Kru’Nah and Commander Tra’Khil led the men back into the woods toward the outpost. It wasn’t likely that they would reach it before the storm hit in two days, but they needed to try. Kru’Nah took his position at the front instead of deferring to Commander Tra’Khil. Kru’Nah needed to reestablish himself in royal form in front of these men given the rumors that had been circling already. He felt grateful for the tracks in the snow to follow as his mind was somewhere other than on marching in the proper direction.
Perhaps he had left too soon after Allyandrah’s banishment, too soon after his rescue of her. He thought back to the day of the forest fire. He always kept tabs on Allyandrah as his mother worked and abused the slave more and more. He knew she was in the woods. He knew the danger of her being out there. He knew he should stay at the palace and leave her fate to the Guardians. The more he tried to leave her alone, the more he couldn’t do it. What do the Guardians care about slaves, anyway? They would have done nothing to slow the fire to allow her escape. It was then he knew his love for her was true.
“Sire?” Commander Tra’Khil’s voice broke through Kru’Nah’s thoughts.
Stopping, Kru’Nah turned around to face the commander. “What is it?” His voice was sharp.
Commander Tra’Khil shifted his weight showing his extreme discomfort. “Sire, we’ve orders to dispose of you out here.”
“To dispose of me?” Kru’Nah threw the full weight of his royal command behind his voice. Every soldier shifted in his spot as Kru’Nah glared from one to the next.
Commander Tra’Khil cleared his throat but formed no words after.
“I see,” Kru’Nah sneered. “None of you brave enough to comply. Then let us continue until one of you has found his bravery.”
Turning abruptly, Kru’Nah marched on, not caring whether any of them followed him. Kjelger honor forbade killing an opponent from behind. For now, as long as he moved forward, he would live, though the way his heart ached after losing Allyandrah again made him wish one of these men had been brave enough. He clenched his fists as he tried to steady his breathing and his emotions. If he was going to hold his royal command, he better start acting like it.
After hours of marching and the sun began to hang low in the sky, Kru’Nah found a small clearing of trees in which to camp. He’d noticed hours ago that all the soldiers had followed him, though at a further distance than they would have without his reproach. Kru’Nah didn’t care how much he alienated them. He was the prince, after all. He owed them nothing.
Kru’Nah stood watching while the men scrambled to gather supplies for a fire and build small shelters. Though he assumed that just a few miles more would have been a camp they’d used on the way out, he wanted to punish them and work them harder. He was angry at their cowardice but he owned them now after calling it out. As they worked, he set himself in the first finished shelter as one soldier cooked using the now blazing fire, the boiling resin jumping and landing on his thick furs.
Kru’Nah removed his hood and face covering to scowl more clearly at the men. None dared look directly at him, but he knew they were watching him out of the corners of their eyes. He waited for Commander Tra’Khil to approach him to offer penance. Kru’Nah tried to empty his mind of Allyandrah as he waited, but she continued to creep back in. He tried to think about where she could be, if she was even still alive. He believed she was, but he couldn’t be sure. They hadn’t joined their spark yet, so he could only guess.
Shortly, a bowl of hot vegetable stew was offered to him by Commander Tra’Khil. As Kru’Nah accepted it, he offered the first spoonful to Tra’Khil as an invitation to sit with him. Tra’Khil ate the first bite and sat down.
“Look at me, Tra’Khil.” Slowly, Tra’Khil removed his own hood and face mask and turned to look at Kru’Nah. Years of worry and work had etched lines deep into the face of Tra’Khil, betraying his age to one much older. “What is going on? Tell me plainly.”
Tra’Khil sat perfectly still as he explained, “The queen is none too pleased with you right now, sire. She is more than angry about your rescue of the slave and believes your disappearance has something to do with the slave, too. She has been raging in private while appearing as the concerned mother in public. The slave is not safe anywhere with other Kjelgers, at least not the ones loyal to your mother.”
Kru’Nah tried to keep his face completely devoid of reaction as Tra’Khil explained Allyandrah’s plight.
“Sire,” Tra’Khil continued, failing to keep his voice neutral and spoke more gently. “It would take the influence of the Guardians to save her out here. Who knows who else the queen has sent after her, too. All we know is that we were sent for you. There could be more out searching for her.”
“Where do you and your men stand, then?” Kru’Nah felt he knew the answer given he was still alive.
“Sire,” Tra’Khil cleared his throat.
“Speak plainly.” Kru’Nah ordered.
Tra’Khil shifted. Kru’Nah knew now that the truth was coming.
“Sire. What you do is of no concern to us as long as it doesn’t jeopardize the safety of the kingdom. We have heard reports from the messengers–”
“Yes, sire, unofficial. We’ve heard unofficial reports from messengers that the people are in favor of the rescue of the slave. It has given you favor among the people, which your mother is losing.”
Kru’Nah stared incredulously at Tra’Khil.
“Sire, I don’t understand it either.”
“Commander Tra’Khil,” a voice interrupted.
“Yes?” Tra’Khil addressed the soldier.
“Permission to do a perimeter check.”
“Parg’Noth out to check the perimeter.”
Turning back to Kru’Nah, Tra’Khil continued. “It seems some strange things are happening around here and I have no explanation.”
Kru’Nah slowly nodded. He looked around the now dark campsite and saw the men huddling together in various structures. Yesterday, everything out here had seemed so simple and now it all had a layer of complication.
“What kind of strange things?” Kru’Nah asked.
“Sire, it’s almost as though the Guardians are displeased and so are trying to corrupt us.”
“Corrupt us all!” Tra’Khil answered with unexpected passion. “Excuse my outburst, sire.”
Kru’Nah leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Continue.”
Tra’Khil’s eyes widened. He cleared his throat and looked around, then leaned in and spoke in a lowered voice. “Sire, the burning of the forest. The disfavor of your mother. Your decision to rescue a slave. The rumors of you running off with her. Do you remember the last time a dynasty had such rumors and indiscretions?”
“These events are the hands of the Guardians you think?”
“Sire, I don’t know what else it could be. I’ve never heard of a prince rescuing a slave from anything. And the last time a queen fell out of favor with the people?”
“It does seem like the meddling of the Guardians.” Kru’Nah rubbed his face. His fatigue was growing exponentially. Could his love be nothing more than the Guardians bent on making a point? “Is that why you and your men didn’t follow the orders of my mother?”
“Sire, of course. Could we willingly participate in the games of the Guardians if we knew about them? Should we not resist such interference?”
Shouts from the men interrupted Kru’Nah’s response. Commander Tra’Khil shot out from under the shelter to investigate. Kru’Nah rose slowly and followed. When he approached, he saw one of the soldiers wandering aimlessly in the middle of the circle of soldiers, his arms and legs bent at strange angles. Kru’Nah’s heart jumped up into his throat and he swallowed hard as the man turned to look at him, his soulless eyes burning inside Kru’Nah’s mind.
“Who is this?” Commander Tra’Khil barked.
“It’s Parg’Noth,” a soldier replied.
“Strange things,” Kru’Nah whispered.
“Those damn Guardians!” Commander Tra’Khil roared. “Put him down! Put him down!”
The soldiers hesitated for just a moment before diving in. To Kru’Nah’s horror and dismay, Parg’Noth was not the aimless wanderer he seemed to be. When attacked, he defended himself, resisting the advances of six men at once.
Parg’Noth slowly made his way toward Kru’Nah, pushing down soldier after soldier, though not killing them. Kru’Nah couldn’t make sense of what was happening and felt frozen in place though his mind screamed at him to run.
Parg’Noth reached out to Kru’Nah with a shriveled finger and opened his mouth just as a sword erupted from his abdomen. Kru’Nah jumped back and as Parg’Noth dropped to the ground, he whispered, “she lives.” His whisper sounded like the wind rustling through the needles of the trees in the forest. Kru’Nah shook his head, sure he’d heard incorrectly.
“He was dead before he spoke,” one soldier announced.
“Are you sure?” Commander Tra’Khil asked.
“I am certain. He uttered nothing. No harm will come.”
In shock, Kru’Nah stared at the eyes of the now dead man, his bony finger still pointed at Kru’Nah.
“What happens if he speaks?” Kru’Nah asked breathlessly.
“If he speaks, we are cursed to the destiny he tells. He’s like a fate-sealer,” Commander Tra’Khil replied.
“How do you know this?”
“We’ve lost a dozen men to this. Everything spoken comes true and the one he speaks to is sealed to that fate.”
Kru’Nah’s eyes widened and he shook his head. Was he really sure that the man had spoken? Or did he just imagine it? What did that mean for him if he had? What did it mean that she lives?
“Come, men,” Commander Tra’Khil barked. “Put him out of the camp and get in your shelters. We still have a storm to outrun.”
Kru’Nah slowly rose, trying to remember to be royal, to be princely. He pulled himself completely upright and walked to the shelter from which he’d come. He climbed inside, feeling a distinct chill at what he’d witnessed. Two soldiers were stationed by the fire to keep it raging. Kru’Nah supposed they would change guards throughout the night. No one could afford to be sleep deprived out here.
As he lay down, letting the heat of the fire warm his body, his inner chill was replaced with a growing excitement. She lives. He was sure now that he’d heard correctly. He was destined to a fate with her. Even if the Guardians were meddling, what did it matter? She lives. Even if things changed, what did it matter? She lives. A smile broke out across his face. He needed to push on, toward what he didn’t know, but it didn’t matter anymore.