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The Red-Haired Princess

by Sophia Marie Sears 16 days ago in Fantasy
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Fiction/Adventure/Romance

The Red-Haired Princess
Photo by Christian Holzinger on Unsplash

No wait, Leander!” Jovian called out. The ship’s captain spun back around to see Jovian pointing at the small hand beckoning them inside the small shuttered gate.

“This way! Hurry! Please!” the voice whispered urgently. Three tiny fingers trembled in the first rays of moonlight. The ring finger and pinky were both missing. “Hurry if you don’t want her to get caught!”

Leander’s crew hesitated a second longer, then hurried inside the gateway.

A secondary door opened into a sparsely furnished room, bare of any real comforts save for a rough wooden table surrounded by three chairs. The floor was cold stone except for a threadbare rug placed in the center of the area. Two narrow archways led to other rooms, presumably the kitchen and sleeping quarters.

It was apparent from the single table setting and the pitifully meager meal that their kindly savior was alone, and had been for at least a year or more. Their heroine was in fact an old withered woman, and one who resembled more of a desert prune than a living being.

Her small, woeful eyes were held in sockets too large for her face, the wrinkles around them adding to their size. Her once full lips had thinned bitterly with her pain and sorrow and her diminutive frame seemed dwarfed by the black, floor-length robes and matching veil. Grimness hardened every feature.

The ship's crew shuffled into the woman’s house, and each of them grew silent as they sensed the present mourning there. Gower took the largest chair at the table to accommodate his girth while the ever-silent Casimir took a stool in the shadows beside him. Jovian hesitated in the hallway and chose to adjust his spectacles instead. Leander and the sorcerer’s apprentice were the last to enter.

Leander touched Elora’s arm as she passed him, stopping her.

“Are you all right?” he asked gently. He wanted to extend his hand further up, maybe to cup her cheek, but they were in the presence of others.

“They didn’t hurt me,” she murmured. She shivered, stroking Ozias’ feathers on her shoulder where the falcon perched. Leander wondered how it'd feel to have her turn to him instead...

Then he banished the thought, and all of its idiocy.

“Ye all shouldn’t have come here,” the crone said. “Especially you, my pretty one.”

Leander’s eyes narrowed as the crone studied Elora. “What do you mean by that? What did those men want with a member of my crew?”

“Not just any member,” the crone said. Her eyes intensified as they traversed up and down Elora— from her toes to her face, her gaze lingering on Elora’s red curling hair— before the woman’s shoulders sadly drooped. “A part of your crew, eh?” she repeated. “I’d wondered why any innocent, gentle woman such as yerself would be surrounded by such rough sailors.”

“Gentle?” Gower guffawed, and the Sicilian pirate’s wide face broke into a grin. “Why if she’s gentle, then I’m a—”

Gower coughed as Jovian suddenly elbowed him, and Casimir also shook his head in reproof. Though the freed Moor never seemed to have much to say, Casimir always made his opinion known.

“I ask that you explain yourself, good woman.” Leander took a few steps forward and opened his hands imploringly. “I am Captain Leander, and these sailors are the commanding crew on my ship, the Far Horizon. We are adventurers, madam."

He introduced them one by one.

Jovian Lekas, his navigator; a slightly squirrely-looking man, with wide-rimmed spectacles that Jovian diligently polished to read his maps and tinker with his inventions. He'd been forced to hold the position of chief engineer for a corrupt lord in Greece— before Leander freed him and had asked if he'd like to join the Horizon instead.

Gower of Sicily; an ex-pirate and Leander's first-in-command. The Sicilian had fought alongside his previous captain for many years before a mutiny had betrayed him and left him broken, unable to set foot on a ship again. But when Leander had asked for the older sailor's advice and expertise aboard the Horizon, Gower had gripped the hope Leander had offered.

Casimir had no last name which he chose to give; he was a proud Moor who'd been taken and forced to labor in the mines off the coast of Morocco— before Leander had killed the slave-man and brought Casimir's vengeance for his murdered wife. When Leander had asked, Casimir, the silent warrior, had followed.

Elora Maila, a sorceress apprentice under Galnor, the Wizard; she stood taller than most women with a regal bearing few could compete with, her red hair full and luscious around her shoulders when it wasn't braided. She'd joined Leander's crew only after her master, Galnor, had advised her to join Leander's campaigns.

And after several worthy and notable adventures with the young captain, she'd begun to understand why her master had wanted her to assist Leander on his quests.

Each of them nodded to the old woman, and Jovian finally took a seat with the crone at the table. Leander continued, “As a man of my honor and word, and as their Captain, I find it distressing to learn that one of my crew has been targeted for unknown reasons. You have already provided us sanctuary, and for that I am eternally in your debt and grateful, but for the safety of my comrade I must insist you tell us everything you know.”

Leander’s legendary silver-tongue took a welcome effect and the old woman un-bended slightly. Being the abandoned son of a mysterious titled gentleman, Leander possessed several privileged yet oddly useful skills.

“I believe I said I’d be asking that question,” Elora muttered under her breath.

Secretly she was glad. The last man who’d thrown the bag over her head had shaken her more than she'd realized, and she craved a moment to compose herself. She stroked Ozias’ feathers instead and tried not to remember…

____________________________________________________

One Hour Earlier…

After many days of travel at sea, Leander and his weary crew were relieved to at last walk through the streets of the famous port city, Galahab.

Galahab was renowned for its exotic spices and silks; wine and ale were purported to flow freely from every brewhouse and loose conversation– and even looser women– were said to be found in abundance.

On this eve, however, the avenues of the port city were barren and desolate. Furtive scuffling sounded down alleyways, and shadows moved stealthily in the mist.

Ozias squawked uneasily on Elora’s shoulder, and she crooned softly to the falcon.

“What is it, Ozias?” She stroked his feathers lightly and came to a halt. The others stopped beside her.

"I don't like this, Captain," Gower grumbled. "It's too quiet. Where are all the women and song we heard about?"

"Don't be foolish," Leander replied. He pushed an errant lock of long black hair back behind his ear and his eyes sharpened. "Everyone's simply found a warm fire and ale tonight– perhaps at one of those brewhouses you were so eager to see. I'm sure we'll find ourselves some respectable and well-stocked accommodations... over there!"

He pointed down a narrow side-street where bright lights beckoned invitingly at the end.

"No doubt, Captain." Jovian glanced about suspiciously. "I'm sure the townsfolk have already retired to drink before suppertime. Before Evening Market, too."

Elora stroked Ozias' wing uneasily. "A likely story," she muttered.

Casimir nodded sagely while his hand traveled to his knife belt.

"We need fresh water and supplies for the ship. Besides," Leander crossed his arms and glared, "it was all of YOU who were whining and yapping like a bunch of sea-rats after our last month at sea."

"But Captain," Jovian began, "now we've actually seen this place, and since we've evaluated it's not to our liking, perhaps we can return to the ship and seek elsewhere–"

"Where, Jovian? The closest island is Corcicea, and we won't make it even with a full wind in our sails. Not so low on water. Now come on– that inn is just up ahead!"

Leander waved his crew on and they followed him down the dark alleyway. Dusky light from the setting sun cast long shadows on the stone walls, lengthening the passageway before them and deepening the darkness in the locked doorways.

Ozias ruffled his feathers restlessly, tilting his head repeatedly and digging his talons into Elora's glove. Suddenly the falcon screeched and took off with a great upbeat of his wings.

"Ozias!" Elora cried.

She watched as the falcon flew off into the fading twilight. From the shadows, twelve figures swiftly detached themselves from the walls and moved forward threateningly.

Casimir's knives were instantly in his hands. Leander and the others drew their swords– including Elora, who swished her blade with added relish.

"All right, what do you heathens want?" she demanded.

They ignored her. "Grab the brood," one of the longer shadows ordered. The twelve men pressed in, their eyes fixed on Elora.

Leander stepped subtly in front of her. "Only twelve," he said. "What do you make of that number, Gower?"

"A pitiful number, that." Gower smirked. "I'll take on at least six myself."

"Six?" Jovian asked. The navigator's wiry frame hummed with tension, yet the hand that held his sword was steady. "Isn't that a little ambitious, even for you, Gower?"

Two of the shadow figures suddenly collapsed. Dead. Glints of steel glimmered from their chests, and Casimir was returning a hand to his remaining blades. He held up his other hand to show four fingers– casting his own bet for how many he would fell– and grinned at the rest of Leander's crew.

"Nicely done, Casimir." Leander saluted him.

The remaining figures hesitated in the shadows. The crew's camaraderie– and their own comrades sudden and unexpected deaths– raised momentary doubt in their minds.

Leander's grip tightened around his sword. "What do you want with Elora?"

"If anyone will be asking that question, Leander, it will be me," Elora countered. Uttering a harsh Gaelic cry, she charged the thieves furiously with her sword and the rest of the crew rushed after her.

Despite the fact that two of the bandits were already dead, the fight was not easy. Swords clanged in the encroaching darkness, steel hitting steel and sending small sparks into the blackness. Fearful scuttling occurred behind locked doors as neighbors hid from the sound of a fight in the alley.

But cautiously behind a closing gate, a small pair of eyes peered out.

A bright light briefly lit up the alleyway as Elora threw one of her firestorms into the chaos; two of the bandits screamed as the fire singed their hair and clothing. They took off into the night. Casimir dispatched his third man and moved on to assist Jovian– the aspiring scientist cast three of his hand-held gunpowder flowers into the battle, injuring several of the bandits, but one misfired. The resulting smoke briefly blanketed them all, and Gower laughed. His sword cleaved through the smoke– and two of the bandits were caught unaware as Gower's swing sent them crashing into the wall like bowling pins.

Leander fended off two men at once. One of them was the larger shadow who'd ordered Elora's capture. They managed to corner Leander in one of the darkened doorways– but the captain maneuvered it to his advantage. His sword flashed, and the smaller man drew back and cursed as a well of blood spurted from his arm.

Suddenly a muffled scream jerked Leander's attention around. He looked over to see one of the bandits had managed to sneak up behind Elora to envelop her in a large, burlap sack.

"Elora!" he shouted.

Leander plunged recklessly forward and drew up short as the man he'd injured jumped back into the fight– his sword swiping unnervingly near his cheek.

"Elora!" Leander shouted again, as both men beat him back.

Then suddenly Ozias was there, swooping in low with his talons outstretched to injure his sister's attacker. The man screeched as loudly as Ozias and released his hold on the sack. Elora quickly freed herself, her eyes blazing with furious terror. Flames crackled at her fingertips.

Leander sighed with relief and swept his blade deftly under the injured man's blade– tossing it aside, forcing the man to flee– but the man only staggered away before collapsing eternally from the heavy trail of blood in his wake. The largest bandit, the one who seemed to be calling the orders, withdrew from Leander's attack then uneasily; he shifted his eyes over his men.

Leander's crew had managed to incapacitate four of his men permanently. At least two were wounded, and the rest had run off. He knew a heavy loss when he saw one. This raid had been unsuccessful, but he took one last moment to gaze greedily at the red-haired woman. Her bounty would've been vast...

___________________________________________________

Elora jumped as the old woman thumped her mutilated fist on the table.

“Then I will tell you this, Captain Leander,” the woman told him. “It is not your red-headed crew member the monster seeks, but every red-haired girl in Galahab, and throughout the kingdom of Tessyria.”

Stunned silence followed that pronouncement.

“A monster?’ Gower repeated. “Like a real monster-trapped-in-a-maze-devouring-maidens, sort of deal?”

“Nay, he’s human enough. Although his heart be black as pitch,” the crone spat disgustedly. “Nay, he only wishes to replace the supposed love of his life, the Princess of DeLancey.” Elora blanched at the name but everyone else continued listening to the crone, oblivious. “She perished in her own kingdom when she was seventeen.”

Jovian frowned. “Perished?”

Gower snorted. “A princess? That’s just perfect.”

“She is dead?” Leander asked, and his eyes never left Elora’s face as the blood drained from her cheeks.

“Aye. That witch, Carmira,” she spat again, “and her father, Mirak, invaded the princess’ kingdom, killing the entire royal family— the fair king, his queen, and the red-haired princess along with her younger brother.”

More stunned silence.

“Carmira again,” Gower finally growled. The crew all murmured angrily and Casimir fingered the knives in his belt longingly. The crew had run into the witch before. Like a thorn in their side, she always seemed to be allied with their enemies on the adventures they undertook.

The crone took this all in. “Ye've heard of the devilish witch, then? I’d heard she’d tricked the princess into literally giving her the keys to her kingdom.”

“Yes, we know the sorceress,” Jovian said wearily.

“Did ye also know the attack on DeLancey was only possible because it was aided by the dark heathen ruling these lands ye see here?”

Elora gasped. “What?”

“Just who is this man— or monster, as you call him?” Leander asked.

“The Duke Sesseno.” The crone spat a third time, and Jovian tried not to wrinkle his nose at her gobs of spit decorating the table. Ozias screeched violently beside Elora’s ear and she felt her face go even whiter if possible.

The crone turned to look at Elora, her eyes full of grief. “The witch traded the red-haired princess to the Duke for a legion of his soldiers during her invasion of DeLancey. But then Carmira double-crossed him, killing the girl instead,” the woman explained. “I just think the witch was jealous— that she wanted the Duke for herself, but he was lusty for a princess.”

“No… it-it can’t be,” Elora whispered.

“Elora.” Leander frowned at her. “What is—”

“Just who are you?” Elora demanded of the crone. “How do we know we can trust a single word you say? You could be working for the Duke or the witch, or both, for all we know!”

“Elora!” Leander straightened against the wall. “Did I not just give my gratitude to this woman? You should be thanking her too. She saved your life.”

“So we’re just supposed to blindly trust everything she says?!”

“It’s all right, young captain,” the crone said, and Leander couldn’t help but bristling at the word young. “She needs a heavy dose of suspicion in her life right now. It will keep her alive. If only my Angelica—” she cut off, her words strangled.

“Angelica? Your daughter?” Leander asked softly.

“How did she die?” Jovian asked, and this time, Gower whacked him on the side of his head.

The crone glared at them all, then her eyes abruptly lost their fire. “I suppose ye all should know.”

“I was Malone, the merchant wife to my tradesmen husband, Taorin. We had a beautiful red-haired daughter, Angelica. Last year she turned seventeen, the same age as the late red-haired princess of DeLancey, and the Duke’s men rounded her up with all of the other girls come-of-age. It’s called the Autumn Harvesting,” she ground out bitterly, “and it happens once a year. The Duke searches for a red-haired girl that closely resembles his late princess. It is this girl whom he says he'll marry. All the others are… killed... to preserve the rarity of his late princess’ hair.”

“That’s insane!” Jovian exclaimed.

Gower shuffled his feet angrily. “The man is obviously senile. Clearly not right in the head. But ma’am, couldn’t your daughter still be alive? Isn’t there some room to hope?”

The crone looked at him blankly. “That’s not possible. All the girls who fail to pass for his princess— and so far, all have failed— have had a lock of their hair trimmed from their head. This lock is sent back to their parents…”

The crew watched, horrified, as the mutilated hand revealed itself once again to reach into her robes to pull out a leather chord bound around her neck. Attached to the end of it were a few wisps of auburn-colored hair.

Elora thought her legs would collapse.

“I’m sorry about your daughter, Malone,” Leander said.

“Not Malone anymore,” she disagreed. “Not a merchant’s wife, either. My husband and I tried to stop them when they came to take her away.” She rubbed her mutilated hand as she remembered the old pain. “They took my fingers, and my husband that day— my entire family, gone.”

"I-I'm so sorry," Elora murmured. She couldn't look the crone in the eye, and Ozias chirped, rubbing his head against her arm.

"So tonight," Jovian thought aloud, "those men saw Elora's hair and wanted to take her to the Duke? Why? They didn't look like his men or soldiers of any kind. They acted like common street thugs to me."

"The Duke's test will begin in two days. There's a bounty on red-haired girls 'til then. Yer bandits in the alley were most likely after the reward. When I saw ye all fighting to defend this maiden, I had to help ye," Malone explained.

Jovian bit his lip and pushed up his spectacles. "This is terrible."

"I agree," Gower said. "We must put an end to this womanizing murderer once and for all— or aren't we known as Gentleman Adventurers? And a Lady," he added, with a glance towards Elora, but she seemed not to notice his slip.

"What about all the girls who've already been taken to the Duke's castle?" Leander asked Malone. "Can they still be saved?"

"Ye'd have 'til the Devil's test tomorrow, at noon, two days from now."

"We can still rescue them, then," Elora said. "We must rescue them."

"We shall." Leander gripped the cutlass at his waist. "We head to Duke Sesseno's castle tonight."

____________________________________________________

The crone showed them to an old cavern carved into the sea cliffs outside the gates of the city. Galahab glowed behind them, lit by the lanterns in the street and house windows, but before them only the darkness of the night waited and white starlight shone from the celestial sky above. The loudening roar of waves told them they were growing closer to the ocean's shore.

Malone had made them douse their lanterns once they'd left the city, and their progress for the last half-hour had been encased in shadow, but now the silver light from the moon cast solid beams of light onto their path. It illuminated the glistening black rock of the cliffs, wet from the sea's spray. And the cavern's dark entrance. The crew tried to keep their steps silent on the pebbled beach as they skittered and skated closer to the cave on the far side of the cove.

Malone halted them right outside the entrance.

"Here's the secret entrance to the castle. It opens into the lower chambers and cellar."

"How did you discover this?" Jovian asked.

"My friend, Martha, from the brewery at the Golden Sail told me about it. She be the barmaid, and the Duke's smugglers like a tip-up every now and then after making a delivery to the Duke's quarters. This here's the passage the smugglers use to weasel contraband and weapons to the Duke."

"A nice shortcut," Gower said.

Casimir agreed silently, taking in the strategic positioning of the cave. It would be invisible by both land or sea unless someone drew as close to it as they did now.

Leander congratulated Malone. "This is good work. With this entrance, we can rescue the maidens before the Duke becomes any wiser."

"If not, we'll need to make a fast get-away, Captain," Gower grimly countered. "Is this passageway well-known, Malone?"

The crone glared at him. "It's a secret, ain't it?"

Leander snapped his fingers. "We'll use Jovian's gunpowder flowers again. Jovian, how many do you have left on you?"

Jovian dug in his satchel. "Six."

"That'll be enough." Leander clapped him on the shoulder. "We'll race out with the maidens and collapse the tunnel behind us."

"If you do make it out," Malone interjected, "head to the brewery I told ye about. The Golden Sail. Me and my friend will help if ye truly have the girls with you."

Gower scratched his belly. "It's a shame these girls have to flee after we rescue them."

"Maybe not." Leander paced the cave's entrance. "Could we threaten Duke Sesseno? Gather some leverage?" He paused. "I suppose killing him is another option..."

Casimir tapped him on the shoulder.

"Yes, what is it, Casimir?"

The moor pointed Leander towards the sea where Elora stood alone, staring off into the waves.

"She's been out of sorts ever since we arrived, Captain, "Gower said quietly.

Jovian bit his lip, his mind racing. "Normally she'd bounce right back after a something like that. Why hasn't she? She still seems pretty shaken."

"Did any of you notice Ozias' reaction to this place?" Leander asked.

"No. He's a bird," Jovian snorted.

Leander started walking towards her. "His reactions mirrored Elora's..."

His crew watched solemnly as their captain headed through the darkness and silver light towards the fiery sorceress— where she stood a few feet from the water's edge, stiff and aloof.

Her hair glimmered crimson in the light of the moon. Droplets of silver lightened the red strands so they almost seemed to blaze in the night, like flaming tongues running down her back.

Elora heard his approach. She didn't turn around but let Ozias take flight, thrusting her arm towards the night sky. Ozias screeched uneasily but let the wind rise his wings, and he flew over the sea.

"Elora?" Leander stepped close. "Is there something I should know?"

"I'll be fine, I just want to be left alone for a moment before we... you know."

"You don't seem fine. The whole crew has noticed."

"Then maybe the crew should mind its own business, then!" she cried out, exasperated.

"Elora—"

She stormed off towards the waves and came to a halt only when the water's edge stopped her. A few seconds of silence followed, and she willed the tears not to fall from her eyes.

"Does that include me?" his voice whispered softly behind her, and Elora shivered as she stared out over the sea.

"What is going on, Elora? You can talk to me. Ozias seems to be anxious, too," he added, when she didn't answer right away. "Does it have to do with Duke Sesseno?"

She spun around and cast wild eyes upon him, and suddenly Leander didn't care about the others potentially watching by the cave. He stepped even closer until he was only a couple of feet away. "What is going on?"

Elora continued to hesitate. She'd learned not to trust anyone, especially men. But this was Leander. Leander! If there was anyone she could trust— not just with the truth, but with her heart as well...

Maybe she could tell him something.

"Ozias and I know the Duke from a long time ago."

Leander stiffened. His eyes took in her red hair, vibrant even in the moonlight, and he opened his mouth... then closed it.

"Yes," Elora answered. "His obsession was just starting then. I, of course, did not welcome his advances." She crossed her arms uncomfortably, and Leander took the final step to close the distance between them. He cupped her elbow. When Elora let him, he allowed his hand to travel up her arm. Her skin felt soft as he brushed her cheek, and for a moment, she rested her cheek in his palm.

"I'm sorry," he murmured. And he meant it. Whatever past hurt the Duke had caused her, he would see it delivered back tenfold. She tensed and stepped back, and he let his arm drop.

Her sharp eyes turned to him. "We should get going. We need to use the cover of darkness to rescue those women. And for killing Sesseno."

Elora turned and walked back towards the entrance of the cavern where the others waited. Ozias, who'd not flown far off, swiftly returned and perched on her gloved arm.

Leander followed her slowly. "To the death, then..." he murmured.

____________________________________________________

Leander and his crew climbed the final steps of the tunnel into the lowest chamber of the keep. It must have once been a wine cellar, for the foundation was very deep with several red-stained barrels stacked on top of each other against one wall. The walls stretched at least ten feet high into stone arches, with many rows of empty wine-cask racks placed liked bookshelves along the adjacent walls. Burnt-out torches were lined uniformly down the cellar to the door on the far side of the room.

Jovian nodded at the door. "I bet that will lead our way up into the keep."

"Let's hurry," Leander warned them. "We must get the maidens away from here before anyone raises the alarm. We will come back for the Duke later. Elora," he then said, "pull up your hood quickly. You should keep your hair covered while we're inside."

"No need to tell me twice," she whispered back, pulling the cloak over her head.

"Let's go." Gower began walking across the cellar and the rest of the crew followed the big man.

Dampness had invaded the stone and their footsteps were muffled as they reached the second door and started ascending the staircase behind it. They were careful not to touch the wooden handrails, as they were rotted clean through. They paused as they reached the first floor of the castle.

"This way." Jovian pointed to the right where a third staircase could clearly be seen. "Malone said the girls were being kept in a room next to the castle's observatory. That means we must go up!"

"Let's go," Leander urged, taking the lead.

The crew passed through several corridors as they made their way up several floors to the higher levels of the castle where people began to dwell. Elora stayed hidden within her cloak, and they avoided what few servants they saw; any guards they came across they quickly rendered senseless.

Eventually they reached the highest floor of the castle, and they turned down a corridor to find themselves before a ornate, gilded double-door. A circular staircase beside it with a star etched into the stone identified the stairs as the final steps to the observatory tower.

The double-doors were securely fastened by iron chains. The crew hesitated for a second. Then Elora stepped forward and pressed her hands together, her brows furrowing with concentration. She pitched her voice low, to the energetic release of iron, and spoke the Command to unlock. The lock bent and gave a little, then opened with a sigh.

"Well done, Elora." Leander smiled and tucked a stray curl of hair back inside her hood. She blushed and stepped back as Leander turned to face the doors. Gower gave them a mighty push.

With a stubborn groan, the prison swung open.

Arabian silks of indigo and crimson draped the walls and ceiling, creating the illusion of a majestic tent, while dozens of Persian rugs swept the floor. Small tables held bowls of fruits and glasses filled with amber-nectar next to lush, velvet pillows. Low-lighted gas lamps lit up the room with a warm glow, illuminating the decadence... and the twenty-some girls chained by the wrist or ankle to the walls.

The girls skittered back nervously as the five strangers entered their cage, but they all froze when Elora threw back her hood. The sorceress stepped in front of the men and a few of the ladies blinked at the sight of Ozias on her shoulder.

"Don't worry, we are not here to harm you," Elora soothed the girls. "We're here to rescue you."

Her brow furrowed again in concentration, and this time, a trickle of sweat trailed down her face as she uttered the incantation to release all of the locks at once. With a soft swish, and several small clicks, the locks opened.

"Now follow us, ladies," Leander called quietly. He bowed chivalrously and winked at them all. "We will escort all of you lovely beauties to safety."

A pang of jealousy filled Elora as several women now looked towards him, and decided to keep on looking in appreciation. Many of the girls straightened and a couple actually giggled or blushed.

Really? she thought darkly.

Elora tried not to notice how 'lovely' the maidens all were— their hands mostly un-callused, with no invisible yet permanent streaks of tears on their cheeks, like her own— and regret enveloped her. Ozias chirped reassuringly against her ear.

If the girls wanted to make calf eyes at Leander, she wouldn't stop them...

Leander led the way with Jovian and Casimir, leaving Elora and Gower to bring up the rear. The girls were left to clump together fearfully in the middle as they all made their way back down to the cellar. The whole trip through the castle passed without mishap.

"I don't like this," Gower muttered as they reached the underground tunnel. Jovian and Casimir started to lead the maidens into the secret passageway while Elora guarded the stairway at the other end of the wine cellar. "We should've run into someone by now. We didn't even pass any servants this time. Your plans never run this smoothly."

"My plans?!" Leander glared at his first-in-command. "My plans always work out perfectly. If the first one doesn't succeed, then the second one always does."

"Captain, wouldn't that mean—" Jovian started.

"All I mean to say," Gower explained, helping another girl into the tunnel, "is that I don't trust it when things go this easily."

Casimir nodded, and his meaning was clear. 'On that, he could also agree.'

The first five girls had now entered the tunnel and Leander tried ignore his worry. They were moving too slow. Jovian helped the sixth girl down the steep, dangerous steps and Leander clapped a hand on Gower's arm to bely his rising dread. His crew needed to see him confident, assured. And he believed in his crew's abilities. Leander glanced back at Elora. Her gaze was riveted up the cellar stairs, and Leander realized he needed her to believe in him just as much, or even more so...

"Leander!" Elora suddenly called. "We've got company!" She retreated several steps into the cellar, her hood once again up, and her magic crackling around her.

"I knew it!" Gower exclaimed. "Here they come!"

Dozens of feet could be heard thundering down the stairs. A loud voice called out crossly, and it wasn't hard to guess who the voice belonged to. Duke Sesseno. The remaining girls in the cellar trembled, wide-eyed, and each put on a burst of speed as they tried to follow the other down into the tunnel.

Jovian and Casimir tried to help the girls— who now ran like bleating sheep— as Leander looked around at his options. The girls were running, but still far too slowly for seasoned guards who'd have the endurance to outlast them. His crew would be forced to fight if they kept pace with the maidens, and they couldn't fend off an entire army. And by the sound of pounding feet, that's exactly what Duke Sesseno was sending after them.

The wine cellar was bare of any weapons. Only empty barrels— where they could hide, but would be easily found— and wine casks and dead torches. The glass would deal minimal damage at best, and without the torches lit with fire...

They were out of options.

Leander glanced towards Elora, who'd halted in her race back to join them. She stood in the center of the cellar. He could see she'd reached the same conclusion.

She smiled sadly at him, and whispered something to Ozias. The falcon screeched before taking flight after the girls. Elora's eyes took on a determined gleam as she watched the red-haired girls file quickly into the tunnel. Her hands raised slowly.

"Elora... what are you—" he began.

Her powerful Words shook the cellar, sending almost everyone to their knees, and forcing the ground to slowly split into an ever-widening chasm, splitting her side of the room from theirs.

"Elora!" Leander shouted as he struggled to keep his balance. The three girls who hadn't yet entered the tunnel were all screaming in terror, and Jovian, Casimir, and Gower were gripping the walls. "What are you doing?! Stop it!"

When the quaking finally stopped, Leander was stunned to see that Elora had ignored his order for just long enough— she'd managed to effectively cut herself, and the soldiers, off from the rest of them and the tunnel. An eight foot gap crumbled to darkness between them.

"Elora!" His shout was enraged. "Get yourself back over here now, or else I'm coming over!"

"Don't!" she cried. "I have to do this. I thought I needed to go on to defeat Carmira, but I can't let these girls die because of me. Because of me, Leander."

Before he could fully comprehend what she'd said, a dozen men flooded down the staircase into her side of the cellar. A tall, angry man pushed his way through the soldiers until he stood in front of them all.

Duke Sesseno's eyes took in the damage cracking his cellar floor in two, with his prizes safely on the other side. He spotted the last of his red-haired beauties dashing quickly into his smuggler's tunnel, away from his view, and his rage expanded.

Furious, his eyes narrowed on the cloaked figure that stood stiffly in front of him. Trapped, with him and his soldiers.

"Who are you and your men?" he grounded out.

Another man, instead, responded from across the gap. "I am Captain Leander, and these are my crew."

Leander tried to distract the duke, his heart hammering in his chest. "We're liberating you of these innocent maids, and then we're coming back to—"

"No," Elora said, and Leander stared at her in astonishment. "This ends now. With me, or with you, Sesseno." She turned towards the duke but kept her head lowered within her hood.

Sesseno had started at her voice. "A woman? You have a woman in your crew?"

"Not just any woman, Sesseno," she said, throwing back her cloak. "Your long-lost love."

Her red hair tumbled around her shoulders in a sea of flame, and silence filled the cellar.

"Wait," Jovian whispered loudly, "wasn't his love—"

"Princess," Sesseno breathed, taking a few unsteady steps forward. His eyes took on a feverish light. "They told me you'd died."

Suddenly he reached out and grabbed a fistful of Elora's hair, before he slapped her repeatedly across her face. She cried out and he slapped her across the mouth.

"Stop it!" Leander shouted. "Let her go!"

Sesseno stopped but only to scream shrilly at her. "It was your doing, wasn't it? You tricked both me and Carmira in order to escape from me. Is that it?"

Elora smiled peevishly up at him through her cracked lip, and Sesseno screamed in rage again and threw her to the ground.

"Sesseno!" Leander roared. "If you touch Elora again, I swear to Zeus I will kill you!"

The room echoed with Leander's threat, and Gower threw in his own to gut the Duke like a codfish if the man stepped near Elora again. Jovian and Casimir had both followed the girls down the tunnel to guard their escape, but they could hear the raised voices behind in the tunnel behind them and they both wished they could turn back.

Duke Sesseno laughed at the two mens' puny threats, and deliberately nudged Elora with his boot. She rolled away from him and Leander cursed the Duke. "Leave Elora alone!"

Though finally in the close proximity of his obsession, Sesseno felt his ripe exhilaration drop a smidgen as his returning fury caught the captain's tone.

"Elora? Elora? How dare you address her so familiarly— you're a common vagrant, a captain of vagrants! She is Princess Elora Maila DeLancey to you. And she'd always been mine, you understand? Mine!" Sesseno pounded his chest as Elora got to her knees.

"I am no one's," she muttered hoarsely, "least of all yours!" Then she gasped as he grabbed her by the arm and hauled her back up fully to her feet.

"I told you not to touch her!" Leander reached in his boot and pulled out a dirk. The same blade Elora had given him...

____________________________________________________

Earlier that Spring...

Elora shyly tucked a strand of her red hair behind her ear. "How long have we known each other, Leander?" she asked.

In the meadow where they sat, he shrugged and plucked a wildflower. He handed it to her. "Long enough, if you ask me."

"Long enough?" She shoved his shoulder and dropped the flower. "Are two years really that long to you?"

"Why not? I felt like I already knew you the second we met."

"You-you did?"

Leander ducked his head then, and looked over at the campsite where the rest of the crew had bedded for the night. Anywhere but at her. The campsite was some dozen feet away and the two of them were alone in the meadow that evening.

He heard a rustling and looked over to see her pull out a sheathed blade. The love and longing on her face as she looked down at the weapon touched something inside him, and without thinking, he touched her face.

That had been the first time he'd touched her in a way not particularly proper between a captain and a member of his crew.

As she'd looked up directly into his eyes, her hesitation seemed to vanish and she thrust the weapon towards him. "Take it," she said. "It was my brother's. He can't use it now, and I'd like for you to have it."

"No, I can't. I—"

"You're the first man I've grown to trust. After my father and brother, there was no one. No man I trusted. Even Galnor, my master, was a man I could not trust though as a wizard I trusted him implicitly with my teachings. My brother would know exactly why I am giving you his blade."

Ozias landed beside her in the grass, his wings flapping, and she chuckled. "See, he understands."

Slowly, she picked up the discarded wildflower again with one hand. With the other, she passed her brother's dirk to him. "Please, take it."

____________________________________________________

Leander hurled her brother's blade across the gap at Sesseno—

— and hysterically one of the Duke's men leapt into its path. The dirk imbedded itself in the man's chest, and the man's mouth gaped as he fell backwards, dead. Red blood pooled beneath him.

Elora gasped and tried to pull herself away from the spreading circle of blood. Sesseno jerked her back to him.

"Mmmm," he mused, "a good use for the man. Now come along, my dear." The Duke's fingers dug into her arm and he began dragging her back towards the stairs. His soldiers parted to let him through. "I promised myself we'd be wed before I taste the sweetness of those lips." He ordered his men to fire their bows and Elora struggled against him desperately.

"No, you can't!" she cried as the soldiers readied their arrows.

"Elora!" Leander shouted as she was taken up the stairs. "Damn it, Sesseno!" His voice echoed after the Duke, and he fought off Gower's hand as his first tried to drag him back down the passage. "Elora! Just hold on, I'll come for you!"

Gower yanked Leander into the tunnel as the first arrows fired. Thwang! Twang!

"Stop it! Don't hurt them!"

Leander heard Elora's voice call weakly in the distance as Gower forced him to run even faster, leaving Elora behind. Left behind in the hands of that monster...

To Hopefully Be Continued...

Fantasy

About the author

Sophia Marie Sears

In every lifetime, I've been a writer: a humble scribe learning her craft, a sorceress learning her words, a venturing philosopher. I'm a full-time tutor in the Bay Area, and I'm currently trying to publish a full length Cinderella novel!

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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Comments (4)

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  • Georgenes Medeiros6 days ago

    Very good. Keep writing. You're great..

  • Jyme Pride8 days ago

    Oh, my! So wonderful, Sophia! Sooooooo Verrrry Coooool! Even men have soft spots for a good love story, and who can resist a beautiful red-head? I love your talent. You have an interesting book here! Nora Roberts, J.K. Rowling, watch out! There's a new sheriff in town!

  • Jessica Cook13 days ago

    Great descriptions!

  • Carol Townend13 days ago

    Fantastic and extremely talented. I can't wait to read the rest!

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