by Kalyna Conrad
“What are you doing here?”
Des turned to face the chain-link fence and the tall, pale man on the other side of it. His half-brother glared back at him with cold liquid silver eyes. Des grinned, “Always a pleasure to see you too, Sam.”
“You don’t belong here, you son of a whore.”
“I’m still your brother, Sam.” Des replied, “And that whore was your mother too, just in case you’ve forgotten.”
“How dare you speak of her.” Sam hissed, “She was a saint and you killed her. If she hadn’t been raped by that filthy Shadow Fey, you would never have been born and she would still be alive.”
Des sighed. This was the same argument they had every time he came home for a new assignment. It was becoming something of a ritual.
“She wasn’t raped and you know that,” he replied.
“She was, you filthy bastard.”
“Look,” Des rolled his eyes, “I’m really tired and I don’t feel like doing this right now, so will you just let me in, already? Da– ahem, the king wants to see me.”
“Very well.” His half-brother grumbled, tapping a pattern against the joints of the fence between them, “But you’d better make this quick.”
The metal mesh between them flickered and disappeared, revealing itself for the glamour it was. Des stepped through with a nod, “Thanks.”
Sam grunted and spun on his heel, trudging into the sad little copse of trees behind the fence without looking back.
As they passed through the second layer of trees the air around them shifted, cooling as they passed through the invisible gate between the modern world and the Fey one. The light dimmed as they passed between the ancient trees of the Old Forest, the kingdom which Sam’s father–and Des’ stepfather–was king.
Crossing the breadth of the hundred-acre magical forest in mere minutes, they emerged into a clearing facing a huge, ancient oak tree with an elaborate door carved into the front of it. Sam led the way inside.
As always, when Des stepped through the huge gilt doors into the main hall he was once again transported back to his childhood, growing up in these very halls, spending all of his time with the servants, hiding in the kitchens, ducking both his father and his elder brother for fear of yet another undeserved beating. It wasn’t until he reached adulthood and began to manifest his Shadow Fey powers that the king had finally realized how useful his wife’s unwanted, illegitimate child could truly be. After all, every kingdom needed a good spy, and if that spy could melt into shadows and travel from one pool of darkness to another, well, all the better.
They entered the audience chamber and Des walked down the lush red carpet, straight towards the dais where the king sat, his younger brother and chief advisor, Jerrin hovering at his elbow. Des kept his head high and his eyes up as he approached the throne. The king squinted back, disapproval in every line of his face.
Des stopped before the dais, gave a cordial nod to Jerrin–the only member of the Arlatly family who had ever treated him as an equal–and stared the king in the eyes for a moment, just to be clear that he wasn’t afraid of the old man. The king’s squint narrowed with disapproval so Des grinned and dropped to one knee, pressing his right fist to his chest.
Sam grabbed the back of his head and shoved down, forcing Des’ forehead to the floor. He bent down and twisted Des’ head into the carpet as he hissed in his ear, “Show some respect for your king, slime.”
He let go of Des’ head and straightened, but Des had the sense to stay down.
“You wanted to see me, your majesty?” he mumbled into the carpet.
“Yes,” the king paused, “I have a task for you.”
Trying to keep the weariness out of his voice, Des gave the formulaic response, “I live to serve. What would you have me do?”
“I need you to fetch me a girl.”
Des’ head popped up in surprise, “Excuse me?”
Sam kicked him in the rump.
Resisting the urge break Sam’s foot, Des dropped his head back to the carpet, “Do you have a particular girl in mind, or will anyone do?”
“Very funny.” the king snorted, “Of course there is a particular girl. Her name is Katie. Her address and photo are in here.” A folder landed on the floor right in front of Des’ nose.
He picked it up and stood, opening it to examine the papers within. A photo of a small woman with soft, short dark hair and bright eyes stared back at him. Huh. She was cute. He flipped the picture to the side, scanning the information document. She lived in the human world. Just outside the chain link fence, in fact.
Suspicion tickled the back of his mind. The king wasn’t generally in the habit of kidnapping innocent human women. Especially so close to the gate. He knew better than anyone that the Fey could not afford to draw attention to their world.
“What do you want with this girl?” he blurted.
Sam cuffed him in the back of the head, “That’s none of your business, peon. Just bring her here.”
Des spun on his brother, “Now hold on. I’ve done a lot of unsavory things for this family, but I will not be responsible for harming an innocent girl.”
“And what makes you think she’s innocent?” Sam reasoned, “She could be a traitor, a murderer, any number of horrible things… where would your saintly conscience stand on grabbing her then?”
“Obviously if she had done some wrong I wouldn’t hesitate in bringing her in, but you forget I have her file in my hands. She’s clean as a whistle.”
“Who cares?” his half-brother sneered, “You don’t get a say in this. If you won’t take Pop’s order as head of this family, you still have to obey him as king.”
“Oh, rein it in, you two,” the king grumbled from his dais, “I’ll make you a deal, Desimund, you bring me this girl with no questions asked and I will release you from your servitude.”
Now that made Des pause. Even Jerrin and Sam looked surprised by the offer.
“Complete freedom? No strings attached?”
The king nodded, “I’ll even throw in a tidy little house and a small estate. I’ve got the key right here.” He produced a sleek iron key. “I was saving it as a little place to set up a mistress, but I’m much happier to have my toys closer to home.”
Des hesitated, biting his lip. His very own house and estate? That was very tempting.
“Do you swear this girl will come to no physical harm?” He demanded, trying to add at least some value to this most recent complete capitulation of his morals.
“Of course,” the king nodded, adding with a little snicker, “We will treat her as a daughter.”
“I will make sure of it.” Jerrin added, his silver eyes boring into Des’, communicating a more eloquent promise than words ever could.
Well, he wouldn’t have taken his step-father’s word on its own–the man was notorious for his whimsical cruel streak, which he usually vented on Des–but if Jerrin was willing to give his word it was likely all right. Especially if it meant he’d finally get his freedom.
He bowed low, only feeling a slight pinch of morality, “In that case, consider it done.”
“Good. You have two days.”
He laughed and spun on his heel, “I’ll see you in a few hours.”
Des stepped out of the shadow cast by a shiny silver SUV and paused, scanning up and down the rows of little post-war houses in this quiet suburb. The street was deserted – as well it should be at nearly two in the morning.
He slipped back into the darkness, emerging into the garage shadow of the girl’s house. He peered through a small window set into the side of the garage, which happened to be open just a crack. It wasn’t dark enough for him to cross the room as shadow, and too dim to tell what was in there, but at least there was enough darkness just under the window for him to get in. And the garage was attached, so odds were good the door to the house was unlocked, which would save him the trouble of picking a lock. There was no doubt in his mind that this was his best bet for gaining access to the house without waking a soul.
He grinned. This would be too easy.
Careful to take silent steps, he slipped back into the shadow and passed through the open window on a wisp of darkness. He re-solidified and stepped out from against the wall into the moonlight streaming through the window. The door to the house was not only unlocked, but he could see from where he stood that it was ajar.
Yep, definitely too easy. This mission was turning into a breeze.
Eyes and ears fixed on the gap into the house, Des took two steps–and tripped over a box sitting in the middle of the floor. The box made a tremendous clattering sound as he stumbled over it. It sounded as though it was full of dishes or pots, but that wasn’t the worst part.
Once he’d lost his balance he went sailing headlong into a shelving unit which lined the wall next to the door. The overburdened metal shelves gladly gave up the fight as he plowed into them with his face. A wall of cardboard boxes, lawn chairs, hockey sticks and other assorted items rained down on top of him as he landed hard on the concrete in a tangled heap.
Damn. There was no way that noise hadn’t woken everyone in the house and maybe even the neighbors. He had to get out of here. Struggling to get to his feet he ran afoul of some sort of smooth, leafless vine which wrapped itself around him like a boa constrictor and wouldn’t let go. The thing was relentless, the more he moved, the tighter it got. He cursed softly to himself and wriggled some more, but it was no good. He was trapped. The chit must’ve known he was coming for her and set this ingenious trap. She’d even made sure he’d land in a patch of light so there was no hope of dissolving into a shadow.
He ground his teeth and stilled, trying to figure out what to do next.
Katie woke to a huge crash. It had come from the garage. Breathing through the adrenaline spike that had shot through her system at the sound, she glanced at the clock. Two in the morning. Maybe it was just a raccoon or some other rodent that had found its way in and was looking for some kind of tasty snack?
A second, much larger crash sounded from the garage. Okay, that was way too loud to have been caused by a rodent.
Fighting to master her building fear, she eased out of bed and fumbled through the dark until her fingers found the crowbar she kept behind her headboard for just such an occasion. After all, a woman living alone could not afford to take any chances.
She crept down the stairs, trying to will her heart to resume a calm, normal rhythm as she dodged every creak and groan, but it was no use.
As she approached the door to the garage she couldn’t help but notice that it was open a crack. Had she left it like that? Was the intruder already in the house?
She plastered herself to the wall and scanned the hall. She saw no movement or unusual shapes, but that didn’t mean much, they might already be in the kitchen or something. Careful to stay alert, she inched towards the door.
As she got closer she could hear the clear sound of a man swearing under his breath drifting from the garage.
Well, she still had the element of surprise. She considered sneaking away to call the police, but was sure the intruder would be through the door before she could get to a phone. No, she would have to subdue him first and then make her phone call. Luckily she was no coward.
She ran her fingers along the wall until she found the light switch and pulled in a fortifying breath. Counting to three, she flipped the switch and burst through the door with a wild scream, crowbar raised high over her head.
“Holy hell!” The man shouted.
Katie stumbled to a stop and had to swallow a laugh.
The intruder, a lean man with black hair and olive skin, was lying on the floor, impossibly tangled up in a long, orange extension cord. He was watching her with startled, wary black eyes. Only, they weren’t normal black eyes. The entire orb was black; no iris, no pupil, no white, just a shiny black pool gazing out of his face.
The crowbar drifted down to her side as she gaped, feeling herself falling into the depths of those black pools. That was when she noticed that his eyes were not the only part of him which looked non-human. His cheekbones were high and pronounced, giving his face a sleek, windswept look. His ears, while not actually pointed, were not the normal, rounded ears of a human.
He cleared his throat, “Hello.”
She blinked, “Um, hello.”
“Are you planning to bash my head in with that thing?” he asked, pointing at the crowbar with his chin. His voice was deep and smooth, with a musical lilt.
“Are you planning to do me in with that crowbar.”
“Oh,” she glanced down at the thing in her hand and dropped it, letting it clang to the floor, “no, I suppose not.”
“Excellent. In that case, would you mind giving me a hand? I seem to have fallen prey to one of your traps.”
“Traps?” A chuckle leapt out of her throat, “That’s not a trap, it’s an extension cord.”
A small growl rumbled from his chest, “It’s not funny. And I don’t care what it is, as long as you’re willing to help me out of it.”
“Oh, of cou–” she stopped. “Wait, what are you doing my garage? Are you going to murder me if I let you go?”
He rolled his eyes, or at least she got the impression he did, “Murder you? Why would I murder you?”
“Because you broke into my house in the middle of the night? I’m not stupid, you know, I watch TV. Burglars always murder anyone unlucky enough to be home when they choose to break in.”
“That’s absurd,” he snorted.
“No it’s not.” She raised her chin, “You could have all kinds of sinister reasons for being in my garage at two in the morning. I don’t know you.”
“Fine,” he grunted, “hello, my name is Desimund Arlatly of the house of the Great Oak, and you are?”
She replied without thinking, “I’m Katie… Katie McDougall.”
“Wonderful. Nice to meet you, Katie, now would you please help me out of this mess?”
“Well, all right,” she hesitated, “as long as you promise not to murder me or steal my stuff.”
He looked her square in the eye, “I promise.”
Setting aside her lingering uncertainty, Katie moved over to him and began the process of unwrapping the extension cord from his body. She grabbed one end and began unwinding it, but it was clear that he would need to stand up so she could work her way around him.
“Can you stand?”
He shook his head, “Not on my own, you’re going to have to help me.”
“Oh, um, ok.”
She reached for him but pulled her hands back, too shy to touch him and uncertain of how to help, “What should I do?”
“Help me sit up.” He replied, illustrating by trying to struggle into a sitting position.
She got behind him and put her hands on his shoulders, pushing him up. He was warm under her touch and she had a sudden urge to run her palms all over the smooth plane of his back, or slip her hands around his chest and press her cheek to the heat of his back.
Shocked and embarrassed, she pulled her hands back. With a very creative curse he tipped backwards again, slamming into her. He smelled like the forest.
For a single, still moment they froze that way, his shoulders cradled against her chest, his short dark hair tickling her nose. She pulled in another surreptitious whiff of him and couldn’t be sure, but he seemed to be doing the same. One thing was certain; he wasn’t trying to get away from her.
Ignoring the blush warming her cheeks she put her hands back on his shoulders and pushed again, better to keep this all business instead of imagining things that weren’t there.
After a bit more grunting, swearing, and pushing, they managed to get him to his feet. Careful not to let her fingers linger on his skin, Katie unwound the extension cord. She could feel his gaze like a living thing crawling through her hair as he watched her, his expression caught somewhere between unhappy and confused.
Finally the mangled nest of orange cable lay on the floor and he was free. She took a few quick steps away from him as images of curling into his grasp filled her mind.
She raised her eyes to his, “There, better now?”
“Much, thanks,” he nodded.
“Good, so you can go now.” She took another step towards the door, away from his tempting heat, and hit the garage door opener.
“Not just yet,” he replied, gaze intent as he took a step towards her, “I can’t leave until I have what I came for.”
Panic choked her, “But… but you said you weren’t going to rob me.”
“I’m not.” He took another step towards her, but she was rooted to the spot, unable to move, let alone run, “I promised I wouldn’t take your stuff and I never lie.”
“But you said…”
A third step and he was a mere breath away from her. She should turn, she should run, but all she could do was stand there, eyes wide with fear as she stared up into the unfathomable black depths of his gaze.
“I’m here for you.”
His hands lifted, curling around her waist. Terror flooded her mind, but couldn’t quite seem to overcome her body’s very positive and very inappropriate reaction. He picked her up as if she weighed nothing and threw her over his shoulder. Turning off the garage light, he hit the opener button and bustled out onto the driveway, ducking under the closing door. He was awfully thoughtful for a kidnapper.
He started down the street for all the world as though he were taking an evening stroll.
She finally found her voice, “Hey, Desimund, put me down or I’ll scream.”
“No can do, and I prefer Des.”
“Well, I warned you.” she snapped, opening her mouth and drawing a big breath.
Just as she was about to let out one heck of a shriek he stumbled, bouncing her on his shoulder and knocking the wind out of her.
“Oops, my bad.”
She could hear the grin in his voice. What a jerk.
She didn’t dignify him with a response, instead she drew breath again and–
He bounced her on his shoulder again and this time she choked on her breath.
“I don’t want to knock you out, sweetie, but I will if I have to,” he warned.
“Yeah, right.” She pulled in a third breath.
He heaved a long-suffering sigh and raised his other arm. There was a quick sharp pain in her bottom and the edges of her world started to blur. She tried to scream, but her vocal cords wouldn’t cooperate.
The last thing she heard as her world dropped to blackness was his voice, “I warned you.”
Sam was waiting at the chain-link fence for him when he returned. His brother’s chilly liquid silver eyes warmed as they came to rest on Katie’s rump which was high up in the air as she drooped over Des’ shoulder. Des had to resist the urge to pull the girl’s nightshirt lower over her backside.
“That was quick.” Sam grinned, activating the opening sequence in the fence.
As Des stepped through, Sam reached for the girl. For some reason he couldn’t fully explain, Des was reluctant to let his brother touch her, so he took a step back.
“Come on, hand her over.” Sam wheedled, “I’ll take it from here. I’m sure you’re eager to get to your new home.” He produced the elegant skeleton key which now had a map tied to it.
Yes, he was eager to get to his new home, to settle in and start making the place his own, and most importantly to be free of his duty to the king, but in his eyes, his mission wasn’t finished until he delivered the girl to the king personally.
He shook his head, “Nope, my mission was to deliver the girl to the king, and that’s what I’m going to do.” He pushed his way past Sam and started down the path into the Old Forest.
Sam had to scurry to catch up with him, “But she’s a gift for me,” he whined, “I don’t see why I can’t start enjoying her now.”
“What?” Des stopped so abruptly that Sam nearly crashed into him, “What did you say?”
“She’s my birthday present.” Sam repeated, his expression hungry as he smoothed a hand over Katie’s bottom, “If you take her to Pop he’ll just hand her over to me, so I don’t see why we can’t skip the middle man.”
Sam might have been lying, but it was impossible to tell. Something like dread formed a rock in the pit of Des’ stomach. He ignored it. It was no business of his what happened to the girl once he turned her over to the king. He would be free and that was all that mattered.
He kept walking, “No way. I promised to deliver her to the king, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
With a huffy sigh Sam took up his position behind Des, “Well at least I can look at her while we go.”
They entered the audience chamber to find the king and most of the courtiers assembled, bleary-eyed and yawning. Odd for this hour, but not the strangest thing he’d ever seen.
Des strode straight up to the bottom step of the dais and bowed to Jerrin and his step-father, depositing the girl on the steps before raising his gaze to the king’s silver eyes, “Here she is. Now keep your word. I want my reward.”
The king gave a sly smile, “Of course, but first, one more thing. Wake her up.”
Pulling a vial of smelling salts from his pocket, Des knelt and waved them under the girl’s nose. She started to stir instantly. He watched as her head lolled and her eyes fluttered open. How had he not noticed her lovely sea-blue eyes when they’d been speaking in her garage? She met his gaze and her cheeks pinkened with a becoming blush as a small, uncertain smile flickered on her lips.
He felt a tiny answering smile curl his lips in return, “Hello again.”
“Hello,” she frowned, “Des, was it?”
“What… what happened? Where am I?” She glanced around, quick rage building in her gaze as it flicked from the ceiling to the assembled courtiers, over his shoulder to where Sam stood, and finally back to Des, “You! You… you kidnapped me!”
With a shriek that would’ve made a banshee proud, she launched off the steps quicker than he would’ve believed possible, given the amount of tranquilizer still in her system, and collided with him. Next thing he knew he was flat on his back and she was straddling him, the hem of her nightie riding somewhere around her hips. She pulled back a fist and slammed it into his right cheekbone.
The assembled crowd gasped, except for one muffled chuckle which sounded suspiciously like it had come from Jerrin.
“That’s for kidnapping me!” She shrieked.
Another fist, this one to his left eye, damn but the girl had good aim, “And that’s for lying to me!”
“But I didn’t–”
She stopped his words with a fist to his jaw, “Not telling the truth is the same as lying, you bastard!”
Gods how he’d always hated that word.
The courtiers were chuckling all around them now.
That was it.
He caught her next punch in his hand and deflected it to the side, pulling her down on top of him. He felt the softness of her body crash into his, but was too angry to pay attention to the need that speared his belly.
Curling his free hand around the back of her neck he pulled her down and held her nose-to-nose with him, making sure he had her full attention, “Now listen very carefully, I didn’t lie to you. I’m also not taking you back, no matter how much you pummel me, so I recommend that you stop making a spectacle of yourself in front of the entire court and make the best of this. You can start by getting the hell off me.”
The rage in her eyes faded to bewilderment and self-loathing slithered through him, but he didn’t let it show.
“You need to let go of me.” She whispered, her sweet breath brushing his lips.
“I can’t get off of you if you’re still holding me down.”
“Oh,” he released the back of her neck as though it were on fire, “of course.”
Sam chose that moment to swoop in, offering a gallant hand, “Are you all right, my lady? This oaf didn’t hurt you, I trust?” He helped Katie to her feet before delivering a solid kick to Des’ ribs.
Katie shook her head, “N-no, I’m fine.” She looked around, “Wh-where am I?”
Des watched from the floor as Sam dropped into a deep bow and pressed a lingering kiss to her fingers, “You are in the main audience chamber of the palace of the Great Oak, seat of the ruling family of the Old Forest for the last few thousand years.”
Stunned, she replied, “And who are you?”
“I am crown prince Samuil Arlatly, of the house of the Great Oak.” Sam bowed again and swept a hand toward the dais, “And this is my father, king of the Old Forest and head of the Arlatly family.”
The similarity in last names did not escape Katie’s somewhat bewildered notice. She looked down at Des. “You’re a prince?”
Sam laughed, pulling her attention back to himself, “Oh, no. Des is nothing more than a bastard; a by-blow of my mother’s. The family name is strictly a courtesy extended to a useful vassal.” He threw a contemptuous glance down at Des, “He could no more rule the kingdom than I could become a peasant.”
Feeling exposed and awkward, Des finally pushed back to his feet, ignoring Katie and his brother and turning to the king. “I believe I am owed my reward now.”
“Of course.” The king replied waving a hand at Sam, “Give him the key, son.”
Withdrawing the key and map from his pocket, Sam let it drop to the ground, forcing Des to bend and pick it up.
He snatched it from the ground and turned to leave, afraid to look at Katie in case he gave into the strong urge to grab her and run for the hills.
“Don’t you want to stay for the party?” Sam teased.
He stopped and turned back to his brother, “What party?”
“My engagement party, of course.”
“Engagement?” Katie frowned, “Who are you getting engaged to?”
“What? No!” She pulled out of Sam’s grasp and backed up, “I’m not marrying you.”
“Oh, yes you are!” Sam growled, catching her and wrestling her into his embrace, “Tomorrow, in fact. I’ve been watching you for years. We’re meant to be together.” He stroked a rough hand through her hair, leaving it mussed, “I’m offering you the chance to become a princess, isn’t that what every girl wants?”
“No!” She shrieked, struggling to free herself from Sam’s hold, “I don’t even know you!”
“Trust me,” he purred, one hand dropping to the hem of her nightie, pulling the fabric up over her hip, displaying her lacy blue underwear to the entire court as he dug his fingers into her flesh, “you’ll love me. I’m amazing.”
Sam bent his head, capturing her lips in a savage kiss as his hands plastered her body to his. She tried to turn away, but Sam was stronger, grabbing her by the back of the head and holding her still as his hips began to roll against hers.
Good Gods, Sam wasn’t going to rape the girl right here in front of the entire court, was he?
“Samuil Arlatly, stop that right now!” Jerrin thundered from his place next to the king’s throne. Their uncle had a surprisingly commanding voice when he wanted to.
“Stay out of it, Jerrin,” the king warned.
“No.” Jerrin retorted, “I put up with much in this court, but I will not stand by and watch an innocent woman violated for your amusement.”
Every eye in the room was locked on Jerrin, and most of the courtiers’ mouths were hanging open. No one had ever spoken to the king like that in public.
And with good reason.
Des could only watch as his step-father hefted his scepter in his right hand and swung, driving the studded ball on the end deep into Jerrin’s gut. Jerrin coughed and sputtered, collapsing to the floor next to the dais.
“Anyone else have something to say?” the king taunted.
Silence met his words.
Sam pulled Katie’s nightgown up even higher, sliding his free hand up to squeeze her breast.
Des scanned the room. Every single one of the courtiers stood, gazes fixed on the marble at their feet, hating the scene before them, but unable to do anything about it. Sam was the crown prince, after all.
Well, somebody had to do something.
It looked like it would have to be him.
Tucking the key to his new home deep into his pocket so that it could not be taken away from him, Des strode right up to Sam and Katie.
The girl’s eyes were wide with terror as they fixed on him. There was no doubt she expected to be raped.
“Let her go, Sam.”
His brother ripped his mouth away from Katie’s to turn a sneer on Des, “No. She’s mine and I’ll do as I please with her, so get lost.”
Sam was a bully, but Des knew, when it actually came down to brass tacks, that he was far more accomplished at hurting people. He let some of that knowledge slip into his voice, “Let the girl go before I have to hurt you.”
Now that got Sam’s attention. He released Katie, shoving her backwards where she stumbled into the arms of a waiting guard, and turned to face Des. Des kept his eyes off the rather prominent erection making a ridge in his brother’s trousers and returned the man’s glare.
Sam lashed out, slugging Des in the gut. Des doubled over as his breath left him.
“Anything else you’d like to say before I beat your ass into next week?” Sam leered, looming over Des.
“Just this,” he wheezed, pulling himself upright and catching Katie’s eye over his brother’s shoulder, “you might want to duck.”
Katie snatched the guard’s dagger and spun, waving it in the man’s face. The man lifted his hands in surrender.
Sam turned to see what was going on and Des took advantage of his opportunity to drive a hard fist into Sam’s kidneys. His brother squealed and dropped to his knees.
“I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” Des grunted, kicking Sam in the ribs.
His half-brother went down in a heap.
“Stop this at once!” the king bellowed, “Guards, arrest him!”
Des delivered one more kick to Sam’s inert form then put up his hands. After all, what had he expected? He’d known he was in for it the moment he’d decided to pound on the crown prince.
Two guards appeared from within the crowd of stunned courtiers to flank him. He didn’t put up a fight as they pushed him to the foot of the dais and down onto his knees.
Katie landed on the carpet beside him, the guard she’d been threatening having stripped her of her weapon with little difficulty.
“Well done,” he whispered.
She huffed, “Thanks… and thanks for saving me.”
“Silence,” the king decreed, “Desimund, you leave me no choice but to find you guilty of treason. You will be put to death at with the last rays of the sunset this evening. And as for you,” he turned his gaze on Katie, “you will marry my son. Tonight. Immediately following the execution.”
He raised his eyes to the room at large, “You will all prepare for a feast, for tonight we celebrate the death of a traitor and the marriage of a prince.”
This declaration was met with stony silence. Apparently Des wasn’t the only one who’d been mistreated by Sam and his father.
The guards hauled Des to his feet and began marching him down the carpet towards the doors. Each face they passed was suffused with pity or outrage instead of joy.
The guards tossed him into a cell in the dungeon which was ringed with sealed lanterns intended to dispel every shadow but paused before turning to leave. The bigger one–Ted?–spoke, “We’re right sorry about this, sir. There ain’t a person in this kingdom who don’t know how hard you worked for us. There’s plenty of folks round here who’d rather see you on the throne than that old tyrant and his disgrace of a son.”
The other guard nodded.
Des smiled, “Thanks, I appreciate the vote of confidence.”
“T’weren’t nothing but the truth, sir.”
Then the door closed and Des was left alone with his thoughts.
Katie found herself separated from Des, escorted up the main stairs and down a walnut-panelled hall lined with regular doors. The guards opened the last one on the right and tossed her into the room beyond. It was a well-appointed bedroom done entirely in blue. As the door slammed shut and she heard the guards take up positions outside the door, a short, mousy woman in a blue dress rose from a chair by the fire.
She curtseyed, “Good day, my lady. My name is Catriona; I’m here to help you prepare for your wedding.”
Wretched dread plunked into Katie’s gut, “Hello Catriona, it’s nice to meet you, but I won’t be getting married.”
The woman’s eyes widened, “Oh, but you have to, my lady, the prince demands it, and what the prince wants, the king grants.”
“He’s not my king.” Katie retorted.
“But… but he’ll have you executed if you disobey… just look at poor lord Desimund. Faithful to the crown for his whole life, one wrong word and now he’s going to die.”
The very sound of his name dispelled a little of the despair clutching at her heart. She couldn’t help herself. “Do you know lord Desimund well? He seems like a nice guy.”
The other woman’s eyes lit up and she grinned as she bustled about the room, preparing a huge fluffy pink dress as well as some punitive-looking undergarments, “Oh, lord Desimund is indeed a true gentleman. The king forces him to do horrible things and the poor man is so loyal that he does them, though you can see he doesn’t like it. And he’s never been anything but kind to the serving staff.” Catriona bustled back over to Katie and lowered her voice to a whisper, “Many of us wish that he was the prince instead of Samuil–or even that he was king.” She shook her head, “But that’ll never happen now.”
Des sat in the centre of his cell, hugging his knees, and let despair claim him.
For so much of his life he’d been walking a fine line; balancing on the edge of his step-father and brother’s contempt, it was really a miracle that he hadn’t been put to death for some minor slight before now. And the worst part was he couldn’t save Katie. Yes, uncle Jerrin had promised to look out for the girl, but after today’s little display it was clear that he was in no real position to help. He didn’t resent his uncle for that; the man was a lone beacon of goodness in a rotten family. But still, it was a double insult to go to his death knowing that the innocent girl he’d delivered into his step-father’s care was in for a lifetime of abuse at Sam’s hands.
The very thought made him see red. She didn’t deserve a fate like that. She’d been kind enough to free him and trust him and how had he repaid her? By snatching her away from her life to become his half-brother’s sex-toy.
For the first time in his life, he felt truly capable of strangling his brother to death and damn the consequences. After all, what more could they do to him? He was already going to die. Surely there’d be at least one shadow on the way to the block. If he was quick he could probably strangle Sam before the guards had time to react.
A noise at the door to his cell caught his attention and he looked up. Uncle Jerrin stepped into the light and let the door fall shut behind him. Once he was sure they were alone, he spoke, “I do not have much time, Des. The guards are covering my visit as well as possible, but if I’m gone for too long my brother will suspect something.” He whipped off his cloak and covered the six lanterns by the door, standing in the centre of the room. His shadow stretched out behind him and he gestured to it, “Hurry, there’s a dark nook just around the corner to the right.”
But Des shook his head, “No. I appreciate the gesture, Uncle, but I’m done with running and hiding. I’m going to face this head-on.”
Jerrin blinked at him, “Please, you must go. I will not have your death on my conscience.”
“And what about Katie?”
“You mean the girl?”
“She is too well-guarded for even you to save. You must forget her.”
“And if I can’t?”
“I will do my best for her, but her life is not worth more than yours… please, Desimund, go!”
“Well I happen to believe her life is worth more than mine. She’s an innocent and I brought her into this mess. I’m staying right here. I may not be able to do much for her, but my best shot is tonight at the execution. I will do what I can or die trying.”
Jerrin made a plaintive noise, “I cannot make you go, but I do wish you would.”
Des just shook his head again.
“Very well, then. At least take this.” His uncle pressed something cold and metal into Des’ palm and collected his cloak. He paused in the doorway, his silver gaze gentle, “You never cease making me proud.” He slipped from the room and shut the door behind him.
Des looked down at the dagger in his hand and smiled. It wasn’t big, but it was enough to kill Sam.
Katie stood on the makeshift altar in the middle of the clearing in front of the castle, which, much to her surprise, appeared to be carved from the biggest, oldest oak tree she’d ever seen. It had taken two guards, Catriona, and a footman to hold her down long enough to cram her into the ridiculous dress she now wore, but in the end they had overcome her. So here she stood, her ankles shackled together and those shackles chained to the floor under the bell shaped skirts of her frilly pink dress, watching the doors of the palace for what would be her last glimpse of Des. She told herself there was nothing romantic about he desire–no, need–to see him one last time, it was simple gratitude. He was going to die because he stood up to defend her. Other than the kidnapping he’d seemed like a decent sort of guy, he didn’t deserve this.
The main doors swung open and Katie felt her heart leap, but it was the pale Prince Samuil who strode through the door, not Des’ dark self. The prince paused on the top step and raised his arms.
The assembled courtiers clapped in a subdued sort of way.
Prince Samuil raked the crowd with a warning look and raised his arms once more.
This round of applause was more enthusiastic.
He strode across the grass and climbed the steps to take his place next to Katie on the altar. He leered down at her chest. This dress did do quite a lot to frame her cleavage.
“Ready to be a princess, my love?” he sneered.
Katie snorted. “I’m not your love.”
“Hmm,” he curled an arm around her waist and pushed her hip against the ridge in his pants, “give it a couple hours.”
He bent to force another kiss on her, but at that moment the doors to the palace burst open again and the king strode out to another round of subdued applause. The prince released her and turned to watch as the king proceeded down the steps, a shackled Des following behind flanked by two guards, an epic black eye blooming where she’d punched him earlier. He was followed by the other man who had been on the dais in the audience chamber this afternoon. Some kind of advisor if she had to guess, though after his outburst and subsequent beating this afternoon, his advice clearly wasn’t always welcome.
The advisor was walking behind Des, his liquid silver gaze fixed on Des’ back, a look of deep regret on his face.
In fact, out of the entire crowd, the king, the prince, and Des were the only ones who didn’t look wretchedly unhappy. Des was actually smiling.
He must be insane.
Or on drugs.
He glanced up at the altar on his way by, the black pools of his eyes shining as he offered Katie an encouraging smile. He turned his gaze on the prince and his smile turned sly, a subtle threat written in his look.
The prince just sneered back at his half-brother, “Why so happy, Des? Finally getting what you deserve?”
Des didn’t bother answering, instead his gaze flicked to a spot on the altar just behind the prince and his grin widened.
Katie glanced behind the prince, but didn’t see anything remarkable, just the loose boards of the temporary floor.
As though offering its own farewell salute to Des, the lowering sun broke from behind the clouds which had been concealing its light, casting sharp, dark shadows of the trees across the floor of the clearing.
That was when all hell broke loose. There was a shout from somewhere in the crowd as Des and his guards passed into one of the shadows and Des disappeared. Katie blinked in disbelief. He’d been there one moment and gone the next, shackles and all.
The two guards whirled searching the clearing, but no one expected what happened next.
Somehow Des materialized in the darkness of the prince’s shadow on the altar. He stepped forward and threw is manacled hands over the prince’s head, pulling the man back against his chest. His eyes were dancing and there was a devilish grin on his lips as something bright and silver flashed between his fingers.
The prince’s eyes flew wide and his mouth dropped open. He began making little choking sounds as red blood bloomed against the pale skin of his throat.
“What’s the matter, brother?” Des purred in the dying man’s ear, “Finally getting what you deserve?”
He lifted his hands and stepped back, letting his half-brother drop to the crude wooden floor of the altar.
Katie opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
Des flashed her a blinding smile and winked, “Just a moment, my lady, I have one other thing to take care of.”
Meanwhile, the king had managed to regain his wits and was now screaming himself purple ordering his guards to surround him and capture the rogue Shadow Fey.
Katie could only assume he meant Des.
The man in question stepped behind Katie. Was he seriously going to use her as a shield? What a coward. She whirled to tell him so just in time to see the last glint of his black eyes as he dissolved into her shadow.
A woman screamed and Katie whirled back to face the clearing. Des had somehow managed to get inside the circle of guards and was currently pressing the small silver thing in his hands to the king’s white throat. The guards, for their part, were scrambling to rearrange themselves in a way that might be useful to their master. They were well trained. It took them only a moment to draw their crystal swords and train them on Des.
“What are you waiting for, you clods?” the king screamed, “Kill the traitor!”
Des did not look in the least bit afraid. He shrugged, “Well, who’s going to be first?”
No one moved.
“That’s what I thought.” Des muttered. He turned his gaze to the king’s face, “Just so you know, I never really considered you my father.” The silver in Des’ fingers flashed again and another pale throat ran red.
He let the king’s body drop to the ground, let go of his little knife, and raised his hands, “All right gents, you may now execute me.”
The ring of guards around him just stared, clearly unsure whose orders to obey now.
Des laughed, “I believe in a case like this the crown reverts to the king’s younger brother.”
All eyes turned to the king’s advisor who looked nothing short of staggered.
Finally, one of the guards surrounding Des who seemed a little more experienced than the others grabbed Des by the collar and pushed him over to the advisor, throwing him down in the grass at the man’s feet.
“What should we do with this traitor, my lord?” the man asked, his tone full of wariness.
The advisor seemed to come back to himself with a thump. He looked down at Des’ dark head, back up at the guard, and then out over the crowd. He swallowed. “Let him go.”
A palpable wave of relief washed through the assembled courtiers, followed by a huge cheer.
As one of the other guards rushed over to undo Des’ manacles, the first guard returned to the king’s body, plucked the delicate silver crown from his head, and placed it on the advisor’s brow, shouting “All hail King Jerrin!”
“All hail King Jerrin!” the crowd returned, bursting into jubilant cheering and applause.
King Jerrin, for his part, was blushing.
Des, meanwhile, had retrieved the keys from the guard who’d freed him and climbed up onto the altar. He smiled down at her, “I hear you’ve got some unwanted jewelry under that skirt of yours.”
A laugh wrung itself out of her chest around her immense relief and she smiled, “You heard right.”
“Well then, pardon my forwardness.”
He dropped to his knees and lifted the edge of her skirt. He let out a low whistle, “Wow, they were serious about keeping you here.”
The warmth of his fingers brushed her bare ankles as he unlocked the iron rings and she laughed again, “It did take four people to get me into this dress.”
Des popped back to his feet with a grin, “And what a lovely dress it is.”
She punched him in the arm.
They shared a little laugh which dropped into an awkward silence.
“Oh, by the way, I’m sorry about this.” She mumbled, brushing her fingertips across his cheekbone below his black eye.
He shrugged, “Don’t worry, it happens all the time.”
“So, um, what now?”
“Well,” he surveyed the clearing where the courtiers were busy taking turns offering the new king their warmest congratulations, “Now that Jerrin is king, I think things are really going to turn around here. He’ll be an excellent ruler. He’s the fairest, most well-reasoned person I’ve ever known.”
“I meant what’s next for you, you dolt.”
“Oh.” he turned to look at her, “I hadn’t really thought about that. I suppose I’ll be taking possession of this.” He pulled large, iron key out of his pocket with a piece of parchment tied to the loop end.
“A house, actually.”
“Ah.” A flutter of disappointment beat against her heart. What had she really been expecting? They barely knew each other. “And me? Do I get to go home?”
Something sad flickered across his face, “Yes, of course. I can’t keep you here.”
Was it just her imagination, or did he sound sad about that?
“Shall we?” He gestured towards the bottom of the steps.
She walked down the stairs and he followed, passing her when they got to the grass.
“This way.” He grabbed her hand and warmth shot through her, but didn’t seem to affect him one bit.
Hand in hand, he led her out of the clearing into the forest. They walked for what seemed like mere minutes before they came to a chain-link fence, more specifically the chain-link fence that ran along Castle Boulevard a mere few blocks from her home. Confused, she turned, looking back the way they’d come. How could that whole crazy kingdom exist so close to her community without anyone knowing about it?
The forest behind her looked the same as it always did, small and devoid of any magical kingdoms.
“How–?” She blurted.
Des stopped at the fence and turned back to her, “Oh, the Old Forest isn’t actually part of your world. This copse of trees just happens to hold a gate between your world and mine.” He lifted a hand and tapped a series of joints in the fence. A large section of it dissolved before her very eyes.
“It’s a glamour,” he explained, “a magical illusion. Though, from your side of the fence it’s perfectly solid.”
He fell silent and they stared at each other for a moment. She studied his face, memorizing his funny black eyes, the slight point to his ears, his careless black hair and the warm scent of forest that drifted from him.
“Will I ever see you again?” She asked.
His eyebrows drifted up, “That depends. Do you want to?”
She shrugged, “Maybe.”
“Well, don’t try and find me. The Old Forest may seem benign, but it has a nasty habit of eating humans unwary enough to wander into its clutches. However, if you like,” he glanced down at the ground, “perhaps I could come and visit sometime.”
She reached out and lifted his gaze back to hers, smiling into his eyes, “I’d like that.”
His expression brightened, “How about Thursday?”
“It’s a date.” She sighed, “But for now I should get home and get out of this ridiculous outfit.”
“Ah, right.” He stepped aside to let her pass through the fence.
Once she was on the other side she turned back, took one last look at him through the now-solid chain-link and blew him a kiss.
He grinned and blew one back.
She turned and hurried down the street, hoping he didn’t see the little skip in her step.
© 2014 Kalyna Conrad
Filed under: 2014 Submissions, Out-of-Towners | Tagged: 2014 Sledgehammer, Kalyna Conrad, writing contest | Leave a comment »