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First of The LineBook One of the Druid Dreams Saga
By Michael Paul Metzger
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Michael Paul Metzger
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Lesson Learned
When she awoke, the gentle breeze of autumn filled Sannil's senses as she slid from beneath the covers with a shrug. She didn't mind the cold; it had always helped to wake her in those last few moments before daybreak, when every moment alone was a precious gift.
Dashing from her soft cushioned mattress to the window overlooking the forest, the princess made a stunning silhouette. With flowing blonde hair and sparkling bluish-green eyes that could melt an ice flow, it was little wonder that the kingdom adored her so.
"What will it be today?" she asked the wind with anticipation, eager to witness the wide array of woodland creatures that had gathered just out of sight. But after straining against the predawn darkness for what seemed like an eternity without witnessing the shadow of a single movement, the princess was forced to admit defeat. She would have to wait.
Relaxing her gaze, Sannil's slender frame eased back inside the chamber and impatiently waited for daylight's first embers to arrive, nearly exposing the milky-white skin beneath her loose-hanging sleeping robes as a sudden gust of wind buffeted her eyes. Sannil knew there was little chance of the guards catching a glimpse of her supple form within her sanctuary. This place was hers and hers alone.
Drawing a deep breath to fill her lungs and clear her mind, the princess couldn't help but don a childish grin. It was still hard to believe that she had succeeded! Not even the king's chamber could equal the images that danced just outside her raised parapet. The green carpeted grasses and dense sprawling woodlands that greeted her smiling face each morning were visible from only two locations: the city's unmanned eastern walls, and her sanctuary within its tower. Princess Sannil loved this place.
It had taken nearly fourteen months to convince the king to allow her to take up residence within the massive spire.
The old tower stood at the far edge of the city. Though its unused gate had long since been closed, the sparsely populated buildings which surrounded it were still fairly well maintained and created an ideal place for those seeking a quiet, slow-paced existence, or just a place to hide. In this day and age very few travelers had need of the city's long-forgotten unused resource, and most of those were fully content to utilize one of the other gates to the north or south.
Prior to the princess taking up residence, the east tower's keep had essentially been an abandoned guard barracks, whose main purpose was to act as a command and control facility during times of war.
Long ago when the city was built, it had been divided into four main sections for defensive purposes, each fully capable of operating independent of the others. Essentially, the quadrants consisted of north, south, east and west. In peacetime only a small contingent of soldiers manned the remote battlements, and none lived outside the castle's barracks, save for a few officers and senior enlisted men.
LindenWood Castle sat upon a large plateau on the western side of the city where its massive grounds and raised architecture drew awe- inspired gasps from allies and enemies alike. Rising into the air at a height of no less than fifty feet, its pillars seemed to dwarf the ancient city below, with shining spires that served as beacons for wayward travelers to follow both day and night. When fully staffed the stronghold could quarter 50,000 men in comfort, though less than a tenth of that number resided within its polished halls right now.
Built with its back atop a jagged set of horseshoe-shaped cliffs, the elevated pedestal fell nearly a thousand feet before meeting the Misty Creek River far below. Together they formed an impenetrable natural barrier that no one had ever breached. In that area, the only safe way to avoid the hand of the river's deadly grip was via the broad wooden bridge to the south. That avenue would be dismantled long before an enemy force came near enough to cross.
"How can my soldiers be expected to perform their duties with you and your wares under foot?" the king had asked when she'd approached him.
While everyone knew that the possibility of war was highly unlikely, his statement was true nonetheless. So, instead of debating the validity of such overly dramatic logic, the princess answered her father with an equally undeniable set of facts.
"In the event that such a thing does occur," Sannil began boldly, "I would fully expect to be recalled to the safety of the castle immediately, in which case, our soldiers would be free to use my quarters however they saw fit, without fear of my reprisals or objections!"
Yet as sensible as the content of her well-thought responses might have sounded to anyone else listening, her father failed to acknowledge the validity of her summations in the least bit.
"Ours is a peaceful and prosperous age," she added in a final effort to sway him. "Without the slightest hint of war or unrest. Not to mention the fact that the last time anything of importance from a military perspective happened inside our borders was at least twenty-five years ago."
"The protection and well being of every man, woman, and child within the boundaries of our kingdom is my personal responsibility," bellowed the king in a stiff voice. "It has been our family's burden for the last seventeen generations, and I will not compromise the safety of even one of my subjects needlessly on my watch."
King Randolph rambled on for what seemed like hours; patiently and uncharacteristically, the little princess calmly waited. In and of itself, that act alone was a huge accomplishment. While the youngest member of the royal family possessed many virtues, patience was not one of them. Listening attentively as her father droned on about the responsibilities of a head of state to his loyal subjects, Sannil somehow managed to contain the barbs of wit that raced beneath her overactive tongue. But when the king finally stopped to draw a much-needed breath, she immediately set about the task of countering his claims in diplomatic fashion, one by one.
She'd heard it all before, as it was part of the education she received each day in the library from its elderly custodian, Elias.
Elias was a gentle old man who held the patience, wisdom, and insight befitting someone of his advanced years, which was an important prerequisite when dealing with Sannil. She herself had never had the pleasure of knowing her own grandparents, but Sannil felt certain that her grandfather would have been very much like him. On and on, Sannil countered her father's statements with well-thought-out and meticulously crafted responses, but in the end it appeared that all her efforts were for naught. For what the young princess failed to recognize, was that while King Randolph had uttered a host of objections, he'd held back the one above all else that mattered most. He wasn't quite ready to let her go.
The king enjoyed having his little girl close at hand, and made no secret of the fact that she was the favorite of all his children. Everyone inside the castle knew it without the words ever needing to be said. Everyone that is, except the princess.
The youngest of five siblings, her three sisters had left the castle long ago. Each married into a prominent family before being scattered about the free lands like leaves in the autumn wind. She was only five when Lyndas, the nearest one in age to her, had married a dashing young man named Sir McDavin from Innisfree. Apart from fleeting images of how beautiful she'd looked on the day of her betrothal, Sannil couldn't remember much. It was only afterward that the gravity of the event began to take hold, as she slowly realized that Lyndas wouldn't be coming back.
No matter how many times her father tried to explain the situation, Sannil couldn't understand why her sisters felt compelled to leave. Castle LindenWood was an enormous place, with more than ample room for her sisters and their new life partners. As it was, Sannil could go an entire day and not cross paths with either of her parents with very little effort if she felt so inclined.
Though her sisters had tried to visit the castle as often as possible, it soon became painfully clear that the focus of their lives now remained elsewhere. That they seemed happy and accepting toward the rigors of their plight only served to further Sannil's confusion, and each time they returned home to visit with their parents she began to feel less and less connected. Before long, the close-knit group of siblings had become familiar strangers who seemed to be changing before her very eyes. With each added encounter, they reflected more the persona of her mother than the sisters they had been, driving Sannil to avoid them like an unpleasant smell. Within a few years all three had provided her parents with a few grand children each, and thus had relieved Sannil from any immediate pressure of being married off, or so she had hoped.
Motherhood held no deep fascination for the princess and quite frankly was a chore that she could just as well do without. Sannil found little solace in being an aunt either, as more than one of her nieces and nephews was nearly her same age. She couldn't imagine living life as they did, and was perfectly content with the prospect of living out the remainder of her days here inside the castle. All that she asked was the ability to travel from time to time, and to see the world at large.
Sannil loved to explore and go on "adventures" as she liked to call them, even though most of them up until this point had been inside the castle walls. She'd always hoped that her brother Falen would accompany her during those future journeys, and who knows, maybe he still would.
Falen was two years older than Sannil, a full head taller, and the sole male heir to the throne of LindenWood. Growing up, the pair had always fought like cats and dogs, but as the years passed by, the intensity of their confrontations dwindled, until they finally learned how to tolerate and accept each other's differences. More or less.
As a child Falen had always been fascinated with the life of a soldier, and continually mimicked their movements and gestures, drawing his ceremonial rapier to do battle with who knows what for hours on end.
It was during one of these imaginary battles that her brother suffered the major misfortune of acting out his reckless ballet directly in front of the queen. He had nearly run Sannil through while attempting to execute a complex maneuver that was reserved for only the most seasoned of men. "What are you doing?" the queen had asked in a heated voice, startling the young boy into inaction. "You could have hurt your little sister! What on earth were you thinking?"
"I was just ... practicing."
Stunned into submission, Falen had frozen his sword in mid-thrust when his mother quickly closed the distance. "Give me that thing this instance!" she had hissed vehemently, snatching the blade from his grasp.
"Give it back!" he had demanded, but the queen held it high up in the air.
"No. I never liked the idea of you wearing this overgrown letter opener anyway."
Disappointed to the point of despair, the small boy had dropped to the ground, and promptly began kicking and screaming like never before. Rolling from side to side, Falen had continued to throw such an ear rattling tantrum that eventually Queen Elyse was forced to call for the help of her husband.
Listening to the frazzled queen explain the situation over their son's screeches, Sannil's father's hand rubbed against the base of his broad chin before suddenly donning a sly grin. By now, a large group of soldiers and staff members had been drawn in by the sounds of the ruckus, and with a small wave, the king motioned to a man standing in the background to come forward.
For a brief moment the two spoke in hushed whispers, before the newcomer issued a small nod of acceptance, ducked through a vacant archway, and quickly disappeared. Sannil knew the man well, as did everyone inside the castle. It was Rothgar.
Back then, Rothgar still held the post of Captain of the Guard inside Castle LindenWood, and was one of her father's closest friends. The grizzled warrior had stood by his side when the king had battled the Dark Lord Shaltorayce. Reflecting on his stoic appearance, Sannil suddenly recalled the words her father had used to describe the man when he'd cursed him loudly on a hot afternoon.
"Don't be distracted by the sting of his words, little one, I assure you his heart is pure. I owe him a debt from a much darker time, and heaven willing, I'll pay it off."
She had no idea what her father had been talking about. The words he'd used didn't make any sense. How could the King of LindenWood owe anyone anything? Especially after all the good works he had done? They were a prosperous nation, and even the lowest of peasants lived comfortable, well-mannered lives both within and without the city walls.
Sannil was still contemplating what her father might possibly owe the man when Rothgar returned through the arched doorway with what appeared to be a small stick. As he approached Falen her eyes had grown wide with understanding, as she suddenly recognized the item for what it was. She'd seen the soldiers use similar things to hack away at one another in the yard as they practiced their deadly art: it was a wooden sword.
Turning the battered item around in his hands, the hardened veteran had presented the gift to a confused Falen, hilt first.
Rothgar was a middle-aged man, much shorter than her father, but his eyes seemed made of iron, and his face bore the scars from years of service. His hair was a deep charcoal-gray, cut flat across the top, and almost shaved on the sides. Together the odd style made his stout frame look even more like a box, while the back was braided into a long ponytail that resembled the fashion of a woodsman. His broad shoulders and muscled forearms were chiseled by years of training, and it was obvious that even at his advanced age Rothgar was not one to be trifled with.
In a low voice that only Falen was meant to hear, the weathered captain had let out a short grunt. "New recruits have to practice long and hard, sometimes years before they're allowed to wield a real blade." Then raising his voice so that the rest of his audience could hear, the captain threw back his shoulders with pride and continued. "Recruits must first master the wood, before they are permitted to wield steel," Leaning in so close that their noses might have touched. "This rule applies to princes too."
Slowly, the weathered man had eased away between heated breaths, while holding the boys gaze all the while. "Do you wish to become a recruit?" he had asked loudly while cocking his head slightly to one side, and without hearing the sound of her brother's voice Sannil had known the answer. Of course he did.
After that day her brother was much more careful about using his rapier, even if it was only a piece of wood. Rothgar stopped by every so often, just to see how Falen was advancing; though his new recruit tried as hard as he could, the old soldier always seemed to make some snide remark about his progress. Bursting through a vacant archway, the Captain would always bring a wooden sword of his own, and in no time at all, the two would start exchanging blows in order to better illustrate the subtle intricacies of a particular move. It was obvious to Sannil that Rothgar enjoyed bruising Falen with the back of his stick, and try as she might, she couldn't fathom a reason why her brother bothered to continue. The man was not nice.
Normally she would take her leave before the beating was finished, but one day the princess inadvertently arrived at the end of their session, just in time to hear Rothgar cursing in a way that would have made her mother furious.
"You still don't get it!" he had screamed in a berating tone of voice. "You're as worthless as teats on a gnat's ass!"
The strange insult nearly caused Sannil to burst out laughing from her recessed vantage point in the large courtyard, but she knew well enough not to. Rothgar was a cantankerous old man for sure, but if there was a sense of humor hidden beneath his rough exterior, so far he had failed to show it.
Excerpted from First of The Line by Michael Paul Metzger Copyright © 2011 by Michael Paul Metzger. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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