Redemption: Chapter 3, Loss & Love
Determined to right all of her wrongs, Esther spent the next day watching Windsor. Something about his behavior was terribly wrong, but she couldn’t tell precisely what. She needed to speak with him, and she needed to do it alone, today.
After breakfast, she followed him outside. Windsor climbed the wall and sat, looking blankly into the gray horizon. Esther cursed under her breath as Byron came and sat next to him.
Practicing her weaponry, Esther continued to watch him from the training grounds. After three hours on the wall with Byron, Windsor left. She rushed across the lawn to intercept him but was too late. She watched him disappear into the heat and soot of the forge. She knew better than to interrupt anyone in there with hot iron and coals flying about.
Putting her swords back on the rack with the other practice weapons, she sat facing the forge beneath the shade of the oak tree she’d set on fire. Pulling a notebook from her waist band, she read while she waited.
It was the notebook of maps Oisin made her. Wrinkled from water damage, some of the pages were illegible from the ink bleeding together in abstract patterns, but she didn’t care. It was made with care by Oisin’s own hand, and for that, she would cherish it always.
Windsor worked in the forge through lunch and past mid-day. Esther stayed where she was, keeping him in her sight. When he finally left, she followed him with her eyes. Mopping sweat from his face, his light brown curls stuck to his haggard face. He looked thinner than she remembered.
Esther watched him go into the stables. Following him to the doors, she saw Genny inside with Lilly; she crept around the corner to wait her out. Lingering in the shadows next to the stables, she felt ridiculous. The logical thing to do would be to go in there and speak to him regardless of Genny. But she didn’t want to look at Genny, let alone speak about Oisin in front of her. Esther was acting like a child, and she knew it.
Once Genny left, she rushed from her hiding spot into the stables. The faint afternoon sun showed through the imperfections in the building, illuminating the dust dancing on the air. Windsor sat alone in a corner, a saddle on his lap. He held a rag of polish in his hand, but it wasn’t moving. She approached him softly. His gaze passed far beyond the present.
His head snapped up, the fog lifting from his eyes. He was jerked back to the now. Looking up at Esther, his face hardened. Tossing the saddle aside, he stood to leave.
“Windsor, I need to talk to you.”
“Is that why you’ve been following me around all day like a lost puppy?”
“It’s about Oisin.”
He stopped walking, and his body started to tremble.
“You’re his best friend and I’m sorry I left him behind. But I promise you, he is still alive, and I am going to get him back. I will bring him back to you alive; I promise,” she said.
“You promise!” Windsor spun on his heels, his face contorted and red. He marched closer to Esther.
“Promises aren’t worth goblin shit unless you can back them up. Otherwise, you’re doing nothing but tormenting people needlessly. Do everyone a favor and keep your damned promises to yourself.”
“I know you’re upset about Oisin, but I am going to rescue him.”
“Well, in that case, I might as well walk my happy ass off into the sunset!”
“What is wrong with you?”
“Wrong with me? Oh, I’ll tell you what’s wrong. Your promises are nothing more than empty words that end up causing more damage. If you actually gave a damn, you’d be acting on it, not promising. Your promises are worthless. You’re worthless.”
Esther watched Windsor disappear through the stable doors. She was too stunned to run after him, too confused to call out to him. She was prepared for grief, but not the wrath she was met with. Her hands shook, and her lower lip trembled while she choked on her breath.
Windsor’s words echoed through her mind; they shredded her because she knew they were true. She had no right to sit idly by speaking promises and words of hope while Oisin was imprisoned. Words were worthless, only her actions would save him.
She made her way to the overcrowded room she slept in. Digging through her pile of blankets and clothes, she haphazardly packed her bag. Many of her possessions were ruined during the escape down the waterfall, but there were some she’d kept.
Esther pulled the notebook from her waistband. Her fingertips brushed its rough canvas; tattered, worn, and beaten, it was her most precious possession.
She clutched it tightly to her breast. As she closed her eyes, a bitter-sweet melody rang through her mind. A melody she did not know the name nor words to, yet it offered her comfort and light when she felt the abyss closing in on her. It offered her a hand to hold in the night when she was alone. She couldn’t forget the melody and who sang it to her, any more than she could discard his notebook.
Hoisting her pack onto her shoulder, Esther went back to the courtyard, pausing by the training yards. She lost her duel swords and axe when she was taken by the beasts; inspecting the weapons racks, she looked for new steel. Mismatched arrows, broken handles, and dull blades sat in a row.
She was not impressed with her options and hoped the blacksmiths were making better weapons for the wars to come. Grabbing the least rusted blade she saw, Esther went to the stables. She was aware her every move was being watched, but she failed to care by who or why.
Going inside, she set to work finding and preparing Freya’s saddles.
“I thought you were done running?” Tyron appeared in the doorway, an amused smirk on his face and an odd parcel tucked under his arm.
“I know but—Tyron, I don’t know how I’m supposed to fight this war without him. He’s my guide and I can’t do this alone.”
“You don’t have to do any of this alone.”
“But Mako said—“
“Mako said he wouldn’t authorize the Huntsmen going to war. This isn’t war, it’s a rescue mission, and I’m going with you.”
He held up his hand. “You’ve told me in detail how you escaped, I believe we can enter the castle that same way, find the dungeons, and get Oisin out. To do this successfully we need to move quickly and quietly, and that is something an army cannot do. And it is not something you have to do alone, Esther. There are Huntsmen here that will stand by you, no matter what.”
“Thank you, Tyron.” Her words felt weak in comparison to his declaration of loyalty, but Esther didn’t know what else to say.
“Ah-ha, save your thanks for this!” Tyron’s smile brightened. Brandishing the odd item wrapped in cloth. “I started designing these for you after the fight in Gunderson. I figured a special warrior deserved to have special weapons.”
Pulling back the cloth, Tyron revealed a set of duel swords. They were medium-length and slender. Sheathed in a single holder, intricate Celtic-looking designs were etched into blue stained wood and the cross-body strap. With a trembling hand, Esther reached for them.
Their hilts were stained the same deep blue as the holder, and their slender design fit Esther’s small hands perfectly. Unsheathing the swords, she admired the ease of wielding the light-weight steel. Revering Tyron’s craftsmanship and the intricate etchings woven through the steel, she noticed an odd color in the blade’s shine.
“After what you did in Gunderson, I was inspired to make you something unique to your abilities. I spoke with Blue about the best materials for you. We have a metal here, we call it liteum, it’s formed when lightning strikes a cliff face. It is strong, lightweight, and forever calls the powers of the storm.
“It took some time and many failed attempts. But I found a way to run liteum alongside the steel; it will help conduct and concentrate your abilities. When using these, you should no longer have such troubles guiding your lightning to its target.”
“Tyron, they’re beautiful. I—I don’t … Thank you.”
“May you bear these weapons to better fortune than your last blades.”
Esther laughed. Her heart felt lighter than it had in a long time. She was glad to again have a friend by her side. “Tyron, I’ve been thinking, after we rescue Oisin, I want to go back east to the Wastelands. I want to help Davon, I can’t leave him alone with those monsters.”
“Davon is not alone; he has his sister Huntsman from Orientum Keep at his side. But if that is what the Realm Walker wishes to do, then it is what we shall do. We will discuss this after we rescue Oisin, yes?”
“Yes, one rescue mission at a time. When will you be ready to leave?” Esther asked, securing the blades across her back.
“Ah, we only await the third member of our company.”
“Now you mustn’t get upset, he means well.”
“Hello, little mouse.”
Esther’s blood boiled and an old wrath resurfaced with a forceful vengeance.
“So, I hear your guide went and got himself taken prisoner.”
“And what do you care? I thought you wanted him dead,” Esther spat.
“Oh, little mouse, how little we understand each other.” Byron sauntered into the stables, handing Tyron his pack, his own secure across his back.
Esther opened her mouth to argue, but Tyron placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“He is coming with us, Esther. He means you and Oisin no harm. I assured him if he started his old habits again, I would dispatch him myself,” Tyron said.
Esther glared at the man in front of her. She hated everything about him, from his oily black hair to his stupid boots.
“Let’s go, it’s getting late.” Esther took Freya’s reins, leading her into the open air. The sun was shrouded in dark clouds, another storm was coming.
Tyron and Byron followed Esther to the gate, their steeds in tow.
“We should stop at the crossroads of Durand, there is a small inn where we can rest,” Tyron said.
“Then strike the castle in the hours before sunrise, that is a good idea. We don’t want to be caught in Prodigium at midnight,” Byron said. “Oh, what’s this nonsense?”
Genny and Mako stood in front of the open gate waiting for them.
“Where are you going?” Genny said, her pink eyes glowing and her lavender face tattoo prominent against the overcast skies.
“Why, will you miss me, Genny darling?” Byron flirted sarcastically. “I’ve told you before, I simply cannot reciprocate your feelings; you’re much too tall for me.”
“I told you, we are not waging war against the beasts. We do not have the resources to spare,” Mako said.
“Do we three look like an army to you?” Tyron said. “Nay, we are simply accompanying our dear Realm Walker on a personal errand.”
“A personal errand, and what might that be?” Mako narrowed his eyes.
Everyone turned to Esther.
She was too tired to squirm under their scrutiny. “I think you know where we’re going,” Esther said.
“You’re a fool, just like him; and it’s going to get you killed.” Genny’s glare melted into sorrow.
Esther swore she almost saw a tear brimming Genny’s eye.
“We’ll be staying at the crossroads of Durand; if you decide you want to join us on our fool’s errand.”
Esther climbed onto Freya’s back and pushed past Genny.
Esther was acutely aware of Windsor watching her from the wall, was he the one who’d been watching her earlier? She kept her eyes forward and her jaw set, she was putting actions to her promises.
“She needs to do this, and we need to support her,” Tyron said. “If you only wish to stop her, do not follow us.”
“And why not?” Mako said.
“Because we won’t let you,” Byron said.
Climbing onto their horses, Tyron and Byron rode after Esther and the trio galloped east.
Loose stones and uprooted trees littered their path, and overgrown thicket crept over the edges of the road. The path leading into the Kingdom of Roses and the forest infested with beasts was neglected and overrun, making their journey slow. At two hours past sunset, they reached the crossroads.
The village of Durand was dreary and small. Rickety buildings clustered at the intersection: a bakery, the inn, several unmarked buildings, and wobbly market stands. Drunks stumbled or laid aimlessly through the mucky streets. Further up the road farmers’ compounds were scattered across the sparse fields.
Riding to the inn, a fine mist of icy rain began to fall from the grim skies, Esther wondered if she’d ever see the sun again.
The trio set their horses up at the inn’s stables, ensuring they had food and water in plenty before leaving them. Inside, the inn was dimly lit with stubby candles on dusty tables while larger candles were scattered across the bar.
There every movement stirred up seasons of dirt and dust into the putrid air. Esther scrunched her nose; she was assaulted by the stench of stale urine, old liquor, and something else she’d rather not identify.
Despite the number of patrons in the bar, it was eerily quiet. As they walked up to the main counter, suspicious whispers swarmed the air around them.
“Good evening, madam.” Tyron smiled at the toothless old woman behind the counter.
“Who are ya, and what do ye want?” She spat onto the floor. “We don’t like no strangers ‘round here.”
“My good woman, I assure you we want no trouble. We are simple Huntsmen traveling from visiting our brothers and sisters at Auburn Keep. We have been long on the road and would like to stay in one of your fine rooms and feast on your cuisine. Of course, we plan on giving you a generous compensation for your hospitalities. And we will be gone by sunrise.” Tyron produced several gold coins from the purse on his belt.
The old woman’s eyes glittered at the sight. “Gone before sunrise ye say?” She cocked a wiry eyebrow at him. “Please have a seat, mister Huntsman; yer dinners and lodgings be ready shortly.”
“Much appreciated.” Tyron’s smile brightened and he placed more coins onto the grimy counter.
“What was all that about?” Byron asked once they were out of earshot.
“These people are isolated, the only travelers they see are probably bandits. It doesn’t hurt to be a little generous with them.” Tyron shrugged.
As they sat at a table, curious talk about the Huntsmen filled the air and continued after their dinners came out. Esther tried to ignore the whispers while she ate, but they filled her head with a dull buzz.
Their meal was meager at best; shriveled root vegetables roasted and slathered in a thick gravy served with rock-hard bread and foul-smelling cheese.
Esther could tell the old woman put a great effort into making the food at least look appetizing. The bread and cheese were arranged in neat circular patterns and the plates were adorned with something that, she guessed, used to be herbs.
But Esther didn’t care if the meal was bland and stale; after so long in the dungeons, she was happy to eat anything that wasn’t a stale baked potato.
With the meal gone, they sat in heavy silence drinking the house ale. It was dark and bitter, the first sips made her scrunch her face in distaste. By the fourth sip, she grew to tolerate it; by the seventh, she could appreciate the flavor of the hops and the spices mixed with it, either that or she was tipsy, she couldn’t tell.
“What do you remember about the layout within the castle?” Tyron broke the silence.
Esther furrowed her brow and stared into her cup. “The dungeons are in the far western basement. From there, we went up into the main floors of the castle and then to the eastern wing. That part of the castle is mostly destroyed, and the lower levels are flooded, that’s where the tunnel leads.”
“Once inside will you be able to lead us from the tunnel to the dungeons?” Tyron asked.
“I think so, but I know some of the gremlins inside will help. Liviath was the one who helped us escape last time.”
“It’s always good to know we have allies on the inside.”
Esther nodded. “But there’s something else … something about it that’s been bothering me. The gremlin, she said something to me as I went into the tunnel, something she shouldn’t have known.”
“Huntsman!” the old bar keep screeched. “The room be ready. Second floor on the left. I’ll show you upstairs.” Holding up a rusted key, the old lady beckoned.
“You two can stay here, I’m going upstairs to try and rest.” Tyron took his bag and followed the woman up the stairs.
“A gremlin?” Byron said. “You trusted a gremlin?”
“Liviath,” Esther said, setting her jaw, challenging Byron. “After being locked up in that hell, you’d understand; or maybe you wouldn’t.”
“Whatever you say, little mouse.” Byron picked up his ale, then set it back down, looking curiously at her. “You use that word a lot to describe our realm. What does it mean?”
“What?” Esther was taken aback.
“Hell. You said it once on your first morning here, and again just now.”
“Oh. It, umm, it’s from a religious book. Hell is basically a pit of fire where souls are tortured for eternity for the wickedness they do while alive.”
“Well, you don’t have a very high opinion of this place, do you?” Byron scoffed before drinking the rest of his ale in large gulps.
“Why are you here?” Esther asked.
“Well, it’s certainly not for the ale.”
“I’m serious. I need to know if I can trust you with his life. You hate Oisin; what made you suddenly become so noble?”
“I do not understand, little mouse, why do you hate me so much?” Byron quirked an eyebrow.
“You tried to kill me.”
“A simple misunderstanding.” Byron scoffed, waving his hand.
“That’s not all,” Esther growled. “You’re a cruel, heartless man. You tormented Oisin for no good reason, and you boast of wretched accomplishments.”
“Tell me, Byron, would you have raped me that night if I hadn’t fought you off?”
“Wha—umm. That—that was—“
“Another misunderstanding?” Esther spat. “Well, try not to misunderstand this. Stay the fuck away from me. You make one wrong move, give me any reason to think you will harm Oisin or jeopardize my mission to save him, and I will kill you.”
Byron looked into Esther’s face. She kept her chestnut brown eyes hard and unwavering. She held no doubts she could kill him and not lose a second’s rest over it. He must have seen it in her eyes, for an involuntary shiver ran over him.'
“What in the Wastelands happened to you?”
“You happened. You and everything else in this abysmal realm keep trying to kill me or break me.”
Byron searched his empty mug. “You asked me why I decided to become noble, I suppose it was in Gunderson. Being there with Windsor …it brought back my own memories. Memories I’ve tried so hard to forget.”
“Gunderson? What are you talking about? You weren’t there that night when the wolves attacked.”
Byron’s eyes slid up. “Did Mako not tell you and Oisin what happened after you left?”
“Eh! You’s the Huntsman?” A stout man approached their table, clutching his ale and slurring his words.
“That depends on who’s asking,” Byron said, his eyes still fixed on Esther.
“Just a farmer, worried ‘bout his family. The lands have gone mad; bad enough wes got them beasts and wolves comin’ after us, but now there’s them folk wearin’ them masks runnin’ around.”
“Masks? You don’t mean the wolf masks, do you?” Esther said.
“Sure do. They be goin’ ‘round, sacrificin’ people to them wolves, worshipin’ tha’ witch lady.”
“I thought they were stopped?”
“Stopped? Wheres you been?”
“Locked in a dungeon,” Byron said dryly.
“That don’t sound fun.” The man took a sloppy gulp of his ale. “Word has it, they come to the villages, each o’ them take somebody to sacrifice, usually a Red Cape. They tie ‘em up in the town squares, then the leader gives a big speech about how they be cleaning us of our filth and how that witch lady is bringin’ us salvation and what not. If the villagers don’t join, then the wolfs eat ‘em. They bloody worship them monsters.”
“Some of the villages that have been annihilated are rumored to be because of them, but there’s no way for us to know for sure,” Byron explained to Esther. “Rumors are not facts, after all.”
“Rumors!” the man hiccupped. “Them wolf masks are tryin’ to scare every village into joinin’ them. If they don’t join, the wolves kill ‘em all. That ain’t no rumor boy.”
“Why hasn’t anyone tried to stop them?” Esther asked.
“Can’t find ‘em,” the man slurred.
“It’s almost impossible to track them, what with all our attention on the actual wolves,” Byron said. “Besides, we have no idea where they home, they could very well be nomadic. We also don’t know how many of them there are. Even if we had the resources to waste on them, we don’t know where to start.”
“’Cording to the rumors, there be hundreds of ‘em all over the lands; they be waitin’ in villages for the right time to call the wolves there.”
“Rumors are hardly facts,” Byron snapped.
“Rumors are good as we got. They tried it first in Gunderson.”
“But we stopped them,” Esther said. “They were stopped, I know, I was there.”
“Well, where was ya when they came back?”
“Came back …What are you talking about?” Esther’s blood turned to ice; pinpricks covered her skin and her fingers trembled. The drunk man’s voice echoed through her mind, she didn’t want to listen, she couldn’t process what he was saying.
“Gunderson, over by what’s it called … Grey Keep? Well, it’s gone. Ain’t a spirit left alive in that place. The wolves came through and wiped ‘em all out in one night. Said to be the startin’ place of them fellas in wolf masks.”
“Wha—what’s he talking about?” Esther turned to Byron, his face crestfallen. “I saved Gunderson. Windsor’s family, the villagers, I saved them.”
“We thought Mako told you and Oisin what happened,” Byron whispered.
Esther leaped from the table. Her entire body trembling, she tripped over her boots, running to the second floor. She didn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe it.
“Tyron!” Esther screamed. Her thoughts were racing, where did the old lady say their room was? “Tyron!”
Behind her, Tyron burst from a room. His overcoat gone and tunic untucked, he held his hammer aloft, his face wide with panic. “Esther! What is it? What’s happened?”
She ran to him. Gripping his forearms, she searched his face. “Gunderson. Tell me it isn’t true. Tell me!” Esther cried out. “I saved them. Tell me it isn’t true.”
“You mean, no one told you?” Tyron said in disbelief.
Byron ran down the hall after her. “Esther; I’m sorry, we thought you knew.”
“Oh, no …Oh, my dear, it is true. Gunderson is gone.”
As Tyron said the words, Esther’s knees buckled beneath her; she fell, heavy against him.
“The Red Witch came back, she slaughtered the entire village, and she—“ Byron’s voice was a distant echo in Esther’s mind. “She tortured Windsor’s family, made him watch them die. She wanted information.”
“Windsor!” Esther choked. “Windsor … no!”
“He does not blame you,” Tyron said, holding her steady. “None of us do. Windsor is haunted by his grief, but he does not blame you.”
Esther took in several shaky breaths before hardening her resolve. She forced herself to stand on her own. “All of this is her fault,” Esther spoke through gritted teeth, her eyes sparking blue. “She must pay for what she’s done. The Red Witch must die.”
Esther felt it—the power surging beneath the surface. It grew tempestuous, unstable; it needed to be let out.
Concentrating on the power growing inside her, she rushed through the inn. She sent it racing to her toes, to her fingers, then back again. Sending it running through every inch of her, she tried to contain it.
Opening the door, cool rain splashed her face and the heavy scent of ozone wafted through her sences. Stepping into the mud, she let the power flow freely.
Gathering at her fingertips, sparks danced around her hands, pulsing outward. Brilliant flashes of blue light leaped from her, traveling into the muddy puddles at her feet. Deep shadows pirouetted around Esther; her tear-filled eyes glowed with the bright blue light while she cried.
Thick gray clouds shrouded the moon and silver star light. Lightning came from the clouds, striking her, dancing through the village streets. With a scream of anguish, she became part of the storm raging above her.
The power subdued and the lightning stopped, leaving Esther alone in the frozen rain. She watched it fall from the clouds, unable to move, unwilling to think.
The inn’s patrons regarded her through the windows with wonder and terror, whispers about the Realm Walker buzzed in the air. Tyron and Byron sat by anxiously, watching her. She felt their eyes on her and heard their murmurs, she ignored them all.
Loud clomping of horse hooves splashing through mud reached Esther’s ears. These were not the sounds of a normal horse, they were the sounds of a war horse, a Clydesdale. Without looking, she knew who was there before they spoke, and she did not have the patience to hear their voice.
Esther turned for the inn’s door, and the clomping of heavy boots through mud rushed after her.
“Esther please, I need to speak with you.”
Esther took no notice of Genny’s plea.
“I am not here to tell you he’s dead, and I won’t try to stop you from saving him.”
Esther paused, turning around, she regarded Genny. Her colorless skin was iridescent against the gloomy night, and her normally stoic face was stricken.
“Esther, there’s been an emergency, you’re needed back at Auburn Keep immediately; I say this not to stop you from saving him, but because we need you. We need our Realm Walker.”
“The Red Witch—she’s made a play; war has begun. Please, Esther, we need you now. When the time is right, I will return here with you, I will storm Prodigium at your side. Not because I believe him to be dead or alive, but because it is no less than the beasts deserve. They must pay for what they have done to these lands, what they have done to you—and so must I.”
Esther considered Genny’s face. Glistening with the mists of rain, she found raw sincerity and pain twisted across Genny’s beautiful face.
“You are our Realm Walker, and we need you now; please don’t abandon us.”
Esther looked through the windows of the inn. The curious faces still watched her; faces representing the countless in these lands that relied on her. Closing her eyes, Esther turned her head to the skies. She relished the misting rain caressing her face. She needed Oisin, but the whole of the lands needed her.
“Tyron, Byron! Get your bags, we’re going back,” Esther called out.
The second story of the Auburn Keep was dim, the afternoon sun blocked out by thick, dusty curtains. A large fire roared in the hearth, casting deep shadows across their faces. On the table surface was a large map illuminated by small halos of light from three oil lamps.
Esther sat rigidly, eyeing the visitors sitting across her. Xenia and Zor Nakosi, siblings from Breaburn. Each wore thick burgundy robes, their ochre skin glowing in the firelight. She had a halo of tight black curls crowning her head while his was cut close to his scalp.
They were sent here by Queen Snow, and they were the reason she wasn’t saving Oisin at this moment. Was there any aspect of her life Queen Snow wouldn’t defile?
“What we say is true,” Xenia said.
“Which part?” Byron spat.
“I believe the part about Maarifa trying to kill her mother and leading a rebellion,” Esther said, “and I believe the Red Witch instigated it. What I don’t believe is that Queen Snow, now suddenly, is clean and has her head on straight.”
Xenia and Zor exchanged quizzical looks.
“The Queen was never beheaded,” Xenia said.
“And she bathes. I do not understand what this has to do with war?” Zor asked.
“That’s not what she meant,” Byron said. “Our dear Realm Walker just says some very odd things sometimes.”
“Her realm is very … different,” Genny said.
“What I meant is,” Esther snapped, “Snow is no longer using the Faye opium or ruby berries?”
“No, she is not. Her straight head is clean; as you say,” Zor said.
“It has been a painful process, but our Queen has not given into her lust,” Xenia said. “But that does not matter now; her past actions have spurred the wrath of Maarifa and now this Red Witch has joined her.”
“Breaking the spell of the ruby berries is no easy task. How can we be sure Queen Snow has done so?” Tyron asked. “How can we be sure Snow will remain allied with us after we fight for her?”
“Our Queen is strong! She has done as we say,” Xenia said.
“But will her strength hold? Will she return to her old ways once again after we fight at Breaburn?”
“One cannot possibly know what you ask,” Zor said.
“It is important nonetheless,” Mako said. “Her ways are what brought this rebellion to her door and allowed it to grow in her own castle without her realizing it. Why should we help defeat the Faye rebellion? Why should we march into battle leaving our villages and our Keeps defenseless?”
“Because it is not just the Faye rebels that march to our doors,” Zor said. “The Red Witch and her wolves stand with the Faye.”
“Do you know this for sure? I will not march my Huntsmen into battle; leave my villages vulnerable, for anything less than certainty.”
Esther watched Mako closely. The circles under his eyes were deep and dark. He looked like a madman ravaged by nightmares but beneath it all she saw fire in his spirit. His duty was to the Huntsmen and the villages, and nothing would make him wane. Esther felt a newfound respect for the head of the Auburn Keep swelling in her chest.
The brother and sister exchanged incredulous looks.
“We have spies and informants within JonnaGold. Some were always loyal to Queen Snow, others wanted the rebellion. But once they saw Maarifa’s true intentions, they changed their ways and now support us and send us information at great personal risk,” Xenia said.
“We have both mortals and Faye reporting a woman in a red cloak appearing after the first battle. She stays at Maarifa’s side when in the city. Once more, wolves were seen stalking the streets the night after the rebellion and now they roam freely in the daylight; they attack those who openly oppose Maarifa and the woman in red,” Zor said.
“If they say the Red Witch is in the city, I believe them,” Genny said. “When I was Maarifa’s prisoner I often heard her speaking with a woman whose voice I didn’t recognize. I always suspected it was the Red Witch, and this confirms it.”
“She’s right,” Esther said. “I believe the Red Witch is with Maarifa; what they say is true but what are we going to do about it? Regardless of whether or not we support Queen Snow, Maarifa and the Red Witch need to be stopped. Do we march to JonnaGold and strike them before they reach Breaburn, or do we fortify the city for siege?”
“Maarifa thinks we have no army, and that we are defenseless. She intends to slaughter all of Breaburn, even the babes and elderly,” Xenia spat. “She is the worst type of opponent, with no decency or honor.”
“Then we keep the fight away from them.” Tyron sorted through the scrolls on the table, looking for a map.
“If Maarifa believes you have no defenses, the odds are in your favor,” Mako said. “They will be sloppy and overconfident, not expecting a real fight.”
“They will not be expecting a fight, any less than they will be expecting for us to meet them in battle before they reach Breaburn,” Zor said.
“Is it wise to fight the wolves so exposed? Wouldn’t you fare better within the walls of the castle?” Mako ran a hand through his hair.
“We cannot let them get near the castle. We could shelter all of the city within its walls, but that would only make it easier for Maarifa to kill them,” Zor explained. “Maarifa is a blood relative of the queen, born within Breaburn’s walls. She knows the castle’s magical secrets and defenses. We must assume she knows every entrance hidden or not, and Maarifa may have added her own entrances to the castle we don’t know of yet.”
“Then where do we fight them?” Tyron asked.
“The valley of Allened; they will have to cross it to reach Breaburn,” Xenia said. “If we lay in wait within the surrounding forest, we can strike when Maarifa’s army is in the lowlands. Surrounding them and taking them by surprise will make up for our inferior numbers.”
Everyone leaned over the table, inspecting maps of the Kingdom of Apples. From what Esther saw, the valley of Allened was about ten miles south of Breaburn, strategically placed across the forest road. But it was wide.
“You’re going to need more than just the Huntsmen to cover the whole valley,” Genny scrunched up her face.
“How long do we have before the attack?” Esther asked.
“Ten days,” Zor said.
“That’s not much time to build an army!” Byron yelled.
“We don’t need to build one, just convince one.” Esther tugged on her braid. She wasn’t sure how they would respond to her idea.
“You’re not suggesting we—“ Genny said.
“Yes. Yes, we are and you are going with me. Tyron, I want you to talk with Zor, learn everything you can about the rebellion, its armies, and where we will be fighting. Mako, get every Huntsman the Keeps can spare and gather them at Breaburn immediately but don’t tell anyone who does not need to know, and keep all the Huntsmen hidden inside the castle; we need to maintain the illusion that Breaburn doesn’t have an army.”
“So, now you’ve just started making decisions for everyone?” Mako argued, his eyes hard.
“Do you want me to be your Realm Walker or not? You can’t have it both ways, Mako.”
“If you have a better idea, do speak up; I’m sure we’re all dying to hear what you have to say,” Byron said. “If not, I suggest you shut your mouth and do as she says.”
Esther’s eyes darted around the table.
No one said a word.
“Xenia, I want you to accompany Genny and me. We’ll need your knowledge to convince them.”
“To convince who?” Zor asked.
“Queen Aurora and the Kingdom of Beauties.”
An audible gasp sounded around the table.
“They’re the best chance we have. We’ll leave just before sunrise; I don’t want to arrive at their gates after dark.”
“Well you heard her; we’ve all got work to do!” Tyron stood, clapping his hands together.
Cursing to himself, Mako left the table. Descending the stairs with a group of Huntsmen, he barked orders to ration food and weapons in preparation for the journey. Tyron and Zor discussed the rebellions while looking over detailed maps.
Esther and Genny walked out to the courtyard with Xenia close behind. The late afternoon skies were shrouded in deep gray storm clouds left from the night before. The three of them circled the courtyard, their boots thick with mud.
“I need you to stay by my side at all times,” Esther’s voice was low and gruff while she spoke to Genny. “When I left last time, I was threatened; I don’t know if they’ll try to follow through with it, but I don’t trust them.”
“Why are we seeking help from those you do not trust?” Xenia asked.
“Aurora’s warriors are well trained and many in number; if we have any wish to survive, we will need them,” Genny said.
“We need them to be our allies if we want to survive what’s coming.” Esther turned to their new companion. “There are monsters to the east, monsters to the west, north, and south. I must decide which monsters are our allies and which are our enemies.”
Esther’s mind wandered briefly to the odd man, Mavill, whom she freed from an enchanted tree. He was a powerful arborous and was trapped by Maleficent during the Great Wars. She wondered where he was now that he was free.
“The Red Witch told me what she wants.” Esther brought her mind back to the present. “The battle at Breaburn is only a small portion of her plan.”
“You’ve spoken with her?” Xenia exclaimed. “Only rumors and half-truths circulate in Breaburn about this Crimson Shadow.”
“Once on a battlefield when I first came to this realm. Then she came to me in a dream when I was held prisoner by Adam. When we were held prisoner by Adam.”
“Adam, you don’t mean—“
“The king of beasts himself,” Genny said.
“I’ve heard horrors of him … However, did you escape?”
Esther’s face darkened; she stopped walking and glared at her boots. A thought occurred to her, but she couldn’t say it in front of Xenia. Revealing her plan too soon would ruin it. “I had a loyal friend at my side.”
Looking up from the mud, Esther watched the Huntsmen. Scurrying around the courtyard in groups, frantically sending messages to other Keeps, taking inventory, and rushing off to trade goods with the villagers. She wondered how many of them would meet their ends in the valley of Allened.
Esther saw Windsor descend the wall and walk into the stables. “Pack your bags with everything you need for battle; we leave two hours after midnight and we won’t be returning until after the battle at Breaburn.”
Esther left Genny and Xenia, making her way across the busy courtyard to the stables. Windsor stood with his back to the door, petting one of the mares.
“You came back,” his voice was scratchy and raw.
“Yes,” Esther whispered across the dusty barn. “I—I didn’t know about Gunderson. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, you’re sorry? Well, that just makes everything all better, doesn’t it?” Windsor’s voice dripped with venom.
“I’m sorry about Leo—“
“Don’t! Don’t say their names,” Windsor’s body went rigid.
“Don’t.” Windsor spun on his heel. His face contorted with anger and his eyes were bloodshot.
Windsor struck Esther hard across the face. Recoiling, she felt the metallic taste of blood fill her mouth.
He struck her again.
“Stop!” Windsor gripped Esther’s shoulders, shaking her violently. He yelled over her.
Esther repeated their names until Windsor stopped shaking her and his yells morphed into sobs. He fell heavy against her. She pulled Windsor close to her chest, falling to their knees. She cradled his head into the crook of her neck, letting him cry into her.
Windsor clung to Esther’s small frame, his only lifeline among the emptiness. His tears soaked through her tunic, rubbing her skin raw. She held him tighter.
When at last his sobs subsided, Esther pulled back, taking his face in her hands.
Searching his despondent face, she found only despair. With a sharp pang, Esther realized why his behavior seemed so odd, what was missing this whole time. Windsor no longer smiled nor whistled; his normal spark of life was snuffed out.
“I cannot bring them back; but I can punish all those responsible for your suffering,” Esther spoke in earnest. “I will continue to stand by you no matter what path your grief takes you, that is if you’ll have me.”
Windsor reached a hand to Esther’s cheek. “Oisin trusted his life to you, and I see no reason not to do the same, Realm Walker.” He pulled her into a tight embrace.
“We will get through this,” Esther whispered. “I will get you through this. Leonardo and Dalia will be avenged when we spill the blood of the Red Witch and every last one of her monsters. Together we will rid these lands of the evil she’s wrought upon you.”
Will Queen Aurora come to their aid?
Will Esther rescue Oisin?