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KING Jaris stared up at her, his hands balled into fists on his hips. Shaun bowed her head in deference to him and to attempt to hide her burning cheeks. She fell awkwardly to one knee on the steps.
“Your Majesty, my sincerest apologies for the outburst. I take responsibility.”
The king said nothing for a moment and then commanded, “Get up, Shaun.”
She rose and stood at attention.
“Our honored guest has traveled to our land from afar. I think we owe him the courtesy of quiet while he reads for us. Agreed?”
The king raised an eyebrow for emphasis, but she did not miss the hint of a smile that played at his lips. He was amused by her nervousness.
“Yes, Sire, agreed.”
“Good. Then, let us all take our seats, so we may stop wasting the good man’s time.” His gaze went to his daughter. “All of us.”
Shaun knew then that the king had already heard from his daughter about the incident with Darcy, probably at length, and wanted to hear no more about it. He gestured at his guard to close the tall lecture hall doors and then took a seat two rows below her and Sara. Shaun sat down again. When Sara sat next to her, Shaun kept her eyes pointed ahead.
The elderly man bowed to the audience and stepped behind the lectern. When he started speaking, his words were just a droning in Shaun’s ears as she wondered what was wrong with her to make her grab Sara like. Also, why Sara had reacted so violently. She excepted Sara to be upset over what happened, but her reaction was far beyond that.
Sara interrupted Shaun’s thoughts and hissed in a low voice, “You should not have come tonight.”
“I just wanted to explain what happened.” She hazarded a look in Sara’s direction.
“What happened matters nothing to me.” Her tone and folded arms said otherwise. She fell silent. Then, she asked, “How could you spend the day with her?”
Shaun stared at her. “Are you being serious? I do not decide to whom I am assigned. She made the request, not I. I learned of my assignment only this morning. What of you and Jak? Did you request him as your Watcher after you requested I be removed?
Sara said nothing. This was answer enough. She felt like she had been punched in the stomach.
“I cannot believe you would do that.”
“He is not as bad you act like he is, and don’t change the subject to shift the blame on to me. I heard Darcy had her arm around you like you were the best of friends, laughing. Do you deny that?”
“She asked me to escort her to the park and insisted on putting her arm in mine. She tripped in the grass while we were walking. I laughed a little when I caught her. What of it? It meant nothing of what you’re suggesting.”
Darcy had tripped right when they were passing a group of academy students who were also enjoying the warm day at the park. Shaun laughed out of surprise when Darcy nearly pulled her over. Then, Darcy started laughing too, much louder than the situation had warranted.
“She meant for the others to see us together, so that they would spread the rumor about us.”
Shaun had not missed Darcy looking over at the others, making sure they had seen her carefully planned and masterfully executed parody of two friends walking in the park. When Shaun confronted Darcy about the incident later, Darcy just laughed at her and slammed the door to her family’s quarters in Shaun’s face.
“You know how Darcy is. Why can you not believe me when I say nothing really happened and this was nothing more than her trying to drive a wedge between us?”
Sara said nothing. She turned her gaze away from Shaun and faced forward again, pretending to focus her attention on the old man still droning on at the front of the hall. Her hand rose and she traced her fingers over her cheek. She was crying.
Shaun’s anger faded, replaced by remorse. She had approached her defense all wrong. She should have started with an apology for being so stupid as to not see the trap Darcy had built until it was too late. Regardless of Sara’s combative attitude now, she was kindhearted and thoughtful in ways few others could match. She did not deserve Darcy’s near constant antagonism, born from underbelly of kingdom politics.
Before Shaun could think of something to say, Sara murmured, “You do not see me, Shaun. Jak sees me. He does not tell me I am foolish for worrying about my studies or tell me I spend too much time fussing with my hair, like you do. He understands me. He sees me. You do not.”
The only thing Jak saw about Sara was the beautiful young woman the king’s youngest daughter had grown up to be. He did not care about understanding her. How was it that Sara did not see that? What she said raised the question in Shaun’s mind, however, of whether Sara had been talking to Jak even before that day.
Shaun never had a chance to ask. An immense crash of thunder shook the academy building. Several people cried out in surprise. The old man stopped mid-sentence, and everyone in the room froze. Then, the clanging of alarm bells ringing across the city split the silence left in the thunder’s wake. Moments later, the lecture hall doors flew open again, and a bloodied knight tumbled through them.
“Your majesty, the walls have been breached. We are under siege by Mordwell!” She fell forward into the arms of the guardsman closest to the doors.
Shaun, other apprentice knights, and the full knights in attendance jumped to their feet. The room erupted with the sounds of many people talking all at once, but the king shouted them down.
“Silence. Remain calm!”
“More than just the walls have been breached, King Jaris,” said the poet behind the lectern.
He suddenly shape shifted from an elderly man into a much younger and taller man. His eyes possessed a wild zeal as he stared at the king. The man lifted his hands.
“How fortuitous that you could make it this evening, Your Highness.” The man cackled like he had gone insane and then he shouted a word Shaun did not understand.
A white-hot fireball formed in his hand. He hurled it in their direction. A high shriek accompanied its flight. Shaun dove at Sara, knocking her down and pinning her on the floor. A blast of heat washed over her when the fireball collided with the rows in front of them. Thick black smoke followed in the wake of its destruction and filled the room. Shaun gagged on the nauseating mix of smells from the burning wood and people. Several people screamed. Guards shouted out for the king.
“I’m fine. Get that bastard before he does any more damage.”
Shaun made sure Sara was unhurt, then she yanked her dagger loose from its scabbard tucked into her boot. She jumped to her feet again and searched for the sorcerer through the smoke. She spotted him at the same time as he raised his arm to prepare another fireball.
A flick of her arm sent the dagger flying at the sorcerer. It buried itself in his chest with a dull thud. The force of the dagger’s impact choked off his spell before the sorcerer finished and pitched him against the wall behind him. The king’s guard fell on him.
“Get him up,” the king ordered.
Shaun jogged down the lecture hall steps, following behind the king as he approached the dying sorcerer. Blood welled up around Shaun's dagger, and the breath wheezed in and out of the man’s chest. He did not struggle against the guards holding him, but he forced a grin onto his face when the king came to stand in front of him. Blood coated his teeth.
“Did you like Mordwell’s surprise?” the sorcerer asked. He coughed and more blood bubbled out of his mouth.
The king growled, “After so long since the accord, you decide to launch a full-scale war with us? My father should have wiped the House of Mackritae off the face of Decathea twenty years ago, when he had the chance, rather than waste his time with a treaty Mordwell constantly tests.”
“Your father and the House of Mackritae were both fools. Mackritae is gone,” the sorcerer hissed. “They no longer hold us back.”
Jaris bent closer to the sorcerer. “Whomever your masters are now, I will snuff them out, too.”
He grabbed hold of Shaun’s dagger and yanked it from the sorcerer’s chest. Blood poured from the hole the dagger left behind. The sorcerer’s eyes and mouth widened and then his eyes rolled back in his head. Jaris handed the dagger back to Shaun. She took it from him, but stared at the dead sorcerer. No one ever died by her hands before, directly or indirectly.
Riverend foot soldiers and knights poured in from the corridor, Knights Master Farrash among them. Shaun forced herself to turn away from the dead man. She wiped her dagger clean against the shin of her leather leggings and slipped it back into its sheath.
Farrash addressed the king, “Your Majesty, Riverend is under siege. Five hundred Mordwellians appeared from nowhere and decimated many of our defenses before we knew what was happening. The city may fall. We must get you to safety.”
King Jaris rose and shook his head. “I will not let these villains chase me from my city just yet. I will stand and fight. The rest, though, must flee.”
The king pulled himself to his full height and exuded a calm Shaun wished she had now. “Gather around, everyone. We must abandon our city for now, but we will never abandon our kingdom to these blackguards. Apprentice knights, get your Wards and as many of our people as you can out of the city, as is your duty. I know few of you possess much battle experience, and what I asked of you seems beyond your reach, but it is not. I have faith in your strength.
“My knights, guardsmen, and I will battle the enemy as long as we can to help you get free. Split up into small groups for stealth and retreat in the direction of Parna to the east. I shall gather our reserve forces and regroup them in Parna in two days’ time. Then, when we are at our strongest again, you can return to give the Mordwellians a thrashing worthy of any bard’s song.”
The king turned to Shaun and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Shaun, you must take my daughter and keep her safe.”
Shaun turned her head to see Sara now standing behind her. Tears fell down her cheeks. He cut off her protests with a shake of his head.
“Shaun, she is your lone responsibility now. Do you understand? I expect you to give your life for hers, if you must, in order to keep her safe.”
Everything felt like it was moving too quickly for her to keep up. Shaun did the only thing she knew how and nodded. Her mouth felt numb as she replied, “Yes, Sire. I pledge to give my life for hers.”
The king embraced Sara, the one he had always favored most over all his ten children. Her shoulders shook as sobbed softly against his chest. He did not hold her for long.
When he gently pushed her away again, he told her, “Go with Shaun and the others now. I will see you in Parna.”
Sara begged him again, “Please do not send me away.”
The king smiled reassuringly at her, but there was worry in his eyes. “Nay, daughter. You are no fighter, and I must be strong for my people now. Shaun will keep you safe until we meet again. Do as I say.”
“What about mother?”
The king looked to Farrash. “My wife?”
“I have been told her guards escorted her to the tunnels as soon as the alarm sounded. I have no doubt she got safely away.”
King Jaris nodded. “Very good. Someone bring me a sword.”
Someone handed him a broadsword. He looked at Shaun, Thomas, and the other apprentice knights gathering around. “I expect to see you all in Parna. Go now. Shaun, take the lead.”
Shaun motioned to Thomas and jogged to the lecture hall’s entrance with him. They took up opposite points on either side of the doorway. The clash and shouting from fighting came to her, but she could not tell its origins from where she stood.
She drew her sword, as did Thomas. He poked his head out and looked down one end of the corridor and then the other. He nodded to indicate the corridor was clear. Shaun drew in a steadying breath, then stepped out into the corridor.
OUT in the corridor, Shaun confirmed no one waited nearby to ambush them. She motioned to Thomas send people out. When all of the apprentice knights and their Wards were gathered in the hallway, Shaun divided them into four groups, appointing leaders for each, one of whom was Jak. He had no place in her group.
She told the group leaders to split up their group again once they left the academy building. Groups of no more than four would be best for mobility and stealth. The other group leaders agreed and led their groups down the corridor.
Jak started past her, but she caught his arm. He shot her an annoyed look. “Unhand me.”
She let go and then told him, “Don’t die.” She wanted him nowhere near her, but she also did not want to give Sara another reason to hate her.
Jak pointed to himself. “I should be going with Sara, too. I was assigned as her Watcher.”
“Only for a day.” Her eyes flashed with anger. She needed to be calm for her group though. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “The king placed her safety in my hands. I will keep her safe. I assigned you to look after the safety of others, so I expect you keep yourself alive while you’re at it.”
He sighed and pressed his lips into a thin line, but nodded.
Shaun nodded as well and turned away before he said something to anger her further. She led her group in the direction of the academy library and the hidden room her father told her about once. Thomas took the rear guard position at the back of the group. She moved quickly, trying to take advantage of the corridors still being empty. She could not guarantee how long that would remain true.
Inside the library, Shaun counted the bookcases against one wall until she came to the seventh one. She could barely make out a hinges near its top and bottom. When she tried to pull the bookcase forward, it barely moved, its hinges stiff from years of disuse and rust. She pulled harder, but the bookcase only moved a little more before it squealed to a stop. Cursing, she sheathed her sword and put her fingers into the opening. She tugged on the bookcase with both hands, but the door still refused to open.
“I think the fighting is getting closer,” Myra said behind her.
Shaun heard it getting closer, too. “Thomas, help me.”
He wrapped his fingers around the edge of the door as well and flexed his thick arms. On the count of three, they pulled on the bookcase as one. The rust on the hinges finally gave way, and the hidden door swung open. Shaun ushered the others into the small dark room. When everyone else was inside, she followed them and grabbed the handle on the other side of the bookcase. She pulled it back into place, cringing at the noise it made.
The room was barely large enough to fit all of them, and the temperature inside started to rise within a few short moments. Shaun brushed at the sweat starting to bead on her forehead. She went to Thomas’s side. He had found a large lightstone somewhere and had it lighted and resting on a shelf. The stone gave off enough light to illuminate everyone in the room and the shelves and racks of armor that lined one side.
Thomas passed additional arms and armor to the other apprentice knights. Shaun took the mail shirt passed to her, but waved off a shield, instead taking a pair of scuffed bracers. Even with the leather straps pulled tight, though, they did not quite fit her wiry forearms. They would have to do, however. A shield would weigh her down too much, and just the mail shirt seemed not enough.
Shaun then untied the length of leather cord she always kept tied to her sword belt. She gathered up the sides of her hair at the back of her head, tying back what she could into a small knot. The rest she left loose against her neck. A few strands too short to tie back fell across her face. She tucked these behind her ears.
Her eye sought out Sara. She was huddled with Myra. Fear and worry were etched on her face. Without any way to change that, Shaun turned her gaze away. She passed by the other to the opposite end of the room and found the sliding door that hid the exit on that side. It was much smaller than the way in, and it made checking for enemy soldiers on the outside harder. She crouched and pressed her ear to it, but heard nothing. She turned back to the others.
She whispered to them, “Once we leave this room, we split into smaller groups. Thomas and Myra, I want you with me and Sara. Kera and Andrin, you divide up the rest.”
Kera and Andrin agreed.
Myra said, “I am worried about my parents and my little brother. Can we look for them before we leave Riverend?” Her unusual pallor was visible to Shaun even in the dim light of Thomas’s lightstone. She was terrified.
Shaun looked at Thomas, but he said nothing. She shook her head. “We need to find a way out of the city as soon as we can. I know not where to even start searching for them. I’m afraid that if they are not out of the city already, they are likely dead or prisoners.”
“Shaun!” Sara hissed.
Myra squeezed Sara’s hand and nodded at Shaun. “It’s alright. I understand, but they would have been in the castle tower, in my family’s quarters. Please, can we not at least search there? I cannot just abandon them.”
“Yes, we can look for them,” Sara said. The look she gave Shaun brooked no argument.
Again, Shaun looked at Thomas. He gave her a small shrug. “The castle is not far.”
“Fine,” Shaun said, though the change was a bad idea in her opinion. “The escape tunnel entrance is near there. We can try to get out of the city via that route. However, if we encounter too much fighting, I cannot risk Sara’s life to reach the castle.”
Myra nodded. “I understand.”
Shaun turned back to the exit panel. She slid it open only a crack. Seeing no one immediately in front of it, she slid it open the rest of the way. Still nothing. She stuck her head out to survey the corridor beyond her view. Before she could get her shoulders out, however, rough hands grabbed her. Shaun heard Sara shriek behind her before she was yanked the rest of the way through the opening.