It itched. Her father hadn't warned her of the itching that the tiny Pardu would cause when they ate the flesh from her forearm. Skyler had left her tiny village only three short days ago. She had taken her pack of basic essentials, along with her well-worn leather sheath and steel sword. She was on her pilgrimage, her Troya.
This was her trek to the Lake of Enlightenment where she would immerse herself in the crystal blue water and let the Pardu, the small translucent fish of the lake, slowly consume the uppermost layer of skin that covered her left forearm. They would reveal her Mancha, her destiny, which was branded in the pink flesh below.
The Frendy were a human-like race known for their beauty and grace and they were all born with their Mancha concealed by their skin. At maturity, the layer of skin covering the Mancha began to crack, much like a snake, signaling the start of the Troya. The Mancha was a series of images, glyphs, that would reveal her story.
My fate. My future . Skyler frowned. Once fully revealed by the work of the Pardu, Skyler would bind her arm as tradition called and cover her Mancha until she returned to her village to have it interpreted by the Reader.
Readers were a strange breed of Frendy: the sole holders of what remained of the Frendy's ancient past. The old texts and scrolls that told of her people's history had been destroyed long ago by a dark army of cloaked men sent by someone unknown. Very few of their traditions had survived the bloody and turbulent time known as “The Cleansing.” The Troya was one of the few remaining exceptions.
A knot of dread and excitement began to form in the pit of her stomach. What would her Mancha say? She longed to be a Warrior, like her mother and her grandmother before her, but would she be found worthy of wielding her family's sword by pledging fealty to the Queen or would she be cast into a life of servitude or farming and remain in her childhood village for life? Or, worse, if she went against her father's wishes would she be banished into exile?
She glanced down at the fleeting forms of the Pardu around her naked body and thought back to the day she started her Trek.
Her father, Roan, had escorted her to the edge of the village. The Troya was a solo journey that would lead her into the Argal Mountains to the East. There were dangers along the way and the only protection allowed would be her old and battered steel sword, her wits and the experiences she had gathered from a childhood spent playing alone in the woods.
The twin suns, Mornos and Rael, were just surfacing over the mountains, weak rays of light making their way to the fog-covered ground at Skyler's feet. The village was silent. Most Frendy were still asleep in their huts. Her father pulled his gaze away from the rising suns and turned to face her, worry evident in his eyes.
“Remember to be diligent. Be safe. Don't forget that there are worse things than living your life here, in Ilnos, and settling down.”
Skyler's hand had been resting on the hilt of her sword and her grip tightened. “No matter the outcome, I would rather risk being an Exile than settle down.”
Roan's face paled. “Skyler, I've already lost your mother and our unborn son. I can't lose you, too. Being selected as a Warrior is not what life is all about. Some things are more important than duty and Jarden is a hard worker and a respected member of the village. He would make a fine mate.”
With anger flashing in her eyes, Skyler said, “He leers at me like a piece of Argus meat. I will not have him and you cannot force my hand.”
Her father sighed. He had done his best to raise Skyler, but he had treated her more like a son than the beautiful young woman she had turned out to be; she had learned to hold a sword and defend herself in hand to hand combat not long after taking her first steps and all of her eighteen years had been dedicated to the pursuit of becoming a Warrior.
“It is not Jarden's fault that you are the most beautiful woman in the village, and we both know that if your Mancha reveals that you are to remain in the village, that you must choose a mate or be banished.”
Skyler clenched her jaw. She was not arrogant but neither was she blind, and she saw the way that the other villagers looked at her. Skyler, even by Frendy standards, could only be described as stunning. Her tall, lean frame was strong yet feminine. She had shoulder length brown hair, inherited from her father, framing a beautiful face with full lips and hazel eyes that were mirrors to her soul, the color always changing to match her mood. She knew what desire looked like, she'd just never felt it herself. How could she be expected to take a mate when the mere thought of Jarden-, or anyone else-, touching her made her skin crawl? Still, she was not cruel, and she could see her father was growing more distressed. Having some mercy, she lied quietly to ease his pain. “I will consider it, father.”
Roan's face lit up and a smile formed on his face.
“I said I would consider it. Nothing more.”
With hope still shining in his eyes, he whispered, “Thank you. I will see you six days hence.”
Trying to ignore the growing feeling of guilt in her chest, Skyler nodded silently and turned away from the village to begin her Trek.
The feeling of guilt lingered. She knew in her soul that she could never be with someone who hadn't earned her heart. She closed her eyes and sent a silent prayer to the Gods that her Mancha revealed her to be the Warrior she knew she was. If not…Skyler shuddered. If not, then she would become an Exile.
There had been growing rumors that the numbers of Exiles were increasing and that the individual bands of Exiles were becoming united under a powerful leader. In Skyler's village alone, three had rejected their Mancha's last year and left the village in shame.
What has become of us? Skyler recalled the stories around the dying campfires of her childhood, sitting at her father's knee: stories of great Clans and magic and a fierce race that never rejected their own. She shook her head sadly. What happened?
Fully submerging herself into the clear depths, Skyler opened her eyes. She could see the fleeting forms of the Pardu zigging and zagging within her peripheral vision as they finished their task. Glancing up, she stared at the large trees draped over the bank of the lake where the sunlight struggled to push through the green leaves and between the branches. Mesmerized by the calmness of the water, she realized suddenly that she was once again alone. The Pardu were gone.
Exhaling as she broke the surface of the lake, she looked at her arm with curiosity. The itching had subsided but the flesh on her forearm felt swollen and raw. Gently tracing the raised markings with her slender finger, she wondered again what they would say and what her future held. It was time to go home.
Gwen stared longingly at the white blouse and tan breeches that hung in her wardrobe closet. Quietly sighing to herself, she reached instead for the emerald green dress and slowly pulled it free from the wooden hanger. Before her personal guard, Baldur, had shown up at her door, she had planned to spend her day outside of the city walls, riding in the forest to the west of the Capitol. She loved the feeling of the fresh air as it rushed by her face and the complete freedom and anonymity that the forest allowed her. There, within the pine scented confines of the dark, she could be anybody or nobody at all. There were no expectations, nothing polite, about being in the wild. There she was just another Frendy, not the next in line for the throne.
Donning her dress, Gwen sat in front of her gilded mirror and started to comb her long blond hair. The reflection in the mirror showed a beautiful and unusually petite woman with green eyes and tanned skin. Even at nineteen, Gwen had beginnings of laugh lines forming at the edges of her voluptuous mouth. Anyone who spent time around Gwen could immediately recognize her melodious laughter or mischievous giggle. As a child, running amok within the walls of the palace, she was always causing trouble, from hiding rats in the kitchen and scaring the cooks to tormenting her maids with snakes in her bed. As she got older, her pranks were gradually replaced with a wonderful sense of humor; instead of laughing at others, she found herself laughing with them. Still, there were times when her desire for a good joke got her in trouble and, as in her childhood, it was Baldur who covered for her, keeping her out of any real trouble, and away from the lecture of the Queen.
Gwen placed the brush down and stared at herself in the mirror. She couldn't shake the pit forming in her stomach. She had known Baldur her whole life and, when he knocked on her door that morning, there was a look in his eyes she had never seen before. Was it pity? Fear?
Baldur had been her constant shadow, her protector, since birth. He was the Captain of the elite army, the Rintek, and he was like a father to her. Baldur was not only the Captain of the Rintek; he also led the Royal Guard, the Rintek Anah. The members of the Rintek Anah were assigned to either Gwen or her mother and they served as personal bodyguards. The current Rintek Anah consisted of only Baldur and Glandin. Glandin was assigned to the Queen and he was always near her side. Supporting the efforts of the Rintek Anah,were the regular Rintek soldiers. They composed a minor part of the Queen's army, though what they lacked for in numbers they made up for in skill, loyalty and ferociousness. To be selected for the Rintek was to be chosen as one of the best warriors in the land. The honor was rarely given; most Rintek were recruited by Readers and years could lapse before a new recruit was welcomed into the ranks.
Baldur was large even by Frendy standards. Standing easily over six feet tall, he was almost two hundred and fifty pounds of pure muscle. Although his long black hair was beginning to show gray, at thirty- eight years old he was just as agile and lethal as other Frendy half his age. Baldur had only been gentle and kind with Gwen, but she had witnessed his darker side in the royal training yards, where he sparred with other Rintek and humbled the occasional recruit. He was a man of few words but he was highly respected by his soldiers and members of the royal court.
Standing, Gwen walked to the door where it slowly opened to reveal Baldur waiting patiently in the hallway outside. Their eyes briefly met and there it was again: that look. The pit in Gwen's stomach doubled in size. Bowing his head slightly, he waited while Gwen left her room and closed her door. As she turned to head toward the Throne Room, Baldur gently held her arm. In a low voice, tinged with what sounded like regret, he said, “Her majesty wishes to see you in her private chambers.” With her heart fluttering in her chest, Gwen raised her eyebrows in surprise. It was a rare occasion to be summoned to her mother's private chambers and it usually didn't bode well. Gwen racked her brain, trying to think of something she had done recently that would merit punishment. Did she find out about the Baker's daughter? She and Jael had recently started to steal from the royal bakery and disburse berry tarts to the orphan children in the city. The Queen had mandated that all Frendy would be well fed and cared for, but the mandate didn't include treats, and the children, like most, had a sweet tooth that Gwen found charming. She and Jael had vowed to keep their weekly escapades a secret, and Gwen couldn't imagine that her mother would find it to be a serious crime, but with her mother she could never be too sure. Queen Aleenah was a master of keeping her feelings close to her chest. There was only one way to find out what was amiss. Taking a deep breath to steel herself she said, “Then let's not keep her waiting.”
Skyler could barely hear her father's words over the rapid beating of her heart. The whole village had gathered around the Reader's hut. Her childhood and only real friend, Kendra, was in the hut right now. Kendra's Troya was completed only days before Skyler's and she was just now finding out her fate. Nervously looking around, Skyler saw coins changing hands between some of the villagers. She wandered what they were betting for or against. She felt sick.
The village itself was composed of one large cobblestone street with thatched huts lining both sides. The land to the west of the village, The Great Plains, was flat and fertile for farming. Most of the villagers were farmers. The town itself was nestled at the base of the Argal Mountain Range and lay between two large rivers, the Lern and the Gren. To the north, south and east, as the mountains gradually inclined, was a dark and dense forest full of game. Skyler's village was the last outpost of civilization in the Queen's realm and not much happened there to cause excitement for its inhabitants.
“—and be sure to not interrupt. She hates being interrupted,” her father said.
He shook his head in frustration. “Skyler, have you been listening to me at all? It's important!”
Snapping her head up to respond, she was distracted by the form of Kendra emerging from the hut. Smiling, she held a small brown piece of parchment victoriously in her hand. The Reader, an old woman bent over an ornately carved staff, slowly came out of the hut behind her and limped into the waiting circle of villagers. They had fallen silent.
In a voice that sounded almost like a growl, the old woman simply said, “Academy.”
A mix of cheers and groans erupted from the crowd and several Frendy tossed coins into the dirt in disgust, while others laughed and bent down to scoop them up. Skyler glanced at Kendra and noticed the new bronze cuff that now covered her Mancha. It was tradition to have the Cuff permanently locked into place before leaving the Reader's hut and it marked the end of the Troya. Only the Reader had the key to the lock and the simple glyph on the outside of the Cuff bore the Reader's mark. Once put into place, the Cuff was never removed again, even in death. Kendra was absently stroking hers when Skyler caught her eyes and tried to smile. A large knot was forming in her throat and the urge to vomit was growing stronger.
Holding her staff aloft, the Reader pointed at Skyer and said, “You. Come.” She disappeared back into her hut. The villagers, reacting to the new round of excitement building in the air, immediately erupted into another series of conversations and the bets began anew.
On shaky legs, Skyler started walking towards the hut but was stopped suddenly by a hand locked around her arm. She looked up at her father.
His eyes were fierce. “Whatever the outcome, I am proud of you. Remember you have options.” Skyler glanced quickly to the man standing alone by the Butcher's hut. Jarden stared at her with an intensity she had not seen before and she knew in an instant that he was betting against her. Coin or no coin, he was praying for a future she didn't want. Her father gently released her arm and urged her forward.
Opening the flap covering the entrance to the hut, Skyler was immediately taken aback by the strong smell of spice in the air and the darkness within. There was a solitary candle burning on a small table at the far end of the large room. The shadows dancing on the wall seemed to be telling a story. For a minute, Skyler was mesmerized by their tale and, before her eyes could adjust to the dark, a small voice rang out from the corner of the hut.
Obeying, Skyler sat on the fur-covered floor of the tent. Almost immediately, a hand reached out greedily from the dark, ripping the cloth off the Mancha that had been covered since Skyler had left the lake. The old woman's face slowly moved out of the shadows as she bent over Skyler's arm and Skyler thought she heard the sharp intake of breath as the Reader slowly began to trace the raised markings of the Mancha. The woman's fingernails were long, brittle and yellow and Skyler's flesh crawled wherever they touched her. She willed herself to not pull away. In her low and growly voice, the Reader quietly hummed to herself. The sound felt like raw power and made every hair on Skyler's body stand on end. The Reader's grip on her arm slowly tightened as she traced the markings on Skyler's skin. Hovering over the final glyph, her grip became almost painful. Looking up to complain, the words died in Skyler's mouth as her eyes met those of the Reader's. The scrutinizing stare left Skyler feeling naked, completely exposed, and for a minute time completely stood still. Once again the hair on Skyler's body stood on end and she knew at that moment that she was being tested, being judged. For what she didn't know, and just as she opened her mouth again, the old woman abruptly released Skyler's arm. Skyler exhaled loudly, not even realizing that she had been holding her breath.
Reaching to her left, the old woman picked up the previously unnoticed Cuff beside her. Without saying a word, she placed it around Skyler's forearm and clicked the lock into place, completely encasing the Mancha in bronze. Reaching to her right, the Reader pulled out an old blank parchment and wax seal. Quietly, she penned a mark on the parchment and then sealed it in wax, handing it over to Skyler.
Skyler accepted the note with shaking hands, and looked once again into the old woman's searching eyes. As if satisfied with what she had found in Skyler's eyes, the Reader reached into a pouch that hung loosely from her waist. She withdrew a single coin and placed it in Skyler's palm.
Skyler looked at the coin. It appeared to be an inexpensive member of the royal currency. All of the royal coins had a depiction of the Capitol city, Vallon, on one side and a Bordan bird on the other. Looking closer at the metal in her hand, Skyler realized that the coin she held was unusual: both sides depicted the Bordan.
She looked at the Reader curiously.
The Reader said, “For luck. You will need it.” She seemed to be having a debate with herself for a moment, then finally reached a decision and continued on. “Be strong, young Rintek. You will be tested again. When all seems well, be wary. When all seems lost, it's not. Trust the Bordan. Trust yourself.” Stunned, Skyler didn't have a chance to respond before the woman grabbed her staff and rose from the floor. Did she just call me Rintek?
Skyler could hear the Reader's announcement outside of the hut and the surprised and pleased uproar of the crowd. Even so, she still couldn't believe what she had been told. To be selected as a warrior had always been her one and only dream. To be selected as a Rintek was unfathomable to her; she had never allowed herself to dream so big. The Gods had smiled upon her today but the woman's words clouded the joy that was filling her heart, and she suddenly felt cold. Trying to shrug off the chill, Skyler rose from the floor of the hut and laughed at herself. She is an old, superstitious woman. When she opened the flap she saw her father, his arm around Kendra, and she held her head high and left the hut.
Later that night, while the village slept, nobody noticed the cloaked and hunched-over form slowly hobbling toward the forest. In one hand, the figure held a cage with two ravens. In the other hand was an ornate staff that was clearly being used to maintain balance as it found its way along the cobblestone street leading out of town.
When she reached the Eastern edge of the village, where the forest began, the old woman removed her hood and raised her face toward the rising crescent moon. Eyes closed and lips slowly moving, she slowly reached over and unlatched the cage, freeing the birds within. The Ravens quietly bound out between the bars and circled lazily over the woman's prone form before parting ways, one heading east, the other west.
Queen Aleenah paced the length of her private chambers and glanced nervously at the door. Her bird, Namnok, sat quietly on his perch. Only his eyes following his mistresses' every move. Namnok was a Bordan, a large bird of prey with dark brown feathers, and one of his kin had been present within the castle walls since the days of King Severius. The Queen's pacing was not helping her nerves; her daughter would arrive any moment and she was still trying to figure out how to break the news to her. Gwen's cherished freedom--, and her innocence--, were about to come to an abrupt end. She knew it would devastate her.
Aleenah's heart ached just at the thought of it. Gwen was her only child and she was a beautiful and obedient daughter. She was always willing to fulfill her courtly obligations and, regardless of the task, she always managed to find a way to make it enjoyable for herself and those around her. The Queen closed her eyes and prayed that her decision would not kill her daughter's spirit. Lost in her prayer, she failed to notice the door silently opening and the figure of her daughter quietly entering the room.
Kneeling and with her eyes downcast, Gwen's voice was barely above a whisper. “You summoned me, your majesty?”
Queen Aleenah walked to her daughter and offered one arm. “Rise, Gwen. In my chambers there is no need for formalities.”
Taking her mother's hand, Gwen found herself on shaky legs. The air in the room was thick with tension. Gwen had inherited her mother's short stature and they stood now at equal height. With a building unease, Gwen realized that her mother still held her hand and that there was a look of sorrow in her eyes. Gwen felt her world beginning to shift. As if sensing her anxiety, Aleenah led her daughter to the nearest chair and quietly urged her to sit. Namnok squawked, momentarily breaking the silence. Gwen jumped in alarm.
Aleenah knelt before her daughter and took both of her hands. “Gwen, you are aware of the rising numbers of Exiles throughout the land?”
Silently, Gwen nodded. Everyone had heard of these so-called Exiles and their new leader who was apparently organizing them into a small army of their own. To Gwen's knowledge, they had caused no real harm to other Frendy, so she was perplexed by her mother's question.
Aleenah continued. “You are also aware of the increasing raids on the humans to the West? Raids by the savages from across the sea?” Once again, Gwen nodded silently. Where was this leading?
“Gwen, the Exiles are forming an army and are planning to usurp the throne. It's also been suggested that they have met with the savages and have reached an accord.” Gwen raised her eyes in surprise. “I have been in contact with the human, King Holden. He, like me, is worried about these recent developments and we have found a way to fortify our lands and strengthen our borders against these threats to our realms.” Gwen's heart began to race. Namnok squawked again but this time Gwen didn't react.
“Gwen, I have pledged your hand to King Holden's son, Prince Galen. The alliance this marriage will form will all but guarantee the safety of our lands.”
Gwen stared, dumbfounded, at her mother. What did she just say? Surely I heard her wrong?! As she tried to process the meaning of her mother's statement, Queen Aleenah continued to talk about the reasons behind her decision but Gwen didn't hear what she said.
“---sheer numbers in the human army combined with the strength of our Frendy soldiers…” Gwen's mind reeled and she felt that she might pass out. As her mother continued to drone on, Gwen's demeanor shifted from confusion to anger. Still holding her mother's hands, she squeezed them tightly. Her mother winced as she locked eyes with her daughter.
The Queen's voice lacked conviction as she lamely finished her sentence. “---Prince Galen is said to be very handsome…”
Gwen thought she might be sick. She's serious! There hasn't been an arranged marriage in the realm since the days of Severius! Gwen's heart began to beat harder and she wondered briefly if this it was it felt like to a rabbit trapped in a hole, surrounded by hungry wolves.
“Mother, how could you?!”
Aleenah sighed and pulled her hands free from her daughter's grip. This isn't going well. Trying to think of a way to make Gwen understand the situation, she started pacing the room and came to a stop before her. In a gentle voice, Aleenah said, “Gwen, have you truly no idea what has been happening lately? Are you so sheltered that you can't see our realm crumbling around us?”
“What are you talking about? There is nothing wrong with the realm but its' leadership!”
The Queen's face flushed with anger. Her daughter's statement stung worse than a slap. Gwen had lost her father, King Marquim, to an accidental drowning two years ago. He and Gwen had always been very close and she knew her daughter was still coping with his loss. Aleenah had done her best to pick up the pieces, but things had always been strained with her only child and it seemed that, even from the grave, Marquim was her preferred parent
Still trying to reason with Gwen, Aleenah continued on. “Gwen, we are on the brink of a civil war and complete economic collapse. The Exiles are growing stronger and, if the humans fall to the Raiders from the west, so does our only trade route out of the realm. Do you have any idea what that would mean to our people?” Letting her words sink in a minute, Aleenah paused and searched her daughter's face. The anger was still present but she could tell that she was at least listening. Good. Softening her voice, Aleenah sighed and said, “I'm sorry. I see no other way. If a harmless marriage can save two realms, then we are obligated to make sure it happens.”
Anger flashed again in Gwen's eyes. “ Harmless? You call banishing me to a loveless union to some stranger, some human Prince, leagues away from my home, harmless?? ” Gwen's eyes were filling with tears and she said under her breath, “Father never would have done this to me.”
Aleenah once again felt the sting of rejection and she snapped. “Whose idea do you think this was?”
Gwen's eyes narrowed. “You lie.”
Aleenah smiled sadly at her daughter. “I've never lied to you. I never will. Baldur!”
The door immediately flew open, and Baldur strode quickly into the room and kneeled before the Queen's feet. If she won't listen to me, maybe she will listen to him. I didn't want it to come to this.
“Tell her. Tell her of her Father's plans to unite the realm.”
Baldur's shoulders stiffened and Gwen looked expectantly at him, waiting for his response. She exhaled loudly when his face met hers. The look of guilt said it all. No. It can't be true. He never would have done this to me. Would he? With a sinking feeling in her chest, she knew it was the truth.
“You knew ? All this time, you knew and yet you said nothing?” Gwen's voice caught in her throat. She felt like she just lost her last true friend. Her confidant. Her past, present and future were all pulled into question and she was paralyzed. Baldur said nothing more, but she saw the sorrow in his face.
Closing her eyes, she asked, “When is this harmless wedding to take place?”
“The day after the rising of the twin moons.”
Gwen opened her eyes in surprise. The rising of the twin moons, Landra and Plyno, marked the end of summer and the beginning of Harvest. When Summer was at an end, the smaller Sun of the planet, Rael, would leave her lover's orbit and only Mornos, the larger sun, would rise. After Harvest and through winter, the same routine would follow until the first day of spring. On that first spring morning, Rael would once again join Mornos and shine upon the land and, that night, the smaller moon Plyno would leave Landra until the next Harvest began. This was the way of the world. Never at the same time did both suns and both moons shine upon the land. Gwen did the math in her head and realized that it was less than two months away. S o soon. She needed air. She needed the quiet embrace of the forest. She needed to think.
In a quiet voice, the Queen said, “There's more.”
Gwen braced herself. There's more? What's left to take? Once again looking at her mother, she realized she couldn't handle much more and her mother seemed to sense it.
Quietly, and with regret, the Queen said, “The King and the Prince will be here in a fortnight to formally announce your betrothal. I expect you will be prepared for their visit and remain close to the palace to help entertain our guests.”
Gwen clenched her jaw. The Summer Festival and the Great Hunt were in a fortnight. This was her favorite time of the year and she took great joy in joining the hunters outside of the palace walls. Usually, the Hunt lasted at least a week and she was always treated like everyone else, doing her share of the daily chores around camp and scouting the woods for prey. She never felt more alive, more free, than at this one special time of the year.
Gwen felt the walls closing in on her. Without saying a word, she stood and walked toward the door. Namnock cooed quietly from his perch as she left her mother's chambers and entered the Hall, not once looking back. Baldur rose from the floor, nodded briefly to the Queen, and turned to follow in Gwen's path. He closed the door gently behind him.
Once again alone in the room, with only Namnock to bear witness, the Queen sat down and wept, praying to the Gods that her decision was just.
Namnock dropped off his perch and glided silently toward the balcony. Leaving the confines of the castle behind, he headed west toward the Dark Forest. The moon was full and he had no problem finding what he sought: perched on the tallest Groya tree was another large Bordan. She was about the same size as Namnock, but that was where their similarities ended.
As he landed softly on the branch next to hers, she pierced him with her icy blue stare. “ You're late .”
Adjusting himself on the branch, Namnock bowed his head. “ My apologies .”
She spread her wings as if to shrug. “ This form is not comfortable for me and I'm expected back at camp. Did you have difficulties getting away?”
“ No. Her Majesty was upset tonight and stayed up later than normal.”
“What news have you?”
“The Queen has pledged her daughter's hand to the human Prince. He's to arrive in a fortnight to make the formal announcement.” The female sitting opposite him showed no reaction to the news, so Namnock asked, “ What about you?”
As if expecting the question, she said, “ There's been a Raven from the East. It appears the prophecy is true.”
Namnock's talons gripped the branch harder, their razor sharp edges gouging the softer wood of the tree. “Male or Female?”
“I will alert you of her arrival.”
Spreading her wings, the female took flight and headed west, leaving Namnock alone atop the canopy of the forest. After a moment of silence, he spread his wings to fly silently back to the City.
Skyler could see the pillars of the gates of Vallon gleaming in the distance. She and Kendra had made good time since leaving their childhood village. They had followed the Lern River as it forked its way from the Great Plains to the west of the village toward the sea. The Lern, and his sister, The Gren, both formed at the base of the Lake Of Enlightenment and they were the sole source of water to the crops and people of the Great Plains. The rivers were both large, passable only by boat and only during the late summer when the waters ran calm.
Skyler was an able hunter but game was scarce in the large exposed expanse of the Great Plains and- whatever game they would have encountered-was scared off by Kendra's incessant chatter. Luckily, Kendra also had an innate ability to catch the elusive silver fish that lived within the depths of the river. She had tried, several times, to teach Skyler the delicate art but soon realized that Skyler lacked the necessary patience to catch their next meal. Both looked forward to reaching the capitol and getting a proper meal within the city walls. The fish were adequate protein but they were ready for a more varied diet.
Skyler glanced at her friend and smiled. Kendra had barely stopped talking since they left the village almost a week before. Kendra, like Skyler, was tall and had a lean, agile, frame though, she wore her hair shorter than Skyler's and her eyes were a soft shade of blue. Unlike Skyler, Kendra loved to talk and she was never afraid to make new friends or engage complete strangers in friendly banter while traveling the large dusty road to the capitol. Her excitement about reaching Vallon was catching and Skyler found herself chuckling under her breath on more than one occasion as Kendra wandered aloud about what their futures held in store. This was the first time that both young women had left their childhood homes and, though leaving the village was difficult, both were ready to begin their lives anew and fulfill their destinies.
Thinking about the village, a frown began to form on Skyler's face. She absently stroked the delicate gold amulet that hung around her neck as she thought back to the day of their departure.
After their readings, the villagers had decided to have a feast to celebrate the honors bestowed on Skyler and Kendra and their impending departure to Court. The town was alive with activity the day of the feast, everyone rushing to be somewhere as the twin suns began their descent on the horizon. It had been a nice summer day, not too hot, and everybody's spirits were high in preparation for the celebration. It seemed to Skyler that everyone had a smile on their face and that nothing could dampen their mood. Trying to make herself useful, she was busy carrying a heavy cask of rare Tellurian Ale to the village square, with old man Krydon limping behind her.
“We will miss you around here, especially Roan. You were the only one that kept him together after your mama died. A shame that was.“ Krydon shook his head sadly as Skyler slowly set the cask down in the well-worn dirt floor of the large center hut of the square.
Turning toward Krydon to respond, Skyler saw her father and Jarden in quiet conversation outside of the Butcher's hut. Jarden's head was bowed and her father had his arm resting lightly on the younger man's shoulder. Skyler saw the look of sadness in her father's eyes and it appeared they were consoling each other for a future that was not meant to pass. A flash of guilt stormed through Skyler and she turned away and started walking back down the cobblestone road, embarrassed at witnessing the two men in their moment of grief.
After finishing her chores around town, Skyler returned to the cool comfort of the hut she had always called home. Pausing momentarily by the door, she noticed her father sitting by his bed on the far wall with a chest open at his feet. She recognized the chest at once. It had been her mother's. She could hear her father quietly murmuring from across the room. Skyler hesitated. She didn't know what to do and, before she could move, her father raised his head to look at her. Without saying a word, he gently patted the bed next to him. Silently, she crossed the hut and joined him.
Looking down into the chest, Skyler saw several articles of clothing, an ornately carved hairbrush, and a pair of worn silk shoes. Silk was rare within the realm, as it could only be found across the Great Sea and it was a valuable commodity. What caught her eye, however, was the sword sitting on top of the clothing. The sword, her father had told her, was a family heirloom, passed down from mother to daughter for countless generations. The body of the sword was polished steel with etched carvings into the extremely sharp blade. The hilt and handle of the sword had several small gouges and signs of wear. It had clearly been used many times in the past. At the end of the handle was a solitary transclucent gem, the likes of which Skyler had never seen before. Shaped roughly like a diamond, the color seemed to change every time she looked at it. Next to the sword was a simple leather sheath and belt. Coiled on top of the sheath, was a small golden necklace with an amulet at its center made from the same gem imbedded in the sword.
Reaching down into the chest, Skyler's father slowly picked up the necklace and gently caressed the amulet with his fingers. He seemed lost in thought, lost in some other time, and Skyler quietly waited for him to return to her. After several minutes, Roan turned toward Skyler.
“Your mother wanted you to have this. She said that it always brought her luck and it had been in her family for as long as anyone could remember.” He gestured to Skyler to bow her head and then he gently slid the necklace in place. The metal felt cool against her skin but it was also strangely comforting. Skyler's vision began to blur and she was surprised when she realized that she was crying.
With a look of understanding, Roan turned back to the chest and withdrew the sword and sheath. Sliding the blade into the sheath, he wrapped the belt around the bundle and gently laid it in Skyler's lap. Still staring at the weapon, and in almost a whisper, he said, “I was hoping that would stay in the chest.”
Skyler placed a hand around the sword and slowly squeezed, finding comfort in its strength. She had never seen her father so vulnerable and, once again, the guilt rose and encased her heart. Quietly, she said, “I am happy. I'm sorry this makes you so sad, but I will make you proud. I will represent our village, our family, well.” Trying to further soften the blow, she continued on. “Perhaps I can return soon, once my training is complete? I'm sure I won't forget how to bring in a harvest.” The faint smile on her lips faded when her father raised his head and locked eyes with her.
“You have always made me proud, and I've no doubt you will be a fierce Warrior. I just want more for you, Skyler. You don't understand yet what brings true happiness and I want you to experience it all.”
With a small flash of anger in her eyes, she said, “I can tell you that marrying Jarden, or anyone else, is not my idea of happiness. Why can't you just be happy for me and let me complete my destiny without sorrow in my heart?”
Smiling sadly, Roan only said, “You are so much like her. So sure of yourself. So stubborn. I only ask that you listen to me and remember this day. Don't be so consumed with being a Warrior that your heart is not open to all that life has to offer. Can you do that?” Skyler nodded without saying a word.
Roan stood slowly. He turned to her before leaving the hut. “Then go with my blessings. There is no need for sorrow. You will be missed.”
As Skyler watched his retreating back leave the hut, she suddenly felt very alone; not even the hard steel of the sword in her lap was enough to console her. She knew in her heart that she was making the right decision. Then why do I feel so bad?
Standing to leave the hut, she paused at the open flap just in time to see the last glimpse of the setting suns disappear over the horizon. It would be her last night at home.
Blinking her eyes and pulling herself back to the present she realized that Kendra was excitedly talking about the city that now loomed before them. The great gates stood open and they could see the bustling activity taking place within the city walls, peddlers and farmers selling their wares, blacksmiths sharpening blades on anvils, children running between the legs of the adult Frendy who were milling around in the main courtyard by the entrance to the city. Kendra's talking seemed to speed up the closer they got to the gates.
“What do you think the Queen is like? When do you think we will be placed? Where will we stay? There sure is a lot going on. I hope we get placed today. I don't have much coin, do you?”
With a small smile on her lips, Skyler turned to quiet her friend but stopped as something caught her attention. Flying from the open gates were two figures on horseback. One was a large and muscular man with braided shoulder length black hair on a dark brown horse. He was following, or at least trying to follow, a woman mounted on a calico mare. It was the woman that caught Skyler's eye. She had long blond hair that was blowing recklessly in the wind, and she had a determined look in her eyes as she encouraged her steed to gallop faster.
Skyler and Kendra stepped off the worn dirt road as the riders advanced. As they drew near, the woman's features became clearer and Skyler found herself immobilized by the raw beauty of the woman on the horse. The warm glow of a tan on her exposed skin and the comfortable way in which she sat astride the horse told Skyler that the woman rode often. She had a slim and feminine build, with full breasts, a slender neck framed by her golden locks and a face with delicate yet strong features. Her full mouth seemed set with determination but it was the woman's eyes that held Skyler still. Glancing down as they rode past, the woman looked straight at Skyler and for a moment Skyler was completely lost in the emerald depths of that stare. Before she could blink, the moment was gone, and the woman and her companion continued down the road, leaving a trail of dust behind them. As if willing the moment to return, Skyler continued to watch the retreating form of the woman as she urged her mount off the road and approached the edge of the forest.
The woman seemed to sense her stare and briefly turned her head and looked over her shoulder. The woman was too far away now for Skyler to make out her features, but she still felt a slight tingling in her stomach as she felt the woman's stare upon her. The feeling was completely foreign to Skyler and she was unsettled by it. While still trying to understand her reaction to the stranger, the woman once again broke the connection and turned her face away and disappeared into the depths of the forest.
Skyler was still staring at the spot where the riders entered the woods when Kendra walked up to her side and said, “Who do you think that was?”
With a puzzled look on her face, Skyler whispered, “I wish I knew.”
It was going to be a long day of duty.
Gwen walked silently with Baldur toward the Throne Room; her mother expected her presence at court. Thinking of the Queen, Gwen grimaced slightly. It was out of character for her to speak harshly to others and she knew her words had hurt her mother and, though justified, she still felt bad. They had not spoken since their meeting in the Queen's chambers and it seemed Aleenah knew instinctively that Gwen needed some time to fully absorb the news she had been given.
As she thought of the meeting, Gwen brushed a stray blond hair out of her face and glanced quickly at Baldur: He seemed oblivious to her stare and continued to walk by her side down the long hall. How could you, Baldur? She still couldn't believe his betrayal of her trust and she clenched her jaw thinking about it. Baldur had tried to approach her several times in the last few days, but the pain was still too raw for Gwen to talk about. Lately, he seemed sullen and withdrawn and they spoke only when necessary.
Gwen felt like she was in mourning, as if all she had known and loved was now dead to her, leaving her feeling hollow inside. Passing out berry tarts to the eager children the day before barely managed to draw a smile to her lips and, for the first time in her life, Gwen was afraid of what the future held.
Trying to ignore the knot growing in her chest, Gwen lifted her head and allowed Baldur to open the large Throne Room doors. She strode quickly to her mother's side. Today would be a momentous one for several lucky Frendy, who had been sent to the Capitol with their writs of Reading in hand. The wax sealing the writs could only be broken by the Queen and it was her duty to verify their validity and accept the oaths of fealty from her Subjects. The Throne Room was packed full with every master of every trade within the city walls, each hoping that one of the Frendy today would be assigned to their ranks. Today, it appeared there were three in contention: kneeling before the Queen was one man and two women, their heads bowed. Her mother quietly stood before the form of the kneeling man and he extended his writ of seal to her. The Queen took the writ and broke the seal and, satisfied with the contents within, she raised her voice so all in attendance could hear.
“Rynol. Royal Blacksmith.” Looking down at the Frendy, the Queen said, “Rise, Blacksmith.” The young man stood, towering over the Queen by at least a foot, and projected a beaming smile.
The Queen returned his smile and pointed to a well-muscled older man wearing a worn leather tunic. The man raised a soot-covered hand in greeting as the younger Frendy bound to his side. Gwen tried to ignore the coin exchange that took place between two of the soldiers standing guard by the east entrance to the Throne Room. Then, hearing a small growl, she glanced to her left with a hint of amusement in her eyes. Baldur would not meet her stare but she could see the look of anger in his eyes. He had clearly noticed the exchange, too, and she couldn't help but pity the two guards for what was surely to follow. She hoped Baldur would not be too rough on them. The small wager seemed innocent enough to Gwen and it was no secret that her people enjoyed a good bet.
The Queen was now down to just the two women, and stood silently in front of the Frendy with the shorter brown hair. The Throne Room was silent and the cracking sound of the seal being broken reverberated off the walls. The Queen once again read the worn parchment and said loudly, “Academy. Rise, young Reader.”
With that, the young woman rose with a shy grin on her face. She, too, stood higher than the Queen, but not quite as much as the young Blacksmith had before her. The Queen motioned to a well- dressed older woman standing by the far wall. The woman stepped forward and looked expectantly at the very excited new Reader. With only a brief hesitation, the young woman joined her elder counterpart by the wall. Gwen noticed that, this time, no coin exchanged hands; the two guards were looking warily in Baldur's direction. The look on Baldur's face remained stone, masking the anger that was still clearly reflected in his eyes. He would not go easy on the two soldiers and they sensed the trouble they were in. Gwen tried to smile encouragingly to one of the men. He glanced nervously in her direction and she saw a large lump bob in his throat. He was clearly terrified. She made a mental note to speak with Baldur after the court proceedings were done.
Gwen brough her gaze back to her mother. The Queen now stood in front of the last remaining woman kneeling at her feet. Something about the woman seemed familiar to Gwen but she didn't know why. Once again, the sound of the seal being cracked echoed in the hall and once again the Queen began to read the message contained within. This time, however, she paused and a look of surprise crossed her brow. She glanced over to Gwen and then locked eyes with Baldur. Gwen couldn't interpret the look she gave him but she was intrigued by the exchange.
The Queen's next announcement was less audible. “Rintek….Anah.”
There were several loud gasps within the room and even Baldur's stony expression was replaced by curiosity and suspicion. Mirroring Baldur's thoughts, Gwen took a harder look at the still-bowing form before her mother.
“Rise, Protector,” the Queen said quietly, and the woman finally raised her head and got to her feet.
Gwen found herself taking in every feature of the woman's lean and muscular frame.
She was the perfect mix of feminine beauty and raw power: her long legs were encased in well-worn leather breeches, the faint hint of muscle outlined in their brown folds. She wore a long-sleeved cotton blouse, which dipped low in the front, exposing just enough tan skin to catch the eye before cinching together, just barely tracing the outline of her breasts. At the hollow of her throat lay a delicate gold chain.
Following the line of the woman's neck up to her face, Gwen locked eyes with her and felt her breath catch briefly in her chest. She had seen those eyes before; they had the same look of raw emotion then as they did now. The woman quickly looked away and then back to her mother.
The Queen pointed over at Baldur. He took one step forward and scrutinized the woman with a hard stare. To her credit, she didn't flinch, and she strode confidently to stand by his side, not sparing a glance in Gwen's direction as she did so. Gwen found herself disappointed by the small rebuke, though she couldn't understand why.
Aleenah smiled at Glandin as she closed the door to her private chambers. Walking wearily to her desk, she paused briefly to gently stroke Namnock's glistening back.
Out of habit, she spoke aloud. “It seems we have a new Protector.” Aleenah thought she felt a slight tremble under her fingertips as they rested on Namnock's feathers, but he hadn't appeared to move and she chuckled lightly under her breath. It's been a long day.
Court had lasted hours longer than anticipated. It seemed that unrest within the realm was growing faster than she had realized. Aleenah wondered once again if she was doing the right thing by forming an alliance with the humans.
Long ago, during The Days of Clan, Frendy had hunted and enslaved the humans, binding them to a life of servitude. The Frendy people were divided among countless clans, rather than one uniform realm. When the humans finally revolted, the great clan leader, Severius, emerged from the mayhem and crowned himself King. While the clans formed lines of loyalty and struggled for power, the humans successfully escaped their confines and fled west across the great mountain range, where they created a settlement by the Sea. By the time Severius was successful in his bid to win the throne, and the Frendy had united, the human settlement had grown into a formidable city, called Roatan. The new Frendy King's resources were too diminished to form an assault against them. Then The Great Cleansing took place and the humans were all but forgotten.
As seasons passed, an unspoken peace developed between the two races and routes of trade began to open up. The goods that the Frendy people made with the resources from the East were considered fair trade with the silk and other luxury items the humans obtained from their activities over the Sea. These activities involved trade with the Tellurians, a barbaric race of humans from lands far to the west, across the great sea. It was the Tellurians who were now causing Roatan and King Holden so much trouble.
The Tellurians were a ruthless and power-hungry people who had mastered the secrets of the sea and all of the creatures within it. For centuries, the Tellurians had been content to fight amongst themselves while trading with the humans in King Holden's realm; Tellurian trading vessels were a common sight within the port city of Roatan and, only minimal disturbances were reported at the local taverns and whorehouses when a ship was docked in port.
In addition to Roatan, King Holden's realm spanned to a remote island outpost called the Isle of Cairn. The Isle was located at the midway point between Roatan and Telluria and had been subjected to several sieges by the aggressive Tellurian raiders. Word had reached Roatan that a new king had been appointed in Telluria and that he was intent on expanding his realm. What had started as an increase in skirmishes a-sea had escalated into outright attacks against Roatan Traders and the inhabitants of Cairn. The Isle of Cairn was the lastr outpost of the realm before Roatan, and King Holden feared losing it to the Tellurians; it would create an enemy stronghold much too close for comfort. If Cairn fell, it was almost certain that Roatan would follow. With Roatan besieged, it would only be a matter of time before the Frendy found themselves at war.
Once the wedding was done and the alliance was complete, Aleenah would send the bulk of her Frendy army west to fortify the human defense of the realm. Some of the soldiers would ship to Cairn and help strengthen the defenses of the Isle against the Tellurian Raiders. Sighing sadly, Aleenah rubbed her temples and closed her eyes, praying to the Gods that her efforts would keep the peace and her people safe from harm.
Her quarters were sparsely furnished, containing only a small bed, a worn wooden chest and a modest table with an extinguished and half-burnt candle on a stand. At the opposite end of the room there was a large door opening onto a narrow balcony.
Skyler brushed her meager bag of belongings aside and sat down on her bed. She leaned back against the stone wall, her sword digging uncomfortably into her side. Unbuckling her belt, she pulled the weapon free and placed it on her lap, gently stroking the etchings on the sheath. As she traced the design on the sword, Skyler allowed the doubt that had building since her meeting with the Queen to briefly overcome her. Rintek Anah. Am I really worthy of such an honor? Baldur does not seem to think so. What if he is right? I'm a Peasant girl from Ilnos who's never faced a true challenger and I know nothing of court politics or manners.
Suddenly feeling anxious and unsettled, Skyler sighed loudly and stood. The suns were still high in the sky and, stepping out onto her balcony, she had to squint her eyes to find a small corner of shade to relieve her from the heat of the day. Directly below and in front of her was the Royal Garden. From her vantage point, she could clearly make out the design of the topiary maze. The scent of fragrant flowers in bloom drifted up and flooded her senses. To her right, the stone corner of the castle loomed; to her left, another and much larger balcony jutted from the castle walls. Baldur had told her that the balcony was part of the Princess's personal chambers. Thinking of the Princess, Gwen , Skyler closed her eyes and breathed deeply replaying the events that had unfolded.
Skyler and Kendra's first introduction to Vallon had not been a welcoming one. Stopped by the guards at the gate, they revealed their sealed writs to gain access to the city. The guard closest to Skyler glanced at her outstretched hand and gestured to his partner, who stood by Kendra, a smirk growing on his whiskered face.
“What say you, Goren? Two more Milkmaids for the court?”
Skyler bristled as the shorter man openly appraised her and Kendra. Clenching her jaw, she slowly withdrew her hand and placed the writ back in her pocket, resting her palm on the hilt of her sword.
Goren chuckled at the gesture and said, “This one's a bit feisty for milkin'. Looks like she might chafe the teats off an Argus for tryin'.” Both men laughed at the jest and Skyler's face flushed with anger.
Gesturing at Kendra's writ, Goran raised his eyebrows inquiringly. “Well?”
Kendra eyed the man warily. “Well, what?”
“What's it say?”
Lifting her head, Kendra responded defiantly. “It says Academy.”
Both men seemed surprised by the revelation and then the taller of the two cleared his throat and spat in the dirt between his feet. “Just what we need. Another Academy snob.”
Kendra and Skyler were both stunned by the Guard's show of disrespect: the Readers responsible for interpreting the Mancha maintained an important place within Frendy society. They were all educated at the elite Academy located on a small bluff within the Capitol. What exactly transpired within the esteemed walls of the Academy was a mystery to all except those few within, but to disrespect a member of the Academy was unheard of in the girls' small village of Ilnos.
Goran dismissed Kendra with a final glance and turned his attention back to Skyler. “And you?”
Skyler's first reaction was to tell him to go to Hylos but she swallowed the retort and met the man's stare with open hostility instead. Her temper usually got her into trouble and she was determined not to be baited by this man into a fight. She kept voice as even as possible. “Rintek.”
Goran's eyes narrowed at her response. Taking her in from head to foot, he shook his head and looked to the other guard, who had been silently watching their exchange.
“Well isn't that just a perfect pair! The rumors must be true. If she is Rintek and the precious Academy has just grown in ranks, the realm is surely doomed.”
Both women straightened at his remark and Goren looked as though he might say more when a third guard appeared from the gate.
Nodding briefly to them, the man placed a strong hand on Goren's shoulder and said, “Let them pass.” The newcomer clearly outranked Goran, and he quietly stepped aside as the two women entered the city.
Following the city's main road, Skyler and Kendra headed toward the castle. It was an enormous building and a testament to Frendy craftsmanship: built entirely of stone, the walls were all smooth to the touch and the steeples had been ornately chiseled from their rock prisons to create a living work of art. Both girls were awed by the sheer size of the structure as they approached the main gate. They were escorted to the Throne Room and instructed to kneel on the large, colorful rug that took up most of the room's floor. Skyler was grateful for the rug; the stone floor looked very uncomfortable. They were directly in front of the Throne which loomed above them. The room was large and seemed to be full of Frendy. The conversations had ceased immediately when the girls were brought into the room and they could feel the stares of a thousand eyes as they made their way to the front of the room. They heard a door opening to their right, and then a loud voice rang out.
“Her majesty,the Queen.”
Skyler and Kendra had been instructed to keep their heads bowed and their eyes downcast, so they didn't witness the Queen's arrival, but Skyler could see the bottom of her golden gown as it brushed against the stone floor and she assumed her position in front of the throne. Just moments later, the door once again opened and Skyler saw the sash of a simpler red gown in her limited vision and the sweet smell of flowers enveloped the room.
Skyler waited patiently for her turn as the Queen delivered the readings for the young Blacksmith and her friend. Then the golden gown was in front of her. She felt the light touch of the Queen's hand as the sealed writ was taken from Skyler's outstretched palm. She heard gasps as her regeant read her fate. Skyler's heart started hammering in her chest. Rintek Anah? The old woman had said nothing of this. What does it mean? Why didn't she tell me?
Skyler slowly rose to her feet. Her knees ached despite the comfort of the worn rug. She looked down slightly and into the face of her Queen. The woman's face was unreadable and then she broke the stare and looked over to her left. Skyler's eyes followed her gaze and stopped dead when they met the emerald green pools that had captivated them before. It's her.
The blond woman was stunning in a red velvet gown, and curiosity was evident in her eyes and they stared openly at each other. Skyler's lips parted slightly and she felt her pulse in her throat. What's wrong with me?? Snap out of it! I am standing in front of my Queen!
Forcing her eyes away, she realized that the Queen was pointing at the large man standing next to the blond woman. Skyler recognized him as the woman's riding companion. His dark eyes were appraising her openly and almost with hostility. Skyler felt her defenses go up immediately. Not willing to show any fear, Skyler ignored her rapidly beating heart and raised her head slightly to stare right back at him. She forced herself to hold his glare as she walked forward to join him at his side. Despite his menacing appearance, she held her ground under the weight of his scrutiny.
As she stood by the hulk of a man next to her, Skyler had a moment to catch her breath and a realization suddenly hit her. They were standing behind the Queen, a space allotted for the royal family: the same place where the woman in red currently stood. Skyler knew the Queen had a sole heir, a daughter, and with a sinking feeling, she realized who the woman was.
She is the Princess. This was not a woman to befriend. This was a woman that she would be sworn to guard and protect. She would be forced to be vigilant and aloof, to be seen and not heard. The light in the room seemed to dim slightly as the sad realization hit home. To be Rintek Anah was to be alone. Skyler's grip tightened on the helm of her sword, her hand seeking the only real comfort it had ever known.
The next few hours were a numb blur to Skyler. After court, the large man had motioned for her to follow him as they led the Princess back to her chambers. Skyler waited patiently in the hall as the two had a brief conversation in the Princess's room. Skyler couldn't make out all of the words but it was clear that the Princess was unhappy and was discussing punishment for two of the palace guards. Skyler couldn't determine what they had done, but the icy voice of the Princess was clear, as was the man's gruff response. When the door finally opened and the man stepped out, he barely glanced in Skyler's direction before he simply said, “I am Baldur.”
Not one for mincing words. Okay. “I am Skyler.”
Nodding as if her statement answered more than just one question, he walked a few steps down the hall and opened another door.
“This is your room. My room is over there.” He gestured to another door directly across the hall from the Princess's chambers. “Get settled and I will come for you later.”
Before she had a chance to respond, he turned quickly on his heel and strode away.
Still standing on the balcony with her eyes shut, Skyler didn't hear the light footsteps on the balcony next to hers and she jumped when she heard the sound of a woman clearing her throat. Laughing, Gwen said, “My hero,” which caused Skyler's face to flush in embarrassment.
“No. Just Gwen.”
Turning toward the Princess, Skyler could still feel the heat on her face, but she could see only amusement sparkling in the other woman's eyes. Great way to make an impression.
“Um, Gwen , I was just, um.” Skyler's hands were gesturing aimlessly in the air, as if they had a mind of their own, and she felt like she was drowning in an invisible lake. She couldn't seem to stop making a fool of herself and the growing smile on the other woman's face only made matters worse.
“Relax, Rintek Anah.”
Speaking her formal title aloud seemed to remind the Princess of an unpleasant thought and the smile on her face faded. A serious and somber look took its' place. “So, you are my new Protector ?”
Something about the way she said “Protector” made Skyler bristle, all feelings of unease immediately forgotten and replaced instead with pride. Without thinking, and in a serious tone, she said, “My name is Skyler and, yes, it would appear that you have been burdened with my service.”
Gwen seemed to find amusement in Skyler's stern retort as the smile re-appeared on her face, exposing perfect white teeth and matching dimples on either side of her mouth. Skyler swallowed hard in response, immediately regretting her words. Curse my temper!
“I see you aren't afraid to speak your mind, Skyler. That is refreshing to find at court.”
Skyler felt a stab of anxiety at Gwen's words. Have I already stomped on some rule of etiquette? She must think me a fool! Lowering her eyes she fought the urge to jump off the balcony and into the maze below.
“I meant you no disrespect.”
Gwen raised her hand as if to brush away a meddlesome gnat. “None taken.”
Skyler raised her eyes and looked again at the Princess, who was busy assessing Skyler's attire, taking her in from head to toe. “Where are you from?”
Skyler blushed from the intense scrutiny and then immediately became irritated by her own discomfort. Remember who you are. Raising her head defiantly, she said, “I am from Ilnos, a small village to the east, at the base of the Argal Mountains. Do you know of it?”
Gwen frowned in response, small lines forming in her forehead above her emerald eyes. “Only from maps. I've never been allowed to venture far from the city gates.” Her frown deepend and she said in a quiet voice, “But that soon will change.”
The sorrow behind Gwen's words was not lost to Skyler but, before she could respond, a loud knock sounded from her door.
Pursing her lips, the Princess looked coldly toward the sound. “Best to not keep Baldur waiting.” Without looking at Skyler, she turned and walked back into her private quarters, causing a fragrant gentle breeze of flowers in bloom to caress Skyler's face and leaving her alone once again.
Gwen scowled to herself as she watched the sparring match taking place between Baldur and Skyler. Skyler was surprisingly strong against Baldur's attacks and it was clear that she was well versed in the art of swordplay: she had never seen Baldur work so hard, or yell so much, while sparring in the yard. The young woman seem unfazed by his goading words except for the anger burning in her eyes every time Baldur's wooden sword hit its mark on her body.
Her body. Gwen let her eyes drift over Skyler's lean form as she expertly dodged one of Baldur's lunges. Skyler had donned the traditional black shirt of the Rintek, which successfully hid the outline of her body, but it was a hot summer day and the sweat from her workout with Baldur was causing the shirt to stick to her lean frame. Gwen swallowed as she stared at the outline of the other woman's breasts. That she was attracted to Skyler was clear, but what did it really mean ? Gwen had kissed only one other person, her handmaiden's daughter, when they were twelve. It was an awkward moment but she could still recall the softness of the other girl's lips against her own. It had been a one- time occurrence, a dare, but it left an impression on Gwen. She had never really been drawn to anyone before; never had the desire that she had heard other girls talk about or maids whisper as they went about with their daily chores. Not until now.
Frowning, Gwen acknowledged to herself that she wanted to spend more time with Skyler. Which is a problem. A really big one. Her betrothed, Prince Galen, was due to arrive in one week and, whether she liked it or not, she would be married soon and she would keep to her wedding vows and remain monogamous. There was simply no time, and no future, to explore her attraction to the other woman. Sighing with regret, Gwen stood to leave and took one last glance at the two figures still battling in the yard. It seems the Gods have other plans for us both .
Skyler winced in pain as she gingerly removed her shirt. There was a long and painful bruise covering her left ribcage, thanks to Baldur's skill with a sword. It was a reminder that she needed to stay focused on her duties as a member of the Rintek Anah. Next time, as Baldur not so kindly reminded her, the sword would not be made of wood.
Baldur . She had a hard time figuring the man out, but she knew two things for sure: he didn't like her and he clearly resented her constant presence at his side. It's not like I enjoy his company, either, but it's not my fault we must tolerate each other.
After her placement in the Throne Room, Skyler had been assigned to apprentice under Baldur, to be his shadow, as he went about his daily business. He spent most of his time trailing the Princess's movements and it was apparent to Skyler that he cared deeply for Gwen. It was also very clear that there was some kind of rift between the two; maybe a fight? Skyler didn't understand the source of the conflict, but she saw how the Princess set her chin when addressing Baldur and it was impossible to miss the gruff way in which he spoke to Gwen when the need arose for direct communication. Or maybe that's just how he talks.
When Baldur had collected Skyler earlier that day, he had used the same tone of voice when he barked an order for her to follow him to the sparring yard.
Nodding silently, Skyler had taken her sword off the bed and hastily looped the belt back through the loops in her breeches. She stumbled out the door while trying to catch up with Baldur's rapidly retreating form as it moved down the hall.
Baldur had not spoken another word to Skyler until they arrived at the training area. After leading her to the center of the dirt-covered yard, he had stopped abruptly and turned to face her, his eyes immediately falling to the sword at her side.
“That's a nice sword for a farm girl,” he said, looking at her accusingly.
“I'm not a thief if that's what you mean.” Skyler didn't appreciate the implication and she immediately felt defensive. “'Twas my mother's and her mother's before her.”
“I'm not interested in its history. Do you know how to use it or just how to show it off?”
And so he did. For hours in the sweltering heat he pushed Skyler harder than she had ever been pushed before. She did her best to hold her own but the older man's skills surpassed her abilities and she felt like a newborn whelp being punished every time his wooden sword made contact with her tender flesh. The more his sword made contact, the angrier she became. Finally, as the suns were starting to set, Baldur stepped away from Skyler and raised his hand.
Breathing hard, Skyler straightened her back and let the wooden sword fall limply to her side. Catching movement in the corner of her eye, she looked up to the grassy hill that overlooked the training yard and caught the retreating form of the Princess. Her breath caught when her eyes locked with Gwen's—then the Princess turned and disappeared down the other side of the slope. Even now, thinking about that moment, caused Skyler's heart to race.
Although they hadn't spoken since the day on the balcony, Skyler was always aware of Gwen's presence when she was near. It seemed to Skyler that Gwen was much more withdrawn; whenever she caught the other woman's eye, the devious glint was missing and her mouth seemed more willing to form a frown than a smile. Have I done something wrong or is it just the stress of the upcoming visit by her betrothed ?
The Prince was due to arrive any day and the castle was alive with activity. Skyler had heard rumors that many Frendy were angered by the pending nuptials; they saw it as an unnecessary alliance with an inferior race. The Royal Guard was on high alert and everyone's nerves were stretched taut as the arrival date loomed nearer.
Skyler grimaced at the thought of the human Prince. She felt an unexpected surge of jealousy and, just as quickly, brushed it off as a silly reaction. What am I thinking? Gwen's a Princess. She's marrying a Prince: A tale as old as time. End of story.
Roughly pulling a fresh shirt on over her head, Skyler walked out to her balcony and inhaled deeply the scent of flowers in bloom. Exhaling loudly, she looked down and was surprised to see Gwen looking up at her. The Princess was dressed in a form-fitting white blouse and tan breeches. Gods, she is beautiful.
“Ride with me.”
Glancing uncertainly at the Princess, Skyler didn't immediately respond.
“Baldur sent me to collect you. He is tied up with the Rintek Guards preparing for the Prince's visit and, apparently, I need an escort to leave the city.” The way she said “escort” made Skyler's stomach fall. She is calling upon her Rintek Anah, not me. Shoving her disappointment aside, Skyler straightened and said, “I'll meet you at the stables.”
They broke through the trees, and emerged on a small bluff overlooking the city and the lands surrounding it. Skyler stood slightly in her stirrups, and her horse, ears pressed back, nickered in objection to her movement. Cursing the Gods that she had not learned how to ride a horse sooner, Skyler gripped the reins even tighter while whispering unsteadily under her breath, “Easy, boy.”
Skyler's eyes were drawn immediately by a rare sound that she could easily become addicted to: Gwen's laughter. Sitting casually on her mount, Gwen was looking at her with pure amusement and Skyler couldn't help but smile in response. Since they had left the stables, Gwen's spirits seemed to rise and Skyler was happy to see the Princess smile again and to hear her warm laughter.
“You've never ridden before, have you?”
“What do you mean?” Her horse nickered again and Skyler glanced nervously at him. Ignoring Skyler's obvious discomfort, Gwen answered her question. “Well, until today, I'd never seen someone require three stable hands to mount up before. Don't they have horses in your village?”
Skyler couldn't decide if she was being teased again or not. Gwen's stare was innocent enough but there was still that glint suggesting that Skyler was once again the source of great amusement to the blond woman.
Skyler decided to ignore the glint. “No. We've no real use for horses where I come from.” She failed to mention that her village was not a wealthy one and horses were considered a luxury that her townspeople couldn't afford. Most horses were purchased by trading with the humans in the West, and the price was always steep. “The mountain terrain near my home is best traveled afoot and we use Argus for farming.”
Argus were large, docile animals that the Frendy had tamed eons ago to assist them with hard, laborious tasks. Most Argus dwelt in the open valleys of the Great Plains. They were distant cousins to a more aggressive breed of animal, the Plyons, who preferred the dark solitude of the forests. Plyons, like the Argus, were not known for their intelligence. They were also very temperamental meat-eaters and more than one Frendy in Skyler's village had lost his life while trying to escape an angered Plyon's wrath.
Skyler's eyes clouded at the thought of her home and Gwen caught the change in her eyes.
“Do you miss it? Your village?”
Skyler surprised herself by saying, “I do.” She had been so wrapped up in the excitement about what her future held that she hadn't allowed herself to think about what she left behind, and her face flushed with shame.
Gwen seemed to sense the change in Skyler's demeanor. “I'm sorry. You don't have to talk about it.”
Skyler gently shook her head and cleared her throat. “No, it's ok. I just—I haven't thought much about Ilnos since Kendra and I left.”
With a strange look in her eyes, Gwen casually asked, “Who's Kendra?”
Skyler smiled. “She is my friend. My only friend, if truth be told.”
Oblivious to the change in Gwen's demeanor, Skyler continued. “She is at the Academy. I hope she fares well. We haven't spoken since we received our assignments.” Another flash of guilt swept through Skyler and she slowly shook her head. “I've been so busy. I need to find time to see her.”
Gwen‘s cool response confused Skyler. “I'm sorry you have not had much time to yourself. Things should get better after the wedding. At least for you .”
Hearing the bitterness in her voice, Skyler turned toward Gwen. Not knowing what to say, the two women sat in silence for a moment, and then Skyler caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She looked west and saw a short caravan approaching the city. At the head of the procession flew a banner of red fabric blowing in the breeze. The Prince had arrived.
Feeling a wrenching in her gut, Skyler glanced at Gwen. The curtain had once again fallen; her face was devoid of all emotion and it was clear that Gwen had retreated back to the solitary depths of her thoughts. The Prince's arrival seemed like a cold breeze that blew between the two women and Skyler knew it was time to head back to court. Wordlessly, they turned their mounts and headed back into the forest.
They were almost to the bottom of the large ravine that led out of the forest when the hair on Skyler's neck stood on end. Raising her hand, she pulled the reins on her horse and came to a complete stop. With curiosity in her eyes, Gwen followed suit.
“What is it?”
Skyler dismounted and pulled out her sword. “The forest is quiet. Too quiet. Something is wrong.”
Gwen looked curiously around and then smiled. “Relax, warrior. We are practically in sight of the city. You have nothing to fear.”
Without even glancing in Gwen's direction, Skyler focused on the dense underbrush before them. Her instincts told her danger was near and she would take no chances with Gwen's safety.
Shaking her head, Gwen kicked her horse and flew forward past Skyler and towards the dense forest.
Laughing, Gwen turned her head over her shoulder—and was abruptly yanked off her mount by a cloaked figure crouching on the low-hanging branch of a large tree. Gwen shrieked and Skyler was immediately in motion, adrenaline pounding in her veins.
The man easily held Gwen's struggling form with one hand and, just as Skyler was upon him, he raised his hood with his free arm and she found herself face to face with a very angry man. Still focused on Gwen's safety, it didn't register to her right away that the man holding Gwen was Baldur and she barely had enough time to stop the downward motion of her sword as it sped on its' path to his head.
With adrenaline still ruling her body, Skyler's mind caught up with the situation. As soon as it registered with her that Gwen was safe, rage overcame Skyler and she turned on the Princess before her.
“What in Hylos is wrong with you?! Do you want to die? Because, if you do, let's just get it over with: you can experience the blade right now!” Skyler held her sword up menacingly, her knuckles whitening as her fingers gripped hard around the handle. She had never been so angry or humiliated in her life.
Shocked by Skyler's suddent outburst, Baldur and Gwen both stood before her silently with their mouths agape. Skyler wasn't done yet. Still glaring at Gwen she said, “I am your Rintek Anah, Princess, and it is my job to protect you with my life. When it comes to your safety, you must listen to me or, next time, you will get us both killed! Perhaps you could try to think of someone other than yourself for a change?” Before Gwen had a chance to respond, Skyler turned to Baldur with her eyes downcast.
With defeat in her voice, Skyler said, “I don't know how you've managed to keep her alive this long. I am sorry I failed you.”
Recovering from the shock of Skyler's outburst, Baldur released Gwen. “You are dismissed. I will accompany the Princess back to the castle.”
Skyler swallowed hard and grabbed the reins of her horse. Mounting up, she urged the horse forward, past the two prone figures standing in the woods. Without looking back, Skyler let the tears of frustration, of failure , fall unbidden down her face.
To be continued…
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