'The Cursed Gift' - first chapters
I should have gone with them. Leah’s concern was enough to slow her movements. Until her friends’ laughter jolted her back into pulling her boot on. Frowning, she struggled to pick up the thread of conversation.
“Are you alright?”
She looked up at Nadeen and pasted a smile on her face.
“It is not like you to be so quiet.”
“Missing your family?” said Jessalyn, adjusting her plain brown tunic over her trousers.
With a sigh, Leah nodded as she got to her feet. “Yes, I suppose I am, especially my little brother.”
“The same little brother who irritates you?” said Karamay, grinning.
A small laugh escaped Leah as she hooked her black hair behind her ears. “He’s not irritating, not really. Only sometimes I find it hard to deal with his... Oh, he’s so clever there are times I feel so... so feeble-minded, especially when we’re at official functions.” She made a face as the others giggled.
“Never mind, Leah,” said Karamay, “you know we love you despite your feeble–oh!” She ducked as Leah took a playful swipe at her. Laughing, she stepped up to put her arm around Leah’s shoulder. “Besides, we’re still here.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”
Leah joined in their laughter as they left their room, all similarly dressed in the brown tunic and trousers of recruits. They stepped out of the low rectangular building that housed the dormitory for female recruits, its back facing the west wall of the palace.
Still weighed down by her thoughts, Leah lagged behind the others.
“Are you sure you are alright?” Nadeen slowed to keep pace with her. “You still seem preoccupied.”
She met her friend’s concerned gaze but didn’t reply straight away. “I was... I should have gone with them, if only for Evalan’s sake.”
“What a strange thing to say. He is nine, older than you were the first time you accompanied your parents. You know they would never let anything happen to him.”
Leah opened her mouth but ended up nodding instead.
“This is the first time they are visiting Kurabar without you. Maybe–”
“It does feel odd, I won’t deny it. But it only makes sense, after all, Evalan is the heir, I suppose I’m not really needed,” she said with a shrug. For the first seven years of her life, Leah had been her father’s heir. But because their society was a patriarchy, when her brother had been born, he’d replaced her as heir.
Nadeen smiled. “Well, I am glad you have not gone.”
She returned her friend’s smile. “I must admit, I was glad when Father told me I didn’t have to go. After all this time, it does get a bit tiresome. Though I will miss seeing the people–”
“Seeing what people?”
They turned as two young men fell in step with them. The one who’d spoken bore a striking resemblance to Karamay, with his ginger hair, and spatter of freckles across his nose.
“As nosy as ever, Karel,” said Karamay. “Can’t you see they’re having a private conversation?”
“Mind your elders, baby sister.” He never let Karamay forget that he’d arrived from their mother’s womb a full five minutes before her. “So, what people are you talking about?”
Still smiling, Leah shook her head and explained what they’d been talking about a few minutes before.
“You find the progress tiresome?” said Conor with a wide grin. “Don’t let your father hear you say that. Imagine the scandal if it becomes known that the king’s firstborn finds royal duties tiresome.”
The others started laughing.
“Where are Sover and um... Artur?” asked Nadeen, craning her neck to look in the direction of the male dormitory, on the other side of the walkway to the female dormitory.
“They were given an errand to run,” said Karel. “They’ll meet us for training.”
The group made their way towards the training compound, Conor and Karel pushing and shoving one another in a mock fight. Leah found her gaze drawn, yet again, to Conor; they had known each other from a young age when his father, an experienced commander, had constantly been at the king’s side.
Lately, she realised that whatever the situation, her thoughts inevitably settled on Conor, to the point that she’d begun to wish she was different. She couldn’t help but wonder how things would be between them if she wasn’t a recruit; maybe then Conor would see the young woman she’d become instead of merely viewing her as one of his childhood friends. But she denied the thought with a quick shake of her head.
I can’t imagine being anything else. Now I’m no longer the heir, if I give up being a recruit, what’s left? She stole another glance at Conor. Would being noticed by him be enough to sustain her? With a sigh, she followed the others into the training compound.
The rotund, cavernous building was discreetly set to the rear of the palace, shielded from delicate eyes by tall, wide-branched trees that bordered the palace gardens to the west. Little puffs of dirt mushroomed up from the dusty floor as they piled inside. The musty smell of stale sweat lingered in the air. At the opposite end, the more experienced recruits were practising with sword and buckler. In yet another corner, the dull thump of wood on wood echoed around the room as a group of young warrior-recruits wielded wooden practice swords. The thud of wood and clang of steel were augmented by the wrestlers’ grunts and groans. In sharp contrast to the dishevelled, sweaty recruits, neatly dressed young men and women ascended the steps on either side of the main doors, which wound up to the classrooms on the upper floor.
As Leah hurried after the others, she exclaimed softly as Conor tossed her a buckler; she caught it neatly. He winked and turned to where their warrior-master awaited them. Leah’s gaze softened. Maybe having Conor’s attention would be enough...
* * *
Three years... three long years of intense hardship. Not a morsel of food had passed his lips, not a drop of water. His only sustenance was his stubborn faith that the immortal he invoked would be flattered enough to keep him alive. And so he’d blocked out any signs of human frailty, remaining seated in the same position with his legs crossed under him, arms straight out with hands resting on his knees. The only vision he permitted himself was that of a large hooded serpent. His only thought, that of the demon lord he ceaselessly called upon.
A muffled hissing began to steal into his consciousness as he became aware of his surroundings. He tried to move. Couldn’t. Tried to open his eyes. They seemed to be sealed shut. Panic was rapidly replacing detached calm.
Unknown to him, over the past three years, nameless insects clambering over his still form had covered him with earth, imprisoning him. Hardened by the sun, the tomb would not be easily broken. Without warning it shattered; he fell forward taking in great gulps of air. Prising his eyes open he quickly shut them again against the intense brightness of the sun.
“Arise,” hissed a sibilant voice.
His limbs obeyed even before he’d registered the command. He swayed like a leaf in the wind but remained upright. Overcome with awe, he forgot how much the sun hurt his eyes.
Before him was a giant, red-eyed serpent. It swayed hypnotically, holding him with its gaze. “You have done me great service, youngling. It is to crave a boon, I know. Ask what you will.”
“I want magic,” he said, the words crawling from his painfully arid mouth. “Grant me the knowledge to wield magic.”
The eyes blazed as the serpent reared up. “Not that! Ask for anything but that.”
“No.” Although his voice still trembled, the young man could feel his strength returning. He stood straight, unflinching. “I want magic. You have no choice but to grant me what I desire.”
Furious, it darted at him. Coiling itself around his body, it came close to crushing him. Its mouth gaping open, it bared deadly fangs glinting with poison. But it was trapped... trapped by its own words, by the rules that ruled the immortals. Rules that bound the summoned immortal to grant the desired wish, no matter how questionable. With a frustrated hiss, it flicked its tongue at the man’s forehead.
He flinched as it stung.
“Use it well, half-mortal. Cross me and you shall know my fury.” In the blink of an eye, the great serpent disappeared.
The man’s knees buckled. His body started to shake as he fell on his side. It felt like a fire was raging inside him. He cried out for his mother, desperate for her soothing touch to cool the fever. But no one was near to hear him, to help him.
Ancient links united the cities of Orenheart and Kurabar, for the founders of both had been brothers. The royal families of these cities honoured their age-old ties by visiting one another every year. The Kurabarans had visited Orenheart the previous year, so this year, for the first time in his young life, Evalan was accompanying his parents to Kurabar.
He was aware of the ache in his jaw but could not stop smiling. He had ridden south of the city many times, always with a guard, but this was different.
He turned to the woman on his left, her amusement obvious in her wide smile. “Yes, Mother?”
“You haven’t stopped grinning since we left Orenheart.”
“I can’t help it. This is so exciting.” He looked around at the escort that surrounded them; the warriors in long, white tabards, emblazoned with the royal emblem in red, their backs covered by black cloaks, with the early spring sun sparking off their helmets, topped with black plumes.
“I’ve never ridden north before–”
“Yes, you have,” said the man on his right, the red plume atop his helmet flicking to the side as he turned his head.
“But no further than the first sentries’ outpost, Father.” They’d just passed the third of three such outposts.
“So begins your adventure,” said the man, his father, the king of the southern realm, Edmon.
Unlike Leah, who mirrored their father’s dark features, Evalan took after their mother, Maeve, with her hair the colour of spun gold, and blue eyes. As the company stepped onto the broad road that ribboned into the distance, he straightened in his saddle. This was the main thoroughfare used mainly by the warriors and large processions; it connected Orenheart to Arcspan, which led to hot Kurabar in the north-west. A branch of the road led east, to the mountains, and Eastvale beyond, with its silk, spices and mines.
He noticed a severely grooved lane branching off, so different to the road, and spied distant fingers of smoke rising to the sky. “That leads to a settlement?”
“Why is the lane not like the road? It looks so... shoddy.”
“There are too many to maintain. They aren’t only the ones that lead away from the road; some settlements are connected to one another by lanes as well.”
“It can’t be easy to travel along.”
Edmon made a face. “Choked with dust in the dry summer, bog-like in the winter... no, it’s far from perfect, but the people are used to it.”
“Everything looks the same,” he said for the land to the right of the road, fertile and river-fed, was monotonous farmland.
“It may appear uninteresting, but this is what feeds us,” said Edmon.
He turned Maeve.
“Look, your first proper view of the mountains.”
His gaze flicked to the distant mountains, jagged against the horizon. “They look so...”
“Big?” said Edmon, raising his brows.
Evalan narrowed his eyes and frowned as a chuckle escaped Maeve. “I was going to say they look very grand, even from here.” He turned slightly in the direction of the road that led towards the mountains. “When can I go to Eastvale?”
“I leave that journey to the merchants,” said Edmon.
“It’s an arduous journey, son. And if I spend all my time travelling up and down the land, who is going to see to the running of the realm?”
The youngster’s shoulders slumped. Now that he’d finally started travelling, he knew this was what he wanted to do, even more than becoming the king. What did it matter how hard the journey might be? There was so much to see; not only Eastvale but Porthaven in the south, by the sea, and grasslands further north...
“Maybe when you’re older,” said Maeve.
Nodding, still he couldn’t help sighing. He went back to perusing his surroundings, and only then noticed that, to the left of them, the warrior escort rode three-deep. “Father, why are there more warriors riding on that side of us?”
“Because of the brigands.”
The boy’s pale-blue eyes widened. “Oh,” was all he could think to say as he stared at the forest in the distance.
“Look...” Edmon pointed out a group of riders. “There’s one of the regular patrols, my patrols.”
Just as Evalan relaxed, a knot tightened in his stomach as the patrol gathered together and spurred their horses into a gallop, riding away from them. At the same time, Second Commander Geren ordered his warriors to close ranks around the family, and their pace quickened.
“It’s only a precaution. Evalan...”
Blinking rapidly, the youngster turned at the sound of his father’s soft summons.
“We are well protected. And I will not let any harm befall you.”
“Sorry, Father. I will try to be brave.”
Edmon’s smile widened; he reached over and gripped his son’s hand. “I do not doubt that you are.”
Despite his father’s encouraging words, Evalan struggled to return his smile. He didn’t want to disappoint his father but was already aware of how different he was to Leah, that he wasn’t as active as she was. Even though there was eight years between them, lately he’d developed a habit of comparing himself to her. Whenever Edmon spoke of Leah, it was clear how proud he was of her; Evalan wondered how much fatherly pride showed when his father spoke of him. He hoped, in five years’ time, when he started his warrior training, he would find something akin to his sister’s enthusiasm.
Evalan turned to Maeve as she laid a gentle but firm hand on his shoulder. She didn’t say a word, merely smiled, and he knew that, no matter what, at least one parent loved him as he was.
“Why so thoughtful?” Maeve reached out to smooth his sunny-gold hair.
“I miss... I wish Leah was here, with us.” With me...
“She can’t miss her training,” said Edmon.
“She used to, before.”
“True, but now that you’re here, she doesn’t have to.”
He opened his mouth but could not think of a good enough argument, and so forced his thoughts back to the brigands who made their home in the forest of Grimwood. “Father, isn’t there a way for the brigands to come away from the Grimwood?”
He shook his head. “There have always been brigands there, since before Oren built Orenheart. That’s their place, their home–”
Edmon turned his attention to Geren.
The sturdily built man was not only the king’s second in command but a trusted friend as well. His beard and moustache hid his smile but his mirth was always reflected in his grey eyes. Evalan was especially fond of him for Geren always found time for the young boy. “We’re approaching Turis, my lord.” He referred to one of the many settlements they would pass on their way to Kurabar. The royal party made it a point to stop at as many as possible without lengthening their journey by too many days.
“We will stop, Geren, but only briefly.”
“Yes, my lord. I’ll send two warriors ahead to inform them of our arrival.”
The sun was just beginning its westward journey when the royal procession came within sight of the settlement of Sorin, where they would spend the night. To better protect the royal family, each night on the road was always spent in a settlement.
This one was slightly larger than the others they’d passed, but Evalan could see that it was laid out in a similar manner. A fenced border marked its territory. Simple wood houses with thatched roofs sprouted from the ground in no planned order. But further into the settlement, the houses grew slightly in stature until the elder’s house, which was much wider to accommodate, not only the elder’s extended family but also any visiting guest.
Realising that the people were all gathered around the well, Evalan smiled in what he hoped was an engaging manner. He waited for Edmon to dismount and help Maeve, who, despite her riding gown and cloak, came off her horse gracefully. He, however, almost got tangled up in his cloak, and hurriedly composed himself to be presented to the elder.
Then Evalan noticed the large table outside the elder’s house with some smaller tables dotted around. Because of the good weather, it seemed that the evening meal was to be served outside. Evalan’s stomach growled as the tempting aroma of roasted meats assailed his nostrils. Soon he was being led along with his parents to the head table as torches were lit to brighten the gradually darkening evening. In spite of being the youngest at the elder’s table, he wasn’t left out of the conversation, adding to his enjoyment of a special night.