The Falcons Saga, Book 3 (Spoiler Warning)
Blood trickled from Prince Arryk’s nose and into his mouth. A familiar taste. A familiar shame. He ducked a flying fist and doubled over with his arms wrapped around his head. He should have seen it coming, but he had dared hope that his brother had changed. Only this morning Nathryk had arrived at Éndaran for his first visit since becoming the ward of the Leanian king. ‘Hostage,’ that’s what everyone preferred to call it.
All day long, Nathryk had avoided his younger brothers, preferring instead to nap off his journey and play with the hounds in the yard. Six Leanian guards accompanied him wherever he went, even to the middens. Their orange surcoats blazed; their shiny crested helms had not one speck of dust on them. Seeing them had made Arryk feel better. Even Nathryk dared not attack his brothers with those armed men close by.
Their nanny had no sooner tucked the princes into bed and left them to their sweet dreams than Arryk felt his covers flung back. A hand seized him by the arm and another by the hair and dragged him to his feet. Nathryk’s fist pelted him in the face before he could wake enough to know what was happening.
“You think I don’t know?” Nathryk shrieked. “The whole time I’m at Graynor with that fat pig of a king you’re talking about me! I know it. Tell me what you say! Tell me. Tell me!” A fist landed in Arryk’s ribs with each ‘tell me.’ In truth, no one at Éndaran mentioned Prince Nathryk. Maybe in passing whispers, but Arryk wasn’t privy to them. He tried not to think about his older brother at all. “Do you laugh at me? Do you? Tell me!”
The shouting woke Bhodryk. Though only five, he bailed out of bed, nightshirt tangled around his legs, and fell into Nathryk, fists swinging. “Stop it!” He didn’t care that his brother was the Crown Prince. He hit him anyway, though his blows were as effective as a snowflake trying to quench a bonfire.
Nathryk shoved Bhodryk aside and reared back a leg, but Arryk caught him by the ankle before the kick landed in Bhodryk’s ribs. Nathryk tumbled to his knees, gasped and rolled over to inspect patches of skin missing from each shin. He grit his teeth and lunged into Arryk. The breath burst from his lungs and his tummy cramped up. He rolled into a ball, trying to breathe while Nathryk’s toes hammered him, ribs, thighs, ribs, thighs. “What does Grandmother say about me? She’s my grandmother! You don’t belong here. What does she say?”
“Highness!” A quick glimpse showed Nanny standing on the threshold with a lamp. Her mouth hung wide open. Her empty hand reached toward one prince, then another.
The barrage lifted. Arryk dragged himself onto his knees, wiped the blood onto his sleeve. Nanny had both arms around Nathryk’s chest, dragging him back. She was young and strong, and though he kicked, her grip held tight.
“He made me fall,” Nathryk cried. “Let me go, cunt! I’ll have your head. You can’t do this to me.”
“Calm down, Highness,” Nanny pleaded. “What would your grandmother say?”
Nathryk stopped flailing. When Nanny set him on his feet, he rounded on her. “Don’t tell her. If you tell her I’ll kill you in your sleep. You think I’m lying? Who the hell are you anyway? Don’t you know anything? Touch me again and you die.”
Nanny’s face paled to the color of her nightgown.
Nathryk glanced at his brothers, snorted contemptuously. “I’m too old for the fucking nursery. Go set me up a room of my own.”
“A-after you, Highness.” Scared as she was, she refused to leave Nathryk alone with his brothers. For that, Arryk adored her. He could never be so brave.
As soon as they left, Arryk ran to the basin on the vanity and threw up. All over again. It was the same nightmare all over again. He’d been so grateful when Father sent Nathryk away from Brynduvh. The terror had stopped. “Only a fortnight,” he told himself. “He’ll be here only a fortnight.” Two weeks in the fall, two in the spring, that’s all the treaties allowed for Fiera’s Crown Prince to step foot on his own soil until he was eighteen. Arryk could survive that. He just had to duck his head and keep quiet.
How to convince Bhodryk to do the same? The older Bhodryk got, the more fiery and stubborn he became. How long could Arryk protect him from Nathryk’s blows?
He had promised his father. “Keep him safe,” Father said the last time Arryk saw him. They were fleeing Brynduvh because the Aralorris were coming, but Father stayed behind. He tried to look brave, but Arryk could tell he was scared. And sad.
Nanny returned a short time later carrying her little box of remedies, necessary accoutrements when raising two rambunctious boys. She cleaned the dried blood from Arryk’s face. It had rolled into his ear and his hair. He liked her better than all the other nannies he’d had. Nathryk had run most of them off, or Father had found their ability to keep the peace between his sons lacking and dismissed them. “I don’t think it’s broken,” she said, pressing a cool damp cloth to his nose. “But you might have a black eye in the morning. What was it about?”
Her eyebrows rose.
“Really! I told you what he’s like, but you didn’t believe me, did you? You didn’t do anything and he said he’d kill you. He hates everybody.”
She swallowed hard and dug around in her box. After a long stiff silence she said, “I believe you now. Here, drink this, then lie down.” Arryk choked down a spoonful of bitter silverthorn solution, then Nanny laid a compress of witch hazel and silverthorn powder on his bruised ribs. “Bhodryk, are you hurt anywhere?”
He rocked in Nanny’s chair so hard that his head bounced against the backrest. It felt like flying, he always said. The rocking paused, and Bhodryk shook his head.
“Then into bed with you.” She tucked them both in again, then made herself a pallet on the floor between them. Arryk wanted to hug her in gratitude. She finally understood that there really were monsters in the nursery.
* * *
The next day, Eritha, Lady Éndaran decreed that the three princes in her care were to spend their energy out of doors before they drove her to madness. She was not a soft-spoken lady, nor was she known for her gentleness or tenderness. She took enjoyment in ordering the princes to sit up straight, mind their forks and napkins, study harder but don’t read so much that their eyes suffered. Do this, do that, and nary a word of praise. Bhodryk shrugged her off, but Arryk was terrified of her. He was glad she refused to join the picnic. He could eat his cold chicken however he liked.
Picnics were a regular occurrence at Éndaran, and one of Arryk’s joys. The Great Fire Sea stretched to the western horizon; endless poppy-strewn hills and neatly tended vineyards rolled away south. Atop the cliffs the sky was so close that he felt he could jump up and catch it. Having spent nearly all of his life inside the palace at Brynduvh, open spaces like these made Arryk feel like a falcon on the wing.
But not today. Today, dread crouched heavily on his shoulders. It didn’t let him take flight.
His nose throbbed whenever he forgot about the bruises and raised a hand to itch it. And Nanny was right. When he woke up this morning, he found a purple half-moon under his left eye. He cheek was so swollen that he could see it without straining. At breakfast, Lady Eritha asked him what happened. When her son, Lord Raed arrived at table, he asked the same thing. So did his son and daughter. Arryk told them, “Sword practice.” Not one of them was fooled, however. Though his lie sounded more convincing each time he told it, their glances slid toward Nathryk.
A fortnight. They only had to put up with Nathryk for a fortnight. And if possible, avoid him altogether. That’s what Lady Eritha did. She shut herself in her chambers, descending for mealtimes only for decency’s sake, and she spared not one word for her own grandson.
Arryk darted ahead of Nanny and the armed guards, but Nathryk’s complaints pursued him loud and clear. “Princes don’t walk! How far must we go? We should’ve brought horses. If Captain Bartran had come, he would’ve brought the hounds. A hunt is better than sitting around staring at each other while we eat cold food.”
Nathryk was going to ruin the day yet. Arryk was sure of it. But he kept his mouth shut. He wasn’t in the mood for another bloody nose.
Three hundred feet below the cliffs, the ocean thundered. Clouds of gulls and shullas wheeled, screaming. Soon, they dampened Nathryk’s grumbling. Arryk kept running, hopping from one stone to the next, arms out as if they were wings. The bruises on his thighs throbbed with each step, but falcons ignored pain. The Tempest Peninsula curved ahead, far out to sea, and on the edge of sight, the lighthouse on Tempest Rock glinted like the hope for happiness. If he thought he could get away with it, Arryk would keep running until he reached the lighthouse. Nathryk wouldn’t follow him that far, not without a horse to carry him.
He wished his brother could spend his fortnight at Brynduvh instead. Arryk hadn’t understood why Nathryk had to come to Éndaran until Rance and Istra explained to him. It was part of the deal with Aralorr and Leania, in exchange for peace. As hostage, Nathryk ensured that Fiera’s armies stayed on their side of the River Bryna. Brynduvh was off limits because the royal seat was well-fortified, and the Princess Regent might decide to sequester her nephew there rather than give him back into King Bano’en’s custody.
The six Leanian guards followed the picnickers closely. Their silver helms shone like beacons in the morning sun.
“Wait for me!” cried Bhodryk.
Arryk groaned but slowed down so his little brother could catch up. He reached out a hand, but Bhodryk raced past, aiming straight for the cliff’s edge, green eyes raised toward the wheeling birds. “Stop!” Arryk cried, catching Bhodryk’s sleeve and hauling him back. “Dummy, you have to look where you’re going.”
Bhodryk scowled as if caution were worse than useless and tugged his arm free. “I want to see!” Last time, Istra had let them crawl on their bellies until they could see over the cliff’s edge where they watched the shullas diving for fish.
But not this time. “Highnesses, come away from the cliff!” she called, beckoning sharply. A dignified fourteen, Istra hung back with Nanny and the guards, carrying the basket of food. She was a full-fledged squire and wore riding leathers and a dagger belt. In Arryk’s opinion, the dagger didn’t suit her at all. She wasn’t like Éndaran’s other female soldiers. Her bones were fine and her hair was long and silk-shined and golden. Only her hands proved that the dagger wasn’t for show. Calluses lined her fingers; Arryk noticed that last week when Lady Eritha paired them up for dancing lessons in the parlor. “Every prince must master the Imperial,” she claimed. Bhodryk had giggled behind a pillow. Arryk blushed the entire time, even though Istra had been all business and polite instruction. He had danced with his Aunt Ki’eva once, with all the court watching; he hadn’t felt embarrassed then, but quite smug. What was the difference?
Arryk blushed again as Istra hurried toward them with the picnic basket bouncing against her leg. Bhodryk crossed his arms and pouted. “Take my hand,” Istra insisted. “We’re almost there.” The grassy hill, crowned with wind-lashed trees, rose ahead.
The party was catching up, so close now that Arryk saw his older brother’s mouth tighten. Nathryk hurried toward his brothers, shoved Istra aside, and said, “You don’t have to do what my cousin says, Bhodryk. She’s not the bloody regent.”
Arryk grabbed Bhodryk’s hand and tried to whisk him back into Nanny’s shadow, but Nathryk’s fingers clenched down on his shoulder. Arryk whirled, fists doubled, but Nathryk didn’t dare strike with so many watching. He drew back as if Arryk was the one who posed the threat. “What’s wrong with you? Let him go. He can do what he wants.”
“See?” Bhodryk declared, jerking his hand free.
“You want to see the birds?” Nathryk asked.
Bhodryk nodded exuberantly and pointed farther along the cliffs. “They have a nest over there. I’ll show you.”
“No!” Arryk cried, not liking the grin that turned the corner of Nathryk’s mouth. “We should stay here with the others.”
Nanny caught up. “I wish you would, Highness,” she told Bhodryk in her firmest voice. “Let’s eat something.”
Nathryk ignored her as if she were less than a puff of wind. “You’re pathetic, Arryk. If you were Father’s heir, the Aralorris wouldn’t think twice about invading again.” He took Bhodryk’s hand with uncustomary gentleness. “Show me the nest.” Bhodryk sprang away. “And you’re not invited, coward,” Nathryk called over his shoulder. “Stay here with the women.”
Arryk’s face heated. He wanted to crumple into a heap and die when he saw that Istra had heard and was looking at him. She lowered her eyes and put on a sympathetic smile. “Come, Highness. Will you carry the basket? It’s getting awfully heavy.” She pressed at what appeared to be a stitch in her side, even though the walk from the castle had been slow and tedious.
Her effort failed to lift his spirits, but he took the basket anyway. It was heavy; he had to carry it with both hands up the hill. The hill felt steeper than usual. Istra saw him struggling and helped him carry half the weight, which humiliated him the more. A coward and a weakling.
Nanny climbed the hill last, reluctant to let Nathryk and Bhodryk go off by themselves. True, the Leanian guards followed their charge, but would they intercede fast enough to prevent Bhodryk a black eye? Didn’t make sense, Nathryk’s sudden wish to accommodate the baby brother he’d always despised. Arryk suspected that Nathryk meant it as another blow in the face. One no one else would notice.
“You have a birthday in a couple of weeks, don’t you?” asked Istra.
If she was trying to distract him, it wasn’t working. Arryk kept an eye on his brothers.
“How old will you be?”
“Not feeling talkative today?”
“No.” Setting the basket down under the twisted trees, he watched Bhodryk drop onto his belly as Istra had shown him. He squirmed toward the cliffs, infantry-style, and pointed over the edge. Nathryk walked right up to the cliffs, bold as you please, and peered down at the nests. “I hope Nathryk is gone by then,” Arryk added. “Or he’ll ruin it, like he ruins everything.”
Istra had no comment for that. Very diplomatic of her. She helped Nanny fling out a quilted blanket. “Grandmother hopes to get you something nice. Thought about what gifts you want?”
“My father back,” he muttered into the wind. For a couple of weeks after fleeing Brynduvh, he kept watching the gates for his father’s arrival. No one had the courage or courtesy to tell him the truth. Then everyone started calling Aunt Ki’eva the Princess Regent. In a cloud of urgency and anger, she had departed the safety of Éndaran to attend the peace talks. Arryk remembered sitting in Lady Eritha’s dark moldy library, hunched over a math lesson when the certainty overcame him. Istra sat across the table, tutoring him while Master Graidyn, in solemn black robes, helped Bhodryk learn to spell in a sunny corner. The numbers on Arryk’s slate blurred under sudden tears and he tried to swallow his sorrow, afraid of what the Éndaran household might think of a sobbing prince. Istra saw anyway and asked him what was wrong. “He’s dead, isn’t he? The Aralorris killed him.” Istra glanced at Master Graidyn, but the tutor was absorbed with his younger pupil. When she turned back, tears clouded her own eyes. She nodded. Arryk was grateful for the honesty, even while he sobbed, math lessons spoiled for the day.
Salt-scented wind battered the hilltop, swirling Nanny’s skirts and tangling the curls about Istra’s scarred face. After an awkward silence, she suggested, “You’re ready for your own pony, don’t you think?”
“Sure.” He sat down on the blanket to keep the gusts from whipping it away, and hugged his knees close to his chest. Nanny pulled jars of butter, fruit, and custard from the wicker basket, along with smoked chicken wrapped in wax paper.
“My father said he would take you on as squire, too, if you’re interested.” Istra unsheathed her dagger and grabbed the loaf of bread. “That’s a nice present, eh?”
Lord Raed frightened Arryk as much as Lady Eritha did. The man had eyes of steel, and he never smiled.
“Da refused to train Nathryk,” Istra went on, encouraging him with a subtle wink. “He must think better of you. I’d take the chance, if I were you.”
“I’ll think about it,” Arryk said.
After Nathryk became bored with the shulla nest, he continued along the cliff-side, so close to the edge that Arryk felt his heart in his throat just watching. Bhodryk danced after him, trying to catch the wheeling birds, his golden head shining. His laughter carried far and clear on the gusts.
“Do you want butter on your bread, Highness?” asked Nanny.
Arryk turned his attention from the cliffs and took the thick slice she held out for him.
“Getting left behind with us isn’t so bad, is it?” she asked, smiling.
Arryk wanted to tell her, “It’s worse than bad. Everyone thinks I’m a coward now,” but he kept it to himself. Too ashamed to eat, he stuck a finger in the butter and swiped an M in it, like a shulla flying.
Nanny didn’t scold him. If princes wanted to draw in their food, who was she to correct them? “If you want, I’ll finish the story about the kidnapped Valroi princes.”
“No, Bhodryk will want to hear.”
Istra set a heavy-bottomed mug beside him. Purple juice, pink bubbles.
“I don’t like grape juice,” he said, nose wrinkled.
Istra laughed. “That’s appropriate in a land known for its vineyards.” She snuck a furtive glance at Nanny, and when she wasn’t looking, Istra switched her own mug with Arryk’s. “Sweetberry cordial,” she whispered. “But don’t tell your brothers.”
Arryk smiled, feeling better, and took a big bite of his bread and butter. Istra contented herself with a cold chicken leg and idly tucked a windblown strand of hair behind her ear, baring the shiny pink scar that slashed across her forehead. It split her left eyebrow in two. Another crossed the bridge of her nose. He’d noticed them the moment they met, but never asked about them. She caught him staring, and a reflexive hand darted to her face.
“I didn’t think you’d been to battle,” he said, broaching the subject as politely as he knew how. “Did you fight in the war?”
She shook her head. Eyes rabbit-like, she glanced toward the cliffs and the shrinking figures walking there. “It was my fault. I lost my temper.”
“Nathryk did that to you?” Arryk scrambled to his knees, outraged but not surprised. “Oh, I hate him!” As soon as he said it, he clamped his teeth on his bottom lip. If Nathryk heard him, he’d deal Arryk more than a bloody nose.
Istra offered a tentative smile. “One doesn’t cross royalty.”
“I wouldn’t do that to you!” No, because I’m too cowardly to lift a finger against so much as a fly, he accused himself. He caught the flies trapped in the windows, examined their shiny blue-black carapaces and translucent wings, then let them go. Finishing his bread with a lump in his throat, he resolved to smash the next fly he found and not feel sorry about it.
Voice flat and soft, Istra admitted, “It was bad enough that I’d been out of bed for only a couple of weeks when you came to live here.” She pressed at her side again. Earlier, when she asked him to help with the basket, she hadn’t been faking the pain after all.
Nanny’s mouth opened a fraction, but she refrained from voicing her concern. She laid down the butter knife instead and turned her attention to the boys walking along the cliffs.
“Broken ribs can lead to pneumonia because you can’t breathe right,” Istra went on. “That’s what my brother died of, so Da and Grandmother wouldn’t let me do a thing all spring. It was so boring. No sword fighting or archery or riding or anything. Doctors won’t let me resume training until winter. I’ll be completely out of condition. We can start together, Highness! Would you like that? Captain Bartran barks louder than he bites, and Da? Well, he squired both my brothers and has plenty of war stories to tell you about. He fought at Stonebrydge, you know.”
When he said nothing, she added, “In any case, it will make your brother jealous. And you’ll learn all kinds of ways to defend yourself.”
Yes, Arryk liked that idea. Fistfights were one thing, but what frightened him most was the knowledge that one day Nathryk would carry a sword — and command thousands. “Is it true what I’ve heard? Is it his fault we lost the war?”
Istra and Nanny exchanged stone-faced glances. Arryk had heard Rance and Lord Raed talking. Apparently, Nathryk had run away from Éndaran, snuck aboard a ship and gotten himself captured by Leanians. The enemy had presented him on the battlefield, but the White Falcon had refused to surrender the fight in order to reclaim his son. Arryk also heard that Father had been so upset that he’d fled the field, and that’s when the enemy won. Talk of an avedra cropped up in most of the rumors, too, but Arryk couldn’t figure out where that detail fit in.
“I don’t think wars are won or lost by one person alone, Highness,” Istra answered. Her fingers brushed the back of his hand. “And we must never speak of this again. Do you understand?”
Only too well. Arryk doubted Nathryk would be the kind of king who ignored rumors that his foolishness had led to Fiera’s greatest shame.
His brothers had drifted around a deep curve in the fluted cliff. The shullas shrieked at the intruders, veered in great circles, then dived close to scare them away. “I wish they would come back and eat.” The Leanian guards had fallen back a bit, unwilling or unable to keep up with two tireless boys. Arryk climbed to his feet. “I should’ve gone with them.”
“Eat up, Highness,” said Nanny, more snappish than usual, and started down the hill to fetch them.
Istra sighed. “You won’t be able to relax until they’re back, will you? All right, then. Let’s go with her.” Descending the hill side by side, Istra tried talking of small things like the book she’d finished reading (she had discovered he liked books), or her brother’s new wolfhound puppy, or how Arryk liked Master Graidyn as a tutor. But Arryk’s attention belonged to the orange coats in the distance and his brother’s golden head shining almost as brightly as the guards’ helmets. Fear clawed at his belly worse than vinegar. He broke into a trot and passed Nanny.
“Highness, slow down,” Istra called.
He ran faster, trying to keep his eyes on Bhodryk while hopping stones and avoiding a broken ankle. Istra caught up to him, holding her side, and didn’t try to stop him. She watched the figures ahead, too. “Bhodryk!” he called, but the wind whipped his voice away in the other direction.
“The guards are keeping watch,” Istra said, short of breath now. “There’s no need–“
He called for Bhodryk again. Whether or not he heard, this time he raised a skinny arm to wave and started back along the cliffs. For an instant, Arryk heard Bhodryk’s laughter swirling among the cries of the gulls. Then he was falling.
Bhodryk screamed like the birds, plummeting toward the sea.
No!” Istra cried and her long legs carried her ahead. The Leanian guards ran too, boot heels kicking high.
Bhodryk collided with a jutting rock, and the screaming stopped. Limp as a rag doll, he tumbled in a cartwheel, falling, falling, then vanished in an explosion of sea-spray.
Arryk had never run so fast, or so slow. When he caught up, the guards tried to hold him back, but he squirmed free of grasping hands and dropped to his belly at the edge of the world. Far below, Bhodryk lay on a ledge of black rock. Waves exploded in white foam, and the tide pulled at his little body so that he seemed to move. “Get up!” Arryk screamed, but Bhodryk didn’t get up.
“Highness,” he heard. A guard’s strong hand gripped his shoulder and tried to pull him away.
Arryk kicked at the man until he left him alone, and all the while he heard his own voice wailing. He couldn’t make it stop. He was crying and screaming and he couldn’t stop and Bhodryk didn’t get up.
A pair of skinny arms latched onto him and dragged him back from the edge. Istra’s yellow hair blew into his face. “What happened?” she demanded.
The guards looked at each other, none wanting to be the first to speak, then one by one, their gaze settled on Nathryk. When he felt them staring he stopped looking at his brother’s broken body and turned to face them. His black eyes glared them down, and that glare promised poison, arson, and skulls broken in the night.
“Prince Bhodryk was running,” one of the Leanians answered. “He tripped … that’s all.”
Nathryk broke the stare and exhaled an exaggerated sigh of sorrow. “One of you dolts better decide how you’re going to get his body back. What will you tell my aunt? The regent will hang your heads on pikes. But don’t worry. If you take me out hunting tomorrow, I’ll lie for you. No one will ever know that you stood by while my little brother fell.”
Arryk roared, voice raw in his throat, and he struggled against Istra’s grip. He would shove Nathryk over the edge! That would show him. But Istra held him close and whispered, “Shh, shh,” into his ear until he stopped fighting. Through the flaxen cloud of her blowing hair, he saw Nathryk gazing at the body. A grin ghosted across his lips.
* * * * *
Read the rest at Amazon.
copyright 2013 Court Ellyn
This text may not be reproduced or copied in any form without the written permission of the author.