Prologue: The Choosing
We shivered despite the warm air that lazily wafted around us. The humidity and heat suffocated, like a thick, wet blanket pressed against our faces. The slightest breeze caressed the far off vivid greenery of the forest, the leaves dancing and teasing as we stood in the bright summer sun.
It was near the solstice, and we were now old enough to participate in the Choosing. All our lives we had watched others before us be Chosen, leaving mysteriously to join the King and never return. At ten years old, we had to join the long line of children tested each year. If we were deemed worthy, then the King would whisk us away to the palace to be trained as his elite magical warriors, the Suryan Mages. I blinked in the bright sunlight that pierced through my eyelids.
Renn, my twin sister, leaned against my right side. She often did this, relying on my strength and balance in many ways. We lived on our farm with our widowed father. I helped him with the bulk of the physical chores, uncomplaining, while Renn much preferred the household work. She, unlike me, found peace in creating with her hands, with cleaning, cooking, and sewing. She was talented with a needle and was the one who mended our clothes, each stitch keeping us warm and covered. I never had any talents for creating things like she did. Every single time she tried to teach me, the yarn simply knotted in my hands, each meal I attempted burned or inedible, and the sewing needle always pricked my fingers, resulting in a clumsy mess. Her body heat was too much on mine, and I wanted to push her off. But I knew she was nervous today too. She needed the physical reassurance that I would be there for her, as I always had.
While she was the peaceful, gentle soul, I was the work horse. I kept up the farm, plowing the fields with my father, when he was able, planting the seeds, turning the soil and nourishing it so that our sustenance would spring up from its depths. Renn liked to cook, to draw, to create, so it was left to me to do the work nobody else wanted to do, what was necessary for us to survive.
My father had never truly recovered from the death of our mother, and often it was up to me to sell the produce in the city, handle the daily business of the farm, and to delegate tasks to my father. He had his good days and his bad days, and unfortunately, today was a bad one. We walked to the village center alone, unaccompanied. The walk was so shameful, so empty; every other child had at least one parent that could come with them. It was worse that every single person in that village center knew exactly where our father was – holed up in our cottage, drinking himself to oblivion. I never understood why he couldn’t be there for us, but I’d long since given up on trying to force him to. Instead, I just took the reins, and made sure Renn and I were fed, that our farm was running smoothly, and that we would survive to the next day.
The line inched forward as another child had been determined unworthy of the Suryan Mages. Far ahead, through the haze of the high summer heat, I peered through squinted eyes to see the makeshift dais housing the King and two of his mages. The King sat informally perched on the edge of a large traveling trunk, flanked by his two mages standing at either side of him. The King looked bored, staring down the long line of children waiting to meet him, his large golden crown glinting through the dry air.
“I wanna go home,” Renn complained quietly, rubbing the hem of her shirt in her fingers.
She’d made it herself, woven the wool from the neighbor’s sheep on our makeshift loom into the square of cloth she’d fashioned into her tunic.
“Me too,” I sighed, wishing there was something I could do.
The line inched forward again, another one of our peers rejected by the King. Renn was lucky, I thought. She hadn’t shown any magical talents yet. At least, nothing obvious. It was more common to have small magics, like a knack for planting, for tracking game, or other such useful skills. The magic of the land was closely tied in with nature, so it followed that the most common of magics manifested as those to aid survival.
Mine, however, had been showing symptoms for weeks. I’d been dreading this day, because I knew that the King would take me. I’d been trying so hard to conceal it from her and failing. I was embarrassed, as my symptoms of my magical talent seemed to result in miniature catastrophes. A few days ago, I’d accidentally destroyed a handmade clay bowl my mother had thrown years before we were born. Renn had silently helped me collect the pieces, sweep the floor, and remove all evidence before our father had seen. She never asked a single question, and I offered no explanation, but I knew she was smart enough to connect the dots. I couldn’t hide anything from her anyway.
I swallowed thickly, unsure of what I should do. I eyed the mages and the King. The King, his own talent being the ability to sense other magics, would be able to track me unless I was able to get far enough away. His brand of magic was how he’d assembled his first league of Suryan Mages ten years ago, right before we were born. I was sure I couldn’t escape him if he were tracking me specifically. In any case, the other two mages that flanked him as his personal guard were even more intimidating than that knowledge.
One was a very large man who stood even taller than the King. His black skin shone in the light, sweat pouring off of him from the smothering summer heat. His long dreads were tied up away from his face, and he wore the light leather armor of a Suryan Mage. He looked as if he could break a tree in half. The other mage looked significantly less frightening, although she was like an Amazonian woman, tall and lean. She looked fast, as if she could outrun the fastest horses in our village, her long legs practically vibrating with energy. I didn’t like my odds of escape. I was just a gangly ten year old; what hope did I have?
I pushed Renn off of me, who had still been leaning up against my shoulder. She grumbled in response, irritated. I paid her no mind, instead sizing up my chances of escape. I couldn’t meet the King; he would surely take me away from my family. What would become of them if I left? Renn had no idea how to take care of the farm like I did, and I couldn’t trust my father to keep himself together enough to tend to both the farm and Renn. I knew I would have to at least try.
I peeked around the line of children that grew steadily shorter, as the other village kids were either selected or rejected, the most likely being the latter. Where could I escape to? The forest, although a fair distance away, beckoned me. I’d always enjoyed the forest, and I couldn’t deny the call of the shade it would bring. The heat was stifling, and I longed for a dip in the pond, shaded by the trees’ dense foliage. The forest probably would work, but only if I could get there. I was fast, but I instinctively knew my legs weren’t long enough to outrun the mages that guarded the King. I tilted the other way, trying to see around the people.
I hadn’t even noticed before, but the King hadn’t come entirely alone, aside from his guard. He’d brought what must be his daughter. She looked to be a bit older than me, and she wore a simple dress that was still far more elegant than anything I’d ever seen. It looked as if it were made of the finest silks, and it probably was. She sat, also bored, on a small stool the village had provided for her. The sheen of her dress reflected the light, and her small golden circlet around her dark blonde hair glinted just like her father’s had. I didn’t know much about the princess, except that she was named Nya, but I immediately decided she didn’t pose a threat to me. She looked so disinterested that I doubted she would even notice if the village itself caught on fire right in front of her.
The line became shorter, and we stepped closer. There were still quite a few people in front of us, but I knew my time was running short. I needed to get away as quickly as I could. I looked around the village center, noting that though we were in the middle, I could possibly hide between the buildings, and perhaps even make my way further and towards the forest. I couldn’t make any sudden moves, the anxiety building and tensing my muscles subconsciously. I clenched my jaw. I couldn’t leave Renn behind with only my father. I didn’t trust that he had the capability to take of himself, let alone my twin sister, too.
Renn was muttering to herself, the heat probably riling her up as it did most people. I needed to start my get away. We weren’t quite last in line, but we were close to it. The village wasn’t large, and there were only so many children here. I stepped out of line to go towards the back.
“Do you mind if go to the back? I’m nervous,” I said to the two boys behind me, covering my mouth with my hand as if embarrassed.
The one closest to me gave me an odd look, but they both made their way to allow me to step back. Renn noticed I had left her, and looked up at me, surprised and angry. I gave her an intense look, pursing my lips and widening my eyes at her, hoping she would get what I was trying to do. To my relief, she fell back into line, a suspicious look on her face. Hopefully, she understood what my intentions were and wouldn’t hinder me.
Now that I was in the back of the line, I hoped that I would be able to slip away. The line was getting shorter and shorter, and we were getting closer and closer to the King. I didn’t dare look backwards and betray myself prematurely, but I knew this village better than anywhere else. I’d grown up here, after all. I knew that behind me, approximately ten yards away, stood the Potts’ house, where their family sold their goods in the village center. If I could slip behind it, then I could sneak my way to safety. Our family would be as it was, and I wouldn’t have to worry about leaving to serve some King in his palace. Silently, I bid a goodbye to my twin sister. It was the best I could do for now.
I stepped backwards, slowly pressing my bare feet into the dry dirt, my toes digging into the earth. Nobody noticed. The line accelerated forward, one more person. I took another step back. Nine more yards to go. Then, I decided to go for it. I took another decisive step backwards, and then turned and calmly walked towards the Potts’ house. If I looked like I should be doing what I was doing, people wouldn’t question me, right?
Wrong. As soon as I’d gotten a few feet away from the line, I heard a shout from the dais. Not chancing a look back, I sprang into action. My feet pounded the cracked soil, one after the other, each sending an impact through my body as I sprinted away and through the circle of cottages that made up our little village. I had to make it out of here! A clamor of chaos followed me, and I knew then that the mages must be in pursuit. I pushed myself harder, my lungs burning.
My feet had taken me out of the village center, and I careened around a corner of one of my neighbor’s cottages. I didn’t know where I was going, but wherever it was, I had to get there fast. The footsteps got closer, the pace of the mages picking up as I had turned the corner. I breathed heavily, panicking. I couldn’t hide, I had nowhere to go, but I had to keep going. My legs were on automatic, muscles straining, my calves on fire, my lungs protesting the sudden change of speed, as I raced towards anywhere and nowhere at all.
A small rock, one barely the size of my little toe, was my downfall. I stepped on it, the sharp little stone breaking the skin and entering the ball of my foot, caused me to stumble, arms flailing wildly, and collapse face forward. Immediately, the mages were upon me. They must have only been yards behind me. I never really had a chance to escape. I lay there, heaving, my face pressed into the dust, defeated.
Four arms roughly picked me up to stand, the rock still inserted in my foot. I left it there. Why bother? My life was over. Surely, this act of defying the King, Zante Urion, conqueror of the Ryne and ruler of Thiol, would earn me death. My head lolled back; my eyes closed in the direct sunlight. The smell of sour sweat pierced my nostrils.
“You’ve impressed me, child,” boomed a deep voice.
I didn’t dare to open my eyes; I knew instinctively it was the King who spoke to me. I was already dead, anyhow. What did it matter if I disrespected him now or not?
“She’s got fire,” said the mage gripping my left arm.
The voice was masculine, with a peculiar accent I wasn’t familiar with. Foreign. This must be the male mage, I concluded.
“I can see that,” chuckled the King. “What’s your name, child?”
I peeked through my lashes, sweat dripping down my forehead – whether from the heat, my exertion, or being in the presence of the King, I wasn’t sure – and swallowed to clear my throat.
“Larke Fields, your grace,” I croaked, my throat on fire from my exertion.
“Ms. Fields, you have the strongest magic I’ve ever sensed,” the King said, both amused and curious. “You will be a Suryan Mage, perhaps the greatest there ever was.”
Disappointed, I closed my eyes once more, exhaustion and extreme sadness washing over me. I was defeated, everything I’d tried to do hadn’t worked, my family was forfeit. I’d ever see my sister and father ever again.
“Father - allow me to speak,” piped up a high voice. Princess Nya. The King must have allowed her to step forward, her feet making the lightest of taps on the hard earth. She stood before me, staring at me eye to eye. “Larke, if I may call you that?”
I nodded warily, opening my eyes again. Her dark, honey blonde hair, not a strand out of place, shone healthy and gleaming in the summer sun. I felt grimy in her presence, completely opposite of her, the picture of composure and elegance.
She watched me, and when she spoke, she mimicked her father’s regal tone, “You will serve the throne – it is the law. My father has chosen you, and we all must abide by his wishes.” She waved away the mages, who slowly let go of me. She extended her hand to me, palm upward. “You must make your decision. Join us, and we will provide for your family. Your kinsmen will not go hungry,” she stated. She stood confidently and waited for me; her hand still extended towards me. “Deny the throne, and they will all die.”
I stared at her hand, the perfectly manicured nails, the soft skin of her palm beckoning me. Her beautiful, delicate fingers and demeanor were a stark contrast to her words and her threat. I had no choice, I had to take it. I didn’t even know where Renn was in all of this chaos – a crowd had formed around us, circling us in, and I couldn’t see her among the people. It was just as well; as much as I obviously wanted to stay with my family, I knew it would be painful to actually say goodbye. I did this for her, like I did everything else.
I had to do this. I gritted my teeth and slapped my sweaty hand into her palm, dirt rising around me in plumes from the impact. Her eyes glittered with satisfaction, the green of her irises glowing with anticipation.
“Long reign the Urion,” she said triumphantly, gripping my hand in hers.