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THE KING’S WHISPER

Book Two of the Vanguards of Viridor


A Novel


T.S. Cleveland




Copyright © 2018 Victoria Skye Cleveland

Smashwords Edition


Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the materials or artwork herein is prohibited. This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this eBook with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this eBook and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of the author.


This book is available in print at many online retailers.


The King’s Whisper is a work of fiction.

All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.




OTHER BOOKS BY T.S. CLEVELAND


The Sun Guardian Book One of the Vanguards of Viridor

The King’s Whisper Book two of the Vanguards of Viridor




For Bernie, because Effie would be lost without her.

And the reader of this story would be, too.



TABLE OF CONTENTS

Part One: The Flute

1 - Pleasantly Stirred

2 - Wolf Run

3 - The Generosity of a King

4 - The Unusual Habits of Fruit Bandits

5 - Shallow Wounds

6 - Twisted

7 - The Disagreeable Flautist

8 - Hard and Unmistakable

9 - A Simple Trade

10 - Peculiar Aches

11 - Captain Ellison Quinn

12 - Thawing

13 - Crescendo

Part Two: The Whisper

14 - The Most Dangerous Thing in the Woods

15 - Very Bad Bandits

16 - A Good Plan

17 - The Eye Never Lies

18 - Exponential Gumption

19 - Honey Trap

20 - Gut Feeling

21 - Erne Bluehawke’s Illumination

22 - Fated

23 - The Bandit King

About the Author





Part One: The Flute


1 - Pleasantly Stirred


Felix was worried. He was trying to act as if he wasn’t, but it was a difficult task when the subject of his worry was hobbling about the room like nothing was amiss. He flexed his fingers anxiously as he watched Merric pace unevenly across the floor in an equally worried frenzy. But while Felix was worried for Merric’s health, Merric was worried over the whereabouts of their companions, the companions who should have been in the neighboring room, but were, for the time being, leaving the knocks on their door unanswered.

“If he’s left—” Merric fretted, grimacing as he turned on his bad leg. He’d left his newly acquired cane leaning against the bed, and Felix’s eyes darted to it. He wondered if it was his place to suggest Merric make use of it. If he planned on burning a path in the rug from the friction of his frantic feet, he could at least use the cane and avoid putting more stress on his injury.

“All we know is that they aren’t in their room,” Felix said, in what he considered to be his most calming tone. He had several tones for fulfilling several purposes, a habit picked up from a life of dealing with drunken tavern patrons. “They could be taking a walk together. Or perhaps they are in their room and are otherwise occupied.” He smiled at the thought. Vivid and Scorch had been dancing around one another the entire time he had been traveling with them, and he wasn’t surprised when they’d finally appeared to have consummated their feelings earlier that morning. Merric had been happy to leave them alone, when their faces were flushed and their laces were messily tied, but now the hour was late, Vivid and Scorch had missed lunch and dinner, and the guardian apprentice limping around the room was thin on patience and well wishes.

“Scorch has to return with us tomorrow,” Merric carried on, wincing past the obvious pain it caused him to move around so heatedly. “He can’t just disappear into the night.” He turned on his heel and his face paled to a sickly white.

Felix leapt from his huddle on the bed and was at his side in seconds, wrapping an arm around his waist. “Will you sit down? You can agonize just as well while you’re sitting.”

“I’m fine,” Merric grumbled, but he let Felix lead him to the bed anyway. He even let Felix prop his leg up onto the mattress and push him back into the pillows. Nestled and finally off his feet, he sighed. “He should come back to the guild with me.” His voice was softer now that he wasn’t walking, but the aggravated edge to it remained. “He saved the queen’s life, and he should be there to be honored for it. It’s where he belongs. It’s his home.”

Felix positioned himself beside Merric, brushing a strand of hair from his eyes, an auburn rogue that had escaped the pushed back styling of its brethren. “Scorch didn’t save the queen by himself,” he reminded him gently. “I seem to remember another guardian in that courtyard, fighting in the rain, looking as fierce as any elemental I’ve ever met.”

Merric frowned at him. “Guardian apprentice,” he corrected, running a thumb carefully over Felix’s cheek and resting it on the bruise beneath his eye. “And I remember a flautist throwing himself into trouble when he should have been safely at home, out of harm’s way.”

“It’s only a black eye,” Felix said, holding onto Merric’s wrist and pulling his hand forward to kiss. “I should have died yesterday and all I have is a black eye. Tell me, do I look dangerous, like a well-worn adventurer?” He put on his best scowl, but he knew it was no good—he had practiced it in the looking glass earlier, to no avail. No matter how much he scrunched up his eyebrows, his soft curls and slender frame kept him looking decidedly nonthreatening and far more innocent than he felt.

“You are a fearsome adventurer,” Merric claimed, scooting closer on the bed. “But I’m never letting you get hurt again.”

Felix leaned into his touch and closed his eyes. He was a flautist. He knew how to entertain a tavern, not wield a sword. There was no elemental power coursing through his veins. There was nothing miraculous about him at all, no reason why he should have survived the battle in the courtyard, when he’d been surrounded by flying rocks and torrential winds and spinning assassin blades. The fact that he had survived, with little more than some swelling around his eye, was a fact he was still trying to process, especially when the man beside him, a guild-trained fighter, had suffered a far worse injury.

When he opened his eyes, Merric was watching him with parted lips, his breath fanning warm and rapid against Felix’s cheek. If they’d not been sharing sleeping space for the past week, exchanging kisses and embraces, he might have mistaken the expression as a prelude to passion. But as it was, Felix knew there was another reason behind Merric’s suddenly ruddy complexion and labored breathing.

“You’ve been up too much on your leg, I think,” he assessed, running his fingers down Merric’s chest. They were clothed lightly, the both of them, in long sleep shirts provided by Queen Bellamy, and the rich fabric was soft beneath his touch. He let his hand trace down the crook of Merric’s hip, dipping into the crease of his bothered leg, then skirting it along his bare thigh. “How badly does it hurt?”

“Only a little,” Merric lied.

Felix hadn’t seen it happen, but the tale had been regaled to him the night before, when the physician had come to tend their injuries. In the midst of the battle with Axum and his league of elemental assassins, an Air had caught Merric up in a gale of wind and smashed him into a tree, his leg taking the brunt of the damage. Upon examination, the physician told him his ailment would likely sort itself out in time, but that he might require the use of a cane until it no longer hurt him to walk. He was young and strong and sure to recover shortly—so the woman had said—but Felix wasn’t quite as convinced, and he could tell Merric wasn’t either.

“Where is the salve?” he asked, soothing the embarrassment of his question by following it with a kiss.

Merric relaxed marginally against the press of Felix’s lips, but he still gritted his teeth when he answered, “By the bath.”

Felix kissed him again before rising from the bed and pattering toward the adjacent room. He found the jar of numbing salve on the floor beside the large copper tub. When he re-entered the bedchamber, Merric had graduated to lying flat on his back, his hands resting on his chest. His bright green eyes tracked Felix’s approach.

“Would you like to do it or shall I?” Felix asked, lowering himself onto the mattress and presenting the jar shyly. For a moment, he thought Merric would refuse the gesture altogether. When Merric smiled—a small, pained expression—it was a relief to his heart. All Felix truly wanted was to help.

“Will you do it?” Merric asked, and Felix knew it took a lot out of him. To need someone else, to let someone see him in pain, it wasn’t a side of Merric many had been privy to. A Guardian of the Guild was tough, too skilled to be hurt and too proud to admit weakness. But Felix had never thought of Merric as weak, not since the first moment they’d met. Merric had been standing tall beside the Guild River, offering Scorch his comfort and camaraderie, and as soon as their eyes had met, Felix knew that the guildmaster’s son was no typical guardian. Like Scorch, he was different. Felix had scarcely left his side since that moment, and was still trying desperately to figure out what it was that made him stand apart.

“Of course,” Felix answered, already twisting open the jar. His knowledge of medicinals wasn’t extensive, but the queen’s physician had explained the given salve would help alleviate Merric’s pain, and that’s all he needed to know. Since seeing Merric limping toward him in the courtyard, soaking wet and splattered with blood, he had been trying to erase the pain written on his handsome features. If rubbing his bare, muscular legs would help lessen any of his discomfort, Felix was only too eager to assist.

Merric inhaled roughly at the first dollop of cool salve on his skin. “It’s cold,” he complained, squirming beneath Felix’s hands.

“Give it a moment.” He began working his fingers gently down Merric’s thigh and around to his hip, where the worst of the pain seemed to radiate. “You shouldn’t neglect your cane,” he hushed as he rubbed deep, methodical circles into the meat of Merric’s thigh. Whether it was his place or not, he had to say it. “Your leg might get worse if you don’t use it.”

“I don’t need it,” Merric replied, as predicted. “I’m not a cripple.”

Felix massaged the salve further down his thigh, until Merric seized up beneath him, a cry of pain making Felix unhand him at once, startled. “I’m sorry!” he gasped.

Merric’s breaths were ragged, but he forced a smile onto his face. “I’m okay. It’s okay.”

Felix shook his head, tried to push the salve into Merric’s hand. “Maybe you should do it instead. I’m no good at this. I’m hurting you.”

“No, really. I want you to do it,” Merric insisted, his eyes seeking Felix’s. “I like the way you touch me.”

As he was apt to do, Felix blushed, but when Merric pulled him down, he didn’t resist. Merric kissed him, a firm and assuring brush of lips that had Felix willing to try again. He sat up and dug more salve from the jar, trying not to smile too hard. When he put his hands back on Merric’s leg, it was with nervous tenderness, but there were no more shouts of pain from the man beneath him. Whether he was holding it in or the salve was finally beginning to work, Felix couldn’t tell.

“He should really come back to the guild with me,” Merric began again after a minute of silence.

Felix looked up from his handful of leg with an amused snort. “Don’t worry so much about Scorch. He has to follow his own path.”

“He’s not following a path, he’s following an assassin. A short assassin with a bad attitude, no less.”

“He’s following his heart,” Felix said. He ran his fingertips from the top of Merric’s thigh to his knee, eliciting a shiver. “We should all be so bold.”

Merric pushed himself up from the pillows and took the jar from Felix’s hand, setting it aside. “You’ll come with me, won’t you?”

It was strange. Felix had only known Merric for a short time, but they already clung together, knowing it would hurt to separate. He wondered, studying the earnest curve of Merric’s mouth and the faintly upturned slope of his nose, if the sensation knocking around his stomach might be love. In the stories he sang, in the melodies he played, love was always a colossal, impossible to ignore feeling that beat insanity into its victims’ heads and poured purpose into their every action. It was the catalyst for all his favorite tales, and it was always identifiable and obvious to the heroes and heroines. But stories, Felix well knew, were exaggerations. People didn’t want to hear about everyday truths, they wanted to escape into lives better than their own. So didn’t it make sense for love to be the same? Looking at Merric, being near him, it made him feel warm, but he was never impassioned by it. Merric made him happy, but never deliriously so. His kisses stirred him pleasantly, but they didn’t make him wild with need. Maybe the simple truth was that people didn’t ever feel wildly for one another. Maybe they only felt pleasantly stirred and that was all. Maybe what he was feeling was love, and he was just too naïve and dreamy-headed to realize it for what it was.

“Felix?”

Felix blinked away his spell of introspection and tried to focus. “Y-you want me to come back to the guild with you? Are you sure?”

“Your village is right down the road anyway,” Merric said, taking Felix’s hands in his. “Come back with me. I want you there.”

“But what would I do?” asked Felix. “The guild is no place for a flautist. I’d be in the way.”

“Nonsense. You can play your flute for all the miserable apprentices.”

“Aren’t you a miserable apprentice?”

“Hopefully not for much longer,” Merric laughed, and the smile on his face was so genuine, so missed, that Felix couldn’t resist returning it. “Please say you’ll join me.” He sank his fingers into Felix’s thick curls. “I don’t want to say goodbye to you yet.”

He brought their lips together in another kiss, one hand secured in Felix’s hair and the other falling gently to his knee. Felix let himself be coaxed to his back, his legs parting and making room for Merric to lie between.

“Come home with me,” Merric whispered against his mouth, and between the comfort of his weight and the sweet trail of his words, his hands, his eyes, Felix found he couldn’t think of a good enough reason to say no.

The next morning, Felix stood with his head bowed as Queen Bellamy placed a sword in Merric’s hands.

“For your service and bravery, I gift you a sword of the Royal Sentinel.”

The weapon was shiny and expertly crafted, with a rose-gold hilt and the queen’s sigil emblazoned on the grip. Merric couldn’t bow properly, not with his wounded leg, but he nodded deeply, and Felix felt a sting of pride. Though technically still an apprentice, and technically not acting under an official guardianship, Merric had acted bravely. He had shielded Felix’s body with his own and battled with rabid elementals to protect the queen. It had been like a dream, like a song, and Felix had started composing a melody in his head the instant Merric had pulled him from beneath the pile of bodies. He was still working on it now, even as the Queen of Viridor continued her praiseful litany.

He studied Queen Bellamy discreetly, through the tumble of hair falling over his forehead, wondering if it would be too pedestrian to refer to her eyes as “honeyed” in a song, or if he should reach for a loftier likeness. Visions of honeycombs and autumn moons and soft sunrises were swimming in his head until the inspiration for his poetry abruptly turned her attention away from the courageous guardian apprentice and looked toward him instead.

The wistful melody in his head stopped playing and he lowered his eyes from the queen’s honeyed gaze—yes, honeyed was really the best descriptor—and waited for her fleeting interest in him to pass. Surely, her eyes were only resting on him on their way to something far more deserving of her attention. The potted plant behind him, for example.

“Felix, for your service and bravery, I gift you this.”

He heard her words, but didn’t understand. When Axum had attacked the palace, Felix had hidden behind Merric, and then he’d concealed himself beneath a pile of dead assassins to keep safe until the danger passed. Afterward, he had helped a limping Merric reach the carriages, but that had been the beginning and end of his heroics.

Standing before Queen Bellamy now made him feel like a fraud. His eye was blackened from an elemental’s elbow, but he had not fought, he had not served, and he had not been brave. He had been a crutch for Merric until the physician had supplied him with a proper cane. He was a flautist who would compose a song of the battle, but would keep himself solidly out of the story. He didn’t belong there. He’d done nothing to earn a single line of lyric, let alone a gift from the queen.

But she smiled at him and laid her hand on his arm until he unclenched his fist, and then she placed in his open palm a flute. It was silver and covered in a delicate design of razor-thin budding vines, winding up its body and blooming into a moonflower on the curved lip plate. The instrument was slim and light in his hands, and his fingers closed around it covetously.

“You will pardon me for thinking this more suitable for you than a sword,” said the queen.

Felix sucked in a shuddering breath. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid eyes on, Your Majesty. Th-thank you.” He could feel Merric’s approving presence beside him and wished he could tear his eyes away from the flute to smile at him. He smiled at the flute instead. It was shiny enough that he could vaguely see his own reflection smiling back.

“It is a special instrument, or so I am told,” continued the queen. “Old and true, made by my bloodline’s musicians of days long gone. I can think of no one better fitted for being its new owner than you. Accept it and remember my thanks.”

The most precious of gifts, and he cradled it in his hands only because he had surrounded himself with brave friends. But as undeserving as he might have felt, he could never have refused it. Already, he was too attached to its pattern of vines and the way it warmed in his hands, and the sensuous curve of its silver plate, where he longed to place his lips and blow.

“I will treasure it always, Your Majesty,” he answered breathlessly, bowing low to the ground.

“So formal,” someone scoffed from the doorway, and Felix cocked his head at the familiar rasp. A woman was leaning in the frame of the queen’s chamber door, her leathers as black as the eye patch angled across her face.

He rose awkwardly from his bow as the queen crossed the room to the newcomer’s side. Merric caught his eye, looking dubious. Despite traveling with her for weeks and fighting at her side, Merric wasn’t the biggest fan of Audrey. It wasn’t because she was an elemental—Merric held no prejudices in that regard, in stark opposition to the majority of Viridorians—but because she was an assassin. Or used to be, in any case. As of yesterday, she’d declared that she wouldn’t be returning to the Assassins’ Hollow, but staying in the Royal Quarter to assist Queen Bellamy with the opening of the elemental school. Judging by the sturdy frown on Merric’s face, Felix assumed such a turn was not enough to impress him, nor make him trust her. Felix, contrarily, thought Audrey was amazing.

“No sign of them anywhere,” Audrey said with a smirk, answering the unvoiced question on the queen’s lips. “But there is a single horse missing from the stables. And your hidden stash of guild-brewed whiskey is gone.”

With the formalities of the gift-giving ceremony obviously at an end, Merric slipped his arm around Felix’s waist. He’d left his cane propped against the wall, not wanting to stand before the queen with its aid, but it was clear he now needed the extra support, and Felix was happy to take some of his weight.

“They just left?” Merric asked, the perplexity plain in his voice.

Felix was considerably less surprised by the vanishing of Scorch and his assassin. They hadn’t looked like two men keen on sticking around for social niceties the last time he’d seen them. Felix was glad of it, for their sake. In his mind, they deserved the respite, but Merric had different opinions.

“He’s making a big mistake. He won’t be welcomed back into the fold of the Guardians’ Guild by running away from it,” he complained.

The queen looked similarly stricken. “Scorch and Vivid were to remain in the Royal Quarter to teach.” She shot an accusatory glance at Audrey. “You told me you spoke with them.”

Audrey looked over at Felix, and he guessed that they, at least, were of a similar mind. “They promised nothing. Only that they would think about it,” she said.

“A guardian’s place is at the Guardians’ Guild,” Merric grumped, “not gallivanting through the countryside with assassins.”

“Who is to teach elementals once the school is in order?” asked the queen.

Audrey coughed pointedly. “I will still be here to help. And I do know other elementals.”

“More assassins, I’ll bet,” Merric snarked.

“More assassins, yes,” replied Audrey coolly. “But others, as well. I’ve a brother who would help teach, for the right price.”

“A brother of yours? I’m sure he’s an upstanding citizen,” Merric returned.

Queen Bellamy pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. “I suppose we have time to discuss it.” She turned to Felix and Merric with a wary grin. “It’s unfortunate that neither of you are elementals, or I would entreat upon your aid.”

“It is regrettable, Your Majesty,” answered Merric. “But the guild looks forward to serving you in the future, in whatever way we can. And that includes protection for your school, when it is needed.”

“It will surely be needed,” the queen agreed, “especially in the coming months, while the world adjusts.” Before her life had been threatened, elementals had been persecuted for decades. Until Scorch had convinced Queen Bellamy to destroy the decrees, it had been legal to kill them, encouraged even, a barbaric act practiced with regularity across the country. Felix had thought that was a particularly morbid irony after discovering the queen herself was an elemental. Of course, that was a secret—and probably why he was being gifted such a wondrous flute.

The queen and Merric continued exchanging solemn words on the advances to be made, and Felix just nodded along, for he knew it was not his help the queen sought. Unless she was desperate for a flautist, chances were slim they would ever meet again. He smoothed his thumb along the mouth hole of the flute and wondered dreamily what it must be like to have the power of an elemental under one’s skin. Like so many things, it would never be for him to experience. He would write about it, and play songs about it, and that would have to be enough.

“You are welcome to remain here until the palace is rebuilt,” Queen Bellamy offered for the third time that day. “You may stay as long as you like.”

“We appreciate it, Your Majesty,” Merric answered. “But we must be heading back today. The guildmaster will need to know what happened, and we’ve already dallied too long.”

Felix nodded in agreement, but the sharp look Audrey fixed him with made his mouth go dry. “What is it?” he asked her, self-consciousness making his voice weak.

“Are you returning to the guild, too?” she asked, and he could tell by her tone that she disapproved. For what reason, he wasn’t sure.

“Merric has invited me,” he answered, remembering the discussion in their room the night before, the blankets kicked off the bed and their knees touching. Merric had kissed the palm of his hand. “And I have accepted his invitation.”

Merric squeezed his waist, rousing the butterflies in his stomach. He was handsome, so very handsome, and for some reason, he wanted Felix, had been eyeing him with adoration since they’d met. As an entertainer of taverns, Felix had received his fair share of looks in the past, but they were mostly looks of lust or amusement or boredom. No one had ever looked at him the way Merric did. Adoringly. He was naught but a flautist with a humble income and minimal prospects. If a handsome guardian apprentice wanted to take him home, who was he to resist?

Audrey left the queen’s side to walk up to Felix and roughly ruffle his hair. Most everything about her was rough, even her sparsely distributed affections. “Take care, little one. It’s a long way home.”

“We’ll be fine,” Merric said, and the confidence in his voice made Felix smile. “Queen Bellamy has been kind enough to outfit our carriage with a royal guard.” He nodded appreciatively toward the queen.

“It’s my pleasure,” she said. “Try not to render any of them unconscious though, would you?”

Felix blushed guiltily. It had been his plan, after all, before the attack on the palace, to knock out the guards and wear their armor in order to free Scorch and Merric from the dungeon. “Y-you have my word, Your Majesty.”

“And you have my eternal thanks,” she said. “And this, as well, before I forget.” She pulled from the pocket of her trousers two velvet pouches. Felix flinched as she threw one his way, fumbling and dropping it to the floor. He could hear Audrey’s snigger as he bent over quickly to retrieve it, and then the clanging of coins as Merric caught the second pouch without issue.

The weight of the pouch was heavy. Too heavy. “There’s no need for this, Your Majesty,” he began, holding the velvet uncomfortably in one hand while his other clutched possessively around the flute. “I already feel quite compensated.”

Merric seemed with him on the matter of payment, making no move to tie the pouch to his belt. “Yes, Felix is right,” he agreed. “The guild cannot accept this. As a mere apprentice, it would be dishonest. Our quest to save you was an unofficial guardianship, Your Majesty.”

“Then do not accept it on behalf of the guild,” Queen Bellamy told him, waving her hand casually at their refusal. “Accept it on behalf of yourself, to whom I have gifted it.”

Felix made to protest once more, but he was shut down by a forceful gleam of honey eyes. He placed the pouch in his trouser pocket—the trousers also given to him by the queen—and said no more of it until twenty minutes later, when he and Merric were walking toward the carriage awaiting them.

“I’ve never had so much coin in my life,” he confessed. “Am I walking funny? I feel like my gait is off from all the weight.”

“I have no complaints about the way you walk,” Merric assured him. “Besides, I believe I’m the one with the funny gait.” He waved his cane halfheartedly between them as they stopped outside the carriage.

Felix turned to him, offering his most reassuring smile. “Your leg will heal.” He dropped his gaze to Merric’s legs, lean and strong, even though he kept one foot barely touching the ground as they stood. It had started hurting him again terribly in the middle of the night, and Felix had needed to call for more salve to ease the pain. It made his stomach ache to see Merric hurt, but he tried to keep reminding himself that it could have been far worse, for both of them.

“I know,” Merric said, “but I dislike the idea of staggering back through the Guild Walls with a cane.”

“If you like, I can try and carry you instead.”

Merric laughed, and his eyes lit up, as green and bright as dew-tipped grass. Felix would write about those eyes, and his auburn hair, and his flawless skin, the small moles that smattered the planes of his cheeks, when the time allowed. The melody in his head was waiting for its chance to be put to paper, and the new flute was tucked safely in his satchel beside his old. Felix thrummed to play it. Later, he would, when he could give it the care it deserved, and bumps in the road weren’t jostling him in his seat.

“I think being carried back to the guild would be even worse than limping,” Merric said, extending his hand.

“I don’t know,” Felix pondered as he accepted the hand and stepped into the carriage. “It would make for a dramatic entrance.”

Merric grimaced as he pulled himself onto the seat. He rubbed at his leg, teeth clenched. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep. I might need to be carried, and then what will you do?”

“I promise to carry you to the best of my abilities, if needed,” Felix swore, smoothing the hair from Merric’s eyes and planting a kiss on the corner of his mouth. “And I will try my very best not to drop you. But I think I probably might.”

“You wouldn’t,” Merric whispered, cupping Felix’s cheek and kissing him.

“I’m used to carrying around a flute, not a grown man. But I’d give it my best.”

Felix felt the carriage shake as the two royal guards climbed up beside the driver. It was midday, the sky was blue, he had a handsome guardian tucked against his side, and a royal escort home. He rested his head on Merric’s shoulder and thanked the Gods for making him so lucky.




2 - Wolf Run


Felix was no stranger to travel. When Rex, the tradesman of his small, guild-adjacent village, journeyed out to trade and sell, Felix would often accompany him, playing for the taverns of the villages they frequented on their route. Sometimes it was for coin, but sometimes the tavern owners had no money to spare, and on those occasions, he was happy to perform for free. Rex would roll his eyes every time he bounced back to the wagon with a smiling face and empty coin purse, but it never bothered Felix. What did bother him, what rattled his bones and sloshed his stomach, was the rickety rocking of Rex’s old wagon that shook at every bump and dip of the road. So, no, he was no stranger to travel. What he was unaccustomed to, however, was the smooth ride of a royal carriage.

He had ridden in one a few days prior, from the devastated palace in the Royal Quarter to the countryside’s secondary residence, but he’d been wet, dirty, and high on adrenaline at the time, and he’d barely noticed how evenly the wheels rolled down the road or how soft the cushions were against his sore body. Now, well rested from days of rare luxury, he found himself appreciating the fact that he was riding in a royal carriage, and that, when he closed his eyes, he could hardly tell they were moving at all.

“You look happy.”

He cracked an eyelid. Merric was watching him with a curious smile. They had been traveling for a few hours, by Felix’s estimation, and the sun streaming through the carriage windows was making him drowsy. He yawned and stretched, mindful not to knock into Merric, who had carefully extended his wounded leg to rest on the opposing bench of seat cushions.

“I’m tired.”

“If you were more awake, would you be less happy?” Merric asked, reaching out to wind a curl around his finger. He liked playing with Felix’s curls.

“I’ll let you know when I wake up.”

Merric made a show of rolling his shoulders in invitation for him to rest his head, but as Felix leaned in, the carriage came to a sudden stop, jolting him forward. He braced his hands on the opposite bench and Merric moved at once, snaking a hand around Felix’s chest and pulling him back to his side.

“Are you alright?” he asked. When Felix nodded, he stuck his head out the carriage window. “Everything okay out there?” he shouted. “What happened?”

Felix looked out his own window worriedly, but saw nothing but rows and rows of evergreens dusted with snow. He couldn’t see the road ahead of them, but he could hear the disgruntled whinny of the horses. It was a moment later when one of the royal guards poked his head through Merric’s window. “Sorry about the stop. There’s a downed tree in the road. Gave us a bit of a start.”

“A downed tree? Can we go around?” Merric asked.

The guard shrugged apologetically. “The forest is too dense this far out to pull the carriage through. We’ll have to move it. It’s not too big. We should be able to make a path within the half hour.”

“I’ll assist you,” said Merric.

Felix touched his hand. “But your leg.”

Merric looked prepared to argue, but the guard backed away from the window before he could, murmuring something about having it “all under control” and “not to worry”. Darkness flashed in Merric’s eyes and Felix had to look away, not liking what he saw.

“I can help move a tree,” Merric insisted, but even as he made to lift from his seat, he winced in pain. “For the love of the Gods,” he hissed.

“There’s no shame in being wounded,” Felix reminded him. “I, on the other hand, am of perfect health and can no more move a tree than carry you. Shameful, indeed.” That earned him a weak laugh. “I suppose I could sing them a jaunty tune while they worked,” he continued. “A workman’s ditty to inspire their efforts.”

“They would be distracted by your beautiful voice and never get the tree moved. We’d be here forever.” Merric took Felix’s hand and gave it a light squeeze. “I may not be much help, but I can lend them my sword to chop branches and ease the weight of their work.” He opened the carriage door and ambled to the ground with the help of his cane. Felix could see determination warring with pain on his face, and it inspired him to move as well, but Merric stopped him with a touch on his shoulder and a shake of his head.

“It’s cold, Felix,” he said sweetly. “You should stay here and keep warm. I don’t want you to get sick.”

“I can’t sit here with everyone else working,” Felix exclaimed. “Let me help.”

Merric sighed and his breath became a white cloud in the wintry air. “You said you were tired. Close your eyes for a bit, and by the time you wake, we’ll be back on our way.”

He’d known there was a protective streak in Merric, a deep need to care for those weaker than himself, but Felix hadn’t yet decided if he liked it directed his way. He knew he wasn’t strong, or particularly brave, and he didn’t know how to fight or move trees out of roads, but it didn’t mean he enjoyed being coddled. Sometimes it was nice, like when Merric had been spreading soothing ointment over his black eye, but he didn’t appreciate being told to nap because he was too delicate to be in the cold air.

“I think I—”

A whooshing noise whizzed between the small space that separated Felix and Merric, and a second later, one of the guards howled in pain. He stumbled into Felix’s line of vision with an arrow pierced through his shoulder, straight through his bronze armor.

Felix gasped, his hands clapping over his mouth, and Merric shoved him back into the carriage, slamming the door and pulling closed the frilly window curtain.

“Merric!” he shouted, clamoring to his knees from where he’d fallen between the seats. He hurried back to the window, ripping the curtain open and trying to catch another glimpse of the wounded guard. “What’s happening?”

“Stay down!” Merric ordered, as he brandished the sword he’d only been given a few hours before. He staggered unevenly in front of the carriage door, his cane forgotten in the snow.

Felix crouched down between the seats, heart racing. The guard who had been shot was still wailing, but above the sound of his distress, a word could be heard that froze the blood in his veins: “Bandits!”

“Bandits?” he repeated to himself, sticking his head back out the window to see.

“Stay down!” Merric repeated angrily, but Felix was already craning his head to look around the front of the carriage. He’d sung countless songs about bandits, but he’d never seen one, never in all his traveling with Rex, even though the forests were rumored to be filled with them. Rex had encountered them a few times, but never when Felix was with him. There was a nonsensical part of him that had always felt jealous of the tradesman’s encounters, and even now, as his heart pounded with terror, it felt impossibly cruel that he could be so close to one of his stories and not see it for himself.

He searched the road excitedly, but saw nothing but the bleeding guard lowered to his knees. The second guard, the carriage driver, and Merric all stood with their swords out, their royal emblems flashing in the bright sun. To Felix’s eyes, there were no bandits to be seen. He felt a twinge of disappointment and sank back into the carriage cushions.

“I thought I saw movement in the trees ahead,” the arrow-stricken guard heaved, and Felix breathed a sigh of relief. Clearly, the wound wasn’t so serious that the man couldn’t speak.

“I don’t see anything,” the other guard said as each man continued to survey their surroundings.

Outside his window, Merric kept his sword at the ready, and the melody Felix had been composing earlier returned to him, playing loudly in his head. How brave he looked, and handsome. Merric didn’t look like an apprentice; he looked like a guardian, all brute strength and courage.

Felix sighed, admiring the way Merric’s dark auburn hair glimmered in the sun like rubies, lost in the sight. There was no sound, no sign of approach. He was constructing a verse about Merric’s broad shoulders, and wondering if it would be overkill to dedicate an entire verse to them, when a large hand covered his mouth and he was wrenched out through the open window.

Felix kicked, his feet hitting the roof of the carriage, and Merric spun around, briefly meeting his huge, horrified eyes as he was pulled away. Merric stood stunned for a moment, his breath hanging heavy in the air, and then he sprang into action.

“Felix!” Merric raced around the back of the carriage, but strong arms were already dragging him backwards into the tree line.

Felix struggled, his arms flailing, his legs kicking wildly, but whoever held him was holding him tight. He could see Merric coming for him, and the second guard, even the driver. They would catch the man dragging him away; he knew it. He knew it up until the moment more arrows zoomed past his head. One struck the second guard in the arm, and one hit Merric in his bad leg, sending him falling forward, gasping.

Felix’s screaming was muffled by a hand, but he could see the people moving forward with their bows drawn, the lower halves of their faces obscured by black bandanas. Bandits. One approached Merric, aiming an arrow at his head, even as he tried to stagger to his feet. Felix bucked his head back, smashing into the nose of the bandit holding him. He heard a string of curse words in his ear before he was dropped. He scrambled forward in the snow.

Beyond Merric, he spotted the second guard being taken down, his sword knocked uselessly from his hand. The first guard was lying face first on the road now, a bandit leaning over him, his fingers pressed to his neck.

The bandit with an arrow pointed at Merric was saying something, but Felix couldn’t hear past the blood pounding in his ears. He crawled towards them and his hand reached out, grabbing the bandit’s ankle with the intention of yanking him off balance. But before he could tighten his grip, he was hauled to his feet. He turned, punching blindly and hitting nothing, and then an arm closed around his neck and started to squeeze.

He could still see Merric, could see his mouth moving, shaping his name. He could see him surging to his feet and stabbing his sword at the man with the arrow. He could see Merric fighting until his vision started to dim. His hands battered weakly at his assailant’s crushing forearm as his air was cut off. He felt himself sag in the bandit’s arms and his eyes shut.

When he opened them again, he was being swung over someone’s shoulder. And then he couldn’t see Merric anymore. “Merric!” he screamed, coughing, his throat tender. He tried to twist his body, tried to catch a glimpse of him, but all he could see was red in the snow where the bandit carrying him was dripping blood from his nose. A second later, he heard the loosing of an arrow and a grunt. He heard a body falling. “Merric! Merric!”

There was no answer, just the harsh breathing of the bandit who carried him as he began to run.


***


It was worse than being in Rex’s wagon, being carried over his abductor’s shoulder. His head pulsed with pressure from being upside down, and his stomach ached from the unforgiving shoulder pressing into his guts, knocking around his insides as they kept a steady jog through the trees.

After several minutes of running, they reached a clearing, where saddled horses were tethered to the trees, nudging their noses into the snow in search of grass. Felix was thrown over the back of one of the animals, stomach down, and the bandit swung up behind him. He barely had time to breathe before they were off again, several sets of hooves joining them in their canter. He bounced miserably with every step, and only the hand of the bandit pressing into his back kept him on the horse.

His vision was better than it had been upside down over a shoulder, and when he turned his head he could see more horses, and more bandits sitting astride them. They all wore black bandanas over their faces and thick furs around their shoulders. The clothes beneath looked like random scraps of leather and fur and cloth stitched together. He could see no swords at their belts, only bows strapped to their backs. There were five of them that Felix could see—including the one currently sharing a horse with him—and one of them had shot Merric. His eyes blurred with unshed tears as he tried his best to stay calm. If Merric was still alive, he would come for him.

If he was still alive.

Felix had an awful feeling in his chest, a pang in his heart that made him doubt the likelihood of a rescue from Merric, or anything from Merric ever again. He let his mind drift blankly while the horse bounced his body carelessly about, seeing red snow every time he closed his eyes.

The horses came to a stop about an hour later, but it felt like ages to Felix. The bandit jumped from the saddle and lifted him from the horse like he weighed nothing at all. He collapsed as soon as his feet hit the ground, his head swimming and his vision blackening around the edges. The voices surrounding him sounded far away.

“Careful, Princeling, you’ll make a mess of yourself.”

“Don’t want to muss the lace collar.”

“You want to look nice for King.”

He was lifted and held up between two burly men, who began dragging him forward, his feet barely scraping the ground. With great effort, he blinked away the dizziness, and a horde of covered faces came into focus, walking with him as he was dragged into what appeared to be a camp. It was large, filled with rows of tents and several fire pits. He was even swept past a clothesline, where underclothes and furs were hanging by wooden pins.

“Where are you taking me?” he asked groggily, because he wasn’t so sure his captors were bandits anymore. In the songs, bandit camps were monstrous places, with prisoners crying in cages and heads on spikes. Not a single one had mentioned anything about laundry.

“Why, to see King, of course,” replied one of the men holding him up. Felix turned his head to look at his face. All he could really see were his eyes, as the rest of his features were covered, but the eyes were plenty interesting on their own, smudged in a black coal, and reminding him of the folk who sometimes visited taverns with low-cut bodices and purses to fill.

“King?” Felix repeated, sure he’d misunderstood. “Viridor has no king.”

The gathering of people—now a small crowd—all began to laugh. The man at Felix’s side shook his head in amusement. “Not talking about a King of Viridor, Princeling. I’m talking about the bandit king.”

“Wha—”

He squawked in surprise as he was thrown to the ground at the center of camp, and the bandits roared with laughter, making his head ache even worse. He stood slowly—still lacking proper balance due to his inversion of the last hour—and looked up at the dais before him. Sitting in a chair, draped in black furs, was a man, and when he held up his hand, the bandits’ laughter tapered into silence.

“What is this?” the man asked, not moving from his seat. He stared down at Felix with an air of disinterest, but Felix could not say he did the same, because the man before him required his full attention. His hair was as black as the fur pelts he wore across his shoulders, and his scrape of heavy stubble highlighted the sharpness of his cheekbones. His mouth fell into a frown as he continued to study him, but Felix was more afraid of his eyes than his sour expression. They were enthralling, a bizarrely entrancing hazel, outlined with charcoal smudging, same as the others.

Felix quivered before his glare. He’d never heard of a bandit king, had no idea what the title meant, but if any man could be the King of Bandits, this was the one.

He spoke again. “Is someone going to tell me why this boy is in my camp or am I meant to guess?”

“He’s a nobleman, King,” boasted the man who’d hauled him through the forest. “Had a royal guard taking him from the queen’s country palace.”

That was enough to knock the shock from Felix’s throat. “What? I’m not a nobleman!” he shouted.

The bandit king lifted his eyebrows; they were thick, serious, and clearly prone to furrowing. “He says he’s not a nobleman,” he said, sounding none too amused.

“He was traveling in a royal carriage,” continued the bandit. “He had two royal guards and a personal bodyguard, all armed with the queen’s emblem. He’s either a little princeling or a nobleman’s son. Look at his clothes.”

“I’m not!” Felix protested, tugging at the lacy fringe of his shirtsleeves. “I’m a flautist! I’m just a flautist!”

“Oh yeah?” asked the bandit. “What kind of flautist carries this kind of coin around in his pockets, eh?” Without warning, he dug his hand into Felix’s trousers to fish out the velvet pouch, and Felix yelped, swatting at his arm and trying to wriggle away. A moment later, the bandit presented the pouch and tossed it toward the king.

The king poured the coin onto his palm, and gold spilled over his hand and into his lap. He continued to stare intensely at Felix.

“I know you said to focus on the goods and not try for a hostage, but it was the perfect opportunity,” the bandit rattled on. “We can ransom him!”

“You can’t!” Felix cried out. It seemed no one was listening to him, despite the rising shrillness of his voice. “I’m not a princeling or a nobleman’s son. I’m no one’s son at all! I’m a flautist and nothing more. There’s no coin to be made off me. I swear it!”

The bandits laughed again, but the king silenced them quickly with a single look. When he spoke, his voice was unexpectedly soft, but no less terrifying. “Very well,” he said. “If there is no coin to be made, we have no use of you, do we?”

Felix felt a rush of relief sweep through him. “You mean you’ll let me go?”

The king looked at him, tilting his head in bemusement. “No. If you’re not a noble, there’s no reason to keep you alive.”

The camp remained silent, not even the bandits making a peep. Felix backed up, staggering on trembling legs, and knocked into a hard body behind him. He gasped and shuffled back forward, but there was nowhere to run. He spun around helplessly, surrounded, until the king spoke again.

“A flautist, you said?” he asked.

“I don’t see a flute, King!” one of the bandits yelled from the crowd.

“I don’t see one either,” the king agreed, looking expectantly at Felix.

“I have two flutes in my satchel,” Felix said, reaching into the bag and grasping the first flute he felt in his hand. He pulled it out, silver flashing in his palm. “This one is worth a lot of coin,” he began desperately. “You could sell it. I’ll give it to you, please, but don’t kill me.”

The bandit king seemed to think it over as he returned the spilled coin to the velvet pouch. When he had the strings tied up again, he shoved it in his pocket and returned a cold stare to Felix, steepling his hands beneath his chin.

“Play me a song, Flautist,” he ordered. “If I like what I hear, you can live.”

“What?” Felix tucked a curl behind his ear, sure he had heard wrong.

“Play me a song,” the bandit king repeated slowly. “If I like it, I won’t kill you. Or are you one of those rare flautists who don’t know how to play their instrument?”

“I can play it,” he huffed defensively.

A few of the bandits laughed again and the king’s mouth quirked up into a maddening smirk. “Can you? Let’s see.”

Felix lifted the flute to his mouth and closed his eyes. He’d often wondered what his favorite melody was, which song—if he had to choose—he would pick to play, if he could only ever play one for the rest of his life. He could never decide. It was impossible. And no more could he choose his favorite now, even with his life—very literally—in his hands. So he didn’t try to reach for his favorite tune. Instead, he tried to think of the hardest piece he knew, the most complicated, one that would prove to the smug-faced bandit king that he was not only a flautist, but the best flautist he would ever be lucky enough to hear. There was a tune called “Wolf Run” that came to mind, and he began to play it.

He kept his eyes shut as he pursed his lips and let his fingers dance across the keys. When the queen had gifted him the flute, he’d never imagined the first time he’d play it would be for a crowd of bloodthirsty villains, but somehow his company did little to decrease his pleasure in playing. The flute’s voice was high and clear and pure, the weight of it just right as he weaved a melody into the air of the bandit camp. “Wolf Run” was a fast-paced tavern song, meant for the height of the evening, when all the patrons were drunk and everyone wanted to dance and stomp their feet. Felix had long ago mastered its quick key changes, and knew exactly how his fingers looked as they tapped note after note with perfect precision.

As he let the song move him by instinct, he concentrated on prayer, for all the good it would do. Don’t let this be my last song, he pleaded. Let me live, let me live, let me live.

No one could accuse his life of being extraordinary. His eighteen years of story was shamefully threadbare. He’d been born in a little village a day’s walk from the guild. So little, in fact, that it didn’t even have a proper name, and besides his occasional travels with Rex, he’d never ventured far from it. His father was a wandering vagabond who’d wandered off one day and never wandered back. His mother had died when he was nine, leaving him an orphan, but the villagers were kindly, and he’d been given a job waiting tables at the local inn. On the day of his thirteenth birthday, a caravan of musicians had traveled through on their way to the Royal Quarter, and after their departure, he’d discovered a flute in the stable. Unable to resist, he’d picked it up, and held on to it while he waited for someone to return and claim it. When no one did, he taught himself how to play. It came naturally to him; he was praised for his talent. The innkeeper let him perform for tips, always making enough to get by, but never more than that. Most nights, he slept in a barn—arguably more comfortable than it sounded—and wrote songs from stories he’d heard from travelers. That had been his life, plain and humble, until he’d met Scorch. Now that things were finally getting interesting, he had no intention of being snuffed out by bandits.

He played the final section of “Wolf Run”, pouring himself into it, wishing, hoping it was good enough to keep his life. After the last ringing note echoed through the camp, he finally opened his eyes.

The bandit king was leaning forward in his makeshift throne, his expression one of uncertainty. Felix looked around at the rest of the bandits and found a mixture of surprise and amusement in their eyes. Well, he was glad they found his predicament amusing, because he certainly didn’t. He waited a few more moments for the king to speak, but when he was met with more intolerable silence, he pressed. “D-did you like it, Your Majesty?” he asked, flinching when the bandits laughed at the presumed moniker.

The bandit king just stared at him unhappily.

“I can p-play you something else, if you prefer something slower,” Felix went on, fiddling with the flute in his shaky hands. “I sing, as well, if you’d like me to sing you a song.”

Finally, after more awkward staring, the king shifted back in his seat with a smirk. “That won’t be necessary.”

Felix put the flute back in his satchel and tried to keep the tremor from his voice. “Are you going to kill me?” he asked.

Terrible silence, and then, “No.”

His entire body buzzed with relief, and he smiled brightly at the bandit king. “Oh, thank you. Thank you. So I can go?”

“No,” the king answered, standing up from his chair. He looked like a giant up on the dais, but when he jumped off the edge and came to stand in front of Felix, he was only a few inches taller. Felix cowered a bit in the shadow of him, but found he couldn’t take his eyes away from his face now that it was so close. The man had flecks of icy blue in the hazel irises of his eyes, and his mouth curved once more into a frown, making Felix wonder if that was the natural shape his lips formed.

“No?” he asked, taking a step back and knocking into another bandit. He surged forward in his haste to move away and nearly knocked into the king’s chest. “Y-you can have my flute to sell, like I said.”

There was a wave of snickers, and the king’s mouth lifted into another smirk. “What use is a flute without a flautist?”

Felix’s eyes widened as he made the connection. “Oh no!” he exclaimed. “Please don’t sell me. Please.” Before he could stop himself, his fingers were burrowing into the thick furs of the man’s pelt and tightening there. He knew what happened to people sold to the Circle, and he would never survive it. “Please. You can’t.” For a second, the king’s eyes widened in surprise, but the moment passed quickly, and then he was holding Felix’s wrists and prying him off his furs.


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