Something foul was brewing in the land of Arnay. Unknown horrors haunted the day and whispers of death echoed at night. Things deteriorated rapidly after the queen died six years past and were worse since the red sapphire was stolen a year now. The royal guard contingent had doubled to protect those behind the castle walls; a luxury not granted to the peasants. Word of their deaths seeped into the ears of all who were willing to listen.
While a silent storm raged outside and the blood of the innocent was freshly shed in the house of a miller, a princess waged a battle against an invisible foe.
“How could one man be so absolutely stupid!” shouted Aliana as she thrust her spear forward. “A muddy witch. He invited a muddy witch to the palace.” She stooped low while twirling the weapon over her head as she continued battling her imaginary adversary. A bead of sweat trickled down her brows and her arms screamed from exhaustion, but that was not enough to stop her as she skipped up onto the edge of her table and jumped forward.
At the other end of the castle, behind the closed doors of the royal council hall, the king of Arnay broke bread with the high witch of Mudlands; an act almost treasonous in nature. As every Arnayan babe fresh from the weaning knew that no good could ever come from meeting a muddy witch.
Aliana’s opened as her handmaiden Lania entered. “Princess…” she started but was cut off suddenly as she dived out of the way. A smattering of freshly trimmed hair settled on her cheek. Aliana twirled the spear twice, one tip pointing to the ground when she landed.
Lania got up and brushed off her dress. “I see you are in a mood today. I’ll be back shortly.” She said before disappearing out the door. She did have moods but that didn’t describe how she felt. She was angry, uneasy and to be honest, terrified. Five more people died today and her father, the king didn’t care. He preferred to pretend that nothing had changed.
She had so much to give and wanted to help her people. It was her mother’s way to walk amongst those she governed. She was never one to hide behind castle walls. Repeatedly she was excluded from council meetings as at the tender age of twenty she was according to her sire, too young to understand ‘matters of magnanimous importance’.
“Magnanimous importance.” She muttered to herself. “If I were a man this kingdom would already be mine.” She said swiping at the air once more.
This was her mother’s kingdom, High queen of Arnay. Hers was a line of powerful warriors and magicians. It was Arrouch the first king of Arnay that forged a magical sapphire that protected the continent from evil for over three millennia. The magic of Arrouch was lost throughout the ages as man became more reliant on invention rather than illusions, but being a direct descendant of his bloodline, made her the true heir to the throne.
Her father Arro-Bar had been the son of a wealthy earl and was more scholar than warrior. Her mother had married down as the princes of the other lands had long been banished when the light of their sapphires were destroyed. This was the reason she believed he resented her and tried to distance her from all important matters pertaining to governance.
She however didn’t allow her mind to be idle. What she was not taught, she read from the great collection of books stored in the castle archives. He refused to let her train formally with the guard as her mother had done when she was her age, but she was still allowed to watch. What she saw she practiced in secret. She bribed the weapons master to give her lessons with the double-bladed staff, the weapon of choice among her ancestors. She could do well enough with a sword and dagger, but the staff was her favourite.
Her father never found out about her weapon store, which was often in plain sight in her chambers, the only other persons who knew were Lania her hand maid and Doranand, her best friend and personal guard.
There was a short tap on the door before it was opened slightly. Doranand pushed his head in. “Is it safe?” he asked raising a brow.
“It depends.” She replied as she chucked her staff in a far corner. He opened the door wider, letting the rest of his body. “Lania tattled.” She said accusingly.
“She was concerned. Said she lost some hair in the process.” Aliana rolled her eyes.
“There is a muddy witch sitting in our castle we should all be concerned Doran.” His smile faded.
“I was already on my way here when she saw me. His Majesty will see you now.” He said.
“The meeting with the hag is done I presume?” She said insouciantly as she pulled the pins that held her hair out of her face before brushing the loose strands back in place and returned it to a secure roll.
“No, there is something he requires of you, Your Highness. It was an urgent summons.” The storm in his eyes leaked out on his face as his lips were pressed firmly together. He was rarely ever formal with her His expression would seem impassive to those who did not know him, but she could see the storm raging within the depths of his grey eyes.
He attended the meeting with the witch and something he heard while inside obviously did not bode well with him.
“Inform the king that I will be there shortly. I have to make myself more presentable first.” She said wiping away bead of sweat that was about to drip into her eye.
“Your Highness,” he bowed curtly before closing the door.
Curiosity nipped at her heels and she hurriedly washed up and got dressed.
When she opened the door, he was waiting. “You look well,” she said commenting on his polished armour of silver, the hilt of his matching sword hung from his waist.
“It is not every day one gets called into the presence of the king. It is a perfect occasion to dress up, though I can see that you are of a different opinion of what proper dress is.” He said eying her attire speculatively.
She had bathed and wore perfume but instead of a dress, she wore close-fitting pants with shin-high boots and a loose-fitting white shirt whose sleeves she folded at the elbows. He had become accustomed to her choice of dress over the years and was indifferent to it, but was worried what her father would think, even worse what he would say.
Aliana seemed to catch that, “He is the king to you, but he is just a father to me. Besides I am wearing a crown this time.” She grinned. He looked at the diamond studded tiara which was placed lopsidedly on her head.
He couldn’t help but to smile back, “If you want your father to start taking you seriously Ali, you have to at least start with your deportment.” He said as he took of the crown and dropped it in a more midline position on her head.
“You are starting to sound like Lania.”
“At least you are surrounded by servants with some sense.”
She rolled her eyes and changed the subject, “What does my father want from the mud witch?”
“This is not the place to discuss such things princess,” he said looking straight ahead yet everywhere at the same time as he scanned the halls for any lurking danger.
“The sapphire,” she whispered, he nodded. “Well does the hag know?”
“She has theories on how to get it back.”
“And?” she pressed.
“A lot of it has to do with you.”
“Me?” she said pulling to a stop and he came around to face her.
“You have to promise me Ali, not to agree to his ideas.” He said staring her with an extreme intensity—part of which was fury but most of all worry.
“It must be bad as you asked me to commit treason.” She said in a hushed tone.
“You are right, it isn’t my place. I apologize.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. I value your opinion greatly. But you must admit that I can’t agree to disagree if I don’t know what I am disagreeing to.” She whispered.
He sighed, “It is best you hear it from the king, Your Highness.” he said as he opened the door to the council room. She scanned his face briefly but Doran her friend was gone and Doran the guard made its reappearance. Friendship had grown into kinship which if not for the circumstances of birth would have been much more. He was everything her father wasn’t and though she trusted him with her life, she knew that his loyalty was planted at the throne of Arnay.
Aliana scanned the room and on seeing the usual suspects, a wave of disgust crawled up her chest. Lord Conway of Lurion—a spineless coward and a pitiful excuse of a man. Lord Baston of Chrisoncor, general of the army, who for the life her she couldn’t stand being around. He was always bound to say something stupid or offensive the very moment he opened his mouth. There was also the grand visor Huma—a kind soul one of the few that had remained form her mother’s court. And of course, there was her father.
None of them took any particular note of her entrance as their attention was drawn to the lone figure that sat three chairs down from her father on the right.
There was a simple-looking woman in a dress, the colour of freshly turned soil with a gold lamé finish. Her eyes were golden brown and features unremarkable. This couldn’t be the muddy witch that she had heard so many horrible stories about. Where was her ugly wart-covered face, crooked nose and cracked teeth? She didn’t wear a pointed hat and no broomstick was in sight.
The woman took note of her as well. She twisted her head to one side briefly as if summing her up. Her eyes flickered as if to say, where is the great beauty and regal decorum. A fleeting sense of inadequacy passed through her mind at the witch’s assessment.
Aliana considered herself a bit plain, as she wore her father’s countenance; brown shoulder-length hair a simple pallid looking face, a heavy lower lip, and angled cheekbones. She was taller than most women in court and was not as soft as her training stripped her of any feminine curve she was to develop. The only thing she had which were her mother’s were her eyes, hazel with specks of gold. But what she lacked in beauty was made up with her tenacity. Her features hardened as she stared the witch down until she was the first to look away.
“My presence was requested Your Majesty.” she said loudly and it was then that everyone else turned to acknowledge her. She approached the table and stood at the chair on his right.
“Yes,” he said looking up briefly from the papers he had in front of him and then back at them. “I am sending you to Chrisoncor.” He said still not looking up. She peeked over into the bundle he had in front of him to see what could be so important. All she glimpsed were columns of numbers, which she couldn’t make head from high tail from this distance.
She waited for a further explanation and when none was forth coming, she asked, “And may I have the pleasure of knowing the reason?”
“Because that is where you are needed. News has resurfaced about the on-going restlessness in the country and I want you to look into it personally.”
“Apologies Your Majesty, but isn’t that what your soldiers are for?” she bristled as she folded her arms behind her back. She didn’t fail to notice that her father was yet to invite her to sit.
“No they cannot, that is why I am sending you.” He said looking up to meet her eyes. His face was a mask of annoyance and his eyes were cold. She tried to find an ounce of love or affection within them, but all she saw was complete blackness.
“I am Crown princess and the heiress to the throne of Arnay. Certainly, you would not want to put the succession in danger? What would the court think of such an action?”
“I am the king of Arnay...” he started.
“By marriage.” She interjected but he ignored her.
“Even so, I am still king. Frankly, the opinions of the court matters little to me. You are my daughter thus making you subject to my will. Crown princess you may be, but you are not the queen yet. I say that you are going to Chrisoncor and that is final.” He roared.
“This is the doing of this muddy hag, that sits beside you, I presume.” She said looking at the witch whose eyes never deviated from the king.
“That muddy witch’s name is Ana-Moriah.” He lifted the woman’s hand to his lips placing a soft kiss there.
Aliana took in a deep breath and her eyes flashed to the woman who up until now had remained quiet. “Ana?” her eyes asked the rest of her question. Names starting with ‘A’ were only given to those of the royal family. Her father’s name had been Bartholomew. It was on marrying her mother that the prefix Arro was added.
The witch spread her fingers flat on the table and she viewed the thin circlet of gold banding her left wrist—symbol that she was married.
“You got married without telling me? You don’t have the authority to make another queen. Not when I live.” she said in shock.
“All I needed were two witnesses and someone to conduct the ceremony.” She looked at Huma whose eyes were downcast, and he looked pale as he avoided the look of betrayal that was clearly etched in her features. He was one of her mother’s most trusted advisors. How could he have done this to her mother’s memory? How could he have done this to her?
“I am not here to replace your mother.” started the witch with a voice as sweet as caramel.
“And you never will.” Aliana said shooting her a withering look which made her swallow whatever she was about to say next. “She must have bewitched you as this cannot be true.”
“Maybe she did, but I am not complaining.” The underlying innuendo was sickening and Aliana tried her very best not to heave in disgust. “Ana-Moriah is a woman of many talents,” continued the king, “the country is lucky to have her as queen.”
“I am sure she is quite talented, and it may be enough to satisfy your own selfish desires. But I doubt that her talents will benefit Arnay in any meaningful way. Mother would be turning in her grave now if she knew that you placed a witch on her throne.” She said pounding the table heavily.
The king sighed heavily, “Dead men, don’t move. Your mother is dead. Acting like a child Aliana isn’t going to change my mind about Ana-Moriah. What is done is done.”
“This isn’t done!” she seethed. A burning heat broiled within her and desire to set the entire room ablaze sparked within her.
“Let me rephrase that. I am done and you are dismissed.” The chamber was silent as not a soul dared to move or say anything. Her temper flared but she knew that this battle was already lost.
“Very well Your Majesty. I congratulate you on your nuptials.” She said as she stretched her lips into a thin smile. “However, I am not going to Chrisoncor. The sapphire is missing and since you don’t intend to find it, I will.” She said straightening up.
“You will do as I have ordered!” He barked but she refused to acknowledge him, instead she turned to the other woman in the room.
“I have a year until my coronation, so don’t get too comfortable on my mother’s throne witch.” she said as she strode out of the room.
“Aliana! Aliana!” he bellowed, but the sounds were cut off abruptly as the doors slammed behind her. She felt a hand grasp on the shoulder and spun her around.
“Aliana what did you do!” said Doranand, his eyes already churning with stormy energy.
“What you wanted. I am leaving.” I said as the heat flooded my face.
“To go where exactly?” he said holding her by the hand.
“I don’t know Doran, but I cannot stay here.”
“You realise that you just played into their trap. They wanted you gone and you volunteered to do it.” he whispered.
“I volunteered to save Arnay.” She spat.
“Not here,” he said dropping her hand as they were receiving curious glances from the servants passing by. She walked away and he was right at her heel.
The doors of her chambers closed, and she turned to face him. “He replaced my mother with a muddy witch Doran. My father might have been a lot of things, but I did know that he loved my mother. Which is why I cannot understand how he could do this.”
“And by choosing to leave you gave her your throne.” He pressed.
“I didn’t, not really. I just told them that I was going to find the red sapphire. It has to be found Doranand.”
“But where will you even start?”
“I am happy you asked.” she said as she walked over to a table which had a map of the continent laid out. “I have been gathering information from my informers. They have heard reports of the sapphire being spotted in Turion.”
“We are almost at war with Garion. They will arrest you or probably execute you on spot if you’re caught.”
“But they would have to catch me first.” she smiled.
“You have been planning this for quite a while now haven’t you.” concern morphed into suspicion. “Most of that...production in front of your father was just an act.”
“Most, but not all of it. I wanted an excuse to leave the castle and now that the witch is here, that want has become a need.”
“This sounds dangerous.” he said as he studied the maps. “You can’t do this alone.”
“I was hoping that you would say that as I was looking for some company. You will come right?” she said looking up from under her lashes.
“Your father will have my neck for this.” He said as he squeezed his temples.
“And your pretty little head too if we are caught.” She laughed.
“Since I like my pretty little head, that isn’t the best way to convince me.” He muttered.
“Please Doran. Arnay needs our help. I can’t do this alone.”
He sighed heavily and dropped his arms. “I think this is a bad idea. But someone has to keep you out of trouble.” He said.
“Thank you Doran” she said brushing a quick kiss on the cheek. “Go pack, we leave tomorrow.” she said as she whirred back to the table and studied the map once more.
She could hear him grinding his teeth, as he exited the room. Her mind was made up and there was no changing it. Entering Garion was akin to committing suicide, but it was necessary.
A sudden gust of wind blew in from her balcony, which was strange as she had closed the doors. She walked outside and scanned the landing. All she saw was the ocean ahead. “Hmm.” she thought and then walked back inside.