The Spark and the Sea
As I stand in the abandoned cottage I found years ago as a child; I fight the urge to cry at the feeling of helplessness that assaults me. There is enough food to feed, at the very least, two hundred people here, but it's not nearly enough. Dried meat, jarred vegetables, and canisters full of wheat and barley surround me on every surface this tiny, dilapidated building has to offer. My guard and I have spent countless hours sneaking every ounce of this here over the last month. In a week, we’ll find out if our humble attempt at keeping the peace between our kingdom and the kingdom to the north will be enough. I have a feeling it won't come close.
I flinch as a twig snaps, drawing my attention to the trees outside the door. I crouch down low and catch myself hoping it isn't a wolf. Fear trickles down my spine as a chill settles over me like a blanket. The pungent smell of pine fills my nostrils as I run my eyes over every shadow in the distance. My mind plays tricks on me at every pass.
Wolves of Legend. It's a story parents use to scare their children into submission in my kingdom. I’ve believed they were real since I was a little girl, listening to my mother tell the scribes over and over about her encounter as a young woman in the king’s army. It’d been twenty years, but every year Goethe-the oldest record keeper-would send his students to listen to my mother’s story. She would sit them down in the war room in the palace and recount every second of that day.
“It helps them learn how to perfect their art,” she’d answered when I asked why she retold the story so many times. “And, Britain, if you would work more with the Water Wielders than you do chasing after your daydreams, maybe you wouldn’t be gift-less.”
Even on the forest floor, hiding from whatever lurks in the trees, I can still feel the shame coil within me.
Another twig snaps. I begin to wonder if Axle followed me. It's something he would do, but if he were out here with me, he’d have already been screaming at my lack of care for my safety.
That's not true. If he'd followed me, I wouldn't have made it past the first row of trees. He barely allows me room to breathe. Had I known he would have turned into this, I like to think I would have never fallen in love with him at such a young age. I'd have never agreed to marry him.
Then again, he wouldn't have allowed that either. Something about being the king's son gives him the authority to demand my hand in marriage, even if it's something I no longer want. Since I am only a general's daughter-even if that general has mass power and serves the king-I have no right to refuse.
Seconds after the third snap of some fallen branch echos through the woods, my guard and very best friend steps into the clearing. Two inches taller than me, hair as black as the night that rests just above her shoulders and large, dark brown eyes that are scanning the cottage, looking for a sign that I'm still here. Aallotar. I stand and walk toward her. "You scared me to death," I say when I reach her. "I thought you were a wolf!"
She grins. “Scaring you was the plan.” She glances beyond my shoulder, and her expression falters. "How much?"
I look through the door and sigh. "It'll feed two hundred. Maybe more, but not by much."
"The Prince from Fynwood won't be happy."
I don't respond. There's no need to when I know she's right.
For over a hundred years, our world has known real peace. And now the king, my king, is allowing his son to risk it all over greed. As his father gets older, Axle makes more and more decisions. Tradition has solidified that kings and queens must step down from their rule when they reach sixty years of age, passing the throne to the heir of their choosing. Axle knows his time is coming, and he’ll do anything to appease his father and secure his role as King of Lynland. The image of him sitting in power on the dais in the throne room makes it difficult to swallow.
“I still can’t understand the reason Fynwood’s kingdom needs the food anyway. Are they that hungry?”
According to our scribes, one hundred and twenty-eight years ago, the world was filled with billions of people. Kingdoms were led by the elite with the strongest abilities, resulting in rules that only benefited them. Poverty and hunger became plagues that attacked the land until rumors of a rebel group made its way from kingdom to kingdom. Eventually, an army rose from murmurs and went to war against two of the largest royal families.
The casualties were endless in what became the most significant war known to man.
Seven years into the fighting, something happened. No one knows precisely what caused the shift, but one day, the war was over. New leaders created peace treaties, and the people that were left were happy.
Now the earth consists of ten kingdoms led by kings, queens, heirs, and generals with the most extraordinary power. I'm the daughter of a Water Wielder, the strongest that anyone has ever come across in history; that is, until Aallotar.
"Britain," Aallotar's voice pulls me out of my thoughts. "Are you listening?"
“I’m sorry,” I say, cringing. “I was thinking about the war.”
Aallotar pulls the door to the cabin closed. “I asked how you're going to convince the king to allow you to lead Fynwood's guard to the border."
As part of the treaty between our neighbor to the north and us, Fynwood brings men to Lynland's kingdom to be trained as soldiers every year. Some remain here, and some go back home after two years. In exchange for the soldiers that stay, we supply a third of all crops, furs, and meat gathered in the year's warmer months. We're a smaller kingdom in number, but we have far better land to farm.
Usually, a member of the Royal Guard will escort Fynwood's army to the border, but this year, we have a feeling no one will volunteer. Who wants to accompany the very men we're all about to deceive?
"I think I'll have less trouble convincing King Randall than I will Axle," I admit. I feel the familiar weight settle over my shoulders at just the thought of trying to get away from my fiancé. "But I thought if you were to accompany me, they might be more willing to let me go. I know my father will fight for me, too."
"Axle doesn't like me." She's stating the obvious, and we both know it.
"You're strong, Aal. The king is the one who has to decide, and if you say you'll go, he'll likely allow me to be the border escort.”
"I'd be happy to accompany you," she says. We mount our horses and start the journey home. "So, you thought I was a wolf?"
I can't help but laugh. "It crossed my mind. I also wondered if you were Axle."
"I don't think he'd have followed you that far into the woods."
"Which is exactly why it was more likely you were a wolf," I say. She seems to puff up at the comparison, and I grin.
We ride quickly through the city surrounding the palace, the home to the royal family, top generals, all the Royal Guards who have families, and widows. The streets are bustling with energy today as shopkeepers prepare for the arrival of new soldiers, old friends, and a good portion of Fynwood’s army. Even if they are only here for the trade, many shops will likely make a few sales.
Arriving home never feels like I hope it will. I feel a lot less free here, but the enormous stone building isn’t to blame for that. It’s beautiful, vast, gothic. The pebble gray stone looks darker in the evening light, allowing the windows to stand out in contrast. Nearly sixty windows are looking out over the front gardens, and every single one holds a torch. Every morning, servants run through the halls with Fire Wielders on their heels. King Randall says the act symbolizes that we are always a light in the distance for anyone who would need it. The hypocrisy of it all doesn’t escape my notice.
I wonder how many days it will be into Axle’s reign when he'll snuff out the torches for the last time.
Dinner is a raucous event that night, as always. Soldiers and members of the Royal Guard laugh at stories, old and new. Aallotar is in a group of men and women about our age, listening as her father spins another tale of fiction.
My seat is with the king and queen at the front of the room on the dais. Henrik, the king’s youngest son, sits quietly, staring at his plate. His mother leans over to whisper something in his ear, and his eyes bug out before he dives into dinner. The queen laughs behind her hand, giving her husband a humorous look.
“Where is Axle tonight?” King Randall asks me. I sit up straighter before I can catch myself. I longed to belong to Axle for years, and now that I do, I pay that price every day. Lessons on etiquette haunt the dreams that aren’t interrupted by him.
“I’m not sure,” I answer honestly. “I thought he’d be here.”
“Must be out hunting,” the king says. I nod. Unsure what else to do, I take a drink of my water.
“I saw him kissing a big ugly girl!” Henrik yells before laughing. He’s only six, so I try not to let his laughter hurt my feelings, but the queen’s face turns as red as the tomatoes on the table.
She looks like she wants to apologize for Henrik, but she’s the queen. She doesn’t have to apologize to anyone. The only person this shame belongs to is me. Shame for not being able to keep his eye from wandering, even if his full attention is the last thing I want. I feel as if I’ve let down the royal family somehow.
“Who was it?” King Randall asks Henrik.
“Axle said I shouldn’t tell because he’ll get his ears whacked.”
This time when the queen leans in close, she’s speaking furiously into Henrik’s face. He tries to pull away, but she holds fast to his arm. Finally, he whispers something, and she bolts upright before sending daggers towards one of the servants. I follow her with my eyes and feel a pit in my stomach. Her white-blonde hair cascades down until it brushes her lower back. She’s tall and gorgeous in every way a woman might want to be.
I try to find the resentment for her, but I only feel pity. I feel sorry for anyone who catches the eye of Axle. I almost feel delighted at the thought that he may want someone else, but then I see the bruise on her cheek, and my stomach fights against the food I’ve eaten.
I stand and ask the king to excuse me from dinner before rushing out of the dining hall. I run to my rooms and slam the door behind me. Stripping off the day’s clothes, I dress for bed and extinguish the lights before climbing under the covers. Now that I’m here, I wish I would have thought twice about it.
My night is likely only going to get worse; I think, before exhaustion wins the fight.