Jack patted his young chestnut horse on the neck as he snorted at the rushing river Alpin.
“Easy, now, Avery.” As his mother had predicted, the lords of Sunderland had been kind. Old Lord Wallace at Hemmington had even gifted Jack this mostly unbroken colt, a three-year-old chestnut named Avery, meaning wise ruler in the old language. His sire had been one of Sunderland’s fastest horses years ago and his dam was smart and spirited. The colt jumped to the side again and rolled his eyes. He was itching for a run. Jack checked him yet again. It would take this horse some time to live up to his name. He squinted into the setting sun. At least they were almost there.
Avigail trotted Griffin next to them. The warhorse didn’t give Avery a glance. Jack’s mother rode tall in the saddle and stared straight ahead, deep sorrow pouring off her like cold rain. Yet she held her chin high among the Hemmington guards who accompanied them to Sunderland’s capital, Karfin. He would do the same.
As dusk fell, long turrets rose up to meet the horizon. Guards led them through the outer gate and back toward Karfin, which sat up high against the white mountain. The Alpin river circled in front of the castle, wrapping around its front like a blue-green snake. Few villagers paid attention as they wove through the dusty path. A woman swept the porch of a shop while a blacksmith closed his door for the night. Cows mooed in the distance as the farmers threw out the evening hay. It was all so ordinary. Yet so foreign. Everything depended on this reception. They dismounted at the lowered drawbridge. Servants came for their horses while others lit torches outside two enormous doors at the top of a long set of stone steps.
Avigail strode with sure steps across the wooden bridge. Jack stayed a half-stride behind her, his hand on his hilt.
“I am Queen Avigail of Oclen, and we’re here to see the king,” Avigail announced as they paused before the two guards.
One guard glanced at Jack’s hand. “Very well, but you’ll have to disarm before you go before His Majesty.”
Jack’s grip tightened. No. Blood ran from his face.
The guard held out his hand for the sword. Avigail nodded. “It’s all right, Son. We’re safe.”
Jack’s heart pounded as he clenched the sword’s hilt. How quickly one of these guards could strike. In one swing they could impale his mother, just like his father. His brothers. He stumbled back, panting. Oh gods I’m going to faint. One of the Hemmington guards, Reimar, rested a strong hand across his back. “Let the prince keep his sword. He’s been to Hades and back. I’ll vouch for him.” His gaze met Avigail’s.
The Karfin guard’s eyes widened. He searched behind them, presumably for the rest of their party.
“They’re not coming,” Jack said through his teeth, the guard’s hand steady on his back, kindness in his touch. Jack forced air into his lungs, drew his sword and handed it to Reimar. “It’s just us. We mean no harm.” The world stopped spinning.
Jack didn’t know what kind of ice ran through his mother’s veins that she didn’t break down right there, but she looked as though she could walk through fire. And maybe she would, he realized with a jolt. For him, her only living son.
The guard lowered his head. “I meant no disrespect, but I must follow orders.”
“Of course. Prince John understands.” His mother’s voice rang out, like she was proud of him. Proud? He’d nearly passed out.
Chains clanked behind them as men raised the
massive drawbridge for the night. Gears squealed and Jack felt like someone was
tightening a cord around his chest. Now they couldn’t escape if they needed to.
The guards swung open the massive doors and led them in and to the right down a dim stone hall which followed along the side of the mountain in a semi-circle corridor to the throne room. At a signal, the guards there opened the massive doors.
A long aisle stretched down to a raised dais holding an empty chair. After a few minutes a man walked in, a dark cloak flowing behind him. “Queen Avigail, what an unexpected surprise.”
He trotted down the stairs and kissed her cheek. He offered his hand to Jack. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Lord Seamus, right-hand to the king.”
“And I’m Prince John.” His voice faltered. Was he even a prince?
Seamus’s quick gaze shot to Avigail, who gave him a frozen smile. “We need to speak to the king.”
“I’m afraid so.”
Seamus signaled to a servant to send word to the king. He glanced at Reimar, then to Jack’s empty sheath. “Is that the prince’s sword?” He winked at Jack. “Return it.”
He handed Jack his sword.
Jack twirled it once in his hand and slid it into his sheath on his hip. At once his shoulders relaxed.
Seamus smiled. “I thought so. You can’t separate a man from his sword.”
A side door creaked open and an older man ambled in. He raised his eyebrows at Avigail and shuffled over. “My dear, so nice to see you.” He kissed her cheek and glanced at Jack.
Avigail held out her hand, “my son.” Her lower lip quivered.
King Vilipp frowned. “Come and sit.” They walked toward a table with twelve chairs. “Are you hungry? I can send for food.”
“No, thank you.”
Jack’s stomach dropped when he pulled out a chair. This room reminded him of his father’s council room. The heavy wooden furnishings, the fireplaces large enough to walk in, the tapestries and the oil paintings of landscapes and ancestors riding great steeds. He bit the inside of his cheek and glanced up to find Seamus watching him.
“Avigail, what can I do for you? You were always kind to my Adelaide.”
“Yes, we were friends.” His mother inhaled and swallowed. Quick words fell from her lips as she explained the coup against her family. Seamus rose and retrieved a napkin when tears finally rolled down her cheeks as she described how quickly her other sons had been killed.
“It happened in a blink. If it hadn’t been for John, I would have been killed as well.”
“Father said to protect Mother and run. So I did.” But I wish I’d stayed and fought.
Seamus’s gaze fell steady on him as if he could read his mind. “You did well, son.”
The king reached forward and touched her hand. “I’m so sorry. The day Adelaide died, everything changed for me. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. Anything you need, name it, and it’s yours.”
“I want their heads.” Jack blurted out.
“John.” She squeezed his hand. “Revenge never brought anyone back.”
Jack snapped his hand back.
“I choose to believe there is still good in this world.” His mother’s eyes filled with tears.
Vilipp glanced to his advisor.
Seamus leaned forward. “Are you asking us to march to Oclen, young prince? We had a treaty with your father in case of foreign invaders, but not this, I’m afraid.”
Jack leaned back in his seat. Yes? No? What would his father have him say? He forced his dry tongue to work. “I am now the rightful king of Oclen. If I had an army, I would avenge my family and take back the kingdom.”
“No. Enough men have died. And I won’t have my last son ride to war. He’s not of age to make that demand. We only ask for a place to live in exile.” Avigail’s chin dropped, her strength spent. “Please.” Her gaze rested with Vilipp.
Exile. Humiliation. Jack pressed his lips together. They’d live here forever, and Lord Ingvar would get away with it. It wasn’t right.
“And what of the treaty?” Jack asked, heat climbing up his neck. “Will you uphold it with that traitor Ingvar?”
King Vilipp glanced at Seamus who shook his head. “No. I’ll have word sent to Ingvar that our treaty is void.”
Avigail squeezed his hand. “Thank you.”
“It’s the least I can do. Live here freely, as one of us.” Vilipp rose. “Seamus, see that rooms are prepared. It’s past time I retire for the evening.”
Avigail and Jack stood and bowed.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Avigail whispered.
Jack’s heart sank. With those words, his mother had allied with another land. They were never going back. He touched the hilt of his sword.
Seamus walked them out and instructed servants to prepare rooms, clothes and baths. He kissed Avigail’s hand. “Welcome to Sunderland, truly.” He bowed his head to Jack. “And John, spar with me tomorrow.” His dark eyes dropped to Jack’s hip. “That’s a nice sword. I’ll look forward to seeing what you can do with it.”
Jack raised his chin. “You can call me Jack.” Not prince. Not king. Just Jack.
“I’ll see you in the morning, then Jack.”
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