Darkness of Heart
Eagle still stood outside the door to Orion's cell. The warrior’s cries and struggling had ceased, and now not a sound could be heard until Eagle herself broke the silence.
"Open the door," Eagle ordered the warder.
"Are you sure, Your Majesty?" he asked. "He was making quite a stir earlier."
Eagle fixed him with a stormy glare. "Open the door."
"Yes, Your Majesty," he said meekly. He stepped forward and put a large, iron key into the lock. With a sharp twist, he pulled the door open. Eagle brushed past him into the darkness beyond.
The cell was lit only by the faintest glow of the almost-dead coals in the center of the floor, and it took a long moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. When she could at last see, she looked down to find Orion staring up at her. Aeneas had chained him so that he could sit upon the floor–a torture almost as bad as being forced to stand, for his back, which was a mass of open wounds, was pressed against the hard, dirt-covered stone wall. His eyes were filled with agony, but he did not cry out; he had not the strength to do so.
Eagle looked down upon him, knowing not what to say.
The long silence was broken by Orion.
"Have you also come to torture me or make me turn?" he whispered.
"Of course not," she murmured as she knelt down in front of him. "I came because..." Her voice trailed off, for she did not know why she had come.
Sorrow welled up within her as she gazed into his pain-filled eyes.
"Are you truly the son of Phyre?" she finally asked.
The pain that filled his face was replaced with scorn. “Is that why you’ve come? To satisfy your stupid, childish curiosity?”
"Why do you do this?" she asked, ignoring his bitter words. "Why do you refuse to submit?"
"What does it matter?" he demanded.
"Tnaka believes you do so because of your love for Mystia."
He laughed bitterly. "Love. It must always be love. It’s love that upholds Deithanara, and love that that everyone craves, and it’s love alone that’d make a man faithfully serve a woman and refuse to serve an evil tyrant. Fool!" Eagle started back at his sudden outburst. "What makes you think I, who am the son of Phyre, am even capable of feeling love?"
What little energy he had was used up by his angry words, and he slumped forward. His long, auburn hair covered his face and hid his look of anger and anguish, but it did not hide his shoulders, which shook with the sorrow he tried to contain.
"Orion, please, forgive me,” Eagle murmured. “I shouldn’t have asked what I asked. I doubt I should even have come here. I wish only that I could find some way to comfort you."
Orion raised his head and looked straight at her. "I am cursed to enter into eternal torment upon my death. I don’t have Joretham's mercy or forgiveness to save me, so I must rely solely on my own actions to prove myself worthy to enter into Lothiel. Is there comfort for a man such as I?"
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “But, I do know many curses have been lifted. If you live with that possibility before you then there is always hope; but if you live as if there is no hope then you will find none, even if it does exist.”
He looked away. “You only add to my pain.”
"Forgive me," she whispered and rose to her feet. She hesitated, wanting to say more, but, finding no words, she turned, walked through the door, and was gone.
* * *
Abiel, with his magicians close behind, charged through the thick forest. His way was lit by the red light of the sun which had sunk behind the trees and soon would disappear completely. The hooves of their horses cut up the ground as they flew over the underbrush. Gideone was not far; Abiel was certain of it. Every beat of the horses' hooves seemed to cry out for the blood of the Norian prince. Abiel's face was twisted in a look of hatred and anticipation; soon vengeance would be his.
* * *
Gideone sat upon the ground and leaned back against a tree. Every muscle in his body ached. He gave a long sigh and closed his eyes, for he was completely exhausted. Vayan, who had been more subdued than usual, was silently making a fire, and Stavros sat beside a fallen log, nervously drumming his fingers on it.
They had made their small camp even further off the main path than normal, and Stavros had insisted the horses be kept saddled and bridled. He felt certain that something would happen that night but knew not what to expect or how to prepare for it. He continued to nervously tap his fingers against the fallen tree. He made scarcely a sound, but to Gideone, who sat close by, it was the most maddening noise he had ever heard. He opened his eyes, gave Stavros a dark look, and said, "Would you stop it?"
Stavros looked at him confused. "Stop what?"
"Tapping your fingers," answered the prince with a sigh and a roll of his eyes, as though the answer were the most obvious thing in Deithanara. "'Tis dreadfully annoying."
Stavros bit back a response but could not hide his annoyance. He crossed his arms and began to drum his fingers against his skin.
"I told you to stop it," snapped the prince.
Stavros' eyes narrowed. "You may be sick, Your Highness, but there’s still a fine line between what is proper and what is not. You crossed it in your treatment of Phautina, but I allowed it because–though part of me wished her to continue with us–it would have put her in danger along with us. But cross not that line with me."
"Are you threatening me?" demanded Gideone.
"I‘m simply stating a fact, Your Highness. You’d be wise to listen."
"You are threatening me!" the prince cried as he jumped to his feet.
"You say it not I," answered Stavros as he too rose.
"Father. Your Highness," said Vayan nervously as he looked up at the two men.
"Stay out of this!" snarled Gideone and rounded on Vayan.
"Leave my son alone!" Stavros cried, grasping Gideone by the arm to pull him back.
Gideone spun around, swinging his free arm at Stavros as he did so. Stavros ducked out of the way then struck Gideone hard across the jaw. The prince gave another cry as he rammed his whole body into Stavros, sending them both tumbling to the ground. The prince managed to get on top of Stavros; as he sent his fist slamming down toward Stavros' face he cried, “Traitor!"
Stavros tried to dodge the blows and push Gideone off of him, but he was struck several times. Each time left him weaker and more dazed than the time before. But, even as Gideone pulled back his fist to deliver another blow, he was yanked off of Stavros.
The prince spun around and found himself facing Vayan who jumped back from the punch he knew was coming. The young man was not quick enough, and Gideone’s fist caught him on the chin. Before Vayan could retaliate, Gideone followed it with a punch to the stomach. Vayan clutched his belly and doubled over in pain.
"Traitor!" Gideone snarled as he tried to strike again, but Vayan, still clutching his stomach, fell to the ground and rolled out of the way.
"You stand with Phautina and Orion and your father!" Gideone continued as he tried to kick him. Even as he did so, Stavros reached out and grabbed his tunic. Gideone lost his balance and fell to the ground. He scrambled to his knees.
"You all stand against me!" he shouted. He lunged forward and again fell upon Vayan.
Stavros tried to pull Gideone away but fell again to the ground and was pulled into the fight.
"My, my, my." A cruel, mocking voice interrupted the brawl. The three men started in surprise, stopped fighting, and turned to find themselves looking up at Abiel. He sat upon his horse in the shadows of the trees, looking scornfully down upon them.
His mouth twisted up into a greater sneer than it already bore. "I knew my father was perverted, but even he never went for other men."
Gideone's lips curled up as he pushed Stavros and Vayan off of him and rose. "That was only because you were too busy with them yourself."
Abiel snarled and dug his spurs into his horse's sides, and Gideone drew his sword and rushed toward him.
"No!" Stavros exclaimed as he ran after the prince.
Both men cried and jumped out of the way as Abiel's horse barreled down upon them. Stavros tumbled to the ground then, rolling to his feet, tried to run to Gideone. Even as he did so, Abiel's magicians rushed out from the darkness. He shout in surprise and tried to draw his sword, but they were already upon him. He gave another cry, this one of pain, as the sharp steel of a knife cut into his arm. Everyone was yelling and screaming, and he could hear Gideone crying obscene curses down upon Abiel. He struggled against the magicians who seemed to swarm around him and looked wildly about for the prince and Vayan.
Suddenly, there was a crash, like the sound of thunder, and the whole forest seemed to ignite in flames. Stavros looked around in confusion. The horses were shrieking in terror, and everyone was running madly about trying to escape.
Stavros found himself free from the magicians. He rushed through the flames that raged all about, and plunged into the darkness beyond. When he thought he was alone, he turned and looked back at where the battle had taken place. He could only stare in confusion. The fire, which had so suddenly and mysteriously erupted, still raged. The orange flames rose high into the sky, but they did not spread to the surrounding trees. He had never been so astonished or puzzled in his life.
"Joretham!" he exclaimed softly to himself. "What happened?"
* * *
Abiel ran through the forest as fast as he could go. His mind screamed in fury against the strange and powerful force that stood against him. What had happened at the scene of the battle he did not understand, nor did he care. All he knew was that Gideone had been taken from him even as he held the prince in his grasp. He plunged through the trees. He would not let Gideone escape. The branches of the trees seemed to reach out and cling to him and the roots to rise up in his path. He stumbled and fell. His cloak caught on a tree branch and was torn from him, but he did not try to retrieve it. He rose and continued to stumble through the trees, which seemed to grow ever thicker the further he went. As he pushed through two trees, he found himself in a small moonlit glade. There was not another moving, breathing soul to be seen, and silence reigned supreme. He stood still and looked about him not knowing what to do or what to expect.
Out of the shadows on the opposite side of the glade a figure emerged. As it moved closer, Abiel saw that it was a woman. Her clothes were torn and worn from days of travel, and she seemed to be a very simple maid. Her face was homely, but there was an ethereal look about her. She walked to the center of the glade where she stopped and beckoned for Abiel to come to her. He hesitated then walked out to join her. As he looked down at her, he recognized her as the woman who had been traveling with Gideone.
"Who are you?" he demanded. "What are you doing here?"
With a voice that was soft yet clear she said, "I’m Phautina, the servant of Joretham. I protect those whom he would have protected, and minister to those whom he wishes ministered to.” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “And bring justice down upon those whom he’d have brought to justice. It is I who have ridden with Gideone and protected him from you these many days, and it was I who caused the fire to spring up during your battle in the forest and scatter you and your men, for it’s not Joretham's will that you should kill Gideone."
Abiel gave a scornful laugh. "And what care I for Joretham's will?"
She looked up at him with unblinking brown eyes. "Those are the words of a fool."
Abiel reached for his sword, but as he looked down upon her he found himself unable to draw it. He gave her a proud, bitter look then turned and began to walk away.
"I have a message for you," she told him softly.
He continued to walk away.
"You’re filled with bitterness and hatred and sorrow," she said, "but Joretham can give you peace."
Abiel slowly stopped and turned back and faced her. His scarred and broken face was twisted with scorn and hate. "No one can do that."
"Joretham can, and he will–but only if you allow him to do so. Forget Gideone, give up your quest for revenge and leave the path your father has shown you. Come join Joretham. I promise that you won‘t regret your choice."
Abiel said nothing in reply but simply stood looking down at her. The look of scorn never left his face. Without a word he turned and walked away, leaving Phautina to gaze after him as he disappeared into the shadows.
* * *
Stavros walked slowly and quietly through the forest. He had seen neither friend nor foe since he had first run into the trees, and now he was slowly making his way back to the scene of the battle, hoping to find Gideone and Vayan there.
His horse snorted softly. Stavros looked back at it and could only shake his head in amazement. As he had been walking through the forest, he had suddenly remembered that Wild Rose's healing balm was packed in one of the saddlebags of his horse. The chances of finding his horse in the midst of the dark forest were very slim, and he had been terrified by what would happen to Gideone were he to have no defense against the poison which filled his body. But as he had made his way back toward the scene of the battle– against all odds–he ran across his horse. It had been standing and munching quietly on the leaves of a bush.
Presently, he reached his destination. The fire, which had so mysteriously sprung up had burnt out, leaving only the charred remains of a few trees. Stavros breathed a sigh of relief when he found Gideone standing in the middle of the blackened trees, a scowl upon his face.
"Finally," grumbled the prince. "I thought you’d never come. What were you trying to do? Leave me here all alone so as to make it easier for Abiel and his magicians to attack and kill me?"
Stavros sighed wearily.
"Or perhaps," Gideone continued, "you left me here so that traitor Phautina could cast a spell on me."
Stavros looked blankly at the prince. "What does Phautina have to do with any of this?"
Gideone crossed his arms, and his scowl deepened as he growled, "The little cur followed us. I knew she couldn’t be trusted. And what’s more, I saw her and Abiel conversing in the forest, and it looked not to be the conversation of enemies."
Stavros frowned. "Are you certain it was her."
"Yes, I’m certain it was her!" Gideone cried, his dark eyes flashing. "What do you take me for–a blind fool?"
"Surely there must be some reason..."
"Of course there’s a reason! She’s a traitorous cur who, from the start, should not have been trusted!"
"Be quiet! You..." the prince's voice trailed off as he suddenly heard the sound of snapping twigs, announcing someone's approach through the forest. The two men stopped their arguing and quickly ducked into the shadows of the trees. After several moments, Vayan appeared, leading a horse behind him. He looked around and, finding no one, called out to the trees, "I don't mean t' be impertinent, but a’ter th' noise ye were makin' it seems rather poin’less t' hide."
Stavros chuckled softly. Gideone said nothing, and both emerged from the shadows.
"Joretham, I’m glad to see you," said Stavros. "Now all we need is a third horse then we can leave this place before Abiel or any of his men find us. Vayan, you stay here and guard the horses while Prince Gideone and I search the forest for another one."
"Aye, Father," said Vayan as he took the reins of Stavros' horse.
"Your Highness," began Stavros as he turned to Gideone, but the prince was not paying attention to him but rather seemed to be listening to the forest around him.
"Your Highness?" questioned Stavros.
Gideone started and looked at Stavros. "What?"
"Shall we go?"
"Yes, of course," said Gideone who then turned and began to lead the way out of the charred circle of trees. They reached the edge of the burnt out places and were just passing a tree which was enveloped by foliage, when, without warning, Gideone leapt to his right and ran around the tree. Even before Stavros or Vayan could move there came the sharp, startled cry of a woman.
"I knew it was you!" Gideone growled as he dragged Phautina from behind the tree and out into the open. Vayan started forward as the prince threw Phautina roughly to the ground.
"Stay back!" Gideone, his dark eyes flashing, ordered Vayan. Then, turning back to Phautina, he demanded, "What are you doing here?"
Phautina picked herself up and, as she brushed herself off, answered, "I wanted to see how you fared and whether or not you’d been harmed by Abiel and his men."
"Why? So that if you saw we’d escaped unscathed you could kill us for him?"
"Why in the Three Realms would I want to do that?" she asked as she took a step away from him.
"I told you at Haflashon you could no longer travel with us, yet you’ve followed me here, spied on me, and what’s more, I saw you speaking with Abiel!"
"Your Highness," Stavros broke in, "forget her. Just let her go, and let us leave."
"Be quiet!" snarled Gideone. "I am not about to let this woman go free so she can kill me!"
"Prince Gideone," said Phautina calmly as she spread out her arms, "I am unarmed. Search me and you’ll see. I didn’t come to threaten you."
"Then why did you come here?" demanded Gideone, furious.
Phautina paused for a moment then answered, "I came, just as I said, to see if you’d been harmed by Abiel and his men."
"And what did you say to Abiel?"
"That’s for him, myself, and Joretham to know."
"You lie!" Gideone fairly shrieked with rage.
It was as if time stood still. Stavros saw the prince reach for his sword. The sound of the blade scraping against the scabbard filled the air as he drew it. With a cry, Stavros rushed toward him. He slammed into the prince, sending them both tumbling to the ground, but he was too late, for even as they fell, the blade of Gideone's sword caught Phautina right beneath her ear and sliced through her neck down to the shoulder of her other side. She fell to the earth, and her head rolled across the ground until it struck the root of a tree and came to rest a few inches from her lifeless, outstretched hand.
Vayan's cry mixed with that of his father as he rushed forward and fell to the ground beside the dead woman.
Gideone pushed Stavros away, rose to his feet and slowly approached the place where Phautina lay, and, as he looked down upon her, his face twisted into a smile.
Vayan looked up in horror at the prince and cried out, "You murdered her!"
Gideone laughed a cold, mocking laugh. It seemed to spread out across the whole of the forest. As the sound filled Vayan's ears, his shock and horror turned to rage.
"Murderer!" he snarled as he started up. Drawing his sword, he rushed at Gideone. Even as he did so, Stavros pushed Gideone out of the way and exclaimed, "No, Vayan!"
"He killed her!" Vayan cried, his face twisted with anger, horror, and agony.
"I know," Stavros said weakly. He was too overcome by horror and disbelief to say anything more.
Vayan, his eyes opened wide and his sword still held up, took a step backward then suddenly turned and ran off into the shadows of the forest.
All strength left Stavros, and he sank to his knees. His hands were trembling, and his face was deathly pale as he stared down upon Phautina's body, lying now in a pool of blood.
"You killed her," he whispered in disbelief. "You killed her." But when he looked up, he saw no remorse in the prince's cold, dark eyes.