The sun was warm as it cast bright rays on the open meadow. The birds complemented the laughter that filled the air, twittering in the tops of the trees that lined one side of the clearing. A single musician played a lively tune on a stringed instrument.
A carpet of grass littered with daisies charmed the small princesses as they skipped about singing their nursery rhymes and playing with one another. The princes were sitting around the king, listening as he recounted obviously dramatized epics of his many battles.
Jerica stood at the edge of the clearing, watching through someone else’s eyes as it felt like she was levitating above everyone. She saw her father with his thick brown hair, hazel eyes, athletic build, and charming smile. His rumbling laugh shook his shoulders and made around the people around him smile.
She saw her mama, a goddess of beauty, sitting next to him. Her golden hair shimmered in the bright light, her green eyes keen and wise, pale skin as flawless as the rest of her thin frame. Jerica saw her father put his strong arm around Mama’s shoulders, pulling her into a hug. Jerica stepped forward, wanting to run into their arms, into the middle of the hug.
An invisible wall sprang up in front of her, from the ground all the way up to the sky. She put her hands on the wall, pushing on it, trying to get past as she shouted to them, trying to get their attention. No matter how hard she pushed, she couldn’t make the wall give. Her parents kept talking with each other as if they couldn’t hear her calling to them.
“Mama!” Jerica waved her arms as it looked like her mother glanced in her direction. “Mama, it’s me! Jerica!”
Suddenly an army appeared over the knoll behind her parents. Jerica’s eyes went wide as she looked from the Gnamreyian army approaching, then back to her oblivious parents. She screamed even louder. “Watch out! Move!”
She beat on the wall as hard as she could, trying in vain to break through the invisible barrier. She reached for her sword, but it was nowhere to be found. She waved her arms frantically, trying in vain to draw their attention. “TURN AROUND!”
As suddenly as the soldiers appeared, they descended on her family. It only took moments to work through the small guard her family had brought with them, before they started slaughtering the royal family itself – aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents – all defenseless against the attack.
The enemy soldiers hacked their way through each member of the family – from her elderly grandfather who could barely make it to his feet before he was being cut down, to her toddler cousins who didn’t understand what was happening until they felt the blades ripping through their small bodies.
“NO!” Jerica screamed and cried, pulling her fist back and punching the wall in rage. She had to get there, to help them – to do something. Yet it seemed that the harder she tried to get to them, the further they moved away. “RUN!”
A solider approached her father from behind and sliced his throat open, making blood to gush onto the front of his uniform. Another soldier ran his sword all the way through Mama’s abdomen, causing blood as red as her lipstick to come pouring from her mouth as her face twisted in agony.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Jerica woke up with a start and a gasp. Her eyes flew open and she blinked stupidly at the rocks and sand that passed swiftly under foot. She would have fallen off the horse she was sitting on, if her legs hadn’t been firmly tied to the saddle. The horse was going at a moderate pace, jarring her. She settled back in the saddle, panting, closing her eyes once more as she tried to focus on shaking the residual fear left from the nightmare.
Her entire body was slick with the sweat that always drenched her when she had nightmares about that horrible day. She closed her eyes, exhausted. You weren’t even there when that happened, she reminded herself, trying to calm down.
It was a relentless battle between her intellect and emotions, any time the subject of her parents came to mind. Rationally, she knew she had nothing to be ashamed about. It wasn’t her fault their picnic had been attacked, and it certainly wasn’t her fault she hadn’t stopped it. She was nothing more than an infant when it happened, barely able to sit up on her own. It’s not as if she had the skills to take on an army threatening her family.
And yet, it somehow still felt like it was her fault.
She claimed to be the best assassin in the kingdoms, and yet she had not managed to stop the murder of her own parents. Some prowess that was. How could she be proud of any accomplishments, when she had failed on such an important task – the safety of the very people who gave her life?
Oh, shut up, she growled at her subconscious. It was a battle she’d had with herself thousands of times in the past – and yet there remained no resolution, no rest for her guilt-ridden soul. It was the last thing she needed to concern herself with now. For now, the most important thing was trying to remember exactly how she had managed to get herself tied to a horse.
She vaguely remembered having been held captive and being taken to Nykeras, but her memories were groggy and incomplete. It was difficult to separate reality from her fantasies. Slowly she remembered getting sick after the transportation – she was fairly sure that that part was real – and then she remembered her stupid move with the king. And the fight. And the boomerang.
She groaned again.
It was hard to say after she took that hit, but it was clear from her current position that it hadn’t been good. She wished they’d just kill her already. The more abuse she took, the weaker her will to survive became. And yet, her she was, surviving.
Jerica opened her eyes again and looked around, trying to piece together the rest of the story. She was in the middle of a moderate sized procession – a soldier riding a horse on either side of her, and many more in the rows ahead of her, also arranged three-wide on the trail. She craned her head to look at the numerous soldiers riding behind her but didn’t see the war lord or the king.
Jerica took a deep breath and looked down at the saddle in front of her. The leather was scarred and worn, and the horn had a scratched emblem on the top that was engraved with the crest of Nykeras. Her horse was a mottled gray color, with a dark gray mane. Its coat was damp with sweat, making her figure they’d been going at a decent speed for quite a while.
Dragon. The word hit her like a ton of bricks. There had definitely been talk of a dragon – the dragon – during the bits of conversation she remembered from the Femolas’ talk. A pang of fear sprang up in her chest again at the thought.
Legend held that there was an ancient dragon residing on the mountainside in the southern region of Nykeras. She doubted the rumors of wisdom and discernment were true – she’d never heard of a single person returning from the mountain if they went. Surely there’d been at least one pure-hearted men among the various cohorts. Either way, it mattered very little to her. Even if the dragon would spare pure hearted individuals, Jerica would be dead before she could introduce herself.
She yanked on her binds, her instincts screaming that she had to get free before she reached the dragon. All it did was renew the deep-seated throbbing in each of her bones. It would be one thing to face a dragon if she had a sword and armor – she would resist even then, but there might be a chance of her survival. As it was, they were simply marching her to a slaughter.
Jerica looked to the right just as a new rider came trotting between her horse and the guard beside her. She lifted her chin defiantly as she locked eyes with Eloonta, the resentment she felt towards him that morning flooding back into her.
Before she had a chance to answer, he leaned over and put his left arm behind her shoulders, holding her in place, as his other hand clamped a rag over her mouth and nose. “Nighty night.”
Jerica jerked her head backward, but it wasn’t far enough to get away from the rag. She felt her head get light, as if it was about to float away into the air. Then a sharp pain began radiating through her head, starting at the very back – as though some was driving a stake through her skull. The pain enveloped her vision, her vision going spotty, before she passed into darkness once again.