tagSci-Fi & FantasyBalder's Saga Ch. 02: Adrina

Balder's Saga Ch. 02: Adrina

byTheDominusCatalyst©

How strange the world was. For the first part of his journey, Balder saw little more than the frozen isles where tribal savages dwelled (and hoarded riches). Those were familiar, comforting almost. Every rocky beach and every shared gesture of dominance. Might made right in his land.

But weeks had gone by and the frozen glaciers and storms and churning seas made way to calmer, foreign waters. Hotter waters. "Where are we?" Balder asked the slave-navigator; the daughter of a chief from one of the islands. She came as a tribute and sign of his power. She'd be quite the prize to show when he returned home, small and lithe she may be.

"A day's row from the Shahdom, your majesty." She gave a near reverent incline of her head.

"Call me Balder," he said.

"Strange you're letting a trophy address you, your majesty." She smirked and tucked brown locks behind one ear. "Fancy me?"

"You're smart and dangerous. I like that, but," he waved a dismissive hand at her. "I don't bed below my station, Helga." A lie. But he needn't imply this girl was worthy of his affections.

The girl gave a mocking salute now, rather than a respectful nod. "Of course, Balder."

The Prince smiled as she returned to the deck. Fjolgan watched her leave and smiled knowingly at Balder, before returning to his rowing. The crew he had taken from Jarl Tova had been supplemented by new warriors, men of now clan or house who sought their own fame. Some were captured warrior of great skill and sworn service, others young men with wanderlust. Regardless of origin, they were all in this together now. His bid to be King, to secure fame and fortune in distant lands.

Although... he didn't know where to start. Many relics and treasures lay scattered across the world but obscured by mystery and rumor. He hoped the Shah could help him... or one of them if the gods weren't laughing. Balder was no fool and knew that entering the Shahdom and seeking advice from one of the wizard-aristocracy was a daunting task. It didn't help he couldn't trust the creatures, often reminding him of another who he despised.

But there was one he knew who could be trusted- actually, trust was too strong of a word- one who would hear him out; Shah Adrina Vidarna. She was quite open from what Balder had gathered, and she was said to have been friends with his great grandfather. "She'll want something." Fjolgan said one night, as he sat with Balder looking up at the stars.

"We've some plunder to offer." Balder shrugged.

"The Shah are already fabulously wealthy," Fjolgan sighed. "I doubt she'll want fetishes and totems from the tribes we've raided." The sworn-shield shifted and sighed. Helga slept nearby, snoring lightly from her cot. Fjolgan's eyes drifted over before returning to Balder.

"We'll figure something out." Balder scratched his growing beard. It had gotten fuller since he left Jarl Tova, perhaps the world knew he was ready to be King and needed a beard to match such. "It's a beautiful night."

"Yup." Fjolgan said. The two simply sat in silence, watching the vast cosmos above them. The twinkle of the stars, the ominous moon- the sun as it rose. Balder batted the sky as he refused to rise, but Fjolgan's boot was a good motivator. "My Prince, we're landing soon. Where do you want us to shore?"

"Is it always so bright?" Balder asked, squinting his eyes and shading them with one hand. He had never seen a bluer sky. Clouds were a constant friend to those from the coast. Here, they were gone, and the sun bore down upon the ship and its inhabitants, warming the hull and searing the skin. "Can't we shore at the port? Shah's have cities surrounding their towers, don't they?"

Fjolgan shook his head. "I wouldn't trust a shah to watch this boat. Besides, it might be better if no one knew we were here. The proud Prince Balder asking for help from the Shah?" He shouldered his shield and strapped his sword to his belt.

Balder nodded at his words. "Where is the city from the coast?"

"About a half-hour walk." Helga said with a devilish smile as she appeared from almost nowhere. "You didn't bring horses?" She bumped her hip into Fjolgan, causing him to smile.

"Shore up here." Balder pointed to a clearing on the beach. "Tell the men to wait and gather up some of the plunder." And his word was followed. The ship slid onto the beaches easily and Balder hopped out with his sworn-shield as the men above groaned with relief from rowing. Balder strapped on his axe and shield, though forwent his chainmail. Two of the strongest warriors carried a chest half-full of plunder. Gold, jewelry, fetishes, totems- Whatever may please the Shah. He did not envy them, especially as the group trudged through the sand. It was more unforgiving than the coasts of his land, where the frozen earth did not fill your boots or find its way into places where it did not belong. By the time the group reached the gates leading into the town, Balder felt like his balls were sweating sand.

"Welcome to Ad'Kapuur! In the name of She who rules through her beauty and power, what brings pagan-men to Her lands?" The man was not a guard. He was plump, dressed in see-through silks, and sported an almost feminine appearance. "We spotted your ships and prepared for your coming, but you did not come?" A lie, if Balder ever heard one.

"We did not wish to offend." Balder said, clearing his throat. He scanned the towers that lined the wall. "We come bearing gifts for your Shah." Balder motioned to his sweat-drenched warriors carrying a chest.

"Acceptable." the man said. He toyed with the ring on his finger. "Please, come with me."

Balder straightened his back as his group was soon surrounded and escorted by several gold-clad guards. Their dark skin reminding Balder of the slave back at Jarl Tova's castle. They marched in unison with Balder's group as they navigated the streets that wove between the massive sandstone structures. The colorful marble forming almost alien patterns that drew the eye and lit up the world around it; even the people. Beautiful women clad in little more than silk skirts and bra-tops, sporting pierced navels and heavily made-up features. Some even dyed their hair, streaks of white clashing with tips of red. Even the men, Balder had to admit, were handsome, though far more varied than the women. The women held the physiques and beauty of goddess, while the men were overly plump or dangerously thin. And then there were slaves, each one moving about and performing the tasks ordered. Some carried their masters on large litters, while others did errands or chaperoned youths. Each one was different, some with skin as dark as midnight from the jungles further south and others looking like they came from the Dales or Gall, with fair skin and faces. Nothing to turn twice at, however.

"So, these are the Shah." Balder said.

"No. These are shah, Pagan." The escort said, not breaking a sweat despite the heat and his size. "Shah are those like She who rule in His name."

"That's what I said." Balder stated in a tone of annoyance.

"No." The escort said, sighing. "There are shah and then there are Shah. To call a shah a Shah is incorrect to the Shah, and to call a Shah a shah is an insult as best."

"But... they're the same word." Balder replied.

"They are not the same word!" The escort huffed once more. "A shah is not a Shah. Shah are like She, shah are like me."

Balder simply relented. This was making him more frustrated than he already had been from the heat alone. He could feel every bead of sweat, and he wanted to collapse by the time they reached their destination. The tower touched the sky, branched off into several other towers, and cast a welcome shadow over the surrounding area. Balder heard his warriors groan in satisfaction as they set the chest down. The ramp leading up to an ornate wooden door would've been the last stretch they'd have to walk, if they were allowed. "Wait." The escort commanded and sauntered over to the walkway.

"It's a mushroom." Fjolgan said, looking up.

"It is." Balder had seen strange things, heard strange stories. But to find a tower made of fungus? In this heat? The mushroom dome encompassed the lesser towers sprouting from the sides, perilously suspended by strong vines. "What magic lets you grow a tower out of... of mold?"

"She will see you now." The escort said, and the armed men left Balder's group. "Show proper respect, and remember she is there because of her power and beauty." The doors into the tower opened and the group made their way inside. It looked stunningly different than the outside. The floors were solid, covered by lavish carpets and the walls adorned with paintings and mosaics and more. A golden ramp led upwards to a large room connected by tunnels going upwards and downwards. "This is the core." The escort said. "Every tower has one, and it leads to She and to other parts of her tower. Come, she has been expecting you."

"I didn't inform her we were coming." Balder blurted out without thinking. The escort turned and smiled, and it was the first time Balder felt unsettled by the feminine man. The group went up one of the tunnels, illuminated by flames trapped behind colorful glass. The entire walk was a myriad of colors, until they arrived at another expansive room, flanked two open terraces which flooded the room with natural light. A massive curtained tunnel was in front of them, blue and gold silk interwoven to hide whatever may be hidden behind it. The escort approached and pulled the curtain back. "Wait here." And he was gone. Balder's warriors set their offering on the ground and groaned with exhaustion. Fjolgan looked around the room and whistled, scratching his chin.

"We look out of place." He stated plainly.

"How did they know we were coming?" Balder asked and Fjolgan shrugged. "Magic?"

"Maybe-"

"Magic." said a feminine voice that sounded like a battle-axe dragging against a stone. "None come to my lands without my knowing." She was beautiful and Balder's jaw dropped in shock and disbelief. Her full, dusky breasts were exposed by a low-cut robe, deep blue in color and embroidered with gold. Her feet were smooth, delicate and bare against the tiled floor and her regal features framed by a cascade of black curls. Her amber eyes scanned the group of pagans, and her full lips pulled back into a smile. "The last time a Grathe was in this tower was... centuries. You look so much like him."

"How do you know who I am?" Balder furrowed his brow, and that seemed to please the woman.

"I knew your great-grandfather in his prime, and you share a lot of his features. An educated mind can surmise who are you." Her eyes looked the Prince up and down with a dangerous gaze, one that excited and unnerved the youth. "Most Shah ward their realms. The moment you entered water deemed mine I knew you were coming and, I must ask, don't you find it quite rude not to send a letter?" She looked towards the two warriors surrounding the chest. "You bring gifts?" Every time she spoke Balder felt belittled; belittled and demeaned. He wanted to turn his back and storm out, pride welling up inside his chest. But he played her game.

"I heard you were a refined woman, I figured riches would suit you." Balder motioned and his warriors brought the chest forward, setting it in front of the Shah, who peered down.

Her eyes looked over the offerings, drifting back and forth. She reached inside and produced a fetish, inspecting it with delicate fingers. The wood began to smolder and eventually the burning object was dropped to the floor. She reached inside again and produced a totem. The same result, matching its burning sibling at those delicate and dainty feet. "I suppose the gold shall do." The Shah let out a sensual sigh and snapped her fingers. Two slaves appeared from almost nowhere, prostrated before and kissed her feet, and took the offering away. "Meager and base, though you brought something. That is better than most." She turned back to Balder, eyeing him up and down. "I assume you already know my name, else why would you come to me specifically?"

"Shah Adrina, I am Balder Tovjosson, of the line of Grathe-" Balder began.

"-this I already know." The Shah interrupted and scrunched her nose. "To the point, Pagan-Prince, why do you come to my domain?"

"I am seeking glories and riches to become King. Everyone knows such riches can be found in the East."

"And they also know that this is a dangerous land, especially if you seek to pillage those who rise higher than even Kings?" Her beautiful voice was laced with a deadly threat.

"You mistake me. I'm looking for artifacts, items of worth to take back home." Balder cleared his throat. "Things that lesser men would not dare to find."

"You're a Prince playing Adventurer?" Adrina toyed with the lavish ring on her finger. Her kohl-lined eyes looked downwards, before rising to Balder once more. "Such strange ways to win birthrights." There was a bit of a silence between them as the Shah looked between all the men surrounding Balder. "And who are these?"

"This is Fjolgan," Balder said, putting his hand to Fjolgan's shoulder. "He is my sworn-shield; the men behind me are Hugo and Faruk."

"The rest are at your boat shored south of here?" She didn't wait for an answer. "Well, it was a pleasure to meet you all. Thank you for the gift, and I wish you good luck upon your endeavors." She turned away so gracefully Balder almost didn't realize they'd been rejected. The escort tugged on Balder's arm. "This way, Pagan." Balder jerked his arm away and stepped forward to the retreating Shah.

"Wait!" he yelled. When her eyes were upon him once more he let out a snarl. "That's it?" The woman smiled, something that reminded him of another and it made his blood boil. "You were a friend of my Great-Grandfather, and I offered you a plentiful offering. How can you turn your back to us?"

"Wooden masks and gold? These are a gift?" The Shah scoffed and turned herself back to Balder. "My dear little Grathe, if you truly wished to earn my favor you should've thought about what I truly want." She waved a hand. "Now leave, you didn't even have the courtesy to bathe before coming to me."

Balder couldn't have felt more anger than at this moment. He slammed his shoulder into the nearest guard. Balder went for his axe only to find himself unable to move. None of them could. Fjolgan's eyes shifted side to side and the two other warriors gasped and struggled against an unseen force. The Shah's hand glowed with a faint blue light, her fingers half-curled and suspended above her cleavage.

"First, you come without proper warning. Second, you bring paltry gifts. And now, third, you assault my guards and act brazen in a place to which nothing belongs to you? The gall of Pagans." Her fingers curled more and Balder felt the air leave his body. "You presume to-"

"Adrina!" a voice called from behind the curtains. The female stiffened, her magic dissipating within an instant. "This commotion does not bode well for your arriving guests."

Balder struggled for air, his chest burning with every breath. The silk curtains pulled apart as something- someone- strode forward. He wore a massive coat clasped at his wrists was a suit of abyssal black plate, trimmed with gold. It did little to hinder his movements, even as it rose to envelop his neck and stop right below where the silver-haired head met and draped down just past the shoulders. His emerald eyes were luminous, and matched his royal bearing, for what else could someone so handsome and malefic be but an Imperial?

"Aurelian," Adrina said, nearly skipping over to the man and pressing herself against him. She nestled her face into the crux of his plated neck. "I was just sending these guests away. Troublesome pagans."

The male did not return the affection. His hands remained idle on his sides, not even patting the woman on the back in acknowledgement. "Pagans are still allies of the Emperor, as are the Shah." Aurelian stated, looking down at Adrina, who looked up at him with a dreamy expression. "What did they do to earn your ire?" He pulled away from the Shah and stood before Balder.

"They wanted my help and I refused." Adrina said, putting her hands to her slender waist. "Then they proceeded to accost the guards and threaten me!"

"I doubt the last part upset you too much." Aurelian didn't even look back at her, his eyes fixated on Balder, eyes that made the prince uneasy. Adrina soon came up from behind and pressed her chin into

the crux of the male's neck.

"Yes... but their offerings were paltry. Gold and fetishes? I deserve better!"

"You do." Aurelian stated, before shrugged his shoulder and forcing Adrina off.

"I had nothing else to offer." Balder said, rising to meet the other male.

"Hm." Aurelian replied.

"This is my tower," Adrina said with a bit of a huff directed to Balder. "and if they cannot provide me with something I desire I see no reason why customs dictate I should assist them."

"He is Floki's kin, is he not?" Aurelian asked.

Balder flinched at the mention of his ancestor. "How do you-" he began, only to be cut off by Adrina.

"And what of it? Floki would've known to come and treat me with the dignity I deserve."

"But how long ago was that?" Aurelian asked. And when everyone was silent, he continued. "Apparently I must bring the Emperor's keen insight to this matter, since neither of you can settle upon it." The Imperial extended his hand, covered in the same plate that adorned the rest of his body. The fingertips were elongated and sharp- fit to puncture. "I am Legate Aurelian Nerva. You are Balder?"

"How do you-" Balder only realized too late that he was shaking the hand of a Legate; one of the three of the Triumvirate of the Empire.

"I was notified of your birth, as I was notified for your father's and his father's. As was her grace the Shah Adrina." At her mention, Adrina smiled and stood up straighter. "We fought alongside your ancestor in the first Grand Crusade."

"That- That was almost two centuries ago." Fjolgan blurted out. And Aurelian's dangerous gaze turned to him.

"Your slave is educated."

"He is my sworn-shield." Balder pulled his hand away. "And he is not my slave."

"You have such strange names for them." Aurelian let his coat fall about his form. It made him taller, more menacing, like wings folded over a crow.

"Aurelian~" Adrina said, appearing once again and sliding her arms into Aurelian's coat. The Legate turned to allow her but made no inclination to displeasure or pleasure. "Can't I just send them away? It's my tower, not yours or the Emperor's." She planted a kiss on the man's chin, her lips dark against his northern complexion. "And they were so rude with their gifts..."

"Perhaps the Prince can produce on a new gift to please you?" Aurelian turned his head to Balder. "And perhaps with it, you two may start fresh?"

Adrina turned her head to Balder, cheek pressed against Aurelian's chest. She looked Balder up and down- assessing him and judging him. "He wants me to help him find an artifact in the desert."

"For such information, what gift could he offer?" Aurelian looked up to the ceiling and frowned. "We've only an hour before your guests arrive." His words seemed to cause Adrina to pause. Her eyes went still, and her lips parted slightly. Balder could only imagine the magically-altered mind racing through dozens of possibilities.

"You have a navigator on that ship?" The Shah asked, pushing off Aurelian, who took a step back and smiled.

"I do." Balder said.

"Wonderful." Adrina clapped her delicate hands and Balder's former escort waddled forward. "Fetch me the Map to the tomb of Queen Nefita." And the escort hurried down one of the tunnels. The Shah kept her smile and looked to Balder. "I will give you something for your navigator. Within in it, is the path to Queen Nefita, known to carry an amulet worth a king's ransom. Being dead, I assume she has no use for it." Something gave Balder the strange inclination that she was not telling him the whole truth. "You may keep it, and I will send it back to your ship with your warriors."

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