Katia lay on the ground, the weight of her breastplate making it hard for her to breathe. The tree above her was on fire, her opponent, a lanky boy named Riad, braced himself on his knees, breathing hard. His sword and helm lay on the ground before him, most of the hair burnt off of his head.
The sound of single pair of hands clapping echoed off the trees that surrounded the small clearing. "Bravo, Riad. If you had been the one prophesized one, I should have no worries. Since it is Katia, weíll be lucky if the sorceress doesnít laugh."
Katia rolled onto her side and breathed a little easier. "Well, why donít you send your pet, then, Ryban?"
Ryban leaned over her body, his long face marred by a smug grin. "Have you studied none of the prophecy?" His brows drew down, his voice low. "If Riad the stable boy makes you lose your concentration and spill your magic out like an overflowing river, what makes you think youíll have a chance against the sorceress? You must work harder. Now, show me how you stand Ė without the magic, if you please."
Katia grunted, balling her gauntlet into a fist and willed the tears to stay in her eyes. She got to her hands and knees, but could not lever herself to stand.
"Iíd like you to know youíd be dead by now."
Katia knelt on the ground and tore her helm from her head. She flung it into the trees. "By Godís good hand, Ryban, why canít I just use the magic? Why do I have it if I canít use it?"
He squatted in front of her, blue eyes glittering in the setting sun. "What good is magic going to do you if you canít even get to your feet when armed? You rely on the magic too heavily and you will be killed. We have too much at stake here for me to let you run rough shod over me like spoiled child." He rose, glaring down his nose at her. "Go back to your village- if it pleases you, girl. They will burn you for a witch before sundown on your first day back. You donít remember the torches they carried, the rocks they threw when Talia took you out of there. Should have let you die, if you ask me."
He turned and walked back towards the small stone cottage. He called over his shoulder to her, "If you can rise sometime before dawn, collect your helm and muck out the stables. Riad has the evening off."
Riad smiled weakly at Katia then turned, running as fast as he could in his heavy plate armor. Katia crawled to a tree and pulled herself up. Why couldnít she seek her fortune elsewhere? Why couldnít she just throw the damned armor into the bushes and leave? She leaned on the tree. A promise was a promise, though she didnít know what she was getting into at the time.
She trudged to the far edge of the clearing, weary from the long day of training, and stooped to look for her helm in the tall grass. She remembered the first day that she came here, culled by Talia, Rybanís life-long friend and a skilled warrior, from the sleepy village of Montfriedea.
Ryban had gently taken Katia by the arm and led her to his study. The room was cramped with books piled as high as the ceiling in most places. He cleared a chair, poured a glass of goatís milk, and gazed at her, his eyes intense.
"Since I am not certain how much of the story you know, I will just start at the beginning. I am a prince, son of King Tonas of the lands beyond the northern ridge. Well, anyway- my mother had died in giving birth to me, leaving Tonas without a queen. A woman of considerable charm and an eye for taking the kingís power as her own, seduced the him and got with child. The woman, as it turned out, was a sorceress and bore Tonas another son. My father was an honorable man, and raised the boy as he raised me, equal in everything, but would not marry the woman knowing that she schemed only for his power.
"When I was a squire, I would practice with the boy for hours in the courtyard. As sometimes happens, there was an accident, and my lance drove right through the heart of the bastard, killing him instantly. The sorceress flew into a terrible rage. She descended upon the hall to demand I be hanged for murder or she would take justice into her own hands."
He took a sip of his goatís milk and paused to collect his thoughts.
He continued, "When the sorceress arrived, she drove a lance into Tonasís body many times, but she would not let him die. He languishes still in the bowels of his fortress, suffering from the pain of those strokes."
"I, on the other hand, am cursed, probably more than the sorceress intended. My curse was to never wear armor or bear a weapon without becoming deathly ill. She chained me to these grounds and took my magic away. She knew I bore the mark."
"As I do." Katia rubbed her left forearm. That small triangular birthmark was what caught Taliaís eye and marked her as a candidate to aid Ryban.
He nodded. "So, you see, I was trapped here with no way of helping my family, but praying for death all the same."
Katia felt a trembling in the pit of her stomach. "What must I do?"
He stood, unfolding himself from the seat, and stretched languorously. He took a thick leather notebook from a shelf and opened it gingerly, paging through it with a long finger.
"When I was young, I hated the sorceress and her son with all of my heart. Tonas, I thought, loved his bastard more, and, well, I consulted an oracle in the mountains to find out how I may bring about the sorceressís death. He was a stooped little old man with a face so deformed that his right eye sat on top of his head. This book is what he told me."
Katiaís eyes widened. "All of that?"
"The oracle spoke in riddles, so convoluting his prophecy with mad ranting that I could not make out which was which. I decided to sit by his side, day and night, recording what he said until I had the answer. All of this rambling melted down to one fact: when the kingdom reaches its lowest point of ruin, an offspring of Tonas will defeat the sorceress and break the curse."
Katia gasped. "But you canít mean that I . . ."
He nodded slowly, smiling at her. "Yes, it is possible you are my sister. Your nose is sharp and long like mine. Your hair is the same color brown. Your fingers are long and thin. Most importantly you have the mark." He paused, looking at her meaningfully. "So, you see, you are my only hope. If you do not harness your magic and kill the sorceress, I will be cursed forever."
Katia took his hand. "I promise, Ryban, I will do what I can."
After searching for the helm for a while, Katia stretched, her lower back aching from the weight of the armor. She looked back at the cottage, the house candles already lit, and saw a figure on horseback riding towards the cottage at break-neck speed. The rider dismounted, calling Rybanís name, and hurried through the opened door.
Katia walked back towards the house, eager for news, but stumbled before she reached the edge of the grass. She turned ready to set it on fire with a bit of lightning, but realized in time that it was her helm.
When she entered the cottage, Talia sat at the table with Ryban, her face pale.
Ryban eyed her. "Did you do your chores?"
"Iíd like to take my armor off first, if you donít mind."
He held up a hand and she stopped. "Do it with the armor on. In fact, donít take the armor off until you are able to turn cartwheels in it."
Katia stormed out of the cottage, slamming the door on her way.
The sweat poured down Katiaís body, trickling under her tunic and pooling in the most uncomfortable places imaginable. She cleaned the stalls, nearly passing out from the stench, and thought of ways that she would hurt Ryban when she was a powerful sorceress and warrior.
When she began her last stall, Ryban entered, his long brown robe dragging on the strewn hay, and sat on an overturned pail. His face was kind, but serious.
"Katia." She turned her head, the helm obstructing her glare, and went back to her work. "Katia, I know you are frustrated. I know this is very hard for you, and believe me, you are doing much better than I expected."
She rose to her full height, growling, "But you cannot help but humiliate me everyday. I never picked up a sword in my life, never held my magic within me at all until I came here. Three months is all you give me to perfect my skills when others spend a lifetime."
Ryban bowed his head, sighing. "A message came tonight. Talia brought it to me. She has assembled the army of the king. Tonas is dead."
Katia dropped her pitchfork. "How do you know? How does she know?"
"Apparently, one of the serving women has escaped the castle. She says that Tonas was slain three days ago because the day of prophecy is near."
"Your father has nothing to do with the prophecy."
"It may be a warning to me that whoever I send up against her will reach a similar fate. The girl says that the sorceress sits in the hall all day, the body of her son hidden in an alcove and dressed in his armor on a funeral bier. The servants change the flowers there twice a day. She says that no peace shall exist until the blood of the sonís murderer is poured over his body."
Katia removed her helm, setting it down on a stall ledge, and wiped the copious sweat from her face. "Ryban, honestly, did you kill him?"
Rybanís eyes glittered in the light of the torch. "Believe me, I wanted to. With all of my heart I wanted him dead. I thought of ways to do it, consulted mages and wizards to find out how I could do it and not get caught, but that day on the practice field was truly an accident. My lance just didnít break."
"How will I break the curse, then?"
"You have to kill the sorceress. Whatever her demands are, I still canít leave here. She is the only way to break the curse."
"When do I leave?"
Silence hung thickly between them. Katia could feel the muscles of her body hum and tremble.
Ryban swallowed hard. "You leave tomorrow."
The party had traveled little less than a week when Talia nodded roughly north and said, "Weíll be there tomorrow. Better get a good nightís sleep."
In the light of dawn, the small army stood before an old stone fortress, the sun glinting off of their armor. Various parts of the curtain wall crumbled, the land around it barren and desolate. The inner keep remained partially intact with a large chunk missing from its upper corner. In its prime, the fortress would have been fearsome to an attacking horde.
Talia raised her sword. "Get ready."
She held the sword high so that it caught the rising sun. "In the name of Tonas, king of these lands, I order the gate opened."
The gate opened slowly, creaking on rusty hinges. In the courtyard behind it stood a column of soldiers, armor polished, horses stamping impatiently.
Talia rode forward and shouted, "Those who stand down now will be spared when the heir to the kingdom of Tonas regains his throne. Those who do not, prepare to meet your creator this day."
Talia spurred her horse, her voice resonating in a long war cry, her short spear felling men all around her. The rest of the party charged, leaving Katia behind to watch. She took a deep breath and plunged into the ensuing melee, engaging men that the army had weakened. She used her magic sparingly to conserve strength and minimize the risk of drawing the sorceressís attention too soon.
When there was only a handful of attackers left, a small band of black armored warriors burst from the keep, charging at Talia. They set upon her, trying to run through her. She succeeded in killing only a few before she was toppled from her horse, the rest of her army perishing under the black lances. They turned and charged towards Katia.
She had no choice now but to use her magic. She reached down, feeling the source of her gift, and held it fiercely. She flicked her gauntlets off and attacked the horsemen with large ribbons of lightning from her open palms.
They disintegrated into piles of charred ash, but those around Talia had not gone down. She fired small gusts of power at them, trying not to hurt Talia in the process of saving her. Katia jumped from her horse amid the ash and knelt beside Talia, realizing she was too late.
"Go, Katia, sheís just inside the hall."
"I canít defeat her myself."
Talia chuckled and winced. "Did you think youíd ever have help in this, girl? Just be thankful I got you this far."
"Will you die?"
She shook her head slightly. "Donít worry about that. You must complete this or it is the end for us all."
Katia murmured a short prayer of protection over her, then strode towards the keep. She picked up Taliaís discarded spear and proceeded up a short flight of stone stairs. Two double doors with iron loops as handles loomed above her.
She pulled on a ring, rust flaking off onto her hand. Katia peered into the impenetrable darkness, feeling a cold draft cool her face through the slats in her visor. She closed the door behind her and waited until her eyes adjusted. Only the outlines of pillars materialized in the gloom. She wanted to run, but she filled herself with her magic, sharpened the point of her spear with it, and pressed on into the hall.
From across the way, she could see the faint gleam of candlelight and moved stealthily towards it, spear held ready with straining knuckles. She found an alcove lit with four candles, each at the corners of a funeral bier. On it was a knight, dressed in his armor. Flowers surrounded him, spilling off of the table and onto the floor.
Katia sensed movement behind the table. She tensed, thinking the sorceress had anticipated her arrival, and drew the spear back, hand next to her ear. Two glowing yellow eyes stared back at her. Before she could react, the creature loped towards her, its black body gleaming in the candlelight. It circled her, a low growl in its throat.
"Leave this place."
Katia nearly dropped the spear. "I come to challenge the sorceress."
"The Woman Who Weeps for a Thousand Years sits upon the throne at the front of the hall. I am the Guardian of the Bier."
Katia swallowed hard, backing slowly away from the cat and the bier. She walked down the center of the hall, eyes better adjusted to the darkness. A woman sat on a large wooden chair upon a dais. She was weeping, her small choking gasps audible from where Katia stood.
The woman sat upright, wiping her tears, and called out, "Who disturbs my sorrow?"
"I have come to seek vengeance for the wrongs committed against Tonas and his children."
The sorceress gestured to the right with a wave of her hand and a group of women entered to light candles. One woman stumbled as her eyes passed over Katia, but she quickly composed herself. In moments the entire hall glowed, showing filthy rushes and moth eaten tapestries.
The sorceress leaned back in her chair. "Your vengeance is misplaced."
"Nevertheless, I challenge you."
"I will free this land and its people from this curse provided you fulfill my quest. I demand that my sonís death be avenged in full and true combat, with the blood of the guilty one to be poured over my sonís lifeless body. Then I will grant you your wish."
"You sonís death was an accident. There is no one to blame."
"Ryban told you those lies, child. Ask him, then do my bidding." She pointed towards the far end of the hall.
A knight appeared there, spear across his pommel, helm tucked under his arm. Katia ran to him. "Ryban?"
His eyes blinked a few times as if he just woke from sleep. He stared at her, startled. "How did I get here?"
"The sorceress Ė she wants me to kill you, to free the land from its curse. I didnít know the land was cursed."
His face drooped, his eyebrows nearly shielding his eyes. "So it is true then. The rulers of this land are connected to its people and the very ground it inhabits by a sacred bond. Since it has been in turmoil these past thirty years, it has doubtless fallen into ruin." He looked about the hall. "If this is any indication, I would say my realm is suffering, indeed."
"What are we to do?"
"It is our duty to restore it to health. You must slay me. If she releases the land, then you are the next ruler. If she is does not, then you must kill her, fulfilling the prophecy."
"I cannot kill my brother. Ryban, I cannot fight you."
"Kill me and we all will walk free today."
An old woman brought Katia her horse. "Be strong, my Katia."
She started, but thought that the face before her could have been an older reflection of her own.
She turned to Ryban. "Do you have your magic back?"
His eyes widened. For moments he sat still, his face pale, then a slow, exultant smile curled his lips upward, his back arching. "Yes, I can feel it again!"
Katia mounted her horse, reined in close to Ryban, and kissed his cheek. She wanted to cry as his face turned to her, teacher, brother, and friend.
"You will win, sister. It will be difficult, but you will win." He paused. "Rule this land as if it were the gentlest of babes, the most precious of stones."
"I promise." She backed the horse away, hooves clattering on the rough stones, and couched her spear. She took a deep breath, grasped the magic inside her, and charged.
They met in a clatter of hooves, a crashing of metal. Katiaís horse shied from the violent impact, throwing her from its back, but not before her spear caught Ryban under the chin.
She lay on the stones, stunned, her vision darkening around the edges. She could hear the sorceress applaud, and struggled to her hands and knees.
Ryban lay on the floor, struggling to rise. "I think I broke my leg."
She closed her eyes and concentrated. With a sharp intake of breath, she threw her body upward, knees unbending as she rose. She wavered, stumbling a bit, but gained her balance before crashing back to the floor. Katia slid her sword from her back, but was moved to pity for him.
Ryban pulled his helm off and rubbed his leg that twisted at an angle midway up his thigh. "I canít stand. I . . ." He gritted his teeth. "You must complete this."
The sorceress stood on the dais, her tears dry where they had run down her dirty face. "Servants, drag that man to the bier and put him on top of it. You, girl, behead him and let the blood fall onto my sonís body."
"Then you will free this kingdom and his soul from your treacherous hands?"
Her face was solid, unmoving. "Yes."
Katia strode to the alcove and clambered over limbs and flowers to stand on the table, straddling Rybanís body. She remembered every time he yelled at her, every time he let Riad pummel her with his sword until he tired. Rybanís eyes looked at her with pain, his body tense and ready for impact. Many times she wanted to do this, kill her teacher, the man who could be her brother.
She raised her sword high above his neck, hesitating, tears wetting the inside of her helm.
Ryban grimaced, his leg spasming and said, "Now."
Katia imagined her sword falling through his neck, his blood pouring around her, his head rolling far away, never to glare at her again. For all she hated him, for every time that he tried to hurt her to temper her and make her better, she could not help but love him. She could not kill the man who, if he wasnít her brother, should be.
Katia removed her helm, tears streaming down her face. She dragged her sword across the stones and stood before the sorceress again.
The woman gasped, horror trapping the air in her lungs. "You, you look like . . ."
"Tonas." Katia finished. "You have no quarrel here. You have extracted enough punishment for your sonís death. Release this land and be gone."
"Beware, Katia! Beware the curse!" Rybanís voice screamed from behind her. Katia spun to see him limping towards her, every step causing a wince. He held his sword like a javelin, aimed toward the sorceress. Katia felt a warm flush all over her body, felt her legs bolted to the stones against her will. The sorceressís magic wove around her in thick coils.
Katia spun as far as she could, flinging her sword, reaching desperately for the last of her energy, the fading presence of her magic to sharpen it, guide its path, straight to the heart of the sorceress. It pierced her body cleanly, embedded to the hilt, directly underneath Rybanís sword that pinned her head to the wall a moment later.
Ryban collapsed on the floor, his leg giving out from under him. Katia rushed to his side, screaming for help. The old woman bustled out of the side room, a legion of serving women with her. They crowded around Katia, their tearful thanks echoing to the vaulted ceiling.
The old woman cut them off. "The King is in pain, ladies. We must tend to his wounds. You fetch a stout stick. You fetch my herb chest from under the plank in the kitchen. One of you grab his head and the other his foot."
Hours later they had bandaged King Rybanís leg and laid him in a soft bed. He complained at their fussing, but drifted off into an herb-induced sleep.
Katia and the old woman sat beside the hearth fire while the servants roused the Kingís subjects to begin the slow but happy task of restoring the land to its former grandeur.
Katia sighed, leaning her head back against the chair. "Will he recover?"
"In time, my dear. He is of Tonasí stock. He will grow healthier as the days go by, like his kingdom around him, and thrive into old age."
Katia chuckled. "I guess I am of Tonasí stock as well. I fulfilled the prophecy. That makes me a princess then, eh?"
"And I a queen."
Katia leaned forward, eyes wide with astonishment. "Who are you?"
"A servant and the savior of this realm. I was Tonasí lover all of these years, right under the sorceressís nose. She was too wrapped up in her sorrow from day to day to notice the comings and goings of my girls and me. Twenty-one years ago, I gave a baby girl to one of the girls here and had her find it a home. She left it in a quiet little village not too far away. It was only after, when I heard the sorceress rant about the prophecy that I knew Iíd see you again. I knew from the moment I came into the hall that you were my daughter."
Katia grasped her hand and held it tightly as she stared into the fire. "In all of my life, I never thought Iíd have a family. Now I have a brother and a mother."
They sat that long night, happy just to be with each other, thinking of the kingdom they had to build on the morrow, the lost legacy of the mighty king Tonas.
Lynda Lampert is a struggling writer and student obsessed with the dream of making things up for a living. She has only been published on the internet, so far, but the need for some cash will hopefully change that soon. :)
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Lynda Lampert is a struggling writer and student obsessed with the dream of making things up for a living. She has only been published on the internet, so far, but the need for some cash will hopefully change that soon. :)Lynda can be e-mailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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