Excerpt for Whispering Shadow by , available in its entirety at Smashwords
















Whispering Shadow
Seoran Worg








This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 by Seoran Worg

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.



First Edition:
May, 2017



Contents


Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Epilogue












Author’s note:

First, I want to thank you for interested in my work.


As someone has pointed it out, I don’t really know the language. English is not my first language.

I know I am a terrible writer and I shouldn’t publish my work at all. Or, I should hire an editor, but sadly, I don’t have money to spare.

I am just hoping against hope that someone out there may like my stories. I already wrote it, it’s done, so instead of burying it in my hard disk, I share it for free to anyone who willing to read.

Of course, you are welcome to point out errs in my work, I am sure there are tons of it. I will appreciate it very much.

Prologue

The Lady

641 V.Y.

After the long climb to the second highest peak of Sagha Mountain, finally, we stop our horse just outside the palace door. The door is painted in red with a golden dragon in the right, and a silver eagle in the left. Those two animals are Varr royal family symbol. Ram, my sole companion, told me many stories and custom of Varrian. I try my best to remember it all. I know I shouldn’t make a mistake. For example, it is a must to bow to a royal and stay like that until permitted to rise.

Ram said he is of noble birth but I can’t see it. Despite his finest silk clothes, and gold hairband in his long hair; and all attributes that mark him as a noble, he seems so ordinary. And sometimes, I forget that he is an enemy.

I glance at him, he sits straight in his horse, seems deep in thought. Suddenly, he shouts out to the guard, who perched on the parapet atop the palace’s wall, demanding entry.

My mare is snickered wildly because of his loud voice. With a shaking hand, I try to calm the poor animal and hold her rein tightly.

“I am sorry,” I whisper to her ear. Even after a month, horses still scare me. Mountain clan, as outsiders call us, is a stranger to a horse or anything that walk on the ground with four feet besides an ox, of course.

Ram nudges his horse near, calming the mare with gentle strokes. With a snort, the horse quieted and bending her head low to the ground.

I smile apologetically at Ram. He nods in understanding for I am a novice. He taught me himself how to ride a month past.

Nervously, I am waiting for the door to be opened for us. I reach out to my wavy hair, touching the golden hair pin perched on there, securing simple braid on top my head. Gingerly, I touch its hilt; it is fashioned in acacia flower. Tim, my fiancé, often brought the flower.

Tim, I have to remember him.

This is the last present he gave me, three years ago before he went to the war. He said this is a token of his affection so I won’t forget him in the months to come.

Of course, I will remember you always, I said. I was sixteen at that time.

He never comes back, though. And now, I can’t even remember his smile. It always morphs to another whenever I try to remember so I stop trying.

But shortly, we will together, I keep telling myself.

I hear a faint shout beyond the door; they will open it soon. My heart is beating painfully as I wait for it. I look at Ram, he smiles reassuring. And I force myself to smile back.

Seeing up close, the palace and its wall look more formidable. It is huge beyond belief. The palace wall is tall and looks so strong. Its white marble is gleaming reflecting the afternoon sun. I wonder how they build a palace so high to the sky like this one. The younger ones back home will like to see this.

My horse stirs below me, and I am fidgeting to keep my balance. I stroke her mane like Ram did before.

Come to think about the cities, we have passed this last two days, are a novelty to me. It is so different from our clan’s town under the mountain.

In all my life, I live under the ground, bereft of sun rays. We live there with our mother, Edna Mountain. We dug the ground and build our town there, far from prying eyes. But it ended three years ago.

Finally, the door is creaking open. I put my hand to my chest, and will it to calm down. Then I kick my horse into a trot, following Ram suit, and I feel sorry for the mare, for I must be very heavy. But I ignore it, and passing the door and go inside the palace.

I mustn’t fail, I remind myself. The elders and children put their hope in my shoulder.

Swiftly, we dismount. And the servants, who wear a brown tunic and trouser, greet us warmly. They bow deeply to Ram first, and then to me. I bow back, but Ram catches me and shaking his head slowly. I feel my cheek heated from embarrassment. I shouldn’t bow back to a servant. We don’t have one in my clan. There, we are all an equal.

From the corner of my eyes, I see the servants lead our horse away.

It’s too late for second thought.

I look warily to another set of female servants who walk closer. My heart beats faster. Hastily, I close my eyes in prayer to the Mother.

“They won’t bite, Nala,” says Ram softly.

Fear must be palpable in my face. I nod, and slowly a familiar tightness comes to my chest. I duck my head, remembering myself, blocking the familiar ache that starts creeping.

But this is what I want.

I follow the female servant blindly as she leads us inside the palace. She wears another dark colored tunic with a black colored sash, and a wide skirt. They way these outsiders dress show their rank in life, Ram told me once before.

The servant is around my age, less than twenty years of age. Her black hair is down, long to her back. It is straight like most people on this part of the world while mine is a little wavy like Edna’s, our mother. I note that our skin is different too. Her skin is in yellowish while mine is pinkish and pale and prone to freckles. Aside from that, we look almost similar. Our eyes are varying shades of brown. But it is said that the Blessed and the royals have very light colored eyes. And it will change following their gift from the Gods. I never see one, though, and Ram, my only Varrian friend, isn’t one of the Blessed Warrior.

We walk passing a great hall, then another, until we stop just outside the great throne room. I take a deep breath, and I feel my feet start to wobble.

Ram said that the empress is kind despite her cold demeanor. But still, I don’t believe him. How can she is a kind person when she put a torch to our forest? She forces our hand in her war with Cryg Confederacy. We never had been a part of it and never would if the choice is ours. We are Edna’s descendant; we are a mere human, unlike these Varrian, no trace of Gods’ blood in our vein. And we are not a good fighter either. A coward, these people often call us.

They should leave us alone.

The creaking sound of the opening door breaks my reverie. And a burly servant bid us enter the room. My feet tremble as I walk inside.

Yes, I am a coward.

I bit inside my cheek to stop my fear, a pain for a fear. Our footsteps seem so loud in this silent and vast room. And I am afraid to look ahead. In another time, maybe I will awe of its beauty but not now. I decide to just look down to the marble floor below, in silent prayer to the Gods and the Mother.

Near the bottom of throne’s stair, we stop. I bow deeply. Ram has taught me how to, in the months he stayed with us. He also taught me and the children how to write in Varrian too, for our clan only knows the old hieroglyph, the written language that long forgotten by people above the ground.

“Rise,” I hear the empress cold voice from above the throne.

Slowly, I straighten and look up. The throne is about seven-foot tall, shaped like twirling branches that go to the sky. It was made of gold and silver. In its right arm, a head of dragon is carved, while an eagle is on its other side. Sit on the throne is the empress in her golden robe. I cannot see her face clearly from below. But I can see a small crown with white diamond, atop her braided chignon; it is shining reflecting the light.

She stands, then walks down the stair. I feel breathless suddenly. People say the empress has a powerful gift from the Gods. But what that means I am not sure. Our clan rarely concern ourselves with these Varrian. We know we do not match with them in power; we can’t control wind, ice or fire like they do.

I bend my head again, but not before I see a glimpse of the empress face, as she draws near to where I stand. She is younger than I expect. Her face is unlined and made of sharp hard angle. Her cheekbones are high and tapered down to small pointing chin with wide full lips above it.

“Who is she?” she asks Ram, her voice is sharp and clear.

“Lady Nala, the chief’s daughter. She is your new ward, Co…” he stops himself, “Your highness,” he adds hastily.

I feel a soft hand on my chin as the empress tilts my face, she looks at my face with narrowed eyes.

I fight back the urge to flinch and hold her stare. I feel my lips start to tremble, and tremor runs in my body.

The Empress is so beautiful, I can’t help but thinking.

Her skin is unblemished and her features are striking. It is a cold beauty that suits her well. But her eyes are very dark. It is almost as black as soot. It seems like hours until she releases my chin. Then she turns and looks at Ram again.

“I told you to finish the matter of this mountain clan, in a month as I recall,” she says in a chilling tone.

I take a peek at Ram. But he looks oddly calm. So, he is ten months overdue. But he looks not worried at all.

“Ah, beg your pardon. But things not easily done,” he says a little too cheerfully like he always does.

“Do you think I don’t know what you are about?” the Empress asks him again.

Why is he so careless? Isn’t he afraid of the Empress? People say the Varrian often freeze their enemies and traitors, and then they will keep them inside an icy cage in a temple of the cursed.

Will she punish him? I feel my heart thud madly. I am afraid for him.

“I’ve chosen a bride for you. You will wed in a month,” the Empress says succinctly.

I steal a glance at Ram face, his displeasure is clear there. And I see the empress lips twitch a little.

Is that a smile?

“You’re six and twenty now. All men in your age already have an heir and spare.”

“Who is this unlucky girl, your majesty?” he asks in a resigned voice. “She must be so desperate to agree to marry me.”

“Oh, don’t be so morose, Cousin. You’ll like her. I choose the best for you,” says the empress softly. Her face softens a little.

Cousin? So, is that why he always says good things about the Empress?

“I’m afraid you do,” Ram says with a hint of a smile. “Is that all, your majesty?” He sighs softly.

Even for the vilest person, there must be someone who loves them, it seems.

The Empress expression hardens again, “Your mother and brothers worry about you. They think I send you to die too.”

Ram nods at her, and then he looks at the empress in silent pleading for forgiveness. I know that look well, he always does that after he did a mischievous thing. When he does that, I feel he is a man in my age instead of seven years my elder.

The Empress turns her head and looks at me.

“Send Lady Nala to her room,” she says loudly. And a servant comes briskly, following her command.

This is my only chance.

I kneel in front of her. With a trembled hand, I take a small bottle made of porcelain from my pocket. And with both of my hands, I raise it to the Empress as an offering.

“Please… please accept… this, your majesty,” I say in a wavering voice. It sounds weak and small even in own ears.

“What is it?” I hear her voice, and I dare not to look at her. My hand still outstretched in front of her; it is shaking madly now.

“This is the essence of blue rose, your majesty,” I pause to calm my racing heartbeat, “The rare flower from the top Edna Mountain.”

No answer and silent descent to the room.

“Blue rose,” I hear the Empress says in oddly soft voice. I also hear a catch in her voice.

Is it sadness I hear?

“The testimony of Sagha’s love for her,” the Empress adds as if forgetting herself.

I dare myself to look at her and nod. It is wrong, though. Outsiders believe it was because of Sagha, the Mountain God, love for Edna that he turned her into a mountain after her death. It is not so. He took her by force from her mortal husband and children; then he made her his consort. But she never loved him. In his rage, he cursed her. And the blue rose is the testimony of his unrequited love. But of course, these outsiders don’t know, for Sagha is their God, the one who gives them power through the everlasting fire in the top of Sagha Mountain.

“Take this too,” she says to the servant with flicking motion of her hand. I hear the steel back in her voice. Shortly, a servant takes the bottle from my hand.

Oh, this is not good. She has to drink it.

“Your majesty,” I try to stop her when she starts to walk back to her throne. “This is… a rare potion… For everlasting youth,” I add hastily.

She stops and turns back, looking at me intently.

“Is that so?”

She looks at Ram and me briefly. There is an odd glint in her eyes.

“Call the princess here,” she commands to one of the servants that stand in the perimeter of the room.

Ram is kneeling beside me now.

“I believe her, your majesty. Let me test the potion,” he says in a serious voice.

I know it is a custom to a servant to drink the gift first before the Empress does. But a princess?

The Empress stops him, “Of course I believe you,” she smiles sweetly, too sweet. “But she is the most beautiful woman in this empire. If one deserves to be given a gift of youth. It is her, isn’t it?”

People say that the princess is a beautiful woman. She has lightest brown eyes as the sign of Gods love for her. And she has a beautiful symmetrical face, rounded big eyes, with full lips and a dainty nose. They say many men esteem her, but she refused all their suit.

“Please leave her, Coz,” Ram pleads, he forgets himself in his worry, “Let me drink it. I believe Lady Nala won’t let harm befallen me.” He looks at me with an unsure smile on his lips.

I know he is one of the many. He must be really fond of this princess. He always sings a praise of her beauty and valour.

I am sure he doesn’t know what the potion can do. We make sure of it. This is Edna’s descendant secret. We call it Sweet Heaven for a longing heart. I am not sure the empress still has a heart left inside but we must try at least.

I clench my hands hard to stop from shaking badly. I will drink it myself if I can, but I know that I can’t. So, I nod at Ram, and steeling myself. He will be fine. He has a pure soul. He must be fine.

“Do as you wish,” the Empress said in a harsh tone.

With a wave of the Empress’ hand, a servant comes with the bottle and small crystal cup.

She fills the cup and gives it to Ram, who gulps it swiftly.

Seconds passed, but the room stills silent. The tension is palpable in the room.

Thanks, Gods, he is well and breathing.

“See? I am fine,” Ram breaks the silence with cheerful voice, “It tastes sweet, your majesty.” He looks at his cousin, still smiling ear to ear. Then, he looks at me proudly. And piercing ache comes back to me with vengeance. But I echo his smile, fighting back tears in my eyes.

“If you say so,” says the Empress. Then she takes another cup from the servant. With one gulp, she empties the cup. The servant is waiting to take the cup back from her. But it falls to the floor with a clacking voice instead.

I look up to her. She is rooted in her feet with a faraway look in her face. In a flash, she crumbles and falls to Ram who catches her in his arm, stumbling to his feet. Ram looks at his cousin with a horrified look as he cradles her in his lap. And then he turns his face to me. He says nothing but I know what he wants to ask as if it is said aloud.

Why?

I feel tears are running down on my cheek. I should be laughing now. But I can’t stop the tears. This is for all my clan who died in the battle, for my cousins, for my fiancé.

“I’m sorry,” I say weakly. Of course, no one can hear it, in the chaos that sweeps the room like raging storm. The servants scramble on their feet, and they look just like blurs to me. It is Ram’s eyes the only thing I can see clearly.

I see hurt and hate in his eyes.

Yes, I hate me, hate me like I hate you. You make me want the thing I shouldn’t, and make me forget the one thing I have to remember always.

I force my shaking, weak hand to move, up to my hair, and picking the golden hair pin nestled there. I pull it swiftly, smiling at Ram. And bring the small-stick-like dagger to my throat. It will end now. I will be together with the man I love, forever.

I feel the brief, blinding pain and hear Ram’s voice. It oddly sounds like, No, don’t leave me… But it can’t be. We are enemies and we hate each other.

Chapter 1

The Rebel

The sun is a bit colder now, and the leaves start turning brown and red. My master and I, we ride following a narrow passage between two high cliffs. The sky is light blue above with cotton like clouds floating around.

We ride abreast, for the road is wide enough for two. Looking at his profile, I feel a smile blooming in my face.

He will come around. I am sure of it. He will let me call his name again instead of just master. Whatever it is, I am glad he takes me with him. We are master and apprentice now. It is a common thing to do for a Blessed to take a disciple to be his apprentice. I am glad he chooses me; No, it is not him doing the choosing. I insist on it.

He said I should choose a better master. But I know no better master than him, for he can control all of the three elements, wind, ice and fire. I have witnessed his display of power so many times. And he is already in full control of his energy, for one so young.

He turns his head and looks at me, “You look so happy,” he says, “Don’t smile too big, lest a fly will come inside,” he adds with touch of smile in his lips

I nod, my lips still twitching. I try to stop my bubbling feeling. I remember what my aunt said, don’t smile too loud, you’ll cry louder later.

I know my master still hasn’t accepted the fact that I am here now. He wants me back to the Varr City, to the Empress, and leaving the rebel. But of course I refuse; I don’t have anyone left in the city save few cousins and friend who can manage without me. While here, I have him.

I know once I cross the Walls, and enter the city, I will never see him again. And he is someone I cannot bear to lose. I am not simple high born lady who lives in a castle now. That young lady has far gone, and in her stead is a new person, a fearless rebel. I hope it is what I am now. Days before, I still hope for the empress pardon, but I know that will never happen. Only through death, she will pardon us.

For decades, she forbids us, the rebel, from crossing the two walls that circling the Varr City. Inside those walls is where the people of noble and royal blood live, under the protection of Sagha, the Mountain God. We lived there before, a life time ago.

“Do you think it’s still far?” I ask my master, breaking my reverie.

The passage seems still long ahead, after passing this one, we have to find the cave, one of the rebel dwelling places.

“Yes, it seems,” he says calmly.

I will make him love me again there, I vow.

It has been more than a week since we flee from the empress’ army, and he still stubbornly becomes a mere master to me.

I hope he understands that as a rebel we can die anytime without a sign or notice. And life is fleeting. We won’t die of old age here. I want to make a most of this borrowed time, and live to the fullest.

I know the Empress’ men are still looking for us relentlessly. They almost caught us in the west seashore where the rebel’s big gathering was held. And fortunately, we could elude her army. It is a close thing that one. Because of it, I am sure there is a traitor among us.

Love and happiness is all I want now.

Finally, the cliffs come to end, and we ride on a wide road again. The sun is shining blindly in the eastern sky, but with no warm. But it has cooled rapidly in past few days.

Summer has long past.

The Wind blows faster, blowing my brown tunic wildly. I used to wear finest clothes made of silk but now, I only wear these drab peasant clothes.

But it is no matter.

Looking around, I see the vast prairie and its yellow flowers which surround us as far eyes can see. The wind blows its fragile flowers; they are dancing, like a wave of ribbons. I turn my head to the west, looking at my master, seeing his profile, I smile contently.

I feel a gentle breeze hits my face and sends my long and thick hair. It only pulled back from side to simple knot behind my head. And it is flying wildly around my face now. Lazily, I tug the errant strands behind my ear. I should put up my hair like a married lady should. But he is not really my husband.

But he loves my hair down like this, I know that.

I see his long hair is flying with the wind too. He seems taken with the beauty of the land, his land.

“Let’s race,” I say.

He turns his head and gazing at me with his pale brown eyes. I see a small smile, gracing his sensual lips, and a faint dimple briefly appears in his cheeks.

With a gentle jerk, he sets his horse racing ahead, leaving me in his dust.

Throaty laugh bursting out from my lips, and I race my horse fast, following right behind him.

I love this freedom.

***

The sky is purplish blue when we arrive at the cave. Holy fire’s light is bright in the sky. The lights are in pale yellowish-green and bluish-red colors, dancing, rippling in the sky. Even far from Shaga Mountain and Varr City, the light can be seen very clearly. I know it will look more vivid in the winter night as our power, the gift from the Gods, is stronger too.

I enter the cave, trying my best to see in the darkness. The cave is shallow, only a few yards long. I walk further inside and find the wooden box hidden under a big gray rock. This box is the rebel’s mark, they always left provision and blanket in each of their dwelling places, waiting for their member to claim and use it.

But I only find woolen blankets inside. I pick the blanket from the box, and sniff it. It seems clean enough so I bring it to the mouth of the cave where my master crouched, try to make fire from the dried bushes and flints. I know he can lit the bushes very easily if he uses his power. But we cannot use our gift here. The Empress’ Oracles and their Stones will find us if we do. I see those Stones before, it is scattered atop Varrian Empire’s map that painted on the floor, in the Oracle’s room in the palace. The stone will show where their owner, the Blessed, location is. It will move whenever we use our gift from the Gods. So, we have to use our energy very carefully, and move fast after.

I settle on top of a gray rock, sit beside my master. He is still busy making fire. I close my eyes briefly in reflect, because of the sudden warm glow of the fire; it is spreading inside the cave, and casting a shadow on the wall. And I feel a faint squeeze in my heart.

Why is it? I close my eyes again and shake my head to clear my mind.

When I open my eyes again, I see my master’s light brown look at me with concern.

He raises his eyebrow, “What is it?” he questions echoing mine. The flicking fire is casting shadows in his sharp and high cheekbone.

“I don’t know,” I smile, pushing the tightness in my chest away. “What we have for dinner?”

“Only a stale bread and dried fruits,” he says and gives me my portion.

“You should go back to your father,” he says, looking at the bread in his hand.

“He is not my father,” I say bitterly. I am not sure when I will call him father again. It has been a lie; all my life is a cruel lie.

He looks at me with solemn eyes and says, “As you wish, my lady.”

I feel a catch in my breath, “Don’t call me that again,” I say.

I want to forget the past and my old life behind. I hope he understands it by now.

He smiles briefly and simply nods. And then, we eat our tasteless meal in silent.

“The Empress killed your family,” I say, breaking the silence. I search his eyes, looking for hate or condemnation, “But it seems you don’t hate her. Why?”

For a while, I thought he won’t answer, but finally he says, “They still dead regardless what I feel, aren’t they?”

I stand, and come closer to him, kneeling and hug him from behind. I put my head on his shoulder.

He stilled and looking me in the eyes, our gaze locked, “We shouldn’t do this,” he whispers, but he takes my lips in a gentle kiss, belied his words.

“Why ever not?” I ask between kisses, pulling his tunic open, seeking his bare skin. It is hard and warm to the touch. I feel he shudders beneath my hand.

Suddenly, he pulls me to his lap, and I feel his wandering hand on my skin and hair. His wild lips are feasting on mine. And I am echoing his, touch for touch, kiss for kiss. My heart is beating fast, and my skin is scorching hot. I feel his hand undone the simple knot in my hair, he let it all lose to my back.

Yes, love my hair.

It seems he is done fighting me. I feel his hand on my ribs, and then going up to my heavy breast.

I break our kiss and put my hand on his racing heart. And I feel his harsh breath on my face.

I look at his no-longer brown eyes. It is a mix of silver and blue. I trace my finger, outlining his full lips.

“This is a dream, isn’t it?” I ask him, but I am not waiting for his answer. I pull him again for another kiss, stopping his words.

Now is the time for pleasure. We can worry and fight tomorrow. But now, I just want to touch, feel and kiss.

I feel his fingers erase tear on my cheek. He draws back, looking at my eyes, and I see his silent question.

Tears? Why? I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

I shake my head and whisper, “Love me,” and chase this pain away, I add to myself.

***

The chirping bird wakes me up, alone in our makeshift bed. I throw the blanket away, and a sudden cold touches my naked skin. I shiver a little, and swiftly don my tunic and skirt; it is folded neatly beside me.

He did this again. I sigh wearily; he always put a new wall after I destroy the old.

I brush my tangled hair and braid it simply, and then go outside. The sun is shining high in the blue sky now. Looking around, I try to find him.

Where is he?

I am walking around the cave, but it seems he is nowhere near. So, I follow a narrow path between pine trees. From distant, I hear a soft sound of a stream. It seems not that far away.

Maybe he is there.

The ground below is soft with decayed leaves and moss; it muffles my footstep as I walking through. Not far ahead, I see an open field near the stream. And there, I see him, parrying and slashing an invisible enemy with his wooden sword. I stop in my track and look at him from distance. He looks so graceful with his sword; his step is light and agile.

He seems to sense my presence, and then he stops his sword dance.

I continue my walk, “Why don’t you wake me?” I ask him.

“You seem so tired,” he says while erasing his sweat with the back of his hand.

“You made me,” I say, and I feel myself blushing. It has not been that long since I become his lover, and throwing away the idea of a gently bred young lady. Sometimes, I can’t help but feeling shy.

I see his lips twitch, “Do I really?” he asks me back. “I thought you love it.”

I like it if he being playful likes this. “I do,” I say and bowing, hiding my face. It must be beet red now.

“Shush,” he says suddenly. I hear something too. It comes from the mossy path, inside the forest.

“Your highness,” I hear several loud cries, echoing each other.

And shortly, they come to us. There are four of them, three men and a woman, all wearing brown rough hemp clothes, with long sword peaking behind their shoulder. They are marching passing me, and all kneeling in front of my master, their prince.

I know the girl, her name is Elsa; she is only a few years younger than my master, around my age, eighteen years of age. She has slender built, wide sensual mouth and long flowing black hair.

“Beg your pardon, your highness. We can’t find the traitor,” she says in sing song voice.

She cast a glance at me and smiles mockingly, “I’ll find him or her, no matter what, your highness.” Then, she looks at her prince once more.

“I see,” my master says softly, “All of you are safe I hope.”

Oland says, “We are all safe, your highness. And now, we are spreading around in the mid and west land.” I know him too. He is Elsa supposed lover. But she often behaves wantonly even in front of him. The way Elsa behaves makes me think that I am not really belonged with this rebel. She is too bold and fearless, like most of them, who born outside the Varr City.

Live between life and death every day make them reckless, they often say. But it not an excuse for her lack of decorum.

Another man, he is much older than the rest of us, says, “Let us guard you, your highness. The usurper army is still roaming near here. We fear for your safety.” He is in his late forty. Half of his face is covered with graying beard, but I can see an old cut on his right cheek. He must be one of the elders, the first generation of the rebel. The older generation hates the Empress, or the usurper as they call her, more than the younger ones. They have a long history with her. It starts when the Empress killed her nephew, Prince Rhys, and his wife, and took his crown. She will kill my prince, prince’s Rhys only son, too if she can.

“I thank you, Lord Jason. But no need for that, I am sure,” my master and prince says in a gentle voice.

“We can do more than guard you, my prince,” adds Elsa sweetly, the invitation is clear in her dark brown eyes. I feel my blood is boiling in my vein. I am sure of what she meant. And I notice that the others also taken aback by her boldness.

I steel my back and marching ahead. I won’t let anyone takes what is mine ever again. I stop beside my master, fist clenched.

“No need, my lady. We are fine as is it.” I know she does not deserve to be called a lady.

She laughs huskily, “Oh my, the little innocence has grown a claw now,” she says amused.

I hate to admit, that with almond eyes and sensual lips, she is a pretty girl in common, worldly way. I feel my anger is rising once more.

“Enough,” my master says in deadly low voice.

All of them, including Elsa, bow their head again, still kneeling on the ground.

My master is not one easy to anger but I know he is now.

“With robbers, and pirates raid in the shore, no need to protecting me like a baby,” he says in deceivingly calm voice. I take a peek to his eyes. It is streaked with fire now, blazing silvery-red in fury.

The four of them looking at each other, and then they nod in unison.

“Rise,” my master says to his kneeling subjects, “Let’s depart to the shore. They need us,” he adds somberly.

I see his retreating back as he leads those people inside the forest. And I still rooted in my spot, unable to move. There is a niggling voice inside my head, it seems to come from the deepest part of my memory, warn me about something.

What is it?

Suddenly, my heart grows heavy and I feel oddly sad.

They still walking, not realizing that I am left behind. Then my master stops and looking back at me.

“Let’s go, my lady,” he says.

I nod, but I feel the beginning of tears in my eyes.

What’s wrong with me?

Chapter 2

The Child

The dock is busy now, many people passing by. A big merchant vessel just anchored from the east. Looking around, people pay no heed to us. I hold my little brother hand tightly; afraid he will lose or trampled by drunken sailors.

But the tall man of my dream not yet here as he should be. The dream told me so. I believe it, for the dream never lies, just I understand it wrongly sometimes.

Now is almost winter and the dream always more vivid in the winter, unlike summer. It rarely comes at summer.

A flock of seagulls is flying a top of a big ship bound to the Sacred Land, the land of the Varr. It is the land where my father and mother came from. I never set my feet there, though.

The sailors are shouting, telling us that the ship is going to sail soon. The tall man has to come now or lest the ship will leave us. And I know we can’t leave without him.

I feel a soft pull in my skirt, “Where is he?” Vyn asks me with a pout. He can’t be patient as always.

“He’ll come,” I say with conviction, “So, you don’t believe me now?” I ask him back.

We are talking in Varrian tongue, the language of our parent. Somehow, I feel safer using it since most of the people in Madza don’t understand what we are talking about.

Madza is a port city in the eastern most of Weardy Continent. It is not a big city by all account, there are many bigger cities in the Midland or south. Weardy Continent is big, ten times of that Sacred Land, my father said. I just believe him since I haven’t traveled to the west, south shore or Sacred Land.

Madza is ruled by a governor that will be changed each decade. Here many people from different races mixed, and Varrian is one of the many. But we often play a neutral side when war break between or within races. Daqqar is ruling most of the time since almost half of Madza citizen belong to them. Bree is only second to them. The Bree is divided into two Curly and Straight. And they are the wildest among us while the Viqqa is the most powerful in the sea, their main tribe, in the west, is a notorious pirate, and the one who lives here is tame in comparison.

War or simply a street fight often break here, mostly it is between Curly and Straight Bree. With only slightest provocation, they will fight until the city soldiers stop them, but still, they are too wild to be tamed. It is silly what they do, fighting over a hair. It is said they are brothers from a different mother. Their enmity started hundreds or thousands years ago, before the first Curly and Straight even born. Their mothers hate each other, which is silly. They should hate their husband, aren’t they?

Vyn tugs my skirt again. I sigh loudly, “What is it again?” I ask a bit too loud.

“I am hungry,” he whimpers, his rounded eyes are filled with tears now. And it will spill out soon. He always hungry, I am tempted to leave him here. But I saw him in my dream so I have to drag him along with me.

I pull out a bar of chocolate from my leather bag, break a chunk and give it to him. “Don’t cry,” I say softly, “You don’t want to look like a girl, don’t you?”

He stops whining immediately and glaring at me, anger is palpable in his pale brown eyes. In a flash, it looks almost red. It is so easy to rile my brother. He will angry if you compare him to a girl, many mistaken him for one, and saying that he looks beautiful is forbidden too. I pity him for that, but he does look beautiful, just like our mother. She left us four years past. Father said she came back to Varr Empire, across the east sea. I vaguely remember her beautiful face with rounded big eyes, but my brother can’t. He just a baby when she left, only two years old of age, and I was seven, already a big girl that shouldn’t cry like Father often said.

That winter night was when the dream started. Father seemed so worried when I told him about it so I stopped bothering him with my dream. He was already sad because of Mother. I remember he smiled often before, but now the smiles rarely reach his eyes. I know he tries to look happy, but of course, he can’t fool me.

Father rarely talks about Mother, but I know he loves her still, even after all this year. Isn’t that why we still live here, in this city? So, Mother can find us when she decides to come back. I still remember, we always moving around when I was younger. But it has been four years since we stay here, in Madza.

I know my father is considered handsome too even by Westerland standard. Many women had tried catching his attention. They often use my brother and me but of course, he had none of it. Sometimes, I hope he just forgets mother but it seems he can’t.

I sigh wearily, I don’t want to grow old and fall in love if it makes people sad.

A wave of dizziness comes so sudden. And a blurry vision appears inside my head. I know it is time for the tall man to come.

I hear a loud bang from inside a tap room, few yards on my left. Shortly, a man is bursting outside. He runs with four others tailing close behind him. He doesn’t look like Varrian, he has dark brown hair unlike us, black. But in my dream, he speaks our language. I am sure it is him. He will pass by me in a moment. I make a decision fast, and then I stand up, running to the road and blocking his path. I see his eyes widening, and then he halts hastily, a hair breadth before crushing me.

“What are you doing?” he asks me in common tongue.

I tilt my head up, for he is so tall, even taller than Father. I stare, and lock his exasperated gaze, “I can save you,” I say in Varrian.

“Whatever you say,” he mutters in Varrian.

Yes, it’s him.

He turns back and facing ruffian who tailing him.

“It is miss understanding,” he says with a grin. “Your wife… umm… it’s really not me. I swear,” he adds, his eyes dart around, looking a way to flee.

But the man with flaxen hair doesn’t believe him. I know he is one of the Viqqa, his hair and blue eyes marking him as one.

The Viqqa man growls and preparing his punch, ready to knock my soon to be travel companion down.

I step around and stand in front of my companion.

“It’s true,” I say calmly. I know that sure voice and solemn face is the key to make people believe you. I use that trick often.

“Who is she? Your daughter?” says another man, he is a Curly Bree. “You seem to start too early if your daughter is as big as her.” The others are laughing madly at his joke.

“It’s him,” I say with conviction, pointing at the curly man. “Don’t you ever wonder why your first born has red and curly hair?” I look at the flaxen hair man in the eyes. “It is him who dallies with your wife,” I add with pitying tone and face. I know most boys or men don’t like to be pitied.

The man is narrowing his eyes, and look at his friend dangerously.

“You!” he growls.

“Do you truly believe a slip of girl’s word?” the other man tries to reason. But the flaxen hair is blind with rage. He raises his big fist, and soon they fight each other, drawing crowd around us.

I see a wooden boomerang peeking from the back of my soon to be companion black coat as I tug the tail of his coat, to draw his attention, and then I tilt my head up again, trying to look at him straight in the eyes.

He looks at me in awe, “What you just did there, Girl?” he asks in Varrian.

“You owe me a favor,” I say simply.

He nods briefly, “Name your price,” he says.

But before I answer it, he cuts me, “How do you know?” he asks hastily. “Oh Gods, I am really stupid. I should know. That who…” he stops, remembering himself. He coughs hastily and looking down at me and my brother. “What is it, Child?” he asks again, he looks oddly embarrassed.

“Are you sure, you can meet our price?” I ask with raised eyebrow.

This is a tradition to pay the price of owed favor. Most people waive the price, though. Unlucky for him, I am not planning to.

“Sure,” he answers with a touch of wounded pride.

I look at him, skeptical.

“Promise,” he says, putting his hand to his heart in a solemn vow.

I can’t help the smile that rising in my lips, I got him. I turn to see my brother to share our victory, but he cast the man pitying look instead.

I tilt my head up again, looking the man with a solemn gaze. “Take us to the Sacred Land. Be our escort,” I say loudly.

The man eyes widened, and he starts to say something but I cut him, “You’ve promised.”

***

After three days cramping, swaying at the small merchant ship, it feels good to stand on the ground again. I glance down at my younger brother face, but he looks petulant as always, at least, he stops wailing and demanding to go back home now.

“I don’t like these clothes,” he says with a pout.

“Neither I,” chirping Maxi, his full name is Maxi Allade. Allade is a common name of Curly Bree. But he doesn’t look like one.

I sigh loudly. These two people just vex me so much.

Glancing down to their clothes, I think it is decent. It is consist of long tunic down to thigh, and trouser down to ankle, all in brown, muddy color. The tunic doesn't have buttons, though, unlike shirt and coat which is the common style of Madza, no, not Madza now, it is Westerland as this Varrian call it. The seller tries to persuade us to buy the finest silk in a bright color as befitting our rank, he said. I know Varrian has many ranks, peasant, halfs, noble, royal and Blessed, unlike in Westerland. The seller thinks we are noble, maybe we are. But the clothes are too expensive, and I don’t have that many coins.

I look up to Vyn and Maxi, giving them a cold glare, “It looks good, stop whining,” I say harshly.

“Beg your pardon, my little lady,” Maxi says with an artful bow, he learned that from the sailor back in the ship. And he uses it to mock me now.

I roll my eyes. At least their clothes look practical, while mine just look heavy with so many layers. The skirt, in particular, it is wide turn-around skirt, and only secured by a knot in the back with wide sash atop it.

“Where we are going now?” Vyn asks with rounded puppy eyes. Vyn is the name of the first emperor of this Varr Empire, I remember mother told me once. And I hope my brother act with more dignity than he is now as befit his exalted name.

I glance down at my brother soft rounded face again, “I am thinking,” I say curtly.

I look around, trying to remember my dream.

“I am hungry,” Vyn says, clearly annoyed.

I just give them sweet buns less than two hours past, just before we shop for the new clothes. I dip my hand to my leather bag and pick silver coins. And I give it to Maxi.

“Uncle Maxi, please takes Vyn with you.”

He jerks around, facing me with furrowed brows. I know he feels offended. But in the end, he just nods, and drags Vyn along with him. I know he doesn’t like the title of uncle. I suggest father actually, but he strongly refused, saying that he is not that old, and just turn twenty last year. Well, twenty seems mighty old to me. And my father seems not that much older than him or simply all men look the same after past certain age. Besides the only resemblance, we have with him is our light colored eye, but his is more green than brown. He said that his mother was Varrian and his father was Curly Bree. But his hair is straight not curly, and is dark brown instead of reddish brown. Maybe I should douse his hair in soot; we will look much alike and less stand out then. I doubt he will agree, though. Besides his shoulder length hair is too short, it should well down below his shoulder. In Madza, his hair can be considered too long for a man but not here. Here, men and women all wear their hair long. The way he tied it seems wrong too.

But it seems Maxi oblivious of the strangers’ stare, as I see he and Vyn draw near with steaming bun in their hand. Vyn looks up to Maxi, grinning ear to ear, adoration is clear in his eyes. Maxi become short of heroes to him now. In our three days voyage, Maxi told him stories of his many adventures to calm my brother down and stop his pitiful wailing. He even taught him how to throw his boomerang. In the end of the voyage, Vyn said that Maxi is how a boy or man should act or look like, manly look, with harsh and sharp features, unlike our delicate and soft features.

I feel a searing hotness on my thigh; it is emitted from my leather bag. I dive my hand, picking the warm stone from inside my bag. It is small a little bigger than my thumb, gleaming in silver, red with a hint of blue. It glows, then dimmed, and then glows again.

It’s dark gray before. Why did it change?

Now, the colors are swirling, twirling inside like the holy fire’s light in the night sky above. Last night for the first time I saw them very clearly. Before I only see the hint of them in the eastern sky in the dark winter night.

“What is it?” asks Maxi curiously. He is jumping now, tries to take the stone. But I raise my hand, bring the stone out of his reach. And swiftly, I put it back to my leather bag.

I glance at my brother, and sure, he is pouting again, “Let’s go,” I say, refusing to submit to his silent demand. We briskly walk, looking for another place that resembles the place in my dream.

“Is your sister always like this?” I hear Maxi asks my brother in a whispering voice.

I shouldn’t bring both of them here.

But the dream told me to. And Maxi must be someone important. But for the life of me, I can’t understand why. Maybe, I misread the dream this time. But I am sure that I am not, for he appears in the correct place and timing. I have to be patient like father often advised me to.

You are willful like your mother, he often said. I don’t like being compared to her, though. I won’t leave my children and husband, if I have one, ever.

Now, I will bring her back home, like it or not. It’s the reason I am here. I saw her in the dream. She stays in the white castle atop the high mountain, amid the clouds and holy fire’s lights.

I stop in my track, looking around. Yes, this is the right place. I stand warily at the crossroad. I don’t know why I should stand here. Suddenly, I hear loud hoof beats and horse neighing sound. I close my eyes, bracing for the hit. But swiftly, I feel a strong pull, and I hit a hard chest, and then we fall to the ground.

“Ugh.” I hear Maxi moan loudly. It seems I land atop his chest. I open my eyes and I see, he looks at me with concern, “Are you okay, Girl?”

So, is this way I have to bring him along?

I nod curtly, and scramble away.

The young lady who almost trampled me turns her horse, and trotting her way to us. With agile movement, she dismounts. I guess she is a few years younger than Maxi. From the bright color and rich material of her clothes, I know that she is of noble birth.

“You should be careful,” She says, standing few feet away from where I stand. Then she turns her head to Maxi who now picking his boomerang that lay on the road, few feet away.

He must throw it to divert the horse.

“And you. Take a better care of your daughter,” she chides him.

That gets Maxi reaction. He stands up straighter.

“She is not my daughter,” he walks to us, and for a moment sun ray hits, highlighting his dark brown hair. “Do I look that old to you?” his eyes narrowed dangerously.

The young lady looks at Maxi more clearly, and then to me and my brother, who cling, holding my foot tightly. She must take a note, that we are nothing alike.

“You are a Weslander, I see. I let you off this time,” she says with finality, and ready to mount her horse again.

“Lady Ellen?” I ask with as much conviction I can muster.

She stops in her track, and then turn around, “Do you know me?” she asks, uncertain.

I straighten my back, and look her straight in the eyes, “Don’t you know me, my lady? If you don’t, then let me help you to remember. My mother, she stays in that high castle made of marble, in that mountain.” I point to the east. I hope it is the correct direction.

I see her eyes widened, she looks at me again, and then to my brother. And suddenly, she kneels and says, “Beg your pardon, your highness.”

I only heard the lady name in my dream, and the rest is just a bluff. I suppose people readily to believe a thing they think to be a truth.

I glance at Maxi, his mouth is hanging open in disbelief now. I smile at him smugly.

Oh, this is so easy.

Chapter 3

The Princess

Never, even in my wildest that I think I will sit on this throne. But now, here I am. This seat is a cold and lonely seat. I glance down to the marble floor below; it is shining, reflecting the sunrise that making a cloud of dust after it penetrates the windows’ glass on east, south, and west. But the little warm they bring still can’t ward off the chilling that emanating from this big vast room.

I look at court ladies and few advisors near the wall, their head bowing low, and their shoulders are uncommonly slumped; I know, these last three days have taxed their soul. And I feel very weary too. With the recent tragedy which befell the empress, the Ministers press me to wed.

They ask for the impossible.

It has been almost an hour since I dismiss them. But the anger and frustration is still settled in my mind, rooted there and won’t go away.

I try to break my wandering mind, and I glance down to the old man standing below the throne’s stair. He is one of the merchants from Naqari, city gate of the Mountain Wall in the north. His face is full of line and his hair is snowy white. He must be close to sixty if he is a day.

General Wazax, the one who found him, says he comes from the Mountain Clan. It must be a long time since he had left his clan, for his manner is one of ours. He looks like an ordinary Varrian by looking at his greenish-brown clothes, and the top knot of his hair which secured with an arched wooden hairpin. I glance down at my golden robe, noting the contrast. His clothes are bare of any ornament save his sash which is slightly lighter in color, while mine, there is a dragon and eagle embroidery, that only a royal is permitted to wear.


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