Excerpt: The Menagerie: Lynx

Ramsay heard the cry for help a split second before he saw the boy coming in his direction at full speed, chased by half a dozen men with swords flashing in the hot, bright sunlight. Dropping the dipper from which he’d been drinking water at the well, he drew his own sword and ran forward with a roaring cry.

The men fought tenaciously, and if they had not been so strung out while chasing the boy, they might have stood a chance—six against one should have been an easy victory for them. But they were scattered and tired from running in the exhausting heat, and Ramsay had not lost his edge despite his unexpected and extremely early retirement.

He was still panting heavily when he finished. Kneeling, he cleaned his sword on the robe of a dead man, then sheathed it. He used his own sleeve to wipe the spatters of blood from his face. Turning, he sought out the boy and found him hiding behind the well Ramsay had only just abandoned. “Ho, there,” he called, taking care with his Tavamaran. “You all right there, boy?”

“Y-y-yes,” the boy stuttered, visibly shaking and crying as he slowly stood up. “T-t-thank you.”

“You are welcome. Why is a boy of not more than ten summers out here all alone, being chased by dangerous men?”

The boy looked guilty and afraid, but only shrugged and looked at his feet.

Ramsay examined him. Despite sweat and dirt and grime, the boy was clearly of noble breeding. The clothes were high-quality linen, dyed expensive colors, and he wore a plain gold bracelet that plenty of people would certainly see as sufficient motivation for killing.

Definitely noble, then. So likely taken for ransom, or wandered off on a lark and found himself in over his head. “Were they trying to kidnap you?”

The boy nodded, looking guiltier and more miserable by the second. Ramsay rested a comforting hand on his shoulder. “It will be all right, boy. What’s your name? We’ll see you home safe.”

Rather than give his name, the boy went from scared to terrified, and tears began to stream down his face in earnest.

Ramsay had a sudden awful realization. No noble’s son would fear giving his name to a complete stranger—especially not one as glaringly foreign as Ramsay. But even a foreigner was likely to recognize the name of royalty, and the King had only one son, a boy of about eight years.

Kneeling, gripping his shoulders, Ramsay said softly, “You are Prince Kajan, aren’t you?”

The boy started to sob then and appeared ready to bolt. Ramsay scooped him up and hugged him tight, holding him as he had once held his own little brother. He spoke soft, soothing words, switching between Tavamaran and Tritacian, until Kajan’s tears finally calmed.

“It will be all right, Highness,” Ramsay said. “I promise, I will not hurt you. Neither will I let another harm you, understand? I promise I will see you returned to your father. Come, come,” he said and finally let Kajan go. “No, do not look,” he said when Kajan tried to look at the bodies.

He guided Kajan to his horse and settled him on it. Then he went carefully around the rest stop, removing all signs of himself from the area that he possibly could. Once confident he would not be easily traced, he swung up onto the horse behind Kajan and rode from the area, off into the thin forest that eventually would spill into the mountains that much later on formed the border between Tavamara and its northern neighbors. They traveled as quickly as he could manage while stopping frequently to cover their tracks and ensure they were not followed.

By the time they reached his home, he was exhausted. He had not felt this sort of tension, this awareness, for a very long time. He thought he had left it all behind. He had intended to leave it all behind.

Pain twisted in his chest, a wound that would always be raw, as painful now as it had been seven months and six days ago. He would never forget how it had felt, to hold his brother’s dead and bloody body in his arms. The light forever gone from brown eyes, so much like their mother’s. Dead because Ramsay had been too busy guarding a prince and had trusted his brother to others.

Making a rough sound, he dismounted and led his horse into the stable he had built himself shortly after arriving. The house had already been there, if only barely. He had gotten it for a pittance from a man who had been delighted to have the old cabin—shack, really—off his hands. But Ramsay had nothing but time on his hands, now and so had used it to make the house respectable and add a small stable to the property.

Now, buried in the thin forest, with a view of mountains all around him, he found a reasonable imitation of peace.

Dismounting, Ramsay led the horse into the stable. Kajan laughed as he had to duck to get inside, still on the horse. Only a child, Ramsay thought with a faint smile, could be so easily and delightedly distracted from a situation as dire as running from his kidnappers straight into the arms of a stranger who could be anyone at all.

Luckily for Kajan, he could have run to no one better when it came to these matters. In the stable, he finally helped Kajan down. “Stay out of the way for a bit, Highness, while I take care of Feather, hmm?”

Kajan laughed. “That is a silly name for a horse.”

Ramsay smiled and patted his horse affectionately. “Yes, I suppose it is. But he runs as light as a feather, even when I am on his back.”

“Well, you’re not very big,” Kajan said, looking as though he were trying very hard to be nice, especially under the circumstances, but the truth was the truth.

Ramsay burst out laughing, leaning against his horse as he attempted to regain control of himself. He reached out to tousle Kajan’s hair. “No, I am not very big. But I am fast and very tough, and I weigh more than you might think.” He winked.

Kajan giggled.

Grinning, Ramsay led the way out of the stable and across the way to his small, humble but sturdy cabin. Inside, he hung up his face and head wraps then washed at the basin he always kept filled with fresh water. “Ah, that feels much better. I still am not used to the heat in your country, hmm? Where I come from, it is always very cold. Would you like some tea?” He walked toward the stove, looking over his shoulder for an answer.

“Y-yes, please,” Kajan said, looking suddenly uncertain.

Crossing back to Kajan, he knelt and hugged the prince tight. “It’s okay, Kajan. We will get you home safe, I promise.”

Kajan started crying again and hugged him so tightly that Ramsay struggled to breathe for a moment. “I want papa! I w-w-want to go home!”

“Shh, shh,” Ramsay soothed, hugging him tight. “You will see your father again, Kajan. I promise.”

Kajan just cried harder.

Ramsay drew back slightly and smiled. “Do you know what I used to be?” He smiled more brightly when Kajan only looked at him in confusion.

Standing, he crossed the room to his bed and drew out the small, wooden chest he kept beneath it. Inside were the few precious objects he had taken when he had left Tritacia behind forever. Picking out the small velvet jeweler’s bag he wanted, he strode back to Kajan and knelt again.

Opening the bag, he dug out the only ring it contained. “Do you see this ring, Kajan?”

“Uh-huh,” Kajan said, sniffling, tears drying as curiosity overtook fear.

“Once upon a time, it was my duty to protect a prince. I trained for it for a very long time—I was not much older than you are now, in fact. Every day for ten years I protected that prince. He is still alive and safe, because I protected him. Once, he was almost stolen, just like you. I stopped the men who tried to take him and got the prince safely home. That is what this ring means—that I am a Protector. I promise, Kajan, that I will get you safely home, all right? So you do not need to be afraid.”

Kajan looked at the ring. “Papa has rings like this.” He frowned. “But not like this, too.”

Ramsay smiled. It turned a bit sad as he looked at the ring himself. It was beautiful—made from white gold, set with a deep blue sapphire. Over the sapphire was more white gold, molded into the royal flower of Tritacia. The ring of a Holy Protector.

He had given them so much, until they had taken the one thing he had begged them to protect for him while he guarded their prince. Then, they had not even been sorry. He had raged and raged, all to nothing.

So he had buried his brother, dead at only eleven years. Then he had packed all that Feather could comfortably carry and boarded the first ship with room for man and horse. He had left Tritacia and the life of a Protector behind forever.