The Wish

Aria will stop at nothing to get her childhood friend back from the evil lord whose darkness overshadows her homeland, but even if she makes it out alive, there will be a price to pay. (This book was written for a small contest I hosted to write a book off a picture in 3,000 words or less. This story is 2,997 words long.)

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1. The Wish

 

My prayers haven’t stopped since I slipped out the gate without hearing the warning bell toll.  In Stonegate, everyone abides by the rules.  Everyone, but me.

A far off rumble sends my heart skittering.  I strain to see but the ail berries only provide a small bubble of light.  I long for the day, anything but the darkness that’s been my companion for the last several hours.

The normal path through Mason Wood is difficult during the day with its hidden ditches ready to fall out from under foot and the overgrown tree branches reaching to grab unsuspecting travelers.

The road begins an upward curve.  Not long now.

A jagged bolt of lightning crosses the sky, illuminating the imposing hill.  The castle of St. Johns once brought comfort and hope to the people of Stonegate.  Now its foreboding shadow is something whispered of at the pubs and street stalls.  Its ancient walls are tainted by Lord Dain’s evil.

I trip on a rock and graze my knuckles against a sturdy oak.  The thick tree doesn’t seem to notice the disturbance but my hand doesn’t fair as well.  I fish a handkerchief out from my pack.  The sloppy bandage will have to do. I’ll need my hands for climbing soon.

 A raindrop splashes off the tip of my nose, followed by dozens more.  The rainwater streaks down my cheeks like Alea’s tears.  She’s probably still crying.  She doesn’t think Gavin’s worth the risk.

I tug my hood down further and adjust my quiver before continuing on.  The quiver’s an old thing with rotting leather straps that are always slipping from my shoulders but I can’t bring myself to part with the familial comfort.

It’s gotten too steep for walking and I have to maneuver around a boulder to continue.  If it were easy, everyone would be collecting the reward promised by the king.  A single wish for anything in the kingdom.

As I grip the next rock, a furry creature scurries across my fingers.  I bite back a scream.  If Gavin were here he’d laugh as he shooed it away.  His warm laugh makes my fears easier to bear.

My makeshift bandage is already wet through and the berries are dim from the soaking.  The path grows thinner and unkempt from disuse.  Mother speaks often of days of old, when a wide road allowed traders to bring their carts to the noble households within the castle.

I use my bow to clear away knotty spider webs tangling blocking my way.  Lord Dain doesn’t need a clear path.  Rumors say he doesn’t even walk.

There’s a green glow emanating from the castle which brightens as I get closer. I pocket the berries.  Clouds fill the sky and the driving rain becomes stronger.

Shrill cries fill the air.  I count seven.  I drop to a crouch with my back to a boulder and nock an arrow to my bow.  It’s too late to turn back.  The house of Waysmith aren’t known for cowardice.  Our faith has been ridiculed but it remains strong.  Lord Dain will never expect a true believer to come.  He doesn’t even know we exist anymore.

Glowing eyes appear in front of me.  I roll to the side as a creature so black it’s almost invisible dives toward my hiding spot. 

It circles around, talons outstretched and beak open in delight.  I run from my cover, weaving in and out of the scrubby trees narrowing my path. The gate isn’t far.  More birds fall in behind me but I shoot a warning arrow to make them break formation.  They cackle, thinking they’ll have an easy meal tonight.  Underestimating me is the last thing they’ll do.

I find shelter under a bush with thick branches.  I unearth a fistful of ail berries, grateful I packed so many.

The creatures call to each other. They’ve found me.  I tense, waiting for my chance to test their weakness.

The leader is almost on top of me when I slide out of the tangled shelter and toss the berries at it.  The effect is immediate.  It squeals, wings beating the air as it drops back.  The others flap in confusion and it gives me the chance I need.  I send two arrows into the cluster of dark writhing bodies.

In the confusion, two are downed and their caws go from those of the hunters to the hunted.  I take a deep breath. The moment of truth.  My father believes it’ll work.  There’s no one in Stonegate with as much faith.  Unfortunately, his legs would never carry him through Mason Wood.

I run in a half crouch toward the wall with my hand outstretched.  I’m stopped hard a few feet before I reach it.  The barrier. I press my body against it.  The electricity turns sharp and I grit my teeth, refusing to pull away.

Pain.

The shrieks behind me are deafening.  They’ll have me in seconds. 

Pain.

Then I’m through.

Their cries of alarm are muffled beyond the glow surrounding me.  They call out their surprise and disapproval but don’t come after me.  I’m already moving toward my next challenge.

The castle gate is down but the crumbling wall next to it has several excellent handholds.  Coarse black moss creeps through all the gaps in the stones.

The vegetation near the top is the slipperiest.  I almost fall twice.  The second time, I pause and touch the silver cross lying next to my heart.  It once belonged to my great grandfather, a man of courage greater than I could dream of.

My fingers tingle.  When I flip it over, green leaves curl out from the middle of my palm.  My heart lurches in disbelief.

I put my hand against the wall and the greenery smothers the plants of death.  The sturdy new growth is easy to hold onto. 

I slide down the other side and drop into the courtyard.  Debris from a time long past fill up the space.  Rocks and old household items crack underfoot as I move forward.  The green glow makes everything appear pitted and in shadow.  I don’t want to look at the empty houses, afraid of what I’ll see lurking inside. 

A specter slithers out of the path in front of me.  Its eye sockets are sunken pits of darkness.  A wispy beard winds down its skeletal jaw line to a mouth, yawning open to reveal rotted teeth.  I stumble back, the vines moving with me.  Cold wind catches the moan escaping its lips a second before the rising mist claims it.  The torso disperses across the cobblestones.  The eyes are the last to vanish.

More specters appear as I move toward the castle entrance but they’re dissipated out by my vines.  I mutter a prayer of thanks for grandfather’s gift. 

I keep an eye on the castle turrets as I mount the stairs and try to open the double doors.  They don’t budge. Within seconds, vines spread through the hinges and locks.  With a resistant groan and a few puffs of red smoke, they open.

The interior glows but it isn’t welcoming.  Furniture litters the space like an old graveyard but cobwebs haven’t touched any of it.  In the middle of the room stands a figure.

The prince’s pointed features are distorted in the light.  His arms  are pinned to his sides and he stares through me.

I don’t feel it at first but when it hits, I gasp.  Shockwaves buzz to my core as if someone has sliced through my soles.  Now adjusted to the light, I see tiny thorns covering the floor.  My boots aren’t strong enough to protect me.  I freeze as red blossoms against nature’s needles.

Fear as tiny and sharp as the thorns tears at my middle.  I have to get to Gavin.

I reach back for the door handle but it’s gone and smoke is rising from the ground.  Thick despair threatens to choke me before the smoke can.  The leaves by my feet have withered after contact with the thorns and the few left are stained with blood.

Then, I hear singing.

The first notes are so faint, I almost think I’ve imagined them.  I strain to hear more.  They aren’t part of my imagination.  The pain fades a little and a smile tugs at my lips.

“…help…”

The prince’s mouth barely moves as he speaks.  The smoke hasn’t disappeared but with the few notes, strength seeps back into me.  “And the little faithful girl,” I whisper, “she’s a comin’, she’s a comin’, to keep our lands free…”

The wilting leaves begin to unfold.  Then they grow.

Keeps her courage, won’t lose a fight, because she can see.

When I step forward, the ground is like a carpet under me.

The prince is at the top stair of the dais.  Unlike the village boys I tower over, I’m looking up to him.  Many say the royals’ height comes from their bettered nutrition.

The darkness fades, replaced by the shimmery light of the vines.  Singing the last verse, I move toe to toe with the prince and put my palm against his chest.

The air comes alive with a terrible scream.  The prince trembles but his gaze fixes on me.  The noise cuts out and the prince falls against me.  We land on the ground and Prince Janis digs his elbow into my side and lets out a whimper.

“Prince Janis.  Prince Janis.” I push him off me and onto his side.  He’s cut his arm against the sharp stones but the protective vegetation has prevented further injuries.  My feet are on fire.

“You…” his eyelids flutter.  He’s trying to shake the sleepiness away.

“You must wake up.  I’m here to bring you back to your kingdom.”

“How came you by this place?  There’s powerful evil surrounding it.”  His skin is pale from castle life unlike Gavin’s tanned complexion.

I struggle into a sitting position.  “Do you have the strength to stand?”

“I will not go with you.”  He scrambles away from me, his hand sliding to his waist where his jeweled dagger should be.  “You are another evil being.”

“I’m Gavin’s friend.  I will not hurt you.”  The song’s gone quiet.  Cold fear roots in my stomach.  “He sang to guide our way.  I must find him.”

“Aria.” The prince focuses on the quiver hanging off my arm.  “Gavin spoke of you.  He prayed you wouldn’t come here.”

“I must find him.”

Prince Janis’ eyes widen.  He’s staring at the leaves curling up my pant legs.  “You have the gift.”

“You will be protected if you stay here.  I have to find Gavin.”

The singing wouldn’t have reached us from further within the castle.  My attention catches on a staircase leading up into a dark turret.  The way up is narrow and unsturdy but the vines weave into formation and I limp up safely.

 The dank room at the top would be pitch black if not for my vines. Gavin is slumped against the wall, his chin resting against his chest as the muttered words of the song continue to flow from him, almost too quiet to hear.

I drop to my knees by his side.  He raises his head with noticeable effort.  “Aria.” He coughs.  “Why did you come?”

“I did it,” I say breathlessly.  “I used my ability.  Lord Dain’s spell can be broken.”

The greenery breaks away the shackles on Gavin’s ankles.  I wrap my arm around his solid waist.  I’m never this close to him.  His weight against me is a reminder of how drained he is.  My anger at Lord Dain ignites hotter than ever.

“The prince?” he asks.

“He’s safe.  Now we need to get home.”

Gavin’s gasps increase as we make our way down the stairs.  The prince is where I left him in the next room, perched on the steps and rubbing his face like he’s in a daze.  I try not to think of the journey ahead or my seeping feet.

“He knew who I was,” I say as I tighten my grip on Gavin.  He brings us to a stop, faltering as he shifts to look at me.

“Dain won’t let this go.  He’ll come after us with a vengeance.”

“He took the prince.  He’s declared war.”

Gavin’s smile doesn’t reach his eyes.  “The king will use your gift to fight him.”

“But it’s worth it.” I can’t contain my excitement.  “He’s offered a reward.”

“His son?”

I frown.  “He believes a man will come.  No, his reward is a wish.”

“Don’t you realize this is the king’s trap? One designed to find a gifted believer?” Gavin’s forehead furrows and his chin tremors.  Why is he afraid?

At first I think Gavin is falling but then I’m in his arms.  He pushes my head against his tunic, pinning me to him.  I try to wriggle away.  A water droplet hits my forehead and slips down my cheek and I go still.

He’s crying.

 

***

 

“It was foolish, Aria.”

Gavin’s words are stickier than the mud claiming my feet.  He looks better today, only bearing a few of the cuts from the previous days rescue. 

“You risked too much.” He’s several steps away but neither of us close the distance. I want to tell him I’m alright but the words won’t come.

“I couldn’t forgive myself,” I say finally.  “I couldn’t let you die.  You would never have left me.”

“If you weren’t strong enough, Lord Dain’s traps would’ve killed you.”

“If you stayed, there’d be no one to care for your family.” I bite my lip. “I won’t let that happen.”

“There are worse things for my brother than taking on my servitude.” Gavin’s jaw tightens. “Though I would not want it on his children.”

“I don’t want it on you!”  The wind catches my hair and flame colored curls distort my sight.  Gavin moves forward, his fists clenched at his sides.  He’s retied my hair hundreds of times.  Never again.

“It is not about your wants for me.” Gavin’s mouth tugs up to the side, pulling tight across the scar lining his upper lip.  How many injuries has he amassed from rescuing me that I don’t even know about.  Back then, I was just a child.

“You always take on the worst.” A warm tear trickles down my cheek.  My body always betrays me. “For once, I wanted to protect you.”

“But at what cost? Your family will be cared for but you’ll be nothing better than the puppet of the king.  The fighting symbol of his army.”

“It is a cost I will pay.”

He’s closer now.  He pushes a square of simple brown fabric into my hand, careful to avoid any touch.  “Do not waste your wish.  You will be given anything, including freedom from this fight.”

“It would be childish to refuse Prince Janis.  It’s a reward I would never have expected, especially after still agreeing to grant my wish.”

“And it would also be childish to believe the king wishes anything but a pawn.” Gavin’s jaw ticks.  “I would gladly have taken my end in the evil castle than for this.”

“And I would rather see the end with my family protected and yours freed.”  If only my words could give me strength.

“If that is what you truly want,” Gavin replies, a deep sincerity in his gaze which pierces my heart even more, “then you did well.

 

***

 

It’s been hours since Gavin left.  I stand in the street, their drabness blinding after my visit to the king’s court.  Even so, I would give anything to stay.

Almost anything.

  I hate Gavin leaving before the sun wakes to fulfill his servitude to the prince.  The bargain was his father’s and yet his father passed the summer after, leaving his son to live out the promised sixty years enslaved to the king’s household.  Gavin was of noble birth and would be still if not for his father’s debt.

Prince Janis hadn’t shown any reaction when his father announced he’d be marrying his savior.  He understood that we were both pawns the same as I.

 My wish remained unclaimed.  My one chance to escape the marriage.  The king wouldn’t dare refuse my request.  Gavin and I could remain friends.  His days at the castle would grow longer and soon, he’d find a woman to be the companion I longed to be.

“Aria.” Alea appears beside me, a shawl tucked across her frail shoulders.  “You’re half frozen.  You must come in.”

“I can’t.”

“You must rest.”  She tugs my arm.  “You can think in your warm bed by the fire better than here.”

I can’t tear my gaze away from the castle.  “I’m going to go.”

She stares.  “You...you won’t marry him.”

I don’t wait for her to say more.  She calls after me but I’m already running.

I’m brought in right away.  The long hall is more frightening than Lord Dain’s castle. 

“My child, you’ve returned so quickly.” The king beckons me forward, his expression eager.

“Please grant my wish.”

His brow furrows.  “You have decided already.  Speak and I will give it.”

“Gavin.” The words are thick in my throat but I choke them out.  “I want his freedom.  The freedom of his household.”

The king’s heavy silence lasts for several heartbeats.  “A kingdom or wealth and your request is his freedom?”

My wish involves a man other than his son.  I won’t make any excuses.  I have no reason to defend what I’ve done. 

“Will you grant my request?”

The king moves to raise my chin.  There’s a new interest on his face. Perhaps he now finds his weapon of war a bit more interesting. “It is the wish of my son’s savior and future wife and savior.  I will be more than happy to grant it.”

The prince’s wife.  I will become his before I feel the summer wind in my hair again.

But Gavin is free.  My quest is complete.

 

The End

 

 

 

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