The Last Descendant Ch. 01byElianna©
Entrari looked over the sleeping city grimly. It was cold in the fall pre-dawn, and he could see his breath as he exhaled. The smoke from the chimneys below rose in straight, white streams up to the heavens, and there was a crackling of anticipation electrifying the air. It would be a long time before the city was peaceful like this again. As he stared into the dark morning, it was hard to believe that this place was ruled by a madman; a madman who had defied the Empire.
In the distance he heard a cock crow mournfully, and with the sound, a shiver ran down his spine. It wasn't a chill, but rather an implacable feeling of foreboding in his soul. Something was going to happen today, he could feel it.
"The men are in position, your highness," said his general softly startling him out of his reverie.
"Thank you, Tesca," he replied. He gazed over the city once again and clenched his jaw in resolve.
Curse Druid feelings, he thought angrily to himself. I'll do what must be done.
He turned and looked at the men who followed him. They were in perfect ranks; ordered, disciplined and ready to crush the tiny kingdom below.
He raised his sword into the air and sliced down. Suddenly a myriad of horns blasted the city into wakefulness.
A strange sound echoed in her dreams. It sounded like a blaring of horns like for a hunt. It was early fall and a fine time for it. She wished she was riding with them.
Someone shook her gently.
She moaned and rolled away. She hated mornings.
"Your highness!" cried Merel.
Elenna rolled over and stubbornly ignored her serving maiden. It wasn't even light yet.
"Princess!" the woman cried in desperation. "Wake up! We're under attack!"
Elenna sat up suddenly, her eyes wide her heart pounding.
Already? They're here already? she thought in amazement. Impossible.
In bare feet she dashed across the stone floor and pulled aside the drapes that covered the doors leading to her balcony. She opened them and stepped onto the freezing stones. For a moment she could only stand and stare in horror. Below was a vast army, their deep imperial blue cloaks seemed black in the pale dawn. There were more of them than she ever could have imagined in her darkest dreams, and they were rushing down upon the city like a terrible black plague.
I'm not ready. Dear gods! I'm not ready! She felt tears fill her eyes but she angrily blinked them away.
"Merel," she said, trying very hard to sound braver than she felt. "I need your help," she said. "I need you to do something for me without question."
"I have always done so, princess," her maid replied.
She wanted to scream. How could people still want to serve her? The king had doomed them all!
"Do you remember the words I taught you in the Old Language?" she asked.
"Say them to me."
"Arain ne hedon dzi," the servant said slowly struggling with the strange-sounding words.
"Good," the princess said. "Find Grindeg," she said, "and say these words to him. He knows what they mean." The princess turned to the trembling servant. "Can you do that?"
The lady nodded.
"When you've told him, don't come back here," she said. "Find your children and gather them close. Grindeg will take care of all of you."
"Yes, princess," the serving maiden replied bowing. Then she stopped and turned around enfolding the young woman in a tight embrace. "You have done so much Elenna," she said her voice rough with tears. "I know you would make your mother proud, especially today."
For a moment, the princess stiffened, but then she melted into the woman who had been her maid and companion since she'd been a little girl. Today when she felt so tiny and overwhelmed by her duty, she would cling to every scrap of affection.
"Goodbye Merel," she whispered.
"Be at peace," said Merel gently releasing her. She opened the door and then turned back once more. "May our ancestors be with you."
The princess watched the doors close behind her and shuddered with their click of finality. It signified the one of the last lifelines of love departing from her life. In a world that had been crumbling around her for so long, she was surprised how much it still hurt. She took a deep breath, pushing her grief back down and went to her wardrobe to select a gown. With deliberate care, she picked black; the color of death, and then proceeded to struggle into her corsets and put on her petticoats. The princess of Hartstak had not dressed herself for as long as she could remember. Under normal circumstances, such things were beneath her.
Elenna looked at her reflection seriously. A pale, wan-looking woman she barely recognized stared back at her, her gray eyes sunken with shadow and worry. Taking one more deep breath she removed her Druid talisman; the necklace that denoted her as a member of the ancient faith. To wear the necklace today, knowing what she must do would make her faith a mockery. She'd worn it every day of her life since she'd been given it on her twelfth birthday. She put it on her dressing table and touched it gingerly with reverence. Then she sighed and rose.
It was time.
She left her chambers and made her way through the halls of the ancient castle. Servants were running around shouting hysterically, and the guards were leaving their posts in order to join with the troops who fought valiantly but futilely to defend the doomed city. It was cacophony; absolute chaos, but she walked with stately calm.
She continued on to the small chapel in the castle. Those who still practiced the Old Ways frequently went there for peace, but it was empty. People were more worried about saving their loved ones and their things than praying to the Ancestors. Elenna fell to her knees and bowed her head in prayer. She knew she would need their strength before the sun had set.
"Something strange is happening in the city, your highness," reported a soldier.
"What do you mean?" asked the prince sharply.
This was supposed to be an easy conquest, but the nagging feeling of foreboding had been hanging over his head all morning. He turned to look at a brown-haired man dressed in the livery of his personal guard. Wisely, the guard kept his face passive.
Damn! Entrari swore inwardly.
"There are reports that many of the homes have a strange branch upon the doorway with red string wrapped around it intricately," the soldier said. "The men are afraid it's some kind of witchcraft and they're hesitant to touch those homes."
Entrari nodded thoughtfully. Something about the description sounded familiar. "Bring me one of the branches," he commanded. "Tell the men not to touch any of the houses until I have seen one."
"Yes, your highness," he said bowing.
"It's nothing, Gosta," said the prince to his guard almost defensively.
"Yes, your highness," he replied simply.
Entrari was sure he could detect a hint of smugness in Gosta's voice but he decided to bite his tongue. He'd be damned if he'd let some foolish Druid superstitions control his destiny.
"Will you say a prayer for me, princess?"
A blonde, burly man with a braided beard and a helmet and sword stood in the doorway. Though he seemed gruff and intimidating, he looked tenderly at the kneeling princess as she bowed her head in the ancient prayers.
"Grindeg," Elenna said in relief as she looked up. "Did you spread the word?"
"Of course," he said.
"How many will remember?" she wondered aloud as she rose.
"Hopefully more than we suspect," Grindeg said. "Will the opposing force recognize them, though, I wonder."
"The ambassador told me that the Empress of Haladon was raised a Druid. The generals of this army should recognize the ancient sign." She sighed ruefully. "I'm placing all my hopes upon it."
He touched her arm gently. "You've done well, Elenna," he said.
"Will it be good enough, I wonder," she mused.
"Only time will tell," he said. "The words Merel spoke," he said quietly. "Are you sure?"
"We're escaping through the catacombs," she said nodding. "I had hoped the evacuation had already begun."
"It has, but..." he paused, "the way is unpleasant."
"I know," she replied, "but it's the only way I can think of on such short notice. At least it will evacuate the people in the palace without being seen. No one knows about the path anymore."
"No," he agreed. "It has been lost to legend as have so many of the ancient Druid ways." He smiled grimly. "I agree with you, princess. I just don't have to like it, do I?"
She patted his shoulder fondly. "That you don't, my friend."
"Who will close the door and seal it again?" he asked her.
"Leave that to me," she said decisively. "Keep the evacuation small for now; women and children first and only a few at a time. If my father finds out what is going on, he'll kill us all."
"As you wish," he said turning to leave.
"This is what is on the doors, your highness," said a soldier holding the small branch with the red wrapping.
"Damn it!" Entrari swore irritably. He turned to glare at his guard. He hated when Gosta was right about stuff like this. He hated when faith trumped magic. The Druid knight inclined his head rather mockingly, which annoyed the prince even more, but he restrained himself. "Have we invaded any of those houses?" he asked the soldier.
"None that I know of," said the soldier.
"If there's a house with that sign on it, tell the men to stay away," the prince commanded. "Don't even go near them!" He swore and began to pace. "We need to get the word out to the officers."
"Are they dangerous?" asked the soldier, his eyes wide.
"No, it means that the family is Druid. They are loyal to the ancient ways. We can't touch them. We can't violate the Druid treaty."
"Your highness," said the soldier his eyes widening in protest. "There are hundreds of doors with this sign."
"Damn it!" Entrari swore with even more vehemence. This was supposed to be an easy conquest. These people were supposed to be backwards and barbaric. He looked at the cowering soldier bearing the ancient Druid symbol for peace. "Touch none of them," he commanded.
The soldier bowed. "Yes, your highness!"
Entrari paced for a moment in silence, trying not to lose his temper, but he was acutely aware of his bodyguards' eyes following him.
"Don't even say it, Gosta," he snarled at one.
"I think his highness is just a little peeved that you were right," said another guard with brown hair and gray eyes.
"His highness can manage to ignore his feelings effectively without me reminding him of it," Gosta said. Suddenly he grinned. "I did tell you so."
Elenna sat in the small chapel for hours, longing for prayer to calm her nerves, but nothing worked. It was so hard to stand aside and let Grindeg lead the evacuation, but she knew that supervising herself would give it all away. Her father in his madness would probably kill his own people if he knew they were fleeing.
It was late afternoon when she finally emerged from the chapel. Her face was drawn with worry, but she was prepared. She knew her duty, even if those who loved her didn't understand. Outside the walls she could hear the crash of battering rams as they attempted to breach the castle walls. The battle was almost upon her.
As she roamed the halls, they seemed strangely empty. She smiled a little to herself. Her plan was working. The only people she could see were the royal guard loyal to the king and... Grindeg?
Her friend's face was dirty, his beard and hair matted with sweat. His bright blue eyes were filled with worry.
"Princess!" he cried both desperately and with relief. "You must come with me! They've breached the gates!"
Before she could protest, he grabbed her arm and dragged her along the hallway down towards the dungeons and the secret entrance to the catacombs. As they reached the bottom of the castle she felt the overwhelming sense of...cold. It literally oozed out of the open doors to the ancient burial ground and all about her people were trembling with fear, children were screaming, and women were sobbing. The princess looked at the gaping mouth of the cave lined with bones and felt her resolve waver. What had she asked of them?
"Make way!" Grindeg cried in a loud voice pushing past the balking lords and ladies who stared into the tunnel with terror.
"No, Grindeg," she said gaining her courage once again. She pulled away from him and closed her eyes reaching deep within herself.
"Piedha..." she whispered quietly. Strangely, her words echoed in the minds of all those present and down into the dark abyss of the catacombs.
The chill in the air seemed to lessen and the terror in the eyes of her people seemed to diminish.
"Hurry!" she cried to Grindeg. "We've got to get them out of here!" She pushed people towards the tunnel again whispering words of encouragement as they fled into the darkness, torches in hand.
"Princess you must come now!" cried Grindeg from inside the doorway to the tunnel. "The enemy is upon you."
"I'm not going with you, Grindeg," she said gently.
"What do you mean?" he cried. "Let's go now!"
"I have to shut the doors."
"No one is strong enough to shut these doors alone, princess. We have to leave them open!"
"I can't do that. The enemy might find this place and be able to track you down. You have women and children with you. They're defenseless."
"You're as mad as your father!" cried Grindeg furiously. He grabbed her arm roughly and tried to force her inside the tunnel.
"No Grindeg," she said, her voice horribly calm. "Go. Lead these people out of the catacombs. They'll need your courage to get through. I'll shut the door."
"If the king finds out you can do sorcery, he'll kill you," Grindeg said nearly in tears as he understood at last what she was going to do.
"I think that has been my fate, either by my father's hand or another's," she replied shaking a little. "I have to seal these doors from this side or its secret won't stay hidden. I am the only one that can do it Grindeg. You know I'm right."
Grindeg looked at her desperately, "Princess, your people can't survive without you. You can't abandon them!"
"I'm not," she replied. "I'm staying true to my word that I would protect them, even if it costs me my life." For a moment, she just wanted to fly into his embrace as she'd done since she was a little girl. She desperately wanted to feel safe in his strong arms, to know that her Grindeg would protect her.
"Go before they discover us!"
"Elenna..." he began.
She looked up at him, her eyes filling with tears. Impulsively she flung herself into his arms and he held her close. For a moment, she just reveled in it; love, affection. Did people know how priceless it truly was?
"Gods, all the duties that pull at me today!" she cried brokenly into his chest. "Watch over my people, Grindeg. Promise me."
"You have my word, princess," he replied. He released her and bowed deeply. Then he turned to follow the others through the catacombs.
Elenna looked at the massive stone doors that stood ajar and watched as Grindeg's torch was swallowed by the gaping blackness. Then she focused her mind upon the strange words in the language of sorcery. She rarely used her powers of sorcery. Among her people it had been forbidden, but today all laws were useless, today her people were no more. She muttered the incantation slowly and precisely focusing her energy upon the doors. The thick stone slabs moved inward and with a rumbling protest, they shuddered closed.
The princess fell to her knees gasping. Using magic was difficult and exhausting for her; and she didn't dare practice it enough to build her endurance. She closed her eyes for several moments and forced herself to remain conscious. Slowly the strange sickness passed and once again she forced herself to rise. She stumbled over to the doors and touched them whispering a prayer in the Old Tongue. The seams to the gradually faded into nothingness and the princess stood before a blank wall once again. Wearily she turned away and with faltering steps, made her way out of the dungeons. Though dizzy and fatigued, she did not wish to be found anywhere near the escape route of her people.
She struggled through the halls, her mind and body numb from exhaustion. The castle guardsmen ran about shouting wildly attempting to meet the invading forces. They knew death was eminent but guardsmen never abandoned the castle while the king remained.
Elenna hated her father. His madness had doomed all these people to their deaths. Had he even listened to the ambassador, he would have recognized the potential of the treaty from Haladon. Her father could have maintained his kingship; he could have maintained the freedom of his people. Yet his insanity ran deep. Even the people whispered of his progressive madness. The poorest peasant would jest about the raving king who ruled his kingdom absolutely; absolute power in the hands of an absolute madman.
As his daughter, Elenna struggled to maintain the laws and dignity of her people. She sidestepped the commands of her father and frequently overturned some of his more ridiculous proclamations when he went into a fit of raving. However, she was a woman and she was young. Women, even princesses, had little say in their society, and she had repeatedly been rebuked and beaten for her willfulness. She loathed her father. She detested his madness; the madness that had killed her mother; the madness that had doomed her people to death and occupation.
"Princess!" cried one of the guardsmen recognizing her as she stumbled down the hallway. "The castle has been breached! You must seek hiding!"
She shook her head. "There will be no hiding from this force," she said quietly. "You are witnessing the end of the royal family."
He looked at her in horror, but he knew the truth behind her words. "Your father is calling for you," he said. "He is crying that you have betrayed him."
She nodded. "He is mad."
He nodded, too. He understood. They all understood. They were just helpless.
She touched his arm gently. "Farewell my guard," she replied. She touched his forehead in an ancient blessing "Sallada," she said in the Old Tongue.
The guard's eyes widened and then softened. "Thank you," he said in a broken voice. "Thank you," he whispered.
Elenna continued down the Great hall, not really caring where she went, only seeking to find a place far away from the dungeons. She realized that she'd never considered what to do with herself once she'd evacuated the palace. The attack had come too soon. She hadn't worked everything out. It was just too soon.
"Princess!" another man called in a commanding voice.
"Yes, High Captain?" she replied without turning.
"Your father demands your presence," he said in his stern voice grabbing her arm almost roughly. "You will come with me."
"Very well, Keldrig," she replied. "We'll die together."
"He is completely gone," he whispered quietly.
"I understand," she replied. "It's not much of a choice anyway; to die at the hands of my own father or to die at the hands of the enemy."
"Are the people out safely?" he asked her.
She looked at him in amazement. "You knew?" she asked.
"Forgive me princess," he replied. "I have betrayed the crown."
"After today there will be no crown to betray," she replied. Then she looked at the Captain who had so rigidly opposed her. "No crown, but a kingdom still to look after."
He nodded. "Hopefully there will be something left of it after today."
She sighed. "I've given my life to assure it."
"You have given your life for an honorable cause."