The day passed without incident and the next came without pause. On the horizon, Terra saw the army marching towards them. Like a blanket of dark insects, the Al’Zorian Army swept across the plains. They moved with a fluid grace, hundreds of armed men keeping a brutal pace. Cia stood at her side with her hands pressed against the stone rail of the castle’s battlements, gaze calm and body tense.
Terra turned, gaze shifting to the man steadily approaching them from the west. His pace was steady, tunic loose and flowing. As he neared, Cia turned to the man and said, “I hadn’t known his army was so massive, Father. It’s terrifying to see in person. It is almost as if we’re about to go into war.”
Lord Davanar paused directly behind them, his attention shifting to the steadily moving sea of black approaching the castle. “They are here sooner than I thought. My men told me we would not see them until late this afternoon.”
“You cannot underestimate a warlord, Mi’lord,” Terra turned her gaze back towards the swarm, a cold tremor building under her sky as the sky darkened. She eyed the shadows as they churned, eyes widening as she realized what, exactly, she was staring at. At her side, Cia gasped and pressed against her side as Lord Davanar whispered, “Baskara Zoric is among those men. He is announcing his arrival to us all.”
“Father,” Cia grabbed Lord Davanar’s hand, voice small as she whispered, “Why so many of them? Why the birds? Who is this man?”
Terra leveled an even look on the young lady standing on the battlement, the younger’s hair curling around her as the wind curled around them. Terra threw up an arm, shielding her eyes birds shrieked past them. Cia screamed, burrowing against her middle as the massive creatures began to circle the castle and town in earnest.
“They will be here soon. Terra,” she turned to meet the king’s gaze, her hands draped over the princess’s shoulders. Lord Davanar placed a large, heavy hand on her shoulder as he said, “I want you to tell the women to get the feast ready. We will dine early, today. Have Geselly prep the bathhouse for our guests, while your out. Then meet my daughter and I by the North Gates. I want you with us when we welcome our guests.”
Terra turned on her heel and left, silent as she went about the tasks set upon her. A quick trip to the kitchens had the women scurrying around as if crazed, the Kitchen Master roaring his commands as Terra vanished from sight. Geselly was harder to locate.
The old woman hid in a dark corner of the castle, bony shoulders slumped as she rested upon a mead barrel with a mug of frothing drink in hand. Terra paused just before her, waiting for her to set the mug aside before saying, “Prepare the baths, Selly. By the king’s orders, might I add? Our guests will be here within the next few hours and keeping a warlord waiting is not something any of us want.”
Geselly laughed, blacked grin rotten and chipped. Terra’s eyes narrowed.
“Oh, come on,” Geselly rose to her feet, swaying. Terra stepped away, eyeing the woman with an overwhelming sense of distaste. As her lips pressed into a tight line, anger curling in her gut, Terra then smiled. Geselly blinked, gaze unfocused as she spat, “What do you find so funny, bastardess? Got something to say?”
Terra left without answering, easily finding her way to the bathhouse. It was calm and warm, the front of the house empty. Terra went through the left door, walking into the steam. She nodded a greeting to the few women wandering about naked and wet, one of them pausing as she asked, “Where is Mina?”
The woman pointed to one of the baths, the water bubbling and a scent of jasmine wafting through the air. Terra thanked the woman before making her way over, her eyes landing on the redheaded woman resting in the water. Mina blinked, head cocked to the side as she turned in the waters to asked, “Can I do something for you, Terra?”
“You’re promoted,” Terra knelt in front of the young woman, holding her eyes as Gina’s jaw slackened. She caught her by the shoulder, squeezing sharply, as she said, “Geselly is inhibited and we have a War Party nearly on our front door. Get the baths ready. I want an entire staff ready to tend to our guests. Now get out of the water and get dressed.”
“Y-y-yes, ma’am!” Mina scrambled out of the water, fleeing into the changing rooms with several shouts. Terra turned her gaze on the rest of the women, all who had paused and were staring. Eyes narrowed, Terra said, “That goes for the rest of you! Get dressed and be ready. The Al’Zorian Army will be here sooner than any of us are prepared for. Now get moving!”
Mina’s startled scream told Terra the other women bombarded the changing room as she left the building. The North Gate was across the stronghold. As she made her way indoors, she caught sight of Bram. The guard fell into step beside her, voice low as he said, “I take it everything’s ready?”
“Yes,” Terra took the scroll he handed to her, tucking it into her sleeve. “The elixir was retrieved yesterday. We will be ready. Are we still meeting tonight?”
“We are,” Bram opened the door for her, letting her pass him into a brightly lit corridor as he said, “Bring Cia. We have much to talk about. I’ll catch up with you soon.”
They had some time before Zoric arrived with his forced. Terra kept that thought in mind as she weaved her way through the castle. Her mind shifted to the potion she had tucked in the pouch around her waist, resting innocently within. Her hand passed over the small pouch as she made her way down a flight of stairs on the fair side of the building, gaze on the massive doors across the room from her.
She left the building, making her way into the bright, afternoon sunlight.
Terra was making her way through the last part of the grounds, turning a corner and passing a few guards, when the world lurched around her. Her heart beat erratically, raw energy suddenly surging through her body. It drew a sharp gasp from her as her heartbeat elevated, racing madly within her chest. The ground fell away.
Sharp cries cut through the air as a strong hand caught her wrist, jerking her shoulder up and behind her. The ground was inches from her face before she was hauled away from the ground, her body slumping against a strong body. A hand curled around her neck, calloused fingers pressing against her racing pulse as she gasped for breath.
Someone was yelling her name.
She heard screams. Smelled burning wood, the edges of her vision crackling with ghostly fire as she clenched her eyes shut. Then there was the taste of iron coating her tongue, her breath coming rough and uneven as she turned and grabbed the guard that caught her. Her palms pressed against cloth, the faintest hint of skin tickling her fingertips.
A low chuckle sounded, dark and ominous as a hand cupped her shoulder. The voice was not one she knew, nor did she know anyone whose chest rumbled so violently when they spoke. Forehead pressed against the soft fabric of a clothed chest, fingers biting into hard muscle, she heard this body’s deep, gravely voice as it said, “So this is my welcome, Lord Davanar? A castle wench falling onto me?”
Terra drew in a deep breath, tried to push the overwhelming flood of energy rushing through her veins. She pressed her weight into her legs, her knees shaking from the effort as the grip on her tightened. One arm had found its way around her back, holding her upright despite the dark undertone to the question asked.
When she looked up, she saw white and amber. The long, dangling earring on the right ear seemed to glow as the light caught off it, bands of black metal twisting around the teardrop-shaped gem. Her breath caught in her throat as her gaze lifted, eyes wide as she stared into the unfeeling, cold eyes of a man she did not know.
With terrifying clarity, Terra knew who this man was:
Baskara Zoric, leader of Al’Zorian Rise.
Terra’s mouth went dry, then. She stared up into his amber gaze, his pale hair falling over one shoulder in a thick braid. Her heart pounded within her chest as she slowly stood upright, body wavering as the edges of her vision began to pulsate. They stood close together, her hands pressed daintily against his chest.
Amber eyes regarded her coolly as hard fingers bit into her back. Silence had settled, an army still behind his back. Not a single soul was smiling, all their expressions dark as a sky oppressed by thunderclouds. His earring glowed, the right side of his jaw and neck cast into an eerily, silver-blue glow.
His lips pressed into a thin line, amber eyes darkening.
It was magnetic, the energy coursing between them.
Terra felt it acutely, senses wide open as heat surged into her back from where his large hand was splayed out across her back. Did he feel this energy or was it simply her being aware of such closeness? Why was he here already? Terra swallowed as she regained her balance, aware of the dozens of gazes watching.
Terra turned when she heard Princess Cia call out her nickname, trapped within this man’s grasp as Princess Cia ran up to them. The young girl’s eyes were wide and her face pale, long, billowing skirts kicking up dust as she closed the distance between them. Cia came to a halt directly in front of the arriving party, her lips pressing into a stern line.
“Why must you go and trip, Ra?” Cia set her hands on her hips, eyes narrowing as she leaned in. Terra blinked. Did she trip? She looked between this man and his men before turning her gaze back on her mistress, the young girl’s hands trembling, her voice sharp, as she continued, “Master Zoric and his men must be very tired right about now. And here you are, delaying them from the bathhouse and a hot meal to fill their bellies! I thought Damen taught you better! Come, Ra, we must let these men go on their way!”
Cia turned her attention on the pale-haired man, smiling as she said, “Forgive her, Lord Zoric. Sometimes she forgets where she walks.”
He said nothing as he let her go, one hand catching her elbow as she swayed. Testing her weight, Terra exhaled. She made her way to her lady’s side, hair falling around her face like a dark curtain. She knelt in front of the princess, both hands pressed flat against the ground, her voice even as she said, “Forgive me, Princess, it shan’t happen again.”
They moved out of the war party’s path, the men trudging through the courtyard once more with worn steps. Not a word was spoken. Once the last of them was out of their view, Cia grabbed her hands. Terra lifted her head, the world spinning, as the young girl looked into her eyes. Cia’s voice was light as she said, “Are you okay, Ra? You look faint.”
Terra nodded. Cia helped her stand before carefully guiding her down a side path towards the scholar’s hall. Tremors tore through her body, hands shaking terribly as Cia murmured, “Come on, Ra. We’re almost there.”
Terra picked up her pace, eager to sit and rest. She could feel the heat of that man against her back, fell the heavy weight of his hand between her shoulders. It was as if his mere presence left an impression, one that would linger for some time yet. It didn’t take them long to reach the building in question. As Terra opened the doors, Cia said, “Are you sure you’re okay, Ra? You almost fell flat on your face!”
“I wish I had,” Terra stood still, for a moment, as she exhaled slowly. She absently rubbed her shoulder, wincing as the abused limb seized. It stung, the joint pulsing from where it had caught when Zoric had caught her so roughly. She turned her gaze on Bram as she said, “The Al’Zorian Army is here. We have much to do.”
“That we do,” Bram was just ahead, sitting at a table with several books spread out in front of him. Terra smiled at the sight, making her way to one of the eleven chairs in the room. She sat, resting her back against the warm fabric as Bram continued, “We have the elixir. Will it work?”
“Hopefully,” Cia ran her hands over the fabric of her skirt, long hair falling loosely around her. The princess looked them over as she said, “If we can get everything to fall into place like we want, Master Zoric will be more willing to agree to a contract with my father. His stronghold needs the money and reputation we can bring. We need his men and wisdom of the battlefield. Is my father still unaware of our plotting?”
“So far,” Bram stood, making his way towards the bookshelf. “The captain hasn’t made mention of anything that could put us in the spotlight. Only his worries about having a bloodthirsty warrior in our midst come up. I don’t blame him. Master Zoric has enough blood on his hands to appease the heathen Gods of Old.”
That thought alone didn’t sit well with Terra. She grabbed one of the books, pulled it to rest before her. She flipped through it, her mind shifting to the task at hand. All that they did from this point on had to be a synchronized effort. They had to work together, had to cover all their basis. Terra rubbed her brow, skin tingling as she propped her elbow on the table. She turned her thoughts towards her current goal.
Terra flipped through the countless books, eyes scanning maps and war accounts alike.
What was the king thinking, asking for aid from assassins? Al’Zorian Rise was on its own campaign, yes. Zoric’s army was passing through, yes. Terra grabbed another book, gaze moving from one page to the next. Why did Lord Davanar send for a foreign army to fight for their lands when there were allies so much closer to them? Terra kneaded her brow, confused and frustrated with the lack of answer.
‘Calm down, I have to calm down,’ She opted to ignore the heavy stare following her as she stood and paced around the room. She pressed the heels of her palms to her eyes, suddenly feeling worn and years older than twenty-three. ‘Cia’s scheme, it’s dangerous. Too dangerous. How can I make it work?’
She turned to stare at Bram, focused on his eyes and the tense set of his jaw. All of this, it was too dangerous. They were approaching the entire situation like they would with another Lord. She slammed her hands down on the table as she said, “Do you honestly think this is the best way? Do you think dignifying a criminal will solve our problems?”
The guard pursed his lips, eyebrows furrowing until they touched. After a moment he replied, “The man is ruthless, yes. The king asked for his aide. We can use that for our own advantage. Do not forget it was you who made that connection.”
Terra ran her hands down the front of her dress, hands numb. She stepped closer, voice low as she said, “It is one thing to kill to keep the people you love and care for safe. It is something else altogether to slaughter innocents because their overlords opposed you! I thought we could do this, but now…”
Bram inhaled, slow and deep. Terra watched as his Adam’s Apple bobbed before her gaze shifted to his face once more. His eyes closed, his voice low as he asked, “We haven’t as many choices now as we did, Ra. A servant and a guard have no power against a force such as Baskara Zoric or Lord Davanar. This potion, we must have faith it will work.”
Terra turned away, lips pressed into a thin line as the gears in her mind began to turn as Cia paced a hard circle around them. Terra watched her, her hands folded behind her back as the younger girl turned to look at her. Cia’s mouth opened and then she paused, closed her mouth, and resumed her restless walk. Terra knew she only had to wait for an answer, that patience would be the key to this discussion.
“This lack of fear of yours, it’s visceral.”
It wasn’t Cia who spoke, but Bram. Terra turned towards the guardsman, hands folded neatly in front of her as she met his gaze. Lack of fear, he said. Her heart was pounding in her chest, her palms damp. She remembered the feel of her shoulder catching, could still see the ground inches from her face. She could feel Zoric’s hand around her wrist, feel the heat of his body washing over hers.
Terra eyed the guardsman a moment before saying, “I am not afraid for myself, Bram, but for everyone here. I am anxious. This man, he is not what I expected. We have had warlords in our castle before, but none of them were…”
Bram and Cia both eyed her for a moment when she trailed off. Terra turned away from them, making her way to the table. She sat, hands folded in her lap. She drew in a deep breath, willing herself to calm. Yet she couldn’t shake off the sudden meeting with that man, his early arrival in the fortress as loud as an omen to her senses.
Cia caught her hand, voice low as she whispered, “Ra, this is serious. So much rests on the actions we take. So many people are putting their lives in our hands!”
This was not the time to think of disobeying her mistress, to doubt her. Terra eyed the girl, a queen in the making. Her gaze shifted to Bram, his solemn gaze hiding a fire within. Terra exhaled, slowly nodding. She could smell a hint of smoke, hear the crackling of an open flame.
“This situation is serious,” Terra trailed her fingers across the table, body heavy and her mind sluggish. She watched as Cia and Bram sat, their gazes intent on her face. She kept their attention as she continued, “We have a plan, no matter how sketchy it is. We have a goal we will see to frustration no matter the cost. So let’s go over the plan. How are we going to do this without getting caught?”