Potential cover idea
People surged through the streets as arrows whizzed over their heads. Panicked crowds rushed in groups to the nearby forest. Men on horses galloped over citizens, slashing their swords at anyone in their way. One woman weaseled her way against the crowd, a screaming child in her arm as another, her son, clung to her hand.
"Mommy," the boy whined, barely heard over the shouting and screaming, "where are we going? I'm scared."
"Shh, Charles, I know. Mommy's scared too." She glanced at all the terrified faces, a sickness settling her gut. Her children came first but she couldn't take the youngest. She knew only one people well enough to entrust with the baby's care. Pushing against the walls, the woman clung tight to Charles' hand as more and more people rushed to the gates.
"Mommy, why aren't we going with them?" Charles cried, pointing to the crowds. Tears were streaming down his face as he saw children his own age being carried by their parents, heading to somewhere safe. Where was his mother taking him?
"Charles, in here," his mother ordered, ushering him into a building. It was dark and smelled of mold, but he listened. Once his eyes adjusted, he noticed a woman standing next to a curtain, her dark hair stringy and messy. Her eyes were wild, a bright green seeming to shine through them, as if it wasn't their natural color. She looked crazy and Charles was petrified.
"Mathilda, I beg you for your help." The woman with the baby approached the other, kneeling and bowing her head as she offered the bundle of cloth. "This child will only be a burden and I fear she will cost all our lives if I keep her. Charles is old enough to understand and Richard already knows my plan."
Mathilda shook her head sadly. "How do you expect me to care for her?"
"Please. Do whatever you must. I'll be back for her when I can. Just keep her safe. Richard was so happy when she was born, I fear it will break his heart if she died at the hands of the Garbonians."
Charles stepped up to his mother and clutched her skirts. "Mother--"
"Hush, boy," Mathilda scolded. "Heavens, Elizabeth, did you teach him nothing yet? Where are his manners?" She grabbed the baby and coddled her, pushing back the cloth enough to see her sleeping face. "Fine. I will watch over your daughter as if she is my own. She will know nothing of you, Richard, or Charles. Is that what you want?"
Elizabeth's heart broke. Her daughter wouldn't know anything about her? "Is this the only way?"
"If you wish to keep her safe, yes."
The mother hung her head. "So be it." She stood, grabbed Charles by the hand once again, and turned away. Tears ran down her face but she knew Mathilda would take care of the baby. "Come along, Charles." She opened the door and joined the crowd, never once looking back. Charles, however, looked just in time to see Mathilda slip through the curtain, his baby sister still in her arms.
"Hiyah!" The blade sunk into the tree, cutting it through two solid inches. Emmalyn panted with exertion, her body drenched in sweat. Even her hair, usually tied neatly in a bun at the nape of her neck, hung loose, the dark strands clinging to her face.
Clapping sounded from behind her. "Quite impressive, Emmalyn. Perhaps next time you can hack it down with your mind instead."
Emmalyn turned to see her mother, Mathilda, standing in the doorway to the cottage. She wore black, as usual, the robes hanging to the ground as if wanting to trip her. Her hair, too, was its normal craziness, sticking out at random places and looking as coarse as straw. Emmalyn bowed to her.
"Thank you, Mother. My training has improved much."
"Indeed. It's a shame you don't pay as much attention to your studies. You have a brilliant mind, if only you would choose to utilize it."
Yanking the sword from the tree, Emmalyn ignored the jibe. She was smart, yes, but schooling would get her nowhere, not while she was a woman. That, and the ‘studies’ she spoke of didn’t interest her at all. She had no need for magic. Mathilda watched her as she wiped the blade down, her keen eyes noticing when Emmalyn sucked in a sharp breath and massaged a part of the sharp metal.
"Is your blade chipped?" she asked the younger woman.
Emmalyn looked up in shock. "Yes, Mother," she replied after taking a moment to control herself. "I'll need to repair it later tonight."
"You will do no such thing," Mathilda clipped. "There's a ball this evening and you must look your best. Every eligible young man will be there looking for a suitable woman to make his bride. You must keep to traditions. Your sixteenth birthday has come and passed. It's time you find a husband."
"I wish for no husband," Emmalyn snarled, sheathing the weapon into its case on her hip. "I have no interest in conversing with men who will leave me with child for a war we cannot win."
Mathilda sighed. "Emmalyn, it is your duty as a woman to attend. You must. Now, you will come into the cottage, bathe the grime from today's training off your body, and dress in the elegant gown I made for you. No argument." She turned back into the cottage, the door closing quieter than Emmalyn would have thought possible.
Heaving a sigh to match her mother's, Emmalyn crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the cottage. She hated getting prettied up for men who only seemed to pretend to be interested in her. With her childbearing hips, every man's mother was commanding him to introduce himself to Emmalyn at these kinds of events, even before she was of age. She doubted tonight would be any different.
Young adults stood around the large, open room, each of them looking nervous. Emmalyn, too, was as anxious as them. Dressed in an elegant dark green ball gown with gold threaded into an intricate design running up the length of her skirt, she looked absolutely gorgeous. Which she ought, as Mathilda had spent a lot of time making sure the dress was perfect. Several young men gaped at Emmalyn as they passed, whispering to their companion, who agreed with what they said. Other young ladies were dressed in light colors such as pale blue, pink, yellow, and white. No one else wore something dark.
Emmalyn, who noticed this, heaved a sigh. Of course Mother would make me stand out by stuffing me in a completely different shade than the others. Dutifully, she snapped out her fan and put it up to her face, blocking everything but her green eyes. She scored the room, looking for anyone equally awkward as her. Finding no one, she remained where she was, watching as men bowed before women and asked for a dance. Emmalyn took no interest in dancing, refusing any man who asked, though none have.
Ceylon, a man with twenty years’ experience to the thing called life, stood against a wall, his arms crossed over his broad chest. Young ladies glanced at him and giggled, no doubt finding his unkept hair amusing. Other than that, he was quite a handsome man. He stood at nearly six feet, lean muscle coursing even inch of his body, the skin deeply tanned from exposure to the sun. His face, too, was chiseled but for a rounded nose. His sharp blue eyes stopped when they landed on a woman, also against a wall, in a deep green gown. His brows furrowed, never having seen such a dark color at a betrothal ball before.
The fan snapped shut when Emmalyn noticed a man staring at her. It wasn't a love-struck stare, more like an intent stare. It unnerved her and she turned away, willingly walking into a group of young ladies, younger than herself. She tried to join the conversation but there was no way she'd let herself get that giggly over a cute boy. The boys the girls were gesturing to weren't even good looking, in Emmalyn's opinion. Too young for her taste. The man staring at her, however…
Hoping to be inconspicuous, Emmalyn sneaked a glance at the man against the wall with the messy hair. He flashed her a grin and winked when their eyes met. Outraged, her face heated and she began fanning herself again.
One of the younger girls noticed. "Why not go talk to him?" she whispered to Emmalyn.
The older woman scanned the younger one, taking in the pale yellow dress and styled blonde curls. Her green eyes glowed with excitement and hope. Emmalyn couldn't remember ever being that excited at the prospect of finding a man to marry. In answer, she replied, "It is not my wish to speak with him. He may come speak with me if he chooses."
The girl smiled and nodded. "Pardon me a moment."
Ceylon watched Madeliene detach from the group and frowned. What was his little sister doing now? He tried to see if there was any man she was eyeing but found none. Then she turned and looked straight at him, inclining her head to the group she just left. Sighing, he moved toward her, the corner of his eye revealing the woman in green watching his movement. He briefly wondered if she felt jealous but soon dismissed it. Simple looks meant nothing.
"I have a proposition for you," Madeliene told her brother when he was within earshot. "The woman in the dark green dress has been gawking at you for a while. And I know you're doing the same because I watched her face turn red. You should go talk to her."
He glanced at the woman of whom they were speaking, making her look away, and smiled. "What should I say?"
"Well, you can start with an introduction."
Ceylon laughed and rested his palm on Madeliene's cheek, looking at her fondly. "What ever would I do without you, sister?"
"Stand on a wall and glare at everyone who's going to be happy. Now get on with it."
"Excuse me, miss, but I might have the next dance?"
Emmalyn jumped when the voice sounded right next to her ear. Turning, she noticed dark hair and equally dark eyes. Her face fell. The girls fell silent next to her, all of their eyes bugged. None of them had seen a man so handsome before, let alone heard one speak.
"My apologies, sir, but I cannot dance nor am I inclined to attempt." She turned back into the group, ignoring their gaping mouths.
"Could I offer you some refreshments? A drink, perhaps," the man insisted, stepping closer to her. "I would like to get to know you."
Emmalyn glanced around, unsure of what to do. Most men didn't press the issue, just assuming she was too conceited to give them their time of day. So why was he different?
Madeliene, having watched the whole thing, stepped in then. It was clear to her the woman in dark green had no idea how to handle men and their ways of wooing. She stepped into the crowd and grasped the woman's arm hard. "Heavens, Maeve, I've been looking for you everywhere! Mother says it's time to leave and return home."
Emmalyn resisted the urge to punch the girl in the face. Upon inspection, she realized it was the same one who recommended she go talk to the man with messy hair, only to talk to him herself. Anger surged through her, but so did relief; relief because she had just been saved from a predicament she hadn't anticipated.
Across the room, leaning against a wall again, Ceylon smiled as he watched his sister interfere and drag the woman away. A triumphant smile spread across his lips when he saw the man's baffled expression. Pushing off the wall, he followed his sister outside.
"I appreciate what you did just now," Emmalyn said when they were outside, "but it wasn't necessary."
The younger woman laughed. "That's not how it appeared to me. I'm Madeliene, by the way."
"Emmalyn LeFae, at your service."
"Madeliene!" Emmalyn turned to see the boy she had spoken to rushing up to them. When he caught up, he grinned. "Dear sister, would you mind introducing me to your new acquaintance?"
As Emmalyn's frustration ebbed, she noticed the similarities between the two. With their delicate noses and strong jawlines, she wondered how she didn't notice it earlier. They were like twins, except for Madeliene's lighter hair. That, and how much more striking he was up close, almost a perfect specimen of masculinity. His only flaw: a scar on his right cheek, shaped like a jagged, upside down v.
Madeliene smirked. "My brother, Ceylon. Ceylon, this is Emmalyn."
Ceylon grasped her hand lightly and brushed his lips across her knuckles. "It is a true pleasure to make your acquaintance, fair Emmalyn. I should like to see you again, if that is what you wish as well."
"I mean no disrespect," she replied slowly, gently pulling her hand away, "but I'm not interested in courting anyone."
Ceylon quickly recovered from his shock, grinning and saying, "Who said anything about courting? Certainly we can be friends, if nothing else."
Emmalyn looked at him again, wondering if he had any muscle hidden under those fancy clothes. If he was a warrior he could give her some tips on brandishing a sword properly. Books weren't the best teachers when it came to required movements. She found herself smiling. "Perhaps. It couldn't hurt to be friends, I suppose." Ceylon grinned but she had already turned to his sister. "Why did you assist me?"
The younger woman's grin matched her brother's. "The party was boring. It was a good excuse."
A feeling of respect made Emmalyn's heart swell. "Thank you."
Ceylon grumbled, "Only a blind or stupid man wouldn't pursue a dance with you."
"What was that?" Madeliene asked him. He waved her off. "Either way, I was expecting it to be a bit more exciting. Instead, it was a lot of talking and a little dancing."
"It's a betrothal ball, not a dance party," Ceylon said sourly. "You're supposed to be finding your lifelong love, then dance the night away with them. Those who were dancing will most likely start courting and get married within the year. It's a stupid ritual."
"We're too young," Emmalyn agreed, shocked someone else thought as she did.
He laughed. "I didn't know there was a girl alive who actually believed that. Don't all of you want to get married and have babies as soon as possible?"
They had been walking at a comfortable pace but Emmalyn stopped at his words. "Are you serious?"
Madeliene touched the other woman's shoulder lightly. "He's a simple minded man. But it's getting late. Should we meet again tomorrow? You could come by for noon tea, if you would like."
"I would like that very much," she replied, meaning it, though she hoped she could get out of drinking the tea. She had never liked the stuff.
"Until tomorrow then. It was a pleasure meeting you."
Upon returning home, Emmalyn dashed for her room. Mathilda's voice stopped her. "So did you meet anyone? Did you dance?"
She turned to see her mother reading a book by candlelight. She tried reading the title but the letters were symbols she hadn't been taught to decipher. "Yes, I met a young woman by the name of Madeliene, and her brother Ceylon. They invited me to noon tea tomorrow."
Mathilda smiled and closed her book. "Oh? Did you dance?"
Her daughter shook her head, looking disgusted. "You know how I hate dancing, Mother. I had several men ask me to, but I refused," she added, anticipating the question. "Madeliene actually saved me from a pressing situation. As we left, her brother caught up to us."
"Well, is he handsome?" she pressed, wondering how she got the girl with no interest in men.
Emmalyn shrugged. "I suppose so. Though I asked if he would be willing to train with me someday and he obliged." She saw her mother deflate. Then, she lurched up suddenly, the book flying close to Emmalyn, making her flinch.
The fire in the hearth flared with Mathilda's fury. "Damn it, Raelyn, it's time you find a suitable husband. You're nearly seventeen. You should be getting ready for a ceremony already, not inviting men to train with you! They are mates, not sparring partners!"
"You know my views on marriage!" Emmalyn shouted back, and then paused. "Who's Raelyn?"
Mathilda paled. "Who?"
"You called me Raelyn just now. I'm Emmalyn, so who's Raelyn?"
Her anger diffused immediately and she sagged into the chair. "Raelyn is—was my daughter." A memory flashed of her having the same argument nineteen years ago. Emmalyn reminded her so much of her daughter it hurt sometimes. "She…she was raped and beaten to death in town one night. The man had been a soldier. He was never convicted, but he did pay the price. That's why I taught you to fight. I wouldn't survive if it happened again. You're so beautiful, Emmalyn. I'm afraid your mother would have me killed if anything happened to you."
Now Emmalyn was really confused. "But you're my mother…"
Mathilda's answering smile was apologetic and full of regret. "In truth, I am not. Take a seat. It's a long story."
Comments/suggestions are appreciated. Thanks for taking the time to read it! :)
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