The sun was high in the sky as the final wall of trees gave way to lush meadowlands. Aln squinted, as the brilliant sunlight reflected off of his spotless armor. He continued forward, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
The journey from the capital of Ciancina had been a long one. Ever since he had joined the Ciancina Knights, he made the annual journey from the capital to escort that year’s candidate. The destination was always different, but the goal was always the same. And though it had been years since a Ciancina candidate had been successful, he felt hopeful this time.
He glanced over his shoulder, through the curtains obscuring the silhouette of the young woman seated within. She was leaning against the wall of the carriage. A tender smile drifted across his lips. Yes, rest now, for the hard part is still to come.
Each year, the Gift of the Goddess was delivered to a previously unannounced destination. Perhaps it was inaccurate to say it was delivered. Slammed violently into the chosen location for that year was closer to what actually happened. Exactly half a year from the day the gift was “received” the towns, villages, and the capital would send their best and brightest young magic users (meaning those 22 and younger) to try and pull the Goddess’ gift from the ground. Several regions had tried sending mature master wizards of a ripe and wise age, believing such experience would guarantee them a victory, but all had met with terrible results. The Goddess had been specific, after all. Her gifts were intended for the young.
So training their best possible magic users had become a competition of sorts for the various regions of Maehn, and even the regions of neighboring countries who had learned of the gifts. In addition to normal magical training, anyone believed to be in possession of notable magical talent was given special attention and groomed for future candidacy.
Aln had travelled with several candidate caravans at this point, though his period of service started after the Great Calamity, the incident that had brought shame to the capital ten years ago and started the decline in favor from the goddess. Aln couldn’t imagine having been there when the goddess rained her displeasure down upon the capital caravan. Every member of the knights present that day quit his position immediately, leaving Aln to appreciate the one positive to the whole affair: he probably wouldn’t have his job if not for that incident.
While the job had not been dangerous, per se, it had certainly been interesting over the years. Aln had escorted a variety of candidates, starting with the arrogant child of wealthy nobles whom, as far as Aln was concerned, didn’t have a lick of magical talent. Had it been a later year, the people of the capital might have raised more objections, but that had been the first year after the Great Calamity, and no one had much hope of anything good coming from the journey. In the end, the boy only lost his pinky and ring finger. It could have been worse.
“Moorin on the horizon!”
The call yanked Aln from his reverie. The sight of a village bordered by another forest coming into view sent whooping and hollering throughout the caravan. Aln too felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Their three-week-long journey was finally nearing its end. Drawing closer, Aln realized two other wagons were being unloaded, horses being detached and led to nearby stables. He wondered how many candidates had arrived to try their luck this year.
Aln fell back a bit, closer to the carriage, and called over his shoulder, “M’lady, look, we’re almost there.”
“I see. It is rather lovely. Though it is rather small.”
Aln looked back and gave a bit of a jolt, as he realized the young woman within had peeled back the curtain and was looking at him. She giggled and replaced the curtain. Aln could hear the chancellor chastising her from within the carriage.
Lady Crescia. She would be 20 this year. Her father was a studied healer. Her mother, a master of wielding the elements, a skill which had won her numerous medals during her prestigious career. Just thinking of her mother caused Aln’s heart to pound with anxiety. He had shared the battlefield with her many times and had quickly learned to heed the warnings to stay out of her way or risk being swept up in a burst of wind or swallowed by a gaping chasm.
But it was Crescia’s inborn talents that were truly the talk of Maehn, and perhaps beyond. Her healing prowess was innate and unmatched, and yet she also showed a gifted affinity for elemental magic. She could have taken her talents in any direction she wished, had any master she chose. Yet from the start, she desired only one thing: to take up the Goddess’ challenge and to receive one of her gifts.
Her desire was well-known, but her motive was not. Most candidates pursued this task for the obvious aims of fame and fortune. Even past victors who had not successfully learned to wield the gift they had received still found themselves among Maehn nobility just for possessing a gift alone. But Crescia’s family was nobility. They were revered and well-loved throughout the capital. Preparing for this single task to the exclusion of almost anything else had always seemed odd to Aln, and perhaps that was part of what he found alluring about her.
The pair had grown close over the course of the journey, though their increasing intimacy earned the ire of the chancellor, who, as the overseer of all magical affairs within the kingdom, had a keen desire to protect the capital’s foremost living magical asset. When Aln and Crescia could find a moment alone, every now and then he would work up the courage to ask her why she was doing this. And every time, she dodged the question with a giggle, quickly alighting on a different topic of conversation altogether.
But now that they had finally arrived, the question weighed heavily on Aln’s mind. He kept glancing over at her as he and the other knights unloaded the wagon. If any candidate can break the capital curse, it has to be her.
During dinner in the Moorin Grand Hall, his eyes remained fixed on her as she made pleasant small talk with other members of the caravan. Finally, as the others slowly drifted off to their rooms, Aln stole into the chair next to hers as she sat by the hearth, gazing vacantly into the fire.
“You must be nervous,” he said, and though his voice had been soft, it had still been enough to give her a start.
“I’m trying not to be,” she said, giving him her usual easy smile. He could feel his heart melt, but he fought to keep his mind focused. The smile that endeared him to her also made her fairly hard to read.
“I have a good feeling about tomorrow.”
“Oh yes. I truly believe we may have a victor once more.”
“So what will you do, I mean, once you have the Gift of the Goddess?”
“Oh you!” Crescia gently smacked his bicep and slid closer to him. He extended his arms and pulled her to him, glancing around. A few soldiers from the capital were still milling about, but the chancellor and the other higher-ups had long since gone to bed. Aln knew being caught like this would be catastrophic – for him, at least. But he couldn’t help it, not when she drew near to him like this. Her soft skin brushed against his rough hands. She gazed up into his eyes. He cupped her chin lovingly in his hand.
“I still don’t understand why you feel the need to be so coy about this?”
“Some would say being coy is part of my charm.” She moved in for a kiss, but Aln held up his hand; gently, but firmly. Crescia settled back into the crux of his arm with a feigned huff.
“If it will satisfy you, then I will make a bargain with you. I will tell you my reasoning after I have pulled the gift and once her will is delivered to me. Then, and only then.”
Aln chuckled and couldn’t help but tease her. “When? Not if?”
She smacked his chest, which was now only covered by a leather tunic. “Why must you be so cruel?”
He let out a hardy laugh, then quickly silenced himself, realizing they were beginning to draw attention. “When, then. Yes, when you have drawn the Gift of the Goddess. And how exactly do you plan to do that?”
She moved in for a kiss, before he could stop her. His eyes flicked about and then, satisfied that the remaining members of their caravan would not betray him, he let himself enjoy the taste of her lips. But just as he was beginning to relax, to savor the moment, she pulled away.
“For that, you will have to wait until tomorrow, my love. It will give you something to look forward to.”
With that, she slid off the chair and sashayed off toward her room, leaving Aln in a stunned silence.
The village of Moorin had a peculiar shape to it. The majority of houses were arranged in rows with a wide central path leading up to the village square – which was actually rounded, more like a semi-circle. Aln suspected one looking down on the village from above might see this road and the village square as a keyhole shape. It was a peculiar design. The square – or circle – was bordered by the tavern, several shops, the entrances to a few manors (including the village elder’s), and, at the center, the great hall. The trees that bordered the town were set back a bit, but tall enough that they still provided ample shade from the harsh light of the sun.
Aln stood near the front of the furthest line of capital soldiers flanking Crescia and those who had travelled with her. As usual, the capital caravan was by far the largest. In the years before the Great Calamity, candidates from the capital had been frequent targets for assassination attempts, in order to give other regions a shot at victory.
“Thank you all for gathering here, amidst the glory of the gift delivered to our world by our benevolent Goddess, Sel-en-Mina. Though I must acknowledge what a shock it was the day this divine object staked itself a mere stone’s throw from my own manor, we of Moorin Village are nonetheless grateful for this most prestigious opportunity.
Nervous chuckling broke out through the crowd. Aln suspected that the people of Moorin were likely happy to see the gift go. Though it probably brought in a fair amount of visitors who had taken to making pilgrimages to see the Gift of the Goddess each year, it usually placed stress on the village, both in trying to meet the demands of the influx of visitors and because of the profound effect the gifts sometimes had on the local environment. In some locations, the gifts increased the fertility of the soil, while in others, they killed off any plant life unfortunate enough to be nearby. Over the years, Aln couldn’t make sense of which location would receive which impact. He wondered, in the deepest part of his heart, whether it was merely due to the Goddess’ mood at the time, but he suspected such thinking would be considered sinful.
The village elder continued to drone on. Aln wondered how long she must have spent, preparing for her opportunity to be heard by visitors from all over the world. But Aln couldn’t stay focused and so he began to glance around. Eyeing the other candidates, he noted that, as per usual, none of them had an entourage as large as the one from the capital. Most of them had barely any protection at all. Only one foreign candidate had shown up this time: an older boy from a snowy northern country, which was made evident by the fact that most of the caravan had been unsure of how to dress for the temperate weather. They were all trying to shake free of their heavy outer cloaks without drawing too much attention to themselves.
“And now, with the Goddess’ blessing, will the first candidate please step forward?”
Aln snapped back to attention as the crowd fell completely silent. The sole foreign candidate, having parted with his cloak, was now walking with purpose toward the stage. As a courtesy, the foreign candidate was always invited to go first, since they had likely travelled the furthest. The capital always went last. This was a holdover from the days when the capital had always had the winning candidate. Now many believed it was to save themselves the embarrassment.
A platform had been built around this year’s gift, so that all that was visible was the crystalline shaft of what Aln suspected to be some sort of staff. It glistened, causing it to reflect the light back in a prismatic array of vivid colors.
One by one, the candidates made their attempts; the clever boy mage from the cold country first tried to entice it with flames, then the aide of his familiar. The fire he set caused not a hint of movement, and his familiar trying to tug at it looked more like a pet playing with an oversized stick.
A girl from a tropical village tried a variety of charms. Her infatuation charm did elicit a small tingling from the shaft, but it rebounded and caused several crowd members to rush the stage in pursuit of the new object of their desire. It was for incidents like this that most regions brought experienced magic users to undo any unfortunate accidents.
Still, no one had managed to pull the staff free. At last, it was Crescia’s turn. Aln’s heart pounded as she swept toward the stage. Her lithe body was clad in flowing robes in shades of pearl, buttermilk, and lilac. Her platinum hair fluttered in the wind, then settled to about waist-length. She smiled at the crowd as she ascended the platform.
Crescia placed her hands together and began to sing. Her voice was smooth and soothing. The air in the village square changed in a matter of seconds as her high-pitched, almost angelic voice wafted through. Any lingering tension was gone. It became cooler, refreshing. Old scars that plagued Aln’s body from battles past began to relax, to breathe, almost as if they were healing anew.
She truly was Maehn’s palliative prodigy.
A loose, easy smile drifted across Aln’s face as the words of her song, words in the Divine language that he didn’t understand, filled him with peace.
The shaft of the staff began to glow, brighter than it had before. The crowd collectively held its breath.
Still singing, Crescia daintily removed the gloves from her hands, reached out, and grasped the staff. She tugged at the shaft. However, it refused to budge.
She finished her first song and effortlessly moved into another. This one was more lively and fast-paced, but still in the Divine language. Aln recognized it as one he had learned as a child, though he had learned it in the national language of Maehn. It was a rare treat, hearing the original version. While the staff continued to glow, it gave no indication that it had moved, not even an inch.
As Crescia finally finished the second song, a collective groan began to echo through the audience. It was at this point that Aln noticed the sweat glistening on her brow and the heartbroken look that had begun to moisten her eyes.
The staff had shown no change since it had begun to glow.
This outcome had happened before too. No victor from the capital. No victor from anywhere.
Aln could see the panic in Crescia’s eyes. It was obvious that she was struggling for something, anything, that might work. She had seemed so confident before and now Aln understood why. She must have been sure that the profound hymns of the Goddess would resonate with the gift. But the crowd released a collective sigh and the village elder had risen, likely prepared to give Crescia a dignified exit, when –
The voice had scarcely reached Crescia’s ears when she turned to see a cloaked figure barreling toward the platform, being lead by a strange four-legged creature, with more fur than the standard woodwolves found in this area, and with what looked like a bridle wrapped around its torso.
“What is this?!” The chancellor cried out from the capital entourage. Aln leapt toward the platform, jumping in front of Crescia with his sword drawn toward the figure.
“Let me try!” The figure said. The hood of the cloak still obscured their face, and though their voice was lower and more firm than Crescia’s, Aln couldn’t shake the feeling that it still sounded feminine somehow. The animal pulling this cloaked female stopped abruptly right in front of the staff and planted itself on the spot.
The village elder rose. “I-I believe we’ve been through all the candidates who’ve registered…”
“Yeah, who do you think you are?”
“The capital goes last!”
“Daddy, I want to go home.”
“I’m sorry, I was late.” Without turning toward the crowd, she gave her reply and turned toward the staff. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say she turned in the direction the leashed creature had planted himself. Aln watched her with rapt attention, ready to move himself and Crescia to safety if the need arose.
The audience, however, had continued to express its displeasure. Jeers and shouts were rippling through the crowd. The village elder stood dumbfounded for a moment before finally addressing the crowd.
“I understand your frustration at this discourteous intrusion. However, the staff still has not been removed. I believe it would be prudent to allow this attempt to proceed.”
The audience quieted, but the stranger had not waited for the elder’s permission. Her hands swept up and down as she stepped gingerly toward the staff. Finally, just as she made contact, she tripped on the creature in front of her. It gave a yelp and leapt out of the way – then disappeared into thin air. A few chuckles echoed through the crowd. Quickly, the cloaked figure tried to steady herself once more, grabbing the staff tightly and pulling herself to it. Aln and Crescia took a step back to allow the stranger more room.
For a moment, everything became quiet.
The stranger leaned closer to the staff. Aln thought he heard something. Whispering? But it was a language he didn’t recognize. A second later, the stranger removed the gloves from her hands, one of which was covered in bandages. She placed the bandaged hand lower on the staff and the bare one higher, closing it tight around the staff.
“Who are you?” The village elder eyed her and took a step closer, but just as she did, a blinding light filled the area. Aln shielded his eyes and Crescia did the same. It was coming from the staff.
“There it is,” the stranger said in a cocky tone. She tightened her hands, gave one good tug, and yanked the staff free. Quickly, she moved her hands in perfect sync, twirling the staff until she had a steady hold and it was upright in the air. The staff’s once concealed end looked like a giant, bladed crescent moon, its sharp edges perfect for slicing any foe who dared to get within midrange uninvited.
The stranger struggled to lift the staff all the way into the air, with its overly heavy top, and as she did, her hood fell back, revealing a woman with short, unkempt red hair. When she opened her green eyes, Aln noticed she wasn’t looking at the crowd nor at the staff. Her eyes didn’t appear to be looking at anything in particular.
“She’s blind?” Aln whispered, incredulously.
“You!” The elder hissed.
“Cass!” A voice called from the crowd. It was a woman standing in the back with two children peering up at the podium from behind her.
The blind woman held the staff high in the air, a look of triumph spreading across her face.
“Finally! The Gift of the Goddess I was owed all those years ago!”
Aln fell to his knees, more out of necessity to support his floundering posture, and gazed up at the newest victor – Cass, the same woman who had caused the Great Calamity ten years ago.
A HUGE thank you to my editor, Catherine Felegi, for her amazing insight. Thank you everyone for taking the time to check out the prologue to Gifted! It’s a story that’s actually been in the works for awhile and I’m very excited to share it with you. I know the prologue ended up being a bit thicker than I would have liked for an introduction, but now that we have our protagonist, the story can begin. See you all next Monday for Chapter 1.