"Again!" Aleria shouted. The young man across from her gave her a long-suffering glare, then sighed. A smile teased her lips as she crossed her arms over her chest. The girlishness of her voice was a vivid contrast to the wicked pull of her smirk.
“Oh, come on, Dray. Not scared of a girl, are you?”
Draven huffed and rolled his eyes as he broadened his stance, squaring his shoulders and preparing himself for her next attack.
“Good,” she thought as her own body sank into a ready position.
It was typical for soldiers under her father’s employ to try and take it easy on her during sparring lessons. Draven was the only exception. Even though it was his goal to become the Knight Protector to her Lady of Fayeharrow, he never pulled his punches. Dray was always the one to push her to be the kind of ruler she wanted to be. Swords, knowledge, and kindness. A powerful mixture gifted to her by her parents in both blood and breeding.
Being the sole heir warranted the occasional over-protective behavior, but still, she hated the fact that she was treated with kid gloves most of the time.
Aleria barely had time to swing before Draven’s practice sword came slamming down on hers with a reverberating crack. She hissed between her teeth as she looked up at her best friend. A teasing chuckle slid from her mouth.
."Oh-ho. There you are, Lion of Edlind," Aleria teased.
Draven snarled playfully at her, pushing back and disentangling their weapons. Aleria knew her cousin both loathed and loved the nickname that testified to his prowess on the battlefield, as well as the thick shock of auburn waves that encircled him like a mane.
"Yeah, yeah. What was it they were calling you after the festival two years ago?"
The two were circling each other once again in a slow prowl.
"Winner?" She nonchalantly flipped her sword in her hand before narrowing the blade in his direction.
He snorted through his nose in a way that reminded her of his namesake.
"Green-Eyed Witch,” he huffed. “Though I have heard some rhyming variations with the last wor-.”
The wind rushed from his lungs as Aleria took the opportunity to fly at him, snapping her legs around his waist and flipping him to the ground in one smooth move.
With a flurry of curses, Draven drove his elbow into her hip, prompting his immediate release. He rolled to his feet, reading his weapon again.
"You can't fool me, Ali. I know why you're so desperate to pick a fight today."
Her smile disappeared in a blink. A pinprick pierced her heart, and she had to fight the urge to place her hand over it to soothe the invisible wound. He was right. She was desperate to start a fight, and though it wasn’t fair to be taking out her frustration on him, it also wasn’t fair of him to make her face the realities of the day to come.
"That was low of you, Draven Edlind," she said quietly as she walked off the practice field. His apologies and explanations followed her the entire way back to the weapons shed.
That Creator forsaken weapons shed.
It had taken her an entire year after MyKhal left before Aleria could even set foot through its dilapidated door frame. She cursed the memory of him as she slammed her sword on the rack.
His name had been banned from her thoughts, but it echoed now and again in the dust of places like this. Looking around the wooden building, she shook her head as if she could shake away the ghost of the memories that haunted this room. Their first kiss was here, as was the moment he whispered promises of their future together. Her hand drifted over her heart again to rub at the phantom injury long since scarred over. It wasn't fair that nearly three years later, he still had such a hold over it.
"It kills me too, you know."
Draven's whisper cut through the silence loud enough to make her flinch.
"I know," was all she could bring herself to say, lacking the emotional fortitude to look him in the eye.
Draven and MyKhal were thick as thieves from the first moment her cousin arrived after his father’s death. When MyKhal left her, he must have known where Draven’s allegiance resided. The loss was painful for Draven too, even if it was a different kind of hurt.
At first, two of them had feared the worst when no word had come. They had even planned to take a ship to Brennan to make sure MyKhal was alright. When they discussed it with her father, they were met with a pitiful look and a letter from Lord Anwir, MyKhal's father and a longtime family friend. The letter had mentioned nothing of MyKhal's intentions towards her, nothing of their courtship, and not a word of his intended return. It did mention his remarkable adventures, rigorous training, and rumors of his "sewing of wild oats.” That night, Aleria had torn a practice dummy into such ragged pieces, it nearly matched her ravaged pride and shattered heart.
She still remembered the conviction in MyKhal's voice as he told his father of his plans to court her. He had no idea she was listening through one of the castle's secret passageways as his father raged his refusal.
"I have raised you to be a ruler, not to wed one!" The crack of a signet ring on bone still made her stomach churn. She wondered if the scar on the top of his right cheek remained or if it had faded like his affections.
Today would be the first time in two years that she would have to entertain the Anwir family. The first time in years she had to look into the eyes of the man who sent his son away “for training” when the real truth of the matter was that he sent him away from the “entirely too willful Edlind girl.”
With a deep breath, she turned from the weapons rack and looked at her cousin. His face was grim, but his Edling-green eyes were pleading with her.
"I forgive you,” she sighed, “but I expect you to not leave my side tonight. We face him like we do everything else: together."
Draven’s mouth turned up slightly in the corners before he nodded in agreement.
"Together then, but could you take a shower first? You smell like you tumbled into a tub of offal."
Aleria tilted her head down to sniff herself then shrugged before throwing her arms wide and chasing after him. "Was that a hidden plea for a big hug, cousin? I think it was."
His faked girlish squeal nearly made her choke on her laughter.
Thankfully, her bathing time had wasted enough of the afternoon that she was allowed to skip formal welcomes and tastefully displayed hors d'oeuvres in the main hall. When she finally deigned to grace the celebration with her presence, Draven was waiting for her with a mouth full of what she could only assume was pastry, by the crumbs dusting his lapel. Even with the smattering of pastry pieces, her cousin knew how to clean up well. His wild auburn waves were slicked back into a low, perfectly-messy bun. A few wild tendrils danced across the angular planes of his freckled cheeks. All these years in her father's service had honed him from a gangly, young cub into the young, slightly scruffy, man before her. There was no one she would be more honored to have at her side as her protector, advisor, and friend for the rest of her days.
"You're thinking too much," Draven interrupted, offering his arm.
"How could you tell?"
His eyebrows raised slightly. "Besides being able to read you like a book, you worry your bottom lip until it's raw. Remind me to never let you play cards - on my team at least." Her elbow connected to his ribs, making him cough out a laugh. "You look lovely," Draven whispered as a way of an apology. "And I'm not the only one to have noticed."
He nodded his head towards the rest of the room, indicating the crowd gathered there. Some whispered among themselves; others blatantly stared.
"I'm making a statement," she whispered back, as her fingers ghosted over the dark velvet of her gown. The rich ebony fabric reflected in the flickering candlelight like deep, dark emeralds. The wide neck of the gown hung precariously on her shoulders before plunging into a revealing drape in the back. Her golden blonde waves had been tied up with a matching velvet ribbon, exposing the lightly freckled column of her neck, except for a few stray pieces that refused to be tamed. She was the picture of modesty and sin, propriety and wildness, the contradictions that reflected how she lived.
When Lord Anwir looked her way and narrowed his gaze at her, Draven bristled at her side.
"Such a bell-end," Dray groaned before he begrudgingly announced her presence. Aleria nearly snorted at her cousin, but composed herself, dipping low in a flawless curtsey before offering her hand to Lord Anwir. She glanced at her father before turning her attention back to him.
"A dubious pleasure seeing you again after all this time, Lord Anwir."
Her father nearly choked on his drink. A slow, sly smirk stretched across her cousin’s lips, but Aleria's face remained neutrally uninterested.
Anwir's attempted a smile, but it looked more like a sneer. "Oh, come now, kitten. You can't still be angry with me," he purred as he plucked a goblet of wine from a passing servant’s tray. "You know as well as I do that the training was necessary. The boy had gotten far too...soft...to be a proper successor."
He was taunting her, and she knew it. Aleria slid her eyes to her father's and searched for some kind of clue as to what words would be too far when her saint of a mother crossed the room with her hands outstretched.
Looping her hand through her husband’s arm, she sighed, "Dearest, I need you. Ansel is in a fit again over the soup, and I need you to assure her it is perfectly satisfactory." She glanced Aleria's way before tugging her husband off in the direction of the kitchens. "Please do carry on," her mother added with a graceful sweep of her hand.
With a fake smile, Aleria turned her attention back to Anwir.
"I'm sorry. Where were we? Ah, yes. You were confusing the word ‘soft’ with the word ‘kind.’ Do continue," she waved him on.
He raised his glass to her. "You know, you are a lovely little thing, kitten. You would have made such a healthy breeding mare for my family line. Too bad my son couldn't break you with a good riding like all the others. A pity."
Draven's shoulders went taut as a bowstring. "Mind your tongue, milord,” he growled, “or you will find yourself missing it."
Aleria smiled softly and placed her hand on his arm. "Your son was quite a proficient rider, but our preferences were quite different. His was a bit too easy, too fast, and over so quickly. I prefer long rides, a bit more treacherous. I feel it makes the trek all the more satisfying in the end. Wouldn’t you agree, milord?”
Draven nearly choked.
Anwir scoffed, lowering his wine from his lips.
At that moment, her father returned, leaning down to place a kiss on Aleria’s temple. His red-gold hair shimmering in the candlelight.
“What did I miss?” A slight challenge hung in the air, ringing in the deep timbre of her father’s voice.
"Aleria’s riding preferences,” Draven said, shooting her a look. She shrugged.
“You are blessed to have such a lady as a successor. Well ridden - I’m sorry - written. With such class and grace. I’m sure my son would be quite put out to see what he was missing.”
Aleria felt every word from him like a backhanded slap, but Philip Edlind, Earl of Fayeharrow smiled. An equally wondrous and fearsome thing.
"Dear Lord Anwir,” she said, “you must be joking. Who would dare miss the fabled Green-Eyed Witch?"
Her father let out a boisterous laugh that made a real smile tug at her lips. His laugh was infectious. He was always the life of the party with stories, humorous anecdotes, and all-around gracious nature. A perfect example of what a leader should look like. Aleria hoped in her heart of hearts that her leadership would mirror his in every way.
"You are no witch, daughter," her father narrowed his gaze, seriousness in his tone. "You are a firebrand. You refine the fires of those around you. You are an ignitor of passions. And you can and will spark change."
His words reverberated in her heart like that of a prophecy. She almost forgot where she was at that moment. If it weren't for the cheer coming from her right, she would have probably gazed in loving awe at her father for a few moments longer. She jumped to her tiptoes and threw her arms around his neck. To the nethers with propriety. With a loud, smacking kiss to her father's cheek and a whisper of love and gratitude, she bounded off towards the center of the room. Grabbing a glass of cider, she raised it high.
"To igniting passions and sparking change!"
A toast ricocheted off the stone walls, echoed by her father and Draven before the strike of a cittern filled the room with the magic of song. Aleria chuckled as she mockingly bowed to Anwir and joined the merriment. Couples young and old began filing in and spinning round to the rambunctious tempo of an old fairy folk song.
Do not trust a fairy, child.
Don’t bend unto their whims,
Though their kiss be like the sweetest wines,
They get more than they give.
The words echoed in her head, and she couldn’t help but huff at the irony as her dance partner lifted her playfully into the air. Perhaps MyKhal was her fairytale prince. After all, he certainly got more than he gave.
Her father and mother joined in dance in a loving embrace that made her heart squeeze. Aleria sighed as the song came to an end, but her parents dawdled a bit longer, swaying to music all their own. Flirting even after all these years.
To have that kind of love was a song her heart longed to sing along to, but for now, she took the offered hand of one of her father's soldiers and danced and flirted without a care in the world. Occasionally, she felt the heavyweight of Anwir’s stare on her back, but at that moment, she could not deign herself to care. Let him write to his son about this moment. Perhaps she would do the same. MyKhal hadn't written her a single letter. Another broken promise. She had written to him every day for the first year, and when no reply came, she wrote less and less until she had nothing left to say. At least not until now.
After the merriment died down, people were making their way to their rooms with full bellies and red faces. Aleria loaded her bag with a piece of paper, ink, and a blanket before saddling her horse and riding off in the direction of the place this letter should be written: Fayeharrow Coast.
Fayeharrow's coastline was hugged in black sand, and the crashing waves of the Whispering Sea. During hot summer days, the sand was sole scorching, but at night, it remained blissfully warm, a breathtaking contrast to the cool seawater. The coast was one of her favorite places in all of Fayeharrow until the day MyKhal left. It was on this beach he spoke vows to her that she believed would last a lifetime.
It was on this beach that he spoke his vows to her, and she was a fool to have believed him.