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|Dream of a Distant Past|
Lost and Found
January 10, 2012
Fun and Games Edit
The garden of the Earth Kingdom governor in the city of Gebel Nagara came to life with the laughter of two young children, the sounds brightening the vivid colors of the trees in bloom. While the older started a countdown, the smallest dashed away like a little doe through the neatly trimmed bushes.
"Nineteen . . . TWENTY! Who's not hidden, will explode!" The girl's face gleamed with excitement as she ran off to go look for her sister. When she stuck her head in a nearby bush to see if her prey was there, she heard it: The faint sound of giggling. She could not help but smile as she moved toward the source. "You know that the whole point of hiding is that I won't find you, right? Being silent might help you there." The giggling grew into a snort. "I got you now, Tayla." Forming a small fireball, she pulled away the branches of the bush. A blur of white linen knocked her over in her rush to get away. The little girl raced off like an arrow released from a bow. The older girl quickly scrambled to her feet and gave chase. "Tayla, come back here!" She yelled between two breaths. Her longer legs served her well, and she quickly gained on her sister; when she was about to throw another fireball, she saw something that made her stop in her tracks; in her haste to come to a complete halt, she nearly slipped and fell. Tayla was hiding behind a tall, beautiful woman in her mid-twenties, clinging on to her skirt while sticking out her tongue.
The woman wore the royal robe of the Fire Nation. An elegant tiara, decorated with little flames along the side and an ureaus in front, adorned her brow. The perfect eye for detail made the engraved fires look like they were dancing in the light. Her long black hair gleamed in the gentle touch of the afternoon sun. She crossed her arms and cast a stern look at the child – a look that did not belong on her soft features. The radiant blue-gray eyes of Fire Lady Amanra made her older daughter cringe as only a mother's could. "Lostris Kenna Tamose! What have I told you about playing hide and explode with your sister?"
Lostris cowered at her mother's words, and her fireball disappeared like snow in summer's heat. She glanced down, developing an immense interest in her feet. Feeling her mother's burning stare upon her, she fidgeted, uncomfortable, and slowly looked up to meet that intense glance, nervously fiddling with her hands. Amanra arched a questioning eyebrow. The seconds felt like minutes, turning into hours, even days. Lostris's throat seemed dryer than even the desert surrounding the city when she murmured her reply. "I'm not to play hide and explode with Tayla. She can't firebend yet, so it is unfair and dangerous."
Tayla's indignant voice cut through the air. "I can too!"
"Oh yeah? Prove it." Lostris's eyes twinkled as she provokingly smirked at her younger sister.
"Tayla, sweetie . . . ." Amanra tried to hold the miniature version of herself back, but the young child persisted stubbornly.
Tayla took on a firebending stance, her face contorting with effort and concentration, her eyes closed. Breath one. She had seen her mother perform that move over and over again; the motions were engraved in her mind, and her body just needed to follow the outlines. Breath two. She clenched her little fists in her side. The words of her mother lingered in her mind. The power of firebending comes from the breath. Breath three. Simultaneously, she opened her fiery amber eyes, smoldering with passion, and shifted her weight to punch her right fist forward. Full of anticipation, she waited idly for flames that never came. She tried again, repeating the movements over and over until, in a sudden blissful moment, a flame erupted in front of her. Her laugh started as a little trickle, but the mirthful excitement soon broke through the dam of inhibition. The wave of joy flooded the garden, the villa, the whole city. "I did it! I did it! I di—." The wave would never reach the surrounding desert, however, for it had turned real. Tears of frustration streamed down Tayla's face; she had turned around to discover her sister, standing there as a true firebender, her fist still stretched out. It dawned on her that she was not the source of the orange flame. It was Lostris.
Lostris grinned at her as she ended up her routine. "I just wanted to help you out there, Spark Princess," she mockingly added, much to the grief of her sister. The fire that had burned in Tayla's eyes slowly died down as the salty water of her tears gained the upper hand. As she bolted away, her vision, blurred by the mist of water, could not navigate her out of the way of upcoming obstacle, and she knocked her older sister over in her haste to hide in the comforting embrace of the lush, green branches of the garden.
Lostris's tail bone was harshly introduced to the hard soil. Agony shot through her little body and erupted through a high pitched cry: "AUWW!!" The pain that did not exit with the scream fled in the form of salty tears ready to wash over her cheeks.
Amanra was torn between her two daughters; she squatted next to Lostris and helped her up. The gentle mother was accompanied by the stern teacher. "Serves you right, you know," she commented, shaking her head. "You know how sensitive Tayla is about the fact that she can't bend. Why did you have to provoke her like that? You know better than that, or at least I hope you do." The Fire Lady looked at the face of the young Crown Princess and sighed. "I'm going to find your sister. You are welcome to join me when you're ready to apologize."
The first wave of wetness crept down her cheek. Lostris could handle the pain, but her mother's disappointment was something else. The second wave of tears was cut off by a single stroke of Lostris's hand. She wanted to follow her mother, but the shame of her actions pinned her to the ground. Her legs refused to her move; instead, they caved in, and she sank to the ground again.
A middle-aged man walked toward the little six-year-old princess; he had followed the events from the quiet shadows of the villa. Lostris briefly glanced to the side to see who it was, recognizing the handsome features on the familiar face, but averted her gaze to look again to the pebble in front of her, putting her arms around her legs and resting her chin on her knees. "What is it, Taita? Are you here to tell me I was wrong too?"
The man smiled calmly at Lostris. He had the aura of a wise, all-knowing, and gentle spirit, although he was only in his forties. "There is no need in telling a soaring bird that it can fly." Lostris rolled her eyes and snorted at Taita's wisdom of the day.
"Can I sit with you, my Princess?" he asked pleasantly. Lostris shrugged her shoulders. The man still smiled. "I'll take that as a yes." He squatted down in lotus posture and waited for a little girl to learn her lesson and for a princess to learn that sometimes she would need to swallow her pride to do what was right. The silence lasted several minutes. Every once in a while, Lostris glanced over to the unmovable statue she knew as Taita. A redbreast hopped towards him, and he opened his hands to welcome the bird. The little animal chirped as he picked it up and caressed its little head before setting it free again. Trilling, the redbreast spread its wings and caught an upwards current that carried it high above the villa. Lostris watched the bird fly away while Taita's words echoed in her mind. There is no need in telling a soaring bird that it can fly. She glanced over at Taita, who was staring directly at her. His clear blue eyes locked on to hers, and it was as if his gaze went right through her soul.
She sighed. "I didn't mean to hurt her, TaTa. I just wanted to get back at her for ratting me out like that. I never meant for her to cry." Taita's eyes twinkled as Lostris learned her lesson. What a queen you'll make, my soaring bird.
Fleeting Peace Edit
Fire Lady Amanra found Tayla sitting on the bridge over the pond, her feet dangling just above the water. It was filled with hyacinth and fish from the river, which shone like jewels below the surface of the limpid pond. The hyacinth swayed up and down as tears broke the smooth surface; the princess's tiny body was shaking with every sob that escaped her throat. Amanra sat down and pulled her close, rocking her gently.
"W-w-why can't I bend, Mom?" Tayla choked out between sobs.
"Oh sweetie." The mother lovingly clutched her daughter even closer while she caressed her jet-black hair. The beauty of the pink blossoms of the cherry tree was duplicated in the pond before them as the wind rustled the branches above their heads. One of the delicate flowers drifted down and landed on Amanra's lap, right beside Tayla's head. Amanra gently picked it up and looked at the tree. "My, my, what beautiful blossoms we have this year. But look, this one's late." Tayla lifted her head to see that her mother was pointing at a bud between all the open blossoms. Amanra placed her right hand under Tayla's chin and gently pulled it up to meet her eyes as she softly continued. "I bet when it blooms, it will be the most beautiful of all." Amanra dried Tayla's tears while she placed the flower in her hair. A faint smile crossed the little girl's face as she crawled onto her mother's lap. Amanra gently placed her arms around her and gave her a kiss on her head. "I love you, little Light of Mine."
Walking along the garden path, Lostris found her family locked in an intimate embrace on the bridge. The girl stood still for a few moments, wondering if she would intrude by coming closer. Amanra had the feeling that they were being watched, and when she looked up, she saw Lostris standing at the other side of the pond. Upon seeing the doubt on her daughter's face, Amanra could not help but smile, so she gestured Lostris to join them with a nod of her head and a wave of her hand. Dragging her feet, the princess shuffled toward her mother and sister. As she sat down, Tayla looked up, her eyes still swollen from crying.
Lostris's feet dangled into the water. She splashed around a bit, mustering up the courage to say what she wanted to say. "Tay . . . I'm sorry for what I did. I shouldn't have tricked you like that, and I shouldn't have laughed at you . . . I didn't mean what I said about you being a Spark Princess. I was just angry because you ratted me out to mom . . . I didn't mean any of it. Please, don't be mad at me. I am really, really sorry . . . I bet you'll be the greatest firebender there is one day. Well, after me that is." The girl flashed a smile at her sister and, much to her delight, saw that it was returned. Strengthened by this gesture, Lostris thought of an idea. "You know what? Here." She removed her necklace and placed it over Tayla's head.
Tayla grabbed the little pendant of two intertwined flames and looked at it in awe. "This is your firebending necklace!"
"Taita made that for me when I first started bending. Now I want you to have it. Hold on to that until you get your own."
Tayla's broad smile lit up her face. Her tears had become nothing more than a distant memory as she whispered a thank you. "Wow . . . Thank you, Tris!" The girl could not stop grinning, just as she could not stop looking at the pendant.
Amanra leaned over and kissed Lostris on her forehead. "I'm proud of you, Lostris. Come here." She pulled her two daughters close.
Taita watched the royal family from a distance. Although he was the servant of Amanra, she had always treated him more as a friend, as part of her family, than as the slave he was. He would always be in her debt for this gesture of kindness, because he had never known what it meant to have a family. He had no memory of his parents; he did not even know if he had had siblings or not, as his village had been raided by slave traders when he was just a three-year-old boy. Though he had been bought on the slave market in Thebes by a rich noble family to work as a kitchen help, it was clear, growing up, that he was a very talented boy and capable of so much more than just doing the dishes. By the time Amanra was born, Taita was a bright, strapping teenager, and Amanra's father appointed him as her teacher and caretaker. Taita had loved Amanra from the start and those feelings had only grown stronger as Amanra had blossomed from a child to a girl and eventually into the beautiful woman that held his heart captive. He had always known that it was only a matter of time before he had to part with her, before another man would take her heart away. That day had come nine years ago, when sixteen year old Amanra had caught the eye of Fire Prince Memnon, later to be crowned Fire Lord Tamose. It was true love at first sight, and it was not long before the two were married. Taita had mixed feelings about that day. He could still feel his heart chattering when he recollected the memory of his beautiful bride walking down that aisle, walking out of his life, toward another, a man that was not him. As it was custom when a woman changed from the house of her father to that of her husband, she could ask any boon of her father as a parting gift. His heart had then soared to unknown heights when her soft voice had rang clear through the room. "You have always been generous with me, father, and have given me everything that I needed. So now the last thing I'll ever ask of you is true friendship. Please, for my gift, give me the slave, Taita." When he had looked at her, she had radiated warmth, friendship and love. With those words, she had ensured that he would forever be part of her family.
Taita's heart swelled with love now at the sight of his beloved queen and his two new bundles of joy and threatened to burst his chest asunder. He walked over to them, his eyes locking on to those of Amanra; there was such appeal there, such love and kindness, but at the same time there was a shadow of sadness and sorrow, for the burden she had to carry weighed heavily on her young shoulders. After the premature death of her spouse Fire Lord Tamose five years ago, Amanra was left alone to rule the Fire Nation and to mother two baby girls. Of course, Taita had been there to assist her, but no matter how hard he tried, he could never fill the void left by her true love. She had told him once that there had not passed a day when she had not dreamed of being with Tamose again, but though her heart longed for him, she knew she had a duty to the Nation he entrusted to her and to the two sparks of joy that he had blessed her with.
Lostris and Tayla happily jumped up when they saw Taita approaching. "Come here you little rascals!" he called at them, opening his arms. The impact of the two laughing princesses made him topple over. Amanra slowly strolled over to her family, allowing her friend some time with her girls.
Even a queen was not above some quality time with her kids. She dove right in and started to tickle Lostris. Her genuine smile brightened up her face and made her eyes sparkle like diamonds, for this was a happy moment.
"Hehehe, mom, stop it!" Lostris squirmed to get free of her mother's tickling fingers which fluttered over her body.
At the same moment, Taita stood up and threw Tayla up. The little girl cooed with delight as she flew several times through the air. While laughter filled the garden once more Taita looked at Amanra, certain that his love for her was tangible. The moment was just perfect.
A Mother's Love Edit
The sound of heavy war horns shattered the moment, drowning out the laughter. Amanra quickly rose in concern and placed her hands on Lostris's shoulders while Taita held Tayla protectively in his arms. A tall, muscular man dressed in the outfit of a Fire Nation captain came running toward them; Lord Pianki Harrab was a strong and capable firebender who had quickly made his way up through the ranks, and he surely would have been a commander by now if it was not for his desire to stay close to his wife and son in Thebes. Political visits like these were the only times he was away from home. The captain of the Royal Fire Guard quickly bowed respectfully before Amanra. "My Queen, I'm sorry to disturb you, but you need to get to safety." He urgently gestured them to follow him toward the villa of the governor, where the rest of the Fire Guard and some of the governor's men were awaiting their arrival. "There is an army standing at the gates of Gebel Nagara. The city is under attack."
The five people hastily made their way through the garden. The mixture of colors, only moments ago the scene of happy memories in the making, lush and bright as the sun itself, now looked dim and dark. Tayla clutched Taita's neck and whispered in his ear, "I'm scared, TaTa."
Taita gently rubbed her back in an effort to calm the little girl while they entered through the large fortified doors of the villa. "It's all right, little one; nothing will happen to you."
His words still echoed in the hallway when the ten earthbenders wearing the uniform of the governor's personal guard surrounded them and blocked their path. Not trusting the situation, Pianki gave a quick gesture, and the Royal Fire Guard surrounded the foursome and readied themselves to protect the royal family. Although they were all amongst the finest troops of the Fire Nation, they were still outnumbered two-to-one. Amanra and her family were trapped between the walls of the magnificent hallway and the barrier of earthbenders that surrounded them. In order to avoid conflict, Amanra placed a hand on Pianki's shoulder, holding off an attack while she addressed the head of the Earth Kingdom guards. "What's the meaning of this? On whose authority are you stopping me from getting my children to safety?"
A low voice rang deep through the hallway. "On mine!" The governor of Gebel Nagara strode forward to face Amanra's question. Like most earthbenders, he was tall and muscular, and he walked with a proud strut. His black hair, ring beard, and stern facial features made him look menacing, but his soft green eyes contradicted this.
Amanra looked puzzled at the governor while he coldly continued. "I let you into my home —I shared my table with you and your family— and this is how you repay me in this time of peace? You order your firebenders to attack the city?"
To buy herself more time, she friendly but urgently addressed the governor. "With all due respect, Governor Sud, but what are you talking about? My Captain has just moments ago informed me of the attack; I don't know what is going on."
"Don't play dumb with me, Queen Amanra. Our outer wall is being bombarded with fireballs, and I am to believe that you, the Fire Lady, are clueless about that? You are the ruler of the Fire Nation, are you not?" The Fire Lady was completely taken aback by this accusation. "Fine, if you want to play it like that. Guards! Apprehend the Fire Lady and her family for the siege on the Earth Kingdom city of Gebel Nagara." His eyes locked on to those of Amanra. The surprise in her eyes slowly transformed into a silent plea as he voiced his plan. "We will use them as leverage for the city."
Pianki pulled Amanra back just in time to keep a rock from crushing her and took his place in the protective circle the other Guards had formed around them; some of the governor's men propelled themselves in the air using earth pillars they had bended out of the ground as catapults. Pianki rapidly reacted by creating a fire arc which slammed into the earthbenders, knocking them out of the air; they plummeted down and collapsed on the ground in a heap of green rags.
Amanra restricted her actions solely to the protection of her family by knocking flying rocks out of the way. She tried to reason with the Earth Governor over the din. "Governor Sud, this is ridiculous. Instead of fighting each other here, we should be helping protect the city!" She pulverized a rock that was heading right for Lostris with a powerful blast of fire. "Why are you doing this? I do not wish to fight you."
The disadvantage in numbers of the Royal Guard was slightly compensated by the confined space of the hallway that served as a battlefield. Fire and rock destroyed the once beautiful corridor, kicking up dust and debris everywhere. The earthbenders kept the pressure high on the Royal Guard. Unable to leave their defensive circle, they had no choice but to stand their ground against the massive rocks that bore down upon them. The situation took a turn for the worse when the soldier named Esra took a rock full on the chest, rendering her unconscious. Even though the ranks of her guards were breaking under the pressure of the warriors of Earth, Amanra still refused to fight offensive, hoping that she could bring Sud to his senses. "Governor Sud, stop this NOW!" she cried, her usual serene tone slashed away by a hardened, urgent timbre, but her pleas to halt the assault fell on deaf ears.
Taita had crawled to the front and pulled Esra to the middle of the protective zone. Amanra swiftly looked down while Taita checked her wounds. "How is she?"
Esra groaned in pain when Taita loosed her armor to reveal a large, dark purple patch where the rock had struck her down. His medically skilled fingers ran over the injury. "She has three shattered ribs, but luckily her heart and lungs seem intact. Still, she needs medical care as soon as possible, or she will die. My Queen, Sud won't listen to reason. You need to do something."
Amanra kicked three more rocks out of the way and barely ducked under the next one. She helped Taita to place Esra against the wall, out of the way of the somewhat retreating Guards. Taita gently stroked the black hair out of Amanra's face. "I know you despise fighting after what happened to Fire Lord Tamose, but that was an unfortunate incident. You can't deny the abilities the Spirits have bestowed upon you, my Queen. Please, we need those now. We need you."
Amanra did not have time to respond as another rock slammed into the walls right above their heads. She stood up to counter the next wave of rocks, while he clambered toward the frightened Tayla. Picking her up, he used his own body to shield her from falling rock fragments.
Sud's guards were breaking through the circle completely. When a soldier tried to take Tayla, Taita punched him in the face. Growling with pain, the man stumbled back, grabbing his bloody nose. Enraged, he lifted his hands to shoot a rock glove at his attacker. However, Lostris crashed into him the moment he took aim. The little girl stuck her tongue out at him as the grown man smacked to the ground. Taita looked a bit queasy at the rock glove that had embedded itself in the wall just inches away from his head, but he tore his gaze away from the object that nearly killed him and reached out to his savior. The servant pulled Lostris back behind him, protecting her from more flying rocks and fire. This unguarded moment provided an earthbender with the opportunity to pin Taita to the wall with multiple rock gloves. He pulled Tayla from Taita's grasp, laughing at the angry yells and futile attempts of the servant to free himself. Lostris was trapped between her tutor and the wall, unable to come to her sister's aid, when the scared little girl started to cry for help.
Amanra spun around on her heels upon hearing the screams of terror, and her defensive nature completely disappeared when she saw her child in the hands of the strange man. Like an angry armadillo lioness protecting her cub, she leaped forward. Completely surprising him with her sudden charge, Amanra quickly took Tayla back out of the soldier's arms before thrusting her hand against his chest; the fire blast sent him flying into the wall at the other side. She turned and, with three quick blasts, broke the earthen chains that held her friend and daughter captive. Taita immediately jumped forward and punched right over Amanra's shoulder, downing the soldier that had tried to jump her from behind. Taita took Tayla back into his arms, and the Fire Lady smiled thankfully at her friend. Taita looked up at his love. "Don't be afraid, my Queen; let it go. Fighting to protect the ones you love is not a sin. Drop your restraints and protect the life you hold so dear. You have that power. Now let it go."
The Queen felt those sapphire disks bore into the core of her being, setting the scared bird of her inhibitions free. She decisively turned around to face everyone who formed a threat to her family. The earthbender in front of her quickly raised an earthen wall to protect himself from Amanra's blazing attack, punching the wall with his fists and sending parts of it flying toward her. However, the enraged mother would not be stopped. Kicking the first two rocks out of the way, she sent a fire arc in his direction with a roundhouse kick. The guard ducked for cover behind his wall and slammed another shard of earth in her direction. Somersaulting over the rock, the Queen shot a powerful beam of fire out of her feet. The jet obliterated the wall, sending stone fragments everywhere, and the impact caused the soldier to smack, unconscious, against the wall.
She took an instant to assess the situation and make out her target. Once she had spotted him, Amanra nimbly made her way through the fighting parties. Sud's eyes opened wide with shock when the Queen appeared in front of him and slammed him into the wall. The otherwise gentle and defensive Fire Lady had transformed into a dangerous predator that stood before him, her gaze cold and menacing. Her soft hiss was more threatening than the hand around his throat or the fireball in her palm. "Do you really think that I would be stupid enough to issue an attack on your city when my family is still inside? I would never endanger my children like that and I will not stand idly by when someone does. I don't want to fight you, but if you ever try to take or hurt my girls ever again, I will destroy you and this whole city if I have to. Call your men back. Now."
Sud hastily gave his men the order to cease their attack. As the Queen relaxed her hand and loosened her grip around Sud's neck, her fireball dissolved into nothing, and she gestured toward Pianki and the rest of the Royal Fire Guards to do the same. The predator had disappeared to make room again for the gentle Fire Lady. Lostris jumped over downed men and crawled over big chunks of rock to get to her mother. She hugged her waist and looked up in awe. "Mom, that was so cool! I want to learn how to do that! Will you teach me?"
Amanra stroked the head of her older child. "If you are lucky, you will never have to learn that."
The governor felt uneasy at Amanra's remark and the gaze that followed. He prostrated himself before her. "My deepest apologies, Fire Lady Amanra. I am sorry that I ever thought you were behind this. I should have known better than to accuse you of such dirty tricks. Please, I hope you can forgive me for this disgraceful attack."
"Governor Sud, you know my history. You were indeed foolish to assume that I would ever start a war, especially when I have my children with me." She offered Sud a hand to help him to his feet. Her smile was disarming as she continued, "But I accept your apology. You were only trying to do what you thought best to protect your city and your people."
The darkness crept forward, pushing the sun further down behind the horizon; the sky was shaded orange as a sign of the sun's losing battle. The sounds of fighting were now clearly audible from the villa. A messenger reached the estate to find Sud and Amanra standing on the balcony looking over the destruction of Gebel Nagara. He saluted Sud and bowed briefly before Amanra before hurriedly relaying his message. "Governor Sud, they have breached through the inner wall and are now hammering down on our last line of defense. There are many, and we will not be able to hold them off much longer." The governor's eyes saddened upon hearing the negative report. He nodded at the soldier who saluted again before leaving.
Sud sighed as he let his gaze travel over his once beautiful city, now being consumed by flames. Fueled by fear, the blazing monsters left a trail of devastation wherever they went, roof after roof, house after house—nothing was safe from their uncontrollable hunger for destruction. Amanra followed his gaze. A reflection of the fire danced in her melancholy eyes. The tears that welled up could not extinguish them. "My people are responsible for this . . . Why? Why are they attacking this city? The Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom have no qualms with each other. We have been blessed with an era of peace. Why would my people want to change that?"
Sud glanced at Amanra's worried face. "The reports can only tell us that they all wear masks decorated with black and white bird feathers, the mark of the Shrikes. If these invaders truly are those killing Butcher Birds, we are in for a rough road, but there isn't a road that an earthbender cannot travel." The governor's feeble attempt to brighten the situation was not successful, as it was overshadowed by yet another explosion that shook the city to its core and by the dying screams of innocent people.
Worry and sadness battled for supremacy in Amanra's eyes. Noticing the governor's hesitance to proceed, she placed her hand on his shoulder. "Sud . . . I can feel that there is something you're not telling me."
He sighed deeply once more before looking at the Fire Lady; even in troublesome times, a man could not help but marvel at her beauty. "Well . . . one of my spies overheard their leaders when they were giving their orders. We know what their objective is; the raid has nothing to do with the city." Sud hesitated again, but Amanra gently squeezed his shoulder, encouraging him to continue. "A tall, cloaked man, addressed as 'Snake' gave the order to kill you . . . and capture your daughters."
Amanra's eyes opened wide as she backed away in shock; bumping against the railing, she hastily grabbed on to it for support. "No . . ." She looked distraughtly over the city. The Fire Lady did not know what to do with herself. She jerked her gaze away from the city and gazed back into the villa where Esra lay on a makeshift bed, next to several wounded Earth Kingdom warriors who had fallen defending their city—who had fallen . . . to protect her. More wounded men were pouring in even while she watched. Taita, a skilled physician, moved from bed to bed, attending their wounds as best he could. Her girls were holed up in a corner; Lostris clutched her sister as they both stared at the destruction with big, confused eyes. Amanra breathed heavily in her effort to keep clouds from gathering in her mind and obscuring her every thought. She could not give in to despair; she had to keep her mind clear. Her black hair fluttering in the wind, she shook her head as though annoyed by some childish nonsense.
The governor saw her struggle and felt sorry for the young queen. He grabbed her hand and now it was his turn to squeeze it gently for some renewed courage. "Don't worry, Your Majesty. As long as there is still one man standing, those foul assassins will never bring their mission to a successful end. That I vow to you. My soldiers will do everything that is within their power and more to keep them from reaching this villa, and by the time those filthy scavenger birds do reach this mansion, you and your family will be long gone."
Slowly blinking away the clouds of despair clogging her mind, Amanra calmed down a bit as the words of confidence pierced through the shield of hopelessness, but she could not quite grasp what he was saying. "I don't understand." Her eyes and body radiated hope, ready to cling to every little branch that would lead to safety.
"I've wronged you before; let me make it up to you now by getting you to safety. I can get you out of the city. Come on." He led Amanra back inside the villa. Taita looked questioningly at them from over a moaning soldier when Sud ordered a servant to run to the stables, and Amanra gestured him and her girls to come. Taita did not know why, but something just did not feel right. He could sense that dark clouds were gathering, but he did not know when or where they would open their bellies to release the deadly lightning they carried.
Sud sped through the halls of the villa which, like the rest of the mansion, stood tall and proud, decorated with the most wonderful frescos of long forgotten peaceful times. They mirrored the might of the Earth Kingdom but were now silent and deserted, for everyone was off fighting or had left to safer grounds. Taita led Lostris by hand, while Amanra held Tayla in her arms. The company was escorted by the Royal Fire Guards and five of the governor's own men. Esra was not fit to be moved yet, but Sud had given Amanra his word that he would take care of her.
Their rapid footsteps mingled with Sud's soft voice in the dark corridors. "There is a secret passageway in the stables leading away from the city and straight into the desert. It was built long ago by my ancestors as a way to provide the city of supplies when it was under siege or to serve as an escape route."
The first stars already showed their twinkling lights above their heads when the group quickly crossed the courtyard toward the stables. Amanra placed Tayla on the ground, and the girl quickly ran inside. Before entering the room stacked with hay, Amanra lingered a bit, gazing solemnly at the glow of the burning city. Every explosion left a mark on the Fire Lady's heart. She did not understand why her people would plunge themselves in this unnecessary violence. The queen hated fighting, as it brought her back to that fateful day that her love had passed away. Her late husband now smiled at her from the Spirit World; his mirage shone clear in the light of the next explosion, and he offered an answer to her inner turmoil. A sad smile crossed Amanra's face when she entered the stables.
The stable boys had prepared two horses: A bay stallion and a dark brown mare. Sud lovingly stroked the neck of the mare as he continued explaining his plan. "I'd like you to meet Nash and Diamond, the two best horses in Gebel Nagara. They are loyal and dependable. They will lead you to safety." The governor released the horse and placed his hands on the shoulders of a fifteen-year-old boy. He was small for his age, but clever green eyes peeked through his dark blond hair. "And this guy is Garrett. He will guide you through the labyrinth of tunnels. I would trust this kid with my own life." Garrett pulled his shoulders back to make himself look taller and smiled complacently at the compliment.
Amanra bowed thankfully at the governor before squatting down beside her youngest daughter and pressing her close against her chest for an intimate embrace. She kissed the side of Tayla's head and picked the girl up, placing her on the saddle of the bay stallion. Tears welled up in her eyes, and her voice was higher pitched than usual when she spoke. Her fingers slid down Tayla's left cheek. "I love you so much, little Light. You be good, okay?" Amanra kissed Tayla's hand before letting her go.
"I will, mommy. I love you too."
A first tear rolled down over the queen's cheek as she turned her back to her daughter, trying to hide it.
"What's wrong, mom? Why are you so sad?"
The honest question broke down the last of Amanra's strength. Another watery witness of her sorrow streamed down her face while she squatted again, this time facing her older daughter. Wiping away the tears with the back of her hand, she conjured up a faint smile and cupped Lostris's face. "My sweet little firebender. You are something special, you know that? Don't you ever forget it. You are the Fire Lord's first born, which makes you the future queen. I wish we could've been there to see you rule. Be wise and just, my child."
Amanra began to beam for a moment, but as Lostris pulled away from her grasp, she started to weep. "Mommy, why are you saying goodbye to me? Aren't you coming with us?" Once again, her daughter's question pierced Amanra's heart, and she could do nothing but shake her head. Lostris grabbed her mother's shoulders and started shaking her back and forth. Her wet face gleamed in the dim light of the enemy fire that grew bolder with every passing second. "No mommy! You have to come with us. We need you! You can't leave us!"
Amanra looked into the eyes of her daughter. They were identical to hers, right down to the tears. "I'm so sorry, Tris. I love you more than you know, but I can't come with you, not this time. But know that I will always be with you. In here." She placed her hand on Lostris's chest, right above her heart. "I need you to be strong now, okay? I need you to take care of your sister. Can you do that for me?"
The six-year-old girl nodded, silent soldiers of sadness framing her face. "I can do that, mommy." She let herself be picked up by her mother; stricken down by grief, she was unable to resist any further.
Amanra placed her behind Tayla and Lostris hugged her sister from behind while their mother addressed them both. "Now there is just one more thing I need from both of you." The girls looked up into their mother's eyes. Tayla wiped away some of the tears rolling down her mother's cheeks, and a sad smile appeared when Amanra put her hand over her daughter's, kissing her palm. Her emotions were slowly choking her, making it harder and harder to speak. "Please, take very special care of Taita. He will need you to take care of him, just as you will need him. So be kind to him, take care of him and love him, just as I love you all. Just . . . take care of each other." Her voice broke as she uttered those last words, each one barely louder than a whisper. Unable to say more, she hugged both her daughters and gave them one last kiss.
Taita stood there frozen still, looking at the scene, taking it in, but the true meaning eluded him. He did not understand; he did not want to understand. He simply waited there, waiting for Amanra to come to him. He could not think, he could not breathe, he could not move, but most of all, he could not believe. He saw his little girl, now a woman that held his heart so tight that it hurt, move toward him. It looked like it took forever for his love to cross the few meters that parted them, but, with every step she took in his direction, he felt like she took one step further away from him. Amanra placed her hand on his cheek and forced him to meet her gaze. Before she could say a word, he interrupted her. "Don't. I am not saying goodbye to you. Not here. Not now. Not yet." Those last words were almost inaudible, smothered by the sound of his heart breaking. Tears streamed down the grown man's face, but he did not care to hide them, for his pride no longer existed in a world where she would no longer be.
Amanra cried with him. "You know I wouldn't do this if I thought there was any other way, Taita. It's breaking my heart to part from you, but those men that are attacking the city, the Shrikes, they're here for me and my girls. You know they will not stop until they've found us, even if it means burning down this whole city, killing everyone they find. No man, no woman, no child will be safe until they have found what they are looking for. I could never live with myself, knowing that I'm responsible for that much death and heartache. I – I will give myself up in exchange for the lives of these innocent people." She took a minute to recompose herself and to force her voice to continue. Her words were mournful but clear when she spoke again. "I want to thank you for everything you've done. I hereby release you." Her eyes softened. "You're a free man again. You've always been more than a servant to me. I thank you for always being there for me when I needed you, for being my best friend. I thank you for always being there for my girls. I know you love them as much as I do. They are my past, my present and my future. And now, I entrust them to you. Please, my dear friend, help them fulfill their destiny, help them grow into the women and princesses I know they are destined to be. Take care of them like you've taken care of me. Take care of them as if they were your own."
The released servant sobbed softly as his sadness became too much for him to bear. "They are my own."
Smiling weakly, Amanra lovingly stroked the hair out of his eyes. "I've only truly loved two men in my life, and you were one of them. Perhaps in a next lifetime, the Spirits will treat our love more kindly." She leaned in and kissed Taita gently on his lips. A nearby explosion, signaling the approach of the enemy, ended their kiss. Amanra looked up and whispered, "It is time." They walked over to the horse where Lostris and Tayla sat in complete silence. Taita grabbed the hand of his queen and held it near his heart. "No, I beg of you, my heart. Please, come with us. We will find another way. We need you . . . I need you."
Amanra caressed his face. "I will never leave you, my darling." Taita mounted the horse behind the two girls while their mother looked at the broken threesome, sitting devastated on the back of the animal. She was about to break down, when the wind rustled through the open stable doors, and brought a familiar presence with it. Tamose had always had a way to calm her, to steady her. She felt that his spirit was near, his presence lingering, waiting, inviting her to come to his side. The Fire Lady's voice quivered. "Remember, my darlings, everything I've done, I've done to protect you. Never forget that no matter how much things may seem to change, you will always have each other. As long as you know that, and as long as you remember who you are, you will never truly be alone. I will always be with you, every step of the way, to support you, to guide you. Look for me and I'll be there. I love you."
Garrett mounted Diamond and used his earthbending to reveal the hidden passageway. He grabbed two torches and lit them before spurring his horse through the hole with Nash following his mate without receiving a command. Lostris held on to her mother's hand for as long as she could, but the dreaded moment they had to part approached rapidly; their fingertips brushed over each other one last time before Lostris inevitably had to let her go. The three riders took one more glance over their shoulders at Queen Amanra, her hand outstretched as if she was still holding Lostris's. As the riders took a tunnel to the left, they caught a glimpse of Governor Sud closing the entrance, hiding Amanra from their sight forever.
The Awakening Edit
The hooves of the horses rang like thunder through the silent tunnels. The drops of water crashing down from the overhanging stalactites sounded like the beating drums of war. The devastating feelings of pain and sorrow held them captive, forming an impenetrable cage around them. No other emotions were allowed where loneliness now ruled.
The small beam of torchlight guided them around yet another corner, every step one more away from Amanra. His heart aching, Taita could not bear the thought of never seeing his love again. Each droplet of water signaled the passing of more time as he slowly succumbed to the darkness in his mind. Everything started to blur together. He wanted to yell, but his voice was no longer at his disposal. He wanted to kick, to fight back, but he could not feel his legs. He wanted to turn the horse and ride back, but he was lost in more ways than one. There was nothing left of him but an empty shell, for he had lost his will to live the moment he lost his queen. But then he looked up at the two girls, clinging to each other in front of him. She is still alive in them. I cannot fail the last request my mistress laid upon me. I have never failed her in life—I will not fail her in death!
Though it felt as if hours were passing, their walk took scarcely twenty minutes. Suddenly, Garrett stopped, lit the other torch, and glanced back at the mourning threesome on the horse. "This is as far as I go. I need to get back to the city, maybe see if I can help. You just need to follow this tunnel to the end and take one last right turn. In a niche on the left, behind the statue, you will find a lever. Pull it, and the escape hatch will open, letting you out of here."
He handed over the torch to Taita, who made an effort to conjure up something that needed to resemble a smile. "Thank you. For everything."
"You're welcome." The boy bowed before them. "I'm sorry for your loss."
Taita could not muster up the strength to respond, so he just nodded and steered Nash forward into the tunnel, his heart breaking at the sound of the princesses' soft sobs. After a few more minutes, he found the statue hiding the lever. A sculpture of a proud-looking earthbender gazed down upon them. Normally Taita would have marveled at this display of detailed artistic wonder, but it was not the time for him to care. He reached behind the stone man, his hand catching in several cobwebs before his fingers could locate the wooden shaft of the lever and pulled it. With a loud crack and the screeching sound of non-lubricated hinges, a hidden door opened up a few meters in front of them. The warm, fresh, desert breeze was inviting after the damp, dark tunnels. They ascended back into the open.
A bright spot along the horizon illuminated the star-filled sky. When Taita turned the horse to look at the sunset, he noticed that the sun had already begun its voyage through the Spirit World. Gasping, Taita realized with a shock that the golden light did not come from the sun, but from the burning city of Gebel Nagara. On the verge of being overcome by grief, he decisively turned the horse and urged it to a trot, turning his back at the city.
The three of them rode in silence, none of them knowing what to say, their loss too fresh. Nash started to shake his head back and forth.
"Whoohoo, easy boy." Taita pulled the reins in an attempt to steady the uneasy horse. "What's wrong, Nash? What do you hear?" As he brushed Nash's flank, his ears picked up the imminent threat as well: The distant neighing of horses pulling the fighting chariots through the loose sands of the desert, growing louder and louder with every second they just stood there.
"No. . . . No!" Taita spurred Nash into a canter and then a gallop, but the three-person load weighed heavy on the horse and broke its gait, enabling their pursuers to rapidly gain on them. "Come on Nash! Faster! Faster!" The horse raced through the desert, plowing through powdery sand, climbing dune after dune, trying to leave the pursuers behind. Taita looked over his shoulder to see a line of four fighting chariots, like an uncoiling serpent, swiftly winding down the sandy hill. Understanding the dire situation in a flash, he glanced at the little firebender in front of him. "Lostris, listen carefully. This is very important. If something were to happen to me, I want you to take your sister and start to run. Don't look back; just get away from those men as far as you can. Do you get that? Don't worry about me; just take care of yourself and your sister. Promise me that you will do as I say!"
Lostris looked at him with big, fearful eyes. Taita growled. "Promise me, Lostris! Promise me that if the situation presents itself, you'll leave me behind and save your sister and yourself."
The little girl nodded.
"I need to hear you say it, Lostris. Please."
Lostris looked up at the serious face of her friend. She nodded again, her whisper soft but decisive. "I promise, TaTa." A joyless smile crossed his face before he directed his attention toward the horizon once more; they were approaching a patch of rough earth.
He drove Nash hard. When they raced down the escarpment of the next set of hills, the steed had dried white sweat on his heaving flanks, and his eyes were red. The exhausted horse wheezed for air and started to slow down. The pursuing Butcher Birds saw their chance and uncoiled their strict formation, now riding abreast. The whine and rattle of the wheels signaled that Taita's lead was disappearing swiftly. The firebenders that rode as lance-bearers positioned themselves beside the drivers, and their fireballs lit up the sky as soon as the fugitive trio was within range. Taita zigzagged between them to the best of his abilities, but this slowed Nash down even further.
The closest driver whipped up his team, and the chariot sped forward. From the corner of his eye Taita saw the heads of the racing horses draw level with the rear of his own. The Shrike drew up inexorably beside them; the lance-bearer lunged at them, trying to grab the reins out of Taita's hand. He avoided the snatching fingers and kicked out. His foot made contact with the feathered mask, propelling it through the air and revealing the assassin's face. The lips of the man were drawn back in a horrible rictus, like that of a corpse who had died of lockjaw. Repulsed by the man's face, Taita yelled for the little firebender in front of him to come to his aid: "Lostris!"
The princess thrust her little fists forward and hit the unmasked lance-bearer in the chest with a fireball. The blast was not nearly strong enough to cause lethal damage, but the impact was enough to hurl him back, causing him to lose his footing and fall of the footplate. With a loud thud and a scream of pain, he made contact with the desert ground.
The chariot swerved back to check on his fallen comrade, but the other three chasers would not ease their pursuit, coming up swift and hard behind them. Fireballs and arrows rained down around them, but Taita had managed to keep them out of harm's way so far. A fireball missed Tayla by an inch, trailing sparks as it passed by. He covered the two girls with his body when the next wave bore down on them. One of the fireballs scorched the tips of Nash's mane, blackening it. A javelin whizzed past Taita, brushing his shoulder like a soft lover's kiss. He felt the sting of the razor edge but could not afford to give in to the pain. Another Shrike took aim but, just when he swiveled his right shoulder forward in the throw, Taita turned Nash, forcing him to leave the track, tear into the rough ground, and scatter boulders next to it, but the javelin never left the man's hand: He had feinted. The Shrike raised the spear again into the ready position, leveled and ready to throw. Just before releasing his object, the man changed his angle and was no longer aiming at Taita. Releasing his weapon, the dart took flight for a few seconds and hit Nash high in the shoulder. It cut through hide and bunched muscle, halting when it struck the shoulder bone, preventing it from penetrating his vitals. The barbed point dangled down his flank, banging his legs at each stride he took. Breathing with difficulty, the horse was laboring to keep up, but the crippling blow undid its effort. Warm blood trickled back along his flank and spattered on the princesses' legs. Tears ran over the girls' faces at the sight of the wounded horse. Tayla clutched Nash's neck in sorrow while Lostris angrily turned around, hurling words at their adversaries no six year old should know, enhancing her verbal attack with some fireworks of her own.
A new wave a fireballs came down their way. In her anger and hurt for Nash, Lostris fired back and so deflected one, but she could not stop them all. One of the blazing projectiles landed right in front of the poor, injured animal; startled, he reared, throwing off his riders. Panicking, reaching for the girls, Taita protectively broke the fall of the two princesses, but he concussed his head upon a rock with a sickening crack, rendering him unconscious.
As the pursuers raced passed, taken by surprise by the sudden halt of the horse, Tayla quickly scrabbled back on her feet, pulling Lostris up. Nash staggered a few more steps before his knees buckled, whinnying softly as he lay down on his flank. She held on to the arm of her older sister, tears of sorrow and fright streaming down her face. "I'm scared, Tris." She buried her face behind her sister's arm as the squadron of chariots finally came to a halt and turned to face them.
Lostris tried to console her sister with a confidence she did not have. "It will be okay, Tay, don't worry. It will all . . . be . . . okay. . . ." She shuffled toward Taita's body and shook him back and forth, her voice grunting under the effort it took to move the grown man. "TaTa? TaTa, come on. You got to get up. TaTa? We got to go. Now." Tears of despair welled up in her eyes, her voice breaking. "TaTa, we got to go, please. . . . Wake up!" She rocked him from side to side but could not wake him from his slumber. A tear rolled over her cheek and splattered on the unconscious man's forehead.
The princess startled when Tayla urgently called her name and tugged her arm. Lostris rose to see that the chariots were rapidly approaching once more. Torn between her promise and her love for her friend, she hesitated: She had given him her word, but she found herself having trouble acting upon it.
"If something were to happen to me, I want you to take your sister and start to run. Don't look back; just get away from those men as far as you can. Do you get that? Don't worry about me; Just take care of yourself and your sister. Promise me that you will do as I say!"
His words echoed through her mind, adding to the ongoing battle for supremacy between her feelings and her better judgment.
"Promise me, Lostris! Promise me that if the situation presents itself, you'll leave me behind and save your sister and yourself."
I promise. . . . I promise. . . .
Her own words now buzzed through her mind like a swarm of pesky insects she could not get rid of.
I promise. . . . I promise. . . .
"I promised." She could taste her own salty tears when she murmured those words. "I promised!" Lostris yelled once more to silence her guilt; she grabbed Tayla's arm, pulling her along while she stumbled the rocky ground to the base of the dune. They were more than halfway up when the squeaking sound of chariot wheels behind them stopped. Unable to cross the rugged terrain, the Shrikes swarmed down from the footplates and began their pursuit on foot. The two little girls clambered to the top and vanished from the sight of their ever-following shadows.
Illuminated by the moon, the soft silvery sands of the desert, bright like a perfect pearl, stretched out as far as the eye could see. The dunes were as ephemeral as the winds and the currents of the ocean. This ever-changing landscape was the dominion of Seth, the Spirit of the Desert, barren and uninviting. It was no place for two little girls, but Lostris and Tayla ventured down the hill without a second thought.
They had no place to go but forward.
Trudging through the shifting sands, they struggled to maintain a decent speed, their efforts strengthened by the imminent threat that was closing in fast. The clanging of sickle swords in scabbards grew louder and louder, hastening the princesses' futile attempts to keep some distance between them and their pursuers. Lostris's breaths came heavy and pained as she heard the Shrike come forward. The first man abruptly grabbed Tayla and snatched her up like she was nothing. The five-year-old was jerked away from Lostris's grasp before she could even spin around to see what had happened. The little girl went into a frenzy, kicking around her with all her might and tapping the mask of her kidnapper with her little fists. The ring of bronze and her screams for help pierced the night. "LEMME GO!"
"TAYLA!" Lostris's scream sliced through the air as she ran after the man that took her sister, avoiding the snatching hands of the passing men. The tables had turned; Lostris, with her young age and shorter legs, was unsuited for outrunning grown men, but her superior agility and small size kept her adversaries at bay. The moon pitched in by allowing herself to be darkened by a rare desert cloud, flooding the dunes with darkness. The assassins had trouble keeping up with Lostris, who was moving through their ranks as nimble as a cat trailing a mouse. Guided by her ears rather than her eyes, she sped forward toward her sister; turning, swirling, jumping and ducking under various arms and legs that appeared in front of her. Her legs seemed to fly over the sand they'd struggled with only moments before. The screams of her sister spurred her on.
The darkness was pierced by a loud thud and all of a sudden the screaming stopped. The instant silence crippled Lostris and threatened to suffocate her. She stopped dead in her tracks and could not move another muscle. "Tayla? TAYLA?!"
A single moonbeam shattered the desert cloud, illuminating the horrible spectacle before Lostris: Tayla's motionless body dangled in the man's arms. The pink flower, a last gift of their mother, slowly swiveled down, and Lostris fell with it, dropping to her knees, robbed of all she held dear. She clutched the sand in anger, her fingers leaving deep marks like that of a predator in the smooth surface of bark. "NOOOO!!"
Out of nowhere, a strong wind washed over them. It rapidly swirled around the kneeling, sobbing girl. Her skirt fluttered as the gust evolved in a whirling sphere of air, kicking up sand and rocks high into the sky. The Shrikes shrank away, staring at the little girl like a rabbit watching the sinuous approach of the cobra, furtively making the sign to avert evil with their left hand to no avail. The sphere expanded into a tornado, picking up every self-proclaimed bird, challenging it to fly. Tayla was flung free from her captor and was suspended in midair like the rest of them. Lostris slowly rose to her feet. Tears flowed down from her eyes, glowing brightly with rage and pain as she lifted her head.
Eleven years later, a young woman shot up in bed, gasping for air while cold sweat ran down her back. Still panting heavily, her blue-gray eyes rapidly scanned the room.
Author's notes Edit
- I apologize for the length of this "prologue". The only explanation I can offer you is that it was never intended to be a prologue, it just became one in the end. I've rewritten this chapter at least four times and each time it became longer and longer. With the exception of the first, all the rewrites were inspired by
after reading her . After I first read her story, one of my initial thoughts after raving over what a wonderful writer she is, was "Wow... my story really is crap compared to this." so thanks to her, I started to rewrite and this is the result.
- The two upcoming chapters are much shorter than this one, so I will not put my readers through this again any time soon.
- Any likeness between Amanra and Ursa were absolutely not planned, but when I did catch the fact that I was making Amanra be more or less like Ursa, I gave her one of Ursa's lines to say.
- There are several references to Disney movies in the chapter, one of which is not even in the vicinity of subtle as I even used the image of the exact moment in the movie.
- For those who have read Wilbur Smith's River God, you'll recognize some dialogue fragments from there.
- Taita is pronounced as Ta-e-tah.
Fun facts Edit
- Tayla's name was originally written as "Taila", but one of my editors thought it was too confusing with Taita.
- The title "Fleeting Peace" is a reference to , written by .
- Garrett's name and appearances are inspired by the blind Garrett from Quest for Camelot.
- This chapter counts 10533 words.
|Heiress of the Nile|
|Book 1 - Lost and Found|
|• • • • • • • • •|
|Lostris • Seraphine • Tanus • Sami • Meren • Taita • Naja • Intef • Tegan • Apepi • Kun •|
|Gebel Nagara • Thebes • Palm Spring • Nomads' camp|
For the collective works of the author, go here.