By definition, survival is the state of continuing to live or exist, typically in spite of an accident, ordeal, or difficult circumstances. Everyone who wakes up every morning has succeeded at this once again without even trying to. Wake up, perform daily tasks, sustain your body with nutrients, try to keep your vessel clean, rinse, and repeat. If you’re very lucky, you might have some variety to your life, something that deviates from the schedule that we follow until we no longer survive.
The definition of survival, however, says absolutely fuck all about how much you enjoy your continued existence and, for the most part, life doesn’t give a shit if you’re having a good time as you keep succeeding at staying alive. Being a survivor does not entitle you to any kind of pleasantness either, your reward is simply that you get to continue your survival routine for one more day.
These were the kinds of things that I had plenty of time to think about as life played out my ever routine survival and I had a tendency to get fixated on them as I did life. One would think that being the daughter of a terrifying war lord would surely provide me with some exceptions to survival being boring, at least. But I had the misfortune of being born a girl, and a willful one at that, much to my father’s dismay. A female born to a family of warriors was the disappointment of my entire community and I had been reminded of it my entire life.
Now before you start feeling sorry for me let me assure you of this, the open loathing of most everyone I knew made me into an incredibly resilient person. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I truly believed for most of my life that I could survive literally anything. I trained harder and for longer than the males in my community, especially my younger brothers, and I was the first to take on tasks that were near enough death sentences, always emerging feeling more invincible.
Eventually it got the point where, my father aside, I was undeniably the best warrior in our entire tribe. That and the fact that absolutely no male in our dominion wanted to take me as a wife, saw me placed firmly into the position of first general in the chieftain’s militia. I was in charge of every Uranesh warrior in the entire Kolrabi desert, reaching to either side of Thron’s borders.
My people, the Urenesh, were considered to be monsters by the good upstanding folks of humanoid society. Societally we were barely higher on the pyramid than orcs who were driven out of Terros in the last hundred years because the humans and the elves and everything in between had failed to understand the culture and customs of the orcish and slaughtered them in the hundred thousands.
According to my father, during The Orc Wars –or more accurately orc genocide– the Urenesh came to inhabit the Kolrabi, taking the shittiest land in all of Terros. The place that none of the humans, dwarves, elves, or anyone else wanted. Because it was considered a wasteland, and The Orc Wars were draining dry the resources that all the kings had, my people were left to our own devices. Left to starve as we tried to cultivate earth that was drier than bone, left to die as access to medicines was cut off by military blockades, and left to establish a society of our own, one free of the laws of other kings.
So despite those hardships, slowly and surely the Uranesh became a strong and thriving people. A little barbaric, but we already talked about the limitations of survival, no one is entitled to anything.
So why are we considered monsters? That’s probably what you really want to know as you force your eyes through the history of my people which is as desolate as the desert we inhabit. We are deemed as being beastly because my people are what remains of the ancient race of snake beings, the result of dark magic and the old gods filling their boring eternal existence. Most of us could pass for humans if the majority of our body was covered, but every single one of my people bears reminders of where we come from.
I myself have pale skin and dark hair which I prefer to keep short as the days in the desert are relentlessly hot, with green eyes that look like those of a serpent and a deadly smile.
In this case, deadly is not a play on words to express my personal attractiveness as my teeth literally produce a toxin that can paralyze anything smaller than a horse. I personally think it’s kind of badass, but I can see why the good citizens of Terros would be terrified. The toxic bite was a trait all of my people shared, as were the serpentine eyes.
The feature I bore, however, that most people would never have the proximity to notice, and if they did they wouldn’t be alive to tell anyone else about, was the scaling that decorated my traditionally pretty face like war paint under my eyes. There was also a spread of the scaling on my hands and feet and down my spine. But as the coloring of the scales was the same as my flesh, most people wouldn’t have noticed it at all.
But enough with the background of my people’s story of survival. It’s long, and brutal, and honestly not very appetizing to hear about, even for the strongest stomachs amongst us.
No this story doesn’t go back nearly that far. It begins when I was fourteen years old, a young princess who was about as unroyal as you could get. The day was just like most had been in my survival story so far, it began with my handmaiden waking me up at the crack of dawn for riding lessons. Tasks that required you to be outside always took place in the short hours before the sun rose as just after the sun set as those tended to be the most tolerable temperature wise. Horse riding was one of those activities that became increasingly less comfortable as the sun heated the desert, not just for us but for the horses.
So we rode in the near dark, myself and my riding instructor Navarre.
“Yasmin how many times do I have to tell you not to slouch when you ride. It’s bad for your back and looks absolutely pathetic from a spectators point of view.”
Navarre was always unexplainably grumpy at me but this morning seemed to be worse than usual. I rolled my eyes as soon as my back was turned to him and straightened my posture, an action that made me considerably less stable on my mount and also put me in the position of having my tailbone bouncing over and over again into my horses back as I struggled to keep up with Navarre’s commands.
“Eye rolling is also not becoming of a princess.” How in the hell had he possibly known? I resolved that I was possibly becoming predictable and exhaled a long, slow, sigh.
All of these lessons seemed so utterly pointless as was destined as a princess to be used as a political pawn so that my father could put a warrior of his choosing on the throne after he died and still follow the tradition of first born child ascension. Needless to say I wouldn’t even be near the throne let alone rule as the chieftain of all the Urenesh. No, that honor would go to whichever warrior was left standing at the end of a battle royale for my hand–and ultimately the throne. And then I would assume my ultimate purpose in life, to produce a male heir.
You see, unlike the common people of my race, tradition dictated that the High Chieftain is required to pair up with a mate to produce an heir that would never be challenged as a bastard, and would be a born under a union blessed by the ancient snake gods of our people, Amareth and Agorath.
The common people and lesser chieftains would never be allowed children of their own, instead taking all children born in the community and placing them in the care of special nurse mothers who raised all the children exactly the same. Coincidentally the nurse mothers were never allowed to bear their own biological children or mate for life, ensuring that the only people in the community who were allowed to marry and keep their own children was the High Chieftain and his heir bearer.
My father’s heir bearer, my mother, was executed about twelve minutes after I was born for daring to not have produced a male heir. I would have surely followed in her fate had my father’s advisor not recommended my continued survival to be used as a bargaining chip at a later point in time. Perhaps if my father had known what kind of bargaining chip I would grow into he might have finished the job and thrown the advisor on the chopping block as well, simply for suggesting it.
But as it stood my father had assigned me meaningless tasks like learning to ride and sewing to fill my time until I was old enough to be married off.
“You’re slouching again!” Navarre yelled and I snapped to attention, realizing I had been lost in my own thoughts, the shock of his yell causing me to fall right off my horse and into the sand. The soft landings were the absolute best part of living in the desert, with literally everything else being the worst parts. But I’d fallen off my horse enough times to appreciate the way the soft grains enveloped my body when I landed into them.
I just lay there still for a few minutes, despite Navarre yelling at me in Uraneshi, saying things I wouldn’t dare repeat. The first light of sunrise was teasing the sky as the navy blue blackness slowly became a bluey-gray haze and the stars faded into the dawn. In stolen moments like these was the only time I ever felt glad of my continued survival. The beauty of the open sky breaking into a new day across the sea of sand was just enough to get me through one more day.
One more meaningless day.
I jumped once more as Navarre’s dark, bearded, face came into my view. The ability to sneak up on people was on the list for the worst parts of living in a desert– curse the soft sand for being a fickle mistress. Navarre looked pissed off and I wondered if he was about to give me a well deserved beating. But instead he shook his head and spat at the ground next to me.
“Useless, stupid, girl. I don’t want to see your face again until tomorrow. Do you understand me?” I nodded, trying to keep my expression neutral as he still seemed like he was considering stomping my face in with his boot.
However, Navarre pivoted on his heel and walked back to the alcazar, no doubt to report to my father what a hopeless case I was. Though I hoped for the sake of his head that he didn’t interrupt my father while he was entertaining his harem of women that seemed to always be present in his private quarters. Though if he was beheaded, then perhaps I would have a few days off of horse riding lessons.
I could tell by the position of the sun that our lesson had ended incredibly early, and I didn’t need to be back home for a few more hours. It was only in these situations, the moments that left gaps in my daily schedule, that I had any time to myself. These moments were precious and sacred and I always did the same thing. Ride north to the border of the desert to see the closest bit of green that I could for the short time that I was able.
It had been months since I had found a moment to slip away with enough time to make the hour journey and back, and I was feverish in my excitement that the time had finally come again.
I pushed myself up from the sand and brushed off what I could. That was another con of living in the desert, it got absolutely everywhere no matter how clothed you were. I called my horse to me and mounted him with ease. My true ability in riding was something I would never let Navarre or anyone else see. Why give them the satisfaction of knowing they had lectured me into submission? I thought not.
I led my horse to the path that was our only road to and from the capital city of Thron, Sevainia, and urged him to move quickly. I simultaneously wished to evade prying eyes and wanted to get in as much time as possible with the grass before I had to say goodbye once more for an indeterminate amount of time.
I hadn’t realized I had been holding my breath until my city was out of view and I let out a massive sigh, feeling as though I had cleared an impossible obstacle. All around me was miles and miles of desert, though on the hazy horizon, marred by mirage, I could see the distant capital city. It was big and looming and I had never dared cross the border far enough to see those stone giants up close. No, as long as I could feel the green on my skin I was satisfied. Lay on the grass, smell the flowers, hug a tree, I was happy with that.
Sometimes living in the desert had a tendency to make you feel like all of the world was as dead as the landscape around you, possibly the most depressing thing on my list of cons. An endless sea of variants of tan made you feel like there couldn’t possibly be any other living thing on the planet, let alone in your country. But the desert was in the middle of two massive territories that were living and vibrant through and through.
To the north was of course the city, and though Sevainia was marked by enormous stone structures, the land itself was fertile and verdant. South of our desert, was a privately owned territory. Thousands of acres of rolling meadows and towering woods that belonged to a noble man of society and his family. From what I knew of these nobles they paid my father handsomely in goods and coin to keep the peace between us and as far back as I knew, the Uranesh had never crossed into their land.
A bright smell hit my nose and woke me from the trance-like state I often fell into while riding. It was the smell of life and growing things and I could hardly keep myself from urging my steed onward, faster, as the poor thing was certainly thirsty and I had already been pushing him to his limits.
It was only then that I became aware that Navarre had taken all our supplies back to the alcazar with him, probably to prevent me from doing exactly what I had done.
“Sorry boy” I said rubbing my horse’s neck and petting his mane. “I royally fucked up.” And as though thinking about the lack of water had reminded my own body that I too needed liquids, I suddenly felt absolutely parched.
I knew that not too far from where I usually visited was a small lake, though it was on a private plot of land, which increased the likelihood of being seen. But it seemed to be my only choice if I didn’t want my horse to die of dehydration and leave me stranded in Sevainia.
So the second we reached the edge of the city and the sand began to be dotted with patches of grass, I dismounted and led my horse slightly to the east of where we usually went.
I had happened upon this lake only once before when I had been daydreaming while riding and took a wrong turn on my way to my usual spot. The lake had been surrounded by people, seemingly in the middle of a celebration, and I didn’t get close enough to confirm but they appeared to be elvish. Based on their mannerisms and the finery of their clothes I would say high elves rather than their woodland counterparts that dwelled mostly in Calliope.
Thankfully though, as I approached the lake now, it didn’t seem that there was an elf in sight, nor anyone as far as I could tell, and I slowly led my horse through the tall grasses and towards the much needed water.
To see that much water all in one spot was truly, for me, a sight to behold. It looked like so much water, that my entire community could drink their fill and still not make a dent in the volume. Back home water was rationed and carefully given out to ensure that everyone had only just what they needed and not a drop more. Even as royalty we were only allotted slightly more than anyone else, and it never really felt like enough.
But now as I approached the water’s edge, after carefully looking over both shoulders once more, I descended to my knees and onto my belly, not an ounce of royal grace to be found as I plunged my hands into the water, scooping it greedily to my dehydrated lips and mouth. Gulp after gulp I took and I could hear my horse lapping up his fill as well.
The soft and plush grass provided a cushioned place to lay as I drank in the liquid, and I thought to myself how it would be equally nice to fall into if I fell from my horse while riding.
It turned out that it was also good at muffling footsteps when someone was approaching you.
I felt a hand clasp on my shoulder and pull me back away from the water’s edge. I flung out my arms and legs in fear, trying my best to remove myself from the firm grasp of whoever was currently dragging me back from the lake, but I hadn’t been trained in anything useful like how to free myself from the clutches of an attacker, only how to ride like a lady and how to make needle point decor. I swore to myself that if I survived this encounter, I would rectify this horrible oversight.
Ten, then twenty feet I was pulled before I was finally let go of and my aggressor bothered to reveal his identity. I found myself staring at a pair of eyes as green as the grass around me, big and tilted up slightly, a pair of overly long eyelashes accenting their unique beauty even further.
It was a boy, probably my age or maybe a year older, tall and sturdy with two pointed ears peeking out from long hair the color of corn silk. He appeared to be equally surprised to see me and had a look of concern pasted across his beautiful face.
“Are you okay? You almost drowned!” the elf boy said, keeping his distance. It occured to me that he had probably seen my scales and indeed he was eyeing my eyes and cheeks with curiosity as much as worry. I pushed myself up from the ground and onto my feet, brushing off the grass from my now stained white, cotton, pants.
“I wasn’t drowning” I said, clearly expressing my distaste for this would be rescuer. “I was getting a drink for myself and my horse.”
He gave me an odd expression and bit on his thumbnail like he was studying me.
“You’re a desert dweller, aren’t you?”
“We’re called Uranesh thank you, city dweller”
He chuckled at my bad mood and put up his two hands in mock surrender, giggling all the while. It was absolutely infuriating.
“Well if you don’t mind, I’ll be on my way then. Sorry for drinking your water. It won’t happen again.” I grabbed my horse’s lead and yanked it a little more roughly than was probably necessary then turned to head back to the Alcazar and my city.
But the boy followed me and slightly jumped in front of me, eliciting another glare from my serpentine eyes, and a snarl to go with it.
“I wish it would,” he said quickly. “I wish it would happen again. Not the drowning of cour–”
“I wasn’t drowning!” I insisted. He nodded like he didn’t really believe me.
“Yes well, I only mean that I’d like to see you again. I’m Ellisar.”
He put out a hand to me and I stared at it with contempt. Did he seriously think we were about to be friends after he dragged me across the ground and scared me nearly half to death?
“Yasmin Nasari” I replied dryly, “Now move so I can leave.”
He got an enthusiastic look on his face and followed me as I pushed past him to get as far away from this uncomfortable situation as possible.
“Yasmin” he repeated. “Yasmin. That’s lovely.” I scoffed and refused to reward his incessant enthusiasm by looking at him. “Please say you’ll come back Yasmin. Please. If you do, I promise to show you my secret.”
I stopped and my horse chuffed as though he was also irritated that we weren’t well on our way. I turned my head, narrowing my eyes as I met his eager face. He took in my skeptical look and returned to me a smile, as if he knew he had caught me in his trap.
“What is it?” I said, trying to evaluate the truth in his bribe.
“Nuh uh. Can’t tell you until next time.” I grumbled and his grin spread like wildfire across his face.
“I don’t know when there will be a next time. It all depends on when I can get away from my tutors.” Bizarrely enough, he nodded as though he understood.
“‘Then I will come out here at this time, every day and look for you until you come back.” I paused, then shot him a scathing look.
“Don’t bother. I probably can’t come back, even if I wanted to.”
“Still,” he said, interrupting my objections, “I’ve got the whole summer home from Vodsurry and I’ve nothing better to do. So I will come out here, every day, and look for the drowning Yasmin.”
“I WASN’T DROWNING!”
Ellisar giggled and slowly backed away, finally allowing me the room to mount my horse. Something about him both intrigued me and made me irrationally angry at the same time.
“Till then Yasmin Nasari.” He gave a proper little bow and I kicked my heels into my horses side, wanting to put as much distance as I could between me and the overly cheerful elven boy.
Perhaps I would go back.
As much as I didn’t like to admit it, I was curious what this supposed secret was and was certainly eager for the opportunity to push him into his own stupid lake. So I resolved that if I had the chance, I would return to the water and to Ellisar, assuming I survived whatever punishment was waiting for me when I arrived back home.
I kicked my heels into my horse again and within minutes had cleared all of the lovely, lush, green, to emerge into the desert once more, dreading what would happen once I arrived back at the Alcazar.
I tried to breathe as freezing water splashed against my body, stealing the air from my lungs and shocking any remaining heat from my body. This was a kinder punishment than what I had expected, though I was also to be deprived of food for a week, save for some dried meat. I felt my skin cover in bumps and my bare flesh stung. It always surprised me just how cold they could make the water when they wanted to. While most of us were grateful to drink water that was so hot it could be used to make tea, on a daily basis, somehow the water used for punishment was cold enough to change your internal temperature in a matter of minutes.
“Had enough Shinkasa?” my punisher sneered at me. Shinkasa being the Uranesh word for princess, which we shockingly had considering most shinkasa never lived long enough to know their title. Jerrik was my punisher, yet again. Tall, large in the shoulders, and with a heavily scarred face despite the fact that he hadn’t yet reached thirty. I always wondered why my father never questioned Jerrik’s eagerness to dispense punishments to his fourteen year old daughter, considering this one, the one where he stripped me naked and tossed buckets of freezing cold water on me, seemed to be the most common choice. Most likely Chief Kazmarhan simply didn’t care.
Jerrik had a malicious look in his eyes now as he dipped the large bucket into the unthinkably cold water once more. The lunatic had the audacity to smirk as he asked his question once more.
“Had enough Shinkasa?”
Yes. I had had enough about fifteen minutes ago but I wouldn’t let this hideous man, inside and out, break me. I never had, never would.
“I was wondering Jerrik” I asked against my better judgement, “Do you offer to punish me because you hate the royal family? Or simply because you can’t get a woman to look at you of her own choice?” It was a risky move, I knew it was. But I had to do something, anything to reclaim my power. Shackled and barren of clothing, certainly of weapons, my choices were limited.
Sure enough moments later his hands were at my throat, squeezing the life out of me, hatred in his eyes. I could feel every inch of his brutish strength closing my airways, but I had learned from going through this scenario many times that he really enjoyed when I got uncomfortable. So instead, I closed my eyes and nullified my face and concentrated on the air that was inside of me, sustaining my life. Sometimes if I concentrated hard enough, I swore that I could feel each individual particle of life that made up my body and by concentrating on that, I simultaneously continued to exist while ceasing to exist.
Jerrik let out a frustrated roar as I refused to react to his violence and he released me, my body thrashing against my shackles. I didn’t open my eyes, needing a moment to slowly exhale and inhale again, knowing that gasping would give Jerrik a sense of victory.
I could hear him at the bucket and trough of water again. It seemed that this would be continuing for a while.
I steeled myself, mentally going back to the lake, remembering the feeling of drinking my fill, of sharing that life sustaining moment with my horse. My mount had of course been decapitated and sent to the butcher for my father’s dinner. A steed that would wander wasn’t a steed that belonged in his stable.
I felt bad for a little, but I had learned very early on not to get attached to things like pets, or trainers, or even friends. They all ended up dead in the end and eventually I couldn’t bear to see anymore beings fall under the weight of the sword for simply making me happy. Instead I chose solitary existence, where the only life I could ever put in danger was my own–and my poor horse.
Jerrik’s heavy footsteps trod near, the water sloshing in the bucket as he did. My skin pricked in anticipation for the cut of a thousand knives when the wave of coldness hit, but Jerrik stopped. I didn’t open my eyes for fear that I would lose all bravery I had, but then I heard the bucket drop to the ground– and Jerrik as well.
“Chief Kazmahran” he said in a revoltingly formal way.
I opened one eye to find Jerrik on his knees, face to the ground. My father had silently descended the steps with his advisors, presumably to check in on how my discipline was going. I watched as their eyes glanced over my nude body like I was livestock that they were examining for quality. The scales beneath my eyes heated and I yearned to murder every last one of them. I swore to it.
My father lifted a scaly hand and dismissed Jerrik, then the rest of his advisors, his snake like eyes boiling with shame. But he had to ensure that I wasn’t killed, or spoiled — meaning of course that Jerrik took it too far and I ended up a dangling corpse. I had to be perfect so that my father could use me as bait to find the prince he had wished I was.vThat had been made clear since I was old enough to understand.
My father approached me, staring into my eyes with a hatred that could have made a hardened criminal wet himself. I met his harrowing gaze right back and kept my expression empty. He reached out and grabbed me by the chin, snarling under his breath.
“When are you gonna learn your place girl?” he hissed, spittle spraying everywhere. He forcefully disengaged from my face, turning away from me. His pewter and green colored robes dragging against the wet ground without care or notice.
“You’ll have to put me in the ground first” I muttered in resentment.
He whirled on the spot and charged at me. A viper striking out at his prey. I felt the back of his hand connect with my cheekbone and heard an audible crack that was the sound of my bones. My stomach heaved and the breakfast I’d managed to sneak from the kitchen before I was caught and punished for my absenteeism, spilled to the floor like a gross waterfall of soupy meat remnants.
This at least had the effect of causing my father to recoil in repulsion and take a few steps back. The sneer on his face stayed put though.
“You mark my words girl. You learn your place or I shall fulfill your wish. I will put you in the ground and you will be alive to experience it.”
It was a good threat. One that made my brain spin as I pictured what that sentence carried out would look like and for the first time in a while, I was afraid.
My mind wandered, though I could hear my father shouting for the guards to release me and send me to my room. Mentally I was back at that pond, with that elvish boy. It had been so calm there, so serene. It occured to me that those were words I’d never used before in my life and an odd sensation played on the back of my mind. Could I escape back to the boy? Back to the pond and the green?
If I was caught I would surely understand the full extent of my father’s threats. But if I could get to the boy, perhaps he could help me. He didn’t seem at all afraid of me, or of my heritage. Certainly not in the way I had always been told city dwellers would be. Maybe he had a family who would take me in and adopt me as their own, stripping me of my princess title but giving me one far more valuable. Daughter.
But before I had time for more daydreaming, I was being hauled across the alcazar, swathed in some kind of canvas material. I knew they were taking me to my room, or rather my princess prison, but I had to fight back the urge to just burst forth and run. For in my room would wait an even harsher punishment. The condescending and pedantic company of my nursemaid, Arisha. Arisha had cared for me since I was a baby and my riding instructor, Navarre, was her son and the contrast in temperament was bipolar.
“Shinkasa” I heard Arisha’s voice croon when I was dropped half naked onto the stone floor of my room. “My little serpent. What have you been getting into?”
The sound of her voice grated every nerve in my body as she had been speaking to me like this since I was old enough to understand her words. Probably even before. She always had an annoying habit of treating my acts of outright rebellion like I had simply spilled food on myself, or dropped a rock on my toe. Every syrupy word tested my patience, and it was already empty.
I exhaled as I pushed myself rightways, noting the throbbing ache in my cheek. It was sure to turn into one hell of a bruise the next day and even now I could feel the swelling starting to set in.
“Oh nothing Arisha. Just some parent child bonding.” I picked up a brush from my ornate, gold and glass vanity and began to brush my still dripping hair. “Death threats, physical violence. The usual.” The feckless idiot laughed in mock humor, as she always did. I truly wondered sometimes if my father had mentally altered her, or if she was just born that fucking stupid.
“Well now” she started, approaching me and snatching the brush from my fighting grip. “Nothing a fancy new dress and a party can’t fix, hmmm?”
Unfortunately for me her “tempting” offer of new clothes and a party was not simply an idle threat. Indeed my father had planned to host a ball that evening for all the young soldiers to come and get a look at me. Arisha assured me that there would be other young ladies there too. But that usually meant there would be a few, middle aged women, serving drinks somewhere in the room. I suppose next to Arisha, the ancient cow, everyone was a young lady.
In a whirlwind of fabrics and perfume, I found myself standing before a full length mirror, staring at my own reflection. My black, silken, hair had been braided into something ostentatious, and I had been sewn up into a sky blue gown that left very little room for breathing — Or walking. My face had been slathered in paints deemed to accentuate my beauty. But I saw it as war paint, used to confuse the enemy. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that the white paint used across my cheeks helped to hide the ever blooming bruise my father had left as a parting gift.
When Arisha had deemed my appearance appropriate, she escorted me down to the courtyard, a sort of outdoor ballroom with fountains and blazing torches. With a vice grip on my elbow, she had led me before my father and I had given the customary bow. My father of course returned my courtesy with whispers to his advisors and I was endlessly tempted to make a rude gesture at them.
Instead I was led to a seat at the side of the courtyard, where a few other –middle aged– ladies sat. I was meant to stay still and look pretty, according to Arisha. But I would challenge her to do the same wearing something this damn uncomfortable and movement restricting.
But I tried to smile at the soldiers, each hoping that they would be next in line to be on the throne, and I silently sent curses to each of them as I did. I felt certain the elf boy and his family didn’t participate in this type of theatrics. Definitely not to marry off a teenage girl. No, I was sure that right. Now, as I was being leered at by a bunch of smelly, unwashed, militia, they were probably sitting down to a fine, family dinner, with warm breads, and spiced wines, and every single one of them dressed in clothing of their choice.
My mind darted to the elven boy’s secret. Was that it? The secret was that his family were the most sound minded individuals to have ever lived? Unlikely. But it was nice to think about.
I spent the rest of the evening getting through smiling, and waving like an idiot by thinking about the boy, Ellisar, and his family. Daydreaming about their lives together, about being invited to that celebration beside the lake, about Ellisar’s secret.
And as I lay down to sleep that night, thoroughly exhausted from the day’s adventures, plus the hours of sitting like a doll, I dreamt that it was Ellisar’s mother who was tucking me into my bed, stroking my hair reassuringly.
“Goodnight Yasmin. We’re so pleased to have you as part of our family.”
It had never even crossed my mind that I had options. Not once. I was the daughter of the chief of the Uranesh, and despite the fact that I was a girl, and therefore the bane of my father’s existence, I was royalty. Committed to the land and bound by my blood and flesh.
The days following the party were exhausting. My riding and combat lessons were pushed aside in favor of etiquette and needlepoint, completely useless skills in my opinion. Etiquette most of all. Where was the etiquette in treating your child like a pawn to be used only to master a king?
The hatred I had inside me for my father intensified like never before. I played along with his lessons and attended his summons at his court, only to be gawked at once more by future king hopefuls. The entire process made me feel like cattle that was being presented to a hungry lion. I just wish the lion would consume me already and put me out of my misery.
The morning of my fifteenth birthday, I was woken early to the sound of a sharp wrap on my door.
“Go away Arisha. The sun has barely risen and a princess for sale needs her beauty sleep.” But the visitor took a few clunking steps into my room, the sound of heavy boots and deep slow breaths of a man.
I began to panic and snaked my hand out from under my blankets and reached for one of the infernal knitting needles on my bedside table. The intruder stopped and made a low, slow, chuff of a laugh.
“Going to stab your father Shinkasa? On the day which I gave you life?” I dropped the needle and turned in my bed to face the Chief, who was partially obscured in darkness. His delusion aside that he had anything to do with my birth, he looked oddly pleasant. Like someone who was about to tell you some big, happy, news. But my father had never once delivered me good news in his life.
“The battle is set little princess. Your suitor will be chosen today, the day of your birth. My successor will sit by my side before the night is over.”
I felt like I was going to be sick all over my bed. The sun hadn’t even rose and he was already inflicting his torture upon me.
“Father…” I began tentatively, “I could rule by your side, I could–”
“Enough Yasmin. You will spend the day with Arisha, and she will prepare you to be a bride. You will attend the battle tonight in your finest silks and you will, most of all, keep your gods cursed mouth shut.” I swallowed hard as I watched his fingers instinctively reach for his blade. He wanted me to know he meant it.
I nodded, not bothering to hide the anger in my eyes, but also not speaking another word. I knew when I had reached his maximum patience for me.
The smile, ever eerie and clandestine, that had been painted on his face as he entered returned, and he presented me with a box. I knew what was in it, what gift he was giving me. I looked down at it as though he were presenting me with poison, and smiling as he said, “Drink this. It’s your destiny.”
I reached down though, and took the wooden box from him, cracking open the lid slowly, the hinges creaking.
Inside, glittering like moonlight and stars was a diadem, enladen with blood red rubies and sparkling diamonds. I had to admit that it was incredibly beautiful, but it represented my imprisonment. The solidification that I would never be anything more than a pretty little gemstone in the crown of some king’s crown.
“Thank you father” I said in a flat, monotone voice. I would be punished for not being grateful if I didn’t, but I couldn’t get past the lump in my throat to give any kind of dramatic appreciation for it. I couldn’t grovel at my father’s feet because mine had turned to cold, hard, stone. I couldn’t kiss his hand and shed a tear because all of my weeping would be for myself, and that alone.
But the Chief seemed satisfied with my thanks, and either didn’t know, or more likely, didn’t care that I seemed less than pleased. I dipped my head in a sort of half bow as I realized that was probably what he was waiting for and he narrowed his eyes at me. The same eyes as mine. Narrow and curved, with a slight upturn at the end, and eyelashes that went on for miles. And the same shining apple green irises. Whenever I looked in the mirror it was him that I saw staring back at me, judging me.
My father turned and left as Arisha bustled into the room, linens in her hands. I closed my eyes softly, praying to any and all gods that I might be struck dead by a rogue bolt of lightning, or perhaps that there was some coup and my wine would end up poisoned that night. Anything to avoid this terrible destiny that had been laid out before me.
“Up and at em shinkasa. It’s time for your bath” Arisha said with her usually saccarine pleasantness, and I moved slowly, willingly, knowing I had no choice. This was the day that I’d been dreading since I was old enough to understand what was to become of me once I was considered old enough. “That’s a lovely gift your father’s given you” Arisha mused, “You must be so excited to wear it.”
I turned to her with an incredulous look on my face. I was about to break.
“Arisha, you’ve known me since the day I was born. You’ve cared for me every day of my life, always with that stupid, fucking smile on your face. Can you truly say this is what you want for me? Can you truly let me get thrown into the Lions den with nothing to defend myself?”
I could have sworn I saw something flicker across her face, but her smile never waivered.
“You’re going to be a great queen little princess. You will fulfill your duty as you must.”
I couldn’t help it any more. I let out a blood curdling scream of fury, kicking over my nightstand and throwing the diadem to the floor. I was well and truly trapped, and there was nothing to be done about it.
Arisha stood there, unmoved, and waited for me to exhaust myself as I destroyed everything I could move in my room. Beautiful ceramic vases and glass figurines smashed to pieces as I tried, and failed, to make her understand that this was going to kill me. One way or another.
And then Arisha pulled a whistle from her blouse, the kind that the horse masters used to train their mares, and blew a few short tones.
My door was burst from its hinges as a man in a blue robe, flanked by four guards entered my room.
I was shocked enough at this utter betrayal that for a moment, I forgot my rage and descended into fear, grabbing for my night clothes and pulling them tight around me. But it was all in vain as the guard each took hold of one of my limbs and the man in the robe pulled some kind of vial from his pocket. He uncorked it and moved towards me, a menacing look on his face.
I kicked at the guards as hard as I could, screaming and begging them to let me go. My eyes caught Arisha as she stood to the side, face a blank slate.
“How can you do this?!” I screamed at her, “You were like my mother!”
But she simply turned and walked out of the room, leaving me, and the five men, to battle it out. But my limbs were growing tired and one of the soldiers unsheathed a blade and pressed it to my throat to still me. His methodology was effective and I stopped flailing, trying not to let the blade cut me too much.
The blue robes of the medicine man swished in the silence and I began to tremble as he lifted the vial to my lips. He used his fingers to pry open my mouth and quickly dumped the contents into it. It burned like fire on my throat and hit my stomach like lead. The medicine man bowed slightly, as though he had been serving me and I felt my limbs begin to go numb.
Tears started to leak from my eyes as I suddenly found my body unresponsive to my desires and the room began to grow dark. The soldiers lowered me onto my bed and Arisha re entered my room just as I lost consciousness entirely.
I don’t remember being dressed, nor do I remember the fight. In fact the first moment I realized I was conscious once more was when I woke up in a bed that wasn’t mine, next to a man that I didn’t know. My movement hadn’t returned entirely and my limbs felt weak. So I simply lay there, staring into the beautifully cruel face of this warrior who I could only assume was now my husband.
In another time, or another place, this man, probably not too much older than I, nineteen or twenty, might have caught my attention. He had a finely sculpted face and a soft expression, despite his harsh, dark features.
But I had not chosen this man, and he was a stranger to me.
I moved my legs slightly trying to get them into getting out of this bed, but to no success. My fingers were entirely my own once more though, and I moved the blankets down over my body, attempting to free myself from the soft prison. My suspicions about the man were confirmed when I finally noticed that I was barren of clothing and some wetness and blood lingered between my legs. The residue of a consummation to which I was barely party to, and I wondered if he knew he was mounting a shell of a person. I wondered if he cared.
I finally managed to move my legs and swung them weakly to the floor, grabbing the bedpost for support and pulling myself up and out of the bed.
I could say this for my new husband, he was a sound sleeper and despite my winces of pain as I forced my legs forward, one step at a time, he didn’t move, snoring softly.
There was a pile of clothing by the door, and I recognized the dress as the one that had been waiting in my wardrobe for my wedding day, a ball gown made of silk and tulle. It was a deep plum color, the color of my family’s crest. I slipped into it and saw that one of the sleeves had been ripped. Had I done that or had my husband? Did I want to know?
My strength returned at an accelerated rate once I began to move, no doubt due to the quickened pumping of my heart. I slid the door open as quietly as I could and wedged my body– and ballgown– through the crack.
I was going to leave, or die trying. I would never stop trying.
The hallways were dark and silent, and I became aware that I wasn’t at the alcazar anymore, I must have been taken to the warriors home. This was no doubt a precursor to what would have been a grand moving in day tomorrow for him. I didn’t feel even a little sorry that he would be deprived of that glory. I didn’t even feel bad that he would likely be beheaded. I felt nothing.
It was as if the poison that the medicine man had administered to me was not a paralytic for my body, but my emotions instead. I truly felt…nothing.
The warm night air hit me in the face as I rounded a corner in the hallway and found myself looking out over a small estate. From where I stood, sandstone steps lead down to a stable and, presumably, the servants quarters. My feet were moving before I had even fully decided what I was going to do and I moved like the serpent I was, deftly, quietly.
There were no guards around to stop me, no servants or stable boys who would possibly get in the way. But like a blessing from the gods the stable was full, a horse in every stall. I didn’t hesitate as I opened each and every gate, freeing the horses from their captivity and feeling symbolically redeemed.
The beasts burst forth, eager for their freedom and I grabbed onto the mane of a white mare, swinging my leg over her back with some difficulty. A ballgown was hardly the best possible attire to be riding a horse in, but I made it work.
I nudged her forward and she obeyed with pleasure, almost as if she knew what was happening and she was as ready to die trying to get free as I was.
We leapt over the low fence and I dug my heels in just enough to urge her faster and faster. This beautiful creature was now my accomplice and it felt like we were one body, one mind, one goal.
I could see the Alcazar in the distance and used its location as a compass to point me in the direction I wanted to go. There was no doubt in my mind exactly where that was.
On and on we rode, the place I had called home this morning fading behind me and I didn’t look back. Not even once. My partner in crime and I rode hard for several hours before slowing our pace. I felt confident that if I was being pursued I was far enough away to evade their search.
The sun began to rise and I could feel the heat begin to warm the air and sands around us. I knew that we would be lucky to reach our destination without any supplies or water, in fact I didn’t know the last time I’d had any liquids. Based on the rough texture on my lips it had to be quite a while. My mare seemed to slow as well, the energy being sapped from us by the barely risen sun’s heat.
“We will make it” I hissed to her, though I knew she didn’t know what I was saying. Still we pressed on. I had nothing to go back to, and only a whisper of a hope to move on towards. I had no other choice then to continue my journey. Even if I wanted to go back, I would die of dehydration before I was even halfway back. That would of course be preferable to returning to my father’s house.
Just as I was beginning to lose hope, I saw the most beautiful thing my eyes had ever seen.
The brownish green grass that was the start of the capital city’s wealthy estate district was mere feet before me, and stretching out for miles it only got greener and greener.
All of the tension and fear and hurt burst forth from me like an explosion as I began to sob with vigor. Sweat mixing with tears and snot and sand, and I was pretty sure that I had never looked this hideous before in my life. But I was free. Free from the tyranny of my father’s command and from Arisha’s betrayal. Most of all free from the role I had been bound to since my birth.
I would never say that word again.
Another ten minutes of riding and we had reached the pond. I didn’t even bother to get down on the ground to drink the water, instead I flung myself off the mare and dove head first into it, letting it wash away all the filth and emotional scars. I wished I could exist in this moment forever. This moment that was entirely mine, and entirely free.
Then I felt a hand on my wrist and it was pulling me hard from the water.
I had been wrong. They had been right behind me the whole time. I wasn’t free, I would never be free. I wondered if they would cut off my feet so I couldn’t run away again, or perhaps sew my mouth closed so I could no longer speak against them. I struggled against the hand and tried to stay beneath the surface. I would prefer to drown in freedom than live in captivity.
But the hand was powerful, as the soldiers who worked in my father’s employ always were, and it wasn’t long before my already weakened energy was spent and I was dragged from the water.
“Leave me alone!” I cried, “I will kill you!” Meaningless threats but it was better than just accepting my fate.
“Now, now, Yasmin. Clearly you didn’t learn from the last time you tried to drown yourself in my pond. I’m always going to be around to pull you out.”
My heart froze as I opened my eyes to face my assaultant.
The wide, green eyes of Ellisar, the elven boy whose family owned this land looked back at me, and he was smiling. Smiling at me and my ridiculous, soaked ball gown, at my deflated and dripping hair, at the look of panic that I know was still plastered to my face.
“Well we’re certainly not going to let you sit here soaking wet” he said extending a hand to me. “There are dry clothes that I’m sure would fit you in the house. My family is dying to meet you.”
This couldn’t be. It couldn’t have been this simple, I couldn’t have gotten this lucky.
“You know I’ve looked for you every day, just like I said I would” Ellisar commented as I followed him, absolutely stunned, still holding his hand in my stupor. “‘I guess today was just my lucky day.”
“No” I shook my head, “Today was mine.”