Never After | Chapter 24 of 31

Author: Laurell K. Hamilton | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 4828 Views | Add a Review

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The Magical Journey
My betrothed and his sister and I set out the very next morning, waving good-bye to the servants and friends who had gathered in the courtyard to see me off. My father was not among them. I had elected to travel without a maid, since, at dinner the night before, Darius had made some offhand comment about how tiresome it was to always be waiting for women to primp and beautify themselves.
“Especially when they are already beautiful,” he had added, smiling at me.
I had also considerably cut down on the amount of luggage I packed, though even so he had seemed astonished at the number of trunks and boxes I had brought to his campsite. Dannette had merely grinned. “Good thing there’s room in the wagon,” she said.
I had not realized until that very moment that an ordinary farm wagon, and not a luxurious carriage, would be our method of transportation. It was relatively large and well built, with a raised tarp over the bed to shelter all of our possessions, but it was still a wagon. The bench up front was only long enough to hold the driver and one passenger, so someone would have to sit in back among the crates and bundles. When we first started out, Dannette volunteered to take that less desirable spot, and so I sat beside Darius and watched as the countryside unrolled around us.
Which it did very slowly. It turned out that traveling in a heavily loaded wagon behind two horses could not be compared to traveling in a specially built coach pulled by a team. The road seemed rougher than I remembered, and much longer, though the lightly wooded countryside offered a pretty enough colorful autumn landscape. By nightfall we had made it no farther than a crossroads town that I had never bothered to stop at before because it was too close to the palace grounds.
“This looks like as good a place as any to break for the night,” Darius said, and Dannette agreed. I thought glumly if I turned my head and squinted hard enough, I might be able to glimpse the turrets of the palace behind me.
But what did I care how much ground we covered in a day? I had no particular eagerness to make our destination; I just wanted the chance to enjoy the company of my fiancé. In the wagon, it had not been so easy to talk to him as you might suppose, for we spent more of our energy surviving the jouncing than making conversation, and half the time Dannette took the reins while Darius sat in the back. I hesitated to admit it, but our first day of travel had teetered between boring and uncomfortable, and though I was resolved not to complain, I was glad to finally pull off the road.
But I was shocked when we checked into a modest inn and Darius requested only a single chamber. “One room?” I hissed to Dannette while Darius paid the fee. “For all three of us?”
She seemed surprised. “By the time we make it to my grandmother’s and back to the palace, we might be on the road ten days or more. We can hardly afford two or three rooms a night.”
“We cannot?” I said blankly.
I thought she was trying to hide a grin. “Well, Darius and I cannot. If you have brought lavish funds with you, I suppose you could reserve your own accommodations.”
I stared at her. I hadn’t brought any money. I never did. Bills were always paid by footmen and servants. The proprietors this close to the palace would surely recognize my face, but once we made it another fifty miles down the road, would anyone believe me when I claimed to be Princess Olivia? Would they sell me goods on credit and send the bills to my father? Would he pay them?
“No, no,” I said faintly. “I will share the room with you and Darius. We are supposed to be getting acquainted, after all.”
Now her grin was definitely visible. “Nothing like a journey to find out everything you need to know about someone,” she said cheerfully.
After this, I was not as surprised as I might have been to find we were dining in the taproom, and not a private parlor. Still, Darius’s charming smile—and perhaps a little extra magical persuasion—secured us our own table in the corner where we didn’t have to share trenchers with laborers, families, and local shopkeepers.
“To my bride!” Darius toasted me with his beer while we waited for food to arrive.
I’d never had beer before, my father considering it common, and I wrinkled my nose after the first sip. “I don’t like that so much,” I said. “It’s bitter.”
Darius took a few hearty swallows. “Once you accustom yourself to the taste, you find that you like it quite well,” he said. “Plus it gives you a very pleasant”—he swirled his fingers over his blond curls—“feeling in your head.”
Dannette laughed. “It takes a little longer to get drunk on beer than wine,” she interpreted. “But the effects are very similar. I would go slowly, if I were you.”
I tried another sip. Hard to imagine coming to like this. “How many more days to your grandmother’s house?” I asked.
Darius shrugged. “Four? Five? I rarely go straight there—or anywhere—so I’m not sure how long any journey lasts.”
“Where do you live when you’re not traveling?” I said.
Darius laughed. “I’m always traveling.”
My eyes widened. “You don’t have a home? Anywhere?
“Well, technically my grandmother’s house is mine, since the estate was my father’s and now belongs to me,” Darius said. “But I consider the wagon my true home. Everything I need I bring with me wherever I go.”
I looked at Dannette. “What about you?” I demanded.
She considered. I had the feeling she was trying to decide exactly how much of a particular story to tell me. “I would just as soon find a place and stay,” she finally said. “But the last place I lived eventually became unbearable. Which is why I have chosen to travel with Darius for a while. I’ll settle down when I find a situation that appeals to me.”
My eyes were big again. “What made your last situation unbearable?”
Darius leaned forward. “Scandals,” he whispered the atrically. “Accusations in the dead of night. Secrets.”
I sat back in my chair, staring at Dannette. Who, after all, was this woman? When it came down to it, who was Darius? What did I know about either of them, really, except that they were attractive and friendly and eager to make the king’s daughter one of their family?
She laughed ruefully and put a comforting hand on my arm. “Don’t let him tease you, Olivia. It is true that there was some turmoil attached to my last situation, but it was all personal and confined to a very few people. We are quite respectable.” She glanced at Darius and back at me, her face amused. This was a woman who found the world around her to be endlessly entertaining, and it was hard not to relax in her smiling presence. “And my brother has developed the most ridiculous infatuation for you. I have never seen him like this with any girl.”
Now he was the one who was blushing and bashful. “It’s true,” he said. “I saw you the day before the joust. You had just come back from a ride, and your hair was all wild and your face was flushed. And when the groom helped you out of the saddle, you kissed your horse on the nose. I was never so charmed!”
I laughed. “Oh, that was Bumblebee, my favorite mount!” I said. I had spent some time during today’s tedious journey wishing I were riding Bumblebee instead of sitting in the wagon. Of course, then I would not have had the opportunity to get to know Darius along the way.
“I got the impression you did not enjoy the second trial that your father set up for your suitors,” Darius went on. “I suppose a girl who kisses horses doesn’t like to see dogs being beaten down by men.”
“I know that these particular dogs are bred to fight, but no, I do not enjoy watching them. I never attend when my father holds matches on the palace grounds.”
He smiled at me. His eyes were a misty gray, full of secrets and promises. “Then I am glad I was able to hold them off with magic instead of brute force,” he said.
I smiled back, a little shy but sincere. “It was one of the things I liked a great deal about you,” I said. “You don’t seem to be a cruel man.”
“Lord, I would hope I was never cruel!” he exclaimed in dismay.
Dannette was laughing. “Darius has many faults, as I’m sure you’ll discover, but he’s simply never unkind,” she said. “He forgets things, sometimes on purpose—”
“He dawdles, he develops a sudden passionate interest in the most boring topics, which he then expects you to appreciate, he refuses to be cowed by your anger and is always convinced he can wheedle his way back into your good graces—”
“I always can.”
“He is happy to share his time, his campfire, and his food with anyone who stumbles across his path, and he has never been on time for a single appointment he’s ever made. But he’s not unkind.”
None of these traits sounded particularly bad to me, and I beamed at my happy-go-lucky betrothed. “I’m sure we will get along famously,” I said.
I was a tiny bit less certain of that sometime after midnight. We had settled into our rather small room, going to elaborate lengths to make sure we each had a semblance of privacy as we washed up and changed into sleeping clothes. Danette and I shared the only bed, which was narrower and much lumpier than the bed I had all to myself at home, while Darius claimed to be entirely comfortable on the floor. He must have been; he instantly fell asleep.
And began snoring.
It was not a great gusty snoring such as Sir Norbert inflicts on us when he’s fallen asleep during some long dinner or council meeting. The sounds were gentle and muffled, but they did not stop, and I was quite unused to having to listen to anyone even breathe. Meanwhile, Dannette was restless. She tossed and turned and murmured short, agitated phrases before subsiding again. It was a little surprising that someone who seemed so cheerful in her waking hours would betray such distress in her unguarded sleep.
Well, obviously Dannette would not be sharing our room once Darius and I were married, and I supposed I would eventually get used to the snoring.
I finally fell asleep, but morning came too soon, and Darius’s jovial manner was a little grating to me in my groggy state. Nonetheless, I endeavored to be pleasant company as we dressed, packed, and headed downstairs to eat a quick meal before taking off again.
Harwin was awaiting us in the taproom.
I saw him first, and I came to a dead stop. Darius actually stumbled into me; Dannette, who tended to pay more attention to things, managed to halt in plenty of time. From the corner of my eye, I could see her grinning again. “What are you doing here?” I demanded.
Harwin rose to his impressive height. His face and voice very grave, he said, “I, too, passed all your father’s tests. I, too, am eligible to be your bridegroom. So I, too, am going to take this opportunity to travel beside you and allow you to get to know me better.”
Darius was nodding and smiling. He stepped forward to shake Harwin’s hand. “That sounds reasonable,” he said. “Have you ordered breakfast yet?”
Harwin looked surprised at the easy welcome, while I was incensed. “Darius!” I hissed. “He is your rival! You should be angry that he would try to usurp your position and steal my affections!”
Now Darius was the one to show surprise. “Well, if your affections can be stolen that easily, we won’t have a happy marriage anyway,” he said. “Besides, he’s right. He did pass the tests. He should have a chance to win your hand.”
“He had a chance and I refused him. You should order him to leave this minute.”
“I won’t,” Harwin said instantly. “If I can’t join your party, I’ll just follow you.”
“See?” Darius said. “We may as well let him travel with us. We can’t stop him from coming along behind.”
“Well, of course we can! You can! Put a spell on him! Make him forget he saw us here—make him believe there’s something urgent awaiting him back home. Do something.”
Darius rubbed the back of his hand against his cheek and looked apologetic. “I don’t really do those kinds of spells,” he said.
Dannette touched me on the arm. Now she was openly smiling. “I forgot to mention one of Darius’s other faults,” she said. “He never does what you tell him to.”
I stared at her helplessly. “But—we can’t have Harwin traveling with us! I mean, how very odd! Not to mention I don’t want him coming along!”
She moved past me to sit down at the table where Harwin had been waiting. “Nonetheless, I think he’s coming with us,” she said. “So let’s all have breakfast and then be on our way.”
I fumed throughout the meal, refusing to speak to any of them, not that any of them seemed to care. Harwin sat very stiffly, eating his meal with his usual formal manners. Dannette made some effort to draw him out, asking him about his estates and his family, to the point where I almost wanted to make a comment about how she should marry him if she found his assets so desirable. Darius chatted amiably, not seeming to notice that Harwin’s replies were as terse as civility would allow.
Once the dreadful meal was over, we were finally on our way through more of the gently rolling countryside, all green melting into gold. I sat beside Darius on the seat of the wagon, while Dannette settled in back. Harwin, who had undertaken the journey on a very fine bay gelding, didn’t seem certain about the best way to proceed. At times he ranged ahead of us, but not too far, and he always came back to make sure we hadn’t tried to elude him by turning off on some minor road. At times he rode beside the wagon and attempted to talk with me, but I gave him only the briefest and most unencouraging replies. I could tell that, like me, he was finding our slow pace to be maddening—but, like me, he was more interested in the actual trip than the destination, so he managed to keep his impatience in check.
I was a having a harder time maintaining a good-natured attitude, though I doggedly pursued my goal of getting to know Darius. Tell me about some of your adventures. When did you realize you had magical ability? What is your favorite kind of spell? He answered readily enough, but he was too preoccupied with the horses to go into great detail, so his stories were sketchy and a little flat. I tried to think of amusing anecdotes about my own life to share with him, but even to myself my tales of hunts and balls and celebrations sounded shallow and vain. Was it possible I was such a useless, uninformed creature that I couldn’t even come up with an hour’s worth of decent conversation?
When we stopped for lunch at a small-town inn, Harwin made a point of sitting next to me and trying to draw me out, but I just sat at the table and brooded. If I was going to be a successful queen, not to mention an interesting wife, I would need to widen my experiences and broaden my mind.
I wasn’t entirely sure how a person went about doing that, but I supposed that traveling around the kingdom was not a bad place to start.
Shortly after we set out again after lunch, it started to rain.
“Shouldn’t we pull over somewhere?” I asked Darius.
He squinted at the sky and shook his head. “Looks like it’ll continue on like this for a few hours, so no point in trying to wait it out.”
“We could stop at an inn somewhere,” I suggested.
“Oh, I think we can make another ten miles or so today,” he said.
“But I’m getting wet!”
“Climb in back with Dannette,” he said. “If there’s room.”
I swallowed a growl of exasperation and, when it was clear Darius was not going to stop the wagon for this maneuver, clambered over the bench with the bar est minimum of grace. The back of the wagon was a welter of boxes and bags and pillows and things—black kettles and dried plants and glass globes and loose shoes and walking sticks and what appeared to be a large collection of desiccated insects. The heavy tarp overhead, loosely stretched over curved wooden ribs, somewhat kept the rain at bay, but even as I pitched to my knees and felt around for an open space to sit, I could feel a few drops of rainwater seep through and fall into my hair.
Dannette was scrunched down toward the back of the wagon, near enough to the half-open back flap to be able to read by weak sunlight. “There’s a little space there between the table and the black trunk,” she said helpfully, pointing. “You have to put your feet up on the bag of goose feathers, though.”
I situated myself with a little difficulty, eventually deciding to sit on the goose feathers to protect myself from the jostling of the ride, even more pronounced back here than up on the bench. “It’s raining,” I said unnecessarily. “Darius doesn’t want to stop.”
“Yes,” she said absently. “That’s fairly typical.”
“I don’t think I like traveling in the rain,” I added.
She laughed. “I find it’s just not worth fussing about.”
I sighed. I usually found everything to be worth fussing about. I squirmed in my spot, found a pillow to wedge behind my head, and finally leaned back against a crate of unidentifiable items that chimed together in time with the jouncing. It wasn’t more than another ten minutes before I fell asleep.
The cessation of motion woke me and I guessed we had stopped for the night. The rain had ended, but the air had that cold, sodden feeling that reminded you how very unpleasant wet weather could be. Climbing out through the back of the wagon, I found myself standing in the cluttered yard of an inn appreciably bigger than the one we’d patronized the night before. I allowed myself to hope it would have more amenities and better food.
Once grooms had come for our horses, our whole group filtered inside. I noticed that Harwin was limping, but I turned my head away without asking him why. Dannette was the first to arrive at the proprietor’s desk, and I heard her ask for two rooms.
Two! I thought with excitement, before realizing that Harwin could easily afford his own and I still would be sharing a space with the others.
The innkeeper, a very tall, very thin man with lank gray hair and overlarge spectacles, looked down at her over the rims and shook his head. “We only have one room left,” he said. “A great number of people were caught in the rain earlier today and checked in instead of traveling on.”
Dannette glanced over her shoulder, her eyebrow raised in a silent question. Darius shrugged. “I don’t mind four to a room,” he said.
Harwin appeared shocked. “Four! You don’t mean that you plan to sleep in the same room as the princess!”
Darius shrugged again. “I did last night.”
Harwin was even more shocked, so much so all he could do was stare at Darius. Dannette touched him lightly on the arm. “I played chaperone and lay beside Olivia in the bed, while my brother curled up on the floor,” she said. “You need not worry. I take my responsibilities seriously.”
Harwin had recovered the power of speech. “Well, you will not share a room with the princess while I travel with you. You and I shall sleep in the stables in your own wagon.”
“There’s not much room in the wagon,” Dannette began, but Darius spoke over her.
You may sleep there if you like, but I will sleep in the bedchamber. I see no reason to camp in a barn when there’s a room available.”
“I cannot allow you to compromise Olivia’s virtue in such a fashion.”
Darius shrugged, took the key from the hand of the very curious innkeeper, and settled his bag over his shoulder. “Well, you can stand guard over me in the room, or you can bed down in the stables, whatever you choose,” he said. “I’m going to wash my face and then come down for dinner.”
Trying not to smirk, I followed him up the stairs, Dannette at my heels. I was not surprised, upon looking over my shoulder, to see Harwin reluctantly following. He was still favoring his left leg.
The room we had been assigned was more spacious than the one we’d had the night before, and featured a small settee in addition to a fairly sizable bed. Harwin was obviously too tall to fit on the settee, so Darius claimed it, but then Darius went to some trouble to gather blankets and pillows to fashion a bed for Harwin on the floor.
“No doubt you’re tired enough to fall right to sleep,” Darius said.
“No doubt,” was Harwin’s cool reply. “Let us repair to the taproom for dinner.”
He hobbled toward the door and Dannette said, “What’s wrong with your foot?”
Hand on the knob, Harwin gave her a wintry look. “I have a small cut.”
She came closer to him. “Not walking that way, you don’t. You have a deep wound, I’m guessing, and it’s gotten worse during a day of travel.”
I suddenly remembered. “Oh! You were bitten during the dog trial!” I exclaimed. “Harwin, you idiot, did you not have someone take a look at your hurts?”
He looked both embarrassed to have roused our concern and irritated at being called an idiot. “I cleaned all the bites myself before setting out,” he said. “I’m fine.”
Dannette pointed toward a stiff-backed chair that was set before a graceful table, as if inviting travelers to pause and write out correspondence. “Sit down,” she said with such authority that Harwin stopped protesting and dropped into the chair. “Take off both your boots and roll up the ends of your trousers.”
Not that I wanted to, but I was seeing in my mind the last few moments of Harwin’s competition against the dogs. “He should take off his shirt, too,” I said. “I know he got hurt on his arms and his chest as well.”
“I am not disrobing in front of all of you,” Harwin said shortly.
“Olivia will look the other way,” Dannette said and knelt on the floor in front of Harwin.
I did not, in fact, look the other way, but watched in some fascination as Harwin slowly removed everything except his trousers. I heard a low whistle from Darius as he settled on the floor beside his sister.
“That’s a nasty piece of work,” he observed, touching Harwin’s left foot. I couldn’t see too well past the screen of their bodies, but I thought it looked swollen and red. Perhaps there was a little pus oozing out along the anklebone. “It must feel like your flesh is on fire.”
“It’s a little painful,” Harwin acknowledged.
Dannette sat back on her heels and looked at her brother. “Do what you can, then I’ll put on salve and bandages.”
“No,” Harwin said sharply, jerking his foot away and tucking it under the chair. “I don’t want his magic. I don’t want his help.”
Dannette came to her feet. “Don’t be an idiot,” she said calmly, using my word again and making Harwin glare. “You don’t like my brother, but you have no reason to distrust him. And don’t say you don’t want to be beholden to him,” she added, raising her voice when he tried to interrupt, “because that’s just stupid. Let him heal you. Or let your foot fester, and succumb to gangrene, and require amputation. That will certainly improve your lot and make your next bride easier to woo.”
As if he couldn’t help himself, Harwin looked directly at me. His face was so wretched that I actually felt pity for him. “Don’t be silly,” I said softly. “Accept his help. Maybe you’ll be able to save his life a couple of days from now, and then you can feel better about it.”
That made Dannette laugh, and even Harwin’s face relaxed into what was almost a smile. He offered his foot to Darius again, who took hold of it in a busi nesslike fashion and began pressing his fingers along the toes and heel. Now Harwin’s expression was one of wonderment.
“That already feels much better,” he said. “What did you do?”
Darius laughed and kept manipulating different sections of the foot. “Magic,” he said. “My greatest strengths are in altering the basic structure of things. So I can turn a butterfly into a bird, for instance. Or I can change a broken bone to a whole one and an infected patch of skin to a well one.”
“It is a most useful skill,” Harwin said stiffly. “I thank you for using your talents on me.”
“I always enjoy the chance to put my magic to use,” Darius said. “It’s like swordplay. If you don’t practice your skills, you lose them.”
Dannette had gone to rummage in her bag, and now she returned with a small bottle and a roll of gauze. She bent over Harwin’s naked chest, examining slash and bite marks on his arms and torso. She touched two of them and shook her head. “You should have had these taken care of before you left the palace,” she scolded.
“I was in a hurry,” Harwin said. He was looking at me again.
I sniffed and tossed my hair. “I suppose you told my father you were coming after me,” I said. “Maybe he even suggested it.”
“I had no conversation with him at all,” he replied.
He didn’t say anything more, but I could read his tone. Harwin had never openly criticized my father, but more than once I had been convinced that he had a low opinion of how my father ruled his kingdom. I knew Harwin had hated the idea of the competition, but I figured that was just because he had so little chance of winning, or so I’d thought. Now I wondered if he had just believed it to be a callous and random way to select a husband for a princess.
Considering who might have won, I had to agree.
Darius stood up and ran his hands lightly over the wounds on Harwin’s upper body, while Dannette spread salve on his foot and wrapped it in a winding layer of gauze. Harwin flexed his toes.
“Thank you,” he said, smiling down at Dannette. “You have a most gentle touch.”
She patted his knee and came to her feet. “There. Now we don’t have to worry about you dying before you can challenge my brother for Olivia’s hand.”
He actually laughed. “It is kind of you both to preserve me for such a future.”
“You deserve to have your life saved, since you saved another man’s life two days ago,” Dannette said. At his inquiring expression, she went on. “During the trial against the fighting dogs. A man had gone down and you went to his aid, even though he was a rival.”
“You saw that?” Harwin asked, gazing up at her. “I didn’t realize the actions inside the arena were that plain to spectators outside it.”
She glanced briefly at her brother. “I had reason to be paying close attention. I thought you showed honor—and bravery.”
Harwin shrugged. “Hard to exhibit either quality in a competition that possessed neither.”
“Well, I observed you, and I was impressed,” Dannette said softly.
He bowed his head and made no other answer. I shifted uncomfortably where I sat. I had seen his act of courage as well, but it seemed awkward and insincere to add my own praises. Oh, yes, now that you mention it, that was a very noble thing to do. It was very annoying to have to feel bad about not being nice enough to Harwin.
“Well, that’s as much as I can do for you,” Darius said, stepping back. “How do you feel?”
Harwin rolled his shoulders experimentally, and the muscles on his chest briefly stood out in relief. “Extraordinarily improved,” he said, standing up. I noticed that Darius looked quite short next to him—although Harwin looked even plainer next to Darius. “You must let me buy dinner for your sister and yourself as part of my thanks.” He glanced at me with a touch of humor. “I will still wait eagerly for my chance to save your life in turn, but perhaps the meal will serve as a stopgap measure of gratitude.”
“Excellent,” Darius said. “I’m starving. Let’s eat.”

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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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