Queen of the Forest Ch. 01byLilacLove©
Ambassador Kyn Rokan surveyed the mountains before him. They formed a near impenetrable border between the lands of Danthria, his own nation, and the wildlands beyond, which men called Kenma. The only known pass through the mountains lay a half day or so to the South, according to the maps he kept in cyclinders tied to his saddle, and that was his current destination. He checked the time. The sun would soon disappear beyond the horizon.
"Okay Captain, tell your men to set up camp."
"Sir, are you sure this is a good idea? Going to Kenma, I mean."
Kyn sighed at the prospect of having that same argument with the captain all over again. "Just do it, Captain," he said wearily.
"At once, Sir." The Captain gave a stiff salute, then turned to give the orders to his twenty soldiers. There were always bandits on the roads, and though swordmanship was included in his list of many talents, he doubted he would be safe alone. Besides, he looked more impressive with a squad of soldiers at his back. Those were his King's arguments, at least. The Ambassador was a modest man who preferred to travel alone, but the King had insisted that he take some men.
Squad Captains in Danthria were named by their soldiers, usually for physical or personality traits which they possessed. Kyn was unsure of exactly which trait had earned the man the name "Captain Stump." Whether it was his short, stocky build, or the fact that he had lost his left hand in a skirmish many years ago, Kyn didn't intend to ask.
Kyn himself was of average height, and he considered his features to be completely unremarkable. A woman had once described him as ruggedly handsome though, a comment which had left him blushing and floundering for words. His usual calm diplomacy completely disappeared when receiving a compliment from the opposite sex. His dark hair was of medium length, and it hung however it liked. He did not bother with the elaborate styles and cuts so popular at court. He had dull grey eyes that seemed more alive than the colour might suggest. His face usually bore a gentle expression, though a scowl seemed to suit him better.
He was aching all over when he climbed down from the saddle and sat by the fire, and he suddenly felt older than his mere twenty six years. Travelling was something his profession required much of, and he would enjoy it if not for the aches it always brought. He was not heavily built, but his slim figure was really quite muscled. He certainly was not a weak man, but riding all day and sleeping on the ground at night was hard on him. After a supper of soldier's rations, he gratefully retired to his tent.
The party set out at first light the next morning. Kyn pulled his heavy travelling cloak tightly around himself to ward off the chill. They set a good pace and by mid-morning they had reached the path that led into the mountains. It was likely to get colder as they ascended, Kyn knew. That wouldn't help his aches, but passing through Kenma would save weeks of travel. He decided that the cold would be easier to endure than the trade route which circled around Kenma, passing through two other nations before finally reaching his ultimate destination, Hremmac. Steeling himself, he urged his horse forward.
It was only another hour or two before they reached the small outpost which guarded the pass. The outpost was manned by a small group of soldiers, no doubt bitter about their lot in life, especially if they believed the wild stories about what lay just beyond the border. The man who greeted their party seemed to be one of those people. He had a haunted look about him, and he cast frequent glances up at the mountain pass.
"What's your business here?" He demanded of Kyn.
The Ambassador raised an eyebrow. He didn't much care for the man's tone. "Not my business. The King's business. We're just passing through."
The man stared at him incredulously. "Passing through? Nobody passes through! The demon hordes gather on the other side of these mountains, waiting for the chance to strike. As long as we guard the border, they do not dare enter our lands, but if you go beyond this point then your lives are forfeit. You will be torn asunder by creatures more monstrous than you could imagine!"
Another soldier was approaching. He had grey hair, and he looked like he had actually bathed recently, unlike the first man. He laughed at his comrade. "Do you really think that twelve border guards could prevent an invasion if there really was a hostile force on the other side of those mountains?" He turned and addressed Kyn. "My apologies, Sir. You're free to pass through, of course. I'd advise you to be careful, though. There may not be demons, but Kenma isn't a tame land, by any means. It's been a long while since we saw anyone else going into Kenma, and yet longer still since we saw anyone come out."
Kyn nodded, "Thank you for your concern." Unless he was working on a diplomatic agreement, he was a man of few words. He said what he meant, and little more. He noticed that his own soldiers seemed a little nervous after the crazy man's ranting, and he decided it might be better to push onwards. He urged his horse into motion, and his loyal men followed behind.
As they rode higher into the mountains, Captain Stump drew his horse alongside the Ambassador. "Sir-"
"You don't think this is a good idea?" Kyn finished for him.
The Captain nodded. "You heard what the man said..."
"Demons? Are you really so naive, Captain?"
"Course not, Sir. I meant the man with grey hair. I don't believe in demons, but I do believe that Kenma's a dangerous land."
"Which land isn't?" He laughed then. "Maybe I can even persuade a native to sign a trade agreement."
"A native, Sir? D'you believe there are people here?"
Kyn shrugged. "I suppose a paw print would work just as well."
The Captain chuckled and seemed to relax.
They were four days in the mountain pass. The wind was bitingly cold, but that was only natural and overall the weather held fine. The fifth day saw them descend into the densely forested region of Kenma proper. Little light penetrated the dense canopy of the trees towering high overhead. The forest would have been alive with colour, but the lack of light made everything dim and muted. Despite this, Kyn thought there was a wild beauty about the place. It was magnificent. The forest was teeming with life, too. Whole choirs of birds sang out from dawn until dusk, and always there were creatures darting around in the brush. Curious creatures which he could not identify.
When night came it was pitch black beneath the trees. The party lit torches and searched for a suitable place to make camp, eventually settling upon a large clearing. The trees were so huge that it didn not feel particularly claustrophobic or enclosed beneath them, but it was still a comfort to be able to see the sky again. The men erected a large bonfire and they all feasted upon various fruits and nuts gathered from the forest, a welcome change from soldier's rations.
For five days they continued in this fashion, and on the sixth day they awoke to a heavy downpour. They hastily struck camp and dashed into the shelter of the forest. The canopy did not keep the rain out as effectively as it did the light, however. All of the rain seemed to be gathering at certain points in the canopy, and as it fell to the ground it formed thousands of tiny waterfalls. It was a simple enough task to stay dry though, they simply had to step around those thin streams of water.
He looked around. Most of the animals had taken to their shelters, he realized. The forest seemed largely devoid of life this day. He surmised that the creatures had sought their shelters and were waiting out the poor weather. Just then, Captain Stump drew his horse alongside Ambassador Kyn's again, interrupting his musings. "How far d'you think we've come?"
Kyn replied honestly. "It's difficult to judge. Sometimes I'm not even sure we're going straight." He shrugged helplessly. "If I had to guess, I'd say we were about halfway to the Southern border."
Their horses parted for a moment to avoid the dripping water. "And what's the border like?"
"According to my maps, the whole Southern border is a swamp."
The Captain pulled a face. "Swamp? That ain't goin' to be pleasant."
Kyn shrugged. "It shouldn't take more than a day or two to cross it." The rain was dampening his mood, and he didn't feel much like talking, so he sank into a half-doze in his saddle, paying little attention to the passage of time. They plodded onwards.
Idly he noted that the birds were calling out again, and that there was once again movement back among the trees. The rain was still streaming from the canopy though. Something was wrong, but he couldn't figure out what. The horses seemed nervous too. Kyn glanced at the soldiers behind him. Many of them had their hands near their weapons, and they were surveying the shadows nervously.
Another bird call sounded, and all of a sudden the air was filled with arrows. There was a moment of stunned silence among the soldiers, then startled cries filled the air. Kyn saw the Captain topple from his saddle and lay unmoving upon the ground. The Ambassador threw himself from his saddle just in time to avoid an arrow that had been aimed at him with deadly accuracy. He had instantly realized the disadvantages of fighting from horseback in this terrain. In one fluid motion, he rolled and came to his feet, drawing his sword as he did so.
Yet another bird call sounded, different from the others, and a dozen tall figures burst from the shadows and fell upon him and his men. He blindly engaged the closest one, filled with rage and more than a little fear. He felt a blade bite at his shoulder, but he ignored it and thrust his sword through his attacker's chest. He noticed the look of surprise on her face as she slid from his blade. It was human. It was a woman. He didn't have time to think about that, as another one of their assailants was rushing at him. He defended himself, expertly dodging and parrying his opponent's sword, waiting for an opportunity to strike back. When that opportunity arose, he swung the flat of his blade against the side of her head and she crumpled to the ground. He felled two more in the same manner before he got a chance to breathe.
In a single moment, Kyn surveyed the scene. The ground was littered with his men. He was the only one still standing. There were a dozen women in sight, four of which he had felled. They all wore leather armour. Their forearms were sheathed with leather, but the hands which gripped their weapons were bare. They all wore sturdy boots that ended just below their knees. They also wore a kind of tight leather bodice, to which were attached short leather skirts that left much of their thighs bare. Some of their outfits had been modified with the furs of various animals, and some bore spears, while others wielded swords or daggers. Most also had a bow and a quiver of arrows slung over their shoulders. Their armour seemed designed to allow them maximum movement, and it worked. They were fast, moving with an almost inhuman grace, and they were converging on him.
Kyn raised his sword, preparing to defend himself even though he knew it was hopeless. One of the women, one with raven-coloured hair, spoke loud enough to be heard by all. He didn't quite catch what it was that she said, but the rest of them stepped back, forming a wide circle around him. Then the woman who had spoken stepped into the circle. She held a large sword in her right hand, and a dagger in her left. She wasted no time in attacking him. Kyn instantly recognized that she was a formidable opponent. Endlessly they traded blows, only ever managing to scratch each other. Her dagger was ever darting past his guard. Every time metal met flesh, gasps arose from the women who watched. He could hear startled exclamations, but he ignored them and focused on his opponent. He was beginning to tire, but the woman who faced him still stood tall, though her skin was glistening and trickles of blood ran from various small wounds. He knew that he fared worse than she did. His arms were numb from blocking her powerful blows, and he knew that he could not last much longer. He charged at her in a last desperate offensive, but his blade met only air as she easily stepped to one side. She struck him on the back of the head with the pommel of her dagger and he fell to the ground, blackness clouding his vision and the voices fading away.
It was night time when Kyn came to. Though to begin with he had not been able to see in the pitch blackness, over the last few days his eyes had become accustomed to the lack of light in the forest. He could just barely discern the outline of a woman nearby. He tried to move, but his hands were bound behind his back. Slowly, the memories of the events leading to this moment returned to him. Captain Stump and his men, all dead... All because of him. He should have listened, should never have led them into this land. In ignoring all of the imaginary dangers, he had ignored the real ones too. But who could have expected that they would be attacked by a group of warrior women? Why had they attacked? Why had they not also killed him?
I have to escape, he thought. No, I have no right to live. I'm the reason those men died. My corpse should lie among them... Kyn continued to battle with his conscience until the sun arose, filling the forest with the dim light of day. He now saw that two more of the women had been sleeping nearby, but now stood examining their equipment. The third must have been keeping watch, he thought. He also realized that the surroundings were familiar. He was still at the site of the battle, but there were no corpses. He was still trying to make sense of that when he was dragged to his feet.
One of the women started to walk. She had raven-coloured hair, and she didn't carry a bow, but instead had a large sword sheathed at her back and a dagger at her side. She bore various small wounds, and Kyn recognized her as the woman who had beaten him. The woman who had dragged him to his feet suddenly shoved him and pointed after the first woman. He understood her meaning and began to walk, the second woman following right behind him, a constant threatening presence. He looked around for the third woman and spotted her some distance away. She was keeping an arrow trained on him, which he thought completely unnecessary since he was bound, unarmed, and had a splitting headache. What reason do I have to resist, anyway? He thought. I deserve whatever they do to me.
They walked for hours, and every time Kyn slowed the woman behind him would give him a rough shove. The raven-haired woman seemed to be resolutely staring ahead the whole time, but the other two never took their eyes off him. He saw them pluck fruit from the ground or from bushes and eat as they went, and he realized how hungry he was. None of them offered him anything.
Quite suddenly Kyn found himself in an enormous clearing. He stopped and looked around. The trees around the edges were even larger than was usual in the forest, and they all seemed to lean inwards. Despite the enormity of the clearing, the canopy, which towered maybe a thousand feet overhead, still blocked all traces of the sky. On the ground there was something that could only be called a village. Though perhaps town, or even city, would be a more appropriate word, he thought. It was comprised mostly of large, hide tents. Wooden shelters and structures were dotted here and there though. Another shove snapped him out of his awe-inspired reverie and started him moving again.
He followed the raven-haired woman past the animal pens that lay at the outermost edge of the clearing, and then through the 'streets' to the middle of the clearing. People were wandering back and forth at various tasks, or on their way in or out of the clearing. The majority of them were women, Kyn noticed. The few men he did see were all naked, and he quickly averted his eyes. After a few minutes of walking, they began to approach a large and rather impressive structure which he assumed to be directly in the centre of everything. The whole thing was constructed with an odd combination of timbers and hide, each one accounting for perhaps half of the overall mass. It looked very much like a small (by civilized standards), somewhat crude palace.
Two women stood guard at the entrance to the palace, and as the raven-haired woman approached them they inclined their heads and made identical gestures with their left hands, then one of them pulled a large fur aside to reveal the entrance. As Kyn followed his captor inside, he noticed that the fur seemed to be all in one piece, he couldn't identify the animal it had come from, but whatever it was it had been very large. Perhaps the rumours about monstrous beasts had not been entirely false after all.
Once inside, Kyn found himself in a dim hallway. The walls were made of hide which had been fitted to sturdy wooden frames. There were other rooms and corridors on each side, but the raven-haired woman led him straight. Two more women guarded another entrance very similar to the first, and they made that same gesture with their left hands before pulling the animal pelt aside. Once again, he followed his captor inside, but this time they emerged into a massive dome. The dome seemed to have been constructed the same way as the corridor, but the hides were painted with the likeness of trees, so that the whole dome resembled the clearing in which the palace itself was built. The effect was enhanced by the light. Large bowls stood at various points around the room, and they were filled with a shimmering substance which filled the room with green-tinted, liquid light. The light was constantly in motion, and it almost made the trees appear as if they were moving. However, the bowls did not allow the light to reach the bottom of the room, so the floor was shrouded in darkness. As Kyn stepped into the room, it felt almost like he was walking on the shadows themselves.
Then, Kyn noticed the throne set at the opposite side of the dome. It was a grand throne, and the whole thing was draped in furs. Upon it sat a woman. As Kyn laid eyes on her his breath caught in his throat and his heart felt like it stopped. It wasn't just that she was beautiful, it was her presence. She was sat rather sedately, but her limbs were tense and he was reminded of a snake, coiled but ready to strike. A sword leaned against the throne, and her hand was resting so lightly on the hilt that it could easily be mistaken as entirely decorative. Kyn, however, suspected that she knew how to use it. The woman's back was straight, and her head held high. She had a commanding presence, and yet her deep green eyes looked gentle. Her features were, perhaps, even more exotic than the rest of her people. Her skin was pale, and her long hair was a deep, lustrous red. Most of the women here had varying shades of brown hair, with a few scattered blondes and, very rarely, black, like his captor. Upon that gorgeous red hair sat a thin circlet, made of vines and delicate silver chains entwined together.
The woman seated upon the throne wore clothes almost identical to those of the warriors, except her arms were completely bare, and the short skirt looked to be made of heavy furs instead of leather.
For the first time in Kyn's presence, one of the people spoke. The raven-haired woman addressed the one on the throne, "Queen Ayenna, savages came to The Forest. Xania brings savage leader." She spoke Kyn's language, though she had a strange, musical accent.
"The Forest thanks sister Xania." The Queen replied in a formal tone. Her voice was full, vibrant, and it had that same accent.