I sat by the window of my bed chamber, gazing out at the orange mountains with my fresh new born in my arms. Bundled tightly in layers of linen was my beautiful pink first born. I was delighted to have had a girl. Glad to know that Merrydown would be ruled well and with ferocity, strength and bravery after I was gone. Of course I knew from the moment the seed ignited with life and began to grow inside me that I would be delivered of a girl, a future queen.
My mumbling stuttering idiot of a husband sheepishly came into the room. From across the chamber I could feel his weak stomach churn and sicken as the maids continued to clean the bed. He was so feeble. It was an insult to the word for him to be called a king.
“A son?” Byron asked with hope as he tip-toed closer to peak at the heir.
“No,” I scoffed. “A girl. Alexandria is her name.”
“Alexandria? We agreed on Cassandra for a girl. You cannot name the child without my consent,” Byron protested, giving an ignorant onlooker the impression that he possessed a spine.
I snapped my head round to meet his gaze, to which he flinched and looked down at his boots.
“My daughter’s name is Alexandria and she will be blessed three days from today with that name. Don’t you ever speak down to me like that again,” I spat.
His lip quivered and the working maids attempted to conceal their smirks from him. He noticed them and his face flushed with embarrassment. His almost translucent antlers were beginning to grow from the top of his head like murky brown roots. Unknown to him, of course. He quickly slithered out of the room.
The maids allowed themselves to giggle after he left the chamber. Women can always see what men are blind to.
“Leave me,” I demanded.
The maids silenced, curtsied and floated out of the room.
The chiffon drapes fluttered in the summer wind and swirled around Alexandria, keeping her cool in the basking heat. I returned my gaze to the orange mountains. I watched them every day from every window in the castle. I studied them from every angle to ensure I would know of an attack from the kingdoms behind the horizon.
Alexandria gurgled and wriggled in my arms.
“Those are the Orange Mountains of Prometheus,” I pointed to show Alexandria. “Legend has it that inside the mountains core is a hollow. Inside the hollow, a mystical fire rages, a flame that has burned since the beginning of time, a flame that nothing and no-one can extinguish. They say in a hidden crevice in another part of the mountains lies the last of the kingdoms dragon eggs. There are four of them, one green, one red, one blue and one yellow. They lie dormant, like seeds. They say the flame of the orange mountains is the only source of heat capable of awakening them. But neither the eggs nor the fire have ever been found. The person who can find them both and bestow life upon the last of the dragons will rule, not only Merrydown, but all the kingdoms forever. Men have scaled and searched for centuries with no such luck. But I believe, the spirit inside of you, Alexandria, will lead you to the key; to the secret of the mountains and then you will rule infinitely under my name.”
The day of Alexandria’s blessing dawned and Spirit Guide Damon came to my chamber as the maids clothed me in my finest intricate blue dress robes and braided my hair. I was known across the kingdoms as The Queen with the Endless Mane on account of my deep brown locks falling in curls down to beyond my feet.
“Your grace,” Guide Damon bowed as he entered my room.
The maids left as I spoke with him.
“I trust everything is in place for today’s ceremony, Guide Damon?” I enquired.
“Yes, your grace. I have prepared a special reading, specifically for little Alexandria,” Guide Damon beamed as he gazed upon Alexandria who lay in her crib, dressed in a long white gown. He was instantly swallowed up by her angelic beauty, just as everyone was. He then turned back to me and softly placed a hand on my cheek.
“You possess a very fierce spirit, Edessa. The spirit of a lion. Your presence commands everyone around you and your aura is strong too, yet opaque,” he said. I smiled in gratitude.
He studied my features again, closer this time. His expression twisted as if he was trying to solve something.
“Do you possess The Gift, your grace?”
“Yes I do, Guide. For as long as I can remember I have had the capacity of mind to see and communicate with those in the spirit world. I can even see with my own eyes when a soul struggles in an attempt to leave their human vessel to travel to the next world. I have seen some terrible things, Guide. I sometimes believe it to be more of a curse than a gift,” I explained.
“Come now, my child. Your gift is what makes your spirit so strong. You are able to see what others are blind to. To hear what others are deaf to. To sense what others cannot bare to comprehend. Your gift provides you with the knowledge of who is safe and who is in danger, of who around you is next to die. You are already a rich spirit, a soul, whereas others around you are merely bodies who only believe they are alive. Though it may seem like a curse at times, your gift will serve you a great advantage someday. We mustn’t dwell on such indulgent things now. This is a glorious day. Let’s begin the celebration of Alexandria’s life,” Guide Damon soothed.
My daughter was blessed as Princess Alexandria Edessa Knightingdale. Byron stood like a cheap jester by my side at the altar as Alexandria was blessed. He stood now with the growing antlers of a fawn which attracted the shameful stares of the congregation’s women. He festered in his self-loathing for not being able to overpower me as a real king would be expected to do. Byron feared me more than he did anything else. He had fought against twenty foot giants and undead trolls in his youth, yet I had broken down his brave character into a weak fool. Byron now feared the capacity that women held in power and awoke from his sleep in even colder sweats now that his wife had given birth to a daughter. He sensed a change was coming.
Byron wasn’t always a stammering nervous wreck. When we were first married, he was the polar opposite image of the excuse for a man he is now. I was only a teenager when we were wed and I was merely a shy wallflower and Byron was a fierce warrior. On our wedding night, he drunkenly tried to force himself on me, reeking of wine. I made an attempt to refuse him, to which Byron smashed the back of his hand into my cheek bone and across my face, knocking me from the bed to the stone floor. I climbed to my feet and was about to go to the washroom when he came up behind me, grabbed my long hair and yanked me backwards sharply. I struck the ground again and my tail tone drove into the cold hard floor. Byron continued to pull my hair while slapping me across the face and occasionally punching my eyes. The next day when I woke, my face was bruised gradient shades of purple like watery paint dropped onto fresh paper. As I looked as my feeble battered reflection, rage fired in my belly and I plotted my revenge. A week later when Byron stumbled in drunk and too intoxicated to put up a fight, I bet him with an old plank of wood that had nails sticking out of it. One of the nails went right into his eye and he screamed in agony. After I hit, kicked and punched as much as I could, I set our dog Sabre on him. He only had surface wounds, nothing life threatening but he never raised a hand to me again and always kept a wary eye on me.
I was paired to marry Byron Dimitri Knightingdale from my birth. My father and his had been bitter and quarrelling enemies, just as their fathers had been and their fathers before them. In an attempt to win back the kingdom of Merrydown, my father, Aldus Norman Dean, arranged for me to marry his rival’s son. Byron’s father, Sliver Acheron Knightingdale, agreed to the pairing because the kingdoms in the west were planning to have a revolution and their power in numbers began to worry him. He hoped that if the Knightingdales and the Deans united in a temporary truce, they would be able to overpower the threat and protect the east. The seemingly never-ending war between the Knightingdales and the Deans would resume after the rebels in the west had been quashed. This was indeed the case. I was married to Byron at the age of fifteen, uniting the two houses. The armies were joined and the rebels were killed within a year, leaving our clan to battle with theirs once again. Both my father and Byron’s were killed during the uprising but the elders and counsellors of both houses insisted the conflict go on. It was tradition.
My father had always given me detailed instructions throughout my childhood of what I should do once I became queen.
“You have to secure the crown, Edessa. Ensure that if the Knightingdale name lives on, that our family will be at the head of that name. You are the most intelligent and gutsy girl of your age I have ever known and you must do whatever you can to honour your house. You must ensure that your children inherit the crown and that every last true Knightingdale is wiped out, leaving only our family, the Deans. If you do this, we will reclaim their name, their title, for our own. Never allow yourself to develop feelings for Byron. Remember what his family has done to ours throughout the centuries,” my father had told me when I was thirteen years old.
I recalled the countless stories my father had told me as a child of the brutal and merciless attacks the Knightingdales assaulted our ancestors with in a conflict that had lasted for so long that the beginning and the cause was unknown. They would slay small children in the street as their parents were forced to watch. They would loot and rape as they trudged through our poor villages and burned our houses to the ground. My father would describe the Deans coat of arms decorated with red, orange and images of lions. He would say that we fought like lions. We fought with ferocity, courage and honour. The Knightingdales coat of arms was a sickening murky green, engraved with images of snakes. The Knightingdales also fought like their mascot. They fought by ambush. They lied, stole, betrayed and showed no mercy or nobility. I relived the tales and my lion’s blood began to quicken in pace and bubble with anger.
“You must avenge your ancestors, however you can. It is up to you to ensure that not a single pure blood Knightingdale survives,” my father explained.
I nodded and accepted his request as my mission, my purpose in life.
I pondered for years about how I could fulfil my father’s wish. To truly breed out the Knightingdales was impossible when I was married and expected to have children by one of them. Without my father alive to consult, I prayed to the gods for guidance on what to do.
One day, in Byron and I’s third year of union, I was writing in the upper garden of the castle on a hot summer’s day when a bumble bee broke my concentration. The fat and fuzzy black and yellow bee buzzed through the air and landed on one of our hydrangea bushes. The bee jumped from bloom to bloom gathering pollen when a second bee hovered over to the first. I realised that the first bee was a female and the second a male. They rested on a leaf and mated, then the second bee flew away. The second was then followed by a succession of male bees who one by one mated with the female without knowing she had already been mated with. None of them knew expect her. A sly smile painted my features as I realised what I had to do.
Many years passed and Alexandria began to grow into the beautiful little lady I had hoped she would be. She would run around the castles gardens in pretty dresses with her cousins, shooting arrows and play fighting with wooden swords. Every day she would insist on wearing her informal crown constructed from sticks and flowers which would be elaborately braided into her hair by the maids. She wanted everyone to be aware of her position at all times. Her muddy brown hair flowed down to the small of her back, just as mines did at her age. She was naturally beautiful and her crystal blue eyes and dimpled rosy cheeks made all the adults and little boys around her melt into puddles of goo. She already knew the power she had and knew that Byron was a weakling and a fool. I used to chuckle at the way she would comically sneer and snigger at his horned head.
Byron rarely surfaced from his chamber and when he did, he would be drunk and weeping about how much of a failure and a shame he was to his house. I would instruct a maid to escort him back to his chamber where he would fall back asleep. This routine was repeated every couple of days, interspersed with his occasional drunken threats to poison me in my sleep, reclaim his crown from me and raise Alexandria to be a snake like him. When this happened, my Hand would beat him and take him back to his room.
Byron’s spats where becoming more and more frequent and vicious. I had been told by my counsellors during our meetings that he had been assigning spies to monitor my whereabouts and daily activities so that he could plot to kill me in an impeccably planned and seamless murder that they would portray as suicide. Although Byron was a weakling compared to me, I was becoming concerned for my safety and for Alexandria’s future. Though Alexandria was already a warrior, I feared her young spirit was still impressionable and easy to manipulate. I had to honour my father’s wish and ensure my family was in power.
On the first crisp day of autumn, Alexandria rushed into my bed chamber early morning.
“Mother! Mother! Look what I found,” she exclaimed, waving a piece of parchment in her hand.
“What is it, my dear?” I asked, expecting it to be another one of her watercolour paintings.
She jumped up onto my lap and spread the piece of parchment across my wooden desk and began point at different parts of the drawing with her small chubby finger.
“You see, it’s an old map. Look, there’s the orange mountains you have always told me about. Here is the inner flame and here are the dragon’s eggs! It’s all here, look!”
She was right. The extensive map depicted the path into a cave on the west side of the mountain that led down into to the very core of the mountain where the fire burned. Fifty metres up the mountain concealed by rocks were the four remaining dragon eggs of Merrydown. I couldn’t believe it.
“Alexandria, where did you find this?!”
“I was exploring in the dungeons and I found a trap door! I climbed down inside and right at the bottom there was an old golden box. It was covered in cobwebs and layers and layers of dust. This was inside! It really is the map isn’t it? We can go get the dragons now, can’t we?” Alexandria asked giddy with excitement.
Before I could answer, Byron burst through the door, almost tearing it off its hinges. He threw himself across the room to cease the map. I scooped up the map in one hand and Alexandria in the other as Byron reached the desk. His antlers were now fully formed, solid and branching off into the air two feet above him. He had fury in his eyes like I had never seen before.
“Give me that now!” Byron yelled.
“Alexandria, go to your room!” I commanded.
She protested for a moment before fleeing the room.
“Give me that map now, Edessa!” Byron shouted as he grabbed the handle of his sword. The shrill silver blade almost hissed when it was drawn from his belt.
I tucked the map in my belt behind my back and quickly grabbed my sword from under my desk and held it high.
“Since when have you had a sword? You don’t even know how to use it,” Byron cackled.
I swung my sword and pierced his stubbly cheek clean open. The wound oozed thick dark blood. Byron stumbled back in shock and wiped his cut cheek. With boiling rage and widened eyes, he hurled his sword at my head with the snarl of a rabid dog. I ducked and he missed, which angered him even impossibly more. I spun around behind him and sliced the back of his legs, cutting through his hamstrings and he collapsed to his knees. As I looked down at him, I could see a hazy smoky figure that looked as if it was behind him. I focused my eyes and saw Byron’s soul trying to escape him. The soul looked exactly like him but it was sickly grey and transparent. It was still connected to Byron but its head and shoulders had risen above him and it was struggling to wriggle free. Its expression was pained and panicked. It was frantically screaming silently and looked as it if was drowning and grasping to reach the surface of the water. I flinched at the sight of the soul in such pain. It was desperately trying to flee its poisoned and decaying body. Byron grunted in pain, followed by a dark laugh.
“I have men coming here right now to kill you. Soon you will be dead, I will be able to be the king again and I shall raise Alexandria to be a true Knightingdale like me,” he said through wheezes as a smile creased his cheeks.
I grabbed his scruffy hair and pulled his head back.
“Haven’t you ever noticed the women in Merrydown smirking? Sniggering at you as you walk past?” I hissed into his ear. A puzzled expression spread on his face. “Haven’t you ever noticed that Alexandria does not possess a single feature or attribute that you have?”
As realisation began to touch Byron’s features, I roughly grabbed his arm and pulled him up to look in the mirror next to my bed.
He stared at his reflection and finally saw the huge cuckold horns growing from his small head. He wailed and cried in agony as he grabbed, shook and tried to pull them out of his skull in vain. He knew they were a mark of shame, a laughing stock.
“Alexandria isn’t my daughter? I have no heir?” he sobbed.
“You really are blind, Byron. It took you this long to realise what every women in the kingdoms can see,” I smirked.
“You had her by another man?” he whimpered on his knees.
“No. I prayed to the gods every night for two months to bestow life inside me. To give me a baby that was of pure blood. A baby that was made up from me and only me. A true Dean. They answered my prayers. Alexandria isn’t the fruits of you or any other man. She is the image of me,” I taunted.
Byron’s expression and body curled in ache which, after a moment, shifted to anger.
“You can’t do this! You can’t rule a kingdom without a man. You can’t create a child without a man. She is a devil child! A clone! She’ll be sent straight to hell,” he spat.
“No, she won’t. If she was created by the gods from one parent, why would she be banished to hell for it? I can rule a kingdom without a man. It is you, you needs a woman. You will never know what it’s like to have a life grow inside your body and you will never know if a child is rightly yours because only a woman, only a mother, knows the truth. Do you see now?” I smiled.
The soul was struggling more than ever. Flailing and panicking in deep water.
Byron’s face fizzed and turned blood red with rage. He grabbed his sword for the floor and propelled the blade through the air, aiming for my heart. I caught the sword by the handle and plunged the edge into his throat. Blood glugged out of his neck with every pulse of his heart until the ground was soaked with it. He fell backwards and the light left his eyes. The soul calmed, smiled and was finally able to breathe again. Youth, health and colour touched its cheeks as it wriggled one last time, broke free and detached from Byron’s body. The soul floated up and gazed down on its body before gliding through the ceiling and up to the heavens.
Finally the last Knightingdale was dead and the Deans could take their rightful place on the throne of Merrydown once more.
A week after Byron’s death, Alexandria and I went on a chest to the orange mountains to find the dragon eggs and find the fire to awaken them. The eggs were all as large as my head, hard and prickly like a hedgehog. From the red egg came a Nicaean Lion Dragon and from the green came a Merrydown Snake Dragon. From the blue egg came a Saltcreak Blue Whale Dragon and from the final, the yellow, came a Garden City Bumble Bee Dragon.
Years on, the Deans are now back in power, stronger than ever and as strong as any monarchy could possibly be with protection from four, fire-breathing, fifty foot high dragons. On a sunny, clear day, if you look up in the sky and watch closely in the distance, you might just see Alexandria and I riding the dragons, circling and protecting Merrydown.