one of the happiest days of her life was to become a day filled with bitter emptiness.
It had not been because he didn’t wish to look upon his youngest daughter’s affliction the king had put the girl in this lonely sparse room in an unused part of the palace, but for her protection. The king's marriage to queen Alexia had been an arranged loveless political match when the king fell in love with the raven headed Lyno one of the servant women at the Tar palace their relationship resulted in Katawyn. Even when Lyno died giving birth, the queen carried the hatred she bore Lyno to her daughter. Although the king had wanted Katawyn accepted as a regular part of the family the queen would not sanction it. Stating the possible scandal to the royal family as much as he loathed the idea he believed the queen was right, so Katawyn had been placed with the other servants. Mercy, her maid, had become her adopted mother; when several minor mishaps occurred during her infancy, the king's suspicions were aroused leading him to have Katawyn placed in her present location. Malaky had loved the king like a brother and had grown to love the dark haired girl before him now like a younger sister. She had that inner strength and goodness that made her so much like her father, Malaky thought, biting back bitterly on his on grief.
"Katy... Katy stop, you can not afford the luxury of grief, not yet anyway. The queen will be plotting to have you murdered even now, and the rest of his children are fighting over what they can get out of it. You must be strong.” Malaky hated himself for speaking so harshly.
"She wouldn’t, I know she hates me and can’t bear to look upon me, but surely as long as I stay here out of the way she won’t do me any harm. What of Prince Michael he is not like the rest of them he wouldn’t allow any harm to come to me surely. Please, Malaky I can’t not yet any way please it’s too much.” Tears streamed down her face as she fought against Malaky’s hold beating his chest with her fists.
Malaky stiffened his resolve his voice cracking with emotion as he spoke, “There is more to it than that as you well know, as to prince Michael he is not squabbling over the spoils like the rest of them but I don’t know if he can be trusted. You have no friends but, Mercy and a few of the servants besides myself at the palace.”
Malaky waited while she stopped sobbing before telling her of his escape plan. She had listened in silence almost to calmly he thought; he feared to leave her alone at such a time lest she do herself harm, but he had seen her chin lift and her expression became determined as she brought herself under firm control and offered her suggestions to his plan. Malaky smiled as he remembered her last words before leaving her room “How do I know I can trust you,” she had said, he swore his life to her and put a dagger into her hands telling her to kill him then and there if he doubted his loyalty. “I have never doubted your loyalty or friendship brave Malaky, but it’s nice to have it confirmed.” She had said a weak smile touching her pale face. Yes, she had been well named Katawyn of the cat Malaky thought for she could be as cunning and determined as a cat when needed. Would it be enough though; he hoped it would.
Returning to his quarters after speaking with Mercy, Malaky considered his course. Arrangements were now well in hand to spirit Katawyn to safety. It would happen on the day of the funeral rite for her father when all the family would be at the funeral. He knew no one would dare move against Katawyn before then fearing the unwanted scandal the sudden death or disappearance of the illegitimate daughter of the King might bring at such a time, but once it was over that would be a different matter. Malaky considered again the prophecy spoken over Katawyn when she was but an infant, by the magician Tobias.
According to the prophecy, the death of the king would herald the break up of the Tarel Empire first forged by king Gregors ancestor Tarlyn the Great more than a thousand years ago. In recent times during king Gregor's reign relations with many of the countries in the empire had been strained to breaking point. The late king had worked hard to try and hold the realm together now with his death all would seem to be lost, but the prophecy had said. “The blind child shall see that which no one else can, and the beasts of the forest shall follow her. She will rally the people to the light and claim that which is her birth right.” Malaky puzzled over that part it seemed to be referring to the Tarel throne.
Logic followed for her to claim it, all those in line before her must be dead, but there was more. “Only one can oppose her and make her see, together they shall make anew that which has been broken. With the stewardship of the beasts to help keep the peace many would abhor as an unholy alliance that what they forge but none shall challenge less they fall prey to a greater evil.” A strange and spurious prophecy indeed as it seemed to both vindicate and condemn that what Katawyn must do. Malaky sighed deeply was he saving Katawyn to have her become an even greater tyrant than the queen and her favourite son Prince Rupert would be. Rupert would be no more than a puppet Malaky knew. The queen would be the real power behind the throne now, and she would waste no time in ridding herself of the one person she hated more than anything. Alexia didn’t need any prophesy to help make her mind up she would act to have Katawyn removed permanently as soon as she could. A moments fear sent his pulse racing would she be rash enough to try before the funeral rite. Malaky relaxed no she would not take that risk.
What of the others though, the two sisters Shama and Deena were too wrapped up in themselves, and what they could get out of it they had no love for Katawyn nor did they hate her either to them she might as well not exist. Also, they had no wish to seize the throne for themselves as long as they continued to live as they have had up to now. Rupert was his mother’s son through and through and would follow her lead. Only prince Michael remained an unknown factor he had always shown kindness towards Katawyn and had occasionally visited Katawyn since her seclusion. Rupert worried Malaky more though, what if he decided to act on his own in some vane assertion to prove his manhood that he was in control and not his mother. Malaky cursed he would have to go back and warn Katawyn and get Mercy to stay close while he finalised their plans for escape.
Prince Michael strode along the corridor only vaguely acknowledging the condolences from the servants as he passed by them busy with their daily chores. He stopped in the kitchen a moment grabbing a small fruit pie from the skillet. Charla, the cook, smiled sympathetically at him while expressing her sorrow at his sad loss, she scolded him for not getting enough to eat telling him how his poor father would not rest on the other side seeing how his youngest son was wasting away because of his death.
"He would not want to see you tear yourself apart so," a tear ran down her cheek as she berated him. He forced a smile to his face thanking Charla for her sympathy and concern. She had always been more like a mother to him than his birth mother. He grabbed a few extra cakes on his way out. Rubbing his red-rimmed eyes, he headed towards the near-empty east tower. He needed to speak with Katawyn only she would understand what he was going through, he could talk to her tell her of the terrible emptiness inside him since his father's death; no one else seemed to care that his father was dead or how he died. He had a suspicion that his father may have been, slowly poisoned, but he dared not voice such doubts without proof lest he is the next to fall suddenly ill with some unknown and incurable ailment. Moonlight lit the gloom of the courtyard as he crossed and entered the east tower he pushed the heavy wooden door close behind him and strode along the dim corridor towards the narrow stairway leading up to Katawyn’s room.
Katawyn felt her way to the narrow cot; instinctively she knew where every piece of furniture was placed in the room and could move around deftly so that anyone seeing her might think she was not blind at all. She sat down on the edge of the cot biting her bottom lip in worry. Grief bubbled just under the surface waiting for her to open the floodgates. She longed to lie down and weep until she could cry no more. Her father the King was dead, heartbroken she tried to visualise his face, though she had never seen what he looked like she thought she knew. His had been a kind gentle face creased with lines of worry from the heavy responsibility he had borne. His eyes were brown like hers, Malaky had told her that. She imagined him in her mind's eye, wise, strong standing tall and proud in his royal finery. She shook her head fighting back the tears from her eyes she had to be strong there would be time to grief later when she was safely away from the palace. For a long time, it seemed Katawyn sat trembling. She had to be strong she told herself once more, she could grieve later when she was safe.
The door creaked open Katawyn held her breath whoever had come had taken great pains to move unheard she had acute hearing and could generally hear anyone approaching from the other side of the door. She smelt the oily resin and burning wood from a torch mixed with sweat and wine. She knew Malaky’s smell, and how he walked it could not be him, by the odour she believed the person to be male; so it couldn’t be Mercy beside Mercy always announced herself. Had the queen decided to act already and sent an assassin to dispose of her. She had left the dagger Malaky had given her on the chair. Mind racing Katawyn fought back panic she needed time to think. The blade she had to get to the blade, standing she edged her way back towards the chair as if to greet whomever it was.
“Who is there? Who comes to visit a poor blind girl?” Her heart pounded loudly in her ears as her hands felt the back of the chair. “I know it’s not Mercy or the jester who sometimes visits me as they usually speak when entering my room, perhaps you are new to the palace and have lost your way.” Sitting slowly down, she felt the dagger underneath her; shifting about on the chair in the pretext to make herself more comfortable her hand closed on the cold hilt of the knife as she drew it to her side.
“Well you are a pretty one,” a voice came defiantly male, though slurred in speech from somewhere in front of her.
She could feel the heat from the torch as he drew near. That voice where she had heard that voice before, it was a long time ago, but she had heard it before she was sure. Suddenly it came to her, and she spoke his name, “Rupert!”
“Ah I see you remember me sister dear,” he said snidely managing to make the word sister sound dirty.
“Nice of you to visit me, Rupert, if you’ve come to tell me of the Kings death the jester already told me,” her voice trembled in spite of her best efforts to hold it steady; her heart raced faster. Rupert laughed as he moved to the side she heard him place the torch in a wall sconce
“I had planned to throw you from a balcony perhaps or something similar. It would be easy to say you just stumbled off the balcony a blind girl wondering about unattended and all that. But I’d no idea you had grown to be such a pretty thing. I think I’ll have a bit sport first you might even enjoy it,” Rupert said. His voice cloying trembled with excited anticipation.
Katawyn swallowed hard, gripping the dagger tighter in her hand as she tried to make her mind work, she felt frozen to the chair as she heard him approach. “It’s the least I can do for you sister dear before I dispose of you,” his hot breath reeked of wine sickening her as he lent over his voice low and menacing.
Prince Michael heard voices coming from Katawyn’s room as he reached the top of the stairs; it wasn’t until he neared the door that he recognised his brother’s voice. He stopped in mid-stride hardly daring to move or breathe. For Rupert to be here bode no good for Katawyn. He was no match for his older brother with a sword or any weapon for that matter. He tried to think what he could do to save Katawyn from whatever Rupert might be planning; to barge in, to her defence would most likely endanger both their lives. Rupert had a foul temper, and Michael believed him a little mad. He had once seen him kill a man in a fit of rage just for speaking out of term to him. Of course, his mother kept the worst of Rupert’s accesses from his father those few incidents what did reach the king's ear she had been quick to defend her favourite son against and had turned the circumstances around in Rupert’s favour. Michael suspected his father had known the truth, and had either been unable to prove anything or felt unable to act against his eldest offspring.
The door was slightly ajar, and he could see Rupert’s back through the gap as he grabbed Katawyn roughly, suddenly Rupert jumped back cursing and calling Katawyn vile names. He grabbed her wrist with one hand twisting it until a dagger fell to the floor then he slapped her hard across the face with his free hand she reeled backwards into the chair over balancing toppling onto the floor hitting her head hard and groaning. Michael feared she was losing consciousness; he could not bear it any longer without thinking he strode into the room.
Head spinning Katawyn fought against greater darkness trying to engulf her; she had to remain conscious, she had to fight back. She pushed along the floor moving away from the torchlight into the shadows as Rupert made another grab for her. Suddenly he stopped as someone entered the room.
“Ah Rupert there you are, what’s this has the girl fallen, no doubt overcome by the news of our father's death I suppose,” Michael pretended not to notice the dagger on the floor or the fact that Rupert had grabbed Katawyn by a leg as she tried to escape him. As he stepped forward, he kicked the dagger under the cot pretending to stumble.
“Damn what was that it’s a bit dim in this room don’t know how you can see what you're doing though I don’t suppose it bothers her being blind and all, here let me help you get her up.”
Rupert controlled his temper his face contorting to a mask of feyned concern taken off his guard he could do nothing but go along with Michael without giving himself away. Getting rid of the slut of a blind girl was one thing but for his brother to be found dead or disappear right now would be too much.
“Ah... Yes, thank you, brother, I’d just finished telling the girl the sad news, it’s as you say the shock was a bit much for her.” He wasn’t so sure Michael was as stupid as he appeared to be acting but even slightly drunk he was no fool he could wait. He knew their beloved mother wanted the girl done away with as soon as convenient. He meant to do it himself and enjoy every moment of it. Mother would not be pleased with him getting personally involved he knew; but then he will soon be king he could do as he wished. Let his fool brother have his moment while he could. He smiled as he helped Michael get the girl back on the chair.
“Oh I almost forgot Rupert mother is looking for you and I don’t think she is too happy,” it was a half-truth she had asked about Rupert’s whereabouts, but she wasn’t looking for him. Rupert’s sly smile faded a little but never entirely left his face. Katawyn had remained silent while they had helped her up into the chair thankfully Michael thought. One wrong word could have ruined them both; Michael waited while Rupert left then put his a finger to her lips before going to the door watching and listening to make sure Rupert had left.
Katawyn’s pale face turned paler as she heard Michael at the door, she began to doubt even prince Michael’s intentions. Had he got rid of Rupert so he could do the deed himself surely not? She shivered trying to bring herself under control; this was all some horrible nightmare. Any minute now she would wake up and all would as it was before. Her father would be alive and come to wish her a happy birthday; it would be fantastic. It was not to be though she trembled as Michael’s quiet footsteps approached. Michael took her hand in his she could feel his hands shaking like her own.
“Katy I’m sorry I couldn’t do more, I was so afraid he would have killed us both,” Michael said shuddering, by his voice, Katawyn realised he kneeled in front of her. “I had come to talk to you about father and how lonely I’ve felt since his passing though it is only this day already I feel so empty inside I knew you would feel the same,” he took a breath sighing. “I hoped we might take some comfort in sharing our grief. When I heard Rupert’s voice, I froze in fear. Please, can you forgive me, forgive my cowardice..”
“What has happened here,” a voice came from the door, Michael jumped instinctively turning and drawing his sword to face the speaker. Only to stare into the painted face of the jester behind him stood Mercy the maid both looked at Michael accusingly. Katawyn let out a breath tears of relief ran down her cheeks she shook her head and raised a hand for all to be silent.
“It’s all right Malaky, Michael saved me Rupert was here and tried to kill me if it weren’t for Prince Michael’s timely intervention I would probably be dead by now.” The jester relaxed a little as Mercy rushed to Katawyn’s side with promises that she wouldn’t leave her alone until they were safely away from the palace. The jester grimaced at the maid for letting out the fact they planned to flee the palace; still not trusting the young prince he eyed him warily. The prince raised an eyebrow as he returned his sword to its sheath and brushed back blonde hair from his eyes. They were the same brown eyes that their father had, the jester noted.
“It is wise you plan to get Katawyn away from here, I fear I have made an enemy of my brother also. I to will have to leave if I wish to stay healthy, perhaps....” The prince began
“No!” the jester interrupted sharply shaking his head though he knew the manner in which he spoke to a high prince was disrespectful and insulting. The jester did not seem to care nor did the prince seem to take any offence other than offering a disapproving frown.
“Why not Malaky prince Michael saved my life....” Katawyn began tactfully.
“No! I’ve made provision for a small number any more will be too risky,’ the jester interrupted again more forcefully.
“Malaky I insist, that Prince Michael is allowed to come with us if he wishes.” Katawyn retorted heatedly; the jester frowned in silence considering his options.
“I’m passing fair with a sword, and I know a few of the guard who is loyal to me, you could probably do with a few extra sword arms along wherever you intend to go,” the prince added diplomatically. Malaky sighed he had to admit they could do with all the help they could get but he still didn’t entirely trust the young prince.
“Alright, Your Highness but only pick six of your most trusted men if you can get that many. Mercy will stay with Katawyn until..” Malaky was already thinking ahead as he spoke.
“Don’t tell me I’ll be ready to go at any time so will my men the less I know about it until the time, the better,” Prince Michael put in while Malaky paused in his thinking. “I would like a few moments alone with Katawyn to finish what I was saying earlier,” he sighed seeing the distrust in the jester’s eyes. “Perhaps if Mercy remained and just stood back a little.”
The jester nodded, ‘I will wait outside the door until you’ve finished.”
Michael took a deep breath as he watched the jester leave and Mercy retire to a corner her eyes never went from the two of them though. “They care a lot about you don’t they,” he said.
“Yes, but listen, Michael, I don’t think you are a coward I think what you did was very brave you saved my life most likely and without causing any unnecessary bloodshed,” Katawyn said firmly, her voice trembling slightly as she spoke.
“I hadn’t thought of it that way; I just knew I had to do something my hesitation did cause you some pain though.” He touched the welt on her face were Rupert had struck her.
“Rupert will have a scar on his arm for some time whereas this mark will fade soon,” Katawyn replied trying to sound matter of fact, although the tremor in her voice gave her away.
“I want you to know Katy that I think more of you than I do the rest of my so-called brother and sisters.” The prince said his voice despondent; he clasped Katawyn’s hands in his own to give what comfort he could.
“That’s a fine thing for a true blood prince to say to someone like me, an abomination borne out of your father’s lust." Katawyn reminded pulling away from him, her tone self-mocking.
Michael winced realising this was the sister he should have had, the sister he had been, deprived of, he had to suffer the indulgences of his older brother and sisters who cared little for anyone but themselves. While this innocent and brave girl had to be shut away in a cold tower as much as he had loved and respected his father, this was the one thing he resented him doing. He should have stood up to his mother and insisted and accepted Katawyn into the family.
“You were never that to me Katy, and I won’t hear you talk about yourself in that way,” Michael paused taking a slow, trembling breath Katawyn was surprised with the vehemence in his voice. “I’m going to make sure you get to a place of safety Katy then I’m going as far away as I can there is nothing left for me here now.”
Katawyn shook her head reaching for and finding Michael’s hands again she held them tight in her own. “If anyone deserved to be king, it is you Michael your people will need you Rupert will tear the ten kingdom’s apart you must return.” Katawyn pleaded she wondered how she could ever have doubted this gentle prince what he lacked in strength he more than made up for in compassion and wisdom so much like her father.
“No, I’m not cut out to be king I’m too soft, a king has to be hard as steel, I must go now. I’ll not see you again until we make our escape lest it raise suspicions.” Without another word, he freed his hands rose and left. Mercy came to her side as Malaky entered again.
“I think we missed judged him,” Mercy looked from Katawyn to the jester as she spoke.
Malaky pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Maybe, you stay close to Katawyn until we are ready to leave Mercy, and stay alert.” Almost instantly Mercy drew a long dagger from her skirts,
“No one will get past me, but how are we to eat if we must stay here.” Mercy made the dagger disappear inside her skirts again as she spoke.
“I will bring you food don’t trust anything brought by anyone else, now I to must get back before anyone notices my absence.” Malaky left leaving Katawyn and Mercy alone.
The two spoke of better times, Katawyn talked of what they were to do once they escaped, while Mercy told her of her people, and as she had many times before since her childhood of the snow cats that roamed the fabled Frost Forest of Caniyn.
Michael fidgeted anxiously the ceremony seemed to be taking forever, he had not expected the jester to come today of all days; still, he had said he would be ready. There was nothing for it as much as he loathed the idea, he hoped his father’s spirit would forgive him and understand why he had to leave without seeing the ceremony to the end. Making his excuses for being overcome by grief and feeling ill, he made his way through the gathered nobles. He saw Rupert sneer at him as he left and his mother with a scornful look on her face. He could feel the eyes of the assembled nobles and dignitaries on his back; no doubt they thought him a spineless coward. It didn’t matter now anyway he was leaving never to return they could fight over what was left of the Ten Kingdoms of the Empire as much as they liked; he washed his hands of it all. He found Captain Peirce waiting for him in his rooms with three men the captain had hand-picked himself
“We stand ready My Prince,” the captain slapped his fist to his heart as did his men in unison. Michael only nodded as he gathered what belongings he deemed necessary to take with him.
“Follow me then captain, and silently we must avoid being seen.” They made their way through the near-deserted palace avoiding the few servants left; nearly everybody was at the funeral. Michael took them into the very bowels of the palace along dimly lit corridors and down narrow winding stone stairs until they came to a heavy wooden door. The door opened silently on well-oiled hinges as Michael lifted the latch and pushed.
Inside were barrels stacked on wooden racks, the musty smell of fermenting ale and wine filled the air. Near the centre stood a vat a small table with winemaking apparatus; several kegs of recently filled wine stood nearby. By the far wall more rows of racks filled with barrels faced outwards in aisles. Michael moved down one of these aisles and stopped before four shadowy figures. The tallest stepped out of the shadows.
“You took your time any later, and we would have left without you,” the jester said impatiently.
Captain Peirce stepped forward threateningly insulted by the manner the prince had been spoken to. “How dare you to speak to your betters. Thus, do you know to whom you are speaking to.”
“Indeed I do I’m speaking to the prince of cowards,” the jester made an exaggerated bow. “Ah, but would a coward risk his life for a blind girl and throw away his claim to the throne for in doing so he has surely lost all, but mayhap he has gained much in return. A coward in name he may be branded, but a heart noble and brave he may have in return, so let us not tarry but be on our way.” The jester mocked turning he lead the way through an open door leaving the captain to fume at his back.
Following last Michael and his men closed the door after trying to move a concealing rack back in place. The door squeaked shut on rusty hinges and damp stale air filled Michael’s nostrils. Captain Pierce and his men lit torches illuminating the darkness.
“You didn’t tell us about that disrespectful jester and the blind girl coming with us,” the captain’s stony face was expressionless as he spoke.
Prince Michael could tell the captain's anger was in tight reign his men stood waiting, to see what the prince would say.
“Strange times make for strange companions captain, know that I trust the jester with my life and I have pledged myself to see Katawyn to safety," he paused taking a breath. Though blind she maybe never have I known braver, and I’m proud to call her sister. Before all else I will see her to safety;" again he took a breath sighing/ "I ask that you trust me to know I’m doing what is right, what my father would have wanted me to do.” He finished gravely his words coming from the heart.
The captain sighed putting a hand on the prince’s shoulder. “Spoken like your father my prince and nobly said we were loyal to your father and we pledge that same loyalty to you. I know you care for the girl and I’ve also heard the prophesy, " he paused in thought.. To have left her at the palace would be like leaving the fox to the hounds. The jester’s lack of respect still annoys me though,’ he concluded.
“Do not judge him by his lack of grace captain but by his deeds.” Prince Michael answered without another word they hurried after the others.
Katawyn stopped as she heard them catch up turning towards their footsteps. The jester shuffled impatiently holding his torch up to the light the way ahead while Mercy stood by Katawyn’s side. The fourth member of the jester's party, a kitchen boy, named Derk a little older then Katawyn with a reputation for thieving and a close friend of the jester; it was he who discovered the hidden door and passage. Derk was in awe of the prince, it was the first time he had ever been so close to royalty he wondered though why the prince seemed to be talking to the blind girl as if she was an equal. The captain to and his men started calling her my lady as if she was someone important; it all entirely mystified Derk.
She turned back to Malaky who stood waiting to lead them on she couldn’t see the tears in his eyes as he spoke. “Are you ready to go on now Katy it will be only a matter of time before they realise we have gone we want to be far away from the palace as possible by then.”
“You think they will find the passage?” Katawyn asked as they set off again Mercy held Katawyn’s hand and led her along the dark, gloomy passage brushing the cobwebs Malaky missed out of their way their footsteps echoing in the dark.
“Eventually, they will mount a full search of the palace and send troops to search the nearby countryside for us. They will start with Tarel first probably put guards on the city gates to watch for us, but we are not headed that way in any case,” the jester concluded. Brushing a tear from her eye, Katawyn let herself be lead by Mercy with the dim light of the torches to light their way the company continued in silence. It seemed like hours to Katawyn she wondered what the passage looked like to the others to her it was the same as anywhere else just dark shadows. The dark held no fear having known nothing but darkness all her life.
“Where does this passage come out?” Michael called to the jester, “we seem to be heading in a northerly direction if I’m right.” He turned to see if his men were keeping up the captain waved him on his face cast in shadow by the torchlight. “These torches won’t last forever you know,” Michael concluded.
“Not far now, it comes out in an abandoned cottage somebody should be waiting not far away with horses.” The jester said without looking back; Michael noted the ground began to rise steeply.
“You’ve got somebody waiting on the outside you have planned this well,” Michael said. The air grew cold and thinner the climb began to tire them all.
“Indeed, I have planned for this day, but it is not all my doing,” the jester rasped.
“Oh, what do you mean by that?” Michael asked.
“Yes who have you been plotting with is it this person waiting for us;” Katawyn added panting for breath only Derk seemed unaffected by the climb as he strode along beside the jester.
“It is, best he tells you who is himself when we meet,” Malaky began he stopped and held his torch above his head.
“Here, you men give us a hand to push this,” Malaky gestured to the wooden trapdoor highlighted in the torchlight above him.
“A mystery man then, I hope he is trustworthy,” Prince Michael commented as he put his shoulder alongside his captain and one of the men and pushed upwards. The trap door grated and opened slightly then banged shut again as the captain cursed.
"Sorry my lady," the captain flushed as he strained retaking the weight and heaved.
“No need to keep apologising Captain I understand and for goodness sake call me Katy or Katawyn.” The captain grunted his acknowledgement as he strained a second soldier replaced the first and along with the jester they grunted heaving the door up.
“There is something on top of it,” the jester rasped straining with all his might a small gap opened, “Derk, can you climb over us, and see if you can move what’s on top.” The jester said panting for breath, without being told twice the boy scrambled over the straining men and squeezed through the gap. Moments later they heard a rumbling grating sound and the trap door lifted to a smiling Derk looking down at them.
“It was just an old cabinet Malaky,” Derk grabbed the jester’s arm and helped him up. Katawyn came next smiling at Derk as he helped her up.
“Thank you, Derk,” Katawyn held out a hand to feel her way about, Derk felt obliged to help her to a nearby chair.
Mercy came next helped by Malaky then the prince and his men; they stood to look around the dusty ruined cottage someone had been here recently though as there were warm outdoor clothing stacked in a corner and there had been a fire in the hearth. The cabinet had not long since moved to the jester noted and cursed. “If this is his idea of a joke I’ll skin the old fool,” Malaky scowled as he looked around the small cottage.
“Better get some warm clothing on, winter may not be here yet but it may as well be where we are going. I don’t know if there will be enough for everybody,” surprisingly though the jester’s mystery friend had somehow foreseen how many would be in their party and had left enough for everyone. The jester puckered his lips mumbling under his breath about giving someone a piece of his mind. Mercy shooed all the men outside while Katawyn and herself changed into the warm clothes the men didn’t need to change but donned warm cloaks that awaited for them.
When everyone was finally ready, the jester looked around the gathered group as they stood waiting. He no longer wore his painted mask revealing his real face to all present. He had no delusions about himself being a tall, lanky man in his late-forties his black hair streaked with grey his wrinkled face and beaked nose lent well to the profession he spent most his life at till now. He considered his reasons for doing this again; he could have left Katawyn to her fate and stayed at the palace leading a comfortable life. He could think of many excuses to justify doing nothing and only a few for doing as he had. Doubts assailed him battering against his resolve, he sighed casting aside his misgivings he could not act any differently should he live his life over again his very soul told him he was right, compassion alone would have led him down the same path.
Malaky had taken Derk under his wing the boy was resourceful and good-hearted underneath the tough exterior he displayed. Malaky new he would do anything he asked of him without question. To his best knowledge Derk was an orphan at least he had never been able to get the boy to admit he had any living kin. Mercy was fiercely devoted and loyal to Katawyn, the mother she never had; her Caninesse origins made her a warrior by birth a little-known fact nowadays. More than half the women in Caniyn became warriors at an early age some more confident and fearsome than their male counterparts, the history of Caniyn told of many such female heroines; particularly ones of royal blood. It was this history and tradition that Katawyn’s mother came from and it was Malaky knew a central point in previous prophecies concerning the fall of the empire, only the most recent prediction though spoke of a blind girl being the one. Prophecies were not rigid as most people believed but changed with time though someone once told him those changes would need to be only minor and not affect the overall theme of the prophecy for it to remain a true prophecy.
Malaky studied the young prince next with his men that his friend had foreseen the prince would join them but not told him wrangled him a little. He still did not entirely trust Prince Michael not because he doubted his motives but because he thought him weak therefore susceptible to coercion or threats if the occasion arose; strangely enough, Malaky believed his captain to be stronger than the prince. He watched him in quiet conversion with the prince his face showed no emotion yet the small gestures he made told Malaky he was speaking quietly firmly to the prince almost like preaching to him. He knew the captain didn’t like the way he talked to the prince, but he would not let that mar his judgement of the man. Captain Pierce would support the prince unto the death, and his men would follow as long as the prince followed his pledge to see Katawyn to safety all would be well, but he would need watching.
“Are we ready to move on, time is pressing,” Malaky gathered his pack as the others stood to do the same.
Queen Alexia paced the room; a scowl marred her porcelain-like features, grey eyes glinted dangerously. She no longer wore the dark gown worn at the funeral rite earlier but had changed to the soft blue and lavender gown she much preferred wearing. Alexia found black depressing the whole business of the funeral bored and depressed her. What had made it worse was that her youngest son had left before the end claiming grief had overwhelmed him. That she had given birth to such a gutless wonder was beyond words. Her gown swished as she turned at the end of another pace of the room stopping she tried to bring herself under control while waiting for Rupert’s return from the search of the palace. Brushing a ringlet of blonde hair from her face, she glanced at herself in the gilt-edged mirror. She frowned at the middle-aged women with greying blonde hair and childlike features staring back at her; no one could deny her beauty even now. In her youth suitors had come from far and wide to court the young princess of Melphania, young and impressionable as she was then, she jumped at the chance to marry the king of Tarel which represented to her the centre of the known world.
Her childish dreams were soon shattered though as she found herself trapped in a loveless marriage. Though she tried at first to make it work and for a time, they seemed to be happy, but the king put his country before all else even his dutiful wife until she found herself increasingly alone. Alexia found other things to fill her time; then there were the children of all her children Alexia preferred her first born. Rupert could do no wrong in her eyes though wilful at times. Alexia refused to acknowledge Rupert’s transgressions preferring to believe it was always the other’s fault. It was when the king first brought Rupert’s behaviour to her warning her not to indulge him so and be firmer that resentment of her position began to turn to hatred. The last straw came when Gregor fell in love with the servant women who bore his child. The thought brought back her rage and the need to have her final revenge on her late husband. She wanted the blind girl to die slowly and painfully not the quick death Rupert would give her; she wanted to watch her die, to savour her final victory as long as possible. She had gone to the east tower almost straight after the funeral to tell the girl what she had planned for her to see her cringe in fear, but the room was empty. Further enquiries revealed both her maid and the jester were missing also. There could be no doubt they were trying to run, but they wouldn’t get far she was sure. As a precaution, she had ordered the palace closed no one was allowed in or out, and men had been sent to search close to the palace in case they were already outside Alexia doubted it though.
The door banged open, and an angry Rupert entered, “There is no sign of them in the palace mother, what’s more Michael is also missing now.” Rupert’s features contorted into a mask of frustrated rage. Alexia took a deep breath to keep her temper in check.
“Calm down Rupert; they must be hidden somewhere in the palace are you sure your men have searched everywhere,” Rupert snorted in disgust,
“Off course I’m sure when I left to come here there was only the lower area’s of the palace to search I don’t believe there is any place they could hide down there,” he paused reigning his temper in a little. “If that snivelling brother of mine has helped them escape I’ll make him pay when I get my hands on him.” Rupert wondered if he had said too much, he knew his mother would not condone any harm coming to anyone birthed from her loins. She might want to make Michael suffer a little, but he didn’t think she would approve of any lasting harm coming to him. Rupert had no such qualms he would kill his brother gladly if he stood in his way; besides he owed him for tricking him out of finishing the girl earlier.
“You are not to harm your brother Rupert if he is involved I’ll arrange a suitable punishment for him,” she paused considering what to do about her youngest son. “I’ll marry him off to that ugly girl from Arthyum you know king Hermis’s younger daughter.” Alexia smiled it would be a fitting punishment to be banished to a minor island kingdom; she remembered visiting there once it was a horrid place with a miserable damp climate and its people seemed to suit it. They all looked drab, dull commoners with not much breeding even king Hermis had always looked an uncouth lout to her.
Rupert felt sure that Michael must be in some way involved or maybe new about the girl’s planned escape and if he hadn’t gone with them, then he would most likely be cowering in some corner fearing the wrath of his mother. A smile came to Rupert’s face he liked his mother’s idea of punishing his brother. It would be too easy to kill him when he caught up with him; though he still might have to later, he felt sooner or later they would have to face each other, and only one would survive until then there were better things to do he could wait.
“As always your cleverness never ceases to amaze me mother dear it, would be a most suitable punishment for your wayward son,” another thought entered his mind that troubled him; if the girl did escape and they never caught her his face twitched nervously. “What if we don’t find her mother, what if she has escaped and we don’t catch her.”
“What are you getting at Rupert, of course, we’ll find her she can’t get far even if she has left the palace we have men searching the surrounding countryside,” Alexia frowned at her eldest unusual doubtfulness.
“Yes but if she still manages to evade capture what of the prophecy.” Alexia looked aghast at Rupert; as if he had said something so unbelievable it defied words or explanation.
“What superstitious nonsense, surely you don’t believe some words spoken over an infant’s cot by a dithering old fool trying to make himself seem important. I thought I taught you better than that Rupert.” Her words stung he didn’t believe it either, but he was prepared to consider all the possibilities.
“Of course, not mother but might it not help her rally the people against us if she starts sprouting prophecy to them,” he replied acidly.
Therein lied the crux of the matter Alexia knew. Rupert may be a bit slow, but his occasional insights like this one often hit the mark. She could not let the girl lose to spread unrest, yet what could a helpless blind girl do. Even if they did escape winter was nearly upon them, and winter’s in this region were harsh indeed. The girl would surely die with only the jester, and her maid to help her they would all die eventually. She would have to make sure though the girl had to be brought back alive or some proof of her death was needed.
“Most likely if she has eluded us she will die anyway, with just her maid and the jester to help even if Michael is with them; none of them is suited for survival outside the palace with winter coming on. “Alexia paused considering. “We will take steps to help ensure that is the case; you must distance yourself from this matter in case anything goes wrong is that clear Rupert,” Rupert nodded reluctantly. “ Nothing must interfere with your coronation next week give orders to your general’s to handle the matter, and what is required of them; everything must go as planned.” Again Rupert nodded his ascent; Alexia frowned in thought, she had long waited this time when Rupert would become king with herself behind the throne to guide him things would be a lot different. The only thing that marred her final triumph was the blind girl, and she fully expected that small problem to be cleared up soon.
Katawyn shivered, as the cold wind chilled her, even with the warm clothes she wore, she could feel its icy fingers on her face stinging her cheeks and sucking the warmth from her body. As cold as it was, it felt good to be out in the open air, she wished she could see the trees and the sky, all the signs of life she could hear around her. The birds singing in the trees, insects chirping in the grass, the squirrels and other small animals as they scurried about their daily routine all the wonders of life that made up this world; how beautiful it would be to see a butterfly on the wing or a rose in bloom. Wistfully she pondered her change in mood; she had always been content with her lot before never missing what she could not have. Was it just leaving the palace and being in new surroundings that made her feel this way or was there more to it. For the moment she was content to listen to the life going on around her savouring it with her enhanced senses that compensated for her blindness.
Derk walked along on one side of her while Mercy held her hand guiding her along so instinctively that the two responded almost as one. ‘So you are one of the kings... I mean late kings daughters so to speak?’ Derk asked his face seemed to disappear further into his hood as he spoke muffling his voice. Mercy glared across at him, but the boy ignored the look she gave him. This strange blind girl who claimed to be a princess fascinated him like no one else had since he first met the jester. He wondered why Malaky had never mentioned her before, he could only conclude Malaky had not fully trusted him, and that made him feel unhappy. When he realised this, he had fallen back to walk beside Katawyn rather than walk in front with Malaky. He needed to understand why Malaky thought she was so vital that she was a possible heir to the throne was obvious. There were enough before her though to make her chances thin indeed even if all the rest were to die suddenly including Prince Michael. He felt sure none of the pompous dignitaries that seemed to fill the palace would ever consider Katawyn and even if they did how could a blind girl rule a country the very idea seemed ludicrous to him.
“I’m afraid so Derk how does it feel to be in the company of princes and princesses,” Katawyn laughed lightly. Indicating she didn’t take the fact she was a supposed princess seriously for which Derk felt much relieved. A beggar and thief he had been before he met the jester he was in awe enough of Prince Michael who tried hard to seem ordinary, but his royal upbringing still showed through enough to make him feel awkward around the prince. He was beginning to get an indication of why Malaky thought Katawyn so important, but he still had a long way to go before he figured it all out.
Malaky led them around the outskirts of a small village keeping well away from human contact; when they had left the ruined cottage, the sun had just set in the west now the sky darkened stars began to appear. The air grew noticeably colder still, and the first indication of the hard winter to come came as wet flakes of snow fell.
“I feel something on my face is it starting to rain,” Katawyn asked turning her head to face Mercy, but it was Derk who answered.
“Snow! It’s snowing Katy, it’s not yet winter, but it’s snowing,” Derk said in a surprised voice, he had never known it to snow this early in all his life. The light flurry soon passed.
‘You are too young to remember a terrible winter, I have known snow earlier than this,’ Mercy said she didn’t like the attention Derk paid to Katawyn. Prince Michael moved forward to talk to Malaky who had been forging ahead and had hardly spoken since leaving the ruined cottage.
“Where is this friend of yours that is supposed to meet us?” Prince Michael shivered in spite of the warm cloak he wore and rubbed his hands to warm them; the night air turning cold, that their breathes came in clouds of steam as they spoke.
“You see the forest up ahead,” Malaky pointed. Though Michael couldn’t be sure in the gathering darkness whether it was a just a small thicket or an actual wood or forest they approached. They had travelled a reasonable distance, and he realised from his knowledge and the direction they moved in, that they ought to be near Heartwood forest he asked as much.
“Yes prince indeed it is, and that’s where our friend will be waiting for us.” The jester replied.
It took them at least another hour travelling however before they saw smoke coming from a chimney through the trees ahead. As they broke through the undergrowth into a small clearing a cottage, not unlike the ruined one they left behind them stood at the far side though this one had an outbuilding that looked like a little barn the cottage itself looked sturdier built and much more homely looking. Though that might be because of tiredness and cold, Michael thought wearily.
Malaky went ahead making straight for the door flinging it open and entering. An old wizened, man with a balding head sat on a chair warming his hands over a blazing fire. He looked up sharply as the jester stood before him sour-faced and grim. If he was surprised by the jester’s sudden entrance, his features showed no sign of it. His blue eyes shone like gems, set deep in his wrinkled face, which twisted into a slight merry grin. A thin hand reached up to his chin-stroking a short pointed white beard. ‘What kept you, is everyone here?’ He asked trying to look beyond the jester to see the others approaching
. “What kept us! What kept us!” We almost never got out thanks to you putting that cabinet on the trap door."
The others crowded in behind Malaky, watching the exchange; the old man looked at them distractedly. ‘What, oh it was just a precaution in case some passing stranger discovered the house and decided to investigate," he paused grinning at the jester’s consternation. “I never considered it might hinder your exit besides you’re here now that’s what counts.” The old man studied each of them carefully his eyes finally resting on Katawyn he stood reaching out a withered hand to beckon her nearer. “Come, Katy, come rest and warm yourself by the fire,” he guided her into his chair and got another for Mercy to sit on. “The rest of you please, make yourselves comfortable I have food and drink.” Then he found another chair for himself and sat at a small table close to Katawyn.
“You never told me, Prince Michael would be coming to either old man; how am I to make proper arrangements if you don’t tell me all I need to know.” Malaky continued in his previous vein as if the old man hadn’t spoken, but he struggled to keep the anger in his voice.
“You know as well as I do that prophecies are subject to change Malaky, I couldn’t be sure, though I thought it most likely,” he waved a bony hand dismissively indicating as far as he was concerned the topic was closed, Malaky lapsed into a sulky silence.
“Ah there you are Michael, my boy, and the good captain with you to I see,” the old man said; finally turning his attention to the prince after making sure, Katawyn and Mercy were comfortable. “You are very much like you late father you know; I can’t tell you how sorry I was to hear of his death.” Michael stared at the aged man something about him looked familiar, but he couldn’t place where he might have seen him before.
“You seem to know all about us sir but we, know nothing of you save that you have aided the jester in our escape.” He studied the old man’s face trying to figure out why he looked so familiar; firelight cast a ruddy glow on the man’s cheeks; his blue eyes seemed to penetrate Michael’s soul. He suspected that behind the cheerful smile hid a heavy burden of responsibility and hard decisions made, mixed with more than enough grief to last a lifetime. He wasn’t sure how he had come to think that but, thought it something to do with his upbringing. A prince who might be king, in fact, all the royal family were trained to some degree to be able to read people’s character and get behind the mask they displayed in public to the real person underneath.
“What’s this, you haven’t told them about me Malaky,” the ancient looked sharply at the former jester.
“I thought it best you tell them yourself for I doubted they would believe it is coming from me.” Malaky retorted defensively shrugging his shoulders as he stood to one side of the fire warming his hands. Derk meanwhile had found the food and drink and was helping himself; the old man smiled at him then cleared his throat.
“Allow me to introduce myself then, though some here may remember my name, Caphis Morgan Tobias former magician to kings and queens of the empire now just a humble magician.” The room fell silent except for Derk who seemed to be choking on the mouthful of bread he was chewing Tobias slapped the boy on the back good-naturedly making him swallow. “Take a drink it will wash down the bread, it’s a bit fresh I know, but I like it that way.” He whispered conspiratory to Derk whose eyes were wide in alarm; Tobias let his gaze pass around the others to study their reaction until now only Malaky and Mercy had known that he the one time magician to king Gregor had been the guiding hand behind the jester’s plans to get Katawyn away from the palace. Indeed he had contrived as best he could to bring the present company together, only now did he feel that all his hard work might have some measure of success. He was not complacent however as there was a lot that could yet go wrong.
Derk couldn’t believe it first a prince than a blind princess and now a magician; he looked around the room in stunned silence. He could see that he wasn’t the only one speechless by what the old man said. The prince and his men looked dumbfounded; it was the captain who finally broke the silence, shaking his head doubtfully.
“My Prince, this old man cannot be who he says he is, that he bears some likeness to the magician Tobias to make him a relative seems likely; but Tobias was very old when at the palace and you were but a boy he must surely be dead by now.” The captain frowned worriedly, his military mind reassessing the situation; he wondered whether he made the right decision in allowing the prince to come on this venture.
“What do you think Katy, am I Tobias or just some old fool playing at being a magician?” Tobias kept his amused smile as he spoke to Katawyn, but his voice seemed to carry an edge that implied her reply might well resolve the matter.
“Sir as you know I’m blind and even if I could see I was but a babe when Tobias spoke the prophecy over me how can I answer such a question.” Katawyn pleaded she opened her arms in a gesture to add emphasis to her words.
“Blind, are you truly? Use what you have like you always do Katy,” the old man dropped his smile regarding Katawyn with a stern expression.
Katawyn thought about all that had happened to her since her father died. Her thoughts strayed further back into her childhood memories came unbidden. The words the magician had just spoken seemed somehow vaguely familiar as if she had heard them before. She thought then of the jester and of his friendship and care of her and Mercy who had been like a mother to her and the answer seemed clear to her.
“Malaky and Mercy believe you to be Tobias and you tell me you are he, and you have helped us escape. There is also something familiar about what you have just said; who am I to doubt, no I’m certain you are he.” Katawyn spoke with conviction; still, the captain seemed unconvinced the prince seemed on the verge though unable to make the final step his sensibilities stopping him short of true belief.
“Now, who is indeed blind, but enough of this, it matters not if you believe me or not safe I’m here to help. You must rest a while now and be ready to leave before dawn there are horses in the barn, and I will have fresh food and supplies waiting for you,” Tobias bade them make themselves comfortable after everyone had eaten they settled down to catch some sleep before dawn.
Derk woke bleary-eyed and looked across the room to where the magician sat crouched staring intently into a bowl of water, Malaky stood to look over his shoulder everyone else seemed asleep. Sleepily he rose and went to see what they were doing. He watched as the magician stirred a finger in the water muttering to himself as soon as he took his finger out the water seemed to boil giving of steam which quickly cleared revealing a scene in the now rippling surface.
Derk watched as two soldiers searched the cellar and discovered the hidden passage; one remained while the other left hurriedly obviously to report how they had escaped the palace. ‘Well that’s torn it, better wake the others and get them moving.’ Tobias muttered to no one in particular as the scene faded and the water in the bowl stilled. Derk was already moving and rousing the rest of their little band. Within minutes they were all packed and ready to leave. Tobias stood in the doorway while they mounted the horses.
“Aren’t you coming with us magician?” The prince asked as he mounted his horse with a practised grace of one born to horse riding.
“No I won't be coming with you, I will delay your pursuers to give you a bit more time, then I have something I must do; we will meet again of that you can be sure,” Tobias answered enigmatically.
Tobias watched as they disappeared into the dawn mist his hopes and prayers went with them; he kept his doubts firmly in check. It would aid them nothing for him to have misgivings now; nor could he help them on their journey for the moment. For now, he would delay the soldiers who were pursuing and trust in the prophecy. It amused him a little that he put such confidence in a prediction as fickle as fate itself; what else was he to do though. He had looked into Malaky’s eyes and seen the acceptance of his role and his resolve to carry it through to the end. Like the former jester, Tobias could do no less. He went back inside and bent over his scrying bowl; he did not need the bowl to scry it was merely an aid a focus for his magic. Once again he stirred the water with his finger steam to rose and images swirled across the surface soldiers had been sent out in all directions even before they had discovered the hidden passage. Tobias watched as a fast rider his horse slavered in sweat and steaming as he called out to a company of soldiers approaching the Heartland Forest. The captain in charge stopped and waited till the rider came to a halt beside him saluting. A few words spoke the rider given a fresh mount which he swiftly mounted and rode off at fast gallop heading east. The rider was carrying the message to search to the north. It would not be long before the forest was crawling with soldiers.
Tobias went outside looking around he found a precise spot to which he fetched a bucket of water standing it on the ground in front of him. Arms outstretched Tobias bent the elements to his will. The water in the bucket boiled and evaporated given of clouds of steam which instead dissipating grew into a thick, dense mist spreading out to engulf the whole forest. Satisfied with his handiwork, Tobias set about removing all trace of anyone near his cottage; then he left himself heading back towards the Tar palace.
“A good day to you sirs,” Tobias called out to the mounted men on the path ahead of him. The leader watched him draw near them with a suspicious frown. It was well past midday now, and the fog he had created had not long vanished. But the day was still murky and damp. Tobias was amused to see they all looked tired wet and miserable having had probably wondered about lost for hours.
“What’s so good about it old man,” one of the soldiers grumbled. The captain turned his head sharply to face the grumbling soldier cursing under his breath as he scowled at the man.
“Quiet, Fain I’ve had enough of your grumbling for one day,” he turned back to face Tobias. “Old man have you seen anyone else, this past day or two. We are looking for some escaped traitors of the empire?’ Tobias could see the captain was the typical loyal soldier who followed his orders to the letter and never questioned them. Pity he thought stroking his chin as if considering the captain's question, that so many follow orders blindly these days. A few more like the good captain, Pierce who was willing to question when the need arrived, and he could turn this empire around in no time. He did not speak his thoughts though.
“Traitors you say is a bad business indeed; I have met no one but yourselves, for days now. It is not a good time to be travelling for sure, with bandits and traitors roaming the countryside.” Tobias darted his eyes about as if expecting someone to jump out of a nearby bush and attack him any second.
The captain looked disgusted and impatient to be on his way, but still, he questioned Tobias further. “Where are you headed for old man?” He asked again eying Tobias sceptically.
“Why to the palace, of course, to ply my trade and maybe sell a few trinkets and charms,” Tobias stated as if the answer was already apparent.
“So you are a peddler then,” the captain said.
Tobias looked aggrieved filling himself up with false pomposity. “A peddler you say; I’m no mere peddler. I am the great Jangio magician, and fortune teller extraordinaire,” his speech brought a few laughs from the soldiers. The captain frowned unsure of what to make of him. He felt there was something wrong with the old man but couldn’t put his finger on it.
“All right be on your way, and if you see anyone suspicious, be sure to find the nearest garrison and tell them.” The captain said gathering his reins he motioned his men forward.
“I will good sirs; I will,” Tobias called after the captain as he galloped past with his men. Tobias stood watching them until the sound of their hoofbeats faded in the distance turning back he strode out staff in hand laughing.
“The eerie fog seems to have lifted now for a while there I thought we would never find our way through it, but at least it has hidden us from any foes who might be nearby,” Prince Michael studied the surrounding terrain as he spoke. Malaky only nodded his head in reply he suspected the fog had been, Tobias’s doing at best it had bought them a couple of hours. He turned to see how Katawyn faired his concerns must have been evident as the prince spoke again. ‘She bears up well seeing this is her first time outside the palace, but we travel rough and unused routes it must be hard for her.’
"Aye and it will get harder still I fear," Malaky replied uncharacteristically honest that the prince looked closely to see if there was any wry humour in the former jester’s expression. Malaky coughed and turned away but not before the prince caught the look of consternation on Malaky’s face at his unusual lapse.
Katawyn gently stroked her horse’s mane and smiled. She was unaware of her companions concerns for her. If she had been, she would have assured them that she was well and managing okay. She felt more, alive than any time in her life. Breathing deeply of the cold, bracing air her senses soaked up her surroundings until she was heady with it all. She thirsted for more; it was like a whole new world had opened up to her; filled with sounds and smells all new. She continually asked Mercy and Derk about the forest they travelled through, asking them to describe different trees and which scent came from what bush or wildflower which bird song was that what animal made that call or made what noise until they had wearied of her constant chatter. Now they rode in silence Mercy leading Katawyn’s horse while Derk rode beside her shoulders slumped he looked half asleep , but in fact, the opposite was the case. Derk’s shady past had made him very cautious and taught him the value of being alert for danger at all times. Even in such company, as the prince and his men, Derk didn’t trust to let his guard down. He turned to see if the soldier bringing up the rear was paying attention to his job. The man nodded at Derk briefly his face blank before turning to study his surroundings intently. Derk was satisfied the man was not dozing on the job at least.
At dusk, they camped on the edge of the forest not daring to light a fire lest they attract unwanted attention they ate cold rations and set out again before dawn. The countryside was hilly and sparsely populated. The air grew colder with several light flurries of snow. The snow turned to icy rain thoroughly wetting the small band of travellers making them miserable as they rode on in silence. Malaky decided to make camp early and risk a fire. It would be no good escaping the soldiers to die of the cold he thought; still, he fretted the time lost.
Derk woke with a start sensing the wrongness around him the fire had burned almost out. He could make out the shapes of Katawyn and Mercy sleeping near the fire and further back in the darkness, what looked like lumps were he had seen the prince and his men settle earlier. Derk slowly pulled back his bedroll and crawled inch by inch towards were the jester slept nearest to him. He was about to reach over and nudge him awake when he heard his voice barely above a whisper.
“I know, try and warn the others. Silently eh, we may be attacked at any minute,” Derk caught a glimpse of steel shinning under Malaky’s blanket he swallowed hard and nodded. Creeping towards the prince’s men he wondered if the queen’s men caught up with them already, or maybe just some bandits. Either was as dangerous, he mused, his hands felt sweaty, and he trembled. He tried to put thoughts of a sword reaching out of the darkness to stab him through the heart from his mind. He got no more than halfway when he saw the captain’s eyes glint in the dark as he slowly rose to a crouch nudging his men and the prince to wakefulness.
Then everything turned to chaos as soldiers rushed in intent on murder. As one the prince and his men rose to meet the attack as did Malaky throwing his daggers with deadly precision Mercy rose holding Katawyn close to her side her long knife raised she yelled a battle cry. It became evident that the soldier's primary target was Katawyn as they tried to push past the prince and his men to get to her only to fall upon a mad woman as Mercy set about cutting them up. Derk darted around in the shadows causing as much mischief amongst their enemies as possible. Malaky had taught him how to use his small dagger to best effect, and he left wounded and disabled soldiers in his wake. As suddenly as it started the fighting stopped the band of companions took stock of their wounds several dead lays around the camp all were the enemy.
“What do you think Captain, will they attack again?” Malaky asked catching his breath he wiped the blood from a cut on his arm. Mercy applied powder to the wound making him wince.
“No doubt, they were not expecting any resistance thinking to take us while we slept, now they will be more cautious but come again they will,” The captain spoke grimly. He stationed himself next to the prince studying their campsite and surroundings with an eye of a seasoned campaigner weighing the odds.
“How many do you think they are captain,” the prince’s face looked pale his stomach heaved at the site of so much blood and death around him. The captain’s men were busy moving the bodies, and Prince Michael tried not to look but kept his eyes firmly fixed on his captain.
“Too many, I fear my prince, and this is not a very defensible position,” the captain did not hide his concern for their predicament nor did he suggest an alternative.
“You are not proposing we surrender are you, captain,” Malaky accused locking eyes with the captain.
“It may be the wisest choice, and my first loyalty is to the prince,” Captain Pierce stated finally looking away from Malaky to face the prince he waited for him to speak.
Malaky cursed to himself as he watched the prince’s expression in the moonlight. Until now he had not admitted to himself how much they needed the prince and his men; he knew without them they might not have survived the first attack. If the prince and his men surrendered, all might be lost.
Prince Michael’s hesitation was brief though, he feared he might die here, but at least he would die honourably. He would not go back to face the wrath of his mother and suffer the ridicule of his peers; nor did he fancy his chances against Rupert and his plots. Most of all he told himself he would not abandon Katy. He made a promise to see her to safety, which he intended to keep, even though he should die in the keeping of that promise.
“No captain I’ll not surrender no matter the outcome, I made a promise as a prince of the empire I intend to keep that promise as best I can even unto death,” There was finality in the prince’s words that put the matter beyond further question. The captain’s face did not change expression, but Malaky thought he noted pride in the captain’s stance as he regarded the prince.
“Then our the best recourse is to try and escape now while they are regrouping and at least try and find a more defensible position,” The captain spoke briskly and motioned to his men to prepare for their escape. Malaky was not so sure running was the best plan, but he bowed to the captain’s better judgement leaving him to plan how they would affect their escape. He went to the others and told them to prepare to leave immediately. As silently as possible they led their horses out on foot while clouds obscured the moon throwing their surroundings into pitch darkness.
Every small sound seemed to jangle on Malaky’s nerves his hair stood on end; at any moment he expected their attackers to discover them. Though the night was cold sweat ran down his back he cursed silently to himself and prayed they would make good their escape. When their flight was finally discovered, they had travelled a reasonable distance away from the campsite. Katawyn could hear the foul curses and shouts of their pursuers a long way back.
Immediately the captain told them to mount and gallop as fast as they could. Everything became confused as she felt herself being hoisted onto the saddle someone grappled the reins. Then they were racing at an almost impossible speed the shouts of her companions mingling with that of their pursuers. She kept her head low and spurred her horse to greater speed, even though she was afraid like she had never been before in her life. Katawyn also felt exhilarated as the wind whipped through her hair and numbed her face. Never had she felt, more alive, death was something that might overtake her at any moment. But not this moment in time for now she lived and revelled in being alive.
She felt giddy and wanted to laugh even at the same time she thought she might cry. Sounds of fighting came from her right, and someone shouted for her to keep going. Her horse did not need any prompting, panicked by the danger the horse galloped recklessly out of control, Katawyn could do nothing but hold on. The fighting faded behind her. Katawyn’s sense of exhilaration disappeared as she began to realise her plight. She was sure she had separated from the rest of her companions. She called out when no one answered her fears were confirmed. She pulled on the horse’s reins trying to bring it back under control. While calling to the animal to try and calm it then something hit a glancing blow across her shoulder, and she felt herself tumbling through space.
“Looks like they have given up,” Malaky glanced around warily looking for more attackers; none came.
“Maybe there wasn’t as many of them as we thought,” Prince Michael replied holding his injured arm. The captain looked doubtful as he took stock of his men two had minor wounds and bruises the third had a more serious injury and could barely stay on his horse. The captain saluted the man’s courage for he neither made a sound nor asked for them to stop to tend to his wound. The sound of hoof beats drawing near made all draw swords again, the prince sighed relieve as he made out Derk coming towards them.
"It’s the lad Derk," he called. The prince could make out that the boy had blood on his chest as he drew in beside him. “Are you hurt boy?” Derk was taken aback by the prince’s concern for him and didn’t answer until the prince repeated his question.
“Oh no sir, I mean Your Highness, it’s not my blood,” he answered his voice shaking. Derk had killed a man twice his size in a pitched battle, it was the first man he had killed entirely by himself, and he still shook inside from the shock of it. He had tried in vain to keep the contents of his stomach down as he stood over the dead man. It had taken him several minutes to compose himself again. Then he had tried to find Katy and Mercy when he told the prince what had happened and that he had lost both the women he expected to be rebuked for not doing his job correctly. The prince only gave him an understanding smile and told him he had done his best; making him feel ashamed. Malaky had said nothing of the matter but had asked for details of how he had got separated, and of the last location, he had seen Mercy and Katy.
The sun had risen high when they found Mercy limping along with her left leg partially bandaged blood oozed from bandaged wound her horse had fallen killing itself in the fall. Mercy had been thrown clear but had gashed her leg in the fall. Doggedly she had got up and had followed Katawyn’s trail all night. Malaky could see by her face she was near exhaustion and in some pain.
“You can ride with me,” Derk interrupted as Malaky was about to speak. He held out a hand, and wordlessly Mercy grabbed it hoisting herself up behind him with a grunt of pain she let out a curse that even shocked Malaky.
“Which way?” Malaky asked Mercy as he scanned the narrow trail ahead. The countryside became hillier with scatterings of scrubby undergrowth and a few trees it seemed a barren sort of place to the small group as they wended their way along a narrow trail following Mercy’s directions.
Katawyn woke, her head throbbing, gingerly she sat up and carefully examined herself with her hands feeling for any broken bones. When she felt sure, she had nothing broken she tried to take stock of her surroundings. Katawyn surmised she must have hit her head on a low branch. She tried calling her horse to no effect. The horse panicked as it had been, was probably a long gone by now. As she slowly got to her feet, she turned gradually around till she could feel the sun on her face. Katy judged the morning nearly gone. She could hear birds singing nearby, and small animals scurrying about the air felt crisp and cold a slight breeze blew chilling her to the bone. Katawyn’s immediate needs were to answer the call of nature.
That done she felt about her person for any food finding none; she considered her predicament. She could stay here and hope the others would eventually find her; that is if they still lived. Katy preferred not to think that they might all be dead and that she was alone. The other alternative was to try and find the others, but she knew that would not be easy. Blind as she was she would not get very far, and every step would be fraught with danger. Almost unthinkingly Katy had groped about and found a long thin dead branch on the leafy ground easy to carry. She felt the weight of it and took comfort from the solidness of the wood in her hand. It would make an excellent stick to feel her way and a good weapon if she came across an unfriendly creature. Her decision made Katy set out, her senses attuned to listening for the sound of human voices.
Progress was painstakingly slow as she swept the stick out in front then along the ground, but she fell into a natural rhythm which helped quicken her pace a little. Katawyn congratulated herself on her progress and felt her confidence grow as she steadily moved forward. So confident had she become that she grew careless and tripped stumbling over something in her path. Regaining her feet, she noticed how quiet her surroundings were. Almost at the same time, her senses told her she was not alone someone or something was close. She could practically feel eyes upon her watching. Her flesh rose in goosebumps as she tried to find her voice.
“Who is there,” her voice rasped sounding cracked and throaty, she could hardly believe it was herself speaking. “Please if you are a man I’m just a poor blind girl that’s got separated from her companions. If you’re a beast I mean you no harm I want to find my friends, I’m cold, hungry and alone.” Katy wondered if she was losing her mind but talking somehow made her feel a little better.
Then she felt something brush up against her side; startling a yelp from her as she stumbled backwards. A musky animal smell filled her nostrils, and she could hear a deep bass rumbling sound like the breathing of some large animal. She reached a hand out tentatively and felt a thick deep fur. The animal remained motionless letting her touch it. She could get no sense of danger from the animal instead its presence felt comforting and protective. A dog perhaps it would be a massive dog indeed judging by the size of it. Maybe a tame timber wolf they were known to grow very large.
“Well, whatever you are I could sure use your help,” Katy rose, and the animal stood beside her; she could tell by touch that the animal’s broad back stood as high as her shoulders. “I need to find my friends if they’re still alive, they’ll be sure to be looking for me right now, and probably quite worried about me too,” Katy spoke conversationally to the animal.
She had an uncanny feeling that the animal knew or at least understood some of what she said. The colossal beast paced to and thro from Katawyn’s side and seemed to be trying to guide her in a specific direction. It wasn’t long before she found herself moving along steadily the beast at her side. Katawyn wondered if maybe the animal was leading her to its lair maybe to eat her at its leisure. The thought almost made her panic and run then she considered how ridiculous the idea was, if it intended to eat her it would not go to such elaborate lengths in fact when she thought more about it, the animal's actions seemed highly unusual and more in keeping with an intelligent being than some wild animal. That brought her back to the conclusion that it must be a trained dog or wolf brought up as a dog. Suddenly the beast stopped the bass rumbling in its throat grew into a growl that made Katawyn fear the animal might be about to turn on her.
Katawyn almost cried with relief as she heard Malaky call her name. “Over here, I’m over here,” Katy waved her hands in the air and yelled at the top of her voice. “It’s all right they’re friends.” Katy reassured the animal, “and when I tell them how you have helped me, I’m sure they’ll be warm place by the fire and plenty for you to eat.” Katy threw her arms around the huge shaggy beast and buried her face in its soft fur. The animal’s growl turned to a curious high pitch keen which Katy took as a sign of the animal’s pleasure.
Malaky stopped in stunned disbelief as he saw the massive animal with Katy. It stood more than half the height of a man broad-backed and muscular. Its legs were short and stocky with broad padded paws. Deep blue eyes shone with an eerie intelligence from its rounded head its short pointed ears pricked and twitched as it stared back at him. Its angular jutting jaw revealed large fangs which it bared threateningly at Katy’s companions. The body covered in shaggy white fur.
“By all that is holy what manner of beast is it,” Prince Michael exclaimed as he drew alongside Malaky. He prepared to draw his sword and command his men to follow.
“Put up your sword prince, and make no sudden moves, ” Malaky said quickly. The prince looked aghast at Malaky,
“But, Katy...” the prince began.
“Is in no immediate danger,” Malaky interrupted. Mercy and Derk joined them then. Mercy exclaimed in awe as she beheld the creature. “Mercy is that animal what I think it is?” Malaky asked
“A snowcat, yes it is, and the largest I’ve ever seen.” Mercy replied almost reverently, she got down from behind Derk and slowly walked towards Katy and the snowcat. The cat regarded her dispassionately perceiving no threat it just stared curiously at her. When she stood within striking distance, she stopped and bowed her head to the animal.
“Welcome Katasan,” Mercy intoned the snowcat tilted its head sideways its eyes glowing with an eerie light.
“Let’s go and make acquaintance with him,” Malaky said dismounting he gestured for the others to do the same.
“How do you know he is a he, and what’s a snowcat doing this far south?” Prince Michael asked
“The females are smaller compared to the males, or so I have been told, as to what it is doing here; I think that is obvious,” Malaky replied as they slowly approached.
“What do you mean obvious I don’t follow what you are driving at?” The prince questioned a little irate by Malaky’s tone.
“I think he is speaking of the prophecy my prince,” the captain put in glaring at the former jester.
“Ah.. of course, I’m afraid like everybody else I didn’t put much credence in the prophecy. In fact, I would have said the snowcat was more myth than reality until now.” The prince answered honestly.
“Well now you know different,” Malaky said as they followed Mercy’s example.
Katawyn sat by the campfire the snowcat Ruco; she had named him earlier after she had made Malaky describe him in minute detail; lay by her side the feel of his soft shaggy coat and the rumble of his breathing lulling her to sleep. She felt safe and secure with Ruco nearby. While the others were still wary of the cat and cautious of possible attack; Katy knew somehow that Ruco would protect them and would not let any would be enemy come near their campsite.
“You think it was our friend Ruco who made the Queen’s men stop chasing us?’ Derk asked as he sat looking across at the big cat. Katawyn slept with her head resting on Ruco’s back. Derk could see though that the cat did not sleep but remained alert and attentive to every movement in the camp.
“Perhaps,” Malaky frowned as he also watched the cat.
“Or,” the prince prompted listening in on the conversation as he sat on a log cleaning his sword. Captain Pierce attended the horses and had stationed his two able-bodied men as sentries. The third man lay near the fire while Mercy attended his wounds; that left the prince alone, so he had joined Malaky in the hope of some companionable talk. Malaky glanced at the prince still frowning.
“Or maybe they have more men waiting up ahead somewhere to ambush us,” Malaky concluded. The prince nodded naturally he had been thinking much the same.
“Though maybe now we have an ace up our sleeves,” Malaky inclined his head towards Katawyn as he spoke.
“You think Ruco will scare them off,” Derk asked hopefully. He was still recovering from the shock of killing the soldier. It wasn’t that he hadn’t seen men die violently before having lived in the back streets of Tarel he had seen men die in street brawls and witnessed sword fights in which men got maimed or killed. He had thought himself hardened to such things until now. He realised however that there would rightly be a lot more fighting and killing before their journey’s end. He just hoped they would not have to fight again too soon.
“I doubt that the Tarel army is mostly seasoned veterans they don’t scare easy. I think they will be surprised to see a snowcat in the flesh though and from what we know from legend, about them. And Mercy confirms that it is so; they are ferocious fighters, highly intelligent and cunning in battle. One snowcat is worth ten men in a fight,” Malaky said. He wasn’t quite sure if all that he said about snowcats were true, but he hoped to give Derk some reassurance. He knew what the boy must be going through; Ruco was undoubtedly a mighty beast capable of killing several men before being brought down.
Malaky also knew that the snowcats were the beasts featured in the prophecy, but he didn’t know how they were to play their part in the prediction. He doubted even Tobias knew that much. It seemed a lot depended on the whim of a wild animal to Malaky. Mercy came across and joined them after having given the wounded soldier a herbal draft to ease his pain and help him sleep.
“Amar will sleep now; the wound should heal cleanly, he won’t be of much help if we get into a fight again least not for a day or two anyway. Mercy said settling herself between Derk and Malaky. Prince Michael gave Mercy a wry smile the use of the soldier’s first name had not gone unnoticed by him; nor had her care of him. Which seemed to go a long way beyond what was necessary; he wondered if Malaky noticed also. The former jester, however, seemed too deep in his thoughts to see.
Katawyn dreamed. She walked through a forest of tall trees that seemed to touch the sky. Their outstretched limbs were bare and glistened with a thick rind of frost. Icicles hung from the branches in bizarre formations. The scene had an eerie but enchanting beauty to it. Katawyn knew this for she could see it. The thought struck her like a blow; she could see! Her sight did not seem quite what she expected
“You see through my eyes my Queen,” a voice said not far away, Katy looked down and saw Ruco looking up at her. Instinctively she knew it was Ruco that had spoken. He spoke not in words as would humans, but instead in sound and thoughts that seemed alien yet familiar to her.
“This is the Frost Forest isn’t it Ruco?” Katy asked.
“Yes, I have returned,” Ruco answered. All around them snowcats emerged from behind trees circling them and gathering into a mass of snow-white bodies. They lifted their heads high welcoming back their brother and keening a welcome to Katy, acknowledging her as their queen. Katy didn’t know why they thought her their queen; she was about to ask Ruco when the dream abruptly ended, and she woke. Something bright was hurting her eyes squinting she opened them and quickly shut them again with a cry of alarm.
Derk was first to her side followed by Mercy and the prince. “What’s wrong Katy?” Mercy asked looking from Katy to Ruco who sat untroubled by Katawyn’s sudden panic. She wondered if the cat had turned on her, but there was no sign of attack by the animal. All the sense she could get from her was that her eyes hurt, she kept rubbing them, and Mercy feared she might do herself harm
“Please, Katy be still,” Mercy pleaded even Malaky’s attempts to calm her failed as she held her arms up to her eyes.
“Be still my Queen lest you do yourself harm!”
“What," Katawyn exclaimed, stunned her arms falling to her side; her companions sighing in relief.
“Ruca was that you?” Katawyn asked she kept her eyes tight shut.
“What about Ruco?” Malaky asked, with a concerned expression
“Of course, it is I Kata, what you are experiencing is only a temporary effect of the second sight. It will pass soon then you will see as I do like we dreamed; be calm, open your eyes, and you will see all is well.” Ruco said as he stood and rubbed against her side soothingly.
“Second sight!” Katy said in confusion. Malaky and the others looked at each other equally confused.
‘I think she is taking to Ruco,’ Derk said. The cat bobbed its head in acknowledgement of Derk’s words. The others stared at Ruco in astonishment then at Katawyn at last opened her eyes.
"Oh thank you Ruco, thank you for your gift of sight, I can see, I can see!’ She threw her arms around the great cat hugging him close, and then she stood back and admired his snowy coat. She turned to her companions seeing them all for the first time. She studied each, in turn, taking in their features.
Derk blushed as she looked him over and Prince Michael seemed a little awkward. Both Mercy and Malaky beamed at her in delighted wonder. Ruca was quick to add that she could only see through his eyes, so her vision had a strange though sharp perspective. Also, she could just see, when he or one of his kind was close. In effect, it was borrowed sight, giving real meaning to the words second sight. It dampened the spirits of her companions to hear this, but not Katawyn’s joy besides it was a small price to pay to be able to see, and she always wanted Ruco by her side in any case. A bond had grown between them in a short time which had been sealed by Ruco’s gift of sight.
After everyone had calmed down and they had breakfast, they set out again travelling at a faster speed now Katawyn was able to see. Ruco ran close to Katawyn his powerful legs striding out so that he kept pace easily with the horses. He did not come to close to the horses however as they were very nervous of him.
After everyone had calmed down and they had breakfast, they set out again travelling at a faster speed now Katawyn was able to see. Ruco ran close to Katawyn his powerful legs striding out so that he kept pace easily with the horses. He did not come to close to the horses however as they were very nervous of him.
“Some humans wish to harm us, in hiding ahead,” Ruco said his tone scornful as he sent his thoughts to Katawyn. She relayed what Ruca said to her companions, and they stopped while deciding what to do next.
“Ruco makes the horses very nervous,” Captain Pierce began thoughtfully studying the terrain ahead. The trail they followed wound through open countryside having left the Heartland Forest behind them, they made good time, with only brief sightings of the queen’s soldiers searching for them. “Perhaps if he were to sneak about none too quietly near their horses it might cause a bit of confusion enough to give us a slight advantage,” concluded the captain with unusually wry humour.
“A splendid idea Captain if their horses bolt and they have to chase after them we might even get past without a fight,” Prince Michael said, though he doubted they would be that lucky.
They all agreed to wait while Ruco stirred up the ambusher’s horses while they attacked in the confusion. Katawyn was to stay and wait with Derk until Malaky or one of the others came and said it was safe.