Kalees blinked once, and then again.
“Well, this certainly changes things,” he said, sitting down next to Mythrin and Kirian. “Are you sure, Mythrin?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s her. There is no doubt in my mind.”
“Well then, why has she been living alone as a man in the Crimson Mist forest for so long?” asked Kalees. “The forest borders both our lands. Kirian would know that, either from being here, or through her memory of the maps in the castle. Right?”
“Yes, of course,” said Mythrin. “Of course, she would.”
“Then why wouldn’t Kirian use that knowledge to get back home?” asked Kalees gently.
“The Crimson Mist Forest is a dangerous place,” answered Mythrin. “Everyone knows that. She probably didn’t feel comfortable venturing into the heart of it. She is a noble woman, after all.”
“And yet she felt comfortable enough to completely change her appearance, to live as a man, and make her home within it for a decade?” Kalees shook his head. “Forgive me, Mythrin, but I cannot resolve those two ideas so easily. Besides, if this is Princess Tiriana, I doubt a mere haunted forest would have stopped her from returning to you.”
“Then something must have kept her here,” said Mythrin as he laid the princess down gently on the ground. “Perhaps a powerful magic.”
“I don’t think so,” said Kalees, looking at the forest. “I think the only magic here is the magic of stories and legends. I’m surprised that you don’t see that, Mythrin.”
“Well, how else would you explain it, then?”
“By using the logical thinking that you used to be so fond of, Mythrin,” said Kalees with a smile. “I would ask questions, and try to find the truth.”
“What for?” asked Mythrin. “The princess is safe now, with me. I’ll take her home to Urela–”
“Do you honestly think that is a good idea?” countered Kalees. “You do realize what her coming back to the kingdom of Urela would mean, right?”
“Of course, it would mean that we would live together, and start a family–”
“No. It would mean that the legitimate heir to the Urela throne, once thought dead would return to the kingdom. It would mean that the traditionalists and the people would have a reason to join forces and oppose the rule of King Rakin. A rule that which many in those two camps have seen as quite unsatisfactory as of late. Think about it, Mythrin. If Kirian is Princess Tiriana, her return to the kingdom of Urela would inspire the people to fight. Right now it would be a fight that they could not win. Not with how strong the military is.”
Brother Ptolec coughed slightly.
“Is Kirian– I mean this Princess Tiriana– really that important?” he asked. “Surely after all this time, the people of Urela have forgotten about her.”
Mythrin glared at him, his eyes sharp and deadly.
“Sorry,” said Brother Ptolec, leaning back slightly, raising his hands in defense.
“I’m afraid that Mythrin is a bit biased on the subject, Brother Ptolec,” said Kalees with a smile. “But yes. If Kirian is truly the princess, then she is very important indeed. By our laws, King Rakin is ruling in her absence, as a proxy. So far he has been unable to get the royal court to declare her dead. Both Mythrin and the traditionalists made sure of that. Mythrin did it out of love, the traditionalists out of, well, desire to still be relevant. If Princess Tiriana returned to Urela, the only way that King Rakin could hold onto power would be through military action. Unfortunately, Urela has one of the most powerful military forces in the world today. Even with the backing of the traditionalists, and the commoners, the princess would be hard pressed to win a battle against her brother.”
“You’re saying that her return would spark a civil war,” said Brother Ystril. “One that the side loyal to her would have no hope of winning.”
“Exactly,” answered Kalees. “And, I think that she knew that.”
“But how could she?” asked Brother Ptolec. “She’s been living at the edge of the forest for at least a decade. How could she know what is happening in Urela?”
“Simple,” said Mythrin slowly. “She listened. Tell me, Brother Ystril, what do the stories say about Kirian. How many people have been helped over the years?”
“It’s hard to say,” said Brother Ystril. “Some stories say that the Kirian who has lived in the Crimson Forest has saved hundreds of lives.”
“And how many of those are soldiers fighting in this war?”
“Quite a few, I imagine,” said Brother Ystril. “But there are others as well. Kirian is well known for his– I mean her– mercy and skill.”
“Quite so,” said Mythrin. “In the kingdom of Urela, she was known for that as well. That, and her skill in strategy.”
“So Kirian got information from the people she was treating,” said Brother Ptolec, nodding his head. “The soldiers would have no reason not to trust her, not to tell their stories as she mended them. She was Kirian, after all. They had no reason to associate the man of the Crimson Mist Forest with the Princess of Urela.”
“I think so,” said Mythrin. He glanced over at the sleeping figure. “But I still don’t understand why she didn’t send word to me. I could have come–”
“Face it, Mythrin. If you had proof that she was still alive, you would have demanded every resource in the kingdom and moved Mount Kilgari to bring her home.”
“Of course, I would! I still would!”
“And that is exactly why she didn’t send word to you. You’re usually a very level-headed person, just not when it comes to the Princess. Your antics would have drawn the attention of her brother, and possibly put you, her, and everyone else in danger. Right now those that oppose the military are seen as nothing more than a mere nuisance. What would happen if King Rakin found out that the de facto leader of the opposition and the legitimate heir was still alive?”
Mythrin leaned back slightly, placing his hands on the ground behind him.
“You have a point,” he said quietly.
“I hate to interrupt,” said Brother Ystril. “And learning about the internal struggles of the kingdom of Urela is truly fascinating, but what does this have to do with the current purpose of your mission? Were you not sent here by King Rakin to negotiate a final truce?”
Kalees and Mythrin looked at each other. The decision passed between them, and Kalees nodded his head slightly.
“Not exactly,” said Mythrin with a soft smile. “I was sent to negotiate your kingdom’s surrender. Kalees was sent to gather information about your military capabilities in case negotiations were unsuccessful.”
Both Brother Ptolec and Brother Ystril looked on in stunned silence. Brother Ptolec stood, his hands clenching, anger flashing in his eyes and through every fiber of his body.
“You mean–” said Brother Ystril.
“I’m afraid so,” said Kalees softly, looking directly at Brother Ptolec. “We came under false pretenses. Our aim, up until this point, was to use you.”
Brother Ptolec’s eyes flashed, and he turned away, stalking into the forest.
“Idiot!” said Mythrin, coming up behind Kalees and smacking him squarely on the back of the head. “Go after him!”
Brother Ystril and Mythrin watched as Kalees followed Brother Ptolec deeper into the forest. Brother Ystril turned to face Mythrin.
“He said ‘up to this point’. What did he mean by that?”
“It means that he’s fallen in love,” said Mythrin. “For the first time in his life, Kalees is forced to deal with the war between his heart and his duty. Hopefully, he realizes which one is more important.”
“I see,” said Brother Ystril. “Perhaps Brother Ptolec is going through the same conflict.”
“Yes,” said Mythrin. “Let’s see if those two can work things out without killing each other.”
“Should we go after them?” asked Brother Ystril.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” said Mythrin. “Just give them a moment to sort it out. Besides, by the sound of things, I really don’t want to get into the middle of it, do you?”
Brother Ystril shook his head vehemently.
“Brother Ptolec, please, just listen–”
Brother Ptolec slammed his fist into a nearby tree.
“Why the heck should I?” roared Brother Ptolec, turning to face Kalees, his eyes blazing. “You’re a liar! You’ve admitted it! Tell me, Kalees of Urela, was everything a lie? It was, wasn’t it?”
Kalees swallowed hard, forcing himself to stand his ground.
“I never lied to you,” he said sternly. “I just didn’t tell you the entire truth–”
“That’s the same as lying!” shouted Brother Ptolec, quickly coming forward, pinning Kalees against the trunk of a nearby tree. “Are you so full of yourself that you can’t see that? What the heck is wrong with you?”
“And what about you, then?” snapped Kalees. “You’ve been lying just as much as I have, and you know it!”
“When have I lied?” demanded Brother Ptolec. “Name one time! Just one!”
“Oh come off of it,” said Kalees, his own eyes flashing, his body inching towards Ptolec. “I see the way you look at me. I know the truth! Stop denying it!”
“What the heck are you talking about? There is nothing between us!”
Kalees looked Brother Ptolec in the eyes. Ptolec’s breath shuddered as he saw a mixture of hurt, frustration, passion and longing fighting for dominance there. He swallowed quickly as he heard his own heartbeat, pounding in his chest.
He was angry. No, he was livid. He had every right to be. And yet–
In a flash, Kalees grabbed him by the back of the neck and pulled him down, his lips meeting Ptolec’s in a storm. Ptolec struggled against the onslaught, amazed at the power and passion of this man, and the answering drive that was welling up inside him. Ptolec braced his hand against the tree, trying to steady himself, trying to get control again, but the feeling of this man, the feeling of Kalees drinking him in was just too much. Ptolec felt his power legs start to buckle, and he leaned into the kiss, finally allowing his passion to overtake him.
Kalees shifted beneath him and allowed Ptolec’s passion to flood into him and through him. Yes. This was right. This, here. This is where he belonged. Every fiber of Kalees’s body, mind, and heart leaped for joy. He snaked his other hand around Ptolec’s waist, pulling him closer, desperately needing to feel him. Ptolec gasped, the sharp intake of air cutting against Kalees’s lips. Kalees moaned softly, loving it.
“Ahem,” came Mythrin’s voice. “I see you two have settled things satisfactorily then?”
Kalees and Brother Ptolec sprang apart, a hunger still apparent in their eyes and bodies.
“Hardly,” said Brother Ptolec, his voice rough.
“Agreed,” said Kalees after finding his voice. “We’re just getting started.”
“Be that as it may,” said Mythrin. “We do have more pressing things to deal with. And some decisions to make about how to proceed. I’ll leave you two alone for a few moments to calm yourselves. When you’re ready, Brother Ystril and I will be waiting for you. There is much to discuss.”
A few moments later, Brother Ptolec and Kalees rejoined them at the clearing in the forest. Kalees looked down at the sleeping figure lying before him.
“Will she be all right?” he asked. “Does she even know who she is? Or has she been Kirian for too long?”
“I’m not sure,” said Mythrin. “I think a part of her recognized me, but I think perhaps many of her memories are buried beneath what she had to become to survive.” He frowned.
“You know it’s not your fault, Mythrin,” said Kalees softly. “It was her decision, after all.”
“Yes, it was her decision,” he agreed. “But it’s still my fault. I should have found a way for us to make this decision together.”
Brother Ystril shook his head.
“Brother Kalees is right, you know. We all make decisions on our own. And right now, we have to decide what to do next.”
“There’s only one thing to do, I think,” said Mythrin as he gathered his princess into his arms, and lifted her up onto the horse.
“And what is that?” asked Brother Ptolec.
“Go to your king,” answered Kalees with an answering nod. “Tell him of the situation. The whole situation. See if we might make an ally of him, or at least convince him not to attack us.”
“The southern entrance is not far from here, really,” answered Brother Ystril softly. “And the High Queen is expecting us very soon. If we make haste, we should be able to reach the gates of her castle by early nightfall.”
Kalees flushed with embarrassment.
“I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I referred to your high queen as a king. I should have remembered–”
Brother Ystril shook his head, a brief flash of humor showing in his eyes.
“Don’t worry about it, Brother Kalees. I believe you’ve had other things on your mind.”
“The real question, of course, is what happens after the meeting with the High Queen,” said Mythrin with a wry smile.
“Shall we go and find out, then?” asked Brother Ystril, motioning to the tired horses.
* * *
The sun disappeared over the mountains when the party reached the gates of the kingdom of Turel. Tired, hungry, and riding horses that clearly needed a break, they were brought into a nearby home. There, they were treated as most pilgrims were, and given food, drink, and a place to rest. Their horses were taken to a nearby stable and cared for after the long journey. Mythrin made it known that they weren’t pilgrims, but rather had an urgent need to see the High Queen. The people were skeptical of course, but after much cajoling and pleading, Mythrin, Brother Ystril, and Kalees were escorted to the palace. Brother Ptolec stayed with the other pilgrims and the princess.
As he approached, Mythrin was quietly stunned at the beauty and vibrancy of the castle that rose before him. The walls of the castle glinted silver and light blue in the sunlight, and the many doors were open to the world. People, noble and common alike entered and left the castle without hindrance.
“Is your security so lax here?” he asked, looking around. “Are you not afraid of harm coming to the High Queen?”
“Our security is not as lax as you might believe,” answered Brother Ystril with a smile. “Take a closer look at the people going about.”
Mythrin did so, and his eyes widened in surprise.
“They’re armed!” he exclaimed in a whisper. “Nearly everyone!”
Sure enough, upon closer examination, he saw many people carrying weapons on them, hidden among the fold of their clothes.
“Not everyone,” said Kalees. “But it looks like there are enough to give any outsider pause.”
“That is the idea,” said Brother Ystril. “Everyone here has the capability, and responsibility to defend themselves, and the kingdom of Turel.”
“But what about your military?” asked Kalees. “Isn’t it their job to protect the kingdom?”
“Yes, but they are the first line of defense, not the last,” answered Brother Ystril. “If they fail….the people are willing to do what is necessary to protect themselves and the High Queen.”
“We’re here,” said Brother Ystril. “The great hall is just ahead.”
Brother Ystril opened the doors to the great hall, and a wave of laughter erupted from the room. Rows and rows of tables, filled with laughing people enjoying a meal greeted the men. Kalees and Mythrin couldn’t help but smile.
Brother Ystril left their side for a moment and went up to an older lady serving soup to a nearby table. He motioned to Kalees and Mythrin, and the older woman nodded to them and motioned them to follow. Confused, but not wanting to cause trouble, they obeyed. They entered a room, and Brother Ystril quietly closed the door behind them.
“I understand you have traveled from the kingdom of Urela in order to see me,” the old lady said with a smile.
“Forgive me,” said Mythrin, a puzzled expression passing over his face. “I was looking for the High Queen of the Kingdom of Turel–”
“And you have found her,” the lady said with a laugh. “Why, do I not look the part? Is it my apron? Here, perhaps this will convince you.”
She reached up to her neck and pulled a chain from underneath her apron and dress. At the end of the chain was a silver ring with a pale blue gem, the symbol of Turel etched into it. Mythrin’s eyes widened in surprise. The ring of Turel was legendary among scholars, even within the kingdom of Urela. Mythrin swallowed slightly.
“May I?” he asked, his hand reaching for the ring.
“You may, although you probably well regret it,” said the old lady with a smile. She dropped the ring into his hand, and instantly, Mythrin knew that she was right.
A wave of conflicting emotions came over Mythrin, bringing him down to knees. Sadness, pain, laughter, love, anger, passion, pride, and sorrow coursed through him, racking his body in powerful waves. Trembling, he handed the ring back to the woman, his head bowed, tears flowing from his eyes.
“Forgive me my Queen,” he gasped. “But what was that?”
“The ring connects me to the hearts of my people,” she said simply. “But the connection is strengthened the more time I spend with them.”
“Our High Queen is known for making a very delicious chicken soup,” said Brother Ystril, smiling proudly.
Mythrin, the High Queen, and Kalees laughed at the normalcy of it all.
“But enough of that,” said the High Queen with a smile. “Please, come sit down, and tell me of your story.”
So Mythrin, Brother Ystril, and Kalees told the High Queen of Turel about their journey to her kingdom. Of their discoveries in the Crimson Mist Forest, their suspicions, and their fears. They told her the whole story, slowly revealing truths that had been hidden away, even from them.
The High Queen listened, asking questions every once in a while, but mostly listening intently. Finally, she sighed.
“You bring an interesting tale indeed,” she said softly. “But I do sense the truth in what you say. What do you suggest should happen?”
“If I may, my Queen,” said Kalees hurriedly before Mythrin could raise his voice. “I do have an idea.”
“Oh?” said the High Queen turning to him. “And what is that?”
“Please allow Mythrin and the person known as Kirian to stay here in your kingdom,” said Kalees quickly, stealing a glance at Mythrin’s disapproving face. “They have been apart for too long already, and Mythrin can provide both you and the princess a good deal of necessary information about the kingdom of Urela.”
“But Kalees,” countered Mythrin, “if you return without me–”
“Don’t you see, Mythrin?” he answered, turning to face him. “You’re not a warrior. And that means in the eyes of the royal court of the military, you’re an idiot. Trust me, if I came back without you, the royal court advisors will probably congratulate me on my good fortune.”
“But won’t the kingdom of Urela use his absence as a reason to attack?” asked Brother Ystril.
“I thought about that as well. You know how much bureaucratic nonsense is in the royal court, Mythrin. It takes months to get approval on anything. I’m pretty sure I can convince the advisors that Turel is the same way. I’ll just say that you felt the need to stay and try and convince them.”
“I don’t know,” said Mythrin. “It seems too risky.”
“Your friend Mythrin is correct, Kalees,” said the High Queen quietly. “There are too many risks with your plan. Too many variables that we can’t control. But it does give me an idea.”
All three men turned to face the High Queen, and waited expectantly.
“King Rakin is very self-assured, is he not?” she asked. “He thinks that he should be the ruler over all. Am I right?”
The men nodded.
“Then let’s use his self-assurance against him.”
“I don’t understand,” said Kalees with a frown.
“Simple,” said the High Queen. “Kalees, you will stay here, and continue to gather information. Mythrin will return to Urela, and tell the military leaders that we are considering their offer, and tell them of your brilliant idea to become a spy on their behalf. Arrangements will be made for you to provide information through a series of contacts to the advisors of King Rakin.”
“But why would we do that?” asked Brother Ystril
“The information would be mostly false, of course,” said Mythrin with a smile. “There would have to be some truthful information from time, to keep it sounding genuine.”
“But in essence, the information you provide to them will be exactly what we want them to know,” finished the High Queen with a nod of her head. “In the meantime, Kalees and Princess Tiriana will provide us with the information concerning the military and nature of the kingdom of Urela.”
“At the same time,” continued Mythrin, “I will begin to try and gather together the opposition within Urela to King Rakin’s rule. I’ll have to move slowly, but I think it’s time to start.”
“You do realize that we’re taking a great risk by doing this, right?” said Kalees.
“Of course, we are,” answered Mythrin softly. “But if it can bring all of this to the end, isn’t it worth it?”
© 2016 – 2017, Laura Seeber. All rights reserved.