The Chronicler’s Quest: Ash Steelskin

Author: Kell

The shouted commands and clanging of swords from the soldiers in training could be heard from the stables, where Ash Steelskin, only a baby at the time and wrapped in an old shirt, was being laid down in the hay. Her mother, whose whereabouts is still unknown, crouched by her baby for a while, before finally leaving a note next to Ash and walking away, leaving her life forever.

Night had fallen by the time two soldiers on patrol wandered into the stables and found Ash lying there, freezing and clinging onto her mother’s note. They may have discovered the baby earlier had it been crying, but despite the cold air and abandonment, the baby had not made a sound. It seemed even from an early age Ash had a talent for hiding her emotions. The young soldier, Kawan Edorth, picked up the note. It was addressed to Bastian Steelskin. The soldier read:

Bastian,

I wonder if you remember me, our night together in Blaudrift was so long ago, but I believe you will. You seemed different to the other men that came to us, I think you may be the most genuine man I’ve ever met, but considering the company I keep, that task is not much of a hardship.

I thought of writing to you when I found out I was with child, but, foolishly, I thought I could handle it on my own. I was confident everything would be alright when six months had gone by and I had yet to show any signs of a bump, but that seems to be the only luck I’ve had since our night. I lost my work, and once the baby was born, I soon lost all of my money. 

I don’t deserve this life, I didn’t choose it and I certainly didn’t ask for it. I’ve decided to give myself a chance for a better life. If fate has it that I will starve and die lost somewhere trying to find this so-called better life, so be it, but I have to know.

I’m leaving the baby in your care. Do not worry, she is well behaved and I’m sure you’ll be a better father to her than I could have ever been as her mother. Take care of her, and of yourself. I’m sorry.

Katalina.

P.S. Her name is Ashley.

The soldier let the note drop to his side once he had finished reading. He looked to his companion for advice but none was offered. They were at a loss as to what to do, for it had not yet been a week since the death of Bastian Steelskin.

Eighteen years later

Ash stood at the top of the hill, looking down at the soldier’s camp she had left only two years previous. On the day she packed, Ash was certain she would never return here, yet here she was, about to enter the place where she grew up. That was all it was to her, an upbringing. She would never call it home, not because she had bad memories or feelings towards it, but because it simply didn’t feel like home. Nowhere had.

The young soldier, Kawan, who had found Ash in the stables all those years ago, had convinced the captain to leave the baby in his car. Kawan came from a large family, but when his father sent him away to become a soldier, Kawan missed his younger siblings. Although he would never admit it, Ash helped take away his feeling of being homesick.

Ash has very fond feelings towards Kawan, she was very grateful to him and would always be glad of how he raised her. She knew that had anyone else but Kawan taken her in, they may have wanted to teach her how to sew instead of fight. When Ash started to show a talent for yielding weapons any other guardian may have ordered her to stop, but Kawan encouraged her to practice and discover how much talent she possessed. If Kawan had not taken Ash in, she would be a very different person indeed, but because he did, she became the greatest swordsman and fighter of her age. 

Throwing away the remains of the apple that she had been eating, Ash made her way down the hill and into camp. As she walked past the rows of tents where soldiers mulled about, Ash was not unaware of the eyes that followed her, and took pleasure in the few mouths that dropped open. She couldn’t blame their shocked reactions, Ash left camp a skinny girl with wispy brown hair that always gave her a messy appearance. She had little possessions and wore her father’s shirt that she was found in. In the last two years Ash had used her fighting skills to earn quite a bit of gold and she had spent her first few payments on her attire and appearance (and on a shiny new sword of course, which she named Oroesi), so that she now walked with her head held high, her hair tied up in a tight ponytail with a decorative purple band holding it in place, and still wearing her father’s shirt although she had made improvements to it; gleaming gold buttons and gold embroidery on the ends of the sleeves. With her black boots and jacket, Ash was the best dressed soldier in the country. 

She strode through the camp right up to the captain’s tent. When she entered he was leaning over a map on a table, discussing strategies with none other than Kawan Edorth. Unlike Ash, the two men hadn’t changed at all in the last two years. Captain Cadmond, a short but wide built man, was scratching his bushy grey and white beard. In contrast to the captain Kawan was very tall, and slightly slimmer, although still owning a big frame. His red hair still flopped to the left on his head, and his short neat beard was the only sign Kawan showed of aging, with specks of grey in the ginger hair. Kawan could never look intimidating to Ash, although he had tried, because his face was too friendly. He had crinkles around the eyes even when his face was serious, as it was at that moment, from too much laughter over the years.

“I hear you need the help of a little girl to fight your battles for you,” Ash mocked, announcing her presence.

Kawan froze except for his head which he slowly turned to Ash. Then a big smile spread on his face and he stormed over to her, engulfing her into a bear hug.

“I missed you too,” Ash said, hitting his arm to make him drop her.

“Look at you! I can’t believe it, why didn’t you write to say you were coming?” Kawan seemed to have something stuck in his eye and he turned away from Ash to wipe it.

“Well I didn’t want to miss the chance to make you cry. I see you’re still as soppy as ever, no wonder you need my help.” 

Kawan punched Ash’s arm in response, to which she grinned before pouncing. Their brawling was interrupted by the captain.

“When you two are done, there’s a battle about to happen that we seem unlikely to win.”

With one last push at each other Ash and Kawan joined Captain Cadmond. She picked up one of the rocks from the table and idly played with it until the captain snatched it off her, “that is our front line,” he said putting it back in place.

“So this is your army?” Ash pointed to the group of twelve rocks laid on the map, “And that is theirs?” She pointed to the three smaller rocks positioned at the other side of the map.

The two nodded solemnly. Ash was staring at them, waiting for the punchline. “Are you idiots telling me that you begged me to come back for this? You’ve dragged me back here when your soldiers could win this blindfolded!”

Kawan’s hurt expression didn’t go unnoticed to Ash but she was too angry to feel guilty. She had come all this way, declining a better offer, thinking they were in danger.

“They may be a small army, but they’ve made it that far from Nestwinch. We’ve lost three of our northern forces, two thousand men dead.” Cadmond was gripping the table so hard his knuckles had turned white.

“Okay, but how many have they lost? I mean look, they’ve hardly got an army left.”

“We had a report after the first battle, a soldier who had fled when he saw victory was impossible,” Kawan went to the cabinet and took out the letter, handing it to Ash, “he was clearly crazed from the battle but if we believe what he says about their numbers, they haven’t seem to have lost any men.”

Ash scanned the letter:

Be warned; they are coming. They arrived before dawn, their fire lighting up the skies. Three hundred compared to our thousand and they wiped out half of us within the hour. They are demons, they cannot be killed. I have no advice to give but to run. Pray they never find you.

“How are they doing it?”

Cadmond sighed, “We have no idea.”

Ash was extremely thankful when Kawan suggested they get an early night. All evening he had bombarded her with questions; Where was she staying? Was she eating enough? How come she was always too busy to write and let him know she was okay? Did she really hate this place so much she needed to leave as soon as she could? Was he a good brother to her? The questions got a lot harder to answer but Ash tried as best as she could to answer in a way that didn’t upset him. Finally he announced it was bedtime and she was allowed a few hours peace. She cared about Kawan, of course, but after a falling out with his father she was the only ‘family’ he was still in contact with and his love could be overwhelming at times. Ash didn’t know how to return that sort of emotion, she had learned from a young age to not get attached to people.

When Ash woke up she could smell breakfast outside the tent and smiled. She found Kawan at the fire not far from the tent and when she walked over he offered her a cheese and mushroom omelette.

“Where did you get the ingredients?”

“I picked the mushrooms from a nearby field, and the chickens were kind enough to lay some eggs.” Kawan threw some mushrooms into his pan.

“And the cheese?”

Kawan smiled a mischievous smile, “that I cannot say, but if it’s not to your taste I can eat it for you.” He moved to grab the plate but Ash exclaimed in protest and shielded her food with her body, and got to eating it quickly.

“Mmm, your cooking tastes better than I remember,” she mumbled through a full mouth.

“You’re always welcome to visit for dinner.”

Ash swallowed, waiting for more reprimands about leaving and barely keeping in contact, but he said no more. They ate the rest of breakfast in comfortable silence, and didn’t speak until they’d both finished.

“So, are your sword skills as good as they used to be, little one?” Kawan teased.

“Oh please,” she scoffed, “you wouldn’t stand a chance against me now.”

“Is that so?” Kawan’s eyes twinkled and then he grabbed and unsheathed the sword he had lying on the grass. Ash had only a second to react as he lunged for her; she spun away and grabbed the dagger in her boot. She just managed to block the sword’s blade from piercing her shoulder and instead navigating it to the grass. 

“What the hell, Kawan? You could have injured me before the battle!” She stormed back into the tent with Kawan’s bellowing laughter following her. “Idiot,” she mumbled but there was a hint of a smile on Ash’s face.

The soldiers were ready, their weapons gleaming in the sun as they stood in rows, ready to face their enemy, whoever they may be. They had walked for several hours and arrived with enough time to set up a temporary camp and for all the soldiers to regain their strength before the fighting began. Ash had always admired the captain for his leadership. She had been sneaking into their battles since she was thirteen, already better at brandishing a sword than some of the men. She didn’t fight of course, if Kawan had found out she’d followed them he would have never let her carry on with her training with the soldiers, so she kept back and watched from a tree or somewhere equally as hidden. Sometimes she would sneak close enough to the war tent to hear the captain’s orders and commands. When it was time to push, retreat, flank them on the right, whatever orders he gave, it always worked. Which is why she knew the situation must be dire when she received his letter, if he was unsure as to how to proceed. 

Ash stood side by side with Kawan, armour on and their swords in hand.

“I’m glad you’ve been improving your fighting skills Ash, we’ll need them, but I wonder if you’re still as stealthy as you used to be when you would sneak into the captain’s food supply.”

“You knew about that?” Ash remembered the first time she brought back some extra goods from one of her walks, surprised when Kawan believed that she had foraged all the food. 

“It wasn’t hard to put two and two together when the captain complained of missing supplies,” he chuckled.

“You never stopped me,” she pointed out.

“It tasted too good.” He winked and then his face turned serious again. “So tell me, is that a skill you’ve also upheld?”

Ash gave him a quizzical look.

“Just in case things aren’t…going our way.”

She nodded.

“Good.”

“I’m surprised you’d trust me with that kind of task.”

Kawan looked at her suddenly, “Why?”

Ash shrugged, “you always wanted to keep me near the back when I was finally allowed to fight.”

“It was for your safety.” Kawan was still looking at Ash but she kept her head forward.

“So what, since I left you don’t care about my safety anymore?” Ash teased.

“No…I just realised trying to protect you only resulted in pushing you away. I- I don’t want to do that anymore.” Kawan took a deep breath and continued, “I know you have a new life now, but if you did ever want to come back…that would be okay. I’d try and do better.”

Ash didn’t know what to say, she felt a strange lump in her throat and found herself swallowing a couple of times before managing to answer, “you wouldn’t want me back, I’d annoy you too much.”

Kawan turned his head away, “Well, the offer’s there if you change your mind.”

Ash nodded not looking at him.

At that moment the returning scout could be spotted riding towards them. Kawan shouted to the soldiers to stand guard and they walked forwards to meet the scout. 

What did you see?” Kawan inquired when they were close enough.

The scout pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted. “There’s around three hundred of them. They walk slowly, they’ll be a few hours yet, nearer nightfall.”

Kawan nodded, “It gives us time to prepare. Well done.”

“There’s one more thing. They…well…”

“Spit it out boy!”

“They have no weapons or armour.”

Kawan was at a loss of words then.

“You’re sure?”

The scout nodded, “they were wearing black hooded cloaks, hiding their faces, and they carried very little. Nowhere to hide any weapons.”

Without saying a word Kawan turned and headed for the captain’s tent.

“Uhh…join your fellow soldiers, that’s an order.” 

“Yes sir, I mean ma’am.”

Ash smiled at her unquestioned authority and then ran to join Kawan. He didn’t speak until they reached Captain Cadmond.

“Three hundred of them.”

Cadmond nodded, “As we expected.”

“No weapons.”

Cadmond looked up from his map, “no weapons?” 

The two men stared at each other, mouths open slightly but neither spoke.

“Without weapons, how are they going to fight?” Ash picked up a discarded candle from another table, “The soldier who sent the letter, he mentioned fire…”

“The scout didn’t mention torches or anything of that kind.”

“He was looking for weapons, perhaps he didn’t think it was important.”

Cadmond scratched his beard and said, “how long until they reach us?”

“If they continue their pace, not until evening.”

Cadmond nodded, “alright, gather a group of men to collect as much water as they can. Get a trench dug nearer the front lines which can be filled so we have a closer supply. If they have fire, we’ll have the means to stop it.” 

The soldiers worked for hours, gathering water. They had only brought a few buckets to fill with water for drinking and cleaning wounds, so they had to make endless trips back and forth from the stream down the hill. The time Cadmond had secured to relax and regain their strength was replaced with rushing around, wetting the ground and making sure each soldier had filled their flask with water. By the time nightfell and the scout announced the enemies arrival would be minutes away, the soldiers had barely finished their task and reordered themselves in lines, ready for battle.

Cadmond could be seen on his horse to the west, shouting commands to his soldiers. Kawan was in charge of the unit Ash stood in. She was a few rows back from the front but she could see Kawan clearly. He was striding up and down and then he stopped and turned to face his men.

“You’ve all worked extremely hard today, but it is not yet time to relax. Do not let your guard down, no matter what number their army is. Keep focused, keep fighting, and we will succeed.” Kawan started pacing again, eyeing each soldier as he continued, “They have taken down three of our neighbouring forces, do not forget that, they are not to be underestimated. That being said, do not be discouraged; we have used the information we’ve obtained to our advantage and we are more ready than those who fought before us. We will succeed if we stay strong, and we work together! We will show the enemy that looking for a fight with us was a mistake. We will show them that we are strong, that we stand together and then we shall succeed!”

The replying shouts from the men made the hairs on the back of Ash’s neck rise and she too joined in with their war cries. Not every army she had fought with did this, but she found it exhilarating. As they shouted into the night sky, the night sky gave its reply. Burst of flames lit up the sky and then it was dark once more. Every few seconds more bursts of flames appeared and it was then that Ash could make out the figures in the distance, walking forwards, igniting the sky every few steps. What they were using to cause the fire could not be seen, but if they wanted to waste their supplies that was fine by Ash. Although she had to admit, each time the flames revealed the cloaked figures, showing their progression towards them each time, was very effective. She could tell some the soldiers were intimated as they had fallen silent. 

When the figures were close enough to be seen even without the flames lighting up the sky, they stopped. The soldiers twitched, some looking to each other in confusion. Ash could tell they were taken aback by their lack of weapons. The scout had been right, they didn’t seem to be carrying anything, no tools or equipment of any kind…so how did they make the fire?

The group of hooded figures looked so insignificant compared to the army that they faced, yet they were giving off a sense of calm confidence. Every pair of eyes were on them, waiting, although they didn’t know what for. Then, all at once, the figures lifted their hands and removed their hoods. Ash scanned each and every one, making sure she wasn’t mistaken. They were all women. 

One of the soldiers near Ash let out a bark of laughter but Kawan shot him a warning look and he silenced himself. The sound of horse hooves could be heard as Cadmond rode over and settled his horse in front of the group of women. Staying mounted he addressed them, “I’m afraid you’ve caused quite a bit of trouble in these lands, I must ask that you turn around and leave in peace. We do not wish to fight you.”

The women remained silent, facing forwards with the same neutral expression on their face that was starting to become unnerving. Each of the women’s faces had intricate lines of paint over the eyebrows and joining down their nose, giving them a pointed harsh look. Ash figured this was another tactic of intimidation and another successful one in her opinion. 

A figure from the back moved and walked down the middle until she stood directly below Cadmond. Ash couldn’t see past Cadmond’s horse but she heard the eerily calm voice of the woman.

“I’m afraid I cannot permit that, we’ve been walking for miles and these ladies are hungry. What sort of leader would I be if I denied them their feast?” 

With that Cadmond’s horse moved slightly to the right so Ash had  a clear view of the leader. She was smirking and her black eyes shone in delight. Ash felt Kawan’s eyes on her and felt the goosebumps rise on her arms. Apart from the black eyes and jet black hair, the woman was the spitting image of Ash, or how Ash would probably look when she was older. 

Then the woman laughed, a cold harsh laugh and she lifted her arms. Before Ash could register what she was doing, fire shot from the woman’s hands and Cadmond and his horse were engulfed in flames. With a roar from Kawan the soldiers around Ash rushed forward to attack, but she was still stunned. She watched as the other woman lifted their hands and sent out more flames to the soldiers. The row of soldiers holding the buckets of water ran forward and threw them at the women. It made no difference, the women laughed and then raised their arms again, sending out new flashes of red. Finally Ash managed to shake herself and she ran forward. Kawan was bent over Cadmond who had fallen from his horse and she sprinted for them. She placed her hand on Kawan’s shoulder and when he moved his head Ash saw Captain Cadmond, burned and dead on the ground.

Kawan and Ash held each other’s arms for a second and then turned, lifting their swords as they went. They were several rows back now with soldiers running past heading for their death. Any soldier that managed to survive the flames and get close enough to wield his sword would soon discover the blade had melted in the heat of the fire, and within seconds perish himself.

“Use your shields” Kawan shouted to the soldiers as Ash rolled out of the way of the fire.

Ash watched as one of the women aimed for Kawan. He held his shield to protect his face and as he walked forwards the woman thrust out her hands, focusing all her fire on him. The flames hit the shield but still Kawan moved forwards, getting closer and closer. The metal on the front of his shield was bubbling and melting away but Kawan surged forwards. He lifted his sword ready and Ash thought he was going to make it when with a scream of frustration he dropped his shield and the flames ran up his arm. The woman laughed and moved her focus on to someone else.

“Kawan!” Ash ran to his side and pulled him back to safety. She smacked at the flames until his left arm was no longer on fire, but then realised his armour had melted onto his skin. He was grunting in pain, the sweat on his forehead dripping.

“It’s okay, I’ve got you.” Ash shouted at another soldier to help her and together they retreated, holding Kawan up between them who was dipping in and out of consciousness. They carried him back to the war tent and called for a medic.

“What do we do? Do we surrender?” The soldier was clearly panicked and not doing a good job of hiding it.

Ash turned to Kawan whose skin was ghostly pale now and he had a sheen of sweat on him, but he had stopped groaning in pain once they’d settled him down in the tent.

“Wait outside for order, we need to discuss it.”

The soldier bowed and left them. When the medic continued his work Kawan dismissed him also.

“We can’t win here, if we fight we all die, if we surrender, they’ll keep working their way through the country killing others.” Ash prided herself on remaining calm in difficult situations, but she wasn’t sure she would be able to as the panic rose in her chest.

“Ashley,” he hadn’t called her that since he sat her down when she was five to tell her of where she came from and who her father was, or had been, “listen to me.”

She crouched down next to him, taking the wet cloth the medic had left behind and wiping the sweat from his forehead.

“Did you see their leader?”

“…Yes.”

“You noticed the resemblance?”

Ash forced a laugh, “What? You thought she looked a little like me too? It was barely a resemblance, she was obviously just blessed with good looks as well.” She forced another short laugh but it came out quite strangled.

“Ash, that woman is your mother.”

Ash shook her head, “No one knew who my mother was.”

“I recognise her. From my first night out as a new recruit. We went to the local pub in Blaudrift for the captain’s birthday. I remember her now, she was standing outside trying to entice the men to enter the…establishment where she worked. A few of the men snuck off later but your father stayed with me and a few others, I didn’t think he went but…he must have.”

Ash was still shaking her head.

“I’m telling you, that’s your mother.”

“You’re wrong.” It was as if Ash’s legs were moving for her as she realised she’d retreated to the tent’s exit.

“Ash…” Kawan tried to move but it was too much and he let his head fall back.

“You’re wrong,” is all she said again before she turned and ran out the tent and back towards the battlefield.

She could see the drastic fall in their numbers immediately when she returned to the fighting. The screaming of men and smell of burning flesh was enough to make Ash gag, but she forced herself to keep going and not to turn back. When she reached the front unit she started zig zagging her way around them, keeping low and far enough back from the fight that she was safe, but close enough that she could catch glimpses of the fire-wielders face. As she searched she noticed the gleeful expressions on the women’s faces as they burnt the men to a crisp. Their power seemed endless. Ash kept running in and out of bodies and of running men, until at last she saw her. Her look-alike was almost dancing as she turned and twisted, sending bursts of flames to each man that ran towards her. It was horrifying and beautiful all at the same time. 

Ash stood up straight and took a deep breath. Then she walked forwards. When she neared the woman turned her hands towards Ash and her face lit up as a ball of fire appeared in her hands, but then she stopped and the flames disappeared. The woman was staring at Ash, and soon Ash was only a few feet away from the woman.

One of the other women noticed the leader’s hesitation and shouted to her, “Kat? What’s the matter?” 

Katalina.

“Hello, mother.” Ash sounded a lot more confident than she felt, which she was entirely grateful for, “Can we talk?”

The Chronicler’s Quest: Host Favourite

A Court of Thorns and Roses, Sarah J Maas

Rating: 4⭐️

I actually really enjoyed this book – I say actually because I was expecting to feel a bit meh about the romance but, I think because this book is primarily a romance (set in a fae Court), I didn’t mind it. Because I’d never read this before and had only heard things about it, I was kind of surprised to see where it went; there were a lot of twists to the story that I didn’t expect, so I was often surprised to see the new direction it was taking. I liked how Beauty and the Beast was retold in this world, it wasn’t a direct adaptation so how some things were done were clever – I really liked the trials in the second half, for example. I think I liked the story more than I liked the characters. The images of Spring were really rich and I’m kind of excited to see more of the world in the sequel. Why does everyone growl?

“I was filled with sunshine. It was like I’d never experienced summer before.”

A knock on the door roused Morgen before the sun could. In the red glow of a sun barely peeking over the horizon, she stumbled to the door, pulling a pair of old breeches on as she went.

“Hi.” Aoife was there at the door, her eyes gleaming despite the feeling that Morgen had that suggested she hadn’t simply woken up early. She offered out the woven basket on her arm, asking, “Can I come in?”

Morgen put the basket on the floor as she stepped back to let the other girl in, barely stifling a yawn with the back of her hand. “You know,” she yawned a second time, “I tend to use Sundays to sleep.”

Aoife smiled over her shoulder. “I know, but I’m eighteen in a week and so they’re no doubt readying me for marriage and you to save the world with Con. I just thought you might allow me one final day with you.”

“You make it sound as if you’re going to die,” Morgen argued, shutting the door behind herself.

“Oh, to marry another I might as well be dead,” sighed Aoife, dropping backwards onto the bed in a dramatic faint.

Morgen’s stomach did a flip. She was grateful she followed the princess to the bed for it allowed her to fall next to her on it. “Another?” Morgen asked eyebrows raised.

“Well, to marry at all,” Aoife corrected. “Imagine having to leave here.” Aoife met Morgen’s eyes and the latter felt heat rush to her face as the Princess locked her fingers around hers. “Imagine having to marry someone simply for political gain and to mother their children. Eurgh. All the men here are simply dire options.” She shook her head and rolled away. Morgen immediately felt the absence of the other’s hand. “Be glad they see you as a man for whom no match can be made.”

“Thanks, Aoife.” Morgen failed to keep the sarcasm from her voice as she sat up, crossing her legs beneath her.

“No, Morgen, do understand I say that with all the well wishes in my heart.” Aoife didn’t turn back, her gaze fixed on something out the window. “If you spend the rest of your days at Conlan’s side, I’d consider that a happy life. Oh to spend my days beside the person I love more than anything in the world would be an agreeable existence. Much better than spending it in bed with an old man that barely has enough energy to walk, much less anything strenuous.”

“What is it with you?” Morgen touched Aoife on the shoulder and turned her around. “Have you heard rumours of a marriage prospect?”

“No, I’m just preparing for the inevitable,” Aoife admitted with a sigh.

“Well I promise to rescue you if an old king ever traps you in his bed,” reassured Morgen, reaching a hand out to brush a curl behind the other’s ear.

“I’m not some damsel in need of rescue,” complained Aoife, but she leaned into Morgen’s touch nonetheless.

Immediately, Morgen’s pulse quickened, and she knew Aoife would surely feel it in her hands, absentmindedly tangled around one of hers. The smile that flashed across Aoife’s face dashed any hope that it might have gone undetected.

“Maybe I’ll just run away now and become a nun,” muttered Aoife, taking Morgen’s other hand from her cheek, so they could all rest on the bed. 

“If I survive the next month, I’ll join you,” Morgen agreed. She was looking down, but saw Aoife tip her head inquisitively at her comment. Morgen took a minute to think before she looked up and replied. “Your brother is due to save the world in eight days and I won’t be leaving his side during that fight. Who knows whether I’ll make it home at the end of that.”

Aoife’s eyes glistened and she snatched her hands from Morgen’s to wipe them across her face.

“He’ll be okay, Aoife,” Morgen whispered, hesitating about what to do with her hands without the warmth of the other’s and failing to do anything at all. “I’ll make sure he gets back. Promise.”

Aoife shrugged. When she uncovered her face, it was still a little damp and her eyes red, but Morgen pretended to ignore it like Aoife was doing herself. “Let’s fill your final week with some joy then.”

Morgen’s brow furrowed as she allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. “Are you plotting something?” she asked warily.

“Oh, most certainly.” Aoife turned to face her, her eyes sparkling as her lips smiled. “But you do trust me to not get you killed, do you not?”

Morgen shrugged. “You certainly put me in fewer dangerous position then Con does.”

“Wonderful news.” Aoife picked the basket and pushed it into Morgen’s arms. “Dress quickly then. We have a journey to make.”

Morgen was convinced Aoife knew the castle better than any of the guards – or she created new passages where they walked – because they didn’t meet anyone on their way out, despite the growing noise of a working house. Aoife simply took Morgen’s hand and lead her silently through shadows until they were walking through the herb garden.

Aoife made no move to let go of Morgen and the latter did not mind. She knew that Aoife’s natural position was to hold another’s hand and so the action wasn’t new to her, but it did not stop the spark that Morgen seem to feel whenever their hand so much as brushed, as if she was constantly subject to one of the Princess’ spells.

 Morgen hadn’t been able to breathe properly for years.

Today was no exception. In the ruby light of morning, Morgen was grateful Aoife was leading the way because she couldn’t concentrate on anyone but the girl in front of her. 

“You’ve been to the lake before, haven’t you?” Aoife asked, falling in step beside Morgen as the trees spread out a little.

“Of course, I had to learn to swim somehow,” Morgen replied. “Is that where we’re going?”

Aoife nodded. “It’s far enough away that I figured we could stay hidden if you wanted to,” she paused, “be yourself for a few hours.”

Morgen was convinced that, without the dress that had hidden her so well before, the closest to the castle she’d be comfortable being herself would be a day’s journey away at least, but she didn’t want to disappoint Aoife like that.

“Thank you, Aoife.” Morgen smiled and squeezed the other’s hand, hoping desperately that she couldn’t feel her heartbeat run as the Princess smiled back.

The walk there was filled with companionable silence and mindless chatter. Although it was nearly mid summer, they had set out just as the sun appeared on the horizon and then ventured into the woods, so the heat of the day haven’t hit them yet.

“You do trust me, don’t you?” Aoife asked, pausing on the outskirts of the clearing.

“We’ve already established I do.” Morgen raise an eyebrow. “What do you have planned?”

“Nothing drastic, don’t worry.” Morgen’s eyebrow didn’t drop. “Trust me,” Aoife whispered, as she stepped in front of Morgen, so she be the one walking backwards into the clearing, then added, “Close your eyes.”

Morgen did as asked, taking the final hesitant steps in full faith of the woman whose hand she clung to.

The forest was quiet and cool, until the two passed through a veil of what felt like a lover’s embrace after months apart. A sound of music met Morgen’s ears: birds of all types blended with the babble of water together to make one single song. Opening her eyes, she didn’t see the lake and clearing she’d hiked to various times during the late of night to avoid exposing her unmale body to the other boys she trained with. Instead, it was the kind of vision she’d only heard about in stories: grass and sky as rich in their colours as the jewels in Royal crowns. Water clear and inviting, the small waterfall like a rainbow. And the trees. The trees offered a golden shimmer, a protective blanket seemingly stitched between each leaf.

“Aoife…” Morgen’s words died on her tongue as she turned to the Princess, the joy in her face somehow even more radiant than the summer sunshine that glowed around the clearing and illuminated her hair. “This is incredible. What did you do?”

Aoife shrugged. “I spoke nicely to it. Magic isn’t always about words, sometimes it’s as simple as intention. I just came here last night and told the forest my wishes and it responded. I spent all last night doing the finishing touches, including a protective veil around the clearing. No one is going to see us here.”

She dropped Morgen’s hand and slowly walked away. She stretched her arms out and started to spin in a circle, the sun offering down a warm hand to cloak her in the sunshine. She was smiling when she turned back.

“What did you wish for?” Morgen asked quietly.

When Aoife’s cheeks filled with a pink flush, Morgen knew the summer day wasn’t fully to blame because the Princess answered, “For you to be able to relax and be happy for one final day before you help Con save the day.”

Morgen wanted nothing more than to kiss Aoife.

She wanted to make up the last few steps between them and sweep Aoife into her arms. She wanted to learn if her lips were as soft as they looked, she wanted to learn what sunshine tasted of. She wanted to spend what would surely be the final week of her life showing Aoife how much she always meant to her.

But she didn’t. She smiled and whispered “thank you” and tried to bury thoughts of Aoife’s fingers in her hair and her voice moaning her name under the thoughts that Aoife was a princess and her best friend’s little sister and that there was no point admitting her feelings when she’d be dead in a week.

Aoife didn’t provide a schedule for that day, but she certainly prepared a number of activities that they could do.    

She had packed swimming outfits, so they could escape the heart of the day in the cool water of the lake. Free from fear of exposing herself to men, Morgen had to keep her own eyes trained on Aoife’s face to avoid staring at the unexposed skin of her arms, her long legs, her chest, and she had to check herself to stop herself imagining more.

Lunch was a small feast of cooked meats, cheeses, fruit and cakes. Also a bottle of wine. Morgen didn’t dare ask if Aoife requested it, stole it or somehow magicked it. They ate the food with their feet hanging over the bank into the water, small talk and laughter joining the chorus of birdsong.

With the wine humming through her veins, Morgen laid back on the grass and shut her eyes. She continued to talk, pouring out most but not all of her secrets, as Aoife started tracing tiny shapes across her skin. Her body just sang in response, warming up wherever Aoife’s finger left a trail of goosebumps. When Morgen opened her eyes, Aoife was smiling, her left hand covered in mud from the bank’s edge.

“What have you done?” Morgen asked, in response to the glint in the Princess’ eyes.

Instead of answering, Aoife indicated at Morgen with said muddy hand.

When Morgen looked down, she saw her arms and chest and legs were covered in a series of muddy swirls. There were vines and flowers and birds in a temporary pattern of tattoos.

Morgen smiled and looked back at Aoife. “You know, I’ll look weird if I’m the only one of us who looks like this.”

Aoife nodded and held out her arm. “Go for it.”

As Morgen dipped her hand inoto the cold mud and shuffled along the grass to sit closer to Aoife, she couldn’t quell the fire in the pit of her stomach. She could feel the other watching her intently, so she kept her gaze fixed upon the scenes that were growing across Aoife’s skin. It was almost torturous to paint across her collarbone and her neck to her cheeks, hearing nothing but the hitch of the Princess’ breath at her gentle touch.

When Morgen finally met her eyes, eyes that were usually as green as summer grass had turned as dark as a storm-battered forest. Morgen wasn’t sure she could handle more, so broke the tension by tapping Aoife on the nose and announcing she was going to look for some flowers. “How far can I walk?” she asked.

“The veil reaches one layer of trees deep,” Aoife answered. “It’s better if you stay in the clearing really.”

Morgen took a breath. Staying in the clearing didn’t give her the privacy to talk to herself, but it did give her enough room to step away from Aoife briefly. She nodded. “What are your favourites?”

“Mine?” Aoife repeated.

“Can I not gift a beautiful princess some flowers?” Morgen explained.

It was Aoife’s turn to flush bright pink under the mud this time. “Sunflowers.”

“Sunflowers?” Morgen repeated, as she stood up. “You don’t make this easy.”

Aoife smiled and took her turn to lay back on the grass. “You asked and it would be wrong to lie. Anyway, I’m not expecting sunflowers. But there are plenty of flowers around, I made sure of it.” As she spoke, Morgen watched the grass around Aoife’s hand and saw at least ten tiny flowers sprout and flower, spring condensed into mere seconds.

Morgen took the basket and her time to travel around the clearing to collect flowers. By the time she was finished, the basket was nearly overflowing with pinks and whites and yellows and blues, and she had cleared her head by going over a training exercise from the day before.

“Do you have a ribbon?” she asked when she appeared back beside Aoife. She sat behind her, placed the basket beside her head and took the blue ribbon that appeared out of nowhere when Aoife held her hand out. “Will you sit up? I want to plait your hair.”

Aoife did as instructed, shuffling backwards so her back was against Morgen’s chest. In silence, the two worked: Morgen slowly untangling the knotted red hair that had curled after their swim, strategincally placed the flowers into the twists; Aoife using the flowers to make a crown.

When they were both done, Aoife turned her face to look at Morgen, but moved no further away. Their faces were barely inches apart when she whispered, “Do you want to know why I really invited you here today?”

Morgen frowned. “Do you not really care to give me a happy ending?”

“Oh no, I do, ever so much.” Aoife twisted the rest of her body around, but kept the distance the same and reached for Morgen’s hands. “I’ve been thinking for nearly two years now, working through all the possibilities and potential outcomes and now I’d like your input.”

My input?” Morgen repeated.

“Well, yes. Ever since I saw you in that gown at Eoghan’s wedding, I haven’t been able to get that image out my head. It’s been made only more confusing when I’ve not been able to stop thinking of you dressed as a man either,” Aoife explained.

Morgen couldn’t get over how matter-of-factly Aoife spoke.

“If you feel the same and if you survive Conlan’s quest, I propose we pursue an arrangement,” Aoife finished.

“What?” Morgen was sure she could feel her mouth drop.

“Either as a man or a women, I don’t mind, clearly my head pays no heed to what you’re being just who you are. If you wish to keep up the pretence that you’re a man once Con no longer needs you to fight by his side, I am happy to be your wife and never conceive children because no one cares about me having heirs – now I’m an aunt more than ten times, I’m less useful than a maid. If you want to be your true self, I am happy to run away to The Dancer’s Cover because of the previous statement.”

“I don’t-” Morgen shook her head. “What are you saying?”

Aoife smiled. “I’m saying that I like you, Morgen. You’re no longer the boy I used to hate for stealing my best friend away. I’m asking if you feel the same?”

“Of course I do.” Morgen surprised herself with a certainty in her words – no not certainty, for she was as certain of her feelings for Aoife as she was certain of the colour of the grass. No it was the confidence in her voice that surprised her. “I’ve liked you for as long as I can remember. I’ve watched you grow and change and never stop fighting the same battles that happened to put me in your path. I’d be honoured to love you, Aoife.”

The Princess’ small smile, perhaps shrunk by years of having to tame her emotions, turned into a grin so large it threatened to split her face in two. She reached to the side for the crown of flowers she’d crafted and lent forward to place it on Morgen‘s head. She had to raise her voice to no more than a whisper when she added, “You’d best fight to get home then, to show me what that love is worth.”

Morgen caught her hands in her own and slowly dropped them to the floor. “Can I kiss you now?” she asked quietly.

Aoife nodded. “Please.”

In stories, a first kiss is always monumental, world changing. It’s perfect and memorable and not real. In reality, Aoife had never been allowed to kiss before and Morgen have never found the time. The first kiss either of them had was clumsy and rushed, but full of smiles and laughter, and it left room for them to learn together.

The rest of the afternoon wasn’t entirely filled with kisses but, once started, it was difficult to stop. Every time they lay on the grass or whenever Morgen walked past Aoife or when they danced to the music that wasn’t out loud, they had to factor in a couple of minutes to kiss too.

Darkness was falling by the time they left the clearing. They started making movements much earlier, but then Aoife had turned around for one last look, only to see the clearing almost painted in a golden glow. It was near impossible to drag either of them away after that, with both aware they could stay undisturbed in that happy bubble for the rest of their lives if they wanted.

Morgen knew she would regret a late return in the morning with a week of final non-stop training ahead of her, but at that moment, all she could think of was Aoife’s hand in hers and a happy stream of babble that filled the quiet forest on their journey

However, there was a band of Morgen’s fellow knights in front of them even before they left the shelter of the trees. The worry worked into their stoic expressions as Aoife’s ball of light illuminated their faces.

Their hands immediately separated but surely still not quick enough.

“What’s wrong?” Aoife asked, her shoulder straightening and the laughter leaving her body as she stepped forward and back into her role.

But they ignored her. Their attention was on Morgen, who still stood in the Princess’ shadow. “The Queen needs to speak to you,” Colm announced. “Immediately.”

Morgen didn‘t need to reply. She simply nodded and followed.

“Morgen?” Aoife shoved through the knights that had followed Morgen into the Castle to walk by her side. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know,” Morgen replied. And she didn’t. She was usually the one shepherding, not the one shepherded.         

She felt sick. Her stomach was tying itself in knots and her hands had become so clammy she wondered if she could use the sweat to wipe the muddy patterns of her arms. She wasn’t exactly dressed to see the Queen. In fact, in twelve years at the castle, she’d never spoken to the Queen alone, so she was grateful Aoife had forced her way into staying.

“No one could have seen us, Morgen,”Aoife whispered.

Morgen shook her head. It didn’t matter. They appeared from the forest together, they had both been missing all day, they were covered in matching mud patterns and flower crowns.

Aoife rushed to the Queen as soon as they entered the room, whilst Morgen quickly scouted the room as she swept into a low bow. Queen Muriel was sat on the throne with the Prince consort beside her, Brendan was pacing the room whilst Brody poured over a table bathed in lamp light. Standing up, she reached to catch the crown of flowers as it slipped, the movement causing the Queen’s eyes to snap to her. One look from her to her daughter and Morgen knew she won’t be feigning innocence.

Queen Muriel waved Aoife away, turning her attention straight to Morgen. “We think someone has taken Conlan. I need you to find him.”

Morgen felt her shoulders tense but was determined to not let it show in her face as she answered, “Do you have any leads we might follow?”

“We hoped you might be able to tell us,” muttered Prince Benedick.

The Queen didn’t deem his comment worthy of attention so Morgen kept her eyes fixed on the Queen.

“You’ve been with Aoife all day, haven’t you?” asked the Queen.

Morgen silently nodded and Aoife started to talk but was waved quiet.

“Someone with your face came to speak to him earlier. We didn’t think anything of it and we couldn’t sense the magic, but. Well. Now we may only assume it is one of His followers, to start to do His bidding,” the Queen explained. “Although we tried to hide Conlan’s birthday, they must’ve known it was approaching so decided to do something before he turned eighteen. We need you to get him home or at least find him to be by his side.”

“Do you know where to find him?” Morgen asked, keeping her voice steady.

“We’ve been keeping tabs on disturbances for thirty years that we can link back to Him.” This was Brendan. War and politics and strategy and men must have their voice heard. “We believe we found the most likely home to His campaign. With the support of twenty men, you will head out first thing tomorrow. An additional one hundred men will follow you every day, so you will have a strong force when you storm the place.”

Morgen found she could do nothing but to try not to shake as she listened to plans and strategies. At nineteen, she was given an army to command, an army that her friend should have controlled and she be a part of, simply because she had followed Aoife instead of staying with Conlan.

She couldn’t meet Aoife’s eyes as she stayed up late into the night to finish plans, but first thing in the morning after a fitful two hours sleep, Aoife was at her door, eyes as red as hers, ready to go on the quest too.

The Chronicler’s Quest: I Spy with My Royal Eye…

Author: Jaycee Books (Twitter/Instagram)

Being a royal spy was not easy.

Especially when you had to pretend you weren’t smart when you were stopped by someone else before meeting your contact.

That was my problem currently, due to the older courtier that had stopped me in the hallway as I made my way to the library.

Princess Cordelia sent me on a mission to get information on her betrothed. I had snuck into his palace, after crossing Odrarene’s borders and into the House of Velfras, posing as a royal messenger for one of the people in his court. Once I was in, I quickly changed to look like a courtier. So now I was dealing with an old faerie courtier trying to vie for my attention. Which I played the part of a dimwitted young lady looking for someone to marry into for money, but it was dragging on that I was starting to get frustrated with the old bloke. Granted, I didn’t let my frustration show.

“So, m’lady, whose house do you belong to?” The old faerie asked me after finishing his tirade on his hunting expertise. Now he wasn’t old looking like how the humans age, but he was old from how his eyes seemed dull compared to younger faerie courtiers.

My brain flitted through information on this kingdom and their house system, trying to figure out which house I should pick that was high enough to be at court with the king, but low enough that it’s not well known of. Quickly, I thought of it.

“The House of Eldergan, My Lord.” I replied, smiling sweetly.

He clapped enthusiastically, smiling bright. I felt repulsed. “Splendid! I was starting to wonder when Lord Eldergan was finally to take part in court.”

Curses. He knew of this house.

“Tell me; is Lord Eldergan here perchance?”

The only thing I could do was lie. Or say I didn’t know. I had to choose quickly. “I’m sorry, My Lord, but I do not know. He is my great uncle and I came separately.” So I killed two birds with one stone. I hope it didn’t come back to bite me.

The older faerie’s smile faltered, not exactly pleased with my answer, but not wanting to say anything against me. I guess the House of Eldergan had more clout than what I was told.

“Lord Farthington.” A younger faerie came over to us, addressing the old courtier. He has short, chestnut hair, barely touching the tips of his pointy ears. Antlers bloomed from the top of his head; one tip was broken. His gold eyes shined bright with his fair skin, but two jagged scars ran diagonally across his left eye. He was dressed in a dark blue doublet and breeches intricately designed in gold thread with brown boots. The clothes were form fitting on his slim frame.

Lord Farthington turned towards him since I was facing the young courtier. “Lord Duke!” I could hear the cheer in his voice. They clasped arms in greeting. “How do you fare, young lord?”

“As well as any young lord.” He responded.

They started a conversation, and I was ignored for the time being. I looked for an escape from the two men and saw my exit as a guard came out of a door a few feet away. Just as I was starting to slip away, the old faerie’s attention came back to me.

“Lord Duke, let me introduce you to Lady Navia.” Lord Farthington said.

Lord Duke bowed and I curtsied back.

“This is her first time at court here. I was just about to giveher a tour but I remembered I need to talk to Lord Umorn about some business. Would you be willing to give her a tour in my stead?”

Lord Duke only nodded in response.

Lord Farthington bowed, then left to go find Lord Umorn. This left me alone with Lord Duke. He regarded me with his gold eyes, and I could tell he didn’t want to give me a tour. Hopefully I could get out of it then.

“Shall we then?” He lifted his arm to me.

I wanted to sigh, but held back, placing my arm on top of his. I guess I won’t be getting out of the tour. He showed me around the palace, pointing out what rooms are what and introducing me to all the other courtiers that we passed. Even though the tour was taking up my time for when I was supposed to meet my contact, it was helpful in learning the layout of the palace better. A map only taught you so much.

We arrived back to where we started.

“I hope you enjoyed the tour, Lady Navia.”

I nodded. “You make a splendid tour guide.” I gave him a small smile.

He smiled back, which stunned me. He didn’t seem like the smiling type. Then he leaned close to me, by my ear. “If you ever need a tour for anything else, you can always ask me.” He said huskily, then pulled away from me, bowed, and left.

My face heated, embarrassed by his words.

As a royal spy, I have seen many embarrassing situations and I was never affected. But pointed at myself, I couldn’t help feeling embarrassed.

Taking a deep breath, I calmed myself before going to meet my contact. We were to meet in the grand library in the back. When I entered, there was no one sitting in the lavish cushions spread across the floor. Floor to ceiling bookshelves lined the back walls while shorter ones were scattered across the floor. I was in awe of all the books. Even though Lord Duke gave me a tour, we had not gone into the rooms we had passed. We stayed in the hallways where there were guards lining the walls.

I had to meet with the contact to learn some information about Princess Cordelia’s betrothed before she wanted me to meet him myself to see if the information was correct. I was a tad nervous to meet her betrothed. Not because it was my employer’s betrothed, but because he was the King of Faeries.

There were rumors that he was cruel to his consorts; beating them even when they did nothing wrong. And I had to pretend to be a new consort; a gift from Queen Eludora for her daughter’s wedding. I’ve put myself in near death experiencesbefore, but those were more like on accident. My specialty was more of stealth than weaponry. Granted I still trained in weaponry to stay alive.

Heading to the back, left corner of the library, I glanced at all the books on the shelves, running my hand along the spines, enjoying the smell of the books. A book caught my eye and I took a closer look at the spine before pulling it out of its spot. The Past and Future Times of Odrarene. Flipping through the beginning, it showed the history of Odrarene, but when I got closer to the end is when things started to get strange. It talked about events that have not come to pass in Odrarene. I slipped the book into the pocket of my dress, finding it important and interesting to show to Princess Cordelia as I went to the meeting spot.

I only had to wait a few minutes before my contact arrived.

“The Queen is my King.” They said.

“She will rule forever.” I responded, saying the last of the code phrase.

They passed a piece of paper to me before disappearing down one of the book aisles. Glancing around, making sure no one was still here, I opened the note, hoping it was good news.

The note disintegrated in my hand when I finished reading it. I sighed with relief, glad for the good news. But the gladness didn’t last long; dread settled into my stomach on what was going to happen next. The king didn’t know I wasn’t a true consort. And the penalty for running away was the loss of a foot and a hand. A foot because you ran and a hand because it helped you escape. So because of that, I was given a forgetting powderso King Crobán doesn’t remember I was even here.

Making my way from the library to the throne room, I walked up to the knights standing guard in front of the doors.

“State your name and business.” One of the guards asked in a deep voice.

I curtsied. “Lady Astellodia Navia of the Kingdom of Ihrone, here as a gifted consort to the King from Queen Eludora.”

The guards smiled at me and then one knocked on the doors, letting someone know on the other side that there was someone her to see the King. The doors opened and I was allowed to enter. Entering the throne room, I kept my eyes on the King, watching his expression for any reaction. He didn’t seem to have any. After the page announced who I was, the King’s interest piqued. He waved me forward and I walked towards the King, my heart pounding in my chest. When I reached his throne, I curtsied, bowing my head.

“Let’s go talk somewhere more privately.” The King said, his voice booming across the throne room, his green, cat-like eyes shining.

“Yes, My King.”

He got off his throne and I followed him out of the room, and I hoped nothing would go wrong.

Pulling off my dress, I changed quickly into a black tunic and leggings, belting daggers on my left leg and around my waist. I threw my dress into the fire after pulling out the things I had collected on this trip, while the king was passed out on his settee.

It was easy to put the forgetting powder in his wine goblet. A little sleight of hand and a swish of the drink about ten minutes into talking and another five for the powder to work and knock him out, putting him into a deep sleep. When he wakes up, he’ll never remember I was here.

Looking around the room, I wondered if there were any secret passageways. That was one thing I didn’t learn before coming here. I ran my hands up and down the walls, looking for any differences. Finding a sunken in brick near the fire place, I pushed on it and heard a mechanical clicking sound as it groaned and slowly pushed open. Peaking my head in, I saw a torch on the wall. It wasn’t lit, but the light from the room made me able to see it. Entering the passageway, the door closed behind me and the torch started to burn. Magic must’ve made it burn.

I took the torch out of its holder and another one appeared, lit as well. And so did a map. Taking a closer look at it, it showed where I was at, but not where any of the paths went.

“Well that’s helpful.” I grumbled to myself. “How am I supposed to get out of here?” I looked away from the map, contemplating if I should just flounder around through the tunnels or figure out how to get back into the King’s chamber and make my way out that way.

Then the unexpected happened.

The map started to glow a bright red and I shielded my eyes. When I opened them, a small red pixie was floating in front of me, not looking happy.

“How about you try to be forever stuck as a guide in this labyrinth and we’ll see how helpful you are?” He crossed his arms, upset, glaring at me.

All I could do was blink, surprised.

“Are you dumb as well?”

Now it was my turn to glare. “No.” I stated sharply. “You surprised me is all.”

He rolled his eyes. “The name’s Bramble. Where do you need to go?”

“Out of the palace, where no one will see me.”

Bramble nodded. “Follow me.”

I followed Bramble through the twists and turns of the paths. About fifteen minutes later, we were still making our way to get out.

“How long have you been guiding people through these passageways?”

“A few centuries.” Bramble responded.

That’s a long time. I thought, wondering about all the people he’s led through here. Kings? Princes? Spies? Consorts? The possibilities were endless.

Finally we came to a door that hopefully led me out of this place.

“Here is your exit.” Bramble gestured to the door.

“I appreciate the assistance, Bramble.” I said sincerely, hoping he would know that I actually did. Mostly because he probably didn’t get it a lot.

He only nodded. “It’s what I’m trapped here for.”

I felt sorry for him. It was no good to be trapped, forever stuck in one place. I should know. I was in the same predicament with my service to the Princess. My mother had been a maid in the Queen’s palace. She wasn’t a well-known maid—or so I’ve been told. She died giving birth to me, leaving me to be watched by a maid friend of hers. I never knew who my father was. All I know he wasn’t a Nymph because there are no male Nymphs. Nymphs have to reproduces with other species because of this. Nymphs also only give birth to females, which makes most of our male population from different parts of the continent and other parts of the world I’ve never been to.

Anyways, since I was raised in the palace as a servant, I got used to the ins and outs of how it all worked. As a teenager, I got into some trouble and my “mother” could do nothing about it, leaving me to the hands of the royal family. The Princess became interested in how I got into trouble and after she heard my tale, she recruited me as a spy. Granted I had to work for her to make up for my mistake as a teenager. I was five years into my service, with fifteen more to go, and this was one of my more serious assignments. I hoped I hadn’t ruined anything.

Saying goodbye to Bramble, I exited the door and made my trek back to Ihrone.

“Oh, good. You’re back.” Princess Cordelia said once I had entered her bed chambers.

I bowed. “Yes, Your Highness.”

“Report.” She twirled her hairbrush, before going back to brushing her hair.

As she brushed her long, dark brown hair, I told her about all that I had learned. That King Crobán wasn’t what the rumors said he was, but that he was someone not easily sated. I had been his twentieth consort from the time he became king, which was only a few years ago after his father had passed away from illness. So she might have to deal with a lot of bastard children once they wed. Princess Cordelia said she could handle that. Once my information about the King was said, I pulled out the book from my pocket, holding it out to the Princess.

“What’s this?” She snatched it out of my hand, curious.

“A book I found, Your Highness. I thought it would be helpful with learning more about Odrarene.”

“The Past and Future Times of Odrarene.” She murmured, flipping through the pages. “Interesting.” She said once she reached the end of the book. “Thanks for the lovely find, Morwenna.” She pulled on a lever near her vanity and I heard a slight ringing sound come from somewhere in the wall. Shortly, there was a knock on the door. “Enter.” The Princess said loud enough for the person to hear her.

The person entered and I was surprised to see who it was. They smirked at me. “What a lovely surprise, Lady Navia.” Lord Duke was standing in front of me, smug. He knew who I was from the very beginning.

My face flamed, angry. My whole mission could’ve been compromised if he had said anything to anyone.

“I see you two have already met.” The Princess commented, going over to Lord Duke.

Neither of us say anything. He kept looking smug while I simmered with rage.

“Does this have any relevance to your kingdom?” She handed him the book I had stolen.

The smug look on his face fell once he had seen the book. “How did you get this?” He took the book and flipped quickly to the back, looking for something. Looking for what exactly?

“That matters not.” Princess Cordelia stated. “Is it important or not?”

“Very important. Only a few faeries know if its existence. Mostly those the book calls out to. So I ask again; how did you get this?” His eyes narrowed at the Princess.

Princess Cordelia just smiled, her green eyes sparkling with mischief. “I have my ways.”

Why won’t she tell him I gave it to her?

“Curses, Cordelia! We’ve been friends for too long for you to act like this.” He was angry. “So how did you get this?” He whacked the book with the back of his hand.

Princess Cordelia huffed, annoyed. “Fine. I’ll tell you, Saxton.” She gestured to me. “Morwenna brought it back from her assignment, thinking it was important.”

Now Lord Duke’s narrowed gold eyes were pointed at me. “You brought this back?” He made it sound like I was nothing. I wasn’t important.

I knew I wasn’t very important. My life was forfeit in my line of work. But hearing Lord Duke say those words irked me. He had no right to think I wasn’t important. He barely knew who I was. “Yes. I brought the book back. It caught my eye when I was in the library and I figured the Princess could use it for something.” I stared back at him defiantly.

He didn’t respond with words. He just opened the book and frantically flipped through the book. When he found what he was looking for, he stilled, stunned by whatever he had seen.

The Princess noticed his posture. “What is it Saxton?”

He responded with, “She will come. She will be picked as any chosen before her. The book will call out and she will take it.” Then he looked right at me with his golden eyes. “She will be clothed in fabric dark as the night, her yes like a burning fire that will never be squelched, and her hair as white and bright as a full moon on a summer’s eve. Once this has all come to pass, the end has just begun.”

Everything was quiet for a moment.

Then—

“So you’re saying Morwenna has doomed us all just because she took that little book?” The Princess asked for clarification.

Lord Duke’s eyes never left me. “I’m not saying it. The book has already predicted that it happened. Which it now has.”

“But—but—“ I stammered, nervous all of a sudden. “I’m a nobody. What’s so special about me?”

Lord Duke shrugged, shutting the book. “The powers behind the book are mysterious. No one really knows how it came to be and why it predicts the things it does. We only know that whatever it predicts comes true.”

“So I’ve just unintentionally doomed the whole world by taking that book with me?” I looked at the book in horror of what I’ve possibly just done. “Why did no one stop me?! Wasn’t anyone keeping an eye on it since it’s so powerful?!”

Lord Duke glared at me. “The book is basically its own entity. It comes and goes as it pleases. The last time the book was seen in our kingdom was a couple of centuries ago. The last person who had seen it died ten years ago, so any information about the book was lost.”

Faeries lived a long time, so the time difference would work out. But it was still strange to my brain. So I asked, “Did he not write anything down from the book?”

He pinched the bridge of his nose, seeming annoyed by my lack of knowledge about the book that is about his kingdom. “Anything from the book that is copied always burns once the writer finishes the copying. Only those who have seen what’s in the book will know all of its contents.

I sighed, slowly sitting down on the Princess’s ottoman. “This—this is all too much.” I placed my head in my hands, wishing this day would end or that it never happened at all.

I felt someone sit next to me, but I didn’t pull my hands away. “It’ll be alright, Morwenna. Maybe the book is talking about a different girl with white hair and fire eyes?” The Princess tried to sound chipper, trying to make me feel better. I don’t know why. We weren’t friends. She was my employer who sent me to go spy on people. Occasionally to murder them.

I pulled my hands away and just gave her a look.

“Maybe not about the eyes then.” She got up and went over to Lord Duke, taking the book from him then coming back to me, putting the book in my hands. “This is yours now. Do whatever you wish with it.”

I didn’t really want the book, knowing I just started the end of the world. Maybe I’ll burn it once I get to my room. All I could do was stare at the book as Princess Cordelia and Lord Duke started to discuss some topics. After some time of just staring, I got curious and opened the book, hoping to learn more about the end I supposedly started. When I found the page Lord Duke was reading off of, my eyes went wide. There was a picture of me, but no words about my description. My head snapped up, swiveling to look at Lord Duke. Princess Cordelia wasn’t looking at him when he smiled at me knowingly. I blushed fiercely, embarrassed because he had described a portion of me off of a picture.

Shutting the book quickly, I stood up, mumbled a goodbye, and went to my room, hoping to wrap my mind about what just happened.

Now I had more to worry about than being a royal spy.

The Chronicler’s Quest: The Queen (by Bryony)

Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior by Catherine Hanley

Rating: 4.5⭐️

This non-fiction book was a really enlightening look into a part of history that we don’t get told about because it focuses on a woman. Matilda’s story was kind of heartbreaking because it was so telling that, had her campaign been a success, women’s history may have been so different; additionally, if she had been born a boy, arguably there would not have been the same hostility aimed towards her. As a character, Matilda was really interesting, her actions in war being far from passive. Likewise with Queen Matilda (the King’s wife), women were often the ones making pivotal changes in the progress of events, with Queen Matilda being celebrated for taking charge where leadership was needed and sitting back as a meek wife when her husband returned, whilst Matilda’s contemporaries hated her for the same reasons. It was frustrating that so much of this story was about the men in Matilda’s life rather than Matilda herself but, as the opening paragraph of the book says, “the rather patronising description of Matilda as a daughter, wife and mother commits the all-too common error of defining a woman only by the men around her”.

“She suffered from the misfortune of being female.

Overnight, their princess, who usually seemed to trail literal happiness as she skipped, had suddenly turned into a tiny ball of rage.

“She tried following Conlan into his lesson, even though we’d repeatedly told her she couldn’t, and then she just ran. Erin was the only one with her, so she couldn’t give chase and, by the time she’d alerted the guards, she was long gone. It took us hours to find her.”

Queen Muriel sighed and rubbed her forehead, where she still had a red indent from the crown she’d removed at the start of the conversation. “Have you taken the time to consider that the two things might be connected?”

“That she ran specifically because she was with Erin? I mean, it’s unlikely, she’s never shown any hostility towards Erin before. But, if she wanted an escape, I suppose Erin is the one to run from because she can’t easily follow. She always end up in the strangest pla-”

“No, Imogen, I’m suggesting the fact you barred her from brother might be the reason she’s upset,” the Queen interrupted. “She’s spent six years of her life spending every minute in his company and now she’s been told she can’t. What have you said to her?”

“That she can’t go in there.”

If Imogen hadn’t been able to see the Queen’s face in the mirror, she may have rolled her eyes. “That’s not an explanation that a six-year-old will accept.”

“But it’s true.”

“You have to understand, Imogen, she’ll want to be with him. She is his sister.”

“Which is precisely why she can’t. She is a girl. We’ve found that boy, Morgen, to be his best friend now.”

The Queen put her head in her hands, shut her eyes and counted to ten. Then she counted to ten a second time because her thoughts were still whirring through her head. “Where is she now?” she asked, after a moment’s pause.

“In her room. She’s locked herself in,” Imogen answered, resuming her brushing of the Queen’s hair as she sat up again. “She says she’s protesting.”

“Protesting?”

“Yes, she learnt the word last week.” Queen Muriel stood and Imogen laid a hand on her arm. “Where are you going?”

“To see my daughter obviously.” She brushed her Lady away. “Don’t neglect bed for me. Who knows how long I’ll be occupied.” 

Queen Muriel left the room with a swish of her dress and no look behind her. With nearly twenty years as Queen, she’d learnt the best way to get her way was just to do what she wanted. It was a liberty she tried to avoid taking too often, but it was one she needed to take now. She refused to leave her daughter alone at this moment.

It was a short walk to her children’s rooms, just half a corridor and a staircase. It was short enough that she could make the journey without bumping into someone who would insist she needed a guard with her within her own home. When she heard footsteps approaching, she simply blended into a shadowy corner – as a queen who had once spent countless hours as a girl hiding from her princess lessons, she knew every secret inch of her Castle.

As she approached the door that recently been covered in purple flowers, courtesy of Eoghan at Aoife’s insistence, the Queen noticed an unmistakable smell of violets. Shaking her head, she fingered the key that never left her side. It was a key that promised to open every room in the Castle but, again, it was a liberty she tried to resist.

She knocked on the door and called the Princess’ name, but was met with silence. She tried the handle, but, as promised, it was locked. With whispered apologies, she slipped the key into the lock and turned, the door swinging open easily. Queen Muriel pretended to ignore the stirring of the curtain as she surveyed the seemingly empty room, closing the door behind herself.

“Aoife?” she called. She didn’t expect her to answer, so was instead calling to alert the girl to her mother’s arrival. She knelt on the floor and lifted the bedsheet, searching under the bed. Then she stood and looked in the wardrobe. When both were empty, she went to the curtain, but found the space behind it empty too.

Without the window open and no easy way of escape, Queen Muriel allowed Aoife to carry on hiding. She grabbed a book off the shelf and sat on the bed to read.

“Once, many moons ago, there lived a land across the sea,” the Queen read, although she had no need to read the page. She’d been told the story countless times as a child and had eight children of her own who’d demanded the story on repeat. “Over time, the name of this land has been lost, but we still know what it is said to look like. It was a world of forests that never ended. There were whispers of magic in the air so close that anyone might think they could reach out and touch it. The night sky was stitched into the canopies of trees, stars and spirits alike reaching a gentle hand out to stroke your face.

“Rumours still murmur of a cave in that forest. Some found it in days, others travelled that island for a year without even a glimpse of a path. This is because, hidden deep inside that cave, was the woman who knitted the stars, who danced with the wind, who whispered to the path when she wanted to be hidden. Most say she was a witch, exiled to stay alone on that island for cursing a prince. Very few call her an oracle who hid herself away when the world refused to believe the truth.”

In the quiet of the story, the Queen heard the creak of the bed and a slight impression in the mattress beside her.

“This lady had hair as red as fire, and eyes as gold as the sun-”

“No mummy!” a sudden cry came from beside her as Aoife flung herself onto her mother’s lap and across the book. “Her hair was black and her eyes were green. The lady had hair the same inky black as the night sky, and eyes as green as the forest that kept her hidden. You said it wrong.”

“Did I? How do you know?” the Queen asked. “Can you read now?”

“Yes.” The girl grabbed the book from her mother’s hands, snuggled into her side and began to read, her finger following the words.

“When did you get so clever?” Queen Muriel asked when the book was shut. She had laid back on the bed and the girl rested her head on her stomach.

“Ask Erin, she says I’m good at reading!”

“I’ve also heard you can be pretty good at hiding too,” the Queen said quietly. Aoife shrugged. “Has anything upset you recently?”

“No,” Aoife grumbled, rolling away so she didn’t have to look at her mother.

The Queen sighed to herself, sifting through countless hours of crisis negotiations to find a technique that would work with her six-year-old daughter. “You know, I ran away once from Erin too.” Common ground. “I hate to boast, but it was more dramatic than you today.”

There was no reply from the girl, but the Queen took the way she slightly turned her head as invitation to carry on. “When I was six, I was told I was going to have a brother.”

Aoife shook her head. “You don’t have a brother.”

“I did, for nearly six years, but then something happened to him and that’s why I’m Queen,” Muriel explained. “I knew I was never meant to be queen, but I’d have to become queen if I had no brother. It had been so long I just thought it wouldn’t happen. And then Erin told me that mother had a boy.”

“So you ran away?”

“I did. I’d read enough history books, even by then, to know the only queens were wives. You’d probably have read the same books by now if I hadn’t told them to teach you something better.” The Queen went silent, briefly warring with herself. “I was scared now I had a brother because I thought it meant they’d send me away.”

“They’d throw you away because you had a brother? Why do I have seven?”

The Queen laughed and then went quiet. “They weren’t bored of me they just didn’t need me anymore. They had a king, they sent me away to be someone’s Queen.” Aoife frowned. “They sent me away to get married.”

The effect on Aoife’s face was immediate, a combination of shock and mostly disgust scrunching up her small face. “Oh no, mummy. Don’t say you’re here to warn me and tell me to run away. Is that why that Morgen is here?”

“Oh, sweetheart, no, you’re not getting married.” Queen Muriel opened her arms for her daughter to hide against her chest. “Morgen is only here to be Conlan’s friend.”

“But I’m his friend.” Aoife sat up to stare at her mother. “His best friend.”

“I know you are, but Morgen is here to be different. Your brother needs someone his age, someone he can fight with, someone who will one day be at his side if he ever has to go to w-”

“But why isn’t that me?” As Aoife asked, her eyes started to fill with tears and her lip started to tremble.

The Queen’s heart broke. She never knew she’d have to explain to her daughter why she couldn’t follow her brother, her twin, her best friend everywhere. Why she couldn’t pick up a sword and why the most deadly weapon she’d ever wield was a needle. Why she’d be overlooked and forgotten about all her life because she wasn’t born a son.

Because sometimes the world doesn’t listen to what’s right or fair or what we want, sometimes it only listens to what’s always been done.

She should have said something insightful and inspiring, but all she really could do was press the child to her breast as sobs wracked the tiny body that seem to grow heavy with understanding.

“I ran to my room, grabbed a bag – empty, mind you – my favourite pink cloak and my diary. And then I climbed out the window before Erin caught up,” Queen Muriel continued her story in a whisper. “I ran to the other side of the lake and then climbed a tree. I forgot about food until it was too late, but I was too scared to leave my tree in case I was caught. In my rage, I decided I’d rather be caught by a monster or a fairy than one of the castle guards. So I stayed in that tree until the sky turned pink the following morning. I stole back to the castle where I took four apples, a knife, some cheese and some bread. I stole it straight from the oven, and it was so hot I burnt my hands.” The Queen lifted a hand, so that Princess could trace the red scars with her own hands.

“I left the castle again that morning and walked away. I walked north for three days, sleeping in trees, washing in rivers, eating blackberries – it was luckily the season for them. I had a lot of time to think and plan. I thought about where I could go, who I could live with. Eventually I decided to go home.”

“Why?” Aoife asked with a hiccup. “You so nearly escaped, why go home?”

“I think you’ll find I hadn’t nearly escaped, I simply had. Anyway, listen to my story and you’ll find out.” Aoife gently kissed her mother’s hands and fell silent. “I used my diary to write my plans, stayed another day away and then made my way home. I’d successfully hidden for a whole week and I can tell you the guards were a lot more careful after that. I’m surprised they’re not with you. We obviously have a reputation between us.” The Queen saw Aoife smile.

“I arrived back on the Thursday – do you know why that day is significant?” Aoife shook her head. “My father, actually all rulers, hold court on Thursday to listen to their people’s wishes. I joined the people that day and made my own demands.”

“What did you say?”

“I said that I wasn’t going to be sent away, especially to get married, until I was at least fifteen. I said I wanted to have a say in who I married. And I said I wanted to still be taught as if I was the one who was meant to be king.”

“Did it work?”

“Well, I married your father when I was 17 and I am basically a king so what do you think?”

Aoife nodded and then curled into the Queen’s side. Muriel let her. The younger girl was yawning and would surely be asleep in seconds.

Queen Muriel woke as light streamed into Aoife’s room the next morning, rousing mother but not daughter. She slipped out of Aoife’s hold and back to her own room, only just arriving before Imogen found the room still empty.

The Queen said little that day, but was content to hear Aoife was behaving as normal again, attending lessons as she should and even having a conversation with Morgen at dinner But she could not keep the smile off her face when first through the doors on Thursday morning was a little princess with her own demands to make.

https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co

The Chronicler’s Quest: Rough Hands Make For Rough Work

Author: Sorcha O’Dowd (@sorcha_bookish_quill)

The weed held firm against her pull, digging its roots deeper into the moist earth, unwilling to be separated from its adopted home. The nutrients it stole from the surrounding plants were too good to give up without a fight.

Demeter gave a rue smile at the stubborn weed and resumed with a second, less aggressive, pull. Only this time she sent the smallest pulse of power through the spiky leaves, down the stem to the roots. She felt no pain as the leaves crushed against her palm; it had been a long time since the sting of a nettle, or the barb of a thistle had given her that shock of pain. The years of daily drudgery of the weeding, tending to the herb garden, the foraging for ingredients and supplies in the surrounding woods, had deadened the nerves which sparked such pain. They had learned that pain was unnecessary, and only a hindrance. The weed relaxed and came from the earth with little resistance.

Her hands had been put to work even before her self-imposed exile in this forest at the edge of the world. As a child she’d carried smaller, and then larger and heavier pieces of fallen wood to their cottage (only the fallen branches, for you were never to take from the woods that which had not been given to you, she learned). There she would help her Grandfather chop, before her Grandmother would whittle the pieces into bowls, statues, staffs, and all other manner of objects. Demeter had loved to watch her Grandmother. She may not have been a witch, but she was at one with the nature that surrounded her home, and it fuelled her work with a magic not unlike that a witch themselves might cast.

Roughened hands were the norm for her whole childhood. The Crone who took Demeter in after her powers awakened had been thrilled. Old Bathsheba did not shy away from giving Demeter the most challenging and essential parts of magical training. She trained her in the magic of herblore, a subject her previous charges had scorned, but those girls had been of higher birth, and not prepared to ruin soft hands in the pursuit of that art. It may have been why the old crone had taken to Demeter. They were neither of them afraid of hard work, the toil involved in tending a garden, or the feel of aching lies that congratulated their owner at the end of a productive day. For once, Old Bathsheba did not have to protect a pair of hands, not when Demeter’s own were already so rough.

Old Bathsheba’s cat, which claimed Demeter as its human, had loved the feel of rough skin under her tongue, and had spent many hours licking her hands with affection. This time had been one of the happiest of her life. Of all the magical training she received it was the herblore she loved the most; learning the secrets that plants shared only at a certain phase of the moon, or if bathed in water at just so a temperature.

When Old Bathsheba had taken her to the royal court, to gift her to the court as their Royal Sorcerer, it had been the first time that Demeter had felt shame at her course skin. The court dressmaker had been dispatched to her soon after her arrival, and his first selection of attire had been dresses of the finest silk, the highest quality of crafting. She had been so afraid to even touch them, the delicate fabric threatening to pull at the lightest touch of her rough fingers. He eventually fashioned her dresses from velvet, a more robust material which, although would have been too warm for the summer climate, suited her perfectly as the Long Winter began in earnest soon after.

It was during this time that news of the Cold Dwellers came. Demeter’s role as the Court Sorcerer changed instantly from impressing the members of the court with tricks, that were as little magic as was a card game, to protecting the kingdom’s borders by weaving spells of protection for the King’s Fleet, and spells of distraction against incoming invaders. Where usually most of the King’s Fleet would abandon missions during the harsh winter months, and remain homeward in defence of their own borders, news of the Cold Dwellers moving through other kingdoms meant they would be at sea over the cold months, something the sailors were unused to.

It was a time of unrest in the royal court. Tales of the Cold Dwellers were spun in corners of the corridors, and shared over feasts in the great hall. Little was known of them. Even their true name, ‘Vikings’, was rarely said, as to give them their true title only made them more human, and fear of the fantastical would excite more interesting conversations and theories. Also, surely a magical race would be less of a fear with their own Sorcerer a match against them?

Whispers, of course, reached the King’s ears. Newly reigning, he’d felt he had more to prove, and Demeter felt that this need could only prove dangerous in the long run. It mattered little to her whom she served, as long as they respected the magic they would have her wield in their name. She felt uneasy of this spreading fear of the Cold Dwellers, Old Bathsheba had spent time among them as a girl, and described them as a peaceful race, only violent in defence of their own. But this young King was quick to act without giving due thought. It wasn’t long before she was called before him.

He’d not risen as she’d entered the room, taking her in from her long golden hair, to her browned, roughened hands. His eyes lingered on her hands, unadorned with jewels, unlike his own.

“I have a task for you, Sorcerer,”

And so began her next journey. The King had not informed his council; taking the decision upon himself and cloaking it in secrecy, so there was no fanfare for her departure. There was also little decorum in the plan.

And so Demeter’s first sea voyage was with the King’s own pirates. It was little wonder he had not informed the council of his plan, he would not have wanted them to know of his consorting with pirates. It was a secret he kept well, so well that only the Captain and not the crew knew who’s orders they followed.

It was a hard-working life. At first she had little to do with them, and spent the days toiling below decks, tending to the small collection of plants she had bought with her. This had suited the crew just fine, as she had heard it muttered at least once a day that it was bad luck to have a woman on board, whether a witch or no. Even pirates it seemed were not beyond their superstitions. But as the voyage dragged into weeks and then months, her services were required above deck more often than not; to send a favourable wind in their direction, to create tinctures to cure an outbreak of scurvy. Gradually the men began to accept her. As she spent more time on deck, her velvet dresses were swapped for trousers and shirts, her silk slippers for hard- wearing boots, and she found she enjoyed the pull of ropes against her palms, the scrubbing of a brush against the oak decking. Her position in court had given her little opportunity for work that tired the body, and she enjoyed the labour and the camaraderie with the crew. Even the Captain, despite her original misgivings, was a fair man. No man was treated as inferior to any other, and all work was shared out equally. Punishments were rare as the crew never rebelled, content with their lot and their leader.

She was the only one to row to land when they arrived. The Captain ordered the crew to set sail again, to return at the waxing of the moon. As she’d rowed, she’d thrown out her senses, feeling for the thread of life that was everywhere, in everything, if only you knew how to look. She felt it. She stopped, then continued, following the thread. Leaving the boat at the shoreline, she’d head further into the frozen landscape ahead.

She’d walked for hours, the cold seeping through her furs and burning down to her bones. Still she had continued, the thread growing stronger as she followed it, as though she were being called.

Finally, as dusk fell, she arrived at the settlement just as snow had begun to fall. It was empty but for the one spark of life. The girl stood in the middle of the circle of huts, her hair pulled back in two thick braids. She had not pulled up the hood of her cloak to protect from the snow, but had stood among the swirls, just watching as Demeter moved closer.

When there was only a yard between them the young girl had skipped toward her, braids bouncing against her shoulders, taken Demeter’s rough, frozen hand in her own and, reaching up on tiptoes, whispered into Demeter’s ear.

What the girl had whispered to her that night, she would never tell you. It would be selfish to unburden herself only for another to carry the pain of it. But she had returned, without the pact she had gone for, but with an assurance of peace even greater if she could have shared it aloud. The King had been offended at her refusal to share the knowledge she’d gained, but as the months passed and no Cold Dwellers appeared, he accepted her job as well done.

When Old Bathsheba had returned to court with her next prodigy, Demeter had left with her, returning with her old Mistress to her home.

A self-imposed exile.

But one in which she lived contented. Old Bathsheba never asked her secret, although Demeter often wondered whether she had seen it in her scrying. There were times the old crone had looked at her, and her eyes shared a glimpse of understanding and shared pain.

Demeter leant back on her heels, brushing her hands down on her apron, loving the feel of the soil under her fingernails and mixing with the sweat in the crease of her hands.

For Demeter Embergrain was a witch. At one with the animals and the plants.

And she held a secret that could bring the end of a Kingdom.

Make Your Myth Taker Character

Sorcerer: Witch

With added elements from Pirate, Viking and Exile Paths.

Bryony’s WIPs: Books that Inspire our WIPs (#MakeYourMythTaker edition)

As I’ll be posting throughout the month about my character for the Make Your Myth Taker, I figure I might as well expand the world for it. It’s a story that’s been in my head for about a year and now I’ve got the excuse to explore it with this readathon.

You can find the first part here.

The World/Setting/Beliefs

Daughter of the Forest , Juliet Marilier

I very nearly put this under family because, like Aoife, Sorcha is immensely close to all her brothers and does everything she can to protect them. But this books fits so much better here. My WIP is set in a kind of Medieval Irish setting, with my prophecy being badly translated into Irish, and all the character names are Irish. This is because, I feel, Irish/Gaelic stories are the origin of the seventh son of the seventh son belief and that’s one I want to explore a little more here. 

The Priory of the Orange Tree, Samantha Shannon

There are many things in this book that inspire me, most noticeably the multiple badass women and how they’re unapologetically there. I really want to read more books like this, but I feel like the world doesn’t have them yet. But, here, I want to talk about the world. Obviously it is a rich and expansive world, with a history that spans over 1000 years, but, most important, it’s a history that has been defined by and celebrateds men (and a man saving the day). In the world of this book, it’s (wrongly) believed that it’s thanks to a man’s one act of violence that the world is safe, when actually it’s thanks to a woman; likewise, in my WIP, a patriarchal society has mistranslated an ancient prophecy to believe that only men can save the day.

Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior, Catherine Hanley

I’m only 25% of the way through the book as I’m writing it but it’s so interesting and, unfortunately, true. “Matilda was a daughter, wife and mother. But she was also an empress, the first female hair to the English crown and a skilled military general.” Matilda’s story is heartbreaking and telling, and will hopefully inspire the next extract I post, where Aoife’s mother, the Queen, explains some of her feelings about how she’s been treated as Queen. 

I haven’t read The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley or Daughter of the Blood by Anne Bishop but I believe both promise to be medieval fantasies which give women a voice. I know the latter, at the very least is meant to be feminist and my dad said I might like it.

I haven’t read all the books in The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper but I have watched the film and I’m pretty certain there’s a seventh son of a seventh son in it too.

The Character

To Kill a Kingdom, Alexandra Christo

Okay, so Lira is much darker than I ever imagine Aoife being. She’s also a siren. But she is a fierce, no-nonsense, butt-kicking woman who gets the job done. I’d be very intimidated by her, mostly because she’s terrifying but also because she’s powerful, but she does have a heart (or few) somewhere. 

The Girl who Drank the Moon, Kelly Barnhill

Again, I could easily be talking about this book in family because Luna’s family really are lovely, but I’m mentioning it here because of Luna’s magic. It’s not because Luna is amazingly powerful that I’m talking about her magic but because of how her magic manifests. I love the idea that magic just spills out of her and turns to flowers or bubbles until she learns to control it, that’s kind of what I’m hoping to do with Aoife.

The Family

Harry Potter, JK Rowling

Harry Potter could have easily gone in character for Ginny and Hermione. Fierce, powerful and inspiring, again, they’re what I want Aoife to be. But, just as important in Harry Potter, are the family relationships, particularly the Weasleys. Despite there being so many of them, each member of the family love each other dearly and they happily welcome Harry into their world. 

The Romance

Of Fire and Stars, Audrey Coulthurst

I didn’t love this book and I didn’t love the romance honestly, but, when I picked it up at Gay’s the Word, I thought This sounds remarkably similar to that book I want to write and then I remember explaining this WIP to Sam as we walked back to our trains.

I haven’t read The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite yet, but I think it’s next on my TBR for the readathon (I’ve had to fiddle with my TBR a little, sorry guys). It’s about women, in an era when they can’t do anything “worthwhile”, where they then fall in love with other ladies. This feels perfect for a world where women can’t fight and where Aoife falls in love with a girl who’s been hiding as a boy.

I also haven’t read The Devouring Grey by Christine Lynn Herman, but I’ve heard it’s got really good bisexuality rep and, as I want Aoife confused about fancying someone who she sees as both male and female, this seems worth a read.

A book I also can’t not mention, but didn’t know where to put it, is Magyk by Angie Sage. There’re seventh sons of seventh sons, magic, princesses, castles… Jenna is fierce and doesn’t let the boys alone save the day, and also she isn’t distracted by romance. Septimus is extra powerful, but also Jenna’s best friend. And all the family together are just wonderful.

If there any you think I should check out, please let me know!

The Chronicler’s Quest: Bryony’s Prologue

This chapter can be found (narrated with illustrations) here on my TBR video.

Prologue

Once there was a land that flourished. People were happy, neighbours were content and no one went without.

But then things change. They always do.

First it was the whisper of unrest on the border to the West. Then it was the reports that wells in the North were coming up dry. When there were rumours of ancient beasts returning to a forest that had been peaceful for years, the trouble couldn’t be buried for much longer.

The first sighting of a pooka coincided with Princess Muriel’s marriage to Lord Benedick, seventh son of Lord Henry of Sanla. Ancient texts were scoured, an old prophetess was consulted and it could be denied no longer. Eris was in trouble.

Nuair a théann cogadh ar aghaidh agus má theipeann ar smiles,
Ansin beirtear an seachtú mann den seachtú mann.
Titfidh an dorchadas go ceann ocht mbliana déag agus lá
Go dtí go sábhálann an wazoi óg an Ríocht


The prophecy so claimed that the land would be safe until the seventh son of the seventh son was born. The birth of this child would trigger a chain of dangerous events, but they would also ultimately save the day.

Princess Muriel’s carefully calculated, political marriage had not been the success it had originally hoped to be. What had been taken as a preventative measure, based on the barest hint of a child’s bedtime story, had backfired. She had to produce seven sons of her own and that’s all that mattered.

Murmurs of discontent showed when a poison filled the Castle’s water supply, but wasn’t noticed quickly enough, so her mother died. Grief-stricken but still standing, she acted as monarch whilst her father was abed with a broken heart. Barely a year later, she continued to act as the face of her people when, still reeling from his wife’s death, the King lead the army in the sudden war to the West and was shipped back in a coffin not three months later.
No, all that mattered was the fact that Princess Muriel was not yet with child.

Queen Muriel, as she was now the ruling monarch, was only nineteen when she was crowned and so she was even younger when she was married. Scared of her husband or of the marriage bed itself it is not clear, but it took almost exactly three years from their marriage night before their first child was born.

Strong, determined and brave, Brendan had an army to control almost as soon as he could walk. As soon as he could be taken from his mother’s breast, he accompanied his father to the frontline of the War to survey an army that would one day be his.

Whilst Brendan was going to war, Brody was at the Queen’s breast and another two were growing inside her. Prince Benedick happily stayed away, his work for another nine months dutifully done.

Brody was quiet to his older brother’s commanding, cunning to his older brother’s strong. Whereas his brother had been quick to pick up a sword, Brody’s small hands sooner reached for books, his chubby fingers tracing the delicate lines of maps.

Her next sons stretched her belly large at early days and the Queen found herself flagging within the first few months, where she’d been able to rule until the final days with her first two sons. To keep appearances as normal as possible, she had her bed moved to the ground floor, so she could more easily access the diplomatic meetings, unnecessary banquets and the meets with her people that her advisors were all too eager for her to cease.

It was soon obvious that Aidan and Kieran’s futures would be se at sea. Their favourite way to pass the time was travelling with their father and they quickly became as much a fixture on his ship as the ship’s cat.

After the birth of her twins and no immediate announcement of her next pregnancy, whispered rumours told that the Queen had barred the Prince from entering her rooms. His appearance on the frontline more often than at her side only added fuel to the fire. Fortunately, as the rumours began to transform into a worry that the Queen did not want to protect her people from the trouble she’d breathed into being, her fourth pregnancy was announced.

It quickly became apparent that, where his brothers dreamed of war and travelling, Niall dreamt of nothing more than staying in the Castle. Although he knew he would never inherit the throne, it never stopped him from being at his mother’s side through meetings political and mundane.

By the time the Queen was pregnant for a fifth time, the glow of motherhood had found home elsewhere. Pregnancy had become another duty that wore on her and she only saw her husband when he visited her sons and happened upon her bed when he was needed. She felt as if she was less important than one of her people’s livestock, and less interesting than one of the women of the town.

Eoghan lived for plants and medicine. As soon as he could walk, he wobbled his way into the garden to follow the gardener around. He learnt what properties everything had in cooking before he began to experiment to see what use those same herbs could have in medicine. He eagerly awaited the birth of his brother, waiting for the day he could help and learn.

But the day failed to come.

Five years passed with no word of a pregnancy. Fear became ingrained into realm and devastation became more common than smiles. The whispers of the end became worse than before and turned into shouts of betrayal The Queen worried herself sick and thin with guilt at failing her people, worsened by her monthly bloods that were only broken by pregnancies that lasted no more than a few months. But no one could know about the pregnancies that left the Queen weeping into the early hours of the morning because what if their seventh son had been lost already.

Prince Benedick grew to loathe his wife’s inability to carry a seventh son. All the time she couldn’t conceive, he had to stay close enough to the Castle to return every month to try again. As soon as she showed signs of pregnancy and he started to move further afield again, he was called back to her side once more. He couldn’t head a war in these circumstances and he couldn’t teach his sons anything when he couldn’t leave himself. Their time together was as brief as possible, the Prince leaving the Queen’s room as soon as he physically could, leaving her curled in on herself for her ladies to find.

When the Queen was pregnant next, every precaution was taken. She was bed bound for months, with meetings confined to her chambers, and unnecessary worry was kept from her door. Her people did not see her for months and had no idea that their Queen was ballooning with child once more. When sickness filled the Castle, her advisors nearly gave up. But her stomach continued to grow. Her contractions began nearly two months before she usually gave birth and no amount of herbal remedies could stop them. This child was determined.

In the heat of summer, in the middle of the night, Queen Muriel’s quiet, anticipated seventh child was born. A girl. Who was quickly passed aside in favour of the seventh son that almost immediately followed.

It didn’t matter what Conlan wanted and it definitely didn’t matter what he liked. Before he was even conceived of as an idea, it was prophesised he would save the world. He would be a brave soldier, a diplomatic prince and a powerful wizard. Maybe it was too much to burden a young boy with, who, as a prince, already had the world watching him, but every minute of every single day of his life was scheduled because he only had eighteen years to learn to save the world.

When the Queen appeared in front of her people again for the first time in almost a year, with two children at her breast, celebrations were abound. With eighteen more years of disaster in front of them, at least they could see hope on the horizon. It was the first time, since the Queen mother’s death, that smiles filled the realm and celebrations were only doubled with news that the seventh son of a seventh son had a younger sister.

MakeYourMythTaker: The Chronicler’s Quest (Short Story Competition and Giveaway)

In June, Ashleigh and Charlotte, over at Myth Take Reads, will be running an amazingly intricate readathon called the Make Your Myth Taker Readathon. In this readathon, you are invited to make create your own character, who will follow a path and tell a story.

Now, a lot of people immediately started m creating epic backgrounds for their characters and I just thought it would be a lot of fun if people wrote stories. Therefore, I offered this blog to be the location of any published short stories.

The Chronicler’s Quest

To try and complete The Chronicler’s Quest, write a short story (or more than one) about your character. That could be their origin story, it could be the reason why they follow the path they do, or it could be the path they follow through the month. If you’re basing your character on one from a published story, write your adventure into theirs.

Send any entries to theindecisivereaders@gmail.com.

If you have any questions, comment here or on my announcement video, message me on Twitter (@ThorogoodBryony) or Instagram (@TheIndecisiveReaders), or @Chronicler on the Discord Chat and I will be only too happy to answer!

The competition is open now and will run until 1st July 2020 to give people the chance to write about any side quests their characters may unexpectedly take.

Now the fun stuff…

I’d love there to be interest in this so I can run this as a competition with a prize, so share far and wide so we can get more interest.

The winner of the competition will win a retelling of their choice from Book Depository up to the value of £15.

I hope to hear from you soon because I can’t wait to hear your stories!