TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
Holding the sleeping infant on her shoulder, she gazed peacefully at her surroundings. Tourists wandered in and out of stores, an old man was setting up his easel by the lakeshore, and a child’s balloon escaped into the breeze. A moment later, she looked up as shouts startled her and the baby. Everybody was running in her direction…
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Radella sat on a sun-warmed boulder at the edge of the lake, alert to the village square behind her. Aubrey, the infant in her arms, sighed the deep breaths of sleep, burrowing deeper into Radella’s cloak. Outsiders, recognizable by the weave of their cloaks, gathered at peddlers’ carts, buying food and drinks. Every family in the shire would pass through the square today to celebrate Blessing Day.
On the north shore, an old man set up his easel, oblivious to the activity nearby. A boy cried out, his kite soaring off on the breeze. Aubrey stirred. Radella whispered her spell into his ear. He must not cry.
She sang and rocked him when the Royal Guard marched by, keeping her voice high and sweet to suit the youthful visage she’d bespelled for herself. The guards paid her no notice. Radella sighed.
Shouts rang out. The Outsiders grabbed their children and ran toward Radella. She clutched the infant tighter, singing again to calm him. The excitement of the crowd vibrated in the air.
Radella rose, following the others toward the square where the Great Priestess stood on an oak scaffold above the sea of people. Outsiders and villagers pressed forward as if nearness to the priestess would increase the power of her blessings. A blessed child was a healthy child, legend said, but since all children were blessed in their first year, there was no way of proving otherwise. All Radella cared about was the Royal Mark Aubrey would receive. Without it, he couldn’t reach his destiny.
The crowd stirred again when the regent, himself, climbed the steps to the scaffold. He knew.
Of course he knew. No matter that the rumors said the queen’s son was stillborn moments after the queen died. The regent knew his reign hung from a tenuous thread for the next sixteen years. If the son lived, he’d be crowned on his sixteenth birthday as the rightful ruler of Lago Encantado. But the child must bear the Royal Mark, proving the shire of his birth, before he could claim the throne.
The regent’s presence at the Blessing proved he believed the prince lived, thus the need for Aubrey’s enchantment. Not only must he appear as a girl, but he couldn’t cry, or the effect his voice had on the people around him would identify him as the Crown Prince.
The Royal Guard’s duty was to defend the regent and kill any threat to his reign. Radella and her sisters had only their magic to protect the Crown Prince. But magic, in the right hands, was an extraordinary power.
The regent raised his arms and the crowd hushed. “I am pleased to see you all here today. Your children look healthy, a tribute to the good harvests in recent years. May they continue to grow and become happy citizens of Lago Encantado.”
The crowd cheered, and Aubrey stirred. Radella stroked his head, rocking him as she sang softly. “Not now, little one,” she whispered. No one paid them any attention, surging forward, wanting their children blessed so they could go to the pasture where the entertainers gathered.
After an hour of slowly shuffling toward the Grand Priestess, children began to whine and complain. A gray-haired woman beside Radella commented, “Your baby sleeps so well.”
“Yes, she is a good sleeper,” Radella replied, humming her spell so the words couldn’t affect anyone nearby.
It seemed another hour passed before they drew close to the priestess. Radella grew tired of the constant chanting and humming, and the effort needed to keep her appearance young. Finally, she reached the scaffold and prayed she wasn’t recognized.
A Royal Guard in front of the scaffold reached for Aubrey. “What is the child’s name?”
Radella narrowed her eyes and pierced the guard’s gaze, willing him to accept her without question. “She is Luella, daughter of Zurin and Dana.”
He lifted the baby to the priestess on the scaffold, repeating, “Luella, daughter of Zurin and Dana.”
Radella reached out to Aubrey with her thoughts, begging him to sleep while the priestess intoned the Blessing. Bespelling him not to cry out when the hot iron pressed the image of a crown into his arm.
As soon as the iron marked his skin, Aubrey was handed back to Radella. The guard smiled at her. “Such a strong babe. She does not cry.”
Radella nodded, tucking Aubrey beneath her cloak.”A very strong babe. And now, very blessed.” She turned away, pushing through the crowd until she reached the lake shore.
It was done. Aubrey could return to the security of Lago Dabajo, the hidden village beneath the lake, where he could grow and learn in the safety of the crones charged with keeping him safe. One day Radella would return to the square with Aubrey, when he was old enough to claim the throne. Until that time, no one could know he existed.
Once she passed through the enchanted gateway to Lago Dabajo, she stopped singing and pulled Aubrey from beneath her cloak. He blinked awake and let loose the strong cry of a royal.
Radella spoke, her voice cracking from the abuse of singing for most of the day. “Hush, my prince, we are home now. The crones will have warm milk waiting for you.”
Radella’s hands grew wrinkled and spotted as her spell wore off. Aubrey’s porcelain complexion darkened, and the family birthmark on his cheek reappeared. Once Radella handed off the infant to her sister crones, she would sleep for days to regain her strength.
But it was worth every ounce of what it took from her to assure Aubrey, son of King Drake and Queen Elvyna, would live to turn sixteen.