The small kingdom of Dalfon was a place of humble prosperity settled at the edge of the vast Westward Forest and the lazy Thedri River. Though not rich in coin, Her people never went hungry as resources remained steady from healthy amounts of rain and wide open fields fit for farming and livestock. Unfortunately the trade routes to the rich Northern Kingdoms were arduous with no safe path through the forest, and trade with the southern war tribes was an impossibility due to their violence. Thus, Dalfon remained ever stagnant as a healthy, yet poor, kingdom.
Though none these facts had been of issue until King Ronald VI, who claimed he would “see Dalfon rise to greater glory” before his days were done, and it was because of that very dream that Prince Shane sat with a hollow smile across the polished oak-wood table, set in fine white cloth and fake silver utensils, from Princess Dhani. She was the third daughter of King Harven, from the Kingdom of Something…he couldn’t be bothered to recall, honestly. He had more interest in the contents of his meal, and the Princess seemed to be of equal thought.
Their private banquet hall felt too large despite being so small, with high vaulted ceilings and stone walls draped in the colors of Dalfon, and on their table were complex dishes only made when attempting to impress guests. Honestly, Shane preferred their regular meals, they had more flavor. Without thinking, he voiced as much, “You know, our cook makes a wonderful stew… When served over a bed of rice, I think it would be much preferable to this.” He used his fork to point out the thinly sliced fillets decorating the cold rice noodles and vegetables.
The woman across from him lifted a finely manicured brow. By every standard she was aesthetically pleasing, with a lovely olive-toned face and full lips painted a vivid red, her hair a pitch black that hung in ringlets past her shoulders. “But stew is a commoner’s food,” she said, her voice half scoffing. Shane was about to deflate when her painted lips curled in a smile and her voice lowered, “Do you think we could have some? I haven’t had a real meal in weeks.”
Shane smiled, brightening at the idea, “Follow my lead.” He stood from the finely draped table and held out his hand, announcing loudly for the servants at the door to hear, “Come, My Lady, let’s walk the gardens. I would show you a truly lovely spot.” She settled a slim, manicured hand in his own and stood with him, standing at Shane’s side and looping her arm around his as they made their way towards one of the doors leading onto the balcony.
Once outside in the warm afternoon air, Shane took them down the stone steps leading to the garden below, a pleasant space overlooking the river behind the palace, framed in blooming flowers and trees. A hard right had them following the modest palace walls where he knocked on a wooden door tucked away beneath the stairs.
It opened shortly after to a short man with all round features and a red face. He donned simple clothes and what was once a white apron, now stained in various colors from years of use. He smiled wide at the sight of the pair outside of his door, “Ah, Shane! And our dear guest…” His features fell a moment later, “Was your meal not satisfactory?”
Shane lifted his hand in a placating manner, “It was delicious for what it was,” he assured, “But I was bragging to the lovely Dhani here about your stew! She said she must try some.”
The cook looked the woman over and frowned, “My girl, you’re so skinny!” he exclaimed, “Come in, I have stew and bread freshly baked. You get an extra helping. Good man, Shane, to recognize a woman in need of real food!”
Dhani stepped inside without being led, laughing softly, “Oh my! Well, it certainly smells amazing.”
The cook gestured towards the island in the middle of his kitchen, overlooking the wood-burning stoves and oven. The space was dark and warm, with a low ceiling and cooking utensils and spices were strewn about every available surface. There was a kitchen boy elbow-deep in the washbasin, scrubbing at a never ending pile of dishes that constantly built up throughout the day. Shane felt at home in the room, having spent so many days watching people coming and going as he learned the inner workings of the palace.
The pair sat at their requested seats, and within the span of a minute there were ceramic bowls set before them with stew steaming and a basket with bread still warm from the oven. A glance to the side showed that Dhani could not have been happier with the display as she grabbed her spoon and took an eager bite, humming her joy.
“Careful,” Shane said with a laugh, “You won’t be able to taste anything if you burn your tongue.”
The woman licked her painted lips and chuckled, “Clearly you’ve never had Ghennis curry,” she said plainly, smiling at the cook with appreciation, “It’s hot enough to make a dragon whimper.”
Shane grinned, “Well, I value my sensibilities too much to accept that challenge,” he purred around his first bite as well, “Do they not feed you properly in Ghennis?” he felt the need to ask.
Dhani’s smile faded, “They feed me wonderful food. But my father claims that a ‘fat princess’ will never find a groom.” Her amber eyes flickered with disappointment, “I am the only one of my sisters not married. He claims I am not pretty enough.”
“What an awful man!” the cook’s ladle cracked loudly against the rim of the pot, “My girl, you are beautiful in every right. That smile lit up this room when I saw it, truly.”
Her cheeks darkened in a blush, “Oh… Well thank you.”
“He’s right you know,” Shane added, “The cook I mean! You’re stunning.”
Her smile turned sad, “Does that mean you’ll be my groom?”
Oh how Shane’s father would have rejoiced. Dhani was every part a wonderful woman, and that was why he felt guilt line his features, “I… My father insists I find a bride – someone to help promote Dalfon to a higher status. But he fails to listen. I don’t want a bride, Dhani. I’ve just been hoping that…as the middle son, my father would overlook me in that.”
Dhani sighed, silently lamenting around another mouthful of food. After a few moments of quiet eating she ventured to speak, “Are you afraid of commitment? I hear that’s common among men, especially those forced into the prospect of marriage.”
Shane swallowed hard and coughed into his fist to clear his throat, “Ah…” he shook his head, “If only it were so simple. Put plainly, I have no interest in marriage. Had I my own choice, I would go out into the world and learn about it myself. I would want to visit your kingdom, and while I may skip the curry,” they chuckled softly, “I would love to see it. But I’m no ruler. I’ve an elder brother with a head for politics and leadership, and a younger who has read so many textbooks imported from colleges around the country that I fear he may be able to teach the classes at this point!”
“And what of you?” Dhani asked then.
“What of me, Princess?”
She smiled around another bite before she posed her next question, “What is it you excel at?”
The question made Shane wilt, though his smile remained, “I mean no self-deprecation, Dhani. I’m just a man. I like good food and good company, but I’ve no mind for math, or science, or politics. I’ve not the muscles or agility for proper combat. I tried my hand at art, once… It was meant to be a dog, I think,” he laughed.
“Well,” the woman posed a hand over her heart for emphasis, leaning into Shane’s personal space, “Not every man can be the brightest star in the sky, but I think you’ve a mind for people, my Prince. In my home, I can’t say I’ve ever seen our chef, and I can’t say I’ve ever looked at a stranger and known that they would prefer a home cooked meal to a finely crafted plate of empty art.” She nudged their knees together, “Had I been one of my sisters, your ears would be bleeding from their harpy screeches!”
Shane couldn’t help a boisterous laugh, “Oh, yes I have met a few of those kind. Though I hardly think emotional intelligence alone makes for a good king.”
“Not if he relies only on himself,” Dhani replied readily, “Besides, you’re too pretty to not pass on your lineage.”
Shane preened at that remark. He was well aware of his own vanity - how he kept his blonde hair washed with herb-oils to keep it bright, how he lined his eyes with kohl to make the green stand out, and how he made sure to get the right amount of sun to keep his skin within a healthy glow. He wore finely tailored outfits with intricate embroideries and his boots had more buckles than any suit of ceremonial armor. It was the one flaw that he allowed himself. Was it a sin to want to look so good?
“Well I do have a rather handsome profile,” he agreed, turning his face to give the woman a proper view, smiling at the sound of her giggle, “Truly, Dhani, were I not set in my stubbornness I would take you for my bride in a heartbeat. You’re…amazing.”
The woman’s smile turned sad once again, “It’s a shame.”
Shane nudged her gently, “But I will enjoy your company while you’re here,” he amended, “And perhaps we can think of something!”
She pouted through her smile, “So can I expect any…late night visits?” she asked with a raised brow.
The Prince nearly choked again, setting his spoon down, “I uh… I doubt such will be a problem,” he managed, keeping his eyes on the scarred wood of the counter. Guilt welled up at the knowledge that he was only furthering his father’s contempt, but knew it was not something he could change. Dhani simply wasn’t what he wanted…
A short time later, Shane took the Princess back up into the palace proper, leading her arm-in-arm down the long corridors lined in blue and white tapestries. More adornments from his father…
They stopped before her chambers and shared a hug before the Prince turned for his own room. Halfway down the hall of personal rooms he was stopped by his father. The man was a few inches taller than his son, with wider shoulders and thicker brown hair. “The servants tell me you and our beautiful guest got along wonderfully!”
Shane had to hold back his sigh, “Yes, she is an incredible woman.”
“She will make another man very lucky one day,” he then added and felt his father’s irritation like a physical wave. “I fear she is just not the one for me.”
The King scoffed loudly, “The one?” he demanded, incredulous. Suddenly Shane’s shoulder was taken in an iron grip and he was spun to stare his father in the eyes and see the displeasure found in them. The man’s voice dropped to a harsh whisper, “Your version of ‘The One’ will not yield you heirs. It will put this entire Kingdom to shame!”
Shane swallowed hard but didn’t waver from the hard stare bearing down on him. His words were petulant and fueled by the years of aggression between the two, “The only one who brings this Kingdom shame is its King.”
The strike across his face was expected, coupled with a snarl of rage. He bit back his own self-satisfied smirk as he rubbed at his smarting jaw, “Will that be all, Father?” Shane asked, maintaining a calm tone.
The King didn’t answer, turning to continue down the opposite side of the corridor and out of sight.
The following morning, Dhani joined the royal family at their private dining hall. It had been tradition for generations that they share a meal together every day. While the custom seemed to have skipped King Ronald, the three brothers kept the idea alive. It was sometimes the only way Shane got to see his brothers throughout the day, all settled around the end of a long oak table.
However that particular morning held high tension in the dining hall as the King did join their breakfast for a change. The servants seemed as surprised by his presence as Shane, and ran to fetch an extra seat for the King.
Prince Ronald VII, the eldest if the brothers, smiled calmly as he made room by moving closer to his wife. Shane envied his brother’s love of Tiana, the strange woman with gray eyes and white hair that hung in like fluffy clouds on a calm spring day. They looked wonderful together, the Prince’s strong appearance and Tiana’s natural grace and seemingly ephemeral presence.
Prince Eric was two years Shane’s junior and a considerably smaller figure than the rest of the family. His features were long and gaunt and his body set in sharp angles and thin limbs.
Dhani settled at Shane’s side, a smile on her face where it seemed to belong, unaware of the awkward tension formed from the presence of the King who shared a smile with her, his own unsettling and mysterious.
The servants came out with plates of food that filled the room with mouthwatering smells. It distracted the brothers for a short time as they began to eat, talking aimlessly among themselves as they did every morning. The King seemed to be content to watch the exchange until a lull settled over the conversation and his eyes darted to Dhani.
“So my dear! How have you been enjoying our home?” he broached a swift change of subject.
Dhani put her spoon down and gave the man a polite smile as she finished her bite, but Shane saw she was forming a careful answer, “It has been very enjoyable so far. Shane has been excellent in helping me feel welcome here.”
“Yes, he was telling me how well you two get along! I have to say, you look good sitting together like that,” his voice was jovial but Shane immediately caught wind of something sinister behind his father’s smile.
Dhani’s cheeks lit in a soft blush, “Well thank you. I must admit that I’m quite fond of him.”
“As he is of you,” the King said quickly and Shane felt a pit forming in his stomach. “I hope your stay here remains pleasant, and if you’re as happy with Shane as he is with you then perhaps we will have some new plans to make by the end!”
Shane’s grip on his fork tightened, and in a fit of rising anger he stood up from his seat right as the doors of the dining hall burst open and one of the guards hurried in, “My Lord!” The man’s armor was light, there was never need for heavy plate. All attention turned to the man however, “A caravan has arrived…”
The King stood with a raised brow and straightened back, “Very well?”
“It… It dons a War Tribe banner,” he added with apprehension.
Silence fell across the room as a sense of confusion and dread crawled up everyone’s spine. Shane forgot his burst of anger and dropped his utensil, the three brothers following their father as they rushed for the door.
King Ronald had gone grim, making his way to the main hall leading out to the courtyard. The doors were opened for them as they all stood at the top of the steps to look out over the sight of the large horse-drawn covered wagons…
Both wagons were pulled by massive silver-white horses with hooves easily twice the size of a normal steed. The carts were crafted of wood instead of metal, and the white canvas stretched over the covering struts was painted in red symbols, at least Shane hoped it was paint, that likely denoted their tribe. Only a few of the men inside were visible, and it was impossible to tell how many there actually were.
One man in particular stood from the front of the wagon, huge even when compared to the horses. He dropped down and started taking long, slow steps towards the wary royal family.
Shane found himself swallowing hard at the sight of this newcomer. He was built tall and wide, his skin dark from a lifetime in the sun. His head was bald and the left side of his head and body was laden in dark tribal markings. He wore no shirt or shoes, only a pair of weather-worn trousers that hung low on his hips. But the Prince took note of the man’s dark brown eyes and the amusement he found shining in them as the massive man threw his arms out wide, “Good afternoon!” He bellowed loudly for everyone around to hear, “My men and I hail from the Der’tani Tribe.”
The King stood rigid, a frown on his face, “And what is it you and your men are doing here, so far from your tribe?”
The man barked a loud laugh, his smile easy and seemingly genuine, “We have come to talk peace and alliance,” he proclaimed, arms still held out wide. He had no weapon, but Shane clearly saw the scars that decorated his skin. The man was a warrior who clearly reveled in battle…
“Talks of peace? With War Tribe riff-raff?” The King’s frown was heavy.
“It is either talks of peace, or a declaration of war,” the man professed with a laugh at the King’s fearful face, “Hail, King Ronald. I am Haskar, Warlord of the Southern Tribes.”
Silence fell once again as shock and fear ran through the royal family.
The War Tribes were known for their brutality and anarchy. The whole of the Thalisian sands were thick with the wayward tribes, governed only by one of four Warlords who ruled through force and cruelty. However the man that stood smiling before them seemed none of those things.
Haskar let his arms drop to his sides, his smile having turned predatory, “The South has certain ways of doing things – but I am well aware that the North is far more frail and easily frightened.”
“So our choice is give in to your demands or die?” Shane’s elder brother stepped up and folded his arms.
The Warlord chuckled, “Put simply? Yes. But I feel unwelcome standing out here on the steps! I have no intention of slaughtering you, this palace is too nice for bloodshed. My men and I are tired, and we come bearing gifts from our homes.”
The eldest Prince was tense, looking to his father for any sign of what they should do. When he got nothing but a worried glance, his shoulders slumped in defeat, “Come then, we will have your horses stabled and our servants will ensure you and your men have proper quarters.”
Shane bristled and glared at his brother. They were giving in to thugs? He snorted and looked to the guards who had been gathering since the caravan’s arrival, “Why would we give in to such demands? You carry at most twenty men, War Tribe or not, your heads would lay at our feet!”
“Shane!” The King hissed.
Haskar turned his gaze on Shane and canted his head, “It seems one of you has a backbone at least,” he praised and stepped forward, coming up the stairs until he stood eye-to-eye with Shane a full three steps beneath him. There was something electric in the air, heat radiated from the Warlord like an aura and his gaze held Shane locked in place where he stood. The Prince held his ground, glaring down the massive man before him before Haskar leaned forward and murmured just loud enough that Shane and the King could hear, “Kill me, and another will take my place. An army will tear through this dust-fleck of a Kingdom and it will be your heads that lay at our feet.”
Shane swallowed, frowning.
“Still,” Haskar continued, “You didn’t give in so easily. I like you,” he straightened back up and looked over, “Now then, you mentioned lodging for us. I hope your beds are soft.”