The Clock Tower Guardian Chapter 1
I ran swiftly and silently down the servants’ passages, breath beginning to come in ragged gulps as my heart raced in my chest, trying to outdo my feet. I didn’t want to believe what I’d seen. It wasn’t possible. He’d only left a few weeks ago.
Pushing down the knot of fear growing in my stomach, I turned a sharp corner and spun past a maid who shouted something unpleasant after me. I ignored it. I was used to unkind words and rude remarks. He and my father were the only two people in the world who had ever had a kind word for me. So he couldn’t be. He just couldn’t.
Door after door passed as I headed for where I would find out for sure just what was going on. It surely couldn’t be what I thought it was. That was crazy. Ludicrous.
I paused, panting, at the entrance to one of the main hallways that the nobles and visiting dignitaries used. Waiting until I had my breathing under control so I wouldn’t arouse suspicion, I walked out as casually and unobtrusively as I could. I was almost across the hall and to the door I was heading for when a voice I loathed above almost anything else stopped me.
“Dog!” she snapped nastily.
I hid my cringe and turned, respectfully keeping my eyes on the ground as I curtsied.
“Yes, Your Highness?” I asked in a low voice.
Princess Taliya of the Roanana Clan stood before me in all her gaudily bedecked glory. Her long blonde hair was swept up and somehow held in a very complicated design by red butterfly pins meant to match her shiny, trailing, red dress which was covered by white butterflies. Large rubies set in gold dripped from her neck and wrists to match the gold and ruby tiara amid the butterflies. With my gaze fixed on the ground, I saw that she, of course, had red slippers to match the dress as well. I could feel her cold, blue gaze on me, disgusted and mean, debating what my next torture would be.
Taliya only came in second to her father, King Malyon, in the who-hated-me-most category. Sadly, she had far more time to dedicate to make my life a living hell than her father did. This was sad only because she was more creative and downright mean than he was. She always took great pleasure in catching me and humiliating me whenever she got the chance. I avoided her like the plague. Too bad the plague spread so quickly.
“You,” she purred darkly, eyeing me with evil intent. “Just what do you think you’re doing parading around these halls like you own them? Who told you that you could show your face up here?”
I forced myself to speak calmly and not show my hatred.
“I beg your forgiveness, Your Highness. I was on an errand for my father and wanted to be as swift as I could.”
She sniffed and turned up her nose.
“I have no time to waste on you now. Attend me later. We shall see if you can earn my forgiveness then, mutt.”
She signaled to her entourage to continue and swept past me. Several of her followers purposely ran into me, knocking me to the ground hard. Their laughter echoed down the hall and I looked up to see Taliya smirking superiorly over he shoulder.
As soon as they were out of sight, I scowled darkly after them. If looks could kill, Taliya and her people would have been dead years ago. Getting up carefully, I winced as I stood. My tailbone had taken the brunt of the fall. I sent a dark scowl around me at the servants who were walking past, going about their duties, and either pretending I didn’t exist, or sneering nastily as the took pleasure from my pain.
I hated them all.
Rubbing my backside, I made myself move forward to the unused study at the end of the hall. If Taliya was on the move this early in the morning, she was headed to the Throne Room. Someone must have told her and she and the King would be the first to hear what was going on. I had to move quickly.
Reaching the door, I slipped in and closed it behind me. This particular study had not been used in the nineteen years I had been alive. There wasn’t much in the room other than a dusty chair and desk with a couple of equally dusty shelves that held a few books someone had long since forgotten about. I wanted to have a closer look at them, but I never wanted to disturb the dust lest someone discover that I had been there or why.
So why was I in a dusty, unused study? Because it held the entrance to a secret passage of course. I didn’t want anyone else discovering it, so I always left the room exactly as I found it.
Moving to the back wall, I counted stones down from the ceiling and over until I found the right one. Sixteen down and seven over. I put my hand on the stone and pushed in gently. There was a click and then the fake stones in front of me popped open an inch. Getting my fingers into the crack, I pulled the hidden door open all the way and slipped inside, closing it securely behind me until I heard the click of the latch falling back into place so no one would be able to tell the difference.
The passage was completely dark and I moved by feel. I had never wanted to risk carrying a light with me to bring it here, lest someone stop me and demand answers, so I had memorized the passage by feel. This particular one led to the Throne Room, which is where the head of the party I had seen would be going. Hopefully I would make it in time to hear.
I walked forward confidently and stopped as I reached the exit of the passage, listening carefully to hear if anyone was on the other side. This door opened in the lofts above the Throne Room, where no one ever bothered going, so it wasn’t likely anyone was there, but it never hurt to be careful.
Hearing nothing, I quietly released the latch on my side of the door and it popped open an inch. Carefully so as not to make any noise, I pushed it open just enough to slip through and closed it behind me.
I got down on my stomach and crawled forward, peeking between the railing and looking down. Originally, the Throne Room was made for large audiences and so the acoustics were excellent, letting me hear everything even from such a high spot.
The Throne Room was a grand spectacle, no doubt. It was white stone, like the rest of the palace, with an arching ceiling. Lush red carpet covered the floor up to the dais and intricate murals of precious stones lined the walls and flowed into one another. From the ceiling hung paper lanterns, each one unique and either painted or cut to depict a different scene, then be-spelled long ago to glow.
Taliya sat to the left of her father on a miniature throne of her own. Malyon sat front and center on the main throne which was gilded in gold and covered in red velvet.
The King sat as erect and arrogant as his daughter. He was robed in purple with a large gold and diamond crown on his head. It had always been easy to see the family resemblance between the two. Malyon had the same blonde hair and cold blue eyes as Taliya.
I watched the royals wait impatiently for the leader of the party that had just arrived from the border. I saw Taliya shift and, even from where I was, heard her sigh in exasperation.
“What is taking so long?” she grumbled.
The next moment, the double doors on the far end of the room opened to admit a weary-looking soldier. I assumed he had a rank of some sort but I was too far away to see what it might have been. He paused a few feet from the dais and saluted. The poor fellow was obviously exhausted, but neither the King nor the Princess cared about that.
“Report,” snapped the King, glaring at the Elf.
Apparently the King was as thrilled about the early hour as Taliya was.
The Elf came wearily into a parade stance and, looking straight ahead, made his report in a dead voice.
“Your Majesty, Your Highness, it is with deepest regret that I report the death of Prince Sefron.”
There it was. The thing I had feared. It was true. Sefron was dead. The only friend I had ever had, the only Elf who had ever treated me as anything but a filthy mutt, the only person who had ever cared about me besides my father. He was dead.
I swallowed hard and scooted away from the railing as the King jumped up and began shouting.
“What do you mean he’s dead?! My son is not dead!”
“I am sorry, Your Majesty, but he is.”
“Who is responsible for this?!”
“He fell during an attack from the Wizards. Most of his platoon died with him.”
I found the stone to trigger the secret door and pulled it open as quickly as I dared.
“That little piece of scum is responsible for this!”
I froze in place. Oh no.
“This is all her fault!” the King raged. “If not for her, I never would have had to send him to the border at all! How dare she! How dare she kill my son!”
My heart sank into my stomach as a rush of fear ran up my spine. This was bad. This was very bad. This was worse than any of the things Taliya had ever done to me. This was worse than anything the King had put my father and me through over the years.
I might very well lose my head over this. Literally.
Gripping the door, I set jaw and told myself not to cry. I would have to mourn Sefron later. Right now, I had to get out of the palace and out of the Elven Kingdoms. If Malyon caught up with me, I knew he would order my execution on the spot.
Nevermind the fact that it was his own persistent cruelty to those under him that drove his son away. Nevermind that it had driven his son to try and help all those his father scorned. Nevermind that the King’s cruel heart had driven the wedge between the two deeper and deeper over the years. Nevermind the fact that it was he who had called his son out in front of all the court and demanded that he stop socializing with me or be sent to the border. Nevermind that he should have known his son well enough not to make such a challenge in public.
Nevermind that his son’s death was on his hands now. He had to have someone else to blame because nothing could ever be his fault.
How I hated that Elf.
Tuning out the ranting of the King, I slipped into the passage way and closed the door behind me.
What to do now? I couldn’t stay at the palace any longer. I didn’t have anyone to help me get out because the only other person who cared about me at all was my father and he was gone on one of his expeditions again.
I was on my own.
First things first, I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere until tonight. At this hour the whole palace was stirring and getting up. I’d be caught for sure. So until then I would have to hide. Even going back to my room before then would be suicide. In other words, I was stuck here for the rest of the day. Brilliant.
I leaned against the wall and slowly sank to the floor. Wrapping my arms around my legs, I rested my forehead on my knees. For a while, I managed to keep my mind blank, but slowly the memories began to assail me.
Sefron actually stopping to help me with whatever mean task his sister had felt like giving me that day.
Sefron actually laughing at a joke I had made.
The day we had discovered this passage way.
The day we had realized Sefron had gotten several inches taller than me.
The day we finally managed to swipe a pie from the kitchens and never did get caught.
Sefron telling me about his dreams for the future, what he wanted to do when he was King, and what he would change.
The day Sefron told me goodbye.
I sniffed and realized I was crying. Leaning back against the wall and covering my face with my hands, I let loose, weeping. My heart ached so badly I thought it would burst from the pain and my sobs shook my body so violently I felt as though I would crumble into a million pieces at any moment.
I don’t know how long I sat there, crying, but eventually I ran out of tears and was left with nothing but the ache in my heart. I was thirsty beyond belief, but I knew I couldn’t leave yet.
Wrapping my arms around my legs again and leaning my forehead on my knees once more, I settled in for a very long day of waiting.
I woke with a start and, though the darkness around me hadn’t changed, I could feel that quite a bit of time had passed. Slowly, I stretched my stiff muscles and got blood flowing back into them before I attempted to stand. I almost fell over on the first try, catching myself heavily on the wall. Apparently I had been here quite a while indeed.
Slowly, I made my way back to the entrance in the study. That would be the safest place to find out how much time had passed and how high on alert the palace was for me.
I opened the door just a crack to see that the room was completely dark except for the soft glow of the single paper lantern. That was good. It meant that at least it was past sunset and the palace would be winding down for the night.
Leaving the passageway open just a bit behind me in case I needed to duck back in quickly, I crept to the study door and listened. I heard one person shuffle by and then silence stretched by for several long minutes. Knowing I’d have to take the chance sooner or later, I opened the door just a crack to see out into the hall and found it dark except for the softly glowing lanterns hanging from above.
Quietly, I went back and closed the passageway door before moving back to the study door and creeping out into the deserted hall. Closing the door, I ducked down the servants’ passage as quickly as I could and started quietly jogging toward my room.
I didn’t stop until I reached my room and had the door safely closed behind me. I hadn’t seen anyone which meant it must be very late indeed. My room was a servant’s room with a simple bed, a one drawer dresser for my spare outfit, and a small mirror that hung on the wall. A single tiny window was on the far wall from the door.
Looking out at the night sky, I saw that the first of the three moons had risen. No wonder everyone was asleep.
With swift, sure movements, I grabbed my satchel, slung it over my body, and stuffed my spare outfit into it. I glanced around the moon lite room a bit sadly. I had never owned anything personal or been given anything of the sort, so there was truly nothing else for me to take.
I glanced in the mirror and saw my bronze eyes were wide with worry. Quickly, I brushed back my voluminous auburn hair and tied it back out of the way, exposing my pointed ears. I certainly looked like an Elf and anyone outside the Kingdoms would probably mistake me for a full blood, but everyone in the Kingdoms could tell I was a half breed. My mother, a Nixie, was the one I took after in most respects. My hair, and soft, angular features were all her, according to my father. All I had gotten from him were my eyes and ears.
I turned away from the mirror and went to the door, listening for the sound of anyone nearby outside. When I heard nothing, I quietly slipped into the passage and made my way toward the kitchens. I didn’t know where I would go, but I would need food to get there.
Pausing outside the entrance to the kitchens, I listened for the sounds of anyone inside. After a moment, I heard a soft snore. Then another. Cautiously, I peeked in, but saw no one. There were fresh loaves cooling on a table and a caldron of something simmering over the fire. My stomach growled and I bit my lip, moving just a little further in.
Then I spotted the source of the snore. An apprentice kitchen hand was propped up on a stool in the corner, fast asleep. Well, I would have to chance it.
Creeping past him, I picked up a travel bag and slipped into the pantry behind him where I began stuffing the bag full of jerky, dried fruits, and cheese. Then I tip toed back out and swiped five loaves from the table and put them in the bag as well before slipping the strap over my body and settling it on my other hip.
Then, silent as a shadow, I was out of the kitchen and back into the passage. I couldn’t take a horse. They would be suspecting that I would try to run and so the stables would probably be guarded. I wasn’t going to take the chance of getting caught this close to escaping.
That decided, I made my way toward the least used servants’ entrance on the west side of the palace. That would put me in the west courtyard. I opened the door just a crack to peek out into the courtyard and bit my tongue to stop myself from cursing.
It was guarded. There were four guards by the gate and another two marching around the courtyard itself. I closed the door and leaned against the wall for a moment.
A/N: Chapter 1 done, and much faster than I expected! :)