Circle of Fate

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Honorable Mention
S.K. Traheir


The Duke did not wed without the proper ceremony during the days leading up to the occasion. The whole of Kjalfsholm had been conscripted into the preparations for the wedding and the accompanying feast, though in the midst of all the labor there were whispers among the Duke’s subjects who doubted his choice of bride.

“What union is this, that increases neither his domain nor fortune? She brings nothing that is of any benefit to him at all.”

“And you deem yourself a fit judge of such matters? Ioannis Harthorne needs neither land nor riches. He is Naron’s own Champion and wants for nothing—power or possessions—in this world.”

“Still this infatuation is his weakness. She will make him forget himself, and it will be the ruin of us all.”

“Bite your tongue! He has chosen one touched by the Healing Hand, and respect is due to all servants of the Lady. It is a blessing on us.”

The dissenter scoffed. “An abandoned baby taken in by a priestess at Her sanctuary and given Her name. That is no sign that she was blessed by divine grace.”

*

Melhraina felt overwhelmed at the Grand Hall where the ceremony was to take place. The floor was covered in rich carpets, the walls and ceiling hung with banners of red and gold. Sina told her that the hall would be filled with prominent families and guests, and that she would be escorted past them by an honor guard of the Duke’s elite warriors. “That is unusual, of course. When the late Duke was wed, his bride came with a guard bearing her own family’s colors.”

Melhraina bowed her head.

“But you shall be part of the Duke’s family shortly,” continued the maidservant. “Why should you not go under the banner of Harthorne? You shall stand here, and the Duke here, before the druidess who has been chosen to join you.”

“It will not be a priest of Naron, patron of Kjalfsholm?”

Sina’s disapproval of the decision registered briefly on her face, but she explained. “That would be traditional, but the Duke did not wish to disrespect your faith.”

Ioannis was said to command one of the most feared armies in the known lands, yet he was so thoughtful of this detail.

“Tonight you shall be presented to the Duke,” continued Sina, “where he shall be petitioned to accept you as his wife, and afterwards part ways for the night, until the wedding. You shall pay a visit to the Seeress too this evening.”

“The Seeress?”

“Yes, it is customary to consult a Seer on the eve of a wedding. Come, I must make you ready for the presentation.”

*

In the throne room Melhraina stood stiffly in her brocade gown, a gift from the Duke. She felt constrained and exposed all at once.

The Duke of Kjalfsholm, standing beside Melhraina, took her hand and made a slight bow, but not toward her. “I will have her,” he said solemnly.

The handful of men he had been addressing bowed and stepped down from the dais, leaving the two of them alone.

Ioannis turned to Melhraina when they were gone, and his formal manner dissolved into an unguarded smile. “You look radiant, my love.”

“It is the gold embroidery that shines, no doubt.” Her wavering voice gave away that she was trembling.

“You did wonderfully,” he reassured her.

“This was simple, I only had to stand beside you. I just hope I do not forget my lines tomorrow. Ritual I am used to, but at the Sanctuary I had years before my initiation to learn my role…”

“Melhraina Elyraene,” he spoke in an uncanny imitation of the priest at her coming of age ceremony. “Soon you will trade the name for that of Harthorne, my beautiful Raina.”

“Before I met you, the only loving embrace I knew was that of the Lady.”

He pulled her close and took her into his arms. “But mine is warmer, is it not?” Seeing her expression, he became more serious. “It is all due to you, my angel. I would have died if I had not met you.”

The door to the chamber opened and Sina entered the room. “My lady, the Seeress awaits you,” she announced with a curtsey.

“Ah, now comes the one aspect of the proceedings in which I can play no part. Go, hear what she has to say of your fortune, and mine.” The Duke stood back and kissed her hand with a deep bow, then looked up at her with a wink. “Of ours together.”

*

Sina led her through the castle passages to the Seeress’s chamber. Melhraina stumbled, and Sina turned to see what was the matter.

“I am not—I am unused to this dress, such finery,” she excused herself.

The servant gave her an appraising look and seemed to find her wanting. “If I had more time than just a few days… But there will be seasons and years enough for you to become accustomed to your new position.”

Raina smoothed her skirt and followed Sina as she set off again. “My order… does not rely on Seers,” she confided. “I am unsure what to do.”

“There is not much for you to do. She will see the question you hold in your heart, and you have but to answer any questions that she puts to you—but speak honestly, for she sees the truth.” Sina stopped at the Seeress’s door, and curtseyed peremptorily again. “She awaits within.”

Raina waited until she was quite alone in the corridor before raising a hand to knock on the door.

*

“Sit, child.”

The Seeress, with her head covered in a dark veil, sat behind a velvet-covered table and indicated a chair across from her, near the door. Candles were lit at the four corners of the table, and there was a fresh log on the fire in the hearth. Its smoke mixed with the incense in the air.

Melhraina took her seat hesitantly, feeling light-headed. In this brocade she felt the heat more than usual, and longed for the comfort of her own robes, for her own room in the Sanctuary, but that was on the other side of the Highmarch.

“You do not wish to see me. You do not want to hear my answer to your question.”

“I mean no disrespect, my lady, but I have not consulted a Seeress before.” She felt a flutter in her heart. “I am used to seeking answers in prayer.”

“And your Goddess gives you what you seek?”

“She does answer,” affirmed Raina. “She does guide. And when the Lady of Life remains silent—I have learned the wisdom of accepting that some questions should remain unanswered.”

“That does not mean that the questions have no answers.” The Seeress laid out three cards face down in a row on the table. “Most brides hope to see what their future holds. But for you, the past is your greatest mystery.”

“But no, do for me only what you would for any other bride.”

“It is all one thread—I read it all, and you listen.” The Seeress turned over the cards one at a time. “A fountain. You recognize the healing waters of your Lady’s sanctuary, yes? A book. The archives held records of history and the meanings of the old traditions, but of your own origins no trace. The Warrior-King. You came upon him by chance, and saw not a nobleman but only a stranger in need. And as for him, he thought of you not as an orphan but as his savior, and he gave you not only his gratitude, but his love as well.”

The Seeress looked at Raina as she dealt out three more cards. “But all this you know. It is your very beginning you seek.”

She turned over the first card. “The Manor. Your family had some standing. An officer in the guard, head of a guild, or even a Seer. If you had remained with them, you would be more at ease in that fine gown than you are now. And you were born under the eye of Naron, here in Kjalfsholm.”

“Begging your pardon, my lady, but I was found in Amarin, on the other side of the mountains, and raised in Elyria’s service at her Sanctuary.”

“I did not dispute that.” The Seeress turned the next card, and there was a slight pause before she spoke.

“It is Blood. It tells of a difficult birth. Your mother came to her death, or close to it.”

Melhraina went cold, as if her own blood had been drained from her all at once. The fire seemed distant; its warmth did not reach her and the crash of the logs settling in the grate sounded muted. She bit her lip to keep from fainting.

The voice of the Seeress reading the next card cut through to her consciousness. “The Hand, that lay judgment on you, banished you from the land of your home. If it were not for the mercy of your Lady’s priestess, you would not have lived. And were it not for the love of Ioannis Harthorne, you would not have returned to Kjalfsholm.”

She placed another card on the table, this time face up: a golden ring against a field of bright red. “Do you know what lies in your future?”

“I—I will be wed tomorrow.”

“Joining your fortune with the Duke’s, and his to yours. The bond will be forged by the powers of the earth and sky, stronger than either your Lady or Naron Himself.”

She set out another row of three cards. “Crossed swords: there will be strife. Some consider the Duke’s union with you to be folly. It appears as weakness, and one will have the daring to exploit it.” She turned the next card. “A withered rose. This is the curse that was set upon you at birth, that awakens now that you return.”

“But Ioannis, Lord Harthorne?”

“His fate will be tied to you.” The last card was shadowy, and Raina could not make out any clear image on it. “Darkness will fall.”

“No, it cannot! Naron will protect his Champion, and the grace of the Lady…”

“Melhraina Elyraene,” the Seeress recited her name coldly. “‘Gentle touch of the Healing Hand,’ that is what they called you. They did not know, or did not want you to understand. You learned their ways, and your touch restored life to the sick and wounded. But when you make your home in Kjalfsholm again, your touch will be death.”

Raina watched speechless as the Seeress laid down three more cards. “Most do not wish me to read their lives to the very end. I give you that choice, as well.”

“What more is there? You have seen death.”

“Not your death. Only the Duke’s.”

“That is enough.” She gripped the edge of the table and raised herself from her chair. “If our fates are joined, that is my end, also.” She fled from the room.

*

Raina’s gown for the wedding was even more luxurious than the one from the night before. It felt tight around her chest, but it did not seem right to complain. On the front of the dress the Harthorne coat of arms was embroidered, along with another symbol she did not recognize. “What is this crest, here?”

“This was the Duchess’s own wedding gown. There was not time to make a new one.” Sina put combs in Raina’s hair in preparation for the elaborate headdress she was to wear. “You are so pale, girl, you will disappear behind this veil.”

“You do not like me very much, do you Sina?”

The maidservant took a step back, and looked at her. “We do not know each other. It is not a matter of like. I have served in the Duke’s household my whole life, and I have no doubt that master Ioannis loves you with all his heart. Castle Kjalfsholm will be your home, and you our Duchess.”

*

Raina tried not to think of the hundreds of eyes watching them. Through the veil, she could only see Ioannis indistinctly before her. The gold circle felt heavy in her hand. She tried to draw breath and speak, “I— I, Melhrai—”

The ring slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor with a resounding ting.

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S.K. Traheir hopes she is better at writing fiction than author bios. She loves words and lives in Massachusetts. E-mail: sabeth[at]amergin.org.

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