Cael made his way along the outskirts of camp, snow crunching beneath his boots, which made sneaking up and around each tent difficult. He hopped over ties, logs and other miscellaneous items, and avoided the small number of guards as much as possible. One look at him and they would know exactly what he was and why he was there.
Next to the biggest tent in camp sat a much smaller one meant for servants, which was exactly where the queen would be. Cael knew this because he would have done the same thing, though he was no king or any type of royalty. It only made sense for the queen to choose the smaller tent, as she was a warrior like Cael.
You’re killing your own kind, flitted through his head. He shook the thought. No, he wasn’t doing anything of the sort. She was a queen, he, an assassin. One hired to kill her. End of story. But a Nambrian … came the next doubt. He questioned why he was even having doubts about killing the cold-hearted queen of Nambria. He’d never even met her, and she certainly did nothing for his family so long ago. Nothing to save his father, no one to hear his mother’s cries as they murdered his father on the edge of the island at the black beach. An island that once was the land of eternal youth. It had been several years and he still didn’t know who “they” were, but the boyhood nightmares still haunted him. They had let him go. Allowed him to live, wander the land as an orphan, until he’d grown into a man. It was those years alone that prepared him for his profession—one not chosen by him, but that he fell into because he was good at it, just like the men who had murdered his parents.
Now, after so many years, he was the best of his kind.
He stepped up next to the servant tent and listened with care for movement inside. When he heard nothing, he quietly cut the thick material from the base up, making an opening large enough for him to slip through. Once inside, he found himself behind a stack of crates and slowly made his way around them. She came into view when he peered around the stack.
Niamh sat, head tilted, eyes closed as her fingers drifted through her wolf’s coarse fur. Her sword perched against the right arm of her throne; silver shield, lined with gold and a black dragon at its center against the left side, opposite the wolf. At her sides and back sat two large black iron candelabrums, each holding seven tapered candles in seven dragon’s mouths. A goblet sat upon the left arm of the throne, her slender fingers barely touching its base. Cael’s eyes searched the rest of the tent, only to find she was alone with her guardian. He didn’t know about the wolf. It would make what he was about to do much harder. That and the fact the queen should have been sleeping, not sitting on her damn throne.
A low rumble made its way to Cael’s ears as the wolf growled. His presence had already been compromised. He was surprised it hadn’t happened sooner. Then Niamh opened her eyes and looked right at him. Cael didn’t step back. He merely took a step forward. She had seen him, and that was enough.
“Come forth,” she said in a soft voice, so light it floated to his ears, lifting his heart heavy of torment for so many years. He knew he was in trouble then because the queen was also Fae. Even as she sat upon her throne covered in large pelts for warmth in this dismal, cold land, she held a radiance unmatched by any other. The wolf’s muscles twitched as Cael stepped forward again, into the center of the tent.
“You’ve been sent to kill me,” Niamh stated. Her soft, fair skin radiated in the firelight, and her flaxen-brown hair showered over her broad shoulders in small braids. Deep blue eyes, hinted with purple, sparkled and smiled at him, as though she had been waiting for him.
Cael only nodded once, and the smile on Niamh’s face grew only slightly as he took another step toward her. He walked with caution to the center of the tent, where he noticed the floor felt odd beneath his feet. In that instant, he leapt into a backward flip just as the net jerked up, partially catching him and leaving his legs to dangle. He wanted to know how they rigged it, but his attempt to look at the ceiling proved fruitless as the net firmly held his head in place. It was the first time in all his years he’d been caught, and he cursed himself as the net turned, giving him a glimpse of Niamh’s smile a few times.
The guards ran into the tent and cut him down, and Cael landed with a thud on the carpet-covered earth. He was thankful for the soft landing.
Niamh had yet to move during the entire time of his capture, but then she stood as they forced him to his knees before her. His eyes scanned her form, beginning at the feet. She wore deer-hide boots that ran the length of her long, slender calves, but leaving her knees bare. Half her thighs were bare as well, which was unheard of in these parts. Covering the upper half of her thighs was a skirt that stopped at her stomach, bare also. A small, nearly insignificant piece of hide covered her chest, not leaving much to his imagination, but his imagination went into overdrive, picturing her beneath him. He attempted to distract the image and saw her leather cuffs on each forearm, and she had tribal markings on each upper arm. He recognized them as warrior signs, one that only women wore, and they were rare symbols indeed, for there were not many women warriors.
“Who are you?” she inquired, her tone sweet as honey.
He said nothing. She grabbed his face and leaned over until their noses almost touched. “Who are you?” she repeated in a softer tone, and her breath floated over his lips.
Cael still said nothing as her soft fingers squeezed his face, but he fought an irresistible urge to kiss her.
“Who paid you to kill me?” her Fae voice sang.
Nothing from Cael, though he fought desperately to withhold telling her all about himself. It was her voice. It had to be. He’d never even uttered the thought of revealing himself to anyone before.
The Queen stood and sighed as she studied him for a moment. “Take him away, Sean.”
Sean pulled him to his feet. “What do you wish us to do with him, my Queen?”
She looked at Sean and smiled. “Let him go.”
“Are you mad? I mean … forgive my impudence, but he shall only attempt to kill you again.”
“He never really attempted to kill me in the first place.” She smiled wickedly. “And it will make quite a challenge for you to keep up security.”
Cael’s eyes flickered with a smile at her candor, and intrigue of the beautiful woman set itself in his mind. “Cael,” he said as they dragged him away.
She turned around abruptly and told the guards to stop. Then she headed to him, and stopped just in front of him. Cael stood up straight and looked down at her. Large broad shoulders complimented his tall frame. His long shiny black hair framed his chiseled face and deep green eyes.
Niamh’s heart skipped at standing before such a powerful man. “Cael? This is your name?”
He nodded once.
“What made you decide to speak, Cael?”
He looked into her eyes and smiled. “So that the next time we meet, you shall know who I am.”
“I see. The next time you attempt to kill me?”
She laughed. “So be it.” Niamh waved them away.
Sean looked at her strangely, and then walked him out of the tent as Niamh walked away. She sat upon her throne once again and ran her fingers through the wolf’s fur.
“Until next time, Cael,” she whispered, and then sipped her wine. Sorrow clouded her eyes as she set the goblet down once she was alone. Cael’s appearance reminded her of the state her city and island had become.
Tír na nOg had once been a mystical city that sat within a vast valley on the island of Nambria, and it held its fair share of glory days. In fact, the city had never known otherwise. Its stone white walls were visible from miles around, and the city always seemed to hold a special glimmer of light, making it easy for travelers on the island to find. However, travelers on sea had a most difficult time locating the city and the isle of Nambria because a dense circle of fog always surrounded its waters, put in place by the Fae long ago when they came to the land.
The island’s shores had seen the footsteps of many great heroes, but disease was one attribute that never graced the land. Niamh pictured the island in her mind as it once was. Its mountains were tall and lush, with landscape from the brightest of greens to the blackest of pitch, and agate rocks shimmered when the sunlight struck, creating a beacon of stars the likes of which equaled those in the night sky. On the northern shore, white sand stretched for miles along the coast, and at the island’s southern tip, the sand turned black as obsidian with flecks of copper and gold reflecting throughout the day and night. It was the land of the sídhe, the Fae, and whosoever set foot on the island would never experience illness for as long as they were there.
Nambria had a diverse population of people too. There were the Fae, who had left the emerald isle known as Éire long ago after an invasion as part of their surrender. Farmers and cattlemen lived on the plains, tending to their fields and livestock; and the common folk, who had escaped the emerald isle with the Fae, lived peacefully under her father’s rule. There were, of course, always those perceived as troublemakers, and they were the darker side of Nambria none wished to admit existed. But it was those dark-natured men who kept the island safe when neighboring lands found Nambria and attempted to take its riches. Niamh’s father told her long ago to leave them alone. As a warrior in her own right, Niamh understood them well, and let them live under their own terms, so long as they didn’t harm anyone on the isle, which they had yet to do.
But dark days had come to what many called the land of eternal youth, and with them, death and disease. The reigning King of Aplasia sought to make Nambria a part of his empire, and he would stop at nothing to achieve his goals, even if it meant killing Niamh of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the last of the reigning Fae, if she would not take his hand in marriage.
Niamh ruled as Queen of Nambria for many years, and was to wed the King’s brother Xavier, but on one particular bright and sunny day, a messenger brought forth news of her love’s murder. The King of Aplasia, Zachariah, brought his armies to Nambria not long thereafter, and darkness fell over the lands. The city’s glimmer died, the land’s green landscape froze, and Niamh left her city with her wolf guardian Xion and a small army to escape in hopes of defeating Zachariah another time. She now resided in the island’s mountainous regions, never staying in one place too long, for Zachariah searched for her constantly. However, Niamh always knew when Zachariah was close because she could see him approaching in her mind, much as she saw the assassin he’d sent.
Her thoughts turned back to Cael briefly and why she’d let him go. A smile graced her lips as her body warmed from the look in his eyes. She knew he wouldn’t kill her. His destiny lay elsewhere, though she couldn’t see his future in its entirety. Perhaps he was the one who would save her Queendom. She giggled at the thought. An assassin to become the unlikely hero? She supposed so, worse had happened in the past.
The smile left her lips as she recalled the murder of a farmer and his wife at the isle’s edge many years ago. It had truly been the beginning of Nambria’s fall and likely Zachariah’s first kill on the island. She had been so very young as queen when her father passed the reigns to her and left for the underworld. Zachariah had attended her coronation, placing him on the island around the time. Niamh hadn’t known what to do because it was the first murder the land experienced.
Her brow furrowed in thought. Wasn’t there a young boy who had witnessed the murders, and didn’t he have black hair and emerald eyes? Niamh pictured Cael in her mind once more, and attempted to look into his past, but the fates wouldn’t allow it. Had her inaction brought about the man who stood before her earlier? Her eyes closed and a small sigh left her lips at the thought she might have created an assassin who should have been a farmer, just like his father.
“By the gods, what have I done,” she mumbled as she rubbed her face.
By the time Zachariah came, most of the Fae left Nambria as well, or intermingled with the humans, where a good portion of their traits eventually died out of the line. Zachariah’s arrival surprised the darker men, as with the rest of Nambria, and none could take action fast enough before the attacks began. If Niamh’s mourning hadn’t distracted her, she would have seen the impending darkness coming, but no man knew she mourned. It was something she didn’t allow anyone to see, lest her people think their Queen was weak, and it was the reason they spoke of her cold heart as Zachariah’s control grew. Some would say the ice and snow covering the land was a direct result of Niamh’s loss. Perhaps they were correct, even if they didn’t understand Fae magic.
“Xion, am I the reason the land is frozen?” she asked her wolf guardian as her fingers stroked the fur. The wolf answered with a mournful howl, and Niamh’s sadness plummeted into the depths of her soul as she lowered her head, letting out only one low sob. “Forgive me.” The whisper went unheard as she sat alone with her wolf into the night, where her dreams would foretell her fate … and that of the assassin named Cael.