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They were running through the grounds of Castle Bonemeyer like squirrels through trees. These were the grounds of the king, and none were allowed to traverse them without express permission. The grounds were one of the few places the king could go without guards trailing his every step, and so the ground rules were up held with force. Anyone caught in the park would be incarcerated and thrown in the dungeon for a few days for good measure.
On this day, there was no one around to see the future queen and her two male protectors running along its narrow trails. The tall pines covered them from the constant prying eyes of the castle. The cold autumn air would reach them at this distance and amidst the swirling needles make them wrap their cloaks around themselves. They paused for a second when they heard the herald’s trumpet call.
“They’ll be eating soon, Jo’.” Johannassen Khabriel sounded genuinely concerned that they would be discovered in the king’s gardens.
Addigo only watched on in silence.
She turned to look at her two friends. “It’s only a little farther. We’ll be home before dinner is over. I promise.”
Her pleading broke through the silent misgiving of the two brothers. “Let’s go, then.” Johannassen was always quick to take control. It was one of his virtues that would allow him to easily arrest control of the king’s armies. Remy Neverfolt never had a chance to become Lord General once the king took Johannassen under his wing. The future Lord General was just too meticulous in the distribution of his own talent. There was no situation that Johannassen didn’t know exactly what to do.
Addigo turned back to stare at the castle behind them. The fortress loomed over them, its lights glaring softly against the night sky, their luminescence losing their brightness against the vastness of the world.
It was something they were all getting used to, feeling insignificant. Being the next generation of The City’s rulers and generals, they were still to young for their opinions to be taken seriously. It wasn’t the mere fact that their opinions never counted; it was more that their voices were never heard. Even the weakest lion had a roar, and they were being treated like cubs when the pack needed lions for protection.
It was kind of like that now. The castle could use a little more light in its halls when the stars were not enough.
Joleen Zelonis continued down the trail. The trees would sway like dancers at a ball and the leaves would rustle and the boys could only glare into the darkness protectively over their future queen. They followed her for many minutes in silence, straining to hear above the wind for any strangers. The future queen moved over the trail like a wraith, her back straight, her chin held high. Her soft, pale face floated in mid air seemingly bodiless over her dark cloak.
There was no prettier face in the entire kingdom to Addigo. Her eyes were like sapphires, her lips rose red, and her hair was like the most beautiful waterfall he had ever had the privilege of seeing. Next to her, he felt like a piece of charcoal in a field of diamonds. His face always felt dirty when he looked into her eyes. He could never imagine a life without her. His fear of losing her was so strong, he had set out to be the best possible man he could be for her. If that meant that he had to learn how to protect her, then that’s what he would do.
Being the younger of the two brothers, he could never hope to lead the armies of The Valley of Life. That was his older brother’s job. And Johannassen would one day be a very capable leader. So what of him? Was he always to be outshone by his older brother? Addigo believed this to be so. So he made up his mind to be of some use to the kingdom than through ordinary means. He would find a way to help his queen by helping the people she would one day preside over. He would be their unlikely savior. He would bring them wood in the dead of winter, game when the harvest was not ready, and fish if there were no game to be hunted.
He would make a name for himself. Somehow, he would find a way to be of some use to his queen other than just being a simple guard. There was honor in that, he knew. But there would be no fame for him. There would not be enough recognition for him as a guard to impress his future queen.
She had been there for them when no one else had been there. Two young boys not understanding the scope of their situation, just understanding that they were losing their mother. Because of her, he was Addigo, skilled woodsman and warrior extravagant. Because of her Johannassen would be the next Lord-General, handing out orders and commands to the sons of nobles: a peasant boy given the opportunity and making the best of it.
Soon, he knew, it would be their turn to be there for her. The king was getting older. He no longer went out for long rides in the evenings. His troops no longer had the privilege of seeing their commander walk the lines while they stood at a attention. The king was still a strong man, and a proud man at that. But he could not bear to let his troops see him deteriorate right before their very eyes.
Everyone knew the death of his wife left the king devastated. After the death of Joleen’s mother Niandra, the king’s life was being sucked right out of him. It was almost as if he was rushing head long to meet her at the grave: a race that was quickly leaving his daughter to the horizon. The only time anyone saw him these days was within the halls of his own castle.
The Prophet of Dreams was also increasingly growing madder. The prophet’s hands were beginning to shake and he could barely write in his book anymore. There were nights when the prophet kept everyone awake with his screams and yells. It required a full staff of servants and doctors to keep the man calm and safe from his own delusions. There was talk that a hospital would be opened for people who suffered such as he.
Addigo sighed as they walked through the king’s gardens. It seemed The Valley of Life’s golden age was coming to an end. The citizens that had made The City a great place to live in were passing on. There time on this great world was leading them down a path that all must eventually go through. Fall was in full bloom at Castle Bonemeyer, and Addigo only hoped they could meet their legacy with honor, pride, and justice.
The thought made him sad. The seasons were passing quickly in The City. Soon they would all be getting older and they would all be adults. He would be a man, the Lord-General would be a man, and Joleen Zelonis would become a grown woman. She was younger than them. The fact was more obvious to him now, seeing her walking through the king’s gardens, than it had ever been before.
With age came responsibilities. And for a queen that meant a throne and a king to go along with her. It was one of his greatest fears. He had discussed the topic with his older brother, who only responded with a grunt. Johannassen never responded to anything when it came to the queen. That they both loved her there was no doubt.
It was an unspoken love, though, and sometimes Addigo wished he could just come out and vocalize his feelings for the queen. To tell her that he would die for her without the slightest hesitation. He wanted so desperately to say to her that he would always and forever protect her. He wanted to vow to her that he would always be by her side. He would have been her shadow if it meant losing his soul, if just to ensure that someone was always keeping her safe.
Joleen Zelonis continued walking forward, her sixteen-year-old frame, caring itself with the regal serenity that would someday come to be her trademark. Even in the face of extreme pressure, Joleen would develop the skill to always remain calm. It would come to be a voucher that screamed to anyone that saw her that she was her father’s daughter.
They continued through the gardens until they reached a point where no light reached anymore. The trees hid even the castle from view, and for the first time the brothers grew nervous. Johannassen was the first to press close. Addigo slowed a bit and trailed them, following just beyond the edge of his sight.
“Where are you taking us?” asked the future Lord-General.
“This is my father’s private cemetery.” Her beautiful eyes took in Johannassen’s face and then she glanced at Addigo. “I didn’t know that this was here until only a few days ago. It looks different but I’m sure it’s the same place.”
Addigo had no idea what she was talking about. He took in his surroundings and suddenly the memories came flooding back. They were sitting in a grove, he and Johannassen. They were small children and their mother was dying. He couldn’t tell what was going through Johannassen’s head. His older brother’s face was masked by the shadows. He was standing very still in the middle of the small trail. Addigo wondered if he should say something.
He was about to, but then Joleen moved farther into the shadows. “It is over here,” she said softly. Addigo could barely hear her over the wind. The trees shuttered violently. It propelled both brothers to move further into the darkness, closer to her.
They stood together in the emptiness of the night, alone with their thoughts and the wind, and no one could say a word. Finally, she pointed a little farther, to a spot between two trees. It might have been their imagination, or it might have been the swaying of the trees that allowed light to filter through, but they saw the outline of a piece of rock. It took only a moment for their eyes to see that they were looking at a tombstone.
They stood speechless for a long time. Johannassen was the first to cave in. He slumped forward on his knees and draped his body across the headstone. It was obvious he was crying. It was the first time Addigo had heard him cry since that long ago day when they had stood in the grove burying flower pedals.
It was something of a shock to see his older brother showing such emotion until he felt his own tears streaming down his face.
“They never told us where they buried the body,” came his older brother’s sobs. “Why didn’t they tell us she was right here all along? Why?”
Joleen placed her hand on Johannassen’s shoulder. “If I had known, I would have shown you earlier. I heard The Prophet of Dreams say she was out here. I couldn’t believe it. I’m so sorry.”
A hiss from somewhere in the darkness brought them out of their pain. Johannassen was the first on his feet. Addigo spun around, drawing his sword as he did. The hiss had come from somewhere behind his shoulder. Joleen stepped back and placed her back against a tree.
They didn’t have to wait long to see the source of the hiss. A shade stepped out from between the trees. Its face was long and sleek. Dark, obsidian eyes stared at them from a skull half exposed. Its long, grimy nails appeared sharper than any knives Addigo had ever seen. He didn’t doubt they could render his flesh without minimum effort. Addigo had heard of these creatures from the land of the dead, but he had never faced one.
The shade was quicker than anything Addigo had ever faced, but he raised his sword just in time to deflect its blow. He stepped back several times before he slammed into a tree. The shade shadowed him and took a swipe at his head. He ducked just in time before the swoop felled the tree.
It was then that Johannassen charged. He raised his sword and ran forward like a man without fear. Addigo was grateful for the help. He didn’t think he could have held it off much longer. The future Lord General bumped the shade and sent it reeling back momentarily, but not before it gashed Johannassen’s armor.
The Lord-General was quickly gaining the advantage. He kicked a piece of wood at the shade and the thing had to duck. Then he lunged forward and swung precisely at the shade’s right hand. The hand came right off without a hitch. One moment it was there, the next it was gone. The shade gave out a cry of pain as it stared at the space where the hand should have been.
The shriek was loud and horrible enough that Johannassen staggered for a moment. Addigo had to cover his ears and he saw blood coming out of Joleen’s ears. Through the pain in his own ears, Addigo heard shouts and cries of alarm coming from the direction of the castle.
The shade took advantage of Johannassen’s loss of balance and quickly struck. The blow struck the future Lord-General straight across the face. The strength behind the hit would have been enough to fell a horse, but Johannassen rolled with it as best he could. It was then Addigo’s turn to press the attack.
He rushed in low and then high, making the thing before him expose its one good hand protecting itself. He wasted no time to take charge of the situation. When the shade’s arms were raised over before its head, Addigo dropped to the ground and quickly went into a leg sweep. The shade’s momentum gave it no time to counter the sudden move and it fell back on its back.
Johannassen was there, then. His countenance was set and it was clear in his body language that he was ready to finish the shade off, or die trying. Gripping his sword in his hands, Johannassen aimed at the shade’s throat and swung. But there was still plenty of fight left in the thing.
The shade blocked the blow from the sword with its forearms and rose to its feet. This time it jumped into the air and caught Addigo in the face with one of its clawed feet. It sent the tracker sprawling across the ground.
Addigo rolled in the darkness, feeling the hard breath of the shade right at its back. As long as the thing kept attacking him, the queen was safe. Should the shade choose to attack her, she would have no chance.
Among the trees, they fought. Johannassen tried to hit it again, but missed it completely. Addigo couldn’t get off the ground the thing was so close. He could hear Joleen yelling out in fear and concern for him, but there was not much he could do.
With Addigo on the floor and on his heels, the shade reached for a heavy branch and smashed Johannassen right in the chest, his armor bending with the force of the blow. The shade was quick, but it was also very strong, and it was impressive on its attacks against the future Lord General. Johannassen lost his sword in the melee and found himself suddenly vulnerable.
The shade stabbed and jabbed at him, pressing and pushing him back against the trees. The shade was about to skewer him when a form lunged out of the trees and deflected what would have been a mortal blow. Remy Neverfolt scrambled on his hands and knees towards Johannassen’s sword. The shade jumped all over the young noble.
“Sir,” yelled the next in line to the Neverfolt estate, “Your sword!” Remy Neverfolt managed to toss the sword to his commander even as the shade tore into him. It was obvious Remy had come to their aid, but he was caught by surprise by the severity of the situation.
And then the witch was there. She was as dark as the night, as black as the space the stars floated in, and her sword was the steel of gods. Addigo and Johannassen knew there was magic. The entirety of their lives had been surrounded by magic. Their mother had been a sorceress and The Prophet of Dreams was their uncle, but even that had not prepared them for the ferocity of this woman.
She appeared before them like a ghost and her blast of lightning sent the shade back to the underworld, where it belonged. The shade landed over their mother’s tombstone, its body burnt and lifeless. Its shrieked resonated for long moments as all four young nobles stared up at Ellen Pinto Roe. Standing their among them, it could have been argued that they would have preferred to keep the company of the shade, instead of being alone with Ellen Pinto Roe.
As they rose to their feet, bruised and battered from their encounter, more guards appeared. The torches they held gave them away long before their forms could be made out. It was hard not to notice how the tree had fallen. Ellen Pinto Roe stood before them, headstone at her feet, Remy Neverfolt and Johannassen Khabriel to one side, and Joleen Zelonis and Addigo Khabriel to the other. Joleen Zelonis had her cloak draped over Addigo protectively.
There was no mistaking the look on the witch’s face. For the first time in their young lives, Joleen Zelonis had clearly chosen one of them over the other.
Copyright © 2004 by Julian Lawler III