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Sample Chapter

Chapter 1

Awakening

Misery on a spring morning; the morning of my awakening

Full awareness of the pain and revealed lies

That morning an end came to my sleeping state.

When I was thrown back into those mystery games …

Morning had begun to spread its foggy wings over Ceartas; a land of golden hills and luscious green woods. The colours would change with the seasons; warm reddish colours in the autumn. Now that spring was here, a bright sparkling fresh green dominated the landscape. Flowers of every colour imaginable seemed to raise their tiny heads; in the dense woods, the hilly meadows and even the cultivated fields. It was a time of new life, a time of transformation.

A luminous red sun rose slowly above the hills and valleys of Ceartas, revealing tiny houses scattered about the land. The drowsy vale was still bathed in a thin mist that had formed in the cool night. Dew clung everywhere; on the sweet pine, the bitter scented oak trees, the new grass, the sleepy daffodils, the snowdrops and even the early bluebells; making the Royal Forest shine gloriously as if filled with diamonds in the light of the new day.

On the highest hill for miles around stood a huge old castle, surrounded by deep, dark icy water. Some said its moat held ancient fish-like creatures with the sharpest of teeth that would eat anything touching the surface within minutes. The grey castle had towers facing every wind direction, and each tower had numerous oval windows; they appeared small at first, but their sheer size became evident the closer one got. From the castle, the tiny houses in the valley below appeared to constitute a reasonable sized town. One could even consider it a city, with its big flat grey stones carried down from the mountains to the east, which the people used as a pavement. The town, Satrea was founded many centuries ago, and its castle, Tarac, was one of the first buildings constructed for the first king.

In this almost crime-free land, the mysterious young Queen Artride of Ceartas now ruled. She was as much feared and hated for her deeds, as she was loved for her enchanting appearance.

The castle towering over Satrea functioned as a constant look-out for the people. Most were hardworking farmers and craftsmen; using the rich soil to grow their crops in the fields or their skills to make their living as had the many generations before them. Everyone in Satrea worked for the RoyalKingdom; but only the servants, guards and the knights lived in the castle and surrounding buildings.

This particular spring morning was cool, and everything was quiet apart from the occasional singing bird. The people and animals slowly awoke with the rising of the sun. Like the earth beneath them, refusing to part from the protection and safety of the night with all its hidden mysteries. It was a time in between. Between night and day; a time of passing, of a quiet waiting; a time of listening and learning. A time where great things could be accomplished.

The castle square was deserted, and everything in and around the castle silent. It seemed that nothing could disturb this serenity; not even the soft wind rustling through the dry leaves of the dying Royal Oak tree in the square. It almost sounded like a sigh or a whisper calling out someone’s name; everything else seemed to hold its breath.

A sudden bang broke the silence; like thunder on a clear day. Only after a few skipped heartbeats did the sound appear familiar. It was the angry slamming of a wooden door; which had come from the courtyard.

A young woman was crossing the square taking big brisk steps. Dressed in the clothes of a knight, she was almost running. Her long, fair hair, almost golden in the light of the rising sun, danced across her back and shoulders with every step.

She wore tight fitting blue leggings with knee length black leather boots and a chain mail skirt, with a blue and white overcoat displaying purple shoulder pads. She was also wearing a soldier’s girdle without its sword. Her hands were coiled in tight fists.

She was heading for the castle doors, and while maintaining her fast angry pace she muttered through gritted teeth, ‘This time she has gone too far … too far!’

The knight did not slow down as she approached the castle guards. The two men steadily watched her as she came towards them; then raised and crossed their spears before the massive oak doors to block her way. No one other than Royal families, their servants and some knights, had ever entered before without prior invitation.

She did not care whether the guards could see her rage or not. She couldn’t care less about anything anymore after what she had learnt earlier that morning.

Coming to a halt in front of the two fully armed men, she glanced quickly at their emotionless faces. The left guard had a black moustache, a thin mouth and cold grey eyes like the castle walls. There was an unreadable expression beneath his helmeted head. The right guard merely looked impassive with his pale glazed-over blue eyes and big nose.

She had never really paid attention to the guards before, but she had assumed there were many of them, working shifts. Now, with this new morning, she had at last seemed to have woken; noticing things, actually seeing again after what seemed to have been a long time.

Knights had no reason to be in the castle, living in the outer buildings nearby; even if she was actually a commander and officially had to report the actions of her company to the queen or discuss situations with other commanders. Usually all meetings, which were very rare anyway, happened outside of the castle as was protocol, they were held mainly in the knights’ quarters or out in the hills. And the trustworthy queen’s messengers briefed her about new developments and relayed her demands back to the commanders.

She had therefore never met the queen in person; not many knights and commanders had in fact. Everyone knew she was avoiding contact and wild speculation was spreading because of this.

Only twice had she been inside the immense castle. The first was when she was knighted five years previously. The second and last time was about two years ago when she received a medal after a big conquest. It was at that moment the old king himself promoted her to commander. The two events in the castle seemed a blur to her now and she did not recall much of it, something she now regretted.

‘Open the door … please.’ She tried not to sound upset or polite; just nonchalant, like those men. She had learned to contain her emotions over the years.

The one with the moustache replied sternly, ‘Who is asking?’

She knew they had to ask this question, but she was annoyed all the same. She was after all a commander; who should be allowed to enter the castle with permission. If the guards only cared to look at her shoulder pads.

‘Commander Tirsa Lathabris of the Seventh Company of Ceartas.’

Now she had their attention and they stared at her and her shoulder pads! The Moustache cleared his throat and asked again with a blank face, his eyes staring at her, ‘State your business, Commander?’

‘I have something to discuss with her.’

‘With whom?’ the other guard suddenly barked at her, alarmed. The guard, protecting the castle and the queen had more authority than a commander, therefore her rank made little difference.

‘With Artride of course!’ They were really getting on her nerves now.

‘That is Queen Artride, even to you!’

‘All right, Queen Artride. Now I am asking you this again; will you open the door for me? She is waiting,’ she added, lying.

‘She is waiting!’ The Moustache repeated incredulously, shaking his head while his companion stared at her.

It was obvious they didn’t take her seriously and if she hated anything about how people treated her it was just that. She was young, slim and appealing; not the usual commander type, but why would they question her intentions? Surely they knew her reputation? Perhaps that was the reason why they were questioning her.

The man on the right examined her face more closely. ‘So you are the Commander Lathabris; the one from the stories, the heroine?’ There had only been one female commander in the whole history of Ceartas; so there was really little doubt that it was her. However, she had kept to herself and had no idea what stories had been circulating roundabout her; not that she cared. Perhaps they had expected her to be different: taller or more mannish or something? She had after all done what no one had ever done in the history of Ceartas.

‘I am here on official business!’ she added trying to contain her growing frustration about the time wasted talking.

The Moustache glared at her like she was some rare object. He said, ‘We’re sorry we did not recognize you.’ Tirsa had always refused permission to have her image painted, even though she was called by many a name, such as ‘The Snake’ and ‘Golden Angel’. Both guards noticed not only her fair beauty: her green shining eyes like jade, her straight nose and perfect mouth and skin, but also the unmistakable deep hidden fury within those eyes; a combination she was well known for. It had to be her.

‘I have not been around for a while; so perhaps I have become history already.’ Her lips tried to form a smile, but it was a sad smile and the two men felt a little uncomfortable.

‘Do you have an audience with her majesty, Commander?’ the Moustache asked a little more pleasantly, but in an aloof voice.

‘Yes!’

‘You are wasting your time, Commander. We know you haven’t. We are told this before we start our shift.’

Her face was set in lines of dissatisfaction. ‘What do you mean? I have to see the Queen today; it is a matter of life and death and I insist you open that door for me now … or … you’ll be in serious trouble!’ she added with such a furious fire in her eyes that both men became momentarily startled.

Her ominous tone did seem to have the desired effect; however, the guards quickly regained their composure. ‘That’s what they all say, Commander,’ the guard on the right answered. If it was a matter of life and death, he surely would have heard about it. Guards were rapidly briefed about those matters by the messengers, never personally by a commander. Therefore it couldn’t be as important as she claimed. It was probably a personal thing, the experienced Moustache figured. He had seen that kind of anger before with the folk of Ceartas during his night shifts at the castle gate, and afterwards he often heard it was about the penalties they did not agree with that had been imposed by the strict queen.

‘What?’

‘Sorry. You have to apply for an audience first. That’s the rule for everyone and you do know how it is with rules here,’ he added in a lighter tone, affected by Tirsa’s natural weight and charisma as a commander.

She did.

‘And how long will that take?’ she asked the Moustache, ignoring the other guard.

‘You can discuss it with the head of the Royal Guard. He keeps her agenda. If it is that important you should make contact with him.’

‘And where might he be?’

‘I am told he will be back on duty this afternoon.’

‘Who is replacing him at the moment?’

‘There is no need to.’

‘Yes there is! I want an audience right now!’ Her tone was becoming more threatening.

They ignored her.

She bit her lower lip and sighed, trying to come across friendlier, calmer. Holding her voice level she said, ‘Look. It is most important and I really do need to talk to her, so I insist on making an appointment.’

‘Understood, Commander. We will make a note,’ and the Moustache jerked a chin at the other guard to do so, which he did, quicker then Tirsa expected.

‘You will hear from one of the messengers of the Royal Guard later on today regarding when and where you can apply for an audience to meet the queen.’

Later today? Tirsa practically exploded inside, but was trying desperately to remain calm. She was known for her hot temper when she was angry and could come across just as cold-blooded; hence her nickname, The Snake. And of course she was fast …

Slowness when speed is needed is one of the many problems of this system!

‘So how do you decide what is urgent or not?’

The guards glared disdainfully at her and remained firm; shifting back into their straight positions, like statues as they were trained to do.

Protocol.

If she had just stressed that it was to do with the safety of the queen, she would have been in by now. She felt foolish for her lack of planning. She was never very good when it came to that. She was much too impulsive.

‘I see,’ she stated in a calm voice as she turned around. She knew she definitely could not wait until late afternoon or whatever time they had available for her. That would cost her more time than she could afford.

In a matter of seconds she turned her lithe body and caught the left guard full in the belly with a rapid and powerful side-kick. He immediately fell forward with a gasp; dropping his spear to the floor. Tirsa grabbed it and hit the other guard; who was too surprised to respond quickly, on the head. However, because he wore a thick bronze helmet it didn’t have much effect. He probably would have a headache later on, but he was still on his feet, pointing his spear dangerously towards her with wide eyes, ready to strike. With her ‘borrowed’ spear she managed to knock his spear out of his hands and with a puzzled look he watched it drop to the floor. She then struck him hard with the spear on the back of his knees. When he fell to the ground she whacked him unconscious with the wood on his unprotected neck. That did it!

In the meanwhile the Moustache was trying to get up, so she had to wallop him on the neck with the spear as well; which proved to be very effective indeed.

‘I am so sorry,’ she said dryly. ‘But, I’m sure you’ll remember me now.’

She dropped the spear and quickly glanced around. Fortunately nobody had witnessed the commotion.

The two men lay on the floor in rather awkward positions, so she placed them both into sitting positions against each side of the castle door. It was quite a heavy task, but in a matter of moments she succeeded. It looked as if they were asleep; which probably did happen, because normally nothing really threatening occurred around here. Perhaps that was why they responded so slowly.

The real threat lives inside the castle! she thought grimly.

Tirsa breathed in deeply; she knew there was no turning back now. A serious penalty hung over her head if the queen found out. She might even lose her job, but she couldn’t care less. Oh yes, she will find out soon enough!

Blind anger raged through her body like a furious flame as she thought about the merciless queen. She struggled to think clearly. With a lot of effort she lifted the heavy iron bar, which barricaded and held the massive doors shut. It slipped and fell with a loud metallic crash on the stone floor and she looked nervously around.

All was quiet in the courtyard. With all her strength she pushed against one of the doors and after a moment it slowly opened inwards and she hurriedly slipped inside, closing the door behind her with the same effort. She was in!

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