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Guardian Prince (Ceryn Roh Saga Book 2)

By Lauricia Matuska

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Sabine woke suddenly, conscious of having overslept. Surely Gaielle was already in the kitchen, waiting to spring some new form of punishment upon her before Dargan awoke. Inhaling deeply, Sabine scrambled to sit up and pry open her eyes. As the dark, mild scent of cold oaks registered in her sleep-fogged thoughts, the memory of last night’s escape surfaced, along with the realization that she was no longer a slave. After weeks of serving the Rüddan, she was finally free.

Sabine dropped her shoulders, relaxing as that reality sank in. Rubbing the crustiness from her eyes, she blinked a few times and surveyed her surroundings: a small room made of rough, ridged tree trunks grown close together, their branches interweaving overhead to form a leafy ceiling. Approximately the size of her bedroom in Khapor, the room was furnished with only a narrow bed, a wash-stand, and a chair. Sabine recalled being escorted her late last night, but she couldn’t remember how the room had been lit. Searching for a possible source of light, Sabine remembered that she was in one of the curiously constructed buildings on the other side of the portal, in some sort of Dryht encampment that lay beyond the magical gateway she had discovered behind her house.

My sister's house now, she reminded herself as she rose from the bed she had borrowed for the night. She pulled the blankets tight, smoothing the wrinkles out of a downy soft, silvery-green fabric unlike any she had ever known, and fluffed the pillow. That is, if the Rüddan let her keep it.

Sabine knew they would not. After all, Elise had not prevented Sabine's escape. Even though she had done the best she could, the fey Rüddan would still punish her. Sabine would be very surprised if, someday, she found out that her sister had survived the experience.

It's not my fault! Sabine reminded herself. Sitting on the now-made bed, Sabine hugged the pillow to her stomach. I begged her to come with me. Despite her sister's refusal, Sabine battled the nagging doubt that she should have tried harder, should have done more. What kind of person was she, to leave her sister to die moments after she had reached out to Sabine for the first time in their lives?

Someone who doesn't care a wit for duty or responsibility, the memory of Danelle, the dairywoman of Sabine’s village, accused.

Sabine winced, unwilling to acknowledge the accusation while simultaneously convinced of its truth. In any case, there was nothing to be done about it now, so she silenced the thought by busying herself with her appearance.

Unfortunately, there was nothing she could do about that, either. Her rescue from Dargan's house had occurred so suddenly that she had fled in full uniform. She had removed the apron before falling into bed last night, but had possessed neither the means nor the desire to launder the rest. Consequently, her white gown and surcoat still bore the stains and grime of yesterday's labor and flight. Sabine smoothed the surcoat a few times, trying to press out the wrinkles, then gave up and plaited her tangled hair into a braid that would harness most of the frizzy curls.

Her uniform might not be spotless or pressed, she reasoned as she put on her shoes, but it was whole and warm, which would protect her against the winter chill saturating the air. Trying to find comfort in that, she wrapped the thick cloak of her former mistress about her, hiding the white clothes that screamed sani-noth—one without honor—and set off in search of someone to talk to and something to eat.

She found Bree outside the door, where she had left the dog the night before. Although she had longed to keep her pet nearby, she was not sure her hosts wanted an animal inside their building. Judging by Bree's lolling tongue and wagging tail, however, the dog had not minded the exclusion. The weather was warmer here than the snowstorms they had left in Khapor, the trees’ leaves just beginning to change colors. Since Bree’s winter coat had already come in, she was well equipped for sleeping outdoors.

Sabine sank her fingers into the dog's shaggy black pelt, scratching Bree's ribs vigorously. It amazed her to realize just how much she had missed the animal during her time as a slave in Dargan's house. To be reunited so unexpectedly gave Sabine a sudden sense that all was not lost, as it had seemed the night before.

“Human,” a deep voice called from nearby.

Sabine glanced up to see Koen standing a few feet away, his bright, leaf-red hair contrasting sharply with the deep black feathers of the raven perched on his shoulder. She fixated on the sight of the raven's talons sinking into the shoulder of the Dryht’s leather jerkin. Recalling the weight of the bird when he had landed on her lap, and the sharpness of his talons against her leg when he had sprung off, Sabine reasoned the Dryht must be stronger than his remarkably tall, lean frame suggested.

The raven turned his head to one side, regarding Sabine and her dog with a large, bright blue eye. Then, turning his head to the other side as if for a better look, he studied them with his bright green eye. A fraction of a moment later he shrieked a raucous call and fluffed his feathers. Instinctively, Sabine clutched a fist-full of Bree's fur, to keep the dog from jumping at the bird, but Bree did not even tense. Amazed, Sabine watched the dog and the bird politely disregard each other, as if they were used to spending great amounts of time together.

“The others are waiting for you,” Koen prompted politely, but with a slight air of command. “The Rüddan could be upon us at any moment. Follow me.”

Sabine nodded and did as the Dryht requested, but unease stirred within her. She had thought she would be safe after she fled from Khapor. “The portal is still under attack, then? Or are they coming at us from another direction?”

Koen stopped and turned back to her, his eyebrows arched. “We are half a world away from your village, Human. The portal is the only way they can reach us now.”

Sabine frowned. Half a world away from Khapor? She did not understand how that could be, but she did not want to appear foolish in front of this Dryht, either.

“Portals are not like normal doors,” Koen explained, as if reading her expression. “With any doorway, the distance from one side to the other is a mere step. For portals, however, the distance is much greater. When you passed through our gateway last night, you traveled from your tiny island village to the largest continental forest in Ceryn Roh.”

“But don't the Rüddan know where we are?”

Koen shook his head. “Before the War of New Dawn, all portals were originally created and maintained by the Dryht. Although the other races used them, only mine understood them. They were destroyed by the Rüddan in the War, but we have spent the past three hundred years restoring them. Even if the Rüddan knew how they work, they have no idea where any given portal leads. As far as they know, we could be anywhere in the world.”

Sabine nodded. “So the only way to get to us is to cross over from Khapor.”

“Exactly,” Koen said. Turning, he began once again to lead her to the others. “And while no portal has ever fallen when it was attacked, that doesn't mean it can't, so no more delays.”

Sabine fell into step beside the Dryht, following closely as he guided her through a forest that appeared equally maintained and unkempt. The trees seemed to grow in large clusters: a variety of cedar, pine, and oak gathered here, a knot of willow and elm over there. Creepers, ivies, and shrubs twined around and through each thicket. The spaces between them, while not completely empty of bushes or trees, had a sense of being designated walkways.

Koen led her to one of these stands a short distance away from where she had slept, a large copse of rowan, ash, birch, and willow. Pausing just outside the cluster, he pushed aside a thick curtain of vines to reveal a narrow entrance, which he gestured her to pass through.

She did, realizing too late that Bree had followed her in. She would have shooed the dog back outside, but Koen was right behind her, his tall frame filling the doorway. He did not seem to notice the dog, and the raven still sat on his shoulder, so Sabine let it go, hoping nothing would come of it.

Inside, the stand of trees looked like a large room. As with the other buildings she had been in since last night, the trees grew closely together, their varying shapes and sizes tiling among, against, and over each other and the surrounding foliage to form walls while their branches intertwined to weave a roof. Muted, dappled sunlight filtered through the leaves overhead, illuminating a long, narrow table that filled the center of the room where a group of men and women appeared to be conferencing over breakfast. Much to Sabine's surprise, she recognized most of them.

Aodhan, the Aethel prince she had rescued and nursed back to health, sat at the head of the table, flanked on his left by Gaelan and his right by an Aethel man she had never met before, but who appeared vaguely familiar. Aodhan’s sister, the Lady Diera, sat across from him at the other end of the long table. Amala, her lady-in-waiting, sat to Diera’s right, attending her blind mistress. Aodhan’s cousin Taylion, whom Sabine knew as Tayte, sat near the center of the table on one side. The chairs across from him and to his right were empty.

Koen directed Sabine to the spot beside Tayte, for which she was glad. Of everyone seated at the table, he was the person she had known the longest and the best. He was the reason she was no longer enslaved to the Rüddan.

The conversation stopped abruptly as she approached, giving her the impression that whatever they had been discussing somehow involved her. Their silent stares unnerved her, causing her stomach to clench. Squaring her shoulders, she kept her head up and met each gaze and glimpse as levelly as she could. They wanted her here, she told herself. They had attempted to rescue her not once but twice. Still, the reminder did nothing to ease the sense of being weighed and judged.

Tayte nodded to her, catching and holding her attention. The shape-shifter wore his Aethel form rather than his Human appearance, his smile warm and gracious. The knot in her stomach eased a bit.

“Good morning, Sabine,” he said expansively. His voice filled the silent room, reminding her of the tone her mother used when indirectly commanding her and her sister to be polite in front of the company. As he spoke, he rose to pull her chair out for her. “Welcome to our table. Please, join us.”

Sabine gasped softly, concerned that her friend should put so much weight on the leg he had broken during last night's escape. She glanced at his shin, then looked again, startled to see no cast. Tayte followed her gaze.

“It is healed, my friend,” he said gently as he motioned her to sit, then inclined his head toward the Aethel seated beside him and to Aodhan's right. “Kyar saw to it last night.”

Stunned, Sabine nodded in greeting, finally recognizing Kyar as the mysterious stranger who had tended Tayte's unconscious form the night before.

Kyar regarded her silently, his dark eyes so cold and piercing that she could not look at them for very long. Unsure what else to do, she adjusted her cloak slightly to allow herself to sit and accepted the chair Tayte had offered.

Koen joined the table, as well, his raven flying to a nearby tree limb. He took the seat across from Tayte and began filling his plate with food from the dishes laid out over the table. “Help yourself,” he said, gesturing in Sabine’s direction with his plate. “We do not have the time to tarry.”

Sabine longed to, for she was incredibly hungry, but the silent scrutiny of the gathered Aethel made her hesitate. She glanced around, uncertain how to proceed, until she noticed Amala smirking at her from across the table.

“Welcome, Healer,” the Aethel woman said when Sabine caught her staring. Her voice was mild, but her tone sounded overly-solicitous and sharp, exactly as it had the first time they met. “So nice of you to finally deign to join us. I trust your Rüddan mistress is well?”

The challenge in Amala's words shocked Sabine as sharply as a splash of cold water. Her first reaction was a feeling of betrayal: why would Tayte tell the Aethel the exact details about how she had declined his first rescue attempt? But she quickly rationalized that he would have had to explain his returning without her somehow, and he had always been truthful. It was one of the qualities she admired about him.

Sabine scanned the others, trying to determine if anyone else shared Amala's opinion, but their faces were unreadable. Her heart sank – after all she had done for them, she thought Aodhan or maybe even Diera would intervene on her behalf, but Aodhan merely reclined in his chair, his chin on a fist. The expression on Diera's face suggested that she listened attentively, but she did not interrupt.

“I accept your gracious welcome,” Sabine retorted, irked by the apparent indifference of the other Aethel and stung by the lack of recognition or appreciation from Aodhan. Resolved to hide her doubt and uncertainty behind a facade of boldness, she reached across the table exactly as Koen had done and served herself from the surrounding dishes. “My Rüddan patient is quite recovered, thank you, and fares just as well as the Aethel at this table whose life I have also saved.”

“And glad we are that you did,” the Lady Diera said at last. “Even though your strong sense of compassion has delayed us considerably, the same sense of duty that caused you to rescue the life of an Aethel is the only reason my brother is still with us today. We will not forget your gift to us, Human.”

Although Diera spoke to Sabine, her voice held a tone of command that the other Aethel seemed to understand, for they all returned to their breakfasts and resumed their conversation. Wryly, Sabine noted that they spoke only in Aethel.

“Well done,” Tayte murmured as Sabine bit into a fruity grain muffin she had procured.

He caught her off-guard, her mouth full of food, but it only took a moment for her to swallow and reply, “How so?”

“The way you met that challenge,” Tayte said, glancing discreetly in Amala's direction. “Had you let her comment anger you, she would have tormented you mercilessly. As it is, your sharp reply showed her you can sting, too, and gained the approval of the Lady Diera. Amala will not be so quick to provoke you again.”

Sabine took another bite of her muffin and considered Tayte's words. “So, that was some kind of test?”

“Indeed,” Tayte nodded. “You are a Human among the Aethel now, and you will have to prove yourself constantly. Try not to let it overwhelm you.”

Sabine grimaced. She had spent a lifetime fighting these below-the-surface battles with her mother and sister, and had hoped that was behind her. But then, she reasoned, one probably never escaped from that kind of passive aggression completely. Very well, then. If Amala wanted to spar, she would certainly find Sabine's ability honed to a fine point. The Morning Star knew she had had enough practice.

She was about to ask Tayte what else she should know, but Kyar said something to him in the Aethel language, drawing him into the general conversation. Although their tone sounded casual and everyone ate at a leisurely pace, tension edged their voices. A tightness in their movements suggested anticipation, and Sabine wondered what it was they awaited.

She dined alone for the rest of the meal, surrounded by the Aethel and their melodious language yet unacknowledged and unable to understand a word that was being said. This did not concern her overmuch, though, because it allowed her to observe without being noticed.

A month and a half ago she had believed this fey race to be extinct, just like almost every other Human in the world of Ceryn Roh. Yet here she sat, a little more than five sennites later, surrounded by six of them. The presence of Koen, the Dryht, was nearly as remarkable and twice as mysterious. The Rüddan had done much to paint his people as evil enemies to be feared by all, yet he interacted with the Aethel as if he had known them for a long time, speaking the fluid syllables of their language as easily as he spoke Sabine's.

Sipping a few mouthfuls of icy water, Sabine glanced over the rim of her wooden cup to the head of the table, covertly inspecting Aodhan as he listened to Gaelan, Kyar, and Tayte. He looked good, she decided. The slightly brown undertone of his pale skin matched the aged-lace hue of his companions. His hair, worn long and straight except for the single thin braid hanging from just above his right temple, shined a glossy black. His movements were stronger and more graceful than she had ever seen them.

Sabine returned her cup to the table, wondering how much of that was because of her. Was the Aethel prince so vigorous because of the weeks she had devoted to healing his wounds? Or was it because Kyar had finished the process overnight, as he had Tayte's broken leg?

Why can't it be both? she wondered, surprised to discover she was a little jealous of Kyar's ability. Dabbing her mouth with her napkin, she glanced once more at Aodhan. What does it matter, so long as he is well?
Just then, Aodhan looked in her direction. His eyes caught and held hers for a heartbeat, but no acknowledgment flashed within them, no emotion crossed his face. Another moment later, he looked away.

Sabine diverted her gaze, as well, smoothing her expression to hide her disappointment. She had not expected a warm greeting by any means, but he could have acknowledged her, at least! After all, she could have let him die. According to Rüddan law, she should have.

Sabine studied her plate, not really seeing the half-eaten portions of food as she waited for the heat of embarrassment to drain from her cheeks. No longer hungry, she picked a scrap of cheese from her plate and covertly fed it to Bree, who lay beside her chair. After she snuck a few more morsels under the table, a Dryht clothed in a leather jerkin very similar to Koen's entered the room. He glanced over the gathered company until he spotted Koen, then moved to his side with a brisk step.

Koen listened as the Dryht spoke in a tone only he could hear. Nodding, he wiped his mouth with his napkin. While the messenger turned and left, Koen said, “It seems we must depart earlier than planned.”

Koen's use of the Human language was not lost on Sabine. Obviously, he meant to include her in whatever he was about to say, so she stopped feeding Bree and listened carefully.

“I've just been informed that the attacks on the portal have doubled. Apparently,” here he looked directly at Sabine, “The Rüddan Emissary Naois wants our Human very much. Since the gateway is beginning to show some signs of weakening, I propose we get to our horses.”

The room was suddenly filled with activity as everyone except Sabine rose from the table. Sabine caught several glimpses cast in her direction, but was rendered motionless due to her lack of knowledge about what to do next. She had so many questions: Where were they going? Why? Why had no one told her, and what was she going to do about a horse? More importantly, what could Naois, the highest ranking official in the Council of the Empress, still want with her? Now that she was no longer anywhere near Khapor, what kind of threat could she possibly pose?

“Sabine,” Tayte said from directly behind her, “come with me.”

Sabine nodded and pushed her chair back slowly, giving Bree enough time to move out of the way. Accepting Tayte’s proffered hand, she allowed him to help her up. “Tayte—”

“Not now,” he murmured softly, his lips hardly moving at all. “Do not show any weakness. I will explain when I can.”

Slightly stunned, Sabine nodded—a shallow, quick movement to show she understood—then followed her Aethel friend outside. The members of her party dispersed quickly, each busy about his or her own tasks as they disappeared into the tree structures where they had slept or tended to their horses in order to finish whatever needed to be done before the company could depart.

Tayte led Sabine to a string of horses, guiding her to a black mare whose withers topped out evenly with Sabine's head. The animal’s body was elegantly muscled, her neck long and arched. At their approach, she turned her head toward them, her short ears swiveling forward. A white star adorned her forehead.

“She's beautiful,” Sabine breathed, holding her hand out so the horse could scent her.

“She’s called Nyara,” Tayte said. Grasping Sabine’s wrist, he pulled her closer to him and the horse and dropped his voice. “When all is ready, let Gaelan and Kyar ride out first, then Aodhan, Diera, and Amala. Koen will drop behind, to take up the rear guard. Once he is far enough away, we can talk. There is much you need to know.”

Leaving Sabine beside the horse, Tayte, went to finish a few last-minute tasks. While she waited, Sabine called Bree to her side and introduced the dog to the horse. As the animals communed in their universal, non-verbal way, Sabine assessed her surroundings. Although she was used to the quiet stillness of a forest, she found it strange that she had not seen very many people in this Dryht encampment. If nothing else, she expected to see the archers who had guarded this side of the portal last night. If each stand of trees she observed was a building, like those she had been inside so far, then there should be more activity.

Koen was the first to join her, so she asked him about it. He smiled at her the way her mother used to when she had missed the obvious, and Sabine immediately wished she had kept her question to herself.

“They are here,” he said then, surprising her by the gentleness of his tone. “You just don't know how to see them.”

Sabine glanced at him sharply, trying to decide if he was making a joke at her expense.

“For example,” grasping her by both shoulders, he gently turned her around, “there.”

He pointed to an oak in the near distance. Sabine stared but did not see anything. Certain now that he was mocking her, she was working herself up to chastising him when, suddenly, the tree seemed to shift. The trunk blurred subtly, causing her to blink, and a moment later a female Dryht stepped away from it, as if stepping out of the tree, itself. She wore a long tunic and loose fitting pants, both of which were patterned with the same streaked, varying shades of gray-green as the trunk of the tree. Added to the soft, leaf-brown color of her rib-length, unbound hair, she was almost impossible to distinguish.

“Of course,” Koen said once the Dryht girl had passed, “we are on the edge of the camp, so you won't see much out here. Only scouts and sentinels, and if you see a lot of them, then they're doing something wrong. There will be more when we pass through the camp, itself.”

Sabine nodded, but was kept from inquiring further by the approach of Aodhan. The others followed quickly, mounting as they arrived, so Sabine did the same. It occurred to her that Bree would not be able to keep up with the group if the Aethel meant to spend all day traveling, but she silenced that thought by reasoning that horses tired, too, so there would probably be frequent stops. That, and Bree’s nose, would allow the dog to keep up. At least, Sabine hoped that’s how it would work, because there was nothing else she could do about it.

Once Tayte returned and mounted his horse, Gaelan nudged his chestnut-colored stallion into a brisk walk, leading the party to some destination known by everyone except Sabine.

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