Princess Helena sat stiff-backed in the chair at the far end of the large chamber. It was one of the few rooms of the palace whose stone walls were bare, devoid of the furs and rugs that made the other rooms comfortable.
She stared at the heavy wooden door opposite from where she was sitting, then glanced at Anastas, her most trusted lady-in-waiting and devoted friend. “What do you think could be taking him so long?”
“I’m sorry that I don’t know, m’lady,” Anastas replied with a nod. “He is busy, now that he has the throne. Perhaps he was held up with the council or maybe…”
Anastas was interrupted by the sound of the large door at the end of the room creaking open on rusty hinges.
Helena narrowed her eyes, peering into the dark hallway beyond to see if it was who she was waiting for. A cold shiver raced down her back as the expected figure came into view.
Her half-brother and now king, Sadon, waved away the two guards that were about to follow him into the room.
The two glanced at each other before one of them reached into the room, grabbed the door handle, and swung the door shut.
Sadon sauntered across the length of the hall, his skeletal frame draped in a thick fur that was pinned together across his chest. He peered at Helena with his dark green eyes from under a perpetually furrowed brow as he walked.
Noticing there was someone else in the room, he looked at Anastas and waved at her to get out.
Anastas opened her mouth to speak, then seemed to realize the command had come from her king. She curtseyed, cast an apologetic glance at Helena, then hurried toward the door.
“Just a moment!” Helena chirped. “I’d like her to stay!” She did not like the prospect of being alone with Sadon in the cold room.
Sadon came to a stop in front of her and rested his claw-like hand on the top of the large, gnarled walking stick he used.
Helena wondered how someone who looked so un-regal could be a king. Her heart ached at the memory of her father and his passing. Sadon’s ascension to the throne had been a terrible blow to the kingdom.
“I suppose it doesn’t matter,” Sadon said. “You’ll be gone soon enough.”
“I beg your pardon?” Helena asked, standing up to meet his gaze.
“Have you forgotten how to bow to your regent?” Sadon asked, looking her up and down.
Bile rose up from the pit of Helena’s stomach at the reminder. She had never in her life thought that she would have to bow to him of all people. Sadon had been always been unkind to her but now that he was king, his menace had taken on a particular sort of sneer.
But, whether she liked it or not, he was the king now.
Helena graced him with her slowest, most sarcastic bow, hoping the intention wasn’t lost on him. She stood up just as slowly to see him shaking his head.
“It’s behaviour like that that’s earned you what’s coming,” he muttered, his mouth cracking into an ugly grin.
“Forgive my ignorance, my king, earned me what?” Helena asked.
Sadon’s eyes raked up and down her body, as if he were appraising her for sale. When his gaze met hers again, his smile seemed even more wicked. “You’ll forgive me, sister, but I had no other choice.”
Helena found what he’d said unsettling but did her best not to show it. “No other choice? No other choice but what?”
Sadon spun on his heel and lifted his crooked hand to examine his manicure. “There are troubles in our house, Helena,” he explained.
“There have always been troubles, my lord.”
“There have always been troubles, yes,” Sadon agreed. “Our father, may he rest in peace, never quite knew what to do with them. The coffers are empty, as they have been for some time now. I’ve had to raise taxes on the surrounding duchies and still there’s barely enough money to keep Dunkeep in food and firewood.” Sadon flicked a hand and stared up at the ceiling.
Helena watched him cross the room to the large, narrow windows on the other side with growing unease.
“The Grahr warrior tribes to the east have sent an envoy,” Sadon said, his smile fading and his lips forming a thin, tight line.
Helena’s stomach roiled at the news. No news about the Grahr ever ended well. Still, better an envoy than a raiding party. “And what of it?” she asked.
Sadon turned to her and smiled again. “They’ve offered a truce, sister,” he explained quietly.
“A truce?” Helena asked, shaking her head in disbelief.
“Yes. Hard to believe, isn’t it? They have promised to stop the raids on our villages. The barbarians seem to have got it through their thick skulls, finally, that it might be better to cooperate than to war.”
Still a little dumbstruck by the news, Helena nonetheless found her misgivings about her brother soften slightly. Accepting a truce with the Grahr was the diplomatic solution. She found it hard to believe he had been able to swallow his pride enough to do so. “But, surely a truce is a good thing, is it not? Why do you speak of troubles?” she asked.
The smile spread across Sadon’s lips again. “Certainly,” he replied. “But a truce is nothing without some sort of agreement, something binding our two peoples together. Something that will guarantee cooperation well into the future.”
“Yes, you are right,” Helena said, nodding. Strange as it was, Sadon was starting to make more and more sense with each word he spoke. “And what have you offered to guarantee the agreement?”
Sadon broke into an amused chuckle. “Oh, Helena, how I’ll miss you,” he said quietly.
Helena’s blood ran cold as she turned to look at him again. “Miss me?” she whispered. Her distrust of him hardened once more. She cast a furtive glance at Anastas, who was staring at Sadon with a furrowed brow.
“Yes,” Sadon replied cheerily. “The barbarian elders suggested the arrangement and I was more than happy to oblige and give them what they desired to seal our contract.”
“Yes,” Helena replied, “and what is that?” Her impatience grew at Sadon dragging out telling her whatever important news he had.
“This will be an excellent way to pay tribute to our Grahr friends in exchange for the promise that our lands to the east will not be raided. Two of their warriors will be arriving with a small entourage later this week to pick it up.” Sadon smiled even more widely as he spoke.
Helena swallowed back the nervousness that had tightened her throat. Something didn’t feel quite right about how much Sadon was enjoying this meeting, or the news that he’d brought. She waited as long as she could, holding his gaze in the silence before it became too awkward for her to bear. “And what, pray tell, brother, have you given them in return for that?” she asked, struggling to remain polite.
Sadon’s smile twisted his thin lips into a sneer. “You, Helena,” he said softly. “I’ve given them you.”
Anastas ran up to Helena as soon as the door had slammed shut behind Sadon. “Oh, my lady!” she cried as she wrapped her arms around Helena’s neck. “This is the most terrible thing that has ever happened!”
Helena’s stomach was a hollow shell as she stared at the wall, unable to believe what she’d just heard.
“He won’t really do it, will he?” Anastas sobbed. “He can’t!”
Helena couldn’t find the strength to answer. She shook her head slowly and put a hand on Anastas’ shoulder to reassure her though she wasn’t sure of what.
As much as she hated him, Sadon was king and could do as he pleased. “There, there, Anastas, don’t be upset,” she whispered, staring past her into the distance.
“Maybe it’s some cruel trick?” Anastas said through tears. “Maybe he only means to scare you? How could he do something like this to his own sister?”
Helena couldn’t resist a smirk. “I’m sure he’s been delighting about this since the envoy arrived. Sadon has wanted to push me as far from the throne as he possibly can since Father died.”
Anastas shook her head and wiped the tears from her cheeks as she looked up at Helena. “I wish you were queen, my lady, and not him the king.” She covered her hand with her mouth and gasped. “Oh, I shouldn’t have!”
Helena smiled at her again. “Don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with me.”
“Oh, but my lady,” Anastas said, staring at her, worry etched all over her face, “he’s not fit to lead. You know it as well as I. I shouldn’t be saying it, it’s treasonous talk but what will we do when you’re gone? You’ve somehow managed to steer things since your father’s death but what will happen now? I fear we’ll be lost.”
Helena shook her head and patted Anastas on the arm. As much as she didn’t want to admit it, Anastas was right. Sadon was a blundering fool. She’d done what she could to cover his mistakes so far and keep the kingdom from falling apart. That would be much more difficult to do from the mountains.
A cold shiver of fear raced through her at the thought of what fate held in store. She had wondered many times what her future held but had never once contemplated this. Her father would never have allowed this. He may not have sent a volley of arrows over the mountains but he would never have given his daughter to be a barbarian’s bride.
Helena’s throat tightened at the memory of her father, his kind smile and his gentle touch. He had been a good king: just and patient and strong. Sadon paled in comparison.
“Don’t worry, Anastas,” Helena said, forcing a smile. “Things will be fine. We will have to find a way for them to be fine. Alright?”
Anastas nodded but Helena could see she didn’t believe a word she’d said.
Helena squeezed her arm. “Anastas, as much as neither of us like it, this is my duty now. This is what I must do. Perhaps… perhaps some good will come of it. A truce with the Grahr will mean peace in the eastern lands. That will mean more harvest and the mines might be reopened. Perhaps… perhaps as much as we don’t like him or this decision, maybe this time Sadon has done something right.”
Anastas’ eyes welled up again and her lips trembled.
Helena took a deep breath. It was hard enough accepting what she had to do without having to console Anastas about it. She would have to think of some distraction. “Sadon said they would be here this week. That means I must be ready. Will you come help me? Brush my hair and help me bathe. This is good for the kingdom even though it will be difficult for me. Come. One last time.”
She had meant it to cheer Anastas up but her words had the opposite effect as Anastas once again began to cry.
Helena choked up but swallowed, clearing her throat and blinking back her tears. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say it like that. I’m sure… I’m sure there will be another…” Her voice caught in the back of her throat.
She could not be sure there would be another time. She couldn’t even be sure whether she would ever see Dunkeep again.
“I’m sorry, m’lady,” Anastas said after a deep sigh. “I am the one who should be reassuring you. I am acting like a spoiled child about this and for that I am sorry.” She swallowed as another wave of emotion threatened to overcome her. She steadied herself and levelled her gaze at Helena. “Come. I will make you the most beautiful bride Dunkeep has ever seen.”
Golar bit the apple he was holding, tearing a massive chunk out of it and chewing it slowly. He stared down the green valley toward the smoke rising from the thatched roofs of the houses below and shook his head. He turned to his brother, his mouth still full. “Howdzhya shink they can live like that, in thosshe shmelly hutshz?”
Vorag shot him a disgusted glance. “It’s no wonder they call us barbarians. Look at you. Fruit falling out of your mouth. Chew your damn food before you speak.”
Golar scowled and shook his head. His brother thought he was so damned refined. He swallowed the apple, spitting out a few seeds on the ground next to him. “Oh, shut up,” he muttered. “I’d take a cold cave with a warm fire every time before I crawled into one of those for shelter,” he said, pointing down at the houses. “Have you been inside one? They stink.”
Vorag shrugged beside him. “Damn the thundering skies that we have to do this,” he muttered.
“What?” Golar asked. “Take a bride?”
Vorag shook his head. “Take one of them for one,” he said, jutting his chin toward the cluster of huts in the distance.
The two stood in silence for a time, save for Golar’s chewing. He spat another mouthful of seeds, then turned to face his brother. He put a hand on Vorag’s shoulder. “We don’t have to, brother. We can still ride away. Go home, back to the mountains, forget about all this. Then, when the time comes, we can take a woman the good way. Our way. One of our women.”
Vorag sighed and shook his head. “No,” he replied. “The elders are right. This is the way forward. An alliance is necessary. Our numbers are growing. We can’t hunt and forage enough food. We need grain. We need fruit.”
“We could take it from them. Look at them. Puny and weak, crawling around their huts,” Golar growled, staring at the houses below.
“And what would be the sense in that?” Vorag asked, turning to look at his brother. “Killing and suffering, our own brothers dying, and for what? So we can run away from our duty?”
“Duty?” Golar asked.
“We are sworn to protect our tribe. We swore to the elders that we would lead it safely through the mountains and the night, did we not?”
Golar met his brother’s gaze and nodded.
“Well, this is part of that promise. Taking a daughter of Dunkeep will ensure that no more wars will be fought between us,” Vorag explained.
Golar glanced at his brother, knowing full well he was right. “It was just a thought,” he muttered. The last thing he needed right now was a woman getting in the way of life. There was still hunting and killing to be done. There were wenches to bed and raids to be run.
“I will miss that life too,” Vorag said quietly, reading his mind. “But this is our duty now. We will breed her and seal the agreement between these people and ours.”
The two brothers stared silently atop their horses for a time.
A crow cawed as it sailed overhead. The clouds shrouded the sun again. A cold breeze blew up the mountain.
“Come,” Vorag said, nudging his horse’s ribs with his heel. “It’s time.”
A cold bolt of panic rushed through Helena and settled in her stomach as the trumpets sounded outside announcing the arrival of the Grahr.
The days leading up to their arrival had dragged by. Helena had savored every minute spent at Dunkeep as never before. Despite her best efforts to stay in good spirits, the nightmares of what it would be like being married to a barbarian haunted her nights.
Her exhaustion was swept away by another rush of adrenaline as the trumpets sounded again.
Letting go of Anastas’ hand, she rushed to one of the giant windows and hauled a shutter open. Leaning forward, she peered out.
In the distance, past the outer wall, a small troupe of men on horseback wearing thick furs wound their way through the cobbled streets of the village nestled against the walls of the keep.
The clouds were thick and heavy with rain and the whole valley looked grey with the light of the sun blotted out.
Another blast of trumpets sounded and the massive wooden gate began to creak open. The drawbridge was lowered with a loud, slow clatter and the whole of Dunkeep seemed to fall silent.
Everyone in the streets stopped what they were doing to stare at the procession of Grahr, until now their sworn enemies, walking their horses over the bridge and through the gate.
As the dull thud of horses’ hooves on the wooden bridge was replaced by the steady, slow clop on cobblestones, a frisson of nerves rushed through Helena at the realization of what she was looking at.
It was clear that the two giant bearded men at the helm of the small parade, wearing bear furs and battle axes crossed on their backs, were there for her.
Her heart fluttered and her stomach tightened, as did her jaw. The men were hard and rugged. They easily dwarfed any of the villagers or guards of Dunkeep.
The thick furs they wore barely covered their muscled, battle-scarred arms that seemed perpetually flexed. Their broad chests easily supported the weight of the battle axes hanging across their backs.
Helena felt… brittle just looking at them.
One of them looked up to the window where she was standing and their eyes met. His were a deep, penetrating blue. His stare was unwavering as they rode close to the second, higher wall.
Helena found herself unable to break her gaze away.
After what seemed like an eternity, he nudged the arm of the man riding next to him with his elbow and nodded toward Helena.
The second man looked up, his gaze just as piercing and just as unrelenting.
This time Helena tore her eyes away, her cheeks burning red with a strange embarrassment and shame at their piercing gaze. Something puzzled her. She shook her head and frowned and looked at Anastas. “Those are them,” she said softly.
Anastas nodded in agreement.
“But…” Helena couldn’t help but steal another glance through the window at the two rough warriors. “But which one… why are there two of them? Which one do you think will be my husband?” she asked.
Anastas scowled at her in response. “Do you not know their custom, m’lady?” Anastas asked softly, shaking her head.
“Their custom?” Helena replied, still shaken by their gaze.
“Yes, the custom of the Grahr?”
“I’m… I’m not sure I know what you mean?” Helena replied, turning to look at Anastas.
“Their ways are different from ours,” Anastas explained. “They… you see, when they marry… it’s just…”
Helena frowned. “What? What is it? You can tell me.”
“Yes, m’lady,” Anastas replied with a quick curtsey. “The Grahr have a custom that two men take a single bride.”
The bottom fell out of Helena’s stomach as her jaw dropped.
“My friends! Welcome!”
Vorag fought the urge to cringe at the sickly looking man’s obviously insincere greeting. He was no friend of his. Nonetheless, it would not do to start things off poorly. Dismounting, he walked around his horse, gripped the man by the forearm, and gave his body a good shake.
The smirk shook off his lips and Vorag had to resist the laugh that sprang from his belly up into his throat. He bowed his head instead. “King Sadon,” he growled, bowing low enough that he was the same size as the scrawny fellow.
Finishing his greeting, he stepped back, sweeping his arms out wide before standing up straight again. One corner of his mouth curled up as he watched Sadon swallow at how high up he had to look to stare into his eyes. “I am Vorag,” he said, his tongue twisting uncomfortably around the foreign words. “This is my brother, Golar.”
“An honour to meet you both,” Sadon said, his crooked smile returning as he glanced at Golar and nodded.
Golar stepped forward, grabbed the king’s arm, and shook him in the same greeting before stepping back, sweeping his arms out and retreating in a bow.
Behind him a horse snorted and stomped. A crowd had been gathered in front of the castle steps. Guards and peasants surrounded them, no doubt to see their princess being given away.
The memory of the woman he’d seen in the window twisted Vorag’s gut. It was too much to hope that she was going to be their prize.
He had been unable to tear his eyes away from hers. The long dark tresses of hair falling over her full breasts had mesmerized him. A hollow feeling had formed in his stomach as soon as he could see her no longer. He’d pushed through it, telling himself not to get worked up. If the princess looked anything like her brother, doing their duty would easily be twice as hard.
“My sister is preparing to greet you. You will forgive that she is not here right now. Perhaps we might step inside and discuss the terms of our arrangement while we wait? I was only able to tell her today that you would be arriving. She was quite surprised.”
Vorag ignored the way Sadon’s already ugly smile cracked into an even uglier grin. “It would be an honour to speak with you about the arrangement,” he said, bowing again.
“Please,” Sadon said, turning toward the doors of the keep. “Follow me.”
Inside the air was cool and the smooth stone walls reminded Vorag of the caves they called home. It made him more comfortable.
A large wooden table had been laid out with grapes and breads and sweet meats. Vorag nodded appreciatively at the food.
Sadon swept his hand along the length of the table. “Please. My house is your house.”
Vorag glanced at his brother then looked straight at Sadon as he spoke. “Your generosity is appreciated. We would prefer to set the terms of the agreement first and then celebrate. That is, if you don’t mind.” He left no room for Sadon to mind.
“Of course not,” Sadon said, unable to hold Vorag’s firm stare. “What did you have in mind?”
Vorag pulled a chair out from behind the table and sat down. He waited for the king and his entourage to readjust themselves while Sadon took a seat.
Golar lowered himself into the chair beside him.
“Our intrusions on the eastern lands will stop,” Vorag said plainly. “They were our ancestors before your settlers came but we will cede them to you. In exchange we expect regular patrols along the southern border of what you call Montvale. It is known to us that you call us barbarians,” Vorag said, then paused, eyeing each of the king’s entourage before turning back to Sadon.
None met his stare. Even the king looked away with an awkward laugh.
“You know nothing of the barbarians to the south of Montvale. They would eat your still beating heart in front of your dying eyes and laugh.”
A heavy silence descended on the other side of the table.
Vorag went on. “We require grapes. And grains. Our numbers grow and the mountains cannot feed our folk.”
Sadon smiled widely. “I have spoken to Thress, the duke of Montvale. He is willing to accept a tithe in return for peace. He has said his farmers can provide all of what you require to the foothills. You will have to take it from there. Their carts are not made for mountain trails.”
Vorag nodded, surprised by how amenable Sadon was being.
“With peace in the area,” Sadon continued, “we will reopen the mines. If you have men that have need of labor…” He left the sentence unfinished.
Vorag had not considered the offer. Of course with less raiding there would be more idle hands. The men would need something to do. “I will present your offer to my brothers.”
“Good,” Sadon smiled. “Very good. Then we are agreed? We can seal our pact by presenting your bride.”
A heavy feeling settled in Vorag’s chest. A glance at his brother told him Golar felt the same way. “We are agreed,” Vorag muttered, nodding his head.
“Excellent!” Sadon said, clapping his hands together like a damsel. “Then let us drink! And eat! Music!”
The soft strum of a lute began behind them, accompanied a moment later by a dulcet flute.
Vorag and Golar both turned to look at the instruments and the musicians playing them, unused to hearing any music at all.
Sadon’s entourage began speaking in animated tones, excited by the prospects the newly agreed-upon treaty presented. The merchants would be happy for the trade, no doubt.
The brothers pulled their chairs closer to the table. Vorag wrapped a fist around a shank of deer and chewed off a hunk, chuckling at the wide eyes and slack jaws it provoked on the other side of the table.
Sadon raised his flagon in a toast, mainly to disrupt the awkward silence that had descended on the room. “To new beginnings!” he called out.
The brothers lifted their mugs and clanked them with Sadon’s over the table, nearly knocking him over. A moment later and the conversations had started back up again and the room rang with life.
When he heard the rhythmic stomp of boots marching behind him, Vorag instinctively pushed away from the table, yanked the battle axes off his back and spun around.
A few of the more ornately dressed men around the table let out womanly shrieks as his chair fell over and he braced himself for a fight.
A moment later as he realized the ‘soldiers’ he had been ready to decapitate were actually the same trumpeters who had hailed their arrival, Vorag felt his face flare with sudden embarrassment.
Golar touched his arm and threw his head back in a laugh. “Haha, what a fool you look, brother!” he said, slapping his knee.
The terrified trumpeters stood not knowing what to do until Vorag set the axes on the floor beside him and turned to Sadon, cheeks still red. “I am sorry. Too much time in the fight…” he muttered.
Sadon waved away his embarrassment, smiling gleefully. “Nonsense! You’ll make the perfect husband, er, husbands for my sister!” He stood as the trumpets blared, the chorus echoing inside the high walls of the dining room.
Golar stood up next to him as Vorag turned back around. He wiped his greasy lips with the back of his sleeve.
The great doors swung open.
Vorag’s heart thudded against his chest. As the procession made its way into the hall, his eyes rested on the voluptuous woman at its head.
She was the same dark-haired woman he had seen leaning through the window. Her eyes shone even greener than they had from afar. Her ample chest drew Vorag’s gaze. His eyes raked down to her slender waist and full hips next.
Vorag puzzled at the emotions that twisted inside his belly. This was not at all what sort of woman he had expected. She was a small woman but not petite. And beautiful. There was no other word for it. She was very beautiful.
“My friends, allow me to introduce to you my sister Helena. Your bride.”