Forever and a Thousand Times
by Rachael Ritchey
Blurb: Ismene has given up her freedom to become wife to the future king of Taisce, all for the sake of her family. She never expected to find love within the castle walls, but she can’t seem to resist the temptation of the unexpected.
When corruption at court erupts into a full-blown coup, Ismene is forced to put her personal feelings aside and choose between forfeiting duty to preserve her own life at the expense of the prince’s or die with him.
Forever & a Thousand Times is also currently on Wattpad.
Within the utterance of three words, the day had become a plague upon Ismene’s soul. She gripped the arrow and string, pulling them back just below eye level. Her arm muscles burned at the effort, but she’d prefer that pain any day to the dread squeezing her heart. After a deep breath, she released the string and screamed one long, anguished cry that tore at her throat, leaving it raw and clogged with unshed tears. The arrow whizzed along the short rock wall and thwacked the old cypress beyond the turn of the stone.
The murmuring buzz of crickets paused only for the briefest second to acknowledge her misery. The lazy pasture beyond the wall, forever swaying in the breeze, took no notice whatsoever of her crumbling world. How could the whole of creation not recognize the injustice?
She imagined this barrier of mossy stone was all that stood between her and freedom. “Climb over and run. That simple.” The words, when whispered, sounded even more ill-advised than they’d been in her head, but Ismene could almost—very nearly—see herself doing it.
With another heavy sigh, she let her bow and last arrow rest against her skirts in a loose grip and wandered aimlessly along the worn path, picking at dried stalks of grass. The world around her didn’t exist anymore as her thoughts consumed her.
Being the daughter of a lord of Taisce meant these moments of solitude were few and far between; being princess of Taisce—wed to the future king no less—surely meant having none at all.
Unwelcome tears blinded her, but she didn’t bother to wipe them away. Instead, she stopped and sank to the wall, leaning over to rest her head on her folded arms. Hot tears soaked through her sleeves, and if she were upon the sea, her body would sink like a stone.
Head still resting upon her folded arms, a nuzzling and soft lips pulled at her hair. A huff of warm breath mingled in, and Ismene let herself indulge in a small smile despite her dread of the future. Lifting her face, she reached out with her hand to stroke the horse’s muzzle.
“You think a little attention will make me feel better?”
Rising Wind, Ismene’s own beautiful stallion, huffed and stamped in reply, dipping his head as if to nod. Ismene wiped the tears from her face and sat on the rocks, her heart lifting at the presence of her friend.
“Well, thank you for caring. I am beginning to think you’re the only one who does.” Her smile fell at the thought, but Rising Wind pressed his nose back into her hair. Ismene giggled softly and hugged him around the neck. “You always know just what to say.”
The rustle of swishing skirts edged closer. She pretended to ignore whoever approached, thinking it must be Helein again, and continued to rub Rising Wind’s face and under his mane.
“Ismene, my love.” It was her mother, Lady Victara Tenbow. “Helein told me where you were. Did you really send the poor girl to your father? That was unkind. At least she had the sense to seek me out first. I spoke with him, but soon we must go in and finish the conversation.”
Ismene refused to look at her mother and kept stroking Rising Wind. “Where were you, Mother, when he decided to drown me?”
Victara stopped behind her, silence lingering as Ismene imagined her choosing her words carefully. Mother always chose her words with great deliberation when she expected they be attended with all obedience. She wrapped her fingers around Ismene’s loose hair and slid them down its length.
“He wanted to save us both. Me from seeing your face at the news and you from finding a source of pity for what we both know must happen. Unhappily, for nobility, ’tis not a thing of the past but an inevitability that must be observed to protect and nurture the unity of the Realms.”
Ismene gently shook her head from left to right and back again, sliding her hair from her mother’s light grasp. “‘You. Are. Betrothed.’” She mimicked her father’s words, enunciating each one with a hint of betrayal and dropped her hands to the stones. Rising Wind neighed, shaking his head, and charged away down the pasture.
Ismene watched him a moment before she stood and whipped around with such force her dark hair flew about her in a mass of chaos. “That’s it. He didn’t even ease in to the announcement. ‘You are betrothed.’” The hurt crushing her heart warbled in her voice, and it wasn’t that she didn’t know this day would come. No, she’d known, but he’d not even given her a say and then sprung it upon her like a trap.
“Please try to understand, dearest, your father is not wholly pleased by the arrangement. There will be much pressure for him from—”
“For him! For him, Mother? What about me? I’m the one being sent off to bow and scrape before the future king as my . . . my husband!” Ismene nearly spat the last word.
She watched her mother’s jaw set. “Your father—and me, Issa—we are relieved to not marry you to a lord outside Taisce. This was my most urgent plea when we discussed your future. Take heart, dearest, for many people say Prince Othniel is a fine man.”
Ismene’s scoffing huff was loud to her own ears. “How do you even know? What does that even mean?” Ismene threw the arrow away from where they stood and gripped the bow with both hands, letting its smoothness pretend to sooth away the hard edges of her temper. “And what does it matter to me if people I don’t know say he is so fine a man?”
Victara didn’t reply right away, but when she did a subtle hardness imbued her tone.
“I’m sure it doesn’t.”
Their eyes met, and Ismene cringed, realizing how she’d been behaving, how she’s spoken to her mother yet again.
“Imagine the shame, Issa, the shame you would bring our family if you refuse. Already, your pursuit of such lowborn activities as archery draws enough unwanted attention.” Ismene stiffened and her mother sighed, her tone softer. “You are our eldest. Between that and your station in life comes much responsibility. You knew an arranged marriage would be yours, and this is one of great advantage.”
“Please, I beg you, do not speak to me of advantage, Mother. I will have none. I will not be my own woman if I marry the man destined to be king.” Tears rose just below the surface again, and she hated the miserable timber of her voice that betrayed her heart. She flared her nostrils, willing the tears away, and turned to face the darkness of the forest in the distance.
“Oh, love. You will always be you, no matter what you do or where you go. No one can take that away from you.” Victara wrapped her fingers around Ismene’s hand and gently tugged her close.
Ismene resisted, but the desire dwindled at the gentle stroke of her mother’s fingers on her brow. “Come. We can discuss this more with your father, and this time I will be there. We will get through this together, my love.”
Ismene relented, allowing her mother to drag her back to the tower house, but it was a short walk, not nearly long enough for Ismene to tuck away the ruin of emotions over the trajectory of her life. And who in their right mind anticipated marrying a complete stranger, let alone a complete stranger who also happened to be a prince? What was expected of her was unfair, but Ismene rarely ever disobeyed her parents.
She sighed, her mind lingering on these words. Stranger. Prince. Two marks against. What else might lurk in shadow, waiting to be revealed? She would never have chosen him. Never.
“Inform Lord Tenbow we await him in the small salon,” Victara said to the manservant near the large, carved oak door of the main entrance.
The servant bowed and took the bow Ismene held out before he shuffled down the short hall to the tower stair while Victara continued to pull Ismene along toward the solar on the second floor. The gentle tug of her mother’s hand on her arm carried some sense of urgency, as though she wished to impart some sort of message that Ismene couldn’t grasp.
Once they arrived in the room, Victara closed the door and let out an exasperated breath. “Really, Ismene, sometimes you can be such a stubborn child.”
“Forgive me for wanting to have a say in my own life, Mother.”
The two of them faced each other with matching looks of ire and indignation. Victara was the first to relent. She took Ismene’s hand and led her to the padded wooden bench nearest the main window where they both sat together, their skirts overlapping in the middle.
“How can I make you understand that we have not made any decision concerning your future lightly, Issa? Almighty help us, but we turned away so many suitors over the last two years. I had begun to fear your father would rather see you an old maid than married with children of your own.”
“I can accept such a fate,” Ismene said, mumbling.
“I am not deaf.”
Ismene had the good sense to look embarrassed. “My apologies. But I want love. I want . . . a simple life.”
“You can have that.” Victara hesitated. “But it will have to be with the prince.”
“How?” Ismene asked, desperate for any reassurance.
“If you give it a chance.”
Ismene resisted the urge to roll her eyes and transferred her gaze out the window. How was it that her mother thought it could be so easy? How could Ismene be expected to love just anyone? Wasn’t love a grand and mysterious thing? She had no idea how to voice her questions without feeling a fool.
Her father stepped in at that moment, and Ismene purposely avoided the silent exchange she knew passed between her parents. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t see it because she already knew what they would say to each other with their eyes. Just the thought of their easy ways and obvious love made her blood boil. Why would they not let her have what they had?
Running away began to seem the best option. Her parents would never see reason, and she was doomed to a loveless marriage where duty to crown outweighed all else. Yes, that was her only answer. She would run away, but for now she would endure.
“I understand,” she said, blurting it out. Ismene looked between the two with their shocked faces and let it sink in, surprising even herself. “I understand. I wish to discuss it no further. I care nothing for wedding plans. I leave that to you. May I be excused?”
She stood with her hands folded in front and her chin tipped with only vague evidence of defiance. Part of her wanted to smile at the look of consternation and confusion on her father’s face, but laughing at Lord Drake Tenbow would be a mistake, even for her.
He looked at his wife in askance, and Victara gave a miniscule nod from her perch on the bench.
“You may go, Issa,” he said, “but first I must ask. Are you truly displeased?”
His question caught her off-guard. His tone implied it mattered to him that she not be displeased. When she didn’t answer right away, he stepped close and raised her chin to look him in the eye. It took her a moment more to formulate a reply.
“I-I am frightened, Papa. What if he dislikes me or I him? What if he is cruel? How would I ever be a good queen? I can’t even properly order a dinner party seating arrangement let alone run a castle.” And . . . what about love? she wanted to add but held back.
That was only a fraction of what plagued her in all this, but how her father could pull the truth from her, she could never understand. The depths of his eyes brimmed with kindness, but most often his thick brows and stern countenance masked it. One real look and she melted. Oh, how she loved her father.
“Please don’t make me do this, Papa. I want to stay here with you and Mama. All my love is here. I could be content to never marry. Let the others carry on the name and make wealthy matches. I-I would be content. I promise.”
In a momentary show of affection, Drake pulled Ismene into his embrace and stroked her unruly dark russet hair. “Daughter, you are firstborn which carries much distinction in the Realms. Your marriage, especially such a one as this, offers your siblings greater opportunity for advantageous alliances that might otherwise never be. We are honored above all in this. I ask you to submit for your family and for your kingdom. Taisce is our home, and you will be the wisest, most gentle queen she has ever known.”
Ismene’s heart sank at his words. It was clear she would get nowhere with him. Once Drake Tenbow’s mind was made up it was impossible to change. She sniffed and pulled herself from his arms, giving a diminutive nod before stepping around him and fleeing out the door.
She ran down the stairs and flew past someone in her mad dash.
“My lady!” Helein’s chastisement held both surprise and compassion.
“Leave me be. Please.” Ismene choked on the lump in her throat but didn’t look back. Her head throbbed as she dashed for the well. She couldn’t imagine her life any more. She could only feel the weight of a crown—of her family—of the entire kingdom upon her chest. Gasping as she looked into the deep black hole of the well, she prayed to the Great One her heart would not break.
Death or escape. What other choice did she have?
Nothing would make her happier at that precise moment than to run away, but she loved her family too much to do it. No, for the sake of Tenbow honor, for her sister’s and brother’s future, she would go through with it, no matter the personal cost.