A/N: This work will be taken down June 1st, 2021 to be edited and eventually published.
Kingdom of Norm
I stared up at the rolling gray clouds, feeling the cool wind caress my face like a gentle hand. The smell of dirt mingled with grass wafted to my nose on the breeze. I closed my eyes to relish the peaceful moment. My dress was getting damp from laying so long, beginning to seep into my bones and chill me. I never minded the cold or the rain. It was one of the few things I could still feel.
I felt a rain drop on my cheek and knew an onslaught would follow. Rain was constant here, but it made everything lush and verdant. I grudgingly pushed myself up, brushing off my skirts. Night was falling; the safety that daylight provided was slowly easing away. I checked the knife in my boot, making sure it was secure. The other, more obvious dagger at my hip stood as a visual warning to any passerby that sought to harm me. I had nothing they could steal, except my body or whatever food I’d managed to hunt or scrounge.
After father left for the war three years ago, things were different—harder. My brothers and I never heard from him after he left. I remember standing on the docks, waving in farewell as a flood of numbness washed over me that never again left. It had crept into my heart and made itself at home. I was thankful for it, for without it I wouldn’t be able to handle my responsibilities.
I trudged along the muddy road as the pace of the rain escalated. Home was soon within view, a quaint little cottage made of stone and wood, surrounded by a large garden and a weeping willow. Off to the right was a small barn that housed our horse and few goats. James, my eldest brother, was bringing in a bucket of water from the creek. We were lucky to still live here. With no mother or father, places like this on the outskirts of the kingdom were usually raided. Thankfully my brothers were strong enough to defend it with the help of the neighboring farms, who kept a watchful eye on us.
James saw me and waved in greeting before ducking inside. Malcolm was likely still in town, seeing as he hated being anywhere that reminded him of father. I tried not to begrudge him much for that; everyone handled their emotions differently. Thankfully, I had none left.
As I passed the willow, I glanced over to the roughly etched headstone, wet with rainwater. I didn’t remember much of my mother, and no one ever talked of her. All I knew was that she had fallen ill and in turn become insane. After trying to burn down our cottage, she pitched herself off one of the many cliffs surrounding the kingdom and into the sea. It was extremely lucky they found her body. Father refused to talk of her.
“What’s for dinner, Kate?” James’ deep voice boomed from the back room. This was almost a joke now.
“Same as everyday.”
I didn’t hate the fact that we were poor. Again, it was something I was numb to. I just couldn’t stand the pitiful looks the people in town always gave us. I’d perfected a stony glare for the godly priests who only gave us sympathetic glances instead of food. Not that I’d accept it.
I set to work on our small meal of dried venison and two potatoes, hearing Malcolm riding up in the distance. Being seventeen, he would soon start his mandatory service for our land as a warrior. Although he acted tough, I knew he was scared to death. People couldn’t easily hide their thoughts from me. James, on the other hand, was too brave. He had already served his year and fought in a few battles. Sometimes I wished I had been born a boy. Their lives were still dangerous, but in a different way.
Malcolm entered, his dark curls dripping wet. He had a small smile on his face today. “Here,” he tossed me a bag that was surprisingly heavy. The rough burlap scratched at my dry hands. It was a bag of apples. My stomach growled. Fruit was difficult to obtain, unless you were lucky enough to grow it in this harsh climate.
“Thank you,” I smiled, though I knew it didn’t reach my eyes.
“About time you made it home,” James growled, sitting heavily at the table and reaching for the the jug of water.
James was twenty, broad shouldered and handsome. He had the same piercing blue eyes as Malcolm and I, but dark blond hair instead of the ashy tones us two had.
“The poor horse just couldn’t trot any faster,” Malcolm teased, pouring himself wine instead of water. I reached for the wine as well, but James snatched it from my grasp. I glared.
“You’re a young lady of sixteen. You don’t need wine. Yet,” he smirked, taking a long drink himself, his water suddenly forgotten.
“Yes, we’ll have to save an entire cask for your wedding night!” Malcolm teased. They both burst out laughing at my expense. Everyone knew of my coldness, my dislike for anything sentimental. There were only two things I loved in this world, and they were sitting across from me. I readied my retort, preparing to fight James on this subject once again.
“Who says I’m getting married in the first place?”
James rolled his eyes, chewing hard on the tough meat. “You’re not living here forever. We’ll find you someone nice, with land and hopefully some money,” he said, his tone ending the conversation, but I still pursued it.
“And what dowry do we have for my poor husband-to-be?” I smiled coyly. A dowry was considered a necessity for someone to marry. Malcolm snorted.
They erupted with laughter. It was sadly true, but I didn’t care.
“I’m serious, I’m never getting married. I’ll never bow down to a man.”
I pushed my plate away, crossing my arms defiantly. James sighed, leaning back. Without father or mother, James knew he hadn’t raised me to be a proper, meek woman. He’d encouraged my tenacious spirit, knowing it would keep me safe in this harsh world. He seemed to be regretting it now, though.
“Kate, nothing is happening right now. Alright?” he stared at me, challenging me.
“Good. Because it’s not going to.”
He rolled his eyes, a small smile hinted at the corners of his mouth.
“God help the poor man you do marry, though.”
That night, I crawled onto my bed of straw, pulling the quilt tight around me to keep from freezing. James was snoring in his room, the only room in our cottage. Malcolm was reading in front of the dying fire. I curled up, silently praying as I did every night for my father’s return. It felt hopeless after all these years, but then again, without any ounce of hope there would be no reason to exist.
“Maddox!” my father’s voice bellowed from the great hall. I couldn’t help but chuckle and wince at the same time. I knew the exact source of his anger. Actually, I knew the exact source of all his anger.
I pushed open the heavy doors to the great hall with both hands. My father was seated on his throne, red faced and livid. I sobered my look and made my way to him. His counselors stood by apprehensively, knowing how prone to outbursts he was. In his old age, he was still fearsome. Standing taller than anyone in the kingdom, with a black beard and penetrating gaze, it was no wonder the throne so easily suited him. It would suit me as well someday, if I ever accepted any sort of responsibility.
I halted before him and bowed. “You called, father?”
“You sent this—” he held up a crumpled letter encircled by an angry fist “—to the daughter of our ally? The woman you were supposed to court, to marry, to ensure our kingdom stays intact long after I’m gone?” he seethed. His face was as red as I’d ever seen it. I wondered how I’d manage my way out of this one.
“It better be a damned good excuse!” he slammed his fist down on the arm of his carved wooden throne. I gazed steadily back at him.
“I do not find any ounce of her attractive. She’s as dull as dirt and about as smart. If I’m to rule someday, I want someone by my side who knows how to find our kingdom on a map.”
He glared, his upper lip twitching.
“Leave us,” he said quietly to the counselors. Their faces had all gone pale, knowing I was likely about to be killed for this treason. Their feet scuffled across the polished stone floor—an export of our kingdom, the one thing we had an abundance of. The doors closed resoundingly and we were alone. His face reddened and reddened until he burst out laughing. My lips pulled up on one side.
“She was a dumb brute, I’ll give you that, and I couldn’t stand her father,” he laughed some more. Relief washed over me, and I began to laugh as well. He calmed a bit before he attempted to begin his kingly speech.
“I know, father,” I said solemnly.
“No, you don’t. We are heading into a war, and we need as many allies as possible. Our kingdom cannot defend itself without help. You need to marry, and soon. I’ll send out word to some of the smaller kingdoms, maybe some of the clans. See if they have someone less stupid to offer for marriage.”
“I cannot marry someone just for advantage,” I said.
He sighed angrily.
“You yourself married a commoner. You saw mother in the town square, and you picked her. The kingdom loves you for that,” I pressed.
“Yes, Maddox, but those were vastly different times. Peaceful times.”
“Why not unite our own land and people again? Let me choose my own bride, someone from our kingdom, and it may prove very beneficial to us.”
It had taken me a year or so to muster the courage to ask this of my father, but it was something I could postpone no longer.
He stroked his beard in thought.
“Perhaps you are right,” he sighed. “Let me think on it a night.”
He began to stand.
“We don’t have a night. Tell me yes now and we can have all women who are of age brought here by tomorrow, and by the month’s end I will have found a bride. And if I haven’t, then I’ll marry whomever you choose.”
He smirked at me. “You are so like me it is frightening.”
I smirked back, my father’s incarnation.
“Fine,” he waved a hand dismissively. “I’ll have a decree sent out by tomorrow afternoon. For now, I’ll have to break the news to your mother,” he grumbled, moving toward the heavy doors. Although he had slowed in his age and walked with a limp from years on the battlefield, he still held his head high and squared his shoulders whenever he walked. I held a profound respect for him, never wanting to bring harm to the kingdom he fought so hard to protect. But marrying someone I didn’t at least like on some level felt wrong to me.
I had been raised around princesses and royalty from distant lands, and had always been told that someday they would be my bride. It never felt real, though. I blamed my father and mother for that. Their love was unquestionable and unfathomable. I had never believed in fate or destiny, but something otherworldly had been at work in their lives to bring them together. I knew after watching them for the entirety of my life that I would never be able to submit to lesser affections.
I made my way out into the courtyard, into a typical rainy day. I felt lighter now that father had agreed to my well-constructed plan, but also nervous. Marriage was final, and it would be here before I realized.
A soldier by the name of Ronan strode into view from beyond the castle walls, his helmet tucked under his arm. He moved rather briskly considering the weight of his chainmail and boiled leather. He caught my eye and made his way to me.
“My Lord,” he bowed.
“Seriously?” I quirked an eyebrow. He looked around nervously, always one to follow the rules. I’d been raised with Ronan, trained with him, gone into battle with him, yet he always reverted to treating me like a god. I hated it.
“Sorry,” he muttered, his dark green eyes hiding something.
“What happened?” I questioned.
“Another ship went down. Apparently it was a storm, but Maddox—” I silenced him with a look. It was dangerous to talk of these things when people were always listening. He let out a puff of breath in exasperation. He lived by the sword and was more than willing to die by it.
“The war is here, whether anyone sees it or not,” he said. We both knew what that meant. Behind any warrior’s exterior was a man who’d seen the worst of humanity. Heard the sounds of death, the sounds that would never go away. Of course my father was trying to avoid a war, but this new threat felt much bigger than anything we’d ever faced as a kingdom.
“Come on, we’ll talk over a pint and I can tell you about my new bride,” I clapped him on the back and we made our way to the kitchens. Despite winning one small victory today, the threat of the future settled into my stomach.