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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7

The Sword and the Rose - REVIEW THIS STORY

Written by Karen Bruce
Last updated: 01/02/2007 02:01:11 AM

Chapter 6

Scowling at the road in front of her, Sabrina wondered if she was going to be able to get through the day without screaming. The gash in her side was bad enough, but she felt as if several carriages had rolled over her in the night. Where she was not saddlesore, she was stiff from sleeping on the rocky ground. Her arms felt too heavy for her shoulders, her neck was a single crick, while her legs . . . It was probably better that she did not think about her legs. It was incredible, she reflected sourly, how many muscles you realised you had when they all ached. As a result, although the reasonable part of her knew it was her fault for having been so stubborn and proud, the unreasonable remainder swatted the horse.

Her husband, Remy, obviously had sensed her mood and he was riding some way in front of her. His horse was a chestnut spot in the far distance that disappeared into the woods every now and again. He, similarly, was a black blob that glinted intermittently as the sun caught the pommel of the Spirit Sword. He had said, of course, that he was scouting ahead for her protection, and, while she had allowed him his gallant pretense, she knew he was avoiding her. Or the sharp edge of her tongue, more probably.

It was not her injuries alone that put her in a bad mood. There was nothing more boring than cantering through identical countryside for days on end. So much for all the novels where the heroes rode for miles without seeming to grow tired of it, she thought wryly, although they did tend to travel in bands of happy companions and pass the time in witty, yet edifying, conversation. She would have settled for discussion on the weather, but, looking at Ororo and Jubilation, even that seemed too much to expect.

The healer and her apprentice were trotting a few feet behind her, and Ororo seemed to be using the opportunity to teach Jubilation about herblore. Every few minutes, the woman would point out a plant that was seemingly indistinguishable from its neighbours and launch into a tedious lecture on how it could be useful. Sabrina had heard more about the medicinal properties of roots, leaves and stems than she had ever wanted to know. As a weaver, it was fairly disquieting to hear that a plant that produced a blue dye could also be used as a poultice to cure suppurating pustules, so she blocked out the voices and concentrated on regaining control over her magical power.

If she strained herself, she could almost feel it, like a glow glimpsed on the edge of vision, but she certainly could not do more than that. She had tried to reach her mind out to it on more than one occasion since the soldier had stabbed her, only to have it slide out of her grasp. This occasion proved no exception - a brief moment of lightning glory thrilling along her nerves, then an emptiness. She grunted in frustration, swatting the long-suffering horse a second time.

"There's a town a few meters ahead," Remy called as he reappeared from around the bend of the road, "We need to put in a few more supplies now that Ororo and Jubilation have joined us, so I think we'll spend the night there. Pantheon knows I could do with a shower."

Seeing an end to the tedium of riding, ignoring the pain that came at every jolt, Sabrina touched heels to the horse's side and galloped after him.

Sebastian, Lord of the Sapphire Shore, would not be remembered by future generations as a good king. Unlike his father who had been as noble in spirit as blood, he believed the military campaigns that had brought him personal glory and riches more than compensated for his lack of good governance. Bread and wool meant little to him when compared with swordclash, conquest and blood, and, while the kingdom's boundaries increased, the people they enclosed were neither prosperous nor happy. The number of bodies in the gibbets increased daily, and only the threat of the Praetorian Guard was enough to prevent a coup.

As a result, the conclave which had previously only survived as a tip-of-the-hat to tradition was going to be of vital importance. He needed to confirm the nobility's loyalty and to ensure that they would stand with him in the civil war that was beginning to seem an inevitability. Peasant uprisings could easily be put down by the guards, but, if they had the funds and military backing of the upper-classes, he knew he would be the one being driven to a public execution.

Sebastian of the Shore might have been a bad king, but he was not a stupid one. From his spies in the courts, he knew that the nobles thought back to his father's days with regret that the great man was no longer ruling. He knew that they were secretly setting up candidates of their own - Alexander, whose open and generous nature had earned him the appellation of Lord of Summer; Piotyr Whitewolf of Bifrost; even Teresa the Red of Cassidy Keep. He knew that the day would come when they would hold a sword to his throat and ask him to abdicate in favour of the true ruler. He knew his future, so the question was how much he was prepared to pay to avoid it.

Setting his crown aside on the large, wooden table, Sebastian pulled the bell that would call his court-magician to his private study. Much like the man himself, the room was martial and grim. The only decoration on the walls were the sword and shield that had belonged to his father, the seahawk that was the symbol of his house etched or painted on them. The floors were covered in bearskin rugs - his one concession to the growing cold of autumn - and similar skins were draped over the chairs. All the furniture was dark wood; all the stone, grey granite. It was a dark, bleak and oppressive room - a room that fitted the personality of its occupant.

When she entered, Selene, the court sorceress, stood out against it like a flame. A handsome woman with a cloud of dark hair and piercingly blue eyes, her dress-sense could kindly have been called flamboyant. That day, she had chosen - seemingly more for what it revealed than what it hid - a red, silken gown, into which rubies and diamonds had been sewn in the shape of flowers. Her skirts became a pool of blood as she dipped into a deep curtsey. Some superstitious part of him shivered.

"My good lord," she murmured, eyes flashing as if to suggest that she knew how much he really merited the adjective, "You called for your humble servant?"

"We're alone," he growled, "You don't need to stand on ceremony, Selene."

"A king is a king no matter how many people are present", she protested, but added with a faint smile, "Or that he comes as a supplicant to the woman who will allow him to keep his throne. You do still wish to go through with this, I assume?"

For an instant, he knew without a doubt that he would tell her to go to her master, to take her deal and be damned with it. He knew he would give up his title, his riches, his fame and send himself into a noble exile. He knew he would spend the remainder of his days farming on a croft or serving any lord who would accept the pledge of his sword. He knew he would show his grandchildren his father's sword and shield, and tell them that they had once been kings and that the royal blood of the Shore still ran through their veins. He knew that he would tell them that there were some prices too high to pay, that his soul and his conscience had not been bought for the price of a crown.

The instant inevitably passed.

Looking over her shoulder at his father's sword, too ashamed to meet her blue stare, he nodded and knowingly delivered his people into the hands of death.

Resisting the urge to lift her skirts off the pavement, her nose wrinkled fastidiously against the city's stench, Ororo looked up at the inn where they were to spend the night. For a mercy, the building itself was clean and well-maintained - white paint gleamed in contrast to the black timbers that crisscrossed its facade and there were pots of wilted petunias in the windows. She could even separate the smell of roasting meat and apple pie from the general miasma of sweat, rot and poverty that always clung to towns of any size. Of course, she thought wryly, a great deal of the stink could probably be blamed on her and her companions. A bath was more than overdue for all of them, although Sabrina still had an inexplicable, lingering fragrance of green, growing things about her.

Ororo's mouth tightened as she glanced over to where the young woman was unpacking her horse's saddlebags and handing various parcels to Remy who had taken on a martyred expression with them. For all her fine resolutions to mend fences with the Great Sorceress, she had spent the journey lecturing Jubilation on properties of herbs which her apprentice already knew and in which she had had very little interest the first time. It was not that she was unwilling, she told herself, it was that she did not know what to say to a stubborn, foolish woman who would not listen to common sense. With injuries such as hers, Sabrina should have been in bed and not galloping around the countryside. If she refused to see that, there was little Ororo could say to her that she would accept. She certainly would not apologise for her medical judgment.

"Be nice to sleep in a proper bed tonight, won't it?" Remy said from beside her, staggering under the weight of an enormous pile of packages, "Leave the ground to the seeds and worms and give me a feather mattress, I always say."

She raised an ironic eyebrow, "I see the noble life has made you soft, Lord LeBeau. What ever has happened to the highwayman who lived off dirt, roots and insects?"

"He vanished the first night I slept on a feather mattress," he chuckled but soon sobered, brown eyes probing her intently, "Do you mind if we stay here a few days, Ororo? I don't think my wife should be riding in her current state and she'll insist on doing so if we travel farther. I've told her I have business in the town and, although I'm sure she has her suspicions, she seems happy enough to remain here for my sake."

"My friend, I retract my earlier accusation. You've lost none of your low cunning or your deviousness," she said with a smile, "I agree that it would be wisest for Sabrina not to travel and, to be honest with you, I could use the rest myself. I rode the horses flat to get to Moore's Pond in time to heal her."

"You're a good woman, Ororo, and I'm in your debt."

"Consider it repayment for saving the world from the god of earth\sky for us, my friend," she laid a hand on his shoulder, "However, seeing what a good job you are doing with those parcels, you could bring in mine and spare Jubilation some work."

Looking backwards at the sorceress' bulging saddlepacks and seeing in them another two trips across the courtyard, Remy groaned.


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