Blue Rose: The RPG of Romantic Fantasy

Wolf Song

by Dawn Elliot

Kerin was no expert at forest travel, and the deep, green secrets of the Pavin Weald were likely to remain secret from him, though not from his hosts, who lived there and treated the forest as a holy place. His hosts thought him amusing as he stumbled and crunched his way along the trails. He accepted the laughter with good humor. Humor was certainly better than hostility. When the Queen sent him into the forests to act as her envoy, hostility from the forest people had been a real concern.

Now though, they teased him and fussed over his scrapes and bumps. They’d fed him and offered their terrible fermented herb beer, and he ate and drank it all. He was an envoy, after all, and it was his calling to find a place wherever he traveled, whether palace or wattle-and-daub hut.

Now the firelight flickered on the pale faces and golden hair of the suspicious forest folk, and Kerin could see, farther back in the shadows, the silvery gleam of inhuman eyes. The rhy-wolves, come to see the stranger amid their human kinfolk.

“Tell us a story,” someone said beyond the light. Other voices took up the request. Kerin could feel the seriousness below the light coaxing. The people here had no written language; they passed on knowledge and wisdom through story and song.

Kerin sat up and set aside his clay mug–secretly grateful to be distracted from the greenish, foamy drink–and smiled at his hosts. He scanned the small crowd: elders and little children, men and women, and the great, intelligent wolves circling in the shadows of the fires.

Though he had not met one, Kerin knew the rhy-wolves were as much a part of the village as the elders who’d come to greet him. As he looked around, he could begin to get a sense of the pattern here, the connections and tensions among the group, a web spun of love, envy, fears, dreams, and hopes. Kerin could feel how this place held together, and what he saw with his empathic talent was the rhydan were woven into the fabric of this place as tightly as any human.

He had been sent by the Queen to strengthen the ties between Aldis and its most secretive citizens. Kerin realized if he was to do his job and fulfill his duties as one of the Queen’s Finest, he must draw the rhy-wolves in as well. He knew just the story, with a few alterations, of course.

“Once upon a time, long ago, there was a young girl. Beloved of her family and town, she wore a red hood–a gift from her grandmother,” Kerin began. “One day, she decided to visit her grandmother, who lived deep in the holy forest. So she set out with a basket of food, with her beloved wolf companion at her side….”

Blue Rose: The RPG of Romantic Fantasy

Cat’s Eye, Part II

by Dawn Elliot

Running…. She was running for her life, sides heaving, body aching. Behind her she could hear the voices of hounds and feel the drag and agony of her wounded side. She wore no skirts, but ran on silver hooves and knew the twists and turns of the ancient, cursed marsh like she knew her sad fate had arrived.

Weary, she finally turned to see the shadow-touched who hunted her. She ignored the hounds circling her, baying but not daring to attack, and she glared proudly at the twisted face of the fool who’d led his people into this tragedy. Only one, terribly young, remained free of the taint consuming the travelers who’d trespassed the marsh. One fragile hope. Then the hunter’s bolt sought her heart….

Zhira woke with a choked scream, hands pressed to her chest to staunch the life blood flowing from her. Her hands clutched at wool and cotton, not white fur. Not her blood but that of the strange creature her uncle had killed. Not her life lost but a wise and precious life, one more worthy than she, Zhira was sure.

She panted in the close dark of the wagon and realized, remembering the coldness in her mother’s voice and the subtle changes in her uncle’s face, that they would never let her out. Not until she ate. Ate, filled her belly, and let the shadows into her heart. Shadow had already fallen over the spirits of her kinsmen, a darkness she’d been too fearful to recognize. Now, with the fragments of the terrible dream in her thoughts, her eyes were opened and Zhira could not pretend any longer.

She had a choice now: the darkness or the light. The darkness would be easier, comfortable, warm with the welcome of her mother’s arms. Her kin to shelter her, cousins to tease her — truly things would go on much as they always had. They’d travel the endless roads, dance and gamble for coin. Zhira could see it in her mind’s eye, as she’d seen the dream. There’d be little difference, and if sometimes her kin stole from honest men, or sold poisonous herbs instead of folk cures, well, that was something many did. It would be a lifetime of small sins, dragging down her spirit until darkness finally claimed her.

The light … here Zhira’s vision failed her. The light would have its price, a hard road and a strange one. All she was sure of was she would not travel it alone.

And those two roads were before her now, in this moment. She had to choose.

Still trembling from the dream, Zhira pulled herself to her feet. She shook out her skirts and fumbled for the tiny lantern hanging from the curved and painted ceiling. She ignored the cold bowl of stew and searched in the cabinets and chests holding everything her family owned. She changed her skirts and colorful vest for her brother’s hunting clothes. They were big, except at the hips and breasts, but not uncomfortable. She packed a travel bag and braided her hair to keep it from her face, moving without thought because she was afraid, if she paused, her courage would fail her. Her hands were already shaking as she finished binding her hair.

Finally, she pulled aside the rugs on the floor. She had one of the wagon-wheel tools in hand and struggled to wedge it into the floorboards. Her father made this wagon when he’d married her mother, and Zhira’s eyes watered with grief as she fought now to tear a hole in it.

Sweating and praying to Goia for artifice, Zhira finally pried up one of the narrow boards. Soon there was a hole large enough for her to crawl through. She sat for a time, staring at the mud beneath the wagon. She’d never left the safety of her clan, the circle of familiar faces. Zhira could hardly believe she was planning on leaving the only home she’d ever known. It seemed strange, unnatural, to abandon her life all for the sake of a marsh deer. Above her, the lantern light flickered, dimming as the shadows crept close.

An unearthly, agonized wail rose above the quiet sounds of the swamp. Zhira jumped, shuddering at the pain in it. Outside one of the dogs barked, and the others joined in, baying a challenge to whatever had made terrible sound.

“Shaduup!” someone yelled, voice muffled from inside a wagon, and the dogs quieted with uneasy whines. Zhira remained where she was, heart pounding in her chest, waiting for her mother to walk in and discover her. But the camp grew silent again, and the soft chirps and clucks from the swamp were the only sounds in the night. Frightened to go but more frightened to remain, Zhira slipped through the hole, forced to creep on her belly like a newt as she crawled under her mother’s wagon. The dogs outside only wagged their tails at her from under their masters’ wagons, familiar with her scent.

Zhira slung the travel bag over her shoulder and slipped out of the camp. As the faint firelight was lost behind her, she knew there was no going back. If they had been willing to lock her in a wagon until she starved, surely the punishment for running away would be worse. It wasn’t long before Zhira also realized that even if she wanted to go back she couldn’t. She was lost.

If the so-called track they had been following through the marsh had been treacherous, the lands around it were more than treacherous; they were deadly. Zhira had a small hand lamp, but it did little good, revealing nothing but rotting tree stumps, the gleam of murky water, and the everpresent, cloying mists. Roots seemed to reach up for her booted feet — she’d measured her length in the mud more than once — and branches snared her hair and clawed at her face. The eerie wail, full of pain and despair, rose several more times from the darkness, so close Zhira was sure she would soon stumble on the poor creature making it. Once, face down in a foul puddle, she’d lifted her face to see a swamp serpent hissing and rattling sarcely an inch from her outstretched hand. Zhira did the only thing she could think of, lying frozen in the stinking mud until the agitated snake slithered off into the dark. When the cold dark gave way to a gray and chill morning, Zhira was slumped on a damp hillock under a dead tree, too exhausted to go on.

Zhira knew she’d not traveled far enough and needed to go on. But she was so tired, too tired to lift her hand, let alone stand and crawl through more endless muck and filth. She stared dully at her clotted boots as the light grew, though she could not actually see the sun. The daylight did not seem to quiet the creature, whatever it was, that had been crying in the night, for Zhira heard it again as she rested, even louder now.

She blinked. Beside her left boot, filled with water, was an enormous footprint. In shape it was the same as the small, dainty tracks of the cats the townsmen kept as pets. Zhira could even pick out the prick of claw tips. Dainty perhaps, but not small — the footprint was larger than her own hand. Zhira’s head filled with the child’s tales, of ghost cats, the spirits of lost travelers that returned to haunt the living. Wide eyed, she stared into the growing morning. The beast that made that track had to be as large as she was.

That wail came again and the pain in it was clear. Swallowing hard, Zhira scrambled to her feet. She couldn’t go back, she knew. She might as well go forward. Looking around her in the dim morning, Zhira stopped running away.

She had not stopped her brother or Eharan when they’d slaughtered the beautiful white deer, but perhaps she could ease the suffering she was hearing now and try to somehow balance the scales.

The Veran Marsh was not appreciative of her newfound determination. Zhira stumbled, tripped, and crawled toward the cries. Fighting her way through a bramble, the ground suddenly gave way beneath her, and she slid down a muddy slope, clutching at wet grasses and thorny vines. Ending in a heap in a mud puddle, she pushed her filthy hair back, raised her head, and met wide, wild eyes like sapphires.

Gasping, she froze. Those eyes were set in a furred face, full of frustration and pain. She was barely arm’s length away from an enormous ivory-furred cat with paws as large as her hands and fangs as long as her fingers. Its cinnamon-colored tail lashed angrily in the mud. Even as Zhira sat there stunned, the cat’s fanged mouth opened wide and that eerie wail rose again.

The cat was beautiful, but covered in muck and filth. As it thrashed, Zhira scrambled away from it with a yelp of fear. The cat lay there, writhing in the mud at the bottom of the gully, but even filthy and trapped, it lost none of its nobility, its great pride, the hint of glory surrounding it. The shadows could not touch its luminous blue eyes, and tendrils of fog seemed to draw away from it. Even the endless chill of the swamp somehow seemed less persistent near it, and Zhira found herself drawn closer, despite the danger of the wicked claws and gleaming fangs the cat revealed as it panted in frustration.

Zhira peered at it, searching for what trapped the cat. It was easy to pick out the snared front paw, and Zhira pressed a muddy hand to her mouth in shock. She recognized the clever snare — two sturdy roots anchored in the ground and pinched hard around the cat’s paw — as her brother’s work.

Truly, she had not gone far. Here was more of her responsibility: the snares and traps set by her family to fill again the pot she spilled the night before.

“I’m sorry,” Zhira whispered, while the cat let out another wail of frustration and then began to wrench and drag at its trapped paw. She flinched at the noise, pushing herself back from the trapped animal’s struggles but somehow unable to simply turn and flee. Zhira knew, if she left, the beautiful creature would be killed. The memory of the slaughtered deer came to her, as well as the dream of the previous night. Her own brother might murder this creature, staining his hands with more blood. Her eyes flicked up to where the mists were turning pale silver as the sun rose higher. There wasn’t much time before the camp woke. Soon they would find her gone and the hunters would check their snares and traps. If Eharan found this cat, all he’d see was the glorious pelt and the gold it would bring. The thought of another bloody skin — this one all cream and cinnamon — tacked to the side of a Roamer wagon turned Zhira’s stomach. She had to do something.

Zhira slid a closer to the wild cat, squishing through the rank mud of the marsh. The cat turned its great head toward her, and she froze, staring at those long white fangs. Terror hammered at her, and her heart leapt into her throat. She could hardly breathe. All she wanted to do was run — run and run until she was home and safe and the marsh was nothing but a dream. But she didn’t run, and the cold, damp, and fear making her hands shake were no dream. She pushed herself another arm’s length closer.

“Don’t eat me,” she breathed, trying to soothe the cat as she did the friendly Roamer ponies. Her voice shook. The cat could kill her with a single blow from those huge paws or rip her in two with those teeth. She was close enough now that she could feel the cat’s hot breath stirring the muddy curls of her hair. “Please … I’m sorry … don’t eat me. I’ll … I’ll help you, I swear it. Just do not eat me.”

Zhira crouched in the mud beside the cat. Perhaps, she hoped, her soft voice was soothing, for the beast didn’t move. It simply stared at her, panting. She kept on talking, whispering promises of freedom, as she reached out with shaking hands for the snare pinning the cat’s front paw. Wrapping muddy fingers around it, Zhira pulled. It would not budge. Whimpering in fear and frustration, she pulled harder, yanking and twisting at the strong roots and rawhide straps.

With a sob, Zhira slumped down, tears making clean trails on her mud-smeared face. The cat lay quietly, only the restless flick of its tail revealing its impatience. She could not free it. She bit her lip, holding back a curse of frustration — of course she couldn’t simply pull the snare off! If she could have, the cat would have long ago broken free on its own and wouldn’t need her at all.

The cat shifted, and its wide cinnamon-tipped ears pricked up. Zhira lifted her head, shuddering as she heard the distant baying of dogs. The camp was awake.

She glanced around frantically. She’d done her best. If her clan caught her now, she knew her punishment would be worse than being locked up in her mother’s wagon. She needed to run, now, if she wanted to live. She scrambled frantically up the slope, hearing the cat shift and snarl behind her. Her hand closed on a short, thick branch, and she slid back down to where the cat lay. She could hear the hounds. They had triumph in their voices. They had her scent, or the cat’s, she didn’t know which.

“Easy, easy,” she panted, glancing nervously to the cat. She wedged one end of the branch in next to the cat’s bloody and swollen paw, prayed breathlessly to Felisar, god of travelers, patron of the Roamers, and to any of his brethren who’d care to help, then leaned her weight on the free end of the branch. She could feel it creaking in her hands. The roots were creaking and twisting, too. She scrabbled in the mud for more leverage, splinters biting into her skin, and the calls of the hounds growing louder with every breath. The branch snapped, one end stabbing her hand, and she cried — triumph and pain both, as the rawhide broke.

The great cat growled, pulled free, and rose to its feet, while Zhira crouched in the mud, clutching her bloodied hand. She stared at it, shaking. Now that the cat was free, surely its instincts would return and the odd moment of truce they’d had would pass. It was free, wild, and powerful, as it was meant to be, and Zhira knew her clan would not have this creature’s blood on their hearts, at least. She lifted her eyes to the cat’s face, seeing again how beautiful it was. If she had to die, at least it would be by an animal’s simple instincts and not the hands of her own tainted people.

The cat stood over her, tail lashing, and stared down at her, proud as any king on his throne. Blue as a summer sky, those eyes met her dark Roamer ones, and like a clean wind through the stifling Veran mists, her heart and mind opened to the rhy-cat.

Love poured into her, like cool, clean water, cleansing her of the creeping shadow of the tainted marsh. Purpose filled her, flowing from the pure heart of the great cat, strengthening her limbs, and setting her heart beating proudly in her chest. Zhira felt the touch of wisdom and knowledge, great power tempered by a noble spirit, and knew this creature was no mere animal, no matter the shape it wore. Though it — though he — walked on four legs and she on two, the spirit behind those sapphire eyes was, as intelligent her own.

“I am here. I will not leave you.” The voice, purring velvet over steel, filled Zhira’s mind and heart.

“Yanar,” she whispered. “Your name is Yanar…” and she knew it was true, as if she’d heard it every night of her life. She pulled herself to her feet and put her arm around Yanar’s neck, feeling the warmth of his soft, silky coat under her sore hands. Suddenly, she was crying, sore and hungry, covered in mud, and so tired. But not alone. Hearing the hounds drawing close, she caught a glimpse of that road, the hard road she’d chosen when she’d fled her mother’s wagon. She was on that road now, but not alone.

“I’m here. I will not leave you,” she whispered into the pointed ears tipped back to catch her words.

Whatever happened, they were not alone. They were bonded and would never be alone again.

Blue Rose: The RPG of Romantic Fantasy

Cat’s Eye, Part I

by Dawn Elliot

As her clan slogs through the forbidden Veran Marsh, the young Roamer woman Zhira realizes that her kinfolk have unwittingly committed a horrific act.

The cooking smells wafting from the fire at the heart of the Roamer camp were spicy and familiar, but they made Zhira shudder with fear and revulsion. She was hungry; who wouldn’t be after a day spent slogging through endless swamp? Everyone was hungry and tired–and frightened. But she lingered at the pony lines and pretended not to hear her mother calling her for dinner.

The treacherous Veran Marsh was friend to no one. Even the cleverly built and brightly painted Roamer wagons were mired down. The road they were supposed to be following appeared and disappeared–tricking the eye with what should be shallow puddles that turned out to be deep, sucking mud pits–and even the sun was a chancy companion, often hidden in such thick mist it was impossible to judge distance or direction. Zhira’s back ached from a day of digging her mother’s blue and red striped wagon out of ruts. Her voice was ragged from hours spent coaxing the skittish ponies as they stumbled from weariness, and her hands were cut and bruised from hauling on harnesses in hope of providing the exhausted beasts some relief. All the while her head had turned around, as if on strings, to stare fearfully out at the dripping trees and stinking mists of the forbidden swamp. She was sure there had been times when she’d caught sight, from the corner of her eye, of something staring back. Zhira could not describe it, nor point it out to her older brother sitting guard with his crossbow on top of the wagon, but she knew it was there. Her spirit told her what her eyes could not. The swamp knew they were trespassers and had turned its evil awareness on them.

Zhira was Roamer born and bred; dark gleaming eyes and the black hair now tangled and clotted with mud were as much her heritage as the yellow and green skirts she wore. Ever since she’d been old enough to walk, Zhira had tasted the dust of a dozen different kingdoms and watched her mother and the other women of her clan dance for coin and pitied the out-clan peasants who died within sight of where they were born. There was no river too wide to cross, no mountain too high to climb, no rocky road could defeat the shaggy coated ponies and stubbornness of her Roamer blood. The sky was all the roof she needed, and every open field was a Roamer’s homestead. But no Roamer clan traveled the twisting paths of the Veran Marsh. It was a land long abandoned by her people. Wicked children who didn’t do their chores were threatened with tales of the iron-clawed spirits of the marsh, which would steal them away. Zhira stared fearfully out at the darkness, while also fearing the warm fires and cheerful conversation at her back.

“Easy, Snip,” she whispered to the oldest and cleverest of the harness ponies. Snip snuffled along Zhira’s sleeve, looking for the treats she usually carried. But there was nothing there tonight. There was nothing extra for the hard-working Roamer ponies, no extra food, shelter, or kindness. If not for the luck of the hunters, one of the ponies would have been slaughtered so the clan could eat. Zhira patted Snip’s soft nose. Perhaps even Snip.

“Zhira!” Her mother’s voice, clearly annoyed now, rose over the sing-song voices of her clan.

“Coming!” Zhira patted the pony once more and glanced out at the dark trees. The animals were uneasy. Even the thin, hungry dogs were ignoring the bloody bones tossed their way, sniffing instead out into the tangle of dead trees with their hackles raised. The half-seen branches and lumpy, moss-covered trunks made her as uneasy as they did the beasts. Guilt lay heavy in her stomach and seemed to fill the darkness around the camp. The damp evening breeze breathed accusations on the back of her neck.

With slow steps, Zhira made her way back to the firelight and her family.

“Come on child!” Her mother said with exasperation in her voice. “Sit and eat, the stew is nearly ready.”

“Yes, Zhira. Come sit here.” Eharan gave her his broken grin and patted the upturned log next to his. “I’ve got a place all warmed up for you.”

Zhira went to sit next to her second uncle. “Thank you, Uncle.”

Eharan only laughed and tossed an arm about her shoulders, giving her a rough hug. “So formal? What, gone off and gotten yourself queened now have you, Zhira? Look who’s gone all noble on us!”

Her twin cousins laughed and made bobbing bows toward her, popping up and down like gophers from their holes, while they begged to be made her generals and councilors. Bright laughter rose around the fire. Cheer was easy to come by now, after the struggle and grief of the last few months. With a warm fire, and the stew sending a mouthwatering fragrance into the night, the empty places among them could be forgotten for a time.

But beneath all the light banter and relief was something dark. Zhira didn’t know what it was, but it had been growing ever since they’d stepped into the marsh, as if the watching shadows under the trees and filling the murky pools had somehow crept into the hearts of her cousins, her uncle, and even her own mother. Zhira struggled to dismiss her fears as foolish. The familiar faces around her, pinched and suspicious looking in the flickering firelight, were her family. The shadows were only the echoes of hunger and hardship. Zhira clung to that belief and pushed aside the worry gnawing at her heart like the hunger in her belly.

It had been a bad year. Sickness in the Theocracy of Jarzon made the farmers and townsmen poor and angry. What coin they could spare went into the alms boxes of the Temples of the Light. Instead of coin, they threw curses and mud at Roamer tinkers and jugglers. Some even blamed them for poor harvests and plague. Then the sickness struck Zhira’s clan. As if some evil intent guided it, the sickness sought out the strongest and healthiest first: her father, her older brothers, the clan headman. All went down under the ground after a blessedly few days of gut pain and sweating chills.

Without the headman and his knowledge of the hidden paths, the clan suffered hard roads and harder times. The sickness never quite left, stealing someone away every now and then, and hunger began to pinch the faces of the children. The mother’s milk dried, and the babies went hungry to bed. Some died.

Eharan led the clan now, but with ambition rather than wisdom. Contemptuous of the traditions he felt had kept him from the respect he deserved, Eharan took the clan off the familiar roads they’d walked all their lives. There were richer towns in Aldis, a land of peace where peasants and townsmen were all fools and their hands full of silver for Roamer dancers and tinkers. Only the marsh stood between them and that fabled land of plenty. Hungry, sick, and frightened, Zhira’s family listened to Eharan’s promises and turned out of Jarzon to enter the fearful marsh.

A warm bowl was placed in her hands. Zhira stared at the thick stew, full of onions and wild herbs and heavy with meat. Her stomach churned, and she could find no sharp-tongued retort for her uncle’s friendly teasing. All she could see was soft wise eyes, wide with shock.

Then glassy with death.

There were many reasons to fear the Veran Marsh. The creatures within it were one of them: ghost cats and golden deer that spoke, spider-folk, and ghost lights that lured travelers to their deaths.

“C’mon, niece.” Eharan hugged her again, gently this time. There was concern in his voice but that lingering darkness as well, as if she were being judged on a simple meal. “We were waiting on you. There’s no need for us to go hungry this night.”

He put the carved wooden spoon in her hand and patted her wrist. “Eat.”

Head hanging and black hair tumbling down to hide her face, Zhira numbly put the spoon in the bowl. The smell of herbs and rich meat rose around her. It had been so long since they’d had a full meal, never mind one with meat in it. The strange marsh deer had been a gift from the ancestors, as Eharan had said, coming back to camp with it slung bloody and limp over his shoulders. She glanced around. She got the terrible sense, looking into the glitter of dark Roamer eyes, that they were all watching her. Waiting.

Her gaze fell on Eharan’s wagon, the white pelt tacked over it to cure, the single pearlescent horn, stump still bloody, near it. Worth its weight in gold, Eharan had said — and proof their luck was turning. Soon they’d all be as rich as kings. Suddenly Eharan’s arm around her shoulders felt like a weight imprisoning her, and the joking faces of her family were the mocking faces of enemies. Cold crept through her blood, and she felt as if something beyond the familiar firelight waited, watched, and judged.

Zhira couldn’t tear her eyes away and the bowl trembled in her numb hands. “No–“.

“Zhira–” Her mother’s voice was distant, like a ghost. And the marsh seemed to grow silent around the camp. The mist weighed heavily on Zhira’s mind, and her fingers curled around the handle of the spoon. There was a sense of sickly triumph, like cruel laughter, and Zhira could feel her own panicked heart beating like a bird in a cage.

“No!” She leapt up, throwing aside the spoon, and on sudden desperate impulse, she lunged forward and, in a scattering of sparks and smoke, pulled over the tripod holding the communal stewpot over the fire. Steam shot up with the stink of burning vegetables and wet wood. The frozen stillness was shattered.

“Zhira!” Eharan bellowed, flushing red with rage as everyone scattered, shouting, from the boiling stew spilling across the muddy ground. “Dammit, fool girl!”

“It’s wrong, it’s wrong!” She yelled at her cousins, staring at her in shock; at her mother’s pinched, hungry face; at Eharan’s fury.

“No!” Zhira yelled again, unable to explain but knowing in her heart her clan had been on the edge of committing a terrible crime.

Zhira fled to the familiar comfort of her bed, slamming the door of the wagon against her mother’s worry and Eharan’s angry shouts. She burrowed into the piled quilts and comforters, as brightly patterned as her own clothes. Smelling of pennyroyal, the worn cotton accepted her tears without protest.

It was her fault. She curled around her misery, muffling her sobs into her pillow. She had been the one to see the creature, so like a miracle, especially in the dull Veran Marsh. If only she had remained silent, the beast would still be alive. Zhira shuddered. It would be alive, and the darkness in the marsh would not have gotten a stranglehold on her family.

The mists had been heavy and frightening, clammy on Zhira’s skin and cold in her throat.

“Heeya, Snip. C’mon, Jebbi.” She had tiredly coaxed the ponies along the lumpy track Eharan called a road. She and the ponies both were knee-deep in mud. Behind her other wagons creaked and squealed as they struggled wearily along.

A faint hint of blue sky made Zhira pause. It felt like forever since she’d seen the sun. The mist turned gold in the brief sunbreak, and her heart lightened. Suddenly it seemed the Veran Marsh was not so terrible after all. Then in the glowing mists a flash of silver made Zhira’s black eyes widen in delight and awe.

Standing on a hillock, not far from the straggling line of Roamer wagons, was the strangest, most beautiful creature she’d ever seen. Like a milk-white deer, but bigger, and with a single twisting horn. The animal’s eyes were the deepest, wisest blue and looked deep into Zhira’s soul with pure love.

“Oh . . . ” Zhira breathed, dropping the pony lead and stepping blindly off the track toward the creature. It shifted, bowing its dainty head as if inviting her closer. “Look . . . so beautiful . . .”

“What, Zhira?” Her brother’s voice above her made her turn and point to the wondrous creature.

“Look, Kahaen!” she said excitedly. “Isn’t it beautiful!”

But it wasn’t beauty her brother saw. Zhira’s eyes barely had time to widen in horror. “No, Kahaen! No!”

Her brother was quick with the crossbow; he’d won more than a few shooting contests. Kahaen had his bow out, already knocked in fear of the marsh shadows, and his arm snapped up in a flurry of yellow sleeves.

“No!” Zhira screamed, whirling toward the beast, its eyes now wide in almost disbelieving alarm. “Run! Oh, run!”

And it ran, but Kahaen’s arrow was swifter. The bright blossom of blood on the creature’s white haunches made Zhira shriek as if she’d been the one shot.

Still the beast ran, struggling into the mist, and the excited shouts of her brother and the rest of the clan drowned out her protests. The dogs were released to bell and chase, her brother and the other hunters swiftly following.

It had been Eharan who had claimed the kill. Bloody and triumphant he’d brought back the carcass, and all the beauty and nobility Zhira had seen standing like a king on the hill was now just a bloody pelt, and dinner.

Zhira’s stomach lurched at the memories, and she groaned, sick with weeping. Struggling to master her sobs, she heard voices outside.

“Damn that girl!” Eharan ranted outside. His voice was harsh, control over his foul temper clearly fraying. “We’ve no need of phantoms and fancies to trouble us now! What — we should starve over the life of a deer? That was all the meat we had! We’ll have to hope the snares I set this afternoon bring tomorrow’s dinner. She’s your daughter, Nahri. Settle her down!”

“Don’t fret, Headman,” Nahri said soothingly, using the title Eharan never truly earned. “She’s just weary — we all are — and young. Rest will bring her good sense back. Zhira’s a good daughter of the clan.”

“Get some solid food into her.” Eharan’s voice deepened and was almost cruel, though his words were concerned. “That beast was nothing more than an animal. It bled and died like one. Her foolishness is troubling the children. Get some food into her.” Zhira shuddered at the clatter of dishes outside the wagon. “And get her calmed down and reasonable.”

The door creaked open a few moments later, and Zhira listened to her mother’s slow steps, like the tread of an executioner. She lay very still and pretended to sleep.

Her mother came to her bedside, and all of Zhira’s pretense nearly shattered as she felt the familiar caress of her mother’s hand on her unkempt hair. Then her mother spoke, whispering softly, and Zhira’s eyes squeezed shut, as if she were still a little girl afraid of ghosts. It was her mother’s voice but different in some way, darker, almost cruel.

“Eat, my dear, and grow strong.” Her mother’s gentle hand on her hair contrasted sickeningly with the cold tone in her voice. She knew Zhira was awake. “There is no room for weakness here. When you are done with your dinner, you can come out again.”

Zhira remained very still as she heard her mother set the bowl down next to the bed and turn away, wagon swaying slightly with her steps. Wide eyed, she heard the rasp of the bolt as her mother closed the door behind her, locking Zhira inside.

She would not eat. She would not. Zhira stared at the food as she crouched next to the sturdy, and locked, door of her mother’s wagon. She could hear the curses and groans of her kin outside, feel the shudder and jerk of the wagon as they continued the seemingly endless journey through the marsh.

“Mama,” she whispered, too hoarse to shout any longer. “Let me out.” She spent much of the day pounding on the door, yelling and screaming to be let out, and the clan ignored her, leaving her locked up inside the wagon as if she were some madwoman to be hidden from sight.

The long day passed, and the wagons stopped for the night. Zhira heard voices outside, as fires were kindled, and the clatter of another sparse meal. She overheard the anger and blame in the clan’s complaints as they were forced to settle for wild herbs and moldering vegetables, rather than the fresh meat she had wasted. She should have felt guilty for the hunger she’d caused, but instead she felt relief. Her clan had barely avoided a terrible fate. The only meat left was here with her: the bowl of stew she’d rejected last night. Zhira stayed pressed in the corner, arms wrapped around her knees, and stared, exhausted, at the simple clay bowl of cold stew. She heard the camp quiet, as her kin bedded down. Wearily, Zhira shut her eyes and let her head fall to her knees. Surely her mother would let her out tomorrow. Wouldn’t she?iv>

Blue Rose: The RPG of Romantic Fantasy

The Queen’s Hart

by Dawn Elliot

Jaellin sighed, shifting her shoulders slightly under the starched collar of her robes, and smothered a yawn. She had spent the afternoon, along with other nobles of the kingdom, in vigil in the great chamber where King Halyn lay in state, and the long day was not yet over. Out in the courtyard, nobles were gathering, and she needed to take her place there as well. She went out to stand in the open, among her equals, under a dull pewter sky to await the Choosing.

The white stone courtyard faced the palace’s main hall, where an enormous stained glass window glowed with color. Centered among glass roses and the bright colors of the sun and moon was the Golden Hart. It stared above the crowd, nothing more than a picture of glass and lead yet, at the same time, so much more. Around the courtyard, beyond the lapis inlay of blue roses, was a great assembly. Every citizen of the capital city who could find a place was crowded there to witness the Choosing of the next sovereign of Aldis. The assembled nobles glanced at each other, each one wondering, “Are they the one? Am I?”

There was no predicting who the Golden Hart would mark as monarch. It could even scorn all of those assembled in the courtyard and seek someone unknown; that had happened once, in a dark time when the kingdom’s nobles had been tainted by Shadow. As the last rays of the sun touched the stained glass, Jaellin stiffened. There was something suddenly present–an unheard note, an unseen light. Beside her, one of the nobles breathed a shocked prayer as Jaellin looked up to see the Golden Hart step out from the window crafted in its image.

It leapt to the courtyard with a clatter of hooves and began to pace towards the wide-eyed nobles. Skirts rustled as people shifted, some stepping away, others forward, in keeping with their ambitions and fears. The Hart walked among them, antlers reaching above their heads and gleaming in the light like gold. It was a massive, beautiful creature, eyes flashing with wisdom and power. Jaellin could not move at all.

Sayvin, the son of King Haylin, stepped forward, arms spread in welcome, bare head bowed in humility. He would be the fourth of Haylin’s line chosen as sovereign, next in a noble house that had ruled Aldis for generations. Without pause and with no more notice than it gave anyone else, the Golden Hart passed him by, moving closer, ever closer, to where Jaellin stood.

It stepped closer, and Jaellin found she still could not move. Closer still, and she could not look away from those dark, wise, sad eyes. When she felt the gentle touch of those horns on her head, hot and cold at once, a shock ran through her, as silent tears rolled down her cheeks. Even then, as the Golden Hart bowed on bended knee before her, Jaellin could not move.

All around her, robes rustled as the assembled nobles knelt on the cool stones of the courtyard. The sound seemed to break the spell of the moment. Jaellin turned and looked out at a sea of bent heads, with the Golden Hart kneeling beside her. A squire scampered to her side and lifted a velvet pillow, and the blue object it bore, toward her.

As if in a trance, Jaellin reached out her hand and lifted the Blue Rose Scepter, symbol of the sovereign, from its resting place. Azure light shimmered around its delicately carved petals, as she raised it to catch the day’s last rays of sun. The stained glass window transformed into blazing jewels in the light, but none so bright as the golden halo surrounding the woman standing before them, with the Hart at her side.

A call went up from the crowd. “Hail!” they cried. “Hail Queen Jaellin! All hail the queen!”
The new queen had been chosen.