Prince Rhys stepped out of the inn feeling like today was the first day of a totally new life. And in about an hour, it would be.
As he looked up at the sky, he took a big lungful of the morning air. He could never remember seeing a day so beautiful in all of his eighteen years. The sky was a brilliant blue, just like Maia's hair, and he swore he could make out her face in the clouds, just like he had seen her eyes in the stars the night before.
"Maia awaits in the castle, Prince Rhys," said a man standing nearby. Rhys took his eyes off of the sky long enough to nod to the elderly man in acknowledgment.
"Hello, Tobin," Rhys greeted. "This is a beautiful day, isn't it?"
"Yes, Rhys, very beautiful," old Tobin agreed. "Perfect wedding weather, if you ask me."
Rhys shook his head in amazement. "I just can't remember there ever being a more beautiful day. Not ever! Can you?"
Tobin rubbed a hand through the patch of gray whiskers that lined his chin. "Well, now let me see about that," he drawled slowly, glancing at the sky as he searched his memory. "Yep, I think I can remember one day that was a tad more beautiful than this -- but just a tad, mind you."
Something in the old man's tone made Rhys smile. "And what day would that be?"
"Ohh, twas a day I remember quite fondly," Tobin grinned in return. "Must have been about... forty-three years ago. Yep, forty-three exactly."
The Prince folded his arms across his chest, but his smile remained firmly in place. "Did anything special happen on that day to make you remember it so fondly, Tobin?"
"Something sure did," Tobin chuckled. "Twas my own wedding day!" Both men shared a laugh, but soon, Tobin was waving Rhys away. "Now you get off to the castle now, Prince Rhys. You have a very lovely young lady waiting for you there."
"Thank you, Tobin," Rhys called over his shoulder as he strolled off towards the castle. "Take care."
"You too," the old man called back, "and take care of that soon-to-be wife of yours, too!"
As Rhys continued on towards the castle, various townspeople -- mostly, those who had children to care for, or who, for some other reason, could not attend the actual wedding ceremony -- called out their well-wishes to him. "Maia will be a fine queen for you! And for all of Landen, too!" "It's about time you got married, Prince Rhys!"
Suddenly, a small boy appeared right in the middle of his path. With his arms folded behind his back and a wide grin on his face, Rhys could not help but stop and kneel down before him. "Hello, Prince Rhys," said the boy. "Congratulations!"
"Thanks, kid," Rhys said, running a hand through his mop of brown hair. "You go back to playing now, okay?"
"Okay," the boy called before quickly running off. Apparently, he didn't need much convincing from Rhys.
As Rhys entered Castle Landen, he could hear, off in the distance, trumpets blaring in the castle's great hall. Almost as loud as the trumpets was the sound of the wedding guests. Rhys knew they were not being loud, but merely talking amongst themselves, which made their volume indicative of the size of the crowd awaiting him in the great hall.
But, truth be told, Rhys didn't care if there were two present or two-hundred. All he cared about was the woman waiting for him in his room.
He walked with long strides, the sound of his boots echoing through the vastness of the castle's enormous entry chamber. As he entered, a group of guards noticed his arrival, and they quickly swarmed around him to offer their own congratulations.
"Please escort your bride to the throne room."
"You're one lucky Prince!"
"Hurry! Don't be late for your own wedding!"
"Prince Rhys, Maia is waiting in your room."
And that is where he soon arrived. He knocked on the wood, just as he had the night before. Only this time, he really would be able to throw the door open, taker her into his arms, and never, ever let go.
"Hello? I heard there was a great-looking blue-haired woman in here."
A moment later, the door swung open, and there stood Maia. At the sight of her, Rhys's smile momentarily fell off his face, only to be replaced by a look of absolute amazement. Maia's wedding gown was a very light blue -- almost white. The gown reached the floor, where it spread out around her ankles. At her waist was a brilliant sash of gold, a single bracelet adorned her right wrist, and a red tiara was planted in the middle of her hair, which fell down onto bare shoulders.
Rhys had never seen her look so gorgeous in the entire two months he had known her.
"Oh," the Prince said quietly. "I see my information was wrong. There's only the most beautiful woman I've ever seen in my life in here." Slowly, the smile returned to Rhys's face. He looked into Maia's brown eyes and found she was staring back into his. "I want to kiss you right now, you know."
"I know," Maia smiled back. "But we'll have to wait just a few more minutes."
If he couldn't kiss her, he could at least place his hands on her arms and continue to stare into her eyes. "You know, it's not too late to back out of this, if you want to."
"You'd have to drag me away from here," Maia responded softly. "I am honored that you want to marry me, Rhys. I only wish..."
As she drifted off, she turned her head, averting her eyes to the floor. Rhys slowly brought his hand to her chin and softly moved her face back to face his. "What is it, Maia?"
"I only wish I had a family here, too," she admitted. "I love your parents, Rhys, and everyone here has been nothing but nice to me, but I so wish I could bring you home to a family of my own." A smile appeared on her face then. "I wish I had girlfriends I could show you off to."
At that, they both laughed. Rhys pulled her into his arms and held her tightly. They stood like that for a long moment, and when the embrace was over, Rhys looked at Maia and saw the hug had rejuvenated her optimism. "But, perhaps someday we will find out who I am and where I came from."
"Hey!" Rhys softly chided her, rubbing a finger across her cheek. "What's this 'perhaps' stuff? We will find out where you came from, Maia. I promise." He flashed her another smile before closing his eyes and moving his face closer to hers...
"Uh uh uh," she rebuked, pushing his face away. "We have to wait a few minutes, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember." Prince Rhys of Landen then offered his bride-to-be his arm, which she accepted, but before they began walking towards the castle's great hall for the ceremony, Maia whispered into his ear.
"But don't think I wasn't tempted."
"Do you think they could spare me the agony," Princess Lena of Satera grumbled softly, "and just get on with the ceremony?"
"Lena..." reprimanded her mother.
"I know, I know. Sorry." Lena slunk down in her chair and resigned herself to listening to another ten minutes of trumpet music. Last night, just before she fell asleep, she'd thought to herself that it wouldn't be all that bad -- that she'd make it through the ceremony, go back to her room, probably cry a little, and that would be the end of her crush on Prince Rhys.
That was before she and her mother and father were seated. Granted, they were in the third row, but Lena still felt like she was sitting in the laps of King Colin and Queen Nicola of Landen. As she scanned the crowd around her, one hand on the side of her face in a half-hearted attempt to hide, she couldn't help but notice that no one around her had a mouth -- they all had smiles, really big ones that showed lots of teeth and seemed like they shined brighter than the Moon Stone she wore on her be lt.
Ba badda bump-bum-bum, Ba badda bump-bum-bum, Ba badda bump-bum-bum-buuuuuuum!
As the trumpet players changed their quiet, casual drawl to a loud, booming fanfare, everyone in the great hall rose to their feet and turned their attention to the rear of the room. The large wooden doors which led into the hall had been closed, and they remained that way pending the finish of the musicians' announcement that the couple of the hour, Prince Rhys and Princess Maia, had arrived.
Lena was forced the stand on her tiptoes and move side-to-side continuously in order to fight the crowd and see the royal couple's arrival. Not that there was much to see yet. First, the doors would be opened,
then all of the ladies, and some of the men, would ooh and ahh at the beauty of the bride and bridegroom,
"Oh, how beautiful!"
"Doesn't our prince look so handsome?"
"Maia -- she's gorgeous!"
and finally, the band would strike up the number which officially gave Rhys and Maia permission to walk down the aisle. "I can't see, mother," Princess Lena complained to Queen Elin.
"Just a moment, dear," Elin responded. "They should be in your view right about... now."
She was right. Lena covered her gasping mouth as she laid her eyes on Prince Rhys in his wedding outfit. Out of all the pictures she'd seen, and out of all the times she'd seen him at a distance, or at royal social gatherings, she'd never seen the prince look so...
"Gorgeous," Lena whispered softly.
She couldn't figure out what it was. She'd seen him dressed formally before, at the above mentioned royal social gatherings. He'd received a bit of a haircut, but that didn't seem like it, either.
And then it hit her. It was his eyes.
His eyes, of course, were basically the same as they'd always been: big and brown. But it wasn't so much his eyes themselves as it was the expression Lena could see within them, especially when Rhys looked in the direction of Maia.
Within Rhys's eyes, Lena saw the most pure, true love she'd ever seen in her life. You didn't have to look at Rhys's face-wide smile to tell he was happy with Maia. One look into his eyes was all it took. They almost emitted a soft glow, it seemed to Lena, and the glow itself said but one thing: I love this woman standing next to me more than life itself. I will do anything and everything I can for her. Thus, I want to enjoy all my days from now until forever with her company.
The love Lena saw in Rhys's eyes made her heart melt almost instantly. What she wouldn't give to see it and know that the love was being directed towards her. Alas, Lena knew that part of what made the love she saw in Rhys's eyes so appealing was that it was so confident. In that moment, Lena knew she would never have a chance with Rhys, but in a way... she almost -- almost -- didn't care anymore, because Rhys was happy. Her own eyes followed Rhys and Maia the rest of the way to the front of the grand hall. As they got there, Lena sat back down, along with the others in the hall, and, as hard as it was, she finally gave Rhys's marriage her silent blessing.
Rhys turned his head to the left and sent a smile to Maia. She caught the look and returned it. Here it is, he thought with excitement. In a moment, she's going to be mine. Together forever. The prince then turned his attention towards his father, King Colin, who stood before his throne, so that his father could get on with the marriage and let forever begin.
"My greetings, gathered friends, and welcome to Castle Landen!" the King addressed the wedding attendees. "My wife Nicola and I welcome you to our home, on this very glorious occasion of the wedding of my only son and heir, Prince Rhys, to a beautiful young woman whom Orakio brought into our lives two short months ago, the soon-to-be princess Maia."
The crowd applauded loudly for the couple, who turned to face them and bow. After a few moments, the booming voice and upraised hand of King Colin slowly silenced the guests, and Rhys and Maia turned back towards the throne.
"You'll forgive me, honored guests, but I have waited so long for my son to find a bride, that I'd like to start the ceremony before he changes his mind!" Laughter rolled through the great hall, but Rhys and Maia did not participate. Their eyes met once again, and Rhys tossed her a look that said it all: Not a chance.
"And so with no further distractions," King Colin continued, the pride in his quiet voice as loud as a thunderstorm, "I now ask my son to turn and face Maia, so that he may give his bride his vow of marriage."
Rhys's heart pounded at his chest like a prisoner attempting a jailbreak. His knees felt so weak he thought he was going to faint, but somehow, he found the strength to look upon and address Maia.
"I met you two months ago, my beloved bride, and I fell in love with you the moment I saw you," Rhys began. "That love has grown every day since, and I know it will continue to grow every minute of my future. I want you, Maia, to be my partner in life, as I will be your partner in everything, including the search for your identity."
Many of the guests wiped tears from their eyes, as did Maia. In fact, since every eye in the great hall was focused on Maia, no one saw the circling creature far above. "You have taught me what love is, and I can no longer imagine life without you. It is for these reasons and so many more that I, Rhys, do take thee, Maia--"
A chorus of screams was enough to halt Rhys's words. His eyes panned over the guests in confusion, trying to learn what was wrong, when he noticed the guests were pointing towards the front of the room. Specifically, they were pointing at... Maia.
He turned his eyes in time to see his worst nightmare come to life. A large, monstrous form -- dark and green, with claws at the end of its limbs and a pair of wide-spread, flapping wings on its back -- was sweeping down through the air, entering the great hall through the open roof... and heading straight for Maia.
As he instinctively reached for his sword (which was not present), Rhys saw the beast's dreadful lips were pulled back, revealing a mouthful of teeth like razors. Above the mouth, Rhys looked into the dragon's solid black eyes, and saw that they were squarely focused on their target.
"Maia!" Rhys yelled. She still wasn't sure what was going on, as the dragon was approaching her from behind. It didn't make a difference, really; by the time she realized there was an intruder, the dragon had grasped her shoulders with its claws, drawing faint trickles of blood. Maia screamed.
As he bolted across the great hall towards the dragon, which had rested its claws on the ground and brought its wings to its side, Rhys saw it was looking over the crowd, its lips now pulled back in a lopsided grin of evil satisfaction. "Filthy Orakians!" the dragon addressed in a dry, raspy voice. "Maia will not be yours!"
Maia continued to scream. Rhys, who was know a few steps away from the dragon, pulled his fist back, preparing a punch. Under the threat of the assault, the dragon noticed Rhys for the first time, fixing the black spheres in its eye sockets on the prince. In the moment before he threw the punch, Rhys heard the dragon make a noise -- it sounded almost like "Hmmpf" -- and then it simply extended its wings, slapping Prince Rhys to the ground like an annoying insect.
"Rhys!" Maia yelled in terror. "Rhys, help me!" As the prince climbed to his feet, he saw that several of the armed soldiers in the great hall were trying to charge the dragon, but they were fighting against the panicking, retreating guests to get there.
However, seeing that the cavalry was being organized, the dragon flashed Rhys one last evil grin before wrapping its wings around Maia, bowing its head, and closing its eyes. Rhys heard a grumbling from the dragon's torso, which must have meant it was speaking under its breath, and a moment later, it had simply disappeared, along with his beloved.
"Maia!" Rhys screamed into the sky, and then he simply froze in place, staring at the place his bride had stood just a moment before. He felt like someone had reached into his heart, ripped it out, and threw it at his feet. Soldiers ran frantically around him, desperately trying to find the vanished Maia. King Colin, pacing before his throne, issued orders to the guests to remain calm and seated, but they mostly ignored the cries of the king and ran, first from the great hall and then from the castle itself.
Seeing that the guests were not going to listen, King Colin approached his son and reached to put a hand on his shoulder. Just as he did, Rhys took a step away, yelling with raised fists at the section of floor the dragon had disappeared from.
"No! Return her, you foul dragon-spawn of Laya!"
"Rhys, calm down."
"Bring her back here!"
"Rhys -- Son -- please..."
Rhys turned on his heels to face his father. He was breathing hard, and his eyes were almost bulging from their sockets in anger. "Rhys, calm down, please," King Colin pleaded with his son. "We'll find her, but--"
"Not we," Rhys called, turning his back to his father and taking a step towards the great hall's exit. "I. I'll find her."
"I'll find Maia if I have to search forever!"
King Colin took three quick steps to catch up with his son. "You may have to search all of Landen, Rhys."
"Fine," Rhys called flatly over his shoulder. "I'll go search for Maia, and I'll take the army to destroy Laya's clan when I find her."
"Don't be a fool!" Colin scoffed, spinning Rhys around to face him. "No one has seen a Layan for over 1,000 years, not since the time of Orakio. And you want to take the army to destroy them? Starting a war is not a rational thing to do, not even for Maia."
"I'm not starting a war, father," Rhys said with gritted teeth. "They started it when they sent that damn beast to kidnap her!"
Rhys stared into his father's eyes for a long moment. They had walked away from the throne, and now they stood in the aisle near the third row of seats. About two-thirds of the guests had fled the great hall, and what ones remained stood near their seats in shock. Rhys did not notice much of this, however, as he tried to decide what his father was thinking.
"So I won't be able to persuade you not to go after her alone?" Colin finally asked quietly.
"No, father," Rhys said, "you won't."
"Well in that case..." the King started. He motioned towards two soldiers, and as they approached near, he issued his orders. "Rhys, you leave me no choice but to make you cool off in the dungeon for a while. Take him to cell five!"
Rhys's face fell into shock as the soldiers took his arms and started to lead him away. The prince kicked and struggled all the way. "You can't stop me from going after her, father!" he defiantly yelled to the king. "I'll find her again, and I'll bring her back! I swear it!" With that, he looked to his father for a reaction.
Again, the prince received a shock. While his father stared at him from a neutral face, his body language showing his disapproval, Rhys saw him very clearly wink his eye. Puzzled, Rhys stopped struggling against the guards, and walked with them as they took him away to the dungeon.
By this time, Queen Nicola came to his side. "Why have you sent him to the dungeon, Colin?" she asked quietly.
"Just to... let him cool down," the king responded before turning to face two of the guests from the nearby third row, King Pitir and Queen Elin of Satera.
"This is a travesty, King," said Pitir at Colin's side, as the kings took a few steps away from their wives. "Please accept not only my sympathies, but my full support. Satera's army will be at your discretion to aid in the search for Maia, if you so wish it."
King Colin nodded, but kept his eyes focused in the direction in which Rhys was taken away. "A very generous offer, my friend, and I thank you. But this is something my son wants to do on his own, and so, at least for now... I'm inclined to let him."
Around this time, behind the kings of Landen and Satera, Queen Elin turned to Queen Nicola and said, "Have you seen my daughter Lena?"
The soldiers who held Rhys, in order to make sure he did not escape, turned to look at one another behind Rhys's head as they brought him down into the dungeon. They did not speak aloud, but instead mouthed words to each other.
"Are you sure," the first soldier lipped, "the king said cell five?" The soldier's partner nodded, and then turned to face forward once again.
The progression of soldiers and their prisoner turned a corner and marched a little ways down the corridor before coming to a side room, the gate of which currently was open. "In you go, Prince Rhys," the second soldier motioned.
"Guys, come on," Rhys said, turning to face his "captors" for the first time. "I'm cooled down now, okay? You don't have to do this."
"I'm sorry, Prince," the first soldier sympathized. "I know we're to accept orders from you, but your father has commanded otherwise. I'm sorry."
With a huff, Rhys took two steps into the cell. He turned around and faced the soldiers as they lowered the gate and used their key in the lock. Then, once they were safely away from the door, he took three steps backward before charging at it. The prince rammed it with his shoulder, then took a step back and tried again.
"Hey, hey, take it easy, prince!" the first soldier called. "Calm down. You know you won't be in there long!"
Rhys's outburst turned vocal. "He can't stop me from searching for Maia!"
"He can for now," the second soldier flatly refuted. With that, they started to walk away.
"Damn!" they heard behind them, quickly followed by the sound of a boot clanging against the gate's metal.
"Are you sure...?" the first guard whispered to his partner as they approached the stairs leading back into the castle.
"I'm sure," came the reply. "The king said cell five."
"Well then," the first guard smiled. "Rhys won't be in there long at all."
They ascended the stairs, and closed the door to the dungeon behind them. Once they were gone, a shadow stirred behind the stairs, and Princess Lena of Satera came out of hiding and began briskly walking in the direction the soldiers had taken Rhys.
Rhys paced the small, dark cell back and forth. After his initial anger at being locked up subsided, he started to again wonder why his father had winked at him upstairs in the great hall.
Everything about him suggested he was furious with Rhys for wanting to go off and find Maia alone. His tone of voice, body language... except the wink. What was the wink for? was the question which ran over and over through Rhys's mind.
Was his father taking pleasure in locking his only son in his castle's dungeon, and was the wink a sort of smirk? No, Rhys didn't think so. Was it a twitch? Rhys had never seen it before, and if it was just developing, it was a heck of a time for it to st--
As he paced, Rhys noticed something out of the corner of his eye. Turning his full attention to the object, and taking a step closer, Rhys discovered, buried in the shadows at the rear of the cell, a small storage chest pushed up against the wall. Confused, he searched the rest of the cell, and found two more.
They must be locked... Rhys theorized. Father wouldn't lock me in here, only to let me find--
The first chest opened with ease, and within, Rhys found a simple knife, its blade sharp, shiny, and new. The prince tested it out by slashing it through the air a few times. He was a swordsman, but until he could get his hands on one of his weapons of choice, it would do. Rhys reached back into the chest, pulled out the knife's sheath, and attached it to his belt.
As he stepped towards the second chest, Rhys figured out what his father's wink had meant. His mother had been right behind his father upstairs in the great hall, and there was no way she would ever approve of Rhys going off in search of Maia alone... but his father would. "Thanks, dad," the prince whispered to himself, and then he opened the second chest.
Inside was a small hand-held electronic device. Electronics were a rarity in this day and age, 1,000 years after the time of Orakio, but they were not all together unheard of. Rhys, therefore, had an idea of what the device was. All it contained was a small screen and a switch, which Rhys correctly assumed was the power. Flipping the device on, Rhys saw the screen light up, but it produced nothing but static. Perhaps its broken, Rhys thought, but things that are broken can be fixed, and so he tucked the device into his belt.
Finally, Rhys approached the third chest. He smiled and almost broke out laughing when he realized the absurdity of the situation: he was locked in a cell within his castle's dark, damp dungeon, yet he was receiving gifts from his father as if it were his birth celebration. Ironic, yes, but Rhys wasn't complaining, especially when he opened the third chest and discovered a bag within filled with meseta. The prince nodded with approval at the currency; this would mean he would not have to return to the castle for his sword; he could instead sneak out the back way and purchase one in town.
"Psst!" someone suddenly called from the direction of the cell gate. Spinning on his heels, Rhys looked in that direction and saw a girl about his age. She had brown hair, and she was dressed in green with a white cloak thrown over her shoulders. He could not see her face well in the dim light, but she did not look familiar.
"Who's there?" Rhys called, stepping cautiously towards the gate.
The girl answered his question with a question of her own. "Can you slide that knife on your belt through the bars of the gate?"
"Well, sure..." Rhys said, doing as he was asked. "Who are you?"
"I'm Lena," she smiled at him. Then, before he could stop her, she was bringing the knife back, preparing to slash it forward across the gate's lock. "I'll help you escape."
He was too late. Lena brought the blade of the knife across the lock and it shattered, falling in pieces to the stone of the dungeon floor. "What?" Lena asked in response to Rhys's exclamation. "Wait what?"
"Never mind," Rhys said, shaking his head and accepting the knife back from her. "Thank you, Lena. I'm Rhys."
For some reason, he felt her smile was just a little too big as they shook hands. "It's very nice to meet you, Rhys," she told him. "I'm terribly sorry about Maia, and I'm sorry your father locked you down here, but now that you're free, you can go after her. Follow me."
She led him down the corridor to the right, towards... "Are you taking me towards the secret exit?"
Lena looked upon him with surprise. "You know of it?"
"Yes, this is my home," Rhys nodded, trying really hard not let his tone get sarcastic, considering he was stating the obvious. "I used to play down here all the time as a child. My question is, how do you know about it?"
"Oh, yes!" Lena exclaimed, her face blushing a bright red. "I am the princess of Satera, and I, too, used to play in my castle's dungeon as a child. This dungeon has a very similar layout to Castle Satera's, and so I just assumed..."
"I see," Rhys nodded. "From the way you chopped the lock off of the gate, it looks like you're pretty good with a knife."
At the compliment, Lena again blushed. "My father has trained me a little," she shrugged. "I'm not a very good fighter."
"Well, you'll be a better fighter when you're armed. Here, take this." He removed the knife and its sheath from his belt and handed them to Lena.
As they had reached the turn towards the secret exit into the city, Lena stopped, looking at the knife with disbelief. "Rhys, thank you, but no," she declined, handing the knife back. "You'll need this if you're going off alone."
Rhys shook his head and declined to take back the weapon. "I'm a swordsman," he told Lena, "and I have the meseta to purchase one of those soon enough. Besides, maybe Maia was just the first. That hideous creature may return to take other Orakian princesses, and if that's true, I don't want you to be caught unarmed."
Lena pulled the knife back towards her and held it against herself. Rhys had no way of knowing it, but her heart was melting at his generosity. "Thank you, Rhys," she finally managed to say. "That's very thoughtful of you."
The prince shrugged off the compliment. "I'm only trying to protect my people. Anyway, Lena, it seems as if this is where we part. Thank you again for rescuing me."
Lena wanted to tell him she'd go with him. She wanted to beg him not to go alone. It was dangerous out there, especially with the Layans apparently on the offensive again after a millennium of peace. However, she could not find the courage to do so, and even if she did, she could tell this was something Rhys wanted to do alone.
So instead, all she said was, "You're welcome. Don't forget to buy a sword. Arm yourself well and go find Maia!"
Rhys smiled and took backwards steps towards the secret exit. "Perhaps when I do, and when we are married, you would welcome the heirs to the throne of Landen into your kingdom, princess of Satera?"
Lena flashed him a big smile. "You bet!" she responded. Rhys nodded and then disappeared into the dungeon's shadows. She looked into the darkness, listening for any sound of him. Soon, she heard the squeal of the secret door being opened, and then closed, and then, very faintly, because she knew what to listen for, she heard Rhys's boots on the steps leading up into Landen.
Very slowly, Lena proceeded back towards the main stairway back up into Castle Landen. She finally, at long last, meets her lifelong crush, Rhys, Prince of Landen, only to see him off on a dangerous quest from which he may never return. Lena sighed. What was a girl to do?
Dark Falz! That's the name. The god of destruction that revives in the millennial cycle.
|Please send all comments and feedback to mike at ripplinger dot us|