Princess Andromeda stood at the edge of the cliff and watched the sun slip behind the distant Terrakian Mountains that marked the border of elven territory. She had wandered off the marked hunting trails long ago and now had no idea where she was in the vast forest that grew behind the palace. Lost in thought, she had allowed the white mare to take her wherever it wanted without concern for how she would find her way back home. Away from the palace and completely alone for the first time in her life, Andromeda wasn’t sure if she wanted to return.
She curled the tips of her riding boots over the ledge and looked down at the brush far below. It would be so easy to take one more step forward and free herself of the pain and confusion she felt. One step and she would be with Brenen, and never have to face the fact that all their plans for their future had failed. Nothing had worked out the way he had said it would, and no one seemed to realize that Paragon was in danger of ruin.
It had been Prince Brenen, and not their mother, Queen Elsbeth, who had arranged Andromeda’s marriage to Prince Nyle, the only son of King Istvan of Truwa. The plan was simple: by marrying Nyle, Andromeda would become the next queen of Truwa and assure the dissolution of the small kingdom upon the death of her husband. Unknown to Nyle, Andromeda had once suffered from a rare fever that left its elven survivors barren.
Without heirs, the lands held by the king and queen of Truwa would pass to their next of kin. Prince Nyle had no siblings, and both of his parents had been only children as well. The House of Truwa would pass to Andromeda’s brother and fall under the control of the House of Lei. Upon Brenen’s death, both kingdoms would pass to the son he was sure to have and Truwa would no longer exist.
None of that would happen now. Princess Andromeda was still expected to honor the marriage agreement and wed Prince Nyle. Now, instead of securing prosperity for Paragon, she would be assuring the destruction of both kingdoms. When she and Nyle died without heirs or siblings, who would rule their kingdoms? Better to die now and give Nyle the opportunity to wed another.
“My mother will be heart-broken if I end it this way,” Andromeda whispered aloud. “I never said good-bye.”
Reluctantly giving up her thoughts of suicide, the princess took a few steps away from the cliff edge. She returned to her horse just as the sun disappeared and plunged the land into darkness. By the light of the rising full moon, Andromeda checked her saddle straps. She was preparing to mount when she heard twigs snapping behind her. Clutching the small decorative dagger she always carried, she spun on her heels to face whomever, or whatever, was approaching.
As the figure emerged from the trees, she struggled to make out his features in the moonlight. Royalty were trained to recognize all other races, but she could not put a name to the frightening man that stood before her. He seemed incredibly large compared to her five-foot stature and his dark skin looked more like dried leather than living flesh. His smile revealed rows of pointed teeth, and Andromeda shuddered as his tongue slithered out from between them to wet his lips. One of Brenen’s late night tales came to mind and her eyes grew wide with fear as she realized that this man was an eridan.
The princess stood paralyzed as he slowly drew closer. She knew she should jump onto her horse and ride away, but her body would not obey the commands her frantic mind was shouting. Even after three more eridans appeared from the shadows, she still could do nothing.
“What’s a pretty little elf doing alone so far from home?” the first eridan asked in Common, the language shared by all races. His voice sounded as if he were gargling with gravel. The others laughed, anticipating what was to come.
“I am not alone,” Andromeda lied. She realized that they had no way of knowing that she was the Princess of Paragon, and the newly named Heiress to the Throne. If they knew this, they surely would have killed her already.
“I don’t think so,” the eridan replied with confidence. “There would be a sword at my throat or an arrow in my back if you had a protector somewhere. Are you running away from home, pretty one?” The others laughed louder. “Well, we’re going to give you a new home.” The eridan stepped towards her, displaying his cruel toothy grin.
One more step, Andromeda silently urged, just one more. The others would probably tear her apart, but this one was definitely coming with her. Her brother had trained her well.
Finally, he took a step forward. She tightened her grip around the handle of the dagger and waited for the right moment to extinguish the hateful glare in the creature’s eyes.
He reached forward slowly and caressed her cheek with his fingertips. “I’m sure we’ll make each other very happy, my little elf.”
Andromeda decided that she would rather die than be defiled by these creatures. A bright flash of moonlight reflected off the steel as she imbedded her small dagger between his ribs. Howling in pain and shock, he quickly retaliated.
Claw-like nails sliced across Princess Andromeda’s left cheek. The force of the blow spun her around and she dropped to her knees. She reached for the saddle and used it to pull herself onto her feet. Her fresh wounds scraped against the flank of her white horse and she winced in pain. Andromeda heard the eridan she had stabbed fall lifelessly to the ground and knew her own life would also end soon.
Confused by the strange turn of events, the three remaining eridan men stood unmoving. Their leader was dead, killed by a female half his size. This had never happened before. What should they do with her now?
Andromeda climbed into her saddle during their moment of indecision, hoping they would remain immobilized long enough for her to escape. Moments ago she had contemplated suicide, now she fought to stay alive.
One eridan came to his senses a moment before the others. He raced towards the fleeing elf girl with speed she didn’t think possible for a man of his size. She urged her horse on faster, but the eridan quickly closed the distance between them. Using a fallen log as a step, he sprang up and dove through the air. Andromeda screamed as his weight slammed into her and knocked her to the ground.
She struggled to get out from beneath her attacker, but he proved to be too large and strong for her to fight off. He struck her with his closed fist and Andromeda’s sight blurred. She caught a glimpse of the bright streak of blood on the white coat of her frightened horse as it sped away without a rider. The eridan hit her again and the princess’s world became as dark as the surrounding night.