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55 Mistasian years later…


              Queen Merran Cadieux stood before her open window, embracing the warm sun upon her face. Her eyes were closed and head tilted back slightly as to fully enjoy the bright glow of the morning. She could feel the warmth overtaking her. It moved through her with effortless precision until even her toes no longer felt the chill so common in Cadieux Castle.

              She inhaled deeply, accepting the warm breeze coming from Soder Blue, the magnificent ocean, just south of the castle grounds. She exhaled with contentment.

             Today will be a good day, I believe, she thought.

            Queen Merran opened her eyes, placed her hands upon the stone window sill, and leaned out. The grounds behind the castle bustled with farmers eagerly preparing the fertile soil for the newest seeds to be planted. The long winter had left, and the Land of Mistasia was once again prepared to bear fruits and vegetables for its hungry dwellers.

            The queen changed her gaze, once again looking to Soder Blue. The beautiful blue waters matched her eyes. In the distance, the water was a dark blue at its deepest point. Closer to shore, the water was raucous, with large white heads crashing into the cliffs along both sides of the Elven-made inlet that led toward the castle. It was an irrigation spot for the farmers and had allowed these ingenious elves to prosper off these lands.

             “Good morning, My Queen!” A stern, yet-friendly voice called.

               Standing in the doorway, sword at her waist and bow over her shoulder, was Grace Tallon, the queen’s lifelong friend and leader of the Elven Warriors that protected Cadieux Castle.

The queen smiled widely as she turned from the window, “Good morning, Grace. The farmers work in earnest!”

“Yes, My Queen. They have been awaiting the spring for far too long.”

“Why, Grace, you say that as if the winter lasted for centuries.” Queen Merran collected her crown from atop her dresser and placed it upon her head perfectly centered, checking it within the mirror before her. The crown was slender with metal that crisscrossed at the front and held a single amethyst gemstone in its center. The queen’s pale yellow hair appeared to cradle the crown as though it were family.

“This last was harsher than most,” Grace replied while inspecting the tip of an arrow she had removed from the bag upon her back.

The queen placed a hand upon Grace’s shoulder. “Well, that is of the past now. We must look to new beginnings,” she replied as the two friends stood before each other. Queen Merran, now with her crown on, matched Grace in height.

The queen exited her room. Grace followed, not quite at her side, just a step behind, but closer than anyone else in the kingdom would ever dare. Grace Tallon, though not royalty in Cadieux, was nearly treated as such. She had privileges that none besides the queen herself had, including nearly being treated as an equal to the queen. Grace, however, never coveted such a title. She merely dutifully served the queen - someone Grace considered to be her closest friend - and in return, the queen showed Grace a level of respect rarely shown to a common elf.

They continued down the wide hallway which was adorned with symbolic artifacts of the Cadieux family’s history, save one - the wretched Cragon Cadieux. He was the queen’s uncle, former king, and the elf that was responsible for her parents’ disappearance. Those artifacts had been removed and now dwelled in the deepest, darkest corridor of the castle. All remnants of his existence had been expunged from the castle in a vain attempt to forget the troubling past that all those living under his reign had endured.

              “Speaking of new beginnings, has our latest ambassador arrived?” The queen kept her posture - hands crossed at the waist, back stiff, and chin up - as she walked, but her eyes glanced in Grace’s direction.

              “Yes. Yes, My Queen, she has.” Grace struggled to hide her irritation. The Elven warrior was known to be quite temperamental, but she usually saved that for every other elf in existence, excluding Queen Merran.

              The queen resisted the urge to smile. It wasn’t that she enjoyed her friend’s torment, but it had become somewhat of a guilty pleasure for the queen. The alliance with the Keegan Warriors from Michi Mountains had brought a new group of elves into their midst. It had been quite some time now since they had begun sharing military leaders, but Keegan Castle seemed to frequently exchange their ambassador. Grace, on the other hand, had left the same poor soul in the blustering colds of the north for nearly twenty-five years.

 By now, he has probably defected. Queen Merran giggled at the thought in her mind.

              The queen could sense that Grace wanted to vent. They had discussed this very topic, at length, at the exchange of every ambassador in the past, so the queen was prepared for today’s conversation. In fact, she was relishing the opportunity to goad her friend.

               “This new ‘ambassador’ has reported to you I assume?” The queen questioned, awaiting the inevitable. Her bright blue eyes twinkled with delight at the sight of Grace’s agitated state.

               “Yes,” Grace’s voice held a hint of disgust. “I sent her to the armory.”

The queen raised an eyebrow.

                “I want to know if this one can at least handle a bow without hurting herself!” Grace balled up her fists. Her strong, toned arms were held straight down at her sides.

Grace had found issue with every single Keegan warrior that Queen Kraylan had sent to be stationed in the castle.

“Grace, do you believe that we should end our alliance with Keegan Castle? Should we send away her ambassador and close the gates? The queen again found herself resisting a smile.

“No, My Queen,” Grace paused.

Oh, no. Here it comes. The queen could feel Grace about to have a bout of verbal diarrhea.

“Why can’t they send us a competent warrior? Instead, we receive these injury-prone buffoons. I bet she is downstairs right now being attended to by the medical staff for impaling herself on an arrow!”

The queen stopped at the end of the hall. The corridor split before them. She turned to Grace, retaining her regal posture and smiled.

“Grace, I greatly appreciate your training methods and the time you spend with your troops. However, you are too hard on them. They have always feared you more than revered you. And you are someone that they…I… have the utmost confidence in. The Keegan Warriors are a different line of elf. They have weaknesses just as we do. Do not so hastily discount them. We have, as of yet, fortunately not had to see them in action.”

“But, the last guy punched himself in the face and knocked out three teeth on his first day,” Grace replied.

The queen laughed, “Yes, but he did make you smile.”

“Once,” Grace said. As she shook her head, her stark white hair fluttered around her like the wings of a bird. “Besides, I was only smiling because I visualized myself as the one who did it.”

“Grace,” Queen Merran playfully scolded.

They walked out into the courtyard and the warmth of mid-morning. Grace squinted her hazel eyes against the brightness until her eyes adjusted. She led her queen over to the training area, stopping frequently as the queen addressed the elves along the way. Queen Merran was truly connected to her people. She loved each and every one of them. Grace was truly amazed by how the queen referred to them all by name.

Grace stood patiently awaiting the queen to finish her conversation with the local bread maker and his wife. She monitored a young set of elves that stood near the archery yard. The young elves were dashing about playing a game of tag, carefree and oblivious to the dangers around them. They are far too close. Where are their parents? Grace wondered, as she inspected the courtyard. No one stood ready to shoot an arrow, so Grace turned her attention elsewhere.  The queen finished with her conversation, and they again moved on.

Standing near the archery yard was the Keegan warrior they sought. She looked thicker than the elves in Cadieux. Dark hair flowed down to the middle of her back in a single braid which started near her neck. She had deep red lips and dark green eyes. This young elf was strong and taller than the female elves of Cadieux. She was even taller than some of the males that had gathered around to meet her.

The elves stood about as they laughed and smiled. Grace grew irritated that the new Keegan ambassador had drawn so much attention. She found it unbecoming of her warriors to be milling about and ignoring their duties. It made her dislike this new ambassador even more.

One of the Cadieux warriors noticed the queen. He began to bow when he noticed Grace. His smile quickly vanished as he swatted the elf beside him, whose smile vanished too. The whole group came to attention.

“You are all dismissed!” Grace barked and her Elven warriors bowed to the queen and then hastily scattered into the courtyard. They all had specific tasks for the day; Grace was fully aware of each and every one of them and wouldn’t hesitate to verify their completion. That was why her warriors feared her. They knew at any given moment, ‘Commander Tallon’ would put them in their place. She believed it was her job. I am not their friend. I am their leader, someone they have to go to battle with, not have drinks with at the alehouse. Grace had been watching her warriors return to their tasks, not realizing the scowl that she had upon her face. When she went to resume her conversation with the queen, she paused, noticing Queen Merran staring at her.

The queen gave Grace a ‘that-is-what-I-was-speaking-of’ face and then directed her attention to the newcomer.

“My Queen, this is Lura Skurk of Keegan Castle,” Grace introduced.

“I am Queen Merran Cadieux.” She held out her hand, palm down, as a greeting. The new arrival didn’t hesitate to return the gesture. Lura’s hand was quite large by comparison. The queen was shocked by Lura’s powerful grip. She pulled away abruptly due to the discomfort. Lura noticed immediately that she had used too much force and began to speak when the queen interjected. “It is a pleasure to have you here at our castle.”

“Thank you, Queen Merran. It is an honor.” Lura bowed gracefully. She still wore the uniform symbolic of a Keegan Warrior: brown chest plate and boots with snug yellow pants, shirt, and dark green cuffs, collar and waist. It helped to distinguish Lura as a visitor.

“I will let you get back to your practice. I must mingle.” The queen bowed slightly, so she wouldn’t lose her crown. She smiled at Grace while gently rubbing her hand. Well, she is most definitely powerful. Watch the grip though, the queen warned, as Grace listened to her thoughts using telepathy, the gift of mind speak that not all elves possess. The queen and Grace had communicated in such a fashion for so long it had become second nature.

I guess that it’s a start, Grace replied. She turned her attention back to her new ambassador. Grace blinked for a moment and then glanced upward to meet Lura’s eyes. Grace snorted. She is big!

“I apologize for being brief with you early. I had to attend to the queen.”

“I understand, Commander Tallon,” Lura replied with a slight hint of a smile. She was eager to be on this assignment. It was a grand opportunity to prove her worth to her queen, Kraylan Keegan. Those chosen for the chance to discover Cadieux’s secrets would be richly rewarded.

“How is your practice going?” Grace wanted to see Lura in action.

“I haven’t actually had a chance to shoot yet, Commander. I was introducing myself to your warriors. I figured since I will be here for some time I should get to know them.” Lura was nervous. Commander Tallon’s reputation was well known. She did not put up with disobedience, so not following her first order was not exactly in Lura’s best interest.

She thinks she’ll be here for ‘some time’? None of the previous ambassadors have been here longer than a few months. They all run back home crying about being homesick. It is very strange how the Keegan Warriors don’t seem to have the stomach for ‘real’ work. I guess we’ll see just what they sent me this time. Grace thought.

“Okay, then. Why don’t you take a few shots now?” Grace instructed. “Do you have training with a bow?”

“Yes, I was a hunter,” Lura replied as she positioned her wooden arrow upon her bow. She raised her weapon and set her sights upon the target.

Grace watched carefully. Her form is correct. She appears to know how to handle… Grace had a sudden panic. Playing too closely to the targets were the same two young elves from earlier.

“Wait!” Grace cried as she dashed for the children.

Lura released the arrow. It shot true for the target but far too close for Grace’s liking. The Elven warrior flashed her blade and sliced the arrow in two as it soared past. One half of the arrow hit the target in the upper right corner; the other piece narrowly missed the young boy’s head. It slammed into the stone façade of the courtyard, ricocheted up, and pierced a wooden carriage nearby.

“What were you thinking?” Grace scolded with the tip of her sword brandished toward Lura. “You could have killed them!”

The children’s mother cried out and wrapped her arms around the boy.

Grace spun around and barked at her as well. “Why aren’t you watching your children?”

The mother gathered her two whimpering elves and dashed into her small wooden shop where she had been working.

When Grace returned her gaze upon Lura, a host of elves had now gathered around the newcomer. The queen moved through the crowd quickly. Lura Skurk stood motionless. Her eyes fixed upon Grace, uncertain what to do next. She, however, did not cower.

“My dear, what happened?” The queen asked with a consoling touch on Lura’s shoulder.

“She made a poor decision,” Grace replied.

Everyone’s attention turned to Lura. She had lowered her bow and held it sharply at her side, almost attempting to hide it from view.

“I’m sorry, Queen Merran. I didn’t notice the children. I was too focused on the target.” Her heart raced. She was terrified at what Commander Tallon would do. Don’t make me return to Keegan Castle. I wish to remain here!

The queen rubbed Lura’s forearm, “Alright, my dear. You need to be more aware of your surroundings, especially before firing an arrow in my courtyard.”

“Yes, Queen Merran,” Lura said but continued to hold gaze with Commander Tallon, who glared at her with a curiousness in her eyes.

The crowd began to disperse as Grace stowed her sword. Her white hair covered half her face as the wind blew in from the main gate. Her one visible eye targeted Lura. The Keegan warrior held her breath. Please, say something. Say anything! Lura had to admit that when she had received this assignment, she was more than a little concerned about meeting her new commander. She just witnessed firsthand the speed and skill that Grace could exhibit and the temper she was famous for.

“If you want to remain here, Warrior Skurk, I suggest you mind your surroundings. I do not care if you are from another planet…if you injure one of these elves, you will answer to me. Do you understand?” Grace flatly questioned, as she removed the bow from Lura’s hand.

“Yes, Commander Tallon.” Lura felt her mouth hang open, but no words escaped. Now, is probably not the right moment. She thought.

“What is it?” Grace barked, sensing that there was more coming from her newest ambassador.

Lura swallowed hard before continuing. “That was amazing! If you don’t mind me saying so.” She replayed Grace slicing the arrow in two within her mind over and over again.

Grace was slightly taken aback by the statement. She had just reamed the young elf in front of a large group. Even her own elves didn’t respond well to that, let alone the weak, as she believed elves from the north were. She had actually made the last elf cry the first day he arrived. She is amazed? They have sent me a loon.

“Amazed by what?” Grace questioned.

“How you cut that arrow in half!” Lura screeched at bit, causing Grace to wince. “Your speed! Your accuracy! It is stunning. Can you teach me?” Lura’s giddiness revealed her age. She was younger than any other ambassador Keegan Castle had ever sent.

Grace eyed the new elf with apprehension. Something is not quite right with this elf. She should be afraid of me. Yet, she stands here in awe and asks me to teach her. You can’t teach skill. You either have it or you don’t. And this elf does not have any common sense. Grace looked back at the target and the half-arrow wedged into the upper corner. However, if I hadn’t cut that arrow she may have actually hit the edge of the target and not the boy’s face. Grace took a deep breath before she turned to face Lura Skurk.

“No, but you can stay in Cadieux.” Grace walked away.

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