Caislín fingered her father’s crown.
The funeral was held yesterday. She was officially the queen of Destrea. Instead of sapphire coronation banners, black and purple streamers danced in the whistling wind to mourn the loss of a monarch. She was given word that Sa’di had been implicated with the band of terrorists and had since disappeared, thus proving their points.
The sky reflected her heavy heart. The clouds accumulated and choked out the bright sun. It had rained last night. Bryngaer was cold and dreary. The people stayed inside, with no mind to come out and sing their praises of the king’s life or to compose a solemn hymn to encourage their new queen.
Caislín felt nothing but betrayal.
Her father’s last words rung in her ears: ‘The kingdom leans on you. Be the oak on which they depend. Thrive now, and never deteriorate.’
She swallowed her tears.
“I’m selfish, Dadi,” she broke into a sob.
Her black, crushed velvet gown did not alleviate the chills that ran up and down and through her body. She held the golden crown close to her bosom and let her tears flow onto her hands.
Her ring finger became cold.
Opening her eyes, her heart hurt only more to see her promise ring adorn her finger. She dropped the crown and tugged off the silver band.
“How could you have left me!” she screamed at the eagle stamped into it.
Caislín had all the mind to throw it. It felt justified. She was tempted to toss away his promise, as she assumed he had done.
No matter how hard she tried to part with the ring, she only heard his soft voice tickle her ear.
“Every single promise, Caislín, sings ‘I love you’.”
“Oh, Finn,” she choked. “I hope you’re still alive. If not, I’ve lived by a suspension that never existed. Your covenant was so precious, so meaningful… If it no longer lives, I’ve- I’ve lived for nothing.”
That’s not true, her heart screamed. The Protector holds your true covenant. He holds your life dear in His Hands. If you don’t live for Finn’s love, live for His, as you should have you entire life.
“Protector,” Caislín said through a tight throat. “Guide my decision. I’m afraid to let go of Finn, and I cannot let go of my kingdom without it crumbling. The people live for You so diligently, please guide them as I sit, indecisive.”
She sat still for close to an hour, her ring finding itself back on her finger.
Your pledge to your kingdom pleased Me, Caislín. Live for it. Live for Me. I love you.
Caislín opened her eyes again and saw, where her crown should have sat on a glorious pedestal before her throne, where she meditated, there was nothing. She squinted.
“They’re still out there,” she thought out loud.
No, that will leave the kingdom undefended. This is imprudent. Remember what Dadi asked you to be?
A new desire surged through her: revenge. Sa’di and the unnamed terrorists got away with her crown and had caused the death of her father, who was her stake as she grew into her new role of queen. They stripped her life of happiness and safety.
The crown isn’t what matters, it’s that they don’t go unpunished for killing His Highness the King.
Still, deep down, Caislín knew it was her own selfishness that served as the impetus of her want for them to pay. It dressed itself as her desire for justice. Its facade was that of a sheep, but underneath, there was the drive of a wolf.
Tenderly she knelt and retrieved her father’s crown. Nothing was harmed on it by her outburst.
Where the benevolent, kind, ever-smiling young princess stood was a new character; a queen with a stern visage, austere personality, and a want for justice. Underneath her feelings was a fearful emotion. Was this her from now on? How would the people allow her to help them if all they saw was an impersonal machine? No, this couldn’t go on.
She had to go after them.
“Blaine,” she called.
The small crown bearer, now a page, scrambled up to stand front and center. “Yessum, Your Majesty, ma’am?”
Caislín smiled slightly at his attempt to be official. “Call for Captain Aloysius of the Wing Company. I need him and his Solitaries to be ready to ride by sundown.”
“This is crazy,” Captain Aloysius mumbled, running a weathered, black-gloved hand through his shoulder-length brown hair. He set to work saddling Caislín’s horse with the outfits of a Solitary stallion.
Caislín finished pinning up her hair in a high tail and sheathed her longsword. Her father had the Solitary train her in sword fighting and horseback riding to acknowledge the scenario that she, his only heir, had to find herself in battle, and even though it wasn’t all that intuitive to her, she knew how to survive.
“Crazy enough to be my kind of plan,” she replied. Quickly, she flicked the cloak’s hood over her eyes. “Can you recognize me?”
“It’s camoflauge, not magic, Your Highness,” Captain Aloysius chuckled.
The Wing Company was one of the oldest surviving Solitary companies, just older than the faction that was completely torn apart at the Battle on the Border - Finn’s faction - the Grey Company.
Caislín shook her head and mounted her white mare. She was satisfied with the free movement of trousers instead of gowns. Her black tunic was airy but warm. Her deep green jerkin, something she decided she could live without, was only slightly stiffer. Her high brown boots concealed two throwing seax knives. Her heart skipped a beat as she thought about needing to use them.
That was one of the things she didn’t learn.
“Your Highness! Captain!”
A young and lithe Solitary galloped into the covert stables on his black stallion. Effortlessly he dismounted and bowed to Caislín.
“Sergeant sends word,” he reported. “He had found the conspirators. West Patrol tripped over them at Mogan’s Leap, right outside of Crofton Fief.”
The captain nodded. “Thank you, Afton. Join up with Midnight for debriefing and get a little rest and relaxation, aye?”
The youth nodded and bowed again to Caislín before leaving the stables.
“Crofton Fief,” echoed Caislín with distaste.
The place was dead before her dynasty started. The Crofton line, the lords who watched over it, were destroying it in either a wanton manner or seriously had no interest in their people. Her father, who was crowned long after the present Lord Crofton was situated, tried and tried again to expel the lord from his place, to no avail. The Croftons had an iron grip on the Black Fief, as it was commonly described as.
“Don’t worry, Your Majesty,” reassured Aloysius as he mounted his fine, high-standing bay stallion. His expression was gentle and reverent. “Mogan’s Leap is several catapults from Crofton, deep in the Tywyll Forest. You won’t have to face that warlock.”
A humorous smirk dragged an otherwise no-nonsense lip upwards. His eyes were soft hazel, but calculatingly set on any matter ahead of him. He was handsome by many standards, with a rugged ranger’s stubble lining his jaw. He had cared greatly for Caislín for a while, but stayed within parameters set by protocol.
There was a job to do. The heart had no place in these matters.
He watched Caislín order the Solitaries into riding towards Crofton Fief, and he complied. Being the queen, she immediately outranked him, so all he could do was back her up and relay the orders as his men would understand them.
Her expression of steel half worried him.
Aloysius was born a waif on the streets, fatherless and without a mentor. He grew up strong in fists and head, but the young princess saw more in him. She, at the young age of eight, had arranged for him a home within the barracks of the Solitaries. He couldn’t repay her enough for what she had done for him. Now a captain of the most elite company, he could only be the best he could be to show just half his gratitude.
What a queen you’re shaping up to be, Aloysius thought as they cantered through the night. Riding with the Solitaries to have your revenge. A true queen of no convention.
Nevertheless, he ordered the Solitaries to a gallop.