VELAINA DIPPED HER finger into the drink then slowly let the moist digit run across her lips. An old habit, one her mother’s family had ingrained in her. The dinner was in the royal courts, the drink a simple fruit juice for the expecting mother and her considerate husband. While the rest of the guests drank wine, a servant had filled their goblets with the nectar. Suddenly she felt it, a startling and unexpected tingle in her lips. Poison she thought to herself as she leaned over to her husband Soron. “My dear I am not feeling well, would you take me home?”
Soron gave his young wife a puzzled look, knowing something was out of sorts “of course.”
Her mind was racing at the realization someone was trying to kill them, she signaled the servant who had poured their drinks to come to the table.
The young serving girl came over with a smile. “What can I get for you, your grace?”
Velaina studied the girl closely, sensing no guile or sinister intent. “Where did you get the jug of juice you served us?”
The girl replied honestly, “the man in the kitchen said you were with child and would not drink wine, that you would prefer this instead.”
“What man?” asked Velaina.
“I… I don’t know your highness, it happened so fast I never got a look at him. He just put it in my hands and told me you would prefer it instead of wine. That there was only a little of the juice and to only serve it to you and your husband.” The servant looked at the jug of juice suspiciously, worried she had done something wrong, “did I make a mistake?”
Again she sensed nothing amiss, the girl was not the one trying to murder them. Velaina smiled, “it’s okay dear, the mistake is not yours.” She poured her goblet of juice and her husband’s back into the jug. She handed the jug to Soron as she rose from the table. “Take that with us my dear; we wouldn’t want anyone else mistakenly drinking that.”
Soron frowned as he realized what she meant. His brow furrowed. His marriage to Velaina had made many unhappy in both families. The impending birth of their child may have awoken old angers. Soron looked about the room. He smiled as if nothing was amiss. His protective instincts were fully aroused. Attentively he helped fasten his young bride’s cloak, as they graciously excused themselves.
The journey back to their cottage was made in silence, with an eye to every shadow, an ear to every noise. Behind their locked and barred door, they collectively sighed in relief. Soron gathered his wife into his arms, hugging her, comforting her. The city of Venecia was no longer a safe haven. Their marriage had caused divisions; created enemies. However, until they knew who was behind the attack all they could do for now was be careful and alert. Venecia was now a dangerous city for them.
The salty coastal air mingled in with the scents of the market, the blend was exotic and yet familiar, it was one of the things Soron liked most about Venecia. Today as he strolled through the market with his lovely wife Velaina, he smiled, the previous nights near fatal events momentarily forgotten. Glancing at the blonde-haired, blue eyed goddess he called wife, he noted the color in her cheeks and the sparkle in her eye. When his glance went down to the protruding belly, he saw an unmistakable sign of her carrying a special package inside. Motherhood suits her he thought to himself. She is as lovely today as the first time I saw her.
His musings on the bliss and happiness brought into his life by this wonderful woman were cut short by pain in his hand. His lovely wife was squeezing the life out of him. Velaina had always been able to sense the emotions of others; a trait shared among a few of those with magic blood, motherhood had heightened this mysterious ability. Her strong clasping of his hand was a warning. Someone in the market had evil intentions towards them.
Now aware of her concerns, Soron casually looked around, as if the multitude of vendors and throngs of citizens mulling their way through the large city market had caught his attention. He did not need to share his wife’s magical sense to take note of the pair of men ahead of them, trying badly not to stare, as they stalked Soron and his young bride. Stopping at a spiced meat cart, Soron stalled, inspecting the cooking meat, haggling with the vendor all the while watching for signs of other possible dangers. Two more men who had been walking in the same general direction as they were had suddenly stopped walking when Soron stopped at the food vendors stall.
Soron smiled at Velaina as he took a bite of his hot and savory chunk of meat. Pretending to tell her a joke or some funny thought, he leaned in “I see four of them. What does your magic tell you?”
Velaina gave a half-hearted attempt at laughter, understanding her husband’s ruse. ”Five, there is one farther back in the crowd. Are we going to be okay?”
Soron gave her a reassuring smile, “of course we are my love. I waited my whole life to have the joy of having such a lovely wife. I will not leave this world without seeing my child born. Besides, five men is not enough, not nearly enough.” Soron was not just idly boasting to his wife, on more than one occasion he had been in battles where the odds were stacked even higher against him. His being alive today and the multitude of scars across his body were the testimony to his battle skills. Knowing the enemies numbers and intentions before their impending attack was a huge benefit to Soron. He could now manipulate the circumstances to increase his odds of victory. His first priority was the safety of his wife and unborn child.
Leaving the food vendors stall he steered Velaina in a new direction. Before they had been meandering through the markets, generally heading north towards the city center, now he headed west towards the nearest stable. As they headed towards the building, Soron was able to get a few quick glances towards the men following them. The assassin group was tightening and closing in. They could tell the stable was the intended destination, and likely thought it was a good place to spring their attack.
Walking into the cool, darker and confined space of the stable, Soron quickly surveyed his surroundings. Against one wall leaned a pair of tools, a pitchfork and a shovel. These would have to suffice he thought to himself. He was carrying his dagger but other weapons would help. He grabbed the shovel in both hands and drove it down onto his raised knee, snapping the end of the shovel off. He handed both parts to Velaina. “If anyone gets close to you use the metal end as a shield and stab them with the sharp end of the handle.” Soron paused looking around “Hide in that first empty stall; they won’t be able to get to you without passing me.”
Velaina silently took the makeshift shield and spear from her intense husband. In the two years they had been together, she had never seen this side of the gentle giant she loved. She knew his history as a warrior but never witnessed his anger or any hints of his violent past. She could sense the change in his mood today. The rage deep within side him, for these unknown assailants wanting to harm his family, was kept under control by a cool veneer of calm. That calm, a product of training and experience, gave him the level headedness to control and harness his internal rage. Velaina no longer felt fear, only sadness and pity for the families of the men about to die. The assassins deserved no mercy.
Closing the thick oak door of the stable stall behind Velaina, Soron turned his focus towards the coming battle. First, he took out his dagger and whittled the bottom of the pitchfork until it was sharp. The stable tool so handy for moving hay was now a two sided weapon as deadly as he would need against most foes. He stood there waiting with the newly sharpened end of the pitchfork sitting in the loose soil and hay of the stable floors, hiding the deadly pointed addition he had made to the already dangerous tool.
The stable doors slowly opened. Carefully, four men slid into the building. Silently they stalked closer, pulling out their clubs and swords, making no pretenses of being in the stable other than to deliver death. As they approached Soron, they formed a horseshoe around him. The stall door protected his back but he now had attackers on both sides.
“Gentlemen, tis a fine day that brings us here together at this moment in time. If you don’t mind I would like to say a small prayer for those about to leave us for the next world and whatever gods occupy it.” Said Soron in a solemn voice, his head slightly lowered as if in prayer.
The thug to his left gave a grunt of dismissal “you can save the sermon, your highness. Northern prince or not, you are about to die and your body will be thrown to the pigs. No royal burial for you.” The would be assassin smirked as he shifted his sword between his hands.
Another of the men spoke “now Rory, don’t be so hasty. This is a nasty bit of business no matter how you look at it. Having the gods’ mercy might not be a bad thing. Someone is going to die any moment now. Only the number remains in question. Let the prince say a word or two.”
Soron scanned the faces of the other two men; the first seemed to be nodding in agreement with the second man, while the last warrior’s stoic face showed nothing. Soron took the silence as a sign to continue. “Right then, may all the gods witness this. As we stand here today, four souls are going to the beyond. The crime they attempt: murder of a woman and unborn child. May the fate they suffer in the next realm be slower and infinitely more painful than the end that I will bring to their worthless existences today.”
The attackers were surprised, they had thought that the prince would ask for mercy upon himself and his family, not say words to damn them. As they realized the significance of his words and started to react, it was already too late.
As the grunter to his left started to move to attack, Soron flew into action. With his left hand holding the pitchfork, he blocked the swinging sword. As the tines of the pitchfork caught the sword coming in, Soron smoothly, with practiced hand, pulled his dagger out and stepped into the would be murderer. His dagger slid into the man’s belly. The attacker’s eyes bulged as the blade worked its way through his innards. While the man slumped forward dying, Soron reversed his direction, pulling back hard on the pitchfork.
As he lunged backwards, Soron stabbed the second attacker in the throat with the newly sharpened end of the pitchfork. The assassin had not noticed the deadly modification before the wood punctured his throat. Using his momentum Soron spun around towards the stoic attacker, throwing his dagger into the man’s chest. The man looked at the blade in his chest then up at in Soron in disbelief. After throwing his dagger, Soron quickly grabbed the sword out of the hand of the second dying warrior.
The fourth warrior already had his sword speeding through the air towards Soron. Soron was able to raise his sword in time to partially block the attack. His enemy’s sword sliced into his shoulder before his blade rose to counter. Using his superior strength, Soron pushed the attacker back. The man stumbled back, caught off guard by the forceful push. Soron surged forward, bringing down an overhand attack. The off balance mercenary tried to block the attack, but the mighty force continued down into the man’s head despite his attempts to stop it. Pulling the sword out of the assassin’s skull, Soron took a step back and recovered his dagger from the body of the third man. Despite the four dead men at his feet, Soron stood ready, weapons in hand, waiting. Finally, the fifth attacker made himself seen, slowly entering the stable.
The man wore a long grey cloak with a hood; the cloak hid the man’s face and body well. The mysterious man undid his cloak, and let it slide to the ground. Once the cloak was gone, the man’s identity was still unknown, but much could be told from his physical appearance. The well-toned muscles, encased in a honey brown skin, hid behind a veritable map of tattoo’s covering the man’s entire body. Even his face and skull were covered with intricate designs. Soron had seen many sailors with tattoos and had heard of the tribes of island warriors that would celebrate the death of an enemy with an addition marking. The tattooed warrior just stood there, his eyes going over the scene in the stable, looking at the bodies on the ground, Soron himself and the stable stall that he was blocking. Finally the warrior spoke, “the man who hired me said he was sending these men and I would just make sure the job was done. I told him these men were a waste of time. He should have sent for a half dozen of my tribesman. He laughed and said these men had never failed and I should not worry so much.”
Soron was not fooled by the friendly tone of the warrior’s voice. He knew from experience that when a snake is rattling its tail is not when it is its most dangerous. When the noise stops, that is when it attacks. This warrior, like a deadly viper, would soon strike.
Ignoring the warriors attempt at conversation Soron simply prepared himself. He lowered his body slightly, putting the weight of his large lithe body on the balls of his feet, relaxing his hands while keeping his eyes focused on the warrior.
The warrior smiled, this northern prince was no fool. Pulling out his curved sword, he started moving towards the big man. He stepped sideways almost like a dancer, moving rhythmically side to side as he worked his way towards Soron. In an explosion of cat like speed, the tribal warrior lunged at Soron, his blade slicing through the air. Soron’s sword adeptly blocked the attack, while the threat of Soron’s dagger kept the warrior from moving any closer. The men stood there trading parries, a flurry of attacks and counter attacks that displayed the deadly skills of both men.
The tattooed warrior drew first blood, catching Soron with a quick strike that sliced a shallow but long cut across his thigh. Neither man slowed at this successful blow. The tribal assassin continued to press the attack, his scimitar sliced through the air only to find the cold steel of Soron’s blades blocking each attack. The warrior, thinking his victim should be slowing soon, spun around in a pirouette. The risky maneuver brought him alongside the northern prince and should have ended with his scimitar in the large man’s back. Instead, the dancing blade found nothing but air. Soron had countered his maneuver with a spin of his own. His dagger found a home between the warrior’s shoulder blades.
As the assassin dropped to the stable floor Soron slumped against the stable wall, his wounds were superficial, but the loss of blood and physical excursion of battle had exhausted him. Velaina opened the door to the stall and reached out for her husband. Ignoring the bodies on the floor, she grabbed the cloak off the ground and taking Soron’s dagger from him, cut it into pieces to secure his wounds. Silently she worked while her husband regained his breathe. With the bleeding stopped, they cautiously headed home, keeping an eye on the shadows for further danger.
Back in their own home, Velaina cleaned Soron’s wounds and applied a salve. As she carefully worked on the small wounds, they discussed the attack. Velaina had sensed the men’s intentions during the walk. All five attackers had the same goal: The death of her, her husband and their unborn child. She shared this insight with Soron. “Those men were hired to kill the three of us, I could read their emotions. My death was more important to them than yours Soron. They want to prevent the birth of our child. Two attempts on our lives in two days. Someone wants us dead very badly.”
Soron sighed, he had feared as much. Someone had gone to a lot of effort; poison, then a group of assassins with a fifth warrior as a backup in case they failed. Whoever wanted them dead was a dangerous enemy, and since they wanted Velaina dead to prevent the birth of their child, it seemed likely that the root of the attack had to do with the forbidden crossing of bloodlines. The question was whose. His father was a northern king, with many enemies. Her father was a Baltan king, in a land where magic and intrigue were commonplace. The threat could have come from either family. They had hoped living here in Venecia would keep them arm’s length away from the politics and superstitions of their families. That hope died with the attack. “We shall leave in the morning.”
“Where shall we go?” asked Velaina.
Soron looked carefully at his royal wife “East, to the one of the small villages to the south of the Applomean Mountains that doesn’t belong to any kingdom. We shall go and live as commoners for the safety of our child.”
Velaina hugged her husband. To the east they would go. She placed a protective hand across her baby bump.
Chapter one LYING ON THE COOL mossy forest floor, Nathan wondered what the heck just happened. One minute he had been running through the forest chasing his friend Ella, the next minute he was looking up through the trees into the blue sky above. While he sat there trying to regain his senses he noticed how interesting the sky looked from this angle, sprawled out flat on his backside. The delicate white clouds deviously danced through the treetops while the sun wrestled with them, fingers of sunlight trying to push their way into the trees. Nathan would have stayed there a while enjoying the artistic display had not giggles and the shadow of the girl standing above him brought him back to reality.
“You okay?” The girl spoke demurely, as she tried not to giggle. Her concern for his well-being was suspect. He detected a distinct lack of sincerity in her query.
”Ugh, my head hurts, what the heck happened?” Nathan had a sneaking suspicion that he knew what happened but waited for a reply anyway.
“You were running past that big cedar when you tripped over a stick.” Ella was not smiling but Nathan saw a look of mischief written all over her freckled face. The dimples were a dead giveaway despite her best attempts to look contrite.
Nathan, still lying on the ground, tilted his head back and looked behind him to the big cedar in question. Sure enough, a long stick sat at the base of the tree. He was sure the stick had not been there a few moments ago. “Where did that come from? I totally didn’t see that there at all.”
Ella broke into laughter, no longer able to hold a straight face. “Well it may not have been there the whole time. I might have been holding it and accidentally lifted it when you came around the tree.”
Nathan groaned. Her lifting the stick just as he was running by certainly did not sound like an accident. “That is not playing fair, tripping and trying to kill me is not part of the game.”
Ella smiled to herself, getting away from Nathan was getting harder all the time; he was getting bigger and faster. Luckily, she could still outsmart him and was willing to play dirty to win. “Well you always catch me if I don’t cheat. Besides, you are barely bleeding .You are certainly not dying… I swear sometimes you are the biggest wimp ever.” Ella reached down and wiped a small bit of blood off his cut lip. “All better. Now let’s go, we are almost there and I want to pick flowers.” The ‘there’ Ella mentioned was a small meadow hidden within a fortress of thick pines. A gentle flowing creek sliced through the meadow, and at the bottom end of the meadow the creek ran into a small dark pond, great for swimming and fishing. It was their special place.
“Since when do you pick flowers?” asked Nathan. He tried to picture Ella as a demure lady, dressing fancy and picking flowers, but the image didn’t fit at all, Ella was anything but ladylike.
“Oh shut up, I promised Rose I would bring her some flowers. It was the only way to keep her from tagging along,” explained Ella. She didn’t mind bringing her little sister once in a while but sometimes it was nice when it was just the two of them.
Ella grabbed Nathan’s arm and yanked him to his feet. Side by side, they walked through the forest to the waiting meadow. It was a gorgeous sunny day and despite Ella’s commands to get moving they were in no hurry.
While Ella picked through the assortment of wild flowers growing throughout the meadow Nathan carefully tiptoed his way across the top of a mossy log, which had fallen across the creek. Keeping his arms out wide for balance, he carefully walked one foot in front of the other over the slippery moss covered surface.
“If you fall in I will laugh so hard” Ella spoke while she sat down beside the pond, placing the flowers at the water’s edge so the stems stayed wet. She gave Nathan a dirty look that warned him not to make any more comments about the wildflowers. “Hurry up and get to your side of the pond. I am going to kick your butt.” There really was no winner to this game but her competitive nature made everything a contest.
Nathan laughed to himself at Ella’s bold exclamation. As if he thought to himself as he claimed his usual spot, parking himself beside his left over cache of pebbles. They were sitting on opposite ends of the pond playing their customary game of splash, a simple game of throwing rocks at each other’s feet attempting to get the other player wet without the rock hitting the shore, when mid throw Ella froze. Not wanting to make a sudden move, she slowly lowered her hand and spoke to Nathan in a soft deliberate voice. “Nathan turn around. There is a wolf behind you.”
Nathan read the expression on Ella’s now pale face, her voice carrying a tone of concern. This was not one of her normal jokes, which she often tried to play on him; there was a touch of fear in her voice. Slowly he turned and scanned the edge of the forest. Ella was not lying; a big grey wolf was sitting there looking right at him.
Nathan, surprisingly calm, looked back at the large predator. The wolf stopped its advance. For what seemed like forever, the wolf and Nathan just sat there looking at each other. After several minutes, the wolf walked towards Nathan.
Now nervous and starting to get scared, Ella spoke “Nathan...”
Nathan cut her off mid-sentence before she could suggest some plan involving him jumping into the pond and her throwing rocks at the large and potentially dangerous beast. “Shhh, it is okay Ella. He is not going to hurt me.”
Nathan did not know how he sensed it, but he was certain that the wolf posed no threat to him. Even as it continued walking closer and closer, Nathan did not panic. Finally, the beast was right in front of Nathan; so close he could reach out and touch the magnificent beast. The wolf had golden eyes, glossy healthy fur and glorious markings. The beautiful beast was now near enough to Nathan that he could hear the animal breathing. His heart pounded with excitement. Nathan was fascinated by what was happening. The wolf stopped and sniffed at Nathan then studied Nathan’s face. Nathan could tell the wolf was curious about him. He was not sure why, but it was almost seemed like he could understand the wolf, as if he could read the thoughts of the creature. Seconds passed before wolf turned and walked back into the forest, looking back only once, as if it too was unsure of what to make of this meeting.
Once the wolf disappeared back into the forest Nathan turned and looked at Ella. Some of the color had returned to her face. He gave her a confident grin, “see I told you it was going to be okay.”
Ella could not believe what had just occurred. Nathan was not normally that brave, he had just sat there while the wolf came right up to him. “I can’t believe that just happened! Weren’t you even a little scared?” asked Ella.
“No,” he replied before pausing for a moment, that wasn’t totally true he thought to himself. “Well I was scared when you said there was a wolf behind me and your face turned white, but when I looked at the wolf the fear went away… I just knew it was going to be okay.” Nathan’s face showing he was just as bewildered by this as she was.
Nathan and Ella walked back to the village discussing the strange event that had just taken place. ”It was so weird Nathan. Like the two of you were talking to each other. I've never heard of a wolf walking up to a man like that before.”
Nathan agreed that he had never heard of such a thing either. And to himself he admitted that yes, it had kind of felt like the wolf had been talking to him. But that wasn't right either; it wasn't talking to him as much as connecting to him. Strange… strange indeed.