The Last Descendant Ch. 05byElianna©
As dawn broke, though the sun was hidden behind the mountains, Entrari's eyes popped open. Normally he wouldn't feel so disgruntled about it, but this morning he cursed his internal rhythm. For the last 20 years he'd awakened at the crack of dawn whenever he was traveling with his men. He told himself that it was his sense of responsibility that made his body rouse. After all, he couldn't expect anything of his people that he was unwilling to do. Of course, it could be the anticipation, the sense of wariness that always plagued him when marching to war. Whatever it was, this morning Entrari wanted to shirk his duties and for once, not do the right thing.
Today was the first time he'd awakened with the most incredible woman he'd ever met sleeping in his arms. She snuggled against him, absorbing his warmth, breathing deeply with her lips slightly parted, her hair tumbling about her face in tangles. Even tousled in sleep, she was so beautiful that she took his breath away. Yes, he definitely wanted to forget his responsibilities. He sighed heavily even as he seriously debated the merits of closing his eyes for just a little while longer.
"I was just about to wake you," Kelda's voice called quietly to him.
Entrari groaned softly. Leave it to Kelda to notice he was awake. He carefully disentangled himself from the sleeping girl and rolled out of his blankets. She whimpered slightly in protest, but he tucked the covers about her snugly, and then walked softly to Kelda's side.
"I've been awake for a while," he admitted. "I just had good reason to stay in bed."
"She's a pretty one," Kelda agreed. Suddenly he smiled devilishly. "If I was still a bachelor, I'd definitely be putting her on my list for conquest."
Entrari felt his body tighten. Before Kelda had met his beautiful wife, he'd been one of the most renowned womanizers in the kingdom. There hadn't been a woman he put his sights on that didn't crumble to his seduction; single or married. He could imagine his friend seducing the delicate princess of Hartstak. Even the thought, no matter how implausible, of his future wife in the arms of his best friend made him want to break something.
"She's not going to be on anyone's list," he said tightly.
"Not even yours?" said Kelda arching his brow ignoring the sudden tension in his voice and body. Kelda always ignored those kinds of things. It was what made their friendship so strong; he didn't give a damn when Entrari was moody. "I thought for sure that you'd have something to tell me yesterday morning. Instead you were a hung over mess, and the girl...well, she didn't seem too conquered to me."
Entrari felt his stomach wrench as he recalled her tears and her pleas as he played with her, kissing her, touching her in ways he knew were alien to her maiden body. How many times had he done such a thing without a thought? Granted, most women came to him willingly, and by the end they were all very willing, but... not her. She deserved better.
"But I think I see why," Kelda continued, his eyes dancing mischievously. "You're falling for her, aren't you? Ha! The one woman who'd rather hit you than kiss you is the one you've got it for. I think it serves you right."
Entrari sighed. He was probably right. It irritated him that his bodyguards were almost as bad as a group of old ladies when it came to his love life. They were always pushing women on him trying to convince him about the merits of each one and how she'd be a good match for him. Of course, the entire kingdom wanted to see him safely married and the Imperial Line continued, but his guards plotted more than was good for them. They were probably all secretly casting bets on whether or not his skills at seduction and sexual prowess were convincing enough to win the cagy barbarian girl. He looked sidelong at Kelda.
"Though I'm sure my love life is incredibly important to you," he said, trying to hide his irritation, "we have more important things to think about."
Kelda groaned. "I hate demons. They always manage to ruin things just when they start to get fun."
Yes. They were definitely making bets.
"If Elenna's map was drawn to scale," Entrari continued, determined to ignore his friend's taunting, "we should reach the turn-off for the path around noon today. If we take it slow, we can come upon the demon tomorrow morning."
"Trestin and I were discussing the same thing yesterday while we were riding. I like the idea of battling a demon before noon," Kelda agreed.
Entrari nodded and looked to the east to watch the sun rise over the mountains. Though he was sure that they would conquer this demon, he wondered how many had used the pass to escape into the lands. How many of the Karshav were now within the borders of the Empire and could summon demons? How many spies? He shook his head in frustration. He'd spent the last two decades strengthening the Empire, but with the rise of the people from the east, he felt like he was still a step behind. Despite all his efforts, if the enemy were to bring enough demons along to war, the Empire of Haladon would fall. It would be a bloodbath.
For the millionth time he wondered what they wanted. Why were they sending demons over the mountains where they had been content to dwell for centuries untold? Why now? Especially why now! He'd finally met the girl that he'd believed was just a figment of his imagination, the girl he'd almost given up on ever meeting. He'd spent two decades in the saddle with a sword in his hand, bringing the western lands to heel. Surely he'd done his duty to the empire and his father!
He sighed. The dream was tantalizing; living in comfort and splendor with the beautiful princess from Hartstak. Showing her the wonders of the world, sharing his wealth with her, making love to her...
"Entrari!" Kelda interrupted.
"What?" he asked a little embarrassed to be caught daydreaming. "Were you saying something?"
"Do I need long lashes to get your attention anymore?" he teased.
Entrari shrugged. "It'd take a lot more than lashes." He looked Kelda up and down as though surveying him thoughtfully. "Yeah, much more than just lashes."
Kelda frowned, put his hand on his hip and flicked his hand in his hair. "Okay, how about now?"
In full armor with a magnificent sword at his side, he looked absolutely ridiculous. Entrari couldn't help himself as he laughed softly. "Definitely not working for me, but Lida might find it rather attractive," he teased. "I'm sure she'd love to see your feminine side."
Kelda wiggled his eyebrows devilishly, "I'll have to try it when I get home; you never know what she likes."
Entrari smiled tolerantly when his friend's eyes grew a little distant as though he was imagining exactly what he'd try with his lovely wife when he got home. He always managed to have a look of wondrous reverence in his eyes as he considered the beautiful and fiery woman.
"Now who's daydreaming?" he teased.
"Well," Kelda said his eyes returning to the present, "While your Imperial Highness was off in dreamland, I was commenting about the tactics of the upcoming battle. As in, what are they?"
Entrari looked back to the mountains again. He hated fighting demons. "I'm still working it out," he admitted. "Much of it will depend on the layout of the area."
Kelda nodded. "Seems pretty standard, though."
"Perhaps," Entrari said, unconvinced. He knew better than to say something should be "easy" or "standard." It usually ended up a disaster.
"Will you ladies shut up so the rest of us can get some sleep?" grumbled Gosta from his blankets irritably.
"He's grumpy because he's had to rearrange his sleeping schedule yet again," Kelda said. "He was looking forward to working the quiet nights for a while, and how he's back to daytime marches. You've really managed to get the good Druid grumpy."
"He's not the only one," Entrari said turning to look back at the princess huddled in the blankets. It looked like her forehead was wrinkled a little, as though she was in distress. He guessed that even in both sets of blankets she was cold. How he longed to crawl back in beside her and keep her warm!
"You'll have plenty of time for that, lover-boy," Kelda teased.
"Kelda, I'm still your prince," Entrari threatened, "lover-boy isn't an appropriate address."
"Okay, lover-boy," Kelda chuckled in return. He winked and blew him a kiss. "You're sure I'm not doing anything for you, huh?"
Entrari rolled his eyes.
"Kelda," Gosta grumbled from his blankets, "most of us would be glad to pounce on you...long enough to muzzle you. Will you shut up? Please?"
"You're already awake," Kelda returned kicking his blankets playfully. "Get over it."
Gosta mumbled something that sounded like a colorful curse and rolled over.
Entrari sighed and went back to stand by the fire. The lands of Hartstak were cold, especially this late in the fall. He and his people were in for a bitter winter.
Elenna shivered. She'd been sleeping contentedly until her heat source abandoned her. Now all her extremities hurt yet again and she curled miserably into a ball. She huddled in the blankets for several moments longer, but finally decided that she wasn't going to get warm, and she was far past sleep. She sat up and looked around the camp. At first, she wasn't sure what she was looking for, but when her eyes fell upon him, a sense of relief washed over her. It was as though she wasn't complete until she knew where he was. Angrily she turned away. It wasn't fair that after all he'd done, she'd still be so drawn to him. Perhaps Druid dreams were really for the amusement of the gods. Surely she'd never be happy as the tamed barbarian lover to Entrari.
"Good morning, princess," he called to her.
She stared back lifting her chin stubbornly. Druid dreams or no, she wasn't going to grovel before this man.
He smiled a little at her. "And here I thought you'd think better of me after last night."
"Because it was the first night you didn't try to molest me?" she challenged.
He sighed and shook his head. "Has anyone ever told you that you're difficult?"
She shrugged belligerently. "Probably as often as people tell you you're an arrogant ass."
"Touché," he replied, but his voice seemed different. Perhaps it was a mix of frustration and resignation and...hopelessness? For some reason, the forlorn tone made her pause. Prince Entrari had no reason for such a tone. He had the world in his palm, everything his heart desired; incredible wealth, power, the most beautiful women in the world throwing themselves at him. She felt a twisting in her gut at the thought of Entrari entertaining one of those women in his bed. It made her heart pound and her eyes water, and it disgusted her; she was jealous of something she didn't even want.
Sighing angrily, she wrapped the blankets around her shoulders and scooted closer to the fire. Entrari said nothing to her and merely sipped at a steaming cup of liquid and stared over the camp. She tried to stare into the flames, but found herself watching him again. His gaze was pensive, calculating, his slight movements were sure and graceful. He hadn't bothered to comb his golden hair and it curled about his face in erratic waves that she found just...
He looked up at her—maybe he sensed her eyes on him—and she found herself trapped by his gaze, completely unable to look away, like some cornered animal. Her heart began to pound and her breathing grew ragged as he seemed to hold her entire body captive with his stare.
"Are you cold?" he asked, his melodious voice softer than before.
She nodded mutely.
He took a cup from nearby and filled it with warm water heating in a kettle by the fire. He added some concoction of leaves and herbs to the cup and then handed it to her.
"This is a tea we drink when it's cold," he explained. "It warms you from the inside."
She gratefully took the metal cup in her hands; it was warm enough to thaw her fingers. She let the tea steep for a few moments, soaking up the warmth from the tin cup in silence, and then she took a dainty sip. It tasted like she imagined his country looked; crisp, spicy, and strong.
"Do you like it?" he asked her.
"It's like nothing I've ever tasted," she replied as she took another sip thoughtfully, trying to identify the flavors.
"The ingredients are found outside of Haladon. Most of the city is surrounded by vast farms and orchards. Soldiers have been drinking this for centuries. In the evenings we mix a little strong drink with it and it manages to take the chill out of your limbs after riding all day."
She smiled teasingly. "I think you should stay away from strong drinks for a while."
He froze and looked at her curiously. Then he smiled, too. "You're probably right," he agreed. "I'll need to give it at least a week or so."
His smile did something to her nerves. The cup was a little unsteady in her trembling fingers, her heart pounded, and her breath was slightly ragged. She desperately fought for composure and pointedly stared at her fingers clasped around the cup for a long time until her heart slowed. Finally, she stole a quick glance, only to find him staring into the fire thoughtfully.
They sat in silence listening to the sounds of the camp rising. By the time the sun was peeking over the mountains, they were packed up and upon their horses once again.
Her rear definitely hurt as did her legs, and it was barely mid-morning. Elenna learned that the tales of glory the warriors in her father's house had spouted of their journeys were grossly overrated. She winced with every jolt, her thighs chafed and sore, and she was eternally grateful that Gosta had selected such a mild-tempered horse for her. Some of the spirited brutes snorted and pulled at their bits with little hops. What annoyed her even more was that Entrari's warrior/sorcerers didn't seem to notice. It was like they were as strong as their fancy armor.
They pushed hard, and reached the small path that led up through the thick forest at the base of the mountains around noon. As soon as they reached the pass, Elenna noted a completely different attitude among the warriors. They were alert, and their hands rested on their swords. She could feel the air crackle about her once again, as the sorcerers reached for their magic, practiced the incantations on silent lips, and prepared themselves for battle.
Even though her spine tingled as Entrari's knights practiced their magic, she felt something else; a faint darkness on the edges of her consciousness. Throughout the remainder of the day, it seemed to linger. It pressed against her, chafing her spirit like dark, evil fingers pawing at her skin. As the sun began to set, she realized that she was trembling in her saddle. Despite the cold, she was sweating and she was panting. She could literally feel the evil ahead.
Entrari heard the girl take a trembling breath. He'd been so focused on practicing his magic as he rode; he'd not paid much attention to her today. To give her credit, she'd been the most unobtrusive female he'd ever ridden with. He knew she must be tired, sore, cold, and utterly miserable. Princesses weren't raised to spend the day in the saddle riding to battle. He finished muttering the incantation he was practicing and looked over at her.
Her appearance shocked him. Her gray eyes were wide and wild, her delicate fingers were tightly clutching the reigns of her horse. She was literally panting; her face was glowing with sweat, and yet she shivered uncontrollably.
"Elenna?" he said softly.
The girl jumped enough to even startle her gentle horse into a slight snort and a quick sidestep. Then she looked up at him with those beautiful gray eyes seeming almost colorless. Sitting on the saddle among his men, she looked so tiny and helpless, and he immediately regretted his decision. He should never have brought her.
"We're going to stop soon," he said.
She shuddered and nodded.
He tried to find something comforting to say, but he couldn't think of anything. It was as if this girl had rendered him a complete fool. He'd always felt so smooth, so in control around women, but this tiny, trembling girl made him feel like an awkward adolescent. Now something was wrong with her, and he didn't even have the brains to comfort her.
"It looks like we've got a good place up ahead to camp," said Gosta as he and Trestin rejoined the others from their scouting trip. "It's got a small creek nearby and some grass for the horses."
Entrari nodded. "Good."
His Druid friend glanced at the girl and his forehead creased. "Princess, are you all right?"
Entrari wanted to snarl when she looked up at him, those gray eyes softening with trust. She shook her head and then nodded, then shook her head. Her forehead creased slightly in thought, as though something was bothering her, but she couldn't quite put it into words. Finally she shrugged hopelessly.
"You feel it already, don't you?" Gosta said to her quietly.
Entrari felt like an idiot.
Of course. She felt the presence of the demon. He should have expected it; if she was as powerful as the Archpriest had suggested, her senses must be incredible.
"I don't know," she admitted. "I feel..." she shivered and shook her head, "wrong. Just wrong."
Gosta nodded. "I understand. I don't feel it, but I have." He turned to Entrari. "So has our prince."
The girl turned to look at him again.
Entrari shook his head. "I don't feel it, yet."
Her shoulders slumped.
What kind of answer was that, idiot? He mentally shouted to himself. Couldn't he even manage to say something comforting? He could have managed, it will be fine, or don't worry, Elenna. Suddenly Gosta looked at him curiously and then, to his surprise, laughed. The other knights around him looked up curiously as Gosta continued to laugh so hard that he had to hold his sides.
Entrari definitely wanted to throttle him.
His men set up camp quickly and efficiently. Soon they had several healthy fires going using both the wood they'd carried along and some scrounged from the trees that had become a dense forest at the foot of the mountains.
Entrari made it a point to sit with his men and speak with them tonight. He was a good sorcerer, and several in this group were good, but inexperienced. He patiently answered their questions, corrected their pronunciation or helped them through a particularly difficult incantation. In the past few years, this group of men had learned how to use their magic not only to dominate battles, but also to overcome demons. It was a combination of spells, all hurled at the demon at once. Magic didn't actually send the demon back to the Abyss; there was no spell that could open the boundaries between the spirit world and the real world, but it hurt the creature enough for it to decide to return on its own.
Elenna followed him quietly along with Kelda and Gosta as he made his rounds. He was constantly aware of her presence even as he and his two most-trusted guards instructed the men. She'd seemed to gain some composure over her fears, but as she followed him through the camp, he was acutely aware of how delicate she seemed in comparison to the armored warriors.
As he finished answering the questions of one of the more inexperienced men in his regiment, Gosta leaned close.
"Have you spoken to Elenna about what she will see tomorrow?" his friend asked quietly.
Entrari shuddered and shook his head. "Rhogan was right. She's just a girl. I should never have brought her with me. The dungeons would have been better for her."
"She's supposed to be there," said Gosta quietly. "I can see that much."
Entrari growled irritably. "You and your visions."