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About Kikuyu_Black_Paws

  • Rank
    The Pen Keep's Resident Ninja
  • Birthday February 12

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  • Gender
  • Location
    The Far Eastern Tower-- Room Above the Rose Gardens
  • Interests
    "If missing me one place, search another. I stand somewhere waiting for you."

    Check out my book, "Shifted", now available on Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, Kindle, and Nook --



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  • Characters
    Kikuyu Black Paws
  • Gender
  • Race/Gender Details
    I and my sister have Fey blood. By means of shifting, I can change my facial features and how I look. I have long black-brown hair with red highlights. My eyes are blue-green-grey and I have skin so pale that it reflects the light onto other surfaces (no joke here). I have two teardrop tattoos on my cheekbones and a tiny line under each eyelid that change colors with my mood.
  • Bio
    Now revealed in the chronicling of Degorram's and Kikuyu's travel to the Pen...
  • Pen Job(s)
    Generate short stories and poems, manage the rose gardens, remove pesky Stealth Sprites
  • Usual Preferred Feedback (Stories)
    Minor feedback
  • Usual Preferred Feedback (Poems)
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  1. It has been a long, long time, my friends :)

  2. It has been a long, long time, my friends :)

  3. It has been a long, long time, my friends :)

  4. Rain Standing in the pouring rain Hair hanging lank in soaked ringlets Hands smeared with water Moisture beading on my skin Beating gently down on my shoulders I turn my face up to the sky And catch the sky’s tears with my eyes It’s warm. I feel like an ancient Looking up at these stormy clouds Moving so quickly across the sky Being poured upon by this rain That has evaporated and condensed Into an endless cycle of travelling storms From ages long past Perhaps this water was drunk by a whale Was used to water a Welshman’s fields Drenched a samurai’s sword in ritual washing Soaked the deck of a Saxon’s galley Or perhaps it fell down upon the head Of a hidden hunter in the Georgia mountains Close to where I now stand Before, when all was magnolia and oak Fern and moss forest Or perhaps it fell down upon the heads Of my ancestors as they stepped for the first time Onto Ellis Island The long journey from Erin’s Isle and Scotland Washed anew with the cleansing water That now washes me.
  5. Strings I have known the chaotic warmth of a musician’s living room: Crowded, embracing, cluttered with creases and clinging creativity With empty MelloYello cans in orange and limey lemon Mimicking the peaceful glow of low lamps and sweet smiles, Set here, there on the sagging seamed floors, skewed by years and sleepless nights, Their welcoming creak with every step joined to the peeling, lead-painted walls Covered in years past by a poison-free manila laminate, aged, familiar, fondly noticed, But mostly hidden by sagging shelves of carefully ordered CDs, books, sheet music, and KISS figurines. And an aged piano crouches by the boarded window, among smiling taped pictures and sticky notes, Next to the sloped couch with its soft blankets and its handmade pillows, its teal-quilted arms Bearers of the exhausted muse too weary to crawl into bed, to leave the snug nest, Beyond the spilling mantelpiece of cherished memoirs, the row upon row of neat guitars, the strings, The violin, and the strong, gentle hands creating the intangible music of home. Saturnian Giraffe In the disturbed prison of my nightmares I see a Saturnian Giraffe. I think, “There are no giraffes on Saturn,” But there he stands in majestic glory, Disturbing glory, Elegantly gory, Striding above horizon lines in drops of red. On a pastel desert he treks his way— Two-dimensional against a flat blue sky. How slowly his skeleton legs move, Distorted, bone limbs. His clawed feet shouldn’t be able to move in this sand; They are not cleft like a camel’s, to glide effortlessly against a surface that yields, But he has no difficulty. His talons do not even sink into the grains. He floats, Eerily. The landscape steals his colors: Red, yellow, blue, Filling their hues with primary and leaving him ghostly and pale. His flaming mane wisps into a nimbus spine, And the divisions of countries etch along his hide. I wonder why he meets with a crouching bishop, A bishop in the hues of his fiery mane? But if there can be giraffes on Saturn, Dragging fire and cloud silk in their hair, Pale as the skeleton legs they stride on, Why cannot they also tread past bishops Faceless, crouched in red, Over pallid deserts And dimensional blue skies?
  6. Kikuyu wandered out of a nearby gelato shop, spooning with a tiny gelato-eating spoon tiny mouthfuls of vanilla flavored gelato. She paused, savoring the flavor. It was more like...lemon, really. Like those delightful little lemon cookies with the vanilla outers. So very pure and vanilla-ey that it wasn't vanilla at all. She paused as a noise caught her attention and she looked up, taking another lick of gelato from her spoon. A massive mob was surging towards her. Some spherical shape was being passed back and forth in the middle, falling repeatedly to be lost in the writhing mass of bodies. Squinting further she saw one of Degorram's guises crouched in a tree, looking ruffled and displeased. She definitely hadn't had her gelato yet today. The mob whooshed by her, and when it passed she found her gelato no longer in her hand. It lay in a pile, in the dirt. Kikuyu stared at it for a while, mulling the last bite of gelato around in her mouth. What an unpleasant turn of events. Most unpleasant indeed.
  7. The End The cheers that heralded the travelers home were the loudest Chivalry had ever heard, but they rung hollowly in his ears. Scarlet and gold blurred in his gaze. The palace was resplendent in festive decorations, and the people were as ecstatic as if they were heralding a new king after long years of unrest. When they were finally escorted into the palace, the cacophony dimmed to a low roar in the distance. Even though their heroes had disappeared from sight, the people still rejoiced. They had been saved by their Hero. Using old traditions he had not thought of since his Rider days, Chivalry had carefully preserved and wrapped Hero’s body in the best cloth he could find, to preserve her until they should be welcomed home. Now he settled the body at the King’s feet, keeping his face pointed away in an attempt to disassociate himself from the agony he felt. The King said nothing for a long time. His ministers were silent. The sun glimmered outside, the shadows of red and orange filtering through the windows. And still the people cheered, a sound now suddenly out of place as they gazed or tried not to gaze at the red, gold, and white funeral robes lying on the dais. “The price was high,” the King said softly. His face was dark with an unspoken thought, an unexpressed emotion. “She has saved us all.” “I…I brought her to her death,” Chivalry said thickly. “Again I have been foolish…” “Your prophecy ended with her discovery,” the King said. “Her own prophecy was her own, and her choice dictated her fate. This was not your doing.” The King glanced at Virtue and Mune, both of whom were flanked by physicians who had ridden out to meet them four days from the palace. The two stood unsteadily on their feet, bandaged and sore, their gazes cool as they looked at their king. “Your sacrifices, all of you, have saved the kingdom.” Chivalry stood and slowly backed away from the throne, leaving Hero’s body at the King’s feet. “I resign, Your Highness,” he said softly. “I will be leaving for the countryside tomorrow.” The King closed his eyes wearily but said nothing to try and dissuade him. “I wish you good luck,” he said. “And happiness.” Chivalry nodded briefly and turned away. He bowed low to Virtue and Mune. “I’ll be easy to find, should you need me,” he said softly for their ears alone. “I’ll be along shortly,” Virtue murmured. “I think I’ve had enough of the life of a King.” Chivalry smiled and straightened. He was halfway to the grand doors when the King’s voice echoed after him. “What will you do?” he called. Chivalry turned halfway and contemplated the monarch for a long time. With a half-smile he turned away again. “I think,” he said in a ringing voice, “I’ll study the stars.”
  8. The Hero They stood immobile, staring at the lounging Prince, shaking with a gruesome mixture of fear and fury. Around them the gloom deepened, contrasting darkly with the eye-bright globes that hung from the sky. Hero closed her eyes. Her mind was blank—she didn’t know what she was supposed to do. Should she try to kill him? But that would be pointless; he was already dead, and even if it was possible to kill him again, his torn spirit would be even more furious at having been slaughtered a second time. I don’t know any magic! Hero thought frantically. I can’t banish him or anything. And even if physical attacks could work, I don’t know any battle techniques. I look at stars and I draw calculations and charts! How am I supposed to do anything? Her teeth were clenched so tightly she could hear them creaking against each other. The Prince was still smiling haughtily at her, waiting for an answer, an answer he knew she did not have. She shut her eyes tightly against his pale face, the silvery imprint of his presence in the clinging darkness, and put her face in her hands, trying to summon up any plan from the weary recesses of her mind. “I thought not,” the Prince murmured. “They thought they sent a knight and a bishop to fight me,” his eyes flickered between Hero and Chivalry, “but they only managed to throw a pair of toothless dogs at my feet.” He stood from the throne, and his dark cloak streamed from his shoulders like a cascade of poisonous water. “I admit to be disappointed,” he said softly. “I thought the King’s best would pose more of a…challenge…” He raised his hands and the sky lowered, oppressive and menacing, the fierce blackness of his power summoning it downward. The air grew, if possible, even colder, so that they shook and their breath froze on their lips in tiny flakes and crystals. “I have no time to entertain you any longer,” he said simply. “You shall join my ranks and bow for the last time to your King as he dies.” Hero was sure they were all going to die. She could not save them. There was no escape. The prophesy had chosen the wrong hero. Mune shifted slightly where she lay, her pale eyes turning to gaze at Hero. Her lips moved, barely, but Hero heard her breath hiss into words as if she were speaking directly into her ear. “Night…Mare…” she whispered. Hero felt the words shudder slowly through her skin. With a sluggish, jerking movement she tipped her head back. Above her the blackness, dotted with staring eyes, watched her coldly. She could not see the stars. But…that dark sky…was moving. And Hero realized, so slowly she was surprised that she had time to understand in the seconds that remained to her. Clouds… Demonic clouds, not the sky. Her sky that she knew had not been overpowered—simply hidden. Now these dark storm clouds were rushing south, chasing the living clouds that had passed over their heads merely days before. There! she thought wildly, and just as she stared the racing clouds thinned, revealing the night sky beyond, velvety and clustered with naturally bright stars, speckling the sky in a wild spurt of diamonds. And brighter than the rest, shining through the shades, a constellation she had learned as a child, gleeful at the name and finding it much prettier than the connotations it held. The Night Mare. The fact that this constellation was visible here was enough indication that the Prince had tossed the world into a vortex of confusion. This was a constellation for southern snows—a winter group of stars. It was not a constellation to be seen in the north, much less in the middle of the summer. “Do you know what that constellation means?” Hero whispered softly. It was enough to grab the Prince’s attention. He paused, glanced at her. He said nothing, but he did not interrupt her from continuing. “In mythology it says that the Keeper of the Dead had a mare that was as dark as the sky and glimmered with the stars. Every step she took, she chimed with a thousand bells, and she was the most beautiful and most proud of all horses. None could outrun her and none could out dance her, and she did everything that the Keeper asked without having to wait for his asking. “When she died, her master placed her among the stars, and her skin melded with the night so that the sky copied her beauty and became richer for it. Her bones remained in the heavens, a marker and a remembrance to her power. Now her spirit gallops among the mortals as they sleep, and she brings all the sorrows and fears and hates that dream-bringers dare not carry in their satchels to be mixed with hope and love and joy. She is also the bearer of disturbed spirits. And sometimes…when a human is close to death, she binds them together, so that when the human dies, the two spirits depart together.” Hero smiled faintly, her breath catching in her throat. She glanced down at the Prince, her eyes hardening. “You are no longer the Prince you once were. Any shadow of your goodness and wisdom has vanished, and your royal pride has twisted into something hateful. You are not your father’s son any longer, nor do you hold sway over the royal claims.” The Prince opened his mouth to say something as Hero stood. The ice slid from her body, crashing on the ground and muffling his words. He raised a hand, pointing at her, a sneer twisting his face. “The Night Mare stands for courageous service,” Hero murmured, almost to herself. “Service even until death.” Chivalry’s voice snapped like breaking cold in the darkness. “Hero!” he screamed. Suddenly Hero tore herself free from the chill rooting her feet to the ground. Motion erupted in the shadows as the horde of dead surged towards her, ready to stop her, kill her. She’d never make it through. She gasped as Virtue sped past her, his shoulders blurring in the dark. Heat poured from his body in waves; he must have forced himself from the cold through sheer will. Hero forced herself not to falter as she caught a glimpse of his thief face, that dog face she had seen long ago—burning, hungry. Wild. Everywhere he lashed, a corpse fell to the earth, disabled and clumsy, unable to stand due to a missing leg or head. Virtue glanced back at her, his vicious eyes bright as he nodded her on. Hero charged on behind Virtue. Just ahead they could see the glimmering face of the Prince, coldly watching, unconcerned. Hero ground her teeth and gripped her knife tightly in her hand, quelling the fears bubbling up in her chest. This was what she had been rescued for. Still a sacrificial lamb, aren’t you? a tiny voice at the back of her mind said sadly. You never left that room. Yes I did. Hero thought fiercely, the face of the Prince looming even closer. This is my choice. The Prince seemed to grow tired of watching them advance. Suddenly the silvery ghosts were bearing down on them, their hands long-fingered and sharp. One caught Virtue on the shoulder, and he screamed as its hand passed through his body. His arm fell limp, but still he pushed onward, ducking the spirits and bowling through the corpses. Virtue gave a wrenching cry and sliced through the dead standing directly in front of the Prince. All time seemed to stop as he grabbed Hero by the arm and hurled her forward. The Prince’s eyes sharpened like daggers, darkness pulsed from his body, and Virtue went flying, striking the ground where he lay immobile. But the Prince had not seen the dagger in Hero’s hand. He made a defensive gesture, a strong shield of ice appearing on his left side… Hero plunged the dagger into her own chest, grabbing the Prince’s wrist with her other hand. He screamed, rage turning him a blinding white, but then darkness crept in on Hero’s gaze, and she could not feel him anymore in her grip. She smiled through the blood in her mouth, felt herself strike the ground. It was soft—in this frozen winter it should have hurt. But she couldn’t feel much of anything anymore. Dimly she heard a tinkling noise, like the shatter of glass or the slow break of ice in spring. A figure bloomed before her dimming sight…Chivalry, she thought. I’m sorry I’m leaving you. I’ll make sure the Prince makes it through this time. She closed her eyes and smiled again. Her body was warm, very warm, but she couldn’t move anymore. It didn’t matter. Just so long as the cold was gone. Then she gasped in awe, a smile slipping onto her face though she could not feel it. …the stars…they’re so beautiful…
  9. The Dead Prince The air they stepped into from the cottony blindness of the fog behind was so clear that they winced, half-blinded again in the sheer clarity of vision. As they opened their eyes, they saw before them the sky was lit with an unnatural blue light as each star burned with a ghost’s eye, blue and round, pulsing in the dark—an unnatural sky. The black, charred ground was desolate, sporting only the occasional blackened stone or spire of decimated tree. And lined out before them, as far as they could see, to either side and beyond to the horizon, was an army of charred, twisted and deformed, blue-bleeding humans. Hero covered her mouth, trying not to scream. Virtue gave a sharp cry and jumped back a step, his weapons held defensively between himself and the undead army. Chivalry’s eyes were slits, scanning the masses coldly. A cavalry of silvery grey figures floated up from the ranks of oozing flesh, as numerous as the physical dead below them, turning the dark sky bright with filigreed wisps. Their wide, round eyes stared at the intruders, unblinking, emotionless. “Ghosts,” Hero whispered. “Spirits,” Chivalry affirmed. “Then the prophesy was true. We have the dead, and the spirits. Now where is…” “I believe I am the one you are looking for?” Mune moaned and slumped to her knees, her eyes rolling back into her head. Hero found herself rooted to the ground, turned to ice, or coal, or death itself. She stared, unable to blink, unable to breath. Virtue dropped his weapons, his arms falling to his sides loosely. His expression was one of a friend betrayed, a lover cruelly rejected—utter confusion. Chivalry’s eyes widened, a look of madness crossing his face that Hero recognized from the corner of her frozen eyes, a madness she had seen come into his face long, long ago when he had been loosed from prison to come find her, still slightly insane from guilt, self-loathing, grief—the madness of seeing one’s own sins come back to haunt them. He had appeared as if from nowhere, as if he had been there all along and their minds had simply rebelled at his presence. As if he had simply started to exist in a moment. The Prince was garbed in black leather and blue silk, kingly armor. The armor from decades long past. His long hair was bleached white, the white of one who has seen the worst terrors the world and beyond has to offer, falling long and untamed around his lank face, and his eyes were framed by pale lashes, each a sharp blade of ivory curving out from heavy lids. His eyes themselves were paler than Mune’s, moon eyes, death eyes. Dead eyes. Hero recognized him. She had seen images in the histories she had read upon being schooled in the palace. She knew his face, had seen it a thousand times, though whatever he had become had stripped him of a human gender, leaving him ethereal and terrible. Despite that, there was no questioning his identity. It was…just…not possible. His princely face was strong, proud: arching nose and high forehead, tapering, strong jaw and delicate lips. Large, heavy eyes. But the face was contorted, twisted into a non-expression of death. Only the shattered remains of kindness and gentleness could be found there—remains burnt and devastated until they were recognizable only as a memory or a whim. “Greetings to you,” the Prince said softly. “You found your way here surprisingly quickly. I am glad.” A slow, queer smile curled up his lips. “I do so love guests.” His eyes settled first on Hero, then on Mune, then on Virtue. He gazed the longest at the last of them, the king’s advisor, a gleam taking his pale gaze that made Hero’s stomach drop and her knees beg to crumple past their immobile prison. His face remained unmoved and solemn. But the look he gave Chivalry was enough to melt ice. “We have much catching up to do.” His gaze returned to Mune and he curled a finger forward. “You were the one who warned them of my approach,” he said coolly. “Come here, little rat. What was it that you said?” Mune walked forward, jerkily, like a doll. She looked like she had already fallen unconscious under the oppressive weight of his presence, but her body moved nonetheless. She fell to her knees before him, head tilted back, shuddering, and her mouth moved rigidly as he raised an imperious hand. His eyes burned like coals as he watched her, intent. “Approaches now the Prince of Spirits, from the north he rides the dead. Hero by name must rise to greet him, lest history sing of how the world bled.” He dropped his hand and Mune slumped to the side. She looked like a crumpled flower, lying there at his feet. “So,” the Prince murmured. “A Hero is it?” He glanced among the remaining three standing before him. “Not you,” he said dismissively to Virtue, “and certainly not you.” His voice was smooth of disgust or hate, staring at Chivalry, but again his eyes spoke years…years of life not lived. Finally he glanced at Hero and a small smile curved his lips again. “But what have we here?” He took a step forward, and Hero thought she felt the earth tremble under the weight of his body, the body that was never meant to step again on its soil. A crack formed in the hold on her body and she trembled, her knees buckling. She would have fallen forward, but the Prince lengthened, taking one stride to cover the ground between them, and caught her, gripping her arms with hands that were so cold they burned. She whimpered as his bones seared into her flesh, branding his fingerprints on her shoulders, but he did not seem to notice her pain. “The Hero, I presume,” he murmured. A freezing finger stroked her cheek, the long nail opening her flesh. The blood froze instantly, sealing the wound, and around the cut her skin turned pale. The Prince glanced at the wound briefly, not quite surprised. “A woman. Interesting. And you are here to defeat me in some manner?” He chuckled coldly, his face too close, his breath odorless and freezing on her mouth. “How?” he whispered. He dropped her, letting her stumble to her knees where she flinched away from gripping her arms in pain. Her cheek was agony, but she did not dare touch her wounds. Almost as if in response to her pain, anger was slowly rising to melt and replace her fear. She grit her teeth, sinking back to sit on her legs, glowering at the Prince from under her lashes. “What are you doing here?” Chivalry asked finally, wrenching his jaw loose from the grip that had held it shut. “Shouldn’t you be asking how, my old friend?” the Prince answered dryly. “Surely you are curious. Logically, that’d be the first unanswerable question to enter your mind.” A sneer touched his mouth briefly, wiped away by the lack of expression that seemed anxious to keep a hold on him. “But then, logic would not be your strong point, would it? Unless you’ve so drastically changed in the nineteen years that have passed?” “I would not say drastically,” Chivalry said stiffly. “But changed enough.” “I don’t believe you,” the Prince said. “You see I wasn’t ready to die yet. But after you put my body in his arms, my father certainly was. It was easy for him. Whereas I wandered in the wasteland for an equivalent of two human centuries, my father passed me by with hardly a glance and moved on to the other willing spirits. He couldn’t see anymore, not even there. He was too ready to die. What else had he to live for? You took it from him. He wouldn’t fight, wouldn’t join me. I was put where the rest of the rebelling spirits are holed. You have never seen hell, my friend, not even on earth.” A flicker of ghostly memory blurred his sharp eyes and for a moment he was held immobile. “Do not think that my torment stopped when I died, Captain.” “I am not fool enough to ask your forgiveness,” Chivalry said quietly. “But neither will I grovel. I have paid my price. My prophesy is fulfilled. When I die my judgment will be assigned by someone other than you.” The Prince smirked, shrugging. “If I was interested in revenge on you, do you think I would have bothered with all of this pomp and circumstance?” He gestured at the dead army behind him. “Then what are you doing?” Hero snapped. Both the Prince and Chivalry glanced her way, a different shade of surprise tinting their expressions. “What reason do you have to destroy the world?” “Reason?” the Prince said. “Don’t be absurd. Since when did one need a reason?” He glanced up at the ghost-eye sky again, his pale skin bathing in death light. “I just want to watch the world burn.” The Prince snapped his fingers and eight of the charred dead broke ranks and approached. Three of them knelt side by side on their hands and knees while two hunched on either side of them. The other three stood behind them, forming a chair of dead bodies and broken limbs. The Prince settled into the throne of corpses, crossing his legs in perfect imitation of a fully alive and bored human. “So you are here,” the Prince said, propping his chin on one fist. “What is it you will do now?”
  10. The Arrival The sky raced overhead, great boiling clouds streaming southward, away from the darkness of the north. Though the sun had risen, black cloaked the horizon, lit by an eerie, non-glow. The cold had lessened, replaced by warm, stormy winds that tore their hair loose and made them squint. Hero glanced up, watching the clouds as they moved impossibly fast through the sky. She had never seen anything like it, but her scientific mind, usually fascinated with anything that required her to crane her face upwards, rebelled at this abnormality. “What in the world is going on?” she whispered, feeling the power aching from before them and above them, something so powerful that even the clouds sprinted through the heavens to flee from it. As the winds died toward evening, so did the warmth, but the balmy temperatures leaked from the air, drawing after them a thick, enveloping fog that confounded eye, ear, and nose. “It stinks,” Hero muttered, her voice muffled by the sleeve she had thrown across her mouth and nose. Hero glanced to her left, expecting to see Chivalry’s face turn her way, but all she saw was a wall of fire-stained cotton. A flicker of grey in the depths reassured her that the king’s advisor was still at her side, but she felt queasy and claustrophobic, reaching out blindly as she attempted to grab his arm or shoulder, anything to assure her that he had not left the realm of the living…or that she hadn’t. Her wrist was grabbed by a tight grip and she squeaked, but Chivalry’s face followed the grasp and he pushed his horse close up against hers, holding onto her wrist like a little child who might wander away in the dark. Hero clung to Chivalry’s hand on her wrist, terrified of being separated. She had seen this face since she was a child, in the stables, wandering around the palace, usually serious but always familiar enough to give her a small smile in passing. His hair, long, straight, and prematurely grey even though he was only thirty-nine, did not remind her of his age, but of something else…almost of magic, as she had first thought he was when he had taken her from the mud and her fear. In the eerie light of the fog, she traced his face with her eyes, reassuring herself with his company: large, long-lashed eyes, high cheekbones, thin, expressive lips, pointed chin, razor of a nose, high forehead…she had memorized his features before she could understand the equations she had learned in the dirt. Noticing her gaze, he squeezed her hand comfortingly, but even he could not muster a smile to give her. From somewhere ahead of them, Virtue’s voice echoed weirdly, twisted, decapitated from the rest of his body. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to let up,” he called, irritation tingeing his voice like the bleed of color around them. “And you’re right,” he snarled, covering his nose as he squinted, “it smells like a slaughter house.” “How far ahead did you scout?” Chivalry asked, gripping Hero’s arm tightly enough to hurt. “Three miles,” Virtue answered, running his forearm across his forehead. His sweat was beginning to freeze on his brow and he shivered as it froze his clothing. Chivalry glanced behind them, calling, “Mune. Don’t get left behind.” The seer appeared as if summoned and stared at them miserably as she shivered on her horse. The fog seemed to disorient her and she turned her head rapidly as she searched for shapes that were not there, ghosts in the dark. She whimpered, gripping the horse’s mane tightly with her fingers. “Not far now,” she moaned. “Not far now…” “Well how far?” Virtue snapped, his hands gripped into fists of fear. Mune shuddered, tilting her head back; she stared blankly forward, unblinking. Her mouth drooped open and she sat there as if struck dumb, stunned by some invisible blow. Virtue made an aggressive move her way, but Chivalry held his arm up severely. “Hold!” he snapped. For a moment Hero was afraid. She could see now how Chivalry had commanded warriors, had stopped them in their tracks. His smooth, young face was furrowed into a dread mask of determination, a demon’s mask, rigid and sharp—Hero felt that if he looked at her with that face he would cut her. The serious but kind eyes were replaced with the eyes of a hawk, an angry lynx: intense and unblinking, spitting unspoken threats. His lips were drawn back, as if he were preparing to snarl. Virtue froze. Mune shivered in her trance for a few minutes until she jerked from it as if from a nightmare. She bit her lips but did not answer their silent question. “Not far,” she repeated in a whisper. There was no point in travelling when they could not see, so they stopped as their torches failed. Virtue circled the camp while the night hours crept by, constantly watching as the fact that he couldn’t see wore on his sanity. His nose twitched, the vile scent of the fog irritating his senses and making his eyes water, further blinding him. He cursed and paused his fervent pacing, wiping his eyes. There was a sudden movement behind him and he jerked around, tears still streaming down his cheeks. Immediately a pair of knives were in his hands, loosed from hidden sheathes along his forearms. He closed his eyes and sniffed cautiously, searching beyond the stench, trying to locate… There was a rush and he jumped back as he opened his eyes in time to see a dark, vaguely human-shaped body leap at him. Its legs were bowlegged and twisted around, one foot pointing grotesquely backwards, and the torso was so contorted that the arms almost brushed the ground. The entire body was charred, but wounds on shoulder, stomach, legs, and arms leaked an eerie blue liquid. The head was twisted up on the neck so the face pointed at the sky, and as he reached the peak of his jump he saw the face clearly: it was human, distorted, drooling, and blind. Half of the face sloughed off the bone, but the jaw and cheeks were split so that it leered in an impossibly long grin. Virtue yelled in horror as he landed, lashing out with the blades. They struck flesh with a meaty smack and the creature grinned at him, but it paused, halting as if confused. It turned back reluctantly, more blue liquid pouring from its new wound, and wandered aimlessly into the fog as if it had merely lost its way. Hero jerked awake from the first sleep she had managed in days as shouts disturbed the quiet. Virtue was yelling so loudly she could swear he would blow the fog away with his volume alone, but she could not summon enough irritation to override her sudden apprehension. She sat up, staring as Chivalry grabbed Virtue by the shoulders. “What happened?” he snapped. “A human!” Virtue barked. “But it wasn’t human anymore, it was a monster. It looked human, only dead and burned, cursed, we’re close, we have to go while I can still follow it back—” Chivalry let go of Virtue and grabbed the saddle bag off of his horse’s back. He wrenched it open, pulling out leather gauntlets and a pair of black gloves. His bladed staff he removed from where it was strapped to the horse’s saddle. He thrust a pair of knives into Mune and Hero’s hands as they stood up wearily before gripping Virtue again by the arm. “Don’t run,” he said calmly. “Lead the way slowly. We don’t want to step into anything too quickly.” Virtue swallowed hard, narrowing his eyes. “I’m not a child,” he said slowly. “You’re talking to the King of Thieves.” “Then lead on, King,” Chivalry said, not lowering his eyes from Virtue’s. Virtue drew a pair of long, curving blades from under the shirt on his back. Rolling his shoulders, he turned and walked purposefully into the fog. Hero grabbed Chivalry’s shoulder. “What about the camp?” she asked. “In a little while it won’t matter anyway, one way or another,” Chivalry said, and he followed Virtue into the cloud. Mune and Hero trotted behind, the knives gripped tightly in their hands. They walked for what felt like hours, following the stiff, straight back of Virtue ahead of them. The temperature dropped even more as they walked, and the fog began to burn away. Some of it dripped into small snowflakes, brushing against their clothes and hair and eyelashes. Despite the clearing fog, the light seemed to be slipping even further away—then it became inky in the contrast of a slight blue glow that began to grow in front of them. Virtue grit his teeth and gestured with his head. The last of the fog hovered just ahead as it cleared out around and behind them. It reflected the eerie light that lay on the other side, a blue that seemed out of place in the darkness and cold that surrounded them. They plunged into the cloud, walking slowly, eyes stretching for any shape that might come stumbling out at them. Their breath was loud in their ears, the sound having nowhere to go but back to their own senses as it was trapped by the fog. And then, suddenly, they were out.  
  11. The Thief She is seven, making the six month-long trip from the furthest part of the Southern Kingdom into the Central Kingdom. It is spring now, and the South is full of bright blooms. All around is the scent of growth and life, and she cannot stop sniffing, filling her body with light, ridding her nostrils of the stench of death that has clung to them for so long. Chivalry is teaching her how to care for her pony. They bought her from the stables she lived in, a gentle, speckled-grey thing with a plucky disposition. She likes to eat oats and weeds out of her hand and her nose is as soft as the velvet of Chivalry’s coat. She likes that coat best—it reminds her of night, all dark black and smooth, and the silver buttons on the front sparkle just like stars. She likes the feel of the cloth on her cheek; it was the first thing she noticed about Chivalry when he picked her up, too weak to walk anymore, and carried her out of the stables. That and his hair. Chivalry does not talk much, but he does not ask much either. He does not ask her about what happened before. He does not ask about her parents. He knows. She is grateful for this. She does not want to talk. She likes to think that her voice was screamed hoarse and disappeared when she was in that place. That it flew away when she could not, and turned into a star in the sky. When she indicates this to him as best she can by pointing upwards, he tells her that she can pluck it free whenever she wants. It is her star. She likes that. She cries at night and clings to him, shaking in her dreams, and so most of the time she tries to stay awake so she can watch the stars. But he tries to help her sleep so that she can ride all day, and puts his arm across her while she rests so that the nightmares don’t come. It reminds her of her father, how he would shield her under his arm when the storms frightened her, before the stable. When they had a house. She begins to stop having nightmares, but she still sleeps close to Chivalry, unable to rest when he is too far. She begins to talk in a month. She says she found her star. He laughs and begins to teach her about the palace, the Central Kingdom. The king who is young and the court that is as beautiful as the flowers they see around them, fewer now that it is summer, but still as large and fragrant as in spring. He tells her about the royal stables, with as many horses as she could imagine, and of the astronomy tower that is so high up all you can see is stars. They are over halfway when the slavers catch up, just outside of the Central Kingdom. They come when the light is failing, at dusk. They jump from the trees and try to capture him in a net, to overpower him. The net tangles his arms, the weights attached to the end throwing him off balance. He stumbles. The slavers grab her and shove her in a bag; she is screaming, kicking, biting. She screams like she did in that place and the slavers are startled. They have never heard a sound like this; they have never been inside that place. They drop the bag, stepping back. She has only gotten one leg out when they start kicking her. She wakes up slowly, her face swollen and her body aching. She starts to cry, wondering if the slavers have gotten her after all. Did they kill Chivalry? But Chivalry is there. He is beside her, his face creased in an expression she has never seen before. Is he worried? Why? Where are the men? She tries to sit up but there is something wrong with her side. She cries out; it hurts. Chivalry’s face turns dark and he looks frightening. She is scared, but it is Chivalry so she does not turn away. Instead she looks around for the men. Did they run? She sees one of them half lying in the river. There is a dark stain on his head, and he is not moving. The bag lies somewhere by his feet, empty, torn. He is dead. She looks the other way and sees the other man. He is hanging by his neck, tied to a tree. The rope she recognizes from Chivalry’s saddle. She has never seen a face like that, not even in that place. His tongue hangs out and his eyes are bulging, his face purple and bruised. His neck is pale and too long—it is broken. She has seen chickens with necks like that. She starts crying again. “What is she crying for?” she hears someone, not Chivalry, say. “You’d think she’d be happy.” “She’s frightened.” That’s Chivalry. He sounds angry. Is he angry at her for crying? She stops at once and lies still. Breathing hurts her side. “Well who wouldn’t be? I’ve never seen a man act like that—went a bit beyond punishment and a little more into violence for violence’s sake. I mean they were dead already. You were wild, for sure. Positive you’re sane again? Maybe we should check.” “Listen, whoever you are, unless you have business here…” “I do, as a matter of fact,” the stranger says, and he leans over her. His red hair stands on end, mussed by restless fingers, and his skin is as tan as the ship-builders’ she saw in the streets. His cheeks are tattooed with black designs, incomprehensible shapes that make no sense to her, but she cringes away from him. He raises his eyebrows curiously over wide brown eyes but says nothing to her reaction. “Name’s Virtue,” he says, addressing Chivalry but looking at her. “King of Thieves in the Central Kingdom and resident of the palace. You’ve probably heard of me.” “I haven’t,” Chivalry says coldly. “I’ve been away for…some time.” “That’s true,” Virtue says. “Seven years, if you count prison. You see I do my research—so that when I run into someone who kills my client, I know all about them.” “If I’ve done you a disservice…” “You haven’t,” Virtue says cheerfully. “He merely has something I need to steal. And he probably has them on him. Papers, you see. Papers of contract. There’s some people missing that we think were abducted in the Southern Kingdom and my man here,” he gestures to the one lying by the river, “is one of the most prominent sellers. I’ll just ask you to leave their bodies to me and you can go on your way.” “Fine,” Chivalry says. “Might I ask—” “You may not.” “—why they came after your darling girl here?” Virtue asks anyway. She makes a noise and Chivalry ignores the question, putting a hand on her side, feeling for the wound. Her skin is hot, but there are no broken bones. Just bruises. He helps her sit up. She can see Virtue fully now. His feet are bare. Behind him at the edge of the clearing are two more men, solemn, quiet…more thieves. They stand back, in respect of their King, wearing dark robes. Only the King is allowed such flagrant pleasures as an embroidered jacket. Only a King is good enough to do so and still get away with it. Chivalry picks her up and holds her in his arms. She presses her face against his jacket, letting the velvet mould into her eyes and cheeks. But she peeks back out at Virtue, waiting to see what happens. The Thief King has already turned away from them, walking to the fallen man by the river. A bracelet of bells jingles on his ankle, and as he bends over the dead man someone else breaks from the bushes. A third slaver, hiding all this time. He has almost made it to the trees, almost escaped. A knife enters his back and he falls, screaming. Virtue’s face is no longer laughing. It is cold but burning, hungry. His eyes look like the dogs’ eyes on the street. He moves quickly, leaping over to the last slaver. He yanks the knife from his back, ignoring his scream, grabs his hair and pulls his head up. With one swift movement he slits his throat, and the screams stop. Chivalry has covered her eyes. She did not see what happened, but she heard the noises stop. The man is dead. She does not feel sorry. All she can think of is all the other children in that place. “Safe travels,” Virtue says, looking down at his kill. He glances at Chivalry, part of the dog still in his eyes. “I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of each other in the future.” “He…Her…o…Hero….Hero!” Hero jerked awake, sitting upright, covered in a sweat that immediately began to cool. She glanced up at Virtue, standing over her, gripping her shoulder. He looked weary and gaunt compared to the confident man she had seen in her dream, but despite the toll the journey was taking on him, he winked roguishly at her with his usual cheek. “Dreaming about me again? Hero, you sly vixen, stop falling in love with me.” Hero gave him a weak smile, a chill that had nothing to do with the dawn’s cold coursing down her shoulders. He was merely joking, wasn’t he? She hadn’t called out in her sleep…had she? But watching Virtue stumble away from her on sleepy legs, she was sure that he had no idea how close to the truth he had just come. Swallowing, Hero met Chivalry’s gaze across their small camp. With a jerky sigh, she pushed herself out of her blankets and into the northern air.  
  12. The Journey The silence grew as they traveled north, and though it was midsummer and supposed to be mildly warm in even the northernmost parts of the continent, the temperature dropped with every mile. There was no noise other than what they and their horses made, and it was beginning to grate on their nerves. Even the wind seemed to have lost its voice in nervous anticipation. The heaviness in the air kept the fire from lighting and their breath from coming easily to their lungs. The cold frosted the metal on their harnesses and froze their water, and the oppressive clouds hid the sun for most of the day only to let a few, sick rays through for an hour or so. Defeated into a panting, shivering stillness that brooked no protest, they traveled less and less as they days went by. Hero shivered, rubbing her arms as the cold penetrated to her bones. Tiny snowflakes, each a delicate blend of crystals, floated from the oppressive sky, like tiny stars drifting down to earth. But the wind raked along her cheek and the snowflakes disappeared on her horse’s coat—each a tiny, silent death—hopeless to watch, drawing her back to snowy streets, the cold of her village in winter… She jerked back as she realized her horse had been drifting wearily from the path, and she urged her steed back to the trail with what she hoped were murmurs more soothing than exhausted. The black horse grumbled a little, noises that, even in their grumpiness, sent warmth flooding through her hands resting on the horse’s shoulders and into her core. Mune glanced at her, picking up on her brief memory and perking up from the weariness that seemed to drag her down. “The men…who are they?” Hero closed her eyes briefly. Her heart went cold inside her, colder than the air around them. For a moment time seemed to stop, hovering around her like thick water, glimmering with tiny lights of memory. She took a deep breath and looked Mune straight in the eyes. “They are…they were…slavers.” Chivalry closed his eyes, acting as if he did not hear, or sinking into memory himself. Hero bowed her head, twisting the reins around her hands. “But you want more than that, don’t you?” she sighed. “Curious Mune…” She swallowed, glancing up at the sky, the concealed stars, for strength. “I don’t remember my parents. By the time I could walk around by myself they had left me in the stables while they worked. For a while I remember a home, going back in the evenings…then they stopped coming for me. At first I wandered away from the stables, looking for them. But the streets, where I come from, are dangerous for abandoned children. “There are dogs, for one. I was never bitten, but I saw the victims of the feral animals daily, old hunting dogs let loose after growing too old to run very far or young bloods too small for big game. But children…for dogs the size of miniature horses, they are easy prey enough. Some had their tiny limbs torn off, or their faces mauled…” Hero stopped, covering her mouth, her eyes fixated on some image of the past. “There are slavers, also,” she continued hoarsely. “They kidnap children for their practices…either sell them into pleasure shops or as ritual sacrifices for some of the more violent cults. The men who caught me sold me to a cult. “They put us in a warehouse, like animals, just waiting for them to fetch us. They picked us at random, sometimes the one who was closest, sometimes one who had yellow hair…pretty eyes…sometimes with no real purpose at all, enjoying our fear as they took their time choosing. They didn’t feed us, and some died before they were chosen…their bodies didn’t rot in the cold, just lay there, day after day…some children were even hungry enough to…” Hero shook her head, her mouth twisting. She took another breath, as if she were drowning in memory, choking on sorrow. “The screams, when they did their ceremonies, were…unbearable. Death is never the first thing—what was whole was brutally broken, what was pure was heartlessly sullied. In the end, death was a release. We could see, between the cracks in the walls that separated us from their arena. We watched, though we didn’t want to, though we wanted to look away. It was as if we had no choice but to watch, as if we were enchanted, nailed to the walls. Perhaps we were, after all. Who knows? But I was lucky. As the numbers dwindled, someone found us. The pitiful excuse for a local guard that my village provided was slow in its work, but every now and then they would stumble upon something worth noticing. They released us when our number was ten…ten out of nearly one hundred…” Chivalry’s face was a creased frown, pained, and his jaw was tight as Hero continued. “I went back to the stables and stayed there. I didn’t leave, not even for food. I hid under the horses, and every now and then one of the stable-hands would bring me a crust of bread. I wrote equations in the dirt day after day, the same over and over—I had seen them scribbled on the walls of the warehouse we were kept in, and, hardly understanding, I memorized them, as if they would somehow save me…like a spell to ward off nightmares…” “And then Chivalry came,” Mune said softly. “That’s why he was in the stable…and why you were dirty…” “Yes,” Hero said. “That’s why. And he brought me back to the palace. That was that.” Hero looked away, her silence daring Mune to ask more. Mune, staring at this girl who had hurled jeweled pins into horse stalls like daggers, did not dare. As the sun began to set to their left, Hero glanced wearily at a sad tree and was held breathless at the sight of a dead bird clinging to the branch. It was a small falcon, the blue-grey feathers of its neck and chest smudged with a black ichor that must have been old blood, but it shone like oil in the twisted, refracted light of the sun filtering through dense clouds. Hero couldn’t figure how the creature was still standing upright on the branch, its skeletal claws still gripping the wood tightly. The head was twisted grotesquely to the side, probably the cause of death, but the eyes, white from unblinking exposure to the air and light, stared at the travelers as they passed by. She began to see more dead animals, just a few, here and there by the wayside. Not all were stained with black ooze like the falcon. Some looked like they had attacked each other, tinges of blood and froth on the ground all attesting to the madness that still lingered in the twisted maws of the dead or in their frozen eyes. Some lay by themselves, their fangs and mouths stained with their own blood, sometimes dangling shreds of their grotesque meal, dead in the same contorted position that they had twisted themselves into to devour their own innards. Hero felt a hand of fear grip the back of her neck as she stared at them, a hand that grew tighter and tighter with every new corpse. They’re going mad, she thought. Or do they know that something is coming? And they don’t want to live in this world anymore? On the coldest night they coaxed a weak fire and huddled together, wrapped in every scrap of clothing they had, shivering in an agony of cold. Hero longed for her tower back at the palace, even with its multitude of paper reminders and disrupted piles of books. Chivalry brewed them a warm drink mixed with some chocolate, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Hero barely tasted hers before she set it down, exhausted in her body and in her spirit, haunted by the looming cloud of memories that had been dug up. “Can we win?” Everyone looked up at her hopeless question, eyes wide and alert for the first time in days. Hero glanced up at them, her gaze helpless. “Look at this—we’re all defeated before we’ve even arrived. The land is dying and we’re not even at our destination. What strength will we have left the closer we get to…the center of this? And what about us? Where are all the humans? Have they fled south or are they all dead too? What’s to stop this Prince of Spirits from attacking the rest of the world?” Virtue looked like he wanted to argue, if not with her declaration that they were surrounded by a situation that was bigger than them than with her derisive tone towards himself included in the enfolding ‘us’. But he stopped before he started, too tired and depressed to bother. Chivalry downed the rest of his drink and bit his lips thoughtfully, shivering violently for a moment as the cold seeped into the cracks left by the drink’s absence. “You’ll defeat us long before our enemy can, Hero,” he said coolly. Hero gripped her cup tightly, staring at the dark liquid in its hollow. Then she dropped it, spilling the contents onto the pale dirt like blood on parchment. She dropped her head into her arms and sobbed, shoulders jerking uncontrollably. Chivalry sat down beside her, pulling her against him, the warmth of his side and the pressure of his arm stilling some of her convulsions. Hero screwed her fists into her eyes as if she wanted to gouge them out and never see this heartless world ever again.  
  13. The Advisor Hero was absorbed in the feel of the horse beneath her—the smooth gait, the raw power at every bound that was like riding a rock fall, the equal strength required from her own body in order to stay in the saddle without bouncing like a sack of vegetables—and so missed the sun as it slipped below the horizon into dusk. They stopped by a river thirty miles from the palace, at a well used campsite deeply engrained into the earth by wandering gypsies and merchants. Around them the day grew quiet as the night began to come alive with the vibrant, hushed noises of crickets and cicadas. Above them a few silver-lantern butterflies opened their wings along the trunk of an elm, lighting the tree with a thousand hoary, blinking eyes as the luminescent scales of their wings caught the rising moonlight. At a horse’s sleepy snort the butterflies took off, flashing like shards of glass through their camp and whirling away into the darkness, a small stain of light on the background of midnight. Hero rubbed her steed down, grateful for both the time on the horse and, now, for time off of the horse. She had gotten out of shape since last time—twelve years without so much as a look at a horse as she had been taught, tutored, and then ingrained in the habits of her job. She blinked and looked around her, smelling the air. For that matter, when was the last time she had been outside of the palace grounds? Hero grimaced in disgust and let the thought lie, wrapping her thick coat around her shoulders as she trudged towards the fire. Hero paused just beyond the dancing fingers of red and orange that the flames stretched hungrily into the dark. Chivalry sat to the right of the fire, his sharp profile limned with flame and shadow in turn as he swept a bright knife over the unprotesting skin of a potato fresh from the coals. He juggled it slightly in his hands and took a bite, his expression never changing from its blank, yet intense, gaze on his work, even when the hot whites of the tuber singed his fingers. Hero shivered slightly, remembering this scene from a much shorter perspective and a much lighter mission. But then Virtue stepped into the firelight, dumping an armload of branches onto the crackling red beast. Hero blinked and sighed, stepping likewise from the shadows to sit beside Chivalry. Hungrily she reached for a potato. Mune’s milk eyes found Hero from across the oval of illumination. “In the vision…he was with you. He took you from the stables.” She cocked her head slightly, gaze swaying slowly between Hero and Chivalry. “Why?” Hero stiffened and glanced at the king’s advisor, wondering at his answer. Upon her arrival at the palace as a child, Hero had spent three years asking that very question, that why, only to receive a different, joking reply each time. She had soon stopped asking. The reality was either too trivial, or too serious, for Chivalry to bother spending a moment of his time in the telling. Perhaps it was neither. Perhaps it was too shameful. Chivalry took another nonchalant bite of potato, but Hero could see that he was suddenly tense. Why? He had always shrugged off her inquiries with a laugh and a sardonic smile, calling her a curious child and reminding her of the rhyme about cats and death. Hero hated that rhyme. Why didn’t Chivalry change the subject? Hero glanced at Mune’s eyes and felt a chill finger its way across her shoulders. Ah yes, she thought. Because she’s a seer. An exceptionally powerful one, if that incident in the stable is any indication…and what she wants to know, she finds out, one way or another. Hero stared unhappily at Mune, annoyed by the girl’s lack of a sense of others’ privacy but uncertain as to how she should handle it, curious as she was herself. Chivalry finished his potato and dusted off his hands, pulling a light pan from the pack horse’s saddle bags and setting it on a small tray over the fire. Virtue put slabs of venison into the pan, his own jaw tight with the tension that was growing in the small bubble of flame. “I was the one responsible for bringing her to the palace,” Chivalry said finally, and his tone was curt and cold, daring the seer to ask more. “Why?” Chivalry looked up in surprise at Hero as her question answered the dare that had not been for her. Her frown brooked no arguments or stories. Chivalry digested her question warily, watching the venison cook with an ominous hiss. “I suppose,” he said darkly, “that if I simply refuse to say, you’ll look at my past for yourself, won’t you?” He gave Mune an accusatory glance, and she smiled mistily. Chivalry turned to Hero. “And you’ll never give me a moment’s peace?” Hero set her jaw firmly. Chivalry sighed and stood. He grabbed a cup and clambered down the river’s bank, coming back with a silver cupful of dark water. With a sigh he sat back down, taking a mouthful of water in thought. Then, with a deep breath through his nostrils, he spat the water into the fire. It erupted into a cloud of steam that moistened their faces and hid Mune’s eyes for an instant, but even before the steam had fully cleared away, their moon-like glint could be seen staring unblinkingly through the vapor. “When I was born the seer living in the palace at the time, a seer who died twenty-three years before our current king came to the throne, named me Chivalry. Chivalry—cheval in the old language, when it used to mean more than just a name.” “One who rides horses,” Virtue muttered, and everyone glanced at him in surprise. He scowled and flipped the venison pieces with a knife. “What? Just because I’m a thief doesn’t mean I wasn’t schooled.” Chivalry smiled ruefully and rubbed his thumb along his lower lip. “Yes,” he drawled. “One who rides horses. It is no surprise, then, that I soon became quite an able horseman. By the time I was fifteen I was given charge of the king’s stables, by the time I was eighteen I was the captain of the king’s Riders.” Hero was impressed. The king’s Riders were the most talented, daring, and wild cavalry in the five lands of the continent. Neither the North nor the South, nor the East nor the West kingdoms could boast a better regiment of horsemen, and they were by far the most powerful asset in the king’s entire army. “No wonder you were able to protect me,” Hero muttered, but she bit her tongue lest Chivalry decide to stop his tale. “Horses, horses,” Mune said dreamily, her eyes drifting to some far off vision. “When I turned twenty,” Chivalry continued, not heeding Mune’s mumbling. “I fulfilled part of the rest of the seer’s prophecy about me. He had told my parents that hero would I kill, hero would I find.” Chivalry snorted. “Foolish. At that time we were all hotheaded, rash…and I the worst of them all. When an enemy ran from us, I said follow. When we were pushed into a corner, I said fight. Never, not once while I was captain, did I use the word flee.” “And someone died,” Hero said softly. “Not just someone,” Chivalry said testily. “I was given a choice. The old king’s son was sent to the Riders for a season, for training and…for refinement.” Chivalry snorted again and shook his head. “I was proud. I believed I was strong and wise. And so I pushed them, harder than I should have, harder than I had ever in years past. A group of infamous mages were ravishing the countryside. We pursued them and did not turn back. My Riders were tired. The prince was tired—he was a strong warrior, but he was not used to the Riders’ ways, not in just a season. We should have fled, I saw it coming, saw him falter. I saw him. But I did nothing. “And so…he died.” Chivalry dropped the cup, his mouth a twisted line of memory, like a blanket wrung dry, wrung of truth. “It should have been me, but the prophecy had not had its way yet. Not just yet. When I brought the prince’s body back to the king, his heart broke. Right in front of me, with a sound like…a thousand horses screaming, or the winds crying…and he died as well. In an instant, I had been the tool that had murdered the king and his son.” “Surely it wasn’t your fault…” Hero muttered. “It was my fault as surely as if I had stabbed them both through the heart,” Chivalry said fiercely. He calmed suddenly, and bowed his head again, brooding. “They died the year you were born, Hero. “I was imprisoned, and justly so, though they treated me kindly by comparison. Three years later they found a new king, only thirteen years old. When he came he commanded a reordering of the royal library. There, someone found the remains of the prophecy about my birth and dug them out. For some reason the tale interested the young king and he had me brought from seclusion. He fed me on rich fare, allowed me to dress in the robes of state, and told me that, should I bring the hero I was prophesied to find back to the palace, he would make me his advisor.” “Why not give you your captaincy back?” Hero wondered. “I would not have taken that position back for the kingdom itself,” Chivalry said softly. “I would not have even taken the position as advisor but for his insistence. I set out looking for the hero because it was all that I could do. But he did give me a horse, and the companionship I found with the steed gave my mind much ease. When I first set out on my quest in search of this hero, I was not fully in my right mind. But, after four years of looking, I was saner and less plagued by ghosts. After those four years I tracked hero all over the continent until I came to a little village, a muddy village, a village swarming with slavers, near the coast, where I heard of a girl-child of seven who was named Hero and who had begun drawing the calculations for stellar routes in the dirt of the stables before she could even write her name. At the time we still did not know what kind of hero you were supposed to be, or why. But I brought you back to the palace and took up the position as advisor. And it was, ironically fitting, I suppose, that I found you in the stables. The prophecy, that prophecy that damned me, began and concluded with horses.” A dull, tense silence settled over the campfire and those huddled around it. Virtue grunted and pulled the pan from the fire, shaking it gently to dislodge the meat from the metal. “Food’s ready,” he muttered, and he stood. Hero shot to her feet as well and started finding the dried lettuce that they would use as edible wrappings for the meat. Only Mune and Chivalry did not move, and their fire-leaping shadows, falling and flickering across each other, danced in the darkness.  
  14. The Departure Hero tossed and turned all night, thrashing her blankets into a tangled, suffocating mess. She was hot and uncomfortable, her blankets kept snarling around her; even the hair on the back of her neck felt like a hot bristle-brush scratching her. I’m scared, Hero thought as she trembled under her pillow, staring at the stack of books and papers on the desk beside her bed through folds of cloth. I don’t want to be a hero. I don’t want to save the world. Hero shivered and threw herself out of bed, her bare feet landing on the cold stone floor with a faint smack. She pressed her hands to her face, trembling now as her panicked sweat cooled on her body, leaving her feeling empty and unsettled. With a sigh she sat on the window seat and stared up through the crystal-paned window to the stars. The sky was beautifully clear, a dark midnight black like the deepest part of the sea that she had never seen, and had she not decided early that evening on getting a good night’s sleep—ha ha—she would have been up on her observatory with her charts and compass and ink, her whatchamathingy that the scientists from the east had just created, what was it…a telescope. Staring through the slender golden tube to the heavens above, each star a glowing, burning eye watching over her in their steady, constant rotation above the earth. Well, that was the Romantic way of thinking of it. Not scientific at all. But they were beautiful, nonetheless, and their gaseous flames captured her attention and diverted it away from memories of her childhood and the anticipations of her, possibly to be very short, future. Hero sighed and twitched as movement scuttled at the corner of her gaze. She glanced to her right and watched as a fat, fuzzy brown spider threaded itself precariously into a circus performer’s dangling pose, hanging by one strand as it eased itself down from the window sill to the seat far, far below. She blinked as it floated lower, strung by a tiny cord of filigree and shadow, its legs held stiffly as if the spider were terrified of the drop and needed every ounce of its arachnidian self-control to make the journey. Hero didn’t mind spiders as long as they kept their distance and a respect of personal space. If she knew where they were, they could get along. She cocked her head as the moonlight caught in the thread, turning it to a silver wire, and pricked along the thousands of hairs on the arachnid’s body—suddenly it was a silver-furred sphere, a glowing orb, a star. But she blinked again and the moonlight shifted. The spider reached its destination with a frantic scuttling of thankful legs and disappeared into the window curtain. Shivering again and following the spider’s lead, Hero climbed reluctantly into bed, snuggling the now adequately warmed blankets into a cocoon of safety. Hopefully that spider wouldn’t find her in the night. She sighed and closed her eyes, conscious of the stars’ gaze on her head and shoulders as she drifted, floated into sleep at last. When Hero woke light flooded around her. So much for an early start. What, had they forgotten? Then Hero realized she was upright, outside, dressed, and standing next to the black horse she had picked. She jerked fully awake with a small shriek, glancing wildly about her in panic. Chivalry was there, his hand now pressing firmly, comfortingly on her shoulder, grounding her safely to the earth. “You didn’t wake no matter what we tried so we just had you brought down and readied to go,” the king’s advisor said with a smile. “Aren’t you glad we saved you the steps?” Hero blushed but had nothing to say—if she hadn’t woken during the process of being hauled from her bed and propped downstairs then what Chivalry was saying about the depth of her slumber was probably true. She couldn’t blame him for that. Instead she cleared her throat and shook out her feet irritably, feeling as if her clothing had been put on backwards. The horse whickered and rubbed its head against her cheek, forcing a smile to her lips and she petted its warm throat to distract her. Virtue and Mune were standing nearby, dressed to travel and each with a tired, blank look on their faces. Virtue caught Hero staring at him and glanced over at her, the exhaustion leaving his gaze as his eyes sharpened predator-like on her, a small grin creasing his lips and shifting the bruise on his cheek. Hero looked quickly away, again feeling foolish and embarrassed. As the trumpets sounded she gratefully pulled herself onto the steed’s back; it was safer up here, high above the ground, with a powerful ally ready to carry her far, far away if need be. Chivalry glanced at Hero as he, too, settled in the saddle of a chestnut mare. “We’ve been here before, haven’t we?” he said with a mixture of cheer and gravity. “Good times, eh?” Hero wouldn’t have described them as particularly good. The long, four month journey from her scummy hometown to the palace had only been pleasant when she considered her unrestricted time with the horses. The tiring days, saddle-sores, unappetizing food, raw elements, and roaming slave-traders on the other hand had made the journey a living nightmare. But still…with Chivalry sitting there at her side, the horses stamping in the dawn, she couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic. It had been one person, and one person only, who had brought her out of the stables in the dirt and fought off the slave-traders in their relentless raids. Not friends, not family, not the king or the law. Just Chivalry. “I’m…glad you’re with me,” Hero muttered. Chivalry’s face broke into a wide grin. Virtue pressed up between them, his white gelding tossing its head. “Well that’s not fair,” he said roguishly. “Chivalry, share, it’s only polite.” The king’s advisor snorted and turned his horse away, setting it trotting towards the gate where the packhorses were waiting to be lashed to the journeyers steeds. Virtue pursed his lips in mock injury as he watched him go, turning back to Hero. “Rude, as always,” he chided. “How did you sleep?” Hero scowled at him, wondering if he was referring to her inability to be wakened at dawn or her inability to fall asleep earlier in the night. Who knew when he or one of his men was spying. “Just fine,” she said crisply. “And yourself?” Virtue’s eyes glittered and Hero held up a hand. “Wait. Forget I asked,” she said with disgust. “I don’t want to hear about whoever it was you spent the night with.” “I was alone!” Virtue said with an unconvincing look of horror. “Honestly, do you think me a complete heathen?” “Yes,” Hero said bluntly. “Wounded, simply wounded,” Virtue said, his eyes flashing again. “But truly,” he said under his breath. “I wandered the palace’s perimeter myself. The king is moving his guards into a circumference. And the north…there was something…odd about it.” “Odd?” Virtue’s lips were thin as he glanced in the prophesied direction. Hero had never seen a crease on his brow before or such worry in his eyes. The Thief Lord was always confident and cool, almost slick. But now…this was an entirely different man. “I don’t know,” Virtue said slowly. “I didn’t like it.” “Hurry up you two,” Chivalry called, and Virtue stopped the conversation there with a twist of his mouth. They stood with their horses lined shoulder to shoulder as the king exited the palace, flanked by his horde of ministers. His silvery-blonde hair was braided into a coil and his dark eyes ritually lined with charcoal. Hero was startled to see that he wore blue and green robes, colors contrary to the royal family’s red and gold. What had she been told about that…ah yes. A sign of waiting. Of debt. Usually a king would don such robes when waiting for a messenger—probably bearing an apology to a noble or another monarch—to return to the palace. “I guess I should feel honored,” Hero said darkly under her breath, and Chivalry glanced at her without moving his head, a small smile on his face. “I pray that your journey is a short one and your return easy,” the king said as he took a short bow towards the group of travelers. “All expenses have been made to provide you the best equipment and weapons that the seer would allow.” He nodded briefly to Mune, his expression weary. He crossed his hands over his heart and bowed again, this time deeper. “Good luck and good hunting.” Hero recognized ritual words when she heard them, but in such a context it seemed highly inappropriate. Even the too-bright gleams of light hitting the jewels on the king’s robes seemed nervous and frightened: the white sunlight of a hot afternoon before a nasty storm. Instead of questioning, however, she followed Virtue and Mune as they turned their horses towards the gate, sending up a plume of dust as their tiny caravan exited the massive boundaries of the palace. Even over the sound of several horses’ hooves pounding the earth, the hollow thud as the gates closed sent a nervous churn roiling through her stomach. Hero refused to look back.  
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