An unfathomable number of lives and adventures waited patiently before her, bound each within a leather case until opened to reveal their adventurous lives, or tragic deaths. The looming bookcases reached nearly to the ceiling of the mansion’s top floor library, then curving half-way along the wall of the circular room.
One particular book caught her eye; in the midst of dull brown and stark black stood a sliver of pale blue, almost white. On her toes, she stretched her arm towards it, but came inches short. Frowning in disappointment, she allowed her heels to drop to the floor and her hand to her side.
“I don’t particularly recommend that book,” came the deep, handsome voice of the mansion’s owner. Mr. Linden stood tall and proud, with deep-set, hawk-like, piercing brown eyes and neatly combed brown hair stained by stray gray strands. A slight, welcoming smile rested between a bold nose and sharp chin. “Not for the likes of one your age—especially if the one is heir of the Empress, and even more so since you are my guest while your mother is away.”
“I become seventeen next lunar cycle,” she argued, and after a notable pause added his title in almost mock respect, “Master Linden.”
The tips of the smile eroded away into a frown, but was quickly wisped into a forced grin. “Why, yes, of course, Kiera,” he added slight emphasis on her name, which anyone not in or a friend of the royal family would have to address her as “Lady-heir.”
Then, taking the book from the shelf, Linden continued with what he was going to say before; “If you were to read this and experience…” he hesitated briefly, “experience nightmares, the Empress would be most displeased.” Before she could reply, on the ridiculous suggestion, he turned and parted. He did not notice her following, driven by curiousity to discover what the pages within the leather binding held, and later that night, he didn’t notice the drawer in which he had placed the book was open. He didn’t need to.
Kiera hugged the book tightly to herself, as a child would a prized possession. The entirety of Linden’s act, she knew, was to engage her curiosity—he was much too clever; if he hadn’t wanted her to read it, he would’ve never taken it from its shelf. Giving a nod to the swordsman standing guard at her door, she closed it behind her with as much dignity and gracefulness as she could muster for the sake of her mother, and then threw herself onto her bed. Blood pumped excitedly through her, the building suspense of what secrets rested inside the pages pushing her heart faster.
Changing from the elegant evening dress into her silk nightgown, she began blowing out the candles inside the room, each one casting dancing shadows before leaving behind only a charred wick, until only the one on the nightstand next to her bed was left lit. It was almost certain she would fall asleep reading, and she would rather have the chance of a fire to the minimum.
Sparkling eyes hungrily watched as the book opened by trembling hands. On the first page was a drawing of a wolf, standing before a man and a woman, the latter of which held the hilt of a sword thrust into the ground. A wind blew their hair and the leaves on the branches above them. Foliage stretched across under their feet, vines and wildflowers and short grass. Mountains sat content in the distance, jagged peaks waiting for someone to try conquering them, only to be conquered by the cruelty of the storms unseen behind them.
The scene seemed so real to her, and in her head she imagined the hair whipping against their faces, which the woman calmly tucked behind her ear. She heard the wind rustling. She could see the wolf’s fur shifting through various shades of gray as the wind swirled.
Yet there was an element about the picture, something strange, but she didn’t know what it was. A moment passed before she finally realized what it was: the woman’s face looked like Kiera’s.
Suddenly the window cracked open, allowing a howling wind to lash at the room. The pages began turning rapidly, each holding a picture almost exactly like the previous, although some things were changed. The leaves stopped moving, and all movement in the scene ceased—except the storm cloud. It grew larger and larger, soon becoming multitudes of individual black specks, which soon grew wings, and then a bombardment of birds. The whistling from the cracked window rose to a high pitch, and the attacking birds, an immortal army in its thousands of millions, began pecking and using talons as miniature scythes. Blood dripped from several cuts in the woman’s face and arms. Finally, her head turned, and it seemed like she was looking at Kiera, lips moving in silent words, and then she fell.
That instant, the whistle grew lower and lower, and then was almost nonexistent. The pages stopped turning, but Kiera’s eyes grew heavier with each passing second. The page was white, but as she stared, black lines began to form letters, which in turn formed a word:
Another word was forming itself, but her eyes refused to remain open any longer. Vines spreading from the crevasse between pages, violating the space of whatever they touched. They were looking for something specific, and it did not take them long to find their target. Crawling along her flesh, they wrapped around ever inch of skin, and once there was no skin left in sight, began pulling her body into a gaping hole that appeared at the base of the vines, until even the book itself had been swallowed. He had warned her about the book.
Now it was too late.
Kiera awakened to the sound of birds chirping and warm stickiness. Harsh, dried leaves stung her face. Briefly, she was thankful that her hair was so short and the leaves couldn’t get entwined in long locks. She stood, staring at her surroundings. A dense forest, with thousands of trees and undergrowth as residents, many of which she had never seen before. Some, she recognized as the maple and oaks that she had known her whole life, but what were these bristly branches that seemed as if they were spined? Then, she considered, it wasn’t important at the moment.
The book lay on the ground beside her bare feet. Picking it up, she opened it for any clue of what was happening, but only found three lines of words:
WOLVEN OF THE REALM
IF IN NEED OF INSTRUCTION, READ THE PAGES BEYOND
Confused, Kiera flipped through the next five pages, but each was blank. Shaking her head, she check for any cuts or scrapes that could reveal what happened to her, why she was in such an alien land, but the only thing out of place was that she wore a fine pale mist blue silk dress inlaid with intricate designs of thread-of-gold and pearls, and hemmed in gray fur. At the moment, she made no connection to the fur, the strange title of “Wolven,” and the picture with herself and the wolf, because at the moment, there was a sharp sting at the back of her neck from the tip of a blade.
“Speak only your name, and what business you have in these Realms!” a strong voice softly demanded with the promise of consequence for disobedience.
“My name is Kiera, daughter of the Empress of—.”
“Empress? There is no Empress in any land, not for several generations!” he spat. “Speak truth, and do not be mistaken in thinking I will feel remorse for you.”
The sharp threat hidden beneath his words were as lethal as the blade that held her still. Swallowing, she started, “Please, I am of no threat to you—let me turn around.” It was always best to be able to see an attacker, to spot weakness before they can act. The confirmation of his allowance came when the tip of whatever he held was removed from its place, where it had slowly dug into the skin.
His appearance was…strange, to say the very least. Dressed in a harsh wool vest and breeches, he appeared peasant-like, although hemmed similar to her own garb. In addition to this, his face and neck, as well as his arms down to the cuffs of his wrists, were covered in tattoos, exotic shapes and swirls, all in a design spiraling outward from a howling wolf whose body was cut from view by the vest. In a moment of silence, Kiera took the initiative to speak, “Where am I?”
“Silence,” he ordered. “It is very unlikely that you have just wandered here without knowing what territory you’ve come into.”
“And, uh, what is that?”
“I said silence! You people who submit to the tyrant are weak, cowards! Follow me, and the Elders will decide your fate!”
Having no choice, she followed.
An hour’s trek later, her feet bled from being unaccustomed to such long excursions as much as from the many sticks and stones along the way. She was both relieved and terrified to find a thatch-roofed village in a clearing. Relieved for a place to rest, terrified of what the people may do.
The streets were alive with village people, milling about their daily routines. As the two entered the village, heads turned with glaring eyes. Everyone over the age of ten, it seemed, wore tattoos similar to her captor’s. Almost everyone twelve and older wore, held, or kept nearby a cruel axe, and a variety of some crude and some elegant swords. Everyone’s gaze held a deep contempt for her. Three kids running through the streets suddenly stopped to stare at her. As much as she tried to ignore the glares, she could feel them following.
Less than a minute later, she found herself facing two of the Elders, whose wrinkled faces distorted the tattoos into even stranger patterns.
“Your name?” a voice that belied his aged appearance asked.
“Kiera,” she answered.
“You have traveled too far from your cities, and wandered too far into the wilderness. Now, you will pay for the price your people have laid upon ours,” then, to the guards who waited silently by the door, commanded, “Take her to the arena!”
Two men grabbed her arms rather roughly, forcing her to walk with them or else be dragged. She didn’t struggle, she didn’t shout, since she had seen similar things happen when her mother grew angry with someone. Fighting against them would be useless.
From some of the people outside who saw, there were looks of pity, and then there were a few demon-ish grins, though the latter were mostly on the faces of younger men.
The Arena was a simple coliseum with a sand ring. Nothing else, besides two doors; one she entered, and one on the other side. The Elder’s voice came from above where he sat on a chair, with my captor standing beside him. “Let them in.”
Suddenly the second door opened as soon as the first closed, and two gray, furry creatures entered from the darkness.
The wolves began circling her, growling, snarling, and gnashing teeth. Her legs gave out from underneath her, and she fell onto her knees. The growls stopped. One of the wolves stopped in front of her, sniffing. Its snout reached her face, and she squeezed her eyes closed. This was it. This was it. She was dead.
But, to her surprise, the wolf didn’t attack. It sat, watching her, seemingly waiting. Cautiously, she reached out her hand, and it rolled its head into her cupped palm. A gasp from above prompted her to look up, finding the Elder standing, his face defined by surprise, fear, and joy.
Then, he said, “Welcome to our village, Kiera. Welcome, Wolven.”
Wolven, he had called her. The book had called her Wolven. What was a Wolven, anyway?
She didn’t know, but she was certain she would find out soon.
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