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The Tainted Crown: The First Book of Caledan
“Seize him!” The three men raced towards Soren, weapons drawn and battle cries ringing in their throats.
The prince froze beneath the portcullis. His bow lay uselessly unstrung and lashed to his saddle. Soren struggled to draw his blade, assailants almost upon him, when a fierce cry behind them announced the presence of another. They turned away for a fatal moment of distraction.
“Prince Soren!” the mounted figure’s voice echoed through his helmet as he charged towards the fray.
Soren moved automatically despite his confusion, unsheathing his sword as his mount plunged forward and slashing the first man’s side as his horse kicked out in the close confines, stunning the second. Before the third could react, the stranger had dispatched him, stabbing the second who lay dazed on the floor, just as Soren cut down the first. The stranger removed his helm to reveal the sweaty, battle-stained face of the queen’s chief advisor.
“Sir Edmund!” exclaimed Soren, keeping his dripping sword ready. His horse pranced, nostrils flaring and mouth frothing. “These men wear the mark of House Varan; what’s the meaning of this? Whoa Miri. Calm, girl.” He tried to soothe the agitated mare beneath him with shaking hands as his heart pounded erratically.
“We must leave. Now,” said Edmund, but the prince did not move. “Do you trust me?” Edmund pressed, leaning forward in his saddle. Soren nodded. “Then do as I say. Ride with me now!" He urged his horse into a canter through the gate.
“What’s happened? What of my family?” called the boy after the man, but Edmund did not reply save to press his stallion harder. Soren dug his heels into Miri to keep apace, asking again, but to no success.
“Why do you return so early from the hunt? Where are your guard?” Edmund asked the prince grimly as they rode through the secluded grounds.
“A boar gored Sir Hark’s son, so we abandoned the hunt to see him safely home. My guards took him to the healing houses.” Soren would have grimaced at the memory, but the sight of his friend with half his thigh hanging loose paled into insignificance. Instead of the boy’s agonised face, the man he had just killed sprang into his mind, his eyes full of pain, hate, and determination as he dropped to the ground, life fading. I just killed a man… but he was trying to kill me. Both concepts were incomprehensible to Soren.
“Well thank the heavens you arrived not a moment sooner or later,” replied Edmund, distracting Soren. “Fate delivered you to my hands today."
Through the landscaped trees, the perimeter wall of the castle grounds came into view. Here, the wall that eventually joined Pandora’s great city walls was a mere ten feet tall and four feet thick, defended more by the precipice beyond it than its own strength.
Edmund jumped down from his horse with an agility belying his age - Soren had never seen the fifty year old move with such speed. To Soren’s astonishment, Edmund began to scrabble at the ivy that grew in vast quantities along the wall, sweeping it aside and ripping it from the wall in bunches. Soren began to wonder if he had been right to trust Edmund without question, but before the thought could materialise Edmund turned around with a frantic expression.
“Come help! We must find the door.” Edmund wandered along the wall as he searched through the ivy. Soren frowned to himself, but brushing aside his bafflement, dismounted to help.
“Aha!” The discovery came before Soren could begin. Metal rattled, wood clunked and the rusty lock screeched as Edmund threw his weight backwards to pull the heavy wooden door open. “Come! Follow me.” Edmund made to lead his horse by the bridle through the wall but Soren seized his forearm.
“I just killed a man!” Soren exclaimed. “A man wearing colours loyal to the throne, yet trying to harm me... Why?”
“I will explain, but I cannot now. Please, come with me; it is not safe for you here. I will beg you if I must,” Edmund implored.
Soren released him, surprised at the fervour from the usually taciturn man. “What of my family?”
“I will explain.” Edmund beckoned him again as Soren faced him, uncertain. “Trust me.”
Soren considered the unwavering faith his mother placed in Edmund. He was swayed by that, but it was with a sinking heart and growing unease that Soren followed Edmund through the gate.
It was a perilous climb down the cliffs in the fading light; impossible but for the narrow ledge that guided men and horses down. Soren was distracted from the blood - someone else’s - that speckled the hem of his fine jacket by Miri, who had to be coaxed, pushed and shoved almost all the way down. The horses skittered on the narrow track, taking fright every time their passage dislodged small scatterings of stones that cascaded down the precipice to their side.
Every time the horses balked, Soren’s heart leapt into his mouth, fearing that he would be pushed off the path, but before the sun had fully set they reached the ground. Edmund wasted no time in mounting, warning Soren to take care on the uneven ground. Soren mumbled with dull acquiescence. The descent had been excruciatingly slow and he was tiring after his intense day.
“At least we have time, for tonight, to travel slowly,” Edmund said. “No one will seek us here.” But, over the drumming hooves, Soren did not hear.
Two leagues to the north lay the dark bulk of woodlands that Edmund made for. As the cooler shade of the tree canopy enveloped them, their shadowy figures melted into the forest, the thick cover claustrophobic in contrast to the open, rolling knolls they had just left. Soren halted Miri. Edmund reined in his own mount, glancing back.
Framed by the trees on the fringes of the forest were the vast expanse of water, silver in the moonlight, to Soren’s right, the sweeping plains to his left. In between lay the great hill upon which the city of Pandora stood, a huge bulk in the darkness covered with pinpricks of light. Nothing seemed amiss. The night was tranquil. Soren followed Edmund to be swallowed by the forest.
They rode until Soren was lost in the dark. The older man had been silent for hours and rode so fast that Soren was forced to push Miri to her limits, despite his worry that she would stumble and lame herself on a stray root or rock. Soren wondered at Edmund’s urgency, but he was to exhausted to question him. Instead, when they stopped in a hollow at the base of a rocky outcrop, he dumped Miri’s saddle and bags onto the floor, turned her loose, and slumped against a tree, snoring.