The Empty Land – Prologue

~ Prologue – The Art of Deception

            She stood on the edge of the balcony, the lack of any kind of railing not bothering her. Her keen blue-grey eyes surveyed the landscape below her with an ever growing sense of unease. Something wasn’t right. It was a twisting feeling in her gut more than anything that spoke of ill fortune.

Below her, the white and gold city sprawled away, the sun glinting off roofs as people hurried about their business. Even so early in the morning the city was still a hive of bustling motion.  Beyond the tall spires, slender arching bridges and airy walks above the streets stood the wall. Grand and made entirely of white stone so thick that five wagons could trundle abreast across its top with enough room for people to walk comfortably between them. Those walls had never in her memory been assaulted and never in written history been breached. This high in the mountains any attacking force would have to be stupid on several levels to attempt a siege on the city.

Past the walls at this, the back of the city, fields and rolling hills ran away into the distance. The only thing in that direction was farmland and the occasional small town. To the left rose the rocky peak of the mountain and from it spewed the River Tryn. A waterfall that cascaded down the face of the cliff, collected in a bowl and ran straight past the rear of the city. It continued on down the mountain in just such a fashion before reaching the plains at the bottom and rolling on towards the distant ocean. Bridges crossed the river on the zigzagging route that wound its way up the mountain.

But these thoughts were merely relieving distractions from what was really on her mind. There had been disturbances recently, she’d felt them tingling in the depths of her soul. None had been reported she knew, that would only cause the spread of noxious panic. Not something that anyone would risk. There were troubles on the plains, the sea folk had been up in arms about something just recently, the ice nomads had been arguing with their plain dwelling human neighbours in the south and even the normally misanthropic and predominantly peaceful desert dwellers had been on their borders in skirmishes with their human neighbours. On top of that, this façade of serenity amongst her people was giving her an itch. And that sense of uneasiness kept her awake at night.

Now, she rolled her shoulders and closed her eyes against the sunlight. She wasn’t looking forward to the day’s events. Not at all. In fact, she’d been dreading this day for the last eighteen years. She didn’t think she was even slightly ready to face this. Not with the disturbances troubling her so. She had to believe that there was someone else who could feel it as strongly as she could. Even if it was just a niggling to them, there had to be someone who would feel it too.

Behind her the soft swish of the glass door being pulled open announced a presence invading her solitude. A light breeze whooshed down out of the mountains as she turned; hardening her heart to what she knew was coming. It stirred her hair and feathers and tugged at her light cloak. She pulled its folds tighter about herself as Tyrath’s dark eyes regarded her solemnly. His tall frame stood tightly wound in the doorway, his silver gilded armour and leather bindings glinted dully. His shaggy shoulder length hair wasn’t disturbed by the breeze as he had it pulled back into a rough ponytail.

He nodded sombrely. “She’s waiting,” he said in his deep lilt. Slowly, he stepped aside so she could enter the room behind him.

She didn’t like leaving the quiet shelter of the balcony, but nor did she like the repercussions should she miss this meeting. As such, she took a deep breath and entered.

The meeting hall was an airy place, as were most buildings here, with a great glass dome that let in the light, a pool and fountain in the middle and open sided balconies that ringed the room. Mosaics decorated the walls in bright colours and the light drapes fluttered in the soft gusts let in by the open windows. Colours tinted the windows and sent shafts of multi-hued light across the room, splashing on the tiled floor in puddles of luminous intangible paint. Trees and grasses grew in half sections of a circle in places out from the pool, fluted columns stood nestled in their midst seeming to disappear among foliage that embraced the white stone. Nothing in the room seemed out of place and there was no sharp contrast in the way everything seemed to just fit as though this was how nature had always intended. Vines crept up the walls and columns and branches hung out over the courtyard making it seem welcoming for all.

Ever since she’d been six, however, Elina had dreaded this hall and all it entailed for her. Not once had she been free to play in the shadows of those trees. Not once had she rolled in the grass. Not once.

The dais at the far side of the round room bore the reason for her joyless childhood. A great wooden chair, gnarled and knotted like the roots of the trees from which it was made. It was inlaid with gold and silver filigree and stood as a constant reminder of the lie she lived every day.

On that chair sat a woman who was as opposite in appearance to the chair she sat on as one could possibly find. She was smooth and tanned, her golden hair, skin and feathers stood out against the dark wood of her chair. Among her yellow curls sat an equally yellow crown and those amber eyes rested on Elina’s shoulders bearing every ounce of weight that she felt crushing her every hour of every day.

People often noted the difference between the two of them. Where she was tanned and golden, Elina was fair and dark of hair. They knew the truth; they alone knew the reason for all the burdens placed solely upon Elina. They alone held that secret. Well, they two and a few trusted advisors.

Tyrath was one. Elina’s lady’s maid another. And Gerritch, the tall thin bean pole of a man standing at the golden woman’s shoulder was the other. His black beady eyes shimmered in the coloured light; his pointy face seemed permanently affixed with an expression of consternation, occasionally anger and frequently disapproval. The lines across his weather board features testified to that. The man looked as if he had been bound in parchment where everyone else was bound in skin. His spine was as rigid as an iron pole and his demeanour was very much like an iron pole also. He had the personality of a teaspoon and was rather pernickety about his habits. And something about his person just seemed a little off to Elina. Nothing she could place a finger on, mind, he seemed untrustworthy to her is all. Which, considering the uses her mother put him to, seemed rather strange.

Her mother, the golden lady on the twisting wooden throne, sat regal in her layered blue dress, pleats striped a deep aqua and a sash of the colour of the winter sky cinched it at her waist. She leaned forward as Elina entered, her elbows resting on her knees, her long fingers interlocked to support her chin, those amber eyes never missing a thing.

Behind Elina, Tyrath bowed and stood beneath one of the arching branches of a tree, the thumb of one hand tucked behind his belt and the other hand resting on the pommel of his sword. His sharp eyes watched Elina’s every movement. Ever since she’d been a little girl, someone had always been there to watch her. Her wet-nurse was first, then her tutors and then, despite them having grown up together, sat in classes together, watched the sun set from the top of the Star Spire together, Tyrath had taken over. He was only a few years older than her and she’d always felt uncomfortable that he was seen as her personal bodyguard. Especially when, as ten year olds, they’d laughed at the scholars as they tripped over the hems of their long robes as they stumbled up the steep steps of the library under the weight of countless books and eaten frozen yellow-apple juice on sticks under the shelter of the training hall roof as they watched the soldiers train even though her mother had specifically told them not to. Elina didn’t like that Tyrath took his job so seriously either. Sometimes she wondered if he might, on occasion, borrow Gerritch’s iron pole. On that note, she thought perhaps her mother had one as well. In fact, most people in her life had iron poles hidden in their closets, of that she was sure.

Now, Gerritch twitched and brought her back to where she was presently. Twitching was not a habit Gerritch practised and Elina found it disturbingly out of character. Also disturbingly out of character was the request her mother had made of her: this meeting. Moreover, the fact that she had asked the meeting take place in this, of all the many halls strewn throughout the palace, made the unpleasant knot in her stomach twist all the harder. There was something not right and she wished more than anything that she could work out just what it was she felt was so out of place.

Beyond all the obvious things of course. Elina sighed inwardly, deciding that at the very least; talking to her mother now, would be a very good start. It wasn’t as though this thing would present itself in a timely and pleasant fashion after all. Nothing was ever easy.

“Elina,” her mother breathed tiredly. Now Elina noticed something else out of the ordinary: the drawn quality to her mother’s face. A frown began to form on her brow. The queen looked worn, tired… sickly. The normally olive tone to her skin that was the mark of the royal family now seemed slightly pallid and the tone of her voice didn’t seem quite right. It sounded raspy. On top of that, Gerritch’s normal facial expression had been replaced now by something that looked horribly like smugness. The very thought of something making that slimy stalk smug made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. Oh yes, there was something dreadfully out of sorts today. Her mother took another deep, shuddering breath.

“Elina,” she tried again, there was no improvement in her voice and no matter how hard she tried to force a smile, it wouldn’t come. Only the shadow of something that, if stretched, might resemble the likeness of a smile. “I’m dying.”

She didn’t register what her mother had said at first. It was so outlandish and improbable. Her mother would be what… one hundred and fifty? That’s nothing; she still looked thirty and should live to see at the very minimum five hundred or so. Sure, one fifty was a good deal of that, but still, death should have been a long way off. Something in the back of Elina’s mind though told her that the words were the truth. She could see it in her eyes, her manner, her face, and her words. Death was standing in the shadows behind her throne, just waiting, biding his time.

“You must take the throne,” she said in a whisper. “I have to step down. I will not let this become something that happens only in the event of some tragedy. A crowning should be a celebration, not the reception of a funeral.”

Elina felt more than she saw Tyrath stir off to her right. Again, Gerritch twitched. And still that feeling of unease.

“Elina?” her mother asked. “Did you hear me?”

She took a deep breath. “Yes, you want me to take the throne.” She’d known her mother wanted her to ascend the throne soon, but the blunt announcement of her approaching demise was something of a shock.

Her mother shook her weary head. “You must, there is no one else. I will not let this become a contest of power. We are above that.”

No, mother, thought Elina. We are above the clouds. Emotions we still have. But she didn’t give those thoughts voice. There was no need to start that argument again.

Instead she said: “How? When?” The how was for the sickness that was ravaging her mother’s body. The when, for the coronation.

Her mother shrugged. “Some things just are. Who are we to question nature’s way? And you’re to be crowned on the morrow. Gerritch’s people have had all the necessary preparations done; we’ve been planning this for months.”

Elina was restraining anger at her mother’s flat acceptance of her death. Why would she not fight it? Had she taken no medicines? Had there been no signs? At the same time she was furious that they’d do this without her consent, marvelling at the fact that they’d kept it under wraps for so long and mentally adding a new layer of anxiety to her already lofty pile. Everything seemed to be unravelling. And still the unease. Nothing said so far had given her clues. The only thing that seemed to be connected was that ghostly smirk on Gerritch’s face. The lines on his parchment features hadn’t been made to accept such an expression. The next thing she knew he’d be grinning like a gleeman at the Aeruin el Kaestrin.

“Fine,” said Elina in a clipped voice. It was more of a snap than she’d intended, but all those warring emotions were hard to control. And it was predominantly anger anyway. Anger and confusion. “What needs to be done?”

Her mother seemed startled; possibly that Elina had agreed so quickly to something that she’d been sure would take days of fighting. That’s how it had always been between them. Mother would suggest something and Elina would fight against it. Her tutors had long since learned that once she dug her heels in it was near to impossible to get her to see reason. The stubbornness was something that had come as quite a shock considering she was normally so mildly mannered.

Now though, her mother only looked relieved. Elina’s answer also prompted another twitch from Gerritch. This time it almost tugged his lips into a smile. Those hard, emotionless eyes were never meant to be accompanied by a smile. It made Elina cringe inwardly to think of him smiling. It was just plain wrong.

“Thank you, Elina,” her mother breathed, slumping against the back of the chair. All of a sudden the iron was gone. It was as though someone had removed all the bones from her body. She seemed so much weaker now than she had before, so much less intimidating, frail and… surprisingly mortal. It was a strange thing for Elina to contemplate: her mother’s mortality. Ever since she could remember she’d just assumed that the ageless face of her mother’s would be there to watch over her. Perhaps she’d been distant and cold at times, but she was still her mother and the spirits knew that she’d done more for Elina than she deserved. It made Elina feel sick in her stomach. This was the real test.

Elina curtsied shortly and meandered out the door, Tyrath not far behind her. He never was. Sometimes she pondered what life would be like without her heavily armoured friend shadowing her everywhere. The notion of being without him was always quickly dismissed however, she knew that he was the best friend she’d ever had and part of her wished that they could remain thusly for the rest of their lives: just friends, nothing more. She wished protocol and custom and all sorts of ‘dignified lady-like behaviour’ didn’t detract from something that had once been so simple. She sighed, aloud this time, eliciting a curious glance from Tyrath, but he was too… proper to ask anything of her. How she wished he would speak his mind in front of her like he used to, she wished that he would call her El again and not ‘M’Lady’ or ‘Highness’ as he was required to do these days.

When she finally drifted into her rooms, sometime just before the sun set, it was with great reluctance only. These rooms were where she could be found with the most reliability and she loathed being here when something of import was about to happen, it made her only too easily found by nitpicky servants and her elderly lady’s maid Enyd. Now, she knew, Enyd would be on her way here with a tailor, no doubt, to fashion a dress for tomorrow’s ceremony. It would be all in a rush, why she couldn’t just wear a dress already in her wardrobe she’d never know. It wasn’t as though the dress she was given for the next day would ever be worn again. It would sit in the back of her wardrobe gathering the dust as her mother’s wedding dress did. Only, the coronation gown could at least be said to have been worn, that was something that her mother’s wedding dress had never managed.

Sure enough, Enyd arrived not long after with the royal tailor in tow, fabric draped over his arms, making him seem so much smaller, and he wasn’t a tall man to begin with. The rest of the evening was spent with needles and pins holding the fabric in place as Enyd and the tailor scurried about making adjustments. Tyrath stood, motionless and dark, in the corner like just another of many shadows. Her shadow.

As darkness fell outside and a chill settled over the palace, the tailor pulled the last pin out of her waistline and stepped back, his tongue between his teeth, his scruffy head tilted. Enyd was standing beside him, her head cocked at much the same angle, her arms folded under her breasts. Almost at the same time, they tilted their heads the other way.

“Well,” said the tailor in a wavering wispy voice. “It’s not the best work I’ve ever done, but on a moment’s notice it’s probably the best that’ll you’ll get.”

Enyd sighed. “I know, if only Marytha had given me more warning.”

Then they bustled about taking the dress off and getting everything laid out for the next morning. It was another long hour before Enyd and the tailor had finally left, leaving her and Tyrath alone. He asked the maid to bring food up, it being well after meal time in the hall.

“I don’t understand why there has to be so much fuss,” said Elina softly, sinking into a padded chair under her favourite window, right next to the bookcase. “It’s such a hideous thing.”

“Because you’re being crowned,” he replied. “And you looked lovely.”

She turned her face away. The gnawing in her stomach had been growing in intensity all evening. The spirits alone knew how she would sleep this evening. Tyrath at least had nothing to worry about. While waiting for the food to arrive, Elina took the opportunity to bathe and wrap herself in warm clothes. Nights this high got bitingly cold.

Tyrath was still, when she emerged, sitting by the door. He looked up, his eyes flat and his face expressionless, but she could read him like an open book. He knew when she was frazzled and deep in his blue eyes she knew he was asking questions.

She took a deep breath. “Just… politics…” she murmured, sliding back into her chair. And her worries weren’t unfounded. There were three high ranking noble families other than her own and two of them had daughters around her age. Both of these daughters could become, in extenuating circumstances, the legal heir to the throne. And Elina had every reason to be afraid that such circumstances might arise; there were legal difficulties surrounding her ascension, but none of them were known by the public. Great lengths had been gone to in order to see that this secret was well kept.

Dinner was brought up and the pair of them ate in complete silence. Tension was everywhere and Elina was preoccupied by the itch in the back of her mind. As there was very little to do and Elina was quite keen to get this darn thing over with, she determined that it would be for the best just to sleep. Tyrath, of course, would stay in the greeting room. He always slept there, right beside her door with a bell tied above the main door so that if it should open he would be there to greet whoever it was. The windows were always locked at night. Tyrath was paranoid but it kept her mother happy and so Elina held her peace.

Her mind was in turmoil that night, whirling in overdrive trying to work out what was wrong. It was hard to ignore such a feeling as she had, but it was also rather trying to attempt to unravel it. If only there was something to distract her from her thoughts. Not even her mother’s surprise announcement about the pending coronation could sidetrack her.

Slowly, listening to the starswallow singing its melancholy song outside her window, sleep found her. It pulled her into its dark, warm, blissfully dreamless depths. And then, too soon, Enyd was banging on her door, the sun slipping in through cracks in the curtains.

Enyd backed through the door, placed a tray of warm pastries and bread – her breakfast – on the table beside her bed. Then she threw the drapes aside, letting the sunlight stream in. Elina groaned as the light hit her grainy eyes.

“Hustle,” said Enyd, clapping her hands as she rummaged through the closet trying to find something. Probably slippers or a hair net or clips. She peered briefly over her shoulder at Elina to make sure the young woman was moving and then resumed her search.

Elina sighed and sat up; pushing the sheets away, then she lifted the tray onto her lap and started eating. Tyrath knocked and stuck his head past the door, already dressed and eaten no doubt.

“Enyd,” he said softly, “the tailor’s here. He has the dress with him. And from the way he’s muttering, he’s not in a good mood.”

“It’s because I dragged him out of bed early today,” Enyd muttered, her head still in the closet. Then she made a happy sounding grunt and came up with a pair of silver slippers. They were the least comfortable pair of all the pairs Elina owned, which was why they were at the bottom of the closet.

“I know the feeling,” Elina muttered, eyeing the slippers with apprehension. Tyrath snorted and left. Enyd took the platter away and set it on another bench, stripping the blankets off the bed. Then Tyrath re-entered briefly with the dress. He draped it over the back of a chair before promptly exiting once more.

“Come on,” said Enyd. “You’ve got to be under the marquee in less than an hour and I’ve still to do something with your hair.”

Elina grumbled some more, but hauled herself out of bed, ruffling her feathers to settle them. She’d been pushing it recently and it was near a feeding for her poor friend, but he would have to wait for just one more day. With Enyd’s help, she stepped into the dress, it was long and trailing but thankfully not too puffy, just a simple silver and blue silk dress. No fancy lace work or frills or shiny decorative buttons, just the necessities. Enyd laced up the back of the dress as Elina rifled through her draw looking for that string of sapphires her mother had given her. A slender moonstone bracelet on one wrist and the ring of her house on the other hand. Then she came up with the chain of sparkling blue stones.

Enyd ‘tched’. “I must fix your hair first girl,” she muttered, picking up Elina’s ivory brush. “It’s a right mess.”

While Enyd tugged at some of the more stubborn knots in her long wavy black hair, Elina pulled on the demonically uncomfortable silver slippers. They were just as horrid as she remembered; tight about the toes and slightly loose at the heel so that they slipped when she walked. She resolved to get a new pair. If she was going to be queen, she was at the very least going to be a comfortable queen.

Finally, Enyd stopped pulling at her curls and threaded the stones through a few simple braids arranged down the side of her head and gathered in a fluffy, slightly wayward tangle at the back. The stones shone in the early morning light as she stood and donned her customary dark blue cloak.

“Great,” Elina murmured. “Now can we get this hopeless thing over with so I can do something else today? I’d like this ceremony not to ruin my day.”

“Is that so?” asked Enyd, folding her arms under her breasts. “And what, pray tell, does your jam packed schedule tell you you’re doing today, princess?”

Elina scowled, something her mother told her was most unbecoming for a lady, let alone a princess, but that never stopped Elina from practicing the art of the unladylike. Goodness knows that if she listened to everything her mother told her she might as well be one of the marble statues on the grand balcony entrance steps. What point to life if it wasn’t to do some things that you’re told not to?

“Come on then, your Surliness,” growled Enyd, ushering her out the door. “You needn’t keep your people waiting.”

“Enyd, it’s not even nine in the morning,” Elina protested.

“I didn’t organise this,” she said defensively. “You’ll have to take that complaint up with Gerritch.”

“What was Gerritch thinking?” Elina asked plaintively of the ceiling. “Why would he plan it for such an ungodly hour if this had been part of some scheme he and mother had been cooking for months now? Surely he could have picked a more agreeable time of day.”

“Apparently not,” said her maid. “Now stop your whinging and get to the courtyard.” She flicked her hands at Tyrath who was instantly on his feet, his eyes fixed on Elina. There were words he was holding back, she could tell, there would be time for them later.

The tailor was standing by the window, dry washing his hands. As Enyd swept into the room the tailor, along with Elina and Tyrath, was herded out the door. Then she sent him scurrying off down the corridor with one withering look before hurrying Elina and Tyrath along the other way. The elderly maid set such a whirlwind pace that Elina had no chance to even marvel at the stonework and the tapestries and the statues as she normally did. Even born in the palace, growing up and learning here, the mastery with which everything was done never ceased to amaze her. Now though, there was no time. They blew along the corridors until they reached the back of the grand courtyard. Tyrath peered out from behind the thick dark blue curtains. Elina just waited.

Then her mother appeared behind them, Gerritch at her side. A few paces behind them was the High Chronicler, basically just a librarian and historian. Her mother was dressed in a magnificent golden gown that put Elina’s to shame, but she was queen, she was allowed to outshine everyone else.

“Let’s go then,” muttered Gerritch in his course reedy voice. “We have to get this over with quickly.”

The way he said that troubled Elina to no small degree. Something about the phrasing, his expression… his eyes… the man seemed even less trustworthy today than on any other day. Again the twisting anxiety in her stomach lurched. She felt sick.

“Yes let’s,” she agreed in spite of her ever growing doubts. “The sooner the better in my opinion.”

Her mother lifted an eyebrow. “On with it then,” she muttered. She stood straight today, but looked no better than she had the day before. In fact, there was a grey cast to her face and she looked more drawn. Like her skin was becoming parchment.

Tyrath threw open the curtain and Elina’s mother stepped out first. An instant hush fell over the crowd gathered below the railing in the bottom section of the courtyard. She was followed by the High Chronicler, then Gerritch, then Elina and finally Tyrath, who would, as always, be standing by her side.

Royal guards in polished silver lobstered plate armour stood to either side of the small gathering, by the stairs. There were four guards at the top of the stairs and another six at the bottom to hold back the crowds. There were also guards on the roofing around the edge of the courtyard, most with long bows, but a few had crossbows and a few on the lower ledges even had a trio of long tipped spears. Elina wondered briefly at the show of force, but then, this was a coronation, no point crowning her if some crazy lout could throw a knife into her from the gathered masses.

Gerritch would speak first, addressing the crowd before the High Chronicler began the traditional intonations for the crowning itself. Her mother would also be given a chance to speak after Gerritch, but she could barely speak in a whisper, let alone speak in a carrying voice to this crowd. At the end, Elina would be given the same opportunity to address her people, but that was just formality and besides, she’d been put on the spot with no time to prepare something. She’d just have to ad hoc.

“Welcome,” said Gerritch in a surprisingly loud voice that Elina knew would have no trouble reaching even the farthest corners of the courtyard. “Brothers and sisters, to this, the coronation, of our eighty-fifth queen, Elina Aedraan. The aedryn have always been ruled by a fitting queen and I see no reason why this tradition should not be continued.” Here he paused as though gathering his thoughts. “As such, I find it only decent to remind you all that only an aedryn, one of our glorious kind, has the right to rule over such a fine people as yourselves. So, it is only fitting that I tell you now, that Elina Aedraan will not be crowned this day.”

A chill swept through her body as she realised what was happening. Suddenly everything was so clear to her, as if a fog had just dissipated. The nervous itch, the sleepless nights, Ero’s strange moods of late and, more importantly, Gerritch’s uncharacteristically good moods – smiles even. Lead settled in her feet and she felt strangely numb, as though she couldn’t move, think, not even breathe.

Curious mutters drifted through the crowd as she felt Tyrath stiffen beside her, one hand on the hilt of his sword, the other twitched in the direction of a spear on a rack on the wall behind him. His dark eyes were suddenly no longer concerned with the crowd, now they watched and waited for a reaction from either Gerritch or the Royal Guards. Even they, normally certain of who they were meant to be protecting, seemed unsure of what they should do. Did they dare strike down the advisor of the queen for insurrection? Or did they hear out what he had to say and then decide on an appropriate course of action?

Elina’s mother took a step forward, but then froze as if she too had been rooted to the spot. She was too weak; Elina realised, to do anything to stop Gerritch from saying anything else. The nearest guard would not even hear her orders, should she give them. Elina considered briefly telling Tyrath to strike Gerritch down on the spot, but that would look bad, then they would know the royal family had been keeping secrets. Secrets pertaining to the succession no less.

There was nothing she could do, not without serious repercussions. Curse politics and all these bastards (namely Gerritch) to a fiery fate in the depths of Veth. Gerritch, now, lifted his arms high. One was outstretched to the people and the other was held up straight.

“Dear people, they have been deceiving you for twenty-four years,” he proclaimed. “That long have these two women been hiding from you that which you, as their subjects, have every right to know. Well no more.” With a grand sweep of one arm, he pointed at Elina. “The crown princess is not one of us,” he said. “She is a liar and an impostor to a place that belongs rightfully to one of our own. She is aodryn!”

Now the whispers in the crowd were angry.

“Let’s see you prove it,” came a cry from the back of the crowd. Soldiers now eyed Elina warily. Gerritch only smiled, a disturbing sight on his menacing face. Now she realised why those eyes never seemed to hold emotion, they were dead, angry and evil. Empty pits of darkness that let into a depraved soul. Only the spirits knew how he could have hidden that from so many for so long.

“With pleasure,” he growled.

Gerritch stepped up behind her, Tyrath moved to intercept him, but Gerritch just shoved him aside. There was nothing to be done. Any attempt now to stop him would only prove she bore a guilty conscience. It would achieve nothing. Now, Elina was resigned to her fate.

Her mother’s advisor squeezed the dark fluff at the back of her neck. A high pitched squeal erupted from beneath his fingers. Then darkness whirled around Elina’s figure. It filled the air like black dust, swarming between the people on the balcony as though trying to find space to settle, which, in truth, it was. Finally, the eyes of everyone on the dust, great black wings snapped into being above the crowd. They beat at the air in a steady rhythm even as the rest of the dust attached itself, slowly filling out the great, magnificent form of a nightwraith, black as pitch. It bellowed at Gerritch as it flapped, its sharp black beak turned in his direction, the big blue eyes fixed on his comparatively small person in fiery anger.

“Ero!” called Elina pleadingly. The crowd refocused their attention on their now wingless princess. Her eyes met those of her dearest friend and he nodded his great head in understanding. Even mid air she could see his body tense.

“Behold,” cried Gerritch triumphantly, still smiling that sinister smile. “The false princess revealed for what she truly is: a lying aodryn charlatan!” A few paces away, Elina’s mother broke down into a fit of blubbering. Enyd poked her head out from behind the curtains, her eyes wide with shock.

“Come forth Cherysa,” called Gerritch. “Cherysa Midraea, the next in line for the throne. This is your coronation now.”

A young blonde woman appeared at the foot of the stairs, the guards parted to let her up, shock still plastered across their faces. Above them, Ero still hovered, watching the proceedings with immense curiosity despite himself. Cherysa stood, a smug smile curving her mouth up monstrously as she regarded Elina with disdain and something akin to the triumphant glee Gerritch had shown earlier.

“What do you wish done with the traitors?” asked Gerritch of the little blond woman.

“Take their heads!” she proclaimed. “Traitors, they are all, to the throne.”

Soldiers moved forwards and Tyrath drew his sword with a ring and a roar. Then chaos erupted. Elina ducked blades and crossbow bolts as they swished over her head. She tried to get to her mother, but part of her cursed that for folly and told her to stay close to Tyrath. Yet another part wanted desperately to get to Ero and another wanted to strangle that smug bastard Gerritch, and possibly Cherysa too.

Men charged, one stopped momentarily to swing his sword. At first Elina though it was meant for her and cringed, closing her eyes. Too late she realised that he was still too far away. Her eyes snapped open just in time to see the curving silver blade scythe neatly through the flesh of her mother’s neck. A red spurt jetted from the hole as the head rolled away. The soldier never even broke stride as he made a beeline for Elina. She cast her eyes about for anything she could use as a weapon.

She lifted a series of spears and halberds in front of her like a wall with her gift and backed away. She screamed when someone grabbed her collar. Then they spun her around and she saw it was Tyrath.

“Ero,” she yelled at him as he dragged her one handed across the balcony. “You have to get to Ero.” His sword was a blur, his spear gone, her floating barrier the only thing keeping more guards away from them. He nodded, the only response she got from him.

Slowly, they reached the railing, one guard now making his way around her wall of steel by walking along the railing. She snatched at the nearest spear and stabbed him with it. He fell with a cry off the railing and plummeted to the courtyard below.

Now Ero trumpeted loudly, the rhythm of his wing strokes changing slightly. Elina had heard them do that before and knew what was coming. Tyrath, however, didn’t.

Elina tucked the spear against her chest and clutched at his lapels. “Tyrath!” she yelled. “Arms in!” He glanced over at her, just managing to tuck his arms in to his sides in time.

Ero reached them in a mass of sharp claws, ripping beak and whirling feathers. Men dived out of his way as he fell from the sky. He should have crashed to the balcony, but, his wings curled protectively around Tyrath and Elina, began to shimmer before that happened. Elina was holding tightly to Tyrath’s hand as she felt one of Ero’s great clawed hands grab her shoulder. His other hand was on Tyrath’s as they were sucked into blackness.

The last thing she saw was the smiling face of Gerritch, someone she once trusted. She found in herself, only the emotion regret. Regret that he survived.

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~ by reliquiaen on April 12, 2012.

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