1. King Jordain
The specter of his daughter’s threat to kill him weighed heavy on the king.
The horse’s breaths were labored, his ebony coat streaked with sweat stains. Jordain dug his heels into his charger’s ribs, urging his battle-trained warhorse on, forcing him to run beyond his abilities. The big stallion reared its head back in protest, but the king continued to kick, to push the animal forward.
“You’re going to kill our horses,” General Moro Bandamann called out from the back of his own steed. “Your Majesty, slow.” The king redoubled his kicks into his horse’s flank. “Jordain!” the general bellowed. “Jordain, slow!”
Finally, after several more minutes, the king finally relented. Pulling back on his reins, he allowed his horse to slow to a walk. The poor beast’s chest heaved as it desperately tried to fill its lungs with the cool northern air. General Moro pulled up alongside and reined in his white stallion. Like the king’s, the general’s horse was also gasping for air.
“We need to get to the palace,” the king said, his chest rising and falling rapidly as he, too, tried to catch his breath. “The bitch is coming, and I need to get to safety before she arrives.”
“There is no way your daughter could have gotten here this fast,” the general said, pulling back the hood of his riding cloak. The man’s long, gray hair blew away from his stubbled face. His tiny gold earrings caught the day’s dying light. “We are at least a full day ahead of her.”
“She said she was coming,” the king growled, throwing back his hood, shaking out his gray-streaked mane. “I should have drowned her when she was a child, and her damned little brother as well, but their mother insisted they live.”
“And now you’re going to use your daughter to fulfill your plan, Your Majesty. Over twenty years in the making, and it’s all coming together, just as you predicted.”
Jordain smiled at the general’s words. He liked being told he was right, especially when he knew he was. The king laughed. It wasn’t joyous laughter, but rather one brought on by nerves. He was thinking of his daughter, Aithlin, and their encounter on the battlefield barely three days earlier. She wanted to kill him right there. She had the opportunity, but her love for her mother stayed her hand. The king had told Aithlin that if he didn’t return from the battle to conquer Aarall, the executioner had orders to put her mother, Lady Jaquine, to death; to drag her into the public square in front of the palace and hang her like a common criminal. She would be charged with sedition and treason, and then have her neck snapped at the end of a noose. It had brought the king great joy to see his daughter’s face crumple. Aithlin knew he wasn’t bluffing.
The memories of the battlefield drew him further back to when he had enjoyed spending his days with Lady Jaquine. There were days, moments really, when he thought back on their time together, wishing he had treated her better. But when she became pregnant with Aithlin, he couldn’t deal with the idea of having a child underfoot. The little girl might have been useful, so he reluctantly put up with the pair. When she gave birth to Treedale, and refused to have him dealt with, it was the last straw.
The boys born into Jaquine’s family were feebs, useless wastes of skin without any magic. At least there was the potential for Aithlin to be useful someday. But even if Aithlin had magic, even if they could milk her dry, he couldn’t abide having a pair of bawling brats roaming his palace, making messes, making undue noise. He liked calm and order and the pair of babes were chaos personified. At the first opportunity, Jordain had sent Jaquine, Aithlin, and Treedale off to live with Lord Arthure. That lickspittle cousin of his would do anything to earn his favor. He was a cruel, horrible man who would likely beat mother and children alike, but Jordain didn’t care. He still visited Jaquine when the urge took him, and what Arthure did with them on his own time. Well, that was his choice.
“What shall we do with Princess Aithlin when she arrives?” General Moro asked while the pair continued towards Two Peaks at a leisurely pace. The man’s words snapped Arthure from his musings.
“Don’t call her that,” the king barked. “She’s no princess.”
“She is your daughter, is she not? Does that not make her a princess?”
The king glowered. “No, it doesn’t,” he growled. Jordain had never acknowledged that either Aithlin or Treedale were his children. He had publicly and formally declared them to be the children of Lord Arthure. The man was his cousin, and like all members of the Cloudweaver family, he likely bore the family mark, a birthmark that looked remarkably like a rose. Both Aithlin and Treedale had the rose-shaped stain on their skin. Declaring them to be the children of his cousin, Lord Arthure, was plausible, and it pushed them well down the royal line. Neither of them would ever sit on his throne. He would guarantee it.
“Okay, she’s not a princess.” General Moro gave the king that knowing look. Jordain hated it when Moro treated him like he was a child. The man was his senior and his teacher, but it didn’t give him the right to be condescending. He could not talk to his king in such a manner. He’d get his someday. But for today, the king needed his general. He was the leader of his personal guard, and by all accounts, his best friend. Possibly his only friend. “How do you want to deal with her when she arrives?” General Moro asked again.
The pair continued in silence for several minutes, the king disregarding his general’s question. They finally exited the vast Forest of Arr. It was a large woodland made up of a mix of tall Berrathian pines, oak, and yew. As they passed through the last of the trees, the mountain range that surrounded the city of Two Peaks came into view. The impassible rocky crags provided a natural barrier to the kingdom’s capital, surrounding it on three sides, making it a nearly impenetrable fortress. Jordain stared wistfully up at the snow-capped peaks and sighed.
“It’s a shame we were never able to secure those mountains from the damned Gizmos,” the king said. “Those wretched creatures were impossible to remove from their homes. If we would have had access to the riches the mountains hold, I’d have never needed to make deals with the Merchants’ Guild. I wouldn’t be owing them, and I wouldn’t have had to let any of those greedy weasels in on my plans. I could have left them to fend for themselves.” King Jordain laughed at the thought. He hated the guild members, those arrogant rich bastards. He despised each and every one of them, but he needed them. For now.
“You spent too much, too quickly, Your Majesty,” General Moro said. “You can only tax your population so much before they simply can no longer afford to pay.” The king’s ire raised at the I-told-you-so tone in the man’s voice. “You created a great army with the money you borrowed from the guild, and they made the difference in the battle.”
“They were all killed!” the king exclaimed. “What good were they? I set them all against Aarall, my own city. Even with the assistance of King Faol’s vampire army, we couldn’t defeat them. And where were the guild soldiers? They were off to the south, doing nothing useful. Had the guild recalled them when I told them to, I wouldn’t be running from my damned daughter.”
“You didn’t need to defeat them,” the general said. Again, he had that smug, condescending expression on his face; the one Jordain wanted to cut off with his dagger. “You only needed to be strong enough that King Faol would come. You needed to show him that you were worth his time. He came to the battle, and he fell at the battle, just like we wanted. He was the only person who could have ruined your plans. Had the guild soldiers been here…”
“I could be king of this entire region,” Jordain said. “Arnnor, Faol, Berrathia, even the Elven Realm. I might have been able to bring all these kingdoms under my banner.” The king tilted his head to the heavens and breathed a heavy sigh. “Not that it matters, really. A bigger kingdom would have only meant bigger headaches. It would mean having to listen to the constant whining of even more people. This way, when we leave for the south, we won’t have to deal with the freezing rains and the never-ending winter snow squalls. I’m tired of freezing my balls off every time I want to take a shit in the privy.”
The king kicked his horse into a gallop again. They were wasting time walking and talking. He wanted to get back to the safety of his palace. He needed time to set the trap for Aithlin. It needed to be perfect.
Jordain ran his stallion hard until the front gates of Two Peaks came into view. As the streets outside the city’s white-washed walls became more crowded, the pair slowed to a steady trot. The thought of Lady Jaquine languishing in the dungeons made him laugh.
“Something amuses you, Your Majesty?” the general asked.
“Look at these people. None know what is about to befall them. They just go about their business, without any inkling of what is to come.” The general shrugged. “Lady Jaquine is no different. She, too, is a clueless moron. I do hope she’s comfortable in her prison cell.” The king’s eyes sparkled at the comment, his mouth pulling into a cruel grin. The general laughed along with his king.
“Even if we seal the deal with the spider queen, Arachnielle, I think I will leave Jaquine to rot in the dungeons. I’ve never forgiven her, you know, for having those children. I might have married her had she not let them live. She could have been queen. But she could not be swayed. She insisted the children would be critical if I was to succeed.” Jordain didn’t care if he left a legacy. Once he was dead and returned to the Great Cycle, what difference would children make? All that mattered was the here and now.
If everything went according to plan, he would be leaving this miserable kingdom to enjoy the rest of his life in the warmth and luxury of the southern continents. He would sit by the sea, be cooled by the tropical breezes, and drink in the tangy scent of the salt air. His thoughts turned again to Lady Jaquine. He considered what his life would be like without her. A grimace crossed his face. He didn’t think he actually loved her, but she was special. Even if everything she gave him was nothing more than an illusion, he didn’t care. It all looked and felt real, and that was enough.
“Raise your hood, Your Majesty. There are too many people here. You’re not safe among the public without your full guard.”
“I’ve got you to protect me,” the king said, throwing up his hood, pulling it low over his face. “Besides, once I start bearing down on them, they’ll move. They always do.” Before the general could say anything else, the king dug his heels into his horse’s ribs. The great beast lunged forward, its hooves clattering along the cobblestone road that led through the city gates. People cursed and hurried to get out of the way of the madman and his charger. A pair of children, barely four or five years of age, stood in the middle of the road, frozen in their place, staring at the man and beast. The look of terror in their eyes spurred King Jordain’s blood lust. He kicked his horse harder, pressing it to run faster. A woman in a peasant’s dress with a white bonnet ran onto the street to pull the children aside. She stared up, wide eyed, filled with disbelief that someone would so callously trample children. At the last possible second, she dove to the side, dragging the children with her.
A broad smile split Jordain’s face. He liked that they were afraid of him, loathed him. He certainly didn’t care if they lived or died. His only concern was getting to the palace and the safety it provided.