Antalos observed his reflection in the mirror as the servants bustled around him in the room. Every detail had to be just right. Not a single thread or hair out of place. He had no concern for how he looked, but his parents insisted he looked like the proper prince they wanted him to be. There were no exceptions for today.
His dark brown hair fell just below his ears, above the nape of his neck, and his equally brown eyes seemed to shine more with the golden detail intricately sewn into his cranberry-red shirt.
Any other day, he would have preferred to have the chance to venture outside to see the people, and enjoy the nature around him. His parents wouldn’t allow it. They were too afraid of the bandits who came into their land occasionally. With the caravan from Parthor arriving today, it would have most certainly attracted the attention of any traveling thieves. He had promised the leïfaen girl that they would see each other again, but it was impossible to keep that promise when it came to his mother. She worried about him so much. If only he had a chance to go out of the castle walls.
Egrin walked into the room. “It is time, your majesty,” he said.
With a wave of his hand, Antalos excused all of the servants from the room, leaving him alone with his friend. “You don’t have to call me ‘your majesty’, you know.”
“According to your father, the king, I am required to call you by your royal title.”
Antalos looked at him pleadingly. “When it is just us, then, Egrin. For once, I prefer not to be constantly reminded of who I am.”
Egrin nodded with a smile. “Very well, Antalos.”
They had been friends for a long time, though their meeting wasn’t exactly normal. Antalos was climbing his favorite climbing tree where he could watch the knights practice their skills with their swords. Not paying too much attention to where he put his weight, he slipped from the branches and fell into a hay wagon.
Egrin had seen his fall and went to check on him, and after talking with each other for a little while, they became fast friends.
They always dueled with each other and went on hunts in the royal forest, sometimes having little competitions with Antalos’ older brother, Eoin and his friend, Kael. Antalos often lost to his older brother, but that was only because Eoin had a lot more experience in comparison to him.
Antalos turned to the mirror to adjust his shirt before leaving the room and making his way through the halls with Egrin trailing close behind him. “Did my parents say when they were arriving?” he asked.
His twenty-first birthday would be arriving in just one year’s time. This meant—according to his kingdom’s royal traditions—that he was coming of age, and his betrothed Marian would be arriving at the castle any moment. Their wedding was to take place soon after his birthday.
Just as both of their families arranged, Marian visited the castle with her family twice each year so he could get to know her better. During that time, Antalos thought she was a good person. A fitting match for any man. However, he did not love her. There was no possible way he could ever love her even after all of this time.
“You are lucky your parents did not arrange for your own marriage, Egrin,” he said.
“Watching you with Marian does not make me envy you,” Egrin replied. “You look like you would prefer farm work instead than an arranged marriage.”
Antalos chuckled and sighed. “The burdens of royalty,” he mumbled. “I am not looking forward to this. I would much rather watch the leïfae ride across the Ember Meadow. That is far more interesting than this.” He looked over to Egrin. “Do not tell anyone I said that. I cannot have my family thinking I am going to do something drastic before the wedding.”
Egrin raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to do something before your wedding?”
“We will certainly see. That is why I don’t want you telling anyone.”
“I would not dream of it,” he replied with a grin as they approached the rest of the royal family and the servants, waiting anxiously before the front doors of the palace. “I would prefer to watch the leïfae ride as well.”
Antalos laughed softly.
“Ah, there you are,” Wilisca said with little more than a slight grin. She didn’t really smile much anymore. Sometimes the corners of her mouth would lift or even twitch, but only slightly. Antalos wondered if his mother ever shared a real smile. “You are finally ready to meet your lovely bride.”
Antalos forced a smile. “Of course, Mother. I wouldn’t go off somewhere when my future wife and her family are only just arriving.” He lowered his voice so only Egrin could hear. “I wouldn’t be able to make it past the guards if I tried.”
Egrin stifled his laughter, and Antalos held back a grin of his own.
Luckily, no one else noticed this. No one except for Emrys. There might have been a sign of a smile hidden behind his wild gray mustache and beard, but it quickly disappeared.
“They should be here very soon,” Wilisca began explaining to the servants standing nearby. “Everything must be perfect for their arrival.”
“Yes, your majesty,” the servants would say with everything she said.
Antalos shifted from foot to foot as he waited for the moment he had been dreading for the past ten years.
“You look like a prince if that is what you are wondering,” Egrin whispered.
“It isn’t that,” he replied. “I am not worried about anything being out of place. This just…it just doesn’t feel like something I should be doing. Would you want to marry a woman someone picked out for you?”
“Certainly not. Marriage is something I plan to work out on my own.”
Antalos grinned. “I wish I could do that.”
“Perhaps in another world,” Egrin replied.
“That would be something, wouldn’t it?”
Then, trumpets blared outside of the doors, meaning only one thing.
“They are here!” Wilisca exclaimed. She took a quick last minute look at everyone to make sure they looked just right. “Okay, everyone looks perfect.”
“Of course we do,” Kannal finally said. “My darling, stop your fretting. We wouldn’t want our guests to think there is something to be concerned about, now would we?”
She nodded and took in a few deep breaths. “You are right.”
Kannal motioned to the knights standing on both sides of the doors. “You may open them now.”
The doors slowly split open, letting the sunlight pour in as the royal family and servants stepped outside and down the front, stone steps just as two lines of knights rode in on their horses followed by an intricately fashioned carriage drawn by four well-groomed mares.
Antalos took a deep breath as the carriage rolled up in front of the stairs before Lady Catherine and her family stepped outside.
His older brother leaned over. “Nervous, little brother?” Eoin asked with a sly smile.
“As if you wouldn’t be?” he replied.
“Do not worry. This shouldn’t take too long.”
Kannal and Wilisca stepped forward. “Welcome, Lady Catherine!” the queen said as her guest climbed out of the carriage. “We have been looking forward to your arrival.”
“Many thanks, your majesties,” Lady Catherine replied.
Kannal smiled. “Everything has been prepared for all of you. We hope you will find everything satisfactory.”
She smiled. “I am quite certain everything shall be perfect. My children; Bram, Marian, Morgaine, and my youngest Dasten have been anxiously awaiting this day. I’m afraid my other children, Roran and Cora could not be here today. Roran was just recently wed in Galdrin, and Cora has gone to study the texts in the great library in Dorien as a scholar. However, they should be able to come for the wedding.”
Antalos was brought out of his thoughts when Eoin elbowed him discretely. He noticed everyone looking at him, expecting to say something to his future bride. He bowed. “Welcome, Marian. I am glad to have you here safely for our wedding,” he hurried, hoping no one noticed his hesitation.
Marian offered him a small smile and curtsied. “Thank you, Antalos. I am equally glad to be here.”
Satisfied, Kannal turned to Lady Catharine. “Come! I am sure you are ready to settle in after such a long journey.”
She nodded. “Oh, yes, your majesty. We are quite spent from being stuck in that carriage,” she said as they all began to walk inside. Her eyes glanced all around the walls, noticing the new tapestries that had been hung since she was last there. “I see you have redecorated. It looks lovely.”
“You are too kind, Lady Catherine,” Wilisca replied.
Antalos sighed inwardly as his parents discussed the new decorations with Lady Catherine as they walked through the halls. This was all so trivial to him. He had no interest in any of this at all and wished he could be out in the courtyard practicing his swordplay with Egrin like they always did every day.
A knight hurried to the group with a greatly concerning look on his face.
“What is it?” Antalos asked, stopping the man. “Is something wrong?”
“There is trouble outside of the gates,” the man began to answer before Kannal came up to them. “I just came from the house of a farmer and his family living in the countryside. We saw everything—”
The king turned to the others. “Go on without us. We just need to discuss something.” He returned his gaze to the man and kept his voice low. “What seems to be the problem?”
“It is the leïfaen village,” he started again.
“Are they doing something we should worry about?”
He shook his head. “No, your majesty. They are under attack.”
“What?” Antalos replied, trying to keep his voice down.
“An army of invaders attacked them with great numbers while a large aggregation of the leïfae were out on some kind of ride they take part in,” the man explained. “When they returned, they attacked the army and were on the verge of victory. They managed to push back the enemy when strange creatures emerged out of the forest. I have never seen such monsters before. The leïfae do not have a chance against such an onslaught. I doubt they would have made it this long without aid.”
Kannal paused to deliberate for a moment. “If that village was able to fall in such a short amount of time, who knows what this enemy could do to the rest of the kingdom.” He turned to Antalos. “Go and catch up with the others. I will go out there with some men to take a look at the damage.”
“I want to come with you,” Antalos replied.
“Nonsense! We cannot have anything happen to you before your wedding.”
“If I am to become a good leader, I must go take care of those who may be hurt. I have been trained to fight if I need to. I have a duty as a prince that I must uphold. I can take care of myself.”
Eoin stepped forward. “I’m coming, too.”
His father sighed and nodded. “Very well, but be very cautious. We know not what could happen out there.”
The destruction was far worse than Antalos could have imagined. Every building had been reduced to simmering ash, sending the remaining plumes of black smoke into the sickening-grey air. Bodies littered the ground. Blood pooled around the bodies, absorbing into the soil.
Antalos noticed hoof prints leading out of the village, toward the Ember Meadow. He dismounted his horse and followed.
“Antalos, be careful,” Kannal warned.
“It is all right, Father,” he replied, carefully stepping over the bodies.
He followed the tracks and made it to what looked like the edge of the village—it was difficult to tell with the burned buildings mixing with the scorched earth.
Lifting his gaze, Antalos froze at the sight, unable to believe what he saw.
More bodies—countless more—were scattered all over what used to be the very beautiful Ember Meadow. Dead unicorns lay next to their riders; some bodies torn to pieces while the others were simply cut down with horrible wounds. Crimson mixed with silver stained the bodies, pooling around the piles of corpses. A unicorn colt stood next to its dead mother, nudging her dead stiff head with its nose. It let out a desperate whinny and leapt into the air trying to wake its mother, trying anything to obtain an answer. That’s when Antalos noticed the horns were cut off of the dead unicorns along with their once silvery-white tails and manes.
A sudden movement made Antalos jump. A large, dark mass jerked on the ground, making dreadful sounds. It took him a moment to realize that he was looking at a unicorn that had been completely burned. How it was still alive, he couldn’t tell. But there was no way the poor thing could survive much longer with such injuries.
He shoved his fingers through his dark hair and fell to his knees.
How could someone attack an innocent village? There was nothing to gain from the leïfae. They had nothing to offer anyone. No gold, no riches of any kind. Yet, why them? Why?
Then the realization hit him. The unicorn horns were bound to bring a heavy price in any market. But all of this destruction, all of this death, for a pile of gold?
A soft moan brought Antalos out of his thoughts. He turned to see a leïfaen girl—probably just a little younger than him by a year or two, pinned under a small wooden pillar. Her skin was darkened by a mixture of dirt and blood, and she had scars all over her body, her clothes tattered. She couldn’t possibly be alive. Perhaps he was hearing things.
Then, the girl’s hand twitched—her breathing quick—and weakly pushed at the pillar on top of her. Her eyes quickly opened as if she were trying to find some unseen enemy.
“Father!” Antalos called out. He rushed over and tried to lift the wooden pillar so he could pull her away.
The girl cried out in pain, “Stop! Stop, please!”
He ceased his attempted with the pillar and gently took her hand in his. The girl looked up at him with a fearful expression. “It’s okay. We’re here to help you.”
Not saying a word, the girl nodded and in the next moment fell into unconsciousness.
Kannal, Eoin, and his men immediately rode over and stopped, shocked by the scene.
“Father,” he said again, bringing the king out of his trance of shock. “She is still alive.”
Four other knights dismounted their horses and carefully lifted the pillar off of the girl. Antalos brought his arms around her back and under her legs, holding her as if he were afraid she would break if he wasn’t careful.
Kannal dismounted his horse and came to Antalos’ side to observe the girl. She did not awaken, her chest slightly rising and falling with each breath. “Amazing! How could she have survived this massacre? It seems impossible.”
“She needs help.”
“Yes, of course,” he replied. He turned to his men. “Call for Emrys! We are bringing back someone who needs his immediate care the moment we return.”
The man sitting on the closest horse nodded. “Yes, your majesty.” And with that, he rode off.
Kannal turned back to the girl. “This kind of attack should have killed her. How could she still be alive?”
“She was lucky,” Antalos answered. “We must make room for her in the castle. She is the last of her kind. No one else in the kingdom would possibly take her into their own homes.”
“Father,” Eoin started, “this kind of destruction in such a short amount of time could be devastating to the rest of Anecia. What about the outlying villages? They will not stand a chance if we leave them unprotected.”
Kannal nodded. “You are right. I will send out aid to every village. Perhaps Parthor can spare some men as well. It seems our alliance could not be more opportune.”
“Father, what about her?” Antalos reminded Kannal.
The king looked at him. He was quiet for a moment before letting out a breath. “If that is what you want, Son. Before that can happen, we must discuss it with your mother. However, I can see you will not accept any objections from her. Just as long as you keep thinking about your wedding and your other responsibilities. As for me, I will make sure this new enemy of ours is taken care of. We cannot allow this kind of destruction to continue.” Kannal straightened and started back to his horse.
“What about the bodies?” Antalos rose to his feet with the girl still in his arms. She was surprisingly light.
“What do you suggest? They are not of Anecia, so what would you have me do?”
“They deserve a proper burial,” Antalos said. “We cannot just leave them all out here like this.”
“Very well. They will get a burial. Now, we must return,” Kannal said as his men carefully took the unconscious girl from Antalos and carried her away from the destroyed village. “We must make room for our new guest. She may be due for a long recovery.”