A chill wind seemed to guide her way through the corridors, pushing at her back, urging her onward towards the Great Hall. The moment she'd both dreamt of and dreaded for weeks now was swift approaching, hurtling towards her like some great, fiery comet. Inescapable; cataclysmic; an engulfing inferno that would decimate everything in its wake. Raina felt helpless to avoid it. One step to the left or the right, and she would escape certain doom. But she was rooted to the path she currently found herself on, unable to avoid the firestorm that was coming.
Her less-than-convincing excuses for missing dinner had fallen on deaf ears. As she'd expected, her father had not believed her. He seemed of a mind with the queen; intent for the young prince to view his prize in all its glory. But she had to at least try, though it likely would have done little good in the end. There would always be more dinners, and feasts, and tournaments, and gatherings...
She could not avoid him forever. All of her lies were tied like a noose around her neck, pulled tighter and tighter with every step down the hall she took. Una was sending her feelings of comfort from their quarters, but it did little to quell the roiling mess that was currently her stomach. How she would be able to eat anything, Raina did not know. Her legs trembled painfully beneath layers of linen petticoats and her blue silk-and-lace skirts, but she was already walking as slowly as she dared. The king of Oran was already pulling ahead of her, heedless to the anxiety swirling in her heart.
Darkness pressed at the edges of her vision, until it seemed the only thing she could see was the back of her father's head, bobbing with his steps and glinting from the crown he wore upon his brow. In an attempt to calm her racing heart, she focused on that crown, memorizing the twisting lines of bronze and iron. The crown was of a lesser quality than the Alagaesian king's, but then, they did not have access to as fine a material as they had here in Ilirea. Little by little, her vision began to clear and her breathing returned to a somewhat normal pace.
Unfortunately, it was a moment too late; the towering doors to the Great Hall loomed before them and her trembling was born anew. She could hear the murmur of a great many voices beyond the solid wood doors, and wondered at just how many people were going to be present for this meal. Through those doors, her life would change forever. Murtagh would see her for the snake she truly was, and whatever innocent love they'd shared on Oran would be lost. The foundation of their relationship had been forged on a bed of lies and deceit... How could he forgive her? Did she even deserve to be forgiven?
Morzan looked over his shoulder back at her. "Do not speak unless spoken to," he said quietly, though there was no kindness in his voice. "You will sit next to the prince, and I expect you to remember your rearing; none of your snide remarks or spite. Am I understood?"
Raina felt as though another person spoke from her body as she said, "Yes, Father... I understand." He gave her a sidelong look at this quiet compliance, but said nothing more. The doors groaned and complained as they swung into the massive room, and his attention was drawn forward once again.
The hearths had been lit for warmth, but Raina thought she might suffocate under the stifling heat. It was already difficult to breathe, smothered under the weight of what was to come, and the flames did little to help her. Not to mention the dozens of lit candles upon the table, so that they might see their meal. If her earlier thoughts of an unstoppable inferno hurtling towards her were any indication, she might very well be incinerated in this very room.
It seemed most, if not all, of the Clan leaders were present in the hall. They and their captains were spread out amongst the long tables that ran the length of the room, talking jovially with one another as they ate and drank. It took naught but a moment for their laughter to die on their lips. A hundred eyes were on them in an instant, and a thick silence fell over the hall, deafening in its magnitude.
A chair scraped against the stone floor, and Raina looked to the opposite end of the hall to the High Table. King Brom was on his feet, gazing at them with a hard look. Suddenly, the man to his right was standing as well, eyes locked on Raina with a smile upon his face.
"Welcome," Eragon called out to them. "Please, join us." He gestured for them to make their way to the High Table, which Morzan did without pause. Raina had to force her feet to move to follow behind him, clenching her teeth painfully.
As they walked, she scanned the faces of the men and women around them, searching for the one she wished most--and, as it turned out, the least--to see in the world. But as they continued further on, those piercing, grey eyes never found her. Her heart fell in her chest.
Murtagh was not here.
They reached the High Table and the rising murmur of voices resumed, everyone seemingly satisfied with their inspection of the foreigners. Her father and his Captain, Morholt, ascended the dais and took their places. The king of Oran took the empty seat at King Brom's left, bumping elbows with the nervous-looking steward who had escorted them earlier. At the queen's beckoning hand, Raina walked behind her father and the king and took the empty seat to the queen's left... Which put her directly beside her soon-to-be husband.
Prince Eragon was gaping up at her with a look she could only interpret as shock. His mouth hung slightly agape, eyes opened wide as he took in her appearance. Now that her veil was not obstructing her view, she could see that the freckles she'd noticed before were much more pronounced, and his brown eyes had a hint of gold to them. She offered him a beatific smile, as was her duty, but said nothing as she took her seat.
"My lady," he mumbled, taking up her hand and planting a chaste kiss there. "It's ah--How lovely to... Well, what I mean to say is..." He was bumbling now, and she could tell he knew it.
In an effort to salvage his pride, she interjected. "It is nice to meet you... officially as well, Your Highness," she said softly. In spite of what she might feel, Raina was finding it difficult to be cool towards this man. There was something about him that seemed inherently approachable. And besides... his company was much more agreeable when compared to the queen's.
His face broke into a wide smile as he chuckled, looking down at the table momentarily. "I apologize," he said, looking back up at her. "I'm not usually this nervous. But after this morning I thought... Well..."
"You thought?" she prompted him.
He chuckled again, mouth twisting up into a smirk. "Your, um... veil... Well, I hate to say this, but... it certainly does give the impression that you have the pox, my lady." He laughed all the way through the admission, giving him a very boyish appearance.
A laugh of her own bubbled up in her throat, which escaped without warning. "The pox?" she asked incredulously. "Well, I certainly didn't think of that before." She looked away from him, back out towards the hall, with just the slightest pang in her chest when she realized he'd made her smile. It was a jarring thought, and her laughter died immediately. Sadness gripped her heart once more, fiercer than before. "I trust," she continued quietly, keeping her eyes downcast, "that I have not disappointed you then, Your Highness."
"Not at all." There was something in the way he said it that made her wary of looking him in the eye. But she stole a glance nevertheless, and found a look there she had hoped not to see. Her attention was quickly drawn away by a servant stealing past them, laying down plates of food as she went. Another servant came quickly behind her with the serving spoons, dishing out potatoes and carrots and pearl onions onto each plate at the High Table. After he was gone, another young girl came with the skewer and dished out the roast boar they would be dining on.
After the High Table had been served, the others took their cue and began feasting as well. They served themselves off of giant trenchers, the men seeming to do battle with their forks, poised like little swords, for the choicest cuts of meat. It was all in jest, however, which Raina found out as their laughter lifted into the rafters. Such joy; they all seemed so carefree. It was an amazing sight to behold, one which she was achingly unfamiliar with.
"I do hope you find our choice of meal acceptable." This time, it was the queen who spoke.
Raina glanced to her right and gave Selena a passing smile. She had not yet touched her plate, and she realized she could not afford to appear weak in front of this woman. Any weakness would be seized upon. "I have not seen a meal this fine in all my years, Your Majesty," she replied with a slight tilt of her head. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught her father leaning slightly past the Alagaesian king to see her. Whatever he'd been wanting to see, she would not give him the satisfaction of meeting his gaze.
"Are there no boars in Oran?" the prince jested. But Raina gave him a level look, and his smile faltered.
"Not so many as you have here, Your Highness," she replied. "Our forests are not so vast, nor as lush as the ones here in Alagaesia. Game is hard to come by most years, especially when the winters have been harsh. We mostly rely on the sea for our sustenance."
"Apologies, my lady," he said quickly. "I, uh... I did not think."
She could forgive him his ignorance, but Raina couldn't help feeling the queen had dug at her intentionally. "I took no offense, Your Highness--"
"Please," he cut her off, placing his hand atop hers gingerly, "there is no need for titles. We are to be married..." She stiffened at that, and she saw the realization flash in his dark eyes. After a moment's hesitation, he continued. "You would do me a great honor by simply calling me by my name."
A wave of embarrassment washed over her and crept up her face. To call a man she barely knew by his given name... It was a thing she'd only ever done once, and had no intention of doing again. "Forgive me, my lord," she said solemnly, bowing her head slightly. "But I hope you can understand that I am... hesitant to become so familiar so quickly."
Eragon sat back slightly, sitting straight against his chair. "Of course," he said, "I apologize. I did not..." He stalled suddenly, looking past her. Every hair on the back of Raina's neck was standing on end, tingling with energy, and she felt her eyes go wide. It was amazing; after all this time apart, she could still sense him... "Brother!" Eragon called out with a wide smile, sending a spike of ice through Raina's veins. "Come and meet my betrothed!"
The prince stood, extending his arm out and beckoning towards where she knew Murtagh was standing, having stolen into the Great Hall through some side door, hidden from view. How could she have been so naïve, to think that she would be granted any more delay? Fear immobilized her; she found herself unable to move. Footsteps pounded, climbing the dais and strolling towards her, like a death knell. No more lies; no more hiding. It was all going to come to an end, here and now.
Eragon was holding out his hand to her, inviting her to stand alongside him; the picture of unity. Raina felt her heart cleave in two as she took his hand, gripping it tightly to steady herself. Her legs were shaking violently, almost to the point of being incapable of bearing her weight.
"Murtagh," the prince said, "may I introduce to you Princess Raina of Oran... my future wife."
Time seemed to still and the noise all around them fell away as Raina turned to face him, tears already brimming in her eyes. She could no longer feel the prince at her side, nor see anything else around her. All she saw was the man she loved, standing only a pace away, as she had dreamt every day since he'd left. She longed for nothing more than to run to him, wrap her arms around his neck and feel him press against her. But she was paralyzed, held captive by his gaze.
It took only a moment for him to realize what was happening. The genial smile he'd been wearing slowly disappeared with his recognition, replaced quickly by consternation. A look of horror came into his grey eyes, which bounced quickly back and forth between her and Eragon. "Your wife," he mumbled, choking on the word. Her heart was pounding so quickly, she thought she might faint. All of her fear and anxiety leading up to this moment exploded in a debilitating wash of numbness. She could not move; she could not think; she could not even breathe. His gaze finally rested on her, still dazed but with a new, unfamiliar edge of anger to it.
Eragon coughed slightly, glaring at him pointedly. "Murtagh," he ground out through clenched teeth.
"Of course," he replied numbly, taking a step forward. He took her hand, sending shockwaves through her body. But his touch was not kind... a feeling she had never known, and never wished to know again. "Forgive me, Your Highness, for being so boorish. I was not expecting to meet you so soon..." He kissed her hand and then dropped it unceremoniously. She watched as his jaw clenched and his gaze shifted to his brother. "I would speak with you afterward, if you have a moment."
The prince nodded firmly and then turned back to Raina, guiding her back to her seat. A rush of air came back to her lungs, causing her to stumble and fall slightly into her chair. Eragon leaned over her worryingly. "Are you alright?" he questioned. She nodded quickly, not trusting her voice to answer.
Heavy steps retreated from the High Table, pounding against the wooden dais quickly. Raina cast a look over her shoulder, choking down the sob that was threatening to break free at any moment. But she didn't not have the luxury of allowing her gaze to linger; the queen was watching her out of the corner of her eye, and Murtagh did not look back as he stormed from the hall.
"You'll have to excuse my brother," Eragon explained, heedless to the silent exchange that had just happened right in front of him. "He has recently suffered an ordeal, and is still recovering." Raina nodded slightly and offered him a smile, despite it feeling like her soul was breaking into a thousand tiny pieces.
"Would you excuse me for a moment?" she asked, standing before he could answer.
"Of course," he said, looking up at her. She thanked him and hurried off the dais, following that little tendril of energy out into the hall and down a long corridor. Her only hope was that the queen did not have any spies posted nearby, for what she was about to do would surely incriminate her, and shatter the fragile peace they had already achieved.
She lied to me! Murtagh felt his anger gripping him like the bloodlust of battle; completely uncontrollable and all-consuming. The air in the garden was cool and clear, yet his body felt like it was on fire. His vision was clouded, as though a veil had been drawn over his eyes. But he soon realized it was merely the blur of tears brimming, hot and angry.
Murtagh, Thorn's deep voice intoned, echoing with the soothing calm he was trying to project. Peace, I beg of you. We do not know--
I know damn well that she lied to me! If she was not even truthful about her name, I cannot trust any of the words that came out of her mouth. His steps carried him down the gravel path of the garden, sending rocks flying under the ferocity of his gait. A branch of a yew bush that hung out into the path fell victim to his anger as he swatted it away, breaking the stem and sending it flying. I can't even trust...
Thorn waited a moment, until he was sure Murtagh would not respond. You doubt the sincerity of her feelings for you? the wolf questioned, his voice clear. Murtagh knew his wolf was down in the kennels at that moment, but the strength of his ferocity heightened the power of their connection, so it felt as though he was standing right next to him.
The path took a sudden twist to the left, heading into a small orchard of cherry blossom and magnolia trees. Murtagh slowed as he approached the row of saplings, the newest in his father's collection. The moonlight cast upon their leaves and spilling over onto the path created a scene of serenity; one which helped to soothe his ire.
He released a heavy breath. How can I not? he replied, fighting against the ache in his chest. Everything I thought I knew... it was all a lie. She--
The snap of a twig and the crunch of gravel caused him to turn quickly around, unsheathed dagger in hand and poised to kill. But his hand fell quickly when he saw who it was that had approached him.
"You should not be here," he remarked, an unfamiliar acidity in his voice. The moonlight caressed through her light hair, ringing her head in a halo. She looked for all the world like an angel... But Murtagh knew this angel had a forked tongue, adept at seduction.
"Murtagh, please," she begged, taking another few steps towards him. "Allow me to explain." He saw her hands shaking, though he could not be sure if it be from the chill or her obvious emotion.
"Why should I?" The bite in his voice caused her to flinch, and he felt a momentary twitch of shame. But it passed quickly as his anger rose once more. "You lied to me," he continued on, fighting against the clenching of his jaw. "Why should I listen to anything you say?" A tear traced its way down her cheek, but he ignored it. The darkest part of him hoped she was feeling even a fraction of the pain he was experiencing in that moment.
"I do not expect you to understand, but--”"
"You told me your name was Bronwyn." Against his will, the grief that was the foundation of his anger crept into his voice. "You told me you were training to be a healer," he continued, fists clenching at his sides. "I trusted you with the truth about myself, against my better judgment, and this is how you repay me?"
"I was afraid," she admitted desperately. "Our fathers were sworn enemies, and I could not know how you might react if you knew..." Her mouth clamped shut as her voice cracked against a sob. After taking a moment to regain her composure, she pressed on. "I hate my father, Murtagh. You must believe that. If I'd meant to betray you, there was ample opportunity to do so. But I didn't... I didn't because I love you."
"Love?" he spat derisively, anger inflamed once more. "Love is not lying to someone about who you are, Raina... Love is trust and honesty. You are an ignorant child, and I'll not listen to anymore of your willful callowness."
"Please, don't do this," she said, crying in earnest now.
"It is done." Murtagh could feel his heart hardening against her. The fervor he'd felt before--to see her again and deliver her from her situation--was gone, soured into enmity. Her appeals and explanations had not swayed him. "You are set to marry my brother... there is nothing more to discuss. Whatever happened in Oran was a dream. And although it was a pleasant one... it is farce nonetheless."
Raina wiped at her tears hastily, a scowl marring her face. "I never lied to you about what I felt, Murtagh; what I still feel."
He doubted for just the slightest moment, and imagined himself running towards her, taking her up in his arms and kissing her as though not a day had passed. But that would never happen again. Even if he could find it in himself to forgive her, she was promised to Eragon, his brother and future king. How could he contemplate such a betrayal?
Murtagh took a step back, stiffening into a formal bow. "My lady," he murmured quietly, drawing himself back up. "I hope you made a convincing excuse; your betrothed will be missing you. Though, as I'm sure my own experience has shown, the lie will have been expertly crafted. Good evening."
With the shocked look upon her face branded into his memory, he turned and continued on down the path through the orchard as he had before, straight-backed and never once stealing a glance behind him.