One slight move and the edge of the blade would slice her neck.
The sword rested heavily against her shoulder, the tip less than a finger’s length from her chin. Though the metal was cool, the patch of skin underneath seared like a spit roast.
Stay calm. Listen to the King.
She forced her eyes open. His silhouette was partly illuminated against a backdrop of black. Squinting through the darkness, she saw bits of his jawline highlighted in gold light.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
Yes, she thought. No.
The chamber was quieter than death. And colder than a corpse. Fear gripped her throat like a noose. It’s happening. Treachery was only the beginning and whatever occurred next was out of her hands. But, this, she thought, this was in your control. You did this.
She swallowed and nodded.
“Good,” he said.
Under the light of a single candle, she repeated each word as if it were the last. “I swear to protect the princess and live the rest of my life in allegiance to the crown. Before myself and before my family I will hold sacred the secret, which has been entrusted to me, until my last dying breath.”
A rustle of robes. The King turned away taking the sword with him.
Her shoulders sunk and her lungs ached. She gulped mouthfuls of air, savoring its sweetness as though she had emerged from the bottom of a lake.
The King commanded her to stand. “Hold out your hand.” Inside her palm, he placed a round object the size of a pebble. It was smooth save for a few tiny cracks in the surface.
“Bury it,” he said. “Until you’ve been summoned. It is her only chance.”
Gripping the stone tightly, “I will do all I can, Your Majesty, to protect her.”
If only there was something she could do to protect the king. She opened her mouth to speak when a door slammed against the wall and shook the chamber to its foundation.
Tripping over her feet, she stumbled onto her hands and knees. Dry and flaky grains of dirt flew into her mouth, coating her tongue all the way to the back of her throat. She called for the king but the voice that escaped her lips was no louder than the squeal of a mouse.
A shadow stood in the doorway. “Your Majesty,” it said.
Despite the voice’s roaring tone it soothed the beating of her heart.
“They march to the castle. They have weapons. The princess must leave. Now.”
Before she could stand, the king was already at the door. For a moment she thought they would leave her here to rot. Then a hand gripped her forearm, pulling her upright. It was the King.
“Whatever you do keep it safe,” he said.
In a dry, heavy voice, “I will.”
Hands interlocked, they rushed out of the chamber and hoped it wasn’t too late.