by Clara Howard ’20
As the sun set on the eve of the harvest season, the countryside of Valenlea was awash in yellows, oranges, and reds. Nature brushed fingers of brilliant light against the tops of trees and blew winking kisses of gold to the terracotta tiles of roofs. The royal castle, settled high in the hills above the capital and built of glass and sandstone, burned resplendently in the golden sun. Standing tall, the ancient home of the monarchs cast a proud gaze over the spread of life beneath it. And as the sun smoldered red against the horizon line, the indigo of dusk crept ever closer. Behind it all, gathering in the east and sliding smoothly together, clouds covered the moon. The forces at work had no wishes for any witnesses tonight, after all.
Hidden far beneath the earth, in a dirty, moldy prison cell, a bearded man sat. His head rested against a wall of dirt and stone and his eyes were closed. Only the slight rise and fall of his chest gave any indication that he still lived. His hands were curled into fists, cut off by the heavy, black iron manacles locked around his wrists. A second pair wrapped around his ankles, connected to a short chain embedded in the wall. One of the newer guards ventured the observation that it almost seemed as if the man were waiting for something. Distracted by the subsequent teasing, none of the guards saw the prisoner’s answering smile.
Above the prison, mere moments after the last dregs of the sun disappeared beneath the horizon, an unholy storm broke over the kingdom of Valenlea. Rain lashed at windows and sides of buildings, shattering glass and tearing at brick walls. Water roared down the streets as small streams transformed into furious, churning rivers. Screaming gales of wind brought trees and precious crops crashing to the ground. People panicked as they sought higher ground, only to be swept away by the merciless water. Nature swallowed the cries of Valenlea’s dying as she threw electrifying bolts of lightning to illuminate the sky and rolled great crashes of thunder to shake the ground. Tomorrow, her calm blue skies would shock the humans who feared her, but tonight, she would let her anger rage at them.
Beneath the ground, the prisoner listened as chaos erupted. Water gushed forth from the sewer tunnels, flooding the dungeon cells at a deadly pace. The guards withdrew, clambering up to the surface and abandoning their charges to their certain, watery ends. The man opened bloodshot eyes to watch as black water flooded into his cell. A figure rose from the shallows, cloaked in oily black and wielding a steaming, curved blade. The prisoner scrambled up to stand before the figure. And as the scythe tipped slowly forward, the edges sharp enough to split souls, the man’s bloody, cracked lips twisted into a smile, revealing rotten, chipped teeth and a black tongue. He spread his fingers wide and held his arms out to the reaper, palms facing up. Death had fulfilled his end of the bargain and had come to claim his reward.
High in the hills of Valenlea, the queen watched the devastation that tore through her lands with blurred vision. Tears streamed down her face as her heart found a new home in the back of her throat and sobs caught behind her ribs with each flash of lightning that revealed new destruction. The heavy steps of the king echoed into their bedchamber, and she turned her face into his broad chest, the familiar scent of her husband wrapping gently around her breaking heart. He rubbed a spot between her shoulder blades with
jerky movements and pressed his lips to the top of her head. She sniffled, wanting to inhale his comforting scent again, but froze. A small kernel of her magic pulsed in the abyss of her stomach, and she sniffed again. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
“Alec?” she whispered, her voice muffled against the king’s chest. The queen tried to ease herself out of his embrace, pushing gently against his torso to widen the distance between them. Instead of letting her go, his arms tightened against her back. He crushed her to him, squeezing her until black spots started poking holes in her vision, and it became hard to breathe. Above them, thunder boomed as lightning lit the room. In its echo, she could hear her son screaming, and her head suddenly cleared.
Her magic bloomed, winding its way through her veins and nerves, lending her strength as she struggled against her husband’s embrace. Another cry from her son distracted her, and in that moment, the king reached up and laced his fingers through her hair, wrapping the tendrils around his palm and pulling her head back. As their eyes met, the terror that had been slowly building in her throat erupted from her mouth in a scream. The queen looked at her husband but did not recognize the man who stared back at her with eyes of a monster from the ancient myths. Cloudy grey surrounded onyx irises circling white pupils. His face had gone as pale as the snow covering the peaks of the northern mountains, and his golden hair had turned as black as tar. A cruel smile twisted his mouth as he reached his other hand up to cover her face. With her last breath, the queen released her magic, the ensuing whoosh of air masking the sound of her neck snapping. As the monster and the queen fell, the storm ceased.
The king awoke to golden sunlight flooding his bedchamber. A headache hammered at his skull. He opened his eyes slowly, blinking in confusion. Why was he on the floor? He sat up, a nauseous churning in his stomach as he took in the details of the devastated land outside his windows. A glint of gold in the corner of his eye caught his attention. He turned, and the headache exploded behind his eyes as he beheld his wife, wide-eyed and still, lying on the ground beside him.
His heart pounding and hand shaking, he reached for her. A sob wrenched from his throat when he felt the ice of her skin, the sound aggravating the hammering behind his brow. “No…Mae…” Tears streamed down his face as the sun beat on his back. He closed his eyes, resting his face against her frozen collarbone.
The king struggled to breathe.
The queen was dead.
And he remembered all of it.