In the Petrified Forests
In the tower, the view was far from clear. The structure towered over the clouds and their wispy streaks were not helping. Looking out of the windows in a tower above the clouds made seeing difficult. When Melody stepped into the tower, she could see for miles and miles but it was not the clear view she had hoped for. Dreaming was the only way to see things clearly.
She saw the knight for the first time in a dream.
He rode a golden gelding through a stream. His hair was dark but untangled and clipped back with a silver buckle. Silver shown from the surcoat beneath his cloak. She thought that the cloak was black but it turned into a dark blue as the sun rose. The light caught the silver of the broken tower on the crest. That tower pulled at Melody’s memory. She was sure that she had seen them somewhere before but the knight held her eyes and her attention. The dream faded into mist as the knight rode on.
Melody woke but remembered the knight on waking. She moved a hand to untangle her woody hair. Her hair had gotten so long that it covered her eyes. She did not keep track of the days that she had been there but she knew that it had been too long.
She entered the tower of her own free will but she stayed because of a threat.
Part of Melody wanted to join the knight on his journey even though her head said that it was impossible. The horse’s steady pace could take her across miles and days. Melody wanted to dance in the moonlight even without the knight. She wanted to feel the wind rustle the lace of her dress and make her thick yellow skirts flutter in the soft grass. None of that mattered, because she knew that she could not leave.
All of Umbria would die if she left. The bard had promised her that it was so and everyone knew that a bard cannot tell a lie. She made herself leave her home and her own knight to come to the tower and protect everyone she held dear. She was the only one who could keep her home safe.
One Year Earlier, In the Kingdom of Umbria
Melody paced back and forth in front of her father’s study. The servants were already spreading the story, and the king did not spare a second in calling for her. He wanted to squelch the story before it began. He had to do that with Melody’s older brothers but she had never needed such protections. The youngest daughter of the king never pushed the boundaries growing up. She had always done her duty but things were different now.
Melody got older and people looked at her differently. They saw her as an unhappy surprise as if they expected something else. No one wanted a plain child with eyes that were too big for her head. They wanted her to become a different person, to wear fine clothes and learn witty words. They wanted her to stop being herself and to become something better.
Her father rarely pushed her but yesterday he did. One thing went to another, and she had lost her patience. Now, her father wanted to talk to her. He would tell her to act her age and to stop walking around dancing with the wind. She knew what he would say, but she still dreaded hearing it.
Finally, the king called her in. She had been left with her thoughts for far too long. Melody could feel her knees shaking. She knew all the words he would say and could feel the heat from his anger already. “I’m sorry to have to do this, Sweetheart.”
Those were not the words that Melody expected. The two of them had argued so many times in the past that Melody saw a rhythm to it. His first words to her had already thrown the beat off.
“This was not how your mother and I planned. We wanted something better for you but there are situations that can’t be planned for. The prince of Serle has made a handsome offer for your hand. Your children will be kings and our kingdoms will be at peace.”
“What are you talking about?” Melody couldn’t help but ask.
“Your future. I wish I had something better to offer you but this is all I can give.”
“A loveless marriage? That is hardly a gift! Couldn’t you have asked me? Or warned me?”
“I know that it is not ideal but it will bring peace to our kingdom. Umbria cannot survive another war with the north.”
Melody’s breath caught. “Will it come to war?”
“Serle has always coveted our resources. The old king would attack us if he had the chance. Fergus of Serle will take this land from us one way or another. It is either through marriage or bloodshed.”
The stricken girl felt her hands shake but she was surprised to feel tears stream down her face. “I don’t really have a choice? Do I?”
“This is the only way to make peace.”
The tears continued to roll down her face. She could not speak. The words just left her mind before they could reach her lips. Breath rushed from her lungs in a fraction of a second. Air took an eternity to come back but she found herself wishing it were longer.
“There is a way for you to save your kingdom without marrying a stranger.”
The voice that spoke was quiet but firm. Melody felt an urgent need to find the source of the voice. She found it in a very still form, watching them both as if she were luring a wary animal with her stillness and her calm.
“What is this way?”
“It comes with a price,” the woman warned.
The king was standing now. “Who are you? Who let you in my house? In my study?”
“I am the Bard of Sron. All magic comes from Sron and magic leads to many solutions.”
“What solution?” Melody asked again.
“There is a tower on the western edge of your kingdom, near the border of Sron. This tower is no simple building. It is magic and it will protect your life and the life of your kingdom. No one, not even the armies of Glavinore and Serle combined, will be able to take advantage of Umbria. The tower’s magic will stop all attacks. You and your parents and your people will be safe from enemies. You will be safe from princes within the tower. No one will force you to marry while you stay there.”
“That’s perfect!” Melody almost sang.
“What aren’t you telling us?” The king demanded of the bard. “What is the price of using this tower and its magic?”
“Once your daughter enters the tower, she can never leave.”
The king’s face paled. “We shall never see her again?”
“No enemy will ever bother you,” the bard reminded him.
“I will not lose my daughter just to keep a few acres of useless land!”
“This is my decision!” Melody almost yelled. “Umbria is small and needs protection.”
“A marriage would provide protection!”
“A marriage without love will lead to nothing but sadness. The tower will lead to protection.”
“The tower will lead to loneliness,” the king warned. “There is a chance for happiness in Serle. Please think before making your decision. At least meet the prince before you decide.”
“I don’t need to think. My decision has been made. I will not marry without love.”
“The tower will protect your kingdom without forcing a marriage,” the bard said with a smile. “It is the only option left to you. My magic will guide you on your way. I’ve called a windspirit for you. He will appear as a silver streak and light your path.”
For three days and nights, Melody followed the windspirit. She did not notice when the land grew rocky and hot. She did not notice when she made her way to the border of a Petrified Forest.
A tower rose in the heart of the Petrified Forest. The tower pierced through the clouds and gave Melody a view of three of the Seven Kingdoms. She could only watch the world and never interact with it until a year went by. During that time, her intended, the prince of Serle found a tower of his own.
In the Kingdom of Serle
The hunting party of gamesmen, guards, servants, standard-bearers and a trumpeter seemed extreme but the king had insisted and no one questioned King Fergus of Serle. The king had ordered this hunting party and Ian chased the stag as his father had asked.
Ian followed the stag’s beating steps until he found himself in silence. He whirled, looking for his gamesmen. Instead, he found himself face-to-face with a creature that had haunted his nightmares.
His heart dropped into his intestines and seemed to stay there. She was a legend and the stories said that no one made it out of her tower.
The wild woman of the forest stood before him in all her grandeur. All the stories said not to trust her. Her face was simple and plain with an elegant nose and a high forehead. She had gray hair, wore a red dress and carried a harp on her hip. The harp was so old that it looked to be made of stone.
A tower of ivory appeared behind the woman of the forest. It was whiter than bone but smelled of something wild. It smelled like an animal den, sweet and rotten at once. There was no door to walk through. The only way in or out was a high window covered in green glass. Every one of the stories Ian’s mother had told him warned never to go into the tower.
Ian had laughed at the idea as a child. Who could be tricked into entering a place so sinister? It was easy to laugh in the light with his mother beside him but fear ran through him now like a chilling breeze.
“Prince Ian.” Her voice echoed like yawning caverns.
“Wild woman,” he whispered, fear taking the strength from his voice.
“Call me bard.”
“Bard? That’s hardly a name.”
“Come into my tower and I might change my answer.”
“No,” Ian said, thinking that bluntness would break her spell more quickly than polite conversation. “Where is my hunting party?”
“They are under my spell but they will not be harmed if you only enter.”
He saw them then. The guardsmen had red eyes and the gamesmen came at him with leading sticks. Ian did his best to fight them off with a long hunting knife. He had learned the sword but a knife could not be used the same way and it was difficult to disarm them without hurting them. He thought about laying his long knife down and surrendering but the bard would only hurt them if he gave up. They would all be forced into the tower and none of them would be able to leave.
He swallowed. “Never go into the tower,” his mother’s tales had warned him over and over. He remembered his mother’s beautiful face and the tales she told of monsters. He remembered his mother fondly but she was gone now. She could not aid him. He had to do this on his own. He needed to get to the bard.
He slid from shadow to shadow until each member of his hunting party were all fighting with each other. The bard was on her own and in the open. He pointed a hunting knife at her. “Call them off or I cut you!”
“What makes you think a knife can cut me? Come into my tower, Prince Ian. This only ends one way.”
“No!” he repeated, for the third time’s the charm. “I know your tricks. No one can enter your tower and leave again!”
The woman stopped asking questions. The hunting party fell to the ground as if they were asleep. Ian tried to move to them but the bard got to him in the blink of an eye. She moved with a speed that was faster than lightning. Ian knew he had made a mistake but he did not know how to fix it.
He tried to run, but he only fell. She was on him now. Ian’s horse had disappeared some time ago but he only noticed it now. It was the way a man noticed things in a dream. He could not get up from the ground and he could not leave. Ian could only hope that the bard would show mercy or what passed for mercy with such monsters.
“You cannot make me enter. You cannot drag me.”
“Then,” she said softly, “you will be forced to return to me. Your friends will be freed and your father will bring you to me himself. You will be mine when the time is right.”
She flew into her tower then. The ivory structure floated through the air until its tip rose above the clouds. The tower moved past the trees as if it knew the way. Ian watched it and wished he could put his thoughts in order.
Why had the bard suddenly left? She was winning. Why not stay and claim the victory?
A moan trembled by his elbow. His entourage was starting to wake up. The Bard had told him the truth about this at least. He did not know about the rest. She said something about his father.
Ian slumped with exhaustion from the fight. Several members of his entourage stayed on the ground with him. Some of them had been injured by but more had been injured in the chaos before he held a knife on the bard. None of them seemed to remember what had happened. They did not bother to ask questions with words when their eyes spoke loudest of all. Ian wanted to answer them but he did not know what to say.
They each had to drop worry away in the silence of unanswered questions and travel to the palace.
The palace was a pillared hall built into the cliff between two waterfalls. The forest stopped before the gate and looked to be bowing. Nature itself followed his father’s commands. He had used magic to make the hall. Nations far and wide knew of Serle’s power. Fergus had hoped that his son would inherit his magic but Ian had no power.
He would inherit a land of beauty but none of the power that went with it. No matter what happened in a parliament or a battlefield. The future was already written for Ian.
The prince was a tall, young man with gray eyes and hair that shined like copper in the sun and looked dull and brown in the shadow. He had gone hunting as his father’s command. Ian did his best to avoid responsibility or duty but when the king of Serle spoke everyone listened. The king had commanded Ian to stay in the palace and then sent him off hunting.
His father seemed to change his mind at the drop of a hat lately. Ian did not know what to expect when a royal messenger showed up at the palace gates. It could be a command to go find a stag or a fox. His father may have scheduled classes or sword practice for him. The message was nothing like Ian expected. It was brief and to the point. The king wanted him. Now. Ian was too weary to argue.
The king did not waste a second. Ian had returned to his rooms to splash water on his face and change his coat before meeting with the king but his father did not give him the chance to do either. The door opened as soon as Ian had closed it.
“Leave!” The king of Serle barked.
Ian’s servants gave him sympathetic looks but left him. His father made sure to bolt the door before swinging a heavy hand at Ian.
The prince did not expect the blow and fell with the first knock. The king waited until Ian had climbed back to his feet before sharing the reason he had called for the prince.
“You were sent to spill blood before the wild woman. You were not to come back without the bard!”
Ian shook his head in confusion. “You sent me hunting after a stag. I only found the bard by accident.”
“I sent you where you needed to be!” Rage colored the king’s voice. “Magic was in your hands but you didn’t bring it back!”
“You have magic. We don’t need the wild woman.”
Fergus shook his head. “Luckily for you, I have a backup plan. The magic of the wild woman is lost for now. The magic of Umbria is a different matter.”
“You’ve been negotiating with Umbria’s king for years. He’s not going to give you magic.”
“The magic of Umbria will be brought into this house through marriage. The king has accepted the proposal for Princess Melody’s hand. We only learned this morning.”
Ian wiped the blood off his bruised mouth with the back of his hand. “What?”
“You will marry the princess of Umbria.”
Ian’s breath caught in his throat. Air took an eternity to come back but he found himself wishing it were longer. He needed time to think and time to see the world but he could not look at the world. He could only look at his father.
Ian and his father were the same height but no one would confuse one for the other. Half the king’s face was covered with a scar from a battle long ago. The battle had taken an eye. Most men would have been brought low by such a wound but Fergus of Serle was not most men. The king of Serle had used the puckered socket to hold a configuration of power. An almost unending supply of magic could be held and carried in the place where the eye had been.
The king had learned to use the battle to make his kingdom stronger and now he was learning magic too. Occasionally, the king would test his skill and conjure an explosion out of the air and fling it at Ian to test his skill. Ian felt something like an explosion at the king’s words.
“Marry.” He was shaking with rage. “You could not tell me this before sending me on the hunt? Why did this have to be sudden?”
“It has been decided. You will marry in a week. That is enough time for the princess to travel by boat.”
“Marriage cannot help you get magic. You’re not making any sense! Do you think that the bard will give you her magic out of fear? The wild woman will not run from an army of wizards!”
“The bard and I have an arrangement.”
“No!” Ian shouted with a force that surprised him.
“You think your choice matters?” The king’s voice only matched the force of Ian’s shout.
The king moved closer to Ian until their noses were almost touching. He was too close to the missing eye. The empty socket seemed to gaze into Ian’s thoughts. Ian wanted to pull away or at least blink but he was too far gone to do much of anything. The prince felt like he was a leaf in the middle of a strong storm; the next gust of wind may just blow him away.
“I will explain this to you the best I can. You were once part of me. You belong to me. The two of us are linked in ways that are stronger than magic. Your marriage will create a link to Umbria. I can use my link to you to build a link to Umbria’s magic.”
“No,” Ian said again, not knowing what else to say. “You will not have a link to Umbria’s magic even if I do marry her. Blood or love have to form the link. That’s what mother used to say.”
The king scoffed. “If you have another girl in your head get her out now. You will marry Melody and the bond will form in time. We share blood and I can use your blood to link my magic to Umbria’s. My army will be unstoppable!” Fergus reached out and pushed his son towards the door. “Get dressed. You will be watched closely until your wedding. I don’t want any hunting mishaps.”
The king held his son in place with an iron hand and forced him to look at the place his eye had been. The eye-socket would look into Ian and he would no longer have a will of his own. It had happened before. Ian tried to look over his father’s shoulder and even tried closing his eyes but his father always won in the end. Ian gave into his father’s demands and opened his eyes. He could only stare in wonder when a flash of magic did not overtake him.
“The guards told me what they remembered of the hunt. I will make sure that you return to the tower but only after you are married. After the bond is formed. The magic will be mine then. I will not let you take what is mine into that tower with you.”
Ian fought back a sob. “Death follows me. I must be cursed! How else could my own father have betrayed me? I should have agreed to stay with the wild woman in the forests. She was offering me a blessing and I did not even know it.”
“You’ll get your chance to thank her later. Prepare yourself.”
“I need time,” Ian pleaded.
The king ignored him. “You’ll be moved into secure lodgings until the wedding.”
The king left then but the guards did not follow him. They waited in the doorway.
Ian followed them out the door, knowing that it was the only thing he could do. His father would come back and use magic to force him if guards could not do the work. The guards followed him with clicking footsteps.
Ian’s desperate eyes lingered at each corning and shadow, looking for a way out. They strayed to the windows. Something in the trees called to him the same way his father’s magic did. A flash of amber caught his eye among the deep greens of the forest. It was, he thought, the most wonderful thing he had ever seen. The amber light of the glowing ribbon engulfed him and hypnotized him. Ian felt a pull from the light. The guard did not appear the see anything out of the ordinary.
The prince became a thing possessed. He moved towards the flash of light without thinking. Ian only looked back at the guard once. After that, he could not stop looking into the trees. He followed the glowing ribbon like a thing possessed.
He stopped, realized that the clicking steps could no longer be heard and knew that no boots were following him. The guards were no longer with him. Ian knew that if he followed this new magic, he would eventually see the wild woman. Ian did not know that the princess of Umbria was trapped in a similar tower or that a bold knight was about to free her.