Part 1 - A Princess' Command
They left Mithir before sunset. Trying to be as discreet as possible, they chose to exit the outer walls through the eastern gate, and soon enough they successful left the city behind, taking the northern road.
Allana kept an attentive but worried eye on Elipson, who held her horse’s reins with only one hand, putting on a strong facade, her back straight as if nothing was wrong. Allana, however, knew better than that. She’d been the one to help her get on her horse and, although she hadn’t uttered a single word of complain, the effort of doing so had left a thin sheen of sweat covering her forehead, where dark curls stubbornly sticking to her skin.
They rode until close to the Silver Forest and, as night fell, stopped to rest and eat some of Adira’s specialties before going to sleep.
Anxiety started twisting Allana’s insides as silence fell around her. She’d soon be back home and the thought alone felt … strange. When she’d left Everlyn she’d practically sworn she’d never be back, and now there she was, on that same road. She couldn’t help wonder how they would receive her. What they thought about her sudden disappearance. Would Selina have eventually told them the truth? Or did they believe she'd been kidnapped, or killed, or something like that? One thing was clear, if Selina had told them the truth she’d never told them where she had run to, or Heric would’ve certainly have gone all the way to Mithir to get her back, probably taking an army with him just to show off. And as she recalled her living nightmare that her life had been she couldn’t help tremble. He had always frightened her, but now that had to end. Because she wasn’t going back to be the obedient girl they all wanted her to be. She was going back to save the lives of all those who lived in Everlyn, her people. Even if that meant having to face the entire Court, Heric included.
Taking a deep breath, Allana turned to the other side and tried her best to get some sleep. They had a long day ahead.
The next morning they rose before sunrise and,after a quick meal, went back to the road. The sky was clear, promising a sunny day that would take its time to chase dawn’s cold air away.
They rode the whole day, only stopping near midday, to eat and get some rest. And so the sun had only started to set when Everlyn’s outline became visible on the horizon, its white small houses contrasting with the luxurious green of the Silver Forest that ended right where the Kingdom begun.
Allana felt a kind of warming feeling as she thought she could recognize some of the buildings even from afar. She had been sure she’d never see her birthplace again; the light of the sun reflected on the white, modest houses, the stone streets that criss-crossed between them. Gazing at the faraway city she could finally feel the pain of knowing that all that would soon be gone; that someone unknown would come to take and destroy the only place she had ever called home. Sure her memories of Everlyn were painful and bitter, but still, that was the place where she had been born and raised. And suddenly the days she had spent in Mithir seemed like a dream. A dream condemned from the start, a crazy wish from an adolescent girl.
The journey to the city, now that they had left behind the winding road that encircled the Sunny Hills behind, was easy and fast. Still she couldn't help feeling tired when they finally reached the edge of the city, which reminded her of Elipson’s state. Taking a peek at her, as she had done many times throughout the day, she couldn't help noticing how pale she looked, her gray eyes gleaming feverishly, her lips pressed tight together, even though, as usual, she kept her silence. It was clear she was in pain and, for the first time since the sun had risen, Allana wished they’d reach their destination as soon as possible.
They crossed the city with ease, its streets deserted, the doors and windows they walked by firmly shut. Almost as if they’d finally understood that war was inevitable. However, as they reached the Palace Gates, the story was completely different, and they were immediately stopped by the Royal Guard that, garbed in heavy armor with long swords at their waist, instead of the usual ceremony garments, was clearly in charge of stopping strangers from going any further.
Allana dismounted her horse, pulling back the hood that covered her head, and approached the Guard in command.
“Will you be so kind as to inform Lord Heric that I am back? And send someone to tend to our horses,” she told him in a firm voice and the man looked at her, eyes widening in disbelieve as he finally recognized her. He immediately lowered his head, taking one knee to the ground, his armor clanging noisily, making him look stiff and awkward.
“Your Highness! How have you fared? We’ve searched for you everywhere …”
“I know. And I thank you. But now is not the time to discuss any of that. Please. Will you do as I’ve asked?”
“Of course, Your Highness … But Princess …” the man said raising his head, looking fretfully at her companions. “Lord Heric strictly forbade the presence of any strangers behind the Palace Gates.”
“My companions are trustworthy. And don’t worry. I’ll personally talk with Heric about them,” she assured him and he lowered his head once again.
“As it pleases Your Highness,” he simply replied and, rising to his feet, ordered two of the other Guards to do as she had instructed.
The Knights dismounted, Elian helping Elipson so she wouldn’t have to rely on her injured shoulder, and Allana intertwined her arm with hers, leading her towards the palace doors.
“Come! And welcome to Everlyn,” she told her, almost as if they were old friends, and Elian and Denar followed them as the main doors were opened to grant them passage.
A boy ran out to help them with their small bags and to relieve them of their traveling cloaks, and immediately ran away again after a clumsy bow.
Allana led them to the waiting room and practically sat Elipson on one of the comfortable chairs laying around.
“Please, try to feel at home,” she told them and the sound of running steps made her smile in anticipation.
A young girl sprang forth from one of the lateral doors, her disheveled hair the color of honey, and she immediately jumped Allana, hugging her before anyone could do or say much of anything.
“What in all hells?! Why are you back?” the girl asked her, pulling back to face her, and Allana smiled.
“I had to come back …”
“You’re beyond salvation!” the girl told her in a critical tone and peered at her companions. “Oh, Your Highness, we meet again,” she told Elian, smiling mischievously, and Elian returned her smile. “Sir Knight,” she greeted Denar and her astute eyes stopped on Elipson. “I don’t believe I had the pleasure …”
“This is Elipson. She’s also a Knight,” Allana introduced her and Selina smiled, respectfully bowing her head. “This is Selina. My lady in waiting. Although she’s more like my sister,” Allana explained and Elipson gave her a short nod.
Once the greetings were over Selina’s smile vanished immediately, and she turned back to Allana with a grave expression.
“If you’re back there’s some things you need to know. Your mother …”
Her words were cut off by the sound of a door opening with such a strength that it hit the wall behind it. Heric stood there for an instant, looking perplexed, and Selina lowered her head, taking a step back.
Elian and Denar both rested their hands on their swords’ hilts, and Elipson looked from one to another unable to understand the cause of that sudden tension.
Finally Heric seemed to recover enough to react, and crossed the room with a wide stride, his eyes gleaming dangerously.
“I couldn’t believe my ears when they told me! Where have you been all this time?”
“That is of no consequence. I’m back because …”
“Of no consequence?!” He looked around, refusing to acknowledge any of the presents, and firmly held her arm, pulling her away with him. “Come! We have a lot to talk.”
Allana pulled back, hard, freeing herself, and faced him.
“I didn’t come back to talk with you! I came back to call upon the Council. We have a lot to decide, and as soon as possible! The Northern Armies are at our doors. They’ll probably attack us before tomorrow’s end …”
“You want what …?”
“You heard me, did you not?
“Out of the question!” Heric replied growing angrier by the second.
“I see. You didn’t hear me after all. I said I want to call upon a Council and I mean it now! And you can start by taking care of that as of this instant!”
Heric stood there, too stunned to move, but then anger clouded his vision once again, and he reached out for her, trying to grab her again.
The sound of swords sliding from their sheaths echoed in the room and Heric stood immediately frozen in place. But not because of the threat represented by the Knights’ swords. Allana had drawn her dagger and firmly held its sharp point against his chest, facing him fearless.
“You’ll do as I say or I’ll accuse you of treason and order your execution,” she told him in a cold, firm voice. “And if you ever touch me again I will kill you myself! Understood?” Heric stood silent, too shocked to speak, and Allana stepped forward with a menacing look. “Understood?!” she insisted and he finally nodded.
“Your Highness!” she corrected him fiercely.
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“And don’t ever forget who you’re addressing the next time you talk to me.” Heric lowered his head, feeling completely humiliated. “You may go, now. I want every minister in that room before the night is over!”
“Yes, Your Highness …” he repeated in a mumble, his pride too hurt to even raise his eyes, and left the room without another word.
“Wow! You were great! Amazing!” Selina exclaimed excitedly, practically jumping up and down, but Allana just dropped to a chair, squeezing her shaky hands together. “What’s wrong?”
Elipson looked at the girl siting beside her and stood up, holding Selina by the arm.
“Why don’t you show me around the palace?” she suggested and Selina looked caught off guard for an split second, although it didn't take her long to put on an innocent smile as she understood Elipson’s intentions.
“Oh, of course. It’ll be my pleasure. And then I shall take you to your chambers. Care to join us, Sir Knight?” she asked, turning back to Denar, and the Knight grunted something under his breath, before following both women, clearly unwillingly.
Elian sat by her side and raised a hand to touch her golden hair but ended up hugging her, pulling her closer. She was trembling, he felt and smiled, lightly patting her shoulder.
“Selina was right. You were amazing!”
“I don’t know if I can do this …”
“Of course you can! You were born for this, remember? It’s in your blood! You are the sole heir to an entire Kingdom.”
“No, that’s not who I am … I wasn’t born to rule over anything.”
“Hum… well, I guess we can also see things that way. Sometimes I also feel the same. But it’s only a matter of acting a little. Of course we could simply say no, tell them we don’t want this kind of responsibility. But then what? What about all those who depend on us, who look up to us to help them and protect them when they need it?”
Allana raised her head, his calm gaze making her feel a bit more confident.
“He frightens me … Makes me recall things I’d rather forget.”
“Then see him as a test you have to overcome. If you want my opinion you’ve just solved a large part of the problem. Don’t allow him to scare you, don’t show him any weakness. And if you ever need help …”
“No. You have to go … return to Mithir.”
“Don’t worry about us,” he told her with a reassuring smile.
Elian drew back allowing her to stand up, and Allana smiled openly at the woman who had just called her name.
“My dear! How have you been? Are you alright?” the woman asked in one single a breath, holding her hands tightly, looking at her from head to toe. And then her gaze became immediately cold and fierce as she stared at the Prince standing behind her. “And you! What are you doing here? How dare you come back after misleading our Princess?” she practically roared, but Allana squeezed her hands, diverting her attention back to her.
“I left with them of my own accord! No one forced me to do anything,” she tried to explain but Dana’s angry expression told her she hadn’t been successful.
“It was this … boy, who led you astray! Tell me! Where have you been? By the Gods! What happened to you? Almost twenty days without a word! Allana! Can you even imagine how worried we’ve been? And you return and tell us you left of your own free will?! My dear, you’re nothing but a child in need of a strong guiding …”
Allana took a deep breath and stepped back, pulling away from those hands that just a moment ago had felt so precious to her.
“No, Dana. I can’t be a child forever, even if that’s what you and Heric want of me. And I’ve came back to show you exactly that.”
“What do you mean …?”
“Everlyn will fall, everyone here knows this. And so I will order a full evacuation.”
“What?!” Dana asked, completely stunned, but Allana remained calm and centered.
“It is as you’ve heard. Everyone shall evacuate towards south come morning. Maybe they’ll be able to reach the safety on the Sunny Hills before the enemy reaches Everlyn.”
“Allana! This is crazy! We need the people to defend our lands! We don’t have enough men to fight!”
“Even if we had twice as many men, and they’d been all adequately trained, which is hardly the case, that still wouldn’t make any difference. This is why we have to save as many as we can. There’s no reason for innocent people to die for a lost cause!”
Dana sat heavily, holding her head between her hands, and took a deep breath.
“You’ve allowed them put these crazy ideas inside your head …”
“On the contrary. They only came because I decided to return. It is my duty to defend and protect the people of my Kingdom to the best of my abilities! And that means stopping this massacre. Dana, they’ve already leveled Cordal and Mádon to the ground. They leave only burning fields, death and destruction in their wake. Everlyn is nothing but a small stone on their way.”
“Have you talked with Heric about this?”
“No. I ordered a Council to be called. There I’ll explain in detail what is to be done.”
“He won’t like this one bit …”
Allana smiled coldly and shrugged.
“I also didn’t like many things and bore them in silence all these years. It’s his turn.”
Dana didn’t seem to know what else to say and so, standing up, decided to change the subject.
“Before all that you should go and see your mother. She hasn’t been well. Selina has been looking after her but …”
Allana nodded, her golden eyes going to the stairs, which made her feel as if something was squeezing her heart.
“I know … It was also because of her that I’ve decided to return …”
A warm heavy hand covered her shoulder and she turned back to face Elian’s dark gaze.
“Go. Don’t worry. We’ll handle everything down here.”
She sighed and nodded, gathering all her courage to climb the first step.