The Taken Square in First Ring of Vidonia City was buzzing with activity. Prospective parents sat in the stands, hoping for their names to be called. Taken children were coveted and cosseted, bringing rank and privilege to those who became their parents. Finely dressed mates clung to each other as they watched one chosen couple at a time make their way to the center of the square. Apprehension was evident on every face; hope and joy replaced the uneasiness as each new set of names was called.
“Etmend and Alabria of First Ring, Square of Piety, please come forward.”
The chosen couple, a tall, blond handsome man and a delicate red-haired woman made their way to the center of the square. Etmend stood tall and proud while his wife trembled in anticipation. When the small infant boy was placed in her arms, she wept tears of joy.
“We’ll need his name for the records. What are you going to call him?” the scribe asked. He’d been serving as Roll Scribe for three years now, and he’d thought himself immune to the displays of emotion that each ceremony was rife with. He found himself smiling slightly as he watched Alabria with the tiny dark-haired child, his expression soft and admiring at her display of maternal joy.
“His name will be Cale. Cale Alabria-ral,” the new father said, pride swelling his chest.
“Cale Alabria-ral. So noted. We shall watch this one as he grows, for no doubt he has been blessed by the god and goddess this day.” The scribe’s blessing was the customary benediction in such an adoption, though he offered this one with sincerity. The attending priest laid his fingertips on the baby’s forehead and prayed for the deities’ guidance and protection as the child grew. Having finished his prayer, he then sprinkled scented powder in the boy’s hair and kissed the new mother on either cheek.
Etmend and Alabria didn’t stay to converse with the other new parents, nor did they wait to see who else was chosen for the gift of parenting a Taken child. Their only thought was for their new son. He must be taken home, fussed over, bonded with. Their entire world focused on him. He was perfection in their eyes.
He grew quickly and well, thriving in the loving atmosphere. If he would have been just as healthy and cared for before he was Taken was a question best left to the god and goddess. There was no way for Etmend or Alabria to know his birth parents, nor did they have any desire to discover his origins. It was enough for them that they had proven themselves worthy of the honor of being his parents.
Four years later, Alabria birthed twins conceived with Etmend. Their families were there, attending to the laboring mother and entertaining Cale. Etmend’s twin sister Ephria tended to the boiling water and sterilizing the cloths that would be needed as the labor progressed. Alabria’s twin sister Alaura stroked the sweat-matted hair that had become plastered to Alabria’s scalp, murmuring soothing and encouraging words.
A winsome child, Cale looked at the birth of his brother and sister as the best gift he could have ever received. The house was full with people bustling to and fro. Twin aunts and twin uncles, each with their respective spouses and their children, laughed and talked. Fragrant odors filled the rooms, and Cale filched treats as he passed through the dining room and kitchen. Cousins and playmates from his Temple classes followed in his wake, enthralled by all the activity.
Caledon Alabria-ral and Lianna Alabria-dae were born as the sun was at its zenith. Moments later, Alabria called Cale to her and introduced him to his new siblings. “You will always be our first, Cale. Our first beloved child. We will love you just as much as ever. We hope that you will love your brother and sister as much as we do.” Alabria glanced up at Etmend, her hands full of squalling infants. “It is our duty to care for and protect all gifts of the god and goddess, and we hope that you will care for and protect your brother and sister too.” Cale’s large blue eyes, so different from his mother and father’s dark brown ones, gazed down at the two squalling infants. “I will always take care of them, Mama. I promise.”
With a gentle kiss to each downy forehead, he scampered out of the room to play with the children who waited out in the yard. His young mind was full of the warm sunshine and mischief that he could get away with today more than any other day. He never imagined that he would come to regret his promise as the years passed. Indeed, within hours he had almost forgotten about it completely.
High in the Queen’s Tower of Bridgehome Castle, the young Queen labored to bring forth her firstborn child. Her pregnancy had been difficult and none had been certain she would live long enough to bring forth the child, when troubles began early in her confinement. Only hours before she had been gasping and straining, crying out in agony with the labor pains and effort. Now, she lay still in the large bed where her child had been conceived, the flesh of her belly rippling with contractions she did nothing to assist. Muted voiced carried on whispered conversations in the darkened corners of the large bedchamber. Fears for the young queen were expressed, though they were often as not accompanied by sly glances toward the fragile figure reclining insensate against the pillows.
The large belly shivered, trying to force the royal heir into the world while the queen did nothing to help.
Another hour passed before the midwives finally sent a chambermaid for priestesses from the Temple of Armida.
Another two hours had passed before the High Priestess and three acolytes strode into the bedchamber. With little more than a glance, the Priestess evaluated the situation and sent everyone out, leaving only the Queen with her rippling belly and the holy women in the stone room.
The child was birthed within minutes, the protective amulet fastened about its neck while the rest of the tiny body from the shoulders down was still inside the mother. The lusty birth-cry was stifled behind the hand of the strongest acolyte while the Priestess staunched the flow of blood from between the Queen’s thighs and forced her to sip from a cup of tea. “Drink, Highness, for you will need to conserve your strength,” she murmured as she pressed the horn cup to the pale lips of her sovereign.
As the First Annointed cuddled the child, a change came over her. Her eyes grew distant and glassy, her expression frozen into one of such pain that her fellow acolytes feared she’d been struck by a malignant spirit. With a violent shudder that startled the newborn in her arms and drew a glance from the High Priestess, still kneeling between the Queen’s thighs, stitching away at some unseen injury, the First turned to the youngest of the assistant acolytes.
“Take the child, youngling. You know what to do.” The acolyte bowed, swaddled the infant in a large blanket and disappeared from view between one blink and the next. Thus cloaked, she would make her way out of the castle. From there, her destination was unknown; the life of the infant in her arms was worth the sacrifice she was making now.
The blood finally slowed to a trickle and the Priestess packed the Queen’s nether regions with gauze and healing herbs before turning to her remaining handmaidens. Taking hold of the large basket that had been concealed in the folds of another acolyte’s cloak, the High Priestess reverently removed the first of two bundles from within its large cavity.
The small figures wrapped in royal purple did not move, though their skin still glowed with the appearance of life. A tiny baby boy and an equally tiny girl, with hair black as jet and eyes of deepest brown were laid beside the weakened queen.
“Wake, Majesty, for life, harder still than what you have known, awaits you.” The High Priestess, her eyes misted with tears, pressed her lips to the queen’s, one hand reverently pressed to the royal chest just above the weakly beating heart. “There is much for you to do,” she whispered. Light filled the dim chamber as the Priestess summoned her strongest healing magic and poured it into the Queen, rendering her as whole as she could.
A Decade Later. . .
Queen Leona of Vidonia lifted her face to the light morning breeze, relishing the quiet that filled the air. In only a matter of moments, her fragile peace would be shattered. A monarch’s privacy was a treasured thing, though lightly dismissed for the sake of security, duty, or even the simple natural needs of life. Unfortunately for her, her privacy was even more fragile than most. Since the sickness that had settled in her lungs a decade ago, it was seldom that she found herself alone for more than scant seconds
These few early morning moments that she stole as the sun rose each day were kept her from succumbing to madness, but sometimes, only barely.
She was growing to resent even her loving Uric’s presence, and their marriage had suffered. She nearly wept at the thought. Today, she would need his support more than ever.
Today, the Prophecies that would choose the next ruler of her beloved homeland would be published in the Public Forum.
For a moment, her breath caught in her throat at the thought. There shouldn’t have had to be any Prophecies.
Her firstborn child, the eldest of twins as was tradition, should be standing beside her, learning how to rule the country she loved so much while the second-born learned the rule of law or religion in order to aid the monarch.
She should have been able to watch her children grow, to watch them develop into the type of people that any parent would have been proud to know and call their own.
Even if only one had survived the birth, it would have been enough! She choked back a sob, closing her eyes tightly to prevent the tears from falling.
Even after all these years, she still felt the ache the loss of the only two babes she’d ever borne to term, of duty unfulfilled, of love unreturned. Despite her best effort, one tear escaped, sliding down her cheek before she caught it and sipped it from her fingertip.
If only she had been able to raise a royal heir and a spare. Then, she would not have lived to see the end of her family’s line. Her beloved land would not be facing the insecure future that she was leaving as legacy; it would not be facing the prospect of civil war.
She’d read of instances of times before, when the Plague struck, with no heir to the throne and civil war threatening to tear the country apart and she was grateful that there hadn’t been any report of a plague to add to the already tenuous political state of the kingdom. She shuddered at the thought; having the succession in doubt was bad enough. A medical catastrophe would be beyond the capabilities of their constabulary to deal with and would cause division, friction, and widespread chaos.
The nobles were already scheming, she knew, bickering amongst themselves and vying for support in hopes of “fulfilling” the coming Prophecies. Only those cryptically worded phrases could determine who would ascend the throne after she and her beloved King Ulric had left the world.
She hoped whoever was anointed as the new Monarch was worthy. But everyone knew that substantial donations to the Temples could influence how the Prophecies were read.