In some ways, this is a first draft. In other ways, it's about the 6th or 7th draft. Maybe someday, I'll post all of the other beginnings I've written for this book, to show how its evolved, changed, and Nyeida's name has mutated, over the 8 years I've been trying to tell this story.
Well, I think that's enough to start with! I may post Ciotoph's journey through the gateway in a few days. (why didn't I use his name yet? I'm sure it seemed like a good idea when I was first writing this. I may change that later)
Nyeida was exhausted; she’d danced the night away with countless partners, suitors and friends alike. The grand ballroom had been practically overflowing with the nobility and royalty of the known world. Aeristos, Noridos, and Lanimos of the Elven court had even been there, and she’d shared dance with each of them. She regarded the Elven princes with great fondness; the trip home with them had been full of learning and laughter.
The one person who mattered most had not been there, of course. Melerdin, who had swept her off her feet, only to be banished from the Empire for daring to impersonate nobility, was gone to her forever. Love was not to be hers, it seemed, but that was often the case for royalty. She would have to settle for a tolerable husband, and now that she didn’t need to worry about being teleported off to some random corner of the continent, she finally had time to find one.
There had been many likely candidates that night, but none really stood out. Her half-brother the King would likely have a few suggestions the next day, as would her mother. They knew more about the bachelors of the realm than she did; she’d spent so much time in captivity that she felt she no longer knew anyone, not even her family. Perhaps not even herself.
Her maids were undressing her; they chattered while they worked. It had taken her months to grow re-accustomed to the presence of the maids. None of her captors ever provided such a thing to her, nor had they provided the sort of elaborate clothing that required help to get in and out of. After she’d worn simple clothes for so long, and dressed herself and cared for all of her own needs, she found herself impatient with the frippery of royal garb. A princess could not run around in just her shift, though, and so she had to tolerate it.
The dress she’d worn that night was beautiful, to be certain, yet it would never be worn again. A princess also could not be seen in the same ball gown twice. And so all the hard work of the seamstress, embroiderer, and beadworker went to waste. Once, when she was eight or nine, she’d cut the beads off of an old dress and used them to make a necklace for her favorite doll. Her mother had given her a lecture when she found out. If a princess wanted something, she asked. She didn’t salvage it! Old dresses were not meant to be cut up; they were meant to languish in the wardrobe, until it got too full and the maids threw everything out.
It seemed like hours before they finished removing the dress, and the undergarments, and all the complicated ornaments in her hair. At last she could go to bed. The maids blew out the lamps and candles behind them, and she was alone in the dark. She was used to solitude, and after such a busy night, it held some comfort. Nyeida fell asleep, comfortable with the knowledge that she would wake again in her own bed the next morning.
A young man in the livery of a kitchen servant – slightly stained from the chaos of the night – slipped unnoticed from the princess’s sitting room into her bedchamber. While the maids had nattered on and done their work, he’d been hidden in a decorative chest. It was not the worst or most uncomfortable place his work had taken him, and after tonight, he suspected that such weird situations would be a thing of the past.
He moved quietly across the thick carpet, though his footsteps would have been near-silent even without the rug to muffle them. Natural agility paired with years of practice and training granted him stealth. His eyes had adjusted to the dark, just enough that he could see dim outlines in the black and avoid obstacles. He considered himself the best at what he did, but he didn’t mind the idea of retiring early so someone else could have that honor.
The princess was asleep. He’d waited an hour after the maids left, in a trance within the chest. Careful movements within the close confines had prevented muscle cramps. Those were the sorts of tricks that many others didn’t think of, and it was one of the reasons why he’d risen in the ranks of the Syndicate well ahead of others who had been there longer than he had.
Sleep was not enough. They were in for a wild trip that night, and he didn’t want the princess to wake up before they reached their destination. From within his uniform he withdrew a cloth and a bottle of the herbal poison that the druid had promised would put the girl into a sleep so deep that she wouldn’t awaken until the antidote was administered. His employer trusted the druid, and so he had to as well.
He soaked the cloth with the pungent herbal brew – careful not to breathe too deeply – and rested it across her nose and mouth. While he waited for the poison to take effect, he helped himself to the assortment of small boxes on the vanity. He’d been ordered to find the signet ring that most abductors used to prove that they had the princess, and no one had told him he couldn’t take the other jewels as well. If this scheme didn’t work out as well as the boss expected, it wouldn’t hurt to have a little treasure to live off of.
After he’d placed the goods into a sack that hung from his belt, he turned back to the princess. The cloth and bottle went back into his jacket, and the girl went on his back. He tied her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist. It was an awkward arrangement, made moreso by the fact that she was a good head taller than him and all limbs, but there weren’t many ways to carry an unconscious body down a hundred feet of rope.
As he secured his hook and prepared to climb down, he wondered if the King would appreciate the irony of this as much as he did.
It was a slow climb, and several times he almost slipped. He was thankful for the leather gloves that protected him from rope burn. The thief was a slight man, and his muscles, though strong, did not appreciate the extra weight on his back. Pain was only temporary; he put his mind on the goal and persevered.
He’d spent the past four months as a servant in the castle to prepare for this heist. Four long months of hell in the kitchen; long hours of work under cruel chefs, meals that barely kept his strength up, disgusting living quarters, and various abuse that he’d had to endure to keep his true strengths and talents hidden. There’d been little sleep in that time; at night he would sneak out to learn the layout of the castle and the grounds, the habits of the guards, all the little nuances of the place.
As such, he knew just what path to take after he’d reached the ground and retrieved his rope. He ran along the hardest patches of earth, where he’d leave few footprints. He moved with long strides, on the balls of his feet, swift as he could. The King’s Wood was his goal, that great stretch of forest that ran for miles behind the castle. If all had gone as planned, an associate would have slipped into the Wood earlier that day, amidst all the hustle and bustle surrounding the ball, and placed his horse and supplies at the determined spot.
He avoided all of the guards; half of them were probably drunk from the night’s revels anyway. Gods knew that his fellow kitchen drudges had spent the past three weeks talking about all the leftover food and drink they’d be allowed to indulge in after the ball. It played perfectly into the plan; right now, they were all too busy gorging themselves to even notice that he was gone.
When he reached the shadowy confines of the Wood, he slowed his pace. The trees were thin at the edge of the forest, but it was still a dark place under the meager light of the crescent moon. With great care he picked his way to the chosen clearing, where he found his brown mare, all tacked up and with his sword strapped to a saddlebag. The lackey had done well after all.
Daisy was an old hat at this business; she’d been his horse for almost as long as he’d been a thief. She didn’t give them away with any sort of whinny, only butted his chest with her head and snuffled at his jacket. She was a better partner than most humans he’d worked with: reliable, efficient, and smarter than half of his associates. He was more likely to mess up that night than she was.
He spared a moment to stroke her nose, then set to business. With some relief, he untied the princess and draped her over the pommel of the saddle. He checked all the straps on Daisy’s tack, strapped on his sword, and studied the map of the forest which had been left for him. His destination had not been specifically marked; he’d been told the way to find it when his boss had laid out the plan. He swung up into the saddle and headed towards the only part of this that would be worse than life in the kitchen.
It would be morning before anyone within the palace noticed that Princess Nyeida was gone. As such, he didn’t feel the need to make haste through the woods. He kept Daisy at a leisurely pace, all the better to make out landmarks in the colorless shadows of the benighted forest. It was late Spring, and the night was mild. A light breeze stirred the leaves. In the face of such pleasant weather, he couldn’t see any reason to continue to wear the awful livery jacket anymore, so he stripped it off while he rode and shoved it into a saddlebag.
Freed from the jacket, and far happier for it, he rested a hand on the unconscious princess’s back. It was admittedly the first time he had ever kidnaped someone, and it felt strange to have live loot. He was more accustomed to jewels, money, and artwork. There were those in the Syndicate who excelled at abductions, but they did not have quite his skill for infiltration and stealth, nor quite his tolerance for abuse and misery.
Misery was still on his mind when he sighted the tree. It was about as tall as five men, stout of trunk, with a canopy of branches that spread disproportionately far. That part of the King’s Wood was old, but the tree looked older still. It held no resemblance to the other trees in the area, nor indeed, any type of tree he’d ever seen. The rough bark had an unsettling silver sheen to it, and even in the dark of the night the leaves looked blacker than they should have been. Each leaf was long and narrow, with a serrated edge like the knife of a particularly cruel assassin.
The branches were woven so tightly together that they blocked out even the faint moonlight, though the wood of the tree gave off a feeble light of its own. Nothing grew beneath that shade, nor was there any of the regular forest debris about. The breeze stirred the leaves, and the sound they made was like a thousand insects crawling over each other.
He did not like the thing at all, yet it was his goal. Daisy balked at the very idea of walking under the dense branches, and she never shied from anything. It took quite a bit of somewhat less than heartfelt coaxing to get her to move forward, and even then she took faltering half-steps with long pauses between.
It must have taken a good quarter of an hour to get her to go three times widdershins ‘round the trunk, all the while he chanted the nonsense that the boss had made him memorize. He was not a magician of any sort, and it was not exactly a spell. There were just certain mystical rules that had to be followed when one was dealing with the Scorned Ones.
After the third turn, there were two figures standing next to the tree, where none had been before. To all outward appearances they were identical. Taller than him, thinner than him, garbed in robes of the same deep black as the leaves. Their only visible features were their eyes, which glowed a dim amber from beneath their deep hoods.
Just as he had been told to do, he offered them a scroll of fine parchment. Moving as one, they each took it with one hand, then unrolled it between them. After a minute they spoke together, with voices like the sound of steel being honed. “The price for your passage has been paid. Remember the rules. Stay upon the path. Touch no one, and allow no one to touch you. Do not take anything from the realm. Do not stop for any reason. Do not make eye contact. Speak to no one. The way out will open to you when the time is right. It will be on the path. Do not be fooled by false exits. Safe travels.” This last was spoken with unmistakable sarcasm.
The two rolled up the scroll, and it vanished. His instincts told him that it had gone up one of their sleeves, but he couldn’t say which one. They stepped apart, then, and held their arms out in a mockery of welcome. Between them, the trunk split to form a portal barely large enough for him to ride through on Daisy. The realm beyond was all mist the color of fire, and it was all he could do to force his horse through.
He entered into a place of indistinct outlines, odd angles, and unpleasant sensations. The only thing straight and clear was the path Daisy stood on, which appeared to be paved with charcoal. It crunched underneath every step. As she was now moving forward in an urgent trot quite at odds with her earlier reluctance, this created quite a din. The path was broad enough that two men could have ridden abreast, maybe three. To either side the ground sloped and veered off, depending on its whim. The color varied between sour milk, morning shadow, the heart of a flame, and many colors he could not have described even if he had been in the mood to try. At times it appeared smooth and glassy, but other times it had the appearance of bark, or gravel, or shifting sand, or grassy fields. Diffuse light came from the ground, only to be swallowed up by the featureless black sky.
Oh, and on the topic of names, for the entire eight years I've been writing this thing, the horse's name has been Daisy. I had no idea at the time that I'd be getting a dog named Daisy. I might have to name a character Maggie now, just to be fair.