I wrote this short story to submit to fantasy magazines in the hope that I would gain some kind of recognition. After three rejections, and wonderful feedback from Aurealis Magazine, I’ve decided to abandon the farce that this is a short story. From the moment I wrote the first sentence, it seemed like something bigger. I have tweaked the ending to make it less like a short story, since I submitted. It is with great joy that I present the first chapter of the New Adult epic fantasy that I will be writing when the third book in The Circle of Talia series is finished. I hope you enjoy it :).
Laney ran across the field, her breath burning in her throat. Billowing behind, her green dress left her ankles bare, allowing the stiff stalks of yellow grass to whip and scratch her skin. Not far now. The leaden granite walls of the keep beckoned. She hoped she wasn’t too late.
In her mind, Frederick’s urgent parting words sounded. I have taught you all I can. The time has come. You must do everything in your power so that all is not lost. I fear the blood of the Carthans has already been spilled. He had pushed her out of the door before he finished speaking, only to yell after her as she sprinted away. “Do not lose the bird, whatever you do.” She had hardly heard the last but knew this bird was her only salvation.
Glancing down, her eyes met those of the silver-coloured bird at her waist. Its wings were secured with thick woollen twine, which wrapped around its body; its body secured in a netted pouch fastened to her dress. She felt warmth from the small bird’s body radiate against her stomach. “It’s okay, bird. I won’t hurt you. You can trust me.” She panted, looking up. Almost upon her home, her feet slowed. What would she find? Was there a chance her family was still alive?
The guards standing tense at the spiked iron gates–black breastplates gleaming, hands resting on the pommels of swords hanging at their sides–were strangers. Frederick was right, she thought, they are dead. Laney swallowed the sorrow threatening to undo her. If only her brother hadn’t listened to their parents, the king and queen, when they forbade him and Laney from visiting Frederick, the strongest sorcerer in Arbalion. Rumours had persisted for weeks about the foreign king’s march upon her father’s throne, and Frederick was one of the only people who had taken it seriously or had offered a real solution–a solution her parents had feared. Laney had learnt much, over warm deelvine tea, in her many illicit visits to the wise man’s cottage. But had she learnt enough?
One of the bearded guards, a soldier of Tyrk the Destroyer, turned his head toward Laney and spat. Laney stopped, wishing she were invisible. He would see her in five, four, three…. Now only metres away, Laney’s blue eyes connected with his. Desire and cruelty lit up his eyes and twisted the corners of his mouth into a greedy smile. The bravado with which she had left Frederick’s fled, leaving her empty and frozen. She had envisaged herself striding into the keep, meeting her family’s bitterest foe on her own terms, but now all she could do was stand and wait as the enemy strode toward her. I am a coward, she thought.
Resting her hand protectively over the bird, she looked up, trembling but meeting the man’s gaze. No words separated his upturned lips as he closed a rough hand around her slender arm. As he dragged her past the other milling guards, all fell silent. Laney heard gravel crunching beneath their feet and horses whinnying in the distance. When she looked down to negotiate the two steps to the main doors, she saw that a dark stain of dried blood led the way into the main hall.
Mamma. Pappa. Her legs lost strength and she fell. The guard’s fingers dug painfully into her arm, jerking her upright before she hit the ground. She stumbled forward. Her shoes trod upon the recently warm vestiges of people she had known, and, as the soldier hauled her onward, half-digested food exploded from her mouth, covering the soldier’s black boots with barely recognizable splatters of milk, carrots and cheese. He stopped, dead. Turning swiftly, he dealt a backhand blow to her cheek, the force cracking her head to the side. Again, his grip prevented her from falling, and she cried as quietly as she could as the brute pulled her down the hall, towards the throne room.
The oak double doors to the throne room stood open. The man stopped at the entrance, shoving Laney down. Her knees slammed into the flagstone floor, and a cry escaped her. “Do not move,” the guard growled before approaching the throne and bowing. Muffled voices reached Laney, but she couldn’t make out what was said.
Breathing in a metallic tang, Laney sat back, bottom resting on her heels. Looking around, she hoped to see her parents, but also hoped not to. Her heart pounded. She gazed to her right, and her sight rested on a pile of limp bodies thrown into the corner, clothes bloodstained, limbs tangled in a lifeless embrace. She blinked, her breath coming in short bursts. None of the corpses appeared to be wearing clothes she recognised as her parents’, but, laying on the top of the macabre mound, she saw the long, black, plaited beard of her father’s chief guard, Lucas. His once stern, battle-scarred face was hidden by his burgonet, but Laney could see the fatal wound; a slice rent from his side: red, gaping, final. The fiercest of her father’s soldiers, he had always had a smile for the princess. Laney held back a sob.
The bird at her waist squirmed as a shadow fell across them. She looked up at the dark shape of her captor. He grabbed her arm once again and hauled her to her feet. Staying behind her this time, he jabbed his fingers into her back, prodding her forward until she stood at the foot of her father’s throne. Laney squared her shoulders and looked Tyrk the Destroyer in the eyes.
Tyrk rose, his wide-chest and black cloak blocking Laney’s view of the throne. Stepping down, he stood within touching distance of the young princess. Tyrk placed a hand on Laney’s shoulder, gripping harder and harder until he saw her wince. He relaxed his grip, but left his hand to rest on her slender frame. When Tyrk smiled, wrinkles fanned out from the corners of his dark eyes, like cracks shearing the surface of a frozen pond. “So, the little bird flies home. But, as you can see,” he gestured extravagantly with one arm until his hand waved towards the carnage Laney had seen piled in the corner, “you have arrived too late. Imagine that; one day you are rejecting the marriage proposal of a prince, and the next, you are dead. Life’s funny like that.”
Tyrk watched his captive’s face. Laney blinked, but the usurper saw no tears in the wake of her lids. She stared at him without expression and couldn’t believe she had once entertained her father’s idea when he suggested Laney marry the prince from Enderling. If he was anything like his father, the man who stood in front of her, Laney was sure death was preferable. Trained to keep her feelings hidden, she tucked her sorrow behind her heart, keeping it warm for later. She let it flow through her veins; the blood feeding her body with oxygen, the misery feeding her determination, determination she would surely need to accomplish what she was about to attempt.
Taking his hand off the girl, Tyrk turned to the soldier who had dragged Laney in. “Let’s do this in the courtyard; I don’t want any more blood on the floor in here–I’d hate for it to stain. Bring her.” His stride was long and powerful, the set of his head arrogant.
As Laney was subjected to another’s will, yet again, she sent her thoughts to the wind. I’m not ready for this, Frederick. I don’t want to say goodbye. A memory from two weeks ago came to her and she saw her reflection in her bedroom mirror. She would never look into her own azure eyes again. Saying a final farewell to herself, she touched the smooth rise of her cheek, slipped a finger to trace her full lips, lips that had never even kissed a boy and finished by reaching into the hidden pocket at the hip of her skirts.
Her unsteady fingers touched steel.
Reaching the courtyard, the red wetness upon the ground drew Laney’s attention. Thinking of her parents–her dead parents–gave her encouragement to close her fingers around the hilt of the dagger. Clutching it with renewed hope, she hardly flinched when the guard stopped her in the middle of the courtyard by yanking her hair until her head snapped back painfully. He held her in that position for the scrutiny of a circle of smirking, road-stained soldiers. Laney stared at the sky and imagined what it would be like to escape into its cerulean heights.
Tyrk took casual steps around the courtyard, passing the soldiers, looking each in the eyes, before halting in front of Laney. He spoke louder than in the throne room, and his voice echoed off the courtyard walls and carried a short way into the fields beyond. “You are about to witness the end to the royal Varian line. Standing before us is the youngest, and only, living child of the recently deceased King Varian.” Tyrk paused to allow the audience’s laughter to subside. “Remember this day well, for this is what happens to those who refuse me. We will send you to the heavens, little dove. It will be quick–let no person say I am a king without mercy.”
The guard holding Laney’s hair released his grip. He put his mouth so close to her ear that the touch of his foul breath caused her to shiver. “K-K King Tyrk, likes t-t to, to watch the life d-d-d drain from the eyes.”
Laney slid her hand from her pocket as Tyrk drew his sword from its sheath. One of the soldiers shouted, “She has a weapon!”
Laney rushed, almost dropping the dagger as she saw Tyrk’s eyes widen before he lunged his sword toward her stomach. She sliced the dagger across the bird’s bonds, Frederick’s words in her mind: You must be touching the bird when your soul leaves your body. So much could go wrong, and the few seconds she had to consider it seemed an eternity.
Tyrk’s sword nicked the tip of the bird’s wing before splitting the fabric of Laney’s dress and piercing the porcelain skin of her stomach. The bird fluttered in her hands as she tried to hold it, the pain of her injury almost too great to ignore.
The new king held the princess’ shoulder, forcing her to stand while he stared into her eyes. Feeling cold and light-headed, Laney smiled and whispered, “You are wrong, usurper, the Varian line lives on.”
Tyrk’s grin, as the verve in her eyes glazed to stillness, was for the benefit of his soldiers–the truth in the girl’s words reaching his ears. What did she mean? Was there a relative they knew naught about?
Laney’s limp fingers fell to dangle at her sides. Scarlet bloomed, seeping into her dress. The silver-coloured bird, a red blemish now upon it’s wing, squirmed free. With a frenzied flapping of desperate strokes, it sent a scatter of feathers to land softly upon the bloody ground.
Tyrk released his grip on Laney and his sword and leapt for the bird, his hands catching the air beneath its swiftly rising form.
The bird flew–Laney’s awareness gazing out of its eyes, to look upon her home and the lifeless body of the young princess slumped in the courtyard. Deep sadness welled within her, the lack of avian tears a confirmation that she no longer resided in human form. The castle’s towers and turrets receded as she soared west, to a new land. She cawed a final goodbye to her family.
Tyrk watched his men drag the girl’s body away, while wind, newly-risen from the south, gusted into the yard, sending goosebumps slithering along his arms. Ignoring the chill that settled in his belly, he cast superstition aside. Omens are for the weak, he thought, before shivering. Striding into the cold embrace of his ill-gotten keep, he hadn’t noticed his son watching, dark eyes peering from a second floor window. The teenager, tears grazing his face, whispered a promise, so quiet it was barely the caress of breath over his lips. In that moment, in the smothering iron-laden seconds between one fate and the next, a traitor, and hope, was born.