The oak door slammed echoing through the high ceiling, scattering the birds nested in the rafters. Liora bolted into the hall, her bare feet sliding across the wooden floor. Her wild locks fell across her face as she gripped to the front of her woolen dress. She ducked around the corner leading to the narrow stairwell before glancing over her shoulder to see the ginger-haired prince in pursuit.
His hair curled around his ears while the fox fur collar of his cloak shimmered in the torchlight. She could hear the clomping of his leather boots down the hall as she imagined his crooked smirk grow at hearing her childish laughter.
“Last one to the table has to eat a pickled onion!” She shouted, her voice echoing up the stairwell as she skipped down the steps. When she jumped to the navy carpet lining the floors of the hall she could smell the faint scent of rosemary and spearmint.
Running passed the suits of armour lining the left wall she could see the doors on the right side of the hall were closed. The middle room of the three doors was where the Steward and Detress resided, although they were likely already at the dining hall. Her attention jumped to the shimmer of silver above her head. The sky-coloured tapestries with the silver gryphon and sun hung from the wooden beams above. The grey stone walkway flashed with colourful light from lightning dancing outside the stain glass windows of the atrium. The first rains of spring had awoken her that morning and the rain was soon followed by the thunder that still rumbled in the distance.
“Hey, no fair – I gotta handicap yah know,” Cáel called, just as she made it to the walkway where she took a sharp turn to the right.
That side of the walkway broke into three different directions. To the right went the hall where she and her mentor’s rooms resided. Before her was an oak door studded with iron bolts leading to the garden. To the left was a stone stairwell leading down to the main floor of the half-moon shaped atrium.
When in the middle of the atrium she glanced back again to spot the boy’s emerald eyes glaring at her. He pinched his tongue between his lips when he started to descend the stairwell. She turned to take a few steps backwards, watching the boy make his way down the steps. He put his weight on the railing, working at a slow pace. She stayed close enough to assist him if he needed help. Since he had stopped using his cane, Cáel hadn’t asked for much help in moving around. When his footing was solid and he was back to walking along the flat floor, Liora hurried off towards the archway of the dining hall.
Liora jolted when she stopped herself with the back of one of the oak chairs. The dark oak table filled the long room. There was a round stone hearth on the far left side, while more armour sat in the corners. Long burgundy curtains embroidered with golden vines and leaves hung from a brass rod across the wall. They left little space for the door leading to the kitchen and apothecary.
Holding the back of the chair, Liora peered up to find herself meeting the emerald glare from the king across the table. Charn’s fiery hair glimmered in the firelight of the hearth behind the chair buckling under his weight. He was the largest man in the room, almost too large for the chair he was sitting in. The king’s lifted brows and narrowed eyes showed how unimpressed he was with her behavior. She stifled her laughter and moved to sit at the end of the table farthest from the bearish man.
Charn didn’t like her relationship with his son. Although she had saved the prince, Liora was still a westerner and therefore a traitor to the north. The people of Morza – her people – had little respect for the South. They allied with the Nation of Snakes because they were the closest place for resources. Yes, the Morzi had originated from the country of Sydrin but that was over four-hundred years ago.
When the Morzi had been part of the Southern nation of Sydrin they had acted as separate entities within their groups. Through the exile to an unknown, dangerous land the Morzi worked together to survive. They no longer thought of themselves or the punishment from a ruthless King but the care of their community. They formed new traditions, distancing themselves from the God Kidoss and welcoming in his siblings the Goddess Sirphan and God Darkel. Through accepting the three Gods as a united force in nature made those of Morza no longer strive to bring chaos to the land but peace and humility.
The event, now called the Massacre of Morza, showed how much they had changed compared to their Southern brothers. When her people had welcomed the Sydi into her village they thanked her people with fire and blades. The Massacre reminded her they were not one of the same. Those of the South were ruthless monsters.
“Damn,” Cáel pouted, yanking out the chair after hooking his cloak on the back. He slumped down in his seat beside her. “I hate onions.”
“What ‘bout onions?” A booming voice echoed through the high ceilings as the Steward entered under the archway to the atrium. He made his way to the other side of the table close to where Charn sat. “We ain’t havin’ onions.”
“Nah, Li and I were racin’. The loser has to eat an onion,” Cáel muttered, hearing the Steward laugh.
“Pickled onion,” Liora corrected as Cáel tussled her locks. The raven strands fell in front of her face as she combed her fingers through trying to tame them. “Hey, don’t mess my hair!”
“It’s already a mess. I improved it.” Cáel snickered as Liora slapped his arm. “Eh…”
“I’ll show you what improved means,” she teased, messing up his loose curls. He shook the hair out of his face hurrying to mess with the girl’s hair again.
“Enough or I’ll separate yah two,” Foe warned, wagging an index finger. The two children snickered, settling themselves in their seats as they exchanged glances.
Liora liked Foe. The man wasn’t only the Steward of Derm but happened to be the Lord of Demor and best friend to the king. He had been the first Dermite she met after escaping Morza and had become one of her guardians.
“I’ll tell Gregin to brin’ yah an onion then,” Foe added. Liora smirked, hearing Cáel groan.
“You could have it in your sweet roll.” Liora watched the boy’s freckled face curl in disgust.
“I should take yah roll for that suggestion,” Cáel snipped. His face was serious for a moment before the corners of his mouth curled up into his usual goofy smile. She knew he couldn’t stay mad at her. He never could. “Yah’re lucky I like yah.”
“I’m surely blessed.” She stuck out her tongue as the doors to the kitchen opened. Three servants appeared with baskets of steaming rolls, which they then set on each end of the table. Liora looked over her shoulder towards the atrium. There were others missing.
“Me wife’s givin’ Druce a bath,” Foe answered one of her questions before she could ask. “The lil brat got into the soot shoot this mornin’.”
“Must’ve made ’er happy,” Charn grumbled, ripping a piece of the roll before tossing it into his mouth.
“Nah, not really,” Foe chuckled, reaching for the marmalade near the basket. “He’s been a troublesome lil beast as of late.”
Liora reached for one of the rolls. The dark brown and yellow dough crackled under her fingers. The smell of nutmeg and honey danced into the air. There was raspberry and peach jelly in small glass jars beside the basket. Liora reached for the peach since Cáel coveted the raspberry between his plate and chest.
“And Caldor?” Liora tore the roll in half before spreading the amber jelly onto the cream coloured center. The roll steamed, her mouth watered, and her morning felt complete when the doughy goodness rested in her mouth.
“Who knows? I knocked on his door. He’ll come if he wants but I wouldn’ hold yar breath.”
Liora tore another piece from the roll, rolling the soft dough between her fingers before popping it into her mouth. The old sage had been hiding away in his room a lot over the long winter.
“How’d yah like yar eggs, lil miss?” A servant asked, resting a hand on her shoulder.
“Hard boiled and can I have two extra?”
The servant nodded and hurried off to the kitchen.
“Winter’s over, no need to eat so much.” Cáel nudged her with his elbow.
“It’s for Caldor,” Liora replied with knitted brows, “not that I should need to justify why I wanted two extra eggs.”
“Yah spoil the ol’ hermit,” Foe muttered, food spitting from his mouth and catching on his stubby beard.
Liora didn’t mind. Caldor had done a lot for her. He had watched after her and what else was she supposed to do as his apprentice if not watch after him. She had done that for her nana, she didn’t mind doing it for the old sage.
The servants returned moments later with the silver plates. Cáel’s eggs were sunny side up with weak yolks that he dabbed his sweet rolls in. Liora had another plan on how to incorporate the two in her meal. She rolled her two eggs against the table, peeling away the shells and slicing the egg whites into disks before piling them into her sweet roll that she had cut in half.
Everyone was silent as they ate. She could hear the smacking of lips from across the room from the king who had the nasty habit of chewing with an open mouth. She forced herself not to lift a lip in disgust. His nasty habit still bothered her even after spending the long winter months eating with him.
Taking her napkin from her lap, Liora placed one of the two remaining sweet rolls and the covered peach jelly into the middle along with the two remaining eggs that rested on her plate. This would be good enough until she would bother him again at lunch with whatever the kitchen would prepare.
“Gonna see Master Caldor?” Cáel asked when she stood from her seat. Pieces of egg spit from his mouth before landing on the polished surface of the table.
“I should before my lessons.” Liora clutched the napkin to her chest so nothing would slip out.
“Study with me later?” Cáel threw his napkin onto his plate as he stood. He walked passed her and towards his father, walking backwards to keep his attention on her.
“Of course.” Liora smiled.
The boy bowed before he turned around to hurry to his father who had pulled out a chair. There was plenty the boy was learning from the King and Steward; lessons of which she wasn’t privileged to partake in.
She walked through the atrium, smiling at the two guards standing at the entranceway of the castle. Outside there was the courtyard where she only visited to help feed the chickens or speak with Hirid the smith. The man was adept in fixing the blades of the Guardians visiting from the capital and shared with her stories of his boyhood home of Arrowhilm where he learnt his trade from his father.
The pitter-patter of footsteps echoed from the walkway, as she glanced up to see two Chijin servants. Their heads just cleared the railing along the walkway as they chattered away about business. There came chirping from the sparrows in the rafters. They darted around above her head creating shadows on the tall walls. A booming echo of laughter startled her as she glanced back over her shoulder towards the dining hall. Foe must have found something amusing.
When at the top of the stone stairwell, Liora paused. The scent of spearmint filled the air as she closed her eyes. Thunder still rumbled in the distance but the sun was pooling through the windows of the atrium warming her face. This place didn’t smell of her city to the west. It didn’t sound like the busy marketplace or tranquil garden of her home either, but Demor held a special place in her heart. This place in the North may not have been her land but over the short time she had been within the thick stone walls Demor had become her home.
Opening her eyes, she continued straight down the hall to the end where a large suit of armour loomed across from the last door. The light from under his door gave her toes a yellow glow as she leaned her ear towards it only to hear the familiar tapping of the old sage’s foot against the leg of his chair. With a gentle knock, Liora opened the door, pushing with it a pile of books.
Making her way over to the desk, Liora put the little care-package atop the book. The old sage jumped, turning to glance over his chipped glasses.
“You weren’t at breakfast.” Liora set her fists firm on her hips. “You forgot dinner last night too.”
“I was not hungry.” Caldor pushed the napkin away. “I was busy.”
“No,” Liora grabbed his book, “you eat –and then you can work.”
“Darn it, child, I was in the middle of-“
“A hunger strike? Whatever it is can wait. Eat and you’ll get the book back.” Liora strolled over to his bed, hopping up to sit on the edge.
He glared at her for a moment as she glared back. The small man was already thin, with bony shoulders showing under his woolen robe. If she had to she would continue to bring him food until he started getting it on his own.
After a minute of glares, Liora heard him sigh. With a limp hand he dragged the napkin to rest in front of him. He unfolded it and smirked.
“Peach jam?” He pointed to the small jar of deep orange jelly.
“Foe and Charn finished the marmalade,” Liora shrugged, “and you know what Cáel’s like with raspberries.”
Caldor snorted, tearing a piece of the roll to dip into the jelly. He took a bite. The tangy sweetness of the peach tickled his taste buds. This was better than having only tea.
“Good?” Liora inquired. The old sage nodded. He had closed his eyes, while his thinning grey hair bounced with each nod.
“Yes, quite so,” he muttered with a full mouth, “thank you, my dear.”
There was no need for thanks. He needed to eat and she knew he wouldn’t have if she didn’t bring him anything.
Wiggling farther back onto the bed, Liora crossed her legs. Her dress fell over her knees, crumpling under her feet as her satin bodice dug into her ribs forcing her to sit up straight. The small green leather text she had taken had no name on the front. The inside page was in Chiji – the native language of those in the East.
The old sage had spent the earlier winter months teaching her the basics of his native tongue. The language of the small folk of the East was easier to learn than the language of the South, so she picked up the dialect with ease. When the old sage had become preoccupied with his research; Liora had no issue continuing the lessons on her own. There were plenty of Chijin texts scattered about the large castle and the servants and cooks were more than willing to test her knowledge.
This book was no different from the others as it followed the same sentence structure she had read with the other texts. From what she could make out the book was a dissertation on a group of people called the Six. The focus was around the proof that the prophecy written by the late Chijin scholar, Kanrow Farbic, was based in truth. This wasn’t a book Liora had considered her mentor to read.
Flipping to the first chapter, she looked over the first page. The book appeared to be a thesis on the prophecy, breaking it down line-by-line. The thesis explained the possibilities of the events being true. Whoever had written this had a lot of wild ideas but she could see why Caldor chose to read it:
“…by the light, that could mean a source of power or a physical creation of light. This could also be a metaphor for a title or person of power. In the North the King is the sun. In the South the King is the beacon. In La’reen the Empress brings light – knowledge – to her people. Light in this sense could mean more than a physical light. If we consider light to be a title, what then would be water, earth, fire, wind, and darkness.”
“Why are you reading this?” Liora crinkled her brow. She had no concept as to what the book was discussing but if the old sage was reading it he did. “I thought you didn’t believe in the prophecy?”
“I did not,” Caldor swallowed the rest of the second egg, “part of me still believes it is hogwash… but not all.”
“Why?” Liora felt her stomach sink.
“Well… you have done some unexplainable things that were explained by that mullock. I – at the moment – am trying to find an appropriate way of proving what you are to the university to allocate more resources put towards finding the truth to what you are.” Caldor scratched his beard that had its ends tangled in his belt. “Does that make sense?”
“Sort of.” Liora was still confused but she got most of what he had tried to explain. “So – what am I then – what’s the book saying I am?”
“That there is the question,” he sighed, pulling out his notebook from the pile of books on his desk. “The Prophecy Six – Kanrow’s book – considers you the Child of the Light, one of six people who are to bring about a major shift in Gaitan.”
“But, that’s unrealistic. How are six people – children – supposed to change the world?” Liora noticed the old sage take a deep breath.
“I have no idea. These books give me no answers. All they say is there are six of you and change is coming.” Caldor rubbed his hand over his face. “I was hoping to have answers for you, but I have none.”
Placing a hand on his back, Liora set the book back on his desk before him.
“If there are six people like me and six signs… maybe the world changes with each person?” Liora suggested, watching the old sage’s brows lift as his eyes widened.
“Actually – that would make sense.” Caldor grabbed his pen. “The light over Morza was the first sign: ‘From the darkest of mortal actions will come the light’. As said the book, then possibly…”
He knocked over his pile of books by his desk before going to his knees. The rose red text was buried somewhere close by.
“Ah ha!” The thin book rested by the wall behind his desk as he grabbed it, passing it up to the girl. “Second section.”
Liora flipped to the page the old sage suggested, before he crawled back up to his desk.
“The second of the Six is the child of the water. They will stand alone in devastation. Happiness will be their illusion, and they must find firm ground within themselves,” Liora paused, “should I continue?”
“No, the first two lines are the important ones,” Caldor muttered, taking back the book.
“That doesn’t answer our question does it?” Liora crossed her arms.
“No, but it is a start!” The sage gave her a wild eyed smile, before he dived back into his work. “Get me the book by Rowsin Linbeck. It should be somewhere over there.”
The sage waved his hand in no discernible direction as Liora glanced across the floor. There were too many books to search through them all for the one text he wanted.
“Mind describing it?” She knelt down to pick up a grey material text with a frayed bottom corner. It didn’t have the author’s name on the cover and the title was in Dermite from what she could tell by the block letters.
“Blue leather with a picture of a bird on the front,” Caldor grumbled, keeping his attention on his scribbling. He was working on some train of thought as he was oblivious to the issues she had with his request.
“Of course it is, how could I not have known that,” Liora replied in a matter-a-fact tone to match the annoyance the old sage had grumbled to her.
With three more books gathered in her arms, Liora hurried over to the shelf closest to the window. It wouldn’t have surprised her if he was tricking her into tidying up his mess. If he had wanted his room clean, he could have asked.
Making another pile in her arms of all the books that weren’t matching the description, Liora piled them onto the shelf before turning back to face the room. His room was an utter disaster. A thick layer of papers and books were strewed about the floor. Such a mess would take her days to clean but if she was going to be his book finder she would have a better idea where everything was.
“It looks like a twirlblast came through here,” Liora sighed as the old sage spun around to face her.
“A what?” His caterpillar brows knotted as he peered over his crooked glasses.
“A twirlblast… you know those wind funnels that happen in the wilds or the desert.” Liora never saw one for herself but had read about them in the Dermite books. “Cáel calls them twirlblasts.”
“Tornados my dear, not twirlblasts. That is the Dermite name,” Caldor corrected.
“Fine then – a tornado tore through here. Do you think – maybe - you should organize your room a little?” Liora picked up another book, setting it on the shelf.
“Why would I do that when you are doing such a lovely job?” Caldor smirked. The girl glared. He put out his hand towards her cupping and uncupping his hand. “Now I need that book.”
“Point me to it then,” Liora snipped, watching the old man point towards the foot of his bed. There, under the lip of the quilt that sat a fingers length above the floor was the blue leather text.
Stomping over, Liora picked it up. She stomped back to the old sage’s desk putting the book beside the one he was reading and placed her hands on her hips.
“Your room in La’reen can’t be this bad.”
“Actually you are right, although I believe that is due to the fact they do not allow me to take the books from the libraries anymore.” He turned back to face his desk. “They were growing upset with me not returning them.”
Why wasn’t she surprised? Most of the books in Demor carpeted the floor of his room. If they weren’t then they were stuffing the shelves in her room or piled by the wall in Cáel’s. If she had more time between volunteering with the Sisters, helping Cáel, or tending to her own studies maybe she could have helped keep the old sage’s room from getting to such a state. At least he was good enough to collect all his empty teacups and return them to the kitchen, although now that she thought about it, one of the servants probably handled that.
Peering down at the pile of texts resting behind his ink splattered desk, Liora could see that they were all related to the Southern city of La’reen. They were about the plants and culture. There was a book about the wine and one about the history.
“Do you miss it there?” Liora leaned against the desk, pointing to one of the books with a picture of the Glass Tower printed in silver on the cover. All she had seen were sketches or prints which she was certain didn’t give the city much justice.
“At times,” Caldor paused for a moment, looking out the window before him, “their wine is marvelous. The weather is warm, and I have my colleagues.”
“Not to mention their colourful clothes and endless parties.” Liora had read one of the books concerning the wonders of the southern Oasis. It appeared to be a pleasant place and somewhere she wouldn’t have minded to see.
“Yes, there is that… but La’reen cannot provide you what the North can,” Caldor replied, giving a heavy sigh that ruffled his mustache.
“What do you mean?” She tilted her head.
“Safety, my girl.” Caldor removed his glasses to clean against his ashy-grey robe. “They are influenced by the South and I do not believe you are ready to deal with the mind-games they play. Yes, La’reen is filled with an abundance of knowledge and there are many pleasantries to distract you but believe me when I say: as much that city is as beautiful it is dangerous.”
Liora swallowed, inspecting her fingers as she picked at her nails. As much as she didn’t want Caldor to stay in the North where he wasn’t comfortable she did appreciate that he was thinking of her well-being. Surely a place considered to be the most peaceful of cities wasn’t that dangerous. Derm had slavers and bandits. The west had dragons and dangerous beasts. Caldor knew she had avoided those dangers, yet he worried about La’reen.
There came a knock on the door. Liora glanced up to meet eyes with the Detress of Demor in the doorway. Her long golden curls glistened in the firelight as her indigo eyes scanned the room.
“Really Cal, these books are becoming a hazard. I’ll ask one of me ladies to tidy things,” the woman grumbled, scanning the mess.
“No, leave my books!” Caldor turned around in a panic. “I know where everything is and if the room has not caught fire yet it won’t!”
“At least move them from the fireplace,” Marcia sighed, picking up one of the books to place on the bookshelf by the door.
“Fine, have that Gretta girl do it. She at least listens when I say not to touch my things,” he huffed turning back to his work.
Liora glanced back at the tall woman in the entrance. Her long cornflower velvet dress shimmered in the yellow light of the room as the Detress’s eyes fell on her.
“Li, I’ve been waiting,” Marcia muttered as the girl sheepishly faced away, “yah know yar lessons start today, right?”
“Yes,” Liora bit her lip, “I just… painting isn’t… I don’t like painting.”
“Yah can’t say yah don’ like it when yah haven’ tried it.” Marcia crossed her arms.
“Of course she can if she knows it is pointless,” Caldor snipped, lifting his hand that gripped the feathered quill. “The girl does not need to know colours or shapes. Fill her mind with useful knowledge like mathematics, chess, or astronomy. Those are not pointless.”
He moved the quill like a music conductor as the black ink splattered across the desk and stone wall. Marcia gave a heavy sigh before resting her hand to her forehead.
“It isn’t pointless. Painting teaches creativity and patience,” Marcia stated.
“And attracts proper suitors and makes girls into proper ladies,” Caldor snipped, turning back around. “Liora is not a flower, Marcia.”
“We’ll see – she might enjoy it.”
“Probably won’t,” Liora breathed, plodding over to the woman. “Couldn’t I learn how to ride a gryphon or how to track?”
“Don’ be silly.” Marcia rested a hand behind Liora’s head as they walked into the halls. “Yah’ll love painting I just know it.”
Liora didn’t want to upset Marcia, but she was certain she wouldn’t like the activities the woman was so set on her participating in. If there was anything she wanted to learn it was what they had Cáel learning with the Gryphon Guard or from his father.
When they arrived at the third level of the castle, Liora was led to a large room which seconded as a study for the Sisters of Mercy. The walls were lined with various portraits of men and women, some of which wore the signature cowl of the Sisters. There were heads of animals hanging on the wall above the tall windows which overlooked the garden and riding grounds. A large stone fireplace rested on the far right side of the room with tall shelves. Most of the lower shelves were empty of books, while the others – conveniently out of reach of her mentor – were still lined with texts.
In the center of the room rested a wooden easel. Marcia coaxed her to stand before the easel. The blank canvas sat before her. There were four cups of paint, a small cup of water, and three brushes of varying sizes.
The woman hadn’t stopped talking since they had entered the room. Liora had stayed quiet, not wishing to say something that would upset the Detress, although all Liora wanted to do was leave. The thought of tidying Caldor’s room was more appealing than staring blankly at the empty canvas listening to what brush to use. It soon passed the hour point as the woman still droned on about mixing paints and having patience. The more the woman talked the more the girl’s patience waned.
When she heard that she had to take a painting class she thought she would be painting not being lectured. All Liora wanted to do was paint without rules. That’s how she drew back in Morza.
Taking the larger brush, Liora stared into the empty canvas before her. Naygu had always given her guidance. Her nana had trusted her with drawing the diagrams that now rested in the manifest. She had even drawn the Mor’s homestead as a gift for Revris’s mother when Naygu mentioned how much Nya loved the detail in the diagrams. There had always been a plan to follow but the Detress did not give her one.
“Paint how yah feel,” Marcia sang, moving around the girl and easel. The woman’s dress fluttered behind her, while a pursed smile was on her lips.
“I feel like I don’t want to do this,” Liora grumbled.
“Awe, come on now. No bitter tongues. Look at the canvas. What do yah see?” Marcia rested her hands on Liora’s shoulders.
“A blank canvas.” Liora dropped the brush into the sapphire paint. She wanted to be studying medicines or learn skills that could help her survive in the world. She wanted to take more political courses, or herbology classes. She wanted to learn how to train gryphons and use a weapon.
“All right,” Marcia sighed, tucking a curl behind her ear, “a different approach then.”
Marcia walked over to the bookcase across the room. It took her but a moment to find the book she was hunting for as Liora recognized the padded leather cover. Druce liked the pictures in that book. Famous sketches of places across Gaitan were hidden within the pages. Liora took the book, glimpsing at it before glancing back up to the woman who now had her arms crossed under her chest.
“Flip through and see if yah find something yah wanna paint,” Marcia hummed, spinning the girl around to face her in the direction of the padded chairs on the other side of the room. Liora didn’t want to look at picture books but if it would stop the woman from lecturing her on the rules of painting she was willing to sit by herself.
As she sat down on the padded velvet chair with ankles crossed and book open to the middle seam, Liora peeked back to see Marcia at the bookshelf as if contemplating what she could read. With a sigh, Liora stared down at the pages before her. The charcoal sketches were ink-pressed onto these pages, an invention from those at the University of Calin to the East. They had called the contraption the Mechanical Scribe since they started making several copies of books in the same amount of time it would take to write one out by hand. Many were happy about the invention. Others – specifically the skilled scribes – were not.
Flipping four more pages, Liora paused in turning another page when something caught her attention. A sketch of a shoreline covered with pebbles called to her. Fishermen were on the higher plateaus leading up towards what appeared to be a large stone wall.
A white haired girl in a baggy brown tunic stood on a rocky shoreline, a grey stone in her hand. Laughter from the other children who ran along the wooden walkways of the village danced through the air. The girl turned at hearing the children call to her.
“Freak!” They called.
A tear rolled down the white haired girl’s cheek and with a scream of frustration the grey stone splashed when hitting the white rushing river.
Someone rested a hand on Liora’s shoulder. Her attention shot up from the yellow pages. Marcia knelt before her with knotted brows.
“Are yah all right?” Her voice was soft. Liora’s eyes had been empty when staring at the parchment pages of the book resting in her lap.
“This place...” Liora lifted the book for the woman to see, “do you know where the sketch was made?”
“Let’s see.” Marcia took the book, flipping to the back pages where it noted the artist and name of the piece along with the location. Her finger skimmed along the names until she came across the page number. “White Waters by Wrigglton Moubris… Menk.”
“Menk?” Liora repeated under her breath.
This hadn’t been the first time she had seen a white haired child. The girl she had seen with the white hair was the same one from her dream right after reviving the prince prior to winter. The only difference was in this vision the girl wasn’t wearing the sapphire blue dress.
“Did yah see something, Li?” Marcia rested a hand on the girl’s knee, noticing Liora’s almond steel eyes glance at her before shaking her head.
“I don’t… I saw something but I don’t know what.” Liora reached for the book the woman had tucked under her arm. “Can I have a few more moments?”
“Of course,” Marcia passed the girl the book, “just not too long, we need to put down a sketch before the end of class.”
Liora rested the text back in her lap. She flipped back to the page that had jotted the vision. It had felt like she had been standing on the rocky shore seeing the girl be teased by the other children of the village.
She ran her fingers along the inked image. There was no child on the shoreline in this picture, only the fishermen on the upper landings with the baskets strapped to their backs. It was possible she was seeing a memory of someone who had read the book previously or the artist who had created the piece.
No. Liora narrowed her eyes. This was more than a memory; what she had experienced was something else.
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes for a moment forcing herself to focus on the images that had triggered in her mind. That shoreline and those fishermen… what else had stood out?
The harsh choir echoed in her mind as she felt a ping in her chest. Why had they called the girl that? She appeared normal enough, although she was fairer in colour than those of the village. White hair was strange but not enough for someone to be deemed an outcast.
The sun baked her back while she listened to the rushing river to her left. There was chatter from the people on the wooden walkways of the village raised above the shoreline encase the river swelled over the protective wall that helped funnel the water away from the buildings. The girl stood before the wall, her face hidden from Liora’s view. The group of children ran towards them.
Liora stood closer. This girl wasn’t from Demor and she wasn’t from the other villages Liora had visited. Someone like this girl would have stood out.
One of the larger boys in the group gave the white haired girl a shove into the wall. Liora hurried to stand between them but her presence did nothing. She was invisible.
Turning to face the strange girl, Liora could see the burning glare in her tear filled lavender eyes. Her cheek bruised and the shoulder of her tunic torn.
“Why am I seeing you?” Liora asked, knowing no one would answer. “Who are you?”
“Lesson is over.” Caldor’s voice broke the image as Liora’s head shot up at hearing the old sage’s voice. “It is my time with my apprentice.”
Caldor wandered over from the set of doors on the right side. He didn’t appear as disheveled as he had that morning with his hair now combed and robe pressed. He hurried towards her as she stood from the chair. The book she placed on the seat.
“There’s ten minutes left,” Marcia interjected, turning to face the small man with crossed arms. “We haven’ even got a sketch down.”
“Not my problem now, is it?” The sage smirked, leaning back on his heels to look up at the robust woman. “Come, my girl. I will be teaching you useful skills like natural antiseptics and fungi.”
Liora dusted the front of her dress, hurrying to the old sage’s side after hearing what he had planned. Those interested her. Those would help her become a better healer.
“Actually, speaking of fungi and antiseptics - did you know that birch polypores are an antiseptic fungus… well along with many other health benefits which I will be certain to explain to you in the apothecary,” Caldor boasted, waving his hand as if to swat at his scattered thoughts like annoying gnats.
Liora hooked her arm around his before they disappeared into the hallway. The air was cool while the torches flickered in their cast-iron holders. Sun seeped through the large stain glass windows in the hall, while they made their way from the third floor to the first. They walked passed suits of armour too large for either of them to wear. Demor was large. The castle hallways were awkward, but Liora couldn’t consider anywhere else to be her home for the moment.
“What a waste,” Caldor grumbled, “I am sorry they chose for you to take such a useless activity.”
Liora nodded, unsure what to say. At the beginning of the lesson she had thought painting was pointless until that vision. Caldor couldn’t teach her how to handle her visions and neither could any of the Sisters. If painting would help her focus her attention and control her thoughts, than painting would be helpful in making her a better seer.
“It wasn’t bad,” she forced out, “I would have preferred joining Cáel in one of his lessons – they at least sound fun.”
Caldor nodded, as they reached the stairwell leading to the atrium. “You are better suited for the council than the frontlines. I would rather you fight with words than fight with swords.”
That wasn’t why she wanted to learn how to fight. She didn’t like war but she understood the importance of knowing how to use a weapon.
“I want to learn how to defend myself.” Liora’s voice was blunt. The old sage halted in step, his brows knotted as he peered over his chipped glasses. “I’m a girl in a dangerous, unpredictable world – wouldn’t it be prudent to learn the skills to take care of myself.”
Caldor smiled. Liora made a logical point.
“We can debate that later.” Caldor turned back towards the archways to the dining hall as they walked again. “You are safe here. There are the guards and the Steward to protect you. There is plenty of time to learn those skills.”
He patted the girl’s hand as they made their way through the dining room and down the stairs to the kitchen. They turned left down the hall to where the large apothecary resided. The fireplace in the apothecary was unlit as there was a damp chill in the air.
The sage hurried to light the torches along the wall as Liora went to start the fire. Between the torches and the fireplace the dampness dissipated leaving the room a comfortable temperature. Caldor carried over an armful off canisters, pouches, and vials to the workbench in the middle of the room. Liora hurried to take a copper canister from his arm. The cylindrical canister was light with a label pasted along the side saying ‘caper spurge’ in faint lettering along with a warning to handle with precaution.
“I may be old, but I am able,” Caldor scoffed, taking the canister from her hand. “Do not touch what you do not know.”
“Well, I assumed if you were handling it like you were I’d be fine,” Liora snipped back.
“To assume is to make an ass of you and me,” Caldor retorted, turning to take another canister. He twisted the lid and peered inside. He gave it two shakes, sniffed and handed it to her. “Now, do not breathe too much but this is the birch polypore I mentioned.”
Liora leaned her face towards the opening and took a sniff. The smell of rich soil and mushroom tingled her nostrils.
“What does it taste like?”
“Excellent question,” Caldor praised, “from what I remember, earthy and bitter. Although some say it can be sweet depending on how and when they are picked or stored.”
He closed the lid to the canister before opening another one. He shook it around taking a sniff before passing it towards her. Liora peered down. There was a tiny amount left in the canister. Many of the items in the apothecary had been used throughout the long winter. Between her lessons and assisting in tending to those who fell sick most of the apothecary’s reserves had run low.
“We should restock. Nana always said fresh herbs are best.”
“Naygu was not wrong,” Caldor sighed, “but that, my dear, is a problem we can tend to another day – tell me what you smell.”
Liora took the canister in her hands. The strong smell of mint and honey rose burning her nose. That smell was impossible to forget as it had been a leaf her nana had used often to treat those of her village. Her nana had told her the leaf was an antibiotic not an antiseptic like the old sage was supposed to be teaching. Eucalyptus kept its strong scent for a long time, although the leaf wasn’t a common item found in the North. Most of the shrubs grew close to the border of the South where the weather was warm year round. It shouldn’t have surprised her that the plant was in the apothecary with Caldor in charge of its care and his vast knowledge of medical practices across Gaitan. Still, the smell reminded her of her home which made her homesick.
Shaking the canister, there came another minty wave that forced her to move the canister farther from her nose. She wanted to learn but a part of her felt apathetic towards her lessons. There were other issues on her mind that she couldn’t escape.
“Caldor,” Liora sighed, “can we discuss what we were this morning about the Six?”
“Something concerning you?” He watched the girl place the canister onto the workbench. Her shoulders sunk as she fiddled with her fingers. “Come, what is it?”
The thought of the possibility of others had danced through her mind after their talk that morning. A part of her needed to know more about what the old sage had been researching over the winter months. The idea that there were others like her was comforting in a way but in another sense she was afraid of what these other children were going to bring.
“If the Six are real, there are going to be others like me,” Liora folded her hands, “other people with gifts, right?”
“If the prophecy is true, yes, we would consider that a possibility,” Caldor stated.
“If that’s the case…” Liora tightened her grip on her fingers. Her knuckles whitened beneath her grip. “Why me? Why not someone else from Morza? I wasn’t special… I was granddaughter to the Shazamest but there were others more important...”
He watched her chew the inside of her mouth. He had asked that same question thousands of times since finding her those months ago. He had explored his ideas behind her being of the healing line but if the Gods wanted someone skilled They could have left Naygu. It could have been Liora’s age but surely there were other reasons the Gods chose this girl.
“It is understandable to feel guilt.” Caldor took her hands after hearing her knuckle crack in her grip. “You went through a terrible event and you feel alone because, yes, by all definition you are alone. But dwelling on these questions are not going to help find you the answers you are searching for.”
“I don’t understand how I survived when the massacre was my fault,” Liora muttered, pulling her hand away. “I was given these powers of foresight… of touch healing as if to mock me – as if this is a punishment for what I did.”
“You did nothing wrong,” Caldor sighed, “that pious sociopath acted by his own volition – you are not to blame for what happened.”
Liora wanted to believe him. Gods, she wished she could listen to his words but her mind wouldn’t hear them. Too much time had gone by with her thinking of how she should have listened to the War Priest. Too much time had passed with her mind racing with ‘what ifs’.
“What is the point of my powers anyways… all I can do is see things and heal. Others could have better powers.” Liora wrapped her arms around her chest, digging her nails into the creases of her elbows. The sharp pain was tingling up her arm but it didn’t matter, it felt better than the gnawing in her stomach.
“Such as?” Caldor adjusted his glasses.
“I don’t know. Manipulate fire or control peoples’ minds, or melt through metal or disappear from one place and appear in another – I don’t know.” Liora shook her head. “Those seem more useful than what I do.”
Caldor took her by the hands once more tightening his grip so she couldn’t pull away. “No Six will be better than another. You are a seer and a touch healer. You can see the future and the past. Bloody hell girl - you brought the prince back from the dead. In my opinion your powers are the best.”
“You’re saying that because you don’t know what the others can do,” Liora spat.
He sighed, pinching the bridge of his long nose. The girl was so much like her grandmother. Naygu was a talented healer but never believed she was good enough to be considered a Master. This girl was smart, quick, and skilled yet she only saw the faults in herself. Her powers from the Gods hadn’t made her his apprentice. Her intuition and determination to do what was best for her patients was what called to him. How she had tended to the prince and stood up against the King – although she feared him – showed her passion for the healing arts. Her powers were just a small part to what made this girl before him gifted.
“Liora, I do not say this often so I wish you to hear me,” he paused, waiting for the girl to look at him. “There is more to you than your gifts that make you special. Yes, your abilities may be shadowed by the others but they chose those powers for you, my girl. They saw something in you that made you Their first and in time we will figure out what that reason is.”
Caldor placed a gentle hand on her upper arm. Her brows knotted at hearing his words. Her stomach flipped and chest ached. She wanted to accept what he had said but there was something inside her telling her not to listen. A dark voice whispering in her mind that what he was saying was a lie.
“Thank you, Caldor.” Liora smiled, nodding her head. He had tried to cheer her up; the least she could do was appear that his actions had made some difference.
“We will end here – you have been through enough today. Read this,” he handed her the book resting on the workbench, “and we will pick up where we left off tomorrow.”
Liora nodded, glancing down at the large text in her arms. The book was on fungi, the second part of the lesson. She was familiar with some of the common species of fungi found through the North as they thrived in the Western Valley but there was plenty she still needed to learn. She may have been more knowledgeable in the healing arts but in no form was she ready to be considered a Master Healer.
Making her way out into the hall and up the steps to the dining hall, Liora took a moment to adjust to the change in temperature. The kitchen always made the lower level stifling and the air in the apothecary sticky in comparison to that of the main level. The main level was cooler as the smell of fresh spring air came dancing through the archway from the atrium. Servants worked away with tidying the dining room as she walked passed and into the atrium. The two guards from that morning were no longer there. The afternoon shift had started. Lunch would be in another hour or so, long enough for her to study with the prince.
Up the stairs and across the walkway she went before turning down the second hall which led to the stairwell leading to the second level where the prince’s room resided. The rumbling shouts of the King were muffled by the door to his room across the way. She couldn’t make out what he was saying but his shouts made it clear that he wasn’t impressed about something with his constant use of bull, froq, and bloody hell.
Opening the prince’s door, Liora spotted the boy curled up on his bed tuning his lute. The room was basked in a grey light from the balcony doors. The royal blue curtains swayed and fire crackled in the stone hearth. The prince was supposed to be studying but in no way did it surprise her that he wasn’t. Cáel didn’t need to prove himself like she did. He had his life planned out. One day he would be king and she… well… she didn’t know what she would be.
Dropping her textbook on the bed, Liora crawled across the feather mattress. There was a scent of citrus in the air as she settled with her back pressed against the solid footboard. Cáel continued tuning his lute. His tongue was pressed between his thin lips, as he peered down his aquiline nose at the gut strings that twanged beneath his fingers. His messy curls were slicked back with water. He was wearing a fresh cotton shirt and dark linen trousers.
“Were you thrown again?”
Cáel smirked at hearing the amusement in her tone. He could see by the hand she raised to cover her creasing lips that she didn’t want to show his misfortune amused her, but her snickering shared all he needed to know.
“Nah, not this time… I fell.” Cáel strummed the strings that hummed through the high ceilings before shaking his head. “There’s one bloody strin’ that doesn’ sound right.”
“Could be your ears?” Liora jested, reaching to pinch his lobe before moving back. She caught his cheeks flush as she forced her eyes to focus on the textbook.
The cover of the book wasn’t much to be impressed about. Like most of the sage’s books they were plain on the outside and colourful on the inside. The fungi were listed alphabetically and each was accompanied by a water colour picture.
“How did drawin’ go?” Cáel turned the tuning key at the top of the lute’s neck.
“Painting class was fine, though I would have preferred riding with you,” Liora muttered, seeing the boy look at her again before returning his attention to his instrument.
“I’ll trade yah. Those bird-lions and I don’ get along,” Cáel sighed. “Me da says I just need practice but the practice ain’t helpin’ me any.”
“You can’t expect to be perfect at it the first few times you’re riding and besides – I can’t take you up on that offer.” Liora pressed her head against the footboard. “Not for another two weeks.”
Cáel strummed the lute again, before setting it onto the floor. He leaned across the bed, grabbing the textbook from the nightstand before resting it on his knees.
“What’s in two weeks?”
“My name day – I believe the Dermite call it birth day,” Liora explained, seeing the boy’s head bolt up from the book.
“How old will yah be?”
“Fifteen – like you.” She smiled. “I can’t wait. In Morza I would have been given my first dragon but I’ll settle for a gryphon. According to the books, fifteen is the year you start learning how to ride since your feet can reach the stirrups. You can even request to visit the nests.”
“And yah want that?” Cáel couldn’t understand why Liora wanted more responsibility. He was happy worrying about himself and his studies. Having a gryphon to take care of would add stress to his life that he didn’t need nor want.
“Of course I do. I could fly anywhere and visit you in the capital without Foe or Caldor,” Liora explained, noticing the boy’s brow knot. “What’s wrong?”
“I forgot about Derlin,” Cáel breathed.
Derlin was large, the castle monstrous. His father was always busy and he would have tutors bothering him even more than Master Caldor. Now that he was well, he would be expected to train with the guard and study with the council. He would be forced to stand in on meetings and participate in discussions.
“I’ll visit.” She rested a hand atop his. “We’ll both be busy but we can send letters. If you become better with the gryphons you could even fly and visit me here.”
“Yah think so?” He felt the girl’s hand tighten around his. Her hand was warm, and her grey eyes were sincere.
“I know so.” She moved her hand back. “Now, back to fungi and you back to… whatever it is he has you reading.”
Cáel flipped to the cover. The blue leather book was another text on laws of Derm and political treaties. He flipped to the second chapter and began to read. The words were like white noise as he heard Caldor’s drawling voice read the sentences in his head. Moments like this made him wish he was born of minstrels. Sure, he would have been poor but he wouldn’t have had to read textbooks thicker than a fattened pig.
“So…” He heard her sigh. She glanced up with narrow eyes and raised brows. “When exactly’s yar name day?”
“Two weeks from tomorrow.” Liora flipped to the next page of her book. There was a colourful picture of a bright yellow mushroom. “Now, study or I’ll leave.”
Cáel sighed forcing his attention back to his book. Liora knew how to keep him working. He didn’t want her to leave.
Glancing up again, he stayed silent this time to watch the girl work on her reading. Her locks fell over her shoulders as her large almond eyes studied the page before her. He didn’t know how she could stay interested in reading about mushrooms but as long as she was there with him he didn’t mind staying silent.
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