It's time to meet my male protagonist...RHEN!!!!
He's a prince. He's a rule breaker. And he sort of has a way with fire... Most importantly, the second chapter is written in his perspective!
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Without further ado... chapter two!!
~ Roninhythe ~
"Faster, Ember," Rhen called, urging his horse onward, leaving only the echo of a carefree laugh behind him on the breeze.
Rhen grinned, relishing his narrow escape. Adrenaline punched through his veins, fiery and intense, urging him to run as fast as possible. That nobleman had been inches away from gutting him. Of course, he couldn't blame the man. Rhen had spent the night in his daughter's bed, and it was a father's job to protect her virtue after all. Lucky for him, the old man's sword arm was a little slow.
He did, however, feel slightly uneasy. It really wasn't the girl's fault that he had slipped into her room just before dawn. He had a reputation to protect—and he needed a reason to be run from the city. But the fist's worth of gold arriving at their door later this afternoon should be payment enough for that, Rhen assured himself. That was assuming Cal, his loyal friend and future Lord of Roninhythe, was on time with the delivery.
Rhen rolled his shoulders, loosening the knots court life left, ridding his body of the weight of nobility.
Despite the cost, there was no question in his mind. Now, riding Ember—carefree for a few minutes of peace—everything had been worth it. There were few things he wouldn't do to just be Rhen again.
Not Whylrhen, son of Whylfrick.
Not Whylrhen, Prince of the Kingdom of Whylkin.
Not Whylrhen, blood of Whyl, the great conqueror who united the lands.
No, just Rhen, a nineteen-year-old man with no strings attached.
As the walls of the city faded into the horizon, Rhen slowed Ember, patting her soft muddy-red hairs until her breath calmed, and she understood that the urgency had passed. Aside from his mother, she was the only female who had ever held his heart, and though she was old, she had never failed him. Not as a foal, when she had kicked down the stable door, saving his older brother Whyllem from the blazing flames. And not as a mare, when she had saved his life time after time, never demanding more than a light scratch along her neck.
Well, sometimes demanding more…okay, often demanding more, but Rhen was soft when it came to his horse.
He dropped the reins, trusting Ember to keep the pace, and reached into his saddlebag to grab the plain brown tunic resting inside. Stripping off the bright red silks of the crown, he let his bare chest soak in the sun before donning the less noticeable, but also less comfortable, common shirt. His boots and pants were still of the noble variety, but he wouldn't be able to fully hide his station without leaving Ember—and that just wasn't an option.
"Alright, alright," he said, grabbing hold of the leather straps again. "I suppose you deserve it." He pulled back, bringing Ember to a slow halt, and jumped from the saddle.
"Here you go," he said, slipping an apple from his bag. She greedily stole it away from his hand in one bite. A minute later, she stomped her foot, twisting her neck to look at him with distinctly pouting eyes. Rhen rolled his own eyes and reached for another.
Stroking her neck, he felt a sigh rumble down her nerves and knew she was satisfied.
"Okay, Cal, what did you find?" He muttered to himself, unrolling the parchment he had stashed in his belt just before sneaking out of the castle.
Whylrhen, the note began. Rhen sneered at the use of his formal name before continuing. I feel it is my duty as your friend and loyal servant to first advise you on the idiocy of your current plan to pursue…
Rhen sighed, skimming over the rest of the first paragraph. Irresponsible. Dangerous. Foolhardy. Blah. Blah. Blah. Did his best friend write this or the king? The similarities in the phrasing were almost uncanny.
He ran a hand through his hair, looking up at the endless sky for a brief moment, disregarding the paper in his hands.
All Rhen had ever wanted to do was protect his family. His father always said there were more than enough men who wished to be king. What a kingdom really needed were less people looking for glory and more people looking for honor.
Well, his eldest brother would be king and his other brother would be the right hand of the king. But what few people knew was that Rhen planned to become the left hand of the king—the unseen hand, the one that lived in the shadows, catching secrets on the wind.
To the world, Rhen would always be the third son—the useless son, the extra son, the afterthought. He was known as a womanizer, a gambler, and a fool—a reputation he did nothing to stop. No, quite the opposite. It was a reputation he was usually proud to build and strengthen. Better they think that than know the truth. That he was smart. That he was always listening. And that he was creating something his father had forbid, something he had banished after—
Rhen shook his head, blinked, stopped his mind from finishing those dark thoughts. That was history. And there were more important things happening here and now that required his absolute attention. Awenine, wife of his eldest brother Whyltarin and future Queen of Whylkin, was with child. There would be a new royal heir soon, a royal heir who needed Rhen's protection.
And for the first time since Rhen had chosen this path, there was something stirring, something waiting to be heard. There were no coincidences. Secrets were being whispered on the winds, if only he could just reach out far enough to catch them…
Ember pressed her forehead against his arm, nudging him into action as though she had felt his mood shift. He patted the white patch between her eyes, thanking her, and then lifted his body back into the saddle.
"Follow the road," he whispered into her alert ear and lightly kicked her belly to emphasize the command. She kept walking, and Rhen turned back to the letter, skipping down farther until Cal's words finally grew interesting.
I asked my father about your information, and he said he has heard nothing of the sort. His squire, however, said differently. Just as you described, the merchants and their crews are talking. Rumors of the spotting of unflagged ships on the horizon have begun to spread around the docks, though no one seems to take it too seriously, as there haven't been pirates in these waters since Whyl the Conqueror united the lands.
In other news…
Rhen paused, chewing on his bottom lip, ignoring the hair that had fallen over his eyes.
Nothing new, and yet, the word was spreading. Weeks ago while visiting the royal shipyard, Rhen had overheard sailors talking about spotting unflagged ships—ships that belonged to no kingdom and no king. Later that day he returned, looking distinctly less royal, and weeded out more information. Unidentified ships had been spotted along the northwest shore of the kingdom, a shore almost completely uninhabited due to the miles upon miles of steep cliffs blocking access to the ocean.
But there were only two kingdoms left in this world, the Kingdom of Whylkin and their neighboring Kingdom of Ourthuro. Secret ships could only mean one thing—the Ourthuri were looking for something, something that hinted of war.
Unless Rhen could stop it.
He kept reading.
In other news, the game has been lacking of late. The butchers have been complaining that no meat is being brought into the city, that they are losing their income. Unless the oldworlders are hoarding animals in their little wooden huts, someone else is taking them or something else is killing them. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, as it will only spur you on, but I find it my duty as a friend to keep your trust—even if you end up killed.
Perhaps my last piece of information will dissuade you from that course of action though. Unexplained deaths have been a recent phenomenon—bodies found with their throats slit, suicides we presume—though gossips have been labeling them as something far worse. I wouldn't have believed them, but Henry, a knight in my father's guard, and his wife recently passed the same way. And he was a strong fighter, an honorable man. He would not have done it to himself or to her.
So again, I would advise against chasing down these mercenary, and currently quite imaginary, ships on your own. Stay in Roninhythe and we can explore these mysterious deaths together; a noble cause I assure you.
You are a prince and someday you will have to understand that. But until that day, I will do my best as a friend to make sure it is something you do not forget.
Rhen snorted—as if he could ever forget. No, Roninhythe was not where he needed to be. Disappearing game sounded like a good lead—perhaps the unflagged ships had dropped off unspotted infiltrators. Cal had mentioned the oldworlders, which meant Rhen's destination was the Northmore Forest—home of the Arpapajo and another day's ride away.
"What do you say we move a little faster?" He asked. Ember's ears pricked at the sound of his voice and before he had fully gripped the reins, her slow walk had turned into a gallop.
There were few things Rhen loved more than the air whipping past his face as Ember raced through the countryside. In that time, the two of them were one. Her eyes were his eyes. Her legs his legs. Their minds were so connected that he didn’t even need to speak to give her directions, she just understood.
Sometimes he would close his eyes and just let the smell of the grass fill his senses. Or open them so wide that tears leaked out the side from the wind. Heart thumping to the beat of her feet, all other sounds went away and every dark memory seemed to disappear.
They covered miles in what felt like minutes, but the drowning sun betrayed the real time. Shadows elongated and the air cooled until eventually, Rhen could barely see a few feet before Ember's nose.
"Alright, girl," he said sadly, wishing it were not time to stop, "let's settle down for the night." He had spotted a tree line ahead, just before the light disappeared, and the last thing he wanted was to lead Ember straight into raised roots or a wide trunk. There was no use risking injury.
He slipped from the saddle and unhooked the buckle under her belly, letting the heavy leather seat fall from her back. Then without giving her time to protest, he pushed on her behind, signaling that it was time to lay down. She often preferred sleeping upright, but tonight, with the last remaining winter nips still on the breeze, Rhen would need her warmth. And after a long run, she would need her sleep.
Once Ember settled, Rhen curled in next to her side, and the two of them let sleep come quickly.
But it didn't last very long.
Just before sunrise, Rhen woke with a long gasp and coughed, flipping over onto his hands and knees while his lungs rebelled against his body. Within seconds, Ember had smelled it too, hopping to her feet and letting out a long screech that scratched its way down Rhen's spine.
Plumes and plumes of smoke.
"Easy, girl," he jumped to his feet, wrapping his arms around Ember's neck until she calmed. "You know I won't let anything happen to you." She curved inward, using her head to complete the hug while Rhen continued to pat her short hairs.
He looked down her long body toward the forest, and farther still to the large black tunnel drifting from the treetops. It was moving with the wind, which just happened to be smacking the two of them in the face.
Quickly, Rhen reached down and resecured the saddle. He walked before Ember and gripped her nose, making her look at him. Fear was written across her dark black pupils.
"I know what this is putting you through," he said as she winced, "but you must trust me. Fire is something that will never hurt you, not when you are with me."
She pulled against his hand, her vision going back to the forest for a quick second. She kicked the ground, complaining, letting him know just how unhappy she was.
His heart sank. There was no need to remind him of her fears. Though her name was Ember, fire was the last thing she was made of. Her skin trembled, remembering the barn and the fire that had almost claimed her life.
But there was no choice. He had to find the cause of the flames, and he had to put them out. Because fire was exactly what Rhen was made of.
Jumping up into the saddle, he urged Ember forward, bringing them closer to the trees but to the side away from the smoke. They would follow it like a great river, along the edge and just out of reach.
Cutting through the forest was slow moving as they maneuvered around low branches and tall bushes. He held the reins steady, keeping Ember's movements controlled and not frantic.
Even from afar, the smoke permeated his senses, making his breath feel tight and his eyes burn. It seemed endless, as though the smoke came from the ground itself, bursting forth from the soil to wreak havoc on the world.
After what seemed like an eternity, a bright flame flickered in the distance. He spotted it an instant before Ember.
Flinging his feet to the side, Rhen landed almost upright a split second before her forelegs lifted from the ground and she jumped away, backing from the bright orange blinding her eyes. He let her. Better Ember act on her fear, better she feel some control.
Besides, he had work to do.
Rhen stretched out his hands, reaching his palms before him, and crept closer and closer until he felt the pull. His fingertips burned, still feet from the flames, but they called to him. His body zinged, energy bouncing from limb to limb. He let it build—let the need go crazy. And then, as though sucking in a large breath of air, he pulled with his mind and the fire listened, crashing into him like a wave.
As a boy, Rhen had loved playing with flames. He would stand by the candles in the great hall, poking at them with his fingers, letting his palm absorb their heat, until one day his mother ran over with a scream and pulled him away. You cannot do that, he remembered her exclaiming quite vehemently as she checked his chubby hands for burns. But there were none. Because it never burned him, and until that boyhood moment, Rhen had never realized that it was strange, that it wasn't normal. Ever since that day, he had kept these powers to himself.
The fire spoke to him. He couldn’t create it—he had tried that many times to no avail. He couldn't even move it or shape it or aim it. All he could do was absorb it and let the flames fill his body until he felt like all he needed to do was open his mouth to breathe smoke.
But at times like these, he was grateful for the gift, or curse, whichever it was.
So he stood, letting the heat crawl under his skin, letting it bubble under the surface, until the onslaught passed and he could feel the breeze on his cheeks again.
Rhen opened his eyes.
Like giant claws, the trees rose from the ground, bare and blackened, stripped of leaves and life. But the fire, at least, was gone.
"Ember!" But he didn’t see her behind him where the forest turned green again.
He whistled, body stiff and alert, until thunderous hoofbeats reached his ears and Rhen relaxed. Moments later Ember emerged, but she stopped beside an untouched tree, not stepping one hoof into the blackened soot of the burnt forest floor before her.
"Come here," he commanded.
She stepped back.
Rhen crossed his arms.
She shook her head.
She did too.
"So dramatic," he rolled his eyes and stepped forward, giving Ember the victory, scratching the soft patch in her forehead until she finally showed her forgiveness by padding into the ash.
"I'm sorry," he whispered before swinging into the saddle.
Moving opposite the wind, the two of them pushed onward. It's worse than a battlefield, Rhen thought as he looked around. Tree trunks rose up into sharp, blackened points and then stopped. A field of topless trees, of stake-like spires, stretched out before them. All color was gone from the world. Little clouds of ash followed Ember's footsteps, blackening her copper coat.
But worse was the eerie quiet. No birds chirped. The wind licked his face, but there were no swaying branches or whispering leaves. When they came upon a splashing stream, it sounded as roaring as a great river, as though the crashing waves were the size of a man instead of a toad.
Rhen had never ventured this far into the Northmore Forest. No one did, aside from the missionary his father sent once a year to ensure the Arpapajo were still adhering to the laws of the land and speaking the king's tongue. There was no need. They lived a secluded life apart from the rest of the world, and as far as Rhen was concerned, they should keep it that way.
Everyone spoke of the strange people, still dressed in poorly sewn animal hides, running around with stone-tipped arrows and paint on their faces. It was a bedtime story to frighten young children into sticking close to home.
Yet out here alone without the forest to cover his movements, Rhen almost felt as though he were being watched. The hairs on his forearm rose, and he darted glances from side to side, searching for movement.
He might be a prince, but no one in these woods would know what that truly meant—and even if they did, he wasn't sure that they would care.
I better not die out here, he joked and tried to calm his rising nerves, Cal would never let me hear the end of it.
And then he spotted green in the distance.
The origin of the fire.
Rhen pressed Ember forward, forgetting caution as his excitement and nerves compounded into a sudden burst of energy.
But as he neared, his confusion grew. It almost seemed like a village. Was it possible the Arpapajo had burned their own home down?
He searched the ground but there were no bodies in sight. A pile of smoking wood, burnt down to little more than rubble, caught his attention. It drew a line in the fire—one side black and one side green. Had it been a house?
The start of the fire for sure, but it was now completely unrecognizable.
Rhen dropped to the ground, noticing a great wooden structure behind the collapsed heap. A second house?
He moved quickly, searching the length of the twisted branches and bark for some sort of door. A breeze blew in, lifting a slip of tanned hide and Rhen caught it with his hand, flipping it over his shoulder as he entered.
Dried fruits hung from the ceiling. Carcasses that were half-cleaned and now buzzing with insects were piled along the wall. A putrid smell filled his nostrils and he retreated quickly.
There was nothing human in there.
He spun in a circle. If this had been the food house, maybe the other had been a living house? He turned one more time, trying to differentiate a wooden structure from the trees behind it.
And then all of a sudden a smaller hut materialized from the woods, almost invisible against the forest.
He ran, pushing back the now obvious skins of the door.
Blood was the first thing he saw. At his feet, a great red circle spread against the entrance of the home, dried into the dirt and stained that way. He followed the line, and farther into the room was another spot, also dry but on a raised wooden expanse that must have been a bed.
If there was blood, there must have been an attack.
And if there was an attack, there must be foreign invaders.
Which meant one thing: his kingdom wasn't safe—no, his family wasn't safe.
Rhen whipped around, bringing his fingers to his lips to whistle for Ember when a shape caught his eyes. A smaller bed sat to the left of the entrance and it looked…
He crept closer, slowly, trying not to make any noise.
His heart pumped wildly in his chest. He flexed his fingers, reaching his hand out to grab the animal skin, cursing himself for being unarmed.
He pulled back and brought his hands around a thin throat, making to choke the body before his brain caught up with his muscles, and he realized it was just a boy. Not a mercenary, not even a fighter, just a child.
Rhen sat, his body heavy with surprise.
The boy hadn't even stirred at his touch.
He leaned down, bringing an ear to the immobile chest, and there was a soft thud of a beat—very faint and very slow, but still there.
Rhen scooped the boy into his arms, taking just a moment to loosen the small fist from a crudely created rock knife, and then sounded his whistle loud and clear. By the time the two of them emerged, Ember was waiting—dare he say it, impatiently.
But her look softened when she noticed the small figure in his arms, and she knelt to the ground, making it easier for Rhen to climb on without jostling the fragile body he held.
"Back to the stream," he told her.
Ember stuck to the unburned forest, keeping out of the sun as best she could, moving as carefully and quickly as possible.
Within minutes, they reached the same stream as before, but this time the edges were lined with soft grass instead of ash. Clean water was exactly what they needed, not something blackened with soot.
Rhen slipped from Ember as she knelt down and settled the boy on the grass. Digging through his things, he pulled out a canister of water and gently opened the boy's mouth. Being careful not to pour too much, he tilted the bottle. Reflexively, the boy swallowed, opening his mouth for more. Rhen obliged with another small dose, but then stopped. He didn’t want all of that water coming back up and out the boy's mouth.
Next, Rhen dipped his hands into the stream. Without drying off, he patted the boy's cheeks, his forehead. Going back for more water, he wet the boy's hair and arms, and then repositioned the body so the child's feet slipped into the water, hopefully absorbing it.
Rhen leaned down. Already the heartbeat sounded stronger.
He poured some more water into the child's throat before sitting back up.
There was no blood, no wound, and no foreseeable reason why the boy had gone so long without food. He seemed old enough to take care of himself, maybe ten or twelve. Scrawny still, but surely able to hunt in the absence of adults.
No, this seemed like something else. Perhaps the result of a mental incapacity.
But Rhen thought back to the blood, the ash, the burnt pile of wood. Perhaps it was just a lack of will.
Rhen understood that—the feeling of failure when a loved one died, of helplessness, of wanting to drift away never to be found again. But he had overcome it, with help.
Rhen looked at the boy again. His skin was dark, born that way and not just tanned from the sun. His hair was black and chopped so haphazardly that it stood out at all different directions. He had lived with wooden huts instead of stone castles. With animal skins instead of fine silks.
So different from the people Rhen had grown up with.
And yet, still the same somehow. Still fragile, just like someone else Rhen remembered—someone he so often tried to forget.
He reached for the water again.
If this child was truly alone, then Rhen was the only one left who could save him.
A thunderous boom sounded through the trees.
Rhen dropped the bottle.
It fell, rolling along the ground, sinking closer to the water. He dove, catching the canister just before it fell into the stream, but half of the contents had been emptied. He turned it, looking through the top to judge the remaining amount, when something just behind the bottle caught his attention instead.
No, he corrected himself, a bootprint—something that could never belong to an Arpapajo.
Invaders had been here.
Rhen looked at the boy, torn. He really shouldn't leave, not when the child was still so weak. But his skin had brightened. He looked better. And those prints could be the key to saving a lot more than one boy. They could be the key to saving the kingdom.
He had no choice.
Decision made, Rhen stood.
Scooping the boy up one more time, he gently placed him under a tree, hidden from the riverbank in case anyone approached.
"Keep him safe," Rhen whispered into Ember's ear. She stomped a hoof, letting Rhen know she would not let him down.
"I'll be back soon," he said, but still grabbed his sword and scabbard, belting them tightly around his waist.
Sloshing through the water, Rhen moved to the opposite side of the bank to examine the print further.
Most definitely a boot.
He looked close by, scouring the ground until a second print identified itself. Rhen stepped closer, repeating until he had a solid trail to follow. Crushed branches and chopped bushes created a line through the normally untouched forest, a track that was easy for Rhen to find. He was used to stone, something that left a much more invisible path. Compared to that, this was simple.
Before long, Rhen happened upon a camp. A few tents were set up. Weapons lazily rested against a tree. A fire was still warm though the flames had died. And behind, stacks of logs were piled up, tied together in tight bushels like those resting beside the fires in his family's castle.
The loud noise must have been a tree falling, but why? Why so much wood? Unless they were planning to make camp for a long time—or for a much larger crowd—an army, perhaps.
His mind spun.
This was more proof than Rhen had ever hoped to find, more information than he was prepared for. The king had to know, immediately. Biting his lip, Rhen reassured himself that his father would believe him. With news such as this, with stakes so high, surely just this once, everyone would believe him…
Rhen moved to turn.
But before his feet had even shifted, something heavy slammed into the back of his skull.
The last thing Rhen thought before he crashed to the ground, slipping into the darkness, was Damn it, Cal, why must you always be right?
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