The Heart of Sorrow’s Keep
By Brenna Hanson
Date: August 23, 2018
Ch. 11

The arrow that changed my life flew at the whim of a hand only three summers older than my own. That hand was nut brown and rough as bark beneath stark white paint made from ash. The arrow found its home in the eye of a simple farmer whose entire opinion of the castle where I lived was based upon the vow he had made to its king, the coin he earned from the produce that filled its stores, and the occasional bard’s tale heard as he spent that coin in the town just outside its walls. To my shame, I had no opinion of the farmer at all. When his spirit left him, I was only concerned with my recent birthday and the newly acquired permission to wear my hair in lofty arrangements and the cut of my dress in a way that better accentuated the willowy curves just starting to emerge. As the farmer’s wife cried in grief, I fluttered my fan in coy flirtation.
The man who loosed the arrow smiled coldly and knocked a second that shortened the widow’s grief. The arrow of the man beside him dropped a youth who would have carried a warning of the attack to one of the palace guards whose attention I sought.
By the time High King Dan, ruler of all the lands west of the Snow Mountains and father to me and my siblings, heard of the incident, attacks had occurred on every farm in the kingdom’s northern holdings. Worse than the death of loyal citizens, the farms had been stripped of livestock and ripe crops. Anything that could not be taken was burned to the ground. Always, upon the scorched stones of the fireplace hearth, the rotting heads of the former occupants were placed so that their sightless eyes stared in terror toward the dark forest beyond their fenced fields.
I learned all of this while crouched in secrecy behind the roses in the Queen’s royal gardens. My half-brother, Harold, and I gained most of our knowledge of the court this way. As we were the oldest of the king’s minor children, near-twins in birth if not for different mothers, we found it our duty to stay informed. Since no one in the court agreed with our need to know – Harold having not yet reached the age where he might take up the responsibilities of the third prince in line to the throne, and me being only a girl and merely the daughter of the king’s favorite courtesan – we had become well acquainted with all of the best places to pick up spilled words.
“Your Highness,” the words of the palace page shot through the peace of the garden with an urgency that made my stomach clench and my hand reach for Harold’s. “The king requires your presence in the throne room.”
“At this time of day? Whatever for?” Queen Mara tried to smile but I heard concern under her words.
“Majesty,” the page said, “I’m afraid that grave news has come from the north. Our farms are under attack. The People of the Trees are slaughtering our citizens and stealing the harvest.”
“No!” Queen Mara, who I loved nearly as much as my own mother, stumbled to a bench. I felt Harold let go of my hand and heard his footsteps as he ran to her side.
I could not move. I sat for hours in the crumpled green silk dress I had donned to turn the head of a visiting Duke’s son and felt my world spinning out of control. The People of the Trees were a thing of legend. I had been raised on stories of them meant to keep me bed at night. If they were half as savage as the stories implied, the kingdom would be hard pressed to defend itself. What had happened to the truce bought a hundred years ago at the price of a princess and royal wedding?
“Natalia?” My mother’s voice carried through the garden. It was dark now although I had not noticed the sun sinking.
“Here, Mother,” I called back. I still could not stand. When she came to me, the light from the candle she carried showed my swollen eyes and the trails left on my cheeks where the tears had rolled down.
“Oh, Natalia,” she said. She gathered me into her arms and kissed the top of my head. “I was so worried when I couldn’t find you.”
“What will we do?” I whispered. “What will we do now that the People of the Trees have come again?”
“Shhhhh, love,” she whispered back. “That is not a worry for you. Your father is a great man and a greater king. He will see to things. We just need to be strong and believe in his triumph.”
We sat, ignoring the dirt of the garden and the thorns from the roses around us. She smelled of lavender when I breathed her in. The warmth of her embrace felt safe and strong. I was nearly able to convince myself that all would be well as we rocked to the cricket song under the stars.
The next day my father, High King Dan, Lord, Ruler, and Protector of the land west of the Snow Mountains gathered his troops.
“I will leave the pretty words to the poets and the bards,” he said. His horse stood solid and unflinching beneath him. “And I will leave Stonewood Castle in the hands of my queen. Protect one another until my return. Give sanctuary to our people in their time of need. Make ready for difficult times and hungry days brought on by the enemy who has stolen the very sweat from our brow. Make ready to stand strong. We will persevere. We will overcome. And we will be victorious.”
He was too far away from the window where I stood watching to know if he had sought me out with his eyes but I liked to think he had. I liked to think that he had sought out all eighteen of the children he had fathered and was about to leave behind in the castle. His eldest five sons, including Prince Edmont and Prince Col, were arrayed behind him as leaders in the great army. I watched them all turn and ride through the gates with a shiver. I wondered if I would ever see any of them again.
“He should have taken me, too,” Harold said.
I looked over my shoulder at his knitted brow. “Don’t be stupid,” I said.
“I can fight,” he said and glared at me.
“Yes,” I agreed. “And from here, you can help us fight off starvation with that number-filled head of yours. That’s why he put you in charge of the stores.”
“I still want to fight,” Harold said in fifteen-year-old anger. “Or at least go as a squire. Besides, Old Randolf won’t acknowledge my being in charge. He plays deaf when I say anything at all. Today, he went so far as to look through me as if I wasn’t even there.”
“Old Randolf is deaf,” I said. “You’re just going to have to find a way to make him hear you.”
“He’s only deaf when he wants to be,” Harold scoffed. “He can hear the sound of sifting grain from two floors away. He runs to find out why, even though he complains about his joints and sips poppy tea all day to ease his pain.”
It was the first smile I felt cross my face since the rose garden. Harold reflected it back at me.
“I’m glad you are here,” I told him. “At least I have one piece of sanity to look to in this chaos.”
“We could have cut your hair short and given you a standard to carry. Then we both could have gone off to war and earned a brave mention in the history books,” Harold said. I knew he was only half kidding.
I shook my head. “Go count the beans and fight your battle with Old Randolf. I’ve got to go see what I’m expected to do now that all the eligible men have left the castle and ended my hunt for a husband before it really began.”
“I hear Old Randolf is still available,” Harold called over his shoulder. “Maybe you could bat your eyes at him and solve both our problems. I’m sure he’d have a heart attack and pop right off to the hereafter.”
“Go!” I ordered pointing at the door. “Or you will no longer be my favorite brother.”
I heard his laughter echoing down the hall.

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