Aoirenne Runesong snapped close the book she was reading. The noise made Tyshri, one of her younger sisters, jump. Aoirenne returned it to the shelf and marched out of the library, a lone braid flapping behind her like a flag. Ignoring the looks she got and Tyshri’s pleas, Aoirenne rushed through the halls and up the stairs to her father’s office. She pushed the door open, not flinching as it bounced against the wall, and stood with her hands on her hips. Aoirenne didn’t want her emotions to flood over but how dare he? Bhalrigg took one look at her expression and sent his aides from the room. Tyshi stayed for a moment, bouncing nervously from foot to foot, before fleeing.
“Did no one think to ask before handing me off?” Aoirenne struggled to keep her voice low. She’d never raised her voice to her father before. Never argued with him in fact but this, she couldn’t let go.
Bhalrigg grunted and rubbed his forehead. “Khardren Briarshield is an honorable man and he will make a fine king some day.”
Aoirenne felt herself falter for a moment. Khardren had fought beside her on more than one occasion. He’d even sought her out though socially Aoirenne was beneath the prince, even as a cleric. “I’m not arguing against his character,” she said after a moment. Some of the bite was gone from her voice. “I’m arguing against being expected to wed against my will.”
“I did not expect you to take such offense to the match, so I accepted Khardren’s proposal.” Bhalrigg shrugged and then paused. His dark eyes searched her face. “If there is a reason for me to rescind my approval, I will.”
To reject the prince would threaten their family’s standing, nearly aristocrats themselves, if it didn’t get them exiled. However the hard look on Bhalrigg’s face told Aoirenne he wouldn’t hesitate to take that risk. Aoirenne approached her father and placed a hand on his arm.
“I cannot take a husband, father. To remain in the Order my devotion can’t be divided.”
“The Order does not give you magic, Aoirenne. It runs in our blood and will remain should you marry.” Bhalrigg hit his chest with pride. It made the beaded necklaces he wore rattle fiercely.
Theirs was the oldest magical line in the city. Her great great grandfather was a paladin whose name was still known around the world. Aoirenne couldn’t help a prideful smile at the thought.
“I know father,” she said, sobering. “But I have worked hard for my position. Do I not have your respect for that?”
Bhalrigg nodded slowly.
“Then you will not ask this of me. Tell the prince that I cannot marry him.”
“He will take great offense at your rejection.” Her father allowed himself to sit on the edge of his desk. “But…if he was ever worthy of you, he will respect it.”
Aoirenne tried to sound confident as she replied, “I think he will.”
She was in the middle of studying a particularly dry text, her eyelids growing heavier by the second, when she was approached by Bunmond Hammerfist. Nearly a week had passed since she’d rejected Khardren. Aoirenne hadn’t expected the head of the Order would take an interest in her now. She jumped to her feet, trying not to curse when her knee banged against the table and she tripped on the chair.
“Master Bunmond, I’m honored.”
Bunmond seemed short, even for a dwarf. He had thick white hair that flowed freely down his back and he wore heavy armor. His magic was mostly physical, though he could heal, while Aoirenne’s strength lay primarily in healing. Though all dwarfs were warriors and their enemies didn’t live long enough to worry about the difference.
“You are a gifted cleric, Aoirenne Runesong. Battle proven and loyal.”
Aoirenne waited with bated breath. Praise from Bunmond was highly sort after, yet Aoirenne couldn’t accept them without a sinking feeling rooting her to the spot.
“That steadfast loyalty and wisdom, well hidden behind a sharp tongue though it may be, will serve you best as queen. This is a great honor and I can think of none more than deserving than one of your house.”
Those words struck her like a blow. Brunmond wanted her to marry Prince Khardren for the sake of her family’s magic; to birth children that would become the heirs of two great magical houses. No doubt the Order’s name would be held to even greater esteem if her children lived up to the heavy expectations that would be placed on their shoulders. As well as their parents’.
“I took an oath to protect our people from any who would seek to destroy us, but I have no desire to be a pawn.” Aoirenne squarely met Brunmond’s gaze. “I stand by my decision.”
“It is a selfish one that puts your own desires above the whole. It defies all that you’ve been taught.” Brunmond didn’t raise his voice but it shook the library around them nonetheless.
Aoirenne’s legs felt like they were trembling so badly everyone could tell this act wouldn’t hold up much longer. “I desire only to remain with the Order and serve my people in the way that I’ve been called.”
“We do not decide our calling, Aoirenne. We decide only to face what befalls us, or to run from hardships.”
“I am no coward!”
“And I care nothing for words that so clearly contradict what’s before me.” Brunmond gave her a withering look that may have been enough to chastise Aoirenne any other day, before spinning on his heels and storming away.
Aoirenne held onto the table to keep herself standing. Her whole body shook from outrage and uncertainty. She hadn’t expected her decision to accepted, but…a coward? It was a mockery of the lives she’d saved, the blood shed to protect those she loved.
A coward? Aoirenne took a deep breath. How can this be what they think of me?
Her name would be struck from the records lest her family’s entire line share her fate. Aoirenne would be exiled from the Order and ranks of aristocracy. She’d live among the dwarves too poor to build proper housing, living in a mostly unlit tunnel system below the city. If she was even allowed to stay at all. What was a dwarf without their house? Their honor gone. All that Aoirenne held dear had been stripped away in a matter of seconds. Her many siblings would gain their own legacies but all would be marred by Aoirenne’s disgrace. She thought of Bhalrigg, who still proudly hoisted the name of his oldest child. What would he think as he buried all memories of her? Tears were falling before Aoirenne could stop them. Her chest ached and she knew she could not bare to see this come to be. Leaving the tome forgotten, open on the table, Aoirenne went in search of Prince Khardren. To see if he would still have her.
And so the binding is made.
Those words haunted Aoirenne for weeks after the wedding. Nipping at her heels and weighing heavier on her shoulders each time she looked at her husband. Aoirenne forced herself not to balk at the word. She wouldn’t blame Khardren for Brunmond’s backhanded maneuvering. There was a loud knock on the chamber door, followed by Khardren’s unmistakable baritone voice.
“Is there anything I can do for you prince?” Aoirenne asked before a servant could announce him. She entered the anteroom and immediately took in that Khardren wore a blue tunic with silver borders and trousers tucked into fine leather boots. Not his armor or well worn travel clothing.
Khardren greeted her with a warm smile that lit up his face as he approached, but there was a sadness in his amber eyes. He took off his gloves and sat down heavily on a stool in front of the fireplace. When Khardren began placing logs himself, Aoirenne quietly dismissed the servants. The part of her that was relieved at their absence was quickly silenced by worry. Aoirenne watched Khardren light the fire and waited for him to speak. He stroked his beard, absentmindedly.
“Khardren?” Aoirenne prodded when it became clear that he wasn’t going to speak on his own.
He grunted but didn’t turn away from the fire. His hand moved from his beard and tightly clasped his knee. Aoirenne came to stand beside Khardren, placing a hand on his shoulder before giving it a brief squeeze. He wasn’t just worried. He was scared.
“My father is ill.” He took a deep, shuddering breath. There was a pause as Kradren paused to compose himself. “He hasn’t been well for…a long time. But today….”
It all snapped into place. King Uzotir hadn’t been absent from their wedding, or much of public life now that Aoirenne thought of it, due to his disapproval of her. “He’s dying. Isn’t he, Khardren?”
He didn’t answer her, but he tightly grasped her hand.
Aoirenne couldn’t stop a dry laugh, but she bit back her words. Khardren must’ve been pressured to take a wife with his father on his deathbed. Her own ire was dampened with the knowledge that serving as queen may come sooner than later. That Uzotir would be gone so suddenly was something she didn’t want to consider.
Fighting to speak around a quickening heartbeat and sudden dizziness, Aoirenne said, “I am still a healer, Khardren. How could I not use my gifts to help the king?”
Khardren stood, her hand still in his. “The royal healers have nearly exhausted themselves with the effort of trying to heal this disease.” He shook his head sadly. “I would not ask you to risk yourself, Aoirenne.”
Aoirenne gave him a genuine smile, though her lips quivered. “I know you wouldn’t, yet that’s still my calling.” She tried to walk around him but Khardren didn’t let go of her hand.
“I know you didn’t want this path, and maybe I’ll never know what changed your mind, but I hope to be worthy of the sacrifice in time.”
There was too much hope in Khardren’s eyes and Aoirenne couldn’t hold his gaze any longer. She gently pulled her hand away and prepared herself to meet the king.
The king’s chambers were dark. However the mass of people gathered in chambers, coming and going, told Aoirenne there were multiple large rooms. The king’s servants wore stony expressions as they watched her pass. Khardren had to have sent a messenger ahead of her somehow because they’d been expecting her even if they didn’t want her there. A guard opened the doors to the king’s bedchamber. Her steps sounded thunderous despite the carpeting. Uzotir lay on a large bed in the center of the room. His hair was thinner than the last time Aoirenne saw him; wispy strands of greying hair sprawled over the pillows propping him up. There was a tall armchair beside the bed with bright red cushions that held all the cheer left in the room. Aoirenne self consciously traced her necklace, a blue gem with white intersecting lines painted on and set in a golden collar, as she approached the bed.
“Your highness.” Aoirenne kept her voice steady as she bowed.
Uzotir focused on her, and for a moment his brown eyes were clear before clouding over with sickness again. “Aoirenne Runesong,” he croaked. “My son’s wife.”
Aoirenne steeled herself for the scathing comments that were sure to come. Instead Uzotir fell into a coughing fit that filled Aoirenne with dread. “I’ve come to offer my gift of healing. If you would accept it.”
A man in the corner wearing a healer’s white robe stod abruptly, red faced. He wavered slightly from the effort. “You are arrogant indeed if you believe you can succeed where we have failed!”
“She will try under your guidance, Harbek.” Uzotir’s voice was stern despite its weakness. “You will ensure that her offer of help is genuine.” He lifted a shaky arm to motion Aoirenne forward.
She kept her expression neutral as she stood at the king’s bedside. She ignored Harbek’s burning glare. Aoirenne took Uzotir’s hand in hers, bowed over it, and then touched the gem on her necklace. She felt its comforting warmth before it began to glow. Her magic gathered in the gem and she focused it through her arm, into Uzotir. His sickness shone brightly to her senses but as she attacked it, a greater darkness pulled her in with a force greater than she could fight.
As her surroundings disappeared, Aoirenne breathing became quick and shallow. She fought hard to keep panic at bay but her gut was shouting at her to run. She pulled more of her magic through her necklace, searching for Uzotir’s essence. His life force was a faded golden light that flickered like a fire about to go out. Aoirenne cried out in dismay when she saw this. Whether audibly or only in her mind, she didn’t know but determination took root and temporarily drove away her previous fears. Aoirenne used her own magic to shield Uzotir. It left her vulnerable for a time and she felt the sting of darkness like knives. Aoirenne felt her skin being pierced and without thinking she called on Sifrahulda, the goddess of healing, and was overwhelmed by the influx of energy. There was no slow intake and her gem’s warmth turned to a searing heat. But through her pain, Aoirenne could hear a feminine scream; unearthly and twisted with rage. She felt her shield weakening and tried gathering the overabundance of magic to strengthen it.
Aoirenne felt Uzotir begin to fight back, and his light broke through enough to blind her. The other presence was pushed away by their efforts. Before hope could bloom Aoirenne’s shield shattered and the light faded quickly, like it was being drained away. Aoirenne gasped audibly, too shocked to do more than gulp in air as nerve wracking pain consumed her body. She felt more than saw Uzotir shudder, felt his final struggle. Aoirenne knew it was hopeless and she’d barely had a grasp on Sifrahulda’s borrowed magic just a moment before, but she sent it flooding into Uzotir. She didn’t know if she was desperate to save the king or herself, and she didn’t let herself dwell on the implications of the latter. Aoirenne poured until there was nothing left for her to give. Her fingers grasped uselessly at the carpet as her surroundings slowly came unto focus. Rapid footsteps and clanking armor filled the room. Slivers of pain shot through Aoirenne’s head with each new noise. And then someone started yelling.
“I knew a no name former cleric couldn’t be trusted with the king’s life. And look what’s become of him!”
Tears heavy with disappointment and self loathing slid down Aoirenne’s cheek, dripping off her chin. How could she fail at the one task that had always given her purpose? And when so much depended on Uzotir living. Khardren was to become king someday. Not now. Not because of her mistakes. Aoirenne was suddenly yanked to her feet. She let out a pitiful moan. The guards’ faces blurred and wavered before her. The floor seemed to tilt beneath her as she dragged from the room.
Aoirenne didn’t remember getting to the room she was thrown into. It wasn’t tiny, though not as large as her confused mind told her it was. Sunlight streamed in through the thin slit of a window, revealing the room’s only furnishings; a cot, a plain wooden table and chair. Aoirenne’s legs still felt too weak for her to attempt the short distance. She let herself fall to the floor. That scream echoed in her head. Aoirenne breath came out in great heaves as she felt that cloying helplessness dragging her down again.
We’ll be marked as traitors. What was I thinking?
She shuddered as she remembered that darkness, the hatred. How could it have captured Uzotir so completely? Would anyone believe her if she revealed it? Would Khardren believe her? Aoirenne didn’t love him, not the way he loved her, but they’d trusted each other. She didn’t want to see the difference on his face now that she’d killed his father. Aoirenne forced herself to her feet, using the wall as support, and made her way to the door. She banged in it until it was shoved open.
Aoirenne fell in an ungraceful sprawl, but she didn’t let that stop her. “Please, let me speak to my sister. She’s healer as well and knows my skill. She will vouch for me.”
The guard that stood above her held a barely restrained grief. His voice was rough when he spoke. “Your word has no weight. Any sister of yours holds even less importance.”
“Please!” Aoirenne voice cracked and she winced inwardly. “Tyshri, and the Runestone house, has always been loyal to the throne! I only ask for the chance to say my goodbyes.”
The dwarf turned away and Aoirenne let all of her desperation and regret pour into her voice. She needed to speak to Tyshri.
“Please. She is my dearest friend. I ask only for one last chance to speak with her.”
Dwarves understood loyalty, to the whole and to family, and Aoirenne was counting on that. No one had accused her of purposefully killing the king, yet. So while he may think her incompetent she wasn’t a criminal. He hesitated long enough for Aoirenne to worry that maybe it was too late. She’d already been lined up for execution. It was too late to run.
“Fine,” the dwarf grumbled, finally. He spoke just loud enough for her to hear. “Once. And be quick about it.”
Aoirenne only tipped her head in acknowledgement. She let some of her uncertainty show on her face. The door slammed closed again. Aoirenne felt nervous laughter bubble up and she clamped a hand over her mouth to keep it in. Eventually she sobered. If she succeeded….
If we pull this off, it means I’ll never see them again.
Aoirenne let out a bitter laugh. She’d lost everything she strived to protect. But the time for tears had passed. She closed her eyes until the urge to collapse faded. She shoved her emotions into an easily ignored corner, and she waited. Hoping against the odds that her sister wouldn’t be delayed.
When Tyshri rushed into the room, crushing Aoirenne in a hug, she didn’t struggle.
“It’s not true! I told them but no one would listen!” Her hair fell loose down past her waist. She hadn’t taken the time to put it into a neat bun, which told Aoirenne the state the family must be in.
The women held each other tightly for a long time before Aoirenne finally whispered, “They mean to charge me as a criminal then? I suspected.” Aoirenne felt a grim smile tug at the corners of her lips. “I have a final favor to ask of you.”
Tyshri stepped back, holding Aoirenne at arm’s length and nodded. Her trust made Aoirenne’s chest ache. “Speak to Meldan. He lives in the trade district. He’ll know why.”
Tyshri started to speak but Aoirenne shook her head. “No questions. And whatever anyone says of me, you agree.”
“You will. And you’ll tell our father to do the same.”
“No. I will find Melden if you wish, but I’ll never turn against you.”
“For our family’s survival you must.”
Tyshri left without answering. Aoirenne wanted to call her back but there was nothing she could change. She had to choose the path she’d been too afraid of. One where home was a temporary name and Aoirenne Runesong didn’t exist. The one Melden would help her find.
The room was pitch dark when there was a low tap against the door. A few seconds passed before there was another one. Aoirenne had regained her bearings as time passed but she was defenseless. The door creaked open.
“Hurry up. Melden had to crack out the good mead for these uptight royal guard but someone’s bound to check on the king killer.”
Aoirenne wanted to slam the door just enough for it to make a satisfying thud against the young dwarf’s face. Instead she forced her stiff joints to react and ignored the hunger pains vying for her attention. They made their way as silently as possible down the stairwell. Coming to a sudden halt outside of the guard room. Drunken laughter, joking and what passed for singing assaulted their ears.
The young dwarf grumbled and took his helmet off. “Drunk or not, they’ve still got eyes.”
“If they can recognize me, they’ll recognize I’m wearing a gown,” she hissed. The many layers that had been mere annoyances just this morning might be her undoing.
He shoved the helmet into her arms despite Aoirenne’s objects. She had no choice but to shove it on, holding it in place with one hand and her skirts in the other. They shouldered open a side door. It led to the gardens, which seemed to stretch on for miles ahead of them. Aoirenne set her jaw. She silently cursed the decisions that brought her here. And then they were off.
She heard the shouts but didn’t let herself understand the words. Didn’t let herself stop when she heard the heavy footsteps behind them. When the first guard reached her, Aoirenne took off her helmet and used it as a bludgeoning tool to uppercut them. She tried to pretend she didn’t recognize the female dwarf now crashing to the ground. A flash of silver, and then a clattering as a sword clashed against the young dwarf’s shield. An old thing that wouldn’t take many more hits like that.
“Move your ass!” He pushed her roughly forward. Aoirenne stepped on the bottom of her skirt and stumbled. He grabbed her arm, pulling her after him. “Whatever you did to the king would be useful now.”
Aoirenne thought of the presence she’d encountered and a feeling of dread anchored itself around her spine. She thought of the decay, far more advanced than damage from any disease she’d ever seen. Even if she could speak around her fear, Aoirenne didn’t know what she could say that would matter. So she concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Not who she’d been or who she was leaving behind. The dwarf reached a grate in the wall that was made as an exit for the fountain “river”. It wasn’t expected to hold up to attack. He took his ax from his belt, striking at the metal bars repeatedly with the butt. Aoirenne grabbed his shield, using it and her helmet as crude weapons to bash anyone who got too close. But she saw more guards coming. A moment later she heard the sound of splintering wood. The male dwarf grinned and Aoirenne smashed what remained of the shield against his face.
“You owe me a shield.”
“You still owe me a rescue.”
Just as the bars clattered to the ground, Aoirenne heard a familiar voice. Her breath caught and she squeezed her eyes shut.
“Aoirenne Runesong, I order you to surrender or hereby be judged as criminal!” Khardren’s voice was forceful but lacked a certain conviction.
Even if he believed she was innocent, Aoirenne knew she’d been judged as guilty the minute she failed to save the king. Harbek had made certain of that, Aoirenne was sure. She opened her eyes to see Khardren stalking towards them and she hesitated. Some part of her wanted to believe that there had ever been a chance her account of events would be believed.
“What are you doing? Come on!?”
That snapped Aoirenne back to her senses. She turned and fled. Running full tilt down a steep hill meant sometimes they fell, rolled before temporarily getting their footing, and rolling again. When they reached the bottom,Aoirenne had no time to catalogue all of the new cuts and bruises screaming for her attention. She hobbled after the dwarf as they made for the treeline.
Meldan’s caravan was hidden where the trees were thickest. Aoirenne could barely see the wagons through the low hanging branches. Meldan paced, muttering under his breath. He was a large man and he wore merchant’s robes but Aoirenne could see telltale signs of armor underneath his clothing.
As they got closer, Aoirenne heard Meldan exclaim, “Skogren should’ve been back by now.”
“There were complications,” said the young dwarf next to Aoirenne, shooting a glare at her.
Meldan spun on his heels. He crossed the space between them with the largest steps a dwarf could take. Meldan and Skogren embraced tightly.
“We need to move now. Any thoughts you have of ever returning, let them go or you’re a liability and you can make your way alone.”
Aoirenne nodded. Khardren’s words came back to her then. She pressed her lips together so they wouldn’t tremble.
“Good. You’ll need a new name, and a history to go with it if you choose, but for now it’s my job to make sure you live to get that choice.”
“And what payment do you expect in return?” Aoirenne held herself up proudly, only a slight hiss of breath as she straightened betrayed her pain.
“If we’re in need of it, your healing services. And if we’re desperate, your sword.”
“We’ll be desperate soon enough,” Skogren said in warning.
Meldan ushered Aoirenne to the most nondescript wagon in the line. He helped her in before turning to shout orders. Aoirenne pressed herself to the floor, listening to the sounds of the caravan around her. Each noise sounded thunderous. She held her breath. Each second held the threat of Khardren’s men coming to drag her back to her prison cell and certain death. As the adrenaline faded, exhaustion ate at her but Aoirenne refused to rest until she knew she was safe. Or at least until she was far enough away she could convince herself the worst had passed. Dawn tinged the sky before Meldan thought it safe enough to slow their pace. And the sun was beginning it’s climb over the treetops before Aoirenne finally let herself fall into a dreamless sleep.
This took me longer than expected to write 😥 This is the last short story I have planned for this universe but I’m always willing to write more if anyone’s interested. If you want to read the other short stories I’ve written check out Prophecy For Hire or Hammer And A Spell (the “first” story, but order isn’t too important).
Amazon Author Page