Bella flitted among the tents, her leather boots kicking up flecks of mud with every stride. Her pale blue cloak swirled like a desperate banner in storm winds. Hard-lined men smiled and nodded as she passed. For a moment their backs straightened, and the loads they carried lightened. But as she hurried onward, their shoulders slumped forward again.
Bella approached the great white tent at the center of the encampment. Two knights guarded the entrance of the tent. Their gold-trimmed armor was smeared with blood and dented from battle, yet they held their post with pride. They stepped aside at her arrival. One pulled the flap aside, allowing her to enter unchallenged.
A circular oaken table commanded the majority of the space within the tent. Marble chess pieces dotted the canvas map that covered the table. Friendly forces were marked by white pieces. The black pieces that represented the enemy covered most of the map like a shadow over the land.
A man stood at the far end of the table. He radiated strength and authority, with a head of jet-black hair and even darker eyes. Despite his physical power a dark cloud seemed to hover over his head, weighing down on his formidable shoulders. At the sight of Bella his eyes softened. A cry escaped his throat as he hurried around the table to envelope his daughter in a tight hug. Tears rolled from the corner of his eye, escaping into the tresses of Bella’s chestnut hair. They held the embrace for several minutes before she pulled away.
“You must ride for the castle,” he said. His baritone voice strained not to crack. Bella shook her head with a nonsensical murmur. She rested her forehead against his chest. Her body shook despite the humidity within the tent. Lord Thorn allowed her to stay in the protection of his arms for a moment longer.
With a sigh he held her at arm’s length. In spite of the recent misfortunes he couldn’t stop the smile tugging his lips. Bella wore a surcoat over the chainmail – a requirement that allowed her to join him on the frontlines. House Thorn’s coat of arms, a white rose over two crossed spears, adorned her chest. She’d even managed to obtain a sword. Lord Thorn unfastened it from her belt and held it aloft. The weapon was no larger than a dagger in his hand. Weathered black leather wrapped the hilt from the crossguard to the block pommel.
“Smithson gave it to me,” Bella said softly. “He had no son to pass it on to.”
“Do you know how to use it?” Lord Thorn teased.
“Only against evil men,” Bella said. Her eyes sparkled with such earnest he chuckled.
“You must return to the castle. Our forces will not hold out for much longer.” He fastened the sword back onto her belt and tried to give her a stern look, a feat he never managed to achieve with her.
“I don’t want to leave,” she said quietly, eyes downcast. “I want to stay with you. I can help.”
“Our castle needs you more than the battlefield does. You are the Lady of House Thorn now. You must lead our people to safety and warn the King of what is coming.”
“Come with me,” Bella pleaded. “I don’t want to lose you too. Order everyone to retreat, we can regroup with the Royal Army.”
Lord Thorn shook his head. His place was beside his men. It was his duty as the Lord to stay, no matter how much he wanted to give in to his daughter’s pleading. The Three Queen’s forces were inexhaustible. Millions of hellish creatures he hoped Bella never had to see threatened to overrun the Kingdom. Every second he defied the Three Queens could mean the difference between survival and utter destruction of their world. Purpose swelled through his body, renewing his heavy limbs and sore muscles. He had to hold the pass until the King and the other Lords could marshal their forces. House Thorn was the Kingdom’s last chance. If this was where he fell, well… Lord Thorn smiled down at his daughter. The family legacy would live on.
He reached deep into the folds of his tunic and unclasped his necklace. A carved jade owl perched on top of a thin silver chain. The piece of jewelry was masterfully crafted but slightly damaged. Half the owl’s face was blackened from long forgotten injuries.
“This was your mother’s. She always said I had eyes as large as an owl,” Lord Thorn said turning the burnt jade over in his hands.
Bella chuckled. “Mother was right, you know. And they only grew larger with age.”
Lord Thorn tapped her nose with a flick of his finger. “Laugh all you want. We share the same eyes.”
“Of all things I could have inherited,” Bella rolled her eyes dramatically.
He chuckled. “I want you to have this. A token of luck from your mother and me.” He moved her long hair aside and fastened the silver chain around her neck.
“Thank you, father,” Bella whispered rubbing the owl. It was warm from nestling on his chest for so long.
“Lead our people to safety,” Lord Thorn said. “I will do everything in my power to return to you.” Even as he spoke the flap of the tent lifted and a soldier entered. The brief flash of sun revealed men yelling orders and sloshing through the mud. In the distance drums rolled and war horns blared.
“The enemy marches on us,” the knight said dipping his head.
“Bella, now you must go,” Lord Thorn commanded. Bella opened her mouth to argue, only to shut it again. To his relief she nodded. The battlefield was dangerous and her presence would only cause her father more worry. Unable to contain her emotion she jumped into his arms like she used to when she was a child. Lord Thorn pulled her close, gripping the folds of her cloak tightly. Finally, he set her down.
“Save our people, Bella. Save this kingdom.”
The last thing she saw as she exited the tent was her father staring at the pieces on the table. Hundreds of black pawns closing in on the last spot of hope. Sadness closed over Bella as she tried not to think this might be the last time she would see her father.
Gracie was waiting for her outside the tent, accompanied by two mounted knights. Bella greeted them before turning her attention to her horse. The palfrey’s inquisitive eyes seemed to understand her companion’s distress. She nickered and nuzzled Bella’s neck in concern.
“I’m okay, Gracie,” Bella said reaching into the saddle packs. She sifted through her collection of books until she produced an apple.
“We have a long journey ahead of us.”
The palfrey crunched the fruit eagerly. When she was finished she tossed her head and pawed the dirt. I’m ready for an adventure.
Bella mounted the horse and rode north. Her two guards rode several feet behind. Knights and foot soldiers paused and saluted as she passed. Hundreds of battered men looked up at their lady, respect and gratitude written on their faces. As one they drew their swords and banged them against their shields, slowly at first. The applause increased until the whole camp shook with the stamping feet and clashing steel. Bella’s face flushed at the unwarranted attention. These warriors were the real heroes – putting their bodies between civilization and the monsters that knocked at its door. Yet here they were applauding her when she really hadn’t done much.
Bella urged Gracie to quicken her pace. The palfrey obeyed, kicking to a canter as the sea of steel parted for their lady. When they finally reached the end of the encampment Gracie picked up speed until she was at full gallop, racing towards Castle Thorn. Bella looked back one last time. The Southgate Mountain Chain formed a solid gray wall behind her. The only way to pass was through the narrow gap that her father’s army blocked. And beyond the gap…
A shadow poured through the mountain pass. For all the bravery and hope the Thorn army stood for, it paled in comparison to the sheer size of the Army of Three Queens.
In the span of an hour she’d lost the two people she loved most in the world. Taking a deep breath, Bella faced forward and rode on.