Alai was raised to be the proper lady her family always wanted her to be. But every delicate rose hides thorns of steel and Alai will discover hers when she is faced with the choice of embracing what she truly is or living a lie.
“Sorcery is the source of all evil. Only degradation comes from it, and all who use it or profit from it will come to the same end as this witch,” the soldier said, pulling the rope that left the poor woman dangling in the center of the market. The crowd gasped. A few women cried out. Alai looked down. People murmured among each other, pitying the woman, cursing her.
“Alis, let us go. This pathetic show is over.” Alai pushed through the crowd watching with interest the execution of turn in the name of the crusade against sorcery, trying not to ruin her dress.
“Alai, wait!” Alis said. “Sister, wait!”
Alai extended her hand and her sister, Alis, took it. “Don’t they get tired of the same farce every single day?”
“This is the only entertainment the count allows,” Alis said, as she looked through the different stands, filled with spices, herbs, and candles.
“Count Daga has indeed taken upon himself to wipe sorcery from the province. I despise that man.”
Alis chuckled. “Do not let Father hear you say that. He is in love with the count.”
“Father should marry him then,” Alai said.
“The count is looking for a new wife.”
Alai sighed. “I pity the woman who will have to share his bed. Now, chose quickly. We must get back to the house.”
“I only have to purchase a few fabrics,”Alis said.
As her sister made toward one of the stands with dyed fabrics Alai wandered through the market aimlessly until she heard Mati, their guard, shouting.
“Give me the money back, you devil!” Mati shouted, grasping a frightened, little boy by his arm.
“Mati, let the child go!” Alai said, rushing toward them.
“Stay out of it, my lady. This little devil stole my purse.”
“Your purse is on the ground, you idiot,” Alai said, picking up the small leather pouch and throwing it in Mati’s direction. “Its laces must have come undone and it fell. Now let the child go!”
Mati turned to glare at her. “Your lord father did not raise you to be an impertinent young lady and intrude in men’s business. He will hear of this.”
“Let him hear of this, but let the child go.” Alai walked toward the boy and pulled him from Mati’s grasp. “Go now, and run fast if you do not want this brute to catch up to you.” The boy wiped his tears and ran off, looking back now and then.
“I am sure he was a warlock,” Mati said, tying his pouch to his side.
“Everyone is a warlock in your eyes, isn’t he?” Alis asked, coming from the fabrics’ stand.
“I would worry more about learning how to double knot your purse than speaking of magic when you never saw it,” Alai said, taking her sister’s hand.
“And what would you know of it, my lady?” Mati said, as he led them through the crowded plaza.
“My grandmother was a healer, and some say she was a witch. Maybe I have the gift as well,” Alai said, and grinned at Alis.
Mati stopped and turned. “Do not jest about that, my lady. Many have been hung for less. Sorcery is not a good thing.”
Alai rolled her eyes as she looked around. She noticed a young man admiring some daggers at a nearby table. “Distract Mati,” she said to her sister and stole away, losing herself in the crowd. “Back already?”
The boy turned and his blue eyes lit up with surprise when he saw her. “Lady Alai, what an honor,” he said, bowing lightly. “Is my lady disappointed that I returned from my last mission?”
Alai laughed. She leaned against the stand. “I did not say that, Lord Deven. I was merely surprised you gave up the search for the sword that would end sorcery.”
Deven moved closer. “I shall be departing on another mission within a week. This time my task will be to find the Magister.” His hand rested upon Alai’s as she looked at him with surprise.
“And will you kill him when you do?”
Deven chuckled. “Why would I want to kill the man who is said to have knowledge of all things that were, are, and will be?”
Alai smiled as Deven brushed her cheek lightly. “What will your father say?”
“My father…” Deven shook his head.
“Count Daga is a sworn enemy of sorcery, and you are just like him.”
Deven’s eyes flashed. “I am nothing like him.”
“Then what are you doing here? Did you not bring that poor woman to be hung?” Alai asked, pushing his hand away.
Deven caught her hand in his. “I am not my father. You would know if you had even opened my letters.”
Alai smiled. “Who told you I did not read them?”
“Then why did you not reply to my question?”
“Because I cannot just run off and marry you. My father would go mad with rage.”
“You’re scared of him?” Deven asked, frowning.
“His opinion matters to me.”
Deven moved away, turning to the daggers he was previously studying. “Alai, I’ve known you since we were seven; no one’s opinion matters to you but your own.”
Alai looked away. “I grew up, Deven. In the time that you were away hunting for this witch and that warlock, I grew up.”
Deven plunged the dagger in the wooden table. “It is too late, anyhow.”
“What do you mean?”
“Alai, come!” Alis shouted. “Mati is looking for you.” She waved at Alai.
“Deven?” Alai asked.
“You will have found out by tonight,” Deven said. He turned to her, placed his hands on either sides of her face, and kissed her brow softly.
Alai stood there after he left, until Alis came to pull her away. “What is the matter with you?”
Alai shook her head, both to reply to her sister and to clear it from the bad feeling Deven’s words had left, but her heart became heavy with fear.
It was late afternoon when they reached the mansion for the road had been packed with travelers that returned from the market. Alai’s fine, silk dress was soiled from the dust of the streets and wrinkled from the long hours of riding. At the gate a huge carriage, made of dark wood and adorned with grey tents, passed them. It seemed to leave the house and go in the opposite direction from them.
“Welcome back, my ladies,” the stable boy said as he held the horses for the maids to descend. Alai gave him her gloves and dusty cape. “Lord Ali awaits for you in the solar.”
Alai nodded. “Thank you,” she said, heading toward the gate.
Her father was pacing about the solar as she entered. Alis followed her sister closely, looking around with doubt.
“There you are, my daughters!” Lord Ali exclaimed when he saw them enter.
“Father,” Alai bowed her head. She curtsied to her mother when she noticed Lady Sati sitting in one of the couches.
“I have important news for you, my daughter,” Lord Ali said, taking Alai by the hand and guiding her to the center of the solar.
“Count Daga left this solar only recently and he gave us heart-warming news,” Lady Sati said, rising from her seat.
“I suspected it was his carriage that left the mansion as we came in,” Alai said, looking back at Alis who stood by the door, crossing her arms. “Well, tell me, what did the count want?”
“Count Daga finalized his request to take you in marriage and make you countess of the province of Fear.” Lord Ali smiled at his lady wife while saying so.
“What?” Alis shouted, moving closer.
“What did you reply, Father?” Alai asked.
Lord Ali frowned. “That I would speak of it to you, but I assured him that you would have no objection.”
“Yes she will. Count Daga is more than twice her age. He has a son her age. This is disgusting.”
“Alis, please!” Alai said, turning to her sister.
Lady Sati smiled, showing all of her white teeth in an attempt to lighten the mood. “You must be tired. Go wash off the dust of the road and we shall speak later.”
Just as she said so two servants appeared at the door of the solar and waited for the sisters to make for their rooms. Alai hurried out of the hall, while Alis lingered still glaring at her father who sat speaking with his wife obliviously.
“Alis!” Alai called, as she walked down the halls. Her sharp heels echoed through the stone walls.
“You can’t just accept this,” Alis said breathlessly as she tried to keep up with her sister’s pace.
“We are not speaking of this anymore.” Alai entered her chamber where a bath had been prepared for her, but the maid only stripped off her gown, wiped her face and arms with a wet cloth, and sat at her usual seat. She remained like that for a long while, only in her under-gown, staring out of her window as the sun sank and darkness took over the village.
“You can’t marry that pig!” Alis, who had sat beside her for the whole time, could not keep quiet any longer.
“Father decided it,” Alai said, not looking at her sister.
“Tell him no. Run away. Do something!”
Alai’s head turned sharply toward her sister. “What would you have me do? Where would I go? I, a maid, alone on unknown roads. Daga and Father will move earth and hell to find me. Father decided and I shall do his bidding.”
Alis lowered her head but spoke again soon after. “When you were seven, Father said you could not ride his stallion, but you did anyhow.”
“And I almost split my head open.”
“When you were ten, Father said you could not go hunting with the men, and you did.”
“And I was chased by a wild boar.”
“But you did,” Alis said, grasping her sister’s hand. “You never listened to anyone. Why start now?”
“Because I grew up. Because I am a proper lady and I will not shame my family’s name,” Alai said, pulling back her hand.
“I do not believe you.”
“Then leave me alone!” Alai turned her eyes to the window and soon Alis stole from her sister’s chamber, hiding the tears in her eyes.
Alai continued to sit in her chair while night closed in on the room. In the darkness the candles burned stronger as if Alai’s rage was feeding their fire. Then the door opened and the candles blew out, submersing the room in darkness.
“Alai?” Lady Sati called, lighting the closest candle to her.
“Yes, Mother.” Alai stood up and wrapped her arms around her chest.
“I know this is happening too quickly but you were born for this, my daughter.” Lady Sati said, approaching Alai. The light of the candle gave a soft glow to her blonde hair and her blue eyes seemed sharper as she studied her daughter. In truth Alai did not resemble her mother at all, apart from the eyes. The maid had her father’s brown hair and darker coloration. Lady Sati placed the candle down and took Alai’s hand. “You were raised as a proper lady for this moment. Your marriage will benefit us all, and you will be known and honored throughout the province and maybe even introduced to court. Your father wants this very much.”
Alai tightened her lips in what in the darkness resembled a smile. “I understand, Mother.”
Lady Sati smiled. “Then I expect you to always be dressed in the way it befits a noble lady and a soon bride-to-be. Count Daga might call on you at any time of any day, until your wedding next week.”
Alai nodded, curtsying lightly. “I shall not disappoint you.”
Lady Sati touched her daughter’s cheek smiling. “I know you will not, my sweet.” The lady turned and left the room quietly, shutting the door after her.
Alai sat back into her chair, where she spent the rest of the dark night.
It chanced that Count Daga called upon Lord Ali’s house the very next day. Lord Ali welcomed the count with a great feast which went on at length and through which Alai had no other choice but to sit next to the count.
“Is my lord enjoying himself?” she asked, after a length of sitting silently.
Count Daga turned to look at her. “It is a feast.” He drained another cup and placed it on the table loudly. The pushed up sleeves of his tunic revealed strange marks that seemed inked upon his skin.
“Do those symbols mean anything?” Alai asked, without being able to refrain her curiosity.
Count Daga turned to her again, raising his eyebrow. “You are very curious. I fear I will have to blame it upon your young age. I have a son that is but eighteen winters old. Yes, the symbols do mean something, girl,” the count said, taking a gulp of his wine. “They are marks I draw on my skin every time I execute someone who practiced sorcery. As you can see my war against it is not in vain.”
“You do kill everyone that your lordship thinks guilty of sorcery?”
The count nodded. “If the slightest doubt is raised that person will be executed.”
Alai shifted in her seat, to face the man better. “Without a fair trial?”
“What would they need a trial if they confess their crimes?” Count Daga grinned.
“You force them to confess. That is hardly fair.”
The count’s head snapped toward Alai and his eyes bore into her. “I did not ask for your opinion, and I never will. Learn that, girl, and learn how to tame your tongue or I shall be happy to teach you.” The count pushed his chair back and left the high table.
Alai watched him descend the stairs of the platform over which the table stood. He staggered a few times, and struggled to regain his balance. It would seem just as natural if the count slipped down the stairs and split his head open upon the stone steps. No one would doubt it had been the excessive wine. Alai only needed to wish him dead, to wish hard enough, and her wish would take form and push the man down the steps. But it would be too risky. She would have to focus on him, to whisper the words, to not blink. Someone would notice, someone would see, someone would speak. A great deal of women had been hung for less. Her eyes wandered toward Deven. He sat among his men, greedily gulping down the content of his cup. His eyes were fixed upon her. No, she would have to wait.
Alai slipped away from the high table easily. Her footsteps went unnoticed. She breathed in the cold air of the night as she clutched the stone balcony. She turned her head slightly when the door opened again.
“Are you all right, my lady?” Deven asked, stepping out in the balcony.
“I came here to be alone,” Alai said, looking at the dark forest underneath her.
“Go right ahead. One can be alone even in company.”
Deven said no more but Alai could feel him standing behind her. His presence made the small balcony feel tiny and the very air she breathed was hot. After a few more moments she turned to leave.
“Bored of loneliness already?” Deven asked, gripping her arm.
“What do you want from me, Deven?”
He pushed her to the corner, placing his arms on either sides of the wall so she could not escape. “I want you.”
Alai twisted her head both ways, not looking him in the eyes. “You can’t have me. Your father will.”
“He does not love you.”
“Love has nothing to do with this. I had no word in this decision. My father…”
Alai hid her face in Deven’s chest as the guard opened the balcony door.
“What?” Deven asked, twisting his back to shield Alai.
“Your father… requests your presence, my lord.” The guard bowed and retired.
Deven dropped his arms and Alai pushed him away. “He does not love you, Alai.”
Alai stopped. She stood there, half turned toward Deven but after a few moments she looked down and left.
Only a few days later Alai sat beside the count in his castle. The throne upon which she sat was high and cushioned with lavish fabrics but her back was stiff and her legs numb from sitting for too long. Their wrists and feet were bound together in sign of union and in that way Alai met every single lesser lord and lady of the province. They paraded before her and her new lord husband dressed in their finest clothes, donning their fakest smile, and whispered about them the moment they turned their backs to them. It was just as well for Alai forgot their names as quickly as they were told to her.
When the show of the vassals was over the couple remained seated for the pleasure of the guests and families, but Count Daga promptly ignored his new bride. He called his advisors about him and Alai thought that a good time to spend the last moments with her family.
“Countess,” Alis said, bowing.
“Come sit by me, Sister,” Alai said, patting the small couch beside her throne. “I wanted to apologize to you about my behavior in the last few days.”
“It is I who should apologize. I was not a good sister to you…”
Alai placed her free hand upon her sister’s. “Let us forget our mistakes and be like we always were. I will forever love you, Alis.”
“And I you,” Alis said, kissing her hand.
“My daughter,” Lady Ali said, approaching the throne with Lady Sati. “We must be on our way, for as tradition wants it, we shall leave you in your husband’s house and to his care. But before we leave I wanted to give you Mati as a wedding present. He shall be your guard and your friend, were you to feel nostalgia of your home.”
“That is very kind of you, my father,” Alai said, bowing her head.
“Than we shall go,” Lady Ali said.
Alai held her sister’s hand as she rose and then watched her family leave the hall. She wanted to call to them, say something more, but words stuck to her throat, and they would not have heard over the noise.
Soon after the feast started, with seven courses of meat and fish, fruits, and sweets brought from all over the kingdom. Alai ate sparingly but drank enough to forget the night ahead. When the servant filled her cup again she stopped him before he left.
“My lord husband’s cup is empty,” she said, looking the boy in the eyes, “make sure that his cup is never empty tonight. Ever.”
The servant bowed and quickly complied with the orders, soon after Alai was swept from the table to dance with her new husband, his friends and allies, and lastly Deven.
“You made a very beautiful bride, my lady,” Deven said as they danced to a slow tune.
“Shall you depart for your mission tomorrow as planned?”
Deven nodded. “I might not return for a long time, or not at all.”
Alai smiled. “Will you wait for me tomorrow, two hours before dawn?”
“You shall be rather occupied then,” Deven said, looking toward his father.
Alai turned his face to hers, placing her finger upon his lips. “Do you trust me?”
Deven kissed her finger lightly. “Yes!”
“Then wait for me, at the stables, two hours before dawn.”
Soon the feast degraded to a gathering of drunkards who lost all concepts of discretion. When the first signs of love and lust began showing in the lower benches Alai decided it was time to retire. Her husband paid little attention to her exit. Followed by her maids Alai made toward the bridal chambers. The women bathed her, combed her hair, and helped her into her night gown. Upon Alai’s request they left the chamber.
Alai opened the door and found Mati standing in front of it. “I wanted to thank you for everything you have done for me, that is why I called you,” Alai said.
Mati took great pains to avoid her partially naked body. “Thank you, my lady,” he said, staring at the floor.
“This is a gift for you,” Alai said, clasping a bracelet around his wrist. “Come back to me two hours before dawn. Is that clear?”
Mati looked up blinking. “Yes, my lady.” He left quickly and Alai returned to her chamber.
She locked the door, shut the tents, and lit five candles which she placed around the bed. In the corner of the room sage burned mixed with other spices, giving the chamber a pleasant aroma. Alai unlocked the door and sat on the bed, taking a deep breath. She ran her hands over the fabric of her night gown again and again, as if to smooth the small wrinkles. The candles had half burned when Count Daga stumbled into the chamber. Alai stood up.
“Ready to do our duty, are we?” the count said, grinning. As he walked toward Alai he took his tunic off and began unlacing his breeches.
“My lord husband,” Alai said, bowing.
“Such a pretty thing, for a child,” the count said, placing his hand on her cheek. Slowly his hand traveled down her throat, her chest, and into the night gown. The count tore the fabric and pushed Alai on the bed.
Alai gave a cry but did not struggle. The count crawled over her, stinking of beer and sweat. He fumbled with his breeches and forced Alai’s leg open. Grunting he positioned himself, after kneeling on the bed to admire Alai’s naked body.
“Let us see if you are as good as your father made you,” he said.
“Oh, I am much better,” Alai said, as she felt the count’s lips upon her neck.
She bent her knee, hitting him in his manhood. The count groaned, falling over on the bed. Before he could grab a hold of her legs Alai wiggled out of his grasp and jumped off the bed. When he tried to follow her a spasm went through him and he flew back, landing upon the pillows.
“I would not try that again,” Alai said, putting on a dark gown. “You see, my lord, that is a shield and it will keep you there until dawn, when those candles run out.”
Daga tried to sit up, rubbing his forehead. “What is the meaning of this?”
“Should I tell it to you? You cannot guess?”
“Sorcery!” The count tried to leave the bed again but the shield pushed him back.
“You can scream as loudly as you want. The sage burning in the room will swallow the noise.” Alai smirked as she stood there admiring the fearful Count Daga, naked and powerless, fumble on his wedding bed.
“What do you think will prevent me from killing you and your family tomorrow?”
“For one, I shall be very far away. As for my family you shall swear that you will not.”
The count laughed. “Stupid little girl. What makes you think I shall not break it?
“Remember that wine you drank tonight? It was enchanted and the spell will keep you bound to your word, or else you will die a very slow and painful death. So swear! Swear that you shall not harm my family or the shield will strangle you!” As Alai spoke the shield began closing in on Daga, making him shrink back.
“Fine! I swear it, you bitch!” the count screamed, breathing heavily.
“Very well, with your leave I shall go.” Alai finished dressing, wrapped a dark cloak around her shoulders, and left the chamber as the count still tried to find a way out of his invisible prison.
“My lady.” Mati had been waiting at the end of the hall when Alai reached it.
“Give this to my sister,” Ala said, producing a small envelope from her cloak and handing it to Mati. “And know that you cannot speak of this to anyone. “
Mati frowned. “What makes you think so?”
Alai smirked. “That bracelet I gave you. It will make sure you do not speak of tonight ever again until you take it off, and I am the only one who can.” She paused at the keep’s gate. The yard was quiet and no one seemed to be wandering about. “Now go, and make sure my sister, and only her, receives this.”
Alai watched Mati walk in her opposite direction and she quickly made for the stables. The moonless might hid her well enough but she was grateful for the mystery of the dark alleys .
“Alai?” Deven asked, standing beside his horse.
Alai walked toward him smiling. “You are here.”
“I kept my promise.”
“Will you leave for your mission?”
“Then I am coming with you.”
“What are you saying?” Deven asked, taking a step back.
“I need to find the Magister as well?”
Smiling Alai took off her gloves and held out her right hand. She turned her palm up so Deven could see and slowly fire rose from the center of it, making him jump back. “Because of this.”
Deven looked at the fire and then at her. “You have magic?”
Alai nodded. “I was born with it and now I need to learn how to live with it, but I cannot do it here. I need to find the Magister.”
Deven walked toward her. “If we leave, we can’t return.” He placed his hands on her arms.
Alai nodded. “I understand.”
“What of your family? My father will kill them.”
Alai shook her head, biting her lip. “I have taken care of it. They are safe, for now. But we must go. We only have till dawn then our journey will not be safe until we leave the kingdom.”
Deven frowned. “What did you do to my father?”
“I made sure he does not follow us for quite a while.”
“Why not kill him?”
Alai smiled, moving Deven’s hair out of his eyes. “I am not a murderer, Deven. I shall not use my magic for such low deeds. I would pay a high price for it.”
“You are ready to do this? Together?” Deven asked, kissing her hand.
“Together,” Alai said, touching her lips to his.
They saddled the horse and loaded their belongings. They stole from the castle through the secondary gate and cut through the fields before the sun rose. When morning came they were well on the journey toward the Magister.
My sweet Alis,
Forgive me for keeping you in the dark, but for my plan to succeed no one could know. Not even you, my dear sister, who have been more that my sibling. You have been, are, and always will be my friend, my confessor, and the only person I know I can trust.
But I could never share with you the burden that always darkened my heart. You see, Alis, I am a witch. I was born with magic. Maybe the stories about our grandmother being a sorcerer were true. But whether I was destined or fate played a jest upon me, I do not know. All I know is that my powers were my curse and I had to keep them hidden if I wanted to survive in a land so hostile toward magic. I did so successfully for many years, only daring to practice when I knew I was safe, and those occasions were rare.
In light of the recent events I understood that I could not hide who I was all my life. Therefore, I must go. I must leave you to go in search of my destiny and maybe, even of a way to free our land of those who so ardently despise magic.
Please burn this letter after you read it. You and our parents shall remain safe, no harm will come to you from Count Daga, but if in the future you chance to need me put on the charm the envelope contains and I shall be there to help you, in body or spirit. Remember, I will forever love you.
Eternally yours, Alai.