Authors: Cherif Fortin,Lynn Sanders
Bran’s head rolled to a stop three strides from where his body lay.
Emric fell back weakly and Leanna rushed to her beloved, cradling his head to her breast.
“Emric … thank God,” she whispered, stroking her hand down his face, watching as the anger and strain that marked his features in battle slowly receded. The whip had cut fiercely into the skin of his neck. She did not feel the exultation she expected as she looked at Bran’s body and saw the fruit her vengeance. There was only relief. Relief for her and Wareham, and her beloved Emric.
She bent down to kiss the prince and was surprised to find he had passed into unconsciousness. His breath was shallow and ragged, and the color fled his cheeks. Ominous black veins were visible around the edge of the wound in his thigh as his passion’s blood drained from him.
When she looked at Bran’s blade, she saw the edge was coated in thick, dark oil. She shuddered, her triumph turning to bile in her throat.
eanna pressed her lips lightly to Emric’s forehead. Fever had made his skin shockingly hot. She dabbed at him with a cloth wrung from a bucket of cold well water.
The poison coating Bran’s blade had taken an awful toll. Already Emric was so frail Leanna had to listen at his chest to assure herself he still breathed.
Emric’s men-at-arms had built a makeshift litter by lashing together spears and bedrolls, and had carried the prince to the shelter of the ancient cloister they had ridden past earlier. Most of the roof had crumbled long ago, but shelter could still be found in the far section of the wall that remained standing. The old well was partially clogged, but one of the men succeeded in drawing a bucket of clear water. They laid the stricken prince on a bed of blankets and sent riders out to find a healer.
That had been hours ago.
Leanna pressed his hands against her heart while she studied his face, wondering if she would ever see the raging thunder in those magical green eyes again. Would she ever drown in them as she had done so many times in the past? Her heart pounding with fear, she knelt at his side.
“Don’t leave me, Emric. Don’t leave me now,” she pleaded as if words alone might keep him alive. She wished for Mirabel and her medicine pouch.
The sun was setting slowly through the age-worn arches, where stained glass had
once presided, and the ruddy light of the campfire lent Emric’s pallid body some color. Leanna lay down beside him.
His body, usually so sensual, was now diminished by the wantonness of the poison within him. The dark wound below his hip had angry patterns of scarlet tracing across his belly and groin. He groaned with some horrific nightmare.
“Do you remember, love, the first time you came to me?” she whispered to soothe him. If the men sitting about the fire could hear her whispers, they gave no indication.
“You loosened the ribbons that held my chemise and slipped it from my shoulders; you always did like those blue ribbons. I laughed, for you looked at me as though you were afraid to touch me.” She smiled at the memory. “I looked into your eyes and knew that I could trust you with my body … with my heart. Remember, my love? I kissed your fingertips, and when you placed your hand against my breast, my heart beat so wildly I thought it would take flight.”
Leanna leaned closer to his ear and continued. “You were careful, my love, and gentle.” She kissed him lightly, hoping to see a flicker of movement from his dark eyelashes.
There was a polite cough. One of Emric’s bondsmen approached with a bowl of steaming broth.
“You have not eaten today, my lady. It will do the prince no service if you fall ill, as well.” He set the bowl down near the makeshift bed.
She thanked him and ate a bit, but Emric’s body seemed to heat still more with fever so she put the bowl aside.
Leanna tended Emric as best she could for long hours into the night. At some point, exhaustion overcame her and she fell into slumber at the side of her beloved.
Her head came up suddenly. The sleeping men around the fire snored and the lookout walked his perimeter as before, but the air had a strangely languid quality. When she gazed at Emric, he looked as he did that day in the meadow outside Brimhall: restive but strong, healthy, and full of vigor.
She knew at once that she was dreaming, though she did not recall ever having a dream so lucid. There was a flutter of wings, and when Leanna turned to investigate, she saw a robed figure approaching.
Leanna gasped when she recognized her mother, Ursanne.
“Oh, Mother.” Tears rushed to Leanna’s eyes as they embraced. The weariness and pain of the last days flowed from her. “How I have missed you.”
Though she understood she was dreaming, the clarity and power of her emotions struck Leanna with awe.
“And I have missed you, Lea.” Her mother gently touched Leanna’s cheek.
Leanna stared. She had almost forgotten the name by which her mother had called her as a child.
Ursanne looked at Emric, who lay near them on the pallet. “Who is this man?”
“Emric, the king,” Leanna said, then added, “… and my betrothed.”
“Do you love him?” Ursanne asked with a gentle concern.
“Yes, Mother, above all else.”
“Then why do you let him die?”
“I … I do not understand,” Leanna stammered.
“Child, give me your hand.” Her mother’s voice echoed in the space around them. “You have the power … as you have always had it, for it was yours even before your birth.
“O Mother! O Maiden! O Goddess!” Ursanne began to speak the ancient vow of Druid priestesses, which she had recited so often in years past. “Goddess of the Light, hearken to thy daughters. Grant thy power and thy wisdom, and in thy wisdom, grant sight, the Ningal, so that thy will be done. O Mother! O Maiden! O Goddess! Hear thy daughters’ oath: be true to the Queen of Light. True to Earth and Sea and Sky. Be true to thine own Self besides. True to Love above all else.”
Leanna shivered as her mother completed the ancient oath.
“True to Love above all else.” It had been so long since she said the words that she had forgotten the end of the verse.
As her mind struggled to come to terms with the implications, she realized
Ursanne had spoken without vocalizing. She used the Ningal to communicate as she did years ago in their private moments together.
Leanna closed her eyes. There was a peace within her she hadn’t felt in a long time. When she looked about again, Ursanne was gone.
“Mother?” she cried.
From the void she heard Ursanne’s voice calling her name softly.
One of the men-at-arms shook her awake gently. Leanna opened her eyes. The dream had been so real, so compelling. She thought she could still hear the echo of her mother’s voice.
“It’s the prince, my lady.” The man spoke with difficulty, his bearded face lined with worry. “He has … during the night …”
Leanna’s heart lurched, and she turned toward Emric, reaching out to touch his pale cheek. Instead of the fever that had burned his skin, he now felt so very cold.
“No!” she cried, scrambling to her knees.
She pressed her ear to Emric’s lips, then to his heart, listening for a sign of life, but finding none. Her mind recoiled from thoughts too painful to bear. This was a nightmare from which there would be no awakening.
Leanna placed her hands on his chest; she bade his heart to begin beating again. There had always been reservation within her toward Emric, despite the love that she bore him, for he had been forced into her life by the will of other men. Only now that he lay cold beneath her did she realize the purity of her love for him. It did not matter what had brought them together.
The Goddess was a goddess of light. Her gift was the Ningal, the sight that revealed the light of life in all men. It could not be dimmed. It could not be blinded, even by the curtain of death.
“No,” she cried again, fighting the grief welling up from inside her. “You cannot die. You must live!”
She recited her mother’s words:
I am true to the Queen of Light. True to Earth and Sea and Sky. I am true to my own Self besides. True to Love above all else!
A wave of serenity swept over her. Leanna pressed her hand over Emric’s wound. She let her love for him flow unrestrained until a sensation of heat infused her. The Ningal grew from within her mind, filling her with light. A mystical awareness of the world around her grew and she directed it to Emric.
The magic she wrought rushed through him, and a sound, half cry, half moan, issued from his lips. His chest rose fully for the first time since the poisoned blade touched him. His green eyes opened, and he whispered her name.
Tears of joy streamed down Leanna’s face. She leaned down to Emric, covering his mouth with hers.
Emric returned her kiss, and she knew that all would be well at last.
He had fallen in battle a prince.
He awoke in Leanna’s arms a king.