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Why had Queen Artis allowed Chief Marduk to capture her! She cursed in frustration. This imprisonment added to the list of failings from her hunt against Marduk. When he kidnapped newly-crowned Leta Regina of the Riverlands as his paramour, a string of disasters occurred: a landslide buried the entire armory, one-third of the army fell under the hold of a zhinoa epidemic, Sumran archers killed two prominent generals, and right as Her Highness verged on catching Marduk, he disappeared into a well-concealed cave. Now Artis was trapped away from her army.
An older man in a simple tunic and cloak faded from the shadows into the dim light. “Queen Artis, so good of you to join me,” he rasped.
“Release me immediately!” she roared.
The rogue chuckled. “Do you not know of me? I am Enlil the Enchantor, infamous among all four countries in this region, hired by Chief Marduk to hinder your quest for his life.”
Artis grit her teeth. Marduk could safely escape through the Genelian Forest and back to Sumra.
Enlil continued. “I'm sure if your soldiers didn't kill him first, you would have personally. You northerners harbor an overbearing hatred for Sumrans.”
Stepping forward, Artis snapped, “At least we will defend our good name and that of others, unlike those southern dogs. Marduk has no right to abduct Leta Regina as his paramour.”
“It is not for me to decide what passes as right or wrong according to your standards. I have been paid to keep you hushed, and only that matters to me.” The mage crossed his legs and sat in a state of complete calm.
Artis walked to the mouth of her rocky prison and tested the shockwall. Static buzzed through her fingers. She withdrew, fearing the spasms people acquired after attempting to penetrate the magical barricades too many times. Escape seemed impossible.
Artis reached for the massive sword strapped to her back, and using the momentum from her spin, hacked at the wall with one powerful swing. The wall fizzled and dissipated. Enlil awoke from his meditation and lashed out a knotty hand, sending fierce, white-hot arms of electricity through Artis's body. She silently endured the shock that coursed through her flesh. The tendrils disappeared and she slumped onto the mildewing floor. Enlil resumed his trance-like state.
Sound could pass through shockwalls. Artis let out a war cry to alert her soldiers. As she bellowed, a goo enclosed and hardened around her feet, quickly wrapping around her legs, torso, and neck. Artis fearlessly continued shouting in hopes that at least the scouts would hear the warning. Then the bland slime filled her mouth.
“You won't surrender, will you?” hissed the warlock. “For that, I shall not relent: you will feel the wrath of Enlil the Enchantor.”
Artis cleared her mouth and hollered, “For a man your age, you anger as easily as a child.” She grinned, bracing herself for any more physical pain as a result of the comment. Instead she heard Enlil's gravelly musings:
“Perhaps I could test my latest technique. Such a subject! One does not cross royalty everyday.” He addressed Artis. “Would reliving your worst memories silence you surely have buried secrets, Your Highness?”
Artis did not respond. She had heard rumors of Enchantra, those skilled in magic, meddling in memory recall, but none of her Intelligence confirmed these suspicions. The neighboring kingdoms hardly knew of the existence of this power. Only Marduk would allow the Enchantra of Sumra to dabble in this sort of magic. Then Artis remembered the man before her didn't work under Marduk.
“How much?” she blurted.
“You think you can bribe me?” Enlil replied haughtily.
“It is your policy.”
“No amount of money will stop me from making this discovery!” A light blinded Artis and the cocoon around her disintegrated.
When Queen Artis recovered, a flourishing, icy forest projected on the shockwall before her. Her Highness recalled the place from her youthful days before troubles of the kingdom clouded her mind. She spent days in this taiga with her hunting brothers, friends so close she considered them family.
Artis had just turned eighteen when her father unwillingly liberated her from the Ladies, a group of ladies-in-waiting from thirteen to seventeen who trained Artis for life as Daughter of the King. She entered at fifteen but the fun of luxury wore off before her sixteenth birthday. Still, she tolerated the giggling group for months then begged her father to permit her to leave. He forced her to stay until she became more "lady-like.” Though she visited her “brothers” once four months after she entered the care of the vain attendants and Hoth, her only friend willing to confront her, visited her numerous times, Artis yearned to run free with her hunting brothers. She demanded to leave as a gift from her father a week before her eighteenth birthday.
Now she stood in the woods, her “brothers” Hoth and Skule on her right with Morten, Boden, and Kerr on her left. After hours of no prey, the group decided to split into pairs, and Artis paired with her most trusted companion, Hoth.
“You will not break me, Enlil.” Queen Artis dragged herself from the memory and into the present. She knew this part of her life would not end well. The old man made no move to show himself, so she checked the shockwall. Rolling waves of needles shot up to her shoulder: anymore exposure and she would end up rolling on the floor clutching a useless arm. The story continued:
The young Artis and Hoth crept through spindly conifers and spongy lichens. The sounds of the forest gradually softened into stillness.
Artis and Hoth huddled behind an enormous pine trunk. Hoth broke the silence. “I can't believe you've returned.”
“Neither can I,” Artis replied softly. A few moments passed. “Thanks.”
Artis hesitated. “For just being there. Out of five brothers, only you visited me.”
“We considered sending Boden,” Hoth explained, “but the poor fellow didn't feel comfortable around your personality after that first visit. The other three assumed you had succumbed to the 'teachings' of–” and let out a steam of colorful language.
“I wasn’t that shallow!” Artis countered.
“You acted just like them!” Hoth continued playfully, “When you talked to Kerr on that visit, he thought the Ladies cast a spell on you.”
“Kerr believes if one is not as perfect as he, then the person is Enchanted. Besides, I could've acted worse.”
“Morten jumped every time you giggle; he hardly stayed in his seat. Poor Boden sat behind the rest of us for fear that you would pounce on him.”
“I would not. That lasted only the first few months. I could hardly stand it later and you know it!”
By this time, the familiar friends whooped gleefully without any thought to the hunt. Then Hoth's laugh ceased.
“A beast roams in the area,” Hoth observed soberly. The two drew their swords and rose as quietly as possible. Beasts preyed on every creature they crossed, including humans. No wonder so little game appeared.
As if in a dream, the animal lumbered hurriedly from behind the tree, sinking its gigantic claws into Artis's back. Cape in fresh tatters, she scurried to nearby brush, panting in pain, then rushed back to fight with Hoth and slash the menace. Contact – blood oozed from the matted, brown fur. A sword flashed and Hoth cut in front of Artis.
“Leave!” he shouted. Sweat poured from his face: he couldn't battle the ten-foot, four hundred pound monster for much longer without severely injuring himself.
“I will not leave you,” Artis shouted in reply. Hoth and Artis bonded as toddlers and refused to part. Even when Artis lived with the Ladies, she and Hoth still spoke though the other “brothers” ignored her. Hoth and Artis protected each other despite the circumstances. Artis would not allow this fiend rip away her best friend.
Artis yanked Hoth's left arm and fled wildly into the forest. Pine needles whipped past, knotted roots sprawled amongst the undergrowth, the beast advanced close behind them. At last it seemed like the two lost their enemy. Artis collapsed face first into gravelly soil and sparse foliage.
“I told you to leave.” Hoth snatched off his cape, ripped it into strips and bandaged Artis's wounds. Artis lifted herself on her hands and knees. She could see only the woods disappearing and spinning into the Crags. “I warded off the beast perfectly well on my own.”
“I said I wouldn't leave without you. I don't care if you think it's your patriotic duty to protect the Daughter of the King.”
“You are my best friend and closest companion!” Hoth replied gruffly. “I didn’t save you for some reward of to marry you and become king–”He stopped as if he revealed too much.
“Marry? Become king? What are you babbling about?” Artis's breath slowed to listen. “Did my father urge you to ramble this nonsense?” She rose to her feet.
“The day you demanded to leave the Ladies Odin announced to the whole kingdom that you were to rule as queen instead of your oafish blood-brothers.”
He shut his mouth.
“What are you holding back?”
“Artis, you won't –”
“If it concerns me, I deserve to know!”
“Your father intends to force you to marry!” Hoth blurted violently. “He said he told you, and asked the five of us not to mention it lest we upset you.”
“Odin rarely informs his daughter. Apparently, I'm worth nothing to him,” Artis pointed out wryly.
“Your father indicated that Kerr and I were in particular favor. Neither of us is blood-related so partnership would be legal.”
“He released me from the Ladies just to wed me,” Artis murmured to herself. She seethed with indignation toward her father: first, he shipped her to the air-headed Ladies who tittered assiduously on Kerr's looks and intelligence, who muddled her thoughts when they concluded that Hoth would make “a fine catch.” Now her father expected her to marry one of them. Hoth and Kerr of all people! Artis may as well marry a blood-brother, a custom deigned inferior and
“Hoth, I would never wed either of you. I love you as a brother and a brother only.”
“After all this time, I didn't expect that.”
“What do you mean?” The realization smacked her. “You thought I might actually have romantic feelings for you”
“Well, you certainly wouldn't drool over Kerr. You never know.” Hoth shrugged with mock innocence. “Those–” he inserted some colorful metaphors “–probably talked about me continuously on their spare time.”
“They did, but don't give yourself so much credit. They chattered about Kerr even more.” She shuffled forward on their trek.
“Let me take the lead,” Hoth insisted.
“Are you trying to–” She couldn't finish her sentence since Hoth leapt ahead of her.
As they neared the Crags, rock crumbled more easily and the air sharpened with lack of oxygen. Beast venom (if the huge claws didn't kill someone, the poison would take effect) pumped through Artis's blood, but she ignored the symptoms. The mountains loomed ominously and her feet burned. After wandering for an hour Artis said,
“Hoth, shouldn't we return to the forest and retrace our route?”
“The easiest way to reach the Fortress is to cross the Crags. We don't know where we are because you ad to rescue me. I don't need rescuing.” He ended with a bitter edge. “I'm not delirious from a beast wound.”
“How did you know about the venom?”
“You haven’t hidden it that well. You're still soft from the Ladies.”
Artis closed her eyes for a second. “I'm not delirious, and I'm not soft,” she murmured despite the fact that Hoth's agile figure danced dizzily before her.
Though the Crags glittered in beauty, they presented many dangers. Countless clouds obscured their gray peaks at so high and altitude not eve sturdy northerners dared climb. Rock slides occurred unexpectedly. Avalanches could bury a whole army alive under stifling layers of fallen ice. Slippery ice shelves and crevasses also posed problems for climbers.
Artis caught up with Hoth. “Forgive me,” she called like a whining sibling. She shivered thought piled under layers of furs. Her mind reeled crazily, and she struggled to keep her judgment in check. “Is there another beast?”
Hoth rushed around and clamped his hand over her mouth. He whispered, “The stone here is so weak you can't make a–”
A deafening crack thundered below them. They crept back but broke into a run at the sight of plunging rocks. The landslide ceased, forming a ledge. Artis felt Hoth disappear and instantly dropped to help her friend, who clutched the ledge like a limp doll. Artis stretched–cautiously–deliberately–to grab Hoth, wary of shredding the bandages and the wounds which they contained. Her fingers locked around his wrist and slipped his grasp to her wrists. She heaved him up, barely holding herself under the strain of his weight and her injuries.
Hoth noticed helplessly, “You can't hold me forever. The rock grows more unstable. Let go and save yourself.”
Artis stubbornly inched farther onto the main cliff. The chasm below seemed to go on endlessly one second then condense to a pinprick the next. The poison had worsened. Artis squinted and scooted onto the ledge.
“The rock won't hold us both, let go!” As if to emphasize his point, some of the stone crumbled into the chasm. Artis slipped but attached herself to Hoth with both trembling hands. Slick sweat slackened her hold until finally–
Artis caught Hoth in blinding clarity. His hand reached to her, his face grim in surrender. She was him for that one second before he plummeted into the rocky abyss. Artis flopped unconscious.
The image faded and Queen Artis faced Enlil. “That wasn't my fault,” she growled.
“You blamed yourself for a long time, Your Highness. Only recently did you forget your part in Hoth's–”
“Do not utter that name in my presence!”
Enlil continued. “Ever since that day, you vowed to focus on ruling the kingdom rationally.”
“It is true,” Artis replied curtly.
Enlil closed his eyes, and then slowly grinned, “You vowed never to marry.”
“I wanted to spite my father.”
“You loved Hoth, Artis, and wanted a formal–”
“You speak falsely, old man,” Artis spat, disgusted. “I loved him as a brother. I have–had–known Hoth since infanthood; anyone who shares that bond has a stronger relationship than any.” Artis grew desperate. “Surely Marduk has escaped. You must release me.”
“Not until I have completed the experiment!” He closed his eyes once more. “You killed your best friend, Your Highness.”
The insidious words slithered into Artis's mind but she solidly defended herself. “The whole incident was an accident. Hoth said to let go and I didn’t want his last wish to go–not granted. Besides, I was delirious from a beast wound. Enchantra have proven– that–beast venom–
Artis could feel the bile rising in her throat. She did not wish to dwell on this event any longer than she already had.
As the queen retched in a corner, Enlil sneered at all she declared. “You know all of you pitiful excuses amount to nothing. The whole matter started with an act of cowardice–your cowardice! You ran fearfully from a fight as no warrior of good caliber should. Honoring his last wish? Someone sacrificed his life for you, but you would not do the same.”
Artis wiped her mouth. “Stop.”
“You're selfish, Artis, face it, and a coward. Not only that, you were weak. Three years with people your own age wiped your memory of all you loved. How shallow. Someone of your training should have every detail engrained in her mind. No wonder Hoth died: his partner had no way to save him.”
“Lies!” Artis collided into the shockwall. The shock threw her back and her arms jerked in all directions. She streamed a lengthy round of curses and tried to control her arms. A steam of warmth trickled down her cheeks. Never had Artis wept except Hoth's funeral.
When young Artis awoke after the incident, she lay in a cot in her chambers. Her blood-brothers explained that Kerr and Morten found her half-dead hanging off a cliff and carried her to the Fortress, where she lay unconscious for nine days. Their father, the blood-brothers explained, prepared for Hoth's funeral; since there was no body, a boat would burn, empty.
The realization hit Artis: Hoth was dead. One less person to laugh with her, joke with her, talk with her, understand her ever again. A brother had died. She looked at her other brothers who huddled together next to the shore. Kerr threw the torch on board, and some of the sailors of the harbor thrust the vessel into the dark, freezing sea. Later Skule would sail the same sea in the future to search for lands past is own.
When the horizon swallowed the ship, Kerr and Morten stayed and stared at the water while Boden, Artis and Skule headed inside the Fortress. They sat in Artis's chambers in silence. Seemingly hours later, Kerr and Morten entered. When Kerr asked if she was well, Artis let loose with violent, wracking sobs. No one spoke, but Artis needed the quiet.
Voices alerted the queen to aid approaching. Enlil disappeared instantly. The soldiers arrived. “We lost Marduk,” one cried, “Where are you, Your Highness?” A legion of shadows rounded the corner with their owners. “What happened?”
“An Enchantor held me captive with a shockwall.” She clumsily rose from the ground, seeing as her arms could not function.
“Any other threats or attacks?”
“We will find no one here,” the queen declared abruptly. “Let us return to the Fortress.” She stepped to the mouth of the cavern. “Could somebody bring an Enchantor in here?”
Propped head in laced fingers, Queen Artis sat in her study. She contemplated on her experience when the heavy velvet curtain rippled. Kerr, Morten, and Boden entered.
“Rumors have circulated,” Morten began, “No one knows exactly what occurred in the cave.”
“I never offered a full report,” responded Her Highness.
“The army and the court have noticed you acting most strangely. You focus more intently on affairs of state.”
“Have I not always done so? There is little else to do but my duty.”
“Those closest to you observed that you have acted more wistful and melancholy.”
“You may rest ease knowing that no harm befell the state.” She tried to speak as vaguely as possible, hoping they would leave. Only effective rule mattered, and Artis would execute her duty without distraction.
“People say the Sumran army captured you, others say the Sumrans Enchanted you, while still others say Marduk himself seized you instead of Leta Regina.”
“All incorrect, of course. You have always been susceptible to rumors. Ignore the vile things, Morten,” Artis sighed, her mind on a time a few years ago.
Kerr stepped forward. If Morten's persistence swayed none, then Kerr intended to force his logic and proof on the subject. “Intelligence reported a breakthrough in the magic of memory recall,” Kerr, now a member of royal court, interjected, “By a sorcerer named Enlil. He boasts that his first attempt in this field succeeded.”
Artis frowned. “Has he identified the subject?”
“He only mentioned 'important figure.'” Kerr shifted uneasily.
“Pardon me?” Kerr stood still, thrown off guard by the question.
“To whom this Enlil spoke?”
“Well, everyone, I suppose, especially the Sumrans.”
Queen Artis paled. “Why did I not receive any of this information?” she demanded impatiently.
Kerr coolly handed her parchment. “We were to send this to you, Your Highness.”
“You need not use a title with me,” Artis murmured as she skimmed over the information. She walked to a niche in the bleak stone, placed the packed inside and began to return to her seat. “All of you came?” she inquired skeptically.
Kerr glanced at Morten and Boden. “My job here is complete, Your Highness.” He turned hurriedly on his heel to leave the room.
“He showed you Hoth's death, didn’t he?”
Artis jumped at the sound of Boden's voice. Morten and Kerr stared at him in surprise. Boden rarely spoke but whatever left his lip impacted the group. Somehow, he knew their innermost thoughts, observed or worded allowed. Artis did not speak.
“That fits,” Morten quipped, “Intense while working with the nation, softer–”
Queen Artis lashed a nasty glare, stopping him mid-sentence. “I. Am. Not. Soft.”
“It would be appropriate to be affected if someone rehashed the experience,” reasoned Kerr.
“You do not understand. How can I foresee if someone will capture me, or any of my other officials? How shall I prevent it? How far will this new magic extend? If someone or nation does lock me away, will they bring in another Enchantor to show me Skule's departure? He may be dead for all we know.” She paused briefly in her rant. “Will I be stable enough to rule?”
“No one suggested anything of the sort,” claimed Kerr.
Artis ignored him, screeching, “I am queen; I rule a nation! I cannot have any decision based off an emotional fancy.”
“Clam yourself, Artis,” Boden soothed, “You are human before your title; you may have emotions.” Once more, wisdom flowed from Boden's mouth. “You mourn Artis; you still weep inside for a loved brother.”
“One who died years ago.”
“Only a few years. There are times when each of us remembers our two brothers, even if Kerr doesn't admit it.”
“Yes, I suppose.”
“Take your time. You will emerge strong.”
“We shall worry about that,” assured Kerr. He could display kindness on occasion. He nodded and left with Morten.
“I will call if I require anything,” Queen Artis said.
“Yes, Your Highness,” Boden responded, “or would you prefer 'Artis?'”
“My name will do.”
Artis smiled as the velvet curtain returned to its place.