The hand-drawn map of the Southern Isle was old and faded. Even though the drawing had grown faint, Princess Alyce could still see the main features of the Isle clearly marked. There were five principal castles that were the source of the Royal family’s power. To the untrained eye they would seemingly be scattered at random across the Southern Isle. Mostly cities evolved because of some geographic advantage, such as a safe port, a river crossing or its place on a trading route. But Princess Alyce knew better. Five cities—all perfectly arranged in the points of a star, each equidistant to the other, each sitting within the Circle of the Seven Sisters.
Pemblebury was the westernmost point of the star. The city had grown around the Castle of the Moon on the edge of Pemblebury Sound. The castle and city were protected from the wild seas and winds of the Northern Sea by a long peninsula of rocky land that projected north-west along the southern edge of Pemblebury Sound. A number of small fishing villages were dotted along the rocky coastline, each clinging to a gap in the cliffs where small pebbly beaches allowed the fishing boats to be launched into the wild seas.
In the past, smugglers and spies from the Northern Isles used these small beaches to launch their raids against the peaceful folk of the Southern Isle. That was until Ethel the Red and her sisters defeated the northern raiders and sent them back to the north with a warning to never return to the Southern Isle. In the thousand years since, Ethel’s descendants had ruled the Southern Isle peacefully with love and magic.
Princess Alyce looked out the window. The gentle hills surrounding the Castle of the Moon were green after the spring rains. She longed to be outside running through the tall grass with the wind in her hair. As the youngest of the three sisters, she would never be queen so why did she have to spend all her time inside learning about the history and geography of the Southern Isle? It was just so boring.
Alyce turned away from the window to find her tutor staring at her sternly. She quickly looked back down at the book that was opened on the oak table and pretended to be reading. Alyce couldn’t afford to get into trouble again, not if she wanted some time out in the sunshine. Her eyes stared blankly at the words crowded around the drawing of the Castle of the Moon.
The countryside around Pemblebury had gently rolling hills on which the farming folk grew crops and tended their flocks and herds during the warmer months. These hills were surrounded to the south and east by the Westerly Mountains, a rugged mountain range that kept Pemblebury isolated from the rest of the Southern Isle. There was one narrow road leading away from Pemblebury that went high into the mountains and through Conroy’s Pass to connect the Westerfolk with the rest of the Southern Isle. Only intrepid traders or desperate travellers made the journey through Conroy’s Pass. During the winter months, deep snowfalls made all travel impossible by land. That was why the Westerfolk were such seafaring people and Pemblebury was a bustling port city.
Princess Alyce turned the page and looked longingly at the drawing of the Diamond Castle. This was where she should be. Home. Back with her mother and sisters where she belonged. Not living in disgrace in the Castle of the Moon. Banished. All because she couldn’t get her spells right. Her mother had sent her to Pemblebury to train with her ancient aunt to learn the art of magic and discover her own talent. That was more than six months ago and she had hardly seen her aunt. It was just Alyce and Gwerful, her cranky old tutor most of th time. And now it was nearly Alyce’s sixteenth birthday she would soon be returning home to undergo her witch trials. She had to get it right before then.
The Diamond Castle had been the main residence of every queen since Ethel the Red began building the castle a thousand years ago. It was said that the sparkling towers of the castle had been created with magic and deep within the castle was a secret chamber that held treasures beyond imagination.
Queen Meaghan was Alyce’s mother. Right now she would be sitting in her throne room dealing with petitions. Alyce should be by her side, learning how to rule. If she hadn’t disgraced herself, that is. Her sisters would be there—Alexandria and Katharine. Alyce tried not to feel bitter. She loved her sisters, but somehow she never seemed to be as clever or beautiful as they were. Princess Alexandria was the eldest and next in line to inherit the throne should anything happen to their mother. She was small and pretty and perfect in every way. From the moment she was born she was treated as though she were the queen in waiting. Instead of being spoilt, though, she grew with dignity and already carried herself as though she were queen. Her magic was strong but she only used it when she had to.
Princess Katharine was the strongest. She was tall and dark and was not afraid to use her magic. She studied hard and was a natural, adept in all the elements. Katharine loved her sister and knew that it would be her role to protect the future queen and provide her guidance when she took the throne.
Then there was Alyce. The youngest of the three sisters, she had no real role to play in the Royal family. She had tried hard to learn her basic craft but that episode at the last Royal parade had been the final straw for her mother. Queen Meaghan had spoken sternly when she sent Princess Alyce away to study with her aunt. It was time to stop behaving like a wild thing, she had said, and learn the art of being a princess.
Alyce turned back to the book. There were still three castles she had to learn about before her next examination. And she still didn’t know why she had to memorise the reigns of all those queens that had followed Ethel the Red. What did that have to do with anything?