The misting rain couldn’t conceal a bobbing blackness on the streets of Albinar. Nell shivered even though Nilessa, with her silly twisty-braids stood nearby. Something had happened to the king that required their parents to run to the castle. Nell had dragged Nilessa into the storm to find out why. But now, Nell wasn’t sure that had been a good idea. The monsters of Mecesar that had seemed so far away…now were very much real.
The sound of well-worn boots pounding cobbles and the soft rustle of clothes transformed into a cloaked figure. It came to an abrupt halt, though its plumes of shadow continued to ripple and twist in the air. The darkness of night had come to confront them. Rather, they were in its way.
No, fear wouldn’t do any good. Nell braced her lungs to yell, so a city knight would hear. Her yell became a scream as a gloved hand shot out to wrap around her sister’s arm. Jumping to Nilessa’s aid, Nell pounded on the knobby wrist. The man tightened his grip.
No, she couldn’t abandon her sister. She didn’t flinch as the Mecesaran backhanded her. The stinging in her cheek was worth the man releasing Nilessa. He wasn’t even smart enough to aim for a weak-point. Taking advantage, Nell charged at the towering figure. The shadow fell forward, becoming entangled in his cloak.
With a roar of anger, the man rolled between Nilessa and Nell. The discarded cloak lay sprawled along the ground, a black chasm in the creamy pavement. The silver-eyed stranger was standing now, and he slashed at Nilessa’s face even as Nell pulled her away.
The enemy gestured with his other hand to pull nearby shadows—even those of Nilessa and Nell—into a trembling ribbon of dark energy. The insidious power immobilized Nell and began to crush her skull. The last she saw was blood dripping between Nilessa’s eyes.
Nell woke. Her heart fluttered and then slowed. Removing the soft quilt from her body, she sat up and listened. A few songbirds trilled morning songs. The wind had picked up, enough to make the leaves of the trees outside crackle. Her skin felt cool, still sticky with sweat. Every limb trembled. Could her nightmare be a portent of disaster? Not a nightmare, a distorted memory…
She examined the familiar contents of her room to restore her calm. The quilt that Nilessa and Mother had sewn together lay crumpled at the edge of the feather bed. Knickknacks littered her night-table. Her day clothes hung on the closet door, freshly pressed thanks to Mother’s efforts. Her sword, a medium length blade of light-infused metal, rested on a throne of well-loved study books.
“Get up, lazy!” Nilessa swooped into the room to smack Nell’s thigh.
At twenty-two and highly sought after by young men, Nilessa gave their father ample cause to call her “princess.” She wore her tawny hair half up with a ribbon that usually matched her gown. Her crystal-clear gaze betrayed love and annoyance with equal ease.
Nell, in contrast, had become an inconspicuous nineteen-year-old young woman. This morning, her hair sprung out from the confines of a simple, brown braid. Her amber eyes, common to the people of Albinar, measured the world with a collected and blasé air.
“That hurt,” Nell said, cradling her sore leg. For a supposed princess, Nilessa retained a few rough mannerisms.
Nilessa tilted her head, hair spilling across her shoulder in a way that would make men take notice. For today’s adventures, Nilessa had chosen a green gown trimmed with gold that flattered her figure. “Nell, you look a bit pale. What’s wrong?”
Shaken from the thought of teasing her sister for picking a dress in Sir Fen’s favorite color, Nell said, “I dreamt…no, I remembered when a Mecesaran attacked us.”
Twelve years ago, the enemy had struck at the heart of Albinar. After leaving the king with a poisoned gash, the Mecesaran had run into two little girls on the streets of the white city. Nilessa carried a soft silver scar along her temple from the brute’s blade. Nell still remembered how shadows, even their own, had jumped to do the man’s bidding. While the shadows overwhelmed Nell, the man had hurt her sister. Nell clenched her fists. Never again would she be helpless. The shadow magic of the Mecesarans was nothing compared to the gift of the Goddess.
“Well, he’s dead. Sir Roland and the king took care of it,” Nilessa said.
Yes, one of the king’s white knights had saved them as he patrolled the area. With the light of the Goddess, he had captured the murderous Mecesaran. Tried by the king’s court, the intruder had hanged. Even so, no one had given them an explanation as to how a Mecesaran had made it so far into the heart of Albinar.
As Nell remained quiet, her sister asked, “Why remember it now?”
“Maybe to remind myself…why I want to be a knight.” Nell pulled her knees close to her chin.
“It’s okay to be scared.” Nilessa took the other girl’s wrist and felt the pulse there, which thrummed steady and slow.
“I was, but now I’m not. I’m fine, Lessa.” The bright light in the white bedroom enveloped her like an embrace. In broad daylight, she feared nothing. Even the uncertainty of the dark night could be kept at bay with a trustworthy sword in hand and the white knights’ power. The latter—the ability to wield light to vanquish shadows—she planned to get soon. “Go, so I can get dressed. Slap Breig awake while you’re at it.”
“Of course. That boy sleeps in even later than you do!” Shaking her head, Nilessa bustled out of the room. With a yawn, Nell slithered from the bed. Every muscle in her protested while she draped the quilt neatly across the bed and tucked in the edges. Yesterday’s practice bout with Sir Fen had taken more of a toll than she had imagined. Father often scolded her for pushing her physical limits—but only in a half-hearted way.
Today, she would give him no cause to scold her by wincing and groaning. Nell straightened her night-gown, re-braided her hair and then proceeded with morning stretches. After discovering that she could still touch her toes with ease from a standing position, Nell began to dress.
A white tunic with yellow flower embroidery clung to her form with the tenacity common in female clothing. Despite her mother’s warning that it would turn her into a boy, Nell had bound her chest with a soft cloth. To complete her outfit, she favored a pair of tan trousers and black boots borrowed from her father. She had adjusted the pants for her curves with a sewing needle, determined not to have Nilessa or Mother harangue her about the ill fit. Last, the white shawl essential to the fashion of the women of Albinar she knotted around her neck. In the front, it cascaded down in a pleat.
She stepped into the parlor where chaos had ensued.
“Let go of me, woman!” Breig twisted and arched in an effort to free his collar from Nilessa’s grip. His clothes were wrinkled and torn as if he had been in a tussle.
“Where were you?” Nilessa asked with a scowl. “You slipped back in through your window too late, Brother.”
Behind them, Mother was setting the table for breakfast. The housekeeper Caddy darted in and out to place hot porridge and bacon at the center of the table. The head of the household, Cassius Lucasta, was finishing up the whitewashing at the doorframe.
Nell skirted around the occupants of the crowded room. “Morning! I’m going to go out for some air!” She stopped at the threshold to wipe a few flecks of white paint from her father’s nose. Cassius looped an arm around her shoulders to give her a companionable shake.
“Running away from us already, Nellie?” The atrocious half-rhyme made his daughter cringe and his wife sigh.
“What about breakfast?” Caddy pointed at the steaming contents of the table. “You’ll need it to show the knights your full strength, dearie.”
“I’ll be back in twenty minutes. I promise.” Nell slipped from her father’s grasp, mindful of the still wet paint of the doorway.
“While you’re outside, see if this one caused any mischief last night.” Molly pointed with her chin at Breig, who had plopped onto a seat at the table and gave off the air of a mistreated puppy.
Nell promised solemnly to root out the damage caused by her rambunctious brother. At least, outside, there was no furious family demanding that Breig pay for any damage. So, Nell loped down the road and admired the renewal of the neighborhood houses. The annual Whitewashing festival signaled the beginning of a new year and a fresh start. Often, people were married or took up a new project during the few, lucky weeks after the festival.
On the streets of Albinar, a few people nodded at Nell as they passed but said nothing. Even the daughter of the adjacent neighbor, Ellaine Hayilard, gave her a tight smile and continued on without a word to her. Their boorish behavior didn’t damper Nell’s step. The sight of the castle spurred her on. It looked especially radiant today, spires gleaming with light as if the Goddess had touched them.
The knight guarding the steel gate to the castle bailey grinned at Nell’s approach. Nell always caught the opportunity to talk to him at the end of his shift. Sir Fen Dellian had the weathered and built appearance of a farmer, but his decorated white plate-armor dashed that initial impression.
“Miss Lucasta, a very good morning to you!”
“A good morning? No complaints from the citizens then?” Nell lowered her voice. “Has Breig confided in you? He came home early this morning.”
“Through the window?” Sir Fen prodded. “Nilessa must have had a fit. She worries so much for you all.”
“You’ve right on both points.” No doubt, Nell thought, it was the curse of being the oldest sibling.
“Perhaps it’s a forbidden romance,” Fen concluded. He polished the golden pommel of his sword absently until the shine satisfied him.
Nell began to pace the stone half-circle paved in front of the castle gates. “Father owns acres of land. Mother has an honorary position as one of the king’s doctors. As their children, we could marry anyone we want. Why does Breig want to hide the girl he’s wooing?”
“That’s the most anxiety I’ve seen on your face…ever,” Fen observed, smiling when Nell smoothed her face back into a blank slate.
“I’m almost worried for Breig. He’s been acting out—”
“Like any young man.”
“What if the girl’s father decides to take matters into his own hands?”
“Nell, worry about yourself. Don’t meddle in your brother’s business.”
“How selfish do you think I am?” Nell crossed her arms.
Knowing the girl in front of him meant the question seriously, he reminded her, “Well, you have the Trials coming up this afternoon, don’t you? Are you ready?”
She drew in a calming breath. The day she had looked forward to for years had arrived. To present herself as a candidate for the Trials she had trained in swordsmanship, learned history and investigated skills likely useful to knights. By heart, she knew every piece of knight lore that comprised most of the history of Albinar. “Aah! It’s terrifying!”
The strangled sound from her throat made the knight burst out laughing. “Nell, you’ll pass with no trouble at all. If I passed…”
“Then I’ll probably be fine,” Nell agreed. Though Fen’s father had been a knight, his family had come from a line of middle-class farmers. No one had thought a farmer and his son would become knights...
Before Fen could say anything more, Remus Hayilard strode up to them. The man’s ruddy face and perpetually clenched fists told others to keep at a distance. “Mr. Hayilard, good—”
“I want Breig Lucasta arrested.”
“Morning,” Fen finished with a side-glance for Nell. Every muscle had gone rigid; she looked much like a cornered wild animal.
Remus turned to consider Nell with a suspicious eye. “You! Aren’t you his sister? Tell that boy to stay away from Ellaine!”
“Why would he go near her?” She ignored Fen’s metal elbow to her ribs. “She’s rude and cruel. Not to mention the way she treats her sister, Meriam…”
For a moment, Remus resembled a swelling toad. Then he bellowed, “Cassius ought to be ashamed of the way he raised his children…You think you can get away with anything because your parents are favored by the king.”
“Sir, please calm down.” Fen gently took the man’s sleeve and pulled him away. After assuring the man he would take appropriate action, Fen returned to his post. There, Nell was leaning against the steel gates.
“All I said was true,” she defended herself, staring down the road long after Remus had disappeared.
“You are not a liar, Nell.” Fen crossed his arms. “However, you lack tact.”
“Tact is just an indirect way of being a liar.”
“Even a knight requires tact, especially when on a special mission for His Majesty.”
That one seemed to sink in as Nell became quiet. “How is His Majesty?”
“Not expected to live beyond this year.” Sir Fen’s mouth tightened. “And now…” He shook his head and then pulled Nell away from the gates. Her hands, calloused as they were, remained small compared to his.
She pulled away. “Fen, you’re hiding something, but I won’t ask you to betray His Majesty.”
“Maybe you do have some tact after all.” He almost gave her a playful knock on the head, but she darted away and out of reach. “I’ll sort out the matter with Breig. Go prepare for the Trials. May the Goddess bless you.”
“May her light shine on you as well.” Nell gave him a bow and turned back towards home. Perhaps having solid food in her stomach would stop its fluttering.