Twenty-five years ago, the hand of fate marked four newborns and sent them to the four corners of the Great Kingdoms. They were schooled and trained as rulers of their lands in preparation for the Golden Eclipse ceremony: a festival to celebrate a thousand years of peace and prosperity since the Great War.
Crow, ruler of Northlands, a skilled swordsman and expert tactician, is as reclusive and stoic as the mountains that surround him.
Tancho has spent his life in strict discipline, governing the Westlands with a fair mind and gentle hand. Quiet and unassuming, yet lethal in combat, he is the embodiment of the waters he lives by.
Yet the same hand of fate unknowingly linked Tancho to Crow in ways they cannot comprehend. Ruled by the stars, the Brother Sun and the two Sister Moons above them, and marked by an alchemical sorcery as old as time, their destinies were never their own.
As the eclipse draws near and the festival begins, word comes of another threat. Invaders from unknown lands bring a war no one was prepared for, and Crow and Tancho must decide on which side of the battle line they stand.
In life or death, their destinies will see them joined either way.
The winter sun was at high noon, shining a spotlight on the two men sword-fighting in the open courtyard of the Northlands’ castle. Mirroring the rocky outcrops in the snowy landscape, black flags marked with a single white raven shimmered in the cool winds. Dark grey stone bricks gleamed as the sunlight turned icy frost into fleeting jewels, and the clang of metal on metal, grunts of effort, and bouts of laughter echoed skyward.
The broadsword grazed Crow’s cheek, the burn of sliced skin and a warm trickle of blood down his cheek made him smile. Soko paused for the briefest moment, horrified that he had struck his king. Crow used the moment of distraction and swung for his neck. Soko parried, and with another bark of laughter, the fight went on.
Plumes of steam escaped with every exhale, sweat cooled on heated skin. Crow’s dark hair was damp and clung to his pale face; his dark eyes sparkled with delight as they always did when he sparred with Soko. Friends since childhood, Crow trusted no one as he trusted Soko. Surrounded by consuls and guards and staff who abided by his every whim, he could count on Soko for his honesty and reason. He told him truths when no one else dared, and he never held back when they fenced or sparred, such as they were doing now.
Crow was bound by responsibility and duty, as kings often were. Even as a small boy, Crow had studied the ancient ways, the lore of his ancestors of the Northlands. Studied, trained, studied, trained when he’d have rather done anything else, and yet it was Soko who had willingly stood beside him. Brothers, even if there was not one drop of shared blood between them.
Soko’s hair was ashen blond and shaggy, his eyes blue and sharp. He had a smile of mischief and wit, a keen mind for learning and a keener eye for women, whereas Crow was dark and brooding, and his eye was drawn to the forms of men. Soko was free to act upon his impulses and there had never been a shortage of satisfied women in the Northlands’ castle, yet Crow had never been free.
Who wears the mark bears the crown . . .
Bound by responsibility and duty. And the birthmark on his wrist. Even the mere thought of it . . .
He hissed at the pain and dropped his sword, pulling at the leather wrist guard, fumbling to get the straps undone.
“What is it?” Soko asked, immediately concerned. “It itches still?”
“No,” Crow breathed. He finally pulled the guard from his arm and covered the birthmark with his cold fingers. “It burns.”
“Burns? What the—”
Just then, the heavy wooden doors to the courtyard swung inward. Soko spun into a ready stance with his sword raised to protect Crow, without fault, without question. The young messenger raised his hands in alarm, breathing hard, his eyes trained on the blade.
“What is it?” Soko demanded.
“Excuse me, my lord,” the messenger said, bowing his head to Crow. “A lone rider comes. At pace.”
A lone rider coming to the city was not uncommon. Villagers traded food and wares all the time. “What of it?” Crow asked, still clutching his wrist. “Why the urgency?”
The messenger swallowed hard. “The rider and horse bear the yellow flag of the Elders’ Consul.”
Soko lowered his sword and turned to Crow, his eyes wide and face ashen, for it could only mean one thing.
The birthmark on Crow’s wrist continued to burn.
* * *
Dressed now in warmer clothes, Crow and Soko stood at one of the grand hall windows watching as the yellow-clad rider made his way through the gates of the castle. Crow had his guards meet the man, one taking his horse, one escorting the rider inside, out of view, knowing it would take several minutes for the rider to be brought to see him.
Crow held his wrist, trying to ignore the burn.
“It’s never caused you pain before,” Soko noted. “And I don’t think a visit from the Elders’ Consul is a coincidence.”
Crow winced again and Soko took his hand, inspecting the birthmark. It looked as it always had; dark against his pale skin, oddly beautiful and abstract, the clear form of a raven in full flight, its wings outstretched. The mark which showed Crow’s predestined fate appeared no different; though it had begun to itch at the last full moons, now it burned like fire ants crawling beneath his skin.
Crow tugged his hand away and pulled down his coat sleeve. “I’m fine, and make no mention of it in front of company.”
After a brief pause, Soko sighed. “It’s time, isn’t it? That’s what this means? The festival draws near.”
Crow gave a nod before the sound of approaching footsteps put an end to this conversation. The two heavy doors opened and a guard appeared and bowed his head. “My lord, messenger of the Elders’ Consul.”
He stepped aside and the visitor strode forward. He wore the Consul’s yellow tunic under a heavy coat of the same colour, with the four-pointed compass rose emblazoned upon his chest. He appeared slightly dishevelled and tired, though he bowed his head. He produced a scroll from inside his coat pocket and offered it to Crow. “My lord.”
Crow took the paper from him but did not open it. “Your name?”
“Roulant,” he replied quickly.
“You’ve ridden far.”
It was perhaps a seven- or eight-day ride to the Elders’ Consul temple, and the ride itself was not an easy one. Northlands was mountainous, rocky roads, and deep snow; hard and brutal land, almost as hard and brutal as the men and women who called it home. Given this rider had done it in six days meant there was urgency. “You rode alone?”
“Yes, my lord. Four riders sent to the four quarters.”
The Great Kingdoms had long ago been divided into four quarters. North, of mountains and snow. West, of oceans and rivers. East, of jungles and forests, and South of desert sands and dunes. At its centre, was the Aequi Kentron; a huge moated temple of sorts, where the Elders’ Consul presides, upholding the law of the four lands and keeping score.
Formed a thousand years ago after the Great War, nine high priests protected the ancient ways and traditions, ensuring laws remained unbroken and territory borders intact. They overlooked the trade between kingdoms and ensured fairness at every turn, and the last thousand years had been peaceful and prosperous.
Steeped in history and tradition, and by definition the equal centre, Aequi Kentron was the heart of all four kingdoms.
Each of the four rulers was chosen at birth by the birthmark on their wrist. They would each rule their lands independently and in their own right, with their own laws and governance, yet there were some laws they could not ignore.
The law that stated when each ruler was beckoned, they would come.
The law was written when the Consul was established, that when the Brother Sun and the two Sister Moons aligned at the equinox, they would partake in the Festival of the Eclipse. They would abide with honour and with the dignity of the rank they held.
Crow was proud of his title, proud of his people, and he would lay his life down for his kingdom. And he should have been proud to be the chosen one in the time of the eclipse. Once every thousand years and it happened in his lifetime, his rule. Yet destiny was a weight like no other, and unease filled his belly for reasons he couldn’t put name to. The fact his birthmark now caused him pain was one he couldn’t ignore, and now with the news from Aequi Kentron, it could only mean one thing.
His time was now.
Realisation skittered down Crow’s spine like a cold spider. So, it was time. Every arrow of his life was pointed to this. He gave a reluctant nod and turned to the guard. “See this man to hot food and warm quarters, and see that his horse is tended to.”
Roulant’s gaze shot up to Crow’s. “My lord, I am thankful.”
“As am I.” Crow gave him a smile. “Eat and rest as you need.”
Roulant gave another nod of gratitude, and he was escorted out by the guard. Soko waited patiently as Crow held the scroll. There was a wax seal atop the Consul’s writing in old calligraphy ink.
King of Northlands
Crow slid his finger beneath the seal and unrolled the thick paper. At the centre top was the Consul’s four-pointed compass rose stamped in blue ink. The writing was impeccably neat, the strokes delivered with such importance not even the ink dared to bleed.
Your Royal Highness, King Crow of Northlands,
The Eclipse befalls on the Equinox in your twenty-fifth year.
Your attendance is formally requested at the Aequi Kentron one week before the Equinox, for the festival of the Golden Age.
We eagerly await your arrival.
Crow read it again, then handed it to Soko who read it, frowning. “What does this mean?”
Crow stared out the window at the snow-covered valley below, at how the blackened rocky crags tore raggedly through the serene whiteness looking like open claw marks in flesh.
“I ride for Aequi Kentron in two days,” Crow replied.
Soko’s eyes hardened. “You will not ride alone.”
Crow almost smiled at that. “I didn’t think I would.”
“And the eclipse?”
“A golden sun for a golden age,” he replied with a sigh, turning back to stare out the window. “My birthright is finally upon me.”
Soko’s voice was quiet, as though he dreaded to hear what he already knew. “What will you do?”
Crow took a long moment to answer. Was it fear or dread? Acceptance or resignation? “My choice in this was long ago removed,” he murmured, finally meeting Soko’s eyes. “I will attend their festival, and when all the fanfare and nonsense is done, I will return as if nothing has occurred.”
“It’s supposed to be a celebration,” Soko replied. “Yet it hangs over you like a dark cloud.”
Crow sighed. He would have quite happily been left alone for all his days, but this felt different. This felt ominous and he couldn’t explain why. “True metal does not fear the furnace,” he murmured.
It was a favoured Northlands saying, cited by the miners who dug ore from frozen mountains and by the blacksmiths who turned it into steel.
Yet Crow feared . . . something. He feared this festival and ceremony; he feared the change he felt would rise with the golden sun. He feared the unknown.
And he feared the greasy dread in his belly and the burn on his wrist that told him his life was about to change forever.
She is many things: a mother, a wife, a sister, a writer. She has pretty, pretty boys who live in her head, who don’t let her sleep at night unless she gives them life with words.
She likes it when they do dirty, dirty things… but likes it even more when they fall in love.
She used to think having people in her head talking to her was weird, until one day she happened across other writers who told her it was normal.