They fled the city in the darkest hour of the night. It was cold but dry, a late winter frost lay on the ground and their breaths plumed on the air as they exhaled. Most of the city slept. The only souls still awake were the ever-watchful guards working the night shift and a few weary insomniacs. Plus that traitorous and idiotic fool no doubt already warming her barely-vacated throne.
She snarled under her breath as she hurried through the secret tunnels - scurrying away like a rat, she could not help but think. Behind her came the sounds of harsh breathing as her loyal followers hurried to keep pace with her. She had chosen only those she felt absolutely certain she could trust, those she felt she could actually call friend. There were others who would have pledged allegiance if she had asked them but their loyalty she was not so certain of.
Those who followed behind were trusted confidantes, loyal soldiers, faithful allies whose hands she would put her life in without a second thought. There were the soldiers - Kero and Tean, brothers and sons of the man whose bulky frame led the way. With them came others, fresh recruits, young and eager, not yet corrupted by ambition and greed. Behind them the old men who had been faithful advisors to both her and her father. Old men who had beaten off corruption and whose only desire was to see their city prosper and its inhabitants lead full, rich lives free of fear and sickness. Behind them came the women, ladies-in-waiting and her trusted nurse. Behind them, more soldiers. Older, more experienced, their ears alert for any sound of danger coming from the rear, their eyes scanning the shadows for possible threats. And in front, their commander, their great chief, Captain Estar Darian. Fifty-two years old, blond-haired, blue-eyed and hugely built, he nevertheless managed to move like one far leaner and much younger.
He turned to glance over his shoulder. “Your majesty?”
“I’m fine,” she replied. “Keep going. I’ll match your pace.”
He nodded and turned back to focus on the path ahead. There was little illumination and they dared not light a torch. The brightness or the smell of smoke would give away their position. They had little to fear from the men patrolling above. Most were still loyal to Farina and those who were not were no match for Darian’s swift blade. The worry was the vampires.
Molan’s arrogance and greed had blinded him as to what was really going on. He thought he was using the dark queen but in truth, she was using him. She had sent him the reinforcements he needed to oust his sister and place himself on the throne but he had not bothered to examine them too closely. Their helmets and the cloths swaddling their faces had deterred him somewhat but though Molan was easily fooled, Farina was not. She had seen the intruders approaching long before they had reached the palace walls and knew by the way they walked, they way they held themselves that they were not human. Some she had recognised as werewolves, she had a finely attuned nose and was not likely to forget their stench. Not after what had happened to Anasais. The others she had recognised with instinctual terror were vampires. The fluidity of their motions, the way their heads turned so that their ears could catch the smallest sound, their noses the tiniest scent, their eyes the most miniscule of movements revealed them for what they were.
Had Molan not been such an ass, had he bothered to listen to their teachers, he would have recognised them too. As it was, he had allied himself with monsters and did not even know it. She felt a tiny twinge of pity for him. When he did realise it would be too late. They would eat him alive. She grimaced and pushed the sentiment away. Brother he might be but there had been little love between them over the years, if any. He had allied himself with the dark queen, brought monsters to her beloved city and sent assassins to her bedchamber to kill not only her but her child as well.
She pulled her cloak tighter around her frame, covering the bump that clung tightly to her beneath it.
Tirov was barely four years old. He did not know what was going on, but with a child’s delicate senses, knew something was wrong. He sensed danger and shivered as he held tightly to her. His little arms were fastened around her neck, his legs around her waist. She felt his tears soaking into her tunic but not once did he utter so much as the smallest squeak.
“Quiet!” Darian suddenly hissed, unnecessarily.
They had come to the end of the secret passageway that led out of the palace, snaked under the city, under the river and took its travellers right up to and slightly beyond the border of the forest. Darian stood stock still with a gloved hand raised for silence. He stood listening for a long time but she knew not to say anything until he deemed it safe. Finally, the hand was lowered and he gestured for his sons to come forward.