Unfortunately, despite the diversion of the Eleayan armies, several Doleayan soldiers were dispatched to try and bring Catharine down. She looked back briefly, and twisting round, she shouted, “erelst drajeka kluien!” Three blinding balls of fire reached back towards them, and six of the seven riders behind her were knocked lifeless from their horses. The seventh rider pursued her for two days and two nights; neither of them stopped; not to eat, to drink, to sleep not even to rest their horses. By dawn on the third day, Catharine knew she was close to Serckrea. Suddenly, a Serckrean arrow hit the Doleayan soldier square in his chest, and he fell lifeless from his horse. Catharine dismounted, and as several Serckrean archers came forwards from behind trees and bushes, she raised her right hand, her left hand going behind her to hold Alexis’s reins. The archers quickly allowed her to enter Serckrea, and as soon as she dismounted in the palace courtyard, Keleya reached the top of the stairs. “Thank the gods you are here,” she said, as they met halfway up or down the stairs. “The Eleayan armies are very close to losing the war with Serckrea. They need Serckrean reinforcements. Now,” Catharine said, her military training taking over her daughter’s instinct to hug her mother for a sense of security and comfort. “Yes, the armies are already in the finishing stages of their preparations. But something has happened here,” Keleya said as they went up the stairs. She motioned to the staff that still lay horizontal in midair.
“Is that... the staff of Risekian?” Catharine asked; Risekian was one of the Five Gods; the most powerful Gods known and worshipped in Serckrea and Eleaya. “It is. The last time a war of this scale happened, I was granted the privilege of carrying the staff of Risekian into battle with me. But this time, it seems, the staff is meant for another’s hand,” Keleya said. Catharine looked from the staff to her mother, and said, “No... Me? But I’m not... I haven’t even come to the throne, yet!” Keleya replied, “Nevertheless, just try it. Please.” She then left, saying, “I’ll be waiting right outside here”. Catharine sighed, and hesitantly reaching out, her hand closed around the staff. Her eyes instantly snapped shut, as incomprehensible images flickered through her head at a terrifying speed: a jumbled torrent of faces, places, and finally, the clearest image yet: a sunset, resplendent in colours of deep red, golden orange and pink. And finally, a whisper of her name, in a voice she had never heard before, but seemed to know so well: “Catharine.” Catharine swayed, and opening her eyes, she gasped as she fell to her knees. She looked at her hand, which still held the staff up at the point where she had first touched it. Rising to her feet, she looked at the staff, and passing it to her other hand, she set the base on the ground, looking up at the moonstone. Keleya turned as Catharine pushed the door open.
She went down the steps without looking at her mother, and turning right, she went through a side door, and took the path she had taken after hearing of her father’s true identity, to Harold Eadrig’s grave. Once there, she stuck the end of the staff in the ground at the base of his grave and waited patiently. Soon, all sorts of creatures began to arrive: centaurs with bodies long and sleek, woodland elves that were unnaturally beautiful with eyes like amethysts. Pixies in human form, with their wings looking like gossamer cloth. And there were animals, creatures of the night: werewolves in human form, looking ragged and wild; vampires, hooded and cloaked with tawny, wary eyes. Once they had all gathered, and had fallen silent, Catharine began speaking. “I am Catharine, youngest daughter of Keleya, Queen of Serckrea. My people are under threat, as are the people of Alexander, son of Edward, King of Eladreaya. Desnekos, King of Doleatraya, intends to enslave all countries under his tyrannical reign. I need your help to make him see sense. I need your help to win this war alongside Eleaya. I am not seeking to cause any fractures between our peoples. I am seeking a temporary alliance, should you wish it. I would wish it could be a permanent alliance between all our peoples. But should Desnekos win, he will turn his attention to Serckrea. It will only be a matter of time from then until he turns his attention to culling all the centaurs, the woodland elves, the pixies, the vampire, the werewolves. And that is only if he cannot persuade them to join him, or persuade them to surrender.
“And should you surrender, he will curb your rights; your right to freedom, your right to speech, your very right to live.” Catharine’s voice only betrayed the truth as she continued, “But if you fight with me, and with the armies of Eleaya, I can guarantee that we will not take any of your rights away. You are still free to live in these forests, to do as you wish in these forests. I do not own these trees, or the ground they grow from. I do not intend to pass any laws governing your rights. I am a friend, and we have a common foe. Whether you like it or not, this is the call to come together, to fight with me, to strive with me for freedom in Eleaya, Serckrea, the woods, in our respective lands.” Silence then fell, and Catharine eventually began to feel uncomfortable. Suddenly, a centaur stepped forwards and drew his sword. Those who had come with him also drew their swords. “As long as your word is kept, then we shall honour our word to fight with you,” said the centaur. “Thank you, Astreus. Your help is much appreciated,” Catharine said. One of the werewolves stepped forwards, and his voice grated as he said, “our weapons are yours, and for as long as this war goes on, we shall follow you as our leader.” Catharine nodded once.
One by one, the vampires, the woodland elves and the pixies also offered their allegiance. At the end, Catharine said, “many thanks, my friends. We leave in two days, at sunrise. Join us at the entrance to Serckrea.” Simultaneously nodding once, the woodland creatures disappeared once more, and Catharine returned to Seleucia. Keleya was waiting for her where she had been standing as Catharine had left the palace. “Well?” she asked as Catharine stopped in front of her mother, staff in hand. “The people of the woods will fight with us,” Catharine replied. Keleya smiled, and said, “Well done, Catharine. Sit down with me”; she sat on the top step, and patted the stonework beside her. Catharine sat down hesitantly, resting the staff against her shoulder. “I don’t know if I ever told you this, but when you were born, you were privileged enough to receive a godfather,” Keleya said. “You did. I never knew his identity; you always said you would tell me once you thought I was ready,” Catharine agreed. Keleya said, “I now know you are ready to accept this: Risekian is your godfather.” Catharine stared at her mother, and Keleya explained, “After the war in which I was granted the privilege to carry his staff, Risekian came to forewarn me that I was carrying you, and granted me the honour of his being your godfather. I could hardly refuse him.” Catharine stood, carrying the staff and entering the palace, she did not stop despite her mother’s calls until she reached her room. “Catharine, he came here; told me about what happened between you and Alexander the night before you set out to return to Serckrea. He also told me what would come of it,” Keleya said.
Catharine fell motionless, still not facing her mother. Her free hand pressed gently against her stomach. Keleya said, “He did not confirm whether you were both in love with each other,” as she stepped forwards. Catharine’s eyes closed, and a tear slid free of her eyelids. Keleya’s hands slid over the shoulders of her daughter, and Catharine, opening her eyes, drew in a shuddering breath and said, “I can’t talk about this right now!” and stalked out onto her balcony. Resting the staff against the marble balcony railings, Catharine looked down at Seleucia, set out far below her. “Catharine, I know I may have been hasty before when I saw his interest in you, but I did not want you to get hurt,” Keleya said, joining her on the balcony. Catharine replied, “no offence, mother, but you’re hasty with everything when it comes to me.” Keleya replied, “Yes... I guess I have to agree with you there. But Cathy... do you love him as much as Risekian said he loves you?” Catharine was once again silent for a few moments. Taking a shallow breath in, she whispered, “He’s all I can think about. I feel like I’ll go insane without being by his side. It’s like I can’t breathe when he’s standing in front of me. I feel like I’m out of my element, like I’m somewhere where things aren’t done by the sword.
“I feel like I’m walking on broken glass or burning coals, even though I know I’ll get burnt or get hurt. Right now, my world’s moving in slow motion. I can only live to love him.” Keleya smiled briefly, and stepping up beside her daughter, she put her hand over Catharine’s, and said, “Then you have nothing to worry about.” The door opened, and Catharine, looking round, said, “Anna? What are you doing here?” Anna, who had entered the room, replied, “Lady Keleya invited me here before the war began, and my father decided it was for the best. Besides, I’m not alone: Sophia, Lucy and Laura are here as well.” Catharine grinned broadly, and Anna, looking Catharine over once, added, “you look terrible, Catharine.” Catharine laughed and replied, “Well, I have just got back from a war, Anna. I can’t really be blamed.” They laughed and Keleya said, “You should best get changed, Catharine, because Anna does have a very good point.” Catharine nodded, and Anna and Keleya left to wait outside. Catharine soon came out to join them, wearing a fresh, smoky grey tunic. All too soon, it was time for Catharine to return to the war against Serckrea. She couldn’t help but be eager to see Alexander again, and they set off at dawn. At the border of Serckrea, they were met by the centaurs, which were carrying the vampires on their backs, the werewolves, the woodland elves and the pixies. Catharine nodded to them, and they fell in behind the Serckrean troops. As they camped the first night, Astreus approached Catharine, a blanket in his hands. She stood apart from the armies, looking through a gap in the tree line slightly below them towards The Plains.
She shivered slightly, and Astreus, setting the blanket around her shoulders, said gently, “here, Lady.” Catharine looked to him as he did this, and said, “thank you, Astreus. How have things been in your world?” Astreus, looking to where Catharine had been looking, replied, “It has grown slightly larger than since you last spent time with us. Aelicia has given birth to two fine centaur boys. They are now some months old, and full of mischief. My eldest daughter is now married, as is Astros, my son.” Catharine, raising her eyebrows, said, “They’ve grown a lot, I hear. Boy, they were – what, only adolescents in human years when I last saw them?” Astreus replied, “Time passes fast when you have a child. You miss the days when they were young, running around and causing mischief.” Catharine replied, “My mother doesn’t. If anything, she’s glad I’m finally taking command of my life; she’s often thought aloud to me that I need to be in control more instead of allowing others to control me.” Astreus said, “I am sure she is just trying to help you to mature.” Catharine replied, “But there are some things she cannot help me with.” Astreus, having been watching her as she said this, looked towards The Plains and asked, “There is a man waiting for you there?” Catharine replied, “Hopefully. I have done what I can to keep him safe.”
Astreus said, “Then what are you doing here, leading an army of reinforcements to help him? Surely he would want you to remain in Serckrea?” Catharine replied, “I worry too much to let him face this alone. Besides, I was sent to Serckrea to return with reinforcements. It would be insane if I did not return.” Astreus said, “Well he is a lucky man to have your heart. If he ever makes an offer to you, and you decide to accept, he should know he is marrying a goddess.” Catharine replied, “I think he thinks that already. But whether it’s true... I don’t know.” Alexander woke. It had been now eight days since Catharine had left for Serckrea, and there was still no sign of her returning with reinforcements. He had not had a letter, not even a whisper of news, and he couldn’t help but worry. Catharine stopped the army as they came ever closer to The Plains, and said, “Give the command to prepare for battle. We ride in on the left of the Doleayan armies. Should King Edward of Eleaya give you the order to retreat, or should the Doleayan army surrender and King Edward gives commands, you follow his orders if I am not there. Once in the battle, give no quarter.” Astreus nodded, and rode back along the column of armies, shouting the commands out. Catharine dismounted from Alexis, and said, “Alexis, change to your true form. This is no time for pretences.” Alexis changed, and said, “That feels so much better”; he followed Catharine to a clearing. Pulling a small bag out of the saddlebags, Catharine knelt in the middle of the clearing, and flipped the bag open. In it was a shining and deadly array of daggers. Catharine removed her cloak; put it in a bundle on the ground.
Taking up two daggers, she slid them into notches hidden in her chain-mailed breastplate. Taking another two, she slid them down her boots so the handles stuck out, and then she slid two into sheathes buckled around her thighs and the Lycra like, black trousers she wore. Standing up, she picked up her cloak and shook the leaves out of it. It changed from plain black to a royal purple, with a dove and staff embroidered in bright colours on the back. Tying her hair up in a bun, Catharine took three tail feathers of a golden eagle from the bag, and turned as Astreus said, “mind if I may help you?” Catharine held out the tail feathers to him, and Astreus fixed them into position in her hair. The smallest feather curved with the contours of Catharine’s head. The largest stuck out to Catharine’s left, while the third stuck out in the opposite direction. Astreus then helped her put her cloak on, and stepping back, he said, “You look like the Queen of Serckrea herself, Catharine. Those Doleayan soldiers should be shaking in their armour.” Catharine replied, “I do hope not; Doleayan armour does make the most terrible noise when it’s shaking.” They laughed together; the laughter helped to ease their nerves. The soldiers began rapping their spears against their shields in respect of the good omen.
Catharine took the staff from where she had stuck it in the ground, and Astreus put the bag in Alexis’s saddlebag. Catharine remounted, and turning to the soldiers behind her, she was silent for a moment before speaking in what would be the greatest, yet simplest wartime speech in Serckrean history. “We are about to fight for something that should be important to every single man and woman here. And if it is not important to anyone here, then I do not know what you are doing here. But should you survive this war, I will be grateful to all of you for as long as I remember this. I am not going to sugar-coat the truth: many of you will die. But I am going to say my thanks to you now, so that you know this war, your recruitment, your putting your lives on the line was not in vain. Thank you for fighting for your country. Thank you for fighting alongside people you’ve never before met. Thank you for fighting against people you’ve never before seen in the flesh. We will win this. We will prove to Doleatraya that they made a mistake in trying to conquer the known world. Through the hours of training, the sweat off of the faces and backs of every man, every woman, every woodland creature here today, through the courage of every one here, who is willing to put his or her life on the line for Eleaya. Today, I do not see Serckrean farmers, or the wives of these farmers. I do not see mere centaurs, or vampires, or woodland elves. I see free people, fighting for their freedom, for the most basic right everyone deserves... the right to live.” With that, Catharine turned Alexis.
Despite her riding bareback with only a pair of reins to hold onto and control Alexis with, she led the way along the remaining distance. Meanwhile, Alexander and the Eleayan armies were fighting desperately for their lives, and slowly losing. Edward was just about to give the signal for a retreat, when Alexander caught his arm and said, “Look, father”. A single horn was blowing. As the final long, tremulous note died, both armies slowly stopped to look up to the left hand hill. Catharine, the Serckrean armies, the armies of centaurs, of werewolves, of vampires, of woodland elves and pixies were spread out along the depth of the Doleayan armies. Alexis galloped along the front line of this army, Catharine shouting, her voice unintentionally being magically amplified, “We give no quarter! Ride now, for our rights! For freedom! For life!” and turning towards the Doleayan armies, she extended her army that was carrying the staff of Risekian, and led the charge down the hill. At the same time, Edward and Alexander simultaneously ran forwards with Thomas and Matthias, leading an impromptu charge from the Eleayan armies and the Keleysanel. The Doleayan soldiers found themselves caught between two unstoppable forces, and now they were the ones fighting for their lives.
Catharine, having dismounted Alexis and sent him to the outskirts of the battle to prevent him from being injured, used a combination of blasts of energy from the staff of Risekian and her sword to make her slow way to Desnekos, who as any tyrant, was leading his troops from the back; she was still a few hundred feet from him. Her hair had come loose and she evaded the blade of a Doleayan soldier; his sword cut her hair raggedly. Suddenly, one of Desnekos's bodyguards stepped forwards through the fighting, stabbing, screaming crowds and slapped Catharine around the face. She fell backwards, and the bodyguard raised his sword; Catharine couldn’t raise her sword or the staff in time. Suddenly, just as it began to pour with rain, someone leaped forwards from behind Catharine, his sword sliding eagerly in through a gap in the bodyguard’s defences to cut into his chest. The bodyguard fell forwards over Catharine; it was Alexander who pulled the lifeless corpse off her. “Alex!” Catharine gasped, and pulling her to her feet, Alexander hugged her tightly. “You should have stayed in Serckrea,” he said loudly in her ear. “I couldn’t leave you behind to face this war on your own!” Catharine replied, just as loudly. They both looked around as Desnekos rode away quickly. Alexander made to go after him, but Catharine, sticking her sword and the staff into the ground, grabbed his armour, shouting, “Alex, no!” Alexander turned back to her, and standing very close to him, Catharine said, “I don’t wanna lose you. I don’t ever want to lose you.” Alexander's response was to press his lips passionately to Catharine’s.
Together, they fought their way to the Doleayan edge of the battlefield, and went around to where Alexis waited. Mounting him, they rode furiously after Desnekos. As they rode between the trees, Alexis spooked at a bird fluttering out of a bush. Alexander and Catharine both fell, and simultaneously rolled to their feet. Together, they pressed on, turning sharply at every sound they heard. Alexander turned at a sound behind him, and froze as a freezing, ice cold chill swept through him from a point somewhere in his stomach. Catharine, turning, shouted, “Alex, NO!” Desnekos smirked as he pulled his sword out of Alexander, and Alexander fell sideways to the ground. Catharine, struggling not to cry, looked at Desnekos with a look of grief and deep anger that only the deepest kind of love can evoke. “So. It comes down to this,” Desnekos said, as they began circling slowly away from Alexander. “It was always meant to come down to this, tyrant,” Catharine replied coldly. “Then you must have loved the Eleayan boy less than I thought,” Desnekos said, gesturing at Alexander, now breathing raggedly. Catharine did not reply for a moment. Then she said, “this meeting between you and I is not about the men I choose to love, coward. It is about one of us losing the fight and right to live. And it will not be me”. The swords flashed together briefly in a clang of ringing metal.
Catharine stepped away, a cut scratched deeply into her forearm. Desnekos replied, “And you are absolutely sure of that, child?” Catharine replied, “I have nothing more to say to you, except one thing.” Puzzlement flickered briefly in Desnekos's eyes, and Catharine swept his defence away, sending his sword away to lie in the leaves nearby. She then ran him through and breathed in his ear, “hello, father. Pity you couldn’t stay for longer.” Pulling the sword out, she turned away. “D... daughter,” Desnekos breathed, before collapsing lifeless to the ground. Catharine turned suddenly, and ran to Alexander. He lay on his side, barely breathing; Catharine pulled him back gently so his back rested against her knees. “Alex, no, don’t die! Don’t leave me alone in this world,” Catharine said, tears sliding freely down her cheeks. Alexander's eyes slowly came to rest on her face, and a bloodstained hand came up to brush her cheek. “I... will always... love you,” he whispered, and then, his chest shuddering slightly with the effort, his last breath escaped his lips and he was forbiddingly still. Catharine shook slightly, and whispering, “No”, she leaned down, and cradled Alexander's head and shoulders in her arms. Standing suddenly, she stepped back, pulling her cloak off and throwing it to the ground; she still held the staff of Risekian in her hands. Her tears rolled thick and fast now, and she stepped up the rise where Alexander's body lay. As she reached the top, a faint light lit up her face, and she raised a hand to cover her eyes. Five people stood in front of her, three men and two women. The man in the middle smiled warmly, and extended his hand to Catharine, saying in such a familiar voice, “Catharine”.
As the light behind them died, Catharine looked at all of the Five, and she fell to her knees, holding the staff up vertically beside her, resting on her shoulder. Risekian stepped forwards from his place in the centre of the line, and took his staff back. “Why do you cry, Catharine? You have fulfilled part of your destiny,” he asked, and helped her to her feet. Catharine was about to reply, but one of the two women stepped forwards, and said in an admonishing tone, “honestly, Risekian, how can you tease a woman so?” Risekian replied, “Yiseka, you should know I do not intend to tease any woman.” The second woman stepped forwards, and said, also in an admonishing tone, “then you should use your head, Risekian. The cause of this woman’s tears lies dead and chilling on the ground behind her.” Catharine look to the side, as though embarrassed, and the man who looked to be the oldest of them all, seeing the movement, said, “yes, Catharine. Your life has been of great interest to all of us, and to Risekian in particular. Risekian, Alendra has a point.” Catharine, looking back to the man who had spoken but not making eye to eye contact, replied, “can... can Lord Risekian be blamed, Lord Xikluen, for having an interest in my life? He is my godfather after all.” The youngest man, scoffing slightly, said, “She has your wit, Risekian.”
Gesturing slightly to the staff, Catharine replied, “I guess it must have rubbed off on me, Lord Peksander.” Yiseka said, “This does not solve the fact that the cause of this beautiful young woman’s tears lies dead on the ground in front of us.” Catharine turned away from the gods and goddesses standing in front of her, as though too ashamed to let them see the fresh tears in her eyes. Risekian asked, “Would I be wise to bring him back, Catharine?” and there was no joking tone in his voice. “You love him?” Yiseka stated tentatively. Catharine’s left arm crossed her abdomen, as her right arm slid across her chest. Gasping out a small sob, she replied in a whisper, “Can I be blamed”. Looking around at the five gods and goddesses standing behind her, she repeated in a stronger voice, “Can I be blamed?” Yiseka asked tentatively, “what’s that supposed to mean?” Catharine replied in a tone close to an outburst, “I love him! Don’t the tears say enough?” the gods were silent as Catharine went on, “I guess... I’ve always loved him from the day I first met him. I used to think we were so different, but now, I know back then, I’d barely scratched the surface of his personality.” After a moment’s brief hesitation, she went on in a softer voice, “but... should he have to go to the Eternal Lands with you now, then there is nothing, I can do to stop it.” After a long, awkward silence, Catharine turned away, and attempted to wipe the tears away. Still they ran down her cheeks; the pain of her broken heart was still fresh, still painfully raw. “There, Catharine,” Risekian said, “that wasn’t so hard, was it.” Catharine replied, “It would have been easier if Alexander were alive.” Risekian said, “Are you sure about that?”
Catharine, turning to face her immortal godfather, composed herself slightly replied, “I am as sure of that fact, as I am sure of my feelings for him.” Risekian smiled briefly, as yet more tears slid down Catharine’s cheeks, and she wiped them away. Her armour slowly faded away, and she looked down. Catharine looked up to her godfather, her hand resting on her chest, unsure of what this meant. Risekian looked to where Alexander's lifeless body had lain. Catharine followed his gaze, and saw that Alexander was no longer there. She looked away again, and sighed, as though in acceptance that Alexander would not be coming back. Risekian smiled at her, and Catharine’s expression smoothed into one of utter shock as Alexander's voice said, from the other side of the small clearing, “Cathy?” Catharine turned to look to the other side of the clearing. Alexander stood there; his armour was gone, but he wore the clothes he had been wearing under it. Catharine ran to him, and almost jumped into his arms. They sealed their reunion with a long kiss of frantic passion, and hugging Alexander, Catharine whispered in his left ear, “I thought I’d never see you again.” Alexander replied, “I couldn’t leave you alone in this world, even if I wanted to.” They kissed again, and hugged once more.
Catharine, turning to the gods behind her, smiled a faint smile, and said, “Thank you. Thank you for bringing him back.” Risekian smiled, and extended his hand to Catharine. Catharine, looking to Alexander, said softly, “I’ll be right back. It’s alright; he’s my godfather.” As Risekian and Catharine stood apart, out of earshot from the remaining four gods, Xikluen and Peksander faded out of mortal existence, and Yiseka approached Alexander. “She is lucky to have won the heart of a man such as you,” she said, smiling. “I can only hope she knows the full extent of that,” Alexander replied. Yiseka replied, “Oh... I don’t think you know the full extent of her admiration for you, Alexander. But remember: when it comes to emotions, nothing is certain. Just... trust what your heart tells you to be the right thing to do.” Alexander nodded, and replied softly, “thank you, Lady Yiseka.” Meanwhile, Risekian and Catharine stood motionless, silent for a few moments. “Forgive me for not letting your mother tell you sooner about your godfather’s identity,” Risekian said. “There is nothing to forgive. I guess in my heart, I always knew that there was something special about his identity,” Catharine replied. “And how are you? After all that you have been through, are you alright now?” Risekian asked. “I don’t know... in truth, no. I’m frightened of what’s to come,” Catharine replied; she pressed her hand lightly to her stomach, and Risekian replied, “Do not worry so much, Catharine. You’ll be fine.” Alendra approached Alexis, who for all this time, had been standing silently and modestly to one side.
“You have been a valiant, loyal, and truthful friend, Alexis,” she said, raising a hand to stroke, from her point of view, the left hand side of his muzzle, “are you sure there is nothing that can be granted for you?” Alexis replied, “Lady Alendra, there is nothing I can ask for. My mistress is happy, and that is all I wish for.” Alendra pressed a kiss to the left hand side of his muzzle. Snorting in surprise, Alexis seemed to blush under his white fur. “Alexis, stop it,” Catharine said, watching him, and then she laughed.