The day started with a tinge of cold in the air. Summer was finally edging into autumn, and the land became alive with the change of leaf color and an air of anticipation. The giant oaks that lined the path to the castle rippled with vibrant oranges and reds. It was such a joy to watch them in the morning, when we cantered out for our daily ride. The acorns had already been collected, the seeds ground for flour by the kitchen staff and the villagers. Word was going around that winter would be far worse than summer. We were harvesting and saving all the food we could find. The larder for the castle was filled with hard-rinded cheese, bags of acorn flour, pickled vegetables and fruits in syrup, the slices of peppers and pumpkins in jars like colorful jewels. Joints of ox hung from the ceiling, redolent of salt. We also saved batches of the sea kale, their silver-ish leaves rubbed with sea salt and left to pickle in the cool dry air.
As I rode Nyx down the oak path, I thought of the mountain cabin. Longing throbbed between my legs. But I had promised my queen I would spend winter with her.
White morning mist swirled around the gnarled grey trunks and coated the fields of rye and wheat. Farmers were out, bundling the last of the harvest into stacks. I heard the lowing of cattle. I looked further. Distant figures along the shore of the Shelf River fished for late-season trout. It was a scene I'd observed daily: calm, comforting, routine.
Nyx whickered softly. My senses prickled. My stomach felt unsettled. Something was not right. I told Lisbet the night before we had to strengthen the patrols around the castle.
"I feel Lord Fazalur will try his luck," I broached the issue gingerly, the words out like gentle strokes. Lisbet had been anxious, of late. The responsibilities rested heavily on her shoulders. Even her beautiful eyes were ringed with worry lines. I saw crow's feet where it shouldn't be.
"Of course, he will," Lisbet snorted, wrapping the sheets around her bare shoulders. "He's already harassing the borders, isn't he?" My lady was in an unforgiving mood.
"Not only that," I gathered her into my arms. She resisted a little, before slowly relaxing against me. "I think he will... he will try other methods." Like his men ambushing me in the dark, I thought.
"You mean, assassination and all the nonsense," Lisbet said straight up, the bed rustling at her sudden movement. "He's becoming very daring." She visibly shuddered, her shoulders trembling. I felt it through my chest. Suddenly my strong fiery queen reminded me of a fragile bird beating its tiny wings against its cage.
The image of Lisbet frightened and vulnerable lingered in mind as I trotted further down. I worried, because her emotions teetered on a knife's edge.
Lisbet is strong. She will get through this. She will rule her kingdom with fire and steel.
A shadow darkened the sky, a rush of cold air and the hint of burning. I looked up to see the belly of the dragon, the pattern of scales along its flanks. The messenger from Shan Kung had arrived.
I hoped he had brought better news.