Category Archives: Ameryn: Legend of the Guardian

All of the “Flight of Fiction” posts in one place.

Flight of Fiction 0.6

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The crowds parted before the parade’s advance. Little girls clamored to the street, waving blue and green streamers and shouting the princess’s name in their clear, small voices.

Aileen dismounted. She held out her hands to the children, smiling. She reached out and touched their hair and quietly asked for their names. Excitable voices shrunk into shyness the closer she came to them, but the little ones’ eyes glowed with wonder and happiness at the princess’s approach.

And they always cast fearful glances at the tall figure in red that loomed behind the princess. Aileen acted as if there was nothing amiss. That is, until a little girl screamed when The Guardian got too close.

“There, there,” Aileen said to the girl, holding out her white hand to beckon her back, “it’s all right. My Guardian will not hurt you. The Guardian is only looking after me, the way your big brothers might look after you.” Aileen turned to the creature and smiled. The orange fox around her shoulder flicked its tail happily, as at ease as its mistress.

The Guardian said nothing, but watched. She took a single pace backward. The little ones inched forward as Aileen questioned them and laughed with them.

Aileen melted further and further into the crowd. After all, these were only children, and could do her no harm. The Guardian drifted behind her, a red ghost.

Near an alley, a shadow flickered through the passel of children. A hooded man crept around the brightly colored children, advancing so low that it seemed his belly was scraping the ground. He was stealthy enough that no one noticed him slither closer and closer to the Princess. No one noticed the black Rat keeping close to his heels.

No one, that is, but the Guardian.

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Flight of Fiction 0.5

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It was autumn in the city of Kharador.

The sunlight on the rooftops shined golden yellow and flickered on the green and blue banners hung in the streets, from windows, in the market, along the city walls. Even the stoic palace guards who roamed the streets on the back of their great grey Wolves wore green and blue ribbons on their shoulders. October was here, and October meant only one thing for the people of Kharador: the Princess’s Birthday.

The Hounds were barking up and down the cobbled roads, their masters close behind them, running about to buy ale, to buy apples, to buy fish and beef and festive clothes. It was the height of the harvest, and the bounty gathered from the island city’s pasturelands and orchards was plentiful and delicious. The air smelled of apples and sunshine. From the iron gates that opened to the sea to the outskirts of town on the edge of the forest and fields, Kharador radiated light and energy and joy.

In the city’s center rose the palace of the king. White towers that stretched towards the heavens lay behind high white walls heavily etched in heraldry and scenes from legend. Even the door was white, and even though it was as heavy as iron, it looked as delicate as ivory. This door bore a carving of the king’s Beast: the Great White Wolf.

Its great jaw opened, and the door sung outward. A flourish of trumpets, and the parade began. The Princess had come to walk among her people.

It was a small parade. The Princess Aileen was not fond of crowds. She was surrounded on all sides by her father’s knights, riding the backs of impeccably groomed grey Wolves. She rode the back of a white horse with a silver fox’s mask on its narrow face. The Princess wore a dress as blue as the heavens, making her pale face glow like starlight framed by a barely-tamed cascade of curls as auburn as autumn itself. Around her shoulders rested a fire-orange Fox, her Beast.

The Guardian walked before Aileen, gripping the horse’s harness tightly. The Guardian walked in red from head to toe. Even its face was obscured by a mask and a veil. It was tall and slender and silent. The townsfolk stepped aside to let it pass, hardly daring to look at it lest its invisible eyes pierce their minds and drive them mad, or lest it reach out with its long claws and swipe at their faces, or any number or fearsome retaliations The Guardian was rumored to be capable of. For the silent watcher gliding in front of their radiant Princess could not be human, could not be of Sprite-kind, and could not even be part of this world. It did not belong. It could not exist apart from its deadly function as the Princess’s bodyguard. To the people of Kharador, and to the people of Berasia beyond, The Guardian was fear wrapped in a red cloak.

For the Guardian had no Beast.

Every child in Kharador had a Beast of his own, given to him at birth to walk with him until the day of his death. Even the poorest of families kept a Beast in its home. The humans of Kharador were all of the proud line of Hounds: Wolves and Dingoes and Bloodhounds and Bulldogs and Foxes roamed the streets and walked at children’s heels. The Sprites held the tradition of the family Beast by keeping Rats or Ferrets or Weasels or Mice, according to family heritage.

The Beastless were outcasts, misfits, rebels, enemies, or beasts themselves.

The Guardian had no Beast.

The Inner Debate

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She sits on the futon behind me, her ankle propped on her knee and her other foot tapping, slowly but impatiently. She’s letting those long claws on her toes click against the bottom level of the coffee table, like a cat who scratches the furniture for attention. And, also like a cat, her long golden tail is swishing lazily next to her, as if it had a mind of its own. 

“Glare all you want. But you’ll just have to wait.”

“I’ve waited for months,” replies Ameryn. “Wait, make that years. You started this when you were thirteen. You’re how old, now?”

“I know, I know. I’ve been busy.”

“You’ve always been busy. Busy being everything but a writer, which this–what did you call it?–bog thing says that you are.”

“It’s called a blog. And I’m working on it.”

“You haven’t written a word about me. Don’t tell me you’re considering another rewrite. Not after all we’ve been through.”

“Your story is set in stone for all I’m concerned. It’s just challenging making your story as compelling or believable to others as it always has been to me.”

She rolls her eyes and lets her head fall back against the top of the futon. “It’s a fantasy. It’s not supposed to be believable. It’s a prehistory. You can make it as believable or as unbelievable as you want.”

“It’s cliche in parts, though.”

“All stories are cliche. There is nothing new under the sun.”

“I’m still ironing out the details of Berasian mythology.”

Ameryn sighs. “All these excuses will never get you anywhere.” I look back. Her half-lidded eyes manage to plead with me, in spite of her queenly bravado. “And Zon asked so nicely that you finish it.”

I look down at the carpet. Up at the ceiling. Over at the glowing screen of my laptop. Anywhere but into the gaze that mirrors mine.

“And Enilor. And Narina. And Aileen. They’ll be grandparents by the time you get done, at this rate.”

“I KNOW.” I look at her. “I’m sorry. You intimidate me.”

Ameryn smiles. She gets up and walks over to where I sit on the desk, putting one of those small, but powerful hands on my shoulder.

“Now,” she says, a laugh in her voice, “whose fault would that be?”

And she vanishes. 

Flight of Fiction (23a)

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Ameryn and the Troupe came at last to the foot of The Mountain. The title was a misnomer—The Mountain was in fact a range of mountains that stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions. Clouds concealed their peaks, but their flanks were jagged grey rock, lacking any kind of plant or life—not so much as a weed grew on the craggy rock face. Even the ground Ameryn and company stood upon was bare and dry. There was no sound of birdsong. Even the wind seemed to be holding its breath.

“We’re goin’ in there?” asked Enilor. As the troupe had advanced toward The Mountain, Enilor had fallen further and further towards the rear of the group, until at last she was nestled in Narina’s pack, only her shiny black nose and glittering brown eyes visible from under the flap.

“As I recall,”commented the stoic Sprite girl, “you were the one who convinced us that this was a good idea.”

“That was Zon’s doing,” the Otterling grunted. “And I’m only in here ‘cause it’s blinkin’ cold out.”

“Crossing The Mountain is the only way we’ll get there in time,” Ameryn murmured. It was wrote expression by now—a mantra she had repeated to herself over and over as her feet pounded the hard ground. By now it was a mission her mind could not deny.

“Get where?” asked Claritas, her brow furrowed. “And in time for what?”

Ameryn swallowed. She turned to face her friends. They were not glaring at her mutinously, though they had every right to do so. No—their expressions were puzzled, worried, anxious even.

“My friends, I don’t ask you to follow me. In all truth, I have no idea what Nayr wants with my princess. All I know is that if all he wanted was Berasia’s throne, he would’ve married Aileen and have been done with it. But no, he took her—he hypnotized her and took her. What for? I don’t know. But whatever he’s planning—I have get to Nanduvar and stop it. I’ll say it again—you need not follow me into whatever dangers The Mountain holds. You need not follow me anywhere.”

“Ameryn,” said Zon, “our mission as the Troupe is to set captives free. We are more than mere musicians—we are wanderers, we are warriors. You are one of us—you always have been, and no matter
how many years have separated us before this day, you are still a part of our family. We’re not leaving you to face The Rat alone. We’re here for you,” he said, a hand on her bruised shoulder. “We’ll follow you anywhere.”

The Troupe murmured assent. They seemed nervous in the face of The Mountain—but not as nervous as they were determined. Even Narina looked up into the swirling grey clouds at The Mountain’s
summit with grim resolve, as one who looks upon an old adversary for the last time.

“Right, then,” Ameryn said, slowly turning to face The Mountain. “Let’s go.”

Flight of Fiction (22)

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“What will you do when I’m gone?”

The question startled Ameryn. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t thought of the likelihood before—in fact, she thought of it increasingly—but hearing it aloud from the princess’s own mouth was more painful than she’d imagined.

“Gone?” she repeated. The emptiness of the word made a hollow space in her heart that quickly filled with apprehension. She distracted herself by running the brush slowly though Aileen’s thick curtain of hair as they both sat on the princess’s bed, staring out at the stars through the massive picture window.

“You know,” Aileen explained, “married.”

“Married…” Ameryn swallowed. “It doesn’t mean you’ll be gone, you know. Whoever you marry will be king.”

“Yes,” Aileen said. Her expression was vague. It seemed to Ameryn that her expression grew vaguer with every passing day.

“Do you suppose Nayr will want to rule Kharador remotely once he’s married you?” She was only half joking.

Aileen smiled a dazed sort of smile, but made no reply. A silence followed. Ameryn played with a strand of Aileen’s hair, focusing intently on it, trying to ignore the warning bells in her head.

“Do you think you’ll ever marry, Ameryn?”

The Guardian laughed. She wasn’t sure where the laugh came from. It was not a funny question, nor did it have a funny answer. The laugh felt dry and forced in her mouth.

“Dearest, really?” She put her hands on Aileen’s face and turned it toward the vanity mirror, so Aileen could see both of them clearly. “Look at me. There is your answer.”

“But you are lovely, Ameryn,” said the princess. For a moment, her old voice returned—the voice of the Aileen who was fully aware of herself, not the dazed and distracted girl of the last few weeks. “You are lovely to me. I’ve known you for as long as I can remember, and I have never thought you ugly.”

Ameryn stared at her face in the mirror. “Thank you, dearest. But your opinion comes from years of close acquaintance. No man who has ever seen this face has…has stayed for very long.”

Aileen turned to look Ameryn in the eye. “Was there someone once?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you have someone once, Ameryn? Did you ever love someone?”

Ameryn sniffed. “Love is a heavy word. I won’t deny I’ve found a few of the Wolfguards rather handsome—”

“Ammy!”

“—but I wouldn’t call that love. Why bother giving your heart to someone who’ll never want to keep it? Waste of time and energy.”

“What about that boy you’ve told me about?”

“Boy?”

“The elf boy. Zon.”

Ameryn looked out the window at the autumn stars. She was ashamed of the grief in her heart. Grief for a lost dream—for a lost soul. After all these years, she had hoped she could have trained herself to forget.

“We were children,” she said. “I wouldn’t have called that love, either.” She smiled ruefully. “Besides, you have no idea what a little terror I was. We played together, but I was more annoying than anything else.”

“He was taken by slavers?”

“Yes,” Ameryn said. “The same that took me.”

“Perhaps he’s out there looking for you,” Aileen said dreamily.

Ameryn’s eyes were still fixed on the stars. “How often I’ve looked up at the heavens, watching the stars and the moon in their nightly dance, and wondered if he was out there, looking up and seeing the same stars, the same moon. And maybe, just maybe, he likewise is searching for me in the stars as I search for him.”

The stars kept on with their dull sparkling. They made no reply.

“But he is not,” Ameryn concluded. “He cannot. He is dead. He died a long time ago.” She smiled down at Aileen, who was looking up at her guardian with a worried expression on her face. Ameryn tried to alleviate her concern with a gentle smile.

“So you see, my dear, I will never marry. The only one who’d known me as long as you have—long enough, it seems, to think I am lovely—is long gone.”

Flight of Fiction (21)

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Two days on the road, and the Troupe was getting closer and closer to the foot of the Mountains. The long shadow of those craggy hills stretched over them as they marched through the forest. Though they had begun their journey rather jollily, talking and laughing amongst themselves, now they were quiet. All that could be heard was the sound of their feet sliding through the fallen leaves.

Zon was at the head of the line, Ameryn close behind. Enilor loped along beside Narina, taking two hops to every one of the Sprite girl’s long strides. The others followed in the single file, Zon’s brother and the giant Loui bringing up the rear, walking backwards, covering their tracks.

The sun set behind the Mountains, making them look even darker and more sinister, a feat Ameryn had hardly imagined possible. Zon put up his hand, and they came to a halt, silently setting up camp in the shadow of silence that loomed over them. Enilor quickly busied herself with making a fire, but its small red light seemed too weak to illuminate the gathering dark.

They sat in silence around the fire, eating salted meat and dried fruit and hardly daring to look at each other. Ameryn noticed that Narina would not touch her rations. She sat with her knees up under her chin, staring into the shadows with her back to the fire.

Suddenly, Zon’s voice broke the silence.

“We should rehearse,” he said.

There was a pause.

“D’you think it’s safe, Zon?” asked Enilor. It was not much of a question; her paws were already hovering over the clasps on her fiddlebox.

“Listen,” he replied. “It’s utterly silent. Nothing lives at the foot of these hills. Nothing dares.”

“They fear what’s in the Moutains,” Loui mumbled.

“I say the greater evil lies beyond them,” Zon answered. “No evil could be greater than the evil that holds sway over Nanduvar. And unless we rehearse,” he said, his eyes sparkling, “we won’t beat him.”

“Not a chance,” said Enilor with a wicked little smile, her fiddle already tucked under her chin.”

There was a rattle and a clatter of wood on wood, with some noncommittal low booming noises as the troupe pulled out drums and tambourines and pipes and who knows what other instruments from their bags and their tents. In seconds, every musician was ready, each poised with their fingers to their instruments and their eyes watching Zon. With a quick inhale and a flick of his wrist, they began.

Ameryn had never heard anything like it. The music was wild, rhythmic—as untamable as those that played it. Enilor skipped around the fire, sawing away on a song that sounded like every lark was singing at once. Loui’s drums made the earth throb, and the taurlin twins whistled out lively harmony on their panpipes. Zon strummed at his lute, his sister plucked a harp, his brother took to the bells and other percussive things Ameryn had never seen before. Narina closed her eyes to the dark and spun around the fire in the otterling’s tracks, her light palm beating the tambourine as she danced to rival the flicker of the flames.

Ameryn sat with her knees held to her chest, her eyes wide in awe. She had never seen anyone so happy as these vagabonds, each of them lost in the world of their own, but somehow producing the most joyous sound she had ever heard in her life.

Suddenly she found herself pulled to her feet. Zon had grabbed ahold of her hands, and was grinning at her.

“Do you dance?”

“Er—ah—well,” Ameryn stuttered, her face feeling very warm, “court dances, yes, but, uh, nothing that would go with this sort of—music.”

“Try,” Enilor yelled over the din. “T’ain’t too hard—just skip, girlie!” The rest cheered encouragingly.

“Come on,” said Zon, “see what you can do.”

He pulled her with him, leaping in time to the music. Ameryn fumbled along behind, gasping for air, and laughing. Laughing at herself, laughing at him, laughing with all of them as they cheered her on. She didn’t get the hang of it until Zon launched her into a spin that sent her flying a few feet. She landed, looked down at her dusty, red feet, and realized she hadn’t fallen.

“This isn’t—half—bad!” she gasped. She was not used to laughing.

“Told you so!” Zon yelled. Narina caught Ameryn’s hands and spun with her, then passed her to Claritas, then to one then the other of Zon’s siblings, and at last again to the man himself, who took her around twice, three times again. The song ended, and they all collapsed into laughter and applause.

“There!” Zon said, “That’ll put the darkness to shame!”

They laughed and cheered some more, and played a song or two, some soft, some loud, some joyful, some heart-wrenching. At last, the instruments were put away, and every musician crawled into the comfort of tent and blanket. Ameryn drifted off to sleep in Claritas’ tent, her head throbbing with the wildness of the music and the newfound gift of laughter.

Flight of Fiction (19)

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As so many before them had gone, so walked the Princess Aileen and the Lord Nayr. Long after the other guests at Grare’s castle had retreated to their territories, Nayr lingered, asking Aileen for turns about the castle’s gardens, horse-rides in the fields, excursions into the city. Unfortunately for Nayr, wherever Aileen went, her Shadow would follow, gleaming eyes glued to him, watching his every move. Any attempt to touch the princess, even to help her down from her horse, was accompanied by a swat to his hand and a growl from the hooded thing that Aileen called her best friend. Whatever gentlemanly assistance needed to be offered was administered by the Beast.

Most of their time was spent within the high walls of the castle’s gardens; walking under the trees in their crackling colors, sitting on the stone benches and talking of things only they could understand. He’d whisper, she’d giggle brightly, and as far as Aileen was concerned all was well with the world.

Ameryn was not so sure.

She moved when they moved, keeping her distance but always keeping the pair in view. When they went walking, she’d follow behind, but not so close as to be noticeable. Earlier in the days immediately after the masquerade Ameryn would follow right behind them, but after a few days of this Aileen had cautiously mentioned her annoyance over breakfast.

“Ammy,” she had said softly, her eyes peering wide and doe-like over her cup of tea, “is there…I mean, must you follow so close behind Nayr and me when we go walking?”

Ameryn had looked up from her book in mild surprise. Aileen had never objected to her protection before.

“Does it bother you?”

“Well, maybe…” Aileen had trailed off, nibbling her lip nervously.

“Maybe?”

“Could you…could you walk a little further back?”

“How far?”

“Oh, not so far that you can’t see us! Not that far at all. Just so far that…that you can’t…hear us?”

Ameryn had stared blankly down at her half-eaten pastry. What could they possibly say that Ameryn shouldn’t know? How attached had she become to Nayr that he had replaced the guardian as confidant and friend? Would she have to step aside so soon and let a stranger take her place?

She had sighed, closing her eyes and pushing the fears aside and remembering her duty. She had known for years this day would come. If only it hadn’t come so soon. She looked up at Aileen and smiled, her jagged teeth protruding in a crooked smile. It was a look only Aileen could have interpreted as being a happy one.

“Of course, dear. If you wish it.”

Stay out of earshot. A seemingly simple command. Ameryn hated that she had to sit idly by and watch as her best friend fell for the Sprite lord. But orders were orders. She vowed to do her best not to hover during that day’s walk.

Instead of walking behind them, she now sat on a cold bench by an old ugly tree in the castle garden, keeping the two of them in her sights. She occupied her hands with her knitting, feverishly churning out tight, angrily stitched scarves that no one but a desperate blind man would wear. Aileen had no idea that the only thing that stood between her lady-in-waiting and her lover was a pair of sticks and some yarn. Ameryn had to vent somehow. Better it be constructive than destructive.

As autumn deepened, the winds grew more chill and stiff. The loving couple added a layer every day, the princess swathed in colorful scarves and layer upon layer of wool and leather. Ameryn didn’t wear much more than her maroon gown over her simple white shift. She was impervious to the cold. And her foul temper kept her plenty warm.

One clear day, Ameryn sat on her usual bench watching the happy couple in simmering resignation. Her nightmares had been particularly vivid the night before, and she had gotten very little rest. She was too tired to be angry. But she was tired enough to be irritated.

Naturally the appearance of Nacjar at her elbow did little to brighten her mood.

“Hey there.”

Ameryn glanced up at the skinny Sprite boy. She was a little puzzled by his willingness to approach her since she wasn’t wearing her mask, not even a veil. But yet there he stood, looking down at her without a trace of fear in his black eyes.

“How can I help you?” Ameryn kept her voice flat, emotionless. Maybe he’d get the hint that she was in no mood for idle chatter.

“You can hear me out,” he said, taking a seat beside her. Ameryn arched an eyebrow and regarded him steadily with her one working eye. Taking a deep breath, Nacjar continued. “I just wanted to say that…well…I’m awful sorry for what happened at the ball. I had no idea you were so…that is to say, I…well, I thought you were the princess, so…” He was folding and unfolding his hands, licking his lips nervously. Ameryn pitied him. Two years older than she, yet still so inarticulate. But as she watched him try to swallow enough of his pride to spit out an apology, she couldn’t help but be a little amused. It was an unusual gesture for a Sprite to willingly offer an apology. She thought that perhaps, just maybe, there was a little hope for this one.

“Apology accepted, Squire Nacjar,” she said, cutting him off midsentence with a wave of her hand. “Please stop before you end up saying something too nice to me.” And she smiled her crooked smile.

“Oh…alright,” he mumbled, looking relieved. Then he straightened up and tugged at his tunic, sniffing imperially. The gesture reminded Ameryn of a cat that had fallen off a windowsill trying to convince the viewer that it meant to do that. “So what exactly do you do out here all day? You look bored out of your skull.”

“I’m doing my job.” Ameryn wasn’t really interested in further conversation. She turned her attention back to Nayr and Aileen, who by now had drifted over to the garden’s large fountain and were watching the leaves move in the water. She didn’t watch her knitting—she let her fingers do all the thinking for her.

“And you play with string,” Nacjar added.

The needles stopped clicking. “What?”

“Well, if that’s not playing with string I don’t know what is.” He was pointing a finger at her scarf-in-progress, a look of mild disgust on his freckled face.

“This is knitting,” Ameryn replied flatly. “You’re a boy, I don’t expect you to appreciate it.”

“Huh. Your hobby, eh?” He stood and whisked out his sword, giving it a few expert swings and grinning proudly. “This is my hobby.”

“So I gather,” said Ameryn, still watching her charge.

“You’re not looking.”

“I don’t have to. I know what a boy playing with a sword looks like. I live in a castle, you know. Swords everywhere. Tons of pointy objects. Plenty of lunkheads wanting to swing them around.”

“Yeah, but you’ve never seen a sword wielded properly until you see a Sprite do it,” Nacjar asserted. Then he snorted scornfully. “Huh! You’re a girl, I don’t expect you to appreciate it.” He turned to walk away.

There was a hiss of metal on metal. Nacjar turned around to see the Guardian examining a sword of her own. His eyes widened. Ameryn held back a smile.

“Know how to use that thing?” Nacjar asked, gesturing nonchalantly at the long blade Ameryn was holding.

“Sure. I use it all the time to open my letters.” Ameryn swung it once, twice, hearing it hum through the air and feeling its weight. She regarded Nacjar with half-closed eyes, wondering if he’d take the bait. She hadn’t had a good opponent for a long time.

The Guardian was just standing there, one hand on her hip, the other hand holding the sword as carelessly as if it were an umbrella, daring him to impress her. She knew the Sprite boy couldn’t resist a chance to show off.  Finally he squared his shoulders and raised the hilt of his sword to his forehead in a formal salute. The Guardian responded in kind.

“First one to drop their blade loses,” he barked.

“Agreed,” replied the Guardian.

Even now Nacjar waited for her to take the first move. But she simply stood there, her feet spread apart, her body as still as a statue. He made a quick jab: her blade flicked out in defense. Nacjar began to circle her, looking for a sign, a glance, any hint of movement that would suggest his opponent’s next move. He received no such clue. She only pivoted to match his pacing, her unblinking eyes fixed maddeningly on him.

Ameryn watched him, every muscle at the ready. She knew well of the Sprites’ reputation in swordplay. They said that each Sprite infant sleeps with a sword in its cradle. Each one was born to fight, and each one was a brutal fighter, no matter how aristocratic they pretended to be. But Ameryn remained calm—she could see the impatience radiating from Nacjar’s eyes, and knew his youth and ample arrogance would lead him to impulsive attacks with little strategy. So she bided her time, putting up a front of indifference, hoping that her coolness would be enough to make him boil over.

At last Nacjar could bear it no longer. He lashed out, pattern after pattern, thrust after thrust, coming down at every angle. But he could make no headway. Ameryn barely moved from her spot on the grass, skillfully blocking every thrust. The faster Nacjar attacked, the faster she defended, never missing a beat, anticipating every move. Yet she never went on the offensive. She was toying with him, wearing him out. It was working.

A tiny bead of sweat trickled down Ameryn’s brow. She took a step back. Nacjar lunged, jumping at this first sign of weakness.

He backed her into a clearing among the trees, his face glowing red, his eyes ablaze. For all his effort, he couldn’t disarm her. She merely walked back and back, her face a mask of infuriating calm. Their blades flickered in the autumn sun, their metallic clanging echoing from the high garden walls. This feverish rhythm lasted a good quarter of an hour, yet the Guardian made no move to disarm her opponent. Frustrated that he was doing all the fighting and none of the winning, Nacjar landed in even harder, grunting with exertion.

Finally Ameryn’s blade slipped from her hand. Nacjar stood back, grinning as he watched it fall, anticipating the thud of metal against earth…

When Ameryn lashed her tail forward, wrapping it tightly around its hilt, then spun rapidly, knocking the flat of her blade hard against Nacjar’s legs. Surprised, he slipped on the grass, crying out as he landed, his sword flying from his hand and clattering to the ground.

He lay there, panting and fuming, as Ameryn sheathed her sword with a flick of her long golden tail. Sword and sheath disappeared in the folds of her dress, and she stood there, regarding Nacjar calmly.

“Not bad,” he gasped. “For a beginner.”

Ameryn smiled. He was radiating so much anger she felt like she needed to shield her eyes. But for allof his indignant wrath, there was a change in him. For the first time in her brief acquaintance with the Sprite Squire, she caught a glimmer of respect.

“Thank you,” she replied, extending her hand. He took it, and she pulled him to his feet. Then she walked away without another word. But she was smiling.

Flight of Fiction (18)

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Ameryn woke up in a pool of broken glass. The first thing she felt was the sting of the shards against her exposed skin. The second thing was the sting of icy early winter air seeping in through the cuts and into her bones. It was still dark. Her eyes couldn’t focus on the shifting shapes around her. Everything was dark and blurred. She wondered if she were still dreaming. At first she couldn’t think of why she was lying on the flagstones surrounded by glass.

Then it came back in pieces, like the bits of Aileen’s shattered picture window stuck into her skin.

The locked door. Aileen’s scream. Then the conspiratorial whispers. Nayr’s voice and the princess’s. That blasted locked door. Tearing it down. She felt for the splinters under her nails.

But it had been too late.

Now she could see. All around her bustled members of the king’s Wolfguard, their noses pressed to the ground, searching for the beginnings of a trail. But Nayr, his knights, and the princess had vanished like smoke.

Painfully, she raised her upper body from the ground. Her hands groped for the source of the sting that seemed to be numbing her lower body. She found the green-fletched dart in her leg. The area around the wound was purplish and bruised. Slowly she regained feeling in her legs.

Her mask. She felt her face, but the mask was not there. She had thrown herself from the tower window without a thought to her appearance. She was fully exposed to the Wolfguard prowling around her, who gave her a wide berth and turned their eyes away.

Her ears awoke to the clamor of bells. Alarm bells. The castle gates were wide open. Beyond she saw the panicked throngs of townspeople, peering in on the open courtyard, their faces the picture of dismay. They knew the princess, their beloved princess, was gone. And there was only one person to blame.

“It’s awake!”

“Don’t move—you’ll startle it!”

“Eh, what could it do? Useless creature. All that fear, all that mystery, all that menace, and for what? The princess is gone, and that thing couldn’t do anything to stop it.”

“Nasty creature.”

“I’ll have its hide.”

The captain of the Wolfguard signaled, and the gate was shut.

Ameryn shivered, but she saw no point in getting up and moving out of the cold.

She felt two firm hands on her shoulders. She was yanked up and wrenched around, finding herself staring into a wild-eyed, wrinkled face. The Tree-Man who awoke in the garden that day, many weeks ago.

“What—?”

“On your feet,” the man snapped. He was robed in blue, as before, but the fringes of his robe seemed reddish now, as though he had walked through wine or blood. He pulled her up on her wobbling legs, still unrecovered from the sleep drug.

“Come along, Guardian. There is work to do.” He turned and strode into the castle with energy belying his apparent age.

Who was this man, she thought. Her tongue had not found the strength to speak.

“I am Arato, my Lady Ameryn,” he shouted back at her over his shoulder. “I am the Keeper of the House of Wolves, and you would be well-served to stop asking questions and start following me. We are going to see the king, and there is much we must convince him of.”

Ameryn could only stare at his retreating figure, astonished. With a snort, the old man twitched the great willow branch he used as a walking stick, and Ameryn was yanked forward and followed him on a strength not her own, step after heavy, bewitched step into the castle’s shadowy halls.

Flight of Fiction (17c)

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Zon did not respond. After several moments’ silence, she mustered the courage to look up.

He was looking at her. He did not look at her in the way most people did, their eyes darting around her face, taking in every gruesome, misshapen detail. He was not looking at her crest of untamed hair or ogling at the claws on her feet or her long golden tail. No—Zon was looking at her eyes, as though there was nothing else about her to be seen.

“No,” he said, slowly. “Perhaps you aren’t free.”

Ameryn tossed her hair from her face, as though the fact were of little concern to her. It wasn’t. She lowered her eyes to the fire again. “Well, there you have it. What’s done is done—the past is what it is. I’ll deal with the scars. There are more important things to worry about now.”

“Are you determined to take the pass over the Mountains?”

“I am.” Ameryn allowed a trace of defiance to enter her tone and her gaze. “With or without you. While you and the troupe have been most kind, my duty is to the Princess.” Hearing the harshness of her speech, she softened. “I am sorry. But that is what I must do. I am bound to her. I have no choice.”

“I understand,” he replied, “and you must understand that I am duty-bound to protect the troupe.”

Ameryn nodded.

“We’ll discuss it in the morning,” he continued. “Narina’s speech this evening left everyone a little cold, so the general opinion wasn’t exactly favorable…”

“That’s an understatement.”

“Narina has walked a difficult road. Her life in the Mountain’s shadow was far from easy.” He looked at her again, his clear blue eyes seeing far more than Ameryn wanted him to see. “You are not the only one of us who has suffered greatly under Sucraám’s regime.”

Ameryn nodded. She stood up quickly.

“I’m warm enough now.”

“Good.” Zon smiled. “Rest well. Prod Enilor awake, will you? Her watch is next. Her tent’s over there,” he added, pointing with his stick towards the smallest tent.

Ameryn left the fire’s warm circle and immediately felt the sting of cold air biting her exposed skin. She lifted the flap to Enilor’s tent and saw what looked like only a pile of blankets. She nudged it, and it grunted.

“Whaaaa…?”

“Enilor, get up. It’s your watch.”

“I don’t wanna…too blame coooooooold.” The bundle hunkered tighter into itself.

“Enilor, come on. The fire’s plenty warm once you get there.”

“Harumph. Fine.”

The wad of blankets stood up and groggily shuffled out of the tent, muttering mutinous grunts under its breath, a paddle-like tail dragging behind. Ameryn chuckled, and returned to the tent she shared with the taurlin twins. She lay down again to sleep.

Sleep would not come.

Flight of Fiction (17b)

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A heavy silence followed Zon’s question. Ameryn wanted to answer, but the memories…her face stung at the thought of them. Her face. Her body. Her heart.

“If it’s too uncomfortable to talk about—”

“No,” she reassured him with a shake of her head. “It’s fine.” She took a deep breath. Maybe saying something would help. Especially if she said it to him. He who alone knew what she had looked like before her mutilation.

“You remember that day…?”

“How could I forget?” Zon took a long stick and stirred the fire, not looking at her. Perhaps he knew that his gaze unsettled her.

“After Sucraám’s slavers took us from our homes, you remember, we traveled together for days.”

“That’s how we met Enilor and Loui,” he finished.

“And Claritas and her sister. They had been together for a while, all chained together in a line.”

“Sucraám’s brand already on their necks,” Zon added. He pulled his collar down, revealing the red circular mark on his own neck. He looked at Ameryn. She stretched her head backwards, outlining the same brand on her neck where it was hidden under a tangle of scars.

“You remember that day, then, when Sucraám found me.”

Zon nodded.

“To this day, I’m not sure why he singled out that group of slavers for inspection. Maybe it’s because he knew that my kind kept to the south and to the west. Maybe he was hunting for me, just me. I still do not know.”

“He took you,” Zon prompted.

“Yes,” Ameryn whispered, her mind starting to lose itself in the memories. “The will of the Sprite King was not to be denied. He pulled me from the line…” She swallowed. “By my hair. I remember you screaming.”

Zon said nothing. His head was down.

“He took me with him. I was his slave, hand and foot. He asked me what I was. I could not answer. He asked me if my parents had ever told me what I was. I did not know. I was just a girl.” Ameryn forced the words around the growing knot in her throat. “Just a girl.

“But he knew what I was. He knew, and would not tell me. Whatever I was, he hated it. He hated my people. He killed my parents, and he tried to kill me. He tried and he tried, but he did not succeed,” she said, swallowing again and managing a feeble laugh. “As you can see. But he did everything in his power to strip me of what I had been before. He changed me. He made me ugly. He took my face away. He made me his beast. I existed this way for a year and a half.”

“Those are the very scars he gave you?” Zon asked. “They look…pardon me, but they look…”

“As though they were made yesterday?” she finished. “Yes. He made sure the scars would remain. Sprite sorcery is more wicked than they would like the world to believe. He poured something into the scars so that they would not heal. And every time I think of him, of what happened…” She pulled her hand away from the scars on her neck. Her fingers were spotted in blood.

“How did you escape?”

“I didn’t.” She smiled. “I’m not brave like you. No, I was bought. When King Grare finalized the peace treaty between the Rats and the Wolves, stopping the genocide, he caught sight of me in Lord Sucraám’s tent. He inquired after me—asked him what I was. He told the king I was a monster he had tamed—very strong, impossible to kill, and very fast. The king bought me that day and took me to Kharador, where I was trained to be his daughter’s watchdog.”

“Does he know what you are?”

“No, I don’t think so. No one does. Perhaps I did, once, but now…” she shook her head. “All memory of what I was has been erased. I am nothing more than the princess’s Guardian.”

“At least you are free now. Free from him.”

Ameryn scoffed. “I will never be free. Look at me. My face bears his signature. And now his son—his son—” Ameryn was shaking. “His son has kidnapped the princess. She is his slave. What more can that monster take from me? What more?”

Flight of Fiction (17)

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As weary from the day’s travels as she was, Ameryn could not convince her body to sleep. She was on her back, staring at the ceiling of the tent she had been sharing with Claritas and Mesmeralda, the taurlin sisters. Those two were sleeping peacefully, their deer bodies curled gracefully underneath them, leaning their torsos against each other’s for support. The chill had seeped through Ameryn’s blankets, the numbness in her extremities prodding her awake every time she neared sleep.

On her first night with the troupe, she had slept just fine. Better than fine—it was the first night in years that she experienced a deep, untroubled sleep. She felt for the first time on her journey that everything would turn out for the better. With the Troupe’s cunning and Zon’s leadership, Aileen was as good as saved. But another day of travel had dimmed the dream. What if they didn’t make it to Nanduvar in time? She couldn’t bear the thought of what might happen to the princess if there was any further delay.

After a few more fruitless moments of tossing and turning, she gave up with a huff, pulled her blanket around her and crawled out of the tent, heading for the fire.

Zon was there, seated on the ground with his back to the flames. Watching the darkness. His sword was unsheathed and resting on his knees.

Ameryn said nothing, but sat down on the opposite side of the fire from him, the side closest to her. She held her hands out from underneath her protective covering of woolen blanket, trying to warm them. The flames made an eerie shadowplay with the scars on her hands. She thought she saw faces for a moment, grinning back at her, winking. She looked into the flames instead.

Zon said nothing. Surely he knew she was there.

“It’s your watch, then?” she asked tentatively.

Zon turned halfway, smiling at her from over his shoulder. “Afraid so. Loui couldn’t keep his eyes open much longer. Listen.” He pointed over to the longest, lowest tent. Ameryn heard the low rumble of the giant’s snore.

“That snore has got to be our biggest security risk,” he added, shaking his head and chuckling. He shifted so he, too, was facing the flames. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“No,” Ameryn replied, rubbing her hands together. “It’s too cold to sleep.”

“They don’t think so,” Zon said, gesturing around to the tents filled with sleeping musicians.

“They’re probably used to it. I haven’t slept outdoors since…well, you know.” She was smiling, but sheepishly. Why was she sheepish? Zon was no one to fear. “I’m used to sleeping indoors, and at the foot of Aileen’s bed. Until she’s safely home, sleep won’t come easily.”

Zon made no reply except for a nod, which Ameryn caught in her peripheral. Ameryn glanced up to make sure he wasn’t looking at her so she could study his face freely. He was looking at the fire, his mind turned inward. His face was smooth. Scarless. He seemed free of worry. Odd for a man always on the run, she thought. Odd for a man who, too, knows the meaning of slavery. At least he escaped with no scars. She touched her own face out of habit. Yes. Hers were still there.

The boy raised his eyes. Blue met brown, and she quickly turned hers downward. Why would he even want to look at her? She pulled her hands beneath the blanket and wrapped her arms around her knees protectively as she pulled them to her chest. She had never felt more hideous than she did at that moment, under his threatless gaze.

“Ameryn,” Zon said, quietly. His voice was so gentle, unlike any other voice—any male voice—she’d ever heard. She couldn’t look at him.

“Ameryn,” he repeated, just as gently, “what happened?”

Flight of Fiction (16b)

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A hush settled over the throne room. The last of the Kharmaán nobles had walked down the long carpet that stretched to the foot of the throne. The procession should have been over—the king should have risen from his throne and greeted those who had come from the far corners of Berasia for his daughter’s Festival. But he did not stand. He simply gazed ahead of him, towards the arched entrance to the throne room, as though expecting something more.

The little herald that stood at the entrance looked at his list. Ameryn watched him fidget like a frightened rabbit. He was looking at the last name on the list. His lips were forming the name. His eyes darted over his shoulder. He could not raise his eyes to the throne and the steady, unshaken gaze of the silver-haired king.

Ameryn felt the hair prickling on the back of her neck. There was something in this anticipation she did not like. She trusted the king—but who else was there to walk through that arch but one of the Naréon? The House of Wolves was well-represented—no nobility remained in Berasia but the ill-reputed House of Rats.

She heard the groan of an opening door. A gust of autumn wind rolled down the gaping hall from the palace doors and stirred the heavy curtains that hung over the throne room entrance. The little herald trembled.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the king grip the wolves’ heads that supported the armrests of his throne just a little tighter.

A gloved hand pulled back the curtain, revealing the anticipated newcomer. Without waiting to be announced, he strode into the room, his entourage behind him, their armor clanking.

Ameryn felt her breath blown from her body. She had never seen this man before. Nothing in his gait or bearing was familiar. His coal black hair and deathly-pale skin told her no more about him than that he was a Sprite. His dark, heavy armor betrayed his rank; the long, double-tongued sword strapped to his side told her he was a warrior.

But his smile—a perfect smile, stretched across his chiseled face and revealing a line of straight, white teeth—and the glowing green of his eyes were all too familiar. She knew those eyes. She had seen them before. Those eyes and that smile still mocked her in her darkest nightmares.

“Nayr, High Sprite Lord of Nanduvar—” squeaked the herald. Ameryn held her breath, awaiting the rest, knowing full well what she would hear:

“—Son of Sucraám.”

Flight of Fiction (16a)

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“Announcing Lord Argyne and Lady Areeth, high Cheiftains of the House of Coyotes, and their son, Aarn.”

It seemed they were the fiftieth family that morning. The palace’s throne room was filling up with nobles, but slowly. In twos and threes, the scattered nobility of Berasia marched down the thick blue carpet as if they were meeting the King at the altar. King Grare and the Princess Aileen inclined their heads graciously to each visitor, but to Ameryn, it seemed that the both of them might as well be nodding off.

The King’s Wolf was stretched out at his feet, panting and watching the nobles walk by without so much as a flop of his tail. Aileen’s Fox had fallen asleep in her lap an hour ago, and was now twitching its great ears, hunting in its dreams.

Ameryn watched the eyes of the regally garbed royals as they walked by. Part of her job as the princess’s Guardian was using the most peculiar of what the king called her “special skills”: determining which ones were trustworthy, and which were not. The Coyote family seemed harmless enough—their son radiated no ill-will, and seemed, Ameryn thought with a smirk, a bit simple-minded. If Aileen went after that one, she would have a thing or two to say about it, but she could tell that these three would be no threat.

Every family followed the same pattern on their journey from the arched throne room entrance to the foot of the throne. They walked stiffly, the air around them humming with nervousness, their eyes fixed on the king and the princess. At least, the older ones did. Their sons and daughters—thus far unaccustomed to the halls of the king—had never seen the Guardian before. She caught every one of their furtive glances in her direction, each fearful peek a pinprick on her consciousness. No one ever saw her face—oh no, that would be too horrible. What they saw was a shapeless grey-robed figure wearing a brightly burnished wolf mask, its mouth gaping, hungry. That was fearsome enough. Ameryn smelled their collective fear—even their Beasts seemed to be walking toward her with hesitation.

The King and Ameryn had cultivated this fear in the hearts of Berasians for the last decade. Fear for the Princess’s Guardian meant no one would dare touch the princess. The rumors flew across the country—indeed, they were in the whispers of the throne room at that very moment. Some said she had horns and long fangs. Others said she had long claws on her hands and feet. But the most fearsome things of all was, of course, her lack of a Beast.

Every citizen had a Beast, which served both an animal that answered their family’s call and a symbol of the family itself. The King had his Wolf, the Princess had her Fox—other human families had Bulldogs and Dingos and Mastiffs. The High Sprites had Squirrels and Rats and Ferrets. The Low Sprites had Sparrows and Finches and Skylarks. In Berasia, you either had a Beast or you were one.

Ameryn had no Beast. She had no family, no race, and no name. In the people’s eyes, she was a monster.

Ameryn watched the fear flit through the eyes of suitor after suitor as they walked past her. She smiled grimly under the cover of her metal mask. If I must be a monster to keep the princess safe, she thought, then so be it. 

Flight of Fiction (15c)

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Aileen’s chambers were indeed fit for a princess. The room was a large semicircle, a wide window filling the great curved wall, a fireplace on one end and the Aileen’s four-posted bed on the other. The plaster ceiling was painted with a blue sky with fluffy, pink-edged clouds and little soaring birds. The rug over the smooth stone floors was thick and green like spring grass; the same green that tinted the gauzy curtains around Aileen’s bed. The walls were decorated with bright hangings depicting embroidered foxes and fairies gallivanting in a woven forest. Between the hangings were bronze sconces shaped like winged foxes holding little torches, like guardian angels keeping a vigilant watch over the princess while her Guardian of flesh and blood went out for her morning run.

Ameryn crossed to the bed and pulled back the curtain. All that could be seen of the princess was a thick wave of auburn hair splashing out from under the covers.

“Aileen?”

Ameryn reached over and pulled the covers back, revealing the princess’ porcelain face, her eyes roving under her closed lids, still chasing the fleeting images of her dream.

“Come on, Aileen. Rise and shine.”

She got a mumble in response. With a huff and half a smile, Ameryn went to the window and pulled back the heavy velvet curtain that thus far had been blocking out the morning light. Suddenly the room was flooded with light, which glimmered off the metallic threads in the tapestries and bed linens and bronze sconces, making the room look like a fairy land.

Aileen’s black eyebrows furrowed, but her eyes stayed closed. With a protesting grunt, she yanked the covers back over her face.

“Really, Aileen?”

“Five more minutes.”

“I’m late as it is. Come on, you’re due in court in an hour. The guests start arriving today.”

Aileen’s eyes snapped open, as clear blue as the autumn sky that now filled the room’s massive, faceted window. “Today? Oh! It is today!” She bolted upright, rubbing her eyes.

“Thought that would get you,” Ameryn said, smiling triumphantly. “I’ll ring for brekkers.” She stepped over to the fireplace a pulled a long cord that hung by the door that led to Aileen’s sitting room.

“I’m not late? No one’s showed up yet, have they?” Aileen had lunged from her bed to her dressing table, and was now frantically running a brush through her thick auburn hair.

“Not that I could see. Slow down, or you’ll get all frizzy. Relax—you’ve got an hour.”

“Might not be long enough,” Aileen said, looking at her reflection with a worried expression, poking her face experimentally.

“Take care you don’t make yourself look too lovely,” Ameryn jested. “We don’t want to overwhelm the poor boys, now, do we?”

“All those people coming in, just to look at me—ugh! I’m too nervous to think straight.”

“Hopefully you won’t be too nervous to eat. I’d rather you not faint again. Not very ladylike, and rarely makes a good impression.”

“Ammy, I was twelve when that happened.”

“Still,” Ameryn said, crossing to the wardrobe and rifling through the princess’s gowns, “can’t be too careful. How about this one?” She pulled out a long gown of gold cloth, edged in embroidered doves and frosted with lace.

Aileen eyed it, biting her lip. “Don’t you think it’s a bit—fussy?”

“Court is fussy. So is courting, come to think of it.”

“Stop it, I’m nervous enough. How about the blue one?”

“Isn’t it rather every-day?”

“Well—”

Ameryn did her best to give a reassuring smile. “Whatever you feel comfortable about, dearie. It doesn’t matter.”

Aileen slumped in her seat. “I should wear the pink one. I look awful enough in it that maybe they’ll all take one look at me and run back to wherever they came from.”

“No such luck. You’d look lovely if all you wore was a potato sack.”

“Do I have one of those?”

“Not the last time I checked.”

“Phooey.”

Ameryn leaned against the wardrobe, examining her charge’s face. “I thought you loved your birthday celebration, Aileen. You were so excited about it last year.”

“Last year wasn’t the year. Back then I could keep it all at a safe distance—the choosing and all.” She sighed. “Besides, the preliminary formalities are—ugh!”

“Two ‘ughs’ in one morning. This does not bode well.”

“I know I’m the princess. I know that I have to marry someone to maintain the royal line. And I am excited to find out who that person is—the man I marry. But Ameryn,” she said, casting her clear blue eyes up at her Guardian’s, almost wearily, “I should so much like to fall in love for love’s sake, and not for politics.”

Ameryn looked down at Aileen, her only friend, and the closest thing to family she would ever have. She was a beautiful girl, full of life and spirit and creativity—and gentleness. She would be a perfect queen, and deserved the perfect king. In Ameryn’s mind, no man would ever be good enough for her princess—but for Aileen’s sake, she said, “You will, dearie. I know you will. And he’ll be wonderful, whoever he is.”

“Hmm,” Aileen murmured, and turned to the mirror again. She ran a finger through her hair, lost in her own thoughts for a moment or two.

“The green one,” she said at last.

“Right,” Ameryn replied, pulling a shimmering green gown from the wardrobe and giving it a brisk brushing down, making its golden embroidery spark in the morning light.