"Aithne, what are you doing? You should be readying for your brother's coronation."
A thin girl stood near the window, luminous, but covered in an aura of saturated grief. She looked over to her marriage-sister, Bareta, standing in the doorway of her room with a smug grin on her ferret-like face.
Aithne stared at Bareta; her face hard, tear streaked. She narrowed her eyes. Bareta has always wanted to be queen. She was wearing her best gown, or so it seemed; there were so many jewels inlaid into her gown, she looked like she was in danger of falling over .
"You haven't been crying again, have you? Brenyth won't be happy to hear his own sister would rather sob than celebrate at his coronation. He might even have to send you into exile for such a treasonous display."
At that, Aithne half snorted. Brenyth wouldn't even need that excuse to send me away. There was nothing he would like better than to lock me in the dungeon and throw away the key: better yet, have me executed. However, Aithne knew, until he was crowned, he couldn't do anything so drastic.
Unfortunately for her, Brenyth was being crowned that afternoon.
"I hope I see you there, Aithne. If not, there's no telling what Brenyth may do." She walked over to the younger woman, and leaned in so close Aithne could smell the sickeningly sweet stench of her perfume. She giggled, in a girly sort of way, as if they were friends, and she was going to tell who her secret crush was. "He may even decide to give you to King Andric."
Aithne blanched, and Bareta smiled wider. She twirled a strand of her pale blond hair around her index finger, which was also adorned with three ostentatious ruby bands.
"Well, I'll leave you to think on that while you get ready. See you there, sister." She smirked, and left the room, swaying her hips and humming.
King Andric. Aithne almost didn't believe her; she almost couldn't believe her. No one, not even Brenyth, would dare give a mortal king a Faerie. Especially not one of royal blood.
Aithne sat delicately on the edge of her bed, as if her bones would break if she handled them carelessly. She put her head in her hands. She'd heard horrible tales about King Andric and his armies; conquering everything in their paths, not a care for human life. They cut and burned paths through the forests, built bridges and dams across rivers, thwarting the life giving flow of water. They caused famines and draughts, and countless grief. The soldiers were merciless, and their leader worst of all. It was said he was not even human, but a kind of god. A god of war—a great Destroyer.
The young princess turned her face back to the window, and looked out to the great wood, the quiet part of the world that was her home. Even Brenyth could not be that heartless.
Nevertheless, Aithne turned away from the window, and went to dress for the coronation.
"And will be King in name of the Forest, in the name of all Light."
The old priest lifted the thin golden circlet for all to see, the circlet inlaid with the great emerald of the forest. It shone with ethereal brilliance, glowing like a green sun. It was the heartstone of the forest: it protected the Faerie, isolated them from the chaotic world around their home. Showing the circlet around one last time, the priest stretched it high above, holding it like a beacon. Then, he placed it upon Brenyth's head.
Aithne stood in the front of the audience, surrounded by her father's old peers. A great cheer went up from all those around her, but she was silent. Her eyes were wide, her heart pounded in her chest with a furious pace. She looked from side to side, to find if any had witnessed what she'd had seen in the instant of Brenyth's crowning.
The heartstone had dimmed.
That night during supper, Bareta and Brenyth sat at the head of the table together; Bareta obviously ecstatic over her new title. Aithne sat at the right of her brother in the place of honor. But she hardly ate, and kept her eyes downcast in humiliation. It was evident to everyone else seated at the table he was mocking her, and all waited for the bomb to fall.
It exploded right before the main course.
"Aithne, I can't have you running about in the forest stirring up trouble. Now that I'm king, things are going to be changing. And I can't trust you not to try to go against me. I'm sending you as consort to King Andric of Elrminandreth."
The whole table, though quiet before, fell into a hush. A dozen pairs of eyes turned to stare at her, all in silent pity.
Aithne in turn stared at her brother, and wondered how they had come to this. In their younger days, it was true, they had never had much time to spend with each other or know each other very well. But, it was still no reason for this hatred that had bloomed within Brenyth's heart. Sometimes she wondered if he even had one anymore.
She seethed silently. Aithne knew she had a temper…and she had, thankfully, learnt to keep it in check. She clenched her fists under the table, praying she could just get through the dinner. I will not be given to some mortal. My life is not going to be dictated by others hands. Tonight, then. Aithne wondered if the wood truly was as peaceful as her kind would all like to believe. She truly wondered.
Beyond the Forest of the Fair, it was certainly not peaceful. During the night, a force of twenty thousand had assembled over the Hill of Zedrei, waiting for the dawn to break.
One of the lead scouts, face painted with streaks of black and gray to blend in with the night, stood outside the tent of his commander, awaiting his orders. He could see the outline of two men inside the tent, illuminated by a flickering oil lamp, one sitting at a table, the other standing over him, waving papers about.
The man sitting then stood, and dismissed the other with a wave of his wrist. That man exited the tent, pushing past the scout, muttering in a language that the scout did not recognize. Only seconds after the foreigner emerged, the scout's commander also emerged.
He almost walked past Kevan, staring out into the air, as if he had just seen a ghost, or a murder. Then he paused, and looked right into Kevan's eyes. The scout had a feeling he wasn't really seeing him there.
"What have you found for me, Kevan?"
"A small group of rebels on the West Ridge, General. Should be easily taken care of."
"Fine, fine. " The General was looking right past Kevan, at something no one else could see. It gave Kevan the shivers, and very little could make him nervous.
The General moved, as if he was about to walk away, but turned about instead and said, "Do you know, they want to give me a wife. A Faerie, no less."
And then King Andric, General of the Haelstrom Army, turned again, and went back into his tent.
Kevan stood outside, and walking back to his own lodgings in camp, shook his head in disbelief. A faerie. A faerie Queen.
Aithne glanced around her familiar room once more. She had gathered the coins she had saved over the years—presents from doting uncles—and the bracelet encrusted with jewels given to her mother, by the dragonminers. She could sell that for food if she had to.
But as she scooped up a few more pieces of jewelry just in case, Aithne fingered the chain around her neck. Her mother had worn that gem while she died.
Aithne would die before she parted with that.
Leaving behind the home she had known with a quiet resignation, she finally stepped outside the door with a sigh, and quietly walked down the dimly lit hallway of Brenyth's palace. It was no longer her home. She thought it strange Brenyth hadn't placed guards around her room, or at least at doors. He did that sometimes; things had changed vastly since the death of her father. But there were none Aithne could see, and if she was cautious and waited, her chance would be gone forever. She wrapped her dark cloak tighter around her torso, checking her tightly wound hair was in place under the hood.
When she reached the forest's edge, she turned around to look at the flickering light of the palace that could still be seen through the thick foliage. Sighing, she whispered a last goodbye, and it carried upon the wind through the wood. The breeze blew slightly then, stirring the calm that had been upon the forest for over three centuries, and she smiled, knowing the trees were bidding her farewell.
She slipped through the old stone gate, into an open field, and a slight tremor ran through her bones. But she pushed it aside. However, as she walked on, it keep nagging and pulling at the back of her mind. She was the first faerie to leave the forest in over 200 years. And the last time a faerie had left, her grandmother, Riosia, she had died.
The light too faded faster here, and the night came more quickly. Aithne watched the brilliant, glowing sun dip low in a blood red and violet sky. She felt the wind pick up, felt its chill and soft brushes against her cheek. She saw the stars burn and flare against the velvety darkness. This world was faster, harsher, more vibrant than anything she'd before felt. Humming a little tune, she kept along the path, not truly knowing where she was going, but taking satisfaction in that at least, she was going somewhere. And that somewhere was a destination that Aithne controlled.
"She's gone, just as you said. I think we've given her ample time to feel secure. Shall we start after her yet, M'ssire?"
Brenyth turned, and gave his man a stare that could turn one to stone.
"Is she far enough away that her death won't cause a stir? Is she far enough away that I'll have time to grieve for her disappearance? Is she far enough away for us to show great concern for her welfare? Until that is the case, you may not go after her."
"M'ssire, that will make the job much harder and…"
"Harder?" Brenyth said, voice as inviting as stone. "Am I not paying you? Am I not letting you live instead of die? Am I not saving you from an assassin's rightful death? I don't care if it's harder. I don't care if it's impossible for you. But you will find her-on my command- and then, she will die."
He watched the assassin's face harden, and then take on a slightly guarded look. He didn't like to be reminded of the sentence hanging over his head. Brenyth knew it, and so used every opportunity provided to taunt him with it.
"And if you don't find her, and kill her," he gave a small, nasty smile, "I think we both know what will happen."
With that, Brenyth dismissed the assassin. He sighed, and looked out the window of his sister's room. He couldn't let her live to fulfill the legend set down by the Syioracle. It was a pity he would have her blood on his hands- if someone tried to connect her untimely death to him, it would be a messy situation indeed. Turning away from the window again, he decided he would just have to deal with repercussions if, and when, they came. First things first, Aithne had to die.