The trees by the Great River had already lost most of their leaves by now, but Prince Sybll sat gazing at them from the bank as if they were still as laden as they had been at the beginning of Autumn. To her right stood her three elder brothers, filling skins with water for their horses to drink from. One of them glanced up, his teeth a wicked glint in the fading daylight.
“It’s still warm enough to swim,” said Solus. “Coming in, Syb? You might not get another chance before the weather turns.”
“Don’t,” said Honre. “She probably would, if she were allowed to.”
There was no unkindness in the statement, nor was there ever when Honre thought to speak. Still Sybll’s cheek twitched with discomfort, and she stared at the amber frieze of the forest as if it might speak for her.
“Why would that stop her?” asked Sorstan, softly. “Not being allowed, I mean. Syb always seems to get the things she wants but isn’t meant to have.”
His eyes, pale as moon-roses, watched Sybll until she turned her back to him, breaking his stare.
“A title that should not be hers,” Sorstan continued. “Training she should abstain from, for her own sake, as much as ours. There is a reason that there aren’t any shieldmaidens in this family, if you recall. Her blood is not like the blood of others.”
“I haven’t started to change yet,” said Sybll, softly. “The binds allow it, until then. You can call on no law to stop me doing as I choose. I have hurt no-one.”
Sorstan tilted his head to one side, white hair spilling over his shoulder. The scar that tore his body from forehead to stomach twisted the slight smile on his lips into a leer, beautiful and cruel.
“Your twenty-second birthday is in a week, is it not?”
“You two,” Honre interjected. “Give it a rest for just one afternoon, can’t you?”
Irritated, Sybll got to her feet and brushed grass from her breeches.
“I have done nothing. Call off the pale worm. As ever, he goads me.”
“Worm,” said Sorstan, and laughed. “A clever insult. I could almost turn it back upon you.”
Still turned from her brothers Sybll considered blundering into the black depths of the river purely to end the conversation, but the notion of riding home soaked through to the skin dissuaded her.
“You will not change me,” said Sybll. “You know this. So I suggest that you do not try.”
She heard Solus whistling some tune under his breath, trying to break the tension into laughter, but Sorstan pushed on, relentless, his lilting, playful tone as barbed as a cactus flower.
“I only wonder what makes you think that you are so very different from the others. It will not last. Perhaps your blood will claim you before you’ve even taken the Pilgrimage. Then we’ll have another beast to put down.”
Sybll recognised the threat, but didn’t rise to it; there was little point entertaining the same argument they’d had back and forth since she was small.
“Oh, let her live,” said Honre, leading his horse back up the bank. “You’re as contrarian as she is. Who was it who started crawling into dragon’s nests and dredging sea monsters up into the shallows before his balls had even dropped?”
“And got the scratches to show for it,” Solus added. “From slaying beasts, that is.”
The brothers all laughed at that; Sybll, still avoiding Sorstan’s gaze, did not. She raised her head, hearing footfalls on the path by the river. One of the castle messengers was striding down towards the bank, bowing mid-step as he saw her.
“Your Royal Highness,” he called, somewhat out of breath. “Prince Sybll. Wizard Orelian has requested an audience with you. I’m afraid that I do not know what it regards; he only said that you alone would understand your summons.”
Clenching her jaw slightly Sybll nodded, too concious of her brothers’ listening to respond aloud.
“Our pet magician, speaking in riddles as always,” said Solus. “Ride with us again tomorrow, sister?”
He mounted his horse, followed by Honre, who turned a gentle smile in Sybll’s direction before they both cantered away towards the forest. Rather than joining the departed princes Sorstan approached Sybll, only halting when they were a hand’s breadth from each other. Although as delicate as an elf he seemed from his greater height to loom, and looking up at him Sybll wondered if there had ever been a time in her life when they had ever liked one another, or loved.
With two gloved fingers Sorstan lifted Sybll’s chin, leaned in towards her throat and sniffed.
“You reek of magic,” said Sorstan. “You spend too time with that wizard. What is it you do with him in those dark chambers, I wonder?”
Sybll stepped backwards, itching to scratch her brother’s touch off her skin.
“Perhaps I’ll show you, one of these days.”
The messenger, still lingering and clearly uncomfortable with the scene, spoke up from the path.
“Prince,” said Sybll, gently. “It’s Prince, unless I say otherwise. That is the protocol, and has been for some time. The Queen has instructed you on this.”
“Yes, your Grace.”
“Such a little tyrant,” said Sorstan, and laughed. “How like Mother you are. Come, Windstorm.”
He turned and approached his horse, slipping up onto the animal’s back with a lithe grace. The pair of them remained by the river until Sybll had mounted her own horse and set off up the path. She half-expected her brother to follow her, her neck stiffening at the mere thought, but when she glanced back she saw him turn Windstorm to the shadow of the woods and become one with their darkness.
This is a chapter of a potential fantasy novel I’m working on! I really don’t know if it will ever be released in linear form as I’m hoping to write little episodes for it here and there and see where that goes!