"Sung in ice but born in thunder, So the Land was torn asunder"
Excerpt from Wit'ch Gate: Chapter 1
Elena found her throne an uncomfortable seat. It was a chair meant for someone harder and more age-worn than she. It bore a high, straight back carved in twining roses, the thorns of which could be felt through her silk robe and dress. Even its seat was flat and unforgiving, polished ironwood with no pillow to soften its hard surface. For ages past, it had been the seat of power for Aâloa Glen. Both kings and praetors had sat here in judgement, sea-hardened men who scowled at the comforts of life.
Even its size was intimidating. Elena felt like a child in the wide and tall chair. There were not even armrests. Elena did not know what to do with her hands, so she ended up simply folding them in her lap.
One step below her, though it might have been a league away for as much as they paid her any attention, was a long table crowded with representatives from every faction willing to fight the Gulâgotha. Elena knew what the majority here in the Great Hall thought of her. All they saw was a slim woman with pale skin and fiery hair. None noticed the pain in her eyes, nor the fearful knowledge of her own dread power. To the others, she was a pretty bird on a perch.
Elena brushed aside a strand of hair from her face.
All along the length, voices cried to be heard in languages both known and unknown. Two men on the far end were close to coming to blows.
Among the throng, there were those Elena knew well, those who had helped wrest the island of Aâloa Glen from the evil rooted here. The High Keel of the Dreârendi Fleet, still bearing his bandages from the recent war, bellowed his demands. Beside him, the Elvâin Queen, Mericâs mother, sat stiffly, her long silver locks reflecting the torchesâ radiance, a figure of ice and fire. At her elbow, Master Edyll, an Elder of the sea-dwelling Merâai, tried continually to force peace and decorum amid the frequently raucous discourse.
But for every familiar face, there were scores of others who Elena knew only by title. She glanced down the long table of strangers - countless figureheads and foreign representatives, all demanding to be heard, all knowing what was best for the war to come with the Gulâgotha.
Some argued for scorching the island and leaving for the coast; others wanted to fortify the island and let the Dark Lord destroy his armies on their walls; and still others wanted to take the fight to Blackhall itself, to take advantage of the victory here and destroy the Gulâgothal stronghold before the enemy could re-gather its scattered forces. The heated arguments and fervid debates had waged now for close to a moon.
Elena glanced sidelong to Erâril. Her sworn liegeman stood to the right of her seat, arms crossed, face a stern unreadable mask. He was a carved statue of Standish iron. His black hair had been oiled and slicked back as was custom along the coast. His wintry eyes, the grey of early morning, studied the table. None could guess his thoughts. He had not added one word to the countless debates.
But Elena noticed the slight crinkle at the corners of his eyes as he stared. He could not fool her. He was growing as irritated as she at the bickering around the table. In over a fortnight, nothing had been decided. Since winning Aâloa Glen, no consensus had been decided on the next step. While they argued, the days disappeared, one after the other. And still Erâril waited, a knight at her side. With the Blood Diary in her hands, he had no other position. His role as leader and guide had ended.
Elena sighed softly and glanced to her gloved hands. The victory celebration a moon ago now seemed like another time, another place. Still as she sat upon her thorny throne, she remembered that long dance with Erâril atop her tower. She remembered his touch, the warmth of his palm though her silk dress, the whisper of his breath, the scuff of beard on her cheek. But that had been their only dance. From that night onward, though Erâril had never been far from her side, they had scarcely shared a word. Just endless meetings from sunrise âtil sundown.
But no longer!
Slowly, as the others argued, Elena peeled back her lambskin gloves. Fresh and untouched, the marks of the Rose were as rich as spilt blood upon her hands: one birthed in moonlight, one borne in sunlight. Witâchfire and coldfire . . . and between them lay stormfire. She stared at her hands. Eddies of power swirled in whorls of ruby hues across her fingers and palm.
"Elena?" Erâril stirred by her side. He leaned close to her, his eyes on her hands. "What are you doing?"
"I tire of these arguments." From a filigreed sheath in the sash of her evergreen dress, she slipped free a silver-bladed dagger. The ebony hilt, carved in the shape of a rose, fit easily in her palm, as if it had always been meant for her. She shoved aside memories of her Uncle Bol, the one who had christened the knife in her own blood. She remembered his words. It is now a witâchâs dagger.
"Elena?" Erârilâs voice was stern with caution.
Ignoring him, she stood. Without so much as a word, she drew the sharp tip across her right palm. The pain was but the bite of a wasp. A single drop of blood welled from the slice and fell upon her silk dress. Still Elena continued only to stare down the long table, silent.
None of the council members even glanced her way. They were too involved voicing their causes, challenging others, and pounding rough fists on the ironwood surface of the table to be heard.
Elena sighed and reached to her heart, to the font of wild magicks pent up inside. Cautiously, she unfurled slim threads of power, fiery wisps of blood magicks that sang through her veins, reaching her bloody palm. A small glow arose around her hand as the power filled it. Elena clenched her fist, and the glow deepened, a ruby lantern now. She raised her fist high.
The first to spot her display was the aged elder of the Merâai. Master Edyll must have caught the glowâs reflection off his silver goblet. As the elder turned, the wine spilled like blood from his cup. He dropped the goblet with a tinkling clatter to the tabletop.
Drawn by the noise, others glanced to the spreading stain of wine. Gaze after gaze swung to the head of the table. A wave of stunned silence spread across those gathered around the table.
Elena met their eyes, unflinching. So many had died to bring her here to this island: Uncle Bol, her parents, Flint, Moris . . .
And she would speak with their voices this day. She would not let their sacrifices be dwindled away by this endless sniping. If Alasea was to have a future, if the Gulâgothal rule was to be challenged, it was time to move forward, and there was only one way to do this. Someone had to draw a line in the sand.
"I have heard enough," Elena said softly into the stretch of quiet. From her glowing fists, fiery filaments crawled down her arm, living threads of reddish gold. "I thank you for your kind counsel these past days. This night I will ponder your words, and in the morning I will give you my answer on the course we will pursue."
Down the table, the representative from the coastal township of Penryn stood up. Symon Feraoud, a portly fellow with a black mustache that draped below his chin, spoke loudly. "Lass, I mean no insult, but the matter here does not await your answer."
Several heads nodded at his words.
Elena let the man speak, standing silent herself as fine threads of witâchfire continued to trace fiery trails down her arm, splitting into smaller and smaller filaments, spreading across her bosom and down to the sash of her dress.
"The course ahead of us must be agreed by all," Symon Feraoud continued, bolstered by the silent agreement of those around him. "Weâve only just begun to debate the matter at hand. The best means to deal with the Gulâgotha threat is not a matter to be decided over a single night."
"A single night?" Elena lowered her arm slightly and descended the single step to stand before the head of the table. "Thirty nights have passed since the revelries of our victory here. And your debates have served no other purpose but to fracture us, to spread dissent and disagreement when we must be at our most united."
Symon opened his mouth to argue, but Elena stared hard at him, and his mouth slowly shut.
"This evening the moon will again rise full," Elena continued. "The Blood Diary will open once more. I will take your counsel here and consult the book. By morning, I will bring a final plan to this table."
Master Edyll cleared his throat. "For debate?"
Elena shook her head. "For all your agreements."
Silence again descended over the assembly. But this was not the stunned quiet of before, it was a brewing tempest - and Elena would not let that squall strike.
Before even a grumble could arise, Elena raised her glowing fist over the table. "I will brook no further debate. By dawnâs light tomorrow, I will make my decision." She splayed open her hand; flames flickered from her fingers. Lowering her hand, she burned her print into the ironwood table. Smoke curled up her wrist. She leaned on her arm as she studied each face. Flames licked between her fingers. "Tomorrow we forge our future. A future where we burn the Black Heart from this land."
Elena lifted her palm from the table. Her handprint was burned deep into the ironwood, smoldering and coal-red, like her own palm. Elena stepped away. "Anyone who objects should leave Aâloa Glen before the sun rises?for anyone left on this island who will not abide by my decision will not see that dayâs sun set."
Frowns marred most every face, except for the High Keel of the Dreârendi, who wore a hard satisfied grin, and Queen Tratal of the Elvâin, whose face was a mask of stoic ice.
"It is time we stopped being a hundred causes and become one," Elena declared. "Tomorrow Alasea will be reborn on this island. It will be one mind, one heart. So I ask you all to look to your hearts this night. Make your decisions. Either join us or leave. That is all that is left to debate."
Elena scanned their faces, keeping her own as cold and hard as her words. Finally, she bowed slightly. "We all have much to decide, so I bid you a good night to seek counsel where you will."
Turning on a heel, she swung from the table, where her print still smoldered, a reminder of who she was and the power she held. She prayed the display was enough. Stepping around the Rosethorn Throne, her heels tapped loudly on the rush-covered flagstone. In the heavy silence, time seemed to slow. The heat of the assemblyâs gazes on her back felt like a roaring hearth. She crossed slowly toward Erâril, forcing her limbs to move calmly.
The swordsman still stood stiff and stoic by the seat. Only his grey eyes followed Elena as she neared him. Though his face was hard, his eyes shone with pride. Ignoring the plainsmanâs reaction, she stalked past him and toward the side door nearby.
Erâril followed, moving ahead to open the heavy door for her.
Once beyond the threshold, Erâril stepped to her side, closing the door behind him. "Well done, Elena. It was time someone shook them up. I didnât know how much longer I could stomach their endless - "
Free of the hall, Elena stumbled, her legs suddenly going weak.
Erâril caught her elbow and kept her upright. "Elena?"
She leaned heavily on her liegeman. "Just hold me, Erâril," she said shakily, her limbs trembling under her. "Just keep me from falling."
He tightened his grip and stepped nearer. "Always," he whispered.
Elena touched his hand with her bare fingers. Though she appeared a grown woman in body, in truth, her bewitâched form hid only a frightened girl from the Highlands. ""Sweet Mother, what have I done?" she moaned softly.
Erâril turned her slightly and held her at armslength. He leaned closer, catching her gaze with his storm-grey eyes. "Youâve shown them all what they were waiting to see."
She glanced down to her toes. "And what is that? A mad witâch bent on power."
Erâril lifted her chin with a single finger. "No, youâve shown them the true face of Alaseaâs future."
Elena met Erârilâs gaze for a breath, then sighed. "I pray youâre right. But how many will still be at that table when the sun rises tomorrow?"
"It doesnât matter the number who stand at the table. What is important is the strength and resolve of those hearts."
"But - "
Erâril silenced her with a shake of his head. Still holding her arm, he urged her to continue down the hall. "Weâve licked our wounds here long enough after the War of the Isles. Your instinct is right. It is time to separate the grain from the chaff. Those who remain at the table at sunrise will be those ready to confront the Black Heart himself."
Elena leaned into the plainsmanâs support as she walked. The halls through this region of the sprawling castle ran narrow and dark, the torches few and far between. "I hope youâre right," Elena finally said.
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