1. First battle
And once again the flaming sun sank back into the horizon, preparing its awaited appearance tomorrow at the battlefield. In this kingdom even the sun had no rest. Reluctantly Paige allowed the smooth velvet fabric to slip through her fingers, once more shedding darkness upon that lonesome room. She only knew of the foretold attack, of the deaths-to-come, of the cries that would be heard ringing throughout the kingdom like funeral bells. Paige sank into an armchair, her face gently lit up by the shuddering flame of a nearby candle. The fear she had witnessed on the soldiers' faces was enough to shatter her heart. The acknowledged truth that most of them would not live through the next day. Not that they had a choice.
A soft knock on her door aroused her from her grief-stricken thoughts, and she stood, instinctively, candle in hand, squinting into the darkness to identify the silhouette at the far end.
"You're not asleep." Paige let her gaze fall to the floor as she walked over to the bed, where he sat, placing his own candle upon the table top.
"Does that surprise you?" she asked with a heavy sigh. Aiden's face glowed golden in the candlelight, highlighting his angelic features. He had always been her guardian angel.
"No, not really," he replied, looking into his lap again. "You're scared." She knew that his words, although testifying her own dread, also admitted his own. That was the closest that Aiden ever got to admitting fear. She had never seen him afraid before.
"Those people are going to die!" she cried, bounds finally snapping. "All because of this stupid kingdom and its stupid leaders and this stupid stupid war!" His arm rested on her shoulder, as a sign of silent comfort.
"We have to." She could have sworn she heard his voice break.
"But it won't ever end. These lives will be sacrificed, sure, but these enemies will come back. We'll retaliate. More lives will be lost. All for what?" They'd been fighting this futile war for so long it was as if they had forgotten the reason why. Paige was sure there wasn't one.
"Sleep," Aiden whispered. "That's what you need now. Not this deep talk about war and its purposes." He tried to laugh, but the laughter died halfway to his mouth.
"But I want to fight!" she pressed on. "I want to fight and be of at least some use!" She turned to him and opened her mouth to say something, but her eyes caught the single tear and rolled off his cheek, clinging to the edge of his chin.
"Happy birthday for tomorrow, Paige," he whispered, lifting his candle from the table top. "Especially if I'm not there to tell you so."
The large-panelled windows revealed such widespread beauty that it astounded him. The world could be such a peaceful place- but it was these people, who wanted nothing more than to see the pain of others, that rid the world of such astounding beauty. One day all this would be over. And Cole was going to make sure that day was sooner than expected.
"Thinking again?" He turned at the voice, his expression softening as he saw the man at the door, his smile proud and loving. "You need some rest, sire." Faramond was his chief general, his entire family having been loyal servants to the royal family of Askemia ever since anyone could remember, and no man was more likely to set down his life voluntarily for the royal family than Faramond himself.
"Faramond, "Cole began, his voice on the brink of breaking. "Are we doing the right thing?" Faramond's eyes drifted to his feet. Even Cole could see the real answer brimming in his eyes.
"You know that is not for me to judge, sire," Faramond said. Of course that would be the answer. Cole was the Prince; this was all for him to decide. Taking one last deep breath, he spread back his shoulders, chin lifted up and face glowing in the last dying glimmers of the setting sun.
"If only your mother were here to see this," Faramond whispered, just loud enough for Cole to hear. "She would have been so proud."
Early that fateful morning, Paige hurriedly scrambled into her dress, which had been selected ever so carefully by her mother, who could not have picked out anything less relevant. If Paige had wanted to fight before, any of those wishes had definitely evaporated at the thought of drawing a sword in that ridiculously immense gown, fit for a wedding maybe, but definitely not for the day that was to decide their fates once and for all.
It was made from the finest fabric, and it ran smoothly through her fingers, hugging her curves with a grasp that was too tight at the waist for her liking. Paige had never liked the idea of showing off one's feminine figure. If people couldn't respect you for anything other than how your body looked, there was nothing to be respected for. Other than the corset, which wrapped itself like a python around her middle, everything else was slightly too big for her. She had to slouch in order to prevent the dress from slipping off her body and she slipped her feet into her highest of shoes so that she wouldn't have to hitch up her dress for every step. It was a deep-red off-the-shoulder dress, the dress itself beginning an inch lower than Paige would have liked. It caved in at the waist and suddenly released its grip, flowing free from her hips to the floor. Taking a deep breath, Paige positioned herself in the mirror, just so that the first early rays of the glowing sun caught on her fawn brown hair, clinging to her locks. She hurriedly tied her hair up into a braided crown, securely a few stands with the compulsory tiara, which she had not once been fond of, and brushed herself down, taking one last longing look at the mirror. Paige had always been too short. Hovering just above a measly five foot for as long as she could remember. Of course this proved to be a perfect conversation topic for her mother, however, who would often criticise her height, comparing it to her towering younger cousin, who stood proudly at a five foot five, a perfectly ladylike height, according to her mother. But was it her fault if that imbecile never ceased to grow?
"Paige dear," she heard, at her door, and Paige had to resist the urge to roll her eyes. Queen Anastasia's voice never ceased to irritate her.
"Yes mother," she answered in a shrill voice that didn't sound like her own. Then again, she never dared be herself in her mother's presence.
"Come out Paige," her mother called, rather impatiently. "It's time." Time for what? Paige was tempted to ask, however she reluctantly held her tongue and hitching her dress up, opened the door.
Queen Anastasia did not look like she was mourning what could be their last time together as a family. She looked as if she'd been invited to a ball with the man of her dreams, practically glowing in her strapless pink gown, crown worn proudly upon her head as she looked down upon her offspring with disappointment.
"My daughter," Anastasia gushed, arms resting on Paige's shoulders. "Finally a woman. It is your birthday after all."
"Yes mother," Paige replied, monotonously. She saw no reason to give her mother false enthusiasm when people were dying outside for their sake.
"What have I told you about slouching?" Anastasia snapped, pulling her daughter's shoulders back forcefully as Paige reluctantly thrust her chest forward to please her mother. "And don't forget to smile. You are to be a queen one day, and you must do your best to look beautiful." This wasn't beautiful. This was torture. How could one care about beauty at a time like this. It pained her that her mother didn't even have a second thought for those soldiers heading out to battle as they spoke, despite knowing that such an act was suicidal. All for this one goddamned kingdom and its selfish royals.
"Do they have to fight mother?" Paige asked, trying to look into her mother's eyes. They may as well have been made of ice. When her mother looked back, Paige did not feel anything remotely human radiate from them.
"Yes, it is their duty to fight for the kingdom and its king," her mother snapped impatiently, as she clapped her hands. "Brenda! Fix the hem of this gown for me!"
"But they'll die," Paige protested, as Brenda, Anastasia's most trusted maid got down to work, fiddling with the bottom of her dress. Paige looked back up at her mother, who had now placed her hands upon Paige's shoulders.
"Red really does suit you sweetheart."
The entire army had been made to wear an attire constructed of only the mournful colour of night black, under the Cole's orders. This was not a time to celebrate; it would never be.
"Let us proceed!" Cole bellowed, his voice taking on an unfamiliar tone, one that belonged to his mother. One that he would have to get used to using. "This day shall mark our victory once and for all!" The entire nation cheered, spurred on by mixed emotions. Anger, for Askemia, which had made the suffer for so long; grief for their loved ones who had set off to fight in this dreaded war; and also a glint of hope. Hope, that that day may mark the beginning of a beautiful era, free of locked-up hatred. Cole for one, was enjoying that aspect of it.
His hands gripped the rail in fear as his eyes scanned the crowds over the balcony. He wouldn't let them down. Cole disappeared back into his chambers, hand running through his tousled black hair. A knock struck against his door and he stopped his pacing, allowing himself a deep breath.
"Sire," came the soft voice at the door, and Cole immediately turned towards the direction of that soft caring voice that caught him off guard delving deep in his thoughts. The girl who entered the room staggered at a height of six foot, often discarded as an unladylike height, however her stooped shoulders and modest posture attempted to compensate for that. Though even if her posture tried, her bold features proved rather difficult to ignore, beginning from her amber feline eyes and her pouty pink lips and the proud mane of curly locks of miscellaneous shades of brown that she wore upon her head.
"Breakfast is ready." Cole smiled, despite himself. Leila had always been one to lighten the mood.
"Sire? Seriously?" Leila threw her head back in laughter, like she always did, and closed the door behind her, collapsing down onto his bed.
"Well I thought I'd get used to calling you that," she said grinning in spite of the circumstances they were in. "After all, that's what kings are referred to as." Cole rolled his eyes and perched on the edge of the bed beside her.
"I'd make a pretty awful king if you ask me," he muttered, kicking the side of the bed.
"And that, my friend," Leila said, rising up and standing in front of him, "Is why nobody asked you. Because you always put yourself down no matter how good you are." He looked up at her and smiled.
"Well you've convinced me," he said getting up as he rubbed his hands in anticipation. "So what are we having for breakfast?"
"The Acraeneiae are gaining proximity, my liege."
The King arose from his throne, his face an image of uncalculated horror, as the servant descended like a fearful mouse in the presence of a panther. King Isadore had definitely not been expecting this. A high-pitched gasp deafened Paige's left ear, as she closed her eyes, bracing herself for her mother's reaction. If her mother pricked her finger on a needle, the entire Kingdom would come to know about it.
"What on earth do you mean?" she shrieked, her shrill voice echoing throughout the throne room, possibly even through the entire castle. "But they are nothing compared to the noble Askemians!" Noble. Paige begged to differ. She never could comprehend how someone so noble could allow citizens of his own kingdom to perish in the name of poverty and starvation. Paige was rarely permitted to leave the castle, however during the rare occasions that she did, she could never take her eyes of the lower citizens begging for scraps of food at doors.
"Anastasia, you will keep quiet!" King Isadore bellowed, his order met with impenetrable silence. Even Anastasia's sobs had ceased. Page watched as the throne room froze, allowing silence to move in and close its ranks around them. Her mother, aunt and cousin were all clustered in one small group, fear and horror painted across each one's delicate face, not one of them allowing themselves to think practically like a leader would. Isadore was an aged man, however like his wife, his age refused to surface on his bold youthful face, that still shone with the features of a leader. However at that one moment, Paige watched as he sank into his chair, as if accepting defeat, allowing the years of age to fill in, defining every wrinkle and crease on his face, as though he had aged a hundred years in the space of that small handful of seconds.
"My men shall press on!" he thundered, his voice bringing a glint of hope into the eyes of the occupants of the throne room. All except for Paige who frowned, jaw clenched as she silenced her raging thoughts. Her father was too proud for his own good. Too proud and too stupid. Whereas the Acraeneiae fought with true passion, Askemia was only fighting to survive, to protect its selfish royalty, who refused to give up their seats of honour. If it were up to her, Paige would end this war with a truce. Heck, if it were up to her, this war would not have been enabled to unfold in the first place.
"My King!" her mother shrieked in that painfully shrill voice again. "Truer words have never been spoken." King Isadore glowed under the praises that were showered upon his determined manner, however Paige suddenly felt sick to her stomach. This was not about to end well at all.
"Why won't they give up?" Cole growled with frustration, choking at the stench of death surrounding him, as he sheathed his bloodied sword in irritation. "They are losing too many men, can they not see?"
"My Lord," answered Faramond, who always fought at his side. "The Askemians are too proud for their own good."
"This is stupid!" he yelled, his horse carrying him onwards. "They have lost already. More men will only mean more death. Can they not tone down their pride for the sake of their own kind?"
"You have no idea how adamant the Askemians can be," Faramond answered. "They will not rest until their last man is dead." Cole shook his head. He had never before met a royal family so selfish.
"Then we shall end this tonight." Cole's feet dug into the flank of his night black steed, as he raced off towards the castle, his army following close behind. However, despite their expectation, their attack was not met with defence, but empty land, obviously lacking in any form of retaliation. Cole reared back, shooting his general a perplexed glance. In turn Faramond shook his head, equally as bewildered.
"Perhaps this is a war strategy, Faramond," Cole hissed, muscles tensing under his armour.
"Sire..." Faramond whispered, just audible for those around him. "Perhaps the King may still be willing to wage an unjust war, but apparently his warriors have given in." He glanced back at Cole whose eyes widened with recognition. "I don't think the fight will continue."
And that was when the subtlest of smirks appeared on the Prince face.
"Then we shall infiltrate the castle and find the King for ourselves."
Her bounds finally snapped and Paige stepped forward, to make sure her suggestion would not vanish unheard.
"But what if they invade the castle?" she asked, her voice slightly hoarse.
"Paige!" her mother hissed, grabbing her wrist. Paige attempted to shake her off, but for a women who spent her time doing absolutely nothing but criticise those about her, Queen Anastasia was quite a strong woman.
"Paige, you will remain silent!" her father said, dismissing her attempt at a half-decent suggestion. "They will not get past our men."
"Sire!" came a voice, echoing through the hallway, as if on cue. "Sire, please!" The servant collapsed at the foot of the throne, as King Isadore was forced to rise once more.
"What is it, servant?" he demanded. The servant panted heavily, his words emerging as mere murmurs. King Isadore shook the poor man by his shoulders, eyes ravenously glinting in search for information. "Talk to me!"
"Th-the army, sire!" the servant coughed up, choking on his words. "Th-they refuse t-to fight, sire!" King Isadore's arms went limp, the servant collapsing by his feet.
"What?" he bellowed, his voice shaking the very structure of the throne room.
"We have lost too many men, your Majesty. They claim this war is futile and refuse to give up their lives unnecessarily in such a war, sire." Fear filled the servant as he watched the King's eyes transform, and he added, "This is only what I've been told, sire!" The servant immediately fled the throne room and Paige watched him disappear through the hallway. Clever man.
"What manner of treason is this?" he demanded, his question ringing unanswered around them. No one in the throne room dared utter another word. Queen Anastasia let out a strangled sob, as she clung onto her niece, Fiona, just sixteen years of age, yet already more fulfilling of her feminine role than Paige ever would be.
"What are we to do, brother?" asked Malcolm, shaking his head in disbelief. "What will be their next move now?"
"Halt!" came the voice from the hallway, penetrating through the thickening silence like ice through a blanket of warmth. Paige had never heard a voice like that in the Askemian castle, and she knew instantly that her suspicion had come true. If King Isadore had spent half the time he did grooming his pride, on listening to his one and only daughter, the kingdom of Askemia would have become a rather prosperous nation, however her suggestions had often been dismissed due solely to the fact that she was a woman.
The women behind Paige gasped, however Paige stood her ground, intrigued to catch a glimpse of the face of their intruder.
"You!" her father bellowed with such malice and hatred that Paige couldn't help but wonder what exactly had provoked such futile antagonism between the two kingdoms. The man who entered the throne room at that very moment was far from what Paige had expected in her mind's eye. Rather than the huge muscular bold man , rather like her father, the Prince of Acraeneia was far younger, though his body was supported by strong muscles that rippled with a day's worth of fighting underneath his armour. His hair, tousled and the colour of a starless night sky, and his bronze skin, made him seem more like a woman's daydream rather than the leader of an entire nation. He was closely followed by an older man, his head slightly bowed as if accepting his lower status compared to the royals in his presence. A band of soldiers followed, all with their swords sheathed, proudly prepared for any battle. If her father had half a brain, he would have surrendered then and there, however King Isadore's mind had been clouded by pride for far too long.
"How dare you enter the King's castle without permission?" Isadore demanded, stepping up from his throne. At his words, Paige saw the chests of the few Dukes and nobles crowding the throne room rise, confidence suddenly emerging, bearing the foolish belief that their King's words alone could stand down any enemy.
"There is no fight outside," the Prince replied, his voice deep yet rich, like that of a poet's. "That is why my army and I have decided to bring it in here."
"You call that an army?" the King scoffed, waving his hand dismissively at the crowd of armed warriors, awaiting the Prince's command. "Then you are wasting your time."
"There are more of my men outside, but I decided that it would not be just to bring them into a royal throne room. Although if you'd prefer to face us all..." the Prince's voice held an amused tone, marvelling at how adamant the King was proving to be. Pride was considered higher above all in this kingdom; if one were to lose his pride it would be as if he had lost his right to live.
"Foolish boy!" Isadore mocked, although in reality he had become the fool in this situation. "You think an army of the Acraeneiae can put me down?"
"The fight has been won fair and square Isadore. There is nowhere left for you to flee," said the older man beside the Prince. It would do the King a great good if he were to listen, however Isadore had no intention of doing so.
"Flee?" the King laughed, and a few other joined in, as the man shrunk back, only to be stopped by the Prince's comforting arm, as he gave him a reassuring nod. Now that was a gesture that Paige had never seen her father take on. "And what right do you, a lowly, warrior have to talk to me?"
"You will not speak to my uncle in such a manner!" the Prince bellowed, for the first time raising his voice to a volume that Paige had not imagined to hear from him. Shock fell upon the occupants of the throne room, but the older man looked more surprised than anybody. "My mother treated you like a brother," the Prince explained, softly, "So that makes you my uncle, am I right?" Tears welled up in the eyes of the general, affection and pride for his nephew glinting powerfully in his brimming eyes.
"Enough!" the King bellowed. "You want a fair fight?" Isadore made his way down and stood a few foot away from the Prince. His confident stroll was overruled by the fact that even though the King was a tall man, the Prince was taller, his posture and demeanour much more intimidating than that of the King's.
"I shall give you one. I, King Isadore of Askemia challenge you," the King paused as if merely saying the name of his opponent was shaming enough. "Prince Cole of Acraeneia to a duel." The Askemian occupants suddenly gained hope, their faces brightening with cocky confidence, that Paige did not share. Her father was the finest sword-fighter in all the Land. The Prince stood little chance if he accepted such an unjust challenge.
A smirk appeared on the Prince's face, who unsheathed his sword and lifted his chin up high. "I accept, but what will I win if victory is mine?"
"Anything," the King replied, his voice taking on a challenging tone. "This kingdom, my life..." His eyes turned around, searching for a prize that would tempt his opponent to accept his challenge. And at that moment, Paige felt a strong hand grip her wrist and pull her into the light. "My most prized possession," the King said.
Paige stared in horror at her father's face, that was too clouded with cockiness to remember his paternal love for his only daughter."
"My daughter, the Princess of Askemia."
Hi everybody! This is a new story- just decided to try it and see where it went. Please review and tell me what you think- I'll reply to them and try to change anything. It would mean so much if you reviewed! Thanks for reading xxx