We had been riding for hours when the first signs of fatigue hit. Shrubby terrain rolled out as far as the eye could see. Had we been travelling north towards the Sixth Kingdom, we would’ve been knee-deep in sand dunes right then.
I inwardly thanked The Divine for not making the southern part of the Middle Kingdom half as desert-like as its northern counterpart.
As my mare stumbled over a particularly large plant, I bounced violently in the saddle. My backside throbbed. It had been rubbed raw by countless such incidents that I had spent the best part of the journey staring at the lifeless shrubbery we passed in an attemt to ignore the pain.
At least I was not encased in a dress. Believe me, Mama had attempted to dress me in Imperial Regalia again, but I had stoutly refused. There was no way I was riding in endless swathes of silk. Now, as I looked back at the wagons that wheeled behind the General and I, I rather regretted my decision. The masculine riding gear I wore proved no match to the biting desert cold.
I watched General Kai’s figure in front of me, my breath curling into silver smoke from the cold. He held the reins of his mount in one hand, steering expertly. From here, I could make out his broad shoulders, the posture just as straight backed as it was when we first set out.
The night’s blackness seemed to shroud everything in its path; the wagons behind us had morphed into looming shadows. Glancing around at the terrain, I saw black shapes shift on its surface. The air suddenly seemed so much chillier, the night sky void of stars. I shivered suddenly, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up on end. I urged the mare forward, trying to keep up with the General. As I grasped the reins, my hands came away with an unexpected dampness. I looked up, startled.
It seemed impossible, but in the few moments that had passed, a thick swirling fog had descended upon us, enveloping everything in its grey-fingered embrace.
I couldn’t see anything. I reached out blindly, heart racing. Where was Kai?
“General Kai!” I called out. My voice sounded desperate, why was it so hard to move my tongue?
The stallion in front of me had disappeared, along with his rider and the rest of the caravan behind me.
Sweat formed at the back of my neck as feather light fingers traced my face. I whipped around wildly. Who was there? My breath rushed out in frightened puffs, my eyes wide. Palpitations shook my chest. Why was the air closing in on me, tightening my airways?
The fog was smothering me and inhibiting my movements. Panic blinded my senses as I shouted out again:
“Where are you. Kai!”
My mare suddenly stilled, as if sensing danger. Then, in a split second, she reared up on her hind legs as she spooked with a strangled cry. I grabbed for the reins fruitlessly: My fingers missed them by a fraction.
As I was filled with the horrible sensation of falling, the last thing I saw was my mare gallop into the fog. My head slammed into contact with something hard and jagged. Sharp, excruciating pain blinded my senses. Consciousness slipped out of my reach; And then came the blackness.
She had been silent the entire ride so far. The incident earlier that day replayed in my head.
I’d heard rumours that the Emperor’s third daughter was a wild thing, with a temper to match, but I’d never paid them much attention.
When I had been informed that I would be her mentor, I immediately set of from the military post in the Third Kingdom, in order to appeal against the decision. I had no intention of babysitting a spoilt brat for a year, let alone mentor her.
I had considered her to be a child. How wrong I was. The moment I set eyes on her when I walked in to the Throne Room I was enraptured by her beauty. The way her lips were pursed as she glared at me with those huge amber eyes as I walked in, I could tell she was raging about something. The thought set me wondering if those rumours I had dismissed really did have a grain of truth in them.
I smirked to myself, remembering the sway of her hips as she stormed out in front of me. I sneaked a glance back, disguising it as me maneuvering Ebony. I needn’t have worried. Her lips were parted as she glanced around at our dull surroundings, a pretty frown appearing on her brow. A thought cropped up in my mind. What would it feel like to kiss those lips, hands running through those curly locks?
I mentally shook myself. She was my ward, I couldn’t possibly have any thoughts of the sort. I wondered what had caused that frown. Looking around at the landscape, I remembered passing through this particular patch the first time as I journeyed to the palace. I had felt a dark presence, ill foreboding filling my thoughts as I remembered tales from my childhood of creatures from the other realms crossing into ours. I shook my head to clear my thoughts; now was not the time to be remembering my grandmother’s old superstitions from the sea.
Ebony’s ears perked up, twitching. He was uneasy. Out of nowhere, a thick mist had appeared. The moment I thought to check on the Princess, a terrified cry rang out from behind me. Almost on reflex, I twisted ebony round, just in time to see the Princess fall from her mount.
The mare raced past us into the distance, obviously spooked.
“Halt!”, my order was repeated from wagon to wagon. I dismounted quickly, rushing to where the girl had landed. She lay still as a statue. I felt my stomach churn violently as she stirred slowly. Her heart shaped lips opened and a moan of pain escaped. Feeling sick, I saw the shiny sheen of blood on a hard surface.
She was hurt.
Abandoning all decorum, I lifted her up in my arms, starting for the nearest wagon.
“Set up camp!” I yelled hoarsely, voice gruff from underuse.
We weren’t going anywhere tonight.