Betraying the kingdom he had grown up in was the last thing he had expected to do this day, and yet here he was; riding to do just that.
He had no warning, no time to plan.
One moment he had been settling down for the night with a drink, and the next he was saddling his horse and racing from the castle. Now, his horse was heaving for breath as it trotted through the forest.
The suddenness of it made his head swim and his skin crawl.
He had everything and now had nothing. His uncle who raised him like a father would kill him on sight. If his uncle failed, his cousin or friend, Jaten, would be sure to finish the job.
There was no going back, and nothing to hold on to.
A low-hanging branch was within reach, and absentmindedly, he touched one of the ashen leaves. It crumbled to powder at his touch. The blight was — as far as anyone could tell — not toxic to humans, but lethal to plant life.
When had it gotten this far? Almost a full day's ride away from the castle?
Venic took in a breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm his thundering heart.
Everywhere he looked, grasses, brush, and trees were all gradually fading from their brilliant colors. Once it spread through the whole plant, the brittle leaves would drop and the plant would die. Before long, this entire forest would be ash, as if a fire had come and gone.
Every treatment tried never worked because the problem seemed to be deep within the soil itself. The blight could starve out the whole kingdom, and it was spreading faster than he ever could have imagined possible.
Movement caught his eye.
The trees opened into a large clearing. Within it, a wide but shallow creek snaked through beds of rock and moss that, while once emerald, were void of saturation. Alongside the trickling waters, amongst a large set of boulders, was a group of people from another kingdom. Wylfaren — the neighboring kingdom to the east — had sent them in a last desperate attempt to save themselves.
This kingdom was spreading its borders as far as possible, and Wylfaren was next and knew it. So, they were acting first, and Venic was their first move.
‘This is it, then.’ His hands went clammy in their gloves, and suddenly his armour felt suffocating.
As he stopped before them, Venic made one last glance to the forest behind him. He was both scanning the area for any movement and wishing desperately that he could turn around.
The landscape was empty.
The king's men had not caught up.
Not yet at least.
For now, as Venic approached the group, they were alone in the clearing in the woods. They had nothing but the sound of birds and the roar of a nearby river to keep them company.
‘Just do what you came to do and get out,’ he told himself, though he seriously doubted it would be that simple.
The leader of the group, Veskitarm, sat atop one boulder and glared at Venic with an oddly disappointed expression. He didn't bother to stand and greet him, just simply swished a wineskin in small circles.
When Venic had last seen the man, he’d been a young boy and Veskitarm had seemed much taller and far more intimidating. Now, all Venic saw was a slim, weasel-faced man that Venic wagered was shorter than he.
“As one,” Venic called as his horse came to a stop in front of them. It was the motto common in the Kingdom of Wylfaren.
“As one,” Veskitarm replied blandly, then nodded to a particularly large man who had moved to stand at Venic’s horse’s flank. “My friend and I had a bet on whether you would show or not. Looks like I owe him his share!”
Venic narrowed his eyes, reached into his belt pouch, and retrieved a scroll. It was so small it had been delivered to Venic’s rooms waxed and pinned to the bottom of a wine cork. He showed this to Veskitarm who barely bothered to glance at it. “I received your orders. Why wouldn’t I show?”
“You’ve done well for yourself since we sent you here, kid. Too well, even.” Veskitarm sneered. “Didn’t even have to come here to hear about you, Ironclaw Swordsman. Four years reigning champion…news of you has spread far.”
The men with Veskitarm positioned around Venic, blocking all directions.
He did not trust where this was going.
“It was five years.” Venic corrected with a hint of a snarl. “But you’re making this sound more complicated than it is. I had my role to play in order to gain their trust. It was part of the job. I have never had the opportunity to choose what I do as a knight.”
“Oh! Five years, he says! Good for you, Ser Ironclaw. How lucky we are to have someone so dutiful in his role with us. My, you even helped kill the Queen of Palenwood!” The man's face darkened. “Who, I might add, just so happened to be a strong ally to Wylfaren; your true kingdom by birth.”
A kingdom he barely remembered but was chained to all the same.
Venic sighed heavily, pretending this was a mild annoyance even as his skin prickled with a sense of danger. A quiet sound of stretched leather came as his gloved hands tightened around the reins.
“I had no choice. I could either play the part, or gain the suspicions of the court. If I did not go all in, then the people would have sensed something, and it would have all been for nothing.” He could feel the tensions rising, so Venic pulled off his helm and ran a hand through his sweat-damp almond hair. People tended to find him less intimidating without the helm covering most of his face, so maybe removing it would help. Maybe. “Besides, it is all over now anyway, so what are you so apprehensive for?”
“Over, is it?” Despite the change, the man's ugly sneer stayed on his narrow face. “Then you would not mind a show of good faith?”
One of the men behind Venic chuckled. They had remained silent for their leader, but Venic could feel the intensity of their gazes.
Venic felt his fingers twitch, eager for his sword. “What do you have in mind?”
“First, if you please…” Veskitarm motioned to the ground beside Venic’s horse. There really was no choice. Where did Venic have to go if he ran? All his options were gone the moment he decided to follow his instructions last night.
Venic hesitated only a moment, his eyes darting between the men. He slid out of his saddle; his plate armor clinked with his descent.
Standing beside his horse, Venic raised a brow expectantly and shrugged. ‘Now what?’
Veskitarm put out a hand. “Give it here.”
Again, Venic hesitated. There was something in that expression, something in the way all the soldiers were so tense. Still, he reached into his saddlebag and brought out a round object that he had hastily wrapped in a tunic before his escape.
This brought Veskitarm from his perch. He slid from the boulder, snatched the orb away, and opened the wrappings. His gaze fell upon the brass ball and his smile grew. The puzzle of the long past Queen Dallylyn. It was also something of which Venic was sure someone as dull as Veskitarm would never be able to even come close to solving.
It had been in the king’s treasury for centuries, and even those with a lifetime of education failed to discover its secrets. So, there it had waited on display within a glass case until last night.
“Good. Good,” Veskitarm cooed, then quickly covered it back up and slid it into a satchel on his side.
Venic frowned. Veskitarm could have at least given back the tunic.
‘Blasting ugly asshole. I have seen prettier things left in chamber pots than your face.’
“Now for the test.” Veskitarm snapped his fingers, and the men closed in on Venic.
“What is this?” Venic asked, trying to hide the panic from his expression as he eyed the advancing men. “I came here, didn’t I? I followed every order. Every single one! I played King Guwarfen’s game for years! Why are you doing this?”
“Oh, I assure you, it is nothing personal, pet,” Veskitarm said in a mockingly soothing tone. “We are just taking precautions. Always err on the side of caution, and all that. You know how it is. You will remain bound until we reach the border.”
Venic sucked in a breath, but resisted the urge to grab his sword.
They pushed him to his knees and wrenched his wrists behind his back to bind them.
‘Blast,’ his mind whirled. ‘I am dead if I run. They might kill me if I stay.’
Veskitarm moved to Venic’s horse — the horse that had cost all his savings — and started loading things into the saddlebags.
Again, his sword hand itched.
“What about the other pieces?” Venic said.
“What about them?” Veskitarm asked, disinterested while he worked.
“You expect me to remain bound while we climb the mountain? Then again as we visit Palenwood for the third?”
The narrow eyes on that weasel face flashed dangerously, and that expression told Venic everything he needed to know. Veskitarm already knew about the other pieces.
Before her passing, the dryad Queen Dallylyn had long outlived her husband and raised three sons until they too were grandparents. Then, deciding it was time, she split her kingdom into three, and gifted her sons with a kingdom each as well as a puzzle piece. Alecaven had the orb, Hyllpeak had the sword, and Palenwood had the key. The other kingdoms were now swallowed up into Alecaven, but the two pieces remained lost.
“You will not be climbing the mountain, and I can assure you that you will survive the walk to Palenwood.” Veskitarm waved. “Tie him to the back of his—”
Before Veskitarm could finish, an arrow took him in the side of the face.
Spooked, Venic’s horse bolted, taking all his supplies with it.
“Willow!” he called, but the horse did not stop.
Shouts called out and men poured in from the same direction on horseback and broke into a “V” formation to overtake the invaders. The Wylfaren men panicked and ran in all directions.
With his hands bound, Venic had few options in this situation, so he decided to go with the simplest.
He played dead.
Diving onto his belly in the mud of the creek, Venic watched as the small group of Wylfaren men either armed themselves or tried to escape. Arrows took out a few before they could touch their swords.
Venic did not have to wait to know this would be a slaughter.
He wormed forward into the creek, icy water entered the gaps in his amour and soaked him.
Horses smashed into the Wylfaren men. Screams came as blood splattered.
The horsemen split their enemies into isolated pockets to be torn apart in.
A man stepped on Venic’s back, pushing him deeper under the creek. He tried to push up, but the weight pressed heavily between his shoulder blades.
Down and down it pushed him until his head plunged under the water.