© 2012 – P. Kristen Enos (I own these characters and their drama.)

Author's Notes: The characters in this story are of a race that don't age past their prime – they're still mortal, but they don't suffering the 'whithering' that curses humans.

I wrote the first version of this story about twenty years ago. Now I'm rewriting it and it's a new tale that's unfolding itself as I'm writing it this second time around.

So here we go (and yes, raw from the brain so I can focus on writing instead of being pulled into the black hole of editing):

Paula breathed a sigh of relief when the carriage came to its final stop of the two week trip. She was a woman with freckled skin, red hair and a frame so tall and thin that she had a lanky posture in her servants gown. The handmaid looked over at her mistress, who woke up from her tenuous nap, still pale and clammy.

Under the morning sun, the palace's royal servants greeted their caravan of carriages with full pomp and circumstance. Yet seeing her mistress's condition, they helped her from the vehicle with the greatest of care. After all, they were welcoming a former daughter of the City of New Eden and the best friend of its beloved princess. They shortly had her tucked into the bed of a guest room.

Paula settled in the nearby chair, secretly glad that her mistress' symptoms was considered too distracting for Sir Drake so arrangements were made for him to have his own room.

After all, no one wants to risk subpar performance from the lands' greatest tournament champion for the next two weeks of games with best participants from all over the continent and beyond.

"Paula, you can go to your room," Lady Franchesca said gently as she stretch out in the bed. "I'm in the best place I can be now."

"When you go to sleep, I will leave, My Lady," she said with the firmness of one who had looked over the other woman since the latter had been a baby.

A soft knocking at the door caused Paula jumped to her feet in anticipation, instinctively sensing who it was going to be.

She opened the door to see the beautiful and graceful princess with her ice-blond hair and sparkling green eyes, "Greetings, Your Majesty!"

Not being a woman of airs among those she considered most dear, she embraced the humbled servant with a warm hug. "Oh, Paula, it's wonderful to see you again!" Then she turned to Franchesca in the bed.

"Frankie, I do hope this related to being pregnant and not being ill!"

For the first time a long while, the bedridden woman broke out in a genuine but weak smile as they hugged. "It's like clockwork. A couple more weeks and it should pass."

"And speaking of past pregnancies, I heard you didn't bring the girls?"

"Now that they have children, their priorities have changed. Plus, Felicia is also pregnant and didn't want to risk travel with her time expecting. I suppose I should have followed her lead. But I really wanted to see you."

Candice gave her a reassuring smile and said, "I am very glad to see you. Grandpapa and Martin would love to see you too! And I can also see that you need rest, my dear. So sleep, and we'll see how you are by dinner!"

Towering over his practice opponent, Sir Drake didn't bother striking back as the other man kept hitting his shield. Finally having had enough, Drake waited for an opening and then stepped forward and slammed him with the full weight of his shield, knocking the man to the ground like a ragdoll. He then flipped off his helmet, revealing his square, shaved head and rugged features then heard the roar of laughs and cheers from the crowd of onlookers. The man who easily intimidated everyone who saw him allowed himself a small smile at the response.

Watching from the royal booth, Prince Martin let out a low whistle. He was a handsome, polished man with brown hair, mustache and eyes. "Remind me again why I tossed my coin into the ring to participate? Perhaps I'll make certain to have myself knocked out in an early round."

King Thomas chuckled and slapped him on the back. "I did think that perhaps you were trying a new method of impressing Candice."

"I'm certain I can get a superficial wound and go for her sympathy instead. At least far less life-threatening."

"Oh, speaking of life-threatening," the King said as he looked over at his nearby Duke. "Roland, have all of the participants arrived yet?"

A pudgy man with spectacles pulled out his scroll even though his memory really didn't need it. "We have two that have not yet checked in. But on the other side of it, eight arrived that we hadn't planned on."

The King mulled that over and nodded approvingly. "Then we will proceed forward with the announcement tomorrow. Spread the word."

"Yes, Your Highness," he said with a bow before departing.

Martin looked at the King and asked, "Are you going through with this, Sire?"

"Don't have a choice, do we?"

The twelve year old boy leapt to his feet after crawling under the tent flaps. His eyes widened in awe at the array of weapons and armor that bore the crest of the triple eagles. He had indeed reached the inner sanctum of his idol, Sir Drake.

He wanted to reach out and touch the polished metal, but he was ever aware how dirty his hands were, and it was just touch dirt from his recent crawl. He contented himself to look at everything with hungry eyes. It was then he realized that he needed to find the person in charge of maintaining this equipment so he could beg for a job, any job to touch these pieces that have become legendary on tournament fields across the country.

Then he saw the towering figure of Sir Drake himself standing at the tent opening, fresh from his latest practice. The man looked at the boy questioningly, his expression not at all welcoming.

Martin waited for the Duke to finish whispering his urgent news into the King's ear and then disappearing again. "What happened?"

King Thomas looked very grim. "Drake found a potential assassin in his tent and had to kill him. Luckily, he did it quickly and with little noise so no one else is the wiser. But Roland is coordinating the clean-up effort."

"I definitely don't envy that man. Drake, that is," Martin said. "I never realized that being the grand champion could be so dangerous off the fields as well."

"Yes, it's a good thing he can take care of himself."

(To be continued...)