It’s time for us to return to the wilderness. We travel northeast, trekking deep into the forest. We follow a wide, level path that’s been cleared for travelers. Our next stop is the capital.
We spend a night camped in the woods, and we all huddle together for warmth. The mellowmira have to be adapted to the cold because they live so far north. In a few months the mountains we’ll be crossing soon will become impassable due to snow.
Toward the end of the second day, we reach the outskirts of a large city. There are stone houses spreading out from the center of town. You can just barely see the tops of the castle’s turrets in the distance. This is Burnham, home of the mellowmiran king.
You spend what remains of the day exploring the city. There’s more entertainment here, and the goods in the shops are of higher quality and greater variety. That is the benefit of living in the capital. Most families have at least one member who works in the castle. I know you’re eager to see it, but that will have to wait until tomorrow.
When tomorrow comes, you all hurriedly eat your breakfast and meet me outside. You’re ready to see the castle. We follow a wide, paved path to the northeast of the city. There are a handful of other travelers coming and going. The castle is set a fair distance away from the city, and there’s a defensible wall separating it. The monarchy wasn’t very stable when it was first established, so the king had to take precautions.
We pass by the guards at the wall, and now you can see the grounds outside the castle. Behind the castle are a dark forest and towering mountains. In front, some grasses grow, but it’s certainly not a beautifully manicured lawn or garden. It’s difficult to get those kinds of plants to grow this far north. Burnham is about as far as you can go. While the trees are thick here, they soon start to thin, and then they transition into tundra.
The castle is a massive stone construction. You haven’t seen any architecture this big since you started your journey with me. There are numerous turrets sprouting from the heights of the structure. Lucky for you, I’ve arranged for us to take a look inside.
After speaking briefly with the guards at the door, we’re permitted entrance, and I give you a tour. Now, because of the war, the monarchy hasn’t had the funds to maintain many parts of the castle. The majority of it goes unused.
On our current level, there are various sitting and dining rooms, some of which are cleaned up and usable and some of which are covered in thick layers of dust and cobwebs. There are a few nice meeting rooms as well. The biggest room is the ballroom, and you can tell from its dustiness that it hasn’t been used in centuries.
The floor below us is home to the kitchen, scullery, storage rooms, and staff quarters. While the mellowmira have their faults, they don’t have slaves. All of the work here is done by paid workers. They don’t make much, but they are well taken care of and don’t want for any of life’s necessities. Happy staff make a smoothly functioning castle.
The third floor is all unoccupied suites. The fourth floor has a few occupied suites, a library, and offices, including the king’s office. The fifth floor has only one wing, and it’s home to the monarch’s suite and guest suites for foreign dignitaries.
King Ormek is likely busy, but if we’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of him. Ormek is the first king in centuries to not have a wife. She’s typically the lady of the castle, but the head housekeeper has that title right now. The mellowmiran monarchy is a little unique as it isn’t hereditary. The king chooses his successor and trains him in the decades leading up to his retirement. King Ormek is fairly new to the throne, so he hasn’t chosen a successor yet.
As we leave the castle and return to town, I tell you the story of a woman who was critical to the monarchy’s success.
* * * * *
Zandria left Aria and hiked into the woods. As she was walking amongst the foliage, someone grabbed her and placed a scented cloth against her face, sending her into unconsciousness.
When she woke, she was rather dizzy, and it took a few minutes for her vision to clear. She was in a round, richly furnished bedroom. Where am I? She could think of only one place that had round architecture: Burnham Castle. She had been captured by the mellowmiran monarchy. But why?
She crossed to the room’s only door and opened it. A uniformed guard blocked her path.
“You are to remain inside this room,” he said.
She tried to push past him, but he was successful in blocking her. He backed her into the room and closed the door.
“I will alert His Majesty that you are awake,” the guard said from out in the hall.
Zandria paced the room, searching for any way out. The window was set rather high, but with the assistance of furniture, she managed to climb up to it. The drop on the other side was not survivable. She would need rope or something to assist her. She searched the room for anything that might be long enough and strong enough to work. The bedding was the only thing that seemed appropriate for such a task, but she would have to rip it into strips to make it long enough. It would be very easy for her to get caught before she was done.
She had two choices: Try to escape before anyone noticed or wait. Zandria didn’t even know why they wanted her. Perhaps there was some mistake, and they actually wanted someone else. Would they let her go if that were the case? She wasn’t sure. The mellowmira and elvira had been at war for a long time. She grew up with stories about how terrible the mellowmira were. They probably wouldn’t show her mercy even if they’re the ones who made the mistake.
Before Zandria had the opportunity to make a decision, the door opened and two mellowmiran men entered. Both were of average height and build. The only thing remarkable about the one on the left was the exquisiteness of the sword he had strapped to his waist. The hilt was made of intricately fashioned silver. The man on the right wore several rings and had the bearing of a person of power. His clothes were made of expensive fabric. He, too, had a sword, and while it was beautiful, it wasn’t quite as nice as the other man’s. For all Zandria knew, one of those swords would be the cause of her death in the near future.
Or a potential weapon to aid in her escape if she were able to steal it.
“What is your name?” the man on the right asked. His tone revealed how accustomed he was to asking questions and getting immediate answers.
“Zandria,” she said.
“Do you have the ability to imbue objects with magic?”
So that’s what they wanted. “Why do you ask?”
“A yes or no would suffice.”
She hesitated. What if she lied? Would they harm her? But if she told them the truth, they might not let her go.
“Well?” the man pressed.
He turned to the man on the left. “You told me she could.”
“She can, Your Majesty,” he said. “I saw her do it. The other day in the woods, she picked up a pebble and imbued it with magic. She left it on the riverbank. After she left, I saw a wounded bird hop up to the pebble. When the bird touched it, its wing healed, and it flew away.”
Zandria went pale. How long had they been watching her? She often imbued small objects with healing magic for the woodland creatures to use. Why was the king so interested in this ability?
The king looked at Zandria again. “The truth, Zandria.”
“Yes, I can,” she said.
“You have two choices then. You can imbue two objects with the powers I want, and I will let you return to Aria unharmed. If you refuse, you will remain here for the rest of your life. It’s your choice.”
“I can’t just give objects powers. I have to transfer them from an elvira who has those abilities.”
The king looks at the other man. “Before I send Dagrid on any more missions, I need to know whether or not you’re going to cooperate.”
“If I’m going to make that decision, I need to know what exactly I’m doing.”
The king narrowed his eyes for a moment, studying her. “I have two rings. I want them both to have the same set of powers. When I wear one of these rings, I want to be able to wield those powers. Dagrid said your pebble lost its power after the bird used it, but I know you can make the powers permanent.”
Making the powers permanent required draining them completely from an elvira. The elvira would no longer be able to use those abilities. Was Zandria willing to do that? “Why do you need the magic?”
“Then I won’t help you.” Zandria wasn’t going to give the king whatever powers he wanted without knowing what they would be used for. It was probably nothing good. Most likely they were to help him in the war effort, which would make Zandria a traitor. She’d rather die than betray her people.
The king took a moment to gain control over his expression. “Then I hope you like this room.”
Dagrid remained behind. “You really want to stay here over helping him?”
“I’m not going to be a traitor.”
* * * * *
Zandria was confined to her room in the tower. It had an adjoining washroom, and servants brought her food and other necessities. But Zandria was bored. She had nothing to do, so she sat on the windowsill and stared out at the trees, longing to be under their canopy. She discovered the window didn’t open, and the glass was too strong for her to break. Any hope of escape came from the door.
None of Zandria’s magical abilities were much help. She could communicate with plants, manipulate earth, heal, manipulate color, and transfer magic into objects. The only one that might help her was earth manipulation, but it was difficult to use when she was this far away from the ground. She couldn’t create rocks and dirt out of nothing, and there was too much castle in the way. It would be nearly impossible to use the stones in the walls because they were mortared in. Even magic had its limitations.
Dagrid visited her almost every day. Zandria hardly spoke, so Dagrid would tell her stories. Zandria didn’t pay him much attention at first, but as the weeks dragged on, she started listening. It gave her something to do, and it broke up the sameness of each day. The main downside to his visits was he always tried to persuade her to help the king.
After being at Burnham Castle for over a month, Zandria wondered if she would be able to live like this for the rest of her life. That’s when a change came.
Dagrid came into her room. Rather than sitting down and telling a story like he always did, he stood there and fidgeted with a small knife. “King Liovel has arranged for you to be married.”
Zandria turned away from the window. “What?”
“He said if you’re going to stay here, you may as well be of some use. It’s that or be put to work in the scullery.” Dagrid approached the window. “Please come down from there.”
Zandria dropped to the floor. Dagrid took her hand in his own, but Zandria pulled away.
Dagrid sighed. “This is your last chance to go free. If you imbue the rings with magic like he wants, you can go home. If not, you’ll be married, and you won’t be able to leave even if you change your mind about helping us.”
“I’m not betraying my people.” Zandria knew she’d be miserable, but she wasn’t going to help the mellowmiran king with the war effort. The power to imbue objects was very rare, so she doubted they would be able to find another elvira like her. It was her or nobody. She wasn’t going to be the cause of her people’s downfall.
“Then you’re getting married next week.”
Zandria hated that she cared, but she had to ask, “To whom?”
“King Liovel hasn’t chosen anyone yet. He wanted to see if you’d help us first.”
Was it possible it was an empty threat to persuade her to help? Or was he going to make good on it now that she had refused?
“King Liovel did consider marrying you himself.”
Zandria shuddered at the thought. She didn’t want to marry the king. That was almost as bad as helping him. “Please, help me. You’re the one who brought me here. Help me escape.”
“Now you’re asking me to betray my people?”
Zandria sat on the bed. “I can’t do this,” she whispered.
Dagrid knelt in front of her and took her hands. She didn’t pull away this time. “Marry me.”
Zandria looked into his brown eyes.
“Marry me, and I promise I will do everything I can to make you comfortable and happy here at Burnham. It’s the best I can do without making myself a traitor. If you find a way to escape, I won’t come after you. You’d be free as long as you avoided King Liovel’s men.”
“Do you mean that truly, or is this just another one of your tricks?”
“I mean it. Marry me.”
Dagrid had put effort into easing her boredom and gaining her trust. If she had to marry someone, she’d be better off with him than someone else, especially if that someone were the king. “Fine.”
She nodded. If she were lucky, she might be able to escape on their wedding night.
* * * * *
Zandria and Dagrid were married in front of the king, his advisors, and other high-ranking people who lived in Burnham. It was the first time Zandria had left her room since being captured. She was closely watched throughout the ceremony and reception, so she had no chance of escaping. Then Dagrid escorted her to their room, locking the door behind him.
Zandria was trembling. Was she really doing this? Did she really feel treason was such a terrible crime that she was willing to subject herself to a man—her captor, even—to avoid it?
Dagrid placed his hand on her shoulder, and she flinched. “Please, don’t be frightened. I’m not going to force myself on you. I’ve been working as a spy for long enough, I’m familiar with your culture. While I don’t understand why elvirian women are considered equal to men, I do understand our customs are hard for you to accept. I told you I would do everything I can to make you comfortable, and I mean it.”
Zandria wasn’t sure what to think. Dagrid was really going to keep his word? “Don’t we have to…consummate the marriage?”
“If I say it’s consummated, it is. No one will know the truth but us.”
Zandria breathed a sigh of relief and sat on the bed. She was still wearing the dark blue wedding dress that mellowmiran women traditionally wore. She was probably the first elvira to wear one. She might even be the first elvira to get married. Her people didn’t have a marriage custom. They didn’t believe in forming a binding contract between partners.
Dagrid handed Zandria a wrapped parcel that was sitting on a chair. “Here. This might keep you from getting so bored.”
Zandria gave him a questioning look before opening the package. Inside were a few books, but not just any books. They were elvirian books. “Where did you get these?”
“I stopped at a print shop when I was on a mission down south. I wanted to give them to you weeks ago, but King Liovel wouldn’t let me. He thought your boredom might make you give up.”
Zandria ran her fingers along the smooth leather spines. “Thank you.”
Dagrid shook his head. “Don’t thank me. This is my apology for getting you into this mess. I never expected a woman to be so resistant. I thought you’d just do as we asked, and then I would return you home.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about women.”
“Clearly.” He placed his hand on hers. “I hope one day you will forgive me for my ignorance.”
* * * * *
Zandria had traded her tower for a room on the third floor, and she wouldn’t be able to escape it either. Not without someone noticing. She wouldn’t be able to make it far before she was recaptured. Dagrid had revealed a door behind a tapestry. It led to her own suite of rooms. The door to the hall was barred on the outside, and Dagrid’s door was guarded whenever he was away.
The books kept her occupied for a week. After that, Dagrid brought her mellowmiran books from the castle’s library. He’d bring her other things, too, like dresses and jewelry. They were all beautiful, but Zandria always felt too dressed up. She preferred wearing simpler dresses.
“I see I’ve missed something,” Dagrid said. “I thought women liked dresses and jewelry.”
Zandria looked up from her book. “I do like them. I just don’t have any occasion to wear such nice things.”
Dagrid sat beside her on the bed. “What would be a more appropriate gift?”
Freedom was the first thing that came to Zandria’s mind. “Anything to keep the boredom away.”
Dagrid brought her art supplies like paints and drawing paper. Zandria learned how to embroider. But she still wasn’t happy. She was always cooped up inside, and she was a prisoner.
* * * * *
One afternoon Dagrid came into her room and watched her paint yet another landscape. “I can’t take it anymore,” he said.
She looked up, surprised. “What?”
“It breaks my heart to see you so unhappy.” His expression was pained. “I can’t be the cause of your unhappiness any longer.”
“Dagrid, what are you saying?”
“Put on something warm. We’re going outside.”
Zandria couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She put on her boots and a cloak. Dagrid took her arm and escorted her to the grounds. Zandria was thrilled to feel the sun and fresh air on her face. Dagrid watched as she savored the sensations. He took her to a path that wound through the forest. Zandria let her fingers brush against leaves, tree trunks, and flower petals. She was outside again.
The path darkened as they travelled deeper into the forest. Dagrid stopped and pulled a small cloth sack from his cloak pocket. “Here.”
Zandria took it and looked inside. There were fruits, jerky, and a full waterskin. “What’s this for?”
“It’s a long walk from here to Aria. You’ll need it.”
“You’ll be tried for treason.”
“I might be able to convince them you escaped.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because I love you, and I can’t bear to see you suffer anymore. I’m sorry I abducted you, and I’m sorry for what you’ve been through these past couple months. Go home now, and try to forget all of this.”
Zandria found herself hesitating. She could leave. She’d have to hike through the woods and avoid being caught. Once King Liovel realized she was gone, he would search for her, and Dagrid would be tried for treason. She would be found if she went back to Aria because that’s exactly where they would expect her to go. If she left, she would have to find a new home. She’d probably be safest in the southeast, which was as far away as she could get from Burnham.
If she stayed, Dagrid wouldn’t be guilty of treason. Despite everything, she had grown rather fond of him. He had abducted her on the king’s orders, not of his own volition, and ever since, he had done everything he could to make her more comfortable and happier. Could she live with condemning him to death? With either choice, she wouldn’t be able to return to her loved ones in Aria. She would never be able to return to her old life. All of that was irretrievable.
“What are you waiting for?” Dagrid asked. “Go.”
“They’ll find me if I go home.”
“You’ll have to relocate. The farther south you go, the safer you are.”
She stepped closer to Dagrid. “What’s the difference between a new town in the south and staying here?”
“You’d be with your own people.”
“I always spent more time with plants and animals than people.”
“Are you seriously considering staying here? I thought you’d take the food and run. What is there to consider?”
“I can’t go home, so I’m choosing between a new beginning and you.”
“Don’t choose me. Choose freedom and happiness. A chance at a better life.”
She knew he was right, but it was her choice to make, and something compelled her to choose him. She didn’t know why she was so opposed to moving to a new town in the south. She stepped closer to Dagrid. They were so close now, they were almost touching. Then Zandria kissed him. Dagrid wrapped his arms around her, and she did the same to him, dropping the bag of food on the ground.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” Dagrid asked.
He shook his head. “I definitely don’t understand women.” He stooped and picked up the bag. “You didn’t need to throw perfectly good food on the ground.”
“It wasn’t intentional.”
Dagrid wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Do you like it out here?”
“In the woods? Yes.”
“Then we’ll walk here every day until the snow gets too deep.”
“That sounds perfect.”
* * * * *
After that fateful day in the forest, Zandria felt different. It was easier being around Dagrid. She knew it wasn’t healthy for her care so much for the man who abducted her. It wasn’t healthy for her to choose him over freedom. But this is what Zandria wanted whether or not it was good for her.
Dagrid had the guard reassigned, and Zandria was now free to roam the castle and the courtyard. Every evening, Dagrid took her out to the forest where they would walk through the trees. When Zandria was with him, especially when they were outside, she was happy. She still needed her books, painting, and embroidery to keep her occupied when he was in meetings or away on missions; but she felt like she had a life now.
A few months later, Zandria knew something was off. She would have to tell Dagrid when he got home from his trip that evening. He came in and dropped his bag on the floor before kicking off his boots and warming his feet by the fire.
Zandria came up behind his chair. “Dagrid?”
“Yes, my love?”
“I think I’m pregnant.”
He turned to face her. “Do you…want it?”
She nodded. Dagrid got up and pulled her into an embrace.
“There’s something else.”
“What is it?”
“Tell King Liovel I’ll do it. I’ll imbue the magic into his rings.”
Dagrid took a step back. “Really?”
“I think I’ve made myself a traitor already. I may as well embrace it.”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded. “It’s not just about me. I have a baby to look out for now. I don’t want to be a prisoner anymore.”
Dagrid kissed the top of her head. “I’ll let him know.”
* * * * *
King Liovel was thrilled Zandria had finally agreed to make his magic rings. Dagrid escorted her down into the dungeons where the elvirian prisoners were kept. Most of them were war prisoners, typically captured spies. It had taken Dagrid a while to find ones with the right powers.
King Liovel was already down there to observe. He handed Zandria a ring and told her which powers he wanted in it. Zandria avoided the gaze of the elvirian man whose powers she was taking. It took three different men for the first ring. Then Liovel gave her the second ring, which was thicker than the other.
“I want this one to be more powerful than the other,” he said.
“If you have multiple people with the same power, I can imbue it multiple times.”
“We do for most of them.”
The second ring required powers from five different elvira. Zandria gave the rings to King Liovel, and they left the dungeon. Liovel put the thicker ring on his finger and tested it out. He was able to teleport, turn invisible, and use the other powers too. He turned to Dagrid.
“You certainly made me wait long enough, but you pulled through.” He held out the thinner ring. “I want you to be my successor.”
Dagrid took the ring and put it on his finger. “Thank you, Your Majesty. I’m honored.”
“Training starts tomorrow at sunrise. Being king isn’t as easy as it looks.” King Liovel left, probably to go do whatever it is he wanted the rings for. Zandria didn’t want to think about that.
Dagrid walked Zandria back to their rooms. “I know Liovel thinks this is all me, but I’ve learned. This is all thanks to you.” He kissed her then and ran a hand across her stomach.
“I just hope those elvira don’t hate me for it.”
Dagrid shrugged. “They’re powerless in that dungeon anyway. It blocks magic use.”
“Will they ever go free?”
“If the war ends, maybe.”
Zandria felt awful for her kinsmen. She had lucked out by not being placed in the dungeon with them. But if Dagrid would be king one day, perhaps she could convince him to let them go. He seemed more reasonable than King Liovel.
“You’re going to be king someday.”
Dagrid looked down at his ring. “I wasn’t expecting that. It should mean I have to travel less, and if I do have to go anywhere—” he waved the hand with the ring on it—“I can teleport now thanks to you.” He paused and studied Zandria’s face. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?”
Zandria nodded. “It wasn’t easy. Or enjoyable. But it’s done now.”
“I still don’t understand why you didn’t run that day in the woods.”
“I couldn’t go home. If I left, I had nothing. If I stayed, at least I had you.”
Dagrid placed a hand on the side of her face. “Now that you’ve done your part, you could leave. I won’t stop you.”
“You’d let me take our child?”
“If that’s what you truly wanted.”
Zandria shook her head. “I don’t want to leave. I’m a traitor now anyway. I’m going to stay right here with you.”