Adan Ramie lives in Southeast Texas, in a town not unlike Andy Griffith's Mayberry, with her amazing, supportive wife and kids. When not writing in whatever genre she pleases, you might find her reading, taking on family craft projects, or binge-watching true crime, food-related, and the popular programs you watched ten years ago that she avoided like the plague at the time. Find her online at AdanRamie.com.
Forest Bait by Adan Ramie
A dry twig cracked in the silence behind Princess Cianlan, and her heart started a hard, thumping beat through her veins. She held her breath. As he approached, leaves rustled under his boots, whispering his dark deeds with only her as their confidant. This could be the man whose name even men only dared murmur in dark taverns over pints of bitter brew. Lorcain the Cruel.
She swallowed back the acid that bit at her throat. Lorcain didn’t get his nickname from being any ordinary rake or scoundrel, and Cianlan knew that if he got his hands on her, he would not return her to the castle. He would ignore the hefty reward her mother had posted for her safe return. Every girl in the kingdom had heard tales of his debauchery, and everyone had seen what became of the young women he abducted. It was a fate worse than death for those hollow-eyed, tortured souls.
Beyond the thunderous tumult of her heartbeat, Cianlan listened for another hint of his presence. The forest was silent. After five days in the forest, she had become attuned to its natural sounds: the coo of a bird, the swift, almost noiseless departure of a fox. This sound was different. His breath came slow and steady, and Cianlan struggled to pinpoint his location. He could be behind her, or in front, for all she could see. The tops of massive trees blocked out the moon’s gaze in large chunks. Where its light bathed the forest floor, she noticed small changes. A stick out of place here. Piles of leaves fallen there. But those could be explained away by the teeming life that thrived inside the thick cover of nature.
Just before she heard his voice, she felt a shift in the air by her shoulder. She ducked, twisted out of his reach, and pulled from her bodice a dagger so sharp, it sliced through the silk and gouged a slash into the leather beneath. He didn’t have time to move, to draw his own weapon, before she was upon him. She pinned his arms to the forest floor, grinding her kneecaps into his biceps until he cried out and released his grip on his weapon.
“Cianlan! It’s me!”
She held his weapon high above her head, ready to thump its blunt end down on his skull to incapacitate him, and squinted at the face of the man between her thighs. A cool breeze blew through the forest, imparting the smell of charred kindling and moving the branches just far enough that a glint of light played over his face.
“Ugh, Nicol! What are you doing here?”
She groaned, then pushed herself up and off of him with a glance at the weapon in her hand. It was her own staff, the one her father had left to her the day he died. He had begged her to wield it with the benevolence of a virtuous princess. She left it behind on purpose.
When they were children, she had called the man-child before her Nicol the Dense, and he had yet to outgrow the nickname. She sniffed the air, and placed the fire at about 300 meters away. He pulled himself up and dusted the leaves from his breeches while she scowled up at him with her arms crossed over her chest.
“I’m sorry, Cianlan. I thought you were in trouble, so I came to find you.” The look that crossed his face in the darkness told her that he was only just realizing his mistake. “Are you not in danger, My Lady?”
She sneered at him, then started a steady march toward the fire. “I told you to stop calling me that,” she called over her shoulder, not waiting for him to catch up.
He retrieved her staff from the moist forest undergrowth and jogged to catch up to the furious princess. “I have nothing else to call you, My Lady. You are to be Queen.”
A short bark of a laugh escaped her contorted mouth. “Who wants to be Queen?” She snatched a thin bow from a young tree as she passed, whirled on him, and pointed its green tip at his face. “I deem this worthy, I deem this unworthy,” she stated in a high, matronly voice, whipping the tip of the branch over his nose with each word. “I shall throw a ball, I shall knight a scoundrel, and I shall bow to the whims of my stupid advisor simply because he carries a piece of meat betwixt his legs. I am the Queen, and I have no power!”
She tossed down the branch, whirled on her boot heel, and began marching toward the fire. He gaped at her, his hand clenched tight over the neck of the staff, and held it out as something like a peace offering. “Do you dare forsake your royal duty?”
“My duty!” She whirled again, her cloak snapping in the cold air, and pointed a finger at him. “That is all it would be! A duty! A task that carries with it a false sense of superiority, when in fact, it would leave me vulnerable. What would be my first job once I took this empty title?”
Nicol stared at her with unvarnished horror. “To be married to a prince. To give this kingdom back its head!”
“Every buffoon has his day!” she cried, and turned again, determined to make it to the warmth of a fire no true hunter would have made so early in his quest. Each branch grabbed at her and tore at the sliced silk dress until her thin, leather armor gleamed brightly from beneath it. She flopped down on a fallen tree in front of the wary fire and stared into its gleaming depths.
Her ill-fated savior slunk into the glade with his head down. The spear clenched in his fist just cleared the forest floor, and his sword hung limp at his side. He sat on the ground opposite her, the spear draped over his lap, and avoided her gaze.
The silence that fell around them was the thickest it had been in all the years of their acquaintance. Cianlan pulled out her knife, grabbed a nearby twig, and became to whittle. She glanced up through her eyebrows at Nicol once or twice, but he sat immobile, the only movement to betray his life the infrequent blink of long, butter-colored eyelashes over brown eyes.
He shook his head, stood up, and carried her staff around the fire with a forced dignity. Cianlan looked up into eyes shrouded with fury, pain, and something else – an emotion she had seen there for the past five years, but had dared not name. In his gaze, she wanted to wither, but she stood on shaky legs.
“Sir Nicol FitzGerald, My Lady.”
The chill in his voice sent an icy fire through her veins, and she bit the inside of her cheek to stop the words from tumbling over her lips like a chastised child. She clenched her jaw and sucked in a deep breath of cold, cleansing air. Whatever his feelings, wherever his loyalty lay, he would not impede her mission. She had forsaken her family and her kingdom in search of the man called Lorcain the Cruel. No man, not Sir Nicol FitzGerald, the Pope, or even the ghost of her father, could stop her.
“Go back to the castle, and take the staff with you. Place it upon the throne to which it belongs, and leave it as a testament to my desertion.” She stepped forward, then stopped her hand before it reached out to his, and stayed it by the clenching of her fist at her side. “But, please, Nicol, don’t tell them you’ve found me. Don’t tell them what I’m doing.”
“And what are you doing, Princess Cianlan?” he asked. Some of the chill had fallen away, but his forced formality still stung as much as it had the first time he had called her My Lady instead of Cian after years of alternately rolling around in a field of coquelicots and being tutored in manners and literacy by one stern governess after another.
She opened her mouth to answer, but the words stuck in her throat. The snap of a twig under a boot sent off alarm bells in her head too late, as she watched a bloom of red spread around the unmistakable glisten of a blade just left of center in the knight’s throat.
Her childhood friend blinked – once, twice – and the sword’s tip receded back out of his neck with a wet slurp as he fell to his knees. His lips twitched open, then closed, silent and useless like a fish thrown onto a muddy embankment. In the space of a moment, his eyes had closed. She dropped to her knees, conscious of the man dressed all in black standing just behind the fallen knight, and draped her body over his. She let out a long, mournful wail, and cradled his body in her arms.
“I have waited for this day for many years.”
His voice was satin smooth. Cautionary tales she had been told as a child cast him as a monstrosity, taller than a birch, broader than a wall, with the curled talons of a bird, the fangs of a snake, and a voice like the burning fires of Death itself. She understood, as she wailed and wrapped her fingers around the hilt of a sword she had only once wielded, that all the stories had been wrong because the only person who had ever escaped his clutches alive was a plump toddler destined to become Queen.
“Can you imagine, my little princess, how I have longed for you?” He sidestepped around Nicol’s body as if he were little more than a pile of animal droppings, and the fury building inside Cianlan threatened to boil over. “The first time I laid eyes on you, I knew I had to have you for my own. Imagine how many others could have been saved if you had only done as you were told.”
They were young the day she and Nicol had met Lorcain the Cruel. At the time, his legend was merely a whisper of strange disappearances. Milkmaids. Farmer’s apprentices. Without anything pointing to the cause of their deaths, officials told the families that sickness must have taken their lives, but the villagers knew better. They knew something – or someone – was stalking the children.
“That day in the glen, I knew that if I could just have you, I would never need another. You were my prize.”
A stab of grief racked her body as she slid the sword from its sheath. She knew it wasn’t true, knew that she would have become just another victim, but with the cooling body of her best friend beneath her, something in the back of her mind screamed that it was all her fault.
“I wanted to put you on my lap, stroke your curls, and adore you. I needed you, Princess.” She heard the twig snap close to her ear as he stepped forward and rubbed his dirty fingers along the curve of her skull. Her voice had grown hoarse from crying, but she brought forth a fresh set of tears and let her wailing raise to a fever pitch as she wallowed over the body of the dead man. “If only you had come with me, your friend would not have died. All those others would not have died. Your father would not have died.”
“Why?” she cried as the tip of the sword breached its sheath. “Why me?”
She felt his hand start to tangle in her curls, and knew that once he had her in his grasp, he would not let her go. Wrenching her hair out of his grasp, she flipped onto her back, and for a moment, they were nose to nose. His breath smelled of copper, and her stomach turned as she rammed the sword through his side. His ribs splintered like kindling in a roaring fire, and heat spread down her arm as the life left his body in thick, viscous spurts.
The forest was silent around her save for the hiss of a dying fire and the pawing of scavengers ready to make a meal of the two dead men. She sucked in a deep breath, trying to ignore the scent of death on top of and below her, and shoved Lorcain the Cruel off of her and onto the forest floor. The blood of the two men mixed with the rich earth, and for a moment, she sat staring at the dark mud in which she sat.
“What would my mother say if she could see us now?” she asked Nicol. Staring down at his still, mountainous form, she knew she couldn’t carry him back to the castle without help, but as the low, mournful howls of the forest creatures got closer, she knew she had to do something to keep his body safe.
She built up the fire as far as she could, then dragged the body of Lorcain out of the clearing and into the darkness. He had haunted her dreams for as long as she could remember. She had always assumed his legend had grown in her mind fed by scary stories meant to keep her in line as her father’s only child and future Queen. But in a single moment, with a look into his eyes, she had known that they had met before.
“You’ll never hurt another child,” she told him, then spat on his body. She walked back to the bloody, muddy mess, snatched Nicol’s sword from the ground, and returned to Lorcain’s remains. “Here you meet the same fate as the children you left to be devoured like refuse.” She stabbed the sword into the soft meat of his belly, and dragged it up with all her might through his chest and neck.
With her attacker baiting scavengers, she trudged back to Nicol’s side and dropped to her knees. The sword hit the ground with a dull thud. She leaned forward, brushed her lips across Nicol’s forehead, then wrapped her arms around him one last time. She sat there until she heard the rhythmic tearing and chomping start in the darkness. Lorcain’s reign of terror was finished, and she had one last job to do. Nicol deserved a grave.