Aspen's knees quivered against the cold marble floor. Feeble morning sunlight outlined heavy storm clouds. Aspen's back faced the open oak doors of the temple.
"Oh, great Cahira, goddess of the oracle," the girl chanted, " stay with me. Grant me wisdom and strength to do your work."
In front of her stood a simple stone alter. At her aching knees laid a lamb, bleating confusedly.
"Oh, Cahira. Accept my sacrifice!" Aspen drew an ornamental silver dagger from a sheath around her leg. She raised it high above her head and poised to strike the lamb.
"Madam, you have been called for in the high palace. The king wishes to consult with you," called a handsome man from the doorway. Aspen jumped and dropped her dagger with a great clash onto the freezing floor. He leaned against the door frame lazily, crossing his leather clad arms and smiling slightly. His cloak fluttered a bit in the wind.
The lamb seized the chance to wriggle out of its position and trot out the door. Aspen struggled to her feet and crossed the floor in quick, angry strides. Her ceremonial dress and long flowing hair gave her a false look of innocence.
"Argo! You bloody fool!" Her eyes lit with the fire of intense anger, "Go catch that lamb! I surely will not be reduced to doing it myself."
"I'm sorry, dear, but King Hakkon asked for you." said Argo seeming more amused than sorry. "Who am I to tell him no?"
"Well I'm sure he knows just as well as you and I do this is not something to be taken lightly. My patron goddess will not be pleased with either of us." Lightning struck at the base of a tree and it was instantly consumed by fire. "Believe me now?" she asked him.
"Oh, darling,I never doubted you."
"Do not call me 'dear'. Do not call me 'darling'. If you recall I am ranked infinitely higher than the kings lowly messenger, at my word you can and will be replaced."
"And if you recall the queen would never replace me, dear. I simply know too much." It was true, the messenger knew not only the secrets between kingdoms but also had been carrying on secret meetings with Queen Hillary for years. Both insisted that the meeting were strictly business but Queen Hillary was much younger than the King and Argo was a man who was hard to miss. That was not information that the royals could have getting out. "So I'm not too worried about your word."
Aspen opened her mouth to argue, closed it again and swayed dangerously as her eyes became cloudy. She muttered something about needing a seat.
"Cahira's revenge again?" chuckled Argo.
"No... need to sit..." she croaked.
"Oh. Oh, God." Argo jumped up from the door frame with sudden realization and panic in his voice. He grabbed Aspen by the elbows and led her to the large decorated throne at the back of the temple.
"Not on Cahira's throne! Do you want both of us killed!" Aspen whispered angrily.
"Always the little tyrant," chuckled Argo amused, frustrated, and admiring her resolve. "Have it your way then." he said as he dropped Aspen to the floor in a crumpled heap.
"You're horrible," she whispered as she drifted into unconsciousness with nothing but the sound of the incoming storm and Argos laughter and the smell of the burning tree. §§§
Aspen was somewhere else. Somewhere open. Her body lie on the cold stone floor in the temple but she hovered out above a wide stone bridge that stretched for a mile across a slow moving river. At one end sat a little town and at the other was miles of mountainous wilderness. Naval ships floated quietly in the dark calm water below. An army marched on either side of the bridge but neither side crossed. A young man atop an Arabian horse dressed in its own black armor rode out in front of the soldiers gathered at the end of the bridge that led to the mountains. He was obviously their leader. He was dark and silent. From the army on the right a woman with almost no armor emerged on a stormy black Clydesdale.
Aspen struggled to breathe in, the air this high was very thin. Voices became muffled before they reached her. She could feel herself falling forward, quickly but steadily, until she floated feet above the dark haired girl. The man and woman paced back and forth on their horses, glaring at each other but never saying a word. The man on the Arabian stopped and unsheathed a long black sword with a silver strip down the middle. The woman took out an impressive looking dagger. Its twelve inch blade gleamed gold and the handle was wrapped in soft but well preserved leather.
"Myand," the woman called. Aspen's heart fell to her stomach, it was an odd feeling when accompanied with the sense of weightlessness she also felt. She looked at the face of the young woman then to the face of the man. His dark hair curled wildly all over, his armor covered a muscular body. His face was scarred, tanned and beaten. Beneath it all, however, he couldn't have been more than 30.
"Respect, girl. You shall not call me by a name you don't know me well enough to use. I don't care how old you are, to me you are a but a girl until you learn respect. The Chaoan army outnumbers yours three to one. Our navy is stronger and more well armed and above all we have our god on our side. Its is our duty to take this land."
"Malakar," she began again for if there was one thing she did believe she owed her enemies it was respect, "You have no right to this land. No matter what that fool you worship had told you, you are not going to spread your war to our peaceful people."
"And a little girl is going to stop me?" he smiled maliciously.
"No. Her army is."
Malakar smiled broader and charged forward with his sword poised. He ran it completely through the exposed neck of the young woman. His army screamed in triumph. Her army was still and undeterred, she had warned them that this had to happen. The battle roared to life as both sides charged at each other. Battle cries rose from both side. Blood rolled off the bridge and stained the water below. Cannon balls soared overhead. The battle raged on the bridge. Troops poured in trying to get to their enemies on the other side. Malakars army forced their enemies into the peaceful town. They were pulling ahead.
Aspen awoke with a gasp. The clouds outside had finally busted and thunder roared. Rain poured in the door and slicked the white marble floors. Her lilac dress was soaked to the tips of its flared lace sleeves with sweat and rain. Argo still stood, allowing the rain to hit him and looking utterly confused.
"Argo, I need to see the king now!" her voice was back now, a little quieter and throatier than usual but getting stronger with each passing moment.
"I know, that's why I came to get you."
"No, Argo. No this is real."
"Aspen, what happened?" he asked, worried for her health and sanity.
"Do you even know why I am ranked higher than you? Do you know why I come here to make sacrifices in the first place?" she snapped, regaining some of her usual sauciness.
"Aren't you related to Hakkon?"
Aspen was tempted to give the same "respect, boy" speech she had just heard but thought her time would better be used getting to the King.
"NO! God, You're dense. Just take me to the palace!" she yelled voice completely back now.
He turned silently but Aspen understood that she was meant to follow. He led her to his unimpressive messenger carriage. Plain, rickety and pulled by thin but otherwise healthy horses.
"Should we do something about that tree?"
"No time," the truth was she had forgotten all about the tree that had been set alight by the lightning. "How long was I out?"
"Only about 10 minutes. What was that?"
"Only 10." she said thoughtfully, "Good, good."
"Aspen what happened back there," he asked again as he sat in the front seat of the carriage and helped Aspen up to set next to him. They started to move forward leaving the temple open and allowing the rain to get in.
"I'm not related to the king," Aspen half shouted over the sound of rain, wooden wheels and hoofs hitting the ground. "The reason I'm even a part of this is because I gave my life over to Cahira."
"So she's your patron goddess now?" Argo asked.
"Obviously, didn't you wonder why I came here?" she asked gruffly.
"No actually. Young people do odd things." he chuckled.
"Didn't you wonder why I hadn't aged?"
"I often forget that you're only nineteen, actually. I think of you as mature but well preserved."
"You make me sick sometimes, Argo. And I never forget the fact that you're nearly forty."
"Oh, don't say such things," he said in a falsely sore way.
"Does it bother you to think of a nineteen year old the way you do?"
"No, you're about my age in reality. " he smiled.
"Mentally. But hush and let me explain." Aspen commanded him "You're obviously undereducated on the subject. When I was 19 I dedicated my life to Cahira. The reason is none of your concern. As I hope you know she is the goddess of the oracle and fortune. As you also know she chooses rulers to lead this nation. When I began to worship and study her ways she quickly learned that I was brave and strong and wise enough to be a royal but I had no desire to lead the masses. So she picked me to protect her chosen people. She gave me the gifts of immortality and Sight to help me in this. Of course, this is an honor all of Cahira's followers long for but for me it was especially something. No family, bouncing from home to home then all of a sudden I'm needed.
"That's what happened in the temple. I had a vision, the first one I've had in a while I'll admit. It's a matter of national security and I need to see the king now.
"And when will this threat be relevant to the public?"
"That's the problem with these visions. They rarely give me a specific time to expect an event. But my guess is I'm the only person alive today that should be worried."
"Were you in your vision?" Argo asked sounding intrigued.
Aspen nodded and fought to keep the freezing rain from her eyes.
"It's okay now," Argo reassured her, "we're almost there."
Aspen closed her eyes and shielded her face although her sleeves were already soaking wet and did nothing to help her. After several more minutes of carriage sounds, thunder and the smell of wet horse Aspen was jolted by a sudden stop.
She jumped out of the seat without a thank you to Argo, nearly tripped over her dress, and continued to sprint up to the doors of the castle. Aspen grabbed the heavy iron knocker, she didn't have the presence of mind to simply go through a different door. She slammed the knocker down and screamed.
"What is going on with you?" asked a maid as she opened the door. Aspen rushed past her without a word. "You're tracking mud! I just cleaned. For her sake I hope this is important." she finished speaking under her breath.
Aspen ran through the entrance hall. Her soaking dress was heavy with mud and rain. The entrance hall was empty except for the servants that were assigned to the area for the day. Light would have streamed through the windows had it not been for the increasingly violent storm. People called after her, maids yelled about the mud and drips of water.
"We need to talk, your highness," Aspen breathed as she shut the door to King Hakkon's private den.
"Of course I already knew that. I sent Argo after you, didn't I? " Hakkon said sweetly.
"This is more important," lightning struck again very close to the window.
"Hmm... well I suppose you would know. Have a seat," King Hakkon was uncomfortably calm.
Aspen decided that it was worth the time to behave calmly and sat in a heavily cushioned armchair across from the king. He was old and bald. He had a kindly face and blind eyes. Although he was nearing death he continued to be the best king that the nation of Nedian had ever had. Aspen looked around, for a blind man the king had many interesting things to look at. The dark wood floor was covered in mismatched fur and animal skin rugs and strewn with ornate books. A cozy fire roared at one end of the long room. Bookshelves and maps and mounted animal heads lined the walls so that no part of it was bare.
"So Aspen, can you spare the time to let me go first or is this immediately important?" The king reached for his teapot to refill his cup.
"Oh, let me please," Aspen reached for the teapot right before the king spilled it. "I believe that it can wait, your highness. Forgive my impatience."
"It's quite alright, child. I fear that the issue I have to report is of the utmost importance. As you know we have a spy that works rather closely with the advisers in Choah. He has been captured." The king was unnervingly calm.
"Do you want me to travel to Ch-"
"Of course not. Merit knew form the start what taking this job might mean and I trust him not to give away any of the secrets of the kingdom. Maybe he'll find a way but of captivity but for now we have something ore important to worry about. That would be sending over a new spy. I sense that their gods are growing restless and a battle may be brewing. I pray I'm wrong or that they will be able to keep the battle from spilling over into our realm but if I know the people of Choah at all they will blindly follow their gods way. Should that happen we need a spy. We aren't a battle oriented people, Aspen, we need the know that it's coming. And believe me, it will."
"Well, sir, that's what I came to tell you. You needn't worry, I would guess from the vision I had this kingdom has a few hundred years."
The kind breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you, Aspen. I hoped that my final years here would be peaceful."
"I'm sure they will be, sir. Good night."
"And as always, child, I wish a peaceful night to you."
"Why do the affairs of the gods affect the common citizen?" Aspen's twin sister sat on a chair across from Aspen, who was seated on the bed. To look upon the face of Elodie was to look upon true elegance. Where Aspen still had the youthful and somewhat innocent look of a 19 year old Elodie had not declared any affiliation to a god or goddess. She continued to age and very gracefully at that. She was 42 now.
"People will follow their gods to the ends of the earth. They are simple, petty, much more human-like than any person would like to admit. The gods that control our region do not agree with the gods that control other nations. That has been a fact sense the beginning of the world we know. If they fight their people will fight, if they want their people to have land their people will try to take land. We are all their pawns. That's just how this world works."
Elodie looked around the dim room. She reached out to stroke the heavy curtains beside her her with a pensive look on her face. "It shouldn't work like that."
"Who are we to change it?" Elodie was silent. Aspen studied the lines on her face. If she had played her cards differently where would they be now? Would she be living in a little shack somewhere maybe working as a maid? Would she be wrinkled too? Married? Have a family? Would she have lines on her face instead of scars? She envied and pitied her sister.
"I think it's time for me to go home."
"Please stay the night, Elodie." Aspen begged. Visits from her sister were so rare these days.
"Oh I would. But Ryker can't cook, the kids would starve." she chuckled. Even that sounded elegant somehow.
"Okay, but one night you must come to stay."
"I will, Aspen. I promise." They shared a quick hug before Elodie disappeared from Aspens home on the edge of the castle grounds.
Aspen laid down with thoughts of her escaped lamb and the burning tree knowing she would have to get up before dawn and try again. She wondered what would happen if she ever question Cahira the way Elodie did. Then fell asleep and dreamed of a time when things were easier.