It had been less than a week since the peculiar little albino King Gerhyn of Belarheim had demanded the surrender of Val Marn, and he had wasted no time in launching a vicious attack on the small outlying villages that swore allegiance to Jagmet.
When Jagmet's forces struck back in a head on attack, reports were brought back to Val Marn that something was not quite right about Gerhyn's army. Warriors that should by all means be dead and rotting rose from the ground and continued fighting as if they had suffered little more than a scratch. Creatures which existed in the shadows reached out their tendril like arms and snuffed out the life of any who came too close. Great fanged beasts the likes of which had never been seen crushed all who opposed them.
Jagmet brushed aside such notions as nonsense, excuses made by cowardly men who had grown too fat to fight in the many years of peace his reign had brought. Still, the undeniable fact was that refugees from the countryside all about came flooding to Val Marn begging for shelter, and within days the enemy was banging at the gates.
This morning, Jagmet himself was forced to concede that there was something spectacularly supernatural about his opponent's forces as he watched them circle around Val Marn from the eastern most watch tower. It did not take a genius to realise the source of the demonic creatures which bent to Gerhyn's command; his army of Alorn's was peppered with wizards from Morindland.
He led his forces out to meet the enemy himself, taking with him any and all who could raise a sword or swing a battle axe. Those left within the city walls huddled up against the chill of the midwinter twilight and wondered at the eerie silence which had suddenly befallen the battlefield some hours ago. Those of the city guard that remained behind to protect the women and children of Val Marn would let no one ascend the palisade walls or watch towers to see what was happening beyond.
Herilda sat in a small side chamber of her father's hall stroking the forehead of the little dark haired Prince who may well tonight become King. He had only seen four winters, and he slept peacefully oblivious to the carnage going on around him. Their mother the Queen, who had been ill for some time now, had taken to her bed this day, sick with worry for her husband. Her daughters now earned their keep as nursemaids to the many wounded who were brought back.
Satisfied that the little prince was quite safe and well for now, Herilda left him in his crib of sheep skin and returned to the main hall where the many refugee's from round and about who could find no shelter elsewhere in the city had been brought, along with wounded and dying warriors who could not be found beds in the hospital wing.
Moments after she had she returned to the task of cleaning up dirty, bloodied wounds, the main door burst open and a number of the city guard brought yet more injured men. Amongst the guards was Branga, a close friend of her betrothed. She rushed to his side to aid him with his load, a man whose flame red hair at first had her believe that he was Aldirin. Alas, he was not.
"I'm sorry m'lady," Branga huffed as they laid the insensible warrior as gently as they could onto the floor beside a fire pit, "I've not seen hide nor hair of Aldirin."
"And what of my father and brother in law?" she asked, her blue eyes wide and her soft, snow white hands trembling with anticipation to hear news of her family. Branga looked anxiously past her shoulder where her elder sisters, the twin princesses Acile and Bertunde, eyed him speculatively from the other end of the hall. Bertunde's husband had fallen leading Jagmet's army into their first counter strike, but Acile's had survived to march out with their father this morning.
"The King lives, aye" he conceded, lowering his eyes once more to the man laid now at his knees, frothing at the mouth after suffering a traumatic head injury. Branga and Herlida could both see that even if he survived, he would never fight for his King again.
"But Lord Thrin does not." Herlida said plainly. Branga nodded, and heaved himself back to his feet, offering a helping hand to the lady.
"Your father has been holed up in negotiations with the albino for quite some time now," the giant continued, "I know it's not usual but…well anyhow, we were only just told to collect our wounded from the field and bring them back. As for the dead…" he paused uncomfortably, not daring to look the girl in the eye. This was not the time or the place to crumble, he had to remain strong, but inside he wanted to scream and the tears welling up in her eyes now would push him over the edge, "the dead are to be left where they are, m'lady."
"That's impossible!" her voice raised an octave or so, attracting the attention of those nearby. She didn't care. "You cannot possibly just leave them there at the mercy of those monsters!"
"Those be your father's orders, m'lady. To be honest there weren't too many wounded. What you see here…"
Herlida's face slowly contorted into an expression of shock as she absorbed the meaning of his words. She looked around her; those few men who had fetched the wounded with Branga were scurrying back to their posts now, their grim duty done for the time being.
"Surely this can't be all?" she asked as her eyes darted from face to face. Val Marn was a small place, and she recognised most of the injured here. She even knew most of the refugee's from outside of the city walls by face if not by name by now.
"No, we knew this place was crowded already. We found beds in the barracks for the rest, but there's refugee's restin' up there too so we had to, you know..."
"And Aldirin isn't…"
"Like I said, m'lady. There's no trace o' the lad."
"I…no but…I can't say fer…I…" Branga stuttered, but there was no two ways about it. "s'pose so, m'lady."
Herilda drew in a slow, deep breath and put her hand to her breast as if to double check her heart was still beating. She felt the little dagger hidden within her bodice, an ornate thing that Aldirin had given her before he'd left for battle this morning. It had belonged to his mother, he'd claimed, and he wished her to keep it in case the battle did not go well and Gerhyn took the city. In such a case she may need to defend herself, after all. She'd told him it was all nonsense, made him promise her he would return to her safe and sound. He'd broken his promise.
"Please don't cry, Princess!" pipped up the voice of a young man from behind her. She jumped, startled out of her private moment as she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to see a boy on the verge of manhood looking at her with great sympathy in his crystal eyes and the lightest white-gold hair she'd ever seen on one of his age. She swept away at her tears with her sleeve, then realised it was not her tear addled eyes making her see double vision; there were two blonde boys, each a perfect copy of the other. She took a little time for this to register in her brain, for the only twins in Val Marn who were her sisters. Twins happened to run on her mothers side of the family.
"I'm sorry, boys," she eventually managed to stammer, "who…I've never seen you around here before, I don't think we've met."
"We're not from this place," the second boy confirmed her suspicions, "we were travelling south when we got caught up in the battle so we came here with the others to ride out the storm."
"But when we saw you were so upset," the first started again, "We thought we'd better tell you…"
He looked at his brother anxiously and the two stood in near silence as they communicated in that strange, telepathic way that twins do. Herlida had seen her sisters do this many times before, but Branga was having none of it,
"Come on now lads, don't be wasting the lady's time, she has things she needs to be doing you know!"
"He's not dead!" the two boys said in unison, their pre pubescent voices cracking at the same time. Herlida was unsettled by the perfect harmony with which they spoke, but she remained patient.
"I don't understand, boys. Who's not dead?"
"Aldirin!" they replied together.
She drew her eyes away from them to look at Branga who seemed rather uncomfortable with what the boys were saying. He shrugged at her, though what that was supposed to mean she had no idea. She looked back at the twins.
"I'm sorry children, who did you say you were again?"
"I'm Tira," the first boy smiled.
"And I'm Kira," asserted the second one, "We're shepherd's from the north,"
"We were moving our flock south into the winter pastures,"
"But there was an avalanche in one of the narrow mountain passes we had to drive them through,"
"All of our flock was lost to us, we couldn't get back to them through the snow"
"There was no way back home so we decided to keep going south."
"We'd never seen much of the world except those pastures,"
"And we thought it would be nice to explore."
"And we've been heading south ever since that terrible accident."
"It wasn't a long time ago, you were the first people we've seen on our travels."
The sweet twin boys recited this as precisely as if they had been practising the same little story for years now, and even Herilda found herself a little spooked by it.
"And so how do you know that Aldirin is not dead?" she asked.
"We saw him in a dream, Princess!" they sang together, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to receive such prophetic dreams.
"And do you know where he is?"
"Could you take me to him now?"
"M'lady, please!" protested Branga, "Don't be listening to such nonsense. You've no idea who these lad's really are. They might be spirits conjured up by those Morindim fiends to lure you out into danger!"
Branga was met by three icy glares, offense from the boys and incredulity from Herilda.
"Well since you're so very concerned for my welfare, perhaps they could show you where Aldirin is instead?"
Branga blinked in surprised, then shuffled his feet, mumbling something about his duties here.
"Your first duty is to your king and his family, Branga. If Aldirin is still alive, I want him here by my side. Do you understand?"
The big man narrowed his eyes in suspicion at the twin boys, who smiled up at their new travelling companion eagerly. There was something not quite right about them. Perhaps they were really Morind wizards. The Morindim may have dark skin and black hair, but they may well have been snatched from their Alorn cribs at birth or some such other atrocity. His princess, however, was standing with hands on her hips glaring up at him, impatiently awaiting his obedience. If he disobeyed her she could speak to Krellick who no doubt flog him for insubordination, but if he did as he was told Krellick would flog him for deserting his post. That said, Krellick's whip was the least of his worries should he leave the city now. He'd seen how the battle had gone, he knew what lurked beyond Val Marn's walls.
"Don't be afraid, sir," the one called Tira said with a voice which was much too cheerful, all things considered, "we'll keep you safe!"
Branga snorted at that, and shook his head, "With a pair of young whelps like you, who needs a sword at all ey?"
The twins looked hurt and the colour was rising in Herilda's cheeks
"Well, what will it be Branga? Are you going or am I?"
"Damn it all," he heaved in exasperation, "Come on you two. We'd best take the back door out of here. Krellick will have my beard for this."
Herlida's face instantly softened and she placed her small hand on Branga's shoulder.
"Thank you, Branga. I won't forget this."
"It's my duty to serve, as always," he sneered, but she ignored his quip. He had ever been caustic, and she always forgave him for he was Aldirin's friend.
"Come on lads," he motioned for the twins to follow him out into the barrack's wing, where there was a back exit from the hall which would no doubt be left unguarded right now. He cast a backwards glance at the red headed warrior he had carried in from the field. His name was Ladner, and he was one of the best swordsmen in all of Val Marn.
"You know lads, there was a reason I signed up for the city guard instead of the army,"
"Never mind," said Kira in his ever cheerful tones, "Mother always used to say that everything happens for a reason."
Authors Notes: This chapter didn't come easily, and there seems to me to be a sticky point where Tira and Kira appear (Told you there would be some cannon characters :p) and also where Herilda accepts their proposition without question. This is because I only mean this to be a short story of a few chapters...if I had longer I would expand this and make it more natural and flowing but I'm not sure how to do it with the space constraints I've put on myself!
Anyhow, I hope you enjoy. Read and review please, I would be very greatful!