Last week, I shared the opening of my contemporary fantasy, Hellhound. This week, I would like to share the prologue of "The Mark of Flight", book one of The Markmasters Trilogy.
They had known him once, that woman in the teetering headdress, that courtier smoothing his brocade doublet, and that young man in the stained smock. Once, Alukale would have inspired more than a measuring glance or fluttered fan; his face alone would have been enough introduction to any keep from these castle gates to the Centoreinian border. Now it was his name that was known, but not his face. A pity, but at least he didn’t have to cover it. The early summer sun bearing down on his shoulders made the prospect of donning a hood a matter to avoid at all costs, and none of the ceremony-goers in the packed courtyard were even looking.
Their attention was trained on the girl descending the stairs, her arms spread slightly for balance as four gray-clad handmaidens helped her step-after-step. She probably wouldn’t have needed the help if not for the ridiculous headdress that towered well over her head. Its spires glittered in the sun, concealing the hair that would be revealed to all the court in just a few moments. Alukale shook his head in pity—despite the smile on her heavily-powdered face, her magenta aura pulsed like the heart of a hummingbird. To this day, he still did not understand why a girl couldn’t be the first to see her own hair, and he had watched them stuff it into coifs and wraps and caps for five-hundred years.
He shaded his eyes with one hand, the other perched on his sword-heavy hip, and gazed up at the gray battlements, at the royal family’s red and white standard snapping from the bastions. Then the dreaded specter of memory rose, a sickly dream adorning the modern castle in the raiment of his time.
Alukale had left this very courtyard five-hundred years ago, sick with grief, with rage, and ready to tear apart the world itself with his hands, or with his Magic if he could, if only it would stop the war. If only it would bring back what he had lost. But a handful of lifetimes had passed, and he had accomplished neither. Now, the sight of the castle rekindled feelings he had never wanted to face again, scenes he had never wanted to relive. Despite the changes wrought by time and foolishness, it was too familiar.
In the place of steel-latticed oak doors stood a gate of slender pikes, glistening with a web of silver ivy. Such a confection wouldn’t even stop a breeze, let alone an invading army. The keep was no longer a bastion for the people if the enemy were to breach the city’s walls. A few decades of peace and the people of Rizellen thought the war was over.
Alukale snorted. He had felt this ignorant excitement once, and the people of Rizellen would soon discover how wrong they were. Peace had made his country soft, and they would suffer for that weakness. He resisted the urge to leap onto the stairs and call this country that had once been his back to arms and take command of the future once again.
But he could not. She had forbidden interference, and Alukale was discovering that it was the hardest thing she had ever asked of him, and she had asked many things. He had taught, protected, even killed for her; he had shown the ruthlessness she could not, and had been the strength she lacked. And now she wanted him to stand aside.
The crowd hushed, and the piercing keen of a bell silvered the air, hanging across the crowd like ice. The time had come.
The four handmaidens reached for the headdress, and the princess’s hands clenched in her skirts. She didn’t look fourteen, sprite-like as she was, but Alukale knew better than anyone about the discrepancy of age and appearance. It took all four gray-clad women to lift, arms straining, the confection of silver and gems from the girl’s head. A heavy rush of ebony tumbled down the girl’s thin shoulders, and Alukale felt a small flicker of pride tugging his lips as his brother’s descendant shook out a glorious fall of black hair, waist-length and lustrous.
She would be the first Princess of Rizellen to have black hair; her foreign father had given her his coloring, and that was no shame, for a princess needed to be unique.
A groan nearby drew his attention, and Alukale glanced at the girl who had made the noise—unremarkable face, dressed in drab clothing let out at the seams. Her short-cropped hair told him that this girl had not possessed a set of handmaidens to care for her tresses before she turned fourteen. She spotted him looking and flushed, and he hoped she felt some shame in having wished for the princess’s bad luck.
Alukale looked back to the dais, jaw clenched. Princess Arianna would have bad luck enough without having the noblewoman’s curse of bad hair as well. At least the Sisters had blessed her with that much.
“You, boy!” A Warsman in heavy chainmail shoved through the crowd towards Alukale, his blue tabard bright among the peasants’ dull ensembles. “No swords in the bailey!”
“I was just taking my leave,” Alukale said, slipping between the men and women like water. He turned his back to the ceremony, clenching his teeth against the thought that he could do something—right now—to change the course of the future, and he was walking away. But no, he was lucky Lenis had let him come at all, for he knew she had seen a future where he had not controlled himself.
There would be a day when he gave in to that temptation, but it was not today. Today, he had other matters to attend.