The Garden and the Inn
"You speak proud words, sir elf," said Gideone, "and you need to be taught a lesson."
"I am not the arrogant one," replied the elf as he drew his sword. "Nevertheless, I accept your challenge."
Eagle sat upon a marble bench in the garden of Provenna's palace and gazed toward the east where she could just catch sight of the towers and spires of the city rising above the walls of the palace. Behind her the sun was sinking in the sky. The evening was cool but not cold, which was common in the late days of winter and the early days of spring. Her face bore a far-off, wistful look as she stared into the dusky sky, but even in that moment of solitude, when she kept her thoughts and feelings least guarded, it was difficult to tell what truly went on behind her large, gray eyes.
She heard a rustling in the leaves behind her and turned to find herself facing Tnaka.
"Your Majesty," she said as she rose and curtsied. She did not see the look of pain that flashed across his face at her words.
"Hello, Eagle," he murmured, taking her hand in his. "You look beautiful this evening."
"Thank you, Lord."
After a slight pause she asked, "To what do I owe the honor of your company?"
Tnaka sat down upon the bench and pulled her down beside him. "Eagle, you’re my wife, yet you act as though I must have some great, underlying reason to come and talk to you. Perhaps I simply want to be with you."
Eagle cocked her head slightly. "I suppose you are right, but it certainly helps the conversation along if you have a reason for coming to see me."
Tnaka laughed and leaned back against a tree that stood behind the bench. "Are you purposely being difficult?"
She did not answer. With a sigh, Tnaka turned his gaze to the same sky Eagle herself had been looking at moments before.
"'Tis a beautiful picture," he said presently. Turning to his wife he continued, "Tell me, what is it you think of when you sit out here and stare up at the sky?"
"Many things, Lord, though nothing easily put into words."
"Oh, I believe not that," he said, sitting up. "Certes some of what you think can be spoken."
She turned her face to the heavens and surveyed it a moment before speaking. "'Tis a beautiful sight. The stars are pale and the clouds beautiful. The sky is very wide open....'Twould be a wonderful place to ride an eagle, and I’m certain Ruffian would love it beyond measure." During her days in the palace of her father, Ruffian had been the eagle she had ridden and her closest companion.
She fixed her serious gray eyes on Tnaka and said, "Now tell me what you think."
"I think you are beautiful," he answered.
She looked away.
"Tell me," said Tnaka, his voice uncertain, yet hopeful, "do you think of him often?"
She looked at him sharply. "Think of who, Lord?"
She pulled away from him. "Are you accusing me of harboring unfaithful thoughts?"
"No." He answered quickly and somewhat more sharply than he meant to. "I simply wanted to know."
"Well, Your Majesty, now that you’ve spoken of him, of course my mind is turned to him, but when left to myself if I think of him at all 'tis only a passing thought and not in the light you would construe it."
He gave a wan smile. "Do you truly mean that?"
"Joretham forbids us to lie."
He looked at her intently. The same uncertainty and hopefulness which had been in his voice was now in his gaze. "Do you love me?"
She was taken aback by the question, but she answered. "You’re my husband."
"It’s possible to be married to someone and yet not love them. Do you love me?"
She bit her lip. "Is love not an action? And am I not your queen, your wife, your lover, and the mother of your child?"
His gaze fell.
"'Twas a foolish question," he said as he rose, "and one I shouldn’t have asked." He looked around him. "The hour grows late. Do you wish to return with me to the palace?"
"I would rather stay here for a while longer,” she answered quietly, “but if Your Majesty commands me..."
"No, stay as long as you wish. It matters not to me." He took her hand in his and, bowing, held it to his lips.
"Good night, Eagle."
"Good night, Lord.”
He turned quickly and walked away. Eagle watched him depart. When he had disappeared from sight she turned once more to the darkening eastern sky. She held herself tightly and rocked back and forth. She had lied to her husband. Ever since Orion had come asking her for aid, her thoughts had turned often toward Gideone, and right then she wanted more than anything in Lairannare to know where he was and how he fared.
* * *
Gideone gave a fierce cry and sent a chair crashing down on the head of one of his attackers. As he looked at the fracas all around him he decided that the Inn of the Wild Boar had been aptly named. He, Stavros, Vayan, and Phautina had reached the town of Jwassax a mere two hours earlier. Considering that the Inn of the Wild Boar was the only place of public lodging in the vicinity, they were forced to lodge there; Abiel and his magicians had had no trouble in finding them. As a result, the whole of the common room was now in an uproar. Every one, whether or not he had a reason, was fighting–most of them against the four travelers. Broken tables and chairs lay overturned, and shattered glass covered the floor. Several kegs of beer had been broken, and the warm, sudsy liquid had poured out all over the floor. The owner of the inn stood behind the bar and cried out for the fighting to end. There was a loud crash as the balcony rail above him was broken, and he barely missed being crushed beneath the man who was thrown down.
Stavros battled a short distance from Gideone. They had been interrupted in the middle of dinner, and Stavros was still famished. With his right hand he wielded his sword, and with his other, a leg of chicken, which he was calmly eating.
Gideone dodged out of the way of a sword-blow and looked around quickly for his sword. He found it lying on the floor a few feet from him. Sensing an attacker behind him, he dove for his sword, barely avoiding a slashing blow as he did so. With one swift movement he grabbed it, rolled and twisted, and ended up on his knees with his sword held before him. His attacker, charging at him, ran straight into the blade. Gideone gave it a hard twist and pulled it out from the man's stomach. The man gazed down in shock and collapsed to the floor.
The prince jumped up with a cry and flipped his sword around in the most stunning of spectacles; with a grin he lowered it at his enemies. He rushed at them, and they scattered before him.
"Stavros," he cried over the din of the fight, "how’s the chicken?"
"It could use some wine," answered Stavros who was being backed against the wall by three strong warriors. Gideone picked up a bottle which sat on a nearby table and threw it to Stavros. Catching it by its neck, Stavros sent it smashing into the face of one of his attackers even as he dodged a blow from another and kicked the last hard between the legs. The first screamed out in pain, clutching at his eyes; the last doubled over and fell to the floor.
"What a waste," said Gideone of the liquid now forever lost. "And I thought you believed in fighting honorably at all times."
"Under the circumstances..." began Stavros as he took the part of the bottle he still held and rammed the jagged ends into the face of the only attacker who still stood; the man screamed in agony and, clawing at his face, fell to the floor, "...the loss of some wine and some dignity seemed a fair exchange." He quickly finished off his three attackers.
Gideone laughed and turned around, only to find himself face to face with two huge men. He jumped back, barely missing being cut down by a pair of blades. He scrambled into a defensive position, but, before the two men could attack, a heavy wooden chandelier fell from the ceiling, crushing them beneath it.
Vayan, not giving the two men a second look, jumped off the chandelier–which he had ridden down on–crying, "Hurry up! Phautina's go' th' horses ready, an' I gotta ge' back an' help h’r!" With that he began fighting his way to the door. The moment he reached it he dashed out into the night beyond.
Gideone and Stavros turned to follow him, but even as they did so Abiel appeared, stepping through the threshold to block their way. His hood was thrown back to reveal his disfigured features, and upon his face he bore a look of utter hatred.
Gideone and Stavros skidded to a halt.
"Leaving so quickly?" spat Abiel. "You forget, Gideone, that you and I have unfinished business." He stepped forward and motioned with his hands. Around him burst up a ring of flames, and immediately, the fire began to spread across the wooden floor to the chairs and the tables and the walls. Terrified cries filled the room as those within scrambled to escape.
Abiel wore a hideous grin of anticipation. "Come, fight within the flames. Or is it too hot? Are you afraid you’ll burn yourself?"
Stavros cast a warning look at Gideone.
The prince's lips turned up in a sneer. "Judging by our respective looks, I’m not the one who ought to be afraid." With that he turned and began to walk away.
"Come back here, coward!" screamed Abiel. "For ten years I’ve sought battle with you, and I’ll not be refused!"
Fire raged throughout the whole room.
Gideone looked back over his shoulder and with a condescending smile said, "I only duel those who are decent swordsmen; it provides better sport for me and a fighting chance for them." With that he continued to walk away.
"Fool!" shrieked Abiel. "Cur! Coward who dared not even stand against Tnaka when he came to make your love his wife! You said not a word in protest but ran home to the safety of the high walls of Zaren! You’re no man! The lowest slave-girl in my father's palace is more a man than you!"
Gideone stopped and began to turn. The fire raging all around only added to the flashing of his dark eyes.
"Your Highness," said Stavros lowly but forcefully, "you promised me..."
With a growl Gideone continued toward the door.
"Your cowardice lost her!" Abiel cried. The flames rose high throughout the room, casting a terrifying red light upon his face. "’Tis not your arms that hold her, or your lips that kiss her!"
A table crashed to the ground as the flames consumed it.
"’Tis not your bed she shares!" Abiel jeered.
More tables and chairs began to fall as the fire took them. Smoke was filling the room.
"Your Highness, come," growled Stavros as he took Gideone by the arm and pulled him along.
"Eagle is with child, and it’s not your child!" sneered Abiel.
Gideone yanked his arm from Stavros' grasp and turned to face Abiel. The fire, which rose within his heart and swirled behind his dark eyes, burned far hotter than that which danced about him.
"You lie!" he snarled as he dashed forward and leapt into the Ring of Fire.
Gideone’s sword clashed with Abiel’s, sending sparks flying about them. The prince, filled with fury, sent blow after blow raining down upon Abiel. In terror, the dark prince stumbled back and tried to escape.
The inn was falling all around them.
Abiel leapt out of the Ring and disappeared into the flame-filled room. Gideone started to run after him but was pulled roughly back by Stavros. A huge, flaming beam crashed to the floor where he would have been had Stavros not pulled him back.
"Come," ordered Stavros.
They ran out of the flaming building.
Vayan and Phautina stood outside beside the four horses, desperately fending off more of Abiel's magicians.
"Hurry!" Vayan cried. He was covered with blood.
Gideone and Stavros ran to the horses and quickly mounted, as Vayan and Phautina did the same. One of the magicians reached out to grab the reigns of Gideone's horse, but the prince kicked him hard in the face. With a loud "Hiya!" he dug his heels into his horse's side and raced off toward the road, with Stavros, Vayan, and Phautina following closely.
"Stop them!" Behind him, Gideone could hear the voice of Abiel. He turned his head and saw a dark figure silhouetted by the flames of the inn, stumbling after them. He started to turn his horse, but Stavros rode up along side of him, preventing him from doing so.
"Stop them, you fools!" he heard Abiel shriek.
Phautina, who was riding behind him, cried out in pain and would have fallen from her horse had Vayan not reached out to steady her. She turned to see a long, dark arrow sticking out of her shoulder. Her face twisted in pain, and tears fell from her eyes, but she kept her seat and urged her horse on.
Vayan cast a look behind him. He could see no one pursuing them. The red flames of the burning inn rose high into the dark sky, and the cries of men carried across the whole of the town.
Phautina choked back a sob.
"Ye'll be all righ'," said Vayan. "No one's chasin' us, an' we'll be able to stop soon an' look a' y’r wound. We're safe for now."