Tristan became aware of his body first, long before he had enough strength to move or open his eyes. He was hanging by his wrists and his body was stretched out; he could barely touch the ground with the balls of his feet. He could tell by the cool breeze against his body that he was naked and he struggled to remember what had happened.
The war, the battle, his troops falling around him. He had pressed forward with his remaining men, knowing that his father’s reinforcements were only moments away. He just had to hang on for a few more minutes, keep the high ground a little longer, and they could secure it and in doing so, score a major victory for his father. But the enemy was strong, he remembered. He had seen his enemy’s son on the field, leading his troops the same way he was leading his. Although their fathers were the ones at war, it was almost always the sons who led the armies. Prince Ryan was a ruthless foe, stopping at nothing to devastate his enemies.
Tristan shivered. He was undoubtedly in Ryan’s possession now, but he was still woozy and couldn’t open his eyes. His head was hanging forward and he couldn’t lift it. He wondered why they hadn’t killed him, but inwardly he knew. They would torture him to gain information on troop movements, and to weaken his father’s will. Would his father be willing to sign a peace treaty in exchange for his only son’s life? Tristan didn’t know. Often his father looked at him with cold, calculating eyes as if seeing him as an object, not his own flesh and blood. A valuable object, but an object nonetheless. Tristan wasn’t sure his father would do anything to get him back.
The battle had gotten rough as more and more of Tristan’s men fell and the need for reinforcements grew dire. He heard the clear claret of the trumpet just as he was isolated on the field and he knew he needed only survive and victory would be theirs. But he was surrounded by enemies now, and not even the strongest warrior could protect himself on all sides for the long minutes it took for the reinforcements to arrive. Tristan tried not to feel shame for failing, but he remembered the blow to the back of his knees as he had fallen to the ground, and then another blow to the head before everything grew dark. His last thought was that he had failed, but now that he was awake again he tried to reassure himself that anyone would have fallen in the same circumstances. Still, his failure clung to him as his eyes fluttered open for the first time.
Stone. He was hanging in a stone room with very little light. He couldn’t manage to lift his head yet so he stared straight down at a grate below him that he could just reach with the balls of his feet. Red fluid dripped down the grate. He tried to put his weight on his feet to ease the pressure on his hands and he felt liquid running down his arm. Blood, he thought. The manacles around his wrists digging into his skin with the weight of his body, the liquid running down the length of his body into the grate below him. He wondered how long he had been hanging here unconscious.
His head pounded in pain as he lifted it and he knew damage had been done because stars danced before his eyes and it felt as though someone stabbed the base of his skull. Still, he kept his head upright until the pain subsided into a dull roar. He was in bad shape. He wondered how long into the torture he would survive. He would have to brace himself for the pain. He could give up most of what he knew without damaging his father, because his father would change all of their plans the instant he knew his son was taken prisoner. But would his father act on his behalf and try to trade for his life? He didn’t know, but he had to survive for as long as possible to give his father the chance. For what his father didn’t know, what no one except Tristan knew, were the words the witch had spoken to him before he went into his first battle.
Only you hold the key to ending the war, Tristan, she had whispered while waving her hand over his head in the battle blessing. The gods have agreed.
As if to prove her words, a single bolt of lightening had come down from the clear sky and struck the tree that she and Tristan stood under, but it left both of them unharmed. Ever since then Tristan had been seemingly blessed in battle and rumors had spread that the gods themselves protected him. That would all change now that he was a prisoner, he knew, but he took the witch’s words seriously. If he died, all chance at peace would vanish and the country would be trapped in civil war forever. He had to survive, no matter what the cost.
Perhaps this was how he would bring peace, he thought. By being a victim and not a hero. Part of him shied away at the thought in distaste, but at the same time he just wanted peace for his people. As much as he thought his father was the rightful ruler, he thought it was time to put aside the grudge and come together as one nation.
Tristan’s eyes were adjusting to the dark and he managed to look around the room. It was empty, as far as he could see, and appeared to be a dungeon. He was facing the wall and he figured that the door must be behind him. Smart, he thought. That way he wouldn’t know who or what was watching him. And someone was surely watching him right now, making sure he woke up safely. If they had made the effort to drag him back to the palace, they would want to make sure he didn’t die immediately.
Squealing of metal made him flinch and he scolded himself. Then a hand made contact with the back of his neck, just below the painful area.
“Bring the witch,” a voice said.
The voice was commanding and arrogant, a prince’s voice. It must be Prince Ryan, checking on his prize in person. The hand trailed down his spine, sending shivers through his body, and lingered at its base just above the swell of Tristan’s ass. Tristan tried to pull away but stretched out as he was, he couldn’t move at all.
Then the hand vanished and Prince Ryan appeared before him. Tristan’s eyes widened. He had never seen the prince so close before, and all the rumors of the prince’s beauty were true. Ryan appeared cold and calculating, but his amber eyes were set in one of the most chiseled faces Tristan had ever seen, with cheeks that looked nearly as deadly as the man’s fabled sword. His hair was spiked in the front, unlike Tristan’s which hung in long dark locks around his face, and Ryan’s hair sparkled gold even in the dank light of the prison cell. He was several inches taller than Tristan even though Tristan was stretched to his tiptoes, and he was far more muscular.
He was also older than Tristan by several years, and it was his birth that had sparked the current war. Ryan’s father, the king’s trusted advisor, had claimed the throne because he had an heir while Tristan’s father, the rightful king, only had daughters, and civil war broke out. Tristan’s father had immediately begun a quest to gain an heir and there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of daughters born in the three years before Tristan was born to the queen herself, to everyone’s surprise. Members of royalty suffered from a curse that made bearing males almost impossible. Tristan was a treasured commodity in his youth but while his father had assumed Tristan’s birth would end the war – after all, now he had an heir as well – it instead inflamed the conflict.
Tristan and Ryan had grown up as enemies, but linked in some strange way. They fought each other on the battlefield nearly every day and in some ways, Tristan knew that Ryan understood him better than anyone else ever could. They were both trophies, useful only because of their gender and fighting ability. Sometimes he wondered if perhaps Ryan and his father had a deeper relationship, but any man who loved his son wouldn’t send him to fight his battles day after day with no regard for his life. It was a sorry existence, but they had both survived. Until now, at least. Now Tristan was at this man’s mercy and he wondered if Ryan was going to take out his frustration on his helpless foe. No, he thought. He would not allow himself to die.
The prince held his face and stared into his eyes.
“Can you hear me?”
Tristan wanted to spit on him but his mouth didn’t seem to be working. He settled for pulling his head out of the prince’s grip. Ryan’s lips twisted downward and he grabbed Tristan’s neck in a chokehold.
“Answer me. Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” Tristan whispered as Ryan let up the pressure on his throat.
Hatred for the prince welled up and he tried to get enough saliva to spit, but the prince moved behind him again. He heard another person enter and gentle hands touched his head. Something cold and agonizing pressed against the painful spot and he cried out involuntarily. A hand squeezed his shoulder as if in sympathy and he felt rings on it, but surely Ryan wouldn’t be comforting him. Then a small pale witch moved in front of him and was examining his body, checking his wrists with a distasteful twist of her lips and applying a salve to the exposed injuries. The witch didn’t, however, request that he be released from the torturous position. It was probably non-negotiable.
He was just glad that the pain in his head and wrists was lessened, although he wondered for how long. Were they planning on torturing him to the brink of death, healing him, and then repeating the process? He shifted uncomfortably and tried to balance himself more easily on the balls of his feet, which were quickly growing weary from bearing all of his weight. He didn’t want to admit it, but he was frightened. He was grateful for the sweat and blood on his face because against his will, his eyes were filling with tears and he didn’t want the prince to notice.
But Ryan must have been studying him carefully because he moved until their faces were nearly nose-to-nose and reached up to wipe the tears from Tristan’s eyes with this thumbs. His touch was gentle, as was his expression.
“Don’t be afraid, little prince,” Ryan whispered. “I’ll protect you.”
Tristan didn’t pull away from the touch, too surprised by the tenderness being shown. Something dark and fearful rose up in his throat and he took a deep, staggered breath to avoid bursting into tears. He shut his eyes against the sight of his dreaded enemy but could still feel the heat from the other man’s face. The heat grew warmer and then suddenly, unexpectedly, Ryan’s lips landed on his. He was too stunned to react as Ryan pulled him tight against his lips in a chaste kiss. Then the heat vanished, and when Tristan opened his eyes, he was alone.
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