A perpetual crimson stain washed in her gaze, the world appeared as if covered a spraying of blood. Her arthritic old bones would only support Carden so far. They'd taken too much damage; too many castings. The Charmed was about to die. It was an ordinary day; nothing appeared to portent the enormous sift in the balance that was soon to occur. Carden moved ahead, savoring her last moments, but not fearing death. Her sister knew, they'd said their good byes. It was Aeldvia tradition, it was their way. She'd held too much guilt; it was too heavy.
Carden prayed the gods would aid whomever had this burden in the next life. It would be too heavy without, simply too heavy. The stain once again washed across her eyes, and Carden sunk down by the edge of the old trees. They understood one another. They calmed her. She laid her head back, and closed her eyes.
She didn't open them again.
The last crimson rays of the sunset glimmered upon the tumultuous waters, creating paths like bleeding wounds streaming over the waves. The humid air rendered the appearance of a misted veil upon the horizon, trained by gathering storm clouds, vaporous and undulating in tempo with the sea. Lilting whispers of far off flowed in the salty winds; sprinkles of sand danced in miniature whirlwinds along the deserted shore. A myriad of hues shifted across the dunes, echoing the oncoming dusk. The winds blew west, toward the cliffs. Tension hung over the Iliarian militia, for all had known this would, indeed, be a suicide battle. But they risked their lives anyway.
Kaydari watched through narrowed eyes as they readied their animals and supplies; this war was needless. Destiny had yet to be played out. She pulled her coarse robes closer around her body; it had grown chillier as of late. Her Lady was not happy. These godless, forsaken lands would doom themselves, unless the Aeldvia simply refused to fight, and the conflict ended.
Yet then, the Aeldvia would be slaughtered. Cursing the insatiable appetite of men, temporarily ignoring the she herself belonged to that race, Kaydari moved away from the cliff's edge, and shut her eyes.
Today, the day of her birthday, was the day the world could end. Kaydari looked up. The sky was streaked blood-crimson. The battle horn echoed across the bay—and it began.
200 years later
The island breeze was cool, but it was not what caused seven year old Lyliaene to shiver as she stepped off the ship onto the Isla de'la'i Marrea. She knew not what to expect, and was still resentful to her family for sending her off so quickly, almost as if they were scared of her.
During her journey from Aishara, she had spent long hours gazing at the sea, with its cold, dark waters, and wondering if she would indeed have to remain on the island for seven years to learn from the Priestesses of the Ceille. When she had told her mother about her headaches, she had never dreamed that she would end up on a ship headed for a destiny far away from her brothers and parents. She had assumed everyone knew what others were thinking, before they spoke it aloud.
Lyliaene turned to someone tapping on her shoulder, but it was only the sailor Grimm. He had been so nice to on the voyage, telling her stories, and letting her eat extra rolls from the kitchen- no, no, he had told her to call it the galley. Lyliaene didn't want to disappoint him.
"Miss, I'm to take you to the Hold."
Lyliaene nodded, and walked beside him to the edge of a large hill. Here they climbed a long and winding path until they could no longer see the ship in the bay, and could only hear the ocean. Lyliaene wondered how the priestesses lived all alone, isolated from the world, on this tiny island, where all day and all night the song of the sea could drive one to distraction.
The coolness of the damp breeze blown in from the Storm Pass caused a mist to lay over everything, making shapes vague, almost as if they weren't there at all. Finally, Lyliaene saw a tall, dark tower emerge from behind the mists, and it seemed to her that it rose all the way up to the heavens. It was made of black, mirror-like material, and there were no visible windows, or doors that Lyliaene could see.
"How do we get in?" Lyliaene asked in a hushed voice, partly afraid, but also excited. A strange, strong sensation had come over her as she looked upon the tower, a slight shudder in her bones, and in her mind. It was a gentle caress, a brief touch of golden light that infused her thoughts and brought her a moment of joy. She turned to Grimm, but he was still frowning at the tower, and hadn't seemed to notice a thing.
Then, seemingly from nowhere, a woman appeared from the mists, with gray hair loose and streaming over her shoulders like a luminous waterfall, and motioned them forward. Lyliaene walked ahead alone, for Grimm hadn't moved a step, and she saw his mouth move, calling her name, but she couldn't seem to hear him. All she knew was a calming golden light bursting like a flower turned to the sun inside her head, and a voice.
"Welcome, Lyliaene Al'Mariena. You have been awaited."
Lyliaene continued forward, no longer afraid at all, instead, staring with wonder at the woman before her. She felt an immediate sense of belonging, and knew she wouldn't be very lonely while there. The woman took Lyliaene's cold, small hand in hers and warmed it instantly, and within in a moment, Lyliaene found herself inside, in the warmth and out of the dampness of the thick fog. But they kept on until they had gone up dozens of tiny stairs, curving around the tower, and reached a window that looked out upon the sea, with all its glory and rage, glowing emerald, indigo, and ebony under the silvery swirls of mist. Its song was immeasurably sad, and immensely beautiful. Lyliaene stood at the window, and when she felt the golden glow back in her mind, she knew this was where she belonged.
She began to speak with the women of the Island in her mind; she could read their thoughts and receive images from them without even touching them. And for their skill, she no longer felt like her head would explode, or received throbbing sensations like a door being shut inside her skull. They let her learn anything she wanted, and showed her how to talk with them from long distances. Lyliaene began to appreciate her gift, and understand how it could be used to her advantage.
And the days she passed on the island felt like nothing, and the Priestesses taught her the skills of a farreader well, but the day came for her to pass her initiation into the Priestesses. Lyliaene was taken to the shore in a single robe of pale blue, and left to walk to the temple of Ceille alone, as was the tradition. Only if she knew the will of the Goddess could she use her skills, if not, then they would only pain her until they day when her mind couldn't take the sensations of others any longer, and simply stopped.
When she entered the temple, it was plain and bare save for driftwood bound together in beautiful shapes and patterns all along the walls, and strewn about the sandy floor in a maze of intricate figures and patterns. She walked slowly up to the small golden circle in the center of the maze, and knelt, pressing her head down into the sand.
What she heard, she never told a soul. The Goddess Bid her so.
The wind howled with great fury among the jagged peaks of the Bentuk-Karr Mountains, but inside the cavernous Hold of the tribe of the White Yer, a celebration was at hand. The tribe had captured a white hind, and a feast was in preparation. A girl of eleven had brought down the hind, and in tradition of the Karrs, she would join the prized group of Hunters that night. She, however, was not readying for her initiation like many others. Kiricadrethe was still outdoors, deep in the glittering snow, playing with her adoptive brothers.
"Kayden!" Kiri screamed, "You're going to pay for that!" She ran after him with a handful of icy snow, but before she threw it, she felt another icy ball hit the back of her head.
They had teamed up on her, but as she was about to regain the upper hand and hit them both, she heard a familiar voice beckoning.
"Kiri! Boys! Come inside this instant! You should be readying for the feast!"
The flame haired child sighed as she and her younger ett-brothers trudged inside to her Ett's, her adoptive Aunt, call.
"Kiri, I would think you had more sense than this. They are already questioning the wisdom of letting you join the Hunters at all, it is only the sway of tradition, and your," this she whispered, "strength, that is allowing you to join them tonight instead of waiting until your White Year…"
Kiri blocked out her Ett's scolding, and her mention of the rumors, as they went single file through the cavernous twists and turns of the Holding until they reached Kiri's small chamber.
"Boys, go to your room and stay there until your father comes to ready you!" Ett Gwaiidren loved to use exclamations, and she uttered every sentence as if it were the most important statement in the whole of the Bentuk-Karr.
"Now! We must ready you for the festival. And none of your funny business! You hear?"
With that, Kiri's Aunt set to work.
The White Yers chanted as Kiri walked down the long stone pathway to meet with her fellows, the legendary Hunters-the best in the whole of the Mountains. She already wore the furs that marked her new station, they had been delivered to her room earlier, but the leader of the Hunters would confer upon her the gold tipped arrow with the feather of the white raven- for it was considered good luck. It was what her tribe was named for; Yer was the ancient Karr word for raven.
When she reached the other Hunters, waiting for herm she searched their faces. Each of them she knew-
Old Gendwin, who had been at her Ett's wedding, and given her his furs when she fell asleep. Young Llyle, who was so handsome and fierce like a cougrebeast that Kiri had yet the courage to speak to him. Okaira, young, only four years above Kiri, winked at her, and smiled encouragingly. And Mkentt, young, but with hair as white as the snow he hunted in, and eyes as steely gray as a thundercloud. He had taught her the skills of the hunt, a good teacher, a hard man, a lonely man. He merely nodded, with what may have been pride.
Kiri quickly moved her attention to the leader, Murkka, who had begun to speak in the ancient language of the Karr tribes. Kiri knew what she was saying, Mkentt had taught her this too, but she doubted many others remembered this language. It was difficult, requiring dedication and determination, and patience. If Mkentt had not insisted he would not teach her to hunt if she did not learn it, Kiri would have never bothered with it.
Murkka held the gold tipped arrow in her large, pale hands, and looked gravely at the audience. But when Kiri looked into Murkka's eyes, she saw laughter and warmth. She waited with pride until the ceremony was almost complete, and when Murkka bestowed her with the arrow, her heart felt so full it would burst, and she floated in a bubble of warmth. If she had been one for drama, she might have cried, but as it was, she merely smiled upon her new companions, and felt belonging.
"Welcome, Kiricadrethe," they each murmured as they passed, and pressed a cool kiss upon her forehead. Then the band of Hunters went, one by one down the way Kiri had entered, and she took her place last in line and went along with them, carrying the arrow as if it were made of glass.
In the crowd, Gavin asked his mother if the last of the procession was gone. His mother sniffed, and bluntly said, "Yes," but Gavin wasn't fooled. He saw the pride on her face and the tears in her eyes. Kiri's Ett thought she looked beautiful, with the stone beads wound into her multiple braids of fiery auburn, and the golden bands on her arms.
And the arrow looked right in her hand. She looked as if she was meant to be a Hunter.
Meanwhile, Kiri had separated from the Hunters and was going back to her room to wait for her aunt when she turned the corner and found herself face to face with Yyille. Another girl Kiri knew- but wasn't found of. Yyille was sneering, and said in a bitter tone:
"You think you're so special, Kiri of the Hunters. Pretty Kiri, smart Kiri, brave Kiri. Think you're better than me, don't you? Well you're nothing but an orphan brat!" Yyille tossed her yellow curls back and added, "You only became a hunter because they felt sorry for you."
Kiri clenched her fists, trying not to lose her temper, but she blurted,
"You know that's not true! You're just jealous Yyille, 'cause I caught the hind and you didn't.
Yyille's face contorted into rage, and she leapt at Kiri. Though all of the students of the Karr's studied combat, Kiri was an excellent fighter, as long as she didn't have to use a sword. Though slender, she was strong and wiry, and lithe on her feet. Yyille was pinned down before she even knew what was happening.
"I hate you Kiri!" she screeched, and when Kiri let her up, flung away and ran down the hallway sobbing.
Kiri went back to her room with a bitter taste in her mouth, for she had never thought that her source of pride would bring others envy. Though skilled and courageous, she was still very young, and had not experience with all the evil emotions can bring about them, only the happiness. When she finally reached her rooms, her Ett and her husband waited for her, with their children, and some of Kiri's friends. They all congratulated her and celebrated, but Kiri's Ett's husband was more observant, and noticed her hidden sadness.
"What is bothering you, oleai?" It didn't bother Kiri when her ett-uncle called her orphan, but he was the only one allowed to do so. She had always felt they understood each other well, and she was glad when her Ett had married him. "Surely you don't regret becoming a Hunter?" He knew how excited she had been when she found out, and knew this was not the case. Kiri stared up at him, and he saw the muted hurt deep in her eyes. She spoke quietly, resignedly.
"When I became a hunter, people were happy. It made Yyille sad though," at this her uncle's face hardened, he knew what a spiteful child Yyille was, "and she was angry. I hoped it was just because we don't like each other, but in the eyes of my friends I see jealousy, and I don't like it."
Kiri's uncle wasn't surprised Kiri was confused or shocked, she was not a jealous type of girl, and people only displayed their admiration for the Hunters openly, but behind closed doors and in secret hearts, they were envied. He told Kiri this, but it did not seem to relieve her. She looked down at her slim, fine hands, strangely without scars, for one who shot a bow day after day, and said,
"Why did you not tell me this before?"
"Would you have let others keep you from a dream? If so, you aren't the girl I know," he said. Mugkk patted Kiri's fiery hair, and brought her back to talk with his sons. They held only pride and happiness for her. He had caught them talking-
"One day I'm going to be just like Kiri."
Mugkk told his wife he thought it was time for the guests to leave, and though she sent him a questioning look, she bid their visitors farewell, and dismissed them, leading to the door.
That night Kiri sat in bed, hoping that things wouldn't be like this always, once people were used to the idea. And the next day, she still had her friends, and she spent the days with the Hunters, honing her craft. She ignored any who spoke with jealousy, or those who whispered strange things about her. But sometimes behind people's eyes, she saw their envy, and wondered if one day it might explode.
Caelia D'Avelirai was having a very trying day. The castle was full of unwelcome-at least in her opinion- guests, preparing for her sister Margate's wedding.
"Caelia! Caelia!" A voice rose impatiently, calling her from the doorway of the kitchen. It couldn't be her stepmother, Megga would never venture into the kitchens, and Caelia was sure it wasn't Margate; her sister was barely speaking to her these days.
"I'm coming!" she called, eating the remains of the perrapple she'd picked, and threw the core into the trees. Wiping the sweet juice from her chin onto her sleeve, she ran up and met Memoiselle Linden the Bylardian gentlewoman her sister had hired to help plan the wedding. After all, Margate was marrying a Grange Lord, and no expense was to be spared. Cae shook her head angrily, and clicked her teeth together, thinking it was her fathers money after all, not that it mattered to her if her father ran out of money, he was….But she stopped herself from finishing the thought and immediately admonished herself. I mustn't think of Father that way. Forgive me, I did not mean it.
Memoiselle Linden broke Cae out of her thoughts.
"What is your name again? Cadi?"
"What on Aihnn possessed your mother to give you such a name child? It slips of the tongue, nothing to hold onto," she clucked, "anyway, I need you to fetch the flour from the cellar. Your mother told me you'd be useful. Go, go on child."
Memoiselle Linden shooed her down the steps, and Cae wanted to yell back to her that Megga was not her mother, rather a nasty addition to the family, but she knew it would be disrespectful. Mindful of the scars on her back, she refrained herself.
She wished the three weeks until Margate's wedding were over, for her stepmother would be gone for a few days, and Margate would be gone for good. And good riddance it would be.
After retrieving the flour, she was sent back down to the cellar to peel potatoes, a thousand of them. The Grange Lord had arrived that morning, and Cae's stepmother wanted her out of the way and put to work. She wondered why her stepmother was so insistent, she had heard of this happening to daughters who outshone the bride, but Cae sighed, thinking this was most definitely not the case. And Megga usually liked her working close, where she could compare her to Margate at every occasion, and point snide comments in her direction.
Then Cae wondered what would happen if her father actually cared. He had always been cold to her, even before he married Megga. But he had always loved Margate; she supposed it was because of Margate's great beauty. Or perhaps he'd loved Margate's mother more than Caelia's.
Cae heard footsteps coming down, and quickly picked up another potato in case it was the squat Memoiselle Linden. It was only Berthe, however, an ally of Cae's.
"Oh, milady, you shouldn't be doing that!" Berthe cried.
In truth, Cae had always been treated as more of a servant than a daughter, and so she and Berthe had formed an unlikely bond. Cae looked up to Berthe; she was lively and quick, if not beautiful, with a plain round face and a bit plump, and five years older than Cae's decade. But it still hurt Berthe's sense of propriety that her lady was doing jobs beside her.
"It's all right Berthe," Cae said cheerfully, "I truly don't mind. I'd rather be here with you, doing chores, than upstairs around all those guests pretending to want to talk to them." She smoothed back her chestnut hair, wishing for Margate's straight blond locks, but twisted her ringlets up and tied them in a knot behind her neck.
"Do you know how many are still coming?" Cae asked, but Berthe shook her head.
"Quite a lot milady, but I don't know how many. Have you seen Margate's wedding dress?"
Cae shook her head, feeling a bit melancholy, for if she and Margate had been real sisters, she would have been one to the first to see it.
Cae knew she should be sad to see her sister leave, but she could not be. Margate resembled their father in temperament, and while she just ignored her sister, Cae's father was crueler. But neither daughter resembled their father, with his red hair and strange amber eyes.
Margate was often told she looked like her mother, blond hair and pale, water washed blue eyes, but Caelia looked like neither her mother nor her father. And no one could explain her eyes. Cae's eyes were of a fey quality, changeable as her emotions. In happiness, they shone with the deep luster of sea-soaked sapphires. In anger, they became a silver gray, clear, icy, winter cold. With sorrow, they changed to the emerald hue of polished gems glittering with fire. And rarely, they gleamed a pure, haunting amethyst. She hated her eyes, for they symbolized her lack of belonging to Caelia. When she stood in front of the mirror, sometimes she felt the urge to gouge them out so strongly; she clenched her hands at her sides and reminded herself she did not want to be forever blind.
When her father married Megga, she had fully adopted Margate, for she saw how her new, rich husband doted upon his first child- and ignored Cae. She had molded Margate like her, after all, when Caelia's mother died, Margate had only been four. Cae had been just days old. Margate's mother had died when Margate was born as well, and Caelia's father had remarried her mother within the same year.
After Margate and Megga left, Caelia harbored hope that perhaps she and her father would become closer. But her thoughts were cut short by another call from Memoiselle Linden.
"Caelia, your mother wants you!"
"She's not my mother," Cae muttered, but smiled sadly at Berthe and went up the stairs.
She went up through the kitchens and back around to the back entrance of the house, where she met with the apologetic steward.
"Milady, Lady Margate wishes to see you right away. Then I am to escort you to your stepmother." He bowed, his light brown hair shaved close to his head. Then he led her to Margate's door, and went in behind her.
Cae's sister stood there with a tall, blond man, but his hair was so short it seemed almost like he had none at all, and arrogance was carved into every pane of his face.
"Caelia, I need more seed pearls for my gown, and mother lost them. You need to go to market and find some more, today!"
"All right, I'll go after I speak with Megga." Although Margate and Cae shared no love, they didn't dislike one another with the intensity that Cae and her father or Megga did.
Margate nodded, and Cae turned to go. The steward bowed to Margate, murmuring, "Lady Margate," and went out. Cae went to follow him, but Margate's betrothed boomed out:
"Aren't you forgetting something you insolent wench? Bow before leaving!" He turned to Margate and said, "I expect you to manage my servants better than this."
Cae stood, stunned. Margate looked like she was about to agree, and Cae wondered if the proud sister she had once known was swallowed wholly by the conniving Megga. Cae willed her to acknowledge her, even though she knew it was a crazy dream, but then something flickered in Margate's eyes.
"Actually, she's my sister. And she's only ten, so don't yell at her." And though she pursed her lips with disdain or shame as she said it, at least she had spoken it aloud. Cae could never say the things she wanted to her family. Why don't you love me? Why aren't I good enough? However, she thought about them late into the nights, when she sat in her window, gazing at the sky, wondering what her mother was like and how her life would be different if she was there.
Cae bowed mockingly to the Grange Lord Margate was to marry, Cae had never known his name, and didn't care to learn it now. Truly, Cae wasn't sure if she could ever forgive her mother for dying, for her hurt was too raw, and her life did nothing to heal the buried wound. Cae didn't care for memories either, but one haunted her dreams.
It had been a fine day, and her father had taken Margate to town for lessons. When they had returned, Margate was wearing a strand of prized aquamarine pearls. They were the most beautiful things Cae had ever seen, fit for a lovely mermaid princess. She had longed for a pair of her own, for as most four year olds do, she had many dreams of being a princess herself. But when her father caught her looking at them in Margate's room, he asked if she wanted some. She said she did, and he had said, 'You can't have any because you are special. You aren't as precious, or a good investment." Cae had cried herself to sleep. She'd never, ever spoken her true feeling aloud again.
Going down the stairs to see her stepmother, Cae was lost in recollection, but was jolted from her thoughts when she tripped into something, or rather, someone.
"Oh!" she cried, "I'm sorry!"
She looked up into a pair of green eyes, the greenest she had ever seen. They were the color of moss on a rainy day, vibrant against the gray of the rest of the world.
"It's quite all right child." The man was old, or at least he seemed old to Cae, but when you've just lived for a decade, most people seem old to you. Cae looked at him puzzled, for he seemed familiar to her, though she quite sure she had never seen him
before. She would have remembered such strange eyes, eyes that held grave compassion.
"Well, okay. Have a good time at the wedding," Cae said uncertainly, feeling more like her ten years than she had in a long while. Cae had had to grow up fast. She fairly ran down the rest of the stairs, and in to see her stepmother.
The man, who was really Rudriegn, the Mage of Morley, stared down after her, wondering. But, shaking his head, he decided he must be an old man imagining things, for the Charméd was gone forever, and such power would never return to Aihnn.
However, the morning after the wedding was over, Cae was summoned to her father's study. She was stunned, but stirrings of hope had begun to creep into her heart, hope that maybe her dream would actually come true. She spent a minute combing and piling her chestnut curls into elaborate coils atop her pale, oval face, and removed the muddy smock she'd been wearing to work in the enormous lake gardens her mother had left.
As she passed by the steward in the hall, she gave him a small smile, uncertainly, hesitantly, and opened the door to the beginning of a new life.
"Poor, poor child," the steward muttered, shaking his head.