11 Apr HOMESTEAD
“Alynah. Oh, Alynah.” Queen Rosalind’s tone was filled with empathy, and her voice quivered as she continued, “I’m so sorry my child. All my life I’d dreamt of being Queen. I remember playing as if I was in royal dress, wearing the finest tablecloth I could find, tied taut at my side. A train of dusty cloth followed me. I loved that feeling. My followers now want answers when I have none. I despise feeling incompetent. The reality of life is so much different, isn’t it my child?”
The tears wavered at the corners of her mother’s eyes. Why is she sad? Alynah couldn’t fathom a reason, and her forehead creased in frustration at the effort. All she’d done was ask mommy why no one wanted to be her friend anymore. She used to have many friends. Yet the moment her daddy became the King, Alynah was no longer included in any of the fun. She’d tried connecting, but it seemed to make the other kids more nervous. They preferred avoiding her. Once she got past the hurt and tears, she asked her mother, “Why?”
“I should have told you what to expect, Alynah. I knew how alone I felt. How quickly you’d become ostracized. It’s like everyone thinks you smell the moment you wear a crown. They all simply look down at the ground as I approach now. It’s like wearing this thing makes us living ghosts.” The Queen let the crown drop to the floor with the tears. She coughed roughly, smiled, and continued. “We are alone, Alynah. Royalty must make the hard choices. Kings, Queens, and princesses are not meant to converse with commoners. We are meant to decide.” The tears stopped falling, and confidence now filled her voice.
“You’re not alone mommy, you have me!” Alynah ran to hug her mom, who held her tight. The Queen plucked the comb from the dresser, and began combing Alynah’s hair, ripping into her curly hair and harshly waking Alynah from her daydream.
The horn carved comb tore through curly orange locks, ripping out lots of her own hair in the motion. The pain felt good. It sated something inside her, and she continued combing. The pain, her new companion, took over for the overbearing loneliness that had engulfed her recently. The comb ripped again through her stubborn hair, and the pain created an odd itch that just made her want to comb harder. She did; the red curls hanging at her chin pulled back into a tight ponytail at last. Surprisingly little pain was involved, just a steady warmth emanating from the missing clumps. The noise growing outside her room reminded her it was almost time. She dropped her mother’s comb on the durable oak dresser, grabbed her mother’s leather pouch, and ran outside still wearing the fine slippers she wore to bed every night.
Living in a fortress was constrictive by its very nature. The twenty plus foot high walls left everyone feeling boxed in. The drawbridge coming down was a symbol of freedom for all, but most importantly for the children. They needed to run outside of the dusty, worn down courtyard, to test their skills on true terrain. Anytime the gate fell, the children weren’t far behind. Before she rounded the corner Alynah assumed all the other kids were amassed at the gates. They were. The wood groaned in the open air as the bridge was lowered slowly with levers by a guard on each side. Screams and yells of exuberant anticipation filled the air around the falling bridge. The kids were ready, and they made sure anyone within earshot knew it.
Alynah was ready too but held back as usual. She’d learned to avoid the other children thereby largely avoiding disappointment. Many times, she’d try to join the kids. They were nice enough, but no one knew how to play with a princess, so she was ultimately avoided altogether. She and the other kids eventually forged a comfortable path of mutual avoidance for the daily drawbridge risings and fallings.
When she was very young, her father told her how wonderful being a princess was, and that the other kids were jealous of her. He had fed her with self-importance, thereby helping her deal with being ostracized by the people. His people. Her father Ryfar, the King. Like mom had said, being the King’s child meant largely being alone. Ryfar had later tried giving her a great, mead slurred speech when the Queen had died. Something about how they were alone now but still had one another. It didn’t make her feel better at all. In fact, it cut her deeply and left her feeling more alone than she could understand. She ran to her room crying countless tears upon even more freckles, hoping the dampness falling from her cheeks would lift her from the inner pain and free her of her burdens. It did not. The tears never did cure her pain, though sometimes they made her briefly feel better in the moment.
Queen Rosalind had passed away a couple moons before the King’s mead induced speech. Alynah couldn’t remember most of what her father told her that night. The gist was about staying strong, which she didn’t feel she was, and about being alone. This she already felt deep in the marrow of her bones.
The truth was she rarely spoke to her father. He was typically too busy leading their people to give her much attention, leaving such tender duties to the Queen. Sure, he’d throw Alynah in the air to show off his strength and give her true heartfelt smiles at her successes, yet he never asked her how she was. He was reliably unreachable, so she learned over time to fade out when he spoke. But she remembered the part of father’s speech about being alone. She remembered it well. The truth of it forced upon her any time she wished to share something with her now deceased mother.
The princess’s best and only friend, her mom, had died fourteen moons ago. Alynah felt like she too was dying from the inside out. It hurt to know mother had suffered while Alynah had been helpless to comfort her. So caught up in herself, Alynah didn’t even know the Queen was sick until she coughed up blood all over her dinner one night, then promptly fell face forward into the bloodied gravy covered mashed potatoes. Alynah refused to leave her mother’s side after that night. Every remaining night she curled up alongside her mother. Daughter warm and growing, juxtaposed alongside her mother’s cold and shriveling body. When the eight year old did sleep, she’d often wake to fits of her mom’s coughs. Alynah would wait quietly until the Queen’s tossing stopped before seeking sleep once again. Eight long moons later, Alynah was alone in the world. The best and only friend she had ever known now lay under a mound of dirt.
The other kids started counting loudly, breaking her, thankfully, from her inner gloominess. The drawbridge was about to drop. She looked to the sky, blinding her eyes with the sun looming bright directly above her. A few squints later and she was watching the bridge drop. You couldn’t see anything beyond the gate’s confines unless you were nestled in one of the four corner archer towers.
Twenty some feet of tightly secured oak logs lowered in unison. Some of the older kids were kicking at the bottom of the gate catching one of the guard’s ire. When the drawbridge was ten feet from the other side of the moat, the kids jumped on early, ran across, jumped off, and headed west. Both guards let go of their levers and laughed together at the little ones excitement to be free. The guards probably wanted to escape their confines too, Alynah mused. Duty held them strong, however, and they didn’t budge, even when she quickly ran past them too.
She paused at the gates edge aware of the cold air nipping at her reddened cheeks. Instead of turning away from the cold, she pushed down on the leather pouch at her stomach and ran alongside the east side of the fort. Curving her path alongside the nearly twenty-foot-wide moat encasing the entire fort. She peered at the dark motionless water wondering how deep it actually was. Alynah was careful to stand a few feet from the edge of the moat peering for fish. There were many types of fish to find in the sludge, but there were other things too. Dangerous things. More than a few of her father’s people had disappeared in the moat never to be seen again. The soft motion in the moat’s current hypnotized Alynah. Her eyes grew heavy, and she decided to move on. She looked toward the back of the castle and smiled at her favorite spot.
She skipped her thin frame between the moat on her right and countless aspens to her left. The air was cold and demanded she cover up. A scream carried eerily in the wind, and she paused listening for more messages in the cool crisp air. Hearing nothing and satisfied it was not an emergency, she continued until she reached the back of the fort.
A gaggle of geese honked loudly in her direction, upset that an intruder found their hidden sanctuary. They soared high in to the blue-grey sky seeking new and safe land, still honking at their sudden uprooting. She followed their flight for a little bit before returning her attentions to the earth below for treasures.
The attacks on her home almost always came from back here. The ground was littered with innumerable arrowheads from the last big battle- the one that took her grandfather’s life. He had died somewhere on this soil.
Ryfar became King that day when both of his older brothers also fell in the battle. One winter solstice later, Alynah and Ryfar were alone, together in the world. Two forsaken strangers bonded only by blood and a mutually painful history.
Over many moons, she had found an incredible collection of treasure back here among the lonely, slender arrows protruding from the dirt. Most of the arrows were bent or broken under the harsh winter weather. She grabbed a random one plucking it free from the dirt like a weed, marveling at the sharpened translucent stone tied expertly to the end of it. She cut through the binds with the small knife she always kept in the leather pouch and tossed the splintered wood into the moat’s water. A second later, a large ripple of water dashed to the arrow shaft. A large leathery mass broached the surface and pulled it under. A couple breaths later, the arrow shot back to the surface and bobbed softly until the ripples in the water stopped once again.
The stone in her hand grabbed her attention. Alynah lost herself in the pinks and oranges buried deep within its contours. She lifted it to the sun’s light, exploring the different shapes and crevices revealed under the bright rays. The crystalline stone reminded her of her mother’s sweaty nightgown, how she could see through its barriers to her mother’s fading health beneath. Anger built in her from the memory.
All alone, she felt the stone, and tossed it into her pouch ignoring her darkening feelings. Needing a distraction, she searched for another treasure and was rewarded almost immediately.
An object reflecting the sun’s rays caught her attention at the edge of the moat. Alynah blinked through the brightness and recognized something metal stuck in the wet earth. She carefully crept closer to the moat’s edge acutely aware of all the commotion in the water. She saw a large, spotted fish gliding just beneath the water’s surface and before she could think, she sprang into action. She ran the three feet to the object and tried to wrest it free of its hold in the wet earth. For a moment, it would not budge, and she panicked, staring into the black abyss of the moat. At any moment a mouth could jump out of the water and rip her little body into its black depths. Finally, she freed her prize. Her thin legs immediately jumped back from the moat’s edge, and she slowly walked backwards clutching at her new find. Alynah kept her eyes on the water and was rewarded with a clear view of black leathery webbed digits with a slew of long white talons searchingly scraping the earth where she had just stood. She continued creeping backwards refusing to blink until she felt safe once more.
Before her father had become King, she had been back here with her friends. That is, when she had friends. They were playing wolves and humans, as they always did. Half the team were wolves and the other were humans. Once a wolf touched a human, they were a wolf and once a human made it to the wolves’ base, three wolves turned human. It mostly involved a lot of screaming and yelling and a whole lot of fun.
That day, however, one of their friends Tristak ventured too close to the moat’s edge, and the screaming and yelling lost all its humor. The thing in the moat moved slowly on land, that much was obvious, but Tristak slipped in a puddle and fell down a foot from the moat’s edge. This was all the creature needed to take advantage. The slimy, black, leathery, algae covered animal’s pointed beak appeared first, then its wide disc like frame. The mouth ran the entire length of its body, lined with what looked to be thousands of tiny needles for teeth. Tiny eyes blinked at both ends of the enormous mouth and a row of horns lined its center. It crept out of the water slowly but quickly enough to put its enormous, talon-rowed flipper on her friend’s back.
Tristak had yelled for help as the creature crouched over him, leaned down, and bit his right leg off at the thigh. The sound of that bite was like a twig snapping underfoot. Tristak screamed and begged for help. The other kids either backed away or didn’t move and simply watched. The black creatures’ talons pierced Tristak’s skull with one quick stab silencing his screams forever. The kids all watched as the creature calmly ate the rest of Tristak’s leg. After what seemed like hours, but probably didn’t reach a minute, the creature finally, slowly pulled his prey into the moat’s water by Tristak’s impaled forehead. The squishy, crunching sounds it made chewing on her friend’s leg was something Alynah would never forget.
The memory sent a fierce shiver up her arms. Finally, she glanced at the treasure she’d risked so much to win- a steel dagger with vibrant colored jewels on the handle. This was a true treasure, and her eyes and mood widened for inspection. Looking down, she also noticed her night slippers were now covered in mud. She almost dropped the dagger in shock. She was going to be in so much trouble. The dagger clinked against the new stone as she dropped it in her pouch.
Brisk air filled her lungs reminding her, once again, just how cold it was, even with the sun out. She bundled the fur stole at her shoulders with one hand and pinched another fold at her waist. The wind howled, and the sky darkened as the sun hid behind the protection of clouds.
Alynah wanted nothing more than to keep searching for items. She couldn’t believe her luck already, but she knew she needed to try and clean the slime of her once white slippers, or she wouldn’t be allowed out again until her tenth birthday. She needed to get back before Ryfar returned…Or the wolves and wild men attacked again.
They attacked at night, the wolfriders. A shiver grew in her flesh thinking on them. So far they had only attacked the night sentry’s or lone guards patrolling the parameters. Yet, over time, they’d decimated the people that did take up a sword against them. They had taken eight of Ryfar’s men and two boys pretending to be. Nine men if you counted the King, Alynah’s grandfather. No one knew how many wolves and wild men riding them inhabited the hills, but everyone knew there were more. Alynah’s pace quickened, keeping a comfortable distance between her and the moat as she headed back to the gate absent-mindedly fumbling with the dagger and stone nestled in her pouch.
She felt the stone between her fingers, cold to the touch, mirroring her mama once more. The stone had a hard surface, though, and was nothing like the cool wet skin draped over her mother’s weakened bones. Beads of wet memories splash into the green blades below. Memories of a time when her mother was happy and healthy flooded over her. Soft memories that didn’t hurt before but cut her deeply now. I miss you mommy. She mouths the syllables and talks to the sky above knowing her mom lies in the ground below.
Thankfully, a long low bellow broke through her pain. The horns blew at the gate. Time to get back. She wiped both eyes with a freckled forearm and returned the stone to her pouch. Her pace quickened as the sun finally broke through the cloud’s barrier again.
Before turning west, Alynah noticed a cloud of dust far off in the distance.
Her nine year old legs ran as quickly as they could. Running at full speed, fear overtook her other emotions. The guards ahead peered into the distance where she had seen the growing cloud. The frowns on their respective faces reinforced the danger she was facing. Alynah found an even higher gear with the pouch held tightly in her fist. Her daily adventures had made her quick and nimble, and she avoided the humiliation of falling on her face in her rush to safety. The fear took over, gnawing at her thoughts, and she imagined the wolves biting at her thigh, ripping her away midstride, and carrying her back to their caves in the hills far above while she screamed for help that wouldn’t come. She ran even faster still as she passed between the guards at the end of the bridge, not looking back until she was a couple horse lengths behind their safety.
Alynah screamed it once again at the top of her lungs.
Both guards looked back at her before turning back to attend to the King now arriving on horseback. His scout emerging from another cloud of dust much further back. There were no others with them. The trip was a failure. They were all alone just like mommy and daddy had told her. Ryfar had ridden off hoping to enlist some young men to fend off the continued attacks from the wolves and wild men. Arriving now with nothing but his scout, it was clear they were doomed. Alynah frowned and suddenly needed her father’s attention.
“Daddy,” she yelled to her father waving for attention.
The King stopped, looked at her, nodded, and returned to an argument in progress with his men. They didn’t like what he was telling them and, according to their gestures, were clearly disagreeing. Alynah slowly walked backwards to the front of the fort. There she moved to her right and ducked under the lever while peering around the edge of the tall wall. Hiding in the corner, she felt safe enough to peer back, entranced by her father. Regal arms were flailing wildly and pointing to where she now hid. He was yelling now for his men to get back and not to raise the drawbridge. That didn’t make any sense. The guards were right to question daddy.
They always raised the bridge and fought safely from its confines. The archer towers handled the bulk of their battles. Nothing made sense here. Alynah could feel the fear in Ryfar’s voice when he pointed back to the hills and the growing cloud of dust. Once again, he yelled louder for his men to return to the front of the bridge. The scout arrived, dismounted, and knowing the King’s wishes already ushered all able bodied men to defend the entrance to their home.
A haunting chill filled her to her bones as she watched the guards return to where she stood.
The women and children sat en masse in the center of the courtyard. Moans and prayers filled the air around them. Some cried loudly. Some quietly prayed, but all were afraid. One of the nervous guards rushed to the entrance demanding that the people shut up, and they did…briefly. However, doom filled everyone’s lungs at once and the fearful din returned.
There was too much for her nine year old mind to comprehend, but she understood they were in great danger. Alynah slowly grasped what was happening around her. She looked at the line of bearded leather gripping steel at the fort’s entrance. Swords and spears pointed together as one at the King. They were a loyal lot and would defend him to the last. She was afraid they’d send her away, but they didn’t. They either ignored her or hadn’t noticed her tiny frame hidden mere feet away.
She peered past their protection and saw a huge cloud forming in the distance. It had to be more riders. She hoped they were people coming to help. She held onto that dream, until she saw how low to the ground they were and heard the howls lift in the air. There were too many wolves for her to count.
There was no answer this time. He turned in her direction but only to slowly walk to where his men now stood in line. The heavy thudded footsteps echoing in the moat below as Ryfar walked to his men. When he spoke, there was no fear in it. His great voice echoed inside the courtyard giving strength to all. He gave a speech that made his armed guards’ backs erect, and the mood turned from hopelessness to one of resilience. She heard him say it was a fight for their lives and one he intended to win. Alynah was proud of her daddy in that moment, understanding better what it took to be King. The speeches he’d given her about leading made so much sense now. The speech ended with three calls for arms repeated in tandem by his army of eight. The wolves were close now, and she lost count at twenty wolves all carrying riders. The long hair and lack of armor defined the wild men. They gripped the wolves’ fur for balance and rode bare foot but moved with grace on the ground when they did dismount. There were simply too many. She knew now, they were all going to die. These animals would easily surpass her father and the eight guards. Why was the bridge down? Why was father waiting alone? Is this what royals decided to do, die in a clear suicide mission?
He was as all alone out there as she felt now.
A glint of light flashed over all the guards, Alynah immediately searched the skies for a glistening god come down from the air above to save them. Instead, she saw a sword raised high in the sky. Ryfar had removed his sword from its sheath at his side.
One last call to arms from the King and repeated by his men before Ryfar paced to the east side of the bridge only a few feet from his men. The sword made an eerie ‘Scrrriiiittttcchhhhh’ as it followed its master tunneling into the felled grove below. Her young eyes searched through the gaps in the guards’ legs and thighs until she sees father and sword return. As the King neared her side of the bridge, she could read the forged metal in her father’s hand. ‘HOME” on one side ‘STEAD’ upon the other, both written top down. The capital letters were encased by delicately created steel striped snakes with a castle hidden behind their many writhing bodies.
Father had told her a long sordid tale about Homestead the same night he told her how alone they were, sweet mead breath teasing the air between them licking softly at her immature senses. She forgot more than she remembered of the tale, but she could remember it started with her great-grandfather.
Alynah’s great-grandfather was losing his followers to an onslaught of continuous attacks. Unable to defend his home, a defeated Galdor ventured far into the woods with a loyal batch of followers. Father said he was seeking the old hag and her dark magic. No one knows if she used her black magic or if he made a deal with the damned devil himself, but when Galdor emerged again he held Homestead in his hands. They defended the next few attacks expertly. Homestead lit up the sky every time deflecting every intruder entering their home.
The sword gave their family power; they soon had more followers. A name! That had seemed very important to Ryfar relating this story to her that night. He’d emphasized “Name” loudly beating his chest under the candles dull flame.
It dawned on Alynah that all the men in her family had died holding Homestead. Both her grandfather and his father before him had fallen with it in their hands. They had attacked the fading army at their rear and been decimated. Homestead had failed to light up on those occasions. Defense. Daddy had said the only thing he knew was it was defense. Homestead was defense. Her father’s position on the drawbridge now made more sense to her.
“May I hold it papa?” Small hands stretched out to hold Homestead that night. Ryfar had laughed at first, but he soon obliged her, softly placing the sword into her small hands. It immediately clanged to the floor below, her arms too small to support Homestead’s weight. Ryfar’s laughs were usually annoying to Alynah. This time she joined in. Neither spoke of the sword again that night. They held one another in an embrace for the first time in years. Both minds stuck on a wife and a mother, though neither spoke about it.
Her father was a muscular man if not very tall, and she could feel his strength in that hug. She felt safe in that hug. Alynah wished she could receive more of them. She shook off the memory and longed to run to her dad and give him the biggest hug she ever gave anyone before. Instead, she stayed safely hidden in the guards’ shadows at the open gate.
The wolves were so close you could almost hear their snarls. They were running together in pairs now to maximize their attack. Howls from the wolves and yips and screams from their riders filled the air.
As they neared, Homestead slowly started to burn like it was on fire. The steel was turning into dark black flame, its tip dripped in crimson red. The air hummed with electricity as her father raised the sword into the sky.
A violent thumping filled her eardrums. She could tell it was coming from the sword, but she didn’t know how. Curiosity took over, and she studied the sword as it changed colors before her very eyes. No longer the dull grey it was moments ago. It now burned with tiny ebon and red flames licking its honed edges.
The wolves appeared at the front of the drawbridge running full speed. Snarls and saliva dripped from grey furred lips as the large canines closed the distance. Their paws were incredibly quiet on the felled oak. Their riders made up for the silence by hooting loudly, eager for the battle ahead.
Everyone in the fort was scared silent in anticipation of the violence to come.
The thumping emanating from the sword was too immense for Alynah. She closed her eyes hopeful to escape its steady thrum. The drumming bangs against her skull, and she opens her eyes again. Fear draped over her small frame like the fur blanket she slept in at night.
She wiped a red tress from her eyes in time to see her father run towards the approaching wolves, greeting the attack head-on.
As homestead fills the dusky, orange sky with black fire, she noticed how easily it tore through all in its deadly path. Then she saw how Ryfar seemed to be trying to follow the swords gyrations, not lead them. The King staggered behind its smooth movements like a drunkard being led to bed.
The first strike split both of the lead wolves’ heads in half; the decapitated lids flipping in the air. Two legs fell to the drawbridge; the front rider no longer a biped. Blood splattered all around. A red shower splashed all over the steady guards. Some drops flew as far as her fair freckled skin.
The sword hummed more loudly in its apparent thirst. The incessant thumping had increased in speed. She saw the sword rise and fall and rise and fall over and over again. Every time it fell, there was a scream of pain and a fresh splash of red in the orange skies.
Father was on the attack and moving forward through the advancing horde. The guards behind him cleaning up his mess by pushing the dead into the moat on either side of the now red drawbridge. The wolves seemed confused and slowed their advance; some were trying to stop their forward momentum. The blood-soaked drawbridge wasn’t helping them. Some of the wolves slipped right into the moats waters. They seemed adapt swimmers from what Alynah could tell, but the black, leathery creatures brought them far below the surface as soon as they aimed for shore. The first wolf’s entire face was eaten with one crunch before reddening the waters and submerging.
Creatures that had scared her for years, that a year ago had eaten her friend Tristak, that she had been fearful of minutes ago were now a welcome blessing. They were quite efficient too. Not one animal that fell in the moat reached land again. Their screams died in the water engulfing their airways. A growing red oil slick on the black water was the only evidence of their passing.
The moans behind her had subsided. The people’s mood had changed quickly. They were now trying to see what was going on, looking over and under the guards’ holding their positions. There was a feeling of chance in the air all around. Everyone seemed to feel it in unison.
Hope. They should have called it Hopestead, Daddy! She giggled.
Alynah watched intently as nothing advanced beyond Homestead’s deadly touch. She also noticed how the King was avoiding every sharp fang or sword bared at him. Homestead found every forward movement, easily slicing through wild men, wolves, and even steel without hesitation. Like a spoon splitting pudding, everything bursting open under the sword’s path.
The thumping in the air was so loud it felt like a gang of giants running down on them. She knew it was the sword thumping madly as it tore through all intruders, but she looked up anyway. After a glance, she returned to watch arms and legs sliced delicately from torsos. The sword forged a new line of destruction on its return route.
There were none of the usual clang of weapons one heard in battles. Alynah heard nothing but grunts, yelps, outright screams, and that incessant thumping. Her small pale hands tried to muffle the thumping in her ears. They failed. She lowered them to her sides in frustration and continued watching.
She filled with enormous pride as she watched her father, the King, rip through his people’s enemy. Homestead and the King were winning. There were roughly twelve wolves and their riders left, and Ryfar was moving through them. With nowhere to go, wolves met sword and sword won. He met the next three wolves with a long downward slicing arc, removing the heads from the shoulders of the first two and the left front leg of the other. All three fell to the moat below and disappeared into the black water. Their riders jumped in the air to the drawbridge below and were met instantly by Homestead opening their bellies and the contents inside on the red oaks below.
Ryfar was halfway down the drawbridge now, and everything was drenched in red. The guards at first looked to be wiping the blood away from their ears, but they too were bothered by the thumping and tried muffling the assault on their senses. Everyone but Ryfar seemed bothered by the constant invisible hammering in the air everywhere. In fact, he seemed energized and continued moving forward. Always moving forward, my daddy.
The King’s face was covered in blood. Through the glistening red mask, she saw a smile on his face which took her aback. Daddy was enjoying this? She thought she saw the smile turn into a grimace, but she was distracted when he beheaded the next wolf ahead of him with his backstroke. Its teeth, gnashing wildly, found purchase on her daddy’s wrist as the wolf’s back legs slipped into the moat’s deadly water. Ryfar braced himself and seemed to simply wait as the sword cut back across and removed the jaws of the offending animal before it fell completely into the water and drowned below. She saw as her father appeared to trip and then fly violently in the opposite direction, Homestead leading the way.
Something was wrong, and Alynah knew it. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something wasn’t right at all. The King was stopping the heartbeats of the next two attacking wolves when a horrible feeling of loneliness came over her.
The remaining five wolves turned and ran up the path from whence they came, presumably back to their caves up in the hills.
They had won? Did we win? She asked no one.
The wolves howled into the wind for their lost brothers. The wild men forlornly echoed their sentiments. They were leaving. It was true. We won. My daddy, the King. Her eyes grew into large saucers at the realization that her father was a hero.
Alynah, with tears of joy in her eyes, looked at him profiled at the end of the bridge in the dropping sun’s purple-red sky. A dulling black light surrounded his right side where Homestead stood. For the first time, she looked at her daddy as a King. She even wanted to bow to him. He’d be mad if she bowed, but she always hated curtseying. Her father was King. She ripped through the standing guards and ran to him before he dropped to his knee. She hadn’t taken two more steps when he fell face forward into the red puddle at his feet. The clang of Homestead crashing to the ground below was the only sound as her father lifelessly crumpled. Everything was silent.
She ran to stand over his fallen body and grabbed his shoulders. With all the strength she could muster, she was able to turn him enough to get his face out of the red puddle. Ryfar spit up blood. She didn’t know if it was from the puddle or his own. She was scared. Alynah wiped the red away with the fur stole still at her shoulders. She watched as her father’s face slowly started to emerge once more. That was when she heard the gasps behind her. They were all yelling her name. She could barely hear them through her pain, and she continued to hold her daddy tighter. She held the King all alone near the end of the drawbridge, too small to handle his frame but doing so anyway.
Eventually, she turned to look their way and saw the running wolves had turned and were now heading her way again. Three wolves alone would be enough to decimate all the guards and her people. Five wolves and as many riders were now barreling down on them. Alynah did the only she could think to do then. She cried. Big long sobbing tears. Howls and hoots now filled the air as the wolfriders moved to take down their easy prey.
Ryfar tried speaking and coughed up what was surely his own blood. It was clear it hurt him to do so. Red spittle drooled from his lip, and his head flung loosely back in defeat. That was when Alynah saw how bad his wounds were. He was completely torn apart. She was amazed he was still held together in one piece. It seemed like he had deep cuts and ragged bite marks over the entire length of his body. One of his arms was held together by tendon alone. In that moment, looking down at her father’s mangled body, Alynah assessed that Homestead didn’t care much for its host. She was angry at the world right now. The sword centered her anger. Homestead’s mission more vivid now. Defend thy home. It had done its job today without a care at all for her dad.
The tears were blinding her reddening vision as her father’s breath seemed to fade right in front of her. Ryfar took one last gulp of air, swallowed it, and slowly let his head fold back, done with his internal fight. The wolves fell into his line of sight, and he lifted his neck back up and stared into his daughter’s face. For a moment, she was elated, thinking he was alive. She didn’t realize his eyes were still closed. He never opened them again, not even when reaching blindly for the sword at his side. Ryfar quickly found the steel, and it thumped in response. A long second later, it thumped again. The blade still looked grey as he tried pressing it into her tiny fist. She resisted at first but conceded to his thumbs’ efforts at opening her palm. He placed the hilt inside her tiny hand.
A week ago, Homestead had been too heavy for her to hold with two hands. Today it soared into the air at once, thumping loudly to life. Its pulse quickening. The pounding pushed at her temples, the blood rushing under her flesh to its beat. Alynah’s heart was pulsating at a ridiculous pace, and the thumping in the air was aping every thump of her heart. Once again, the sword beat a dark black light across the now dusk sky just like when her daddy held it.
The approaching wolves weren’t frightened at all by the sight of the sword in a little girl’s hands. They descended on her, three in a row with two more behind them. Alynah had never been in a fight in her life. The worst she’d experienced was being upset at dinner or being challenged and childishly running off to bed, usually on an empty stomach. She regretted even that now. She painfully missed her mom. Rosalind had told her they were alone and the decision makers. Decide what? Maybe Alynah was confusing her parents’ speeches. She was alone, and all she wanted was her mom and to let the sadness overtake her. She wasn’t a fighter. Everything here frightened her.
Where were their people? She knew without looking that they were still safe in the confines of the fort. At least they hadn’t lifted the drawbridge. That was something. The sadness overwhelmed her in that moment. It colored everything in her vision, and her sorrow boiled into a simmering broth of red-hot anger. She was furious that everyone she loved had been taken from her. She was mad no one was out here helping her. I’m just a kid! Alynah was angry her family had this stupid, glowing sword now burning in her hand. She tried tossing it from her fingers, but the metal snakes bit deeper into her flesh adhering her to Homestead. Flesh and steel as one. That only raised her ire.
Mom! She screamed it. A daughter begging for her mother’s help.
The wolves descended on her. The lead wolf bit at her, but having seen her dad’s wounds, she knew how to protect herself by backing away from the wolf’s advancement. She understood her daddy’s wounds meant he was dead, and she also now understood the sword. Homestead lifted her into the air with its first strike. The steel cut through everything in its path. It was so effortless that she didn’t even notice their obstructions. It was like Homestead was slicing through open air. Everything it touched opened wide. Two of the first three wolves fell on its first strike. One of the wild men threw his spear across her nose as his canine bucked him from its back in bloody pain. She cut man and wolf in half with her downward swing letting the sword pull her away from the next wolf’s sharp fangs.
The anger continued to grow in her, and she realized she was screaming at the top of her lungs. A red shower fell all around her, the sword relentlessly swung her violently from side to side. She watched as one long-haired, wild man defended her swing with his own sword, only to have it drop to the ground in two pieces along with his entire right shoulder. Two of the remaining three wolves had their torso split shoulder to shoulder creating a gaping maw, their legs no longer serving a purpose. The sword left her open to danger, but she acutely dropped one dirty slipper on top of a dead wolf’s head and jumped towards Homestead upward arc. The sword propelled her into the sky, and she flipped mid-air twisting as she landed, once again ready for the sword’s next move. Alynah was still bent on one knee as Homestead removed two wild men’s legs at the thigh.
Through the bloody haze, she realized only two men were left. They moved to opposite sides of her, muttering an unintelligible language that sounded a lot like a countdown. They sprung on her before she could completely decipher it. She was stuck with no time to react. Her anger and sorrow had blinded her. Homestead met one of wildmen, slicing through him like he was warm butter. The bloody spray hit her open mouth amid her primal nine year old scream. She tasted his life on her tongue and wiped the blood off the roof of her mouth. Homestead continued its upward arc until it came back down on the wild man to her left. At first, she thought she missed him. As soon as the sword cut through him, Homestead clanged uselessly to the ground beneath her, once again, too heavy for her tiny hands. Defenseless, she watched the wildman teeter then fall into a heap at her filthy slippers.
They were dead? All of them?? They were all dead???
Alynah ran to her father. She knew before she lifted his head into her lap that he was gone. She stroked the long brown hair from his red caked face and wiped it until he was clean. She had thought she was alone in the world before today, and now she’d lost her daddy. She truly understood what it felt like to be alone in the world now. She was certain of it. She was the last in her line, and she was just a nine year old little girl. She couldn’t rule the people. She didn’t have the first clue about leading. She didn’t even want to. All she wanted was to go to bed.
A thunder took over, a deafening rumble. That’s when she first realized Homestead’s thumping had stopped. She was grateful for that and simultaneously frightened of the roaring. Alynah reached instinctively for Homestead. The princess’s tiny arms hardly able to lift it this time. It clanged uselessly to the ground the few inches she’d managed to raise it. She searched the horizon for the source of the noise. There was no growing cloud of dust like before. There was nothing.
Was she losing her mind? Hearing things?
She held still and listened. There was definitely a growing roar, but it was behind her. Slowly she turned, exhausted and ready to meet her death. Nothing mattered anyway. She was truly alone in the world. She faced the roar bravely.
The people were all cheering. Some yelled her name. Queen Alynah! They yelled in unison. Some of the women were crying like she was. She even saw a few guards tearing up as they all fell to their knees honoring her great victory. Everyone was roaring their approval. She faced her people. The feeling of loneliness melting inside her. Maybe her mom had been wrong. Maybe being alone was what gave them strength. She felt strong. Alynah was tired, but she stood rigid and sure. She relished the feeling of power she gained from the roars and raised her weakened arms to the sky above. A sneer playing at her pink lips as the roar grew louder. She was ready to lead these people. Her people, but first she needed to change her dirty slippers.
TO BE CONTINUED: