NB: This is currently unedited…
“It never comes.” Llew listened into the darkness of the crypt. Nothing, but an almost imperceptible sigh of the air moving through.
One of her hands cupped Cassidy’s cool one, while the fingers of her other hand trailed over his dry skin.
She laughed. “There’s just something about a dark place like this. Seems it should be dank, too.” But of course, for the sake of its inhabitants, it wasn’t.
She always found herself listening out for the drip of water. It never came. Not in the week she’d been coming to visit Cassidy, anyway. The crypt was below ground, so perhaps it would live up to its promises after a heavy rain, although the entire threshold was a grate and the air was forever moving, so it was just as likely to remain dry and unchanged no matter what happened outside.
“Karlani hasn’t said anything more.” Her own voice whispered back at her from the walls. She really was talking to herself. “She went straight and told Aris her nose was broken, but she didn’t even bruise. And like anyone would believe I could do damage to her.” Truth was, Llew had been worried. She’d expected Aris’ wrath. But it had never come; Karlani’s accusation dismissed as stirring. Two women parlaying over the affections of one man was never pretty. But Llew was not about to let Karlani swan off with the father of her future child. Besides, since leaving Cheer, Jonas was the only person, the only thing, that felt like a home anymore.
As always, Cassidy offered no advice or alternative perspective. Llew puffed out a sigh. She’d been fretting over the aftermath of her fight with Karlani for a week. It was time to let it go.
She gazed across Cassidy’s limp form to the rows and columns of concrete drawers and tried not to think too much on their inhabitants. But she couldn’t help wondering, yet again, if they all looked as well-preserved as the recently embalmed Cassidy. Each day her fingers itched to slide one open and see for herself. But the space had such an ancient quality to it she was scared the whole place would crumble if she dared touch anything besides Cassidy, his platform, and the seat for mourners.
This place had a history Llew couldn’t fathom. Her home town of Cheer had existed for perhaps three generations, and was built with no intention of standing through many more. But Lord Gaemil Tovias’ home and all its outbuildings, on the hills of Rakun, were built to last. Llew’s own presence there would be fleeting.
“No one has said anything about when we will head for Quaver, yet.” It was coming. They had to go. But it would mean leaving Anya and Cassidy behind, and Llew really would be alone.
A crypt was no place for one to spend great lengths of time, really, and an embalmed body offered little in the way of conversation, but Llew was lonely. She hadn’t seen any of her friends outside of meal times since arriving back at the estate a week ago. They were too busy and Llew too much a liability.
Oh, she and Anya had spent a few moments here and there, silently perusing the estate’s library books. But Anya had a whole new life to settle into, what with learning her duties as the future wife to Lord Tovias. She had a whole new city, region and country to get her head around. All so much bigger than the rustic Cheer she and Llew had recently departed.
And Jonas had tried to talk to her after meals, but he was too often rushed away to train Lord Tovias’ troops, or encouraged to spend time with his Syakaran contemporary, Karlani. His and Llew’s conversations were becoming stilted.
Cassidy had been a good place to unload her troubles. She was a long way from home and her future was only certain in that it would almost certainly mean captivity or grave danger. Or both.
She left the crypt, crossed the cobbled courtyard and took the low, sweeping, staircase up to the mansion’s main entrance. Nearly twice as tall as Llew and framed in heavy, dark-stained wood, the glass in the doors was of a quality Llew had never seen anywhere. There was barely a ripple in it. One of the uniformed guards swung a door open for her. It always awed Llew to see such heavy-seeming doors pivot so silently and smoothly on their hinges.
Inside, the solid stone walls and high ceilings were at once both comforting and cold. She missed her Spot on the shore of Cheer’s Big River, but she was a long way from the streets of Cheer, and as much as she may have wished to return, she couldn’t deny she had landed on her feet.
The hallways of marble floors and heavily decorated walls were a shrine to money. The bedrooms were lined in dark, warm wood panelling and homely wallpapers to maintain a restful ambiance, or perhaps remind less wealthy guests of their less exuberant homes.
Immense paintings dressed the corridor walls. Great men peered down at her from gilded frames. In most, they were just a head and shoulders, looking upon those below with disdain. Some were full length portraits of one man or another standing proudly beside a prized horse, often wielding a sword, and wearing a heavily medalled uniform. Occasionally, a proud man might stand behind a chair, with a woman cradling a small child seated upon it. Perhaps less frequent—though Llew’s attention was drawn to them more often than she would care to admit—were images of women draped sensuously about one or other of the men, breasts and rounded buttocks bared for all to see. Llew wished she hadn’t.
She paused before a family portrait, the man standing tall and proud, not a weapon or beast—or breast—to be seen, just his wife smiling down at the tiny infant in her arms. Not for the first time, Llew’s hand went to her own belly and she wondered if one day she would gaze upon her and Jonas’ child with such love, or if the sick feeling, as opposed to the nausea of early pregnancy, would remain. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to have his baby; she just didn’t want to do it alone, but the chances of Jonas being allowed to be a father to her child, their child, were minuscule. Just as minuscule as the child itself. Her belly was still as flat as ever, the only outward evidence of the baby’s existence: the fact that Jonas lived. A fact taken for granted by those who had yet to learn he had died.
Her hand dropped to her side and she turned to Hisham, Jonas’ best friend and fellow lieutenant in the Quaven army. Slightly darker in complexion than Jonas, Hisham wore his naturally ringleted, shoulder-length black hair tied back in a half ponytail. Quaver had sent a small contingent of soldiers to help shore up Lord Gaemil Tovias’ security, and it seemed those soldiers with Karan heritage experienced certain leniences when it came to uniform. Hair length being one.
As excited as she was to see a familiar face, she was disappointed Jonas wasn’t with him and failed miserably in hiding it, but it only seemed to make him smile. He beckoned Llew to follow him. She gave him a quizzical look, but, with no more than a teasing smile, he had her interest piqued and she followed him to the stable where her horse was already saddled. She didn’t question where he was taking her, since Hisham didn’t seem inclined to enlighten her anyway, and mounted. Then she steered her horse to follow him across the courtyard, around the fountain, and through the gate.
“Hey!” One of the gate guards pulled them up short. “She isn’t supposed to leave the compound without a full bodyguard. Earl Tovias’ orders.”
Hisham turned his horse, straightening in his saddle, displaying his uniform in full. He wore the same red jacket as the estate guards, but his cuffs were decorated by double gold banding and one shoulder bore a half-cape with the crest of the Syakaran line he was most closely related to embroidered in gold thread. Some sort of long-legged dog.
“Oh.” The guard gave a nervous laugh. “Of course, lieutenant.” The guard bobbed his head. “Carry on, then.” He afforded Hisham a grin before sending them on their way. Hisham had been running exercises with the Earl’s men for the past week. It seemed they liked him well enough, as well as recognised that a single Karan was bodyguard enough. Except, perhaps, against Braph. But Braph was dead.
Outside the stone walls, they turned from the road that led to Rakun’s town centre, circumvented the estate and started up the lush green hill behind. The air was crisp with the dry chill of winter, the sky cloudless. Clear of the estate’s walls, Hisham kicked his horse into a brisk canter and Llew followed suit, revelling in the cold air breezing through her hair. It was getting long, the ends touching her jaw and collar. Now that she was safely amongst friends, she didn’t feel the need to trim it. She may have missed her home by Big River, but she didn’t miss the Cheer locals, most of whom saw women as little more than a costly entertainment.
They crested the hill and Llew adjusted her seat for the downward slope only a little late, narrowly preventing a fall from her saddle. Amico threw his head once to show his contempt before continuing on with the rolling gait into the heart of the valley and up the next hill. He nearly unseated her again when he kicked his heels in the chance to run.
Hisham pulled up on the hill’s rounded peak and waited for her to rein in beside him, letting her take in the view of the meandering river below. She hadn’t seen anything so beautiful in nearly two months.
She beamed a wide smile at Hisham, which he returned with a knowing one of his own. Her freedom had been severely limited lately. She needed this, and he knew it. He also knew where he was taking her, and she was more than a little eager to find out. She was almost certain it had something to do with Jonas. About time, too.
He continued on at a walk, and Llew followed, breathing in the clean smell of fresh water surrounded by greenery—trees, grasses and shrubs, all benefiting from their proximity to the river. It smelled like home.
At the base of the second hill, Hisham turned to lead Llew around a copse of trees sparse enough for her to see the water rushing past on the other side of the trunks, yet dense enough to block out the roar. The trees followed a bend in the river and nearby, in a small clearing just past the apex, Jonas’ horse grazed. Llew looked to Hisham, who returned a cryptic smile, despite any sense of mystery having absconded. She twisted one way and then the other, trying to locate Jonas himself. Hisham dismounted and took Amico’s bridle while Llew swung from her saddle, then he hobbled her horse beside Jonas’.
“This is where I depart,” he said. “I think you’ll be wantin’ to walk through right about…” He crouched and pointed through the trees. “There.” Now she knew where to look, she saw the silhouette of a man in a wide-brimmed hat sitting on the bank of the river.
Hisham was already mounted when she turned back. He gave a small wave, turned and kicked his horse into a full gallop. Llew turned back and made her way through the trees.
Shhh… more chapters are be found on Wattpad (Up to Chapter 5)