Season 1, Episode 1
Written by Tof Eklund
Read by Tawn Krakowski
Glittering gold, blood red, sunset orange, and the brown of a peasant’s tan—the leaves fall over Thrycae. The seasons here are so pronounced, unlike in my homeland, where it is either warm and rainy or cold and rainy, but it hardly ever snows. My name is Yelena, and I am a Sister of the Order, a witch. Witchcraft is still illegal in Thrycae, punishable by death. The air is not yet cold, but I shiver and wrap my arms around my swollen belly. Soon, I won’t be able to disguise it anymore. Soon, the snows will come and trap me here in the castle. Soon, I will be stranded, a pregnant witch in the capital of a backwards, fearful country. I should feel horribly alone, but I do not.
In magic, six parts of eight are divination, but of that, only one part in twenty is true foretelling. Scrying the future is difficult, exhausting, and unreliable. On the other hand, scrying the present is as natural to a witch as breathing. In the Order, we have a saying: “If you understand the present, you know the future.” My third eye is keener than most, so I was sent to Thrycae to observe the wyrding taking place here. Wyrd is destiny, the thread of fate that binds us all, and the Order pays close attention to those with great destines. A little less than three centuries ago, a boy was born accompanied by the most powerful wyrding in memory. When that boy grew up, he proclaimed himself High King, conquered most of the known world, and killed thousands of women on suspicion of witchcraft.
Thrycae cleaves closer to the laws of the High King than do most of the other nations that were part of his empire. The archaic witchcraft tests were a mere inconvenience, but the restrictions on women outside the palace are a daily offense to my senses. In public, women must keep their hair covered, and show no skin below the neck. These rules apply at court as well, but there, access to the best fabrics, tailors, and haberdashers makes this more of an occasion for fashion than anything else. Outside the palace walls, if a single lock of hair escapes from a tightly-drawn cowl or snood, the offending woman’s head is shaved and she is placed in the stocks for a week. Worse, any woman who has skin-to-skin contact with a man outside her family can be executed for “carnal indecency.” The current King of Thrycae, Lycius, is considered enlightened for requiring that all witchcraft and indecency cases go before a magistrate, but one still hears of women being stoned to death by mobs, and worse.
Upon my arrival at the court of King Lycius, I had to pass their archaic witchcraft tests. I passed the three tests easily, as the water test and the blood test are pure superstition, and the test of iron detects only magics of a kind rarely practiced anymore. Therefore, under Thrycaen law, I am not a witch, and what I do is not witchcraft. This has not made me feel safe.
All Thrycaen women who can afford them wear gloves. Gloves are the signature item in the noblewomen’s wardrobe, and the most talked about. In the palace, even the lowliest handmaiden has gloves of very fine cotton, richly embroidered on the back of the hand and up the sleeve, which usually runs all the way to the elbow. Those of more consequence wear silk gloves, dyed to match their outfits and embroidered with silver or gold thread, and sometimes incorporating precious stones, or, more daringly, open lacework. I used a large portion of my annual allowance from the Order to purchase as simple a pair as my post allowed for: half elbow-length white cotton with flowering lavender embroidery. The rest of my kit is extremely simple by Thrycaen standards, consisting of high-necked dresses of simple cut in the traditional ochre and terracotta colors worn by Maidens of the Order, slips, stockings, and unfashionably comfortable shoes.
One of the Gifts of the Power is long life; I came to Thrycae in my fifth decade of life, but I seem half that age to them. Being close to thirty in their eyes makes me well past marriageable age, though not old enough to spare me the advances of men of importance, and, on rare occasion, ladies, at court. I am taller than most Thrycaens, probably due to a better diet, and dark-skinned compared to their covered women and upper classes. My eyes are light brown and my hair is almost black, in a country where green eyes, pale skin, and dirty blond or strawberry hair are markers of nobility. Since coming to Thrycae, I have learned that my curly hair straightens, tangles, and frizzes when it is very dry. During the frozen heart of winter, keeping it contained and covered becomes a maddening task. Even discounting my skin tone, my nose is too broad, my lips too thin, and my thighs too thick for me to be attractive by their standards, so I must presume that the occasional proposals I receive are due entirely to my being “exotic.”
While I am past marriageable age by Thrycaen standards, I am still young according to the Order; I am in the first third of my life, which we call “Maidenhood.” Some Crones are old enough to remember the tyrannical reign of the original High King.
On the other hand, in Thrycae, adulthood begins at “a dozen and one,” and marriages are often arranged ahead of time, so the sight of pregnant thirteen-year-old girls has ceased to surprise me. Sometimes the upper classes postpone the consummation of marriage a few years, but a woman past twenty is unlikely to find a husband, and this is a dire circumstance in a society in which women are forbidden to work in most fields. The profusion of fine fabrics at court comes partially from the labor of unmarriageable women, as fibercraft is one of the few professions open to them, though sales and contracting is not, so they work in shops under the supervision of men.
When I first arrived in Thrycae, I paid little notice to King Lycius and Queen Theobel’s son, Prince Karamon, or “little Kaye” as his mother called him. He was barely over half a score years of age, a clever, active boy, and kind to his playmates. Unlike most boys his age, he gave his tutors trouble because he was paying too much rather than not enough attention. I remember feeling sorrow at the seeming inevitability of his being spoiled by the privilege and prejudice that surrounded him.
Everything changed in his eleventh year, when he came down with Gorgon’s Curse. This terrible disease mainly afflicts children, paralyzing their limbs and often claiming their lives. By the time I was called in to aid his doctors, it was almost too late. Young Kaye lay terribly still, barely able to draw breath. The first thing I did was drive out the court physicians, and their leeches, poultices, and terrifying notions about cutting open the body along with them. I did what little common sense and herbcraft would allow, and added in basic charms of renewal. I knew it wasn’t enough, and I could see I was losing him. I still can’t describe what came over me, but I just knew I had to save him. Over seven days and seven nights, I performed every healing rite and incantation I knew. I drew in more of the Power at his bedside than in my entire life previous, and paid for it in headaches, cramps, exhausted insomnia, and, before the end, palsy, double vision, and auditory hallucinations.
Kaye survived, but the disease took a hefty toll: his legs were left permanently paralyzed. The Queen was grateful, and it may have been her favor that kept Lycius from sending me back to the Order in disgrace, as the King appeared to be more bothered by his heir becoming a cripple than he would have been by Kaye’s death. After all, Lycius had a healthy heir-in-waiting, a younger son, born two years prior.
Lycius’ attitude was shared by other noble families. Prince Karamon had been engaged to the daughter of a powerful noble family, the Uombardies, since he was seven and she was four, and they were to be married as soon as she reached adulthood. Mere months after Kaye’s illness, Lord Uombard begged off of the engagement, asking the King to release Myrthea that she might be engaged to Lord Hasimus’eldest son. Lycius granted the petition, though there was much gossip, as the houses of Uombard and Hasimus are the two most powerful outside of the King’s own, and Lord Hasimus was no friend of Lycius.
As I labored to heal Kaye, I realized that he was at the center of the wyrding in Thrycae. Destiny pervaded the castle like a giant holding its breath. Something was going to happen—not might or should, but would—and when it did, it would suck in everything around it. As I poured my life into him, I could see more clearly the pattern of the wyrding. The strange air that suffused the castle was running not into, but through him—the Prince’s wyrd was not that he would do great or terrible things, but that he would enable someone else to do them. Who that person was, or what they would do, I could not say. It seemed likely, however, that Kaye’s ill fortune was closer to its beginning than end.
In order to perform healing magic on Kaye, I’d had to touch him barehanded. I’d also performed all of the tasks that any competent nurse or doctor would have, including bathing him and changing his sheets. Were he not still legally a child, I would have been guilty of a crime every time I touched him. Throughout his illness, I hardly wore my by-then threadbare cotton gloves. Nonetheless, I somehow managed to get them bloodstained, possibly with my own blood. When I felt well enough to go shopping, I replaced them with brown silk embellished only with a lace fringe. They were several times the price of cotton, but I’d been saving money for new gloves every year.
After his fever broke and the pain in his back and extremities subsided, Kaye was, unsurprisingly, depressed. I was called back to his bedside after an episode in which he refused to take food or drink for three days straight, and it needed no magic to get him to eat, just sympathy and a willingness to listen. Having dealt with partial paralysis before, I was able to reassure him that he need not be bedridden for the rest of his life, but that, with discipline and exercise, he could learn to “walk” with crutches and leg braces.
The crutches were not a problem, but the appropriate kind of brace, sometimes called an “iron boot” because it holds the foot and knee in place, was unknown in Thrycae. The incompetence of the royal doctors continued to amaze me—they had prescribed that he not exert himself, and had offered only the sedan chair as a mode of transport. I promised Kaye that, if he would begin upper body exercises and resume his studies, I would immediately send for a set of proper leg braces.
It was then that, at Queen Theobel’s request, I became the Prince’s nurse and tutor. He applied himself to his rehabilitation with tight-lipped determination, and approached his studies of language, astrology, philosophy, and geometry with almost as much resolution. Only in his study of courtly manners was he remiss, though the priest responsible for his religious education frequently complained of his pupil’s inattention. It took six months to get the braces, but, inside of a year, he was able to move about the palace at the pace of a brisk walk safely and unaided. The Queen, however, was taking no chances and assigned three strong guards to wait on him, and, whenever he walked, to keep pace to his left, right, and behind him. I often walked with him, offering encouragement.
I had no idea that his trials, and mine, were just beginning.
© 2012 Copyright Tof Eklund
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