Amongst the lush green leaves, eyes of the same color dart back and forth. The young woman with these vibrant green eyes surveys her surroundings. However, she is not on the safety of the forest floor, but she is high in the canopy of an ancient tree. Squatting on a sturdy bough, she decides that she isn’t high enough and needs a higher vantage point.
“Take me higher,” she whispers.
As she stretches her arm up, a branch sways right into her hand and lifts her up. A woodpecker, busy thumping his beak against the tree trunk, is frightened away by the shaking branches and the woman who is being carried up the tree. She sets her foot down on the tree branch. However, the higher up she goes, the branches become thinner and shake under her weight.
“Steady,” she says.
The branch straightens and stops shaking. Another branch appears from behind and supports her back. Finally, her vantage allows her to survey most of the forest from above. The cloudless sky allows the sun to scorch her face. Her black braided hair shines like copper under the light.
It’s so much brighter up here, she thinks to herself.
The forest below her is one of the most ancient of the small kingdom of Tirafon. A kingdom rich with natural resources, and it holds a strategic position within the major trading routes. Tirafon means land of the rivers in the ancient tongue, and it refers to the mighty river which splits the known world in half. She scans the forest, searching for any clearings or paths. It is the beginning of summer. Trees are lush with new foliage, obstructing her view. Nothing seems to be out of the ordinary, but suddenly flecks of gold catch her attention. A small road cuts through the forest, revealing a distinctive bare strip, she sees the hint of a carriage painted with gold.
Odd, she observes, but not what I’m looking for.
No one in Tirafon has a carriage of gold, not even the archduke. While this is a kingdom older than the mighty empire to its east, it has remained unchanged for centuries. Though prosperous, it has remained rustic with little innovation or industrial advancement.
The young woman takes a seat on the tree branch. She begins to ruminate over events that are coming forth, which she has no control over.
Will things always remain the same? What’s going to happen next?
“Your highness!” a woman’s voice calls from below. “Do you see them?”
Shaking out of her self contemplation she calls back down, “No, but I spotted an unknown carriage. Perhaps we should inquire if they have seen them.
She tucks her long braided hair in her tunic and climbs down the tree. As she climbs down, limbs and branches fall into place like steps. A few times, she jumps down from bough to bough, giddy like a little girl. The last bough is still a big jump down for her. A tall woman with short, cropped, blond hair stands beneath the bough in order for her to lower herself onto her shoulders.
“I told you an aerial view would be pointless.” the tall woman remarks. She stands like a rock as the other one tries to climb down her body.
“It was worth a try.” The woman jumps to the ground and stands up to her full height. Still, she barely reaches the other woman’s shoulder. “Galloping through the forest is not how today was supposed to be.”
The tall woman chuckles. “I know, but we have to find them.”
A group of women with horses and stags stand close by. They all wear the same blue livery with a silver otter emblazoned on the chest. Some carry swords while others carry bows and arrows. Three men are also mixed in, but their livery is green. A brown haired woman hands over a belt with a scabbard and sword.
“My lady, why must you climb so high?” she asks.
“Because I love the view.”
“You just love taking unnecessary risks,” the tall woman chimes in. “You are about to become your mother’s heir. It’s time that you stop being so reckless. Are you listening to me?”
The black haired woman lets out a light chuckle. She fastens the belt and adjusts the scabbard. Out of the collar of her tunic, she pulls out her long black braid.
“I am always listening to you, Gwendolyn. But I don’t always have to do what you say.”
The sound of hooves alerts her and she draws her sword. Everybody else also draws their weapons. However, only a large tan stag appears. He bounds towards them wildly, not paying any attention to his surroundings. The stag is equipped with a bridle and a saddle, but is without a rider.
“He’s not going to stop!” Gwendolyn warns.
Suddenly, another stag jumps in front. This one is pure white. He rears up on his hind legs, forcing the other stag into a full stop. The white stag admonishes him by striking its antlers with his own, while huffing in its face.
“I think we found what we were looking for, or at least part of what we were looking for,” one of the women comments. She looks at one of the men, and he confirms with a nod of the head.
The princess approaches the runaway stag. She does not approach with caution, but instead each step she takes fills the stag with unease. The now timid stag turns his head to avoid eye contact, but she grabs his bridle to pull his face to meet with hers.
“Where’s your rider?”
On a narrow and bumpy road, a company of armed soldiers escort an old carriage. Once it was pristinely painted with colors of the Sahro Empire, red and gold. However, this old carriage has been neglected for years. The red paint shows cracks, the gold leafing is peeling away, and the insignia of the Sahro royal family has long faded away. It was only brought out of its retirement to carry the youngest prince, Rayan, to the far side of the empire, the Western Territory. Currently, its task is to carry the prince to the Caer, castle of the Archduke of Tirafon.
“A woman is going to be a duke? Do you not mean a duchess?” the prince asks his companion. He rubs his sweaty palms together while trying to keep his breathing steady. Traveling through forests makes him nervous and uneasy. His eyes continuously dart out the windows on alert for assailants.
“First of all, the title is Archduke. Archduke Monroe only has daughters, so his eldest, Princess Rheanna will become the next archduke. And then after her, her daughter Princess Innes, is next up for the title of Archduke.”
The prince’s companion glances at him nervously. For three years, he has served as his aide. Because of his precarious place in court, the prince has been anxious about his self preservation. He is always careful in public not to show this side of him. However, within his own private circle, he usually did not hide his anxiety.
My liege, you are more anxious than usual, the aide observes.
“Are there no sons? And why are they being called the Archduke? They are women. I would think that their title would become Archduchess instead.”
“It is their law of succession,” the aide explains for what seems like the hundredth time. “The title of Archduke is passed down to the first born child whether it be a man or a woman, and it seems the title is not gender dependent.”
Prince Rayan contemplates this odd law of succession. All other kingdoms either had laws that prohibited a woman from inheriting the right to rule, placed all of her brothers or male relatives before her, or her husband would simply rule in her place. Never has he seen a law that would give the right to rule to a woman.
He thinks of his oldest sister and sibling, Eremita. In his mind she would make a much better ruler than the fourth child, but first son in his family, Javil. It took his father four tries to finally get his beloved son, and once he had him he ruined him with his obsessive love.
“Turab, why am I being exiled to this wilderness?”
“This is not exile, you are the governor of the Western Territory, and you are attending the ceremony which will proclaim the Archduke’s granddaughter as second in line. She will formally be announced as her mother’s future heir.”
“And how does this concern me?” Rayan is becoming more irritable.
“Your new territory is undeveloped and impoverished while Tirafon is one of the biggest players in trade. You and the princess are close to the same age, so you should try and create an alliance at least to help your territory. As it is, you have not yet gained the current lords’ trust.”
“Why not try to marry her while I’m at it?” Rayan jests.
“Do not mince your words, your highness,” Turab warns. “The rulers of Tirafon take the marriage of a future woman archduke seriously. They never enter into marriages with first born sons, and all husbands must renounce their placement in whatever line of nobility they come from. If you try to marry her, you must give up your right to succession as emperor.”
“That is a good point,” he replies, staring idly out the carriage window. “Would I even want to live here for the rest of my life?”
Turab chuckles. Tirafon is completely opposite from the Sahro Empire. While the empire controls many miles of sea coast and large swatches of fertile land, much of it was still sand and desert. The land they have been traveling through is lush with thick green forests. The tall thick canopy blocks out most of the sun, and only dapples of sunlight reach the forest floor. There were many villages dotted along their route that were able to give them very comfortable accommodations, but nothing as grand and luxurious and he is accustomed to.
The carriage comes to a sudden stop as the sound of shrieks start to approach them through the trees.
“Defensive formation!” the captain of the guards cries out.
Rayan reaches for his sword but Turab motions for him not to leave.