Thaddeus: A warrior cursed with a Blood-Rage. Stephen: A terminally ill prince. Reunited after nine years, Thaddeus discovers Stephen is targeted by the Gods, but with his cursed rage, he wonders--Is he the wisest choice to become Stephen's protector?
Thaddeus lifted his bow and placed the arrow to the string. The buck stood only twenty feet away, grazing calmly on the leaves of some lower tree branches. It was healthy and strong and would make for good meat. Whatever Thaddeus had left over, he would give to a needy family. As he pulled back the string and took aim, focusing on a clean, quick kill… until the growl of a lone predatory salar tore through the air and sent the buck leaping away in fear.
Thaddeus cursed in frustration. He turned to the source of the interruption and heard the frenzied growl again, but only one thing could make a salar sound like that before attacking… human prey.
Forgetting the need to hunt for that evening's meal, Thaddeus gripped his bow and hurried over the hills, darting around trees and brush. The growl had come from the area near the Weeping Boulder. He would have to get there quickly in order to do what he could to save the unfortunate person who had disturbed the salar's rest. The man-eating beasts were merciless in their killings, usually clawing the belly open and letting the scent of warm blood grip them. They would feed upon their victim as it lay slowly dying.
As he leapt up onto the crest of a ravine, he looked down onto the far bank of the river… and froze in place.
There, with his back against a huge oak tree, stood a youth, dressed in what appeared to be the traveling clothes of nobility: a light blue tunic with a dark blue cloak clasped at his neck. Straggly blond hair hung limply to his shoulders. His breeches were also dark blue and his black boots reached his knees. The young noble stood like a statue, perfectly still as a snarling salar growled and unsheathed its fangs before him.
For the first time in six years, Thaddeus felt his heart jump into his throat. It was a sign of life he had not felt within since his soul had died in the Verma camp. For his dream had come to life before his eyes. He saw the salar crouch into position, ready to leap, and that pulled him out of his shock. He lifted the bow and arrow and took careful aim. "Don't move!" he shouted to the young noble.
The sound of his voice forced the salar to growl once again. From the way the cat crouched, the rolling muscles of its shoulders and back, it would lunge at any second. Thaddeus aimed for the neck and let the arrow fly just as the man-eating cat leapt into the air.
With his Rantha strength, the arrow had enough force behind it to rip through the golden hide and muscle, piercing the neck all the way through. Thaddeus watched with uncertainty as he nocked another arrow to his bow, ready to let it fly if the animal tried once more to attack, but no. The salar fell at the youth's feet, dead.
Relieved, Thaddeus drew in a heavy breath and let it out, releasing the excess energy built up by what had happened. He quickly removed the arrow from his bow and stashed it back into the quiver hanging off his back, but he could not take his eyes from the young noble.
Was this what his dream meant for him to do, simply to save the life of this youth? No, there was something more to this than just felling a salar to keep a noble youth from a violent death, and Thaddeus needed to find out exactly what.
He started down the ravine wall. "Are you all right?" he called before he leapt and somersaulted over the river, landing just a few feet away from the dead animal. He turned, now able to focus clearly on the youth.
Small in stature, but still tall enough to reach Thaddeus's shoulder, the youth looked extremely frail and thin. In spite of his flushed face and skin, he had a very comely face. In fact, with a healthy complexion he would be considered beautiful. His eyes were round and the color of a clear spring sky, or would be if not for the glassy film of illness clouding them. His strong jaw smoothed down into a round chin. His had a small, straight nose, turned up a little at the tip. And his lips, though full and shapely, were also pale and dry, the symptoms of sickness clearly evident. Yet Thaddeus wondered why such a sick and flushed youth would not be sweating. Not even a face-to-face encounter with one of the deadliest creatures of Fuhrahl Forest had caused him to perspire.
Thaddeus then saw the stone around the youth's neck and his heart almost stopped. He hitched a breath as the reality of truth came at him from all around his mind. Memories, desire, hope long forgotten; all of those things culminated within his being as he locked eyes with the youth, uncertain he could accept, yet uncertain he could not accept what he knew to be true.
"Stephen?" he whispered, unable to give any more strength to his voice.
The youth smiled at him and reached out a shaking hand. Thaddeus hurried to his side, grasping that hand. And the second they touched, both reacted to the physical contact. A surge of energy flowed through them from one to the other, and Stephen clutched Thaddeus's hand with surprising strength that overwhelmed the warrior. He had not expected such a grip from this obviously very ill young man. He looked into those glassy blue eyes, now swimming in tears. A smile full of tender knowing and contentment shone from Stephen's face, and Thaddeus felt the ice around his heart start to thaw from a gentle and healing heat, which had been far too long a stranger to him.
What happened next was so natural and so welcomed it took a few seconds for Thaddeus to remember the curse on the child prince he had met all those years before.
"I knew… you'd come back."
Thaddeus blanched. Those words had come from Stephen's own mouth.
Stephen had spoken!
But Thaddeus had no time to revel in such a glorious revelation. Stephen's weary eyes rolled back into his head and his body buckled. Thaddeus caught him around the waist and eased him down, cradling him in his arms.
"By Enreak, what is going on?" Thaddeus wasn't sure if he had spoken the words aloud. As he held the unconscious prince, he gazed down at the face that had many times, since his becoming The Marked One, haunted his dreams. The veins within the eyelids were prominent, deepening the gray coloring around the eyes. Stephen looked so much like the child of Thaddeus's memory. He had grown taller, of course, but the lung sickness had ravaged him without mercy.
"How is it you are alive?" the warrior choked out, as he ran a trembling hand over Stephen's pale and beloved face. "You have grown up, my Prince."
He noticed the stone, now encased in gold, hanging from a leather thong around Stephen's neck. He carefully ran his fingers over it, the smooth, oblong surface echoing traces of memory in his mind. That day, so long in the past, now rushed up to greet him in the present and it felt like these last nine years had never come between them; as though Thaddeus had never lost his family to slaughter that night, never sought to learn how to fight in order to avenge their deaths, never met and fell in love with a member of the Swarrin race named Terahn, and never lost that love to an act of violence sending Thaddeus over the edge into darkness.
"Stephen," he whispered, his voice choking under the strain of the emotion fighting with his reason. Stephen could not be alive, but here he was, in Thaddeus's arms. And he had held onto the stone, onto the memory of a rebellious youth who had saved him on that fateful day.
"Stephen, Stephen, Stephen." Thaddeus brushed the tips of his calloused fingers over the stone, worn by Stephen like a medal or, even still, an amulet of protection, just as Thaddeus had told him it would be. "Stephen, is this how you survived… by holding onto my memory, just as I have survived by holding onto yours?"
The tears that fell from his eyes were of joy, and for the first time in what seemed forever, Thaddeus did not deny them. Stephen was alive! The source of his hope, the small candle of light in his darkness, the treasure still shining in his burned-out soul, was alive, and talking.
Unconsciously, he pulled the youth tighter into his embrace and lowered his lips to Stephen's ear, whispering; "Is this a dream?"
But in a shattering second, something happened to turn the dream into a nightmare. Thaddeus felt the chill of steel against his cheek. He heard the sound of a hard-edged voice full of violent warning.