Entwined | Verso.ink

Entwined

By Linda Hogenson

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Chapter One
In the Kingdom of Althan

I didn’t particularly enjoy celebrating the day I would die, but it’s kind of hard to ignore when it’s the most celebrated day in the kingdom. Even out here, in the middle of nowhere, fireworks shattered across the dimming sky. We were miles from the nearest city, and Peder, the least alert of us jumped at the first explosion.

I paused, my focus torn by the continuing display of flashing colors.

The others stirred, waiting for my reaction. I’d come out here with twelve knights. I trusted all of them with my life. Not that they had any control over whether I lived or died.

“Those are pretty,” I said. “Wonder what they’re celebrating.”

No one laughed.

Thadus rolled his eyes and said, “I heard somewhere that a very special princess was born on this day. The king’s eldest daughter, in fact.”

“Superstitious nonsense,” I replied.

Peder looked thoroughly confused. “Um, Princess?”

Colvin nudged Peder and stage whispered, “She’s kidding.”

I smiled. Of the knights I traveled with, Colvin was the closest to my age. Sometimes I wondered if he could understand me best, but no one really did. I didn’t let them.

I deliberately turned away from the fireworks and focused on the trees. We’d wandered on the edge of the forest for a few days now. One did not enter the Untamed Forest on a whim. The forest groaned, as if alive. An unnatural mist hovered perpetually above the ground. And beyond twenty feet, there was only darkness. But above all, the trees dripped with magic from the fae. I’d learned early on to be wary of the fae.

The horses could sense it too. Prancus stamped nervously. I tightened my grip on his reigns and stroked his neck soothingly.

Thadus stepped up behind me. “It’s getting dark; shall we set up camp?”

“You’re the captain,” I replied absently.

“And you’re the princess we have superstitions about,” Thadus said. “The kingdom celebrates your birth tonight, Princess. Why don’t you join them in celebration?”

‘Because I only have one year left,’ I thought. And three weeks ago, a farmer spotted things moving in the forest. The locals were terrified of these trees. The locals and most of the knights. That left me to deal with the problem. My parents would prefer that I stayed home where it was safe, but not only was I capable, I was expendable.

Either way, I wanted to be done with this as soon as possible. Time weighed down on me, each second pressing in like an avalanche. Some days I could ignore it. But not today. Never on my birthday.

“We won’t find anything but trouble after dark,” Thadus added. “Especially in those trees.”

“I know,” I said and then made the only decision there was to make. “We’ll look again tomorrow.”

I led Prancus away from the forest, though his eyes remained focused on it. I could tell because of the way his ears pointed. Then Prancus snorted and his ears swiveled to the left.

I looked. Jairick stood a few paces from me. Prancus couldn’t see Jairick or even hear him—no one else could—but I liked the affirmation something else could tell Jairick existed.

Jairick wasn’t human. If his ability to pop in and out of existence didn’t give it away, there were other signs. Dark brown fur completely covered his humanoid body. His facial features were sharp, but human under a soft fuzz of fur only visible up close. Where most humans had facial hair, his fur thickened and darkened. I supposed he even looked human from a distance. Well, if you ignored his long serpentine tail, wolf-like ears, scaly brown-green chest and vibrant yellow-green eyes. He wore no clothes, but his fur provided ample covering.

Now he smiled at me, a grin that revealed his extra long canine teeth.

“Tali,” he said.

I smiled back in greeting. Jairick was one of the only people who called me by my preferred nickname. Most people forsook familiarity with formality.

I glanced at my traveling companions. Most of them had moved a respectable distance from the Untamed Forest. They busied themselves with setting up camp. Only Thadus lingered near me, his tired eyes showing concern.

I dismounted and made a show of smoothing my riding skirts. Of course, I didn’t need to; I moved with perfect grace, which meant I could easily dismount without any indecency. But the action appeared normal. I doubted I could truly forestall my companions from wondering if I was crazy, but maybe I could keep them from focusing on it.

I spoke softly, knowing Jairick would pick up on the sound with his exceptional hearing, and not wishing to draw any attention. “We missed you today.”

“While I cannot imagine anything more exciting than patrolling the edge of the Untamed Forest for hours on end… I decided to stay home today,” Jairick replied.

“You could’ve picked up something we missed,” I said.

Thadus walked off to join the others. He knew about Jairick but didn’t know how to deal with him. And I didn’t like the scrutiny people gave me when I talked to a creature only I could see. I was glad Thadus gave us privacy.

“I think I did notice something,” Jairick said. “Did you realize some of those trees have leaves?”

I smiled. “Must’ve escaped my attention.”

Jairick was usually serious, but a person could only spend so much time with me before they lightened up a bit. I blamed the fae. They were the ones who blessed me with cleverness at my christening.

“I’m trying to cheer you up,” Jairick said. “Is it working?”

I sighed. “No. But keep trying.”

“I’m out of sarcastic remarks.”

“You’ll think of something.”

Instead, Jairick turned serious. “It’s okay to celebrate. It might do the others some good to see you happy.”

I let out a shaky laugh. “I’m trying.”

I wanted to look like I was okay. I wanted the others to watch the fireworks and laugh and celebrate. Even if I couldn’t. Even if every ground shaking crack against the horizon made me cringe. The people didn’t know what they celebrated. They didn’t know about the curse.

The fae had done many things to me. But the last guaranteed none of it mattered. My twelve traveling companions knew it as well as I did. They knew I was cursed to die on the day of my eighteenth birthday.

I only had one year left.

*

I rose before the sun. Jairick found me pacing at the edge of the forest. The horses were tethered, the knights sleeping in their tents.

“I thought of another sarcastic remark,” Jairick said.

I waited a heartbeat before I realized he wanted me to acknowledge his statement. “What is it?” I asked.

“You’re being really productive right now.”

I glared at him. But his form silhouetted against the faded light of dawn and I knew he was right. If I couldn’t see him outside the cover of trees, I would never see anything within.

“How much sleep did you get?” Jairick asked. “Four hours?”

I shrugged. “I dunno. You?”

“I don’t need sleep, so… that doesn’t matter,” Jairick replied.

“I’m not tired,” I said. “So… that doesn’t matter.”

Jairick rolled his eyes. I didn’t think he was naturally inclined to do such a thing, but I pulled it out of him.

I sighed. “Fine. I’ll… go sit down or something.”

To satisfy him, I walked back toward camp. The remains of a fire lingered between the trees and the tents. I paused at the circle of stones and extended a hand. A split second of heat threaded through my fingers and burst into charred logs. The fire sprang to life, bringing warmth to a tired morning.

“I like that you can do that,” a soft voice said.

I jumped to alertness. My eyes shot towards the person who had spoken. I located Colvin standing just outside his tent, and my shoulders relaxed.

“Sorry,” Colvin said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“What are you doing up so early?” I asked.

“Seeing what you’re doing up so early,” he replied.

He had a dimple when he smiled. I could picture his face clearly, even before he moved into the firelight. Blond hair that seemed perpetually unkempt. The beginnings of scruff on a face that hadn’t shaved in days. And eyes that watched me with a degree of deference.

His build was strong, and he looked incredibly good in the military’s standard garb. A chainmail shirt covered his torso up to his wrists and down to his knees. Overtop, he wore a blue vest with the kingdom’s crest—a horse reared in a prance. A black belt tied at his waist held a sword at his left side, and his thick black pants tucked into silver boots.

There’d always been a barrier between Colvin and me. A barrier set between knight and princess, and the unspoken rules that demanded he see me as such.

“I’m always awake early,” I said. “Who else would get the fire going?”

The moment I said it, I regretted. Colvin had addressed my magic favorably, but I still knew it was odd. Magic was a thing of the fae. Uncanny. Other. Maybe I had magic because of my faerie gifts; I had five of them, after all.

“Did you, uh, sleep well?” I asked.

If Colvin caught on to my quick change of topic, he opted out of mentioning it. “I did, Princess.”

He bowed his head in addition to mentioning my title. I tensed. There it was. A mark of respect. But also a mark of distance.

“You know,” I started, “We’re far away enough from civilization you don’t have to call me that.”

“Princess?” Colvin questioned.

“Colvin,” I retorted. “What is my first name? Surely you know it.”

“Of course I know it,” Colvin said, visibly flustered.

“I won’t believe you until you say it,” I replied.

“Um…” Colvin licked his lips. “Natalia?”

He flinched, as though he expected to be struck by lightning.

“There you go,” I said in mock encouragement. “Now… do it again.”

“Princess—”

“Do it again.”

“Natalia!”

I grinned. “Well, you didn’t get smited the first time, and you didn’t get smited the second time, so, logically, you won’t get smited every other time you do it.”

“Oh, leave him alone,” Thadus said. “No one wants to argue with you.”

I allowed myself to smile. “I am quite innocent. As innocent as the day I was born.”

“Oh really?” Jairick said. “What kind of an infant were you?”

“It’s okay,” Colvin said, smiling at me. “It was all in good fun.”

I cleared my throat and looked away.

“Besides,” Colvin added, “she is fairly innocent of any punishable crime. One of the benefits of being royalty and all.”

I focused on Thadus and said, “I’m sure we could find a sufficient punishment for a princess who delights in turning her knights red.”

Thadus laughed boisterously, which made me wonder if he was compensating for something. “Well, I shall wake the others for breakfast. Hopefully we can finish this mission and head on home.”

Home. The thought sent worms wriggling through my stomach. I looked to the horizon without seeing. I loved my family. My mother and father. My one brother and two younger sisters. But I didn’t know what to say to them. I didn’t know how to erase the worry that lingered in my parents eyes every time they thought about me. I could not be what they needed. But as much as I needed to get away from it, I always knew they deserved more than they got. The King’s eldest child should not have been away from home on her last birthday.

Colvin stepped next to me. The concern in his blue eyes warmed me, and I smiled.

“Forgive me, princess?” Colvin said.

My smile froze in place. He just didn’t get it.

But I nodded and said, “There’s nothing to forgive.”

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About Linda Hogenson

I've written fantasy since I could write and have created stories since I could think. I grew up in a world of dragons and myth, and sometimes I tell people I know I am secretly the Empress of a distant land. While no one will bow to me on the streets, I'm still empowered by the vision of the way the world could be, and I will always defend it.

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