A sudden shout and burst of movement startled the teen into spinning around, loosening her arrow without meaning to. She screamed as she watched her arrow burrow into the horseman in front of her, knocking him from his bay horse.
She hurried forward, appalled at her actions. Grasping the arrow she tried to wrest it from the fallen man, but to no avail. She could only stare at him now as he opened his eyes, glaring at her as one hand clutched his wound. "Lor . . . siith," he spat, obviously cursing her in another tongue. His eyes widened suddenly, from pain or another unknown source. He pulled himself to his feet, using the horse's reins to help him, and cursing all the way.
With big eyes the young woman backed slowly away, wishing she had not come this far out into the woods to hunt. She had traveled west from her fief for two days now, looking for game - any game. The kingdom's western neighbor was at odds with them, and all the animals on the border seemed to have disappeared.
At odds she thought in disgust, never taking her eyes from the stranger, more like 'at war'. It will be that in another week, another month. Soon enough both countries will be plunged into chaos. Already their soldiers and spies invade our realm of Tielar.
Her eyes narrowed as she surveyed the man in front of her. Yes, he had the small forehead and widely spaced eyes of the enemy; his pale skin and light brown hair were common characteristics of Loorians. And he was a spy; his clothes were dark green and brown, best to blend into the undergrowth. Fool, trying to keep a low profile with a horse.
As she watched he had dug a pouch from his saddle bag, then collapsed to the ground, admitting another groan. As she watched the pain he endured, she almost relented, wishing to give him a quick death rather then the slow one he was suffering. Then he raised his eyes to hers, and they were filled with such hatred any remorse she felt slid away. If he insisted on acting the cruel enemy until his death, she would not stop him.
From the pouch he drew a paper, then dropped it, crying out in agony. Slowly, he moved his hand to it, breaking out in a heavy sweat and breathing jaggedly. Apparently mustering his strength, he took the paper and ripped it viscously down the middle.
Without thinking, the girl jumped towards him, salvaging the two halves. He stared at her in hatred, and a small bit of terror. "Give!" he said, heavily accented. "Siith-" but his mouth fumbled on the word. Coughing, he choked out a mouthful of blood. She turned away, nauseous, and emptied her stomach of her small lunch. After swishing around some of the water from her canteen, she spat it out of the ground, feeling overly queasy. Animals she had killed before, but never a person, even an enemy spy. Even someone carrying information so important he held on to life long enough to try to destroy it.
She turned back to the spy, dead now. "If you think I feel remorse for killing you, spy, or for the brevity of your life, you are mistaken," she announced to the corpse, yet her voice shook badly. She took another gulp of water, though she had precious little left, then turned to the paper.
The language was foreign; Loorian, obviously. Half a dozen drawings occupied most of the page. Frowning, she held the two pieces together, turning them sideways and upside down, trying to make sense of the papers. When she did, all the blood drained from her face. It should have been clear immediately; after all, what would a spy be doing other then collecting information about the enemy? And here were drawings of a fort, a stronghold, something. Attack plans. Papers the spy had spent the last moments of his life trying to destroy.
When she went through the saddlebag, she found more papers, enough papers with enough maps and writing that it was clear that whoever had custody of them would have a certain advantage.
She hesitated, eying the carefree horse as it lunched on the afternoon grass. These papers would need to be taken to the citadel at the country's capital immediately. They could determine who won the war. And she was two days closer to the capital then the rest of her fief. It was a weeks walking distant, and with the horse she could maybe cut that time in half.
Still, she stood still, meditating. She could go, but she could also go back to her fief, be there in a day. She had sworn she would be back from her hunting trip in two days, and she had been cutting it short as it was, knowing she would have to run most of the way home. At sunset that day, she would inherit the fief from her father.
And if she was not there, her younger brother would inherit it.
It would not matter why she was gone, why she was not home on the night of her father's fortieth birthday. There would be no censure. She would explain why she was gone, and the Elder's counsel and the rest of the town would say and think, oh yes, she had done the right thing. She was completely correct to bring the letter to the king, possibly saving the realm. Yes, she was a hero. But inherit? Oh no, she wasn't there on the right night. Poor little Lady Kiyra, she had worked so hard as heir - but she wasn't there, so it obviously wasn't the gods' will that she inherit.
She sighed, frustrated. The fief wasn't very big, but it had been with her family for thousands of years. They were older then the ruling family, written in the Golden Book of Names, their family traced to the Kalarin Epoch, when the realm was founded. Old blood means old money went the proverb, but it was not the case with them. Though if she brought the papers to the king he would certainly give them money and they would be in high esteem . . . and the fief would be her brother's still in the family.
Just not Kiyra's.
Or she could be back home in a day, and have someone sent out that same night with the papers. She would still have her fief, and they would still be rewarded. But there was no telling how much two days would cost.
Swearing, Kiyra grasped the horse's reins and pulled herself up into the foreign, uncomfortable saddle. No one could ever accuse her of being unloyal to the crown.
Veer off to a village and give them the papers, Kiyra's heart told her. Only there were no villages close by, and even if there had been, whom could she trust? The most direct way lay ahead of her, through the woods right into the king's forest and into the castle.
Grinding her teeth she spurred the horse. Not until they were racing along a stream in the forest did she allow the tears to leak from her eyes.
* * *
Four days later, she practically fell off the horse, curling up in the threadbare blanket from one saddlebag, and cursing herself thoroughly. The last days had not gone exactly as she had expected it. Besides terrifying nightmares that armies of Loorians were coming after her to redeem the papers, she now had a broken ankle and possibly broken arm as well. The horse's demeanor left everything to be wished for, and spent most of its time when they were not traveling trying to steal her trail rations - courtesy of the Loorian spy - then feigning innocence when she caught it. They had also traveled through a great deludge which has slowed their process, turning the ground to mud and making it hard to see ahead. They had two more days to the capital; two more days then she'd hoped for.
* * *
She was wet, bedraggled, starving and in pain when she reached the castle, and in the worst shape she'd ever been in. People backed away whenever she came near them, and even the servants looked down their noses at her. She left her horse by the stables and though the groom had tried to protest she'd just walked away from him. The only thing Kiyra was conscious of was the pain in her arm and ankle, along with her need to get the papers to the king.
Unfortunately, having never been to the palace before she had absolutely no idea where she was. Weakly grabbing a servant's arm, she demanded he take her to the king. He informed her she was not fit to walk, let alone meet with the king of all Tielar. Cursing him, she stumbled away, wandering through the corridors not sure what she was looking for, hardly aware of the nobles looking shocked and backing away from her as if she was a deranged lunatic.
She stumbled into a room, where young man sat, humming softly as he drew pictures on the side of what looked life an official document.
"Let me guess," she said, slumping down and leaning against the door. "You're either a clerk or the king."
At her voice he jumped to his feet, hand going to his head like he was checking something. It dropped, and he demanded imperiously, "How did you get in here?"
"Ah," Kiyra said, nodding sagely and feeling slightly drunk with pain, "the king." At his confused look, she nodded towards the opening. "It's called a door. Where's the king?"
"What do you want with the king?" He sounded more amused then angered with her brashness.
Kiyra blinked twice, trying to gain control of herself and swallow the pain. With a gasp, of pain, she rose to her feet, staring down at her swollen ankle above her shoeless foot. "I have documents for him," she said seriously. "Let me give them to him and I swear I will leave your spotless castle."
"I can give them to him. Or, if I am the king as you said, you could just give them to me with no other worries."
She narrowed her eyes. "Sir, I said that while letting the influence of pain override my senses. If you could just direct me to the king . . . ?"
He didn't seem that happy about it, and she thought he must be slightly crazy to bring someone in her shape to the king of Tielar, especially at a time when he wasn't receiving pensioners. But the clerk brought her to an antechamber and through the doorway, relaxed in a great stone seat at the head of a table of men sat the king. The young man beside her caught the king's eyes and with a frown, the king excused himself and headed towards them.
"You're not really a clerk," Kiyra whispered to the youth.
He laughed softly. "Never said I was."
The king stood in front of them now, closing the door so the curious council could not see them. "Who are you?" he demanded, staring at her. "You ought to be in a healer's ward."
"Yes, well," she said, too tired to even try to grasp what was left of her skirt and curtsy, "I was somewhat obsessed with getting this to you." From the bag at her waist she drew forth a bundle of stained, ripped and dog eared papers, the torn one at the top. "Thought they might be helpful."
As he paged through them, his face became white as chalk. He tried to say something, but nothing came up. Then he began to smile, returning to the first, ripped page. "By all the gods!" he exclaimed, "Where did you get these?"
"A spy. I was out hunting, and closer then anyone else by two days . . . to the capital, that is. I gave up my fief to bring you these papers."
"You gave up your fief," he repeated, eyes narrowed in concentration.
"I missed my father's fortieth birthday - he is the lord of our fief - or was," she said miserably. "My brother is now. I'm Lady Kiyra."
His eyes widened. "Nobles actually still follow that tradition?"
"Uh . . . Yes, Your Majesty."
"And you gave up your fief in order to bring me these papers, even though you did not know what they said?"
She felt her face redden. "I considered going back. But I had to bring them . . . for all I knew they could mean the freedom of the realm."
"They do," he said softly, "and this means that in six hours time . . ." he frowned looking through the papers.
Six hours time. Kiyra was suddenly very, very happy she hadn't gone back home.
"Lady Kiyra," the king of all Tielar said formally. "I owe to you the well-being of my kingdom. Because of your unwavering loyalty to your country, we will be able to counter the attacks of the Loorians. If there is anything - anything - to start to repay you, please tell me. Tielar is in your debt."
"Um . . ." Kiyra said, clutching her arm, rather awed that the king was thanking her. "Well . . . all I want right now would be a healer and a bath." And then she promptly passed out.