The sight of blood has always made a cringing chill spring into my bones, melt away the marrow, and spread into my skin until my entire body felt as if there were insects borrowing and tasting my flesh. A pinhead sized dot of that red sticky liquid could knock me off my feet and throw me to the floor with unpleasant ease. Watching a person be put to death was for the public’s entertainment and being of royal status, I am undeniably forced to oversee it—as if my presence gave this brutal ritual some type of rightful recognition. It was not just the sight of blood that made me uncomfortable. It was looking into the crowd of my father’s public and seeing the joy it brought to their jarring expressions. Faces crimson with laugher, the sea of people cheered on the men who dressed in complete black. All of whom withheld a purposely dulled blade in each clenched barbaric hand. The Ravens is what we call them, the men who dressed in all black, would thrust their bloody stained blades into the air after he made an unfair kill.
“For Carminaus!” The commander of the Ravens cried out, pointing his blade towards the man on my right side, my father. King Carminaus bowed his head slowly; his long pale hair fell down his well-dressed chest as he nodded his approval to the Ravens’ leader. Seeing the small gesture, the large cloaked man twisted on his heels to pivot towards his next victim. All the perpetrators were chained together by their ankles and were released into a small pen. They had nothing but the very skin on their backs. Not all were humans—a few Sermon animals were also chained by their treacherous ankles. The captured were conspirators for the rebels who have begun attacking our royal country, Espreo. Word of the rebels’ presence has floated about the hills of Espreo for many years now. The Ravens were supposed to strike fear into the hearts of these devilish fiends, yet it seems that my father’s actions have provoked them farther.
Twenty rebels were chained together in the small pen, most of which had already been slaughtered. The remaining few dragged their dead comrades by their own swollen and bloodied ankles, as they attempted to make a heartbreaking escape. A Raven, one of the biggest men out there, pulled a woman’s hair until she was bald. Then and only then did he slowly take her life as he strove several whacks at her neck. With blood dripping from his dulled blade, the Raven made a swing with his sword into the air so blood would fly and shower the raucous crowd. My eyes begged to be shut, but I kept them opened to witness the lives of many slowly be taken in horrid ways. My ears begged to be covered but I listened to every scream and blood boiling laugh. If I shielded my eyes, I would be a coward—a disgrace to the Carminaus line. If my attendance is not witnessed by the crowds who have gathered in our capital city of Oscen, it shows I don’t care that our beloved Espreo is about to go into a civil war. I stole a moment to shift my glossy gaze to my father who lazily sprawled out on his throne. His face was a tormenting expressionless drawl. Emotions, he felt, were weak and unneeded. On occasions like these, I wish I could understand the purpose behind his flighty judgments. But Carminaus seldom speaks of diplomacies to me. As a noblewoman I was taught my duty is not to question the actions of men, especially my King’s. So, I sat as an appropriate young lady, and waited to be told when I could get up.
“Lord Carminaus, the game has ended, and the traitors have been killed. For the Songbird!” The leader of the Ravens cried out once more before bowing to his king and then facing the blood thirsty audience.
“For the Songbird!” He cried out our nation’s sigil, and the crowd soon followed his insufferable lead.
“For the Songbird!”
“For the Songbird!”
King Carminaus rose from his seat and a wave of stillness washed over the crowd. His cheering subjects now quiet, the only voices that could be heard were the melodies of the songbirds that littered the trees. The King took a hand to his short gray brawny beard, stroking it down as his gaze shifted throughout his crowd.
“Let this be a lesson to those who challenge our great country, Espreo. See how my Ravens, and my Songbirds protect you?” King Carminaus called, displaying his hands outstretched in the air as he spoke. He nodded his head down to the pile of mangled bodies just below his feet. “If you know anyone that is conspiring against the Crown, come forward and speak to my council. If those whom are accused are found guilty, I will pay handsomely to whoever spoke up against that guilty party.” My father smiled at his crowd. The peoples’ faces soften with their King’s expression. Throughout the horde of my father’s devoted subjects, murmurs of ‘Yes my Lord!’ and ‘We will my King!’ echoed throughout. “Remember my dear public, the Songbirds are always singing and always listening”. The King said before turning towards my mother and me.
“It’s time to go.” My father’s raspy grunt speared joy back into my body. Those few simple words made my invisible demon’s darkening grip on my entire soul slowly lift away until I was free once more. First my mother got up from her throne, and then I. We left the balcony and entered one of our many studies. The furnished room was filled with fragrances of peppermint and rare flowers which my mother had to have. Familiarity of the perfume drifting about the room gave me a sense of peace. Outside, I could only smell the thick stench of iron from blood and the stale feces that caked the twenty bludgeoned individuals.
King Carminaus shouldered off the large, plainly designed cloak and placed it upon the golden rack which held most of his notable wears. Each cloak had a purpose and he must be seen with in the public eye. Almost all his cloaks show heavy designs and have the rarest of dyes stringing through each thread. Except the one he wore today—the one he wore for the Ravens was much like the cloaks the Ravens wore themselves. Plain and strikingly black—it was so different from our usual bright and lively colors which we celebrate so happily.
“Twenty this time, and all proven guilty.” My mother mumbled in between breaths as she too shed her dark cloak. “Carminaus, I thought the Ravens’ job was to stop the rebellion—but it seems otherwise.” Her haughty tone was as crisp as the winter morning’s air; I couldn’t help but crack a smile. Only she, Marianna, could talk to the king with such flavorful words.
“The Ravens are doing their job well, I couldn’t ask for better.” The King shot back, plunging himself into a chair by the fireplace. Servants immediately attended their King, bringing him his preferred brandy and throwing logs into the fireplace before setting it to blaze. “I cannot, physically, control the minds of our public. However, if you have any sort of unexplainable gift that can change the mind of a simple being, please bestow it upon me now or never.” Though I’ve listened to my father talk for little over eighteen years, the possibility of ever growing tired of his voice was absent. Our opinions clash more than just occasionally, and I never seem to arrive on top, but when that man opens his forever frowned mouth my ears were always focused. King Carminaus could charm an angry bull to be his pet if he ever wanted.
However, my mother was not amused.
“Sass me all you want Carminaus, but that won’t fix the problem we face now.” Queen Marianna walked across the study with impeccable ease and grace. Even behind closed doors, the breathtaking air of a Queen was still hot on her skin. Unlike me. The daunting thought of being within the public’s eye drenched me with disquiet. Even with the multitude of lessons my governesses forced on me from an early age, acquiring to be a flawless royal woman seemed impossible. I should have outgrown the awkwardness of a child at the rightful age of eighteen, yet I cannot surpass it. Instead, my father scolds me continually for my imprudent and defiant behavior. I am a ‘constant correction’, he reminds me every moment I step outside the tightly regulated boundaries of a perfect suitable lady. A Queen however may step outside these limitations. “We know the rebels have their own army forming west of Espreo. What we need to do is send the Songbirds into the hills of Pravus—“
“Send my Royal Guard out into unfamiliar territory? Have you gone mad?” Carminaus growled through clenched teeth. “I have sent many patrols of men throughout the borders of Espreo and Parvus already. If we push into our neighboring country with the Royal Guard, King Rainier will certainly see that as a threat.” King Carminaus huffed, bringing his crystal glass filled with brandy to his lips. He eagerly took a hefty sip, wiping his mustache and beard with the sleave of his shirt after he was finished. “Parvus and Espreo are already enemies Marianna, you know that.” The king aggressively put down his glass on the side table next to him. He sighed deeply, turning his head slowly to the sweltering fire next to him. The room fell silent for a moment, only the crackling of the wood from the fireplace could be heard. The king rested his bearded chin upon his hand, staring into the fireplace.“ I do not need to make a reason for Parvus to become hostile towards Espreo once more. Particularly now, considering we are about to be in a civil war. The last thing we need is for this band of rebels to gain assistance from Parvus.”
“How do we know they have not already?” An impulsive comment staggered from my lips. My voice was very soft compared to my father’s poised tone. His small golden eyes fluttered in my direction and I immediately held my chin. It was not my place to speak of diplomacies, honestly, I was surely lucky that another noble man was not inside the room to witness my outburst. This was a conversation between King and Queen and I would have embarrassed my father with such behavior. I had no right to spew, however my natural enquiring and boldness was a curse for me. if I was going to comment, then I must standby my remark. My father was challenging my confidence. It was evident in the way his eyes narrowed about my face. He studied me, or perhaps he was taking in what I had just said. Nevertheless, I held my gaze with my father’s.
“We don’t.” My father put simply, a suggestion of a smile almost acquiring his lips as he spoke. He grabbed his glass once more, sipping it as he studied me. I stood fretfully, holding his stare. I shifted my weight from foot to foot and played with my fingers as the silence between us engulfed me. The crackling of wood sounded like claps of thunder echoing throughout the room. It was loud and tormenting—or perhaps the striking silence inside the room was causing every prominent noise to be amplified. I was undeniably nervous, not because I spoke out of turn but the grave thought of what I just said was beginning to set in and feel like a reality. Maybe this was not just a band of radicals. This brewing outlash could be more than what we initially thought. “We need to reach out to Malis.” King Carminaus abruptly broke the hushed ambiance of the room. He pushed himself up from the chair, and as he did, my father’s Songbird burst into the study.
“My King, there’s an attack near the castle! I need you to come with me now!” My father’s Songbird, Allan, hastily spoke as his eyes glistened with an agonize glare. Our treasured Songbirds are Vertos, those who can shift into any animal of their choosing.
The Queen’s Songbird, Oscar, followed in behind Allan. It was at that moment, the screams of the public could be heard outside the study’s large cathedral styled windows. Never has an attack been within the walls of our capital, Oscen. The Queen’s face turned an obvious color of white as we stood and listened to the cries of desperation from our people for an everlasting moment. My father’s expression was blank.
“We need to separate the Royal family at once!” Oscar growled, putting his hand gently on the shoulder of the Queen to escort her out.
Queen Marianna abruptly turned her body away from her Songbird so her eyes could meet mine. My mother’s grace never slips, yet for the first time I saw uncertainty and fear flirting with the flames from the fireplace reflecting off her glossed eyes.
“What about Callie? She has no Songbird yet to protect her.” Queen Marianna spoke, not to me I knew. This question was directed to my father however her eyes never left mine. Her dainty hands were pressed up against her chest as if to hold her breaking heart. I understood what was happening. In order to protect the Carminaus line, we must not be together in cases like these. Of course, this exact situation is what the enemy wants…for all of us together so the Carminaus line can be executed at once and the crown taken.
“Calthondra will be fine! We must not be together! Get behind the desk, child, and do not move.” My father scoffed, his golden eyes appearing wild. The King grabbed Queen Marianna’s hand and forced her to follow her Songbird through the study doors. Before he and Allan exited the doors themselves, my father grabbed both of my arms jaggedly. The wild look still blistering within his golden eyes as he held me an arm’s length away. “You mustn’t be scared. You have my blood. You are a Carminaus.” His voice was low but stern, his grip upon my forearms growing stronger. I could feel his nails digging into my skin. The King’s breath was hot with brandy staining each word, yet his eyes is what scared me most. My King looked feral. “Do not move anywhere near the windows Calthondra.” He pushed me toward the desk, the farthest point away from the beautiful cathedral windows that lined the balcony. Carminaus and Allen then made their way out the study door, leaving me to my own.
Crackling of the wood from the fireplace was now mingling with the sounds of screams from outside the windows. I stared into the fire watching the flames dance about, trying to focus on anything other than the cries of our public. It was easier to ignore the shrieks of a dying individual when you knew they were guilty of treason, as barbaric as that sounded. My eyes swelled with tears as the new sound of children’s screams rang loudest. It was as if the children were being slaughtered outside the very windows I am adjacent to. I could feel my heart slip into my stomach, petrified by the images shuffling through my head as my imagination captured the possible ways these children were being killed. I kept my eyes upon the lambent flames sparring about the logs of wood for a moment longer however the urge to peer above the desk and outside the windows grew too strong. I needed to see what was happening to my public.
My head lifted slowly from behind the desk as I braved a look of what was transpiring outside the windows. From the angle I was at, all I could see were neighboring structures of houses or shops. I was too far up to see the courtyard below from the view I had. If I were to get a better look, I needed to get closer to the windows or the glass door that lead to the balcony. My curiosity was growing greater than my personal fears, even though my father’s feral look still haunted me.
My feet trembled towards the glass doors, knowing I was doing just what I was told not to do. As I drew closer, the battle of beasts slowly portrayed. The Songbirds were dressed in their golden painted armor, displaying a lustrous shine from the faint winter’s sun bearing down on the courtyard. The radicals, with their own dulled blades in hand, dressed in a dingy brown tainted armor. I allowed my eyes to stroll about the courtyard as men from our Songbirds started to change into animal forms. The Songbirds charged towards their adversary as humans, but as their feet thundered across the stones of our forefathers each man and woman started to glow. They were the stars themselves as they smoldered a haze of pale yellow. The radiant light only lasted for a mere moment before they changed into animals. Bears, crocodiles, wolves, large cats, and even snakes charged towards the men in brown amour. However, our Songbirds were not the only Vertos fighting in the courtyard. The rebels had their own Vertos upon the square and they also made haste to shift into their unique animal counterpart.
I pressed my face against the glass, I was immediately chilled with the coolness the winter gave to the glass door. The sudden chill echoing from the glass did not detour me. I have never witnessed a battle, only heard many stories from my Sermon animal servants or governesses. Men were fighting beasts and beasts were fighting men. Before long, I wasn’t sure who was a Songbird and who was a rebel. All creatures and humans started to look as savage and crazed as the other. The once golden glow of the Songbird’s armor was now stained with the blood of another’s, and the same with the rebels. Animals fought tooth and claw as their coats began to run with crimson and everyone became indistinguishable as blood continued to be spilled.
The sound of claws chafing against stone made reason for my eyes to alter from the battle, to the edge of the balcony on my right. It sounded as if an animal was trying to claw its way up on the balcony.
My mind was screeching the word within my head. But before I could make one step backwards, a colossal figure that had a resemblance to a cat, landed on the rim of the balcony. For a monstrous moment, this creature made haven within the shadows. I stumbled a foot backwards and kept my unsteady gaze upon the giant. I was trembling, I could feel my very limbs quaking as I tried to keep myself from screaming. My hands instinctively pushed up against my mouth to hopefully stop any unnecessary noises from escaping.
“If I can sneak away slow enough…perhaps he won’t notice that I’m here…”
I thought wishfully but kept my eye upon the phantom. Once the cat stepped its huge paws into the faint light, I could not help but stop in my own tottering tracks and watch as this godly animal glided into my view. The creature’s paws were a mixture of golden fur and red with recent blood. His jutting claws which were longer than any average large cats, was also glazed with blood. The lion shook his massive body, slinging off any blood that retained on his fur after his recent kill. His mane, black as a crow’s feather, ran down his chest and trailed under his belly. But unlike any ordinary lion, the muzzle on this beast was long like a wolf’s but broad. His small eyes, which were almost impossible to see because of the immense darkness of his mane, were the brightest of greens. It was a hue of green which I have never seen before; a bright jade intertwined with the beauty of pine. The lion’s lips dripped the blood of another as I finally caught his eye. Was this a Songbird or a rebel?
I watched the large cat without moving, frozen in place behind the glass door. I was captivated and in awe of his godly presence. This could not be any ordinary lion; this animal commanded my attention and I was drawn to study every feature. The large cat started to bend his front limbs downward and lower his chest to the floor of the balcony. His tussled thick black mane spilled against the stone, as he bent downward. It looked as if he was bowing to me, making eye contact as he lowered his front end. Before I could react, the lion’s bloodied lips parted into what it seemed to be a sneer and dropped his hind quarters until he was into a full crouch. At that moment, my distress overcame my curiosity and I began to back feverishly away from the glass door. The muscles in his hindquarters were evident as he pushed himself off from the balcony and crash into the glass. He broke through without any trouble, the winter’s cold breath emerging into the study as the glass windows and door were completely shattered.
I made haste toward the door, but my poorly designed dress caused me to trip over the snug fabric and fall to the floor. The lion appeared amused, dropping his colossal head down once more and stalked forward toward me. While the lion crept his way toward me, I could not help but silently curse my mother for making me wear such dresses.
“This is it…death by my own curiosity.”
I grimaced to myself, closing my eyes as I waited for the lion to take my neck.
“Stop!” A growl disrupted the study as the doors pushed open. A white tiger erupted through the doors, placing himself by myside. My lips parted into a wide smile as I recognized the white tiger instantly. The tiger was Allan, my father’s Songbird. Vertos can shift into any animal but they shift into their unique representation of that animal.
The black maned lion rose his head up, glaring into the eyes of Allan. The two cats circled one another, growling and hissing as they began to size each other up. It was prominent that Allan was the smaller cat, his size was of a typical tiger, yet this lion was twice his size. I sluggishly stood upon my unsteady feet, backing away from the fight that was about to erupt. Before I could reach the door, the two beasts lunged for one another. Their bodies intertwined with teeth and claws. Allan, though smaller than his opponent, gathered himself on top of the large lion. The Songbird used his claws to grip the lion’s flesh and stabilize himself on top of the large cat. Allan then bared his fangs and drove them deep into the black maned lion’s right shoulder. The lion bellowed in anger, pitching his immense frame to the ground to throw the tiger off his back. As he did, Allan took the opportunity to spring off the lion’s back and aim his claws towards the lion’s unprotected stomach. Allan raked his claws down the lion’s abdomen, ripping his flesh. The lion roared with anguish, stumbling to get back on all four limbs. Allan did not waver; he lunged again for his adversary and landed another harsh blow to the black maned giant’s right shoulder again. Allan charged the beast one last time, his aim was for his opponent’s thick neck.
The Songbird soared for the beast’s throat, seizing a mouthful of the lion’s black mane. A low dark rumble echoed from the lion’s throat once Allen fastened his grip. The lion’s lips curled as both of his giant paws came together onto Allan’s torso. The black maned beast rose upon his hind quarters, clasping Allen with his front paws and in one rapid motion the lion tore Allan from his throat to the ground below. The lion towered over Allan, sitting upon his hind quarters and studied the tiger below him. A grumbling laugh slipped through the growling teeth of the beast, thrusting his muzzle upward to expose his own neck. Due to the dense vast obscurity of his black mane, Allan did not even touch the beast’s flesh. The massive creature snarled before driving his fangs into the Songbird’s neck, blood seeping into the lion’s mouth like a dam bursting with water.
“No!” My voice fragmented through the air, making the lion’s ear twitch in my direction. He still held Allan within his grasp, bearing down on his neck harder driving his fangs deeper. Blood washed down the lion’s mane and paws until it saturated the fine rugs of the study. Allen’s body began to glow the pale yellow that Vertos shed as they shift, giving me hope that the Songbird is still alive.
“Callie get back!” A familiar voice called me toward the door that lead out of the study and into the halls. I turned briskly to see Oscar and another Songbird in their human forms. Their faces twisted with many emotions as they lay their eyes upon the scene that had unfolded. The lion dropped Allan’s body down in the pool of blood below. Allan was no longer his beautiful white tiger, this form looked to be a brown and white dog. Oscar and the other Songbirds quickly emersed themselves into a different form before charging the large beast. The lion, outmatched and injured, pivoted on his hindquarters, and dove out toward the balcony. I could taste the salt of my tears before I eventually felt them trickling down my cheeks. I walked toward Allan’s body, my gait faltering as I approached the dog. I brushed my hand against his face, still feeling the warmth radiating off his body. I rested my hand upon the dog’s ribcage, hoping to feel the rise and fall of breaths. There was nothing.
“I am so sorry Allan,” My voice was soft, “this shouldn’t have happened.” The words coming from my mouth felt bitter as a wave of guilt captured me.
“Come Calthondra,” Oscar’s voice broke my thoughts, my eyes traveling upward to see him as his human form once again. His brown eyes softened as he looked at his fellow Songbird.
“I did not know Allan was a dog,” I said looking back at Allan’s body. I had grown up with these Songbirds all my life. I had never seen this form of Allan. Mostly, Songbirds choose to stay in their human forms and shift to animal forms when battling.
“Vertos never demonstrate their true form Callie. Our true form is most vulnerable—it is the only form we can die in.” Oscar’s face was entangled with a various amount of emotions as he looked upon the lifeless body of Allan below him. He placed his hand on my shoulder, guiding me towards the study’s door toward the halls entrance. “Come now Callie, I am taking you to the Queen. The attack was swift from the radicals. We managed to get it under control quite quickly.” I wordlessly followed Oscar out into the halls. Once we turned the first corner down the hall, I could see my mother by one of the windows. As we advanced towards my mother, Queen Marianna and I made eye contact through the reflection of the window she stood by. My mother turned around to face Oscar and I, her face still soaked in the previous colorless agonize that I saw before she left the study.
“Calthondra!” She gasped, opening her arms wide and drawing me closely in. I rested my head upon her chest, listening to the sounds of her heart as she hugged me tightly. It was comforting to listen to the sound of life after witnessing so much death. “Thank the Gods you are well,” Queen Marianna pulled me off from her, examining me from head to toe. She caressed my curly blonde hair away from my face to study me closer. “What is wrong my little sweet?” My mother cooed, cupping her hand about my cheek.
“Allan, mother,” The tears swelled back into my eyes as the words stammered from my mouth. “He died fighting a radical Vertos, trying to protect me.” I sobbed, overwhelming feelings of guilt and remorse clouding into my head. If the King saw me with such emotions, he would promptly discipline me for being weak. At that moment, I did not care.
My mother pulled me into an embrace again, holding me quietly. Her and I did not converse any farther. Instead, we stood by the window and peered downward towards the courtyard. Below, the servants wiped away as much of the blood as they could from the square’s stone walkways. Bodies of our public were being separated from those of the rebels and piled accordingly. The sun was starting to shed its last bit of luminating light before it lowered itself into the horizon of the ocean.
“Calthondra!” King Carminaus’s voice echoed behind my mother and I, causing our bodies to flinch with the sudden outburst. I turned to look my father in the eye as he spoke to me. His golden glare was no longer feral, but an eagerness devoured his eyes.
“Yes Father?” I asked, my mother still holding on to me. I stood tall, not flinching my stare away from my father’s.
“You will be traveling to our allies of Malis, only with a Songbird, to deliver a message to King DeMark. It is time for you to show your loyalty towards the Carminaus line.”
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