The Gifted Sisters and the Golden Mirror

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Chapter Sixteen- LIVIA

I admire myself in the mirror wearing a beautiful fur cloak. An attached note says it is from Lady Ella, that she hopes any trips outside the castle will find me warm.

Unsure what to make of the nice gesture, I can’t help but smile at how the cream-colored fur makes me feel like royalty. Maybe my aunt likes me after all?

I wear a fitted blue dress underneath that wraps delicately around my shoulders. The cloak is welcome; with the dropping temperatures that befell us during the night, coldness would have settled quickly under the thin material of my dress.

“Lady Ella sent you this, this morning?” Amah asks.

“Yes. The note she left is lying over there on the table.” I grab a silver belt and latch it around my waist.

After speaking with my uncle, we decided a trip to see Scholar Eli would be helpful. He and Amah both find him strange, but they know he is the best person for me to talk to about my gift.

He lives inside the Temple, and only travels out to attend council meetings. He lives and breathes the books inside the Temple.

I hold up another belt--it has a buckle the size of a dinner plate--I quickly place it back. I look back into the mirror, and see Amah in the mirror’s reflection. She is gazing intently over the note, reading it as though it holds a cryptic message. She doesn’t trust this Lady Ella; that’s clear in the furrow of her brow.

When she catches me staring, her face softens.

“You look lovely, En Oli.”

We go down to meet my uncle in the main hall. He embraces me the moment I arrive, and I breathe in his musky scent. Something tugs inside my chest; it reminds me of the woods I left behind.

“It amazes me how much you resemble both of your parents. The people will think they’ve come back to life,” Regent Grif says.

He looks over my shoulder. I turn to find Reddik approaching. I try to ignore the flutter inside myself.

“Are you coming too?” I ask.

“Of course. I wouldn’t miss your second outing amongst your people. Besides, someone has to look after the Regent. The Maker himself wouldn’t leave that man alone.”

The Regent laughs. “Now, Reddik. Just because you know the truth, doesn’t mean you have to go telling everybody.” He slides me an amused glance, and I stifle a laugh.

We head outside to the courtyard where our horses are waiting. A young stable boy with a tangled mess of curly black hair stands next to Rosie.

“Oliver!” I wave excitedly to him, and hurry to his side. “How good it is to see you.”

“It’s good to see you too, Your Royal Highness.” A smile spreads across his face as he puffs out his chest. I notice the willow emblem on his livery, and I can tell he is proud to wear it.

“Are you doing well?” I ask.

“Oh yes, princess. My brother was able to work out a deal with the stable master to make sure I handle your horse. I must say, Rosie is good natured and makes my work easy.”

“Oh, really? Just be careful if you come around her with any sweets that you don’t plan to share; you’ll find another side of her that’s not so pleasant.”

He snorts a laugh.

Reddik and the others come over to say hello, then mount their steeds. I lean forward and whisper in Oliver’s ear. “Are you truly doing okay?”

He puffs out his cheeks. “I’m still sad, but it’s getting better.”

I place my hand on his shoulder, and he tenses. “Don’t hesitate to ask for anything you need.”

Oliver’s shoulders relax. “Thanks, my Lady.”

He takes my hand and assists me up to my saddle. I take the reins and guide Rosie over to the others, where I see Reddik staring at me with a peculiar expression. I can tell he wants to ask me something, but he doesn’t. Instead he smiles and leads our party out onto the bridge.

Crossing over the bridge seems different this time around. Now there’s a soft sky above, and the lacy waves below rock gently against the shore. Birds fly overhead, masters of the salty updrafts, and I find them captivating.

This scenery is the complete opposite of what I am used to. It seems fresh and busy. When we pass by the people of Pynth, their eyes shine as they wave, embracing me with their warm welcomes. As we get further inside the city, I find the love of the people expressed in ways I never knew existed. They stand around and listen to our hooves of our horses clattering against the cobblestone streets as we pass them by, shouting their welcomes and compliments.

Reddik brings his horse up next to mine.

“I told you they would adore you.”

“Yes, you did.” My head whips around when I hear my name called out behind me, and I wave back in response. “How did you know they would?”

“You must understand, princess. It’s my job to know things.”

I slide him a guarded look. Being the Regent’s right-hand man, he must know plenty of things. But I keep my questions and comments to myself.

The street starts to curve around. I notice there aren’t any side streets leading off, but just the narrow spaces between buildings.

“Where do those alleyways lead to?”

Reddik looks to where I’ve pointed. “They lead to the first ward.” When he sees my confused expression, he explains. “The city is laid out in three separate wards. Those alleyways lead into the first ward, the place where the citizens of Pynth dwell. They have their own streets and courtyards--a safe haven of sorts. The pathway we find ourselves in now is in the second ward. This is where all the merchants have their shops, providing everything for the people.”

“I see. So where’s the third ward?”

“The third ward is tucked between the outer wall and the second ward. There you will find the training grounds for our soldiers.”

“It is one of the many brilliant designs of the Western Kingdom,” the Regent chimes in. “This design protects the people. The wall was built after your departure; it helps security even more. If an army comes into this city, they will have a hard time getting through a wall as well as two other wards to reach our people. Even the road up to the castle bypasses the first ward.”

“I don’t remember reading about these wards in my studies.”

I look back to where Amah is lagging behind. She’s deep in her own thoughts. So I drop back and ride next to her, leaving the men to themselves.

"Everything okay?” I ask.

“Of course, En Oli. Being here brings back many memories. I find myself going back in time.”

“From when you lived at the Temple?”

“Yes.”

“What about the Willow Sisters?”

Amah’s lips purse together, but she stays silent.

“Can you tell me something of their beliefs?” I press.

Amah pretends to brush something off her sleeve, then adjusts her hands neatly on the horn of her saddle.

“I have always kept my religious beliefs to myself. Always. In the Tar Islands where I was born, there was no Maker. We believed that people always existed, having come forth from the very soil we worked.

When the Willow Sisters ventured to our islands, they were cast out, and told never to return. Just before that, I’d lost my parents to the plague. I was left starving in the streets. I was nothing but bones. The Sisters took me in the under cover of darkness before the slave masters could find me. They brought me back with them on their ship. I thank them now for saving me from the slave lands of Tar, but back then I knew only hate for what they believed in.

It took years for them to convince me of the truth of their Maker and his Guardians that protected the four kingdoms of Erets. I learned that when the magic disappeared, and the people prayed to Maker Adon, they begged him to send down the Guardians once again and bless the four kingdoms. But the Maker has never responded, nor has he sent his Guardians.

Soon the people lost hope. They started to rebuild their world and put their faith in men, and in the kings who ruled them. But not everyone forgot the Maker and all he’d done for them. The Willow Sisters have remained faithful all these years, and they remain here in the Temple, continuing to pray and live in truth, wisdom, strength, and love. Their mission is to awaken in others the belief that magic will return, to prove that the Maker listens and loves us after all.”

“So is this what you believe now?”

Her mouth turns down. “I believe in the Maker. It makes more sense than rising up from the dirt. But when I left the Temple, I was challenged and it drove doubt inside me. For such a long time after, I trusted only myself. But now I see your gift, I see the heart that lies behind it, and I feel a bud of hope growing inside me. I find myself praying once again for your safety.”

This is the most I’ve ever heard of Amah’s life. I hope to hear more, but silence stretches on and my hope is in vain. Only the sounds of heartened people fill the air.

When the crowd’s excitement begins to soften, I notice the road has opened up into a large grassy courtyard. And then I see it--Willow Round. I feel exultation surge through me.

So many times Amah has told me of this sacred place. She might have avoided telling me about inside the Temple, but she was never discouraged from speaking of the beating heart of Pynth, known to everyone as The Willow.

The courtyard is a vast grassy space, manicured to perfection. A large ancient willow tree stands at its center. Only the bones of the tree can be seen; the buds are long gone. But the weeping white branches look beautiful in their ancient ways, still capturing the magic they once had.

Cool air breezes through, and I realize how quiet it has become. The stillness of the people here brings to mind statues; only these statues breathe and wait in anticipation. Leading our horses around The Willow, we join Regent Grif and Reddik at the base of the Temple.

The Temple is of moderate size, stretching up just five stories, with a top floor fully exposed in glass. The stark white marble is covered with thick green vines, as if the Temple has grown straight up from the ground. A wide archway extends out over the marble steps; these lead to two wooden doors, rounded at the top.

“It’s unbelievable,” I exclaim.

The Temple doors open, and women in lavender robes come out in single file, breaking away to either side as they reach the bottom. We wait in silence as over a hundred Willow Sisters fill Willow Round. A last Willow Sister stands yet at the doors. She wears an elaborate robe with simple gold designs.

“That is Prelate Rishima,” Amah informs me. “She is the leader of the Sisters.”

We all dismount and proceed across Willow Round, the thick grass absorbing our weight. We stop when we reach a stone path at the base of the Temple.

My gift hums beneath my skin, as if it senses the lost touch of magic, as if it knows this place. The wind dances softly, sending my hair gently about. Even though I’ve never been here, I feel the comfort of home.

The Prelate opens her arms. “Welcome, Your Royal Highness, Princess Livia, future queen of the people. We are honored to have you here at Guardian Pynth’s Temple.”

In that moment, everyone kneels down and bows their heads. Like a subtle flutter in the wind, a softly-voiced song comes from the Sisters. I can’t quite make it out. That is until the people join in.

“Oh’ ring the bell, sweet Queen Bellflower

An heir will hear your call

Ring, ring, my Queen Bellflower

Her touch shall save us all.

“Oh’ ring the bell, sweet Queen Bellflower

Her life is yours forevermore

Ring, ring, my Queen Bellflower

We’ll love you evermore.”

The words are familiar. It’s a song written down in one of the many books on Amah’s shelves, back in the pines. It is said to have been a popular medley a long time ago, and it’s taught to all the children. The rest of the song speaks of Queen Bellflower’s journey. I have always found its message sad--that loss of her magic.

I’m shocked to hear them singing her words to me, linking me to the most powerful queen of old. Prelate Rishima stands, and motions me to join her. I take my dress in my hand, and ascend the stairs. The sisters rise as I pass by, and follow us back inside the Temple.

I’m in a large circular room that has walls lined with alcoves, each with a short pillar that holds a metal brazier with small orange flames burning in its center. At the far end of the room, a large statue of Guardian Pynth stands, an altar set before him.

I follow the Prelate up more steps at the western end of the room. The other sisters do not follow; instead they go to kneel near the statue. When I glance to my caretaker, her expression is grim.

“I’m under the impression,” the Prelate probes, “that you are here to speak with Scholar Eli?” Her heavy-lidded eyes peer intently into mine. She has done nothing to warrant any fear, but her presence alone makes me slightly tremble.

“Y...yes. He asked me to come visit him.”

She clasps her hands together and nods knowingly.

“Good, good. Scholar Eli has studied the magical books his whole life. I’m sure he’ll be able to help you learn in no time. Just know this, the Willow Sisters take all this very seriously. We have devoted our lives in service to Maker Adon, and we will not tolerate any form of blasphemy.”

My brows snap up. “Oh! I would never, Prelate Rishima. I am beyond curious to know everything and willing to embrace it all.”

Her eyes narrow down for only a moment. “I’m glad to hear that, princess. There are those who have lost faith, and it’s our job to guide them back to see the truth.”

It happens so fast, I could’ve imagined it, but I swear the Prelate glances towards Amah before her eyes return to me.

“You will find Scholar Eli in here. If you find you are in need of anything, do not hesitate to call.”

Prelate Rishima bows her head.

“The rest of you may follow me.”

“Excuse me?” Amah asks quickly.

“Only those who are royal, or Sisters of the Temple may enter. None of you qualify. You should know that, Amah.” The Prelate’s words are crisp and to the point.

I am shocked, and look to my uncle. I wasn’t aware this was the plan. Before Amah can offer a retort, the Regent gives her a stern look, then responds to the Prelate.

“I am glad to join you, Prelate. However, I would ask if Reddik might stand just outside the door. You can understand how cautious we must be with Livia’s return.”

“Of course, Regent Grif.”

I watch them follow after her, Amah’s face red with anger. Reddik takes up his position next to the door. I’m about to say something, but he shakes his head, and motions me to go inside. I can’t help but feel something’s amiss.

I pass through the thick wooden door frame, and enter into a massive domed-shaped room, complete with a clear glass ceiling. I stare wide-eyed at the thousands upon thousands of books stacked in neat rows, all arranged in an orderly fashion. Amah had only a single bookshelf in our cottage. This is well beyond that, and so much more. Each one of these books has to hold its own world of wonders and answers to long held questions about life.

The morning light that shines down through the glass ceiling shows me everything. I scan the room as fast as I can, trying to take it all in. I go to the nearest shelf and run my fingers along the spines of the book. They smell old and dry--wisdom on paper.

“Ah, Princess Livia.”

An old man comes out from behind one of the shelves, hunched over, his gait slow.

“Scholar Eli.”

A smile touches his lips. “It is I. I can see that you are pleased by what you see?”

“Oh, yes! I’ve never seen so many books before. I could get lost for days and months in here, trying to read them all.”

“Or years.” Scholar Eli chuckles at his own joke. “Come. I have gathered some books that might interest you the most.”

I follow him through the maze of shelves to a heavy oak table. Three books are laid out open, displaying their contents.

“What do you know of the magic of old?”

“I know what the four gifts are, and how Queen Bellflower was the first and last to have more than one.”

Scholar Eli frowns. “I’m surprised Amah didn’t share everything with you. Especially since she spent most of her life here at the Temple. No matter, no matter. I will share with you what I know to be a basic explanation.” He rubs his hands together, and has an excited twinkle in his eyes.

“Maker Adon claimed this land, dividing it into four kingdoms. He sent out four of his finest Guardians, and let them build up their own unique lands. Icewyn built up the ice lands in the North. Dryden pushed rock around in his kingdom to form mountains in the East. Acadia loved only himself, and made in the South only a single temple in the desert lands. And, of course, there is Pynth--our Guardian of the West. His love for nature is what makes our kingdom thrive more over the rest.

After a time, Maker Adon called back his Guardians. It was time for men to govern the land. The Guardians each left a single unique gift with a ruler of their choosing. This ruler was the only one left in the kingdom who was able to wield the Guardian’s magic. Until the rulers bore children, then came magic to their children’s children, so forth.”

“So there were multiple people at one time that had the gift?”

“Yes. But only direct descendants. Now the gift of these others wasn’t as strong as that of the main ruler. In fact, their recovery time after using the gift was much longer.”

I stand up straighter. “Recovery time?”

Scholar Eli pulls out a chair. “Here, sit.”

He flips through the pages of the first book, and points to the bottom of the page.

Strength is taken from whomever uses the Guardian’s gift. The one who holds the one true power inherits the strength of the one before. This in turn makes them stronger than they had been, and allows them to recover faster. But anyone with the gift must be wary of using it, for the magic will claim them, bonding to their soul.

“Have you experienced this bonding?” Eli asks.

I think back to the intense headache from healing Oliver.

“I think so. Is this bad?”

“No, it’s not bad. It’s wonderful! You are the one true holder of Pynth’s gift.”

“What about my sister?”

“She will not be as strong as you. That’s if she has the same gift as you. Do we know what gift your sister acquired?”

I lean back in my chair. “No. I actually don’t know anything about her.”

While Scholar Eli sits and ponders for a bit, I lean forward and see the second book has the words Queen Bellflower on the top page.

“The Willow Sisters sang a portion of Queen Bellflower’s song to me on my arrival,” I say. “Do you know why?”

“The question is, princess, do you know why? What part of the song did they sing?”

“An heir will hear your call, her touch shall save us all.”

“Yes. Do you see now? This song has been sung for centuries, speaking its own prophecy. The Willow Sisters were told when you arrived in the city that you bore the violet eyes of our Guardian Pynth. They knew you were the one.”

“The one? You mean this song is the prophecy?”

“Not the prophecy the Eastern King received, but it is a prophecy nonetheless.”

“So they think I’m the one to bring back all magic?”

“Not only magic, but life! You have the gift of healing. So many can benefit from just a touch and a thought from you. It changes everything.”

Trying not to let his words overwhelm me, I flip through more of the pages. I stop when I stumble upon a colorful picture of a young woman dressed in violet robes. Her face is smooth and slender, with long raven locks like my own. When I see the bright violet shade of her eyes, it feels like I’m looking into a mirror. I look below the picture.

“Queen Bellflower? Why, I look exactly like her!” I exclaim.

Scholar Eli laughs. “Which makes their singing the song to you even more haunting.”

I spend the next hour pouring over passages of Queen Bellflower. While I grew up reading about her, this additional information is in more depth.

She was named after the brightest violet flower in the Western Kingdom. A flower that went extinct shortly after her disappearance. It is known to have been made into a healing elixir that was sold to the other kingdoms.

I read other passages that proclaim her the youngest Western queen to ever rule. Sixteen--the same age I am now.

They say she never married, but had a lover. Even when she became pregnant, the father never stepped forward, and she never uttered a word of who he was.

Her own son was born sick, and he became deathly ill. She found that her spark of magic could not heal the one person who meant the world to her. Desperate, she traveled to the only kingdom that dabbled in the dark magic forbidden in her own land--the kingdom of the Enchanter. When Guardian Acadia left his gift of invisibility, he also left behind a book of spells. It allowed his chosen one to live forever--as long as he remained inside the Temple.

The Enchanter agreed to heal her child, but only if she would sacrifice her gifts. Desperate--she did.

Queen Bellflower traveled back home a mortal, only to discover at the end of her long journey that the very magic she had sacrificed was entirely gone. All the kingdoms were stripped of their magic. When the gift was extracted from the queen, it took out magic from its very roots.

The Northern and Eastern Kingdoms were furious, as well as the queen’s own people. They commanded her to return to the Enchanter, and demand back the magic for their lands.

For weeks she was gone, then weeks became months, and months turned into years. Finally everyone knew she would never return--and she never did.

The council stood in for the queen, doing their best to live without magic--but it wasn’t the same. The queen’s child grew up, and when he came of age the people hoped the magic would return in him, but it never did.

But the new king, having grown up without the magic, took control of his sullen people and encouraged them to be fruitful once again. He grew to hate the Enchanter, and reinforced the law forbidding anyone from having dealings with that devious man, making sure that with even a whisper of his name, one would become cursed.

The people loved their king and kept his commands. They put the thought of magic behind them. But the people never truly forgot, and they continued to hope the magic would return one day.

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