It was a common sight in our kingdom. A man, his arms stretched over his head and bound with thick rope to the whipping post, his bare torso grimy and crisscrossed with old scars from previous floggings, ragged trousers just barely hanging on bony hips and the toes of his bare feet scraping the dusty ground.
Normally I wouldn’t have given such a scene a second glance, but today something ominous flashed in the whipman’s hands…his whip was lined with tiny blades.
I flew off the wagon despite my father’s protest and screamed as the whip was drawn back.
The whipman paused, giving me time to thrust through the death-ravenous crowd and fling myself in front of the thief.
“Barbarians!” I cried, pointing at the whip. “How dare you use that—thing! It will kill him!”
A sneer twisted the whipman’s pockmarked visage and he spat over his shoulder. “King’s new edict, poppet. All thieves be flayed with dagger-edged lashes. Teach ‘em to think twice, it will.”
“Think twice? He won’t think at all after this!” I snarled. “This isn’t a punishment; it’s an execution!”
As the whipman shrugged indifferently, the audience behind him stirred and a few voices rose in contention.
“Get on with it!”
“Out of the way, wench!”
I saw my father climbing down from the wagon. Was he coming to help me or to extract me?
“My lady,” came a wry, amused voice from the man hanging on the whipping post behind me, “I’m very flattered, but you should leave—”
“Shut up,” I snapped. “This doesn’t concern you.”
A burst of laughter, then: “Erm, I beg to differ.”
The whipman leered, baring gray, rotting teeth and a thick, ponderous tongue that emerged indecently. “Ain’t nothin’ you can do t’save ‘im, poppet. Cain’t argue with the king’s decree. Might as well strike a flame in a snowstorm.”
A blasting fanfare jerked everyone’s attention to the dirt road, where the king in question was approaching on a prancing black horse, a standard-bearer and a contingent of armed men on mounts behind him.
The audience dropped to their knees with hushed murmurs. I didn’t dare bow, too wary of the greedy flash in the whipman’s beady eyes – he was just waiting for me to budge so the death sentence he was so eager to dispense would descend on the man’s scarred back.
I ventured a swift look at our haughty King Levander on his tall, proud stallion. He was twenty-one years old but carried himself with the stiff pomposity of a supercilious old fart.
He took in the entire scene with one sweeping, disdainful glance, then called out over the bowed heads of his subjects, “What delay, man? Carry on!”
The whipman sneered, slid his tongue over his top row of teeth and pointed at me. “She’s the delay, my lord. Won’t let me do me job.”
The king’s hard eyes latched onto mine. “Move,” he commanded.
“No,” I refused, garnering some sense of satisfaction at the blatant look of shock that dropped his jaw. “Your statute is cruel,” I stated as firmly as I could, though I was quaking in my boots.
“You should have left when I told you to,” muttered the thief from behind me.
“Who asked you?” I grated back.
“Seize her!” shouted the monarch.
From the corner of my eye I saw my father move, and an instant later an explosion rocked the square and thick gray smoke flared up in dense plumes that it was impossible to see through. Shouts and cries rose into the haze though I couldn’t see who was making them. My father emerged from the smoke with an unsheathed knife and swiftly cut the thief’s bonds. I caught a glimpse of the bandit’s laughing green eyes and dirty blond hair before the three of us were running through the smoke between stumbling men, wailing women and shrieking children. People ran in and out of our line of vision and my father threw another of his handy smoke-producing baubles, thickening the impenetrable cloud we were traversing. We were getting close to the street; I heard the king’s men yelling and cursing, horses whinnying and harnesses jangling. And then suddenly we were there – and nearly stumbled over King Levander, who had been unseated in the chaos and was on his knees trying to untangle himself from his cape so he could stand up. The thief pushed me aside and kicked the fallen noble cleanly in the jaw. The king’s eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped back to the street, unconscious. The thief bent down, slung the royal over his back and looked straight at my father. Some unspoken understanding passed between them, because my father nodded slightly and spun around with the thief following close on his heels. I opened my mouth to protest but my father was already flinging open to door to the interior of our wagon and the thief was piling inside with the abducted king. My father hoisted me up behind them despite my vocal objection and within seconds the wagon lurched into motion.
Since the thief had draped King Levander on my father’s bed and was awkwardly hunching over in the center of our small wagon, it took some ungainly maneuvering to pull down the slat on the wall so he could sit. Pulling down one of my own, I sat across from him and crossed my arms.
“So what have you got to say for yourself?” I asked, trying to encompass in my question both his choice of profession and his abduction of the monarch.
Unperturbed, he stretched his long legs the entire breadth of the wagon until his ankles brushed my skirts, then lifted an arrogant eyebrow. “I think that went very well.”
“Very well?” I burst out. “You stole the king!”
“Erm, not quite,” he amended. “I kicked the king; it was technically your father who…stole him away.”
“They’re going to come after us in hordes! We’ll all be drawn and quartered!”
Another lift of his eyebrow. “You really think so? If you were high enough up to order a search for the bastard or let him vanish, what would you do?”
That shut me up. When his men found him missing, would they even come after him?
It was true that he was hated with a vile passion by all of his subjects and even his own guardsmen. His cruelty was renown; his mercy nonexistent. He trusted no one, had his own soldiers executed for the slightest slip and sent secret agents everywhere, like poisoned veins spreading through the kingdom, to ferret out the smallest whisper of dissention. Even a moment’s careless grumbling sufficed to send innocent men and women, even children, to the gallows. The punishments for crimes had gradually increased until they were atrociously disproportionate to the transgression.
No one loved him. Who would want him back?
“Shouldn’t we tie him up?” I asked.
The thief grinned. “Give me the means and I’ll do the deed,” he offered with a wink.
“Do you have a name?” I inquired as I knelt on the floor to rummage about in a trunk.
“Most people do,” he quipped, then lifted his hands in mock defense against my withering glare. “Eldwyn,” he relented, laughing.
I held out the wrist manacles my father used when he felt like being a magician and Eldwyn accepted them with a small smile, as if he were thinking of some great joke. He clapped the first manacle around one of the king’s wrists, looped the chain around a post supporting the top bunk where I usually slept and snapped the second manacle shut around the king’s ankle. He glanced at me, a humorous quirk tugging at his lips. “This should put him in an interesting quandary if he wants to stand up.”
I smiled at the thought and then went rigid when Eldwyn knelt beside me and caught my hand, his face suddenly too close and his green eyes too focused on me for comfort.
“And may I now have the pleasure of your name?” he requested.
Flustered, I withdrew my hand. “Put on a shirt first.”
He laughed softly. “A price for her name. You are cruel to name a fee I cannot pay! I am forced to repeat myself: give me the means and I’ll do the deed.”
Standing up and reaching around him awkwardly – the scoundrel not even moving out of my way so I had to rub against his bare torso – I again dug into my father’s trunk and tossed the thief a loose white shirt with ties at the collar. He pulled it on over his head and, still kneeling, executed a mocking little bow.
When I sat back down, he caught my chin, tilted my head back and bent close. “Have I paid the price, my lady?” he inquired softly, his hunter green eyes keen and intent. His gaze dropped to my lips.
I pulled my head out of his grip, flustered by his familiarity. “Althea,” I murmured.
The wagon ground to a halt. Eldwyn nimbly returned to his seat and, as my father swung open the door, affected an innocent face (and was as successful as a wolf in sheep’s clothing would be at feigning innocence).
My father poked his head in. “How good are you at stealing?” he asked Eldwyn without preamble.
The thief grinned incorrigibly. “How good do you need?”
My father grunted, unimpressed by this show of bravado. “Broad daylight. There’s a gypsy camp a way back.”
“Gypsies?” Eldwyn repeated, surprised. “There are some left? I thought the king had exterminated them all.”
“Ha!” my father snorted. “It’s a better man than our monarch who can trounce the gypsies!”
“And I am that man?” Eldwyn prompted expectantly.
“We need some better horses than the ones we’ve got,” my father pointed out.
Eldwyn whistled. “So you need me to steal horses from gypsies in broad daylight?” He pushed himself to his feet and my father moved aside so he could hop out. Eldwyn slung an arm around him in comradely fashion. “Never fear. I’ll show you how it’s done, old man.”
“Watch the insults,” my father growled.
“Ah, but that was a compliment!” Eldwyn shot back with a laugh.
My father looked at me over his shoulder and nodded toward the unconscious king. “He starts to come round, you get out of there, you hear?”
I nodded and shut the door in his face. I could almost see him shaking his head over my stubbornness. What could a chained, pampered young man do to me? I thought to myself.
I soon found out. He started to stir not a minute after my father and Eldwyn’s voices had faded. He lifted one slender hand to his head, wincing, then his eyes flew open as the chain from the manacle around his wrist slapped him on the cheek. His gaze flew to me and he tried to stand, nearly yanking his arm out of its socket when the manacles went taut. Cursing vilely and breathing hard, he struggled under my intrigued perusal. I was surprised when he actually managed to get himself to a sitting position. I was shocked when he half rose, grabbed a handful of my skirt and hauled me off my seat. I started fighting too late – I was already spinning around – and I landed with my back against his chest. One of his arms twined around my neck and cut off my air and the other pinned my arms to my sides.
“The key,” his angry voice breathed in my ear.
“I don’t have it,” I said hoarsely, barely able to speak past his forearm crushing my windpipe.
“I don’t believe you,” he snarled, his hold tightening.
“The thief has it,” I gasped out. “He’s out stealing horses.”
His hold lessened slightly but I could still hear the venom in his voice by my cheek. “Back to his old ways so soon?”
“Let me breathe,” I rasped. “They’ll kill you if you asphyxiate me before they return.”
He started and his grip eased, enabling me to suck in a deep gulp of air. “So who are you people?” he muttered. “Don’t tell me I’ve been abducted by traveling comedians.”
I laughed scathingly. Traveling comedians? Hardly.
Although it was true that I’d grown up on the road, journeying from city to city and town to town with my father, and he was, for lack of a better word, a traveling performer, it seemed so inadequate to convey all that he was. Even at eighteen years of age I believed he could do anything in the world. I had seen it. He could become anything the public desired: a musician, a magician, a jester, an acrobat, a rhetorician, a scientist, a commoner, a nobleman fallen on hard times. He knew how to play the lute, harmonica, and pipes. He could juggle, somersault and flip in midair. He knew how to make things disappear and reappear again in unexpected places (and almost always right under the audience’s noses). He made baubles that erupted into sparks when thrown on the ground, baubles that gave off thick plumes of smoke when they burst – used in our escape today – and even baubles that exploded.
He knew everything that was going on in the world and knew who to get that information from and how to use it. I drank in any knowledge, every pearl of wisdom he imparted me. Perhaps since I had never known my mother, my father was my whole world. He was the smartest man alive, the most talented, the most capable.
He was hardly a mere “traveling comedian”.
I inserted a generous dollop of scorn into my reply to the king. “Shall I salvage your pride and tell you that you’ve been kidnapped by super secret enemy agents?”
Then I heard my father and Eldwyn approaching – at the same time King Levander did. His head swung up, his hold on me tightened and he shifted his hand to my forehead.
Eldwyn yanked open the door and thrust his grinning face inside. Catching sight of me in the grip of the king, his smile vanished instantly.
“Give me the key,” snarled our prisoner, “or I’ll…do something unpleasant.”
He didn’t sound as if he knew exactly what he would do, but Eldwyn didn’t hesitate.
“Don’t hurt her,” he implored, fishing the key out of his pocket and holding it out, his eyes never leaving the king’s. When the royal reached out to snatch the key, Eldwyn caught his wrist and yanked. I went tumbling to the floor while Eldwyn delivered a ruthless uppercut to King Levander’s jaw.
The king slumped unconscious on the mattress and Eldwyn remarked cockily as he clambered into the wagon, “This is becoming a habit between us, your majesty. I could get used to this.”
“Oh, yes,” I muttered, rubbing my sore neck. “You’re so brave when he’s insensible!”
Eldwyn flashed me a smile, blatantly unashamed. “When is there a better time to be brave?”
My father materialized in the doorway. “Children, children, stop arguing! Eldwyn, you have a promise to fulfill.”
“What promise is that?” I asked suspiciously, not trusting the satisfied gleam in Eldwyn’s green eyes one bit.
Instead of answering, Eldwyn leaned out of the doorway and motioned to someone outside. A second later, a man attired in a colorful gypsy vest and pants peered inside, his dark hair tousled and his eyes sharp. A grin split his features when he saw the king and he hastily withdrew, calling out something in his language as another head poked inside, this one female with a babe on her hip.
Grinning widely, Eldwyn explained, “The gypsies offered us horses for free when I told them we had the king they hate so much imprisoned here.” He shrugged wryly, “But of course they’re not a very trusting race and wanted to see the proof with their own eyes.”
“Hmm,” I responded noncommittally, watching another dark head replace the one before. “Would’ve been nice if you’d charged them for it, though.”
He nudged me with his shoulder. “Don’t be greedy. You’re a princess compared to their penury.”
“Ah,” I said, “I must have misplaced my crown today. I hate it when I do that.”
Eldwyn flashed me a grin, then sobered as he eyed the incumbent sovereign. “We can’t keep him in here – not after he assaulted you.”
“What do you want to do, tie him to the top of the wagon?” my voice dripped sarcasm but Eldwyn actually nodded.
“That’s not a bad idea, at least until he comes round again.”
Ignoring my dissent, he hopped outside and within minutes he and several laughing gypsies were heaving King Levander to the roof of the wagon, where Eldwyn lashed him down.
“At least cover him with these!” I shouted up to him, holding out some raggedy old blankets, “or else the sun and heat will kill him.”
“Ah, thou angel of mercy with thy beauteous bleeding heart!” Eldwyn called with a hand over his heart, but obeyed and covered the king’s exposed skin with the rags. Sliding off the edge and landing like a cat on his feet, he straightened and brushed himself off. Before I knew what he was about, he grabbed me around the waist, swung me around with a whoop and planted a triumphant kiss on my cheek.
“This is the most fun I’ve had since the last lady I—” he cut himself off, laughing unrepentantly, then pitched me up onto the driver’s bench where my father was already waiting. Eldwyn clambered up and squeezed in beside me.
The wagon lurched into motion, this time at a brisker pace with the sleek gypsy horses replacing our old ponies.
“So, son,” my father began gravely above the clatter of the wagon, “what made you a thief?”
“What made you a traveling performer?” Eldwyn shot back, unabashed. “My pap was a thief, my mam was a thief, my uncles were thieves, my brothers, my sisters, my grandpappy and grandmammy, their grandpappies and grandmammies—”
“And where are they now?” my father cut him off.
A shadow passed across Eldwyn’s face and for a moment his perpetual smile faltered. “Dead. All of ‘em,” he stated emotionlessly.
“Well, way I see it, son, you’re gonna follow ‘em real soon if you keep on that way.”
Eldwyn managed an unconvincing smile and slung an arm meaningfully around my shoulders. “You offering me another livelihood, old man, an incentive to settle down?”
My father slid a glance at us and shrugged. “Ain’t my business if Althea chooses a man with piss for brains. But I don’t think she will.”
Eldwyn choked on his laughter and dropped his arm from around my shoulders. “Guess I need to mop my mind up a bit.”
I tensed when I heard a galloping horse approaching from behind.
A gypsy boy of about 11 years of age drew even and called, “King’s men comin’!” Then he swung around and disappeared into the shrubbery on the side of the road. My father tossed the reins to me and reached under the seat.
“Thought these’d come in handy.” He threw a bundle of clothes and a black wig at Eldwyn.
“Not in winning fair maiden,” remarked Eldwyn, holding up the skirt and vest dubiously but obediently donning them and settling the wig on his head.
“Good thing you’re clean-shaven,” my father grumbled.
Eldwyn winked at me. “Always for the ladies.”
My father grunted. “Open your mouth.”
Eldwyn raised his eyebrows. “Generally I’m told to shut it.” But he complied.
I stifled my laughter as my father stuck black clay on a few of Eldwyn’s teeth to make it seem as though they were missing. Afterward he settled back. “Grin, son.”
Eldwyn complied and I burst out laughing. It never failed to surprise me how my father could transform a visage so adroitly.
The sound of several approaching horses thundered behind us. My father pretended not to notice until a voice called out ordering us to stop in the name of the king.
A handsome man in uniform with a plumed hat drew in rein beside us. “You there! You made off with our king!”
My father looked at him vacantly. “You just stopped us in the name of the king. You sayin’ you don’t have one with you?” He snapped the reins and the wagon lurched into motion.
Furious, the man rode past us and positioned his horse in the center of the street, lifting an imperious gloved hand. “Halt, I say!”
Our horses, recognizing that the poor beast in front of them was mounted by a madman, sympathized with their fellow creature and halted.
Eldwyn shook his head, looking between the captain and my father. “And you say I have piss for brains!” he muttered.
The captain motioned to his band to search our wagon. I tensed, expecting the racket to wake the king lashed to the top of the carriage, but he was out cold. In a few minutes the king’s men clambered back out, shaking their heads.
The captain flushed scarlet. “Not there?” he raged. “What do you mean he’s not there?” He pointed straight at my father. “Where’s the thief? You cut his ropes! I’m taking you all in.”
I nearly laughed out loud when Eldwyn ran his tongue along his upper lip and cast the captain a coy glance, making sure to smile broadly. “You can take me in anytime you like, captain.”
The captain gave a delicate shudder and glanced at my father. “You poor bastard,” he shook his head pityingly.
“Au contraire, captain. I’m the richest man in the world!” my father declared proudly and wrapped his arm possessively around Eldwyn, who gave him a besotted, gap-toothed grin.
“You won’t be rich for long,” the captain warned him. “You’re all going straight to the king’s dungeons.” Then his gaze fell on me. “Although I might be able to find YOU better accommodation with me in exchange for a little…willingness on your part. It certainly wouldn’t be any sacrifice for you,” he added, preening smugly.
I smiled. “We have an expression for men like you, captain,” I said sweetly. “Vanity’s captive. And I’d rather stay in the dungeons with my father than in paradise with you.”
The captain sucked in a breath, his face paling. He drew his sword. “Who is responsible for this girl’s words?” he cried.
The three of us sat there, confused. What kind of absurd question was that?
“Erm, the horse is,” Eldwyn replied, straight-faced. “Ornery, ornery thing! Got a vulgar tongue on it, it does. Taught our girl everything it knew.”
The captain looked genuinely flummoxed, for a second almost believing Eldwyn’s grave assertion. Then thirty men streamed screaming from the underbrush on the side of the road and within seconds the captain and his band were tied up securely to tree trunks.
Apparently the gypsies had decided to join us.
The gypsy leader, Tarod, evidently not worried about further pursuit, invited us to join them for the midday meal. My father agreed and Eldwyn enthusiastically shucked his disguise.
Since we couldn’t leave King Levander unattended, we unlashed him, revived him by splashing cold water on his face and took him with us very much against his kingly will.
It was a difficult meal – the monarch was determined to be intractable and fractious. The company was unacceptable, the food hardly edible, he had no way to shield his face from the harsh sunlight, the wind was too chilly and we’d taken his cape. Then he seized a young gypsy who ventured too close, wrapped his manacles around the boy’s throat and demanded to be released.
The gypsies didn’t take kindly to that. King Levander was knocked unconscious from behind by a well-aimed stone. They brought him round by throwing dirt on his face and only my father’s quiet reason kept them from tying the monarch’s ankles to a wild horse and dragging him to his death.
Instead, they bound his manacles to the back of our wagon with a sturdy rope.
“Let him walk his dissatisfaction off,” remarked Tarod with a tight smile of satisfaction.
Once he left I disputed this arrangement, pointing out that King Levander’s subjects would surely recognize him and betray us, but Eldwyn was certain no one would.
“In fact,” he murmured soothingly, “they might even help us when they see who we have.”
“Let it rest, Althea,” my father cut in quietly before I could become more vocal. “The world is a cruel, unforgiving place and it’s time our young tyrant learned that disrespect for human life comes with a cost.”
I subsided with ill grace, but Eldwyn dragged me into a hard hug and kissed me exuberantly on the cheek. “That’s my girl – I knew you would see reason!”
I made a face at him that only made him grin wider.
“Touching as this scene is,” came King Levander’s derisive voice, “I’d like to be on our way and prove you wrong. My subjects will help me. The price is too steep for them to leave me to my fate.”
Eldwyn saluted him tauntingly. “The price is too steep NOT to leave you to your fate, dear king. What will you do if not a single one lifts a hand to help you? Kill all your subjects?”
Within moments we were once more trundling down the road, this time at a snail’s pace, and since idleness was not my forte and our pace gave me the perfect opportunity to gather any wild herbs, berries or mushrooms in the vicinity, I climbed back down to do so. Eldwyn gallantly offered to accompany me and utilize his manly strength to carry whatever tasty treasures I collected.
He flirted shamelessly as I waded through the wood stooping down every now and then to pluck this flower or that leaf. It was obvious even to one as naïve and inexperienced as I was that he was fond of women and had decided to make me his next conquest, but I was determined to douse his enthusiasm in this endeavor. The prim mask I assumed, however, only served to augment his resolve. We were passing behind a particularly thick oak that obscured us from the road when he dropped the basket and lunged for me.
Dodging nimbly and giggling, I darted around him and took off. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the game, but I knew that to let him win would be destructive. Eldwyn wasn’t the type to settle down with one woman; he was a rogue and a vagabond and always would be.
Unfortunately a stumble mid-run was my downfall. I went sprawling in a patch of wildflowers and Eldwyn was on me in an instant. I shrieked, laughing and trying to fend him off as he rolled me onto my back, straddled my stomach and pinned my wrists to the ground. Of course, there’s not much one can do when put in that position, and Eldwyn knew it. He lowered his head and caught my mouth with his. He was a skilled lover, I was an untouched innocent, and the shock of his kiss went straight to my toes. He was persuasive as hell and I could feel my will to resist slipping through my fingers like the proverbial sand.
Fortunately my father’s voice drifted through the woods then, calling my name like a magic word breaking the spell.
Eldwyn lifted his head, smiling wryly. “Saved by her father,” he murmured, releasing my wrists and sitting up with a sigh.
When we returned with the basket, my father raised an eyebrow at my flushed cheeks and mussed hair but said nothing. He had an agile way of communicating without words and with a single look accomplished more than an hour’s lecture.
“Nothing happened,” I muttered. But it had. Eldwyn had broken through my defenses and it had shaken me. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stand against him if he determined to tear them down again…and next time my father might not be there to stop him.
Then we came to the first village and all thoughts of romance vanished. I swallowed nervously. This would be the test of whether Eldwyn was right, or if we were all dead.
It didn’t take long for people to start whispering amongst themselves and pointing. Each minute more and more of them gathered round. My heart was pounding like mad and my hands, clenched in my lap, started to sweat.
I cringed when they started jeering at King Levander, their insults ugly and the hate in their voices audible. Someone produced rotten eggs and tomatoes and within minutes I could imagine that the sovereign’s silk doublet was irreversibly soiled and that he was walking with his arms over his head…or was he walking with his head held high, pretending indifference?
This degrading treatment discomfited me, although every time I tensed to tell them to stop, my father’s hand would clamp on my knee.
“Let him see their hatred,” he stated quietly. “He should see how they truly perceive him. How they react when they are empowered and he is powerless.”
So I swallowed the bile rising in my throat.
When we left the village and turned north, several of the men cried out for us to continue without fear…that they had seen us going south.
Eldwyn cast me a triumphant grin and I thought how sad it was that he’d been right. Everyone did hate monarch with such a passion that they would help his abductors. They certainly weren’t going to demand his release.
At the next village, things got uglier.
Someone threw a stone. And another, and another.
I scrambled over Eldwyn’s knees, ignoring his surprise, and got down to throw myself between the crowd and King Levander. Although I didn’t like him and I knew his laws were cruel and without mercy, I didn’t want to be responsible for his death – even passively by letting it happen.
“Stop!” I yelled above the villagers’ angry shouts for me to move out of the way. “Will you become murderers for such a one?” I demanded, motioning to the haughty king undauntedly facing the prospect of his own death. “Will you kill a defenseless man? Will you become the same monster that you hate him for being?”
Gradually the rambunctious crowd fell silent, and though a few obstinate chins came up, none found the shame to continue, and one by one, they let their stones drop, their hands fall and they gradually dispersed.
I looked back at King Levander. Blood trickled from a wound on his temple and a cut on his lip and his dark, fathomless eyes were something terrible to see. There was knowledge in them that no man should ever hold: the knowledge that he was loathed so completely by his own people that they would rather risk their own execution than free him; they would become murderers to rid themselves of him; and those holding him captive were heroes while he was less than dirt.
Afraid I hadn’t entirely convinced the villagers to spare him, I walked beside the chained monarch as he trudged along. I could feel his eyes on me every now and then and I wondered if he was speculating, calculating how to use me to escape. But he said nothing, attempted nothing.
It was late afternoon when he collapsed and the wagon started to drag him. I screamed at my father to stop and started to untie the ropes binding him to the wagon.
Eldwyn came running just as I was working the last knot free and he lunged to still my hands.
“Don’t do it, Althea!” he warned. “He’s too dangerous to set free.”
I looked over my shoulder at King Levander, who was barely breathing.
“He’s half dead!” I retorted, jerking my hand out from under Eldwyn’s and hurling the loosed rope on the ground. I bent over the incumbent figure of the king to drape one manacled arm around my shoulder and pull him to his feet. Eldwyn stepped forward apprehensively but the king merely stumbled along, leaning heavily on me, and dropped wearily on the steps of the caravan. I pulled the stopper from my water flask and offered him a drink. He sent an unreadable glance at Eldwyn, then accepted the water and drank deeply, wiping his dirt-begrimed mouth with the back of his hand.
Then he leveled me with his dark, bitter gaze. “I suppose you expect my thanks.”
I shook my head as he took another swallow. “I would never expect gratitude for something we should never have subjected you to.”
He looked surprised at that and I urged him to his feet, ushered him inside the wagon and bade him to lie down on my dad’s pallet. I was just about to leave when his words halted me.
“Why? Why didn’t you let me die when the villagers wanted to stone me? Why did you stop the wagon when it’s obvious everyone in my kingdom wants me dead? Whose side are you on?”
I pivoted to meet his gaze directly. “We’re members of the same kingdom, your majesty; we’re supposed to be on the same side, but we as your subjects act as you treat us; become what you make us. You are the one who drew demarcations between us. We are your subjects, not your enemies.”
He snorted. “Not my enemies? Do you know who killed my parents?” he asked in a low, furious voice. “Those subjects you claim are on my side! They tortured my father and gutted him, letting him die an agonizingly slow death as he watched them all rape my mother, one by one, then slit her open from groin to throat. Now you tell me,” he rasped, his dark eyes boring into mine, “Tell me if someone did that to your father, you would consider them your ally. Tell me that if someone did that, you would not want revenge! Tell me that if someone did that, you would not draw bold lines between what you are and what they are!”
“Perhaps,” I allowed softly, “I don’t know. But I do know I would want to resolve the problem that caused them to go to such lengths. I know I would never want anyone else to suffer as I did.” I paused, looking directly in his eyes. “I know that, despite those lines you have drawn so clearly, you are becoming what they were and that if you continue, one day you will wake up and realize that it’s yourself you hate the most.”
I stared a moment more into his stunned face, then jumped out and shut the door behind me.
That night the gypsies invited us to dine with them and join their nightly festivities. Along with Levander, my father and Eldwyn and I went and ate and laughed and danced – at least Eldwyn and I did. The gypsy music was wild and free, their dances were tempestuous and untamed and that first night I fell in love with the feeling of the earth beneath my bare feet, the sound of the tambourine and the tinkling of the little bells they tied to my ankles. As for Eldwyn, he was in his element and tireless. He danced with every woman there, young or old, and with me more than any of the rest. Everyone raised their eyebrows at this favoritism, some covered their grins with their hands and some didn’t bother hiding them at all. I have to admit that when Eldwyn with his golden hair gleaming in the firelight would drag me into a dance and spin me around until we were both breathless with laughter and exhilaration, I came near to loving him.
My father was more staid and reserved, although I noticed him tap-tapping his foot along with the beat. Levander sat miserably on a log between some rough-looking gypsy giants who were quite obviously guarding him. He glared at anyone who dared touch him, at anyone who dared even look at him, and I often felt his eyes following me and wondered what he was thinking, if perhaps he was planning some particularly grisly demise for me after I’d set him down that afternoon.
The next morning we continued northward toward Kingdom Sennern. Although it was in a greater state of turmoil than King Levander’s kingdom because its monarch had reputedly gone mad, claiming the daughter he had pronounced dead twenty years before had not died but in truth run off with his chief spy and that the theoretical child of that fictive union was his heir, his people were neither downtrodden nor bitter.
The next three weeks fell into a routine. During the day Eldwyn would continue his relentless pursuit of me, though my father kept such a sharp eye on us that Eldwyn was only able to get me alone for the occasional stolen kiss.
As for Levander, something changed in him after that first afternoon. While he continued to look at Eldwyn with loathing and at my father with mistrust, his gaze would become somewhat curious when it fell on me. He started talking to me whenever he got the chance and I was surprised to learn that he had taken the words I’d flung in his face that first day to heart and believed there was truth in them, though that had never been his intention. After he’d watched his parents die and had his throat slit and survived, he’d wanted to ensure that no one would ever do such a thing to a royal family again. Regrettably he hadn’t realized how inhumane his laws had become…how much hatred he was fomenting instead of preventing. In the end, he had awakened the same antipathy that had incited the bandits to murder his parents. The question now was how to diffuse the situation.
He seemed to enjoy hearing my opinions on the matter. My father had taught me much about politics, educated me well in social problems and I’d seen for myself the plight of the common man. Levander would ply me for suggestions for improvement until I started running out of ideas…or until Eldwyn would come spirit me away.
In a way, I found myself drawn more to Levander’s quiet gravity than to Eldwyn’s shallow gaiety.
Every evening we would join the gypsies for the evening meal and dancing. I enjoyed dancing with Eldwyn and chatting with the gypsy women – although they constantly teased me about how I’d enchanted both thief and king – but what I came to really love was the way the gypsies’ exuberance, their verve for life, their ability to enjoy simple blessings such as an open sky, a warm fire, good food, good music and good company even seemed to beguile Levander. Every now and then I caught him smiling before he realized what he was doing, and once he even got up to whirl me into a dance, and it was the first time I’d ever seen him laugh out loud.
Eldwyn seemed put out by this change in the monarch, and the hostility between the two grew more palpable every day.
My father watched everything with a grave, unchanging expression.
Something had to happen…and finally something did.
One evening Eldwyn detained me at the fringes of darkness surrounding the gypsy camp. Catching me around the waist, he said, “Althea, tell me you’re not starting to love your own captive.”
His words astounded me. “What?”
“I see how you look at him.” He buried his hand in my hair and tilted my head back, his eyes glittering unnaturally. “It’s how I want you to look at me.”
I opened my mouth to ask what he was blathering about when he kissed me with more passion than ever before – and not only with more passion, but with more determination, as if he were resolved not to stop until he had won me completely. I could taste the gypsy wine on his breath and realized he was drunk out of his mind. And when he started unlacing my dress, I knew he didn’t mean to stop. I tried to push him away but he seemed possessed and when he pushed me to the ground, I started to panic.
Suddenly, though, his weight was gone and Levander was standing over me. Dazedly I realized he shouldn’t be here, that someone should be watching him, but I only felt relieved.
Eldwyn groaned from a short distance away, clutching his nose.
Levander bent over to haul me to my feet. “It seems that I, too, can rescue my supposed enemy from her supposed ally,” he murmured, the irony in his words not lost on me. A small, smile flitted across his chiseled features. “But unlike you, I demand a price for my service.”
I blinked. If he was he going to demand his freedom, why didn’t he just run? It wasn’t like I could stop him.
Leaning close, he whispered in my ear, “I want what Eldwyn wanted.” Then he wrapped his arm around my waist, the manacles jangling, and kissed me. I opened my mouth to protest but he just slanted his lips over mine and deepened the kiss. I was stunned to the core at his passion; it surged through me like a spark in a haystack and erupted in a conflagration.
Eldwyn’s hoarse voice came from the ground. “Let her go, you bastard, or I’ll kill you.”
“Shame on you, Eldwyn,” came Tarod’s voice. “We have a better way to resolve conflicts between men. Both of you, come with me.”
I pulled away from Levander to see my father standing behind the gypsy leader, his face revealing nothing of his thoughts upon finding his daughter in the arms of his prisoner.
Eldwyn stood up, glaring at his rival, and we all followed Tarod in uneasy silence into the camp, where everyone stood in a large circle. Tarod stopped at its edge and turned to Eldwyn and Levander. “A penny from each, if you will, sirs.” He held out his hand palm up and winked at me. “Always a profit to be made.”
As neither Levander nor Eldwyn had a penny to their name, my father paid for both of them, then unlocked Levander’s manacles to even the odds and make it a fair fight.
Tarod moved aside. “Step inside the circle gentleman. Let the best man remain standing.”
Eldwyn and Levander entered the empty plot. Tarod pulled me up beside him and whispered impishly, “In for a penny, out for a sound thrashing!”
The combat began. It was vicious and seemed to last forever. I had thought that Levander wouldn’t stand a chance against Eldwyn’s street smarts, but the king made up for experience with sheer, unwavering determination to triumph. After a while I couldn’t watch anymore. No one except my father noticed when I turned away.
He followed me and we both sat down on a log by the fire, staring into the flames.
After a while I heard limping footsteps approaching and turned around.
Levander stood there, one eye already swelling closed, the other cheek scuffed and bloody, blood gushing from a cut lip and favoring his right leg. He dropped uncertainly to one knee beside me.
“Princess Althea, will you marry me?” he asked.
I stared at him blankly.
My father cleared his throat. “I was the king of Sennern’s chief spy, Althea. Your mother was his only daughter. You’re his granddaughter…and his heir.”
Such a modicum of words, uttering such an excess of implausibility.
I opened my mouth and then closed it again. I wanted to say I didn’t believe it, but it explained too much: how my father was so well-versed in politics, how he could make himself forgettable or memorable, how he garnered information from the most close-mouthed individuals.
“I wanted to court you,” Levander put in earnestly, still on his knees. “But your father would only allow it if I agreed to this charade, became your prisoner and experienced life as a commoner.”
Eldwyn appeared behind him, just as battered if not more than Levander. “It’s true. Your father, Levander and I planned it all.”
“Even your seduction?” I asked bitterly.
Eldwyn grinned ruefully and lifted his hands in a helpless shrug. “I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. If you’d rather choose me…”
“Don’t even think about it,” Levander interrupted quickly, grabbing my hand. Eldwyn grinned around his swollen lip and retreated into the crowd of stunned gypsies watching a royal proposal unfold in the middle of their camp.
“Althea,” Levander cupped my chin and forced me to look him in the eyes, and I noticed that his chains hadn’t been put back on him. “Will you marry me?”
I opened my mouth to answer.
The Thief, the King and Althea
Sonya Lano |
It was a common sight in our kingdom. A man, his arms stretched over his head and bound with thick rope to the whipping post, his bare torso grimy and crisscrossed with old scars from previous floggings, ragged trousers just barely hanging on bony hips and the toes of his bare feet scraping the dusty ground.