Daughter of the Wolf-head
As expected, Viyan had it all worked out.
"We will go the way I came in," she said promptly, "gather up what you can carry in a few saddlebags. There are horses waiting outside the walls."
Kait and Pilar leaped into action. Agata dressed in her forest gear. Before she left, she went to the chest that her uncle had given her. Her mother's chest. She lifted the lid and found the bracelet bearing the wild egret and tucked it into a small bag, stuffing it deep into her sack. She would take something of her mother's away from this fortress of unpleasant events.
With it went the precious tome of Scriptures and her grandfather's Histories.
Viyan beckoned them to the window in the other room and drew out a very heavy, coiled length of rope. Agata's eyes went wide when she saw it. Viyan flung open the window and stood back as Kait, Pilar and Agata crowded in the gap to peer out. Agata blew out a long breath.
"Respect, Viyan," she whispered.
Below her the side of the fortress jutted out from the cliff that fell further down. It was a tremendous drop.
"I know you're not afraid of heights, Primavera," Viyan joked slyly, "at least this time you won't have to jump. I have a rope."
Now she went to work fastening the end to a metal ring fastened into the solid pillar.
"Almost as if it was put here for this purpose," she murmured to herself.
Kait inspected her knots carefully.
"I will go first," Viyan said, "it is tricky at the middle. There is another rope there that will take us to the bottom of the cliff."
"What about Q'ursha?" Agata said abruptly, laying her hand on his great black head, "I can't leave him behind for Artak to torture and kill."
There was a tense silence stretching for several heartbeats.
"I will take him through the fortress, " Kait said, "I take him out for a final stroll every night."
"It's too risky, Kait," Agata said, "I can't lose you either."
"It will be fine," Kait replied, "besides, I can unfasten the rope and close the window behind you. That will throw your uncle and the others off the scent."
Agata couldn't see another way and reluctantly consented. She gazed at Kait's strong, honest face framed by the window and the soft glow of light for as long as she could. Foot tucked around the rope to regulate her speed, hand over hand, she slid away from her closest, most trusted follower.
Viyan waited for her at the end of the first drop. She clung to a jutting stone slab, bracing against the rope.
"I sent Pilar ahead, Primavera," she said softly.
Agata looked at her carefully. The moon had risen and a shaft of moonlight fell across Viyan's face. Her eyes were great pools of darkness. A twitch of unease skittered across Agata's shoulders. The last time she'd seen Viyan, she'd apologised for banishing her without allowing her to speak up for herself.
Now she wondered if she'd been right. Was Viyan loyal to her or had she given her heart to wild Shin'ja - General Kazan's most lethal warrior.
"Trust me, Princess. I swore on my life to follow you into Death if necessary."
"I thank you."
"Trouble brews in Iberia," Viyan lowered her voice. Agata sniffed but Viyan continued, "no, not the Marauder invasion. A different trouble."
She looked up at the fortress high above and peered down below but Pilar couldn't be seen.
"Go on," Agata ordered.
"The High King moves against General Kazan. The General refuses to hunt you down and take your life and the High King calls him treasonous. Only his loyal army keep him from execution."
"Whaaat...?" Agata breathed the word in a long, drawn-out breath, "But General Kazan is his best commander."
"The rift between the Marauder leaders runs deep," Viyan said, "this could be our opportunity to divide and conquer. The time is ripe for your return, my lady."
Perhaps she could recover her country without the Artsruni Princes.
She tugged on the first rope and as she waited and thought, the rope above loosened and slithered to her feet. Kait would be shutting the window and slipping out of the rooms above with Q'ursha.
Viyan swung out on the rope and shinnied down below Agata. With her head full of new possibilities, Agata hooked on to the second length of rope ready to shinny down to the ground many, many feet below Arzen Fortress.
"Nearly there, Primavera," Pilar's husky whisper floated up from the murky depths, "mind the tree branches."
Agata's feet touched leaves and branches and all of a sudden she was flapping and struggling through the thick tangle. Hampered by having both hands clinging to the rope and her foot wrapped around it, she tried to reach out with her spare foot. Her hair caught and a sharp tug made her eyes water.
"Ouch!" she exclaimed under her breath, "I'm stuck, Pilar, and I can't see a thing."
Her flailing foot found solid trunk. She pushed off massively and swung clear, tearing some strands of hair right off her head. At last, she felt Pilar gripping her leg to steady her and then she was on the ground. She untangled herself thankfully and rubbed sore palms on her leggings.
"Where to now, Viyan?"
Agata peered around in the darkness but no Viyan answered.
"She's gone to get the horses," Pilar said, "we must walk over there to meet her."
Pilar draped the dangling rope behind the trees.
"It'll be hard to see even in daylight," she whispered to Agata, "come on now, Primavera."
Pilar pointed to a small rise topped by a cluster of trees, "That's where Viyan will meet us."
"How will we find Kait and Q'ursha?"
Agata realised that, for some unknown reason, no one had talked of a meeting point. Alarm began to roil in her stomach.
"Pilar, we didn't tell Kait where to meet us."
"She'll come out of the postern gate. We'll ride close. Fear not, Primavera."
With Pilar striding at her side, Agata stepped through the cold, dark night. The moon, still low in the sky, would soon rise and light up the whole country. They needed to find Kait and be far on their way by that time. Agata feared that the moon would move far quicker than they would.
"Come," she said and started to run lightly across the ground.
Pilar followed without making a sound. The ground before them was clear all the way to the tree topped rise but beyond that they would have the cover of the forest. They could get close to the postern by climbing back up the steep incline. Agata had an uneasy feeling that things were not going to go as smoothly as she hoped. Soon her breath deepened and her blood thrummed through her veins, bringing warmth back to her skin. Her breath hung in the air, a visible mist shrouding her head. When she reached Viyan, she would get her heavy cloak out of her pack for the night promised to get colder. They were getting close to the trees now. Agata looked forward eagerly, searching through the trunks for horses and Viyan.
Ahh, there she was.
The shape of horses emerged from the gloom of the forest, dark shapes against the darker shadows.
"Viyan," Agata breathed, seeing the pale face of the woman who was among the dearest of Agata's companions.
A gleam of joy lit through Agata's heart, lightening the sombreness of her scandalous escape from her uncle's fortress. He might never forgive her but it was his failure to protect her from his nephews that forced her decision.
"Viyan," she still spoke softly but loud enough for the approaching figure to hear.
"It is I, Primavera."
Before Agata could reach Viyan, another figure detached from the shadows, the reins of three horses in hand. They followed placidly.
"Who...?" the word died on her lips. The moon sent a ray of light that fell across the face of a man. It was a face that Agata recognised well.
"Shin'ja!" she exclaimed and all the joy she felt died a sudden death, slain by a jagged spear of pain in her heart.
Viyan was a traitor after all. She looked at the woman, horror written all over her face.
"You've betrayed me," her voice was alive with agony and grief, "Viyan, how could you?"
Pilar gave a bark of outrage at Agata's side. Agata clutched Pilar's sleeve and edged backwards, glancing about wildly.
"Primavera, wait!" Viyan cried.
Agata held her hands out wide, fingers spread, "Again, Viyan! Again, I find you have acted reprehensibly."
"Be at peace, Princess Agata." A deep, masculine voice spoke from behind Viyan. Shin'ja stepped in front of Agata, with the horses still tranquil and following him, "I am here to serve you."
Agata shook her head, unable to speak.
"He will help us get back through Iberia safely, Primavera. Please believe me." Viyan's face was strained, her voice earnest.
"No," Agata said flatly, "I cannot have one of my greatest enemies by my side, besides how foolish do you think I am, Viyan? You have arranged with the General to capture me and vanquish my country all the more thoroughly."
Agata's face heated and anger stormed through her, "How much did he pay you? Or did he promise you a high position once he'd regained the favour of his High King?"
Viyan blenched, taking a half step back.
"Oh yes," Agata gave a cold laugh, "I know all about that."
Another voice spoke and they all turned to see Kait and Q'ursha rapidly approaching. Agata knew by her posture that she'd already recognised Shin'ja.
"Viyan has done it again," Agata hissed. She clenched her fingers and glared at Viyan, "Take your pagan lord and be gone," she spat and pulled her sword out of its sheath.
Viyan stood unmoving and Agata stepped forward until the tip of the blade touched Viyan's throat. Shin'ja also remained still. Only his eyes passed from the furious princess to Viyan's majestic calm.
"Go!" Agata stamped her foot.
"Let her explain." Kait spoke so loudly that Agata flinched. She gripped Agata around her wrist.
"Remember last time, my lady. Last time you wouldn't listen and you regretted it deeply. This time let Viyan speak!"
Agata drew a long, trembling breath. She dropped the sword point suddenly and stepped back. "Very well. Explain."
She crossed her arms, a difficult task with a sword in one hand, and fixed a hard, expectant gaze on the black-haired girl who'd brought joy, pain, humour, sorrow, regret and guilt to Agata since they'd first met in the wilds of Iberia. A wisp of cloud stretched across the moon, casting dapples of shadow and light over them all. Only Pilar noticed the quiver that flickered over Viyan's face, the tiny tremble of her lips and how she clutched her fists tight. Kait was too busy staring at Agata, willing her to be reasonable and Agata had outrage and stubbornness written over every inch of her body.
"Tell us, Viyan. I know you are a truth-teller," Pilar encouraged.
Viyan shot her a grateful glance. She moistened her lips and when she spoke her voice was low and husky, "You know that Shin'ja helped me rescue Pertinax from the Abbess."
Agata gasped, "I did not. Pertinax said nothing of this."
"Yes, Primavera. When you came back to the Lair, there was no time to tell you. I could not have defeated all her soldiers without him but back at Narikala I drugged him and stole Pertinax away to the Lair. You came and took Pertinax away with you."
A rush of new emotion penetrated the outrage in her heart. She swallowed not knowing whether to feel angry or grateful. Still stern, she gazed at Shin'ja fully for the first time.
"And I searched for her ever since," he said, only half-visible in the dappled shadows, "and my general has given me a mission to keep you safe, Princess."
Agata's mouth fell open in shock. She swayed but Kait thrust an arm under hers and steadied her. "General Kazan ordered that?"
Shin'ja heard the ring of surprise and scepticism in her voice. He leaned forward until his face was clear in the moonlight, "He swore to your young brother, Princess, to preserve your life. Unlike other men, the General does not go back on his word."
"But that makes no sense, Lord Shin'ja. I am safe with my uncle, Prince Ren."
She saw Shin'ja's brows shoot up.
"And yet here you are," with one hand he made a sweeping gesture all about the dark hillside, "roaming about the land in the middle of the night."
Hot blood flushed Agata's cheeks scarlet. She was thankful for the moon's pale light. She opened her mouth to speak but shut it again with a snap, lost for words.
"My lady, we must ride away swiftly," Kait tugging at her sleeve and speaking softly in her ear, "Prince Gurgen's servant spied me leaving your room. I fear he will watch for my return and tell his master when I do not. I could not lock the door to your chambers when I left."
Q'ursha's cold nose thrust under her hand and the big dog leaned against her thigh. Agata knew Kait was right. They must leave at once before the alarm was raised and a band of Artsruni warriors came after her, with the sinister Prince Gurgen at their head.
"We must hurry," she said and rushed forward to take the reins Viyan held up for her.
Sick and sore from the long journey from Iberia, Veriko trudged up the final stretch toward Arzen Fortress. Princess Agata harboured refuge there. Well, she, Veriko would see how long it would take before she lured the treacherous princess from her safe hiding place!
"Who goes there?" a loud, masculine voice hailed from a small, postern window.
"I am V...Veriko," she stammered, "I fought with Princess Agata Primavera. I seek her now."
The postern gate flew open and six armed warriors swarmed out. They were all over Veriko in seconds. They snatched her weapons and twisted her arms behind her back until she cried out.
"The princess is missing," a savage whisper stung her ear, "did you help her escape?"
Veriko shook her head mutely. The rage bubbled up inside her head. Of course, Princess Agata had escaped the previous night! Causing more pain and suffering for the faithful Veriko! They dragged her through the courtyard and into the building before flinging her down before three stern men. Beside her, huddled an old woman.
"This one came to the gate. Claims to be one of the princess's own fighting women."
A cruel-faced man stepped forward and clutched a handful of Veriko's hair. He dragged her head to one side and examined the ugly scar on the side of her head. He pushed her head away and stepped back, nodding to the oldest of the three men.
"She's seen a tremendous wound to her head. A battle scar by the look of it."
"Baba Gu, do you know this woman," the older man addressed the woman at Veriko's side.
"No, Prince Ren. I know her not."
Memory stirred in Veriko. She knew that woman's name. Yes, Princess Agata's old nurse. She'd spoken of her. Perhaps she helped the princess escape.
"Take her," the other of the three, a young and strikingly handsome man spoke. Veriko searched his face, forgetting his beauty when she saw the arrant selfishness written in his eyes, "we'll get the answers we seek in the dungeon."
Veriko heard the old lady draw a breath but it was Veriko they took. And it was Veriko who screamed that she hadn't seen the princess since the battle and that the old Baba would do anything to protect her nurseling. They left her alone after that but imprisoned. Veriko said little when the old Baba visited her, the stripes on her old back having healed enough to walk. She cared not that the Baba Gu shook her head and exclaimed when Veriko gave her no answers. Eventually they let her go.
"You can thank the old lady, the old nurse of the princess," the guards said at the gate, "she pleaded for your cause and our Prince Ren let you go for the guilt he feels at the old one's punishment."
Veriko tilted her head to one side and thought. From her cage, she'd whispered to the young Artsruni princes about Baba Gu and they'd punished the old woman so severely that the lord of the castle felt ashamed. Prince Ren granted Baba her wish for Veriko's own freedom. How strange life was! She pushed aside a deep, disturbing feeling. What she'd done had led to her freedom. Veriko nodded to herself. She needn't feel guilt over causing Baba's pain. After all, her mission was more important. Princess Agata must be found and when she was, the Abbess would mete out the justice she so richly deserved. Veriko slunk away from the fortress. She would retrace her steps back to the peasant cottage and retrieve her horse. A message would go winging by pigeon, back to the Abbess and she, Veriko, would mount up on her horse and track down the princess.