“Ride faster, Avery!”
I barely heard my father’s shout above the striking hooves.
The invaders came early, not waiting for the thaw to finish. The terrain was spotted with icy rock and the melting streams with freezing water. The scouts, caught unprepared, had been slaughtered, so no word reached the inland.
They couldn’t hold the village, and when the fires started, those who couldn’t fight fled to the countryside.
I thought we were fleeing too; father was a soldier, but we rode away from the battle. I thought he was deserting, but if that meant he wouldn’t die, I was fine with it.
Riding on the outskirts, we came to a trading road that would soon be packed with those who couldn’t fight getting out as fast as they could, praying they’d not be overtaken.
The road was wide and well kept, and in better times, well-guarded. Not so now.
My father dismounted, but held up his hand for me to stay in my saddle.
“They’re already here…?” I could see the smoke roiling in the distance, and my eyes widened with fear at what father was about to do.
He looked up at me with tears in his eyes. “Keep moving, Avery. Be brave and grow strong, my son.”
“No!” I tried to dismount, but he gave the horse’s rump a sharp slap and yelled out something I couldn’t understand, a word foreign to me that I never heard him use. My efforts to redirect the galloping lump of muscle toward the battle proved futile, and the last I saw of my father, he was on horseback, charging uphill to fight and die in a losing cause.
We glared at each other across the small table.
In truth, from the expression on his face I thought he might well strike me, something he’d never done, but I saw the beat of the pulse in the vein on his neck; those who pushed him too far he’d given cause to grieve and made them rue it.
I, on the other hand, was feeling too much like a plucked bird who’d had the wrong feathers glued back on, so I tried to tell him again.
“Father, I will not wear this…frippery.”
An unpleasant noise escaped through his gritted teeth before he answered.
“You will wear that frippery, Dawn. You will seal this alliance, or you seal our fate.”
I was in turmoil; he’d asked so little of me through the years; even though Mother told me this might happen, I never actually believed it would.
“You would hold the lives of our people under a hanging sword because of a simple dress?”
I wanted to pull his beard, because at the core of it he was almost right.
“That’s just it!” I turned around so he could see the whole thing. “There’s no dress here! I look like a tavern tart!”
He straightened, not looking as I turned, which meant he knew as well as I this ‘dress’ was scandalous.
I straightened up too, waiting.
We were still at the table, just not leaning on it with our fists and forearms, blasting each other with imaginary eye-lightning.
He looked up at me.
“I understand, Dawn. I do. In truth, it hurts my heart to see you wear it, but what I am trying to get you to understand is that if this alliance isn’t sealed, when the invaders strike again…” he cupped my cheek in his large, calloused hand, “that is exactly what they’ll make of you.”
I tried to blink the tears back, but the rush of outraged anger was too strong. I threw things, broke things, said things I forever regretted but never took back. He only stood there, his heartbreak as evident as his resolve, and the twin feelings of being hopeless and powerless played with me for a while.
When the emotional storms passed, we held each other. I was encircled by his strength, yet circumscribed by his title. Still, a coal of defiance yet burned; I resolved after getting rid of these infectious invaders, I would bring my future husband’s kingdom down from the inside.
And make it my own.