A story I’m publishing on Fictionpress. I’m mainly focusing on my novel right now but when I have time I work on this.
1. The Seven Wardens of Northvale
“PRINCESS ALBANY JUST DID WHAT, NOW?”
The loud, incredulous yelp echoed through the halls of the esteemed palace of Northvale, the capital of the country Felaury, on a sunny May morning. Every maid, manservant, mentor, and apprentice turned to stare at the distraught knight, who was on his knees, tearing his hair out in complete, utter frantic agitation.
“Yes,” drawled Lady Rosarla, sheathing her sword with a look of relaxed sympathy lightening her harsh features. She looked up. Immediately, everyone currently observing the interesting scene diverted their eyes; Rosarla Crownleaf, aged nearly twenty and the only daughter of Duke Crownleaf, had just been knighted as the first female member of the Royal Warden. They had yet to get used to the idea that a woman had actually managed to pass the examinations – the king marrying a commoner was one thing, but a woman as a soldier was absolutely ridiculous. It had absolutely nothing to do, of course, with the fierce fire in her stormy lavender eyes, or the way her choppy pale hair had been shoved into a haphazard knot only held by three small hair sticks, or the way she was now inspecting the shiny side of daggers that hung on the other side of her hip. No, nothing to do with that.
As if sensing their thoughts, Rosarla smiled wolfishly at them until every head had lowered again, and bent down to look at her poor victim, her fellow Warden Roandal Firthgale.
“Roan,” she said in a tone that probably couldn’t be described as gentle, “deal with it. Second Princess Albany Felauria has abandoned her dancing classes to go off gallivanting in the city with Sir Spirrian.”
“But – but – ” sputtered the shell-shocked knight. “But how – ”
“You weren’t watching her properly. Spirrian taught her to climb like a monkey, and for a four-year-old, she’s surprisingly clever – though I bet they only went off today because she commanded him to. You’ll be in loads of trouble, you know.”
“Don’t remind me.”
Roan looked up at Rosarla, his large brown eyes filling up with unshed tears.
“Now what do I do,” he said miserably. “Spirrian’s got a horribly sadistic sense of humour and thinks that me getting in trouble with the king will be hilarious. And not to mention Halt was supposed to be helping me keep an eye on the princess… Wait, where is he, anyway?”
Halt, the youngest and probably most innocently pure member of the Royal Wardens, was admittedly good in sparring, and a master of tracking people from observing the environment around him, but was basically useless at everything else. Which, of course, included supervising royalty.
“With Celandine, naturally.” Celandine happened to be the person Halt was planning to marry – or who everyone assumed Halt was going to marry; every time he saw her face he seemed to light up like a festival lantern. “And don’t look like that, Roan. He had to babysit all four of the princes and princesses yesterday, and not to mention, he was on night duty until midnight. He deserves some rest.”
Roan’s face contorted into a rare expression of disgruntled annoyance.
“He deserves a kick in the – ” he began.
“I’ll ask you kindly not to complete that sentence.”
Roan looked up, slightly surprised at her tone, and started at the dangerously darkening shadows around Rosarla’s face.
He stood, brushing off his trousers.
“Well, now what?” he asked, sneaking a furtive look at Rosarla. To his profound relief, she was back to normal – though she had yet to put down the dagger she was polishing.
“Now we go speak to the king.”
Roan’s groans echoed all the way down the hall as she dragged him crisply towards the throne room by the scruff of his shirt.
“She’s done what?”
King Farran sighed, running a hand through his hair.
“She certainly takes after you,” his queen commented, uncrossing her ankles. She lowered her book, her gentle expression slightly marred by an ironic quirk of her lips. “I can clearly recall a certain golden-haired little baboon scrambling through my newly-planted thyme. That was the first time you ever ruined my hard work. And the first time I yelled at royalty, might I add.”
Rosarla’s mouth parted in a broad grin. This was what she loved so much about Felaury’s rulers; they didn’t care much for formality. In fact, when she’d passed the exam, Queen Valerian had pulled her aside to congratulate her on making every one of the stuffy nobles’ jaws drop open.
“But what do we do about Princess Albany, if you don’t mind me asking, Your Highness?” Roan asked worriedly. “She – ”
Queen Valerian stood, shaking out her skirt and smiling serenely. “I trust that Spirrian will be able to bring her back safely before dark. Your master’s cousin did choose him as apprentice, after all.”
“Yes, but,” Roan argued somewhat reluctantly, then gave up pursuit of the subject entirely. “Good day, Your Majesty.”
“Queen Ria,” she corrected, raising her head slightly and causing light to streak across her dark coiled braids.
Roan glowered at his shoes.
“Queen Ria,” he muttered a little rebelliously, and Rosarla smiled, dipping her head courteously before dragging him away again. Strains of “Peron put three whole piles of paperwork on my desk again, I swear the word ‘rest’ doesn’t even exist in that man’s vocabulary” and “Don’t complain, dear, it’ll only take a while” faded behind them as they entered the royal courtyard.
“She never fails to astound me, Queen Ria,” remarked Rosarla. “For a gardener’s daughter she’s surprisingly elegant.”
“Yes, well, she does it to mess with the nobles’ minds.” Roan straightened the edge of his shirt, rubbing at his eye. “The council really did raise an uproar when King Farran announced their engagement.”
“Speaking of engagements,” Rosarla continued crisply, “I have an appointment with your mentor’s cousin.”
Roan blinked. “A date?”
“What? No! Not once in a million years.” Roan shrank back from Rosarla’s suddenly frightening glare. “We’re having a duel.”
“Which, if I’m correct, will be our fiftieth duel since you set foot in Northvale.”
The familiar, dry voice made Roan stop in his tracks and Rosarla roll her eyes heavenward. She turned, and sure enough, there stood a tawny-haired man in the Royal Wardens’ uniform observing them: wearing a dark brown tunic, darker pants, and a gold-edged vest. His boots made the slightest sound against the ground as he shifted, lips sliding upwards in a slight smile.
“Good day, Marhelon,” said Roan, hurriedly tipping his head at the older man.
“So polite, just as usual.” Marhelon smiled benignly at her. He bowed slightly, several loose strands of hair falling over his cheek. “Now – shall we?”
He shoved his hair into a ponytail and unsheathed his sword, giving it a few experimental swings. The sunlight caught it, causing the golden metal to flash unpleasantly in Rosarla’s eyes. Her mouth twisted downwards in an involuntary frown, and Roan looked discreetly to his left, thinking about how he could escape this. Perhaps if he inched slowly away –
“Fine,” the female knight snapped, slipping out her own sword. In comparison with Marhelon’s, hers paled considerably; it had been her fiance’s, and while was averagely thick, had a hilt that had faded over time and bore a great many scratches upon its surface. But it still served her well, and she had no doubt that it would continue to do so for years to come. Besides – she’d grown an attachment to this old weapon, and her duels with Marhelon had ended in thirty ties, twenty-one wins, and nineteen losses so far, so she couldn’t exactly complain.
“Can I – ” began Roan in a quiet, meek voice.
“No,” both Marhelon and Rosarla said (or said and barked, respectively) at once, swiveling around and affixing him to the spot with their brown and indigo eyes. “You can referee.”
Roan’s face struggled to settle between disappointment and apprehension as he slumped to the ground. The two Wardens gripped their weapons, inhaled sharply, and suddenly –
Roan groaned. His friends’ figures suddenly blurred as they flew at each other, sparks nearly flying whenever their blades touched. Marhelon looked like a spirit of the forest with his dark irises narrowed in concentration, his slender but solid frame twisting agilely as he dodged a particularly hard blow. Rosarla herself looked like some faerie queen; those purple eyes truly were unsettling when filled with eager battle-hunger, and curls of honey-coloured hair slipped out of her bun as she leaped aside, her necklace flopping slightly over her throat. He truly was glad that both were allies to the throne; he didn’t want to walk into either Marhelon or Rosarla without at least twenty fellow guards on a dark night.
Some four hours passed, and before he knew it, the two Wardens were panting, streaked with sweat, and wearing expressions that said neither would put down their sword at this moment, come hell or high water. His back had begun to ache, and his eyes starting to throb – were they done yet? Honestly, these two argued so much they might as well get married…
“Give up?” taunted Rosarla, smiling fiercely.
“Not on your life,” returned Marhelon swiftly. “And you?”
“I’d rather die.”
“All right, don’t do anything so drastic,” said a familiar voice behind Roan. He turned and nearly fainted with relief; it was his master and mentor, as well as Marhelon’s cousin. He shifted, staring down at all three figures, using his height rather advantageously, and exhaled, tugging at one of the tightly knotted braids falling over his shoulder. “How many hours was this one?”
“Four,” Roan reported wearily.
“And the winner?”
“Undetermined. Unfortunately,” he added under his breath, and froze; Rosarla was beginning to eye him suspiciously.
“Very well.” The broad-shouldered, red-haired man strode over, putting a large hand on both opponents’ shoulders. “Let’s call it a tie. Spirrian’s returned from the city.”
“Eh, already?” Marhelon said uncommitedly, tucking his sword away. “All right, then. Would you care to go to dinner?”
He extended a hand to Rosarla, who nearly chopped it off in her fury.
“You’d better not forget to conclude our duel,” she snarled as Marhelon smoothly slid his hand out of reach.
“Oh, believe me, I don’t think I will,” he replied, a spark of irritation making his mouth tighten.
“Tell me I’m not sitting near either of them at dinner, or Spirrian, or Halt,” Roan groaned. Meledring, cousin of Marhelon, and the co-captain of the Royal Wardens, grinned, showing two rows of pearly white teeth.
“Then you’ll be sitting next to me and Shadow,” he said. “Well, fine by us. May I ask why?”
“They’ll decapitate me before I can fit even the slightest morsel into my mouth, and Spirrian will be sarcastically snarky like he always is – which’ll be even worse now that he knows Albany got away from Halt and I, and Halt will only speak of Celandine. I’d rather, you know – ” he gestured vaguely.
“Sit with us old men, you mean?”
“Ah. No. But I figure it’ll be safer somewhat – for both my physical and mental health.”
Meledring led the way from the courtyard into the halls of the palace, and eventually, to the north wing, where they entered a large room. A pale, slender man even taller than Meledring himself was seated at the head of the table, already beginning to take a bite out of his dinner. On his left and right were two young men: one bright-eyed, smiling and another scowling, curly-haired, and listless.
Roan stared at the arrangement on the table, mouth watering. The six dishes were simply made, but smelled like heaven on earth. No doubt this was the handiwork of the cook’s assistant Nerris. A familiar smell wafted into his nostrils and he choked – it was definitely her handiwork. A large bowl of steaming, red-hot liquid stared back at him, countless chili peppers imported from Kayor having been stirred together with various herbs and vegetables in a stew that made everyone except for Shadow (who was dipping slices of sesame biscuit happily into the red gunk) avert their eyes.
“Right,” said Shadow, swallowing. He cleared his throat, his face turning into his default passive expression. “Help yourselves. Nerris gives us her greetings and says that she accidentally put double the amount of peppers in her Kayorian stew, hope no one minds.”
No one’s going to eat it except for you, anyway, was the chagrined thought that ran through nearly everyone’s heads.
“Ladies first,” said Marhelon, pulling out a chair for Rosarla.
“Then you can go ahead and sit yourself right there, because you definitely can qualify for one, eh?” she shot back, seating herself opposite from him.
That must’ve hurt, Roan thought, as Marhelon’s eye twitched. He sat anyway, saying grace quietly, and stared at his plate, expressionless, for a few moments, then picked up knife and fork and set to work.
There they sat: Meledring at the head, Roan, Shadow, and Rosarla to his right, and Marhelon, Spirrian, and Halt to his left. In a miraculously short time, they had emptied every plate, scraped every dish, sucked every drop of soup dry (well, that was only Shadow), and had started lazy conversation.
Halt, of course, spoke nonstop about Celandine. Despite the fact that the boy was already several seats away, by the time he paused for breath, Roan had already found out what Celandine had been wearing, what she’d found interesting, what kind of flowers she’d started growing, how her family was doing, and nearly every word she’d said in the past afternoon. Marhelon and Rosarla, of course, couldn’t sit for two minutes without arguing. Marhelon’s brows drawn together and Rosarla’s teeth gritted together, both were about to launch into a full-blown argument when Spirrian stood and clapped his hands, smiling languidly.
“All right, ladies, settle down,” he said, and Marhelon stared him down: no easy feat, as he was nearly five centimeters shorter. “Er. I mean. There’s no need to fight.”
Out of the corner of his eyes Roan saw Meledring hide an amused smile.
“I was going to report,” said Spirrian in his usual flat, matter-of-fact voice, “that I was somehow dragged on an adventure with the second princess today out to the city, where I was forced to purchase several bracelets and romp around aimlessly for four hours. May I ask whose responsibility it was to supervise the princess for just a few hours?”
He glared pointedly at Roan and Halt. Roan shrank from the withering gaze that he should have gotten used to already – but hadn’t – and wished that Halt was actually paying attention. The boy was staring cluelessly and somewhat worriedly at Spirrian, as if wondering what was going on with his eyebrows.
“Not Halt’s fault,” Rosarla piped in, teeth delicately holding two of her hairsticks. She rapidly wound the first into her hair and inserted the others in carefully. “Then again, it wasn’t Roan’s either.”
Spirrian opened his mouth to say something – something derisive and grumpy, Roan thought, but decided otherwise when Marhelon placed an iron fist on his shoulder and forced him back into his chair.
“Several of the palace guards are on night duty, so there’s no need to get worked up,” Meledring commented. “Rosarla, I trust you know where your room is. One month of being part of the Royal Wardens is a good accomplishment, I’ll give you. You’ve proven yourself a skillful and clever warrior. Eh, Shadow?”
Shadow inclined his head, which Meledring took as a nod.
Rosarla tipped her head respectfully, her face giving away no sign of emotion, except for her eyes, which seemed to glow eagerly.
“But that’s not an excuse to pick a fight with my cousin, no matter how irritating you find him,” Meledring added, raising an eyebrow. Rosarla’s shoulders lowered slightly. “He’s a good-natured, cordial man at heart, despite the fact that he’s irked by how similar you are to him. And don’t look at me like that, you two, because it’s quite true. Now. Since we don’t have any extra duties today, all of us may rest peacefully until tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir,” chorused Halt, Roan, Marhelon, Rosarla, and Spirrian obediently.
The other eyebrow rose, and Meledring let his gaze wander from Warden to Warden until expressions of slight discomfort crossed their faces (though it wasn’t very effective on his cousin, or Rosarla).
“Stop it,” Marhelon said a little disapprovingly. “You’re frightening your own former pupil.”
Roan attempted a smile, and Meledring rolled his eyes.
“Just a reminder,” he sighed. “I should be a little less lax. Be glad the last generation of Royal Wardens aren’t here, though. They would’ve gotten all of you to run laps around the palace and do extra patrol in the afternoons for a month just for being cheeky.
“However, since I am kind and good of heart – ” nearly everyone snorted, and Meledring glared again – “I’ll overlook it this time. Since we do have an envoy from West Bardock arriving in a week, there’s no time for dealing out punishment.”
“That’s right.” Rosarla tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “We’ll have to help with preparations: cleaning, decorating, supervising the royal children – ” Three groans were heard, and were silenced, by Meledring’s evil eye. “But we haven’t had contact with West Bardock since half a century ago, wasn’t it?”
“Yes.” Spirrian nodded sagely, and received a rather irritated glower from the female Warden. “That was the end of the… Fifth Bardock-Felaurian War?”
“Sixth,” snapped Rosarla.
“Precisely,” Marhelon cut in smoothly. “So the envoy’s arrival will be a celebration of the truce recently made by King Farran and King Geredir of West Bardock. There’ll be a festival, and a feast, but all of you must be on your guard – do remember that the Sixth Bardock-Felaurian War, as well as the first three, were originally started because of some sort of assassination attempt from Bardock. And it does well to consider the fact that both West and East Bardock are neighbouring countries to Daugaran, and according to nearly everyone in the world, nothing good comes out of Daugaran.”
“Nonsense,” Rosarla said sharply. She seemed a little offended, for some reason, but soon recovered. “All that matters is that we’re careful, right? I’m sure the Bardockians won’t try anything.”
“Yes.” Meledring nodded in agreement. “Thus, I’ll dissolve our little impromptu meeting, and advise all to head to their rooms. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day. Get all the rest you can get.”
And grumbling, shuffling, smiling, and yawning, all seven Wardens picked up their dishes, headed to the kitchen where they would deposit said objects, and let their minds wander to what interesting events may occur in the near future.