Elric stood from the threadbare chair, sending a cloud of dust through the air. “Yes? What is the news, Winston?”
His manservant coughed before answering. “The girls have arrived.”
Elric nodded, processing the information and what it meant. “Good.”
He straightened the deep blue claok covering his tunic and followed Winston out of the room, empty except for the chair and an equally downtrodden bed.
Had she come?
He shook his head, hoping to dislodge the thoughts assaulting him. He would find out soon enough.
A dark hallway with a faded purple rug running its length awaited him. He ignored the lackluster tapestries and the sad attempt at color they presented, intent to his purpose.
Winston waited for him at two double doors that reached for the ceiling. “My Prince, the decision you make right now will affect your life in who knows how many ways.”
Elric paused, inhaling the scent of the future. Mildew filled his nostrils. “I know.”
“Are you read?”
“As much as I can be.”
Winston bowed, giving his support as he always had. Without another word he pushed the door inward. It creaked on unpolished hinges, revealing those who waited inside.
Elric strode through, attempting to show more confidence then he felt. He slowed when he saw the expressions of the townspeople and a prick of guilt wormed its way inside of him. He shoved it aside, knowing he had to let go of such feelings until he found her. That was all that mattered right now.
“People of Redge,” he cringed inwardly at the cold tone of his voice. These were still the people he had grown to know over the last month, “I’m sure you are all wondering why I summoned your young women here on such short notice. The time is my own affair. I have but one question to put forth to you: is Anya, the daughter of Amos, among you?”
His query sat unanswered for several long moments. He straightened, afraid sweat was going to break out on his forehead and ruin his collected façade. He was about to try again, using a more threatening voice, when a heavy man he recognized as a local shopkeeper stepped forward.
“No. She is not among us.”
Another man, the resident fool stepped forward. “Ah, but sir, we have many other young ladies… might you take your pick of them, and let us be? Eh?”
Elric felt the thread of his authority being pulled apart, and he called for Winston to shut the doors. Recalling the cold voice he had used moments earlier, he hardened his face. “I will look at all of the girls.”
There were a couple of fearful murmurings, but the handful of girls from the village and surrounding miles organized themselves into a line, most staring at the floor.
That prick of guilt bit him again. They were afraid. He blinked. He didn’t want anyone to fear him. Fear was destructive.
He walked to the end of the line, inhaling to keep focus as he walked by each girl, studying each face.
A flash of honey colored hair caught his eye, and he held his breath, turning to find her. Two deep blue eyes filled with tears met his. She seemed to plead with him with her silent stare. She begged him not to choose her. He tried not to let the disappointment stabbing him show. He gave the girl a quick nod. “You may go.”
He watched as if seeing through another’s eyes as she ran to the rest of the villagers, throwing her arms around the shoulders of a young man. He turned away. It wasn’t her.
He walked past the rest of the other young women without much interest. The truth was hard to accept, but he knew. She wasn’t here. She was gone.
When he reached the end of the line, he cleared his throat, staring at the opposite wall in an attempt to avoid eye contact. “You may go. All of you.”
The villagers shuffled out, some casting curious eyes over their shoulders, some of the girls sending brazen smiles as if they expected he might accept the fool’s offer, and take one of them with him.
He turned away, lost in thought once again.
Honey hair, brown eyes. The thought of her smile sent a thrill through him. How could he have done such a thing? He clenched a fist. He would not make his mistake again.
“Sire.” Winston’s voice was careful, as if he thought Elric might grow angry.
He turned, giving his friend and aide a small smile. “Come. We must plan.”
He led Winston to a small, unused room. He had chosen it for the withered map that hung on the wall. Pulling it down, he spread it on a short table, mindful of thick layer of dust covering the wood.
“I must find her.”
“Sire, are you sure? What will your father think?”
Elric didn’t respond. What would his father think? He would deal with the answer later. He asked Winston for a pencil and set the lead against the old paper.
“Where do you think she would go?” Winston’s question jolted him into action. He created a line from Redge to the Savage Lands.
Winston gasped. “But sir! Surely she would not survive such a journey… to a horrible place like that. She’d have to pass through Snake Pass, and there are unknown dangers waiting.”
Elric held up a hand, silencing his friend. “She is stronger than you think.” He glanced around the small room. “Bring the map. I must speak with my father.”
~ a rambling author