Melodious laughter rang through the dining hall. Amid the clink of silverware on dinner plates, a discordant note penetrated Princess Raene of Montequirst’s haze of happiness. Her table occupants didn’t appear to notice the disharmony.
Yet the sounds of merriment died in her throat as her heart constricted and out of instinct, Raene glanced toward the head table. To where her mother, the Queen of Montequirst, held court to her advisers. The Duke of Larkswallow sprang to his feet, not quite as spry as he’d like people to believe, as the Duke of Lockwillow caught the queen when her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she crumpled.
A horrified gasp ripped from Raene’s throat as she thrust her napkin aside to dart across the hall. A bevy of healers barred her way. “You must not, Princess. Please allow us to attend to her first.”
Ariadne, an elderly healer who had been born long before the queen, held on to Raene’s arms, eyes boring directly into hers. “She would not wish for you to also fall ill.”
The healer tipped her head forward ever so slightly. “It appears this is so. We must examine her thoroughly. Once we ascertain what has befallen her, we shall send for you.”
The soup and salad they’d been served thus far lurched in Raene’s stomach. Her heart raced, as dizziness threatened to overtake her. The clatter of the diners halted, and now the colors and scents smeared into a dissonant, aching montage.
A kind hand stroked over her trembling arm. “We shall examine her immediately. There are viruses always circulating.” Ariadne’s voice was soothing, calm, and in direct contrast to Raene’s inability to form a sentence, much less a coherent thought.
She nodded, desperately trying to swallow the large lump in her throat. The healer’s hand gripped her own with surprising strength before Ariadne offered an abbreviated curtsy before she left the room at a stately pace.
Heart still pounding, as sweat dotted her spine, Raene stared after the healer, unable to determine what to do.
The two dukes circled the dining hall to answer questions, with what little knowledge they possessed. Still, one of them gestured to the waiting attendants to continue serving the meal. Few appeared to have an appetite however.
Raene couldn’t possibly swallow with the huge knot in her throat, so she exited the room, wishing to leave the entire scene behind. She retreated to the chamber she and her mother spent much of their time in the evenings. The airy sitting room had been decorated with feminine tastes in mind, with daintier furniture and softer colors.
“Will she be okay?” Stefana, Raene’s best friend, inquired as soon as she joined her. A dark haired, dark eyed beauty, Stefana offered a measure of comfort with her very presence.
“I don’t know. They haven’t ascertained what caused her to collapse.”
Stefana made a pained noise in the back of her throat. Raene concurred. There was nothing they could do, but she couldn’t remain seated. Traversing the room from one end to the other, she spun to retrace her steps. Her elaborate court gown made swishing sounds as it rasped against the furniture.
Her mind didn’t clear, but the physical activity helped her to process her mother’s collapse. A frown creased Stefana’s forehead, but she didn’t utter her thoughts.
The clock in the corner mocked them as the hands crept around the face. The fire died to faint embers. Her stomach remained leaden as she stopped in front of the fading fire.
It reminded Raene of her mother. A brilliant, beautiful flame, slowly being snuffed out. Reduced to a mere flicker of what she had been.
I am being morbid, Raene chided herself. With no diagnosis, she had no cause to think this. Although by now, shouldn’t they have heard something?
Stefana shivered, wrapping her arms tightly around herself. Raene’s entire body had goosebumped and she suppressed a matching shiver. She crossed the room to the crystal panel. After a brisk tap, she waited for a chambermaid to appear.
“You summoned me, princess?” But the maid gasped when she spotted the fire. “You should have called long before now.”
Raene hoped her words weren’t a prophecy.
Margina, the Queen of Montequirst, lay pale and lifeless against the white sheets of her royal bed. Her skin contained so little color, Raene’s heart skittered.
The blue eyes she knew well flickered, then opened. More life swirled here, but the glow within had waned.
Raene tensed. She paced to the bed to stare at the woman who meant everything to her.
“I’m here, my Raene.” The voice that answered was so thin Raene winced.
Lowering herself to the bed, she took her mother’s soft hand in hers. As delicate and warm as always, but Margina’s grip lacked strength.
What could have stolen her vigor so quickly?
Do you truly wish to know that answer? A voice asked deep within Raene’s mind. Her spine stiffened as she gaped at the shrunken form of her mother.
“What do the healers believe you have?”
“I do not believe they know as of yet.”
Not a reassuring answer. The back of her throat burned. “Do you need anything?”
“No, love. I have all I require.” Contentment lined her mother’s face as her eyes closed and she dropped into sleep. Her hand loosened around Raene’s, then flailed to the mattress.
Raene’s heart leapt into her throat as her fingers rose to cover her mouth. This can’t be happening.
The queen was still young. She surely had plenty more years to reign.
Raene rose from the bed, carefully, so the gentle movement of the mattress didn’t hinder the rest of her sleeping mother. Fist pressed against her trembling lips, she took in the woman lost in dreams.
Raene began her search for a healer and some answers immediately upon leaving her mother’s bedchamber.
It took close to an hour before she located one in the laboratory at the back of the castle.
“Morgan, what is happening with my mother? What does she suffer from?”
The young man glanced up from the glass beaker in front of him. “We do not know, Princess Raene.”
Rearing back, she frowned at him. He wouldn’t meet her eyes. “As in you’re still attempting to figure this out? Or you don’t know? Or you’re not telling me?”
“As in we don’t know because we are still working out this puzzle, child.” Ariadne’s calm voice answered instead of the near-cowering Morgan.
Relief crossed his face as he kept his attention on the potion making process in front of him.
“Will my mother recover from whatever ails her?”
Unlike Morgan, Ariadne had no trouble meeting her eyes. Her gaze remained clear and direct. “We do not know, Raene. Once we do, we shall inform you. Right now there aren’t enough symptoms to determine her ailment.”
Ariadne squared her shoulders. “You may be assured we will offer her the very best care possible.”
Raene’s throat tightened and the pain increased. Additional sweat beaded along her spine while her nape hairs rose.
“Thank you, Ariadne.”
“You are welcome, child.” A kind, well worn hand rested on her arm. “We love her too.”
Some of the ache in Raene’s throat eased. But she couldn’t speak through the lump there. Instead she nodded and blinked back the storm of tears.
The hand on her arm squeezed before the healer turned away. Raene left the laboratory, stumbling into the hall, her mind blank.
What could she do? There seemed to be nothing to do for her mother. Nothing. This sliced through her like a rapier through flesh.
Trudging through the hallways of the only home she had ever known, Raene eventually found herself outside her bedchamber door. She opened the barrier, entering the room she had slept in since birth. Her mother dreamed only one door down.
Pacing to her bed, she slumped onto it and gazed into the fireplace embers. They were banked, because she didn’t spend time here during the day.
She hung her head as a tiny flame deep within her flickered to life. Barely a spark, but it awakened.
Her eyes bounced around the room as she resisted the urge to curl up on her bed, or better yet, hide under it as she had done as a child.
Her restless gaze snagged on what lay beyond her bed.
A large chest, simple in design and materials, had been a gift from her parents upon her fifteenth birthday. Her mother, smiling and mysterious, had given her the chest, mentioning that it had belonged to an ancestress of theirs.
Raene had been told nearly since birth that her auburn hair, blue eyes, and petite stature were inherited from this ancestress. Queen Bronwyn had been a mighty queen, who still enjoyed legendary status in Montequirst.
Sliding off the bed, Raene eased open the heavy lid to reveal the treasures she had collected over the ensuing years. Scrabbling to the bottom, near the back, lay one such treasure she had shoved there after the sudden death of her father. Grappling through the contents, her fingers finally brushed against supple leather. It shot bittersweet memories through her.
The rectangular shape was right, so she grasped it tighter to heave the weighty package from the depths.
Dull metal and bright gemstones greeted her as she grasped the hilt and removed the heavy sword from the protective scabbard. It fit her hand perfectly, just as it always had. This sword, and the chest, had belonged to the same legendary ancestress, but Raene didn’t know how to use Driies with the same dexterity as the sword’s previous owner. Queen Bronwyn had been feared in lands far beyond their little queendom. She had wielded this sword with knowledge, skill, and daring. Provided all those fairy-tales told to Raene as a child had been true.
The little flicker inside her burned with intensity, rushing through her to spark where her hand curled around the hilt of the sword. The internal flame lit the metal and caused the gems to glow.
She needed to learn far more about this beautiful heirloom. In order to do so, she required practice and additional training. From someone whose skill was so great she didn’t have to fear him accidentally harming her. As far as she knew, only one warrior in all of the land fit this description.
The flickering light of the sword in her hand propelled her to her wardrobe where she exchanged her court attire for more appropriate training garb. Finally, Raene strapped the sword around her waist. Then, with a deep breath, she left her bedchamber to duck into one of the many secret passages dotting the castle.
She took the path that led down. Into the very bowels of her home. It was here where her mother stored her personal treasures. Known as the Queen’s treasury, her crowns, jewels, coins, and wealth resided, protected by a warrior only ever whispered about.
Deep within the castle where it was rumored a dragon slept. Raene had never been here before, but the gleam of her sword led the way. A knot jammed into her throat. With her mother so ill...
She cut off those dangerous thoughts.
Word had only just been relayed to him that the queen appeared to be ill before the first one arrived. Attired in the court dress of a gentleman, with a shiny sword and tall boots, the man rounded the corner.
Vidar’s hand already rested on his sword hilt as he straightened to his full height. The newcomer eyed him with a smidgen of trepidation.
“State your business.”
“I have come for the treasure.” The little man said this with the pompous certainty of one used to being obeyed.
“All here belongs to the queen.”
The gentleman wore a fussy mustache, rounded at the ends. His hair was greased back from his forehead and his clothing, including an intricate neck cloth, were immaculate. He intended to fight in such garb?
Vidar resisted the urge to snicker.
“The queen isn’t going to exist for much longer.”
His heart thumped. To hear such news, in such a disparaging manner, pumped adrenaline into Vidar’s bloodstream. “She is your queen.”
“Not for long.”
“Her daughter will rule in her stead.”
The man who fancied himself a gentleman straightened. “Yes, and she is of age.”
“Of age for what?”
“She must choose a husband immediately upon her mother’s passing. Which appears to be impending.” The man tugged on his mustache as though he contemplated helping along the queen’s demise.
Spine straightening another notch, Vidar didn’t bother to halt a vicious snarl.
The little man’s eyes widened and he took a hasty step backward. He nearly tripped over his shiny boots in his haste. Then he straightened his narrow shoulders and contemplated Vidar with a little more respect.
“If the queen dies, then her treasure is available to whoever reaches it first.” So much pseudo-justification threaded the words, Vidar’s hand tightened around his sword hilt.
“The treasure belongs to the royal family. If the queen dies, it reverts to her daughter.” He growled this because the urge to rip the man’s head off was fast becoming a terrible temptation.
“Right.” The man squeaked and made a hasty exit.
Vidar rumbled again.
The next man to step into the large cavern did so with more caution. He paused when he spotted Vidar. “You are a warrior.” His voice was far lower than the first visitor. He stood taller and lacked the previous man’s greasiness.
His much less decorous sword likely had been proved long ago. “As are you.” Credit had to be given where due.
“I am. But not to your caliber.”
“I am Aasguard.”
The man’s head dipped in respect. “So it is true.” This he said more to himself. Then he peppered Vidar with impressive questions about fighting.
Never once did his hand shift toward his sword hilt, nor did his body language indicate he came prepared to attack.
“What was your purpose in coming here?” Vidar questioned when the warrior finally turned to exit the cavern. For the first time that he could remember, he couldn’t read someone’s intention.
“The queen’s illness has not been yet determined, but she is ill.” Genuine sorrow interwove this statement.
“That does not answer my question.”
The warrior looked at him as though he’d been living in a box. Technically, Vidar did. A spacious stone one, but a box nonetheless.
“Upon her ascension to the throne, our queen took a husband. A warrior to protect her.”
Vidar had witnessed that. “Yes.”
“If our queen passes, her daughter takes the throne. She will likely also be required to take a husband.” The man offered a warrior’s bow before exiting the cavern on silent feet.
After he left, Vidar realized the warrior hadn’t answered his question.
He had little time to catch his breath before the next man stalked into the cavern. This one came with sword in hand, a snarl on his face, and liquor on his breath.
A shadow lurked behind him, a friend or comrade.
The astringent cloud surrounding him made Vidar’s eyes water. One blow against the man, and he toppled. The cavern took care of him, as it always did.
The man waiting in the shadows jumped into the battle next, and he hadn’t been indulging. No alcohol cloud surrounded him, but the fever in his eyes told a different story. By the first clang of metal on metal, Vidar had assessed the man’s strengths and weaknesses.
The defeat of this opponent produced an unexpected yawn. He pondered a hot beverage, preferably caffeinated.
Again, the cavern cleared itself. After these two, a steady stream of treasure seekers offered up a diversion for a time and kept him from that beverage. As the grunts and cries of defeat rang through the cavern, he wondered at the extent of the queen’s debilitation.
The path proved rocky in places, smooth in others, and then around the next bend, treacherous as well. Raene climbed over several rock falls and squeezed through a space that had collapsed. She made a note to have this path cleared immediately. They needed ready access to the treasury at all times.
She turned a corner into a space she thought she’d never been. Yet that wasn’t so. Raene had visited with her parents, once, as a child. Even after seeing twenty-five summers, this place looked as large and grand as she remembered.
Then it had been cavernous, and today, the echoing largeness had not changed. She blinked in the wake of such majesty as the rocky ceiling towered taller than the trees outside. Larger than the park within the castle grounds but stark, despite the wash of colors from the various granite and marble slabs that had been carved out to create this chamber.
And there standing in front of one solid wall stood the reason she had come. Although not anywhere near as tall as the ceiling, he did not appear diminutive within the echoing space. One did not call an Aasguard warrior small.
They were broad, muscular, with the strength of three men or more. No one actually knew, as their strength wasn’t quantifiable. An Aasguard did not cease fighting until the fighting ceased. He kept on until all foes were vanquished. While not immortal, it was difficult to kill an Aasguard.
This specimen would be considered short at only six and a half feet in height. He made up for this in sheer immensity of chest, arms, and tree-trunk-sized thighs. No one would make the mistake of calling him handsome in the typical sense, although her heart did pound an extra beat or two. As though hewn from the same granite as the stones around them, this warrior was as solid and dependable.
Ever alert, an Aasguard required little to function while on duty. As far as she knew, this one had been standing at his post since her mother was crowned the Queen of Montequirst. Raene hesitated before venturing closer.
The long sword at his side nearly matched her height. She gulped and contemplated fleeing in the same direction she had come. The image of her mother, bedridden now, and Raene’s inability to prevent her suffering, made her straighten her shoulders and continue her approach.
“Come no further.” The command was uttered in the graveled tones of two rocks rubbing together.
It sent a skitter of something other than fear down her spine. She stepped closer.
Indeed, nothing could have prevented her from doing so.
The warrior straightened his massive length. “This is forbidden.” His inflection didn’t change, but his burning silver eyes pierced her. They glowed as though they saw far more than the outward. A shiver undulated down her spine.
He squared his shoulders, hand resting on his sword hilt, on the balls of his feet.
His shadow is bigger than me.
Her second gulp was audible.
Yet if she didn’t set her course now... Retreat ceased to be an option, despite the way her heart pounded too loudly in her ears.
Eyes narrowing, Raene drew her sword. Although she hadn’t practiced nearly like she should have, the weapon flowed from the sheath with deadly precision.
The warrior sighed deep. When he drew his sword, the echo of metal on old leather made sweat pool along her spine. His hand clasped the hilt with practiced ease, as though sword and hand were one.
By the time he countered her opening thrust, her heart had jumped into her mouth.
You are so out of your depth here, her inner voice yelped. This is a true warrior. We cannot hope to fight this one and win.
But she gritted her teeth and parried his forward blow. I am not here to win. Not at this juncture. The need to defend herself, to learn all she could, set her jaw.
Perhaps I am a novice, but we continue, she stated in determined tones to her skeptical self. This needed doing, so they would do it.
His lazy counter sent pain ricocheting up her arm. She breathed through the pain, and offered up her best defensive move. While clumsy and weak, she did remain on her feet.
The only advantage she had proved to be her size. The delightful muscles bunching and releasing with his every movement were pretty, but their sheer girth proved a hindrance to him.
She ducked under his sword and jabbed with a small dance that came naturally to her.
He backpedaled to block the blow, but it had been close. He eyed her with a tinge of respect.
Although both knew she was not up to his skill in any way.
When he didn’t pierce her with the sharp end of his sword for the second time, she realized he had another advantage. He had no intention of killing her. Even though he was supposed to.
Wiping away the blinding sweat, she stumbled a few steps back to peer up into his face.
“You know who I am.”
“Princess Raene.” His bow was courtly and proper. No emotion colored his tone. His silver eyes flashed with the same sheen of the sword at his side.
Her heart dropped. But nothing swirled in those mercurial depths to indicate he planned to halt their sport. Hand tightening around the hilt, she raised her sword to prepare for the continuation of their faux battle.
As he wielded his own sword, she memorized the movement, the way his muscles pulled and tightened. The action he used to counter and thrust.
Her memory and then subsequent practice might very well save her life if the future laid itself out in the manner she feared.
Now was not the time to fret. If she didn’t keep her head, this could turn out bad. As in bloody bad.
She feinted to the left, spun, and countered his forward thrust. The clang and reverberations made her teeth clench to prevent herself from crying out. The repercussion continued through her body for far too long, an endless cycle.
Changing her grip on the sword, she thrust, but his counter was so fast, she never saw it. His defensive action set her on her bottom. Pain erupted through her tail bone into her back, but she shoved to her feet, and danced out of range of that slashing blade.
He watched her closely, but it certainly didn’t stem from fear. At least not fear of her harming him. Her heart sank, because he fought as though to ensure she did not become seriously injured. The goal in sword fighting was to aim for the head or torso. The kill zones.
She did so.
He did not.
His blows hit her weapon, but not the edge, where it would dull or nick the blade. Only a tiny fraction of warriors could accomplish this feat with such success.
Her throat worked to clear the large knot there, as she parried, but it soon became apparent he would not injure her. No matter what she did, but then she was a tiny mouse battling a war horse.
Raene sheathed her sword. Then she bowed to her opponent, who slid his mighty sword into the scabbard. He in turn bowed to her. His dark hair gleamed in the overhead lighting. Those silver eyes tracked her every movement.
Heart racing, she exited the same way she had come, aware the tears deep inside had lessened. Her mother was dying. No one had admitted this thus far, but Raene felt it to her very core.
Their talented, knowledgeable healers could do nothing for her, much less could Raene, who possessed no healing skills whatsoever. Therefore, Raene’s future, which loomed with no clarity, was not so murky now. Coming here, to learn how to fight, to defend her position, was exactly what she needed.
She wanted to turn and thank the warrior again, but she didn’t give in to the temptation.
The huge black dragon lumbered from the inside cavern Vidar protected. He tripped over two of his four feet. Right now he resembled a brontosaurus sized iguanodon with leathery wings. In battle, his horns and spikes, which he revealed when he needed them, often came as a shock to their opponents.
“So, that’s the queen’s grown daughter.” Aern stared after the princess, a gleam in his crystalline green eyes that caused Vidar’s nape hairs to stir.
“Yes.” His response was shorter than it should have been.
Aern’s scaled face flashed with mischief. “And you lit up like I’ve never seen you do before.” His tail slashed at some stalagmites, and rocked the entire cavern.
Vidar rode out the vibrations and sighed. “I did not.”
The sound that emerged from Aern’s throat made Vidar glance at him in concern. “Are you well?”
“Sorry, I haven’t laughed in centuries. It felt good.” Aern tripped over the other two feet.
“Sit down before you topple the entire place.”
His companion’s resulting snort charred a different stalagmite. “I’ve never caused true destruction.”
“Romaldin, 1410. We weren’t asked to leave the city.”
“That structure wasn’t built properly, everyone knew that.”
“It’s true the courthouse shouldn’t have toppled so fast, but it was your fault.”
“Oh please, it was only a matter of time before that building collapsed.” Aern did sit finally.
Vidar stopped holding his breath.
“So the princess, she’s both attractive and gutsy.”
And he commenced holding it again. He had no response to Aern’s digging.
“Couldn’t help but notice her sword and striking resemblance to a warrior queen we once knew.” The dragon’s voice took on a musing quality. His tail flicked, as though he was enjoying himself.
“Yes, she was definitely using Driies. And she does resemble Bronwyn.” No denying this, and Aern would have plenty to say if Vidar prevaricated.
“Legend said she’d be back.”
“The woman fighting with me today was not Bronwyn.” Of this he was certain.
“’Course not. Bronwyn would have kicked your hide from here to Atlas.”
“Atlas doesn’t exist anymore.”
Aern sat up abruptly. “Really? When did that happen?”
“I told you of its collapse into the Nesslock sea over a century ago.”
“A century ago I was battling scale rot, remember?”
“You only complained about it every hour on the hour.”
“Scale rot is uncomfortable. That’s why I forgot about Atlas. I’m very sad to hear about it.” Aern rose to all four feet, and didn’t stumble once. “What became of their dragon, Fricassa?”
“I don’t know. It happened so quickly, they had little time to react.” He did wonder about their fate, although he never had heard the name of Fricassa’s Aasguard warrior. Even if he didn’t know the warrior, Vidar would be saddened to learn of his demise. Mother Nature, unlike mankind, was perfectly capable of destroying an Aasguard.
Aern turned, nimbly for him, only taking out a stalactite and chipping a stalagmite in the process.
“What are you doing?”
Tail swishing from side to side, Aern paced from one end of the cavern to the other. “I’d like to know what happened to Fricassa.”
“If it means so much to you, we’ll send out an inquiry.” He should have done this years ago. It would ease his own fears.
“Really? Can we do so right now?” Eagerness, for the first time Vidar could remember in decades, radiated from Aern.
“Yes.” He paced to their crystal console, embedded in a cavern wall. These crystal communication devices hadn’t been around back when Atlas fell. Some crystal “wizards” had created these tools within this century, or the previous, he couldn’t recall. They had been improving them ever since.
His model blended perfectly with the cavern so unless you knew the crystal was there, you’d never notice it. He tapped out a message to a few old friends. “If anyone knows of their fate, we’ll discover it.”
Aern sat again. “Thank you, Vidar.”
“You’re welcome.” He sent off the inquiry and then made certain the dragon’s bottom actually had made contact with the marble floor.
It had. Even Aern’s tail remained still at the moment. “So Princess Raene is going to rival Bronwyn?”
“She is comfortable with Driies. And she’s left-handed, which gave Bronwyn an advantage.”
“The princess didn’t seem very knowledgeable.” Aern’s green eyes focused on the wall opposite them.
“Nor was Bronwyn, at first.”
Another snort didn’t char anything, since Aern had settled nearly in the middle of the cavern. “Not until you taught her.”
“I didn’t. My mentor did.”
Aern’s frown could have blistered the wall. “I thought you taught her?”
“I remember them practicing together, but I wasn’t grown yet.”
“So she was older than you?”
“By a year or more.”
“Women do mature faster than men.” Aern tried to look wise.
“People tend to mature faster than dragons.” Vidar guffawed as he breezed out of range of Aern’s dragonfyre.
“You’re not funny.”
Chuckles increasing, Vidar returned to his post by the entrance to the treasure trove. Where, if someone managed to best him, which was unlikely, they then encountered Aern. If they defeated Vidar, Aern, his faithful companion for over a millenia, would be a trifle testy.
“I believe we can expect some interesting things from our newest princess.”
Darting a quick look at the musing dragon, Vidar couldn’t fathom any explanation for why his heart lurched.
“Mama, you aren’t dying. Surely you’re wrong.” Despair, interwoven with threads of desperation, tore through her. This couldn’t be true. Raene had known, deep inside, but so long as no one confirmed her suspicions, her mother’s impending death wasn’t real.
Her mother took her hand. The Queen’s was cool and a little clammy. Alarm spiraled through Raene. The usual softness and warmth of this beloved hand were absent.
“I have blue fever. You know there is no cure for this. It has long plagued many in our land and beyond. Why should I be any different?”
“You’re the queen.” Yet Raene’s protest meant nothing. Blue fever was no respecter of persons. It affected all people, no matter their station, strength, or habits. And so called because it turned the sufferer blue from lack of oxygen before suffocating them.
A nasty, horrible illness, of which there was no escape. Raene’s stomach clenched as she struggled not to think on how much her beloved mother would suffer before she died. Then emptiness filled her at the thought of her mother no longer in her life.
“Blue fever cares not of a person’s station in life.” The queen brushed tendrils of silver streaked red hair off her pale forehead. “I am weary after losing your father. It is time I go to him.”
So I must lose both parents? She’d already lost her father and that had been nearly unbearable. At least she still had her mother though. Now . . . The hollow feeling expanded. “But then I’ll be alone.”
Regret creased Margina’s face. “Yes, and that is the only reason why I am resistant of leaving you, my love.” The cool hand tightened briefly on hers.
With far less strength than the day before. Her heart sank. Here was more evidence of illness, in addition to the new lines etched in her mother’s previously vibrant face.
“I’m not old enough to rule.” A ridiculous protest and it made her sound like the child she was not.
Her mother’s face softened. “You are more than capable.” The luminous blue eyes Raene had inherited glowed with an otherworldly brightness, much like the silver ones she had recently encountered. “Yours will become the strongest nation in the world.” Margina spoke in a voice Raene had never heard before.
The blue eyes cleared as her mother blinked. “Yes, sweet?”
“Are you okay?” Dubiousness clouded the question.
The hand she knew well stroked down her face. “Oh yes. Soon I’ll be with your father.” Her eyes fluttered shut as she dropped abruptly into sleep. The queen’s breathing was labored as the disease slowly filled her lungs.
Rising unsteadily, Raene headed to the door in the far wall. Leaving her mother in the care of several qualified healers, all of whom stopped her for a hug, she soon hurried to her bedchamber.
Driies awaited there, no longer concealed in the chest at the foot of her bed. No, the sword now gleamed from a hanger on the wall. The clothing needed to learn the art of sword fighting lay on a stand beside it in a neat pile. It took long moments to change out of the attire appropriate for attending the dying queen.
Her stomach protested this thought with a nausea-inducing roll. Shoving her chaotic thoughts aside, Raene donned the trousers and tunic required for the fight ahead.
Aggression streaked through her body, rippling her muscles as her jaw ached. She could do nothing to combat the disease intent on stealing her mother away. Loneliness reached out to ensnare her.
She snatched Driies off the wall and stalked out of the bedchamber. Today there was no hiding her actions. The sword caught a lot of attention from those she passed in the hallway.
No one stopped her. No one questioned her.
To a man, woman, and child, they all bowed their heads as she marched past. They had already heard there was no hope for the current queen. Sorrow welled so deep in her heart, Raene nearly stumbled, but she refused to allow it to overtake her.
Not now. Someday in the present, this grief was her future. She would endure it then. But now, she would perform a last service to her mother. To the woman who had given her life, an education to rival any man’s, and all the love welling within Margina’s small body.
Raene had little to offer this amazing woman. Yet she would give what she had. She would give her best.
Boot heels ringing on the stones lining the hallways, she headed for the bowels of the castle again.