The Queen Of Carleon
Chapter One: Unexpected Expectation
When Calfax confirmed the news, Arianne could scarcely believe it.
She had worked herself into vexation fighting the desire to place more importance on the symptoms she experienced. Until she knew for certain, she would not accept the signs of impending joy. She moved through her day, trapped in a state of limbo. Her mood drove her poor husband to distraction because he could not fathom what was at the heart of her temperamental state. She longed to tell him what was in her mind, but held back at the thought of disappointing him. That, and the possibility that he might become so terrified by the idea that he could take the first horse out of the kingdom and hide in Tamsyn’s remote tower in the forgotten corners of the Jagged Teeth.
What was it with men of courage and strength, who could ride forth and slay a thousand beserker warriors without a flinch, but went into complete and utter ruin when confronted with the possibility of becoming a father? Arianne suspected not even the Gods could answer that question, and as a result, she chose not to torment her king with the possibility that he might have an heir before she herself knew without doubt.
Besides, there were other matters to occupy Dare’s mind.
As the High King of the newly unified Carleon, the War Dragon was working hard to rebuild the kingdom in the wake of the destruction wrought by Balfure’s war. Any person who thought being king was about power and glory would be shocked to learn how arduous it was to be architect of a country’s restoration. Too many times Arianne stepped into the Great Hall to see him working tirelessly in consultation with his ministers to the late hours of the night.
When he paused to catch his breath, Arianne saw the glimmer in his eyes, longing for simpler days, when he was simply Dare—the exiled Prince of Carleon. Yet, he was a good man, the one she loved beyond reason or thought. He would carry the burden because his people needed him, and because he was the last of his house, at least until now. He alone left Eden Halas and stepped out into the world, with the courage and the will to see Balfure driven away from Avalyne for all time. Arianne would be at his side forever, carrying that burden with him, to fill his life with the simple pleasures, such as the news she was now about to impart.
Today, there was no longer any doubt in her mind once Calfax, the royal physician, confirmed her suspicions—she was with child. She drifted, if it was possible for a flesh and blood being to drift, through the halls of the palace, with her hands on her belly in secret delight. What a sight she must have been to the palace staff—the queen of Carleon sweeping about the place wearing the smile of a happy fool.
She knew they were probably grateful for her good mood, since she had been difficult of late. Arianne resolved to make it up to those who bore the brunt of her temper, especially Dare, who was a devoted and attentive husband as any woman could ask. After all, being queen did not excuse bad behaviour in any shape or form. Her mother taught her that.
Thinking of Queen Lylea made Arianne’s smile widen, knowing how thrilled she would be at the news. Despite her sometimes aloof manner and her adherence to ensuring all forms were observed, Arianne knew her mother would like nothing better than to be a grandmother allowed to spoil her grandchildren shameless. It was a right after all.
As always, when he was with taking counsel with his counsellors and advisors, Dare was in the Great Hall when Arianne found him a short time after she had received her news. He spent a great deal of time in this room, attempting to portion out men and resources to the few lands still being plagued by scattered remains of Balfure’s army. The beserkers, without their master, were even more dangerous than ever, as their rampage was now without purpose or direction. They were mindless beasts, driven by instinct and need, making their behaviour difficult to predict, and even harder to defend.
She watched him a moment, circling the large wooden table covered with maps, engaged in serious discussion with Aeron and Ronen, his most trusted advisers, while she stood there being so very proud of him.
Arianne remembered the day Dare first arrived at her mother’s court in Eden Taryn.
He was but twenty-five, having spent much of his life in the court of Eden Halas. Arianne had heard the gossip of a human child being adopted by Queen Syanne, and how this action had caused much disquiet between her and her king. Naturally, she was curious as to what reason this human could possess to seek an audience with her mother—the High Queen of all the elves in all of Avalyne. He was taken through the Veil by Syanne's youngest child, Prince Aeron. Even so, Arianne was astonished that her mother allowed the incursion by a human into their lands, even if he was accompanied by an elf.
Lylea, who possessed the gift of the Sight, claimed this audience was one of importance. It could change everything.
Arianne found this difficult to believe at her first sight of him. He looked like a ruffian, with threadbare clothes, dusty from too much travel, and the leather of his boots were scuffed and worn. Sporting a day’s growth on his face, his dark brown hair was unruly, and hung about his shoulders, like it had never known a brush. Still, he was beautiful despite the pains he took to conceal it. She wondered if he simply did not care enough to exploit his looks, or whether this was a guise he wore to disarm people into believing he was nothing more than a vagabond. Overall, it was not a good first impression.
At least, until he spoke in that soft spoken voice of his, revealing words that were remarkably eloquent, possessing a tone of humility and awe at being in their presence. Even without the gift of her mother’s Sight, Arianne was capable of recognising liars, and she knew every word he uttered was issued with sincerity and reverence. When he addressed them, he did not bandy about words to flatter or posture. He spoke from the heart, and told them what he dreamed.
He dreamed of uniting Carleon to drive Balfure from Avalyne forever.
He was the last son of House Icara, and it was his duty to honour the kings before him by restoring Carleon to its people once more. Such dreams were nothing new from the race of men, Arianne thought. They were always quick to anger and easily prodded into war, which was why the elves wanted nothing to do with them in the past and remained hidden behind the Veil. It was what he said next that made everyone in the court sit up and pay attention.
None of them could defeat Balfure alone.
Prejudice and tradition prevented the races of Avalyne from standing as one, thus allowing their kingdoms to fall. All the people of Avalyne needed to work together, not just men and elves, but the dwarves too, and any race that felt their liberty threatened by Balfure’s hunger for conquest. How much longer were they prepared to put all their faith in the Veil? What was to stop him from breaching the protection of Eden Taryn, if he set his mind to it? And, if he chose to come, were they certain they could stop him?
If we do not stand united, we will fall divided.
Arianne remembered how those words resonated with her, even after the conclusion of the audience. Dismissed until Lylea made her decision, Dare respected the lady’s need for deliberation, and retreated to the woods where his circle awaited him. Before departing their presence, he paused long enough to cast a shy gaze at Arianne. When their eyes touched, he pulled away, embarrassed, as if he was caught spying upon something he had no business in seeing.
Intrigued, Arianne found him at his campsite later that day, and when she spoke to him, he was barely able to meet her gaze. She found it utterly endearing that he, who was so strong and determined before her mother, appeared flustered and uncertain in her presence. When he did look at her, Arianne found herself staring into eyes so blue, it was like staring into drops of sky. His spoke to her with the wonder of a man who could scarcely believe he was in the company of one such as her.
Arianne was a thousand years old, but no elf she met in all that time ever touched her heart the way Dare did when she finally got him to smile.
She hated to interrupt him when he was in counsel with Ronen, the Bân of Carleon, and Aeron, representing the elves, because Dare wanted the relationship forged by the Alliance against Balfure to endure beyond the war. They must be maintained, Dare told her, or each race would fall back into its old practices of isolation, and they would be in the same vulnerable place that Balfure found them.
Arianne did not have to hear what was being discussed to know the subject of greatest concern at this time was the rorting of the beserkers across Northern Province. Dare told her the night before he would have to dispatch soldiers to clear out the infested lands so the business of farming and industry could resume once more. They needed to feed and build to forge a new future, and this could not be done if towns were constantly besieged by the remains of Balfure’s monstrous armies.
It was Aeron, with his keen elven senses, who first noticed her arrival. The others followed his gaze and stopped immediately what they were doing to face her. She stifled a laugh when she saw Dare’s pained expression, as he wondered what sin he had committed to warrant an unexpected visit to call him out.
Poor Dare, she thought, and knew that she had many amends to make to her husband, who could not conceive of her unhappiness if there were something he could do to change it.
“Your highness,” Ronen, the second highest authority in the kingdom, greeted her. She always found that he was such a physical contrast to Dare. Ronen wore his dark blond hair worn loose, as was the fashion for men of Carleon and appeared well-groomed, unlike Dare’s perpetually unruly locks.
“Ronen,” she answered with a slight bow of her head.
Ronen was the first captain to follow Dare, when the exiled prince returned to Sandrine, and rallied the forces needed to fight Balfure. By the time Dare arrived, Ronen’s spirit was near exhausted from having to uphold Balfure’s occupation of his homeland. A soldier with a good heart, he was not much older than Dare, and enforcing Balfure’s law was driving him to breaking point. The arrival of the king renewed his sense of hope, and his loyalty became the basis of their deep friendship.
There was no need for such formality when she regarded Aeron. He was fair, like all her people were fair. Tall and lean, his brown, almost black hair, was worn loose, and always seemed wild and tousled even though it was braided in places to keep it from being untidy. Only the tips of his elven ears were exposed through the dark strands. Even though he walked Avalyne for a thousand years, he bore the appearance of a thirty year old.
“My queen.” He said, his dark blue eyes dancing with mischief while a small smile crossed his lips.
Arianne rolled her eyes at the formal greeting, wondering how it was that Aeron, with whom she spent many summers as a child during Lylea’s visits to Eden Halas, could still remain as vexing to her as he was in those days. It was she who gave him his first kiss when they were eight years old and witnessed his first fall out of a tree. They were friends for most of their lives, too long for him to ever need to call her by any title. No matter how many times she reminded him of this, he continued to ignore her. Arianne was convinced he was doing it to be annoying, just like when they were children.
“Arianne, is something wrong?” Dare asked his wife gingerly, as she was easier to provoke these days than an ogre with a bad tooth.
“Nothing, my love.” Arianne assured him, and disarmed his anxiety with a smile he’d know was meant just for him. “I would just like a moment alone with my king, if my lords do not mind?” She glanced at the two men.
“Of course.” Ronen answered without hesitation, and he glanced at Dare for the King’s leave to depart.
“I will send for you when we are done.” Dare replied, thinking absurdly that she wanted privacy so there would be no witnesses when she slaughtered him.
Both man and elf obeyed and left the room.
“If this is about where I left my boots again, I swear that affairs of state occupied my mind and I forgot…” Dare started to apologise before Arianne closed the distance between them, and silenced him with a kiss.
Caught by surprise, he stared at her with puzzlement for a moment, before the pleasure of it made him slide his arms around her waist and kiss her back with equal affection. She was the love of his life, and being King would mean nothing if she were not at his side. Her love had given him the strength to take back his kingdom, save his people, and be the man he was today. If he became a great king, it was because she had made him so.
“I am confused,” he finally admitted when they parted.
“Of course you are,” she said smiling, “I come here on an entirely new matter. However, now that you have made mention of it, is it so hard to put them away?”
“You are teasing me,” he retorted, a brow cocked over one eye in playful accusation.
“Yes, I am,” she confessed, smirking.
Dare drew her to him and kissed her again. He was glad to see that she was in a better mood than she had been during the past few days. In truth, his desire for self-preservation was superseded by his love for her, and so he worried what could have bothered her so greatly that she was lashing out so uncharacteristically. Arianne’s nature was playful and spirited, but she was never biting in her manner. Her behaviour of late was a new experience for him.
Yet, it took only a kiss for him to fall in love with her all over again.
Her effect on him was always the same. Since the very first moment he laid eyes upon her at Lylea’s court, Dare was lost. She was a vision of loveliness that almost made him forget everything he came to say to Lylea. Arianne took after her father, with shimmering dark brown hair framing her oval face with high cheek bones, full lips and eyes like the richness of the earth. Her skin, like all elven ladies, was pale, but to his eyes it was almost luminescent. She did not seem quite real, like something wandering out of a dream. Seeing her for the first time made his heart pounded in his chest like a boy.
To this day, Dare never understood why she loved him enough to give up her immortality.
“And what can the king do for his queen today?” he asked, considerably more at ease.
“I came to apologize for how I have been these past few weeks,” Arianne admitted first, and foremost. “I know I have been difficult.”