Golden Curse – M. Lynn

Magic was evil. That’s what they’d been told when it was scrubbed clean from the face of Gaule. Alexandre Durand’s father-the king- made sure it couldn’t hurt them any longer. “Brother,” Camille said sharply from her spot in the doorway. She stood as proof of magic’s cruelty with her twisted leg. Magic folk did that to her the night the purge began. Alex tuned her out and listened to his lead scraping against paper as an image began to form bright and hopeful. It represented everything the prince could want. He scrunched his face in concentration to apply the final strokes of the magnificent landscape. It wasn’t the palace or the lands surrounding it. When he was a boy, he’d taken a trip across the border into the outer edges of Bela, the forgotten kingdom. The beauty he’d seen there stayed with him. He knew it wasn’t real. A friend of his created it. Her magic could make whole fields of flowers bloom.

Not anymore. She was most likely dead. He hated her magic for making her an enemy of Gaule. Persinette. His childhood friend. All he could do as she fled the palace was watch. He shook his head to rid himself of the thought. Magic was a plague on their land. It was eradicated with good reason. He set his drawing aside face down, not wanting his sister to see the things he yearned for.

He was always on guard around her, lest she report him to their father. She was his favorite little pet. “What?” he snapped. Exhaustion made him short and dealing with his sister was never easy. She held up her hands, palms facing him. “I’m just the messenger. You’re summoned to the throne room.” “Of course I am.” He let out a low growl and ran a hand through his long jet-black hair, tying it back as he did. His sister watched him with the eyes of a hawk.

He stood and smoothed his tunic before shrugging on his jacket over his surcoat and fastening the gold buttons. It was too warm for the jacket, but his father would know if a single thing was out of place. He didn’t say another word to Camille as he brushed by her and marched down the hall. Velvet carpet muffled his steps while servants and guards ducked out of his way. The sound of Camille’s cane echoed behind him as she struggled to catch up. Guilt twisted his gut, and he slowed. Camille brushed by him without a word. His fists clenched at his sides and he let out a long breath as he pushed the doors to the throne room open and stepped inside. The opulence soothed him. It always had.

Gaule was doing well with their closed off borders. Without a war to keep them busy, the army had spent years rebuilding roads and cultivating farmland to make the kingdom self-sufficient. They didn’t need the rest of the world. Not with the dangers out there. Servants bustled by, some catching his eye as he stood at the back of the hall, waiting to be called forward. His brother strode up beside him. “Where have you been?” Alex asked. Tyson had slipped his guards two days before and no one had seen him since. The teenage prince laughed and Alex envied his careless freedom. His brother had been too young to be affected by the events of their past.

He’d only known peace and prosperity. “Should I have even asked?” Alex matched his grin. “Promise not to tell Father?” “Do I look like Camille?” He glanced to the side to make sure she wasn’t near. She’d found some ladies and joined them. “Fair point. Some friends and I found a tunnel from the palace that goes all the way to the sea.” Alex stopped walking and turned to his brother. “The sea is past the wards.” “Only just. We didn’t go through them … yet.

” Tyson shrugged. “Ty, you are not to go there again.” “Wow, way to sound like Father.” Tyson’s words stung, but Alex only shook his head. A serving girl stopped in front of them. “Sires.” She dipped into a curtsy. Alex shifted as she scanned him from head to toe without a word. “Louisa.” Tyson stepped forward and took her hand to place a light kiss on the back.

“It is always a pleasure to see you.” Amusement lit in her eyes. She had the grace not to laugh at the prince who was at least ten years her junior. “Thank you, your Highness. I must get on with my duties.” She left and Tyson elbowed his brother in the ribs. “You’re too shy, brother.” “I’m a prince. It isn’t for me to dally with servants.” Tyson barked a laugh.

“Alex, you’re a prince, you can dally with whoever you’d like. And I thought you liked blondes.” Alex gasped as if greatly offended. “I can’t believe you would think I’d discriminate.” Tyson’s laugh bounced across the room, garnering stares from more than a few people. “Good on you, brother. You’re an equal opportunity slag.” Alex threw his arm around his brother’s neck and locked it there. “I am not having this conversation.” Tyson tried to wrestle out of Alex’s grip and failed.

“You are too predictable.” Alex released him with a friendly shove. “And you’re not? Disappearing for days. Again.” “Being that no one could find me.” Tyson grinned. “I don’t think I’m predictable at all.” He pushed Alex back. Their father stood abruptly. “It would be nice if the two princes of Gaule could stand in the throne room without acting like idiots.

” “He means acting like normal people,” Tyson whispered-hissed. Alex jabbed him with his elbow. “Now would be the time to shut up.” Their father nodded, and they strode forward, stopping in front of the golden throne. A throne that would one day belong to Alex. Every time he saw it, a chill ran the length of his spine. Some said La Dame crafted it herself. She’d been their ally once, before distrust of magic became the law of the land. Tall pillars of wood lined the red velvet carpet, creating a path to the king. Their mother was nowhere to be found, but she typically opted out of standing by the king’s side.

The king regarded his sons coolly before a smile spread across his face. “My boys,” he boomed. “We are to have a tournament!” Alex straightened and Tyson let out an excited gasp. They loved tournaments. The knights. The swordplay. Alex couldn’t help but hope he’d be allowed to participate this time. “Father, I would be honored to fight for the glory of the crown.” Alex kneeled and yanked Tyson down with him. The king scowled.

“Not that kind of tournament.” Alex’s heart crashed. “It is time we find you a protector. Every king has their oath-man.” He didn’t mention that the man who’d once sworn an oath to him had to flee from the palace to avoid being murdered for his magic. Hearing the title woke something in Alex. Tradition was important to the Durands and to the kingdom. Tyson laughed and his father glared at him. “What is funny?” the king snapped. “It’s about time you got someone to protect this oaf.

” He gestured to Alex. “He’s shit with a sword and you won’t win many battles if all you can do is shoot an arrow.” His grin stretched across his face. “Maybe he should have been a hunter instead of a prince.” His father’s expression darkened and Alex wanted to tell his brother to shut the hell up, but before he could, the king rose. “You’re a fool, Son. Do you know our history at all?” He trapped everyone in the room in an attentive trance. Tyson’s smile finally slipped. “The role of a protector is purely symbolic. As long as Gaule’s wards are in place and La Dame cannot cross the border, there will be no need for them to fight for you.

They are to provide the appearance of protection and if need be, a sacrifice. Their life is only worth something if you are alive. They will take an arrow for you. They will face death. Your protector is your shadow, your right-hand man. They are an icon of strength.” The thought came unbidden to his mind that Viktor, his father’s champion, had been much more than a symbol for many years. Alex got to his feet. He would never betray those loyal to him as his father had, and it was time he had people of his own he could trust. “Tell me,” Alex said.

“Notices have been put up in every village in Gaule. Any fighter can compete in the melee.” “How do you know the winner will be loyal to the crown?” “Because if they’re not, they would not face their ends to be at your side.” “Their ends?” He swallowed hard. The king nodded. “The tournament will be a battle… to the death.” “I 2 thought we’d agreed you wouldn’t use your magic,” Viktor Basile growled as he sliced through the vines spreading rapidly across the forest floor. Etta circled him. “You’ve said yourself that the people we’ll have to fight won’t be playing by the rules. Why should I?” His hand shot out, and he grabbed a fistful of her shirt.

“Carelessness will get you killed.” He released her and she stumbled back. “You’re soon going to take a place inside the palace of Gaule where magic will tie the noose. Don’t forget that.” “How could I forget my life is not my own?” His voice hardened on his next words as he took up his fighting stance again. “If La Dame comes for you, are you going to hesitate? Are you going to fall back and let her take everything you have? Everything you are?” Etta let the vines still and dodged the path of her father’s staff. “No.” “What?” he yelled. “No!” The sorceress who’d controlled her family for generations wouldn’t have her. “La Dame won’t control me,” she growled.

Her father shook his head, regret flashing in his eyes. “Then you have already lost, my daughter. Because she does control you. She does own you. She already has everything you are. That’s what it means to be cursed.” “We can fight back.” “No. That’s the point. You cannot fight her.

If you do, she will own your death as well. I must prepare you to take up the curse and the hardest part is learning not to fight it. Learning to accept that we must serve our enemies.” He came at her again. Hate. It drove her, begging to be released on her opponent as she jumped, using the toe of her boot to kick off a tree. Only after she spun and landed in a defensive crouch did she raise her eyes once again to her father. No. She couldn’t unleash her hate on him no matter the words that left his mouth or the burning inside of her they caused. She should have seen it coming, but her eyes were so focused on his blazing stare she didn’t notice his arm jerk to the side seconds before the staff snapped against her back.

She crumpled to the ground face first, groaning into the dirt. “Get up.” Viktor Basile’s voice was hard, commanding. The voice of a man who was once the crown’s protector. Persinette shifted her hands beneath her chest and pushed up. It wasn’t pain or exhaustion that slowed her movements, only annoyance. Her father clucked his tongue. She glared at him, knowing she could beat him if he didn’t rely on petty tricks. “Etta,” he barked. “Stance.

” She bent to retrieve her staff and felt the air move to make way for another surprise strike. Spinning out of the way, she twirled her staff and closed her eyes to listen with her magic to the sounds in the earth. Each attempted blow followed a tiny whistling as the wood sailed through the air. Each shift of feet accompanied a change in the earth. He jabbed at her legs and she jumped, catching her father’s weapon between her feet on the way down. His hands lost their grip on it and he looked to the ground. The grass grew over his worn boots. Etta grinned as he tried to break free. They held him firmly in place. “You have your tricks, Father.

I have mine.” She jabbed his chest lightly. “Do you concede?” “Pull your magic back, Persinette.” His face reddened. She stepped back to lean against a tree with her arms crossed over her chest. The silence between them was almost as vast as the forest surrounding them. The Black Forrest struck fear in the hearts of many people. They believed a danger lurked among the trees. Magic. Evil.

For Etta, the danger sat in the castle beyond the Northern edge of the woods. Finally, her father spoke in his low, dangerous way. “Because using magic will get you killed.” “You say that, but they do not dare come for us here.” He took a knife from the leather sheath on his belt and bent to cut the grasses entombing his feet. When he was finally free, he looked up at her once more. “Soon you won’t have the protection of the legends.” He started to walk toward the one-room cabin they called home. She ran after him. “I don’t need legends to protect me.

” He spun, and she stopped to avoid running into him. “From the crown, maybe. But what about when she comes for you?” “La Dame can’t cross the wards as long as magic runs in her blood.” He shook his head. “Have I taught you nothing? You can’t rely on forever. Magic does not stretch into eternity. Those wards may not always protect you.” “Then I will fight her. I am a Basile. It’s what I’m supposed to do.

” “And La Dame is a queen!” His shriek scared a bird from a tree and in the stillness that followed, the flap of its wings were deafening. He breathed out slowly, gathering his control like it was an unraveled rope. “She has ruled Dracon for generations. She can’t be destroyed. Her power is unmatched.” He put a hand on Etta’s shoulder. “Enemies are everywhere, my precious girl. The time for me to protect you is almost past. The best you can do now is follow the path that lies before you. La Dame holds the strings and our family has danced to her rhythm for years.

It has been many generations since she destroyed our ancestors and created our curse.” He turned and began walking again. Without looking back, he called, “I’m heading to town for some supplies. You are not to leave these woods. Not like last time.” Etta shivered. Last time she’d journeyed to the market of Gaule, she’d been caught stealing. Two burly men carrying jagged axes had chased her all the way to the edge of the woods. They hadn’t dared to follow her into the trees though. No one did.

La Dame would. Etta doubted anything frightened the sorceress queen of Dracon. The Black Forrest was said to be haunted. Those were the legends Etta’s father claimed protected her. The few townsfolk brave enough to venture into the woods, returned with reports of strange sounds—when they returned at all. The forest held many secrets. Chief among them pertained to the last remaining magic in the kingdom. When the great army came all those years ago to destroy any who possessed it, the woods and the protection of her father’s wards there had been the only place for many of the magic folk to go. Her father had shielding magic. The magic he wielded allowed him to craft strong wards to keep people safe, to keep a kingdom safe.

That gave him power and made him valuable to the king. And it was why the king tried to kill him. He just hadn’t realized killing him would have brought down the wards surrounding Gaule. Wards that kept magic folk both in and out of the kingdom since none could cross the border. Etta strolled to the river until her pace grew steady and she began to run. The warm summer wind brushed against her cheeks, lifting her long, braided hair off the back of her neck. The clearing came into view and a grin stretched across her face as the sight before her became clear. Vérité stood on the bank with his head dipped low and his mane covering his eyes as he drank. “Looks like I’m not the only one who could use a wash.” She scrunched up her nose and waited for the beast to react to her presence.

He let out a short snort and continued to drink. Shaking her head, Etta loosened the ties of the armor at her throat. She struggled to pull the thick leather off her sweat-coated skin and over her head. Vérité picked up his head and his brown eyes met hers. She would’ve sworn there was amusement in them. “Yeah?” she said. “I’d like to see you fighting in leather in the heat of the day.” He struck his hoof against the ground and she narrowed her eyes. He was mocking her. Wooden-headed beast.

When the winter freezes came, she’d go a month or more without bathing, even with the constant training that coated her in grime. In those months, she didn’t smell much better than Vérité. But in the summer, she could escape to the river daily. There wasn’t enough soap for the ritual, but the water washed away much of the day’s filth. She removed the rest of her clothes and unbraided her hair. It fell down her back in waves. Her fingers dug in, separating the strands. Sometimes, when all it seemed like she’d ever do was train and fight, her hair grounded her. It reminded her she was a woman. It calmed her and made her feel human in a world where they were treated as less than human.

Etta took one more look at Vérité before leaping into the water and let herself sink for a moment before giving a strong kick and breaking the surface. The water hugged her as she floated and flicked it at the horse. He shook his head violently, and she laughed. Training was hard, but she knew her father was preparing her to take up the family curse, and to be able to protect herself from the enemy she’d serve. He was trying to find a way to get her into the palace household. Soon, the curse would tie her to the Gaulean prince. She was losing time before she’d have to spend her life protecting him. There were few women in the guard and none so young. Soon, she’d begin feeling the curse tighten around her like unwelcome bonds, only to be loosened when she was in the presence of the one she was destined to serve. A sigh left her lips.

No one had charge of their own fate, but few had theirs set in stone generations before they were even born. Etta rubbed at her skin until it reddened, wanting to remove all memories of the day. Her father had beaten her too many times. She was better than that. If they’d been sparring with knives instead of poles, he wouldn’t have stood a chance. She stepped from the water and climbed up the bank, wringing out her hair as she went. It had gotten long again, reaching past her waist, but sometimes it was the only thing that made her feel like a real person. Every time her father made her cut it short, she lost a part of herself. The women in town didn’t wear their hair short. It wasn’t the first time she realized her father should have had a son.

She was the first female forced to take up the curse since it was laid on her ancestors. She pulled her clothes on over her damp skin and stood beside Vérité. “Feel like a ride?” Vérité lowered his nose to her shoulder and nudged. She laughed. Gripping a handful of his mane, she hauled herself onto his bare back. He knew exactly what she wanted without direction. They galloped through the woods. They passed a few houses, and she waved at the magic folk she saw. The people of the forest mostly kept to themselves in the years since escaping among the trees. Etta closed her eyes, trusting the horse.

She remembered that night that brought them here. Eight years ago. The night they’d been forced to flee the castle and run for their lives. The night her mother died. She shook her head and opened her eyes as Vérité slowed. They’d arrived at their favorite place. Every time her father went to town, she escaped to this tapestry of flowers laid out before her. Reds and yellows and blues dotted the landscape as far as she could see. If outsiders knew the kind of gems the Black Forest offered, they’d never fear it. They’d want it for themselves.

Outside people were selfish. She’d seen it first-hand. People living in the streets with no one to help them. Children without families. Armies who would hunt down anyone blessed with the gift of magic. But the thing only Vérité knew was Etta made this place. While the king called her power evil, she made flowers bloom. While he was only death, she was life. Yet the hate she held for them filled her with emptiness. The magnificence of this place had no effect on her because even as her magic begged for beauty, she trained for darkness.

She patted Vérité’s neck and slid down. “The first born of every generation will be given to the enemy to be their protector. In the shadows or in the light, they will serve day and night.” She looked into the wide, chocolate eyes of the beast beside her. “In seven nights I’ll be eighteen, my friend, and I must find a way to fulfill the edict of the curse. Only then shall I discover its destruction.” He snorted as if he understood and she sat down among the flowers, drawing warmth from the air into her frozen heart.

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