The winter’s snow drifted like thistledown on the wind blowing in from the East, innocent white glitters of beautiful yet tiny shapes twirling on the slightest gust. But there was something else in the air that morning, something else mingling with the pure flakes of ice causing their beauty to become soiled and corrupted. A black cloud of fiery sparks and soot fell from the once towering masonry on the mountainside; grey ash and the foul stench of burnt meat, of scorched brick and cloth. The once proud Castle of past Kings stood as ruins in a crater of brown slush, the memories of its long past and splendour now mere fragments on an unaware breeze.
But as the questioning Eastern breeze swooped further down into the wreckage that still breathed embers and smoke it found something that it did not expect. Half covered with sooty snow and icy cold to the touch laid a girl under a blanket of rubble, a dusting of powdered brick and mortar. Her brown curls lay limp across her face, her pale skin tinged with violet cold. She didn’t even flinch as the clever little wind blew her hair from her pretty cheeks, exposing blue lips and a porcelain face. One could be forgiven in thinking that she slept in the peaceful embrace of the Death God but they would be mistaken. After a harsh beginning in life this girl had learnt to face the grip of winter with a stubborn outlook, she would not give in to something so fleeting that it could be destroyed by the face of the Sun. And so she awoke, to a new world where hope was a rare commodity.
She had been found by a boy, or rather a young man barely on the threshold of maturity, and for a brief moment she thought it was her brother. His name was Flynn Everbright, an orphan from the age of eight and a seasoned traveller. But the last thing that expected to find in the smoking rubble was a survivor, if he could call her that; she looked on the very brink of life. So when her eyes flickered open he almost fell over in surprise, her expression wasn’t one of hurt or shock, it was one of profound confusion. His first thought was to ask her how she came to be in the debris but was stopped by cold fingers ripping the rough horse blanket from his shoulders. Flynn blinked in surprise as the cold air hit his skin, the wind piercing through his thin, woollen shirt like a hundred tiny daggers.
“Garrett? What are you doing with my bloody blanket?”
The man behind him just ignored his comrade and helped the girl to sit up as he wrapped the blanket around her thin frame.
“She’s going to die if we don’t get her out of here Flynn! Do you want her to die?”
The first man sighed in frustration as he looked Garrett in the eye, shivering now as the snow began to fall once more.
“If we must, Zaine’s going to yell at us again you know?”
All the while the girl just looked around at the scene playing out before her; now that she was upright they could all see the large amethyst coloured bump on her forehead. Her confusion was real enough; she could remember a brother but not his name, she knew that she was alive but not why. A large tower surrounded by swirling dervishes of the whitest snow stood fresh in her mind, along with the image of a falling bundle wrapped in a blanket. At that moment she knew that she needed to find that blanket, whatever was inside it held the key to her memories.
Flynn’s eyes widened as he heard the frail and scratchy voice, his eyes darting to meet Garrett’s before returning to hers.
“Blanket? What does it look like Sweetheart? What colour? Cloth?”
She looked back at him with a blank expression, the confusion washing over her face again. Colour? She knew but couldn’t remember the word to say, it was a rainbow of jewels, of precious shades with no practicality.
“Soft…it’s soft…like this.”
Her hand reached out slowly, the men immediately tensing when they saw the bloody state of her fingers as they curled around a handful of snow. Garrett gently took her questioning hand in his, his thickly muscled arms tight around her as he tried to warm her frail body.
“That’s snow Lovey. Beautiful stuff but bloody cold.”
Flynn smiled as the girl nodded in agreement; Garrett was a hardened mountain man who made friends with difficulty. However, this girl seemed to have him under her spell already. As he let his hands fall to the ground in preparation to stand up he felt something hard beneath them, something hard and sharp. And as he brushed away the snow Flynn could have laughed.
“Garrett? I’ve found the blanket. I was kneeling on it the whole time! It’s frozen solid though, I thought it was rubble.”
“Grab it then. Let’s get out of this bloody snow, my feet are about to fall off. Up we go Darling.”
The girl smiled as she was hoisted up into his welcoming arms, somehow knowing that she was safe with this gruff warrior.
Okay…Garrett…You’re a nice person aren’t you?”
Flynn did laugh this time; he couldn’t help it when he saw the bewildered look on his adoptive father’s face.
“Yeah Sweetling. He’s a lovely person. Just you wait until we get home; he has a blanket just like yours. All pinks and purples like a mackerel sky.”
“I’m going to kill you when I have my hands free boy, you’d better master sleeping with one eye open by tonight.”
As they argued pettily the girl fell asleep once more, so deep a slumber that she didn’t feel the snow stop falling on her blanket-covered hair or the warmth from the roaring fire. The welcome by the men’s companion certainly went unheard of when they all traipsed into the shelter of a cave nestled in a fold of the mountain.
“Garrett, what the hell are you carrying?”
“A girl, what else does she look like? You need to take a look at her; she’s in bad shape.”
Flynn sat down on the pallet that he’d claimed as his own, a grin breaking across his handsome face as he watched the drama unfold.
“A girl? I asked you for treasures! To look for goods in the ruins of Castle Craston! Not to pick up stray wenches!”
Garrett laid her down on top of his blankets, her hands clutched tightly around her clothes as if she thought they’d take them.
“She’s ill. Near to death when we found her, lying in the ruins she was! Maybe she can tell us what happened.”
“We know what happened, there was a battle and everyone died. And we are going to get the loot left behind!”
Flynn’s grin increased as he finally unknotted the frozen ribbon holding the girl’s bundle together, his eyes widening when a pile of clothes tumbled in a heap onto the rough blankets. Good clothes as well: silks, satins, velvet, leathers, brocades and furs; even the blanket was the softest cashmere in shades of rose, turquoise and peridot. Then he saw the box, the darkly ebony box roughly the size of a premature baby weighing in at four pounds, four letters were picked out in ivory inlaid on the lid; A-D-E-N. It was the clue that he needed to piece the situation together, his hazel eyes flicking to his arguing companions.
“She’s the Princess.”
Zaine stared at the youngest male while Garrett looked over at the girl.
“Very amusing Flynn.”
“I’m serious Zaine! Look at this box! It says Aden. That was the name of the Princess!”
“He’s right Zaine. Only she could have this box, it makes complete sense why we found her in the ruins. She was the only one to get out.”
Three pairs of eyes fell on her; hazel, brown and grey all staring in disbelief at the figure on the blankets. They couldn’t understand how she had survived the tragedy that had befallen her family, all of them shocked at how so fragile a person could still be alive.
“Nah, it can’t be her…no one’s seen the Princess in years!”
“Why the hell would she have a box with her name on it then?”
“Because she’s called Aden too. Because she stole it, like you were supposed to be doing. What’s in the damn thing Flynn?”
The teenager ran back to his pallet and picked up the bashed and cracked box, his calloused hands slowly turning it around, watching as the firelight bounced off the polished surfaces. The ivory letters shining in an almost ethereal glow as he flicked open the golden latch shaped like an intricate ‘A’ there was a sharp intake of breath as all three of them saw what lay beneath the lid. Gems, dozens of them, in all the colours of the spectrum with all sorts of fittings, chains, bails and clasps. Gold, silver, platinum, bronze and copper; miniature fires in the forms of pendants, chokers, bracelets, anklets, rings, hair clips and tiaras. None of the men noticed her wake up and stare at the blaze of colour along with them. But hers wasn’t a gaze of awe and wonder, it was one of recognition. The memories were coming back in a flood, crashing through barriers of pain and ice. A brother, parents, a fire…the attack, it was so clear in her mind, she remembered it all.
Zaine jumped as she spoke, Garrett was already on the floor with Flynn, the jewels scattered all over the cave floor.
“Uh…what was that Sweetling?”
She looked over at Flynn and smiled properly for the first time since she awoke in the snow, sitting up and letting the blanket fall from her bruised shoulders.
“My name is Aden Tehrani…thank you for rescuing me…”
Another silence fell upon the group, just as another smile broke across her angelic face.
“Is that it? No questions?”
Zaine was the first to recover from the surprise of her speaking, his face suddenly mirroring her own.
“Sorry, you just caught us by surprise. Listen, my name is Zaine Midris and I’m the leader of these miscreants. I can take care of those injuries if you want?”
“Really? And how would you do that?”
Garrett got up from the floor, shining baubles spilling over his large, cupped hands.
“Zaine’s a healer, he has magic hands. If you hold still there won’t even be any scars.”
“Yeah, he has white magic. Something unheard of for privateers, huh?”
Flynn winked at her as he also got up with an armful of jewels, his hazel eyes dancing cheekily. Something jumped in her stomach as she laughed and shook her head, a feeling that was completely new to her. But she pushed it to the back of her mind and looked down at her body. Every inch that she could see was a myriad of indigo, olive, rose and dark peach; bruises, scratches and bumps covered her once perfect skin. Then there were the wounds, the worst of which were the ones on her leg from where she had slipped through the brick, ugly rips stretching up her calf.
“Sweetie, can you tell us how you got this messed up? We found you in the wreckage of the Castle looking like seven sorts of dung. We thought you was dead to begin with. How’d you escape?”
They all saw the cloud of sorrow pass over her face, the newly ignited light in her eyes faded again as she bit her split lower lip then sighed.
“How much do you know about me?”
The jewels were put to the side as the three men went and sat down on various niches and blanketed bundles of clothing. As she took a deep breath that rattled her abused lungs she told herself to calm down, she could handle this, and she’d certainly had worse.
“You were locked away in the tower when you were five.”
“Four…I was four. Locked up because of my magic…anyway, I escaped by jumping.”
If she had still been the same sheltered Princess from before the attack then she may have fallen over in fright at what happened next, but a lot had changed in the space of a day so when Garrett yelled aloud she stayed put.
“You did what?! You jumped? From the tower? How are you still alive?!”
“Umm…I’m really lucky? Maybe my magic saved me.”
Her gaze held his brown stare as Zaine shook his head, his weather-beaten hands moving along her right leg an inch above the skin. Aden’s attention was distracted when Zaine’s palms began to glow a steady, bright white; a pearly shine like moonlight on a still pond in the dead of a Midsummer’s night. Nothing like her magic, all a-glitter and as golden as the sun; his was a completely different Mage power, the pure, clean power of a healer. It was an almost instant relief as the opal light swept over her wounds, the blood evaporating away like a puddle in the heat of midday. The reddened flesh paling as the edges of the wound knit themselves back together seamlessly, and then the pain was gone, just a clean patch of skin amongst dirty. Aden was rendered speechless for only the second time in her life, the first being when the Castle had been taken. She could only watch in amazement as the bruises faded, the cuts closed up and the pain disappeared completely; if only her magic could do something as wonderful as heal. Her eyes flicked to her left hand, the only part of her body not yet back to normal, and she wrenched it from Zaine’s grip.
“I want to try…”
The leader’s right eyebrow rose up in a gesture of question, the glow fading from his fingers as he placed his hands back in his lap.
“Fine, but only white magic can heal. Everyone knows that…”
But his words tailed off, no longer remembering what he had wanted to say for Aden was doing something very, very strange. Her palms were brightening, not in a steady coverage like Zaine’s but in tiny pinpricks that grew and faded from sight with the colour of a morning sun. Glimmers, glitters and golden glows slowly filled her skin, making its way along her fingers to emerge from her nails. Flynn couldn’t believe what he was seeing, the torn nails and ruined nail beds were glinting gilt, and ever so very slowly they were mending. Aden concentrated harder, her fingertips fizzing with power and burning with pain, beads of sweat forming on her forehead before running down her pale cheeks. But she was not giving up, her breath came in short gasps as she willed her skin to heal anew and her nail to grow once more. Garrett leant over to inspect her perfect phalanges and their shining tips, whistling in admiration as he found no flaws.
“Zaine…she’s perfect, nothing wrong. It’s just as good as your work…Zaine?”
Aden looked up wearily to see the healer’s face a ghostly white, his body trembling slightly as he got to his feet and bowed so deeply that his body was at a right angle with the ground.
“We ask nothing of you Princess, save that we can follow you wherever you go.”
Flynn and Garrett were thoroughly confused by this strange comment by their leader; it was almost as tough it were a different person standing before them. However, Aden simply nodded in a sleepy way, her dirty curls plastered to her clammy skin and her hands fading to normal as she fought to stay awake.
“Zaine? Why are you staring at me?”
He shook his head and smiled, his eyes twinkling in the firelight.
“You don’t know why? In this world there are several types of Mage, the colour of their magic gives away their nature. Healers are white, Hedgewitches are green, and Necromancers are black…gold is not a colour that is used.
“She’s rare, so what? Weatherwatchers are too and they’re purple.”
Still Zaine shook his black locks and chuckled throatily.
“You don’t understand Garrett…gold doesn’t exist in humans.”
“What are you trying to say? She’s not human?”
Aden froze, was this why she had been locked away for so long? She wasn’t who she thought she was?
“Zaine…who am I?”
Her voice trembled as she spoke, her large green eyes unblinking in a white-pale face.
“Aden…Princess…only Gods have the colour of gold…”