Authors: D Jordan Redhawk
D. Jordan Redhawk
P.D. Publishing, Inc. (2006)
Princess Sabine Katerina Annaatje of Dulce is outside the safety of the castle walls, on the run from a vicious invader who has killed her family and usurped her throne. With only one man at arms and a faithful handmaiden, she barely escapes the Invader's clutches. But only for so long - he has vowed to leave no blood heir alive. Stumbling into a camp of itinerant performers, Sabine hides her identity, becoming Katerin of Aimsbury. She learns to trust the leader of the traveling circus, Ros Adamsson, a bawdy woman who is half rogue and half gentlewoman. Trust may eventually blossom into more if Katerin can overcome her fear and conservative upbringing. Meanwhile, the Invader still searches for her. A rumored uprising in the Dulce Province, a royal summons for the Adamsson Circus, and a traitorous servant all collide to reveal a secret even deeper than Katerin's identity.
The air was moist with fog. Muffled sound reached her ears, a minstrel singing nearby. Blindly, she focused on the song and its sedate beat, moving with care over the uneven terrain.
As she neared the music, other sounds could be discerned - the tumbling of water, dove calls gentle in the slight breeze. Her slippered foot stumbled over a rock and she could hear it clatter against others, splashing. The wind picked up, brushing a lock of hair across her forehead, dissipating the mist before her. Flickering light beckoned her closer as she picked her way across a stream.
Motion caught her eye and she saw the minstrel for the first time. His voice was soft, chanting a tale of war and betrayal. A white dove in his hand contrasted with his bloody story, cooing in counterpoint to his words. She could barely see his musicians through the darkness behind him, the torchlight only catching their movements as they played the drum and lute. Walls rising steeply into the fog told her where she was, her heart filling with dread. She was outside the castle. Again. As if on cue, the minstrel sang what she knew would be the last of his song. When he finished, he dropped his head and the musicians paused in their playing.
Sharp strains from the lute began, eerie in the dark mistiness. Unease filled her heart for she knew what was coming. Wanting to turn and leave, her feet wouldn't move. The deep rolling of the drum caused her to flinch in apprehension.
Startled by a sudden, intense beat of the drum, the dove flew from the minstrel's hand. Her fearful eyes could not look away as its path took it up into a clear blue sky. Shrill cry of a hawk, sickening impact, bloodied feathers floating through the air.
Another drum beat. Another vision.
She waited with impatience, squatting beneath the table in her father's chambers. Her little sister should have found her by now. Just as she was about to climb from her hiding place, the sound of booted feet chased her underneath again. Wishing she'd never begun this game, she shrank back, watching several pairs of legs stomp into the room. Their voices were quiet and serious, rough with concern, and her ears perked up in curiosity.
"What have you learned, Angus?" her father asked.
"My liege, the Invader is closing on our southern borders. He's moving fast, burnin' the farms behind him."
A younger voice, similar in timbre to the king, cursed. "Why destroy perfectly good farmland?" he demanded in righteous anger. "He'd need it to support his troops should get too far past our borders."
"Calm yourself, son," the king insisted, moving towards the man.
Waiting quietly under the table, she recognized her brother's boots. He fancied those silly flaps on the sides to help pull them on. She wanted to know who this Invader was and why he was being so dim but if her father found her now, she'd be in real trouble. The voices had continued above her and she focused on them again.
"Let me go, father! With the Third Army, I could lay waste to him!"
With reluctance, the king asked, "Angus?"
"Aye, your Majesty. If we can get to him before he gets to the Wynsul River…"
"See?" the young man said. "Please, father! I beg you."
In the following silence, she entertained herself with the notion of her strong older brother on his knees, begging. She bit her tongue to keep from giggling.
After a startled pause, the son dashed forward. "Thank you, father! I'll make sure that bastard never invades another kingdom!" He turned and clattered out of the room.
"Angus," the king said. "Go with the crown prince. He'll have need of your wisdom."
Another beat of the drum. Another vision.
Her mother's hoarse cry interrupted her. She looked up from her studies, a boring book on history, catching movement near the doorway. Ignoring her tutor, she dashed into the main hall of the castle, hearing many voices.
Several people were in the hall. Puzzled, she stepped closer, wondering why her mother was on the floor. The woman was hovering over something, hugging it to her breast and sobbing loudly. Others around her either stood back in embarrassed silence or appeared to be comforting her.
The king appeared, face stricken as he clearly saw what his daughter could not, one of his aides gasping in shock.
"It's your fault!" the hysterical woman spit at him. "Your fault!" Her voice faded into loud sobs.
Unable to stay away, fear and inquisitiveness filling her, she stepped closer. Others were in her way, blocking her view. She edged around them, peeking between. Even when she was able to see, it took a moment for the vision to sink in. Tears welled up in her eyes when it did.
Her brother's boots were bloody.
Another beat of the drum, the tempo increasing.
Even at this distance, the stench made her nose twitch. Acrid smoke rose less than a mile away, evidence of the Invader's progression towards her home. Below her window, she could see increasing activity in the courtyard. Injured were straggling in from the front lines, women and older children providing supplies to the overworked surgeons. The guard on the walls had tripled in response to the threat, but half of them were walking wounded. She'd heard the orders given by her father's aides - all foodstuffs and potables were to be brought into the castle in the event of a siege.
A lone rider approached from the battlefield, his horse galloping at full tilt. Reaching the castle, he nearly toppled his steed as he pulled it up short. Even at this distance, she could hear a captain's voice challenging him, distinctly hear his response.
"The king is dead! The king is dead!"
Darkness, whispers, rustling noises. A hand across her mouth, smothering her, scaring her. Startled shriek, heart pumping.
"Hush, lass!" The voice of a servant. "It's time to rise and dress. The Invader's at the castle walls. We must get you and your family away!"
Hurried dressing, barely enough time to grab a favorite doll as she was hustled from her room. In the hall, her mother clutched an infant brother, her sister staring wide-eyed at the small gathering of loyal guards and servants. She grabbed onto her younger sibling, feeling the smaller girl tremble as she did.
As they were herded from the castle, the ringing of metal on metal filled the courtyard.
"They've breached the walls!"
Drumbeat, relentless nightmare.
Flash of moonlight on water, gentle music of the horses' tack, muted whispers, arms wrapped about a servant as their mount swayed gently.
"There's a small boat ahead, majesty," a voice drifted back.
The world turned to thunder; pounding of hooves, rattle of armor, and cries of alarm. She clutched the servant before her as their steed leapt into a full gallop. Branches tugging at her clothes, hair whipping in the dark, heart in her throat. Suddenly flying, landing with a grunt on a patch of peat, she tried to catch her breath.
Standing, alone, the horse's hooves raced away. In the near distance she could hear fighting, angry curses and her sister's cry. She clutched her doll to her chest, terrified and frozen with indecision. The baby was shrieking in the dark, a man's scream mingling with the sound for just a moment before choking off. Unable to stay away despite her fright, she pushed through the foliage.
On a small strip of sand next to the river was her family. Bodies lay all around, evidence of the guards' attempts to save the royal family. Her mother was on her knees, clutching the screaming baby to her chest. Before her was a man in armor holding a sword. Several other soldiers and horses were gathered around them, some of the servants on their knees in a small knot nearby. Her sister was nowhere to be seen.
The armored man pulled off his helmet. His air of command reminded her of her father, though he wasn't as handsome. An ugly scar ran across his face from the base of his nose to curve down and around his cheek. He was saying something, his voice so low that she couldn't make it out.
When the blade pierced her mother's chest, pinning the babe to it, her scream matched theirs.
Panting, heart thumping, crashing through the wilderness. Noises everywhere, the call of wild animals urging her on. Behind her, she knew the Invader and his soldiers were chasing her, tracking her down to kill her. She was royalty and her life was forfeit; she'd been instructed since a toddler that she lived for her people. Her people were gone.
Bursting from behind a bush, she screamed silently at the armored figure before her. Moonlight on blade flashed above her and she cowered, afraid of the deathblow that was coming. Cuddling her doll to her chest, she could only hear the scuffle, the rattle of armor, could feel the ground tremble as a heavy body hit it.
A gentle touch on her shoulder and she peered fearfully at her savior. The minstrel smiled down on her, a bloody dove in his hands. "Hush, child. You're safe now."
As she struggled with the familiar nightmare, barely coming to consciousness, she could feel fingers caress her forehead.
"Shhh. It's just a bad dream," a familiar voice murmured. "You're safe now."
Sighing, she relaxed back into sleep.
Furtive movement gained her attention.
To her credit, her flinch to wakefulness was minor, causing hardly a sound. Cracking her eyelids a fraction, her mind raced as she remembered where she was. Warmth was behind and beside her, evidence of her sleeping handmaiden. Aching from a root that had dug its way into the small of her back, she'd been so exhausted when they'd stopped running, she hadn't realized it was there. Her cloak was wrapped about the both of them, hardly touching the chill of the early morning mist.
Steam rose from her mouth and she tried to keep her breathing even. There, the movement again; a rustling of cloth just outside her vision. A twig snapped, sharp in the silence, and her heart fluttered in her throat. Beneath the cloak, her hand grasped the ornamental dagger her father gifted her on her last birthday. Despite her attempt to appear asleep, her dark eyes widened and she held her breath.
The bush to her left rattled, someone trying to get into the tiny clearing where the women were hiding. Unable to keep up the pretense, she threw off the cloak, pulling the dagger from its sheath. Her handmaiden, rousing at the sudden movement, looked wildly about, keeping her tongue at the warning wave from her mistress.
A figure pushed slowly through the thick undergrowth on hands and knees. With shaking hand, she prepared to launch her attack, gripping the hilt with white knuckles. The figure raised his head, their eyes meeting.
"By the gods, Your Highness!" the man breathed. He used one grimy hand to tug at his forelock. "It's me! Hector!"
Terror quickly faded to elation and the princess scrabbled forward on the hard ground to draw the servant in. "Hector! You survived!" Her hands were frantic on his shoulders, grasping at his tunic and pulling him, unable to believe he was still alive despite the tactile proof. "Mother? Prince Liam?"
Hector, his weathered face sagging, shook his head. "Nay, Your Highness. I saw the Invader run them through."
She drew away, looking down and sheathing her dagger with heaviness in her chest.
"I'm sorry, Your Royal Highness," the man whispered.
Flinching at the added 'Royal,' an indication of her new status as Crown, she shook her head. "Nay, Hector." Taking a deep breath to quell the need for tears, she looked at her two servants. "Call me Katerin.
of you. If we're to survive this night, the Princess Sabine must not be mentioned."
The handmaiden, Ilia, made a soft noise in her throat and reached out to grasp the younger woman's shoulder.
"Hector, did anyone see you escape?" Survival first.
He seemed slightly hesitant as he shook his head. "I don't think so, Your… Katerin. The guards were busy with the royal family. Two of us slipped away, but Matteo was killed by a wandering patrol after we'd gone less than a league."