c h a p t e r iii
"Adri..." His voice was breathless like he couldn't believe his eyes. I was... A sight to see, to say the least. My white braid was caked with dried blood, temple, and now the rest of my face was smeared with blood, mud, and whatever else found its way there. I stumbled off of my mare, almost faceplanting into the frozen ground beneath us. My hand gripped at the long gouge on my ribcage wincing as I tumbled. I leaned my body into Primis' shoulder, bracing myself from the pain that reverberated through the entirety of me. Or what was left of me. That seven-day venture back home had turned into nine. I had passed out more times than I could count, lost direction, and ran out of rations. A hand grabbed my right bicep as I fell forward. I could barely keep my eyes open. My wounds refused to clog, making life a hell of a lot more difficult getting home. My mare was stained red along her mane, her saddle, and reins. The stable boy hurried over, taking her out of the cold to wash up and get examined herself, his stare lingered with worry before leaving us in the frozen courtyard. Though I knew Primis was ok, I just didn't have the strength to shout after him. "What the hell happened to you?"
I managed a ghost of a grin as I held up the emerald gem limply and set it in Demitri's hand, "I found it." My voice was horse as I croaked out the words, barely above a whisper and I peeled over. Losing consciousness once more. Demitri caught me, and right before I slipped off into another deep sleep, I heard him holler through the yard for aid. He smelt of saltwater and pine. I inhaled it as my mind drew to a blank space hallowed out inside of my head.
My eyelids squinted before they slowly blinked open. My steel hues adjust to the light within the room. How long had I been out? Long enough for my skin to be scrubbed clean. I gritted my teeth as I lifted my head, my neck was stiff, and so was the rest of my body. I had been removed from my leathers in exchange for dusty blue soft cotton pants and a long-sleeved matching top. Blankets were strewn over me and I lifted my arm to move them aside. I yelped in agony at my attempt to sit up, my muscles along the left side of my torso had been sliced clean through no doubt. I struggled to stand, my entire body resenting the movement but I forced myself up. I needed to see the damage. I trudged over to a floor-to-ceiling mirror, ignoring my ankle which felt like it had been jabbed with a hot iron poker, I looked at the woman staring back at me. My pale eyes were lifeless, but the grime had disappeared from my face for the most part. I still needed a bath, though—a long, hot soak. I groaned at the thought.
I grabbed the bottom hem of my top and slowly raised it, my entire torso had been wrapped in white gauze, and a long faint brown stain trailed from just under my left breast down to the top of my hip bone. I grimaced at the horrendous sight. That scar would forever be there, "A scar of victory, brave one." His graveled voice rolled through the room. My eyes darted from my torso to the bear of a man standing behind me through the reflection in the mirror. I didn't have it in me to return the warm smile he beheld upon me. I lowered my shirt and slowly turned,
"You shouldn't see me like this." My voice hadn't been much different than when I spoke to Demitri upon arriving. Horse, scratchy. I cleared my throat and licked my lips. I was indeed in need of water, "How long was I out?" My brows strained to furrow. I didn't give my father time to respond to my first statement.
His smile turned into a sorrow-thin line, "Three days. And I do not see weakness, Adri. I see a warrior who saw the battle through. Though knowing you, it must've been a nasty one, since I've never seen you bleed." His words didn't make me feel better. I almost gave up. Almost didn't make it. I almost let you down. But the words never came. I just stood there, my steels boring into his as he spoke. I exhaled through my nose finally turning my gaze away.
I didn't have it in me to go into detail, "It was a Thuujo." was all I said. That was all I had to say from my father's reaction. "The gem was its heart. I'm assuming it grew around it to protect itself." He took in my words, a stoic face, unwavering. I never knew what he was thinking, but I didn't care. Not right now. Every time I closed my eyes all I saw was that thing over me. I inhaled sharply but winced, grabbing at my side. My father hurried towards me to help me over to the bed, "I need a healer. I need to put the Halo back together, and finish this once and for all."
He only shook his head, "You need rest. The healer should be here any day now. She was visiting Lunadia, helping with the wounded. Heimstra attacked them, trying to seize their part of the Diadem." My eyes widened,
"Which makes my point even more valid. I need to finish this before they realize we have all the pieces!" His face was solemn, which meant that— "How long have they known?" my question was more of a demand, my eyes darkening as I toned my voice into a cool sort of calm.
"Since you left for the final piece. I'm surprised they didn't find you in their territory." My mouth thinned into a line. He knew and didn't warn me. I tore my gaze away coldly before slowly lifting to my feet, wincing in the process. He attempted to grab my arm to help me up but I swatted him away. He said nothing, knowing damn well why I was pissed. I ran in, unaware of how in danger I was. He knew and didn't tell me.
I whipped my head around, ignoring the lightning of pain that shot from my ankle up into my head, "Why?" was all I asked. He only shook his head, lost for words. I scoffed before darting out of the room as fast as I could manage but paused at the door, "I may be your second in command, but knowing damn well you sent your daughter on a possible suicide mission..." I paused and winced with the thought and turned to him, hurt in my eyes, "And you still let me go?" I would've gone anyway. I knew it. But that tidbit of information would have made me a bit more cautious. I didn't look at his face for a response, just stormed out and down the hall to the formal dining room. The guards and help that lined the hallways gawked as I slowly made my way to the other end of the estate. Murmurs erupted once I'd passed and I turned into the large dining room where my mother and a few guests sat, talking over lunch about...
My mother's deep green hues rose to meet my pale greys, and she froze in her seat, like a doe about to get slaughtered. My scowl turned soft as I saw tears brimming along her lower lids, barely realizing mine were doing the same. She suddenly shot from her chair and barreled towards me. and pulled me into a tight embrace. I tried my hardest not to wince, knowing she'd just shower me with apologies. I hugged her back all the same. I hadn't realized how much I wanted it, needed it. The love and worry for her youngest kin. No positions or politics. Just A Mother's Love.
Overwhelmed at the emotions I carried I lost it. Tears streamed from my face. I didn't care that there were others in the room. I didn't care that I needed to be the face of this war. I just wanted my mom. I hugged her as my chest caved, sobbing hysterically. I felt her shudder, shoulders shaking as she did the same. She would never know what happened two weeks ago. But she knew. I found out this morning that she was the one who dressed me and washed me as I slept. And once I was stitched, changed my dressings. She knew how bad it got. I pulled away slightly to look at her face. She cupped mine with both her hands as she spoke, "Don't you ever scare me like that again." Her voice trembled making my bottom lip quiver before embracing her again,
"I'm sorry mama, I'm sorry," I said through whispered sobs.
My mother was never fond of my decisions in life. She wanted me to be like my sisters for obvious reasons. Yet somehow my father had swayed her beliefs and she caved, letting me run rampant wherever I pleased. She had started showing her pride for me more within the last few years. Knowing my position amongst our army. Fine lines on the outer corners of her eyes and mouth aged her, other than that, we could be considered sisters. We held each other's outstretched forearms after a long while of petting my hair, deep breaths, and more tears. She looked me over, noting my favored leg, and slumped left side. Her trembling hand slowly lifted my shirt, revealing the brown stained gauze and she gasped, biting her wobbling lip, "I'm fine, I promise." lie. Everything was a lie and she knew it. But I said it anyway. Her emerald green hues shot up to my steels and exhaled a much-needed sigh as her shoulders sank.
"What happened?" I tensed. She'd absolutely lose her mind. I shook my head, letting her know it didn't matter and that it was over,
"I could really use a bath," I said lightheartedly, after a long silence. She loosened her shoulders even more. She aided me into the bath after I ate lunch. The scorching water made me hiss before I relaxed, easing myself into the steaming water. I had taken off my bandages, it looked worse than it was which sent my mother into another fit. I exhaled slowly through my nose and closed my eyes as I soaked away the grime. I didn't know how long I'd been in the tub before a soft knock echoed through the bathroom, it was Eve, my chambermaid. I beckoned her in and she slowly opened the door and crept in, trying her hardest not to look at my wounds. I sat up, waiting for her instruction but she just took a seat next to the tub, poured water over my hair, and started washing me. Never a word from that one, and for some reason, it never bothered me. She was peaceful and kind. She startled me when words finally escaped her lips,
"I don't think you realize how terrified we all were for you once you returned." Her voice was soft and sweet like I'd imagined it to be. My lips thinned before my eyes lowered to the now rust-colored water.
"I know. I'm sorry." I said quietly. She just squeezed my shoulder, knowing that was all she wanted to say. I was grateful for her, for never asking what happened or wanting the details like the rest of the help. All they knew was that I had found all the pieces. I surveyed my hands that sat under the water, the callouses that formed, and the black gunk underneath my nails. Its blood still clung to me. I clenched my fists and closed my eyes, embracing the soothingness of getting my hair rinsed off all the sweat, blood, and grime.
It had been two weeks since I had arrived back home. I was able to walk without a limp but my side was still incredibly unstable. I was nowhere near battle-ready. Though, we didn't have much time. I had to build the diadem. Had to make the Halo. I asked for Demitri's help most of the time I had been healing, not wanting to see my father's face after what I had learned.
We never spoke about our departure before the gem had been found. Almost pretended it hadn't happened. Besides the sideglances, I would receive at the dinner table or during my physical training. Demitri had gathered up the other four pieces and brought them to the library as I had asked. I met him there, in the center with the emerald in my hand. He wasn't wearing his leathers, just a navy tunic with a gold bandoleer yielding no daggers across his chest. I wore a frosted blue floor-length gown. I hated dresses, but my mother insisted I get used to them since after this war I would need to be the face of Aerithium. Its sleeves reached my wrists, bodice tight around my midsection, almost stabilizing my wound, and it flowed effortlessly to the floor. My white waves were let loose except for the pieces that formed a braided crown. Demitri stopped dead in his tracks, eyes almost bugging out of his head. He'd never seen me in anything other than a tunic and trousers. My eyes rolled and motioned him over to me, knocking him out of his trance. He cleared his throat and continued forward, setting his satchel on the table before us.
I opened it up and dumped the four broken pieces onto the table, collecting with the emerald gem. The power of each piece pulsated within the library. I exhaled slowly, my hands shaking as I aligned each piece to fit together. It formed a perfect circle with the emerald lying in the middle. I closed my eyes and raised my palms to hover above it. From my palms white glimmering fae light cast down onto the silver diadem pieces. Each glowed a different color- amber, violet, gold, turquoise, and emerald. The white light grew brighter and brighter until it filled the space within the library before it suddenly dissipated. My eyes shot open and I gasped as though I had the air sucked out of me for minutes and slowly removed my hands. I could feel the hum of the magic that was on the table, felt it run through me. I exhaled slowly before looking over at Dem, his eyes were already glued to me.
I hurried out the door with the Halo tucked in my satchel and booked it to my room. I tore the dress off of my body and yanked on my leathers, arming my bandoleer with thin Lunarian blades. Once my hair was pulled into a taught braid I sored through the halls before meeting Demitri down to the stables, he already had Primis prepared for the ride ahead. I grit my teeth as I pulled myself up and over my mare, my hand immediately moving towards my side. Demitri paused, waiting for me to see if I needed aid. I grunted as a response and started Primis to a gallop then to a stride. The thunderous steps of her hooves reverberated into my healing gash. Each stride I braced and clenched my teeth. By the time we arrived at our war camp, I felt like all my teeth had cracked from the pressure.
I slowed my mare to a trot before finding my father in one of the training rings, surveying what recruits we had. Very few indeed. His eyes found and followed me as I trotted around, waiting for him. I raised a clenched fist and pressed it across my chest before hurdling towards the stables, I tied Primis' reins and sauntered into the Chief's war tent, I crossed my arms and leaned against the supporting wooden post in the middle of the room, one of my hands gripping the satchel. Demitri followed suit, though, He stepped to one of the side walls, only present for observation and intel. My father thundered in, face stoic as always, but his steel hues were bright with curiosity. My hand outstretched as I tossed the satchel to the round table before us lazily, the Halo peeking out of the opening. He didn't move to grab it. He just looked at it and then up at me, waiting for me to speak.
"I thought you'd want to see it for yourself."
"Why would I want to see it, I just want to use it." My lips thinned at his dull response before I snatched the Halo up again and gripped it tensely.
"Do you want me to dawn it this instant? Or wait until the time is right when our enemy is vulnerable." It was more of a statement than a question, with not as much sass as I intended. I couldn't explain the betrayal and hurt I felt from our previous encounter. He'd lied to me. My entire body trembled in anger. After all I had done for this Court... I breathed in deep. That wasn't why we were here.
"Do we... Even know what's going to happen when she puts it on?" Demitri's voice was unreadable, but I knew there was concern swimming in his deep brown hues. I broke my gaze from my father and looked toward the man who had loved me since we were five. I didn't love him back, and he knew it. But as a defender of this Court, he was obligated to protect his second in command. I held his gaze for a moment before my father spoke,
"We do not. Let's wait until tomorrow. We can start the day fresh. Tonight-" he paused before heading towards the tent entrance, "We celebrate." Celebrate what exactly? Not a clue. I assumed it was just an excuse to get drunk before the possibility of my destruction that would arise tomorrow afternoon.