The king was dying. The kingdom was now faced with an uncertain future. He had no heir. The kingdom would be in a disarray, scrambling to find a new ruler. There would be wars unless he found some solution before he passed.
Cordelia Hunt felt sorry for King Killian. He was only twenty-three. The crown had been forced upon him at such a young age. He had been eighteen when his own father had died from a terrible plague that had swept through the lands. Cordelia had lost her own parents during the time. She and her brother had survived, but they were orphaned. There was not a day where Cordelia did not hear, “Look at the Hunt orphans. They can’t take another heartache.”
Cordelia bustled about their tiny cottage as she put a pot of water above the fire. She would have to make soup again. There wasn’t much else she could afford to cook. Just as the water was brought to a boil, the door burst open with her brother Marcus nearly jumping with excitement. He ran to her and swung her around in the air.
“What is it?” Cordelia laughed.
“We are going to be rich!”
He gently placed Cordelia back on the ground. She didn’t bother hiding her skepticism. Marcus was always plotting ways for the two of them to rise above their station. There was always some scheme or another, but Cordelia wanted no part of this one. In the early days, she would put her whole heart behind them. After each heartbreak, she realized it was easier not to hope. Hope was for the wealthy.
“I can see that you don’t believe me,” Marcus said, but not even Cordelia could bring his mood down when he was like this.
“I want to believe you. The only problem is that we’ve been through this before. I know how this goes. We’re always let down. Maybe it’s time we stop trying. We can be happy just the way we are.”
He continued as if he hadn’t heard her. “Killian is looking for a bride! He is holding a competition at Etavell Castle tomorrow to choose one! Whoever wins will become the next queen! It really is genius when you think about it!”
This did warrant a response from Cordelia. “What do you mean? He wants to marry a girl just so she can become a widow?”
“He wants to marry a girl, so that there is someone to rightfully take the throne. He doesn’t need a child as long as he has a bride.”
It didn’t matter. Cordelia refused to participate. It was madness, but all desperate men were mad. Killian couldn’t die without knowing that the throne would be in capable hands. Deep in her bones, she understood. However, she didn’t want to be a pawn in his game. She wanted to live a simple life in the outskirts of the capitol. She wanted to marry a farmer or perhaps a merchant if she was lucky. She didn’t want the crown on her head. She was a simple girl, and simple girls didn’t become queens.
“Cordelia, listen to me. Why not try? Yes, you may fail, but what if you don’t? Think about it. We won’t have to eat cabbage soup every day for the rest of our lives! I could even become a general!”
“Why don’t you marry him then?” Cordelia grumbled to which Marcus only laughed.
Yes, this wasn’t the life she wanted, but it was evident that Marcus did. She knew if their roles were in reverse, he would do it for her. There was no harm in trying.
“Fine, I’ll do it.”
Marcus beamed. Cordelia couldn’t help but smile too. Her happiness had always been contingent on his. She had tried her best to give him a better life, but she had failed at every turn. If she could at least try, it would make him happy. She looked at her brother, who was almost her mirror image. They both shared the same vibrant red curls. However, Marcus had forest green eyes where Cordelia had warm brown flecked with gold. She couldn’t say no to those eyes.
“I’ll do it for you.”
The next morning, Cordelia made her way into Mevia, the capital of Parin. It seemed that everyone had made time to come and see this competition that the king was holding. The sun graced the people with its presence, shining brighter than Cordelia had ever seen it. She embraced the sun’s warmth as she walked up to the castle. The small shops had all shut down for the competition. It was the only reason Marcus could come as well; he had been pleased to learn that he didn’t have to work. He was chattering alongside her, but she could hardly pay attention. She only gave one word responses, which irked him. He left to go find a few of his friends, leaving her to walk on her own. Cordelia was glad. This gave her time to think with no distractions.
When she arrived at the castle gates, there stood Gavin Adler deciding who could enter. There was general discontent as he did not allow any spectators to pass. Cordelia was pleased that no one else would see her utter humiliation.
Cordelia hated Gavin. He was responsible for all the prejudice against magical creatures in the kingdom. The only ones he tolerated were the witches. He was descendant from a long line of witches, but men couldn’t carry the magic in their veins. Only women had the honor. Cordelia grinned to herself knowing that she had something he could only dream of. When he turned his cold storm gray eyes onto her, she flashed him an alluring smile. She grimaced inwardly at how his eyes raked up and down her body. He gave her a toothy grin and beckoned her closer.
“What’s your name, love?”
“Cordelia Hunt.” She tried to look welcoming. He seemed to believe her.
“You are beautiful, but all the girls here are. What makes you…different? Why should the king pick you?”
Cordelia knew this moment was coming. She held up her hand so any onlookers could not see what she was about to do. Gavin might like witches, but not too many others did.
On her palm, there rested a small flame. It didn’t burn her hand, but it did create a tingling sensation where it burned. Gavin’s jaw nearly hit the ground with glee. Chills rolled down her back as she saw a wild glint in his eyes. She had seen men with this look before. He had marked her has his possession. If the king did not choose her, which he very well might not, Gavin had. She would never be his. He just didn’t know it yet.
Cordelia was ushered into the throne room. There were two other girls decidedly studying the floor. They each gave each other wary glances when she walked in. Cordelia didn’t want any of them to hate her. It was unfair that they had been pitted against each other. If she was chosen, she would make sure she would find good matches for the other girls should they want it. She would not let them suffer because they had the misfortune to be competitors rather than friends.
“I’m Cordelia Hunt.” Cordelia extended a tentative hand out to the girl closest to her.
“Emma Rosenberry.” The girl had a slight build with large blue eyes and silky golden waves, which shrouded most of her face.
“And what’s your name?” Cordelia asked of the other girl.
“Lilly,” was all she said. Cordelia decided not to push the girl. Emma seemed to be willing to make cordial conversation.
They talked about the village and other trivial matters while they waited for the king to honor them with his presence. Lilly just stood there and listened. Cordelia hoped that if Emma would be chosen if it was not her. Emma was kind and gentle. She would be a new breed of ruler, one that Parin needed. Parin had had ruthless leader after ruthless leader. Killian was kind enough, but his dying was highly inconvenient. Cordelia hated even thinking that. A man was dying, and all she could think about was how he was inconveniencing her. This was not like her. She shook her head as if to clear her thoughts.
“Ladies, the king will be with you shortly,” Gavin said as he entered the room from the left wing entrance.
He came and stood too close to Corelia for comfort. She took a step back when he wasn’t looking. His breath reeked of alcohol when he spoke. She couldn’t understand why Killian would choose him as an advisor. He was a disgusting man.
When Killian did arrive, it took him far too long to get to his seat. Cordelia nearly ran to his side to assist him. She only stopped herself when she realized it would most likely hurt his pride. His dark hair flopped in his face, and he didn’t care enough to brush it aside. He had elegant features. Cordelia had seen portraits of his father, and they could have passed for twins had they been the same age. Killian was handsome, but it was his eyes that made Cordelia trust him. He had gentle eyes.
“Welcome to my home.” He paused to cough. “I am pleased to see that my advisor has narrowed down the selection for me.” He coughed again. “In order to be queen, I must test you all to see if you are capable of the challenges.”
When his coughing fit began, Cordelia didn’t understand why he didn’t order himself a glass of water. Perhaps, it wouldn’t help. Gavin didn’t seem in any hurry to help the boy. Cordelia’s magic boiled underneath her skin, begging to be released. She couldn’t just yet. She wished she could turn it on Gavin, but she was too sensible to try.
“I have arranged this drought for each of you to take. It will show you your deepest fear. Whoever can come out of the visions first, will be my bride. More importantly, she will be the future queen.”
Cordelia didn’t know what her biggest fear was. How could a potion? It was absurd, but she would do it. Her heart hammered against her ribcage. A nervous servant gave each girl a small cup filled with ember liquid. She studied hers carefully, swirling it around in her cup.
“You may drink.”
Pinching her nose, Cordelia downed the drink in one gulp. She didn’t have time to notice what the other two had done. Once the first drop had touched her lips, she had begun to feel its effects.
The throne room had vanished. Instead she stood a ledge above a tank, which was swarming with something…slimy. It didn’t look like water. Cordelia gasped when she realized that the tank filled to the brim with writhing snakes. There in the middle of the snakes was something glinting in the small amount of sunlight coming in. The task was obvious, but there was no way Cordelia could complete it. Thankfully, she didn’t have to make the jump. She never would have been able to do it. The room began to shake. There was nothing for Cordelia to hold onto. She let out a shriek as she plummeted into the pit of snakes. She felt the first bite immediately. It was like no physical pain she she had ever felt before. Then there was a second and a third. Soon it was all she could feel. They began to devour her flesh. She could feel them ripping chunks of her skin. She screamed and screamed until her voice grew hoarse. She succumbed to the pain. There was no point in fighting them. She couldn’t win. She pushed them away, but they always managed to sink their fangs into her soft skin. She was drenched in her own blood. She tried to do a spell, but nothing happened. She couldn’t produce the most basic of incantations. It only increased her panic.
This isn’t real.
Cordelia didn’t know where that voice was coming from, but she disagreed. This felt real. The pain was certainly real.
She couldn’t fight this. The searing pain was too hard to ignore. If she could only grab whatever the snakes were protecting, then this would be all over. She found a small ounce of energy to reach out for it. It was just out of her reach. The snakes kept coming, but she tried harder to reach.
You can do this. You’re almost there.
Her hand clasped around what appeared to be a hilt of a sword. Upon her touch, the sword began to glow. The light was powerful enough to illuminate the entire room. The pain was gone, and she was standing in front of the king, who managed to smile. The other two girls were still in their uneasy slumber. They looked peaceful, but Cordelia knew what they were experiencing. She may not know their horrors, but she understood their pain.
“It looks like you have won.” King Killian said warmly.
Cordelia could not believe that she had actually won. She would be the future queen. She would rise above her station. Her brother would be taken care of. She was prepared for the responsibilities. She was strong enough to handle them.
Emma and Lilly were given antidotes as soon as Cordelia was ushered out the room. She didn’t see either girl again, but she kept her promise. She made sure each girl was well provided for. Cordelia requested her brother, who she embraced until she was required elsewhere. Killian and Cordelia were married the same day. It was a small ceremony with only Marcus and Gavin in attendance. Killian died within the week. Cordelia found herself missing him despite only knowing him for short time. He had been her first friend aside from her brother. The first thing Cordelia did as queen was release Gavin Adler from his duties. He was only a hinderance to the progress she sought. History would always remember Cordelia Hunt as the people’s queen. She brought prosperity into the kingdom. She pushed for social change and achieved it. She remarried years after Killian died. This time it was for love. She was blessed with three beautiful children. When it was her time to leave, no one worried who would take her place. Her eldest, a girl, took her place and continued her mother’s extraordinary legacy.