Okay, this chapter, has been reposted, edited and corrected by Meneldur...Enjoy!
Chapter 1: Sartor
My body lurched as the carriage rolled over another stone. I have always hated carriages, I wished to ride but it had been forbidden for my protection. We had been traveling for two weeks now. After taking a ship from Sartor, we had reached a charming village on the outskirts of Remalna. There, carriages had been provided to us, but they had not mentioned the conditions of the roads or the bad weather. Why couldn't I have stayed under the patronage of my professors over there? And it was so sudden. Suddenly my father, decided he needed to see me and I was shipped off, without so much of a by your leave. I couldn't even remember his face after 16 years in Sartor. Sometimes I liked to think I remembered my mother's eyes, but it must be a dream for she died at childbirth, my childbirth. Apparently my father was so overcome with grief he could not look at me. Flauvic, when he was still in Sartor always tried to convince me he sent me away when I was at two because it was safer but I was not fool enough to believe him. A scowl darkened my face when I thought of my hypothesis for bringing me back; I was at the marriageable age after all.
'Fix your face Mel before it permanently stays that way,' murmured Nee who was supposedly sleeping. My scowl fixed itself automatically by looking at her face: dearest Nee, I wonder what I would have done without her. Eight years my elder, she had been sent to Sartor as a companion, and to teach me Remalna's customs. I had been so afraid she would hate me for being sent there but Nee proved to be an immeasurable jewel. She became instead, my best friend.
'I was just thinking about my studies Nee.' When she raised her eyebrow, knowing me too well, I blurted: 'How come my father just called me back all of a sudden? Is there some arcane political reason for which a girl cannot stay in Sartor after 18 if she is from Remalna?'
Nee shook her head, 'I do not want to say like Flauvic,' she frowned, Nee never really liked Flauvic, 'that he just wanted to keep you safe and now he misses you too much but the truth is you are a very powerful weapon if used against him. Your father must have realized that when you were born, and now with uprisings from the North, skirmishes with hill rebels in the very area we are passing, he might think it is safer if you are close to him.'
That was a lot of guessing for Nee, she usually didn't like going in anything shady.
'But it is so unfair, I had just finished my apprenticeship to a high court mage, and I was finally entering the high court myself. Just think about it.'
'Mel, while you are in court-'
'Yes, I know, do not perform magic or talk about favorite weapons for they will think I am a person to fear etc. etc. etc., but don't they already fear me? From the rumors heard at court, they think me disfigured and a bad omen, they think that is why father sent me away. And yes I know, they will all toady to me to gain my father's approval.'
We stayed silent for a while, the uncomfortable rocking of the carriage the only movement, when a new thought popped into my head and I voiced it quietly and unthinkingly:
'Do you think he'll like me?'
Nee took one look into my eyes and moved forward to hug me, 'Oh Mel-' she voiced, before the carriage came to an abrupt stop. We looked at each other.
'We cannot be there yet,' Nee frowned, 'we still have at least 2 days journey left. Stay here while I ask Philbert.'
She didn't actually think I would listen to her? I scrambled after her but she had locked the door from the outside. I heard her voice talking to the head bodyguard, but the voices were unclear. I hated Philbert anyway. I had seven men, loyal to only me, wearing my colors, found in Sartor. But the rest of the 50 bodyguards including Philbert had been provided by Remalna as an escort, or so they said they had. Getting impatient I quickly unlocked the lock with an elementary spell. As soon as I stumbled out, I saw Nee's tight face and knew something was wrong. The second thing telling me everything was not shipshape was the fact that everyone except Nee had weapons out.
'Aaah there's the little princess…' Drawled Philbert,
I honestly hate him when he calls me that. He addressed Nee:
'Look lady, if you give her to us without a fight, I'll let you and her bodyguards free. We serve neither Remalna's nor Sartor's King. But we have been paid well to kill her here, and kill her messy, the hill rebels will take the bill for the murder and everyone will-'
'Shut ya trap Philbert and get on with it. Since when have you balked at killing eight more? And why don't you give them our employer's name while ya blabber?' cried another mercenary.
Now that was really unprofessional, if I was them I would kill me before arguing so much, I thought as Philbert and one of his men continued arguing. I took one look at Nee and saw she was already going green, the thought of blood always made her look like that.
'Ok, Nee' I whispered, 'get back into the carriage,' when she seemed about to argue, I retorted: 'You'll be no use if you faint! Shoot arrows if you want, you're handy with a bow.'
'My primary duty is to protect you'
'No actually, it was to teach me how to flirt with a fan. But my primary duty is to protect my people, or it will be in the future. So get into it now!'
Meanwhile, Conrad, one of my personal bodyguards, was ordering his men into an even tighter formation around me. I knew the mercenaries had nearly finished arguing, so I hurriedly ordered Conrad, 'Stop the formation, I can't fight while being in a tight circle and I know this is not the best way for you to kill a large group.'
'My lady, our sole aim is to pro-' honestly, could they say anything else?
'Yes I know, but I can protect myself better when I fight, come on Conrad, I won't use magic.' He knew it affected me too much. 'You're the one that taught me how to fight. Leave Denis with Nimiar 'cause he's a better archer.'
Facing the blond man I ordered: 'Dennis you protect Nimiar whatever happens, that is an order. Conrad, leave Raphael with me, and give me a horse, the rest of you fight like you used to in those good old days.'
It was rather sweet, the way Conrad tried not to listen to me, but obeying orders was in his blood, and seeing my obvious logic, he did exactly what I told him to. He didn't have much time anyways, the mercenaries seemed to have realized we were forming some kid of tactic and had immediately gone into a charge formation. There didn't seem to be any mages but they had five archers. I quickly put defense wards around everyone except Denis and Nee in the carriage, it was practically not magic. Then, mounting quickly on the bay provided, I fluidly took out my half length slender katanas from both sides. I knew how to use broadswords, but for anything else than one-to-one fights, the curved, thin, rapier-like blades were better. They needed both hands but I didn't need to hold a shield anyway, Raphael was ten times better than one. These blades were only found in some parts of East-Sartor, hopefully the mercenaries had never seen some of these, giving me an added advantage over them. While thinking, the mercenaries had charged and I suddenly found myself in the middle of a full set battle, no time to daydream, as I went over the simple slash and move strikes, deep between the fifty warriors. I cut down twice as many mercenaries as possible, thanks to my katanas. I saw Conrad on the ground, more comfortable there with his heavy mace. Each of my warriors had a different fighting style. Meanwhile, arrows rained on the field from the seven archers but only the enemy was touched. Wards were a very useful part of magic. As Raphael cut down an enemy at my left side, I took a breath, I had reached the other side of the small battlefield, and I could see we had cut down a fair number of them, yet there were still too many, each of my men had more then seven men to cut down simultaneously.
Ok, time to break a promise; my wards were already weakening, as the magic took toll on my body, stealing energy. I needed big magic even if it left me unconscious for a few days; I had two more days to reach Remalna anyway. Even justifying it made me feel guilty of breaking my promise to Conrad but no choice. Closing my eyes, I started murmuring under my breath, when suddenly,
'My lady!' Raphael, jumped over me, a jarring blow to his side, as we both rolled onto the floor. Disoriented, I looked up to see Philbert leering down at me, Raphael on the ground with a gaping wound. My fault, he had expected me to be fighting while I was murmuring stupid spells, but it is always easier to blame someone else so I glared at Philbert furiously as I coldly said: 'You I shall kill personally.'
His horse backed nervously backwards as the battle raged on. I could never kill animals, but I needed him off his horse. So I taunted him: 'Here you sit on your mighty horse, too cowardly to fight a mere woman.'
I have never understood men's indignation at being called cowards. Even cowards like Philbert don't like being called cowards. He immediately leapt off his horse, facing me. That was easy. Slowly I sized him up, about Conrad's build, he favored a mace. Than quicker than the wind, I zigzagged forward, narrowly escaping his mace. Once facing his back, I was about to kill him, thinking it was too easy, when two of him men intercepted me. Did I tell you how katanas work better when there are more people? I grimly attacked, ducking and weaving around them, while waiting for my chance, suddenly I leapt up, twirling around them, and sunk both katanas straight through their chest. Smiling evilly, at Philbert who had been watching the whole spectacle, I lunged forward, danced nimbly around his mace and struck my katana into his neck. Then for good measure I stuck the other one in his chest. I whispered in his ear, 'I guess now you'll stop calling me little princess.'
What I hadn't anticipated was his weight falling on me; I was slight of build and always used speed over strength. Feeling him fall on me, I just had time to remove myself before he fell, both my katanas still in him. Whirling around, I saw another mercenary advancing. Would they never end? The mercenaries still seemed to have the greatest advantage, and I couldn't see any of my men around. Kneeling, I was about to take my dagger out of my leggings, when the man toppled over. In his place was another man - or maybe boy, grimy, like me now, grinning with his bloody sword in hand. I suddenly reassessed the battle field, it wasn't that the mercenaries were at an advantage, it was a third party, and they seemed to be on our side... Or maybe they were just killing everyone. I tensed as he came forward, but he merely swerved around me and went over to a now dead Philbert, taking out the katanas and saying:
'I believe these are yours.'
Staring at him stupidly, I noticed his brilliant blue eyes and curved smile. I smiled back. Then suddenly we were assailed again, and we started fighting back-to- back. He was not awful with the sword, but he needed serious training. I refrained from mentioning that to him; after all, one does not abuse a helper. I just quietly and efficiently helped him take care of the mercenaries. Finally, I drew my katana out of the last man and kneeled panting. Wow, it seemed I was out of shape. In front of me, the boy-man stuck out his hand, and smiling I took it, getting up. At that point Conrad suddenly appeared, stepping in front of me, glaring at my helper. I knew I was in for a big lecture when he was done accessing the present situation, but it had been worth it.
'Who are you?' the boy-man asked, apparently not offended at all by Conrad's gesture. Conrad of course had to answer: 'I might ask the same question of you.'
While there were both looking each other in that way I stared over the battlefield curiously, strewn with bodies, I counted my warriors, Dennis was helping Nee out of the carriage, she carrying a basket with healing herbs, Conrad was with me, Alhuin, Brogue and Haron were examining the bodies while Finiar was next to Raphael…Raphael, I gasped wandering how I could have forgotten the wounded Raphael, I launched forward, but someone had grabbed my wrist in an iron grip, surprised I looked at Conrad, he was staring at me furiously now…great.
'Raphael,' I begged.
He shook his head, 'Nee and Finiar will attend to him, you are going to stay under my very eyes until we-'
'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, but see nothing happened, I didn't use big magic, and-'
We were interrupted by the boy-man looking at us curiously:
'My name is Lord Branaric, and these are my lands.'
Eager for an escape I replied before Conrad: 'And I'm Mel, and this is Conrad. We're from Sartor, and we thank you greatly for your help, Lord.'
I curtseyed half way, and then blushed as I saw I wasn't wearing a dress, of course. As soon as we were out of Sartor I had donned my usual leather leggings, with a tunic showing my colors, it was so much more comfortable, even if Nee disapproved. Branaric looked down my whole person, probably noticing my inappropriate clothing as well as the grime and blood.
He suddenly smiled: 'You can call me Bran. Now, how come you were attacked by greedy Galdran?'
'Oh is that what they call him?' I giggled, wait till Nee heard that. Conrad shot me a warning glance, or maybe it was just worried, I'm not very prone to giggling.
'These are not King Galdran's men; they admitted themselves they were mercenaries. We thank you for your timely assistance and if there is anything we can give you in return…' Bran seemed offended, then he grinned, lighting up his whole face:
'Fair enough, I'll stay out of your business, as for reward, well, we'll just kindly borrow all the mercenaries' weapons and armor for they are of great quality and sorely needed.'
At that point another man approached, with grey hair, he approached watchfully, and murmured in Bran's ear, as he frowned, 'It seems I am needed elsewhere, I hope the rest of your voyage is uneventful.' He bowed clumsily, and disappeared into the rising mist as he walked away. Unfortunately, now Conrad had his undivided attention on me:
'Permit me to express my mind my lady.' He growled. I sighed:
'You'll do it anyways.'
He took that as a yes and started into a thundering tirade, about protection and irresponsibility, magic and lies. It was very impressive or it would have been if I suddenly didn't feel so tired. I yawned again and again until he finally softened.
'Get in the carriage, alright.'
'I want to see Raphael first.'
I clamored. Conrad dragged me to the carriage and said:
'You'll see him right now, I am sending him to the carriage, he needs to recuperate a little, you won't mind, my lady?' He addressed Nee who was by now next to us. I realized it was against protocol Nee had taught, the whole noble/bodyguard chapter, but I knew Nee wouldn't mind, as she gave Conrad a reproachful glare for even asking. Conrad smiled:
'I'll take that as a yes.'
'Conrad, I know, you're boiling with ideas about who attacked us and why, so can you please update me later?'
I looked at him expectantly until he sighed and nodded, pleased I settled back in the carriage with Nee on one side while Finiar brought Raphael onto the other, he grinned weakly when he saw me,
'Princess you're fine,' and before I could apologize he fell asleep. I smiled tenderly, these seven men were like uncles to me, and looked at Nee, she seemed about to give me a thundering speech too so I quickly said;
'Nee, Conrad already gave me the speech, can you please leave me sleep.'
She softened and hugged me tightly instead, a sob of relief in her throat, I hugged her back, and then leaning in her shoulder I fell into a dreamless sleep.
By the time I woke, it was afternoon the next day, and we changed carriages at Lumm. The more we approached the capital the more I grew nervous about my reception. I did not fear court intrigue, Sartor was ten times worse for that and I had been trained well, but my father gave me much to think about. We arrived at the last carriage change inn, where the royal carriage had been waiting for us. As we were about to exit our old carriage Nee said:
'Mel, you really need to change now unless you want to damage your reputation.'
I glared mutinously at her so she added:
'My reputation will be ruined too if you arrive like that, I was sent to Sartor to teach you how to look and behave after all and you still have blood on your tunic.'
I sighed, she could manipulate me at will. One of our trunks was unloaded and she ironed a periwinkle blue, traveling gown. It was simple, with decorated draping sleeves but little jewelry. I do not know why they call them traveling gowns, I thought as I soaked in scented water, they are much too uncomfortable to travel in. Sighing I lazed back in the tub, two weeks of dirt and fatigue ebbing from my body. Afterwards I got out and dried; a nameless and nervous maid helped me put the gown on, closing a long line of buttons on the back according to the new Sartor fashion. I winced, as she tightened it to my slender form, some battle bruises still smarting. Finally Nee came in smiling at my tortured expression, and brushed my wet tresses out; Mora and many other people of my household were still in Sartor, finishing matters before following me to Remalna faithfully. Deftly, Nee braided my hair with blue ribbons and crowned my head with it. My hair was really long, and now wet and pinned up, it took me a few seconds to adjust to the weight and adopt the stiff court posture with the head held up high. Nee laughed at my efforts, and held a mirror to me. My face was clean for the first time in a week, and no remnants of blood could be seen. Russet crowned eyes blinked back at me as I silently gave her my arm, and we crossed the courtyard, amid the stares of commoners and soldiers alike. A second, hopefully more loyal escort had been sent with the carriage and if they noticed our small number, they did not remark. I sat in the carriage hearing the sounds of a busy city, a city I had left sixteen years ago. Different smells assailed me as we reached the royal gates. I winced as trumpets and drums were heard. Nee saw my heated face and wild eyes and sternly said:
'You are not going to break down now, and have me explain to your father why his daughter is fainted in a carriage,'
I gave a small smile,
'Come on, chin up, hopefully, we won't have to meet anyone today' she smiled, 'And it can't be worse than when you graduated from magelet to official high court mage.'
'It is actually,' I moaned, 'at least I had other people graduating with me over there.'
Then there was no time for anything else as the carriage lurched to a stop and a servant opened the door. As conformed protocol Nee exited first then held her arm for me, blue eyes flashing I got out of the carriage remembering Nee's lessons about straight backs and high head. In the periphery of my vision I saw soldiers aligned, and behind them and the gates crowds of commoners, gazing silently, making me nervous. We entered a huge empty reception hall. There, a man in a uniform came to greet us bowing deeply;
'Welcome, Lady Meliara, Lady Nimiar. I am Koric, master of ceremony. Your rooms have been prepared, and King Galdran is waiting for Lady Meliara in his private guest room. If you will follow me.'
Silently I nodded my head, my feet trembling under me, I heard the swishing of my dress, whispers coming from the garden through the open windows while I walked on numbly. Suddenly, Koric stopped before an ornate door, made of golden wood I was sure. He bowed silently as I walked forward, Nee shooting a worried glance at my white face. I huffed at her, and gave a big fake smile as a valet pushed the door open. I walked alone inside, entering a sumptuous breakfast room, but with the windows shuttered, and candles lighted in the late afternoon. And there, with a dove cooing on the chair hilt sat a huge man staring back at me, King Galdran the First….my father.
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