Swords clashed beneath the blaring sun, the sound of drunken men yelling at the top of their lungs filling the air. Alcohol was poured into deep mugs, and spilled from deep mugs --- true happiness had shown its face, after years of war. She had watched them all with glee, a smile on her face ever since the horn rang, signaling the first jousting battle. A favorite sport of hers, but one she would never play; watching, however, would suffice for now. Erlina sat beside her father, her smaller hand atop his larger, ringed one. The nails on her opposite hand dug into the wooden arm chair, her throat refusing to allow syllables to leave it. You shall not cry out, but rather watch in silence. One of her many rules, given directly from her mother.
She leaned towards her father, her lips moving closer to his ear. “Shall they kill each other, papa?” The question was innocent, and when she pulled away, her eyes widened with wonder.
“No,” he answered, a short chuckle following soon after.
She didn’t believe him.
The ground was splattered with blood and bits of metal. One knight, clothed in purple and belonging to the Eastern Kingdom of Polos, was barely standing on his feet, the other, dressed in crimson, hailing from the Western Kingdom of Akras, taunted him with inaudible words. He jabbed his almost-fallen opponent with the edge of his sword. The knight in purple slowly straightened his back, using his sword as a lever. A yell ripped from his throat. Whispers of oh, Highest rose from the crowd. Erlina moved to the edge of her seat, barely flinching when, with the last of his strength, the purple knight drove his sword right through his opponent’s stomach. She stood and cheered, along with dozens of others in the crowd. Across the field, she could see the Polos kingdom mourning the loss of another knight. A smirk crept onto her face, that distinct feeling of victory worming its way into her heart, pushing past the faintness of empathetic sadness. Her kingdom, yet again, had won this summer’s jousting tournament. Once again, in the last five years ago, they had brought home another trophy and another knight’s breastplate – a signal of their lack of defeat. At that night’s feast, the winner would recount his tale of how he stood those last few moments before the final blow was given, complete with erratic gestures of his hands and gasps from the women who sat beside him.
The life of a knight, Erlina had discovered, was one of fame and fortune, if you continued to bring honor to your kingdom.
The kingdom of Venestria had a streak for violence, notably when it came to jousts or actual hunting. Its people knew nothing of mercy, opting to kill as brutally and painfully as possible. Violence was a common occurrence, something Erlina had familiarized herself with as early as when she began walking. At seven, she had learned how to decapitate a man, via lessons from her family’s guards and her stuffed animals (all headless now, thanks to endless practices). The news of war was not uncommon, as there was always some new strife developing somewhere in the East or West, with Venestria coming in to either assist allies or destroy enemies. Erlina’s mother explained it all, claiming that wars showed the world who was in control: their very own kingdom. They ruled over everything – even the other, smaller kingdoms. There were no arguments when it came to that point, but acceptance. In the world, there was no such thing as individual freedom. There was still someone bigger, someone better, who ruled over you and directed your course of action.
The jousting tournament had ended moments before the giant bells were rung, signaling lunch. The knights, bloodied and bruised, filed from the arena, patting each other on the back with gloved hands, and talking loudly amongst themselves. One of the men, one of the few who was not a knight, but royalty, removed his helmet, revealing chestnut brown hair, and smiled in Erlina’s direction. She smiled back, her head nodding slightly.
“Dannis Staragot, Prince of the Eastern kingdom.” Her father’s voice, in all of its’ gruff deepness, sounded from behind her. “He has asked for your hand in marriage. His father wishes to bring our kingdoms together and – “
“To avoid war.” Erlina finished his sentence, the smile never leaving her lips. She waved at the knight as he turned back around and walked away. She turned to her father, hands finding her hips. The smile dropped. “I do not want to marry him.” There was stubbornness in her tone, her nose crinkling at the word marry. “I do not love him, and I would rather spend my life with someone I actually love.”
Her father laughed, joyfully at first, then bitterly. His hands took her shoulders. “There is no such thing as love, my dear. Not truly. You marry for the better of your country, not because you have fallen for someone. Besides, you have turned away all your other suitors, and it is high time your mother and I begin arranging a marriage. You are beyond age.”
She scoffed. Twenty-six was certainly beyond age, as she was expected to wed at seventeen. “I. Do. Not. Wish. To. Marry. Dannis. Staragot.” The words were repeatedly slowly, but a smile crept back to her lips, which were gently pressed to her father’s forehead. “There will be someone, I am sure. Just not now.”
Her father laughed again and walked towards the dining hall, its doors opening. He placed his hand on his stomach, as if his laughter was going to make him burst. “You are hilarious, my dear. Now, come along --- we mustn’t be late for luncheon.”
She stood in her place, watching as her father walked on, the crowd following after him. She turned her head to where the knights had stepped down from the arena. It was already desolate, the only evidence of a joust being bright red splatters of blood on the ground. The knights were walking towards the large doors, laughing among themselves and speaking of what giant feast waited for them. One man, clad in armor that had lost its shine, that bore none of the House’s colors, walked slower than the rest. His chin was held high, but there was no pride in his face; something akin to shame or sadness clouded his features. He moved his dark hair from his eyes, looking around as if something had caught his attention. Then, he met her eyes.
Erlina’s brows furrowed, her mind making a list of differences between him and the other knights: he had not been in the ring with the others. This, she remembered most of all. He sat on the Knight’s Bench, but failed to participate in the actual tournament. She made another note that he was lacking his wings --- they would have been a few centimeters shorter than hers, but still noticeable. The other knights wore their wings without any coverings, displaying them and letting them touch the wind. But his back was bare. Completely. His eyes dropped from hers, and he stopped short of the doors. Some of the other knights had gathered around him, laughing loudly. The colorless knight straightened his back and exchanged words with the group, who simply sniggered and walked away from him.
Once alone, the knight stepped backwards and began walking away from the doors, and to the side of the castle. Erlina assumed that he preferred the solitude of the Knight’s Grounds than the atmosphere of the lively dining hall. A few moments passed, Erlina half-heartedly hoping that he would return. She remained still, waiting to see the tip of snowy wings from behind the facade. Nothing was seen. No one came back.
Her father called her from inside the hall, and she followed his voice.
The dining hall was loud, with mead and meat being passed around the long wooden tables. Men sung off-key and in between gulps, and maids slunk past them with trays full of mugs and plates in their hands. The women either chatted excitedly with their friends, or yelled at their husbands for flirting with one of the passing maids. In a near corner, the knights had grouped together with their own House colors, the knights of Venestria cheering and giving loud toasts, while the others mourned their losses through pint after pint. Erlina found her father sitting with her mother, at the head of the table. Dannis Staragot was sitting beside them, but stood from his seat when Erlina came closer.
“You have arrived!” His voice was high, and full of eagerness. He gently touched her hand and pulled it to his lips, kissing it gently. “I was beginning to think that you had gone to your room --- I’d hate to have you miss such a celebration.”
Erlina smiled, pulling her hand away from his grasp and clasping her hands together. “No, no, I wanted to experience the jousting feast before anything else. As far as I can tell, it’s quite lively. Do you come to these often?” The question was followed by a wider smile as she stepped backwards, towards an empty seat.
Dannis nodded his head and grabbed her hand once more, holding it tighter. He pulled her away from the seat, walking her to the back of the room, where the other knights were. “As often as I can, my princess. It is a great honor, you know, to be able to grace these halls and sit with your father. I hope that all goes well, so that I may be able to sit here more often.”
He spoke of their engagement, but smoothly and slowly. Erlina’s nose wrinkled for just a moment, her small faltering. She tried to pull her hand away, but his grip remained tight, his eyes finding hers and refusing to look away. Quickly, he pulled her into an embrace, fingers digging into her shoulders and his lips meeting her ear.
“Our marriage will change the course of history, you know. We will become unstoppable.” He grunted as she tried to pull away, tightening his embrace. “We will destroy empires and break down kingdoms. We will become a new era, my sweet.”
Erlina craned her neck to look at him, her eyes raking over his grin and his eyes, attempting to ignore the wickedness present in both. “If I find a way out of this marriage….”
“You will not be able to.” His answer came quickly. Too quickly.
“Why not? Are you afraid that my father will change his mind? That he will choose to keep his daughter here, in hopes that her wings will grow wider and touch more lands?”
Dannis went silent. His hand snaked behind her back, his fingers gently caressing the roots of her wings. Her feathers bristled at his touch, filling Erlina with the urge to step away. She stayed still, even as his lips returned to her ear. “Do not fear----your father will not change his mind. He favors his daughter’s wings too much to do something that stupid. He knows of my power, of the neighboring kingdoms that are on my side.” His fingers took hold of the bone, tugging it twice, the second time harder than the first.
Erlina’s face contorted, a quiet gasp of pain leaving her parting lips.
“And we would hate to lose these,” Dannis whispered low, his breath making her ear hotter with each word. “Wouldn’t we, my dear?” He kissed her temple, slow and lovingly, his grip loosening on her. “Now, go and enjoy the feast.”
Erlina stepped away from him, her eyes wide. She turned around and walked quickly past the large table, slowing down just to gently touch her father’s shoulder. At the other end of the hall was a doorway that led out of the dining hall and into a foyer that had two staircases on either side. Her heels clicked as she walked up the right staircase, her hands still in front of her waist. In the halls, the maids scrambled around to change bedsheets and clean windows and refresh the supply of cookies in the jars resting on nightstands.
Erlina’s room was at the end of the hall, the door still ajar from the maid’s last entrance. As soon as she entered, a dark-haired woman sitting on the floor rose to her feet, her eyes remaining on the floor. Erlina stood by the door, holding it open for the woman. “Leave everything as it is, Mirella,” she spoke calmly. “I do not mind the mess right now, and I would like to be alone.”
At once, the woman left the room, whispering a quick yes milady as she exited. Erlina kicked her shoes off into a corner and sat on her bed, leaning back until her head touched the pillow. She stared up at the ceiling, laying in silence until rolling over onto her stomach, her forehead meeting her hands. Dannis’ words whispered in her head, his grin visible before her eyes. His threat repeated itself in her mind. At once, she felt a short pang of fear, quickly replaced with anger. Red hot anger coursed through her body, her fingers gripping her bedsheets and turning her knuckles white. She pushed herself from her bed and reached for a thin, violet rope that hung from her wall. She pulled once, letting go of the rope and resuming her seat on the bed. Mirella entered once more, staying silent until spoken to.
Erlina stood once more, her chin held high. “Mirella, I want Shadow by the back door at nightfall. Make sure no one sees you take him from his stalls, as my leaving must be kept secret. If Prince Dannis stops you, tell him that you are going to fetch me something to snack on.” She paused, glancing towards the window, where the sun was already setting. The guests would be going home by now. “That is all, Mirella. Thank you.”
With a nod, the maid turned and walked from her room, leaving her alone once more. Erlina pushed the wooden door closed and removed a black fur coat from the hanger nearby. She slid her arms through the sleeves and slowly moved towards the window. The lights from carriages moved further away. The knights travelled back to their respective kingdoms, blocking the main road. She would have to take the Dust Walk, a shortcut few knew about.
When nightfall came, she left her room, closing her door behind her. Erlina, changed from her gown to simple riding clothes, carried her boots in her hands, as to remain soundless as she moved through the halls. Shadows moved behind cracked doors, hushed voices coming from inside dimly lit rooms. Dannis Staragot had decided to stay in the palace until their marriage was finalized, and everything was planned. She crept past his room with the utmost caution, taking care not to trip on her own bare feet. Finally, she quickly tiptoed down the stairs and made her way to the empty kitchen, where the back door was open. Outside was her silver horse, Shadow, saddled and ready to leave. Erlina gave Shadow a quick pet on the head, then hoisted herself onto his back.
Quietly, she gave a command, prompting the horse to begin a trot.