The child’s wailing cries pierced the silence of the dense forest. Above the thick canopy, several beams of moonlight barely illuminated the path before the cloaked figure running from the palace. She clutched her daughter tightly against her chest, praying the cries would be stifled. Every crunch of the dried leaves under her thick leather boots matched the pounding of her heart in her ears. One hand retrieved the dagger from her belt and hugged her daughter close. She would rather see her child dead than in the hands of what lay behind them.
Shadows made no noise but Cassandra could feel the hunger emanating from every shadow. A layer of sweat beaded along her neck, making her shiver against the crisp evening air. Smells of salt water and damp soil filled her nose, masking the faint smell of death that followed the creatures.
As if her fear could summon them, Cassandra felt her spine tingle and for a second she thought she saw something dart at the edge of her vision.
She swallowed the thick lump in her throat and forced herself not to look.
Cassandra forced her best smile, biting against the tears building around her eyes. She pushed back the black hood covering her face and used a hand to smooth back her daughter’s long white hair. “It’s ok, darling. Go back to sleep.”
Suddenly the trees opened up and Cassandra stumbled out onto a beach. The waves gently slapped against the shore, crashing on a pile of nearby rocks. That’s when Cassandra heard a low hissing sound.
“You will not get her,” she yelled into the darkness. “She is my daughter and you will not have her.”
Torches lining the shore gave Cassandra some solace. As long as she remained in the light, her Miranda would be safe. Safe, that was, until the torches burned out.
“My lady!” Cassandra squinted against the torch light and the looming darkness beyond that to see a large chestnut horse galloping down the beach. The rider threw back his hood and she began to cry. She was careful to remain within the torchlight as she ran to meet the horse. The rider dismounted and welcomed her into his arms.
Cassandra shivered from the ocean breeze and the cold metal against her cheek. She placed her dagger back into its place at her belt and threw one arm around his neck. “Sir Caldon, you’re here.”
He pushed away and pulled out a crumpled piece of parchment. “You summoned me here, my Queen.” He eyed the bundled up child in her arms.
“Why have you brought Miranda?”
Cassandra clenched her jaw to try to stop the tears but they fell anyway. Sir Caldon pulled off a glove and wiped away the tears. “What is wrong, my Queen?”
Cassandra chanced a look back to the forest. Her stomach reeled as if she were looking into the gaping jaws of death. Taking in a deep breath, she turned once more to Sir Caldon. “I must ask a great favor of you, my love.”
“Of course,” he agreed without hesitation.
He noticed Cassandra’s shoulders visibly relax. He wanted to comfort her but that first hug was probably too much already. She took in a shaky breath. “You must take Miranda far from here. The two of you will board the Silver Sky tonight and sail for the Goshken Forest. Go to one of the
small farming villages near the Zukalan capital and keep her safe.”
Sir Caldon’s hand flew to his sword. “Who has threatened you?” He paused and looked at her shoulders. “The King?”
Cassandra’s eyes widened for a moment before looking down at her daughter. “I don’t want to know how you know but it’s not him. However, if he knew the truth of Miranda, I would fear him as well.”
“The truth?” Sir Caldon looked down at the child. She had Cassandra’s lovely white hair with silver streaks that reminded him of a cascading waterfall. The child looked up at the two of them with deep sapphire eyes, which she wiped at with a small fist. She had her mother’s looks but, he soon realized, none of King Haron’s. “But you said…”
“She is not yours, Sir Caldon, or my husband’s.” Before he could respond she held up a hand, “You are my most closest and most trusted knight so you know the story of the Dark God, Naonet.”
At the mention of the name, a howling wind blew from the forest. Cassandra clutched her child tighter when she began to cry again. Sir Caldon stepped in between his Queen and the trees, which appeared darker than what was natural even at night.
“Do you remember when my husband was sick and we were on the verge of being conquered?” Sir Caldon nodded. “The army my husband needed would not come soon enough and our allies were all gone. I swore I would do anything to keep my people safe from those like the Frey family. That’s when… he appeared. If I were to pay the price, my husband would get his army.”
Sir Caldon remembered the day all those recruits showed up from out of the blue, proclaiming their strength and allegiance to the crown. The king’s guard were so outnumbered, they welcomed the new forces. Within weeks the three year war had come to an end.
“I found some old prophecies buried at sea from beyond the time of the Great War. The goddesses foretold of a child born from the darkness, destined to release it and him onto the world. I won’t let my daughter be used like the child is in the prophecy. You must hide her. Ride far from this place where no one will find you. This is the task I ask of my most trusted knight, of my truest love.”
Sir Caldon’s dark gray eyes softened. “How will his servants not find us?”
“He is still weak and I am his link to this world. The farther she is from me, the less likely he’ll be able to find her. The Goshken Forest is the farthest you can get from the islands.”
“Mommy,” the child burrowed into Cassandra’s dress.
“Please, Sir Caldon.”
“Of course, my Queen. My mission is but to serve you.”
“Come the dawn,” Cassandra’s voice squeaked from the threat of more tears. “I’ll have to report the two of you missing. Someone will have broken in and taken Miranda, killing you on their way out. You won’t be able to come back and I’m so so sorry.” She broke into a series of apologies to both Miranda and Sir Caldon.
Sir Caldon tipped Cassandra’s chin up and placed a gentle kiss on her lips. It almost made her sad knowing she would never be tickled by the slight stubble he could never manage to be rid of. “I will keep her safe for as long as I live. I swear it on my honor as your knight.”
Cassanda placed a soft kiss on Miranda’s forehead as she handed her to Sir Caldon. The child began to squirm and reached out for Cassandra. Cassandra drew in a shaky breath and kissed Sir Caldon’s cheek. “Quick Winds and Smooth Sails, Sir Caldon.”
Sir Caldon nodded before heading back to his horse. Miranda’s cries grew louder under she was wailing for her mother, reaching out for her as Sir Caldon spurred his horse towards the distant shipyard.
Cassandra turned back to the forest. “You’ll never have her. Tell him that. He’ll never have her.”
As a small breeze blew through her hair, Cassandra thought she could hear a high pitched shriek and hiss coming from the trees themselves. Without taking her gaze off the forest, she reached out for a torch. She froze when she heard something hiss and saw the darkness dart from one tree to another. If she squinted hard enough, she thought she could see a pair of glowing red eyes. The shape moved forward ever so slightly. This time when it hissed, Cassandra caught a glimpse of razor sharp teeth and a tongue that licked them clean.
“You will not have her,” she repeated to herself. She thought about the letter she had left on her husband’s bedside table. She wondered if he would mourn her or simply replace her like she had for his first wife. It didn’t matter, though, for as long as Caldon and Miranda would be safe. “I am the link, not her.”
She tightened her grip on the torch and slid it out of its holder. The warmth of the flames licked her skin, giving her a sense of strength. She strode towards the creatures, torch in hand. In that prophecy one phrase was written over and over. Burn them. The creature watched her movements and tried to run, but it was too late. She tossed the torch next to the puddle of fuel she had drenched the area in near sunset, a mere few hours past. While the creatures howled inside the flames, Cassandra watched the inferno grow until it filled the sky and walked into the blaze.