Selkin's Secret

*Second instalment of the Elevea trilogy* It's fifteen years since the fall of the Vanus and the land of Elevea has started to believe in peace. But a force is gathering in the land of Nith, spies are everywhere, and after the death of the young Prince, it is clear that Nith wants Elevea back. But something else is changing in the magic powers deep beneath the public eye and hidden in a frightened girl. No one is safe and very soon, someone will have to start fighting for what they believe to be theirs.

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2. Two

MARDA WAS RECLINING comfortably in the palace’s little walled garden, a piece of embroidery in her hand and the waft of roses in her nose. She had spent a tiresome morning in the heat of summer going between some of the poorest houses along the perimeter of the city wall and providing them with fresh meat and water buckets. The meat was only cut offs from the palace butcher and the buckets spares, so she even felt a little guilty that the palace was once more handing out poor quality goods. Marda decided she would have to raise the issue later that week in her council meeting.

It was too hot to think properly and Marda only had a little shade. Everything was sticky and hot, and the needle kept sliding from her fingers. In the end, frustrated, she tucked the needle away in the fabric and put her frame down with a defiant fling on the little stool at the foot of her garden chair.

She expected Falnon to have finished his court session by now, but there was no sign of him and she could hear no signs of the leaving crowd, which signalled the end of the session. Something must be holding them up that day. Marda could not stand to be in the hall during such sessions. She was a quiet being who disliked harsh opinions, and trying to deal out justice and lay down steady laws was too much for her. Falnon was much better suited to it, and was a lot better publicly trained. On the few occasions Marda had spoken in public or even to a small gathering, she had lost her trail of thoughts, swallowed up her voice and ended up panicking and making a fool of herself. She much preferred to be the type who helped hands on, rather than standing and debating about problems.

A couple of voices echoed along the cloister, which the small garden lead off. Marda peered behind her to try and make out the shapes flitting past, but there were none. The court obviously had not finished, but the raised voices continued.

A tiny shape began to make its way down the cloister, and Marda just had time to scrutinise it through the stain glass window before it had turned into the garden, one of Marda’s few maids.

“My lady,” she stammered in an urgent tone, “you should come at once. There has been an accident.”

Marda sprung to her feet, her thoughts whirling. This was not common, for Marda herself to be summoned. Why would she be summoned for a plain accident? Then she realised, it would only be someone she knew.

Marda nearly bumped into Korani as she entered the cloisters, the middle aged lady who helped her with her three children. Korani was also being lead by a maid servant and looked quite as perplexed as Marda, her brow drawn with worry.

Korani had been called for. That could only mean one thing.

“What has happened?” called Marda ahead to her maid in an urgent, demanding tone.

They had already almost reached the doors to the main hall and the maid had dropped down into the stairs leading to the courtyard, coming out just behind the grand, wooden platform.

The maid tried to pretend not to hear this, instead hurrying along the supports of the platform and out into the open space, halting to let Marda and Korani pass.

“King Falnon is on his way,” she said in a deflated voice.

Marda instantly took in the scene before her. Two horses were being madly readied by some boys and Adinè was spread across the cobblestones with his large canvas bag, taking things out and putting other things in, obviously preparing his emergency medical kit. Behind him, stood in bewilderment and shedding a constant stream of frightened tears was a thoroughly windswept and badly sunburned Ilidh.

Marda rushed forwards, brushing past Adinè and to her daughter, taking her by the shoulders and wiping away some tears. Ilidh’s large, terrified eyes bore up at her mother as she shifted from foot to foot.

“I ran all the way, mother,” she said in half a voice, exhausted.

“Where are they?” Marda asked as gently as she could.

“The Kingfisher.”

Marda felt her temples begin to throb. The Kingfisher was miles away, several valleys at least. Whatever had happened, it would take a while to reach her boys.

“Was it just you three there?”

“Yes.”

There was a commotion from behind them. Marda recognised Falnon’s voice and turned to see him stride across the courtyard, a dark expression covering his face. It appeared he had been called from the court as he came alone. It must be serious.

Marda watched in horror, holding Ilidh round the shoulders, as Falnon walked straight up to a horse and swung onto it with ease. He looked down to Adinè who was securing his emergency bag to his horse and hurried him in a deep voice. The next moment, Adinè was on his horse and the two were pulling the horses round to face the main road out of the city.

“Tidhlan is a sensible boy,” said Adinè to Falnon in an attempt to comfort Falnon, “he will look after Jovhulan until we get there, I’m sure.”

Marda felt like she had been punched a thousand times over. It was Jovhulan who was hurt. No one had said how or how bad it was, but judging from everyone’s worried expressions, it must be bad.

“All I saw was blood,” whimpered Ilidh as the two horses cantered out of sight. “I ran as fast as I could.”

“Well done, sweetie,” soothed Marda, kneeling down in front of her daughter and hugging her as tightly as she could, trying to soothe herself more than anything. Her entire being seemed to have stopped still. Nothing functioned as it should and the entire world had suddenly shifted. It was the uncertainty, the fear, and the unknown. Jovhulan was seriously hurt from what she had judged but no one, not even Ilidh knew anything apart from that. “I’m sure he’ll be alright, Adinè and you father will get there quickly and sort it out.”

What could Marda do other than wait in the courtyard for their return? Her boys, Marda’s boys now felt like they were millennia away, ought of her reach. She thought that somebody at some point suggested she and Ilidh return to the palace to wait, but Marda knew it would not take that long for the men to reach her sons, it would just be a long time to wait for Jovhulan, lying there injured.

At that thought, Marda pulled Ilidh down onto the low stone wall at the side of the courtyard and pulled her even closer. Ilidh was trying hard not to cry, and Marda was in too much shock. It was the hardest thing imaginable to be able to look down and give Ilidh a reassuring smile. Inside, Marda was empty and void.

The news of the accident had started to spread. A couple of the mothers working at home who lived nearest to the palace were swarming around in the courtyard with lowered voices. They were soon joined by curious children and a few adolescents. A low, constant chatter was emitted by this small crowd, apprehension emanating from the very stones beneath their feet.

A child began to make her way over to Marda, Ilidh, and a gently rocking Korani. It was the girl who played with Marda’s children on a regular basis, one of the many children of the palace’s head cook. She was a year younger than Tidhlan, Marda’s eldest, and the youngest of many. Her torrent of golden hair was drawn back with worry as she ran up to Ilidh to give her a massive hug.

“It’s going to be alright,” she whispered, looking questioningly up to Marda.

“Thank you, Renisella,” said Marda quietly, feeling as though her tone could not be more flat. The child looked wearily around for a second to see the growing crowd and planted herself on the cobblestones at Ilidh’s feet. This girl was more like a big sister to Ilidh than anything else, and Marda knew how much Ilidh had always wanted a sister. Renisella was well mannered and kind, and Marda was happy to let her be close to her children, as Renisella’s older siblings had been good to her boys when they were small. Falnon had always encouraged his children to play with whoever they liked. There were few untrustworthy people living in Hinnid.

“Are they going to be much longer, mother?” asked Ilidh pleadingly.

“I don’t know.”

The court had obviously just finished. People began flooding down the steps at the far end of the courtyard and from the small flight emerging by the platform. As Falnon had been removed from the court, everyone present must have known there was a problem, and on seeing the small crowd assembled in the courtyard waiting, the news spread like wildfire. The whispers became almost deafening. A few people slipped away from this new crowd into the backstreets, but the majority stayed, moving to one side of the courtyard to join the others, waiting for more news.

Normally, Marda would have been touched at such a sign of affection for her family and children, but all she could do was sit in this stupefied state and clutch Ilidh to her side. She noted that Renisella had tear stains and was twiddling her thumbs with worry. Ilidh sniffed loudly every few seconds and Korani was rocking increasingly more often. All Marda could do was sit in the same, shocked position.

About half an hour of this passed, with the rickety clock attached to the outside of the hall striking once. Marda could no longer keep track whether it was an hourly strike or reminding them that thirty minutes had gone by. Either way, it was the longest wait of Marda’s life, and the silence in the courtyard had fallen to almost a deadly one.

Some of the spectators had wandered away to spread the gossip further or return to their work. However, the crowd was still large and tense when the dreaded yet long anticipated sound of the clicking of hooves rang vibrantly down the street.

The two horses came slowly into view, trotting in a melancholy rhythm. Why weren’t they rushing back into the city? Why wasn’t Adinè cantering Jovhulan back into the palace for his urgent treatment? Was he alright after all?

Falnon’s horse was leading the way. He had his head lowered, and clutching onto his father was the light brown head of Tidhlan, his face drawn and staring straight ahead, and expression adorning his features which Marda never thought she would see on a fourteen-year-old boy. His cheeks were blotchy and his hands still covered in the dried blood of his brother.

A little way behind Falnon was Adinè, using one hand and his knees to steer the horse, and his lap and other hand to carry a tiny figure. Almost cradled in his arms was the little boy Marda knew so well. But something was wrong. Curled up like a baby, Jovhulan was lying incredibly still. His face had been hidden from view by the large blanket wrapped around most of his body.

The horses slowed to a walk as they came through the courtyard, back up to the platform so they were partially obscured and away from the crowd. Without realising it, Marda, Ilidh, Renisella and Korani were on their feet and running across to the men. The crowd were dead silent and stayed exactly where they were, not a person daring to move.

Falnon had already jumped down from the horse, followed closely by Tidhlan, who almost fell off, but his father ignored this. Falnon even ignored the distressed horse stamping angrily, and had run over to Adinè holding out his arms to take Jovhulan. With Falnon’s incredible strength, he scooped up his son as though he were a few weeks old again and cradled him to his chest, letting out a low moan. Turning as slowly as he could, Falnon’s dark, bloodshot eyes lifted themselves gradually to meet Marda’s, clutching his baby in his arms. Jovhulan was lying so still, too still.

Tidhlan, having stood up properly after falling from the horse looked lost and unable to move. He stared at the retreating form of his father and swayed slowly form side to side in shock.

Then the whispers started once more, from the crowd on the other side of the courtyard. They had spotted the reactions of the palace staff, the shell shocked Tidhlan, the crying Adinè. Everyone knew what had happened apart from Marda, who was staring with the widest eyes imaginable at her child, lying in his father’s arms, shining red with his own blood. His face was still hidden in Falnon’s chest, but Marda reached out to pick up Jovhulan’s little hand, still stained with mud and algae from his adventures in the river and wood. It was cold, even in the heat, and fell uselessly into hers, letting her squeeze it as though the world was collapsing in around her. When she met Falnon’s eyes for the second time she knew.

Prince Jovhulan was dead.

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