The full moon’s glare penetrated the glass panes of the balcony doors. Flickering flames burned strongly in the grey stone hearth, casting shadows throughout the castle’s largest bedchamber. White ceilings with decorative cornices were partially discoloured from smoke, where the walls in deep burgundy hid the build up. Thick candles set on cast-iron stands dripped wax on the mantelpiece and were merely a personal preference to solar powered lighting.
Lace drapes adorned the four-poster double bed in carved oak where the young Queen lay in labour, her cries shattering the silence. Wet with sweat, Sestina’s petite figure briefly relaxed between contractions. A cool cloth felt soothing on her ivory complexion, administered by the priestess, who sat on the edge of the bed beside her. Artemis’s slender fingers brushed strands of damp copper hair, having come free from the Queen’s lengthy braids.
A woman of authority, Artemis expressed compassion in serene features, which cleverly masked a cold self-controlled nature. Though appearing youthful, like the woman she nursed, the priestess’s hands revealed otherwise. Befitting an eminent status, the priestess’s white attire hid her tall shapely figure. The long apron, draping a simple lined lengthy garment, bore large silver embroidered symbols down the right-hand side. Housing a centred blue gem, a chrome headband secured the wimple and none but her personal aide knew the colour and length of her hair.
The imperial history book had a number of chapters dedicated to Artemis with the woman being an authoritative figure within the royal household. It was written that she had placed Kings on thrones, delivered their heirs and retained, without question, the position of personal adviser to the King and his council. The religious system of this vast kingdom was based on an unseen higher consciousness, which Artemis claimed to receive instruction from. Revered as the sacred voice of the Mariard, no one doubted the priestess’s integrity.
“Artemis!” Sestina grasped the cuff of the priestess’s sleeve, leaving a damp impression on the fine cotton.
“Hush my child,” Artemis replied with clear diction. “Your husband has been called. Rest now. Your time draws near.” Taking the Queen’s dainty hand in hers, Artemis looked steadily into Sestina’s glaring eyes as her patient again cried out in pain.
The opening of the chamber door diverted the priestess’s attention. On seeing the young man, Artemis stood, watching King Tayo Maroda drop his lengthy, earthen toned cloak to the polished floorboards. Being a perfectionist, she noticed his dark, lengthy curls loosely strung back in a ponytail and the sweat stains on his frilled shirt, evidence of his haste. She would excuse his sloppiness, considering the circumstances. Breathlessly, Tayo positioned himself at Sestina’s side.
With the King expressing his love for his wife, Artemis contemplated the man’s character. The priestess thought him a King worthy to lead the Mariard regime in a new direction, which would see her own plans fulfilled. Aware Tayo was about to feel the pain of loss, she was also aware of the many emotions he and those of the kingdom had yet to experience.
Insight into the new era had Artemis mentally reeling off a verse from her own prophetic writings, foretelling this event.
A great evil will be born to the royal household. Woe be to the mind, body and essence, as this evil will spread to pollute all flesh.
Despite her inward celebration, Artemis’s expression did not change. The birth of the King’s heirs would set her on a path to obtain a greater power, but she would have to be patient.
Tayo ran a hand through his hair, drawing it away from striking, boyish features. Evident was the pain in his radiant blue eyes, as he suffered the pangs of frustration and helplessness. With the priestess gesturing the time had come, Tayo silently stood. Retaining his wife’s hand in his, Sestina cried out, heightening his emotional conflict. He knew where this was leading and spoke up.
“Is there nothing we can do?” Tayo begged, the tears welling in his eyes. Her silence, he somewhat expected. The priestess was not one to repeat instruction or what she had already informed; the royal seed was corrupt and had been for many generations. Though Tayo did not doubt her word, it grieved him that his heir and this generation would see the prophecy fulfilled. The tranquil world they knew and lived in was about to change.
Having urged the King aside, Artemis’s flesh radiated a glistening blue aura. The phenomenon steadily intensified, as she began chanting in a language known only to the priestess. Perceiving to have seen and heard this before, Tayo expressed no fear. Although having shielded his tired eyes from the glare, the sudden silence sent Tayo numb and looking to his wife. Sestina was not breathing.
As easily as submerging her hands into a bowl of water, the priestess penetrated his wife’s swollen stomach. Disturbed by the sight, Tayo buried his face into the bed drapes. Wailing drew back his attention.
Wrapping the babe in a cloth, Artemis analysed the tiny facial features. Her smile hid her true thoughts.
“You have a daughter, King Tayo Maroda.” Artemis placed the babe in the man’s arms and watched his expression. The father was in awe, but this would soon change, for her work was not yet finished.
Briefly closing his eyes, Tayo gave thanks to the Mariard and laid his daughter in the prepared crib. Having never experienced the feeling of grief, he found it overwhelming, leaving him speechless and confused. Reminding himself of a foretold future stopped him from breaking down in the presence of company. The uncertain times would call for sacrifices to be made for the good of all and as King, he must endure his share.
Again, the priestess submerged her hands into the body of his wife. Tayo tried to centre his attention on his daughter, yet the wailing drew him to shift his sights to Artemis. Additional emotions surfaced in him, triggering recollections of conversations with the woman, who held his son; the one she prophesised as a great evil. He recalled suggesting that they have the monster disposed of at birth; Artemis assured him this was not the answer. It would transfer the boy’s very essence to his sister, creating a greater evil than already predicted. His confidence in Artemis prompted faith of a future victory for the Mariard and its people. Her adequately raising the boy inspired hope that her influence would see the child have a less destructive impact on the kingdom.
Tayo could barely contain his pain with Sestina’s body radiating a bright, blue aura. Reaching out to his wife’s fading form, Artemis grasped his wrist to prevent him.
“Do not touch her. She is being called. One returns to the Mariard in their purest form.” Artemis released her grip.
The strain reflected in Tayo’s features with his beloved Sestina diminishing with the light. On the ruffled damp bedding, a small blue, glass bead caught his eye. Before he could reach for it, the priestess had it in her hand. Unnerved that the bead was visible to Tayo, Artemis awkwardly smiled. Assuming this would not be a common occurrence, she handed it to him.
“Consider it a very special gift from the Mariard.” Artemis gestured through expression that this was a privilege.
Tayo held the bead tightly. He would always keep it on his person, a reminder of his wife and their sacrifice.
Artemis knew they had to talk, having sensed the man’s discomfort and confusion. Her touch sent the newborns to sleep in their cribs beside the bed. She watched the King cross the floor to the balcony doors where he looked up at the huge white Mariard moon. It appeared brighter than earlier that evening, which now lit up the mist creeping over the elegant castle gardens.
Tayo could see the outline of the gazebo where he had sat hand in hand that day with his wife, sipping tea. Closing his eyes, he felt something encroaching on his pain, something he could not define.
“Already you feel it stirring.” Artemis positioned herself at the King's side.
“Like my essence wants to leave me and go elsewhere.” The moon again captured Tayo’s focus.
“Not only your essence, but your entire being.” Artemis glanced at the King, but his gaze did not leave the moon. “Tayo, tomorrow you and your daughter will embark on a great journey. You will build a new Mariard kingdom unlike anything ever known to this world. The Mariard has already paved the way ahead, but for a time, I will not be with you. Draw on the knowledge already given you, work diligently and rule wisely.”
The priestess led Tayo by the arm across the chamber to his daughter’s crib. Again, she sensed for his emotional state, feeling the turmoil within him. Though expressing warmth as a new father, tears welled in the man's eyes. He did not look at her as she addressed him.
“You are a King and a father, behold your daughter, she will bring you great joy. Teach her faith, obedience and the ways of the Mariard.”
“What of my son?” Tayo glanced at the crib, unable to bring himself to look fully on the child.
“He is dead to you. It is written; a seed is planted, a tree will grow to bear bad fruit. It will be cut down by one who will plant seeds of terror.” Artemis noted in his eyes that these words were familiar to him. With the King’s silence, she approached the door to summon those waiting out in the hallway.
The King’s aides wore lengthy, light-blue jackets and trousers with white shirts buttoned to collarless necklines. They were instructed to renew the bed linen and set out the King’s sleeping attire. Artemis then addressed Tayo.
“You are tired, rest now. You have a big day ahead of you tomorrow.” Looking towards the open door, she gestured with a nod to her awaiting personal aides, who would remove the cribs from the King’s chamber.
The crystal droplets of the chandelier reflected the flames within the hearth, casting speckles of light over the walls. To the King, the bedchamber felt silent and lonely as he sat in one of two armchairs facing the blaze. He remained fully dressed with his boots lying disorderly at his feet. Again, Tayo glanced at the bed. He would find no rest where he was, yet could not bring himself to sleep in it. On this, his last night in the castle, he studied his surroundings, fixing to memory all that was part of his life. Large paintings in elaborate, gold frames covered the majority of wall space. These were portraits of past Kings, his mentors, so he thought.
Tayo's sights shifted, taking in furnishings; the desk with its drawers of personal property and the curvatures of the stool. An intricately carved wardrobe, the clothes within, he would never wear again. Tears welled on eyeing items, having belonged to his wife, on the dressing table. Nothing he could take with him, not even a small memento. Reaching into his vest pocket, Tayo drew out the glass bead. The thought of what lay ahead stirred feelings of anxiousness and kept him from sleep.
It was not yet light outside when Cainen stifled a yawn and pulled the hood of his cloak back to reveal straight blonde hair. The King’s companion and dearest friend stood edgy in the lounge area, one of many in the transportation complex. Antiquated charm was in the décor and people’s attire within the modern facilities, operating on advanced solar technologies. Cainen’s tall muscular physique reflected in the large windowpanes running the length of a wall. From this height, it enabled him to look out across a massive area of steel and concrete. Landing pads set at different levels had attached open boarding stations. People went about their business using walkways, open caged lifts and four wheeled buggies, some towing small trailers. Hover shuttle buses, like lengthy, slender, white coaches, lifted off for their rounds of the municipalities. Stationed at ground level, wheel-based transports serviced the local city sectors. Hauler transports, similar to the buses yet bulkier, were being loaded with goods for their long journeys to the rural areas.
Cainen knew it was imperative that no one saw him or other selected members of the royal household in the complex. Deceit was in motion and soon the kingdom would grieve the deaths of a monarch, an heir and entourage. Lying was against everything he believed in, yet Cainen saw this act and his part in it, as a means to the kingdom’s survival. He could have left hours earlier with others of the royal household, but Cainen elected to personally escort the King to an unknown destination. Reflecting on what he and his family were leaving behind, raised uncomfortable emotions. With only the clothes on their backs, he contemplated an uncertain journey ahead. His thoughts were interrupted when an unshaven Tayo entered.
Those involved in this venture had been instructed by the priestess to dress in civilian clothing. The King’s disguise could not hide the man's pain. Tayo’s hair hung loose around his shoulders, grief and lack of sleep showed in his features. Remaining silent, Cainen’s expression of compassion was all he could offer. Seeing his friend stripped of all royal ornamentation left him feeling awkward enough; he did not know what to say considering the man’s loss.
“Is everything ready?” Tayo forced a smile with Cainen nodding. “Good man.” He patted his friend on the back, before taking the grey, woollen cloak held out to him. Both men pulled hoods up to cover their hair and somewhat shroud their faces. With his hand, Tayo gestured to lead the way and the two men left the lounge area.
The Mariard kingdom was made up of districts. Each district covered four immense states, comprising of a main city and many smaller municipalities that featured more Gothic architecture than modern. Buildings stood fifteen stories or less, lengthy or block structures rich in crafted decoration. Dividing each district, a collective of rural towns saw earlier period architecture, a country charm of stone, timber and shingled roofs. In all, there were sixteen districts and each city had a name, but was usually referred to by its number. The Maroda kingdom covered a third of the surface. On opposite sides of the poles were ice fields and desert regions, which were thought unexplored and uninhabited wastelands.
Flying over the states of the First district, little conversation had passed between the two men during the long hours of travel. Tayo battled to keep his son from his thoughts. There was a sense of betraying not only the child, but also the mother who bore him. At Artemis’s request, the prophecy was never revealed to his deceased wife for what he believed good reasons. He kept justifying it; this was for the good of all, not just a few. From the shuttle window, Tayo noted they were leaving the city municipalities behind and entering a rural sector. It saddened him to abandon his entire kingdom; his only consolation, it was in the hands of the priestess and his high council.
The name Mariard derived and honoured the great-unseen power that was in everything from creation to overseeing their peace, prosperity and good health. Original writings, pertaining to their culture and beliefs, were held in the castle. Accessible to the populace, copies of the great book not only contained history, but also revealed in detail, the works of their ancestors. This wealth of knowledge expressed itself in both the city and rural areas. It appeared in architecture, carpentry, the arts, wind and solar technologies. Most conscious of their environment, citizens farmed with horse and plough, providing organic foods and dairy produce. None were aware of a great upheaval to come, which would shatter the foundations and see a great darkness take the throne.
Ushered from shuttle to shuttle, the days of travel left Tayo and his companion exhausted. Though the King napped along the way, his dreams made him restless in sleep. He perceived them visions of events yet to come. On hearing of his own death and that of others, it was evident to Tayo that he was truly loved by his people. The entire kingdom was in mourning. He had seen it in a shuttle pilot’s tears and on the faces of those at different transport docks. His name was on everyone’s lips, as was his daughter’s. Each time he heard names mentioned, it raised guilt for the pain caused and lies told.
It was late afternoon when the horse drawn cart came to a halt in an open field on the outskirts of the Third district. A trusted friend of the royal household, having sworn to secrecy, owned the picturesque rural setting surrounded by rolling hills and rich pastures. Standing in the warmth of the sun, a small group greeted the two men.
Patina’s lengthy, brown hair fluttered a little with the breeze. Her eyes expressed delight in seeing her husband. She expected Cainen to be clean-shaven, the days of growth made him appear older. Having greeted him with an embrace, their son came out from behind her brown skirt covering a thick frilled white petticoat. She smiled with her husband messing the boy’s blonde hair in fun. Picking Simon up, she nursed the four-year-old on her hip. Simon began fidgeting with the ribbons on her bodice, though his green eyes were fixed on his father’s features.
A short distance away, the middle-aged couple, dressed as farm hands, stood out side the shuttle. Being trusted servants of the royal household, the King assumed the priestess would soon join them. Before continuing on their journey, Tayo hoped to bathe and get some decent rest. A strange sound drew his attention to the skies.
Never had the group seen anything so advanced, appearing like a great black and white bird soaring towards them. The strange craft was extremely loud, stealing their attention away from the priestess, having left the shuttle. Cainen took Simon from his wife and they all stood well back. The boy’s hair annoyed him with the craft hovering and stirring the air, forcing locks across his face. Tayo remained captivated as it descended to land on the grass.
This sleek, black transport with lengthy swept-back wings had a long tubular neck and a white oval section that observers assumed housed the pilots. A sliding door opened in the side of the bulk, drawing everyone’s attention.
Awestruck, the group watched a metal ramp extend to the ground. Appearing in the opening, a machine in the image of a man, stepped forward. The bronze and chrome unit stood tall with fixed, moulded, shoulder length hair and facial features void of expression. Its body gave the impression of restricted mobility, however looks were deceiving as it approached Artemis, who set everyone at ease.
“Be not afraid of that which is here to assist you. Milacon is a living being. The armour protects the Milonight occupant within.” Artemis raised a brow with Simon stretching out his hand and touching the gleaming cold tunic.
Small fingerprints now showed below the engraved name on the left-hand side of the Milonight’s chest plate. Cainen said Simon’s name aloud, telling his son not to do it again.
A dislike for children had Artemis annoyed at the boy, though a controlled stance and tone concealed the truth of her temperament.
“Numerous Milonights inhabit the ice region; they await their King’s arrival.” Her words saw Tayo’s eyes widen in awe of the concept. Before the King could speak his thoughts, the boy spoke out.
“Can I play with it?” Simon looked to his father. Cainen did not know how to answer. The Milonight’s head turned to acknowledge the boy.
“I would be delighted to play with you young Simon.” Its lips had not moved, yet they heard the pleasant male voice.
Fascinated, Simon tried to reach out and touch the Milonight’s face. Cainen felt embarrassed with his son’s behaviour and lowered the boy to the ground where he held him back with a firm hand. Forcing a smile at the man, Artemis continued.
“Milonights are small beings. The armour ensures their survival, keeping their body temperature at fifteen degrees below zero.” Noting stunned expressions, Artemis knew she had indicated a destination. “Do not let the thought of their true size deceive you. These beings are not only your finest assets, but their life expectancy of two hundred years or more, will see them fighting for your kingdom, long after you are gone Tayo.” She fixed her sights on the man himself. “You will find out their true value when you arrive at your destination. May the Mariard watch over you.” With a hand, she gestured for all to board.
The King followed Artemis’s sights towards the shuttle. A female aide was on approach, carrying a protective capsule containing his daughter. Milacon bowed his head to greet the young woman, who handed over the precious cargo for him to take on board. Obviously nervous, the aide straightened her shawl, walking closely behind the Milonight.
Tayo could not leave without a last word to Artemis and did not follow up the ramp.
“I must ask you…” Tayo said, but the priestess answered before he could finish.
“Your son’s name is Marcale; it is all I will tell you. Have a safe journey.” Artemis walked off, not giving him a second look whilst heading towards the awaiting shuttle.
Pondering his role, Tayo felt somewhat alone. He knew he would not see Artemis or this land again until an appointed time. Twenty-one years seemed so long and without her to council him, it crossed his mind that if he failed, all would be lost. The thought of Milonights made him nervous yet curious to what was hidden under the armour and to know the creature’s environment. Suddenly hearing Simon, loudly chuckling, prompted him to walk up the ramp.
On entering, Tayo was a little disappointed. Though a large interior, it was nothing more than a cargo carrier with web seats lining the inner frame. His sights drifted, taking in familiar faces, assuming to know their thoughts. Artemis had indicated their destination. The concept of building the new Mariard kingdom in the ice fields had him nervous.
“When you are ready, Sir,” Milacon said, awaiting further instructions.