Haven Ballindor had lived in the Seventh Kingdom all of his thirty-five years. He was a tracker by trade and dressed in a green shirt and brown breeches made from double-thick cloth. His garb afforded him camouflage when looking for invaders from the Second Kingdom to the south – or from the black wolves that hunted at twilight. His blond hair tumbled from beneath a broad-brimmed hat, and many maidens from the village of Artax had tried and failed to lure him into courtship and marriage. The lives of most trackers were surrounded by a fair amount of folklore, most of it apocryphal, but Haven's reputation had been validated on more than one occasion when he dragged a dead wolf or captive invader to the village square before turning on his heels in silence and returning to the forest.
Haven had been a member of the Veedish priesthood in his twenties, and he still maintained his vow of silence unless communication with pilgrims traveling through the woods was absolutely necessary. He had renounced the spells and magic of his brethren as too dangerous to use, and their strict regimen of prayer, chanting, meditation, and farm labor had lost its appeal. He was too independent to live an entire lifetime under the yoke of such routine, and he questioned many of the myths that formed the foundation of the priestly brotherhood eons earlier. He was a solitary man who was at home in his cabin under the giant redwood trees, and he was happiest when he puffed on his pipe in front of the hearth in the evenings after a dinner of venison and cabbage. He was mesmerized by the birch flames and often found himself in a reverie as to whether there really was an eighth kingdom, a kingdom for those who had passed from earthly existence. He wasn't sure if such a realm existed, though if magic was real – and he knew that it was – the afterlife didn't seem altogether unlikely.
It was on such an evening, the sun having left the forest dark except for the glowing eyes of the golden raven, when there was a knock on the rough-hewn wooden door of his home. He rarely received visitors, who were usually travelers who had lost their way because they failed to make camp when twilight had turned the sky orange and crimson. Haven rose from his hand-carved rocking chair and walked to the door.
"Who wishes admittance?" he asked.
"It is Maybeth," a timid voice replied.
Haven unbolted the door and saw the comeliest maid from Artax standing in the darkness. The light from his hearth was sufficient to illuminate her face, painting her flawless skin gold. She was no more than twenty-two, and she wore a black robe surrounded by a red cape, its cowl pushed back below her shoulders. Her brown hair fell to the middle of her back, where it curled into beautiful ringlets. Her eyes were blue and reminded the tracker of precious gems. She was stunningly beautiful. Haven had renounced his vow of celibacy, and on more than one occasion he had considered courting Maybeth but for the fact that he cherished his solitude. Perhaps he had retained more of the priesthood's holy rule than he liked to admit. "May I have a word?" Maybeth repeated.
Haven stepped aside as he motioned for the maiden to enter and be seated at a chair opposite his rocker. A day or two of stubble usually adorned his cheeks and chin since he didn't run into many people given his solitary lifestyle, but he now wished that he'd shaved that morning using his grandfather's pearl-handled straight-edge blade. Most of the people who crossed the threshold of his cabin were other trackers or traders, scouts, and those on pilgrimage to the Holy Mountains of Tindergaard to the east. A fair maiden such as Maybeth had never entered Haven's humble dwelling.
As Maybeth moved towards the fire, Haven noticed that a cylindrical brown tube was slung over her left shoulder and suspended by a length of thin rope. It was smooth and polished. The tracker knew that it had been made from the hide of the five-horned cattle common in the Second Kingdom.
"How long have you been journeying?" Haven inquired. "Have you come from Artax?"
"Two days and a night. I traveled to the lowlands to the south to sea my parents. They have been feverish, and I brought medicinal herbs and teas to aid in their recovery."
Haven nodded. "Very kind of you. Speaking of tea, would you care for a cup? The water on the woodstove is still hot."
"Yes, but I shall make it myself. In my pouch I carry the crushed leaves of the hayberry plant. It makes a most refreshing beverage."
"As you wish," Haven said, motioning to the corner of his cabin that he called a kitchen.
Maybeth removed her outer cloak and the tube she was carrying and laid them across another chair near the rocker. She proceeded to pour steaming water from a brightly-polished copper kettle into two clay cups after she had deposited crushed hayberry leaves in each. She stirred the tea with a wooden spoon and handed a cup to her host.
"It is sweet," she said, "but not overly so." Haven sipped the concoction and smiled. "It is very good. It is similar to glade root, but without the bitterness. Why have you seen fit to travel through the forest at night and knock on my cabin door? Surely not to brew me tea. You are aware, of course, that wolves and ravens are about at this hour."
"I am unafraid of them," she replied. "They only attack if they sense fear, and my parents and grandparents taught me how to control my emotions in most situations. Traveling with confidence and courage is as useful as traveling with a weapon."
"Just so. Your parents taught you wisely. Fear produces a scent that attracts many predators. But you still haven't told me why you're here." Haven had by now drained his cup, and his sight grew blurry. The figure before him was transforming, as if standing in a heat shimmer in the the center of a green meadow on a bright summer day.
"Who … what . . . ?" Haven stammered.
A tall brunette woman, slim and dressed in a silk white robe stood where Maybeth had been a moment earlier. "The hayberry tea had special ingredients," she said, "which is why I insisted on preparing it."
Haven turned his head slightly and squinted. Before him stood Simone el-Kithra – Simone of the House of Kithra, which ruled the Third Kingdom. She was also a powerful witch whose powers were legendary throughout the seven kingdoms. Her hair was raven and straight, her cheekbones high, and while she was beautiful, her beauty was severe and her gaze disarming.
"What are you doing here?" Haven queried as the fog cleared from his brain. "I have no business with you?"
"Ah, but you do," the queen answered, pulling out a tanned parchment from the leather tube. She unrolled it and spread it across the supper table in the middle of the cabin. "Stand by my side," she ordered the tracker, taking his arm. She could feel his strong muscular frame as she drew him close and pointed at the parchment.
"This is a battle plan for invading the Seventh Kingdom," he said, his brow creased. "Why do you wish to break the peace that has existed between out realms for over a hundred years? The Treaty of Uthmar has held steady for ten decades, preventing much bloodshed while allowing for trade between our peoples. Such a balance was not easy to achieve and cost many men their lives in the costly battles that preceded it."
"But it has been an uneasy peace. Many in my kingdom still believe that your land rightly belongs to the House of Kithra and have long urged my ancestors to regain tis land and restore the pride that made us great, a greatness that was unrivalled over the entire continent. Your people would be treated well if they only succumbed to our wishes. We have sent envoys for many years to seek such reunification."
"Nonsense," Haven said. "The kingdoms were never unified to begin with. We have as much pride as Kithrans. Our liege, King Ayelborne of the House of Silvans has rejected your claim as false for many years. We Silvans wish to create our own destiny."
Queen Simone stepped back from the table and closed her eyes for a full minute as if contemplating her answer. Haven could not help but admire the smoothness of her pale skin and comely features that charmed many but terrified others. He was unsettled by her presence in his home, but he knew that it was important for him to remain calm and keep his resolve when it came to the sovereignty of his countrymen. Simone was legendary for being able to read the temperament and body language of those in her presence. He wanted to remain resolute, but he was all too aware that Simone could cast powerful spells. It was rumored that many who were admitted to her presence had been turned to statues if they displeased her in any way.
"I admire your dedication and strength," she said at last, "but your soldiers are no match for the many legions of troops that I command. We would rather assimilate than destroy you, but we will do what we must. In either scenario, I will need a Silvan to act as diplomat or general, whichever role is necessary for our conquest, and I choose you, Haven Ballindor."
She looked Haven in the eye, and in that brief moment he wondered whether or not he was being bewitched. Had she claimed his soul? Compromised his free will?"
"I will also need a lover," she declared. "I wish to have a child by someone with your intelligence, strength, and … yes, your ruggedly handsome features. Such a union would also make our assimilation of your culture far easier for the House of Kithra. Houses sealed by common offspring often create a new and lasting peace. In time, upon our marriage, you would become a prince of Kthra, the queen's consort."
"You have no need of a lowly tracker," Haven stated, unpersuaded by Simone's logic.
"Do you not think that someone as myself does not know your real identity?" she retorted. "You are a high priest in the Veedish Brotherhood. It is known by those who are familiar with your order that you are a mystic and a soothsayer, someone who can even levitate off the ground after several hours of Veedish meditation."
Haven shook his head as he seated himself in the rocker. "You are quite mad. I have no desire to be your consort, nor do I desire your body. I will not help you attain your goal, and you may find Silvans more formidable in battle than you imagine."
Simone crossed her arms and spread her red lips into a thin smile.
"Perhaps you may find Maybeth more to your liking. Everyone knows of your secret desire for the young woman, but she is of lowly birth and not worthy of your time or attention."
Haven closed his eyes briefly, resenting the mention of Maybeth by the powerful witch. When he opened his eyes again, he was lying on the rough cloth enclosing his straw mattress. Sitting on the side on the trundle bed was Maybeth, who stroked his cheek lightly.
"You had a nasty fall, Mater Ballindor," the woman said. "Shall I get a damp cloth for your forehead?"
Haven rubbed his right temple. "I must have had a bad dream. How long was I unconscious?"
"Just a few moments, my lord."
"Excuse my clumsiness. You should probably leave now, mistress. It is getting late."
Haven was trying to recall the strange dream of Simone el-Kithra. He didn't remember falling, and if he had indeed been dreaming, the dream had been both lucid and specific, its images as clear as any waking reality as compared to the surrealistic images one experienced while asleep. He was about to speak when Maybeth leaned down and pressed her lips against his. Haven did not resist. He put his arms around her waist and pulled her close until she lay next to his body on the trundle bed. He stared into her soft blue eyes for several seconds. She was wearing a pleasing scent, and he could feel her breath – so sweet – upon his face."
"I have always loved you," he proclaimed in a whisper.
"And I you," she said. kissing him again, this time with far greater passion. "Now give me your seed."
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