Thick, thorned ivy cut into my skin as I climbed the crumbling wall.
I’d climbed this wall so many times that I could no longer count, and yet the thorns still cut into the skin of my palm. I still had to remind myself that I couldn’t waste time thinking about the red smeared stains that I left on the loose stone. Each day that passed caused the binding between the stone bricks to deteriorate—each day that I returned to the ruins I was forced to witness as more and more of the old castle collapsed.
The ceilings and great towers had long ago perished, the ice and rain and wind fatal blows to the marble and stone, and now only a few walls and pillars stood tall. This wall was the only one stable enough to carry my weight and hold the perch I’d built long ago.
The last of the thorns dug into my skin once I reached the top of the wall, where my fingers curled and dug into the decaying stone. I hissed, grunting as I lifted myself up to the top.
The perch was built from old planks I found around the ruins, tied together with the help of one of the stable boys I convinced to join me. Every week when I returned to the perch I was forced to cut away the ivy, lest I wanted to suffer while I sat. I pulled my worn-out cloak around me, the silk tunic and leather leggings I wore felt paper thin against the cold mountain air. Once calm, and warm enough to focus on the world around me, I drank in the ruins.
My claimed that they were a blight on his lands; the great protector of Aelston Keep hated that the ruins of an old Seelie kingdom remained on his lands. He tried to burn the remainder of the walls, deciding that fire was the only thing to abolish and purify his land. But one of his colleagues decided to give it to another; as a sick, twisted joke told over a Winter feast, he proposed it to be given to me.
“The blight of Aelston Keep ought to belong to the blight of your household, Lord Arthion.”
And so the ruins came into the hands of Lord Arthion’s bastard . He’d handed to me as if it were a gift, a token of love to prove to me that he, at some time or another, considered me his daughter. Most daughters received ribbons and jewels, while I was given the rubble and ash of a kingdom we destroyed long ago. And I had no choice but to smile and accept it graciously.
Summer was coming; in between the cool breeze that whipped strands of brown hair across my face, the heat touched my cheeks. The blossoms in the trees fell weeks ago and the forest that surrounded me was now green and thick. It was half a day’s ride to get to the ruins, now, as it took a while to navigate since the branches above in the canopy was no longer bare. Summer was coming, which meant that the next few days would be spent listening to Paeris and my father bickering over what to offer the King this year at the Solstitium.
I’d stay at home, as I did for each of the seasonal jubilees given by the King. At least, not until he was ready to hand me over to the King as a prize when the week of conscription came. Then, he would hand me over—and I would become a part of the King’s court so he could use my gifts to aid him in defeating the Seelie Court.
Until that week came, I was told to stay away from the Solstitium. I’d stay with my handmaidens and work on my words and numbers.
The mountains sang a song on the wind; it was like an old lullaby, meant for me and only me--meant for the Bastard of The Spring. I smiled, softly, as I stared out at what I owned. It was beautiful in the Winter, but ethereal in the Spring. The ivy would blossom and the earth beneath the rubble and ash would sprout wildflowers, just for my eyes alone. I’d pick the Baby’s Breath that grew just beneath my wall, and I’d do my best to hide them from my father in the stables.
Spring belonged to me, no matter how many times my father told me that they belonged to the King.
Down below my feet, a red-haired fox quickly ran—swift on its paws it jumped over fallen walls and broken glass… out of fear, I realized. Using the perch to stretch out just before my feet hit the floor, I followed the path that the fox left behind. The same red stains I left on the wall scattered along the floor. I followed, silent, not wanting to scare the fox any more than it clearly was.
It was in my ruins. This was the place I went to escape the fear and the sadness. My boots crunched through the rubble, each step like a loud crack in these silent ruins. When I reached a pile of broken wall that acted as a small cave, I bent down at peered inside. The little fox was young, born in Spring most likely. It cowered deep in its hole, its golden gaze staring at me as if I were the predator, and it was the prey.
I had no reason to hunt the little fox. I reached into the hole, my blood stained palm raised up to ease the fox into coming toward me. It cowered further away, the small seam of its move cracking open to reveal teeth that could tear into my skin. Afraid, but ready to fight.
I opened my mouth to speak, ready to coo and call the fox closer to me so I could help it, but my mouth snapped shut when I felt the sting of something sharp whipped past my cheek. It moved so fast, the whistle of the wind around it was loud and piercing. I stood still, staring beyond the rubble-cave to find an arrow made of white oak burrowed deep into a wooden pillar in front of me. The intricate swirls and the black fletching was far too familiar to ignore.
The arrow was meant for you, I thought to myself, looking down into the hole at the fox. I stood, ignoring the sensation of blood drawing down the side of my cheek from the wound that was made. I turned, and strolling through the ruins--my ruins--was my brother. He reached for another arrow in his quiver and pulled back the string of his bow to shoot again, but stopped short as soon as I stood directly in front of the little fox’s hiding place.
“I told you not to hunt here.”
“The King’s Chancellor wanted to hunt in these woods,” he told me.
He slipped the arrow back into his quiver, slinging the bow over his shoulder as he stepped forward. He wore a cloak over his emerald tunic, with silver embroidery--the finest fabric for my father’s son. He combed his fingers through his blond hair, cut short to keep the curls from tangling. His eyes, hazel, looked past me again--hoping to catch a good look at the little fox I planned on protecting until he left.
He was in my ruins; as long as they were mine, I wouldn’t let him hunt anything on them.
“You didn’t ask if you could bring him here,” I argued.
“I don’t have to ask. If the King’s Chancellor wants to hunt in the ruins, then he can.”
He tried to push me aside, his hands gripping my worn cloak so he could shove me far enough so he can grab the fox with his bare hands. My fingers clasped around his wrist in an instant, ready to tear his hand off of me if he tried anything.
“You touch the fox and I’ll remind you which one of us is the Child of Iron.”
He flinched. His hand relaxed on my shoulder, despite how quickly his tensed. He peered down behind me, watching the opening of the cave. His gaze narrowed as he looked deep, bending down to rest on his knees. The air around us turned cold and stifling, a common occurrence when I chose to act out with Paeris. The second eldest of Lord Arthion’s children, Paeris was never fully pleased when our father brought me home. He never quite adjusted; nor did I think he ever would. Tension began to choke the both of us until he pulled his gaze back up.
“The Chancellor is imperative to my future as the King’s Emissary.” He informed me, as if his information was anything new. He’d been telling everyone at home about his ambitions for his future. “If I screw this up, I won’t hear the end of it.”
“There are plenty of foxes out there in the wood, many of them capable of defending themselves.”
“Daerwen--the ruins might belong to you, but the land it stands on still belongs to my father. Do you really want the Chancellor to take out his bad hunt on him?”
I flinched, now, in his direction.
“I want the fox to live.”
“Daerwen, move out of the way.”
He let his gaze fall down to my hands as my fingers began to tighten and curl. I had a thought--to show him just what I was capable of, but he quickly reached for my hand before I was able to try and gain the upper hand. He hissed beneath his breath, his hazel gaze burrowing into mine until I felt the same cold in the breeze deep in the marrow of my bones. I tried to pull my hand from his grip, but his strength was overwhelming.
“There’s no iron around here for you to wield. Keep your gift at bay or else I’ll tell our father.”
It very rare for him to say aloud that he was our father. Most times, it was because he wasn’t aware of his words--when he caught on to what he said, he quickly recanted just to spite me. But there were other times when he would use it against me personally. I wanted us to be family… I knew that I was a bastard, a stain on the family name, but I still hoped that he would consider me as his sister, just as Veryan did. But I also believed he hated me the moment my father brought me to his home, after he’d saved me from my mother.
The woman who gave me away--the whore that my father took to bed during the war.
I wanted my family to love me because I had no one else to go to.
I made a promise a long time ago to my father that, when he chose, I would show the King my gift. It was one thing to bear one of the Five Gifts, to be a Child of Mirrors or Echoes, but I was born a Child of Iron. Able to wield and manipulate iron in any form as a weapon. I was a prize, an object that the king desired for his guard. But my father wasn’t ready to give me away. He wanted to wait for that opportune moment so that he could show me off; so he could present me to the King for favor.
I’d be very stupid if I used my gift now.
I relaxed into his hold, finally releasing the air in lungs in a long sigh.
I just wanted to save the fox, I thought. I moved to the side.
“When you become the Emissary to the King, do me one favor… be merciful to the next fox you hunt.” I walked away, fearful of the pained cries I’d hear once Paeris showed no mercy to this one.
My ruins were stained with so much blood today, that I had to vow that I would never let another drop fall down onto the cracked marble below my feet. I made my way down an empty pathway to where my horse stood waiting for me to finish with my time at the ruins. Just as I reached my horse, another one exited the woods. A male with silver hair and dressed in rich fabrics that not even my father could afford reached the spot where I stood. He smiled down at me, his teeth as bright as the stars.
He was clearly not from Aelston Keep.
“You must be the Chancellor,” I said, lifting myself onto my saddle. I made no effort to hide the disgust as Paeris caught up.
The fox squirmed and fought in Paeris’ arms. I swallowed down the slow-rising bile that rested in my throat. It was one thing to hunt to survive--that I could forgive. But they were hunting for sport… they hunted for sport in my ruins. I shifted my gaze to the Chancellor. He smiled, unaffected by his own actions. He’d never have to feel the consequences of his actions. He was free to kill innocent foxes and stain old ruins with blood, and he’d never pay the price for it. I sneered.
“Chancellor Poe,” Paeris sad, ignoring my demeanor. “Allow me to introduce you to the Bastard of The Spring. Daerwen.”
Chancellor Poe forced his steed to move closer to me, where he raised his hand for me to shake it. I refused, tipping my chin up and tugging on the reins of my horse.
“Bastard of The Spring, and keeper of Kilerth Ruins.” I corrected, “if that fox bleeds on my lands, don’t expect me to be kind the next time we meet.”
“This is kind?” Chancellor Poe laughed.
My jaw clenched as I tried to remain as polite as I could. “Of course. I let you take the fox in the first place.”
With one last look to Paeris, knowing that I’d receive a lecture when he returned home, I tugged on the reins again and was off. By midnight, I’d make it home. By midnight, the fox would be dead.