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“My queen, what are you doing here? And without guards?” I scolded as I quickly ushered her into the room and closed the door tightly.

The young Elven Queen, Merran Cadieux, wore an impish grin as she always did when I fretted about her safety. There had been no attempts upon her life since the defeat of her uncle, Cragon Cadieux, and I planned to keep it that way. She was used to my overzealous efforts to keep her safe, and I had grown used to her regal smile and effortless dismissal of my brash tone of voice. No one else in Mistasia would be allowed to act this way in front of her, but I had been her guardian since she was an infant and that gave me some liberties.

The queen bowed slightly, once I had calmed down enough to address her properly. I bowed back respectfully. Queen Merran had arrived at a very peculiar time and with an ever-increasing smile.

She must have something important to tell me, I believed. It had to be important for her to travel the castle alone…and at night. She had been wary of nightfall since an early age.

“I gave strict orders for the guards to remain with you at all times, my Queen.” I felt a sudden swell of anger and dishonor for allowing her to walk unprotected through the castle.

“Yes, Grace, I understand, but needed to dismiss them after two attempted to join me in the royal bathroom.”

I felt myself staring at the queen. What exactly was she getting at?

“You do realize I would enjoy some privacy?” the queen smiled.

Her smile made me irritated. She could smile at almost any situation. How the heck was someone who had lost her parents so happy all the time?

“But they are just protecting you, my Queen.”

“From what exactly…robbers in the potty?” Her voice sounded less friendly, more disappointed.

“But, I…” I began to defend myself when she put her hand up to stop me.

“That is not why I’m here, Grace.” A smile returned to her rosy face. “My parents are alive!” She squealed.

“What!” I screamed, startling her. “That’s impossible.” I whispered, barely allowing the words to escape my lips, but she heard them anyway.

I’ve received word otherwise from the Outer Realm. The queen answered using our Elven telepathy. She could barely contain her happiness. It beamed from her face. I couldn’t blame her. She could barely remember their faces. She was so young when they had been betrayed by her uncle, the very same elf who was currently imprisoned in the castle dungeon…frozen in time. The very thought of seeing her parents alive again must have become overwhelming. If she wasn’t the queen, she would probably be crying with joy, but she had spent her whole life controlling her emotions.

I opened the door, searching for eavesdroppers in the hallway before securing the door and checking the lock multiple times. I worried that anyone who heard this conversation would claim the queen had gone insane and become unfit to rule.

“That is impossible, Merran.” I empathically responded. “I tell you this as a friend.”

“Do you? I would believe a friend would be more encouraging and less heartless, Grace.”

“Heartless? Does the truth make me heartless? You would prefer I lie to you with a smile, my Queen?” I snarked. I was quite glad that my sword still lay upon my bed away from my reach at this moment. I felt naked without it. I was useless in a war of words, especially against someone so well trained as Queen Merran; therefore, I am fairly certain I would have drawn it out by this point.

The room had grown awkwardly silent. She saw me glance at my sword. Her bottom lip began to quiver. She was breaking down.

I was shocked to watch her crumbling before me.

“You, of all people, Grace, should know what this would mean to Mistasia.” She began to sob. “…And to me.”

It had been so very long since I had seen her cry, not since that horrific day when her parents disappeared. The day the castle fell to her uncle’s rule so long ago.

That was until Whizzy arrived with his friend, Phillip the Frog, and sister, Rachel. They turned the tide and freed us from Merran’s uncle. It was the reason why she was queen and Cragon was imprisoned in ice.

A smile formed on my face, as I had images of Whizzy on my mind. I had become lost in my own head.

“You find pleasure in my pain? You are not the friend I once believed you to be, Grace Tallon.” The queen managed to speak through her tears. “I came to you, not because you are my guardian but because you were my friend.”

My smile quickly disappeared, “I am your friend, Merran.”

“I need to know if it is true. If they are alive.” The young Elven Queen pleaded with me. I could see the pain in her eyes. It was so much deeper than I had ever known.

“What do you need from me?” I asked stepping to her as the guardian of a queen should.

“I have received word from the Outer Realm that my parents are being held captive in the Deadly…”

“…Spray Forest.” I finished with her.

The Deadly Spray Forest was a place that had long been avoided by the Elves of Mistasia. Trolls, Vampire bats and many other terrible creatures were held within. It was far more dangerous than Wolverine Forest and the trees were believed to be toxic…and alive.

What could have taken them in there? I wondered. That thought alone frightened me.

“I need you to travel to the Outer Realm and rendezvous with Delza Yorne. She is the village guardian and will be able to guide you to the forest.”

I nodded. Our eyes met. Queen Merran’s sorrow waned as an intense determination had returned to her gaze.

“Grace, please, be careful.”

I wrapped a thick woolen cover around me, tying it firmly across my waist to protect against the chill of winter’s wind, and stepped out into the courtyard. Drifts of snow crawled up the castle walls along either side of me. The wind howled between the towers. I pulled my hood up to cover my stinging ears.

This trip could be treacherous on the best of days, but in the heart of Mistasian winter this trip would become deadly in a matter of moments. I couldn’t do this alone, but only trusted one other to accompany me in this journey…Mecca.

He awaited me at my modest home along the edge of Cadieux Village. My best friend huddled from the cold, standing beside the majestic, broad-backed steed, Millessa, that would take us upon our journey. She was tall and strong, muscles bulging from her well defined limbs. Millessa had long been a key warrior in our battles against the evils of Mistasia.

I stroked her snout. She rarely spoke and tonight was no different. I felt her willingness and steadied resolve. Millessa was ready.

“Are you going to explain exactly why we are freezing to death instead of resting comfortably in the castle?” Mecca groaned. His usually happy demeanor was as distant as our final destination.  I wasn’t sure if it was because of our recent argument or the terrible weather.

I smiled. It hurt my cheeks. “We have a quest.” I answered hoping to find a reaction, but the cold froze it within him. Mecca had no intention of wasting energy; he knew this was going to be an exhausting journey.

“Then we best be on our way.” Mecca mounted Millessa, and stretched out his hand for me.

“We need Fraydorn.”

“A second steed? Millessa is more than capable of carrying us both, Grace.” Mecca replied.

“Our quest is to return with the king and queen,” I revealed.

The expression upon Mecca’s face was everything I expected. Confusion combined with a deep worry for my sanity.

“Fraydorn will be bringing home our lost royals…according to Queen Merran.” I couldn’t believe that I was speaking these words aloud to another living soul. I turned away from Mecca to avoid his glare.

“Sounds as though our queen has been sipping from the fountains of desperation,” Millessa spoke in a deep feminine voice.

My Elven friend chuckled as he pulled his thick black woolen coat under his chin. His head buried under a hood, cheeks red from the wind. It gave him a sinister appearance, except for the light-hearted grin.

“Grace,” he called to me.

I had started around my house to retrieve Fraydorn. Millessa followed like the faithful steed she had always been. Mecca watched me from her back, awaiting my reply.

I gave none.

Mecca tried again to gather my attention. “Grace, do you believe in this quest?”

I stopped walking and turned slightly. I could just make out his shadow in the dim moonlight from the corner of my eye.

“Well, do you?” He pressed.

Millessa’s eyes were drawn to me. Her beautiful white coat glistened from the snowflakes that had melted upon her.

“I believe in our queen,” I solemnly replied then started off again.

THUD! Mecca had leapt from Millessa’s back, sprung into the air, flipped over my head and landed before me on the frozen trail. He placed his hands firmly upon my shoulders. That famous smile beamed from his face.

“And I believe in you, Grace,” He empathically announced.

Millessa snorted.

Mecca glanced over at her.

“Elves,” she spat crassly.

“Do you mind? I am trying to let my friend know that I’m with her until the end.”

I swatted his hands free and barked, “You have no choice, Mecca. The queen has given me this quest, and I commanded that you accompany me. Now mount your horse and wait here for me to return.”

I stomped off, mumbling under my breath about how irritating and annoying my friend had become. Right now, I would prefer to be with my traitorous brother, I muttered.

“Now, that’s not very nice, Grace,” my knuckle-headed friend replied.

Mecca, if you don’t stay out of my head…I’ll feed you to the first dragon that flies into our path. “Sometimes telepathy is a curse.” I scoffed.

We rode out of Cadieux Village under the cover of darkness in order to avoid being noticed. It would be the talk of the town if the queen’s two highest ranking guardians scrambled out of the castle in the dead of winter.

A slivered, crescent-shaped moon dangled in the sky, accompanied by its minions, millions of stars. The breeze had subsided lending to warmth under my woolen coat as we rumbled along the shore of Red River. Our journey would take a few days to reach the Outer Realm, the most northern Elven village in Mistasia.

Mecca pushed Millessa hard, forcing her to pull up alongside Fraydorn and me. We galloped side-by-side for many miles without speaking. He would glance my way occasionally awaiting me to speak, but I refused. There was nothing to say…for now.

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