Authors: Nicole MacDonald
And then out with the old, he thought in malicious delight, and in with the new. No more would that greedy, grasping Mestarn line, lay claim to the throne. Instead his blood, mixed with that of the fire Elemental and that ancient, revered Thalian line. With centuries to rule, maybe even millennia—who knew how long an Elemental could live—and the world at their feet.
A loud shout of laughter drifted his way and Ignatius turned his attention back to the vials, putting each in separate pockets. Wouldn’t do to mix them up, he thought, then quickly crushed the remaining poison against the stones and with a strong breath blew the remnants away.
That evening everyone crowded noisily around the large fire I’d created at Rashid’s request, the flames giving off just enough heat to warm the room but not smother it.
‘Does it not feel sacrilegious to utilize the legendary fire Elemental’s gift in such a manner?’ Oomoth’s voice boomed in the cavern, the humor evident while everyone hooted with laughter.
‘Ahh it’s our last night, the least she can do is provide a good light,’ a goblin cheekily called out and another voice hollered, ‘Tomorrow we fight!’
I don’t know who yelled that but the answering roar from all around the fire made me glance nervously at the ceiling. Not a rock shifted, and apparently taken with the ravenous echo the cave created, the soldiers and allies made extravagant declarations and toasts, before those gave way to performances. Loushka moved to my side, the crowd giving way to her and the other griffons, then Sito, when they moved close wanting to be part of it.
It felt utterly invigorating to watch after the weeks of pent up tension from the journey this far.
The cave echoed while the Nyjens performed a battle dance. The warriors ditched their unusual armor, just wearing the dark shorts from underneath it, holding their evil looking curved blades while they performed the awe inspiring dance. Ducking, lunging, and leaping, before a blade could penetrate flesh. They didn’t hold back and everyone sat tense, knowing a sudden motion or distracting noise could result in serious injury. With only the fire lighting the cave, the scars on their arms and their violet eyes glowed vividly against the dark. Their ebony skin blending with the shadows, creating a striking effect.
The goblins moved into their respective troops; those from the mountain tops, those from the giant forests in the lands west of Elion, the pale gray skinned goblins from the caves of Tas’sal—who could possibly be the only ones not looking forward to seeing sky. Goblins were fascinating creatures. Exceptionally hardy and adaptable, living in almost every part of this world. Ignatius explained them to me one long afternoon on the ship.
The desert goblins from the dry-lands in Pervadrha kept the beat for the Nyjens with round shallow drums covered in dense green leather that doubled as their shields. The sound the drums produced vibrated through the air, deep and rhythmic, and the goblins kept a constant, urgent beat, gradually increasing the speed to challenge the dancing warriors. The forest goblins punctuated the heavy rhythm with their own instruments, made of short solid lengths of wood that curled around, creating a sharper, higher sound when rapped with the single drumsticks they casually wielded, drumming so fast they blurred.
A touch to my shoulder made me jump, so focused on the dancers, and Ignatius smiled down at me then squeezed in amongst those crowded around to sit beside me.
Ignatius hadn’t factored this into his evening plans. Inwardly he chewed on his liver as the cave nearly throbbed with noise. It would very likely scare the ardwyr off.
Or anything else with half a brain, he thought. No matter, I’ll create a diversion. As long as it seems believable and I broach it in the right manner, I know she’ll rise to the bait.
With that in mind it felt easier to smile at Cat while she watched the battle performances. He moved an arm behind her and bent to her ear, explaining the various parts of the dance. After the Nyjens’ display, the goblins performed and it was one of the few times Ignatius had been privileged to watch the different troops perform together. Many of those watching exchanged impressed glances, and he saw the men of the Griffon Guard explaining it to the other girls. The Northerner sat near Rashid, listening to the Lieutenant and watching his gestures. Having known Rashid for decades, Ignatius felt uneasy at his obsession with Leseach. It could make his plans difficult to execute.
Though, he reasoned to himself, as soon as I get Cat back to the castle it won’t matter. She’ll be preoccupied with the baby and all I need do is play the protective, understanding, advisor. Even my divorce will be useful, for another sympathy play. With Cat so irresistibly close he lost himself in the vision for a moment. A loud huff from Loushka caused him to straighten up, twisting to smile and nod at the griffon.
Why is it all the ones to cause problems with my plans are female? Keeping the pleasant smile fixed on his face, Ignatius turned back to the current display.
Chapter Twenty Three
You wouldn’t believe the goblin troops didn’t usually perform together. The performance was incredible; all music, some from instruments, others their voices or well timed slaps and claps. The urgent undertone of drumming made my heart race and wrists throb, while the haunting cries from the mountain goblins sent shivers down my spine.
‘Just incredible,’ I said, glancing at Ignatius as he turned back from greeting Loushka with a smile.
He nodded to me.
‘It is. Not many get to see this.’
‘Loushka, have you seen this before?’
‘Once, they performed it at a gathering before your father died, Cat.’
‘So Alek saw it?’
‘Of course, it enthralled him.’
It felt impossible to tire with such music. You could feel the impending battle through their music, the strength needed, the courage required, and the acknowledgement of loss of life. But the underlying theme of victory shone through while the goblins built to a crescendo. I could barely sit still, the music pulsing through my whole being. They gathered their strength then spun on us, their audience, with an unexpected but fantastic battle cry. I jerked back in surprise, smacking into Ignatius who laughed and started to applaud, the rest of the audience joining in. My heart pounded while I laughed and clapped too, unable to stop grinning.
A lull developed when the goblins moved back into the audience, then on the other side of the fire a voice shouted something. Beside me, Ignatius stiffened, sitting straight and another voice took up the shout. In an instant all those in the General Guard, Centaur Cavalry, and Griffon Guard, clapped their hands in time, creating another compelling beat. I moved closer to Loushka, watching in astonishment when all the men stood and the Cavalry soldiers stamped their feet. The urgent, exciting rhythm only picked up when the men started to sing. The voices, loud, strong, and proud, sung in that language I couldn’t understand, the one Alek had used to speak to the other guys when he didn’t want us to overhear.
‘Loushka, what are they saying, what language is it?’
‘You don’t know?’
the griffon asked.
‘Nope, never understood that language.’
‘It’s a military language. Only those in Elion’s guards or cavalry are taught it. They are singing of past victories, heroes that fell in the Norard war. The song promises to do honor, to bring Elion to victory. To shed the shackles and free the innocent.’
The voices stopped, but they kept the loud drumming of feet and clapping of hands in that stimulating rhythm, and my knees bounced in time while I sat cross legged beside Loushka. A single voice started to sing and I’m pretty sure my jaw nearly hit the floor.
Ignatius twisted to see Cat when he sang the solo and her pronounced expression of astonishment caused a hint of laughter in his voice. All those near twisted to look at what made him laugh. He turned to face her, a wide smile in place. The words held a different meaning to him while he sang to her; the victory wouldn’t be in killing that witch, but in the ultimate prize of the crown and the fire Elemental as his future bride. The words rumbled through his chest, promising the victory and honoring the ancient Thalian line.
He lost himself in the song, remembering the first time he’d received the privilege to sing the solo. Both the King and Queen attended the performance, the Queen full with child and breathtakingly beautiful while King Nikias stood beside her seat, a protective hand to the back of her chair. It was well before Ignatius had wed and that night he’d dreamed of the Queen, her lovely green eyes and long gold red hair. To have her daughter smiling up at him now, with eyes as green, made his chest feel tight for an instant. Yet again he wondered how he hadn’t recognized her when she’d first arrived at the castle.
‘Did you know Alek could sing?’
‘Yes, let me show you.’
A recent memory of Alek showed, sitting at a campfire somewhere, with the other guys there too. I frequently forgot the lack of electricity here, but moments like these reminded me. While on Earth we would listen to the radio, or even watch a DVD on a portable player or a tiny computer tablet, here on Gar’nyse singing, story telling, cards and other such games, were the norm. Singing and story telling, of course, the easiest forms of entertainment.
He sat on a low boulder and Loushka sat across from him. I could see Sabyn seated nearby, tossing small bits of twig into the fire while they listened. It felt strange to watch. I would have been so self-conscious to do it but on Gar’nyse it was regarded as normal. Alek’s voice entranced me; not technically perfect but raw, real, and just gorgeous. The hint of roughness, the depth, and the unexpected softness felt utterly alluring. The song sounded like a ballad, slow, with deliberate strokes in the rhythm and—oh god—was it the sexiest thing ever. I felt a flush rising up my neck while I watched Loushka’s memory and bit my lip to stop the silly smile that threatened.
He was so animated while singing, eyes alight, mouth in a teasing smile. I vaguely registered that some of the words were a tad raunchy and heard the other men laugh, Gredel’s laugh unexpectedly loud in the memory like he’d sat close to Loushka. My fingers twitched and heart ached and an absolute yearn for him rocked in time with his voice. I closed my eyes, fully immersing myself in Loushka’s memory.
Loi shot Sabyn a surprised look as she listened to Ignatius and he nodded with a smile.
‘He’s really good!’
‘Which helps, Rashid can’t sing to save himself and Patel’s voice breaks as soon as there’s an audience larger than ten.’
‘Can no one else perform it?’
‘No. The solo’s reserved for a Lieutenant of the General Guard, as a mark of honor and rank.’
Ignatius grew louder, building, Loi assumed, to the finale. He looked focused on something and she sat higher, stretching to see, and spotted Cat. The dreamy expression on her friend’s face abruptly pulled Loi back from the enjoyment of the song and she scowled at Cat.
There was no response from the redhead but Sian and Kassie tuned in.
What is with that ditzy look?
Please tell me she isn’t falling for Ignatius!
Both girls sounded horrified, like Loi felt. Determined to get through to her friend’s mind, Loi focused harder, with Sian and Kassie piggybacking along. It looked hazy at first, then the vision shimmered and cleared in their minds. The girls gave a collective gasp. Seated by a fire, Alek sung, and Loi’s eyes honed in on Sabyn, looking the same as now except with short shaggy hair.
Where is she seeing this?
It must be from Loushka.
Wow, he can really sing,
For all we know, they can all sing.
Feeling as talented as a tree stump right now,
Kassie thought with Sian agreeing.
Which is particularly talented,
Sabyn tapped her arm, breaking her focus.
‘What are you grinning at?’
‘Can you sing too? Cat’s watching a memory from Loushka, showing Alek singing by a fire.’
Sabyn’s face lightened at that and he pulled her back so she sat between his long legs, knees up on either side of her. She leaned back against his chest, watching his smile.
‘Al often sang at the fire. The king taught him all the songs his mother loved but when we began travelling on various missions he picked up lots of songs. It was hilarious to hear the new risqué ones.’
Loi chuckled and Sabyn’s smile grew.
‘He had a good voice. Very pleasant to listen to.’
‘Can you sing?’
‘Yeah. Not so great though.’
‘Sing for me?’
He chuckled then, and ducked his head to press a kiss to her forehead.
‘I will, one day.’
‘I’m holding you to that,’ she said while snuggling closer in his arms.
The song reached its climax, breaking their moment and Sabyn released her to stand with the others who’d settled down for Ignatius’ part. All the soldiers started singing again, joining in what sounded like the final chorus. The goblins with the drums beat in time with the clapping of hands and stamping of feet, in an intoxicating rhythm, and Loi clapped along, throat straining with the urge to join in though she didn’t know the words.
When the song roused the crowd again Loushka dropped the images. The soldiers of the guards and cavalry sang together, while the goblins joined in with their drums. At the conclusion, everyone who hadn’t participated applauded, and I spontaneously made the undulating cry that belly dancers did, making Sian and Kassie laugh in memory of our short lived hobby years ago. The cave rung with noise and voices until Rashid stood at the fire, waiting for everyone’s attention. To give him a hand I flared the fire up and the crowd settled.
In a clear stern voice Rashid began.
‘Finally we’ve reached the eve of our destiny. Tomorrow will bring sky. It will bring battle and an uncertain future. Know we fight for the freedom of all on Gar’nyse. Lives will be sacrificed but we won’t mourn until the deed is done. The tyrant Sorceress will fall!’
The last shouted words made all the soldiers holler in response and I resisted the urge to block my ears. Ignatius caught the slight wince I made and laughed before leaning to my ear.
‘A word of advice, you need to think of some words to say tomorrow.’
‘What?’ I looked at him in horror.
With a look of amusement he shifted closer, the crowd still noisy, and explained, ‘It’s what Alek would have done, as Prince. You’re the Princess. It’s expected.’
Just the thought of speaking in front of everyone turned my stomach. I always went bright red when speaking to a crowd. Always. Even if I kept my voice steady and managed to stop my knees from knocking, I still couldn’t figure out how not to look like a human tomato.
‘Oh great,’ I muttered.
Ignatius laughed and squeezed my knee, making me jump in surprise.
‘You’ll have lots of this when we get home.’
‘If we get home.’
He frowned and shot me a look.
‘We’ll get home, Cat. I’m making sure of it.’