Prologue

The leaves of the forest were still. A heat haze, shimmering dreamily, was visible a little way down the unpaved road. The only creatures to be seen were the flies, flitting erratically from tree to tree. A peaceful scene, until a solitary carriage rumbled and creaked down a dirt road, disturbing the afternoon hush.

The carriage was black, ornately decorated with a large coat of arms. It gave the impression of wealth and power, making its presence known as it noisily bumped along the dirt road. The carriage was pulled by a strange creature, half man, half beast. The creature had long black hair, tied back by a leather thong. Its broad chest was bare and shone with sweat.

The coach was carrying three people. The first was a young man, his brown hair bound by a simple leather band. He wore an undecorated brown tunic. He held a wooden flute on his lap and bore a knife around his waist. Across from him, a young woman with long, fair hair held back with a jeweled clip clutched a wailing baby. Both the woman and the baby were dressed in layers of silks and velvets despite the heat. The woman's white forehead was covered in sweat as she tried to calm the crying infant.

"Hush, Alestine, you are only making yourself hotter with all this fuss," she reprimanded, though she knew it would do no good. She rolled down the window of the carriage. "How much farther, Niru?" She called above the creaking wheels. The strange creature pulling the carriage took a moment to reply.

"Not far, Queen Celine. We will be there within the hour."

Celine left the window down, enjoying the slight breeze. It was tradition for the entire royal family to visit their country mansion every summer, away from the hustle and bustle of Mithryl-menel Palace. But this summer, with the Valley on the brink of civil war, King Analant was unable to leave the capital to join them.

At the front of the carriage, Niru's black eyes narrowed. Two dark figures stood up ahead, watching them closely.

"There may be trouble ahead, m'lady," he called over his shoulder.

Queen Celine leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. Please let it not be bandits, she prayed silently. Her heart jumped into her throat as the carriage stopped. The man across from her laid his hand on his knife. Male voices drifted in through the window.

"What is your business here?" Niru asked pompously.

"Are you a servant of the King, centaur?" asked a deep voice.

"What is your business?" Niru repeated. Celine could hear his voice had a note of fear in it.

Rendaliin help us. She held the baby, quiet now, tightly against her breast.

"'What business', centaur?" she could hear the mockery in the man's voice."We want the royal family dead."

The whispered words were just audible over the whine of the insects. Celine felt her heart thumping loudly in her chest.

Please help us...

The carriage door opened suddenly and the Queen was staring into the face of one of the men. He was leering at her.

"Greetings, your majesty," he said. His teeth were yellow and his breath was rotten.

The Queen's servant leapt from the carriage, drawing his dagger at the same time. Their attacker laughed and drew his weapon. More bandits appeared around them. Celine knew they had no hope.

"Niru," she screamed, "Go!" The carriage started jerkily. It sped over the bumpy road, jostling the Queen and her young princess, who had started wailing again. It they could get over the ravine up ahead...

But the jostling proved too much for the carriage. It was designed for comfort, not speed. On a particularly large bump, the rear axle snapped. One of the wheels spun into the ravine. The carriage stayed upright for a few seconds, seconds which seemed an eternity to Celine, before tipping onto its side and following the wheel into the ravine. In those last few seconds, the Queen looked at her baby for the last time. Opening the door opposite to the ravine, she cast a spell of protection on her child, and threw her as far as she could. Then the carriage and the Queen were gone.

The baby bounced once, twice, and landed behind a scrubby bush on the edge of the ravine. Niru the centaur, scrambled to his feet. He had let go of the carriage the second he felt the wheel give way. Nervously, he looked around him and into the ravine, where the carriage lay broken at the bottom. One wheel was left whole and was spinning slowly. He turned away and cantered down the dirt road. There were still bandits to worry about.

An hour later, the Queen's servant limped down the dirt road. His tunic was dusty and his cheek was bleeding slightly from his fight with their attacker. He walked over to a patch of grass and wiped his bloody dagger. As he stood, his gaze fell into the ravine. The royal carriage had been reduced to jagged splinters of wood. He bowed his head.

He looked up as a piercing wail broke the silence. The servant jumped and looked around wildly for the source of the noise. He spotted a little bundle a few feet away, dangerously close to the ravine edge. He darted over to it and flipped it over, revealing the little princess. Her face was scratched and covered with dirt. She coughed and spit up a mouthful of earth. The servant softly took the edge of her blanket and wiped her face clean. He sat down heavily, the baby in his lap.

How could this have happened? The servant sat listlessly for a long time, waiting for the reality of their situation to sink in. The Queen was dead, but the baby had survived. He glanced over at Baby Alestine. Drool was dribbling miserably over her still dirty chin.

What was he to do with her? Had their attackers been acting on their own, or was there something more sinister behind them? If this last was true, he was certain that it would be fatal to take the princess back to her father. Did they know that Alestine lived? Were they on their way now, to finish the job?

At this thought, the faithful servant took the baby in his arm and walked quickly off the rode, into the woods. The princess would never be safe in the Valley, and as her caretaker, it was his responsibility to keep her safe.

He walked for hours, and gradually the baby grew used to the rhythm of his walking and fell asleep. By nightfall, the servant glimpsed lights in the distance. Gradually, the small village grew closer. He reached the village an hour after first seeing the lights.

The cottages were small, and most sported thatched roofs, illuminated by the silvery light of the crescent moon. All the lights inside were extinguished now, with their inhabitants safely asleep. The servant walked over to the nearest cottage and lay the sleeping princess down before the door. One hand was still holding one of his fingers tightly. He gently pulled his finger away.

"I'll be back," he whispered softly, a tear leaving a clean path through the dirt on his cheek. "I just have to go say goodbye to someone. Then I'll be back to watch over you." He kissed the small hand. Resolutely, he stood, turned his back on the sleeping princess and disappeared into the darkness of the forest.

On the doorstep, the baby fidgeted in her sleep, unaware that her life had changed forever.