Today I share a second sneak peek of The Royal Gift, available on 16th December. If you haven’t read the first part, you can check it out here.
The gate released Aldora into the small gap between the inner and outer wall. This gate was one that had been part of the original defences, and as a result, the outer wall nestled into the inner wall either side of the gate, instead of continuing to run in front of it. The builders of the village had done this to make the village more defensible during the kingdom’s more destructive eras. With the developments over the centuries since the village’s defence walls were built, the inhabitants had become lazy with the practice of their swordsmanship. Some excelled due to being reserve members of the Royal Giften Army, but most of them were teachers or other such professionals that usually didn’t need a sword, such as lawyers, journalists and bakers. Running left towards the royal palace that sat separate from any settlement, the Leoma considered her father’s yell. He was the resident blacksmith and farrier, and the muscle he had built up over the years to serve him in his smithing would aid him in battle. Yet to her knowledge, he was not a trained fighter, and what little she had learned, she had done so from him. Was the yell done simply when the first attacker reached him? Or when the first got past him? If one had gotten past him, had he been hurt, or simply entangled with another?
Bursting into the shadows of Little Wood, following the beaten path left by royal officials and messengers, Aldora could feel the burning of tears threatening her eyes again. The trees around her started to blur. She stopped running, chest heaving with each pull of air into her lungs. Using the heel of her left hand, the Leoma wiped away her tears, then sheathed her sword with the other. It was then that she heard the sound of another’s footsteps crunching the leaves; she looked behind her, spotting a man with his sword drawn. It wasn’t a villager. Warily, Aldora yanked her sword free again, raising it to point at the runner. He didn’t slow.
She spun round, fleeing. Able to hear the man’s thumping feet behind her, the Leoma considered if she should leave the path. It made it easy to follow her, but if she left the path, it would slow her down. The king and queen were near the old village too – where else would she run? The warm tingle of the man’s breath on her neck caused Aldora to dart to the left, between two trees. He turned to face her. Aldora’s sword wavered as her hand trembled. The man took slow, careful steps towards her. She backpedalled, noticing that though the man was around her height, he was broader and carried his sword in a way that stopped it shivering, suggesting this wasn’t his first fight.
He lunged forwards. Aldora jerked backwards. Her back slammed into a tree. She slashed her sword. The man stepped out of reach. The girl pushed against the tree, bolting towards the palace. A hand grabbed her hair. She screamed as the man tugged, causing a searing pain to erupt on her scalp, falling backwards. Her sword thudded onto the ground. The man drew his sword arm back, grinning. Aldora slammed her foot into the man’s groin. He dropped his sword, hands rushing to his privates. She hesitated as the man’s face grew increasingly pink. She picked up her sword. She held the tip towards the man’s stomach, heart pounding. Her arm tensed and she thrust her sword towards the man’s gut. He gasped, hands moving towards the impaled sword, but Aldora was already tugging it back towards her. On the second tug, the sword drew free. The teen wasn’t sure if she should apologise or say something to the man as his knees gave way. His eyes were upon his stomach though, so she decided to move away from him and continue to the palace.
Darting free of the canopy of the wood, she could see the palace. It was more like a small white mansion, with twelve square windows across the front, and two window impressions above the open doorway of the white stone building. The building’s front entrance held no door, instead it was introduced by three equally white stone steps and a gaping corridor. With her sword still unsheathed and bloody in her hand, Aldora moved through the stone archway. The corridor was short, leading her within seconds to a closed wooden double door, which though clearly not bronze metal, had been painted to look as if they were. Standing beside it, his back against the left wall, was a royal official. Aldora gasped in a breath when he stepped towards her, trying her best to regain her breath so she would be able to tell him why she needed to get past the door. Like most royal officials, this one wore his uniform. Ever since their role in society had been fashioned, their uniform was an odd mismatch of various protective services that could be found round the Giften Kingdom. The male royal officials’ trousers were blue, with various shades of blue splodges that travelled up them. They had been given six pockets – two at the hips, two on the outer side of the thighs, and then the usual two at the back of the trousers on the rump. The royal official guard held his trousers up with his regulation belt. Navy blue with two rows of silver eyelets, the buckle was designed specifically to be resistant to the hands of another. Seemingly a solid rectangle, the belt was held in place by a sliding pin within the buckle. Attached to two of the eyelets, a sword’s plain sheath hung, tapping against the man’s leg as he drew closer. His torso was covered in a simple long-sleeved navy top, and the royal official jacket that would normally be found over that wasn’t present.
“You might want to put that away,” warned the royal official, nodding towards Aldora’s sword. She gave a nod, sliding the bloodied blade into place at her side. “Why are you here?”
“The Brown Buzzard Village is being attacked. I have to tell the royals.”
“Messenger,” muttered the royal official. He gave a slight smile, followed by a shrug. “What’s your name?”
“Aldora Leoma. Please, I have to see them!” The royal official folded his arms across his chest.
“Don’t rush me. You’ve a bloodied sword.” The male glanced towards the doors, then looked back at Aldora. “I will let you in,” he decided, giving a shrug. “But I will come in with you. Better safe than sorry.” Aldora opened her mouth to protest at the idea that she even had the skill to get near the royals with a drawn sword, but he shook his head at her, an eyebrow raised. He led her to the door and fished from a pocket a set of keys. He thumped the side of his fist twice against the left half of the door before he unlocked it. He gestured for Aldora to go through.
Dipping her head in thanks, she walked into the throne room, noticing how a strip of red carpet with gold edging met her feet, protecting the white and black tiles that stretched across the flooring. She noticed that tapestries had been rolled up and tied securely above windows either side of her, allowing in the morning light. The royal official pressed a hand to Aldora’s back, encouraging her to walk further into the room. She did as silently asked, following the strip of carpet to three thrones. The two thrones on the left were just as one would expect; built in dark wood to resemble larger than normal chairs, with padded arms, backs and seat. The third, which stood a little apart from the other two, was more like a pet basket on a high stool.
In the middle throne, a tall ginger, almost blond haired woman sat. She slotted a thin ribbon into a book in her hands, before placing it on the ground beside her. She then rested her hands clasped in her lap, looking at the royal official and teenager expectantly. Wearing a blue dress that revealed her shoulders, the woman’s pale Giften skin and blue eyes made her recognisable as Queen Louise – the pure Giften civilian the king had chosen to marry when he and the queen had been in their teens. “Rikward?” voiced the queen, looking at the royal official with a curious look.
“Ma’am, this is Aldora Leoma. She says the Brown Buzzard Village is being attacked.” Aldora could feel the warm touch of a blush rushing up her neck and to her ears as the queen inspected her from her seat. Aldora tugged at the bottom of her cream long-sleeved top, waiting to be addressed. It was then she realised she should probably lower her head in respect, so she quickly opted to do that.
“Rikward, you can return to your post for now. I will scream if Aldora does anything, though I suspect she is genuine.” The royal official said nothing, but Aldora glanced over her shoulder to see him lower his head at the order, then turn and head back along the pathway the carpet provided. “Aldora, what of your Weapon of Protection? Can your village leader not simply use that? It was made for just this sort of event.”
“It’s been stolen. Haethowine went to get it once we knew the attackers were going to get into the village, but in between then and last night, somebody must have taken it.” The queen frowned, then shook her head.
“One second,” said Louise, before standing and stepping through the doorway behind the thrones. Right at the mouth, she tapped on a door to the left, then lifted a hand to point in front of her face towards the throne room. She returned to her seat, giving Aldora a smile. She watched the corridor as the door the queen had tapped upon opened, and the familiar face of King Cray peeked out from its edge.
“Oh. Hello.” He stepped fully into the corridor, pausing to shut the blue door of his office. Quietly he took his seat, and crossed his left leg over his knee.
Aldora waited almost impatiently for the king and queen. She had never spoken to them directly before, and had only seen them at public speeches when they would go to her village. With its close proximity, it was where they shared announcements and speeches with the villagers and through present news reporters, the rest of the kingdom. The King was in his early thirties, but he could easily pass himself off as a twenty year old. His hair was completely black and showed no sign of grey. His brown eyes seemed to radiate his well-known friendliness as they twinkled. Aldora surmised that the king hadn’t intended to do anything official today, for instead of a respectable pair of suit trousers and a shirt, he was clothed in a pair of black cotton trousers and his top was a scruffy oversized white top, with a few burn holes in the lower left side. He was also sporting the night’s stubble on his chin, and his hair was not combed to the side as it usually was for public appearances, but combed to the front, as if with a hand. His feet were shoeless, though they were covered by thick black socks.
“This is Aldora Leoma. She is from the Brown Buzzard.”
“Leoma?” The king looked at Aldora curiously for a moment, before giving her a warm smile. “The farrier’s daughter?” Aldora nodded. “I have used your dad’s services a few times. He does a wonderful job.”
“Cray,” stressed Louise. “She has important news. Shut it and let her speak.” Cray glanced at Aldora, then shrugged and chuckled. He gave a nod to Aldora that was accompanied by a smile, giving her permission to speak.
“The Dagger of Protection has been stolen, and the village is under attack. Haethowine asked if you could send some help to the village right away, Your Majesty.” The king didn’t respond straight away, eyes darting left and right as he thought, brows furrowed.
“I would love to, but there is a problem. Other than the royal official guard that watches over the entrance here, I do not have any royal officials to help bail you out. They are all out in the field. Nearest one I think was in Icoque Village yesterday if word reached me right, but he has probably gone elsewhere since – he is after a murderer.” The king hummed in thought, then shook his head. “And the nearest legion camp is completely deserted – they are on full legion exercises on the northern shore for the next few days.” The king looked at his wife, a thin line in place of his lips.
“Aldora, what does your name mean?” asked Louise, ignoring the worried look Cray was giving her. For a moment, Aldora didn’t respond; she knew many Giftens believed that the meaning of a name was a key to who they were to be.
“It means gift, Your Highness,” said Aldora, her words wary.
“I think your being picked to give us this message is a sign that you are a gift to the kingdom, that it will be you who saves your village by finding the Dagger of Protection. Will you look for it?”
Aldora mentally balked at the idea of not returning home to help. How could the king and queen expect her to do this? She knew almost nothing of the kingdom’s geography, having failed to pay much attention during lessons, knowing she would likely live in the village her whole life. She definitely wasn’t the best fighter either – if she encountered trouble that she couldn’t run from, there was a good chance she would die. If she died, there would be nobody to continue to look for the Dagger. If she got lost, that would only worsen the situation, and there was no promise that she would even locate it. “But what about my village? King Cray, I’m the worst person to pick. I would be more useful back at home, helping Dad and the others.”
“Miss. Leoma, I will do my utmost to try and contact some royal officials to go to your village to aid your friends and family, but I am always behind on where they are in the kingdom. Word reaches me more slowly than their continual movements. I will also ensure that the Third Legion goes to your village immediately upon its return – they will go right past the palace so I will be able to deliver the message myself, and make them head straight there. The best bet would be on finding the Dagger of Protection though. Somebody has to go and find it, and who better than you? You have to find it to protect your father.”
“I guess I don’t have much choice,” grumbled Aldora, looking down at her feet.
“I am certain you will do fine. Even my royal officials started somewhere! I will go and speak to our cook. He should have some spare royal official rations stashed away somewhere, and a bag to shove it all in,” said the king, standing up and returning to the corridor. Instead of going to the room he had come from, he continued down the corridor, easing past a staircase further down on the right hand side, and disappearing behind it.
“I could go with you.” Aldora looked towards the third throne, the one that looked like a pet basket, to see a familiar furry face. A tabby and white cat that had been hidden by the rim peeked back at her with green eyes. It stretched, digging its claws audibly into a cushion hidden in the marble basket, then jumped to the floor. It strolled to Aldora’s side, black tail flicking at its tip. Cats that originated from the Giften Kingdom had the ability to speak, and most people believed it was because of a famous sorcerer, the most famous in the kingdom’s history. He had owned two cats who, according to a common theory, spilt over a large container holding a spell. Those two cats gained the ability to speak as well as their descendants after them. The cat sitting beside Aldora’s feet was Prince Pedibastet. Aldora had met the Prince of the Cats multiple times in the village, as he often supplemented his private tutoring with public schooling. It had been a while since she had seen the cat though.
“You are supposed to be getting used to being the public representative of Giften cats whilst your mother is away,” stated Queen Louise firmly. “You cannot go.”
“Aldora and I go back some years, and I know what she is good at and what she is not.” The cat paused to rub his side along Aldora’s right leg. “Because I am a cat, I am suited for adventures. It is therefore my duty to go with her and help her where I can.”
“You just want to get out of this duty,” sighed King Cray as he stepped back into the room, a small dark blue rucksack dangling from a hand. “You will never earn your right to succeed your mother if you do not put in the time.”
“Yes, but I still require two so-called dangerous missions to even be acknowledged as her heir apparent. This could be one of them.” Aldora used a finger to brush back and forth against Pedibastet’s brown cheek, causing the cat to perk his whiskers forwards and close his eyes with a purr.
“Ok. You can go with Aldora. Be careful though.”
“I am an adult in cat years. We will be fine,” promised the cat.
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