Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Chapter Three

A Challenging Evening's End

Eena contemplated Shanks’ story as she slouched on the edge of the hardwood table.  Her head hung low, her heart pained by guilt.  Yet, what could have been done differently?  She had retrieved the dragon’s eye to save the lives of her friends.  Should she have let them die to keep the stone hidden from Gemdorin?  Or perhaps attempted to fight off a host of Ghengats at the risk of being killed herself?  Maybe she could have defeated them.  Maybe.  But the likelihood had seemed small and the risk, too great.  Had she known Derian was there hiding, waiting to help her escape, she might have attempted to flee with her friends.  Then the dragon’s eye wouldn’t now be sitting in enemy hands. 
Hindsight is always easier than the dreadful moment of decision, she thought to herself. 
Her eyes looked up when a firm declaration was made by the Viidun captain.  “Enough with the somber faces; we didn’t come here to waddle in woe but to celebrate the return of a queen!  Tomorrow is for battle plans.  Tonight is for merrymaking!”
His companions roared loudly in agreement.  Without any further words, Shanks and Agus rounded the table to gather up their musical instruments.  Ian and Derian went to claim two cushioned seats at the edge of the mahogany floor.  Meanwhile, Efren and Heth raced for Eena.  The red-haired Viidun got to her first, grabbing her by the waist and swinging her down off the table.  Efren laughed as she squealed delightedly, holding tight to him.
He was already in the process of escorting her across the floor when he asked for the first dance.  Eena politely accepted his invitation, figuring it was her duty as the only female in the room.  She had to kink her neck to look up at the man.  His large hand fell warm against her side, covering her entire rib cage.  His other closed around her fingers—a child’s hand in his grasp.  She giggled as they stood frozen like mismatched figurines waiting for the winding of a music box.
“I’ve never danced with a giant before,” Eena confessed.  She wasn’t sure how long she could look up at him without irreversibly crooking her neck. 
“And I’ve never danced with the most radiant star in the galaxy before.” 
She felt her cheeks blush and coyly glanced away.  He was certainly a charmer.
The music began soft and slow, like the soothing introduction to a dream.  Shanks strummed evenly across all ten strings on his quasi-cello instrument.  It was as large as he, with five pairs of silk strings tightly tuned along a thick neck.  His fingers knew exactly where to press to create one gentle, harmonizing sound after another.  He plucked away at a few strings simultaneously, blending beautiful chords into a moderately fast, triple-meter time. 
Efren led Eena around the floor, guiding her in perfect step.  Every eye in the room followed their glides and twirls inspired by the delicate music—one...two...three, one...two...three…
After a few solo measures, Agus joined in on his pipes.  The sound wasn’t loud or harsh as Eena had expected.  Rather, they were light, airy whistles that complimented Shanks’ strings.  The sereneness of the music seemed in contrast to the nature of these Goliaths.  Eena laughed at the stark difference.
“What’s so funny?” Efren asked, guiding his dance partner backwards a few steps.
“You actually enjoy dancing, don’t you.”  It was an observation more than a question.
“Ah, yes,” the Viidun agreed.
“You’re very good at it,” she said.
Efren grinned proudly at the compliment.  “Thank you, my lady.” 
“It just seems so terribly out of character for a group of rough, loud, battle-hungry giants!”  She laughed again at the discrepancy.
Efren creased his thick snout.  “Battle-hungry, eh?  Now, we might not back down from a fight, but I don’t know that we’re starvin’ for any.” 
“Sorry.”  Eena considered a more fitting description.  “How about….battle-ready giants.”
Efren approved, adding to her description.  “—with an appreciation for the good things in life, like seductive music and close dances with beautiful women.”
“Ah-hah, I get it now; the mighty Viiduns have a romantic bone!”
“That we do, Princess, as thick as our legs!” 
Efren spun her around as Shanks strummed a lingering melodic chord that ended the song.  It was reasonable to assume the dance was over, but Efren didn’t release his hold on his dance partner, much to Heth’s dismay. 
“Just wait your turn,” Efren growled at his friend.  Eena didn’t dare make a sound of objection.
When Agus started up the next tune, it was a fast, challenging rhythm.  Efren did a perfect job of guiding his willing partner in a shuffle that included plenty of enthralling twists and turns.  Eena couldn’t stop smiling, despite the difficulties.  She was actually having a good time!
The instant the song ended, Heth moved in.  He was through waiting his turn.  Efren grumbled under his breath, but surrendered his lady partner.  Heth proved as talented a dancer as his shipmate, possessing as much energy and skill.  After another quick-paced number, Eena began to fear the night would leave her exhausted.  True, she was enjoying herself; even so, matching the long strides of the Viiduns amounted to serious exercise. 
A second slow dance with Heth gave her an opportunity to catch her breath.  Halfway through the song, Marguay and Jerin walked in escorting Leisha and Jinatta across the floor.  Every eye in the room lingered on the two new ladies, an attractive sight in their long, stylish gowns.  Leisha wore short sleeves on a midnight-blue dress, pleated around a snug waist.  Jinatta showed off her gorgeous legs in a violet wrap that hugged her body, a racy slit up one side.  Eena sighed with relief, realizing here were more dance partners for the Viiduns.
Marguay and Leisha joined right in for the second half of the present dance, circling the floor next to Heth and Eena.  The doctor headed for her captain and took a seat on the arm of his chair.  Eena watched how they interacted, smiling and laughing like good friends.  Jinatta tossed her blonde curls over her shoulder repeatedly while Derian touched her arm more than once, allowing his hand to linger in a familiar manner on her bare skin.  Something he said elicited a bubbly giggle from the pretty doctor which in turn made the captain smile. 
Finally, the song came to an end, and the collective attention returned to the musicians, waiting for a sign of the upcoming tempo.  Agus placed his pipes on the ground as Shanks began a solo, stringed ballad, his musical talent enviable to all ears. 
Eena noticed how the captain stood up to dance with Jinatta when Agus appeared, sweeping her off her feet before Derian had a ghost of a chance.  Hoping to sneak a break herself, Eena headed for the empty seat beside her protector.  To her surprise, he hustled over to meet her on the floor. 
“May I have this dance?” he asked. 
“Yes, of course.”  She would have given him anything. 
The feel of his fingers weaving between her own sent a rush of warmth through her body that made her squeeze tightly on his hand. 
Ian held her close as they swayed to a slower tune.  It was more pleasurable dancing with him than the others.  Not just because of Eena’s feelings for him, but because his moves matched perfectly with her small, easy steps.
“You look like you’re enjoying yourself,” Ian whispered in her ear.
“I am now.”
“Don’t do that,” he warned.
“I can’t help it.”
Eena bit her tongue, wanting to express so much more of how she felt but fearing it would only make him turn and leave.  The way her heart beat against him as fiercely as the pattering of a thunderstorm, he would have to be dead not to sense how her body gave her away. 
They danced silently, every worry and unpleasantness fading as their forms swayed as one.  She prayed Shanks would forget how to finish the ballad so they could go on endlessly floating in each other’s arms.  But much too soon, the final chord dwindled into silence. 
“Thank you,” Ian said, letting his arms fall.
“One more,” Eena begged.  “Please?”  She placed his hand on her shoulder, hoping he would leave it there.  “Everyone is dancing at least two numbers together.”  And it was true.  Jinatta remained under Agus’ hold as well.  Eena noticed Marguay and Leisha waiting on their third dance.  “Won’t Leisha dance with the Viiduns?” she asked.
“Oh, yes, eventually,” Ian said.  “Marguay gets a little jealous.  He’ll keep her to himself most of the evening.”
“Marguay?”  Eena had never pictured them as a couple.
“They’re promised to marry,” Ian explained, “but they refuse to wed until the war is over.  They believe families aren’t safe under these hostile circumstances.  Unfortunately, they’ve both suffered great losses.  They made a vow to put off their marriage until peace is established again in Harrowbeth.  That’s one reason they both insisted on being part of the team sent to rescue you from Earth.  You’re a symbol of hope to them.  Hope that circumstances will finally improve.”
Eena was shocked.  “I had no idea.  They look good together.  They seem happy.”
“They’ve been together since childhood.”
“Amazing.”  So this is what a Harrowbethian promise was meant to be.  Maybe in some cases it did work out. 
Shanks strummed a deep vibrating chord that echoed in the hall, beginning a song more up-tempo than the last.  Ian and Eena ignored the faster time and continued to sway slowly in each other’s arms.
“Derian and Jinatta make a good couple too,” she said, voicing her earlier observations.
Ian immediately disagreed.  “No, no, no, those two are just friends.”  A look of concern crossed his face as he glanced over at the captain and Jinatta.
“Oh please,” Eena groaned.  “I can see it clearly.  Watch them.  Their eyes spark up whenever they look at each other.  Derian’s always touching her; he doesn’t touch anyone else like that.  And Jinatta, she flirts with him.  Not a lot, but enough.”
Ian stopped dancing and took Eena by the shoulders, making sure he had her full attention.  “They’re friends.  Just friends.  I guarantee it.”
Her head inclined slightly, pondering Ian’s insistence.  “In other words, they can’t be together?  Is that what you’re saying?  I thought Jinatta wasn’t promised to anyone?”  Then she remembered, “Oh, right—but Derian is.  To whom is he promised?”
“A woman he hasn’t seen in a long, long time.”  Ian took the hand of his dance partner and moved her side to side, barely shifting to the music.
“Then his situation is like yours and Angelle’s?”
Ian nodded.  “Something like that.”
“So sad.  He waits for a stranger he doesn’t know, someone he may not even care for, while a perfectly wonderful woman who obviously has feelings for him gets pushed aside.”  A deep frown of disapproval formed on her lips.
“He made a commitment, Eena.”
“And you believe this commitment,” she spoke the word detestably, “is more important than love?”
“No,” she stubbornly disagreed.
“Yes,” Ian insisted putting his finger to her lips to prevent further argument.  “Love grows and wanes.  But honor, duty, and commitment, those things are constant and stable.  They define who you are.”
“They define who you are?” she repeated.  “You mean miserable.”
“Content,” he retorted.
“Lonely,” she argued.
“Faithful,” he insisted, his eyes widening to emphasize the importance of the word.
“Empty, regretful, and…”
“Hopeful,” Ian whispered in her ear. 
This word caught her off guard.  At present, hope was all any of them could cling to. 
She sighed heavily, not wanting to spar with him further.   Her eyes naturally wandered to the captain, and she watched him as he watched Jinatta laughing in Agus’ bulky arms.  Then the captain’s attention shifted to his queen.  For a moment their eyes locked in an expressionless gaze.
Looking away, she muttered to Ian, “I’ll never get used to this.  If they were on Earth they would be together.  It would be their choice, no one else’s.”
“But we’re not from Earth,” Ian reminded her.
“I am, and don’t tell me otherwise,” she warned.  “Things would work out as they should if only…”
“Eena,” Ian interrupted, “things will work out as they should.  You just don’t know it yet.”
They danced without talking through the remainder of the song.  At its end, Ian went to sit and talk with the captain, but Eena was quickly snatched up in Viidun arms, partnered for another dance.  There wouldn’t be much rest for her. 
Shanks set aside his instrument, ready for a chance to spin a lovely lady around the dance floor.  Efren took over the abandoned strings and went to work plucking at them like a bass guitar.  Agus blew on his pipes again, and Marguay dared to join in using two inverted containers as drums.  The trio played an upbeat, spicy rhythm.
Shanks was lucky enough to pair up with Leisha, Heth snagged Eena, and Jinatta joined with Jerin.  The three couples danced altogether in a fashion resembling a square dance, where partners switched frequently and the same moves were repeated over and over again.  Everyone whooped and hollered, laughing nonstop.  It took Eena a while to catch on, but she was a quick study. 
The majority of the evening transpired in this way—people dancing, switching partners frequently, as the men took turns quenching their thirst.  The women, being the minority, had to fight for a break if they truly wanted one. 
Late into the night, Derian and Jinatta matched up for a slow number.  Eena dared to rush from the floor for a rest but noticed Efren on her tail.  She quickly grabbed onto Ian and begged him to dance with her.  Her pursuer feigned a broken heart over his loss, giving a very believable performance of a grief-stricken Viidun dying right there at her feet, hands clutching at his chest.  Eena couldn’t stop laughing at his theatrics.  When Ian walked her out to the dance floor past Efren’s sprawled-out body, she leaned low to whisper, “Better luck next time.”  The Viidun winked, a good sport, and then jumped up to stroll back to his bottomless mug. 
Only the two couples danced.  Leisha and Marguay had retired to a sofa where they were reclining in each other’s arms.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you laugh this much,” Ian said.
Eena smiled and nodded in agreement.  “The Viiduns do know how to have a good time.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“I’m glad I was able to do this.  It’s like the school dance I missed out on.  Probably better.”  She laid her head on Ian’s shoulder, imagining them surrounded by a roomful of high school peers.  The thought was contenting.
Her attention drifted to the other couple on the floor, and she found herself staring unintentionally.  It bothered her that Derian and Jinatta were prevented from being together the way she was sure they wanted to be.  Their plight was lamentable and unfair.  This thought naturally progressed to her own situation, and it hit her that this dance was as close as both couples on the floor were ever allowed to be due to promises made years ago without say or consent from the hearts involved. 
Her expression turned sour contemplating their predicament.  When she snapped out of her thoughts, she noticed Derian staring at her in return.  Embarrassed, she quickly looked away.  A somber sigh crossed her lips.  How strangely similar and heartbreaking their circumstances were, like a classic Shakespearian tragedy.  She glimpsed again at Derian whose countenance had altered from what it was a moment ago.  The captain’s features were hard; the doctor seemed unwilling to look at him.  For an instant, Jinatta flickered a glance at the young queen.  Eena smiled, but received no kindness in return.  She buried her face in Ian’s shoulder, sorry for having apparently interrupted something personal.
The song ended, and Eena walked off the floor attached to her protector’s arm.  She dared take a seat beside him, hoping for a break.  Her feet felt as heavy as bricks and her throat as parched as a hollow cactus.  She noticed the captain headed her way.  At his back, Jinatta was holding up her long skirt, rushing from the room. 
“Derian, my friend!”  All eyes shifted to Shanks as he spoke aloud.  “I’ve seen every couple pair up tonight, except one.  You haven’t danced with your princess yet.  I’d say it’s your turn now.”
The captain smiled, a noticeably forced expression.  He turned to Eena and offered his hand, kindly requesting a dance.  It wasn’t hard to catch a note of despondency in his voice.
Her hesitance to accept seemed irrational, but there were reasons she had avoided him as a dance partner.  For one, the two disagreed on matters at nearly every encounter.  Plus, she knew he was unhappy with her daring request of the Viiduns to rescue her friends from Hrenngen.  And now, she felt very sure he would rather be holding Jinatta in his arms than anyone.   
Eena accepted his request, ignoring every good reason to refuse him.  Embarrassing Derian in front of Shanks would undoubtedly prove far worse.
The Viidun brothers started up another slow number as the couple walked to the middle of the room.  They were the only two dancing.  Derian behaved as a perfect gentleman, holding Eena far enough away that Jinatta could easily have slipped in between. 
 Curiosity ate at her until she finally had to ask, “Is Jinatta okay?”
“Yes.”  A curt, one-word reply.
Eena pressed him for more.  “Why did she leave so suddenly?”
“She has work to do.”
“But she always has work to do.”
Derian put an end to the conversation by pulling his dance partner to his chest.  A moment later, Eena noticed Leisha leaving the room unaccompanied.
“It’s getting late,” she said.
“Yes, it is,” Derian agreed.
She was glad when the music ended.  Their closeness had felt awkward.
Once again Eena was the only lady in the room.  Much to her relief, no one seemed interested in dancing anymore. 
She sauntered over to where Shanks strummed on his instrument and dropped to her knees on a pile of thick pillows beside him.  It was impressive watching his fingers shift through memorized positions on the strings, creating a new perfect sound with each touch.  Agus blew on his pipes, and Eena observed how he repositioned his fingers just as expertly along hollow tubes, covering and releasing the right holes to remain harmonious with Shanks’ strumming. 
Relaxing against the pile of pillows, Eena let her eyelids fall closed.  She followed the sweet melody with her ears, picturing ice skaters cutting swirls in the frozen surface of a lake until the song came to an end.  Then her eyes opened to look up at the musicians.
“You’re both very talented.”
Shanks grinned.  He set his instrument aside, as did Agus.
“How did you learn to play so well?”
The brothers shared a laugh, partners in a distant memory.  They answered the question in unison.  “Mom!”
Agus explained, “Mom wouldn’t let us do a thing ’til we practiced our music every solitary horn-blowin’ day.  She was bent on shovin’ some talent down our throats whether nature was gonna gift us any or not!  ‘Course, it’s paid off.”  Agus patted his pipes and left to refill an empty mug. 
Eena remained seated beside Shanks, both watching the others finish their drinks and exchange adieus.  Derian spoke to Jerin and Marguay before they headed out.  Eena assumed the discussion was ship-related when the two chimed “yes, sir” at the captain’s finish.  They made their way over to bid their queen goodnight, bowing and chiming “Sha Eena” before leaving.
“I’ll never get used to that,” she sighed, watching the two men disappear into the corridor.
Shanks gave her a solid pat on the back.  “You’ve earned the honor, I’m sure.”
They sat in silence for a little longer, neither one energetic enough to move.  Shanks noticed when Eena couldn’t stifle a sizable yawn. 
“You look tired, Princess.  You better let Derian take you to bed.”
She smiled at the truth.  “I am tired, but staying up tonight was well worth it.”
“You’re a mighty fine dance partner,” Shanks complimented her.  “A mighty fine woman indeed.” 
Eena blushed at the flattery.
Shanks amended his sweet talk, leaning forward for only her to hear.  “And if Derian wasn’t beddin’ you, you can bet one hot night in Tartarus I would be.”
She was shocked by his audacity.  Reacting more from instinct than anything, she smacked him across the cheek. 
Shanks rose in one abrupt move, glaring down at her.  She stood up as well, the two facing off like mismatched predators.
“How dare you speak to me that way; you owe me an apology!” 
“For what?” Shanks bellowed, still in shock at being struck.
“For the insult!”
The entire room was fast aware of the exchange, Derian the first to respond.  He started for Eena when Heth grabbed his arm, halting his progress.  Derian tugged against the Viidun’s hold as he called out across the floor, “Eena, back down right now!”
Ian too was on his way to assist her when Agus took him firmly by the shoulder and whispered, “It ain’t your fight.  Stay out of it.”
“But she didn’t mean anything,” Ian insisted.  “She doesn’t know what she’s doing!”  Agus wouldn’t let him go.
Unable to break free of Heth’s grip, Derian hollered again, desperation intensifying his tone.  “Eena, back down now!  Apologize and step away!”
She looked at her captain, twisting up her features.  His request didn’t seem fair.  Shanks was the bully, not her!  It wasn’t right that he could get away with saying or doing anything he wanted simply because he was bigger and scarier than everyone else.  It seemed he should have to account for his behavior like any other respectable man.
“He owes me an apology!”    
But Derian didn’t care.  “Eena, back down!  Do it!” he ordered.
Her angry gaze returned to Shanks.  Her jaw clenched as she thought of how wrong it felt for her to have to yield.  But no one cared how she felt.  No one ever cared how she felt.
“You don’t wanna back down, do ya?”  Shanks questioned her with an odd glint in his eye.  “Well then……..I accept your challenge.”
Her mouth dropped open, suddenly understanding the strong reactions. 
“Wait!  No, wait!  I never challenged you!  I never meant to…”
“You deny slappin’ me?”  He dared her to refute her actions.
“No, but……okay, I back down then, alright?”
Shanks laughed aloud, nearly cackling in wicked amusement.  “Too late, Princess.”  He reached for his sword on the edge of the table and withdrew it deliberately slow from its sheath.  A razor-sharp blade gleamed in the candlelight. 
Eena gasped.
“Shanks, please,” Derian begged.  “You know she didn’t mean it.  She told you she’d back down.  Please, she can’t fight!”  The fear in his voice scared the young queen.  Her heart thrummed like a hummingbird.
“I think she can,” Shanks disagreed with a roguish grin.  “Can’t you, Princess?”
“No!  No, no, no, I can’t!  Are you crazy?”  Her voice mimicked her captain’s panic.  “I back down!  I didn’t know what I was doing!  Honest!  I’m sorry!”
“You’ll need a weapon,” Shanks went on, ignoring her plea.  He glanced at his men.  “Ef, give her your sword!”
Efren hesitated.  “Come on, Shanks, she’s their queen.”
“Efren, your sword!” Shanks growled impatiently.
With some reluctance, he did as his captain ordered.  Pulling a long blade from its sheath, Efren offered it to Eena.  She refused to touch it.
“I won’t fight you,” she said, trembling noticeably.  Efren placed the sword at her feet and walked away.
“Fight or die,” Shanks decreed.  He brandished his blade and took one swipe at the air above her head. 
NO!” Derian screamed.  He nearly yanked free of Heth’s grasp.  Efren joined his crewman in detaining the man, knowing his physical involvement would make for a worse situation.
Eena, meanwhile, learned to duck, realizing her rival was deadly serious. 
Ian’s face turned white as soon as he saw the Viidun attack.  He turned to Agus, desperate.  “Do something!  He’s your brother, for criminy’s sake, make him stop!”
Agus wrinkled his brow, but wouldn’t budge.  “I don’t think he’ll hurt her if she can manage to stay out of his way for a while.”
“That’s not comforting, Agus!”
The young queen had no desire to fight.  She avoided another blow and tried to run away, but Shanks was fast and kept on her tail. 
“Fight, woman!” he demanded.  “Do you wanna die?”
Unable to shake him, she ended out backed against a wall, pleading for her life.
“Please, please, I can’t fight!  I wouldn’t stand a chance against you!”
Her opponent’s violet eyes burned wild with hunger—the lion set to pounce on the frightened lamb.  No sign of sympathy existed in his face or form.  His sword rose and swung down heavily.  It hit with a loud clang, but not like anyone expected.  The blade stopped short of Eena’s shoulder, her hands held up in a halting gesture beneath it.  The necklace was shining, activated to create a force field that reverberated on contact with Shank’s sword.  Eena gestured with her hands as if shoving the danger away.  Her attacker flew backwards.  He landed hard in the middle of the floor.  
Everyone gasped.
Derian cried out her name. 
She glanced over at him with big, scared eyes and begged for help.  “What do I do?”
“Stay out of this, Derian!” Shanks growled.  The Viidun looked even hungrier than a second ago, killer instincts pumping through his veins.
Eena panicked.  There were powers available to her, yes, but she had never actually fought anyone before.  Never!  Not even an innocent thumping on the neighbor kid back in school.  She was the peacemaker—the shy, patient, accommodating one.  Inexperience was her enemy, along with a heightened anxiety that impaired her ability to think straight.  Her heart hammered so loudly in her chest, she feared Shanks could hear every terrified beat. 
Trying to focus on the threat, she watched her rival rise from the floor, towering as prideful as Goliath.  His sword climbed in the air, prepared to strike at the undersized yet deceptively-able enemy before him.  Eena’s fear multiplied. 
“Shanks!” she shrieked, pleading again.  “Please, please, I can’t fight!  I…I don’t want to!  I give up!  I surrender!  You win!”  She didn’t budge from her spot against the wall, but cowered there as he approached, his footsteps cautious. 
“Fight or die,” he repeated.  “You choose.” 
It was evident her little stunt had upset him, but what had he expected her to do?  Had he thought she would stand there and let him run her through?  She glanced again at Derian, hoping for a helpful sign, but he and Ian merely stared back with looks of alarm.  If she did manage to survive this, she was certain a mountain of scolding was in store. 
“Oh crud, oh crud, oh crud,” she muttered, brainstorming for options.
Her fist balled up as she determined to show no more fear.  It would take strength of mind to get through this.  Shanks was nearly upon her again.  Their eyes met before she shifted focus.  In a sudden sprint, Eena ran toward the onlookers, positioning herself behind them.  Derian almost appeared relieved, like she had finally done something smart. 
“Stay behind us,” he told her, but the Viiduns didn’t allow it for long.  Agus shoved Ian against the wall.  Heth did the same with Derian, suffering a little more trouble trying to pin him.  Efren stood alone, guarding Eena.
“Come on, Shanks,” Efren dared to protest, “the girl’s terrified.”
“She oughta be.  Move aside, Ef.” 
“They ain’t likely to forgive the lot of us if you hurt her.”
Shanks smirked as if he didn’t care.  “Then she shouldn’t’ve challenged me.  Now move it!”
Efren sighed heavily, but ultimately he backed against the wall, leaving Eena vulnerable again.  She spotted Efren’s sword on the floor in the background and called for it, utilizing the necklace.  Like a magnet to steel it flew through the air into her waiting hands.  The blade was heavier than anticipated.
Shanks laughed heartily.  “Ahh ha, yes!  Now that’s better!”
He swung once, steel hitting steel.  An undulating clang permeated the hall.  Eena groaned at the weight of her sword, barely able to keep it upright.  This was absurd!
Shanks swung again, low and swift.  Eena barred down, stopping his progress.  This time she used the necklace to help her bare the weight of the weapon.  It helped.  A fairly constant glow lit her chin from then on.
Eena ducked a third high swing at her head.  It was the easiest thing to do, but she failed to anticipate an immediate strike at her side.  Shanks didn’t hesitate lunging forward after coming back around. 
The blade sliced easily through her flesh, and Eena screamed out in agony.  Her sword hit the ground as she grabbed at her side.  Warm liquid oozed between her fingers.  Shanks stepped back, retreating as the wounded girl checked her injury, staring at the blood in disbelief.  The cut burned like a searing iron pressed to her skin, much worse than she ever imagined.  Falling to her knees, she pushed hard against her torso to suppress the bleeding and the pain.  Tears blurred her vision as she looked up incredulously at Shanks. 
Ian and Derian both fought to free themselves from their Viidun guards. 
“Eena!” they shouted, “Eena!  How bad is it?”
She could hear them call out her name, but her eyes didn’t dare veer from the colossal foe who had proven a will to do harm.  She wouldn’t be unprepared when he made his next move.  Her lips quivered, drawing in shallow breaths, feeling every painful inhale.  The light from the necklace intensified, and still her focus remained fixed.  He didn’t budge but stood like a gargoyle cut from stone, staring forward, watching her every move.  Within the passing of moments, her breathing came easier.  When the burning ceased, she let her hands fall from her side.  Through the slit in her blood-stained dress everyone could see the stab wound had vanished, mended without the slightest scar. 
Shanks jaw hit the ground along with his sword.  “What sorcery is this?” he cried.  “You can heal your own injuries?” 
Eena offered no explanation.  In those painful few moments, she negotiated a range of emotions, from fear of dying to raw insult, intensifying from that point as if the molecules in her bosom were heating and churning, forming a fiery tempest of anger.  But anger seemed too mild a reaction to one who had made an attempt on her life.  The internal firestorm increased, thrashing about until she felt herself driven by nothing short of vengeance.  Thoughts of retribution swirled in her head—justifiable retaliation against a big, arrogant, contemptible bully.  If Shanks wouldn’t allow her to back down, then by all means she would do the exact opposite.  He wanted a challenge, did he?  Then she would give him one serious challenge!
There was hatred in her eyes as she pushed herself up from the floor and called Efren’s sword to her waiting fingers.  Shanks recognized a warrior’s glare and answered it with a devious grin.  He stood ready.  Fueled by the desire to teach this Viidun a lesson, Eena went on the attack. 
Efren’s sword cut through the air, not appearing as it normally did but radiating an eerie, white light.  Eena swung the weapon with force beyond her own, her hand made mighty by powers wielded from the necklace.  Shanks withstood her blows, retreating bit by bit, step by step, until he found himself shadowing a cluster of chairs.  Eena extended her arm and then pulled it forcefully home.  The chair behind Shanks scooted forward, banging into the back of his knees and knocking him into the seat.  He was startled, but kept a tight hold on his weapon.  Before he could rise, however, Eena held up her hand again, spreading her fingers above him.  He cried out in pain, hastily releasing his blade.  A strange smoke trailed from the handle.  Shanks covered his wounded hand, the sting of seared flesh on his palm.  It was his turn now to look at his foe with incredulous eyes. 
She didn’t stop there.  He was finally vulnerable.  Fueled by rage, Eena lifted her sword and moved in to strike. 
“Eena, no!” 
Derian’s frantic cry hit her ears.  It was enough distraction for a second of hesitation.  Shanks took advantage of it, sweeping her feet out from under her.  She fell backwards, hard.  The Viidun captain ran off cradling his burned hand. 
“Derian!” Eena hollered angrily.  She glared in his direction, irate at his interference.  But his worried expression worked to allay her fury.  She watched his head shake back and forth as he mouthed the word no.
What was she thinking? 
She had succumbed to a fierce temper, one she never imagined possessing.  Her intent had not been to kill Shanks, but she would have wounded him.  Badly.  Repaid one injury for another.  Her neck twisted to focus on her Viidun foe.  He was wrapping cloth strips around his hand, protecting it from being seared again by a heated sword.
Clever, she thought.
The bout had left her exhausted.  The necklace needed Eena’s energy to work, and a significant measure had been drained fueling her raged attack on Shanks.  Efren’s sword clanked with a short echo when it dropped from her hand to the floor.  It would require too much to keep calling on the necklace for the strength to wield such a heavy and difficult weapon.  She would have to rely on her wits now. 
Derian’s warning was a reminder that this challenge couldn’t end soundly if she defeated Shanks.  He was a proud Viidun.  Defeat at the hands of a woman would bring disgrace far worse than any Deramptium beating.  This particular Viidun might even fight to the death to save his honor. 
Eena knew two things about the man.  First, he was good friends with Derian, even willing to join in his personal battles.  Second, he had come all this way to assist in her rescue.  Surely, he wouldn’t kill her after that. 
There was only one way this fight could end.  It would put her life at risk, a chance she would have to take. 
Eena stood her ground as Shanks approached again, his sword drawn and ready.  He held nothing back in his attack.  She shielded herself with a force field, grunting at the power behind his swing.  He lunged at her, and she side-stepped the blow.  Shanks sliced through the air, and she ducked, losing her balance and tumbling to the floor.  She scrambled to her feet, breathing heavily, her energy waning.  Shanks perceived it and smiled knowingly. 
“You’re growin’ tired.  I’ve found your weakness, Princess.  If I keep it up, you’ll exhaust yourself and your powers will be useless.  I’ll win.”
Eena didn’t say a word but prepared for another strike.
Shanks swung his sword again and again and again.  They were hard, direct blows.  She withstood each one with an invisible shield; it was clear every blow weakened her.  Worried for their queen, Derian and Ian begged once again for Shanks to stop his madness.
“Shanks, listen to me please,” Derian pleaded.  “She’s tiring.  She won’t have enough energy to heal herself if you wound her again.  Please, stop this!”
The Viidun captain didn’t let up.
Ian tried his hand.  “Shanks, you’ve won already!  You’re victor, we all agree.  This isn’t worth it, Shanks, we need her alive!”
Still no ceding. 
Eena kept her focus on the sharp blade that incessantly threatened her.  It seemed unfair that her strength continued to wilt while her rival remained as energetic and powerful as at the first swing of his sword.  Even if she did survive this, how could she confront another foe knowing she would face the same scenario? 
There was only one thing left to do.  Surrender, trusting Shanks would let her live. 
Just as she made the decision to fall at her rival’s feet, Derian somehow managed to escape the clutches of his Viidun guards.  He tore after his queen, determined to step in between both fighters.  Seeing this bold move and knowing his interference would only make matters worse, Eena turned her attention onto Derian.  She stopped his advance with a slight shove backwards.  Heth and Efren fell on him immediately.  Unfortunately, this distraction left Eena vulnerable.  Shanks took complete advantage of her error.
He approached swiftly, grabbing her by the neck, setting his sword at her throat. 
“You never ever turn your back on an enemy, Princess.  Tell me, are you ready to die today?”
Eena froze, understanding that his blade threatened to end her life the same way her mother’s had ended.  “If you do this, you won’t be killing me but an entire world.  Are you prepared for that much death?”
Shanks chuckled at her desperation to live.  He whispered in her ear, “I know your other weakness now.”
“And what’s that?” she asked, swallowing hard against his blade.
“Compassion.  You should’ve worried more about your own safety than his.”
She could feel the man’s nose brush against her ear as he spoke.  His lips grazed her skin, but the grip on her neck was too tight to shrink away from his touch.
“You know, Princess, you oughta think twice before challengin’ a Viidun again.”
“I told you before, that was not my intention.” 
“What was your intention?” Shanks asked, still whisper-close to her ear.  She could feel his breath warm on her neck. 
She dared to insist, “You insulted me, and you still owe me an apology.”
He grabbed a handful of her red hair, lowering his sword at the same time.  Eena grimaced, making a protesting sound as he pulled her backwards.  Then his lips covered hers, tasting the sweetness of a long, stolen victory kiss.  Derian and Ian could hardly be constrained. 
When his lips moved away, he kept his hold on her hair and spoke so only she could hear.  “I will never apologize for wanting you.  Where I come from, that is no insult.”  Then he let her go. 
It was over. 
Shanks was satisfied he had won.  Agus, Heth, and Efren let their captives loose as well. 
Derian marched directly to Eena and without a word led her out of the room.  Ian attempted to follow until the captain curtly ordered, “Stay here.”  Reluctantly, Ian obeyed.
The silence was agonizing all the way to Derian’s quarters.  Eena never looked at him, knowing full well she would be met with angry, accusing eyes.  She wished he would yell at her and get it over with, certain no possibility existed of this one getting by without a hot lecture. 
By the time the front door slammed closed behind them, Eena had already rehearsed a handful of probable arguments.  Hoping to avoid a confrontation altogether, she headed for the bedroom.  Derian spoke up before she rounded the sofa.
“You are lucky to be alive,” he said, his voice stern and stiff.  She could hear the anger tightly restrained.
She froze in her tracks but didn’t turn to face him.
“Why can’t you just follow orders?” he asked.  Each word came out terse and exasperated.
Still she said nothing.
“Eena, is it really so difficult to simply do as you’re told?  Is it?”
“Turn around!” he finally yelled, his fury escaping at that point.
She whirled around and looked into his face for the first time since the ordeal.  It wasn’t a friendly sight.
His feet began pacing the floor as he pinched his brow to stop the throbbing in his head.  Eena could imagine fumes steaming from his ears as the blood boiled in his veins.  He looked like a tea kettle ready to whistle. 
“I’m sorry,” she uttered. 
Derian stopped abruptly and gawked at her.  “You’re sorry?” he repeated harshly.  “Has it even sunk in what you did tonight?”
“Yes,” she said, still speaking in a small voice.  “I created an acceptable end to what could have been a disaster.”
“Why didn’t you just back down when I told you to?  We could’ve avoided all of this!” 
“I’m sorry.  I didn’t understand…”
Derian cut in, exposing his hot temper.  “That’s exactly it!  You don’t understand!  You don’t get it!  You always think you know better, but you don’t!  If you’d just do as you’re told…”
“I’m not a child, Derian, you can’t tell me what to do all the time!”  Her voice rose defensively, daring to match his angry tone. 
I am the captain of this ship and yes, I can tell you what to do!  You will follow orders, Eena!”
“Make me,” she childishly challenged.
He threw his hands in the air, frustrated beyond measure.  “For crying in the wretched night!” he growled.  “Just.  Stay.  Here.  You can’t possibly get into trouble here, can you?”  His tight stare dared her to cause any more problems than she already had since leaving Earth.
She threw up her hands exactly as he had and started for the exit.  “I don’t need this!  You can’t make me stay; I’m not your prisoner!”
“Oh yes I can!”  Derian put himself directly in her escape path.  Eena stopped three feet in front of him.  Both glowered angrily at one another.  She raised her palm toward him and the necklace kindled.  Derian responded by pulling from his pocket the remote he had swiped from Gemdorin, the one that controlled her previous invisible prison.  He pointed it at her.  She recognized the item immediately, and her eyes grew wide.
“You wouldn’t dare!”
They faced off for a long time, neither one making a move but watching the other closely.  Finally, Derian gave in.  He threw the device into the couch, exasperated beyond measure.  He didn’t wish to be like his brother, to make Eena a prisoner, but he was growing more convinced that keeping her safe was an impossible mission.  She was impossible!
At the height of frustration he exclaimed, “How the hell can you possibly be your mother’s daughter?” 
The transformation on Eena’s face was unmistakable—her anger erased by a piercing hurt.  Derian instantly regretted his remark.
“I’m sorry.  I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.”  They were both silent for a few seconds. Then Derian almost begged her, “Please, Eena, please will you just stay here?  Stay away from the Viiduns for now, please.”
“Fine,” she mumbled. 
“Thank you,” he sighed, and then he left the room.
Eena combed her fingers through her hair, feeling both sore and discouraged.  She whined to Yaka whose big eyes peered out from behind the far side of the couch.  Sensing the tension in their argument, the animal had wisely kept his distance.  Now, however, he dared show himself.
“How was I supposed to know, Yaka?” she asked.  “No one warned me.  I didn’t do anything I wouldn’t have done on Earth, and believe me, the worst thing that would have happened there is I’d have been slapped right back—not run through with a sword!  How could I have known that was even a remote possibility?  But it’s still my fault because I didn’t listen to Derian….ugh!” 
She began to pace, venting on the poor animal.  “But who listens to me, huh?  No one, that’s who.  Certainly not Derian or his crummy brother, Gemdorin.  Not Ian or Jinatta or Leisha or Kira!  Not that heartless Dr. Braxton, nor those brainless Ghengats, and definitely not those overgrown, self-centered Viiduns!”  She finally exploded.  “Not a single lousy, ornery, maddening creature in this entire stupid galaxy listens to me!  Nobody listens to me!” 
She sucked in a deep breath to replace all the oxygen spent on her shrill outburst.  Yaka had retreated to the bedroom by this time.  It was a shocking relief to scream out loud with no one around to tell her to stop, but the satisfaction didn’t last for more than a moment.  She sighed, realizing this was the second time she had lost her temper.  Such an occurrence was out of character for her. 
“Oh crud, what am I doing?” she groaned.
Her lashes lowered and she breathed slowly in and out, trying to calm her nerves.  When she opened her eyes, they landed on the discarded item in the corner of the couch, right where Derian had tossed it.  Gemdorin’s remote.  She stepped over to retrieve it, recalling what Shanks had said about her weaknesses.  Exhaustion and compassion were two things that could be used to defeat her.  This fluctuating force field was the third. 
Eena slipped it into her pocket and then sought out Yaka in the back room.  He was lying on the far side of the bed, keeping at a safe distance.  She rounded the corner and smiled weakly down at him.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized.  “How rude of me to scream like that.  But your master is hands-down the most frustrating man I’ve ever met.  I don’t know why I let him get to me.”
She knelt on the floor.  Yaka rose onto his front paws at first, but when she warned him to “be good,” he settled in beside her.  She rested against the bed, pulling both knees to her chest.  Her fingers scratched tenderly behind Yaka’s ears, and he immediately forgave her. 
“I really didn’t mean to cause any trouble,” she sighed morosely.  “I didn’t realize I was challenging anyone.  It just seemed unfair to be ordered to back down from a bully.  I know, I know, I should just give in and do what the captain says.  Who needs to think when I’ve got him to do that for me, right?”  She actually laughed at herself. 
“You would have been impressed with me tonight, Yaka, even if no one else was.  I’ve never been in a physical fight before, yet I didn’t fair so badly.  Oh, I surely would’ve been killed without this necklace, but putting these powers to use isn’t as easy as you’d think.  Trying to react on the spot with no time to consider your next move……it’s very tricky.”  She pictured the fight in her mind—how it ended—and a sly grin inched up one side of her face. 
“I won, Yaka.  No one knows it but you and me.  Everyone thinks Shanks was the victor because I made it appear that way.  Derian doesn’t even know he did me a favor.  I used his distraction and gave that arrogant Viidun an opportunity to catch me off-guard.  I let him capture me to save his Viidun pride.  Very clever, even if I do say so myself.” 
She winked at Yaka who stared at her like he was taking in every word. 
“Do you want to know the scary truth?  Something strange happened to me tonight.”  The grin wilted from her lips as her mood darkened thinking about it. 
“I lost my temper.  I mean really lost my temper.  I never do that, Yaka, not like I did tonight.  But in that small space of time, I felt a wave of power like I’ve never felt before.  It was almost as if.….as if I, myself, became the necklace, possessing all of its strength, all of its ability.  I felt like I had complete control over everything, and I knew without a doubt I could kill Shanks in a heartbeat if I chose to.  I could’ve done it without touching him.” 
She shuddered at the thought and squeezed her knees tightly.
“Of course I had no desire to kill him,” she assured herself as much as her listener.  “I don’t want to hurt anyone…but……do you have any idea what it feels like to be so totally aware that you could do something like that?  To know with such confidence you could stop an enemy dead in his tracks?  I’ve never felt so strong and fearless before.” 
Consumed by these thoughts, she neglected to give any attention to the animal at her side.  Eventually, he whimpered and nudged her hand.  Her mood lightened again, and her fingers moved to comb through his fur.
“You know, part of me feels like I should be afraid, but strangely…..I’m actually relieved.  Don’t tell anyone, okay?  It’ll be our secret.  Besides, I don’t plan to ever get that angry again.”  She patted Yaka’s head as if it were a deciding handshake. 
“Shanks did deserve a good beating though, the bully.  I kind of wish I had……but no.  It was necessary for him to walk away the victor.  I did the right thing.  I’m sure I did.”  A heavy sigh sounded less than convinced.
Eena sat quietly, replaying the events in her head.  Her fingers ceased combing through Yaka’s long fur when an unnerving sense made her feel as if the eyes of a ghost had settled on her.  She twisted her neck to peer over the bed and found Derian standing in the doorway with a solemn look on his face.
“I haven’t gone anywhere,” she insisted before he could accuse her of more mischief.
“I know.”  His voice was quiet.  He didn’t act like the same man who, only moments ago, had severely berated her.  Eena watched him cross the room to her side of the bed where he took a seat on the mattress.  A weak smile tugged at each corner of his mouth for an instant.
“I see you finally made friends,” he said.
Eena shrugged.  “Yaka listens to me.  I can see why my mom liked having him around.”
An awkward stretch of silence elapsed as she scratched at the animal’s ears.  When the silence became difficult to bear, Eena asked, “Did you want something?”
“Yes,” Derian admitted.  He sighed resignedly before announcing, “I came back to apologize.”
Eena was sure she had heard him correctly, but could hardly believe he had actually said the words. 
“Look, Eena, after thinking it over I realize what happened this evening wasn’t your fault.  It was mine.  I never properly prepared you for the Viiduns.  Granted, I never would have foreseen you slapping one of them across the face, especially their captain out of all the crew you could possibly have chosen to pick a fight with…”
“And the apology comes in where exactly?” she cut in.
“Right.”  He cleared his throat.  She could hear the sincerity in his voice when he spoke again.  “I’m sorry for yelling at you, and especially for what I said about you being unlike your mother.  That was terribly cruel and an absolute lie.  Truth be told, you’re exactly like her……only ten times more pronounced.”  He attempted a chuckle. 
“I wouldn’t know,” she said.  “I’ll never know who she really was anyway.”
There was another long stretch of silence.
“I am sorry, Eena.  I hope you can accept my apology.”  The bed shifted as he stood up to leave.
“It’s alright,” she said before he could get away.
“Thank you.”
“Are the Viiduns very mad?”
“Uh….I haven’t gotten back to them yet,” Derian admitted.  “I should go now, before poor Ian gets eaten alive.”
“Where have you been all this time?” she asked, turning her curious eyes on him.
“In the corridor, scolding myself.  By the way—just so you know—Yaka tells me everything.”  He smiled, a hint of humor in the expression, and then he left the two new friends alone.
Eena looked down at the animal, semi-concerned.  “You don’t really, do you?”
Yaka didn’t answer but hopped up on the edge of the bed, settling into the warm spot where Derian had been sitting.
“You’re right,” she agreed.  “It is bedtime.” 
She slipped out of her dress before climbing beneath two layers of warm covers.  Yaka was already snoring at her feet. 
“Goodnight, Wanyaka.” 
As soon as her eyes closed, she drifted off to sleep hoping Ian would be there in her dreams.  All she wanted was to sit with her best friend and talk about nothing.  Or perhaps everything.  It really didn’t matter.

Copyright 2009 Richelle E. Goodrich



No comments:

Post a Comment