The Eldritch Heart | Chapter One

Oona

Handmaiden

Trapped within the silence of her bedchamber, fear clouded Oona’s mind and kept sleep well at bay. She rolled onto her side, facing the door. With a sigh, she traced her fingers back and forth across the silk in front of her face. The night moon painted the lavender sheets a luminous shade of blue and scattered deep shadows around the room, any one of which might conceal an assassin—or so her father said.

She hated this, the endless solitude, but could think of no excuse to give the king that would allow her closest friend to share the room. Especially considering the girl was also her handmaiden―or at least, Oona wished her thus. Kitlyn had been relegated to a tiny room across the hall. Even that small privilege had left the other servants jealous. None of them had a private room in the princess’ hall.

Princess. Oona traced her finger over the silk sheets. She hated that word―this wall―between her and her dearest friend, who for the past four years had been treated like a servant. She also hated the Foretelling. If the old ones spoke truth, tens of thousands would die by her hand someday. The mere thought of it made all the rich trappings of her life feel hollow. If the gods would see fit not to demand the death of an entire kingdom, she’d happily give it all up to live like a peasant.

Oona rolled flat on her back and stared up at the ceiling. Decorative wells with carved protrusions swam with shadows. As a little girl, she’d often wake from a bad dream and in her fog, mistake them for bats or creatures watching her sleep―and scream. She let off a halfhearted chuckle and thought back to when she’d been too young to worry about war, or what those bloodthirsty cretins in Evermoor wanted to do to her. Alas, she grew up. Her days of running around the garden with her best friend, playing tricks on the groundskeepers, laughing and hiding, were over.

A frown crossed her lips. With years came separation. She, the princess, had duties to attend to while Kitlyn toiled away at whatever task Fauhurst or Elsbeth would give her. Oona’s eyebrows knit together. Father often went to great lengths to appease her wants―everything except for leaving the castle―but when she’d asked to have Kitlyn granted a minor title so she could be a friend and companion ever at her side, he claimed he needed time to consider. When she’d demanded the girl be left alone to attend only to her, he’d dismissed that as well. A pampered ruler is not what Lucernia needs had been his response.

Of course, she hadn’t told him she didn’t want a servant―she’d wanted her friend. Too many people would’ve heard, and, well, a royal simply didn’t make friends among the commoners, especially someone like Kitlyn. Worse than a commoner, she’d been an orphan from an unknown family, a street waif whom Beredwyn, the king’s eldest advisor, had taken pity on. Even allowing the girl to work so close to her had caused a great deal of gasping and hand waving. Much like the royalty, servants had hereditary hierarchies. Scullery maids gave birth to scullery maids, and so on. The royals’ personal attendants came only from the upper echelons of the servant caste. Only rarely, a long hard climb through the castle ranks let a parlor maid ascend to royal attendant… and her friend had swooped in. Somewhat.

Always limits. It wasn’t fair. A few years ago, the two of them happily whiled away the days and weeks together, but now… now she had to be a princess, and Kitlyn had to scrub floors. Oh, and an entire kingdom wanted Oona dead.

Stupid Foretelling.

With a resigned sigh, she gave up on sleep and flung the covers away to sit up, dangling her legs off the side of the bed. The moonlight made her pale bare feet glow where they peeked out from under her long nightgown. Oona slid from the bed, gathering her robe around herself. Dark blue velvet enshrouded her white nightdress. In the midst of summer, the day brought warmth, but a penetrating chill had swept in with the night.

She extended her arm into the moonlight, swishing her fingers about as if she’d thrust them into a pond. A brighter shimmer formed around her hand, growing into a wisp before blooming to the size of her fist. Her magic called and shaped the light, creating a scintillating orb that hovered about her shoulders emitting faint crystalline bell tones. Two tiny lighter spots almost appeared to be eyes, lending it the appearance of a cute little critter. Its energy drew strands of her long blonde hair up with a static charge as it circled around her head.

Oona walked to the door and peered out. The little light orb mimicked the gesture, easing out into the curving hallway above her head. Its pale blue glow chased shadows from a modest area, revealing speckled marble floors and walls of smooth, grey stone.

Her knuckles whitened. To hear her father talk, at least three men would be lurking out there this very moment, waiting for the chance to kill her.

Stupid, stupid people! She scowled. Some old man says King Talomir’s heir will end the war, and everyone wants me dead.

She crept from her room and padded to the right, biting her lip to stifle a gasp at how cold the stone had become in only two short hours of insomnia. In her haste to get out of the stifling bedchamber, she’d forgotten her slippers, but didn’t feel like going back. The little light orb followed her, many times brighter than a candle, stretching shadows from shields and torch holders hung from the rounded columns protruding from the walls at regular intervals.

A few steps brought her to the door of Kitlyn’s quarters.

Half the size of Oona’s smallest closet, the room had barely enough space for a simple bed, a tiny table, one chair, and a shelf of cubbies against the back wall stuffed with threadbare clothes. The girl sprawled over her mattress like a drunkard passed out on the tavern floor, her lone sheet covering her to the waist. One arm hung to the floor, the other twisted up under her copious black hair. Kitlyn wasn’t quite as pale as her, though some of her color surely came from dirt Oona was never allowed to touch.

A glimmer of focused thought froze the light sphere in place out in the hall, and Oona tiptoed in. Her heart swelled, joy and sadness in equal measure. A chance to spend time with her friend felt cruel; the poor girl looked exhausted. She edged over to the bed and lifted Kitlyn’s hand off the floor. Deep-rooted grime outlined every fingernail, a far cry from Oona’s perfect manicure.

She sighed, resting the girl’s arm across her chest before fixing the coarse blanket up to cover her properly. Oona stooped to breathe a quick kiss on Kitlyn’s cheek. For a few seconds, she watched her friend sleep, then backed out into the hallway.

Once she eased the door shut, she straightened her spine. This castle and her birthright as the heir apparent of Lucernia felt more like a prison than ever. For at least the past two years, the ‘prison’ part had been literal. Fearing spies, the king refused to permit her to leave the grounds during the day or the main keep after sunset. Not that she’d made a habit of traipsing around the garden in the dark, or even wanted to, but being forbidden to irked her.

Sleepless nights had become more and more common of late, and experience said, no amount of staring at the ceiling would help. Perhaps, then, some exercise would.

She headed back the way she’d come, walking past her room at a brisk stride, her heavy nightgown dragging on the floor, popping up whenever her toes peeked past the hem. Her pet light wobbled and set off a shower of little sparks, as if distressed by her getting too far away from it. The glowing orb came racing up behind her and resumed a lazy orbit around her head.

The curved hall containing her and Kitlyn’s chambers ended at a straight corridor. Her father’s bedchamber, library, and trophy room lay to the right. She headed left past tapestries and a few empty suits of armor. Old childhood nightmares of those things coming to life and chasing her leapt to the forefront of her mind, but she dismissed them. Ten years ago, she worried about her magic getting away from her and doing all manner of strange, scary things. As of late, she didn’t fear an arcane accident as much as an Evermoor spy.

Oona stopped, fists clenched. Why did Father have to tell me about the assassins?

The last time she’d thrown a fit about the draconian safety measures, King Talomir hit her with the truth: the savages had been after her blood for years. Twenty years ago, King Lanas Volduin of Evermoor, once a dear friend of her father’s despite his heretic nature, had rejected Lucen, denying her father his request to spread the teachings of light across the Churning Deep. Fearing his erstwhile friend would invade, King Lanas invoked the darkest of dark rituals, calling forth beings of pure evil that the Light had long ago banished from Lucernia. It hadn’t taken long for the demons to destroy the mind of her father’s former friend, and now his men attacked Lucernia, mindless and without mercy.

A foretelling claimed King Talomir’s heir would stop the fiends. Knowing the instrument of his doom had been born, the savages sent the first assassin after Oona when she’d been an infant. That story had taken all the wind from her sails. Yes, he’d always been protective, but clearly, his fears had been justified. Not to mention, since her mother, the queen, had died in childbirth, he’d poured his grief into making sure his daughter survived. Could she begrudge him that?

Being cooped up in the castle hadn’t been all bad. She had fond memories of earlier times: tutors, nannies, playing hide and seek with Kitlyn. Even as children, some people had been shocked the king permitted her such a lowborn friend. As they aged, the impropriety of it only grew. Oona sighed, her heart heavy. She loathed everyone for the shaming looks they’d give her whenever she treated Kitlyn as an equal.

I’ll choose my friends as I please, thank you very much.

Voices murmuring startled her mind blank. She pushed the light orb off to her side and let it trail her as she hurried forward to a set of double doors carved with the royal crest of Lucernia, a pair of hands cradling a sun made of a circle surrounded by long wavy triangles. The ‘rays’ reminded her of the wicked daggers used by Evermoor assassins. She looked away from the inscription beneath that beseeched the god Lucen provide wisdom and light to the monarch, and pressed her ear to the wood.

“Unconfirmed, sire,” said Beredwyn, age and worry lending a scratch to his voice.

The sharp strike of boots on stone echoed from someone pacing away to the left. “It concerns me that they’ve been allowed to amass such a force south of Pembrook,” said her father.

“Agreed, sire,” said a younger voice. Fauhurst, a junior advisor. “We are moving forces down from Gwynaben, but it will be at least six days’ march.”

“Have we no one closer?” asked the king.

“Alas,” Fauhurst said. “The force at Imric is larger, but it would be unwise to move them as they repel regular incursions. Bear in mind also that the Gwynaben garrison is well rested.”

“How is it the savages so effortlessly cross the Churning Deep?” asked the king.

“Their rootcallers, my liege,” said Fauhurst. “A handful of them can construct a bridge in minutes, dispersing it when it is no longer needed.”

“We must trust in the Foretelling.” Beredwyn sounded somber. More somber than usual. “Our men are weary, sire. The savages have primal forces at their command. They do not tire as―”

“Have we not the gods?” bellowed the king. “Does not Lucen protect us in the day and Navissa when her shadow takes the land?”

Oona cringed.

“Yes, my liege,” said Beredwyn. “But your daughter is not ready.”

Fauhurst cleared his throat. “She is destined―”

“She is destined,” snapped Beredwyn, “to end the war… but the Foretelling makes no mention of when. If she is to do so when she is a grandmother, I fear we will have run out of time.”

The king, much to Oona’s surprise, chuckled. “Well, I suppose the war would be over then.”

“The plan,” said Fauhurst. “I beg you consider it soon.”

She rushed away from the door, hurrying deeper down the corridor, squeezing and releasing her fists. Lucernia losing the war? Unthinkable! Three turns and two hallways later, she stopped and leaned into a heavy burgundy tapestry to catch her breath. One hand on her chest, she peered at her glowing companion, but the sphere of light offered no answers. It rotated back with a slight leftward tilt, as though the little thing had sentience to give her a worried look.

Scenes of dread flickered in her mind. Oona pictured herself in armor, struggling to lift a sword. Will they send me to war? The Foretelling claimed King Talomir’s heir would bring an end to the conflict between Lucernia and Evermoor, and everyone―on both sides―understood that to mean she would lead a victorious march straight to their capital city of Ivendar, and crush it. Another time she’d attended her father’s war room, they’d let slip the people of Evermoor believed she would wipe them out to the last. No wonder they’d been sending assassins after her since she’d been born. Of course, she hadn’t known about them until twelve.

Oh, why do I listen at that door? I always hear things that chill me to my very bones. But do I learn?

Oona’s hands trembled. Any shadow around her might hold a man with a knife. She glanced back over her shoulder and thought of Kitlyn, her heart growing heavier still. Perhaps the gods find me unworthy of the crown.

Mind awhirl, she paced back and forth, shadows dancing about as the orb zoomed to keep up. “The Foretelling speaks of ‘the heir,’ but that doesn’t mean me… what if Father is to have a son?” She sighed. Of course, he would need to find a new queen… and if we’re already losing, what woman will be eager to drown with him?

Noticing her light dimming, she caressed the glowing orb, adding a little magic to keep it bright. Its ‘eye spots’ grew wide with apparent affection. How am I to conquer our enemies with this?

Her father had been teaching her to wield Lucen’s gift—light magic—though thus far, he had focused solely on defense. Conjuring walls of light would only stop an attacker for a short while. He had to know this; she certainly knew this, but her dread of using her magic as a weapon had kept her tongue still. Yet, as much as she loathed the idea of killing anyone, even the savages, if it meant losing Kitlyn, she would force herself to try.

If I’m to win the war, I’ll need more than sparkling light.

Her little orb projected an indignant mood, puffing itself up as if to say ‘I can fight!’

Eyes narrowed, Oona held her hands out and tried to focus her power into an attack. A minute or two passed of her making strange faces while twisting her fingers. Oh, bother. This isn’t―a thin stream of blinding blue light streaked from her hands with a bang, breaking a small statue set in a recessed alcove. Ozone and the scent of scorched stone brushed her nostrils.

The blast echoed down the hall, followed by the smash of the broken sculpture striking the floor. Oona clamped her hands over her mouth to stifle a startled shriek. Realizing how loudshe’d been, she hiked up her nightdress and ran, taking the long way around the castle. At the tromp of guards, she ducked behind another tapestry near the hall between the stairs and the grand throne room until the men passed. When it fell silent, she darted across the hall into a chamber with a high vaulted ceiling. To her right, a pair of ornate double doors―wood inlaid with gold and crystals in a depiction of the god Lucen―led to the throne room. Left, a pair of stairwells stood on either side of a balcony looking down on the first floor.

She ran past the ballroom, the dining hall used for entertaining dignitaries, and guest quarters, heading in a rectangle to a hallway connecting the castle’s east and west sides at the back. Here, the upper tier of servants made their quarters. The lower classes had rooms on the ground floor nearer the kitchen, or for the lowest of the low, in separate outbuildings by the groundskeeper.

A cluster of female whispering ahead startled her for a moment, until she remembered how the king insisted she take to bed early still, like a child.

“It’s not right,” said one. “That girl’s got no status.”

Another sighed. “What’s she got that we don’t?”

“Indeed!” said another. “The little scamp’s got a private room all to ’er self. Wot makes ’er so special? Ey?”

Surprise… the servants having a quiet little meeting about Kitlyn yet again.

Oona edged up to the corner and peeked around at a quartet of servants. Margaret, the head housekeeper, tall and thin, stood between Beatrice, the housekeeper, and Elsbeth, the First Maid. A chambermaid responsible for the king’s quarters, Anna, looked angry enough to melt steel with a stare. Beatrice seemed sad and worried. Margaret’s dour expression centered on Elsbeth, who had been promoted when Kitlyn took over as Oona’s handmaiden. A girl of only seventeen, she so resented losing her place at Oona’s side to a ‘filthy street urchin,’ she’d even once complained directly to the king. Never mind that as First Maid, she’d been given more power than the princess’ handmaiden, though perhaps less prestige.

“It is most unusual.” Margaret narrowed her eyes. “I am not sure I trust that one.”

“Oh, you worry too much, Elsbeth.” Beatrice shook her head. “They grew up together. They was inseparable, they was.”

Anna frowned. “Unseemly. In what other kingdom do royal children pluck ragamuffins from the street as living dolls to play with? The girl’s likely got fleas.”

Elsbeth folded her arms. “She has meals sometimes with the princess, at the same table? Can you believe that? The girl’s not worth two tin crowns, and―”

That girl”―Oona stepped into view, keeping her voice calm and low―“is my handmaiden.”

The three servants jumped. Margaret’s eyes widened a touch. She coughed, trying to recover some composure. Elsbeth stifled a scream while Beatrice leapt to cling to a white and gold tapestry. The color drained from Anna’s face.

“Your Highness,” whispered Margaret. “Forgive us.”

Oona stalked toward them, her light orb pulsing in time with her heart. Its glow tinted from blue to orange, reflecting her anger. She glared at Elsbeth. “You should be grateful for your position. It’s unheard of for someone of your age to be First Maid.”

Beatrice glanced at Margaret, who had to be well into her forties. The last First Maid had been quite old; the position remained vacant for some months after she’d retired.

Oona jabbed a finger at Elsbeth. “If I hear any of you are mistreating her, I’ll have you sent to the laundry staff.”

Elsbeth bowed her head. “Yes, Highness.”

Margaret’s expression radiated displeasure, but she kept quiet.

“Good.” Oona softened her glare; the light bled back to pale blue. “May Navissa watch over you.”

As all four servants bowed their heads in reverence to the Night Goddess, Oona stormed past them, ready to tear her metaphorical crown from her brow and hurl it into the moat. Every reminder that her rank kept her away from Kitlyn made being princess infinitely worse, even if she hadn’t been expected to slaughter a whole kingdom.

Fatigue caught up with her, draping a cloak of guilt about her shoulders. How could she put her happiness above the needs of her citizens? But then again, if her citizens’ safety demanded the murder of thousands of others, could Lucen truly claim that to be pure and noble?

She bowed her head, tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. I’m not ready for this. “Lucen, please guide me. I know not what to do.” Lost to her longing for simpler times, Oona hurried back to her chambers without a thought spared to assassins. She sat on the edge of her bed, cradling the weakening orb in her hands until its energy ran out and it dissipated in an explosion of blue sparkles that went dancing across the polished marble floor. In the dark, she crawled amid her mass of warm bedclothes, and fell asleep while whispering prayers that the gods would watch over Kitlyn.


Chapter TwoThe Eldritch HeartYA PreviewsPreview Index

Maps of the KingdomOona’s Diary