Ella. Her very name tasted painful as it slipped between my lips - like swallowing a shard of glass. I didn't know what I wanted more; to embrace her or execute her where she stood. Some foolish corner of my heart was singing that she had returned to me, to explain her role in everything, that she had never been involved at all, that the name was a mere coincidence. That corner was silenced entirely when I saw what she was wearing. The same clothes that day I had met her in the forest. The day she had left Redmont to return to her usurping kind. On both days, she had betrayed me. And now, doubtless, she was here to betray me again.
"Dur'Abarshan is fallen," I said to her flatly, after a long silence. "Trusted kin and friends of mine are dead and scattered on the wind, and your cursed brethren have stolen my home."
Ella was silent, though the muscles in her jaw clenched. I continued: "You have strung my people up like vermin along the roadsides, I dare not even keep my own brother close to my side for fear we will both suffer the same fate and my sister languishes among strangers, unsure whether the next riders to come to Redmont will be friends or murderers."
I paused again. "Why, Ella?"
She didn't move, and in the flickering of the candle-light her golden hair glowed like the rising sun. My fingers itched, and I fondled the hilt of my sword, felt a call for my generals rising in my throat. One word, I thought, one word and I can pay her back for all she has done to me. I swallowed, half-raised a hand...
"You killed my mother," Ella said, her voice cold. "You killed my sister. I saw my father flogged like a common tramp, and my friends and family driven from their homes on pain of death. We are animals to you, wild beasts to be hunted down and driven into the wild places. You hid it all with your smiles and your trumped-up charges, but we knew the truth. I saw the brands your sherrifs left, I watched children starving to death in the middle of winter with not so much as a scrap of clothing to warm them. I know what you called us. Murderers, demon-callers, children of evil, a blight, a plague. You call yourselves kings, but you're naught but frightened children cowering behind your walls, tormenting the very people you were supposed to defend!"
Her voice was rising higher as she spoke, the venom in her voice seething like hot coals in rain. "We did nothing to you, and yet you saw fit to brand us as monsters just because you were scared. You're cowards! Cowards and oathbreakers and dirty cringing liars!"
"That was my father's work," I protested, my face heating at the slander against the honour of my family. "I had no hand in it, my father..."
I trailed off, and Ella's glacial blue eyes flashed. I turned away from her, staring across the tent at the flapping canvas of the opposite wall. My last words hung in the air between us. My father.
There was a long, cold quiet. The back of my neck prickled, and I felt my hair rising as Ella's unwavering gaze bored into me. I wanted to hate her, but instead of feeling justified I just felt wrong. If she could blame me for the acts of my father, could I honestly blame her the same way? One way I was a hypocrite. The other way, she was right. And that was a thought I was not willing to stand.
Besides, it was not only my life that was at risk here. I had to be a king, not just a man. And as a king, I could not let Ella simply walk back into my life. Not after what she had done. Not now that I needed to fight the very people she belonged to. Not now that I needed her to do it.
"Guards," I called, still not turning around. I didn't want to look at her face. "Take her away, make sure she is secure. A constant watch."
Ella made no resistance as she was dragged away, but I could feel the anger and hurt in her eyes, even though I couldn't see them. When I finally had the courage to turn back to the rest of the tent, I let out a sigh, half melancholy, half of relief.
Perhaps it would be easy to bring Mirkyn Vadrini into battle after all. After all, I thought bitterly, what father would not miss his daughter?