By Terri Rochenski
Copyright ©2016 Roane Publishing
A Roane Publishing Free Read by Terri Rochenski
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Esma’s knees ached from the stone floor, but she didn’t dare cease her prayers. Father had to return. He had to.
Blessed Goddess, bring him home safely. Please.
Continuing with her supplication, she lit another candle as she had vowed to do with each sunrise. Esma adjusted her light-weight summer sleeve from the path of a drip flowing down the taper’s side to pool on top of three months’ worth of hardened wax.
Her beloved father, Amant, Sovereign of Vecina, sent weekly reports of the war’s progress—of small defeats and battles won. The latest letter to arrive reported an injury he’d sustained, but in typical Father fashion to keep her from worry, he had not expounded on the wound.
Although her intended, Lord Pedre Ashin, also rode at the army’s front, Esma’s thoughts rarely lingered on the younger man. No anticipation stirred in her breast over the postponed wedding, for Pedre had never treated her with anything other than indifference.
Hands clasped, Esma lifted her gaze to the window above her chamber’s gilded shrine. The opening framed a picturesque view of snowcapped Craesor Mountain where the Goddess dwelt. Looming in the north, the crater-topped peak blocked the cold winds that swept through the mountains beyond, allowing Vecina to dwell in near-summer year round.
The rising sun’s scarlet streaks smeared the sky, and the sweet scent of red poppies from the flower garden below drifted in on a dry breeze.
Red poppies. Death.
A shudder rippled through Esma’s thin frame.
He can’t be dead. Blessed Goddess, I am not yet ready to be Vecina’s Sovereign. Dread wrapped her in its cold embrace. Deliver me from this worry, I beg of Thee.
She struggled to breathe and closed her eyes as tears threatened. Unnatural warmth enclosed Esma like her father’s arms used to embrace her before he’d gone off to war. A small smile lifted her lips through the tears as the firm yet fair Goddess—Vecina’s deity of light and love—comforted her.
Voices rose in the hallway. “They’ve returned!” A male voice shouted outside her chamber’s door. “The Sovereign has returned!”
“Father!” Esma scrambled up in a rustle of silk. She hurried across the hand-knotted rugs scattered throughout her room and pulled the door open.
Joyful shouts filled the palace as people rushed passed. One of the apprentice Chamberlains, dark of hair and eyes like the summer sky stood before her. A shy smile lifted his lips—a mouth she’d focused on more than once before turning away, a shameful betrothed woman. “Your father is home, Princess.” With a bow, he hurried on his way.
Esma’s gaze lingered on him but a moment before her attention shifted once more to the raised voices announcing the Sovereign’s arrival. Wait with meekness as is expected of a princess, or race to meet Father and end my anxiety over his welfare? She bit her lip as worry and etiquette warred within her heart and mind. Propriety be damned.
Skirts in hand, Esma sprinted down the tiled hallway, past servants and guards, footfalls echoing across opulent galleries. She ran through the extensive complex making up her father’s palace, ladies of the court crying out, she supposed at her lack of decorum. Esma paid them no mind.
Father was home—but was he healthy and whole?
Stomach twisting in knots, she hurried down a short flight of stairs into the second courtyard. The hot breeze teased her flowing, dark tresses as she sped across a cobbled path past cherry trees and water fountains misted with rainbows.
Esma weaved through the large crowd gathered to greet the Sovereign, her concentration fixed upon the iron gateway cranking open.
“My lady Esma!” one of her father’s advisors called. “You’re not to leave the second courtyard! It is forbidden!”
She ignored the man and stepped among the chaste servant girls from the Goddess’s temple surrounding the gate. Although appointed by law to be the first to welcome visitors to the palace, many of them bowed out of her way as she brushed past their scarlet clad forms. Those not carrying palm branches held laurel wreaths to crown the victorious Sovereign and his officers.
“At least wait for a proper escort!” the advisor hollered after her once more, but Esma slid between the opening gates, leaving her father’s subjects behind.
She ran down the first courtyard’s tree-lined avenue, the dust whorls dancing ahead of her, matching the swales of anxiety in her mind. Through the shimmering heat hovering over the road, a mass of horsemen appeared, riding between Vecina’s red sandstone buildings.
A dark haired man in silver body armor led the army, straight and tall atop a stallion Esma knew well. Relief flooded through her, and she bit back a sob. “Father!” she called out, knowing he would be displeased with her for leaving the palace grounds. “Father!” she cried again.
Clinking armor and creaking leather stopped as the Sovereign of Vecina held up a fist.
Esma’s steps slowed as her father’s face became visible through the settling dust—untouched by the violence of war, horror filled his dark eyes. “Father?”
“Beloved Goddess,” Amant gasped, his stubbled cheeks ashen, “anyone but her.” He dismounted, started toward Esma and fell to his knees.
The earlier sense of dread flooded over her. She knelt beside him, hands on his bowed head. “Father, are you all right? Please tell me your injury isn’t serious.”
He didn’t answer but continued to moan.
Esma glanced up at the officer behind her father’s horse, but Pedre, her intended, sat astride his mount like chiseled stone, immobile and pale in the blinding sun. His gaze didn’t waver from the palace.
Cupping her father’s cheeks in her palms, Esma lifted his head. “What is it?” Her voice held more than a hint of hysterics. “Please tell me!”
He clenched his eyes shut. “Not her,” he said. “Not my only daughter.”
“Father, y-you’re scaring me.”
Amant grasped her wrists and met her gaze. “I am a whole man, but not for much longer,” the words tore from his lips in a deep groan.
The unusual display of sorrow on his face constricted Esma’s throat, and she held her breath. Waiting.
“Oath.” Her father’s voice caught, and he swallowed. “I-I gave an oath.”
A fresh wave of fear surged through her as she inhaled. “What oath?”
“I never expected—” A sob cut his words off.
Esma wiped a tear with her thumb and tried for an assuring smile although her heart squeezed. “Tell me, Father.”
“I made an oath to the Goddess.” Chest heaving, he struggled to continue. “In an exchange for survival and victory, I promised t-to sacrifice the first virgin who emerged from the gates upon our return.”
Cold like death’s shroud swept over Esma.
“I have given my word,” her father cried, his gaze lifting to the heavens, “to our blessed Goddess.”
Darkness descended, and she slumped to the ground.
Warm sunlight caressed Esma’s cheek in the manner she expected a lover might. She smiled, stretching beneath the linen coverlet.
Another day. Another candle. Hopefully Father comes home today.
A memory of sorrow washed through her, and Esma’s eyelids popped open. She jolted upright, heart pounding.
Amant, Sovereign of Vecina, her beloved father stood gazing out her window, hands clasped behind him.
Esma pressed a fist to her midriff. Blessed Goddess, please let it have been a horrible dream. “Tell me you’ve only just arrived, Father.”
His head bowed. “I wish it were so.”
“Surely the G-Goddess won’t hold you to this oath.” Esma’s body began to shake. “She can’t expect you to sacrifice your heir and only daughter.”
“It was a Blood Oath.”
Blood must be shed. Oh, Blessed Goddess. Esma clasped her hands over her ears and rocked. No. Please no! A whimper escaped her lips. “Why?” she gasped, wrapping trembling arms around herself. “Why would you do such a thing?”
He remained unmoved, like a statue staring out the window. “Seven days past, a small contingent of our main army was cut off and surrounded. I stood at their center, unhorsed and disarmed.” He dropped his head into his cupped palms. “My side pierced and bleeding heavily, I had no hope of survival. No hope of seeing you again. I cried out to our Goddess and promised her….” He turned, red-rimmed eyes peering at her from beneath a furrowed brow. “She healed me, and now I couldn’t be more sorry.”
“I never should have stepped past the gates.” Tears slipped down Esma’s cheeks. “Will you ever forgive me?”
Amant moved to the bed and gathered her into his arms, crooning as her mother would have done were she still alive.
Esma clung to him, wishing he could make everything better like when she was a child, but nothing he said eased the waves of sorrow crashing against her.
Her father would grow old without her care. She would never sit upon Vecina’s throne, or freely explore the land restricted to her as a maiden. She would never experience a man’s touch or the desire she’d heard the chambermaids whispering about.
I shall never cradle a newborn of my own or kiss his downy head.
A new thought filled Esma’s mind, overwhelming her with a torrent of fear. How would the Goddess exact the fulfillment of her father’s oath?
A shudder ripped through her as Amant soothed a hand down her hair. “When?” she asked against his chest, struggling to contain her shaking.
“We leave in three days,” Amant said, his voice hoarse. “And it will take us three more to reach Her.”
Six days to live the rest of my life. It is too short a time.
Esma swallowed and wiped the dampness from her cheeks, fighting for calm. I will not shed another tear. Father blames himself and bears enough pain.
She pulled from his embrace, straightening. “I would like to be alone now if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Of course.” Amant stood but hesitated. “You are my heart’s delight, Esma.” Shoulders sagging, he left, shutting the door behind him.
Esma stayed within the confines of her chamber for the remainder of the day, begging the Goddess to absolve her from the oath. Although She never swayed from the laws of life and death, Esma continued to hope her supplication might be enough to rescind the Blood Oath.
Her chambermaids brought in a tray of food to break her fast and one at midday. Both sat untouched. Her father sent a short note asking her to dine with him in his private rooms, but she declined. No word or missive from Pedre arrived.
Knees dulled by pain, Esma rose from the Goddess’ shrine and stood before the opened window. Craesor Mountain loomed in the pale moonlight.
I shall climb its heights. A tear slid down Esma’s cheek as she slumped against the cool sandstone sill. Surely she hears my pleas and understands my argument over taking an innocent life over one of the virgins committed to her service. Esma chewed on the inside of her lip Perhaps she might be enticed to change her law…but by what?
“What can I possibly offer the Goddess in exchange?” Esma whispered to the night. “An all-knowing, all-powerful being has no need of temporal items. There’s nothing She craves which She cannot provide herself.”
A sign lifting her breast, her gaze dropping to the gardens below. A couple paused in their walk and embraced.
I shall never know such adoration.
Esma straightened as an idea blossomed to life within her mind. “That’s it! Of course!”
Moments later, she arrived at her father’s chambers, breathless from running. She refrained from rushing in, allowing the guard outside the Sovereign’s door to announce her.
Amant greeted her halfway through his sitting room. “My daughter.”
Esma threw her arms around him, breathing in the scent of clean linen and cloves. Laughter bubbled and spilled from her lips.
“What is it?” her father asked, pulling back to hold her at arm’s length, his brow furrowed.
“We will build Her another temple, Father.” Words tumbled out in a rush. “One strictly for worship and praise. No shrines or lighting candles in supplication.”
“An opulent domed building full of the life she has blessed us with. Singing. Adoration.”
“Esma.” Amant grasped her face in his hands. “The oath I swore requires blood. There is no way around that fact.”
“Goats. We’ll consecrate the temple with the blood of one hundred goats.”
“It must be human. A virgin’s.”
Tears stung Esma’s eyelids as she stepped back from her father’s hold and wrapped her arms tight across her stomach.
“Unless….” Amant’s brow furrowed.
A seed of hope rooted in her mind. “What? Anything.”
“If you were no longer—” Amant cleared his throat and glanced away “—untouched at the time of my oath, she would not have you.”
Esma glanced at the woolen rug beneath her slippers. “I haven’t known a man in that way, Father. It isn’t proper as I am not wed.”
Amant sighed. “My heart aches, yet is gladdened at the same time.”
Another thought filled Esma’s mind, one more selfish than a princess should consider. “There are virgins aplenty serving in the Goddess’ temple. They’ve lived their lives in the knowledge they may someday be sent to the crater if the Goddess demanded a sacrifice.”
“But it wasn’t one of them who stepped from the palace gates first, my daughter. I am sorry, but there is nothing to be done.” He ran a hand through his thick hair, glancing toward the desk piled with scrolls. “I have shut myself in here all day studying Her laws, to no avail. A Blood Oath must be honored as it was made.”
Teardrops slipped down Esma’s cheeks, and her father embraced her once more.
Chambermaids coaxed Esma from her knees two mornings later. The food they brought tasted like dust. She returned to the shrine and lit another candle, its smoke adding to the countless soot stains on the wall behind. Four more burned to nubs before Esma allowed the maids to help her to her feet again.
The chambermaids lifted her limp arms to sponge her with lavender bathwater and dressed her in green silk for the celebration of life to be held in her honor. Her hair was swept up and pinned while her hands lay lifeless in her lap. Rouge tinted her pale cheeks, but nothing the chambermaids attempted faded the red rimming Esma’s eyes.
She walked down the palace hallway on stiff legs—as wooden and brittle as her heart. Her head dipped to her chest as she stopped before the Great Hall’s gilded entrance.
I will act as though all is well. For Father.
Drawing a deep breath, Esma straightened to her full height and nodded to the servant at the double doors. Ardent plucks of the baglama’s strings and the accompanying air-like tones of a kaval drifted past the murmuring of voices of those gathered in the Hall, but didn’t bring soothing joy to her heart as music usually did.
Shoulders back and head high, Esma strode through the opened doorway, a feigned smile painted on her lips. The Hall overflowed with advisors, city officials, and extended members of the royal family, all bowing without making eye contact as she stepped passed them. The only one to hold her gaze longer than appropriate tried for a smile which didn’t lighten the sadness in his blue eyes.
Tearing her attention from the apprentice Chamberlain, Esma turned toward the dais where her father lounged. Amant squeezed her hand as she lowered onto the pillows beside him. Lips pressed tight, she offered a slight nod and focused on the various dishes being placed before her on the linen-covered table.
Marinated lamb on skewers had been grilled to perfection over an open fire, yet they held no more taste for Esma than a stale piece of bread. Even the stuffed green peppers spicy enough to make one sweat didn’t tempt saliva from her tongue. Fresh picked apricots and figs, their luscious sweet flesh crying out to be bitten, turned her stomach.
My last dinner as the Sovereign’s daughter. My last dance.
Swallowing back the rising lump, Esma lifted her hour glass shaped cup and sipped dark, thick coffee. She pushed aside her selfish thoughts, watching as the men gorged on anise-flavored liquor until obnoxious laughter replaced the earlier murmur of uncomfortable voices.
Servants cleared the tables, and dancing commenced. As expected, Pedre was the first to approach her, his embroidered red sash and matching short jacket, both unwrinkled and unadorned by the tassels preferred by most of the upper class.
“May I have this dance?” he asked, bowing from below the dais.
With no joy or lightness in her breast, Esma nodded. “Of course.”
She allowed him to lead her steps, nothing but strained silence hovering between them as it had the previous day while sitting in front of the Sovereign’s desk signing the papers which would annul the betrothal contract made at their births.
Pedre had sat emotionless as she signed. He would lose status in the land, no longer being pledged to the heir apparent of Vecina. Was he disappointed he wouldn’t sit beside her as she ruled their kingdom?
Esma hadn’t been able to tell from his eyes at the time, nor could she as melodies from the instrument balcony swept over the candlelit Hall and her upturned face.
She lowered her gaze to the intricate silk patterns covering Pedre’s chest. Even though their betrothal had ended, she wished to bask in the warmth of his breath upon her forehead. To feel something—anything—stir within her center.
It’s as if I am dead already.
Esma lifted her head once more and searched his eyes for any indication he might have feelings for her.
Dark orbs, void of emotion returned her stare for the space of a few empty heartbeats. Esma’s eyesight hazed, and Pedre’s jaw tensed before he glanced away. “I am sorry.”
Nodding, Esma bit the inside of her lip and focused on keeping the tears from spilling down her cheeks.
Two men of the nobility approached Esma once she found her seat again. Both turned away, shoulders relaxed and heads held high when she declined their request to dance. Although their evident relief stung, Esma understood. What sort of polite chatter would one engage in while dancing with a dead person? Pedre had whispered only three words. Even Amant remained silent by her side.
I shall keep Father and his subjects from discomfort.
Esma stood, chin lifted. Taking advantage of the sudden hush in the Hall, she cleared her throat. “Thank you all for participating in the celebration of my life.” Tears once more threatened. “I bid you all a good evening.” She hurried from the room, the clicking of heels echoing in her ears.
Lying in her bed late into the night, Esma thought over the days spent in supplication before the Goddess. No answer or respite had been granted.
Oh, to have those three days back again. I would roam through the flowering gardens and gorge myself on fresh figs. Have poetry read while I lounged beneath a cherry tree.
It is my last night in the palace, and in the morning….
Esma’s mouth turned as dry as Vecina soil. In the morning, her father would lead her toward Craesor Mountain. Rumors stated the Goddess’ tower lay at the crater’s center, but those who attempted to gaze upon Her dwelling never returned, as had those who’d been sent down into the basin as a sacrifice. Virgins, every one.
Only the pure and undefiled were worthy.
Virgin… The thought echoed within her mind.
What if I lay with Pedre tonight? Would the Goddess shun me? Would such an action nullify Father’s oath?
Heartbeat thudding, Esma leapt off the bed and opened the walnut armoire. Shaking fingers brushed against satin, linen, and fur. She pulled out the transparent night gown and white silk robe embroidered with gold thread which would have been for her wedding night.
Esma caressed the nightgown’s low neckline before yanking off her plain shift. There’s no time for proper behavior. I’ve no options left.
* * * *
“Your father gave his oath, Esma,” Pedre said, his voice flat. “A Blood Oath. Do you care so little for him that you would defy the Goddess in this way?”
Esma paced his bedchamber and wrung her hands. She’d snuck to Pedre’s darkened room after the midnight bell, offered her body to him, and he wouldn’t even look at her.
“You know I love my father.”
“Do you have no consideration of the consequences?” Pedre asked.
Consequences? All I thought of while sneaking through the palace were consequences. Desire for you certainly isn’t what made me tremble.
Esma paused on a woven rug of deep blue and tilted her head back. The high, shadowed dome at the room’s center loomed above her. Sighing, her gaze dropped to the looking glass above the marble basin. She padded forward on bare feet and studied her reflection in the flickering light of a dozen candles.
Why has he never looked upon me with longing like other men have? What about me repulses him? Long sable locks draped down past her waist. Eyebrows the same color lay in a perfect arch above her gray-green eyes. Weren’t they pretty? Did he find her full lips tempting?
In twenty years, he’d never shown interest, never kissed his fingertips and held them out to her in an honest and proper declaration of his desire.
“Do you not find me desirable?” she asked the reflection of the half-naked man behind her.
He advanced and grasped her shoulders in his warm hands. “You are the most beautiful woman in all of Vecina,” he said, their gazes meeting in the mirror.
The intimate setting should have made her heart pound and palms sweat, if what her chambermaids said was true, but she’d never responded in such a way to Pedre’s closeness. It wouldn’t stop her from trying.
“Lay with me.”
Pedre’s arms dropped to his sides as he stepped back. “I cannot.”
“Wil…will you at least kiss me?” Esma asked, turning toward him. She placed her palms against his warm bare chest and peered up into his coffee-colored eyes, wishing her breath would catch or heart leap. “Surely the Goddess won’t mind my taking that much from life.”
Pedre retreated another step, averting his gaze. “You must return to your room.”
“Please?” Her voice caught.
Drawing in a deep breath and slowing releasing it from her parted lips, Esma shrugged the robe from her shoulders. It rustled in the tense silence, pooling around her ankles, revealing the low-cut transparent shift.
Pedre’s gaze roamed downward over her breasts before jerking up to her face. “Don’t do this, Esma.”
“I—” Pedre swallowed, glancing once more at the sheer fabric and her nakedness beneath. “I cannot want you in this way.”
Esma took in his naked torso and the tightness of his breeches. Embarrassment heated her cheeks. “But you do.”
“You know nothing,” Pedre ground out, turning his back.
Esma stiffened her spine. “I’ve spent the last twenty-one years following my father about his stables. I know when a male feels desire. Even an animal’s is…unmistakable.”
“Blessed Goddess.” Pedre ran a hand through his hair. “If only you honored oaths with such stubbornness.”
She glared at his shoulder blades wishing she could pummel him to the floor. Why isn’t he willing to help me? “I have honored my father in everything.”
Pedre spun to face her. “Honor him now as well. Have you forgotten Her laws, Esma? This,” he waved a hand between them, “would make you unacceptable in the Goddess’ all-knowing eyes, but it would also require the Blood Oath maker’s life in exchange.”
Esma’s breath caught. “W-what?”
“If you pursue this,” his gaze hardened, “the Goddess will take the Sovereign’s life as payment for the one he promised.”
A chill swept through Esma’s limbs, and she stumbled backward a few steps.
“It’s the same for any promise made to Her,” Pedre continued. “Fail to hold to your word and She will impose a sanction. You didn’t know?”
“No.” Her hand encircled her throat.
“It is my duty to protect him above all else,” hr said without the slightest softening of his tone.
He is right. I should be grateful he cares for my father’s life more than mine. Esma’s eyes stung. But why does his rejection hurt so much? It’s not as though I’d have accepted him for my own given the choice.
Shoulders back, Esma swept past him, intent upon keeping her chin from trembling.
“Don’t forget your robe,” Pedre said.
She snatched the silk covering from him and threw it around her scantily clad body. With a toss of her hair, Esma strode into the hallway.
The rising sun shone in Esma’s face, mocking the gloom swallowing her heart. Her father encouraged her to ride in a litter, but she refused to be hidden from the world on the journey to Craesor Mountain. She sat astride a horse at their party’s center.
Pedre had remained at the palace. Esma wasn’t sure if it had been his or her father’s wish. Horror over what she’d almost done lay like a block of sandstone in her stomach. Determined to have shed her last tear the previous evening, she replaced the emotionless mask she had been taught to don as the Sovereign’s heir and tried to keep her gaze focused ahead as they moved down the streets of Vecina.
One cry of “Mercy, sweet Goddess!” drew Esma’s attention to dark wavy hair and tear-filled blue eyes peering up at her. “Mercy,” he mouthed once more before kissing his fingertips and offering them to her.
Sudden regret for wasted days—every single minute—tightened Esma’s throat, and although her fingers twitched to return the gesture, she turned forward once more, stoic pretext threatening to dissolve. She swallowed choking tears and clenched her jaw. The time for what ifs and wishes had long since passed.
Merchants, peddlers and peasants alike, male, female, and child, called out blessings over her soul. Sobs reached her ears. Red poppies, crushed beneath the horses’ hooves, stained the cobbles. Onward, her father led them through the rolling hills of his land until the city faded in the distance behind them.
A dirt road meandered through a handful of villages in the higher elevations. Once beyond them, a narrow path would lead them to the Goddess’ crater. Over and around treeless hills they climbed while the sun beat upon their heads. Sweat beaded on Esma’s brow. Had she not sat atop a horse, her feet would have dragged in the dust, resigned, but not wanting to move forward.
Birds sang their cheer, and the lush smell of life burst from the soil surrounding their party offered no reprieve from her sadness. The Goddess would have her sacrifice.
They reached the switch back trail and final camp site three quarters up the crater’s side two hours before twilight on the second day of travel. Cool breezes blew off the snow-covered mountain looming above, but the chill didn’t numb Esma’s senses as she had hoped.
While servants erected dome-shaped tents and prepared the evening meal, Esma plodded around the perimeter of the camp, staring out across her father’s land. Weakness plagued her limbs and saddle-sore backside. Her stomach churned over what lay ahead as the sky darkened and grew colder, chilling her through.
What would occur in the Goddess’ crater? Esma knew what was expected of her but how the sacrifice itself would be accepted remained a mystery. Nightmares of fire breathing beasts haunted her thoughts, keeping her from sleep’s respite as it had the night before.
Blessed Goddess give me strength. I wish to honor my father’s oath, but I am so weak of mind.
Tipping her head, Esma gazed at the black expanse above. A snow flake settled on the tip of her nose, the first she had ever seen or touched. It brought no wonder. No joy. Nor did the other dozen that followed to settle upon her cloak.
Esma made her way back to the camp’s center, the scent of lentil stew bubbling over the cook fires souring her stomach. Servants bustled about with various tasks. A handful of soldiers murmured around their fire a few paces away from where her father slumped.
She sank onto the rug beside him. A servant approached with a meal, but Esma shook her head.
Emotional turmoil remained unconcealed on her father’s face. “I made the impetuous oath, Esma, only wanting to see my precious daughter again.” Amant placed his empty bowl on the ground.
“Wine, my Lord?” a servant asked, picking up the discarded plate.
Amant waved them away, gaze locked on Esma. “You don’t know how much I regret my rashness.”
“The fault lies with me, Father. There is no way you could have known I would be the first to greet you. That responsibility belongs to the temple’s servants.” She clasped her hands in her lap and stared into the flickering fire. “I was being selfish and never should have pushed past them. I’ve been nothing but selfish ever since. Instead of enjoying the time I had left with you, I languished in my misery. My fear.”
“It is I who has been selfish,” her father said. “I have sheltered you too much. Kept you from experiencing life.” Amant rubbed a palm across his stubbled cheeks. “I cannot apologize enough for all you shall miss.”
Esma nodded, but didn’t turn from the flames. The same words had passed his lips dozens of times in the previous five days. She’d long since forgiven him, but nothing she said seemed to set him at ease.
Snowflakes settled on her lap, their lives dissolving within seconds as Esma considered the Sovereign’s life once she was gone—and Vecina’s future. “You must marry, Father,” she whispered.
“I have no wish to.”
“You need to take another wife. A fertile young woman. One who will bear you many children.” She forced herself to meet his gaze. “It is your duty as Sovereign to produce an heir for your kingdom. Promise me you will.”
He reached out a hand and grasped hers tight. Unshed tears glimmered in his eyes. “If it pleases you, Daughter.”
“I-I want your oath.”
“You have it,” he said, fist over his heart.
Unable to bear his pain, Esma averted her gaze. “I believe I shall retire. Good night, Father.” She slipped her hand from his and moved to her tent, praying what little sleep she found wouldn’t be harassed by death’s beast.
The morning of Esma’s last day dawned bright, the sky a swath of violet and yellow. She sat upon her mare in the harsh cold, reins in a white-knuckled grip, waiting for the lagging party of soldiers who would accompany her into the crater. For love of her father, she portrayed a placid spirit. Shoulders back and chin lifted, she wanted her father’s people to know she did not hold him in contempt.
Amant mounted his horse as one twice his age. Lines etched his face. His gaze lit upon her with intense pride before deep anguish swallowed it.
“I love you, Father,” she said so all would hear.
A muscle jumped in his jaw. “I love you, Daughter,” he said, his voice hoarse.
Heart aching, Esma forced a smile. “It is a beautiful day to be alive.”
With a nod, Amant turned his mount toward the east but not before teardrops spilled down his unshaved cheeks.
The crater’s crest stretched in either direction. They topped the edge a few hours after the midday hour, gusts of freezing wind buffeting the scarves around their faces, swirling white hiding the crater’s other side from view. After one quick glance, Esma lowered her face, refusing to gaze across the Goddess’ frigid wilderness.
Down into the crater, the horses crept upon snow and ice, bearing their huddled burdens. Esma kept her focus on the frozen ground beneath the horse’s hooves, dreaming of the palace’s lush grass, twittering birds, and fragrant blossoms. Regrets over the young blue eyed Chamberlain and the lost chance at finding love tumbled around her brain.
They arrived at the crater’s shallow bottom too soon.
Accepting her father’s grasp, she dismounted. In his other arm he held a wrapped bundle. Esma reached for it, saving her father from having to offer. She unfolded the new cloak. The scarlet stained wool—the color one must wear when submitting themselves to the Goddess—draped over her arm.
With numb fingers, she removed the fur cape from her shivering body and settled the red cloak in place. Her father’s pained expression added to the cold and fear wracking through her.
He pulled up her cowl, tucking in her unbound hair. When he opened his mouth as if to speak, Esma shook her head. Another word of apology would crumble the fragile wall she held her emotions behind. Leaning up to kiss his cheek, Esma fought back sobs.
I love you, Father.
She flashed one last brilliant smile and closing her eyes, turned away.
Horses stomped and saddles creaked, deafening to her ears despite the silence. Swallowing nausea, she battled to keep her feet moving, eyelids still clenched tight against the sting of an occasional ice-like snowflake—and what awaited her.
The noises behind her faded.
She waited to stumble, for pain to lance through her chest or fire to consume her. Step after hesitant step she expected the Goddess to exact payment for her father’s vow.
“Blessed Goddess, have mercy!” Amant’s shout echoed, ripping a dry sob from Esma’s breast.
The Goddess’ blessings upon the rest of your life as well. Goodbye my precious father.
Forcing her eyelids open, Esma peered through the swirling white. A frozen plain stretched across the horizon, spreading to the crater’s lip with slight dips and rises but no buildings. No tents. No indication of life other than her own.
Frigid wind ripped moisture from the corners of her eyes. Clasping the scarlet cloak tighter, Esma continued onward.
I do not want to die. Blessed Goddess is there yet a way to deliver me?
Emotions spent, the anguish lying in her chest refused to be expelled.
A bone chilling hour passed, and even though the wind relented, every drawn breath pained her nostrils. Esma’s weary legs threatened to give way with each crunching footfall. The sky darkened, ominous clouds gathered above. Snowflakes floated down in near silence, thickening until a haze of white hid the way ahead.
Ice particles cut at her cheeks, as once more, howling wind whipping the cloak around Esma’s stooped shoulders. “For Father,” she whispered every time her weakened body wished to collapse. Her fingers grew numb, feet deadened weights until her legs refused another step.
Sorrow tightening her throat, Esma stumbled to a stop and tilted her head back. Blessed Goddess, I come as an obedient daughter to honor my father’s vow. Please end my suffering. I beg of Thee. Please.
The snow fall lightened. A tower shimmered into existence in the distance, its core emanating radiant light. Trembling, Esma shuffled forward.
The keep soon loomed over her. Heartbeat thundering in her ears, she peered up, white flakes gently landing on her lashes. The Goddess’ home reached into the sky, rainbows glimmering under its surface. Esma pulled a shaking arm from the folds of her scarlet cloak and pressed her palm against the pale stone.
Tingles spread up her arm and throughout her core. Eyelids fluttering shut, Esma basked in the tower’s heat.
The ground beneath her shifted.
Pitch black greeted her opened eyes. She stretched out her arms and turned in circles, cloak swishing in the silence.
“Surely death should have hurt,” Esma whispered.
“Death comes in many forms,” a female voice said, sending shivers down Esma’s spine.
My blessed Goddess. Esma swallowed. “Have I…passed into the afterlife?”
“It is a privilege to give one’s life to me,” She continued, “but few are worthy.”
“I-I’ve come to honor my father’s oath,” Esma said, although her body tensed to run.
“And yet your intention three nights past almost cost his life.”
Esma recoiled in the darkness. “It was a mistake. I hadn’t known—”
“Do you come willingly?”
Stomach churning and unable to speak, Esma forced her chin to dip in acquiesce.
A pinprick of light appeared in the distance, moving with unnerving speed. Within a few rapid heartbeats, a sword materialized, floating a pace away.
She staggered backward, but it stopped, the ruby encrusted hilt glowing with inner light like the tower, a double-edged silver blade pointing to the sky.
Esma tried to swallow her fear. It shall be a quick death.
“Indeed it shall,” the Goddess said.
Hands shaking, Esma pushed back the deep cowl, spilling hair to her waist. Her stomach heaved, but she bared her neck for the sword’s bite.
“Come of your own accord.”
Esma lifted her gaze. “Isn’t th-that what I have done?”
“Take the final step. Surrender to your fate.”
Silent tears coursed down Esma’s cheeks. “For my beloved father.” She stepped forward, and hands clasped in devotion, bowed her head once more.
The hiss of a rushing sword filled Esma’s ears as air swept down from above.
In a blinding flash, Esma tumbled onto frozen ground.
Ice bit into her hands. Frigid wind buffeted against her hair. Pushing back her whipping tresses, Esma drew cold air into her lungs and opened her eyes.
She stood along the crater’s outer edge, the setting sun bathing Vecina below and lighting the sky above in streaks of honeyed light.
Esma blinked. “Has my life ended? How—”
“I have spared you.” The Goddess’s voice floated on the wind.
She dropped into a deep curtsy as sheer elation weakened her legs. With her head bowed, she asked with a shaking voice, “You’ve forgiven Father’s Blood Oath? Why?”
“Obedience. Selflessness. You are the first virgin to willingly offer her life according to my laws,” the Goddess’s voice echoed.
A warm glow expanded through Esma, rejuvenating her. She stood once more, hands clasped before her in worship. “How may I repay the favor of your gift?”
“You shall take a husband.”
Esma’s heart seized, furrowing her brow. “P-Pedro?”
“One of your own choosing—” the Goddess’s voice betrayed a smile “—and your love will produce many children. Your house will rein peaceful in the ages to come.”
Of my own choosing.
The memory of blue eyes flashed within Esma’s mind, and happiness swept through her. “And my father?”
“He shall live to see his grandchildren walk this land. Now, go. Return joy to his heart.”
Dizzy with happiness, Esma took a dozen unsteady steps and spun, searching the whiteness behind her. “What if—will they believe I have been given your blessing?”
“Do you have faith I will make it so?”
Shaky laughter erupted from her lips. “I do.”
Esma turned once more toward Vecina and home, strength returning with each stride. She unclasped the scarlet cloak and let it fall to the ground, the cold a forgotten sensation. Lifting her skirt, she rushed down the crater’s winding path.
Domed tents made up the Sovereign’s encampment a ways down the mountainside, and elated shouts rose from soldiers gathered at its edge as she rounded a corner and came into view.
Her father’s throaty laughter accompanied Esma’s tears as she raced toward him.
Merciful Goddess, I shall praise you all my days.
An impetuous act unwittingly makes Esma the fulfillment of the Sovereign’s Blood Oath to their Goddess. In six days, she’ll be forced to make the greatest choice of her life: become the virginal sacrifice already promised, or force the man she loves most to die in her place. With an impossible choice in front of her, she searches for ways to undo the oath, and in her quest, finds not everything in her life is as she expects.