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As Fate Decrees
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As Fate Decrees
A Novel by Denysé Bridger
The sounds reached Amarantha long before she caught sight of the campaign that raged. Screams and curses mingled, distorted in the uneven terrain; yet the horror was easily discerned. Deep within her, a familiar, long-suppressed anger stirred, against every effort she made to quell the rash battle-lust. She'd spent most of the past two years training with a master who demanded absolute control, and she had eventually won his praise. She did not want it undone mere days after leaving him.
She closed her eyes, breathed deeply, sought for the inner core of discipline. It came, slowly. His voice, a gravelly purr of teaching cadence, filled her mind with the calm that he imposed. She shook off the lure of her impetuous nature, and continued her trek through the heavily wooded forest. Unconsciously, she stroked the neck of her beautiful white mare, Furey. She calmed the animal's agitation with soft words as well, spoken in a voice that lulled, a direct foil to her inner turmoil. Furey knew the moods of her mistress as intimately as the master who had given the horse.
Minutes later, still wary and watchful, she was almost run down on the path. Cursing softly, she quieted the rearing mare, steadied her, then dropped lightly to the ground. Swaying when the man clutched desperately at her, she groped for a tree trunk and kept her balance. The stranger crumpled at her feet. He was badly injured and a single glance made it clear that he had little more than moments of life remaining to him.
"Please... You must... deliver... the message."
She stared as he pulled a scroll from his belt, and held it toward her. She took the blood-stained missive and knelt beside the stranger. He was dark, and young, barely more than twenty seasons, she guessed. He had the look of a farmer, but in his eyes was a sadness that spoke of too much knowledge of death and destruction. He was dressed in rough, worn clothes, and carried no visible weapon.
"Where are you from?"
"Pheneüs," he gasped softly, wide eyes darting wildly as he tried to see if they were about to be attacked.
"You are safe," she assured him. "Who are you running from, and why?" She was steadfastly ignoring the fear that woke at the mention of Pheneüs.
"Give the scroll to the King," he pleaded.
She opened her mouth to question him further; then realized it was futile when his eyes rolled and he drew his final breath.
She tucked the scroll in her belt and glanced around. The forest was no longer a sanctuary, the reverberation from too many soldiers rapidly descending on her location was making itself felt in her bones. The heavy scents of crushed wildflowers and trampled undergrowth created a pleasing perfume in the air, despite the danger its cause presented. Birds flew, and small animals scattered before the intrusion, she could hear their escape and feel their fear seeping into her mood. Sighing heavily, she caught Furey 's reins, left the dead messenger from Pheneüs, and quickly slipped away.
She had ridden little more than a few yards when the first wave of soldiers came upon her. She smiled inwardly as she assessed them. They halted, surrounded her, and their thoughts were as easily read as their thirst for blood.
"Well, what have we here?" the captain drawled, circling her.
"I am an outlander," Amarantha said softly, her nerves drawing taut as she faced them in seeming innocence of their intentions. "Simply seeking the road to Corinth."
"We'd be happy to escort you, once we've concluded our business," the captain offered. "Have you seen any other on this trail?"
"No," she shook her head. Of them all, the captain was the most pressing threat. He was a large, dark man, with cruel eyes and a leering smile. He was also heavily armed, and the thick muscles of his forearms told her he was well-versed in the use of his arsenal.
"You carry fancy weapons for a woman," another soldier pointed out.
"A gift," she smiled without warmth.
"More likely you are a thief, and these fine weapons the fruits of your skills," the captain proposed.
"Are you always this eager to make false accusations?" she wondered, her gaze searching constantly for an opening in the ranks of men. They were only a small unit, less than a dozen in number; she could defeat them.
The first blow took her by surprise, coming from her left when she was facing the captain. The forest spun erratically as she tumbled from her horse. Regaining her feet almost as she hit the ground, Amarantha swatted the mare's rump to send her running, then drew the sword that was sheathed at her back.
The captain grinned at his men and slid from his horse, drawing his weapon as he did. Amarantha raised an eyebrow and smiled with feigned sweetness.
"Are you very certain you wish to die today?"
The soldier laughed merrily and swung at her as his men surrounded them. He was genuinely startled when she side-stepped his thrust and gracefully whirled out of reach. His amusement faded when she struck a quick blow and blood began to trickle the length of his arm. He cursed, tone low with wrath, and his rage was repeated in his eyes when he turned the full force of his glare on her.
She smiled again, unknowingly echoing an expression her master had perfected and defined lifetimes before her birth. Amarantha knew the others were beginning to dismount and were preparing a full attack; she had to defeat their leader or risk losing her life to a coward's ambush.
Amarantha's sword twirled easily in her hand as she leaped into the air to avoid a low swing aimed to slice her legs from beneath her. He dodged, not swiftly enough, and she aimed downward. The finely honed blade glided through sinew and bone effortlessly, and the captain shrieked in agony as his sword dropped to the ground, his hand still clutching the hilt. He backed up, cradling his gushing wrist to his chest as he issued orders for her death.
Tossing her head to clear her vision of the impediment of loose tendrils of long, silvery hair, Amarantha mentally calculated her chances of surviving this skirmish. She breathed deeply, focused intently on the lessons she'd learned. A second soldier fell before her, his life's blood spurting over her bare arms as she disemboweled him with a casual ease that would later sicken her. In her head, she heard the voice of her mentor, and she listened with her mind and her body as he guided her.
Fresh scarlet warmth streaked her sword arm, rapidly followed by fiery lances of pain. She'd been injured, though the gash was not serious. It angered her and she glared at the man who was attempting to land another strike, one that would rip her in half if he was lucky. He wasn't.
Amarantha's expression became blank, and she gritted her teeth against pain and rage. The fury rose to taunt her, and his laughter incited greater speed to her parries and thrusts. On the fringe of her vision, she caught a glimpse of chestnut; an armored soldier escaping. Yelling furiously she attacked with the full force of her anger and skill; the unit, diminished already, were finished in minutes.
Breathing heavily, Amarantha bent over, dragged in great gulps of air as she fought down the desire to pursue the captain and silence him. If this was a scout unit, he would warn the rest of whatever army he served in, and she feared that Corinth would be under siege in days.
The concern for Corinth reminded her that she now had an unanticipated mission to complete. She glanced around, winced at the jolts of pain her motion created, then whistled sharply. Furey trotted into view a few minutes later, and Amarantha sheathed her sword as she walked to the mare's side. She touched the flowing white mane and grimaced when she left behind a stain of crimson gore.
"If we are to meet the king, Furey, I'm going to need a bath." Weary, she led the animal along the trodden path that now bore the mark of the soldiers ' passage. Before too long, she found a tiny stream; not large enough for a proper bath, but it would have to do.
Amarantha tossed the reins over the saddle and left the horse to drink her fill. She dropped to a seat on the bank of the brook and closed her eyes, tired and sickened now that her mind was clear of battle-rage. She'd taken lives with an ease that was horrifying.
Before tears of grief could find their way into her eyes, she leaned forward; then fell back instantly. The face that looked at her from the water was a nightmare; her own, savage in aspect, streaked with blood. After drinking in several deep, calming draughts of air, she inched forward again. This time, she ignored the rippling image that accused her of murder, and quashed the tumult of sobs that rose inside her. The water, crystalline moments ago, ran scarlet for a long time before she finally rose and turned away from the site.
As she went to the mare's side, she shook off the droplets of water that clung to her skin. Stopping again to rinse the blood from Furey's mane, Amarantha wondered what awaited her in Corinth. Jason was king; she'd met him once, years earlier, when he had been renowned for his adventures aboard The Argo. Heracles had been with him then. She deliberately veered away from remembrances of the demi-god; they inevitably led her to a place that would fill her with anxiety and loneliness.
She secured her weapons and mounted the fitful horse. Smiling, she patted the animal's neck and leaned forward in the saddle.
"Let's get this over with, Furey," she murmured, tone warm with affection. The mare whinnied softly, then stepped onto the path that would take them to Corinth.
# # #
"I am here to see the king," Amarantha repeated to the guard who stood before her at the palace entrance.
"State your reason, woman," he snapped back.
Amarantha smiled, an expression that was forced. The man was well suited to his job, he was six and a half feet tall, and built like the wall at his back. Dark eyes glittered with annoyance as he scowled at her.
"I have told you already," she replied patiently, and slipped from Furey's back, motion carelessly graceful. She wasn't unaware of the attention she was receiving from others who waited for the outcome of this confrontation. "I have a message that must be delivered to the king. Will you allow me to pass?"
"I carry a scroll from Pheneüs, the original messenger was killed. It was his dying request that I take it in his stead." She watched closely as the man responded to her words, and trepidation settled in the pit of her stomach when his previously belligerent expression altered to reveal a genuine concern for the news she had just imparted.
"Follow me," he directed. "Leave your horse with Dacius, he'll see that she' s looked after."
Amarantha handed the reins to the man who stepped forward to accept them. She lifted the scroll from her saddle, and tucked it into her belt as she followed the Captain of the Guard.
The palace of Corinth was a magnificent place, a true palace. The two men who stood on either side of the doors to the castle nodded curtly to their comrade, then held the massive double panels open. She passed into the palace and her breath caught at the grandeur of the large entrance hall. Floors gleamed, marble polished to flawless mirror-like shine; tapestries covered the stone walls, vividly depicting the glories of the Gods and their escapades; and the silence that permeated the huge building was not stifling, but the quiet of peace. As she trailed after the Captain, she found herself wondering if the tranquility would survive whatever message she was bearing.
"Wait here," the Captain directed, then spoke to another nearby guard.
As she watched, he nodded, then disappeared behind another door. He was gone only a few minutes.
"The king has agreed to see you," he announced when he had returned. "He's in the garden, just beyond that door."
"Thank you," she inclined her head and made to leave him. A hand on her arm halted her momentarily, and she looked up into his wary gaze, mildly chilled by the threat in his dark eyes.
"There are men close by," he warned. "If you attempt to harm any of the family, you will die."
Startled, she merely nodded once, then went through the door that was being held for her. As she walked the sunlit path into the heart of the garden, she had a few minutes to ponder the loyalty of the guards. Jason must be a fine ruler to inspire such staunch support, she decided.
The garden was a glory of scents and colors, all vivid and filled with life. She breathed in the aromatic fragrances, occasionally stopping to touch the silken petals of a particularly dazzling bloom. She could happily have lost herself for days in such surroundings.
As she rounded a bend in the pathway, laughter drifted toward her; laughter, and a small body running at full speed. For the second time that day, Amarantha was almost run down. She grabbed his arms to steady him when he would have fallen backward in reaction to ploughing into her. Her heart stopped beating for an instant as she stared into the deep blue eyes of the boy, and his responding smile was one of pure innocence.
"Who are you?"
"I'm here to see the king," she answered. "Would you like to show me where he is?"
"I'm Iolaus," he told her, tiny face suddenly serious as he looked at her.
"The Prince?" she wondered as she scooped him up and went in the direction he indicated.
He nodded and pointed, "They're over there."
The prince was barely two, she estimated, but oddly old for a child. She smiled, and turned the final corner. As she spotted the boy's parents, she froze. The couple were on the lush green grass, the king lying on his back as the queen sat demurely at his side. She smiled, expression loving, and touched his forehead, brushing aside a lock of hair.
The warmth of the afternoon sunshine grew chill, and the brightness dimmed to gray haze. Amarantha swayed, unaware of the sudden loss of strength in her limbs until Iolaus' childish squeal of concern reminded her that he was still in her arms.
The couple rose instantly, and the king stared back at her; she saw her own shock mirrored in his handsome face. Against her will, she let herself truly look at him, her gaze caressing the shining dark hair that fell to his shoulders, skimming invisibly the smooth, contoured planes of his face, and stopping briefly over the full curve of his mouth. His dress was casual; earthy brown tones that complemented him to perfection. He was taller than she remembered, and much broader through the shoulders. Everything about him made her feel self-conscious and vulnerable.
At his side stood his Queen, one hand resting lightly on his arm as she watched them. She was lovely, delicate of features, and fair-haired, as her son was; she was a full head shorter than her husband, and dressed in flowing lengths of pale blue. Amarantha thought her to be the most beautiful woman she had seen in many years. As striking as his mother had always been.
Iolaus squirmed and shook her a little.
Swallowing convulsively, Amarantha smiled weakly and set the boy down. He ran immediately to his father's side, was once again lifted off his feet, then they came to greet her.
"My lord Iphicles," she whispered and bowed her head in obeisance.
Iolaus leaned close to his father and whispered into his ear.
"My son thinks you're very pretty," Iphicles informed her, his eyes drifting over her familiar, well-remembered features.
Amarantha's eyes blurred with sudden tears and she tried to smile as she pretended indifference to the flicker of concern in King Iphicles' eyes.
"Thank you, little Prince," she murmured, and kissed the small, soft hand that reached to touch her hair.
Prince Iolaus caught a handful of the silky silver tresses and he began to chew happily on his prize while Iphicles and Amarantha stared at each other. The spell broke a moment later when the Queen, Automedusa, joined them and nodded a greeting as Iphicles introduced the women.
"You've been hurt, Am," Iphicles noticed, his tone filled with unmistakable concern.
Amarantha glanced at her arm when he touched her, the angry gash forgotten in the unexpected shock of seeing him again.
"It's nothing, really," she murmured, and gently eased free of his light grasp. "I encountered a troop of soldiers. They tried to persuade me not to see you," she added with distinct irony.
"We'll have it looked at immediately," Iphicles replied, dark eyes narrowed to a frown. "Tell the physician to join us," he requested of his wife.
Automedusa nodded, her light hazel eyes appraising the visitor for a moment before she smiled again at her husband. She took the toddler from his father 's arms, hushed Iolaus when he objected, then left.
"It's been over ten years," Iphicles observed quietly when he'd led her to a stone bench in the garden.
Amarantha nodded, nerves making her restless. She didn't sit, instead she paced, agitation creating greater levels of static within her.
"Why are you here?"
"I was asked to see that this was delivered to the King," she replied softly, pulling the scroll from her belt and handing it over to him. "I had expected to meet Jason. I did not know that you were Corinth's new ruler."
Iphicles looked closely at her.
"Would it have made a difference?"
She considered his words, then shrugged.
She wasn't surprised when he understood the precise point of her cryptic query.
"Medea's wedding gifts to his new wife made him unpopular, to say the least."
Amarantha looked closer at him, saw the disquiet in his eyes.
"Do you fear for your family?"
He looked skyward for a moment, then shook his head.
"I had no desire to be King of two cities," Iphicles murmured.
"You will be a very good king, Iphicles," she replied with a smile. "It was your destiny."
He didn't look convinced, and she dropped the discussion in favor of more immediate concerns. As she watched, he unfurled the scroll and read it, his face bleaching free of color, then slowly growing dark with rage. Amarantha went to his side, and accepted the missive when he passed it to her, his gesture indicating that he wanted her to know its contents.
"What do you intend to do?" she asked once she'd read the message and returned the parchment to him.
"I don't know yet," he answered with his customary, direct honesty. "While I consult with my advisors," he smiled wryly as he spoke, "I'll see that Automedusa attends to your comfort. Once you're settled, the physician can look at that arm." He started to turn away, then halted, his dark eyes locked intently with hers. "I hope you'll stay for awhile, Amarantha," he said quietly. "I've missed you."
She was surprised, and it showed.
Iphicles laughed. "I didn't know it myself until I saw you again."
"I'd like to help you, my lord-" She stopped abruptly when he held up his hand.
"We know each other far too well for that kind of formality, Am," he intoned, his husky voice suddenly revealing a weariness that she had never before heard in him.
He smiled. "We will talk later, I promise." He held out his hand and was silent as they walked into the castle.
# # #
"You've known my husband a long time?"
Amarantha was startled by the unanticipated presence of the queen. She'd bathed, and was now being attended by the palace physician. The clothes that had been placed on the bed were loose, flowing garments of the palest gray, the material rich, finely woven silk.
"Since childhood, my lady," Amarantha answered. The physician finished the bandage and left them without a word. Amarantha stood and indicated the lovely gown she wore, her fingers a graceful arc that encompassed the clothing with a single, eloquent gesture. "This is beautiful, my lady. I thank you for your generosity."
The queen smiled, though the expression lacked warmth.
"Iphicles chose it," she observed coolly. "He said you hated dark colors."
Amarantha's eyebrows rose and she felt decidedly awkward.
"He seems to know you very well," Automedusa continued.
"As I said, we have known each other since childhood. Your husband was one of my few friends. As was his brother."
"Heracles, as well," the queen noted with a nod.
There was an undercurrent of knowledge in her eyes that made Amarantha edgy. Her anxiety intensified and she remained silent for several minutes, uncertain of what the other woman wanted from her.
"Iphicles has asked me to show you to the war chamber," Automedusa advised her. "Your weapons have been cleaned and are here," she lifted a length of white linen to reveal the sword and daggers that had been the gifts from Ares. Her staff was standing next to the table that held the other things. "Your armor and leathers will be brought here as soon as they've received the same attention."
"You are very kind, my queen," Amarantha whispered.
"Somehow, Amarantha," Automedusa remarked, "I don't think that I will ever be your queen," she paused, met the pale, silvery eyes of the stranger. "Though I suspect that my husband has always been your king."
"A long time ago," Amarantha stated. "When we were children."
Automedusa nodded, her expression sceptical.
"Perhaps," she murmured, and they left the chamber in apprehensive silence.
When they had reached their destination, the queen indicated the doors, then left Amarantha.
The warrior hesitated, unnerved beyond reason. Irritated with herself, she nodded and the guards held open the heavy doors. Iphicles' head turned instantly, and his smile was welcoming. He came to greet her and drew her into the room, to a place at his side.
"This is Amarantha," he told the assembled men. "It was she who bore the news of Pheneüs."
"What else can you tell us?"
Amarantha glanced at the man who spoke, and her spine tingled in warning.
"I can tell you nothing," she said firmly. "I was asked to deliver a scroll. The man who could have answered your questions died and entrusted me to complete his task."
"Lyaeus, I didn't ask her to join us so that you might interrogate her," the king reproved.
"Then why is she here?"
"This is my chief advisor, and war strategist, Am," he told her. "Lyaeus, Amarantha is an old friend. She is also more familiar with Pheneüs than anyone in this room; she was born there. Melaneus has grown powerful over the past years, but he is an outsider."
"A stranger, one who clearly knows little of the people of Pheneüs," Amarantha interjected. "They are a loyal and fierce people," she told the gathered men. "If they have chosen to accept Iphicles as their king, they will honor him as deeply as he does them. You will have an army with spirit to lead in this battle with the warlord."
"Can you show us the best route into the city?"
She smiled at Lyaeus' dubious tone.
"I can map you a way into Pheneüs that will enable an army stealth and surprise," she laughed. From the corner of her eye, she caught Iphicles' smile of approval.
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