Chapter 1
Allies and Enemies

The footsteps echoed in the Gothic stone hallways. The large windows were covered with thick curtains, restricting light to enter the enormous hall. It was a solemn place. The girl was also quiet and pertained a gloomy air. She looked at nothing but the dusty worn floor. Her guide shared her quiet composure. He led her through the never ending halls stopping in front of an elaborately decorated door. He unlocked the room and the door creaked slightly open.

"This is the best room that we can offer for now, My Lady. Do not mind the dust for the maids will clean it by evening. Please make yourself at home here, Lady Aydan."

"Thank you for your hospitality and help." The whisper seemed foreign in her mouth. She was still twisting the words around as she stepped out onto a small balcony in her room that overlooked the forest of Merdlyn.

The great unexplored forest spread out through several regions of the great kingdom of Aristar yet no particular region claimed it. No one in their right mind would live within that dangerous, dark place with its many secrets, beyond what a human could dream of. To the west of Aristar was the great expanding sea, the beautiful Annadiane which stretched to coasts still undiscovered—or went over the edge of the world as some said. To the north and east were the neighboring countries of Epliens, with their pale skinned, solemn people, and Leconte, the dark skinned nomads of the far eastern lands. To the south flowed the aggressive Talan River.

The realm was of the Aristar Kings. They ruled all trade over the sea and nearby lands. Recently, the Eplienians rose against the great kingdom, demanding their freedom. Now, a blood-thirsty war occurred between the two kingdoms. It called all fit men and some women. It devoured many.

Aydan looked back at the expanse of rippling and swaying green sea, filled with mystery and life.

Her life.

Well, it was, before her resettlement, that is. She gripped the top of the railing and rested her weight on it while letting the wind of the forest surround her being.

Life, death, hope and despair. It was all around her. Engraved within her mind, never to leave her heart.

A forgotten life. That is what it was. "An abandoned life." She whispered before opening her green orbs to the gentle yet harsh world. She looked at the infinite horizon with sudden determination. Her grip tightened on the railing.

"I am Aydan of Shae and I...I will show him—all of them."

It was a genesis for her. A new beginning in a different environment full of expectations. She was to do as she was told, speak until spoken a a slave.

It wasn't what she wanted. It wasn't who she was.

She wanted to have the strength, to find him again and to show him she was able to survive on her own. To balance her life back to normal. She wanted to stand up and change her life with her own blood and sweat. She was supposed to have moved on in her new life like a real lady should. But then, had she ever wanted to be a real lady? Aydan turned her back to the memory filled forest and started to get ready for her afternoon meeting.

She was going to eat with the lord of the house today. She was going to graciously thank him for his hospitality. It would be disrespectful if she was to show up with a layer of dust from the distant travel.

Aydan opened her door to reveal the same unsocial guide whom she had walked behind earlier. His name was never announced and it remained so. Dressed in her favorite leaf green dress, Aydan followed the taciturn guide towards the dining hall. She was slightly nervous to meet an unknown benefactor of her family for the first time. He had to accept her for her to survive and adapt into Merdlyn. That will show her father.

They might pretend that he is never going to return but she knew better. Her father, the one who had raised her like a son since her birth. The one who became both parents when her mother died from a deathly disease caught in the forest. The well known valiant General of the army. And he was living up to that name. His most recent letter had stated his movement into the dangerous border regions between Aristar and Epliens. It was a perilous time, the period when the worried household and daughter paced in circles waiting for his condition.

Then came the dreaded moment.

A timid faced messenger, shivering at their threshold, delivered the information that her father had lost contact with the army. Aydan was only given a week of mourning before her forced movement. The man she was about to meet helped her family when they needed the most guidance.

The silent guide stopped her in front of large double doors. The guards on both sides thumped their staffs once before opening the entrance. She turned to watch the guide leave without any words. See you later then, she thought to herself, annoyed. Aydan turned then to face the richly decorated dining hall. It was the largest compared to the other halls she had seen so far in this extensive castle. The table in the middle was lavished with mouth-watering rare foods. Aydan almost opened her mouth out of surprise and hunger but she restrained. It was best not to let go of herself. She looked beyond the food to see the head of the table.

Seated in an impressive chair was Lord Nathanial, the Lord of Merdlyn. He was middle aged, such as her guard, but instead of that solemn steady expression, his face only showed hardship. What else would be expected from the leader of the strongest army of the time. His black hair was entwined with gray strands. His cold brown eyes observed her several times through dinner. There was hardly any conversation except for an occasional 'Yes, sire.' 'I greatly enjoy my accommodations.' 'Your hospitality is graciously thanked.' Aydan felt very uncomfortable around the silent man with the frozen expression so she stuck with minimal words.

Aydan wandered through the empty halls, observing all of the faded art around her, wondering about many things. Then she found the room—a long forgotten chamber with dusty covered furniture and a large fireplace. It was most likely an accident that she arrived there. Yes, perhaps an accident. Perhaps it was fate.

The lock was so worn out that her first firm push was enough for it to break. The first time she set her eyes on the room, she immediately knew that it was different. Golden light from the setting sun shone onto the dust filled furniture. This first area was a large entrance type with a balcony and a fireplace. There were other doors leading to other sections, perhaps the bedroom or bathroom. Before she could explore further she noticed it.

The sword on the mantle of the fireplace. It seemed to draw any life left in the room to itself. It was on the mantle in such a way as if someone had hastily tossed it there. Aydan curiously observed it closely for a moment before gaining courage to wipe her finger across the top. The revealed shiny surface reflected her curious face.

It wasn't long before the sword was off the mantle where it had rested for many ages. The grazing of metal against metal filled the room as Aydan unsheathed the sword. The emerald stone set at the tip of the handle transformed the light from the setting sun into spots of green magic, dancing around the room.

The blade itself was even more enchanting. There were elaborate carvings on it, covering most of the blade on both sides. Aydan held the flat side towards the closed glass balcony doors. The symbols or drawings...or whatever they were almost seemed to dance in the sunlight.

The sound of footsteps echoed down the hallway outside. Aydan sheathed and replaced the sword as close to the original position as she could, then hurried towards the open door without a second glance. She heard the footsteps coming closer. They were too close now, close enough that they would see her coming out of the room. After a moment of hesitation, she closed the door with herself still inside. Thankfully, the door only creaked slightly.

Aydan concentrated on staying as silent as possible. The footsteps continued outside. Now, the conversation being held was clear to her ears. In her defense, it was a rather loud conversation.

The first voice she could make out was a deep male voice. "Neil, think about this again. You are risking too much."

The next voice was almost as deep but sounded more youthful. "Caedmon. I know what I'm doing."

"Yes, I know you might think that-"

The voice stopped abruptly. Aydan heard the two men stop near her door. She really didn't wish to be found here. Her pulse raced. She silently swore at her heartbeat, feeling like it was echoing through the whole castle.

The younger voice spoke after a pause, a pleading tone in his voice. "Please, for my sake, stop. I have traveled long and am tired."

A sigh followed. "As you wish."

After the footsteps had faded away, Aydan listened for any more sounds. Hearing none, she stepped smoothly into the hallway and closed the door. Locking it again was impossible since she had broken the mechanism but she trusted that no one would disturb it. The layers of dust inside the room and the almost rotting wood of the door told her that she must have been the first person to encroach this place in years—maybe decades.

Neil walked towards his chamber after saying good night to Caedmon. This passionate man was his closest friend, he realized that. But sometimes, Caedmon's intensity of others' businesses was enough, even for Neil, to wish horrid things onto him.

Yet, his compassion was also like an older brother Neil had never known, however clichéd. Though slightly childish in nature, Caedmon was serious when he wanted to be.

Neil finally settled down into a large armchair in his personal quarters. Night had risen already and the room was dark except for the candle beside him on a small table and the moonlight slanting through the window next to the chair.

With an exasperated sigh, Neil pressed the palms of his hands to his eyes and leaned back as far as the chair would allow. He was so tired after his recent mission. It was one of the harder ones to come around. The target had put up a major struggle which caused several problems related to his life and possible death. He was successful in the end, of course.

What's done, is done. No use brooding over it. His uncle's words rang through his mind.

Neil ran his hands through his hair then staggered to a standing position. If all of him didn't ache already, tomorrow he had to attend a luncheon with several honorable guests. With one last sigh, Neil blew out the calm flame, leaving the dark room only with moonlight coming from the window.

The dawn had yet to appear over the treetops. The castle was mostly asleep. A blue tint covered the vast grounds and the nearby city.

Already, Aydan was awake and active. She was running through her regular routine of the weapon dances -- a set of memorized movements with a particular weapon intended to give more practice with that weapon when alone.

Not many people agreed with a girl learning the ways of battle. However, her father was very indulgent in her education. At her home, she had learned all the ways of battle just as a boy would, along with regular information such as mathematics, writing, and history. She greatly enjoyed practicing with each weapon, feeling her muscles push and pull against her grip to create beautiful arches and hearing the blade or stick cut through the air.

Her simple long brown pants and plain white shirt were already soaked with her sweat and the humidity that lasted from the night. Finishing with her sword dance, Aydan re-sheathed her favorite weapon. She threw a cloak on, but then took it off when it felt like she was burning. Carefully hiding the sword in the folds of the forest green cloak, she headed inside to freshen up before the castle awoke.

The area that she had chosen for her practice was a clearing set off from the castle by a small expanse of forest. It was far enough for her to practice in peace yet it was close enough to run to safety in case of danger. Mostly, danger from the forest.

The forest was indeed something to fear for many people. It was filled with so many different creatures; some are dangerous but most are friendly and intelligent. Aydan had a close relationship with the forest, growing up in a home which was open to all of nature. She could identify the many different trees and the many different creatures who resided within the vast green sea. She knew exactly what dark dangers lurked there.

She quietly walked up a narrow dirt path towards the castle, often observing the color change around and above her. The sky started to become brighter and everything was taking on a silver tint. Aydan suddenly heard footsteps ahead. She froze in her place, thinking of what would happen if she were discovered here, in this state.

I would be kicked out for un-Ladylike behavior. I would be forced to learn how to BE a lady from an incompetent someone, as if my etiquette class back at home wasn't already the most boring, though proficient, thing ever...

The torturing thoughts flashed through her mind. She quickly decided evasion when the footsteps got louder. Hiding behind a tree off the path, Aydan silently cursed the approaching person who had dared to unsettle her so early in the day.

Whoever it was kept coming, closer and closer. The sweat on her face dripped as she grew nervous from apprehension.

Suddenly, the footsteps stopped. There was complete silence for several minutes except for the rustling of trees. Aydan pushed back part of her light brown hair that had come loose from her ribbon. Her hair reached down to her mid back and was very distracting during her practices so she always held it back with anything she could find.

She could already imagine the servants waking up to get the castle ready for the day. She decided that waiting any longer might end with consequences. She moved to step onto the path.

The air behind her moved and her body tensed automatically. There was a flash of silver. The next thing she knew, there was cold sharp metal pressed against her neck.

She quickly weighed the situation. She could easily draw the sword from under her cloak and injure the person behind her but, by then, she could already be falling to the ground with a split neck. She decided the best thing to do was to elbow this person in the gut and move before the metal slices her throat.

She relaxed her body to give this stranger a façade of defeat. The knife at her neck pressed harder, almost cutting skin. A familiar voice spoke out.

"State your name, class, and reason for hiding in the forest behind the castle."

Aydan frowned. The way he said it sounded like she was a commoner or a traitor spying on the castle. She felt pride and anger rise inside her. If he treats her with such disrespect, she refused to be truthful to him.

She took a breath to reply. As she breathed in, the knife cut a small line on her neck and a drop of blood oozed out.

"I am Kel of Queensheart, my lord. I was only picking herbs here for my sick mother who is resting in the city." Her voice even trembled to add to the effect.

The knife definitely loosened against her throat. "Oh, really?"

She flinched at the amusement in his voice. Amusing and degrading at the same time. He caught her small movement and back came the knife.

"Then where are your herbs, dear maiden?"

The sounds of the starting day were clearly audible now. Soon, the quiet guide, who she has now identified as her caretaker, would knock at her door. When she would not respond, he might just open the door. Then, when he sees the empty room, there might just be an alarm raised at the castle for a certain lost lady.

Aydan swallowed her large pride. This was no longer a game. She would get into real trouble if the Lord of Merdlyn found her like this.

"I am Aydan of Shae, a guest at the Merdlyn castle. Release me now or you will face the consequences of assaulting a Lady."

The threat was empty. The only one who would be hurt from this event would be Aydan herself. That is if they find her like this. If only this stubborn young man would let her go.

"The name is not familiar. I have never heard of Shae."

Ultimate rage swelled up within Aydan. Never heard of Shae?! The strongest region of all of the King's rule?! How can he be so...obnoxious!!

Aydan turned around, no longer caring if she died there or not. The pride of her region was something worth dying for anyway.

"You insufferable—ignorant—fool! How could you not have heard of Shae?!"

She stared up into green-gray eyes with utmost rage. They calmly gazed back at her. Suddenly, he smirked. He actually smirked at her!


Aydan was interrupted from her offense by a clear strong voice. In her passion, she hadn't noticed the disappearance of the knife from her neck. She turned her head towards the castle.

"Neilian! Where have you wandered off to?" the sturdy female voice of the castle caretaker reached their ears.

Aydan stumbled back in panic. They were going to find her in this sweaty state! She whipped her head around, trying to find a way out. She started running towards the castle as quickly as she could, off the path. She didn't look back towards the mysterious figure, not once. The only goal in her eyes was the supplies door of the castle, which was usually crowded. Fortunately for her, today it was filled with very busy people who wouldn't take note of a girl sneaking through between vegetable baskets.

Aydan managed to make it to her room unhampered. She joyfully took a bath then fell onto her bed in a nightdress, quickly slipping into deep sleep. A knock woke her up with a jolt.

She jumped off the bed realizing that, according to the light shining in from outside, she had slept through breakfast. It was already lunch...and she had an appointment to keep She grabbed the sky blue dress, decorated with silver embroidery on the edges, where she had placed it last night and hurriedly prepared herself. She had begun tying together the ribbons located in a decorative fashion when a voice issued from outside the room.

"Are you ready, My Lady?" the toneless voice said.

She finished putting her dress on and stumbled around trying to find slippers. "Yes—I'll be down in a few minutes for sure!"

There was an uncomfortable pause outside. "Then I will make my way to the dining hall, if you do not mind. Are you assured of your way there, My Lady?"

So much for caretaker.Aydan sighed to herself. She knew that she would only receive a small lecture or be ignored while this man might just loose his job. It was completely reasonable for him to abandon her now.

"Yes, I know the way there. Please go ahead."

She wistfully listened to the footsteps growing dimmer just as she found her slippers. After grabbing a blue clip and a brush, she proceeded to brush her tangled brown locks until they appeared presentable. She clipped enough of her hair back so that it wouldn't fall into her face then exited her room into the empty hallway.

She headed right, the direction of the long gone footsteps. But there she met an obstacle. The hallway split into three possible directions: right, left, or down. The uncertain guest hesitantly picked the descending stairs and headed blindly to wherever they led.

Neil hastily buttoned up the rest of his shirt. He hopped down part of the hallway trying to clip his boots properly. He was definitely already late to the lunch. He had been more absolved in his eventful walk in the morning to notice the passing time. Now, because of that, he currently had a possible lecture coming up about the importance of punctuality.

Neil skidded another corner to sprint down a long corridor which led towards the East side of the castle, the area which held the kitchen, dining hall, and servant's quarters. As he rushed past a side hallway, a flash of blue caught his eye. He hesitated in his step, then walked backwards until he had reached the hallway. He held in laughter when he sighted a young lady, her back turned, trying to open a large door. When her efforts led no where, she headed for the next one and knocked on it first.

"Dammit, whoever is in there, open up! I order it!" She pounded on the door before pulling at the handle.

Neil painfully replaced the smirk on his face with a smile warm enough to melt snow. No point in being conceited here. "Excuse me, young lady, can I be of assistance?"

The girl froze in her walk. An uncomfortable silence filled the hallway. Frowning at this reply, Neil took some steps towards her. "Excuse me?"

The girl appeared to gulp before turning around with a nervous expression. He unconsciously noticed how her brown unkempt tendrils of hair framed her slightly tanned face and how her long eyelashes enhanced her wide eyes.

Neil recognized her immediately. She might have appeared more lady-like but those were the same defiant emerald eyes and that was the same angular face.

Author's Note: *This is the revised version* I've actually had this piece of prose saved on my hard drive for several weeks now. Maybe a month or two. I don't even know why I'm finally releasing it...perhaps out of curiosity of readers' feedback and criticism (not that my wonderful best friend/editor isn't proficient enough, of course).

Please review and criticize as much as you can. I am a very young and budding (psh) author and need some direction (again, not that my amazingly talent best friend's isn't enough because she is the one who has made this story not reek of its grammatical errors.)