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|Set in a medieval(ish) world, where horses talk and mages do the bidding of bossy young traitors. A young member of a band of mounted warrior renegades is captured by her leader and brought to who-knows-where for who-knows-what.||
I stood at the top of the ridge with the rest of the outfit, all of us riders. For the first time, I felt like I truly belonged. My mare, Lia, snorted nervously, prancing anxiously at the cliff's edge. “I don’t like this,” Lia muttered. She had a knack for sensing trouble, but I dismissed her wariness as a fear of heights.
I glanced up the line of riders to Rael and Gryphon. Rael was our leader, and Gryphon was his twin brother, second in command. Even though they were twins, they looked almost nothing alike. They shared the same straight nose and dark brooding eyes, but the similarities ended there. Rael was lean and bronzed with sandy blond hair and the grace of an eagle. Gryphon was tall and muscular, with smooth skin and dark hair, straight as a blade. He had a way of making a person uncomfortable with his predatory stealth, piercing looks, and fine clothes.
I fingered my own clothing, a motley assortment of breeches, a worn tunic, and an old hand-down corset, laced on the outside merely to keep my shirt from billowing when I rode. My hair was dirty and tied back with an old strip of linen. I waited for Rael's order to move, but it never came. I glanced curiously up the line to our leader. Just as I turned my head Gryphon raised his hand sharply into the air, then brought it down sharply on the back of Rael's head. Unsuspecting of his brother's treachery, Rael fell from his saddle without a sound, unconscious before he hit the ground.
Several horses reared and curses filled the air as the men and women of the outfit exclaimed over Gryphon's actions. Nervous prancing made our disciplined line break into a writhing snake. Before anyone could react, Gryphon whistled sharply, grinning wickedly. We were still too stunned to respond. No one could quite believe what had just passed. Was this some kind of a joke? Soon, I realized it was all too serious. Like a rushing wave, an army of men poured out from the forest behind us. Shouts and yells ripped through the air like thunder. Suddenly, we riders regained our minds, and scattered.
Facing a canyon drop, our only choice was to fan out sideways along the edge where’d we’d quickly be flanked and surrounded by the oncoming horde. Futile as it was, we rode anyway. I kicked fiercely at Lia’s sides, for once unconcerned about her comfort. She didn’t even flinch – she panted desperately, racing along the cliff’s edge.
Gryphon rode up beside me while the others rushed to outrun the army. "Fine day, Reine,” he said smoothly, leaning smugly into the wind. His ebony stallion snorted at Lia, eyes rolling and wild. The horse scared me almost as much as the man. But not quite.
“What are you doing, Gryphon? Why did you –” I asked, confused, unwilling to believe what I had just seen. Nevertheless, my hand went to the hilt of my sword, strapped precariously to my saddle bags. Gryphon’s eyes followed my hand. He reached out quickly and deftly pulled the tie, loosing my sword from my saddle and taking it for his own.
“No questions now, pet. Come here.” He reached out with his free hand and tried to pull me onto his mount, but I resisted, clinging tightly to my saddle and pommel. He had his arms wrapped around me, and yanked roughly, nearly unseating me. I screamed and clenched my legs more tightly around Lia’s sides. She panicked at the constriction, and kicked out, striking Gryphon’s stallion. The big horse screamed and stumbled, and Gryphon released me in surprise. I thought myself free, but without a second thought Gryphon leapt lithely onto Lia’s back behind me. Lia broke out with surprised obscenities. I’d only seen Gryphon and Rael do such things in camp, when they were showing off – but they’d always leapt onto riderless mounts. His sudden proximity made me scream like a fool.
“Ease up, Reine. I’m not going to hurt you.” His arms were wrapped tightly around me, but I continued to twist out of his grasp.
“Liar!” I growled as I struggled against him. Gryphon gave no reaction to the insult. His hands slid down my arms as he tried to find the reins. I took advantage of the moment by shoving against him. “Whoa!” He was dislodged momentarily, but quickly regained his seat.
“I didn't want to do this,” he sighed in my ear. A vile smell filled my nose as he pressed his hand suddenly over my face. He used a cloth to smother me, soaked in the bitter scent of dark magic. As I struggled against him, my movements became loose and sloppy. I was losing control over my body. Time seemed to slow down, and I was incapable of resisting. Like a swift wave from the incoming tide, darkness washed over me.
I regained consciousness in a dim room, lying on a soft pallet. The bitter taste of poison lingered on my tongue. My vision was foggy, but I could discern the shape of two people standing in the room. Their backs were to me, but they were conversing about me. A deep voice issued from the larger of the two forms, sounding subdued and wise. “You may have used too much. It could take hours for her to wake – days even.”
“Damn it.” My stomach lurched as I recognized Gryphon’s voice. He sounded guilty. “I didn’t mean to hurt her.”
“She’ll recover – but she may be quite senseless for a day or two after she comes round.”
Gryphon didn’t respond. I turned my head slowly to try and see them. My body felt as though it were filled with lead. I was still tired, and felt ready to sleep for days. The effort of turning my head pulled a gentle groan from me.
“Sir – ”
“Yes I heard.” Gryphon turned to face me. My vision was steadily becoming clearer, and as he neared I could make out his face perfectly. He looked… dangerous.
“Welcome back to the living, Reine.” I couldn’t tell if he was being friendly or dire. I stared at him stonily, refusing to answer. Not that I could’ve spoken if I’d wanted to. My tongue felt like a dry, cracked rock, sitting uselessly in my mouth.
“She’ll need water,” the old man, sporting long gray robes and a grizzled beard, said gently as though reading my thoughts. Gryphon nodded stiffly, and strode to the other side of the room. He poured water from a clay pitcher into a cut-crystal goblet. He returned with the goblet and looked at me expectantly.
“She’s not going to be able to do much for herself quite yet,” the elder advised quietly. I wondered if he was the mage who’d conjured whatever potion Gryphon had used to knock me out. Gryphon sighed impatiently and knelt, pushing the cold crystal against my lips. I pursed them tightly, refusing even salvation at his murderous, cheating hand. “Don’t be stupid, Reine. You need water.” He used his fingers to pry my mouth open – not an awesome feat in my weakened state – and tipped water into my mouth. Faced with either maintaining my dignity or choking to death, I was forced to swallow the drink. I coughed disgracefully, but I glared at Gryphon as hatefully as I could.
The old man cackled in delight. “Got yourself a fiery one.”
After he’d emptied the goblet down my throat – and not even once acknowledged my murderous stares – Gryphon and the old man left the room. The door sealed tightly behind them. I was still shaky and weak, but I struggled to my feet and staggered over to the door. Even had the door been unlocked, it would have done me no good. By the time I reached the portal, I slumped to the floor, exhausted. Indescribable hatred and rage welled up within me, but I had neither the will nor the energy to express it. Instead, I swallowed the burning ferocity, burying it where it could fester.
Slumped against the wall, head hung, I was the picture of defeat. However, my will was still strong, and I formulated plans for when I regained my strength. I wouldn’t let on that I was getting stronger. I would feign the weak invalid as long as I could. Security around me would be relaxed, as I’d be assumed too weak to be running off. And then, when the moment was right, I would make my flight. It was genius! I just had to work out the details. My eyelids were heavy with beckoning sleep. So the details could wait for another day. I made a momentary effort of fighting it off, but finally gave in, and curled up on the floor to sleep.
When I awoke, I was being held in someone’s arms, and he was muttering irritably. Still too hung-over to be jumpy, I let out a stifled gasp.
“Be quiet.” It was Gryphon. He sounded flustered. “What are you crawling around for? You’re too weak to be leaving bed.” The irritation in his voice slowly faded to concern.
“I… I’m sorry…” I wasn’t sure what to say. I still didn’t entirely understand what happened, but I knew that Gryphon was the bad guy. But the way he was worrying over me made it hard to be frigid with him.
“Just be quiet,” he said quickly, as if embarrassed by his own kindness. The tenderness in his voice was disturbing. The only other times I’d ever spoken to him he’d either been teasing me or commanding me. It was strange and new in a way that was appealing, yet frightening. I wasn’t sure whether to lean into him or shy away.
“I’m going to set you back down,” he said gruffly, but he laid me on the pallet as if I were made of china. “As soon as possible you’ll be staying in my chambers.” I nearly choked upon hearing this information. In his chambers? What exactly did he intend by that? He ignored my surprise and continued speaking. “And you’ll spend the day out where people can see you.” He sounded disgusted, and the tenderness was gone. It was the same snotty, commanding aristocrat I’d always known. But I was on the other end of the stick now – I was in his favor, and he was serving me.
My head was spinning after being carried across the room. I clenched my teeth together. Even if I threw up in my mouth, I wouldn’t let him see me reduced to such lowliness. I expected him to leave. He just knelt beside me. It was making me nervous so I closed my eyes to give him a hint. Closing my eyes was a wise choice either way, as my head slowly stopped spinning and my stomach settled. Now maybe if I pretended to be sleeping he’d leave.
“Reine.” His voice was soft again, raising gooseflesh on my neck. Gently, I felt his hand brush a strand of hair from my cheek. I struggled to keep my breathing even. He traced my jaw line with his finger tips, then trailed them softly over my lips. My breath hitched in my throat. He heard it – I could practically hear his grin. “I’m a King here, Reine. You would make a worthy Queen.”
I opened my eyes, startled. Was he playing games? I never knew with him. I said nothing. Silence is often the best course – others will speak to fill it, and tell you what you want to hear. It didn’t work with Gryphon. He was silent as well, just watching me… waiting. He stared into my eyes, catching my gaze and holding it. I wanted to make him look away, but he was unabashed. Finally, I looked away. I lost.
“I’m not a Queen,” I said abashedly, mostly to fill the silence.
“You’re fierce and loyal.”
“Being a stubborn fool doesn’t make a Queen.”
He gave me a calculating look. This new side of Gryphon was disconcerting – perceptive and pensive. He’d been anything but those two qualities when among the riders. Why had he changed so suddenly? He hadn’t changed, though. I could still see the old Gryphon in his eyes. The commanding, arrogant, predator lurked within the coldness of his eyes. Even when he smiled. It was terrifying in the same way that darkness scared me as a child.
“Think on it, Reine. I’ll leave you to rest. I’ll expect an answer when I return.” That was more like it. Good old Captain’s orders from him.
“Wait,” I called suddenly, surprising even myself. He paused at the door, looking hopeful and cynical at once. He was a perpetual paradox to me – one I didn’t care to ponder at the moment. In a near hysterical tone, I demanded, “Where have you taken me? What happened to the other riders? And – ” my voice broke. In a desperate whisper, I croaked out, “Why did you do it?”
“Perhaps when I get my answer I’ll give you yours.” With that, he left the room. The door slammed shut behind him. The deadbolt slid into place, echoing through the room like a crack of thunder.
|The Ghost - Chapter 1||The Queen|