Keke sat atop a dun stallion, listening to the wind whip her banner. The breeze was surprisingly warm, for spring. The noon-day sun shone in a bright blue sky, which was dotted with cottony white clouds, the view was occasionally spoiled by the black wings of carrion slicing the perfection as they wheeled overhead. The pipes played the men into combat, and the distant clash of steel could be made out over their mournful cry.
Camilla didn't understand why they wouldn't at least allow her to be her own Standard-Bearer if they wouldn't allow her in actual combat. It grated on her nerves that the High Counsel thought to command her, and it grated still further that she didn't have the power to openly flout the commands. There was an honor in bearing the standard that couldn't be found sitting her horse and surveying a battle they wouldn't allow her to command. It took bravery to face a charge with nothing but a flag to hand. Bravery they would deny her, honor they would deny her. Would she end a puppet they placed in a cabinet and removed only when they needed a vote? She was sulking, and she didn't care. She hoped the High Counsel got wind of it. She really did.
It was silly to keep her so-called Honor Guard out of combat, as well. She could sense the tension in the men surrounding her. What honor could be found in guarding an individual who must refrain from open combat? None. They were all seasoned warriors full of barely restrained energy, one could ascertain from their faces that they wished to join their comrades in battle. She, herself, wanted to lead the assault, crash into the enemy with her warhorse, hooves slicing as her swords flashed in the sunlight. It would be a beautiful event on such a day. If she should die, it would be a beautiful death, one fitting her station. Instead of staying from battle because her life for her people was supposedly more valuable than her death on the alter of her country. 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' meant nothing to those puffed up bafoons on the High Counsel.
She couldn't restrain the heavy sigh from escaping her lips when considering such thoughts.
Her father's rich chuckle greeted her ears in response. “You are too hot blooded by far, Cam-...” He looked down in shock, as the first arrow pierced through his shining breastplate. When the second shaft bloomed in his throat he fell from his horse onto the nearby riverbank. Camilla fell from her horse more than dismounted, and was at his side in a second. Oh, where was the priest? Why was there not one in the Honor Guard that day?
She knelt in the mud and reeds, gripping his shoulders, leaning forward to stare into his face. “Father? Father! Don't leave me... Don't leave me alone. I'm not ready to face this.” His only response was reaching for her face, and gripping her chin to pull her closer to him, before his arm fell limply to his chest. She put a hand to either of his cheeks and stared into his quickly fading sky-blue eyes, she couldn't scream, she couldn't speak, she couldn't even breath.
Looking up, she told the sky, “I need my Daddy.” Her voice was a mere whisper, barely audible to her own ears. The circling buzzards seemed to mock her with their throaty caws.
She bowed her head, her hair falling around her face like a veil. Camilla could hear the sounds of combat crashing around her like waves pounding the sheer wall of a cliff. One by one her Honor guard fell to the treachery of betrayal. The men sworn to protect her died around her, and she didn't care, couldn't be bothered to take notice. The sounds dulled until they were a dim thing, distant and unreal. All that was real to her was the thudding of her own heart beating in her ears and the pain of loss ripping through her.
An unseasonable chill permeated the room, but the fireplace lay dormant. The only light was provided by three flickering candles in a heavily gilded candelabrum on the mantelpiece. Darkness clung to the corners of the room and secrets huddled there with it.
A lone girl sat on the edge of a stately four-poster bed, the heavy dark wood making her seem small. Blond hair so pale it was nearly white shone in the dim light, and her unearthly green elven eyes reflected it as a cat's might. The white of her nightdress stood out in the darkened room like a ghost.
Cold winds had swooped down earlier that evening and the stone floors were frigid with it, but her bare feet on the richly embroidered rug implied she was oblivious to the temperature. The weight of mourning rested on her narrow shoulders and she slumped as though it were a physical burden. Tears trailed down both cheeks, and she had long since ceased lifting her hand to wipe them dry.
The silence was unnerving her. It had nearly digressed to the point where she would scream, if only to hear the noise. If only she could summon the energy, or the will... The only sound was that of the steady pitter-patting of rain as it puddled outside the open windows. It echoed inside Camilla's head like a drum, heightening the sheer hysteria she had felt since morning.
“Of course it's raining again, it's springtime in Ireland. Little else can be expected,” she said aloud. Talking to oneself was supposed to be the first sign of madness, but she felt anything but sane.
A tentative knock sounded at the door, and she failed to respond. She was not in the mood for company, and she couldn't tolerate listening to more platitudes spouted by well-meaning morons.
“It is no use pretending to sleep, my Lady. I heard you speak,” said Daerid, from the other side of the door.
“Damn your eyes,” she said without any real heat or harshness, “Come in then.”
The door opened silently and a tall elf strode confidently in. Black hair so dark it was nearly blue as a raven's wing fell past his shoulders in soft waves, his eyes gleamed like polished obsidian in the dim light. The darkness of his coloration was rare, and he was beautiful even by elven standards. So beautiful as to be considered nearly feminine by some, though the girls had never complained. His lips were red and soft, and they looked made for just such candlelit moments, but now they were turned down in a harsh frown and worry marred his angelic features.
He stomped forward so determinedly that it seemed he planned to walk right through her, bed and all. Halting abruptly, he stood looming over the girl until the silence stretched thin and awkwardness hung between them. Manners would dictate that she should break the silence, but her desire to preserve the proprieties had vanished hours ago. She was bone weary and tired, but her heart was so heavy that sleep avoided her.
His dark cloak pooled on the floor and brushed against her bare foot. Camilla moved it to avoid contact, as though touching another being might break the spell of her mourning. She had no comfort, and she wanted none. She wanted to be alone with the perfect contemplation of her sadness and remember what it felt like to watch the life leave her father's eyes.
“I-...” He stopped, and swallowed before he began again, “Words cannot express the grief I feel at your father's passing, my Lady. He was a great man, a fine General and a true leader.” He whispered, a near reverence entering his voice as his gaze fell upon her. The patch on the breast of his cloak announced he was a Priest of Freyr, but the light in his eyes when they caressed this girl indicated he worshiped more than just his god.
“Thank you, Daerid. Was that all you wanted?” she asked, the sigh evident in her voice. “It is very late, and I fear the morning will dawn earlier than any of us expect.”
He lifted a hand and weaved a ward against eaves droppers. No one would be able to listen in, with either magic or more mundane resources.
“There was a slight matter I wished to discuss, actually.” He began, but didn't know how to finish.
“And what was so pressing that it could not wait until morning?” She snapped impatiently.
“I had the human followed.” He said in a rush, the usual suave man uncertain how to approach informing the young lady of the perfidy he had uncovered.
“The human?” asked Camilla, her frustration mounting. “Which one?”
“Your human.” He began to pace the length of the room, one hand on the hilt of his sword. “The Bard. You hired him, I believe.”
“Yes... He works for my House, but I do not own him.” Camilla crossed her arms and squeezed her eyes shut. The pressure that had been building inside her head was reaching fever pitch. Why had the idiot boy brought this to her at this hour? “He journeyed to Dublin this afternoon to visit his sister, as was his desire.”
“He was your...” Daerid paused, he knew no delicate way to ask if the man was her lover. She was barely 18, a child by elven standards. It was scandalous, to say the least.
She stood, her hands balled into small fists, the knuckles straining pale. Color marched up her neck and stained her cheeks, fury twisted her mouth and narrowed her eyes, “If you came here with more of your filthy recriminations, you can just-...”
“My lady, please allow me to finish!” He held up both hands and smoothed the air, as though by doing so he could calm her. “He did not go to his sister's residence, he went to Caisleán Bhaile Átha Cliath or as the humans now call it, Dublin Castle. There he saw the human Viceroy.”
All the wind left her in a rush, and she found herself sitting on the floor. Her head felt simultaneously as though it would explode and float away. Nausea roiled in her stomach and bile rose in her throat. “I... He...”
Daerid knelt smoothly on one knee and peered into her face. Her shock was genuine, and he was relieved. He had been concerned for a moment, no longer than that he was certain, that perhaps she had been in on the coup that had lead to her father's death. She was clever, and it never did to underestimate the depths to which one would stoop to gain power, or the allusion of power as the case might be.
“I see you have grasped the situation,” Daerid said, his voice held none of the scorn and reproach he felt and he schooled his features to stillness. “Please, my Lady, you must answer my questions honestly if I am to help you through this. As you can well imagine, if the High Counsel put him to trial for treason and your... association... with the human was misinterpreted you could easily see yourself hanging beside him from the Traitor's Tree. Do you have any desire to lengthen your neck?”
Her eyes had been distant and full of remorse, staring blankly at the floor. But at his last words, she looked up at him and they were as frozen and pitiless as a forest pond at the heart of winter. He was suddenly reminded of rumors he had heard about the General's daughter. Stories of assassinations had been passed off as ridiculous, she was little more than a headstrong child... Staring into them, he found himself believing those eyes were capable of whatever they needed to do. Good.
“Does this look suggest that you do not? That is just as well, for I would hate to see the Heir to the Broken Crown dance the gallows. There might well be civil war, if enough Houses sided with you for the sake of your name and your House. The country could fall into anarchy, and then the humans will have won.”
“If you mean to blackmail me-...” she began, but the full handed slap Daerid delivered blurred her vision and caused her ears to ring. Spots danced in front of her eyes as she picked herself up from the rug.
“Willful child! Would you listen to me? They. Will. Hang. You. How can you think I mean to betray you when I bring this to you instead of one of your adversaries?” He demanded. Standing, he towered over her, looming in the darkness like some protective spirit. Her eyes filled with tears and they wrung his heart, she had just lost her father to blackest treachery and he hated what he had to do to preserve her life.
Slowly, Camilla got to her feet and pulled dignity around herself. A quiet pride settled around her, one that intimated all the years it had been drilled into her that she was cast in a higher mold than the others of her race, and that they were cast in a higher than all other creatures. Her blood and breeding set her apart from all else, they placed her above it all. With regal dignity, she asked, “What is it you wish to know?”
“Are you in love with him?”
“I believed I was, but now I am not so certain.”
“To what end?” He blurted, allowing his incredulity to get the better of him. “Did you mean to make him your King?”
“I don't know! Maybe. What does it matter now?” Her voice was frigid, but pain still resounded through it. “What does any of it matter now?”
“Did you think the elven people would accept a human as their King? How could you, Camilla, how could you? They have invaded us! We were a peaceful people, they brought war to our lands. How can you forget-...”
“Is there some point to this tirade?” She interrupted wearily.
He didn't answer, merely stared at her sullenly. He was silent for so long, with his hand working on the pommel of his sword that she became nervous, which was silly. If he meant to kill her, he surely wouldn't do it in her bedchamber with guards posted at the door. Thunder rang, fracturing the silence and rattling the windows. After several moments of further silence she said, “Where is he now?”
“He is on his way here. At least, I assume this will be his destination.”
Lightening flashed outside the window, lighting Camilla's face and making plain her suffering, “On his way... So that's why you are here.”
“You needed to know.”
“I did.” She nodded slowly, her neck still ached from the slap. No one looked right after a slap like that.
“What will you do?”
Before she could answer, a soft tapping sounded on a panel of the wall. He slid into the shadows of a corner as a hidden door creaked open. A human only slightly shorter than Daerid walked out of the secret passage. Still soaked from travel, his dark brown curls were plastered to his forehead and his clothes sculpted to his muscular body. Watching him from so close, Daerid could not help but be puzzled by her attraction to the human as he was clearly inferior to elves in all ways. His voice was pleasant when he spoke, and it was a well known fact that he was a very accomplished singer. Was that what had drawn the princess to this human? His accomplishments with musical instruments? Elven men did not sing except in battle or in mourning, and it was considered effeminate to play any instrument but the pipes. Although her fetish for humans was thoroughly discussed by her peers, he simply could not understand it.
“My princess, you are up. I had thought that you would be...” He trailed off at her expression. “It is late. I had assumed you would be asleep.”
“You went to Dublin Castle.” She wasted no time with pleasantries, cutting right to the heart of it.
“Then you know.”
“Why?” was her only response. Somehow she managed to shove more accusation into the single syllable than any drawn out damning speech could attain. Her eyes, the set of her mouth, they begged for some explanation she could understand. She had to know the reason.
“Why?” He smiled. “The money, of course.”
Incredulous horror spread across her face, “You betrayed Ireland, for money?”
“Do not be so melodramatic, my darling. I betrayed no country, only one man. I negotiated your safe passage, and I am certain my payment suffered because of it. Does this not please you?”
“So that is why I was not slain.” She turned her back to him and stared at the dead fireplace. The soot made fascinating patterns across the back and the bits of blackened cinder were absolutely captivating. Her mind could not process the overload of information that had been thrown at her that day, and she was very near the brink.
“Well, that, and once put into the mind of the High Lords of the Counsel I work for that you would make a finer puppet than some other candidates... Your life suddenly seemed more precious.”
“Did you know that nearly every battle won by my people was planned by my father?” She said numbly. “Without his military genius, Ireland will surely fall. You've done that.”
“No, I cannot say that I did know that, though now that I do, it doesn't make a difference.” He was still smiling, a dimple flashing in his cheek. Daerid watched in frozen horror from his corner, it was like watching some sick play unfold before him. Should he interrupt? Or should he let her have her say? “My loyalties are for sale, and they were purchased long before we met. Don't look so betrayed, I'm surprised you didn't see this coming.”
She said nothing, merely stared forward at the streaking smudges of black in the fireplace. Her back was ramrod straight and she wore the embroidered cotton nightdress as though it were the finest ermine. Her voice was so chilly that frost nearly formed when she said, “Leave. Now.”
“And are you certain it was my doing, and not your own?” He asked, the laughter plain in his voice.
Camilla spun on him, fury etching her features. Her two small fists were tightly balled, the knuckles stretching white. Hate shone from her eyes and mouth was an angry rictus.
“You lied to me! You tricked me. You said you loved me... You...” words failed her, her heart was breaking and there were no words to express it. The concept of such a betrayal had never before been thought... That someone could treat her so poorly... Her. It was unfathomable. She could not conceive of it.
He chuckled, “But I didn't have to try very hard, you fell right into my lap like an over ripe apple.” His laughter died abruptly when he noticed the dagger in her hand. A second later an amused smile stretched across his face, “Now where did you get that?”
“I believed you.” Her voice was thick with tears unshed, “I trusted you. I was willing to throw it all away...”
“If you believe nothing else, my princess, believe this... While work may have brought me here in the first place, it did not bring me back tonight.”
“Oh yes, how was it you put it? My life is much more precious once you consider the advantages of having a princess for a puppet.” she spat bitterly. Her eyes were hollow and hopeless.
“Perhaps I do love you.” He said, smile never wavering. “Just a bit.” He held up two fingers to demonstrate how much, “A tiny bit. Now come here silly, but the little poker down and let's discuss this like adults.”
“Get out!!!” She screeched, waving both arms wildly, the dagger flying dangerously about. She couldn't stand to look at him, but couldn't look away. Like a small furry animal spellbound by a snake, her eyes locked to his and refused to be drawn away.
“How can you doubt the truth of my words when I say that I love you? Would it not have been more simple to allow your death, or to disappear today instead of returning here? I have risked my life for you, my princess.” He took a step nearer to her. “You must believe that I love you.”
“Must I?” She lifted the dagger to bar his way. He smiled at her in that mocking way and the memory of her father's eyes as the light in them faded assaulted her, and with an anguished cry she launched herself forward and ran him through. The dagger made hardly any sound as it pierced the leather of his breastplate and then flesh. He clutched at her and shock etched his features. Blood gushed from the wound and over her hand still holding the hilt. He bore her to the ground with him as he fell to his knees and she lifted a hand to his shoulder to steady herself.
The moment stood suspended and still, the rain choosing that instant to cease. Camilla exhaled in a rush when she realized what she had done. She looked over to where Daerid stood, cloaked in shadows, “Help him! You have to help him!”
Daerid, however, remained where he was.
Her horror only grew when she realized he was already dead, his lifeless eyes still staring into hers. When she let go his shoulder and he slumped forward, she was at last forced to release the grip she had on the dagger.
She stared in dismay at the blood on her hands, and her scream seemed ripped from her vary bones. Blood already pooled beneath him where he sagged forward, bowing to his princess like a limp doll. Wiping her hands frantically on the rug she said over and over, “Gods help me, Freyr help me. Gods help me, Freyr help me. Gods help me, Freyr help me. Light, what have I done?”
“Stop.” Daerid said, almost gently. “He betrayed you. This is justice.”
“Justice.” She repeated, hollowly.
“Tell me, my Lady, that his treachery did not call out for blood?”
“You wanted this.” She accused.
“It does not pain me to see a human die, I will not lie. But I did not come here seeking your pain, you must trust me.” He said fervently.
Another time it might have enraged her that the fool thought to tell her what she must or mustn't do. It was maddening to think of all those who meant to control her. Now, however, all she could do was nod. She did believe him, he wasn't creative enough to come up with this on his own and he was too loyal to her House to conspire.
Daerid could see that she was not yet convinced that it was justice she had dealt. For a moment, he was at a loss. He normally did not enjoy rambling about the trivialities of his life, but perhaps he could make an exception, this once. With a heavy sigh he began, “I was young when the north was lost to the humans. The king thought to stem the flow of blood by surrendering some of our lands to them, and my family's farmhold was part of the territories lost.”
If it surprised her to learn Daerid was of simple stock, a farmer's son, she intimated nothing with her body language. Her blank expression gave no indication of her opinion at all, she merely looked attentive, if not interested. Surely this history lesson was no news to her.
“They didn't make us move, not at first. They rented us back our own land, a farm that had been in our family for generations. After a while, they raised the rent, then again, and again, and again. Finally, we were unable to pay. They sent soldiers who burned the barn, and warned us it would be worse if we persisted to fail to pay their rental fee.”
He seemed to have caught her interest at last, for she tilted her head to the side and listened closely.
He sighed again, and forgot himself enough to sit on the edge of her bed, he raked a hand through his hair and continued, “The second time they came they held my father and I while they raped my mother, one after another. My father fought so hard they had to knock him out, but I watched until the end. When it was over the commander slit my mother's throat and told us that if they had to return, it would be worse.
“When my father awoke, he left. He did not wait to bury my mother. He didn't return for three days. When he did, he told me that he had killed the human commander who had lead the assault in his sleep.”
She was watching him closely, and he shifted uncomfortably. He finished with one word, “Justice.”
“I suppose they hung him,” she concluded.
“Yes, the soldier's came the following day. Me, they sent to the human orphanage. I was so stricken with grief I followed like a lamb,” he said, “That was where he found me. ”
“Your father. He was in the region and heard they had hung my father without a trial and kidnapped me. He rode in on a white horse like some knight from a story and took me away, brought me to the Temple of Freyr and took a personal interest in my studies.”
Tears filled her eyes anew, “He was a good man.”
“The grandest.” He agreed, with a slight smile. “He went through the human courts and had the men who hung my father relieved of duty, one of them was even garrisoned.”
Camilla actually managed to smile at that, “That sounds like something he would do.”
True legal justice, she thought grimly. She glanced at her hands and was shocked to find them still coated with blood. Looking down, she came to realize it speckled her nightgown. The mirror over the fireplace showed there was even a smear on her face and streaking her hair. Frantically she ripped at her nightdress and tugged it over her head with no regard of her audience.
“My lady, what are you...” Daerid began.
“The blood, the blood, the blood! I have to get it off,” she screamed. In full blown panic she began to rip at her hair and claw at her face.
“I-... Camilla!” Daerid shouted. “Stop this at once, you will hurt yourself.”
If Camilla heard him, she gave no indication. She carried on with her wild dance, having reached her breaking point at last. Finally, he was forced to physically restrain her. Wrapping his arms around her in an ironlike grip he flung her to the bed. There she continued ripping at her hair. At a loss, he laid beside her and held her down. She struggled for a few moments before going completely still.
“You can let go now.”
“I didn't hurt you, did I, my Lady?” As emotionally drained as she, he laid beside her and stared up into the darkness.
“Hardly.” She rolled onto her side and smiled in such a strange way that he found himself unable to remove his eyes from her lips. “I had never realized before this night now strong you are, my Lord Priest.”
“I... Umm...” He began, heat infusing his cheeks. “Please, call me Daerid as you have always done, my Lady. There is no need for... ahem.” He broke off as her hand slid across his stomach. “My Lady, I-...”
“Oh, then you must call me Camilla as well, there is no need for such formality.” She leaned up on an arm and trailed soft, biting kisses along his jaw.
“Camilla, what are you...”
“Comfort me.” Was all she said.
Daerid's hands seemed to have minds of their own as they roamed across her back. Her skin was so soft but still firm, like velvet stretched over steel. He found he could not get enough of it. Somehow, her hand found its way under his shirt and grimy stickiness of her palm reminded him of their circumstances.
“My Lady Camilla, I-...” her kiss interrupted him, and it tasted of the salt from her tears. He placed a hand on either side of her face and pulled her lips from his. “I cannot do this.”
“Your body proclaims otherwise, my Lord Priest.” She said, her hand dipping down the front of his pants.
Grabbing her wrist, his fingers bit into her soft flesh, “My Lady, there is a corpse not ten feet from here.”
Immediately, he wished that he had not had to remind her of it. Her tears felt scoured from his heart as they fell hotly onto his face. “Please... I...”
“Go, just go.”
And he did.
After her father's death Camilla's grief knew no bounds. She stayed for the burial; as she heard the first clods of earth fall on his casket, she knew it to be the most final sound she would ever hear. He really is dead. She repeated it over and over in her head, trying to make it sink in, trying to make herself weep. He deserved that much. He had been the greatest man she had ever known and he deserved her tears. But they wouldn't come.
She looked at her sisters across the grave from her, huddled together under a black umbrella. Oh, is it raining? She hadn't noticed. But it was fitting somehow for it to rain at his funeral, as though the skies themselves wept for her father.
Her sisters sniffed and snubbed and dabbed at their tears with dainty lace handkerchiefs. She despised them. They were jealous of her, of course, because her father favored her. And who can blame him for favoring me when they are my competition? She thought. They were such pitiful, weak things, much given to sighs and fluttering lashes.
She forced herself to stay, listen and watch until the grave was completely filled in. Every spoonful of dirt felt dug from her soul, and the dull thud of it slapping against itself as another shovelful landed in the open grave slapped her heart.
Then she set off on foot, packing lightly. It pained her to leave her horse behind, but she didn't want the responsibility of feeding him for a time.
That night, alone in her innroom, she allowed herself to embrace the full essence of her grief. She wept, she raged, she tore at her hair. Sometime just before dawn she lay on her side, in the center of the bed, knees drawn up to her chest. She had at last cried herself out. The sheets and what was left of her clothing was torn to tatters and strips and scattered around her like a wrong minded ticker-tape parade. Sleep and oblivion finally sank it, and with it a sort of peace.