Rise Kingdom, Fall | Teen Ink

Rise Kingdom, Fall

September 16, 2020
By Miss11, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
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Miss11, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
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Favorite Quote:
"Life ain't no dress rehearsal. So live like it's your last performance... because it is." - Miss11's Mom

The air smelled of snow and cold mud. The ground sucked at the feet of passersby, making the walk laborious for slow-moving mine workers, walking back home despite their various aches and pains. The miners walked in pairs but remained silent as they swayed like lumbering oak trees through the mud and fog. Their eyes were deep and sullen, tired from lack of sleep and proper rest. But onward they trekked to the one place they felt whole; home, beside a warm fire with a hot bowl of hearty stew in hand, and the sight of their wives and children huddled together for a just a gentle lick of heat from that crackling fire. That is what kept them in the mines each week, breaking their backs just hoping that they could find a piece of shining metal buried within the earth. It was what kept their hearts warm while the world was frozen solid.

As the mob of men trudged towards the lantern-lit cobblestone trail, a woman cloaked in gray mounted a pale horse, a large wool blanket lay across her lap. She stroked the steed’s neck calmly and grabbed hold of the fine leather reins, kicking the animal into a fast trot. With growling bellies and homesick hearts, not a single miner noticed the woman as she flew past on horseback. 

No doubt, word of the woman’s disappearance would be all over the kingdom, her face upon wanted bulletins nailed to every inn wall or lone tree. Tonight would be the last night she would be the woman underneath the cloak, forever lost to the fog and black of the night. After tonight she would become nothing but the mist itself, everywhere and nowhere, everyone and no one, all at once or not at all. It weighed down on her heart as she encouraged the horse into a canter, clutching the precious bundle to her chest. 

It was just a short ride to the nearest village and an even shorter one to the Sharidon’s. Looking over her shoulder as she simultaneously dodged low-hanging branches, the woman darted off onto a muddy path, the one that would lead her to the Sharidon’s. Her heart leaped with a distinct sense of fear laced with excitement, one her heart knew all too well. The horse shook its mighty head, sending buds of water into the bloodberry bushes on either side of the thin trail. The snow was starting to fall now, a perfect start to a traditional Ongarian winter. The woman smiled as the gentle flakes kissed her nose and clung to her eyelashes. Once she may have groaned at the sight of white falling from the sky, now it was a cherished sweet indulgence she would never feel again.

The Sharidon’s small cabin was within sight now, the family’s goats and sheep were huddled under a makeshift shack within a paddock. It was lush and green here, away from the city, and the only evidence of the touch of man was around two dozen stumps whose sturdy wood was used to create the Sharidon’s home. Thick gray smoke wafted out of the chimney like a small thundercloud. They were home, as promised. 

The woman halted the horse under the overhang of the cabin, dismounting the animal. The woolen bundle was squirming now, uncomfortable from the cool winter chill and the flakes melting against their warm flesh. She rubbed the horse’s long face, wiping off clumps of bark and mud from the white blaze that split the horse’s nose like a lightning bolt. Releasing the reins, she silently promised the large animal she would be back soon, in the morning perhaps, when she would be riding from town to town, changing her name each time she was asked, on and on for the rest of her life. But it was a lifestyle she was willing to take on. 

Looking around her, the woman pressed the heavy squirming bundle against her chest. Pulling herself up the wooden steps, her heart began to race. She worried. Worried that the Sharidons weren’t truly inside the home. Worried that they didn’t mean what they had written. Worried that someone would harm the precious woolen bundle she held so dear. Worried that those tears she had cried just hours ago had dried for nothing. She needed this to work. 

The woman knocked on the door to the Sharidon’s cabin. 

A young, plump woman with short blonde hair opened the door. Her rosy cheeks and charismatic expression were nonexistent now. Instead, they had been replaced with a firm, serious look, one that could only be explained by the deed. The deed that the bundle had created the moment they started to cry. “Come in,” she ordered, and in the woman walked. 

Inside were another three women, all with the same stern looks on their faces. They were young, but that was about all they had in common. The woman on the right side of the table was dressed in pale blue plainclothes with a dirty apron tied around her waist. Her face was smudged with soot from the fireplace, whose fire was nothing but a pile of ashes. Her arms were folded defiantly but all her expression read was fear. The woman across the table was a tall, thin creature who was nothing short of beautiful. She was dressed in fine silks and her head was encircled by a circlet almost as thin as she was. Her posture was impeccable but her shoulders were tense. She refused to look at the cloaked woman. The third woman was standing at the head of the table. She sparkled like starlight in a gown woven from gold and white. Her ebony hair was long and braided, it hung over her shoulder delicately, like a leaf resting peacefully upon the autumn ground. She was the only one who didn’t look fearful. 

“Ora. But where is…” said the woman in the apron. “By the gods, is she…?

The cloaked woman nodded. 

The thin woman frowned. “I should have known. Now we’re all in danger.”

“Danger is built upon fear, Astra,” said the woman of starlight. “We are in too deep to swim out now.”

Astra closed her eyes slowly. 

“Bring it here, Ora,” she commanded. 

She briskly strode to the table. A map of Equriel was lying flat in front of them. Wooden spires, horses, and spheres littered the masses of land. Each one symbolized a woman at the table. The spires and horses were expertly carved, detailed to the finest hair on the head of the screaming stallion. The spheres were hastily carved, almost amateur in its craft but significant nonetheless. 

Ora placed the bundle down upon the table. She unwrapped the child within the wool. A plump baby boy with thin locks of golden hair rolling like the waves of the Moonlit Sea. They shone like threads of pure sunlight. His cheeks were fat and pink, his lips perfect and even. In time, his soft eyelids would open like a precious flower, revealing pools of sky blue. But today, he was alluring enough. He was the embodiment of what noble blood ought to look like. 

Astra and the woman in the apron gasped. 

“Well, I’ll be…” said the plump woman. “That is one beautiful baby.”

“He certainly is,” affirmed the tall woman. “He will make a fine lord one day.”

“As gorgeous as he may be, Astra,” said the woman of starlight. “Crowning this orphaned boy a lord, could get him killed.”

“Oh, Madine, let’s face the truth here; no matter where you place that child, he will stand out. At least he would blend in with others of noble blood if I took him.”

“Who says that would be the best option for the boy?” scoffed the woman in the apron. “He would most certainly be in harm’s way in a setting like that! You people are always ready to slit each other’s throats!”

“At least he won’t die of starvation or plague,” Astra said cooly. “You people are always riddled with illness. And, besides, he might just live long enough to put that blood to good use.”

“Good use? What is that supposed to mean?”

Ora felt her heart sink as the pair continued to fight. The plump woman was beside her, a warm hand was placed on her shoulder. “We’re running out of time,” she interjected. “The baby needs to go somewhere. Where that is, it doesn’t matter.”

“Then, it’s settled. I will take the boy,” said Astra confidently.

“Like hell, you will!”
“Enough, Tabby,” said the plump woman.

Tears started to stream down her face. “That is the only thing that is left of my dearest friend! You cannot expect me to just… just…”

“I know,” consoled the plump woman. “But this is what is best for the child.”

“I can assure you that he will be well taken care of at Eveness-Ritur.” Astra looked down at the blonde boy, her lips curled ever so slightly at the corners as if she was smiling at the baby. It was her sign of approval. “He has a name, doesn’t he?”

“Zakarus,” Ora said. It was one of the last words his mother whispered before the whispers faded into nothing.

“A noble name for a noble child,” Astra mumbled, picking up the child. The baby squirmed, flailing awkwardly before the tall woman guided him to her chest. She undid her cloak and wrapped it around the naked boy, all with a stern look upon her face. “But one that must be changed.”

“Excuse me?” Ora gaped. 

Astra looked to the group. “A blonde-haired boy with a name as noble as ‘Zakarus’ is bound to attract trouble,” she reasoned. “Even in a lordly setting. It must be changed.”

“And what would you suggest instead?” Ora urged. 

“It is for the betterment of us all if we didn’t know,” said Madine. “If one of us is compromised by the Belters or an Agent of Mount Durr, young Zakarus’ life would be in jeopardy. Not just hypothetically. We must do everything within our power to protect this child, even if that means his name is elusive to the rest of us.” 

The blanket stirred gently. It caught the attention of Madine and Tabby. Without being asked, Ora removed the blanket, revealing the plump baby beneath it. 

“By the gods…” Astra breathed. “Twin boys?”

The second baby was significantly larger than his brother. He had a faint layer of dark brown fuzz on his tiny scalp. If the women hadn’t known the mother of the babies, one would have mistaken the fatty child for a commoner’s son. It was only when she got a look at Zakarus’ twin brother that Ora was truly grateful that Astra had adopted the blonde boy. 

“Well, I suppose you got your wish, Tabby,” Astra chuckled wryly. “A son of your own.”

Tabby’s eyes widened like silver platters, the joy in her expression melted away the tears she shed for the boy’s mother. She said nothing and simply stretched out her arms to Ora, lifting the heavy boy into her arms. Content with the feeling of warmth, the baby pressed himself against Tabby. The feeling of love could be felt by every woman in the room, and it was undoubtedly a match made by the gods. 

This is who you wanted them to be with, isn’t it? Ora thought. 

The rest of the gathering was a blur. All Ora could remember was that Madine left shortly after Tabby received the second child. It wasn’t uncommon for a woman of Madine’s background to depart without much context; it was just the way she had always done things. The guards will have found her body by then, and the search party would most certainly number in the hundreds. If she had any hope of making it out of Wayther, Ora had to go now. 

“I must go,” she announced, wrapping herself in her cloak that she had left to dry by the fire. “The guards will be here by twilight, no doubt. I suggest you prepare yourself, Polli.”

The plump woman nodded sadly, embracing her friend one last time. “Thank you,” she whispered. “For being my friend. This world is going to be at a loss without you.”

Unable to muster another word, Ora stormed out of the cabin, feeling the chill of the night air nip at her nose. Madine could be seen galloping off to the east, her steed effortlessly carried on through the thick brush and heavy snow. She would reach Quickwind by sunup. To the west, Astra stood beside a heavily armored knight as she prepared to mount her massive black warhorse. Baby Zakarus was cradled in her arms. She gave Ora a slight nod as she mounted up, and just as soon as they had arrived, Astra and her knight were gone, becoming one with the blizzard. 

Only she, Tabby, and Polli Sharidon remained. Soon it would be just Polli and Tabby, then it would be just Polli, left alone to face the guards. She had risked her life to ensure the safety of these babies. They all had. And with a grateful heart, Ora flung herself into the saddle and set her minds-eye south to Kilgorn or Waselin, where the sandy dunes would swallow her whole. 

“Gods guide you, Ora,” Polli said from the porch, clearly holding back tears. 

“And you, Polli Sharidon,” she called sadly. “I hope you find peace.” She whirled around the pale horse and set a course for Kilgorn, blocking out her sadness for a time.

“MY DAME!” called Tabby, bursting past Polli. “MY DAME! The child. He has no name.”

The boy with the brown hair had been born too late for his mother to see him. He was unknown and therefore unnamed. Ora had thought him dead while she was cleaning him because he refused to cry out. In truth, he was as gentle a creature anyone could ever hope to come by. It was a pity his mother never got to see him, she would have thought him a beautiful soul even in the early moments of his life. It was up to her to give the child a name, even if it was ultimately irrelevant. 

“Merlon,” was all Ora said and kicked her horse into a gallop.

Mount Durr sang as the wind howled down its deadly slopes, sending a white powder spray to the glorious city below. As a choir harmonizes while singing a hymn, the wind blessed the place of great worship with its holy approval. It was evidence enough that the High Belter had been carried to Dulguthrad.

And as the winds of Mount Durr howled like ravenous wolves in the chill of its holy land, a gathering of twenty royal lordships met to discuss. The throne sat empty, in need of a new leader to sit upon it. But the man who awaited crowning was unfit, or so said Houses Bulfred, Redvine, and Fal-Fitte. He was far too young, they protested, a High Belter must exhibit maturity not only on a developmental scale but a holy one as well. What would the country think if their leader was a faithfully ignorant buffoon whose hormones raged like wildfire? They would be destroyed by a Southern army without any effort at all. A noble people would not be united under a banner of weakness and immaturity, that was for sure. 

And so the nobles fought. 

“The boy is completely incompetent,” argued Lord Redvine, whose education wasn’t exactly one fit for those of noble blood. 

“But ‘the boy’ is next in line for the throne,” protested Lord Gallman. “Are you saying that you would deny your son the right to your lands if he was too young?”

“That is entirely different. We are talking about a kingdom, not lordly lands. A small settlement is equivalent to a single flea on a dog; while the flea most certainly irritates the dog, it is not going to kill it.”

“I do not believe you are giving the One True God enough credit for His workings,” preached Lord Hughen. 

“If the gods always chose right, this panel would never have existed,” Lord Fal-Fitte pointed out with a smug look on his regal face. “I agree with Lord Redvine.”

A series of satisfied grunts and unhappy whispers ensued. In the center of the round marble room was a woman. Her wooden throne was decorated in elaborate purple silks, gorgeous to look at if you weren’t informed, shameful if you were. She was shunned by most of the other lords, not only because she was a woman, but because she was significantly younger than every single man in the room. While they argued, she thought; watching, making note of who disagreed with who and what it was that each one stood for. They were her enemies in every sense of the word, but she found their violent outbursts and derogatory comments humorous. And so she was not afraid when she spoke, “Then who would you suggest to lead our country?”

A hush fell over the panel. Both graying and youthful, opposing and agreeing, ceased their feuding for a moment. The woman with the purple throne waited patiently.

“I beg your pardon, my dame?” Lord Redvine gaped. 

“The throne,” she clarified with a certain tone of authority. “Who do you propose should sit on it? Yourself?”

The room erupted in a kind of tense laughter. Lord Redvine turned as pink as his name entailed. “Of course not!” he blabbered. “I just…”

“Lord Redvine does not have to explain himself to you,” growled old Lord Jacob. “Woman.”

The lords around her snorted, but she smiled contently. “It was just a simple question, Lord Jacob,” she said. “Not a jab at your manhood. So, please, if you do so wish to speak, enlighten me with your own answer, my lord.”

Lord Jacob, pressed for a response, grumbled unhappily and looked to his lordly associates to defend him from his female assailant. When no aid came, he was forced to think up a smart rebuttal. “I believe that Lord Wishelle should be given the chance to prove his worth,” he grunted, itching his fat, crooked nose with a sausage-like finger. “For now, he is the only eligible heir to the Holy Throne.” 

Nods of approval could be seen from across the room. 

“Save for the B***ards, of course,” chuckled Lord Bulfred. 

“Always save room for the B***ards!” shouted Lord Merriway in his jovial boom of a voice. 

The room shared a moment of laughter for Lord Jacob’s ignorance. The B***ards were a legend of gross proportions and one that even the People of Starlight could not help but acknowledge from time to time. It was a tale as tall as Lord Fal-Fitte and hardly anyone believed that the B***ards were actually alive or real at all, for that matter. Equriel was a dangerous place for children of any kind, let alone two orphaned boys. 

“The B***ards are nothing but a myth,” scoffed Lord Jacob. “But Lord Wishelle is not. I say we put our faith in the man who is present, not in the abandoned b***ards of some divine.” 

Some more nods of approval.

“Lord Wishelle is a pathetic waste of talent,” Lord Merriway laughed. “If it was up to me I would put my own son on that holy throne!”

“As if your son would be fit enough to rule a country,” Lord Redvine countered. “He’s barely seen twelve summers.”

“Who are you to talk, Narcus?” grunted Lord Merriway, pointing one of his muscular fingers in the smaller lord’s direction. “You barely managed to put a child in your wife’s belly with that tiny prick of yours!”

The lords howled like the wind. Lord Redvine was reduced to folding his arms over his puny chest, grumbling something intelligible. 

This gathering was going nowhere, thought the woman. They would never listen to her. She was a traitor, a woman, and a citizen of Hunter’s Vale, “the Wolf People” they were called. By all means, she was untrustworthy, but she had more than one trick up her silken sleeve.

“My lords!” she hollered. “As wonderful as it is that you are producing many sons with your moderately-sized pricks, we are currently in the midst of deciding the fate of our country.”

“You ought to watch your tongue, woman,” Lord Jacob spat, saliva spewing from his dry, aging lips. 

“I could say the same to you, Lord Jacob,” she countered, sitting up straighter in her violet throne. “Have you forgotten who my father is?”

“An insane, wolf-loving, old man, you mean?” he grunted. The other lords chuckled.

The woman laughed bitterly. “You are so very clever, my lord, truly,” she admitted. “But you forget that I have a legitimate claim to the Holy Throne through my insane, wolf-loving, old man of a father. High Belter Ingamane was my uncle, Lord Jacob, or did you forget that, too?”

Lord Jacob grew silent. 

“My lords,” she called. “The fate of our world as we know it is hanging in the balance and all you can manage to focus on is whether or not Lord Redvine’s prick is enough to produce an heir to a throne that is currently sitting empty. So, unless the nineteen of you are willing to track down the B***ards within the next month, I suggest you either legitimize Lord Wishelle’s claim to Mount Durr or you start giving this panel some other options.”

Lord Merriway nodded slowly, a wide grin stretched from ear to ear. Lord Jacob had become almost bashful looking as he tapped a leather-soled foot upon the marble floor. Lord Redvine’s red cheeks had turned even redder, his eyes trained on a crack in the fine stone beneath him. Lord Fal-Fitte, Bulfred, and Gallman sat thoughtfully in their thrones, looking over their shoulders at one another and the other lords around them. It was clear that they hadn’t the slightest idea how to respond; the woman in the purple had outsmarted them all. 

“My lord uncle served the better part of forty summers on that throne,” the woman said, breaking the silence. “It is the lifeblood of Equriel. I hope that you all will think long and hard about who should spend the better part of their life upon it.”

The panel did not come to a conclusion that day, nor the day after that. The woman on the purple throne left on the third day, feeling confident that she could return home to Hunter’s Vale to her lord father without fear that Lord Wishelle would assume the Holy Throne. 

For once Lady Vulfen was pleased that her uncle had picked such a weak heir.

Windorlien swayed with the willows as a seemingly magical breeze blew leaves from the long pale vines. Knights clad in silver armor and orange cloaks patrolled the grounds of the castle. Made from pale stone, the manor at Windorlien was glowing like an ingot of steel within the long grass. It was a peaceful day, where the forest sang lullabies to knights, lords, ladies, and common people alike. The forests of Windorlien were not discriminatory, the magic was for everyone and everyone belonged to the magic. It was only when pure magic was promised to arrive that the beings young and old, great and small could no longer contain themselves. 

Large brown horses galloped through the forest, disrespecting the swinging willows and sparkling grass. Howls of joy and lordly pleasure rang out like an untuned harp in a king’s symphony; the beauty of harmonies and gentle sounds of nature were destroyed by the screams of young males bounding through the forest. 

A total of four young lordlings celebrated the sun freezing in the center of the sky. It was a luxury that only they could enjoy, dancing in the crisp light that broke through the willows. They hunted to no end and harassed the common folk as they sprinted past, yelling obscenities. The leader of their small band was a young noble boy with short-cropped blonde locks that made him glow like a king, a permanent crown forever lying atop his princely head. He smiled like a fool, but nobody would tell him so, for his name was enough to instill fear and respect into even the most defiant of men. They didn’t even have to take note of the silver sword that hung from his belt like it was a gift from the gods. He had no need for the ruby circlet that his companions wore; when you were born with the kind of power he had, you had no need for jeweled trinkets. 

“Your father is a fool, Leeseus,” laughed one of the young men in the rubied circlets

“Oh? And why is that?” the young lord with the golden hair asked, pulling his mighty steed to a halt. His father was lord of Windorlien and thus the lord of these lands, it was only in the secrecy of this magical forest that they could speak freely. 

“He continues to invite those wild people to his hold,” he explained. 

“What is wrong with the People of Starlight, Joelle?” joked another boy mounted upon a large black stallion. “After all, they are the ones who brought the Light to the world.”

All of the young men laughed. The young lord simply gave them a half-smile. It was bad luck to speak ill of the People of Starlight, and he was highly superstitious, something he and his father shared in common. 

“Oh, come on, Leeseus,” grumbled Joelle. “Don’t be such a p**sy.”

The young lord had half a mind to knock his noble friend off his noble steed. But he was his friend… and noble, if he did so a fraction of his father’s court would never crown him in the future. So he gave him an irritated look. “You ought to watch your words, Joelle,” he scolded. “You forget who is lord of these lands.”

“You’re right,” he smiled, offering Leeseus a mocking bow atop his horse. “Forgive me, my lord. My insolence is utterly shameful, I sincerely apologize.” The other boys snorted in approval.

“You’d do best to lose that attitude before I am lord, Joelle,” Leeseus growled. “Beheadings happen for less.”

Joelle’s smile faded and he grabbed his reins hotly. He’s nothing but a spoiled boy, thought Leeseus. When I am the lord of Windorlien, he will be the first to go. The young lord whirled around his large brown gelding, pressing dangerously close to Joelle in a not-so-subtle display of dominance. 

In the distance, a grand parade of the holiest order was arriving at Windorlien. Their presence was one of great magic, only a fool would yell as they strode past. Even the forest seemed to fall under a great hush as their magnificent white horses placed delicate hooves on soft, rich earth. Banners of white, gold and silver were flown bearing the piercing yellow star that lit up the silver field beneath it. The fabric was like the purest silk, so the legends said, and not even the dirtiest fingers could ever stain it. The people were clad in silver and gold armor and - unlike that of most mortal lords and kings - it was as real as its coloration. They were lead by a rather noble-looking woman dressed in silver, crowned by a golden circlet with a singular golden gemstone that hung perfectly between her bright green eyes. 

It was then that Leeseus felt truly enraged. He said nothing and kicked his horse into a determined gallop, leaving his friends behind him. The parade protected a large wooden carriage that carried hundreds of pounds of the most precious material; raw Light. “Illuma stones,” the common folk called them. Only the mages, Belters, and lords of large holdings were allowed to possess them - if you could call it that. It was dangerous, magic as pure as that which the People of Starlight could touch so carelessly. Leeseus’ parents were some of the only people to see illuma stones before they were crushed into stable amounts that mages could safely work with. It had been months since they had openly strode into Windorlien, and it was rumored that today would be their last. 

By the time Leeseus’ horse had managed to reach the gates, the whole glowing parade had been safely ushered into the courtyard, their horses tied to long wooden planks, munching on the purest of grain. Leeseus couldn’t help but feel anger for this sudden intrusion. His parents hadn’t even invited him to meet with these strangers who shared the forest. His lord father was aging nearer to death with each passing day, soon it would be his son’s turn to lead and these ethereal wildlings had been welcomed in with open arms. It was as if he was asking the People of Starlight to rule in his stead. 

Joelle and the others had all but forgotten about Leeseus and could be heard outside the looming cobblestone walls, probably chasing a fox through the tall grass. It infuriated Leeseus even further. How dare they celebrate whilst foreigners convene with my father? thought Leeseus. He could feel his upper lip begin to curl towards his nose. It was a bad habit he couldn’t seem to break, one that drove away nobles and commoners alike. It was easy to tell when Leeseus was rather irritated with someone or something. They called him “wolf-boy” for the way he looked. As time went on, it would become something of a legend when he was crowned lord of Windorlien. 

“You look rather irritated,” said a voice, soft and heavily accented. Feminine, no doubt, but not the kind of sweet hum that Leeseus was accustomed to. He looked around for the source but couldn’t see a single individual.

“Is there something wrong, Leeseus?” it teased. 

“Who are you?!” he growled. “How dare you speak of me in that manner?”

The voice laughed. It was a sweet sound, like a cello being strummed at just the right moment within a building climax. The forest seemed to twinkle around him when the laugh bounced jovially off of the dark stone. Even Leeseus’ bitter heart seemed to jump happily when he heard it. It was terrifyingly wonderful, a laugh with such a power as that one. 

Out of the shadows where the white horses grazed, a woman revealed herself. She had long white hair that almost shimmered with gold and silver, and her eyes were as green as emeralds. She was dressed in a beautiful suit of armor that was decorated with silver and gold vines that wrapped themselves around her slender shoulders, down between her breasts, and encircled her hips as they molded into a long train of chainmail that glowed like the moon. Her skin was pale and shone in certain areas like it was dotted in starlight, soaking in the sweet nectar of the sun. Her stance was nearly disrespectful but she held her head high and her back straight, making her stature imposing even though she was shorter than Leeseus. But not by much. She is tall for a woman, thought Leeseus, although his mother, Lady Onlia, was still slightly taller than her son. The woman was beautiful, there was no doubt about that, but it made Leeseus feel uneasy. 

“How do you know my name?” was all he managed to say. 

“I am not new to this world,” she said matter-of-factly. “And it is not my first time to Windorlien.”

“Who are you?”

She smiled, her teeth glowed like pearls. “Tarin,” she responded, her voice as smooth as honey. 

“Why aren’t you inside?” Leeseus grumbled, realizing only then that he might have made an incorrect assumption. 

“What makes you think I am one of the People?” she asked, looking him up and down. “For all you know I am a horse-tender who has stolen the armor from the kapalia after I killed her.”

Leeseus felt a strange heat burn the center of his heart. “Well, are you a horse-tender who murdered the…?”

“Kapalia?” she finished for him. “Are you so ignorant of the people whom you share your land with or do you always act this way around women?”

Leeseus’ face flushed red. It made him feel like a fool. He never acted this way around the common girls, as far as she knew, and he was not ignorant of the ways of the People of Starlight… it was just a subject with which he distanced himself heavily. As far as he was concerned, the People of Starlight would no longer be a vital part of Windorlien like his parents had made them up to be when he was lord. “You ought to watch your tone,” Leeseus warned through gritted teeth. 

“Or what?” she pressed, leaning forward ever so slightly. 

“I am the future lord of these lands,” he snarled. “I know how to deal with disobedient commoners.”

She lifted an eyebrow. “I do not inhabit your lands,” she said slowly. “I am not a commoner, and you are most certainly not a strong man.”

“Perhaps I ought to set you straight,” he offered bitterly. “And show you how strong I truly am.” 

She laughed and a glittering smile illuminated her face. “Perhaps you should,” she admitted. “However, I am inclined to warn you that I am no stranger to combat. And - by the looks of it - you are.”

Leeseus wore a fine woolen tunic and a fur cloak that hung regally around his shoulders like a maned lion. He had been trained in the ways of a warrior by some of the most esteemed battle-veterans in the whole of Equriel. He knew the ways of the sword and bow and arrow, only the noblest of weapons, he needn’t be riddled with muscle carrying a massive battle axe over his shoulder to be called a warrior. Leeseus knew how to defend himself if it ever came to that and he knew how to cause some serious damage to a lippy woman who thought herself worthy of exchanging heated words with him. “I am a mighty warrior, I can assure you that,” he grumbled, straightening his posture. 

“Of course you are,” she chuckled. “As mighty as a prince, I’m sure.”

“Mightier,” he said, finding himself shocked that his words aimed to impress.

“Alright, mighty princeling,” she jested. “Then if you are so noble and so very mighty, why would you choose to quarrel with a woman? Isn’t that reserved for only the lowest of the low? And you carry a seamstress’ needle as a weapon? Who do you hope to kill with that? A mouse?” 

She reached out and unsheathed his fine silver sword from around his waist with one smooth movement. Leeseus didn’t even have time to react before she turned it on him. “As thin as a twig,” she remarked, swinging it in the air. 

“It is made of pure silver,” he protested. “It was a gift from…”

“From your father, no doubt,” she sighed. “He has no faith in you, mighty princeling.”

Leeseus jolted back a little, clearly offended by her words. “How dare you,” he seethed, rage boiling up his spine.

“You see how fine the blade is? It is made for only the most precise stab, right through the heart - he is hoping. However, he does not trust you enough to give you a longsword - a proper blade made of steel. Instead, he gives you a puny shard of pure silver. A breakable metal. He sees you as an unfit ruler. He hopes you never fight a true enemy.”

Leeseus started to shake violently with pure, burning rage. His mouth was unable to open but yet words burned like acid in the back of his throat. 

“Princely lords like you perish quickly,” she sighed, swiftly replacing the sword back in its sheath. “They do not understand the lands in which they protect. You believe your position is a right because you were born into it, mighty princeling. It is only when you realize it is an honor that you become a king.”

The grand doors to the inner fortress swung wide, people dressed in gold and silver swam out like colorful fish up a spring river. They each mounted a noble steed with an illuminating smile upon their lips as they whispered away like fairies back into the forest. Leeseus was so busy watching the jovial glowing wisps float back into the mist that he hadn’t noticed Tarin was gone. Even the light breeze could not cool down the searing heat that burned within Leeseus’ heart. 

“Leeseus!” called a tall woman draped in black. “Come here, my son.”

He gazed through the empty forest longingly one last time and heeded his mother’s call. Onlia stood regally in the courtyard, a look of unease across her long face. Her dark eyes were set on her son as he approached, the hairs on the back of Leeseus’ neck stood on end like the quills of a porcupine digging deep into his skin. Suddenly, the unmistakable feeling of rage faded away from the pit of Leeseus’ stomach and was replaced with pure dread. 

“Come inside, your father wishes to see you,” Lady Onlia rumbled, leaning her head ever so slightly downward. It was this subtle gesture that told Leeseus he was in more danger than originally expected. 

“Is something troubling you, Leeseus?” mumbled his noble mother as they strode through the large doors. “You have your father’s look upon your face.”

“How can Father continue to convene with such people?” he blubbered. 

“The People of Starlight, you mean,” she corrected. 

“I could care less what they choose to call themselves.”

“You should start caring, my son,” she scolded. “They are the lifeblood of Windorlien.”

Leeseus laughed bitterly. He was the lifeblood of Windorlien from the moment he was brought into this world, so how could a whimsical band of sparkling natives be placed higher than he? “How so?” he grumbled. 

“They supply the illuma stones that we use to fuel our trade,” she explained. “The People of Starlight live upon the largest supply of raw magic known to man, Leeseus. They raised our ancestors from nothing just by supplying them with a handful of illuma stones. If they had not been so generous, Windorlien never would have existed.” 

“They have started to show up less and less, Mother,” Leeseus pointed out. “If they continue on like this…”

“We operate on their time,” she said slowly. “We do not have the power to harvest illuma stones, Leeseus.” 

“How do you know that?” he grumbled. “We’ve never been to their lands. What if the stones aren’t real? What if they are just selling us bits of colored glass? I say we go to their lands and station guards to observe their activity; then we would actually know what they are giving us is real.” 

Lady Onlia’s mouth flattened out into a thin line, a surefire sign of disapproval. 

“We can’t keep letting them do this to us, Mother,” Leeseus said passionately, however keeping his voice low for fear that someone would hear their conversation as if the forest outside the cold, hard walls would whisper their tainted words to the glowing people on horseback. “When I am lord…”

“You are not lord, Leeseus,” she snapped, fixing her gaze on her son. The fire illuminating her dark eyes burnt out any courage Leeseus still had within him until it was a pile of ash. “Your father is the lord of Windorlien and will be until the day he is not. Do not start assuming the throne before you have the right to sit upon it. Now, you will go and speak with your father - who is lord of these lands - and I expect that you will know your place.”

“Of course, Mother,” he muttered, refusing to meet her gaze. 

“Good boy,” she said, touching his cheek briefly as they stood in front of his lord father’s bedroom door. 

As she strode away - her dainty head held as high as any queen’s, the reassurance of pride and power swirling within it - Leeseus wondered to himself if he would ever be able to hold his in the same way.

The author's comments:

This is the last chapter I will be posting for now (this is just to see how well it is recieved and if I should post the remaining nine I have currently). Thank you for reading! I really appreciate it. 

The smugglers sat comfortably around a bright orange flame that sent embers floating up to the deep blue sky. They drank from a communal cask filled with bitter ale, a little something one had mixed up from half-empty bottles that had been left out the night before. It wasn’t good, not by any means, but it was a reward for a job well done. A celebration that they had all made it out alive after the hunt. 

Their catch lied limp beside their horses and gear. Its massive black eyes were blank, somewhere within the deep hole, their pupils stared up at the sky; its spirit hunted only the brightest stars now. From a distance, the body looked like a beast of pure myth. It was at least twice as large as a horse and four times as fearsome as its smaller look-alikes. While the beast’s cousins were prized by any lord, the land seemed to make the native packs invisible, as elusive as the mist that hung over the river. The smugglers had learned early that catching a wolf on this dim island was about as easy as trapping an ant in a lion’s cage. But the Vale was riddled with much larger prey, the kind that lords would pay great amounts of coin for. And it was easy to see why.

Once the boat arrived, the smugglers would use their freshly-sharpened blades to free the beast’s ugly head from its gargantuan shoulders. Other thieves and hooligans who had visited the island for a piece of the gold had been met by a horrifying sight; once the body crossed the murky river, it turned human. Skin and bone, fingers and toes, hair and nails human. Even though it was a great crime to bring back the body of a human from an island that was so heavily respected by the High Belter - Ingamane had been a native, no less - smugglers and decent hunters alike would still take the risk to bring back a kill such as this one. Besides, the legends only said that the bodies turned human. For all they knew, the stories told by their brothers in arms could have been the result of too many mugs of strong ale or the coin that weighed down their trousers. A man was only as good as his gold, after all. Who were they to give away the site of a hidden gem? An island filled with beasts? Who would ever believe that? People as opportunistic as those who had authored the stories, that’s who. 

And so the smugglers slipped under the noses of the lord and his daughter, raking in so much gold they hardly knew what to do with it. Hardly. 

“How ‘as the huntin’ boys?” called the captain from his rickety ship. The Darlinger, it was called. 

“How’s ‘bout ya ask me after we get off this island?” grumbled a smuggler, gathering his things. Two men had jumped off the bow to help with the kill. The first smuggler stopped them before they could touch the body. “Don’t touch it. It’s worth more than yer life, you sorry sod.”

One lifted an eyebrow.

“Don’t believe me? Ask the lord of Windriver how much that thing is worth. That’ll teach ya.” The smuggler instructed his associates to help him lift the body onto the boat, and - with some effort - it was safely placed on the deck. Its limbs splayed out in all directions; giant paws stretched out towards the captain who marveled at the sheer size of the beast. 

“Whew-hee, boys,” whistled the captain, inching closer to get a look at the corpse. “That’s quite the wolf ya got there.”

The other men laughed in agreement. The two smugglers gave the old man a chuckle, one poked the dead beast with his foot. “What a f**kin’ monster,” remarked one. 

“Ya know the natives worship these things?” said the first smuggler once the boat had left the shore. “They say they’re human!”

The crewmen and the other two smugglers sat in a circle towards the bow, sharing a skin of wine, something that not many men in their line of work got to indulge in. It made the first smuggler’s mouth water just thinking about it. Ale was one thing; it satiated the thirst for alcohol for a time… but wine, it was its very own taste. A taste that he had known since he was a young boy, he grew up on a vineyard out in Ongar. In a way, he was born with grape juice in his veins. 

“I heard they call ‘em somethin’ special,” remarked the captain. “Walgo? Wingo? Somethin’ like that.”

“Whaygo, I think,” said one of the captain’s men. 

“How on earth would ya know that?” exclaimed the first smuggler. 

“I used to visit a w**re in Kilgorn who was from Hunter’s Vale,” he said, taking a swig of wine from the skin. “She said that they are human. ‘Blessed by Geefa Mawaa,’ she used to say.”

“Right, Boyden,” grumbled the captain. “Only ya would believe a w**re.”

The other men howled with laughter. Even in the darkness, Boyden’s face was a deep crimson. “It’s true!” he protested. 

“Like hell it is!” yelled the captain. “Either way, ya better keep that thing hidden from the guards or we’ll meet the same fate. I hear the people ‘round here answer to the lord of Hunter’s Vale.”

The first smuggler smiled and drew his long knife, going to work on removing the beast’s head. Its neck was like slicing through a thousand-year-old oak tree. The layers of fur were as deep and black as the river, seemingly endless. Once he was able to get through the fur, the muscle was even more of a nightmare; bloody and as thick around as a horse’s middle, it was almost a relief when the smuggler made it to the giant spine beneath. “Gorgon!” the smuggler called, out of breath from working to cut through the neck. “Get over here. Bring yer knife with ya, too.”

The large smuggler said nothing and unsheathed his knife, approaching the corpse. They had acquired an audience with the other men on the boat. They watched in wonder as the first smuggler had struggled to make much progress. Gorgon was a large man with arms as big as most men’s torsos and it didn’t take an educated lordling to understand why he wanted his help. 

“Swing,” the first smuggler ordered. Gorgon obeyed and the loud pop of cartilage separating from bone could be heard for miles. 

The beast’s head rolled towards the captain, who jumped away in horror as the large pink tongue lolled out of the decapitated skull. A trail of deep red blood followed the huge head. Gorgon picked up the head by its dense fur. Its massive body was left behind, still splayed in the same fashion that it was in when it was thrown on the boat. 

“By the gods,” breathed the captain. “That’s savage.”

The smuggler smiled. “Precisely the point,” he said. “What kind of a man would the good lord of Windriver be if he asked for the head of a unicorn instead?” Snorts of knowing laughter ensued.

“It would make yer job a hell of a lot easier,” chuckled the captain. “All ya gotta do is sleep with one of those damned pixies in Windorlien.”

Gorgon frowned and dipped the head into the river, beads of freshwater fell from the dark patches of fur. He shook it furiously and hung it to dry by its fangs on a low-hanging rope. The smuggler gave him an approving nod and the pair grabbed the rest of the body by its thick arms and legs, tossing it overboard. The body hit the with a splash of sparkling water and when it smoothed back over, the sinking body faded into the ink. Never to be found. 

“What the hell are ya doin’?” exclaimed the captain. “Do ya want us ta get caught?”

“Of course not,” said the smuggler. “That’s why we threw the body overboard.” 

The captain’s aging face seemed to wrinkle even further with worry. 

“Relax, old man,” ordered the smuggler. “Leave the concealment to us. Gorgon, wring out the head, will you? We’re nearing the port.”

The captain only then seemed to realize what his job was, practically throwing himself back behind the massive wooden wheel. Gorgon silently obeyed and gave the head a couple more shakes before he stuffed it into a large sack. The smuggler smiled with satisfaction and looked onward, relishing in the sight of a more civilized land. He would be rich on the morrow for certain. 

Suddenly, Gorgon dropped the sack with a loud thud. The smuggler looked over his shoulder at the large man who never made mistakes, wondering what sort of s**t he was trying to pull. It was the look of horror upon the giant’s face that sent the smuggler’s stomach into twists and turns. “What the hell are you doing?” growled the smuggler. “Pick that damned thing up right now!”

Gorgon swallowed hard and met his boss’s gaze, fear welling at his eyes. “I can’t,” he mumbled in a broken tongue.

“What the hell do ya mean ‘you can’t’?!” he yelled furiously, stomping over to the fallen sack. “Do a thousand gold pieces for your sorry excuse for a job well-done constitute a ‘you can’t’? What the hell is wrong with you, you c*ck-sucking piece of…” His words trailed off when he saw the severed head upon the wooden planks. 

Just a moment ago, he had relished in the sight of a furred head rolling across the starboard, trails of blood equivalent to gold shimmering in the moonlight. Now, he was appalled. The head had shrunk significantly, the fur that sprouted from every inch of the monster’s colossal face had faded into smooth skin. The coarse, short mane had grown around the soft ears and draped back in inky braids, sliced by his knife. The dark eyes had whites now, and the savage pull of dagger-like fangs was reduced down to nothing by a small pink mouth lined with rounded white teeth. Its lean, angular snout had almost completely diminished, cut down to nothing but a tiny pink nose, dyed red from the stream of blood that once ran steadily from a wound on the top of its once savagely huge head. The beast had turned human.

The grown men, hardened by time spent scraping by, started to panic like young children. 

“By the gods,” breathed the smuggler. “What are we going to do?” 

Gorgon and the other crew members looked to one another and got nothing but more worry from each shimmering eye. The captain’s face had been completely distorted, hot tears burning down his stubbled cheeks. The smuggler looked for solace in one of his comrades but could not find it. He looked into the eyes of the severed head that seemed to stare deep into his soul. In an act of pure impulsivity, he grabbed the head by its soft glimmering hair and threw it into the black river. 

“We have to get rid of the blood,” he urged, kicking over one of the buckets that were filled with water. Frantically, he snatched the empty sack and rubbed the wooden floorboards. “Hurry up, will you?” he growled at the other men. “Do ya feel like being hanged tonight? Then start to scrub.”

The men got down on their hands and knees and overturned more of the buckets, washing away the crimson stains while the captain steered them warily to the docks. Once the dark blotches had faded to the point where the men could relax slightly, they were already docked beside a long wooden pier. They all sighed in relief when no guards were present in the lighthouse. For a moment it looked as though they might have gotten away with it, that they sub-par cleaning job was enough to save their sorry hides. That maybe they could slip into the city undetected, sleep comfortably in a nice straw bed that night and ride on for sanctuary in some other land. They would change their names, forget about the death sentence that the good lord of Windriver had hired them to perform. They would go on with their lives, growing old, fathering countless children who would never know the deed they had done. These were savage times, maybe if they did manage to tell someone they would understand? It was a risk but a risk they had to take. 

Or so they thought. 

As quiet as shadows, the crew was ambushed in the dark. Pounced upon like mice by hungry cats. The captain’s throat was slit first, gurgling for air. Then Boyden and the rest of the captain’s men, then the smuggler’s men. Left scrambling, the smuggler made for the water but was blindsided by a leaner assailant. “PLEASE!” he cried, all of that arrogance had drained. “Let me go, I beg of you. We didn’t know. Please, have mercy…”

“Did you show her mercy when you put an ax in her skull, severed her head from her body, and then threw her piece by piece into the river?” taunted his attacker. “There is no mercy in your world. Only means to ends.” She then stabbed him in the throat and watched as the life drained from his body in steady red streams.

The assailant cleaned her dagger on her long cloak, watching as her fellow shadows wrestled Gorgon to the ground. The large man did not scream or plead, instead, he cried. One of the other men drew their weapon close to his throat, ready to break the skin. 

“Wait,” she ordered, the other shadows relaxed slightly. She knelt down before Gorgon, watching as his muscular face twisted and turned in agony. “Why aren’t you pleading for your life?”

He shook. 

“Aren’t you afraid?” she whispered. “You have committed a heinous crime. You have assisted in the murder of a woman and now your life is on the line, but you say nothing to defend yourself. Why is that?”

Gorgon still said nothing. He didn’t look her in the eyes or at either of the other men for that matter, his gaze was on the stillness of the river water as the bright full moon was reflected like a mirror in the shimmer. It was then that she realized he could not understand her words. “Ay-en nay-um, falsui ny?” she said, leaning in closer. 

Gorgon looked at her, a puzzled look on his face. “You speak Geanneen?” he rumbled in his native tongue. 

“I am Nimalti, brother,” she reassured, smiling. “What are you?”

“Same as you, sister,” he said. “Same as you.”

The other men released Gorgon, a symbol of great respect. 

“You have killed one of our own,” she whispered. “Why?”

He went silent, his eyes moving away once more. 

“Those men are dead, brother. They cannot hurt you now.”

“I was hired by the lord of Windriver,” he blurted. “Same as the others.”

“Why would you choose to kill one of your own?” she pressed.

“I stole a ledger from his head of the guard,” Gorgon explained. “It was my only other option besides being hanged. I thought that they’d die. I had no idea that they would actually be able to overpower her. I didn’t…” he trailed off, tears streaming down his cheeks. 

She thought for a moment, considering the large man’s confession. She signaled to one of her men to unsheath his weapon. The blade glowed silver under the light of the moon. It was expertly crafted, molded, and shone to perfection, no doubt it cut through flesh and bone like a sharp knife through butter. “Who sold you this weapon?” she asked. 

“A blacksmith,” answered Gorgon, looking hesitantly at the sword. 


“Grusston,” he said, gesturing behind him to the sleeping city. 

The woman set her jaw. “When did you buy the weapons?”

“A few days ago… Why?”

She looked at the men. “I would meet this blacksmith.” They grabbed Gorgon again, wrapping his huge head in a sack. The large man struggled and grumbled curses at the woman. “Be careful with him; the lord of Windriver would most certainly love to hear about these allegations. Let’s hope your words are enough to reveal his guilt.”

“My lady,” said a third shadow. “Are we to retrieve the body?”

“Wait till morning,” she ordered. “We cannot hope to find her in this condition. Geefa Mawaa’s light will guide us then. Find the blacksmith he was talking about, I would have a word with him.”

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