After losing her way three times, Nancy finally stormed into her room and flung her crown to the floor.
“I take it your meeting with the king did not go well.”
Nancy jumped and found her cousin lounging on a chaise by the window. “That is the most infuriating man I have ever met!”
Nerissa chuckled, climbing off the chaise and helping her into a nightdress. “All women think that of their husbands. You will get used to each other.”
“No we won’t because I’m not marrying him.” Nancy replied, taking her hair out of its braid and pulling a silver brush through.
Nerissa started, the color draining from her face. “You did not say this to him!”
“I most certainly did! I didn’t want to lead him on. I told him flat out I’m my own person and no one tells me what to do!”
Nerissa clucked. “You sound like a petulant child. Of course you will marry Iskander.”
Nancy set the brush down on the vanity and turned to look at her cousin. “What part of no don’t y’all understand? I couldn’t give a damn about some stupid prophecy written by a bunch of old men who dropped dead thousands of years ago! Iskander and I will still fight with the Alliance. You’ll still have the use of our forces, but I will not marry the man against my will. I don’t know how much more clear I can be about this!”
Nerissa placed her hands on her hips, eyebrows knitted together, and opened her mouth to counter when screams suddenly erupted outside. The women exchanged glances and flew to the balcony. The gardens and the walls of the palace itself were teeming with hundreds of foul looking, grey scaled creatures with sharp crimson nails on their bony hands and feet. Their bodies were bare save for loincloths made of fur. Great big pointed ears sprung from their bald heads and horned stumps stuck out from their foreheads. Their bright yellow eyes and slits for nostrils drew Nancy’s attention. She watched in horror as their grinning screaming mouths opened to reveal rows of blood red teeth.
“Goblins!” Nerissa cried.
They ran back into the room, slamming and locking the doors behind them as the goblins climbed onto the balcony undeterred. The women backed away clutching each other, trembling. Glancing around, Nancy cursed the princess paradise they stood in, as there wasn’t a single thing they could brandish to defend themselves.
“We need to get out of here!” She said, hustling Nerissa towards the door.
She threw the door open and pulled her cousin into the hall as the goblin horde began breaking down the doors. The sounds of battle, and corresponding shadows in the torchlight around the corner, sent the women barreling in the other direction. They turned the corner and connected with Zenaida, the force sending the three women to the floor.
“Run!” The old woman cried, as they climbed to their feet. “Get to the throne room, down the stairs, Nerissa knows the way.”
“Zenaida, what’s going on?” Nancy called as her guardian shoved the cousins through a door.
“The Goblin King’s forces. They’ve come for you. Hurry, there’s no time! Go! GO!” Zenaida gave Nancy a fierce hug and kissed her forehead before slamming the door between them. Where was Zenaida going? Why isn’t she coming with us?
“How is this happening? The Crystal Palace is impregnable!” Nerissa cried, shaking Nancy out of her stupor.
Apparently not, Nancy thought as they raced down the stairs but replied, “The Dowager Empress said there was a traitor among us. He must be responsible.”
By the time they reached the throne room Prince Alaric and the palace guard were fending off the enemy in one entrance while Lennox and Iskander were leading the charge at another entrance. Ilythia and Jarek were deeply engrossed with the throne in the back of the room as Isabel and Princess Lavinia looked on. Nancy and Nerissa rushed over as the throne suddenly sprang out of place to reveal an escape tunnel. Ilythia, Jarek, Isabel, Lavinia, and Nerissa hurried in.
“Valeska - Nancy, look out!”
Nancy turned and was thrown to the floor, crushed beneath Iskander’s weight, as a bright light flashed and an explosion shook the room. She heard him cry out in pain before he went limp. Coughing from the dust, Nancy rolled him off her and dragged his body into the tunnel behind the rubble. She could still hear the clashing of swords in the distance but the others had disappeared into the tunnel. Nancy rolled Iskander onto his back and tried to get him to regain consciousness while hoping one of the Alliance, and not a goblin, found them first.
Their way into the throne room blocked, Nancy spent several hours alternating between dragging her heavy fiancée down the pitch-black tunnel and trying to revive him. The sounds of battle had long since disappeared and she could hear nothing but their breathing, the occasional drip of water, and the scratching of passing rodents. She tried not to think too hard about them.
Nancy sat down to rest. Her back and limbs were screaming from the king’s weight and sweat plastered her nightdress to her body. Iskander suddenly moaned and began to cough.
“Oh thank God,” Nancy sighed. “King Iskander, are you alright?”
“Where are we? What happened?”
“We’re in the escape tunnel behind the throne. There was some kind of blast and you were injured.”
Iskander moaned again. “That explains my head. Where is everyone?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen anyone since we came in here.” Her voice wavered.
Nancy heard his feet scrape the ground and felt him try to rise and then fall back down again. “What are you doing?
“I must go back.”
“You’re not going anywhere, Sire, you’re hurt.”
“I take orders from no wench!” He snapped, trying to rise again.
“You do from this one!” She replied, pushing him back down again.
He sighed and grasped her hand firmly. “There is no need to fear, A’Janae. I will make sure you are safe before I leave you.” He said gently.
“I’m not afraid,” Nancy lied, “but I didn’t spend the whole night dragging your ass down this tunnel so you can go back and get yourself killed! Anyway, I haven’t heard any fighting for hours.”
After a moment of silence Iskander released her hand and grumbled. “You are one infuriating woman.”
“So I’ve been told, but you’re still not going back. Besides, everyone else have gone further down the tunnel and could be unprotected.”
In the darkness, Nancy heard him scramble to his feet and grunt as he slammed against a wall. She got to her feet and grabbed him just as he fell forward.
“Easy big guy.” She said, steadying him.
“I am not a child!” He snapped, but didn’t remove the arm he’d laid across her shoulders.
“Then quit acting like one!” She barked back. “If you feel up to it, let’s get going.”
“Yes, we have wasted enough time.”
Nancy rolled her eyes and helped Iskander begin to walk. He was a bit unsteady at first but tried not to lean his heavy frame on her more than necessary. Pressed together, Nancy could feel how hard and angular his body was. His stomach muscles rippled against her hand beneath the fabric of his doublet. His leg muscles rolled and flexed against her thigh, and the musky aroma of sweat and sandalwood wafting from his body made Nancy’s throat go dry again.
Though he was as finely dressed as Prince Alaric, Iskander was not a gentle dandy. The king was large, firm, and rugged like the ranchers and cowhands she had admired back home. His gruff, take-charge manner reminded her of her father. This was a man’s man, stubborn but intelligent, and he could not intimidate her. If nothing else, she found herself strongly attracted to him. What’s wrong with you? He’s only a man! A man you distinctly told you would not want to marry. Somewhere from the deep recesses of her brain came the whisper, Idiot! Nancy shook her head and kept moving.
Eventually Iskander was able to walk upright on his own but the darkness of the tunnel was so oppressive they stayed close to each other. Nancy reached out into the blackness, cringing as she half expected something to reach back, and placed a hand on the cool damp wall of the tunnel.
“Why is this tunnel not lit?” Nancy asked, starting to feel uneasy.
“Are you frightened, A’Janae?” She could hear his smile in the question.
She felt his large hand tighten around her waist, pulling her close, and her stomach tightened as her heart fluttered. She willed her knees not to buckle, cursing herself for being such a goose at a time like this.
“No, I just think it’s a stupid idea not to have some sort of light source in an escape tunnel. Someone could get hurt, and why do you keep calling me that?”
With her head practically lying on his shoulder, Nancy guessed Iskander turned his head for she could feel his warm breath upon her cheek when he spoke.
“It is merely a term of endearment in my country.”
“Should you be using terms of endearment with a woman who won’t marry you?”
Iskander chuckled. “Am I such an ogre that you should hate the idea of marrying me?”
Nancy blushed and put some space between them but allowed his hand to remain on her hip. “I’m sorry, Milord. I don’t mean to insult you. Like I said before, I don’t even know you. I’m sure you’re a nice guy. I just don’t like being pressured into doing something I don’t want to do. My parents were forever trying to get me to act a certain way, speak a certain way, look a certain way, all for a purpose that served them or to keep the attention of some oil tycoon’s empty headed son.”
“Such is the life of royalty.” Iskander shrugged.
“Why? You’re a king and apparently I’m a queen. Why can’t we just do what we want or marry who we want, if we even marry at all?”
“As rulers of the land we have a responsibility to our people, Valeska. Sometimes that includes doing things we do not necessarily want to do.”
“But why is it so important that we marry? Can’t our countries form an allegiance some other way?”
“Of course. We could sign any number of treaties and incorporate each other, but Shayn’delrune will never be truly one unless we marry.”
Nancy chuckled bitterly. “So, you’re saying our countries won’t be truly joined unless… we do?”
Iskander chuckled, then groaned as he turned and leaned against the wall to rest. “For lack of a better phrase, yes. You heard the Dowager Empress’ remarks about how our countries were once an ancient kingdom? Long ago it was the most mystical kingdom in the world known as Quendaris. It is believed to be the first kingdom ever created, a place where the gods themselves lived and loved while they created the rest of the universe. It is the origin of the most fantastic and powerful creatures, from dragons and unicorns to Minotaur and sea serpents. During the War of the Gods, Quendaris split and any mortal who passed through and did not perish, lost the power of speech or sight while gaining the wisdom of the Oracle. The Oracles all predict dark days on the horizon, so dark they cannot see the other side. It is said to be the end of days. In order to combat whatever evil is coming we need the power of the gods themselves.”
“So if we marry and reunite the kingdoms, the gods will come back and play nice?”
“No, when our kingdoms unite the Book of Sen will appear to us. This book contains the power and knowledge of the gods, the answers to any and all questions we may have.”
Nancy shuddered. “That sounds like a very dangerous book.”
“It is, especially in the wrong hands, which is why it disappeared. However, it will appear to you and I, Valeska, for we are the descendants of Quendaris.”
Nancy guessed they must have walked all night for in the distance she began to make out a grey light.
“Oh good, we must be at the end of the tunnel.” She said.
“How can you tell?”
Nancy glanced at him, though she still could not see him in the darkness. “You don’t see the light?”
Iskander paused. “Nothing but darkness.”
Nancy felt her stomach lurch but kept quiet as they continued walking towards the light. Finally, when they got close enough to hear birds chirping and smell the dewy grass, she turned to look at him and stifled a gasp. The king’s face was covered in blood and there were deep welts and gashes along his cheeks and just above his eyes. Nancy considered it a miracle the man had not died.
“Can you see the light now, Iskander?” she asked quietly.
Iskander visibly hesitated and he cocked his head slightly.
“Should I?” he asked cautiously.
Somberly, she replied, “Yes, you should.”
“They live! Thank the gods!”
Crossing the meadow King Jarek and Prince Alaric rode up to them on white horses. Their jovial demeanor faded as they saw Nancy’s expression and Iskander’s face.
“Iskander, are you alright?” Alaric asked, leaping down from his horse and striding over.
“No, as a matter of fact,” Iskander responded, “it appears I have been blinded.”