Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chapter One

The Gods are at War

“How much longer, Daimen?” The question came out as an impatient whine.

“Not long, princess. Please, will you sit and relax?”

Her prime guard, her confidant since the days when she was a girl in black braids, gestured to a throne meant only for the King and Queen’s solitary child. But Princess Imorih was too involved pacing the throne room to heed the old man’s request. His son reinforced the words often spoken by this wise sentry. Jarone was as great in stature and wisdom as his father, with skin as rough and dark. He followed in the same respected line of duties.

“Patience is a quality you must master if you are to…”

“I already know that,” Imorih snapped, cutting off the young guard, “Your father’s preached those words to me since the first day I could speak. And I’m telling you, Jarone, if I haven’t managed to develop such patience in the past eighteen years, it’s not likely to ever be apart of my nature.”

“Then perhaps you should try harder,” the young guard boldly suggested.

Imorih stopped in her tracks. “Perhaps you should mind your own business.”

“You are my business, princess.” Jarone smirked, glancing toward his father. The old sentry pursed his lips, a clear sign of disapproval.

Princess Imorih lifted a delicate jeweled crown from her head, and ran her fingers through exceptionally long strands of glossy, charcoal hair. She combed the lengths away from her face before repositioning the crown once again. Her feet returned to pacing; soft slippers barely thudding on the marbled floor.

“I don’t understand why every minor task in this castle has to take so long to accomplish.” Her hands lifted, then slapped against her moving thighs. “Why I can’t simply go meet visitors on my own rather than have to wait an eternity for them to be brought to me here…”

It was a rhetorical complaint that Jarone responded to anyway. “It’s tradition for guests to be presented before royalty, princess.”

“And, more importantly, it’s a matter of safety. Your safety,” Daimen added, “All of Naralda’s traditions hinge on the protection of our revered Kings and Queens.”

Imorih turned to face the old guard. She had a smart grin on her lips. “You really feel it’s necessary to protect me from Prince Ammoran, my soon-to-be husband? Your suggesting that my being with him is unsafe?”

Daimen grinned wryly with his answer. “More than you realize, young lady.”

“Yet you risk my safety, allowing me to spend entire days with the very prince whose intentions you doubt?”

“I don’t doubt his intentions, princess, but I understand the impulsive nature of a young man in love. Impatience tends to course potently through such a man’s veins.”

Imorih blushed. “Do you really think he loves me, Daimen?”

“I am certain of it, princess.”

She bit on her lip, unable to keep from beaming with satisfaction.

The sound of footsteps carried through the walls; a steady march mingled with voices. Imorih turned to face the doors positioned across the room.

“Princess,” Daimen said in a loud whisper, “Take your seat. You know our customs.”

She turned, her entire body language communicating annoyance, but did as her prime guard instructed. On a high throne she waited for the doors to open. Daimen, Jarone, and two other soldiers took their place blocking her view. She stretched her neck to glance over their shoulders.

When the doors moved apart Imorih could see the eyes of eight soldiers filtering into the room. Heightened spears appeared to bob along at their sides. Between them was a shorter figure, only his black crown of wavy hair visible. A formal voice announced the familiar visitor.

“Princess Imorih. Presenting Prince Ammoran of Lokslen.”

Daimen and his son and the other guards moved away, parting to allow the two young people a view of one another. The princess stood and smiled wide. Her prince was quick to meet her at the foot of the heightened throne. He helped her down, keeping her in his arms. A gentle greeting kiss had her melting into him.

“I missed you so much, Ammoran. You were gone far too long this time.”

“I know, I’m sorry, love. I’ve missed you fiercely, but there’s been an outrageous amount of details to attend to preparing for our marriage and the merger of two governments. It isn’t at all as simple a task as it sounds. Father voiced his uncertainty about my decision to live in Naralda with you. I think he was hoping I might convince you to come live with me in Lokslen. Perhaps even demand it of you.”

Imorih’s face tangled up with concern. “But my mother, she’s been so ill. I can’t leave her side to live elsewhere, not now.”

“I know, I know,” the prince assured his young bride, “I told my parents as much. I would never ask you to leave your ailing mother, Imorih. My father will just have to abide by my decision, whether he likes it or not.”

She hugged her prince. “Thank you for understanding.”

His lips left a pleasant tingle as they kissed the hair beside her crown.

“How long do we have this time?” she asked. As wonderful as it was to see her fiancé, knowing they had merely days to spend together during his visits always dampened her spirits.

He started in with an apology first. “I’m sorry, Imorih, honestly I am, but I can only be with you for today.”

Two dark, sorrowful eyes lifted up at him. “One day?” she gasped. The disappointment in her reaction nearly broke his heart. His fingers moved to caress her cheek.

“Please understand, Imorih. I must get back to my responsibilities.” His voice lowered to a hush as he admitted, “I snuck away from the castle as it is. I traveled all through the night to cross the waters that divide our kingdoms. And I shall have to travel all night to return home by tomorrow so as not to be missed. Tavien’s covering for me today, hopefully doing a convincing job of keeping my absence from Father’s knowledge.”

His confession didn’t do anything to transform her pouting features.

“This won’t be for much longer, love. In a matter of weeks we’ll be inseparably together.”

“That’s an eternity,” Imorih whined. Her arms hugged her prince even tighter. “I can’t let you go. I just can’t.”

He hugged her back. “Then I won’t go,” he whispered. But she knew he would. He’d be faithful to his duties, to his kingdom, to his father.

She struggled to cheer herself as they walked hand in hand through the courtyard’s inner gardens. Her heart tried clinging to the romantic gesture of her prince stealing away from home, sailing across the black waters to come see her. But the fact that weeks had passed since their last three-day visit, and now being able to touch and hold him physically, only to lose him again in a few short hours, it all weighed miserably on her mood.

“Please, smile for me, Imorih. I didn’t come all this way to make you sad.”

Her heavy head fell against his arm as they strolled by a bed of scarlet lilies.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have come,” he sighed dismally.

Immediately Imorih looked up, horrified by his words. They both stopped walking. “Please don’t say that,” she said, “I’m elated to have you here with me. I….I can’t bare to see you go, is all.”

Ammoran faced his fiancée. His finger touched her lips, stroking upward as though trying to paint a hint of a smile on them. “You know that I’ll return.”

“Will you?”

His brown eyes widened over lowered brows. “Of course, Imorih.”

“So you’re not keeping yourself from me purposefully? Finding excuses to stay absent?”

His eyes flashed wider. “No! No, of course not! The only reason I’ve been away for so long is…”

She cut in, voicing a common fear of lovers. “Because you’ve found another?” It was an ugly thought, but one that sometimes seeped poisonous doubts into her mind.

Ammaron’s look of incredulity intensified, mixed with a strong dose of hurt. He took the princess by the shoulders, facing the accusation full on.

“How could you even say such a thing?”

Her eyes fell, immediately ashamed. “I’m sorry,” she breathed.

Ammoran lifted her chin, forcing her to look at him. “Have I not made my feelings for you clear? Have I not declared my love strongly enough to erase such fears from your mind? If not, than I’m sorry, Imorih. For it is my fault that you doubt.”

“No, Ammoran, I never should have…”

His mouth covered hers, cutting off whatever thought she’d meant to voice. He kissed her passionately, pulling her body into him, supporting her neck with a strong hand. When they parted, she’d found her smile.

“I. Love. You.” Ammoran declared. He spoke each word independently, emphasizing the importance of every portion of the sentiment. “I would choose you over any woman in the world, Imorih, whether or not it was arranged by our parents. The fact that we ended up sworn to each other was a gift from the Gods; a miracle meant to be. And even now, if our parents were to back out of the arrangement, prefering to keep our kingdoms separate, I would still choose you. I would carry you away to a land of our own making, because I could never love another. You are the only woman for me. You’re my best friend, my motivation, my strength, my reason to live and to breathe. Since the day I met you eight years ago, I’ve never cast a second glance at any other girl in my path. You are the only one for me, Imorih. You are my one true love.”

A pool of tears blurred the princess’s vision and warmed her cheeks. “And you, Ammoran, are my true love. Forever. There could never be another for me.”

He hugged her against his chest. “I know. You’ve never left me any room for doubt. I’m sorry that I did so with you.”

“No, it’s my fault,” she sniffled, “I just miss you, that’s all.”

“I’ve neglected you.”

“Maybe a little.”

He sighed heavily, his chest rising and falling against her cheek. His heart kept a steady, thudded beat in the background. Imorih savored the feel of his life force so close to her.

“I should take you home with me, convince your father to allow you a short visit. Your prime guard and ample escorts would have to accompany us.”

She pushed away from his chest, excited by his words. Her eyes glimmered with hope. “Would you? Would you ask my parents? I want to go with you, Ammoran. I’d stay for only awhile and remain out of the way.”

He couldn’t help but smile at her enthusiasm. After all, it was due to a longing to be with him. “My father would know that I came here. He’d be furious with me for sneaking off. And Tavien would be angry at how I made him cover my tracks, only to reveal his part in my charade. But I’m certain both of them would soften at your presence. My brother and my parents would be thrilled to see you.”

Imorih closed her eyes and made an earnest, heartfelt wish, daring to whisper it in a hushed prayer. She hoped to find her way onto a boat with her prince that evening, sailing to Lokslen for the first time. She opened her eyes to a gentle squeeze on her hand.

“Okay, I will ask your father. But his word is final. If he refuses to allow you to come with me, then you must accept his decision with an agreeable smile.”

The princess nodded. She would whine and beg and plead if she had to.

They finished their walk through the garden, their stroll transformed into a faster, lighthearted prance. Imorih’s sulking frown was replaced by a steady smile that Prince Ammoran found highly contagious. He hoped by some miracle to convince King Eeroh to allow his daughter to visit Lokslen for a few days. To be forced to part again would be torture, but even worse would be having to watch her present enthusiasm tear up and wilt.

They’d cleared the garden’s path and stepped into a grassy enclosure shaded by the far-reaching limbs of a seasoned begonsta tree. Ammoran forced his love to halt in the open yard.

“Do you remember our first meeting?” he asked her.

The princess looked up at the canopy of leaves above them. “Of course I do. I brought you right here to my favorite playground. You weren’t sure if you liked me.”

Ammoran’s mouth pulled to one side. “Is that all you remember?”

“No. I remember teaching you how to play Kaban Nites.”

His expression turned playfully incredulous. “You taught me?”

She nodded insistently, barely able to contain her grin.

“If I recall correctly, princess, and given the fact that I’m older than you with a memory that I believe serves us best…”

Imorih protested with a gaping mouth.

“…I’ll admit there was some attempt by a bossy, little girl to teach her own rules for a commonly known game, but I remember quite clearly racing circles around that child.”

Imorih’s eyes narrowed defensively. “I was no child.”

Ammoran didn’t argue with her. “You certainly didn’t look it. You were beautiful.”

Her head inclined. “You never said anything.”

The prince turned his palms upward. “I was thirteen. My brother and my parents were present. What did you expect me to say?”

She shrugged a shoulder.

“I remember you laughing nonstop, after we moved past the necessity of listing off your ridiculous rules to Kaban Nites.”

“They weren’t ridiculous.”

“I caught you on nearly every run.”

She pointed a finger at him. “Ah, but you never tackled me.”

“You were in a dress! Our parents were watching! I couldn’t.”

“So technically you admit that you never won the game. A proper grounding of your opponent is part of the rules.” She made the statement with both brows perked over a brazen smile.

“Oh I won,” Ammoran declared, “I outran you and Tavien both, and I tackled him plenty enough for the two of you.”

She gave in, giggling. “You’re still as competitive as always.”

“I’ll race you now,” he offered, “I have no qualms about taking you down in front of your guard. Jarone will overlook it.”

“Daimen won’t,” she warned, “And I’m in a dress.” She lifted on her silk skirts, letting them fall back into place. “You wouldn’t dare.”

“You’re still full of thick excuses, princess.” A teasing smile fell aslant on his lips. She stepped up to kiss him when the sky suddenly darkened; day to night in one heartbeat.

Warily Ammoran wrapped Imorih in his protective embrace. Daimen and Jarone hurried to their sides, swords anxiously drawn. Necks strained as all eyes turned skyward.

Blackness blanketed what had been a clear, blue expanse a split second ago. It appeared as a rolling, moving wave of darkness now. The air vibrated, shrill with noise; not thunder, but the equivalent of beastly screams. Their eyes adjusted to the forms of creatures high above. First the extended wings, then the long thrashing tails, and finally the clawed limbs beneath. It became quickly apparent that these beasts were drawing nearer to the surface; falling from the heavens. The sky was filled with monsters.

“Get her out of here! Go, go! Move it!”
Everything happened so fast, all of it a nightmarish blur.

Imorih ran with Ammoran as he shoved her forward, pushing her to reach the nearest sheltering wall. Daimen and Jarone stayed with them, urging their feet faster. Beastly shrieks grew louder overhead, grating on sensitive ears. It was near impossible for Imorih not to check on the danger above, but her upward glances slowed them.

“Run, princess!” Daimen ordered.

The darkness felt as if it were closing in until finally a brisk, thunderous swoosh raced overhead. Instinctively they all ducked. Light returned to the sky. The harsh breeze culminated in a violent crash not far beyond the castle’s green courtyard. A creature amounting to the size of ten Naraldian soldiers slammed into the ground, skidding on it’s wings, turning up grasses and garden beds and anything else in it’s path. It crashed into an extension of the castle, demolishing solid stone walls that shattered like glass and crumbled into a pile of rubble.

Imorih gasped.

Arms and hands stretched to protectively cover the princess as more of these giant beasts hit the ground. The impacts displaced loads of soil into the air, effectively blinding their vision. The land quaked violently beneath their feet, and stone structures collapsed as if they’d been nothing more than mere piles of children’s blocks.

Another beast landed on top of the one fallen only yards away. His scaly tail whipped at the air as he attacked the grounded monster; wings flailing, claws tearing at each other.

Reaching the corner wall of the courtyard, Ammoran pulled Imorih to him. They’d met a dead end. Daimen and his son positioned themselves and their shields between the creatures and the royalty they’d sworn to protect.

“What are those things?” Imorih shrieked frightfully, “Where did they come from?”

As the cloud of dust began to settle, it allowed a better look at the brawling, serpentine creatures. Dark scales covered their rough hide from head to tail. Taut wings wider than their bodies stretched across their backs. Broad nostrils flared over sneering muzzles that flashed rows of daggered teeth. Their eyes were eerily large and colorful, slanted beneath rippled layers of forehead.

Imorih screamed when a trail of fire spit from the mouth of the standing beast. The air suddenly warmed, even as far away as they stood.

“Quiet, princess!” the old sentry warned, “Don’t attract their attention.

She covered her own mouth, feeling her hand tremble against her lips.

“Those are dragons,” Daimen explained, “The most hostile of all immortal creatures. If they’re fighting in these numbers, clearly the Gods are at war. We must get you two out of here and to safety.” The old man looked all around. Cornered by high walls and shrubbery, there seemed no way out.

Imorih demanded to know more, as did Prince Ammoran.

“How could this be? Dragon sightings are unheard of!”

“What do you mean, the Gods are at war?”

Daimen ignored their questions to address the more urgent issue. He directed his son’s actions. “Jarone. Hop on my shoulders. Climb the wall and I’ll lift the princess up to you.” The young man obeyed without hesitation. Hoisted by his father, he scaled the textured stone and pulled himself up onto the ledge.

Imorih grabbed the arm of her prime guard and forced him to look at her. Her eyes were big and afraid. “Daimen, please tell me, why are these dragons here? What do they want?”

He took only a moment to explain while Jarone straddled himself on the wall. “Dragons are the work beasts of the Gods. They battle for their masters, forced to obey their every command. A battle of this magnitude can only mean one thing. The Gods are at war.”

“Why? Why here? Why in Naralda?” Ammoran asked.

Daimen wrapped his large hands around the princess’ waist, preparing to raise her up to his son. “I don’t know,” he replied.

Imorih reached to catch Jarone’s hands as she was tossed up to him. They locked wrists and he lifted her in one strong tug, positioning her on the ledge between his legs. She looked down on Ammoran who was preparing to accept Daimen’s help up. The crumbling of stone hit her ears before she understood what it meant. One moment she was looking down on her love, and the next she was wrapped up in Jarone’s hold…..falling. A rapid sense of disorientation ended in an abrupt and painful crash amidst broken chunks of stone wall.

“Imorih! Imorih! Are you alright?”

The princess moaned as she moved to sit up. Her body hurt. Her arm stung. It felt wet, sticky. She went to lift it, but something stirred beneath her. A hand caught her waist as Jarone attempted to sit up. Imorih tried to move over, off his lap, but his grip tightened, keeping her next to him. She heard him stifle a pained moan.

“Princess, are you hurt?” he asked.

Her head shook. “No, I don’t think so….I um…” The stinging in her arm intensified, demanding her attention. She lifted her elbow to look, noticing drips of blood splotching across her skirt. She watched it mass and swell into a pool of red.

“She’s bleeding.”

“Her arm, it’s wounded.”

It was hard to tell who said the words. Suddenly Ammoran was amidst the jagged rocks, he and Jarone lifting and moving her out of the debris. Her arm was in a tight grip, held up like a fragile piece of pottery. There was a ripping sound; material split into bandages that were quickly wrapped around her sticky arm. Her eyes met those of her prince.

“It’s just a cut. You’ll be alright, but you should keep pressure on it.” His voice was gentle, the hand on her cheek as well, but there was no reassurance in his face; no comforting smile, only apprehension.

She nodded and pressed on the growing red spot beneath the bandages.

“Come on. We gotta move.”

She went to rise, understanding the urgency of Jarone’s counsel, but her legs failed to lift and her body fell forward. She was scooped up instantly, carted in Ammoran’s arms.

“Keep pressure on that cut,” he reminded her. Her hand covered the blood spot again.

“Get the princess out of here, now! Move it, move it!”
Imorih twisted her head to search out Daimen, to discover the urgency of his command. Somehow they’d attracted a dragon’s attention and the serpentine creature was stomping in their direction. Daimen slipped the strap of his shield securely over his forearm. He lifted it toward the beast. In his other hand a spear rose, aimed and ready to strike.

“Get her away from here now!”
They took off in a run, moving across the castle’s backyard toward another distant wall that bordered a forest of trees. Hills rolled along the horizon further on. Jarone’s face bobbed behind the shoulder that supported the princess. He was running with them, but kept looking behind, glancing back at his father. Imorih wriggled in Ammoran’s arms, protesting their abandoning of her prime guard, her friend!
“No! No, wait! Daimen! He’s in trouble! Please, we have to help him!”

They didn’t listen.

“Ammoran stop! Jarone, we have to go back for your father!”

Jarone responded, breathing heavier with the sprint. “He’s a capable warrior. His life…...as well as mine…..is offered in defense of yours.”

“No, no, no,” she objected, but the words were a mere utterance this time. She understood her defenders had no intention of stopping. Twisting her neck in an awkward but desperate desire to see, Imorih looked back at her lifetime guardian. The man who had always seemed a giant to her appeared insignificant beneath the beast that stalked him.

Daimen tossed his spear with a warrior’s might and struck clean through the dragon’s muzzle. The creature thrashed his head about angrily, beating his tail against the stony ruins behind him. The beast reared his long neck before whipping his head forward.

With only a lifted shield as cover, Daimen’s brave figure was swallowed up in a spew of deadly flames.

Imorih screamed in horror. Jarone refused to look back.
Copyright 2012 Richelle E. Goodrich

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