The King's ChampionbySabledrake©
The horse's wings beat slowly but steadily as it flew across a kingdom with no king. The mount was tired, but his heart was strong and he continued without complaint, as if sensing the need for this urgent flight. His rider was equally weary, but that weariness came more from a burden on the soul than any fatigue of body or limb.
The wind that blew through Richard's hair was cool, a welcome change after the icy winds of the high mountains. Just ahead, an eye-watering vision of white amid the dense green, the towers of Castle Pellinore rose like a Symbyan mirage.
Ah, for the far desert sands of Symbya! Where no mountains loomed, where no storms spat snow, where no crevasses opened suddenly to engulf man and beast in their deadly hunger.
Would that David had chosen to visit Symbya instead! Richard had suggested it, but far more appealing to Orain's king was the thought of the high northern mountains, where he could hunt the great v'leer and other valuable-furred animals. The king had paid for that choice, paid the ultimate price.
They were almost home. Not that Pellinore was Richard's true home. His home was far from here, on rich Tarlakian soil, where a dark-haired princess ruled over his heart.
His thoughts now were not of Alexandra but of another woman, common-born but royal in spirit, proud and strong. How strong would she be, he wondered, when she heard the dire news he had come so far to give?
His steed swept down, drawing cheers from the tower guards. The courtyard was bustling with people, from nobles to scullery maids, going about their business, and all looked up as the King's Champion landed and dismounted.
Many crowded forward to speak with him, a babble of questions, but he ignored them all. His news, black as it was, must be first delivered to the one who wanted least to hear it.
The look in his eyes must have convinced them of the seriousness of his sudden return, for they fell back in small groups, muttering among themselves. Already the mill wheel of gossip was grinding away, producing bitter grain to feed the ears of the masses.
Richard crossed the courtyard, his heavy fur cloak flapping behind him, tucking his helm under his arm as he approached the wide steps leading to the private quarters of the royal family.
A high and sweet voice trilled his name, and he looked up to see Eleanor dashing down the steps. He dropped his helm as he realized she was not about to stop, and barely managed to get his arms up in time to catch her as she leaped at him.
He swung her around as he used to do when she was younger, and her hair and skirts billowed in the same manner as of old, but now when she threw her arms around his neck, he could certainly tell that she had left her girlhood behind.
The generous curves of her bosom warmed him even through the hard boiled leather breastplate he wore beneath his cloak. His hands nearly spanned her thin waist, below which her hips rounded in a most pleasing fashion.
Eleanor kissed him, as she used to do when she was younger, and her lips were as soft as he remembered, but they found his own lips now instead of alighting butterfly-like on his cheek. He set her down, conscious of many eyes upon them and knowing that a wedding was speculated for the future. The princess tossed back her cascade of blond hair and beamed at him.
"You've come home so soon!" she said. "Has Father given up on his travels already? Or did Johnathan find that the wide world was not the place for him? Father promised to bring me some snow, is he? Of course it would be melted, but he insisted that it would not, as if he thinks me still a child easily fooled." Giggling, she took his arm and started tugging him up the stairs. "Wait until you see what Cedric did! He's decided that he was meant to be an artist --"
"Eleanor," he said, gently disengaging her arm from his. "I must speak with your mother."
Just those few words, spoken softly, pierced her joyful manner. She stopped, slowly turning to look at him with blue eyes gone dark with dread. "What has happened?" she asked, her voice barely more than a whisper. "Father ... Johnathan ..."
He shook his head. "My duty commands me to speak with your mother."
She read the truth in his face, and covered her mouth with a trembling hand. He reached out, intending to put a hand on her shoulder, but before he could, she whirled and fled.
His heart growing heavier with each step, Richard made his way through the tapestry-lined halls and up a winding spiral stair, to the door of the queen's chambers. He hesitated with one hand raised to knock. A vast emptiness was in him. He had lost his closest friend, but the woman behind the door was a friend almost as close. He knocked on the door.
Rowena opened it herself. In twenty years of marriage and wearing Orain's crown, she was still uncomfortable being attended by servants.
"Richard? A surprise. Does David come with you, or do you precede him?" She stepped back, admitting him into her sitting room. Her embroidery was strewn across a footstool, something for one of the ladies who was with child. Each needle prick must have pierced the queen's heart as well as the fine linen, in memory of her fourth child that none were permitted to mention, yet she gave no outward sign of her pain.
"I do precede the others," Richard said. He went to one knee and bowed his head before her. "I bring news, Majesty." There was no use in delaying, or trying to soften the blow. "The king is dead. David is gone, Rowena."
She was silent. Not even a rustle of skirts betrayed her reaction. When he could bear to keep his head bowed no longer, he looked up.
Rowena had always been a beautiful woman. Now that beauty had been stolen from her, turning her face into a mask as white as Calaan's own. Her eyes, normally the color of the sky at sunset, were pale as a winter's day. Her golden hair seemed faded and lusterless. Even her gown, which had been a vibrant rose when he came in, now carried the hue of petals long pressed in a book, faded and ghostly.
She stared at him, unblinking. Her hands were clasped tightly in an attitude of prayer, but he saw that her nails were cutting crescents into her skin. Then, moving like a wooden puppet of the sort that traveling entertainers often used to amuse children, she turned and walked away from him.
"Rowena --" he began, but could think of no words to follow. He had known David and Rowena throughout their turbulent courtship. On many occasions, he had been the one to keep the peace when their stubborn natures had nearly brought the pair to blows. He loved the both as dearer than family. Tears stung his eyes and he swiftly lowered his head again so that she would not see. Men of Tarlak rarely permitted another to see them weep.
He heard her moving, heard the grate and shift of some piece of furniture sliding across the floor, the click and squeak of the window opening in the deep wall recess. A breeze swirled over him. He looked up, and his blood froze.
"No!" He was on his feet and across the room before she could do more than clamber onto the wide sill, hampered by her heavy skirts. His foot caught on the edge of the carpet and he stumbled. He came very close to knocking her out the window and going after her. A vision flashed before his eyes of Eleanor finding their sprawled and broken bodies.
Then he had ahold of Rowena. He wrapped his arms around her waist and yanked her backwards just as her feet left the sill. The same edge of carpet snared him again and this time he did fall, landing heavily on his back. His head struck the floor. If he lost consciousness, he lost Rowena, so he fought back the wash of blackness that wanted to engulf him as fiercely as he had ever fought back invaders from Tarlak's borders.
Rowena struggled in his grasp, uttering a thin and wordless wail of anguish that was worse than any shriek would have been. He dared not loosen his grip although he was gasping for breath and his back throbbed. She was a tall woman, heavier than she appeared because years of swordplay had laid strength beneath her feminine curves.
She twisted and now he was confronted with her face, no longer pale but mottled with hectic red patches of anger. "Let me go!" she hissed.
"I won't let you kill yourself!" he said. He wanted to yell the words, scream them at her, but he kept his voice low. The servants could not see their queen like this.
"Damn you, Richard!" she swore, bringing up her fingers to claw at him.
He freed one arm, still holding her firmly with the other, and caught her hands. "Scratching my eyes out? That's a woman's trick, Rowena."
"So is this!" Her knee slammed down. Pain roared through him. Had one of his legs not partially blocked the blow, she surely would have won. As it was, a knot of aching nausea settled into his belly and he released her as his body reflexively curled.
Rowena scrambled off of him. Even in his pain, he got up and went after her, stepping deliberately on the hem of her gown. It tore with a heavy purring sound and she fell. He went around her, as quick as he could move while doubled over, and slammed shut the window.
"Listen to me," he panted. "Your children need you. Orain needs you. With all of your wealth and treasuries, the one luxury you cannot afford is suicide."
She knelt back on her heels, glaring at him. In that instant, he was glad she wasn't carrying a sword, because his death was written plainly in her eyes.
"David wouldn't want this." He was able to speak more clearly now. The pain had receded into a low, dull ache. "He would want you to live. Live, and remember him."
"How did it happen?" she asked. Her voice was light and neutral, as she might have inquired after the health of a distant acquaintance.
He sat on a bench, careful to stay between her and the window and watching her should she take up her scissors and try to hurt either of them. "We were hunting v'leer, close on the trail, and we'd even glimpsed it, a silver, huge. David would no more have given up on it than he would have given up courting you. His first shot took it in the hip, wounding it, slowing it. The blood marks were clear, but the horses could not follow. We pursued on foot, David in the lead. The snow was deep, and we had already nearly lost a man to a crevasse, so we were watching the ground below. We should have been watching the mountainsides overhead."
Rowena listened, hands folded in her skirts. She betrayed no emotion. He might have been discussing the weather.
He took a deep breath and continued. "David hit the v'leer again, and this time his arrow enraged it. It attacked. In the fight, none of us heard the sound until it was too late. Our guide realized it first, and tried to warn us, but it was quick, gods, so quick."
"The v'leer did not kill him?"
"No. The v'leer had already fallen by the time we knew what was happening. It was an avalanche."
He faltered, remembering the distant rumble that had swiftly grown to a thunder, shaking the ground like an earthquake, and the white mass rolling towards them, like a tidal wave he'd seen once on Ralta, but this water was icy cold and solid and trees and boulders were caught up in its deadly descent. He'd seen avalanches before, but always from a distance, never from so close that the ground began to shudder and slide beneath his feet, and before they could do more than begin to cry out, the wall of snow was upon them.
"Most of the men panicked and fled, frantic and useless flight, trying to outrun it, shouting but their voices were swallowed by the sound, and they were caught up, tossed like dolls. It seemed to last forever. Then it was over. Half of our party was gone. David was among them. We searched, found some, but the ones that we found were --" He broke off, not wanting to distress her further, then realized that her own mind was already providing vivid and grotesque images. "We never found David. Johnathan wanted to keep searching, he refused to believe that his father was dead, but at last even he had to admit that it was a futile hope."
She rose gracefully. Richard stood, wincing, but the pain was not as bad as he'd feared. "He's truly dead, then? There is no hope?"
He moved closer to her. He wouldn't put it past Rowena to have a knife concealed somewhere about her person. "I know the mountains. Once they claim a man, he's gone. Rowena, I'm sorry, but there is no way he could have survived. Johnathan is Orain's king now, or will be once he's returned for his coronation."
"Funerals and coronations," she said absently. "Why must the first always precede so closely the second? How can Johnathan take up the crown with his father's grave still freshly turned?"
"There won't be a grave," he said as gently as he could. "We never found the body."
"No, of course not." She half-turned from him.
He put a hand on her shoulder. "Rowena --"
She crumpled beneath his touch like an aged and faded flower turning to dust beneath a careless hand. Silent sobs wracked her body. As she started to fall, he caught her and held her. She made no sound, but her grief was terrible, like nothing he'd ever seen. If she kept it in, it would kill her.
"Cry, Rowena! Voice it!"
Shaking her head, back and forth, fast, tight motions, she pressed her hands over her face as if trying to hold in the force of her anguish.
Her body was trembling in his arms, as if he held not a woman but a bundle of harpstrings, all drawn to the breaking point and strummed by a merciless hand. She seemed about to fly apart into a thousand pieces, leaving him with nothing but the empty shell of her gown. Her throat locked, her breath was trapped within the vault of her chest. What he could see of her face was the purple of sunset.
He jerked her hands down and slapped her face, once, twice, thrice, rapid as the hoofbeats of a racing horse, as hard as he might have hit a man, and her head jerked from side to side, hair flying, eyes wide in shock and pain, mouth opening, chest hitching, heaving, drawing in an endless breath, and letting it out in a banshee's cry that must have sounded from the dungeons to the turret of Wilmandrius' tower. Like the breaking of a dam her tears gushed forth. She was swept away by her grief much as her husband's body must have been swept along by the avalanche that had widowed her, torn and battered, rent asunder by a force as raw and powerful as any on earth.
Richard sank to the floor, still holding her, feeling the storm rage through her. She struck at him, drummed her fists against his breastplate, then collapsed against him as her outburst eased into a deep and steady weeping. He cradled her as he might have cradled his own child, and became aware that he was murmuring to her, soothing but meaningless sounds. He also realized that steady tears were running down his own cheeks and collecting in his thick beard like dewdrops.
The sun slanted lower and lower on the wall, and shadows crept from the corners. When it seemed she had no more tears to shed, he gathered her up and carried her to the long sofa by the fireplace. He pushed back her hair and used his handkerchief to wipe first her eyes, then his own.
"Why wouldn't you let me go?" she asked in a weak whisper.
"You are needed here. Until Johnathan's return, you are regent. Until his marriage, you are queen of Orain. Johnathan will need your guidance, and Cedric and Eleanor need you as well. The people need you. It is your duty."
"Bugger duty!" she snapped with more fire than he would have thought her capable of mustering after the flood of tears. "I wasn't born to this. There is no noble blood in my veins! I am queen only because I married David, and now he is gone!"
"He loved you, and that made you noble in his eyes. In the eyes of anyone that matters. You've been willing to die for him -- remember that day at the cathedral? -- and now you must be willing to live for him. He's dead, but you are not."
"I would be now, if you hadn't interfered."
"And I thank all the gods that I did! How could I, after failing to save one of my best friends, stand by and watch the other die?"
"I don't know if I can live without him," she said, and amazingly more tears welled forth. "Why did I resist him for so long? Had I but known our time would be cut so short, I would never have been so stubborn! We were to have grown old together. How could he leave me like this?"
He could not answer her agonized questions. She fell against him and wept anew. Strangely, he found himself thinking back to their first meeting of Rowena, how David had mistaken her for a common wench and given her a pinch, only to earn a loose tooth and vicious torrent of insult that had not lessened a whit when she had learned that he was the crown prince. Gods, how he and Thomas had laughed!
He remembered a time when, very drunk, he had stumbled into her room by mistake and surprised her in the bath, how modesty had barely been appeased by a hastily-grabbed thin shift as she swore and hurled jars of soap and oils at him. How she had looked, water and suds streaming over her shoulders and long legs.
He remembered the royal wedding, how beautiful Rowena had been, more than any of the noble-born ladies present, and the open envy on so many faces.
The quality of their embrace had changed, and he was not aware of precisely when it had happened. For some time, he had been stroking her hair, but that gesture had become less of a comforter's and more of a lover's touch, and she was no longer crying but clinging to him with increasing warmth, her hands slipping up and down his muscular arms and her breath coming more rapidly.
There was a growing pressure below his waist, the punishing blow forgotten in favor of other, more pleasant sensations. He prayed that she would not notice his obvious reaction, which he could no more control than he could change the direction of the wind.
She raised her head, and her fair skin was flushed now with a different hue than that brought on by weeping. Her eyes were still clouded, but with more passion than grief. Her lips were parted slightly, very full and inviting, and not for the first time he wanted to taste them.
He seized for reason and caught it by the tail just as that sly creature was slinking from his mind. Gods, what had he been thinking? She was one of his two closest friends, the recent widow of a man who had been closer than a brother to him, and was this how he planned to honor David's memory?
Whatever he had been about to say was lost as she kissed him. Her hands found his windblown hair, plunged into it, held his head and prevented him from pulling away. She made a low animal sound of need, and he responded on some instinctive primal level that had never heard of vows or morality. His answering groan was a helpless yeilding to the raw passion burning in his veins. The most primitive and basic response to death was to deny it by reaffirming life. David was dead, but they were not, and the urge to prove that was stronger than any drive Richard had ever known.
His hands found Rowena's slim shoulders. Her mouth opened to him and he thrust his tongue into it, tasting sweet wine and the bitter salt of her tears. The rustle of her gown, the creak of his boiled leather, the thunder of his own heart, and the protesting whine of the sofa as their combined weight leaned against the back were maddeningly loud, as if all of his senses were heightened to beyond human range. His fingertips slid over fabric, seeming to feel each individual thread. He smelled his own scent, of leather and oiled steel, and hers, faint perfume and another scent that came from no Rakvian bottle but was simply her own, the scent of lilies and musk, bringing to mind images of secret crevices where sunlight seldom touched.