Across lush rolling hills, past miles of farmland overflowing with rope crops of wheat, corn and barley, beyond a bustling city with shouting merchants and bouncing carriages, sits a grand castle. Immense towers and massive buildings done in granite and limestone, vast court yards with colorful flowers and trees, exquisite marble fountains that push water high into the air only to land with the gentlest of sounds in a clear pool beneath. The sight has taken the breath from many of those who have visited our kingdom and though I have lived here all my life, I am still prone to marvel at its beauty.
As I awoke that morning, it seemed to be a day like any other. I grunted as my lady in waiting helped me to bath and change into my clothes for the day. She brushed and braided my curling red-brown hair, then placed the simple gold circlet that was my crown, atop my head. I was then ushered into the breakfast room where my family waited for me.
My father sat at the head of the table, tall and broad like the warrior kings from the tales the bard told. He had long, wavy brown hair and amber-brown eyes set into a square face. The goatee he wore flattered his strong jaw as well as covered part of the long scar on his face that went from his cheekbone to his jaw.
My mother sat at his right, also a tall, broad woman with broad shoulders and wide hips. Long, dark red hair was braided down her back with a few strands escaping to frame her heart-shaped face. Her eyes were a deep forest green color, surrounded by long, thick lashes. She was a warriors wife, but despite being such a hearty woman, she only ever gave birth to my elder brother and me. My father told me once, when I had pestered him to death about wanting a younger sibling, that when Mother was giving birth to me, there had been some kind of problem. The midwife was unsure if I would make it into this world alive. When Mother heard this, she forced me out, even though she was not at the point where she could push. This act had damaged her womb beyond repair and almost ended her life. Father said he remembered hearing a lot of screaming and when he ran into the room, the bed and my mother's birthing dress were soaked with blood. After that, the midwife said that if Mother survived, she would never carry another child to term.
At the other end of the table sat my older brother, Kaimbe. He was built like my father, but had more of my mother's features with his long red hair and dark green eyes. I noticed that his sword was slung on his belt, which meant he would be training with Father's army today.
I sat at my father's left hand side, listening as Father and Kaimbe talked about the agenda for the day. A dull hum of voices outside the door suddenly became a loud commotion as men shouted at each other. Father looked towards the door, his brow furrowing. The door flung open and a handful of soldiers piled into the room, shouting and swearing at each other, demanding my father's attention. He stood quickly from the table, throwing down his napkin and swearing in a way that made my mother blush.
"I am eating with my family!" he snapped, causing the men to fall silent. "Can't this wait?"
"No, sire," one of them said. "I'm afraid it can't. They are coming. Already three villages have been-..." Father made a violent motion with his hand and the soldier fell silent. Father turned to my mother.
"Take Andria and go to the safe house. I will have a carriage waiting for you outside the servants door," he turned to Kaimbe, "Come with me." Kaimbe stood and followed Father out the main door while Mother took my hand and pulled me through the servant's entrance.
I was confused and scared. What would be so horrible that mother and I would need to go to the safe house? I had only ever been to the safe house once and that was just to see what it looked like.
As we moved down the hall, the servants swarmed us, and in the confusion, I broke away from my mother and took of down the hall towards the throne room.
I dodged frantic servants and guards, pulling up the full skirts of my dress so I didn't trip over them. As I approached the throne room, I heard my father yelling at his men. I entered through a side door meant only for the royal family and heard him shouting;
"I want their heads! I want them dead, eradicated from the land!"
"Sire, we do not have enough men to fight them!" the general, Pritbor, protested. "If we go up against them it will be a slaughter!"
"Then gather more! Do whatever you have to do to see these things are stopped!"
"Father, what's going on?" I asked. Father and Kaimbe whipped around, twin looks of fear and anger on their faces.
"Andria, go back with your mother, now!" Father ordered. "The castle is no place for a child right now!"
I opened my mouth to protest being called a 'child', at 19 I was hardly some scuff kneed little girl, but Kaimbe moved forward and grabbed my arm.
"I'm taking you to Mother now," he hissed. A loud roar filled the castle, followed by the sounds of soldiers clamoring and screaming.
"It's too late! They're here!"
Cries of pain and fear filled the room and Kaimbe tried to push me out of the side door. I spun around him and went to my father's side, just as the massive, ceiling high double doors to the throne room flung open with such a force that they cracked the walls behind them. I stared in horror at the beasts that entered the room.
Two massive, gold and silver-scaled dragons whipped their long necks around, surveying the room. One moved its great horned head towards us, lowering it so that it could look at my father. Slitted burgundy eyes narrowed at us and scaled lips pulled back to reveal rows of sharp, lethal teeth.
The other remained by the door, smoke escaping its nostrils in warning for anyone who dared come too close.
Father slowly pushed me behind him and reached for his sword. I heard the sound of it gingerly coming free from its sheath and saw him hold it up in front of him. The great beast snorted and drew back, wrapping its long neck and tail around the bulk of its body and expelling a breath of smoke that covered it. As the smoke cleared, I saw that the Dragon was gone and in its place stood a woman. Sharp features and a tall, regal build were covered in golden skin and a tight, revealing black dress. Long snow-white hair cascaded down her back and was pulled back from her face by an intricate, black webbed hood. Burgundy eyes with slitted pupils were framed with long white eyelashes and a black and gold scaled pattern. Full lips painted with a dark red, almost black, lipstick were pulled back in a dangerous smile to reveal four sets of sharp fangs. She raised one long toned arm, extending her index finger with its talon like black nail and pointing it at my father.
"King Hartwig," she said in a deep, almost seductive voice.
"What do you want?" Father asked.
"The same thing you do," she said. "The welfare and protection of my people."
"Your welfare is only in danger because you kill my people," Father argued.
"We are not the ones with trophies on our walls," she replied, coolly, motioning to the mounted head of a great, old dragon that hung behind the throne. It was what my father had given my mother has proof he was brave and strong enough to be worthy of her hand.
"What do you propose?" Father asked.
"A truce," she replied, "a clean slate, a promise that you will not hunt us and we will not hunt you."
"Very well," Father agreed.
"You will supply us with livestock and we will provide you with jewels," she continued.
"Done," Father said. "We must have time to increase our livestock numbers, however, so our own people are not left wanting."
"Understandable," she commented. "You will be given a year."
"Anything else?" Father questioned. At this, the woman gave a sinister smile and turned her cat like eyes on me.
"Your daughter has remained unwed in a time when most girls are married off at sixteen," she said conversationally.
"I do not believe in forcing my children into marriages solely for my convenience," Father said. "She should marry someone she loves."
"Unfortunately this is a luxury she will not be afforded," she said. "I will require her hand for my eldest son." At this, the beast behind her tuck it's head and tail around itself and let out a plume of smoke. A man stepped forth, tall and toned with golden skin and white hair braided over his shoulder. Cat-like blood colored eyes, surrounded with the same gold and black scale pattern at the woman, were focused on me. He wore black breeches and knee high leather boots with a royal purple open tunic that exposed his chest, showing a matching scale pattern to the one on his face.
"Out of the question!" Father cried. Kaimbe drew his own sword and took a step forward. The woman ignored this.
"Then we will level your kingdom, slaughter your people, burn your crops and mount your own heads on our walls as trophies," she hissed, her eyes still on me. Her gaze told me that the fate of the kingdom, my kingdom and home, rested solely on my shoulders. I could save my people from being slaughtered like pigs.
"I'll do it!" I cried above the rising protests. My father spun around to face me, his amber eyes wide.
"Andria!" Father cried.
"You can't!" Kaimbe yelled.
"It's not your choice," I said, calmly. The woman smiled at me while the man held out his hand to me. I descended the dais and slid my palm over his. His nails were long and sharp like the woman's and his skin was hot to the touch, as if he had a fever. He gently pulled me to his side and looked towards the woman.
"Mother," he said.
"Yes, Drakon," she said. "Then we have a deal, Hartwig?"
Father stared at me for a long moment, then hung his head in defeat and re-sheathed his sword.
"Yes," he sighed. "I shall draw up the paper work.