The journey was long and harsh.  Our braids flying in the wind as we rode in the moonlight, we seemed to me to be like two silver arrows soaring ever closer to their target.  We would only make stops in small towns off the main roads, out of the way places that might well remember strangers passing through but which would never recognize Eve as the Lady of the Citadel.  Especially as road worn as she was, covered in dusty clothes and wearing muddy boots.  Keeping to the smallest paths, the quietest areas, we gradually drew closer to the city she had left behind.  I thought I had known how to ride a horse before we left, but by now I was an expert.

            We crossed the mountains by day, not trusting the high paths at night.  Sometimes storms kept us from the journey, huddling together for warmth in tiny nooks or caves within the mountain face.  We lived off berries and meagre supplies purchased from small farms or lonely hermits.  It was hard going, as we led the horses more than we rode them, and I had resigned myself to plodding along the precarious trails step by step.  So I almost didn’t notice when we finally came in view of the Citadel, for I was watching my feet.  We went over a crest, and then Genevieve put out her hand to stop me from walking further.

            “Look.”  She said.

            I raised my eyes and saw the sun setting on the horizon beneath us, setting the sky ablaze with orange and red light over the ocean.  Nestled in the coastlands beneath us I saw the city dominated by the sharp spike of the Citadel blackly silhouetted against the sun-painted sky.  It seemed as if the city dwelt in the massive structure’s shadow.  I felt a shiver run through me at the sight of that black spire, knowing the corruption that lurked within its heart.

            “You want us to go into that place?” I asked, a tremor in my voice.

            “I never looked at it from this vantage point before.”  Eve said.  “I never realized how frightening it could seem.  We’ve made ourselves their kings and queens, and acted like we deserved to lord it over them.  How could I have been so blind to the way evil wormed its way into our lives?”

            “I’m scared, Eve,” I whispered, too afraid to move.  I could not tear my eyes away from that tower, as it hulked over the surrounding countryside, brooding in its monolithic size as it ruled over the land.  It seemed like some brutish horror waiting to crush ants under its feet, waiting to gobble us up.

            “We can do this, Gwen,” Genevieve said, taking my hand.  “I don’t know how, but I know that we have to.  We’ll go in and find the truth, and fight evil.”

            I shook my hand from hers.  “You make it sound so easy, but how can we do that?” I demanded.  “I’m a child, and you’re a woman, and they are seven men in charge of an army!  We’re going to die!”

            I all but screamed, my voice echoing off the mountains.  My words came back to me and I found myself ashamed by my fear, but that didn’t make my words any less true.  We had a snowball’s chance in Hell, from our current perspective looking down on that black edifice.  To walk through that city, into the lion’s den, and hope that we could make things right…  It seemed like madness.

            Genevieve took hold of my face in her hands, carefully but forcefully, and made me look at her.  Her eyes were filled with resolve.  “Listen to me, Gwen.  We will go in and make things right.  We have to.  Because it’s what Ethan would do.”

            She took my hand in hers and we walked down the slope towards the city below.

We were intercepted by a patrol not ten minutes later.  As I saw their horses bearing down on us, I screamed and leaped into the nearest bush.  It was a futile gesture, I knew that they had seen me, but I wasn’t quite thinking clearly.  I covered my head with my hands and shivered in terror, expecting certain death.

            A moment passed, and then another.  I wondered why everything was so quiet, so I peeked my head out above the leaves of the bush surrounding me.  I saw one rider dismounting and stepping towards Eve, who stood in the middle of the path as if she were just out for an early morning stroll.

            “Eve?” The man said, coming closer.  His voice was almost joyous.  He had dark hair and a short beard on his chin, with warm brown eyes and a nice smile.  He certainly didn’t look like he was going to kill us.

            “Hello, Alexander.”  Genevieve smiled.  Though her face showed a warm welcome, I could see two things in her eyes:  a mixture of suspicion and hope.  “It’s been awhile.”

            He laughed.  “Months!  I didn’t know you were due back.  Return early, did you?  And who’s the little urchin hiding in the bushes?”

            “That’s my sister, Gwen.  Do you remember her?”  Eve smiled, gesturing for me to come out.  “She’s easily frightened.  Stories of bandits on the roads led her to act without thinking, you know how children are.”

            I crept up behind her, holding her hand for reassurance.  I bristled when she called me a child, after weeks of being treated as an equal, but I understood that she was trying to make my panicked reaction seem ordinary.  No one needed to know of our suspicions.

            “Where is your escort?”  Alexander questioned.  “If they’ve been derelict in their duties…”

            “Oh, no, nothing like that.  As we approached the city I relieved them.  This far from the Fringe I guessed that we had no need of their protection.  I just wanted some time alone with my sister before going back into my duties at the Citadel.”  Genevieve said reassuringly.

            Alexander glowered a little.  “That’s not the safest of plans, Eve.”  He looked over his shoulder at his men.  “Lieutenant, take the patrol up to the North Ridge, I’ll meet you there shortly.”

            They saluted and rode off, leaving us with the handsome lord and his horse.  I felt some of my fear leave me, as the sight of the soldiers and their weapons had put a lump in my throat.  I still didn’t know if we were safe, but the odds had improved.

            “Genevieve, I don’t know how to tell you, but things around here are not as safe as they once were.  Leaving your soldiers behind was not the wisest decision.”  Alexander said once they were out of sight. 

            “What do you mean, Alex?”  She asked, hearing something like fear in his voice.  Fear not just for her safety, but for something else as well.

            “Owen and Daniel are dead.”  He told her matter-of-factly.  “We believe by the same person, someone who could strike from within the Citadel itself.”

            Genevieve squeezed my hand tightly, but remained composed.  I knew that inwardly she was in turmoil, but she gave Alex no outward show of that fact.

            “Dead?  Owen, and Dan?”  She said, “From within the Citadel…”

            “Yes.  That means that, at the very least, some of the troops are not to be trusted.  I have gathered some that are loyal to me, but I still didn’t feel safe discussing this in front of them.  That’s why I sent them on.  Because there’s more.”

            “More?” I asked, the first thing I had said since the riders had approached.

            “Yes, more.  Investigations revealed that Daniel had been kidnapping women and murdering them.  It’s possible that he and Owen were involved with a smuggling operation.  We believe that’s how Dan funded his guards and kept them silent about his proclivities.”

            I felt Eve shiver with disgust.  There was obviously more to the story, something Alex didn’t want to say in front of me, and I knew it couldn’t be good.  For my sister and myself it certainly confirmed our fears that the heart of the Citadel was rotting.

            “What does Neal think?” Genevieve asked him.

            Alexander stared at the ground, his brow wrinkled in consternation.  “I don’t know.  He had us cover up Daniel’s death, making it look like he died out on a patrol instead of within the Citadel.  In the weeks since then I’ve been too busy gathering my forces from within the army and in the local towns, seeing whom I can rally to my cause.  I’ve been working quietly, subtly moving so that I’m sure that no one is part of the conspiracy that Daniel and Owen were involved with.”

            “What do you mean ‘my forces?’ That sounds like you’re planning a civil war,”  I said quietly, pressing myself against Eve for comfort.  She put an arm around me.

            “She has a point, Alex.  It sounds like you’re working without Neal’s sanction.  What’s going on?”

            He ran a gloved hand through his hair, obviously frustrated.  “I don’t know if I can trust him.  He worked with Owen every day, gave Daniel command of the army…  He either knew and approved, or somehow turned a blind eye…” It was clear that Alex hated to think it, but also that he saw no other conclusions.

            “I don’t want to believe my cousin is behind the evil in our city, but I have to prepare to fight against it nonetheless.  No matter who started it, I have to be ready to fight back,” Alex said, imploring Genevieve with his eyes.  He was getting choked up.  “Please Evie, you have to understand.  I love Neal, but if he’s killing people, I can’t let that happen…”

            “I understand, Alex.  What’s more, I’m here to help.”  Genevieve said.  She let go of me and moved to embrace him.  Alex actually wept as he realized what she’d said.  He was no longer alone in his struggle.  They held each other tightly for a moment before anyone spoke again.

            “We’ll have to go back into the Citadel, lull them into a false sense of security about us,” Alex said finally, wiping away a tear.  “We can better determine from within who might be involved…”

            “I agree,” Evie said.  “There’s only one problem.”

            “What’s that?”

            “Ethan.”

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