Kythia awoke to the sound of trumpets announcing her father's departure. She grunted and sat up abruptly, stretching stiff muscles. She had wished to speak with her father, Sir Farlan, before he and his knights left the castle to assist their fellow countrymen in battle. Kythia knew that if more troops weren't sent to help Queen Jocunda all of their kingdom of Naranth would be overrun by the power-hungry Rylions. Still, she wished her father had had time to plead her cause to her mother, Lady Amaria. Amaria wanted a daughter who would embroider tapestries, regally order servants to do her bidding, and wear elaborate gowns of silk and brocade. Kythia herself wanted to be a hero, someone portrayed in tapestries. She wanted to wear mail and carry a sword, and save all of Naranth. All Sir Farlan wanted was for his family to be content, and therefore it was always easy to enlist his help in halting Amaria's next lecture.
Kythia sighed; now there was no prolonging the inevitable tirade. Her mother had caught her on her palfrey, tilting (or trying to) at a quintain. The poor horse was bewildered and jumped at the slightest sound. Amaria had let out such an unladylike war cry as to spook the horse, meant only for pleasure, into throwing its passenger, and the glint in the noble lady's eyes threatened hell to pay. Kythia stood, wincing as her sore limbs stretched, and limped to the five-foot-tall mirror that had been her thirteenth birthday present. She tossed her waist-length hair, admiring the way the auburn tresses caught the light, then, grimacing, reached for the forest-green gown that supposedly brought out the color of her already striking hazel eyes. Although the dress was stunning, she knew she'd look better in armor.
* * *
That morning (after the lecture at breakfast) Kythia endured dancing lessons, then embroidery—two of her most hated activities. Nothing was worse than what came after the three-course midday meal, though: fittings. She was making her appearance at court in April, as did every other fifteen-year-old of high blood. The only pleasant part of this trip would be meeting with Queen Jocunda. The Queen was everything Kythia wished to be. She was a warrior, yet could be a proper, beautiful lady when she wished. She was a superb horsewoman and the heroine of every ballad. Meeting her would be wondrous.
Kythia was suddenly brought back to reality as the beautiful aqua-colored gown, her mother's choice, was draped over her slim shoulders. She sighed and resigned herself to an eternity of measurements and servants' gossip.
"Did you hear that there's a chance of the Rylions attacking near here?"
"Oh, that's not true. You know that Sir Farlan would never let them past him."
"Word has it that battle was just a diversion, and their real motive is to take this castle and the lands around it."
Kythia had heard this theory several times, and had yet to believe it. It would be exciting, though—trumpets blaring, banners waving just beyond the window. Oh, glory maybe Queen Jocunda would even lead the rescue . . .
That was odd. Kythia was sure she had just heard trumpets, even war cries. She shook her head, trying to clear it of what was obviously her imagination.
Then her mother, Amaria, dashed into the room and cried that, yes, there was a Rylion attack and the knights were gone, fighting miles away! This time, the gossip was correct.
That was when panic broke loose. Serving women shrieked and ran about. Villagers had already begun to enter the castle, the safest place around. Kythia maneuvered through it all, trying to reach the battlements. Her heart hammered; her hair flew out of place as she, still in her fine gown, scrambled to where she could help defend her people and her home. She couldn't let her mother and servants die or be captured. As she ran, she issued orders for vats of hot oil, bows and arrows, and as many spears as they had. She grabbed a boy about her age and gave him a message to take as quickly as possible to the nearest estate: "We're under attack, and the men are gone. Please, help."
* * *
Kythia stood at the battlements, clutching a bow expertly in one hand and felling the enemy below as fast as she could fire. She'd secretly learned archery as a child, and was a fair shot. The most stalwart of the servants, men and women, assisted her, and the rest were huddled with Amaria in the most protected rooms.
Load. Fire. Watch her victim fall. Load. Fire. Kythia worked herself into a rhythm. She shut her mind to the screams of those she killed in self-defense, although she knew they would haunt her dreams.
A pain-filled shriek forced her to look beside her. One of the gossips that had been fitting her dress had fallen, struck by a deadly arrow. Blood spurted from her, showering the cold stone wall. Kythia took a moment to kneel beside her servant and gently close the eyes of the old woman.
Kythia's dress was ripped and hanging off one shoulder, the height of impropriety. Her hair was loose and tangled and tinted with soot. Her face was streaked with sweat, blood, and dirt. Yet Kythia was beautiful, wild and willful, standing in the battlements and crying out against all who defied her. She grinned; Lady Amaria would swoon with shock to see her daughter like this.
* * *
After it was all over Kythia sat in her spacious apartments and thought about the entire incident. They had won; serving women and one noble girl had held their own against a troop from the greatest army in the realm until proper warriors could be summoned. Perhaps an angel was with her, watching over her; perhaps it was just pure luck. Anyhow, she and the servants had done it, and Kythia was proud.
A knock at the door startled her out of her reverie. She jumped, and before she could respond the door opened and admitted Amaria and . . . someone. This woman was tall, slim, and muscular, with jet-black hair and brilliant violet eyes. She carried a sword at her side and wore mail so beautiful as to astound even Amaria. She stepped forward and said in a throaty, commanding voice, "I am Jocunda. Am I correct in assuming that you, Kythia, are responsible for the defeat of the Rylion troop?"
Kythia, nervous at being addressed by her sovereign and heroine, reverently whispered, "Yes, Majesty I am Kythia, and I suppose you could say that I am responsible."
* * *
After Jocunda had addressed Kythia and her mother for several minutes she took her leave, promising to speak more at the dawn. Amaria, at her daughter's questioning glance, responded, "Her Majesty the Queen was visiting a nearby estate, and, when messengers arrived, requesting help with the wounded, she made haste to accompany the party.
"Kythia . . ." Her tone was soft, shy, forgiving. "I'm proud of you. Oh, Kythia, I'm so proud."