Teasers

Awakening of the Queen

Chapter One

The summer in Altria was always unbearably hot. Its citizens were glad that it was finally ending. The long hot days had begun to recede into cool nights and gentle rain. The farmers had just begun their final harvest for the year and the kingdom was preparing for the cold winter, drying out the freshly picked fruit and preserving meat. The market was full of activity, women selling their handmade clothes and blankets, the men selling weapons and armor, even though no one really needed it anymore. The people were content, but always weary of danger that could be lurking in the near future.

Altria had been a prosperous, peaceful country for only the past thirty years. The older citizens remembered a time that they had to fight, when food was scarce and they’d almost been destroyed by a

power hungry tyrant who had challenged their small, happy land. The good king had fought back though, urged them to defend their home and sent hundreds of soldiers to fight a battle with seemingly impossible odds. They’d been torn and battered, but they’d succeeded in defending their land from the invaders.

King Hadwin understood what had tempted the invaders. Altria was a young kingdom with a small population of untrained men. It lacked the military power of Kadar and the time tested weaponry of Stonehold. Situated on the eastern side of M’ahl, it had a pleasant climate, and was far enough from the coast to avoid the dangers of the ocean. Nearby rivers and forests provided water, meat, and wood. Its prime location was much sought after, but the land rightfully belonged to Hadwin’s family.

After the battles were over, Hadwin decided to work toward making Altria stronger, but eventually got sidetracked by his desire for companionship. He’d been young and handsome then, full of vigor, bravery, and kindness. Any woman would have been honored to be his wife, but he chose a commoner, whose family owned much of the farmland of the kingdom. Of course, many questioned his choice for a wife, but she’d soon won the critics over with her charm, grace and earthiness. Even after becoming queen, she would be spotted going to the farms, tending to the sheep and cows. She was the commoner’s queen, well loved yet remained barren for a time, despite their best efforts to produce an heir.

A full eight years passed before she finally gave birth to a daughter named Alana. They were overjoyed at the sight of their first child, but still wished for a boy to carry the royal family’s name. She had another child three years later, another girl, who was named Raine. Sadly, the beloved queen

died from complications during childbirth. Hadwin was never quite the same afterward. His zest for life faded and his great aspirations for his kingdom were left by the wayside. His adviser encouraged him to remarry, but he never could bring himself to find another woman. He focused instead on his children, raising them with help from the castle’s loyal servants.

Just after Raine was born, a plague swept through Kadar, to the west, killing hundreds of people before it was contained and eradicated by the tireless alchemists and healers of the city. While Hadwin’s distant relatives, the royal family of Kadar, were spared, the plague left the citizens devastated. King Hadwin was distraught over the death of a particular blacksmith and his wife. They’d produced and provided many of the weapons used in the war, the husband eventually joining Hadwin’s meager military and rallying many of his neighbors to do the same. The king had befriended the couple, welcoming them as guests often in the years following the war. They died, leaving only their young son, Kirin, completely alone. The boy’s closest relatives were far away, across the Grey Ocean on the continent of Strigoth. Bound by his loyalty to his friends, the king took the boy into his home. The child would never carry royal blood, but the king would be able to have the son he’d always wanted, and the boy would avoid being raised in the dank orphanages of Kadar. It was a beneficial arrangement for everyone involved.

The years passed by and the girls grew into lovely young women, the boy into an intelligent, fierce warrior. The king was always proud of his three children. The ache of losing his wife dulled, as he found some happiness in his little family and the peace of their small stretch of land. Everything was finally settling into place in the castle. However, it would be short lived.

Just after her eighteenth birthday, Alana vanished from the castle. The king grieved and sent out search parties to find his eldest daughter, but to no avail. No one knew what had happened to her; they wondered if she had run away, if she’d been kidnapped, killed, or worse. She was gone from his life, but haunted him endlessly. The king would dream about her in the lonely night, about the horrible things that could be happening to her and wake in a cold sweat. He always expected to receive a ransom letter, or news of her passing, but Alana was gone from the kingdom, never to be heard from again, a mere memory in the minds of her family.

“Milady, do you need anything else before I retire for the night?” a chubby servant woman asked the ebony haired princess, who was sitting by the window and reading, the warm candlelight before her casting a long shadow on the stone floor.

“No, I’m fine. If I decide I need anything, I’ll get it” Raine replied, absorbed in the book.

The older woman nodded, finished tucking the clean linen away into a large wooden trunk and walked to the door. Before she closed it, the princess called her name softly.

“Ejia,” Raine said, looking up.

“Yes?” she poked her head back through the door.

“Dinner was delicious tonight. You’re a great cook.”

“Thank you,” she beamed. “Good night.”

Raine waved to her and set the book on the window sill. Princess Raine, the younger sister, was now twenty years old, a beautiful woman with long wavy black hair and a gentle face. She had a naturally fair complexion, but now it was glowing with a tan, the result of her constant escapades in town. She was widely known for her grace and humble charm, but had always been a bit rambunctious when not in the castle. She’d loved to climb trees and watch the knights in the courtyard when they practiced with their swords when she was a child, and more recently, endlessly bothering Kirin to teach her combat and magic. Lately though, her playful nature had ceased, replaced by a serious quiet air.

She stood and paced nervously, then stopped at the window again to breathe in the cool night air. She wasn’t sure what to do. Over the past year, the king’s health had deteriorated greatly. He kept it hidden from the people of the city and from many of the servants and knights, but she’d noticed he had gotten thin and had frequent coughing fits. He’d had a few doctors and herbalists visit him privately, but never seemed to improve. Her father was dying, which would rip her little world in two. Beyond the pain of losing her dear father, a dreaded truth had begun to sink in. Alana had been raised to take the throne when the time came. She had been bred and educated for that purpose, but Raine knew with Alana gone, it would be up to her. She knew she couldn’t do it; she wasn’t ready. She didn’t want it. Although she’d been granted the same education as her sister, she wasn’t born to be a ruler.

Certainly, after Alana’s disappearance, the younger sister had been thrust into the curriculum of the future matriarch. She was taught about justice and laws, fairness and diplomacy. She could write a speech and draw up a plan in the case of battle, but it only looked good on paper. Simply put, she didn’t have the heart for it. There was no desire to lead a kingdom, no desire to have people look up to her in times of confusion or fear. Alana had been born with that drive, with leadership qualities. Perhaps if she had been raised expecting to become a ruler, Raine would have been more accepting of the role, but she was more excited by magic and exploration.

As it stood, Raine abhorred the idea of ascending to the throne. It would mean giving up everything she held dear. It would mean that people’s lives were in her hands. It would mean marrying some nobleman that she didn’t even know, just to unify their land. It would mean no more free time. Living in Alana’s shadow would have been a blessing, leaving Raine to pursue her own life.

The citizens of the town and castle residents saw her life as comfortable and blessed, but it was only because they hadn’t seen how little she slept since her father got sick. They hadn’t noticed how her hands shook now, or how she rarely ate. They hadn’t dealt with the nightmares that plagued her when she did sleep, and how she’d wake up and have to catch her breath in the dark. They didn’t know that her days were filled with monotony and dread.

Most of the castle was quiet now. It was close to midnight, and everyone had gone to bed. She opened her door and listened carefully for any movement. The stone walls would echo most sounds, but it was completely silent. She grabbed a candle off of her nightstand and slipped out the door, quietly making her way down the hall to the stairs leading to the first floor. She felt foolish sneaking around her own home, considering that everyone knew she was a night owl and often read at night, but it was better to not be seen. That way, no questions would be asked, and no one would wonder what she was planning. She’d find a way to contact her sister, wherever she might be.

Raine often crept around at night, sometimes even donning a heavy hooded cloak and sneaking into town. She liked to visit the tavern and drink while watching the townspeople. It had been innocent fun when she was younger, but it always made her think. She knew that she was supposed to be proper and ladylike, like Alana had always been, but she would rather cuss and laugh like the barmaids in town. She would rather learn sword fighting techniques than diplomacy and etiquette. It would be nice to be free to simply exist. While others dreamed of her wealth, Raine only coveted freedom.

The library was one floor down, to the right after the stairs. Its heavy wooden doors creaked noisily as she pushed them open and closed them behind her, cringing at the break in silence. She fumbled around in the dark to light the oil lamps, then picked an over-sized armchair at the table closest to the window. The library was large, full of dusty old volumes detailing everything from history, to war strategies, fairy tales and farming. There was a small bookcase on the other side of the library, specifically for training in magic.

Kirin had brought them and implemented them in training the newest part of the king’s army, the battlemages. She wasn’t really supposed to read them, but she liked sneaking a book into her room every once in a while, simply out of curiosity, or for dabbling in magic. Kirin didn’t mind, and he never said anything when he noticed a volume or two missing. He knew the spells she’d tried were harmless beginner spells to bring good luck, or for protection from sickness. Even if she made a mistake with a spell, there wouldn’t be any notable consequence. The books containing the powerful magic were all locked safely in his room.

Her fingers ran lightly across the tomes and scrolls, the leather bound books that seemed to emanate power. She knew they were merely tools, but she never could shake the idea that they held power in their pages. If enough mages and wizards held them, wouldn’t their very essence transfer to their own inseparable items? Kirin had explained to her that it didn’t work that way, but it made sense to her. After all, when she touched one of his personal books, she could feel his familiar energy. She’d recognize it anywhere.

She took a few tomes back to the table and settled in, expecting a long night. Not knowing where to start, she picked up one of the smaller books and carefully leafed through it. It seemed to contain mostly alchemical recipes requiring herbs, flowers, and assorted animal parts. It was interesting, but it wasn’t what she was looking for. Setting it back down, she moved on to a heavy book bound in soft lambskin and began browsing. There had to be a way to contact Alana in one of these books.

After a few hours of searching, Raine could feel her eyelids drooping, threatening to draw her into sleep. Although it would be no surprise to anyone if she were to fall asleep reading, no one in the castle besides Kirin knew that she’d been studying the arcane for a few years. Of course she couldn’t do anything major, but she’d had some success with basic rituals and divination. Kirin supported her interest, but knew she would be immediately chastised by her father if she were caught, and Kirin’s position would be compromised once more. Magic was tolerated because of the king’s respect for the young mage, but it was far from accepted on M’ahl.

As she got up to carefully replace the magic books on the shelf, Raine found herself gazing at the map section. She stood staring at them for a second before setting the books down and wandering over to them. The maps were rolled up and stuck on a shelf in the back, rarely touched. She selected the one she wanted, a current map that showed the whole continent, and the surrounding islands. Unrolling it to make sure it was the right one, she returned to her seat, and placed her lamp and another book on the edges of the map to stop them from curling into each other. She studied it carefully, the candlelight casting flickering shadows on the parchment, her fingers tracing invisible lines across it. If only she could figure out how to locate Alana, she could make her come home. Short of that, she’d settle for contacting her long lost sister to at least find out if she were still alive.

Altria was situated close to the northeastern coast of the continent M’ahl, only a few miles inland. There was a small port town south of it, that was the only connection to the other continents. To the northwest of Altria was Stonehold, nestled at the base of a mountain range. There were three major cities on M’ahl, and many smaller towns and villages, divided between a triumvirate of rulers, including her own father. A wide forest lay between the port town and Altria’s sister city, Kadar. Alana could be anywhere on M’ahl, gone from the continent, or even dead. She could be on the other side of the world, across the ocean with a different name and a different life. Not many people liked traveling across the ocean because it was risky and took a long time, but if Alana had really wanted to leave, she might have taken the risk. The princess wondered if she should look at a world map instead, realizing that M’ahl was only a grain of sand in the vast Terra.

She exhaled loudly, deciding where to look first. Just then, she heard the heavy doors open

and jumped, startled by the intrusion. A young mage entered, his black and silver robes fluttering around him as he moved, his reddish brown hair hanging to the leather belt around his waist. She felt her insides knot, felt her breath catch in her throat for a split second. She couldn’t quite see him, but she knew him so well. She could never forget his angular face, his charmingly prominent nose, or his deep green eyes.

“Kirin,” she stammered, feeling inexplicably like a guilty child.

“Hello,” he said, regarding her with interest. “What are you doing in here so late?”

“Nothing really. I couldn’t sleep, so I figured I’d read for a bit,” she lied, unsure of why she even bothered. He’d see through it in a second.

“Reading? Maps don’t make for the best bedtime reading.” His tone was skeptical as he approached the table, his footsteps barely audible.

Now visible in the dim light, she shrugged helplessly. If she admitted to him what she was thinking, she knew he’d help her, but she’d wanted to keep it a secret, partially because of her selfish reasons for wanting Alana back. It was no use. Kirin would figure it out anyway.

“I-” She took a deep breath and started again. “I need to ask you a question.”

“Go ahead.” He met her gaze, his lips curling slightly into a casual smile.

“Is it possible to contact someone if you don’t know their location?” the princess shrank away from his gaze and began toying nervously with the silver and amethyst ring on her right hand.

“What are you plotting, Raine? “ he asked, leaning across the table to look at the map.

Raine stayed silent for a long while, considering her response, then finally admitted it. “Alana. I need to contact her, but I don’t know where she is. I don’t even know if she’s alive.”

Kirin nodded. She mustered up the courage to look at him again, intimidated. Even though she knew she could trust him, she had always been afraid he would realize that she didn’t look at him as a brother or even as a friend. He was so much more to her, but it was a complicated situation. Sometimes it seemed like he knew, but other times, he was utterly oblivious.

They had been best friends as long as Raine could remember. They’d always played together as children, even though he was six years her senior. She remembered him always protecting her, but also always let her be rowdy and unladylike. He seemed to have no concept of how she should act, and said nothing as long as it pleased her. Kirin teased her often as a teen, but was always kind. As they had grown into adults, he had diligently kept all of her secrets, earning a special place in her heart, even if she felt like she knew so little about him.

When Kirin left at sixteen to travel, Raine had sulked until he came back. She felt ridiculous now as she thought about it, but she’d only been a child at the time. He’d left, abandoning his knight training, and returned as a mage. He’d studied formally at the Mage’s Academy on the eastern continent, but left before completing his studies. Kirin had briefly returned to the school to undertake his trials to earn the right to practice advanced spells, and left again to continue training with private teachers, preferring their techniques over the stuffy atmosphere of the school. He jokingly referred to himself as Altria’s most successful quitter. Even as the school berated him for lacking loyalty to them, he’d far exceeded anyone’s expectations and they begrudgingly granted him the title of Archmage for his mastery of elemental magic, knowing that he was one of the only students from M’ahl to excel in several generations.

When he returned to Altria, many in the kingdom no longer trusted him, for magic was rare and widely feared on M’ahl, unlike Strigoth. Raine stood by him, recognizing him as the same quiet boy she’d grown up with. He had learned more about the arcane than most, and had seen some horrifying things in his quest for knowledge. Anyone would have been changed by the things he’d done. Sometimes she’d pry for details about those years, but had always given up on asking when she saw the wretched look in his eyes.

He was eventually granted permission to begin training others in magic by the king and the council, and the battlemages had been formed. The battlemages were formidable in theory, but were comprised of mostly wild young men who didn’t comprehend magic as well as their leader did. Regardless, they were hardworking, and most had at least some skill in magic. Some of them were better with energy shields, some could throw lightning with precision, and some were excitedly dabbling in every type of magic they could find, but most of them were unable to control their magic well enough to be effective. As a result, they still primarily relied on their swords and daggers.

Kirin could easily switch between his sword or magic, content to use either, or both at the same time. Due to spending his youth training for knighthood, he was formidable with a sword. As his skill with magic improved, he used his sword less, but never entirely gave it up. He claimed it was satisfying to use sometimes, and kept him grounded. Raine suspected that he kept it for sentimental reasons, because it had been his father’s personal sword.

“When she left, she came to me that night, and told me not to tell Father,” Raine explained, looking back at the map spread before her, wishing it would show her where her sister was. “She wouldn’t have said that if she didn’t plan to leave. I don’t know why she did it. I don’t know where she went, and for all I know, she could be dead now, but I need to find her.”

“The world’s not a kind place.” He frowned as he dragged a chair over from another table and sat across from her.

“I’ve heard.”

Ignoring her attitude, he continued. “You could use a pendulum to locate her, but that won’t let you contact her, so it depends on what you want. If you want to contact her, you could try a soul-search spell. If she’s dead, it won’t work, obviously. The soul has to be in the same realm as you.”

“Can I find that spell in those books?” she asked hopefully, gesturing to the shelf of tomes.

“Gods, no.” Kirin chuckled. “Can you imagine what those idiots would do if they had access to that? Every time their woman ran off, they’d be rushing to track her down. They’d use it to find their lost dogs, and every other stupid reason. Leaving it where they could find it would be completely irresponsible.”

“But you have the spell in one of your books, right?”

“I do.”

“Can I borrow it?”

“Sorry, Raine. I don’t let those books out of my sight.”

Raine sighed in exasperation. “Then can you do it for me?”

“I could, but I won’t.” He crossed his arms.

“Why?” She raised her voice just slightly, irritated by his refusal.

“Because she always hated me. I know she’s your sister and you love her, but there’s never been anything between us. I don’t want anything to do with her. I don’t want her to come back. I think you’re better off forgetting her.”

Shaking her head, Raine slumped in her chair. She’d grown up with a vicious contempt for her greatly revered sister, the next queen. Alana had been elegant and proper, reserved and pompous. Raine had grown up hearing from her father and the townspeople alike that her sister was perfect and that she should strive to be more like her. Nothing she ever accomplished was good enough, because her sister was always better.

Besides the sense of inadequacy caused by others, Alana had deepened the rift in their family, by being cold and condescending to Raine. She had never approved of Raine’s friendship with Kirin, or her familiarity with the servants. She’d told her she was too human to be royalty, and that one day she’d have to realize that not everyone could be her friend. Raine had spent most of her years avoiding her sister. When she went missing, Raine had been secretly relieved, until she realized what it meant for her own future. There was never anything but resentment between them. To say that she’d loved Alana was a blatant lie, and Kirin knew it.

“You won’t help me, then. I’m sorry I bothered you.” She turned in her chair and looked out the window at the black glittering sky, unwilling to let him see the tears forming in her eyes.

“It’s not an inconvenience,” Kirin replied, standing up. He smiled at her, that condescending smile that Raine loved and hated at the same time, then padded to the door. “I’ll leave you to your studies. See you in the morning.”

The door closed behind him, leaving Raine seething alone. She stood up and cursed, then grabbed a book off the nearest shelf and threw it as hard as she could at the door, wishing she’d thrown it at Kirin’s face instead. It connected with a satisfying thud as she felt the tears slip down her cheeks.

Kirin was wrong. She hated Alana more than she’d ever hated anyone. She hated her for the way she treated everyone else. She hated her for leaving her father to die with one less child. Most of all, she hated Alana for leaving her in a position that guaranteed no freedom in life. Alana had single-handedly ensured that Raine hoped death came early for her.

The princess cried in frustration for what seemed like a long time, crumpled awkwardly on the floor. She knew she was unfairly mad at Kirin, but it didn’t stop her from blaming him. It would be nothing for him to cast a spell like that. He could throw fire and lightning. He could even control the elements. Finding one stupid woman should be nothing to him, even if he didn’t like her.

When she felt like she had no tears left to cry, she wiped her face with the sleeves of her red dress, the feeling of wet velvet on her face repulsing her. Her mouth was dry and her throat felt raw. She stood up slowly, unsteadily, and relighted the candle she’d brought with her to the library. After heading to the kitchen for a drink of water, Raine trudged back up to her room to try and sleep before dawn came.

As she entered the room, she noticed a small bundle on her bed, wrapped in black silk. Setting the candle on her nightstand, she sat on the bed and picked up the package. Had one of the servants left it? It felt light, but contained a few objects. She carefully untied the bundle to find a small pouch filled with some fragrant herbs, a small silver bowl, a sharp knife, and a few folded papers. The papers had writing on them, scrawled in a sharp messy style. She recognized it instantly as Kirin’s handwriting.

“I merely said I wouldn’t do the spell for you. I don’t think it’s a good idea to contact someone who only brought you pain, but I never said I wouldn’t help you if this is what you want. Enclosed are the steps needed for the ritual. Follow them closely and please be careful with the knife.”