“It is always a pleasure having you here, Lady Alexis.” Mellack said with a smile.
The dark-haired beauty at his side returned the smile. “Thank you, Master Mellack, for a most enjoyable evening away from Mother and Father. It is nice to get away from my studies from time to time.” Alexis replied as she gave the old man a hug.
“Please remind your Father of our game of cards the day after tomorrow.”
She nodded. “Of course. I know he would not miss his weekly card game for anything. Take care of yourself, Master Mellack.”
As she turned away, Mellack turned to the side of his tavern where the stable door stood open letting a stream of light into the street. “Ben, Anson?” Two blonde haired young men poked their heads out.
“You two have worked hard today. Please, take off early and walk with the Lady Alexis and her escort back to your neighborhood since it is the same direction.”
“Yes, Master Mellack.” The two men replied and disappeared inside.
Alexis looked up. “You think I need more protection than the two bodyguards my father has saddled me with.” She glanced over to the two leather clad members of the city elite guard that stood waiting for her. She knew that they were the best soldiers in the city and events of the past had convinced her she needed the protection.
“No, but those two need someone to keep them from getting in trouble on the way.” Mellack said with a grin as he nodded back toward the stable.
He saw Alexis looking to the west. “How much time does Master Dimitre have left?”
“Over two and a half years yet.” She replied. “I miss him.”
“We all do my dear.” Mellack hugged her to him as she took a deep breath. “He will be a better man when he comes back.”
“I know.” She looked up at him. “Then he will be my husband.” She smiled at him with tears on her cheeks.
Mellack nodded as he wiped at a tear. “Yes he will be. Take care of yourself young one. You have so much to look forward to.”
“I had best get home before Mother and Father start to worry.”
With another hug they separated and Mellack watched Alexis, his two stable hands, and the two members of the city elite guard wander off down the dimly lit street toward the northern island where the High Chancellor of the Court of Zymurgy had his residence. It was nearly an hour walk, especially at the leisurely pace Alexis liked to set on the way home. But, it was a beautiful night with a thick blanket of stars overhead and no moon to drown out their pleasing twinkle. Mellack watched them round a far corner before he turned back to his tavern, The Nights End. It was getting close to shutting down for the night and he had other patrons to see off and money to count.
“Why are we turning here?” Ben asked to the younger of the guards assigned to Lady Alexis. The other guard, grey hair showing at his temples, walked a few steps ahead of them and talked quietly with Alexis and Anson.
“Lady Alexis likes to walk through the Healers Gardens on the way home from this part of the city.” The guard, a lieutenant’s insignia on his lapel, replied. “She says it reminds her of the forest where Master Dimitre is right now.”
“I met Master Dimitre before he left. He was a friendly, but imposing man.”
The officer nodded his head. “He will be more so when he returns from his training. But, perhaps less so as well.”
Ben furrowed his brow. “What do you mean by that?”
“He will be returning here to marry the Lady Alexis. Love and marriage have a funny way of softening even the hardest man. Perhaps she will change him as much as he has changed her.” He caught Ben’s look and explained.
“Lady Alexis grew up a hard headed, stubborn, rebellious teen that drove her parents crazy with her lack of caring about things. She would sneak out to the taverns, get in fights, argue with her parents, and ignore everything, all just to spite authority. She had little care for those around her. But, it was because of this blatant recklessness that she met Master Dimitre.”
Ben looked over. “The fight in The Nights End? Mellack still talks about it sometimes.”
“Yes, that fight. Where Lady Alexis left two men dead and Master Dimitre was cut open by the other two men that he kept from ambushing her from behind. That started the two of them down a road together that led to not only them both changing, maturing, and becoming better people; it also led to Lady Alexis’s older sister, Lady Gaeia, becoming a much stronger person over the year the three of them traveled together. As much as Lady Alexis came to care for those around her and temper her reckless side; so too did the Lady Gaeia come to grow in confidence and belief in her own abilities. They have both become two pillars in this city for young people like you.”
“So what changed her so much in such a short time?” Ben asked.
The Lieutenant chuckled. “Love, my boy. It can change anyone given the opportunity.” He nodded to the group ahead of them. The crowd thinned out as they drew closer to the dimly lit garden that was taken care of by the followers of Nakrom, God of Healing. “Take old Captain Brass there, he is merciless in a fight and still one of the best guards in Zymurgy even with his hair greying now. But he is a giant softy when you get him around his grandchildren, or his wife for that matter.”
“I heard that, Lieutenant.” Captain Brass looked over his shoulder and winked at the two men following them.
“Grey hair has not affected his hearing any for certain.” The group shared a laugh at the jest from the Lieutenant.
There was a small guard building at the two main entrances to the Healers Garden with three guards stationed there overnight when the other access gates to the gardens were locked. At dawn they would unlock the other gates and the city guard would patrol the gardens on their normal rounds along with the followers of Nakrom that tended the garden when they were not busy teaching children or healing the sick and injured of the city. At the north end of the gardens was a small rise where the Temple of Nakrom sat barely seen over the tops of the old trees, shrubs, and flowers that dominated the garden area. It was a stunning oasis of green plants and vibrant flowers in the somewhat dull and hectic city around it. That was why Alexis had come to love it. And, it reminded her of Dimitre.
With a salute the guards snapped to attention. One of them addressed the group. “Evening Captain, Lieutenant, Lady Alexis.” He looked at Ben and Anson. “Two extra tonight I see.”
Captain Brass nodded. “Yes, Sergeant. How are things tonight?”
“Calm and quiet as usual, Sir. Sent Private Dillen on rounds a bit ago, so you will probably see him out there somewhere.” The Sergeant reported.
“How is the Private doing?”
“Very well, Sir. I have faith he will be an asset here soon.”
Captain Brass nodded and turned into the garden at Alexis’s side. Anson and Ben walked with them down the torch lit main pathway as the Lieutenant followed a short distance behind, his eyes scanning every shadow and bush for signs of a threat. Something in the garden felt different tonight. He did not know what it was, but it had him on edge.
“One of these nights we are going to have to get out of the city, Lady Alexis, so we can properly see these stars.”
“I would like that very much, Captain.” Alexis replied as she circled the tall monument that marked the center of the main garden path.
It was a tall stone monolith made of a very rare blue granite stone. Carved into its eight sides were ancient symbols of healing and health that marked the spot where the original Temple of Nakrom was supposedly located at the cities first founding. It had been destroyed in some past cataclysm that even history had forgotten. People came from all over to touch it in reverence and hope that they may be healed of what ails them or those they came here to pray for. Alexis ran her hands along the smooth cool stone with a smile.
“It is getting late, Lady Alexis.” The Captain gently reminded her and she nodded at him.
They continued down the path for a few steps when a very distinct sound interrupted their walk. Ben and Anson were confused, but the Captain and Alexis knew the sound of an arrow striking flesh. They both whirled to look behind them as they drew their weapons.
A few steps behind them stood the Lieutenant struggling to unsheathe his sword. A thick black arrow protruded from the side of his head, not quite all the way through his skull. He was dead, but his body just did not realize it yet as he staggered around uncontrollably, still trying to draw his sword. A second later he collapsed to the stone walkway with the monolith towering behind him. A heartbeat later all the torches in the garden went out and plunged the area into moonless darkness.
“Draw your daggers boys.” The Captain commanded as he pushed Alexis behind him and started to back away from the Lieutenant’s body. His eyes scanned the shadows that marked the trees lining the edges of the pathway, his sword held firmly in a ready stance. They backed up a few more steps without anything happening.
The Captain knew that this was not the first such situation that Alexis had been in. But the two stable boys were panting with the first signs of true panic. He knew he had to do something quickly.
“Boys, take the Lady and run for the other guard shack, I will be right behind you.” His voice left little room for argument. The boys were all too willing to run, and Alexis knew this was not the time or place to argue with his command as they ran off toward the garden exit.
Captain Brass knew that for them to take Alexis, he was going to have to die. So he did not follow the three running toward the guards. He had to make his stand here and give them as much time as he could. He held his sword out in front of him and slowly scanned the dark shadows around him for whatever had killed the Lieutenant. He had no doubt the killer was still out there in the darkness, waiting for the time to strike.
An awful thought suddenly formed in his mind. The whole situation was wrong. Their attackers had waited until they were past the monolith, making the shortest escape route toward the nearest exit…where they had no idea what waited for them.
It was a trap inside a trap.
He turned and lunged to follow the others running away from him. His intent had been to catch them in time to avoid whatever waited at the far gate for them. As his mouth opened to yell a warning the breath was taken as he was slammed from behind hard enough to break his back. He did not feel the blade that opened up his belly at the same time. He left a long smear of blood as he slid along the stone walkway on his face, his life already gone.
He never saw his killer.
It was a panicked dash toward the distant glow of the far entrance. The boys were taller and stronger than Alexis, but she was in far better shape than them and was out in front by a couple strides coming around the final corner to the guards when she heard the tell-tale sound of an arrow striking flesh. Behind her she heard one of the boys go down hard on the stone walkway. She heard the other boy slow as he turned to look behind him.
She turned slightly to yell at him to keep running. It was that moment terror gripped her and stole her words before she uttered them. She saw…something…rise out of the darkness and cleave Anson nearly in half. She could not believe her eyes; she would not believe her eyes. She gasped as she whirled around and sprinted the last few steps to the guard building and threw herself through the doorway where a torch dimly lit the interior. Again, pure fear stole the words of warning from her mouth as she stared at the scene before her.
Three guards were scattered around the small room in pieces. Blood splattered the walls and still ran into pools under the bodies. She heard a sound behind her and whirled toward the door, her daggers coming up to fight whatever was there. In the doorway stood a strangely robed man. She could only stare in confusion for a heartbeat before her vision exploded into flashing lights as the figure raised a hand in front of her face. She felt hands grab her as she collapsed to the floor. Her last thoughts before the blackness took her were of Dimitre and how she would miss saying goodbye to him. A single tear mixed with the guard’s blood under her as her body went limp.
“She is beautiful, just as you said she was.” The robed man said as he stood up from where he lowered her body to the floor. Another hooded figure stepped past him into the room and looked down at the unmoving body at his feet. He knelt and with a gentle gesture pushed aside a strand of hair from her face. He looked up at the figure standing nearby.
“She will be ok, Wizard?”
The man nodded. “Yes, my Lord. She will sleep until we are ready for her to awaken.”
Another figure stepped into the room and the kneeling man looked up. “She will work perfectly for what we need. The Master will be pleased. You should return before you are missed.”
“Yes, my Lord. Safe travels to you.” With a bow the man left the Wizard and Lord with Alexis.
The Lord stood and made his way outside where a carriage waited. “Get her inside and get us out of the city as quickly and quietly as you can.” Three men rushed to do his bidding as he put a foot on the step up into the carriage. He paused and looked to the darkness beside the building.
“Ensure there were no witnesses.” A slight movement in the shadows assured the Lord his command would be followed.
As he settled himself into the plush interior of the carriage the Wizard joined him in silence while the men loaded the limp form of Alexis onto the seat across from them. Finally, the door closed and the carriage lurched into motion.
“They will have raised the alarm before we get out of the city.” The Lord said.
The wizard smiled and closed his eyes. With a chant and a wave of his hand the figure of Alexis took on the illusion of an old wrinkled woman sleeping soundly on the bench across from them. She even snored lightly.
“I do hope they do not disturb the Duchess’s nap.”
The Lord nodded at the ploy and leaned back to watch the still sleeping city flow past the windows. A long trip East awaited them. But, they had what they came for.
When they crossed the first bridge away from the Healers Garden, the garden torches burst to life again, revealing the carnage the night had left behind. It would shake the Malaran Alliance to its core.
Four years later…