Chapter Fifteen: Isarua's Betrayal.

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   Ara was a princess, yes, but she didn’t really care about it. She was a youngest daughter. She had three older brothers and three older sisters, all of whom had their own affairs, all of whom paid as little as possible attention to her. Her father loved her deeply, she knew, and showed it when he was around, but that was the thing. He was hardly seen in Melakune anymore. Her mother didn’t exactly go to any extremes to see her happy, and they were not at all close. Usually their weeks and months in Tessila Fort were probably the longest amounts of times that they were relatively close to one another, though they both went to extremes to keep out of the others company.

   She glanced back at old Mutic, but she frowned. He was looking about the forest ahead of them, as though he sensed something; he was frantically looking about the trees, his short grey hair ruffling slightly in the light breeze. She knew that it was wise to trust in the senses of old warriors; they tended to be very good at predicting things.

   But he said nothing.

   They passed the spot he’d been staring at. Now Ara was feeling truly nervous, something was wrong, and she knew it. She didn’t know what to say though; she glanced back at Mutic who was glaring into the shadows by the roadside, hoping that he knew what he was doing.

   She slowly followed his glare and gasped. Standing in the shadows of the trees stood a massive man, covered from head to foot in shining armor, a long sword wrapped in his massive hands, his broad shoulders seeming to spread three feet. He glanced up to her and smiled thinly, his black eyes softening. He bowed slightly.

   She didn’t say anything, trusting in Mutic’s example, and simply stared at the man as he slipped deeper into the shadows and disappeared. The thing was she’d seen him before. One day, years before, when she was only seven, she’d slipped into her father’s room and seen him standing by the fireplace, talking with this man. His rugged, but kind, face had for some reason imprinted itself in her memory. She’d never found out who he was, nor had she bothered to ask. The man had said a few more word to her father and then he’d smiled that same smile to her, and simply disappeared in a flash of red fire.

   She made a quick mental to ask Mutic about him.

   An hour later the imposing mass of the fort came into view over the treetops. It wasn't a real fort, really it was a sort of cross between a fort and a palace, it was used by the royal family as a sort of retreat, but it was in a dangerous area of Netheron and it needed to be defendable.

   Twenty minutes after the distant spires came into view; Ara looked down and saw the sparkling water of the moat as they passed over it, their horse’s hooves clattering noisily on the drawbridge. Tessila fort would have been an imposing structure for anyone who wasn't familiar with buildings like it, as Ara was. It had a 40 foot high wall that went in a circle 1000 yards in diameter, enclosing the keep, a keep, unlike those of most forts, with towers and buttresses. It had a year-round garrison of 500 soldiers and some 200 servants, which, while the royal party visited, was usually increased by another 100 soldiers and twice that many servants. It also had a moat, encircling the wall, and a thick drawbridge and steel portcullis.

   Rows of the fort soldiers and folk were lined up to greet the royal party as they cantered into the main courtyard, a massive grassy enclosure that ringed the inner side of the wall. Ara noticed their simple, yet clean and whole clothing with appreciation, the people who kept this castle alive where well off it appeared, the rest of Netheron that she had seen wasn't nearly so prosperous if you took their dress as a measuring stick.

   They were all standing on either side of the path to the keep, and as the Queen passed they all bowed and held the bow until her horse stopped before the keep's open gates where waited the lord of the castle, Meral Kemarie, a tall, slightly fat, foppish lord with an overbearing attitude that matched the Queens. He bowed stiffly before her." Welcome again, my Queen, to my humble keep."

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