They rode as quickly as they could, making most of the remaining hours of the light. Just as the sun was beginning set, James shouted for Alanis to look up. Ahead of them, through a light patch of mist, the outline of the kingdom of Berthold began to take shape.
Alanis gasped at the sight. It was enormous and just as beautiful as James claimed it to be.
Her eyes scanned the glorious landscape, hills rolled throughout entire kingdom, and small dwellings sprinkled each of their slopes. Most of the structures were made from stones, cut perfectly to shape the framework. In that instant, she was reminded of the old stone tower her and Anna had found outside Larska.
And there were grand trees, as far as the eye could see.
All across the kingdom, lush vegetation grew like welcomed guests. She noticed how the trees grew tallest in the far corner of the kingdom, near a large castle that's peak nearly pierced the clouds above.
Alanis eyes were wide, she was mesmerized by Berthold's size. Thousands must have lived there-maybe more. No matter its size, it was still more people than she could have ever imagined. No, never in a million years could she imagine a place like this.
She began to wonder again, about Justin, as she marveled at the sight before her.
Justin, have you seen this place... Why didn't you tell me about it?
"I knew you'd like it." James tilted his head to the side, to glance back at her gape. "Our kingdom's beauty amazes everyone. We aren't known as the Golden Kingdom for nothing."
Geez, laying it on thick...
Alanis returned a forced smile as a reply, though he was right about his homeland.
It was truly breathtaking.
They soon found their way to the entrance of the kingdom, slowing as they approached the large stone wall that surrounded its perimeter. Alanis looked up at the two large watchtowers that stood at each side of the gate, noticing the watching eyes that peeked through the upper loopholes.
James halted Ellah near the front gate.
"Look who finally decided to show his face," a deep male voice echoed from the dark chamber that operated the large steel gate. "You know, I was beginning to get worried."
James chuckled, it was apparent he knew the man behind the wall.
"Andrew, you have no idea. Now won't you please open the gate. I don't want to keep our king waiting any longer."
"As you wish," his friend quipped before a loud, metallic clank rang out.
Alanis sat up with the sound, her eyes trained on the metal bars ahead of them. Soon after, the gate began to rattle, then lifted slowly.
A large man hustled over to the gate as it rose. He was tall, towering over the other guards who were gathering behind him. Despite his tall stature he had a friendly look about him. He smiled at the pair as he brushed the dust and dirt from his doublet.
"I thought for sure your fearless leader would be with you," Andrew stated with a laugh. "That woman stormed out of here like a bat out of hell. Just how the hell, did you manage to get yourself lost on such a short trip?"
"You're an asshole, you know that?" James retorted and glanced back at Alanis. "Please, excuse my language, my lady."
Andrew began to stare in Alanis' direction with curious eyes.
"So-which settlement is she from?" he asked, his question was directed to James.
Alanis wondered how he knew she was from a settlement, and was quite perturbed he didn't ask her himself.
"Excuse me, my name is Alanis," she replied, "How did you know I was from a settlement?"
James chuckled while she studied his friend. The tall guard, raked his fingers through his shaggy, medium-length blond hair then stepped towards them.
"Ahhh, so you're fresh from a settlement?" He smiled friendly at her. "I'll give you a hint. You'll find the answer as clear as day, all you got to do is take a look around."
Alanis looked around, nothing seemed out of the ordinary about the people in the area, other than their strange clothing and armor. It was only after her gaze landed back on the tall guard, and his men, that she realized the one thing they all had in common.
They all had different hues of golden hair.
Does everyone outside the settlements have blonde hair, she wondered, hoping her dark hair wouldn't gain attention.
"Oh, I see," Alanis replied, running her fingers through her hair unknowingly.
"I really should apologize for my behavior. It's not like me to forget my manners in front of a lady. My name is Andrew." Again, he flashed a wide smile before bowing his head. "Please excuse my appearance, I assure you, I clean up quite well."
Alanis smiled back at him politely.
"Oh, it's fine. I guess I've known better days," she said, realizing it had been days since she last had a proper shower.
"I'm sorry, but we need to cut this short. I have to get to the castle before the others get here." James intervened, his normal cocky overtone was replaced with uncertainty.
He pulled up on Ellah's reins triggering her to gallop away from the gate before Alanis could think to say goodbye to his friend.
James shouted over his shoulder to Andrew, "Don't worry, the both of you can flirt later at the tavern!"
"What!" Alanis roared into his ear, causing him to flinch and duck his head.
"It was a joke." He laughed. "It will be fun, you'll see."
It will be fun, just what the hell was he thinking, Alanis thought angrily. She had no interest in meeting up with his friends. All she could think about was figuring out a way to return home, not hang out and make friends with the locales.
The pair dismounted at the Royal Stables, leaving Ellah behind in a guest stall. The rest of the way would easily be trekked by foot, Alanis thought, relieved.
They walked up to a long pathway that connected to the courtyard of the castle front. Tall statues decorated the center of the walkway. They were of three beautiful women, all chiseled into white polished marble. The two to the side, crossed their arms in front of their naked breasts, but the center one stood tall, with her arms raised above her head, her eyes frozen on the heavens above.
At the castle door, stood an old man, the white hair that topped his head was scarce, and his eyes were nearly hidden in the many drooping wrinkles that dressed his face. He walked over to greet them, his crisp, off-white linen cloak dragged across the walkway with him.
Alanis noticed he wore a golden pin that was identical to the one James had, the one that was used to create the spear with the golden head.
"Sir James, King Alexander will be pleased to know your safe," the old man spoke. His voice whistled through his missing teeth.
He hobbled over to where she stood, his tired eyes examined her face.
"Young lady," he said in a gentler tone, "I'd like to hear your story, perhaps we'll talk once you've settled in."
Settle in? Great, another person like James.
"In good time, council, in good time... But I'm afraid we must make haste at this time."
James grabbed Alanis by the hand and led her through the castle doors before she could protest.
The inside of the castle was dark and smelled of lavender and firewood. The scent was strong, but pleasant enough to give the atmosphere a warm, comforting air.
As her eyes adjusted to the many candles that illuminated the giant room, she was able to see all the beautiful tapestries that clung to stone walls. Scenes of events were weaved into each of them, leaving her to wonder what stories they told.
It seemed every corner had a thing of beauty that decorated its space. She didn't have time to fully appreciate them, as James would pull her along every time she would stop to admire them.
Finally, they reached the end of the grand room and at its end stood two large wooden doors with Berthold's Crest carved onto them.
James bowed to the guards that stood at the doors. They nodded and opened both doors, inside was a very large room that opened to an outside courtyard. They followed the aisle, past the many seats the royals used while entertaining citizens and guests.
They stopped at the steps that rose to a grand throne carved into a large tree stump. Alanis studied it in the dying sunlight. It was marvelous, beautiful vines were meticulously carved throughout it and the velvet upholstery that was fitted was the color of molten gold.
"Well, it looks like we made it first," James said while releasing her hand. "Thank gods."
Alanis turned away, catching a strumming sound that echoed throughout the chamber.
"It's beautiful in here," she thought out loud as she listened to the faint melody, her eyes trailed along the walls to the roof above.
Vines intertwined through the old lattice roof and tumbled to the floor below. She walked over to them, examining the budding flowers that sprouted from them. Her fingers traced one of the crimson blossoms without thinking, then just as quickly pulled her hand away, hearing voices in the hall.
The doors they had walked through earlier opened, shedding a faint groan down the aisle. Soon after, a lone man emerged through them. Almost instantly, Alanis could tell that he was the one they were waiting for, the king of Berthold, Alexander.
Wow, she thought simply, pulling both her hands to her chest. She had never seen a man more beautiful in all of her life.
He was a handsome, more dashing than she imagined him to be by James' descriptions. Though, if he had tried, it wouldn't have mattered, mere words would have failed to compare to what stood before her.
Like James, and the other knights, the king wore a suit of half-armor, though his was more lavish, and made from a silver that matched the color of his unbound, wavy shoulder-length hair.
She had only ever seen older people with hair so white, but he looked to be in his prime, perhaps his early twenties. Regardless, it was beautiful and alluring, almost godly, she thought.
As he neared, she caught herself staring at his broad shoulders, noticing his sculpted arms as they slipped through his cloak while he walked. He definitely had the physique to match the face-which was perfect, being chiseled with very striking features. More impressive still, were his gray, piercing eyes.
Those stormy eyes soon lifted, as he looked ahead towards them-through her.
Her heart quickened at his stare.
James tugged on the cloak he had lent her, breaking her musings. She noticed right away she was standing in the walkway, then stepped to the side to join him.
The king continued his walk, uninterrupted, toward the throne ahead of them.
Following, behind the king, were three men, who all wore the same style cloak the old man outside the castle had worn. Their eyes were low, showing respect, as they took their place behind the throne where they stood silent and still.
Later, Alanis would learn those men were his Council.
When they were settled, the king took his seat on the wooden throne, sitting tall, he was both beautiful and gallant.
Alanis stood behind him, having no idea what she should or shouldn't be doing, so she quickly bowed her head in a respectful manner, hoping that would suffice.
"Please rise, Sir James," the king said in a strong assertive tone. "I hear you've come back from task a little worse for wear."
"Your grace, I would like to apologize, for my failure," James said bowing his head in shame.
"What makes you think it was a failure?" Alexander asked, there was a hint of annoyance in his tone.
James looked up at him with a perplexed stare.
"I was separated from the group, on a simple task, your grace. And I wasn't able to find the disturbance the oracle spoke of."
Again, Alanis wondered what the disturbance was that had intrigued them, and what an oracle was. Could it be some sort of psychic, she guessed.
"I see," the king replied, "and your company?"
Alexander's eyes shifted between them.
"I apologize, her name is Alanis. She is from a southern settlement."
"Which settlement?" The king sat forward, his eyes seemed to direct to her.
Alanis assumed he wanted the answer to come from her and not James.
"I'm from Larska, Sir." It took her a moment to answer, unsure of how she should address him without offending him.
"Larska, that's a first. It would seem your task wasn't a complete waste, Sir James."
The king sat back in his seat while his fingernails tapped at the armrest as he mulled over what was said.
"I do believe you are the first I've heard of to break free from there. Tell me, Alanis, how did you escape?"
"Escape?" she replied puzzled, "I didn't run away, if that's what you're implying."
Why was everyone assuming I broke free from there? Larska is my home, and I want to return there, certainly not stay here.
"They never just let you go," Cassandra said from behind, making her presence known to Alanis. "You escaped, you'd be lying if you claim otherwise."
Alanis grimaced in reply to her statement. The woman knight walked past her, to Alexander, where she bowed at his feet.
"Excuse me, but I'm not lying," Alanis said in defense.
All eyes were on her, their lowered stares made her feel like a child trying to defend their innocence.
"If you must know, I woke up on the shore of the Larska River, with no memory of how I got there. All I can remember is being ill the night before, but I can't really recall the days before in great clarity either."
"Mhmm." Cassandra replied, "How convenient, just the cover one would go with to hide their true intentions."
"What do you mean by that?"
"You're a spy, it's as simple as that. Your story is unbelievable, a mere child could come up with a better cover story than that," Cassandra replied with a telling stare, her cold blue eyes gave away her contempt for her.
"A spy, you have no idea what you're talking about. What I have told you is the truth. Hell, I never knew this place existed until James told me about it."
Cassandra walked toward the king while Alanis was in mid-sentence.
"King Alexander, I suggest we make her leave Berthold, given the circumstances."
"That's great, I have no intention of staying here anyway,"Alanis agreed happily. It was the first good news she had heard since she got there. "I just need safe passage back to Larska."
"What?" Cassandra questioned nearly in gape.
Alanis could see enough of the room to notice she was getting bewildered glances from everyone, including the king.
"Are you crazy? If you're not a spy, like you claim to be, they would kill you."
Cassandra sounded as astonished with Alanis' request as she was with her statement.
"What are you talking about, why would they want to kill me?"
Cassandra sighed smugly.
"You really are clueless, you know that?"
Alanis lunged at her, wanting to strike her, but held back, realizing she'd likely have her ass handed to her if she took it further.
"Enough, Cassandra." Alexander's stern order echoed throughout the chamber, breaking up what was bound to escalate into a fight.
Cassandra apologized and stepped away, taking seat in the front row of chairs that lined behind them.
"I could only imagine how frightening this is, but if what you said is true, then what I am about to tell you will only make things worse," Alexander said, directing his statement back to Alanis.
James stood next to Alanis again. She looked over at him and was troubled by his unwillingness to look at her. It was clear he was hiding something, she figured he knew more than he let on. Unable to look at him any longer, she glanced back to Alexander to hear what he had to say.
"I'm afraid the warning Cassandra gave is true." Alexander's eyes lowered. "You will never be welcomed back into Larska."
"I-I don't-" believe you, she wanted to continue, but stopped as James took her hand. She jerked it free, realizing he thought the same as them, that he actually believed her people would harm her. She turned and glared up at him, confused and angered that he had not told her himself.
"What did you think happened to all of your friends, when their so-called illness struck?"
He was talking about The Burn, what did he know about it?
"They died," she replied softly, "like everyone else that's had it."
He sat forward on his throne, his silver hair moved with him cascading over his shoulders to his polished breastplate.
"That's what they want you to think. The truth, unfortunately, is less palatable than the lie you've been told."
"And what is that?"
"They were murdered."
Murdered?! What the hell was he saying, none of it was making sense. She walked up the steps to where Alexander sat, his gaze followed her movement curiously. Soon, she stood on the last step, cautious not to break past its peak, afraid one of his Council, or guard, would strike her down if she did.
"That's a lie," she muttered under her breath.
"Speak clearly while questioning me," he replied sternly, sitting tall on his throne once more.
"But you're wrong, they were sick, same as me. There's no way they would do that to us," Alanis shouted, her balled up fists shook at her sides.
"Did you see them die from it? Explain to me, why you are still alive, if everyone else has fallen from it?" His question stumped her, she was left with no answer to give him.
Everything in Larska was kept a secret. Whenever someone started showing signs of the illness they would be whisked away before any of them ever noticed, but that alone didn't mean they were all secretly being murdered.
"Well since you don't know, I'll give you the answer." His eyes seemed disconnected to everything, his gaze fell through her once more. "You may believe it or you may not, but I can assure you, in time, you will come to know it as truth."
Alanis was ready to doubt whatever he would say.
"Those touched by the gods, go through a change. Usually this change happens well before adulthood. But I know from past dealings with escapees, that the change happens too later, because the settlements found a way to stall it by experimentation.
"When the change is complete, it leaves us connected to nature, and able to wield its power." He paused briefly. "You said you were ill a few nights ago, since then has anything strange happened to you?"
"You'll have to be more specific, the past few days have been filled with strange events," Alanis replied coldly.
"I'm sorry, what I meant was, have you noticed strange changes within yourself."
"She's wielded," James spoke up, answering the question Alexander had asked.
"That orb I created?" Alanis questioned.
"Yes, if you are able to wield that means that you have gone through transcendence, the change that I mentioned earlier."
"What does this have to do with Larska, and why would they execute me because of it?"
"Because you have power," Alexander replied, "They see you as a potential threat. You were going to turn into something they couldn't control, so they did the only thing their, weak, savage minds could think of. They lied. They called it a disease, and told the infected they would die from it so it would be easier to control you."
His hard-hearted statement gave Alanis a horrible feeling, the sudden rush of adrenaline that pumped through her veins screamed for release.
"It can't be, you're lying, there's no way they would do that!" Alanis shouted as she fell to the cold stone floor, "This is horrible, I don't believe it."
James rushed over to her side. She rose her hand to shoo him away, but he stood his ground close beside her.
Alanis had no idea what to think. She couldn't believe that all her friends were secretly being executed. And if what he said was true, it meant Justin, and the other Officials, had known this was going on.
How the hell could she believe that?
She wanted desperately to believe that Alexander was lying, but what would he gain by telling her these false stories? Be that as it may, she had no way to prove if what he said was truth or lies. The only thing she could go due to the fact that she had been ill, and had magically gained powers, just as he said would happen to those going through the change.
Alexander's Council began to whisper to each other. Alanis watched them, wondering what they were discussing so intently. They stopped, then one of the three men stepped forward and whispered something into Alexander's ear.
Alexander's lowered eyes lifted, then he nodded, agreeing to something.
"There will be a New Moon in six nights. On that night, I will be able to perform a ritual that could possibly bring your blocked memories to surface. This could help you recall how you got here."
"You can do that?"
Alexander nodded then stood ahead of his throne.
Alanis was intrigued by his offer, but couldn't tell if she should trust him yet.
"I will expect your answer soon, so I can prepare. I hope you at least consider it. It would help ease the confusion you're feeling now."
"I'll need to think about it," Alanis admitted hesitantly as James helped her stand.
"Very well, when you've made up your mind, have Sir James give me your choice."
Alexander began to descend the stairs, stopping ahead of her. She stepped back, nervously. Standing near him, she could smell a hint of lavender that melded with his natural scent.
"Until then, I bid you farewell, Alanis," he said, bowing his head to her before he left.
Alanis watched as the king and his Council, as they disappeared behind the door to the great hall. Though she was silent, her mind was busy, as she considered what the king had told her.
Anonymous 1 - Glad you're liking the Alanis and Justin moments. He's a very loyal/sweet guy.
Anonymous 2 - Yes, that line was one of my favorites to write. Now the question is whether he will be able to live up to his promise.
Anonymous 3 - Cass is definitely sassy and kind of horrible. Don't worry she does have a backstory. I promise she's not one of those typical girls that hates the main character for no reason.