By Eleine Kruez
She watched the hawk's flight. It would take Quetal three days to reach Amara who kept watch of the shrine. She continued to watch her pet until he disappeared from her sight. With a sigh, she glanced at the rolled piece of parchment on her hand.
It was nearly time.
She had hoped that the spell she had cast would sustain the curse, but she should've known it wouldn't. Though the same Fae blood flowed in their veins, she was still not a Symonia. Her blood on the stone had only bought her time.
Seven years was too short. She had not been able to teach her all that she should've. She hasn't told her of the truth. Had thought she wouldn't have to.
She reread the letter. The forest bordering the north of Hadara has been turned to stone. Surely they would need Lady Symonia and the treasure of the family. She had only managed to prolong the inevitable. They will come for her and she will let her go. Not even Katla could stop what has been preordained.
But maybe she could prolong Lady Symonia's destiny once more. Until she is ready to face her future.
There was a knock on her door and when she gave the affirmative, it gave in to reveal a smiling Breena. "It's time for dinner, Lady Katla."
"I'll be with you in a moment," she replied, crumpling the note and returning her smile. "Oh, and will you tell Nazneen I want to see her after the meal? You need not join us. I know it's the time of your weekly ablutions in the lake."
"It will be no trouble at all," the young woman insisted, stepping into the room, a frown marring her delicate features. "I can always go afterwards."
"There is no need. A year has passed since she came of age. I merely wanted to ask her about her plans for the future."
Breena understood. Their talk was of a personal variety and as Lady Nazneen's lady companion and Lady Katla's apprentice, she was not to interfere. She had no right to. She bowed her head and smiled politely. "Very well, my lady. I shall inform Lady Nazneen."
Katla waited until the door closed then summoned a simple spell to magically consume the paper in her upturned palm. Someone from the capital will arrive soon. She had to hurry and ensure Nazneen cooperated.
The sun was close to setting. The trees that had provided shade earlier would now provide the travelers shelter. There was hardly a path and while the young man on horseback delighted in adventure, the past week had been more than exhausting and he was nearing his patience's end.
The man on a white horse let out a weary sigh and after a moment, dismounted without warning. He looked at the darkening sky and shook his head. "Time to set camp." He led his horse away from the dusty trail—he doubted it was even one, given the foliage that grew on the ground, covering the dusty road—and looked for a nice spot to spend the night.
From a casual observer, he looked like a weary traveler who most probably lost his way. Not many traversed the path he was taking and no more than a handful ever made their way back. He was dressed in black breeches, his calf-high boots no longer gleaming with polish, but dust-covered and caked with mud. His vest had long ago been stripped in concession to the sun's glaring rays and what remained was the cotton shirt that had seen better days.
Having finally chosen a place to spend the night at, he tied his horse to the low-hanging branch and started to gather dried twigs to build a fire. It wasn't the first time King Edrick von Braido had to rough it, but when his journey was more of duty than pleasure, he tended to want them finished with all possible haste. That he had been wandering the uninhabited region of Shaela for days did nothing to soothe his frustration. Not when it had been reported right before he left Pledge Castle that the forest of Agasa had turned to stone.
He would've ridden to Agasa himself to oversee the situation, but he knew it would've been useless. A curse was threatening the land, and while Edrick would've done all he could to defend his kingdom it was out of his hands. The blind Seer had revealed that the land turning into stone, with it its people, was a curse on Hadara. The only solution lay at a mage's feet.
It has been said that the Noble House of Symonia had been wiped out years ago, leaving only a daughter to continue its distinguished line. The Crystal Mage had taken the daughter as her apprentice, and if the years of training bore fruit, he was to take Lady Symonia back to the capital to cast a spell that would save the land. If she proved unskilled, he would ask the Crystal Mage.
The woman was known not only as a powerful mage, but as a terrible recluse. He barely remembered the first and last time he caught a glimpse of her. It was during a ball Lady Symonia had hosted some ten years ago. They said the only reason she had deemed to attend was because the Fayettes and Symonias were distant kin descended from the same Fae princess. He remembered her as a beautiful, but coldly forbidding lady who did not smile, but only stared indifferently at everything and everyone around her. He didn't want to face her, but if he has to he would. If it would save the kingdom and his people, he would do it.
It seemed too simplistic to him. One spell (no matter how allegedly powerful) to save them all? Perhaps he was not well versed in the craft, but he would've proffered to fight against a concrete enemy than a phenomenon whose destructive effects he could only see. Mages had already been dispatched to see to the people.
While the situation had not yet reached critical, they had more than a fortnight before it reached the first town at the edge of Hadara, he didn't want to waste time trying to find the secluded estate the Crystal Mage resided. If he didn't find it soon, he would have no choice but to turn back and leave the retrieval of Lady Symonia in his retainers' hands. An option he didn't want to make because, despite the loss of communication, it had been his parent's wish to see him honor the betrothal between the two Houses. He felt he owed her as much.
He would've wanted to marry someone of his own choosing, but as he found no one that attracted him, he would settle for his parents' choice. Lady Symonia was more than suitable. Her lineage was impeccable and she was in a position to not only help him govern, but protect as well. Her parents couldn't have made a better choice.
He dumped the dried lumps on the ground and stretched his arms over his head, yawning as he did. It was getting dark. He should've stopped earlier. He heard the sound of water as he gathered the twigs. Maybe he'd take a dip to soothe his tired muscles. Forget about dinner. A nice dip would be better for the body.
The wind was cool on her skin and she inhaled deeply. Katla brought a hand to her temple, massaging it gently. The talk with Nazneen had gone well. Perhaps too well. The young woman couldn't wait until the men from the capital came. She shouldn't take worried. Though used to being courted, the prospect of being betrothed to the ruler of the land was entirely too thrilling for excitable Nazneen Symonia.
She leaned on terrace, easily making out the shadows. She smiled as she espied Halden stealthily making his way to the forest west of the estate. "Peeping on Breena? My, my, Hal, what will your lover think about your vow of fidelity?"
The young man started and glanced up. He scoffed at the sight of the older woman casually leaning on the carved stone, obviously enjoying his discomfiture. "I was not spying!"
"We all know of Breena's ablutions, don't tell me you've forgotten about it when it's somewhat been a tradition to steer clear of the lake after dark every Friday."
"You old prune! Are you so starved for affection you think everyone is as depraved as you? I would never peep on Breena!" he all but shouted, his cheeks flushing.
She tsked. "My, how defensive you've become. And how loud. Can you risk being heard by anyone like this? And who are you calling a prune?" She fluffed the long dark brown hair flowing freely down her back. There was no denying she was no old croon. She looked younger than the three and thirty years she grudgingly admitted to. "Do you want me to give you another set of eyes that you can see better? On your forehead, I think."
"Try and I'll make sure to carve one on your forehead!" he threatened, left hand going for the sword on his hip.
"Such disturbance this late in the night," she commented, smirking as he continued to be more agitated. She rested her chin on her palms, both elbows on the cool granite. She liked Halden's spunk. He was the only one who didn't back down when faced against her. Even Breena, with all her spirit and courage, deferred to her. She supposed it was out of gratitude. She had adopted the young woman and made her an apprentice and head of her household, after all. With Halden Eberhard, he was grateful for being taking in, yes, but he was also bold. He liked sparing words with her.
"Should I tell…?"
"You wouldn't!" he exclaimed, looking ready to leap up the terrace and strangle the mage. "You know I only follow her to ensure her safety."
"Do I now?" She looked thoughtful. She enjoyed teasing Halden. He was too serious most of the time. Especially when it concerned Breena. Both had been taken into her household around the same time and while Halden had pledged his life to protect Lady Symonia, he never strayed too far from Breena's side.
"If you do, I'll tell Nazneen who scared young Symthsee and made sure he was too scared to show his face on this side of the valley," he countered.
The Crystal Mage, known to many as a veritable ice sculpture, laughed merrily. "Touché, Eberhard. You may go and I swear no word of your peeing shall pass these lips."
He glared murder. She merely chuckled in response. "Go now, Hal. Breena's getting far. She might encounter a bear and Lord knows she'll need you to defend her." That was a lie, of course. Breena was a gifted apprentice. She had excellent command of Earth and Fire elements. If she trained harder, she could command all four with a proficiency even Nazneen hasn't shown. Hal, who wasn't an element-master, could only protect her with his strength and sword. He didn't like the thought of letting her go into the forest alone, however.
She watched him disappear into the shadows. She smiled then walked back into her chamber. She could rest easy knowing Halden was looking out for Breena.
Breena stepped out of her boots. The grass was soft and damp against her feet and she smiled as she curled them happily. She came to the lake weekly to clear her head and train her body.
Wearing only the thin chemise underneath her clothes, the wind was biting on the skin and the water freezing. She wadded into the water until she was submerged all the way to her shoulder. She would wash first, and then proceed to training her body to adapt to the freezing water. If she trained hard, she knew she could master the Water element faster than Lady Katla expected.
Breena closed her eyes and evened her breathing. The water had reached past her lips. Slowly, she reclined on the flowing depth and cleared her mind.
Edrick finally located the lake. It was a little trek from his camp, but he was confident he'd be able to find his way back. He wasted no time stripping his clothes. He dispensed with modesty and jumped into the water wearing nothing but the air and darkness to clothe him.
When he surfaced, a shadow moved to his side and before he could do so much as blink, a blade was pressed at the side of his neck.
"Who are you?" his attacker hissed.
He held up his hands in surrender. "I mean no harm." He cursed himself for being careless. Just because the forest seemed deserted was no excuse to let his guard down. He was losing his touch. His mentor would be appalled.
"Give me a reason why I should not kill you this instant."
Edrick remained silent. It wouldn't be wise to let his identity be known. Who knew what plan the man could devise to take advantage of his capture or death? He moved his head to stare into his assailant's eyes instead. It was too dark to see their color, but there was no mistaking the fierceness in them.
"If you behead the man, the kingdom of Hadara will be without its ruler," a feminine voice broke their intense staring match.
"Why are you even here?" The man asked the newcomer irritably, his hold slackening, but Edrick had no doubt it would be back on his neck in less than a second if he so choose. "If he is indeed Hadara's king, what is he doing peeping here? Shouldn't you be at your nice palace beyond the valley?"
"Insolent as ever," the woman chuckled. "Release him, Hal. I will not have you be rude to his majesty when he's come all this way to see Lady Symonia."
Instead of reassuring him, her words only brought the sword closer to his neck. "Watch it!" Edrick exclaimed. He didn't fancy dying in a lake just outside his kingdom for swimming without permission.
There was a splashing sound and another figure joined them in the waist-deep water. He heard a sharp intake of breath.
"Heavens! Get him to dress first, Hal!" another female voice broke out, sounds of her moving away filling the air. "I doubt his majesty will commit any nefarious plans in the nude."
"This man was peeping, Breena!" the once called Hal yelled, but he put the sword away and walked toward the bank. "Better get dressed, mister. I don't want you soiling the ladies' eyes."
He would've given a stinging retort at that if his own sword wasn't at the other side of the water along with his clothes. And he had been taught early in life to be diplomatic. Apparently, there was a house nearby, where else could this people be from, and since there was, there was no way he was camping that evening. It was time he experienced a bed on his back after a while.
He wordlessly swam to his clothes. He had just put on his breeches when a fire was lit few yards from where he stood. It was no ordinary fire because one of them was holding it, right at the middle of her palm.
He saw three figures standing close together. The shortest of the group, a young woman by the looks of it, was keeping the fire blazing. She extended her arm in his direction.
"He's certainly grown, but that's Edrick, alright. Breena, return to the mansion and arrange for his welcome. Peeping tom or not, he is the king and we shall receive him properly." There was a murmured response then the flame was gone. Another lighted, this time it was a ball of fire hovering in the air, just above the woman's shoulder. "It's been a while, King Edrick. Though the last time we've seen each other, you were just a prince and very much a boy."
He couldn't believe his eyes. Standing before him, like an illusion caused by utter exhaustion, the Crystal Mage stared at him with unreadable pale blue eyes. "It's funny how things are set to motion almost instantaneously. Have you come for your bride then? Or for the magic that flows in Symonian blood?"
He noticed the way the man's grip on his sword tightened. Lady Katla placed a hand on his sword. "There's no need to draw blood, Hal. This is Lady Fate's hand at work." She regarded him once more. "Halden will follow you to your camp and you shall retrieve your things. He will show you the way to the mansion. We shall await for you there." She bowed her head then turned away.
He stared at her retreating back. Even though she had bowed, he had been the one who was dismissed. He turned to the glowering young man in front of him. "Edrick von Braido," he said, extending his hand. Instinctively he knew royal protocol would only alienate him from him. And from the looks of it, while Lady Katla was their mistress, they weren't mere servants either.
Halden stared at his hand for a few second before briefly slapping it with his palm, no more than a stinging smack of flesh on flesh. "Halden Eberhard. Peep on Breena or any of the ladies again and I'll castrate you, king or no king."
"Pee—what do you mean?"
"Feigning ignorance will not change my opinions of you, your majesty," he said mockingly. "Be thankful Lady Katla arrived in time. Or the fishes would've feasted on you tonight." He didn't wait for directions to his camp. He was an excellent marksman and he led the way to where the king had felt his horse and belongings.
Their journey to the mansion did not take long. Edrick was grateful to see the edifice. Other people besides his obviously unwilling guide. He hoped they wouldn't be as hostile as Halden had been. From what he gathered, he was supposedly peeping on someone in the lake. Preposterous, the idea. Not only had the lake been empty to him, the idea of peeping was beneath him.
If he wanted women, he could have them. Apparently he had peeped on the other woman from the trio earlier. He hadn't seen more than her outline, shrouded in shadows as she was despite the light, but from what he saw, she was no more than a girl. If he was going to peep at someone, it might as well have been a woman whose charms he could appreciate.
He dismounted from his horse and Halden followed, quickly leaving his side and joining the long line of people standing by the mansion's entrance. It was normal protocol, but for some reason Edrick felt nervous. His potential bride was among these people. Potential because she could refuse him and he would accept her decision. She would still have to go to Hadara, of course, but not as his bride or fiancée.
Lady Katla greeted him with a small smile. "Welcome to Fayette Hall, your majesty," she curtsied and the parallel line of servants followed suit. When she straightened, she beckoned that he walked toward her into the mansion. "I trust you are exhausted, your majesty, and I shall send you to your room shortly. However, I find it to your benefit to meet some of the staff first." She then proceeded to point people and tell him their names and positions and duties. After meeting the head groom, Cook and housekeeper, she stopped in front of a young woman who looked no older than sixteen. "This is the head of my household, Breena. The servants answer to her. Should you need anything, she will be happy to assist you."
"Your majesty," she murmured softly, executing a deep and graceful curtsy.
He studied her. She was young, perhaps too young. She possessed a slight frame that bordered on skinny. She wasn't that short, reaching perhaps a little below his shoulder, but the black buns on either side of her head weighed her down and her green eyes made her look younger then she probably was. Her features were too delicate and sweet for someone running a household. She reminded him of a docile deer. It was strange that someone as young as her would be in charge of an entire staff, but he shouldn't have been too surprised. He was in the Crystal Mage's home, after all. The Fayettes were not only known for being a recluse, they were equally known for their eccentricity.
"May I have the honor of presenting his majesty Lady Nazneen Symonia, heiress to Vonkraught baronetcy?"
A young woman stepped in front of him and sank into a curtsy, her deep brown eyes shyly averted from his face. "An honor, my lady." He took her hand and placed a kiss on the air above the knuckles of her gloved hand.
She was beautiful. There was no denying she was from the esteemed Symonian clan. Her eyes were enchanting, of the deepest, darkest color of prized chocolate. The sable waves that flowed on her back were like a dark waterfall against white silk. One look was enough to know she was every inch the lady she was revered to be.
Katla moved forward and the couple was forced to follow, Breena discreetly trailing them. "The evening grows late. We shall talk in the morning. If it is acceptable to his majesty, Breena will escort you to yours. Your meal will soon follow."
As before, it was clear that to Katla the matter has been decided, whether it was acceptable to him or not. He didn't have any problems with the arrangement so he let it go. It wouldn't do well to antagonize his host, after all. And he would be fed and sheltered for the night, wouldn't he? That was good enough for him.
Lady Symonia looked like she wanted to say something, but Katla beat her to it. "Nazneen, walk with me to my chamber."
"If Miss Breena will show me the way…?"
"Of course, your majesty," she demurred. With a simple look at one of the maids, his things were being unloaded from his horse and the stable hands immediately set to work on his ride. The other servants also scrambled to do whatever unspoken command she had communicated.
"This way, your majesty," she said, already walking ahead of him. She ascended the grand staircase and turned to the right wing. They walked in silence and Edrick tried not to be discomforted by her quiet efficiency. There was something eerie in the way she moved without making a sound.
She took out a key from her pocket and slipped it in the hole. She turned it and turned the knob. She stepped in and opened the door for him. As expected, her orders had been carried out. The guest chamber was well-lit and there was a fire roaring at the fireplace. The covers had been turned and there was a lingering scent of beeswax and lilies. The room was inviting and cozy. She doubted even his chamber in the palace was as homey.
She walked toward the window and drew aside the curtains to provide him a view of the beautiful night sky. There was a discreet knock on the door and after an affirmative from her, maids carrying trays of food entered the room and arranged a scrumptious meal at the small breakfast table at the corner of the room, near the door to the terrace. She supervised them as he quit the room to go to the bathing chamber.
She was just arranging the vase of roses at the center when he entered the room, clothed in a clean pair of breeches and a white shirt only buttoned halfway. She closed her eyes and smiled deferentially. "Is everything to your liking, your majesty?"
He paused, having his eyes drawn to the wet spots at the collar of her black cotton blouse. It made the already dark material darker.
"Your majesty?" she asked softly.
"Hn? Oh, yes, everything's fine," he replied absently, taking a seat on the champagne-colored wingback chair.
"Then I'll leave you to your meal. The bell pull is there," she indicated at the side next to the enormous four-poster bed, "should you need one of the maids. Good evening, your majesty."
He thought he was going to curtsy and leave him, but she didn't. Not right away anyway. She leaned close to him and looked at him straight in the eyes, her dark green orbs burning into his amethyst ones. "Oh, I'm sure you've seen me with the mage fire earlier. If you peep on me or any of the women while you're here, I WILL fry you." She gave him a deceptively sweet smile before curtsying. "Sleep well, your majesty."
He stared at her as she left. Apparently, the deer wasn't as docile as he had thought. She had just bared teeth.
There was a slight tap on the glass of the doors leading to the terrace. He stood up and walked toward it. Halden stood at the other side and he scowled in greeting.
"Come to join me for supper?"
"If you hurt Lady Symonia, I will kill you. Slowly and painfully. Got that?"
"If you love the lady that much, why not propose to her? I am a gentleman, I will not force her to marry me if that is not her wish. I wouldn't want her to feel trapped into a marriage with me."
He snickered at his words. "Don't say I didn't warn you." Then he was gone. He jumped from the terrace connected to his room to the one next to his then leaped toward the tree near that terrace.
The young king closed the door and returned to his meal. The people at Fayette Hall were obviously big on making threats. He didn't bother wondering if his food was poisoned. The cook would've dropped by otherwise.
Howzat? I've been playing around with the idea of having someone with magical powers and well, this is the result. Hehe. As usual, the plot may be a bit of a cliché (but then again, what isn't?), but I'm trying to give it my own flavor. Hope it works.
And I'm sorry if I haven't updated any of my other stories. I'm taking a break from them for a bit. This one's been bugging me for a while now, so I had to put it to writing before I'm driven mad (than I already am in any case p). Don't expect me to update regularly for a while, though. I'm supposed to be writing my thesis right now and well…I only have about three weeks left to finish it. And I only have a title so far. So yeah. I'm doomed.
Updates will be sporadic, be warned. For all stories. But hey, keep checking anyway. Who knows, maybe I'll give up on graduating this year and bum around forever. Then I can write and update as much as I want. ::sigh:: dream on, Eleine. Gaah. I so should've chosen a different major. Oh, well. Pray for me?
I know I'm rambling. I'm like this when I'm supposed to be researching. Haha. Well, Carl Jung calls. It's back to the collective unconscious for me then. ::sniffs:: Ja.