Kings and Queens by Yvonne C. Carsley by Yvonne C. Carsley - Read Online

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Kings and Queens - Yvonne C. Carsley

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PROLOGUE

She was falling.

Through tear-filled eyes and the numbing cloak of terror, which enveloped her whole being, she could see the castle walls streaking by her. The jet-black stone was a shadowy blur, interspersed by flashes of flickering torchlight emanating from the windows.

She flailed desperately with her hands, knowing that if she could only stretch her fingers just a little more that she could reach them. One inch, perhaps two and she could grab hold of a ledge, a balcony, a rail, something to stop her all-too-rapid descent. One inch, perhaps two and she would be saved.

She stretched and stretched but it was no use.

Cruel gravity and heartless winds conspired to pull her further and further away from salvation. She opened her mouth to scream her fear and anger but the wind snatched the sound from her lips and smothered it. Breaking the cardinal rule, she looked down. The ground rushed up to meet her gaze and her vision was filled with sharp grey rocks and the remains of torn and ravaged trees. She opened her mouth to scream again. This time she was successful.

The sound rose from the depths of her chest, hurtled with unstoppable force up through her throat and burst from between her clenched lips. Her mouth was forced wide open to accommodate all the shrieking panic that her body needed to release, and blood splattered her chin as her bone-dry lips split at the corners. The scream was long and loud, and reverberated throughout the valley below, sending up a flurry of startled night-crows. It was terminated with extreme abruptness as ground and flesh met with devastating consequences.

Darkness exploded behind her eyes, followed by intermittent flashes of pure white light. There was a brief second of absolute agony and then there was only the darkness: cold, barren, lingering, darkness

CHAPTER ONE

The travellers returned to Finlea after several weeks and when they arrived, the group was down to three. The witches had remained at Oulwer, taking it upon themselves to ensure that all twelve spheres of the U’Narai were returned to their rightful places. Mirialle and Feralin had ridden off together, their destination unclear even to themselves.

They had journeyed partway to Finlea with the elves before saying goodbye. Emkel had been sorry to see them go. He had only just begun to know them and had made them promise that they would not be strangers and would visit his home occasionally. The elves had waved them off until they were out of sight and then they resumed their travels, galloping towards Finlea with great eagerness.

On reaching its borders they slowed and the horses cantered in single file across the Weeping Walkway. They sped up on approaching the Golden Mountains and thundered down the Iliarrn Pass, accompanied by the victory hails of the Rahar.

The mares burst from the shadows cast by the mountains and stormed into the honey-yellow light that shone in the valley. They reared up on their hind legs and pawed playfully at the grains of pollen swirling in the air. Their riders laughed delightedly. They too were glad to be home.

One by one, they dismounted and removed the horses’ saddles and bridles. Freed of their cumbersome weight the animals sprinted away, frolicking in the grass and neighing happily. The riders smiled at them and then turned away. They had to find King Lartow and inform him of their arrival; if the excited shouting of the Rahar had not already done so.

Walking swiftly, they made their way up to the palace and were greeted in the throne-room by Galador and Celkilor. As they were Lartow’s most trusted confidantes the three young elves were not surprised to be met by them rather than the king himself, but something in the older elves’ manner told them that something was wrong.

Emkel. Galador strode forward to greet him warmly. We prayed to the gods for your safe return and happily our prayers were answered. Anya, Silrain. He nodded in their direction. You must be tired. We have prepared rooms and later there’ll be a victory feast in your honour.

Will the king be there? asked Silrain, glancing around speculatively.

Galador shared a quick look with Celkilor.

She nodded at him. You must, she said.

Must what? said Emkel. Galador? What’s going on here?

The king, he… Galador nervously rubbed his hands together.

What of the king? Where is he?

I…I…We…

We don’t know, said Celkilor, placing a hand on Galador’s arm.

I don’t understand, said Emkel. What do you mean, you don’t know? What’s going on here?

No one knew he was gone until it was too late, said Galador. He retired to his chambers shortly after your departure and asked not to be disturbed. He was not seen for several days. Then when I finally entered his room he was gone. He left this though. He pulled a roll of parchment from the belt of his tunic.

Emkel took it and unrolled it. My dear nephew, he read, I apologise for not being there to greet your homecoming but there are things I must do, places I must go to. I’ve been king since my twelfth year, when my parents abdicated the throne, leaving me the crown. All of my life all that I’ve known is duty. Please rest assured that duty is all that concerns me still. I’ve been called away. By whom I’m not at liberty to say. For what purpose I cannot tell you. I don’t know when, or if, I’ll be back…and Finlea still needs a king. The throne is now yours and with it the crown. It’s not always a comfortable seat and the crown often weighs heavy but I know you’ll bear this burden as I did, and perhaps you’ll be luckier than I and not have to bear it alone. Be assured that I made this choice of my own free will and that I know what I’m doing. Don’t try to find me. I am but one man. You now have an entire kingdom to care for and its needs come before mine. Take care of yourself and good journey. Lartow.

Emkel lowered the parchment and looked up. He left no clues as to where he was going?

None. He didn’t take any of his things, there were no tracks for us to follow and no one saw him leave. He simply vanished, replied Galador.

Urm.

What would you like me to do? asked Celkilor.

Do?

The people will have to be told. There are preparations to be made.

Emkel stared at her blankly.

You’re now the king, she explained. There’ll have to be a ceremony. You’ll have to greet the people and make a small statement.

Oh, he replied.

He felt a small pressure on his hand and returned it gratefully. Anya smiled at him reassuringly and nodded.

Alright, he said, trying to infuse his voice with firm royal authority, inform the people that Lartow has abdicated and has gone away for some much needed rest. Tell them that the feasting and celebrations will still go ahead. Then find the E’Lanni and bring her to the palace.

The E’Lanni? Galador frowned. Then his gaze drifted down and he noted the gentle handclasp. Ah, he said with sudden understanding. Yes, Your Majesty.

Emkel paled visibly. No, not majesty, not until after the ceremony.

Galador frowned again but nodded. Then he hurried away to make the announcement.

Celkilor turned to Emkel and gazed thoughtfully at his dusty clothing. You should return to your chambers, Your Maj– Emkel. I will bring you fresh clothing and the king’s robe. She turned to Silrain. While Galador tends to the people and the E’Lanni you must find the E’Tante. Bring him to the throne-room and tell him to bring the book of Tashinka.

Silrain nodded and strode away.

Celkilor then turned to Anya. If you’re to be queen then you will need fresh clothing. You too must retire to your chambers. I will call for the dressers. We’ve a lot to do and not much time to do it in. You’ve a few moments, use them wisely, she added as she too hurried away to attend to the preparations.

Anya turned to Emkel. It’s one thing after another, she said with a smile. One minute you’re saving the world, the next you’re being made king.

He smiled back nervously. Yeah. One thing after another.

His head twisted around at the sound of swift footsteps. A dozen women, carrying bundles of different coloured materials were fast approaching.

Looks like my dressers are here, Anya said with wide eyes, as the women surrounded her in a flurry of excited activity.

Come, come, they uttered. There’s no time. We must get you ready. Come, come.

They bustled away down the corridor, talking, giggling and arguing in a friendly manner over whether Anya’s hair should be worn up or down. Emkel watched them go, fear and happiness jostling for supremacy within his heart.

----

The darkness was cloying.

It surrounded her: above and below, to the left and the right, around her and inside her; nothing but darkness.

Cold and terrifying, it pressed down on her chest, forcing the last few breaths from her lungs. Uncaring fingers of icy shadowy blackness prodded her face, pushing themselves insistently against her eyes until she could no longer raise their lids because of the weight. Darkness flowed through her once beautiful hair and poured into her ears, blocking out all sounds save the beating of her own palpitating heart. It skittered gleefully over her body, smothering her face and neck with its murderous hands and began to crush the life out of her.

Her mouth flew open as she struggled to take in air, and darkness streamed over her lips and down her throat, stifling her cries and choking off her breaths. She was suffocating, drowning in darkness and the smell of her own fear.

She reached up, scrabbling and clawing wildly. She had to get out. She had to get out!

Slowly, she began to rise from the oppressive pitch-blackness. Pushing upwards, she flung the darkness behind her like a swimmer making for the surface. Her heart-rate quadrupled with the effort, its noise was louder than a thousand drums, and she moved faster, half climbing, half swimming in an attempt to escape its overbearing beat.

As she neared the surface, she became aware of a second sound, a voice calling to her.

That’s it, it whispered. That’s it. You can do it. Don’t stop. Keep coming. This way.

She did not recognise it or care who it belonged to. It was something to reach for, something to focus on; something to take her mind off the nearly paralysing fear blanketing her. Reaching up, she stretched for it and, with a cry of mingled terror and triumph, broke through to the surface.

Cold wind struck her flesh and strong hands grabbed her as she rose from the soil and, for a few minutes, she struggled against them with the strength of a demented wild cat. Lashing out, she clawed, kicked and snarled, managing to strike her assailant several times.

She hurt him. She heard him gasp and cry out, but he did not release her and she soon grew tired and ceased her attack. She lay limp in his arms, body too weak; mind too weary to try a second escape. Tender hands stroked her hair and a gentle voice uttered meaningless, yet comforting, words in her ear. There was a whispered promise of fresh clothing, clean water and food. Her stomach growled at the mere mention of it and the man laughed softly and promised her a feast she would never forget.

Her gaze drifted up to take in the sight of the moon. It blazed like a disc of pure silver in the blackest night sky she had ever seen. She gasped in amazement.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? the man murmured against her cheek.

Yes, she replied as her eyelids slid shut.

The man held her gently and smiled down at her pale sleeping face. He smoothed her hair back from her temples and kissed her pointed ears. Not a sight to rival your beauty though, he whispered. Not a sight to rival my dark princess, and soon everyone shall know of your beauty…and your rage.

----

Emkel stared at his reflection in the mirror and chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip.

Well? said Galador.

Emkel looked over his shoulder at the older elf and smiled hesitantly. It’s…fine.

Fine? Galador echoed.

Good. Great. Really great.

I could re-call the tailors. Perhaps they could alter the hem or adjust the trim.

No really. It’s fine. Just perfect. Emkel turned back to the glass. Are they gathering in the valley?

Yes. Everyone should be assembled within the hour.

Good. Good. And the E’Lanni?

Waiting in the Room of Starlight.

Please inform her I’ll be there in a few minutes.

Yes, Your Maj– Right away, replied Galador, striding soundlessly away.

Emkel returned to studying his appearance.

He was dressed in a simple light-blue robe, over which he wore a shimmering silver cloak; the king’s robe.

Each successive king of Finlea was bound by ancient tradition to wear the garment at his crowning ceremony. And what a garment it was, thought Emkel as he turned this way and that to gain a better look.

It was made from silver mined from the deepest realms of the Earth, which had been melted down and woven into strands of fabric by an ancient form of magic long since forgotten. The fabric had then been cut, stitched, trimmed and shaped, all to fit the form of Finlea’s first king, Elial.

After Elial’s reign ended, Aslar became king. After Aslar came D’Hann. After D’Hann came Tashinka, Finlea’s first queen to rule alone. After Tashinka came her son, Jaran. After Jaran came Halashar. After Halashar came Lartow. Now there was Emkel, Finlea’s eighth ruler and, with each new king, the silver cloak had been adjusted so that it rested perfectly upon the shoulders of each man. A new cloak had been crafted for Queen Tashinka. Only having been worn once, it was now being taken out of storage and dusted off.

The cloak resting on Emkel’s shoulders was many thousands of years old but age had not dulled its shine and Emkel was almost blinded by his dazzling reflection. And though six other men, all of differing height and girth had worn the cloak, it fitted him perfectly, like a second skin. It could have been made with him in mind so snug was its fit and though it looked as if it should have weighed heavily he was astounded by its lightness.

Feeling slightly giddy, he whirled around and laughed as the material flowed effortlessly with his body. Then he remembered that Lartow was gone and that very shortly he was going to be made king; king of a country he had only just discovered, king of a vast number of people he knew absolutely nothing about: a king who would have to make and uphold laws, make proclamations, sign treaties, seek out and make allies, and lead armies into battle against enemies. People would look to him for guidance, advice and support. He would have to be strong and courageous, noble and a symbol for all that was good and true. He would have to be a figure of undeniable greatness and seemingly invincible power.

Looking at himself in the glass, he did look every inch a true king. He stood tall and straight, his features were strong and firm, and the cloak did give him a certain regal air, but what would happen when the cloak was removed? What lay beneath its glossy exterior? Could he still project the aura of royalty, and more to the point did he want to?

He had never intended to be a king, never desired it or asked for it but here he was; in the palace, in the king’s private chambers, wearing the king’s robe. The others had not asked him what he wanted. They had simply gone ahead with the preparations, never once entertaining the idea that he might say no. This was simply the way things happened. The king died or abdicated and his heir took his place. Lartow was unmarried with no children of his own. If Celestia had been alive she would have been the next in line but…

Emkel lowered his head. He did not want to think about that just yet. That wound was still too raw and prodding it was like prodding an aching tooth.

So, he was next in line and the other elves, like Lartow, had naturally assumed he would take up his role without question. Emkel picked up his uncle’s letter from where it lay on the bed and reread it. But I know you’ll bear this burden as I did. He reread this line a dozen times and then threw the letter back down. The word duty leapt up at him from the folds of the paper. And that was really what it was all about.

It had been his duty to be the Keeper of the U’Narai and now it was his duty to be king. The problem was he did not know how to be a king.

A knock at the door pulled him from his thoughts and he hastily arranged his features into a calm and serene mask. For the time being he would keep his fear to himself.

Enter, he called when he was composed.

Galador entered the room and stood before Emkel, fighting the urge to bow before him. The E’Lanni is still waiting, he said.

I’m coming, Emkel replied, taking a last look at his reflection. He sighed softly and turned to Galador. I’m ready.

----

Galador strode quietly behind Emkel as they made their way to the Room of Starlight, and the boy’s façade of calm serenity did not fool him the least little bit. Galador was very old and this was not the first time he had witnessed the crowning of a new king. He had witnessed the crowning of Lartow and Halashar, and they too had experienced fear and doubts before their ceremonies, albeit for very different reasons.

Halashar had been consumed with worry about his worthiness as a king, but had borne extra concerns regarding his upcoming marriage to a neighbouring king’s daughter, the Princess Jazel. Their parents had arranged their marriage many years before, but they had not been permitted to wed until Jazel came of age. Halashar had never even met his intended and had no idea what to expect and, though he would never admit it in public, he was more afraid of getting married than he was of becoming king.

Lartow’s worries had been very different. He had been a boy when he ascended to the throne and his fears had been the fears of a child: he had been afraid that he would no longer be able to play with his friends, that he would have to go to boring meetings with old people, that he would not be able to have any more fun.

Galador smiled inwardly at the memory of the twelve-year-old Lartow sitting on the throne. He had looked quite a sight. The silver cloak had been shortened quite considerably because of the child’s size and Ironfist the dwarf had been called in to adjust the crown. His son Ironhammer had been called in to adjust it again for Emkel.

Lartow had sat on the throne, swinging his legs and sulking when Galador had thrown him a warning look. After the crown had been placed on his head, he had stuck out his tongue and Galador had been hard pressed to keep a straight face.

Lartow had been a scamp but the blood of royalty burned in his veins and even during his younger years he had ruled with amazing strength and an intelligence not usually seen in one so young. Lartow had been raised in a royal household though. He had had dozens of teachers, advisors and guardians. He had been raised from birth to be a king but Emkel had not. He had lived as a virtual prisoner with his mother for eighteen years, ruled over by a cruel and evil father, and knew nothing about the outside world or the people living within it.

Galador knew that all these thoughts and more were swarming around inside the boy’s mind and saw it as his duty to reassure and comfort him, as he knew Lartow would have wanted.

The two elves reached the Room of Starlight but just before they entered Galador placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

Emkel, there’s no need for concern. Six kings and one queen ruled before you. They too experienced fear and doubt and no doubt did so throughout their reigns. They did fine. So will you.

But I’m not a king. I’m just an ordinary person.

They too were just ordinary people. You’ve nothing to be afraid of.

I’m not afraid. I’m just a little concerned.

Really? Galador gestured to Emkel’s hands, which were squeezed so tightly together that the knuckles had turned completely white.

Emkel smiled nervously and shoved them behind his back. My mother always said that her hands were a traitorous give-away of her emotions. I guess mine are too.

Galador watched as Emkel’s face crumpled, a few loose tears leaking from his eyes.

You miss her, he said softly.

Emkel nodded and wiped angrily at his face.

You didn’t find her.

No, but I know she’s dead. We had a connection, a telepathic one, and I don’t feel it anymore. She’s dead. I’ve no doubts about that, unfortunately.

She would be very proud of you.

Do you really think so?

Yes, I do. You saved the Free Land from almost-certain destruction. You did your duty and now another has been handed to you and you’re coping with the situation extremely well.

I suppose, Emkel said, gazing down at his feet.

Extremely well, Galador firmly reiterated.

Emkel smiled up at him and the older elf could see that his words had helped. He patted him on the back and gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze.

Come on. The E’Lanni is waiting and Anya will be here in a few moments. Wipe your eyes. You don’t want your first vision of your bride in her wedding attire to be blurred by tears, do you?

No, Emkel replied, blinking away the last few drops.

Lartow never had a queen. In this you’re more fortunate. To rule in partnership is a blessing. A partner can help in your many deliberations and can ease the oftentimes-heavy burden of leadership. And Anya is a level-headed young woman with a good heart. She’ll be good for you. You’ll be good for each other I think.

Yes, I think so too, said Emkel as they entered the room.

----

She slept, for how long she did not know, and her dreams were strange and terrifying. She was falling, or flying; she could not tell which. She was drowning, suffocated by fear, and blind, blinded by never-ending darkness. She was running, running for her very life, chased by a monster whose ragged breaths she could hear but whose face she could not see. Long-fingered unseen hands reached for her, winding themselves around her neck and tugging painfully at her hair. Their icy touch sent shivers through her body and she screamed. Wrenching herself from their cold grip, she ran, stumbling and staggering through the unremitting blackness. Terror spread like wildfire through her veins and she clawed at the air around her, searching for something, anything to hold; something she could identify, something that would tell her where she was, something that would let her know which way was up and which was down.

Princess.

The whispered sound pierced the wall of fear encircling her mind and brought her body to a complete stop.

Princess.

The voice was soft, full of tender concern and tinged with just a hint of menace. It was highly seductive and impossible to resist.

Come to me, it whispered. Come to me my dark princess, my angel of the midnight moon. Come to me.

She reached up, dragging herself up from the murky waters of sleep, straining and gasping as its greedy hands sought to prevent her ascension.

Come to me, the voice repeated. Rise my darling one. Rise from your bed and take my hand.

I’m coming, she replied through gritted teeth. I’m coming.

----

The white-haired man gazed into the mirror and smiled at his reflection. By the bright light, he was handsome, he thought with unabashed vanity.

Dressed in a dark outfit, nicely complimented by the stark white of his hair and the glinting red of his eyes, he was every inch the suave debonair gentleman he secretly believed himself to be. He turned slightly to test the movement of the fabric and was pleased by its fluid motion and wrinkle-free smoothness.

His trousers were tight, finely moulded to the swell of his calves and the thickness of his muscular thighs, and the waistband was a perfect fit. His shirt was white, cuffs snug at the wrists; the neck fastened tight with a length of black rawhide and the material was soft against his skin. Over the shirt he wore a black tunic belted at the waist, which flared over his hips, reaching to midway down his upper leg. He wore knee-length boots shining with a recent polishing and still smelling of freshly-stitched leather. With the shirt covered, the only colour in the entire ensemble came from the scarlet sash worn diagonally across his chest.

He ran a well-manicured hand over his tightly-braided hair, smoothing back a few errant strands and trimmed a few untidy hairs from his beard with a razor-sharp thumbnail. Perfect, he thought, tilting his head this way and that. Smiling widely, he ran the tip of his tongue over his teeth, lingering for an ecstatic moment over the two dagger-like canines. Pricking the soft flesh, he drew a bead of blood and allowed it to trickle down the back of his throat. He shivered as its hot coppery taste exploded in his mouth and sent tiny electric shocks skittering throughout his body. Delicious! Utterly delicious.

He closed his eyes, savouring the moment and then reopened them at the sound of the door creaking open.

So, you’re finally awake. He looked at the woman’s reflection in the glass. I was beginning to wonder if you were ever going to rise.

The woman stared at him, uncomprehending. Her eyes were wide and glassy, full of fear, confusion, madness and a desperate hunger. She took a step towards him and faltered. Her hands scrabbled at the air as though trying to grab something only she could see. He closed the gap between them, took her gently by the arms and brought her against his chest.

There, there, he cooed. It’s alright. I know you’re confused but I promise it will pass. All of the pain will pass. He stroked her tangled hair and breathed deeply of its rich earthy scent.

Hungry, she mumbled against his body. So hungry.

I know. I have something for you, something that will ease the pangs. Come. He took her by the hand. Come.

She stared mistrustfully at him but allowed him to escort her from the room and take her down the corridor.

They followed a winding course that seemed to last forever. Bare stone walls went by in a blur and the ground was cold beneath her naked feet, but she did not mind. She was dressed in a thin white gown that had seen better days but the cold did not really touch her. She knew, insofar as she knew anything at all, that it was cold. There was a chill wind and no warming fire burned in any of the rooms they passed yet she did not shiver. Looking down, she gasped.

No goosebumps, she whispered.

No, my lady, the man said. Nothing shall touch you now. Not freezing wind or icy snow. Not pounding hail or flesh-biting rain. You’re impervious to all of these things. You’ll still feel them but not as you once did. They’re now just curiosities for your amusement and delight. This is just one of the wonders now yours to experience. There are many others left for you to yet discover. The night world holds so many pleasures and I’ll be there to show them all to you. But first, you must eat. Once you’ve taken some nourishment you’ll be ready to begin our adventure.

Food, she uttered, licking her lips.

Ye-es, food. The man stopped outside a closed door and placed his hands on her face. Don’t be afraid, my darling one. I’ll be with you throughout.

He turned and unlocked the door, and gestured for her to step into the gloom.

----

On entering the Room of Starlight, Emkel was shocked by the vast enormity that greeted him. The last time he had been in this room it had seemed small, its high ceiling and sweeping walls dominated by the throbbing power of Omni’leal’s Star Table. Now that the power had been returned to its creator, the table was nothing more than wood and varnish, and its lifeless bulk had been removed from the room.

With the floor clear, Emkel could see the spiralling mosaic decorating it. It was a pattern filled with thousands of tiny butterflies (of various colours and shades) flying around and around and around, tightening the spiral until at its heart it became a tightly packed circle of red, green, gold and silver. And standing within that heart was the E’Lanni.

She was a tall woman with long auburn hair worn loose over her shoulders and her violet eyes were a darkly-deep bruised blue. She wore a long flowing gown of gold and silver, which was so long its hem skimmed the floor, making a whispering swishing sound whenever she walked. In her hands she held a length of scarlet ribbon, which Emkel found his gaze being drawn to again and again. He paced the room, breathing in the scent of magic still lingering in the air and watched out of the corner of his eye as Galador shared a few words with the E’Lanni. Gazing across at him, she caught his look, smiled softly and nodded.

Then the door opened again and Celkilor strode in. Like Galador she was dressed in a long silk robe rather than her simpler and more practical warrior’s tunic, and she was for once unarmed. She too wore her hair loose and her beauty startled Emkel. To his shame, he had not noticed it before.

She was tall and slender, her breasts and hips nicely rounded and her blonde hair shone as though sunlight had been captured and bound into every strand. Her violet eyes were faded, as though she had spent too many lifetimes staring at the sun, and her generous mouth was painted to match the colour of her robe, which was a dusky pink. Her lips curled up in an unusual, at least for her, smile. Normally, she looked deadly serious and if she did smile it was usually all-too-brief.

Emkel had never imagined that Celkilor could look anything other than a fierce warrior with a sharp and suspicious gaze. It was astounding how a change of clothes and letting their hair down could change a person so drastically. Emkel felt his jaw dropping open as she moved closer. However, her beauty was nothing compared to the vision following her. Emkel’s jaw dropped further.

Clothed in the queen’s robe (a garment of spun gold) and a simple white dress sprinkled with starlight grains and with her auburn hair lying loose down her back like a cloak, Anya was a breathtaking sight; a sight to capture any man’s heart and bring him to his knees in reverent worship. She glided through the door and across the floor with barely a rustle or a whisper and, as she drew nearer to him, the smile on her lips widened. When she reached his side, he took her hand in his and, raising it to his mouth, kissed it softly. Then they both turned to face the E’Lanni.

Welcome, she said, gesturing for them to step closer. You have made the exchange. You have made the vow. Now you stand before the witness. Raise your hands.

Emkel held out his right hand; Anya held out her left. The E’Lanni (the wedding witness) leaned forward and with a quick deft motion bound their hands with the red ribbon.

We are husband, said Emkel.

We are wife, said Anya.

We are male.

And female.

Black.

And white.

Night.

And day.

Divided.

Yet united.

Together. Forever. And always, they intoned together.

So it is said. So it is done, said the E’Lanni. Your names will now be linked in the Book of Sacred Betrothal. The binding has been witnessed. I wish you great joy and many years of love. She placed a kiss on the red ribbon to bless the union and then straightened up with a wide smile. It has been too long since I was called upon to bear witness. I hope this is a good omen of future things.

Emkel smiled in return before turning to Anya. She gazed at him dreamily and sighed when his hand touched her face.

Gesturing surreptitiously to Galador and Celkilor, the E’Lanni ushered them out of the room and left the young couple to peace and privacy. The gods knew there was going to be very little of that left to them after the crowning ceremony at midnight, and the E’Lanni (whose given name was Alura) felt a little bittersweet touch of sadness at the thought of their love being overshadowed by the dark demon of duty. Let them have these few precious moments, she thought, quietly closing the door behind her.

----

Emkel smiled softly and reached out to touch Anya’s hair. He marvelled at its soft texture and heavy weight, and ran his fingers down the white streak that had fallen forward over her face. She shivered under his touch and returned the gesture, running her hand through his glossy raven hair and twirling his matching white streak around her delicate fingers. She felt his shudder. Then he stepped closer and was holding her tightly against him. She wrapped her arms around his body, crushing his warm chest against hers and could hardly contain her cries of joy as his head dropped to her neck and his lips pressed against her skin. He traced a line of moist warm kisses up and down her throat and then he was kissing her mouth. And she was returning the kisses with a fierce hungry passion. She sucked at his mouth, devouring the salty tang of his lips and revelling in the ecstatic pressure she felt pushing against her teeth.

It seemed they could go on like this forever (kissing, touching, exploring each other) but they both knew it must end, that they had things to do. People were gathering in the valley, in the Meeting Circle, and they were awaiting their king.

Emkel, Anya murmured, pushing him away gently. They’re waiting. We must go.

He stepped away, licking his lips and smoothing his robes. Yes. Yes, you’re right. We must go. He frowned and seemed to be about to say something more but changed his mind. He reached out and she took his arm. We should not keep them waiting.

Together, arm in arm, they left the Room of Starlight and made their way out of the palace and down the mountain pass.

Flickering lights flooded the valley below. The sound of music and the mingled smells of a huge feast drifted up to greet them. Anya beamed with excitement at the infectious celebratory atmosphere. She turned to Emkel and was puzzled by his lack of joy.

What’s wrong? She squeezed his arm gently.

They’re going to make me king, he muttered.

Yes.

I don’t know how to be a king. He stared at the approaching lights with dismay.

Nobody knows how to be a king until they’ve become one, said Anya. Don’t despair. You’re not alone. I’m with you and so too is… She dropped a hand to her stomach.

Emkel followed the motion and reached out to place his own hand on it. He sighed as he felt the warmth. His daughter was growing safe inside Anya. She was unafraid, slumbering in the secure knowledge that when she was born she would be loved and cared for. He was going to be a father. He was responsible for the creation and welfare of a life, a soul, and suddenly the idea of being a king was not as terrifying as this singular fact. He looked up at Anya and she saw the fear in his eyes.

You’ll be a good father, she said with absolute surety, and you’ll be a good king. I don’t doubt it so nor should you.

She kissed him again (a long lingering kiss that left them both breathless) and, when they parted, Emkel was no longer afraid.

I will be a good king. He held out his hand. And you’ll be a good queen and a good mother.

She took his hand once more and they continued into the valley.

----

She froze on entering the room and would have backed out of it but the man blocked her way.

Do not fear, he repeated, gently urging her forward.

They were in a gloom-riddled bedchamber, whose only light was that of the moon and a few small candles. For human eyes the light was barely adequate but for her eyes it was more than enough; more than enough to see the small figure of a child curled up on the huge bed.

As they approached on soft footsteps, it awoke and turned to face them, huge frightened eyes glistening wetly in the dark. It was a boy child, no more than ten years old and, judging from his clothing, he was from a poor family. He was a sorry-looking pathetic creature, unlikely to be missed by many. He had an unruly mop of coarse dark hair and a squat little nose sprinkled with freckles and, gazing down, she saw that his hands and feet were bound tightly with thick rope.

What is this?

Food, my lady.

No! she whispered in shocked horror.

Come, come, my lady, the man said with a soft laugh. You wanted food. I’ve brought you food. Does your mouth not water at the sight of him? Does your stomach not rumble? Do you not yearn for just one taste of that succulent and tender child flesh?

She shook her head forcefully, trying to deny the truth of his words but she could not.

The scent of the boy was driving her wild. She smelled the deliciously hot aroma of sweat, fear and blood radiating across the room. She heard the pounding of his little heart and the swish, slosh, swish of the blood racing through his thin body. Even in the gloom she could see the pale skin of the child’s throat, see the smoky-blue veins trailing up it and, though she tried with all her physical might, she could not prevent her feet from taking her to the bed, could not stop herself from sitting down on it, could not stop herself from reaching out and taking the boy in her arms.

She pressed him tightly to her chest, feeling his heart-rate triple as his terror multiplied. The stink of fear rose from him like a blinding fog and she breathed it in, sighing softly at its sharp tang. Lovingly, she kissed his clammy forehead and licked the sweat from his brow with a delicate flick of her tongue. Then she kissed his cheeks, drinking the salty tears, and pressed her lips against his closed eyes. She untied his bonds and wrapped her arms around him, rocking him gently and stroking his hair.

Don’t fear, she crooned in his ear.

She smiled in the dark as his small arms reached around her back to return her embrace. He trembled against her but slowly, little by little, his body relaxed and his tears dried up.

That’s it. No fear, she whispered as her face dropped to the crook of his neck.

She kissed the big vein throbbing beneath the skin and tightened her grip. The boy began to struggle. Then he screamed as two tiny daggers pierced his neck and drove deep into the flesh.

She laughed at his pathetic attempts to escape and drove her fangs in harder, shoving them as deep as they could go and gasped as hot blood spurted into her mouth. And suddenly she was on fire! Her senses were reeling, her body shuddering with pleasant shocks, her mind opening and flooded with image after image.

The boy with his father, working the fields of their small farm. The boy playing with friends, climbing trees and swimming in the river. The boy being put to bed by his mother, her clear voice filling the tiny room with a sweet lullaby to soothe him.

As the blood poured into her she saw all these things, the blood acting as a conduit between her and the child. The sticky sweet life-fluid brought with it the boy’s life-story: his thoughts, his feelings, his dreams and his fears; his mind opening up like a flower. She peeled away the petals of memory and devoured them as she devoured the blood, stripping his mind clean layer after layer until all that remained was fear and hope; then finally just fear.

The boy’s cries grew weaker and his struggles sluggish until finally he lay still against her. She drained him to the last drop and felt a sharp tugging sensation in her chest when his heart gave out, as though death had brushed up against her and tried to ensnare her as it took the child.

She continued to hold him even after death, feeling the last remnants of his fleshy warmth trickle out of him, and only when he grew cold and stiff did she release him.

He lay on the bed, his lifeless form staring unseeing with glassy eyes at the ceiling. She stared down at him and slowly touched a trembling hand to her mouth. Her fingers came away slick with blood and she licked them languidly, like a cat washing its paws. She shivered with delight at the taste and lapped up the tiniest little speck.

Standing behind her, leaning casually against the wall, the white-haired man smiled affectionately. There’s nothing else quite like it on this earth, he said. The pleasure you’d feel when making love is nothing compared to the ecstasy of tasting a single drop of fresh warm blood.

He was just a child, she said with a touch of doubt, or was it guilt?

A child destined for a short hard life; a child whose death will be forgotten within a month. Pity the child because he was human and could never feel the delights we do, but do not mourn him. His death was a mercy.

But–

Humans die. That’s their fate. Better for him to have died at your hands, quick and relatively painless, than to have died of some agonising human disease. You’ve spared him a lifetime of misery. You have his memories and while you possess them a part of him will live on. He’s achieved a kind of immortality and he could only do that through you. His people will forget him but you will not.

But he was just a child, she said again.

The man approached and sat down beside her. He took her hands in his and smiled softly.

This will pass, he assured her. It’s the same for all those who experience the change. It takes a while for your previous nature to move aside in order for the vampiric one to take control. You’ll be beset by doubt, fear, even guilt but these feelings will pass in time.

She looked from him to the boy and did not know if she believed him. She felt a strange ache within her chest whenever she glanced at the corpse, and it seemed to be growing bigger. She looked at the man, her mouth trembling with emotion.

Oh, my pretty one, he said, enfolding her in his arms. Do not fear. I know it hurts but it’ll cease. I promise you, my pretty one, my dark princess, Celestia.

She shivered within his grip and reached up to hold him, as though fearing he might suddenly leave her.

I would never do that, Jalla murmured in her ear. You’re mine now. All mine and I can’t wait to show you off to the world. I have such plans for us, my sweet one. Such plans.

----

As they passed through the valley, which was bathed with light from a silver moon, and strolled towards the Meeting Circle, a sea of faces turned to watch them.

There were hundreds of elves: the blonde-haired Oleassa, the auburn-haired Finleans and the raven-haired people of Erantialle mingling freely. They were dressed in all their finery: long silken robes and flowing gowns of purple, red, blue and green. Hair was worn long and loose, threaded with crystal beads and smelling of the perfume of the Riverside Rose.

Dotted about throughout the crowd was a smattering of dwarves, dressed in their finest armour polished and buffed to a high shine. There were a few witches, attempting to mingle unobtrusively and failing, and one or two human delegates, who had accepted the invitation to witness the ceremony more out of a sense of furthering good relations than actual enjoyment.

Emkel and Anya walked to the circle in silence and approached the podium. Standing behind it (dressed in a sombre dark robe with a scarlet sash draped across his chest) was the E’Tante (the crowning witness). His dark auburn hair matched the severity of his clothing and, together with his deeply intense eyes and arched eyebrows, lent him an air of brooding malevolence. He gestured for them to kneel before him on the ground and then called for silence.

Stillness rolled like a fog throughout the valley until there was no more rustling, whispering or coughing. Not even the sound of breathing could be heard coming from any man, woman or child. The birds in the trees ceased their singing, the horses stood motionless in their stables and even the wind stilled its voice.

The E’Tante (whose given name was Ilmar) placed his hands on the lectern and began to read from the book of Tashinka, which lay before him open at the crowning ceremony speech. His deeply serious yet surprisingly mellifluous tones rose up and bathed the crowd, the words settling lightly into the hearts and minds of everyone present.

"When I was just a child my father took me in his arms and bade me farewell. He kissed my forehead and promised to love me for all time. Then he strapped on his armour, took up his sword and left. He strode through the door with his head held high and, though a single tear fell from his eye, he never faltered.

Words can never express the grief and loneliness I felt when news reached me of his death. They said he died in battle, fighting with his last breath to save his people. Though he was victorious I could not be happy. He was my father, my mentor and my dearest friend. His death weighed heavily upon me, crushing the light of life within my soul. And then I was told that I would now be queen.

I took up my role with some reluctance, never believing I could be as good, as wise, as he had been. As the months and years went by, my grief lessened and a new passion began to blaze within me.

Leadership, responsibility, duty.

Three words that at first seemed odious to my ears over time gained a meaning I had not thought possible. After the death of my father I lost my belief in life and love, and I thought I would never truly regain it, but I found a new love: the love of a queen for her people, the love of the people for their queen. Those who follow me are my rock, my light in the dark. They are the reason I live. They sustain me and give me the strength I need in order to continue in the face of doubt and fear. I love them as I love my own child and I can only hope I have been a good and wise parent."

Ilmar paused and glanced around.

An ocean of wide round eyes greeted him, many of which glistened with unshed tears. There was nothing finer for an elf than to live a life of duty, to give back to life as much as they took from it, to have a purpose and work for the greater good. Even the stoic humans seemed genuinely moved by the words (they too understood a life of duty) and the dwarves had lowered their heads in respect for a queen they had come to revere as much as they respected their own elders.

Ilmar gazed down at the two youngsters at his feet. "These words were the last ones to be penned by Queen Tashinka before she was gripped by an unspoken desire and abdicated the throne. She wanted future kings and queens to know how she felt, how she too was afraid. She wanted to leave these future generations some words of comfort. She ruled this land for three thousand years, forged alliances and friendships with many of the other races and to the dwarves of the western ranges she became known as the beloved one."

Ilmar turned a page before continuing. "She was a great queen, a wise judge of character and a strong leader in battle. She was also a woman, a mother and a lover. She was but an ordinary woman doing her duty to the best of her abilities. That’s all she ever desired of anyone, for them to do their best. It will be enough she always said. That is all that’s asked of you now, Emkel, son of Celestia; for you to do your best."

He closed the book and stepped in front of the podium, gesturing for a waiting elf to approach him. In his hands the man held a finely decorated silver box, whose catches Ilmar released with a deft flick of his hand. Inside, resting snugly on a bed of white velvet, was a glistening many-pointed silver crown with three shining stars embossed at the front. They represented the passage of time: past, present and future. The one in the centre, representing the present, was the largest; the elves believing the present to be more important than either the past or the future. What is gone is gone, what will be is not yet, but what is now is all we can ever really know.

Ilmar lifted the crown reverently out of its case and turned to face Emkel. Will you lead us? he asked.

Emkel glanced at Anya, seeing the question mirrored in her eyes.

He turned back to Ilmar and took a deep breath. Yes, he replied.

Will you be our judge and our captain?

Yes.

Will you be our father and our mother?

Yes.

Will you love us?

Yes.

The burden is now yours. Ilmar placed the crown on Emkel’s head. He then turned to Anya, who blanched at his stern gaze. As the witnessed wife of a king these questions must also be put to you. Will you lead us?

Anya glanced at Emkel, who smiled at her and reached out to squeeze her hand. Yes, she replied, not taking her eyes off him.

Will you be our judge and our captain? Our mother and our father?

Yes.

Will you love us?

Yes, she replied firmly and with feeling, turning to look him straight in the eye.

He gazed at her for a long, long moment and then turned to a second waiting elf, who stepped forward bearing another silver case. Inside was another crown, similar in design to the one Emkel wore but slightly smaller in size. Ilmar took it out and gently placed it on Anya’s head. Then he stepped back and motioned for them both to stand up. As they did so, he knelt down and bowed his head before them, the amassed crowd following suit. Row by row, starting from the front and spreading out like a ripple of a huge wave the people knelt down and cast their eyes to the ground.

Emkel stared down at Ilmar and turned with Anya to face the crowd. He was unnerved by the almost overpowering respect and honour being shown to him but amongst the sea of lowered heads he glimpsed a familiar face. The old man smiled and nodded, and then allowed his head to drop, joining the others in reverent silence.

A full minute of time passed and then Emkel gestured for everyone to stand. I’m your king, not your god, he said as they rose en masse. I’m just a man and I would not have you kneel before a man. Please stand. Continue with your celebrations. The fight is over for now. I want to hear music and singing. Go now. Go and enjoy this night.

The crowd dispersed, talking softly amongst themselves and soon the clear piping of the forest flute could be heard ascending into the uppermost branches of the trees. It was joined by a multitude of voices, male and female, raised in sweet melody, soaring, soaring high into the heavens. The valley was alive with light and life, and joy. And all were unaware of the terrible darkness watching from afar.

----

Jalla sat in the recently abandoned chair in the Great Hall in Kandar Castle, one leg stretched out in front of him; the other slung casually over one armrest. In his hands he held Tirandall’s orb and in it he watched the elven celebrations. Such happy people, he thought. Such happy people and what magnificent feasting.

He remembered when there had been such celebrations amongst his own people. There had been music and dancing and feasting (of a bloodthirsty nature), and he had presided over it all. He had been more than just an envoy of his people. He had been a prince; a prince with a castle, with land and many followers. But he had been unwilling to settle for that. He wanted to be king. He had wanted it all but, as his father’s second child there had been a problem – his sister, Kristel. She had been the designated heir to the throne. If their father abdicated or died the crown would be passed to her.

As was his right, he challenged her to a battle of wits and might. He won and Kristel burned in the sun. He had returned home to announce his victory and to claim his prize but his father, maddened by grief over the loss of his favourite child, spurned him and stripped him of his claim to the throne. He was left with the title of Legate and nothing else besides. Even his own home was off-limits to him and from that moment, for nearly three hundred years, his father refused to see or speak to him.

Stealing the Sphere of Life from his father had provided him with grim satisfaction but little real joy. The plan to regain some of his former glory by siding with the dark warlock had failed. Aldar was dead, the sphere was even now being returned to its rightful place and Jalla was left with nothing. But looking into the orb was adding substance to the ideas flitting like fireflies through his mind.

They had just crowned a new king in Finlea. Perhaps it was time they crowned a new king in Vishtalia, the land of his birth and by rights the place he should now be ruling. He had left his homeland in an attempt to start afresh somewhere else because it had not occurred to him that he had the strength or the right to challenge his own father for the throne. But while waiting for Celestia to rise from the grave, in which he had placed her, he had received word that his father was dead, having taken his own life by walking out into the sun.

Jalla shuddered at the thought of such a death. How could his father have done such a thing, especially after what had happened to his wife? How could he have wished for or endured such a death? Jalla could not understand the reasoning behind it, but one thing he understood with startling clarity; the throne was empty. His father had no more children, no other heir to take up the crown but Jalla.

He stared into the orb, only half seeing what was occurring, and the thoughts whirled in his mind. Could he return to Vishtalia? Could he take up the crown? Would the people accept him as the rightful king? He had, after all, betrayed them by taking the sphere, and many of them had been extremely loyal to Kristel and had never forgiven him for killing her. Would they oppose him?

The orb radiated a blinding light as the silver crown was placed on the boy’s head and Jalla’s eyes were filled with a sparkling gleam. As the second crown was placed on the head of the girl, his mind was made up.

He would return home. He was going to claim what was rightfully his by birth. He would be king. And if anyone tried to stop him… Well, he had a surprise in store for them; a nasty surprise.

And what of me? uttered a softly menacing voice.

Jalla looked up and smiled, covering the orb with a quick motion. You will be my queen and we shall rule together, and whatever your heart desires you shall have.

Anything my heart desires?

Anything. Everything.

There is something I’d like.

Name it and you shall have it.

There’s a word blazing in my thoughts. A name. A name that fills me with hatred for reasons I don’t yet remember. It’s the name of a man, a man I’d like to see dead.

Tell me this name.

The name is Valiaresa.

----

Emkel strolled through the crowd, nodding every now and then to a familiar looking face, and talked briefly with one or two of the guests. Anya had gone off to spend some time with her brother, and he was feeling rather overwhelmed and a little lost in the vast throng.

Your Majesty, uttered a deep voice.

Yes? He turned to face a tall, dark-haired man.

Legate Davilior of the clan Nightstalker, he said, introducing himself. I just wanted to express my appreciation to your people for their charming hospitality. There aren’t many who would accept a vampire into their midst with such good grace. I’m allowed to walk freely amongst you and have even been permitted to rest within your palace walls. It’s a show of great trust and I’m humbled.

It was my uncle who granted you safe passage, not I, said Emkel. I simply choose to continue his wishes and as for walking freely… He gestured to the blonde-haired Oleassa.

Several of them had drifted closer and were watching the vampire through flinty eyes and, though they were