The enemy is at the gates. I haven’t much time.
I leave you in the care of my most trusted friend. He will tell you what I cannot.
You are a babe now, sitting in your mothers’ arms, oblivious to the screams of death and smell of burning flesh that flows into our window, but one day you will grow, and when you do you must know who you are so that you can fight back.
Retake the throne that is rightfully yours, sweet daughter. Carigus as a king will not be kind, nor will he be fair. My heart clenches at the thought of what he will do with a crown upon his head.
But you must wait. Wait until you are grown, then go to the mountains and gain the power you need to defeat him. Gain the aide and trust of the dragons in the North, find the ancient artifacts that will gift you power and strength. Do not fight him until you are ready, no matter how long it takes. He has the Stones at his disposal, and he will destroy you if he knows that you are alive.
I wish to tell you more, so much more, but I haven’t the time. They are inside the castle now and it will not be long before they find us. And so, I will only tell you three final things:
All the legends are true,
you must keep your marks hidden,
and most importantly, the Stones w----
I carefully folded the paper that has been folded so many times the crease had erased some letters of the words. The paper, once pale white, now was darkened with age and handling. There was a stain of tears from when I had mourned the parents I never knew, a smudge of a small muddy fingerprint from when I was a child and would read it while hiding in the Mud Waters from Jovian – another fingerprint of jam just above it. In the bottom corner there sat a small smudge of blood from where I had read it after a particularly difficult training session. The top right had been chewed on by a rat when we’d been smuggled overseas.
Most notably, was that smudge of oil and dirt brought on by a thousand rubs where my finger had tapped and brushed just after that lonely, incomplete w. Once, the missing third thing my father wished to tell me but had not the time to, frustrated me; it had kept me up wondering in the night and drove me to a thousand unanswerable questions.
But no longer. I still wondered, but I had accepted it may never be answered.
“Are you ready, Meira?”
I looked up from the ancient table to the equally ancient Jovian - my fathers’ closest friend, mage, warrior, trainer, teacher, and the only father figure I’d ever known. He normally never called me by my true name, but I knew this was not a slip of the tongue; he had done so to remind me of who I was, to remind me of my purpose, to remind me of who I was meant to be.
I did not need the reminder.
I stood as I tucked the worn note into the locket around my neck. My eyes were bright beneath the hood that hid my face from those who I would make my enemies.
We exited the inn – which was aptly named The Stale Barrel - onto the stinking streets of Qa’elah.
Qa’elah was such a large city that it was bound to stink with so many bodies pressed together, it was also bound to have areas where the poorer folk resided. However, we were not twenty marks from the castle gates; in all reality, this area should have been filled with rich and exotic foods, expensive fabrics, clean streets with shimmering gold upon wrists and necks and smooth, unlabored hands.
Jovian had told me much of the city before the death of my father, and I have seen many other kingdoms in my lifetime of hiding. These unkempt streets that stank of waste and sweat, the streets with broken lanterns on posts, with rats showing themselves even with so many crowding together and moving toward the castle gates with the irritated, pushiness that only man could excel at... it showed quite clearly how unwell the kingdom was taken care of.
For if you could not take care of the streets a quarter arm away from the castle, how could you do so for a town twenty arms away?
My elbow was jostled by someone as we went nearer to the gates. More people were crowding in now and it was becoming impossible to even watch my own step – I only hoped I didn’t step on anything that I’d need to scrape off my leathers later. Finally, the occasional sign of a richer area was visible by the lack of waste down walls as these homes and caverns had privies to do their business, but by this time, we were so close to the castle that the sight could no more impress me than would noticing a butterfly wing in a nest of spitbugs.
Jovian had grasped my arm to keep me close by this point, and I let him lead me down a side street and through an alley, avoiding the worst of the crowd. I could not see his face beneath his own hood, and we did not speak, but I knew him well enough to catch the rage he was only barely hanging on to, though his grip on me was gentle. I could not blame him for his anger at such obvious neglect of his home.
Then, finally, we were pushing ourselves out into the Viewing Square.
To say it was crowded would be a massive understatement seeing as Jovian literally stepped hard on people’s toes in order to get them to move for us, and this was just at the edge. We did not want to be in the center, but instead in the shadows still with a good view. Many were still pushing their way in behind us, desperate to get close enough to see the new king.
We eventually stopped, and Jovian pressed me up against the wall with an arm. Here, I looked upon the wall that surrounded the castle and I hoped severely that we would not have to wait long because though I didn’t mind small spaces, I did not like the scent so many bodies gave off when cramped into such an enclosed area at all. I wrinkled my nose even as I studied the people on the balcony.
Here were the people that should have filled at least half of those in the Viewing Square. Unkept, unwashed, bruised, and exhausted bodies were replaced with gleaming hair pulled back to reveal clear skin and painted eyes. The men wore light suites beneath bright cloaks hemmed in gold while the women wore dresses of vibrant colours that sparkled in the sunlight or gave off that subtle luminescent hint of glowsilk.
At the foot of the wall stood heavily armed men with armored plates across their chests, each with the kingdom’s emblem beautifully painted upon them – a white dragon boring down on a pointed, grey stone, red blades sprouting from the dragons’ mouth as if it were fire.
There was a murmuring from the crowd, a change. I looked up quickly to see the new king step out from the balcony above the wall, his fathers’ crown upon his head – my fathers’ crown.
He addressed the people himself for which I was surprised – I had expected him to be announced first, as was proper.
“People of Nahdiera.” He called, his voice amplified by the mages that stood just behind him in their robes of white and grey. The crowd silenced, their eyes upturned to this man who was not the previous king and so therefore a man that brought them hope. Would he be a kinder king? Would he bring wealth? Would he lower the taxes? Would he return our loved ones by setting them loose from those dark and terrifying castle depts?
These were their questions, not mine. I simply waited and listened with narrowed eyes, my nose still crinkled from the disgusting smell surrounding.
“People of Nahdiera,” he continued again, “though losing my father so abruptly saddens me greatly, I am pleased that it is I who will be leading you into prosperity.”
This made several of the crowd shift and lift their chins higher, grip their loved ones tighter, not yet giving in to excitement, but allowing hope to dig its claws in further.
Could they not see the face of this man? Could they not see that he bore the marks of his father, and that he wore them proudly? This alone should be enough for them to see that he was doomed to disappoint them.
“These past years have been difficult for us all,” his voice was grave and solemn, “but now that the threat of war has past, we can begin growing once more, just as my father vowed that he would. He did not live long enough to prove his care to you, but I stand here to…”
“Over there, Mir.”
As the new king continued his speech, I glanced at Jovian so I could follow his gaze to a low roof across the square. It took me a moment to discern the black cloth from the blackened chimney, and by the time I could, Jovian was already leading us slowly along the edge of the crowd.
The new king kept speaking, kept pulling people in. Not under his cloak, but beneath his claws; the people simply didn’t know that yet.
“And so,” he was saying, “with this new wall built across the mountain border, we can finally be safe.”
Then, a brave soul gave up his life to prove a point and called out, “But who will keep us safe from you, King Marqis?”
If this had been spoken before Carigus, Marqis’ father, the crowd would have immediately begun backing away, some even beginning their long run home, but this new king and his words had given them hope and they foolishly ignored their instincts and shifted instead. Some murmuring worriedly, some holding their breath, some grimacing, but not a single one ran.
In the meantime, as the people waited, Jovian stopped us at the base of the wall of which held the roof we’d seen the Shadow, and here he pressed me against the wall again. Now, it was not so that we would not become separate, but to protect me from what we both knew was to come.
The king raised an eyebrow and said simply, “Only those who have no respect need fear me.” Then he casually made a simple motion with his hand that his father had used so many times before him and the white dragons appeared in the sky like massive clouds bringing a rain of death.
Then, the people ran.
Like a drowning giant trying to suck air from young reeds, the streets and alleyways that branched off from the death trap became instantly packed with swarming masses of terrified bodies. They climbed over each other, fought each other, and rolled under each other to squeeze out. A father, realizing he was about to get trampled, threw his young daughter over the mass of people just before he was knocked to the ground and used as a stepping stool. Two young women – sisters or friends – gripped each other tightly as they tried to crawl over the hill of fallen bodies. Just as they nearly reached the top, the force of others yanked their hands apart and they both called out to each other as they were carried away by the current. A little boy sucking his thumb and oblivious to the dangers around him, was picked up by a young man that would have been a hero if he hadn’t gotten an elbow to the temple and fell down atop the child, crushing him with his weight and others as they stepped on the unconscious man and toddler beneath. An elderly woman with surprising strength screamed what could only be described as a war cry as she beat men, women, and children alike atop their heads with her cane. Panic. Panic. Panic erupted.
But I watched the rain.
The dragons flew down, swiping low enough to knock dozens over into each other dangerously, breaking bones and knocking heads. Many died, I knew. More were injured. But that was not the point of this play. This was so that all could know that none could go against him. All could know that if they worked against the new king, he would find you. This was to show that he had the power.
It was so that all knew, he was his fathers’ son.
One man, a single man, was grasped in claws from the mass trying to escape. While everyone else was too busy running, fighting, or dying, I stood against the wall under the insistent pressure of Jovian’s arm and watched the dragon hover before the balcony. I watched the new king - the one who had gifted the people the feeling of hope for those brief moments – say something inaudible before reaching his hand out toward the flailing man still several twigs away from him. He curved his fingers out as if each finger was a talon. Here, he paused and smiled calmly. His face handsome and clear and almost kind.
Then he twisted his wrist with a jerk and the flailing man stopped flailing as his head popped from his body and fell into the still-screaming mass below.
“Enough.” He called out then, before the mist of blood had settled. His dragons stopped and flew away, but it was not them he had been speaking too but the people and those people knew it, so they stopped accordingly.
Most would assume there was not a thing you could say to a mass of people once panic ensued, but they would be wrong. There was indeed a magic word, but it had to be spoken by the right man.
One of my endless lessons involved the understanding of people when they are afraid. Fear, Jovian told me, brings out either three responses: fall, flight, or fight. It is a rare few that fight, but to fly or fall only depends on the circumstance. They will flee as fast and as far away as they can from what they fear, or they will fall to their knees and obey everything and anything, not daring to flee.
These people first had flown as far and as fast as they could, but they were so terrified by this man that was king, his single-word order had them falling over themselves to obey. To disobey was to die, and so they stilled. They clutched at their bodies, covered their heads, or avoided eye contact perhaps, but still they obeyed.
Marqis Beoworth, new King of Nahdiera, stood upon the castle gates and looked down at the people who dared reside in Qa’elah. He smiled a handsome smile, eyes flashing in humor. It was too far away to see the colour, but the humor was visible even from this distance. “Now,” he stated, “with the gate needing to be completed so soon, there will be more work. For anyone interested in a few months’ work of hard labor needs but travel to the East Border. There will be a cart leaving the Eastern Gate at dawn. May this,” he said, looking humble, “be the first of many steps toward prosperity.”
Then he left, nodding to a few of the officials on the balcony before escaping sight. The richer followed and then the guards moved up toward the top of the walls while everyone slowly left. They did not murmur or whisper for the king would surely know, but their faces said all they would say if they could. It was words of defeat, exhaustion, and hopelessness.
There was no anger – nearly nineteen winters of such treatment had broken the anger from them all by now.
But not from me.
“Mir.” Jovian had to give me that warning tone of his for me to realize I had been clutching at my hip where the knife was hidden. I quickly let go and closed my eyes, letting out a breath as Jovian had taught me, speaking to myself to get past my anger.
I am Meira Greyov. Nahdiera is my kingdom. With breaths of patience I will receive the crown. With breaths of anger I will fail my father.
I opened my eyes and felt calm. I looked to Jovian. “Where?”
“He went this way,” he said, and we walked along the wall and went into an alley, just in time to see the Shadow turn the corner onto a darkening street.
We followed the Shadow, silently.