First Empress Prologue (scene 1)

Hi folks! So in preparation for NaNoWriMo, I’m going to go ahead and post excerpts to my blog and Tumblr. Partly I’m hoping for feedback, but I also just want people to be able to read and enjoy. The novel starts with a five-scene prologue, saved as chapter00 on my computer. Scene 1 was the very first scene I started writing in NaNoWriMo 2013. I began with a short epigram from Zahnia, the Chronicler and start in semi medias res. This first scene has undergone fairly extensive revision and will likely undergo many more. Feedback and comments are always welcome.

Would you like to hear my story? It’s a story about Empress Viarraluca, Tollesia’s greatest heroine and wisest ruler. There are many stories about her, you know—some truer than others. Some are based on research. Some are based on folklore. Some say she reigned for over two-hundred years. Others argue that she died after only a twenty-year reign, and her subjects used look-alikes to rule in her place for nearly two-hundred years. Some say she still lives today, secretly watching over and protecting her beloved subjects. Take those stories for what you will. My story may not be the longest, or the darkest, or the most heroic. But it is the most factual. Other stories lack eyewitness testimony, personal interviews with participants, and first-hand experience. Mine has all of these. It begins on a very dark night, a night of rain and blood and death—a night that would mark the turning point in the history of a small, island city-state.
—excerpted from Stories of Tollesia: a Young-Adult Reader, by Zahnia, the Chronicler

Ronnius! Get your ass up!” awakened Ronnius from his girl-filled dreams. He sat up with a start, spilling Tanna from his girl-filled arms. He blinked a couple times, then looked up to see his cousin Vennis standing over him in the candlelight. “Get your clothes on and grab your sword,” Vennis ordered. “We need to gods-damned hurry.”

Throwing a tunic on, Ronnius strapped on his sword baldric and followed his cousin out the door and into the rainy night. He felt somewhat guilty about leaving Tanna behind like that—and as General Derron’s favorite granddaughter she had the ability to make Ronnius’s life miserable indeed. But he knew better than to argue when Vennis was like this—the sense of urgency was unmistakable. Their bare feet splashed through the torch-lit puddles as they ran through the streets of Kel Fimmaril. As best Ronnius could tell, his cousin was ranging between panic and fury, mostly looking ahead, but occasionally glancing behind. Clearly something was desperately wrong.

“Where are we going? Gods, is the island under attack or something?” he finally asked as they rushed down an alley and out onto another set of streets. Still somewhat sleep- and sex-disoriented, Ronnius had difficulty getting his bearings.

“No time!” Vennis panted. Ronnius reflected that his cousin never did have the best stamina. “If we don’t hurry, they’re going to kill Viarra!”

That comment made Ronnius pick up his pace. While Ronnius and Vennis were related on their mothers’ side, Princess Viarraluca was Vennis’s cousin through his father, Duke Elladan. She was also younger sister to King Arrol and though not yet eighteen she was fourth in line for the throne of Kel Fimmaril behind her brothers and three-year-old nephew. Tall, strong, beautiful, well-educated, and charismatic, Viarra was the royal jewel of their little island city-state. And their enemies knew it. Her assassination would deal an irreparable blow to the morale of the beleaguered city.

They took every shortcut they knew on their way to the royal manor. The streets were lit by torches, though Ronnius noticed at least a half dozen extinguished by the heavy rainfall. Around them very few of the one- and two-story stone buildings showed signs of life. They skirted around the agora and the Hall of Archons where the nobles held their meetings, not wanting to have to stop and explain to the city guards where they were they were going so late at night.

Neither said a word as they ran, but Ronnius could see that his cousin was running out of breath. He suspected that it was from a combination of panic and exertion. Though, the rain-soaked tunic likely wasn’t helping.

As they rounded the last corner, they saw a pair of Duke Elladan’s bronze-clad hoplites guarding the gate to the king’s manor house. Two royal guards lay dead in the street. Ronnius noted that the hoplites wielded cudgels instead of their swords.

“Your father said you’d come this way if you found out,” a hoplite said as the cousins approached. “I’m sorry m’lord, but we can’t let you by. We’re under orders to haul your skinny ass home, and we have permission to rough up you and your lackey here if either of you tries to resist.” Ronnius silently brushed off the “lackey” reference. He’d been called worse.

Rain ran down over Vennis’s clenched fists. Ronnius could see the impotent fury on his cousin’s face. “This wasn’t the plan, gods damn it!” he shouted at the soldiers. “I was supposed to marry Viarra, then we’d kill her brothers. Father and I could rule through her as proxy. She wasn’t supposed to have to die!”

“S’why your father’s in charge instead of you, boy,” the second hoplite commented. “Princess Vi is smarter than you think. Smart enough to figure out when she’s being manipulated. Smart enough to be dangerous.”

Ronnius nodded his understanding. “And she’s tough enough to stand up to and expose her manipulators. So instead Duke Elladan has the whole family murdered and rules as king.”

“Right,” the soldier nodded. “See, Ven, even your lackey catches on faster than—” he cut off as Ronnius stepped inside the man’s shield, grabbed his wrist, and pulled him off balance. He used the stumbling loudmouth’s momentum against him and slammed his elbow into man’s Adam’s apple. With the ringing of iron blade against scabbard, Ronnius drew his xiphos and slashed the hoplite’s throat to finish him off.

Ronnius turned to see Vennis scuffling with the second hoplite—and clearly losing. Ronnius stepped behind the soldier, wrapping his left arm about the man’s torso and pulling him back. He shoved his sword arm beneath the hoplite’s armpit and thrust the weapon into the man’s chin. The hoplite crumpled to the ground making hideous gargling noises.

Vennis stood gasping for breath. “Thanks, cousin,” he started, “I—”

Ronnius cut him off by slamming him into the near wall with his left arm. He followed up by sliding his sword into the base of Vennis’s sternum. “Forgive me, cousin,” Ronnius said, looking the startled dying man in the eyes. “I love you like my brother, but being a party to the King’s murder is the one thing you cannot ask of me. I’m sorry.” He withdrew his sword and ran through the arched gateway as Vennis’s body slid to the ground, blood mingling with the rain water.

Jogging across the main courtyard, Ronnius could tell he was too late. The front door was wide open with bodies of royal guardsmen lying about. It occurred to him that with the high outer walls, thick hedges, heavy rainfall, and overall size of the grounds, the surrounding homes likely hadn’t heard the commotion. Since none of the neighboring estates seemed to be stirring, it was clear that the King’s family hadn’t even had the chance to send a messenger for help.

He dashed up the front stairs, keeping his sword ready. As he hadn’t encountered any of Elladan’s men returning to check on the men with the cudgels, the attackers would still be on the property. Lit by a single burning wall sconce, the scene in the main foyer told the tale of a gruesome, one-sided battle. The guards, family, and servants had given the best they had, but under-armed and caught by surprise they hadn’t stood a chance. Princes Kallis and Dollan—first and fifth in line for the throne—had apparently led the initial defense, dying not far from each other with just their swords, shields, and under-tunics.

The fifteen-year-old Dollan, youngest of the previous king’s sons, lay with his back against the near wall, a gaping, bloody hole in his chest. Ronnius winced; two days ago, he’d spent most of the evening teaching the young prince to shoot dice. Dollan had been a touch slow witted, but was a decent young man, all around.

While their efforts had laid low two of the attackers, the heavily armored hoplites had taken the foyer and main hall. Ronnius edged around the corner and crept toward the royal bedchambers.

The savage butchery continued down the hall, leaving guards, slaves, servants, stable boys, and scullery maids in its wake. Ronnius recognized faces of several royal family members among the fallen. A pair of still-burning sconces illuminated the carnage. Ronnius also noted that six more of the attackers seemed to have fallen as he got closer to his destination. The defenders here had had more time to prepare, and thus some of them were better armed than those in the foyer. He kept moving, but heard nothing as he continued along. He heard no sounds of fighting or looting anywhere and wondered if perhaps the remaining attackers were combing other parts of the house, hunting for survivors.

Ronnius didn’t bother checking any of the other rooms as he followed the path of the fighting right up to the royal bedchamber. Here King Arrol had made his last stand. He lay just inside the chamber doors wearing his father’s armor. Queen Allera lay across him, murdered as she wept over his fallen body. At the foot of the bed lay Prince Emmet, second for the throne. Six more attackers and perhaps a dozen defenders lay about the room. Ronnius made a mental count of the attackers he’d seen. Two guarding the gates, two in the foyer, four in the hall, and six in the royal chamber made fourteen. He frowned a bit, trying to guess how many more there might be. He had trouble imagining Duke Elladan sending less than twenty. Having confirmed that the king was dead, Ronnius started checking among the bodies for survivors, be they attacker or defender.

“S–stay back,” a woman’s voice said from behind him. Ronnius grimaced, annoyed at himself for being caught off guard. He tossed his sword aside and raised his hands. He turned to see a skinny young woman standing in the dimly-lit doorway. It took Ronnius a moment to recognize her as Elissa, the princess’s favorite slave and closest handmaid. Elissa pointed a kopis at him with both hands—a clear sign she had no idea how to use the weapon. “I don’t know who you are,” she continued, voice earnest but trembling, “but I swear you will not get past me to harm my lady.”

The words my lady caught the young patrician by surprise. “You mean Princess Viarra?” he asked. “She’s alive?”

“Y–yes, but you will not harm her.”

Ronnius felt his heart soar. “Please, take me to her,” he instructed the maid. “She’s queen now; we need to get her to safety before more soldiers show up.”

Elissa seemed to hesitate. “I know, but h–how do I know I can trust you?”

Tiring of this, Ronnius simply stepped in and swatted the sword from her hands. He grabbed both her wrists in his left hand and stepped close, raising her arms over her head. “You know you can trust me,” he answered, “because if you couldn’t trust me I’d simply have killed you just now.”

“It’s alright, Ronnius,” a voice said from the hall. “The fact that you’re not wearing armor is enough to tell me you’re not with the men who attacked us.”

“Your grace,” he greeted his queen, releasing the maid and stepping into the hall. “Forgive me for not reaching you sooner.” He found Viarraluca heavily bandaged and leaning hard against Lady Synnis, wife—and now widow—of Prince Kallis. His copper-haired queen was injured grievously, the upper half of her bedclothes torn open and her chest and abdomen wrapped in heavy linen bandages. Dark blood stained the bandages in four places. She had two more bandages on her left arm and yet another on her left leg. Even in the dim torchlight her face was nearly ashen, telling Ronnius just how much blood she’d lost.

The queen waved him off when he started to move to support her other side. “No, let Elissa do it,” Viarra insisted. “I have no idea how many of our foes are alive, and I want you with a free sword arm.”

Ronnius nodded as the handmaiden moved to help support her lady. He scavenged a sword and round shield from one of the fallen guardsmen. “Take me to Master Esset’s apothecary shop, it’s not far from here,” her majesty instructed. “He’s an experienced physician and a competent surgeon.” She winced as they started to move her, “and I suspect I’ll need both.”

With Ronnius leading the way, the four of them made it down the macabre hallway and out to the entryway steps without incident. As they ventured down the steps they heard a commotion from the direction of the main stables. A scream arose from a stable boy begging for mercy. Ronnius grimaced as the scream tapered to a gurgle and went silent.

Once out in the rainy courtyard they made better time, not having to step over fallen bodies. The first people they encountered were four night watchmen looking over the bodies of Vennis, the royal guards, and the two hoplites Ronnius had slain. The watchmen looked up as the group approached.

“There’s been an attack on the King’s estate,” Ronnius informed the guards, keeping his sword and shield ready. He doubted Duke Elladan had paid off any more men than he absolutely had to but didn’t see a need to chance it. “The royal family is dead and the princess—your queen—is grievously wounded by the assassins.” The stunned looks on the guards’ faces told Ronnius he could trust them. “You,” he pointed at one of the younger watchmen, “raise the alarm and make sure word of the attack gets to General Derron. Send any guards you come across in this direction. The rest of you, secure the gate and the main courtyard. Once reinforcements arrive, clean out all remaining hostiles and secure any wounded for transport to the hospital, clear?” The watchmen each nodded in turn. “And under no circumstances are you to tell anyone you’ve seen us or that the queen is alive. Do you understand?”

The senior watchman wetted his lips, then nodded, making sure the others agreed. “If anyone asks, we’ll say I gave the orders,” he answered.

This entry was posted in My Stories, Period Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to First Empress Prologue (scene 1)

  1. seraph4377 says:

    Reblogged this on Dreams of the Shining Horizon and commented:
    The beginning of Dubiousbyhabit’s saga of the extraordinary Queen Viarraluca. I can’t recommend it enough. Fascinating characters, an awesome protagonist, a fantasy setting that’s different from your generic Tolkien-based sword & sorcery #3786…this is some good stuff.

    One warning, though: Dubious does not soften the brutality inherent in a bronze age setting. There will be times that even the heroes horrify you.

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