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The Ancients

Chapter six

By NCS NapierPublished 4 months ago Updated 4 months ago 39 min read


Ana groaned as she inspected the map in front of her. She was sick of looking at the same dull image that was seared into her memory many moons ago. Yet here she was, sixteen tomorrow, still staring at the names of different families and cities, wanting nothing more than to jump out the first-story window. She knew exactly how to do it. First, she would curl into a ball and smash through the stained glass, then roll as she hit the ground and spring up into a sprint, before the guards knew what was happening, she would be out into the streets and off on an incredible adventure, fighting criminals, slaying monsters, helping commoners milk their cows or look after their horses or give them advice on what to wear, she didn’t know what ordinary people did… but she’d do it all.

“Well?” old Lady Sienna asked, breaking Ana’s delightful daydream as she tapped her finger on the map. “Which family is it that resides here?”

“Does it matter?”


Lady Sienna bought a cane down upon the back of Ana’s hand with surprising speed. “Gods be damned!” She yelled.


She had earned herself a second caning that cut across her knuckles and reopened the wounds she had obtained from her last lesson. She sucked through her teeth and winced, trying hard not to spring up and slap the old hag. “A lady does not swear.” Lady Sienna said without her smug face moving an iota. Ana had always known she enjoyed hurting her, probably because she was jealous that Brinden was letting her corrode away as the Lady of the Palace while he ruled as Korol. Ana couldn’t wait until she could remove the old witch and replace her with someone who had a scrap of empathy.

“You probably think I enjoy this.” Lady Sienna said as she ran a cloth along the cane to clean the blood, then placed it neatly on the table. “I would much prefer if you had done your work. Despite what you might believe, I take no joy in this. Your mother has tasked me with teaching you how to be a lady for a reason. It’s important, especially for the Printsesa, of which you act nothing alike. Today is your last day of true freedom, and I’m afraid I may have failed your dear mother. You sit here and whine and moan and say you’re ready to attend the council with the Talutajas and Kalips. Well young lady, if you want to be taken seriously, you must conduct yourself with dignity and grace.”

“Ahh, yes, dignity,” Ana said. “I suppose it’s dignified to hit people when they don’t do what you want. A wonderful lesson learnt aunty, thank you.” Ana pushed her chair back with a scrape and bowed as low as she could. “I can’t wait to tell Mother about the wonderful things you’ve taught me. Maybe I’ll hit her if she disagrees with me.”


The cane came down upon Ana’s knuckles with a force she hadn’t felt before. “Ahhh, goorrrrrr.” She cried, stopping herself from blasphemous speech as Lady Sienna raised the cane in anticipation.

“A lady should not scrape her chair when she stands.” Lady Sienna said in such a manner that one would think it was the Mothers own law. Ana imagined her aunty's wrinkled little face tearing up as she dismissed her from her position. The funny thing was, she wasn’t even that old, but she certainly looked it. “You must learn proper etiquette before the world falls into war, or you will be lost, destined to become hated like Henry the Squanderer. A story arises about when Henry graced the people with a visit many moons ago.” Lady Sienna said, tapping Ana’s chair with her cane to sit back down. “He paraded through the streets with a goblet of wine and three…” She took a sharp breath, “whores on his arm. The next day the Mothers sent wrath that would -”

“Please, aunty, for both our sakes, do not try and convince me that scratching my chair along the ground and saying gods will lead to the black rot that killed thousands,” Ana said, scraping her chair along the ground as she sat back down and pulled it underneath her. Lady Sienna’s cane flew through the air, but Ana was ready and snatched her hand backwards. “Also, for the future, your story would be much more prudent if it didn’t end with my father’s family sitting on the Mountain Throne, of which I am next in line.”

“Now listen here!” Lady Sienna said, rising from her chair without a squeak from its legs. She took an almighty breath as she prepared for one of her famous lectures but was cut off as the door swung open and Yavi entered the room. Wonderful Yavi Vektan was here to save the day yet again. He always looked so handsome, but today especially. Maybe he knew she was almost sixteen. Ana noted he was wearing his purple cloak and best silver armour with the golden trim. He’d been wearing that since being tasked with looking after Mother. Ana felt her cheeks flush red as he smiled at her.

“The Koroleva.” He announced, standing aside as Mother entered the room. Ana could barely contain herself as she leapt to her feet, scraping her chair along the ground for good measure. She thought Mother may have forgotten for a moment, but of course, she hadn’t; Mother never forgot. She was matching Yavi today, wearing her purple gown with golden flecks for special occasions, and this was an extraordinary occasion. She had an accent braid on either side that held her hair off her face, as was the Capital style, and a purple snood that never left her wrist. Ana was glad she had done her hair in the same braids that morning. Mother’s red, rosy checks accented her perfect jawline, something Ana didn’t have yet, but she would get it; she knew she would. She couldn’t help but gawk at her beautiful Mother as she rushed towards her.


“My darling.” Mother beamed, opening her arms wide and wrapping herself around Ana. “I hope I’m not interrupting.” She said, smiling warmly at Lady Sienna, who was standing with the cane in her hand.

“Not at all, my Koroleva.” Lady Sienna lied.

“You’re my promised’s sister Sienna, how many times must I tell you to call me Erramore.” She said before lowering to one knee and straightening Ana’s plain brown tunic. “You didn’t wear the dress I got you? Just this old thing again, I shouldn’t be surprised by now. How was your last morning of classes?”

“They were -”

“Not as I had hoped.” Lady Sienna cut in. “We were quite distracted this morning. Unwilling to finish our studies on the many families and their whereabouts.”

“Ana?” Erramore said with shock.

“I don’t know what Lady Sienna is talking about,” Ana said, batting her big blue eyes up at Mother. She rushed over to the map. “Aunty asked where the Tellisivis resided.” Ana pointed below the Capital on the map. “In Pullipold, their shield is a blue and orange boar.” She said with a sweet smile. She continued to move her finger around the Capital. “Here are the Lamistans, brown and white beaver, the Möores, green and brown pine, the Kuumgads, whose boundaries have recently moved and Brinden needs to be careful of, pink orchard, the Bennetts, yellow and brown lynx, the Hastans, yellow and green buttercup flower, the Minkstevs, with my least favourite white and yellow oxeye daisy, the Vasillievs, a brown snake, and over here the Turgen and Sokolov families, golden hawk and navy raven. They are the sworn Kalips of the Capital, Esimüla, and the ones to call upon in our time of need.” Ana finished, grinning at Lady Sienna.

“Very good. I’m impressed.” Mother said. “What about here?” She asked, pointing to the western coastline below Sinvody.

“Ummm.” Ana stared at the map. “It must be a western Kalip. Coastline… not Young or Turner though, they’re further north.” She clicked her tongue as she went through the list of the western Kalips in her mind. But… no one resided on that land. “No one?”

“Curious.” Mother said with that tone that told Ana to think again. “The coast would seem a prime piece of land, with access to fishing and trade. What about here?” She asked, pointing in the water between Päike’s horn that jutted out from the south and the bay of Luslaht.

Ana stared where Mother was pointing, the middle of Maga Veteemä, the ocean, house of the water Mother. “There’s nothing there but water.”

“You think?” Mother said with a knowing smile. She pointed to another blank space. “I suppose there is nothing here either?”

“Nothing I’ve been taught,” Ana said, scooping up the map and squinting at it.

“How old is this map?” Erramore asked Lady Sienna.

“The most up-to-date edition.” Lady Sienna guaranteed Mother, clutching her chest as though the question was a slight. “I do not mean to query you, my Koroleva, but this map has been approved by -”

“The advisors to the Korol. Who are?” Mother asked Ana.

“The Fidus Achates, Tarok Retmin, The Koroleva, you, obviously... umm, Kalal Turgen and Aluka Sokolov.”

“Curious indeed.” Mother said with a raised eyebrow. She took Ana’s hand, her face falling as she saw the blood spattered across her knuckles. A hush fell over the room. Lady Sienna squirmed uncomfortably as Mother whispered something in Yavi’s ear, then straightened back up and smiled politely. “I take it she passed her lessons?”

“With flying colours.” Lady Sienna begrudgingly said. “And a healthy dose of attitude unbefitting of a Printsesa.”

“What do you say to Lady Sienna for the lessons?”

“Thank you for your wisdom, aunty.”

Lady Sienna’s mouth tightened into a little ball as she curtsied. Mother tugged on Ana’s arm and whisked her out of the educational quarters, of which Ana was usually the only student in the whole building. They exited onto the memorial walk where gigantic trees loomed above them, blocking the sun from the statues that sat by each tree’s side, depicting the Korols who went before. Some were standing gracefully, others with swords, some with scrolls, some so decayed or destroyed their faces could no longer be seen. Despite the trees being the largest in the lands, even they weren’t big enough to obscure the five spires of the palace that towered higher than anything else in the world. Ana was told they were visible from anywhere in the Capital, each one representing an essential part of the society the Korol ruled. One held the mountain throne, one held the war room, one held a temple, one dedicated to Taara, the other sealed off, impossible to find an entrance. Ana knew this to be true because she had tried for years to no avail. What else was she to do with all her spare time?

Mother steered her around the statue of Mariä the Hopeful holding out food for the commoners and into the royal chambers. “Do you feel any different?” Mother asked, squeezing her tightly against her body.

“Not yet,” Ana confessed. “But I will tomorrow. I know I will. I’m going to travel the world and learn to fight, eat all the foods, meet all the people, make hundreds of friends.”

Mother pulled Ana in tighter still. Uncomfortably tight. “I know you’ve been waiting for this day for a long time.” She stopped Ana outside of her bed chambers and turned towards her. She grabbed both her hands and stared into her eyes. “It’s not always been easy, I know. You’ve been so desperate to explore the wide world. So desperate that I said when you turned sixteen winters, you could do as you please, but -”

“No but!” Ana cried over the top of her. “You promised. You promised that when I turned sixteen -”

“Listen.” Mother cautioned her. “I did promise. And I will keep that promise. I want you to spare a thought for your mother. Your mother who raised you, looked after you, taught you, and was your best friend.”

“Is my best friend,” Ana said. “My only friend.”

“Oh, my sweet.” Mother said as she brushed Ana’s hair. “The world is… big. I have tried to shield you from the people who do not have your interests at heart. Nobody can be trusted. Now, you must work it out yourself. I will not hold you back, despite my desire to keep you all for myself, but I was hoping you could consider your mother before everything you do.” Mother held on to Ana’s face. “Can you do that for me?”

“I promise, which is not to be broken,” Ana said as she wrapped her arms around her.

“Now.” Mother said, standing as she tried to compose herself. “I know it’s a day early, but you’ll need your gift for tomorrow.” She flung open Ana’s chamber door.

A wooden mannequin donned with exquisite armour sat in the centre of the room. It was one long piece of scale mail that conformed to the body, with a belt buckle of the Samarinda shield of a purple iris outlined with gold trim. It had three golden chains that allowed the chest to be opened or tightened with longer sides to protect the hips, a slit in the front that provided superior movement, and, no doubt, the ability to walk as a lady would. It was accompanied by long, leather riding boots, wraps that ventured to the waist, and a purple cloak that hung off the shoulders. It was the ultimate mix of sophistication and protection.

Ana rushed forward with a gaping mouth; she inspected the armour but was too frightened to touch it. Was it really hers? She ran her finger down the mail and across the purple iris, unable to stop her hand from shuddering and her eyes from watering.

“Are you going to try it on?” Mother asked, tears streaking down her face. Ana couldn’t reply. She was utterly lost for words. Without thinking, she stripped off her tunic, threw it to the ground and snatched the armour. She didn’t care how un-ladylike she was being, all she wanted to do was put it on and never take it off. Mother giggled as Ana got stuck and had to wiggle her way into it, then stepped forward and pointedly pulled at the golden chains to hide her non-existent chest from view. Ana didn’t mind, she was embarrassed about it anyway, and armour was about protection, nothing else. Mother’s hand clasped at her mouth as she retrieved the purple cloak and flung it over Ana’s shoulders to finish the look. She spun Ana around to face the full-length mirror, who couldn’t help but laugh at her mouth falling even further open as she looked at the woman she hardly recognised. “Now you look like a Printsesa.”

Ana threw herself into her mother’s arms and hugged her as closely as possible. She never wanted to let go. This was the happiest she had ever been. “Thank you, Mother.” She sniffed. “Thank you, thank you.”

“One more thing,” Mother said, “Tomorrow at sunup, four guards will be waiting for you at the spire of worship. They will escort you to your first sword lesson at the barracks. First of many.”

“You’re serious?” Ana beamed. “You’re going to let me train?”

“Of course.” Mother returned Ana’s wide smile. “You’re sixteen now, and we can’t have the Printsesa unable to protect herself.”

“Oh, Mother!” Ana said, unable to control her happy sobs. “You’ve made me… made me so happy.”

“My darling, that’s all I’ve ever wanted.” Mother said. “All I ask is that you don’t leave until you’ve mastered the sword. Then I know you’ll be ready for what’s outside the Capital bridges.”

“I promise.”

“Now,” Mother said, pulling away from her. “If I’m not mistaken, you must change before dinner. You’ll be wanting an early night. I don’t want to give anything away, but training will finish early tomorrow.”

“I’ll change right now. I’m so excited!” Ana squealed, jumping up and down on the spot.

Ana kicked the blanket that was swathed around her from the bed. It was too hot and sticky to be wrapped in anything, let alone her favourite winter blanket. She rolled over and grunted, agitated by her short breath and the feeling of being gently crushed. She stretched out to release her pains, then tried to curl up but smacked her hand on something hard. She sat bolt upright, arms flailing in the air, trying to bat away whichever intruder had made it into her chambers. She flushed with embarrassment as she looked down and realised she was still wearing her new armour. She must have fallen asleep. Mother would’ve come up to fetch her for dinner but let her rest through the night instead.

Ana jumped from her bed and flung open the blinds. Päike was still hidden behind the Mountains of the First Men that surrounded the Capital, but Ana could tell she was eager to breach the horizon and greet her for her sixteenth winter day. Sixteen. It had finally come. The day she had been waiting for her whole life. Freedom. She had expected to be a woman by now, but that didn’t matter, not really; she was ready for every adventure. When Brinden passed to Taara’s feast, she would return to rule the world, and everyone would love her and be her friend. She knew they would. They wouldn’t have a choice.

Ana wouldn’t bother Lady Sienna and her little helpers today; there was no point, she was already dressed. She raced from her room, skipping down the royal chamber hallway and out into the memorial walk. She could tell the Mothers had sent a beautiful day for her sixteenth winter as there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. Although now that she was outside with her armour, it was too hot; she was already dripping with sweat. It would be best to go through the kitchen.

She sprinted into the dining room and past the long benches that seated those who didn’t have a spot at the head table. Her puffing and panting didn’t disturb her one bit. She had never felt her heart so full, a smile stuck to her face that nothing could take away. She wondered if it would ever leave.

She burst through the kitchen doors and raced around the many servants preparing vast quantities of food. She slipped between cutting benches and large pots, sizzling pans and steaming meats, then past the enclosed fire in the middle of the room, which ironically had made the kitchen hotter than outside. She had almost reached the kitchen storage, which led to the Spire of Worship, when she noticed an unguarded door that she had never seen before. She slowed and watched as droves of servants entered through the door, each with a handful of spices, wrapped goods, or what looked like lemon tarts. The door must have led to the outside, a secret back entrance for the servants to make their way to the markets.

Ana looked from the kitchen storage to the new mystery door she had never seen, an excitement building in her stomach. She knew there was an escort waiting for her at the Spire of Worship, but she was sixteen now, she didn’t want the first time she left the palace to be with an escort, she wanted to be by herself so she could explore the markets. Yes. That was what she wanted, to explore the markets, find delicious foods, and make friends. She moved towards the door and crouched behind a chopping bench as she waited for the last of the servants to enter. It was a guard who had been roped into carrying a box of goods. As he placed them down on the bench, Ana took her opportunity and raced out the door, pressing herself against the outside wall and muttering a prayer about not being found. The heavy door closed with a thud, followed by turning locks. Lots of them. She wouldn’t be getting back in this way.

She turned to face the outside world for the first time. The streets were bustling with movement, even at this hour. More people than Ana had ever seen, hurrying around and yelling at one another. It was overwhelming how many people there were, with their own lives, having their own thoughts amongst the chaos. This was it. This was the world. No longer was she confined to the palace.

She wiped her sweaty palms on her thigh wraps and stepped forward into the throng of the crowd. Instantly, she was barrelled over by a huge man and tumbled to the floor. Her armour clanged loudly as she hit the ground, and the crowd separated around her. As she returned to her feet, she felt an uncomfortable silence ringing around the streets that were bustling mere beats ago.

“Whose tha’?” “Look at the armour.” “The hidden Printsesa.” Repeated around her in a whisper, spreading in an instant. Ana gawped at the people who were pointing and murmuring to one another. All of them looking at her.

“Come ta laugh, have ya?” A woman taunted as she hastily walked past, hiding her face.

“Thought she’d be getting ready for th’ feast.” A man said, spitting on the ground as he ushered his family away.

A chorus of shouts surrounded her. “We can’ ea’ an ya stuffin ya face.” “She’s ere to mock us.” “I saw the carts, twen’y of em, overflowin wif food.”

Ana was close to tears as she studied the mob of angry faces focused on her. Boos and jeers cried out around the street as the crowd grew. Why were they booing her? She hadn’t done anything to them. She’d never even left the palace. Maybe it would be best to have an escort. As she turned to bang on the palace door, something spattered against the wall, barely missing her head. The commoners were closing in with their hatred, shuffling forward, becoming surer of themselves the longer she remained inactive.

Before she had time to shout, crawl into a ball, or cry, she was taken by the arm and whisked through the streets. A hooded figure in a white cloak had looped their arm around hers and was pulling her quickly through the crowd. She was terrified as they dashed through the market and disappeared into the mass of commoners. As quickly as the hooded figure arrived, they disappeared, unlatching from Ana in the middle of an unfamiliar market. Ana didn’t dare move. She waited for the commoners to notice her as they had before and tear her down, but they were all too busy going about their lives. No one was staring, booing, or jeering. No one was paying any attention to her at all.

She reached up to wipe her wet eyes and only then noticed the large black cloak wrapped around her. The hooded figure must have draped it over her as they scooped her up and carried her to safety. Her armour was completely covered. Now, she was no one.

Ana was utterly shaken. Maybe those commoners had thought she was someone else or that she was there to deliver some bad news, she wasn’t sure, but they had no reason to be that rude to her. She swivelled her head, looking for a flash of the white cloak that had saved her. She supposed she had at least made one friend; maybe there would be others in this vast city.

She finally gathered the courage to push her way through the bustling market stalls. Merchants yelled at the top of their lungs, muddy puddles splashed up her new boots, but most of all, she hated the hordes of inconsiderate commoners who were bumping into her as they rushed from stall to stall. It’s like they hadn’t learnt basic manners. Not to mention the stench of every one of them that was almost unbearable, clogging up her nostrils and making it difficult to breathe. A wave of panic began to grow. This was not what she expected. There wasn’t a single smile, no one who wanted to play games with her, no invitations to break bread, just dirty commoners and their melancholy faces. Mother would have to be told about this.

Ana heard shouting and saw a stall that had garnered a large crowd. She wondered if they were selling blueberry tarts, sweet bread, or even boiled candy. “Hey!” She shouted as she was shoved in the back by a man jostling for position. He didn’t hear her or didn’t care to listen to her. No one could hear her. Her voice was lost in the sea of desperate people yelling to be served. She was elbowed in the face and grabbed from behind as she pushed her way to the front, only to be met by rancid fish that had her clutching her nose as she held back her vomit. She was promptly shoved from the stall and spat out the back as more commoners joined the chaotic fray.

Ana watched as two skinny boys began fighting over a tiny scrap of fish no bigger than her palm. They kicked and punched one another until one of their faces exploded with blood, and the other escaped with their prize. This would not do at all, not this, not in Esimüla, the Capital, the people's place. Ana had heard that things were sometimes brutal, she caught the guards talking or the cooks gossiping; aunty Sienna had once let slip of a war to come, she even made Ana promise she wouldn’t tell Mother, but Mother had to be told that it was nothing like the palace out here amongst the commoners.

A white cloak flashed in the distance, too pristine to be a coincidence amongst the dirty brown and tan clothes. It had to be the person who had saved her from those frightening commoners. She raced after it, pushing past the strangers in her way, but struggling to keep up with the cloak that effortlessly floated through the marketplace. They twisted and turned through the narrow streets, past merchants selling bits of cloth, clay pots and pans, and stalls of rotting fruit. Every time she thought she had lost her view of the cloak, it would reappear out of reach just down the road. Ana made one last-ditch attempt to catch her friend by pushing through a group of commoners blocking her way. She stumbled onto a main street and frantically searched for the immaculate white cloak that was nowhere to be seen.

It was now that Ana saw her adventure had bought her to the front entrance of the barracks. Päike had well and truly risen, meaning she was probably late for her first day of training. She doubted that would be received well. She considered running back to the Royal Chambers to alert Mother about the situation in the marketplace but decided there would be time for that later. Her training was more important. She whisked off her cloak to reveal her beautiful purple and gold trim armour, then marched straight up to the large archway with a guard on either side.

“Printsesa! There you are, we’ve been searching for you, your escort has been -”

“Here I am.” She said rather rudely. “Tell whomever you need I am found and starting my training.” Without waiting for a response, she pushed passed the guards and entered the barracks. After passing through the intricate archway, the barracks opened into an enormous space filled with targets for archery and dummies for hitting. Storage and changing rooms flanked the area and held large stands above them, perfect for spectators when the yearly fencing competitions occurred. Ana walked into the centre of the open space, perplexed by the lack of soldiers she assumed would be training with her.

A shove from behind sent her flying face-first into the muddy ground, splashing foul-smelling water into her hair and all over her new, pristine armour. “Yuck!” Ana cried, spitting the dirt from her mouth as she peeled herself from the ground, ready to berate her attacker. The last thing she had expected was for the Fidus Achates, Tarok Retmin, to be standing over the top of her. “What are you doing?” She yelled furiously, close to tears as she saw the filth splattered on her new armour.

“Anastassia,” Tarok said with a half bow. His accent had always confused Ana, stuck halfway between nobleman and commoner. “You need to watch your back. I followed you for two blocks through the marketplace. Not once did you turn.”

“Why did you push me?”

“Why were you not with your escort?” Tarok replied as he placed his foot on Ana’s chest and kicked her back into the foul-smelling water. “If you wander the streets alone, you must be prepared.”

“Stop it. You’re ruining my armour.” Ana shouted, struggling to contain her rising anger. “I’m here to learn. I don’t have time for this.”

“Well, in that case -” Tarok extended his arm to Ana, helped her off the ground, and then pushed her straight back over. “You are a slow learner.”

“Stop it!” Ana screamed as she lunged for Tarok, who grabbed her wrist and violently flipped her back into the mud. “I don’t want this.”

“I laughed when your mother told me you wanted to be trained.” Tarok grinned over the top of her. “I told her you were too slow and weak. It looks like I was right.”

Ana gritted her teeth and returned to her feet. She jumped out of the way as Tarok rushed forward to shove her. “Where is my Mother?”

Tarok roared with laughter. “She is preparing for the feast. Your feast. Did you hit your head and forget that it was your sixteenth winter? I will be holding you here until it is ready.”

“I don’t want a feast. I need to talk to Mother about what I witnessed.”

“It’s not about what you want.” Tarok grinned. “You’re a woman now, that time is over. Nothing but marriage and babies left.

Ana sniffed loudly, determined not to cry in front of this bully. “I will find Mother. Right now.”

“Be my guest,” Tarok said without moving a point. “I will let you go if you can get passed me.”

Ana scowled. Was he a two-year-old? She tried to step around him but had her hand battered away and fell back towards the muddy puddle. “Stop it!” She shrieked, at which Tarok bellowed even harder. He would never let her leave.

Ana searched the barracks for anything that could give her the upper hand. On the other side of the space, she noticed two training swords leaning next to a dummy. That was her only chance. She took off towards them, disappointed that Tarok had made the same decision. They justled for position as they ran side by side, the two tugging at one another’s clothes to try to slow the other down. Without warning, Tarok swung his hand backwards and clipped Ana on the chin, knocking her off balance and giving him enough time to pick up both swords.

“Slow and weak.” Tarok chortled, waving the swords high in the air. “Learn your limitations. You will not beat a master with the sword, so what do you do to -”

Ana launched herself full pelt into Tarok, tackling him to the ground and causing both swords to spill free. She crawled desperately towards one of the blunted blades, grasping it in her hand and retaking her feet, prepared to fight.

“Oh, Anastassia…” Tarok sighed, clicking his tongue against his teeth. “What did I just say?”

“It’s Printsesa to you,” Ana said before lunging forward and swinging her sword at Tarok. The sound of metal clashing rattled through the open space as Tarok blocked Ana with ease. She swung again, racing towards him as he moved backwards, quickly parrying her clumsy strikes.

“Faster,” Tarok commanded, moving quicker and striking harder. She tried to increase her tempo, swinging the sword with all her might as she sprang forward. He dodged her jab before swinging his sword around his head and drawing it to within a point of her neck. “Dead.” He growled as he shoved her backwards and continued the fight. “You have only moved forward.” He said as he berated her with multiple fast attacks. “You must go both ways.” She could barely see his sword with the speed at which it moved, yet found herself dodging and weaving each strike as he pressed forward. “Faster.” He repeated as his sword flew closer and closer. His feet never stopped moving as he adjusted his body to always be in a perfect position.

Ana was forced backwards, barely able to raise her sword as he danced around her with ease. He stepped forward and unleashed an overhead strike, which Ana anticipated, jumping to the side and swinging her sword with all her might towards his midriff. He ducked under the strike and laughed as Ana was thrown off balance, her feet tangled beneath her body. She used the sword's momentum for another counterattack, but Tarok easily parried. He sent two quick jabs into Ana’s chest, deflected her counterstrike, smashed her sword with all his might and disarmed her. She cried out as Tarok held his sword against her throat and pushed her hard against the barracks wall.

“You have disappointed yourself today,” Tarok said as he lowered his sword from her neck. “Not because of how you fought, which I will admit has impressed me. Bigger, stronger men have done much worse than you after years of training. No. I am disappointed because I was told you were intelligent. Yet here you are. Foolishly fighting with a master on your first day.” Tarok stepped towards her. “Slow and weak.”

Ana was unable to stop the wrath that rose rapidly from her belly. She headbutted Tarok in the face, causing him to stumble backwards, clutching his bloody nose. She clasped her mouth and stepped forward in shock, reaching out to apologise but pausing. She had more important things to do. This was her chance. She turned on her heel and ran from the barracks, determined to find her mother.

Erramore watched as Brinden sipped from his wine and slouched further into his throne carved from the mountain's peak. It sat higher than the rest of the room, with six steps that led up to its seat. His long purple and golden cape flowed from his shoulders, blending in to the mountain with rich veins of gold coursing through its peak. He grunted as he leaned forward and placed his goblet on the flat surface carved to his left, overflowing with plates and bowls, ready to be filled when the feast began. Erramore herself sat two steps lower on a smaller seat for the Koroleva.

The Mountain Throne Spire was slowly filling with the Kalips and their families, laughing merrily as they found their seats and began to drink their wine. Erramore scanned the room for the nervous men and boys who were all dressed up, eager to meet the Printsesa and leave their lasting impressions.

“I think you’ve had enough,” Erramore said as Brinden reached forward to retake his drink. “It’s important that today goes well. You can get legless after your daughter arrives.”

Brinden groaned as he took his goblet and made a point of taking a large sip. “You’re probably right.” He sighed as he placed his goblet back down. “Wine is the only thing that helps me tolerate talking to these people.”

“These people are the ones we need right now,” Erramore said as she nodded politely to Isabella Kuumgad, who was ushering in her handsome young boy, Fredrik.

“Not them,” Brinden said, scowling as Gregor Kuumgad followed behind. “She cannot choose that boy.”

“It is not your decision.” Erramore reminded him. “Not to mention that promise may win us a war.”

“As would that one,” Brinden said, nodding towards Sepatö Turgen. “He’s handsome enough, a respectable body working with all that steel.”

Erramore scoffed. “He’s the master of blacksmiths, he’s never touched steel in his life. Not to mention his double her age. And! It’s not our choice.”

“Maybe it should be,” Brinden said as he leaned forward and instinctively retook his goblet. “Damn it to the abyss.” He muttered as he caught himself mid-sip. “How long do we have? You know, until all that… until the unpleasantness of… She’ll need to be promised before it all starts.”

“Half a year. If we’re lucky.”

“Half a year.” Brinden shook his head. “If I had a grain of proof, I’d initiate right now.”

“You’d be playing into their hands. The factions would see us as a threat.”

“As they should!” Brinden said, slamming his fist onto the throne’s armrest. “We are on the brink of this damn civil war because they don’t.”

“Egotism is usually subversive of sagacity.”

“My ego has nothing to do with this.” Brinden bit back.

“If you say so.” Erramore smiled as she sipped at her water and waved at the master of ceremonies, Narcïs Bennett. “I hate to harp on -”

“No, you don’t.” Brinden said as he glared at Gregor Kuumgad.

“Stop staring.” Erramore cautioned him. “We keep everyone here happy. We’ll need the coin and the soldiers. At the körgu council, we’ll gauge how hostile the factions are. Then, if the timing is right, I will broach the subject of The Mother of Balance.”

Without instruction, the band began to play, their strings and drums filling the hall. The Kalips and their families scrambled for their seats and stood with excitement, jostling to get a look at the Printsesa for the first time. Erramore could only make out her daughter’s silhouette in the gigantic double doors at the end of the hall, but she could already tell something was wrong. Narcïs Bennett stood and began to announce her arrival. “The Printsesa, Anastassia Sama -”

“What is all this?” Ana’s voice called over the top of him, sending a ripple of whispers amongst the guests. “Whose idea was this? Stop playing.” She yelled at the band, who obeyed, then she marched into the hall. “Have any of you been outside?”

Tarok appeared behind Ana, out of breath and clutching at his chest. “I’ve been trying to stop her!” He yelled over the top of the whispers. “She won’t listen. She’s out of control.”

Ana ignored Tarok as she marched past the Kalips without so much as a glance. She was filthy, her armour dripping muddy water on a pregnant Taara’s face depicted on the intricate mosaic floor. “You’re all stuffing your faces with chicken and pig and fish and cow and… and…” Ana spied something on one of the long tables that surrounded the hall, packed to the brim with food. “Whatever that is.”

“An artichoke,” Erramore called from the Mountain Throne, unflinching at the scene her daughter was creating.

Ana screwed up her face. “Looks gross.”

“It is.”

“You think we’d be smarter than this, wasting all our coin on feasts. Have none of you been out there? Into the market.” Ana pointed, her face flushing red with passion. “I watched two boys fighting over a scrap of rancid fish. A scrap! Not to mention their manners. I know you’ve been trying to hide it from me, Mother. But people are talking about a war.” Ana said, screwing up her mouth and holding out her arms, waiting for an answer. “Well?”

Tarok grabbed Ana by the shoulder and held her tightly. “Apologies for the confusion. I tried to stop her.”

Ana yanked herself away from Tarok’s grip. “Don’t apologise for me!” She looked at him and grinned. “He couldn’t stop me because he’s slow and weak,” Ana stubbornly turned to her parents and stamped her foot like a petulant child. “I want to know what’s going on.”

Erramore smiled brightly. “How was training, my dear?”

“Don’t deflect Mother! I was just out there. I saw it with my own eyes.”

Brinden rose from his seat, his fists clenched and ready to burst, but stopped as Erramore laid a tender hand on his arm and gestured for him to sit back down. She descended the stairs, smiling at the many guests until she stood in the centre of the room.

“It’s true. We’ve heard the whispers of conflict scratching at our door.” Erramore started as she began to pace the room. “The factions have grown uneasy because of the infertile land, as have our own people. However, we have maintained and continue to maintain a close alliance with all four factions. For the first time, we are working together to overcome this crisis rather than receding into ourselves. The floods have stayed late and ruined our crop, but if we look after one another, we will pull through as we always have.” Erramore stopped and looked around the room. “Ask yourself this; are those whispers you hear actually there?” She continued moving. “Or have we made them up? As we did ghosts because we feel uneasy in ourselves during this time of prosperity.” Erramore picked up two goblets of wine and made her way to Ana, holding one out for her to take. “What young woman isn’t interested in the world around her? I, for one, commend your bravery and compassion. But say to you, Printsesa Anastassia Samarinda, stop your worrying, enjoy your youth, we are all gathered here to celebrate your sixteenth winter.” Erramore held her goblet in the air and shouted, “Let’s get drunk!”

The Kalips hollered and cheered as Brinden pointed to the band, who resumed playing a lively jig. Erramore pointed the servers to the wine jugs, who began moving around the room, filling everyone’s goblets to the brim. She then gestured to the Ruutsar, Yavi Vektan, captain of the soldiers and called him over, whispering into his ear before confronting her daughter.

“I know that it is hard to see,” Erramore said as she lovingly placed a hand on Ana’s cheek. “But we must enjoy ourselves occasionally or risk losing support. Especially if what you say is true.” She leaned forward and whispered to Ana. “You may not be a woman yet, but it’s time you started acting like one.”

“What can I do for you, my Koroleva?” Lady Sienna asked as she rushed forward to help.

“Take her to the dungeon,” Brinden snarled as he arrived, only half joking.

Erramore shook her head. “Take her to get into her new dress.”

“But -”

Erramore held up her hand and gave her daughter a stern look. “Yavi will go with you to ensure it happens promptly. Then you will return so that you, the Printsesa, can greet her guests and enjoy her special day. There are many people very eager to meet you. Might I suggest you reciprocate?”

“It will be done.” Lady Sienna nodded as she ushered Ana with Yavi in tow from the party.

“What happened?” Brinden barked at Tarok.

“She never arrived for her escort. She thought it would be fun to parade through the streets. She must have heard some peasants complaining about the feast.” He replied, unable to take his eye off the mountains of food.

“Go and eat,” Erramore said, waving him away.

“This is getting out of hand,” Brinden snarled, turning to Erramore. “I cannot have her ruining -”

“Please, my promised, for once, can we try to have some fun?” She pleaded as she held out her hand. Brinden sighed as he took it, and the two moved into the small crowd of people who had begun dancing. She didn’t mind that he barely knew the movements; she was just happy he was out of his chair. Especially at this hour, a lot earlier than most feasts would begin, but it was Ana’s special day, and they would be celebrating long into the night. Round and round she spun, amused by the familiar faces that blurred around her. She danced beneath Brinden’s obliging arm, a rare smile gracing her face until she saw a flash of white. She halted mid-dance, unable to stop herself from staring at the corner of the room where the hooded figure stood in a white cloak. Could it be? After nine winters. Why today? Why now? She kissed her promised on the cheek. “Apologies, my love. Some unexpected business to attend. I’m sure you won’t mind.”

“Not at all,” Brinden said, happy to return to his throne.

Erramore made her way cautiously towards the hooded figure, her disbelief growing the closer she got. Could it be? Surely not. It made sense. Today of all days.

“Wonderful speech, my Koroleva. You certainly have a way with words.” Kalal Turgen said, inserting himself into Erramore’s way. He had a large Golden Hawk, his family crest, made from emeralds and gold embroidered on his gaudy, oversized jacket. As always, Aluka Sokolov was beside him in his wheeled chair, pushed by that giant, a new addition, who gave Erramore an uncomfortable feeling. Aluka wore a similar family crest of a navy raven made from diamonds and sapphires. “I presume the Printsesa will be returning? I would love her to meet my son, Devin.” Kalal gestured to a young boy no older than eleven winters, stabbing a piece of chicken with a knife.

“I would have thought Sepatö would have been more age-appropriate?”

“I’m not so sure, he is well into his twenties.” Kalal smiled before lowering his ear to Aluka’s mouth. “Aluka also has someone he would be -”

“Yes, the Printsesa will be returning soon to meet all your wonderful children,” Erramore said, trying to stay as friendly as possible. A Turgeon or Sokolov match would be a perfect chance for Ana to create a strong alliance with the most influential of families, except they had twelve daughters and eighteen granddaughters between them, and only three boys. Valdiost was the eldest Sokolov child and already married, Devin was the youngest Turgen, only eleven, and Erramore knew it would be impossible to convince Ana that a boy would make a good husband, which left Sepatö, the eldest Turgen, as their only hope. “Excuse me, gentleman,” she said, ignoring their displeased looks as she moved past them.

Nine winters. Erramore was filled with hope, betrayal, and the unknown. It scared her. Nine winters was a long time for wounds to heal. Nine whole winters. As Erramore returned her focus to the hooded figure with the white cloak, she felt her heart drop as she realised they were no longer there.

Sci Fi

About the Creator

NCS Napier

New chapters every week :)

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