Below, you’ll find chapter one of Buried Heroes. If you haven’t read the prologue yet, you can find it here!
Iellieth trailed her fingers lightly across the tall wildflowers trapped inside their designated plot in the castle gardens. She breathed in their shy, hopeful aromas as she passed. A memory trickled by from when she had been only as tall as they, running through the fields outside of Aurora, ready to show off her newest discovery. The flowers’ faces seemed to turn toward her as she walked; they alone would bear witness to the tears that gathered in her eyes. She would be forced to leave them behind, like everything else that had grown in her years here. But however hopeless the situation appeared, she was determined to have a say in her ultimate destination.
She and Katarina had arranged to meet in her favorite spot in the gardens, just at the edge of the arboretum. Many others had claimed it as a cherished location since Iellieth started tending it a few years before. She felt more at peace than she had in days as the blush-flowering trees poked their arms above the other greenery and beckoned her forward to their petaled embrace.
When she first told Mathilde, the gardener, what she wanted to plant in the formerly overgrown bed, the woman had scoffed. The Lady surely had her head in the clouds if she believed the spring-blossoming trees would grow beneath the shelter of the carefully groomed forest. They wouldn’t receive enough sun, and if they did grow, they would cast too long a shadow over the collections of crimson and ivory flowers Iellieth wanted to cultivate beneath them.
“Breathtaking as always, Lady Amastacia.” Katarina feigned a short curtsy from beneath the stone archway. Iellieth grinned and hurried forward.
“Did you catch sight of yourself in a mirror, or are you waxing poetic about the flowers?”
Katarina laughed at Iellieth’s teasing. She extricated herself from the raptures of the climbing roses and embraced her friend. “How are you?” she asked as she leaned away to look at her face.
“I am as alright as you would guess.” It seemed they were alone in the gardens, but the fresh growth obscured the far bends too fully to be sure.
“I cannot believe it’s finally here.”
“Nor can I.”
“And there’s no way they can be talked out of it?”
Iellieth sighed. “No, dear Katarina, not that I have found.”
“Well, I find it truly abominable—”
“Wait, please. We cannot all be free-roaming Celestial scholars, and I would choose for . . .”—her voice grew husky as the tears gripped her throat once more—“for our final chat to be of something more high-minded than my stepfather’s scheming. One last story, before I go.” Katarina loved telling stories and would never be able to resist such a request, especially under the circumstances. “A new one.”
Katarina grinned at her as a tear fell from her dark eyes and carved a path across her warm brown skin. “Very well.” She pulled Iellieth’s arm through her own, and they began their final walk together around the gardens.
“There was once a beautiful oread, one of the dryads of the mountains, who would disguise herself as a human and tell her tales to curious travelers making their way from one land to the next. Eramis, that was her name. What Eramis valued, as most oreads do, was a mingling between cultures so that all lands might be joined, especially through their stories, one to the other.
“The type of traveler Eramis encountered determined the story she told. Those who left their small villages seeking adventure learned of distant, exotic lands where even their wildest dreams for what life might contain would be surpassed. Those who returned home from a long journey heard of incredible transformations or revelations that others had experienced after an extended time alone on the road, engaging with the sanctity of the land around them.
“But Eramis’s favorite story to tell was that of Hugh and Lilia, two great heroes of old. He was the leader of the lycan people, the first humans to emerge on the surface of the prime plane, protected by the wolf god Fenrir in their journey across the lands. One day as he ventured through the forest, he heard a heartbreakingly gorgeous song that danced its way between the trees to nuzzle against his ears.
“Oreads are beautiful mistresses of song, as you recall I’m sure, so this part of the story is somewhat suspect. It’s possible that Eramis inserted herself in some ways into the role of Lilia in the romance, which is of course up to her to do as the storyteller, but it bears noting all the same.
“Hugh tore through the forest in search of the singer, sure that his life would be forever darker if he could not find the being behind the song. And there ahead of him, with her pale hand pressed against the firm body of an oak tree, was Lilia.
“She looked rather like you if the stories are to be believed. Deep red hair that cascaded all the way to her waist and mystical green eyes starred through with gold.
“The lycan alpha was caught off guard by the embodiment of loveliness before him, and he stopped, frozen in his tracks. Lilia’s bright eyes turned slowly at the disturbance she felt in the woods. In the space of a heartbeat, she withdrew a deep green bow and notched an arrow. ‘Who dares disturb our morning ritual, between the woods and I?’ she demanded. Hugh stumbled back, surprised by the aggression from what he had previously seen as pristine beauty.
“By this point in the story, Eramis would have walked for some time with the traveler and would know which part of the legendary love between the two they might most need to hear. And, in that tradition, thinking of our friendship, I’ll leave you with the end.
“A great tragedy overtook the world and drove apart what had previously been woven together by the natures of magic and time. Hugh and Lilia faced a choice: to abandon their peoples or to be divided from one another. They each chose the latter, though it was the hardest thing they’d ever done. He remained with the humans on the prime plane. She retreated with the other fae to the Brightlands, a realm of wild beauty and mischievous magic well suited to their empathetic, curious natures.
“Enid called the soul of her daughter into the heavens after a time, and Fenrir brought his warrior to a place of peace. Through the ages, they would long for one another, as we long for those we are separated from, either through space, time, death, or other machinations. Some believe that this longing proves that we are alive. Others, that it marks the path forward.”
“What do you think it means?” Iellieth asked, knowing Katarina was fond of burying lessons inside ancient tales.
“I believe the answer is somewhere in between the two. Many emotions remind us of the life pulsing through our veins. Many forces conspire together to illuminate the roads ahead. We live, learn, and love by both.”
“I shall dearly miss your stories, Katarina.” Their moments together were among her few bright memories of life in the castle.
“And I shall dearly miss you, Iellieth. In my heart, I want to tell you that things may turn out better than they seem, but I don’t wish to make your journey any heavier than it is already.”
“Thank you.” Iellieth turned to go before the parting became more difficult, but Katarina caught hold of her arm.
“Are you sure that telling your mother about Lord Stravinske’s behavior would do nothing to change her mind?”
Iellieth shook her head and suppressed the shudder in the middle of her spine. “She and the duke know exactly what sort of man he is. Nothing of that sort could possibly be a surprise. I already tried to tell her before, and she did nothing.”
“He may have his wedding ceremony, and a night or two at most if I can do nothing to prevent it. But I’ll not endure longer than that. What the duke means to be a cage, I mean to be a step, however unwelcome, to freedom. I’ll find someone who doesn’t know who I am, book passage across the ocean, and make my way to the Realms.”
“Are you hoping to seek out Teodric, after you find your father?”
“It has been years, Katarina. I haven’t heard from him since we tried to escape, and his aid to me brought about the ruin of his family. He doesn’t want to see me. I’m sure he has only painful memories of our past now.”
“I wish there were more that I could do, Iellieth.”
The sob she had struggled to hold back leapt from her chest, and Iellieth threw her arms around her friend. “You’ve given me access to worlds I could never have otherwise known, to languages and literatures extending beyond these lands and back through time. I would never have been able to endure all of this, to find a way to survive, without the tools you placed in my hands.”
Katarina’s tears mingled in her hair as she was sure her own were doing in her friend’s twisted locks. “Kev’rei mau, adeli lei,” she whispered into Iellieth’s neck. I’ll never forget you, in the language of the Celestial realm, their favorite to translate together. Katarina kissed the pointed tip of Iellieth’s ear and stepped back. “I’ll be there to see you off at the Lyceum. Take care.”
She squeezed Katarina’s hand. “Until then.” Iellieth turned toward the garden’s side entrance. In a trick of the early morning light, the beds of flowers appeared brighter, more vivid than they had only a few minutes before. Hadvar, where she and her family would transmigrate later that morning, was too far to the north to have open-air gardens. They kept them only in glass houses, trapped and forced to stare through panes to capture the life-giving rays of the sun.
Iellieth stepped into the enclosure of the castle hallways. Linolynn’s additions to the ancient fortress of Io Keep were primarily large windows, pale stone walkways, and beautifully crafted turrets. From the foundation of a time of violence, Katarina liked to say, arose a testament to light and beauty. Iellieth wouldn’t be so lucky in her new home in Hadvar, though luck was the wrong word for it; she had no desire to stay here either.
She hurried down the castle corridors toward the Amastacia wing. On most days at this time, her family would be blessedly absent but, this year, they were all traveling to the Festival of Renewal together. It was unlikely that she could make it through the receiving area without either the duke or her mother catching sight of her.
Her boots echoed on the cool gray stone as she walked in and out of rays of sunlight to her family’s rooms. When the castle was full and bustling, Iellieth tried to choose lesser-traveled routes, where she stuck to the carpets in the middle of the halls to muffle the sound of her footsteps. She preferred to go unnoticed and, whenever possible, to blend into the world around her.
Iellieth paused at one of the multistory windows. The Infinite Ocean gleamed in the distance, sparkling like a beacon of freedom. On moments like this, it felt as though the waves called to her as they had when she was a child, asking her to step in and join her being to the water.
As she grew older, her connection to the ocean changed. It crashed against the cliffs below the castle, day and night, reminding her of those she was separated from: her father, whom she had never met, and Teodric, who had been sent away across the waters.
But water also brings together, by its very nature. When she lay awake at night, she would imagine the sea spray below as having come from the distant Elven Realms, where her father might have walked along the shore with trouser legs rolled up, scrunching his toes in the sand. Or when the wind whistled against the cliffs, crafting a unique melody each night to sing her to sleep, she heard again the songs Teodric used to write and play, created just for her.
Reluctantly, she pulled herself away from the view and hurried on again. Her stepfather would be irritated that she had left in the early morning hours on such an important day, but she loved to feel the dew against her ankles and watch the petals greet the sun.
Iellieth twirled her amulet in her fingers as she tiptoed to the castle’s northern reaches and her family’s generous wing. The amulet was the only trace of her father that she possessed—she didn’t even know his name. He had left the amulet with the young duchess when he and the other elven diplomats were sent back across the Infinite Ocean. They were expelled from the kingdom of Linolynn, the weeks spent forging trade partnerships and alliances undone by the revelation of an affair between one of the ambassadors and a beautiful young noblewoman, her mother, who was married to the powerful Duke Calderon Amastacia.
Soon after the affair was uncovered, a terrible illness began circulating across Linolynn, affecting young and old of all classes, and the duchess took her young son by Calderon away to live by the sea, in Aurora, to escape the illness. Emelyee had left with the revelation that she was expecting her second child, one not fathered by her husband but by the elven diplomat. She refused to give in to Calderon or her parents’ urgings to get rid of the child, and she returned to Aurora, where her tiny daughter had been conceived.
Calderon stayed away, angry and sulking, for the first year of Iellieth’s life, but when the sickness crept beneath the door of the Amastacia household, claiming the lives of Emelyee’s parents, he found his way to making peace with his wife. Their second child, Lucinda, was born a year later.
Iellieth loved living by the seashore, and she constantly brought Emelyee magical shells and flowers she found. The young girl had insisted that she could see the flowers growing before her eyes, but her mother had explained the illusion and that she merely saw them blowing in the wind.
After the Autumn of Rebirth blew healing winds across the lands, Calderon convinced Emelyee to leave behind her peaceful life by the seashore and return to Linolynn proper, to the castle and the court.
Iellieth had watched as the servants loaded all the trunks and ushered Bruden, Lucinda, and their keepers into the coaches for the day-long trek back to Io Keep. She didn’t want to go. Mamaun had said that the new castle was too tall on the rocks for them to play in the ocean, and there was no forest nearby, only a small park. Why would they leave their home? There was only one thing to do. She’d take the ocean with her.
Marie saw her on her way and asked if she might accompany the young lady to the sea. Iellieth said yes so long as she helped carry the shells. She could only hold a few, and there was no way for her to contain the immensity of the sea. Dirt and sand coated her new white dress. Mamaunwould be cross with her and would make her go to the cold castle. “What should we do?” her heart asked the ocean. It cried in reply, and Iellieth did as well. It didn’t know.
Her beautiful mother appeared and found her as she spoke with the sea. A few blades of the long grasses clung to her skirt, and Mamaun’s hair had fallen into loose, flowing strands just like hers.
“What is it, my darling?” her mother asked. She knelt down so they could be at eye level and smiled at Iellieth’s armful of shells and shiny rocks from the beach.
“I don’t want to go. He’ll never be able to find us. The duke won’t let him.” Saying this out loud was more than she could bear. Iellieth pitched forward into Emelyee’s open arms. The sandy collection was cold and wet against her skin, and she shivered.
“Are you talking about your father?”
Iellieth nodded her head, and her mother wiped the tears free from her cheeks and hair.
“I think you’re old enough now for me to give you something very important. But you must be careful with it, like a good lady. Would you like to see?”
Iellieth sniffled and straightened. “Yes, Mamaun.”
Her mother removed a small wooden box from her pocket. “Your father told me that this box is made from different types of oak, each of which tells us a long story. It was made by one of the finest woodworkers in the elven capital of Thyles Thamor. Do you remember learning about the elves in our books?”
She nodded. The box was too beautiful for her to speak, and the ocean called for her attention as well. She wanted to touch it, but Mamaun did not like that. It was important to wait.
Her mother opened the box and revealed the amulet inside. The center of the necklace featured a deep-red ruby, held in delicate, twisting strands of gold that crossed the gem in a curving hourglass design interrupted by a diamond shape at the intersection point.
“Your father gave this to me before we parted,” Mamaun said, tears glistening in her own eyes. “I think he would have wanted you to have it.” Her mother reached behind her neck and unclasped a thin gold chain. She threaded it through the top of the amulet.
“Turn around,” she said, and Iellieth dutifully obeyed. The necklace reached to the center of her torso after Mamaun clasped it around her neck and gently pulled her hair out of the way. “What do you think?”
Iellieth gazed in wonder at her gift. The ocean and the shells had answered her. They were going to help her father find her and them too. Iellieth’s eyes brimmed over once again as she smiled. She sprang forward and hugged her mother, her hips thrust back so as not to crush her new treasure. “I love it, Mamaun,” Iellieth whispered in her ear.
“I am so glad, my sweetheart. Do you think you’re ready to go to the castle now?”
“Do we have to?”
The duchess nodded. Iellieth glanced at the seashells and rocks scattered around her feet. She placed one in her mother’s hand and one in each of her pockets. She looked once more at the ocean. The waves crashed their good-bye. Her hand opened and closed to answer them. She wrapped her fingers around her amulet and placed the other hand in Mamaun’s, ready to be shown to their carriage.
On the journey to Io Keep, Iellieth was quiet. She stared at the amulet, turning it over and over again in the sunlight that twinkled through the coach’s windows.
Iellieth wore her most prized possession always. When she was still quite small, she tucked it carefully under her shirts and dresses so no one would try to take it from her. As she perfected the art of blending into her surroundings—vanishing into the movement of a room during a social event or shrinking away from the gaze of her peers and their parents, having learned that the circumstances of her birth made her an outsider in Linolynn—she was more willing to wear it outside her garments. For a few years in her early adolescence, as her relationship with her mother worsened and she became more isolated than ever, Iellieth wore it openly. She relished the aggravation her one small rebellion caused the duke.
And in the days before her wedding, she couldn’t help but return to the childhood state of trying to call to her father through the necklace that, she was sure, was somehow imbued with magic. If only she could cry out to him loudly enough, if only he could somehow hear her need, she knew he would come for her. He wouldn’t have let someone like Lord Stravinske occupy the same room as his precious daughter, let alone betroth her to him. Of that, Iellieth was certain.
Lost in this reverie of trying to access her father, wherever he was in Azuria, and begging him to come find her, Iellieth rounded a corner and found herself back at her family’s wing more quickly than she’d meant to be. The heavy wooden door bearing the Amastacia crest—an intricate shield bedecked with black roses cast in silver, steel, and onyx—bore down on her, absorbing the shadows nearby.
Iellieth had inherited her great-grandmother’s family ring, the one her mother had worn as a girl. She always found it to be a fitting complement to her amulet. Tendrils of golden ivy stretched from the base to the tip of her left ring finger. Along the ring’s spine, silver-stemmed black roses grew from bud to bloom and back, each blossoming out of the other, and the two fully extended roses kissed at a tiny hinge above her knuckle.
Tradition held that the oldest woman in a lineage was the head of her family until she passed the honor down to her next female descendant. The duchess’s ring, a heavy gold signet worn on the middle finger of her left hand, proclaimed her station. And because Iellieth was older than Lucinda and recognized by her mother—she was, after all, an Amastacia, as the surname passed through the matrilineal line—her ring signaled that she held the second-highest position in the family and would be next in line to lead.
However, Hadvarian society was patriarchal. Before her wedding ceremony, she would have to turn her ring over to her half-sister as part of her abdication of her place in the Amastacia line. Iellieth glared at the shield and imagined Lucinda’s haughty demeanor in that moment of victory over her despised “bastard” sister. She seized the metal handle and leaned back, shifting its weight with her own till it creaked open, and slipped inside.
Iellieth walked through the entryway and receiving room, intent on reaching the one sanctuary she could, at least most often, call entirely her own.
“I would say it’s well past time that you arrived, but it would be a waste of breath to express surprise on the matter.”
Iellieth jumped at the nasal sound of her stepfather’s droning voice. She was still upset following her conversation with Katarina and looked at the floor until she could compose herself to face Duke Amastacia.
“Where have you been?”
Iellieth took a deep breath. “On a walk.” She saw her mother standing behind Calderon, bathed in sunlight. The duchess rearranged the flowers on one of the many side tables in the elegantly appointed room, but Iellieth knew she was listening closely to the conversation.
“To the gardens no doubt. I told you she would be there,” he called over his shoulder. “We all have enough to deal with at the moment. I trust you will be punctual and attentive during the Festival, particularly to Lord Stravinske.”
“I would hate to burden you with undue worry. I can assure you that I will be neither, particularly when it comes to Lord Stravinske.” She spun on her heel to go.
“I’d stop there if I were you.” The note of warning, though spoken with quiet control, dripped with threat all the same.
“Would you?” Iellieth turned back toward him, fury blazing from her eyes. She should have known it would be pointless to try to resist his goading on this day so near to his triumph. “I certainly wish you would. You can both turn a blind eye all you want, but your senses will need to be deadened beyond violence to delude yourselves into believing that I will not fight you every step of the way to this ceremony that I have neither welcomed nor consented to.”
“Now, that is—”
“Do you expect me to grovel in thanks for a marriage to a disgusting man who assaulted me two years ago? Am I to forget about being shoved into a column outside the ballroom and forcibly kissed the moment your back was turned?”
The duke’s lips were two thin lines of anger, and his expression narrowed in malice. Iellieth was afraid to look at her mother. She couldn’t bear the thought of her mamaun willingly sacrificing her to this, and she refused to see if the expression on her mother’s face was the apathy she feared.
“You and I both know that nothing of the kind happened. I spoke with Lord Stravinske myself shortly after your ‘encounter,’ and we settled any element of misunderstanding.”
“That sounds terribly expensive. How much did it cost you, Calderon?” She spat out his name.
“I will be damned before I brook another instance of disrespect from you. Were you not already betrothed, I would throw you out for such insolence. You will—”
“But you have no right to throw me out, do you?” Iellieth twisted her lips into a small smirk to hide the terror coursing through her veins. She had nearly succeeded in angering the duke to the point of banishment before; perhaps she could manage it this time? But he would never allow the public disgrace those actions would provoke, however much he wished to be rid of her. And his way was crueler.
“That is more than enough, both of you.” The duchess stepped toward her husband. Why was she stopping him? This was Iellieth’s last chance. Frustration coursed through her, the anger so intense she could feel it spark between her fingertips, waiting to explode outward. She wanted to scream.
Her mother leapt back as the pot she’d been tending burst. A tumble of vines poured across the table. Her stepfather clutched his chest, surprised. “Bridget, come here please,” the duchess called, gazing at the tangled greenery.
Staring at the pot, Iellieth wondered why she herself had not been startled by the sudden noise. Had she known that the pot couldn’t take any more and all the life contained within had to be released? Had she willed that to happen?
Emelyee stepped carefully over the shattered pieces and glanced at the wild profusion of fresh-cut flowers spread around the room. “Something strange has happened, to be sure.” The other bouquets were suddenly overgrown and unseemly. The sprigs used to enhance the decor had sprouted new growths and run off the tabletops. They reached out, collided. Like the call of the ocean when they left Aurora.
The duchess wrapped her hand around her husband’s elbow. “Now, Calderon, why don’t you see about Bruden’s preparations for the Festival. I worry that he hasn’t packed his warmer finery appropriately.” Before he could object, she added, “And I am well aware that Sir James has assisted him. I’m sure Layne has done his part as well. Please?”
“Yes, dear,” he said. He patted her hand and, with a final glare at Iellieth, skulked away to their son’s room.
“Iellieth,” the duchess began.
“Are you going to tell me that I don’t have to go through with it?”
“Well . . .”
“Then you have nothing to say to me.”