Chapter 1: The Abandoned Groom

The invaders came early, not waiting for the spring thaw to finish. It gave them the element of surprise they sought. The terrain was spotted with icy rock and the melting streams with freezing water.

The scouts, caught unprepared, had been slaughtered, so no word reached the inland.

The remaining soldiers, unsuspecting, couldn’t hold the village, or protect the castle.

When the fires started those who couldn’t fight fled to the countryside; they too, were pursued.

Avery thought he and his father were fleeing, giving the castle up for lost. His father, King Merrick, was a fine soldier in his own right, but rode away from the battle. Avery thought he was about to order a retreat, which wasn’t like him, but if that meant he wouldn’t die, Avery was fine with it; Garick was all he had left in the world.

Riding to the outskirts, they came to a trading road that would soon be packed with more peasants who couldn’t fight getting out as fast as they could, praying they’d not be overtaken.

The road was wide and well kept, and in better times, well-guarded. Not so, now.

Garick dismounted but held up his hand for Avery to stay.

“They’re already here.” The prince could see the distant smoke of the fires.

“Be brave, Avery. Be brave and grow strong, my son. Your betrothed has been negotiated. If I don’t make it back, you’re to rule in my stead. Councilor Athor will be your chief councilor, as he was mine. He’s already sworn his fealty to you.”

The prince’s eyes widened as he realized what his father was about to do.

“No!” Avery hurriedly tried to dismount, but the king gave the horse’s rump a sharp slap and yelled out a foreign word that Avery had never heard him use. The boy’s best and strongest efforts to redirect the galloping lump of muscle toward the battle proved futile, and the last Avery saw of his father, he was on horseback, charging back to the fight.

Chapter 2: The Bartered Bride

Dawn glared at her father, sitting at her own small writing desk, his hands on his knees, his face twisted in a mask of anguished pleading, and not a little anger.

In truth, from the expression on his face Dawn thought he might well strike her, something he’d never done, as she watched the pulsing vein on the side of his neck. Those who pushed him too far had also seen it, and he’d given them cause to rue making it happen.

His daughter, on the other hand, was feeling too much like a plucked bird that had the wrong feathers glued back on, so she tried to tell him again as she walked to her desk and faced him, sitting on the other side. She placed her hands on the cool, smooth wood, fully on display.

He looked away.

“Father, I will not wear this…this frippery!”

An unpleasant growl of exasperation escaped through his gritted teeth before he answered.

“You will wear that ‘frippery’, Dawn. You will seal this alliance, or you will seal our fate.”

She was in turmoil; he’d asked so little of her through the years, and even though her Mother explained the whys and hows of things, warning her child this might happen, Dawn never actually believed it would.

“You would hold the lives of our people under a hanging sword because of a simple dress?” he said.

She wanted to pull his beard, because at the core of it he was right, but only about the lives of the people who’d become their mutual subjects, not the frippery.

“That’s just it!” She turned around, so he could see the whole thing. “There’s no dress here to speak of; I look like a tavern tart!”

He straightened, but never looked up as she turned, which meant he knew as well as she that this ‘dress’ was scandalous.

Dawn straightened up too, waiting.

When he stayed silent, still looking away, she went back to her vanity and sat down, folding her arms. She looked over at him, still sitting at her desk as he dared to look up again, and for a few moments they blasted each other with mental eye-lightning.

Then his shoulders slumped, and he stood up and went to her, and placed his calloused hand on her smooth shoulder.

“I understand, Dawn. I do. In truth, it hurts my heart to see you in it, but what I am trying to get you to understand is that if this alliance isn’t sealed, when the invaders strike again…” he cupped her cheek, “a tavern tart is exactly what they’ll make of you.”

She tried to blink the tears back as he removed his hand, watching the fire grow in her eyes. He knew then the rush of outraged anger was too strong. She threw things, broke things, said things she forever regretted but never took back, but he only stood there, his heartbreak as evident as his resolve.

Her anger spent, and the room smelling of a random mix of perfumes, with shards of glass and pottery littering her floor, she only felt hopeless and powerless until she was empty and resigned.

Garick went to her, wanting to retract everything, yet knowing he could not.

They held each other for a long time. There’d been a shifting today, but of what, and where it would lead, she couldn’t say; she stood there circled by the strength of his arms yet circumscribed by the traditions of his title.

Still, a coal of defiance yet burned; inwardly, she resolved that after getting rid of these infectious invaders, she would bring her future husband’s kingdom down from the inside and make it her own.