“‘Tis hardly the time to turn meek, Your Ladyship.”
The voice is muffled—panting from a knight’s helmet—but the sneer is intact. Clearly he knows meek isn’t in my vocabulary, and he disapproves.
I’d give him a piece of my mind, if I had any clue who he is…and if he hadn’t just blocked a sword a few inches shy of connecting with my neck, burying the point of his battle ax in my assailant’s chainmail armpit.
I swallow. “Thank you.” Is that really the appropriate thing to say to someone using his armored foot to pry his weapon from a bleeding man’s ribcage?
The knight tips a curt bow of his plumed helmet to me. “At your service, Lady Perry.” Definitely a sneer there, although all I see through his visor is a pair of ice-blue eyes. Oddly familiar eyes.
He raises his ax, and Bleeding Man’s head somersaults from his shoulders, followed promptly by the emptying of my stomach. I lean on my sword to keep from swaying.
Wait…I have a sword?
The knight spares me a smug glare, and then the ax swings again. The next opponent’s mace thuds to the ground, along with the arm holding it.
My eyes flinch closed. This isn’t real. It can’t be.
Armless Man’s scream says otherwise.
“Perhaps His Majesty’s guard is no place for a maiden after all,” the knight says over his shoulder. Pompous bastard. He scans the forest clearing for more raiders, the sunrise peeking between snow caps to spotlight the dawn mist.
Oddly enough, I don’t look like a maiden. My armor is just as dented as his, my tunic bearing the same red crest with gold lions; and my sword looks like something forged by the elves of Rivendell. I half expect Viggo Mortensen to saunter out from the forest. I hope Viggo can bring me up to speed on what I’m doing surrounded by mountains and wilderness and half a dozen guys dressed in medieval armor, defending an unseen king against a band of thieves, Robin-Hood-style. An enormous carving of a woman seated on a throne towers from the cliff wall, an intricate crown resting behind her sharply-pointed ears.
I’ve definitely been reading too much Tolkien.
A battle cry roars from the forest shadows, snapping me back to attention. The dead men at our feet were just the first drops, and now comes the downpour. I stumble under Sir Sneer-a-Lot’s rough shove, as he puts himself between me and the building stream of men advancing on us, swarming from the tree line. An arrow dings my helmet, then two more clang off my body armor, and I try not to squeal like a pig. This isn’t just a random thieving raid…
“It’s an ambush!” The knight shoves me back harder, the sneer abandoned. “Get to His Majesty. Now!“
My legs jolt into action, the weight of my armor no match for pure adrenaline, and I don’t look back until I reach the tree cover on the opposite side of the clearing. The guards hold their line to buffer the enemy swarm, each taking on dozens of men. Still more are flooding in. I curse myself for fleeing like a coward, as though I belong in that guard line.
I run anyway.
I race between trees, calling out to whomever hides within, “Ambush!” I hear footsteps and shouts gaining behind me, and I tighten my grip on my sword as I push faster. “We’re under attack!”
The gallop of hooves drums ahead of me, and I skid to a halt, suddenly doubting whether whoever is hiding in the trees is on my side. I’m about to turn and take my chances facing the footsteps behind me, when the horse rounds a tree trunk into view. The rider is a woman, her red velvet dress embroidered with gold and rubies, a matching crown braided into her hair. Before I can blink, she raises a wooden bow, nocks the arrow, and aims past my head. At least, I hope she’s aiming at something other than my head.
My mouth falls open. “Nalya?”
Nalya, my brother’s girlfriend. The one who’s writing her thesis on particle physics, is an avid subscriber to Pottermore, and has been known to survive on cheese puffs and ketchup for days at a time. She is not, to my knowledge, an archer. Or royalty. I expect the dancing pink elephants will be entering stage left at any moment.
She fires three arrows past me before my slack jaw closes. I hear the thud of bodies hitting the pine-needle floor, and for the moment the pursuing footsteps are silenced. The echo of steel and agony from the clearing says more will be on the way.
Nalya gives me a quick nod, as four mounted knights swoop in to form a protective circle around her.
“‘Tis unsafe, Your Majesty,” one of the riders cautions. “Please let the guardsmen contain the—”
Nalya ignores him, shouting through the trees, “I have found her! This way!”
A fifth rider gallops to her call, his horse plated with armor, a crown fixed to his helmet. Does everyone around here have a crown?
He reins in his horse with a relieved sigh. “Perry. Blessed mercy.”
“Ezra?” I stifle a stunned laugh. His accent would be hilarious if we weren’t about to be slaughtered. “You’re the king?”
“Your Majesty—” A weathered knight with a mustache snaps up his visor, his horse fidgeting as impatiently as he is. “The glen is beset with rebels. We must make haste.”
My brother—the king—nods. “We’ll make for Heiber Castle. The Duke of Sutton is expecting us. I trust his men can muster a defense.”
“Someone knew we would be passing this way…” The mustached knight clears his throat. “You have been betrayed, Your—”
“Well, it wasn’t the Duke.” Ezra locks eyes with him. “I’ve known Max since we were children.”
“Who is Max?” I squint. “Ezra, what are we doing—”
Everyone ignores the rest of my question—myself included—because a herd of footsteps comes crunching up behind us.
Mustache Knight gulps, spurring his horse to intercept their approach. “The line has broken. Run, Your Majesties!”
I turn after him, the woods suddenly teeming with rabid men, armor and weapons smeared with blood and filth, savage violence in their eyes and my brother’s name on their lips.
Calling for his death.
My mind is swimming with doubts and questions, but one certainty floats to the top: I’ll spill however much blood it takes—mine included—to defend my brother. I plant my feet, fingers tensing on my ready sword. It feels strangely comfortable in my grip, like I might actually have a clue how to wield it.
Three rebels close in on me, and I swing my sword, parrying and striking without forethought or hesitation. I have absolutely no idea where I learned how to do this, but I’m holding my own. Not just holding my own…I’m gaining the advantage in a three-on-one fight.
My sword finds an unguarded neck, and I blink away the spatter of blood. There is no time to flinch, the second guy’s war hammer is on a path for my helmet. My sword is up to block, my foot planting in his gut, paving the way for the tip of my blade. I ignore the sucking squish as I pull my weapon free, readying for the next in line. I’m alarmingly hungry for a chance to mow them all down, and something tells me I stand a decent chance of doing it. Good thing I already got the puking part out of the way.
The clash of steel is all around me, murderous roars mixed with wretched suffering, and I don’t hear the approach of hooves until a hand has me by the nape of my armor, the chainmail constricting my throat as I’m yanked onto horseback.
“Hold firm, Perry.” We’re already galloping away as my brother helps me wrangle to straddle the back of his horse. My sense of relief battles with the urge to turn back and annihilate every last one of those guys. They may be a product of my imagination, but I hate them no less for it.
My arms tighten around Ezra’s waist as he spurs the horse faster, darting around tree trunks with no margin for error. Nalya is up ahead, weaving her own horse so quickly that the guards who were supposed to be flanking her are struggling to keep pace.
“Who are those men?” I shout over the whip of wind, “Why do they want you dead?”
Ezra doesn’t look back as he dodges another cluster of trees. “They’re probably Trulane’s,” he answers, as though I should recognize the name. “Or Wenforth’s,” he adds. “They’re always on about my ‘robbing nobility of their rightful status’ and ‘raising the common man to undue prosperity’.”
We break into the open, skimming the edge of the foothills to meet up with a dirt road tracing along the valley stream. The giant stone queen is looking down on us again as we rocket past her sandaled feet, each of her toes the size of a small vehicle. Ezra acknowledges her with a quick nod, and I’m relieved when she doesn’t nod back. An eagle circles her left ear and perches at the pointed tip.
I consider checking my own ears. Even if I thought we were a safe enough distance from the action to take off my helmet, I don’t particularly want to know whether I can add elf ears to the list of inexplicable things this day has to offer. I rest my head against Ezra’s back, the thunder of hooves and wind blending with my own ragged breathing inside my helmet.
It all feels so real, the smell of pine mixed with the reek of my own sweat, the horse breaking into a rhythmic gallop—free of the maze of trees—sinewy and powerful and speeding faster than any car has ever felt.
My brother, my best friend.
Until hearing his voice—hearing that exhilarated laughter as our horse hurdles a fallen tree trunk—I was convinced this was nothing more than a disturbingly realistic dream.
Now I’m not so sure.
When I look up again, stone turrets are coming into view above the tree line, one of our knights signaling to the men posted along the castle wall. The portcullis begins to draw open, and this time Ezra’s boyish laughter is contagious.
“Am I supposed to believe you had this situation under control all along?” I ask, not yet persuaded to loosen my grip on his waist.
“Don’t I always?” He lightens up on the reins, flicking up his visor to turn with a wink. I wish the rest of the helmet didn’t hide his dimples. “Did you doubt your sovereign?” I’m reminded of the time he played Hamlet in junior high, only this time the accent is surprisingly authentic.
I wonder if my own helmet hides my scowl, but my question is answered when Ez breaks into another goofy fit at the sight of it. I’m too caught up in contemplation to join him this time. “This is real,” I mutter. “Isn’t it.” It’s not so much a question as a realization.
Ezra arches a questioning eyebrow, but I wave it off. He keeps studying me, unconvinced.
I give his shoulder a shove. “Just pay attention, so you don’t steer us into a rock wall.”
He complies with another hoot of laughter, intentionally spurring the horse faster despite the rapidly-approaching castle wall.
This isn’t just some flimsy replica of my brother, my subconscious mind’s way of idolizing him, placing him on a literal throne to match the figurative one he’s always held in my eyes. This is the real Ezra; and as long as he is here, I’m not quite so terrified by the fact that I’ve been dropped into a life I barely recognize.
I pull in a full breath, ignoring the stench of manure as we barrel across the moat bridge. As long as Ezra is here, everything will be okay.
Until an arrow comes out of nowhere, implausibly piercing the mail an inch above his breastplate, his body slumping back into me.
Panic shocks through me. I’m too stunned to scream.
I yank off his helmet, tossing it into the dusty wake of our horse’s thundering hooves. I clamp one arm around Ez’s chest and try to reach the reins with the other.
“I’m sorry, Perry.” Ezra’s words are a gurgling whisper, his eyes desperate. “So sorry.”
My voice—my whole body—trembles. “Don’t try to talk, Ez…Just hold on, we’re getting you inside—”
He shakes his head. “Be strong, and keep yourself safe,” he gasps, choking on his own blood. “Nalya will need your loyalty…your counsel. Do not be reckless—” He winces, more blood welling through the links of his chainmail. “Not like your careless brother…” He winks, but then both eyelids droop half-closed, his head lolling to the side.
“No! Stay with me, Ez…Don’t you dare give up!” My helmet echoes my sob and rattles with the frantic shake of my head, my gloved fingers slipping in blood when I wrestle the arrow from his neck.
Nalya and her men hear my screams, doubling back toward us. I struggle to hold pressure on the wound while balancing Ezra’s body on our veering horse. I can will the horse into a straight path—can keep an iron grip on my brother, despite my shaking arms—but I can’t command the spark back into his eyes.
“I’ve got you, Ez.” I cling to his armor, pulling him back against me as the horse charges across the castle bailey. “You’re going to be fine.”
As long as Ezra is here, everything will be okay.
Until he isn’t.