Authors: Kaitlyn Davis
As the walls of the city faded into the horizon, Rhen slowed Ember, patting her soft muddy-red hairs until her breath calmed, and she understood that the urgency had passed. Aside from his mother, she was the only female who had ever held his heart, and though she was old, she had never failed him. Not as a foal, when she had kicked down the stable door, saving his older brother Whyllem from the blazing flames. And not as a mare, when she had saved his life time after time, never demanding more than a light scratch along her neck.
Well, sometimes demanding more…okay, often demanding more, but Rhen was soft when it came to his horse.
He dropped the reins, trusting Ember to keep the pace, and reached into his saddlebag to grab the plain brown tunic resting inside. Stripping off the bright red silks of the crown, he let his bare chest soak in the sun before donning the less noticeable, but also less comfortable, common shirt. His boots and pants were still of the noble variety, but he wouldn't be able to fully hide his station without leaving Ember—and that just wasn't an option.
"Alright, alright," he said, grabbing hold of the leather straps again. "I suppose you deserve it." He pulled back, bringing Ember to a slow halt, and jumped from the saddle.
"Here you go," he said, slipping an apple from his bag. She greedily stole it away from his hand in one bite. A minute later, she stomped her foot, twisting her neck to look at him with distinctly pouting eyes. Rhen rolled his own eyes and reached for another.
Stroking her neck, he felt a sigh rumble down her nerves and knew she was satisfied.
"Okay, Cal, what did you find?" He muttered to himself, unrolling the parchment he had stashed in his belt just before sneaking out of the castle.
, the note began. Rhen sneered at the use of his formal name before continuing
. I feel it is my duty as your friend and loyal servant to first advise you on the idiocy of your current plan to pursue…
Rhen sighed, skimming over the rest of the first paragraph.
Irresponsible. Dangerous. Foolhardy.
Blah. Blah. Blah. Did his best friend write this or the king? The similarities in the phrasing were almost uncanny.
He ran a hand through his hair, looking up at the endless sky for a brief moment, disregarding the paper in his hands.
All Rhen had ever wanted to do was protect his family. His father always said there were more than enough men who wished to be king. What a kingdom really needed were less people looking for glory and more people looking for honor.
Well, his eldest brother would be king and his other brother would be the right hand of the king. But what few people knew was that Rhen planned to become the left hand of the king—the unseen hand, the one that lived in the shadows, catching secrets on the wind.
To the world, Rhen would always be the third son—the useless son, the extra son, the afterthought. He was known as a womanizer, a gambler, and a fool—a reputation he did nothing to stop. No, quite the opposite. It was a reputation he was usually proud to build and strengthen. Better they think that than know the truth. That he was smart. That he was always listening. And that he was creating something his father had forbid, something he had banished after—
Rhen shook his head, blinked, stopped his mind from finishing those dark thoughts. That was history. And there were more important things happening here and now that required his absolute attention. Awenine, wife of his eldest brother Whyltarin and future Queen of Whylkin, was with child. There would be a new royal heir soon, a royal heir who needed Rhen's protection.
And for the first time since Rhen had chosen this path, there was something stirring, something waiting to be heard. There were no coincidences. Secrets were being whispered on the winds, if only he could just reach out far enough to catch them…
Ember pressed her forehead against his arm, nudging him into action as though she had felt his mood shift. He patted the white patch between her eyes, thanking her, and then lifted his body back into the saddle.
"Follow the road," he whispered into her alert ear and lightly kicked her belly to emphasize the command. She kept walking, and Rhen turned back to the letter, skipping down farther until Cal's words finally grew interesting.
I asked my father about your information, and he said he has heard nothing of the sort. His squire, however, said differently. Just as you described, the merchants and their crews are talking. Rumors of the spotting of unflagged ships on the horizon have begun to spread around the docks, though no one seems to take it too seriously, as there haven't been pirates in these waters since Whyl the Conqueror united the lands.
In other news…
Rhen paused, chewing on his bottom lip, ignoring the hair that had fallen over his eyes.
Nothing new, and yet, the word was spreading. Weeks ago while visiting the royal shipyard, Rhen had overheard sailors talking about spotting unflagged ships—ships that belonged to no kingdom and no king. Later that day he returned, looking distinctly less royal, and weeded out more information. Unidentified ships had been spotted along the northwest shore of the kingdom, a shore almost completely uninhabited due to the miles upon miles of steep cliffs blocking access to the ocean.
But there were only two kingdoms left in this world, the Kingdom of Whylkin and their neighboring Kingdom of Ourthuro. Secret ships could only mean one thing—the Ourthuri were looking for something, something that hinted of war.
Unless Rhen could stop it.
He kept reading.
In other news, the game has been lacking of late. The butchers have been complaining that no meat is being brought into the city, that they are losing their income. Unless the oldworlders are hoarding animals in their little wooden huts, someone else is taking them or something else is killing them. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, as it will only spur you on, but I find it my duty as a friend to keep your trust—even if you end up killed.
Perhaps my last piece of information will dissuade you from that course of action though. Unexplained deaths have been a recent phenomenon—bodies found with their throats slit, suicides we presume—though gossips have been labeling them as something far worse. I wouldn't have believed them, but Henry, a knight in my father's guard, and his wife recently passed the same way. And he was a strong fighter, an honorable man. He would not have done it to himself or to her.
So again, I would advise against chasing down these mercenary, and currently quite imaginary, ships on your own. Stay in Roninhythe and we can explore these mysterious deaths together; a noble cause I assure you.
You are a prince and someday you will have to understand that. But until that day, I will do my best as a friend to make sure it is something you do not forget.
Rhen snorted—as if he could ever forget. No, Roninhythe was not where he needed to be. Disappearing game sounded like a good lead—perhaps the unflagged ships had dropped off unspotted infiltrators. Cal had mentioned the oldworlders, which meant Rhen's destination was the Northmore Forest—home of the Arpapajo and another day's ride away.
"What do you say we move a little faster?" He asked. Ember's ears pricked at the sound of his voice and before he had fully gripped the reins, her slow walk had turned into a gallop.
There were few things Rhen loved more than the air whipping past his face as Ember raced through the countryside. In that time, the two of them were one. Her eyes were his eyes. Her legs his legs. Their minds were so connected that he didn’t even need to speak to give her directions, she just understood.
Sometimes he would close his eyes and just let the smell of the grass fill his senses. Or open them so wide that tears leaked out the side from the wind. Heart thumping to the beat of her feet, all other sounds faded away and every dark memory seemed to disappear.
They covered miles in what felt like minutes, but the drowning sun betrayed the real time. Shadows elongated and the air cooled until eventually, Rhen could barely see a few feet before Ember's nose.
"Alright, girl," he said sadly, wishing it were not time to stop, "let's settle down for the night." He had spotted a tree line ahead, just before the light disappeared, and the last thing he wanted was to lead Ember straight into raised roots or a wide trunk. There was no use risking injury.
He slipped from the saddle and unhooked the buckle under her belly, letting the heavy leather seat fall from her back. Then without giving her time to protest, he pushed on her behind, signaling that it was time to lay down. She often preferred sleeping upright, but tonight, with the last remaining winter nips still on the breeze, Rhen would need her warmth. And after a long run, she would need her sleep.
Once Ember settled, Rhen curled in next to her side, and the two of them let sleep come quickly.
But it didn't last very long.
Just before sunrise, Rhen woke with a long gasp and coughed, flipping over onto his hands and knees while his lungs rebelled against his body. Within seconds, Ember had smelled it too, hopping to her feet and letting out a long screech that scratched its way down Rhen's spine.
Plumes and plumes of smoke.
"Easy, girl," he jumped to his feet, wrapping his arms around Ember's neck until she calmed. "You know I won't let anything happen to you." She curved inward, using her head to complete the hug while Rhen continued to pat her short hairs.
He looked down her long body toward the forest, and farther still to the large black tunnel drifting from the treetops. It was moving with the wind, which just happened to be smacking the two of them in the face.
Quickly, Rhen reached down and resecured the saddle. He walked before Ember and gripped her nose, making her look at him. Fear was written across her dark black pupils.
"I know what this is putting you through," he said as she winced, "but you must trust me. Fire is something that will never hurt you, not when you are with me."
She pulled against his hand, her vision going back to the forest for a quick second. She kicked the ground, complaining, letting him know just how unhappy she was.
His heart sank. There was no need to remind him of her fears. Though her name was Ember, fire was the last thing she was made of. Her skin trembled, remembering the barn and the fire that had almost claimed her life.
But there was no choice. He had to find the cause of the flames, and he had to put them out. Because fire was exactly what Rhen was made of.
Jumping up into the saddle, he urged Ember forward, bringing them closer to the trees but to the side away from the smoke. They would follow it like a great river, along the edge and just out of reach.
Cutting through the forest was slow moving as they maneuvered around low branches and tall bushes. He held the reins steady, keeping Ember's movements controlled and not frantic.
Even from afar, the smoke permeated his senses, making his breath feel tight and his eyes burn. It seemed endless, as though the smoke came from the ground itself, bursting forth from the soil to wreak havoc on the world.
After what seemed like an eternity, a bright flame flickered in the distance. He spotted it an instant before Ember.
Flinging his feet to the side, Rhen landed almost upright a split second before her forelegs lifted from the ground and she jumped away, backing from the bright orange blinding her eyes. He let her. Better Ember act on her fear, better she feel some control.
Besides, he had work to do.
Rhen stretched out his hands, reaching his palms before him, and crept closer and closer until he felt the pull. His fingertips burned, still feet from the flames, but they called to him. His body zinged, energy bouncing from limb to limb. He let it build—let the need go crazy. And then, as though sucking in a large breath of air, he pulled with his mind and the fire listened, crashing into him like a wave.
As a boy, Rhen had loved playing with flames. He would stand by the candles in the great hall, poking at them with his fingers, letting his palm absorb their heat, until one day his mother ran over with a scream and pulled him away.
You cannot do that
, he remembered her exclaiming quite vehemently as she checked his chubby hands for burns. But there were none. Because it never burned him, and until that boyhood moment, Rhen had never realized that it was strange, that it wasn't normal. Ever since that day, he had kept these powers to himself.
The fire spoke to him. He couldn’t create it—he had tried that many times to no avail. He couldn't even move it or shape it or aim it. All he could do was absorb it and let the flames fill his body until he felt like all he needed to do was open his mouth to breathe smoke.
But at times like these, he was grateful for the gift, or curse, whichever it was.
So he stood, letting the heat crawl under his skin, letting it bubble under the surface, until the onslaught passed and he could feel the breeze on his cheeks again.
Rhen opened his eyes.
Like giant claws, the trees rose from the ground, bare and blackened, stripped of leaves and life. But the fire, at least, was gone.
"Ember!" But he didn’t see her behind him where the forest turned green again.
He whistled, body stiff and alert, until thunderous hoofbeats reached his ears and Rhen relaxed. Moments later Ember emerged, but she stopped beside an untouched tree, not stepping one hoof into the blackened soot of the burnt forest floor before her.
"Come here," he commanded.
She stepped back.
Rhen crossed his arms.
She shook her head.
She did too.
"So dramatic," he rolled his eyes and stepped forward, giving Ember the victory, scratching the soft patch in her forehead until she finally showed her forgiveness by padding into the ash.
"I'm sorry," he whispered before swinging into the saddle.
Moving opposite the wind, the two of them pushed onward.
It's worse than a battlefield
, Rhen thought as he looked around. Tree trunks rose up into sharp, blackened points and then stopped. A field of topless trees, of stake-like spires, stretched out before them. All color was gone from the world. Little clouds of ash followed Ember's footsteps, blackening her russet coat.