Vankara (Book 1), page 16
Aleksander was in love with a Queen.
And as Fallon had said that first night on the airship, I was no Queen.
I’m not sure how long I stood in the hallway leaned against the door, probably only a few minutes. I finally prodded myself into entering my chambers.
A fire was lit in the hearth of the sitting room and all was quiet. I was sure Dena would be asleep by now, as well as Emily. I yearned to find my own bed and rest even for just a little while but knew that was impossibility.
I quickly made my way to my bedroom and found the clothing Inara said would be waiting for me. I couldn’t imagine myself traipsing through fae territory in a long skirted dress so I asked to borrow one of her aviator uniforms. Not only would the leather provide me protection against the cold but the leggings would make it easier for me to ride a horse comfortably.
I quickly disrobed and changed clothes. Inara was slightly taller than the Queen but once I put the boots on and stuffed the extra two inches of leather inside them, the difference was negligible. Once dressed, I searched the Queen’s closet for a heavy cloak or coat but found nothing of an appropriate thickness. I settled for a woolen black cloak with white fox fur trim.
When I stepped back into the drawing room, I found Gabriel sitting on the sofa in front of the fireplace. He stood as I entered the room.
“Why are you wearing one of Inara’s uniforms?” he asked, his eyes squinting as if I were out of focus.
“I thought it would be more comfortable,” I replied, not exactly seeing why I needed to explain my choice of wardrobe.
“Well, I can’t say it’s the most appropriate thing for a Queen to wear, but I do see its practicality.”
I started to lay the cloak I had retrieved from the Queen’s closet on the coral wingback chair beside the sofa when I saw the spot was already occupied by another cloak, the Mantle of Power.
“You should wear the Mantle in fae territory,” Gabriel said. “It has the same spell the palace does.”
“What spell?” I asked, laying the cloak in my hands on the back of the chair and then picking up the heavy maroon cloak with fur lining.
“The palace and the cloak have spells on them which protect any Vankar from being physically harmed by anyone or thing.”
The night of Dena’s disappearance came to mind. I had wondered then why Aleksander told the guards I would be safe after returning to my study in the palace, sending them away to search for Dena.
“How does the spell work?” I asked, draping the cloak over my shoulders and clasping the gold phoenix broach at the neck.
“When worn by someone with Vankar blood, it protects them from anyone with hostile intentions.”
I looked up sharply at Gabriel. “But I’m not a true Vankar.”
“Oh,” he said caught off guard. “That hadn’t actually occurred to me. I suppose we should probably test it.”
Gabriel walked over to stand directly in front of me.
“I’m going to try to slap you in the face. If the spell doesn’t work, I heartily apologize ahead of time for any discomfort you might feel, but the spell won’t work unless I’m completely committed to hurting you.”
I braced myself. “I’m ready.”
Without any other warning, I watched as Gabriel raised his hand beside him and swung it directly towards my cheek as hard as he could. An inch before making contact with my flesh, I saw his hand stop in mid-swing and watched as Gabriel was knocked back by some invisible force. From my perspective it appeared something had hit him straight in the belly lifting him off his feet and propelling him at least four feet backwards. Gabriel slid against the wood floor only coming to a stop when he hit the opposite wall.
I ran to him and knelt down at his side.
“Are you all right?”
He nodded his head but I could tell from the grimace on his face the spell had indeed hurt as badly as it looked.
“I’ll be fine,” he said in a strained voice.
I stood and lowered my hand to him as he tried to recover at least a small bit of his pride back.
“I forgot how violent that spell could be,” he admitted, straightening his coat and collar back from their skewed positions.
There was a quiet knock on the outer chamber door which we were now standing beside. I opened it knowing who to expect to see in the doorway.
Fallon came in carrying a medium size brown leather horse saddle pouch across one shoulder.
He took in my outfit in a glance and smirked.
“I’m glad to see you wearing the mantle, but I’m not too sure about your choice of outfit.”
“For heaven’s sake, would the two of you stop worrying about my clothes?” Men choose the oddest things to exasperate a woman about. “We have more important things to concern us at the moment.”
Both men raised their eyebrows at me as if I were taking their criticism far too closely to heart, which, in point of fact, I probably was. No woman likes being told she has made an inappropriate selection in her attire. Besides, I felt perfectly just in my decision to weigh comfort over decency.
Gabriel looked at Fallon. “Have you prepared an alibi for your absence just in case people ask where you are?”
“Yeah, I spent most of the day drinking and flirting at Maggie Mae’s. The men will probably just assume I’m still there tomorrow, whether they see me or not.”
I didn’t have to ask what Maggie Mae’s was. I knew it to be the most popular brothel in the slums of Iron City. If you wanted to go someplace where no one asked many questions, Maggie Mae’s was the place to hide out.
“Good,” Gabriel nodded his head affirming that Fallon had made a wise decision. “Tomorrow I’ll tell anyone who asks to see the Queen that she’s indisposed.”
“I was sick earlier this evening,” I added. “But only Aleksander saw it.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Fallon asked. “You look fine to me.”
I shrugged. “I have no idea, but the smell of food at dinner this evening made me lose what little was in my stomach. Perhaps it’s a good thing Aleksander saw me being sick, he can certainly confirm for anyone who asks him that I was ill tonight.”
“The only problem with Aleksander knowing you’re sick is that I will have to fend him off until the two of you get back,” Gabriel surmised grimly. “I’m sure he’ll want to see you in person tomorrow to make sure you’re all right.”
“Well, you could tell him I asked not to see him yet. Tell him I still need time to think about what happened between us at the end of the evening.”
“What happened?” Gabriel and Fallon asked at the same exact time as though they had one mind set for those few short seconds.
“He kissed me,” I answered, seeing no reason to hide the facts of the situation. I turned my full attention to Gabriel. “He also asked me why we couldn’t renew our relationship ‘where we left off’’. Do you have any idea what that meant? I thought you said the Queen and Aleksander were only enjoying a playful courtship of sorts, that it hadn’t turned physical.”
“As far as I know it hadn’t,” Gabriel said with a grave expression of uncertainty on his face. “The Queen and Dena did make a trip to Chromis a couple of months ago. I wasn’t able to accompany them though. They were just going to be there a couple of days to pick up some items from Dena’s inheritance. But, I feel sure Emma would have confided in me if she had decided to progress her relationship with Aleksander.”
“Well it sure the hell doesn’t sound like it,” Fallon said, “or Chromis wouldn’t have said something like that. He wouldn’t admit his feelings unless he was damn sure the feelings were mutual.”
“I’ll handle Chromis,” Gabriel told us in a calm voice even though I could tell what I had said upset him. “Don’t worry about him right now. We’ll deal with him when we have to. At the moment, we need information about the plagues. Hopefully the two of you will find what you need among the fae.”
Gabriel and Fallon looked at one another.
“The tree,” they said once again in unison except this time Gabriel spoke as a matter of fact while Fallon’s words were more a question.
The three of us made our way outside to the back gardens. We followed Gabriel in the soft dusk of moonlight to the large oak tree. Once there Gabriel knelt down on one knee searching along a large protruding root. I saw his index finger slide all the way to the knuckle into what looked like an ordinary knot on the root. I heard what I can only describe as metallic gears shifting against one another. The mighty oak shook where it stood losing a few small, loose branches in the process. A large half oval opening appeared on the tree’s trunk in front of us with the cut out section quickly disappearing into the ground as if it had been sucked in by the moist earth. The opening was only about four feet high and two feet wide.
“Where does it lead?” I asked.
Just as Gabriel stepped over the threshold, a light source automatically illuminated the interior. With the addition of light, I could see Gabriel was actually standing on the first step of a set of stone stairs.
“They lead to Dell Lake beside the Iron Wall. I have horses there waiting for you both.”
Gabriel continued to descend the staircase not waiting to see if I might have any other questions. I got the distinct feeling he wanted us on our way as quickly as possible.
I followed behind Gabriel with Fallon taking up the rear. Once we reached the bottom of the staircase, my curiosity on where the light was coming from was assuaged.
A tunnel, just tall enough for the men to walk without having to bend down, had been cut through the earth. A series of lit torches leaned out slightly from the tunnel walls as far as my eyes could see. The moist, organic smell of fresh earth permeated the air around us as we made our way down the tunnel’s path.
I’m not sure how long it took us to reach the end of the tunnel. Possibly an hour or more, but I could definitely tell when we had reached the lake. The earth in that section of the tunnel held the unmistakable smell of water, akin to the smell the air takes on just before a rainstorm.
As we approached the end of the tunnel, I saw another set of ascending stairs awaiting us. As Gabriel’s shoe touched the bottom of the stairs, I heard the same grinding of gears I had heard come from the oak tree in the Queen’s private garden and felt a draft of fresh air touch my face making me realize how stale the air we had been breathing was. We ascended the stairs and came out of another tree located near the banks of Dell Lake.
The fresh air coming off of the large pool of water felt delicious after having traveled underground for so long. Standing by the tree, their reins tethered to a large limb, were two horses: one white and one black. Each had been outfitted with a saddle and a small pack of supplies. John walked up to the black horse and slung his saddle pack on top of another pack which was already secured over the horn of the saddle. I walked to the white horse and glided my hand down its nose in a comforting manner before untying its reins from the branch.
“Follow me,” Gabriel said to us.
He led us a short distance away through a growth of bushes and trees to the Iron Wall. We walked along the wall until Gabriel stopped at an undistinguishable section.
He looked to make sure we were behind him before saying “Mei inimicus, mei amicus.”
A door appeared in the wall as if it had been there all the time. Gabriel turned the knob allowing me my first glimpse inside the world of the fae.
“When you return, simply repeat the words I said at this spot on the wall on the other side and the door will appear. I would advise you to wait until sunset to come back to the castle, just to make certain no one sees you returning.”
John and I walked our horses through the door opening.
“Be watchful,” Gabriel warned from the other side of the door. “There’s probably a very good reason none of our spies ever made it back home.”
“We’ll be fine,” Fallon said with a lot more confidence than I was feeling. He closed the door making it instantly disappeared like a pebble in water.
Fallon gathered a few fallen tree limbs and piled them in front of where the door was so we could find it easily when we were ready to return to home.
We mounted our horses and quickly found a path leading out of the dense brush which surrounded the wall.
The forest we were in was thick with animal life and vegetation. Under the bright light of the moon, I could see large leafed ferns, bushes and tall trees on either side of the path we rode on. At one point, the trees began to thin out but only because each solitary tree became larger in width and length. The bottom of the tree trunks became so large I could well imagine a small cottage fitting snuggly inside them.
“What kind of trees are these?” I asked.
“Giant redwoods,” Fallon answered, keeping a watchful eye on our surroundings. I felt sure all of his years of military training had heightened his senses, especially if danger was close at hand.
“Do trees like this grow on our side of the wall?”
“Not this big.”
“I’ve heard tales that the fae build their villages in trees. Do you think that’s true?”
“That’s what I’ve always heard. But who knows? It’s been two hundred years since a Vankaran has set foot on this side of the wall and lived long enough to tell what he saw.”
As we made our way down the path, I began to see movement to the left of us out of the corner of my eye. I wasn’t sure if what I was seeing was real or simply a phantom fueled by my own unease and the eeriness of our surroundings. Sometimes the mind can play tricks on your senses if the circumstances are right. I turned my head to look directly into the thick forest surrounding us. Camouflaged by the foliage and absence of much light, I saw a bulky black mass shift the darkness around it.
“Fallon stop,” I whispered, gently reining in my horse to a stand still.
Fallon turned his horse back around to me.
“What’s wrong?” he whispered, following my gaze into the forest.
I didn’t have to answer. The thing watching us answered for me.
A shaft of moonlight shot through the dense forest illuminating an animal four sizes larger than the horse I rode. I stared, completely transfixed, as a pair of featherless wings stretched out from either side of the creature. Realizing it was no longer concealed from our view, it stood from its crouched position revealing a long thin tapered neck and small head. The creature moved its wings until we could hear them flapping in the wind.
“Damn it,” Fallon yelled. “Run!”
I hesitated, always a fatal mistake in such times.
The creature quickly rose into the air. I watched its ascension feeling helpless and lost before its magnificence. Fallon galloped to my side and slapped the backside of my horse forcing it into a flat out run as he followed close beside me. Fallon pulled his sword from its sheath not a moment too soon. Before I knew it, the creature swooped down on us deftly extending its razor sharp talons towards me. Just as it was about to sink its claws into my back, an invisible force provided by the spell on my cloak propelled the creature high into the air above us like it had been hit in the pit of its stomach by an unseen hand. With a wail, which sounded somewhere between pain and frustration, the creature descended on us again but this time targeting Fallon and snatching him out of his saddle before climbing back into the air.
“Run, Sarah!” Fallon screamed to me in a mix of pain and urgency.
Without instruction from me, my horse bolted down the road as fast as she could go. A sane person would have paid heed to Fallon’s warning, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t try to do everything within my power to help him. I had to literally lean my whole body backwards, almost lying straight against my horse’s back, to make her stop her skittish retreat. I couldn’t blame her for instinctively
Over the sound of mine and the horse’s heavy breathing, I could hear Fallon’s screams and curses fill the air. I jerked on my reins, forcing the horse to head back to where the creature had abducted the Marshall.
I didn’t mind hearing Fallon’s screams; at least it meant he was still alive. It was only when silence ruled the forest once more that I became frantic with worry. Just as I approached the spot where Fallon’s horse should have been, I saw the outline of the creature’s body lying across the path. Its head had been completely severed from its thin tapered neck. Fallon lay motionless, face down, next to the creature’s corpse with his sword still tightly clenched in one hand.
I leapt off my horse and ran to his side, kneeling to find out if he was still alive. I immediately turned him onto his back. There across his chest were three large slashes made by the talons of the creature. Oozing out of the slash marks was a sulfurous smelling yellow pus accompanied by large quantities of Fallon’s own blood. With a trembling hand, I placed my fingers against his throat to see if he was still alive. I sighed in relief as I felt the tell tale thumping of life against my fingers.
Tragedy either turns people into fools or heroes. Luckily, I had been trained by my father to temper my emotions when situations seemed without hope. Fallon wouldn’t survive much longer if I didn’t act quickly.
I knew right away I wouldn’t be able to move Fallon very far by myself. Plus, I wasn’t sure how deep the gashes on his chest were. If I tried to move him, I might do more harm than good. I stood up and went to search through my horse’s pack to judge what I had to work with.
In my pack, Gabriel had given me a flint, tin cup, some dried beef, and half a loaf of bread. I grabbed the pack and the water canteen.
With all the kindling around us, I had a roaring fire lit in no time. With the added light, I made a more thorough investigation of the wounds on Fallon’s chest.