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The Seal

Some covenants should never be broken.

By Alexandra HubbellPublished 2 years ago 21 min read
The Seal
Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

“There weren’t always dragons in the valley,” Carrow flapped his robe behind him dramatically, as though he had wings. The flames of the bonfire sparked at the gust of air, sending light further up, illuminating the vast cave they’d made their home. Embers exploded beyond the barrier of rocks and scattered close to the young ones. They had been sitting almost too closely to the fire, enraptured by their storyteller, but they jumped back in fits of giggles as the firebrands descended. Rumor had it, Carrow had played several small parts in the King’s Theater, before the dragons came. Millicent had to admit he was entertaining.

“Man grew complacent," he continued. "The valley hadn’t seen a dragon in centuries.”

“But why not?” a tiny voice said. It was little Erin, barely six years old. She’d scooted herself back toward the fire, and the orange light danced wildly in her wide eyes. “Where did they go?”

“Erin!” her brother Caleb, ten years old and almost too grown up for these kid stories, groaned. “You’ve heard it a million times. This is getting boring.”

“It’s time to sleep now anyway,” Millicent said, eliciting a collective whine from the pack of children.

“Just five more minutes, please Millie?” Erin pleaded, her lisp curling around the words.

“Not a chance,” Millicent said, and she gently tugged the girl’s braid. “Tomorrow night is one of the last trials before the solstice. Don’t you want someone from the Graves to have a fair chance?”

The little girl nodded.

“And if one of us does a good job,” Millicent continued. “Maybe others will get a chance in the future.”

“Like Caleb?” she perked up. She walked on her toes, bouncing as she made her way to the sleeping chambers. “He’s the fastest ten year old!”

“Just like Caleb,” Millicent said. “And I bet if he got a spot in the Iron Palace, his little sister would get to join him.”

Erin grinned at that, showing the gap where her two front teeth had been just weeks before. She ran to meet up with her brother, calling out something about being a princess. Millicent shook her head at the girl, and didn’t stop shaking her head when Carrow joined her.

“You shouldn’t fill their heads with stories of the past,” she said. “It does them no good.”

“It gives them hope,” he protested. He tugged at his white beard thoughtfully.

“False hope,” she said. “Our reality is the dragons. They came back, and back with a vengeance. We all need to focus on the trials, on being useful to the kingdom. If we don’t, they’ll never have a chance at the Iron Palace. They’ll live underground, in these caves, for the rest of their lives. Lives which will be very short if we don’t find more resources soon. We don’t call this place the Graves for nothing, need I remind you. If I’m not fast enough, someone else has to be--”

“You’re gonna beat ‘em all,” Carrow said, slinging an arm around her shoulder. “You’re not only the fastest, but the most limber. Those boys with their big muscles, all that fancy Palace training, don’t stand a chance. You have something they don’t.”

“We’ll see at dusk tonight,” she said. “We did the math. On solstice, we have sixteen whole hours of darkness to travel undetected. I’ll have a lot of time to get far. I could see the summit last night. It was far off, barely visible, but I saw it.”

“You’ll get there,” he said. He patted her arm before releasing her. They’d reached her passage, and she gave him a grateful smile before he walked off toward his own, taking the only torch with him. She fumbled through the inky darkness to her soft pile of blankets and pillows, salvaged during the Great Dragon Migration. She’d gathered what was left of her home after the first fires, dragging them on her back as she followed Carrow and the rest of their ragtag troupe to the Graves. There were fifty-four of them that made it, not counting the new ones that had miraculously been born and survived since they evacuated. Little Erin had been just two when they got there. It had been almost four years now, living like moles in their own kingdom, hiding in the tunnels by day and foraging at night while the dragons slept. They had strict perimeters for how far they could explore, not traveling too far at night so that they couldn’t return by sunrise. The only ones that went beyond the perimeter were the hill runners.

Millicent was one of them. For three years, she’d been training. It had taken a full year for the Iron Palace to get desperate enough to need outside help. Though the citizens in the Graves had been struggling since the evacuation, the Iron Palace had contained most of the resources of the kingdom, hoarding them inside of the steely walls. When the Graves grew desperate enough, the Palace would trade resources for labor. Many men left the Graves in exchange for food for their families, never to return.

It was impossible to farm. The dragons were always prowling during the working daylight hours, and anything they did try to grow ended up scorched by the dragons’ sporadic flames or choked in the ashy clay before even sprouting. They relied on nightly foraging for mushrooms and berries in the mountains, and the occasional successful hunt for a rabbit or squirrel. But the animal populations were waning, and the winter months meant less to forage. The offers for support from the Iron Palace had ended. Instead, two representatives from the King had traveled to the Graves. They offered a place in the Palace to anyone who could cross the mountain’s summit by sunrise. There was rumor that on the other side of the mountain, other kingdoms still thrived--that they had protections in place against the dragons that the valley could leverage.

Millicent imagined a giant glass dome over the valley, keeping the dragons out but the sunlight in. But she knew that idea was foolish. There probably wasn’t anything on the other side of the range, but she had to know for sure. She’d rather die knowing she’d tried, than starve to death in this cavern. She was almost dreaming of this other kingdom, a new valley, drifting between waking and sleeping, when she heard small footsteps on the stone floor.

“Millie?” Erin’s voice whispered through the opaque darkness. “I dreamt the bad thing again.”

“Come lay with me,” Millicent sighed, and she patted the makeshift bed so Erin could follow the noise. The little girl raced in next to her, wriggling under the covers. Her heartbeat was as quick as a rabbit’s, and her body was like a furnace. Millicent welcomed the extra heat. “Which bad thing was it this time? Tell me about it.”

“I saw mama again,” she said. “Mama in front of the dragon, blocking me. He burned her right up all over again. I could hear it. It was so loud.”

Millicent wished she could tell her that it wasn’t real. That these nightmares were just her imagination running wild. But in this world, the monsters were very real, and so were the nightmares. Millicent had nightmares of Erin’s mother too. She’d watched in horror as the dragon incinerated the woman. Millicent saw the children, and she’d thrown pots and pans from the once-standing kitchen as far as she could, distracting the dragon just long enough to snatch up baby Erin and a tiny Caleb. Erin shouldn’t be able to remember it, but somehow, she did. Her first memory was her mother burning to death in front of her. Her eyes melting from her skull, her skin falling from her bones.

“Can you make it go away?” Erin asked. “The bad thoughts?”

“I can try,” Millicent said. She began to hum. It was an old song taught to men much older than the oldest men of the valley. A song that probably existed when the dragons were first eradicated, all those centuries ago. Somehow it always worked. She’d hum and stroke Erin’s hair until she fell asleep, and she wouldn’t wake again from a nightmare. It worked then, and Erin’s eyes slowly blinked closed. Millicent could feel her long lashes flutter against the crook of her arm until they stilled. The girl’s breathing slowed, and her exhales whistled through the missing teeth. At some point, Millicent hummed herself to sleep. She woke hours later to Carrow at her side, a torch blazing.

“Trials time,” he said.

She left Erin sleeping in the pile of blankets. She pulled on her boots and followed Carrow, stretching her arms as they walked through the labyrinth of tunnels to the mouth of the cave. They followed the markings on the stone walls until the light of the full moon was visible. The forest was bathed in blue, and under the moonlight old Carrow looked shockingly handsome. She wondered what she looked like. She hadn’t seen a reflection of herself since the evacuation. But how she looked didn’t matter. She pushed away those vain thoughts that had consumed her once, years ago. All that mattered now was the strength of her legs and lungs. The flexibility of her feet, ankles, hips. The grace of her stride. She’d run what she could, she’d climb the rest. She would reach the summit on the solstice. Whatever waited on the other side, be it more dragons or safety, she would face it. And if she made it back, she’d enter the Iron Palace, and she’d get resources to her friends. She would demand it. She would steal it if she had to. She’d probably die doing that too, but at least she’d know Erin and Caleb and the others would be taken care of.

She hugged Carrow, his soft, wrinkled skin grazed her cheek. He squeezed her tightly, and whispered for her to make them proud. She made her way to the perimeter to meet the others.

Three boys from the Mines were already there, and five Kingsman from the Palace were emerging from the rough tunnel that led from the valley center. Their faces were coated in dirt, and one of them had rubble in his hair from where he must have scraped the ceiling of the narrow passage. Millicent shuddered at the thought of the claustrophobic tunnel, momentarily grateful for the vast walls of the Graves. A representative from the King’s Counsel was last to exit the tunnel, and he cleared his throat for their attention, though no one was speaking.

“You know the rules,” he said. “You gauge your own time and distance. Know your halfway mark. Once there, see how far you are from the summit. Tomorrow night, you will have 16 hours to travel. That is an extra 3 minutes than you have now. If tonight you do not see the summit with the naked eye, you will not be capable of reaching it tomorrow. No matter what you see, tonight, at the halfway mark, you turn around, or you die. You will not make it to the summit by sunrise, and by sun-up, no one will be waiting here for you. You will be an open target for dragon-fire, and they will gladly take it.”

The boys from the kingdom stood wide-stanced, arms crossed over their chests. They nodded in obedience to their superior. The boys from the mines shifted from foot to foot, though from nerves or intention of defiance Millicent couldn’t tell. She stood stoically, though her heart was fluttering as fast as Erin’s had after her nightmare. Millicent wasn’t afraid. She was wired. Her feet were itching to run. Her breaths were deep, filling her lungs through her nose and exhaling through her mouth.

“Line up,” the councilman said, and the hill runners did. One of the Kingsman began to bounce from side to side, breathing in dramatic huffs. He leaned closer to Millicent when he landed a fifth time, and spoke so quietly, she almost couldn’t hear him.

“Grave-diggers like you don’t stand a chance,” he whispered. “But one less of you is more resources for us when I find the next city. Your family couldn’t even withstand the dragons. They were weak. And you hid. You deserve your fate.”

Millicent imagined the valley on the first day of the attack. The wealthiest citizens, like the Kingsman next to her, lived near the palace. Many of them made it inside its iron gates well before the dragons even breached the mountaintops. Lookout towers warned them first. Behind the protection of the fireproof walls, they shot arrows and threw spears in vain. Nothing could pierce the dragons’ scales. The rest of the kingdom was left to fight and be scorched, or flee and hope they find shelter.

Millicent had first found refuge in her family’s tomb. She and Erin and Caleb descended into the crypt, the marble entrance crumbling over them just as they made it underground. They hid among the dead for days, until the children were so hungry, Millicent had to try. She crept out of the rubble in the dark, staying low, creeping along the singed earth. Charred bodies were scattered across the yards and streets, limbs and heads missing, eyes dripping from their skulls. Millicent began to panic as she searched for food. Nothing was left. The Iron Palace loomed, a giant shadow in the moonlight against the mountain range. She heard something move in the distance, and she fell to her stomach to hide, trying to become flush with the little grass remaining.

“It’s ok!” a voice whispered. “I’m looking for survivors.”

Millicent was trembling. She tried to will herself to move, but the fear planted her in the spot, frozen among the melted faces surrounding her. She felt tears on her cheeks, but didn’t know when she began crying. Maybe she’d been crying for days. She saw boots directly in front of her eyes, then a man--older than her late grandfather--crouched fully to her level. He all but laid beside her.

“I’m Carrow,” he said. “There’s a cave, up in the hills. It’s on the shepherds’ land, but they are sharing now. All the lambs are roasted anyway.” He snorted a small laugh. Millicent finally looked up at him. “Sorry. I’m actually not trying to be funny, but it’s how I deal with this sort of thing.”

“It wasn’t funny,” she said. “Even if you were trying.”

He laughed heartily at this, and she sat up into a crouch, ready to run. She shushed him.

“It’s alright,” he said. “For the past four nights, I’ve been searching. The dragons sleep when we do, so we’re going to have to shift our days into nights, nights to days. At least until they leave.”

“And if they don’t?”

“They’ve left before, if you listen to the old stories,” he said. “We learn how to do it again.”

“I’d bet they know,” she said. She was pointing at the Iron Palace. “If I had anything left to bet.”

Now, on the last day of the trials, this privileged Kingsman was trying to tell her she was weak. But she’d had the strength to save those children. The strength to emerge from her safe haven, leading her to Carrow. She’d survived four years on resourcefulness. She didn’t have iron gates to protect her, only her instincts. She ignored his comments, and when the councilman waved his flag for them to begin, she left him paces behind.

Her route was to the west. She’d been following it for weeks now, making it a bit further each night. She charged through the bare trees, many still smoking from the dragons’ daily scorching. She didn’t know how they had anything left to burn. She navigated around the rocks, the remaining root systems. As she climbed higher, the forest thickened slightly. The dragons didn’t set flame to the tops of the mountains as often as the valley. Hours passed, and she climbed, the slope getting steeper with each step. She surpassed her halfway mark from the night before, and her heart quickened. She’d seen the summit that previous night. She stopped, and squinted hard into the full moonlight. In the distance, she saw the ridge of the summit. She kept going, though the cold air was stinging her face and lungs. The summit got closer, and she knew if she kept her pace, she’d make it. She didn’t need the extra three minutes. She didn’t need to turn around. She would beat them all, climb to the apex a day early.

She raced toward the peak, using her hands and feet to scale the steepening slope. She reached for a branch to pull herself up, and a startled bird flew out from its leaves. She looked up to watch it fly, and when she did, she saw the bright light peeking out behind the slope just in front of her. She pulled herself onto the next landing, and when she did, she froze. The ridge of the summit moved. It rippled like a serpent, shaking boulders loose from the cliffs. A wind so strong it almost blew Millicent from her ledge thundered across the mountaintop as wings sprung forth from what she’d thought was rock. As the sun rose, she made out the shimmering silver scales of the dragon before her. She hadn’t seen one since that first attack. It rose onto its hind legs, talons digging into the shale. It cocked its head to look at her, then stretched its neck long to emit a piercing shriek. It crouched, its face like a snake poised to strike, and when its mouth opened a stream of fire roared from its jaws.

“No!” Millicent screamed. She held her hands over herself, knowing it was in vain, bracing for the flames to incinerate her. But the burn never came. She looked up warily, wondering if she’d died instantly, made it to the other world already. She was still on the ledge, but a blue dome of light surrounded her. The fire repelled from the dome, and the dragon let out another shriek. This time, it lunged for her, its beaklike snout pecking at the dome emitting from her palms, but instead it reared back again, shaking its head as though it were in pain from the impact.

It spread its wings wide, and after three flaps it was airborne. It flew away, roaring in agony as it left. Millicent dropped her hands, and the dome disappeared. She tried to catch her breath, but she was hyperventilating. Spots fluttered across her eyes, and she thought she might faint, until someone grabbed her from behind. His stubbled face scratched against her own, and he had one arm wrapped around her, strapping her hands to her sides, containing her only access to her newfound powers. He had a knife to her neck.

“Don’t run,” he said, as though she would. She’d just survived a dragon, she wouldn’t die at the hands of a vagrant. She shook her head as slightly as she could.

“Good,” he said. He removed the knife and grabbed both of her wrists in his hands. He tied them together in front of her hips, and began leading her by the leftover rope. It all happened so quickly, she hadn’t even processed the dragon, the light from her palms. She looked at her hands, thinking they must have changed somehow, but they looked the same. She tried to will them to work again, to create a shield from this man, but nothing happened. He tugged at her rope. “We have two minutes, maximum. Walk faster.”

She opened her mouth to argue, but she heard wings flapping again thunderously in the distance. The other dragons were coming, and they’d be angry. She matched his pace. He was walking directly into the forest, a straight line toward a giant, leafy elm that miraculously was still standing. As they approached, the bark began to morph. The wood split right by the elaborate root system, opening just large enough for a person to fit through. A shock of silver hair emerged from the dark hole, followed by the face of the most beautiful woman Millicent had ever seen.

“Inside, Ezra, now,” The woman’s voice ordered.

“Yes, Lisia,” he said. The man--Ezra--shoved Millicent in first, the dark hole shocking after her first moments of sunlight in years. A desperation overcame her to crawl back toward the light, but as she looked behind her, the tree was closing over the man’s shoulder. She panicked at first, imagining how small the space in the trunk must be. Just as she began to lose control of her breath again, Lisia lit a lantern, though Millicent didn’t hear the strike of a match. The space was huge. It didn’t make any sense. A sweeping hallway laid out before them, with a long, ornate rug lining the floor. No one spoke as Ezra dragged her along, following Lisia. Tapestries hung on the walls, stitched images of what looked to be the battle of the Great Migration. They continued until they reached a giant wooden door. Lisia opened it, and they entered a dining room. The sudden smell of food unleashed something feral in Millicent. She snagged the rope from the man’s hands and ran to the full table. A roast chicken, piles of potatoes, carrots, and boats of gravy taunted her. She grabbed a knife from the table and tried to cut the ropes herself without success. She then dug into the chicken, hands bound, ripping a thigh from the carcass. Ezra snapped back into action, lunging for her, but the woman lifted a hand. He halted in his tracks.

“Let her,” Lisia said. “She’s starving.”

Millicent felt sick. She dropped the chicken. She’d been so stupid, so desperate.

“It’s poisoned,” Millicent said, her voice shaking, grease from the skin gleaming on her lips.

The man and woman looked at each other, then to Millicent. They erupted into laughter. Millicent felt tears prick her eyes. She stood perfectly still, trying to feel if her body was rejecting the food.

“We would never poison you!” Lisia said. She walked over to Millicent. She waved a hand, and the great door closed. There weren’t any servants at the door when they entered, so Millicent didn’t understand how it just shut. She also didn’t see another exit. Lisia began to unbind her hands.

“I wouldn’t do that. Lisia,” the man warned. “That’s where the magic--”

“I have it from here, Ezra,” she said. The man took the cue as dismissal, and slipped out through the door, shutting it behind him. Lisia took both of Millicent’s hands into her own. They were soft, like a fine powder, against Millicent’s calloused palms.

“We can’t kill you,” she said. “We need you. You’re the last new witch, and you’re our only hope.”

“That’s impossible,” Millicent said, trying to pull away. She looked at her hands in this woman’s, wondering if she’d imagined what had happened before with the dragon. “All the witches are--”

“Dead?” Lisia said. “No. Some are here, weak and hiding, or--detained.”

“Detained?” Millicent asked.

“Millicent,” the woman said, evenly. Millicent went cold. She hadn’t introduced herself. “Do you know where your mother is?”

“I watched her die,” Millicent said. “Before the dragons. She was sick--”

“That wasn’t your mother,” the woman said. “That was your father’s wife. He didn’t… Nevermind. We don’t have much time, so I cannot explain this gently. Millicent, your mother was Ariana Blackstone. My sister. I am your Aunt Lisia. And the fate of the valley rests in those hands of yours.”

“I don’t understand.”

“And I don’t expect you to,” Lisia shook her head. “But I’m going to tell you anyway. Millicent, your mother is inside the Iron Palace. The king took her when you were an infant. The dragons were always going to come, as soon as the witches were taken.”

“Why would they do that?”

“The witches were part of the king’s advisory council for centuries,” she continued. “After the last attack, hundreds of years ago, the king made a pact with the coven to work together to shield the valley. The coven agreed, and they pooled their power to create a barrier, much like the one you made today, over the entire kingdom. For centuries, the witches were revered. They were consulted on the choices of the council, and each year agreed to focus a majority of their power on protecting the valley with the Seal. That’s what we call it--that blue light you created just moments ago.”

“Seems like an important job,” Millicent entertained it, though she wasn’t convinced any of it could be real.

“It was,” Lisia agreed. “And for almost a thousand years, it worked. Then, King Armand took the throne. He claimed that the dragons were a myth. He accused us witches of making them up, of altering history. He said we were pretending that we were using a majority of our power toward the Seal. He claimed we were faking it so we could remain in political authority, and that we were bewitching the kingdom.

“He wanted to harness our powers to conquer distant lands instead, to mine the mountains for gold to trade, to exploit the earth for profit. We tried to tell him the risks of disrupting the Seal, but he said we were liars and traitors. He spread word that we were creating fear over a fake threat. He insisted the dragons were nothing but a story that had spun out of control, and that we were stopping the kingdom from growing in power and potential. The citizens began to hate us. They called us selfish, then dangerous. They supported the King when he put us in captivity. We were drugged in our sleep, and when we woke, we were tied to cold tables in a room without windows. He’d created incisions in our hands, and he was draining our power from them--though how, I do not know. Your mother and some of the other strongest witches, including myself, pooled our mental power. Though we couldn’t cast for protection, we could still produce some magic. We decided as a coven to try and send as many of us from the lab as we could, transported somewhere hidden. Five of the twenty of us made it out. Your mother, if she is still alive, is inside the Iron Palace. She is fueling the greed of the King.”

“But the king sent us as runners,” Millicent stuttered, trying to comprehend this flood of information. “He sent us to find help from the other side of the mountain.”

“He doesn’t care if the dragons stay or go,” she said. “He began building iron around that palace the moment he took the throne. You should have seen it before. White marble and golden towers. He created that fortress because he knew. He knew that by reallocating our powers, the dragons would eventually come. But he’s safe inside, with enough people to entertain him. He is powerful, and he is rich. He didn’t send you running for help. He sent you running to find more wealth. He wants to find more people to trade with, to conquer. And he sent you as a sacrifice, not knowing he sent the most powerful witch in the kingdom to her freedom, her destiny. But we knew. We’ve been calling you.”

“But I can’t do magic,” Millicent said. “It was only that one time. I’ve never done anything like that before. But I was terrified--”

“How about little things?” she interrupted. “Have you ever wanted something so badly that it just sort of happens--just as you imagined it?”

Millicent thought back to her hill running. She’d never been the fastest, but as this solstice approached she felt like it was her last chance. That she had to make it this year. And somehow, she’d gotten faster. A lot faster. It hadn’t made sense. And just that morning, when little Erin came in with her nightmare, she’d always been able to magically soothe her--that was how Carrow put it. She desperately wanted peace for that child, and she could always provide it.

“It’s time Millie,” Lisia took her hand again. “My powers, the others’ powers, all have been drained. I can’t do much more than open doors and light candles.” She waved a hand and the door swung open, the candles in the chandelier dimmed then brightened. “But you. You slipped by them. Raised by your snake of a father and his wife, though I guess now I should be grateful. He chose to shelter you from your mother’s power--your own power--because once he got too close to it, he feared it, as men often do.”

Millicent wondered if Lisia could feel her rage as she spoke ill of her father, of the woman who raised her. The only mother she’d known. She tried to keep her expression neutral, her pulse calm. She imagined Erin instead. Her friends starving in the Graves. She imagined her birth mother, a mother still alive, suffering behind those iron gates.

“Tell me what I need to do,” she said.

Fantasy

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Alexandra Hubbell

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