“What the fuck are you doing here?” Jurvis hissed when Pari reached his cell door.
“Came to get you out.”
“You sure showed your true colors, didn’t you, half-breed?”
Why did everyone resort to using that term like they were spitting? Or worse, cursing? “That’s not fair! I didn’t do anything evil. I just… I… I came to get you out of the king’s prison, that’s all.”
“Get us all killed, more likely.”
“You’re headed for the gallows in the morning anyway, so you don’t have anything to lose.”
The rebel leader reached out and grabbed Pari by his jacket, hauling him up hard against the bars, and fuck, it hurt. “That may be true, asshole, but you do. If I do make it out of here alive, I may just kill you myself. Maybe my mission will be to rid the kingdom of all no-good, stupid half-dragons.”
Pari pried Jurvis’s fingers off him and pushed him none too gently back. “Where are the others?” he snapped.
“We’re all six of us right here,” someone stammered from the back.
“Six? There’s six of you?”
“What’s the matter?” Jurvis jeered. “Can’t a Ruby count either?”
Ignoring Jurvis’s barbs Pari peered into the dark cell and sure enough, there were five more shadows. “I was told they only captured three of you. The others escaped into the forest.”
“What the fuck difference does it make?” Jurvis made to grab at him again but Pari stepped back.
“Damn it. I’m short on horses. I only brought three.”
“You launch a fucking rescue mission—with three extra horses?” Jurvis snarled. “You really are daft, aren’t you?”
And that was all too true. This haphazard plan to break his friends out of the Malbourne castle dungeons had not been a well thought out one. To be fair, Pari hadn’t had the time to come up with something safer. Plus, there was the fact he would be giving away the existence of the secret tunnels beneath the castle with this rescue, and Jurvis was not going to be happy about that. Then again, “happy” wouldn’t describe him right now anyway, since he was at this moment locked behind these very dungeon doors, awaiting execution.
Pari sighed. Talk about poorly thought out plans. The reason Jurvis and these other rebels were even here was because the rebel leader had rashly attempted to attack the king’s ornate carriage as it bumped along the road, coming back from some tax-raping mission, an activity the king often personally attended when he was in residence at his north castle. The man actually enjoyed watching hope being stripped from his people as he took all available coin, most of their food, and even, on occasion, able-bodied men to work the northern gold mines, a wicked place from which few ever returned.
And even if those cruel and selfish actions were plenty cause to wage war on the king, they were not the reason Jurvis went totally against his own forced stranglehold of what he termed caution on everyone else. No, Jurvis had become enraged over the fact the king, after only hours of arriving from the far-off southern part of his kingdom, had randomly hung seven townspeople, and Jurvis’s poor sister had been among them.
Okay, not random. Oh, the pick of people off the street had been. But it had been only a coincidence they took Clara. However, the king was very specific as to why they had all been executed.
“It’s your fucking fault she’s dead!” Jurvis ground out through clenched teeth.
And, oh great gods, it was true. Those people all died because Pari didn’t listen. Because Pari thought he knew the best way to strike back at the king for his cruel reign. And seven people had paid with their lives.
“At the very least, Jurvis, let’s feed the people,” Pari had begged the man that Pari believed was too old, too careful, too scared to lead a rebellion. What good was a rebellion that did nothing? “We’ll use the secret tunnels to get to the king’s storehouses,” he’d told Jurvis. “We can take back some of what that monster stole from us.”
“No! King Mondi will know it was us and retaliate.”
“Who cares? What are you afraid of? What do you think he’ll do? Stomp his fat feet and cry? What?”
“He’s crazy, Pari. You know that. Our entire focus needs to be on coming up with a perfect plan to overthrow the man, not nitpick at his nerves. Who knows what he might do?”
“But the people are starving. Come on, we can do this.”
“I said no. I let you join this rebellion because you wanted to help take the king down. Doing something foolish, like raiding the storehouses, will only undermine that. Once King Mondi is removed from the throne, the people will have plenty.”
Except Pari didn’t agree. The rebellion had done little so far except make its end game known— to overthrow the king. Of course, the people rallied behind them at first. Even Pari couldn’t wait to join in the cause. But then… nothing. Only planning, strategizing, organizing, monitoring and then—more planning. Pari wanted action, movement, something that showed progress. He pointed out to their leader Jurvis that even the people were beginning to grumble about having to continue to share a dwindling supply of precious resources with a group that appeared to be a bunch of frightened rabbits.
So, one cold night, Pari had set off on his own for the castle, giddy with the idea he was doing something. Actually rebelling. He was going to show Jurvis that feeding the people didn’t have to be scary. He went back and forth through the tunnels all night with all manner of foodstuff. Then he gifted it all to the people who needed it the most. He was exhausted but ecstatic.
“What did you do? I told you not to do anything! You can’t listen to one simple directive? Great gods, Pari, the king will be livid!”
“Calm down, Jurvis. He has so much food stored up, that some of it is even rotting. His people are starving, and he has food that is going to waste! Believe me, he won’t even notice anything is gone.”
Except he did.
Too late Pari realized he should have taken only some food from each storehouse, not cleared out an entire room. It was as if Pari had thrown down the gauntlet right at the king’s feet. When King Mondi discovered the theft only a week later, he couldn’t help but see what Pari had done. In fact, it was highly possible the knights who kept the castle in the king’s absence, sent for him for that very reason.
And Jurvis had been right. He retaliated. In the most cold-blooded way possible.
Pari couldn’t think about that, though. Not now. He had to save his friends. Even if they no longer called him that.
Pari stepped back to the cell, trying to stay beyond Jurvis’s reach and shoved the key into the lock. “Yes, I might very well be daft, but I’m here. And who said anything about extra horses. I have three horses total. Three was all I dared take… or they’d have been missed.” The cell door swung open.
“What are you saying… you mean… you’re all alone?”
“Yes! I’m all alone, Jurvis. No one fucking trusts me anymore. Now let’s go!” He jerked his head toward the opening, encouraging Jurvis to move.
Jurvis stepped out and faced Pari. “You must be jesting.” He took precious time to swing his head around, perusing the area. “Where are the others?”
“We don’t have time for this,” Pari fumed. “We need to go now!” The five who had been in the cell with Jurvis rushed past, pushing between Jurvis and Pari, one of them actually telling Jurvis to shut up and hurry.
“Are they launching their own rescue mission then?” Jurvis whispered fiercely.
“No! They’re not. They’re too busy trying to come up with a way to get you released without angering the king, per your instructions. We’d all be old and gray if we wait for that to happen. And you’ll be dead!” Pari turned toward the tunnels, grabbing back up his torch he had left in a holder. He’d had enough of Jurvis. If he wanted to die, let him. He had five others who seemed to want to live, who trusted Pari to lead them out.
“Pari!” Jurvis ground out from behind him. “Do you think doing this will put you back in good standing?”
No. He did not. Nothing short of turning back time could do that. The only thing he could do now was push on, especially because they wouldn’t get out of the dungeon before they were discovered. He knew going in it would be a trap. The king would be waiting for just this kind of action, determined to find out how Pari had been able to get in undetected before. Another black mark on his “let’s feed the people” mission. Already he could hear shouting coming from the upper levels. But Pari’s fail-safe were the horses at the other end of the tunnel. The guards would be on foot. Even doubling up, they would have no problem outdistancing their pursuers.
Of course, that was when he thought he had enough horses, which he did not, and if they could get a good head start down the tunnel. That had been a bust as well.
So they ran, Pari out front, the six rebels making incredible noise as they followed. It would only be moments before the king’s knights descended on them.
The tunnel was not long. But it was complicated. Thankfully Pari knew every inch due to his labors from a couple weeks back. Like a spider’s web, there were dead-end off-shoots everywhere. Perhaps they had led somewhere at some point in the past, some fancied them chambers for hoards, but had long since been collapsed. Those false tunnels would also frustrate their pursuers and give them a slight advantage. Coming out at the bottom of a sheer wide cliff, the opening out into the forest was barely noticeable. No wider than a single human, it was one of the reasons the tunnel had stayed hidden all this time.
Of course, that was over now.
In less than five minutes they had reached the other side of the tunnel and burst out into cold, bright sunshine. After Jurvis derided Pari for his complete and utter stupidity for launching a rescue in the middle of the fucking day, they started mounting up on the horses. The wind had picked up, but thankfully, the snow had been late in falling that year. That was when Stieks, a fellow rebel, pointed out the obvious.
“Pari. There are not enough horses.”
“Two per horse. It’s the only way,” Pari entreated. “I’ve already decided that I’m going to lead the knights off into the forest and away, in the opposite direction from where you’ll go. Quick now, get out of here. You have only moments before they get here.” Even as he said these things, there were noises coming from the mouth of the tunnel. They were down to seconds, now.
“You still think you can exonerate yourself for what you did?” Jurvis snarled from atop Pari’s own horse. “Do you think we need to thank you for becoming a distraction so that we can escape, praise you for sacrificing yourself?”
Pari gazed up at Jurvis and instead of being angry, he was filled with grief and remorse. “No. I don’t expect anything from you. Just get these men to safety.” With that he slapped the horse’s backside and immediately the horse took off, nearly unseating Jurvis and his companion. The other two horses galloped off after them.
Sacrificing himself? Damn. That’s what he was doing, wasn’t it? Who knew how many knights were going to burst out from the cave in no more than a breath? Ten? Twenty? He wouldn’t get far.
But there was no time for reflection. He had to do as he said he would. Lead the coming throng away from his friends. With that he took off into the forest just as the first of the knights erupted through the cave opening, shouting and pointing him out and giving chase.
Pari ran, leaping over and plowing through underbrush, avoiding large groves of trees and ducking under low hanging branches. He had no real idea how far ahead of the knights he was or if he maintained any kind of distance. He just ran. Blindly. He didn’t know these woods at all, and even if he could escape—and he had no illusions about that—he would probably die out here, completely lost and alone.
Ahhh, but it would serve him right.
How could he have messed up so badly? He meant to help, to show that he knew what he was doing, that his plan had merit. But it didn’t. He didn’t fit in and seven people had died.
Hanged, because of what I’ve done!
Again, he pushed those thoughts away because they weakened him. He could only use his energy for running, not for the guilt that threatened to take over his whole being.
That’s when he stumbled over something solid in his path and came down hard on his right elbow.
Damn it! He shot back to his feet and gave a glance to what it was that had him rubbing his arm as he stumbled forward. The remnants of a wall? What the hell? He squinted back from where he had come, the crashing footsteps of the knights in hot pursuit getting closer and turned to run again.
A crumbled wall. In the middle of the forest. That made no sense.
He had, of course, heard all the tales. What child hadn’t sat at the feet of an elder and listened again and again to the stories of the Pearl Prince, who had built a gleaming white castle called Saint Claire? It was a terribly tragic story and Pari often wondered why it enthralled him so. But he knew them all by heart.