I should be dead.
My name is Arabelle, and the day started like most of my days. I was still in bed when Father poked his head into my tent. “Good morning, my heart. You shouldn’t sleep the day away.”
I groaned and stretched under my covers as he waited patiently for my response. “I know, Father, but my bed is so comfortable.” I stretched under my covers and yawned loudly, peeking over the edge of my blanket at him. I know that Father spoiled me sometimes, especially since there were times I wouldn’t get up until midday.
“I’ll send Maggie in to help draw you a bath and get ready. It is going to be a beautiful day. I can feel it.” He pulled his head from the tent and I heard one of my guards call out for my maid.
Sometimes I wish that I could simply lie in bed all day, but when the caravan was on the move, I had to move with it. We travelled between clusters of villages or cities within Trimoria, so this meant we typically uprooted ourselves and moved every couple weeks. Suddenly, Maggie rushed into my tent and gave me a frown as she saw I hadn’t budged from underneath my covers.
“Lady Arabelle, you must get ready. You can’t keep your father waiting. You know that you are supposed to break your fast with the Sheikh on travel days. Also the men can’t pack your tent and everything in it until you are out of it!”
Maggie, at seventeen, is only three years older than I am, but she sometimes acted like my mother. Unfortunately, my mother died giving birth to me, so I could only imagine what that would be like.
Maggie poured steaming water into my bath from a series of lidded jugs that had been placed just inside the flap of my tent while I was sleeping. The scent of roses wafted in the air as I grudgingly climbed out of bed and got ready for my day.
I bounced comfortably on Logan, my dappled gray stallion. Father had handpicked him for my fifth birthday, and ever since then, I’d loved him. Every chance I could talk my guards into it, I took him out for a run. By the time I’d turned ten, my guardians frowned on my unfettered racing since their horses could no longer keep up with Logan and I was forced to keep my excursions under a full gallop.
I patted him on the neck and whispered, “I promise I’ll take you running soon and we’ll go as fast as you can take me.”
He nickered and bounced his head up and down with what I took as a sign of approval.
It was a beautiful morning as the birds chirped in the sky and the morning mist had just evaporated. I looked to the left and right and the sights consistently amazed me as we traveled to our next destination. The tents were packed and the hostlers had done their job efficiently as always. To anyone who observed the migration of the caravan, it would seem like an entire city was on the move. Father had once told me that we had approximately nine hundred and fifty wagons that were regularly packed to move our people and the trade goods from one location to another. I had once wondered at the mess we must leave in our wake with so many people, but I heard the laughing call of the blink dogs shadowing the caravan and remembered some of what I’d learned as a child about the enigmatic animals.
The dogs were scavengers that ate nearly anything. I remember Father telling me when I was young, “If it weren’t for the scavengers like the vulture or the blink dog, the trash and spoiled foodstuff would become a burden to us all.”
I watched a pack romping on the hills alongside the caravan and several of the pack members blinked out of existence, only to appear fifty feet from where they had been. The popping sound that was unique to their species always followed the disappearance of the dogs. The unusual sound resembled the noise made by popping corn as the random smattering of popping sounds travelled across the lands.
I heard someone clear their throat and saw that despite her age, Roselle was now riding next to me with a smile on her wrinkled face. “You can’t escape your lessons, Princess. Even when we are in transit.”
Roselle, my history teacher, was always someone I enjoyed talking with. Even though she was easily the oldest person I knew, she constantly filled our times with entertaining and educational stories. I loved learning about adventures from the past, even though I knew I would never myself be involved in such things. “What is today’s lesson?”
“I thought it might be good to talk about the First Protector, and the lessons a young princess might gain from such a man.”
“The Protector responsible for the demon wars?”
Roselle made a clicking noise with her tongue. “Bah! Dear child, you need this lesson more than I realized. We know that within your father’s domain, he rules all as Sheikh.” She pointed ahead toward the horizon. “However, who is charged with the safety and enforcement of the laws in the town of Aubgherle?”
I pondered this for a moment and excitedly blurted out, “Throll Lancaster! He is the town’s Protector. I met him once, and he is married to a woman named Gwen.”
“Very good Princess, I’m always impressed with your memory. What does it mean to be a Protector?”
“They catch thieves and organize groups of rangers to defend against any possible slaver raids.”
A deep voice boomed to my left, “Yes, my dearest, but that is only the barest essence of what a Protector is.”
I smiled warmly at my father as he rode up beside me and winked at me. He especially loved my interest in history, and took pleasure in augmenting Roselle’s lessons with his insight.
Father wiped the sweat off his shaved head as he recited a memorized passage from some tome he likely read ages ago.
“Only the best amongst us could strive to emulate the sacrifices the First Protector made to save the people of Trimoria. Zenethar Thariginian, King, and the First Protector of Trimoria, sacrificed all that he was in the final battle against the demons. With this altruistic last act, he raised the barrier which, even today, keeps us safe.”
Roselle murmured, “May his sacrifices never be forgotten.”
“My flower. The Protectors are intended to do all that you said, but they are selected as men who epitomize the virtues demonstrated by the First Protector. They are a force of good in this otherwise chaotic world that we live in. Any Protector would be willing to lay down his life in sacrifice to the well being of the people he is charged to protect.”
I pulled lightly on my reins to keep Logan from outpacing the others. “So the lesson for me is to keep in mind all that the Protectors have done, and continue to do, in service of their people? I should consider such sacrifices as part of what I should do for our people?”
Father tore a piece of flatbread that he pulled from a compartment on his saddle and handed one to me, and the other to my tutor. “Arabelle, always keep in mind that our people depend on us to lead them. As leaders, we should always be willing to do whatever is necessary for their welfare. It is our sacred obligation, and even if it feels onerous at times, we do what we must.”
“And the people love you for it, my Sheikh.” Roselle bowed her head with respect.
I brooded in silence over what Father had just said about obligations and the lessons of the First Protector. I was suddenly struck by a question that hadn’t ever occurred to me to ask. “So the dream that everyone shares of the demon’s destruction, and the man on top of the hill, that is the First Protector? It really did happen?”
Father gasped. “You thought that was a simple dream?”
I shrugged. “I suppose I never gave it much thought. What about the barrier he raised? It isn’t just a story? Where is it?”
“You cannot approach such things Princess! It is dangerous.”
I turned to Roselle and saw the look of concern on her face. “What does the barrier look like? How can I avoid it if I don’t even know what it looks like?”
Father chuckled softly. “That is a good point. Arabelle, the land of Trimoria that we know today is but a small portion of the continent our people had traveled across long ago. This was before the demon wars, over five hundred years ago. Surrounding today’s land is a large, impenetrable wall of mist. This mist has kept us safe from the demons since the days of the First Protector, five centuries ago. No person who has ever entered the mist, has returned.”
“Why doesn’t Trimoria have a king anymore?”
“The line has run out.” Roselle announced forlornly. “In my grandfather’s day, King Harold Thariginian still ruled. However all of his descendants had met an early demise, and we have since been left without a royal house.”
“Is that when the wizard Azazel came to power?”
Roselle cleared her throat and stammered. “L-let’s not discuss Azazel please.”
As I pondered what I’d been told, I pictured the vision of the First Protector casting a spell of destruction across the demon horde and I blurted out another question. “The First Protector was a wizard, right?”
Father responded in a whispered tone. “Yes. He was also a great warrior and a King.”
“If wizardry can be used for good, such as by the First Protector, why is it outlawed by Azazel?”
I turned to my father, and he suddenly looked nervous and a bit pale.
Roselle cleared her throat again. “Why don’t we move to a more pleasant topic. Let’s discuss the relationship of our people and the city dwellers of Trimoria.”
As she droned on, I silently wondered what was behind my father’s reaction.
I was allowed to go anywhere I wanted to in the caravan, but Father did have a couple of rules that I was never supposed to break. The first one was never to leave the confines of the caravan without letting him know.
The second was that I should always have one of my escorts with me wherever I went.
I broke both of those rules today.
The caravan entered the outskirts of Aubgherle, one of the larger towns in the land of Trimoria. Even though I grew up with the crowds of the marketplace, the caravan couldn’t compare to the feeling I experienced in the forest east of Aubgherle.
Since the caravan usually stayed at the larger towns for nearly a month at a time, I was very familiar with this area. I’ve lost count how many times Father had to hunt me down because I’d lost my escorts and wandered into the woods. Unlike most people in the caravan, I relished the solitude I experienced deep in this forest. Today, I snuck out while a heavy mist covered the valley the caravan had set camp in.
The silence within the woods was disturbing. I sniffed the pine-scented air as I wandered through the forest, looking for my elusive quarry. My father, along with most of my people, didn’t believe in the existence of elves.
I knew better.
Over the years, I’d spied hints of them in these woods. Catching glimpses of the mysterious elves happened regularly for me, but on rare occasions, one of the younger elves would actually stop and talk to me. Some of them couldn’t speak Trimorian, while others could. My brief conversations with the elves confirmed my suspicions. They were a lovely race of beautiful people who completely mistrusted most humans. I secretly aimed to earn that trust.
As I tiptoed through the woods looking for the familiar paths that the elves had left, a high-pitched gurgling roar shattered the silence.
My heart beat quicker as I heard the crack of a twig. A lizard-like creature with green scales, the size of a large dog, was giving me a sinister stare that sent shivers up and down my back. This ominous creature was unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard of in Trimoria. Its yellow and black eyes glared at me as it slowly opened its mouth and growled menacingly. The creature scratched the ground with its claws and unfurled a set of wings. I saw it gather itself for a leap.
I slowly backed away. Then a series of gray blurs flew past me and the creature made a coughing sound and sprouted a pair of arrows.
An elf appeared seemingly out of nowhere and chopped the monster’s head off. As the elf backed away, the twitching body rhythmically spewed streams of blood from its neck as the decapitated head spasmodically opened its jaws for the last time and its snake-like eyes closed.
The elf turned to me with an appraising look. “Are you hurt?”
I felt a burning sensation near my ribs. The creature must have spit something at me just before the elf killed it. I looked down and saw two steaming holes in the traveling clothes that I had worn and I suddenly felt nauseated. The world blurred and spun as the ground came rushing up to meet me…