Promise of the Lost Gods

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Unbelievable

A flurry of women whisked around my chambers, several large trunks consuming armful after armful of my clothes and effects. Thea directed the chattering maids while she packed a smaller trunk with tunics, shirts, trousers, cloaks and boots, my utilitarian wardrobe.

They’re packing an awful lot for just the Meliorn wedding, I thought to myself, observing them from a window seat. I shut my book and made my way to the tall, ornate cabinet in the corner holding my weapons. I began pulling out a selection of blades and an extra quiver packed full of arrows.

I turned, my arms full, and was met with disapproving looks. I knew most of them thought it was unladylike for a woman to train as a warrior.

King Erastus and his council encouraged an ever more patriarchal-leaning society, as did his forebears, in which women were only encouraged to master their own element, not physical weapons. Now, after nearly one hundred years of House Hykon’s rule, most women didn’t care to cast their element much beyond whatever they could do for their own comfort and profit.

Calarel’s ancient laws ensured equality for all, but if King Erastus were to repudiate the ancient charter, to reject it and issue his own decrees... He would ensure women’s rights to own lands and businesses would be revoked, he would ensure women were little more than the property of their husbands and fathers. Erastus was the boldest of the Hykon line yet and I wouldn’t put anything past him.

I wished for more for Calarel. I yearned to be heard and seen as the same as the lords; I had worked a hundred times harder to make sure I was equally, if not more, accomplished. When it came time for me to join court, I would join earnestly. I would bring my observations and my opinions and fight for the people and the land. As a noble it was my right to be involved in the governance of my realm.

And, although I didn’t know much about them beyond what I had gleaned from the old lore I had heard, some merely children’s tales, I silently petitioned the old gods to guide me, nearly every day.

I asked them for strength now.

I joined Thea at the smaller trunk and slid the weapons into pockets in the lining of the trunk’s lid. I packed a few more books about the South, history, geography, explorers’ narratives, and Calarel’s laws. Thea lowered the trunk lid with a thunk and latched the box.

Into my personal satchel went a thick journal, pens and ink, a couple of maps, a compass, flint, water flask, a couple apples, a purse of coins, and a pair of daggers. A linen scarf and an extra pair of socks completed the pack. I knew to ride light. One saddlebag for food. One for clothes. Keep survival essentials and most weapons on your person. I deposited the satchel on my desk, prepared for the morning.

The change of scenery was going to do me good and distract me. I was eager to see Gareth’s home in the south. Although I couldn’t say I was as equally thrilled by the royal ball where my father would surely put me on display for the princes.

A knock came at the door then, which Thea answered. After a moment she closed the door again and handed me a bit of folded parchment with a fresh wax seal. Vines encircling the letter Z were stamped into the green wax. I popped the seal and scanned the message.

Master Zarkarius’ note was a summons to his quarters.

I bid the ladies adieu and hurried down to the main level and across the castle to Zarkarius’ chambers. I passed through one of my favorite courtyards, one overhanging with wisteria and ivy. Zarkarius’ power was mighty and the castle was lush between his force and my mother’s.

Perhaps mine too.

Powerful mages could attract their element, invite it with their magic. I smiled as I reached Zarkarius’ door.

Moss, hornworts, and other bryophytes grew in the cracks and seams between the stones of the doorway. I hardly knocked before the door swung open to reveal a bright set of whitewashed rooms replete with wooden tables and stands filled with books and plants, shelves stuffed with jars and vials of dried, preserved, and cured odds, ends, and forms. Books were stacked here and there, candles burned and something bubbled. I could hear the song of the small fire call to me as it burned steadily beneath the kettle boiling over the hearth. A large mirrored bowl of water sat on the main work table. All of the plants in the room felt like Zarkarius, as I connected to each one with my magic. I felt the breeze from the open window as I stepped in. The old man was in a side room, a circular room in the base of a tower, windows on most sides looking out into the gardens. Stands of gorgeous, exotic plants bloomed there.

“Lady Serena,” Zarkarius extracted himself from the small forest, “I am glad you could make time to attend me in your limited schedule.”

“Of course, Master Zarkarius,” I began, “I must admit I feel some guilt for not visiting you more frequently in the past week or so.”

“Do not fret my child, I know you have otherwise been preoccupied-”

I glanced up at him, my cheeks turning pink.

“-with your suitor, Lord Gareth, at your father’s behest.” Zarkarius smiled gently at me. I let down my guard. The old man had never judged me, nor been unkind. His eyes twinkled affectionately.

“I apologize, I have allowed myself to become distracted. I will strive to be more focused and dedicated in the future.”

“Serena, nonsense, my dear one, please do not be so hard on yourself. You visited me the day before Gareth arrived.”

“You must think me a silly girl, to have my head turned by a fancy lord so easily.”

“Easily? Easily? Ha! My dear girl, you are the least silly girl I have ever known. If anything you are far too serious! You are a proficient scholar, an adept warrior and a gifted mage. You are very accomplished for nearly one and twenty.”

Zarkarius called up a white bloom from the tips of his fingers, drawing his fingers apart, watching as the growth followed suit swiftly.

“Please, at your leisure, do share with my father some of your views, as his opinion of me hinges solely on the fact that I have yet to accomplish an advantageous marriage alliance.”

“Do not concern yourself with Lord Rourke’s opinion.” Zarkarius said dismissively as he plucked the flower from his palm and laid it in my hand, “You deserve to have some happiness. If you want Gareth and he is a worthy man, allow yourself to love,” he smiled.

I felt the corner of my lips tug upward and the flower began to take root in my palm, a bit of my magic creeping out to connect to the plant. A second bud popped open, pristine petals unfurling slowly. I withdrew the energy. I looked up to see Zarkarius was intently staring, his brow furrowed. He caught my eye and his eyes crinkled immediately.

“I have something for you.”

“Zarkarius, I can’t take any more books with me, Thea will have my head.”

“For once, it is not a book,” the old man chuckled as he moved to a large, ornately carved bookcase. One of my eyebrows rose along with my curiosity. Zarkarius reached into the bookcase and triggered a mechanism with a soft metallic clink. A slim drawer popped out of the top shelf. I saw him smile slightly and the greenery that grew around him wound up his ankles, climbed his calves and lifted him.

Zarkarius retrieved an object from the secret space and returned to the floor. His smile had faded and his visage was serious and composed. Whatever had been in the drawer he kept concealed in his palms.

“Serena, child of the selenelion, I present this gift unto you, for your twenty-first year.”

“Zarkarius, it isn’t my birthday for a few moons yet.”

He smiled with a small sadness. “I have been recently informed that you will be traveling straight to the capital after attending the Meliorn wedding.”

I looked into his eyes and I knew the information had purposely been kept from me - from us both - by my father.

“I would be pleased if you would open it.”

“Of course I shall!” I smiled then, “you know how impossibly curious I am, Zark!”

He then handed me a black velvet pouch. I gently tugged the strings and a necklace slipped into my palm. From a long simple gold chain hung a round, golden pendant, simple and plain, no bigger than a coin. My breath hitched when I turned the pendant over. There, embossed on the face, was the same symbol scarred onto the flesh of my left hip.

“It’s the symbol of the old gods.”

I couldn’t tear my gaze away. His words landed on me like a mountain, pinning me to the seat. I couldn't fathom the conclusion burning in my mind.

“I thought it might remind you to-” Zarkarius started to explain. I realized I wasn’t breathing, or listening, and I gasped for oxygen. Zarkarius watched my expression closely and began to speak again. I cut him off.

“Why have I never seen this symbol before, Zarkarius? Never? If it’s truly the mark of the gods? Why?” I demanded vehemently, surprising myself, but not the old man. Tears crept to the corners of my eyes. I felt ill. I slumped onto a stool. A strange feeling crept over me, my skin tingling.

The symbol of the gods...

“Serena, I thought we would have more time, but-” Zarkarius began right before harsh, staccato knocks sounded at the door.

“Lady Serena’s immediate presence has been requested by Lord and Lady Rourke!” came the guard’s bellow as he opened the door.

“Beware the darkness, Serena, and keep faith in yourself, in the light.” Zarkarius whispered as he pressed my hand closed around the pendant.

He drew me into a crush of a hug and waved me toward the door. I moved to exit, and when I looked back I detected a hint of fear and worry in my mentor’s eyes.

“Be safe, child.”


“Lady Rourke, you know exactly why I will not allow it!”

I heard my father snap at my mother as I entered the grand parlor and I grimaced, bracing myself. The guard who had escorted me posted himself in the hallway.

"Lord Gareth is clearly taken with her, and we are running out of eligible lords willing to travel this far west, husband. Word has spread across the kingdom of her reluctance to marry. We should exercise caution in discouraging Lord Meliorn."

Lord Rourke did not notice me as I stood in the entrance, and continued to lecture.

“She will not agree to an engagement with Lord Meliorn before the Princes’ ball. IF the princes all pass her over - which I cannot fathom - I would potentially allow a marriage to Meliorn. But not before I have a chance to present her to the Princes. If she were to wed any of them... let alone Crown Prince Erastus, imagine the pull we would have at court!” Lord Rourke laughed arrogantly, before adding, to sway her, “the crown may finally grant us the eastern borderlands long disputed by Houses Rourke and Idriel.”

I watched as my mother perked up. A shiver went down my spine and I cringed. I was nothing but a pawn to them both. I gripped the pendant tightly before slipping it in my pocket. It was too much. I turned silently and snuck out of the room. I pressed a coin into the guard’s hand and told him to tell my parents that I could not be found on the grounds and was presumed to be off on a ride. I was gone before he could protest.

I was in the stables before I knew it. I yanked Sage’s gate open and threw a lead rope around her neck before standing on an overturned bucket and hoisting myself, awkward in my narrow dress, onto her bare back. I gripped the rope around her neck with one hand, a clump of her thick black mane in the other. I had no need for tack with Sage. We clattered out of the stables, past a surprised stable boy, and toward the open gates. Once we were through the gates my tears streamed freely as Sage carried me toward my secret glen, quick as the wind.

The noon sun pierced the forest with golden beams, a beautiful play of light I hardly noticed. I directed Sage through the hidden cleft in the stone and toward the stream at the far end of the meadow. I slid off her back and collapsed into the lush green grass on the bank. I stared at the sky, my tears streaming freely, before reaching into the pocket of my skirts and pulling out the pendant. I sat up and ran my thumb over the symbol shining on the surface.

If this is the symbol of the gods...

My other hand subconsciously slid to my hip, the place the same exact symbol had been scarred into my flesh my entire life.

Am I a pawn of the gods’ too?

My mind then turned back to my father’s plans for me and fresh tears sprang to my eyes as I thought of Gareth. The crown prince was rumored to be cold-blooded, like his father.

Dare I tell Gareth of my parents’ plotting? Would he fight for me?

The sad reality of hoping to be saved from martial enslavement to the prince by a man I had known for less than a fortnight dawned on me and I laughed aloud, my heart a void in my chest. My magic swirled through my veins and I sank into the energy, the stone beneath me grounding me with its steady patience. I stared up at the peaks of the Austris, the sight of the stalwart mountains soothing my heart, before I turned my eyes again to the symbol on the pendant.

Sage snorted and nudged my arm, breaking my concentration. I turned to rub her face and spotted white horse standing at the entrance to the clearing.

“Look, a wild cousin, Sage, a friend.” I stood and patted Sage’s neck, watching the magnificent male. He tossed his head in the sun’s rays and I could’ve sworn I saw something flash on his head. The horse turned and trotted back through the stone cleft. I put the necklace on and tucked it inside the neckline of my bodice. I swiftly mounted Sage and urged her to follow.

I caught sight of the stallion disappearing around the bend of the track and cantered after him. He broke into a gallop. We wove between the tall hardwoods, bending within inches of the bark. Something urged me to follow. There was a stretch where we had him in the open, on a small knoll. He reared when we came upon him and it was then I saw the long silver horn spiraling out from his forehead. He bared his teeth as he came down, snapping at my mare.

Is that? No...

I swept a few stray curls out of my unbelieving eyes, Sage jigging beneath me.

That’s a unicorn!

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