Shades of Darkness: Chapter Four
by Iris Amergin

After a week of camping outside, excrutiatingly long and dull horseback rides, and all the annoying little problems that generally accompanied being stuck in the wilderness, Lachesis was more than ready to deliver her message and get back into civilization--take a long hot bath, eat something other than the same boring travel rations, snuggle back in a comfy chair and enjoy a day of being completely inert and nowhere near the smell of her horse...

Unfortunately, the guards at the gate of Lenster Castle didn't seem too intent on letting her in.

"Look, I'm sorry, miss. But we're in a state of war here. We can't just let any random person who shows up come waltzing in and--"

"I'm not just 'any random person!'" she snapped. "I'm the Princess of Nodion, for Narga's sake!"

"Look, I really am sorry, but I can't do anything for you. I've got my orders. Unless you can turn over some proof of identity, I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

"Proof of identity?" Lachesis frowned; she wasn't used to being questioned, and certainly not by anyone so low on the social ladder.

"Yeah. If you can't prove that you're who you say you are, you're not coming in. Is there anyone around who can vouch for you?"

She snapped her fingers. "Finn knows me. Ask him, if you don't believe me."

The guard nodded at his companion, who slipped inside. Several minutes passed, and Lachesis began to tap her foot impatiently. "What's taking so long?"

"It could take a while to find him. Be patient."

But as the spoiled youngest child of a royal house, patience was not a virtue Lachesis had ever had the need or opportunity to cultivate. She sighed and began pacing back and forth.

Nearly twenty minutes had passed before the second guard returned. "He's on his way--"

He was cut off and swept aside as Finn pushed past him. "Lachesis?"

Lachesis threw her arms around him. "Finn! You have no idea how much I missed you!"

His lips met hers, and when he finally broke the kiss several seconds later, her head was spinning and she was only dimly aware of the guards whistling. "Wanna bet?" he asked, his eyes sparkling.

She laughed. "I stand corrected."

Finn nodded at the guards. "Let her in."

The first guard grinned sheepishly and threw a salute as Finn and Lachesis entered the castle.

"What are you doing all the way out here?" he asked. "We'd heard Grandbell was moving on Silesia, but--"

"It's a long story," she said. "And...there are parts you're not going to like. Can we take this somewhere private?"


Twenty minutes later, they had retreated to Finn's room and locked the door. Lachesis took a seat on the bed; Finn dragged over a chair from the corner and looked at her expectantly.

"I'm...not even sure where to start," she admitted. "There's been a lot going on since you left."

"How about what brought you down here? I get the feeling that it's something more important than you deciding you missed me."

She nodded and stared at the floor. "Sigurd sent me back. I...I'm supposed to tell you--" She broke off, covering her face with her hands. "Cuan--"

"Prince Cuan?" Finn asked, halfway rising from his chair. "Are you saying--"

"He's dead," Lachesis whispered. "And so is Ethlin."

Finn sat down again, a stunned look on his face. "I...I can't believe it," he said numbly. "Everyone who went with them? They all--"

"All of them."

"How?"

"Thracia."

She didn't need to explain any further. Finn's expression darkened, and the room was silent for several seconds. Finally, he said, "What else happened?"

Lachesis bit her lip. "...I..." She began to fidget nervously, toying with the hem of her skirt. "...I..."

Finn frowned, but didn't say anything.

"After you left...I...I found out I was pregnant." She looked away.

Finn was speechless for a long moment. When she finally stole a glance at him, he looked as if someone had just broken a chair over his head. She winced. "I'm sorry, Finn. I didn't want you to find out this way."

"Is...is she..."

"He."

"He?"

She nodded. "I...named him Delmud. I wanted to wait for you first, but...you never came back."

He sighed. "I'm sorry. I wanted to, but..."

"But?"

"Politics." He shook his head. "It gets complicated. But...where is...Delmud?"

Lachesis twisted a few strands of her hair nervously. "Isaac."

"Isaac?"

"Grandbell started massing forces on the Silesian border. Sigurd knew we had to get out of there--we couldn't repay them for giving us sanctuary by letting an invasion force enter their country. So we decided to push to Barhara and get the situation cleared up. But I don't think any of us were particularly optimistic about what would happen once we got there." She frowned. "Sigurd decided to send Oifey and Shanan to Isaac with Selis, in case something happened to him. Ayra and Lex sent the twins with them, so then Edin and her children went along too...I sent Delmud with them."

He nodded slowly. "I see."

She winced. "I didn't want to do it, Finn! What else was I supposed to do?"

"Don't get me wrong, Lachesis. I don't blame you. There wasn't much else you could do." He sighed again. "I just...well...you understand, right?"

"Yes."

"So after Prince Cuan..." he trailed off. "After that, Sigurd sent you here?"

"Yes. He had to send someone, and he knew I wanted to go. If I'd known I'd end up here, I wouldn't have sent Delmud to Isaac."

"It might be better that you sent him. The situation here isn't too good, either."

"What do you mean?"

"Did you only hear about Prince Cuan's death, or did you..." Finn swallowed. "Did you see him?"

"I...saw the aftermath. And wished I hadn't." Lachesis shuddered.

"Then you probably noticed that he didn't bring a particularly large force with him." He shook his head. "We couldn't afford to. Thracia's been rather active around our borders lately...much more so than usual. His Highness assumed they were staging for an invasion and made his plans accordingly. He assumed that if he left a sizable force here, they wouldn't try anything while he was gone."

"But he got it backwards..."

"And if he's gone, we're doomed. His father is still sick. We don't really have a leader."

"But surely you could--"

"No."

"Why not?" she demanded. "I would've expected Cuan to take you along, so he must've had you stay for a reason. If not to hold things together, then why?"

He smiled bitterly. "I know my limitations, Lachesis. I may be a good fighter, but I don't have the charisma to lead. I wasn't out there because I've been entrusted with Prince Leaf's safety. Lady Ethlin insisted."

"Prince Leaf?" Lachesis asked. She frowned, remembering the last days Cuan and Ethlin had spent among Sigurd's army...and before they left, Ethlin had seemed apprehensive about something, Cuan rather concerned-- "Their son?"

"Yes."

"But..." She stopped. "Wait. What about their daughter? Are you in charge of her too?"

Finn frowned. "Altenna? What do you mean, Lachesis? She went with them--"

"What?" Lachesis gasped.

"But if you didn't know that--" Finn frowned. "You never...saw..."

Lachesis shook her head. "If her...remains...were there, I didn't see them. But we got down there so late, I wouldn't be surprised if...the..." She shuddered, remembering the scavenger-eaten corpses she had seen.

Finn swore softly in the native language of Lenster. "Trabant has much to answer for." He stood and began pacing the room. "But what can we do? We've lost a good portion of our army, we don't have Prince Cuan, the king is on his deathbed..." He swore again. "Lenster is finished."

"It's not," said Lachesis firmly. "Not yet."

"If Thracia doesn't finish us, Grandbell will. Once word about His Highness gets out, they'll come after us. It'll be rather obvious that his intention was to give Sir Sigurd some backup, so we've declared war on them already...and without a leader we'll be a tempting target."

"I'd forgotten about Grandbell." Lachesis sighed. "This doesn't look good, does it?"

"No. You should probably get out of Lenster as soon as you can. You can probably make it back to Isaac--"

"No way, Finn. I'm staying here."

"Lachesis--"

"Don't try to argue with me about this!" she snapped. "Anyway, I have some other business to take care of here, so even if you weren't here, I'd still stay!"

He sighed and nodded, although he didn't look too pleased. Finn knew better than to argue with Lachesis. She always won. "What else do you have to take care of here?"

"I know my brother sent his wife and son out of Agustria before his death. Grahyne was born in Lenster, so it would make sense for them to come here. I have to find them."

"They'd have heard of his death by now, though, wouldn't they?"

"Most likely. But I doubt the entire truth made it out of Agustria. Shagall was always a snake. I wouldn't put it past him to make sure a different story leaked past our borders." She frowned. "I never trusted him, but Eltoshan always told me I was being too judgmental..."

"Maybe you were, but you were still right." Finn shook his head. "On the journey from Silesia back to Lenster, Prince Cuan said some...things about Shagall..."

"What did he say?"

"It's not fit for a lady's ears." Seeing the look on her face, he held up his hands to forestall her protests. "The expression doesn't translate well, anyway, so I couldn't really give you the full meaning even if I wanted to."

She half-smiled. "Fine. You win."