Athera’s Dawn: Chapter 14

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P A R T  T W O

Chapter Fourteen

AT TABLE WITH THE ENEMY

Anorra had finally fallen asleep, though anyone would forgive her for not terming it such. The quasi-rest she took was brief and far from replenishing. The hot rocks slowly seared her exposed skin and smoldered what clothing remained. The heat dried many of her cuts, while others blistered and ran. But her exhaustion was so overwhelming that her body took advantage of whatever quarter was given. The simple torment of being held perpetually between waking and sleeping racked her spirit mercilessly.

The environment surrounding her took rather than gave, a disturbing attribute well known by its inhabitants. It held no care for its victims, solely bent on self-gain. And after stealing away the virtues of a prisoner, it went further, demanding interest on its own usury, willing away all fortitude so completely that only a hole remained, a vacuum of inescapable despair.

Anorra’s body, broken and bruised, lay like a trampled flower discarded into a dark corner and left to die. Truly her thoughts were on death, wishing it to carry her away into the Royal Throne Room. But so far removed from civilization was she, from life, from her people, that she feared not even the Mighty Hand could rescue her, wherever she was.

The shrieks never seemed to ebb. A constant cacophony of mayhem, calls of despair, laced around her head, stifling the light of her heart. Even while pushing toward a sleep-bent daze, the horror of tormented souls pulled on her sense of compassion, and then crossed the line to personal terror.

Out of the blackness she heard footsteps. Someone was coming. The screaming escalated. Another monster most likely: a demon to devour her, to strip her of her dignity and ingest what pitiful form remained.

A jingle of metal, and the sharp clink of a lock.

“What intruder has cast thy lily upon the rocks and left her to die?”

The words were so out of place. So foreign. Spoken by a voice…so soothing. Even royal.

“He that hath done this will never deny that, when he hath done this to you, he hath done this to me also.”

The voice was strong and handsome, full and overwhelming. She heard footsteps draw closer. She tried to lift her head.

“Rest my lily, white and fair. Rest easy in my arms now.”

He picked her up gently. Her body relaxed. And suddenly she was free of pain. But rather than brighten to the relief, she dove into a deep and much needed sleep.

 

• • •

 

“How do you feel?”

Anorra heard the words as if tethered by a long silk ribbon to her consciousness. While the darkness was sweet, his voice was sweeter. She blinked, wide-eyed, allowing the dim light of the room to pierce her eyes.

“I—I can see.”

“Of course you can,” he replied.

Anorra was lying across a wide, cushioned chair. Her head was propped up with pillows, and a soft blanket covered her legs. She looked down and noticed she was clothed in a shimmering white dress, gilded in gold. Soft light came from countless candles, peeking out from behind red drapes and perched upon black wrought-iron fixtures.

She suddenly felt exposed at having been dressed unawares. Who touched me? Who saw me? Unless she had dressed herself. Did I?

“Come, my lily fair. You must be famished. Dine with me.”

Anorra turned toward the voice. A gorgeous man sat at a table decked with a red satin tablecloth and candles. An empty chair was half-turned toward her. She gazed into his eyes. They were warm and alluring. His face was strong and masculine, skin glistening in the candlelight. He was wrapped in a gently flowing mantle, and Anorra could tell this was a powerful man.

And then there were the sudden emotions that stirred within her. Something leapt in her belly, a fluttering that caught her breath. She looked straight into his eyes and felt her face warm under his gaze. He was so…beautiful.

“Need I request your presence again?” he inquired. “I will if need be.”

Anorra felt herself rise from the blankets and walk steadily to the chair opposite him. It was almost as if she moved without thought.

But who was this man? She was not in the habit of dining with strangers. The action felt awkward, but looking at him, there was something she wanted.

Something she longed for.

He rose from his seat and put a hand on her chair as she gently lowered herself. His hands and arms were strong. This man’s commanding presence was inspiring, to say the least, and Anorra found herself trying not to stare. She inclined her head in thanks.

A man appeared from the far end of the room, entering through a narrow door. He was dressed in a blue tunic, and his skin was deeply flavored by the sun. He moved swiftly, carrying a large silver platter. He stood over Anorra and produced two golden goblets, a jar of wine, and a board of warm breads.

Just as he turned, a second man appeared, much the same but dressed in a purple tunic. He lowered a platter of steaming meats, no two alike. He also produced two small bowls of dipping broth, spices swirling on the surface.

A third and final man brought a large platter, this one mounded so high with fruit Anorra thought it would topple over at any moment. But he deftly lowered the tray onto a smaller table beside them and disappeared back through the door.

Anorra was overwhelmed by the smells, her stomach churning wildly. She felt her mouth moisten, eyes taking in all that was before her. And suddenly she realized how incredibly hungry she was. Famished even.

Without hesitating, she reached forward, grabbed a piece of bread, and ripped off a chunk in her mouth. The flavor was delicious, arguably the best bread she had ever tasted. She swallowed quickly and took a mouthful of the wine, the rich drink racing down her throat.

A thinly sliced piece of meat lay just in front of her, calling to her. She snatched it up to her mouth, but not before plunging it into the small bowl, drenching it in warm spices. The taste was so overwhelming she found herself rolling her eyes. Delicious!

Not able to control herself, Anorra reached for the fruit platter. The whole thing had been masterfully constructed, each piece of fruit hand-cut, prepared just for her taking. Flowering pears cascaded down split pineapples that lay upon mounds of berries. She didn’t know where to start.

“Here, let me help you.”

She had nearly forgotten about him. Anorra looked up and suddenly felt embarrassed, having eaten so ravenously. But he didn’t seem to mind in the least, his eyes twinkling. He reached over and selected a piece of apple, covered in a bit of the berry juice, and offered it to her mouth. She leaned forward, staring into his captivating face, and took the fruit.

She closed her eyes and savored it. It was as if she hadn’t eaten in days.

How long had it been?

Her eyes popped open.

She froze. She…

…couldn’t remember.

Her host smiled at her and reached for another piece of fruit.

“Wait, I—” She hesitated, but didn’t know why.

“Yes?”  He brought a piece of banana to her lips and she took it without thinking. “Is everything to your liking?”

“Of course. It’s…perfect.”

“Good,” he smiled. Anorra looked into his face and suddenly felt warm, and not from the wine. He was too beautiful even to look at. Her skin prickled, and she tried to hide her giddiness.

“Have some more,” he suggested.

But Anorra shook her head. “Who are you?”

“The Prince,” he replied without hesitation. His words were confident and reassuring, as if anyone should have known this fact, but he took pity on Anorra and indulged her. Anorra simply nodded and took another sip from her cup.

She tried to search back through her memories. Why am I here? Where was I before this? But her head was thick, and she couldn’t place anything.

She remained ever hungry and ate more, the Prince never taking a bite. He seemed utterly content to watch her, taking great joy in her delight. The food was delectable, each morsel better than the first.

Finally, not knowing how much time had passed, Anorra dabbed her mouth with the fine linen napkin, and pressed herself back from the table a little. The Prince rose and gestured toward a grand stone fireplace. Wood crackled in the pit, giving off a fragrant smell of cherry wood.

Is it inussle already? But why else would there be a fire?

He touched her elbow as they moved toward the heat. She felt a flash from his fingertips, and her heart raced.

Large animal skins lay all about the black marble floor, as did oversized pillows of various colors. Everything looked soft and inviting. She couldn’t imagine a more perfect scene. She knelt beside two pillows and then lay back. Her hands nervously smoothed her dress and she noticed once again how beautiful the gown was. But she never remembered seeing it before.

“So you haven’t asked me why you’re here,” the man commented finally, himself seated not too far away, reclining with his head propped up on a pillow. He looked into her eyes longingly, almost as if he…

…as if he wanted her.

“Why I’m here?” Anorra mumbled distantly, and looked down. Her thoughts raced. It was as if she were in a dark hallway, pressing against every door that met her hands, trying the handle. But none of them opened. She ran faster down the hallway, looking for the faintest sign of passage, but there was none. Then, in the distance, she could hear the whisper of scratching.

Someone was behind one of the doors.

She raced down the hallway, her heart pounding in her ears. She heard knocking, and then someone trying the handle. A door giggled. A muffled voice on the other side. She grabbed the handle and jerked it wildly. But it was locked.

“I brought you here because you are very special, Anorra.” The way he said her name filled her with importance. She mattered to him. “Very special to me,” he amended. “I have been watching you for a very long time. And I have decided something.”

There was a pregnant pause. Anorra stared at him and held her breath.

“I want you to stay with me.”

“Stay with you?” Anorra suddenly felt uncomfortable. But it wasn’t all bad. She glanced around the room quickly. “Here?” she said with a nervous laugh.

“No, not here, my lily. But with me, to rule over my kingdom.” He sat up and drew near to her. The fire popped and the heat grew more intense. “All I have,” he whispered, “is yours.”

Her stomach fluttered. He was getting very close. His frame was imposing, and the scent of his skin was intoxicating. His lips… What is he doing? What does he want? This man really wants me? Then the voice in her head changed entirely.

Anorra! What are you doing?

She sat upright and turned her face just as he moved in. The Prince paused and then withdrew. An awkward stillness filled the air, save for the rustle of the fire.

“I’m—I’m tired,” she said.

The Prince took a moment to ponder her reaction. “Of course you are,” he replied. “Let me stay with you.”

“Nay, I prefer to be alone, c’symia.”

“Very well, I shall leave you to your sleep.” His tone was notably put off, but he resigned himself to her wishes and stood slowly. “Have my servants call upon me when you are rested.” And with that he stood, turned across the room and exited through a grand set of heavy curtains.

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