Earth does not understand the curse of time. It knows not the ravages of age, as it simply alters its form to endure. Rocks weather to dust, and that dust layers to weave stories of the past. Earth cradles the remnants of millennia. The living walk upon it and the dead are buried within it. The world belongs to earth, and it returns to it, sheltered in sediments that defy time.
All things are bound by time, but not earth. Not usually.
Today the earth bent to Time’s will as limber as a young sapling. The soil, muddied with blood, dried. Red stains swept back to the dead, their wounds closed, and their bodies rose from the sand.
The frozen scene worked backwards. Every hack, slice, and arrow drew away. Soldiers sheathed swords, and mounted horses. Fires snuffed out, and thatched roofs regrew thin spindles of straw. The frightened faces slacked and reformed smiles, while the soldiers rode backwards out of the city and up the hill to the trees.
Each one passed the lone figure standing on the drying earth beneath the arched gate. Her eyes glowed white-hot and light wrapped in tendrils about her hands. She turned her head to the blue sky, to the birds flying in reverse, and the dark receding clouds. The Time Mage convulsed with a wet, drowning gasp and blood dripped from her nose to curl over her lips. She fell, digging her fingers into the soil, and vomited. The white light snuffed from her eyes and the world restarted anew.
The quiet of lapsed time broke with laughter that silenced in confusion. The dead felt at their wounds in panic, and finding none, looked to the red-haired woman sick upon the earth. Behind her, past the tall wall and up the hill, soldiers mounted on horses burst from the forest.
“Run,” she said to them, lifting her head. Green eyes burned through disheveled, curly hair. “Run!”
Screams tore through the crowd and the villagers scattered. They scooped up children, grabbed their wives, their valuables, and fled. The stronger and braver of them snatched what insufficient weapons they had and greeted the army as it rode into the city with brandished swords and imperial flags.
Instead of fighting, they warded off the threatened villagers and circled around the kneeling woman. The horsemen, all adorned in armor, cloaks, and helmets, numbered in the hundreds. So many were there that not all of them could fit within the village, so they spilled outwards and lined the brick wall.
“Saran!” said a soldier upon a black horse. “You’re a fool.” He slid from the saddle and landed with a thud next to her, where he knelt and dragged her into his arms. He wore leather armor, unlike the bulky metal of most soldiers, and a fierce steel helmet in the visage of a dragon. The chest plate was soft to rest against as she let tense muscles relax in his arms, while she lifted a shaking hand to smear the blood from beneath her nose.
“Let go of that traitor, Ahriman,” said another. He lifted the helmet from his head, revealing a narrow, scathing face, and threw it hard to the earth. “The King will be notified of this. He will deal with your treason.”
Saran turned her heavy eyes up to the angry soldier and then she shut them with an exasperated sigh, burrowing against the man who held her. She wished the world away with all her might, but, upon opening her eyes again, everything remained the same. “How fortunate that I am of a position that is protected.” The arms around her tightened and her gaze lifted to the red gaze peering through the helmet’s narrow slit.
“Idiot,” her savior whispered, and only she could see the edge of a smile pulling his cheeks high.
The angry soldier continued, “We had the upper hand, the element of surprise. Now, because of you, the scum have run off!” The soldier’s arm slung out toward the hills. Behind him, villagers ran for shelter in the forest.
“Yes, the campaign is a complete failure, Lord Marki. I suspect we should just head home.” Saran pushed away from Ahirman and used his shoulder to steady herself as she stood.
Lord Odan Marki, an Ice Mage, slipped from his horse, rage turning his pale face a terrible shade of red. The Time Mage saw it coming, Odan’s bony fist, wrapped in a glove tipped with pointed metal barbs, swinging for her skull. His fist rattled through the air only to be snatched up by another soldier next to him.
This one wore no helmet and the same ess-restrictive leather armor as Ahriman. He was tall, with a broad build and long coal-black hair pulled taut behind his head. The soldier’s blue eyes settled with warning on Odan.
“Mind yourself, Odan. That’s a princess you’re about to scar, and I doubt the king would take kindly to it, no matter what foolishness she’s done,” said her savior with a deep rumbling voice. When Odan calmed, the soldier released him.
“If you think your title protects you from retribution, you are gravely mistaken,” the thin man growled, knuckles cracking as his fists tightened at his sides.
“It seems my title doesn’t afford me much more than protection,” replied the princess, casting them all a dark glare. “What other royal do you know who is addressed so informally and threatened with physical harm? Hmm?”
The wide arc of soldiers shifted with a rumbling clank of metal as they gave a half-hearted salute, bashing their gloved hands against their metal chests. She appraised them all, watching as they sat like stiff iron statues upon well-bred warhorses. It wasn’t their fault that they forgot or ignored her status, it was her father’s wish that they know her as one of their own. It was his wish that she earn their respect as a warrior before earning it as their future Queen, just as he had earned it before snatching the throne from the previous king. However, despite how she blended in, there were certain drawbacks to her whimsical status. Odan Marki’s lack of respect, for one.
“My apologies for the improper address a moment ago,” came the courtly voice of Keleir Ahriman as he rose to stand next to her. “I was concerned and it wasn’t intentional.”
“You are forgiven, Lord Ahriman,” Saran said, nodding to him. “And so are you, Lord Marki. I understand how important this battle was for you. Its success would have marked your rise among the ranks and been quite the notch for you. Better luck next time, no?”
Odan’s face darkened to crimson, his eyes bulged, and his hands shook. Frost licked across the earth towards Saran, turning the dirt snowy white. She stepped away just as it reached her feet, having not even noticed.
“Back to camp. We’ll return to the palace and then you can complain to the King of my slight against you, Lord Marki,” she told the Ice Mage.
“You shouldn’t be walking. Where’s your horse?” Ahriman asked, reaching for her arm. She evaded his touch with narrowed eyes. The Lord drew back his hand and clanked his fist against the hard metal sword hilt at his hip. “Princess! You should not be walking.”
Saran stopped and turned back to him, but her legs quivered and she keeled sideways. The lord dove and slipped an arm around her waist before she hit the earth. She met his eyes again as he lowered his head to her ear.
“Ride,” he said, voice firm. He did not look down at her, nor did he offer to carry her. He helped her stand and guided her to his horse. She was left to draw herself into the saddle.
Lord Ahriman mounted the horse behind her and rode for the gate. “I’m taking her Grace back to camp. She spent too much of her Life.”
The fire of Lord Ahriman’s portal erupted around them. It rose up in a great roar of heatless flame and tangled like vines over them, drawing them and the fearless horse down into a rippling orange pool of light. Fire sprouted from the earth some distance away, under the shade of clustered trees near the entrance of a large encampment. The horse emerged, struggling to gallop out of a hole made of embers and molten rock with two riders on its back. Once on even ground, the fire around them snuffed out, leaving the patches of grass and dirt void of any signs that it had been there at all.
The camp was mostly empty, save for a few servants going about their duties. They did not look up or even notice the two just at the outskirts of the farthest row of tents. The two Mages waited just to be sure they had not been seen before The Fire Mage guided the horse behind a cluster of brush near a rippling creek. It was shadowy beneath the thick leafy canopy, allowing them to hide easily in their dark clothes. On a branch hanging low over the trickling water, a hawk watched them approach.
Saran slid from the horse, and her escort dropped heavily next to her. He placed his hands on her shoulders, turning her to him so abruptly that her head spun. Pain splintered through her skull, and she closed her eyes tightly to focus on ignoring it. “If you didn’t smell like vomit, I’d kiss you,” he said, one hand curled behind her neck, and the other brushed through her unkempt hair. “That was foolish.”
“Innocent people were dying, Keleir,” the princess said with a lift of her chin and smirk. She flashed her eyes open, taking in the fearsome dragon helmet and the red eyes peering angrily through them. “And I can wash my mouth out.”
He drew from his pocket a tattered red cloth and wiped the drying blood from her upper lip and chin. “How are you feeling?”
She closed her eyes, wavering on her feet, and assessed her body. Saran didn’t have to answer him, he already knew how she felt. Just as she could sense everything about him. Still, she knew he liked it when she said it with her own words. “Exhausted. My skull is splitting open from the inside.”
Keleir pursed his lips together and curled his hands against her cheeks. “If you ever do something that dangerous again, I’ll…”
“You’ll what, m’Lord?”
Keleir shook his helmet loose from his head. It clanked once against the earth and then rolled into the mud at the edge of the creek. His stark-white hair brushed against his shoulders and strands of it fell across his face. He was a handsome young man, despite the misleading color of his hair, with a strong jaw and unsettling red eyes. He drew her in and rested his chin at the top of her head. “I don’t know. But, it will be fearsome and vengeful.”
He nodded, pressing a firm kiss to her aching temple. “I punish those who hurt what is mine, even if they themselves are the cause.” His arms squeezed tighter around her, and his voice wavered ever so slightly. “You could have died. Don’t ever push that far again. Know your limits, Saran D’mor. You are not immortal.”
Saran could hear the sound of hooves in the distance, still too far to feel the thunder of the army galloping toward them. She wanted to stay in his arms longer, to rest there where it was safe. She fed off the strength he radiated and used it to soothe the ache in her head. Eventually, she knew, they would have to part. “Neither are you. If you want to live, you best put on your helmet and keep pretending we’re nothing more than friends.”
Keleir caught her just as she was drawing away. “Yarin won’t look past what you did, you know? He won’t forgive it this time. It was blatant treason and there is no way to justify it or convince him it was a mistake like all those times before…”
“I will deal with those consequences. The most I’ll get is a scolding, I’m sure.”
The Fire Mage shook his head. “What if it is worse?”
“Then, I’ll deal with that as well. I could not see those people die, Keleir. You know that. It was worth the risk.”
Keleir frowned at her, and she felt his disappointment ripple through the air like a cool breeze. “But, not worth your life.”
Saran couldn’t argue with that, partly because he was right and partly because her mind could not tolerate another moment of standing. She touched his cheek lightly, just as the army began to emerge through the brush. The princess turned and crossed the smokey camp, picking her way through the cluster of tents and trees, before collapsing through the front flap of her tent.