The road laid out before them, long and narrow, the path broken only by the dark shadow of the Mirias Mountains and the pale light streaming from the heavens that signaled their home. Fields of wheat would now flank their sides for another day’s journey, until they reached the mountain pass, before the west gate of the kingdom would open for their arrival.
Edward glanced behind to Woodward Forest. The tall tree branches filled with dark green leaves stretched across the road making a canopy, deepening the shadows. His sister, ReAnne, sat without protest on her newly acquired mount, a gift from the Staas prince. Nodding and forcing a smile, Edward turned his attention back to the dank road and the soggy fields. Neither spoke as he tested the coming night and the cover darkness would bring.
Above them and to the east, small streaks of pink pierced through the ceiling of dark clouds. High in the heavens, dusk was settling into night and in the distance, a roll of thunder beckoned the last of the summer storms.
Regal stomped his hoof beneath him, splashing mud.
“No need to worry, old friend,” Edward patted his stallion’s thick neck, “We’ll be home soon enough.” Regal whinnied, but then stilled.
Edward wished he could be so easily reassured. While he loathed the threat of ambush in the forest, the fields presented a new set of challenges. They would be out in the open, on packed mounts, more easily seen by any raiding marauders. The wheat grew tall, up to seven feet, and still they could be spotted through the stalks from well over a hundred feet away.
Most who wandered these roads were on business making last efforts to rid themselves of their goods before the season’s trade trickled further into a stale market. Farmers prepared themselves for their autumn harvest while their wives were busy over the stoves, boiling and preserving strawberries and cherries no longer suitable for trade. Varieties of squash, beets, and greens, along with wool cloth, would soon be in high demand.
These final stragglers of the season were of no concern to him. Common thieves hoping for a coin or two were willing to pounce on any unsuspecting traveler. Yet, even these he thought to be relatively harmless.
Edward had proven himself to be a poor target for those who would sneak up on them in the forest. Just one day ago, he had bested a gang of three hiding within the tall trees. He’d had time to put his sister to safety and pick them off, one by one. No more than petty thieves. In the forest, under constant cover of trees, Edward felt more secure and better able to use his gift. In the fields, where the sun typically shone and no trees blocked its path of sunlight, his gift was weakened.
The storm then, was a welcome sign and he prayed the darkness would cover them well into the next day.
As it were, he searched the shadows with his gift as much as his strength would allow. It was stories of the others, spoken of in village taverns over pints of the local brew that had him on his guard. There, under the influence of liquid courage, men would swap stories and tell tall tales of conquests that had no hopes of ever having been true. If it were not for the rumors and whispers that swirled at court, and even among the Elders, confirming them, Edward would not have paid the stories any heed.
Those spoken of in hushed whispers, attacked under the pretense of stealing common wares and supplies needed for survival in their forest dwellings. Edward had been on his fair share of trade caravans, and had yet to come across signs of their existence. Still, his heart raced as he watched the wheat sway with the wind, for while these crafty thieves lived in the forest, they favored the open fields for their attacks. In myth, these were called the Coills and they would have seemed harmless except for their unfortunate habit of kidnapping fair maidens.
Edward glanced again at his charge and his heart thumped against his chest, anger rising at the thought of someone taking her.
And still, there was more to fear in the shadows.
Satisfied, for now, that the darkness had given up its secrets and they were relatively safe, he nodded to his sister. She clicked her tongue at Whicker to move alongside him.
“I am looking forward to Pammy’s biscuits, brother. These ol’ rocks we eat are going to break my teeth before long.” She tousled her braided hair before adjusting her hood. “I wish the Provider had seen to wait on the storm. Once my cloak is wet I can’t rid myself of a chill. Though I assume you are pleased.”
“Yes, I am pleased. Come on. We best be on our way.” He nudged Regal as he shot a smirk in her direction. “We can’t have that smile of yours marred by stone biscuits before the Binding. After the Binding, your teeth are fair game.”
She shot him an annoyed glare and slumped in her seat as Whicker began his trot. The week long journey still had two days of travel before Edward’s charge would be safe under the protection of the Great King. Until then, Edward tried to consider her a package to be delivered rather than his beloved sister. She was young to be bound, but her binding would mean a solid alliance between the Mirias and Staas kingdoms. The Great King had given her the option to refuse, but Edward was sure she wouldn’t for the sake of all.
For himself, there would be a great honor given to him at her safe return. This was another test of kingship for him, a piece to a greater puzzle that would eventually grant him the throne at the Great King’s passing. It was Edward’s duty to see her returned in one piece. It would be his reward to be granted stewardship of the kingdom’s trade routes.
“Did you like him, then?”
“I did.” His voice was curt as his gaze flitted from one shadow to another, searching for danger. He had no time for trivial conversation.
A deep sigh escaped her. “I know I must marry. And I like him well enough, I suppose. He can be charming, though he doesn’t like when I disagree with him.”
“Hhhmm,” was all he said.
“But his sister is a ghastly sight, is she not?”
“You should not speak of people in that manner. Looks have no bearing on the substance within a soul.” It was harsh, sounding more like the Great King than her brother who threw food at her in the dining hall when their governess Pammy wasn’t looking.
“Yes, brother.” She was given to speak in ways that proved her tongue was faster than that of her head or heart and Edward was always quick to point it out. What was worse was at her mention of Princess Opia, he pictured the haunting eyes, protruding teeth, and the feeling of being on edge when they were first introduced. Her observation wasn’t entirely wrong, just falsely placed.
She slumped further into the saddle, trying to hide under the grey hood of her cloak tied at her neck. He had hurt her feelings. Against his better judgment but wanting to make amends, he steered the conversation away from Princess Opia.
“Tell me, do you only think the prince was charming? Or does he have other redeeming qualities?”
They were now in the midst of the fields, the forest growing smaller behind them. Wheat stalks grew tall at their sides, the dirt road narrower, so that their mounts were practically rubbing their hind quarters. The only sound between them was the hooves squishing into the mud, and then releasing.
“I suppose he does,” she finally answered. “But my information of his character is limited by what he would allow me to see under the constant supervision of a chaperone. I only see a corner of a grander picture. Surely you could attest to his character far more than I.” Her slump turned into a haughty posture, back straight and chin jutted forward.
“I do not wish to judge his character. I do not know him.” Edward shifted his gaze to a large shadow among the field, and then dismissed it as harmless.
“But you must have some opinion of him, brother. You wouldn’t agree to my binding to an ogre, would you?”
“No, of course not. I sat at the council dinner with him, of course. The likes of which only offered me insight into his father’s trysts. But I will not speak about that with a lady, much less my sister.”
“No talk of political affairs or admonitions regarding the power of the Elders? No curious inquiries concerning the Order?”
“Not from him…or at all, actually. I think they were on their best behavior within my presence, as well. Talk was limited to trade routes and imports from kingdoms supporting the Providence Treaty. From what I did hear, I admire his inclinations towards the future of his kingdom. He seems to believe nobles are only lifted high upon the shoulders of the peasants, not their backs. Therefore, however well the peasants are treated reflects on the success of the nobles. He doesn’t seem at all concerned over the looming talks of upheaval. For my own opinion, I am not sure if this is wisdom or foolishness. Regardless, the Great King believes he would be a worthy husband for you, sister. That alone speaks louder than the thunder at hand.”
At his last words, a crack in the dark sky opened, flashing light as tree roots across the sky. The Provider’s expanse opened up like the great flood of old as sheets of rain hit against them. Edward pulled his hood over his head from the navy cloak draped around his neck and dismounted to lead both their horses into the golden brown wheat field on their left.
“What is it?” ReAnne whispered, bringing her body low to meld into Whicker’s girth.
Edward shook his head, not wanting to admit something in the flash of light had startled him. Leading them about, he eyed the shadows and the odd movement of stalks he was trying to widely circumnavigate. Both Regal and Whicker dipped their head’s low, their gait becoming silent; horse’s tip-toeing. He didn’t like to trample a farmer’s field, especially so close to harvest, but this was necessary. He walked them almost in a circle, watching the collection of stalks bend in the direction opposite the wind. ReAnne kept her body low and said nothing else. He forced a smile up at her to reassure her, but she only stared back, fear in her eyes. A stalk broke to his right. He paused and waited for more, but nothing came. He could summon his gift to see beyond the stalks, but using that power made him especially weak. He couldn’t afford to waste his energy on what could be an injured animal.
A rustling came from his left, closer this time, and not from the shadow he had been eyeing. He whipped his head around at the same time something tackled him, slamming him into Regal, who reared up in protest. As Edward scrambled to right himself, Whicker followed Regal’s lead, front legs and hooves high in the air. He struggled to dodge Regal’s wild limbs that were still rearing and stamping around him. A satchel from Whicker’s pack flung to the ground. From the corner of his eye, ReAnne tumbled, her brown dress and grey cloak flying in all directions as she fell. Her screaming pierced his ears as two large, dark figures moved towards her. He tried to see into the shadows, but Regal’s hoof came down on his head and the already darkened sky turned black.