The rider stops at the top of a high hill to survey the land ahead. A castle is nestled in the valley, and a few tendrils of smoke from neighbouring homesteads mar the horizon. A forest, dark and foreboding, misty in the late evening, fills the rest of the valley's wide expanse.
The black stallion snorts and paws the ground impatiently, and the tiny, sea blue dragonet perched on the rider's shoulder chirps in aggreement with the horse.
"Ready to keep going, eh?" A woman's voice, low and husky, emerges from the depths of the rider's dark cowl. "It's been so long. . ."
::Come on, Keli:: the dragonet says. ::If we don't go now, we never will::
"Okay, Mahalia. You're right. Let the past be the past, huh?"
Kelida pushes back her hood, letting loose lustrous ebony hair that shimmers in the last rays of sunlight that streams over the hills. Fine, pale features are accented by bright, oak green eyes, and slender, elven hands grip the reins as the woman kicks her stallion into a canter down the steep incline towards the castle.
Briefly, as the horse's feet touch down on the floor of the valley, Kelida wonders what awaits her in the castle.
She hails the guards at the gate, and her mouth fixes into a grim line as the gates grind open. . .
A tall, elderly man stands behind the gates. Liverspots peek out from beneath the thinning snow white hair that hangs in lank strands past his shoulders. He seems very frail as he walks slowly towards Kelida, held up almost entirely by a long wooden stave in his left hand. Behind and slightly to the man's right is a tall, handsome young man, who at second glance appears to be the ancient one's grandson.
"Welcome to Haven, traveler. I am Duke Istvan, and this young man is my great nephew and heir, Prince Leander. Please, enter, traveler. Night approaches, and the forest is not a place for strangers."
There is something foreboding in the old man's voice, but his rheumy eyes are kind as he extends his invitation. . .
A young man watched the woman and her horse as they entered the courtyard of the castle. He was particularly interested in the creature fluttering about her shoulders, blue as the sky and yet not so - perhaps it was the ocean he saw in its scaled skin. Many were the stories he'd heard as a teenager and before about the small fire dragons; dragonets as they were known by most.
Apparently the guards had heard of them too, and were wary. Two strode from the darkened alcoves from where they sat their post, ever hoping for the day their services would be validated, yet at the same time dreading it. Theirs was the purpose of war, and though neither would admit it, even to themselves - war was the purpose behind their training. But it was not with minds full of war that they approached the woman, nor was it idle curiosity. Dragonets were illegal in the realm of Satyl, and the ownership of one could be punishable by death at certain times of the year.
"Lady, please step this way, and command your dragon to perch on your shoulder please," one guard said as he took charge of her horse's reigns. "You're under arrest," added the other guard, pulling out a pair of cuffs..
"What law have I broken?" she inquired.
"Don't make this any harder than it needs to be, Lady," the second said, clapping the cuffs to her arms gruffly. The dragonet squawked, fluttering up above her head, chirping angrily at the guards.
"Unhand me!" she yelled, shrugging her shoulders in an attempt to break free from her captor's grip. In the struggle, her hood was pulled from her head, revealing her elven features.
"An ELF! You're certainly under arrest. The charge is...being an elf, as well as trespassing, bringing contraband animals into the kingdom, resisting arrest...do you wish to add anything else?"
A swift kick to the groin toppled the guard, followed by the dragonet attacking the face of the other. He shrieked, raising alarm in the courtyard. Kelida heard the floored guard mumble lowly, "Assaulting an officer..." before booting his head.
Wrists tightly bound, she worked them, trying to break free. She ducked for cover behind some barrels of wine outside the keep's inn, ready for storage. The bonds were tight, and her hands were growing number by the moment. Her horse whinnied in the center of the courtyard, forgotten. Unlooked for, the dragonet flew down and began gnawing the cuffs.
The young man had watched it all, and knew she was in for a bit of trouble now. Coming out of his shop - which had closed at sunset - he searched the downed guard's clothes for the key, and smacked her horse on the rump, causing it to run out the gate and into the countryside. Creeping to where he watched her hide, he addressed her quietly.
"Be silent, milady. I'll have you free in a moment." Slipping the key into the lock, he felt it give easily. Taking the cuffs from her wrists, he muffled their noise in his overcoat and hid them under some straw.
"Come to my shop, now; the other guard is waking others as we speak."
She nodded wordlessly, and followed. Needing no coaxing, her dragonet flew along behind, happily licking some of the guard's blood from its beak. Once inside, the young man locked and barred the door, shuttered the windows, and took the sole lit candle from its sconce.
"We're going to the cellar. It won't draw anyone's attention," he explained. "My name's Incanus, I'm a woodcarver, among other things. What brings a forbidden elf to Satyl?"
Kelida? As in the Dark Queen from many years ago? Is that really you, or just someone else playing yer character? Is it the same character?
As verified by both an e-mail she sent me the other day, corroborated by one I got back in '99, yes, it's her.
"Forbidden?!" Kelida exclaimed, appalled. "Once, I was a QUEEN in these lands. Revered. Worshipped. I know nothing of 'forbidden.'"
"Yes, forbidden these past twenty-five years! And yet, you don't seem old enough to remember those times except as a child. . ." Incanus mused. "You are young, barely more than an elf-child now. How could you have been a queen more than twenty-five years ago?"
"You know little of my race, then, if you think me to be young. I am over three hundred years old, and I am no child. I have not been a child for centuries."
These words passed the full, red lips, containing a note of disdain. Kelida turned haughty green eyes on the stranger in front of her.
"I have been a queen here, and I intend to be so again. I will not stand for 'forbidden,' so unhand me, cur!" Kelida snarled fiercely, her childlike features contorting into a mask of rage. "I, Kelida, the Dark Queen, will have none of this hiding in cellars. It is absurd! Cowering like a common criminal! Pah!" She spat. "I will reclaim my rightful place in this land one way or another, and you will help me."
A long, deadly-looking stiletto appeared in the elf's hand, seemingly from nowhere and pointed directly at Incanus' throat.
"First, you will answer my questions. Truthfully, or I will slit your throat," Kelida threatened, quite seriously, with a dangerous gleam in her eyes. "I do not wish to kill you, for you have, perhaps, saved my life. In fact, the first error was mine in not knowing the territory I was entering, but I wish to rectify that mistake now. If you help me, you will find that I can be a valuable ally, a generous queen, and a good friend. I repay my debts more than in full. However, if you refuse me, I will kill you. Do you understand what I am telling you?"
"Y-yes," the woodcarver stammered, his eyes on the glistening blade at his throat. "I-I understand."
"Good. Now, I want you to tell me everything you know about this city, and about the surrounding areas."
Yes, at long last I am returned. To what? The war mill is gone, replaced by a veritable ghost town. The ghost town begged for inhabitants, so here I am, and glad of it. I only hope that More inhabitants will soon return. . .
Incanus brought his arm up slowly, determined to gently pry the stiletto away from his neck. He had not expected the lady to virtually attack him for his kindess, but then, these were strange times and his past was long behind him here.
"Fine, your Highness. But we need to establish some trust here. I don't care if you're The Power itself, I just saved your life. I meant only to help someone who appeared to be in a rough place." Kelida felt the oddest sensation that the man was completely in earnest, yet she did not wish to drop her guard. Though now at ease, she still felt uncomfortable...and unsettled.
Silenced by the woodcarver's swift return to calmness, her attitude withered slightly. "Very well, woodcarver," she replied. "Tell me what you know."
He busied himself a moment, taking her cloak and hanging it, lighting a small fire in the hearth, and putting water on to boil. After the incident, he wanted a bit of tea to calm his nerves...and hers. Settling down at last, he began.
"I'm not untraveled, Highness. You say you ruled here, once."
"I did!" she interrupted.
"Please, allow me to continue. The truth is, even if you did, you do no longer. I find it odd though, that you 'did not know the territory you were entering,' for surely a Queen would know much about her own lands. Satyl is now governed by a ruling council appointed by The Power itself, or so it has been told. Personally, I think it's just the ambition of man that overthrew the ancient elven rule of Satyl.
"It is well that you travel hooded and cloaked, but to come in thinking you own a place that would just as soon own you, and more easily, is madness. I advise caution if you wish to travel further.
"I have helped you, Highness, but now I almost feel as if I were in error. You are not humble. You were queen. You deserve respect. Groveling and hiding in a cellar is beneath you. Well, Highness, things have changed greatly, and you would do well to accept that things have changed. Your past position of authority, if really credible, does nothing for you in this day and age. If you wish respect, you must re-earn it. 'Help me or die' is not the best way to earn friends, Kelida."
"I have not known many friends in this life. The friends I once knew are all long dead and disappeared, forgotten even as I have become. The greatest happiness I remember is the joy I found in ruling. When I left these lands, it was to find myself, but I now know that my self is here. I have never been happier than when I was known as the Dark Queen. I must recapture that feeling."
Incanus looked at the elf in shock at her earnest words, intrigued by the sentiments she expressed. Sadness clouded her otherworldly, ageless beauty, making her face look old. Here he saw a woman who lived for power and who would wither without the sustenance a court and an intrigue. Kelida was a noblewoman, it was obvious, and whether or not she was a queen, Incanus knew that she should be one.
"I think that I should not dwell within the city," Kelida stated, her mind apparently refocused on her intended conquest. "It seems a bit unsafe." Here, a fleeting, ironic smile for Incanus. "Perhaps in the wood that fills the rest of this valley?"
"I offered you the use of my cellar, but I could direct you to a place in the forest, if that is what you really wish," Incanus offered. He breathed a sigh of relief as the elf finally put her stiletto back in its invisible sheath. "However, I will not guarantee your safety there, either. The forest is not a friendly place." Even as those words left the woodcutter's lips, he thought better of them. This girl in front of him, though noble, was no fragile flower of the court. She was strong, beautiful, and deadly, and Incanus rather thought her a match for the dangers of the forest.
"I am prepared to reward you for your help," Kelida said, and her smile became suggestive, her eyes seductive.
"And after that I am free to go my own way?" Incanus demanded. "I have no ambition to be a part of your schemes."
"You are free to stay with me or go as you please, but I believe I can convince you, woodcarver." Kelida was confident in her prowess, haughty even. "My 'schemes' as you call them may have more merit than you think."
"Very well, lady," Incanus said. "I will convey you from here to a place of seclusion in the forest, but after that, my obligation is done, if it is an obligation indeed. Let's go." He turned to leave.
"No, wait!" Kelida cried. "My horse-Khoal-I cannot leave him here. We must retrieve him first."
"Your horse? Why? Surely you can buy or steal a new one?"
"None of your city's plow horses or stout riding ponies could replace Khoal. He is a special breed. We wait till tonight, then we can retrieve my horse and be gone. I am road weary anyway. . ." Kelida's breath was soft and warm as she leaned in close to the woodcarver. "I think I should rest, don't you?"
Above them, the door to Incanus' shop shuddered, and Kelida's dragonet chirped angrily. It surged like a blue blur from the ground where it napped to hover above its mistress in dismay. Out of instinct, Kelida grabbed ahold of Incanus with one arm, and pulled free her stiletto with her other hand.
"Open up, Incanus! Bring the lady to us and we might be charitable. We'd rather not smash your pretty matchsticks," came a voice through the ceiling. "She is a wanted felon."
Incanus shook his head violently, as if waking from a daze.
"Damn it, Kelida! By what witchcraft have you ensorceled me?" he muttered angrily under his breath. Pushing her from him, he moved swiftly up the stairs, stopping only to tell Kelida to stay put.
"Incanus, I..." she said, but faltered.
WHAM! The door rumbled on its hinges, which were near giving away with the second blow.
"We know you're in there, Incanus." Agitation was worsening the guards' demeanor.
"The lady has already gone, kind sirs. Please leave a man to his rest."
"You lie! And if you don't, you're an accomplice to her escape. Either way, you're under arrest."
WHAM! Hinges broke and the door collapsed inward with a thud. Kelida heard the scuffling of feet which abruptly stopped.
"Burn it all," she heard the order. Then she heard the flames roar up above.