The Queen of Carleon
The Veil was breached.
Her home was ablaze. The fires turning the forest into ash were no longer cackling but roaring in triumph as they continued to ravage the Wanderer’s Wood. She could feel the intense heat prickling across her skin as she staggered blindly through the thick smoke, the hem of her dress greying with ash.
Under normal circumstances, her gift of Sight would be of use, but today it only added to the confusion. Already disorientated by the fire’s victorious sound, adding to the confusion were the cries of her people around her. She could not just hear their terror, she could also feel it. She saw their fate rushing towards them and was unable to prevent any of it.
The protective shield keeping the realm of the elves separate from the world of men was torn asunder, and her city lay exposed, like the weeping wound from a picked scab. Berserker warriors swarmed through the Veil, setting the forest alight. Fire raged through the undergrowth, engorging the trees, and enclosing the city built in the heart of the wood in a ring of fire. It was a prelude to a more direct assault.
Invaders rushed in through the inferno so quickly, and with numbers so large, it made her head spin. One minute, Lylea had been in her bed, and the next, she was overlooking the carnage from her keep in the Whispering Oak. Her people were taken by surprise, and she watched with horror as they rallied to save the forest, and their loved ones, despite being outnumbered by the heavily armed troops
Lylea’s eyes glistened when she descended the keep and saw the world before her burning. Screams of terror whistled through the blaze from the trees that were ancient when she was young. In anguish, she watched them be consumed in columns of flame, hearing their wizened voices screaming in agony. Tears scalded her cheeks, as the forewarning of all she knew was about to befall her realm.
She turned away in time to see a Berserker coming towards her where she stood. He rushed at her, this monstrous beast who stood taller than most men, clad in heavy armour that bore the crest of the simurgh. Her heart sank each time she saw the crest because it had once signified hope, and now, it was the symbol of everything wrong in Avalyne. The beast swung his blade at her, and she raised her own to fight back. In her lifetime, she had prevailed against much fouler things than this soldier trying to end her life.
Although he was strong, she was skilled. She parried his attacks with vigour and determination, pushing him away with enough strength to send him staggering back a step or two. Giving him no time to recover, she immediately reacted in riposte by burying her sword in his neck. Dark blood, oily in its texture, spurted out of the wound as the beast uttered a strangled cry.
Through the smoke, another Berserker emerged from the chaos, followed by more of his unit, until her world became engulfed in a clash of swords. The enemy’s bodies lay strewn around her, and although she knew she was holding her own against them, they had kept her trapped and confined, unable to reach the others and soothe their panic.
When yet another soldier advanced upon her, she raised her stained sword to fight, ignoring the ache in her limbs and the minor wounds sustained during her battle. Five thousand years of rule had not dulled her skill, but no warrior could continue battle indefinitely without some injuries.
The voice was familiar, and when she discerned who it was, she understood how the Veil was breached. From the day of his birth, he was immune to her Sight. He was the one person in the whole of Avalyne whose future she could not see.
The Berserker halted its advance and retreated, lowering his blade to allow his master to approach. Watching him step through the smoke, clad in his father’s armour, the father whom he murdered to acquire the throne, was like a knife to her heart. Handsome and strong, he was Dare’s son, but when she looked at his face, she also saw her daughter’s eyes.
This was Arianne’s boy, and her grandson. “Grandmother, will you yield?” His sword was drawn, and surrounding her were dozens of his servants, preparing to overwhelm her in sheer numbers.
“No,” she hissed in anger, knowing her refusal meant death, “I will not.” There was no mercy in his eyes only callous indifference. His answer was expected.
It was the points of many blades piercing her skin that woke Lylea, High Queen of the Elves from her bed in a cold sweat.
For a moment, she lay against the sheets, dazed. It took a few seconds for her mind to settle, and when it did, she found herself shrouded in the silence of night. Beyond her room, the city of Eden Taryn remained in its customary tranquillity. The Wandering Woods were intact, and the blaze that haunted her in her dreams was little more than fragments fading from her mind.
Yet, Lylea knew this was not merely a nightmare. What she saw, like most of her dreams, often came to pass. This would be no exception.
Without understanding how, Lylea instinctively knew her daughter would soon be pregnant.
And the child she would bear, would be a monster.
CHAPTER ONE: UNEXPECTED EXPECTATION
When Calfax confirmed the news, Arianne could scarcely believe it.
She had worked herself into a state of vexation as she fought the desire to place more importance on the symptoms she felt. Until she knew for certain, she would not accept of the signs of some impending joy. She moved through her day, trapped in a state of limbo. Her mood drove her poor husband to distraction because he could not fathom what was at the heart of her temperamental state. She longed to tell him all that was in her mind, but was held back by the thought of disappointing him. That, and the possibility that he might become so terrified by the idea that he could take the first horse out of the kingdom and hide in Tamsyn’s remote tower in the forgotten corners of the Jagged Teeth.
What was it with men of courage and strength, who could ride forth and slay a thousand Berserker warriors without a flinch, but went into complete and utter ruin when confronted with the possibility of becoming a father? Arianne suspected not even the Gods could answer that question, and as a result, she chose not to torment her King with the possibility that he might have an heir before she herself knew without doubt.
Besides, there were other matters to occupy Dare’s mind.
As the High King of the newly unified Carleon, the War Dragon was working hard to rebuild the kingdom in the wake of the destruction wrought by Balfure’s war. Any person who thought being King was about power and glory would be shocked to learn how arduous it was to be architect of a country’s restoration. Too many times Arianne stepped into the Great Hall to see him working tirelessly in consultation with his ministers to the late hours of the night.
When he paused to catch his breath, Arianne saw the glimmer in his eyes, longing for simpler days, when he was simply Dare—the exiled Prince of Carleon. Yet, he was a good man, the one she loved beyond reason or thought. He would carry the burden because his people needed him, and because he was the last of his house, at least until now. He alone left Eden Halas and stepped out into the world, with the courage and the will to see Balfure driven away from Avalyne for all time. Arianne would be at his side forever, carrying that burden with him, to fill his life with the simple pleasures, such as the news she was now about to impart.
Today, there was no longer any doubt in her mind once Calfax, the royal physician, confirmed her suspicions were true—she was with child. She drifted, if it was possible for a flesh and blood being to drift, through the halls of the palace, with her hands on her belly in secret delight. What a sight she must have been to the palace staff—the Queen of Carleon sweeping about the place wearing the smile of a happy fool.
She knew they were probably grateful for her good mood, since she had been difficult of late. Arianne resolved to make it up to those who bore the brunt of her temper, especially Dare, who was a devoted and attentive husband as any woman could ask. After all, being Queen did not excuse bad behaviour in any shape or form. Her mother taught her that.
Thinking of Queen Lylea made Arianne’s smile widen, knowing how thrilled she would be at the news. Despite her sometimes aloof manner and her adherence to ensuring all forms were observed, Arianne knew her mother would like nothing better than to be a grandmother allowed to spoil her grandchildren shameless. It was a grandmother’s right after all.
As always, when he was with taking counsel with his counsellors and advisors, Dare was in the Great Hall when Arianne found him a short time after she had received her news. He spent a great deal of time in this room, attempting to portion out men and resources to the few lands still being plagued by scattered remains of Balfure’s army. The Berserkers, without their master, were even more dangerous than ever, as their rampage was now without purpose or direction. They were mindless beasts, driven by instinct and need, making their behaviour difficult to predict, and even harder to defend.
She watched him a moment, circling the large wooden table covered with maps, engaged in serious discussion with Aeron and Ronen, his most trusted advisers, while she stood there being so very proud of him.
Arianne remembered the day Dare first arrived at her mother’s court in Eden Taryn.
He was but twenty-five, having spent much of his life in the court of Eden Halas. Arianne had heard the gossip of a human child being adopted by Queen Syanne, and how this action had caused much disquiet between her and her King. Naturally, she was curious as to what reason this human could possess to seek an audience with her mother—the High Queen of all the elves in all of Avalyne. He was taken through the Veil by Syanne’s youngest child, Prince Aeron. Even so, Arianne was astonished that her mother allowed the incursion by a human into their lands, even if he was accompanied by an elf.
However, Lylea, who possessed the gift of the Sight, claimed this audience was one of importance. It could change everything.
Arianne found this difficult to believe at her first sight of him. He looked like a ruffian, with threadbare clothes, dusty from too much travel, and the leather of his boots were scuffed and worn. Sporting a day’s growth on his face, his dark brown hair was unruly, and hung about his shoulders, like it had never known a brush. Still, he was beautiful despite the pains he took to conceal it. She wondered if he simply did not care enough to exploit his looks, or whether this was a guise he wore to disarm people into believing he was nothing more than a vagabond. Overall, it was not a good first impression.
At least, until he spoke in that soft spoken voice of his, revealing words that were remarkably eloquent, possessing a tone of humility and awe at being in their presence. Even without the gift of her mother’s Sight, Arianne was capable of recognising liars, and she knew every word he uttered was issued with sincerity and reverence. When he addressed them, he did not bandy about words to flatter or posture. He spoke from the heart, and told them what he dreamed.
He dreamed of uniting Carleon to drive Balfure from Avalyne forever.
He was the last son of House Icara, and it was his duty to honour the kings before him by restoring Carleon to its people once more. Such dreams were nothing new from the race of men, Arianne thought. They were always quick to anger and easily prodded into war, which was why the elves wanted nothing to do with them in the past and remained hidden behind the Veil. It was what he said next that made everyone in the court sit up and pay attention.
None of them could defeat Balfure alone.
Prejudice and tradition prevented the races of Avalyne from standing as one, thus allowing their kingdoms to fall. All the people of Avalyne needed to work together, not just men and elves, but the dwarves too, and any race that felt their liberty threatened by Balfure’s hunger for conquest. How much longer were they prepared to put all their faith in the Veil? What was to stop him from breaching the protection of Eden Taryn, if he set his mind to it? And, if he chose to come, were they certain they could stop him?
If we do not stand united, we will fall divided.
Arianne remembered how those words resonated with her, even after the conclusion of the audience. Dismissed until Lylea made her decision, Dare respected the lady’s need for deliberation, and retreated to the woods where his circle awaited him. Before departing their presence, he paused long enough to cast a shy gaze at Arianne. When their eyes touched, he pulled away, embarrassed, as if he was caught spying upon something he had no business in seeing.
Intrigued, Arianne found him at his campsite later that day, and when she spoke to him, he was barely able to meet her gaze. She found it utterly endearing that he, who was so strong and determined before her mother, appeared flustered and uncertain in her presence. When he did look at her, Arianne found herself staring into eyes so blue, it was like staring into drops of sky. His spoke to her with the wonder of a man who could scarcely believe he was in the company of one such as her.
Arianne was a thousand years old, but no elf she met in all that time ever touched her heart the way Dare did when she finally got him to smile.
She hated to interrupt him when he was in counsel with Ronen, the Bân of Carleon, and Aeron, representing the elves, because Dare wanted the relationship forged by the Alliance against Balfure to endure beyond the war. Alliances must be maintained, Dare told her, or each race would fall back into its old practices of isolation, and they would be in the same vulnerable place that Balfure found them.
Arianne did not have to hear what was being discussed to know the subject of greatest concern at this time was the rorting of the Berserkers across Northern Province. Dare told her the night before he would have to dispatch soldiers to clear out the infested lands so the business of farming and industry could resume once more. They needed to feed and build to forge a new future, and this could not be done if towns were constantly besieged by the remains of Balfure’s monstrous armies.
It was Aeron, with his keen elven senses, who first noticed her arrival. The others followed his gaze and stopped immediately what they were doing to face her. She stifled a laugh when she saw Dare’s pained expression, as he wondered what sin he had committed to warrant an unexpected visit to call him out. Poor Dare, she thought, and knew that she had many amends to make to her husband, who could not conceive of her unhappiness if there were something he could do to change it.
“Your highness,” Ronen, the second highest authority in the kingdom, greeted her. She always found that he was such a physical contrast to Dare. Ronen wore his dark blond hair worn loose, as was the fashion for men of Carleon and appeared well-groomed, unlike Dare’s perpetually unruly locks.
“Ronen,” she answered with a slight bow of her head.
Ronen was the first captain to follow Dare, when the exiled Prince returned to Sandrine, and rallied the forces needed to fight Balfure. By the time Dare arrived, Ronen’s spirit was near exhausted from having to uphold Balfure’s occupation of his homeland. A soldier with a good heart, he was not much older than Dare, and enforcing Balfure’s law was driving him to breaking point. The arrival of the King renewed his sense of hope, and his loyalty was to become the basis of their deep friendship.
There was no need for such formality when she regarded Aeron. He was fair, like all her people were fair. Tall and lean, his brown, almost black hair, was worn loose, and always seemed wild and tousled even though it was braided in places to keep it from being unruly. Only the tips of his elven ears were exposed through the dark strands. Even though he walked Avalyne for a thousand years, to men he bore the appearance of a thirty year old.
“My Queen.” He said, his dark blue eyes dancing with mischief while a small smile crossed his lips.
Arianne rolled her eyes at the formal greeting, wondering how it was that Aeron, with whom she spent many summers as a child during Lylea’s visits to Eden Halas, could still remain as vexing to her as he was in those days. It was she who gave him his first kiss when they were eight years old and witnessed his first fall out of a tree. They were friends for most of their lives, too long for him to ever have need to call her by any title. No matter how many times she reminded him of this, he continued to ignore her. Arianne was convinced he was doing it to be annoying, just like when they were children.
“Arianne, is something wrong?” Dare asked his wife gingerly, as she was easier to provoke these days than an ogre with a bad tooth.
“Nothing, my love.” Arianne assured him, and disarmed his anxiety with a smile he’d know was meant just for him. “I would just like a moment alone with my King, if my lords do not mind?” She glanced at the two men.
“Of course.” Ronen answered without hesitation, and he glanced at Dare for the King’s leave to depart.
“I will send for you when we are done.” Dare replied, thinking absurdly that she wanted privacy so there would be no witnesses when she slaughtered him.
Both man and elf obeyed and left the room.
“If this is about where I left my boots again, I swear that affairs of state occupied my mind and I forgot…” Dare started to apologise before Arianne closed the distance between them, and silenced him with a kiss.
Caught by surprise, he stared at her with puzzlement for a moment, before the pleasure of it made him slide his arms around her waist and kiss her back with equal affection. She was the love of his life, and being King would mean nothing if she were not at his side. Her love had given him the strength to take back his kingdom, save his people, and be the man he was today. If he became a great king, it was because she had made him so.
“I am confused,” he finally admitted when they parted.
“Of course you are,” she said smiling, “I come here on an entirely new matter. However, now that you have made mention of it, is it so hard to put them away?”
“You are teasing me,” he retorted, a brow cocked over one eye in playful accusation.
“Yes, I am,” she confessed, smirking.
Dare drew her to him and kissed her again. He was glad to see that she was in a better mood than she had been during the past few days. In truth, his desire for self-preservation was superseded by his love for her, and so he worried what could have bothered her so greatly that she was lashing out so uncharacteristically. Arianne’s nature was playful and spirited, but she was never biting in her manner. Her behaviour of late was a new experience for him.
Yet, it took only a kiss for him to fall in love with her all over again.
Her effect on him was always the same. Since the very first moment he laid eyes upon her at Lylea’s court, Dare was lost. She was a vision of loveliness that almost made him forget everything he came to say to Lylea. Arianne took after her father, with shimmering dark brown hair framing her oval face with high cheek bones, full lips and eyes like the richness of the earth. Her skin, like all elven ladies, was pale, but to his eyes it was almost luminescent. She did not seem quite real, like something wandering out of a dream. Seeing her for the first time made his heart pounded in his chest like a boy.
To this day, Dare never understood why she loved him enough to give up her immortality.
“And what can the King do for his Queen today?” he asked, considerably more at ease.
“I came to apologize for how I have been these past few weeks,” Arianne admitted first, and foremost. “I know I have been difficult.”
That was an understatement, but he wisely chose to remain silent.
“What troubled you, my love?” he asked, grateful at last she was talking to him about this. They always shared everything, and not knowing the reason for her foul mood had provoked his worst fears about their relationship. “I was starting to fear that you might have regretted the choice to give up your immortality for me.”
Arianne stared at him with disbelief at the mere suggestion.
“Fool!” She snapped, and swatted him on the arm for still harbouring such foolish insecurities. Did he still not grasp, even now, that he was her life? “You men can be so frightfully wrong at times,” Arianne chided.
“I warn you lady, striking the King is a mortal offense,” he returned playfully.
“I will take my chances,” she snorted dismissively. “I will tell you this once more, but if I have to do it again, I will call upon all the powers at my disposal to show you my displeasure. I love you and I always will. Immortal or not, you are my soul mate.” If one lifetime with you is all there is, I will never regret it. You hold my heart, my King. Be secure in that fact, if no other.”
Properly admonished, Dare nodded in silence and knew that it was foolishness that allowed his mind to travel such dark roads. She proved her love for him on more occasions than he could count, and he had faith in her. Still, he could not help but wonder what in the name of Celestial Gods she saw in him to abandon her immortal existence and share a very mortal one with him.
“All right,” he conceded defeat, “but you must admit you were rather frightening these past weeks, and fear is not something I succumb to easily. I’ve fought monsters.”
“I have my reasons,” she said dryly, disappointed the surprise she intended to give him was waylaid by this old argument. Then again, what in life ever took place according to plan? “Something has been preying upon my mind of which I could not speak to you until I had confirmation of it. I am afraid waiting for an answer frayed at my nerves more than my disposition could endure.”
“What, Rian?” he demanded, a little alarmed she kept something so worrying from him.. Theirs was a relationship that turned on their ability to confide everything to each other. It worried him what she might think too much for him to bear. “Did something happen? Are you alright?”
“I am fine,” she stilled him again her finger. “Dare, we are going to have a baby.”
The expression of stunned silence crossing his face was so acute, there was an instant she thought this news was not to his liking. All men wanted sons, did they not? She wanted to give him an heir, to consolidate his claim to the throne, and show him he was not the last son of his house. His astonishment was but brief, and her fears were dispelled when a great light flickered into being behind his eyes. Soon, it encompassed his face with a brilliant, and happy, grin.
“A baby!” he exclaimed, with the eagerness of a boy given a wondrous gift. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she nodded, relieved to be finally able to tell him and sharing in the joy of it by his reaction to her news. “I suspected weeks ago I might be quickened, but I could not be certain until today. It is why I seemed so out of sorts. I am sorry I was upsetting but I so wanted to be certain before I told you.”
“And you are now?” he asked, staring at her in wonder before his gaze dropped to her stomach where his child, no, their child was growing within.
“Yes. Calfax confirmed it for me today. We are going to have a baby in the spring.”
“Oh, Rian!” he exclaimed, and he lifted her up by the waist and twirled her around in an uncharacteristic show of exhilaration. “I love you, and I will love our son!”
“Your son?” She gazed down at him with an imperious stare. “Are you so sure it’s going to be a boy? It could be a girl.”
“I don’t care what it is,” he admitted, immediately. “I do not care if we have a boy or a girl. I will love it either way. You have already made me happier than I ever thought possible but now, knowing that we have created this together—there are no words to describe it.”
“Oh, Dare,” Her voice was choked with emotion at the delight she saw in his face. Resting her head against his chest, she took comfort in the sound of his heart beating so close to her ear and wondered if her baby was listening to hers in the same fashion. “We are going to have a baby! Keeping this to myself has been so hard, I’ve wanted to shout it out from the roof tops ever since I first thought I might be with child. I am so glad I no longer have to keep this from you!”
“I wish you had told me,” he brushed to top of her dark hair with a light kiss. . “You should not have to keep such a thing to yourself. It’s no wonder you were so disagreeable.”
“I did not want to plant false hopes, my love. You have so much to worry your mind already, I did not wish to see you disappointed if I was wrong.”
“Nothing that you do could ever disappoint me, my love.” Dare stared into her face, wanting her to see it was the truth.” Still, he could not deny he was delighted that they were going to have a child. He truly meant it when he said that he cared not if it were a boy or a girl. “Now that we know for sure, I feel as you do. I want everyone to know!”
“Everyone?” She gave him a look, wondering what devilry he was conjuring in his mind. “Yes,” he grinned, “I think it is time that the King and Queen of Carleon hold court with their friends again. How about we have a little party and we can make the announcement to the whole city?”
Arianne thought of her mother Lylea, the wizard Tamsyn, Kyou the dwarf, Celene, Tully and Keira of the Green. The last time they were all been gathered, it was during Dare’s coronation and wedding. She would dearly love to see them again, and knew that Dare would also be pleased to spend time with the people who knew him before he became King.
“I think that would be most acceptable, my lord.” She showed her agreement with another kiss.
“Well then run along and arrange it.” He smirked, dismissing her with a wave of his hand.
“This was your idea!” She exclaimed, with mock outrage. “How is it the duty falls to me?”
“Well, celebrations are strictly your responsibility, my queen. I only deal with the running of the kingdom, fighting the wars and killing of the occasional insect in our chambers. If you wished the arrangement changed, I have no objection.” He winked at her.
“Really?” Arianne snorted and pulled away from him. In truth, her duties amounted to more than that. As his queen, it was her responsibility to ensure well-being of their people by seeing to the creation of schools, houses of healing and other public works. Nevertheless, her mind whirling already with all the things had to be done for such a celebration to take place. “I will do your bidding this once, my king,” she teased. “But only because it suits me.”
“Well thank you, my queen,” he returned, smiling as he watched her sauntering towards away. Knowing that he was soon to be a father, by a woman he never thought could love him back, made the day’s duty a little less tedious. Arianne was able to lift his spirit like no one else alive, and he still marvelled at the discovery someone so beautiful could also be as equally kind.
“Rian,” he called out before she left the hall.
“Yes, Dare?” She cast those magnificent blue eyes back at him with a quizzical expression.
“I love you,” he said softly.
“As you should, my love,” she replied as she left.