I thought my bones had melded to my chair. A good stout chair it was—oak—and it rocked, but I was done with rocking. They had taken my children away and so I sat, immobile in the half-winter cold of early April, feeling close to my mother who had died in that chamber. I had not eaten and barely taken water or wine for a fortnight. The drapes were drawn, a small fire rustled on the hearth, and I think I would have gone to Mother presently except for a resounding crash at my door. It was so loud that I was recalled, much against my will.

Light flooded through the opening. Hilgi’s tread was heavy upon the stone floor; he was a big man. He looked just as I had seen him some months earlier. He still wore the circlet of a Northern prince, the gold armbands of a Chieftain’s son, and his Havacian battle axe strapped to his chest. His furious expression was the same, as well. So he had looked the day he clove our mutual enemy King Edred of Tumagia in twain with that axe or its twin.
“What have they done to you?” he asked in Omani. It was the only language we had in common. But I did not care to speak on that day and I was the Queen and could do as I liked, so I kept silence.
“What have they not done to you?” he demanded again, wrenching open the drapes. I flinched as he sank into a knee-bend beside my chair, taking my chin firmly in
his big hand and looking into my face. “When did you last eat, Tia? You look like death!”
I made no reply and he backhanded me. I blinked.
“That’s the first one,” he said. “Every time you ignore me, you’ll get another.” I was more shocked than hurt and the hot seep of rage began to fill me like water soaking through a sponge. “Bad enough I was beaten by King Edred and a slave dealer in Omana…but you?”
“That’s better.” Tipping me forward to wrap the quilt from my bed around me, he lifted me, effortlessly. The world spun when he changed my position and I clutched him in panic as he bore me from that chamber, pausing only to kick my chair across the room so hard I could hear the solid oak splinter like kindling.
“That was a perfectly good chair,” I objected.
“I’ll make you another.”
In the hallway, Alcinic guards were deep in conversation with some of Hilgi’s Ancient Order fighters–men feared throughout the world for their habit of cutting out their enemies’ hearts still beating.
“No crying, little Tia,” Hilgi said softly. “If you want your men to live, be silent.”
I was weak from starvation, grief and near-madness and it took me a few moments to realize that Hilgi and his men had not come from the last fighting in Tumagia to pay honor to my dead husband. They had come for me.
“Andun is not going to let you take me,” I hissed, not too dazed to protect my men. Those guards at Landsfel would not stand a chance against Hilgi’s fighters. Havacians followed no rules except their own, despite loudly demanding justice in whatever courts there were, but our men viewed them as allies. Some of them had fought alongside Havacians in the recent war. But the Ancient Order fighters were Hilgi’s, body and soul, and would knife my unsuspecting men without a second’s hesitation.
“You have three children by a man your cousin hated,” Hilgi said softly. “Two of them stand between him and the throne. Your precious Andun may have killed Sergius, he will certainly kill his daughters and he would be glad to see the last of you.”
I was shocked speechless because Andun had told me Tumagis had killed Sergius and his men. I had seen the fatal arrows. Of course, those would have been easy enough to get. We had fought the enemy for several years. The place was littered with their weapons and their bones.
“You have my children?” I asked weakly.
“Agnar does.” Well, at least he had put his most trusted captain to that task. “Make no disturbance. I do not want them troubled by what they would see.” I knew what that was and kept my mouth shut as he bore me quickly past some uneasy guards.
“My Lady?” one called. I roused.
“Keep to your post!” I responded firmly.
Hilgi was a personal friend and ally, I was holding onto him for dear life and they had received no orders from Andun. My guards also knew–as I did not–that some of the Omani troops remaining in my country were disloyal to my husband. If they had killed him, they would come after me and my children next. Omanis were accomplished assassins.
All I did know was that the light hurt my eyes, my heart was skipping beats and Hilgi was making good speed to the beach. I turned my face to his chest.
“I promised Sergius as my brother to protect you if he was killed,” he said. “And you must be gotten out of Alcinia.”
It had the ring of truth to it. I knew his father King Maruk had already been old when Hilgi was born. When the Empirate of Omana sent my husband to Havacia on his first command, I supposed it was natural that Hilgi took to a dashing young officer. And when Sergius compounded matters by marrying Arianya, Hilgi’s sister, the die was cast. They had indeed become close as brothers and though I knew Hilgi could lie as nimbly as a mountain goat jumps, Sergius had warned me repeatedly that I could never trust Andun but could rely upon Hilgi.
That is why the Prince of Havacia carried me like a doll into pounding surf to one of the oiled leather skiffs Havacians used for passengers. Other craft would not attempt to come past the offshore island called Lady’s Weeping for its habit of causing wrecks, but the red and white striped sails of King Maruk’s fleet bobbed there on a fierce undertow and men took me speedily to Hilgi’s ship, the Boar’s Head. Ships of the Ancient Order–their macabre prows carved in the shape of gods and demons–surrounded it, but only skeleton crews were aboard. The other men who had sailed with Hilgi held my soldiers at swords’ point while their Prince absconded with me.

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