"I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but the rumors are true. Nevenia is in total ruin...there is nothing left."
"And what of the child? How did she survive?"
"I found her in a bucket, deep within a well. It's a miracle she was found living."
"And what of her family?"
"The entire kingdom has perished. She has no one else."
"Then I guess she has no choice. We must take her to Cyndar."
"Cyndar! Why there?"
"What choice have we? They are the safest option she has."
"Safe, maybe, but they will not recognize their bond to this poor girl. Their selfish cruelty will ruin her."
"Then we will ask him to send one who will watch over her."
"I wish to fight it, but I know you are right. Lets be on our way. As it is, there is nothing left for any of us here."
"She will be alright, dear husband. In the end, they will learn what blessing we have bestowed upon them."
Her husband shook his head in a doubtful manner. Little hope he could place with the people of Cyndar.
They wrapped the child in blankets and furs and begun their trudge down the treacherous mountain.
Cyndar was a prideful kingdom that sat atop the ocean cliffs, at the foot of a sleeping volcano. King Anaxem took great pride in his castle, which was built right into the face of an old lava flow. With the ocean on one side, the treacherous volcano on the other, and the power of his castle stone which was forged by fire, he felt he was invincible indeed. Though it was not his kingdom that made him invincible, but he who had the power to make it so, and his name was A'Maikra.
King Anaxem, and his mysterious creature, took little interest in much more then preserving their island for themselves. Very few who wandered their way by ship would even take notice of their island. It was always a mirage in the distance, a flicker in the corner of their eye, or an image within a scope that the next second was gone. By A'Maikra's hand the fortress was kept safe, unless otherwise desired.
The Queen, King Anaxem's beloved Kwen, had provided him a son whom they named Donovan. The King could not help but boast in his pride. He invited many kingdoms to come pay their blessings upon his son. Many of these kingdoms brought their daughters with high hopes of making an arrangement with the mysterious King. One of these daughters was named Meara, daughter of the Duke of Shippening. At first sight of the two together, the Duke and the King both smiled that prideful smile, and shook on it.
From a corner of the room, hidden in the shadows, A'Maikra scowled his creature scowl. The Duke of Shippening was no friend to be made. He knew the dangerous game he played in order to gain his power, for A'Maikra played that same game years ago with a lady who promised to make all his dreams come true. Though he wielded great power, he lived the life of a servant. The lady had yet to fulfill her promise and now he was left to watch his greatest pride get handed over to the new prince of Cyndar. His kingdom, and his island, which were all wielded by his hand.
“And now this King thinks he could just hand it over, while shaking hands with the Duke of Shippening!” A'Maikra growled, and then he slipped away deeper into the shadows.
Five years passed as A'Maikra watched, silently, the bond grow between the new prince and his bride to be, as well as the King and the Duke of Shippening. "I say, they get along quite well," King Anaxem told the Duke. The Duke of Shippening puffed his pipe and grunted.
A'Maikra grumbled in his corner, wishing he could strike the Duke and his pipe dead where they stood. Patience, came a voice from within.
"Fifteen years it's been. Fifteen years I wait," Grumbled A'Maikra.
I gave you power to wield your mountain. I gave you ways in which to build your kingdom.
A'Maikra swiped at the air, "You gave them power, you gave them a kingdom. I merely slave under their rein. You gave me nothing!"
Your time is yet to come. Be patient my beautiful creature. It will come soon enough.
"You know he has made me an offer. You see the Duke and all his plenty; Power, a Kingdom, and now even a wife. An offering is all he asks of me."
He can not give you what you desire most. The Duke is merely a slave to his work, as you would be. But I will give you more in the end, and a slave to the mortal you will be no longer.
"Pah! You wenches are all the same! You promise with words, but words are weak. I need these people to fear me!"
I gave you power...
"Mere magic tricks! I want the strength to rule!"
With time, And she was gone from his mind.
A'Maikra eyed the young Meara and thought she would make a sacrifice indeed! The Duke's alliance to him posed a problem though. He needed a sacrifice, one worthy of a bargain. Then came the maid with word to the King, "The Queen, she is to deliver this night my lord."
"Well, this is a grand day indeed!" Said the Duke, slapping the King on the back. The King's smile was grand indeed. Though he was not the only one who was anticipating this birth. In the dark corner of the room a creature knew his time would come soon, whether the Lady's doing or not, he would have his offering.
They stepped out of the Wood Between and into the kingdom of Cyndar. The baby slept, unaware of the trip it had just taken. Cyndar's castle stood just beyond the garden, in all its volcanic glory. The man felt his heart sink as he looked from the great castle, down upon the sleeping babe. Her face was as pale as the snow from which she was born into. Her cheeks were rosy, though no longer from the cold. Cyndar was born of fire and the heat resided all around them. The baby squirmed in the man's arms.
"She's hot beneath those skins. Let us get her down into the castle," The woman stated, taking her husband's hand in hers as they walked on.
Cyndar's walls were great, built high atop of lava rock. The man could feel the heat of its magic and shuddered. He looked to his wife with concern. She lowered her head. He knew they had come this far and there was no turning back now. The garden gate was locked up and stood a few paces away. Just before it two soldiers sat, hunkering down as if ready to doze off to sleep. None set foot on Cyndar's island without the King's knowledge, and so they guarded with little concern to their actual duties of standing watch.
"Hullo there!" The old man said, doing his best to control his small shaky voice. He did not deal much with mortals, and knew the reputation the Cyndar's mortals held.
One guard jumped at the sound of the old man’s voice and shot to his feet, "Who are ye, and how have you come to Cyndar's gate!" The other guard stumbled to his feet, spear at the ready.
His wife grabbed hold of the old man's arm, reaching a hand around the baby. If worse was to come, she would be faster to reach the safety of the woods then her husband. She gently pulled the blanket over the babe’s face, "We come from a land, far unbeknownst to you or your King. We bring word to Lady Kwen, a tragedy of dire importance."
The guards looked to each other, question plaguing their faces. They had never received such a random visitor before, and those that could manage to break through A'Maikra's barriers were no friend of theirs. They called for the service of their captain, who seemed to take forever to reach the gate.
"Seize them, and take them to the castle," The captain ordered, and the gates were opened to let them in. The old man and woman stood relieved. Then the guards turned on them, with spears to their backs, and the woman's heart jumped in her chest. She knew if they ran they risked death, but her heart gave no relief as she followed her husband, spears to their backs, into the Kingdom of Cyndar.
"My lord, visitors have entered the walls of Cyndar," A guard stated as he knelt before his king. King Anaxem shot a look down at A'Maikra, who seemed to know nothing of it.
"How have they come if not by your doing? And how have you not sensed this by now?" The King asked.
"My lord...I...I do not know how," A'Maikra answered, for even he was merely mortal, and did not know that no mortal realm was hidden from those who walked the Wood Between.
"Magic, my lord," Answered the guard, "For they came out of nowhere. Not even the night watch caught sight of them until they were standing before them."
"Bring them to me!" King Anaxem demanded.
"Um, my lord. They request an audience with the Queen. They claim to have word of her people," The guards words seemed to turn the King to stone. A'Maikra hunkered back into the shadows, disappearing from the room entirely.
"Fetch the Queen," He said at last.
Moments later, Queen Kwen sat nestled atop her thrown. The King could not guess what she felt as she watched the guards approach with the older couple, dressed head to toe in firs, who claimed to have come from the land she abandoned so long ago.
"You enter my kingdom, claiming to have knowledge that would concern our queen?" King Anaxem said.
The couple stood shaking, exchanging glances between the King and Queen, though Queen Kwen seemed to refuse to look upon them. "Yes, my lord, we come from Nevenia, the land of your queen."
The King turned to his wife, waiting on her response, but her face kept turned toward the floor. He took a long look at the couple, examining their dress and pale skin. A bundle sat cradled in the man's arms, and it moved. "What is this? Do you dare bring a beast into our midst? Guards!"
"Wait, please!" Said the old woman, stepping before her husband to shield the bundle, "It is no beast, but a child. A wee babe, my lord. Kin to your queen." And with this Queen Kwen shot a glare upon the old couple.
"How dare you make such claims! Do you not see, my husband? These two come here with claims of my kin, but it is a lie! They wish to curse us!" The Queen’s eyes flared with fire and ire.
The old man, standing before the king, unwrapped the small bundle and held it up for all to see. The beautiful porcelain face twisted and crinkled in the light. King Anaxem leaned forward, and the old man, seeing the King's curiosity, took a step forward. The guards preceded to move, but were quickly halted by the King's hand. Now only six feet from the King, the babe opened her icy-blue eyes. She was not only beautiful, but the same sensation of seeing his own daughter for the first time overtook him.
"This is Ella, daughter of Kalitha, Queen of Nevenia. Ashiun's light guide her in the Netherworld." The old man said, kneeling before the royals out of respect for his fallen queen. His wife, tears in her eyes, followed suit, and the King could see they were sincere.
Queen Kwen looked as though she had just taken a dagger to the heart. Her sister, her beloved twin sister, was gone. She looked down upon the child. A single tear reached her eye, but was quickly dabbed away. Kwen was not one for falling prey to her emotions. She mourned her family long ago, and would not take back what she did.
"How did this come about?" The Queen asked, sitting as straight as any proper queen was taught to do.
The couple took to standing again, the man cradling the babe ever closer to him now, "I'm afraid to inform you that," he struggled to compose himself as he spoke, "that...Nevenia burns as we speak. Not a soul was left living, aside from my wife and myself. Ella here was found cradled in a bucket..at the bottom of a well."
"Burns? You don’t mean by dragon do you?" The King asked.
"What, are you trying to bring him here?" The Queen followed, anger surging through her words.
"We came because we had nowhere else to go, and because Ella needs her family. We are old, far past our child rearing days. She still has yet so long to live." The wife spoke, gently running a finger down Ella's cheek.
"You mean to say, you wish to drop this child off with us? Have us raise her for you?" Queen Kwen spoke as she eyed the child, with a less then compassionate eye.
"My dear," The King spoke softly, "She is not their burden to carry, and already they've carried her thus far. Our own will yet to need a lady companion. Let us not turn away from such an opportunity. For her to be raised beside her own cousin, what fun they will have."
The Queen did not look kindly upon his words, but instead escorted herself from the thrown room. And with that the babe was taken to King Anaxem’s arms, and under his care she would stay. The couple left without a goodbye, though in their hearts they felt it was not the last they would see of their tiny queen.
"Stupid Rooster! Stupid Rooster!" Squawked a small green bird that stood atop Ella's pillow. Ella grabbed the pillow beside her and pulled it over her head, the green bird barely making it out before getting smothered.
"Stupid Rooster! Stupid Rooster! Must get up!" The bird squawked again, hopping atop the second pillow. Ella tossed the pillow from her head, sending the bird into flight.
"I get it! It's a stupid rooster! And the sun has barely begun to rise, which is why it is a stupid rooster!" Ella grouched, rising from her bed and dropping her feet to the floor. The bird, which now clung to her bed drapes, turned its head sideways to look at her. It dangled one of its feet before her face. Ella held up a finger, welcoming the bird to take a ride over to her wash bin.
"Here you go." Ella said, placing her bird atop the edge of the bin. She went on to wash her neck and face, occasionally wringing a few drops of water atop the birds head. "Brr." The bird cooed, fluffing its feathers with a shake of its body.
"It is rather cold this morning." Ella agreed. After dressing herself, and quickly pinning up her hair, she made her way for the door. Her bird flew forward, landing atop her shoulder. "Not this time Pistacia, you know how you creep them out. Maybe if you could keep your mouth shut when you're around them, but we both know that's not happening."
Ella scooped up Pistacia and sent her into the air with a flick of her hand. Pistacia took off, only to make a loop around and land right back on top of her head. "Well now look what you've done. Off with you, silly bird."
"Silly bird! Silly bird!" Pistacia squawked as Ella untangled its feet from her hair.
"I don't have time for this. If you are going to come along, you are going to keep out of my way. And don't show your face around the princess, lest you want to find yourself in tonight's stew pot." Ella opened the door and escorted Pistacia out of the room.
Pistacia took for the floor of the hall and waddled on her way. What she did during the day Ella did not know, nor did she know why the bird took to walking when she was well equipped with wings. She'd put more thought into it but rarely did she have the time. She had to be to her lady's room before sunrise.
"Where is your ever obnoxious flying friend this morning?" Princess Feullete asked as Ella aided her in her morning preparations.
"Around," Is all that Ella could think to answer. She really didn't know what Pistacia was up to, and she didn't really care, as long as she did not have to hear about it later.
"I don't know why you keep company with such a creature. Full of disease and insects they are," Feullete stated, her nose turned up to the air. Ella righted her head as she started to braid the princess's hair. Feullete made no fuss at the forced gesture, knowing she herself did not want her hair out of place.
"I really do not choose to keep her company, as much as she chooses to keep mine," Ella replied.
"She? Do you even know if it is a girl?" Feullete asked.
"You know, I never really thought about it before. I just naturally assumed from the pretty red ring around her neck, and her pretty green feathers, that she must be a girl," Ella answered.
"She looks like a giant pistacia nut," The princess said, "And I hate pistacia nuts. Just like your bird, they belong outside."
Ella ignored the princess's ramblings. She enjoyed pistacia nuts, just as much as she enjoyed Pistacia herself. Ella finished attending to the princess, and together they headed down for the dining hall, where the King, Queen, and Prince all awaited them.
Ella took her seat opposite the prince, and beside her cousin Feullete. The Queen, who sat between the prince and king, welcomed her daughter, but said not a word to Ella. Ella had grown used to this behavior. She put all her attention to her uncle instead who always started the day with a warm welcome.
"You look lovely this morning my flower," He said to Feullete, who's smile shown brightly at her father's words, but died quickly as he turned his attention toward Ella, "And you as well, sweet angel. I pray you two slept well."
"Yes, my lord." The two said in unison, though Feullete's mood had quickly soured. She barely touched the food before her, and paid no respects to the men and women who served her. Ella, on the other hand, always welcomed their service with a smile.
"I am happy to inform you, my Queen, that we are to expect the Duke of Shippening this evening. He is to come with his daughter Meara, to dine with us." The King turned to his son at the mention of Meara's name. His son paid his father little attention, and showed no particular response to the mention of Meara.
"Why, that is so wonderful, my lord," The Queen began, elbowing her son, "The weather is so wonderful this evening. I say it would be perfect for a ride on horseback. You can take her up the trail to the ocean cliffs. The sunset there is just lovely."
Everyone knew the prince was of age to marry, and the prince was feeling the pressure more then ever. "She can see the sunset over the ocean from the guest quarters," Prince Donovan said, his mood sounding as soured as his sister's.
His mother's scowl could melt ice, and she turned it upon her son full force. Luckily for Donovan he was born under such heat. He kept his eyes to his food, not giving his mom an ounce of attention. She turned her glare upon her husband, who shrugged, and went back to eating his food.
"It's alright mother. I am plenty of age, and as soon as they come, I will be sure not treat my suitors with such disdain," Princess Feullete stated, making her mother's face flood with pride.
"Speaking of, my love, when will you allow our sweet flower to start accepting suitors? For she is near sixteen and has not yet to be courted by a single suitor," The Queen asked, obviously switching her attention off her son, and onto a more promising subject.
"One wedding at a time, my love. As soon as the announcement for our son's betrothal is made, we can start accepting suitors for our lovely ladies," The King answered.
At his words, his daughter dropped her fork to her plate, "Ladies? But...Ella? She is no princess!" Ella had froze where she sat, with her fork dangling in her grasp.
"Ella is just as much a princess here as you are, my dear," The King said plainly.
"Not of this Kingdom. Her kingdom burned to the ground! Why should she have a right to barge her way in here as princess, unless you are trying to replace me. Is that what it is father? Is it because I am not as pretty as she is? Have you lost favor with me? Am I no longer good enough to be called you beautiful flower!" At this point his daughter had become red and raging. Feullete was known for losing her temper, and her mother was known even more for fueling it.
"This is absurd! I will not have this thieving girl take attention off our daughter, who is rightful princess in the house of Cyndar! This kingdom has one princess and that is our flower Feullete! And you will not deny her all possible suitors by waving this impostor in their faces!" The Queen spoke with such force that even King Anaxem was taken aback.
"Father, didn't you once say that Ella was not aware of the fate to which her family perished?" Prince Donovan asked. With that the King's face turned pale, and his heart sank. He spun in his seat, searching the room, but Ella was nowhere to be found. King Anaxem turned to his wife, who smiled an evil sneer, and pretended to take no notice. He knew she would learn about it sooner or later, but he had hoped she would hear it from him.
Ella was running, but to where she did not know. All she knew was that she wanted as far away from Feullete's words as she could get. Her mind reeled with questions, but the answers seemed so far out of reach. A real princess? Was she really a real princess? And what of this kingdom they spoke of? ...burned to the ground! Those words reverberated in her mind, pounding her thoughts until she could take it no longer. She had just taken hold of a tree when she realized she was no longer within the castle grounds. She had left through the garden gate and wandered far into the forest beyond.
Ella desired tears but did not know what it was she would cry over. She did not know her family, nor the kingdom from which she came. She was raised under the impression that her mother, Queen Kwen's sister, died giving birth to her within the house of Cyndar. She was of royal blood, but was denied title when she became pregnant outside of wedlock.
When asked about her father, Queen Kwen claimed he was a nobody. Ella always assumed that it was because of this that she was despised so. If she was a real princess, then how could her father be a nobody. And if her parents had a kingdom all their own, how is it she came to be born within the castle of Cyndar. It was all so confusing.
Ella felt she had lost the will to keep running. Where would she run away to anyway. She was stuck on an island. Search parties would be sent for her and she couldn't evade them forever. She slid down the tree, not caring what it was doing to her dress, and took seat upon the crinkly leaves beneath her. Even among the shade of the trees, the heat from above was almost unbearable. Ella felt her dress sticking to her body and her hair growing clammy.
"What am I doing?" She asked herself.
"Tis a very good question. What are you doing here?" Came a voice from the shadows.
Ella shot to her feet, turning right and left in search of the voice that spoke to her, "Who are you? There's no need to play games. I am merely out for a walk and my escorts will be after me shortly."
"You need not lie to me, Princess. I've been watching you for some time now. I know you are alone here."
Ella felt a sudden chill, though her body sweat from the heat. She slowly started to back the way she came, keeping a watch for the source of the voice, "I have no need to lie to you. I am merely trying to save you from a dreadful death should my escorts find you taunting me so. So please, just leave me be." She heard the panic in her own voice give herself away.
"I mean you no harm, my dear, for I know the troubles you are in. I come because I know what they refuse to tell you. The truth behind the lies you've been told. I know the place you once called home."
Ella wished for her feet to keep on moving. She did not trust this voice, no matter what he claimed to know. Her feet refused to move, and her ears seemed to search for the voice once more. "Tell me what you know," She heard herself speak. She scolded herself afterward for edging him on, and wished she could get her feet to cooperate.
"I will tell you, but I must ask a favor in return."
"What kind of favor?" She asked, scowling at her feet as she willed them to move. She heard a rustle of leaves behind her and quickly turned her head. Her heart beat furiously within her chest.
"Look," Came the voice, though this time she was sure it was right before her. She spun her head forward, but there was no one there. Then something caught her eye. On the ground by her feet, twinkling in the sunlight that shone through the trees, lay a strange object. It looked like a hand mirror but was not made of glass. Something about the item drew her in, pulling at her until she was kneeling before it.
Pick it up, came a voice, but this time she could hear it within her own head.
This wasn't good and she knew it. She did not want this, but the millions of unanswered questions in her mind plagued her, urging her on.
Pick it up so that I may see the beauty that lies within you.
Ella saw her hand reach out, watched it hover over the shiny object, and felt its heat as it drew her in. A flash of green and then it was gone. Her trance was broken and she found herself on her hands and knees. Her heart was pounding so hard in her chest she feel it in her head. She tried to stand but her world begun spinning.
She fell to the ground, feeling as though she was on fire. The sun had reached its peak and its heat was scorching the worlds beneath it. She heard a squawk, and a sudden rustling of leaves, but to move her head made her world spin more. Suddenly there were arms beneath her, scooping her off the ground, and carrying her out of the forest.
Her head was pounding but her body was cool once more. She recognized the curtains that hung around her bed, and the small ramblings of the feathery friend that she was sure stood watch by her window. Ella rolled to her side, the movements enhancing the pain in her head.
"You are keeping so quiet. Is that for my benefit?" She said softly, smiling when her eyes saw the green blur behind her curtains fluff up. She moved one of her curtains back and heard the flutter of wings. Pistacia landed beside her pillow. "I'm sorry I ran off. I did not mean to be so rash. I was just...well I don't know what I was. Confused, I guess."
Pistacia chirped softly. Ella gently scratched the back of the bird's head with her finger. Pistacia suddenly arched its head, aiming its gaze at the door right as a knock sounded. Ella tried to rise up but found the pain in her head prevented such movement. "Come in," She said laying her head back atop her pillow and pinching her eyes shut.
"I thought you might like some water," Came a man's voice. Ella's eyes shot open, and she tried to rise again, regretting it the moment she did. It was not normally proper for a man to enter a ladies room without an escort, but Ella was in no shape to argue. "Please," came Prince Donovan's voice, "Don't move. I can come to you."
Ella was relieved it was Donovan and gladly stayed where she lay. Prince Donovan took a seat beside her bed and held the cup of water before her face. Ella knew it would hurt to move but reached for the cup as she raised her head enough to drink. The cool water soothed all the way down, cooling her head with each gulp she took, until she realized she had downed the entire cup within seconds. Prince Donovan's eyes were wide with surprise, but a smile resided on his face. Embarrassed, Ella pushed the cup away.
"Thank you," She whispered, laying her head back against her pillow.
"You're welcome," He replied. Then came a few minutes of silence where neither knew quite what to say.
"Who found me?" Ella asked at last. She rolled to her side, just enough to meet his gaze. His face showed pity and a tad bit of anger.
"I did," He replied. His focus moved to the cup in his hands, which he rolled back and forth between his palms, "Mother refused to send a search party. Father refused to cross her decision, seeing as she convinced him you left of your own free will, and would come back should you so choose to do so." Ella's heart sank, her face looked clearly confused. "I don't understand it," the prince went on, "Why she despises you so. You've been nothing but sweet, to all of us."
Ella looked up from the cup to find he was looking at her now. She blushed under his gaze, and had to look away. He cleared his throat before asking, "You aren't going to leave now, are you?"
Surprised by this Ella met his gaze again, "No, of course not. I mean, where would I go?"
"Well, back to where you came from, I guess."
"And where is that? I don't know where I came from."
"If you were to find out the truth, would you leave?" He tried to avoid looking at Ella, but couldn't help finally meeting her eye to eye.
Donovan had always been her closest friend, seeing as he was one of few who actually liked her, but even now she felt betrayed that he had never told her of this before, "What would I go back to? You heard your sister's words. Burned to the ground...if I really did have a kingdom, I don't have a kingdom anymore."
"What of its people though? Surely not everyone could have died," The Prince said, thinking of the two that brought her here. If that couple managed to make it out alive, there had to be more that managed an escape.
Ella's eyes grew wide. "Donnie, what are you saying?" She pushed herself up to see him better, "What do you know?" Her silver-blue eyes flared in an icy fire that burned right through him.
Donovan knew there was no keeping it from her now, she deserved the know the truth, and it was time someone told her, "You weren't born in this castle Ella. You were brought here, by your people."
The pain in her head could not keep her from shooting straight up in her bed. Her mouth tried to form words but she felt mute in that moment. The words danced around her head until finally the right ones found their way to her lips, "Tell me everything."
The Duke of Shippening was a disgusting sight as he shoveled his food and gulped his wine. Even more so he was loud, slapping the King atop his shoulders with every boisterous laugh he made. Ella found herself re-swallowing food that seemed to not want to stay put in her stomach. Still dizzy from her run through the woods, and fighting the truths she had just learned, Ella found herself struggling to tolerate the noisy company.
"His father was furious, and I could see war in his eyes, but I laughed despite his anger. You should have seen his runt of a son. And he had the nerve to call him a prince!" The Duke gloated in his story, telling of the poor prince's embarrassment as he attempted courting his daughter.
Meara sat silently cutting her food into tiny pieces, ignoring her father's storytelling. Prince Donovan barely touched his food, though he kept his eyes to his plate. Ella watched him more closely now. She knew Donovan's stresses with his parents persistence to have him marry Meara, but never before had she realized how unhappy he looked.
"I told him his son was nothing in comparison to Meara's current suitor, and that he'd have far better chances in a kingdom like Geladium. Oh, he did not take so kindly to that!" The Duke gave another boisterous laugh.
"Few could stand up beside a prince such as Donovan! A fine lad he has become, and a fine husband he will make!" King Anaxem stated.
Ella wondered how Meara and Donovan felt, with their father's speaking of them as if they were not present to hear. Ella turned her attention to Princess Feullete who looked to be boiling under the surface. Feullete was eyeing Meara with horrible detest. With every visit from Meara, Feullete's presence became smaller and smaller. Meara did not even notice, as she was too busy smiling and pretending to enjoy her father's compliment. Although Ella saw the eye rolls that followed as soon as Meara turned her head from him.
The Queen seemed fed up with all this talk of her son, and decided to take the focus another route, "Surely there must be a prince worth taking notice of elsewhere. You see, my beautiful flower, Princess Feullete, will be looking for suitors soon. We would take very little but the best to court our daughter, as you can understand."
The Duke seemed to study Feullete for a moment, almost too long in Ella's eyes, for one would almost think he was incapable of seeing beauty in the princess at all. Then his focus turned toward his pipe, which he proceeded to pack tightly, gesturing for a light from one of the servants. The Queen started to fume until the Duke, after a puff from his pipe, finally spoke up.
"There is one who may be of interest to you. I'd much rather see him beheaded myself, after his refusal to even visit my daughter. From what I hear though, kings have even gone as far as offering gifts of gold in exchange for a visit to his kingdom, just so he could look upon their daughters in the chance that he might fall in love with one of them. I'd sooner see him hanged then pay him to look upon my daughter. Especially when she has a suitor of comparable looks and charm. I see no reason to push my luck elsewhere, but you feel free if such a prince is your wish." The Duke leaned back in his chair, so much Ella half expected it to break under his weight. He puffed his pipe and seemed almost to fall asleep.
"And what, may I ask, be the name of this kingdom you speak of?" The Queen said, intrigue plaguing her features. She had to clear her throat before waking the Duke from his tobacco coma.
"The Kingdom? Oh yes, Vaniabera. Prince Theo of Vaniabera. His kingdom lies just below the mountain of ice, which borders the kingdom of Nevenia, I believe." The Duke said, slowly closing his eyes and returning to his coma state.
"Nevenia?!" The King said, startling the Duke so much he almost lost his pipe. The Queen dropped her wine, sending a river of red down the table. Ella watched the blood red river pour down the table until it reached her napkin. The cloth, which was once white as snow, was now stained red. Something in Ella's mind flashed bright as the sun, blinding her thoughts until all she could see was the memory:
A baby, dressed in white, cradled in her mother's arms. Her mother's face is one of fear as she races from a castle of ice, trudging through the snow, her feet completely bare. She comes to a halt just inside the courtyard. A beast stands before her, eyes red and flaming. The baby cries and the mother squeezes tighter.
"You may not have her! I don't care what he promised you!"
"Oh, promise he did, but I am not here for the babe. I need proof that his and his own tried hiding her from me, so that when I return I can have his blood!"
The woman's eyes grew wide with terror. A tear glistened down her cheek like a diamond, falling frozen to the ground. Then her fear is gone as she stands courageously before the best. Her bare feet standing in puddles now, as the snow around the beast melts under his heat.
"You can burn my kingdom, and you can spill my blood, but no matter what you threaten she will never be yours!" And with that a white beast, like that of a great lion, dives forth from beneath the snow, and takes the baby in his giant jaws.
Though its teeth dig into the babe's flesh it does not let go, running for all its worth. It comes to a well on the far side of town. The beast's flames can be seen not far in the distance. The great cat takes to the form of a man, cradling the crying baby in his arms, the baby's dress now stained with blood.
"It's okay, sweet sister, he will not find you. I promise to make sure of it." The man quickly pulls the bucket off the wall.
Removing his own shirt he wraps it tightly around the baby and lays her inside the bucket. From his pocket he pulls out a flower, as white as the snow from which it grows, and dusts it under her nose. The baby's cry fades, and her eyes drift close. He struggles behind his tears as he slowly lowers her into the well. Taking to his lion form he turns to face in the direction of the beast. A blood curdling scream fills the air, and the great white cat lets out a roar that would pierce the heart of even the toughest of goblins.
The baby whimpers within the well, her sounds never reaching the surface above.
"Ella, what are you doing?" Prince Donovan asked after storming after her, and following her to her room. He found she had a sack and was packing it full of clothes.
"What does it look like? I'm packing," Ella answered, fighting tears as she shoved random belongings into the sack, filling it full.
"So, you are leaving then," Donovan stated. Ella could hear the drop in his voice, and she stopped in the midst of shoving a giant dress into her sack, its skirt filling the void between them. She pulled it out and tossed it to the floor.
"I saw something." Ella said, taking a seat atop her bed. Donovan stepped closer, taking a seat beside her. A flurry of green came charging down upon him, landing in the small space between. It nipped Donovan's arm, sending him scurrying to the far side of the bed.
"Ow! You little beast!" The Prince spat, grabbing hold of a pillow for defense.
"I'm sorry," Ella said, desperately taking hold of the bird, "She's been a little protective over me lately."
"Back to what you were saying, before we were so rudely interrupted," Prince Donovan said, glaring at the bird in Ella's hands. It hissed back at him.
"Silly bird. Stupid boy," The bird said. Ella clamped her fingers around its beak.
"At dinner earlier. After the Duke said that name, Nevenia. That was the name of my kingdom," Ella said, releasing the bird and allowing it to settle itself on her lap.
"How do you know that?" Donovan asked, desiring to inch closer, but fearing the bird that watched him like a hawk.
"I saw it, in my mind. A memory of sorts. I saw my kingdom, and the beast that burned it," Ella clenched her fists tight. The bird crawled up her arm and nestled against her face. The Prince thought this curious, but took the opportunity to edge closer to Ella.
"So you say you saw it, but how are you going to get there? And even if you do, what do you expect to find?" Donovan asked.
"I don't know what I'll find. Even you said there is a chance there might be people still. All I know is what my heart tells me, and my heart tells me that I need to go back." Ella pulled her sack to her feet.
Donovan's heart pounded inside his chest as he turned his eyes upon Ella, "You can't go, " he said, reaching for her hand, then pulling his own back after the bird took a dive down to her lap, "at least....not alone."
Ella's eyes widened, and her mouth stood agape. Her door flew open as a startled Ella jumped to her feet. Queen Kwen stormed into her chambers.
"And what, may I ask, are you doing in here?" She scolded, shooting her glare from Ella to Donovan, who's heart looked about to jump from his chest.
"Mother, I was merely checking up on Ella. I was worried after she left from dinner in such a hurry. I was concerned for her health is all," Prince Donovan stood, bowing to Ella shakily, "I'm glad to see you doing better."
Queen Kwen looked like she might erupt. Ella imagined her spitting fire as her mouth opened, "Feeling a little sick, are we? I'm sure this has nothing to do with the Duke's story." The Queen's eye drifted to the sack at Ella's feet, "So it does. Looks like the secret is out." Her scowl became a smile even more menacing, "Don't think you're going anywhere. Not just yet."
Ella watched the Queen as she drifted from her room, slowly closing the door with barely a sound. Her mind tried to make sense of the Queen's words, but no matter why she said what she said, Ella knew there was something evil hidden behind that woman's eyes.
Queen Kwen walked the dark halls of the Castle of Cyndar, watching the shadows with pure suspicion. Her eyes locked on a corner of the castle where the shadows seemed to form a dark void, refusing any light to penetrate.
"I know you are there, creature. What word of you from the Duke?" The Queen asked.
"He is awaiting you at his chambers. But I must say, I despise you for ever bringing him in on our bargain," A'Maikra crawled from the shadows, his hideous face contorted into an ugly pout.
"He is our voice for making this bargain, not to mention our legs on which to stand upon. He does not fear the dragon," The Queen stated, cringing at the sight of the creature's droopy mouth, which muttered words inaudible to her ears. "Speak up, you morbid buffoon!"
A'Maikra cringed at these words, "And what of our bargaining chip? She knows. I see it in her eyes. Someone has told her. How are we to ensure that she does not make a run for it?"
"Yes, we can thank my idiotic son for that one. I caught him visiting her chambers, the snake. This will not come in the way of our plans. I have made sure there is watch on her at all hours of the day. Besides, with your help we can ensure that she will never make it off this island."
A'Maikra grinned, though Kwen wished he hadn't. His grin was even uglier then his pout. "Now off with you creature. Make ready the island, and I will have word with the Duke."
A'Maikra lurked back into the shadows, and Queen Kwen continued on her way to meet the Duke at his chambers. Two light raps on the door proved it to be open, though she waited for his face to appear behind the crack. The Duke guided the door the rest of the way, welcoming the Queen into his room.
"I've been waiting. What kept you!" The Duke demanded under a whisper. The Queen caught eye of princess Meara asleep on a bench by the window, and looked upon the Duke with questioning. "She said she felt uneasy in her chambers, as if a lurker hid within the shadows, watching her."
"Really. I wouldn't be surprised," The Queen said matter-of-factually, "Shall we take this out to the hall then?" The Duke stepped out, closing the door until but a splinter of light shone through.
"If that creature does not stop tormenting my daughter then I will have his head on a stake, and he will live out his days as a scarecrow in my gardens!" The Duke spat, hoping the creature was near enough to hear.
"I do not control the creature. You are free to do with him what you wish. I come here on a different matter, one involving the dragon," The Queen said, her voice so low the Duke had to lean in to hear it clearly.
Inside the room Meara had lay awake under the light of the moon, for fear of sleeping amongst the shadows of this castle. She could feel them watching her everywhere she went. When she heard the Queen's voice she startled, but did not move. Why has the Queen come to meet my father at his chambers?
Meara heard their voices drift from the room, and the door creak a little. She rolled on her bench, keeping her eyes shut just in case, finding when she cracked them open a little that she was completely alone. She could hear them on the other side of the door, and slowly crept off her bench.
She prayed the floorboards wouldn't give her away as she crept closer to the door. A few feet away now she could hear the voices more clearly. "The Dragon will not take lightly to bargains. He wants what he is due, and was promised to be delivered it more then once." She recognized her father's voice, and knew of whom he talked. She had heard him address the dragon before.
"He will get what he wants, and this time I will hand deliver it to him. I need only what I ask!" Came the Queen's voice.
"He can give you what you ask, of course, but it may not come in the way in which you desire it to," The Duke said menacingly.
"He has provided you with much. I do not see why what I ask should be so hard for one of his power to accomplish," The Queen stated in return.
"If power is what you seek then power is what you will get. But I warn you now, the power to rule for eternity comes at a price. If you are willing to pay it, he will gladly provide it in exchange for the girl." Meara could sense her father's smile as he spoke these words.
The girl? She wondered. Surely he could not be talking about her. Her father would never allow such harm to come to her. But then who could they be talking of? Princess Feullete? Surely not. Queen Kwen took too much pride in her 'beautiful flower' Meara thought, rolling her eyes. Then there could only be one other they spoke of.
"Ella." Meara whispered aloud. She heard the door creak a little, and hurried back to her bench. Quickly re-positioning herself, praying her father did not hear her scurry.
"I will relay your message but I promise nothing," The Duke said as he entered his chambers. The Queen took two steps inside and stopped, checking on Princess Meara where she lay.
"You do what I ask, and your daughter can have this kingdom, and my son, handed over to her on a silver platter. They can do with the castle what they wish for I will no longer care. I will be sitting on a throne of my own, far greater then any mortal of this world," The Queen said, taking a step closer to the Duke, who refused to budge from where he stood.
"You do this for me, and in exchange, I will gladly make room in my kingdom for one other to rule beside me. Think on it," She said, turning in a flattering manner toward the door. The Duke watched as the Queen drifted down the hall. He huffed at her offer, shutting the door a little louder then he intended.
"Father? Is that you?" Meara asked, though she knew very well who it was.
"Sorry, my sweet. I did not mean to wake you. I went for a stroll to get some fresh air. But I am back now," The Duke said, taking a seat on his bed so he may remove his shoes.
"It is quite alright. I am feeling much better now and think I will return to my chambers," Meara said, rising from the bench.
"Are you quite sure, my dear?"
"Yes, father," She said, approaching his side, and leaning down to kiss him atop his head, "Sleep well." And she departed from his room, passing her doors as she walked down to Ella’s room.
Ella tucked her sack under her arm and crept to her door. Cracking it open a little, she peered out to find two guards leaning against the far wall. Ella closed her door and went for her second plan. Her window overlooked the gardens but it was a straight two story drop all the way down. "It's impossible Pistachia. There is no way out of here." Pistacia quickly turned her head to the door. Ella waited for the knock to sound.
She approached her door slowly, opening it just enough to meet the guards gaze, "You have company, Lady Ella."
Ella stared questioningly at the guard. He stepped aside to allow Meara through. "Lady Ella."
"Princess Meara, what brings you here this time of night?" Ella asked.
"Princess Feullete has complimented your company on many occasions, and seeing as I have struggled to find sleep as of late, I was wondering if I may have the pleasure of your company this night." Meara smiled kindly as she gesturing toward the door. Ella was curious, Does she mean for me to go with her?
"Of course, you aren't the first to suffer night terrors in this castle. I have spent many a nights singing for Princess Feullete so that she might find sleep. I would gladly help," Ella said.
"Shall we then?" Meara said, taking Ella's hand and dragging her from the room. "Thank you guards, we will no longer need your services."
"Um, yes, thank you," Ella said, almost tripping over her feet as she was pulled down the hall. The guards were left staring at each other with question, but Meara left them no time to think it through. She pulled Ella quickly down the hall and out of the guards line of sight.
Ella saw the guest quarters in sight but they took a detour toward the stairs, "Meara, where are you taking me? Your room is up the way.." But Meara pulled Ella close and covered her mouth.
"Keep quiet, we can't risk my father hearing us. Now quickly, down the stairs. If anyone sees us, we missed dinner and are going to have a midnight snack," Meara whispered, edging Ella toward the stair. Ella looked desperately into Mean's eyes. She could see that Meara wanted her to trust her, so Ella kept on down the stairway.
As they descended they could see the shadows grow larger and darker. "The shadows, they're watching us," Meara said quietly.
Ella looked around them and felt the uneasiness Meara must have been feeling. They moved all the faster, skipping steps as they nearly ran down the stairs. The shadows lightened up as they reached the bottom floor. Meara continued pulling Ella, this time in the direction of the kitchen.
"Where is it safe to talk?" Meara whispered as they walked.
"I don't know, nowhere really. The gardens, maybe, but how would we make it outside?" Ella asked.
"I don't know. This is your castle, not mine. My maids always had hidden halls and their own entrances to the castle. Does yours not have the same?" Meara asked.
"Oh, they do! Here, this way." Ella said, taking the lead from Meara.
The two hurried on through the halls, into the kitchen, then through a door that looked to be a pantry, but became a door to a courtyard. Tucked on the side of the castle laid the place where the cooks and butchers made shop.
"The guards rarely patrol these parts. We shouldn't run into trouble," Ella said, squeezing Meara's hand tightly. Meara tensed up too, looking up to the walls, and into every dark corner they came across. They reached a corner that turned out toward the gardens.
"We should run for it from here. We risk someone seeing us from the windows above, but once we reach the garden hedges we should be out of sight," Ella said, pulling Meara closer to her. The two both took a breath, and Ella squeezed her hand once more, "Now!"
They took off for the hedges, crossing the open space that felt like a hundred eyes peering down upon them. Meara couldn't help but turn her head for a second to look up at the castle above. No windows seemed to show light but she could still feel eyes watching her through the darkness. Meara felt grass under her feet and no sooner felt her weight being pulled to the ground.
"Ow!" She said, pulling her hand out from Ella's grasp, rubbing at her now sore shoulder.
"Sorry," Ella said, taking a deep breath. The two waited an overly quiet second, listening for any signs of being seen.
"Okay, we should keep going. Even if they caught sight of us, do you really want to wait for them to come looking?" Meara asked.
"No, you are right. Lets keep on," Ella said, rising to a crouch, and doing her best to rush through the gardens. She came to another set of hedge bushes that led deeper into the trees. Feeling comfortable standing at this point, she took off in a run, though her run came to a sudden halt as she collided into a soft, although bulky form. It took hold of her arms, and Ella kicked and fought with all her might.
"Ella! Ella, ow! It's me, would you stop hitting me!" Prince Donovan said, taking hold of her wrists. Ella stopped, looking up into his face. Meara giggled softly in the background.
"Donnie? What are you doing out here?" Ella asked.
"I think that question would better be directed at you two," Donovan stated, barely meeting eyes with Meara.
"We're on the run, obviously," Meara said, stepping beside Ella and taking her arm.
"Yea, though I don't quite know what from, or why," Ella said, looking to Meara, and then back at Prince Donovan.
Donovan looked at Meara, and he knew, "You plan to take her back?"
"They're after her," Meara said, and Ella shot her a look.
"After me? Who?" Ella asked.
"Your aunt and my father," Meara said, turning to look at her.
"But why? What do they want with me?" Ella asked, looking toward Donovan, though he did not seem to be as informed.
"They wish to use you as a bargain to the dragon. Though for what I don't quite know," Meara said.
The Dragon...And Ella's mind drifted off into a memory, her kingdom burning under the furnace of that fire breathing beast, and her mother's words, "You may not have her! I don't care what he promised you!" "I don't get it. What is it about me that the beast would want me?"
But neither of the other two seemed to have the answer. "All I know," Meara said, taking Ella's hand again, "Is that we got to get you out of here. For whatever the dragon desires, it only ever results in death." And Ella nodded.
"I know where we can get some horses, but from there I know little of how we can get off this island," Prince Donovan said.
"Stupid boy! Follow me, silly bird." Came a voice from above. Ella knew that voice and found her bird sitting atop a branch overhead.
"Pistachia, where did you come from?" Ella asked, but the bird ignored her and flew to another branch deeper into the trees. Ella followed without question.
"Are we seriously following the bird?" Donovan asked, running after Ella, who was already heading deeper and deeper into the wood.
"Do you have a better idea?" Meara asked, overtaking him in mere seconds to catch up to Ella.
"Follow silly bird. Faster now, boy!" The bird's voice echoed back to the Prince's ears.
"Does no one realize it's actually talking to us?" Donovan asked, running faster to catch up.
No one realized the deeper they ran, the more the forest changed before them, turning into a wood far beyond the reaches of the border of Cyndar.
"What do you mean they're gone?!" The Queen screamed from her seat atop the throne.
King Anaxem turned to her questioningly, "No need to yell, my love. They couldn't have gotten far. We have a party out searching for them already."
"Do not tell me when I can or cannot raise my voice in my own thrown room! I gave these men orders, they were not to take their eyes off the girl for a moment, or it was to be their heads!" Queen Kwen scolded, looking down upon the two who, fearing their very lives, looked pleadingly upon their king.
"The girl? Both the girls are missing, my dear, and it is not the guards jobs to keep them confined to the castle. They left the castle by their own accord, and the guards alerted us first chance they got," The King said.
A door slammed open and the Duke of Shippening charged into the throne room, flanked by six of his guards, "What is this that I hear about my daughter going missing?!"
The King saw the furry on the Duke's face, and stood before his throne, his hands both raised as a sign of peace, "Calm, my friend. The guards have been out all morning looking for them. They are probably just out for an early morning stroll up the mountain. There is a great lookout up there. Mother had suggested Prince Donovan take Meara up there to watch the sunrise. I'm sure that is where they are."
The Duke looked to Queen Kwen who's face betrayed the King's words, "You better hope they are out watching the sunset, because if my Meara does not return, I will be holding you responsible." The Duke turned and marched out, motioning for his guards to follow, "My horse, now!"
He didn't know how long he'd been running, but one thing he did know was that his legs were going to give in any minute. Prince Donovan tried to speak, but his heavy breathing prevented any actual words to make it out, "Wa...ho...hold...on." He gasped and exhaled his words, taking hold of a tree for support.
Pistachia landed atop his head a minute later, pecking furiously at his scalp, "Ouch! Stop it! Blasted bird!" Donovan hollered, waving his free arm furiously over his head, somehow missing the bird every time.
"Pistachia, stop it. Quit picking on Donnie like that!" Ella scolded, snatching hold of one of Pistachia's wings before the bird could go at Donovan's head once more.
"I agree with Donovan," Meara said, taking hold of a tree herself, "I don't think I can take another step in these horrible things." She kicked off her slippers and rubbed her sore feet.
"Might have been better off with a real pair of shoes," Ella said taking notice of the shattered state of Meara's slippers.
"Yea, I didn't exactly think this far ahead," Meara said as she picked at a splinter that had stuck itself into her heel.
"I don't think any of us could foresee ourselves running through the woods in the middle of the night," Donovan said, taking notice of their surroundings for the first time since planting himself onto the tree, "Funny thing, though, is it just me or does it seem strangely brighter here. We couldn't have been running for that long."
Meara and Ella both turned where they sat on the forest floor, taking their gaze to the trees up above. "Donnie, these don't look like the same trees that we would find around Cyndar," Ella said.
"No, this isn't the same place. The ground is moist, and it hasn't rained in Cyndar for weeks," Donovan said, running his hand through the foliage that littered the forest floor.
"What are you saying? Cyndar is on an island, so how could we not be in the same place?" Meara asked.
Ella shrieked, shaking her hand, and grasping her finger in pain, "Pistacia, what has gotten into you!"
"That little beast needs to be plucked and staked over a fire!" Donovan said, picking up a stick and swinging at the air, though Pistacia had already disappeared out of sight.
"Donovan, drop the stick, it's gone," Meara said, eyeing Donovan so as to direct his attention toward Ella.
"I don't understand. He brought us out here this far, so why would he suddenly just leave like that," Ella said, watching the forest through tears.
"He didn't bring us here, Ella. He flew off, as any wild bird would, and we followed because we had no where else to go," Meara told her.
"I'm not so sure about that," Donovan said, "I was following the bird, though I don't exactly remember why."
"He brought us here for a reason," Ella said again. All were quiet for a moment, when off in the distance a branch snapped. All three heads turned, though there was nothing to be seen in the distant forest.
"Duck down, just in case whoever it is hasn't seen us yet. We don't want to draw attention in case it's my father's guards," Donovan said ducking low behind some brush.
"Or worse, my father's guards," Meara said following suit.
Ella ducked low, but kept her head elevated enough to see. The snapping of sticks and foliage sounded louder until two forms took shape through the trees.
"I can see them, but they do not look like guards. I don't even know if they are people. They seem big…and furry," Ella said softly, barely a whisper.
"What?" Donovan said poking his head up enough to see, "What kind of forest is this?"
Meara seemed something short of a panic attack as she slipped her slippers back onto her feet, preparing herself to run. "You just say the words." She said, though her voice shook with fear.
"It's no monster, Meara. They're people for sure," Ella said.
"Quiet, and get down. They are almost on top of us," Donovan harshly whispered, taking hold of Ella's shoulder and pulling her down. His hand remained rested atop her shoulder, feeling her push up as she resisted him.
"But, I don't think..." Ella said, grabbing his hand and trying to push him off, "They don't seem dangerous." She took hold of his hand, and turned to him with a glare that made his blood run cold for a moment. Then came an all too familiar squawk as Pistachia appeared on a branch overhead.
"Pista...." Ella started, before Donovan's large hand covered her face. Pistachia was upon him in seconds, landing on his hand, and tearing a chunk of skin from one of his knuckles.
"Oh, you blasted bird!" he growled under his breath, releasing hold of Ella, who gasped for breath.
No one took notice of the couple who stood just before them, watching the struggle take place between the bird and the prince, "Well, my dear princess, you've made it home at last."
A'Maikra crept through the forest's shadows, frustration boiling beneath the surface of his skin, forcing his lips to quiver uncontrollably, "Blasted witch. Wretched Duke. Going to ruin everything I've worked for years to build. I was promised by the lady-of-dreams. Promised, I was. But I'm no longer going to waste my time and allow those two to ruin everything."
Up the volcano he climbed, to a place where deep within its crevices lay a cave.
Don't do it. Your dream will never be if you do.
"I'm done waiting for you, lady. He offers more then I can ever imagine, and I have just the bargaining chip."
To take what he offers is to watch your dream burn.
"To wait on you is to watch my dream waste away in the hands of these wretched royals!" A'Maikra spat, watching the shadows of the cave dance before his eyes. Suddenly there she was before him, floating amongst the shadows, her face just inches from his own.
I will give you what you most desire. Have I not served you thus far?
A'Maikra growled, "You have made me a servant in my own kingdom! A kingdom that was promised to me!"
I gave you the power to build a kingdom, a kingdom that shall be yours, lest you enter this cave.
"Lies! You are no Lady-of-dreams! You are Lady-of-lies! And I am through waiting on your empty promises! Be gone with you!" A'Maikra swat at the air as he burst through her vision, leaving the lady and her words to vanish behind his wake. The shadows of the cave danced in welcome, enveloping him until he was nothing more.
The cave bellowed a laugh that would have sent even the bravest of knights running for fear,
You played your part, and you've lost. Now it's my turn!
The three stopped struggling at the sight of the old couple that stood before them. Pistachia abandoned her attack on the prince for the older man's shoulder. His wife tapped the top of the bird's head and chuckled, "You sure can cause a ruckus, Aegeron."
"Aegeron? I'm sorry, you must be mistaken. That is my bird, and her name is Pistachia," Ella said, approaching the older couple.
"Yes, and he is also Aegeron, sent by our master, to watch over you my dear princess," The older man said.
"He…and…your master? His name is Aegeron...I’m sorry, I always just assumed with his pretty colors that he was a she," Ella said.
"Quite alright, my dear, you aren't the first to think so," The old lady said with a laugh. Aegeron hissed under his beak, his feathers fluffing up in an irritated manner.
"Quite enough about the bird," Said Prince Donovan, wiping blood from the back of his neck, "Who are you, and what of this master you are talking about?"
"In due time, my prince. For now we must be on our way. The Wood Between is no place to linger. Aegeron has led you safely this far. I will take you from here," The old man started walking ahead of the group. Aegeron took to the trees, disappearing from sight.
"Where is he off to?" Ella asked, lingering a moment with her face to the trees once again.
"To keep watch." The old man said, seeming far more serious as he took to the wood ahead.
The older lady approached Ella, her eyes oddly bright, though old they were. The old lady gave a slight bow, taking Ella's hand in her own, "My lady, may I have this pleasure?" Ella nodded, and the two walked side by side, following the old man's lead. Prince Donovan followed close behind, watching the trees above for fear of what may come diving down at any moment. Meara walked beside Donovan, though keeping a distance between them, her eyes glued to the ground.
She felt out of place amongst those walking through the woods. Though the man beside her was set to be her husband, she watched as his eyes drifted from the trees, to Ella, and then back again. Not once did he look her way, or offer an arm as an escort. She wrapped her arms about her middle and turned her eyes back to the ground below. The further they walked, the more they noticed the woods change, move, and then suddenly they were no longer able to discern between the woods they were once standing in, and the one that seemed to come alive around them.
"Keep close," The older man said, "You don't want to go wandering off the path, lest you wish to be lost to a most horrible of fates."
Ella clung to the old woman's arm, turning her head to look back at Donovan and Meara, who were now walking a mere foot from each other. Meara stared wondrously into the woods beside her, though Donovan seemed to do his best to keep his eyes directed elsewhere. Ella turned, her eyes momentarily passing over the trees beside her, and for a moment she felt she could feel a pair of eyes watching her through those trees. A chill ran down her spine and she shivered.
Not a moment before she turned back to the path ahead, was she suddenly standing before a pair of two very large pines. The old man had come to a stop, turning to face the rest of the group, "Here."
"Ella," The old woman said, "For years we have waited for word from our master that you were returning home to us. The day has finally come, and we are honored to be the ones to welcome you back to Nevenia."
Ella’s eyes were wide with wonder and disbelief. The old woman and the man each held out an arm toward the path ahead, and Ella took a step toward the trees. Their branches raised in welcome, revealing a wonderland of hills and trees for miles and miles, all covered in snow.
Queen Kwen marched out to the courtyard where the Duke of Shippening sat atop his horse, his men surrounding him at every side. She pushed through the horsemen as she forced her way to the Duke.
"We have a bargain!" The Queen said, fury turning her face all shades of red. King Anaxem stepped outside his castle, watching his Queen charge upon the Duke.
"What good is a bargain without a bargaining chip? The girl is gone, as is my daughter! The deal is off," The Duke said, pulling his horse away from the raging woman.
Queen Kwen grabbed hold of the horses reins, yanking it back toward her, "I am no fool! You mean to find the girl and take her for yourself! Don't think for one moment that you have rights to her, she is mine!"
"She does not belong to you, she never has, and I don't care what evil plot you have raised against the child. My daughter is missing, and I will die a thousand deaths before I see her anywhere that dragon cursed land!" The Duke spat, yanking the reins out of the woman's hands.
"And what makes you think they are heading that way? They are on an island and on foot. Our men will be upon them far before you could ever reach them," The Queen said, crossing her arms, and standing tall, though she barely reached the horses muzzle. The King had long since left his post at the castle doors, and was crossing the courtyard as they spoke.
The Duke leaned down upon his horse, to better look the Queen in the eyes, fire burned behind his dark eyes, "There is far more to this world then just castles, dragons, and sorcery tricks. So if you think for one second that your men are going to find them anywhere on this island, you are sadly mistaken." The Duke growled his words, and then sat himself up straight on his horse. With a flick of his reins he yanked his horse away from the awe stricken Queen.
King Anaxem approached the Queen as she stood watching the last of the Duke's men leave the gates. "When are you going to give up this dreadful obsession with power, Kalitha?" The King said, refusing to meet eyes with the Queen, even as she turned her dagger eyes upon him.
"What did you call me!" She spat.
"I've known for quite some time. Our wedding night you prayed to the gods for a daughter, and when they gave us a son you cursed them. You ignored his upbringing and left him to the nurses. I suspected then, but left it to the stress of becoming a queen and a new mother. Then came our daughter, and I saw a glimmer of the woman I once knew. Then Ella came to us I saw that glimmer gone, and the change take hold again. As she grew, you grew to resent her more and more. I knew, deep in my heart, and when I finally accepted it, I was finally able to see through your lies."
"From the day I first met you, you were always driven by power. You hung around the finest of courtiers, were courted by the wealthiest of princes, and took it all to yourself, because your sister did not desire such attention. You had everything, until I made an offer for your sister's hand, and asked her to by my queen. I saw the rage, heard the tantrum you threw at your father's feet when he gave us his blessing."
"It wasn't because I was better or richer then the great prince's who courted you, but that your sister would wear a crown, and sit atop a thrown in a castle on an island that was all her own. You couldn't bear it, but then you didn't have to, because you had the creature. You brought him here after we wed, because he was the power that made it all possible. With him you cursed your sister somehow, and took her place so that you could become my wife."
Kalitha no longer looked at him, but stood frozen like a statue, her skin as white as the stone she stood upon. He had known, all this time, and she had thought she had gotten away with the greatest of ploys, "Why? Why didn't you call me out long ago. Why then would you waste all this time with me?" She asked, her voice as dry as the air she breathed.
"And abandon our children?" The King said, sadness caking his voice.
"Don't call them that!" Kalitha said through clenched teeth.
"Our children. Don't call them that! There is no our, there is no us!" And she turned to walk back toward the castle, avoiding the crushed look on her husband's face.
"Please," King Anaxem said, stopping her for a brief moment, "whatever you're planning. Don't hurt my Ella."
She could hear the tremors in his voice begging her, but she stood straight and strong, refusing to allow his pleas to reach her heart, "She's not your Ella." And Kalitha left the King to the courtyard.
He dropped to his knees and prayed a silent prayer through tears, "Please, if you can hear me. Protect my children...protect my Ella."
Ella stepped foot into the snow, her foot barely sinking but an inch, and then the next, and the next, sinking deeper and deeper until she was up to her ankles in snow. Though wet, she surprisingly felt no cold. Flakes that had shook off the branches littered her hair. She took in all that surrounded her, choking back the question that waited to be asked.
"Where is everybody?" She asked at last, turning to the old man, seeing that he and the others had made their way onto the snow.
"Waiting...in hiding," The old man said, pulling out boot moccasins for Meara and Donovan. Meara seemed more then happy to toss away her slippers. Ella clung to his words, feeling her heart lift a little. So there were others who had made it out alive.
"And where do they hide? When will we see them?" Ella asked, doing her best not to let her hope get carried away.
"In time, my dear. First we must make it far from these woods, and into the land of our people. This way now," The old man said taking the lead once more.
Meara watched Ella closely, feeling more out of place then ever. She knew getting Ella out of the castle was the right thing to do, but now that she walked the land of Ella's people, she couldn't help but feel a sense of jealousy. All eyes of this world were turned upon Ella.
Prince Donovan couldn't seem to help gaze at her while he walked, and the old couple too had their eyes either glued to her, or the road ahead. Even the trees seemed to follow Ella in her wake. Meara started to wonder if she had made the right choice following these two into the forest, or if she should have just left them both in the garden.
"Meara, are you alright?" Came Prince Donovan's voice. Meara woke from her thoughts and was startled to find Donovan had stopped to wait for her, seeing as she had fallen rather far behind from the others.
Meara watched the others, "Should we be here?" she asked Donovan, "We brought her this far. She's safe now. Shouldn't we got back?"
She didn't like the look on Donovan's face, almost like he didn't even understand the language she spoke,"Why would you want to go back now? Aren't you curious to see her kingdom? See where she came from?"
Now Meara looked at him confused, "What? Donovan, this isn't even our world. How we got here is beyond me, but I don't belong here. Who knows how long we have been gone. My father is probably on the verge of starting war with your father over my absence. It isn't right that we be here."
Her words seemed to finally reach his ears, and he nodded in understanding, "You are right about that. It wasn't right to take you from the castle grounds. You really shouldn't be here."
His words pierced Meara through the heart, you really shouldn't be here. It was she who was destined to marry him after all. She had come to his castle to prepare for their betrothal, so why was it only her who didn't belong here.
"We should see about getting you home before your father comes to worry about you," The Prince said, turning to walk after the others.
"What about you?" Meara asked, grabbing hold of his sleeve, and then quickly letting go, embarrassed she had done so.
"Why are you worried about me? I'll be fine, besides, my mother is going to suspect it was I who let Ella out of the castle. My place is here with Ella, ensuring her safety. For all they know, you were just off for a walk in the forest and got lost," Donovan said, again turning away from her.
"Now, hold on! This was my doing, getting her out of the castle! You aren't going to just send me home and take all credit for this!" Meara said, her arms stiff at her sides, and hands balled into fists.
"Well, by all means then, I was merely trying to look out for your well being. If this is what you want then I think it best we stop the chit chat and hurry it along." Prince Donovan ran ahead, leaving Meara to trudge through the snow alone.
"That didn't go as planned," Meara said, lowering her head, and crossing her arms tightly around her body.
Somewhere deep within the shadows of a cave, a creature as dark on the inside as the shadows that encircled him made a bargain; His life devotion in exchange for the girl once promised to the dragon a long time ago. With this promise, A'Maikra bowed deeply before the dark waters, promising to deliver the dragon his due, in exchange for a life of power, the power to rule the kingdom once promised by the Lady-of-Dreams. From the depths of the dark waters a horrifying laugh bellowed. A'Maikra raised his head, only to come face to face with a pair of large red eyes.
I knew you would eventually find your way. Now tell me, where is my prize due to me?
Kalitha sat in her wardrobe, staring at a chest as old as she was. She ran her hands over its old, weathered wood, and the engravings that pained her to see. The engravings of her people, all leaving their mark as they said their farewell to one of their own, a princess who was once loved by all. Kalitha forgot how much the people loved Kwen, for she was always doing her best to keep her sister in the shadows of her own presence. She did a good job, but there was one thing she failed at, one thing that kept Kwen in the hearts of the people.
Kwen loved the commoners, and while Kalitha was busy standing over them, allowing them to worship her beauty and charm, Kwen was down walking the streets of their homes and markets, loving on them as if they were her own family. Kalitha knew the kind of queen Kwen would be, and it was her jealousy over Kwen's gift of love that boiled Kalitha's blood. She couldn't sit back and watch her sister accomplish her purpose, making a name for herself that Kalitha would never be able to live up to. That jealousy turned to hatred as Kalitha watched her father place his blessings over her sister and her betrothed.
Kalitha had stood before her mirror, staring at the reflection of her sister, hating the very sight of her own face. From the shadows of her room came a voice,
Why live in the shadow of your sister, when you could take her place in the sunlight?
"How easily it would be to take her place," Kalitha thought to herself.
It wouldn't be hard to make your problem disappear. And with her gone, who's to stop you from taking her place?
"All I need to is make her disappear, long enough for me to take her place."
If you like, I can make this all possible for you. All I ask for in exchange is a place amongst your service, once you have become Queen.
Suddenly the voice was no longer just a distant thought in her head, and Kalitha spun to find a pair of yellow eyes watching her from the shadows, "Who are you? I demand to know at once!"
"My name is A'Maikra. A wanderer. I have come to offer you my service," Said the creature, moving closer, but only enough to make his features barely noticeable within the shadows.
"How did you get into my room?" Kalitha demanded, still frightened by the shadowy creature.
"I am gifted, with powers beyond your imagination. I was sent here by the Lady-of-Dreams. She sees your pain, and wishes to make true your hearts desire," A'Maikra said, the shadows contouring into a dark grin.
"If you can bring to life my hearts desire," Kalitha said, questioning the very words she felt compelled to say, "in my service you will have rein over my kingdom, under my rule."
"Tell me, m'lady, how I may serve you," A'Maikra crawled from the shadows, but his ugliness did not startle Kalitha, for her heart had already given in to her selfish desires, and A'Maikra's ugliness was masked by the powers he dwelt.
Kalitha looked back on that day she cursed her sister, sending her to a sleep that would keep her encased in her own mind for years to come. She had never meant to harm her sister. She only meant to steal from her the life she felt due to her instead. Now looking back, she realized that all her efforts resulted in the ruin of both their lives.
Kalitha gained everything she had ever wanted, but in it all she lived a life never meant for her, and lost all chances of true happiness. Her sister lost the chance to marry for love, and was left to a life of loneliness that ultimately led to her death. Her sister was gone, as was her family, and the kingdom she once loved. She had never realized how much happiness that life had offered her. Why she had been in such a rush to leave it was beyond her. And now there was nothing left of it. All happiness was gone, and Kalitha now wished she could be gone with it.
The old couple led Ella higher and higher up a steep, snow covered hill. Ella lost track of how many hills they had climbed, how many trees they had passed, and how many times she had swore she was being followed by something beyond those same trees. This hill they climbed was larger then any of the others, by far, and much much steeper. Ella often found herself taking hold of saplings for support, apologizing if she felt any of them uproot.
Concerned for Meara, who was even smaller then she, Ella found herself looking down the hill every few feet, but it seemed Meara had all the help she needed from Donovan. She had hold of his arm with both her hands as he pulled her up the hill. Donovan raised his head up the hill just in time to meet eyes with Ella, who quickly looked away, embarrassed she was caught staring.
Donovan picked up his pace, almost dragging Meara up the hill. "Whoa their! Not all of us are built for hiking through the snow!" Meara scolded. Donovan rolled his eyes, not realizing that Meara was watching him so closely. She yanked her hands from his arm, "Well if that's how you feel about helping a lady, I'll see to it myself that I make it up this hill!"
"Meara, I'm sorry, I didn't mean that. Please," Donovan begged, offering his arm to her. She scowled at him and gave his arm a shove, forcing him to lose balance. Donovan fell back, his bottom sinking two feet into the snow, and then slid a good four feet down the hill. Mean turned her head upward and trudged on.
"Well done, Donovan, you sure are making a name for yourself," He said to himself, rising from the snow. The snow clung to his already frozen body, giving him a sparkling suit of white. Snickers from above caught his attention, and he looked up to find Meara and Ella staring and laughing. Meara whispered something to Ella and the two turned to continue walking. Donovan shook his head, following up after them while doing his best to peel the icy snow from his clothes.
Donovan reached the top of the hill, now soaked to the bone and frozen, but in better spirits to be done with the climb. The older couple stood beside an awe struck Ella, and Meara who's heart seemed to have broken at the sight she saw. Donovan joined them, seeing for the first time Ella's home of Nevenia. Donovan's heart froze where he stood and then sunk to his stomach.
The kingdom was nothing but ruins, all covered in snow. Spots where parts of the castle still rose high off the ground were overgrown with wild forest plants, hiding most of what looked like black charcoaled stone. He looked to Ella, who's eyes were glazed over, her lips pinching back her pain. Donovan longed to reach out to her, to comfort her, but the old woman beat him to it.
"It's quite alright, my dear. Not all is in ruin," The old woman said. Ella tried to smile, but looking into the woman's eyes almost lost control. She pulled back the tears and turned her face from the woman. "Come now, we will show you."
And the woman started them down the hill, through a path that seemed walked many times, trailing down the side of the hill. No trees grew in this part, though Ella saw trunks of trees that had long since died, and were nothing more then black towers that stood up over the white snow.
"It's dreadful, isn't it?" Said Meara, keeping pace beside Ella, and avoiding all chances of having to walk back beside Donovan.
"Yes, it is," Ella said, not sure of what else to say for fear her pain would pour out in tears. She neared the home she never knew, though the memory of that place was ever so strong upon her heart, and she felt for the first time in a long time that she was where she belonged.
"Where is everybody?" Donovan asked, scanning the trees. His face told Ella he sensed the same thing she did, that they weren't the only ones here.
The old man saw this and turned toward the forests, "They're here. They just want to give her time to take it all in." He slowly walked over to Ella, who was now standing in the crumbled courtyard. She wiped some snow off what looked to be an old fountain, and found the charcoaled stone underneath. "Ella," he said, not wanting to startle her, "There is something I must talk with you about."
You have done me well, and your service will be repaid, but one task you must complete for me still.
"Anything, master." A'Maikra flamed.
You must bring me the girl.
A'Maikra looked up into those large red eyes. Everything inside him burned. He opened his mouth to speak, but merely felt a longing to let that burning flow free. He started to wonder if this is how he would always feel, but kept reminding himself of the power that would soon follow, power his master promised him. He nodded, but his master was gone.
A'Maikra turned and wandered back the way he came, not quite knowing where he was going, but feeling something pulling him. A longing of sorts, a desire that couldn't be persuaded, a need to let this fire inside him burn, and he knew exactly where that longing would lead him. He finally felt the power inside him rise to his flaming surface as her image took place in the front of his mind. For years he suffered under her rule, but now it was his turn to take back what was rightfully his.
Ella saw the seriousness on the old man's face, his tone concerned her a little, and Ella felt she might want to sit down. She cleared off more of the wall, not caring if her gown got a little wet, and sat down. "I know this is a lot to take in. I can't imagine what must be going through your head right now, but there is something I must tell you before we go much further." The old man took a seat next to her and continued on, "Though it is sad, the fate that came to befall this kingdom, this was never really your home."
Ella's eyes shot wide open, "What do you mean? How can this be....but...I can feel it..." She tried saying, but her mind was whirling, and she had to stop to take a deep breath.
"This was a home you once knew, and Kwen was your caretaker, but she was never your birth mother. You were brought to Kwen as an infant, barely spent a day in your world before you were sent away by your mother," The old man saw the pain on Ella's face and went on to explain, "She loved you Ella, and it is because of that love that she demanded your brother take off with you, and hide you here among the mortals."
Ella thought her mind might never stop spinning, but she kept on listening, "Your father was a king, a king of Elastule. A mighty tribe they were, and a might king was Xsaydar. But even as mighty as he was, Xsaydar had one weakness. He craved battle, and not knowing what it felt to lose, he often sought after such opportunities to challenge his strength. You see, the people of Elastule are not all what they seem, for one moment you might be looking at a powerful warrior, and the next you are standing before a great..."
"White cat," Ella said, stealing the words from a memory that grew more and more real in her mind.
"How did you know that?" The old man said, seeming very surprised.
"I remember...I see it in my head, a vision, that day my mother tried to save me. Or not my mother, though in my heart that is what she was. I was saved by a great white cat who emerged from the snow. He called me sister. He was my brother, wasn't he? The memory was real, wasn't it?" Ella said..
"Yes Ella, your memories are real. Your brother not only brought you here, but he remained here with you, to protect you," The old man told her.
"Why? Why did he have to bring me here? What happened that I had to be sent away?" Ella asked, forgetting he was getting to that part.
"As I said, you father often abused his power, and those abilities given to his people. He finally found his match when he came upon a kingdom that had been overrun by a fierce dragon. One of the children of Death-in-life was ravaging her own kingdom. Although the chance to take his people into battle was stolen from him, Xsaydar found a challenge far more tempting. The Dragon was hidden behind her uncontrollable flame, but Xsaydar made his way toward her, ordering his people to hold back. They cried out to him, pleaded with him to let it go, and return home. Xsaydar ignored them, and with this walked on to face the first of his deaths."
Ella couldn't believe what she had just heard, "The first of his deaths? How can one have more then one death?" She asked, forgetting her sadness as she lost herself to his story.
"A faerie king must fall three times before one finds himself on death's shore. Xsaydar fell twice, both to dragons. The third time he had again searched out a dragon, determined to prove his power. His wife, your mother, pleaded with him to stay. She was heavy with child, due any day. But battle was all Xsaydar knew. Leonotia, you mother, gave birth that night. A baby girl...you. Ellaxsia is your given birth name."
" Your father left the next morning. Your brother, who was much older then you, returned home with warning. Xsaydar had fallen to the dragon, but he was no ordinary dragon. This dragon was Death-in-life himself, and he was in search of a princess. Xsaydar laid before him, seconds from meeting his end, when he pleaded with the dragon; to spare his life, in exchange for his daughter. The dragon accepted, and warned in ten years time he would return to claim his due."
"Your brother abandoned your father to return home to warn your mother. He left with you that night, running as far from your home as he could get. That is when we found him. We were sent by our master to wait in the between for a young warrior holding a babe. We were to take them the mortal kingdom of Nevenia, and there we would meet a princess, by the name of Kwen."
"A year passed and we thought we had succeeded in hiding you. Your brother would return to Elastule on occasion to check on your mother. Though alive, your father had fallen ill to the Dragon's poison, and with his life bargaining chip gone missing, had become even more corrupt under such poison. Seeing as time in the faerie world passes much differently then in the mortal world, the dragon had returned to Elastule to check on his due. When he learned you had gone missing, he made Elastule pay severely. Xsaydar paid with his life, and Elastule laid in ruin."
Ella gasped, "So, even my home of Elastule...is lost to the dragon?"
"No, for thankfully Leonotia foresaw what laid ahead for her kingdom and moved most its people who would follow her to the wood s below. Your father was so lost to dragon poison that he took no notice of this, not even when his own queen went missing. By the time the dragon arrived, only those still loyal to their poisoned king remained, and with him lost their lives," The old man seemed to age in his sadness, and Ella wondered where he was during all this. Was he one of her own? Did he live in the forests his mother escaped to?
"What of my mother?" She asked, "Did she still live? If so, why did she never come for me?"
"The dragon will hunt for his princess, burning everything in his path until he finds her. You mother could not risk giving you away. Sadly, we could not keep you hidden forever. His children soon caught wind of your brother, and followed him to the mortal world. That is when he came, and that is when we knew we must move you. You were still very young, no more then a year, mortal time. You grew slowly, far slower then most mortal children, but this was our doing. We hoped if we slowed your growing, you'd be far less likely to be recognized as the promised child."
"Death-in-life would not be fooled. He smelt immortality in you and knew you were the child in hiding. So your brother hid you, and then took to the woods, in hopes of leading the dragon from the castle, which now was completely overrun with poison and flame. The Dragon never found you, and soon abandoned the castle, for there was nothing, and no one left living. And there we found you, deep within a well, wrapped in blankets." The old man came to the end of his story, it seemed, for he sat silent for some time.
Ella looked out toward the forest surrounding, and this time she knew who it was that was watching her, "I'm ready to meet them."
Kalitha tightened the pack hanging from the horses saddle. She pulled the cloak down low over her head and prepared to mount. The sound of the gravel road behind her told her someone was approaching. She knew already who it was. He had entered their room while she was packing. She was sure he had an idea of where she was going, but he kept it to himself. Why he was bothering to talk to her now she didn't know. She was ready to mount the saddle, but could feel him standing behind her.
"What are you going to do? Just tell me please, tell me you aren't planning to harm her," King Anaxem pleaded.
"She's already in danger as it is. There is nothing more I can do to bring more harm to her," Kalitha answered, squeezing tight the reins in her hands.
"Then why must you leave. What purpose do you have in pursuing her?" He asked.
"I don't belong here," She replied. Kalitha was never one to cry, but tears now drizzled down her stone features.
"Kalitha, you can belong here. I would never ask you to leave. This is your home..." He begun, but she turned on him in a tear filled fury.
"Stop saying that! This is not my home! It never was! It was her home, and I stole it! I took everything from her...and now the only thing left of her is threatened. So you see, I have to go," Kalitha cried.
King Anaxem looked at her now, how broken she had become, "I'm going with you then. If my Ella is in danger then she shouldn't be out there alone." Kalitha looked up at him and nodded. She knew she needed him.
Donovan and Meara stood just outside the courtyard, watching as Ella and the old man talked on a crumbly stone wall. Donovan realized then he hadn't seen the old lady in quite some time. Had she come down the hill with them? When did he last see her. And the bird, what became of him? He spun in a circle, and Meara watched him curiously.
"What are you doing?" She asked, crossing her arms and raising an eyebrow at him.
"The old lady. Where did she go?" He asked, still turning here and there.
Meara looked around now too, "You're right. She's gone. Kinda creepy. I bet she's with the others."
"The others?" Donovan asked, looking at Meara now.
"Yea, remember? They said there were others, but they were all in hiding, or something like that," Meara looked out toward the forest, and something gave her a chill. She shook it off and turned back to where Ella sat with the old man. They were walking toward them now. "Hey, here they come."
"How are you guys? Doing okay, Meara? It was such a long walk," Ella said, her voice a little shaky.
Before she could answer, the old man spoke up, "Here they come."
Everyone stood frozen in place. Ella felt she might faint. From the trees emerged the old woman, and beside him stood a very tall man with long black hair that pulled back into a ponytail. He wore a cloak of green with a gold trim, and had a red collar. He was a magnificent looking being, and Ella was sure he was no mortal. Something about him seemed ancient, and at the same time young and powerful. She almost couldn't pull her eyes off of him until something behind him caught her eye, and her heart stopped.
Another young man appeared from the trees, escorting an older, yet youthfully beautiful woman, and it was as they neared that Ella realized she was looking into a mirror image of herself. She fell to her knees, and in a panic Donovan was at her side. His hands took hold of her shoulders, pulling her into his chest. The woman saw her daughter fall to her knees, and she ran to her. The two embraced, Donovan releasing his hold of Ella, and they sat there for quite some time. Ella, lifting her head for a brief moment, looked up to her brother, a face she had seen before in a memory. He reached out and took her hands, helping her to her feet.
"If it wasn't for you..." Ella started, but again found herself unable to speak.
"Sweet sister," He said, and embraced her in a hug. Her brother was so large and muscular she thought she might lose herself in his embrace, but his warmth comforted her.
She stepped back, and the swarm of welcoming embraces began. Her people approached her with such love and warmth it was almost overwhelming. Ella took them all in, observing their every feature and movement, looking for anything that made them seem of another world. Surprisingly they all seemed very normal, save for how built the men were. Her brother wore animal skin pants, which were white as snow, and tied around his waist with rope woven by some kind of vine. His feet were bare, and his hair was long, twisted down his back using a colorful string of some sort.
The rest of the men seemed to look the same, although her brother was far larger then any one of them. The women were also dressed in animal skins, though their clothes were covered in white and gray fur. They wore dresses with short sleeves, barely reaching past their shoulders, and hems that touched barely above the knee. Her mother on the other hand was dressed with a large fur cloak to go over her dress, which cascaded down to her feet. She assumed this was her sign of royalty for she wore no crown.
"Ellaxsia, you have grown beautifully," Queen Leonotia said, smiling proudly at her daughter, "I see you have brought friends. May we meet them?"
Ella turned, startled for she had forgotten all about Donovan and Meara. "Oh yes, I did. Actually, mother, it was them who brought me. For if it wasn't for Meara and Donovan, I would have never made it out," Ella said, gesturing to each of them.
"Donovan," Leonotia said, "and Meara, I can not thank you enough for what you have done. I hope you can see how great your deed was, and pray you will return with us, and join us in celebrating my daughter's return." Meara's heart sank, and she quickly turned to Donovan, who's face seemed torn. "Unless you wish to return home. I do not wish to keep you if that is where you wish to be." Leonotia's eyes were so soft and welcoming, it was almost enchanting, and neither could give an honest answer.
Donovan looked to Ella and realized for the first time what was actually happening. He did not think before that when he brought her home that he would be saying goodbye for good, "I will come with you," He heard himself say before hearing a gasp behind him. He shot around to see Meara, and the look of betrayal on her face. "Meara, I'm sorry, I know you wish to return home, and you probably should, but...I'm just not ready yet."
Meara noticed all eyes were on her and she straightened her stance, "Oh, yes, well, I was under the impression that we were heading home, and yes my father probably will be rather concerned from my absence...but I don't see why we can't stay...for a little while." She turned her eyes to the ground, hoping to escape the faces still watching her.
"Why don't you lead us, Xsada, and we'll head for home," Leonotia said.
"Xsada, I didn't catch your name before," Ella told her brother. She smiled when he offered her his arm, and took her place by his side. Their mother felt nothing in this world, or any other, could steal her joy at that moment.
A'Maikra crawled from the Wood Between , and back onto Cyndar grounds. The moon shone brightly overhead, casting a glow over the kingdom. The castle in all its glory was to be his. He need only now to do away with those blasted royals, most of all she who felt herself so above all other rule. Now it was she who would cower before him, and she who would spend the rest of her days hiding in the shadows of his mighty power.
He reached the gardens, and his fury burned so brightly inside of him that the ground, and all plant life around him, burned under his feet. He ran his hands through the hedges, singeing the leaves as he walked. He no longer cared what the castle grounds looked like, as long as it was finally his. The sound of horses on gravel stole his attention. He scurried across the grounds. A group of the King's men all sat atop horses, dressed as if going to war, and among them was the King and Queen. The sight of her was too much to bear.
"Kalitha!" A'Maikra exploded, fire spilling from his mouth, through his nose, and fuming through his eyes.
The King's men formed a wall around the King and Queen, holding up their shields to block the fireballs falling over them. The horses whined and stomped the ground in a panic. The men did their best to keep them under control, but it was obvious these men were never trained for such things. They struggled to keep their place in line, many of them having to drop the cover of their shields to rein in their horses. The King forced his way through, furious at the sight of him men.
"Pull it together men! That is your Queen, and this is your purpose! Protect your Queen! Protect your home!" The King shouted, rearing up his horse and unsheathing his sword.
Kalitha stood back behind the men, watching Anaxem prepare himself to face this dreadful creature. The creatures fire died down, and the face that came to look at her was not that of a dreadful creature, but of A'Maikra! His gaze met hers and he was suddenly trembling from head to toe. His eyes turned fiery red and flaming, his ugly face grew long and scaly, and his body erupted in size. Huge claws dug into the gravel, and he roared an awful sounding cry.
Kalitha looked to the King and knew he saw what she saw. His sword had lowered for a moment, but he raised it again and prepared his men to charge. Kalitha kicked her horse forward, and charged before the king, yelling at the top of her lungs, "Stop!"
Her horse stood just inches from his own, and the King, pulling on his reins to steady his horse, shouted, "Kalitha, get back!"
"No! I will not sit back and watch you sacrifice yourself in the hands of this beast. He is my doing! I brought him here! You will not kill yourself for me!" She cried, turning her horse around to face the dragon.
"No!" The King cried. He charged forward and yanked her from her horse. With his arm around her waist he turned and ordered his men back to the castle. His men encircled him and the kicking, screaming Queen, and they ran for cover. Fire blazed over their heads. In the safety of the castle walls Anaxem carried Kalitha until her squirming became too much for him. Down the stairs ran Feullete, crying out in fear for the dreadful noise emulating from outside.
"Mother, what is that awful sound?" She screamed, running to her mother's arms. Kalitha stood in shock at her daughter's embrace. She looked down into Feullete’s beautiful blue eyes, and a foreign feeling swept over her heart.
"Oh, my beautiful girl," She cried, embracing her daughter for the first time since she was a babe.
"Father! Behind you!" Feullete cried, and the knights dove over the royal family as a wall of flames swept their way.
"Run!" The King demanded, grabbing his family and leading them deeper into the castle.
Meara watched the chain of strange forest people gather and then follow Ella and her brother toward the forest's edge. Something inside her felt uneasy about following them. There was so many sources of evil chasing after this girl. This was no time to be celebrating. She did not know the Queen Kwen very well, or that creature of hers, but she knew her father, and if he was after Ella then he was going to stop at nothing to find her.
"Something just doesn't quite make sense in my mind," Donovan said, approaching Meara.
"Have that problem often?" Meara said coldly.
Donovan furrowed his brow, "Very funny, but no. What I don't understand is how, if my aunt was killed by the dragon, could that woman be Ella's mother?"
Now Meara's brow furrowed and she opened her mouth to speak, but then closed it again to think to herself. "Maybe they were wrong. Maybe she didn't die. The old couple said many of them escaped to the forest," Meara finally said.
"But why stay in the forest? Why not try and rebuild? This is their kingdom, is it not? Why abandon it? They aren't the first kingdom to be attacked by a dragon," Donovan said, looking out over the ruin that had been long overgrown by forest. Meara seemed bored by his many questions and had started walking away before he finished. "Hey, where are you going? Everyone’s headed that way," Donovan started after her, until he caught sight of where she headed, "What is your father doing here?"
"This isn't good. Donovan, this isn't good! Go warn Ella, they must hide!" Meara yelled, turning on Donovan and shoving him away from her, "Go!"
Donovan turned and ran toward the forest where the last of the family had entered. Last in the group was the really tall man in green, and Donovan nearly ran him over in his attempt to reach Ella. "Whoa there, boy! What's the rush?" The man said, grabbing Donovan by the back of the shirt. Donovan would have toppled backward had the man not taken a hold of him.
"What are you doing? I have to reach Ella. Soldiers have come and they're looking for her!" Donovan said, yanking himself free, and swiping the man's hand away. He was ready to say more if he had to but the man lost interest in him, and Donovan took off again for Ella.
Donovan got lots of dirty looks from those he had to shove aside, but he finally reached Ella and her brother, "Ella! They're here! The Duke has come looking for you!"
Ella's brother turned, his face becoming furious, "Who's this Duke? What does he want with Ella?"
"I don't know really, except that they plan to hand her over to the dragon," Donovan said.
Ella's brother seemed to tremble with fury, turning to his mother, a pained look on his face,"I knew this couldn't last forever, but you have her back now. Go now, and hide." He said, taking his mother's hands and kissing them.
"Xsada," Leonotia said, but she knew she couldn't ask him to stay. If they all fled the dragon would only keep searching until he found them.
"Brothers!" He said, turning toward the group of people, "Evil has returned. For years you lived under evil's rule, and that same evil turned on you and destroyed our kingdom. Now is the time to stand up and rid ourselves of this evil! Join me now, we go to battle, and this time we fight for the good of our people!"
The women embraced their men before parting to go stand beside Leonotia. Donovan didn't know what to do. On one side was Ella, and he didn't want to risk leaving her now, but on the other side was all these men, ready to take on the fight to protect her. Donovan took a step toward the men, but as he did they all exploded in size, and he now found himself facing a pride of monstrous white beasts.
Over a dozen great white cats stood before him, hundreds of times bigger then any cat he had ever seen, with long flowing fur that encircled their necks, making their heads even bigger and all the more ferocious. Donovan stumbled back, almost knocking Ella off her feet. She took hold of his arms to steady him, though she feared she might fall over herself.
"What just happened?" Donovan squeaked, unable to take his eyes off them. The one which used to be Ella's brother towered over the rest, his legs alone standing six feet from the ground.
"They're preparing for battle," Queen Leonotia said, calmly as she cold be.
"Those aren't normal people," Donovan said, attempting to regain his voice.
"No, they aren't," Ella replied.
Donovan turned toward her, "You aren't surprised...you knew this already." The ground shook and Donovan looked to find the pride making their way back out of the forest.
"Not until the old man told me. This is the first I’m learning of where I came from…and who I really am," Ella said, her heart fluttering with concern.
This seemed to finally click in Donovan's head and he turned to looked at her. Ella’s mind had already lost itself as she watched her brother's image leave the forest, replacing itself with the memory of him leaving her sleeping deep within the well. All her life she spent in hiding, as others gave their lives to protect her. Her people were strong, but in all the attempts to save her life, how many of his own lives has her brother lost. For all she knew this could be his last.
Something inside her head whispered, I knew your purpose before you were born. I have watched you and protected you as you grew. I know your purpose still and it is time you started to live it. Go, for I will always be there, protecting you still.
"Donnie, I know there is a lot I will have to explain, but now just isn't the time. You all have done so much to get me this far, to keep me safe, but I'm not going to sit back and hide any longer. These are my people, and this is my battle." And before anyone could stop her Ella had dropped her hold on Donovan, and ran after the pride.
"Father, please, before you do anything to her you must listen to me...it was my idea to leave," Meara said, her father glaring down at her.
"Dragon's blast this cursed land! Meara, do you have any idea what you've gotten yourself into!" The Duke of Shippening spat. He motioned for one of his soldiers who approached on horseback, leading along a lone white horse, Meara's horse. "Get on up now. We're leaving this place at once!"
"You mean, you aren't here for Ella?" Meara said, recalling her father's word's the night she left.
"I don't give a dragon's scale what happens to that girl. Queen Kwen can do with her what she wants when she finds her. The only girl I care about is you, and right now I want you on top of your horse and riding away from this cursed place!" The Duke demanded, ready to climb off his horse if he had to.
Meara looked off toward the forest. She could see no one from where she stood. She had no idea if they were still there, or if they had just left without her. Either way there was no way her father was going to let her go looking for them.
"What made you change your mind, father?" Meara asked, glaring up at him now. This look shook him for a moment, but his scowl returned just as fast as it left.
"What are you talking of, girl," He asked.
"That deal you made with Queen Kwen, the night we left. I overheard you two. You were going to hand Ella over to some dragon. What's stopping you from going after her now. She's here, just on the other side of the forest," Meara wasn't quite sure where she was going with this. She didn't want to see any harm come to Ella, but somehow she knew her father wasn't really after her.
"You should know enough to mind your own and keep out of other people's conversations. You know nothing of what I have to go through to keep my place as Duke of Shippening! Your position in life is to marry the prince of my choosing. Now get on that horse before I'm forced to put you there!" The Duke looked ready to spew flames of his own.
Meara knew her father's boiling point, but she wasn't done standing her ground. She had enough of being his pawn. Those were her friends in there, and she wasn't going to leave until she knew they were safe. "What about Ella. What's to become of her? What about this dragon that wants her?" Meara asked, knowing she was pushing her limit.
"There is no dragon anymore! He was rid of this world a long time ago," The Duke said.
"Then what could Queen Kwen possibly want with Ella?" Meara asked, her voice more curious then demanding.
Her father seemed to soften up a little, "There is a Dragon, but not in this world. He dwells deep within a cave now, and is not permitted in this life," Meara looked confused as he spoke, "he still desires to build his family, and will use those that he can to bring souls to him. As for Ella, she is a princess that he desired long ago. The Queen believes that she can use her to gain the dragon's favor. I only agreed because Queen Kwen's antics were getting in the way of you becoming Queen of Cyndar, and I was ready to be off with her."
Meara couldn't believe what her father was saying. He was going to send the Queen to her death, as well as Ella, just to get them out of his way. "Father, how dare you! That is Prince Donovan's mother! And Ella? What has she ever done to you?" Meara started to back up, disgusted by her father.
"Meara, stop that. You'll understand one day. Once you are a queen you will know the sacrifices you have to make as a parent. I only look out for you, now get back here and get on your horse!" The Duke was moving forward now, but Meara refused to allow him near.
She turned to run, and ran straight for a pride of great white beasts. The Duke jumped from his horse now. He ran straight for Meara and took hold of her, pulling her behind him. These beasts were almost as large as a dragon themselves, especially the one that neared closest to them. The largest cat growled, shaking the foundation they stood upon. The rocks around them begun to rattle, and the Duke could hear the horses behind him become whining loudly.
"To your horse, Meara, now!" He turned and pushed her toward her horse. This time she didn't hesitate to follow directions.
Ella ran as fast as her feet could take her. Her brother was already out of the forest. Ella ran through the great cats, weaving through, and even under those large enough. By the time she broke through the trees she could see her brother's shoulders hovering over the others. His head must have been lowered, readying for attack. She did not, though, see any dragon. Her heart was pounding in her ears, her breathing almost too fast for the air to reach her lungs, which burned furiously. She passed the pride, out into the open where she could see the Duke and his daughter scurrying onto their horses.
"Xsada, stop!" Ella screamed. She stood in front of her brother, hands raised.
"Ellaxsia, these are our enemy. What are you doing?" When Xsada spoke, Ella had to remind herself that this was her brother, and not some monster from the fairy tales she was forced to read Feullete at night.
"Meara is not my enemy. And from what I can see there is no dragon here. So please, just wait," Ella turned and faced the group of frightened people. "Meara. It's quite alright. This is my family. They won't hurt you, unless your father's intentions force them to do otherwise." Ella looked to the Duke. His look was assuring to her, and she could see he did not intend on going up against these creatures.
"He came looking for me. He has no interest in taking you from...your family," Meara said, still trying to figure out how this was this Ella's family she had just seen not long ago.
"Then what of the dragon!" Her brother sounded from behind her, or over her from what the Duke could see.
"The dragon is dead," The Duke said, trying to sound more like a man of authority, then a coward of beasts.
The great cats seemed to look to each other, and the largest turned to face the others, then back toward the Duke, "Death-in-life can not die. You lie."
"I do not lie! He was done with a long time ago, driven through the heart by King Aethelbald himself. His work continues, but from the depths of death's realm. The Queen meant to deliver the girl to the dragon herself," The Duke regained his courage, and looked to his men to make sure they were doing the same.
"So he is gone then. He is not coming here," The greatest cat was a man now, and the Duke was shaking his head as if his mind had just played a trick on him.
"No. The Dragon can only continue his work if he can draw the souls to him. But that is not to say that he won’t use those who turn to him to do this. Don't feel you are out of danger just yet. The Queen was not the only one willing to sacrifice the girl," The Duke said.
"Who then is after my sister, and where can I find them?" Xsada asked.
"An ugly creature, who worked under the Queen's service. You can find them in the kingdom of Cyndar, though they may not be there now." The Duke looked down to Meara, "Now if you don't mind, I'd like to wash my hands of this whole thing, and have us take our leave."
Donovan and the women had now surfaced from the trees. Donovan met Meara's eye. Meara felt a twinge of pain, knowing her leave would mean never seeing Donovan again. She knew her engagement to the Prince of Cyndar was over, and her father would have her back on market for another prince as soon as they returned home. Looking out over this group of enchanted creatures, Ella and Donovan among them, Meara had to wonder if this was a world she could ever find herself happy to be a part of.
Dragons and giant cats would create more nightmares then one's imagination could handle, and surely there was far more to this cursed place then what stood before her now. Maybe she was better off back home, in the safety of Shippening, where normal people worried about normal things. Her father had made his peace with Xsada, and relieved to be over their encounter, took his leave.
Meara looked down from her horse, "I'm glad to see you home, Ella, and hope we may cross paths again one day." Though Meara and Ella both knew this was a final farewell, Ella agreed she would like that indeed. Meara then turned her farewell toward Donovan, who having seen the danger had passed, joined their gathering at last. The way him and Ella met eyes told Meara she was making the right choice, "And to you too, Prince Donovan, may we cross paths again one day. I sure wish you a safe journey home, and the best to you, and your family." At this she turned her face down, and kicked her heels. She did not wait for a response.
"It am sad to see her go. I know I will not be seeing her again," Ella said.
Donovan could feel a dozen giant eyes on them, and felt rather uneasy with the giant cat’s warm breaths breathing on his neck. Xsada now stood with them, his hand reaching out for Ella's shoulder, "Sweet sister, I fear I can not return home knowing the danger that lurks after you. We have agreed to hunt down this creature and be done with this enemy for good."
"How will you find him? If the Duke is right, and they are out looking for me, then he could be anywhere," Ella said.
"He is looking for you alright, and it will not be hard to find him," Came a voice from outside their gathering.
Ella turned to find the man in green standing beside the old couple, "What do you mean? Where is he?" She hadn't even realized they had gone until now.
"I'm afraid a great dragon has descended upon the Kingdom of Cyndar. He is demanding they hand you over, lest they wish to find their kingdom resting on the bottom of the ocean," This was the first Ella had really heard the man in green speak and she found something oddly familiar about his voice.
"I thought the Duke said the dragon was dead...That he couldn't return here," Donovan said.
"Death-in-life cannot return, but those who wish to give their souls to do his work can. This creature you speak of has done just that. It is he who terrorizes your kingdom," The man in green looked down on Donovan, whose face looked ashen, "Perk up boy, this is no time to be getting sick."
"I'm not sick!" Donovan said, annoyed.
Ella got the feeling these two would no get along, and took over for Donovan, "How did you come to learn this? We are...," She thought about it for a second, "...a long ways away from Cyndar. It lays atop an island."
"How did you come to find yourself in Nevenia?" The old man said.
"It is my job to protect you, dear Princess. By my master's orders I am to watch for all possible dangers that may befall you," The green man said, gesturing a small bow to show his devotion.
She suddenly saw her green bird bowing atop his perch, "Aegeron?" Ella asked in shock.
Aegeron bowed again, "Sir Aegeron, Knight of Farthestshore. At your service, m'lady."
Donovan rubbed the back of his neck a moment, and over his head where a few bald spots had yet to fill in, where he recalled a certain green bird taking his fill of flesh and hair, "Hold on on moment, so all this time, you were that blasted dragon eaten bird!"
"Why, yes, well. I can not say that every way I serve my master is just, but if it makes you feel any better, I took no pleasure in tasting your hair in my mouth. You mortals should take more pride in cleansing yourselves," Aegeron turned his attention back toward the old couple, who were busy discussing the more important matters at hand.
Ella just laughed, "In his defense, you were rather slow on the walk here."
"Yes, well, had I known he was some immortal man in a birds disguise I would have actually hit him with that stick," Donovan told her. Ella smiled, and would have laughed, but neither could help but overhear the conversation going on beside them.
"I say we leave immediately. We can not go on chattering about while this monster sends that kingdom to its ruin. Once it finds Ella isn't there it will come looking for her. We must finish it off while we know where to find it," Xsada ordered, his men agreeing in unison.
"Prince Donovan, we must be moving," The old man said, touching Donovan on the arm.
"Right...yes," Said Donovan, remembering the peril his family now faced.
The group started off for the hill Ella and the others had descended earlier, when Ella had gotten her first look at Nevenia. Donovan and Ella were one of the last to follow. Donovan kept his pace slow, trying to put a gap between him and the others, in hopes that Ella would linger too. He didn't know how much of a chance he would get to talk to her once they arrived home at his castle, especially with a dragon on the rampage, but he felt there was something he needed to tell her.
He thought of all they years they had spent together; growing up side by side, late nights just talking, or complaining about Feullete, walks deep into the gardens of Cyndar, usually trying to escape from Feullete. He wondered how different it would be without Ella. He wondered how he was going to say goodbye.
"Ella?" Okay, that was one way to start, he thought, at least enough to get her attention.
Ella turned to look at Donovan, careful to keep her footing on the trail up the hill. Donovan met her eyes and his mind went blank. He quickly pretended to be watching his footing as he tried to gather his thoughts, "I...uh...guess I was wondering...well after this," this was not coming out the way he thought, so he took a quick breath, "You aren't planning on returning to Cyndar, are you?"
Ella hadn't really given it much thought, but she figured Donovan would have expected this by now, "I sort of left because, well, this is my home. These are my people, and they need me. So, no, I was not really planning to return to Cyndar." She kept looking up to try and read his face, but he kept his eyes to the path at his feet.
"Won't be the same, you know, not having you there," He said, his heart thumping hard in his chest, though that could have been from the long climb up the hill.
Ella had been so caught up in the idea of having a real family, she had forgot all about the family she was leaving behind. Although the Queen had wished her dead, and Feullete would be far happier with her gone, she did have those who did love her. Her uncle, King Anaxem, loved her very much. "I will miss uncle," She said, thinking of all the times his compliments had brightened her gloomiest of days.
"Yea, my father will miss you dearly," Donovan agreed. He no longer felt the thumping in his chest.
"Do you think they are okay, Donnie? I'm awfully worried about them. I keep thinking about that memory of mine, the one that taunts me. I know this is a different dragon...but...he killed my mother," Ella said, trying to tune out the memory of her screams.
Donovan had to think about this a moment, "I don't know. Father has never had to face such an enemy before. Until now Cyndar had managed to stay hidden from any who sought to bring it harm. I don't even know if Cyndar's knights would know what to do in the face of a dragon."
"Are you not worried?" Ella said, wondering how one could stay so calm through all this. Or maybe he wasn't, and he was just very good at hiding it.
"Very," Said Donovan. Although inside he felt he was a million different emotions, going a million different directions all at once, those emotions felt entrapped inside him, and he wasn't quite sure how to get them out. At the moment he was rather glad for this, "It's just...a lot to take in at the moment. This place, these people...who are not really people. Your dead mother, who is not so very dead...or she is and that woman isn't your mother, although she looks a lot like you...see I just can't piece this all together, and frankly I don't even know how much of this is actually happening right now."
Ella couldn't help but giggle a little, cause she had to admit, she felt just like he did, "Donnie, when all this is over I'll explain everything, but if it helps, that is my mother you saw back there. She is my birth mom. They are my birth family. The family I had here in Nevenia were my…human family?” She said this as a question, not knowing how best to describe it, “I too feel as though it is all a dream, but I also know it is very real." At this she smiled, and looked up to see Donovan was finally looking up from his feet, though he did not look at her. They had reached the top of the hill. Donovan seemed to be trying to process something, then a bird came to land on his shoulder.
"Stay close together, do not wander off the path, and no sticks," Said the bird, giving Donovan a quick peck on the temple before taking to the air.
"I'm going to find the biggest stick I can, and carve his name right on it," Said Donovan, rubbing his temple. Ella laughed when Donovan kept to his word, and a few feet before the forest found the biggest stick he could find.
King Anaxem huddled his family close inside one of the maids passageways, deep within the center of the castle. Here there were no windows, and no way he could imagine this dragon could come looking for them. His knights were to stand guard outside the secret passage, as well as walk the inner perimeter of the castle. Anaxem had seen this creature change form, and feared there was the chance that this thing could make its way inside. One rap on the door, followed by three quick raps, told Anaxem one of his knights had returned from a perimeter walk.
"I need to check on my men. You two stay here, and do not leave this hall lest you fear for your own safety. If you fear something has happened to me, you must follow this hall down to the kitchens. From there you must take the short hall to the wine room, make your way down into the wine cellar, and lock yourself in. Do not emerge for any reason." The King looked down on his family. He reached out and touched his daughter under the chin, leaning forward, and placed a kiss atop her head. He turned toward Kalitha, who shied her face away from him, but he reached out and touched her face still. "I love you both, remember that, always."
The King opened the door, coming face to face with one of his knights, and a horrible odor that seemed to have encased the entire castle. He quickly stepped out and closed the door behind him. Kalitha caught wind of the odor and pulled her hand to her face, making Feullete do the same. She didn't know what that odor was, but she knew it couldn't be safe, and Anaxem had walked out into it.
"Mother, that smell burns my eyes," Feullete whined, pulling the skirt of her dress up over her face.
Kalitha's heart raced. Two minutes...five minutes...eight minutes...Anaxem had not returned. She rose from her position, squatting beside her daughter, and approached the door. With her ear to it, she listened for the sound of the knights outside, and prayed she would hear Anaxem's voice. She heard nothing. Her heart raced faster. She didn't want to open the door. The odor was strong enough standing here beside it.
She tapped the door lightly with her knuckles. No response. She knocked a little harder. Not even a sound of movement outside the door. Her mind raced to the worse possible scenario. She wanted to knock again, louder this time, but feared drawing attention to where they were hiding. Should A'Maikra make his way inside, he would be looking for her. She had to keep her daughter safe. She returned to Feullete, who has surfaced her head from her skirts.
"Is father okay? Do you hear them?" Feullete asked.
Her mother shook her head, "I do not hear them, and no one answered. I fear we must follow your father's advice. We must make for the cellars. Even if he does return, he will know where to come looking for us." She helped her daughter to her feet and together they hurried down the small hall to the kitchens.
Ella watched as the old couple, arm in arm, walked through the large towering pines. The pines arched over the two, making a large doorway leading into the Wood Between . Her mother stood just outside the pines, along with the other women. Her brother kissed Leonotia on the cheek, and then descended into the woods , his men close behind him. Ella approached her mother, seeing the look on her mother’s face that pleaded for her not to go, "I will be okay." Ella told her, embracing her tightly.
"I know what you must do, my sweet child. Our women are not made for battle, and many have children at home. But you, you are not like other women of our tribe. And though your home will always be here with us, your purpose lies here," And her mother placed her hand over Ella's heart. Ella's eyes watered over as her mother took her hands inside her own, "Now, you must go. You can not fall behind." Ella turned and faced the pines.
Donovan moved to stand beside Ella but something caught his hand. The sensation that shot through his arm was like ice freezing over his veins. He turned to find Leonotia's age old silver-blue eyes staring deep into his own. She spoke through a kind smile, "A lion is courageous, but will often forget it is capable of love. A lamb is gentle and patient, but often forgets what it is to be courageous. So when a lamb comes to love a lion, one may wonder, if the lamb could find the courage to give the lion the love which she so desires?"
"One may also wonder what would happen should the lamb try to tell the lion how he felt and in return the lion decided to eat the lamb." Donovan said, giving the woman a sheepish smile.
Leonotia shook her head and smiled, "You may find it scary, but when you look past that which stands between you, you will find a heart that beats the same as yours, and is capable of loving you just the same," She squeezed his hand, and it no longer felt icy cold, but delicate and warm.
Donovan wanted to turn to see if Ella was watching, but he feared she was, and so stood as still as the stick he held in his hand. "I...understand," He said, not saying more as Ella now waited for him to join her. He wondered how much she might have heard, but pushed the thought from his head. He liked her mother, though scary as she was. Then something struck him, A lamb comes to love a lion... He'd seen Ella's brother change into this big cat, and if that is Ella's blood brother...He again pushed the thought from his mind.
"Mother stopped you to talk to her. What did she say?" Ella said, waiting for Donovan to step up beside her.
"Oh, she just...wished me good luck," Donovan said, barely able to meet her gaze. Ella just smiled, and Donovan feared she was laughing at his pathetic attempt at lying.
"Well, shall we? The others know where they are going and have gone on ahead of us, but Sir Aegeron is waiting for us just beyond the trees. He will lead us through the Wood Between," Ella said.
Donovan held up his stick, "Good, I was afraid I wasn't going to get a chance to use this."
Ella rolled her eyes, "I have a feeling your stick will do surprisingly little against Sir Aegeron."
They crossed through the pines and into the Wood Between. Donovan didn't see any sign of Sir Aegeron, or any of the others. Even Ella seemed rather concerned, though she continued forward. Donovan not wanting to gain distance between them hurried to her side. Those few feet made all the difference and suddenly they weren't in the same wood anymore.
The trees around them played tricks on their minds, changing shape, moving, running alongside them, until your looked at them and they became solitary trees once more. The ground under them seemed to be moving, though they didn't seem to move with it, but at pace in which their own feet moved. Donovan hadn't looked this closely at the woods traveling to Nevenia. Now he wished he had the bird to distract him.
"It's strange, isn't it?" Ella asked.
Donovan could feel her arm brush against his. She was staying awfully close to him. He realized how much more afraid she must be, "Strange yes, but I don't think we have reason to fear. I'm sure Sir Aegeron is fluttering around here somewhere." He turned his head to the trees above, but suddenly wished he hadn't. A huge shadow seemed to be lingering above them, and then the next instant was gone. Donovan's mouth hung open.
"What? Donnie? What did you see?" Ella turned her eyes skyward, but saw nothing.
"Oh, nothing, just got a weird sensation when I looked up there. Lets just keep our eyes on the path ahead." And just as he did this his face came chest to face with Sir Aegeron. Donovan raised his stick, but realized this was a person standing before him, not a bird. Aegeron just smiled at the sight of the stick.
"Rule breaker, are we?" Aegeron grinned, and Donovan wished so much that Aegeron would change again, just so he could test his stick.
"No, just seen some creepy things while walking through the forest, like little green birds that favor the taste of man flesh," Donovan replied.
To Donovan’s surprise Aegeron smiled, "Follow me, you must stick to the path before you. Don't go looking too deep into the wood or you may find yourself unknowingly straying off course, and trust me, there are worse things out there then flesh eating birds." Sir Aegeron took to the trees long before Donovan could even catch sight of his changing shape.
Donovan thought to keep his stick at the ready, but was momentarily distracted by the feeling of someone's hand on his arm. He turned and Ella seemed to blush under his gaze. "You don't mind, do you?" Ella asked, ready to remove her hand if need be.
"Not at all," Donovan said, feeling that icy to warm sensation creep through his arm again.
Ella tucked her arm around his, and so they kept on walking through the strange wood. Sir Aegeron made appearances every now and then to help direct them. Donovan forgot all about Sir Aegeron, and his stick, as he was too busy wondering how long he had to hold on to Ella before they would reach the other end of the path, and he would be forced to let her go. It was surely the doings of this strange wood, for as soon as he thought about it, there was Aegeron standing before them.
"Here, just this way," Aegeron took to human form and stepped over a fallen log, quickly vanishing out of sight.
Donovan wished to tighten his hold on her, but Ella slowly pulled her arm out from his. She stood before the giant log. On the other side was the castle which held every evil that wished to see her dead. She knew what she had to do though, and so she moved forward, ready to face that which she knew she had been purposed for all these years.
Kalitha's hand shook uncontrollably as she took hold of the handle to the door that would lead them into the castle's kitchen. She placed her ear to the door, listening, but could hear nothing. Doing her best not to jingle the handle with her trembling hand, she quietly pushed the door open.
Her plan to peek into the kitchen was spoiled by the smoke that filled every inch of the room. Thankfully, she could only assume if she couldn't see five feet before her, then no one could see them slipping from the maid's hall, into the wine room, where the door to the underground cellar would be found. She could not see the kitchen layout very well, but knew the cellar room was to their right.
"Alright, Feullete, take my hand. Take your skirt with your other hand and cover your mouth to block the smoke. Now, when I pull, you follow me to the other side of the room as fast as you can. We need to find the wine room. When I let go of your hand we'll each go our own way and search each of the rooms until we find it. Ready?" Kalitha said, holding tight Feullete's hand.
Feullete nodded, her skirt already covering her mouth. Her mother pushed open the door enough for the two to squeeze through, and pulled Feullete across the room. As soon as she saw the first doorway she let go, pointing Feullete to the left, gesturing for her to check those doors. The two separated, and Kalitha reached the first doorway to the right, the pantry. Next door, a store room, and then following that a washroom.
Kalitha had to walk a ways, doing her best to keep from running into things. She finally reached the next door, and by this time Feullete had reached her shaking her head again. This has to be it, Kalitha thought. She pulled open the door to find it much cooler then the others. Sure enough she caught first sight of the wine room. She quickly pulled Feullete inside and shut the door. The cellar door was at the far end of the wine room. The door was always locked, the key hidden, only a few knowing its location.
Kalitha looked for the empty barrel that sat in the corner opposite the cellar door. She pulled the barrel aside using the rug it sat on, until Feullete could see the tiny trap door beneath it. Kalitha pulled it open, removed the key, and pushed the barrel back in place so it looked as if no one had been there. The cellar had two doors, with the top door having to be unlocked from the outside, and then down the short set of stairs another door that opened right away.
This door locked from the inside, preventing any from entering the cellar while the butler was tending to the wine. This part of the wine cellar was for fine wines and drinks, and only the butler, or the royals themselves, were allowed access. Kalitha knew the cellar well, though she would not admit this to Feullete. Once Feullete was inside the cellar, Kalitha locked the door, and tucked them both far into the corner of the cellar.
"Mother, do you think father will find us soon?" Feullete asked. Her voice was forced and scratchy.
"I hope so sweetie," Kalitha said, taking her daughter into her arms.
"What about Donovan, is he with father?" Feullete said, tucking herself tightly into her mother's side.
Kalitha had not thought about her son since she first learned of Ella's escape, and Donovan's involvement in it. Kalitha felt comfort knowing her son was nowhere near this disaster. She squeezed Feullete tight, "Don't worry about your brother. He will be safe where he is."
Prince Donovan pulled Ella atop the log. There they sat, waiting to join the others on the other side. "Are you ready?" Donovan asked, holding out his hand for Ella to take hold.
"I guess so," Ella said, unconsciously placing her hand in his. Her eyes were on the wood ahead.
Not knowing what it was going to be like, falling off the log, Donovan decided to slide off first. "Here I go," He said, moving himself forward enough to allow his weight to carry him the rest of the way. His hand slowly slide from Ella's hold, and she gasped as she watched him disappear from sight, as if swallowed by the wood itself. Not wanting the fear to glue her to the log, Ella pushed herself forward, taking a handful of her dress into her grasp, and dropped off the log. Next thing she knew she was dropping into Donovan's unsuspecting arms.
"Ella!" He said, barely managing to catch hold of her before they both went falling to the forest floor.
"Oh! Sorry Donnie," She said crawling back onto her knees. She brushed the hair from her face and laughed when she saw Donovan, in rather a trance, buried in a pile of leaves that now rained down over them.
"It's...uh, quite alright. That was sort of my intent, though I didn't expect you to drop down so fast," He got to his feet and brushed the leaves from his lap.
"We should go find the others," Ella said.
Donovan turned toward the forest clearing and the giant orange glow the emanated from there. He ran for the clearing and the group of people who stood waiting for them, "Where is my family? Are they still inside?"
"I believe so," Aegeron answered. An eruption of flame shot into the air from the courtyard, "He has lost all control of himself. New dragons are always the worst. They can't control their burning, and almost always loose themselves to their flame. I doubt he even remembers what it is he is seeking."
Donovan thought of Ella. He turned when he heard her speaking, "Your home, it is dreadful. What of your father? And Feullete?" Donovan couldn't answer. He didn't want to imagine any harm coming to his family, but the smoke pouring from the windows gave him little hope.
"I don't think he's made it to the towns people. He's focused solely on the castle, and what he think lies inside," Aegeron looked at Ella when he said this.
"He wants me," Ella said, not needing to read into Aegeron's look, "I can lead him away. I can draw him away from the castle."
Donovan broke his trance on the castle and shot a look at Ella, "You are not going anywhere near him! He wishes you dead!"
"Yes, he wishes me dead. And your family faces death because of me. If he finds I am not hiding within that castle then I can save your family from meeting an end that is not meant for them," Ella shot back at him.
"It is not meant for you either! We can find another way to draw him away, but it will not involve putting you in danger," Donovan turned as he said this, as if that was going to stop her from making her point.
"We don't have time for this Donnie. I will not be in danger as long as I have my brother. You do as you wish, but as for me, I'm going with my brother and ridding this kingdom of this dragon," And Ella turned toward her brother who was edging closer to the castle.
Ella's courage was plain as day, and Donovan could see the image of the lamb and the lion. He wanted to follow after her, but the image of the lamb running after the lion kept playing over in his head, except in his mind the lamb always ended up eaten.
"There really isn't any other option is there...she's right," Donovan said after finally washing the image of the eaten lamb from his head.
"A woman always is, young prince," Said Aegeron, gazing at his reflection within a bird bath, "Especially an immortal woman. If you haven't crossed her once already, I warn you now, she is not as slight as she seems."
Donovan imagined Ella throwing a shoe and it hitting the little green bird, knocking him from his perch. He laughed, "Crossed many immortal women have we, Aegeron?"
Aegeron started laughing, "Me? No, no, no, I leave such affairs to more experienced poets, such as Sir Eanrin. No one can spark such ire in a woman and walk away unscathed as he can."
"Sir who?" Donovan asked, but Aegeron had already detoured away from their conversation, and onto Ella's brother who approached him now.
"So what have you decided?" Aegeron asked Xsada.
Donovan tried to read Ella's face, but she seemed to be ignoring him intentionally. Xsada answered, "We must draw him away from Cyndar. To fight him here in front of the castle is to risk too many lives. We must lead him out into the open, and away from the people and their homes."
"And how do you plan on doing this?" Donovan asked.
Xsada was apparently ignoring him too, for he directed his answer at Aegeron, "I will take Ella as close to the dragon as I need to in order to get his attention. Once drawn from the castle, we'll lead the beast to the volcano. My brothers will follow on both sides, ensuring that the dragon does not stray off our path. Once we reach the volcano, we can deal with the dragon there." Xsada looked to his men who all smiled reassuringly to each other.
This gave Donovan little comfort, maybe because they were all still in man form, which he was grateful for at the moment, but mostly because Ella was still involved. Even worse was her determination to be involved. He came too once he realized Xsada was talking again, "...and once the castle is clear of this danger, the Prince can make his way inside to find his family, and lead them to the town where the air still seems clear of this dragon's stench."
"What?" Donovan said.
"You disagree with this plan, young Prince? I mean, you sister is a pain, I'll give you that, but without someone to fetch them they will likely stay suffocating in that dragon poison," Aegeron stated, and Donovan realized how silly he sounded. This was his family, and who better to come to their rescue.
"Then we are settled," Xsada said, taking a step back.
Donovan almost jumped out of his skin when Ella's brother exploded where he stood, leaving Donovan hunkering under the shadow of a great white cat again. A dozen explosions later and Donovan was sure their cover was blown. These giant white cats were like a glowing light in the darkness surrounding. Even scarier was how they almost glowed orange as the dragon's flames reflected off their fur. Ella approached her brother, who knelt down, though this did little to help her reach atop his back.
"Ella?" Donovan started to say, though he wasn't sure she had heard him.
"Times up little prince!" Aegeron shouted, grabbing Donovan just in time, as the group of giant cats dispersed throughout the gardens.
A flame shot down atop the hedges just as a giant dragon came diving off the castle walls. Ella and Xsada sped along the garden’s edge. She turned her head, though the wind in her face had her eyes watering so much she almost couldn't see. Aegeron was pulling Donovan out of the gardens and onto the gravel that led to the castle. The dragon was focused on the white blurs that dashed too and from the path her and Xsada ran. Some ran up upon the dragon just long enough to catch his attention, then took off for the cover of the forest.
Once on the forests edge, the dragon exploded in a giant flame, but did not pursue any further. Ella and her brother sat just inside the forest, waiting. Four of the giant cats had crept up upon the dragon from both sides. They growled ferociously, but the dragon seemed aware of their intent, and surrounded himself with flames. He then turned to face the castle once more. Ella grabbed tight her brother's fur, "Get up there, now!"
Xsada ran for the forest's edge. "Dragon!" Ella hollered as Xsada jumped the wall of flame that was now taking to the trees. The dragon kept in the direction of the castle. Ella was not giving up, "A'Maikra, you blasted beast! I'm here now, so leave my family alone!" She was now inside the gardens, and had finally caught his attention. At the sound of his name, the dragon turned to see Ella almost standing atop a giant white cat.
"You came, as he said you would!" The dragon roared. Ella merely scowled. "And now you shall be his at last, and I..." he cackled, "I will finally get what I was promised!"
Donovan ran through the castle's bottom floor, seeking out his family. Not a soul could be seen or heard. The castle was full of a venomous cloud. It stung his eyes, and burned his throat, but he kept on searching. They had to be here somewhere, and then it hit him. "They are probably in hiding," Donovan told Aegeron, but when he turned his watery eyes to his side Aegeron was gone. "Much help you are, blasted bird." Donovan growled his way to the second floor. There he found a couple of the guards standing watch over the stairway.
"The King!" Donovan demanded, "Where is the King?" Neither man looked him in the eye. They seemed to be gazing right past Donovan's face. Donovan waved his hand in front of one, but after getting no response he resorted to poking.
"He calls. From the shadows, he calls my name. Do you hear him?" The guard almost walked right through Donovan as he made for the stairs.
The second guard was still gazing at nothing when Donovan decided he'd be a waste of his time. Down halls, past rooms, and even up one of the towers he ran, but not a single other soul could be found. He was just about to give up when a figure appeared in the hazy clouds ahead. This was the side of the castle nearest the courtyard, and the dragon's poison shown strongest here. Ash took to the air with every step he took, making the figure harder still to recognize. The flame from one of the window's bounced off a piece of metal atop the figure's head, and Donovan nearly tripped over himself as he went running for him.
"Father! You're alive!" Donovan cried. He wrapped his arms around the still form. A cloud of ash filled the space around them, and Donovan nearly choked. "Where's mother? And Feullete?" He croaked, but his father made no answer.
"Lost, they are all lost," his father said, "I am lost. I am looking, but I know not what I look for. Do you know? Do you know what I am looking for?"
"Father...It's me. Donovan...Your son, Donovan. Don't you see me? It's Donovan! Look at me!" Donovan was screaming by this time. He shook his father's shoulders, but all seemed lost to him, just as he said, "Where are the girls? We need to get you all out of here!" His father seemed hopeless. He barely met his eye, and gave no answer to where the rest of his family was.
Donovan grabbed him by the arm and pulled him through the hall and toward the stairs. He had to get his father out of this castle and into some clean air where he might finally get an answer from him. Obviously his family was in hiding. It was not like his father to leave his family like this. Donovan feared the poison’s effect on his father, and what might happen to him if he should linger in this castle much longer.
He did his best to take the stairs slow, but once he reached the bottom he nearly dragged his father from the castle. The courtyard was a mistake, Donovan decided, once he opened the doors. The vapors were even thicker here, and the stone was smoldering hot. Some had even returned to flowing like the lava it once was.
"We can't go this way," He said, closing the door, "Come on, the maids quarters have access to the side of the castle, near the gardens. We can get outside there. I'll hide you in the forest if I have to." But Donovan knew his reasoning for this. If he could find a safe enough place for his family there, he can make his way to the volcano. No matter how much he worried for his family's safety, there was one who took forefront on his mind. He had to see her safe.
"I don't know who you think you are now, creature, but I do not belong to you, nor any other beast you may be doing dirty work for!" Ella said sternly, keeping her eyes on the dragon's mouth, just waiting for him to erupt with flames.
"I'm different, yes, but that is because I serve a far greater purpose now, far greater then I did serving under that wretched woman! She can spend her days burning under my flame, and she will, but only after I've delivered you to my new master," Lava dripped from the dragon's mouth, almost as if he salivated over his thoughts.
Ella tightened her grip on her brothers mane, "I take it your master wouldn't be too happy if you returned empty handed now, would he?" Ella said as she kicked at her brother's side. He turned and in a flash they were flying through the forest's trees.
Ella could feel the heat of the flame that followed after them, and knew the dragon was pursuing them just as planned. She clung low to her brother's mane, as branches threatened to behead her, missing her head by mere inches. She wanted so much to turn her head, but knew at this speed she would hardly be able to make out the dragon through the tree tops.
She could hardly see the forest in the blur of green that stretched alongside them. At this speed they would make it to the volcano soon. They had not gotten to the details of once they had reached their destination, but she was sure her brother and his men knew what they were doing. She had to trust him.
"We're almost there. Now, Ellaxsia, do you trust me?" Xsada asked.
"Yes, of course I do," Ella said.
"Then you will trust me when I ask you to run? Run, and hide anywhere you find that will keep you hidden for a good length of time, and stay there," Xsada said.
Her heart crushed under his words. So she wouldn't be fighting alongside him after all. She was merely the bate to draw the dragon away, and then she was to go into hiding again. She could see the relief on Donovan's face, and this angered her. At the end of their run though, she knew what she had to do. Her brother had gained some distance from the dragon, just enough to give Ella a head start.
He nearly flung her as he rolled his head forward, sending her flying into his mane. She slid down his giant brow, and landed hard on the rocky ground. She took one look into his eyes, and she swore she saw tears. The memory of that horrible day was still fresh on her mind, and she was sure it played the same in his. She touched her hand to his nose, "I love you, brother."
Xsada pushed his head into her hand, and then looked up in almost a glare, "You must go, now!" He roared, and Ella could see the flame coming just over the trees.
She ran as fast as her feet could carry her over this harsh rock. More then once she fell, and she was sure she felt blood running down her leg. She had managed to stick to a fairly clear path that wound around the volcano. She refused to stop, to look back where her brother stood before that flaming beast, refusing him to follow after her. She pushed herself, further, and further around the giant rock, climbing slightly higher with every five feet she ran, until clearly out of sight she felt she was safe to start up.
She didn't know why she chose up, for it clearly wasn't the easier choice, but she felt the rocks were her best bet for staying hidden. A dragon could flame a forest, and then where would she hide? Here she was surrounded by giant rock formations and boulders. The boulders made almost a stairway up the side of the volcano. Ella scrambled as fast as she could, paying little mind to her bleeding hands and bruised knees.
Thirty feet up she had to pause, which became a mistake as her exhaustion caught up with her. She could hear wheezing, though it was barely audible over her heart which pounded in her ears. You have to keep moving, she told herself as she attempted to turn her head uphill. It came as more of a flop, but she managed to see the peaks above. A formation up another twenty feet caught her eye.
Two boulders came together to form a small crevice, almost large enough for a person. The boulders were wedged into the side of the volcano. Ella did no know if it went back far enough for her to hide, but she had to reach it to find out. As she crawled over another boulder, a horrible sound emanated through the trees. A blood curdling cry shook the foundation of the volcano, sending rocks rolling down its sides.
Ella found cover under a huge boulder and hugged herself for comfort as she waited for it all to stop. Tears poured down her face, and she could hear herself sobbing. That sound she heard was not just that of a beast, but also that of a person. Ella could not waste the efforts being made to save her life. She stepped out of hiding and ran for it. The opening in the volcano was almost within reach.
She pushed past the protests her body made until she finally reached its opening. With hands grasping both sides of the crevice, she peered into its shadows. Her heart gave a jump when she swore she heard the shadows speaking to her, inviting her in. She didn't have time to second guess her decision. The pillar of flames that nearly reached the sky told her she was safer within the cave.
Donovan dragged his dad into the kitchen. His dad was mumbling something about a strange tunnel within a cave, when Donovan heard a horrifying cry from outside. It was so loud that it sent even his father running for his life. Donovan quickly scrambled after him. He took hold of his father's cloak and pulled him to a stop. "You can't just go running off like that. You want to really wind up lost?" Donovan asked, though he was sure his father hadn't heard a word he said.
"He's coming! He wants it! If I don't find it, he will..." Donovan listened to his dad's rambling long enough. He was wasting precious time, and even he was starting to feel a little lost.
"Come on." Donovan took his father's hand and pulled him through the kitchen.
"Donnie?" Came a voice from behind him. Donovan swung around where he stood to find Feullete's face peeking out through a door.
"Feullete! I've been looking for hours!" Donovan began, but soon was cut off by Feullete's full forced hug that nearly knocked the wind out of him.
"You've found father! Mother and I thought the worst, that he was lost to the dragon! But he's not! He's here!" She went on and on, taking her father by the hands, and then jumping into him to hug him. "Father? Why won't you hug me? Aren't you glad to see I am okay?"
"You may be okay, but I don't think he is. There's something wrong with him, like his mind is gone somewhere else," Donovan told her.
"Mother too, but she's not as bad. Oh, mother! I should go back and fetch her. I left her in the cellar. She did not think I should leave, but her mind does not stay focused on one thing for too long. As soon as I was walking away, she was off rambling about something else," Feullete talked the whole way back to the wine room.
Donovan on the other hand had his mind off somewhere else. His family was safe now, and he knew no more harm would come to them as long as the dragon was gone. "Feullete?" He said, before she could enter the wine room.
"What?" She said, turning just enough to look at him.
"Do you think you could manage to get father and mother both out of the castle, and down to the town by yourself?" He asked.
Feullete didn't look to assured of this, and bit her lip nervously, "Donnie, I don't understand. Why would we need to leave the castle, and where are you going?"
"Just trust me, okay? The castle isn't safe, obviously," He said, gesturing toward his father, "And until that dragon is dead, neither is the town."
"And what are you going to do about it? Don't tell me you're planning to go fight the dragon!" Feullete barked, her annoying, bossy side coming into play.
"Feullete, this isn't the time for you to go playing mother on me. This is serious, and I need you to just do as I say," Donovan replied.
He waited until Feullete returned with his mother, who seemed just as out of sorts as his father. When his mother entered the kitchen though, her eyes met his for a moment, and she started to cry. Donovan hugged her, though he was sure she hardly knew what was going on. He then sent them off, out the kitchen, and around the side of the courtyard. He watched Feullete, with both parents in hand, disappear out the castle gate.
It gave him comfort to know they were farther from the dragon, and its poison, which by now was starting to take effect on his own mind. He had to get far from this castle, and he had to find Ella. It was at least an hour walk to the volcano, and from the looks of things it was going to be a hot one. The entire forest was ablaze.
Ella's first few feet into the cave were slow ones. She could hardly see the walls beside her, though she was sure they were only inches away from her on each side. She extended one of her hands in front of her so as to find the end of the cave before she ran into it. She walked for what might have been a minute or two until she realized that she was walking downhill.
She was sure she had gone far enough, and was likely to be lost should she go much further. She turned back to find the entrance, but soon found herself turning in circles, with no entrance in sight. Now reaching out for the walls so as to help direct herself, but soon found those had gone missing too. She was completely encased in darkness.
She knew walking blind in the dark was dangerous, so she got to her hands and knees to crawl, feeling her way as she went. She did not know which direction she was headed, but she tried to head the way that led back up hill, or so she thought. The darkness was making it hard to determine distance or time. It also made it hard to determine which way she was headed, for what felt like uphill soon became downhill, and she began to wonder if she had turned around on accident.
She started to feel hopeless and soon decided she had better luck just staying put. As she rose to sitting position she caught ear of what sounded to be water, almost like the splashing of waves. Ella felt the ground once more and crawled toward the sound. Just the idea of something she could recognize gave her comfort, until she neared the sound, and the water soon took on an awful beckoning sound.
Even in the depths my children find me.
Ella went stone cold. She felt the darkness almost rise up around her at the sound of that voice. She could make out the shoreline at her feet, and quickly stepped away.
I've been waiting for you. It is fortunate, is it not, how you've come to find me?
"Who-o's there?" Ella stuttered, turning about to try and catch the direction of the voice.
I am your destiny, my dear princess. For where else should you find yourself, after wandering for so long in the darkness, but here with me?
"I don't even know who you are. How can you be my destiny?" Ella stopped turning about, convinced the voice was now coming from within her own mind.
Because you were meant for me, I who wanted to give you the life you should have lived. I who intended you for great things. And I would have given you everything, but THEY wouldn't have it. Instead they chose to abandon you, and to leave you to the world of mortals, for you to live out your days as a slave to one of their daughters. They claimed they were keeping you safe, but really, they were the danger. While they lived out their days, growing old together in the wood, you rotted away at the hands of some spoiled human brat.
"How do you know all this?" Ella asked the voice, though she couldn't hear her own voice in the darkness, and wondered if she just thought them.
Nothing is hidden from me. Their efforts were almost entirely useless, except that in the end it has made it all the more easier for you to find me. And now, my Princess, you can let go all the lies they fed you, and find your purpose here with me, as one of mine.
Ella could feel these words grasping at her, pulling on her, with each word drawing her back toward the water. His words brought the questions back to her mind. She wanted to scream at him, to call him a liar, and to escape from this darkness that made it so hard to see clearly that which was real. But he kept on, taunting her. "Stop it! You lie!" She yelled, grasping at her ears and crouching into a ball.
Why do you fight me so? Can you not see? Your brother meant for you to run away and hide, because he wanted to be rid of you. I on the other hand do want you. I want to give you everything you've ever been deprived from; a life of beautiful immortality, to be a queen as you were always meant to be, and to be loved as you've always wanted to be.
Ella could hear the voice right behind her now. She could hear him leaning over her. She could hear the water crawl up the shore after him, licking at her heels where she sat crouching on her heels. Ella knew she didn't stand a chance against the full power of his words. If she turned and looked at him she would lose all sense of what was right in her own mind. She still could not see in the darkness, but she had a better chance at the darkness that lay ahead then at the darkness that lurked behind her. Ella set her toes to the ground, placing one hand on the floor, and prepared to run.
What do you say, my dear princess?
"I say, you were a fool to think I would believe a word you said about my family! I'll take my chances with mortal love over living an eternity with you!" And Ella took to her feet in a full force sprint, leaving the voice on the shores of darkness.
A deathly roar erupted inside the cave, pushing Ella even further into the shadows. She knew who the voice belonged too now, as his image become more and more clear the further she got from him. She knew if she turned back now she'd be looking into the face of the dragon. Why he did not just kill when he had the chance she did not know.
If you think you can run from my sight, then you are as mistaken as your mother was all those years ago. You were promised to me! And I will have what I am due!
Ella was sure by now that she would have run straight into a wall, but the darkness carried her deeper and deeper. She could almost feel his hot breath upon her. Was he just taunting her? Playing a game? Was she really even running? This felt like a dream, no, a nightmare! Maybe she passed out on the volcano from exhaustion, and this was all just a bad dream in her mind.
If it was, there was no reason she couldn't just think her way out of here. She closed her eyes, or at least thought she did seeing as the darkness was all the same, and thought long and hard about escaping, waking up, seeing daylight, finding the entrance, "Anything!" She cried, and she opened them.
Sure enough, a light flickered in the distance. Maybe she had made her way back to the entrance. She headed for the light, but quickly realized the light hardly changed in size, though she was sure she neared it closer now. In fact, it didn't get much bigger then a lamp, and soon that was all that she found. Sitting atop a rock was an old lamp, with a light so bright Ella could hardly keep her eyes on it.
She thought it strange that a lamp would be sitting deep within a cave such as this. She felt drawn to its light, and she was not afraid to allow herself to approach it. She reached out and placed her hand over its handle, just to touch it. It gave off a warmth that surrounded her whole body. She needed to find a way out of this cave and she wasn't going to do that without a light.
Her mind tried playing horrible scenarios, of whom the lamp might belong to, and what might happen should she be caught with it, but one look at the light and those thoughts fled her mind. She grasped the handle and lifted the lamp from its rock. Just as quickly as she could blink her eyes against its light, another lamp appeared there on the rock before her. Must be dreaming, she thought. Dream or not she needed out of it. She held the lamp up and soon found the light seemed to form a path right before her feet.
The darkness surrounding seemed to push down upon the light, almost as if trying to smother it, but the light pushed on. It led Ella on for some time. Ella kept her eyes to her feet, though she found she still could not detect the direction in which she walked. When the light shone brighter still, Ella looked up to find a glow looming on the path ahead, a glow so powerful it lighted the entire space around it. And then she saw the water it stood beside, and Ella gasped at the sight of it.
"No!" She cried, almost dropping the lamp. The light had betrayed her. It had led her right back to the place she fled from.
Please, do not fear the light, my child. It has done you no wrong.
"But, it has. Just look where it brought me," Ella said.
It has led you right where you need to be, though it may not always be right where you wish to find yourself.
"But why? Why must I find myself here?" Ella asked of the glow.
The glow grew closer, until it was no longer a glow, but a person. An immortal, like Sir Aegeron, though far more humble an appearance, and somehow far more greater. As admired as she was, she lost all sense of comfort when another figure appeared in front of her. He wore a cloak of shadows, which hung over his ghastly pale face. The darkness seemed to hug at him, though it trembled at his every move. Even though he stood on two feet, Ella saw the dragon's eyes as he turned his face upon her. She moved closer to the glowing man, feeling safer in his light then the darkness that moved closer to her.
"Do you not see, it's brought me back to the dragon!" Ella cried to the man standing beside her.
"You no longer need hide from such a monster. His lies are his only tool now. As long as you have the truth on your side, his lies can do you no harm," The immortal man said. Ella no longer hunkered behind him, but stood at his side now, willing herself to believe what he said.
The dark man before her ginned still, "You drink up his words as if you've known their taste all your life. Yet, where was he when you were offered as a sacrifice by your own father, abandoned by your mother, and left to wither away at the hands of mortals?"
Ella fought his words, though she knew there were truths behind them, "All you ever tell me is how wrongly I was treated, but what of all the good that came from it?" And the immortal who stood beside her smiled at her words. The light in her hand glowed brighter, stalling the dark man where he stood, though he seemed to push his darkness in on her still.
"Good? What good can come from such a pathetic life? What good could mortals do for you? What good is a family that chose to desert you for so many years?" The dark man pushed harder.
"They were trying to keep me safe, from you!" Ella charged back at him.
"They were trying to hide you from fulfilling a much greater purpose! My purpose!" The dark man said, raising his voice over the glow of the lamp, that now shined brighter then ever before.
"I have no need for anything you offer me! I have a purpose, and it's no longer to live out my life in hiding, but to actually live! And not you, nor your dragons, nor your lies, will ever force me into hiding again!" At this, Ella found herself pushing forward with the light she held in her hands. The dark man was lurking further and further back into his shadows.
The dark waters licked his feet, and he scowled at her, "Pathetic, waste of my time you were! It's no wonder your father was so willing just to hand you over. You desire to be nothing great in life! You have no fire in you! You are small, and weak, and..."
"That is enough! I no longer wish to hear your lies!" Ella said, cutting him off. The dark man growled where he stood, but a great light shone behind Ella and the room grew silent.
"She is no longer yours to taunt or torment. Now, away with you dragon!" And at the immortal man's demand, the dark form dispersed into the shadows, and Ella was free.
Donovan ran through the scalded forest, avoiding the places that still burned. Much of the trees were just singed, but many areas suffered the dragon's full flame. If Donovan thought he was scared before, he was even more so now that the horrible cry had faded away, and was replaced by absolute silence. He looked up to the sky, searching it for any sign of Dragon or fire. The trees were glowing brighter here where the fires grew ever wilder. Donovan knew he was getting closer.
He could hear rustling in the trees, like footprints. He turned to his side to see a giant white cat running beside him. It seemed to want to get up beside Donovan, and he slowed. Though he could not tell which of the immortals it was, Donovan had to trust that he would get him to Ella. When the beast came to a halt, Donovan wasted no time in clambering atop his back. He had to grab at his fur twice when the beast lurched forward at great speed, and Donovan almost went flying off its backside.
"What happened? I heard a great cry! Where's the dragon?" Donovan tried to holler into the beasts ear, but either he had fallen too far back for it to hear, or it was ignoring his question, cause Donovan received no answer. He settled on waiting out the ride to the foot of the volcano.
When the great white cat came to a stop Donovan could see nothing but a huge clearing in the forest where the trees had been burnt to ash. Donovan dropped to the ground and turned to face the lion, "What happened? Where is the dragon? Where is Ella!"
"We lost him. One of our own was wounded, greatly. While at his care, the dragon slipped away. We believe he took to his original form, and he has vanished." Donovan knew it was Xsada as soon as he spoke.
"And what of Ella?" Donovan asked.
Xsada's giant face fell toward the ground, "I told her to run, but I know not where she went. We have been all over this mountain, but we can not find her, nor the dragon."
"But the dragon, what if he found her? He could have her in his reaches as we speak! How could you let this happen? You were supposed to be protecting her!" Donovan scolded. He left Xsada for the volcano, just as one of the other great cats came running down it’s side.
"We've found her trail!" It called out to Xsada.
"On my back, boy!" Xsada demanded, kneeling down beside Donovan. They took off for the volcano, crushing rock, and sending boulders rolling down into the forest.
"Here!" Said the other cat, coming to halt before a crevice between two great boulders, "We lost her trail here. We think she must be hiding inside, but we've had no luck reaching her."
Donovan was approaching the crevice now. A great form cast a shadow over him, and he looked up to see the dragon crouching over the peak of the volcano. It seemed to grin as it made its descent down to where Donovan stood. Donovan would have run, except the dragon kept stalling to swipe at his face. As it drew closer Donovan could see something green fluttering around its head. He couldn't help but smile as this seemed to be annoying the dragon greatly. The dragon gave a large burst of flame, shaking its head furiously.
By now the rest of the great cats had gathered around. Some had even crept further up the volcano, towards the dragon. They growled, drawing the dragon's attention to them. He gave a mighty roar, and the cat's were upon him. The dragon bellowed a mighty flame, but what came next gave Donovan an even greater shock then when they first transformed.
They ran upon the flame, as if almost anticipating its coming, and from their mouth bellowed a blue flame, almost as great in force as the dragon's fire. The dragon's fire became no more then steam at first contact with the blue flame, and the dragon now seeing this took to the skies. He seemed actually afraid, but still determined. It circled the volcano, coming back around to where Donovan now stood.
Xsada had not moved, and was soon crouched in front of him, ready to attack. He was not alone though. Aegeron came diving through the air, one moment as a bird, the next as a man who landed gracefully at Xsada's side. From under his cloak he pulled a mighty jagged sword. The light that emanated from the sword grew even brighter in the glow of the dragon's flame, almost as if the sword itself swallowed its light.
Aegeron leaped atop Xsada's back and the two charged straight for the dragon. The dragon almost turned immediately, but something caught his eye, and he stalled, his face becoming hungry. Donovan thought at first he was eyeing him, but after following the dragon's eye he saw what drew him in. Ella now stood just outside the cave, watching the attack.
Desperate to get to Ella, but fearful of turning his back on the dragon, Donovan scrambled backwards to her side. All the while his eyes stayed glued to the scene unfolding before him. The momentary distraction was just what Xsada needed, and in no time he had released the full extent of his blue flame upon the dragon. The reptilian beast seemed to turn stone cold in the air, his wings no longer able to move. Down he plummeted, hitting the ground with a mighty explosion of dirt and rock.
Aegeron was atop him the moment the dust took to the air. Everybody waited in silence for the dust to settle, and when it did, they knew at last that the danger was over. Aegeron, with sword in hand, walked victoriously from the beasts lifeless body. Passing both Xsada, and his brothers, he made his way up the volcano toward Ella. At her feet he placed his bloody sword point down into the ground, and knelt. Donovan didn't know what to make of this, until a voice behind him rewarded the knight, “Well done.”
"Master," Sir Aegeron said, rising to his feet.
Donovan turned to the voice behind him, to a man who looked to be some form of royalty, though as immortal as Sir Aegeron himself. "We leave you now, Princess," The man spoke to Ella now, "Your dragon is past, though that is not to say that danger will never find you. Now you know, though, that you will never have to face those dragons alone."
Ella seemed overwhelmed by these words, and could hardly blubber out a thank you before hugging the man at the waist. Donovan feared what the great royal would think, but he seemed more then happy to comfort Ella in return. Ella soon turned to face Sir Aegeron, though this time she was more reserved, and simply held her hand out to him. He took it gladly, lifting it to his lips, and giving it a gentle kiss, "M'lady."
"I hope this is not farewell for good. You will come visit me, won't you?" Ella asked of him.
"Of course, should my master have no immediate need of my services, I would be more then happy to pay you a visit from time to time," Aegeron gave her an elegant bow, before rising to join his master at his side.
Ella was sad to see them off, but was more then happy now to relax atop her brother's back as they made their way back down to the castle. Exhausted, she often found herself nodding off with the swaying of his large strides. More then once she felt herself being caught by two large hands, until finally she felt the world around her drift away, and the comfort of a great cat's soft mane engulf her in her sleep.
It had been a week since Ella had left the Kingdom of Cyndar. Her first time stepping into Elastule was one of the most amazing moments of her life. The entire kingdom was made of rock and ice, and was nestled between two giant tree covered mountains. The castle looked to be almost a mountain on its own, rising high above the rest of the kingdom. Ella couldn't tell if it was built of stone made to look like ice, or ice made to look like stone, but it sparkled a beautiful icy blue, and every inch was covered in a blanket of white.
It was such a contrast from what she was used to, but the beauty of it entranced her mind. Inside the castle was a lot more of what she was used to, with the ground resembling more natural stone, and the furniture all made of wood. The beds were still dressed with fabrics, though almost all came from animal skins, and many of the blankets contained thick fur coats. Ella found this a little odd at first, but soon found she enjoyed the feel of fur under her touch. Ella had a lot to learn about her people, their history, and the lifestyle they lived.
Though many lived in the town itself, others chose a more solitary life in the woods . It was nothing new to see many, especially the children, walking around as cats, or in their case as cubs. Both men and women were gifted in this, though it was mostly the men who took to this form, both to hunt and protect. Though women also held this gift, many often preferred their human form, and rarely found a need to use it.
Ella was not yet curious, though she had thought about it many times since she saw her brothers transformation, she ultimately put off thinking about trying it out herself. She had grown used to the men in their snowy white bodies, and often took enjoyment in traveling all over the kingdom with her brother. For days they traveled all over the mountains, learning their country, and using that time to get to know each other again. Ella wasn't sure there was much more she could ask for in life, that was until the weeks end, at least what she thought had been a week of being home.
Ella had been sitting in her room late one night, staring out the window at the moon. It was a clear night, though it still snowed, and every star in the sky came to pay the moon a visit. A creak behind her door caught her attention and her mind quickly drifted to a memory of a certain late night visitor she had sadly come to forget.
Donnie... She thought, waiting with her eyes glued to the door, though her heart knew no one was coming to visit her this night. In all the excitement of her return home, Ella had forgotten about her previous life, and had not realized how lonely she had actually become deep inside. Where her new family created a whole new place in her heart, somewhere deep inside there lay an empty void, where memories had once taken residence.
Ella left her room and wandered down to what would normally be known as the castle gardens, only here you could only find strange plants that grew only in snow, and flower bushes she was told never to smell unless she wanted to fall into a very deep sleep. Ella had wandered deep into the gardens, putting the castle and its guards far behind her. Though she knew she was never fully alone, the guards were warned to give her her space, and never to bother her during her walks.
Ella found herself approaching a section of garden she had yet to walk. Here tall weeping trees grew wide over small icy covered ponds. Ella walked beside one and was surprised to find them not fully frozen, for under the ice swam the most amazing of fish. Their fins and tails were almost two feet in length, flowing gracefully around their slender bodies, and their bodies glowed almost as bright as the moon. Ella knelt down and placed her hand over the frozen ice, that was surprisingly not at all cold to the touch. Nothing ever was in this strange land. She swirled her hand over the ice and smiled as the fish followed her hand.
"I was told I would find you out here, m'lady," Came a voice from behind her.
Ella jumped to her feet at once, restraining a scream as she did. She almost had to restrain from screaming again when she saw who stood behind her, but from pure enjoyment. "Sir Aegeron!" She squealed, "You have come to visit me at last!"
"I was on a special quest, asked of me by my master, and so happened you were not far out of my way. Thought I would stop by for a visit and was pleasantly surprised to find you were up and about, wandering the gardens," Sir Aegeron said, a suspicious smile wore brightly on his face.
"Oh, so you will not be here long?" Ella asked through a frown.
"No, for I have my orders, and can not go against my masters wishes," He said, his smile only temporarily leaving his face, "But! As it happens, I am on my way to take care of some business involving an old friend, and have come to ask if you would like to join me?"
"You want me to join you?" She smiled, "Okay, but what is your business?"
At this Sir Aegeron's smile almost glowed in the moonlight, "Lets just say that a certain young prince has decided to set aside his crown and spend some time serving under my master. Seems fighting a dragon alongside immortals wasn't enough to satisfy the lad."
Ella's knees wobbled, almost giving out where she stood, "You mean, Donnie? How can he just trade in his crown? He's a prince, and heir to the thrown of Cyndar. He can't just chose to give that up...can he?"
"Cyndar has a king for the time being,” Aegeron said, guiding Ella away from the gardens, “We all have a calling, dear princess, and though some as yourself are born into purpose, it isn't always that purpose which we are destined to become." Sir Aegeron seemed to be speaking from deep in his heart, and Ella had to ponder his words for some time.
"Elastule has a queen...and they also have Xsada...Aegeron, do you think mother would be unhappy if I didn't always stay in Elastule?" Ella asked.
Aegeron gave a hearty smile and extended his arm to Ella. "Come, m'lady," He said, escorting her from the gardens, "Your mother knows you will not always be gone."
Ella’s excitement started to grow as they approached the Wood Between once more, “Do you have a home, Aegeron? Will I get to see it?” She asked, becoming suddenly curious.
"You may," Aegeron said as they stepped foot into the wood, "Until then, I would like to ask of you this favor. Seeing as this was my first time defeating a dragon, I felt it was worth writing a ballad. If you would do me the honors, I would like you to be first to hear it."
Ella walked the strange Wood Between, listening to her story play out in her knightly bird’s song, and through them she heard a voice whispering to her heart, I am with you still.
VOTING: If you would like to vote on this or any of the other fan fiction submissions, email your top three titles to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voting is for fans of the Goldstone Wood series only.