Well, we've made it! Thank you all for getting here with me! I would love to know what you think, especially now that you've reached the end; a special thanks to Kazumi Ilya, Fall Storm, Morrowseer, The Youngest Mistress, and ElvenValar for your comments and support! I will try to get a short story out every once in a while, and you can expect my next novel to be on here in two years at most. Best of luck to you all, and have a fantastic day!
Track I - The Lions Theme, from the BBC documentary, The Hunt
"Da! Da! He's here! Khynleish is here!"
Dunwyl awakened with a start to see the wide green eyes of his daughter staring at him urgently. "Whassat?" he muttered groggily, blinking the sleep from his eyes.
Elyssa jumped up and down with excitement on her parents' bed, her pale blond hair flying. "Khynleish is here!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands.
Dunwyl grinned at her delight, carefully swinging his legs out of bed despite the twinge of pain in his knee, reaching for his staff and getting to his feet. "Well, are you ready?"
If her beaming smile could have stretched even wider, it did. "Yes, Da! I've been ready for years!"
Dunwyl chuckled lightly. "Alright, then; let's get down to the courtyard and we'll say hello—he doesn't like to be kept waiting. Have you had breakfast?"
Elyssa nodded eagerly. "I had toast and eggs!" she told him. "Let's go! Come on, Da! Mum, come on! Wake up!" She turned to Daini, who was still asleep, and eagerly bounced up and down. "Mum! Khynleish is here! Time to wake up!"
The Queen blinked her eyes slowly, squinting. "Elyssa…?"
"Khynleish is here!" she repeated for the umpteenth time. "I'm gonna learn magic!"
Daini shot upright, her eyes wide. "Is that today?" she exclaimed in surprise, looking at her husband.
He nodded sheepishly, unexpected tears stinging his eyes. "Time ran away from us," he murmured quietly.
"Come on!" Elyssa yelped, running around like a miniature storm.
"Alright, alright," Daini said, enfolding the little girl in a warm hug. "Go wake up your brother; I'm certain he'll want to say goodbye, alright?"
Elyssa nodded vigorously, springing off the bed and bolting out of the room, politely closing the door behind her before rocketing away.
"Quite the little bundle of energy, our daughter," Dunwyl noted with a grin, limping towards the frost-coated window and gazing down at the courtyard below as Daini murmured in agreement.
The early morning sun was just beginning to rise over a world of glittering white snow and icy cold. Smoke drifted lazily from hundreds of chimneys in the Royal City far below, painting a warm, cozy image; Khynleish stood in the courtyard, seemingly chatting with someone barely visible from the high castle window. Probably Aydrin, Dunwyl thought, remembering the knight's tendency to rise early.
"Eight years went by so fast," Daini observed wistfully. "I can hardly believe she's old enough…"
Elyssa was a magic-user; several weeks earlier she had reached the age at which the magic folk were asked to receive instruction from the dragons, and Khynleish, who still seemed to feel guilty for mistaking Dunwyl and Daini for murderers, had personally offered to teach their daughter how to master her powers.
"We'll visit her often," Dunwyl promised, turning from the window and limping to his wardrobe, pulling out a simple tunic the color of sagebrush along with a pair of tan trousers. But despite his words, there was an ache in his heart; for the first time in eight years, his eldest child would be out of his sight for weeks at a time, away where he could not reach her. She's growing up too fast.
With a deep sigh, sitting on the ground, he pulled his trousers on and threw off his nightshirt, pausing briefly at the familiar sight of ragged white scars crisscrossing his torso. Ten years had passed since his coronation, yet not a day went by that he did not think of the events leading to his ascension. As he and Daini both knew well, his body still bore a myriad of scars from his initial punishment, the mountain lion's attack, his imprisonment within a torture chamber, and Wilhelm Tilldale's final agonizing blows. Many nights he awakened drenched in cold sweat with his own screams echoing in his ears, after reliving some of the most painful moments of his past in his sleep. And even though a decade had passed, his right knee refused to bear his weight, and he couldn't walk without Rhynthukeyn's staff. Going up and down stairs was especially tricky.
He missed Aelkrhyn; attending the dragon's funeral in Ialenstar had been especially heart-wrenching and filled his soul with a lonely ache. Even after ten years, the hollow pit in his heart had not entirely gone away; Aelkrhyn was an unforgettable friend, and one that was not easily forgotten.
But as life continued along, the ache in his soul had gradually faded, replaced almost entirely by feelings of warmth and affection as, every day, he saw the wonderful results of the dragon's selfless deeds. And he had not forgotten seeing a glimpse of Aelkrhyn's eyes and hearing his voice replacing the Tartho's. Perhaps death is not the end...
"What's on your mind?" Daini asked softly, walking to join her husband and intertwining her fingers with his.
He got to his feet with a slight grimace before offering a small smile. "I… I was thinking about Aelkrhyn," he admitted huskily. "About how grateful I am for everything he did for—for the entire kingdom."
Daini's features softened. "He was a wonderful friend," she agreed somberly, gently tracing the line of a scar down his collarbone to where his heart beat firmly beneath smooth skin and taut muscle. She looked into his eyes. "He did a great thing for Evenfall. But… all of his plans hinged on you, and your willingness to step up and become the man—the King—that this land needed. I love you, Dunwyl."
A lump of emotion formed in his throat, and he blinked several times. "My Queen," he murmured, gently cupping her face in his calloused hands.
She smiled tenderly into his burning emerald eyes and placed her lips against his. "My King."