Each day, taking steps grew easier. Ryndas had to relearn each muscle movement. Keal said quite bluntly that the scars on his back would likely never completely go away, and the scar tissue would always limit his movements. Ryndas's legs had also taken a beating during his time on the ship, and Keal told him one was broken and dislocated. Not only would that leg never straighten out, the other leg would also be continually bent -again, because of scar tissue.
Ryndas's head was healing better than the other portions of his body. The several bruises, Keal said, would eventually heal, and his face would be similar to the one he'd had before stake slavery.
“Do you want me to take that off?” Keal asked once, pointing to the bead in Ryndas's ear. “When you get off the island, that will brand you for life.”
The process was quick. The first shot of pain only lasted a few seconds as Keal unceremoniously yanked the red bead out. After that, there was only a dull ache, which easily was ignored among the various wounds that were still healing.
“No infections; I'm surprised,” Keal said while checking his wounds, about a month after Ryndas had washed up on the beach. “With so many open wounds, you should be dead from disease by now.”
Ryndas wanted to shrug, but didn't, afraid of opening some of the deeper cuts along his shoulders.
“I'd be the last person to ask why.”
“I didn't ask why,” Keal glanced up at him with a raised eyebrow. “I only said I was surprised. Come on,” he got to his feet and pulled Ryndas up after him.
“Where are we going?”
“Outside.” Keal matched Ryndas's pace as much as possible -too much slower and he'd throw himself off balance. “The fresh air will help the process along. How fast were you able to run before your term on the ship?”
“I was the best sprinter in the clan,” Ryndas said quietly, realizing what Keal was about to say.
“I doubt you'll be able to catch up with that tortoise right now,” Keal pointed the animal resting in the cool of the cave entrance. “But when you're fully healed you be able to keep up with it.”
Ryndas nodded mutely as the two stepped out onto dried leaves. Sunlight filtered through green leaves through where they stood.
“Back when you took the bead out of this ear,” he touched the piece of flesh, which was now only mildly sore, “you said 'when' I got off the island, this would brand me. What do you mean, 'when'? There's no way to get off. You never leave, and I can hardly walk, much less swim.”
“I have supplies delivered to me occasionally. I can send you to a friend of mine who'll take care of you.”
“I don't want to be an invalid.”
“He'll find you some work. He has a man that comes in six weeks. Think about it.”
Dyathar scooted a bit closer to the fire and wrapped himself tighter in the blankets.
“Don't get too close,” Shyll advised. “Especially not if you're too cold. It can hurt you more than help.
Dyathar stayed where he was, still huddled and shivering.
“We're working on some suitable attire for you. Where'd you come from? We built the house so that it surrounded the portal, in the hopes that whoever came through wouldn't freeze to death.”
He nodded again. He was too far from his master to worry, and far too cold to care.
“It was my brother who pulled you in. He's out tending the sheep right now.”
“You keep animals out here?”
“It's only like this in winter. The sheep grow thick enough coats to survive it. They do quite well, actually. Why were you running?”
“Didn't want my hands cut off.”
“I didn't think slave owners there were as cruel as that.”
“I've tried to run more than once.”
“Ah.” Shyll fell silent, staring at the fire.
Dyathar glanced at her curiously. “What do you mean, slave owners 'there'?”
“Well,” Shyll gave a cocked smile, “Taz and I are slaves. We don't do much in the winter. No one here does.”
“How old are you two?”
“Taz is in his eighteenth year, I'm in my seventeenth. Yourself?”
“In my twentieth. Haven't you ever tried to go through this 'portal' -whatever that is -to escape?”
“And nearly got killed doing it,” Shyll grinned. “It was safer here. We came back.”
“Safer? When stepping outside would freeze you?”
“If you're not wearing a seasonably reasonable amount of clothing. Summer's not that bad -we only get a few light frosts at that time.”
“Frost? In summer?”
“You have some things to get used to.” Shyll got to her feet. “Well, I'm going to get some stew from the main house. Don't get into trouble.”
Dyathar shrugged and moved an inch closer to the fire.
The wind slammed the door shut behind Shyll, but not before a gust of cold air hit Dyathar in the back. He shivered and moved just a bit closer. He was only about a foot away from the flames now, but they weren't reaching too high. The wind had subdued them. Momentarily.
He moved his face only a mite closer ...A spark leaped up and stung his cheek. He jerked back slightly, but the pain was soon gone.
A few minutes later Dyathar smelled something odd. He glanced around, but found nothing that would cause it. The smell seemed to be fairly close.
The door opened, and Shyll entered. She was carrying some sort of pot. Taz came in behind her with a couple buckets piled high with snow. Shyll nearly dropped the pot; Taz set the buckets down so quickly it looked like he had dropped them.
It was then that Dyathar felt the flames lick his cheek.
Taz pulled a glove off, scooped up a handful of snow, and threw it at Dyathar's face. It was stingingly cold, but the strange smell and the flames disappeared.
“What -what happened?” he said, bewildered.
“You got too close and got sparks in your hair, I'd guess,” Shyll said, setting the pot down. Taz slid the glove back on and put the buckets by the fire to melt.
“You'll have a scar to show for it,” she continued. “I guess you were too numb to notice that your face was being burned on both sides. It's a good thing you were facing Taz when he put the fire out, or he'd have to apply the remedy to the other side.”
Meanwhile, Taz had taken some more snow and slapped it on the back of Dyathar's head. He started.
“Master says you can have a set of clothes, and Danith will figure out some suitable tasks for you.”
Ash's first full day at the palace was much the same as the day of her arrival. Piles of requests for official permits to do thus and such, requests for improved city schools, demands for the removal of a such-and-such neighbor who was causing a disturbance. Many she could forward to the local officials. Several she had to deal with herself. And the signet ring had not been found.
And by 'several', she meant several hundred.
Her father had been dead a few weeks as well -he'd been buried quickly, however. During the two weeks of travel to retrieve Ash and bring her to the palace, things had stacked up. And there were many issues that her father had put off dealing with for months before his death.
The situation of the queen not appearing in court continued for a full week. Ash's days consisted of waking, eating, paperwork and discussion with Darasan until dark, another meal, and then sleep. She had no time for anything else.
The eighth day -night, rather -Ash was quite ready to set the entire stack of papers aflame. She pulled on a light jacket, placed a knife in her belt, and stepped out the door.
The guards were surprised to see her, but two stepped forward to provide an escort.
“Not today.” Ash waved them off. “Just don't let anyone in.”
They nodded and stepped back.
One thing Ash had consistently gotten in trouble for back when she was a princess was disappearing for hours at a time. She had discovered the servants' passageways, and she made free use of them now.
Most of the servants were in bed by now. Only a few tired underlings would be putting the finishing touches on the cleaning in the dining room.
Ash stepped out into an open courtyard, and took a deep breath.
The garden was an escape, and Ash took her time walking down one pathway and the next. It had been too long.
Ash didn't recognize the voice. But whoever it was had recognized her brand from the light from palace windows -the night was cloudy, covering any moon or star light.
Either that or the person was guessing, and if she stopped, that might alert them to the fact that it indeed was the queen, and she was alone.
Ash kept walking at the same pace. Someone slipped into step beside her. Whoever it was, the stranger was of an average height -Ash herself was fairly short -and wore a hood, effectively preventing any view of a face.
“You shouldn't be alone out here, Your Majesty,” the voice said quietly, but betrayed her visitor as a man.
“That's not your decision,” Ash answered. She was unwilling to show that she didn't appreciate not knowing who he was, but was more perturbed by the fact that he had disturbed her solitude. Ash had been counting on an opportunity away from both people and business.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
His willing acquiescence surprised her, but she gave no sign. He did, however, continue to walk beside her for another minute, before she turned to him.
“What do you want?”
“I want to ensure your safety, Your Majesty.” He bowed his head briefly, not only showing respect but also effectively hiding his face.
“Who are you?”
“I go by the name Adinyr.”
“Where do you come from, Adinyr?”
“I don't know, Your Majesty.”
“Why is my safety your responsibility?”
“It was one I brought upon myself, Your Majesty.”
The repeated use of the title still irked Ash, but it seemed slightly more sincere from Adinyr's tongue.
Ash kept walking, not necessarily wanting less protection but rather more privacy. Adinyr followed, saying nothing more.
At the end of the path was a small, circular courtyard with several more paths spreading out from it. In the center of the courtyard was a fountain, which was only a trickle right now. Ash sat down on the stone bench that surrounded it. Adinyr remained standing a few feet away.
Ash took a deep breath and exhaled audibly, ignoring her self-invited companion. Swinging around, she pulled off her sandals and put her feet in the pool that was at the base of the fountain. She was silent, for a few moments feeling perfectly content.
“Your Majesty,” Adinyr said, seeming unwilling to interrupt the quiet.
Ash sighed inwardly.
“Your coronation was today.”
“I missed that, didn't I?” Ash smiled wryly to herself.
Adinyr took a step closer and held out something. The rather faint light of the palace reflected off a thin circle of silver.
“Are you the one who was supposed to crown me?”
“No, but it was given to me to give to you.”
Ash took the circlet with a smile and slipped it into the inner pocket of her jacket. Her head wasn't that large.
“Yes, well, thank you. Who told you to give it to me?”
Ash stared into the dark water beneath her, then turned back around, stood, and picked up her sandals. Adinyr bowed as she passed him, but didn't follow her back.
Even if she did miss her own coronation, Ash was still officially proclaimed monarch over Endrena. Her first scheduled meeting with the council was the next morning, and the subject was not one she was looking forward to.
“The queen must marry, or there will be no heir!” Lord Jardis was arguing his point to Lord Sadon. “If there is no heir to carry on the name and someone unrelated is chosen, we will be viewed as weak in the eyes of our enemies -easy prey!”
“Lord Jardis,” Sadon said, unperturbed, “No doubt it is in the hope of the land's future that you say this, and what you say is true. However, a hasty marriage will result in disaster. The queen has her own decision to make about this, and if we move too quickly in this matter, we will not know who is our king until it is too late, and by then damage will have been done which cannot be undone.”
“There are many excellent choices,” Lord Handor intervened. “King Amarsan of Binoran has had no wife. His kingdom his flourishing -”
“His kingdom,” Lord Undran said in a nasal tone, “is in no strategic military, agricultural, or trading position.”
Lord Handor tried again. “King Preto of the Malians -”
“-is growing older. His subjects would not appreciate a wife that replaces the one that passed away, and might see it as a move to take their land.”
“King Manden of -”
This suggestion was instantly decided against.
“Manden is a murderer and usurper!”
“I'd never meet him peacefully in my house or his!”
“True king murdered, four children in exile!”
Ash had been listening to it all, her elbow on the armrest of the rather uncomfortable throne and her hand propping up her chin. She was wearing a simple blue dress, her low boots, and the circlet, which she only put on after Lord Sadon and Lord Darasan insisted. Ash had been quiet the entire meeting, but now she lifted her head.
“My good lords,” she said, keeping her disdain for some of them out of her voice. The room instantly quieted.
“I appreciate your concern for my well-being and that of the country. I realize my position is political and will not try to convince you that I should marry for love or without the approval of the council. However, it is a decision that needs to be made carefully, as Lord Sadon said, and I don't see the need for discussion about it until an actual proposal has been made from someone the council deems fit for the throne.”
Her point was clear. Lord Jardis, however, had not given up.
“Your Majesty, other kingdoms will not take us seriously if you do not marry -why, we're the only kingdom without a king! If there is no male ruler -”
“Is that not what the council is for?” Ash interrupted. “Are you saying that you're incapable of providing me with the advice I need to rule wisely?”
“No, Your Majesty. Forgive me, I spoke out of place.”
“Lord Darasan,” Ash turned to her chief adviser. “Has my signet ring been found?”
“No, Your Majesty. We are still searching for it.”