Cian stepped up to the head of a table lined with concerned, but attentive faces. Only a few were unfamiliar. ‘The young taking on the duties of the old.’ He made sure to set each of the faces to his memory, knowing that the odds were against him ever seeing them again after the night was done.
He had called them together less than an hour ago, counting on their speed and skill to keep them safe. One by one, he watched them file in from one hidden entrance or another, not breathing any easier until the last of them had arrived, a woman his own age with a breathless ‘Sorry, I’m late’ spilling from her lips. Soft chatter died down as she took her seat and now they all stared at him, waiting without word for him to speak.
Cian knew that most of the silence was anticipation and intense curiosity. It had been centuries since a member of the royal families had called a Gathering, but it was necessary.
“We’ve been found.”
Those three words were all it took to turn the quiet concern into a bone deep terror, but still, no one spoke.
Cian swallowed hard. “They’ve taken Tyvanilé Amí.” He took a folded piece of paper and a photograph from his chest pocket and laid them on the table.
The people closest to the image turned pale then green. As the picture made its way down the table, others shuddered or turned away without looking. One, a young blonde no more than seventeen, rushed out of the room and the sound of her dry heaving was soon heard shattering the silence.
“There is more, Sire.”
A tall dark-skinned man entered the room, bald head gleaming in the overhead light as he made his bow.
Cian nodded to the head of the Royal Guard in acknowledgment. “Lord Duncan. What news do you have?”
Duncan ca Maathes hesitated and eyed the people gathered around the long table. “With all due respect, my lord, I believe this would be best discussed in private.” When Cian frowned, he added, “My apologies, Sire, but I think you know I would not disrupt this meeting if it were not of the utmost importance.”
Cian scowled. “Drop the formality, Duncan. We don’t have time for this.”
The dark man’s nostrils flared, but he rose, eyes on Cian’s face, and motioned behind him to a small group of people waiting just outside of the door.
Cian recognized the man as Duncan’s brother, Garth, another member of the Guard. The woman with the flame red hair was the man’s wife, Leslie, but it was the figure lying so still and silent in Garth’s arms that had Cian dismissing everyone from the room.
Through the blood soaked sheets, he could see that the figure was female, and the tangle of pure white hair tumbling out of the folds…
He only knew one person with hair that color.
Shaking his head, hoping he was wrong, he reached out one hand to tug the sheet away from the woman’s face.
Grey eyes stared back at him. “Cian…”
“’Mona…” His stomach clenched. Even without the blood on the sheet, he knew she was not going to make it. Green is good; grey is gone. He saw her trying to reach for him, and took the trembling hand into his own. “Ramona, what happened?” When she couldn’t answer, he glared over at Duncan. “Where’s Sabi? Where’s Kavin?”
Duncan’s mouth twisted. He had found the photograph of the mutilated remains of what used to be a beautiful woman. “Looks like the bastards still haven’t changed their method of torture. Four thousand years, you’d think they would’ve developed some imagination.”
“Duncan.” A warning.
He glanced up to meet Cian’s green eyes with his own. “Shachané Kavin ca Uruz and his lady wife Sachalé Sabia cé Llyr et Uruz are dead.”
Cian stared at him. Ramona’s ragged breathing the only sound in the room. *Sabs? Sabia! Gadielé, answer me!* No response.
“We thought we’d have more time.” Garth shifted, uneasy, when his king’s gaze fixed upon him. “The Lady was still weak from giving birth, so we were trying to give her at least another day before we had to move her, but…” Garth looked down in awe at the woman he was holding, wincing at each rasping breath. “I think she must have known though. She told Ramona to take the baby and go somewhere safe. She said she would catch up when she was able to travel. She tried to get the shachan to go too, but then they were there, and it was too late. Shachané Kavin was cut down trying to give Ramona enough time to get away. When we got there, they were running her through over and over, trying to get the baby through her body.” He swallowed hard. “She wouldn’t let them. She had the little one on the ground beneath her and braced herself so that the blades couldn’t reach far enough.” The tears he had been fighting broke free.
One last painful breath shuddered through the room and then silence.
His darling Ami was gone. Sabia, his little sister, the same imp that would put slugs in his shoes, and then set his ex-girlfriend’s favorite skirt on fire when she found out the girl had cheated on him. Kavin. They had only been married for a year. Their child was not even a day old yet, and already an orphan. And now, Ramona, his childhood friend and Sabi’s partner in crime…
In less than a week, his happy life had been shattered. ‘And I don’t even have the luxury of time to deal with it,’ he thought, bitter. Aloud, he said, “Then it is as we feared. The House of Rune has fallen.” He didn’t have to ask about his niece. He knew his guards would have already taken her to a safe place.
“It’s the only way they could’ve known about you and our lady.” Duncan opened a side door and helped Garth lay Ramona’s body on a low side table. He straightened and turned back to face Cian. “And if they know who you are, then they know who and where the rest are. We must act quick, Sire.”
“I know. That’s why I had put out the call.” He rubbed his face, weariness and lack of sleep making him look older than he was.
A child’s wail suddenly echoed through the house, soon joined by another. Above them, there was the sound of a door opening, then shutting, and the cries quieted.
Cian’s throat tightened, ‘Why is she here?’ but he pushed it away for the moment and turned back to his guards. “Garth, gather the wood from the fireplace and stack it under the table. We don’t have time to make a proper pyre, but we’ll do the best we can.” The man hurried to follow his orders as Cian crossed the room and opened the door to one of the many cabinets lining the wall of the meeting room. He pulled out a large box and carried it to the room where Ramona’s body lay, the two remaining guards following him.
“Sire?” Leslie peeked over his shoulder as he opened the box. Inside it were folds of silk cloth in a bright emerald green with blue and gold trimmings. She recognized them as the burial shrouds for the royal house of Llyr. Her eyes widened. “You mean to give her a royal burial?”
“You object?” Cian paused in his actions long enough to give her a hard glare. When she shook her head and stepped back, he returned his attention to the box, lifting out the bottles of anointing oils that he needed. “Leslie, go help your husband.” He didn’t wait to see her obey, focusing instead on what he knew came next. The sound of fabric rustling on the table made him spin around and stare.
Leslie was unwrapping the sheet from the body with gentle hands. She looked past Cian’s shoulder at the dark man standing silent in the doorway. “Lord Duncan, my husband requires assistance gathering the wood for Gachalé Ramona’s pyre, and you know where the firewood is kept better than I.” She met Cian’s gaze. “You have duties to attend to, Your Majesty. I will attend to the Lady.”
Before he could say anything, Duncan bowed and left the room. Cian glared at his retreating back, but handed the shroud to the redhead before heading back to the meeting room.
“You’ll tell them, right?”
He stopped and looked back at Leslie. “I can’t give her a proper burial. I can’t give her the ceremony she deserves, but she will not be forgotten.” She nodded and he left.
Duncan waited for him by the doorway to the hall. When Cian closed the door to the side room, he opened the door to the hallway and motioned for the people waiting outside to file back into the meeting room.
Cian stepped back up to head of the table. “We don’t have much time, so listen well. You are here because you are of the Messengers. The Families must be warned, and you are the only ones with the ability to travel fast enough to give them a chance of survival. The message you will be giving is simple: ‘Rune is fallen.’” A cry from near the back was cut off. “’Take your family and go. Tell no one where, just go.’ As soon as your messages are given, then you also must disappear.” Grim, determined faces watched him. “Sachalé Sabia and her husband Shachané Kavin have died. Our royal messenger, the Gachalé Ramona cé Lekka perished due to wounds she received while trying to protect her lady.” Only select people would be told that the child had survived. “From now on, she will be known as Gachalé Ramona cé Llyr, and will be honored as a sister to the king.”
Heads up and down the table started to bow in respect, but Cian stopped them with a raise of his hand. “We do not have the time now to honor her at this moment,” he reminded them. “If our people are not warned, there will be even more deaths to mourn by daybreak.” He made sure he had everyone’s attention again. “When you and our people are safe, that will be the time to honor her.” He nodded towards the dark man. “Lord Duncan will give you each a list of families and where to find them. I don’t think I need to tell you not to let it fall into the wrong hands.”
He dismissed the Messengers and waited until the room had emptied before making his way upstairs to where his children were sleeping. A woman with the same long black hair as their mother sang a lullaby to them as she tucked them in.
She looked up as the light from the doorway spilled into the room, and his heart lurched painfully in his chest at the tears in her green eyes.
“Dielé…you shouldn’t be here.” He walked over to his wife’s sister and turned her away from the crib, leading her out of the nursery and downstairs to the kitchen where Duncan waited. Garth had excused himself to help his wife put on the finishing touches to the pyre.
“Alli, where are your guards?” Cian ran his hands through his shoulder length blonde hair as Duncan led the weeping woman to a chair. “You should’ve been on your way to a safe home by now.”
“Tyvanilé Alessia dismissed them.”
Cian’s head whipped around to stare at Duncan. “She what?”
“You allowed her to do that? You let her stay? What were you thinking? For that matter, were you thinking?”
“Would you stop being so damn formal?” Cian snapped. “We’re friends, or have you forgotten?”
“I have forgotten nothing, shatin, but you apparently have.” Duncan met his gaze. “You have known her even longer than I. You know how stubborn she can be. She was going to stay whether she had to go through her guards – and me – or not.” He watched as the other man fought to regain control of his emotions. “I ‘allowed’ her to dismiss them; I ‘let’ her stay; so that I could stay with her. Besides,” he added, “after what happened at Sachal Sabia’s…I couldn’t leave her. And she’s safer here with us than if we surrounded her with all of the royal guards put together.”
“I know. I know I shouldn’t have stayed, but, I-I wanted to see them one more time, and-” Alli swallowed down what sounded like a sob. Warm hands settled on her shoulders. “A-and I thought…someone should be here for them. At least until the gathering was over…”
“Alli, your heart is in the right place, but you must realize the position you have put us in.” Cian leaned on a chair across from her. “You were her sister…and as if that isn’t enough reason to hunt you down, you’re also a High Priestess.”
“I know, but…”
His control snapped again, “’But’ what, Tyvanilé Alessia? ‘But’ what?” Snarling, he pushed himself away from the chair and stalked across the room, grabbing the photograph from earlier and slamming it down on the table in front of her. “Look! Look at what these people are capable of!”
Alli shrank away, before straightening her back, and glaring at her brother-in-law. “I don’t need to look diené. I felt it!” Her lip trembled, and her nostrils flared. “Every slice, every time they found a new piece of her to peel off like the skin of a grape, everything! You were her husband, but I was, am, her sister!” She got to her feet, eyes like shaved ice and advanced on him. “We were twins, connected in ways you can’t even imagine, and it was me that took every bit of pain they gave her so that she could die in peace, so don’t tell me what they can do!” His back hit the wall. She stopped and stared at him, tears were running down both of their cheeks, and her voice quivered. “Just because you see her every time you look at me is no reason to be cruel. You weren’t the only one who loved her.”
The kitchen fell silent for a few tense minutes before a grandfather clock deep in the house rang three times.
Duncan checked his watch, surprised. “My Lady, we need to go.”
Alli nodded and stepped away from Cian. She gave him one last long look before turning and walking out of the room.
Duncan stayed where he was as he watched the other man close his eyes and take deep breaths. Cian opened his eyes again and let his head fall back to rest against the wall.
“I’m staying with her.”
Cian gave a weak chuckle. “You know, Ami and I had a bet about you two. She said you’d tell her how you felt before the twins were talking. I said you never would.” He gave his friend a crooked grin. “Alli had money on having to make the first move.”
Duncan scowled at him, “I know. You owe her fifty.”
“I’m ready.” The two men turned. Alli stood in the doorway, a suitcase and a duffel bag at her feet. She had washed her face and tied her hair back into a ponytail. She looked at Cian as Duncan slung the duffel bag over one big shoulder, and picked up the suitcase. “What happens now, Cian?” She asked, voice soft. “We’ll be safe, but what about the kids? What about you?”
“They’ll be fine.” Cian looked away. “Ami and I were preparing for this before they were even thought of.”
“What do you mean? Why would you-” Alli frowned, confused. Her eyes narrowed when he refused to meet her gaze. “Cian? Did you know this was going to happen?” Her hands clenched into fists. “Answer me!”
He snarled back at her, “Of course I didn’t know!” He shook his head. “All we had was a warning. Darshan said something might happen, but he didn’t know what, or who.” Cian took a shuddering breath. “I thought it would be me. I’m the one they should be after.” Not Sabia, not Ami, me. It should have been me. When his eyes finally met hers, they were dark with grief. “They’ll be fine. I can’t tell you anything more than that.” He choked out a laugh. “Hell, I don’t know more than that, but they’ll be safe. Don’t worry about us, Alli. We’ll be fine.” He reached out a hand and pulled her into a loose embrace.
Alli pushed back enough to look him in the face. She stared at him for a long moment, then nodded and returned the hug. She pulled away to stand on her tiptoes and place a gentle kiss on his cheek. “Biyu lun, sadiené.”
“Biyu shia; biyu lunse, mi dielé.” He waited until they were gone, then made his way up the stairs.
As he entered the nursery, a cloaked figure stepped out of the shadows and knelt before him, right hand extended. A silver ring with the image of a tree surrounded by waves gleamed there in the light from the hallway.
Cian reached out and touched their ring with his own. A flash of golden light lit the room, illuminating a second cloaked figure, also kneeling.
After the light had faded, both figures rose to their feet and bent over the crib nearest to them, lifting a sleeping child out. Holding it close, the first figure turned to the open window. Their body fading away until, with a bright flash of light, it, and the child, were gone. The other figure hesitated, and seemed to stare back at Cian before they also faded away and disappeared.
He stood there for a moment more staring at the empty cribs before he forced himself to move away, back down the stairs and to the meeting room, where the folded piece of paper and the gruesome photo waited for him.
The side door opened and Leslie and Garth stepped out of the small room. They both moved to kneel before him one more time, heads bowed and hands clasped before them as if in prayer. There was the sound of breaking glass as he reached out and laid his hands on their bent heads. “Thank you.” His voice was hoarse. He stepped back, and they rose. Before he could say anything else, they moved to one of the many secret openings in the house and disappeared without a word.
He sent a flicker of power at the makeshift pyre in the other room. The smell of smoke soon followed and the flickering of flames made shadows dance across the walls.
He unfolded the paper and read the short message again. Heard the first sound of running footsteps coming from down the hall.
Setting the note back on the table, he grabbed his coat from the back of a chair, and slipped out of a different exit than the one the others had used. As he closed the door behind him, he sent another flick at the small fire, then walked out into the cold January night.
Even the sound of his home exploding into flames could not drown out the words echoing in his mind.
“See you soon.”