Gleam of Crown: Chapter One
*Warning* This selection contains spoilers from previous books in the trilogy.
Aiya pulled her cap down tighter around her ears. The first part of their journey had been warm, with abundant sunlight warming their backs as she and Dan rode north. But as the forests thickened around them, the air's bitter chill reminded her of how late in the year it was.
It felt good to be on a horse again, and Aiya was pleased the skill had come back to her so quickly. The Rahmish saddle was too large, but that was to be expected when using a horse meant for a soldier. At least the animal was disciplined and intelligent, and Aiya soon felt at ease with her.
She did not feel at ease with Dan. He’d been very quiet since they left the army camp. Aiya watched him for signs of pain, wondering if he would tell her if he had trouble. He hadn’t fully recovered from the wound that had cost him his arm, sustained when he fought to save Endvar from the invading Ardanians. This journey to the northern village of Haldin was as much to give him a distraction as it was to deliver an important message to Captain Falbrook.
Coming out of one forest, there was a break in the trees as they headed down a small rise toward another.
"Is all the rest of the country like this?" Aiya asked.
Dan glanced up, blinking as if just remembering she was there. The sun glinted off his fair hair the color of summer grass. He looked across the valley at the forested hills that piled one on top of another in the distance. Against the far reaches of the horizon were large peaks that marked the mountains of Branvik.
"It will be more of this the rest of our journey. Typical for the north."
"But the rest of Rahm is not so…” Aiya searched for a word to describe the overwhelming sense of closeness she felt under the thick forest canopy.
"Wild," Aiya decided. "As if we’re intruders whose presence is barely tolerated. I feel as if the very air here is full of ancient secrets that will outlive us all."
Dan shot her a look. "I don't know why you lived in Endvar so long and never ventured out to see the rest of the country. It’s not all like this. In the areas surrounding Albon there are wide valleys good for farming that stretch all the way to the coast."
"And the coast? Tell me about it. I should like to see the ocean someday." She continued to keep Dan talking for some time, but as the daylight waned, his mood grew sullen.
When they stopped to make camp, Aiya busied herself gathering wood for a fire while keeping an eye on Dan to see how he managed his horse with one arm. He loosened the girth and lifted the saddle, but it was a laborious process, and some of the saddlebags slid to the ground.
Aiya hurried to help him, but as she bent to pick them up, he growled at her.
"Don't! I can manage."
Aiya stopped, startled by his sharp tone. But she obeyed, returning to the kindling and tinder she had gathered. It took all her attention to coax a small flame using a stone and flint, and she didn't realize until she finished that Dan was watching.
Her own smile of satisfaction died when she saw his scowl.
Without a word, Dan moved away into the darkening forest. He started chopping small branches one-handed with a hatchet, the motion fierce and impatient. Aiya sat back on her heels and watched. If this was what he needed to work out his frustration, so be it. All his racket would likely frighten away any bears or wild things in the area, so that was good, wasn't it?
Still, she was troubled by his agitation and felt at a loss to know what to say.
Dan returned to camp carrying a load of evergreen branches and arranged them in strips over a fallen log. He's making a shelter, Aiya realized. She moved to help, then thought better of it and let him finish on his own. When he was done, he stood back and admired his work with a gleam in his eye. One side was open to the fire, but the rest was enclosed by thick branches.
"How brilliant! Now we shouldn't freeze tonight," Aiya said, delighted.
Dan just grunted wordlessly.
Aiya sighed, reaching for her saddlebag to see what the cooks at the army camp had packed for them to eat.
She sat at the fire, chewing on the stringy meat that had been overly peppered, and hummed idly. The horses snuffled as they grazed nearby, a soothing sound against the popping of the fire. She felt a sense of adventure that the evening chill couldn't dampen.
Dan had been quiet for so long that she almost forgot about him.
"What is that tune?"
Aiya stopped and looked up, realizing what she'd been humming. "It's an old Khouri song. A lullaby or nursery tale."
Dan frowned. "I've heard it before, I think. It seems…familiar somehow."
"Hmm. Maybe you heard it at one of those festivals you went to in your youth. I'm sure you must have seen people from many countries in your travels." Aiya didn’t say that it was one of the tunes she sang the night he lost his arm. They hadn’t spoken of that night, and she didn’t know what he remembered, delirious as he’d been with pain and medicine. But she couldn’t bring herself to sing again.
After a time, Dan stood and wandered into the forest. Aiya let him go, wishing she knew how to make him stay. He hadn’t returned by the time she curled up in her bedroll under the shelter and went to sleep.
Dan's mood did not improve with the daylight, and Aiya's worsened. She couldn't remember a time when she’d been so cold. She’d spent much of the night in a stage somewhere between sleeping and wakefulness where she was poignantly aware of how much she was shivering. But the shelter had helped, or so it seemed. The open areas of the forest had a coating of glittering ice, but under Dan's ceiling of branches the ground was free of frost.
Saddling his horse proved to be harder than unsaddling it the previous night had been. Dan struggled with the girth for some time until Aiya came and gently intervened, taking the big leather strap from him and holding one end in place while he pulled it tight.
She tried to catch his eye and smile, but he resisted looking at her.
"Dan," she said quietly, holding out her hands to him. "You have another pair of hands anytime you need them. "
Dan looked down at her outstretched hands. "I don't want your pity," he said tersely and stalked away.
Aiya stiffened. "Very well,” she called after him. “I will stop pitying you when you stop pitying yourself.”
"I don't pity myself!”
"Oh yes, you do. You've been moping since we left the army camp, and every day you sink further into despair.”
He glared at her. "Well, forgive me if I’m trying to adjust to my new life. It’s a little more difficult with only one arm.”
"Adjusting? Is that what you call it?” Aiya crossed her arms in irritation. “This is not adjusting. This is pining for what you once had and being angry at those who care for you. I don't pity you, Dan, but I do want to help. If you don't let me, if you insist on wallowing in your misery alone, then it will take you a very long time to adjust to your new life. And quite frankly, we just don't have that kind of time."
Dan looked Aiya over, and his mouth turned up in a sad smile. "I suppose you think I should be grateful to have you with me, helping with those things I can’t manage alone.”
"I don't want your gratitude," Aiya replied, picking up her own saddlebags and hoisting them over her shoulder, “but I'll take a smile now and then."
Dan moved to help her with her own saddle. Aiya let him, feeling a tenuous truce of sorts. His mood didn't improve, exactly, but at least he didn't snap at her again.
They passed through a village that day where Aiya had hoped to find a hot meal, but Dan squirmed under the villagers' stares and pushed onward. In truth, more of the stares were for her than his missing limb. Aiya guessed that most of them had never seen a Khouri woman before. It was a strange sensation. She hadn’t felt so foreign since her early days as a refugee in Endvar when she and Imar had struggled with the language and customs of the Rahmish people.
As evening approached, however, Aiya insisted that they ask a farmer for shelter in his barn. The wind was picking up, and she cringed at the idea of spending another night exposed to the weather.
The barn was little more than a shack, but it was warm. After a coin from Dan, the farmer brought them a hot stew made with some unidentifiable meat. Dan pronounced it as rabbit, but Aiya suspected that was only for her benefit. It was easier to imagine eating one of them than a bushy-tailed squirrel or fox.
Aiya reclined against a haystack and ate the bland mixture of vegetables swimming in a thin broth, trying to ignore the sharp smell of cow manure from the stall on the other side of the wall. The stew was hot, and her empty belly welcomed it.
Dan settled across the room on a burlap sack stuffed with grain. The gloom that had become his constant companion hung low over him, worsening with twilight.
Aiya welcomed a little distance, as she’d had little enough privacy in recent days. She leaned back and let her thoughts drift to the open rafters above, hung with thick cobwebs that seemed decades old.
She didn’t realize Dan was watching her until he asked, "What are you smiling about?"
Heat warmed her face. "It’s nothing.”
“Please. I could use some amusement.”
“If I tell you, you will be disappointed in me. I will no longer be the fair lily you imagine me to be."
He grunted and went silent. She'd meant it tenderly—remembering how he’d once described her—but realized he might think she was mocking him. Everything seemed to settle on him the wrong way these days. There was nothing for it but to set aside her pride and give him something else to think about besides his wretched future. Even if his opinion of her suffered at the telling.
"There was once a pair of thieves," Aiya began. "A young man who was reckless and alive with adventure, and a young woman who was carried away by the aura of excitement that surrounded him. They made a good pair. She grew up with the craft; it was a family business and she learned young. The young man was recruited by her father and sometimes ignored the rules that governed the family. This also attracted the young woman, as she wished for freedom from the tight hierarchy that always placed her father and his family subservient to her uncle. Any glory they earned was chipped away to raise her uncle's status."
This was not what she’d intended to share. She was in danger of becoming too introspective.
Aiya cleared her throat and continued, “As I said, they were a good team. One night they took a small item from a visiting dignitary at the royal palace itself. A bauble, really, it seemed. But her uncle wanted it, and that was that. Unfortunately, the young thieves didn’t get away quickly enough and found themselves hiding in the rafters of Prince Lahri's stables. Waiting for the guards to weary of the chase and the palace grounds to quiet with the night, they each clung to a narrow beam in perfect stillness, trying not to disturb the beautiful beasts in the stalls beneath them.
"The young woman's heart raced with the fearful anticipation of discovery, but the young man was easily distracted and soon his mind wandered to other things. The danger didn't seem so great, and after a time, he fell asleep, lost his hold on the beam, and fell."
Dan snorted in quiet humor.
"The young woman's heart nearly leaped out of her throat as she saw him fall. As fate would have it, he landed right on the back of a beautiful mare the color of sun-baked sand. And so—whether it was instinct or dreaming, the young woman couldn’t tell—he decided to ride the mare to freedom, making of her an even bigger prize than the small ruby pendant. The stable boys wasted precious time trying to stop him, so by the time they drew the attention of the guards, the young couple had burst free of the stables, jumped the low fence, and were on their way to an elder where they were married that very night while sitting upon one of the prince's favorite steeds."
A smile tugged at the corners of Dan’s mouth. "And what happened to the young woman after that? Surely that was not the end of her story."
"Ah, but a wedding is always the best place to end a story, don't you think?" Aiya smiled. "The end of one great adventure and the beginning of another, full of promise and a future yet unwritten."
Dan leaned forward. "Then you must share how she became an outcast in a foreign land. What happened to the impetuous young man?"
Aiya’s smile faded. "He died. He made the wrong enemies and got himself killed. The young woman lost everything, so she fled. Left her home and family and all that was familiar to come to a strange place where the men were hairy and the women were loud and bossy, speaking in a foreign tongue so coarse to her ears that she was certain her mouth could never shape the sounds." Aiya marveled at the memory of herself all those years ago. It seemed like another life.
Dan was quiet for a moment. "I’ve been unfair to you," he said at last. "I thought you couldn’t understand my pain, the loss of my old life—that you couldn't know what I suffer. I see now that wasn't fair. Forgive me."
Aiya was taken aback, and she felt a warmth in her chest at his words. "There’s nothing to forgive, Dan. You’re a fighter and I admire you for it. When I came to your country, I thought I was starting over. But I didn't start over. I retreated into myself, keeping life at a distance out of fear. For years I did not own my life, my grief did. But what I see in you is a strength that says you will not give up without a fight, and I’m glad to have you by my side."
Dan grunted, and the deepening shadows made it difficult to see his expression. But after a few moments, Aiya heard a soft sigh. Whether it was a sigh of satisfaction or mourning, she couldn't say.
Savor the heart-pounding finale of the Wallkeeper trilogy today!