The Barbarian Bard

Tales and Musings by Michael A. Espinoza

The Witch-Queen Speaks

     I landed on the castle steps with an unceremonious thud. It took a considerable effort to keep my legs from buckling under the impact of body on stone. But I pushed through the pain and straightened up, turning a resolute face to the imposing gates before me. After all, I had an interview to conduct. I had, of course, made this perilous journey–leaping into the pages of the very book I’d penned–to interview none other than Azyriana the Witch-Queen, steward of Cairndale’s throne.
     Hulking orcs, their broad-shouldered builds made only more intimidating by black plate armor, flanked the gates of Castle Cairndale. With a wordless glance in my direction, the guards stepped aside and the gates swung open before me, as though drawn in by some silent, invisible hand. I did not pause long to admire the lavish vaulted ceiling, from which glimmering magical orbs hung in ornate chandeliers, nor did I allow myself to be sidetracked by the countless galleries decorated with priceless Almurian art. I kept a steady pace, ever aware of watchful eyes upon me, belonging to guards both plainly visible and concealed by stealth and fine magic. My footsteps did not falter until I reached the private audience chamber of the Witch-Queen. Just outside the door I stood as if awaiting an invitation to proceed. That invitation came with the silent opening of the door before me.
     I did not waste time observing my surroundings, though I made note of a pleasant fire crackling in a hearth to my left. At the opposite end of the room, seated in a throne of dark stone, whose arm rests were carved with the snarling visages of fierce demons, sat Azyriana the Witch-Queen. Even seated, her height and air of power took me aback. The fire of her eyes blazed with a keen intellect, and her pale face was set in an inscrutable expression. To her left stood her fair-haired servant, a young man named Van. His hand rested on the pommel of his blade, and I knew that, despite his deference to the Witch-Queen, he was a formidable adversary in battle.
     “Thank you for seeing me, Azyriana.” I bowed deeply.
     “Of course.” Her voice was as cool as a late-autumnal breeze. “One must always make time for the chronicler of their saga.”
     “Quite right.” I nodded and produced a pen and notepad from my rucksack. “Now, I have a few questions for you, if you don’t mind. Your answers will, with your permission, be shared with those who will be reading the tale of your triumph.”
     Van cast a wary look at my pen, and I could practically hear the wheels turning in his mind, assessing the device’s range, sharpness, and my own reach. Azyriana laid a slender hand on her servant’s arm and a smile flickered across his face. His stance relaxed, but he kept his eyes on me all the same. I’d have expected no less.
     “First,” I read from my list of questions, “how does it feel for you to be a female in power?”
     “What an odd question. I rule my land just as my sister Ylsa rules over her dominion. The nymphs of Thraedmar have no rulers who are not women. It is not uncommon.”
     “Ah,” I hesitated before pressing onward. “Well, you see, in my world, female rule is less common. The number of male and female leaders is unequal to say the beast. So, for those reading of your future trials and triumphs, your experience is quite unique.”
     “How sad,” she observed. “But all the same, I’ll endeavor to answer. I rule with an even hand, when that can be managed. I endeavor to heed the advice of my counselors, but often must make sudden decisions on my own. Mine is the final word until my father, Thurzir, returns to Cairndale. It is a trying experience, but I endeavor to do right by all the people who fly our banner.”
     I made my notes and looked to the next question.
     “What can an individual citizen do to help further the success of the land?”
     “Even wanting the land’s furthered success is already a tremendous help. But I ask of my citizens only this: Trust in me to do what I can to help you, but know that I am not omniscient. I will strive to fix any problem or make any improvement of which I am aware. If in some way Cairndale has failed you, then it is your duty as a citizen to help me ensure it does not do so again.”
     She caught my smile as I wrote her response, and my reaction seemed to amuse her.
     “Is this again at odds with the norms of your world?”
     “Sadly, yes.” I glanced at my papers again. “Now, I know there is some controversy in Almuria regarding the interbreeding of humans and the other races of the world. How do you feel about this fact?”
     “Me?” Azyriana laughed, and her great black wings stirred noticeably behind her. “My father is the god of demons, and my mother was a human. How do you imagine I feel?”
     “Right right.” I crossed out a line on the page. “Dumb question.”
     “Not at all,” she continued, “for it is a hotly contested matter. Cairndale was founded upon diversity, our capital city was built by creatures of every race: men, orcs, harpies, nymphs, and even demons of the Abyss. It pains me to see how so many other beings, of all races, treat those of us who spawned from what such hateful minds deem an unholy union. The nymphs of Thraedmar still fear for their lives from the dwellers of Axis, their neighbor to the east. I cannot do much, at present, beyond my own borders, save for trying to show all of Almuria that such diversity has brought no ruin, but instead prosperity, to our nation.”
     “Would you say that prosperity is a great motivator for you?”
     “Not prosperity in the sense of gathered wealth.” She idly drummed her taloned fingertips on the arm of her chair. “But the result of those gains: well-fed citizens, loyal warriors, and a strong nation as a whole. Those are my motivations. To make of Cairndale all that I know it can be.”
     “And,” I added, “one last question. How would you spend an ideal day?”
     Azyriana, almost on impulse, placed her hand on Van’s arm in a soft, tender gesture. He smiled at her and I felt the natural charge of a profound connection between the pair.
     “An ideal day,” Azyriana chose her words with care, “would be one free of government and bureaucracy. I might spend it walking in the gardens, or even traveling to some of my nation’s more rural reaches. And of course, I would travel with my servant.”
     “Of course.” I offered a knowing smile. “Well, that is all the questions I have for you. Thank you for your time, Azyriana.”
     “You are most certainly welcome.”

     I departed then, but now it is your turn, oh reader, to leap into the realm of Cairndale. Click here to read of Azyriana and her land in the full-length novel “Blades of Cairndale.”

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