A/N: This is the first part of the Prologue for this story. Be warned, for the beginning is long, but your reviews are always welcome.
¤ Silent Destiny ¤
¤ Prologue ¤
A fading cry rose into the air, alone in the hanging silence between two fates. Light shone on neither of them, for neither deserved its grace. Alone they began the war, and alone they would end it, and if both were to fail, they would have nothing to look forward to but the cold sword of bereavement forged from their own wrongdoing. Life was not intended to sprout in the midst of hate and war, for no being born to the earth needed to lay its new and innocent eyes upon a scene long deprived of beauty and peace. And yet, life beat strongly in each man waiting to die. They stood, hearts frozen but open to the love of their kin, supporting their leader: the man who stood exposed to the shadow of death. No tears fell from their bright and pained eyes, but within, they could feel regret rising and urging them to abandon their posts for what they treasured most: the people they loved.
Courage was sent quickly to suppress that escalating fear, and it came from the mouth of the man who brought them there. He moved steadily across the trembling army line, staring at each man's face with terrible blue eyes and severe hope. In his mind he knew his men did not wish to fight. In his mind he knew they longed to spend their already short lives far away from the ever present hatred bred from the world's intensifying greed, but to disregard their duties as protectors of an already dying world would only pave a way for the little splendor left to be erased forever.
Halting his steed, he raised his arm; a sleek and keen silver blade trapped in his tight fist and gave one last waking cry. "Men! My stalwart kin, hearken to me!" All eyes set on the man whom they called king. Young yet was he, with a clear and unwavering voice as strong as the wind. The first tear was already fresh on his face before any more streamed from his men's eyes, but there was a spirit behind his grieved face that no other man could have held. "Long has this wave of grief and passing beat against us and our city, with each passing year it has managed to break through, taking away more of what we hold dear. This battle will not be for land or power! Nor will it be for revenge! It is for you and your families, and for the hope of these days renewed!"
His fading cry never died, for a cheer rose from his army, and it echoed powerfully to the ears of their opponents. A new fire was kindled within his men's hearts, the spirit and strength rushing madly through their veins. A new thought entered their clear minds. The war was never over land or rule. It was never for riches or gifts. It was always over a test of will and force; a test to decide who deserved to live and who deserved to die.
He hesitated no longer, and spurred his horse in the sides. Clouds of dirt rose from the decaying ground as the beast's hooves pounded against it. His men followed after him, moving in a united swarm, with their backs facing the growing crimson sky.
She sat rigidly in her throne, her pale, thin hands gripping the side railings with a brutal worry. Her mouth stayed firmly shut, her lips seemingly glued together with the rising tension within her. Discomfort and fear consumed her thoughts as she stared blankly down the empty, grey hall, and her only wish was that her husband would return home soon. A sudden shiver ran up her spine, and for some odd reason, she felt her eyes sting with forthcoming tears. Before she had the chance to wipe away the stray tear from her hazel eyes, her maid entered the barren hall, holding a tray of items in her arms. "Your Highness?" said the maid, kneeling before the Queen's throne with a bent head.
"Speak, Eélen," said the Queen, irritated for having the maiden interrupt her musing.
"The healer, Agnor, urges you to drink this," replied Eélen tentatively, offering the goblet from the tray to her.
The Queen eyed the cup with cold, agitated eyes. "Tell Agnor to concern himself with his own health, not mine. Zuriñe does not need some potion to ease her suffering." Turning away, she snatched the cup from Eélen's hands and looked into the rippling, dark liquid. "What she needs is for her husband to return home," she whispered, more to herself than to her maid. With one sip from the cup, she screeched in distaste and tossed its contents to the stone floors.
"My Lady," sighed Eélen, already bending down to clean up the mess.
"Mop up the spill," ordered Zuriñe, rising from her throne and walking quickly past her obedient maid. "Do not dare to come to me again. Tell everyone that. I shall not show my face until my husband comes home triumphant and unscarred." Turning swiftly on her heal, she faced Eélen, her face appearing as if it would crumble at any point, waiting for the young woman to reply.
"Yes, your Highness," said Eélen feebly into the distressed air, as she wiped a wet cloth over the spill.
Zuriñe gave no nod of approval or a spoken farewell. She merely whirled back around and marched down the hallway into her chambers. The layers of her dress rustled as she stepped quickly to her destination, and as soon as she faced the doors that led to the room she shared with the man she loved, a heartbreaking sob escaped her. The cry echoed by itself to the open ears of her maid, Eélen, as she mopped the dark red liquid away.
Once within closed, deaf walls, she ran to her window, her mind fixed on getting a large breath of fresh air. But it would not come to her. Although she had stuck her head out into the cold, winter air, she found no comfort in it. The bitter chill from the wind would freeze her from the inside out, and every time she breathed, the more she would shudder with the haunting dreams that plagued her head. "Come home soon, Xerxes… please," she wept, her white hands nailed to the window sill. "You have been gone too long. It has been a year since you and your men departed from this city. Can you not remember that the day you left to fight was the same day we were wed?" Her legs failed her, and her knees hit the hard floor, with her face still crying in the sleeve of her dress. She had posed the questions she wanted answered, but she knew no answer would ever come to her until the day the armies arrived to their homeland. It was the wait that made her shake uncontrollably, for she did not want to wait for years only to find that her husband would never see her again.
She relaxed, but barely, her limbs still relentlessly frozen. Looking out her window, her eyes were swollen with unshed tears, but the bitterness glimmered in them clearly, like a flash of lightning. "Long have I waited for you, but your mind is one of war," she said, her longing for her husband turning into hate.
Abruptly, she stood on her feet in a shriek of pain, hoping to relieve the rising hate inside of her, but she fell back to her knees in a thud, her fingers pulling at her red hair. Single strands fell from her fair head, but it seemed as if the more that fell, the stronger she pulled. "My Lady," came a voice opposite the wooden barrier of her door.
"Leave me, wretch!" she screamed back. On impulse, she grabbed a candlestick holder and hurled it at the door.
From the other side of the walls, Eélen stepped back, startled by the disturbing sound. "My Lady, a messenger has arrived from the Fields of Ciréden. His news is urgent, and I bid you emerge from your quarters before he leaves," she continued, believing the news would motivate her queen to desert the dark shadows of her cold and lonely room.
"Bring him here!" she yelled in return, prepared to open her door to her loyal maid. As the barrier gave way, Zuriñe's fiery head appeared, but her eyes still contained the same chilling bitterness. "Why do you linger here? Go!" she ordered, pointing a finger down the hallway. Embarrassed and instilled with new fear, Eélen bowed quickly before running down the empty corridor.
Her hair flapped behind her like a golden banner, and her steps echoed silently by themselves as she wove her way through the maze of passages. The messenger was not in the main hall, which was the last place she had seen him, and so she paused every now and then, calling to anyone to tell her the whereabouts of the traveler. A feeble smile surfaced on her distressed countenance when she saw the familiar figure of her good friend, who was also a handmaid of the Queen. "Nayeli!" she cried, racing faster down the hallway.
"Eélen! What brings you here? Usually you are up tending to the Queen in the main hall and royal chambers."
"The messenger that arrived," said Eélen, panting from her run. "He was not in the main hall where I told him to stay. Do you know where he is?"
"I'm sorry, Eélen," replied Nayeli, shaking her head gently from side to side. "I haven't left this part of the castle for the entire day. News of a messenger never reached my ears."
"Have you any thought as to where he might be?" asked Eélen, dismayed that her friend could not help her. Nayeli turned around, and shook her head again, the thick, brown braid hanging from her back swinging from the movements. "Very well. I shall see you at supper tonight, my friend." With that as her farewell, Eélen spun on her heel and ran back to where she had started from.
She re-entered the main hall, with a head bowed down from the weight of failure. Ever since she was a child, she had lived to serve someone. As a young girl, she lived to serve her parents, and after they passed, she was left to tend to the young princess, Zuriñe, who was now her queen. For many years was she taught to please those who held power above her, and so she did her best, and the apparently untamed hostility of the Queen made her feel as if she was not doing her duty as Zuriñe's highest maid.
Her age was less than that of the Queen, she being only ten years old when she began to serve the fourteen year old princess at the time. Now, she was a prime twenty years of loyalty and obedience, and it seemed that the older she became, the worse her Queen behaved.
An abrupt noise drew her out of her daydreams as she entered the main hall, and for a brief second, she was startled, only to look at the being who made the sound with an icy glare.
The being happened to be the young messenger that had arrived to speak with the Queen. Eélen noticed that the spill she was still cleaning was gone, along with the cloth she had used to wipe the mess away. She eyed the messenger with suspicion and a vague annoyance as she stepped further into the main hall. "Where have you been, young sir?" she asked, remembering her manners, stopping before the cleaned spot on the stone floor before looking up at him.
He leaned on a crutch supporting him under his left arm. His left leg was wrapped in a thick white bandage and with a welcoming smile, looked at her. "I do not quite understand your question, my lady," he replied, his voice light and clear. Eélen looked at him in disappointment.
"What I mean was where were you when I left to inform Queen Zuriñe? I thought I told you to stay in the main hall. When next I looked, there was no trace of you." A wide, apologetic grin came upon his face as he sought for an answer.
"Forgive me, then," he said, almost chuckling the words on a lighthearted note. "I became aware of the spill left on the palace floors. The liquid was tinted in a strong red, and I feared that it would stain the floor. Out of courtesy for the royal family's home, I left to find a maid to clean it up."
"I was cleaning the mess," said Eélen matter-of-factly. "You did not need to send for another maid. It is my duty to tend to the Queen's every need more than any other's."
"Again, forgive me. I did not know," he replied, his grin fading into irritation. He quickly regained his propriety and attempted to remain on friendly terms with the demanding highest maid. "What is your name?"
"Eélen," she said softly. "Daughter of Léod and Naereth." He nodded his head in understanding and smiled again. For a moment, she found him slightly amusing and smirked herself in response.
"I am Auberon, son of Iador and Oneth. I am a soldier coming from the heat of battle." He paused and made sure she was still listening. She was. "Our original messenger was killed and because I had an injury and would be incapable of fighting, they sent me in his stead to speak with the Queen. May I see her now?" Eélen's lips grew thin as she thought over his question. Certainly, being a soldier of King Xerxes, he would have a good estimate of when the war would end and the King given the opportunity to finally return home.
"I… I believe you can. She is waiting in her chambers for you. Knock on the door and she will answer." Without another afterthought, Auberon nodded and hobbled away from her, his crutch making him a pitiful sight indeed. "Wait!" she cried, spinning around and grabbing his arm in an unyielding clutch. With clear and concerned blue eyes, she stared at him. "What news do you have to bring to her?" she whispered, knowing very well that she had no right to busy herself with news intended only for the Queen.
"Am I allowed to tell you of such things?" he replied, answering her question with a question of his own. "And why do you want to know?" Eélen released her grip on his arm and stepped back, feeling defeated yet again.
"Queen Zuriñe is ill, Lord Auberon," she sighed.
"Ill? With fever, disease?"
"No," she replied sharply, as if the word came out as a snort from her nose. "Ever since she was a girl, she has had problems with her mentality. She was going mad, my lord, from the lack of love in her childhood. Now, with Xerxes gone, her condition has only worsened. If you come here to give her more grief, then do not speak with her."
"It is my duty, Lady Eélen. I must."
"Would you have your Queen kill herself from the words that spill from your mouth?" she said, reaching for his arm again and tugging at his shirt with forceful insight. "She will, if you come to tell her King Xerxes will not be home in many years. If she absorbs that into her mind, she will feel terribly forsaken." Auberon pulled her grip off his shirt and looked at her gravely, his green eyes flickering with indecision.
"What you have assumed is true. I have come to tell her that King Xerxes will not be home in many a year, but she must understand that her country is at war and sacrifice is needed." Eélen met his eyes in an expressionless and conquered face.
"War will not solve anything. Men bring death upon themselves when they resort to hate. I fear that even the Lady Innana and the other gods will fail to protect you." Auberon was jubilant and fueled with hope.
"King Xerxes is a noble man, my lady. The spirit of the stars shines within him. If only you could see what he does on that battlefield, Eélen, you may believe."
"How can I believe in a war that has been going on for nearly a decade now? We lost our previous king to it, and it will only be a matter of time before King Xerxes joins the deceased. He may have the spirit of the stars in him, but the spirit does not shine if it has no purpose to." Auberon looked at her in a new and mysterious awe. She spoke as if she knew the thoughts of the Lady of the Sky herself, and bravely he spoke.
"You too, have it within you, do you not?" he asked timidly, nearing her with caution. "I can tell you are blessed because you are gifted with strong insight. Is it not obvious to you?" The look of disbelief and fear on her face moved him to only try harder to convince her.
"Many people have the gift of foresight," she answered, afraid of what Auberon was telling her. She was born a normal and unprotected child. No spirit of the stars was within her.
"Not many of us, but the Arionlen are blessed with such gifts of magic. It is a rare thing, Eélen. Do not tell me you have not noticed your blessing."
"I haven't," she replied strongly, for Auberon's fervor was troubling her. Who was he to suddenly tell her she was protected by the Lady of the Sky? "How would you know, if you do not have the same spirit within yourself?" He smiled widely, his green eyes truly sparkling with a glowing faith.
"I do," he said gently. "I am not gifted with as great a knowledge or foresight as you, Eélen, but the Lady has blessed me with a tactical and sharp mind, much like King Xerxes. Unfortunately, I lack the courage to use it to its full potential. All I do is aid King Xerxes strategize on the battlefields." Eélen's shoulders shrank, and she gazed upon him in painful realization. Her jaw dropped half-way in discovery as she drew herself farther away from him.
"You are not just a soldier," she mumbled. "You are a man of great importance, aren't you? Part of King Xerxes' council perhaps? And yet, I had the nerve to speak with you, forgetting my place. I am sorry, my lord. I shall not speak freely to you ever again." She turned her head to the side, prepared to lead him to the Queen to complete the task he had come to Innacith to do. Auberon, though, felt flattered but at the same time, upset.
"Do not ask for pardon, my lady," he said. "You have done nothing wrong. I am not insulted by your presence, nor do I regret my conversation with you."
"You are too modest, my lord," said she, almost laughing at him, still not believing that he could have allowed her to lose herself for a while.
"No," he replied simply. "Do not be skeptical of me, Eélen. What I say is true. I do not know you well enough to have the heart to lie to you, and if I did, I still dare not lie to you about anything." She stood dumb at his straightforward proclamation of honesty, staring unblinkingly at his face.
"Who are you really?" was all she could manage to say.
"I have already told you who I am, Lady Eélen," he said, the same infallible smile surfacing his face. "I think the question you want to say is how will I be of any importance to you?" At last, he was able to put her at a lost for words. She could not withstand his stare any longer and promptly turned around.
"Follow me, my lord. You were sent to the high walls of Innacith to inform her Queen, not to dawdle around with her highest maid." Upholding her duty yet again, she led Auberon to Zuriñe's chambers, where the Queen sat surrounded by her own despair.
He limped behind her, eyeing her fair head with a blurred interest. He figured that she was not very educated on the ways of the gods, for she could not even tell that she was held sacred by Innana herself. Ever since he was a boy, his parents always reminded him that his fate would be unlike that of any other man's, for the Lady of the Sky watched over him. Growing up, he was quick to apprehend that he was different from the other boys. He excelled in his studies, eager to learn more and more about anything and everything. Although he developed into a rather tall and lanky young man, his mind was keen and to win games with his friends, he would use strategy instead of strength. Of course, all the Caryslei were gifted with intelligence, skill and beauty, but they lived very short lives. Their bodies were made not to endure illness or wounds very well, but there were always exceptions.
"Do you believe what I told you?" asked Auberon as they slowed to a stop before the wooden doors to Queen Zuriñe's chambers. "Do you accept the fact you are blessed?"
"No," she said, her stubbornness getting a hold of her. "You may believe you are blessed, Lord Auberon, for life is good for you. As for me, life has never been washed in golden blessing."
"Do not doubt what I say," he said, almost as if it was an order. "I can see it within you, Eélen, and I would not have mentioned it if I was not sure of it. I have had many years using this mind of mine, and I know when I am certain about something." Her face remained unconvinced and she stepped aside to let him pass.
"I cannot accept what you have to say, Auberon," she whispered. "I do not think we shall meet again, and so I bid you farewell, and may the Lady continue to protect you." With a shallow nod of her head, she left his side and walked down the passageway, knowing very well inside that what Auberon had said was true.
Auberon stared uselessly at the closed doors. The hallway was empty and silent, allowing him to listen to his own breathing. He ran his free hand through his light brown hair, took a deep breath and knocked on the door. Patiently, he waited for them to give way. He had never met Caysnein's Queen, but by the way Eélen had spoken of her, the Queen appeared a very difficult woman. Her appearance was known to him, for he attended King Xerxes' wedding. She was very pale, with hazel colored eyes, and hair the color of fire; a rare trait in their country. His thoughts were cut short, and he immediately regained his composure when the doors were parted and in the entrance stood Zuriñe.
Bowing his head, he addressed her. "Your Highness, I am Auberon, here to deliver a message from King Xerxes."
"I know," she answered. "Make haste please, Lord Auberon, for I have other matters to attend to." She exchanged looks with the young man, whose head was still faintly bent. Fear was in his eyes, having no thought as to how to word the news he was about to give her. She noticed this, and waited anxiously for him to open his mouth again. "Speak," she commanded, her lips growing thinner with the aching wait.
"King Xerxes inquires why you have not written to him. He has sent you several letters, your Highness."
"I could not reply. Every letter he sent me I burned after I read them because they seemed too real, when he himself was not with me anymore."
"He wrote those letters because he wants to remind you that he has not left you behind. To him, your unsent replies foretell a broken marriage. If it is not rude to say, your Highness, King Xerxes thinks more about you than this war."
"Lies!" she shrieked, turning around to seek refuge in the solitude waiting in her dark room.
"Little faith you have for your own husband, your own king!" yelled Auberon in reply, limping into her room. "He has been gone for only a year, your highness. Things could be much worse."
"They already are, aren't they?" she responded, her voice quivering from her desire to cry. "Do not think that I cannot see what you have truly come here for. You come to tell me Xerxes will not be home any time soon. And so I tell you to give him this message: Whilst he is at war, I will be grinding my own bones as I wait to die. I am not waiting for him any longer. I wait for peace. I wait only for death." Auberon was chilled by her alarming proclamation. Right then, he knew Eélen was right in telling him that his news will bring upon the Queen's death.
He gave no response, frightened that if he said any more, she would destroy herself right then and there. "So I am right?"' she asked, approaching him. "I am right, aren't I? Xerxes is not coming home… ever now is he?" By now she was laughing the words, thrilled that she had discovered the news before it was even spoken. Auberon remained motionless in his spot, uneasy with the Queen's fading sanity.
"I ask for my leave, your highness," he said firmly, hoping to stop her inappropriate laughter.
"Leave then," she replied, waving him off with her hand. "And tell Eélen to begin preparations for dinner. I'm starving." He nodded several times before hurriedly stumbling out of her room, troubled by Queen Zuriñe's haunting laughter. "You are to dine with me, Lord Auberon!" she added, yelling it down the hallway. "And you are welcome to stay until your poor leg is better rested." He did not even bother to look back and nod in agreement, for he was too concerned with the condition of Caryslein's adored queen.
As he staggered down to the main hall, he kept his green eyes sharply peeled for any movement. He wished to see a face, any face, which may comfort him, for certainly the Queen's visage was far from consoling.
It was a pointless thing to do, for he was a stranger in a vast castle actually believing that he could find his way around. Surprisingly, it never occurred to him that the brilliant mind within his skull was not functioning as well as it could. If he had stopped for a moment and thought over his situation, he probably would have been waiting in the main hall for Eélen to return, but his mind was dull for once, and the only thing he was thinking about was to find Zuriñe's highest maid.
After winding his way through the corridors and hallways for quite some while, he decided to check for Eélen on the floors below. Now, his search was for a stairwell, and to his luck, he found it with ease. "Where could she be?" he asked himself aloud as he carefully hopped down the winding, narrow staircase with much discomfort. "She's a maid and she can't have gone too far. She must be nearby to aid her Queen." He said the words in a questionable doubt, knowing that Eélen was nearby, but found it difficult that he had not found her yet. Why didn't I just wait?, he thought. It was the last thing that entered his mind, for he collided into someone's shriek before actually running into the very person.
His crutch slipped on the edge of a step and he would have fallen and tumbled down the bony stairs if he had not been stopped by the hand of the person he had started. "Forgive me," he said, trying to prop himself back on his crutch. "I didn't see…" His voice trailed off as he looked upon the face of the person he had run into.
"I didn't see you either," finished the person, her voice lightening at his sight. "I was looking down."
"As was I. A strange thing that is, isn't it? Here we are, with windows on the sides of the walls letting in the sunshine and we still manage to run into each other." He chuckled awkwardly, waiting for the silence that would come from her mouth.
"For a mind as brilliant as you claim yours to be, I am utterly stunned, Lord Auberon, that you did not pay attention to your surroundings better." She couldn't help but tease him a bit for his unawareness, but her smile faded as she remembered where he was coming from.
"I am sorry then, once again. My thoughts were elsewhere."
"And where could they have possibly been?" He grinned, pleased with the lighter side of her, the side where she could mock him just for sport.
"Wandering about trying to look for you," he answered. She turned her head to the side, trying desperately to show him that she was not smiling, but her lips ended up curling into a smirk anyway.
"Any reason behind it?" she asked, looking him in the face again. Casually, he shrugged his shoulders as if he could not find any purpose behind his actions. He knew, of course, that she could see behind his delightful acting.
"There's always a reason for everything, my lady," he replied. "After my conversation with the Queen, I needed to find you and tell you something." Her eyebrows raised in interest, and she waited patiently for him to speak, although a hidden feeling nagged at her for stalling her pursuit up the stairs. She just realized that they were blocking the thin passage. "I am dining with Queen Zuriñe, and she bade me tell you to prepare dinner." Her brows unwrinkled and she looked up at him with an unimpressed face. The news was nothing she hadn't heard before, and she felt stupid for imagining his news to be something more exciting.
"Very well," she said. "I must get moving. Dinner is promptly at dusk, and I fear with the information you have given Queen Zuriñe, she will want everything to be ready at exactly then." Out of courtesy, Auberon scooted his feet to the side to let her pass, for he knew his slow limping would take up her time. As she made her way round the stairs he called out to her, his brilliant mind coming together again at her leave.
"I thought you said you wouldn't see me again?" At that, he heard a laugh, a clear and musical laugh that came from her mouth. "How is that so when you are gifted with foresight?"
"I do not know, Auberon," she said in reply. "Perhaps your mind losing its intensity when you were looking for me is the reason why I lost my visions when I led you to Queen Zuriñe." She continued her way up the staircase, a thin frown on her face. Her assumption was not truly coming from her heart. At the moment, she was not concerned with odd occurrences such as that, but she knew the strange happenings were important. Otherwise, all-knowing Auberon would not have raised the question.
Zuriñe glowered bitterly outside her window, her eyes scanning the endless sea of green that encompassed her city. Her palace was high enough to oversee the entirety of Carysnein and the untouched meadows that surrounded it. Before the war began, the people of the city would wander outside of the city walls and gather in the meadows. Children would run in the tall grass picking flowers or playing games. Ceremonies such as weddings or coronations would take place in the flowered pastures, the sweet scent of the flowers and grass being swept around them from the cold, fresh mountain air. But now, there was no more celebrating. People were forbidden to set foot outside of the city walls other than the guards, and travelers coming to the gate received harsh examination before being let inside. Some travelers never came in.
She turned her head towards the inner city. It bustled with the tiny and colorful dots of her moving people. Here, safe within their walls, they could continue normally with their lives. She was disappointed that they could not see how even though they were protected by thick, stone walls, they could never escape the terrors of war. Intelligent and sharp as her people were acclaimed to be, they were still mortal, still prone to mistakes. But she rarely saw any of them doing wrong. Her husband was the light and hope of their people, like the one star that continues to shine in a sky of ash and smoke. He did no wrong, committed no crimes, and was born with no faults. Although she knew he loved her dearly, it was still people like him who made her believe that all her peoples' faults were contained in her, the insane and fiery Queen Zuriñe.
Even as a child, she was branded with lunacy. Her parents, the former King and Queen of Innacith and all of Carysnein, were great rulers, but terrible and unloving parents. They were rarely there to comfort her, to tell her she was special and loved. If they did anything for her, it was merely to bombard her with toys and gifts and jewels to make her empty life complete. But Zuriñe never looked for happiness through possession of tangible things. Her soul was empty, even though she held pure gold and jewels in her hands at times. She dreamed of being blessed with the love of the people around her. As princess, she was given false adoration, and even now as Queen, she still could see the doubt in her people's eyes whenever she saw them. Her joyless life was what caused her to put her mind in the clouds, in a world where she refused to come back to the world that shunned her so.
A shiver ran up her spine as she stood, her shoulders hunched over the windowsill. Her once pinned up red hair had fallen apart in clumps around her face, and she shook from the cold she allowed to pass through her. Xerxes was a fine prince from a distance city. His father and mother claimed that he was blessed by Innana herself at his birth, and when Zuriñe first met the young prince, she noticed the eternal glimmer of hope in his blue eyes.
Her body relaxed at the memory of him, and she swallowed easier. With eyes closed, and mouth parted, she remembered a song she sang as a girl. She could not remember what it was called now, for it ceased to ring freely among the people.
Oh Lady of the Sky,
How fair and tall you made
The children Caryslein
Eyes bright, souls unafraid
Wish do you now to set us free,
From life so ill repaid?
And send us to the Forest True
Where Death is dead and life regained?
Hear to us now, our Lady
Come see your children's laughing face
And to us blessed in love and gifts,
May you guard and save
Wish do you now to let us go
Away from life so short-lived?
And lead us to the starry sky,
Where their spirit will forever give?
Oh Lady of the sky,
How brave and loyal you made,
The children Caryslein
Minds clear and free from shade
Wish do you now to guide us to
A life of pure beauty?
And to mend our broken paths,
For silent destiny?
His head remained still, his eyes fearful and worried. Despite the food that he was eating, his jaw still seemed strikingly stiff and immobile, and at times, he felt as if he could not withhold the food he was thankful for. "Lord Auberon," came a soft voice. Pulled away from his troublesome thoughts, he turned his head promptly to the side to meet the kind but careful stare of a maid. In her hands was a tray of freshly cooked meats, steam rising from the succulent flesh. "Would you care for another serving?" she asked, and by her weary voice, it appeared as though, she too, knew all too well the burdens their Queen put upon them.
"No, thank you," he replied, having lost his appetite some while ago. He sent her off with a silent gesture of his hand and the maid left the grand hall back into the kitchen. Auberon inhaled deeply at the serving girl's leave, for certainly he hated to be in the company of Queen Zuriñe.
"Are you well, Auberon?" intruded Zuriñe. It had not gone unknown to her eyes that Auberon was not eating as hungrily as a famished and fatigued traveler would have. Her eyes were narrowed on him, and she looked upon him in slight distaste, for the man had not shown much appreciation for her hospitality. It was not like her to dine solely with a stranger, and therefore she expected thanks in return for wasting her time with him.
He looked at her, his strong stare wavering, and he tried his best not to meet her directly in the eye. "You have not eaten as much as I would hope you would. You must be famished from your journey. Do eat some more," she insisted, her glare far from expressing solace and understanding. Brashly, she snatched her goblet of wine and drank a good couple of gulps, all the while her eyes locked on Auberon.
"I thank you for your generosity and also for allowing me the honor to dine with you, my Queen, but it seems as though I was not as famished as I imagined. I beg your pardon, your Highness, if my words may seem less than grateful, but in truth, I am quite content with what I have consumed." His head tilted slightly at that, to show her his respect, but Zuriñe was far from pleased with his reason.
"I am glad you feel that way," she replied tonelessly, her voice clear and solid. Her lips had formed once again into that hard, thin line on her pale face and Auberon felt the need to rise and quickly hurry out of the room before she erupted in rage at him. He could see quite well through her mask, and despite her seemingly kind words, she was burning with growing abhorrence towards him. Her stare itself seemed to burn right through his skin at her intense fury.
Zuriñe's golden goblet landed on the table with a loud thud, and Auberon nearly jumped from his seat. He had the heart of a warrior, and had strongly protected his ground during battle, but Zuriñe alone was enough to send a shiver up his spine. She was a woman of his own people and yet he feared her more than he feared their enemy, the Arionlen. He knew something was terribly awry in his country if they had allowed the mad woman to become Queen. "Well, Lord Auberon," she said tartly, rising from her seat in one swift leap. "I bid you goodnight. My maid, Eélen, will be by soon to show you at once to your guest room, where you may stay in until you find it necessary to finally be out of Castle Narydh. I shall not see you again, and therefore I bid you also my last farewell." Out of forced courtesy, Auberon rose from his chair, arms rigidly at his sides and bowed low to her as she left.
"I pray to the Lady for your own health and safety," he said, loud enough for her to hear as she treaded down the hallway. "King Xerxes would not want any harm to come to you, even if you bestow it upon yourself." He saw that her steps slowed, and her head was bent at a small degree to the side, as if she were about to say something. But her fiery head turned hotly around and she continued moving on.
Auberon sighed deeply, before losing his balance and falling back into his chair. The Queen had not permitted him to bring his crutch to her table, for she said it spread its deformity to her faultless halls. He had to bear the increasing pain in his left leg whenever he was required to rise. Although he was required to stand only for two moments, his wound was still fresh and waiting to become infected. "My lord," said a familiar voice. From afar, he heard the soft scrapes of feet against the stone floors, and he looked up to meet the approaching being. "Come. I have brought your crutch. I must hurry and show to your room, for I must tend to this mess here immediately," said Eélen, stooping slightly to fit the crutch under his arm.
"I thank you, Eélen," he said gently, finding perhaps too much comfort at her presence.
"No need to thank me, my lord," she replied, focusing on helping him back on his crutch from his seat. "Tis my duty."
"Is it?" he asked, without knowing that he had asked a personal question. Eélen stood upright again, having gotten him securely standing on his crutch, but there was no smile on her face when she met his.
"Everything I do is my duty, Auberon," she said firmly. "Do not take me for some witless girl with no thought as to where she belongs. I do not go off doing things on my own will. It is not my place to do so."
"Have you always been so tightly bonded to the rules of decorum?" he questioned, his voice too blithe for her weak dignity.
"And why does it concern you?" said she bravely, knowing very well that it was not in her power to counter such a distinguished and eminent man such as he. "Does it please you to make sport of me?" Auberon looked surprised that she would even say such a thing. What had her mind accepted in the few hours past that made her look at him in a darker perspective.
"My lady, since when have I disrespected you in any way? If my questions were a tad bit rude and frank, then forgive me, for I did not know. And you failed to inform me of any of your concerns," said Auberon, faint annoyance entering him. Eélen turned on her heel without a word and as she left him trailing behind her, she called out, "That is not what my Queen said."
The feeble irritation that was within him escalated drastically at the mentioning of the insane Queen Zuriñe, and he stopped in his tracks and yelled at her back, his green eyes fierce and focused on her fair head.
"What did she say?" he demanded. "What kind of a Queen mingles in the affairs of her own servants! You believe her, Eélen?" Filled with the same anger, Eélen whirled around and glowered at him with blurring blue eyes. "What did she say?" repeated Auberon, his voice more reasonable.
"You are done with your business here, Lord Auberon. At dawn, go home and do not return."
"Why? Why!" he shouted, but Eélen would not burden herself any further with him and turned around once again. "Eélen! Listen to me!" He cursed his bad leg, for it made it impossible for him to catch up with her. Something had happened in the few hours he had not seen her, and he feared it was the most important thing she would ever say to him, but she would not say it. "What did she say? What did you find out? Eélen, please. Answer." At last, he was able to slow her steps and she stopped, shoulders shrunken and body shaking from inner sobs.
"Auberon," she said softly. "You will not be alive much longer. You have exactly six years before your soul is claimed by Death. And your death…" she paused and swallowed hard, hoping to keep the terrible news away, but it managed to rise back up he throat and out her mouth. She turned to look at him, quivering with fear he was unacquainted with. Silver streams leaked out of the corners of her eyes and at that moment, Auberon was hushed in shadow that he could not pull himself out of. "… is far from honorable."
"She told you this? Zuriñe told you this?" He refused now to call the insane woman as his queen, for she did not deserve the title or the respect. Eélen blinked away any more tears and looked him straight in the eye.
"No. All she told me was that you would bring upon my doom, and shortly after she had warned me of you, I received a frightening vision." Silence overcame her as she waited for any reaction from him. All he did was stand firmly in his place, looking at her with courage and the willingness to let her continue. "I saw a vision of your murder. I saw you die, Auberon. I saw you…" Her voice trailed off, unable to speak anymore. She was cursed with the gift of foresight that allowed her to witness the very death of such a noble and benevolent man. She had seen many things in her mind, but never such a horrifying scene. Was it right to share the vision with this stranger? Was it right to tell him he would not live for long?
"It is all right, Eélen," said Auberon, not the least bit troubled with the news. His voice remained strong. His eyes remained clear of shadow, but from within, she could sense his sorrow. "At least I know my fate, and I shall not do anything to change it. Let the Lady do what she will with my life, for her reasons are indisputable. Do not grieve, Eélen. None of the Caryslei will live long anyway, especially with this war right on our doorstep." There was a brief pause between them, and during the entirety of the needed silence, Auberon held an agonizing gaze at Eélen. But his strength soon waned, for her omniscience in her blue eyes made him realize the painful truth in the situation. He was to die in six years.
Misery was crawling up his back in a shiver that shook him internally, and leaked out of his palms in greasy sweat. Desperately he tried to withhold his dignity and keep himself together, but to know that he would die so soon was already making him feel extremely old, and the ignored pain in his left leg was throbbing in an effort to soak his bandaged limb in blood. For a whole year he had commanded his space in battle, he had ordered and planned out attacks on the enemy with a fearless and zealous heart, and yet here he stood, far from battle, crippled and trembling with the news that had come from Eélen's innocent mouth. Stalwartly he defended his country and king on enemy land, but he knew he would never defeat an enemy so powerful and overwhelming as death itself. Her call was unavoidable, and now that he knew his fate, he knew not what he would do with the six years remaining in his life. Would he go back to war? Or would he remain here, in Innacith to remember and absorb the rest of the world in one last slow and careful observation?
"Auberon," said Eélen, timidly placing her hand on his shoulder. Her eyes had seen his soul split and crack like a broken mirror inside. "Come, my lord. You need rest." She looped her arm around his to lead him to his room, but Auberon's crushed persona was troubling her. Never before had she interacted so much with a man in her whole life, except for her father. She barely knew him, but something told her that this man was special. After all, she had seen his fate, and strangely, something about his cast down head seemed oddly familiar to her.
Her hands worked steadily and her face showed no sign of complaint. With taut, cold fingers, she lifted the dishes and utensils from the long wooden table and cradled the delicate pieces of porcelain to the large kitchen. Auberon had been brought to his room and he thanked her for showing him the hospitality that the Queen had failed to embrace him with, but she felt that she did not accomplish her job. She had shown their guest his room and left him with kind words, and yet she was still surrounded with the feeling of dereliction. Had she done all that was possible to make their visitor stay at home? Or had she only made things worse?
"Eélen," said a voice. It belonged to her friend, Nayeli. The brunette young woman could sense the despair hiding under Eélen's listless face. "What troubles you, my friend? I have not seen you this sad or silent since your father died. Are you sure you are well?" Eélen scooped up another dish before turning around and heading towards the kitchen. She was in no mood to speak with Nayeli. She was a true and reliable confidant, but she would not be able to understand the visions that invaded her mind.
"It is nothing, Nayeli. I have just been having a very rough day," said Eélen.
"The dreams again?" questioned Nayeli, as she followed her to the kitchen. Eélen sighed before barging through the heavy kitchen doors.
The place was bustling with servants and the counters made of smooth, hardened red clay were dusty with flour and other ingredients of the night's meal. As she wove her way around the paths of the others, she dropped off the dirty dishes on the counter beside the sink. The water pump lied to her right and at the sound of her friend placing another pile of dishes on the countertop, Eélen at last decided to speak.
"Yes, the dreams again," she replied, turning towards her friend. "Today I received a vision of someone's death. I shall not say who, for it will cause much uproar around this castle, but it was a terrible thing to see anyway." Nayeli stared at her with serious brown eyes.
"You should speak with Aegnor. In him may you confide in. He is the only other sorcerer in this country, other than his brother who has gone with King Xerxes. Perhaps he will be able to analyze your dreams."
"I do not trust him, Nayeli," said Eélen. "He may tell Queen Zuriñe about my dreams and she may only use them to make my life all the more miserable. I will not do it. These dishes must be cleaned, Nayeli. Tell the others who are not doing anything to aid you. I must see my Queen."
Her despondency was supplanted with faint anger. It was Zuriñe, not Auberon, who had made her sulk daily and who had filled her with discouragement. Her Queen enjoyed bringing her down so that she may feel better of herself, thinking that if she was drowning in her own problems, everyone else would have to follow. And it began with her weak and timid highest maid. Her steps quickened, and her heart beat faster as she ran down the hallways. Her hands gripped clumps of her dress so that the long hem would not trip her, and with the quiet tap of her shoes as the only sound echoing down the corridors, she bent her mind on speaking with Zuriñe.
Her limbs slowed to a stop, and her golden waves of hair landed against her back again as she turned her fair head to the massive wooden doors before her. Firmly, she banged her knuckles against the wood. "My Queen," she called. "May I have a word with you?" From behind the closed barrier, she heard a loud mutter and shuffled steps. With a deep, lingering 'creak,' a small slit in the doorway was made and Zuriñe's fiery head appeared.
"What is it that you want? Your last chore was to bring Auberon to his room. Why have you returned? Do not understand orders when they are given to you?"
"I have done what you have asked, your highness," sent Eélen quickly in reply. "But it is not of my chores which I have come to speak of with you." Zuriñe leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest, waiting irritably for Eélen to continue with her petty talk.
"What could you possibly speak to me about? Why would I even care what you say?" said Zuriñe, pure mockery in her voice.
"Because this is important," replied Eélen, strongly posing her argument. "You treated Lord Auberon with a very small and limited amount of hospitality, your highness, and I do not favor such a decision." A threatening white flash seemed to mirror in Zuriñe's hazel eyes, but it was gone in less than a second.
"So you have come to chastise your own Queen now, Eélen?" said Zuriñe, her voice rising. "Is that what you have come here for?"
"No, your highness," burst Eélen, fearing her Queen's wrath. She bowed her head to show that she intended no disrespect. "I have come to speak with you about Lord Auberon. I… I had a vision." A sudden interest came to Zuriñe, and she peered at Eélen's bent head with a grin.
"What did you see? I told you he would mean nothing but pain to you, Eélen. But do you listen? No."
"I saw his murder… but there was something I left out when I told him what I saw." An intense fascination in the information drew Zuriñe further from her door and closer to Eélen.
"What? What was it?" she demanded.
"He was killed in your halls, your Highness, which means he will come here again in the near future." The Queen took a step back and beamed to herself, for amidst her troublesome and dark thoughts came a spark of evident wickedness.
"He admires you, Eélen," she cackled. "The man has fallen in love with a maid!" She pointed a laughing finger at Eélen, and the maid's face began to burn terribly.
"That is not true," insisted Eélen, but Zuriñe was too caught up in her brief moment of joviality. "He is a nice and kind man. I am honored to have met him."
"Enough with the excuses, dear," said Zuriñe, trying to stifle her laughter with her hand. "You witnessed his murder because you are fated to come together and wed. It is that obvious. Is that all you have come to talk about? To have me analyze your silly little visions?" Eélen's eyes burned with anger and rising abhorrence towards the woman she had served for so long. Even now, as a grown woman, the Queen could still not help but make fun of her.
"Good night, your highness," said Eélen, pushing the words out as politely as she could through her rigid mouth. Turning on her heel, she sped back down the hallways, and Zuriñe's laughter followed after her like a haunting, bitter wind.
With and worn, aching face, Eélen retreated to her small servant's room. Usually, she would spend a few hours on the bottom level of the castle in the library, reading anything she could find. Busying herself with the lore of her acclaimed people allowed her to drift away from her burdens and find a brief moment of peace in an era of war.
The door shut behind her in a deep thud, and she collapsed onto her cot, her hands clenched and face wrinkled in pain. Why does she torment me so? , wondered the maid. Zuriñe's laughter still rang in her ears, buzzing in her thoughts like a wasp and every time she breathed, the louder the laughter shouted.