Chapter 8

The morning dawned: cold, still, grey. Heavy beads of moisture hung in the air, coating the world in a dim blanket, muffling and muting all sounds as Alexander stepped through the early morning air. One hand rested on his sword hilt and his eyes peered warily into the morning shadows. He had been stupid. Utterly stupid. There should have been no way that yesterday's attack should have taken him by surprise. He should have been prepared. Bandits in Artesia, though rare, were not unheard of. Especially on an unguarded forest road… And had he been more prepared, perhaps Caireatha now would still be uninjured.

Alexander blocked the thought from his mind. She was simply a traitor – noting more. There was no point in worrying.

Yet despite himself, Alexander could not help but remember the moment he had come back after seeking firewood. Her face…her face had been twisted with agony. And later, when her eyes glimmered with the tears that he had caused…

The grip upon his sword hilt tightened to knuckle white. Behind him he could hear her awkward shuffling, the occasional gasps of pain as to tried to rest only to be met by the stabs of pain forced upon her by his spell…

If she is simply a traitor, then why did she throw that knife? Why did she help you fight?

Alexander shook his head ferociously. No. There was no way he could possibly be wrong. She was a traitor. He had found proof. The reason why they were travelling to Comron was proof. There was absolutely no reason to feel guilt…

A sudden glint of silver behind him and Alexander stopped, sword drawn, trying to peer through the thick fog. He cursed under his breath. He should have been aware. Another surprise attack in two days…he was losing his touch…

A flash of colour. Alexander spun around. Almost at once the fog cleared to crisp autumn air. Magic. Alex cursed. Of course. He should have known. Magical fogs should have been blindly obvious to someone who had trained with the Minjing monks most of his life, but he had not time to dwell on that. The first had swordsman appeared directly in front of him, blocking out all views of Caireatha. The other appeared to his right. Taking a breath, Alexander jumped back. He was just in time to dodge the clash of metal upon metal. Another came to him from behind. He stepped to the side. His sword swung down and up, forcing his assailant upon his other teammates.

A tiny whistle of wind – he had locked swords with yet another attacker.

What in the hells-? Bandits don't fight like –

His thoughts were interrupted as his four attackers renewed their assault. He was forced back before he twisted away and kicked one straight in the eye. A well-placed punch downed another. Risking a few precious seconds, Alexander took a glance at Caireatha from the corner of his eye. His stomach clenched. She could barely keep upright, her stumbling steps dodging the attacks from her assailants with more luck than skill.

The slice of a sword whistled by his head, near cutting him into two. Gritting his teeth, Alexander forced himself to fight his attackers as another bore down upon him from above. Deftly he blocked the blows with his forearms and lunged forwards, neatly slicing one attacker in the gut.

The man heaved forward in pain as an unearthly stench filled the air, hands clutching at the red liquid seeping from his stomach as he sank to the ground.

There was no time to think about his small victory. Twisting around he locked swords, as yet another assailant seemed to appear from nowhere to replace his fallen comrade. The clash of metal upon metal echoed through the forest.

Swivelling, Alexander tried to get another glimpse of Caireatha as he blocked the slashes from one of the attackers, but the panic had already begun rising. It is exactly like the day we lost Silvia…

Too late, he noticed a sword, slicing towards him. Barely dodging, he felt the cutting edge graze his side, a sudden stinging pain and warm liquid course down his abdomen. Damn, damn, damn, damn, DAMN! Blinking the sweat from his eyes, Alexander moved the sword to his other hand, an attempt not to stretch the wound – just in time as another sword lunged towards him. He stepped backwards and met it, forcing it up before swiping his own sword. He barely missed his target. As he moved to attempt to swipe again, a piercing whistle sounded in the air.

As quickly as they had come, his attacker's were gone seemingly melding into the forest. Cursing, Alexander tried to follow them but there was nothing to track. Except for the body of the one attacker on the ground, it would have seemed that the assailants did not exist.

The smell radiating from the body penetrated his senses. Alexander gagged at the stench of human faeces intertwined with the metallic tang of fresh blood, a hand clutched at his mouth. What fighters would leave one of their own to rot…? He turned away from the body in disgust and bent down to wipe his sword clean on the scraggly grass of the clearing. It was only then that he noticed.

Where was Caireatha?

"My lord." A figure bowed in the doorway.

Cornflower blue eyes looked up from what he was reading. "Yes?"

"It was successful. They have captured the target and arrived. There was only one loss."

"One…loss?" A fine eyebrow raised slightly and the figure at the doorway flinched.

"Yes. My lord-"

The man at the desk held up a hand to silence his subordinate, before nodding. "Very well." He waved his hand in dismissal. With the tiniest lifting of the corner of his mouth, he picked up a dagger off the desk, examining the bright points of light reflecting off the metallic point. He had not really expected many of the men he sent to come back alive. Stories of Prince Alexander's abilities had circled the palace. It was true that most of the tales were exaggerated, but rumours such as those often did have a grain of truth about them.

However, it did seem that the rumours were far more exaggerated than even he had supposed.

He smiled. He should have known. Even with the lord Benjamin's help, five years ago, Alexander had been no match for his men. Silvia had…returned, had she not? And with Alexander out of the Artesian place, there would be no further barriers against his plan. All would be his as his father intended it.

He set down the dagger. Now however, was not the time to think about such things. He had other things to attend to.

Still smiling, the closed his eyes, concentrating. There was the slight hum of sound.

He disappeared.

Alexander swerved to the side, the blade that was aimed at his throat missing by a hair's breadth. His right side ached with a dull hot pain. Blinking the sweat out of his eyes, Alexander forced himself to focus. This new assailant… A twitch of muscle and Alex dodged again, bringing up his sword. A clash of metal upon metal. He ducked as silver glinted above him, swiping at his assailant's legs. The attacker jumped back, his sword slashing from side to side. Alexander moved his up, then down, gritting his teeth as it was almost knocked out of his hands when the two swords met. His right side burned. Warm liquid trickled down his leg. Alex swore, right hand balled into a fist to stop it from clutching at his wound. It would not do to inform his attacker of any weaknesses.

Twisting, Alexander raised his sword again, just in time to block another blow. Drawing it back and forwards, he feinted at his attackers head before suddenly slashing at his attacker's abdomen, only to have it blocked again. A sudden glint of silver, Alexander sidestepped the swipe, kicking at his attacker's chin. His assailant dodged in a flurry of steps, before lunging forwards, sword poised for the attacker. Alexander brought his sword up, knocking his assailant's from the path aimed at his throat. Forcefully he twisted the blade down, only to have his own being forced upwards and him forced back.

Strengthening his grip, Alexander stepped forwards, sword moving in a wide arc. The clash of metal upon metal sent jarring pain jumping up his arm. Alex gritted his teeth, again twisting his sword down and up, before jumping back. His right side was a searing white-hot pain. His breath rattled in his throat, but he barely had time to catch it again. His attacker encircled him, before lunging in again for an attack. Alexander blocked deftly before forcing an attack of his own, and his assailant back five steps.

A sudden swipe from the front. Alexander forced raise his sword up in defence, stumbling back several steps. Caught off balance, his attacker lunged forwards, only to be met with a spinning kick that knocked him off his feet. Alexander's left shoulder connected with his assailant's chest. A quick upward twist of his sword, and his assailant's weapon flew from his hand, skidding to a stop a harmless yard away. Coolly, Alexander brought his sword to his attacker's neck.

"Why should I not slit your throat right now?"

Ocean-blue eyes glared back at him. "I had thought the Artesians possessed at least a shred of honour. It seems that I am wrong."

"It was you and your followers that attacked without reason."

"My followers? My dear Prince Alexander, I came alone as stated in the agreement. The lord of Fosco was to be freed. But it seems that you Artesians have no idea what the word honour even means. Where is our princess?"

Alexander started, lowering his sword. Before even a moment had passed, he found himself pinned to a tree, a knife now poised at his throat.

"Where in the hells have you hidden Caireatha?"

"Caireatha was carried off by your men."

"What?" His attacker stepped back.

Alexander straightened. "Lord Jared, I presume? You dare insult my people's honour when it is your honour that is so sorely lacking?"

"I have sent no men for her. You lie."

"If I do lie, then Caireatha would be here would she not?"

There was not answer. Angry hazel eyes met a pair of stormy blues in an unflinching glare. It was a moment before Alex relented. A knot been twisting at the base of his stomach ever since Jared had said that it was not his men who had taken Caireatha away. Alexander knew the truth. The "bandits" that had attacked him – their fighting styles were far too similar to those that had attacked him when Silvia had been captured – and far too different from Jared's. The ground seemed to spin beneath him and the throbbing at his side increased with a vengeance. "I…I think I know who took…" His tongue was thick, heavy, as if it had been drained of flesh and blood and replaced with lead. Gasping painfully he stumbled forward, before the world faded into black.

"You dare bring me this?" The voice echoed around the void cavern.

The figure in the centre of the room shivered, hands trembling so much he could not even bring them up to wipe away the droplets of sweat that threatened to leak into cornflower blue eyes. "Y…your lordship – she…she is the second daughter of-"

"In case you had not noticed mortal, the Kestarian kingdom is no more. You bring me a dirty slave girl in order for me to gain strength? Do you wish your own death?"

"Your…your lordship…but her blood can be traced back for twenty genera-"

"Her bloodline was obliterated by the Artesian army. Your lies, mortal are wearisome. If I were not in such and accursed state, be sure it is your blood and soul that I would be drinking of tonight."

The figured nodded, head bowed. "I…I understand your lordship. If…if you were only to give me another chance…the nobles are so very well protected…"

"Why do you think I have given you power, worthless mortal?"

"You lordship, you must understand…if the others realise what I have done, I will be put into a position where I will no longer be able to help you. I must be cautious, even when exercising the power you have so generously bestowed upon me. Or else…I do not think your lordship would love being bound forever in the cavern all to greatly."

The cavern was silent for a moment, before the voice boomed again.

"This is your last chance mortal. You have three cycles of the moon to find me a sacrifice of true noble blood. Or else, I shall drink yours instead."

"Useless. She is useless."

"My lord?" A female figure paused momentarily at the doorway before rushing to the man's side. He sat, hunched over in foetal position, head buried in his knee. "My lord are you alright…?"

"Woman, do you honestly think me alright?" His head snapped up, cornflower blue eyes radiating anger.

The woman stumbled back slightly, hands shaking. Her voice quavered as she spoke. "My lord…my lord what happened?"

"Princess Caireatha is useless. She is no more than a common, dirty slave. He wishes for true noble blood within three moon cycles. What are the chances of our men being ready in three-"

"There, my lord, did I not tell you never to trust the demons?" The woman steadied herself against the desk. "Did I not warn you-"

"Be quiet." The man stood, the whites of his eyes glaring brightly in the darkened room. "You do not understand. With the number of men I have, how do you expect me to launch an attack upon the Artesians without any form of magical power? Unlike Prince Alexander, or even most of the lesser lords, I was not born with the inner-magics."

"But my lord, how do we know that the demons-"

There was the crack of flesh hitting flesh. The woman felt to the ground, hand over a throbbing red cheek, mouth open in shock.

The man knelt down beside her, one hand reaching out, stroking her unhurt cheek.

"Darling…my love…I told you to be quiet…"

Lady Vera frowned into her mirror, her rosebud lips forming a perfect pout. How dare she! A porcelain and gripped a mother of pearl handled brushing, moving it through honey-gold locks in furious sweeps. How dare Marcia's mother be taken ill at such a time! Servants should have no family ties whatsoever; it would make organising one's time so much easier.

She lifted her chin, regarded her reflection for a moment, and then continued brushing. It had been a very vexing two weeks since Alexander had left the palace. Marcia should have been next to her, offering suggestions, improvements to her perfect beauty so that when his highness returned, he would be more than ready to make her his bride. The serving girl that had been picked from the palace staff was barely competent. Even yesterday, the stupid thing had near dropped the teapot – and when Princess Cassandra had come for a chat too! If there were none of the outrageous laws on servant's rights, Vera decided, she would have had the idiotic thing whipped for her mistake.

With a tiny huff of breath, she set her brush down. Her eyes glanced to the side and rested for a moment on the set of needles, shining in the afternoon sun's rays. She smiled, slightly. It was strange in a way. Had she been displaying daggers or arrows or any of the traditional armoury females were permitted to, she would have be questioned severely – but a set of needles – it was merely assumed that the Lady Vera was amusing herself very much in her embroideries. Vera gave a thin laugh. She hated embroidery. But nevertheless, it was a good front. No one suspected that she had used a mere needle set to put that whore of a slave in her place. And now, even if that slave was alone with Alexander on a journey to Fosco, she would be far too frightened to even attempt to talk to the prince. And even if she did, Vera's lips twisted in a satisfied smile, even if she did, the little hussy was going to be hung fairly soon – the prince was only talking her there for that purpose, and because he had business with Lord Benjamin's father, after all. Servant's gossip was never wrong.

He felt as if he was swimming in a sea of thick black lead. Strangely wooden, his limbs hung at his side, refusing to move through the thickened sludge even as he willed himself forwards. At times he felt the darkness ooze into his mouth and nose seeping through him in a choking grasp, before like plunging into an icy river, he felt it was out of him. Other times it was like slow fire, pressing upon him, burning a hole into his already throbbing side. A light appeared before him and he tried to grasp at it, but it slipped through his fingers like a shard of a fallen star – only to be replaced by others, dancing in front of his eyes. They whirled and blended, separated and merged as one blinding whiteness.

Alexander opened his eyes.

What in the hells…? He shot up in the bed, wincing as pain jolted through him. He glanced once around the room, a frown of confusion on his face. He had been in the middle of Socratnés Forest, not some overdecorated room…

Alexander swun his legs out to the side and pushed himself up. Satisfied that his legs would not buckled underneath him, Alexander let go of the bed post and stalked to the doorway, not aware he was clothed in nothing but loose fitting cotton trousers. Asa he reached it, the door swung open.

"S-sir!" A mouse haired serving girl blanched, the basin of cold water she had been carrying clattering to the hardwood floor. "I-I-I d-did not know…I-" Brown eyes wide, she swallowed two mouthfuls of air – and fled.

What in the world…? Alexander raked a hand through close-cropped black hair, blinking momentarily at the pocket of air the girl had previously occupied. It was almost as if she had not been there…but the slowly spreading puddle on the floor beneath him told otherwise. He looked down and realized with mild irritation exactly what he was wearing. Barely decent and so swathed with bandages I probably look like one of those sword waving Barbarians from the old legends. Alex sighed. No wonder the girl was scared. He looked around the room fro a mop. Being frightened out of her wits was hardly the girl's fault. She probably hadn't expected the unconscious invalid in this room to be prowling around half naked. Alexander's mouth curved in amusement at the thought. Perhaps he should have given a little more warning of his awakening.

He spotted the clothes he had been previously wearing, freshly washed and folded in a tidy pile on a chair by his bed. And so it gets even stranger… Alexander walked over it, regarded the pile suspiciously, before reaching out to pick up a piece of what seemed crisply ironed clothing. Who in the name of Gilèd would bother- Sudden pain jolted through his side as he bent down to slip on a pair of breeches, cutting short his train of thought. Alex, you idiot, the bandages are there for a reason. He shook his head as he silently berated himself, sure of exactly what Benjamin would say in such a moment before picking up the next article of clothing and slipping it over his head.

Jacket buttoned and sword belt buckled, Alexander glanced around the room, again trying to find something to clean the mess that lay outside his door – and some answers to the questions nagged incessantly at the back of his mind. Where was he? The last thing he remembered was blacking out in from of the supposed leader of the Roaring Sky Resistance Movement… Alexander smiled wryly at his train of thought. Perhaps Jared had actually killed him…perhaps this was the afterlife…

"Is it an Artesian habit to attempt to frighten innocent servants?" A lazy tenor filtered into the room. Alexander turned, to find a pair of cool blue eyes regarding him with a fixed glare from the open doorway. So, he had not died after all.

Alex raised a hand to rest at the hilt of his sword, the mild surprise that it had not been removed pushed to the back of his mind. "Is it a Kestarian habit to leave your enemies armed even after you were in a perfect position to kill them…or is it just another result of their undeveloped minds?"

The eyes in the doorway narrowed. "There is no honour in killing an unconscious opponent."

Alexander raised an eyebrow. "Honour? There is very little such thing as honor in this world, Lord Jared. And there is no honour in killing at all." His voice was soft but cold as ice. "Tell me, Lord Jared, does paying for the room and medical expenses of the one who brought your kingdom's downfall also fall under the stupidity that is labeled 'Kestarian honour'?"

Jared scowled. "Do not forget, you're highness that you would be dead right now if it were not for my sense of honour, although now I think I should have just killed you instead." He paused, before tossing a purse to Alex, who caught it deftly. "And the pay for room and boarding came from your own pocket."

Alexander weighted the cloth package in the palm of his hand, surprised that it was sill more than half full. "So, where am I?" His words were weighted with caution.

"The town of Rancen, eight leagues south of Comron."

"Why?" Alexander crossed his arms. "It would have been far easier to – " He stopped as he saw the steely determination in Jared's eyes. "Caireatha."

"Exactly. You were the only person to have seen the direction where she had been taken." Jared entered the room, hand also resting lightly at his sword. "So tell me your highness" his voice dripped heavily with sarcasm. "What exactly was so important about your betrothal to the Princess Jaequelinne that an entire kingdom had to be felled when it was broken?"

"Nothing." Alexander shrugged. "I barely knew her late highness. There was little reason for any offence other than," his lips lifted in a half amused smile. "Other than her choice of a merchant's son over the impending throne of the Artesian Empire. But," he added with a shrug, "That was her choice, not mine."

Jared's eyes flashed dangerously and he tightened the grip upon his sword. "So you say she deserved her fate?"

"I said nothing of the sort. Your princess should have realised her choice was an insult to the Artesian court."

"And for this insult you would shed the blood of thousands?"

"I did not have a choice." Alexander remembered the Artesian court's anger at the news of the broken betrayal. Anger that had only soared when word came about of the princess' choice of husband that had practically jilted the Empire's crown prince. Had his father not declared war, rebellion would have been on their hands.

"Just like you did not have a choice in placing the youngest royal princess of Kestara in a place of eternal servitude?" Jared glared. Each word was a frozen icicle.

"What?" Alexander's voice rose in outrage. "I have never even-" His eyes widened as the leaden shock of realisation seeped through him. The pendant that the slavers said had been found upon her. Her name… "Caireatha is…?"

"Do not pretend you did not know." Jared snorted. "How she would rather protect your life than give peace to the blood of her family that screams for vengeance is beyond me."

She would rather protect you than give peace to the blood of her family…? Alexander shook his head, bewildered. "I do not know what you speak of. She was a member of your Resistance Movement. If that is not attempting vengeance –"

"No." Jared's voice was granite hard. "She refused when I offered." He spat at Alexander's feet. "Gilèd knows why."

"You lie."

Jared's voice hissed with the threat of burning fire. "You think I would try to taint my princess' name? Stain the name of the one I-" He cut himself off just before he would voice the words that would place both he and Caireatha in danger. There was no reason for this Artesian pig to know that. Especially when it was unrequited.

Meanwhile, Alexander's mind whirled. Caireatha had never been a member of Roaring Sky. The letter, everything had been little more than an empty story. Cold waves of relief and dread washed over him. She was innocent and now she had been… "The men that attacked us moved southwards after they had captured her. Have you heard anything in this town?"

"Nothing." Jared paused, not sure why he was disclosing information to Alexander at all. But something in the Artesian prince's face when he had been told of Caireatha's refusal to join the Movement hinted at genuine concern, and Jared knew better than to try single handed suicidal heroics. "Except this. Apparently in Lianshea there was been whisperings about human sacrifice." He sighed. "I somehow doubt that Caireatha would fall victim to fanatical demon worshippers though." He managed a half smile. "She can fight well in her own right."

Alexander felt the blood drain from his face. Caireatha may have been able to fight, but in her present condition she would be in far too much pain even to swat at a fly. The words of human sacrifice made him feel sick. Count Tomas' death had radiated human sacrifice. Was Carieatha at the mercy of similar fanatics…?

Alexander met Jared's gaze and gave a determined nod. If Cairatha was in Lianshea, he would find her.