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The quest for hope, p.3
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       The Quest for Hope, p.3

           A. S. King
 
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  The faint hum of whispered voices interrupted her wistful thinking. She directed her full attention to the whispers, then took a couple of silent steps forward to better hear what was being said.

  The first voice she heard belonged to her mother—a whispered agitation. “She won’t be ready. You know she won’t. All she does is laze about as though she hasn’t a care in the world. The only thing she takes any interest at all in is that vulgar weapons training. The thought of one day being forced to bow down to her is … is … intolerable!”

  The immense hatred contained in that last word hit Aliatta so forcefully that it caused her to take an involuntary step backward. What did her mother mean? Why the animosity?

  It took several moments for the shock to subside to a more manageable level. When it did, Aliatta realized her father was speaking.

  “We have to tell her. She needs to know.”

  “Know what?” Aliatta stepped decisively into the room. “If you are going to talk about telling me something, you might as well just let me know what it is and get it over with.”

  Two pairs of dark eyes looked up in surprise. The Duchess seemed more than a little uncomfortable, but the Duke of Earlington looked squarely back at her with expressionless dark-brown eyes.

  Without a glance at his wife, and without mincing words, he matter-of-factly said, “We haven’t been raising you to be Duchess of Earlington. We have been raising you to be Queen of all the provinces within Novus—from the great city of Zion to the prosperous land of Alsta. You are the selected heir to the throne of Novus—the highest position in all the land.”

  “We should say we have been trying to raise you for that task,” piped in the current Duchess of Earlington.

  The Duchess then proceeded to launch into something which sounded rather lecture-ish, but Aliatta didn’t hear a word of it. Her mind was busy elsewhere … Queen of Novus … Queen of all Novus … The words ran through her mind, searching for something to grab hold of, to connect to… Nothing. Her brows furrowed in confusion as she stood there, continuing to stare blankly at her father.

  “Do you understand what I’m telling you, dear?”

  Her mother’s words finally broke through Aliatta’s muddled thoughts, and she shook her head. No, no she didn’t understand what they were telling her. What did that even mean? It didn’t make sense.

  The Duke gave a long-suffering sigh and spoke very slowly. “You have been specially chosen, Aliatta, to become the Queen of this whole land. Your responsibilities will be immense, greater than you could ever imagine. In less than a year, on your 13th birthday, you will move to the capital city, to Zion, to finish your training under the King and Queen. Today, you will begin to assume more responsibilities. Your first area to supervise will be—”

  “The dungeon,” broke in the Duchess with a delighted gleam in her eyes.

  Aliatta gave a disgusted grunt. The dungeon was her least favorite place, as her mother very well knew.

  An hour later, Aliatta returned to her bedchamber to dress for her daily weapons training. Luxuriously alone in her refuge of peace, Aliatta’s thoughts broke loose of their carefully locked cage and spiraled about in fearless abandon …

  … I don’t want to be queen … of anything.

  … why couldn’t they have chosen someone else to be Queen of Novus, like my mother?

  … do I have a choice?

  … I most certainly do not want to go to Zion—the very name of the place sends shivers down my spine.

  … what did my father mean about raising me—is that the way most parents speak of their children?

  … why does my mother hate me so much?

  … the differences between myself and my parents regarding our coloring and stature is rather strange.

  … who is the High King?

  Aliatta stayed for as long as she dared, savoring the precious moments of pure solitude. Her only source of consolation was that her next event of the day was with the one person in the entire castle whom she felt she could trust. Maybe he could help bring sense and order to her tangled thoughts. Renewed with purpose, the reluctant heir apparent threw on a sturdy pair of clothing before carefully donning her leather breastplate—a gift from her trainer. It began high on her neck, moved over her shoulders, and stretched down over her hips. The craftsmanship was of the finest quality—multiple lightweight v-shaped layers of leather had been pieced together and highlighted with exquisite designs.

  Now she was ready for training with Sir Raz the Calculating.

  6

  Sir Raz the Calculating

  “Good morning, your highness,” greeted Sir Raz with a slight nod. His voice, like his clear blue eyes, was cold and unreadable. Unlike the others in the castle, he did not grovel at her presence.

  And no wonder, Aliatta thought as she looked at him. It was doubtful that a man of his size and rank would have cause to grovel at anything. A well-crafted dark-brown leather breastplate that resembled scales made his already solid physique seem that much more imposing. The blue cloak he usually wore had already been carefully placed on a nail next to the door. Leather greaves protected his legs, and a long, thin blade made of the strongest metal hung by his side. The weapon’s smooth sides had been carefully etched with the intricate pattern indicative of a those used only by the highest-ranked guards and given only to the country’s greatest defenders.

  Just as Sir Raz refused to grovel before her, so Lady Aliatta refused to tremble or be intimidated by him. “Good morning, Sir Raz,” she answered in her standard condescending tone. “I do hope you have something at least moderately challenging for me today.”

  It was her usual greeting, but today her voice carried a hint of unrest. Sir Raz seemed to notice, and he cocked an eyebrow in question as he stared down at her.

  Aliatta quickly averted her eyes and turned her attention to the selection of swords. Perusing them with an expert eye, she settled on a smooth, elegant blade which was perfect in size and weight. As with all of the selections, the signet of Earlington was engraved on its hilt.

  With a toss of her head, Lady Aliatta dismissed the servants who were standing by to be of assistance, knowing they would go only as far as the other side of the door. Only after the door had closed firmly behind the last servant did she allow herself to relax.

  Outwardly, Sir Raz appeared unchanged. His voice, however, was significantly softened when next he spoke. “Little Light, I can see that something is troubling you. We will begin our lesson, and as we work, I offer my ears as well as my instruction.”

  Aliatta nodded and her eyes filled with silent tears.

  Over the next hour, Sir Raz led Aliatta through a combination of basic to challenging drills. The basic exercises came quickly to her, and she used these times to relate her dream and all she had learned that morning. Sir Raz listened as he’d promised, occasionally inserting a question or comment to clarify, but offering nothing else in response.

  The lesson was nearing its end when Aliatta, beginning to grow fearful that she would come away from this lesson without having received any answers or counsel, stopped in the middle of one of the drills and plopped down on the floor with her arms and legs crossed.

  “Well?” she demanded.

  Sir Raz made a quick survey of the room and then positioned himself likewise on the floor in front of her. He took a small piece of parchment from one of his pockets and busied himself with it for a few minutes. When he finally looked up, Aliatta noticed an excitement in his eyes that she’d never witnessed before.

  “You were visited by an Erela, Liat. In your dream, he spoke to you and protected you. You have nothing to be afraid of. The High King knows who you are and where you are.” He paused and looked at her carefully. His next words were cooed and with great caution. “I have been working on behalf of the High King for many years to look out for you, and now it appears He is about to do something more.”

  “Wait, you know who the High King is? How do you know? How come I
don’t know? How come you’ve never told me? How—”

  Aliatta’s voice grew louder with her irritation and Raz clamped a hand over her mouth to silence her.

  “Shh! Not so loud! It has for many years been forbidden to even speak the name of the High King. Doing so can land you in the dungeon, or worse. That is why I have never mentioned him. And even after this conversation, it is best to pretend that the only High King you know of is King Lev of Zion.”

  “But how do you know who He is?”

  “A story for another time. For now, be obedient to the Duke and Duchess. Learn what you can. Don’t worry about Zion. I don’t know what He is going to do, but I have a feeling it will begin soon. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it has already started.”

  The door swung open abruptly as the Duke and Duchess marched into the room.

  Sir Raz rose calmly to his feet and bowed his head, acknowledging their presence in the expected fashion.

  “Taking a rest are we, Sir Raz?” spoke the Duke in a mocking tone. “I thought we had commanded you to teach our daughter. What can she learn by lounging about?”

  “I am referred to by friends and enemies alike as Sir Raz the Calculating, am I not, my lords?”

  “Indeed.”

  “Part of what is required for such a title is the ability to know the moves your opponents will make before they make them.”

  “I suppose, but what has that got to do with lazing about?”

  Sir Raz handed him the paper he had busied himself with during his conversation with Aliatta.

  On the paper was an intricate diagram of the types and angles of cuts, guards, and thrusts.

  “The Lady Aliatta would do well to study this chart further,” was Sir Raz’s simple explanation of the drawing. To the lady, he gave a final bow of honor and a few simple words. “Good work, my lady,” he said. “You are on the right track. Continue with the exercises we discussed. Do not lose heart in your training. It is clear that you were born to do great things.”

  The Duke grunted at the drawing and dismissed the knight with a toss of his head.

  Sir Raz readily obeyed, casually retrieving his blue cloak from its place next to the door.

  7

  The Dungeon

  Distance wise, it was not far from the castle to the dungeon. The dungeon had, in fact, been built directly beneath the castle’s rocky foundation. Mountain dwelling Skerps had, of course, done the work, bribed with the promise of being able to keep any valuable minerals they might find. This promise, like many of the other promises made in this land, had not been kept, and the creators of the underground labyrinth had been killed. Only one had been left alive on the condition that he guard and manage the dismal place.

  In Aliatta’s opinion, the passageway leading down to the dungeon wasn’t much better. She trudged slowly along behind her parents, wrapping her arms around herself in an attempt to keep warm. The only light came from a few torches spaced far enough apart that the light from one barely touched another. With all her disgust, Aliatta strutted, displaying an aloof, confident air and desperately hoping her fear and disgust would not be evident. She absolutely refused to give her mother the satisfaction of knowing how much she would rather be anywhere else.

  When she wasn’t paying careful attention to where she was walking, Aliatta would look up to see how her parents were doing. The Duke was whistled as he went along, casual as can be. The Duchess wasn’t nearly as casual or graceful. She stumbled a couple of times, apparently more interested in spying out Aliatta’s fear than in paying attention to her foot placement.

  The trio finally arrived at the guard station where they were met by a very irritated Skerp: the guardian of the dungeon—Jixgaink Groundcash. His large, beady eyes narrowed in ill-concealed hatred. With obvious disdain, he moved his short, sinewy form off the rock ledge where he had been reclining, into a semblance of the expected posture of homage.

  “Aliatta, dear,” spoke the Duchess in her smooth-as-honey voice. “You remember Jix. He is going to be leading our grand tour today and will train you in your future duties.”

  Aliatta gave a cold, condescending nod in Jix’s direction.

  He sneered, and his abnormally large eyes took on an evil, mocking glint. “Let us get started then, milady. Mustn’t keep the prisoners waiting.” His voice was high and creaked like an old, scarcely used door.

  The Duke chuckled. “That’s what I love about you, Jix. Your humor is always, well—clean and fresh—unlike the rest of you. Lead on!”

  Aliatta glanced at her mother and their eyes met. For a brief moment, there was something they agreed upon—they both cringed as their noses involuntarily crinkled at the reminder of the Skerp’s sour and repulsive smell.

  The small group proceeded to make their way down the first passageway. The mugginess of the place, combined with Jix’s rather strong odor, made the trip more than a little uncomfortable. Aliatta found herself withdrawing more and more with each passing moment. Her parents, with the exception of her mother’s frequent sniffing of her perfumed handkerchief, were acting as though they were on a jaunt through the countryside, rather than being on the verge of descending into the depths of suffering.

  “This is a good dungeon, it is.” Jix began his “tutoring” session, his sour mood lifting as a trace of pride found its way into his squeaky voice. “Nobody has ever left, dead or alive. Oh, yes, it is a hopeless place!”

  Soon they were passing the cells—small ten foot caves dug into the rocky ground, each barred by floor-to-ceiling metal gates. With each cell, the guard gave a short commentary, the Duke made a joke of the inhabitant’s misfortune, and they all, except Aliatta, burst into laughter.

  Aliatta turned out as much of the conversation as she could. She didn’t want to know who the prisoners were, what they had done, how they were being treated. She didn’t want to hear her father’s coarse jokes or her mother’s lessons. She just wanted this part of the day to be over.

  They were nearing the lowest part of the dungeon when a different kind of sound floated up to meet her. Aliatta’s head jerked up in surprise, her senses on high-alert. After a few more steps, Aliatta realized that what she was hearing was singing. The voice was light, clear, and pure. The very air seemed to grow brighter as the music touched and enveloped her in a cocoon of peace.

  The Duke and Duchess began to look slightly uncomfortable. Jix began fumbling in his explanations of the cells they were passing.

  Aliatta started to pay attention.

  “This, your highness, is where the most dangerous criminals are kept,” stammered the guard as they approached the source of the singing.

  “She’s dangerous?” Aliatta scoffed openly, her eyes taking on shine. “Tell me please, what is so very dangerous about her? Does she enchant people with her song? Draw them to their deaths?”

  “My dear,” cooed the Duchess, with a slight tremor in her voice, “I’m sure I don’t know who you are talking about. This dungeon certainly contains its share of she’s.”

  “She, the woman who is singing,” Aliatta was rather exasperated that her parents were pretending they didn’t understand her. The song had been so clear. It couldn’t have escaped their notice. She was alert enough now to catch and take note of the worried glances being exchanged between the three adults.

  “You … heard … singing?” Jix’s voice squeaked even more than usual.

  “She is a mortal enemy of the King—and his Master,” broke in the Duke. His voice was stern. All traces of his former humor had disappeared.

  “I thought the King was the greatest Master of the land,” challenged Aliatta. “Unless, of course, there is, even more, you have not told me.”

  “There is,” he snapped back. “And you will one day stand in the presence of the true Master of this land. But today, know that the one you say you hear singing gave her allegiance to the enemy.”

  The singing stopped, and a clear voice echoed off the walls of the otherwise dark and depres
sing place. “The High King is no enemy of King Lev. How could he hate one whom he created with such love?”

  A shriek rent the air—a scream that came not from the prisoner, but from the Duchess. “What is she doing still alive? She should be dead!”

  At this point, the Duke, Duchess, and Jix all started yelling and arguing with each other, their voices crashing and colliding throughout the tunnels.

  In the midst of it all, Aliatta heard the soft, but distinct voice of the woman, seeming to speak only to her.

  So, you have come, at last, my little one. The time has indeed begun.

  The time for what? Wondered the girl.

  The time for you to begin to know the truth—about yourself, about the High King, and about the Dark One, who holds sway over this land.

  The gentle voice spoke no more, and the voices of the three arguers finally ceased. They stalked back up to the guard station, not at all disturbed by the fact that they hadn’t even finished their tour.

  ***

  The following day, Aliatta made her way to the dungeon for the mandated hours of management. She was to spend this time assigning food rations, delivering the food, assigning cells to new inmates, giving orders to have designated punishments carried out, and overseeing the disposal of dead bodies.

  Aliatta, however, had other ideas as to how she would spend her time.

  On her first day, she learned how Jixgaink Groundcash actually spent his time. Like others of his race, his primary pleasure was in mining the earth for precious minerals. With Aliatta taking over the food delivery, he could now spend that much more time on his own, hidden tunnels.

 
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