Prologue

Prince Romm ran down the palace halls, brushing past the many armed guards. They were permanent fixtures, not worth thinking about even on an ordinary morning. But this morning, something big had happened! Romm’s little brother, Prince Gared, had just learned a new word. The King needed to be told. As the athletic 7-year-old barreled down the immaculate palace hallway, he suddenly realized he didn’t know where his father would be! He skidded to a halt. “Where is my father?” he demanded of the nearest guard.

“I believe he is in the council chamber this morning, Your Highness,” said the guard with an indulgent smile.

Romm huffed. Who were those impertinent Councilors to busy his father on a sunny morning like this? Romm took off again before the guard could say anything else, and ran off at top speed. The armed castle guards jumped and started as he flew by, but Romm took no notice of their unusual jitters.

He crossed the invisible line separating the “living” part of the palace from the “royal” part, as he thought of them. It was just as splendidly decorated as the rest of the building, but this part of the palace was always full of important men on official business. Prince Romm wasn’t technically allowed in this part of the castle yet, but in the boy’s excitement, this fact seemed entirely unimportant. He couldn’t keep running, though. There were too many dukes and ladies to crash into. As Romm cantered along, he suddenly remembered that, someday, he would be king. This realization struck him every time he ventured into this part of the palace. He always knew, of course, that he was being groomed to take the kingship one day. He wasn’t stupid or anything. He even understood that, if he died, it would be his brother’s job to become king. Obviously his brother was too young for the job, but Romm thought he could wear the crown now, if he had to. Even if he had never heard of a 7 year old king before.

Finally, after putting up with a bunch of old men who wanted to bow to him and ask him questions, he reached the council chamber. To his relief, the council wasn’t actually meeting today. The only people in the room apart from two guards and a servant (who barely counted), were his father and Cardinal Alabaster, from the Magnolium Order. The holy man was, as far as Romm knew, at least a hundred years old, maybe two hundred. He really liked the young prince, and Romm felt sure the kindly old Alabaster wouldn’t object to being interrupted to hear the big news. Besides, he and the king looked like they were really sad about something, so maybe this would cheer him up.

“Father! Father!” Romm burst into the room.

“Romm? What’s wrong!?” said the King, standing up. Alabaster said nothing, but swapped his worried frown for a smile at the sight of the boy.

Romm smiled back, and continued. “Gared said a new word! Mother had a visitor from Whiskeybrook, the elf town, and Gared pointed and said ‘elf’!” As Romm spoke, he heard a crashing sound coming from far away, and loud shouts. Some servant must have dropped something heavy. The king, distracted, looked down the hall rather than responding to the news. “He said ‘elf’! Your majesty,” added the boy, remembering to use his father’s proper address.

“That’s fantastic, Romm,” said the Cardinal. The king just kept staring out the door. Romm turned his head to look too, and suddenly heard a sound that was completely unfamiliar. It came from the “living” part of the palace. The closest thing to it Romm had ever heard was a crashing ocean wave, but the sea was miles and miles away. He stared curiously down the hall, looking for whatever had made the alien noise.

“They’re here,” said the King to Cardinal Alabaster, in his deep, commanding voice. Romm hoped his voice would sound like that when he was a grownup; it sounded exactly as he thought a king’s voice should.

Alabaster also had a deep voice, but not as deep as the king’s. “I doubt they’ll get this far, your majesty,” he said. The King didn’t look comforted. Romm still couldn’t see what was going on, but now he heard more strange noises — like lightning, but inside. And the clanging sounds of metal on metal. A swordfight! Here, in the castle! And it was getting closer! The guards in the room ran down the hall, to join the fray!

Even the King stood up and drew his sword! It didn’t occur to Romm that his father didn’t usually carry a weapon — there was a battle going on. Of course the king must have his sword. “They won’t –” said Alabaster.

“They’ve done things we thought impossible before,” said the king. “We’ve set up unbreakable defenses, and they’ve broken them. We’ve put them in unescapable traps, and they’ve escaped. We take no chances.” Alabaster nodded, picked up his staff from the spot where it had been lying, and stood up. Both men faced the door.

Suddenly, Romm felt afraid. No. Not afraid – just excited. The future king would never be afraid, even though he had no sword to fight with. He decided that the best place to watch from would be under the big meeting table, so he fell to hands and knees and crawled, like a baby, into the shadows. The table provided cover from arrows, he rationalized. He could watch everyone’s footwork and pick up tips.

The sounds of battle grew nearer, and there was a scream. Was that a female scream? Now it sounded like there was still a battle going on somewhere, but the people who had been standing nearby had stopped fighting. Romm saw five pairs of feet running towards the council room. Four of the people had metal boots, like the guards, and the person running between all four of them had small feet, with very dirty shoes that barely touched the ground.

She let out a muffled yell again as they entered the room, and there were some more scuffles. Alabaster rushed over to the person with the small feet, and gave her a knock on the head with his staff. The person fell to the floor, and Romm gasped. It was a girl. An older girl, maybe 15. She had a big mark on her forehead where Alabaster struck her, and she looked like she was in pain. She was wearing boy clothes, though — a tunic, not a dress. The girl’s eyes were closed, so she couldn’t see Romm, and her hands were clasped together in front of her chest.

“Stupendous!” exclaimed the king.

“Fantastic,” said Cardinal Alabaster.

“Is that definitely her, then?” asked the king. “You’re sure it’s… what was her name?”

Alabaster reached down and pulled the girl back to her feet. As he did, she dropped the shiny thing in her hands, and it rolled away.

“This is her, I’m sure of it,” said Alabaster. “This is Lucana, the very very last of her accursed bloodline. You are Lucana, are you not?” She must have nodded, because Alabaster’s voice continued, “And you’re too young to have any kids, aren’t you?” Another pause.

“Excellent,” said the king. Another sound like a crashing wave came from somewhere within the castle, but Romm didn’t so much as flinch. He was frozen with that same excitement-not-fear  he felt before.

“Graah!” roared the king’s bass voice. “She brought friends.”

“What shall we do with her, my liege?” said one of the guards.

“Take her to the dungeons. Tomorrow, we’ll try her for treason.”

“No,” said Alabaster. “Your Majesty, this is a unique opportunity. Think what has happened in the past. We’ve captured this one before, and she’s always managed to escape.”

“She couldn’t escape from the palace dungeons. It would be impossible.”

“Forgive me, sire, but she is a witch! She surely has dark powers we don’t know about! You said it yourself – every time we think we have her good and cornered, she manages to get away! If she has friends in the castle, she has more outside. Do you really want to give them the chance to rescue her?”

“All right, your grace, what would you have me do with her?”

“There’s no need for a trial. Her guilt is obvious to everyone, is it not? Skip straight to the execution.”

“What… here? Now?”

“Remember, your majesty,” said the cardinal, lowering his voice. “Remember the prophecy, and the curse. You are the tenth generation since her ancestor placed the curse over your great forefather, King Gadric the Great. For three hundred years her family has been an affliction upon this land. The prophecy says you’re supposed to end it. You can end it, you can end it here!”

“All right,” said the King. His feet turned so he was facing the girl and her four guards. “Lucana, last of the house of Amicen. By my royal authority, I hereby declare you guilty of the crime of treason, and sentence you to be executed immediately, by… by beheading. We’ll need a block,” he said to one of the girl’s four guards.

“Here, your Majesty,” said the guard. He pulled up a chair and turned it sideways.

“Good. Any last words?” asked the king. The girl made not a sound.

Three of the guards backed up, and the last one forced the girl onto her knees, and her neck onto the chair. It was low enough for Romm to see the girl’s face, and this time, she looked back at him. Her face looked resolute, steadfast, fearless. She made eye contact with the boy, and he swallowed hard.

“Last rites?” said the king.

“May the Light forgive you,” said Alabaster, touching the back of her head. “That will do. Your majesty?”

As the girl looked into Romm’s eyes, terror crossed her bruised, beautiful face for the first and last time.

Then his father’s hand brought a steel sword down hard on the chair, and there was a piercing scream. The head fell onto the floor in a mess of blood. The scream continued.

The King ducked his head under the table. The scream was coming from his son. “Romm!” he cried. Several more people bent down to see what was going on, and Romm just kept screaming in panic. His face was wet with tears. The king and the cardinal had forgotten he was there. “Oh, Romm… son…” said the King.  “Come out of there.”

There was another explosion, this one from just above them. “Your majesty, we’re not safe yet,” said one of the guards. The men exchanged some words that Romm couldn’t hear over the terror of his own wailing, and then they rushed out of the room. All except the servant, who stayed behind a moment. He picked up the girl’s head and her little body, cradled them in his arms, and carried her bloody remains away.

Romm stayed under the table, crying, for almost a whole minute after everyone left. He might have been hoarse, but he didn’t feel it. He saw a glint of gold through his watery eyes. The boy got out from under the table, and, not bothering to stand up, crawled to the corner of the room. The thing the girl had dropped appeared to be a gold coin, but it was almost two inches long, too large for a normal coin. Also uncharacteristically, it was standing on edge, perfectly balanced. Both sides of the disc had engravings, different marks on each side, and a diamond in the center. The disc was also magical.

He didn’t know how he knew this. It was just obvious, somehow. He reached out to pick the disc up. It was warm to the touch, lighter than gold, and filled with magical energy that Romm somehow just sensed. He felt the energy enter his arm, and he stopped crying. He had no idea what it was, but he resolved at that moment to keep the… coin? disc? badge? whatever it was, with him. In the same way he sensed it was magical, he sensed that it was incredibly important. He didn’t want it taken away, not this magic charm. He promised himself he would never tell anyone he had it.

It was ten years before Prince Romm broke that promise.

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