So I've been such a slacker that I haven't got Book 3 of Elf Queen of Kiirajanna, Trial of Spirit, done yet. I mean, it's done, but there are lots of edits still to be completed, and I am absolutely not going to put a book out if it's not as close to perfect as I can humanly make it. So mid-February, perhaps?
To make it up, I hope, here's Chapter 1 to enjoy. Every couple of days I'll post another chapter till the whole thing is ready.
I’ve always had a thing for dogs, but not when they tower nearly my own height, have long, sharp fangs, and want to kill me.
Okay, fine, I’ll admit that the dog wasn’t acting much like it wanted to kill me, but it hadn’t been that long since several others that looked just like it had tried very hard, and that was a bit of a challenge to overcome. And to be fair, the dog wasn’t acting much like it didn’t want to kill me, either. I stepped back and raised my hands defensively, one out front to physically stave off the imminent fang-led charge, and the other to my chest, pressing Draignerthol against my skin through the thin fabric of the blouse I wore. I felt the relic’s magical power swell and surge within me, thrilling me with the possibilities. Then, with supreme force of will, I stopped and bottled it up, knowing I’d likely cause a riot if I let it loose in the busy town square.
“Don’t be scared — Cuddles would never hurt you, Princess,” Gwenda said. She flicked her eyes about before bringing them back to rest on my face, her expression pleading. She licked her lips in a nervous gesture. Apparently meeting the crown princess of Kiirajanna wasn’t something she’d been prepared to do.
“Cuddles? You named a dire wolf Cuddles?” I was incredulous, myself.
“Of course. He’s…” Gwenda began to argue, but then she looked over at my cousin, her eyes begging for help.
Sephaline did help, stepping up to scratch this monster named Cuddles a couple of times behind the ears before turning a kind, peaceful smile my way and gently explaining, “Gwenda, the only experience Alyssa has with dire wolves is from our now-fabled dash across the blight to the library. It’s not surprising that she’s a little bit hesitant to accept Cuddles as a friend. Give her some time, okay?”
The dash to the library — that was fabled, alright. Both widespread and fabled, already, just a few months after it had happened. I’d been dead-set on reading the prophecy related to me, and so I’d talked Seph into making the journey. That was when we’d discovered the Cult of the Wyrm, who started out just trying to hold me, but then they decided to kill me.
What a nice welcoming party, right?
So my answer? Oh, I just — accidentally, I swear! — burned the entire library down, using powers I’d never even dreamed I had. That’s what made the trip fabled. It wasn’t the numerous waves of attacks by dire wolves and ravens we rode through to get there, nor was it the wyvern that Seph had to defeat. No, it was the whole “she used magic!” bit. Fabled, in this case, meant that I couldn’t walk into a normal elf village again without people looking at me sideways, fear filling their eyes over a power they just didn’t understand.
Seph succeeded in convincing Gwenda that the pet dog thing was a bad idea, and so Gwenda pushed Cuddles away with an order to “go play!” The massive beast thundered off into the nearest tree line, its tongue lolling out to the side like Old Yeller. I shook my head as I watched it run. It made sense that Gwenda, who was abnormally tall for an elf — and elves are tall folk, anyway — would claim something bigger than, say, a Chihuahua, as a pet.
“So, Alyssa,” Gwenda tried the friendship thing again, “who’s your favorite team in cylchoedd?”
I had no answer. I’d never even heard of cylchoedd, much less its teams. Well, once, or maybe twice, back when Prince Keion was grumbling over how our trip to the north threatened to make him late in starting cylchoedd practice. But I hadn’t held any desire at the time to discuss the game, the league, or its teams with the guy who was constantly grumbling about it.
It was a strange way to start a conversation, but to call Gwenda strange would be an understatement. She’d walked up to greet Seph, who I’d been told was her only friend since childhood, wearing a dapper-looking long tunic over embroidered pantaloons. It was the kind of outfit I’d expect to see on fancy days in the castle—only, on a guy. And her shoes! Elves normally wore moccasin-like things that only become fancy in court, and then only by applying a little paint and polish in places to make them shiny. Gwenda, though, sported bright red built-up platforms on her feet, and that just made her abnormal height even more pronounced.
Because of her friend’s strangeness, I watched my cousin closely for cues. Seph wasn’t much help, though; she just rolled her eyes.
Cylchoedd — that’s the elf word for hoops. Hoops meant basketball to me, normally. I couldn’t see the elves having any sort of national basketball association, though. I decided to go ahead and bite on the verbal lure. She was, after all, just trying to make conversation.
“What’s cylchoedd like?”
Gwenda looked shocked and injured at the same time. “You’ve never seen cylchoedd?” she challenged.
“No. No, I haven’t. Keep in mind that just a few months ago I was a normal Earth-bound teenager who would’ve thought ‘cylchoedd’ was a strange cough. But I would love to hear all about it,” I finished in my sweetest voice, noting how Seph’s expression was begging me to make nice with her old friend.
“They probably don’t have any organized sports in the primitive region Alyssa comes from,” Seph said with a wink. “Missikippi, right, Crown Princess?”
I sighed playfully. “It’s Mississippi, and it’s not that primitive, Cousin. Well, okay, maybe it is in some ways, but we do have our sports teams. No professional ones, of course, but on Earth those only exist in big cities, and anyplace with a population more than a few thousand scares the daylights out of me.” I wasn’t kidding; the trip to Graceland had been fine because I was with Dad, but my friend Sarah had been talking about taking a trip to Chicago after we graduated, and I’d had to tell her there was no way I was going. Absolutely no way at all, in fact. Just the thought of all those people made my skin crawl.
Then Dad turned that on its head with a trip to New York City over Christmas. Granted, it was a little different being supported by all the crown’s immense wealth, staying in the nicest of hotel rooms, and experiencing the nicest that the city had to offer. It was, I was certain, a completely different experience from what Sarah and I would have had on a tiny budget in Chicago. But the idea of being in a huge crowd of people still scared me. That was one good thing about the crown princess gig, I guess. After all, the biggest city on Kiirajanna was the crown complex at Cysegredig, and it just felt like a large village with a couple of huge buildings in the middle. Ganolog, capital of the north, had seemed bigger, but that was only because its population of a few thousand was all enclosed in a fortress. There were other cities that felt a little different than either Ganolog or Cysegredig, according to my teachers, to the south and the west, and I actually looked forward to journeying there as I sought the clans’ approval. Once the holiday was over, I knew it was coming.
For the time being, though, I was enjoying the end-of-year holiday, Yule in English but amser calan in elf, in the tiny village where both my father and my cousin had grown up.
It is a strange holiday, but it does make sense. The name literally means “time period at the renewal of the year.” It works out to be the days left over in the solar year of three hundred sixty-five days, plus a bit more, after the elves’ regular six-day week is cycled through. Nobody, not even the king and queen, can work during that time other than simple tasks of lighting cook fires and such. Everybody pretty much just abandons the massive castle and cathedral complex and goes home.
A throat cleared, bringing me back to the present. “So how is this cylchoedd played?” I asked.
“Like that,” Seph said with a shrug and a confused look. I followed her pointed finger with my gaze. Oh, right, of course. Every elf village I’d visited had featured kids by the twos and threes or even by the dozens rolling hoops along the ground with sticks. “Only with some adult rules, like the need to hit each other. That’s usually the one with the hoop, but not always. It’s really fun to watch.”
Gwenda’s face lit up in the too-big smile that is a standard fixture on elf faces. Seph’s description had made her very happy, it seemed. She said, “I love the Bees. You’ll have to go to a game with me.”
“Why would you name a sports team after an insect?”
Seph and Gwenda both looked blankly at me. Oh, right. I was still thinking mostly in English, despite the fact that I was speaking in the elf tongue. Bee isn’t a word in elf. It’s a letter.
“I mean, a letter. Is there a Ch team?” Yes, Ch is an elf letter; it’s one of my favorites, in fact, because it’s so much fun to say. A good girl, even one everybody regarded as a tomboy like me, would never have hocked up anything in public in Mississippi, but that letter let me do it repeatedly in Kiirajanna.
“Of course there is,” Seph said, and Gwenda added, “but they suck. They always cheat, and their fans are so obnoxious. Tell me you’ll cheer for the Bs with us.”
“Okay, I’ll cheer for the Bs with you,” I agreed. What difference did it make, really?
“No, no, no. She can’t,” Seph told Gwenda, shaking her head. “Remember, she’s the crown princess. Royalty doesn’t choose sides in cylchoedd.”
Oh, right. It made that difference.
Gwenda looked disappointed for just a second and then brightened up. “Say, when you’re crowned queen, don’t forget that I’m the one with the dragon birthmark.”
Well, that got my attention. The prophecies we’d gone to the library to read spoke of someone born with a dragon birthmark. Someone, it seemed, who would turn elf society over onto its head, someone who would bring sorcery back and not in a good way, someone who would somehow involve the now-mythical dragons of old.
Someone like me, who’d actually been born with a dragon birthmark on my right shoulder blade. I wondered about the thing growing up, but Momma just smiled and shrugged whenever I asked. When Dad waltzed back into my life, he’d proven himself my father by knowing about it. It seemed a big deal to him then, and it was an even bigger deal now that I knew what it meant.
Yes, I had it, but I really didn’t want it.
“You have a dragon birthmark?” I asked, ignoring Seph’s look of alarm. My cousin rolled her eyes as her old friend nodded, skipped over to me, and hauled the back of her tunic up for me to see.
It was a birthmark, for sure. It was kind of cute, too. Sitting right above her hips in the middle of her back as it did, it looked like one of those tribal tattoos people on Earth get. Only…
A heart. It was a cute elongated heart, not a dragon. I caught Seph’s frantic wiggle of her head, though, and so I chose my words carefully. After all, mirrors weren’t common outside the palace in Kiirajanna, and so how was Gwenda to know that she didn’t have a dragon birthmark?
“It’s — nice, Gwenda. Very clear. I will most assuredly keep this birthmark in mind when I gain the throne.”
“Yay!” Gwenda said, letting her tunic fall back down and then bouncing for joy. “It’s my lucky day to have met you, Princess!”
“Yeah,” I said, not sure what else I could add.
“And now, I have to go. Chores, Your Highness. I hope to see you upon the morrow,” the weird one said. She slipped me a precarious combination of curtsy and bow, one that her height combined with the platform shoes made grotesque, and then she spun back around to run home.
Only she didn’t get far. She tripped over her own feet.
“Oopsie,” she said, and it was even more irritating thanks to the way she raised her high-pitched voice even higher. She must have been nearly seven feet tall and yet she sounded like a pixie.
She dusted herself off as Seph helped her up.
“Oopsie, indeed,” Seph said, watching her long-time friend jog away. “That was what everybody called her growing up: Oopsie. It was what we heard her say most often.”
“She seems nice, bless her heart” I said.
“She is nice. She’s just a little bit eccentric.”
Pot, meet kettle, I thought but decided not to say. Seph was the queen of eccentric herself, a ranger whose familiar was a wolverine named Booboo and whose battle cry was eep. But she was the first cousin I’d ever met, and as far as I knew the only one I had, and so that made all the eccentricity okay in my eyes.
“How come she wears that getup?” I switched to English in case her friend managed to hear.
“She’s going to be the Dragon Queen, at least so she believes. The Dragon Queen should dress nicely, and wear masculine clothing because the aspect of the dragon is masculine, she says.”
“The aspect of the dragon is—what? Are dragons masculine?” I was having a hard time separating what sounded like astrology talk from the reality that dragons had once actually existed on Kiirajanna.
“How should I know? She’s the one who constantly says dragons are still around, thanks to her strange queenly dreams. By this point you know as much as, if not more than, I do about them,” Seph reminded me.
“Right. I guess. So why the shoes, then?”
“She wears tall shoes to look down upon her subjects, like a —”
“A dragon. Right. Makes sense.” It didn’t, not really, but whatever. “Why red?”
“We don’t know what color dragons were, though.”
“She does. Or at least she’s convinced herself that she does. Look, now we both know that my old childhood friend is — what’s your word?”
“Kookoo sums it up pretty nicely.” I added the standard Earth hand gesture, my index finger circling my right ear.
“Kookoo. Fine,” Seph said, sounding dejected. I realized belatedly that I was, after all, attacking a long-time friend of hers.
“So does she have, like, a boyfriend? Or is she promised to one from a faraway village like Prince Charming?” I asked, trying to lighten the mood.
“Um,” Seph stalled, not answering. It was clear I’d hit a nerve.
“Is she — is she gay?” I’d never thought of the elves being like that, but it didn’t make sense why I wouldn’t have. Nothing wrong with it, certainly, but — well, it just hadn’t occurred to me.
“Gay?” Seph shook her head in confusion.
“Sorry,” I continued in English, and then tried in elf after searching for a moment. “Hoyw?”
If you’re new to elf, the best I can say is that it’s based on Welsh, from Earth. Or, if the history is to be believed, Welsh is based on elf. Whichever is true, it’s a beautiful language. But w’s and y’s are both vowels, which takes some getting used to. The word I’d just said is, phonetically, ho-ee-yoo.
Seph shook her head, still clearly not comprehending my meaning. Then I remembered the word I’d been taught once in one of my more private lessons.
As fun as the word is to say—phonetically, goo-roo-goo-dee-oor—it literally means grabber-of-man. That works fine with gay men, though I couldn’t get anything different from my teacher for gay women. But at least Seph finally got it. Her face lit up with horror.
“No! No, she’s not. Well, maybe. She, um, isn’t certain. Look, that’s not something we talk about.”
“Ah, okay.” I gave up, chalking it up to repressed elf society.
“So what’s with the birthmark thing?” I asked in English, trying to venture into more comfortable territory.
“When she was young, somebody joked with her that she was special, that her birthmark was a dragon. She took it to heart, and nobody’s been willing to break that since. We even go so far as to hide the mirrors when she comes around. She’s convinced that she’s the one with the dragon birthmark.”
“Well, she can have it.”
“What?” Seph turned to face me, scandalized.
“No, really. She can have it. The birthmark, the castle, the crown, everything. I love Kiirajanna, and I love the elves, but—me? Queen? Seph, you saw me in Ganolog. I started a war, Seph. I’m a Mississippi girl. A rabid dog’s got more diplomacy skills than me. I did well in school, and was headed to college at State to study engineering, or something. Now here I am, learning to be all regal and stuff, and—and I burned a library down, Seph. I burned a library down. And not just a library—the library.” Seph’s face clouded over at that; she apparently remembered the scene as vividly as I did, with me standing in the middle of the most ancient, well-stocked, library in the land, my newfound magical powers swirling about me as I threw tendrils of energy this way and that. Oh, yes, we won, Seph and Booboo both survived, and the Cult of the Wyrm was defeated, rounded up, and imprisoned, but all that paled in comparison to what I’d done. I’d used magic, something forbidden to elves for countless centuries, and worse, I’d used it to burn a library down.
“This conversation should not take place out here in the village commons,” a strong, familiar voice interrupted my rant. Seph and I both turned to face the elf king, who was standing with his hands on his hips casting a royal shadow over the pair of us. His expression made it clear that neither of us had any choice but to follow him.
“English is rare outside of the royal family, but it is still known throughout the realm, and you must remember that for your own safety as well as that of the crown,” he chided us.
“Yes, Daddy,” I said meekly as Seph and I let him lead us into her father’s house.