Travarius lay hidden in the brush, trying to hear over the thundering beat of his heart. He needed to figure out how close his pursuers were if he had any hope of escape. Ahead of him was a clearing and just beyond that, safety, but his legs felt like jelly. He doubted that they would be able to hold his weight, let alone allow him to outrun his enemies. Travarius knew he needed to rest, but he could not let them get too close or they would surely capture him.
Travarius closed his eyes and fought to gain control of his body, which was itching after receiving a multitude of scratches from his headlong flight through the foliage, wearing nothing more than a loincloth. He was a warrior prince and he would not allow his enemies to overtake him, for they had plans to do far worse than kill him. They wanted to debase and humiliate him until they broke his pride and thus his people, and he would not allow it.
As if Travarius’s thoughts had conjured up his foes, he heard the sounds of men approaching through the foliage. His legs were not ready yet but if he remained still, they could very well pass him by. Xanthor and his soldiers were not nearly as familiar with the forest as he, nor did they seem to have anyone with real knowledge of woodcraft.
Travarius breathed slow and deep, even as he heard a twig break maybe forty strides away from him. He knew that they could not see him. He was too well-hidden underneath a fallen log camouflaged by branches surrounding it. His hiding place probably had once been a foxhole or wildcat den, but it served him well now.
“Come out, little rabbit,” thundered Xanthor, the general who had been welcomed into their city of Thespeia to celebrate the Festival of Erotia, honoring the patron god of the city, Eros. Xanthor’s men had slipped into the city unnoticed until the height of the festivities, wherein they rose up in the middle of the night, killed Travarius’s father, King Zenon, and subjugated the city.
Xanthor had planned to finish the celebration and consecrate his dominion over the kingdom by taking Travarius, the crown prince, into his bed, willing or nay, and then dedicating the debased prince to become a pleasure thane of Eros. Once the prince had been dedicated, he would be passed around the troops, and as a minion of Eros, he would not have the right to turn away anyone seeking pleasure. His plan would effectively destroy the pride of Travarius’s people along with any hopes they had for freedom.
This had not been Xanthor’s original plan. Before entering the city, Xanthor had intended to kill every member of the royal family. However, after seeing the handsome royal bedecked in his finery and sitting at his father’s right hand, Xanthor knew he had to possess such exquisiteness. Travarius was the personification of male perfection. The long, oiled coils of black hair had been arranged in an intricate style of braids accented with shell and wooden beads to form an attractive frame for the prince’s face.
Xanthor was caught by Travarius’s lovely eyes, a soft but stormy gray that tilted up slightly at the corners. They were the eyes of a brooder with their winged brows and long thick curling lashes sitting above stunningly high cheekbones, a straight aristocratic nose, and full pouty lips of coral pink. Xanthor had sent word to all of his men that on pain of death, Prince Travarius was not to be harmed.
Xanthor’s desire for the royal heir only grew when he saw the young man compete in the games the next day. Travarius was an accomplished runner and athlete. However, the real show was in watching him wrestle. Xanthor had been enthralled when Prince Travarius had strolled up to the circle nude and oiled, as was the custom. His opponent had been a guard nearly twice his size but the prince did not seem to worry overmuch about the mismatch.
The guard had been a strong and fierce opponent, but the prince wrestled with a grace, agility, and intelligence that quickly outstripped his opponent’s brutish technique. Xanthor had ruthlessly taken a servant that night as he fantasized of wrestling the prince beneath him and taming the younger man.
Travarius knew nothing of the fire he had unwittingly stirred in his enemy’s loins. He merely listened while the angry calls for him waxed and waned as the general and his men stumbled through the forest searching for him. Carefully and with as much stealth as Travarius could muster, he stretched his legs out in an effort to assess how much he had recovered. When he found that he could move them with barely a twinge, he knew it was time for him to make his last bid for freedom.
He visualized what must be done in his head, for a warrior must always strive to be prepared. He had maybe a hundred strides to cover, all of it open ground. It meant that he would be able to run full out but it also meant that his pursuers would have clear shots at him with arrows or bolos. That did not worry Travarius much, for he knew that Xanthor prized him alive and unharmed.
What did worry the young prince was the last obstacle between him and safety. Travarius was seeking shelter within the sanctuary of the legendary wizard, Anteros. The mage had not been seen in several generations but the thorny rosebushes that protected his abode had remained intact and undisturbed. No one had ever found their way beyond the roses, for they were vicious plants that would rip a man to shreds and feast upon his spilled blood.
It was certain death to trespass upon the wizard’s land without his given permission. Any who heard of Travarius’s plans to pass through the barrier would think him mad or foolhardy. Unbeknownst to them was that when Travarius was a young boy, his father had taught him an invocation that been passed down through their family for centuries. He was told that Anteros himself had taught it to one of Travarius’s ancestors, and that the rhyme was only to be used in the direst of times to seek aid from the wizard. Travarius thought that surely his circumstance must qualify and so he had set out in his quest to acquire mystical aid.
The sound of a twig snapping somewhere to his right made Travarius tense. They were close, maybe too close for him to make it safely across the clearing. It would be a terrible fate to have a chance at safety within reach and then have it snatched away. Yet, the prince was determined not to surrender without a fight. He would give his all to gain the wizard’s sanctuary.
“Come on, my little rabbit. Show yourself. You don’t want to make me any angrier, because I can promise you that it will go badly for you.” Xanthor’s voice echoed through the forest, far enough away that Travarius felt he had a good chance of gaining the safety of the wizard’s lair.
However, he would have to run fast to beat his pursuers and he would need to chant the invocation while he ran. There would be no time to find out if the chant worked or not, before he reached the barrier. If it worked, then he would make it safely through the vile shrubbery and seek his vengeance against Xanthor and his men. If it did not work, well, he would continue his flight into the barrier anyway. He would rather die by the wizard’s hands then suffer Xanthor’s wrath.
Visions of his father’s body swam before his eyes. Xanthor had not just killed his father but had also defiled the corpse, hanging it from the palace gates for all to see. He had forced Travarius to watch, keeping the crown prince in chains to avoid the inevitable fight from his fury. Xanthor had promised Travarius that he would do far worse to him if he did not behave, before leaving him alone with the king’s remains.
Travarius had wept over his father, vowing that he would do everything within his power to destroy Xanthor. He knew that the invaders were unaware that he had a younger brother being fostered in Boiotia. King Zenon took precautions and had separated his sons in order to protect the royal line. Now, it looked as though his father might have been an oracle. In addition to fostering, King Zenon had also given them each an enchanted medallion that would alert them if Thespeia fell.
Travarius cleared his head and focused on the present. He slowly moved into a runner’s crouch, tensing at every little sound his body made in the process. Thankfully, they were small noises that barely carried beyond his hiding place and, for the moment, he remained undetected. Carefully, he moved the screen of branches, checking to see if anyone was in his path. While it was clear, there were a few of Xanthor’s soldiers, easily identified by their black cloaks, in the distance but within his line of vision. They would present a challenge, but Travarius was a strong runner. He rarely finished at less than third place in races and usually won the sprints.
The young prince heard Xanthor bellowing again, this time farther away. Now was the opportune time for action. He gathered his courage and his strength and focused on the task at hand. Pushing aside the curtain of foliage hiding him, he burst out of his cover like a hare on the run.
His sudden appearance startled his pursuers and kept them still for only a moment. It was all the time Travarius needed to come up to full speed. Travarius smiled grimly as Xanthor’s furious bellows unfroze his men, spurring them to chase the fleeing prey.
Travarius started chanting as he ran. “I pray to thee, bearer of the torch and bow. He of the unmatched beauty and wild rose; He of the hare and cock and ram; He who tames the wild beasts by his hand; He who is the bringer of love in all of his guises.”
Travarius paused for a quick breath and looked around. He was far enough ahead that he doubted anyone would be able to catch him. Xanthor realized it too, and began to exhort his men to greater efforts with gruesome threats of what he would do to them if the prince managed to escape them a second time. Rattled by the threats, one of his men unthinkingly drew his bow and arrow and took a shot at the fleet-footed prince.
With a grunt, Travarius stumbled as a line of fire burned across the outside of his thigh. It was merely a scratch but it had broken his stride. The great barrier of roses loomed before him and he struggled to regain his momentum as he finished his chant.
“I pray that you hear me in my time of woe; that you shelter me in your wings of gold; that you protect me from enemies and strife; that you send me to your servant who bears your might; I pray to thee oh great god Eros who commands desire and love; that you carry me to safety on the wings of a dove.”
Travarius finished the chant a few feet from the barrier. He was near panic. A soldier was closing in on him fast and the wall of roses remained unchanged. It seemed as though his only hope had been wasted on a childish fairy tale, when suddenly a strong wind came out of nowhere and carried him upward.
He felt the brush of a hand on his foot and looked down. The soldier had come within leaping distance and made a last effort to catch him. Travarius watched as the soldier crashed into the brambles. He was immediately swallowed up by the bushes that shook and shivered as he screamed in terror and agony. Travarius had the impression that the soldier was actually being consumed by the roses as their petals turned from white to crimson, and was grateful that he had not attempted to breach the barrier without the chant.
The soft wind set Travarius inside on well-manicured grounds. Only a few feet away stood a deer watching him curiously. Its ears flicked but otherwise it showed no signs of alarm. Travarius wondered if it would allow him to pet it and actually thought about trying it but remembered his purpose. He needed to find the wizard.
Gazing down at himself, Travarius gave a little sigh. He had escaped wearing nothing but a loincloth, which was now grimy and sweat-stained. His golden hide was smudged. He could feel the leaves and twigs that had been caught in his coiled locks, weighing down his hair. He was dirty and bedraggled from running through the forest. His body bore the effects of his headlong flight through the foliage. He was covered in a myriad of scratches marked by caked blood. Travarius looked terrible and shuddered to think what the wizard would think when he presented himself looking like a wild woodsman. He prayed Anteros would not turn him out before hearing him speak.